Steel was surrounded by a cloud of smoke. He doubled over as it pressed in on him. He felt powerless to move. In Steel’s hand was an unlit cigarette, which he held before him, as if it was a sword that might fend off an enemy. He coughed, painfully aware of each breathe he took. It seemed like he had been completely deserted.
Steel, Steel, can you hear me? Steel could dimly hear Sapphire’s voice in his mind.
Sapphire crouched in front of Steel, with a worried expression on her face. Steel stared straight through her, unseeing.
“Time’s playing tricks,” said Silver. He was standing to one side of Sapphire. The trio were in the living room of an old Victorian villa. The room was empty of furniture and was in the middle of being redecorated by its new owner. Various brushes, rollers and other equipment were piled up in the corner. Contrary to what Steel believed, there was no smoke. The room did smell strongly of old cigarette smoke though. The woodchip wallpaper and the artexed ceiling had turned a sickly shade of yellow from the smoke of a thousand cigarettes. Steel didn’t hold a cigarette in his hand either; it was a curl of wallpaper, which had been stripped off the wall.
“Can you do anything?” asked Sapphire.
“I can but try,” replied Silver, with a smile, which made him appear more confident than he felt. Silver walked around looking for anything that would suit his purpose. In desperation at the lack of useful items in the room, Silver yanked the handles off the windows. The metal melted in his hands and was refashioned into a small dish.
Steel, I have a dish, put what you’re holding into it, said Silver, telepathically.
I can hear you, but I can’t see you or a dish, answered Steel.
Make a stabbing motion and I’ll move the dish so what’s in your hand will go in it.
Steel followed Silver’s instructions. He felt the cigarette hit the bottom of the dish and let go. Instantly, the smoke disappeared and he could see he was still in the lounge. Silver clamped his palm over the piece of woodchip wallpaper. He used his skills to heat up the metal of the dish underneath. The paper burnt and became part of the dish.
“It’s going to take us a very long time to close the pressure point, if this happens every time we peel off a strip of paper,” said Silver.
“If it neutralises the time break we have no choice. I perceived I had been abandoned - did you notice that, Sapphire?” said Steel.
“Yes, a presence lived here a long time ago. It’s lonely and bitter. Someone left it and the only pleasure it took in life afterwards was in smoking tobacco. There’s a new presence here, a woman. The entity wants her - it lost a woman and it wants her. It senses they are the same: she is on her own too.”
“I find opposites attract,” said Silver, flashing a grin at Steel. Steel reacted by looking dourer, while Sapphire was amused.
“It would be easier if we could change the women‘s emotions,” said Steel.
“I’m sure if emotions could be switched on and off there’d still be a way to irritate you,” said Steel.
Suddenly the lounge door swung open and a man walked in. “Hello?” said the man, cautiously. He was in his thirties and carried a tin of paint. The newcomer regarded them suspiciously, until he decided two men in suits and a woman in an expensive looking dress couldn’t be burglars. “Are you the neighbours?”
“In a way,” said Sapphire, with a charming smile.
“You’ve made a start already.” The man pointed at the strips of woodchip on the floor.
“Yes, but it’s proving to be more complicated than we though,” said Silver.
“It’s hell to shift,” agreed the man. “I’m Graham by the way - Shirley’s son. I moved to Australia twelve years ago. Work have let me take a sabbatical for a year, so I’ve come back to help Mum. I’ve not told her though - it’s a surprise. She’s been through a lot recently: my Dad died and she lost money in a pension plan. She’s doing this house up on her own to sell on and make some money back. It’s too much at her age, so I’ve come to help, plus a few others.”
The little group in the living room heard the sound of people talking to each other as they entered the house. They came in, introduced themselves to the three Elements, and went to investigate the building. One of the party, a short and stocky man came back, into the living room, to speak to Graham. “Shirley’s certainly chosen the worst house on the best street. There’s lead piping and polystyrene tiles in the kitchen. I reckon the whole place will have to re-plastered too. It’s a devil to get woodchip wallpaper off with out ruining it.”
“I was hoping it was a simple paint job,” said Graham.
“Don’t stress, I’ll do it. It’s the least I can do for your Mum; she was a great help to my family when we were in dire straits. She can pay me back when she can - there’s no time limit. If I had known what trouble she was in, I would’ve been round ages ago.”
“She’s too proud for her own good. Mum helps everyone, but herself,” said Graham.
“Graham!” exclaimed a shocked voice from the doorway. It was Shirley. She was a middle-aged woman, in a paint-splattered overall, with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. She dropped the shopping bags she was carrying and ran to Graham. She gave him an enormous bear hug, before wiping tears of joy from her eyes.
“It’s all right, Mum, I’m here to stay and sort this place out.”
Sapphire picked up a piece of wallpaper off the floor. Unlike Shirley’s friends and relatives, she could see a bright light pulsating through the paper. She’s of no use to Time now: the entity doesn’t want her. It can’t comprehend her change of attitude. It only understands negative emotions; it wants to shrink away from her now. Time can’t manipulate it without the right conditions.
Soon all traces of the entity will be removed from the building. The stocky man is very keen to replace the old with the new. Steel sounded almost approving.
I'll be leaving you now then? asked Silver.
You can’t desert us just yet. We need a technician to deal with the wallpaper. It shouldn’t take long with all the helpers. Sapphire indicated with her head an attractive woman, who was frowning as she read the instructions to a wallpaper steamer.
Maybe I will stay, the lady clearly needs an expert’s help.