Authors: Kim Newman
Anno Dracula: The Bloody Red Baron
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Anno Dracula: Johnny Alucard
Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles
The Night Mayor
An English Ghost Story
Print edition ISBN: 9781781165584
E-book edition ISBN: 9781781165591
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: October 2014
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Kim Newman asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
Copyright © 2014 by Kim Newman
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
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hey would fall in a clump, like ripe apples. Mother, father, daughter, son. Touched by the charm, their persistent – though thinned – love would flare. As only once before, at the birth of baby Tim, the family would be a whole, united by fiercely shared feeling. Things that had seemed important would be trivial, and things that had seemed negligible would be potent.
The Hollow awaited the family with a welcome. It needed them. Unpopulated, it tended to drift. Without people in residence, it might disperse on the winds. That afternoon, the place was on its best behaviour, spring green promising summer gold.
* * *
hen Dad bought a Mercedes-Benz A-Class hatchback, Jordan’s brother Tim had called it a ‘hunchback’ and the car had been ‘the hunchback’ ever since. Dad, proud of his purchasing power, resisted the name for a while, but eventually gave in.
For the long drive to the West Country, Jordan had made a mix tape of season-specific tracks: ‘April in Portugal’, ‘Spring Fever’, ‘Apple Blossom Time’, ‘Springtime for Hitler’. If she had to spend a whole day with her parents and brother, hitting the road at an unreasonable six in the morning, she needed a mental cushion.
On the motorway, beyond range of GLR traffic reports, Dad made a show of being willing to give her tape a listen. Jordan relaxed in the back seat, as her music opened what felt like a cage. After a couple of tracks, the mood in the hunchback turned sour.
‘No one your age can
like this antique crap,’ said Mum, over Judy Garland’s ‘April Showers’. ‘It’s not natural.
wasn’t born when this was recorded.’
Like a weasel, Tim backed Mum up, though he was really too fixated on his Game Boy to register anything outside his bubble of kill-fantasies.
‘Da-ad,’ Jordan appealed.
‘I have to concentrate, Jord,’ he said.
Aptly, Sarah Vaughan sang ‘Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year’.
‘Our daughter has the musical taste of a sixty-year-old drag queen,’ Mum told Dad. ‘One day, she’ll make someone a wonderful fag hag.’
‘What’s a “fag hag”?’ asked Tim.
‘Never mind, Timmy. I’m calling a family vote. Hands up who wants music from this decade.’
Mum put up her hand and so did Tim. Jordan folded her arms, angrily. Dad shrugged, while still holding the steering wheel. Mum declared two for, one against and one abstention. Jordan’s cassette got ejected.
As navigator, Mum controlled the in-car entertainment. She set the tuner to the kind of non-antique crap someone Jordan’s age was supposed to like.
‘This is definitely more
,’ said Mum, pretending to enjoy rap. Jordan thought the track was called ‘Poppin’ a Cap in Mah Bitch’s Skull’. Mum shook her head just out of time to ranted misogyny.
‘Aren’t you supposed to be a feminist?’ she mumbled.
Mum turned round and glared at her. Tim made a gun-finger and popped it at Jordan. When her little brother grew up thinking violent killer pimps were heroes, it wouldn’t be her fault.
She had known this would happen… but she’d still spent several hours compiling her spring mix.
Jordan had resisted this jaunt, but Mum and Dad made a show of including her – and even Tim – in discussions about the move out of the city. The ultimate threat was that if she didn’t take part in viewings, she couldn’t complain about the house they wound up stuck in.
Her parents were striving heroically to keep their own rows about the proposed move to a strained minimum so as to present a united front to the kids. ‘You’ll be living there too,’ one or other of them would say when Jordan’s attention wandered from the sheaves of listings provided by rural estate agents. She always had to bite her lip to keep quiet about her secret plan. She wasn’t going to stay in the backwoods. Once she had her A levels, she would head back to London, get a flat with Rick and find a university place in the city. She’d secretly spent her sixteenth-birthday money on a streamlined art deco kettle. Still boxed under her bed, the Alessi would come out when she was setting up her own home. The best thing about this family exodus was that a year from September, she’d be living over a hundred miles away from the rest of them.
After turning off the motorway, they found themselves driving along winding lanes, craning to make out contradictory signposts for oddly named hamlets. The level of tension ratcheted. Dad held back sharp comments about Mum’s map-reading skills. Today, they were scheduled to view four places around Sutton Mallet, a village in Somerset that was clearly marked but elusive. If you wanted to get there, it seemed you shouldn’t start from here.
‘This map must be out of date,’ said Mum at last, giving up.
‘More likely, it’s too new,’ said Jordan, pointedly. ‘These roads haven’t changed in hundreds of years. Perhaps the map-makers are embarrassed by how
Mum gave Jordan one of her cold looks. Jordan sank back, chafing her shoulder against her seat belt.
‘Sector fifteen cleared,’ Tim said. ‘All hostiles liquidated.’
The beep-beep-beep of Tim’s handheld device, a mild irritant three hours ago, was now as painful as regular tapping against an exposed dental nerve. He reported his kill-count every few minutes. His thumbs apparently made him the premier mass-murderer of the age, though he claimed his genocides were justified in a time of war.
Fifty minutes late, in a collective bad mood, they arrived at the first viewing. They piled out of the hunchback. Jordan had chosen a sleeveless blouse for the journey. April chill ice-stroked her bare arms.
The place was a tip. Described as ‘in need of renovation’, the house was a derelict shell on a bankrupt farm. Vast sheds still stank of cattle carcasses. The business had been wiped out by mad cow disease. They stood about, depressed by the cheery chatter of Rowena Marion, the estate agent handling their first two viewings.
‘It’s ghastly,’ said Jordan, loud enough for Mrs Marion to hear. ‘Like an extermination camp for cows.’
Mum looked as if the criticism were aimed directly at her, which it was. All the places would be like this. Jordan had dragged herself out of bed before dawn for an agonising waste of time.
‘I think it’s a “no”,’ said Dad, understating.
‘Early days yet,’ shrugged Mrs Marion, who must have known the farm was unspeakable but still thought it worth showing in the hope the townies were cracked enough to go for it. ‘This is the first place you’ve seen, yes?’
Dad admitted that it was.
‘I think you’re going to love Clematis Cottage,’ Mrs Marion confided, blithely. ‘Follow me and have a look-see.’
The next viewing was a dear little cottage in the village itself. What the listing concealed was that there was no driveway from the road to the ‘extensive adjoining property’ and no suitable place to park within a hundred yards. They cruised past the place, momentarily struck by its picturesque qualities. By the time Dad found a half-hearted lay-by on the other side of the village green, they knew it was a loser.
Trudging back along a grassy verge, Jordan had to lean into a prickly hedge when a tractor passed. Mrs Marion, not ready to give up yet, was there before them, on foot.
The owner – an eighty-year-old keen to move into a nursing home with the fortune he had been told he would realise on his property – loitered like an eager puppy, promising tea and chocolate digestives. Jordan sympathised, but it was cruel to inflate his hopes. They were in and out before the kettle whistled.
They left Mrs Marion – the pensioner should feed her poisoned biscuits – and had a grim pub lunch, saying little about the show so far. Dad had a pint of the local bitter, which was stronger than he expected. Mum had to take over the driving for the afternoon. Not hungry, Jordan couldn’t even finish a packet of salt-and-vinegar crisps.
Next up was a new estate agent, Poulton and Wright. And a place even further outside the village than the hell-farm.
In the back of the car, Jordan looked at the photocopied listing. The property they were to see was called the Hollow. The photograph didn’t give anything away; in it, she could hardly see the house for the trees.
‘Don’t get your hopes up, folks,’ said Dad as they turned off the main road. ‘This was always the long shot.’
Mum and Dad were tense after the dud viewings. Each was storing up blame for the other to shoulder. When a thing failed to work out, no matter the degree of shared initial enthusiasm, it automatically became sole intellectual property of someone else.
They drove down a single-lane road across flat moorland. From a long way off, they saw trees and what looked like the tips of towers.
A car stood on the verge by the open gate of the property. A youngish man, cagoule over pin-striped trousers, waited, leaning against the gate-post. As Mum fussily parked, Jordan looked over the new estate agent. He had spots and the too-ready smile she’d distrusted in Rowena Marion.
But the Hollow was different from Kow Kamp Funf and Clematis Cottage.
Jordan saw it all at once, from the road, and was
. This was the place. It was like her first kiss, Doris Day’s ‘Que Sera Sera’, the taste of strawberries, her car accident. Instant and all-encompassing, wondrous and terrifying, a revelation and a seduction.
The strangest thing was she knew her parents felt the same. Mum actually turned and smiled at Dad, who let his hand stray to her wrist for the tiniest of intimate squeezes. Tim looked up from his game, the Elvis lip-curl he’d shown the loser places replaced by open rapture.