Go back to previous chapter
"Buskin, why do you use only a couple of rooms in the house?" Kieran was walking with the little man along the first-floor corridor. A watery sunlight was filtering through a coloured glass in the window, striking distinctive patterns on the bare wooden floor "I mean, all these rooms around us, and most of them seem to be empty".
"How can I use all the rooms when there's only me!" Buskin protested "When this house was built, about 300 years ago, they used to have whole teams working out here. Half-a-dozen people at a time. And gradually it's whittled down to little old me, and there's barely enough work for me sometimes. Just keeping the machines ticking over really. Not that I seem to be any good at that even ..."
"But why don't you sleep in one of these big rooms?" Kieran opened a door at random. It opened into a large, high-ceilinged chamber with a bay window. Apart from a fireplace in the opposite wall the room was completely empty. "Why do you hide away in that wee priest's hole upstairs?"
"I-it suits me better", Buskin lingered on the threshold, seemingly reluctant to enter "Just me and me books up there, all nice and cosy. I'd be like a pea in a drum down here, in one of these. I-I keep a couple of the rooms made up, 'cos sometimes the Ministry bods can't always get back the same day. Rough weather and the like. Now come on. I've got rations to prepare for you, if you're leaving today. I want to make sure you don't risk starvation on the marshes again".
He shut the door on the empty room firmly.
Joby was collecting his gear together in Kieran's room. He removed his newly-washed underwear from the windowsill, but grimaced at the state of the rest of his clothes. Dirt seemed to be holding them together. He felt he knew every stitch of his garments.
A cold breeze kissed his cheek. He shivered but thought that someone had probably opened the window in the corridor. Then there was a soft screech as the bedroom door cranked open an inch. The breeze slightly ruffled his hair. He rubbed his arms, although more for comfort than warmth.
The feeling that someone was standing slightly beyond the door made him turn his head. A hand had crept round the edge of the door, and was blindly feeling the panelling. The hand was young and small. It had long, pointed yellow nails.
Joby braced his nerves, strode across the room and with one swift movement slammed the door hard against the hand. There was an hysterical squealing, which sounded like a pig in distress.
When he pulled it open again there was nothing there.
"I thought as much", Kieran entered the room and stopped short "There's no fireplace in here. I couldn't remember if there was or not".
"What?" Joby asked, vaguely, leaning on the bed-rail.
"There's no fireplace in here, or in Adam's room, or Buskin's, or the one you were allocated".
"So Buskin doesn't use rooms that have fireplaces in".
"Yes he does", Joby grunted "Both the Engine Room and the hall have fireplaces".
"Which he keeps lit all the time. Day and night", said Kieran "He's always fussing about the fires".
"He fusses about everything".
"Yes, but a major part of his day seems to be concerned with keeping them lit, and don't tell me it's 'cos this is a cold house. If that was solely the case, why doesn't he sleep in a room where he can have a fire? It must get perishing upstairs in the winter".
"Flannery, what's all this about?" Joby asked, wearily.
"Remember the visitor's wing at the prison, and what Angel told us about the blokes who died there? SOMETHING came rushing out of the fireplaces at them".
"If that was the case why don't they just brick them up. Why doesn't Buskin barricade them or summat? I tell you this, Flannery, we've got more important worries than green sludge leaping out of fireplaces. There's a little matter of a resurrected vampire ..."
"Oh not Angel again", Kieran groaned.
"I've seen him".
"I saw his hand", said Joby, quietly "Appeared round the door".
"Now let's not get it out of proportion", Kieran paced the room "Angel's ghost may not necessarily be a bad thing. Ghosts rarely, if ever, harm the living. They are usually just bewildered souls ..."
"He's not a ghost Flannery. He's a vampire".
"There are no such things!" Kieran exclaimed "It's been proved. Vampirism is a mental disorder, like schizophrenia, or acute paranoia. A mad craving for blood is a psychological defect. And you heard what a nutter Angel could sound at times".
"The fact remains that I believe he's a vampire. He may have been mad when he was alive. He may have been a psychopath who convinced himself he needed blood to survive. That, I can accept, is all true. But fact number two is he was killed at the Loud House. We buried him! And now he's back. As a real vampire. They're all facts. And you can't convince me otherwise. He was on the turn even before he died. There was hair growing out of his palms for chrissake!"
"Alright alright, say it's true. Say he is a vampire. Well, what I'm saying is he's not a very good one is he? Count Dracula wouldn't have got his hairy mitts slammed in the door would he? It seems Angel's going to have his work cut out if he wants to terrorise us".
"Somehow I knew you wouldn't take me seriously", said Joby, sulkily "And yet I have to listen to you going on about fireplaces".
"I'll meet you downstairs", Kieran picked up his bag and smiled "And I promise not to go on about fireplaces".
Buskin had laid out a tempting lunch on the dining table, determined to play the good host until the last. The little man was still muttering to himself in the wrecked Engine Room, so Kieran wandered slowly around the table, picking up fruit and bread with lethargic abandon.
"No sign of Joby?" Adam came into the room.
"Be gentle with him", Kieran say, wryly "He's still being tormented by a vampire".
"He's not the only one Patsy", Adam sat down and reached for an apple.
"Not you too?"
"In my room just now. It went icy-cold, and I swear I sensed him sitting in the window. And I'll tell you this, it wasn't a comforting presence".
"God above! I wish I knew what he was playing at. I thought he was enough trouble when he was alive. He did wreck Buskin's equipment didn't he?"
"None of us did it did we?" Adam stabbed at the table with the cheese knife "What's he getting at? Why's he tormenting us?"
"Probably 'cos we weren't very nice to him when he was alive. We took him from the prison because it suited us to have him along. And when he got 'ill', for want of a better word, we didn't try to help him".
"How could we? He was beyond our experience".
"He - er - he might also be aware of the little fact that you and Joby had planned to kill him".
"But we didn't kill him".
"Only because some monstrous creature got to him first!"
"Well now", Buskin bustled in, rubbing his hands "I've made up some packs for you. Should see you alright for a few days at least. I wish you weren't going".
"We have to", said Adam "Look Buskin, you've been decent to us so I'll be honest with you. We know who wrecked your equipment".
"W-who?" Buskin went white.
"None of us but a ... a spirit we've attracted along the way. I know you'll think I'm mad, it does sound mad, but that's the way it is".
"What kind of spirit?"
Adam looked at Kieran, who shook his head behind Buskin's back.
"I'm not entirely sure what this creature is", Adam said "But it seems to have attached itself to us".
"I see. Well y-you be careful".
"I'm sorry we brought it into your house, only we didn't realise at the time that it was still around".
"No need to apologise to me. The Ministry have left me out of radio contact for so long that I'm getting beyond caring about their wrecked equipment. When I stop and think about it I know they'd have a heck of a job getting someone else daft enough to work out here. I'm more concerned about you now. We all tread a fine line sometimes between what is known and not known. And sometimes when the curtain comes down between our parallel universes, well who knows that may cross into our paths".
Buskin accompanied them out onto the causeway. Never had the marshes looked less welcoming, so repellent. The whole land seemed to be waiting for them in a threatening fashion, like a bully at the school-gates.
"I do wish you weren't going", Buskin surveyed the coastline nervously, as though afraid of what he might see "You can stay here you know. As long as you like. Bad spirits and all".
"Thank you again for the supplies", said Adam.
"Anytime. Well I suppose I'll go back to rattling around the house on my own".
Buskin shook hands with Adam and Joby, as he turned to face Kieran the younger man whispered to me "Don't let the fires go out Buskin".
"That I won't", said Buskin, vehemently "And you take care of yourself, that's what's important".
"It's about time one of you buggers put in an appearance. I haven't had a word from any of you for days. Not a single bloody word!"
"I can only offer our apologies".
"Oh don't give me all that Ministry babble", Buskin stood in the middle of the Engine Room "We grew up in the same camp remember?"
"Yes. So what happened here then?"
Gorth was a solid-looking man with a firm jaw and slicked back hair. He and Buskin had known each other all their lives, and had always got on, although Gorth had never understood Buskin's desire to live alone on the Weather Rock. As he now surveyed the wrecked Engine Room, he understood it even less.
"I-I don't know", Buskin stammered "I came down this morning to find it like this. A bit too creepy for my liking".
Gorth grunted and turned over a couple of the burnt disks.
"It probably looks worse than it is", he said "Won't take long to replace. Seeing as you provide an invaluable service, it'll get priority".
"You're being very reasonable", said Buskin, suspiciously.
"As you've said to me many a time", Gorth sighed "No one else'll do the ruddy job, so we have to keep you sweet".
"So you don't blame me for all this then?"
"Why should you wreck it? I know this stuff is your pride and joy".
"I could've gone off me head and wrecked it", Buskin exclaimed "I could you know, living out here on my own".
"Anytime you want a transfer back to the City you just say the word. Of course, it may take some time".
"Bloody forever you mean! So what happened then, why was no one at your end speaking to me? And why did you bring yourself out here? Normally you lot never go anywhere in less than a pair".
"No one would come with me", Gorth said, quietly "Good job I can pilot me own air-buggy or you'd have been really stuck. I was worried about you, so I insisted on coming out".
"How touching", Buskin sighed "Oh I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound petulant, but I was beginning to wonder if I was the only one left on earth".
"Get me a drink and I'll explain".
The two men sat down at the dining table, vacated by the others only an hour before. Buskin had decided not to inform his old friend about his overnight visitors. He had his own reasons for this. He had guessed there was something different about them, and he didn't want to betray them. Gorth was a close friend, but he was also a Ministry man to his fingertips. There could be no informing him of things "in confidence".
"So, what's causing the big scare then?" Buskin placed a fresh flagon of wine on the table "Not very professional behaviour if I may say so. Not telling me what's going on, and then refusing to come out here".
"We've got a crisis on our hands", said Gorth "It's severely embarrassing to tell the truth. It happened during the lunar eclipse. If it gets out to the general public there'll be one hell of an outcry. Heads will roll. So far we've managed to contain it within the Ministry, but it seems there's been a mass disappearance at the penal colony".
"M-mass dis ...." Buskin stammered "Breakout you mean?"
"No, worse than that even. Everyone there has vanished, without trace. Staff, warders, prisoners, the Governor. Everyone".
"Good grief, you have got problems!"
"You can say that again", Gorth took a large gulp of the wine "It appears that the Governor suspected something might happen. He bombarded the Ministry with requests for help for weeks beforehand. They either ignored him, or turned him down flat".
"That isn't going to look good".
"Quite, and no one has a clue what's happened. A working party went out to investigate earlier this week, and found nothing out of place. No signs of rioting or forced entries. Everything as it should be in fact, except that there was no one there of course".
"Every single man had gone?"
"Everyone. Including the dead from the prison cemetery".
"Bloody hell-fire! How?"
"You tell me", Gorth shrugged "But that was the only place that showed signs of a disturbance. The graves had been opened, and the body-bags removed".
"There's been nothing like this since those Ministry men got killed in the visitor's wing sixty years ago. The prison's had an excellent record since. No escapees, no suspicious deaths".
"I thought you covered those up anyway?"
"Yes well ... that's beside the point. It's still an excellent record".
"It'll take some explaining though won't it?"
"No need to sound so damn pleased! I'll wipe the smirk off your face when I tell you that they did find one body inside the prison".
"An old man. Found him beneath his bunk. He'd had his throat torn out and all his blood drained from him".
"A vampire had done it?"
"Oh yes, and there had been one in custody there at the time as well".
"He's gone missing as well I take it?"
"Yes. The prison governor, would you believe it, had made him a trustee".
"Wish I was".
"What got into the man?"
"He went a bit peculiar I'm afraid. Was forever going onto us about cruel and inhumane punishments, and the unacceptability of the prison regime".
"Oh ... one of those. A lukewarm radical. Why wasn't he watched?"
"Same reason as we won't blame you for the equipment getting wrecked. Who else would've had the bloody job? You know what the Ministry's attitude to the prison is, out of sight out of mind. Well it's caught up with 'em with a vengeance".
Buskin had noticed before with Gorth how the Ministry stopped being "us" when things went wrong and became "them".
"They'll never keep this quiet", Buskin pointed out.
"No, and who the bloody hell's going to want to work out there after this has happened? We'll have to hold the crims in future at the City Assizes Court until something more permanent can be sorted out".
"What I still don't understand is why all this means I was ignored, and why no one but you'll come out to see me".
Gorth's shoulders sagged noticeably, and he leaned back in his chair in a resigned way.
"Things are getting a bit hairy at the Ministry", he said "No one really likes coming out here as you know, but since the prison vanishings ..."
"The prison's over 200 miles away! How can it affect me?"
"It's not just the prison".
"What else then?"
"I'm not sure. Perhaps all this millennium fever that's about is getting out of hand. There are rumours that some people are practising religion in private".
"Oh?" Buskin hoped he wasn't reddening.
"That would be bad enough, but at the Ministry we're hearing tales of men wandering the countryside north of the City as travelling priests, preaching hellfire and damnation, and how we're all doomed. How Mankind can never pay fully for the sin of the Massacre of the Women. And the Day of Judgement is at hand, and the Vanquisher of Evil will soon arrive to sort out the corruption. Bloody nuisances these men are too. They're having quite an effect in some remote areas. This is strictly confidential, what I'm about to tell you".
"Something else that the public shouldn't know?"
"And for good reason too! One of these jerks has incited a mass suicide at a small village called Kiskev, some forty miles to the south of here".
"How did he do that?"
"Told everyone they'd have to answer for their predecessors' deeds at the Day of Judgement, that the Vanquisher of Evil was coming for them, blah-blah-blah. Well they decided not to wait that long. They built a large funeral pyre around themselves and set light to it. One of 'em, a young lad, panicked at the last minute and escaped. That's how we know what happened".
"I suppose as it was Kiskev we shouldn't be too surprised", said Buskin "Funny lot out there. Right on the edge of the Uncharted Area. Coldest inhabited place on the map. Snowed up for eight months of the year. They were fair game for any strolling lunatic at large. I take it the religious zealot topped himself as well".
"Joined in the big bonfire apparently. These self-proclaimed visionaries have the courage to make martyrs of themselves as well it seems. That's about the only good thing you can say about them. Saves the establishment having to dispose of 'em with the Cage anyway".
"All that loss of life", Buskin laughed, but there was no humour in it "They won't like that at the Winter Palace will they? And as the Kiskevians were incinerated there won't be any leftovers to send out to the Skirra Fludd rock either".
"You know as well as I do that nobody's been out to the lighthouse for years. Not for about a decade in fact. It became too unsafe, after one of our maritime engineers was thrown from the top of the tower by an unseen force. You haven't seen anyone out that way have you?"
"N-no, I haven't".
Buskin remembered the sighting of the longboat on the night of the lunar eclipse. He was very glad he had gone ahead and burnt those log-entries. He hadn't before realised how significant they were, and how much danger he'd now be in from the Ministry if he admitted to seeing the boat. Or had they been counting on him being too scared to mention it? Cunning bastards.
"Remember this Buskin", said Gorth "When it comes to the Winter Palace and the Skirra Fludd lighthouse, I know no more than you do, alright? And it pays to stay that way".
"I agree", said Buskin "We're only the little men after all".
Go forward to next chapter
Return to Sarah Hapgood's Strange Tales and Strange Places web site