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By Sarah Hapgood

As was his habit these days Joby woke up at dawn. Instantly he noticed something very pleasing: the wind and rain had stopped, and a ray of dusty sunshine poured in through the window which overlooked the back garden. All that remained was to sort out the various problems of the unexplained that still plagued the house, both inside and out.

“Get Kieran to do an exorcism tomorrow”, he murmured “Or a blessing. Exorcism or blessing”.

“Be quiet”, Julian barked on one side of him.

Joby gave him a look of disgust and rolled over to face Tamaz, who was sleeping on the other side of him. Tamaz’s little ratlike teeth were visible through his parted lips as he breathed gently and deeply in his sleep. Joby stroked his nose fondly.

The morning they all went outside to move the animals from the outbuildings back into their usual pens. They went out armed to do this, uncertain what to expect from their immediate surroundings. Whilst the others were thus occupied, Mieps went into the forest, acting on a hunch. Hillyard followed him.

They found the bare feet of the murdered woman lying underneath one of the trees. Most of her had been covered by foliage blown off the trees overnight. Mieps scraped away some of it from the woman’s blindfolded face and wrenched open her mouth.

“Mieps!” Hillyard hurtled towards him “What are you doing?”

“Ghoomer, look”, said Mieps, pointing out the woman’s sharp teeth “Shot in the chest. Probably murdered by other Ghoomers”.

“I thought they’d all been wiped out”, said Hillyard.

“Hm, you thought that when you found me too”, said Mieps.

“But this means, they’re around here somewhere”, said Hillyard.

“Quite likely”, said Mieps “Remember that dead one we found in the derelict house a little way from here?”

“Yeah, but he’d been dead for some time”, said Hillyard “This one’s very recent. In fact it must have been connected with all those strange lights we saw last night. We’d better get Kieran out here. Say a few words as we bury her. He’ll know what to say”.

“It’s a Ghoomer”, said Mieps “A complete waste of time saying anything over her corpse!”

“Come with me to tell the others”, said Hillyard, yanking Mieps away roughly by the elbow.

Ransey decided to do a rough sort of autopsy on the body, just to see if it yielded any clues as to who she was or why she had met her death so violently. Meanwhile, Bardin directed Farnol, Rumble and Hoowie into digging a grave for her nearby, and Kieran stood there, flicking the pages of his Bible restlessly. The others stood around in subdued bewilderment, in a way you’d expect as they were attending the funeral of someone they had never met or heard of.

“There are scratch marks all over her body”, said Ransey, draping her in the blanket which Adam had brought out “As though she’d been mauled by a mad cat”.

“That’s probably what did happen”, said Mieps, who was still sulking at Hillyard’s rough handling “Ghoomers sometimes used that as a torture. They lock a person in a confined space with a couple of wild cats which they had kept locked up and unfed for a couple of days. The victim wouldn’t die but they’d come out covered in scratches”.

“I’ve heard of humans doing that”, said Joby “Back in our time, in some countries”.

“What would she have done to have been punished like that, Mieps?” asked Lonts.

“Could have been anything”, said Mieps “Stealing food perhaps. Or if she’d fallen into the hands of an enemy gang they would have just done it for the hell of it”.

“O.K, we’ve established she’s been tortured and killed”, said Ransey “That she’d fallen foul of other Ghoomers. The obvious conclusion we can draw from that, and the one that should be of most concern to us, is that there’s a Ghoomer colony near here”.

They got on with burying the body. Kieran read some words from the Bible, and Bengo got quite emotional. Bardin had to pass him a crumpled-up handkerchief, and Bengo raised an anguished face to him, as though he was attending the funeral of a much-loved friend. Joby found Bengo’s expression quite comical, and to his own horror realised that he was on the verge of having a nervous attack of the giggles.

When a couple of involuntary snorts broke out from him Julian, who was yearning for a cigar, cracked his walking-cane across the back of Joby’s legs.

“Oi!” Joby exclaimed, and was instantly given a severe silencing look by Kieran.

“After all those lectures I gave you when we were Patsy’s Consorts about how to conduct yourself in public, I thought you might have learnt better than that”, said Adam, when he and Joby got back to the kitchen at Midnight Castle.

“Don’t have a go at me”, said Joby “Anyone can get the giggles at a funeral, it used to happen to my Gran all the time. It’s an hysterical, nervous reaction”.

“It didn’t sound like that to me”, said Adam.

“It was all Bengo’s fault”, said Joby “What was he getting all emotional about? It’s not as if we knew her. You know how funny he looks most of the time. I couldn’t help but laugh. And then Julian goes and hits me with his stick! I was bound to say summat wasn’t I!”

“You could have exerted some self-control and waited until we got back to the house”, said Adam.

“Oh …” Joby bit his lip violently as the tears welled up in his eyes “Oh go to Hell!”

“Joby!” said Adam, as Joby ran and sought refuge in the downstairs loo.

“I’m sorry”, said Joby, when he’d finally let Adam join him in the confined space.

“So am I”, said Adam “I didn’t realise how much I was going on. I think I needed to let off steam and sadly you were the most convenient person to have a go at”.

“Why couldn’t you have a go at Julian instead?” said Joby “He deserves it”.

“Because he’d probably try to beat me”, said Adam “And my feelings are so near the surface at the moment I doubt I’d take it very well. And I don’t like showing my rage at Lo-Lo because he worries about me so much”.

“Yeah I understand”, said Joby.

“Hey, you in there”, Hillyard knocked on the door, causing Joby to groan.

“What do you want, Hillyard?” he said.

“Are we having the funeral tea now then?” said Hillyard “It’s tradition you know”.

Ransey polished off his portion of the Victoria sponge cake with great relish and then set the plate firmly back on the dining-room table.

“So”, he said “At some point, and I would strongly suggest in the very near future, we go off in search of this Ghoomer colony”.

“Do you have to sound so damn hearty about it?” said Julian.

“I’ve got it all worked out in fact”, said Bardin, rising to his feet as though giving an after-dinner speech “Myself, the other clowns, Hoowie, Toppy, Mieps and Tamaz will go on a little expedition up-river and see what we can find”.

“Oh no you damn well won’t!” said Julian, slamming his walking-stick on the table, causing Ransey and Hillyard to grab their tea-cups “We will ALL go”.

“Do you have to undermine my every decision, do you?” said Bardin, barely concealing his anger.

“Now you listen to me”, Julian thundered “This hasn’t anything to do with you being Captain. It is very easy to understand. This time last year you lot all disappeared, and we were left here not knowing where the hell you were or whether you would come back. I for one am not, I refuse in fact, to go through all that again!”

Bardin sat down and growled “more tea”. Bengo hastened to refill his partner’s tea-cup.

“So it seems we’re all going”, said Bardin, after swallowing a hefty slug of the tea “Rumble, when you’ve finished your tea, go over the river and ask if they will look after our animals for us, starting the day after tomorrow, and for an indefinite period”.

Rumble returned at twilight and found Bardin and Bengo alone in the library. Bardin looked totally consumed by his own thoughts, which was understandable given the circumstances.

“What took you so long?” he snapped at Rumble.

“Brother Jerome’s been on the Communion wine I think”, said Rumble, shedding his coat “He took quite a shine to me. Kept saying how he had noticed me around. I said it was hard not to notice someone of my height!”

“I see”, said Bardin.

“Nothing happened”, said Rumble, sitting in the armchair by the fire and stretching out his long legs “He agreed they would do the animals for us. Where’s Farnol?”

“Washing-up”, said Bardin “Did you warn them about Joby’s ghost? Just in case it doesn’t latch onto us, but stays here instead”.

“Yeah, I mentioned we were having a spot of trouble there”, said Rumble.

From the other end of the back corridor Joby let out an impatient whistle, summoning Bengo to the supper preparations. Bengo scuttled away in his direction.

Rumble seized the moment to speak in confidence with Bardin. Although because Midnight Castle was a notorious house for being overheard in, he had to reluctantly vacate the fireside chair and join Bardin on the sofa.

“There’s something not right about Brother Jerome if you ask me”, said Rumble.

“Oh come on, you’re a big boy now, you can cope with a drunken priest making advances”, said Bardin.

“I didn’t mean that!” said Rumble “Did you think I came down in the last shower or something! No, I meant he didn’t seem very concerned about Kieran. I bet when the other monks find out Kieran’s going up-river on a Ghoomer-hunt they’ll be offering up prayers to him all over the place, and coming over here and drenching him in holy-water before he sets off! But Brother Jerome sounded as though he couldn’t give a damn”.

“Perhaps he takes something”, said Bardin “After all, we don’t know what they get up to most of the time over there. I think you’re being paranoid”.

“Have you ever known me get paranoid?” said Rumble “I leave all that sort of thing to the irrational hotheads like you and Bengo! He started on too that surely we felt institutionalised over here. Didn’t we feel like we were back at school. I said as I’d never been to school in the first place I didn’t know what it was supposed to feel like. He didn’t know what to say to that!”

“Sounds like sheer jealousy and spite to me”, said Bardin.

Julian came into the room, carrying an armful of his books which he had retrieved from Kieran’s Vestry.

“I’ve just been talking to Our Kieran Of Midnight Castle”, he said “He’s come up with something quite startling. He reckons he and Joby saw the Grey Lady last autumn when they went on a short river-trip up here. At the time they thought she was a ghost, which is understandable round here!”

“So she could have been round here all the time?” said Bardin. “Let alone the Ghoomer thugs who killed her!” said Rumble.

As if to console themselves after all these latest events, Adam had made a vast quantity of mashed potato liberally mixed with butter and cream, which they consumed eagerly as the best form of comfort eating.

Up in the main bedroom afterwards Bengo and Bardin raided Finia’s make-up box and painted clowns’ smiley mouths on their faces with lipstick, moisturising cream and eyebrow pencil.

“Oh God, is this your latest idea?” said Joby “You’re gonna beat the Ghoomers into submission by entertaining ‘em!”

“We’re putting smiles on our faces”, said Bengo “Would you like one?”

“No”, said Joby.

“No it’s only funerals that make Joby smile!” said Bardin.

When Kieran came into the room Joby made a great fuss that he (Kieran) had to sleep in the main communal bed that night. Kieran tried teasing him about this, but it didn’t go down too well.

“Living in this place is becoming more trouble than it’s worth”, said Joby, and next he ordered that the wash-stand should be dragged across the room and used to barricade the bedroom door.

“I dunno why you never got round to putting a bolt on this door”, Joby grumbled to Hillyard.

“There’s a bolt on the other one”, said Hillyard, gesturing towards the door which led onto the outside staircase.

Joby sprinted across the room to make sure it was in place. Hillyard and Bardin meanwhile were putting the wash-stand in front of the door, only for Toppy to squeal because he was still on the landing. Hillyard pulled him into the room.

“Are you going to insist on this every night, Joby?” said Lonts.

“No, because the way things are going”, said Joby “If we’ve got any bleedin’ sense at all we won’t be living here for much longer!”

He slept very badly until about midnight, when he woke up riddled with tension. He was lying on his back and almost the first thing he saw was a small ball of light moving at random across the ceiling. He got out of bed and crept to the window which overlooked the back garden. He knelt on the floor and peered over the ledge so as not to be seen from the outside. He saw, standing on the back lawn, a bulky, shapeless figure in a monk-style cassock and hood, shining a flashlight up at their window.

“What is it?” said Ransey, who had fumbled for his spectacles and the small pistol which he kept disabled in his shoes whilst he slept.

“You know I don’t think he’s one of that lot over the river”, said Joby, in a doom-laden whisper “There’s summat very iffy about him”.

The ‘iffy’ intruder turned and walked into the forest at the north-eastern end of the garden. Almost as soon as he had disappeared violin music started up from the library which was directly underneath them.

“Is that your brother playing that, Joby?” said Lonts.

“I can’t imagine anything less likely!” said Joby.

“Don’t you lot know anything?” said Hillyard “That’s one of our gramophone records! Am I the only one round here with any culture?!”

Bardin put on his bath-robe and organised an investigating party, consisting of himself, Hillyard, Ransey and Mieps. He ordered the others to stay in the room. Ransey got a spare pistol out of the drawer in the wash-stand and passed it to Bardin. The wash-stand was then moved out of the way.

“O.K, let’s go”, said Bardin, squaring himself up with determination.

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