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Grave Girl

Grave Girl

by Amy Cross

Copyright Amy Cross

All Rights Reserved

Published by Dark Season Books

First published: August 2013

This edition: February 2017

 

http://amycrossbooks.wordpress.com

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment. If you enjoy it and wish to share it with others, please consider buying them their own copy. Feedback is always welcome. The author reserves all rights in respect of this work.

Table of Contents

 

Part 1: The Gardener

 

Part 2: Gone to Hell

 

Part 3: The Vigil

 

Part 4: Angels of Stone

 

Part 5: The Birthday Party

 

Part 6: Demons All

 

Part 7: Gardening at Night

 

Part 8: The Last Gardener

Grave Girl

Part One:

The Gardener

Prologue

 

Woken by the sound of someone banging on the door, Walter Simpkin slips into his wife’s dressing gown and makes his way slowly down the creaking stairs. Carrying his hulking girth slowly, he has to stop halfway to the door so that he can catch his breath; Simpkin was a big man once, and tough, but old age hasn’t been kind to him and now the extra weight is dragging him down. After glancing at the clock and noting that midnight came and went several hours ago, he finally reaches the door and looks out through the small glass panel. He can see a human shape standing outside in the driving rain, but Simpkin’s too cautious a man to just throw his door open to anyone who happens to come along, particularly at such a queer hour, particularly in such a queer town, and particularly given recent events.

“Who’s there?” he shouts, deliberately lowering his voice an octave in an attempt to sound more menacing.

“It’s me!” shouts the visitor. “Stop messing about and let me in!”

Sighing, Simpkin unbolts the door and pulls it open. His visitor, soaked from head to toe, immediately steps inside and stands dripping on the mat, rainwater glistening on his large black cloak.

“Do you have any idea what time it is?” Simpkin asks, pushing the door shut. Until two years ago, Simpkin was the town’s undertaker; he retired precisely because he no longer wanted to be woken at ungodly hours.

“Do you have any idea how long I’ve been standing out there?” Mayor Guff Winters replies. “I’ve been banging for half an hour!”

“And I’ve been ignoring you for half an hour,” Simpkin replies, grabbing an old newspaper from the side and starting to spread the pages out across the floor, creating a narrow path to the kitchen. “Or trying to, anyway. I’m on new pills. Take your shoes off and come through. Try not to get mud everywhere. Maud hates having to clean first thing in the morning.”

“I’m not stopping,” Mayor Winters replies. “I just came to let you know that I need an advertisement in the paper this morning.”

This morning?” Simpkin stares at him. “Impossible. I’ve already printed the damn thing. You’ll have to wait ‘til next Thursday.”

“I can’t wait ‘til Thursday. I need a new man for the cemetery immediately.”

“A new man for the…” Simpkin sighs. “Oh, not again. Are you serious? How many is that already this year? Four? Five?”

“Five,” Mayor Winters replies uneasily. “Five unsuitable, cowardly, weak-backed, weak-willed dilettantes who wouldn’t know an honest day’s work if it came up and slapped them in the face. I really thought Faraday was the one. You saw the man: big, broad shoulders, and a face that terrified children. He’d done a spell in Wandsworth prison, you know; the old fool should have been able to handle anything.”

“Quit, did he?”

“No,” Mayor Winters says darkly. “Not exactly.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a human jawbone.

“Oh.” Simpkin pauses. “The angels again?”

“The angels,” Mayor Winters replies. “I swear, every time I think they’re under control…”

The two men stand in silence for a moment, reflecting upon the dark nature of their business.

“I’m sure you can appreciate my problem,” Mayor Winters says eventually, setting the jawbone on a nearby chair. “I’m afraid it was a rather nasty mess, but such things aside, someone has to take the job. People aren’t going to stop dying around here just because we’ve got no-one to run the cemetery, and there’s all that business in the catacombs to take care of. The job can’t be left open for too long.”

“Of course not.” Simpkin pauses for a moment, lost in thought.

“What is it?” Mayor Winters asks eventually. “What are you thinking? Why are you thinking? Just go and get your notepad so I can dictate the wording of the advertisement.”

“I suppose,” Simpkin replies, briefly turning to go through to his office, before pausing and glancing back at his visitor. “Well, I was just… It’s nothing much, really, but… Well, you haven’t exactly had much luck finding someone permanent, have you? All these advertisements, all these candidates, all these failures.”

“You’re very observant,” Mayor Winters says dourly.

“And at the end of the day, the stress of finding someone to run the cemetery permanently is clearly getting to you.” He pauses for a moment. “I can hear your heart beating from here, Guff.”

“It’s a hard walk up that hill.”

“You look puffy,” Simpkin adds. “There are bags around your eyes, your skin’s pale, and you stink of sweat.”

“And?”

“And maybe you should try something different. Cast your net further afield, so to speak. Let’s be honest, Guff. Everyone in Rippon has a vague idea about the job, and what it entails, and what usually ends up happening, which is why only idiots and fools apply. You keep this up, you’ll never find the right kind of person. Unless you’re gonna start conscripting people, you need a different approach.”

“And what kind of approach would that be?” Mayor Winters asks.

Simpkin pauses for a moment. “You tried the internet?”

“The internet?”

“The internet.”

Mayor Winters stares at him. “The internet?”

Simpkin nods. “If you put an ad or two on the internet, maybe you’ll find someone from further afield. I used the internet once, to sell my bike to a man in Rochdale. Worked a treat. I know it’s a risk, but you never know how it might turn out. Get someone from one of the cities. Manchester, maybe, or Newcastle. Even London. Point is, someone with a different kind of constitution. Someone tough. Someone who isn’t gonna crack at the first sign of pressure. Someone who’s lived a less sheltered life and who, accordingly, might be better equipped to deal with the… delicacies… of the cemetery. Someone who, frankly, will make Faraday seem like a fairy princess. Someone who’ll last more than a month.”

Mayor Winters stares at him for a moment. “You might have a point,” he admits grudgingly.

“Now here’s the idea,” Simpkin continues, leaning on the bannister. “That twenty quid you were gonna give me to run an ad in the paper?” He shakes his head. “Save it. Instead, give me thirty quid and I’ll organize an ad on some websites. Utilize some social networking, viral trends, hashtags, that kind of thing. I’ve been reading about hashtags. People use ‘em to find things, so why don’t we use ‘em to find someone to take over the cemetery? Someone who can do the job for more than a month without quitting or dying, at least.”

Reaching into his pocket, Mayor Winters pulls out three fresh, crisp banknotes and hands them to Simpkin. “Make it a good advertisement,” he says. “For this kind of money, I want results. You know what the cemetery’s like. It’s not for everyone, so I need a real man. Someone with the balls and the guts to take that place by the scruff of the neck and wrestle it into submission. Literally, in some respects. Someone who’s not going to turn and run at the first sight of something… unpleasant.”

“Leave it with me,” Simpkin replies, carefully folding the cash and slipping it into his wife’s dressing gown pocket. “I’ll find the man you need, even if I have to search the whole world in the process. And that’s the beauty of the internet: I can search the whole world. Even if there’s only one man on Earth who can do the job, I’ll find him.”

“I’m counting on you,” Mayor Winters says, as Simpkin lumbers past him and opens the front door, at which point a howling, icy wind almost blows both men off their feet.

“Nice night,” Simpkin mutters.

“We can’t keep hiring someone new every month!” Mayor Winters replies as he heads back outside. “It’s giving me indigestion! This has been going on for long enough. If you don’t find me someone who can stick it out for at least a year, Simpkin, I’ll be having that thirty quid back off you! I’m sick of this business!”

“No need to worry,” Simpkin replies, pushing the door shut. Turning and shuffling back over to the foot of the stairs, he sighs to himself. “I’ll find the right man for you, you skinflint old bastard. I’ll find the toughest son of a bitch who ever walked the land.”

Glancing over at the chair by the kitchen door, he sees Faraday’s jawbone picked out by the moonlight; after a brief shiver passes up his spine, Simpkin turns and starts the long, slow job of going back up to bed. He can feel his tired old bones grinding together, sending sharp jabs of pain shooting through his body. Stopping halfway up the stairs, however, he turns and looks back over at the door; slowly, he makes his way back down to the hallway and back to the door, giving the handle a quick tug just to make doubly sure that it’s locked. If the angels are hungry again, he figures, it’s probably best not to take any chances.

Just to be safe on the safe side.

Chapter One

 

On a lonely, barren country road in the middle of nowhere, a rickety old bus grinds to a creaking halt and sits in silence. Moments later, a figure appears on the horizon, running as fast as it can despite the huge backpack strapped to its shoulders. By the time the figure reaches the bus, it – or rather, she – has to hold onto the side for a moment to catch her breath, before stumbling to the open door.

“I almost didn’t stop,” says the bus driver.

The girl, panting like a dog, nods her appreciation, while bent double thanks to a nasty case of cramp.

“Are you getting on or not?” the driver continues dourly, checking his watch.

The girl steps up onto the bus, briefly getting her backpack caught in the door and having to wriggle her way through.

“Where you going?” the driver asks.

“Rippon,” the girl manages to say eventually, still a little out of breath. “I’m going to Rippon. Are you going to Rippon? Please say you are!”

The bus driver stares at her. “Where?”

“Rippon,” the girl says with a sigh. “Or as close as you can get me.”

Sniffing, the bus driver grabs an old, beaten-up map and flicks through the pages until finally he reaches a double-spread of the local area. “Oh,” he says finally, “well, I’m not going to Rippon, but I’m going close by. Maybe half a mile.”

“That’ll do,” the girl says gladly, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a handful of coins. “How much?”

“Single or return?”

The girl pauses for a moment. “Single. I guess.”

Punching some numbers into his ticket machine, the driver waits for the screen to update. “Five pounds and fifty pence,” he says skeptically, peering at the paltry collection of coins in the girl’s outstretched hand.

“Right,” the girl says, starting to count out her money. Her hands are shaking slightly, and she’s still breathing heavily thanks to having to run for half a mile to catch up to the bus. “Twenty,” she says, placing each coin on the counter one by one, “thirty, eighty, one pound, one pound ten…”

“You haven’t got it, have you?” the bus driver says with a sigh.

“Maybe,” the girl says. “Hold on. One twenty, one thirty, one fifty…”

“You haven’t got it,” the bus driver replies. “You’ve got about two quid, some fluff, and a mint.”

“Huh,” the girl says, stopping to stare at the coins. “You’re right. I think I’m about two pounds short.” Glancing along the interior of the bus, she sees nothing but empty seats. “Here’s the thing,” she says after a moment, turning back to the bus driver. “I’ve already walked three hours from the train station. My feet are killing me. Beyond killing me. I thought I could walk the whole eleven miles to Rippon, but I’m starting to flag. If there’s any way you can bring yourself to let me come on your bus without the whole fare -"

The bus driver shakes his head.

"I understand why this is difficult," the girl continues, "but as one human being to another, is there no way we can just come to some kind of understanding? Look -" She reaches down and carefully, tentatively removes one of her shoes; there's a slight ripping sound as part of a blister, stuck to the fabric, is peeled away. "Look at this," she says, placing the shoe on the dashboard. "There's blood in there. That's how far I've walked. I'm worried I'll get an infection if I have to walk the rest of the way. I might die!"

“Should’ve thought of that before you set off, shouldn’t you?” the driver replies.

“Yes,” the girl says. “Yes, I should. You’re absolutely correct. I should have thought of that before I set off, and I will never, ever make such a stupid mistake again. But in order to prove that I’ve learned my lesson, I first need to survive this trip, so if you can find it in your heart to just let me on the bus, I swear I’ll grow from this experience.” She takes a deep breath, waiting for a response. “I’ll become a better person.”

The driver stares at her for a moment, his expression almost completely blank. After a moment, he punches some more numbers into the ticket machine. “Single to Rippon’s five pounds fifty,” he says eventually. “There’s no getting around it. The machine doesn’t lie.”

"But if you -"

“Five fifty.”

"Yeah, but -"

“Five fifty.”

"But -"

“Five,” he says firmly, raising his voice a little, “fifty.”

"Okay," the girl says, counting out some more coins. "Here. I can give you three pounds and about eight pence. Can you take me..." She pauses for a moment, her lips moving as she does the arithmetic in her head. "Can you take me 70% of the way to Rippon?"

The bus driver sighs again. “Article thirty-five of the transport regulations specifically prohibits the breaking down of statutory fares into smaller, discretionary units. The routes of all commercial vehicles are in fact mandated to be broken down into specific divisions that cannot be redrawn to suit the particular needs of customers who wish to create fractional fares, and no driver shall offer to split a fare in any such way as to reduce the revenue delivered to the company.” He pauses for a moment. “That’s a direct quote.”

“So can I get a ride?”

“No.”

"But -"

“For all I can tell,” he continues, “you might be a company revenue protection officer, sent to test me and make sure I don’t break the rules.”

"I'm not a company revenue protection officer," the girl replies. "I'm a -"

“That’s just what you’d say,” the driver adds, “if you were a company revenue protection officer. They’re sneaky. They don’t go around advertising themselves. They try to disguise themselves so no-one’ll recognize them.” He pauses for a moment. “Thinking about it, you look so unlike any company revenue protection officer I’ve ever seen, I’m pretty convinced you must be one. Disguised as a young female backpacker from Yorkshire.”

“Please,” the girl says, reaching into her shoe and wiping some blood from the inside. “Look at this. It’s my blood from my feet. I’m only going to Rippon because I’ve been offered a job, and once I’m there I’ll need to be able to walk around ‘cause, well, it’s quite a physical job. I’m sorry I don’t have the full fare, but isn’t there any way you could bend the rules for me?”

She waits for the driver to say something.

He stares at her.

“What if I get attacked?” she asks. “How would you feel if you got home tonight, turned on the news, and saw that I’d been murdered out here, or that some kind of escaped big cat had got at me? Could you live with my death on your conscience for the rest of your life?”

“Thanks to you,” the driver says, checking his watch, “I’m now three minutes behind schedule. Can you live with that on your conscience?”

“Fine,” the girl says angrily, stepping back off the bus. “If you can honestly leave a teenage girl on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, carrying a heavy backpack, with blistered feet, under a leaden sky, six miles from her destination on a day when rain is forecast that could even turn into sleet, in a country where escaped big cats from circuses and private zoos are not as uncommon as you’d think, at a time when crime levels in general across the whole world are going up, and with no means of defending herself other than her wits and half an umbrella, then go ahead. Leave me here. Take your cold, unbending heart and drive off into the sunset. Just promise me one thing. In about five minutes, when you’ve covered the distance that it’s gonna take me hours and hours to walk on broken, bloody feet, promise you’ll spare a thought for me back here, trudging along. And if, some day in the future, you’re driving along this route and you happen to spot some bleached bones by the side of the road, picked clean by the carrion crow, then don’t stop to mark my passing. Just drive along and forget you ever met me.”

The bus driver stares at her for a moment, almost as if he’s teasing her with the faintest possibility that he might be persuaded to let her on-board.

“Have a nice day,” he says suddenly, closing the doors and accelerating away along the road.

The girl stands and watches as the bus makes its way to the horizon, bouncing over a pothole before it eventually dips out of view. At that exact moment, a few drops of rain start to fall.

“Hey,” the girl says quietly to herself, looking down at her bare right foot. “Hey!” she shouts suddenly, starting to run after the bus. “Hey! Stop! You’ve still got my shoe!”

Chapter Two

 

Eighty-seven years old and with two bad hips, Ethel Mayberry pushes the large iron gate open and shuffles into the cemetery. She pauses to shut the gate again, before making her way along the narrow path that leads between the graves. Glancing up at the statue that stands nearby, she notes the blank, expressionless gray eyes and the hint of a smile on the stone lips. Something about that statue always makes her feel a little uncomfortable; she’s felt the same way ever since she was a little girl, more than eighty years ago, when she used to come and play in the cemetery with her friends. The angels of stone have a fearsome reputation in Rippon, although she doesn’t believe a word of it.

Except, perhaps, in her weaker moments.

Her knees hurting and her hip in danger of giving out, she makes her way slowly along the path. She undergoes this little pilgrimage once a week, just to lay some flowers on her husband’s grave. After a moment, however, she hears a noise behind her, as if stone is grinding against stone. Stopping, she turns around just as the noise stops. At first, she sees nothing out of the ordinary, but then she looks at the statue and realizes that it seems to have moved. Not by much, granted, but just a few inches: its head seems to have turned toward her, as if it was turning to look at her but stopped at the last moment. This isn’t the first time that the statue has been a cause for concern, and the old lady doubts it’ll be the last. A creak here and a rustle there, and then the angle of the sun shifts in such a way as to make it almost seem as if a stone face could move.

Feeling a shiver run through her body, she turns and carries on along the path. She wants to get to her husband’s grave as quickly as possible, because that’s the only part of this whole cemetery where she feels safe. Even now, although she can hear nothing behind her, she can’t help wondering whether, if she looked back, she’d find herself being stalked by the statue through the unkempt, overgrown old cemetery. Utter hogwash, of course, but still…

She doesn’t dare look back and check.

Chapter Three

 

It takes another three hours for the girl to reach the outskirts of Rippon, by which point she’s removed her remaining shoe and has started walking through the grass at the side of the road in an attempt to soothe all her blisters. She settled, a couple of hours ago, for a state of semi-consciousness, which means that she’s just been trudging along, staring at the horizon while trying not to notice earthly things. It’s for this reason that, as she reaches the base of the town’s steep hill, she doesn’t notice at first that she’s arrived at her destination. Finally, however, she comes to a wobbly halt by the side of the small bridge that spans the Rippon River, and her eyes begin to focus on the row of little old houses that mark the start of the town’s rather circumspect sprawl.

“Huh,” she says after a moment, barely able to believe that she’s finally made it. The sun has baked her brain, so she’s barely able to string together a coherent thought. “Huh,” she says again.

To say that Rippon is a town built on a hill would be something an understatement. Many hundreds of years ago, when faced with the task of establishing a new community, the founders of Rippon surveyed a vast expanse of mildly rolling countryside and decided to get to work on the biggest hill they could find. Several years later, a passing cartographer would note dryly that this ‘hill’ came only fifteen meters short of being classified as a mountain. Undeterred, the founders of Rippon and their successors continued to build and build and build, until finally they’d completed a rather impressive little town that even today rises improbably from the ground, as if it has been built on a large boil. In a book detailing his thinking, one of the founders claimed that the idea was to make it easier to defend the town from attack; history subsequently records that no-one has ever tried to attack Rippon, and that the town has in fact rather struggled to attract any attention at all from the outside world.

Limping through the empty streets, the girl initially finds herself wondering if perhaps she’s made some kind of colossal mistake. Perhaps this is a ghost town, left abandoned many years ago? It certainly doesn’t seem like there’s anyone living here. Perhaps, she wonders eventually, she misread the original advertisement and the subsequent emails in which she was invited to come and start a trial period as a gardener? Street after street seems to be utterly deserted, and the girl finds herself climbing up a series of increasingly steep thoroughfares until finally she reaches what appears to be a town square, on the other side of which there’s a cafe that has – wonder of wonders – a few chairs arranged outside. Walking across the square, the girl reaches the cafe and hears the clinking of glasses from inside, along with a few voices. Hauling her backpack from her shoulders, she drops it onto a small chair that immediately buckles under the weight and breaks. Sighing, the girl hobbles barefoot through the doorway and finds herself face to face with an elderly man who’s in the process of cleaning some tables.

“Is that blood?” the man asks, frowning as he looks down at her feet.

“Huh?” The girl looks down and notices that she ‘s led a trail of faint, bloody footprints into the cafe. “Oh,” she says, stepping back outside. “Sorry. I didn’t realize. I think I broke one of your chairs, too.”

“Never mind,” the man says, hurrying over and wiping the blood up with a tea towel. “New in town, are you?”

The girl nods, feeling slightly delirious.

“Come to see someone?”

“Kind of,” the girl replies. “I’m here to see someone named Guff Winters.” She pauses for a moment. “Is that even a real name?”

“Guff?” The man smiles as he walks around behind his counter and pours a glass of tap water, which he hands to the girl. “Guff’s real, alright. He’s the Mayor of Rippon. What do you want with him?”

“A job,” the girl says, drinking the entire glass in one long gulp. “I’ve been hired as a gardener.”

The man frowns. “You have?”

The girl nods.

“First I’ve heard of it,” the man replies cautiously, “but I suppose Guff moves in mysterious ways. He’ll be over at the town hall, but I’ll give him a ring and see if he can come over to meet you here. You don’t look like you’re in any state to go wandering around.” Taking the lid from a nearby cake stand, he pops a slice of raspberry tart onto a plate and passes it to the girl. “On the house while you wait. You look like you need to get your sugar levels up.”

Smiling and nodding, and far too exhausted to express her gratitude verbally, the girl takes the plate and carries it over to one of the chairs outside. She’s so tired, she barely bothers to listen to the man’s voice as he makes a phone call and informs this Guff Winters man that a visitor has arrived. Looking down at her feet, the girl starts to casually wonder just how much blood she lost on the journey to Rippon, and whether this is going to be a problem. After all, Rippon doesn’t exactly seem like the kind of place where one might find expert medical care. In fact, the town seems generally to be a very quiet and rather dusty little place where even the afternoon breeze is too reserved to make much of a stir.

Eventually, as she gets close to the end of her raspberry tart, the girl spots a door opening on the other side of the town square, and a short, round man emerges. Leaning heavily on a cane, the man waddles slowly toward the cafe, and the girl realizes that she’s likely going to have to have a conversation. Taking a deep breath, she sits up in the chair and brushes crumbs from her t-shirt, before forcing herself to smile. Although her feet are agonizingly painful and her back feels like it has been tightened to breaking point, she knows she has to make a good first impression. After all, it’s not like she has any experience as a gardener.

“Mayor Winters?” she asks, trying to seem friendly. As soon as she attempts to stand up, however, a jolt of pain flashes through her back, causing her to lean heavily on the table and let out a loud “Gah! Damn it!”

The round man comes to a halt and stares at her.

“Are you Mayor Winters?” the girl asks, wincing as she forces herself to stand up straight.

“Absolutely,” the man with a bemused smile. “Very pleased to meet you.” Without stopping, he makes his way past the girl and into the cafe, where he stands for a moment, as if looking for something. “Where is he?” he asks eventually, turning to the old man behind the counter.

“Out there,” the old man says, pointing at the girl.

Turning, Mayor Winters heads back outside, walks past the girl, and looks out across the square. “Where?” he calls back eventually.

“Mayor Winters,” the girl says, limping toward him with an outstretched hand.

“Of course!” Mayor Winters says, turning to her and shaking her hand with enthusiasm. “I’m so sorry, I’m afraid I didn’t quite manage to join the dots. I wasn’t informed that the living quarters were to be inhabited by two new arrivals, but I can see a certain degree of sense in the idea of a working couple taking on the position. Allow me to be the first to welcome you to Rippon, my dear. I hope you’ll have an enjoyable and very long stay in our little town. I assume your husband is in the bathroom?”

“I don’t have a husband,” the girl replies.

“Boyfriend, then. Don’t worry. We’re quite liberal here in Rippon, so living in sin is most certainly permissible.”

The girl frowns.

“Did you have any trouble getting here?” he continues, before leaning into the cafe. “Jonathan, bring out some menus. I’m sure the town’s budget can stretch to the purchase of a modest lunch for our new arrivals.” Turning back to the girl, he gestures for her to sit down. “Please, won’t you join me?”

Taking a seat, the girl starts to get a slightly nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach. After all the hassle of her long journey to Rippon, she was hoping that things would be fairly straightforward once she arrived. Right now, however, it’s looking as if that is not to be the case at all. Plus, she’s starting to wonder if she’s caused herself permanent damage by walking so far.

“My name is Guffington Winters,” the Mayor says, as the cafe owner sets two menus on the table. “I have the honor of being in charge of this wonderful little town, and I was the one who spoke to your partner about the job we’re offering.”

“Partner?” the girl asks, raising an eyebrow.

“He’s certainly taking a long time in the bathroom,” the Mayor continues, opening his menu and squinting at the items. “I do hope he hasn’t got an upset stomach.”

“I’m not sure who you mean,” the girl replies.

“After lunch,” the Mayor says, closing his menu, “I shall take you directly to your accommodation and you can orientate yourselves. I’m sure it’s something of a culture shock for a pair of young people from the city. You’re from Leeds, are you not?”

The girl nods.

“Myself, I’ve never been to one of the big cities, but I’ve seen plenty of photographs. You’ll find that life here is rather different, but I’m sure you’ll adapt sooner rather than later. To be perfectly honest, we’ve always hired locals for this particular job in the past, but I decided to try something a little different this time. I must admit, you’re quite a bit younger than I anticipated, but in the spirit of making a new approach, I’m sure everything will work out just perfectly. Might I be so inopportune as to ask how old you are?”

“I’m twenty-one,” the girl says.

“Excellent. And your partner?”

“Partner?”

“Your boyfriend, or whatever the fashionable word is these days. I’m afraid I don’t keep up with the changing social norms of the big cities, but I’m not so old-fashioned as to insist on the pair of you having separate beds if you’re not married.” He sits back with a broad grin on his face. “So?”

“So?”

Turning to look into the cafe, he pauses for a moment. “He really is taking an awfully long time in there,” he says eventually.

“Who?”

“Your partner.”

“I don’t have a partner.”

“Oh,” the mayor says, momentarily confused. “Your father, then?”

The girl shakes her head.

“Uncle?”

She shakes her head again.

“Your guardian?”

Again, a shake of the head.

“Your…” The Mayor pauses for a moment. “Your teacher or guide? Ward?”

Shake.

“Your boss?”

Shake.

“Your brother?”

Shake.

“Your cousin?”

Shake.

"Your -"

“It’s just me,” the girl says eventually.

“I know that,” the mayor replies. “It’s just you and your… friend?”

“It’s just me,” the girl says. “There’s no-one else. I came alone.”

The mayor stares at her.

“We spoke by email,” the girl continues. “You offered me a one month trial period as a gardener.”

The mayor blinks, his face a curious mix of vacant shock and blind panic.

“I’m Sam Marker,” the girl says.

The Mayor tilts his head slightly, like a dog trying to understand a new command.

“Samantha Marker,” the girl adds tentatively, raising an eyebrow. “From Leeds?”

“I think there’s been some kind of mistake,” the mayor says after a moment. “Sam is short for Samuel, not Samantha.”

“I think it’s short for both.”

“Perhaps,” the mayor replies, “but in this case it’s short for Samuel.”

The girl shakes her head.

“That’s not possible,” the mayor says. “Samantha is a girl’s name.”

“And I’m a girl.”

“Yes,” he replies, “and the person I spoke to by email is named Samuel.”

The girl sighs. "My name is Sam Marker, and we spoke about the job. You said that if I -"

“Yes,” the mayor says, interrupting her, “but I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to…” His voice trails off and he sits staring at the girl for a moment. “You’re a girl?”

She nods.

“Are you sure?”

She nods again.

“Well… that…” He pauses. “How?”

“How?”

“I mean, since when?” He frowns. “Did you have an… operation?”

“No!” the girl replies quickly, brushing her hair back. “I didn’t have an operation! I was a girl when you hired me, I was a girl when I was born, and I’m a girl now! You didn’t ask about any of that stuff. You just asked about my experience!” She takes a deep breath, suddenly facing the prospect that her entire journey to Rippon might have been for nothing. “Is this really a problem?” she asks eventually. “I’m pretty sure I can manage some gardening work.”

“Well…” The mayor continues to stare at her, clearly at a loss for words. “It’s not just… I mean, it isn’t just a matter of some gardening work.”

“I can lift,” the girl says. “I’m stronger than I look.”

“I have no doubt, but there are other aspects to the job that I really think might be a little difficult for an individual of your particular gender. You see, the work is likely to be rather draining, in more ways than one, and I’m just not sure that a girl is in the right position to handle some of the more complex tasks.”

Sighing, Sam looks down at her menu. “I’m a girl,” she says eventually. “I’m not disabled. I’m not stupid. I’m not even a girl, I’m basically a woman, so…” She pauses, before forcing herself to look the mayor in the eye. “Are you seriously saying that just because there was a mix-up over gender, you’d consider sending me away and starting the hiring process all over again?”

The mayor pauses.

“Seriously?” the girl adds, unable to hide the incredulity in her voice.

“The hiring process is rather complicated,” the mayor says quietly.

“This is the twenty-first century!”

"Yes, but -"

“Look. Maybe I’m not exactly what you had in mind. Maybe you thought I’d be some big, hulking guy who’s really good with petunias and a rake, but I’m here, and I’m a hard worker. You told me this’d be a trial period, so let’s start the trial.” She waits for him to answer. “You said yourself that you were looking for someone different. Have you only hired guys before?”

“Well… yes,” the mayor replies.

“And how’s that worked out for you?”

"Not particularly well," the mayor says, "but I don't think the problem was that -"

“Then give me a chance,” she continues. “Worst case scenario, you end up back at square one again. But at least let me show you what I can do. I’m the right person for this job. I really, really, really need this to work out, and I guarantee that no matter how long you spend looking and no matter how many big, tough guys you bring up to Rippon, you’ll never find someone as dedicated and determined and hard-working as me. I mean, I even walked the whole way from the train station, just to get here. Do you really think I’m not tough enough to be your gardener?”

“Ah, yes,” he says, pausing for a moment. “Well, I’m afraid there has perhaps been another small misunderstanding.” He coughs to clear his throat. “When I said that you’d be looking after a garden, I might have used the wrong word. It’s not so much a garden as a… well… Perhaps I’d better show you.”

Chapter Four

 

“It’s disgraceful,” the old lady says, setting a fresh bunch of flowers down on her husband’s grave. The grass is overgrown and there are weeds and thistles everywhere, while the gravestone itself is covered in old moss. It’s as if no-one gives a damn. Wrapping her thin, boney fingers around the old flowers from last week, she slowly and painfully stands up straight. She knows she’s getting too old for these weekly visits, but she also knows that if she doesn’t come and pay some attention, her husband’s grave will be left totally overlooked.

“Back again next week,” she mutters, turning and starting to walk back toward the gate. She notes with grim humor that the journey to and from the grave takes significantly longer than the actual moment at the graveside itself. Sometimes, she finds herself wondering whether, at eighty-seven years old, she’s perhaps passed the point of sanity. Then again, she reminds herself, she’s spent her whole life worrying about what other people think, and it didn’t really help. Now, finally, all she cares about is going to her husband’s grave each week.

When she reaches the gate, she struggles to get it open. Once she’s outside, she turns and pulls the gate closed, before glancing back at the statue. She wants to believe that her suspicions are baseless, and that the statue is just what it looks like: a life-size stone representation of an angel, holding its hands up in prayer. Still, the old lady can never quite shake the feeling that those blank stone eyes are capable of turning to stare at her, and she still fears that one day the statue might smile at her and then slowly open its mouth to bare its fangs.

Chapter Five

 

“Okay,” Sam says, as she and the mayor stand by the gate. “So this is the ‘garden’ you told me about, huh?”

“It is,” the mayor replies tentatively. “I mean, it is a garden. There are flowers and trees, and grass, and wildlife and bushes and things like that.”

“And graves,” Sam says, looking up at a huge stone statue of an angel in prayer. “Lots of graves.”

The Mayor nods.

“Which,” Sam adds, “is quite significant.”

“Let me show you around,” the mayor says, striking forth along the narrow shingle path that winds its way between a series of gravestones and small stone mausoleums. The grass is somewhat overgrown, giving the place a neglected feel, while some of the stones and statues have chunks missing. A few of the mausoleums even have gaps in their stonework, with weeds and vines poking out of the darkness. The land is uneven, with little bumps and dips all over the place, and the only sign of life is a small starling that hops from perch to perch before finally taking flight into the gray afternoon sky. Against the far wall, a series of bushes display bright red and purple berries, filled almost to bursting point with succulent juices sourced from roots that reach deep, deep underground into the cemeterial soil.

“It’s very peaceful here,” the mayor continues, pausing for a moment to tap the tip of a gravestone with his cane. “Most of the time, anyway.”

“I guess the residents don’t make much noise,” Sam notes wryly, spotting a mouse scurrying along the top of the wall. The creature stops for a moment and turns to her, before continuing on its way.

The mayor marches onward, leading Sam further and further along the path. While the cemetery might have looked small from the entrance, it’s actually rather large, extending for several hundred meters in every direction. There are plenty of large hedgerows to divide the place up into a series of plots, however, while a high stone wall – reaching up three or four meters – borders the entire site.

“People do come to visit from time to time,” the mayor explains, “although visiting hours are strictly limited. The front gate has to be opened at 8am every day, and closed again at 8pm every evening. The only exception is the last Friday of every month, when the place is closed for the duration of the day. This is to allow essential maintenance work to take place, and also to give the gardener a little time off. Obviously there are services to be held from time to time, but these are always in normal opening hours and to be honest, we’re a small town so there are only a dozen or so deaths each year.”

“A dozen’s quite a lot,” Sam replies, looking over at a nearby grave and noting that there appears to be a significant bulge under the grass. “It’s a dozen more than I expected.”

“Now, your duties,” the mayor continues, “if you take the job, will be many. The primary responsibility of the gardener is obviously to keep things looking neat and tidy. Mow the lawns, trim the borders, generally make sure that the whole place is a nice, calm environment. We must not disrespect the dead by letting this place go to the dogs.” He kicks a patch of overgrown, unruly grass. “As you can see, it’s been a few weeks since our last gardener departed, and I’m afraid he wasn’t particularly conscientious. What I’m looking for is someone who’ll do more than the bare minimum. I want someone who’ll live, breathe and dream this cemetery, twenty-four hours a day.”

“I can do that,” Sam says, trying to sound enthusiastic. “I promise, I’m the most dedicated worker you’ll ever find. I’ll be up with the sun and I won’t stop working until it’s dark again!”

“Do you have much experience with this kind of thing?”

“Lots. Lots and lots. I’ve done gardens before.” She pauses for a moment, desperately trying to think of something that’ll sound convincing. “Never specifically a cemetery, of course, but I can learn the extra bits. I’m very adaptable. I promise you won’t regret hiring me, not for a second.”

“We’ll see about that,” the mayor replies. “I should warn you right from the start that there are some parts of this job that, well, they just can’t be put into words. You need to be a very flexible and adaptable worker, and you need to be able to react to situations and accept them. Above all, you need a strong constitution. Do you have a strong constitution?”

Sam nods.

“And do you still want this job? Even after you’ve seen what it entails?”

“Totally,” the girl says. “I’m here and I’m ready to work. All I want is a chance to prove myself. I swear, by the end of this trial period, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without me. I’ll be better than your last ten gardeners put together.”

The mayor eyes her suspiciously for a moment. “Perhaps,” he says eventually, turning and making his way over to the small, dilapidated building in the center of the cemetery. It takes him a moment to force the door open, and finally he leads Sam into a dark, rundown little room with an old stove and a few tables scattered about. Rather improbably, given the derelict nature of the hut-like structure, there’s a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling, but everything else about the place speaks of total squalor: there are old plates piled high in front of cracked windows, while dirt is spread across the floor and there’s an upturned wheelbarrow in the corner.

“What do you think?” the mayor asks, running a finger through the dirt on the counter.

“I can work here,” Sam replies, forcing herself to remain optimistic.

“Come and see the rest of the place,” the mayor continues, walking slowly through to the next room. A small single bed has been pushed against the far wall, and a wardrobe stands slightly askew next to the door. “This is the bedroom,” he says after a moment, using his cane to push some old cans off a nearby chair. “You can put your bag down there.”

“That’s okay, thanks,” Sam says. “I’ll just wait until we get to the apartment.”

“Apartment?” the mayor replies, turning to her. “I never said there was an apartment!”

“You said it’s a live-in job,” Sam says, looking panicked. “You said that’s why the basic wage is so low!”

“It’s a live-in job, alright,” the mayor continues, “but there’s no apartment. You’ll be living in this very room! I know it’s probably not up to the standards you’re used to in a fancy city like Leeds, but needs must as the Devil drives. It’s perfectly comfortable, and it can even get quite hot if you’ve got enough wood in the stove.”

Stepping over to the middle of the room, Sam turns and looks around. The entire place is covered, from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall, in dust and dirt, while the windows are grimy and – in places – cracked and broken. It’s like someone just shut the door to this place several years ago and left it to fall into disrepair, never thinking to open it up or give the place a clean.

After a moment, Sam spots a mouse – perhaps even the same mouse as before – peering in through one of the cracked windows, as if to keep track of her progress.

“I suppose it’s useful, you being a woman,” the mayor says eventually. “That’s what this place needs. A woman’s touch.”

“Are you sure there’s not somewhere else I can live?” Sam asks, turning to him.

“You don’t like the cottage?”

“It’s not that,” Sam continues, walking over to the window and looking out at the cemetery. The thought of spending her nights in this rattly little building, surrounded on all sides by a pitch-black cemetery, sends a shiver down her spine. “It’s just not quite what I expected,” she says quietly.

“Well, I can’t help that,” the mayor replies. “It’s the best we can do, and I’m sure you can fix it up if you just use your imagination. The last gardener, Faraday, wasn’t much for creature comforts. I swear, he spent more time with his nose in a book than actually working on the place. He rather let his duties fall by the wayside, as you can see, but there’s no reason it has to stay like this. There are some old glass panes somewhere in the shed, so you can fix the windows, and there might even be some paint around. You’ve got your basic electricity and running water, so all the conveniences of home are here, even if you have to look a little harder for them.”

Swallowing hard, Sam looks back across the room. It’s not that she’s used to luxury in Leeds. The problem isn’t really the building at all; it’s the fact that the place is slap bang in the middle of a cemetery. Having never previously considered herself to be superstitious or easily creeped out, Sam suddenly realizes that perhaps she’s not ready to live, work and sleep by herself in a place like this.

“Do we have a problem, Ms. Marker?” the mayor asks, staring at her with a suspicious glint in his eye.

“No,” Sam replies, forcing herself to smile. “No problem at all.”

“Then you’ll be needing this,” the mayor says, pulling a large metal key-ring from his pocket and placing it on the table by the window. Several large, rusty old keys are fixed to the key-ring; they look as if they’re designed to open large vaults rather than normal doors. “To be honest, a smart girl such as yourself should be able to pick up the basics of the job just by getting on with it, so I think the best thing is if you spend the rest of the day making yourself feel at home, and then tomorrow morning you can open up and get on with whatever needs doing. Start with the grass, maybe, and then just take things as they come. You’ll find all the tools in the shed over by the eastern wall. The most important things are to keep the place looking neat and tidy, make sure the gates are opened and closed on time, and watch out for kids during the night.”

“Kids?”

“Local teenagers. They love this place. They think they can climb the wall under cover of darkness and get a few cheap thrills by drinking and smoking and whatever else between the gravestones. They make a hell of a racket, and a mess too, but they’re easily scared off if you flash a torch in their direction. Even better, wave a spade in the air and they’ll be needing fresh britches for a fortnight.”

“Part of my job involves scaring kids?” Sam asks, shocked.

“Your job is to keep the cemetery safe and tidy,” the mayor replies. “This is a place of rest, after all, and it’s hard for our residents to rest when there are children getting up to no good on the graves.”

With that, he turns and heads over to the door.

“I’ll let you get on with unpacking and making the place feel a little more like home. Feel free to do anything you like with the place. Paint the walls if you wish, and fix the windows. I think there’s some paint left over in the basement from the last tenant. One more thing, though. I’m sure you’ll appreciate that we don’t really condone visitors, so I’d prefer it if you could refrain from entertaining anyone here. No parties, that sort of thing. I’m afraid that includes friends and family who might want to visit from out of town. We have a couple of lovely little bed and breakfast establishments in town, in case anyone should happen to drop by and visit you.”

“That won’t be an issue.”

The Mayor nods approvingly. “And you’re absolutely, completely certain that you’ve got what it takes for this job? I mean, no offense, but I’m still a little dubious about a girl doing something that’s normally been done by a man. It’s not that I doubt girls in general, and I’m certainly not sexist or old-fashioned, but girls have different physical abilities, and this is a very physical job.”

“I’ll be fine,” Sam replies. “Actually, I’ll be more than fine. I look forward to working with you, Mayor Winters.”

“And I you,” the mayor replies. “If you like, you can come to the cafe this evening and I’ll buy you a drink and introduce you to some of the locals.”

“Sure,” Sam says quietly. “Thanks. That sounds good.”

“Otherwise,” the mayor continues, “I’ll pop by tomorrow and see how you’re getting on. Oh, and I suppose I should give you this.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a creased brown envelope and sets it on the chair by the door. “Your first week’s pay packet,” he explains, before turning and making his way out of the cottage.

For several minutes, Sam stands alone in the middle of the room. Unsure of where to even start, she’s almost paralyzed by indecision. This time yesterday, she had nowhere to live, nowhere to work, and nothing to do. Now she lives in a cottage in a cemetery, she has a full-time job, and her list of tasks is building by the second. It’s not only the cemetery that needs to be fixed up: the cottage is a complete mess, and Sam has never, ever felt so completely out of her element. Finally, realizing that she has to get on with something, she walks over to the bed and sits down, sending up a thick cloud of dust in the process.

“Brilliant,” she mutters, putting her head in her hands. “A great big stinking metaphor for my whole life.”

Chapter Six

 

“Mayor Winters!” the old lady calls out, as she hurries across the town square. “I want a word with you! Mayor Winters!”

Stopping at the door to the town hall, Mayor Winters turns to see Ethel Mayberry making her way straight toward him. Now that he has a bad leg and relies on a cane to walk, the mayor struggles to outrun even the oldest of his constituents, which means that he has to discuss local matters much more frequently than he’d prefer. He’s learning to put a brave face on the experience, but in truth he’d rather avoid direct confrontation wherever possible.

“Mrs Mayberry,” he says, forcing his lips to contort into a not-altogether-convincing smile. “What can I do for you on this fine afternoon?”

“I want to talk to you about the state of the cemetery,” Mrs. Mayberry says as she reaches him. “I was just there an hour ago, and the place is a disgrace. Have you seen how the grass has grown? When was the last time you actually took a look and saw the terrible state of the place?”

“I was there just ten minutes ago,” the mayor replies, “showing the new gardener around.”

“New gardener?”

“Absolutely. It has taken quite some time, but I feel I have finally found someone to take the job on a permanent basis. As we speak, this new employee is undoubtedly getting a feel for the area and deciding what part of the task to tack first.” He pauses for a moment, having expended considerable mental dexterity in avoiding the use of words such as ‘she’ and ‘her’ when describing Sam Marker. Having been in Rippon all his life, the mayor is fully aware that many of the local residents are rather old-fashioned and would take a dim view of a girl being given such a position.

“I didn’t know anything about a new gardener,” Mrs. Mayberry says. “Why wasn’t it mentioned at the last town hall meeting?”

“The appointment was only made this week,” the mayor continues. “I was planning to mention it at the next opportunity, now that the finer details have been worked out.”

“And this new man’s going to return the cemetery to its former standing, is he?”

“The new gardener is undoubtedly the best person for the job.”

“He’d better be,” Mrs. Mayberry says with a sigh. “It’s absolutely disgraceful to see hallowed ground being left in such a decrepit state. It’s an offense to everyone who has ever been buried there, and to the relatives who have to put up with such misery when they go to visit the graves.”

“I’m sure the new gardener will be very pleased to have your input,” the mayor replies.

“I also want to ask him about moving that confounded statue from by the gate,” she continues. “The thing gives me the creeps.” Turning, she starts walking slowly away, heading for the shops on the other side of the town square.

Letting out a sigh, the mayor looks up at the gray sky and imagines the reactions of people at the following week’s town hall meeting when they discover that the cemetery’s new gardener is a young girl from Leeds. Already able to hear the gasps and mocking laughter of the townspeople, the mayor makes a silent prayer, begging God to ensure that this Sam Marker girl at least does a passable job and doesn’t bring the whole town into disrepute. Still, he figures he’ll have to start looking for her replacement soon. If a succession of good and strong local men couldn’t last long at the cemetery, there’s absolutely no way a girl will be able to hack it. In fact, the mayor notes as he heads inside, it’ll be something of a miracle if she survives past the weekend.

Chapter Seven

 

“So,” Sam says, standing in the doorway of the little cottage and staring out at the cemetery. Everything looks still and peaceful, as if the place has lain undisturbed for many years. The grass is so overgrown, it reaches up several feet, while there seem to be bits of brickwork and machinery scattered across the ground. Frankly, it looks like the previous gardener – whoever he might have been – left in a hell of a hurry, and Sam finds herself wondering why the town seems to have had such a hard job finding someone to stay in the gardener’s role. This seems like the perfect occupation for someone who likes a quiet, uncomplicated, lonely lifestyle. With a wry smile, Sam reminds herself that this is precisely the kind of existence she has to get used to now; she’s tried the opposite, and it was a miserable failure, so she has to force herself to retreat from the world like this. That’s why she jumped at the job in the first place.

“Home,” she whispers, trying to force herself to believe that she can live here. “Home,” she says again. It still doesn’t sound very easy to believe, so she pauses for a moment before saying the word a third time, louder and with more confidence. “Home,” she announces proudly.

Well, at least it sounds convincing.

“This is where I live,” she says, walking around the side of the cottage and finding a pile of chopped wood, presumably intended for the wood-burning stove inside. “This,” she says again, with different emphasis, “is where I live.” She pauses. “This is where I live,” she says eventually, before frowning as she tries to think of a better way to express the idea. “This is where I live,” she tries finally. None of it sounds right, but she figures she’ll get used to the idea eventually.

Wandering around to the back of the cottage, she finds a huge thicket of overgrown brambles and bushes; deep in the undergrowth, however, there appears to be a small shed, which she realizes probably contains the tools she’ll be requiring. Pulling her hands up inside her shirt for protection, she struggles through the mass of vines until finally she reaches the door to the shed, which opens easily enough to reveal a dark interior. As her eyes get used to the darkness, Sam starts to make out a pair of benches running along the walls, covered with various small spades and hoes; at the far end of the shed, there’s what appears to be a small mechanical lawnmower, which instantly looks to be woefully inadequate for the task of keeping the cemetery clean. Leaning against one wall, there’s an old-fashioned scythe, like the kind that Death wields in old paintings.

“Perfect,” Sam says, grabbing the scythe before turning and using it to swipe the vines aside. Within a few minutes, she’s managed to clear a path from the shed door to the cottage, which seems like something of an achievement. Already tired, and with her hands feeling sore, she sets the scythe over her shoulder and wanders around the rest of the cottage and arriving back at the front door, where she carefully rests the scythe against the wall.

“Hello,” she says, staring at a stone angel that’s standing close to the door. Frowning, Sam wonders how she managed to not notice the damn thing earlier; thinking back to when she arrived with Mayor Winters, and to when she emerged from the cottage a couple of minutes ago, she’s quite certain that there was no stone angel in the immediate vicinity. Still, stone angels don’t move themselves, so she decides she must have simply had a little blind spot. Reminding herself to be more vigilant and observant in future, she walks over to the angel and finds that its eyes are staring straight at her; it’s an unusual coincidence, and once that sends a slight shiver down her spine.

“I’m your new boss,” Sam says after a moment, patting the angel’s shoulder. “I shall name you Sparky. Don’t worry, I know it sounds a bit modern and weird, but you’ll get used to it. I used to have a dog called Sparky but he…” She pauses, thinking momentarily of her dog and what he must be doing at this exact moment. Probably running around, playing in a field; probably not missing her at all. “Well,” she says, taking a deep breath, “you’re the new Sparky. To be honest, you seem easier to train. So why don’t you wait right here while I go and take a look around, okay?” Turning, she walks a few meters, before stopping and looking back at the angel. “Stay!” she says firmly, before continuing on her way.

Taking a small notebook and a pencil from her jacket pocket, she starts jotting down a rough map of the cemetery. She soon finds that there are several paths criss-crossing the place, each of them meandering in curled lines between crooked gravestones that appear to have been dropped into place from a great height. Clearly there was no central planner or grand designer; space has simply had to be found for new graves in the most convenient spot, while larger mausoleums stand dotted around, testament to the wealth of entire families who chose to be buried together. As she walks, Sam sees dates stretching back hundreds of years marked on stones that are covered with green and yellow moss. Most of these people have been dead for centuries, although occasionally she spots the shiny new marble of a more recent memorial, and a couple of graves even have fresh flowers resting on their turf. Looking down at the uneven grass, Sam can’t help but think of the dead bodies resting in the dark; some of them will just be bones by now, but some might still have a little flesh and meat.

Hundreds and hundreds of corpses, all around her; the thought freaks her out for a fraction of a second, before she reminds herself that she’s definitely not the kind of person who gets worried about such stupid things.

“Time to get to work,” she says, turning and heading back to the cottage. It takes her a while to work out which path to follow; already, her map seems to be stubbornly unhelpful, almost as if the paths have shifted since she set out a few minutes earlier. Eventually, however, she manages to get to the cottage without having to take any shortcuts across the grass, and she finds Sparky still standing obediently where he was left. “Good boy,” she says, patting him on the head before she makes her way into the cottage and grabs the broom. As she starts sweeping dirt from the kitchen floor, she raises a cloud of dust that makes it difficult to breathe, but she forces herself to keep going until, finally, she has to nip outside for a short break.

“I could kill for a cigarette,” she says, looking over at Sparky. “I quit while…” She pauses for a moment. “Hell, I swear to God, right now I could kill for just one little…” Her voice trails off as it occurs to her that she could probably just go into town and find a newsagent. Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out the envelope that Mayor Winters gave her; it’s the first time in many, many months that she’s actually had some proper cash, and she has to fight the urge to go out and splurge. Besides, she reminds herself, she had plenty of reasons to give up smoking, one of which was that she was starting to get a little worried about the persistent cough that kept rattling her chest over the winter.

“So what do people do for fun around here?” she asks. “Come on, Sparky. You look like you’ve been knocking about for a while. Are there any pubs or clubs, any…” Again, her voice trails off as she remembers what happened the last time she was in a position to go out socializing. It was fun, sure, but things got kind of out of hand. Taking a deep breath, she feels a strange sensation deep in her chest, almost as if some invisible hand has reached into her body and placed a gentle, calming touch on her heart. “Never mind,” she says after a moment. With these urges to have a drink and a cigarette, she realizes that perhaps she hasn’t changed as much as she’d hoped; those complicit little demons are still lurking deep within, curled into tight balls and ready to leap out at the first opportunity. Fortunately, Sam tells herself, she has this little thing called Free Will, which means she can fight her temptations and get on with the task at hand. “I didn’t come here to have a good time, Sparky,” she says after a moment. “I came to get away from all that. I guess you can be my new best friend, okay?”

She pauses, almost as if she’s waiting for an answer. “Does this count as talking to myself?” she asks after a moment. Glancing around, she sees that there’s definitely no-one nearby. “I think I’ve been talking to myself,” she says, nodding slightly. “Sparky. I’m begging you, don’t tell anyone. Don’t embarrass me.”

Heading back inside, she spends a couple of hours cleaning the interior of the cottage. There’s a huge amount of dust and soil and dirt caked all over the place, but eventually – as the sun starts to set and the sky turns a kind of warm orange – she finds herself standing in the middle of the kitchen, reflecting upon the fact that she has at least made the place habitable. She can get about without breathing in a cloud of dust every time she moves anything, and she can touch the surfaces without having to immediately wash her hands in the gray-green water that comes belching out of the rickety old tap.

“Time to go into town,” she says, checking her watch and seeing that it’s almost 8pm. Grabbing the keys, she steps out of the cottage and pulls the door shut. It takes her a few tries to work out which key fits the lock, but eventually she gets the job done. Turning, she smiles at Sparky before making her way along the path, toward the main gate. When she gets there, and while she’s finding the right key to lock the cemetery for the night, she glances over at the stone angel that stands nearby, or rather at the plinth where there used to be a stone angel. A shiver passes through her body as she thinks back to the moment, earlier today, when she definitely saw an angel standing right by the entrance.

“Huh,” she says, making a mental note to start keeping better track of the cemetery’s stone inhabitants as she wanders casually along the street.

Chapter Eight

 

Turning the television down for a moment, Mrs. Mayberry listens out for the sound of footsteps in the alley that runs down the side of her house. She looks over at the clock and sees that it’s almost 9pm, which means no right-minded people should be out at such an hour. In Mrs. Mayberry’s opinion, people on honest business tend to go out during the day, while the night is reserved for drinkers, carousers and fornicators. She’s old enough and wise enough to know that she can’t stop people from gathering at drinking holes around the town, but the one thing she does like to control is the alley next to her home. Every time she hears someone walking down there after dark, she suspects they must be up to no good. After all, there’s nothing at the other end apart from some sheds.

Suddenly she hears the clinking of her back gate, and her heart immediately starts to race. Rising slowly and painfully from her chair, she hurries as fast as her creaking bones can carry her to the hallway, where she picks up her cordless phone and dials the number for the local police station. After a moment, she hears nothing but an engaged tone; putting the phone down, she curses the local officer for always going out drinking late at night, leaving the citizens of Rippon to face murderers and thieves on their own terms. Fearful of an intruder, Mrs. Mayberry hurries to the back door and double-checks that it’s locked. Still, a locked door isn’t necessarily an entirely reliable barrier, not when there are determined thieves in the area.

Heading through to the kitchen, she draws her back curtains and stares over at the glass panel in the door. She can’t shake the feeling that there might be someone out there, staring in at her. She’s read the newspaper, and she knows there are perverted people in the world; why, perhaps there’s someone in her garden right now, hoping to catch a glimpse of her in her nightgown? She heads over to the back door and checks yet again that it’s locked. It’s been a few minutes since she heard the footsteps and the creaking of the gate; perhaps, she realizes, it might simply be the case that someone got a little lost on their way home. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that one of the town drunks took a turn down the wrong street.

Feeling uneasy, Mrs. Mayberry goes back to her front room and switches the television off, before drawing the rest of the curtains, grabbing the cordless phone, and starting to make her way unsteadily upstairs. She’d hoped to stay up a little longer, watching a documentary about adoption services, but she feels far too unsettled to remain downstairs now that she fears there might be a prowler about. When she gets to the top of the stairs, she pauses to give her bad hip time for a brief twinge, and then she goes through to her bedroom. Dialing the number of the police station yet again, she finally hears the phone ringing, and eventually Mr. Matthews picks up.

“Mr. Matthews, it’s me!” she says hurriedly, “Elizabeth Mayberry. Listen, I think there might be someone in my back garden.”

There’s a sigh on the other end of the line. “Are you sure now, Mrs. Mayberry? Have you checked it’s not a cat?”

“Can cats open gates?” she asks.

“Have you actually seen someone?” Mr. Matthews continues. “Like a dark shape at the window, or something like that?”

“I heard him!” she replies. “I heard footsteps, and I heard the gate go, and…” She pauses for a moment as she realizes that she’s not being taken seriously. “And then I saw him,” she continues, deciding to mix a little white lie in with the truth. She’s sick of being fobbed off every night. “As clear as I can see my own shadow on the wall right now. I saw a dark shape standing by my back door.”

There's another sigh. "I'll be there in ten minutes, Mrs. Mayberry," he says eventually. "Until I get there, make sure to -" Suddenly the line goes dead.

“Mr. Matthews?” Mrs. Mayberry asks, looking at the phone and, in a desperate attempt to make it start working, giving it a quick shake. “Mr. Matthews, are you still there?” She waits, hoping in vain that perhaps the interruption was only temporary. Finally, she disconnects the call and sets the phone down on her night table. Taking a deep breath, she decides to remain dressed for half an hour, just in case Mr. Matthews bothers to turn up. After all, it wouldn’t do to let a man see her in her night clothes. Taking a deep breath, she turns to go back downstairs.

And that’s when she sees it.

The stone angel from the cemetery is standing in her doorway, staring straight at her.

Chapter Nine

 

To her surprise and astonishment, Sam finds that the town square is actually quite busy. Having written the town off as the kind of place where the streets would be empty at night, she sees that the cafe is bustling, with people sitting on chairs under the awning while music comes from within. For a moment, Sam starts to think that perhaps she’d under-estimated Rippon, but then she notices that over on the other side of the square, the small newsagent appears to be closed. Ruefully, Sam reminds herself that while she was used to twenty-four hour opening in Leeds, she’s probably going to have to get used to a more sedentary lifestyle now that she’s in Rippon. This isn’t the kind of place where someone can just wander out their front door at any time of the day or night and find exactly what they’re looking for; life in Rippon is probably going to take some planning, she realizes, which means adjusting her state of mind to an entirely new way of living.

Wandering over to the cafe, she can’t help but notice that the locals – most of whom appear to be fairly elderly – are glancing at her with suspicion. Figuring that this is the kind of town where strangers don’t often turn up, Sam smiles politely and squeezes her way inside, where she finds that the place is packed to the rafters with people standing around and drinking beer. Trying to avoid the inquisitive stares she receives, Sam manages to make her way to the bar, where the cafe owner is wiping up some kind of spillage.

“Good evening,” he says with a smile. “Come out to sample the nightlife, have you?”

“Kind of,” Sam replies nervously. “Actually, I realized I don’t have any food at home.” She pauses, feeling a little weirded out by the fact that she just referred to a cemetery as her home. “Anyway, I was wondering if you’ve got anything. Just to keep me going until I can get to the shops tomorrow.”

“Let’s see,” the man says, walking over to the far end of the counter and quickly returning with a piece of cake. “I know cake isn’t exactly a healthy dinner,” he says, setting the plate on the counter, “but we can’t have you starving to death, can we? Everyone needs a little sugar now and then. Anyway, you look like you need fattening up.”

“Thanks,” Sam says a little awkwardly, looking over at one of the other counters. “You don’t have any bread, do you? And maybe a glass of water?” Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out the crumpled envelope of money and removes a note, sliding it across the counter.

“Water?” the man asks, raising an eyebrow. Grabbing a pint glass, he starts pouring a beer. “Don’t you think you should have something a little stronger on your first night? On the house, of course.” He places the beer on the counter.

“No, thanks,” Sam replies, pushing the beer back toward him. “Just water, if that’s okay.”

“You sure?” the man asks, pushing the beer back at her.

“Really sure,” she replies uncomfortably, sliding the beer back at him. “I don’t really drink much.”

“Not even a glass of wine?”

She shakes her head. She can almost feel her liver screaming in terror at the thought that she might be slipping back into old, bad habits.

Smiling, the cafe owner grabs another pint glass and fills it with water from the tap, before picking up a loaf of bread from his work bench and placing them both on the counter. “Bread and water,” he says, “as requested. And put your money away. On your first night, everything’s on the house.”

“New here, are you?” asks a middle-aged man who has wandered over to the bar, beer in hand, to listen to the conversation. Smiling benignly, he sets his glass on the counter and offers a hand for Sam to shake. “Ben Tovey,” he continues. “I run the butcher’s around the corner.”

“Sam Marker,” Sam replies, shaking his hand. “I’m the new gardener at the cemetery.”

Instantly, everyone in the cafe stops talking and turns to look at Sam. Apart from the fact that music is still blaring from the speakers in the corner, it’s almost as if someone has come along and flicked a big ‘Off’ switch for the entire room. Swallowing hard, Sam waits for someone to say something, but it seems like everyone else is waiting for her to start talking.

“I’m the new gardener,” she says eventually, as the cafe owner turns the music down a little. Glancing about nervously, Sam tries to work out what she should say next. “I just arrived today,” she continues, her voice trembling slightly. She’d hoped to slip into Rippon anonymously, so this kind of attention is the absolute last thing she wanted to happen. “I’m going to be keeping the cemetery neat and tidy, so… I guess I’ll be seeing some of you up there.” Grabbing her pint of water, she feels for the first time in many weeks that she’d actually like something stronger.

You’re the new gardener?” Ben Tovey asks, staring wide-eyed at her.

Sam nods.

“You?”

She nods again.

“Seriously?”

“Give the girl a break,” says the cafe owner, patting Sam on the shoulder. “You never know. She might do a great job.”

No-one says anything. It’s as if they’re all so shocked at the idea of Sam taking on responsibility for the cemetery, they’ve taken leave of their senses and have been reduced to the level of a bunch of blank-eyed zombies.

“It’s not a big deal,” Sam continues after a moment, feeling as if she has to say something. “I guess most of you don’t even go to the cemetery very often, so maybe you won’t even notice me.” She looks over at the cafe owner, then at Ben Tovey, and then at the mass of people who are staring at her, some of whom have come to the doorway from the tables outside. “I guess I’ll just be in the background, really,” she continues eventually. “I’m really not going to cause any trouble. I’ll be in the cemetery most of the time anyway, so…” Taking a deep breath, she tries to think of something – anything – to say, and eventually she gives up. Feeling herself starting to blush, she turns and grabs the loaf of bread from the counter. “Thanks,” she mutters, before hurrying through the crowd of people and out into the town square. She walks several paces from the cafe before stopping dead in her tracks.

“Please don’t be staring at me,” she whispers under her breath. “Please don’t be staring at me.” Slowly, she turns to see that all the people from the cafe are now standing under the awning, staring at her.

“Good night!” she says meekly, giving them a quick wave before turning and hurrying across the square and down the side road that leads to the cemetery. Feeling a cold sweat pass through her body, she picks up the pace, desperate to just get to the cemetery and lock herself in the cottage for the night. As she gets closer to the gate, however, she spots a dark figure loitering nearby.

“So you’re the new gardener, are you?” the figure asks with a man’s voice, as Sam reaches into her pocket for the key.

“That’s right,” she says nervously, fumbling slightly with the lock. “If you want to come in, I’m afraid we don’t open again until eight in the morning.”

“That’s fine,” he replies. “I’ve spent enough time in there to last a lifetime anyway.”

“Well, if you change your mind,” she continues, opening the gate, slipping inside, and then pushing it shut again. As she tries to lock up, she drops the key and has to crouch down and reach around for it in the dirt.

“You don’t mind being alone in there?” the man asks, stepping closer. He’s still in the shadows, so the only thing Sam can make out is that he has a hint of an Irish accent.

“I’m fine,” she says, finally finding the key. She stands up and locks the gate, before looking over to find that the man is just a few feet away on the other side of the bars.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” the man continues.

“No,” Sam replies, desperately wanting to end the conversation but not wanting to be rude. She feels as if she’s already made a bad impression tonight, and the last thing she wants is to get fired less than a day into the job.

“That accent,” the man says. “Yorkshire, right?”

“Leeds.”

“Aye, Leeds.” He pauses. “Never been there myself, but I’ve heard some grand stories. A big place, I gather. Very different to boring old Rippon.”

“Every town has its charms,” Sam replies, aware that she doesn’t sound very convincing.

“I guess that’s true,” the man says. “I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but it seems to me like you’ve got a very wise head on your shoulders, especially for someone so young. How old are you, anyway? Eighteen? Nineteen?”

“Twenty-one,” she says.

“Is that right?”

“That’s right,” Sam says firmly, even though it’s a lie. She figures she wants to make herself sound a little older, just in case this guy gets any funny ideas.

“Twenty-one, and already in charge of a cemetery.” The Irish man pauses for a moment. “You must be by far the youngest gardener we’ve had here yet, that’s for sure. I guess old Guff Winters is trying something new. Mixing it up a little and bringing in some new blood. Can’t say I blame him, after all the failures he’s had of late.”

“Failures?” Sam asks.

“Aye. You’re the fifth or sixth new gardener we’ve had this year. Didn’t old Guff tell you? He’s had a hell of a time filling this position. People just keep quitting in unexpected and rather nasty ways, and you know how it is. Eventually, word spreads and there’s no-one who’ll take the job for love or money. Almost no-one, anyway. I suppose I can’t really blame him for trying to find someone different, and you’re certainly about as different as it’s possible to get from the succession of old boys who’ve traipsed through this gate with a key in their pocket.”

“I really have to get going,” Sam says, trying to extract herself politely from the conversation. “Like I said, we’re open from eight in the morning, so if you want to come and visit a grave, you’re more than welcome to do so.” She pauses, shocked by how professional she sounds.

“You know,” the man continues, “last time I was in the cottage, I left something in one of the cupboards. A lovely old bottle of red. I kept meaning to ask someone to bring it out to me, but now I think I’ll bequeath it to you instead. Think of it as a house-warming gift.”

“Thanks,” Sam says hesitantly, figuring there’s no need to tell him that she won’t be touching a drop of his wine. “I have to get inside,” she adds, “but like I said, you can come and visit the graves from eight in the morning.”

“Nah,” the man says after a moment, stepping away from the gate. “You’re alright. Have a good night.” He pauses for a moment. “Actually, there was one other thing I was hoping to ask you. I heard you talking back there at the cafe, and it really got me thinking. What’s a bright, pretty young thing like you doing locking yourself up in a fecking cemetery in the middle of nowhere?”

“It’s a job,” Sam replies.

“Aye, but there must be jobs in Leeds and London and all those places. Why here, Ms. Marker? What are you running from?”

“I don’t have time to talk right now,” Sam says, turning and hurrying along the path, making for the cottage. At first, she tells herself not to look back, but finally she glances over her shoulder and sees to her relief that the Irish guy has left. Stumbling in the moonlight, she makes a mental note to always carry a torch from now on, since there are no lights in the cemetery and she can barely see where she’s going. Several times, she feels her feet straying from the shingle path and onto the grass, and she struggles to find her way again. Fortunately, the moonlight is just about picking out the shape of the cottage a few hundred meters ahead, so Sam is able to stick more or less to the right route. Just as she thinks she’s going to get ‘home’ without any more problems, however, she walks straight into a gravestone, which hits her straight in the gut and makes her drop her loaf of bread. Slightly winded, she makes her way around and fumbles in the grass for the bread. It takes a moment for her to regather her composure, but finally she reaches the cottage.

“Stay calm,” she tells herself as she struggles once again to work out which key should go in the lock. After what feels like an eternity, she manages to get the door open and she hurries inside, quickly turning to lock the door behind her. Setting the bread on the counter, she feels around in the dark for the light switch, quietly cursing herself for not having had the foresight to plan ahead and leave a light on when she went out. For a moment, it feels as if she might never find the switch, but finally her fingers brush against a nipple-like piece of plastic sticking out from the wall; she flicks the switch, and the chandelier stutters into life.

“Fuck,” Sam says, letting out a big sigh as she finally allows herself to relax. She immediately starts to feel a little stupid, as if she allowed herself to get way too spooked out by the whole situation. Forcing herself to remember that there’s no reason to be scared, she sets the loaf of bread on the counter and then starts hunting through the drawers for a knife. After a moment, she looks across the room and sees a small drawer almost hidden from view behind a chair. She hurries over and pulls the drawer open, finally finding the knife she was looking for. As she pushes the drawer closed, she happens to look up at the window right next to her, and that’s when she lets out the loudest scream of her life.

On the other side of the glass, just a few feet away, Sparky the stone angel is staring straight at her.

Chapter Ten

 

At the very last moment, as her heart beats for one final time before falling still, Mrs. Mayberry stares straight ahead and blinks. She always wondered what it would be like to die, and now she’s finding out. In some strange way, she can feel that her heart has stopped: when it was beating, she barely even noticed it, but now that it’s stopped she realizes that her body is strangely still and quiet. It’s almost as if she can feel that the blood is no longer being pumped through her veins.

She blinks again. So far, there’s no pain, and the horror of the angel’s eyes is starting to recede. She tries to think about her husband, to imagine him waiting for her in the next life. With her heart stopped, she wants to get this final moment over with, but her mind stubbornly refuses to die. All she can do is wait, as her long life races toward a black horizon and over the precipice.

She blinks again. She hopes that there won’t be an autopsy. She hates the thought of her naked body being cut open and her ribs being forced apart so that her organs can be removed and weighed. She imagines someone sawing her skull open and removing her brain, before placing it in a metal dish that hangs from the ceiling. She wishes she could leave a note and request to be buried intact, but she knows it’s too late.

She stares straight ahead.

Her eyes take on a dull quality as her thoughts and memories start to drift away like dust being blown from a window ledge.

Finally, she’s gone. The only sound comes from a light breeze, blowing in from the open window, causing the curtains to flutter.

Chapter Eleven

 

“There,” Sam says, as she finally finishes dragging Sparky’s heavy stone form away from the window. Using a leather strap from the shed, she’s just about managed to haul the damn statue far enough to one side so that it won’t seem too creepy, although the effort has almost killed her in the process and the angel almost toppled straight on top of her twice. “No offense, Sparky,” Sam says as she takes a deep breath and stretches her sore arms, “but you’re not the lightest statue in the world.” She pats the angel’s stone shoulder before walking over to the front door and reaching inside for the scythe and a small torch she found in the kitchen drawer. “Right,” she continues, turning to face the imposing darkness of the cemetery. “Let’s find the fuckers who tried to freak me out. And maybe I should try talking to myself a little less.”

Switching the torch on, she shines a beam of light straight ahead, picking out the tops of countless gravestones. Although she doesn’t know who, exactly, went to all this trouble to play a prank on her, she’s got a pretty good idea; thinking back to Mayor Winters’ comment about local children, Sam has decided that a bunch of kids probably climbed over the wall and moved Sparky while she was out. Kids being kids, they almost certainly stuck around to witness the aftermath of their prank, so Sam’s fairly sure they must be lurking somewhere nearby, probably giggling behind one of the mausoleums. They’ve probably even got their phones trained on her, so they can video the entire thing and put it online. There’s just about enough moonlight to make that possible, and she can easily imagine the kids sharing her torment on social networking sites. In one fell swoop, she could be poised to become the laughing stock of Rippon.

“I get it!” she calls out, waving the torch beam around in a futile attempt to catch sight of her would-be tormentors. “It was very funny! You got me! But let’s just call it a night, okay? You can come back tomorrow and try something different.” She waits, half-expecting someone to come out and own up to the prank. “I’ve got a sense of humor, okay?” she continues eventually. “I can totally see how it was funny, and it’s kind of something I’d like to do to someone myself, but let’s just knock it on the head for tonight, okay? It’s getting late, and I need to make sure you’re out of here!”

She waits for a reply.

Nothing.

“Damn it, I sound like my grandmother,” Sam grumbles, taking a few steps forward. She can’t help but imagine the teenagers sniggering behind a gravestone, and she can’t stop worrying that unless she nips this whole thing in the bud immediately, she’ll become a figure of fun for all the local kids. She notes wryly to herself that this is probably exactly why the gardening job here at Rippon’s cemetery has proven so difficult to fill, and she’s determined to ensure that she doesn’t get run out of town like her predecessors. Still, she remembers what it was like to be a kid herself, and she knows that she’s going to have to be smart if she wants to avoid becoming the plaything of a bunch of bored teenagers.

“Okay,” she says out loud, “I’m going to be honest with you. All I care about is keeping my job, so if you can just get out of here, I’d be grateful. I’m not being unreasonable. A joke’s a joke, and it was hilarious, but let’s end the night on a high, okay?” She winces as she realizes she sounds like some kind of wannabe-cool science teacher, attempting to get down with the kids and prove herself on their terms. Sighing, she reflects that there’s probably no way she can ever start a meaningful exchange with these teenagers. They just see her as a target, and even though there’s probably little more than a few years’ difference in their ages, the kids undoubtedly view her as that most mockable of things: a grown-up.

Continuing to walk along the winding path, and using the beam from the torch to scan the grass around her, she figures she might as well conduct a full check of the cemetery’s perimeter. She knows she has to be up early tomorrow in order to get started with her work, so she decides she might as well use this late-night excursion as a chance to get an understanding of the lie of the land. Besides, a plan is starting to form in her mind, and she needs just a couple more seconds to work out the details. Finally, with a smile on her lips, she turns and looks back toward the cottage. Flicking the torch off, she ducks down behind a gravestone and listens to the silence. She figures she might as well play the kids at their own game: using a torch is basically like sticking a big red arrow to her back and advertising herself as a target. At least this way, she’s on level terms. They can’t see her, and she can’t see them, so this little game is going to come down to a question of who has the best strategy and the greatest reserves of patience. As far as Sam’s concerned, there’s no contest: she knows she’s going to win this.

After a few minutes, and still not hearing anything, she starts crawling across the soft grass. Making her way from gravestone to gravestone, she keeps stopping to listen for any kind of noise. So far, there’s nothing; she’s certain, however, that eventually she’ll hear the kids giggling or setting up their next prank. They probably think they can scare her to death, but Sam knows she has an ace up her sleeve, something that potentially marks her out from all the other people who have taken the gardener’s job in Rippon before her: Samantha Marker is a proud non-believer in the existence of ghosts, ghouls and any other type of creature that might leap out of the dark. These kids can set up all sorts of pranks and jokes at her expense, but she’ll see them all for what they really are: a series of immature and dumb set-ups orchestrated by bored, hormonal kids who have nothing better to do than try to rattle the new girl in town. They’ll learn. After tonight, they’ll never try this again.

Eventually, Sam gets close to the cottage. She’s surprised that she hasn’t heard the kids so far, but she figures this is a battle of wills and wits. They’re out here somewhere, and she’s not going to let them get the jump on her. Leaning against the nearest gravestone, she resists the urge to peer over the top and look at the cottage; she figures she might give her position away, which would be a fatal mistake. Taking a deep, quiet breath, she decides that her best option is to just wait it out. There’s no way she’s going to let a bunch of kids outwit her, and she can wait until sunrise if necessary. Listening to the quiet night, she’s alert to any hint of movement, but there’s nothing except the faintest rustling of the grass as a soft breeze passes through the area. Finally, after almost half an hour, Sam starts to wonder if perhaps she’s made a mistake; perhaps the teenagers are long gone, their final joke being to get into bed while thinking about the poor gardener freezing behind a gravestone. Torn between patience and a desire to get the night over with, Sam delays a decision for a few more minutes before finally standing up and turning to face the cottage.

“Okay, you little fuckers,” she mutters, before letting out a gasp as she finds herself face to face with Sparky.

Chapter Twelve

 

“The autopsy’ll tell us exactly what happened,” says Dr. Wellington, kneeling next to Mrs. Mayberry’s dead body, “but I’m pretty sure it was just a heart attack. Judging by the look on her face, I’d hazard a guess that she got herself worked up into quite a state and probably brought it on herself through sheer panic alone.” He turns to Mr. Matthews. “You said she phoned you up and reported a possible prowler?”

Sitting wearily on the end of the bed, Matthews nods.

“But there was nothing?”

“The doors were locked,” Matthews replies, before letting out a long, slow yawn. “She had so many locks and padlocks, we had a hard time busting our way in. The old dear probably imagined the whole thing, just like she imagined all the rest. Barely a night ever went past when she didn’t think there was someone in her back yard.”

“I’ll still do the autopsy,” Dr. Wellington continues, getting to his feet, “but there’s clearly nothing suspicious about what happened. She got herself all wound up over nothing, put too much stress on her ticker, and dropped dead. I’ve seen it before. She was on blood-thinning medication and she had a history of heart problems. I’m confident I’ll be able to sign off on her death certificate without too much delay.” Checking his watch, he sighs. “It’s 3am. Let’s just get her body to my surgery and we can do everything else in the morning. It’s not like we’re rushed off our feet around here.”

“Maybe,” Matthews says, clearly lost in thought.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dr. Wellington asks.

Matthews groans as he gets up. As he walks over to the door, he glances down and spots something on the carpet. “Where do you think that came from?” he asks, peering at what appears to be a fine sprinkling of stone dust. He looks up at the ceiling, but there’s no sign of a crack. “There’s some more on the stairs,” he continues, “and on the mat in the hallway.”

“I wouldn’t go complicating things if I were you,” Dr. Wellington replies. “I think this is going to be a fairly open-and-shut case. Let’s not go worrying about a bunch of silly little side matters and old wives’ tales.”

"Sure," Matthews says, "but -"

“Do you really want to go waking Mayor Winters up at this hour? Seriously? And then what? Drag him down here just to show him that an old lady dropped dead after giving herself one late night fright too many?” He pauses for a moment. “I’m more than happy to sign the death certificate and say that, in my professional opinion, Ethel Mayberry died of a heart attack. Can’t we just leave it at that?”

“It’s your call,” Matthews says, leaning down and grabbing Mrs. Mayberry’s ankles. “You ready?”

Hauling the dead body up between them, the two men carefully carry her out the door. As they go, they step through the small pile of stone dust, tramping it out onto the landing, down the stairs and ultimately all the way out to Dr. Wellington’s waiting van. As the body is loaded into the back of the vehicle, Dr. Wellington notices that he has forgotten one small but important part of the process. Leaning into the van, he places a hand over Mrs. Mayberry’s face and gently closes her eyes.

Chapter Thirteen

 

Opening her eyes, Sam stares up at the ceiling and struggles – just for a moment – to remember where she is. It’s only when she realizes that her alarm is ringing, and only after she’s grabbed her phone and switched it off, that she notices the time. It’s 7.30am, which seems to her to be an unnaturally early time to get up until she remembers that she’s supposed to unlock the gates of the cemetery in half an hour, and then get to work putting the place back into some semblance of order.

She sits up in bed and looks across the room. It’s so bare in here but, in a way, that’s kind of how she likes it. No distractions. No temptations. No laptop and no internet, no DVDs and no video games. Just an empty wooden room and a cemetery outside that needs some urgent attention. She thinks back to that time, about a year ago, when she briefly worked in a coffee shop. If she was late to work back then, the worst that would happen would be that a bunch of stressed commuters would have to wait slightly longer for their lattes. Here, however, the grass is going to keep growing day and night, whether or not it gets cut. Nature provides a less flexible, and more important, deadline.

“Morning, Sparky,” she says, glancing over at the window. As the morning sun shines through the glass, Sam can just about make out the silhouette of Sparky, who has been chained to the drainpipe since the early hours. Having suffered the indignity of letting the teenagers push the stone angel toward her without being caught, Sam was determined to end their fun, so in the middle of the night she grabbed a chain and a padlock from the shed and secured Sparky to the side of the cottage. At least this way, she’s certain that the kids will have to come up with some other way to torment her.

After getting dressed quickly and eating some bread, Sam steps out the front door and looks out at the vast untamed cemetery. She’s decided to tackle it systematically over the course of three days, starting by mowing the grass and trimming the borders. It’s a big job, and it won’t be easy, but in some way she’s actually looking forward to doing something constructive. After the events of the past six months, she feels like losing herself in a task that doesn’t require too much thought. The old Sam Marker would have hated the idea of working in a cemetery and spending her days as a gardener, but the new Sam Marker thinks it’s a splendid task, and one that should keep the old Sam Marker from come back to cause trouble.

“My kingdom,” Sam says, walking over to the edge of the grass before turning and looking back at the cottage. “And my castle,” she adds. Although it might seem like a strange, quiet life, she’s starting to get used to the idea of living here. After all, there aren’t many people who get to live in a place like this. It’s tempting to think of her old friends, still out partying and living life in the fast lane back in Leeds; for a moment, she feels a pang of nostalgia for the days of sleeping ‘til noon and job-hunting, and the nights of stumbling out of nightclubs with Nadia in the early hours. Still, even if she wanted to go back, it wouldn’t be an option. Not now, and maybe not ever. Those days are over.

At 8am precisely, Sam unlocks and opens the front gate, swinging it back and propping it open with a small rock. She glances out into the street, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. In the early morning sunlight, Rippon doesn’t seem so bad, and Sam relishes the peace and quiet after spending her formative years in the hustle and bustle of Leeds. She’s so used to loud noise, it rather amazes her when she realizes she can hear her own footsteps as she makes her way back along the shingle path toward the cottage. Going around the back, she continues to enjoy the simple noises of her job: the slide of the rusty latch on the shed door; the clanking of the mower as it’s maneuvered out from the back; even the mower’s wheels as it’s pulled across the grass in preparation for the day’s work to begin. Finally, Sam stands and smiles as she prepares for a hard day’s work.

At the last moment, just as she’s about to start pushing the mower, she pauses and listens to a new sound. Something’s banging nearby, as if some kind of metal is being repeatedly struck against another surface. Walking around to the front of the cottage, Sam’s heart sinks as she wonders whether the teenagers from last night have returned. The banging sound continues as she makes a complete circuit all the way around her little home, before finally she reaches the other side of the cottage and the banging abruptly stops just a couple of seconds before she sets eyes on Sparky, still chained to the drainpipe. Pausing for a moment, she stares at Sparky’s face as a kernel of suspicion begins to form in the back of her mind. Curious, she reaches out and grabs hold of the chain, before banging it against the drainpipe in the manner of someone who’s trying to get free. To her shock, Sam realizes that this is exactly the same sound she heard a moment ago. She glances around the next corner, but there’s no sign of any kids.

“Careful, Sparky,” she says, turning back to the statue. She pauses for a moment, almost as if she expects a voice to reply. Staring at Sparky’s blank stone eyes, Sam leans a little closer and reaches out to poke the side of the statue’s face; when this produces no results, she reaches down and once again bangs the chain against the drainpipe. Finally, she smiles, realizing how easily she allowed herself to be spooked. “Don’t worry,” she says, patting Sparky on the shoulder, “I’ll find somewhere to put you soon.” Turning and walking back over to the mower, Sam tries to ignore the wild ideas taking root in her subconscious. As she pushes the aged, clanking mower toward the spot by the tree where she intends to start her work, she can’t help but glance back over at Sparky and stare for a moment at the chain that runs over his torso, through the gap under his arm, and around the drainpipe. Although she’d planned to unchain the statue first thing this morning, she decides to wait a little longer. Just to be safe.

Part Two:

Gone to Hell

Prologue

 

One year ago

 

Stumbling out of the nightclub, Sam stops for a moment and tries to get her left shoe to stay on properly. The damn thing’s been bugging her all night, constantly coming off while she’s dancing. Just as she thinks she’s got it sorted, some asshole comes bounding up behind her and sends her tumbling down onto the damp pavement, grazing her knee and left wrist on the gravel. Before Sam can get back up, she sees a guy stomp past her, crushing her shoe in the process.

“Thanks a lot!” Sam calls after the guy. She gets back onto her feet and sways for a moment, as the whole world seems to spin around her. It’s weird, but she didn’t feel too drunk while she was inside, but the cold night air has really clipped her wings. Shivering in her tight, short silver dress, she stands completely still and tries to focus on staying upright.

“You alright?” asks a familiar voice nearby. Making her way precariously out of the club on high heels, Nadia thrusts a small silver bottle into Sam’s hands. “Drink that. What time do they close at the Meadows?”

“Three,” Sam says, taking a swig of what turns out to be vodka. “Or four. Or never.”

“Come on, then,” Nadia replies, grabbing Sam’s arm and dragging her unsteadily along the street. “You’re wasted,” she adds with a laugh. “You can’t even walk straight!”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Sam slurs, pulling free from Nadia’s grip and stopping for a moment to lean against the window of a nearby shop, “I’ve only got one fucking shoe.” After letting out a hiccup, she reaches down and removes her other shoe. “At least now I’m even,” she mumbles, steadying herself in preparation for the journey to the next club.

“You know what you need?” Nadia asks, clapping enthusiastically at Sam’s attempts to stay upright. “You need more vodka. If you start sobering up, you’ll feel like shit. Trust me. You need to keep drinking.”

“Has my make-up run?” Sam asks, wiping her cheeks and finding clumps of mascara on her fingers. “Fuck, how bad is it?”

“Come on,” Nadia replies, laughing. “It’s hot. Seriously, Sam, you’re a fucking state when you’re drunk.” She steps closer and leans in to look directly into Sam’s eyes for a moment. “Don’t sober up on me, girl. It’s only two o’clock, we’ve got way more drinking to do tonight. I don’t get many nights off, and I wanna enjoy them when I can.”

Sam nods, taking several deep breaths in an attempt to clear her mind. “I just need to get my second wind,” she murmurs.

“Hey,” Nadia continues, reaching out and gently slapping the side of Sam’s face. “What’s wrong with you? Are you tired?”

Her eyelids drooping slightly, Sam shakes her head. “I’m okay,” she says, although there’s an ominous gurgling sensation in the pit of her stomach. It feels as if someone has reached into her guts and grabbed hold of her intestines, and is now slowly twisting them into a knot.

“If you need to be sick,” Nadia says, “just be sick. Don’t hold it in.”

Sam nods, still trying to calm herself down by taking deep breaths.

“Seriously, Sam, just get on with it. There’s no-one around.” She pauses for a moment. “How much have you had to drink tonight, anyway?”

“Just…” Sam starts to say, before pausing as a brief stabbing pain jolts her brain. “More than you,” she says softly, closing her eyes.

“Hey!” Nadia says, giving her a quick shake. “Don’t fall asleep on me here! Come on, Sam! Don’t turn into a fucking lightweight, okay?”

With no warning at all, Sam suddenly turns and throws up, spraying the window of the shop with a mixture of vodka, fruit juice and half-digested kebab meat. Dropping down onto her hands and knees, and putting one of her knees in her own mess, she takes a deep breath before being sick again. As yet another load of vomit comes up into her mouth, a small voice at the back of her head keeps nagging away, telling her that she can’t keep doing the same thing every single night of her life. Something has to change.

“This time in a year…” Sam whispers, before throwing up again. “This time in a year… I’m gonna be better…”

Chapter One

 

Today

 

It starts with a brief noise, far away and insignificant. Someone laughing in the middle of the night.

The noise is carried across the dark cemetery, through the bars on the cottage window, past the fluttering curtains, and into Sam Marker’s bedroom. Barely registering the noise, Sam rolls over and continues to dream of her old life.

An hour later there’s another little burst of laughter, lasting a few seconds longer. This time, Sam’s eyelids flutter open for a moment; she’s not awake, exactly, but her mind has stirred just long enough for her to wonder if something’s wrong. After a moment, she falls back into a deep sleep.

More time passes.

Finally, there’s another noise. This time, it sounds like a scream, but not in a bad way. It’s the happy, uncontrolled scream of someone who was just tickled or surprised. It’s enough, though, to make Sam sit bolt upright in bed, her heart racing and her eyes wide open.

“What the fuck?” she mutters out loud.

She waits. She knows she heard something, and she knows it’s more than possible that some kids might have climbed the cemetery wall again. She listens out for any sound that might seem out of place, and eventually it happens: another brief burst of laughter, followed by a muffled shout. Sam blinks, realizing that she’s not definitely imagining any of this. Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she sighs as she grabs her clothes from the floor and starts to get dressed. Eventually, she steps over to the window and looks out across the cemetery. All she sees is darkness, and the top of the wall running around the perimeter; above, the moon is bright and full, its calming light picking out the edges of just one or two gravestones. It’s a peaceful scene, still and restful, but Sam knows better than to be lulled into a false sense of security. This is only her second night in Rippon, but she knows that there are bored kids in town. Kids with nothing to do, and all day to do it; kids who sleep away their days and then emerge at night, driven by hormones and frustration. They bothered her last night, chasing her with a stone angel and making her feel like a fool, and it seems they’re back for more.

She smiles. This time, she’s ready for them.

Glancing over at the dressing table, Sam spots the unopened bottle of wine that she found in one of the cabinets. It’s so tempting to open it up and take a quick swig before she goes out to find the source of the noise, but she reminds herself that she doesn’t really need that kind of fake courage. Not these days.

“I need to pee anyway,” she mutters, wandering through to the bathroom. Once she’s finished, she grabs her shovel from by the door, slides the bolt across, puts her shoes on, and steps out into the moonlight. At least it’s not too cold out here, she reminds herself, as she squints in an attempt to get a better view of her tormentors. Looking down at her own legs, Sam realizes she’s standing in a bright patch of moonlight, which means she’s clearly visible to anyone who’s hiding in the darkness. Sighing, she takes a few steps over to the shadow of the beech trees. Now, finally, she can observe her observers from the shadows.

“Come on,” she mutters quietly, “where are you?” Turning and craning her neck to take a look down the side of the cottage, she’s relieved to see that Sparky the stone angel is still chained to the drainpipe. “Sorry, Sparky,” she says quietly, feeling a little guilty for leaving her only friend restrained in such a harsh manner. Still, she knows she has to work out where to place the angel, and she figures she has a little time left in which to make a decision. That’s one of the good things about moving from Leeds to this little town in the middle of nowhere: life’s so much slower in Rippon.

Suddenly she hears the laughter again, and this time she’s certain it’s coming from the far corner of the cemetery. Making sure to stay in the shadows, Sam creeps slowly over the soft grass, with her spade slung over her shoulder. Her eyes scan the darkness, keen to get any sign of the interlopers’ exact location. Finally, she hears whispered voices nearby, and she stops to listen.

“I don’t get why you’re always like this,” a male voice is saying. “It’s the same every night. If you’re not careful, Anna, I’m gonna start telling people you’re a tease.”

“It’s not that,” replies a female voice. “I just don’t get why you always want to come here.”

“You’d rather go to a bar?”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Well, where else do you wanna go? Your place? Mine? There’s nowhere. At least we’ll be left alone here. You’re not scared, are you? Come on, you know I’m gonna keep you safe. Feel these big, strong arms around you.”

“Oh, please,” Sam mutters under her breath. All this trouble, just for a couple of horny kids. They’re not even trying to cause trouble; they’re just looking for a quiet, discreet spot where they can do the kind of things that horny kids always do. If it had been left up to Sam, she’d probably just let them get on with it, but she knows she can’t risk this place becoming Hangout Central for every local bonehead who wants to get a little kinky on top of a grave.

“Okay,” the male voice says. “I’m just gonna slip this down and take a look, yeah? Just let me look. That’s all I wanna do. I deserve that, right? I mean, I’ve been patient and all, but you’ve gotta give me something.” There’s the sound of fabric being moved aside. “You’ve got one hell of a body, Anna,” the guy continues after a moment. “You mind if I stroke one of ‘em, like this? Come on, you can’t tell me that doesn’t give you a little buzz down below. Why not just untie that knot in your panties and let me show you what you’ve been missing.”

“I think we should stop,” the female voice says, sounding nervous. “What if someone sees us?”

“So what? I hope someone does see us. If there’s one thing kinkier than doing it on a grave, it’s doing it on a grave while some limp-wristed asshole watches from the shadows.”

“Limp-wristed?” Sam whispers with a smile.

“Did you hear something?” the female voices says. She sounds terrified.

“Relax. It was nothing.”

“I definitely heard something.”

“It was probably just an owl. You know what owls are like.”

“What time is it?”

“Come on, concentrate on how it feels. I can tell you like it. Your nipples are hard.”

“That’s ‘cause it’s cold.”

The guy lets out a sigh. “Okay, you know what? I’ve been doing this all wrong. I’ve been so focused on getting myself turned on, I’ve obviously forgotten to give you what you want.” There’s a pause, followed by the sound of a zip being opened. “There. Have a feel of that. Can’t you tell what you do to me, baby? Feel how hard you’ve got me here.”

"That's nice and all, Dean -"

“Just stroke it. Go on, wrap your fingers around it and feel the thickness. I know it’s not all about size, but you’ve gotta admit, that’s a pretty impressive piece of meat right there, baby doll. Doesn’t it turn you on, just thinking about what it’d be like to have that inside you? Or maybe in your mouth.”

“You’ve gotta admit,” Sam whispers in mocking tones, “that’s a pretty impressive piece of meat right there.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” the girl says.

“You’re twenty-one, Anna. Twenty-fucking-one. Do you wanna be a virgin forever?”

“It’s not that.”

“Then what is it? I’ve got so much love to give you, baby, but you have to let me in. You need to let me through your sweet, velvet curtains and into your warm embrace. I need to know that you want me. I’m burning up here. A guy’s got urges, and I need to get ‘em fulfilled somewhere. Do you know how many girls I’ve turned down in the past week alone, just ‘cause I’ve had my eye on getting something hot and meaningful with you?”

Sam lets out a brief laugh, before quickly putting her hand over her mouth.

“What the hell was that?” the female voice shouts. “Don’t tell me you didn’t hear that, Dean. It was loud as a fucking foghorn. There’s someone out there!”

“No there isn’t,” the guy replies with a sigh. “It was probably just that owl catching a mouse or something.”

“Owl’s don’t laugh!” the girl says.

“Sure they do. When they find something funny.”

“There’s someone out there,” the girl says firmly.

The guy sighs before suddenly walking straight toward Sam. Panicking as she ducks down behind a gravestone, Sam holds her breath. Peering around the edge, she can just about make out the shape of the guy, silhouetted against the dark night sky. He looks first one way, then the other.

“There’s no-one here,” he says, before walking back over to the girl. “Come on, baby, that’s half the fun of a place like this. You’ve got all those creepy noises, all those shadows, but there’s nothing to be scared of. It’s literally just a big old garden with a bunch of stones.”

“And a gardener,” the girl points out.

“The place is empty.”

“No,” the girl continues. “I heard they got a new one.”

“Well, he’s probably fast asleep. Besides, what business is it of his if we have a little fun? I’m not suggesting anything too daring, but I could sure go for a quick one right now. What do you say? Just perch your behind on this old chunk of stone, open your legs, and let me prove to you that I’m the man you need. I can fill you to the brim.”

Sam puts a hand over her mouth again, determined not to laugh. In some ways, she feels kind of guilty for letting this drag on for so long; then again, she’s also enjoying listening to this wannabe-Romeo as he tries to seduce his Juliet.

“I’m not feeling it,” the girl says.

The guy sighs again. “Well, could you at least suck me off? I mean, I had to walk up a hill to get here. I’m tired. I don’t wanna leave empty-handed.”

“I think you’ll have something in your hand before the night’s over,” Sam whispers.

“I want to go home,” the girl whines.

“Let’s just stay a little longer.”

“No, I want to go home,” she says, sounding as if she’s about ready to stamp her foot and have a full-blown tantrum.

“Come on, let’s stay just a few more minutes.”

Sighing, Sam decides she’s had enough, so she stands up and starts walking toward the voices. Although she could happily have stayed hidden for a while longer and listened to this train wreck of a date, she figures it’s late and she should probably drive these two kids away before things get out of hand. The last thing she wants is to clean up a used condom in the morning. “Hey!” she calls out, affecting her toughest voice, with her spade slung over her shoulder, “what the hell do you two think you’re doing in here?” As if to prove her point, she raises the spade high above her head. “Get out!”

Instantly, the girl lets out a terrified scream and starts running, while the guy mutters something indecipherable and bolts straight after her. Turning, Sam watches as the moonlight picks out the two figures racing toward the gate, and she sighs with satisfaction as she realizes that she just successfully scared off her first two interlopers. The guy leaps up and grabs the top of the wall, hauling himself out of the cemetery and disappearing down into the street, leaving the girl to make her own way up. Struggling to climb, the girl continues to make a series of rather desperate leaps while Sam wanders nonchalantly over to the join her.

“Hey,” Sam says, unlocking the gate and swinging it open. “You might as well go out the proper way.”

Without saying a word, the girl races through the gate and out into the street. Sam leans out and watches as she runs as fast as she can into the distance, tottering slightly on high heels.

“Not bad,” Sam says quietly to herself, carefully locking the gate. “The death of romance.” Turning and wandering slowly back toward her cottage, she realizes as she gets to the door that the cemetery seems to be getting a little lighter. Turning, she sees the first rays of sunlight starting to appear in the distance, and she’s suddenly and rather inexplicably filled with a desire to stay up and get to work. Even though it’s only 6am and she could grab another hour and a half in bed, she figures she might as well just stay up. Smiling, and a little freaked out by her own productivity, she leans the spade against the side of the cottage and heads around to fetch a scythe from the shed. As she passes Sparky, she pats him on his stone shoulder.

“See?” she says. “I’m getting the hang of this job already. Easy as pie.”

Chapter Two

 

Mrs. Mayberry’s bones makes a loud ripping and cracking sound as her ribs are slowly forced apart to reveal the chest cavity. As he prepares to take another blood sample directly from the heart, Dr. Wellington notes that there appears to be some distension to the liver, which is probably due to the old lady’s habit of drinking brandy before bed, but which he figures should nevertheless be examined as the autopsy progresses. He slips the tip of a needle into Mrs. Mayberry’s heart and carefully pulls the plunger back, filling the syringe with a nice clean blood sample.

“So,” he says with a wry smile, “you did have a heart after all. Not that anyone would have known when you were alive, you old bag.”

Once the sample has been taken and correctly labeled, he grabs some cutting tools from the bench and prepares to start removing, one by one, the old lady’s organs so they can be weighed, measured, inspected and ultimately put back inside her body.

“Knock knock,” says a voice over at the door, and Dr. Wellington immediately recognizes the soft Irish tones of Gabriel Fenroc. Having arrived in Rippon a couple of months ago, Fenroc has spent most of his time meandering along the narrow streets, showing no inclination to actually do anything other than observe the town. There’s been a great deal of speculation regarding his true intentions, with the most commonly supported theory being that the man is simply a wastrel. Others, though, are convinced that there must be a reason for his presence.

“You’ll be wanting next door, I imagine,” Dr. Wellington says, carefully making an incision at the base of Mrs. Mayberry’s bronchial tree. “This is a surgery, Mr. Fenroc, not the betting shop. If you want to put a tenner on the 3.20 at Knapton, I’m afraid I’m not your man.”

“It might not be a betting shop per se,” Fenroc replies, loitering over by the cabinets, “but a man can place a bet anywhere he goes, can’t he? Even in a church. Even in a surgery. All he needs is something to bet on and someone to take his bet, and the deal’s sealed, so to speak.” He pauses for a moment. “For example, I’d bet an even tenner that you’re gonna mark this dear old lady’s death up as a common heart attack, aren’t you?” He waits for a reply. “Tell me I’m wrong, Doc.”

“I can’t help you,” Dr. Wellington says, making some more incisions in preparation for the removal of Mrs. Mayberry’s right lung. “As you might have noticed, I’m rather busy performing the full autopsy that’s required before I decide upon a cause of death.”

“Aye,” Fenroc says, “I’d noticed you’ve got something on your hands there. What happened to the poor old dear, if you don’t mind my asking? I saw her yesterday afternoon and she seemed just fine. Did her ticker really just give out on her, as the old grapevine’s been suggesting all morning?”

“If I knew what happened to her,” Dr. Wellington says, carefully lifting the right lobe of Mrs. Mayberry’s lung out of her chest and placing it on a weighing scale, “I wouldn’t go to the very great trouble of performing an autopsy, now would I?”

“Aye, I suppose you wouldn’t.” Fenroc pauses for a moment. “She was a grand old dame, you know. Sharp as a rake, with a waspish tongue and no time for idiots. Reminded me of my grandmother back home in Donegal. God knows what old Mrs. Mayberry thought of the likes of me, but she was nice to my face at least, and that’s more than I can say about everyone ‘round these parts. Then again, there were some dark rumors surrounding the death of her husband, were there not?” He pauses again, as if there’s something on his mind. “Dr. Wellington, do you mind if I ask you something?”

“You can ask,” Dr. Wellington replies with a sigh, “but I wouldn’t count on getting an answer.”

“Have you seen there’s a new young lady in the town?” Fenroc continues. “Working up at the cemetery, like. The new gardener, no less!”

“I’m afraid I don’t keep up with the local gossip,” Dr. Wellington says, making some quick notes about Mrs. Mayberry’s lung.

“Well, there is a new gardener. A pretty young thing, she is, and hard-working. Got kind of a determined look about her, as if she won't brook any shit from anyone. I walked past the place today, and when I looked through the gate I could see her hacking away at that big old mausoleum in the center." He pauses again, and he can see a flicker of recognition on Dr. Wellington's face. "You remember that mausoleum, don't you? The big one. The stone one with the little hole at the top. The one where -"

“Is there a point to this idle chit-chat?” Dr. Wellington asks suddenly, with obvious irritation.

“Just making conversation and seeing what you think.”

Dr. Wellington sighs. “If you’re under the impression that a young lady might not be able to perform the tasks required of a gardener, I might begin to wonder if you’re perhaps a little behind the times. From what I’ve read in the newspaper, women are taking on the jobs of men in almost every walk of life these days. The gender divide isn’t what it used to be, Mr. Fenroc.”

“Aye, that’s true,” Fenroc says. “You’re right there. I guess I just wanted to see if you thought there might be any kind of connection between Mrs. Mayberry’s tragic, early demise, and the arrival of this new girl?” He waits for an answer. “And the uncovering of that mausoleum, of course…”

“A connection?” Dr. Wellington asks. “Why should there be a connection? As far as I know, they’ve never even met!”

“Aye,” Fenroc replies, momentarily lost in thought. “Still, there are other types of connection, are there not? Like, for instance, if this new young lady might have antagonized someone, or perhaps upset the delicate balance of the cemetery. Isn’t it possible that certain individuals might choose to lash out in another direction and make their feelings known in a very forceful manner?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dr. Wellington says, removing Mrs. Mayberry’s second lung.

“Aye, you’re probably right,” Fenroc says, heading back over to the door. “I just thought I’d come and shoot the breeze with you for a few minutes, see which way the wind’s blowing. I suppose I’m worrying over nothing. After all, if certain individuals were unhappy about the arrival of a new girl in town, surely those certain individuals would take their displeasure out on the new arrival directly, rather than attacking someone else? I mean…” He pauses, unable to keep a slight grin from his lips. “Well, certain individuals in this town don’t exactly have a reputation for being subtle, do they? It’s not like there’d be anything stopping them from hurting the new gardener, is it?”

Dr. Wellington focuses on his work, removing Mrs. Mayberry’s liver while studiously ignoring his visitor.

“Then again,” Fenroc continues, “does anyone know for sure?”

Writing some notes about the liver, Dr. Wellington continues to avoid the conversation.

“Aye,” Fenroc says, “well, I just thought I’d see what the news was about Mrs. Mayberry, and let you know that the mausoleum’s out in the open, so to speak. Just in case you’re interested for some reason. What that reason might be, of course, I have no idea. Just thinking out loud, really. You know, I heard the strangest rumor the other day. There are people who say dark forces are coming to Rippon.”

“You should learn to ignore rumors,” the doctor replies.

“Aye,” Fenroc says, “but…” He places his hand flat on the counter. “Don’t you feel it? Every so often, there’s a faint shudder, like something big and heavy is coming closer.”

“I don’t have time for your superstitions,” the doctor says.

“So you don’t feel it?”

“Go away, Mr. Fenroc,” the doctor says, focusing on his work. “Bother someone else with your superstitious nonsense.”

Once Fenroc has left, Dr. Wellington forces himself to stay focused on the task at hand. He has a busy morning lined up, and it’ll likely take him until lunchtime before he can have all of Mrs. Mayberry’s organs out, checked, and then put back into her body. He already knows the cause of death, of course; even if he finds something unusual while he’s digging through the old lady’s innards, he’s absolutely certain that he’ll be listing ‘heart attack’ on her certificate. Anything else would open up too many questions, and would only encourage people like Fenroc to keep sniffing around. Grabbing the old lady’s heart from one of the dishes, he carries it over to the bucket and squeezes the organ until ever last drop of blood has been collected. Next, he does the same with one of her lungs, wringing it dry with all his strength until finally the bucket is half full.

“Oh well,” he mutters, glancing back at the old lady’s corpse. “At least your death won’t go in vain.”

Chapter Three

 

Slowly, and with a determined expression on her face, Sam raises the scythe above her head and stands still for a moment, letting sunlight glint off the sharp metal.

“Prepare to die,” she says firmly, before slicing the blade down and then pulling it back. A large knot of viney weeds comes crashing down, revealing yet more of the mausoleum’s surface. Sam hacks at the foliage several more times, and finally she’s able to read the inscription on the side of the stone edifice:

 

Henry Mayhew Peterson

January 1st 1870 to March 18th 1923

May he rest in God’s grace

 

also

Elizabeth Emmet Peterson

November 30th 1871 to October 11th 1925

Loving wife and mother

 

Hauling the downed vines into a large plastic refuge sack, Sam notes with satisfaction that she’s now cleared almost all the shrubbery from around the mausoleum. When she started, it was hard to tell that there was any kind of building in here at all; it simply looked like a huge mass of knotted foliage, save for a small corner of stonework that protruded from one side and gave the game away. It was pretty clear that the damn thing had been ignored for years. Now, for what must be the first time in living memory, the entire mausoleum has once again been exposed to the sun’s warming light. It’s a small achievement, but one that seems to Sam to be rather symbolic of all the hard work she’s put in over the past couple of days. Already, the cemetery looks so different compared to the overgrown mess that she first encountered when she arrived a couple of days ago: less like a jungle, and more like a place where people would go to mourn their loved ones.

“There you are!” calls out a familiar voice, and Sam turns to see Mayor Winters making his way across the grass. “My word,” he continues with a broad smile on his face, “you’ve been busy. I haven’t seen this old thing since I was a young boy. My friends and I used to climb up the sides and try to peer in through that hole.” Raising his cane, he taps a small gap in the stonework, from which a single growth of vine-weed is protruding. “I’d quite forgotten it was still here. Quite forgotten indeed.”

“Did you ever see anything when you looked through the hole?” Sam asks.

“Oh, no,” the mayor replies. “We tried everything, of course. Torches, matches, the lot. In fact, if you go inside, you might find the detritus from our failed attempts. Of course, there’s a gate around the side, and we always dreamed of getting hold of the right key and making our way in to view the corpses. My mother once told me that the bodies of Henry Peterson and his family would be resting on shelves in there. Quite fired my imagination as a child, I can tell you. Yes, I had a few nightmares about this thing, back in the day.” He turns and looks out across the cemetery. “I must say, Ms. Marker, you’ve done an absolutely exceptional job. I don’t remember the last time the place looked so good. It’s wonderful, quite wonderful.”

“I haven’t really got started,” Sam says, feeling a rush of pride.

“Nonsense! I can see you’ve been busy. You’ve done more work in two days than your recent predecessors managed between them in six months. I thought industriousness was a trait long gone from today’s youth, but you’ve rather restored my faith, Ms. Marker. Your immediate predecessor, Mr. Faraday, spent more time reading than actually doing any work, whereas you… Actually, that’s why I’m here. I’m afraid I’ve come to give you a new job. Something a little more interesting than weeding. Allow me to show you. Come along.”

Tapping her shoulder with his cane, Mayor Winters leads Sam along one of the paths, and they eventually come to a halt in a small, shady part of the cemetery over by the far wall.

"I'm afraid there was a death in town last night," the mayor says, poking the ground with the end of his cane. "Dear old Mrs. Mayberry suffered a terminal cardiac event and was found dead on her bedroom floor. You won't have met her, of course, but it's all very sad. Lovely old lady, even if she could be a little terse at times. Anyway, Dr. Wellington has been performing the autopsy this morning, and I'm confident we shall be ready for a funeral and burial ceremony tomorrow, or perhaps the day after. She didn't have much family left, so it won't be a big shindig. And this -" He taps the ground with his cane-tip. "This is Mrs. Mayberry's plot. It was arranged some time ago, you see, so she could be buried next to her husband. You'll need to have it ready for a full coffin service."

“Okay,” Sam says, before pausing for a moment as the reality of the situation sinks in. “Oh…”

“I don’t suppose you’ve ever dug a grave before, have you?” the mayor asks with a smile on his face.

Sam shakes her head, contemplating the prospect of digging a real, actual grave.

“Well this will be a test of your skills,” the mayor continues. “However, I’m confident you’ll have no trouble. What we need is a six-foot deep hole in the ground, big enough to fit a coffin that’s approximately six feet in length and four feet wide, with a little extra room for clearance.” He lumbers forward and uses the tip of his cane to mark out the rough shape of the grave. “I mean, it’s not the most complex or difficult job in the world. If one has dug even the smallest hole in the past, one can certainly manage to expand the operation and create something that’s big enough for a coffin. The biggest challenge will be in making sure the sides are straight, you see, since we like our graves to be nice and neat in Rippon. Most towns have one of those little mechanical diggers to make the job easier, but I’m afraid we’ve never quite managed to get the budget wrangled into shape. You’ll need to use elbow grease and a shovel for this job, I’m afraid, but I’m sure you can manage it.” He swings his cane toward Sam and taps her on the arm. “Strong young thing like you, shouldn’t have too much trouble, eh?”

“Totally,” Sam replies, taking a deep breath at the thought of spending the better part of the next day digging a grave. “I’ll get right on it.”

“That’s the spirit,” Mayor Winters replies, tapping the ground with his cane once again. “When faced with a daunting task, one must simply roll one’s sleeves up and get stuck in. You’ve always got a little time tomorrow morning to neaten up the edges. The undertaker will see to the rest and bring the ropes and so on. Really, all you need to do is prepare the grave and then fill it in after the service is over, and maybe in a few days you’ll have to plant some grass-seed to encourage it to grow over. Oh, and erect the tombstone when it arrives, but that’s a minor job.”

“It is?” Sam asks, wondering how on earth someone is supposed to go about the job of putting a tombstone next to a grave. Glancing across the cemetery and seeing row upon row of crooked, cracked stones, she reasons that her predecessors seem to have had no great skill in the matter either.

“So,” the mayor continues, filled with the enthusiasm of a man who has just offloaded a back-breaking job onto someone else, “my advice to you would be to have a nice hearty lunch, grab your spade and get on with the task at hand. As I said, the service will be tomorrow or the day after, but we need to be prepared for tomorrow, just in case. It all depends on how the autopsy goes, but I’m not anticipating any snags. Open and shut case, if you ask me.”

“I’ll have the grave ready first thing in the morning,” Sam says, staring at the ground and imagining herself digging deeper and deeper down. Just when she thought she was getting on top of her new job, this fresh challenge arrives to shake things up. Still, she reasons that she should have known something like this would happen eventually. No matter how neat and tidy she makes the place, she realizes there’ll always be people coming along to be buried. After all, that’s the whole point of a cemetery.

“I shall pop by first thing in the morning to see how you’re doing,” Mayor Winters says, turning and starting to walk away. “I look forward to seeing a rather exceptional grave in this spot, Ms. Marker. I have no doubt whatsoever that you have all the talent and determination to make an excellent grave-digger. One of the first things I noticed about you was your broad-shouldered physique. I could tell at once that you’d be quite excellent at this job. Quite excellent indeed.”

“You could?” Sam asks, staring at him as he makes his way along the path. Unsure as to whether that last comment was a compliment or not, she reaches up and feels her shoulders. “Broad?” she mutters, having always considered herself to have a rather narrow, ladylike figure. Shrugging, she turns to look at the cottage and realizes there’s no point delaying things any further: it’s time to go and get her shovel and set about digging her very first grave. She slings the scythe over her shoulder and wanders toward the shed. As she walks, she notices her own shadow on the grass, and she sees that in silhouette at least, she rather resembles Death itself, broad shoulders and all.

Chapter Four

 

“Fenroc dropped in today,” Dr. Wellington says as he and Mayor Winters sit on the terrace outside the cafe. It’s a pleasant afternoon, and the two old friends often meet up for a drink over lunch. Today, though, the situation is a little more tense. “The damned nuisance just came wandering in through the back door, straight into my examination room while I was going through Mrs. Mayberry. Just stood around like he fancied a chat. I swear, that man seems to think he can go wherever he wants in this town, causing trouble.”

“You should lock your door,” Mayor Winters replies, taking a sip of beer. “That’d solve it.”

“He’d probably just come climbing in through the window instead,” Dr. Wellington sighs. “I absolutely cannot understand what goes through his mind. It’s as if he takes the greatest possible pleasure from trying to irritate those of us who are getting on with an honest day’s work. Sometimes I think the man has some obscure point that he’s trying to make. Today, for instance, it was as if he was endlessly circling something, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t just keep holding back. It was like he was prodding me, hoping I’d say something specific.” He pauses for a moment. “Sometimes, I wonder what that man knows.”

"The man's a pest," Mayor Winters says, "but a man can't be run out of town simply for being a pest." He pauses for a moment, taking another sip of beer. "Did he happen to mention -"

“Of course he did,” the doctor replies. “It’s all he ever talks about, in a roundabout kind of way. The man’s obsessed. Just because he’s heard a few rumors and superstitions, he thinks he has a right to go poking about. He’s a man possessed of that deadly combination: intelligence and boredom. He sees a glint of light and thinks he’s found the sun.”

Mayor Winters stares into his beer, lost in thought. “Is he becoming a problem?” he asks eventually.

“That’s not for me to say,” Dr. Wellington replies. “He’s certainly something of a pest when he comes and disturbs me, but a pest can be tolerated. Whether he poses a wider problem is a matter that should be taken up by those who have a broader view of the whole town.” He waits for Mayor Winters to say something. “Do you think he’s becoming a problem?”

The Mayor shrugs.

“He mentioned the Peterson mausoleum,” the doctor says. “He didn’t say anything about it in particular, but he definitely seemed to think it was important for some reason. Apparently it’s been cleaned up.”

“He mentioned the mausoleum?” the mayor asks, raising an eyebrow. “Well, then, it seems Mr. Fenroc has most definitely become a problem.”

Chapter Five

 

“I’ll have the grave ready first thing in the morning,” Sam says as she drives the shovel into the ground and then pulls up another clump of soil. She pauses for a moment. “Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d end up saying to someone.”

As the late afternoon sun beats down with relentless heat, Sam pauses for a moment and looks up at the top of the grave. She’s spent all afternoon digging the damn thing, but now – as she raises a hand up above her head in order to measure her progress – she realizes that she’s finally managed to get six feet down. Standing in the pit, surrounded on all sides by walls of mud and soil, she takes stock of her achievement. Although the edges are rough and there’s still some work to do, this is to all intents and purposes a grave. There’s room for a coffin to be lowered down, and then for the soil to be thrown back down. For a moment, Sam tries to imagine what it must be like to look up and see a grave being filled in from such a lowly vantage point. She reaches out and touches the muddy walls, thinking about how all her hard work will be undone in a day or two when the coffin is buried. Frowning, she examines her hands and sees that she’s already developing some tough callouses thanks to the fact that she’s spending twelve hours a day using gardening tools. A year ago, she’d have been horrified by such things; today, she sees them as a welcome sign that she’s been knuckling down to some hard work.

Looking up at the top of the grave again, she spots a mouse staring down at her.

“What are you looking at?” she asks, as the mouse scurries away.

“Okay, Mrs. Mayberry,” she says, tapping the solid wall, “I think this should do you.” A small amount of soil comes loose and drops down to Sam’s feet, and she’s suddenly overcome by the thought that maybe the walls could collapse and bury her. Deciding it’s time to get out, she realizes that she’s neglected to leave herself an exit route. With a sigh, she starts digging up some soil from one end of the grave and using it to construct a small step; finally, she’s able to haul herself out and sit catching her breath on the edge, with her legs dangling down into the darkness.

After a moment, she realizes there’s a noise nearby. Turning, she looks across the cemetery but sees nothing. The gate is open, of course, so visitors are by no means unexpected, even if it seems there are very few people in Rippon who want to come and pay their respects. Sam listens, and soon she hears the noise again: there’s someone moving about over by the wall. Figuring that part of her job is to make sure that no-one’s doing anything untoward, she gets to her feet, puts her jacket back on over the singlet she’s been using while digging the grave, and wanders toward the source of the noise. Eventually, she spots a young woman on her hands and knees, apparently searching for something in the grass.

“Can I help you?” Sam asks.

“Jesus!” the girl shouts, almost jumping out of her skin. She scurries back a few feet.

“It’s okay,” Sam continues with a smile. “I just wanted to know if I can help you with anything.”

“No,” the girl replies, wide-eyed. “I’m just… I’m just looking for something. I think I dropped a necklace here the other day.”

“Huh,” Sam says, grinning as she realizes that this is definitely the same girl whose stilted amorous adventures she overheard last night in the dark. With dyed blonde hair and thick black make-up around her eyes, the girl kind of looks like she should be fierce, yet she has the attitude of a terrified little mouse. “So this thing you’re looking for,” Sam continues eventually, “would it happen to be a small silver necklace in the shape of an ankh?”

The girl frowns. “What’s an ankh?”

“The Ancient Egyptian symbol for life.”

The girl stares at her, clearly unsure.

“Like a cross with a loop at the top,” Sam explains, drawing the shape in the air with her finger.

“Oh,” the girl says. “Yeah. That sounds like it.”

“I found it,” Sam says. “It was right where you are now. I’ve got it in the cottage. You wanna come and get it?”

The girl pauses for a moment, and she still seems a little uncertain as she brushes grass from her knees. “You found it?” she asks.

Sam nods.

“How?”

“It was right there,” Sam says, pointing to the girl’s feet. “I saw it glinting in the sun.”

The girl stares at her. She looks so nervous, it’s as if she could suddenly turn and run away at any moment. Her eyes keep darting about, like she’s some kind of terrified animal looking for the best escape route. “Do you work here or something?” she asks eventually.

Sam nods.

“Like… You’re the gardener’s assistant?”

“No. I’m the gardener.”

“But you’re…” She pauses. “Like, no offense, but you’re not…”

“I’m female,” Sam says. “I know it’s a bit of a shock, but if you want your ankh necklace back, I’m the one who’s got it. So do you wanna come and pick it up, or should I just hang on to it?”

“Okay,” the girl says tentatively.

“Okay?”

“I’ll come and get it.”

“This way,” Sam says, turning and leading her toward the cottage. “Sorry I didn’t see you sooner,” she continues, as the girl walks a few paces behind. “I was busy digging this.” She points down at the grave.

“You did that?” the girl asks.

“Surprised?”

“I guess. It’s kind of cool.”

“It took a while,” Sam admits as they reach the cottage. “Come in,” she says, pushing the door open and walking into the kitchen. She makes her way straight over to the large tin on the sideboard, where she placed the necklace for safe-keeping.

“Is that, like, your Lost and Found box?” the girl asks.

“No,” Sam says. “I think there is a Lost and Found box somewhere in here, but I haven’t found it yet.” Holding up the silver necklace, she turns to find that the girl is loitering shyly outside the door. “This it?” Sam asks.

“Um,” the girl replies, squinting to get a better view. “I think so.”

Sam smiles. “You know, if you actually dare to step inside and come a little closer, you’ll be able to see for sure.”

“I think that’s it,” the girl says.

“You’re scared to come in?”

“Scared?” The girl looks over her shoulder for a moment, almost as if she’s worried someone might be watching her. “I’m not scared,” she says eventually. “It’s just that I’m in a hurry. I need to get the necklace home before my parents find out it’s missing. It was my great-grandmother’s and apparently it’s worth, like, quite a lot of money, so I wasn’t really supposed to wear it last night and… well, you get the idea. I just really need to get it back in my mother’s jewelry box before she gets home from work, or she’s gonna find out it’s missing and she’ll freak out.”

“Mothers, huh?” Sam replies.

The girl smiles awkwardly.

“So come and get it,” Sam replies, holding the necklace out toward her.

The girl smiles awkwardly, before looking down at the kitchen floor as if she expects it to give way at any moment and tip both Sam and herself straight down to the fires of hell. “Okay, here’s the thing,” she says eventually. “I really just need to get home, so if you could just give me the necklace back, I can be on my way. I don’t want to hold up your grave-digging, I’m sure you’ve got loads of work to be doing, so if you give me my necklace I can just get out of your hair.” She stares at Sam with desperate, terrified eyes, almost as if she might burst into tears. “Please”? she adds quietly.

“Here’s the deal,” Sam says. “You take one step through that doorway, and I’ll come the rest of the way. Okay? I promise, this place isn’t like the doorway to Hell.”

The girl takes a deep breath. “I’d really rather you just came out and gave me the necklace,” she says quickly.

Sighing, Sam wanders across the kitchen until she reaches the doorway, but she holds the necklace back for a moment. “Okay. New deal. All you have to do is tell me why you’re so scared to come inside. You tell me that, I’ll give you the necklace.”

“I’m really not sure you should be trying to blackmail me,” the girl says timidly.

“Come on,” Sam replies. “What’s wrong?”

The girl looks up at the top of the doorway. It’s almost as if she’s terrified to even be anywhere near the cottage. “I’m not superstitious,” she says eventually, “but still, I’ve heard stories about this place. You know, about the people who lived here before, about the other gardeners. It’s nothing personal, I just feel as if maybe there’s a kind of negative energy around here that might knock my own energy and make me less settled.” She smiles at Sam, but it’s a fake, nervous smile. “I spend a lot of time working on my energy. Like, properly, with crystals and stuff. If it gets all knocked out of whack, it might take me weeks and weeks to get it back to normal, and that’d kind of suck and…” Her voice trails off as she stands awkwardly on Sam’s doorstep. “Can I just have the necklace? Please?”

Sighing, Sam holds it out to her.

“Thanks,” she mutters, quickly grabbing it before turning and walking a couple of steps away. After a moment she turns back to Sam and stares. “So was that you last night? The one who, like, scared us away?”

“Sorry,” Sam replies. “It’s local policy. Can’t have people getting up to no good in here. I’d appreciate it if you could spread the word around town.”

“I guess,” the girl says. “You just seemed bigger and scarier last night.”

Sam smiles. “What’s your name?”

“Anna.”

“I’m Sam. Sam Marker.”

“Okay.” With that, Anna turns and hurries away, leaving Sam to stand in the doorway and watch her heading across the grass and toward the gate.

While she didn’t come to Rippon in order to make friends, Sam can’t deny that she got a small buzz from that smidgen of social contact. It took her right back to the days of… As she turns back to walk through her kitchen, Sam looks over at the unopened bottle of wine on the counter. She’s not really sure why keeps the bottle in full view; she had some vague idea about opening it to celebrate her first day at work, and then she decided to delay the moment a little while. The thought of having friends again, and opening a bottle of wine, makes her think back to the old days in Leeds. The fun days. The wild days. She feels this urge deep in her gut, begging her to open the bottle and take a sip. Even just one, brief drop, just a taste. Forcing herself to resist the siren call, Sam walks over, grabs the bottle of wine and puts it in one of the cupboards, where she can’t see it. She still knows it’s there, of course, but she figures she can wait a while. It’d be so easy to slip back into the old habits of drinking and hanging out with people, but she knows how that kind of things always ends. Taking a deep breath, she grabs her spade and heads out instead to do some more work on the grave.

Chapter Six

 

As he makes his way up the hill, Dr. Wellington spots a young man standing by the wall of the cemetery, smoking a cigarette and looking remarkably as if he’s up to no good. Dressed in a leather jacket and wearing old, faded jeans, the young man has the kind of callous, uncaring expression that Dr. Wellington finds so disturbing in the town’s youth. In fact, the boy is such a stereotype, it’s almost as if he’s stepped out of some 1960s teen-terror movie poster. Crossing the street in order to give the young man a wide berth, the doctor is surprised to see a young girl hurrying out of the cemetery gate and making straight for the other youth. Then again, he thinks to himself, why should he be surprised? Hormonal idiots are attracted to one another the world over.

“Did you get it?” the young guy asks as Dr. Wellington walks past them.

“Here,” the girl says, holding up a small necklace.

“Can we go now?”

“Yeah, it’s just…” the girl pauses, as if there’s something else she wants to say. “She’s weird,” she says eventually.

Turning the corner, Dr. Wellington stops for a moment, keen to listen in to the conversation. He has an aversion to youth, and he tends to believe that most of the young people in Rippon are up to no good. Already, he’s convinced himself on very little evidence that the young man’s cigarette contains rather more than pure nicotine, and he’s certain that the pair of them must be planning something reprehensible. The thought of their illicit, immoral youthful sex and cursing sends a shiver through the old man’s body.

“Of course she’s weird,” the young man says. “She works in a fucking cemetery. How could she not be weird?”

“Yeah, but it’s more than that,” the girl says. “There’s something about her that gives me the creeps.”

“Where’d she come from, anyway?”

“She’s not from around here. She’s got this weird accent.”

“Huh. Maybe I should go and introduce myself.”

“Not today, Dean.”

“What’s wrong? You worried you’ve got some competition?”

“You wish.”

“Fine. Come on. I need to work on the bike.”

After a moment, Dr. Wellington hears two sets of footsteps coming closer. He quickly removes his glasses and starts cleaning them, so as to make his presence less suspicious in case he’s spotted. Fortunately, the young couple walk quickly past him, apparently not even noticing his presence. Leaning around the corner, the doctor watches as they make their way quickly up the hill and off into the distance. Something about their youthful energy, and the way they seem to have no cares in the world, sends a shiver of envy and anger through the doctor’s soul, and he finds himself hoping that some stark reality will come scything its way through the town to lop off the happy tip of their youthful hedonism and show them that life is about more than just sex and good times.

Heading over to the cemetery gate, the doctor peers through the bars and spots a figure walking out of the cottage door. Squinting to get a better look, he sees the new gardener making her way past the line of beech trees and over to what appears to be a freshly dug grave. Smiling, the doctor realizes that preparations are underway for the burial of Ethel Mayberry. As far as he’s concerned, the sooner that old woman is underground, the sooner her vile life can be forgotten. For all her polite smiles and insistence on the old-fashioned ways, Ethel Mayberry was a vicious, nasty old busy-body who almost certainly had a hand in the death of her late husband. For Dr. Wellington, her death came not a day too soon, and he would as soon spit on her grave as mourn her passing.

“Burn in hell,” he mutters with a smile, before turning and continuing his walk up the hill.

Chapter Seven

 

Using the edge of a large hoe, Sam carefully trims the sides of the grave. When she worked in a newsagent back in Leeds, and then later when she worked in a cafe, Sam didn’t give a damn about what she was doing; she just wanted to collect her salary and get through each shift with the minimum of effort. Now, however, she finds herself taking a strange kind of pride in her work. As she lops off an inch here and an inch there from the grave’s gaping chasm, she finds herself totally wrapped up in the job of making the grave look perfect. The job is so absorbing, she barely even thinks about herself at all, and she doesn’t notice the sound of someone wandering toward her.

“Excuse me,” says a frail voice from nearby.

Snapping out of her trance-like state, Sam stops working and turns to see a little old lady standing on the other side of the grave. Dressed in purple and wearing a large, rather elaborate hat, the visitor clutches a small purple purse and smiles benignly.

“Can I help you?” Sam asks.

“Are you in charge here?”

Sam nods.

“Well,” the old lady says, frowning. “Times have most certainly changed, haven’t they?” She pauses for a moment, before smiling. “I’m here for the funeral. Would you be so kind as to tell me what time it’s due to start?”

“Tomorrow,” Sam says. “Or maybe the day after. I’m not sure yet.”

“Oh.” There’s another awkward pause. “Do you happen to happen to know what time the ceremony is due to start tomorrow?” She looks at her wrist, frowns, and then taps her watch. “I’m afraid this poor old thing seems to have stopped overnight.”

Wiping a thick layer of sweat from her brow, Sam shakes her head. “Sorry, I don’t really know the details. Maybe you should talk to her family, or the mayor, or someone. I’m just the grave-digger.”

Shuffling forward, the old lady peers into the pit. “Is it straight?”

“The edges?” Sam shrugs. “I’m not sure yet. I’m still working on it. This is my first one.”

“It is?”

Sam nods. “It’s harder than it looks.”

“Well, I hope you’ll have it all sorted out by tomorrow,” the old lady continues, looking a little concerned. “I suppose everyone has to start somewhere. It wouldn’t do to have a wonky grave, though, would it?”

“It’ll be fine,” Sam replies. “I’ll get it straight, even if I have to stay up all night.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” the old lady says with a smile. “A strong work ethic. Back in the war, there were plenty of jobs that women couldn’t do, but we had no choice. We just had to roll up our sleeves and get on with things. Sometimes, you know, if you wait for a man to come along and help, you’ll end up waiting your whole life.”

“Don’t worry,” Sam says. “By the time this is done, it’s gonna be the most perfect grave that’s ever been dug. Your friend would be proud if she could see it.”

“I’m sure she would,” the old lady says. “I’m just going to have a little sit down for a while. My feet are killing me.” She turns to walk away, before stopping and glancing back. “Are you the one who’s cleaned this whole place up?”

Sam nods.

“Such a wonderful job,” she continues. “It was so overgrown before, one almost didn’t want to come and visit. And now look at it, all neatly trimmed and put back to how it should be. You’ve restored so much of the dignity to this place. Sometimes I think that’s one of the things that this world overlooks. Dignity is so important. I’m quite sure there’s not a soul in this town who won’t want to shake your hand and thank you personally for the work you’ve done here.”

“All part of the service,” Sam says, once again feeling that strange sensation of pride that was previously so alien.

The old lady smiles sadly. “Tell me one thing. Have you heard anyone talking about the funeral?”

“Not really,” Sam replies.

“You haven’t heard any gossip?”

Sam shakes her head.

“It’s just that, when she was alive, she did some rather… bad things. I’d imagine that a lot of people think she’ll be going to hell.” She pauses for a moment. “I hope not.” She looks down at the ground. “Do you feel something? Every so often today, it’s as if there’s some kind of distant tremor.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Sam replies.

“Perhaps,” the old lady says wistfully, as she turns to walk away. “Perhaps.”

Once the old lady has gone to sit on a bench at the far end of the cemetery, Sam gets back to work. Finally, after a few more hours, she stands back and sees that at last the grave is perfectly rectangular. There are no rough edges, no inaccurate angles: it’s a perfect grave in every respect, the product of almost an entire day’s work. Frankly, as she stands and stares at her own handiwork, Sam starts thinking that it’s kind of a shame that the whole thing is going to have to be filled in after the ceremony tomorrow, and that all her hard work is basically for something that’s only going to exist for a day.

Heading back into the cottage, Sam goes straight through to the bathroom and takes a quick shower, before drying off, getting dressed and putting some beans into a pot for dinner. Opening a cupboard by the sink, she’s suddenly stopped in her tracks as she sees the bottle of wine from earlier. Taking it out and setting it on the counter, she stares at the top of the bottle and imagines what it would be like to open the damn thing. Back in Leeds, she’d happily open half a dozen bottles in a single night, sharing the contents with her friends. Even now, she can remember the sweet taste of a mouthful of red wine, and she closes her eyes as she imagines the velvety liquid slipping down her throat. Opening her eyes again, she continues to stare at the bottle, wondering why she hasn’t just poured its contents down the toilet. After all her hard work, and months and months of staying sober, she’s now so close to giving in to temptation.

“One glass,” she says quietly. “Just one glass. No-one gets drunk on one glass.” Opening the kitchen drawer, she pulls out a corkscrew and starts to open the bottle. Even though it’s been a few months since she last did this, her hands remember the mechanics and her mind fixates on every detail: removing the plastic that covers the top; slowly screwing the corkscrew down into the cork; gripping the side of the bottle and pulling up with the metal handle; watching as the cork slides smoothly out of the neck and makes a clear pop as it comes free. Finally, she pours a perfect glass of wine and then sets the bottle down. She stands and stares at the glass, imagining what it would be like to put it to her lips and take a mouthful. Hell, she doesn’t even need to drink the whole glass; she could just take a single sip, enough to wet her lips but nothing more. She’s not such an alcoholic, she tells herself, that a single sip will make her devour the entire bottle.

As she stares at the glass, Sam notices that the wine seems slightly disturbed, as if the glass is vibrating slightly on the counter. Just as the old lady said, it’s almost as if something far away is pounding the ground, causing tremors.

“It’s just one glass,” she says again, quietly. “What’s wrong with just having one glass?” Taking the glass in her hand and lifting it to her lips, she tries to persuade herself that there’s nothing wrong with this; she tries to focus on the fact that no matter how much she drinks, she’s never going to go back to her old life. That door is shut, and she’s learned so much. And yet…

She stands completely still for a few minutes, with the rim of the glass just an inch from her lips. Finally, and with a heavy heart, she turns to the sink, tilts the glass and pours every last drop down the drain. Once the last of the wine has disappeared, she puts the cork back into the bottle and takes a step back, feeling relieved that she managed to stay strong. She’s had moments of weakness before, but she’s never come quite this close to slipping back into her old habits.

A few minutes later, eating her beans straight from the saucepan, she stands in the doorway and looks out across the cemetery. It’s getting dark and she can barely see a damn thing, but eventually she spots the little old lady still sitting on a bench in the distance. Checking her watch, Sam sees that it’s almost 8pm, which means she’ll have to make sure everyone’s gone for the night before locking up. As soon as she’s eaten all the beans, she grabs her keys and wanders through the darkening cemetery until she reaches the bench. To her surprise, she finds that the old lady has finally left of her own accord, so all that’s left is for Sam to make her way to the gate and attach the padlock. By the time she gets back to the cottage, all she can think about is how close she just came to drinking again, and how dumb she was to open that bottle of wine in the first place. She could have jeopardized her new life and her new job and ended up going back to her old lifestyle. Breathing a sigh of relief, she heads inside and pushes the door shut as she goes.

Chapter Eight

 

“Definitely a heart attack,” Dr. Wellington says as he signs the death certificate. “No doubt about it. All the classic signs were right there, plain as day. In fact, it was a textbook case if ever I saw one.” He passes the certificate to Mayor Winters. “No doubt about it,” he adds, just to make sure that he gets his point across.

“Well,” the mayor replies, stepping aside so the undertakers can lift Mrs. Mayberry’s body off the examination table and onto their trolley, “I’m glad we’ve got that settled. I suppose the most surprising part of this whole thing is the fact that the old hag had a heart at all.”

“If I had a penny for every time someone’s made that joke today,” Dr. Wellington points out, “I’d be able to retire by teatime.”

“You did the original autopsy on her husband, didn’t you?” the mayor asks. “I know what the official report said, but what did your gut tell you? Did the old dear hurry him along with some switched pills?”

“Who knows?” Dr. Wellington replies. “Such matters are beyond my area of expertise, although I’ve heard all the same rumors as everyone else. It certainly seemed odd that Mr. Mayberry just stopped taking the correct medication, but stranger things have happened. If she did do it, then I suppose it was the perfect crime. After all, she got away with it.”

“Perhaps,” the mayor replies as the body is wheeled away. “Or perhaps, wherever she’s headed next, she’ll pay the penalty for her earthly sins.”

“You don’t really believe in such things, do you?” the doctor asks. “Just this afternoon, you were telling me in no uncertain terms that ghosts and demons aren’t real, and now you seem to be convinced that a nasty old woman is going to be dragged to hell. Those are some rather inconsistent points of view, are they not?”

Sighing, Mayor Winters heads over to the door. “Such things are not for us to debate,” he says after a moment. “Whether or not Hell exists, our opinion on the subject is insignificant. I will simply state that it is my deepest hope that, if she did indeed kill her husband, Mrs. Mayberry will face, in death, the retribution she so skilfully avoided in life.”

Once the mayor has left, Dr. Wellington gives his examination table a quick wipe and sets his tools neatly back where they belong. Deaths in Rippon are fairly rare, so he has high hopes that he won’t be required to carry out another autopsy for a few months, although he can’t shake the feeling that perhaps there’s something dark afoot in the town. A man of science rather than a man of superstition, he nevertheless feels as if something is getting closer and closer, and that signs and portents of some great storm are starting to crop up in Rippon with alarming regularity. He’s heard all the rumors about the stone angels in the cemetery, and like everyone else he’s forced himself to dismiss the possibility that anything untoward might be occurring. Still, as he kneels to clean up more of the stone dust that fell from Mrs. Mayberry’s internal organs, he can’t help wondering whether his fears might be grounded in reality. After all, elderly ladies are not known for their ability to spontaneously generate stone dust in their bodies.

Chapter Nine

 

“There will now be a reception event at the cafe in the town square,” says Mayor Winters, once the funeral service has come to its conclusion. “A selection of sandwiches and drinks will be on offer, and we have exclusive use of the venue until 5pm. Alcoholic beverages are not included in the free buffet, I’m afraid, but may be purchased separately. Finally, I would like to thank you once again for coming today to mark Ethel’s passing and to celebrate her life. It’s at times like this that I’m reminded of the enormous sense of community spirit in Rippon.”

As the small crowd begins to disperse, Sam makes her way over to the familiar figure who has remained silent during the entire service. Dressed all in black, Anna keeps her gaze down as she turns to leave, almost as if she doesn’t want to make eye contact.

“Hey,” Sam says, approaching her cautiously.

“Oh, hey,” Anna replies, turning to face her. It’s pretty clear that she’s pretending not to have noticed Sam during the ceremony. “How are you doing?”

“Not bad,” Sam says. “So was this your…” She turns to look over at the grave. “Your… someone?”

“A friend of my grandmother’s,” Anna says quickly. “I’ve known her since I was a kid. I guess it’s a bit stupid to have come…”

“Not really,” Sam replies, realizing she doesn’t have much to say. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she adds after a brief pause, although she immediately regrets even coming over to speak to Anna at all. She just saw a familiar face and assumed she’d be able to maintain a conversation.

“No-one really liked her,” Anna continues. “All the people who came today, they’re just hypocrites. Half of them even think she poisoned her husband. When it got out this morning that she died of a heart attack, people kept joking that they didn’t think she even had a heart. I suppose they thought that was funny or something.” She pauses for a moment. “She’ll probably just go straight to hell.”

Smiling, Sam turns to look back at the grave. “Well, I dug the first six feet of the way for her.”

“I have to go,” Anna says, a hint of uncertainty in her expression, “but it was cool seeing you again.”

“You too,” Sam replies, watching as Anna turns and hurries away across the grass. She can’t help noting that there’s something a little strange and hesitant about Anna, as if she’s constantly nervous.

“Making friends already?” asks Mayor Winters, wandering over from the other end of the grave.

“Not quite,” Sam replies.

“You’d do well to stay far away from that one,” he continues. “She’s nothing but trouble, like most of the youths in this town. She’s one of those disreputable young ladies who likes to get blind drunk of an evening and spend her time flashing her underwear to boys.” Taking a deep breath, he pats Sam on the shoulder. “So you’ll be able to fill in the grave without any problems, I take it?”

“Sure,” Sam says, staring at the crowd as they make their way to the gate. Anna, in her haste to get away, has already disappeared out into the street.

“You seem rather lost in thought,” Mayor Winters continues.

“I’m fine,” Sam replies. “It’s just that there was this old lady who came around yesterday, asking about the service, but she doesn’t seem to have shown up today. She seemed really keen.”

“You know what these people are like,” the mayor says. “They can be rather forgetful. Don’t worry about it too much. Just make sure to pat the grave down firmly and then see if there’s some grass-seed in the shed. The gravestone won’t be along for a few weeks, so let’s just keep the place neat and tidy until then.”

Once the mayor has left, Sam starts the long job of shoveling the dirt back down into Mrs. Mayberry’s grave. The first spadeful makes a dull thudding sound as it hits the wood of the coffin, sending a brief shiver down Sam’s spine.

“Not bad,” she mutters to herself. Just as she’s about to go over to the cottage, she spots a figure moving slowly between the gravestones, and she realizes it’s the old lady from yesterday. Sam watches as she makes her way to the graveside.

“Am I too late?” the old lady asks after a moment.

“The service just finished,” Sam says. “You can go to the cafe in town, though. I think they’re having some kind of reception service.”

“Oh…” The old lady pauses, looking a little confused. “No. I suppose it’ll be okay. I suppose, in a way, I was late on purpose. I didn’t want to hear all the nasty things they said about her.”

“No-one said nasty things,” Sam replies.

“They didn’t?” The old lady looks genuinely shocked. “I suppose they wanted to seem respectful,” she continues after a moment, “but they were all thinking it. They all know she’s going to hell.”

“I’m sure she’s not.”

“Oh, she is,” the old lady continues. “Trust me. When they say she killed her husband, they’re right. She was sick of the old bastard, so she swapped his heart medication for some ordinary pain-killers. She did it on purpose, with the sole intention of driving him to an early grave, and it worked. He didn’t deserve it, of course.”

“Wow,” Sam says, a little stunned to hear that such dark things have been going on in this sleepy little town. She pauses for a moment, unsure of what to say next.

“Where’s the gravestone?” the old lady asks suddenly. “Is there going to be one?”

“It’s coming later.”

“I should hope so. It wouldn’t do for the grave to remain unmarked. There’s something unholy about a grave that doesn’t have a marker, as if the body is to be hidden in some way. Of course, one could understand them deciding they just want to forget about her, but still…” He voice trails off, and she seems close to tears.

“The gravestone’s definitely coming,” Sam says, trying to reassure her. “I think these things just take time.”

The old lady stares at the grave. “You did a good job,” she says eventually. “You made it a nice shape. It’s one of those simple things that one never thinks about, but I suppose it can’t have been easy. The lines are all straight and the angles seem to be correct. I’m rather impressed, to tell you the truth.”

“It took a while,” Sam replies. “I spent basically the whole of yesterday and most of this morning trying to make sure it was right. And now I have to fill it all in again.”

“Seems a shame to waste all your hard work.”

“It’s not really a waste. I’ll probably get a lot quicker after a while. This was just my first one. Maybe I’ll see if we can get hold of one of those big machines for digging holes. I don’t suppose the budget’s big enough, though.”

“Well, you’re doing a fine job as it is,” the old lady says. “I think I’ll just sit here and rest a little. The walk here was quite tough on my old bones, but one has to make the effort.” She looks over at the next grave. “That’s my husband,” she says wistfully.

“Right here?” Sam asks, looking down at the headstone. “Sorry, I didn’t know.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. He’s been gone for a while now. It was so horrible when the place was overgrown. It was like nobody cared. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you cleaned up the mess.”

“It was nothing,” Sam replies.

“It was something,” the old lady says, making her way over to the bench.

“I’m sure your friend isn’t going to hell!” Sam calls after her, but the old lady doesn’t reply. Sighing, Sam turns and heads back over to the cottage, figuring she might as well grab something to eat before she starts the rest of her work. Once she’s in the kitchen, she starts cooking up yet another pot of beans, while reminding herself that she needs to start coming up with some better meals. As she butters some bread, she glances out the window and sees the old lady, sitting alone on the bench and staring forlornly at the grave. Reminding herself that she’s glad she’s not superstitious, Sam decides not to dwell too much on the funeral. It was just a body being put into the ground. Nobody’s going to hell.

For the rest of the day, she gets on with her various jobs, while occasionally glancing over at the old lady and wondering if she’s okay. Eventually, as the sun starts to set, Sam finds herself starting to think about closing the gate for the night. She looks over at the old lady, only to find that she seems to have vanished. Slightly confused, and convinced that she would have noticed the old lady heading to the gate, Sam double-checks that she’s nowhere around, but finally she accepts that she’s gone. Checking her watch and seeing that it’s almost 8pm, Sam heads over to lock the gate. Still, she can’t help but glance over her shoulder and wonder if there’s any chance that the old lady could still be around somewhere. Eventually, she turns and heads back toward the cottage.

“Hey!” calls out a voice from the gate.

Turning, Sam sees Anna standing on the other side.

“Are you closed?” Anna asks.

“Sorry,” Sam replies. “Did you want something?”

“I just came to give you this,” Anna says, reaching through the gate and holding out a small paper bag, which appears to contain some kind of box.

“What is it?” Sam asks, reaching out and taking the bag. Looking inside, she’s surprised to find a box of chocolates. “Is this for me?”

Anna nods. “It’s a gift. Kind of to welcome you to Rippon.”

“You don’t have to get me anything,” Sam replies, somewhat taken aback by this random act of generosity. She hadn’t pegged Anna as the kind of person who’d do something like this.

“I know I didn’t have to,” Anna continues, looking a little awkward, “but I wanted to give you something. It must be so weird being stuck in this place all day, so I thought…” She pauses for a moment. “You like chocolate, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” Sam replies. “Thanks.”

“I guess it’s a little bit old-fashioned,” Anna says, “and I’m sorry I couldn’t think of something more imaginative. I just thought someone should do something to welcome you, and I know what people are like round here. Most of them won’t say anything to you unless you fuck something up, and then they’ll be all over you, complaining about everything.”

Sam pauses, not sure what to say. “I’d invite you in,” she says eventually, “but I’m not really supposed to have visitors.”

“It’s okay,” Anna replies. “Anyway, I don’t really have time. My parents are pretty strict about me being out late.”

“Apart from when you sneak out at midnight with your boyfriend.”

“He’s not my boyfriend. He’s just a guy I hang out with sometimes.” Anna takes a deep breath and smiles. “Look, I really should get going, but if you ever have a day off and you want to hang out, just let me know. I live in the blue house next to the cafe. Just knock on the door sometime. If you want to, I mean.”

“I will,” Sam says.

"And -" Anna pauses. "Earlier, when I didn't want to come into your little house, I hope you didn't think I was being rude. It's just that..." She pauses again. "There are stories about that place. I know they're stupid, but it's so easy to let yourself get caught up in things."

“What kind of stories?” Sam asks.

“Nothing much. Just stupid stuff, really.”

“Come on, tell me.”

Anna sighs. “It’ll sound dumb,” she says after a moment, “but people say that… Well, some people say that the Devil lives there. Or he’s buried there, or something like that.”

“He is, is he?” Sam asks, turning to look over at her little cottage. The place looks so innocent and sweet, it’s hard to believe that anyone could ever believe anything bad about it.

“Like I said,” Anna continues, “it’s dumb. I shouldn’t have let it get to me.”

“Well, maybe you can come in some other time,” Sam replies.

“Cool.” Turning, Anna runs off along the street, leaving Sam standing with the box of chocolates in her hand.

Chapter Ten

 

With the sun setting in the distance, Dr. Wellington sets out for an evening walk. He’s always been the kind of man who likes to stretch his legs after dinner, and tonight he’s feeling particularly restless. Whether it’s the business about Mrs. Mayberry, or the sight of the youths conspiring with one another so brazenly in the street, the doctor feels that he can’t possibly settle down for the evening until he’s taken a good long constitutional. If nothing else, he aims to tire himself out by walking up some of Rippon’s steepest streets.

Lost in thought, he eventually reaches the town square, where the cafe is packed as usual. Spilling out onto the cobbles, various revelers are sipping from their pint glasses, while music blares from within. Although he’s tempted to stop and seek the company of his fellow men, the doctor decides to keep going. He keeps to the far side of the square, moving through the shadows and making sure he can’t be seen. Eventually he finds himself alone once again, walking slowly along one of the narrow streets that cling to the side of the hill upon which Rippon is built.

Eventually, and quite by chance, he finds himself approaching the cemetery. It’s far too late to go into the grounds, of course; besides, he has no particular desire to go wandering between the gravestones at such a late hour. Instead, he merely stops when he reaches the gate, staring through at the rapidly darkening garden. He notes with satisfaction that the place has at least become tidier now that there’s a new gardener, even if he finds it hard to believe that a young female gardener could possibly keep up with the demands placed upon her. As he watches the cottage, where a single light illuminates one of the windows, the doctor finds himself wondering what would possess someone to take up such a thankless job. Young people, in his experience, prefer to be out having fun, and they generally lack the necessary dedication and stamina to take on such a tough and physically demanding job.

After a moment, he spots some movement over on the other side of the cemetery. To his surprise, he sees a figure sitting on a bench next to the far wall. Squinting, he struggles to make out the features on the figure’s face, but he’s fairly certain that it’s an elderly lady. For a moment, he considers calling out to alert the gardener that there seems to be someone still in the cemetery, but finally he realizes that there’s little point raising the alarm. He’s quite certain that the gardener must be aware of the old lady’s continued presence, even though it’s well past the 8pm closing time by which all visitors are supposed to have left. As he continues to peer at the distant figure, the doctor tells himself that the entire matter is really none of his business, and that he would risk making himself seem foolish if he were to start hollering and trying to attract attention.

As he turns to resume his walk, the doctor suddenly becomes aware of a faint trembling sensation coming from the ground. He looks down and realizes that the cobbles of the street are shaking every few seconds, almost as if something heavy is coming closer. It’s the same unusual vibration he’s felt a couple of times over the past few days, except this time it’s stronger and more urgent. Sensing movement nearby, he looks up just in time to see a huge dark shape come lumbering straight at him, barely visible against the dark of the night sky. Before he has time to react, the doctor sees the dark shape step straight past him and over the high wall of the cemetery, making straight for the old lady on the bench.

Not wanting to see any more of the night’s arcane events, and wondering whether it’s entirely safe to be out so late, the doctor turns and hurries away as fast as he can, heading for his house. Whatever’s happening in the streets of Rippon tonight, he’d rather just lock his door and wait until morning.

Chapter Eleven

 

As the day draws to a close, Sam opens the box of chocolates and eats one. Despite a brief urge to have some wine, she manages to stick to chocolates water, and she ends up spending the evening sitting by the window, reading a magazine and occasionally glancing out to watch as the cemetery gets darker and darker. By 10pm, she can see nothing outside apart from some gravestones picked out by the moonlight, and she finds herself thinking back to her old life. This time a year ago, she’d probably have been out partying; now she’s perfectly happy sitting in her own little cottage, in the middle of nowhere, staying completely sober and looking forward to an early night. All the grave-digging work of the past couple of days has left her arms, legs and back sore, but she doesn’t mind the pain; it’s a good kind of soreness.

Just after 10pm, she feels the floor shake briefly. She looks around the room and realizes that there’s a strange juddering sensation, almost as if heavy footsteps are passing close to the cottage. Just as she’s about to get up and investigate, the sensation stops and everything is still once again.

Glancing out the window, Sam suddenly notices a brief flash of light over by the wall. It only lasts a couple of seconds, but it looks like some kind of brief flame. Immediately getting up and going over to the door, Sam stares out into the darkness, waiting to see if it’ll happen again. After a couple of minutes, she grabs a torch from the kitchen drawer, picks up her spade for self-defense, and steps outside. The beam from the torch picks out the tips of the gravestones, and Sam finds herself reflecting that this seems to be an almost nightly occurrence.

“Kids,” she mutters under her breath, annoyed that yet again she has to come out and chase some idiots away. “Okay,” she calls out, “I know you’re here, so let’s just get it over with, yeah? Go home and we can all just relax. There’s got to be somewhere better to hang out, right?”

As she gets over to the spot where she saw the flash of light, she shines the torch at the wall and realizes she’s standing close to the fresh grave. A few meters away, she sees the bench, but this time there seems to be something a little unusual about the wood. Walking closer, Sam realizes that there’s a large burned patch, extending across the seat and up the back of the bench, with smoke rising slowly into the night air, as if there was some kind of flash-fire. Reaching out, Sam finds that the wood is still too hot to touch.

“Huh,” she says, starting to wonder whether this is really the kind of thing that kids would do. Standing back, she realizes that the burned pattern is in a particular shape: it’s almost as if someone was sitting on the bench and burst into flames, leaving behind a charred shadow. There’s also an unusual smell in the air, like a kind of sweet sulfur. Taking a deep breath, Sam turns and makes her way back toward the cottage, figuring she might as well wait until morning before she checks out what really happened. It seems for all the world as if someone spontaneously combusted while they were sitting on the bench but, as Sam gets back inside the cottage and shuts the door, she reminds herself that something like that would be impossible. She glances one more time out the window, to make sure that there’s nothing strange outside, and then she draws the curtains. Pausing, she gets the feeling that something’s changed, almost as if she’s not alone in the cottage. She goes through and double-checks that the door’s locked, and then she glances quickly into every room. Finally satisfied that her mind is just playing tricks on her, she heads through to bed.

Epilogue

 

One year ago

 

“You alright there, love?” asks a voice, emerging from the darkness that surrounds Sam as she sits slumped in the shop doorway. “Hello? Can you hear me?”

Looking up slowly, Sam opens her eyes and finds to her shock that the night has passed and the first rays of dawn are lighting up the street. She blinks a couple of times, before wiping dried mascara from her eyes and focusing on the guy who’s standing next to her, wearing a bright yellow fluorescent jacket. It takes a few seconds before Sam realizes that the guy’s a street cleaner, with a rusty old cart next to him.

“This yours, is it?” the guy continues, looking down at the puddle of vomit that runs from the door of the shop, over Sam’s legs and down onto her feet. “Made quite a mess, haven’t you? Maybe it’s time to go home and sleep it off, yeah?”

Sam takes a deep breath before slowly trying to haul herself up. As soon as she moves, her head starts to pound with a sharp throbbing pain and her stomach seems to flip upside down.

“You should get a cab,” the guy says as he turns his cart around, ready to clean up the evidence of Sam’s sticky night out.

“Nadia?” Sam says suddenly, turning to look for her friend. At that moment, the street cleaning cart starts up, creating a huge swirling sound as it starts removing the vomit. With her head hurting and her feet feeling sore and cold, Sam starts stumbling home, swaying slightly as she realizes that she might still be a little drunk.

Part Three:

The Vigil

Chapter One

 

Standing in the doorway of the cottage, Sam stares out at the cemetery and feels a curious sensation in her belly. At first, she wonders whether it might be something she ate, but finally she realizes that it’s an entirely unfamiliar emotion, something she’s heard others talk about over the years but which she’s rarelky experienced herself: pride.

It’s been a week since she arrived in Rippon. In that time, she’s worked non-stop twelve-hour days and now the lawns are all mowed, the ivy has been trimmed back to a respectable level, and the piles of dead leaves have been swept away. All in all, she’s managed to transform the place from an overgrown jungle to a respectable-looking garden of remembrance, and she can’t help but feel slightly impressed by herself. This is the first proper thing she’s ever actually achieved, or at least it’s the first thing that has any kind of permanence. It feels good, even if she’s aching all over. As she raises her cup of tea and takes a sip, she realizes that there’s nothing wrong with pride, not if it’s rooted in a solid day’s work.

She hasn’t felt this good since the night she managed to drink a yard of ale and was carried out of the pub on her friends’ shoulders, while everyone cheered and clapped and… Feeling a cold chill run through her body, she decides that it’s probably best not to think back to those days. That other life of parties and clubs and cheap shots seems so far away, and so strange, now that she’s standing alone in a little cottage in the middle of a cemetery.

Suddenly there’s a slight tremor; Sam looks down at the floor, but the vibration soon passes, leaving Sam to wonder what could have caused the whole town to rumble.

“Great,” she mutters. “An earthquake.”

Feeling a strange sensation over her shoulder, she turns and looks back into the cottage. There’s nothing, of course, but at the same time, she can’t shake the feeling that she’s not alone. It’s weird, but the first few nights after she arrived in Rippon, she felt totally comfortable in the cottage; she wasn’t freaked out by the cemetery at all, and she slept like a log. And then something changed. All of a sudden, after she’d been here for three days, the atmosphere became different. She knows it sounds crazy, but she can’t shake the feeling that there’s suddenly this extra presence in the cottage, like a malevolent, unseen housemate who makes everything feel slightly ‘off’. Obviously there’s not an actual extra person in the place, but that’s what it feels like. Sometimes, she even thinks she can feel the subtle vibration of someone walking across the room.

Setting the cup of tea down, she walks over to the kitchen table. Right now, this is where the strange sensation feels strongest. It’s as if there’s someone sitting here right now, staring up at her. She can feel his, or her, or its eyes drilling into her, fixing her with a persistent gaze. She can’t see anyone, of course, but she swears she can sense the presence, and it’s as real as anything she’s ever felt before in her life. It’s as if, every time she walks into a room, someone has just left, leaving behind a kind of wake in the air. She’s by no means a superstitious person, and she definitely don’t believe in ghosts, but this thing seems so real, and Sam can’t help but keep glancing around, in case she might spot… something.

“Anyone there?” she asks tentatively. She feels really dumb for saying the words out loud, but at the same time she also feels as if she need to at least try. She’s under no illusion that some spirit is going to suddenly materialize and start chatting away, but she feels she should at least acknowledge what she’s feeling. It’s not as if anyone else can see her; the worst that can happen is that she’ll feel a little dumb.

“Hello?” she calls out again.

She stands in silence, listening to the lack of noise around her.

“I know I probably look pretty puny,” she continues, “but you should know that I’m kinda tough. I can handle myself, okay, so…”

Silence.

“Huh,” she mutters. “Well, if you are here, you’d better just keep out of my way. I don’t mind sharing, but don’t go making freaky noises or doing stuff in the night, okay?” She pauses for a moment, as the absurdity of her situation sinks in a little deeper. “For God’s sake, Sam,” she continues with a sigh, “get a grip. You’re talking to yourself again.”

Hearing a crunch from outside, she looks over at the door just in time to spot Mayor Winters bumbling across the grass, headed straight for the cottage. Sighing, she grabs a shirt and puts it on over her vest, before washing her hands and making sure that the place is tidy. Since the mayor is effectively her boss, she figures she needs to make a good impression whenever possible. After all, she definitely can’t afford to lose this job right now. She has nowhere else to go; no friends, not much money, and no dreams. She’s in limbo.

“Ms. Marker!” the mayor says as he reaches the door. He’s his usual jolly self, which immediately puts Sam on edge. There’s something very fake about this guy’s levity, as if he’s desperate to seem friendly. “It’s another glorious day,” he continues. “How wonderful to see the cemetery in all its splendor, as God intended. It’s been many years since the place looked so good. You’ve put your predecessors to shame, Ms. Marker. I hope you’re proud of your achievements. You’re to be commended for your wonderful work, and I’m certain I speak for the whole community when I offer you my deepest, warmest thanks. In fact, I’ve been thinking that we might even consider putting together some kind of informal ceremony to mark our great esteem for your work.”

Sam smiles awkwardly.

“Of course,” he continues, “that’s a subject for another day. I’m here on a rather different matter. Could you follow me for a moment? There’s something I need to show you.”

“Sure,” Sam says, heading out the door and walking with the mayor as he makes his way slowly around the cottage. They walk in silence for a moment before they come to the large mausoleum that stands over by the beech trees. “This old thing,” the mayor says, tapping the stone with the end of his cane. “Honestly, have you ever seen anything so morbid? A whole family, resting together in eternal slumber. Two parents, plus three children. One can only imagine the bond these people must have shared, to be willing to spend their deaths in such close proximity.”

“Huh,” Sam says, not really sure what he’s trying to say. The mausoleum is certainly big, the size of a truck, and above the entrance there’s a statue of Death, staring down with a grinning, bony expression, reaching out toward all visitors with a skeletal hand.

“This is the door,” Mayor Winters continues, tapping the large metal gate set in the nearest side of the mausoleum. “There used to be a key, I believe, although I haven’t seen it for many years. Just for show, of course. It’s not as if anyone would ever need to go inside, not since the final resting spot was taken more than a century ago. The whole idea of the mausoleum is that the dead should be undisturbed, and that’s just how we like it. However, we also have a duty to ensure that the place looks good, so I wanted to be sure that you’ll pay particular attention to the thing.” He raises the cane and taps the top corner of the mausoleum, where a strand of ivy emerges from a small hole. “Things like this. We can’t be having it. There are dead people in this place, and I’m sure they went to their grave with the belief that their final resting place would be tended for with the utmost respect. I need you to remove any outgrowths and fill in all the gaps, and generally ensure that the entire structure is presentable. But whatever you do, don’t go inside. I cannot stress this enough.”

Sam nods.

“I want to be very clear about this,” he continues. “If you should come across the key, if by some freak chance you should happen to find it, you are not to open the door. This is sacred land, and I simply will not have the dead being disturbed. Is that understood?” There’s a new edge to his tone, a kind of sharpness that seems at odds with his usual ebullient personality. It’s pretty clear that despite his happy-go-lucky demeanor, Mayor Winters is hiding a darker, more serious side, the extent of which only becomes apparent when his mask occasionally slips for a moment.

“Totally,” Sam says, puzzled by his attitude. He seems very keen to make sure that she doesn’t go inside the mausoleum, which of course has piqued her curiosity even further.

“If you find the key, you must bring it straight to me. No dawdling, no telling other people about what you’ve found. For safety’s sake, that key must be in my possession. Okay?”

Sam nods again.

“Not that it’s likely to turn up,” he continues. “I’m afraid it has been lost over the years. Keys are such small things, so easy to misplace.”

“We could always change the lock,” Sam points out. “Get a new one put in, and then you can be certain where the key is at all times.” She reaches out and runs her fingers over the large iron lock that keeps the door secured. It seems like the sturdiest thing in the world, as if it was designed to keep the gates of Hell closed.

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” the mayor replies, pushing her hand away. He seems nervous and agitated, as if he’s worried about something. “Just ensure that the mausoleum is adequately prepared. I know it can’t be made to look spotless, but I feel it’s starting to bring down the tone of the entire cemetery. I’m afraid you’ve done such a good job of cleaning this place up, Sam, that you’ve raised the standards immensely. I suppose that’s why the mausoleum suddenly seems like such an eyesore. We certainly wouldn’t want it to start attracting attention, would we?”

“Absolutely not,” Sam replies with a smile.

“Precisely,” he says, tapping her shoulder with his cane. “Once the mausoleum has been fixed up, I think we’ll have a truly fine cemetery on our hands, all thanks to your hard work. The town council has been noting your work with interest, Sam, and…” He pauses to glance around, as if he’s keen to make sure that they’re not being overheard. “I don’t want to get you too excited,” he whispers, leaning closer to her, “and I really shouldn’t be spilling the beans before anything has been rubber-stamped, but there’s a growing and very real possibility that you might be awarded a medallion in recognition of your work.”

“A medallion?”

He nods, as if this is something that should excite her.

“I’ve never owned a medallion before,” she replies.

“Have you not?”

She shakes her head.

“You poor child.”

She shrugs.

"Did you parents never -"

“Nope.”

“Oh.”

She shrugs again.

“Well, you heard nothing from me,” he says, before clearing his throat noisily, “but you might just be getting one soon. Anyway, I must let you get on with your work. It’s a fine day, and I’m sure you have plenty to be getting on with. I certainly don’t intend to micro-manage your every move. Just make sure to fix the mausoleum sometime over the next few days. I’m certain that, if they were around to thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Peterson and their children would be most grateful for you attention to their final resting place. They were, by all accounts, very proud people.”

“I’m sure they’ll be very happy,” Sam says.

“I must say,” he continues. “You’re a very respectful and honorable young lady. So many members of your generation have a tendency toward bad behavior. It’s rather refreshing to meet a young woman such as yourself, who takes things so seriously.”

“I’m just doing my job,” Sam replies.

“You’re doing it a lot better than most of your predecessors every managed.”

Sam smiles politely. Unused to receiving compliments, she’s finding lately that she blushes very easily.

“I’ll come back and see how you’re doing later!” the mayor calls back to her, as he turns and shuffles away. “It’s a glorious afternoon! I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time!”

Reaching up, Sam grabs a piece of the ivy that has grown out from the hole in the wall. She figures that the inside of the mausoleum is probably overgrown by now, with thick foliage filling the space. She gives the piece of ivy a tug, but it seems to be fixed fast to something; she tugs it again, but this time the resistance is stronger. As soon as she lets go, the leaves slip back inside the mausoleum, almost as if someone has pulled them. A more impressionable gardener could really start to believe that things around this cemetery are a little weird, but Sam forces herself to ignore such concerns and focus instead on the practical matters at hand.

Figuring that she’s going to need a proper plan of attack before she gets started on this thing, she wanders back over to the cottage. As soon as she reaches the door, she experiences the same sensation as before: it feels as if there’s someone else living in the cottage with her, like a kind of unseen, unheard housemate who remains constantly just out of sight. Sam walks across the kitchen and then she turns, half expecting to find someone behind her. She turns again, and again, as if she’s chasing her own tail. Finally, she forces herself to remember that this is all just in her imagination. It’s natural that, living in a small cottage in the middle of a cemetery, she should start to think that maybe she’s not alone. She figures she just needs to focus on more mundane matters, and that she has to make sure she doesn’t get carried away. With that in mind, she fills the kettle and decides to have one more cup of tea before she goes back out to tackle the mausoleum.

Behind her, unseen, the shadows in the corner of the room seem to shift for a moment, before falling still once again.

Chapter Two

 

“Get away!” Father Jones shouts, running out of the church just in time to see a motorbike screech away, kicking dust up into the air. “Hooligans!” he yells after the teenagers. “May the Lord have mercy on your souls and teach you the path to righteousness!” He watches as the bike disappears around the nearest corner, leaving the sleepy little town square to settle. “Idiots,” the old man mutters. “Stupid, youthful idiots.”

Taking a deep breath, he pauses to let him body recover from the exertion of racing along the aisle. He can feel his heart racing, and his tired old knees are suffering from the rush. Just a few moments ago, he was carefully arranging the hymn books when he heard the tell-tale sound of a spray can being used outside. By the time he made it out of the church, the vandalism was already complete and the most disgusting image had been painted on the fine old oak doors.

“Teenagers,” Father Jones says ruefully, turning to look at the crude outline of a naked woman. Painted in bright pink, it’s an absolutely obscene creation, showing a figure who appears to be reclining in a highly pornographic manner. This is the third time in a month that local vandals have chosen to target the church in this way. For Father Jones, this is yet another sign that the social bonds of Rippon are starting to weaken. The local children have no respect whatsoever for the old institutions that have served the community so well. An old man, Father Jones finds it harder and harder to remain optimistic about the future of the town. As far as he’s concerned, the whole place seems to be going straight to Hell.

“I know your parents,” he mutters as he shuffles back into the church. “Don’t think I don’t know exactly who you are,” he continues, although he’s talking only to himself. Making his way back over to the hymn books, he finishes tidying them before going through to his office. He starts drawing a bucket of hot, soapy water, ahead of the burdensome task of washing the graffiti from the doors. He’d hoped to spend the afternoon working on his forthcoming sermons, but he simply cannot allow the church’s facade to be decorated in such a disgusting manner.

After a moment, however, he hears a strange sound from the main part of the church. At first, he assumes that someone has come inside to pray, but after a few seconds he realizes that it sounds as if something is sizzling nearby. Pausing, he feels a knot of rage in his gut as it occurs to him that perhaps the teenagers have come back. After all, so few of the local citizens ever visit the church these days; the only people who come through his door are idiots and vandals. Hurrying back out of his office, he looks around and sees no sign of a visitor. Still, the sizzling sound is impossible to ignore, and it seems to be slowly moving toward the altar.

“Hello?” he calls out.

There’s no reply. The sizzling sound continues until finally it seems to have reached the area around the altar, where it persists for a moment.

“I’m afraid I can’t see you!” Father Jones continues. “Are you…” He walks over to the confessional box, but there’s no-one inside. “Hello?” he calls out again. “I can’t help you if I don’t know where you are!” He waits for a reply. “If this is another prank, I’d advise you to cut it out! This is the house of the Lord, not a playground for bored delinquents! Do you hear me? You’ve already done enough!”

He waits, but the only disturbance is the faint sizzling sound as it continues to move toward the altar.

Scared to get too close, Father Jones makes his way cautiously between the pews until finally he gets to the central aisle. Looking down, he sees that a series of footprints have been burned into the stone floor. With a mounting sense of dread, he follows the footprints until finally he reaches the altar. The sizzling sound stops, just as Father Jones sees two large burn marks nearby, almost as if someone has been kneeling. After a moment, he realizes that there’s a curious smell in the air.

Sulfur.

Overcome by fear, the old man turns and runs.

Chapter Three

 

“And that’s another thing,” Sam says as she continues to scrub the side of the mausoleum, “I don’t get where everyone is all day. I mean, you go into town, and the streets are deserted. It’s like people just spend all their time sitting around in their houses, apart from a few who head out at night and spend a couple of hours in the bar. I know Rippon isn’t the biggest place in the world, but you’d think there’d be some kind of social life going on. As far as I can see, there are barely a dozen people who actually get off their asses and step outside. Doesn’t that strike you as being a little strange?”

Turning, she sees Sparky the stone angel still handcuffed to the drain outside the cottage.

“You’re not the greatest conversationalist in the world, are you?” Sam continues. Pausing for a moment, she contemplates the fact that she’s now at the stage in her life when she’s content to spend her time chatting away to a statue. Having always worried about her sanity, she briefly considers the possibility that she might have lost her mind. “Just don’t start answering back,” she mutters eventually. “Then we’d really have a problem.”

Although she desperately wants to go back into the cottage and climb into bed, Sam decides to force herself to work through the nap barrier. Since she arrived in Rippon, she’s begun to take great pride in working long, back-breaking days. She feels as if she has to maintain a punishing pace, or she runs the risk of breaking and going back to her old ways. The old Sam liked to sit around in bed all day and barely lift a finger, before eventually rising around dusk and heading out to get drunk with Nadia at the nearest club; the new Sam, the Sam who has been in charge since she arrived in Rippon, feels as if she has to keep pushing all the time. There’s no time to rest, no time to stop and smell the flowers. She has to keep running, or her old self will catch up to her.

“I don’t know what’s worse,” she says out loud. “Talking to you, Sparky, or keeping my mouth shut and talking to myself in my head. I guess opening and closing my mouth probably burns a few extra calories, though.” Stepping back, she admires the work she’s done so far. The side of the mausoleum is much cleaner now, and free of all those little pieces of dirt and grime that had accumulated over the years. “What do you think, Sparky? Did I do a good job?”

She drops her sponge into the bucket and starts walking around to the next side of the mausoleum. As she goes, however, she happens to glance up at one of the holes at the top of the wall, just as something seems to slip out and fall toward her. Instinctively, she turns away, just as something small, hard and jangly hits the side of her head and drops to the ground.

“What the fuck?” she asks, looking down. She doesn’t see anything, so she tells herself it must have just been a piece of loose stonework.

“Great,” she mutters, soaking the sponge before starting work again. “I guess this is how I’ll die. Brained by a bit of falling masonry.” Glancing over at the ground, she spots something glinting in the sunlight; she steps over and sees that it’s a key. Once she’s picked it up, she realizes that it’s more than just a key; it’s an old key, big and rusty like something out of a horror movie. Turning it over in her hand, she glances back up at the hole in the top of the mausoleum. How, she wonders, did a key manage to come shooting out of that thing and hit her on the head?

“This is too perfect,” she says, walking around to the big metal door at the other end of the mausoleum. Before slipping the key into the lock, she pauses for a moment. It would be one thing for the mausoleum to randomly eject any old key, but if this turns out to be the missing key to the door, she might have to rethink her opinions on coincidences and spiritual intervention. Taking a deep breath, she slips the key into the lock, turns it, and feels the bolt slide away.

“Great,” she mutters. “Of course it turned out that this was the missing key. In this crazy-ass place, how could it not be the key?”

She glances over her shoulder, to make doubly sure that she’s alone.

“What do you think, Sparky?” she asks, staring at the now-unlocked door. “To go in, or not to go in? That’s the question.” She thinks back to Mayor Winters’ agitated insistence that she should, under no circumstances, go through the door, even in the unlikely event that she got it open. He was most definite on that subject; at the same time, she feels as if the key’s serendipitous arrival must mean something, and that it wouldn’t hurt to at least open the door and peer inside, even if she doesn’t actually enter. “Keep this between us, Sparky, okay?” she says quietly, before grabbing hold of the heavy door with both hands and forcing it open. It’s not an easy job, and the hinges creak like mad, but eventually she manages to get it open just a couple of feet.

“I’m going in,” she says out loud, affecting the tone of voice of a soldier who’s about to embark upon a deadly mission, before grabbing a torch from her work-belt and shining a beam into the mausoleum’s dark interior. The light picks out nothing but bare walls at first, although eventually she spots what appears to be a long stone box pushed to one side. Leaning a little further in, she’s surprised by the dank, cold air, and by the huge mass of ivy that has grown all over the place. She steps forward, keen to see the rest of the place, even if she knows deep down that she’s already come way too far.

“Hey,” she says, her voice sounding so small in the empty stone space. “I’m the new gardener,” she continues. “Just thought I’d introduce myself.” She takes another step forward, and now she’s fully inside the mausoleum. She keeps one hand back, resting on the inside of the door; it’s not like it’s light enough to blow shut, but she still feels better if she can make sure there won’t be an accidental entombment. Reaching up, she pulls at some of the ivy, shining the torch along its thick branches until she sees that one strand, at least, seems to have grown straight through the side of the stone coffin. “Nice,” she mutters, turning and shining the torch over to the other side, where she sees another coffin. “Mr. and Mrs. Petersen, I presume,” she says, before realizing that there should be three more coffins. After all, the Petersens are buried in here with their children, but the beam from the torch shows nothing but bare stonework in the rest of the mausoleum.

Stepping back outside for a moment, she hurries over to the side of the cottage and grabs her biggest scythe. She figures she might as well rip out some of the ivy while she’s got the chance; it’s not as if anyone’s going to know, and it’ll make her life a lot easier. When she gets back over to the mausoleum, she reaches inside with the scythe and starts hacking away, pulling as much out as possible. After a few minutes, she’s got a fair way through the mass of foliage, but she quickly finds that one of the branches is refusing to budge. Stepping back inside the mausoleum, she follows the root down to the hole in the side of one of the coffins; when she gives it a tug, she feels as if the root is stuck in the coffin itself, which means that every time she gives it a pull, she’s probably nudging the dead body, almost as if she’s trying to wake it up.

“Sorry,” she mutters, as she pulls again, but the ivy just won’t budge. “Fine,” she adds, figuring that she doesn’t have to get every last piece of greenery. Shining the torch over to the other side of the interior, she spots more ivy. She steps forward, ready to pull it down, when she suddenly becomes aware of a noise outside. She looks over at the door, and for a fraction of a second she swears she sees a hunched figure hurrying out of the mausoleum. Before she can react, however, the door swings shut with an ominous thud.

“Hey!” she shouts, but it’s too late and there’s a creaking sound as the key is turned in the lock. Dropping the scythe and torch, she stumbles past the remaining ivy and starts banging on the inside of the door. “I’m in here!” she calls to whoever’s on the other side. Pushing against the door, she realizes that there’s no way of opening it from the inside. She tries not to panic as she pushes some more, but it won’t budge. “Open this damn thing!” she shouts as loud as she can, worried that maybe she can’t be heard properly. “Let me out!”

She waits.

Nothing.

With a heavy heart, it occurs to her that maybe she’s been pranked by some of the local kids. “Damn it,” she mutters, “how could I have been so fucking stupid?” Figuring that some local teenagers probably saw her coming into the mausoleum and thought it’d be hilarious to shut the door, she sighs as she realizes she might be in for a long wait. She knows they’re not going to leave her inside forever, but she still finds the whole situation to be extremely creepy, and she’s keen to get out before the mayor turns up and discovers her predicament.

“Great,” she says, kicking the door. “Fucking great.”

Turning, she sees the torch on the floor, its beam still shining bright. Picking her way carefully through the ivy, she reaches down and grabs the torch, which is now wet and grimy thanks to the dirty floor. In fact, thanks to the small holes in the roof, the inside of the mausoleum is generally pretty weather-beaten, with a puddle of cold rain-water having collected over by one of the corners. Frankly, Sam can’t help feeling that if she was designing a final resting place for her family and herself, she’d want somewhere a little more swanky. The Egyptians built huge pyramids, whereas moneyed Yorkshiremen of the early twentieth century were apparently happy to accept a cold, barren stone vault.

Shining the torch over at one of the coffins, she reminds herself that there’s absolutely no reason to be scared in here. There’s no such thing as ghosts, and these bodies are almost a century old, so she doubts there’s much to be worried about in terms of maggots or disease. The only danger in the mausoleum comes, she decides, from her own imagination, and she resolves to make sure that she doesn’t get to the point where she’s magnifying every noise in her mind. Mayor Winters said he’d be back later, so the worst-case scenario is that she’ll have to sit around, bored stiff for a few hours, and then sheepishly apologize for having come into the mausoleum when she should have stayed out.

Figuring she might as well keep exploring the mausoleum, she turns and shines the torch toward the far wall. It still strikes her as slightly strange that while there are a couple of stone coffins for the parents, the three children don’t seem to be anywhere around. She read the inscription over and over again while she was outside, and it definitely said that the family’s three children, who all died young, were buried in here as well. She looks down, but there don’t seem to be any slabs on the floor. Feeling a drip on the back of her neck, she realizes that her attempts to turn this lock-in into some kind of mystery are probably doomed to failure. If the children aren’t in the mausoleum, it’s because of some mundane, long-forgotten decision. Another drip lands on the back of her neck, and she absent-mindedly wipes it away as she walks back to the door and gives it another push.

No luck.

Another drip falls onto her. This time, a little frustrated, she wipes it away before shining the torch up.

And that’s when she sees them.

Suspended in mid-air, a few inches above Sam’s head, there are three child-shaped bundles, like Egyptian mummies wrapped in cloth, hanging from a series of ropes. They have strange fan-like objects, almost like wings, attached to their backs, and their faces are marked by thick, dark red patches of blood that have soaked through from their eyes and mouths.

Chapter Four

 

“The Devil is here!” Father Jones shouts as he barges through the door of Mayor Winters’ office. “Right here in Rippon! In the church, no less!” Pausing for breath after his exhausting run across the town square, the old man is almost bent double as he feels a pain in his chest. “The Devil,” he continues, gasping for air. “He’s here! I warned you, all this sinfulness has lured him into our midst!”

After a moment, Father Jones stands up straight and looks over at the other side of the room, where Mayor Winters is sitting with a stunned look on his face. Unaccustomed to such sudden and dramatic interruptions, the mayor was busy dozing in his chair since his return from the cemetery, and he’d hoped to make it all the way to lunch before being roused. He certainly hadn’t anticipated being so rudely interrupted by a member of the clergy.

“Did you hear me?” Father Jones shouts. “The Devil!”

“What devil?” Mayor Winters asks.

“How many are there?” Father Jones replies, hurrying over to the desk. “The Devil is here. In this very town. All these years of sin and greed and modern living have caught up with us. I hope you’re satisfied. It’s under your leadership that the morality of this town has reached such an appallingly low level. Don’t think I haven’t seen that some young, unmarried little trollop has taken up residence in the cemetery cottage. You’ve disrespected the old ways, and now there’s a price to pay!”

“I think you might be a little confused,” the mayor replies.

“The Devil is here!” the old man shouts.

“The Devil?” Mayor Winters says, staring blankly at the old man. “You mean… the Devil?”

“I saw him,” Father Jones says. “Well, not directly, but I saw the mark of his presence. He came right into my church, as brazen as the day he was born, and he walked right up to the altar and he… he…” His voice trails off as he finds himself overcome by the emotion of the whole situation. Even though he has long despaired of the moral fortitude of Rippon’s residents, he never thought that the Devil himself would be lured to the place.

“Would you like a brandy?” Mayor Winters asks, trying to be helpful.

“Alcohol?” Father Jones replies, unable to hide his sense of shock. “After everything I have just said, your solution is to imbibe the Devil’s potions?”

“Just a small glass?”

Overcome by fury and utterly unable to speak, Father Jones leans on the desk for a moment. His mind is briefly filled with horrific visions in which the entire town of Rippon is ripped asunder by demonic forces, burning the residents and dragging them down to the pits of Hell. He has often been consumed by such flights of fancy, which tend to give him something of a thrill, but this time his fears seem far more substantial.

“Do you mind if I have a drink?” Mayor Winters asks, checking his watch and seeing that he’s more or less in the lunchtime zone.

"I don't know why I bother," Father Jones replies, his voice filled with anger. "For forty years, I have served this town faithfully. I have sought to spread the word of God, to encourage the citizens of Rippon to live pure and saintly lives. In some small ways, I have succeeded, but it is clear now that I have failed the community as a whole. I do not know who brought such darkness to -"

“So where is he?” Mayor Winters asks, interrupting him.

“Who?”

“The Devil.” He pauses for a moment. “Do you think he’s going to stay? Has he booked a room?”

“There is only one solution,” Father Jones continues. “We must pray. We must all pray, and offer ourselves to God so that He might grant us salvation.”

“That might be difficult,” Mayor Winters replies. “You see, I’m not sure that the people of Rippon are very keen on such things. I mean, they’re happy to pay lip service to the whole idea of the Devil, but when it comes down to it, I’m not sure how many of them actually believe that he’s… well… real.”

“Not real?” Father Jones roars, sweeping his arms across the desk and sending Mayor Winters’ papers flying across the room. “Is that what you’ll say when you’re thrown into the pits of Hell? As the Devil laughs in your face, will you scream that he’s not real?” Leaning across the desk, he grabs Mayor Winters by the collar and pulls him closer. “Are you such a fool that you would dare speak up to the Devil in such a way?”

“Not really,” Mayor Winters replies, trying to get free from the old man’s grip.

“Then you have no choice,” Father Jones continues, pulling him even closer. “You must ensure that the people of Rippon gather together in the town square in one hour’s time, so that we can project our love to God and hope that he will forgive us our many, many… many… many sins. Is that understood? Do you accept the need for such a show of faith?”

"I suppose so," Mayor Winters says, "but I'm not sure how many people will -"

“You must compel them!” Father Jones shouts, shaking the mayor’s collar violently. “You must use your words to drag them from their homes!” Finally letting go of the mayor, he turns and strides to the door, before glancing back at the desk. “You claim to be a leader of men, Mr. Winters. Now is the time for you to show that you are not just hot air. Now is the time for you to lead this town and demand that its citizens return to the right path. If you do not live up to the demands of your role, I can assure you that you will swiftly witness the collapse of Rippon into the pits of Hell.” He pauses for a moment, mainly for dramatic effect. “One hour!” he roars finally. “The town square! See that it is so!”

With that, Father Jones storms out of the office, making his way into the town square and striding purposefully back toward the church. Determined to ensure that the Devil does not take control of Rippon, he’s convinced that he can drive the beast out of the town, so long as he has the support of the local townsfolk. If this does not happen, however, he fears that the whole of Rippon will be dragged screaming into the fires of Hell.

Chapter Five

 

Standing in the middle of the mausoleum, Sam stares up at the children. It’s them. It has to be them. They look like they’ve been caught in some kind of huge spider web, except it’s not a spider web: it’s a series of ropes that are holding them in place, hanging from the ceiling. The strange shapes on their backs appear to be faded, painted wings made of wire and paper, as if someone decided it’d be nice to give them some decoration before hanging them up like this. The creepiest thing, though, is their faces: each head has three red patches of blood in the bandages, approximating two eyes and a mouth, and its from these patches that drops of blood occasionally fall.

“Hello?” Sam shouts, deciding that she really, really wants to get the hell out of the mausoleum. She steps over to the door and starts banging, hoping that even if there’s no-one else in the cemetery, maybe someone in the nearby street will hear her. It’s a long-shot, but it’s worth a try. “Hello?” she shouts again. “Girl trapped in tomb here! Can anyone hear me?”

Nothing.

Silence.

Sighing, she thinks of the empty cemetery stretching out around the mausoleum. With a mounting feeling of dread, she realizes that she’s kidding herself if she thinks that she has any chance of being heard until someone actually comes close to the mausoleum. At least Mayor Winters said he’d be back later, which means she’s not going to wither away and starve indefinitely. The biggest problem is the cold; while the sun is shining outside, in the mausoleum it’s absolutely freezing, and the constant drips of icy water aren’t helping. Hugging herself for warmth, she walks over to the other end of the mausoleum and -

“You’re cold,” says a voice suddenly. A hushed, whispered, slow and raspy voice, but a voice nonetheless. It sounds distant, and after a brief moment of blind panic, Sam realizes that it’s coming from over by the door.

“Hello?” she shouts, heading back to the entrance. “Is someone out there?”

“You’re cold,” the voice hisses again, from just on the other side of the door.

“I’m trapped in here!” she says. “You need to turn the key and pull the door open. It’s heavy, but I can’t do it from inside!”

She waits. Nothing.

“Hello?”

“You have a visitor,” the voice continues.

“I…” Sam pauses for a moment. “I have a visitor?” She stares into the darkness, trying to work out what the voice means. “Look, can you just let me out of here?” she says eventually. “We can chat once you’ve done that, yeah?”

“You’re safer in there,” the voice says. “For now.”

“Safer in here?” Sam pauses again. Her pulse is racing and she’s finding it harder and harder to keep from panicking. “I’m really not safer in here,” she says after a moment. “I’d like to get out, if that’s okay with you.” She waits for an answer, but the voice says nothing. “Please,” she continues, “can you just let me out?” She bangs on the door. “Please?”

“Who are you?” he asks.

“I’m Sam.”

“Who are you?”

“My name’s Samantha Marker.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Sam Marker !" she says, getting increasingly annoyed at the repeated question. "I'm the gardener here, and I -"

“Gardener,” he hisses.

"Yes, I'm the gardener, and I -"

“There have been many gardeners here,” he continues, suddenly seeming rather talkative. “You’re not the first, but you’ll be the last.”

“The last?” After a moment, she realizes that this is probably just those kids again. For all she knows, there could be a whole bunch of them outside, giggling away as they extend their prank. Sighing, she figures she needs to find some way to get this over with, or she might be stuck in the mausoleum all day. “Look,” she says eventually, “I know this probably seems really funny, but I need to get out of here. I need my insulin, or I’ll get sick.” That’s a lie, but she figures it might snag their sympathy. “If you open the door, I’ll wait a minute before I come out, and no-one’ll know it was you who locked me in here, okay? You won’t get in trouble. Just let me out.”

Silence.

“Hello?”

“They’re waiting for you,” the voice says.

“Who?” Sam asks, before reminding herself that this is just a bunch of kids. “Listen, I really need my insulin. I could go into a diabetic coma if you don’t let me out. I know you don’t want that, so just open the door and we can draw a line under this whole thing, okay? I’ll even let you come inside and take a look around, if you want. There’s some pretty fucked-up stuff in here.”

“The last gardener will face the world’s end,” the voice continues. “Are you ready?”

Sam swallows hard. These kids are really laying it on thick.

“There must be two,” he says. “One for the day, and one for the night. You are for the day.”

“I am?”

“The night gardener sleeps.”

“The…” She sighs. “Someone’s been watching too many horror movies,” she says eventually, before banging on the door again. “I’m gonna be blunt here. If you let me out now, this whole thing can be swept under the carpet. But if you make me wait until someone else shows up, I’m gonna let you have it. There are cameras here, you know.” That’s another lie, but she figures the kids won’t know that. “I’ll check the tapes, and I’ll be able to see who you are, and I will fucking own you.” She pauses, realizing that her attempts to sound scary aren’t working. “Look, let’s just tone this whole thing down and pretend it never happened.” She waits for an answer. “I really need my insulin, guys.”

“When the ground splits open,” the voice continues, “you will see his face.”

“Uh-huh. I’m getting bored now. That’s what you’re doing. You’re boring me.”

“And when you see his face, you will know that you have reached the world’s end. You will look into his eyes, and you will bear witness to the reflection of everything dying. This is the duty of the last gardener. And those above you will reach out and seek life once again. Even the little one.”

"That's great," she says, "but -" Suddenly, she realizes that there's a sound coming from inside the mausoleum. A shuffling, creaking sound, as if someone is tearing cloth. She turns the torch and shines it at the coffins, and then finally she looks up and sees that the children have started to move. Wriggling in their bandages, they seem to be trying to get free. Finally, one of them is able to get its arm loose, and a bandaged hand reaches down toward Sam. She ducks, as the others also get their arms free and reach for her.

"I don't know how you're doing this," she calls out to the kids on the other side of the door, "but it's very funny. Very impressive." She pauses, forcing herself not to panic. After all, that's what they want; they want to hear the fear in her voice. That's what she keeps telling herself, anyway. "You've done a great job," she shouts, "but enough's enough. Let's call it quits, yeah? Why are you doing this, anyway? Are you live-streaming it or something? Let's just agree that you've pulled off something pretty cool, and -"

Suddenly there’s a tearing sound, and one of the bandaged bodies falls from the ropes, landing with a crunching thud in a puddle on the ground.

“Jesus,” Sam mutters, watching as the body slowly starts to move again. After a few seconds, it raises its head until its bandaged, blood-stained face is staring straight at her. She steps away, but the body slowly starts wriggling toward her. Unable to hold back the panic, she turns and starts pounding on the door, dropping the torch in the process; the bulb blinks off, and she’s left in total darkness, still banging for help as she hears the body making its way up behind her. Finally, she hears a rasping, guttural growl close to her ear.

Chapter Six

 

“Is this it?” Father Jones asks as he stands in the town square with just a handful of bored-looking people gathered around him. “Is this town so ungodly that its people do not care about the Devil’s presence?”

“It was very short notice,” Mayor Winters says, looking a little uncomfortable. “You know how it is around here. People tend not to do things unless they’ve had a considerable period of time in which to contemplate their options. It’s just not possible to rouse the entire populace to come out and…” He pauses for a moment. “Well, perhaps we could reschedule this event to a more convenient time?”

“A more convenient time?” Father Jones shouts, his eyes wide with shock at such a horrific idea. “Do you propose that we should just sit around and twiddle our thumbs? Do you propose that the Devil will do the same? This is pure idleness! None of you can be bothered to save yourselves from the Devil’s whip!” Turning, he sees that a couple of members of the dwindling crowd have begun to slope away. “Where are you going?” he calls after them. “How do you expect us to repel this satanic intruder if you will not join with me? Do you expect me to do everything for you?”

“Perhaps we should go and get a drink,” Mayor Winters suggests, putting a helping hand on the old man’s shoulder. “We can talk about the situation and maybe come up with a better plan.”

“A drink?” Father Jones shrieks, pulling away. “A drink? Is that your answer to everything? The Devil himself is wandering our streets, undoubtedly with an eye on some horrific deed, and you would prefer to gather people together so they can drink alcohol and wait for this town to collapse under the weight of its own sin?”

"Well..." Mayor Winters pauses for a moment. "It's just that my legs aren't so good these days, and I thought that maybe -"

"Excuse me," says one of the men standing nearby. "Is this going to take long? I thought it'd just be a quick thing -"

“Go!” Father Jones roars. “Leave this place immediately! If I am the only man left standing, the only man pushing back against the Devil’s visit to our fair town, then so be it. I will stand here and I will proclaim my love of God, and I will use my faith to single-handedly repel this dark intruder. The Lord will surely hear my cries and have mercy on Rippon. If he does not, He will elevate me to Heaven and leave the rest of you foul people to rot!”

“I don’t think anyone’s going to be rotting,” the Mayor protests. “People just want to get on with their lives. They want to work during the day and rest during the evening. I think all this talk of the Devil is rather off-putting. It makes people wonder.”

“It makes them wonder?” Father Jones asks incredulously.

The Mayor nods.

“About what?”

“Well, about…” There’s a pause. “The future. I mean, the Devil isn’t exactly a welcome guest, is he? If he actually came to Rippon, I imagine he’d cause quite a commotion.”

Father Jones stares at him for a moment. “Are you in league with the beast?” he asks after a moment, as a strange new idea ripens in his mind. “Is that why you show no keenness to smite the Devil and run him out of town? Has he passed some gold across your palm and offered you the wages of sin? Are you luring these poor people to their doom as part of some sick and twisted game?”

“Perhaps you’re over-heating,” the mayor replies, patting the old man’s shoulder. “No-one is in cahoots with anyone. I’m afraid it’s just that people don’t believe the Devil is really here. Look around. Why would such a beast ever come to Rippon? This is such a small, quiet town. Nothing ever happens here, so what could possibly compel the Devil to come strolling down our streets? If I were the Devil, I’d certainly go somewhere more interesting. London, perhaps, or New York. The idea of the Devil being in our fair town is just impossible to believe.”

“Then you are a more craven man than I had ever imagined,” Father Jones replies darkly. “You are clearly content to wallow in the moral filth you have created. I pity all those who share you views, but I will not stand around and beg the Lord to forgive your sins. Good day to you, Sir. Good day, and good luck.” Turning, he walks quickly away, feeling a kind of righteous anger start to boil through his body.

“If you change your mind,” Mayor Winters calls after him, “I shall be in my office for most of the day, and later I shall be in the cafe! I would happily buy you a drink if you think we could discuss the matter further!”

“Go to Hell,” Father Jones mutters under his breath. Tired of being mocked for his faith, he has decided to let these fools face their fate without his help. He has tried for so many years to maintain a little godliness in Rippon, and now he feels that it has all been thrown back in his face. He’s quite certain that, eventually, the townsfolk will be banging on the door of his church, begging to be saved, but he has no intention of helping them. He will simply pray to the Lord and ask that these poor souls are spared the fires of eternal damnation.

Chapter Seven

 

After an eternity of silence and calm, Sam hears a creaking sound in the darkness, and finally the door starts to swing open. At first, she can’t quite believe that it’s really happening; she feels like she’s been in the mausoleum forever, curled up in a ball at the far end. Blinking in the bright light of late afternoon, she slowly and achingly gets to her feet, overawed as a figure pushes the door all the way and then stands staring at her.

“You alright in here?” he asks with a thick northern accent.

Stumbling toward the light, Sam finally steps out of the mausoleum and takes a deep breath. She feels kind of weak, but at least she’s out now. For a while there, she thought she was maybe going to be trapped inside forever with that… She pauses, before turning to look back into the darkness. Where did it go?

“You okay?” the man asks.

Sam steps back toward the door and peers inside. There’s no sign of the creature that fell down onto the floor. Earlier, it crawled slowly toward her until, quite suddenly, the noise stopped and it seemed to disappear. After that, she’s not quite sure what happened. Looking up, she sees the three bandaged figures still hanging from the ceiling and she figures that maybe she imagined the whole thing, or at least the part with the wriggling dead bodies.

“Who are you?” she asks, suddenly turning to the man. He’s a scruffy-looking guy, wearing a faded old leather jacket, and he seems vaguely familiar.

“The name’s Ben Tovey,” he replies, reaching out and shaking her hand. “Pleased to see you again.”

Sam stares at him for a moment. “You were in the cafe,” she says eventually, as she starts to remember where she’s seen him before. “I met you the first night I was here.”

He smiles. “Nice to know I’m memorable.”

“But how…” She turns and looks back into the mausoleum for a moment. “How did you know I was trapped in there?”

“I didn’t,” he says, “but luckily for you, someone else did. Sent me to get you out. In fact, he asked me to give you a message. He wants you to meet him at the cafe right now, if you happen to have the time?”

“Who?”

“Mr. Fenroc.”

Who?”

“You don’t know him?” He pauses. “Well, he seems to know you, and he wants to have a chat.” Sniffing, Tovey looks up at the statue of Death on top of the mausoleum. “This damn thing always gave me the creeps. I keep thinking he’s waiting for something, like he’s poised to strike. What the bloody hell were you doing in there, anyway?”

“I wasn’t doing anything,” she replies. “I just got stuck. Someone shut the door, and I couldn’t open it from inside, and…” She pauses, as she realizes that she can’t really explain everything that happened. “Did you see any kids around here?” she asks, glancing over at the gate. “Anyone at all?”

He shakes his head.

“Huh.”

“Well, then, I guess you’ll just have to owe me a favor, won’t you?” Tovey continues with a smile. “Wouldn’t like to think that a nice girl like you ended up stuck in a place like this.” He steps closer and leans into the mausoleum. “Cold in here,” he adds after a moment, before looking up at the bandaged bodies hanging from the ceiling. “Bloody hell. You’ve gotta wonder about some people, haven’t you? There’s some weird ideas floating around.”

“This Mr. Fenroc guy,” Sam says cautiously, “is he waiting for me right now?”

“Yep,” Tovey says, stepping back and starting to push the door shut. “He said to tell you there’s no hurry, but he definitely wants a word.”

“Why didn’t he just come here, instead of you?” Sam asks.

As the door creaks shut, Tovey turns the key to make sure it’s locked. “Well, that’s a rather delicate matter, I’m afraid. Mr. Fenroc is somewhat limited in terms of his movements, if you know what I mean. He tends to stick to certain places and avoid others entirely. Say what you like about him, though, he’s a good guy. I’ve got a lot of time for him.”

“You have, huh?” Sam says, taking the key from the lock and slipping it into her pocket. “I guess I could spare a few minutes,” she adds, feeling as if maybe she’s being lured into some kind of trap. There’s something decidedly odd about this whole situation, almost as if it’s some kind of a set-up. It just seems too convenient that this Mr. Fenroc guy happened to know that she’d got stuck in the mausoleum, and then he happened to send the town butcher along to rescue her.

“Well, my work’s done here,” Tovey says, patting Sam on the shoulder. “Glad to have been of service.” With that, he turns and walks away, heading for the gate.

“Thanks!” Sam calls after him, before turning to look up at the statue of Death. The weird thing is, she could swear something has changed about the statue; whereas earlier it had one hand outstretched, now it seems to be leaning a little closer, and its hand seems to be slightly more closed, as if it’s reaching for something. She stares at the statue’s eyes for a moment, feeling as if the dark, hollowed sockets are staring straight back at her.

“I tell you what,” she says out loud after a moment. “You keep out of my way, and I’ll keep out of yours. Deal?”

Without waiting for a reply, she turns and head over to the cottage, which she locks up before making her way to the gate and out into the street. There’s a part of her that wants to just forget everything that’s happened today, and to put it out of her mind; at the same time, she’s kind of intrigued to find out what this Mr. Fenroc guy has to say for himself. Right now, the whole town is starting to feel particularly creepy, and Sam definitely wouldn’t mind a few answers.

When she reaches the cafe, Sam immediately sees that there’s only one customer. Sitting out in the sun, with a pint of beer in front of him, there’s a good-looking middle-aged guy with black curly hair, wearing a long, dark green coat. He looks over and smiles when he sees her, and he immediately gets up and reaches out to shake her hand.

“Ms. Marker,” he says with a strong Irish accent. “A pleasure to see you again.”

“And…” she starts to say, before she realizes where she’s heard his voice before; he was the guy who spoke to her briefly at the cemetery gate on her first night, standing in the shadows. “It’s you,” she says, taking a seat.

“Beer?” he asks, signaling to the waiter.

“No,” she says quickly. “Thanks. Just water.”

“You don’t drink?”

She shakes her head.

“Not even that bottle of wine I left in the cottage?”

She shakes her head again.

“Very wise. Rots the soul. I’ve seen a lot of good men get pulled under by the sauce. It’s like poison, spreading through the body from the liver, dismantling a man from the inside. Takes a bloody long time, too. Decades, sometimes. One day, you’ll look back on your abstinence and realize you made the right choice.”

“I already realize that,” she says, trying to play it cool. She wants to just ask him about what happened today, but at the same time she knows that she needs to be a little more tactful. After all, she doesn’t want to seem desperate.

“I’m glad to see you’re all in one piece,” Fenroc continues. “Being trapped in a mausoleum must be a traumatizing experience. I hope it hasn’t left any mental scars.”

“None that I’ve noticed so far,” Sam tells him, as the waiter brings her a bottle of water and a glass. “Do you mind if I ask something, though?” she continues once the waiter has gone back inside. “How did you know I was in there?”

“Sixth sense,” he replies, tapping his nose. “Well, that and I happened to be walking past the gate when I saw the door closing on you.”

“You happened to be walking past?”

“Just like that,” he says with a smile.

“Did you see who pushed the door?”

He shrugs. “All I saw was you going inside, and then the door swung shut.”

“And no-one pushed it?”

He shrugs again.

“And you didn’t come in to help me?”

He opens his mouth to reply, but then he pauses for a moment. “It’s tricky, Ms. Marker. There are certain parts of this town in which I sometimes feel rather less than welcome. I’m not a forceful man, so I prefer to remain in the areas where I face less resistance.”

Sam stares at him, trying to get his measure. On the one hand, he seems fairly nice and friendly, and there’s nothing specific that she feels should make her be wary of his motives; on the other hand, he never quite seems to answer a question directly, and she gets the feeling that he’s holding something back.

“You seem troubled,” Fenroc continues. “Are you sure I couldn’t tempt you to share a beer? Just this once?”

“No,” Sam says. “I’m sorry, I just don’t quite understand why you sent someone else to get me out of the mausoleum, when you could have just come and done it yourself.”

“As I said, I’m not welcome in the cemetery.”

“Well… I think maybe you are. I mean, I’m the gardener, and I don’t think anyone’s unwelcome.”

“That’s very nice of you,” he says, “and I promise you, I shall take the matter under advisement. Who knows? Perhaps, at some point in the future, things’ll change and I’ll be in a position to test your kindness. However, for now, I feel I’m much better off being a little cautious. I’ve made a few enemies in this town, and I’d really rather not cause any further antagonism.” He pauses for a moment, and finally a strange smile creeps across his face. “Is there anything you’d like to ask me about the mausoleum, Ms. Marker? Did you find the interior to be interesting?”

Sam takes a deep breath. "The children -"

“Ah, yes, the children.” He takes a sip from his beer. “A strange family, by all accounts. I only know what I’ve read, obviously, but it’s claimed that the parents wanted their dead children to be arranged like angels, hanging from the ceiling of the tomb. Such a tragic story. All three of the little beauties were under ten years of age when they perished in a fire. The parents were distraught, but they took solace in creating a rather remarkable tableau. Tell me, were they still hanging up there, with their little wings and halos?”

“Um…” Sam raises her eyebrows for a moment, finding the whole thing to be kind of freaky. “Yeah,” she says eventually. “I mean, they didn’t really look much like angels…”

“Still, the intent was there. I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Petersen would have been glad to know that, almost a century later, their effort remains in place. I’ve often thought that it’s a shame such a beautiful scene can’t be witnessed by the general public, although…” He reaches into his pocket and takes out a folded piece of paper, which he slides toward her. “I suppose that, for those of us who are not lucky enough to be admitted into the mausoleum, contemporary newspaper accounts will have to be sufficient.”

Unfolding the piece of paper, Sam sees that it shows the inside of the mausoleum. The three bodies are still hanging from the ceiling, while the two stone coffins are open, showing the dead faces of Mr. and Mrs. Petersen.

“Grim, isn’t it?” Fenroc says with a grin. “Such a macabre and unusual family. One has to wonder whatever was going through their minds when they arranged such a thing, but I have learned over the years that it’s foolhardy in the extreme to try second-guessing those who are in the throes of grief. They had their reasons, and we must simply abide by such an understanding.”

“I guess they could afford to do what they wanted,” Sam says.

“Oh, the perils of money,” Fenroc replies. “I’m afraid that great wealth is often wasted on those who lack the good taste to spend it well. Meanwhile, those of us with strong principles and good ideas are left to scrabble about in the dust for a few meager pennies.” He pauses for a moment. “This town is strange, Sam. I’m sure you’ve noticed already. There are people here with secrets, and there are things living in the shadows. One can never be quite certain that one is alone.”

“I don’t mind being alone,” Sam says.

“I’ve noticed,” Fenroc replies. “You’re not alone in the cemetery, though, are you?”

“Aren’t I?”

“You’ve got all those bodies with you,” he continues. “All those corpses rotting in the ground. Doesn’t it give you the willies, Sam? Don’t you ever sit in that little cottage and think about the fact that you’re surrounded by graves? So much company, even if your friends are all dead.” He smiles. “Don’t you have any friends, Sam? No-one from your old life who’s going to come and visit you?”

Sam shakes her head.

“Interesting,” Fenroc replies. “I’m always fascinated by people who seem to appear from out of nowhere. Speaking of which, have you felt the tremors lately?”

“I thought it was a small earthquake,” Sam says.

“In Yorkshire?”

“Stuff happens.”

“Maybe.” He takes another sip from his beer. “It feels to me as if something’s stirring. Something deep underground. Let’s face it, Sam; you don’t really know who, or what, is buried in that cemetery, do you? If you were to dig beyond the bodies you know about, what might you find far below?”

“It’s just a cemetery.”

“In a town that’s built on a very pronounced hill. Do you think such hills emerge naturally, Sam, or do you think maybe someone gave this town its shape on purpose?”

Finishing her water, Sam glances across the town square for a moment.

“Penny for them?” Fenroc says eventually.

“Do you ever feel as if you’ve landed in something you can’t handle?” she asks after a moment. “I just came here to do some stupid job, and now it seems like…” She pauses for a moment, before she realizes how dumb it’d be to open up to a complete stranger, especially when she’s not sure about his motives.

“You’re doubting yourself?” Fenroc asks.

“What are you doing here?” she replies. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you don’t seem very popular.”

He shrugs. “I’m like you, Sam. I don’t need to have people around me all the time. Don’t worry. I’m never lonely.”

“I have to go,” Sam replies, standing up. “Thanks for helping me get out of there. Eventually.”

“Maybe you can pay me back some time,” he says.

“Sure,” Sam mutters as she turns to walk away.

“How about dinner?” Fenroc calls after her.

She stops and glances back at him. “Dinner?”

“You look so shocked,” he says, smiling. “Am I really such a disgusting bastard? I just thought maybe we could talk more fully if we had a little longer, that’s all. There’s a great little restaurant around the corner, serves Italian food. I know it’s hard to believe that such a place could exist in Rippon, but I swear to God, it’s worth a visit. Maybe we could meet up there, say… tonight? I’ll pay, of course. It’s not often that a man like me gets to take a beautiful young woman out to dinner.”

“I…” She stares at him, trying to work out what to say and feeling an awkward, cringing sensation creeping through her body.

“It’s not a date,” he continues. “I just feel that we have a lot more to talk about, and a quick drink in a cafe isn’t entirely conducive to a long conversation. I don’t know about you, but I think we have a few things in common. I’ve certainly got some information that’s going to interest you about the cemetery. That place is more unusual than you might imagine. I’ve been meaning speak to one of the new gardeners, but I kept putting it off. I mean…” He pauses. “Well, for all I know, you might even be the last gardener, so I guess I should tell you.”

“The last gardener?”

He smiles. “Just a phrase.”

Sam takes a deep breath. “Next week,” she says after a moment. “I can meet you one day next week, if you want.”

“At Antonio’s, just around the corner? Eight o’clock? Say… a week on Monday?”

Sam nods.

“Relax,” Fenroc says with a grin. “It’ll be fun. You look so serious. Everyone needs to unwind from time to time. I promise, I don’t bite.”

“I’ll see you there,” Sam says, turning and walking away. She can feel Fenroc’s eyes staring at the back of her head, but she’s determined to keep going and not give him the satisfaction of looking back. She figures there’s something pretty strange about that guy, and a lot of things just don’t add up. Plus, there’s that phrase he used when he described her as ‘the last gardener’. That’s twice today that she’s heard those words, and she can’t shake the feeling that Fenroc maybe knows more about what happened than he’s letting on. In fact, she feels as if maybe he’s the one who pushed the door shut. After all, who else could it be?

Chapter Eight

 

“Dear Lord,” Father Jones says quietly, kneeling at the altar, “I beg you to forgive these people. They know not what they do, and they have been led astray by those who promise them free and easy living.” He pauses for a moment, trying to clear his head so that he can find some way to save the town. “I have tried, Lord. I have sought to train your flock, to show them that they must stand tall against the Devil. To a man, they have ignored me. Even now, with the Devil walking our streets, they are too lazy and too arrogant to believe that they need do anything. I beseech thee, Lord, to stir some sense of faith in their hearts, and to spare them the full horror of the beast’s wrath.”

He lowers his head and closes his eyes, listening to the vast silence of the church.

“Amen,” he mutters eventually.

“Bravo!” calls a voice from nearby, and the sound of clapping hands fills the space.

“Who’s there?” Father Jones asks, getting awkwardly to his feet and turning to find a figure sitting nearby. Sighing, he realizes that he is set to be mocked yet again, and by one of his least favorite people in the whole town. “What do you want, Fenroc? Have you come to torment an old man?”

“Of course not,” Fenroc replies, sitting back in one of the pews. “I came to watch a man of faith as he prays to his god. That’s not something you see every day, now, is it? A man of true and absolute faith. When I was growing up in Ireland, I saw a few, but they kind of faded away. I guess they became unfashionable. Some of them lost their faith, some of them were caught up in scandals, some of them just died and were never replaced. It’s good to see strong men such as yourself still getting about, though, father. Gives me hope for the human race, so it does.”

“I must confess,” Father Jones says, walking over to the spot where Fenroc is sitting, “I’m surprised to hear such words come from your mouth. In all the time you’ve been in Rippon, I don’t think you’ve ever before walked through these doors and come to demonstrate your faith.”

“Oh, well, I’ve been busy,” Fenroc says, smiling. “You know how it is. A little of this, a little of that. I’ve been meaning to pop by, but I just couldn’t bring myself to pass the threshold. I kept wondering whether I’d start to sizzle and smell of bacon if I came inside, if you know what I mean.” He pauses for a moment. “I offer up a little prayer now and again, though, just to keep in touch with the old guy.”

“And what has brought you here today?” Father Jones asks.

“Curiosity. There are so many odd things going on right now. I heard your little argument with the Mayor in the town square, and I have personal experience of some rather odd things going on in the cemetery. There are some interesting bodies buried in this town, aren’t there?” He pauses for a moment. “Besides, something seems to have changed. Suddenly the threshold seems to have changed somewhat.”

“There’s a girl in the cemetery,” Father Jones replies, his voice filled with horror. “I don’t know what’s got into the Mayor’s head, but he’s hired a young lady to tend the garden. Quite apart from the fact that she can’t possibly manage all the heavy work that’s required, there’s the issue of propriety. It’s a man’s job, Mr. Fenroc. A young lady should be busying herself with other things!”

“Needlework and cooking?” Fenroc suggests with a smile. “A baby, perhaps?”

“I’m not old-fashioned,” Father Jones continues, “but I firmly believe that the fair sex should remain aware of its proper place. Men and women are most certainly not the same, despite the claims made by the modernists and the feminists. The gardener should be a strong, honest, hard-working man of the soil!”

“I believe of few of that type were hired,” Fenroc says airily, “and none of them lasted too long. They tended to run away or drop dead. So far, it looks like this young lady is lasting longer than the past couple of gardeners combined.”

“Only because the Devil is pushing her along,” Father Jones replies.

“Ah, yes,” Fenroc says, getting to his feet. “The Devil. Are you really so certain that he’s kicking about? Isn’t it possible that you’ve got your knickers in a twist, old man. From what I’ve heard, the Devil tends to be a difficult man to miss. Isn’t he a tall, red guy with horns and a tale? Doesn’t he tend to make himself known? Do you not think someone would have said something if they’d seen such a beast come wandering into the local watering hole? The Devil, here in Rippon? Do you really expect people to believe such a claim?”

“You know nothing,” Father Jones sneers. “You’re just like all the rest, Mr. Fenroc. You think you know better. You think godly men are fools, beholden to the old ways and wrapped up in superstitious nonsense, but you’ll see. The Devil is here in Rippon, and if he’s skulking about in the shadows, that merely means he has devious plans. You’ll realize I’m right one day, but by then it’ll be too late. If you’re not ready to bow down before the Lord, you might as well get out of here. My church won’t protect you from the Devil’s work unless you’re willing to let true faith into your heart.”

“I’ve tried doing that,” Fenroc replies, “but I just can’t seem to get the knack of it.” He heads along the aisle until he reaches the door, at which point he takes a small vial from his pocket and dips it into the font of holy water. “You have no idea how hard it can be,” he continues as he scoops up as much water as possible and then seals the vial, “to be born without the capacity of faith. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve begged the Heavens to light that spark in my heart, but there’s nothing doing. I’m an empty and hollow man, father, and there doesn’t seem to be a damn thing I can do about it.” He carefully sets the vial back in his pocket. “Good day to you, father. For all our sakes, I hope you’re wrong.”

Once Fenroc has left, Father Jones hurries to the altar. Filled with rage, and convinced that the whole of Rippon is set to suffer now that the town has turned its back on God, the old man is determined to pray for the Lord’s forgiveness. Kneeling on the cold stone floor, he bows his head, closes his eyes and tries to hear the voice of God in his mind. Slowly, the silence of the church seems to settle around him like a fine dust, disturbed eventually by the sudden intrusion of a presence.

Opening his eyes, Father Jones stares straight ahead. Without turning, he can feel that someone is directly behind him; not just behind him, but also towering over him. Someone or something has entered the church and is readying itself to strike. With a growing sense of dread, the old man realizes that the Devil has arrived.

“You do not frighten me,” Father Jones says, refusing to turn and look at the beast.

Behind and above him, there’s a snort of contempt.

"In this house," Father Jones continues, his voice trembling, "you have no dominion. The Lord watches over me and protects me. He does not permit your kind in this place. Be gone and -"

Before he can finish speaking, he feels something brush against his waist. It takes a moment before he realizes that a large hand is slowly closing its fingers around his body. Determined not to struggle, and not to give the Devil the satisfaction of feeling his fear, the old man closes his eyes again as he feels himself being lifted up off the stone floor.

“Dear Lord,” Father Jones whispers as he’s taken higher and higher above the altar. “Protect your humble servant from the machinations of this beast. Ensure that good triumphs over evil, and that the forces of sin are not permitted to gain a foothold in this town. The people of Rippon are misguided, but they can be brought back into your fold.” He pauses as he realizes he has been raised almost to the roof of the church. “Dear Lord,” he continues, “permit not this sacrilegious act. Turn this demon away from your door and save your followers from the machinations of the horned beast.”

He waits.

Opening his eyes for a moment, he looks down at the altar far below.

He opens his mouth to pray once again, but at the final moment his faith falters.

“Help me!” he screams, but before the words have even left his body, he’s thrown across the church until finally he slams against the far wall. His neck is broken instantly, and his body tumbles down to the stone floor far below. As his dead, glassy eyes stare up at the ceiling, a large presence makes its way along the central aisle and back out into the dusty town square, and the font of holy water bubbles and sizzles until it’s been completely burned away.

Chapter Nine

 

Unlocking the door to the cottage, Sam steps inside and immediately realizes that she’s not alone. There’s a very clear and very distinct presence in the room, one that she can’t shake off. Walking across the kitchen, she peers through to the other rooms, half-expecting to find someone waiting for her. Glancing at the little table over by the far wall, she notices a dirty porridge bowl and a half-drunk bottle of water.

Those were not there when she left this morning.

She walks over to the table and sees that someone has definitely been in the cottage. To make matters worse, the kettle appears to have been used, and one of Sam’s tea mugs has been used, and then washed and left to dry.

“Hey!” she calls out.

No reply.

“Stop using my stuff!” she says firmly.

Looking back to the door, she sees her grave-digging spade leaning in the corner. Grabbing the spade, she raises it above her shoulder, ready to strike if anyone jumps out at her. Moving across the kitchen, she glances into her bedroom, but there’s no-one around. Turning, she makes her way to the bathroom, which is also empty. Finally, she realizes that despite the strong indications otherwise, there genuinely seems to be no-one else in the cottage, which can only mean one thing…

“I’m going crazy,” she says quietly, lowering the spade. Staring at the table, she tries to work out if there’s any way that she might have had breakfast and then forgotten all about it. Another possibility is that the mayor might have let himself in and then… Pausing for a moment, she sighs as she realizes that none of these explanations makes any sense. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, so she figures the mystery intruder must be someone rather more solid.

“I’ll catch you,” she mutters. “If I have to stay up all night, I’ll fucking catch you.”

After making a cup of tea, Sam heads back out to finish working on the mausoleum. She figures there are still a few vines that need removing from the outside, and she wants to get the whole damn thing looking absolutely perfect. To her surprise, however, she discovers that someone appears to have beaten her to it: the mausoleum has been completely cleaned up, to the extent that it looks as good as new. The moss has been carefully scrubbed away, the ivy has been stripped down and even the stains in the stonework have been removed. To top everything off, there’s a brand new lock on the door, with a shiny new key hanging from a chain.

“Huh,” Sam says, sipping from her cup. She turns and looks across the cemetery, but there’s no sign of anyone nearby. Still, this is one coincidence too many: there’s definitely someone else around, and they’re clearly playing mind games. Although she’s pleased that the mausoleum has been cleaned, Sam can’t help but wonder why someone would be doing all this. Sure, kids might decide to play tricks on her, but she figures they’d probably do something that requires a little less effort. Something about this whole situation strikes her as being particularly strange. She just can’t work out why anyone would go to such extraordinary lengths to freak her out.

“What do you think, Sparky?” she asks, looking over at the stone angel that’s still chained to the side of the cottage. Suddenly overcome by a feeling of remorse, Sam sets her cup of tea aside and wanders over to the angel, and she takes a moment to wipe a small amount of moss from the stone face that stares resolutely back at her. “Do you want to know something?” she asks after a moment. “You’re quite possibly the best friend I’ve ever had.” She reaches out and jangles the chain that keeps Sparky in place. “You don’t answer back,” she continues, “and you don’t ramble on and on. I swear to God, tomorrow I’m going to find the perfect place to put you. Deal?”

Smiling, she reaches down and grabs one of the angel’s stone hands. Satisfied that she’s got a plan, she wanders back over to the mausoleum and stares up at the statue of Death.

“You got anything to say?” she asks, as there’s a faint rumble beneath her feet. “What the hell is that?” she adds.

Perched on top of the mausoleum, the statue of Death doesn’t respond, although a mouse scurries into view for a moment before hurrying out of sight again.

“Fine,” Sam says, making sure that the door to the mausoleum is closed before, finally, she heads back to the cottage. She hangs the new key inside, next to all the other old keys that fit various rusty locks around the place. As she finishes her tea, however, Sam once again feels as if she’s got company in the house. She turns and looks across the kitchen, and this time she feels the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. It’s almost as if someone is standing right behind her.

Deciding that there’s no point hanging around in the house and letting herself get freaked out, she grabs her spade and heads out to find something else to do in the cemetery. As she walks past the mausoleum, she doesn’t see that a small piece of stonework has come loose since the morning, and she doesn’t notice that the fact of Death is slowly, almost imperceptibly, turning to watch her as she walks away across the grass.

Part Four:

Angels of Stone

Chapter One

 

“Fuck!” the voice shouts. “This is so fucking creepy! We should dig one up!”

Sitting up in bed, with the remains of an already-forgotten dream still clouding her thoughts, Sam stares across the dark room and realizes that her worst nightmare has come true. She’s still not fully awake, of course, and she can almost feel the bed pulling her back down into its warm, soft, inviting fabric. Still, she can’t ignore the noise coming from outside, a noise that she feels has been nudging her while she’s been sleeping, and which has finally woken her.

“Kids,” she mutters, grabbing her clothes and starting to get dressed. Glancing at the clock on the bedside table, she sees that it’s just gone 2am; the cemetery should be calm and quiet, but instead it sounds like there’s a party going on out there. Trying to keep her frustration from boiling over, Sam finishes getting dressed and hurries into the kitchen, where she grabs her torch from the counter, unlocks the front door and steps out of the cottage.

The first thing she sees is a light over in the far part of the cemetery. Something’s burning, but the flames are moving, as if someone’s carrying a torch. Sam’s first instinct is to call the police and get them to come and help deal with the intruders, but after a moment she realizes that she doesn’t have a phone. Besides, she reminds herself, this is probably just a couple of kids having fun in the cemetery late at night, and she doesn’t want to be the kind of person who starts raining down fire and brimstone on a couple of excitable but undoubtedly harmless local teenagers. Grabbing her spade, Sam sets out across the grass, making a beeline straight for the light.

“Fucking hell!” the voice shouts in the darkness. It’s clearly a female voice, and young. “Wake up!” she screams, accompanied by a pounding sound. “Are you awake down there?”

“You’ll piss yourself if he replies,” a male voice replies, laughing.

“Hello?” the female voice shouts. “Anyone listening?”

“Look at the dates,” the male voice says, sounding slightly slurred. “This guy’s been dead for, like, thirty years. I think it’s safe to say he’s not coming back up.”

“But he must be so bored,” the female voice whines. “What if they buried him by mistake? What if they buried all these people by mistake?”

“Come here,” the male voice replies, and there’s silence for a moment, followed by the sound of wet lips smacking together in a drunken kiss. It’s a sloppy, messy sound, like two fish trying to suck one another to death.

“Hey!” Sam calls out as she reaches the two interlopers. With her spade slung over her shoulder, she makes for an arresting sight, particularly as she’s framed against the large moon that hangs above the cemetery.

“Fuck!” the male voice calls out, scrambling to get away.

“Shit!” the female voice says, turning to run but tripping on the edge of a gravestone and landing hard against the ground.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Sam asks, stepping over and seeing that the female is none other than Anna, once of the local teenagers. She waits for a response, before realizing that Anna is barely moving. “Are you okay down there?” she adds eventually, starting to worry that she might have accidentally killed her. “Did you hit your head or something?”

“I’m fine,” Anna replies, smiling as she rolls onto her back. She’s clearly wasted, and there’s a stench of beer rising from her sozzled form. She barely seems able to even focus properly as she lounges in the grass, and all her panic seems to have been replaced by amusement at the whole situation. “Are you okay?” she asks, grinning as she stares up at Sam. “I mean, are you really okay? You look troubled. Why don’t you sit down on the grass next to me and tell me all about the troubles in your life? I’m a good listener!”

“Anna!” the male voice hisses from the darkness. “Come on!”

“It’s thingy!” Anna says with a smile. “What’s her name again? You know, the girl. The one who does all the stuff in here. We’ve met her before.”

“Sam,” Sam mutters darkly.

“Sam!” Anna shouts. “That’s right! Dean, it’s Sam! You remember Sam! She’s cool! She’s the coolest mother-fucker in the whole damn place. She’s, like, a grave-robber or something!”

“Grave digger,” Sam replies firmly, “and that’s not all I do. Listen, it’s two in the morning, you really shouldn’t be here. You’re clearly drunk, so why don’t you go home before I call the police, okay?” She waits for a reply, but once again Anna seems to be lost in her own delirium. “I was asleep,” Sam continues. “I had a long day, and I’ve got another long day coming up. I get that you wanna have fun, but can’t you try to show a little respect for other people?” She pauses for a moment. “Holy fuck,” she mutters, “I sound like my grandmother.”

“Nah,” Anna replies, leaning on her elbows. “You wouldn’t call the police on us. We’re just having a bit of fun!”

“I don’t care what you’re doing,” Sam replies, “you can’t do it here. I’m not having drunk kids rolling around in my cemetery, so get the hell out, okay? And take your crap with you. Beer bottles, whatever, I don’t wanna be picking up your junk after you’re gone.”

“Or what?” the male voice asks from the darkness. “You gonna whack us with your shovel? You gonna chop our heads off and stick ‘em on poles?”

“I just might,” Sam replies with a sigh. “Why don’t you do us all a favor and just get out of here, okay? Is this really the best entertainment you can find for yourselves? You don’t seriously want to spend the night fucking about in a cemetery, do you?”

“There’s nowhere else to go,” Anna whines.

“You can’t be here,” Sam says.

“There’s no pubs or bars that’ll let us in,” Anna continues. “There’s no shops that’ll sell us beer. We’d have to go miles to the next town. It’s a cluster-fuck.”

“You can’t be here,” Sam says again, more firmly this time.

“Why not?” the male voice asks. “I mean, we’re not causing any damage, so what’s it to you? We’re not smashing gravestones up or anything like that. We’re just socializing in a slightly unusual way, but we’re being very respectful of the establishment. You’re welcome to join us.” He laughs again, and it’s clear that although he’s more able to talk than Anna, he’s still pretty drunk. “I mean, have you got any beer or anything?” he continues. “We’re kinda all out. We didn’t have much to begin with.”

“I don’t have any beer,” Sam replies, looking down at Anna and feeling a pang of sympathy. It wasn’t so long ago that Sam was doing this kind of thing, getting drunk every night and ending up in dangerous situations. There’s still a part of her that’d like to be partying, and she’s very much aware that she has a bottle of wine stashed in the cottage. For a fraction of a second, she feels herself poised to give in to temptation, and she allows herself to imagine what it would be like to just forget about everything else and get wasted.

“Come on,” Anna says quietly, “lighten up. Join the party. You must have some booze in that little cottage of yours. I mean, what else do you do all night? Sit around and read the Bible?”

“Go home,” Sam says firmly. “Go home now, or I’ll call the cops. It’s that simple.”

“Let’s go,” the male voice says. “Anna, seriously, let’s just get the fuck out of here. I don’t want the cops getting involved. My Dad’d kill me.”

“Fine,” Anna says, getting to her feet with all the grace of a drunk ostrich. “Fucking stuck-up bitch, coming over here with her fucking spade and acting like she’s the boss of everything.”

“I am the boss in here,” Sam says, embracing her authoritarian side for once. She turns and holds the spade out, pointing at the cemetery gates. “When you walk across that threshold, I am the boss, and I’ll tell you something else. I don’t like being woken up at two in the morning to deal with a pair of drunk idiots who can’t hold their alcohol. How many have you two had, anyway?”

“Fuck off,” Anna says, trudging across the grass and following Dean into the shadows.

“No, you fuck off,” Sam mutters, feeling as if she’s not in the mood to start getting into an argument. Her entire body is aching from the previous day’s hard work, and all she wants is to go back to bed.

“When did you become such a bitch?” Anna spits back at her.

“And don’t come back!” Sam calls after them.

“Fuck you!” Anna shouts from the darkness.

Sam stands and watches them go, and after a moment she realizes she can't see them. "Hey!" she calls out. "You'd better not be -"

Suddenly there’s a bright light over by one of the trees, accompanied by a loud, mechanical roar. Before Sam can really work out what’s happening, she sees a motorbike come bouncing across the uneven grass, with two figures on the back. She stands and watches as the bike makes its way between the gravestones, finally reaching the path and accelerating toward the gate. By the time it’s out and onto the main road, Sam still hasn’t quite processed the fact that those two drunk kids managed to drive a bike right into the cemetery.

“Fucking assholes!” she mutters, hurrying over to the gate and finding that it seems to be unlocked. She swears she remembers locking it as usual last night, but she figures she must have forgotten. Sliding it shut, she makes doubly sure this time. In the distance, she can hear Dean and Anna’s motorbike racing along the street, and it sounds like they’re driving all the way around the perimeter of the cemetery. “Great,” she says quietly, “two drunk idiots on a fucking bike. What could go wrong?”

She stands and listens as the roar of the bike makes its way through the town.

“Fuck it,” she mutters finally, turning and heading back to the cottage. “They’ll be fine.”

As she gets to the cottage door, she happens to glance over at the mausoleum, and something immediately strikes her as being a little strange. At first, she can’t quite make out the problem, but as she wanders over and looks up, she suddenly feels a heavy sensation in her heart. The statue of Death that has always been perched up on top of the mausoleum is gone. She hurries all the way around the mausoleum, making doubly sure that she hasn’t made a mistake, but finally she comes back to the front and she has to accept that the statue has simply vanished.

“Kids,” she mutters, even though she knows deep down that there’s no way two kids could possibly have climbed up, removed a heavy stone statue and carted it off somewhere. There has to be another explanation, a simpler explanation, even though right now Sam doesn’t have a clue what that might be. All she can do is stare up at the spot where the statue of Death used to be, and try to ignore the slow chill that’s rising through her body.

She stands in awed silence for a moment.

“I’ll find it in the morning,” she says eventually, before turning and walking back toward the cottage door. “This whole thing’s probably a dream anyway.”

Seconds later, the distant sound of the motorbike cuts out and there’s suddenly a horrendous crashing and grinding sound, followed by the sound of breaking glass. Finally, the town falls silent. Sam turns and looks across the dark cemetery, and then up at the space on the mausoleum where the statue of Death used to sit.

“They’ll be fine,” she says quietly, before going inside and making extra sure that this time she locks the door of the cottage.

Chapter Two

 

“Jesus!” Matthews says as he reaches the first of the bodies. “What the hell happened here?”

“Bike crash,” says Dr. Wellington, kneeling by the corpse. It’s a dark night, but the emergency services have been called out following a horrific, high-speed accident in the center of Rippon. A mangled motorbike has been left in the middle of the town square, and two bodies have been thrown across the cobbles. The first body, a male, has been covered with a white sheet, and Dr. Wellington has already finished with his preliminary examination. “Broken neck,” he continues, getting to his feet, “broken spine, multiple other breaks on the arms and legs. The whole body has been wrecked. He didn’t stand a chance. At least it would have been quick.”

“No helmet?” Matthews asks.

Dr. Wellington shakes his head. “Also, a strong smell of alcohol. I won’t know for certain until I’ve got the blood-work back, but I’d bet good money that these kids were drunk. You know what it gets like here during the night. These idiots are looking for a thrill, so they start making dumb decisions. You take drunk kids, a few bottles of alcohol, and a motorbike, and you’re asking for trouble.”

“Figures,” Matthews replies. He’s never had much respect for the children of Rippon, having often fantasized about locking them all up for the duration of their teenage years and only letting them back out once they reach maturity. “I’m gonna find out who’s been selling booze to these kids, and I’m gonna shut the fuckers down.”

“There’s something else,” Dr. Wellington continues. “I know we’ll need a formal identification later, but I’m pretty sure this is Dean James.” He pulls the sheet back to reveal a bruised and battered face. “Wasn’t he voted prom king a while back? I doubt the local girls’d be very keen on him if they could see him now.”

“Great,” Matthews says with a sigh. “This is going to rip the town apart. His family are important people around here. They’re gonna make a hell of a fuss.” He looks over at the other body, which is sprawled over by the lamppost. “What about that one?”

“Anna Marsh,” Dr. Wellington says, leading him across to the second body, which is still uncovered. Nearby, paramedics are getting ready to load the first corpse into the ambulance, while all around the town square there are nervous citizens staring out from their windows, keen to know what’s happening but unwilling to get too close. “She was drunk too, I’d wager. Her injuries are more severe.”

Looking down at the girl’s body, Matthews sees that she looks perfectly fine. If he didn’t know better, he’d think she was just sleeping. As Dr. Wellington turns the body, however, Matthews sees the true extent of the girl’s injuries: one side of her face has been worn away, exposing part of her skull, and her dead eyes are staring fixedly up at the sky.

“She was sent flying across the square at high speed,” Dr. Wellington explains. “The skin was worn away, most likely due to friction against the ground. I found pieces of her flesh in a strip all the way from the bike to this spot. Her back was broken in a very specific manner, which I believe indicates that she hit the lamppost at speed. She probably died very quickly. I’ll be performing an autopsy, of course, but as far as I can tell, this is going to go down as a traffic accident caused by alcohol.”

“Cover her up,” Matthews says, not wanting to stare any longer at the body.

Pulling the sheet over Anna’s face, Dr. Wellington reaches down and removes one of her shoes. “See this?” he asks, holding the sole of the shoe up for Matthews to see. “Gravel and dirt. If I didn’t know better, I’d say maybe she’s been in the cemetery this evening.”

“Why would she go there?”

“Weren’t you young once?” Dr. Wellington continues. “Didn’t you enjoy elicit trips to forbidden places under cover of dark? I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve been up to a few things, if you know what I mean. I’ll be checking for residue in certain places.”

“What about the blood?” Matthews asks, carefully changing the subject.

“She’s lost most of hers. The impact burst her open like a sack. The boy, however, is relatively intact, so we can get almost all his blood. I’ll sort it all out during the autopsy, but you might want to see about getting the girl’s blood gathered up. If it gets down into the drains, it’ll be lost forever.”

“It’s already gone,” Matthews says, looking down at the dark, wet cobbles. “He’s not gonna be impressed with second-hand blood that’s been mixed up with all the dirt from these streets.”

“It’s a hell of a waste,” the doctor says, sounding tired.

“Save the organs,” Matthews replies. “Squeeze them dry until every drop has been extracted.”

Dr. Wellington nods. He knows what he has to do; after all, he’s done it so many times already in the past.

“How much do we have in storage?” Matthews asks.

“Before these two, about thirty liters. It’s not enough, but it’s something. Still, he won’t be impressed. If anything, he’ll be offended.” He pauses for a moment. “Don’t worry, though. I’ll squeeze every drop out of these kids’ bodies.”

“And there’s no sign of any other involvement?” Matthews asks as the doctor gets up and they walk over to the ambulance.

“Such as what?”

“You know what.”

Dr. Wellington pauses for a moment. “It’s hard to say. The accident is certainly explicable in terms of a simple crash. It’s late, they were drunk, so I guess the driver simply lost control as they entered the town square. It rained a little earlier, so the cobbles were still damp in places. God knows where they’d been during the night or what they’d been doing, but…” He pauses for a moment. “I suppose it’s possible that our mutual friends could have had a hand in events, but I’d rather just put this down to a simple accident. It’s a sad fact that this kind of thing happens almost every day somewhere in the world. There’s not a stone hand working behind the scenes of every tragedy, you know.”

Matthews looks back over at Anna Marsh’s body, just as the paramedics start loading her onto a trolley.

“It’s a damn waste,” Dr. Wellington says with a sigh.

“It’s more than that,” Matthews replies bitterly. “We can’t afford to lose the children. We have so few already, and we need them. If they all throw their lives away in such stupid, pointless ways, there’s no chance for Rippon to survive. These deaths are going to bring the whole town down.”

“Then we’re going to have to do something, aren’t we?” Dr. Wellington adds, closing his medical bag. “We can’t risk missing another chance.”

“I’ll impose a curfew,” Matthews says. “I’ll arrange things with Winters in the morning. We’re going to have to keep all the children at home during the evenings. It won’t be a popular policy, but we’ve lost two prime specimens tonight. Any more, and the whole town’s going to be at risk.” He looks down at the stream of blood that’s slowly trickling between the cobbles. “I’ll get someone to collect as much of the blood as possible,” he adds ruefully. “Every little helps.”

“Fine,” the doctor continues, “but this is getting out of hand. You must have felt the tremors.”

“Let’s not spook ourselves out right now,” Matthews replies, determined to cut off the superstitious part of the conversation. Sighing, he looks across the town square. “This is a mess, but I don’t think there’s much more for me to do here. It was an accident. I should get off and inform the parents.” Taking a cigarette from his pocket and lighting it, he pauses for a moment. “That’s gonna be fun, isn’t it? Telling two families that their kids are dead. We have enough trouble with kids already. Make sure to squeeze out as much blood as you can. It’s better than nothing.” With that, he turns and starts making his way across the town square, bound for two houses that are about to receive the worst possible news.

Chapter Three

 

Stepping bleary-eyed through the door of the cottage, Sam stops for a moment and looks out across the cemetery. Everything seems so calm and peaceful again, as if the events of last night have settled and become little more than a bad memory. She can see a couple of beer bottles glinting in the early morning sun but, apart from that, things seem to have returned to normal. Still, Sam can’t shake a feeling of restlessness, and after a moment she remembers the statue of Death, which seemed to go missing during the night. Slowly, she turns and looks over at the mausoleum.

The statue is back in its usual position.

Still holding her cup of tea, Sam wanders over to the mausoleum and looks up at the statue, which stares back down at her with its usual impassive expression.

“So where did you get to last night, huh?” she asks.

The statue doesn’t reply. Of course it doesn’t, she reminds herself; it’s a statue.

“Did those kids drive you away?” she continues. “I know the feeling. I guess they were a bit too noisy, huh? Did you decide to get out of here and hang loose for a couple of hours? Where did you go? Isn’t everywhere shut at that time of night around here? Or did you just go for a nice walk?” She pauses for a moment as she imagines Death wandering through the streets of Rippon and sitting in one of the local bars. In a strange way, the image makes sense to her, and she can imagine Death being a regular member of the community around the place.

The statue stares back at her.

"What's this about, anyway?" Sam asks, reaching up and touching the statue's outstretched hand, which - as usual - is reaching down from the top of the mausoleum, as if it's trying to grab anyone who comes too close. Smiling, Sam turns to Sparky. "You see this guy, Sparky?" she asks, her hand still touching Death's stone fingers. "It's like he's determined to look moody as hell. I guess that's what it's like being Death. You can't -"

Suddenly she feels a slight movement in the statue’s hand, and she steps back. Her heart racing, she looks up at the statue’s face and forces herself to calm down.

“That didn’t happen,” she says firmly. “That did not happen.”

Silence.

“That was…” she says, before she’s able to reassert her usual rational thought processes. “Nice try,” she says, turning and walking over to Sparky. “Did you see that?” she continues. “Old Death up there got me going for a moment.” Setting her cup of tea on the window ledge, she starts unchaining Sparky from the side of the house. “You’ll have to forgive me,” she says with a smile. “I left you chained up here for far too long, but I’m gonna put that right. I’ve found the perfect spot for you. Somewhere you can really chill out and have a good view. You’ll like that, won’t you?”

She glances at Sparky’s face.

“Jesus Christ,” she says after a moment. “This is pathetic. It’s like you’re my best fucking friend or something. What the hell is wrong with me?”

After finishing her tea with a big gulp, Sam decides there’s no point delaying the inevitable. Carefully and slowly, she starts pulling Sparky across the grass. It’s a tough job, and Sam has to stop every couple of minutes to take a little break and get her breath back. Wiping sweat from her brow, she glances up at the sky, where the early morning sun is already starting to bake the town.

“Don’t worry,” she says eventually, patting Sparky’s shoulder. “It’ll be worth it in the end. You’ll see.”

Pulling the angel a little further, Sam eventually crosses the tire tracks left in the grass from the bike during the night. Feeling a twinge of annoyance at the fact that she’s going to have to fix that somehow, and determined to make sure that no-one finds out that a bunch of kids broke into the place, she glances over at the gate and realizes that she’ll be okay so long as Mayor Winters doesn’t decide to make another of his unannounced visits. He usually comes fairly early, so Sam decides that she’ll have to get working pretty fast. Lost in thought, she doesn’t notice that she’s approaching a particularly bumpy part of the cemetery, and she suddenly loses her footing and falls back, with the stone angel tumbling straight down on top of her.

“Fuck!” she shouts as the angel lands on her chest, and there’s a cracking sound, accompanied by a cry of pain. “Fuck,” she says again, bracing herself for a moment of extreme agony before realizing that the cracking sound didn’t come from her at all; squeezing out from beneath the angel, she sees to her horror that one of Sparky’s hands has been broken away.

She stares at the damage.

She frowns.

Who cried out in pain? She definitely heard a brief yelp, but she’s certain it wasn’t her, so…

“Sparky?” she says after a moment, but the angel – as would be expected of a statue – remains completely still.

Sam stands in silence for a moment.

“Okay,” she says eventually, hauling Sparky back up from the ground. “I’m sorry about that. Don’t worry, I’ll glue you back together later, okay? You won’t be hand-less for too long.” She pauses for a few seconds as she stares at the angel’s stone face. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear that the cry of pain came from Sparky, even though such a thing is clearly impossible. “You know,” she continues after a moment, “sometimes you freak me out, do you know that? Sometimes, just sometimes, I can’t help wondering if you…”

Her voice trails off.

“Stupid,” she mutters, and she gets on with the job of hauling Sparky to the spot over by the gate where she’s decided to erect the statue. She already cleared a plinth yesterday, and it only takes a moment to get Sparky in position. “Okay,” she continues, “I’m going to get some metal straps and secure you in place, and then I’m going to sort out your hand and have that back as good as new, and then…” Sighing, she turns and looks over at the skid marks from the bike. “And then I’m going to fix that, and then I’m going to do the million other jobs that are piling up. I swear to God, there’s no rest of the wicked, as my grandmother always reminds me.” Feeling a chill pass through her body at the merest invocation of her grandmother, Sam pats Sparky’s broken wrist. “You’ll be fine.”

Just as she’s about to turn and make her way back to the cottage, Sam notices movement over by the gate. She looks over and sees to her horror that Mayor Winters has arrived and, as she’d feared, seems intent on making one of his regular unplanned visits.

"I need to open that!" she calls out, hurrying over and pulling the key from her pocket. She unlocks the gate and pulls it open, before glancing back at the skid marks. "Okay," she says, panicking a little, "before you ask about that, there was a slight incident that requires me to repair some of the grass. It's nothing major, and you don't need to worry, and I'm sure I can get it sorted quickly." She turns back to look at the mayor, who seems unusually quiet. "It's just a quick -"

She stops speaking as she sees the mayor’s forlorn expression, with tears in his eyes.

“What’s wrong?” she asks.

The mayor opens his mouth to speak, but it’s as if the words are caught in his throat.

“Has something happened?” Sam continues. “What’s going on?”

“Sam, my dear,” the mayor says after a moment, clearly struggling to compose himself, “I’m afraid there has been the most awful accident.”

Chapter Four

 

“There,” Dr. Wellington says, squeezing the lung as tight as possible and watching as a thin dribble of pale liquid falls down into the beaker. “Two liters. Not bad, considering most of her blood seemed to have been spewed out across the cobbles last night.”

“How much do we have in total?” Matthews asks, standing over by the door. Having spent the morning dealing with the families of Dean James and Anna Marsh, he’s come to watch the final moments of this gruesome ritual. Although he hates seeing things like this, he often forces himself to attend; he keeps thinking that eventually he’s going to get used to the sight of bodies being cut up, but so far his attempts to numb his senses have come to nothing. Standing here right now, staring at Anna’s corpse, he feels physically sick.

“One hundred and twenty-five pints,” the doctor replies. “Not exactly an abundance of the stuff, but it should be enough to keep him calm for a while. Believe me, I’ve had to scour the whole county to get supplies. It’s not easy, finding all this blood. We might like to mention that to our pal when we see him.”

“I’m not sure he’s the kind to keep up a conversation,” Matthews says, wandering over to the table and staring at Anna Marsh’s naked, drained body. The chest has been carefully opened and her internal organs have all been removed; all morning, the doctor has been collecting her blood, and now the shriveled lumps of flesh and meat are sitting over on one of the nearby benches. “Are you sure we can’t do something with the rest of the body? Couldn’t we liquidize it or something?”

“We have to stick to procedure,” Dr. Wellington replies, pouring the contents of the beaker into a special sink that’s connected to the large reservoir deep beneath the surgery. “If the bodies could be liquidized, they would have been liquidized in the past. Anyway, where the hell would you get something that could liquidize an entire teenager? It’d take years to break the body down in anything other than acid, and we wouldn’t have anything useful at the end of the day. We don’t want to mess with things. That’s what happened in 1965, and look how that all turned out.”

"But we'll be ready soon, won't we?" Matthews asks. "Don't forget, we're already a couple of years behind schedule. It's getting restless. You've felt all the tremors -"

“The tremors are nothing,” Dr. Wellington says as he gathers together the necessary equipment for sewing Anna’s chest back together. He grabs the wrung-out old organs and dumps them haphazardly into her chest cavity, before forcing her ribs closed and setting up the stapler. “This is the worst part of my job,” he mutters. “Imagine how much more annoying it’d be if I actually had to do it properly. Thank God people in Rippon don’t go in for that American tradition of open caskets.”

Matthews loiters by the foot of the table, watching as the doctor’s stapler starts to seal Anna’s chest cavity closed. It’s a gruesome procedure, and one that Matthews finds to be strangely hypnotic; he even leans a little closer to watch as the thick metal staples are driven through the red, sore flesh on either side of the cut that runs from just below the girl’s neck all the way down to her belly.

“Do you ever wonder if this is all worth it?” Matthews asks after a moment. “Are you sure we’re not just delaying the inevitable?”

“It’s not a question of being worth it,” the Dr. Wellington replies. “It’s a question of what we have to do. You know what happened when it went wrong last time. People around here need security. They don’t want to know exactly what’s under these streets, but they sure as hell don’t want to have to worry about it coming popping up through the cobbles.” He finishes with the stapler and steps back, admiring his handiwork. “I remember when she was a kid,” he continues after a moment. “Her mother used to bring her in sometimes. She seemed pretty bright. It’s a shame to see her end up like this, but I guess it was always on the cards. Somewhere along the way, she went totally off the rails.”

Nodding sadly, Matthews turns and makes his way to the door. He knows that Dr. Wellington is right, but he still can’t quite bring himself to have the same happy-go-lucky demeanor that the doctor enjoys. For Matthews, Rippon has become something of a nightmare, and he feels more and more than his attempts to hold back the flood are starting to fail.

Chapter Five

 

“There,” Sam says, using the back of the spade to smooth the ground. “Done.”

Stepping back, she admires her handiwork. Two graves, dug and then re-filled in the space of a couple of days. It’s been almost a week since Anna and Dean were killed, and for Sam the whole period has passed in something of a blur. The whole town went into mourning, of course, since Rippon is the kind of place where everyone seems to know everyone else. There aren’t many teenagers in the tight-knit community, so this double death served as a real blow to the town’s future, and Sam felt for a while as if the place had been dealt a wound from which it might never recover. Coupled with that, there was the added surprise of the local priest’s death, his body having been discovered crumpled on the floor of the church. All in all, the past week has been pretty intense, but now that the last of the graves has been completed, Sam feels as if she can finally start to relax.

“Rest in peace,” she adds, taking a step back. Spotting a mouse nearby, she frowns. “Don’t you have anything better to be doing?”

“You’ve done a fine job,” Mayor Winters says, standing over by the trees. He seems to have been hit particularly hard by recent events, as if the deaths of Anna and Dean have shaken him to his core. “I know it’ll be scant consolation to the families of these poor souls, but their graves shall at least serve as a reminder of their happy, if brief, lives.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a white handkerchief and briefly dabs at his eyes. “Such a waste. Two young, bright citizens, cut down before they could reach their potential.”

Sam smiles politely. She hasn’t told anyone that Anna and Dean were in the cemetery shortly before they died. To be honest, she’s a little worried that in some twisted way she might be blamed for what happened. After all, she let them ride out of the place, drunk on their bike, even though there was no real way she could have stopped them. Overall, she feels as if she came a little too close to being involved in the incident, and she prefers to keep a respectful distance. She keeps telling herself that none of this is her fault, but she can’t help wondering if she could have handled things differently on that dark and fateful night.

“Sometimes I wonder if the Lord has taken his eyes off this place,” the mayor continues. “First, these fine young specimens, and then the discovery of Father James’ body. So much death and blood in such a small town. The people are suffering terribly. It’s almost as if a plague of death has descended. I can assure you, Ms. Marker, that Rippon has not known such a sorrowful week for a very long time. You must think you’ve stumbled into the middle of the most horrific town on the face of the planet.”

“Not at all,” Sam says, staring sadly at the graves and imagining the two bodies resting six feet below in their coffins. “I’m just sorry it happened. They seemed nice.” She stares at the dates on Anna’s brand new, gleaming gravestone. “I guess it’s even worse that she died just a few days before her birthday.”

“Walk with me,” the mayor says, turning and heading over toward the gate. “Death has a place here in Rippon,” he continues as Sam follows him along the path. “As you can no doubt tell, Rippon is a rather unusual place, and I’m afraid I haven’t been entirely honest with you. This cemetery comes with certain… duties and obligations that might not seem immediately apparent. I must ask you something, though, and you must be absolutely straight with me.” He stops as they reach the mausoleum. “Have you noticed anything strange happening around here?”

“Strange?” Sam asks, her mind immediately flooded with half a dozen examples of weirdness that she’s encountered since she arrived in Rippon. “What kind of strange?”

Any kind of strange,” the mayor replies, turning to her for a moment before looking up at the statue of Death. “Anything at all. Anything that strikes you as being a little unusual.”

"The odd thing, maybe -"

“Like what?”

Sam looks up at the statue. “That thing,” she says after a moment. “I’m probably imagining it, but I swear, the other night, it disappeared for a while.”

“It did?” the mayor replies, his eyes wide with horror.

“Well,” Sam continues, deciding to backtrack a little, “I mean, I thought it did, but it can’t have, can it? There’s no way a statue can just…” Her voice trails off as she starts to wonder whether she sounds insane. “The more I think about it,” she continues, “the more I realize it was just a trick of the light. I mean, it was dark out here, and the moon was bright, and there were all sorts of shadows and stuff like that. You know how easy it can be to get a little jump.” She stares at the statue, and she makes a conscious decision not to mention the time when she thought its hand moved. “Ignore me,” she says eventually. “I’m just rambling on.”

“And there’s been nothing else?” the mayor asks, eying her suspiciously.

“Nope,” Sam says. It’s a lie, but it’s a convenient lie. The last thing she wants is to be thought of as insane, so she figures she should just keep quiet about some of the more unusual events that have taken place. “Sometimes it’s just a bit weird living in a cemetery,” she adds, “and it’s pretty easy to just start imagining things.” She waits for the mayor to say something, but he seems to be staring at her intently, which only makes her feel more uncomfortable than ever. “You don’t have to worry about me,” she continues. “I’m just pottering around in here, getting my work done.”

“I see,” the mayor replies.

There’s an awkward silence for a moment.

“I’m not going mad,” Sam says eventually. “I mean, if that’s what you’re worried about, or what you’re thinking, then I promise I’m not. I’m totally sane. Can’t you tell?”

The mayor stares at her.

“I’m just getting on with things and…” She pauses, finally realizing that she’s protesting a little too much. “I should probably be finishing some jobs,” she says after a moment, “but don’t worry, I’m going to make this place look good. I’m going to put some fresh grass over the graves, and then I’m going to maybe go up there and clean that thing.” Looking up once again at the statue of Death, she immediately regrets what she just said.

“I wouldn’t go up there if I were you,” the mayor replies. “In fact, you must promise me you won’t. It’s so high, and I’d hate for you to slip and hurt yourself. On a purely selfish level, I’d rather not have to look for another gardener so soon after your arrival, and as I’ve told you already, many of the parishioners have noted that you’ve really brightened the place up.” Putting an arm around Sam’s shoulder, he steers her over toward the cottage. “Concentrate on more earthly practicalities,” he says, seeming to regain a little more of his usual good humor. “There’s so much to be doing around this place, and I don’t see that there’s anything to be gained from scrabbling around on top of that old mausoleum.” Stopping by the door, he turns to her. “Promise me, Sam, that you won’t go up there.”

“I promise,” Sam replies, trying not to get freaked out by his tone.

“Excellent!” he continues, grinning for the first time in almost a week. “Now, I can tell that I’ve already taken up far too much of your time, and I have to get back to my office. You wouldn’t believe how many pulls there are on my time, and I’m only one man! Sometimes I think there should be a team of people running this town, but I’m afraid everything is left to me. I’m not complaining, though. Most of the time, Rippon is the most perfect little bubble. It’s just that when tragedy strikes, it tends to affect the entire community.” With that, he turns to walk away.

“Actually,” Sam calls after him, “there is one thing I was wondering about.” She pauses for a moment. “It’s just that I noticed something about the gravestones. There are ninety-nine in the cemetery now, and seventy of them are all from the same year. That seems kind of weird. Did something happen here in 1965?”

He stares at her, as if he’s surprised by the question. “Not at all,” he says eventually. “I’m sure these things tend to happen in clusters all over the place, don’t they?”

Once the mayor has left, Sam finds herself standing by the door to the cottage, staring over at the mausoleum. She keeps her eyes firmly fixed on the statue of Death, and despite her determination to force all ‘crazy’ ideas from her mind, she can’t help but note that the statue has an unusual countenance, as if it seems to be constantly watching her. As ridiculous as she knows it sounds, Sam can’t shake the feeling that the statue is in some way alive.

“I’m losing my mind,” she mutters. “I tried so hard to stay sane, but I’m cracking up.” Taking a deep breath, she decides to force herself to stay on the straight and narrow. Opening the door of the cottage, she steps inside… and a hand is immediately clamped over her mouth, while a voice whispers in her ear:

“Don’t make a sound!”

Chapter Six

 

“It’s time to end this,” Matthews says, sitting in Mayor Winters’ office. “Too many people have died. If we just evacuate the town and call in the authorities, we can transfer the burden to someone else. This whole situation is insanity. We can’t just sit around, thinking we can take care of it forever.”

“Would you like a brandy?” Mayor Winters asks genially, getting out of his chair and hauling his bulky form over to the cabinet on the far side of the room. He takes two glasses from the shelf and sets them on his desk, before removing the cork from a decanter and taking a slow, careful sniff of the contents. “The finest brandy known to man,” he continues, as if he hasn’t even heard what Matthews has been saying. “Sometimes I feel the world would be a much happier place if everyone took time to relax and enjoy a good drink.”

“Alcohol, at a time like this?”

“I know you’re a man who likes his beer,” the mayor adds, “but wouldn’t you care to trade up, just once? Brandy is the choice of a gentleman.”

“You don’t even like the stuff.”

“I’m educating my palate. I’m introducing myself to more refined tastes, with the aim of becoming a connoisseur over time. It’d be so easy to allow oneself to sink into the bland tastes of Rippon, don’t you think? My philosophy is to try everything at least twenty times, and then make a decision about whether one wishes to continue.”

“At least you’re keeping busy,” Matthews says, sighing at the mayor’s complete inability to grasp the issue at hand.

“I’m enjoying the simple pleasures in life.”

“You think you can ignore the problem?” Matthews replies. “That thing won’t just go away, you know.”

“It might,” the mayor says as he pours a glass for himself and his visitor. “Stranger things have happened. After all, it’s been down there for a very long time now, and we seem to be keeping the beast contained. Would it not be appropriate if we merely focused our efforts on continuing with our current plans?” He pauses for a moment, before looking down at the floor of his office for a moment. “We certainly shouldn’t read too much into a few little tremors. I seem to recall reading about earthquakes as far south as Folkestone in the past.”

“So this is your plan,” Matthews says bitterly. “To ignore the truth until it’s too late.”

“There’s no truth to ignore,” the mayor replies blithely. “I’m simply going about my daily business as usual.” He pauses to take a long sip from his glass of brandy. “It’s very easy to get carried away, but everything’s under control. As long as we ensure that everything goes as planned, there’ll be no more of those messy little moments that we experienced in the past.”

"We can't have 1965 again," Matthews says. "All those bodies -"

“Of course we won't have 1965 again. We've learned a lot from those dreadful events and we're a much stronger community these days. Why, just today, I was down at the cemetery, speaking to young Sam Marker. She's the new gardener, and she's doing such a wonderful job. Do you happen to have visited the cemetery recently? The young lady has absolutely transformed the place. You'd never know that..." He pauses for a moment. "Well, you'd never have any idea that the place has problems. I don't know whether she's oblivious to what's going on or just determined to ignore the truth but, either way, she seems to be rattling along very well. I've never seen the grass look so good -"

“You disgust me,” Matthews says suddenly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me.”

The mayor stares at him for a moment.

“Two kids are dead, and you’re drinking brandy in your office. The priest died last week, and you’ve made no move to replace him. It’s as if these things don’t matter to you at all.”

“And what would you have me do instead?” the mayor asks. “Slit my wrists in sorrow? Put a rope around my neck and throw myself off the nearest bridge?” He finishes his glass of brandy and sets it down on his desk. “I’ve been in charge around here for a long time, Mr. Matthews, and you might have noticed that nothing untoward has happened. Nothing at all. The situation has been kept under control, and any sacrifices have been made in a way that doesn’t concern the people of this town.”

“The people of this town are sheep,” Matthews replies. “Docile, accepting, unquestioning sheep. They swallow all your bullshit about the past, and they believe you when you talk about the future. There’s nothing in your words, though; they’re just sounds coming from your mouth, and they don’t mean a damn thing when it comes to the future of this town. Rippon is going to suffer, and people are going to die, and the whole thing could be averted if you’d just acknowledge the truth.”

“And what is the truth?” the mayor asks, raising a suspicious eyebrow. “Come on, Mr. Matthews. Out with it. What is the truth about this place?”

“That it can’t continue. That it’s built on lies and false hope. That sooner or later, this whole damn town is going to be brought crashing down, and you’re going to let people snooze happily in their little houses until it’s too late to save anyone. Meanwhile, you’ve got the rest of us running around, gathering the necessary bits and bobs to keep your ridiculous fantasies afloat. Do you really think that we can calm the beast with just a few offerings here and there? Have you learned nothing from the past?”

“I’ve learned to respect my masters,” the mayor replies, “and I’ve learned to speak when it’s my turn, and to stay quiet otherwise. Perhaps you should learn some similar lessons?”

“When this town falls,” Matthews says, getting to his feet, “it’ll be because of the mistakes that have been made by men such as yourself.”

“I see,” the mayor replies, finishing his second glass of brandy. “It seems we must agree to disagree on a number of matters, Mr. Matthews. In fact, I think I’m coming down with a bout of indigestion. There’s clearly no point in us continuing this conversation.”

Without bothering to press his case any further, Matthews turns and heads out of the office. He’s had enough of Mayor Winters for one day, and he still has a nagging feeling that maybe he can find a way to deal with the town’s problem, if only he’s able to determine the precise nature of the beast that sleeps beneath the streets. To do that, however, he’d need considerable help, and it certainly wouldn’t be the kind of operation that can be quickly carried out without anyone noticing. As he hurries out of the office and into the town square, he realizes that there’s only one person in the whole of Rippon who can help him right now.

Chapter Seven

 

“You’re not in any danger,” the voice whispers, with a hand still clamped firmly over Sam’s mouth. “Not from me, anyway. There’s plenty of other things in this place that might try to take a bite out of you, but I’m safe enough. I can feel that you’re panicking, though. I’m attuned to these things; I can feel your pulse racing, and I can smell the adrenalin that’s coursing through your veins. Now, if I let go of you, are you going to scream?”

Sam shakes her head. She’s just waiting for the right moment to knock this guy, whoever he is, flat on his face.

"Okay," the voice continues, removing his hand. "It's okay, I'm not going to -"

"Fuck you!" Sam shouts, swinging around and smacking her assailant square in the middle of the face with a perfect, well-honed right hook. After years of drinking in Bristol nightclubs, she's developed self-preservation skills that are bordering on ninja-level. Watching as the mystery man crumples to the floor, Sam reaches over and grabs her spade from the corner of the room. "Who the fuck are you?" she asks firmly, raising the spade above her head until it scrapes the low wooden ceiling, "and what are you doing in my -"

Suddenly she stops, as she sees the face of the man who attacked her.

“What?” she mutters, lowering the spade.

Sprawled on the floor before her, slowly getting up while wiping blood from his noise, there’s an old man. Make that, a very old man. In fact, make that an ancient-looking man who, judging by his appearance, has no business being anywhere but a retirement home. He’s thin and balding, with liver spots all over his hands, and there are bags under his eyes.

“You said you wouldn’t do that!” he complains, as he slowly gets to his feet.

“No,” Sam replies firmly, still holding the spade up in case she needs it. “I said I wouldn’t scream. I didn’t say anything about not punching you or not smashing your head in with a spade.”

“Fair enough,” he replies, as more blood oozes from his nose. “Can you at least get me a tissue? I’m bleeding to death here. At my age, clotting doesn’t come so naturally.”

Reluctantly, Sam steps past him and reaches out for some kitchen paper. Big mistake. The old man grabs her spade, quickly swings it behind her knees, and finally pushes her back so fast that she tumbles into the kitchen cabinet before landing hard, face down on the floor. Before she can react, she feels the metal edge of the spade pushing against the back of her neck; instinctively, she realizes she needs to stay completely still if she wants to avoid paralysis.

“There,” the old man says, sounding satisfied with himself. “That’s what you get for punching me. Don’t get me wrong, Ms. Marker, I’m impressed. In fact, I’m very impressed. Still, I don’t like having my nose half-broken, if you catch my drift.” He moves the spade away from the back of her neck. “Do you want to get up? It seems kind of ungainly to leave you spread-eagled down there like that. Come on, let me give you a hand.”

Reluctant to accept the old man’s help, Sam manages to get to her feet under her own steam.

“You’re probably wondering who I am,” the old man says.

“It had occurred to me to ask,” Sam replies.

“By the way, I’d love one,” he continues.

“One what?”

“A cup of tea. I’d love a cup of tea. Peppermint, preferably, but I’m also fine with green tea or even a little old-fashioned black tea. You might want to rustle up some biscuits as well. After all, we’ve got a lot to talk about.”

“How about you get the fuck out of my house?” Sam replies sternly. “Then, maybe, I’ll put the kettle on.”

“My name’s John Faraday,” the old man says, smiling faintly. “John Faraday the seventh, actually. I come from a long line of Faradays, all of whom held more or less the same kind of position in this world. I don’t know if you’ve heard my name, but I was the previous gardener here. You took over from me after I… well, after I was believed to have been killed.”

Sam frowns. She does vaguely remember the name John Faraday being mentioned at some point, but she’d been under the impression that her predecessor was long gone.

“So you’re the one, eh?” Faraday continues, stepping back and sizing Sam up for a moment. “I’ve got to admit, I’m surprised he ended up hiring a girl, but beggars can’t be choosers. Old Winters is rather behind the times. You’ve got a bit of an accent. You’re not from around here, are you?”

“Leeds,” Sam says dourly.

“That kettle’s not gonna fill itself,” Faraday points out. “Come on, you damn near broke my nose. Don’t you think you owe me a cup of tea?” Walking over to the little table over by the wall, Faraday takes a seat and lets out a groan as his bones creak. “My God, girl, there’s a lot of things I can still do, but I don’t half ache when I’m done. I swear, getting old is no fun at all. Bits drop off, bits stop working, other bits suddenly grow where you least expect them… When you reach a certain age, your body starts doing all the wrong things. If I was a younger man, I’d have been able to deal with the latest problems quite adequately. As it stands, I’m afraid I’ll be needing your help.”

Without saying anything, Sam grabs the kettle and starts filling it with water. Part of her wants to throw this guy out immediately, but on the other hand she’s also kind of curious. If he is the guy who was in charge around here before she arrived, he’s got a lot of explaining to do in terms of how the place became such a mess. There’s also the rather important matter of his violent introduction. Whatever happened, Sam wonders as she places a tea bag in a cup, to the idea of just knocking on the door?

“I didn’t hurt you too much, did I?” Faraday asks after a moment.

“Didn’t feel a thing,” Sam replies, trying to seem nonchalant. “So what are you doing here? I thought you’d… retired?”

“Not by choice. In fact, I was rather forced out. Mayor Winters thinks I’m dead, thanks to a judiciously positioned jawbone that I managed to liberate from one of the more recently dug graves. I’m afraid things got a little too hot in this particular kitchen, and I needed a way out. Unfortunately, it seems that leaving this place behind is rather tricky, and here I am again.” He starts coughing, and it sounds as if he’s half-dead already. “I swear, I thought I was done with Rippon, but Rippon certainly isn’t done with me. I’ve got a little unfinished business that I need to take care of before I leave.” He looks over at the door. “I’m sorry about the mausoleum.”

“The mausoleum?” Sam replies, struggling to get her head around this latest turn of events.

“I had to shut you in a while ago,” Faraday continues. “I’d been hiding since you arrived, but it got to the point where I had to come back into the cottage and do some digging around without running the risk of being disturbed. I would have let you out, but that pesky Tovey man turned up and did the job for me. I don’t know why people have to stick their noses into the affairs of other people. I was living in the mausoleum for a while, you know. It seemed like a nice out-of-the-way spot. Anyway, it’s good to be out of that place. Living in a dark, confined space with a bunch of dead bodies is hardly conducive to good mental health, and that’s before you consider what’s perched on the roof.”

"The roof?" Sam asks, before stepping over to the window and looking out at the statue of Death. "Do you mind if I ask you something? I know this is gonna sound strange, but sometimes I get the feeling that it -"

“Moves?” he says, interrupting her.

She turns to him, filled with the sudden realization that this strange old man might actually have the answers to all her questions.

“It does move,” he continues. “When I was in the mausoleum, I could hear the grinding as it shifted on the roof. Sometimes it even gets down and goes for a little walk. There’s no need to be scared, though. He’s not here for you. I doubt he views you as anything more than a distraction from the tedium of his main job.”

“Main job?” Sam replies, pausing for a moment. “And what’s that, exactly?”

Faraday smiles. “Well, that’s what we’re here to talk about, isn’t it?” He pauses for a moment. “He’s scared. Terrified, actually. I know you might not be able to see the signs on his stony face, but I can assure you that right now, Death is absolutely petrified.”

“This is a cemetery,” Sam says. “It’s not that weird that there’d be a statue of the Angel of Death.”

“A statue?” Faraday says. “That’s not a statue. That’s Death himself, perched up there on top of that little stone house. And why do you think he’s here, huh? Of all the cemeteries in all the world, why do you think he’d be sitting around this one?”

Sam swallows hard, trying but failing to quell a feeling of panic that’s starting to spread through her body. As she looks at the statue, however, she suddenly realizes that it’s moving; slowly, ominously, it turns its head to look directly at her. For a moment, the pair of them make eye contact, before Sam turns away and feels a shiver pass up her spine.

“This is the most important cemetery in the whole world,” Faraday continues. “And why do you think one cemetery would be more important than all the others? I’ll tell you why. It’s because of who, or what, is buried here. Death usually hangs around a place ‘cause he wants to claim a life, but that’s not why he’s here this time. He’s here because he wants to make sure that what’s buried in Rippon, stays buried.”

Sam glances over at her spade. There’s a part of her that wants to hang around and listen to this guy, but there’s also a part of her that wants to get the hell out of here. While she was glad of the job when she arrived, she’s starting to feel as if she’s got in way too deep. Even as she considers her escape route, she’s wondering whether she could just run out of the cemetery, out of Rippon, and back to the civilized world. It’s pretty typical of her luck, she realizes, that just when she finally finds a decent job, it turns out to be full of fucked-up people.

“You can’t run away,” Faraday says suddenly.

“What?”

“You can’t run. I can see it in your eyes. You’re thinking of getting out of here. I don’t blame you, but it’s not an option. You’re a gardener now. In fact…” He steps closer and looks deep into her eyes. “You’re not just any gardener. You’re the last gardener, and that’s a problem, because if there are no more gardeners, there’ll be no more cemetery, and if there’s no more cemetery, it means that whatever’s been buried here will rise again. This cemetery exists for a very precise reason, and I’m afraid that reason can’t just be ignored.”

Sam takes a deep breath. “Maybe we should go and talk to the mayor…”

“Trust me,” Faraday continues, “all the people in Rippon know exactly what’s going on. Well, they know enough to know they don’t want to ask any more questions. That’s why you so rarely see any of them out and about in the streets. It takes a certain kind of person to carry on living in this town after the things that have happened over the years. The sixties, in particular, were a very difficult period. Lots of pain. Lots of death. Things have settled a little since then, and no-one wants the nightmares to return. They think they can just ignore the problem and it’ll go away. They’re wrong, of course. It’s returning, and it’s going to be much worse than ever before.”

“It was you,” Sam says as she realizes what’s been happening. “You’ve been hiding here all along, haven’t you? I knew there was someone else in the cottage. I kept finding bowls and stuff you’d left out.”

“Sorry,” Faraday replies. “I had to come inside occasionally. I always waited until you were out there, getting on with your work, or asleep in your bed. I wanted to work alone and without any interruptions, so I figured it was better to just get on with what I needed to be doing.”

“You freaked me out,” Sam says.

“My apologies.”

“So you were living in the mausoleum?”

Faraday nods.

“That’s the most fucked-up thing I’ve ever heard.”

“It wasn’t so bad. Not once I got used to the company, anyway.” He pauses for a moment. “So you’re not going to ask?”

“Ask what?” Sam replies nervously.

“What’s causing all of this.”

Sam takes a deep breath. "I just -"

“You’re not curious?”

“It’s not that,” Sam says firmly.

“You’re scared?”

“I’m not sure this is real,” she continues. “No offense.”

“None taken. But it is real. Everyone in this town is ignoring the problem, Sam. Don’t be like them. It never works. You can’t run away forever.”

“I can try,” Sam replies.

“Is that how you got here?” Faraday asks. “Were you running from something?”

Sam shakes her head, but she knows that the look in her eyes must have given away the truth.

“What if I told you that the Devil himself is buried in Rippon?” Faraday says, with all traces of humor suddenly gone from his face. “What if I told you that someone built a cemetery, in fact someone built a whole town, on top of the most significant and dangerous grave in the world? What better way to hide one grave than to put a whole set of other graves on top? Of course, you can’t expect to keep something like that buried forever, can you? Things have a way of leaking and pushing themselves back to the surface.” He pauses again. “Tell me something, Sam. Have you felt anything strange beneath your feet while you’ve been here? Any tremors?”

“I…” Sam starts to say, before realizing that she can’t handle this any longer. She feels as if she’s about to explode, and although she hates the idea of running, she knows that there’s only one thing she can do right now. “I’m sorry,” she says, hurrying through to her bedroom and starting to throw her few possessions into the backpack she brought with her. She doesn’t have much, and she wants to travel light, so it only takes a moment to get some clothes together. “I’m really, really sorry, but I think maybe I shouldn’t be here.”

“You can’t run,” Faraday says, watching her from the door.

“This is way too much for me,” Sam continues, fumbling as she tries to get the backpack’s zip closed. “I can’t do this. Moving statues, living in a cemetery, Death sitting outside… I think I bit off a bit too much. Actually, I think I’m losing my mind, so I’m going to get out of here.” She throws the backpack over her shoulder, accidentally knocking a cup off the bedside table in the process; the cup smashes to the ground, but Sam hurries past Faraday and heads for the door. She has no idea where she’s going, but she’s filled with a desperate need to get out of this place as fast as possible.

“You won’t make it,” Faraday calls after her. “You won’t get away from Rippon.”

“Good luck,” Sam says, glancing back at him for a moment. “I mean that. Good luck with…” She glances around the cottage, briefly feeling a twinge of regret at the thought of losing her new home so quickly. She’d actually started to think that she could make a new life for herself around here; still, she knows she can’t stay, not with all this weirdness happening. It’s got beyond the point where she can’t lie to herself and pretend it doesn’t bother her. She came here for a quiet, uncomplicated life, and instead she feels as if she’s landed in the middle of an asylum. “Good luck with all this, okay?” she adds, before opening the door and stepping out of the cottage.

“What the fuck?” she says, stopping dead in her tracks.

She stares at the figure that’s standing right in front of her in the early evening gloom.

“Help me,” Anna says, looking pale and blooded. Pieces of flesh are missing from her face, exposing gleaming sections of skull, and a thick red autopsy incision is showing from under the top of her burial gown. Her eyes are blood-shot and slightly yellowed, and she’s staring at Sam with a look of total shock. “You’ve got to help,” she continues, stumbling toward Sam. “I think something’s wrong with me.”

Chapter Eight

 

“Something must be wrong with me,” Matthews mutters as he wanders along the dark, lonely street. He should have been home hours ago, but instead he’s walking through Rippon and trying to work out why he’s the only person in the entire town who seems to be opposed to the arrangement. Having left the mayor’s office an hour ago, he managed to stop by the local shop and pick up some beer, which he’s drunk surprisingly quickly; he’s now nicely sozzled and happily talking to himself. “I should just shut up and stick with the program.”

As he reaches town square, he pauses for a moment to lean against the side of the cafe.

“Late night?” asks a familiar Irish voice nearby.

Turning, Matthews sees the unwelcome face of Gabriel Fenroc smiling back at him.

“I think there might be rain soon,” Fenroc continues, taking a drag on his cigarette.

“What are you doing out so late?” Matthews asks, immediately slipping back into his professional tone of voice. “I might be off-duty, but I can still deal with trouble-makers.”

“You can’t deal with anyone,” Fenroc replies. “You’re drunk, old man.”

“Who are you calling old?” Matthews shouts, stumbling toward Fenroc but tripping on a loose cobble; as he crashes to the ground, Matthews lets out a cry of pain and his bottle of beer rolls away. “I’ll have you know,” he murmurs, “that it’s a capital offense to make fun of an officer of the law. I could march you right down to the station at this very moment!”

“Go on then,” Fenroc replies. “I doubt you could even march yourself down there right now. Look at the state you’re in, you pathetic old wanker. I mean, seriously, do the people of Rippon really rely on a fucking drunk to keep them safe?” He wanders over to Matthews and stares at him for a moment. “You’re useless, man. Do you know that? You’re fucking useless.”

“Right,” Matthews mutters, trying to get up. “That’s it. You’re under arrest.”

“For what?”

“For pissing off a police officer.”

“Is that an arrestable offense these days?”

“I’ll find plenty to throw at you,” Matthews continues, finally getting to his feet. He pauses for a moment as he feels his head start to swim. “Maybe I’ve had a few beers too many, but I can still put a little fucker like you straight.” With that, he lunges at Fenroc and tries to punch him, but his physical coordination is shot to pieces and he simply tumbles against the wall; barely able to stay standing, it takes all his effort to turn back to Fenroc.

“Jesus,” Fenroc mutters, “the state of the modern police force. You should be ashamed of yourself, man. How do you expect to do your job in the morning if you’re hungover? You’re the last line of defense for the poor bastards around here. I wonder what they’d say if they knew you were stumbling around like a drunk idiot?”

“Gabriel Fenroc,” Matthews says, making an extra effort to sound sober and, as a result, sounding more drunk than ever, “I’m arresting you on suspicion of being a fucking asshole.”

“And what are you gonna do with me when you get me to the station?” Fenroc asks. “Drain my blood? Add it to that big vat that’s bubbling away?”

“Fuck you,” Matthews sneers. “Fuck you and fuck everything you’ve done to this town.” He reaches out, trying to grab Fenroc’s arm. “Come on! Time to get you down to the station!”

“You need to get yourself to the drunk tank first,” Fenroc says, pulling away. “My God, man, if you could see yourself right now. You’re a disgrace to that uniform, and I say that as someone who didn’t have a whole lot of respect for that uniform to begin with.”

“What do you have respect for?” Matthews asks, slurring his words. “A man like you… What could you possibly respect?”

“Myself, mainly. I respect my life, and I respect my intention to keep breathing. I don’t respect the world, though. I think it’s gone to shit, and we could do with a new one.” He pauses. “You might wonder why I’ve ended up here, in pretty much the most dangerous town on the fucking planet, but I have my reasons. Frankly, my plans are none of your business, and I hope you’ll respect that, Mr. Matthews.” Smiling, he turns to walk away.

“Get back here!” Matthews shouts. “You’re under arrest, Fenroc!”

“Whatever,” Fenroc says, stopping and turning back to him. “You’re in no fit state to be arresting anyone. Besides, I’m pretty sure you won’t remember any of this in the morning.”

“Is that right?”

Fenroc nods.

“Oh, I’ll remember it,” Matthews continues. “Don’t you worry about that!”

“We’ll see,” Fenroc says, taking a step back. “Have a nice walk home. Make sure you don’t run into any trouble, and try not to get too hot under the collar.”

"Get back here!" Matthews shouts. "I'll not have some bastard making fun of me, I'll -" He pauses for a moment, as he suddenly feels a burning sensation around his knees. "You'll not get away from me!" he mutters, but the burning is getting worse, and he's starting to notice a strong, acrid smell.

“You alright there?” Fenroc asks with a smile. “Looks like you’re burning up.”

Matthews looks down at his legs and sees that they’re on fire. Before he can react, the flames have spread up through his torso and have begun to engulf his chest and head. He lets out a cry of pain, but the heat is quickly becoming unbearable and as he turns to stumble away, he feels his skin start to melt from his bones. He takes a couple of steps toward Fenroc, but the flames have become too intense and his bones, shorn of the muscle and flesh that held them together, start falling to the ground. Opening his mouth and letting out a brief roar of pain, Matthews feels the flames inside his skull, and finally his head drops to the ground and shatters.

“Huh,” Fenroc says, lighting a cigarette as he watches the brief, hyper-localized inferno. “Would you look at that?” he asks in his lilting Irish accent, addressing no-one in particular. “Now are you okay there, Mr. Matthews, or will you be needing some help?”

A few meters away, where Matthews stood only a moment ago, there’s nothing but a smoldering pile of ash, interspersed by a few fragments of bone, while in the middle there’s a perfectly untouched, completely undamaged pair of shoes, from the top of which two bright, white ankle bones are protruding.

“Nah,” Fenroc says, grinning, “I really don’t think you’ll remember this in the morning. Spontaneous human combustion, eh? Such a strange and unusual way for a man to go. Very rare. Very rare indeed. Shame it doesn’t leave any blood behind, but I guess we can’t have everything.” After taking one final, extra-long drag on his cigarette, he turns and wanders away along the road, leaving the steaming shoes standing in the town square, with the bones still sticking out the top, waiting for some poor soul to find them when the sun comes up.

Part Five:

The Birthday Party

Prologue

 

One year ago

 

“Devil’s gonna get you, Sam!”

Turning, Sam finds Nadia standing behind her.

“Wow, what’s up with you?” Nadia asks, smiling as she takes a seat. “Hangover?”

Nodding, Sam takes a little nibble at her baguette, although in truth she doesn’t feel much like eating right now. Her stomach is still feeling the after-effects of last night’s party, and all she really wants to do is go to sleep.

“You were kind of wild last night,” Nadia continues, grinning from ear to ear. “Do you remember that guy?”

“Which guy?”

“The guy in the club. The one you…” She pauses, waiting for Sam to remember. “Are you seriously telling me you don’t remember?”

Sighing, Sam waits for Nadia to fill her in. This is part of their routine: for some reason, Sam always gets black holes in her memory after a big night out, while Nadia’s memory remains crystal clear. It’s a rather annoying situation that always leaves Sam feeling as if she’s at a distinct disadvantage, while Nadia evidently takes great pleasure in detailing Sam’s indiscretions.

“I can’t believe you don’t remember that guy,” Nadia continues, laughing. “Fucking hell, Sam, were you really that wasted?”

“Are you gonna tell me,” Sam replies wearily, “or are you just gonna sit there like an idiot?”

Raising an eyebrow, Nadia stares at her for a moment.

“That came out wrong,” Sam admits with a weak smile.

“You pretty much dragged that guy out of the club,” Nadia continues. “I was kinda worried about you, so I came to look for you but you definitely didn’t need my help.”

“What was I doing?”

“I think you can guess what you were doing.”

Sighing, Sam looks down at her half-eaten baguette. She’d kind of worked out that something must have happened, since she woke up this morning with no underwear, some soreness, and certain other signs of a sexual encounter.

“You okay?” Nadia asks.

Sam nods wearily.

“You not gonna ask if he was hot?”

Sam shakes her head, realizing that this must be the hundredth time something like this has happened. She doesn’t know why, but guys always seem to go for her when she’s drunk. Sober, she keeps her guard up and she usually manages to make it clear that she’s not interested, but when she’s wasted she lets her defenses down.

“At least you got some action,” Nadia replies.

“At least you’re not a slut,” Sam points out.

They sit in silence for a moment. Nadia clearly wants to keep talking, to go through their usual routine of laughing and joking about Sam’s sexual misadventures, but this time something seems different. She can see that Sam’s not in her usual mood, and she doesn’t want to push her best friend to tears.

“I’ve been thinking about getting out of town for a while,” Sam mutters eventually.

“On holiday?” Nadia asks. “You want company? If we both start saving, maybe we could go to Ibiza? Oh my God, can you imagine us in Ibiza?”

“That’s not what I mean,” Sam says, unable to shake the feeling that something’s seriously wrong with her life. “Not a holiday. More like… I was kind of thinking that maybe I need to get the hell away from this whole place. Start again, you know?”

“Start again? Sam, life’s barely begun, for fuck’s sake!”

“Exactly,” Sam replies, “and I already feel like I’ve fucked everything up. I mean, everyone around here knows me. They know what I’m like, what I do… I just feel like I’ve trashed my reputation and I need to go somewhere else, somewhere no-one knows me.” She pauses for a moment. “Don’t you ever feel like you just want to get the hell away from everything and everyone you know?”

Nadia shakes her head.

“You’re lucky,” Sam continues. “I was thinking about getting a job far away from this shit-hole, and then just moving. It’s not like there’s much keeping me here. I could start again, somewhere new, somewhere without all these fucking complications. Somewhere… I mean, somewhere I haven’t fucked half the guys in town. Somewhere I’m not…” Taking a deep breath, she feels a tear creeping out of the corner of her eye.

“Somewhere you’re not known as Sam the Slut?” Nadia asks. “Or is it Sam the Slag? I can’t remember.”

Sam smiles weakly.

“You know I’m kidding, right?”

Sam nods.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Nadia says after a moment. “You’re like me, Sam. We’re local girls, and we’ll always be local girls. There’s nothing out there that’s any different to things round here. Anyway, it doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll still be you, right? What are you gonna do, stop partying and live like a fucking monk?”

“Maybe,” Sam replies.

Nadia laughs.

“I’m serious!” Sam continues.

“Whatever,” Nadia says, getting up from the table. “I’ve gotta get back to work. I’ll see you later, yeah? You can tell me all about your plans to move far away and start a new life.” Patting Sam on the back, she starts to walk away before stopping and turning back. “You up for the pub later?” she asks. “Just a quiet one, but a few drinks wouldn’t hurt, right?”

Sam opens her mouth to turn the offer down, but somehow the word “Sure” comes out instead. “Sounds great,” she adds. “Usual time, usual place?”

“Now that’s more like it,” Nadia replies, turning and walking away. “Don’t fight who you are,” she calls back. “You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of!”

Once she’s alone, however, Sam finds herself feeling very ashamed. She feels as if she’s stuck in a perpetual loop, and now that she’s agreed to meet Nadia for a drink, she knows the loop is starting up again. One drink is gonna lead to two, and then they’ll end up at a nightclub, and then tomorrow morning Sam’ll wake up with a vague memory of the night before, and Nadia’ll come along and tell her what happened. Wrapping up the rest of her baguette and tossing it in the bin, Sam takes a deep breath and decides she’s going to prove everyone wrong. She’s not going to sit around this crumby little town for the rest of her life. She’s going to go out there into the world and reinvent herself. She’s going to find a happier place. A simpler place, away from temptations. An uncomplicated and relaxing place where she can just kick back and relax. One day, life’s going to be good again.

Chapter One

 

Today

 

"No!" Sam shouts, racing across the pitch-black cemetery. "Get the fuck -"

Before she can say another word, however, she accidentally slams full-speed into the side of a gravestone, which sends her spinning off to the side before finally she lands hard on the bumpy ground. Winded and with a sharp pain in her ribs, she nevertheless forces herself to get up and keep running. All she knows, all she can think about, is that she has to get the hell away from this cemetery, the hell away from Rippon, and – if possible – the hell away from reality itself.

“Sam!” calls out a voice from the distance. “Can you come back? We need to talk!”

“Fuck off!” Sam screams, before she runs straight into another gravestone. This one is shorter than average, and Sam tumbles straight over the top and lands face-first on the ground with her legs caught on the monument. It takes a moment, but she finally manages to maneuver herself down onto the ground so that she can get back on her feet. Pausing for a moment, she feels an intense pain in her shoulder, but she quickly manages to overlook the potential injury and start running again.

When she gets to the main gate, she grabs the iron bars and tries to pull the damn thing open. To her horror, however, she finds that it’s locked. The thick chain is hanging around the main part of the door, and a heavy old padlock is firmly secured to prevent anyone getting through. She’s been diligently locking the gate every night, in order to make it slightly harder for kids to come and cause trouble. Now, however, she realizes that she’s locked herself in, and the key is back in the cottage.

“Sam,” says a female voice, right behind her. “Can we talk? Please?”

Standing completely still, Sam refuses to turn around. Filled with fear, she thinks back to the image of Anna a few moments ago, standing in the doorway of the cottage and looking like some kind of zombie. There were pieces of flesh missing from her body, and a very obvious Y-shape carved into her chest from the autopsy. Although Sam has never really believed in ghosts, she’s quite certain that she knows what she saw. All that remains to be seen, in her opinion, is whether or not she’s losing her mind.

“Sam,” Anna continues. “Please. I need to talk to someone. I’m kind of freaking out right now. I mean, have you seen what the hell I look like? I’m going crazy here.”

“Join the club,” Sam replies, turning and forcing herself to stare at Anna. With the moon hidden by clouds, there’s not much more to see other than a dark figure, but a moment later the clouds shift a little and Sam is once again able to see Anna’s decomposing face.

“It’s true, isn’t it?” Anna says, her voice sounding strangely calm. “I’m dead. Physically and socially.”

“Um…” Sam replies, her mind racing as she tries to work out what to do next. Glancing over at the cottage, she sees Faraday standing in the doorway. He seems strangely calm, as if he’s merely amused by everything that’s happening.

"It's okay," Anna continues sadly. "I already worked that part out." She holds her arms out in front of her. "I mean, look at me. I'm falling apart. Anyway, I remember it all. The accident, everything. It's weird, but I think I even remember the autopsy. I've got this really strong memory of being naked on a table, and this guy was leaning over me with all these big cutting devices and clamps and shit, and I was trying to tell him to stop, but -"

“Okay!” Sam shouts. “Stop right there!”

They stand in silence for a moment.

“You’re not real,” Sam continues eventually, trying to catch her breath. “I must have relapsed. I must have hidden a bottle of vodka in the cottage and then drunk it. Vodka always used to make my mind go weirder than normal.” She pauses. “Yeah, that’s what happened. Vodka. Damn it, I was sober for so long. I should’ve known it’d really fuck me up if I tried it again.”

“I don’t think that’s what this is,” Anna replies. “I mean, touch me. Just touch my arm. I’m real.”

Sam stares at Anna’s outstretched arms.

“Go on,” Anna continues. “Just try.”

Sam shakes her head.

“Is it because I’m dead?”

Sam nods.

"I guess I understand," Anna replies. "I mean -"

Before she can finish the sentence, however, Sam takes off again, racing along the path that leads from the gate over to the far end of the cemetery. Rather than standing around and having a chat with a dead girl, she’s decided to see if she can vault over the lower part of the wall, which is over behind some of the mausoleums. It’s a long shot, but she figures it’s better than hanging around with a bunch of dead people.

“Sam,” says Faraday, reaching out from the darkness and trying to grab her, “we need to talk!”

“No!” Sam shouts, dodging his arm by a few inches and continuing to run to the far wall. When she gets there, she leaps up and just about manages to grab hold of the top, but as she tries to find a foothold, she realizes that the climb isn’t going to be easy. She heaves and heaves, trying desperately to haul herself up, but her arms are already starting to ache and after a few minutes she realizes that the others might well have caught up to her by now. Still, she can’t bring herself to look over her shoulder. She knows that Anna and Faraday are probably standing and watching her, but she doesn’t want to make eye contact with either of them.

Especially not Anna.

Suddenly, just as she’s about to give up, Sam feels something reach out and touch her shoulder. Her first instinct is to assume that it’s Anna or Faraday, but after a moment she realizes that it feels different somehow. Stronger and more solid, and colder. She slowly looks over at her shoulder and sees, with mounting concern, that the hand that reached out to her is made of stone. Taking a deep breath, she turns to look back, and finally she sees that Sparky the stone angel is standing right behind her.

“We need to talk,” Sparky says suddenly.

“Fuck!” Sam shouts, pushing him away before reaching up and grabbing the top of the wall again. Summoning every last ounce of energy in her body, she finally manages to start hauling herself up. To her amazement, she’s soon able to swing one of her legs up to the top of the wall, and with one final heave she lifts herself up and -

“Fuck!” she shouts again, gripping the top of the wall for dear life as she almost topples over to the other side.

Having never really explored the other side of the town before, Sam had until this moment been blissfully unaware of the hundred meter sheer drop beyond the far wall. For a moment, she stares down into the dark abyss. All that stands between her and the darkness is her right hand, holding the top of the wall. Slowly, she pulls herself away from the edge and lowers herself back down into the cemetery.

“There’s no need to be scared,” Sparky says.

Without replying, Sam turns and runs.

“Sam!” Anna calls out from the darkness.

“Help!” Sam screams, figuring that her last chance is to barricade herself in the cottage and then hope that someone hears her desperate call for help. “Somebody help me!” she yells as she clatters into the door and tumbles into the cottage. With no time to spare, she gets to her feet and throws her weight against the door, slamming it shut. She reaches down and finds that the key is still in the lock, so she gives it a quick turn before pulling it out and taking a step back. Finally, in a bid to make sure that the door is unassailable, she drags the kitchen table until it’s completely blocking the entrance.

Silence.

Looking over at the window, she waits for one of them to appear. They’re out there somewhere, and it’s not like they’re going to just give up and go away.

“Fuck off!” she shouts suddenly, spinning around as she hears a noise. There’s no-one behind her, however, and a moment later she spots a mouse scurrying across the floor. “You’re okay,” she says. “You can stay.”

“Sam!” calls out a voice suddenly. “Let us in!”

Turning back to look at the window, Sam sees Anna’s rotten face staring through the glass.

“Please,” Anna continues, “I don’t understand this any more than you do! Can we talk? Please? It’s cold out here. I can feel the wind blowing through the holes in my body. It’s pretty weird.”

“We need to compare notes,” says Faraday, who has suddenly appeared at the other window. “We don’t have time for this silliness. If we don’t get working quickly, everything could go very badly wrong. I’m sorry for the manner of my introduction, and I admit that I could have handled things a little better, but there’s really no time to lose. Do you have any idea what we’re all standing on top of?”

“Right now,” Sam mutters, “I’d believe pretty much anything.”

“Please, Sam,” Anna pleads. “I’m scared. It’s freezing out here. When it rained earlier, I could feel it raining through the holes. I just want to know what the hell’s going on. I didn’t ask to wake up like this!”

“None of you are coming in,” Sam replies firmly. “You’re staying outside until I stop hallucinating.” As the words leave her mouth, she hears a banging sound coming from her bedroom. Racing over to the door, she sees Sparky peering in through the window, looking straight at her. “Mushrooms,” Sam mutters. “I must have accidentally eaten some fucked-up mushrooms. Or drugs. Maybe someone spiked my drinks.” She pauses for a moment. “What drinks?”

“There’s a perfectly logical explanation for all of this,” Sparky says, his voice sounding deep and grizzled.

“You think the explanation’s logical?” Faraday shouts from the other window.

“Okay,” Sparky continues, “it’s not logical. And it’s not perfect. But there’s an explanation, and I really think you should just open the door and let us in. If nothing else, it’d establish an atmosphere of trust. One of the most important parts of conflict resolution is the act of establishing trust. I think it’d be a good gesture if we can all sit down and treat one another as equals.”

“It would, huh?” Sam replies, stepping back through to the kitchen.

“What’s the alternative?” Faraday asks. “Are you going to go to sleep and hope we’re not here in the morning? Are you going to just wait the whole thing out? We’re not going anywhere, Ms. Marker, so you might as well open the door before one of us breaks it down.”

Hurrying over to the kitchen drawer, Sam starts going through the contents and eventually pulls out a steak knife. It’s not much, but she figures it might help. After tucking the knife into her belt, she goes to the far corner of the room and grabs her spade, which she raises over her shoulders until the edge of the blade grazes the ceiling, bringing down a small shower of dust.

“It’s my birthday tomorrow,” Anna calls out plaintively. “Or today, I suppose. I guess it’s probably past midnight.”

“Do you know how ridiculous you look?” Faraday asks, staring at Sam.

“I don’t care,” Sam replies firmly, strengthening her grip on the spade. “I can still take your fucking head off if you step foot in this place.”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Faraday replies. “How much longer are you going to keep this up? Do you really think this is going to work?”

“Go away!” Sam shouts. “Get out of my cemetery!”

“It was my cemetery before it was yours!” Faraday shouts back. “You’re being extremely immature. We need to discuss this like rational adults. If you won’t let the others in, at least let me come and talk to you. There’s so much you need to know, and we don’t have much time. You need to know what’s truly at stake here, Sam. Can’t you tell already that something’s not right here?” He waits for her to reply. “Can’t you see that there are things happening here that need to be corrected?”

“Go away,” Sam mutters under her breath.

“You’re the last gardener,” Faraday continues. “It doesn’t matter what you do and where you try to go, you can’t escape your destiny. I’m afraid you have a role to play in all of this, but you can make it easier on all of us if you just agree to sit down and listen. Surely you’ll at least give me that chance, won’t you? After all, only a fool refuses to listen when a knowledgeable man offers to explain what’s happening.”

Taking a deep breath, Sam looks over at the far window and sees Anna staring in at her. Looking pained and lost, Anna comes across less like a terrifying zombie and more like a scared girl who’s just woken up dead. It doesn’t help that she was buried in her cheer-leading uniform, with full make-up and hairstyling. Turning back to look at Faraday, Sam realizes that she has no choice but to at least listen to what these freaks have to say. They seem determined to pester her, and something about them makes Sam feel that it might be futile trying to escape.

“I’ll let you in,” she tells him cautiously, “but not the others. And you haven’t got long, ‘cause when the sun comes up, I’m catching the first bus out of here.”

Chapter Two

 

“Perfect,” Fenroc mutters to himself as he finishes straightening his cutlery. Although he’s never been such an obsessive perfectionist before, he has precious little else which to occupy his time. It’s not as if he’s brought a book with him to the restaurant. It simply never occurred to him that he might be stood up.

“Will there be anything else, sir?” asks the waiter, who has snuck up behind him without making a noise.

“Another bottle of wine,” Fenroc says with a sigh, glancing over at the window and seeing nothing but an empty street. It’s getting late, and only a fool would be out in Rippon after dark. Well, a fool, or someone who knew nothing of the town’s reputation. “Something a little different this time. Maybe a Shiraz?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the waiter replies, “but I’m afraid we can’t serve alcohol after midnight. It’s against the terms of our license. In fact, I’m sorry to have to inform you, sir, but we usually close around now.”

Turning, Fenroc sees that while he was lost in his own thoughts, the restaurant staff have begun to stack the chairs on the tables and generally prepare to lock up for the night. For a moment, he assumes that there must have been some mistake, but finally he realizes that his evening has hit the buffers and there’s no chance that Sam might come running through the door.

“Huh,” Fenroc says. “I guess I really have been jilted, haven’t I?” Pausing for a moment, he stares at the empty seat on the other side of the table. “You have no idea how much I hate rudeness.”

Chapter Three

 

“The first thing you need to know,” Faraday says, sitting at the kitchen table while Sam sips from a cup of tea, “is that this is no ordinary cemetery.”

“No kidding,” Sam replies firmly, glancing over at the window and seeing that Anna and Sparky are still watching. Although she feels as if she’s in some kind of hyper-reality where nothing makes sense, she’s also worried that she might be losing her mind. She fears that, at any moment, paramedics will break the door down and wrap a sleeveless jacket around her torso before carting her off to the nearest asylum.

"The cemetery at Rippon," Faraday continues, "in fact the whole town, was built on top of another cemetery, or rather a grave. Now, that might seem like a rather strange thing for someone to do, but it made sense at the time. After all, where better to hide one cemetery than directly beneath another? If you think about it, you can just about see the logic. Many thousands of years ago, someone very important was buried here, someone whose body had to remain hidden at all costs, and it was decided to use all possible methods in order to keep him hidden. The original gardeners were a clan of highly-trained warriors from -"

“Warriors?” Sam asks, interrupting him. “Like, carrying rakes and shovels?”

“The term evolved over time,” Faraday continues. “Modern gardeners, at least for the past century or so, have mostly been peace-loving men who tend the cemetery and merely keep an eye on any unusual activity that occurs. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, certain aspects of Rippon’s nature mean that there’s a tendency for unusual events to take place. The dead, for example, have a habit of rising from their graves.”

“And stone angels come to life,” Sam replies, glancing over at the window and seeing Sparky still staring through the glass.

“Martello was one of the finest gardeners this cemetery ever had,” Faraday says.

“Martello?” Sam pauses for a moment. “His name’s Sparky. I didn’t know he used to be a gardener.”

“We all end up the same way eventually,” Faraday explains. “It’s the fate of all gardeners in Rippon. When our work is done, we remain part of the vigil until we’re needed.”

“Hang on,” Sam replies, “are you seriously suggesting that all the stone statues in the cemetery are former gardeners?”

"It's a noble fate," Faraday says. "All of us, once we assume the role of gardener, are set on an unbending path toward a final ascension that -"

“Hold on,” Sam replies. “I didn’t assume any role. I just turned up for a job. I thought I was supposed to mow the grass, cut the hedges, maybe dig a grave or two, and nothing else. All this stuff about dead bodies and stone angels is kinda new, and it definitely wasn’t in the job description.”

“Would you have taken the job if you’d known?” Faraday asks.

“What do you think?”

“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Faraday continues. “You’re here now. The angels have been waiting, and now that wait is nearly over. The beast is stirring beneath the surface, and I’m not sure anything can be done to make him stay asleep. It was always clear that one day this moment would arrive, but I’d hoped we could put it off for as long as possible. As it turns out, I was wrong, but…” His voice trails off, and for a moment he seems lost in thought. “The Devil is buried here, Sam. Deep, deep beneath this cemetery, there’s another grave, and the Devil himself is down there. He’s not dead, but he’s asleep, and he needs to stay that way. If he wakes, it’s not just Rippon that’ll be in danger. It’s the whole world.”

“The Devil?” Sam replies, raising an eyebrow. “Like… a big, red guy with horns and a tail?”

“More or less,” Faraday says. “No-one knows what he really looks like, of course. It’s been a long, long time since he was placed down there, and only Death himself remembers the occasion. The first gardener is probably the only other person who was there at the time, and he doesn’t talk much these days. You know that crumbling old statue over by the gate?”

“The one where the face has fallen off?”

Faraday nods. “That’s the first gardener. I’ve tried talking to him, but he just sits there, not replying.”

“It’s probably difficult to talk when you don’t have a face,” Sam points out.

“It’s more than that,” Faraday says. “He’s taken a vow of silence. He’s ancient, and whatever he’s seen, he clearly doesn’t want to talk about it. I’m afraid that’s one of the things that comes with experience, Sam. When we’re young, we gabble on about every insignificant little thing. Later, as we get older and we go through more important moments, we become less keen on discussing the minutiae of our lives.”

Smiling awkwardly, Sam glances over at the window and sees Sparky still watching from outside.

“I’m not gonna end up like that, am I?” she asks after a moment. “I mean, I’m not gonna be stone, am I?” She turns back to Faraday. “You’re not stone.”

“I ran,” Faraday replies, “but I can’t run forever.” Taking hold of the sleeve of his jacket, he pulls it back to reveal that the skin on his left arm has turned a kind of rough, mottled gray color. “I can’t hold it back forever,” he continues. “The process is inevitable. It starts in each of us as soon as we take on the job.” Pausing for a moment, he smiles as he observes the look of shock on Sam’s face. “Why? Did dear old Mayor Winters not mention that part of the job?”

Instead of replying, Sam gets up and walks over to the other side of the kitchen. Reaching into one of the cupboards, she pulls out the bottle of wine she’s been hiding from since she arrived.

“That’s a bad idea,” Faraday says quickly. “You need a clear head.”

“I was just going to offer you some,” she replies, setting the bottle down on the kitchen table. “I figured maybe…” She pauses as she realizes that there’s no point pretending; she was going to take a glass, and she was planning to finish the entire bottle. “So what’s the point of all this?” she asks eventually. “Even if I believe everything you’ve told me, what do you expect me to do about it? Don’t take this the wrong way, but it doesn’t seem like you’ve got some kind of huge plan.”

“I don’t,” Faraday says. “Dark forces are gathering in Rippon, Sam, and we need them to make their first move. They have to show their hand. I’m sure some of them are prepared for this moment. Of course, most of them are just dumb creatures, but I’m sure a few of them have stronger minds. They’ll be coming up with plans, and you can be certain that they’ll strike eventually.”

“And then what do we do? Swing into action?”

“We’ll have to come up with a plan on the fly,” Faraday continues. “We’ll have to react to whatever they do. The most important thing is to make sure that the beast doesn’t wake up. If he starts to climb out of his grave, there’s nothing we can do and the world will be lost.”

“When you say that there are dark forces,” Sam continues, “what do you mean? Like…” She waits for a response. “What are we dealing with here?”

“Creatures of the night,” Faraday replies. “Any dark-hearted creature within a hundred miles is going to be attracted to this place right now, but they won’t actually be able to get through the gate. Hallowed ground is still hallowed ground, no matter who’s buried here. The people of Rippon might not be going to have a very good time, but we’re actually safe as long as we stay in the cemetery itself.”

“Until Satan comes bursting up from below,” Sam points out.

“Well, yes,” Faraday says, with a faraway look in his eyes. “That might be a problem. But one thing’s for sure. Something’s going to happen, Sam. Whoever wins or loses, you’re the last gardener.” He pauses for a moment. “If there’s no gardener, how can there be a garden? And anyway…”

Sam waits for him to finish.

“Perhaps I should show you,” Faraday continues eventually. “Words are one thing, but it’s quite another for you to actually see what’s happening, with your own eyes.” Standing up, he walks over to the door, before glancing back at her. “Follow me, and I’ll show you incontrovertible proof that the Devil is here. As a bonus, I’ll also tell you why you can’t run away.”

Chapter Four

 

Placing his hand on the ground for a moment, Fenroc waits until he feels the tell-tale rumble. This is a ritual he completes every night, mainly for his own satisfaction but also because it comforts him. He knows that, logically, there’s no way the rumble could ever stop, but it still pleases him to feel it for himself. Sometimes, when he’s feeling particularly nostalgic, he even closes his eyes and imagines the force that exists far beneath the streets of Rippon.

Sighing, he stands up straight and pauses to straighten his tie. He’s usually a rational man who prides himself on not getting easily riled, but right now he can’t stop thinking about the fact that he spent so long sitting alone in the restaurant. It must have been patently obvious to the staff and the other diners that he was waiting for someone, and consequently that he’d been stood up. In other words, he feels he was embarrassed this evening, and he can’t shake the need to make someone pay. He knows, however, that taking his frustration out on Sam is out of the question.

At least for now.

Walking through the dark streets, he eventually reaches the highest spot in the whole town. Looking out at the distant horizon, he realizes after a moment that he can see them. Gathered far away, barely visible in the darkness, demons are waiting for Rippon to surrender its prize. Of course, they can’t do a thing without Fenroc’s help, which means that he can afford a brief smile as he considers the fact that, ultimately, he holds all the cards. The beast will continue to sleep until Fenroc himself is ready for things to change. Not a moment sooner, and not a moment later.

Reaching into his pocket, he takes out the small vial of holy water he recovered from the church. Not that it’s still holy water, of course. By now, the change will have started, and he’s certain than in less than twenty-four hours the water will be ready for its true purpose.

Finally, putting the vial back in his pocket, he makes his way toward the cemetery. He knows this is crazy, but he feels that he has to confront Sam and at least make her see that she was wrong to leave him sitting like an idiot in the restaurant. If there’s one thing in the world that Fenroc hates, it’s disrespect. One way or another, he’s determined to make Sam apologize. If she refuses, he’s going to give her a damn good reason to change her mind.

Chapter Five

 

“We all have secrets,” Faraday says as he leads Sam through to the cottage’s tiny, cramped bathroom. “There’s not a soul who ever lived who didn’t have something to keep hidden. Some people have big secrets, others have tiny ones, but everyone has the damn things. And sometimes, even an inanimate object can have a secret. Like a building, for example.”

“Okay,” Sam replies, making sure to remain by the door while Faraday kneels on the bathroom floor and pulls the mat aside. “So you’ve brought me into the bathroom to show me your secret, have you? ‘Cause that’s a bit weird…”

“Not my secret,” Faraday says as he starts ripping up the linoleum that covers the floor. Seconds later, a large wooden hatch is revealed beneath the surface. “The cottage’s secret. And, in a way, the secret of Rippon itself.”

“There’s a hidden hatch in my bathroom?” Sam asks, raising an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I like that.”

“The others would all have heart attacks if they knew I was showing you this,” Faraday continues as he starts pulling the heavy hatch to one side. “Then again, they’d all have heart attacks if they knew someone had ever shown it to me, so I guess the damage has already been done.” Pausing for a moment, he stares at Sam. “Do you have a secret, Ms. Marker?”

“Me?”

There’s an awkward pause.

“I used to be a bit of a drunk,” she says eventually. “It’s not exactly a secret, though…”

“Nothing else?”

“Like what?” She feels her mouth becoming a little dry, and there’s something she definitely doesn’t like about the way Faraday is staring at her. “So,” she says, trying to change the subject, “are we gonna see what’s under the bathroom, or what?”

“No secret can be hidden forever,” Faraday continues, sitting on the edge of the open hatch and starting to climb down a set of rickety wooden stairs. “Intentionally or not, when we try to put something away, we always leave a path straight back to its heart. Come on. We don’t have much time.”

Once Faraday has disappeared down into the space beneath the bathroom, Sam finds herself standing alone for a moment, wondering if maybe she could just turn and run. She figures she could even close the hatch and trap Faraday underground, at least for long enough to let her get away. She’s still determined to get the hell out of Rippon, but she can’t deny that she’s curious about what, exactly, is hidden beneath the town. Taking a step closer to the hatch, she peers into the darkness and sees the faint orange glow of a distant subterranean torch.

“Are you coming?” Faraday calls back to her.

“Sure,” she mutters, sitting on the edge of the opening and lowering herself down onto the steps.

“Tread carefully,” Faraday says from below. “This isn’t exactly a tourist trail, so there aren’t any railings.”

“Railings?” Sam asks as she starts making her way down the steps. “Why would -

Suddenly she stops dead as she sees that on one side of the steps, there’s a huge drop into a dark void. It’s almost as if the entire town of Rippon is sitting on top of a massive hollowed-out chamber.

“Why are you dawdling?” Faraday calls up to her, having already made it a fair distance down into the darkness. “Remember to be careful, but for God’s sake keep up. This isn’t a walk in the park, you know.”

Although she feels certain that a sane person would turn back, Sam decides to keep going. Stepping carefully and keeping as far from the precipice as possible, she follows the glow of Faraday’s torch and eventually reaches a platform several hundred meters below the cottage. A small rocky outcrop, the platform is barely big enough for both her and Faraday to stand, and despite having never previously felt scared of heights, Sam can’t help experiencing a kind of nervous dizziness as she stares down into the darkness.

“Impressed?” Faraday asks.

“I would be,” Sam replies, “if my mind could process it.”

“This is a very dangerous place to be,” Faraday replies, holding the flaming torch over the edge. “Or, at least, it will be one day, when the beast awakens. This is how he’ll come up, you see? He’ll rise through the void and burst out in the middle of the town.”

Taking a deep breath, Sam tries to take stock of the whole situation. She’s always felt that Rippon is an unusual place, perched on top of a small hill that sits in the middle of mile upon mile of flat land. It has never occurred to her, though, that this hill might actually be a massive burial mound.

“Why?” she asks eventually. “Why the hell would anyone build a town on top of… this?”

“Humans are weird creatures,” Faraday replies. “Originally, this was an isolated place, but over time humans were drawn here. Earlier gardeners were supposed to keep them away, but the cult died out for a while and by the time reinforcements arrived, a couple of hundred humans had built their homes here. From what I hear, there was a right old fuss about the whole thing, but eventually it was decided to let the town stay and serve as a kind of distraction. Some of the old gardeners even believed that the sounds of life might soothe the beast and keep it sleeping, like a kind of lullaby.”

“And this beast,” Sam says. “He’d be… where?”

“Right below you,” Faraday says. “At the bottom of the pit. Buried so deep, it was hoped he’d never rise again. Unfortunately, as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, certain… things… have begun to happen. Stirrings and so on. No-one’s been down there to check, but it seems the beast is moving. He might not be awake yet, but his slumber is coming to an end, and when he finally wakes, he’s going to be angry.”

“No way,” Sam says, taking a step back. “This is all bullshit. I admit, this big cave thing is kind of impressive, and you’re a pretty good showman, but there’s no way the Devil…” She stares down into the darkness for a moment, trying to imagine a great beast sleeping at the bottom. “Why?” she asks eventually. “And how? And when? And who? And… Who the hell would even think for a second that this could be a good idea?”

“At the bottom of this pit,” Faraday replies, “rests the greatest evil that has ever existed. Where else would you put it? At least here, no-one thought to look for it, and the gardeners, at least in their original forms, were a highly effective guarding unit. I have no doubt that our distant predecessors could have defended this site against all forms of attack. Unfortunately, over time, the nature and status of the gardeners changed, until…” He turns to Sam. “Well, let’s just say that when the gardeners were put in charge of this place, I don’t think the plan was for people like us to end up in charge. And eventually, the real threat emerged from within our own ranks.”

“So let’s just get out of here,” Sam says. “We blatantly can’t do anything to deal with this problem, so let’s get the hell away, evacuate the town, and call the army.”

“You want this kind of force to be possessed by the government?” Faraday asks. “By any government? The history of humanity is dark and filled with greed, Ms. Marker. Governments would seek to profit from the beast. They’d send teams down into the depths. They’d wake the creature and attempt to strike bargains. They’d try to manipulate and control the beast, and in turn they’d end up bringing about the end of the world.” He pauses for a moment. “I can’t see into the future, Ms. Marker, but there’s one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty. When the world does finally end, this is where the process will begin. The whole town of Rippon will be ripped away and the beast will emerge with fire in its eyes.”

“Can’t we kill it?” Sam asks.

“Sure. Off you go. Head down there and kill the Devil. But make sure you don’t wake him up in the process.”

Taking a deep breath, Sam tries to work out what to do next. Although Faraday’s claims seem almost impossible to believe, she can’t shake the feeling that Rippon seems to be the kind of place where impossible things actually happen. Barring the possibility that she might be hallucinating this whole experience from a hospital bed, having suffered some kind of head injury, Sam has to acknowledge that she genuinely does seem to be standing on a platform overlooking the Devil’s grave.

“Okay,” she says eventually. “You’ve persuaded me. The Devil’s down there. But I don’t see why I have to stick around. I mean, I can just leave, can’t I?”

“When the last gardener leaves,” Faraday replies, “the garden will go untended. When the garden goes untended, chaos will reign. Not just here, but all over the world.”

“So get another gardener!”

“You’re the last,” Faraday continues. “Of that, there can be no doubt. All the angels are agreed that you’re the one. Death himself has noticed.”

“Convenient, huh?” Sam replies. “No way. I’m not gonna be tied to this place by some bullshit about me being the last gardener. I came here by accident!”

“You were guided here.”

"No, I answered an advert! It was totally a spur of the moment thing! I could just as easily have ended up working behind the counter of a fast food place, or in a coffee shop, or an office, or -"

"But you didn't," Faraday says firmly. "You ended up here. All the lines of fate came together and delivered you to Rippon. The right person at the right place at the right time. You might not have felt it before, Ms. Marker, but all your life there's been a guiding hand that's been pushing you to make the choices that led you here. Call it destiny, call it whatever you want, but it's the truth. And if you have any doubts, just think back to that final moment before you left home. Think back to the final face you saw -"

“Stop,” Sam says, her voice filled with simmering anger. “You’re getting into stuff you really don’t understand.”

“I know what happened,” he continues. “I know what you left behind in your wake when you ran away. The damage. The fear. The loneliness. Tell me, Ms. Marker. Do you consider yourself to be a good person?”

Sam opens her mouth to reply, but no words come out.

“Or do you consider yourself to be a sinner? Beyond redemption, even?” Faraday pauses. “Wouldn’t you like a chance to redeem yourself? You’ve already made one awful mistake in your life, Ms. Marker, and you’ve spent every subsequent day thinking that you’re a monster. However, you still have a chance to make things right. You can prove to yourself, and to the world, and to the person you hurt, that you’re a good person.”

"This isn't fair," Sam says, with tears rolling down her cheeks. "You've got no right -"

“I know you love him,” Faraday says, interrupting her. “The person you hurt. The person you almost killed. I know you still hope that maybe one day you’ll see him again. Wouldn’t you like to show him that you’re a good person? Wouldn’t you like to be able to tell him that you’ve turned your life around and done something good? Wouldn’t you like him to love you again?”

“This isn’t fair,” Sam says firmly.

“I know a lot about you,” Faraday replies. “I know you struggle to keep away from alcohol, and I know why. You tell yourself that you’re trying to improve. You tell yourself that you can be a better person, despite everything you’ve done wrong in your life. And you tell yourself, I suspect, that one day you might actually be worthy to go back and face the one you left behind. Isn’t that right, Sam?”

Unable to reply, Sam simply stares at him.

“But you know you’ll never reach the point where you feel that you’re ready. Your sins are too great, and there’s no way you can ever forgive yourself for what you did. Then again, perhaps if you do something truly heroic, something truly important, you might start to see things differently.” He pauses. “I hate to be manipulative, Ms. Marker, but on this occasion I believe I’m absolutely correct. If you turn and walk away from this place, from the cemetery and from Rippon, you’re effectively admitting that you’ll never be a better person. But if you stay and help, there’s a chance, just a chance, that one day you might be able to hold your head up high and go back to face the one person you still care about.”

There’s an awkward silence.

“I know I’m right,” Faraday continues. “The question, Ms. Marker, is whether or not you know I’m right. Are you going to run away again, or are you going to face up to your responsibilities and maybe even redeem your miserable, wretched soul?”

Chapter Six

 

When he gets to the cemetery, Fenroc can immediately tell that something’s wrong. Over the years, he’s developed a kind of sixth sense when it comes to danger, and right now that sixth sense is tingling from the moment he rounds the corner and starts walking toward the cemetery gates. At first, he can’t quite work out what’s causing the problem, but finally he realizes that it’s an old stink, something he never thought he’d smell again.

“Faraday,” he mutters.

At first, he’s not sure how to react. There’s a part of him that’s immediately filled with anger at the thought that Faraday could even dare to remain alive. Then again, there’s another part of him that’s rather impressed. After all, Faraday’s death seemed so convincing and so certain, it beggars belief that he could possibly still be alive. Nevertheless, the stench is unmistakable, and it’s clear that Faraday has somehow managed to cling to life. While he’s surprised by this development, however, Fenroc isn’t particularly troubled. He knows full well that Faraday doesn’t pose much of a threat.

Then again…

Keeping away from the cemetery gate, Fenroc listens to a faint sound of sobbing. At first, he assumes that it must be Sam, crying alone on the other side of the wall. Eventually, however, he realizes that the sobs belong to someone else. Cursing his luck, Fenroc is forced to accept that things are starting to get out of hand. He’d long assumed that Sam would remain alone in the cemetery, but now he realizes that not only is Faraday on the scene, but some other random girl seems to have turned up.

Walking around the corner, Fenroc makes his way to another part of the wall. Reaching up, he hauls himself up to the lowest branch of a nearby tree, which allows him to just about see into the cemetery. The place looks dark and deserted, which is a good sign, but Fenroc can’t shake the feeling that something’s wrong. If Faraday faked his death, there must be a reason, and his apparent attempt to enlist Sam’s help can only be a bad omen. As a man who likes to remain in control at all times, Fenroc is somewhat disturbed to realize that his plans are starting to unravel rather fast.

Finally, Fenroc jumps down from the tree and decides that he needs to face the problem head-on. Reaching down, he once again feels the distant rumble of the sleeping beast. He knows that while the demons are getting impatient, there’s no real hurry. The beast will wake at the appointed time, and no sooner. What matters right now, as far as Fenroc is concerned, is the job of getting Faraday out of the way. After all, while Faraday’s nothing more than an old fool, Sam could be more dangerous.

Chapter Seven

 

“Hey.”

Standing in the shadows over by the gate, Sam waits for Anna to reply. So far, however, Anna seems to be lost in her own little world, sitting on the grass with her knees drawn up under her chin while she stares at the ground. With her skin torn and with pieces of bone sticking out, she looks diseased and rotten, and when she turns and looks over at Sam, there’s a clear look of anguish in her eyes.

“So what’s it like being dead?” Sam asks. “Are there any upsides?”

Anna stares at her for a moment, before looking back down at the ground.

"I mean, if you -" Sam starts to say, before realizing that there's a very faint noise coming from Anna. After a moment, Sam sits next to the dead girl and listens for a moment to the sound of her sobbing. "I kind of want to tell you that everything's gonna be okay," she says eventually, "but I guess that'd sound kind of hollow seeing as you're dead and all. Still, I guess the worst is over, so things have to get better, right?"

“You think it’s a joke?” Anna asks, sniffing back some more tears.

“I think my head is spinning,” Sam replies with a shrug. “I think I’m in shock, and I guess eventually I’ll react properly, but for now… Well, for now it’s hard to take any of this stuff seriously. I can’t help wondering if I’m actually locked up in the ward of some mental hospital, and all of this is happening in my mind.”

They sit in silence for a moment.

“My thumb fell off,” Anna says eventually, her voice sounding weak and fragile as she continues to sob. “I knocked my hand against a gravestone and my fucking thumb fell off.”

“Did it hurt?” Sam asks.

“No.”

“Did it bleed?”

“No.”

“Did you save it?”

“So someone can sew it back on?” Anna pauses. “No, I didn’t save it. What’s the point? A bit of skin fell off my arm earlier. Do you have any idea what it feels like to have holes in your body?” She waits for an answer. “It’s my birthday. Did I tell you that?”

“Worst birthday ever?” Sam replies.

“I should have just stayed dead,” Anna continues. “At least then, I wouldn’t know anything about all of this, and…” She turns and looks across the dark cemetery. “Why am I the only one who woke up? What about Dean? He’s dead too, so why didn’t he come back? I mean, sure, it was kind of difficult to get out of the coffin and dig my way up, but I managed it.”

“Faraday says there’ll be more later,” Sam replies. “I guess you were just lucky.”

“I love him so much,” Anna says. “I mean, I totally… Have you ever been in love?”

“In love?”

“Have you ever loved someone?”

Sam nods. “Once. Very recently, actually.”

“What happened?”

“It didn’t work out,” Sam replies. “It was my fault. I fucked up.”

“But he’s still alive, right?”

“I guess so.”

“So you could go back to him?”

“No,” Sam says, shaking her head. “He’s better off without me. I was in a very bad place when I met him. It was right before I left Leeds. Just a couple of hours before I got the bus, actually.”

“What’s his name?” Anna asks.

“I…” Sam replies, pausing as she tries to decide whether she can even bear to say the name out loud. “Henry,” she says eventually. “His name’s Henry.”

“Henry? That’s kind of an old-fashioned name, isn’t it?”

“I guess so,” Sam replies with a smile. “But it doesn’t matter. I was bad for him.”

“Not if he loves you too.” Anna waits for a reply. “Does he?”

“I think so.”

“Did he ever say it?”

“No,” Sam says finally. “No, he never actually said it. But I said it to him.”

“That sucks,” Anna replies.

“You have no idea,” Sam says quietly. Glancing up at a nearby plinth, she sees the cracked old faceless angel that appears to be guarding the entrance. For a moment, she allows herself to entertain the idea that perhaps the angel actually is an old gardener who turned to stone. As crazy as the idea sounds, it’s no more crazy than the fact that Anna appears to have returned from the dead. While she still thinks there’s a chance that she’s lost her mind, Sam is also aware that maybe – just maybe – everything that Faraday said is true. It’s all kind of hard to take in, but Faraday seems to be a fairly earnest guy, and Sam can’t deny the things that have been happening right in front of her eyes since she arrived in Rippon.

“Why couldn’t I have just gone to Heaven?” Anna asks suddenly. “I’d have been happy in Heaven. I deserved to go to Heaven. I mean, I was a cheerleader. I could have sat around with wings and a harp, and I wouldn’t really have been too bothered. But this…” She holds up one of her hands, showing Sam the gap in the center of the palm. “This is pretty gross. I’m worried I can feel maggots in my neck. I’m like some kind of fucking zombie. I used to be so beautiful. Didn’t you notice? I was hot. I took good care of my skin. And now…”

“There’s definitely a certain level of irony,” Sam replies. “I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but whatever moisturizer you’re using, you should really reconsider. It’s drying you out terribly.”

Anna turns to her.

“Sorry,” Sam adds. “Bad attempt at humor.”

“What if my eyes fall out?” Anna asks. “I’m still rotting. I can tell. So how much further is it gonna go? Am I just gonna fall apart?”

Spotting something nearby, Sam reaches over and finds Anna’s thumb. “Here,” she says, passing it over to her. “Pull yourself together.”

“You’ve got a visitor,” Anna replies, peering over at the gate as she takes the thumb.

Turning, Sam sees that she’s right. A dark figure is loitering in the street just outside the cemetery, and it’s clear that this isn’t some random passer-by. Whoever’s out there, he or she appears to be waiting to be noticed.

“I think I know who this is,” Sam says, getting to her feet and wandering over to the gate. In some strange way, she’s actually relieved at the thought of a visitor who might not bring more insanity to the situation.

“You’re up late,” says a familiar Irish voice from the darkness. After a moment, Fenroc steps closer. “Guilty conscience perhaps?”

“About what?” Sam asks.

“About standing me up, of course. Don’t tell me you forgot we had a date tonight? I waited two hours in that restaurant, but you didn’t show. The waiters must have thought I was a right old fool. They kept bringing me more wine, and by the time I got to dessert it was clear you weren’t coming. I hope you’re happy that you made me look like a right tosser.”

“Sorry,” Sam replies. “I guess I lost track of time.”

“Got friends in there, have you?” Fenroc asks, glancing between the bars and seeing Anna still sitting nearby. “What’s up with your pal? She looks a little peaky.”

“She’s having a bad night,” Sam says. “Actually, it’s her birthday, so I should really go and hang out with her.”

“Aye,” Fenroc replies, “go and be a good friend. Birthdays are always important. But don’t you want to reschedule our dinner? I’d hate to think that you’re blowing me off completely. Maybe I haven’t made a very good impression so far, but I scrub up pretty well.”

“I might be a little busy for a while.”

“Surely you can fit me in.” Fenroc pauses for a moment as he fixes Sam with a curious, determined stare. “It’s not just a social thing, you know. I’ve got a feeling we could help one another. After all, I’m pretty sure you’ve worked out by now that Rippon isn’t exactly the most normal of towns. It’s dangerous. Maybe you don’t see the full extent of the threats, not while you’ve safely ensconced within the cemetery walls, but why don’t you come out and see for yourself?”

“It’s getting late,” Sam points out.

“Aye, but just step out for a moment. Come on, what are you scared of? Just open the gate and come out here. I’ve got something to show you.”

“No thanks,” Sam says.

“Wise girl,” Fenroc replies. “Maybe you’re learning after all. This town’s not safe.”

“It’s got it’s got a few quirks,” Sam replies darkly.

“More than quirks,” Fenroc continues. “Your pal over there. She’s dead, is she not? She’s the girl from that awful bike crash the other night. I have to say, it’s something of a surprise to see her wandering around. Shouldn’t she be six feet under by now, rotting away?”

“I can hear you!” Anna calls over to them.

“Didn’t mean to offend,” Fenroc replies with a smile.

“Go fuck yourself!”

“You’ve got another visitor, I believe,” Fenroc continues. “There’s something in the air. Something… musty, and a little old. Would I be right in thinking that perhaps there’s a gentleman caller over in the cottage?”

“Maybe,” Sam replies cautiously.

“And what might his name be?” Fenroc asks. “No, wait… Let me guess. Faraway? No. Foraway? No… Faraday? Aye, that’s it. Faraday. Is that who you’ve got in there?”

“You know him?” Sam asks.

Fenroc smiles. “Well, ‘know’ is a very strong word, but I certainly have experience with him.” He pauses for a moment. “The man’s only interested in one thing, and that’s looking after himself. The needs of other people are very much on the back-burner as far as he’s concerned. He’ll tell you anything he thinks will get you on his side, and then as soon as he’s got what he wants, he’ll flick you away like ash.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Sam replies.

Fenroc stares at her. “Aye,” he says eventually, “well, I’ve told you about him. I’ve done all I can. If you decide to trust the bastard, that’s your mistake, and yours alone. Far be it for me to tell you want you should be doing. Just don’t come running to me when you realize you’ve fucked up.”

“I’ll be in touch,” Sam tells Fenroc. “I really don’t think I can get away any time soon, but maybe when this is all over we can go to that restaurant and talk.”

“Maybe when this is all over,” Fenroc replies, “there won’t be a restaurant. For that matter, maybe there won’t even be a me or a you.”

“You’re an optimistic kind of guy, aren’t you?” Sam asks.

“I do my best.” He pauses for a moment. “Well now, do you feel that?” he continues with a broad smile. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear there was a very slight tremor underfoot. Almost like something turning deep underground. Something big. Now what do you reckon that might be, Ms. Marker?”

“What do you think it is,” Sam replies, hoping to tease a little more information from Fenroc. Unsure as to how much he knows about the situation in the cemetery, she’s determined to work out whether or not he understands the full story.

“I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess,” he says, still smiling.

“Maybe you’d like to come in some time and take a look?”

“That wouldn’t be possible,” he replies, reaching a hand between the bars. Seconds later, there’s a faint sizzling sound, and to Sam’s horror she sees that the skin on Fenroc’s fingers seems to be burning, sending thin plumes of curling white smoke into the night air. “You see,” he continues, “I’m not entirely welcome around these parts. There was some bad business a while ago, and I’m still persona non grata, if you know what I mean. Unfortunately, certain people have very long memories, and a man like me isn’t really welcome on hallowed ground.”

Staring at Fenroc’s hand, which by now is almost completely blackened, Sam opens her mouth to say something but instead finds that she’s almost transfixed by the sight of Fenroc’s skin as it spits and burns like a sausage on a griddle.

“As you can see,” Fenroc continues, “although I’d love to join you in that comfy little cottage, I’m afraid other forces have their own ideas.” As the words leave his mouth, flames suddenly erupt from his hand, and he pulls himself clear of the gate. “That’s gonna hurt in the morning,” he says, using the edge of his coat to beat the flames away until all that’s left is a blackened hand. “Sometimes,” he continues, admiring the damage, “I think I go a little too far in my attempts to make an impact with the ladies.”

“What are you?” Sam asks.

“If you want to find out,” he replies, “you’ll just have to come to dinner with me, won’t you? But I’ll tell you what I’m not. I’m not some fucking stone angel, that’s for sure. And I’m not some idiot ex-gardener who faked his death and then came back so he could tell his successor that he doesn’t have a clue how to deal with the real problem that’s buried deep beneath Rippon. I’m not a tease and I’m not a demon. I’m not dead, but whether that means I’m alive, who can tell? I’m not a man of infinite patience, either, and I don’t give my information out without getting something in return.”

"But -"

“No more questions,” Fenroc says firmly, all the humor having suddenly disappeared from his eyes. “If you want to talk to me again, meet me for dinner. I’ll be at my favorite table every evening from seven. It’s not like I’ve got anywhere else to be anyway. If you show up one night, you show up. I’d like to think you’ll have some common fucking courtesy, but maybe you’ll just disappoint me again. If you don’t show, I guess I’ll just have to dine alone. It’s not ideal, but there are worse fates.” He pauses. “Is it really your friend’s birthday?”

Sam nods.

“What a coincidence,” he continues. “It’s mine too.” With that, he turns and walks away.

“He seems nice,” Anna says forlornly, still sitting nearby.

“I’m not sure that’s quite the word I’d use,” Sam replies.

“You should go to dinner with him, though,” Anna continues. “I mean, if the world’s gonna end, you might as well have some fun first.”

“The world’s not ending.”

“Sure feels like it right now,” Anna says, “and that guy was right. There is something moving underground. It’s deep, but I can feel it. It’s like something’s slowly turning and disturbing the soil. Don’t tell me you can’t feel it.”

“Come on,” Sam says, reaching out her hand for Anna to take. “It’s your birthday. Let’s go celebrate. I can’t promise an actual party, but at least we can try to have a good time. And don’t get too stressed. We can worry about the end of the world tomorrow.”

Chapter Eight

 

Pushing the door shut, Fenroc takes a deep breath and pauses for a moment before walking through to his bathroom. He spends as little time as possible in his own home, preferring to be out and about in Rippon. Sometimes, however, he has no choice but to come and sleep. He considers sleep to be a waste of time and a lost opportunity, but he knows that he functions better when he’s had a little rest. Anger, in particular is tiring, and Fenroc is very, very angry tonight.

Under the harsh glare of the bare bulb that lights the bathroom, Fenroc carefully removes his jacket, wincing with pain in the process. Pausing, he tries to take the agony and turn it into something more useful. Eventually, feeling a little stronger, he starts unbuttoning his shirt, and finally he stands and stares at himself in the mirror. For a moment, he manages to empty his mind completely, but eventually dark thoughts return. All he can think about right now is the disease that spreads across his torso, turning his skin to stone. He understands why this has to happen, of course, but he still feels that it’s a little unfair. After all, as far as he’s concerned, he was always much more than just another gardener.

Heading through to the kitchen, he pours himself a double whiskey and allows himself to relax for a moment as he savors the soft aroma that curls up from the glass. He’d dearly love to take a sip, but he knows that alcohol tends to speed up the spread of the stone. He stares down into the glass for a moment, before turning and hurling the glass across the room until it hits the opposite wall and smashes. Filled with anger, Fenroc marches across the room and grabs one of the old wooden chairs in the corner before bringing it crashing down against the floor.

“Faraday,” he mutters, barely able to contain the urge to rip the entire house apart. “I swear to God, I’ll rip you apart before this moon is done.”

Epilogue

 

One year ago

 

“That’s her,” whispers a voice nearby.

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

Her?”

“What?”

“No, I just mean… Forget it, man. I thought you meant the other one.”

Standing at the checkout, Sam forces herself not to look over her shoulder. She’s pretty certain that the bunch of guys nearby are talking about her, which can only mean one thing: she must have met one of them while she was wasted, in which case she probably ended up making a complete fool of herself. Still, she’s not going to give them the satisfaction of a reaction. They’re not the first local idiots to start snickering about her behind her back, and she doubt they’ll be the last.

“Excuse me,” says a voice a few minutes later, just as Sam’s heading out of the store.

Sighing, she turns to find a guy standing behind her with a big grin on his face.

“You want something?” she asks.

“No,” he says, clearly finding it hard to contain his amusement at the situation, “it’s just, my friend thinks he might have met you a while ago when he was out, and…” He pauses. “Is your name Sammy?”

“Sam,” she replies.

“Okay, cool,” the guy says. “So, anyway, my friend was saying that you’re willing to do certain stuff, which is totally cool. I’m not judging or anything. Hell, I think it’s kind of liberating. I mean, we’re all just bodies bouncing around in life, right? Why not have a bit of fun? He said you were really good, so I was just wondering if you’d be willing to do the same for me.”

Sam stares at him, trying to decide whether she should clout him around the head with her bag of shopping.

“I’ll be blunt,” the guy continues, as if he somehow thinks he’s been tactful so far. “Do you wanna go down on me sometime? Maybe out back, in the parking lot? It’s just, Andy says you’re really good at that kind of thing, and I could really use a little relief, if you know what I mean.”

“Fuck off,” Sam says, turning and marching away.

“What?” the guy calls after her. “It was an honest question! I thought you’d like it if I was direct!”

As soon as she gets outside, Sam hurries around the corner into the alley that runs down the side of the store. Sitting on the dirty, rough ground, she takes a deep breath and then bursts into tears. She buries her head in her hands as tears pour from her eyes, and for a few minutes she sits sobbing, unable to pull herself together. It doesn’t happen often, but when her day-time and night-time lives collide like this, she tends to end up falling apart for a few minutes. She’d do anything to be able to handle things a little better, but it’s as if there are two completely different versions of her, and they really don’t mix well.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” the guy says suddenly.

Looking up, Sam realizes that he’s followed her out of the store. She stares at him with a feeling of horror in the pit of her stomach.

“Sorry,” he adds.

“Go fuck yourself,” Sam says, wiping her eyes and grabbing her shopping bag before getting to her feet and trying to push past the guy.

"Wait up," the guy says, grabbing her by the arm. "If you're not in the mood right now, maybe later? Do you want to meet up for a drink or something? Maybe we can go down to the canal or something. Andy said you might be up for something else later, too. He says you didn't make him use a condom, so -"

“Let go of me,” Sam says, trying to sound firm despite the fact that she can barely even speak right now.

“You know what I think?” the guy replies with a smile. “I think we should both just relax.” Reaching down, he starts undoing the front of his trousers.

Pulling her arm free, Sam starts walking away and, after a moment, she breaks into a run. Pretty soon, she’s racing through the center of town, determined to get the hell away from everyone. Eventually she gets back to the front of the apartment building where she lives with her grandmother, and she hurries into the hallway before bursting into tears yet again. Feeling weak, she sits on the steps and takes a moment to pull herself together.

“Asshole,” she mutters, even though she knows that the whole encounter is probably at least partly her fault. After all, she figures the guy didn’t just approach her out of thin air; she must have done something with his friend at a nightclub, which means that the whole thing has kind of come full circle.

After a few minutes, she finally starts to calm down. Taking deep, measured breaths, she tries to focus on the fact that she’s safe, at least for now. Then again, she’s already arranged to meet Nadia again tonight, which means that they’ll inevitably end up going to another nightclub and the whole cycle is going to start up again. There’s a part of Sam that desperately wants to break free of this constant series of humiliations, but she knows deep down that as soon as the sun goes down, she’ll end up dragging herself out to meet Nadia in one of the local pubs. Sometimes, she feels as if she’s not even in control of her life these days, as if she’s compelled to keep going out and getting drunk. In fact, she’s starting to wonder if maybe she’s got some kind of drinking problem, even though she usually ends up dismissing the idea as complete nonsense.

“Pull yourself together,” she mutters as she hauls herself up and starts walking to her grandmother’s apartment. By the time she gets to the front door, all traces of tears are gone from her eyes.

Part Six:

Demons All

Prologue

 

Six months ago

 

“Samantha, are you hungover again?”

Her grandmother’s voice cuts through her head like an ice-pick. It’s 8am, and Sam’s supposed to be getting up early for her first trial shift at the supermarket. Unfortunately, her ‘quick drink’ with Nadia last night ended up becoming a full-on night out, and she only got home a few hours ago. Desperately trying to sober up and make herself look presentable, she’s on her knees in front of the toilet. She figures she can definitely sort herself out, but not if her grandmother’s banging on the bathroom door every five minutes and trying to deliver yet another goddamn lecture.

“Samantha? Are you okay in there?”

“I’m fine,” she replies, feeling as if she’s about to vomit again. Her stomach seems to be churning constantly. She’s used to feeling bad after a night out, but she’s always prided herself on being able to recover fairly quickly. Over the past week, however, her body seems to have started letting her down, and right now she feels rougher than ever. “I think it’s just a stomach bug.”

“What time did you get home last night?”

“Not too late.”

“I looked at the clock when I heard you come in. It was almost 5am. Do you really think that’s an acceptable time for you to be getting to the door?” There’s a pause as she waits for an answer. “Aren’t you supposed to be starting at the store today?”

“Not for a few more hours,” Sam says, forcing herself to hold back from vomiting until her grandmother goes back through to the kitchen. “Just fuck off,” she whispers under her breath, feeling a wave of pain in her belly. “Please, just fuck off so I can get on with this.”

“Were you with that Nadia girl again?”

“Yeah,” Sam replies, bracing herself as another bout of sharp, jabbing pain pulses through her body. “And some other girls.”

“I don’t know why you do this to yourself,” her grandmother continues. “It seems like you’re out every night, pouring all sorts of liquor down your throat. I was watching the news the other night, Samantha, and there was a report about binge drinking. Are you aware of the damage you could be doing to your body by getting so hopelessly drunk every night?”

“It’s not like that,” Sam mutters, finding it harder and harder to keep from throwing up.

“Why’s it not like that? Because you think you’re different to everyone else? Because you think that somehow you’re special? Let me tell you something, young lady, you’re not special. Not if you keep drinking like this. Your liver’s not going to take it forever.”

Sam opens her mouth to reply, but instead she ends up vomiting. For the next minute or so, she can’t stop from bringing up last night’s drinks and kebab.

“For God’s sake,” her grandmother continues, “you’re a disgrace. Do you hear me?”

“It’s hard not to,” Sam mutters, grabbing some toilet paper and wiping her mouth.

"If you lose this job before you've even started, I swear I don't know what I'll do with you. You're a disgrace, Samantha. Jobs aren't easy to come by in this economy, and yet you're acting as if nothing matters. There are people out there who are far more deserving of this opportunity, who aren't just going to waste everything that comes their way!" Again, she waits for an answer. "I can't continue to support us both, Samantha. My pension just doesn't cover it. I'm eighty-three years old, for God's sake. Do you think I deserve to spend my twilight years arguing with a recalcitrant young woman who should know better than to act in such a disrespectful -"

“Okay!” Sam shouts suddenly, finally losing her temper. “I understand! I get it! You’re disappointed, and you’re right! Let’s just leave it at that, yeah? I’m not arguing with you. You’re totally right, so can I please just get on with getting ready? I’m totally fine, but if I have to constantly talk to you about every little thing, I’m never going to be ready, am I?” She waits for an answer, and eventually she hears her grandmother walking away from the door.

“Great,” Sam sighs, realizing that her grandmother has shifted from angry mode to sulk mode. There’ll be hell to pay later, and the silent treatment is probably going to last for a couple of days, but Sam figures she can handle whatever gets thrown at her. She’s used to dealing with her grandmother’s moods, and even if she doesn’t like them, she can just keep out of the house as much as possible. “Guess I’ll be going out later after all,” she mutters as she flushes the toilet. “Anything to keep out of this fucking place.”

Half an hour later, having cleaned herself up, taken a shower and fixed her hair and make-up, Sam stands in front of the mirror wearing the uniform she was given at her job interview. She still feels pretty awful, but at least she figures she can make herself look okay. All she has to do is keep her head down, do what she’s told when she gets to the supermarket, and hope she can hang on to this one lousy job. She also figures she needs to cut down on the nights out, because she’s starting to feel as if her hangovers are getting much worse. Lately, her body seems to have started to rebel on her, as if it’s trying to get her to slow down.

“Okay,” she says, staring at her reflection. “You can do this. You can do this.” With that, she turns and heads out of the bathroom, ready to face the world. She never particularly wanted to be a cashier at a crumby supermarket, but then again she’s never really felt any particular desire to be anything at all. Avoiding her grandmother in the kitchen, she goes straight to the door and out into the blindingly bright morning.

Chapter One

 

“Okay,” Sam says, staring at herself in the mirror. She brushes the hair from over her eyes and takes a moment to straighten her jacket, before peering closer and cleaning some make-up residue from the corner of her eyes. It’s been so long since she actually went out anywhere socially, she’s almost forgotten how to get ready. Finally, pulling back her lips, so spots a huge chunk of bread stick between her front teeth.

“Great,” she mutters, trying to dig the bread out using the end of a hair-clip.

“You look different,” says a voice from nearby.

Turning, Sam sees that Sparky the stone angel is standing in the doorway. With all the craziness that has been happening lately, Sam has barely had time to speak to Sparky, and she certainly isn’t used to the idea that a man made of stone, with a big pair of furled wings on his back, can wander around the cottage and try to start up a conversation. He has a very relaxed and contented attitude, as if he views the world through a filter of peace and calm. Sam finds his presence to be strangely reassuring, even if she can’t shake the feeling that there must be a little more to him.

“I’m just popping out for a few hours,” she says, turning back to the mirror in order to resume her excavation attempt with the hair-clip. Tensing up a little, she hopes Sparky won’t ask too many questions.

“To meet someone?”

“It’s a long-standing arrangement,” she replies, watching as a mouse scurries across the floor. “I agreed to it a while ago, and I already stood him up once, so… It’s nothing big, really. Just someone who might be able to help.”

“You need help?”

“It’s complicated.” She waits for him to ask another question. “It’s not really complicated,” she continues eventually. “It’s more that it’s… difficult to express in words.”

“Apparently so.”

“Can’t a girl go and have dinner with some guy without it being seen as a date?” Sam asks. “I mean, is everyone so fucking fixated on romance and all that crap? It’s just dinner. Really, we’re just meeting to talk, but it’s kinda more interesting to have some food at the same time, and…” She pauses, as she realizes she’s rambling. “You know what I mean, right?”

Sparky stares at her.

“I know you know,” she continues. “You must have been on a date occasionally.”

Sparky tilts his head a little, like a dog.

“This world is crazy,” Sam adds with a sigh.

“That, I agree with,” Sparky says. “It has been many years since I took this form and became trapped in the cemetery. I rarely experience interactions with people from the outside world, but I have certainly observed that things seem to have changed.”

Continuing to work on the piece of bread, Sam eventually realizes that Sparky is just standing in the doorway, staring at her. “So your name’s not really Sparky, is it?” she asks after a moment, figuring that she might as well try to get some kind of conversation going. “Faraday was saying that he used to call you something else.”

“Most people call me Martello,” the angel replies. “It was my name long ago, when I was the gardener here. When I was human. The name given to me by my parents was Luke Martello. I was raised under that name and trained under that name. In a way, however, I feel that I have outworn that name. Anyway…” He pauses. “Sparky’s not so bad. If I didn’t like it, I’d have let you know by now.”

“So you were a gardener here,” Sam continues. “How long ago?”

“Too long. I was one of the first.”

“Weren’t the first gardeners, like, ninjas or something?”

“No,” Sparky replies. “Not ninjas. However, we were warriors. We had a sacred oath to defend this place from all those who wished to come and disturb the Devil’s sleep.”

“And there are a lot of people who want to do that, are there?” Sam asks. “I mean, call me nuts, but I’d have thought it’d be a bad idea to wake him up. Isn’t there a chance that he might be a little grumpy?”

“There are creatures in the world who see things differently,” Sparky points out. “They seek power, and who better to give them power than the Devil? They think he’ll rise from his grave one day and grant them untold riches, so they compete to be the first to raise him. They’re wrong, of course, but the pursuit of power can sometimes blind even the most intelligent of creatures. That’s why the gardeners were put here, to preserve the grave, and it’s why we remain even in death, albeit in a new form.”

“Huh,” Sam replies.

“There was one,” Sparky continues, “who abandoned the oath and sought to profit from his position. He believed that, as a gardener, he’d be perfectly placed to raise the Devil and cut a deal. He was almost successful, but fortunately he was stopped at the last moment. Since then, it has become clear to many of us that this might be a losing battle. We have stopped believing that we can prevent the Devil’s resurrection, and we have begun to focus on an attempt to delay the inevitable for as long as possible.”

“And you’ve been here all that time?” Sam replies.

“Not all the time,” Sparky says. “A long time, certainly.”

“How long’s too long?” Sam asks. She waits for an answer. “You’re old, huh? More than a hundred? More than a thousand?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sparky says. “Time means less to me these days.”

“And now you’re made of stone.”

“It’s an interesting change,” he replies. “At first, I was quite unsure as to how I’d be able to get about. In fact, I panicked somewhat when the process began. Believe me, it’s not pleasant to witness your own body starting to become stone. After a while, however, I got used to it. These days, I can barely remember what it was like to be made of flesh and blood. I don’t miss it at all. Life in the cemetery is much calmer, and at least I feel as if I’m contributing something to a worthy cause.”

“I guess helping to save the world is a pretty worthy cause,” Sam suggests.

“Indeed.”

“It’d be a pretty good way to redeem yourself,” Sam continues, staring at her reflection. “I mean, if you’d done something bad and you wanted to prove to someone that you could change, that you could be good…”

“It certainly would,” Sparky replies.

Finally getting the piece of bread out from between her teeth, Sam steps back from the mirror and takes one last look at herself. She’s been trying to get a balance between casual and respectable. In the old days, when she went out on the town with Nadia, she’d wear ridiculously glittery dresses that were designed to attract guys. She’s never actually been to a date at a restaurant, and although she’s got no romantic interest in Fenroc at all, she can’t help but worry about how she’ll come across.

“You look very good,” Sparky says.

“I’m sorry about the way I chained you to the cottage,” Sam replies, carefully avoiding any acknowledgment of the compliment. “You kind of freaked me out at first with the way you kept moving while I wasn’t looking. You could have just told me you were alive, you know. It would’ve been better than the way you kind of slunk around. Do you realize how creepy that was?”

“I didn’t want to scare you,” Sparky replies. “I wasn’t quite sure how you’d react if you saw a stone angel knocking on the window.”

“I’m not as jumpy as I look,” Sam says. “Anyway, this whole place is pretty terrifying. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a dead girl sitting in my kitchen right now. Properly dead. Not just emotionally dead or spiritually dead, but with bits falling off her and actual maggots crawling through her body. I mean, if that’s not terrifying, I don’t know what is. And then there’s…” She pauses as she realizes she was about to use Sparky as another example of the creepy things that exist in the cemetery.

“It’s okay,” he replies. “I’m aware that I might not be the most comforting sight. Since I took my stone form, I’ve tended to hide away and avoid humans. There was an unfortunate incident many years ago when a young boy from the town happened to see me walking among the graves. He ran away screaming, and I hear he has suffered significant mental health problems ever since. As you can imagine, I’ve tried to be a little more cautious since that incident. In truth, when you first came here, I was a little nervous, and perhaps a little shy.”

Sam raises an eyebrow as she turns to him.

“I’m here to help,” he continues. “That’s the job of the stone angels now, at least those of us who adhere to the old code. There are, of course, a few who prefer to focus on their own selfish needs. Those are the ones who exist beyond the cemetery walls. They care only about seeking chances to enrich themselves. Some of them even try to strike bargains with dark forces, hoping to gain some benefit. It’s a foolish endeavor, of course, but greed knows no boundaries.”

Checking her watch, Sam sees that she’s in danger of running late for her ‘date’. There’s a part of her that doesn’t really want to go at all, and that would rather stay here and talk to Sparky and the others. On the other hand, she feels as if maybe Faraday has only told her half the story so far, and she wants to at least find out what Fenroc has to say. While she’s aware that she might be wrong, she can’t shake the feeling that Fenroc seems like a trustworthy kind of guy, while Faraday comes across as being very jumpy and secretive. If she had to choose to trust one of them, right now she’s not sure who she’d pick.

“It’s okay,” Sparky says, his body making a dull grinding sound as he steps back from the doorway. “I hope you have a good evening, Sam. We must all take our moments of relaxation wherever we can find them, especially when there is a storm coming.”

“You think there’s a storm coming?” Sam asks.

“I’m afraid so.”

“I won’t be late home,” Sam says, feeling a little uncomfortable as she heads through to the kitchen and over to the main door. For some reason, however, she can’t shake the feeling that this is going to be the least relaxing evening in history.

Chapter Two

 

“Open up!” Mayor Winters shouts as he bangs on the door. “For God’s sake, get this door open!”

As he waits for someone to respond to his pleas, he glances first one way and the other, keen to ensure that he’s not being observed. Although it’s late and most of Rippon’s residents should either be at home or in the cafe, Winters can’t afford any slip-ups. He knows it’s now or never in terms of his plans, and the slightest mistake could be fatal. Even now, he can feel dark forces starting to close in, and he’s quite certain that the town will be under siege before too long.

“What now?” asks Walter Simpkin as he opens the door. Tired and still not quite awake properly, Simpkin blinks a couple of times as he stares at Winters. “Let me guess,” he says with a sigh. “The new gardener’s dead, and you need to run a new ad. Are you sure this is worth doing? It’s getting ridiculous.”

“Not this time,” Winters shouts as he thrusts a cloth sack into Simpkin’s arms. “As far as I know, the new gardener is absolutely fine. For now, anyway. Take these. They’re yours now. I’m out of here!”

“What are you talking about?” Simpkin asks, taking a step back. “What’s got into you, man?”

“I’m not sticking around while everything goes to hell,” Winters replies, mopping the sweat from his brow. “I’ve given the best years of my life to this town, Walter, and for what? A load of complaining idiots who’ve never shown a moment’s gratitude in their entire lives! I’ve worn myself out and I’ve done terrible things, all in the name of keeping this place safe, but I can’t handle it anymore. I quit, and I’m officially declaring, Walter, that you’re the new mayor of Rippon.”

“You can’t do that!”

“I can, and I have!” Winters says, stepping away from the door. “Good luck, Walter. You’ll need it. Quite apart from any nastiness that might spring up from the depths, the people of this town are a load of moaners and whiners. If it’s not one thing, it’s another, and even when they have a legitimate grievance, the way they express themselves is downright rude! I’m afraid you’ll be a very busy man, Walter, but you’re the best person for the job. I’m quite certain that I’m leaving Rippon in the safest possible pair of hands.”

“But I can’t be the mayor!” Simpkin protests. “I’m a busy man. I have a business to run, a wife, a family! I don’t know the first thing about civic responsibility!”

“Don’t worry,” Winters replies. “I’ve got a feeling you won’t need to worry too much. Things are changing, Walter. The world itself is going to be thrust into a new age, and I doubt the old ways are going to be very relevant. You’re a smart man, Walter, and you just need to maintain a steady focus and try to keep things on track even though…” He pauses for a moment. “Well, I mean… Even though… Things might be a little difficult around here, Walter, and I’m sorry to leave you in the lurch like this. The only tidbit of comfort I can offer is that there probably won’t even be a town left for much longer.”

"Wait, I -" Simpkin starts to say, before Winters turns and runs as fast as he can along the dark street, disappearing quickly into the night.

“Walter?” a voice calls out from upstairs. “What’s all the noise? What’s going on down there?”

Stepping back and pushing the door shut, Simpkin carries the cloth bag through to his kitchen and carefully sets it on the table before untying the top and opening it to reveal not only the mayoral seal, but also the sash, the cap, the gown and the head of the mayoral lance. For a moment, Simpkin is completely overcome as he realizes that enormity of the responsibility that has been placed on his shoulders. As he holds up the mayoral seal, he can’t help but imagine himself standing on the steps of the town hall as an adoring crowd gathers in the main square.

Hearing a noise nearby, he turns just in time to see a dark shape flit past the back window. Setting the mayoral seal down, he hurries across the room and looks out into the garden. Seeing nothing, he turns back to look at the mayoral artifacts.

“Walter?” his wife calls out, making her way down the stairs. “What’s going on down there? Who was that at the door?”

“Oh,” Simpkin replies, as a smile breaks across his face. “Nothing much, my dear. I just became mayor of this fine town. That’s all.”

Chapter Three

 

“Surely you’ll have a glass of wine with me, Sam?”

Before she can turn the offer down, Sam sees that the waiter is approaching the table with an already-opened bottle. She knows she still has time to decline a glass, but she just sits and watches as her glass is filled with a rich, red Shiraz. There’s something so tempting about the color, as if Sam can already feel it slipping down her throat. She finds herself momentarily mesmerized by the thought of drinking alcohol for the first time in more than half a year.

Fenroc sits on the other side of the table, smiling as his glass is topped up by the waiter.

“I always think dinner requires wine,” he says once they’re alone again. “It’s a sign of civilization, don’t you think? Besides, it loosens the tongue a little, and I’m already sensing a little stiffness on your part. If I might be so bold as to inquire, I’d love to know what made you change your mind.” He takes a sip from his glass. “Why did you finally agree to come and have dinner with me, Sam? I’d like to think it was my preternatural good looks and my charming personality, but I suspect you have other reasons.”

“A spot opened on my calendar,” Sam replies a little awkwardly.

“I imagine you must be very busy in the cemetery at the moment,” Fenroc continues. “The last few nights, I’ve happened to walk past the gate on my way home, and I always see lights in the cottage, even at two or three in the morning. Are you still entertaining certain guests?”

“Kind of.”

“I hope you’re being careful about who you invite into your home, Sam. Some people, you let ‘em though the door, and you can never get rid of the bastards.”

“I’m fine,” Sam says cautiously. “Thanks for your concern, though.”

“You’re not touching your wine?”

Sam smiles awkwardly as she looks down at the glass. It’s tempting. She hasn’t touched alcohol for a long time now, and although there’s a part of her that wants to maintain the good behavior, there’s another part of her that feels it wouldn’t be so wrong to indulge once in a while. After all, her original aim was never to become completely teetotal, but just to cut back and avoid becoming a total alcoholic burn-out by her mid-twenties. Although she’s proud of herself for cutting alcohol out completely, she figures she should probably allow herself a drop now and again.

“Faraday’s still in town, I assume,” Fenroc adds after a moment.

“Totally,” Sam replies.

“I know you must tire of hearing me say this,” Fenroc continues, “but you really mustn’t believe everything that man says. I know what he’s like. He spins a good tale, but never without good reason. His mind’s always spinning, coming up with scheme after scheme. He’s manipulative and dangerous, and he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t have an agenda.”

“Everyone has an agenda,” Sam replies cautiously.

“True, but in Faraday’s case, it’s an all-consuming passion. He has his eye on a certain prize, and I’m afraid he’ll go to any lengths in order to achieve his goal. He’s a desperate man, Sam. Desperate enough to fake his own death and then hang around, watching from the shadows as his successor tried to pick up the slack. I’m sure he talks a good game, but hopefully you have enough insight to realize that the man is very deceptive. There are no lengths to which he would not go if he felt it necessary.” He pauses for a moment. “The man is craven. He sees other people as tools, to be used for his own purpose. He’ll even kill, if he thinks it would help his cause. I’m worried about you, Sam.”

“That’s cute,” Sam replies, “but I can handle myself.”

“And the girl,” Fenroc continues. “I understand you have a female friend with you. One who perhaps isn’t as… alive… as the rest of us.”

“She’s fine.”

“There’ll be others,” Fenroc says, with a hint of darkness in his voice. “Do you seriously think that in that whole cemetery, there’s just one person who’ll rise from the dead? The rest are going to follow. I don’t know why that particular girl has arrived early, but rest assured that within a few days you’ll have plenty of company. It’s all Faraday’s work, of course. I imagine he’s decided he needs an army, which would ordinarily be rather difficult for a man of his temperament. Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for everyone else, he’s learned a few tricks over the years. The man’s obsessed, Sam, and he’ll raise all the dead, the world over, if he thinks it’ll help him. By the time he’s finished, the dead will be living and the living will be dead.”

“You really don’t like Faraday, do you?” Sam asks.

“He and I have a certain history. We spent some time together, back in the day, and I’m afraid the experience wasn’t entirely positive. From my point of view, anyway.”

“Care to spill?”

Fenroc smiles uncomfortably. “Care to take a sip of wine?”

Maintaining eye contact with him, as if she’s trying to stare him down, Sam picks up her glass but merely holds it as she tries to decide whether or not to take a drink. With the glass just a few inches from her nose, she’s finding it hard to resist the thought of savoring that old familiar taste.

“Let’s just say that Faraday and I used to have the same employer,” Fenroc says eventually. “We worked in the same place and we had more or less the same responsibilities, albeit at different times. We certainly had different ideas about how to get the job done.”

“You were both gardeners.”

“Gardeners?” Fenroc pauses. “Did he say that?”

“He didn’t need to. I guessed.”

“You’re very intuitive,” Fenroc continues. “I don’t really know why I was so keen to hide it. Yes, Sam, I was once a gardener. I did the same job that you’ve been doing, albeit with a little less rigor. I’m afraid my heart wasn’t really in the whole thing. Sure, I’d cut the grass, but I’d miss a patch here and there. I was just marking time, really, and collecting my pay packet while I tried to save enough money to get the hell out of Rippon.” He pauses as he sips from his wine glass. “It suited me to be in Rippon for a while. You see, when I came here, I was running from something. I’m sure you can understand what that was like.”

“I’m sure I can.”

“Remind me, Sam. What did you say you were running from again?”

“I didn’t.”

“But you’re running from something, aren’t you?”

“I think we’re straying off the point,” Sam says firmly.

Fenroc smiles. “Maybe you’re like me. You’re running from someone you hurt. You’re running from the thought that you might ever have to see that person again. You’re scared that you’ll have to face up to what you’ve done. Then again…” He pauses as he takes another sip of wine. “Maybe there are a few differences between us.”

“Probably,” Sam replies, keeping her eyes fixed on Fenroc as she raises the glass to her lips and takes a sip. As soon as the taste hits her mouth, she knows she’s made a mistake, but it’s too late to back down now. She swallows a mouthful and immediately feels that old, familiar sensation. It’s almost like she’s back home with Nadia, sitting in a pub and contemplating a heavy night out. Before everything went wrong.

Fortunately, at that moment the waiter brings food to the table, so Sam has a brief moment of respite before once again being left alone with Fenroc. So far, she hasn’t learned much that she didn’t already know, and she’s starting to wonder whether this whole evening is just going to be one long tease. She feels as if Fenroc is playing with her, offering no more than a few hints while trying to tease out some information about Faraday and the others.

“Good wine?” Fenroc asks eventually.

“Not bad,” Sam says. “I’m not really an expert.”

“Is wine not your tipple of choice?”

“I was always more of a vodka girl,” she replies, thinking back to the days when she and Nadia used to line shots up on the bar.

"You should have said. I can order you a glass -"

“No!” Sam says firmly. A little too firmly, she realizes after a moment. “I’m fine with wine,” she adds, taking another sip. “You’re right. I am running from someone. Or at least, trying to avoid them. It’s kind of a personal thing. No big mystery. I’m just happier without that person in my life, and he’s happier without me.”

“And yet you’re still here,” Fenroc continues. “I’d have thought most young women in your situation, having discovered the nature of what happens in Rippon, would have turned around and fled. Yet something seems to be keeping you around. Do you have some kind of innate desire to help save the world?”

“Seems like a worthy occupation,” Sam replies, taking another, bigger sip of wine.

“Or are you trying to prove something? Are you trying to atone for some past sin?” He waits in vain for an answer. “Do you know what’s resting beneath this town, Sam? I mean, do you really know. I’m not talking about the fairy-tales that Faraday has undoubtedly told you. I’m talking about the plain, unvarnished truth, about the creature that’s waiting for its chance to come back up.”

“The Devil,” Sam replies.

“Is that what he’s told you?”

“Isn’t it true?”

“Maybe.” Pausing, Fenroc cuts into his steak and eats a chunk. “This is good food,” he says after a moment. “Do you know the key to a successful dinner date? It’s not the conversation or the company. It’s the food. And the drink, I suppose, but mainly the food. A good, succulent steak goes a long way to keeping the situation flowing easily, don’t you think? Without good food, it’s impossible to really relax.”

“I wasn’t aware this was a date,” Sam replies firmly.

“Forgive me. I’m getting ahead of myself.”

“You said you could tell me about the cemetery,” Sam continues. “You said this would be an exchange of information. Is there any chance you might follow through, or were you just shooting your mouth off in the hope of scoring a dinner companion? So far, you just seem to be hinting at all these things you know, but you haven’t really told me anything. Nothing I can use, anyway.”

“I just want you to understand that you can’t always trust Faraday,” Fenroc replies. “I’m not saying you should automatically trust me, because I know a smart young lady such as yourself would never be so easily fooled. But I’m trying very hard to get you to understand the danger posed by Faraday. He’s not necessarily who, or what, he claims to be. He’ll use you if he thinks it’ll help him, but once he’s done with you, he’ll toss you aside. Or, worse, he’ll push you right over the edge. I’m sure he’s already taken you below the cottage.”

“I can look after myself,” Sam says as she finishes her glass of wine. Seconds later, as if he’s been watching the whole time, the waiter appears and refills the glass, before stepping away again. Staring at her glass, Sam starts to worry that she’s being lured into a trap.

“You look like you’re doing rather well so far,” Fenroc says with a smile.

“Don’t worry about me,” Sam continues, taking another sip. “I’m not some dumb kid. I can handle things.” She takes yet another sip. “I’ve got everything totally under control.”

Chapter Four

 

“There,” Mayor Winters mutters as he squeezes his suitcase shut and pulls the zipper closed around the edges. With more than a hint of satisfaction, he drags the case off the bed and hauls it downstairs, and finally he steps out of his home and into the cold night of the town square. He takes a deep breath of Rippon’s fine, unsullied air and realizes that after spending his entire life here, he’s finally going to achieve the escape he always wanted.

“I don’t mind admitting,” he says quietly to himself, “I shall miss certain parts of this old place.”

After a moment, he realizes that he’s making a fool of himself, so he walks slowly across the town square. As he goes, he passes the cafe, where a few late-night drinkers are dozing in their seats. Having spent many nights in the cafe, Winters knows only too well how easy it can be to waste one’s life in such an establishment. Sometimes, he used to think that he might spend all his days in this backward little town, and he used to look at the old drunks and wonder whether he might be doomed to meet a similar fate.

“You off somewhere?” asks a familiar voice.

Winters turns to find Jonathan Hale, the owner of the cafe, standing nearby.

“Just throwing a few things out,” Winters says, keen to avoid any unpleasantness. “Bits and pieces here and there,” he continues, trying to make the story sound more convincing. “Nothing of any great importance, though.”

“Funny time to be doing something like that,” Hale replies, eying the suitcase suspiciously. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were making a run for it.”

“And why would I do something like that?” Winters replies, forcing himself to laugh. “Where would I go? Rippon is my home. I’m merely removing a few items from my home and placing them in storage. As you know, I have a garage on the other side of town, and from time to time I move items there.” He pauses, hoping that the story has gone down well. “As for the timing,” he continues, trying not to seem too desperate, “I merely wish to use my time in the most effective manner possible. I’m so busy during the day that I can only complete simple personal errands at night.”

“Uh-huh,” Hale says, staring at him.

“You know how it is,” Winters continues, wiping sweat from his brow. “I put the town first at all times, even when my own life suffers. I barely have any time to get my affairs in order, so I must take the opportunities as and when they arise.”

“So you’re doing some spring-cleaning,” Hale says, clearly finding it hard to believe the story.

Winters nods.

“Alright,” Hale says with a shrug. “I guess it’s not my place to ask too many damn questions. I’m not one of those busybodies who think they should be informed of everyone else’s actions. If you want to do all this stuff in the middle of the goddamn night, that’s up to you.”

“I shall bid you goodnight,” Winters says, turning and hurrying away.

“Goodbye,” Hale replies.

Winters stops for a moment. It’s clear that Hale knows what’s happening, but as far as Winters is concerned, he has no duty to explain himself. He considers turning and telling Hale to mind his own business, but finally he decides to just keep walking. In a few minutes’ time, Jonathan Hale will be part of his past. While they were friends once, when they were children, Winters knows he can’t be nostalgic. The past is the past, and the future is of far more interest.

Leaving the cafe behind, he soon finds himself walking past the restaurant. He stops for a moment as he spots the most unlikely sight: Gabriel Fenroc is sitting near the window, holding a glass of wine while he talks to none other than Samantha Marker, the current gardener. Shocked at such a union, the mayor stares open-mouthed for a few seconds before deciding that such matters are no longer any of his concern. He keeps walking, heading along the dark street. As far as he’s concerned, the actions of Gabriel Fenroc are no longer any of his concern. He’s never liked Fenroc, always believing him to be a negative influence in the life of the town. Still, such things are Walter Simpkin’s responsibility now. Just as Jonathan Hale is part of the past for Winters, so too is Gabriel Fenroc.

When he reaches the outskirts of town, he unlocks the door to a battered old garage and heads into the darkness. Rippon is a small town, which means that very few of its residents bother to own a car. Mayor Winters, on the other hand, could never contemplate being without one, since he always harbored a secret dream to one day get away from the place. Now, finally, he’s able to load his meager belongings into the trunk and climb into the driver’s seat. He can barely believe that this moment has finally arrived, but eventually he starts the engine and eases the car out of the garage.

Making his way through the dark streets, keeping his speed down in order to remain inconspicuous, he tries to decide where to go. After all, having spent his entire life in Rippon, he suddenly has the whole world opening up ahead of him. He wants to explore Britain, but at the same time he also wants to go abroad and see exotic locations. More than anything, he wants to hit the road and never look back, and he wants to feel the wind in his hair as he drives far away from this crumbling little town. Trembling slightly, he stares ahead and imagines the shock that everyone will feel in the morning when they realize that their dear, trusted mayor has abandoned them.

With a huge grin on his lips, he drives across the little bridge and out of Rippon for the very last time.

Chapter Five

 

As the restaurant door is pushed open, Sam spills out into the dark, empty street. Stumbling a little, she reminds herself at the last minute that she needs to act a little more sober, so she stops in her tracks and takes a deep breath, hoping that the air will help calm her down. It’s been a long time since she allowed herself to drink, and although she’s quite enjoying the fact that she’s a little drunk, there’s also a little voice at the back of her head that keeps telling her that she might be making a huge mistake.

“Hey, Nadia,” she mutters, staring into the darkness. “Cheers, wherever you are. Have one on me.” Reaching into her jacket pocket, she pulls out the plastic water bottle that she managed to sneakily fill with vodka before she came outside. She unscrews the lid and takes a swig, and she can’t help feeling that Nadia, many miles away, is probably doing pretty much the same thing. Then again, she figures that Nadia has probably already moved on and found other friends by now.

Hearing the door open again, she turns just in time to see Fenroc emerging from the restaurant.

“Thanks again,” Sam says, putting the top back on the bottle and slipping it back into her pocket.

“For what?”

“Dinner.” She pauses for a moment. “This might be a sad thing to say, but I’ve never actually gone out to dinner before with someone who paid for everything. I mean, there was this guy who bought me chips once after we’d been out all night, but I guess that’s not the same. This whole dinner thing is kind of weird.”

“Really?” Fenroc pauses for a moment. “What kind of men do you know back home?”

“No kind of men,” Sam replies with a smile. “Where I come from, guys don’t pick up girls by taking them to dinner. They pick up girls by waiting until they’re drunk and then…” She pauses for a moment, trying to work out whether she’s saying a little too much. “Well, I think you can guess the rest.”

“Sometimes,” Fenroc says, “I think the modern world has passed me by. I’m afraid I feel more at home with the more old-fashioned customs. Speaking of which, it’s getting late and I feel I should walk you home. Even in a quiet town like Rippon, one never knows what one might encounter if one takes a wrong turn.”

“Sure,” Sam says, taking a couple of steps before tripping on the cobbles and almost falling flat on her face. Managing to steady herself at the last moment, she feels Fenroc grab her arm. “I’m okay,” she mutters. “I’m not drunk. I’m just kind of, you know, a little off my game.”

“I understand completely,” Fenroc replies. “Regardless, will you let me walk you home? I’d feel a lot better if I could see that you get through the gate safely. I know Rippon seems like a sleepy town, but I can assure you that there are still a few nasty things lurking in the shadows.”

“Speaking of gates and shadows,” Sam says as they start walking. “What’s the deal with you and the cemetery gate?” Still feeling a little unsteady, she links her arm with Fenroc, using him for support. “I mean, don’t get this wrong, but you kind of fried when you put your hand through the other night.”

“An unfortunate side-effect of my past activities,” Fenroc replies.

“Such as?”

“Such as the fact that I used to be a gardener.” They walk on in silence for a moment. “It’s not exactly the kind of job from which one simply retires. I’m afraid there are certain consequences that come with resignation, and one of them is the fact that I’m not banned from returning to hallowed ground. You’ve seen what happens if I try. Fortunately, the skin heals rather quickly. It was only a brief warning, although I’d hate to imagine what might happen if I pushed my luck. It’s a shame, though. Sometimes, in a nostalgic moment, I find myself thinking back to the old days when Martello and I used to work together. Although I disliked my work in the cemetery, there were one or two good moments.”

“Martello?” Sam asks. “You mean Sparky? The stone angel?”

“Every gardener has an angel,” Fenroc replies. “We worked well together. He’d been a gardener himself, many years earlier, and he told me some of the most common mistakes. I hesitate to sound too twee, but I feel that Martello and I made a good team. Unfortunately, we eventually came to disagree on a few topics, and that was our downfall. I’m afraid Martello was lured in by Faraday’s ideas. I tried to fight back, to persuade him to listen to me, but it was too late. That’s the reason I had to abandon my post. Had Martello been a little more loyal, I might well still be the gardener today, and you’d have been spared all this trauma.”

“Wow,” Sam says, trying desperately not to seem drunk. “That angel’s got some dark secrets, huh? And to think, I assumed he was just a lump of stone. Do you know, I actually chained him to the cottage?”

“You did?”

“I certainly did. The bastard kept moving, and he started creeping me out. I feel kind of bad now. I hope he doesn’t hold it against me.”

“I’m afraid he doesn’t do anything these days unless it has been ordered by Faraday first. Poor Martello used to have such a fine mind, but lately he’s allowed himself to become little more than a pawn. I used to think that he’d find the strength to overthrow his new master, but my hope has faded. He’s chosen his side, and I fear that Faraday will soon ask you to choose your side before…”

Sam waits for him to finish. “Before what?” she asks eventually, as they turn the corner and head toward the cemetery gate.

“Before the beast wakes,” Fenroc says after a moment. “That’s what Faraday wants. I’m sure he’s told you that he wants to keep the beast down there forever, but the truth is he’s been searching desperately for a way to make the creature wake up. He wants to bring about the end of the world, and he believes that his reward for doing so will be eternal life. That’s all he wants, really. To live forever and never have to face death.”

As they reach the gate, Sam pulls her arm free from Fenroc. Realizing that she’s a little more unsteady on her feet than she’d anticipated, she grabs hold of the gate and uses it to steady herself.

“He’s a lucky man,” Fenroc says suddenly.

“Who?” Sam asks, turning to him.

“The guy you left behind.”

Sam stares at him for a moment. “He’s really not,” she says eventually.

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Fenroc continues. “You love him, don’t you?”

“With all my heart.”

“And does he know that?”

“I hope so.”

“And does he love you in return?”

Sam pauses. “I hope so.”

“Then I’ll say it again. He’s a lucky man to have the heart of such a beautiful and intelligent young woman.”

Sam stares at him for a moment. “Are you sure you don’t want to come to the cottage?” she asks eventually. Even though she knows she’d regret it in the morning, right now she feels as if she wants to slip back into her old skin a little. She’s tired of spending every night alone in that little makeshift bed, and she longs for the days when she’d wake up with a warm body next to her. She doesn’t even mind whose body, just so long as she’s got company. She doesn’t have any particularly strong feelings for Fenroc, and he’s not really her type, but she just wants someone in her bed. Anyone.

“You know I can’t,” Fenroc replies. “The cemetery’s out of bounds. Besides, isn’t it a little crowded in there? Don’t you have a dead girl, a stone angel and a dangerous ex-gardener as house-guests?”

“They can just fuck off for a bit,” Sam says, slurring her words slightly. “It’s not their cottage. It’s mine, and I set the rules.”

“I think we both know it wouldn’t work. Not tonight.”

Sam nods.

“Another time, perhaps,” Fenroc says, stepping closer. “I just want you to know, Sam, that I had the most enjoyable time with you tonight. It’s so rare to find intelligent conversation around these parts. In another life…” He pauses, as if he’s not sure whether or not to complete the sentence.

“In another life what?” Sam asks, staring into his eyes.

Leaning closer, Fenroc plants a gentle kiss on her lips.

Needing no further invitation, Sam puts her arms around Fenroc and pulls him against her, until she’s pressed against the cemetery gates. The kiss, although tentative at first, quickly becomes passionate, and Sam feels her old self come flooding back. She knows the alcohol is responsible, and she knows it’d be a mistake, be she can’t help herself; she presses herself against Fenroc as she slips her tongue deeper into his mouth.

“This would be a mistake,” Fenroc says suddenly, pulling away.

“So what?” Sam replies. “So, do you ever take girls home, or do you prefer to do everything against the cemetery gate? ‘Cause I’m easy either way. Well, not easy, but…” She pauses, and then she bursts out laughing. “You know what I mean, right?” she says eventually, trying to pull herself together and seem a little more attractive. “Tell me you know what I mean. Tell me I didn’t just make a complete ass of myself.”

Fenroc pauses for a moment, and then he kisses her again before finally pulling free and stepping back. There’s a look of shock in his eyes, as if some awful realization has just struck him.

“Come on,” Sam says, almost pleading with him. “I haven’t been with someone since…” She stops herself just in time, feeling a cold wave of sobriety wash through her mind. There are some lines she refuses to cross, even when she’s drunk, and there are some parts of her past that she wants to keep hidden.

“Since what?” Fenroc asks.

“Since forever,” she says after a moment, forcing herself to smile. “That’s all. It’s been a while, if you know what I mean.”

“Good night, Sam,” he replies, turning and walking away.

“Seriously?” Sam calls after him. “Are you serious? Aren’t you even remotely interested?” She waits for a reply, but none is forthcoming. Walking slowly and steadily into the night, Fenroc doesn’t even bother to look back. For a moment, she seriously considers running after him, but even in her drunken state, she still has enough dignity to hold back. “God damn it,” she mutters, suddenly feeling humiliated. After staying strong for almost a year, she realizes she’s managed to undo all her good work and slip back to her old ways.

For a moment, she considers finishing the rest of the vodka from the plastic bottle, but finally she decides against it.

Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out the rusty old key and lets herself into the cemetery. In the distance, the lights of the cottage illuminate the night, but as she locks the gate behind her, Sam realizes she can’t face anyone right now. Instead, she walks through the darkness, picking her way carefully between the gravestones. The old Sam, the real Sam, showed herself again tonight, and everything feels completely wrong. All Sam can think about right now is the fact that she can never change. She’d been clinging to the hope that maybe, just maybe, she could become someone new, someone better, and that maybe one day she could eventually go back and find the one person in the outside world who might actually give a damn about her.

That dream, she realizes with a sigh, is over.

Stopping in the darkness, she leans over a gravestone as her stomach suddenly seems to grind and churn. Finally, she throws up, quickly dropping to her knees as the night’s food and drink is deposited onto the grass.

“Fuck,” she mutters, wiping her mouth.

Slowly, and with an aching body, she hauls herself to her feet and turns to head back to the cottage.

And that’s when she sees them.

She blinks a couple of times, convinced that she must be imagining the whole thing.

Finally she turns, but there are more.

Seconds later, she realizes she’s surrounded. There must be ten or more of them, standing around her in a circle. Dark figures, their features hidden by shadows and their eyes burning with fire, they stare at Sam, as if they’re waiting for her to make the next move.

All she can do, however, is stand frozen in place and wait for the inevitable attack.

Chapter Six

 

“Damn you!” Mayor Winters shouts, slamming his fist against the dashboard as the car coasts to a halt. He tries switching the engine off and on again, changing gear, pulling out the clutch… Nothing works, and finally the lights flicker off as the car comes to a complete standstill, just a couple of miles outside town.

Sighing, Winters sits in the darkness. Having kept the car stored in a private garage for a number of years, he’d assumed that it would be in pristine condition when it was finally required. He’d arranged for a mechanic to take a look now and again, but for the most part he’d been convinced that the vehicle would be perfectly reliable. Now, however, he realizes that something’s gone horribly wrong and he’s stranded on the dark, desolate road. Turning and glancing over his shoulder, he can just about make out Rippon in the distance, perched atop the large hill that protrudes from this otherwise flat land.

“Come on!” Winters shouts, trying in vain to get the car moving again. The engine, however, seems totally unresponsive, and all the power seems to have drained away. It’s almost as if the entire battery has spontaneously emptied itself, leaving Winters sitting in a useless pile of metal.

“Right,” he mutters, grabbing his mobile phone and bringing up the number of Rippon’s only mechanic. “Let’s see what you’ve got to say for yourself, you incompetent wreck,” he adds, waiting for someone to answer. Finally, however, the call goes to voice-mail, and Winters slams the phone down onto the passenger seat.

Opening the door, he hauls himself out of the car and wanders around to the front. Although he’s far from being a mechanically-minded man, he figures his best hope right now is to see if he can somehow work out what’s gone wrong. Lifting the bonnet, however, he realizes that the task is hopeless. It’s a cloudy night, affording precious little moonlight by which to work, and when he reaches out tentatively to grab a part of the engine, he merely succeeds in burning the side of his hand.

“Damn you!” he shouts again, slamming the bonnet back down. “What is the world coming to when a man can’t even get a little help when he’s in need? Am I to sit and rot on the side of the road?”

Turning, he looks once again at Rippon as he realizes that his only hope is to make the long, slow walk back. There are no other towns for miles and miles, and he certainly doesn’t have the stamina for a long trek. At his age, and carrying a few extra pounds, even the walk up the steep hill back into Rippon is a somewhat daunting prospect, but he figures he has no choice. If he’s lucky, he can get the mechanic out to the car first thing in the morning, and he can still be away by midday. Granted, his plan to get out of town without being spotted has been blown, which means he’ll have to come up with some kind of excuse. Cursing his luck, he takes a deep breath before starting off on the long walk.

Hearing a noise nearby, he stops suddenly and turns to look back at the car. Although he’s not usually a suspicious man by nature, he’s certain he just heard something nearby, even though there’s nothing to be seen. Then again, on such a dark night, it’s almost impossible to make out anything. Although he’s not familiar with the land around Rippon, Winters figures there certainly could be a fox or some other creature out here.

“Hello?” he says, immediately feeling a little foolish for entertaining such fears.

Smiling to himself, he turns and keeps walking, reminding himself to ensure he doesn’t become too jumpy. After all, on a dark night -

Suddenly something large and dark slams against him, sending him flying across the road and bouncing along the tarmac until he comes to a rough halt. Winded and bruised, he tries to struggle to his feet, while looking back in a vain attempt to work out what, exactly, just collided with him. There’s nothing around, but this time he’s certain that something is out here with him on the dark road.

“Who’s there?” he shouts, turning to see if anything’s behind him. “Show yourself!”

Seconds later, something slams into his back, knocking him to his feet with such force that all the breath seems to be forced from his body.

“I’m the Mayor of Rippon!” Winters splutters as he gets to his feet.

Silence.

Turning, he starts hurrying toward town, only to be hit by the same invisible force, which this time sends him flying a couple of meters into the air until he comes slamming back down into the grass that runs along the side of the road.

Struggling to his feet, he’s about to turn and look for his attacker when he’s hit from below and sent flying up into the air. Moments later, he lands again, but this time the floor feels soft and sticky. Finding it hard to regain his balance, he reaches out and feels something large, moist and spongy beneath his feet. When he finally manages to stand up, he finds that there’s some kind of soft, wet wall next to him, and quite suddenly there’s an unbearable stench of rotten fish. He tries to turn around, but instead he slips and lands in a puddle of moisture. Rolling over, he looks up just in time to see the night sky appear before him, framed by a row of sharp-looking dark objects.

“Where am I?” he mutters, with a nervous laugh. “A mouth?”

After a moment, he realizes that this is exactly where he is. Reaching down, he runs his hand over the soft ground and realizes that he’s on a giant tongue. He puts his hand out and touched the wall, which turns out to be the inside of the mouth, and when he looks at the night sky, he realizes that his view is obscured by rows of huge, razor-sharp teeth.

“Dear God,” he says quietly. “I might not have been the most Christian of men, but I have long sought to do right by my community. I have helped many more than I have hindered, and I believe I have acted for the most part in the spirit of the common good. If a man such as myself is to be denied your love, what hope is there for the rest of humanity?”

He stares straight ahead, frozen to the spot until, finally, he realizes that he’s slowly slipping down the tongue, away from the teeth. Looking over his shoulder, he realizes he’s in danger of being swallowed.

“No!” he shouts, scrambling back along the tongue until, finally, he’s able to reach out and hang on to one of the large teeth. Moments later, the entire mouth seems to tip up, as if the creature is trying to force him to fall down into its stomach. “Let me out of here!” Winters screams, hanging onto the tooth for dear life until, finally, the mouth slams shut, severing both his arms and sending him plummeting down into the darkness.

Despite his best efforts, Winters tumbles down a narrow, wet tube until finally he lands in some kind of small chamber. Feeling a burning sensation, he tries to get up, but blood is pouring from the stumps where his hands used to be and he has no chance of keeping his balance. He can feel his skin burning, and after a moment he realizes that the chamber is filling up with some kind of acid.

“Dear Lord!” he screams. “Why do you torture me like this? I am your loyal servant! I have never harmed another living soul! Deliver me from this cruelty!”

Desperately trying to crawl back up the tube, he quickly realizes that his bloodied stumps are preventing him from gaining any kind of purchase. As he continues to struggle, he finds that the chamber seems to be closing around him, sealing him inside, and soon he’s running short of breath. By the time he blacks out, much of his flesh has already begun to dissolve, and soon he’s little more than a collection of bones and muscle, slowly being digested in the belly of the beast.

Chapter Seven

 

HELP!” Sam screams, rushing toward one of the dark figures and pushing her way past. She clatters into the creature’s shoulder, bouncing off and stumbling into a gravestone before losing her footing and skidding across the mud on her knees.

Without even turning to look back, she gets to her feet and starts running toward the cottage. Seconds later, however, she sees that there are more of the dark figures standing by the doorway. Coming to a halt, she stops and turns, and that’s when she realizes that the entire cemetery seems to be full of these things, as if they’re swarming all over the place.

Hearing a noise nearby, she spins around and sees that one of the creatures is just a few feet away. This close, she can see that it seems to have coal-black burned skin, with deep, bloodied cracks running through the surface. The eyes appear to be hollowed out, with flames burning deep within the creature’s skull.

“Fuck,” Sam mutters, turning and running a couple of paces before realizing that she’s heading straight for another of the creatures. “Hey!” she shouts at the cottage. “Someone get out here!”

As she turns and tries to run in another direction, she realizes that the damn things are everywhere. Backing away, she reaches the cemetery wall, which at least means that there can’t be anything coming up behind her. Her heart racing, Sam tries to work out what to do next as twenty, maybe thirty of the creatures slowly make their way toward her, their bodies making a kind of dry, crinkling sound as they walk.

“Anna!” Sam shouts. “Sparky!”

Turning, she sees that one of the creatures is coming closer. Flames are burning in its skull, their orange glow clearly visible through the eye sockets. There’s something very calm about the way the creature seems content to come closer and closer to Sam, as if it feels completely in control.

“I’m not alone,” Sam mutters, reaching into her pockets and hoping against hope that she might find something she can use as a weapon. “I’ve got friends in the cottage,” she continues. “They’ll be out any second to help me, so you should probably just give up and fuck off.” Finally, she pulls the plastic bottle of vodka from her pocket. Unscrewing the lid, she briefly considers downing the remainder in a vain attempt to gain some extra courage, but at the last moment she has a better idea.

Stepping toward the nearest creature, she splashes the last of the vodka directly at its face. As she’d hoped, the vodka ignites when it hits the flames and the creature’s head explodes in a shower of fire. Ducking out of the way, Sam races over to the cottage and grabs her spade, which she’d left propped against the wall earlier, and she turns just in time to see that the creatures are still following her. Even the one she attacked, its head still burning, is coming closer, as if the loss of its head is no big deal.

“I’m not afraid to use this thing,” Sam says, strengthening her grip on the spade, before turning to the cottage and banging on the window. “Hey! Are you guys in there? I need some help!”

As one of the creatures gets closer, Sam swings the spade at it. To her shock, the blade connects perfectly with the neck and the creature’s head is knocked to the ground. All that’s left is the stump of the neck, and seconds later the creature drops to the ground.

“Great,” Sam mutters. “One down, twenty or thirty to go.” Stepping over to the cottage’s back door, she tries the handle but finds that it’s locked. “Hey!” she shouts, using the spade’s handle to bang on the door for attention. “Are you guys in there? Open the fucking door!”

As more of the creatures start to come closer to the cottage, Sam realizes that she’s once again being surrounded. There’s something creepy about the way the creatures seem to be in no particular hurry, as if they’re not worried that she might escape, and Sam can’t help but worry about Anna, Sparky and Faraday. There’s no way they wouldn’t be able to hear her, and there’s no way they’d have just got up and left the cemetery, so she starts to wonder if these creatures might have got to them first. While she was sitting in the restaurant, the others might very well have been being slaughtered.

“Fuck this,” she mutters, climbing up onto one of the old trash-cans and then hauling herself up onto the cottage’s roof. Holding on carefully, she moves around the side, and finally she looks down and sees that the entire cemetery seems to be filled with these creatures. They’re standing all around the cottage, staring up at her with their burning eyes, and it’s clear that there’s no way she’d ever be able to fight her way over to the gate. Clutching her spade, she inches her way across the roof until she’s on the other side of the building, but she still can’t work out how the hell to get away. She’s surrounded, and she knows that her spade isn’t going to be much use.

Finally, figuring that she’s got no choice, she decides the only solution is to get into the cottage. And if she can’t climb down and go through the door, there’s only one other option.

Balancing herself carefully, she turns the spade around and slams the handle down against the tiles that cover the cottage’s roof. Sure enough, just as she’d suspected, the place is old and fragile, and several tiles immediately break away and fall down, smashing when they hit the ground. Bashing away at the roof, Sam quickly clears a small patch and finally finds herself facing a series of wooden boards. Determined to get inside, she takes a moment to gather as much strength as possible, and finally she starts trying to break through. This time, however, the cottage proves to be a lot stronger than it appears, and the boards don’t seem to budge at all. The whole cottage is borderline derelict and falling apart, but unfortunately she seems to have found the one part that seems to still be firm and solid.

“Come on,” she mutters, refusing to give up. “Just let me in!”

After a couple of minutes, and with no obvious sign that she’s making any progress at all, Sam pauses for a moment and tries to catch her breath. Although she’s relieved that the panic seems to have sobered her up, she can’t help but glance down at the ground and see that the creatures are showing no sign of giving up. They’re just standing around and watching her, although at least they don’t seem able or willing to try climbing up after her. She figures they probably assume that she’ll have to come down eventually. After all, there’s nowhere else for her to go.

"Okay," she mutters, figuring that she needs to try a different approach. "Maybe if -"

Suddenly there’s a loud creaking sound. It takes a moment before Sam realizes what’s happening, and by then it’s too late for her to grab hold of anything. Part of the roof starts to buckle, and finally the wood breaks beneath Sam, dropping her straight down and into one of the rooms. She lands awkwardly, immediately feeling pain in her shoulder, and she has to cover her head as pieces of wood and plaster come raining down on top of her. Finally, once she’s sure that the main part of the collapse is over, she sits up and finds that she’s actually landed on the kitchen table, while Anna, Faraday and Sparky are sitting nearby with shocked looks on their faces.

“Where the hell have you been?” Sam shouts.

“We were talking!” Anna replies. “What… Why didn’t you use the door?”

“Didn’t you hear me?” Sam shouts, turning to Faraday. “Haven’t you seen out there?”

Frowning, Faraday hurries over to the window and stares out into the darkness.

“Volks,” he says after a moment, before turning back to Sam. “They must have isolated the cottage so we wouldn’t hear you calling for help.”

“What the hell are they?” Sam asks, picking her spade up from the rubble that’s covering the floor.

“Creatures of darkness,” Faraday replies, making sure that the door’s bolted shut. “They’re harbingers of doom. When minions appear, it means they’ve detected the scent of great evil, and they’re hoping to bathe in its glow.”

“Not a good sign, then,” Sam replies.

“Their appearance most certainly isn’t a coincidence,” Faraday continues. “Someone summoned them here. Someone lured them.”

“How did your date go?” Anna asks.

“It wasn’t a date,” Sam snaps back at her.

“You smell funny,” Anna continues. “Did you drink?”

“Does it matter?”

"I thought -"

“Do we really have to talk about this now?” Sam asks.

“I’ll take care of this,” Sparky says, walking over to join Faraday. His stone body makes a kind of grinding sound with each step, and he pauses for a moment as he reaches the door. “The rest of you should go through the hatch. I can’t guarantee that there’ll be much of the cottage left when I’m finished up here. This kind of job can become a little messy and I’d hate for there to be any collateral casualties.”

“You can’t take them on alone,” Faraday replies. “There are hundreds of them out there.”

“It’ll take a little longer than usual,” Sparky says, with no hint of emotion in his voice, “but I think we both know this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.”

“You can’t just go out there,” Sam says. “They’re all full of fire and mean-looking.”

“Fire and mean-looking are two things I can handle very well,” Sparky replies, turning to her and smiling. “As I said, the only problem is that it might take a while, and the cottage might not survive. I’ll do my best to cause as little damage as possible, but it depends how much of a fight they put up.”

“Come on,” Faraday says, grabbing Sam’s arm and pulling her through to the bathroom. “We have to take cover. This could get very messy.”

“Where are we going?” Anna asks, following as Faraday hurries to the bathroom and swings the hatch open.

“Hurry,” Faraday says. “As hard as it might be to believe, we’ll actually be safe down here for a while. As long as we keep out of the way, we can let Martello deal with things.”

Hearing the sound of the front door opening, Sam realizes that she doesn’t have any other options. Keeping hold of her spade, she starts climbing down the rickety wooden steps and finally she reaches the rocky platform below. Turning, she waits until first Anna and then Faraday have caught up. Holding a burning torch, Faraday seems particularly concerned as he looks up at the roof of the cave.

“Is he going to be okay?” Sam asks hesitantly, horrified at the thought of Sparky being alone up there with the creatures.

“This is the kind of thing he was born to do,” Faraday replies, turning to her as the whole roof seems to shake. “He’ll be fine. He’s not the one we need to be worried about.” Looking down into the pit, he pauses for a moment. “The arrival of those things can only mean one thing. The Devil’s waking up, and pretty soon he’s going to want to stretch his legs. And these things, these Volks, are only the beginning. The whole town of Rippon is under siege.”

“So what are we supposed to do?” Anna asks, staring up at the roof. “Just wait here?”

“The Volks would rip us to shreds,” Faraday says. “At least down here, we’re safe from them while Martello deals with the threat. Eventually, though, we’re going to have to go back up, because there’s nothing we can do down here.”

“But what’s waking him up?” Sam asks, looking down into the pit.

“Events in the cemetery,” Faraday replies. “Someone’s stirring things up.”

“Who would do that?” Anna asks.

“Someone who thinks he’s got something to gain,” Faraday says. “Someone who thinks he can strike a bargain with the Devil.” Pausing for a moment, he turns to Sam. “A mutual acquaintance of ours, perhaps?”

“Fenroc wouldn’t do that,” Sam replies.

“You don’t know him. Do you seriously think he’s a good man? He’s the only gardener who ever deserted his post. Doesn’t that tell you something about his character?”

“Then what do we do?” Anna asks, with a hint of panic in her voice.

"We need to come up with a plan," Faraday continues, turning first to her and then to Sam. "If we don't, the Devil itself will wake up and rise from this pit a -" Before he can finish, there's a deep rumbling sound from the pit. "And I think he might have started," Faraday adds, as the three of them stare down into the darkness. From somewhere far below, there's a long, dark growl.

Epilogue

 

Three months ago

 

Walking through the dark streets of Leeds, Sam takes special care to avoid being seen. It’s late, past 4am, so she’s hoping that all the nightclubs will have finished kicking out by now, and most of the drunk revelers should have stumbled home. There’s garbage strewn all over the place, and broken glass, and soon the street cleaners will be out in force to wipe away the evidence of the night’s festivities. By Sam’s calculations, therefore, this little period just after 4am should be the best time to get around without being noticed.

And, boy, does she need to get around without being noticed tonight.

Walking unsteadily, with dried blood around her ankles, she darts into the shadows whenever she hears a noise. On a couple of occasions, a police car cruises slowly past, looking for any remaining drunks. Sam manages to keep well out of view, however, and she waits until the police car is well out of sight before resuming her journey. She knows she can’t afford to get caught. Not tonight. Tonight is all about dealing with the consequences of a mistake, putting other people first, and making sure she gets away. She already has a plan in her mind. She’s going to head to somewhere completely new and start her life all over again. She’s going to forget her grandmother, forget Nadia, forget Henry, forget everything and become someone completely new. It’s not the best plan in the world, but it’s a start.

Eventually, she reaches the small square that’s bordered on one side by St. Mary’s, the church that Sam used to attend when she was a kid, before everything kind of went wrong. Those days seem so long ago now, and her chest feels a little tight when she thinks back her childhood. Her grandmother used to hold her hand and walk straight across this square and up the steps into the church. Sam can’t help wondering what her grandmother, and the rest of her family, would think if they could see her now. Cold, scared and filled with regret, she loiters in the shadows for a moment, almost as if she’s scared to get closer to the church. After all, she thinks to herself, isn’t there a chance that her grandmother’s ghost might appear?

“What in God’s name are you doing?” she imagines the old woman asking.

“The right thing,” she replies.

“You call this the right thing? Are you serious? Did I raise you to be such a lowly, cowardly little idiot?”

“I’m putting things right,” Sam continues.

“If your mother could see you now,” her grandmother’s voice continues, “she’d be shocked. Shocked! This is no way to behave, Samantha. It’s not just your own life you’re ruining, either. Think of all the damage you’re doing to others. Damage that can’t be repaired.”

“They can take care of themselves,” Sam replies, “just like I’m gonna take care of myself. Apart from…” She pauses for a moment. “This is the best thing. It’s not what I want to do, but it’s necessary. In the long-run, after tonight’s over, he’s going to have a much better life without me. He doesn’t even have to know that I ever existed.”

“This is a baby’s life we’re talking about, Samantha. A child, whose whole existence is unsullied and untarnished. He deserves a mother who can look after him, someone who can teach him right from wrong. Children need a strong moral compass, someone to point them in the right direction. You never had that, not while you were growing up, and neither will Henry at this rate. Is that what you want? Do you want your son to grow up and be as directionless and weak as you’ve been?”

Sam shakes her head.

“Then there’s only one thing you can do. Show some backbone, girl, and put someone else’s needs first for once.”

“I know,” Sam says darkly. “That’s what I’m doing.”

“He deserves someone who can protect him from the evils of the world instead of putting him in danger. Someone who can guide him and love him and support him.”

“I know.”

“You’d be a terrible mother. The worst.”

“I might not be that bad,” Sam replies, close to tears.

“You’re nothing but a common tramp,” her grandmother spits back at her. “It pains me to say this about my own grand-daughter, but you’re a slut.”

“I can change.”

“Not like this.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

Taking a deep breath, Sam banishes her grandmother’s voice and takes a moment to enjoy the silence. It’s been six months since her grandmother keeled over and died while out shopping, and Sam has been alone ever since. Once or twice, she’s imagined the old woman’s voice coming back to taunt her, but for the most part she’s been glad to be left alone. As her condition got worse and worse, and despite the fact that she still wasn’t fully acknowledging what was happening to her, Sam ended up avoiding everyone. She even kept away from Nadia. The last thing she wanted was for anyone to know the truth. Besides, when she realized what was happening to her, she stopped drinking. Once that decision had been made, she’d not really seen much point in leaving the apartment.

Realizing that she’s running out of time, Sam eventually emerges from the shadows and hurries over to the church. She glances over her shoulder, making doubly sure that there’s no sign of anyone nearby, and then she makes her way up the daunting stone steps that leads to the church door. Again, she checks that there’s no-one nearby, until finally she’s at the top of the steps.

This is it.

No more delays.

Slowly, she gets down onto her knees, and then she gently removes the satchel from around her shoulders and places it in front of her, and then she reaches inside and lifts him out. Her hands trembling, she holds him for a moment, trying to come to terms with the enormity of everything that has happened, and everything that’s going to happen.

“Hey,” she says quietly, her voice sounding small and weak in the cold night air. “It’s me.”

It’s almost as if he knows.

Barely a few hours old, the baby wriggles in the towels Sam has used to keep him warm. Opening his eyes, the child stares at his mother and reaches out a hand, as if he’s trying to touch her.

“No,” Sam says, staring at his little hand. “Let’s not get too close, okay? It’s not a good idea for you to get used to me. I’m not gonna be around. I’m not your mother. I’m just the girl who carried you and then gave birth to you and…” She pauses. “You’re gonna meet your real mother soon. Some kind of social worker is gonna match you up to someone who wants to look after you, and you’ll be so much better off. So…”

She stops as a tear drops from her eye and lands on the baby’s face.

“Shit,” she mutters, wiping the tear away. “Sorry.”

The baby continues to stare at her.

“It’s okay,” Sam says. “Someone’s gonna find you really soon, yeah? The cleaner comes every morning at 5am to open the church up, so she’ll call someone for you, and…” Her voice trails off as she realizes she’s close to tears. “It’s going to be okay,” she says again, even though the sentence sounds so weak and hopeless.

Still staring at her, the child opens his mouth, almost as if he’s going to say something. Instead, he simply continues to stare at Sam, as if she’s the most wondrous and amazing thing he’s ever seen.

“You’re gonna forget about me,” Sam continues. “Okay? Deal? You’re gonna forget about me, and I’ll… Well, I’ll never forget about you, but that’s okay. That’s just the way it’s got to be. You’re gonna be raised by someone who loves you. A proper family. People who’ve got time and money. People who can afford to give you a good life. People who can teach you good things and set a good example. Not like…” She pauses. “You need a good mother. Do you understand? You need a kind, caring mother. Not some kid who got pregnant at a nightclub. I don’t even know who your father is. It could be any one of half a dozen guys, and probably even some I don’t remember. Whatever. The odds are, your Daddy’s some scummy guy who’ll never know you even exist. You don’t need him, and you don’t need me.”

Hearing a noise nearby, she turns and watches as a car speeds past. Fortunately, whoever was driving, they didn’t seem to notice Sam up on the church steps.

“Your life with me would suck,” she says, turning back to look at the baby. “Trust me, it’d be miserable. I don’t have any money, I don’t have a job, I don’t have anything. I don’t have anyone to help. It’d be just you and me, all alone, and that wouldn’t be good enough. Not for my son, not for…” She pauses as the words catch in her throat for a moment. “Not for you,” she continues eventually. “I know you’ll probably hate me when you get older. You’ll think I was some cold-hearted bitch for leaving you here, but the truth is, I’m doing you the biggest favor of your life. And I promise, I won’t come looking for you. I’ll leave you alone. You never even have to know that I existed, so…”

Pausing, she realizes that time is running out. Setting the baby on a pile of towels, she takes some more towels from the satchel and places them over the child, leaving just the head free.

“You warm enough?” she asks, carefully tucking the towels around the child’s body. After a few minutes of fussing, however, she realizes there’s no point delaying the inevitable.

“Henry,” she says finally. The name is written in thick black marker-pen letters on one of the towels. She doesn’t know if the child’s new carers will honor the name, but she figures she might as well at least try to name her own baby. “Goodbye, Henry,” she continues, as her eyes fill with tears. “I swear to God, this is the best thing for you. I…” She stares at him for a moment, for the last time. It’s barely been six hours since she gave birth in a toilet stall at the bus station, but already she feels as if she’s got to know the child properly. Every second, their bond becomes tighter, but now she has to rip it apart.

“Sorry,” she says quietly.

Before she can turn away, however, Henry makes a faint gurgling sound, and slowly he begins to cry.

“Don’t do that,” Sam says, trying to steel herself.

Within seconds, however, Henry’s screaming with all his strength.

“Quiet,” Sam says, stroking the side of his face in an attempt to get him to calm down. She glances over her shoulder, to make sure that there’s no-one nearby, and then she leans down and kisses Henry on the forehead, hoping in vain that he’ll be quiet again.

Finally, with no other ideas, she starts singing to him. It’s just some old, half-remembered nursery rhyme from when she was younger, but she figures it might work. After a couple of minutes, however, she realizes that the whole thing is hopeless.

“I have to go,” she blurts out eventually, getting to her feet and hurrying down the steps.

She waits across the road, fighting to go back and comfort her crying son. After a while, the crying stops, and Sam remains resolutely in place, watching as the sun comes up. Finally, a van parks nearby just after 5am. This is what Sam has been waiting for. She just needs to be certain that someone’s going to find Henry and get him to safety. A middle-aged guy climbs wearily out of the driver’s seat and drags his cleaning kit from the back, before lugging everything up the stone steps. When he gets to the top, he stops dead and stares at the wriggling baby. Turning, he looks around for some sign of the mother, and that’s when Sam turns and runs.

Stopping when she gets to the end of the next street, she pauses and considers going back. It might not be too late, if she explains that she just left Henry on the steps for a few minutes. She can feel a strong, thumping sensation in her chest, as if her body is trying to make her go back. Taking a deep breath, she reminds herself that this isn’t about what she wants; it’s about what’s best for Henry. Even if she want back for him, if she gave him all the love in the world, she knows she couldn’t look after him properly. He’d suffer too much.

“You’d be a terrible mother,” she hears her grandmother’s voice whisper.

“I know,” she says, forcing back the tears as she starts walking away.

By 7am, having changed into some clean clothes, she’s sitting at the bus station, waiting for the bus that’s going to take her to the train station. Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out the piece of paper upon which she’s jotted down the details of the jobs she’s going to apply for. First, she’s going to Honiton, where there are a couple of cleaning jobs, and then she’s thinking of heading to a place called Rippon where there’s some kind of live-in gardening job. She’s already emailed the guy in Rippon, and she thinks she’s got a good chance of landing that particular position. Although the idea of being a gardener feels strange, she figures she might as well start somewhere. Reaching down, she starts picking pieces of dried blood off her ankles. The birth was pretty difficult, especially given that she had to keep quiet in case someone heard her in the alley.

When the bus pulls up, Sam takes a deep breath and glances over her shoulder. This is it. She knows she’s never coming back to Leeds. There are too many ghosts and too many memories. She figures Henry is probably already being looked after by social workers, and they’re hopefully already working on finding him a proper home. As she waits to board the bus, Sam realizes that maybe, just maybe, she could come back one day, but only if she can do something to make her son proud. She tries to imagine her triumphant return, almost like a kind of superhero, but after a moment she realizes that Henry would still hate her for the way she abandoned him. She reminds herself that it’s best to just forget that Henry even exists.

Ten minutes later, as the bus pulls out of the station, Sam stares out the window and watches as familiar places flash past one final time. She sees all the bars and nightclubs she’s stumbled out of, all the street corners where she’s sat while guys tried to pick her up, all the alleys where she’s run to throw up. Eventually, the bus passes through the small square next to the church, and Sam sees that there’s no activity outside the church. The cleaner has obviously taken Henry away, and by now the child is probably being looked after by a social worker.

“Bye,” Sam whispers, as tears start to stream down her face.

Part Seven:

Gardening at Night

Prologue

 

Three months ago

 

“My God,” Vanessa whispered, “that’s just about the cutest baby I’ve ever seen.”

Smiling, Sandra reached down and ran a finger under the child’s chin. After hours and hours of crying, the kid had finally fallen asleep, although his face was still a little red from all the exertion. The sound of his bawling had sent most of the other staff running from the office as soon as the lunch break began. Only Sandra, the social worker assigned to the case, had stayed behind, along with Vanessa, who’d come down from another department to meet the new arrival.

“How’d the check-up go?” Vanessa asked.

“He’s fine,” Sandra replied. “The doctor said he couldn’t remember the last time he saw such a healthy baby. It’s like a miracle.”

“I’ll never understand what’s wrong with some people,” Vanessa continued with a hint of sadness in her voice. “Abandoning a new-born on the steps, out in the cold. I swear, more and more these days, people treat children like their commodities. Don’t like your new phone? Change it for a better one. Don’t like the fact that you’ve got a child? Just dump it somewhere and hope someone finds it.” She sighed as she stared at the baby’s sleepy, scrunched-up face. “What kind of heartless person could take something so wonderful and just leave it on the street like it’s a piece of trash?”

"But -"

“It’s true! The bitch just chucked her son away. She probably thought he’d get in the way of her partying lifestyle. I swear to God, people haven’t got their priorities straight these days.”

“Maybe she couldn’t afford to raise him?”

“You mean she wanted to spend her money on booze and clothes.” Vanessa paused for a moment. “Probably drugs as well. There are people out there who just fuck anyone they can find, and when they get pregnant, they just view it as a minor inconvenience. The bitch is probably already back out on the party circuit. I bet she barely even remembers giving birth, and I’ll bet you any money in the world that she doesn’t know the name of the father.”

“Maybe she was assaulted,” Sandra suggested.

“Maybe,” Vanessa sniffed, “but in my experience, most of the time this kind of thing happens because the mother just can’t be bothered. It’s a sad reflection of modern morality.”

“You don’t know that,” Sandra said quietly, refusing to believe that a mother could be so heartless about her child.

“He’s just lucky that the cleaner came to work at the church,” Vanessa replied, keeping her voice down. “Otherwise, he could have been out there for hours. The way the weather’s been lately, he could have frozen to death. Then there are the rats. My God, have you seen the size of the rats you get around Leeds these days? Some of them are the size of small dogs! I dread to think what might have happened to this kid if he hadn’t been found quickly.”

“Well, he was found,” Sandra said with a smile. “Let’s just be thankful for small mercies. You can’t focus on all the things that could have gone wrong.”

“It’s no way to start a life,” Vanessa said with a sigh, “but at least things can only get better from here. New-borns are the easiest to place. You know what people are like. They want a fresh canvas, so they look for a kid who’s basically as close to birth as possible. They’ll be positively fighting over this little darling. I’ll get started with the paperwork this morning, and if we’re lucky, this little guy’ll have a new family by Christmas.”

“His name’s Henry,” Sandra said quietly.

“How’d you reckon that?”

“It’s written here, on the fabric,” she continued, lifting part of the white shawl to reveal the spot where the name Henry had been written in thick black marker pen. “His mother must have put it there before she left him. If she didn’t care about him, would she bothered to do that?”

“Maybe it was already on the shawl,” Vanessa pointed out. “Maybe she stole the shawl!”

“She cared!” Sandra insisted. “You can’t deny it! Whatever else this kid’s mother did, she wasn’t the Devil incarnate!”

“Well, I’m not sure about that,” Vanessa replied sniffily, “but the thing is, when a family adopt an abandoned baby, they often want to choose the name for themselves. It’s part of the whole ‘blank slate’ thing. Most times, they just want to scrub out any connection to the birth mother and put their own stamp on the kid.”

“Henry’s a nice name,” Sandra said. “He should keep it.”

“It’s a perfectly fine name,” Vanessa said with a sigh, “but babies do better when they’re offered without a name. Allows the new family to feel like he’s really theirs, if you see what I mean. They won’t want any traces of the kid’s old life. If they ask, I’ll tell ‘em his name, but otherwise, his chances of being adopted are much better if he’s a blank slate.”

“But it’s the only thing his mother gave him,” Sandra replied. “His name, and his shawl.”

“Well, we’ll have to get rid of the shawl too,” Vanessa said sternly. “I’ll get a fresh one from the cupboard. This baby’s mother lost all rights to any connection when she dumped him on the steps of a church and ran off into the night. Our job is to focus on the baby’s needs.” She paused for a moment, waiting for Sandra to reply. “I know you’re kinda new to this line of work, but you can’t afford to start daydreaming about the mother in a case like this. She’s gone. They never come back. Focus on the kid.”

“What if she does come back?”

“She won’t. When was the last time you heard of a case where a mother came back after abandoning her kid? I’ve been here for ten years, and I’ve only ever known two mothers who changed their minds after dumping their children. In most cases, they disappear forever.” She paused for a moment. “Besides, she abandoned the kid. You think she’s got a hope in hell of getting him back? With any luck, she’ll never come looking, and if she does, she won’t get very far.”

Sandra smiled sadly. She knew Vanessa was right, but that didn’t mean she had to like the situation. Henry seemed so helpless and so alone, and it felt wrong to take away the weak connection he still enjoyed to the woman who’d given birth to him. When he was found, he still had his umbilical cord attached, although it had since been removed by a doctor. Henry’s mother, whoever she was, had clearly been in a hurry to get rid of him.

“Come on,” Vanessa said with a smile. “This is good news. We have trouble placing older kids, but this one’s gonna be off the shelf in no time. He never even has to know about all this. His new parents might not even tell him where he came from. Sometimes I think that’s best. Why bring in the extra drama when you can just let life unfold peacefully instead? How would you feel if you found out that your birth mother dumped you on some steps and left you to die?”

“I know,” Sandra said, as the baby wriggled a little in his shawl. “I just can’t help wondering what kind of person could abandon such a cute little thing. She might be suffering too, you know.”

“I’ll tell you what kind of person,” Vanessa replied. “A waste of space. I don’t care about any extenuating circumstances. You dump a kid, you’re trash. No excuses. She might have given birth to the poor little guy, but she’s not his mother. Not really. She lost that privilege when she placed her own happiness ahead of the safety of her child.”

“Maybe she was just scared.”

“Bullshit. She was a bitch. For all she knew, this baby could have died on there on those steps. I guarantee you, after she ran away, she didn’t even look back.”

“He was wrapped up pretty well,” Sandra replied, “and maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that the cleaner turned up. Maybe the mother knew he’d be along, and she times everything so Henry would be found?”

“You’re giving her far too much credit,” Vanessa said firmly. “If you want to work here, you need to harden your heart. There’s no room for tears when it comes to the mothers. Wherever that bitch is right now, I hope she knows she’s going straight to hell.”

Chapter One

 

Today

 

“How long do we have to wait?” Sam asks, staring up at the roof of the rocky underground cavern. “It’s been quiet for a while now.”

"Patience," Faraday replies. "When he's dealt with them, he'll come and get us. Until then, we just have to wait down here and hope for the best. Sparky knows what he's doing, but he needs us to keep out of his way -"

"But if -"

“He’ll come and get us when it’s safe!” Faraday says firmly. “The fact that he hasn’t come for us means that he’s not finished yet. I’m sure he’s got everything under control, but we risk causing more problems if we start going up there. He’s got enough to deal with, and the last thing he needs is to have to make sure we’re safe as well. I assure you, Martello’s a great warrior. He’ll be fine.”

“Or he’s dead,” Anna says. Sitting over by the wall, with her knees drawn up almost to her chin, she’s spent the past few minutes picking maggots out of her arm and setting them free to wriggle helplessly on the ground. Holding one up and examining it for a moment, she frowns. “Gross.” She glances over at Sam and Faraday. “What? It’s true. You keep saying Sparky’ll sort it all out, but what if you’re wrong? Maybe the reason it’s so quiet up there is… Well, there were a lot of those creatures, and there was only one of him.”

“Nonsense,” Faraday replies snappily.

"But -"

“Nonsense!” Faraday says again, this time raising his voice. “You don’t know what Martello can do. I appreciate that you’ve been dropped in the middle of all this, but you’re far from an expert. I’ve seen him in action. He’s dealt with much greater forces in the past. He’s fought in some of the greatest battles that have ever taken place, and he’s never even endured so much as a cut or a scratch.”

“Anna’s right,” Sam says. “Or at least, she might be. He’s not invulnerable, is he? I mean, he’s not made of flesh and blood, and I know he’s supposed to be pretty tough, but there were so many of them. Even if he managed to fight them for a while, he’d have got tired eventually.”

“He’s too smart to be brought down by a group of Volks,” Faraday says. “He’s too strong.”

“But maybe they surprised him,” Sam continues, “or maybe they had back-up.” Looking up at the ceiling, she tries to imagine the scene in the cemetery. “How much longer are we going to sit down here? What if he doesn’t come for us in the next couple of hours? What if we get to tomorrow and there’s still nothing? Are we gonna wait a week?”

“We don’t have a week,” Faraday replies, walking over to the edge of the precipice and staring down into the dark pit. “We have twelve, fifteen hours at most before this beast wakes up, and if that happens, it doesn’t matter what Sparky has or hasn’t done. There are some genies, Ms. Marker, that simply can’t be put back into their bottle.”

“So why are we just sitting around?” Sam asks. “Why don’t we get on with making sure the Devil doesn’t wake up?” She pauses for a moment, shocked to find such crazy words coming from her mouth. “I mean, there’s got to be a way, right?” she continues. “You’re the expert. Don’t you know what to do? Isn’t there something written in one of your books, or some kind of legend?”

“I’m working on a plan,” Faraday replies.

“How’s it going so far?”

“I’m still working on it.”

“You haven’t got anything, have you?” She waits for an answer. “You don’t know what to do.”

Faraday opens his mouth to respond, but instead he pauses for a moment. “When the cemetery was built,” he says eventually, “it was never expected that the Devil would remain in his grave forever. It was simply felt that this was the best way to keep him down there for the longest possible period of time. Everyone understood that he’d rise again one day, but no-one thought it would happen so soon. It was assumed that there’d be hundreds, maybe thousands of years to go before…” He continues to stare down into the pit for a moment. “This is the end of the world,” he says finally. “If he rises, he’ll rip everything apart. His mind alone is strong enough to burn the planet to a crisp. There’ll be no arguing with him, no chance to fight. It’ll all be over. To him, humanity is just a collection of ants, scurrying around on the surface of his grave.”

“How did they get him down there in the first place?” Sam asks.

“The records have been lost.”

“Great. How convenient.”

“Sarcasm won’t help,” Faraday replies darkly. “We need to maintain clear heads, which means we have to focus on the task at hand. Pure logic is the only tool at our disposal. We just have to work through the various permutations and determine the best path.”

“You make it sound like an algebra problem,” Sam says.

“All I know,” Faraday continues, “is that keeping him down there is going to be infinitely easier than letting him wake up and then trying to send him back. The latter would be a hopeless task, but the former… We might just have a chance.”

“So we have to make sure he doesn’t wake up,” Sam says firmly. “We have to find some way to make him stay the hell down there.”

“That’s the idea,” Faraday replies.

“But it’s impossible, isn’t it?” Anna suggests, still picking maggots from her arm. “Don’t bullshit us. It’s clear from the way you’re talking. He’s already waking up, so we’re all dead.” She pauses for a moment. “Well, I’m already dead, but you know what I mean.” Suddenly, a smile spreads across her face. “Hey, you know what? Being dead isn’t so bad! I mean, apart from the maggots and stuff. Even if the Devil does get up and start smashing everything, you’ll both just end up like me. Is that really the worst thing in the world?”

"Anna -" Sam starts to say.

“No, seriously,” Anna continues. “I just realized! Why does it matter to me what happens? I’m already dead, so what’s the Devil gonna do? Kill me again? And it’s not so shabby.” She turns to Sam. “Seriously, there’s no reason to be scared. You’ll get used to it soon enough. There are maggots, and sometimes a few bits fall off, but once you get over the initial shock and wrap your head around it, you can kind of deal with it. Just go with the flow!”

“The flow of being dead?” Sam asks skeptically.

Anna shrugs.

“The only reason you’re still here is because the cemetery is consecrated ground,” Faraday replies darkly. “Do you think that will remain the case once the Devil rises? This whole place is going to be the first part of the planet to be sucked dry of its purity, and when that happens, you’ll turn to dust.”

“Oh,” Anna says, looking a little startled.

Deep below, at the bottom of the pit, something stirs, as if some kind of huge beast is slowly starting to move, and the walls of the entire chamber shake for a moment before silence descends once again. There’s no mistaking the power and size of whatever’s down there, preparing to rise again.

“Bad dream?” Sam asks.

“What does the Devil dream about?” Faraday replies.

“Maybe he’s just misunderstood?” Sam suggests. “I mean, maybe he’s not so bad? He might just…” Her voice trails off as she realizes that this is one theory that’s not going to fly.

“I often dream about being naked in public,” Anna says suddenly. “Maybe that’s what he dreams about too. Or cheer-leading. I dream about that sometimes.”

“He’s been asleep for thousands of years,” Faraday says darkly. “He won’t wake up immediately, but the process has definitely started. We don’t have long left.” Looking up at the ceiling, he pauses for a moment. “Even if Martello has dealt with the Volks, there’ll be more creatures to come. I don’t…” He pauses, and it’s clear that he has no idea what to do next. No ideas, no plan. Nothing. “This is all happening too soon,” he says eventually. “I needed more time to plan. I needed to go through the books. The answer was in there somewhere, but everything moved too fast and now there’s no time.”

Hearing another rumble from deep within the pit, Sam looks down into the darkness and recognizes that she can’t rely on Faraday to come up with a solution. If the Devil finally wakes up, the cemetery will be the first part of the world to be destroyed, but soon everything else will follow. Every place is going to be destroyed, and every person is going to die, even those who were supposed to be safe. Taking a deep breath, Sam can’t help but realize that the repercussions of the Devil’s return are going to be felt by every living creature on the planet.

“Henry,” she whispers softly.

Chapter Two

 

“What a wasteland,” Gabriel Fenroc says, standing at the cemetery gate and staring through the iron bars. “What a terrible tragedy. So much death and destruction. So much anger, so much pain. A perfect example of why this world needs to be ripped apart and replaced by something better. Something new.”

The entire cemetery has been trashed. Gravestones have been ripped from the ground and smashed, while even some of the trees have been uprooted. The cottage has withstood some of the damage, although one end has collapsed and the other end, although still standing, looks conspicuously fragile. The blackened, burned bodies of Volks are spread all over the singed grass, and a curious, deathly kind of hush has descended upon the whole place. It looks like the end of the world, or at least a warm-up.

“This is going to be tricky,” Fenroc continues, pushing the gate open. Reaching his hand across the threshold, he watches has the skin on his fingers begins to sizzle and burn. After a few seconds, unable to withstand the pain any longer, he steps back and admires his damaged flesh. The skin is already beginning to heal, but he’s certain that there’s no way he could withstand such pain while walking all the way over to the cottage. He pauses, before reaching into his pocket and taking out a small vial of water.

Nearby, a mouse sits on top of the wall, watching the scene.

“It was such a beautiful place once,” he says, thinking back to the old days, when he was the gardener. He used to sleep during the day and do all his work at night, when no-once could see or interrupt him. Working by the light of the moon, he was still able to make the place look good. Not like his successors, who mostly focused on other aspects of the job and ignored the need to make the place beautiful.

“You’re not welcome here,” calls out a voice.

Looking past the gate, Fenroc sees a familiar figure hunched against the wall over by one of the wrecked graves.

“Martello,” he says with a smile. It’s been many years since he heard his former comrade’s voice, although he’s spotted him once or twice through the cemetery gates. “Or do you prefer to be called Sparky these days? I understand Ms. Marker has given you a new moniker. How are you doing, old friend? I must say, it seems you’ve let the place go a little, and you’re looking a little peaky. Such a change from your usual self.”

Slowly, Sparky tries to get to his feet, but his stone form quickly collapses once again. The battle with the Volks might be over, but he has suffered a terrible toll, and there are fractures running all through his body. He tries yet again to stand, but finally he has to give up. The damage is etched across his face, which has been partially chipped away on one side thanks to the Volks’ attack. Whereas he previously looked noble and proud, he now resembles an old, damaged statue.

“You should rest,” Fenroc continues. “You’re getting on. You deserve a nap. Why not just sit back and let everyone else take the strain?” Glancing over at a dead, smoking Volk on the grass, he pauses for a moment. “I knew they’d be no match for you, but I have to be honest, I didn’t realize they’d take quite so much of your strength. What’s wrong, old chap? Are you losing your touch? There were days when I thought you could take on army after army, without even breaking a sweat. You were feared across so many worlds, and now look at you. Do you have any idea how many people would delight in knowing that you’ve fallen so far?”

“Is this really what you want?” Sparky asks, sounding hoarse and breathless. Stone dust pours from his body every time he speaks, and his limbs have begun to make a stiff grinding sound. “Do you think the Devil himself will barter with you once he’s awake? Is that your plan? Are you going to saunter up to him, lay your cards on the table, and propose some kind of alliance?”

“Perhaps.”

“You have nothing to offer him. He’ll swat you away.”

“You don’t know what I have to offer,” Fenroc says with a smile.

“I know you’ve got an over-inflated sense of your own importance. I know you think you deserve power and glory. It was these weaknesses that drove you from the cemetery in the first place.”

Fenroc pauses. “Well, that’s just your opinion,” he says after a moment. “I know you must have a very lowly opinion of me, but I’m sure you understand that I haven’t played all my cards just yet. Do you really think I’d wander into a meeting with the darkest creature in all of creation, and just ask for a favor? Come on, you know I’m not that stupid. I’m not naive.”

“You don’t have anything that he wants.”

“Don’t I? Face it. You’ve been trapped in the cemetery, and I’ve been trapped outside. Neither of us has had much of an opportunity to observe the other.”

“You can’t even step past that gate,” Sparky replies, trying again to get to his feet, but still finding himself unable to summon the necessary strength. “You’re powerless. What are you going to do? Call out to him from here?”

“Good point,” Fenroc says. “Very good point. If only I had some way to deconsecrate the ground and allow myself to pass.” He pauses, before looking down at the small vial of water in his hand. “Oh, perhaps I do. Wouldn’t unholy water do the trick? This stuff spreads like the plague. Granted, I don’t have much but it might just about be enough.” Loosening the lid of the vial, he carefully allows a single drop to fall on the grass just inside the gate.

“It won’t work,” Sparky says firmly, even though his voice is betraying a hint of hesitation.

“It’s already working.”

“You won’t get all the way to the cottage.”

“No?” Smiling, Fenroc takes a step forward, and finally – after so many years in the wilderness – he finds himself once again standing in the cemetery. “I seem to be doing okay so far,” he continues, splashing another drop of unholy water ahead of him before taking another step. “This stuff is remarkably potent, you know. I had to go to a great deal of trouble to get hold of it. I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say that the Devil himself will be mightily impressed by my dedication. As I’m sure you know, there’s only one source of unholy water in the world, and it’s not exactly easy to reach.”

“You could never have made such a journey!”

“Then explain this,” Fenroc says, dropping some more of the water onto the ground. “Are you so delusional, so determined to see the worst in me, that you can’t even recognize when I achieve something remarkable?”

“That stuff won’t last,” Sparky replies, staring at the ground and watching as the unholy water sizzles in the grass and sinks deep into the soil.

“It doesn’t need to last,” Fenroc says. “It just needs to get me to the cottage and then down to the grave itself. After that, I suspect our mutual friend will take care of everything else. After all, for the Devil, it’s the work of a mere moment to deconsecrate this place. He can do it with nothing more than the snap of his fingers. Hell, the mere fact that he’s here at all should do the trick.” Splashing another drop of unholy water on the ground, he takes another step toward the cottage. “It’s so nice to be back. I’ve missed this place. Truly. I used to stand at the gate and long to come back inside, but of course I knew I had to wait for the right moment.”

Again, Sparky tries and fails to get to his feet.

“It’s strange, isn’t it?” Fenroc continues. “I never thought I could feel nostalgic about a place that I hated with such passion. When I spent every day in here with you, I used to long for an escape. I hid my misery very well, of course, but eventually I realized that I could strike a bargain. Granted, I made a few wrong moves along the way, but all’s well that ends well. This place almost destroyed me. Still, I suppose we had a few good times, didn’t we?”

“You betrayed everything this cemetery stands for,” Sparky snarls. “You took an oath to defend this place, and then you decided to reach out for glory instead. You surrendered to temptation, and now you’re going to compound all your earlier errors by walking straight into the heart of darkness! You’re the worst kind of fool, Fenroc. You never learn.”

“So what? Was I supposed to just sit around like a good little boy, doing my duty and waiting to be replaced? I’d have ended up like you, Martello. A pathetic lump of stone, sitting around all day and eventually being renamed Sparky by some hormonal little bitch. Sorry, but that’s not how I see my existence panning out. I’ve got better plans. Bigger plans. Besides, your adherence to destiny doesn’t seem to have done you too many favors. As far as I can see, you’ve ended up in rather a poor state.”“

“You had a job to do! You had a role!”

“Blind obedience.”

“Honor!”

“Same thing. Either way, I chose my own path.”

“You’re making a mistake.”

“I’m going to make you an offer,” Fenroc continues. “It might seem like a cruel offer at first, but it’s the best I can do. If you wish, I can kill you right now. You won’t have to witness the Devil’s resurrection or the end of the world or any of the misery that follows. I’ll end your life. I’ll spare you. We were friends once, and I feel I owe you this small mercy. Trust me, I won’t be making the same offer to Faraday. But you, dear pal, still have a place in my heart. We’re more alike than you care to admit. So how about it? Will you let me do this one final thing for you? Will you let me spare you the agony of a slow and painful death?”

“Go to hell,” Sparky mutters.

Smiling, Fenroc turns and sprinkles a little more holy water on the ground before taking another step forward.

“Evil never triumphs,” Sparky calls out to him. “You won’t get what you want, Fenroc! You might as well just give up now and pray for your soul to be delivered!” He watches as Fenroc continues on his way, stopping every couple of meters to clear the path with another sprinkle of water from the vial. “You’ll regret your actions!” Sparky shouts. “In your final moment, as the Devil ends your life, you’ll realize what a terrible mistake you’ve made! It might only last a fraction of a second, but it’ll be the last thing you ever feel!”

“It seems we have very different expectations,” Fenroc replies. “I guess there’s only one way to settle things. I’d better head on down there and finish the job.”

“You’ll die,” Sparky sneers, “and you’ll take the rest of the world with you.”

“We’ll see,” Fenroc shouts back at him as he reaches the damaged cottage. “I’d love to stop and chat, but I’m afraid I’ve got an appointment. I believe there’s a hatch I need to uncover.” With that, he pushes the door open, sprinkles some more unholy water across the floor, and enters the cottage, pushing the door shut behind himself as he goes.

Chapter Three

 

“I hear something,” Anna says, staring up at the roof of the cavern. “There’s someone in the cottage.”

“You’re imagining things,” Faraday says dismissively, still staring down into the pit. “Don’t allow your mind to get distracted.”

“I’m not,” Anna continues. “I swear to God, I heard something up there. There’s someone moving about in the cottage. Listen! Can’t you hear it?”

“Maybe it’s Sparky?” Sam suggests.

“Or one of those other things,” Anna replies darkly. “Maybe Sparky didn’t make it and now we’re trapped between the Devil and a bunch of monsters?”

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Faraday replies. “If it’s him, I’m sure he’d have opened the hatch by now. Otherwise…” His voice trails off as he continues to stare down into the pit. It’s clear that he’s lost in thought, still trying to come up with a solution, but so far it appears that he’s coming up short. “If only I had my books,” he mutters. “Everything’s recorded in the books.”

“Can’t you think of something without the books?” Sam asks, a little irritated by his approach.

“The books explain some of the events that happened at the beginning of the garden,” he replies. “Without being able to refer to them directly, so much of this is guesswork.”

“What if he’s dead?” Anna asks, her voice tinged with a sense of panic as she continues to look up at the ceiling. “What if you’re wrong and Sparky couldn’t handle those creatures? Maybe he lost? Maybe they’re swarming all over the place and they’re coming down here for us next?” Looking over at the steps that lead up to the hatch, she paused for a moment. “What if we’re already doomed? What if we’re trapped?”

“Is there any other way out of here?” Sam asks.

“You need to maintain your faith,” Faraday says darkly.

“In what?” Anna shouts. “In you? You’re just sitting there, acting as if maybe you can come up with some kind of plan, but it’s like you’re hoping for someone else to come and sort things out. Do you seriously have any idea how we’re going to get out of this?” Stepping over to the edge of the pit, she looks down into the darkness. “So far,” she continues, “I haven’t seen you do a single damn thing. Not one thing that might actually help. Anyone can sit and look thoughtful, but unless you’ve got some concrete ideas, you need to…” Her voice trails off.

“Need to what?” Sam asks.

“Someone needs to do something!” she replies. “Someone needs to come up with a plan that’s actually going to work!”

“Go on then,” Faraday replies, having clearly lost patience with her. “Tell us what we should do. I’ve spent years trying to come up with a solution to this problem, but obviously you think you can do better, so let’s hear it!”

“I don’t know!” Anna yells. “I didn’t ask to come back to life! I didn’t ask for any of this to happen! Look at me! I’m literally rotting!” Pulling another maggot from her arm, she stares in disgust at the wriggling little creature. “I didn’t ask to die, either.”

“Maybe we should go down there,” Sam says quietly.

“There are maggots in my body!” Anna continues. “I can feel them wriggling around! Do you have any idea what that’s like? For every maggot I pull out from my skin, I can feel ten more deep inside, and they’re getting bigger! What happens next? Are they gonna turn into flies? Am I gonna just fall apart?” She stares at her hands. “Am I gonna stay like this forever, or what? I don’t even know if I want to be some kind of zombie. Maybe it’d be better to just stay dead. I mean, at least it wasn’t painful. It was just nothing. A dark, warm void. I wasn’t even aware of what had happened.”

“If we can find a rope,” Sam continues, staring at the edge of the pit, “we can go down and find out what’s really happening.”

“I can feel one in my head right now,” Anna says, crossing her eyes a little. “It’s right behind my forehead. It kind of tickles. It’s like it’s deep inside my thoughts.” She pauses. “I can feel it move behind my nose now, heading down to the roof of my mouth and…” Pausing, she reaches a hand between her teeth, struggles for a moment, and finally pulls out a juicy maggot. “This little bastard just crawled through my brain,” she explains, with a look of shock on her face. “Do you think he ate anything along the way?”

“Something must be waking the Devil up,” Sam adds. “Like his alarm clock is ringing, or someone’s poking him. There’s got to be a reason why he’s waking up early. Instead of panicking like idiots, we need to work out what’s causing the problem, stop it from happening, and then hope that we can persuade the Devil to go back to sleep. I mean, if he’s been down there for thousands of years, he’s still gonna feel kind of groggy. We have a chance.”

“I’m worried my eyes are going to fall out,” Anna whimpers. “What if a maggot chews through the optic nerve? Won’t my eye, like, just plop out? And then I’ll be blind. Dead and blind.” She pauses for a moment. “Then again, maybe I’d be able to just put it back in. God, I wish there was a handbook for this kind of thing.”

The three of them stand in silence for a moment.

“We wouldn’t be able to get back up,” Faraday says slowly, turning to Sam. “Even if we managed to get down there, it’s a one-way ticket. It’d be suicide.”

“But if we could save the world,” Sam replies, “wouldn’t that be kind of worth it?” She pauses for a moment. “There’s someone I care about,” she adds eventually. “Someone a long way away. He doesn’t even know that I exist, and he never will, but I know that he exists and if I can stop this shit-storm from going down, then…” She pauses. “I’ll do it. I’ll go down into that pit, even if there’s no way back up. Fuck it, I don’t want the world to end. I never thought I’d say anything like this, but I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to risk my life.”

"It's not that simple," Faraday says with a sigh. "Even if you get down there -"

“There’s nothing to do up here!” Sam shouts, her voice filled with desperation. “There’s literally nothing we can do except wait to die! Unless you’ve got a plan right now, we need to move on. If you don’t want to come down there, that’s fine. Tell me everything you know, and I’ll do my best. Okay? I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to do give up my life if…” She pauses again, thinking of Henry on the steps of the church. “If it means that he gets to live a full life, a happy life, then I’ll do anything. Even if he never knows. Even if he thinks I was just some deadbeat idiot. All that matters is that he gets to live.” Sniffing back a few tears, she turns to Sam, and then back to Faraday. “There has to be something we can try. Even if it seems totally insane and impossible, there has to be one chance.”

"I don't know..." Faraday says. "Unless you're planning to talk the Devil into staying asleep -"

“Fine,” Sam says firmly.

“Fine?”

“I’ll do it.” She takes a deep breath. “If that’s the only option, I’ll go down and give it a try. And if it fails, I’ll come up with something else. I swear to God, I won’t let the Devil up. I don’t know how, but I’ll find a way to keep him from waking”

"But -"

“I’ll find a way!” she says, raising her voice a little. “Trust me, I’ve got the motivation!”

"You can't just jump," Faraday replies. "The fall would kill you instantly. If you had a rope -"

“There are ropes in the cottage,” Sam says firmly.

"You can't -"

“I don’t have a choice,” she continues. “If I need a rope, then I have to go and get a rope. If the only place to get a rope is in the cottage, then I have to go up there. I don’t know how things are going with Sparky, but it doesn’t seem to me that anyone here has got a better idea.”

“You know this means certain death, don’t you?” Faraday asks.

“Seems like it’s certain death whichever way I look,” Sam replies. “At least this way, I’ll be keeping busy.”

“You’re seriously gonna go down into that pit?” Anna asks. “Right down there, where the Devil’s waking up?”

Sam nods.

“Do you…” She pauses. “Do you want help?”

“No,” Sam says after a moment. “If you two come with me, we’ll just sit around arguing all over again. Maybe it’s better if I just go and see what I can do. I feel like maybe I’ll come up with an idea once I’m down there.”

Faraday stares at her for a moment. “You’re very brave, Ms. Marker, but I must insist on coming down there with you. With your bravery and my admittedly limited knowledge, we might just about have a chance.”

“Fine,” Sam says, “but let’s get on with it. I don’t want to waste any more time.”

“We’ll need a rope,” Faraday continues, looking over at the steps, “and I’m afraid there’s only place we can look.”

Chapter Four

 

“Home sweet home,” Fenroc says, wandering across the kitchen. “I must say, Ms. Marker, you really improved the place before recent events caused so much damage. It’s so much homelier than I remember. Granted, I let it become rather destitute, and I doubt old Faraday did much to improve things. But you’ve really managed to bring a woman’s touch to the decor.” He pauses, glancing over at the door that leads through to the bedroom. “One could almost raise a family in a home like this,” he adds with a faint smile. “All you’d need would be a little nursery.”

Walking to the door, he looks through and sees that there’s no-one around. Glancing back over toward the bathroom and seeing that the floor has been ripped up to expose the hatch, he realizes that there’s only one explanation.

"Clever," he mutters, heading over and taking a closer look at the hatch. "You can't hide down there forever, though," he continues. "No matter what you might think, sooner or later it's going to get a little too hot for comfort." Looking down at the half-empty vial of unholy water in his hand, he pauses for a moment, realizing that he used far less than he'd expected on his walk through the cemetery. "I suppose I'll just have to -"

Before he can finish the sentence, however, he hears a noise from the hatch. Stepping back behind the bathroom door, he listens as the hatch slowly creaks open, and finally there’s the sound of someone climbing up from the depths. He’d been expecting to have to force the hatch open himself, but now it seems that Sam Marker and his friends have done most of the hard work in advance.

“I swear I heard someone,” a female voice whispers.

“Well,” Sam Marker replies, “he’s either up here or he isn’t. We can’t change that now.”

Staying hidden, Fenroc listens as a pair of footsteps walk past the door and through to the kitchen.

“Sparky!” Sam calls out. “Are you in here?”

Silence.

“He must still be outside,” Anna continues. “He must still be fighting.”

“I don’t hear anything,” Sam replies.

A set of footsteps hurry over to the window. “It looks dead out there,” Anna says. “Like, there’s nothing moving at all.”

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Sam says.

“What if he’s hurt?”

“We’re here to get a rope,” Sam continues. “Sparky can look after himself.”

"But -"

“He’ll be fine!”

“So where’s this rope?” asks Anna after a moment.

“There’s some stuff in the storage box,” Sam replies, heading through to one of the rooms at the rear. “I don’t know how long the damn thing needs to be, but hopefully we’ll have enough to get all the way to the bottom of the pit. If not, I guess we’ll just have to jump the final part and hope it’s not too far.”

Still hidden behind the door, Fenroc glances over at the hatch and tries to decide what to do. On the one hand, he could just head straight down there and put his plan into action. On the other hand, it’s clear that Sam Marker and her friends are up to something, and Fenroc feels that it might be advantageous to gain an understanding of their plans before he goes ahead with anything. Remaining in place, he listens as he hears a noise in one of the other rooms, and finally he realizes that there’s only one reason why Sam would want a rope.

“Brave girl,” he whispers.

“Where’s Sparky?” Anna asks as she and Sam come through from the back room. “Seriously, Sam, we can’t just leave him. What if he’s hurt? What if he’s dying? What if we can help him?”

“We’ll worry about him later,” Sam replies, heading to the hatch before stopping suddenly. “Hang on. Can you grab that other rope from the room as well? We might need it after all.”

Fenroc listens as Sam climbs back down the hatch, while Anna hurries through to one of the other room. Seizing his chance, Fenroc slips pushes the bathroom door shut and slides the lock across, before heading over to the hatch. He waits until Sam is out of sight at the bottom of the steps before starting to climb down. After a moment, he pauses and pulls the hatch shut, and then he slides the bolt across to make sure that Anna won’t be able to follow. He figures he’s got enough on his hands, dealing with Faraday and Sam Marker, and the last thing he needs is for some rotten little zombie idiot to come blundering down the steps.

“There’s another rope we might be able to use,” Sam says, far down below. “Anna’s fetching it now. Do you know how far down the pit we’ll have to go? I mean, the ropes are only so long, and even if we tie them together, we might not have enough.”

“I’m not sure,” Faraday replies. “I don’t think it’s too far. The sounds are quite close.”

“Faraday,” Fenroc whispers with a smile. “Well, this is turning out to be a good old-fashioned reunion.” Making his way slowly down the steps, he stops again as he spots Sam and Faraday over by the edge of the pit, where they seem to be trying to drive a metal peg into the ground. The rope, arranged neatly on the ground, is clearly set to be lowered down so that Sam can try to make her way to the bottom of the pit, and so far the pair of them seem so engrossed in their efforts, they haven’t noticed Fenroc’s arrival.

“You got any last-minute tips?” Sam asks Faraday as they continue to drive the peg into the ground. “I don’t suppose anyone else has ever done anything like this before, have they? I guess most people have been specifically avoiding having to go down into this pit.”

“You’ll have to keep your wits about you,” Faraday replies. “You’ll have to think on your feet and focus on whatever you find down there.” He pauses for a moment. “I’ve read a lot of books about the Devil, Ms. Marker, but as you’ve pointed out several times, my direct practical experience is rather limited. In all honesty, I can’t really tell you what we’ll find down there, other than that it’s probably going to be extremely dangerous. I can’t think of many people who’d be willing to do this.”

“There’s no other choice,” Sam replies. She pauses for a moment. “Do you really think we’ve got a hope in hell of stopping all this? I mean, I know you said this was basically a suicide mission, but there’s got to be a chance, right? If we’re smart and if we come up with a decent plan, we can still stop this, can’t we?”

“Maybe,” Faraday says. “With your bravery and dedication, and my historical knowledge of the beast, we might be able to come up with an idea once we’re down there. It all depends on what we find.”

“We have to come up with a plan,” Sam says firmly. “Failure’s not an option. No matter how bad things look, we have to find some way to deal with this.”

“Who are you trying to prove yourself to?” Faraday asks suddenly. He waits for an answer. “I can see it in your eyes, Ms. Marker. There’s someone on your mind, someone far away. Someone you want to impress. I’ve recognized it since the first moment I saw you.”

“I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about,” Sam mutters.

“Forgive me for being so blunt,” Faraday continues, “but teenage girls don’t tend to move across the country and take up jobs as gardeners. Most girls your age are out partying, or at home studying. It’s almost as if you’ve decided to remove yourself from the world, Ms. Marker. Are you running from someone?”

“Not quite,” Sam says awkwardly, as she starts to tie one end of the rope around the peg.

“Hiding from someone?”

She shakes her head.

“But I’m right, aren’t I?” Faraday continues. “When this is all over, and if we survive, I hope that perhaps you’ll tell me the source of your bravery. I’d like to know.”

"Where's Anna?" Sam asks, clearly trying to change the topic of conversation. Glancing over at the steps, she makes eye contact with Fenroc. "I thought she -"

“Hello,” Fenroc says with a smile.

“Get out of here!” Faraday shouts, hurrying over to him with a kind of instant, powerful rage. “How can you even be here? A creature like you can’t possibly be granted passage into hallowed ground. You should have burned up as soon as you stepped across the threshold!”

“I had a little help,” Fenroc explains, holding up his vial of unholy water. “You know how it is,” he continues, looking over at Sam for a moment. “We all want to go home eventually. I took a little trip and got hold of this precious little bottle. It’s powerful stuff, more powerful than I’d ever imagined. You wouldn’t believe some of the things it can do.”

“This isn’t your home!” Faraday shouts, pushing him back. “You’ve done enough!”

“Where’s Anna?” Sam shouts, still working on the rope.

“I’ll hold him back!” Faraday shouts, looking over at her. “Just get down there as quickly as possible! And good luck. You’ll need it!”

“I can’t go without you!” Sam shouts back at him. “I need help!”

“I’ll be there soon!” Faraday insists.

“Let’s try a different approach,” Fenroc says with a sneer. Unscrewing the lid of the vial, he pours the rest of the holy water over Faraday, who steps back and screams as his skin starts to hiss and bubble.

Standing stunned over by the edge of the pit, Sam can only watch in shock as Faraday drops to his knees. It’s as if the water is burning through his skin, causing his flesh to melt and slop away from his bones. Still screaming, he puts his hands over his face for a moment as the bones of his arms begin to show. Pools of melted skin are collecting on the ground, and finally he lowers his hands to reveal that all the skin has been burned away from his face. Barely recognizable, he turns and stares at Sam, his two round eyeballs already starting to melt.

“I’d prepared a big speech for this moment,” Fenroc says, stepping toward him, “but I don’t suppose you really give a crap.”

“I…” Faraday mutters, his entire body crackling and sizzling. “I…”

“Exactly,” Fenroc says with a smile, before kicking Faraday in the chest and sending his body sprawling across the ground with such force that the burned sinews in his neck are ripped open and his head comes loose, rolling several meters until it comes to a rest close to Sam. “Well,” Fenroc continues, taking a deep breath, “that was emotional. I often wondered what it would feel like to finally put that pompous ass in his place, and now I know. It felt…” He pauses for a moment, as if he’s trying to pick the right word. “Delectable,” he adds eventually. “Divine. Fabulous. Delightful. You get the idea. The bastard had it coming for a hell of a long time.”

Unable to stop staring at Faraday’s burned head, Sam tries to work out what to do next. Even though he hadn’t been very useful so far, she’d been relying on him to eventually come up with some kind of idea. Suddenly she realizes, however, that she’s completely alone. With Faraday dead and Anna missing, Sam turns and looks down into the pit, from which there rises another low growl.

“Excellent,” Faraday says with a grin, “sounds like the big boy’s waking up. I’m sure he’ll be up and about once I’ve given him a few more gentle pokes. And I’m so very grateful to you for setting up a rope for me. You’re very kind, Sam. It’s almost as if you’re on my side.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Sam says, standing firm.

“Oh, come on,” he replies. “I bought you a lovely dinner, didn’t I? We had fun. Surely you can see things from my point of view, can’t you?” He takes a step forward, while keeping his eyes fixed on her. “Granted, I was a little tough on Faraday, but the guy was no saint, if you know what I mean. He deserved everything he got.”

“Don’t come any closer,” Sam says, backing to the very edge of the pit.

“Or what?” Fenroc asks. “Are you gonna jump?” He smiles. “I’d have thought you’d be looking for a smarter way out, Sam.” He pauses for a moment. “I mean, aren’t you interested in maybe making a deal?”

“No deals,” Sam says firmly.

“Huh,” Fenroc says. “Not even if I offer to save someone you care about?” He takes another step forward. “Not even if I offer to save poor, wee little Henry?”

Chapter Five

 

“Hey!” Anna shouts, banging on the bathroom door. “Sam? Seriously? Are you in there? What gives? I mean, like what the hell?”

She stands in silence, waiting for a reply.

“Sam?” she shouts again, this time with a hint of panic in her voice. “Is everything okay?” After a moment, she sets the spare rope down before walking back across the room and preparing to barge the door down. Taking a deep breath, she tries to summon up as much strength as possible, before running shoulder-first at the door and slamming into the wood with all her might. She immediately feels a heavy crunch and hears a splitting sound, but after a moment she realizes that the door is still firmly in place.

“Huh,” she says, before looking down at her right shoulder and watching as her arm falls off. “Fuck,” she mutters, leaning down and picking it up. A couple of maggots are wriggling in the stump, and she quickly pulls them out before placing her dismembered arm on the kitchen table and standing back to admire the door. Feeling a little shocked at this latest development, she considers trying to barge the door down again before realizing that she can’t really afford to lose her other arm. “Okay,” she says to herself, “at least it didn’t hurt.”

Hearing a noise outside, she turns and looks over at the window. Convinced that there are probably various creatures out there, she hurries to the front door, ready to push it shut, but at the last moment she spots a familiar figure limping slowly toward the cottage. For a moment, she feels as if she must be imagining the scene, but finally she allows herself to believe that it’s true.

“Sparky!” she shouts with relief, as she watches the stone angel slowly making his way across the dark cemetery. Stepping out through the door, she looks around and sees that the whole cemetery is shrouded in darkness but, crucially, there seem to be no more of the creatures that were attacking earlier. Despite the mayhem and chaos taking place inside and beneath the cottage, the cemetery itself seems to be calm and quiet.

“Where is he?” Sparky asks, his voice twisted with pain. Stone dust falls from a crack in his side, and he’s forced to stop and rest against the door jamb.

"Who?" Anna asks. "Faraday? He's down in the -"

“Not Faraday,” Sparky continues, sounding as if he’s short of breath. “Fenroc. Where’s Gabriel Fenroc?”

“I don’t know,” Anna replies. “I didn’t see anyone else, but Sam’s locked me out of the bathroom. It’s like she doesn’t want me to go back down into the hatch with her. She sent me to fetch some more rope, and then when I tried to follow her, the door was locked.”

“Fenroc,” Sparky mutters, pushing his way past her and heading into the cottage.

“Who’s Fenroc?” Anna asks, hurrying after him.

“A former gardener,” Sparky continues, wincing with pain as he has to stop walking yet again. “A man who was given a great task, and who chose to abandon his post and go in search of pure evil instead. He was a great gardener once, one of the best. I thought he was a man of wisdom and honor, but I was wrong. He turned to the dark side and now he thinks he can wake the Devil and strike some kind of bargain. This is all his fault.”

"Sam's down there," Anna continues. "She and Faraday are planning to use a rope to climb down into the pit -"

“Are they insane?” Sparky asks, turning to her.

“They stood around arguing quite a lot,” Anna explains, “and then Sam kind of came up with the idea. I don’t think Faraday really had any better ideas, so…” Her voice trails off. “I offered to go with them, but I guess they think I’m not really much use. I can see their point, really.”

“What happened to your arm?” Sparky asks.

“It fell off when I tried to break the door down. Do you think there’s any way it could get put back on? I mean, I know it’s dead, like the rest of me, but I’d like to keep it for as long as possible.”

“Do you have a needle and thread?”

“I guess so.”

“First, we need to help them,” Sparky continues, stumbling forward a few more stops before stopping to rest again. “If we succeed with that, we can start worrying about your arm.”

“Are you okay?” Anna asks, looking at the cracks and broken pieces all over Sparky’s body. “You look… I mean, are you in pain?” Reaching out, she runs her remaining, rotting hand across the stone of Sparky’s chest. Although he feels firm and strong, the cracks in his body seem to be growing, and Anna can’t help fearing that he might fall apart at any moment.

"My fate doesn't matter," he replies. "We have to get through that door and down the hatch. Sam and Faraday won't be able to hold Fenroc back. I'll break the door down and then -" Stepping forward, he stumbles and falls, crashing down onto the kitchen floor and letting out a cry of pain as part of his left shoulder shatters. Although he still tries to pull himself toward the bathroom door, he has to give up after a moment. "You have to get through there," he gasps. "You can't leave them alone."

“I tried,” Anna says, staring to panic, “but in case you didn’t notice, my fucking arm came off!”

“Unscrew the door,” Sparky continues, grimacing as the pain gets worse. “Find a screwdriver and remove the hinges. Do the same thing with the hatch if you can. I don’t care what you have to do, just find a way for us to get down there!” He tries to get up, but eventually he lets out a scream of frustration and pain.

“And then what?” Anna asks. “Even if we get down there, what are we supposed to do?”

“We’ll come up with something,” Sparky gasps. “We’re useless up here. You have to find a way to get us down there.”

Hurrying over to the toolbox, Anna starts looking through for a screwdriver, eventually finding one buried right at the bottom. "I got one," she says, "I can -" Suddenly she pauses as she spots something moving out in the cemetery. She stands completely still, trying to convince herself that she imagined the whole thing, but a moment later she sees it again. She desperately wants to believe that her mind is playing tricks on her, and that maybe some of the maggots in her brain are causing her to imagine things, but deep down she knows that she definitely saw something.

“What’s wrong?” Sparky asks. “We don’t have much time.”

“There’s something outside,” Anna says, walking slowly toward the window.

“There’s nothing!” Sparky continues, raising his voice as his frustration starts to boil over. “I killed everything out there. The Volks are dead.”

“I swear to God,” Anna continues, as she reaches the window and looks out into the darkness, “I saw something.” Peering out into the night, she realizes there’s definitely something shifting and churning under the grass, not only near the cottage but all over the place. It’s as if the whole cemetery is starting to come alive, and there’s a faint banging sound coming from inside one of the nearby mausoleums.

“What do you see?” Sparky asks, his voice filled with tension.

"I'm not sure," Anna replies, "I think -" Suddenly she sees something burst up from beneath the grass. Squinting, she sees that it's a tattered, rotten human arm, its hand reaching out toward her. "I think -" Seconds later, she sees another human arm push through the soil, followed by a rotten face that stares straight at her. "I think maybe it's people," she says eventually.

“What kind of people?” Sparky asks.

“Um…” Anna stares as more and more rotten bodies start pulling themselves out from the graves. As they get free, they each start lumbering slowly toward the cottage.

“What is it?” Sparky shouts. “Tell me what you can see!”

“It’s dead people,” Anna says, staring in stunned horror as the dead continue to rise from their graves and make their way straight toward her. “It’s a whole load of dead people, and they’re coming this way.”

Chapter Six

 

“You don’t know anything about Henry,” Sam says firmly, staring at Fenroc. “You don’t know anything about me. I…” Her voice trails off as she tries to come to terms with the way that two distinct periods in her life seem to be coming crashing together. She’s always viewed her life in Rippon as a fresh start, and as a blank page unsullied by the regrets and mistakes of her past.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you by mentioning his name,” Fenroc replies. “I can totally understand why this might be an uncomfortable topic, but sometimes we all need a little help getting these things out. It’s not helpful to stuff secrets deep down and pretend they don’t exist.” He pauses for a moment. “I do my research, Sam. When someone comes into my orbit, I like to find out as much as possible about them. I know you kept your pregnancy hidden from the world, but there were little hints here and there. It didn’t take much effort to join the dots. Eventually I managed to work it all out. The way you spent six months living along in a squat because you didn’t want anyone to know you were pregnant. The highly commendable way you gave up booze and cigarettes for the baby. The fact that you never even knew who the father was, ‘cause there’d been so many drunken encounters in alleys. What did they used to call you back in Leeds again? Oh, right, I remember. Sam the slag.”

“Henry’s a long way away from here,” Sam continues, “and he’s got nothing to do with anything.”

“It doesn’t matter how far he is,” Fenroc points out. “The end of the world isn’t a localized event, sweetheart. If the planet burns, everything on its surface burns. You, me, Henry… Well, not me. I’ve got a plan, you see.”

“Leave him out of this,” Sam replies, trying to force back the tears that are gathering in her eyes.

“This world is stinking cesspit,” Fenroc spits back at her. “Full of piety and hypocrisy. But things are gonna change. When the old guy wakes up, he’s gonna rip this place apart and start a whole new world, and I’m gonna help him out. He’ll need me, you see, and he’ll be grateful to me for waking him up. In fact, I’m planning to be in charge, on a day to day basis. A new world, filled with truth and beauty. Not like this crap-heap.”

“There’s nothing wrong with this world,” Sam says.

“Aye, you think not? Even after everything that happened to you? After the misery you suffered? You still defend this world?”

“I made mistakes,” Sam replies, “but they were my fault. The world’s still a good place.”

“I’m not here to judge you,” Fenroc continues. “I know there might be plenty of reasons why a fit, healthy, intelligent young woman would abandon her new-born child. You probably thought you were doing the best thing, and who’s to say that you weren’t? But it’s still got to hurt, hasn’t it? It’s still got to eat away at you. Is that why you’re so willing to throw your life away by leaping into that pit? Some kind of misguided belief that you can save the world and keep Henry safe?”

Turning, Sam looks down into the dark pit. The rope is dangling down, waiting for her to make her descent, but now that Faraday is gone, she’s not sure whether there’s any point. Going down alone would be hopeless.

“What if I told you, Sam, that there’s another way to save Henry? A better way. What if I told you that I can help you guarantee his safety, and all I ask for in return is your loyalty. Is that too high a price? No matter what happens to the rest of the world, I promise you that I can protect Henry. And you, too, but I imagine that’s not so high on your list of priorities. You want to prove yourself. You want to atone for your sins, and let’s be honest, you’ve committed some of the gravest sins around, haven’t you?”

“I’m going to save him,” Sam says quietly.

“I’ll take him with me,” Fenroc tells her. “When this world ends, I’ll take little Henry with me and he’ll live a full and happy life in the next world. How does that strike you? It’s not a bad deal, is it? I’ll even tell him about you. I’ll tell him that Sam Marker was a decent, if flawed, girl who ultimately did what she could to save her son. I’m sure he’ll idolize you. He’ll look up to you. He’ll wish he could have met you. That’s a hell of a lot better than the way things are right now, isn’t it? I mean, if this world continues, he’s gonna grow up to hate you, isn’t he?”

“You don’t know anything,” Sam mutters darkly.

“How did it feel?” Fenroc asks. “That moment when you gave birth and looked down at the child you were going to abandon… How did it feel to know that you could never be a mother poor little Henry? Did you apologize to him? Did you kiss him? Or did you look away, hoping to make the whole experience less painful?” He pauses for a moment. “Where were you, anyway? Where did the magic moment take place?”

“At the bus station,” Sam whispers, unable to keep herself from thinking back to that day, three months ago, when she Henry was born onto the dirty, grimy floor of a toilet cubicle that she’d tried desperately to keep clean; she remembers cutting the umbilical cord and trying to wash the baby; she remembers starting to clean the cubicle before giving up; she remembers wrapping Henry in a shawl and writing his name on the fabric; finally, she remembers leaving him on the steps and running off into the night.

“You can have him back,” Fenroc says eventually. “If you’re really extra nice to me, maybe I’ll see my way to letting you come with us.”

“I don’t deserve to have him back,” she says, trying to stay calm.

“But you want him, don’t you?”

“It’s not about what I want. It’s about what’s best for him.”

“Every child needs its mother.”

“I’m not his mother.” She pauses. “Not really, anyway. I just gave birth to him, but by now he’s probably got a proper mother, someone who’ll actually look after him. I’ve been selfish all my life, but I’m not going to be selfish now. I’m not going to go back and try to get him. The only thing I can do for Henry is to make sure the world is a decent place.”

“And that’s why you think you can jump into this pit and save everyone?” Fenroc asks.

“You got any better ideas?”

“You can strike a deal with me,” he continues. “A deal that’s guaranteed to keep Henry safe.” He waits for a moment, and he can see that he’s managed to get Sam’s attention. “You can’t stop me. Don’t fool yourself. There’s nothing you can do to keep me from doing exactly what I want to do. Once I’ve achieved my goal, however, I’ll have certain powers. I’ll have dominion over part of the next world, and I’ll be able to offer both Henry and you a chance to live. Can’t you put aside your doubts and fears, Sam, and focus on keeping Henry safe? There’s only one way.”

“Actually,” Sam replies, “there’s another way. You could not wake the Devil up. You could not destroy the world.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Fenroc asks. “I’ve waited for this moment. I’ve offered my loyalty to those who claimed to be pious and holy, and I was left to rot. It took me a while, but I finally came around to the idea that a true bargain, a proper agreement, can only be made with the Devil. You can’t sign a contract with God, Sam, but the Devil’s another matter entirely. I’m just fortunate that the other gardeners, those who came before and after me, were unable to recognize the enormous potential of such an agreement. I’m the one who’s going to seize the opportunity, and I’m the one, the only one, who can help you keep Henry safe. So what are you going to do? Are you going to jump into that pit and try to come up with a plan, or are you going to accept my very generous offer?”

“I’m not making a deal,” Sam says firmly. “Not with you. Not with anyone. All I want…” Her voice trails off for a moment as she allows herself to imagine Henry somewhere out there in the world. “All I want is for him to be okay,” she continues eventually. “I don’t care what I have to do to fix the world for him, but if I have to go down into this pit, I’ll do it.”

“That’s very noble,” Fenroc says, staring at her. “Perhaps I’ve been too hasty. Perhaps in my determination to reach this point, I’ve neglected to consider the wider issues.” He starts walking toward Sam, and for a moment he seems genuinely lost in thought. “It’s so easy to let matters cloud your judgment, you know. To get confused and end up not really seeing things straight. You don’t know me, Sam. You don’t know the misery I endured. I was a gardener here once, and I was expected to be a good little boy and do what I was told. It was practically a fucking sacrifice. My whole life was supposed to be given over to protecting this place. The whole fucking experience was humiliating. I used to do all the actual gardening at night, just so no-one could see me. I hated every second of it.”

“There’s still time to stop all of this,” Sam says, backing away from him, edging closer to the precipice. “I mean, there is still time, isn’t there?”

“Aye,” he replies. “Probably.”

“So let’s stop it,” Sam continues. “The Devil doesn’t have to wake up. Can’t you just slow down and maybe find something else to do?”

“Aye,” he says, still walking closer to her, “I suppose I could.”

“Isn’t there someone you care about? I care about Henry. Isn’t there someone out there, someone you love?”

Without replying, Fenroc stops as he gets to within a few feet of her.

“There’s no need to fight,” Sam continues, starting to feel as if she might actually be able to get him to reconsider. “Whatever you want, I’ll help you. Just don’t wake the Devil. Don’t put the whole world in danger.”

“What you’re saying makes perfect sense,” Fenroc replies after a moment. “I could just give up and go away. I could find something else to do, something else that gives my life meaning. Granted, it’s taken me years to get to my moment of glory, but I could change my mind at the last moment, couldn’t I?” He waits for a reply. “Well, couldn’t I? There has to be more to life than destroying the world.”

“Let’s just leave,” Sam says cautiously. “If you stop now, maybe he won’t wake up?”

“Aye,” Fenroc says, stepping closer to the edge and peering down into the darkness. “Aye, maybe you’re right. After all, I was figuring I’d have to do something pretty big and noisy to get the old guy’s attention. I had a few ideas up my sleeve, but I was still a little uncertain.”

“Then you agree?” Sam asks. “You’ll stop?”

“Hard to say,” Fenroc replies, still staring into the pit. “To come so close, and then to give up… Is that the mark of a man, or the mark of a failure? And why should I give up? Do you have any idea how hard I’ve worked to reach this moment? Do you have any idea what I’ve endured?”

"You can still -"

“Give us a hug,” he says suddenly.

Sam stares blankly at him.

“Come on,” he continues, smiling. “Remind me of the value of human warmth. You’re a mother, after all. I never had a mother. Not really. She died when I was born. Maybe that’s at the root of all my problems. Maybe if I’d just had a big old titty to suckle on as a child, and a mother to pat me on the head and tell me I’m a good boy, I’d not have all these conflicting feelings. Maybe I’d be a better person.” He pauses. “I’m saying it as a joke, but you never know, do you? There might be a grain of truth in there somewhere.”

“Let’s go,” Sam says, reaching out to take his hand. “Let’s just get out of here. We’ll seal the hatch and make sure no-one ever comes down here again.”

Fenroc looks down at her hand.

“It’s okay,” Sam continues. Glancing over at Faraday’s body, she realizes that although Fenroc’s a killer, the most important thing right now is to get him as far away from the cemetery as possible. “We’ll go back up to the cottage,” she adds, turning back to him, “and we’ll come up with a plan. Something new for you to do. Something that doesn’t involve so much death and destruction.”

Cautiously, Fenroc takes her hand.

“Deal?” Sam asks.

“I came here to make a deal with the Devil,” Fenroc says after a moment. “Instead, I’m suddenly making a deal with a teenage girl.”

"It's okay," Sam continues, "I -"

“Nah,” Fenroc says with a smile. “It’s not okay.” Pulling her closer, he twists her around and pushes her to the edge of the precipice. “I think I’ll stick to my original plan, thanks all the same,” he sneers, before reaching into his coat and pulling out a large hunting knife. “Still, I think you might still be useful to me in one respect, Ms. Marker.”

"Don't -"

“Too late,” he continues, raising the knife before driving it down into the side of Sam’s skull, causing her to let out a yelp of pain as the blade slashes through the bone and directly into the center of her brain. “How’s that?” Fenroc asks, leaving the knife embedded in her head as he steps back. “Got a little headache, have you?”

With blood starting to pour from her mouth, Sam staggers toward the edge of the precipice before slowly turning and staring back at Fenroc. She can feel the cold metal deep inside her head, interrupting her thoughts. She can feel, also, the blood flowing through her head and down into the back of her throat. As she stares at Fenroc, she realizes that she’s finding it harder and harder to keep her thoughts organized.

“Aye,” he says with a grin, “I thought you’d just topple over, but I guess I’ll have to give you a helping hand.” He steps toward her. “I knew you’d come in handy eventually, Sammy baby, but I honestly never realized you’d make such a good alarm clock.” With that, he gives her a hard shove on the chest, sending her falling backward and dropping like a stone into the depths of the pit.

“Wakey wakey!” Fenroc shouts, standing on the edge of the precipice and watching as Sam’s body disappears into the darkness below. “Rise and shine, old chap! I’ve sent you a spot of breakfast. Now it’s time to wake up and start a new world!”

Part Eight:

The Last Gardener

Prologue

 

Nine months ago

 

“I don’t get it!” Nadia shouts through the letterbox. “What’s wrong, Sam? Are you losing your fucking mind?”

Sitting on the stairs, just out of sight, Sam tries to keep her cool. The last thing she wanted was a big argument, and she’s spent the past few weeks carefully avoiding Nadia’s calls and emails. Just when she’d let her guard down, however, Nadia’s come storming up to the front door, demanding to know what’s wrong, and there’s no force in the world stronger than a pissed-off, self-righteously angry Nadia.

Sighing, Sam sits back and places a hand on her swollen belly.

“Did I do something?” Nadia calls out. “Fuck, Sam, I don’t remember what I said last time we were out, but if I said or did anything that pissed you off, I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean it!” She waits for an answer. “Can’t you at least tell me? I wanna apologize properly! Come on, bitch, let me in!”

Sam opens her mouth to reply, but no words come out. She doesn’t want an argument. All she wants is to be left alone so she can deal with the problem alone. She doesn’t need help or sympathy or compassion. She knows Nadia would fuss around her and make her go to see a doctor, and while she knows that technically those are the things she should be doing, she’s determined to make her own way instead.

“I miss you,” Nadia continues. “No-one else is so up for a night out. Everyone’s getting boring, Sam. They’re getting older and doing stupid shit like getting jobs and families. Please don’t be like that! I don’t get why you’re suddenly treating me like I’m some kind of piece of crap on the sole of your shoe!”

With tears in her eyes, Sam tries to stay calm. She and Nadia have been friends for years, and the last thing she wants is to make her best friend feel as if she’s done something wrong. The problem, however, is that Sam can’t bear to start talking about her pregnancy. Ever since she found out about the baby, she’s been careful to avoid bumping into anyone she knows. She spends her days sitting around in her late grandmother’s apartment, watching daytime TV, and then she goes out at night to get food, waddling through the dark streets. Although she doesn’t have much money left, she figures she’s just about got enough to last until the baby’s born, and then…

And then…

And then she doesn’t have a clue what she’s going to do.

“Fine!” Nadia shouts, sounding annoyed. “I know you’re in there, Sam! I know you can hear me! Whatever’s up with you, I don’t give a shit! Fuck you!” She pauses. “I thought we were friends. That’s all. I thought you could talk to me. Obviously you think you’ve met a bunch of better people and you don’t want anything to do with me anymore. That’s your call. I’m not gonna beg you for anything. Just remember that I don’t let people treat me like shit, okay? I won’t forget this, so don’t come crawling back and asking to hang out again. This is it. We’re not friends anymore. Got it?”

Sam takes a deep breath as tears rolls down her cheeks.

“Fuck it,” Nadia mutters.

Sitting alone, Sam listens as Nadia walks away from the front door.

After a few minutes, once she’s certain that Nadia isn’t lurking in the corridor, Sam hauls herself up and makes her way to the bathroom. Switching on the light, she does the same thing she does most evenings: she stares at herself in the mirror. The baby bump is barely showing, but Nadia would definitely notice. Soon, the bump’ll get bigger and bigger, until eventually it’ll be impossible to ignore. She’s been wearing baggy clothes for the past few weeks, but she knows that Nadia would pick up on the bump immediately. In order to get through this crisis, she figures she needs to push her best friend away.

Although she knows she should go and see a doctor, Sam figures she can just get through the pregnancy alone. A doctor would just check on the baby and confirm that it’s doing okay, but Sam’s come to the conclusion that she can carry and give birth to the kid all by herself. After all, she figures, people managed to have babies in the old days, before expensive hospitals and midwives and all that stuff. Running her hand over the bump again, she tries to imagine a child growing inside her body, but the whole thing just seems so insane. A doctor wouldn’t be able to help, so she’s told herself that she can just get on with things and deal with the baby when it arrives. She doesn’t need anyone. She doesn’t need people treating her like she’s delicate, and she doesn’t need baby-showers or prams or any of that stuff. All she needs to do is get through the next few months, and then when the baby comes, she’ll…

She pauses, still staring at her reflection, and that’s when she makes the decision she’s been avoiding for so long.

She’ll give the baby away.

Although the idea breaks her heart, she knows it’s the only right thing to do. She doesn’t feel ready to be a mother, and she knows she lacks the kind of support network that she’d need in order to raise the child. She has no family, and now that Nadia’s gone she doesn’t really have any proper friends. On top of that, she has no money, no job, no prospects, and soon she won’t even have a home. The thought of trying to bring a child into the world is overwhelming, and she figures that if she gives it away, someone else will take care of its upbringing. The last thing she wants to do is to ruin a child’s life, and she’s certain there must be plenty of families who’d love to adopt her child.

“Okay,” she says firmly, taking a deep breath and trying to stop crying. “Okay, it’s settled.” She stares at her belly. “I promise, you’re better off without me.”

After a moment, she bursts into loud, wailing sobs. Unable to control herself, she slowly slides down the wall until she’s sitting on the bathroom floor, at which point she puts her head in her hands and finally stops trying to keep it all in. Despite all her plans and schemes, at this particular moments she feels as if she’s falling, tumbling out of control with no hope of ever being saved. There’s a part of her that thinks she should have let Nadia see the truth, and asked her for help, but at the same time she’s desperate to avoid having people judge her and look down on her for letting herself get pregnant so easily. With tears streaming from her eyes, she eventually lets out a cry of frustration, but there’s no-one around to listen. All she can do is focus on the future, and hope that one day things will get better, for her and for the baby.

Chapter One

 

Today

 

As she falls, she tries to focus on the good things: the times when she was happy; the times when she was with people she loved; the times before her life fell apart. She thinks of her parents, and of the holidays they spent together before the day, many years ago, when a car accident took them away forever. She thinks of the early years living with her grandparents, when her grandfather used to play with her and encourage her to think big. And then she runs out of good things and she’s left with just the bad things: life alone with her grandmother after her grandfather died; being bullied at school; finally making friends with Nadia, only to end up being drawn into a non-stop riot of drinking and partying. Random guys. Sketchy evenings. The pregnancy.

Eventually, all these messy memories start to crystallize into one form, one smiling little face.

Henry.

When she lands, she lands hard, slamming into the bottom of the pit with such speed that she’s momentarily knocked unconscious. As she rolls down a sharp incline, she barely has time to notice that she’s landed not on rock or stone, but on something soft and warm. Eventually she comes to a halt in what seems to be some kind of crease or fold, but she doesn’t have the energy to get up. At first, she assumes she must be dead. She figures there’s no way she could possibly have survived a knife to the brain followed by a big fall, but eventually she realizes that her lungs are still working, her heart is still beating, and her head is still hurting.

Beneath her, the ground is starting to move.

She doesn’t notice it at first. Not really. With a knife in her brain, she can barely notice anything at all. After a moment, however, she realizes that everything around her seems to be in motion, as if she’s on top of some vast leathery ocean. She tries to get to her feet, but her legs are weak and her mind is fractured. Every time she opens her eyes, all she sees are jagged shards of bright light, piercing her vision and flickering in the center of her consciousness. It’s as if she can see the knife in the center of her brain, slicing through her mind.

The worst part is, she can actually feel the blade. She barely had a chance to see how big it was before Fenroc drove it into her head, but she knows that the tip has gone deep, maybe even to the center. When she landed, she felt the cold steel shudder, pressing against her brain and sending flashes and impulses racing through her mind. Almost without thinking, she reaches up and fumbles to find the handle, and soon her fingers are wrapped around the base of the knife, ready to pull it out.

“Three,” she whispers, her voice trembling, “two, one…”

She waits, but she can’t bring herself to do it.

“Okay,” she continues, taking a deep breath. “Three… two… one…”

Again she waits, but again she finds that she can’t quite go all the way.

She pauses, taking another deep breath. There’s blood in her mouth, and in her nose. She knows she should be dead already, but she’s not about to give up without a fight.

“Three,” she says again, “two… one…”

Slowly, she starts to pull the knife from her head.

The pain is like an electric shock, lighting up her body and dropping her instantly to the ground. She gasps as she lets go of the knife’s handle and, for what feels like an eternity, she cries out while the pain flashes like lightning through her head. Finally, as the pain starts to die down, she realizes that her options are severely limited. Whatever else happens, she knows she can’t afford to try that again. At least, she reminds herself, she probably doesn’t have long left. She still expects to die at any moment.

Blinking a couple of times, she sees the same jagged patterns as before, but this time she forces herself to focus. After a moment, the lights seems to shift and change, and finally she can see properly again. There’s nothing around her except darkness, but when she looks up she realizes she can see the edge of the precipice, high above. She must have fallen almost a hundred meters, which means she was only saved by a soft landing. Reaching down, she tries to work out what she’s kneeling against, and slowly she realizes that it feels like leather, or some other kind of skin, or maybe something smoother, like plastic or rubber. No, it’s skin. She’s sure it feels like skin.

Seconds later, her hands brush against something else. It feels like… hair…

Wobbling slightly, she tries to get to her feet. She keeps expecting her life to end; any second, the tip of the knife could cause one final injury that brings everything to a crashing halt. So far, however, she seems to be managing to stay conscious, despite the massive damage that she knows the blade must have caused. She spits out some more blood and takes another deep breath, trying to force herself to remain calm. Her mind is reeling, but all she can think about is the fact that she might still have a chance to escape this torment, and there’s a single name still resting on her lips.

“Henry,” she whispers, turning around in the dark. It’s only the second time she’s ever said the name out loud, even though she’s heard it a thousand times in her mind.

Taking a couple of steps forward, she feels the soft ground starting to give way a little. It’s almost as if she’s walking on some huge mass of rubber. She can’t help thinking that the knife in her head must be preventing her from properly understanding what’s happened. After all, a metal blade has to be causing some kind of interruption, so she figures she’d have a much better idea if her brain hadn’t, basically, been divided in two. Still, she tries to force herself to make the necessary connections, to understand what’s happening and to come up with some kind of plan. She knows she doesn’t have long, and even though everything seems to be going to hell, she’s determined to keep pushing until the very last moment, until…

Suddenly an idea starts to take form in her mind. She stops dead in her tracks, and although she wants to dismiss such a thought, she eventually realizes that it’s the only possible explanation. Leaning down, she runs her hands on the ground again, and as her hands brush through a few more long, thick hairs, she understands exactly where she’s landed and why the surface seems to be slowly rising and falling beneath her feet.

Starting to tremble with fear, she takes a step back as she realizes that she’s standing directly on the Devil’s huge chest.

Chapter Two

 

“They can’t hurt us, right?” Anna shouts, staring out the window and watching as more and more dead bodies rise from their graves and start approaching the cottage. “They’re… They’re just dead people. I mean, they’re moving so slowly, they’re falling apart, they can’t do anything to us, they can’t…”

She pauses, watching as some of the bodies lumber closer to the cottage. With rotten flesh and dead, hollow eyes, they make for a terrifying sight under the moonlight, and the horror is only exacerbated by the fact that Anna recognizes some of them from her childhood. There’s Davey, the kid who fell off his bike into the path of a lorry, and there’s Mrs. Hawthorne, who died mid-tombola at the village fete, and there’s even Uncle Bernie, still missing the part of his head that was crushed by a welding machine.

“They can’t do anything,” she continues, as if she’s trying to convince herself. “Can they?”

Still trying to get to his feet, Sparky lets out a grunt of pain.

“Say something!” Anna shouts again, starting to panic as she turns to him. “Tell me they can’t hurt us!”

“They can’t hurt us,” Sparky replies, finally managing to stand, even though he’s unsteady on his feet.

“Is that true?” Anna asks.

“No.”

Before Anna can say anything else, there’s a banging sound on the door. At the last moment, she notices that the latch is open; she manages to slide it back across just in time, as one of the zombies tries to turn the handle. Moments later, there are more bumps from the other side, as other zombies try to force their way through.

“What do they want?” Anna continues, her voice trembling. “Why are they like this? I mean, I’ve got my normal mind, so why are the rest of them being like this?” She pauses for a moment. “And why did I wake up so much earlier than the rest?”

“That’s something I’d like to know too,” Sparky says, limping over toward the door. “Watch out!” he shouts, grabbing Anna and pulling her away from the window just as one of the zombies smashes the glass. “When you came back,” Sparky continues, “the cemetery was holy ground. Since Fenroc came through the gate, it’s been de-sanctified. That explains where they came from, but I still don’t know why you were resurrected before the rest. Is there anything different or unusual about you?”

“Like what?” Anna asks defensively.

“You can’t just be a normal girl,” Sparky continues, staring deep into her eyes. “There has to be something.”

“I’m normal,” she replies, before turning in horror to watch as three of the zombies try to force their way through the broken window. “I’m the most normal person in the world. I’m not some kind of freak.”

“Let’s not dwell on such things,” Sparky says firmly. “We can work out the details later. Right now, we need to focus on getting out of here.”

“We can go down the hatch,” Anna points out.

“That’s what Fenroc expects us to do,” Sparky replies, “and he’ll have put something in place to stop us. I’ve got a better idea, but it’s a little tricky.” He pauses for a moment, as more zombies start attacking the window. Swarming like mindless drones, they’re getting in one another’s way as they try to climb into the cottage, but it’s clear that they’ll get inside sooner rather than later. “There’s another way down,” Sparky continues. “There’s another entrance, and I’m hoping Fenroc doesn’t know about it.”

“Where?” Anna asks.

“In the mausoleum.”

“The mausoleum?” Anna replies, before realizing what he means. “That’s outside!”

“I said it was tricky.”

“Are you serious?” Anna shouts. “We can’t go out there!”

“They won’t attack you,” Sparky points out. “You’re one of them, at least as far as they’re concerned. They’ll look at you and they won’t see you as a threat. They won’t go after me, either, because I’m just a stone angel. Basically, you’re too dry and I’m too crunchy. They want fresh, live human flesh, which means they’re after Sam and the others.” He pauses for a moment. “We can just open the door.”

“No way!” Anna yells at him.

“Why are you scared of them?” Sparky asks. “They’re no different to you.”

“They’re zombies!” Anna shouts.

Sparky stares at her.

“I’m not a zombie!” she replies, with a hint of uncertainty in her voice. “I’m just a…” She pauses for a moment, as a maggot crawls out of her forehead, takes a quick look around, and then disappears back inside her head. “Wait. I felt that. Am I a zombie?”

“Don’t forget to bring your arm,” Sparky says.

“My arm?” Anna looks over at the kitchen table and sees her dismembered arm resting where she left it. “Is there any point? I mean, once it’s off, it can’t go back on, can it? Isn’t it off forever?”

“We’ll worry about that later,” Sparky says, undoing the latch and letting the door open. Stepping back, he watches as the zombies push and shove against one another, forcing their way inside and stumbling slowly across the kitchen. Just as Sparky predicted, they start making their way straight for the bathroom. It’s as if they’re driven mindlessly toward a common target, united by a desire to track down the humans and, as a result, ignoring everything and everyone else.

“I don’t like this,” Anna whimpers as the zombies shuffle past her. “I don’t like this at all!”

“You don’t have to like it,” Sparky replies. “Come on, we need to get to the mausoleum.”

“Excuse me,” Anna says, grabbing her dismembered arm before trying to find a way past the line of zombies as they make their way slowly across the kitchen. No matter what she says, however, they all seems to be completely ignoring her. For a moment, Anna’s reminded of the days when she used to try cutting past the line at the Christmas sales. “Coming through,” she continues hesitantly. “Can I just get by you for a moment?” After a few seconds, she spots another familiar figure among the ranks of the dead. “Mrs. Mayberry!” she shouts out.

Slowly, the rotten old woman turns to face Anna and stares at her for a moment. With her skin having mostly fallen away and maggots wriggling in her eyeballs, she takes a step toward Anna and finally opens her mouth to let out a dark hiss, which immediately attracts the attention of some of the other corpses. Taking a step back, Anna finds half a dozen zombies slowly changing direction and advancing toward her.

“It’s okay,” she splutters. “Carry on. Ignore me”

Still moving toward her, Mrs. Mayberry reaches out and tries to grab her with a bony, rotten hand. As she does so, the old lady’s autopsy scar begins to rupture, and one of her lungs slops out, landing with a splat on the floor.

“Come on!” Sparky shouts, pushing his way past the creatures, grabbing Anna, and dragging her toward the door.

“I thought you said they wouldn’t be interested in us!” Anna replies.

“I didn’t expect you to start shouting their names at them,” he mutters as they get outside. “Some of the fresher ones still have parts of their brains intact.”

Turning to look back into the cottage, Anna sees that the creatures seem to have already forgotten her. They’re swarming around the bathroom door, trying desperately to find a way through. Even Mrs. Mayberry, who just a few weeks ago was a little old lady who shuffled about town and complained about noisy children, has become part of the horde of undead creatures.

“I went to her funeral,” Anna whispers, before spotting another familiar figure in the zombie crowd. “Dean,” she whispers, before realizing that her can’t hear her. He’s just like the rest: mindless and undead.

“They can smell live humans,” Sparky explains. “They’re driven by a need to consume flesh. It’s all very primal, but if they get hold of a living person, they’ll tear the body to pieces. They know they don’t have long left before their bodies rot and they fall apart.”

“They can’t get through the door, can they?” Anna replies, turning to him. “Sam’s safe down there, right?”

“Of course she’s not safe,” Sparky says, “but those creatures are the least of her concerns.” Still holding Anna by her remaining arm, he leads her across the grass. They have to step around several damaged graves before they finally reach the mausoleum. “I don’t suppose you happen to have the key, do you?” he asks.

Anna looks up at the skeletal statue resting on top of the mausoleum. She’s noticed it before, of course, but she’s never really looked at it properly. Now, with the end of the world potentially taking place all around her, she finds herself staring at the skull’s two dark eye sockets, and she can’t shake the feeling that deep in those hypnotic black voids, there’s some kind of consciousness that’s staring back at her. The worst part is that the bony statue seems to have its hand stretched out directly toward Anna, which only serves to remind her that technically she’s already dead.

“How much longer do I have?” she asks eventually. “Am I going to fall apart?”

“Stand back,” Sparky shouts, as he grabs hold of the door and starts trying to rip it off its hinges.

“What is that thing?” Anna mutters, almost spellbound as she continues to stare up at the bony stone face of the mausoleum statue. She wants to look away, but somehow she can’t. “It’s like it’s looking straight at me. It’s like it’s looking through me.”

“It might be,” Sparky says, as he finally manages to get the door out of the way. “Death is probably a little confused by you, Anna. As far as he’s concerned, he should have claimed you long ago. To him, you’re an abomination, half alive and half dead, existing in a state of perpetual grace. Things are a little crazy right now, but if everything goes back to normal, you should probably try not to attract his attention.”

“That’s Death?” Anna asks, still looking at the statue. “You mean the real Death? Here? In Rippon?”

“This next part,” Sparky continues, sidestepping the question, “is very dangerous. If you just stay up here, you’ll be safe. Well, unless the world ends, in which case you won’t be safe anywhere. But there’s no need for you to come any further. It’s not as if there’s much you can do to help. I don’t even know if I can do anything.”

“So what am I supposed to do instead?” Anna asks. “Sit up here and chat with Death while I wait to see if the world’s gonna end? Go and hang out with the zombies and compare skin discoloration? There’s no point hiding. I might as well be right in the middle of everything.”

“As long as you know what you’re getting yourself into,” Sparky replies, before turning and heading into the mausoleum. “If things get bad, I don’t want you to start blaming me.”

Following him inside, Anna’s immediately shocked to see three cloth-bound bodies suspended from the ceiling, like cocoons trapped in some kind of web. Each of the bodies has dark patches of blood that seem to have soaked through from the eyes and mouth, and Anna can’t help but feel as if in some way they might not be quite as dead as they seem. Sure enough, as if to confirm her fears, one of them starts to wriggle, and soon all three are moving.

“Um,” she says, staring up in horror. “I think… Dude, I think…”

“Guards,” Sparky says calmly from the other end of the mausoleum.

“Guards?”

“Guards,” he says again, before leaning down and taking hold of a large stone slab that covers part of the floor. “That’s all they are. They were left here to make sure that no unauthorized access was granted to this part of the cemetery. If anyone had found out about the second entrance, there might have been significant problems.” Pulling on the slab, he’s able to slide it out of the way, revealing an opening that seems to lead deep underground. “The Devil’s grave was only supposed to have one entrance, in the cottage, but it’s always wise to avoid a system with a single point of failure. Faraday and I decided to create a back-door, so we set up the mausoleum as a kind of defense mechanism. We needed to make sure that no-one could stumble down to the grave.”

“You brought them back to life so they could be, like, guard dogs?” Anna says, shocked at such cruelty.

“Are you sure you want to come down with me?” Sparky asks. “I can’t guarantee that it’ll be pleasant.”

“Let’s just get this over with,” Anna says, taking a deep breath and immediately feeling the air escape through a hole in her rotten neck. Shivering a little at such a strange sensation, she smiles politely before pushing past Sparky and leading the way down the steps that lead into the darkness below the cemetery.

Chapter Three

 

“It’s okay,” Sam whispers as she carefully makes her way across the body of the beast. “Just stay asleep. There’s no reason to wake up. Just… ignore me. Sweet dreams, okay?”

In truth, barely able to see a thing down in the dark pit, Sam isn’t even sure whether she’s going in the right direction, or even if there is a right direction. Although she knows she’s somewhere on the Devil’s huge chest, which rises and falls every few minutes as he continues to sleep, she doesn’t know if she’s walking toward his head, his legs or his sides. She’s just fumbling around in the darkness, while trying not to do anything that might wake him up. While she’d been hoping to come up with some kind of plan, she realizes now that she’s just wandering around in the dark, and that any second the Devil could start to wake up, at which point she figures he’ll just flick her aside.

“Crap!” she shouts as she loses her footing, landing hard and slipping a short way before she manages to steady herself. She feels the Devil’s skin flex beneath her hands and feet as she tries to get up again. “Ignore that,” she whispers. “Just stay asleep. Whatever you do, don’t wake up!” Looking down, she sees that her foot is wedged in a small crater, and it takes her a moment to realize that it’s the Devil’s belly button. Pulling her foot out, she brushes some fluff away.

“Don’t be scared,” says a familiar voice.

Looking up, Sam sees a sudden flaring light nearby, and after a moment she realizes that Fenroc is standing on a small ledge, just a few meters higher up.

“Surprised to see me?” he asks. “Don’t worry, Ms. Marker. I’m not going to try to kill you again. You’re obviously far too resilient.”

Turning and looking back across the vast cavern, Sam tries to think of something – anything – she can do to stop Fenroc. She’s convinced that Faraday would eventually have come up with an idea, but Faraday was the expert in these things, whereas Sam doesn’t have a clue. She feels as if she should be saving the world right now, but she doesn’t know how to get started and, overall, she’s fairly certain that she’s not a saving-the-world kind of person.

“When they left him down here,” Fenroc continues with a smile, “his captors incorporated an observation deck. They clearly wanted to come and check on him from time to time. Either that, or they wanted to gloat. There’s really nothing so sickening as the pride of righteous men. And all the while, the Devil continued to sleep in his grave. He’s been down here for thousands of years, you know. He’s going to be so angry when he wakes.”

Below her feet, Sam feels a slight change in the pace of the huge body’s movement, as if its breathing is getting a little faster.

“In a way,” Fenroc adds, “I’m quite glad to see that you survived the fall. I suppose I was a little hasty when I decided to get you out of the way. It’s going to be much more fun to have you around. After all, it’d be a shame to get all the way to the end of the world and then not stick around for the very final moments.”

“You can’t do this,” Sam blurts back at him, still trying to organize her thoughts. The blade of the knife is starting to feel cold in the center of her brain, and she can’t shake the fear that it could kill her at any moment. Slowly, she reaches up and takes hold of the handle, but she can’t bring herself to try pulling it out again.

“Can’t do what?” Fenroc asks. “Wake the old fellow up? Oh, I think I can.”

Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out the vial of holy water.

“I saved some. Not a lot, but enough. Unholy water has some remarkable properties, most of which have been entirely forgotten by the world. I still remember the first time I drank a drop. The sensation, as if coursed through my body, was like nothing I’d ever felt before, and I immediately knew that I had to have more. I kept some in a bottle, drinking a drop each day until it ran out. Do you have any idea what it was like, Sam, to have such a wonderful substance in my possession, and to have to force myself to resist it?” He smiles. “Believe me, a bottle of wine is nothing compared to this stuff.”

"You -" Sam starts to say, before Fenroc suddenly jumps down and lands nearby on the Devil's chest. "No!" Sam hisses, terrified that any further movement might wake the beast.

“What?” Fenroc asks with a smile. “Is something bothering you?” He smiles as he stands up straight, still holding the vial. “Oh, Sam, it’s far too late to stop things now. Look at you… It quite breaks my heart to see you in such a state, with that knife sticking out the top of your head and that haunted look in your eyes. Are you starting to rethink my offer?”

He takes a step toward her.

“Do you want me to save young Henry after all? Is that what’s on your mind? Do you want me to scoop up the little darling and keep him safe while the Devil’s having his revenge on the world?” He pauses. “Don’t worry. I’m going to take Henry anyway, whether you like it or not. I figure it’d be useful to have a child in the new world. Someone to mold and fashion in my own image. Everyone wants an heir, don’t they?”

"I swear," Sam replies, trying to stay calm, "if you hurt him -"

“You’ll be dead by then,” he says firmly. “This whole world will be dead. There’ll be a new world in its place, though. It’ll be a world fashioned by the Devil in his own image, and both Henry and I will have a place in that world. Or would you prefer Henry to die here with you? Are you really such a selfish young woman?”

Without giving him any warning, Sam lunges at Fenroc, determined to grab the vial from his hands. She manages to get hold of his arm, but he brings his elbow crashing down against the side of her neck, immediately dropping her to the ground.

“Nice try,” he mutters.

Reaching out and grabbing his leg, Sam tries to haul herself back up, but Fenroc quickly knocks her back with a swift kick to the face that catches the side of the knife handle and sends her stumbling across the Devil’s chest. For a moment, her vision is filled with sharp, bright lights as the knife vibrates in her brain, before finally everything clears again.

“There now,” Fenroc says, sounding strangely calm. “I trust you won’t be trying any of that again, huh?”

He takes a step toward her, watching as she struggles to get back up.

“So many men have been tempted to come down here and seek an audience with the Devil,” he continues, “but without fail they’ve all messed it up. None of them had the intelligence or the determination that was required in order to reach this final point. I guess that’s fitting, in a way. This whole thing has almost felt, at times, like a huge test, and I’m the only one who ever managed to get this far. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time to claim my reward.”

“No!” Sam shouts, finally getting to her feet but immediately feeling a little woozy thanks to the kick she just received to the head. She tries to reach out and grab Fenroc, but she only manages to stumble forward a few paces before dropping down to her knees. She can feel the blade of the knife in her brain, with the tip still poking at some part of her cortex.

“Think about my offer,” Fenroc calls over to her as he makes his way across the Devil’s chest. “There’s not much time left, so you’ll need to make a decision soon. I’m going to find Henry and take him with me. It’s up to you whether or not you want to make a deal and join us.”

Although she tries to reply, Sam finds that she can barely force any words from her mouth. She tries to follow Fenroc, but she ends up slipping once again, and this time she lacks the strength to get up again. All she can do is wait for the end of the world.

Chapter Four

 

“There’s something behind us,” Anna says, turning suddenly.

“There’s nothing,” Sparky replies firmly, not even bothering to look back as he continues to make his way along the narrow stone passage that leads deeper and deeper beneath the cemetery. “Come on, we don’t have much time.”

“I’m not making it up!” Anna continues, staring back the way they came. “Didn’t you hear it? It’s like there was something scraping the walls. Do you think…” She pauses, before looking back over at Sparky and seeing that he hasn’t stopped. “Do you think it’s them?” she asks, hurrying after him. “Maybe they followed us down here. Maybe they worked out where we went.”

“The creatures? No. They’ll still be battering away at the door in the cottage. They lack the intelligence to find their way down here. That’s the problem with dead people. Their brains start to rot.”

“I definitely heard something,” Anna continues.

“Maybe there’s a maggot in your ear,” Sparky replies.

Sighing, Anna realizes that there’s no way he’s ever going to take her seriously. She feels as if he’s dismissed her completely, as if he thinks she’s nothing more than some kind of annoying kid who just happened to get caught up in everything, but who has nothing to offer. It’s pretty clear to her that Sparky’s opinion of dead people isn’t particularly high, and she can’t shake the feeling that he sees her as some kind of disposable, expendable gate-crasher. Still, as soon as he looks away, she quickly double-checks to make sure that there’s not a maggot in her ear.

And then suddenly -

“There!” she shouts, turning again. “You must have heard it this time!”

“Nope,” Sparky replies, once again refusing to even look back.

Staring into the darkness, Anna waits for some sign of movement. She’s certain she heard something; it was like some kind of scraping sound on the walls, and although she’s got no idea what could be down in the stone passage with them, she’s convinced that any minute now something’s going to loom out of the darkness. Whatever it is, it’s getting louder and it’s coming closer.

“Try not to get left behind!” Sparky calls back to her. “If there is something coming after us, do you really want to stand still and wait for it to catch up?”

“You think I’m imagining things,” Anna replies as she runs after him. “Just ‘cause I’m dead, it doesn’t mean I’m stupid.”

Suddenly Sparky stops and turns to her.

"What?" she asks. "I just meant -"

“I know there’s something following us,” he says firmly, fixing her with a determined stare, “and I know what it is, and I know what it wants, but I don’t want to see it, okay? I don’t want to look into its face and accept that it’s real. Not yet.”

“But…” Anna pauses, trying to make sense of the sudden hint of fear in Sparky’s voice. “It’s definitely not those creatures, then?”

“Unfortunately not.”

“Then what is it? What are you scared of?”

"Something far worse. Something that only comes when terrible things are about to happen. I know we can't stop it, but..." He pauses again, and it's clear that he's struggling to find the right words. "I've only seen it move twice before, and on both occasions, the result wasn't good. I don't like it when people die, Anna. I've seen it too many times in the past, and -" Glancing over her shoulder, he suddenly sees something moving in the darkness behind them. "It's here," he whispers.

Turning, Anna realizes that the scratching sound is getting much closer. She opens her mouth to ask what Sparky’s expecting to see, but suddenly a dark shape looms out of the shadows. With a sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach, Anna immediately recognizes the figure as she stares into the creature’s skull. Too large to move easily in the confines of the narrow tunnel, the creature is bent double, clawing its way closer and closer, almost like a spider.

“Death,” Anna whispers.

Slowly, Death comes to a halt just a few feet away. When he was up on top of the mausoleum, he seemed to be made of stone, but now that he’s up and about it’s clear that his body is a collection of bones and rotten flesh, partially covered by a tattered and torn black cape. As he leans toward Anna, his skeletal face almost seems to widen into a smile for a moment as his hollowed eyes peer directly into her soul. He reaches out and brushes one of his bony fingers against the side of her rotten face, and after a moment he opens his mouth and lets out a faint rattling sound, like bones being jangled together.

“What does he want?” Anna asks, trying not to panic as she takes a step back. “Has he come for us? Is it me? Does he want me?”

“I imagine he just wants to get past,” Sparky replies.

“Why?”

“Do you seriously want to stand here and argue with him? In your condition?”

With no warning, Death reaches out toward them and bangs the tip of his scythe against the roof of the passage. A small amount of stone dust comes loose as the creature waits for them to get out of the way. He seems to be still staring intently at Anna, and finally he holds the blade of his scythe closer to his face, as if he’s threatening to cut her down.

“He doesn’t want us?” Anna asks.

“You’re already dead,” Sparky points out, “and I’m beyond his dominion. We’re just obstacles as far as he’s concerned.”

“Then…” Slowly, Anna starts to realize what’s happening. “Sam?” She turns to Sparky. “Is he here for Sam?”

“If Fenroc succeeds in waking the Devil,” Sparky continues, “everyone in the world is going to die. I guess Death merely wants to be at ground zero, so to speak. One thing’s certain, however. He never comes away from any situation empty-handed. He knows when he’s needed, he never makes a mistake, and he always takes someone.”

"No!" Anna shouts, staring at Death. "You can't get past! We won't -" Before she can finish, however, Sparky places a hand on her shoulder and gently pulls her out of the way. All she can do is watch as Death slowly moves past them and continues along the tunnel, his bony fingers still scratching at the sides of the passage as he makes his way deeper into the darkness. It's clear that, as far as he's concerned, Sparky and Anna are completely irrelevant.

“He’s an unstoppable force,” Sparky continues. “He’s carved his way through human history, and he’s never once been denied the prize he seeks. He doesn’t leave the mausoleum very often, but when he does, he always has good reason. There aren’t many creatures like him, but I certainly wouldn’t ever stand in his way. There are some fights that should never be fought.”

"But if he's after Sam -"

“Then her fate is sealed. He can’t be pushed back, he can’t be reasoned with, and he never changes his mind. What he wants, he gets.”

Anna stares at him for a moment. Although she has no reason to doubt him, and although she knows that Sparky has far more experience with this kind of thing, she can’t help thinking that there has to be another way. Looking down at her one remaining hand, with maggots crawling through her skin, she finally makes a decision. “I’m dead,” she says slowly, “so even if Sam dies too, maybe there’s still… I mean, maybe she can keep going. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during all of this, it’s that death isn’t always the end. Look at me! I’m walking around, so why can’t Sam? Death isn’t everything, right?”

"If you're -"

“Let’s go,” she says, interrupting him as she starts heading along the passage, determined to catch up to Death and see if she can help Sam. After a moment, she glances over her shoulder and sees that a stunned Sparky is staring at her in disbelief. “Come on!” she shouts, echoing his words from earlier. “We don’t have much time!”

Chapter Five

 

“Impressed?” Fenroc asks as he turns to watch Sam climbing up to join him on the Devil’s face. “He’s a big guy, isn’t he? I expected as much, but still… To finally see him in all his glory! It’s a humbling sight. I’m humbled. Aren’t you humbled?”

Turning, Sam squints into the darkness and realizes she can just about make out the huge shape of the Devil’s body stretching out across the vast cavern. He must be almost a kilometer in length, and although the low light makes it difficult to make out any details, it’s clear that he’d be unstoppable if he was awake. Looking back along toward the top of the beast’s head, she realizes she can see two large horns. As far as she can tell, the Devil looks to be exactly like the creature she remembers from old books and films.

“You’re speechless,” Fenroc continues. “That’s okay. There’s no need for you to say anything.” Walking across the Devil’s face, he finally reaches the huge set of lips. “It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” he continues. “I’ve spent so long preparing for this moment, and now it’s finally here. The Devil himself, waiting for me to put the finishing touch to his return. This has always been my destiny, Sam. Ever since I became a gardener in Rippon, I’ve known that this moment would come.”

Sam stares in stunned disbelief as he opens the vial of unholy water.

“He’s going to rip this world apart,” Fenroc continues, staring down at the Devil’s lips, “and then he’s going to create a whole new reality. A fairer, happier world. I’ll be there, of course, and so will little Henry. You can come too, Sam, if you just say the word. Just as the Devil is offering me a deal, I’m offering something for you. I’ll reunite you with Henry in a new place. All your sins will be left behind. No-one will ever know about your old life as Sam the Slag.”

I’ll know,” Sam points out.

“You’ll forget,” he sneers. “With no-one around to remind you, to judge you, you’ll forget about everything soon enough. You’ll only feel guilt and shame if you think someone’s judging you. In the new world, you’ll be free to start again.” He pauses. “I’m only making this offer because I’ve grown to like you, Sam. You’re like me, in many ways. A sinner who desperately wants a second chance.”

“I’m nothing like you,” Sam replies. “You’re ready to destroy the world just so you can get your new chance.”

“Fine,” Fenroc replies with a smile. “You’re clearly going to turn me down, so I don’t see why I should waste any more time trying to persuade you. I’ll find some other little bitch to serve me in the next reality.” Slowly, he tilts the vial until the last of the holy water dribbles out and lands on the Devil’s lips.

"Wait -" Sam starts to say.

“Too late,” Fenroc replies with a grin.

Beneath their feet, something starts to move. At first, it’s as if the Devil’s breathing has become sharper and more labored, but after a moment Sam realizes she can hear a kind of scraping sound somewhere nearby. Turning, she stares into the darkness and spots something moving quickly across the roof of the huge cavern, coming closer and closer until, finally, she sees a skeletal figure dropping down onto the Devil’s face. It takes her a moment to realize that she’s seen this figure before: Death himself has left the top of the mausoleum and come to observe these final moments.

“There’s nothing you can do!” Fenroc shouts. “It’s over! You’re too late!”

Sam stands back as Death sweeps past her, his bones rattling as he makes his way toward Fenroc.

“They said it couldn’t be done,” Fenroc adds, taking a step back and seeming just a little panicked. “They said it was crazy to even try, but I knew I’d manage it eventually! The Devil himself is preparing to rise! The old world is ready to be swept away!”

Death stops just a few feet from him.

“What’s wrong?” Fenroc continues, dropping the empty vial. “Were you hoping I’d have a last-minute change of heart? Did you think I’d suddenly decide to be a good boy after all? This world is over! Your world is over! When the Devil -" Suddenly he turns as there's a jolt of movement nearby, and slowly the Devil's eyes start to open. "This is it!" Fenroc shouts, running across the face until he's standing at the edge of one of the huge eyes. "I've done it! I, Gabriel Fenroc, have awoken the Devil, and I claim my place in his dark new world!"

“You, Fenroc?” says Death, his voice sounding deep and ancient as he stalks across the surface of the Devil’s face. “Is it you, of all people, who come to claim the prize?”

“I do not claim the prize,” Fenroc sneers. “I demand it! I will take it!”

“Then it shall be yours,” Death replies.

“It’s time!” Fenroc shouts, turning back to stare into the Devil’s vast right eye. “Rip this world apart! There’s nothing left here but pain and misery and hopelessness! It’s time to start a new world! A richer, happier world where great men can thrive! This pathetic reality has had long enough to organize itself, and all that happened is that it fell into disrepair and disrepute. Pain, death, war, loss… None of these things should exist! The world has been malformed and damaged for too long! Good and evil have been mixed up and confused with one another! Life and death have become separated! It’s time for the world to be destroyed and remade in a stronger form! I want paradise!”

“Wait!” Sam shouts, stumbling across the face until she’s just a few feet from Fenroc. “Are you really going to take Henry with you? Are you really going to save him?”

“Why, Sam?” he asks. “Have you changed your mind at last? Have you finally decided to be a mother to the child you tossed aside?”

“I…” Sam starts to say, trying to work out what to do. On the one hand, she feels compelled to accept Fenroc’s offer and go with him, at least so she can look after Henry; then again, there’s a part of her that feels her son would be better off without her. While she’s tempted by the idea that she could go and live in a whole new world with Henry, and maybe abandon all her guilt and fear, she knows it wouldn’t be that easy; she knows she can’t get rid of her past by literally making a deal with the Devil. At the same time, she knows that if the Devil rises and destroys the world, Henry’s only chance of life is to go with Fenroc.

“Well?” Fenroc continues. “Have you made a decision, or are you still just a bad mother? Can’t you work out what’s best for your own child?”

“I don’t know,” Sam replies. “I…”

“Henry’s better off without you,” Fenroc says after a moment. “You don’t have a clue, do you? You’re incapable of making the right choice. First, you dump him outside a church, and then you try to deny him safe passage to a safer world!”

“Do you also claim the prize?” Death asks, slowly turning to stare at Sam.

She stares back at him, unable to get the words out.

“She’s a weakling!” Fenroc sneers. “I’m the only one who dares to look into the Devil’s eye and claim passage to the new world! I’ll take the child, but it’ll be better off without this miserable excuse for a mother! The boy can become stronger with me. I’ll raise him in my own image, and one day he and I will laugh as I tell him about his mother’s imperfections and vanities!”

“Then it is settled,” Death says slowly, stepping toward Fenroc.

“This is nothing to do with you,” Fenroc sneers. “Your power is over. The Devil’s in charge now. You’ll be consigned to the dust along with the rest of this miserable world.”

“On the contrary,” Death replies, reaching out and placing a hand on Fenroc’s shoulder. “You have claimed the prize that is offered to all those who come to this place, and now you shall receive passage to a new world.”

"There is no -" Fenroc starts to say, before he lets out a gasp of pain as his shoulder starts to burn. Dropping to his knees, he desperately tries to push Death's hand away, but slowly his entire body ignites and finally he's engulfed in flames.

Stepping back, Sam watches as Fenroc’s skin starts to melt away, revealing the bones beneath. He tries to get up, but already his bones are starting to blacken and finally his eyeballs drip down the front of his skull; he screams, and his jawbone falls away to reveal his bright pink tongue, which quickly shrivels up in the heat of the flames. Finally, his skeleton begins to disintegrate entirely, and the fire flares up one final time before Fenroc’s entire body is reduced to nothing more than a pile of ash.

“You will be with me,” Death says slowly, as he leans forward and takes a deep breath, bringing the ashes of Fenroc’s body into his mouth.

“What did you do?” Sam asks, staring as Death steps back.

“I sent him to a new world,” Death replies, slowly turning to face her. “My world. He’ll remain trapped inside my body forever.”

“But the Devil…” Sam turns and sees that the huge eye is slowly closing. “The Devil was awake!”

“The Devil’s grave remains undisturbed,” Death continues, “and the prisoner sleeps. This place was created as a trap, to expose all those who would seek the Devil’s audience. In his rush for glory, Fenroc didn’t stop to question whether he had found the right grave.”

“So this isn’t the Devil?” Sam asks, looking down at the skin beneath her feet. “He isn’t here?”

“Where better to hide a grave than beneath other graves?” Death asks. “Where better to hide one who sleeps, than among the dead?”

“So the Devil’s here?” Sam asks. “He’s really buried somewhere in Rippon?”

“Very few have seen his real grave,” Death says slowly, taking a step toward her, “but you, Sam Marker… You must be shown the truth. Nothing is to be hidden from the last gardener.”

Chapter Six

 

“She’s gone!” Anna shouts as she stands on the small platform. Staring out across the darkness, she starts to slowly make out a huge shape, almost like a giant body resting a few meters below. “What…” she starts to say, before taking a step back and bumping into Sparky. “What’s that?”

“What do you think it is?” Sparky asks, his voice sounding steady and calm. “There’s nothing we can do here.”

“I think it’s…” She turns to him with a look of absolute horror in her eyes. “It’s not, is it? It can’t be!”

“The Devil?” Sparky pauses for a moment. “No. It’s not. It’s a trap, laid for anyone who seeks the Devil’s grave.”

“So he’s not buried here?”

“He’s here,” Sparky says, “but his body’s further underground. This is just a barrier, something that was placed in the way in an attempt to stop trespassers going further.”

“But where’s Sam?” Anna asks, turning to look back out at the vast cavern. “What happened to her?”

Sparky opens his mouth to reply, but for a few seconds the words hang in his throat. “Death took her,” he says finally. “She’s with him now.”

“But…” Anna pauses. “Is she coming back?” She waits for an answer, but finally she turns to Sparky. “She’s coming back, right?”

“I don’t know,” Sparky replies, staring into the darkness. “It all depends on how she reacts to the truth.”

Chapter Seven

 

“This is the Devil?” Sam asks, standing to one side of the small, dark room and staring at the brightly-lit glass coffin. “Are you serious? This is the Devil?”

“You were expecting something more dramatic?” Death replies, standing a little farther back. “Something huge, with horns and a tail?”

“No, but…” Sam’s voice trails off as she takes a step forward, approaching the glass case and looking down at the body. Although the Devil’s corpse is roughly the size and shape of a man, it looks more like the blackened, shriveled-up remains of some kind of creature that was once hideously burned. The face, twisted and contorted, has two dark holes for eyes, and the mouth is open wide, as if he died screaming. “This is really him?” she asks eventually, still not able to believe what she’s seeing. “He looks so… so…”

“Normal?” Death asks darkly.

“Yeah, normal,” Sam replies, “and… weak. I mean, seriously, he just looks like some kind of husk.”

“Everyone expects something bigger,” Death replies. “That’s how the trap works. Even Gabriel Fenroc, usually such a smart man, expected the Devil to be a huge, hulking monster. In fact, the beast in the chamber up there was just a mindless demon that Martello and I captured many years ago and imprisoned as a distraction. Of course, the locals weren’t to know that. It was on that day back in 1965 that Fenroc first tried to get down here to the Devil’s grave. He failed, of course, but he refused to give up. As a former gardener himself, he should have become a stone angel, but he used human blood to prevent the transformation from taking place. He’s been blackmailing half the town in order to gain access to large supplies of blood from every possible source, as a means of keeping himself from assuming his final form. It wasn’t easy to beat him back, and there were certain consequences all across the town. Things are different these days, though. We have a better system in place.”

“Why not just destroy him?” Sam asks. “Just get rid of him forever.”

“The body is his prison,” Death replies, “and it’s the only prison that has a chance of holding him. If we destroy the body, his mind will be free. It’s best to leave him here like this, trapped forever. Believe me, the torment he’s suffering is beyond anything that either of us can possibly imagine.”

Leaning closer, Sam stares straight into the burned-out eyes of the charred husk. “Can he see us?” she asks after a moment. “Does he know we’re here?”

“Yes.”

Startled, Sam steps back.

“He can hear us too,” Death continues. “In his own way he’s probably trying to scream out at us. There’s nothing he can do, though.” Reaching out, he places a bony finger against the glass, directly above the Devil’s face. “He’s trapped down here for eternity, or at least that’s the idea. But to kill him completely… The world needs a balance. If we remove the Devil from the equation entirely, some other evil will come to fill the void. It’s better to keep him alive but have him under our control, than to risk the chaos that would follow. Besides, we’re not executioners.”

“You keeping saying ‘we’,” Sam points out.

“I could never have trapped him down here alone. There are more forces working in Rippon than you could possibly imagine. Guards, warriors, overseers… we need all of these people in order to keep the Devil hidden. We also need a gardener, someone to provide pastoral care to the cemetery and keep an eye out for any dangers.”

“I’m not part of this,” Sam replies.

“You are,” Death replies. “The moment you arrived in Rippon, you locked your destiny in place. Maybe you were guided here from the moment of your birth, or maybe your destiny just happened to hook up with everything else along the way, but there’s no way back for you now. You’re not only a gardener, you’re the last gardener, which makes you the most important. There have been hundreds before you, but none shall come after you. I never understood what that meant until I saw the knife in your head. The responsibility is huge -"

“I don’t want it,” Sam replies firmly. “I didn’t ask for any of this. The last…” She pauses. “What happens after I’m done? What if I quit?”

“You can’t quit.”

“I can! I can just grab my stuff and walk out the door! I can…” She pauses again, and slowly she raises her hand and touches the handle of the knife, which is still stuck in her head. “I’m not tied to this place,” she continues, although suddenly most of the confidence has left her voice. “I can go any time I like. What are you gonna do, tie me down?”

“Rippon exists in a state of perpetual grace,” Death explains. “This is the reason for some of the stranger things that have happened around here over the centuries. It’s also the reason why life and death work in slightly different ways. If you walk over the threshold and leave this town, you’ll exit the state of perpetual grace and the rules of Rippon will no longer apply. What, exactly, do you think would happen to you? Do you believe that somehow the knife in your brain would just vanish? Think it through.”

“It hasn’t killed me so far,” Sam points out.

“If you leave Rippon,” Death says firmly, “you will drop dead. That’s what usually happens to people who have knives in their brains.”

“I’ll pull it out,” Sam says, taking hold of the handle. As soon as she tries to move the knife, however, she feels an intense pain in the center of her brain; as she drops to her knees, flashes of sharp white light dance in her eyes for a moment, and eventually she lets go of the knife altogether, leaving it embedded in her brain. “I can’t be trapped here,” she continues, with a hint of desperation in her voice. “I can’t be trapped in this stinking backwater town!”

“This town is the only thing keeping you alive right now,” Death replies. “You’re the last gardener. You must not be distracted from your task.”

“I don’t want this!” Sam shouts at him as she gets to her feet. “I don’t want…” She spots her own reflection in the surface of the glass coffin, and for the first time she sees the hilt of the knife sticking out three or four inches from the top of her head. “I can’t walk around with a goddamn knife in my skull,” she continues. “Are you serious? There’s no way I can just go around like this.”

“Wear a hat,” Death says.

“What?”

“That’s what I’d do.”

Sam stares at him.

Death shrugs.

Looking down at the Devil’s charred corpse, Sam takes a deep breath. “So I’m stuck here, yeah? All because this asshole needs to be guarded, right? All because someone decided to stick his body down here.”

She pauses for a few seconds, and all she can think of is Henry. She doesn’t know where he is, or how he’s doing, but she’s convinced that the social workers must have found him a new home. A proper home, with a proper family and a proper mother. A faint smile crosses her lips for a moment as she realizes that somewhere out there, he might actually be happy.

“This wasn’t in the job description,” she mutters eventually. “Like, the advert I answered. It just mentioned gardening. It didn’t mention anything about being an undead defender of the Devil’s grave.”

“We must leave,” Death says, turning and heading toward the door. “It’s not a good idea to spend too much time down here. His mind is capable of leaking from his body, and I wouldn’t like to test how much damage he can do. You must never come down here unless it’s absolutely necessary. There are so many things for you to learn, but this is perhaps the most important lesson. Stay on the surface as much as possible and leave the Devil down here, undisturbed.”

“So what happened to him, anyway?” Sam asks, following Death out of the chamber. “I mean, how did he end up here? How the hell does someone trap the Devil and force him into a place like this?”

“It’s a long story,” Death replies as they continue to walk away, making their way along the dark corridor that leads back up toward the cemetery.

“And?”

“And it’s slightly embarrassing.”

“For him?”

“For… Never mind.”

Sam pauses for a moment. “Wait, if the Devil’s real, then what about… the other guy?”

“The other guy?”

“You know. The other guy.”

“Oh, you mean the boss. Don’t worry, he doesn’t poke his nose in very much. He checks in from time to time, but you won’t spot him.”

“I won’t notice God?”

“He likes it that way. He likes to tiptoe meekly around the edges. You’re unlikely to see him, but he’ll pop by occasionally.”

“The mayor?” Sam asks. “Is he God?”

“Mayor Winters? Absolutely not. Don’t worry. Just get on with your job, and let everyone else get on with theirs.” With that, Death pushes the heavy stone door shut, returning the Devil’s chamber to darkness.

Chapter Eight

 

“So you’re not going to go and find him?” Anna asks, as she gets her arms sewn back on by Sam. “Don’t you want to see him? Don’t you want to find out what happened to him? Aren’t you curious?”

“It’s not a matter of curiosity,” Sam mutters, passing the needle through slowly-graying Anna’s flesh. “I don’t have a choice.”

It’s a bright summer’s day, and despite everything that happened during the previous night, the cemetery isn’t looking too bad. Once Fenroc’s unholy water wore off, the walking dead dropped in their tracks, and Sam has spent the morning hauling them back to their graves one by one. She’s not convinced that she’s got them all back in the correct graves, but she’s decided not to worry about it too much. Instead, she’s focusing on the fact that she needs to sow some more grass seeds as quickly as possible, since right now the cemetery is still showing the scars of the previous night’s mass resurrection, and she’s struggling to come up with an excuse.

"If I had a kid out there somewhere," Anna continues, "I'd totally want to go and find him. I'd want to, like, see what he was doing and -" Suddenly she lets out a yelp of pain as the needle goes a little too far into her flesh.

“Sorry,” Sam says with a faint smile.

“I was just saying,” Anna replies grumpily.

“He’s better off without me,” Sam continues. “I can’t dip in and out of his life. I already made one mistake by letting him go, and I’m not gonna make another by trying to get him back. Anyway, do you really think I could give him a good life? Look where I live. Look at my friends. Look at my head!”

“You’re his mother,” Anna says, staring at the knife that’s still firmly wedged in Sam’s head.

“No,” Sam replies, flinching at the simple honesty of those three words. “I’m not his mother, and I never will be. I’m just the woman who carried him to term.” Lost in thought for a moment, she continues to sew Anna’s arm back into place. “There’s only one thing I can do for Henry now,” she adds eventually. “I can stay here and keep an eye on this place. Sure, he’ll never know anything about me, and he’ll probably spend his whole life thinking I abandoned him and never gave him a second thought, but at least I’ll know that I’m doing something useful. I’ll be saving the world he lives in.”

"But how do you -"

“Can you stop asking?” Sam continues, with a hint of irritation in her voice. Sitting back, she stares at Anna’s restored arm. “There. That’s the best I can do. Can you move it?”

Slowly, Anna raises her arm and flexes her fingers. “That’s pretty cool,” she mutters. “I’m not sure I understand how it works, but it’s definitely cool. I feel like a rag doll.”

“Sparky says the state of grace means you’ll stay alive for as long as you’re within the town,” Sam continues. “Like me, basically. He’s not quite sure why you’re affected this way when the other bodies aren’t, but he’s working on a few theories. He thinks there must be something special about you.”

“There’s nothing special about me,” Anna replies quickly, almost defensively. “Are you sure you don’t want me to try to pull that knife out?” she asks, clearly trying to change the subject. “I can do it really fast, so you won’t feel a thing.”

“No,” Sam says, glancing over at her shadow. “I guess it has to stay there. I might go into town later and find a hat, though. You won’t mind watching the place for a few hours, right?”

“It’s not like I’ve got anything else to do,” Anna replies with a sigh. “I always thought I’d get out of Rippon one day. Now look at me. Dead and stuck here.” She pauses. “When you’re in town, could you pick up some concealer for me? And maybe some blush?”

“You want make-up?” Sam asks, unable to hide the incredulity in her voice. Staring at Anna, she can’t help but notice the distinct lack of flesh on parts of her face, or the fact that maggots are still making a home in her right cheek and eyeball. Still, there’s a look of sheer desperation in the girl’s eyes, and Sam feels an uncharacteristic pang of pity.

“Sure,” she continues after a moment, realizing that it’s not her place to make fun of Anna’s desire to still look as good as possible. “I’ll see what I can find.”

Looking out across the cemetery, Sam sees Sparky standing on his plinth, looking like a normal stone angel once again. Having been injured while fighting the dark creatures the previous night, Sparky has declared that he needs time to recover and think, so he’s planning to just stand in the sun for a few weeks while his stone body slowly heals itself. Death, meanwhile, has resumed his usual spot on top of the mausoleum, and although he offered a few more words of wisdom, he’s since fallen silent. Still, Sam figures she hopefully won’t need him any time soon. The past few weeks have been intense and crazy, but with Fenroc gone, she figures things might be a little calmer, at least for now. Then again, there’s still the small matter of the Devil’s grave, hidden deep beneath the cemetery, and Sam can’t help but wonder whether anyone else might get the same idea as Gabriel Fenroc and seek access to the beast.

“Tea?” Anna asks.

Sam nods. “Tea’s always good.”

“And then can we paint the cottage?”

“Why?”

“Because it’s dreary!” Anna replies, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Seriously, don’t you want to liven it up a bit? I was thinking, while you rebuild the part that was damaged, I’ll start adding some touches of color. Sparky said he’d help when he’s fully recovered. What do you think of pink?”

“I hate it.”

“Then you’ll have to learn to like it.”

Sam stares at her for a moment, wondering how she’s going to be able to live with a zombie cheerleader. She’s not entirely sure if it’s the zombie part that worries her more, or the cheerleader part. “Didn’t you say something about making tea?” she asks eventually.

“You’ll see it my way eventually,” Sam says excitedly, getting to her feet and hurrying back toward the cottage.

After pausing to stare out across the cemetery for a moment, Sam finally starts limping across the grass. Checking her watch, she sees that it’s almost 8am, which means that it’s time to open the gate in case anyone wants to come and visit. Taking the key from her pocket, she unlocks the padlock and pulls the rusty gate open, while making a mental note to oil the hinges. She knows it’s unlikely that anyone’ll show up to visit a grave today, but rules are rules, and the gate has to be open. Figuring she needs to get on with fixing the damage from last night, she turns and starts limping back toward the cottage.

Up on top of the gate, a small mouse sits unnoticed and watches Sam’s progress. After a moment, the mouse turns and scurries along the top of the wall. He takes one final glance back at the cottage, before hurrying into a patch of sunlight and disappearing into thin air. Nearby, a startled crow lets out a loud caw as it takes flight and soars high into the bright blue sky.


Grave Girl

When Sam Marker ran away from her old life, all she needed was a job and somewhere to live. Anything would do. And then, one fateful day, she saw that the town of Rippon was looking for a new gardener... Unfortunately for Sam, the 'garden' is actually a cemetery, and it just so happens to contain the deadliest grave in the world. As she tries to adjust to her new life in the sleepy little town, Sam finds herself increasingly drawn into a strange double life. Dark forces are gathering in Rippon, seeking access to the Devil's grave, and soon she finds herself trapped in the middle of a struggle that could decide the fate of the world.

  • Author: Amy Cross
  • Published: 2017-03-02 00:35:43
  • Words: 112233
Grave Girl Grave Girl