It might snow today.
Then again, it might not, and Monday morning was good timing for a plausible white lie: colour co-ordination would be a luxury. So, under a grimy sky, sleet pricking at his exposed face and neck, Rupert Giles, wearing his third best suit and someone else's vocation, started the car on the second turn of the key and headed out of the city.
The buildings were so large, and so many, that it was extraordinary how well they were hidden from casual discovery. At the blind end of a deep vale, the vast grounds kept the world away with an anonymous ten foot wall next to the main road, broken glass set in cement at the top. A shred of sodden fabric, caught on a shard, flapped in the wind next to the great gates. One of the gates had swung half-closed, and there was no-one now in the old security cabin just inside. Rust crumbled into his palm and bled onto the wet tarmac as he pushed the gate back and secured it again, leaving just enough room to drive on through.
A broad drive swept in a right-handed curve so that as he approached the administration block, the frontage of red and yellow brick and National Health Service pale blue woodwork filled the entire horizon on the driver's side.
My God, it's bloody enormous, And this is just one of them. He knew, from his research over the past few days, that there'd been a hundred or more, once upon a time. Now barely a score remained on a government hit list, all under sentence of closure. It only remained to empty them of the last few souls they sheltered.
Inside, a middle-aged West Indian woman in a nurse's uniform came out from behind a desk where she'd been filling out medical charts. She sized him up without pretence as they shook hands.
"I'm, er, here on behalf of Avon Advocates. Rupert Giles."
"Yes," she said, a memory of Jamaica still in her voice. "We had the letter. I'm Caroline George, Charge Nurse. Pleased to make your acquaintance. I expect you'll be wanting a tour, before you meet your client. If you'll just sign the book, take a visitor sticker, and give me some little time, I'll introduce you."
He sat with his coat in his lap as she finished her task. In common with every other hospital he'd been to, it was warm to the point of stuffiness, but few other concessions to comfort had been laid on here. It wasn't as if they had a lot of visitors to cater for, he supposed.
"Done much of this already?" Nurse George asked him, as she led the way down a corridor.
"I'm afraid not." That at least was the truth. Until the training course he'd had to attend to get access here by the quickest route, he'd known very little in theory and less in real life. "It's my first venture into, um, advocacy."
She turned and looked at him, pursing her lips and shaking her head. "Let me guess. No-one else volunteered for Mill Place." She shrugged and continued on her way. "You'll soon learn the reasons for that, Mr Giles. Who you coming to see?"
Giles scanned the folded printout he'd brought with him. "A Mr. Heaton. Thomas Heaton, date of birth, fourteenth of April nineteen thirty six."
"Oh, really? Thomas. I see." Her scepticism was tinged with grim amusement. "Well, soon enough. Some history first. I find it helps with perspective. Mill Place Asylum and Colony for the Imbecile Poor was established in eighteen seventy-nine. It used to house, at any one time, up to two thousand patients from infancy up, one attendant to twenty patients. Now we have sixteen residents and five staff, besides myself. We use only parts of two of the original sixteen buildings. The ladies live here with us, the gentlemen in Vale House next door."
A shaven-headed, sallow skinned youth in ill-fitting clothing turned the corner, muttering to himself angrily. Giles was ashamed to find his pulse quickening with anxiety.
"Gary! What are you doing here?"
"Need the bog. Victor blocked up all the ones in Male Four again. Tell the cleaners, can you?" He pushed open a door to one side and went through. It all seemed quite reasonable and intelligent, and Giles wondered briefly how on earth this lad had come to be here. Nurse George, obviously following his thoughts, put him straight.
"Gary's a care attendant. Been here five years, ever since he left school. Gets on *so* fine with the residents, so he puts up with this place for their sake. Vale House was Male Ward Four for a hundred years: the residents all use the old name, so the staff do, too."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have assumed…" but she was waving the apology away as they reached the double doors into what turned out to be a large room with good natural light, a scattering of modern institutional furnishing, and the last six female members of the Mill Place Colony.
An all-too familiar hospital smell hung about the place: two parts disinfectant to one each of suffering and floor polish. An old but large television set was permanently on in the corner, and a pair of wheelchairs and their occupants were parked in front of it. At the big table, two grey-haired, bent-backed figures were painstakingly pasting photographs into an album, helped by another impossibly young carer, female this time. The last two women kept their distance from the almost domestic scene. One of them gazed sightlessly out of a window at the bare sky, finding what light she still could; the second paced restlessly but slowly, making strange grimaces with her jaw and tongue, moving sideways along the wall, lingering in the shadows, hiding in plain sight.
Giles stood frozen between compassion and revulsion, ashamed again. He had scarcely given a thought that such places existed. That people led this life, in this room, thirty miles from where he lived and had grown up, for…
"How…how long have they all been here?"
Compassion softened the bare facts as Nurse George looked over towards the television party, where a fellow-nurse tucked in blankets, whispering softly. "Susan and Patricia are twins; came to us as babies. I don’t know how they survived at all. Very premature, no medical care, mum died at the birth, father struggled with them for a few months until he brought them here. That was forty-some years ago. They're our little ones. Vera, just for contrast, is eighty five next week." Vera, hearing her name, grinned toothlessly and waved her glue-stick at them. "She's only been here since the mid seventies, when her father passed away. He was ninety, so she's a way to go yet, haven't you, Vera, my dove?" Vera beamed.
"Dorothy there with her, she puts the long in long-stay. She was just left here one day – before the War; no one knows exactly when, her records were lost in an air raid. Sylvia's, too. Helen's another foundling child. We don't even know her real name, but she's deaf as well as blind and someone, somewhere, thought it was fitting." Nurse George was clearly reserving judgement on that one. "Apart from their own rooms, which of course are private, this is really all there is. You can see, I hope, why people want to close it, have wanted to for years. It's very hard to find places for these last few, but they'll all leave eventually." She sighed and added meaningfully: "One way or the other. Meanwhile, we do what we can."
They retraced their steps until the corner where they'd met Gary, then on out of the administration block through a shabby wooden covered way. Giles, who knew a fair bit about culture shock, tried to focus on the reason he'd come here in the first place even as he reeled from the otherness of it all. The telephone call from an old contact, whom he'd known quite well pre-Sunnydale, but hadn't heard from for years, had begun in that awkward, conversational way it does when there's too much ground to cover in catching up, and too little of it is common any more. He'd been about to open his mouth to thank Simon for enquiring after him, assuming an explanation of a random memory and misplaced guilt, when the tone of voice at the other end of the line abruptly changed.
"Look, Rupes, truth is something's bothering me; and no-one here thinks it's anything but Uncle Pete's ramblings, but perhaps you can put my mind at rest. Or tackle the trouble, if it's real."
"Sorry, yes. You wouldn't know. My mother's older brother. He's…well, he's a bit strange; not all there, if you know what I mean. Talks on and on about all kinds of crap, creates like blue bloody murder if things aren't just the way he wants. He was a lot worse as a child and the family, well, they had him put away. Were more or less told to by the doctors. He lived in an asylum, I suppose you'd call it, for years. Just before Christmas they found him a place in a little home with some other people like him, much nearer London. Mum talks to the staff there every week and tries to visit when she can. Last Sunday afternoon, I gave her a lift and saw the old boy myself." Simon paused.
"Someone just mentioned where he used to live and he started shrieking, walking up and down the room flapping his hands and biting his fist like he does; talking about 'Mill Place… look out, get away from it, danger, monster, in the shadows, in the shadows'…wouldn't let it drop. Scared the hell out of Mum."
"Anything that made you suspect it might be a literal monster?"
"Only that, last time I dismissed that kind of thing as fairytales and imagination, well, you remember what happened to Dad; or could have, if it hadn't been for you. Uncle Pete doesn't really 'do' imagination, for a start. Monsters and shadows: well, I thought of you straight away."
Giles had laughed shortly and told him: "All right. I'll see what I can find out."
So here he was, seeing. Seeing a room the exact mirror of the women's day quarters, wondering which of these men was Thomas Heaton, date of birth, fourteenth of April, nineteen thirty-six.
It turned out, in fact, to be none of them. Gary was reportedly accompanying Thomas on his daily walk in the grounds. The other two care workers were taking a group of half-a-dozen through a slow exercise routine, a stop-motion animation of stiff limbs and short concentration spans. Tinny, cheerful musical accompaniment issued from a portable CD player on the table.
"Gordon wouldn't get out of bed again, Caroline," called a plump, ginger-haired woman as she looked up to greet them with a nod. "Got any Marmite in the kitchen for a special breakfast? I think he's after being tempted."
Nurse George rolled her eyes and smiled. "All right, I'll have a look." She clapped her hands. "Everybody, this is Mr Giles. He's spending a few days with us, and having some conversations with Thomas."
The two staff members shared an enigmatic look and one of them muttered something Giles didn't quite catch. Three seconds later a body hit the floor and the room shifted into a well-rehearsed routine. Ginger-hair shepherded the others out of reach, her male colleague swept chairs out of the way to save the fallen man from hurting himself, staying by him as the seizure ran its course for what seemed to Giles like hours, but was probably less than a minute. Gradually the jerking movements subsided, the man's limbs flapping slowly, like a beached starfish. Calmly, Nurse George fetched a folding hospital screen from a store cupboard against one wall and set it up around him.
Left alone for a moment, Giles, who had faced the Beast of the Hellmouth armed only with a ready-drawn sword and a hand-drawn sacred circle, felt a humiliating flutter of alarm. The sensation only sharpened as one of the residents approached him with an intense, fixed stare and slack, open mouth and began to stroke the sleeve of his jacket, sniffing the warm wool from close quarters. All the prejudices of his childhood crowded in, the whispers in drawing rooms and school dormitories:
'That's the thing with *them*. With the loonies. The cretins. With the *others*. You never know what they might do: they need to be put away, for their own protection; tied up in straitjackets in padded cells, keeping them safe, keeping us all safe, out of sight, out of mind…'
None of these men were insane, he told himself fiercely. Then, reminded of what his adult brain knew full well, he piled on the self-accusation. Even if they were, they would be figures more deserving of sympathy than fear. He was being ridiculous, mean-spirited and narrow-minded. He smiled stiffly, provisionally, at the rigid features minutely inspecting the weave and smell of the cloth, but the man didn't seem to notice.
"Harry, remember we *don't* sniff people. We say 'good morning' properly." Ginger-hair, whose name badge identified her at closer quarters as Mary, bustled over and tapped Harry on the shoulder. "Harry!" she said more sharply and he started, let go of Giles' sleeve and mumbled the required words at the floor before shuffling off back to the group. They were milling around aimlessly, casting furtive glances towards the screens and mutely asking for direction from mother-hen Mary, who clucked reassuringly.
Eventually Nurse George emerged, carrying a bundle of clothes under her arm. She left the room by the far doors and returned a short time later with a different bundle, which she handed behind the screens.
"Malcolm will look after him now," she told the others confidently." And look who's back from his constitutional."
Giles turned to see Gary come in through the door behind him, supporting a thin old man whose shiny, bald head was fringed with slicked-down spikes of iron grey hair. He peered at the room through bottle-bottom spectacles and smiled slowly, speaking in a voice much clearer and steadier than Giles might have expected:
"It's been busy."
Was it only his imagination, or did the room shrink a little? Did the other residents gather together more closely? Did Thomas Heaton's smile really seem to slide across the floor and leave a mucky print on the soul as one met his gaze? Giles shook himself impatiently. A few restless nights – all right, more than a few – were really no excuse for this; for allowing himself to judge by surface appearances, for suspecting a harmless old man to be… a 'monster', on the basis of a smile. If he didn’t pull himself together he'd have precious little chance of finding out the truth, whatever it might in fact be.
Gary helped Thomas off with his coat and offered to bring tea to the 'interview room' as soon as Giles wanted to start. An old storeroom near the front lobby had been gutted and fitted out in Institutional Bland, a style familiar to Giles from countless doctors' waiting rooms and the less well-funded outposts of the Watchers' Council's once worldwide network.
"Pardon me for leaving you here," Nurse George said as she showed him in, "but as you saw, we only have enough staff if we're all on duty all the time."
"The man who had the epileptic fit. Isn't there medication available for that, these days?"
"There is. Without it, he'd have thirty or more seizures a day, not five. All our residents are so stuffed full of drugs, it’s a wonder they don't float out through the windows, bars and all. You can't solve everything, Mr Giles. We don’t work magic here, but we do what we can."
Talking to Thomas Heaton was a baffling experience, not least because Giles was left wondering why he'd been sent to Mill Place in the first case. To be sure, Thomas could neither read, nor write more than his name; but then, he was not alone in that in his generation. His schooling would have been disrupted by the War, and from what hints Giles could glean, by a poverty-stricken, chaotic home life in rural Gloucestershire. When asked outright where he would like to live, if he could live anywhere (Avon Advocates stressed the importance of encouraging clients to give voice to a dream, even if it seemed unattainable), Thomas said only: "With the right people. Nice people. People who are kind to me." He couldn't understand why this had not already happened, he added mildly. Giles, scribbling away diligently on a notepad, found himself agreeing.
"But the people here: they are kind to you, aren't they?" It was a leading question, one he knew he wasn't strictly supposed to ask, in case the client was someone who just repeated what they thought others wanted to hear. Thomas, however, seemed to know his own mind perfectly well, and Giles felt as if this person might be his best source for a reasonably coherent account of what might lurk in the shadows at Mill Place.
"Some of them." The smile was there again: complicit, beguiling…corrupt.
"Well, thank you for your time, Thomas. I don't want to tire you out, so how about meeting again later today? Is there anything going on that you don't want to miss?"
Thomas gazed at his clasped hands. " Lunch. Richard and Judy. My afternoon walk."
"Just before lunch, then. Perhaps we could talk a bit more about how you've found Mill Place."
Thomas giggled: a wheezy, high pitched peppering of the air. "Turn right at the signpost to Morton Bishop. Can't miss it." It was the exact instructions Giles had been given. He found himself simultaneously smiling at the humour and wondering who'd made a terrible mistake, all those years ago in consigning Thomas to an 'colony' for imbeciles.
He found Nurse George in her office, hoping to find out more about Thomas, but also to see if *she* had ever noticed anything odd at Mill Place. Thinking about it, it would need to be pretty odd indeed to get special attention here.
"How is Thomas keeping, then?" she asked, looking up again over the open files into which were stuck sheaves of medical charts. She hadn't exaggerated about the medication, clearly. The padlocked cupboard behind her spanned the width of the room, the words "No Access to Patients" stencilled across it in red paint going orange with age. Giles suddenly felt unreasonably irritated by the calm enquiry.
"My question would be rather '*why* is he keeping?' He seems remarkably able, too able to be here. Shouldn't he have been released long ago?"
"Thomas has been *resettled* three times in the past eight years. He always came back to us, sooner or later." Nurse George stacked a pile of papers neatly. "Mr Giles, won't you sit down?"
"We try to be professional here," she began, once he'd pulled up a chair. "Not to play favourites, nor to judge only by the past. I can see that Thomas' new Social Worker is even more disliking of that, and he chose not to tell you…certain details on the file. Thomas has lived here a very long time, and unnatural places like this produce…unnatural behaviours. These men have no power against the outside world which sent them here; little power over us, who are free to come and go; so they turn on each other. The strong prey on the weak. As to which are the strong… " She had seen his surprise at the thought of frail old Thomas as a physical bully. "… It is not always obvious. All I can say, without breaking confidentiality, is that he has proved…difficult to place anywhere outside of here unless constantly supervised."
"'Unnatural'. That's an interesting choice of word." A lead, perhaps. That is, if there was anything after all to be led toward. Giles chuckled self-consciously. " Why 'unnatural'? To be honest, what you describe might apply equally well to either of my boarding schools."
Nurse George raised both eyebrows and gestured behind to the cabinet behind her with an ink stained thumb "The epileptics aside, my people aren't ill. This 'hospital' cannot cure them. It can only contain, by any means necessary. Think about fifty years of school, never so much as a half-day holiday, no examination you can pass that would let you leave, cotton wool in your brain to cushion you from any thoughts of something different?"
Giles winced, and took the point. He stood up, about to make his excuses and go, when a short, very plump figure squeezed through the narrow doorway and blocked the exit. The man had severe squints in both eyes that no-one had ever bothered to correct. His shoulders stooped under the weight of a myriad of labels: idiot, mongol, ineducable, handicapped, low grade, pre-senile dementia, 'poor thing'. He was weeping, nose and eyes streaming, struggling to form words around a tongue too large for his mouth. Nurse George shot an angry glance upwards at fate, saving her patience for her charge. She stepped past Giles, and took the other man's arm.
"It's going to be fine, Billy. We'll find your shoe, and your pillow. They'll be under your bed again. Look, here's Malcolm now, he'll take you back and find them. Don't cry, now, my dove." Once Malcolm had left with Billy in tow, she turned to Giles in muted distress." End of term will come too late for Billy: a time-bomb in that extra chromosome. He's a month to go before he's fifty – some achievement for a boy they said wouldn't see twenty. Now his mind's going so quickly, and the rest won't be far behind. Nobody else wants him now."
Giles, a month off fifty himself, watched Billy's shuffling progress down the corridor until he vanished behind the double doors at the end.
"But there's no such things as monsters, Mr Giles. Don't you know that?" Thomas' rheumy eyes, grey films over each iris making them look like a dead fish's, slid away from a direct gaze behind the thick spectacle lenses. He lurched forward suddenly and prodded Giles on the shoulder with surprising force and laughed his dry, peppery laugh again. "Silly nonsense. Won't catch Nurse George looking for monsters."
Giles straightened in his seat, flinching away from the poking, plucking fingertips. " But I've heard someone say it, all the same. Peter, who used to live here, do you remember?"
"Peter. Oh yes. He was very nice to me. People should be nice. I like to be in a place where people are nice to me."
God in heaven, man, stop saying that, stop looking at me like that... oh, pull yourself *together*, Giles. "Er, yes, right. Well, Peter told someone I know that there are 'monsters' here. What do you think he meant by that, Thomas? That bad things happen here?"
"Silly nonsense. Silly boy Peter. Silly soft boy. Soft." A tiny froth of spittle had collected at the corner of his mouth and his tongue flicked out to capture it. "If you're nice and good, nothing bad happens."
"I'm…glad to hear it. You know, I think that's enough for today, unless you've anything else to say. May I come again tomorrow?" Giles was beginning to suspect that Peter's 'monster' had nothing to do with the supernatural, but as Nurse George had said, it would be unprofessional, and facile, to take the first thought which floated to the surface of this particular stagnant pool. A mere day in this… dimension was simply not enough to make a final judgement, about Thomas, about any of it.
He wandered into the grounds after lunch, scouting out the disused buildings, turning the collar of his coat up against the snow flurries that had after all materialised. No-one disturbed him. He slipped a hand in his coat pocket and drew out a small chunk of crystal, a parting present from Willow. She'd blessed it with her magick, setting a spell which would warn him of hidden dark energies, to "stop the underworld and his demon creeping up on you and bonking you on the head so often". Giles smiled fondly and rubbed the back of his head reflexively. Hefting the stone in one hand, he made a careful circuit of the administration block.
Nothing, either, around Vale House. Nor in any of the crumbling, tumbledown outbuildings, windows boarded up and doors padlocked long ago. Nothing in the iced-over pond in the formal garden with its serried ranks of identical once-white garden seats. Nothing at the infirmary block, nothing…
Warning magick hummed against his palm as he approached a building which at first sight was indistinguishable from the others: broken gutters leaning out at crazy angles, slipped tiles shattered on the concrete surround. He went around to the entrance and swore, as the humming became an intense flash of heat which almost made him drop the crystal. A soft-spoken word of acknowledgement and the sensation became bearable again.
So, it might be more than just the whole sense of this place. More than 'unnatural' lives; than Society's mundane human sins of commission and omission. Just as well he'd taken the trouble to check.
"That's a nice place."
Giles nearly leapt out of his skin and whirled round to see Thomas Heaton standing behind him, pointing with a trembling finger to the door in front of them.
"Sorry. Did I make you jump?" Thomas sounded distinctly *un*sorry. Behind him, Malcolm came puffing up the path to scold him for giving him the slip:
"You're not supposed to hang around there; you know that. Now leave Mr Giles alone, he'll be back tomorrow."
Thomas gave a little shrug with his eyebrows and meekly followed his escort. As they walked away he looked over his shoulder and grinned. Giles waited until he and Malcolm were long out of sight.
The door wasn't properly locked. A gentle rattle showed that the pin wasn't in. The padlock seemed to have been undone, or picked, then carefully arranged so as not to arouse suspicion at first glance. The overcast day plus the covered windows rendered the inside dim, and an clinging reek of damp and mould made Giles cough as he walked slowly through into the main room. 'Nice' would not have been the first word to occur to him. Water was actually running down the inside of the walls and some of the floorboards had rotted away underneath. Treading carefully after one mishap that left his ankle bleeding and tore a trouser leg, he held out the crystal as a lamp in the dimness. It gave out a faint heat and light the whole time, but he neither saw nor heard anything at all. In one of the dormitory rooms off the central corridor, there were some effects left: small painted iron bedsteads, enamel basins and chamber pots. In another, a cluster of babies' cots piled on top of and against each other in a scrap heap sculpture: the remains of crudely painted nursery pictures peeled off the plaster walls.
Children's Ward, then. An odd place for a demon hang-out, but not unprecedented. Besides, other people came here as well, or had done lately. The farthest dormitory had the recent remains of a fire in the middle of the floor; three filthy mattresses (God knew where from) lay beside it. Giles longed for a decent torch and wondered why he hadn't had the foresight to bring one. Must be getting sloppy, away from the Hellmouth, back in safe, cosy, 'Merrie Englande', home of all that was reserved, tidy and polite.
A large rat ran across his feet.
Shrieking was frowned upon at the Watchers' Academy, so just as well it was - or had been before its destruction along with Council HQ and the Central Archives - a hundred miles away and well out of earshot. Shuddering at the after-sensation of the rodent's naked tail brushing his legs, Giles beat a hasty retreat.
Unless and until whatever lurked there made itself manifest, he was stumped for the time being. In any case, odds and ends of business to do with the infant, re-forming Council of Watchers awaited him. He could only make his apologies to Nurse George and promise to be back in the morning.
In the morning, his way was barred. A police cordon and a gaggle of both the uniformed and the scruffy spanned the gateway. He stopped and wound down the car window, level with a rotund figure in a windcheater. The man was trying to manoeuvre a camera with a telephoto lens into position to get a shot including the gateway, administration block and front sign with responsible Health Authority. He ignored Giles' polite enquiry until he'd got his front page picture.
"'What's going on?' Unexplained death, that's what, mate. Not the first time, neither, according to *my* sources. It'll come out 'natural causes', but I reckon someone in there's helping 'em along, know what I mean? He shrugged as he put the lens cap back on. "Best thing for it if you ask me. They should all have been put out of their misery, soon as they were born. Cost the taxpayer a fortune, those places."
He turned away at once, spoiling the effect of Giles' hard stare and harder finger on the window button, intended to cut him off mid-sentence. Giles silently vowed instead never to buy the man's newspaper again – if he ever found out which one it was. A bored WPC waved him away.
After a decent interval spent waiting back at home, he tried to phone Mill Place, but Nurse George was 'unavailable'. The only other contact he had was Thomas' Social Worker, who was 'in a meeting', along with, unsurprisingly, most of his senior management. It was galling to apparently lack even the inside contacts of a hack photographer. The thought that it might be Thomas who had died led directly to the thought that, if it was, he'd likely never get inside the building again, never find out what was happening, never solve the mystery. It would be irksome to let a mundane thing like a death that scarcely anyone would mourn, defeat him.
Only after a beat did he look again at that train of thought, berate himself soundly, and go and get a stiff Scotch. It was easy enough to take the moral high ground with someone as blatant and crude as the photographer. Harder to face his own ambivalence about the residents of Mill Place.
Guilt is an inefficient fuel, but capable of generating a fair bit of energy nonetheless. Giles fired off an email to Willow, seeking more information about the kinds of evil her spell was able to detect. Since the hospital was still open, the local archives had very little in the way of records, but he was able to call up microfilms of back newspapers. There were few references: Mill Place only rated mention in a particularly slow week, and a lot of the 'stories' had the flavour of official press releases printed verbatim to fill up space. Otherwise, assorted spots of arson by local youths, letters of complaint by neighbours and relatives, anxious to see the back of it or fearful about its loss as a 'haven', a small presentation to a long-serving employee; none of it out of the ordinary.
He had to get back inside, to find out if there had indeed been previous unexpected deaths. To talk to someone who knew what was going on, even if that someone was Thomas Heaton. To visit the Children's Ward. He could have left it a day, tried the regular approach once more, but the frustration of a research dead end made him impulsive, so, after loading up the car, he set off just before dusk to illegally enter Mill Place.
The police presence had shrunk to a single copper guarding the gate. He didn't even raise his head from glum contemplation of the forming ground frost as Giles' car slowed briefly to allow him to see that the front entrance was indeed padlocked up. Further around the perimeter wall he found a blind bend and a wide verge beyond. He parked hugging the wall and threw his bag of tricks over, before scaling it by dint of a lot of effort, a thick blanket over the broken glass at the top and the ravages of time and wear, which had created handholds in elderly brickwork. Time and wear had also had their way with middle-aged joints, and landing from a height on frozen ground was even less fun than he remembered. He could only hope he'd be able to get back out again before morning.
Lights were on in both the occupied buildings as he snuck up one side of the infirmary, keeping out of sight of the windows just in case anyone should take it into their head to look out. He'd brought both the mystic early warning system and a small torch, along with a varied selection of hand weaponry. The doors of the Children's Ward glittered with frost in the moonlight as the temperature continued to plummet. As he got nearer, he fully expected the mystic alarm to go off again but…hardly a response. A faint echo, perhaps, but nothing like the day before.
Thomas, memory prompted. It must have been Thomas who set it off…and the amount of spiritual darkness to give that big a reaction…
He was about to leave the site and get back to desk-based enquiries in the morning, when a muffled crash sounded inside the building. Entering with as little noise as possible and a genuine antique Xhosa knobkerrie raised in one hand, Giles followed further, lesser sounds to their source. Taking a deep breath, he swung his torch beam around the jamb of the open door, stopped, sighed heavily and swung the weapon down to the ground.
"Good evening." Wonderful. Just the last thing I need.
"Ah. You must be 'dear Rupert'. Miss Milverton wondered if our paths would cross again." The young man with the cut glass accent smiled guilelessly . "Jonathan Pearce. Nice to meet you." He stepped over the jumble of wires and dials surrounding him and stuck out a gloved hand.
"I suppose I should have realised that *you* would be here. The Society, I mean. You seem to have better contacts than I do," Giles groused, returning the handshake unenthusiastically.
"I think we owe it to our august founder to make something of a forte of detective work, don’t you?"
"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did *not* 'found' your…amateur ghost-hunting club."
"Well, not in person, no. But we like to think we have his approval from Beyond the Curtain."
"I'm sure you do..." Jonathan puffed up a couple of sizes inside his cheap anorak."…like to think so," Giles finished. Jonathan deflated again. His expression was prim in the torchlight.
"In any case, the Doyle Society has received information which leads us to believe an investigation is in order."
Giles nodded. "The unexplained death of one of the inmates here."
"Death? Good God!" It was clearly news to Jonathan. "I had no idea; but of course, that won't be directly related to any activity in the spirit realm." He waved away Giles' protest. " Yes, I know you take another view. Demons, vampires and so on. I couldn't comment without proof, of course, but let's just say I remain something of a sceptic."
None so blind… although if the residents of Sunnydale managed it, I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised.
"It was a little local history lecture which alerted us. Mill Place stands on the site of an early cotton mill, one of the first incursions of the Industrial Revolution into the West Country."
"Yes, so I gather. So?"
"There is a theory that the shadows of toil are more likely to survive than those of leisure. Greater psychic energy invested, you see. So many workers over so many years, pinning their hopes and dreams on the simple means of making a living. Proof that the spiritual signature remains even of those of humbler origin, even though their names, even as their worn-out bodies, have passed to dust."
Giles cleared his throat to avoid comment. The Doyle Society seemed to attract, among others, those with ambitions to be third rate poets. He gestured at the mouldy walls around them. "Why set up shop here in particular?"
Jonathan shrugged. "It was unlocked." He turned round, to fiddle with an array of switches. "What brings *you* here? Dark prophecies and a trail of dried blood, perhaps?" He was clearly trying for coolly sarcastic, but hadn't put in as much training as Giles had over the years, and it came out petulant.
"One of the former residents described an…entity of which he was very frightened, one that posed a danger to others. I was asked by a concerned third party to investigate."
"You know, somehow I can't see any of the people here talking about an 'entity'…"
"Actually, 'monster' was the precise word." Giles raised his chin defiantly, determined not to apologise for his own truths. Jonathan didn't take the bait, but simply ignored the uncongenial idea and focused on his own.
"Basil is very hopeful that this new equipment will pick up the astral imprints left by those who have passed on, even without the amplification of trauma."
"What of the, er, 'astral imprints' of those who died in the asylum? Won't there be some…contamination?"
Jonathan paused in mid sound-check. "Oh. Ah. See your point. Well," he carried on blithely, undeterred," we'll take what we can get, and leave the interpretation to the experts at BPS."
Giles gave up. With another private sigh and roll of his eyes, he retreated and left the other man to it. Kept him off the streets, at least. Meanwhile, it wasn't getting any warmer outside. A door opened suddenly at the back of Vale House and he flattened against the wall, instantly regretting it as his cheek touched a slick of cold, damp algae running all the way down. A hastily thrown flush of water erupted from the open doorway and the crystal in Giles' pocket jumped suddenly once more. He couldn't get a good enough line of sight, even craning his neck at a very uncomfortable angle, without giving himself away, so he had to wait until who – or what – ever it was shut the door again before he could creep out from hiding.
What the hell? it was just a cleaning woman, pushing a mop doggedly over the tiles in one of the bathrooms, cigarette dangling from her lip in flat contravention of hospital policy. Balanced on the balls of his feet, in order to peek through the gap left by a tiny open window high up the wall, Giles scrutinised her closely, but failed to get a single clue as to why what Buffy would doubtless have dubbed the 'evil-o-meter' was still buzzing away. He gripped the handle of his weapons bag tightly. Might be able to rush an attack; but she could be all human. Too much risk of being premature.
It was no real help, this vagueness of menace and multiplicity of possible culprits. He looked back in on Jonathan Pearce, and nearly gave him a heart attack by creeping up in the dark, torch off, giving away his presence only with:
"How did you get in here, by the way? Over the wall?"
"Christ, Rupert! Not ready for the netherworld just yet, thanks all the same!" He shook his head. "There's a section of wall down, in the woods, blocked up with board. You can move it out the way pretty easily." He waved a hand in the general direction.
With a grunt of acknowledgment, Giles left him and the building, and found the better exit. No corporeal demons to be discovered; random human beings setting off mystical alarms; the Doyle Society queering the pitch. Definitely not his night.
Subject: Early warning system
Buenos dios from Buenos Aires!
Works on anything out of balance with good magicks; demons, vamps, warlocks, evil spirits. Also garden variety nasties of the human sort. Evil lady watchers (not the nice ones, we don’t want you to miss out J), possessed folk and objects, that kind of thing. Kind of broad spectrum antibiotic…Hope this helps. Tell us all about it when you come home in triumph. Kennedy says 'keep your sword sharp' (laughing). Don't know *what* she means J Off to Kathmandu soon as I can get a flight. Will keep you in the picture re what I can find on the 'legal front'.
"Mr Giles, thank you for coming." Thomas Heaton's social worker, a balding but still youngish man with the face of a jaded cherub, cradled a cup of instant coffee in both hands and sat on the corner of a table next to four fat files labelled in black marker pen with Thomas' name and several crossed-out addresses. "We don't expect you to breach client confidentiality of course, but it's important that we know if there is *any* evidence to link Thomas with the death of Gordon Patterson. This is an internal investigation. No-one's informed the police as yet, and we're waiting for the result of the inquest before anyone jumps to any conclusions, you understand." He took a sip of coffee and grimaced, muttering something about who last washed up.
Giles frowned. "Yes. What I don't understand is, why you're asking me." He gestured towards the stack of files." I should imagine you know him far better than I do."
"Um, I'd say that's possibly a disadvantage, if anything. Although, it would be fairer to say I know a lot *about* him. I don't…well, perhaps you found differently, but he's not an easy person to get close to." It wasn't said with a lot of real regret, Giles thought, but perhaps he was only projecting. He nodded.
"Nothing he said to me was suspicious. On the face of it. Er, look, Mr Lewis…"
"Chris. I don't have the full picture here, do I? Why is Thomas under investigation? Are you treating everyone at Mill Place as a potential murderer? The patients, the staff, th-the cleaners? Or is there good reason to suspect him in particular?"
Chris Lewis sighed heavily, set his mug down and laid a hand on the topmost folder. "Thomas was sent to Mill Place at the age of sixteen. Admission records state that he was, and I quote, 'a mental and moral degenerate'. Now, that could mean any number of things, coming from the nineteen-fifties. Normally we'd ignore those remarks as relics of a less enlightened era of social care. We did ignore them: treated him as any other client, considered him for resettlement with the first wave, in fact. You saw for yourself how able he is.
"People like yourself became involved, speaking to the patients one-on-one, listening, befriending. All things, to be honest, that we thought we'd already been doing. They started to ask about Thomas, to say that they thought their clients were afraid of him. For a long time, the care staff had described him as being 'off' in some way, but we…well, we thought we knew better. We put him with two other men in a house in Bristol. One of them ran out into the street in the middle of the night and was killed by a passing car. The other man refused to stay. Grief and upset, we thought. He couldn't communicate well." He paused, fist clenched on top of the buff cardboard. "We were *bloody* stupid."
"You wanted to think the best of everyone. Isn't that preferable to expecting the worst?"
Chris met Giles' gaze with a bleak look. "Better not to assume anything at all, actually. The next two placements for Thomas broke down too; not quite so tragically, thank God. It was only in the last one that it all came out." His expression hardened. "This is strictly 'need to know', okay? No further than this office or the hospital." Giles gestured agreement, and for him to go on. "Thomas had been involved in a circle of sexual abuse with a number of other patients for years, grooming them from early on and imposing himself on them, in some cases for decades. He chose his victims carefully. Under the old system, staff shortages meant that the 'higher grades' were given duties to care for the more disabled, or for the youngsters. Under sixteens were cared for separately. Thomas exploited that."
"The Children's Ward," Giles murmured absently, absorbed in his own train of thought.
"Yes. How did you…?" Chris Lewis was looking sharply at him. "You're *sure* he didn't say anything?"
"Oh. Um, only that the Children's Ward was a 'nice place'. From his point of view, I suppose it was." The two men shared a mutual shiver of disgust, but then Chris looked doubtful.
"Gordon Patterson was never identified as one of his victims. Gordon hates – hated - to be touched in any way, and Caroline George says they had very little to do with each other at all. Thomas seems to have been nowhere near him that night; but we have to check, we can’t afford to make a mistake again. If you remember anything else, no matter how innocent the words themselves seemed, let me know, okay?"
Giles was about to leave, still internally shrinking from the new picture of life at Mill Place that was worming its way into his imagination, when it occurred to him that despite surface appearances, nothing had actually been resolved. Thomas might be a pervert, a predator, definitely a species of monster: but a killer? Feelings would not serve in place of evidence.
"Can I still go up there? Job still to do, you know." He tried to inject the right note of dedicated and impartial care for his client, covering his eagerness to get to the root of the mystery, and Chris Lewis beamed with surprised warmth.
"Check with Caroline; she'll have talked to the police. I…We really appreciate what you at Avon are trying to do, you know, even though, sometimes it might not seem like it. The world stuck Thomas in that damn place and never knew…never bothered, maybe, to help him be any different. It's important that everyone gets as many chances as possible to…" He tailed off and picked up his papers, leaving the coffee mug sitting there, a film of grey scum forming on its surface. His face told Giles that try as he might, he didn’t really hold out much hope for the worldly salvation of Thomas Heaton. Nor, had he believed in such a thing, any other type.
Giles deliberately made a late appointment for the next day, and arrived very early for it. He'd counted, shamefully but accurately, on Nurse George's guard being down, and on her gratitude for a not too familiar face with whom she had to share neither mourning nor forensic details. All she would say was that they didn't know exactly how Gordon had died, only that he'd gone to bed as usual and would never wake again. She asked him to excuse her, to visit as long as he liked so long as he didn’t upset the residents. Her face looked tight over her bones; her eyes darted away from his as she spoke. Giles suddenly remembered what the hack at the gate had told him.
"Has this happened before?" He hadn’t meant it to come out so blunt, but then there were after all only so many ways of asking the same question. Granted, those ways were less likely to make someone turn that particular shade of ash over ebony.
"Who have you been speaking to?" her expression said more: what do you think you know; what were you told; who are you, really?
He didn’t give away any more than a shrug and a half smile. "Rumour, gossip, what have you. The Press were here," he finished significantly.
"This was the first time we *knew* there was no good reason. But you wonder...how many you missed, before." She wrung her hands. "This place has not been happy, how could it be so? But it could at least have been a refuge, a shelter." She stopped, put a crumpled white tissue up to her mouth and looked down at her desk, eyes welling, voice pleading." We do what we can."
"I've seen that," Giles told her gently. "And why should you have looked for greater troubles if the lesser ones were enough for every day?" He hesitated. Oh, sod it, she could only send him packing. "I'd like to help."
Nurse George looked at him sideways and frowned. "The Police will see to it." It was a statement of faith that would never have occurred to a survivor of Sunnydale. Perhaps not that many people in England, either, nowadays. Tears swallowed away now, she wondered: "Why so curious? Do you know something?"
"Perhaps. Look, I know I'm supposedly only here to speak to Thomas about his plans for the future, but will you give me permission to make some enquiries of my own amongst the residents? Not to upset anyone, but to find out what they know. I'm used to relying on unusual sources. Policemen can be very literal. Very…dismissive."
The nurse agreed with Giles' implicit criticism. "Last time, they spoke only to staff. In their eyes, my people are small children: unseeing, unknowing, not 'credible witnesses'. Even for myself, I do not know if they can give you what you need; yet, you may be lucky. Only, take care with them. They've enough to bear without this loss and fear being rubbed in any more than need be." She blew her nose on the wreck of the tissue, her dark eyes direct, even stern, as she faced him. "I'll be honest with you, Mr Giles. You don’t do this job as long as I have without knowing how to read people. You're not quite as you seem, are you?" She smiled thinly at his alarm. "Don't worry, if I thought you were a journalist or some academic looking to make a paper out of this, you'd be gone already. Please, if you can, stop this. This person, this evil which is taking them. Find out what's been going on, and I won't ask more of you."
Giles left her with his gratitude and made his way back into the hospital. Willow's crystal was still in his pocket: he stopped and straightened when it signalled once again, just before the doors to the women's Day Room. Opening one door gingerly, he put his head in, to find the scene much as it should be. Only once he had stepped right inside, did an unfamiliar voice put him back on his guard.
"Can I help you?" The white doctor's coat – the first he'd seen here – proclaimed healer and carer. The crystal shouted danger and despair. The woman's face, very pale, blue-smudged circles under the eyes, badly-done bottle blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, merely looked really tired. She carried a clipboard and the obligatory sheaf of case notes. Despite the automatic polite enquiry, her attention was focussed inward, not at him.
"I'm not sure." Giles, too, grasped with relief at the lifebelt of good manners and introduced himself.
"Nice to meet you, Mr Giles. Martha Price, clinical psychologist. Sorry, not my best day. Week. Month. Pick one." She shrugged and the sheaf of papers she was holding fell to the floor, scattering in a broad fan over the vinyl tiles. Muttering, no real heat in it, as if she were resigned to minor disasters lately, she bent to pick them up. As she did so, gravity pulled at the heavy pendant on a chain round her neck and it fell forward out of the open collar of her shirt. Giles stepped back a pace.
"Excuse me, this might seem a little odd, but where did you get that charm?"
Dr Price abandoned her attempt to put the papers back in their proper order, caught hold of the pendant as it swung and straightened to face him.
"This? It's, oh it's nothing. Costume jewellery, French flea market, impulse buy. Why do you ask?"
I ask, because if my eyes don't deceive me, it's a Lentak demon's wedding talisman, cursed to the fourth remove from anyone who steals it, and the cause of more ill luck in a fortnight than the average person experiences in twenty years. Also, no doubt, what the crystal had objected to so strongly. Bit over the top, in the circumstances. Giles was starting to wonder if using it was really of much use at all.
"Well, I know a fair bit about certain kinds of antiques. Depending on the circumstances, that piece of 'costume jewellery' carries a much higher price tag than you might think."
Dr Price brightened a fraction. "Really? D' you know anyone who'd be interested? I wrote my car off on Monday, and any way to fund a replacement would be really handy. I'm not a big wearer of baubles in any case. Don't know what persuaded me about this one."
She undid the chain and held the trinket out to him, but he took care not to touch it with his bare hands. There was no way of knowing whether she were the fourth remove or closer to the theft than that. Fortunately the Lentak, not being in need of clothing themselves, didn't take into account the protective properties of a pure, natural fabric, and a gentleman's handkerchief should always be a hundred percent cotton.
"Yes," Giles pronounced at length, after a little pantomime of careful inspection. " Expensive. I wouldn't carry this around regularly if I were you. Too much chance of it getting lost or broken." He wrapped it thoroughly and gave it back, relieved to see that she slipped it into her pocket as it was. "Let me give you my number, and I can put you in touch with a buyer who I'm certain would be eager to acquire it." Not to mention, a buyer who, like Giles, knew how to protect himself *and* return the item to its rightful owners.
"Um, this isn’t just a corny way to get me to ring you outside work, is it?"
"To get you…no! No, I really do know someone. I'm terribly sorry, I didn’t mean to…"
"I'm sure you didn't. Just my suspicious psychologist's mind. Every apparently altruistic offer of help must conceal an ulterior motive." Somehow she managed to sound both relieved and disgruntled to find that his apparently didn't.
Although, of course it did: even if not the conventional one. His motive was even fairly altruistic, even though it would balance a few favours owed his contact as a by-product. Giles fished for a card and handed it over. The psychologist pocketed it at the same time as she gave him her proper attention this time. The very act of taking off the talisman seemed to have revived her.
"You don’t work here."
"Not exactly, no. I've been doing an advocacy task with a man in Vale House, but after what's happened, I-I wanted to try to listen to the other residents too, give them a chance to work through it." Find out what they know. "It's well outside my remit, I know, but Nurse George thought it would be…although, if you disagree?"
She considered it for a minute or so, frowning. Then she considered Giles himself for somewhat longer. "I'm seeing all the ladies today for review, talking myself with those who can communicate, consulting the care staff about those who can't. Best that I don't try and avoid what's happened. You've signed the confidentiality clause for your client, of course. You understand that it applies to everyone else here, too?"
Giles assured her that he did. "I only want what you all must want: an end to this. For all these people to be able to leave here safely, as soon as possible." Meeting her gaze with his, he blessed his ancestors, who had bequeathed him what he had been told more than once was an absurdly honest face.
She laughed softly and shook her head. "All right. Follow me. Vera Perkins first. If my superiors find out I did this without good reason, my neck's on the block." As they made their way back she looked back at him with the suggestion of a glare. "Don't you dare let me down."
Perched on the edge of her seat in a corner of the Day Room, Vera cast her amiable, vacant smile from one of them to the other. She answered Dr Price's straightforward questions about how she was feeling in herself and whether she was looking forward to moving out soon, cheerfully enough. Giles gently brought up the subject of Gordon Patterson. It didn't seem to register at once, though surely news must travel fast here. He probed a little more carefully and she repeated after him that it was very sad. Then, abruptly, she turned in her chair and stared across the room at the small group of Helen and the twins, rocking in unison to the beat of a music video on the television, a steady thump which Helen, her hand stretched across the speaker, was picking up the vibrations of through the tips of her fingers. Vera's face was knitted with concern, even fear. When Giles tried to ask her what was the matter, she only said:
"Won't let *them* go."
She wouldn't be drawn further, except to cackle nervously when Dr Price asked her if she was trying to say that she would miss them, that she didn't want to live apart from her friends. Every other question on the subject made her twist in her chair and put her hands over her eyes or ears.
Dr Price doggedly pieced together Sylvia's restless, fragmented speech, forcing it to make sense, to fit into boxes on the printed form: 'Mood'; 'Emotional State'; 'Cognition'; 'Memory'; 'Risk to Self'; 'Risk to Others'. If what Giles, in his turn, could glean was any indication, Gordon's name meant nothing to her fogged brain: the legacy of decades of powerful medications had left her scarcely aware of anything now beyond her immediate surroundings.
Dorothy was chatty, but rambled chronically, recalling her childhood of three score years ago in a relentless detail of names and places, but saying no more about Mill Place than "Vera's my friend at Mill Place. We're going to get a house together." It sounded like a hopeful fantasy, but Dr Price – "Martha, please." – told him that it only awaited the property being fitted out before it could become reality. Both of them should be gone by the Spring.
The care staff were shaken by the news out of Vale House, of course, but they'd agreed amongst themselves not to try to tell the most dependent women what had happened. The men and women at Mill Place didn't know each other well. Even to the most able in the Women's Day Room, Gordon was a name and a face and almost nothing more, his passing insignificant besides what was for tea and who was reading the news today. The twins' horizon encompassed only soothing voices, stimulating musical mobiles with bright moving shapes, and getting padded often enough to stay dry and comfortable. Helen's was closer still; touch and texture, dry walls and wet floors, the roughness of brick against the tongue, the slipping foot and endless, silent fall. Scrambled eggs for breakfast; taste and smell. Wind and peppermint tea for elevenses, pain and pleasurable relief.
"You think you'll find clues as to what's been happening by asking the residents?" Giles and Martha Price were walking back to the off-duty nurses' room for coffee break. She'd listened to him put forward the theory that recent deaths at Mill Place weren't accidental, with surprisingly little shock. She'd been connected with the hospital for years, and confessed that her first reaction to the news two days ago had been just that same fear. What she couldn't see was the point of playing amateur detective with the residents cast in the parts of witnesses.
"Hiding to nothing," she told him bluntly as she held the door open for him. They waited in silence as the machine served them something scalding hot, dark brown and liquid which reminded Giles of a good cup of tea, insofar as it wasn't one.
"How so?" He must have shown that he felt disappointed in her. He watched her bristle, her mouth a tight line as she tidied her papers again, pulling her foot well out of the way of the steaming polystyrene cup set on the floor by the leg of her chair. Based on recent experience, she wasn't pushing her luck with inanimate objects.
"I've worked with them, and people like them, for fifteen years, so please don’t give me the 'everyone's entitled to equal value and respect' lecture," she warned him, as she stacked the reports on her lap and juggled with the hot drink. "They've not had the opportunity to be autonomous, to be actors in even their own life drama. They've been the acted-upon. It's like that Douglas Adams joke: 'what's unpleasant about being drunk? Ask a glass of water.'"
They both grinned briefly, then sobered in short order, absorbing the analogy. After a few seconds, Giles sat back straight in his seat with a thump. Martha looked over the rim of her cup, eyebrows on the rise. He'd fixed her with a look so intense, it bordered on ferocious. When he spoke, it was quiet, but clear and sharp as a piece of glass.
"So let's make this the opportunity. I'd say being in danger of their lives counts as drama enough, wouldn’t you?"
If the psychologist was startled, she was intrigued too, but her professional pride was stung enough to make her question a little cool : "What do you suggest 'we' do?"
Giles shrugged a tiny apology and gestured toward the door. "First of all *really* listen to what people are telling us already. Vera, for instance…" Martha, honest enough to accept his point, was also aware enough to catch his meaning. She finished for him:
"…is afraid, maybe with good reason. But the way she was being, was as if it wasn't herself she was worried about, but…it was Helen and the twins. Because they're more vulnerable?"
"Is it the weakest who've died?"
She thought carefully for a minute or two, sipping big gulps of the bitter brew. "We've lost…God, five people over the last couple of years. I'm trying to remember…no, I don’t think it's that. I mean, Gordon was physically absolutely fine: one of the reasons they called in the Police this time. It couldn’t be explained away, like the others."
"The ones who died before Gordon: can you tell me about any of them?"
Martha drained the last of her tea and rolled the empty cup between her hands as she gazed at the floor in front of her. Eventually she shrugged apologetically.
"This is going to sound awfully inhuman, but some of them, I've can hardly remember their faces. Yet I don't have a picture in my head of helpless people, people who couldn't put up a fight. Anyway, none of them had been 'attacked'. They just died. Hearts gave out, mostly."
"Hence the lack of suspicion until now. Gordon was the last straw," guessed Giles.
"We did wonder about Thomas Heaton," Martha admitted, trying to gauge, without asking outright, how much Giles already knew, but he shook his head firmly.
"Although you're not the only one, I don't think so, no. He preyed on people, but he wanted them alive. It was some of his victims who couldn’t go on. They must have felt they'd never escape."
Martha frowned suddenly. "Hang on a minute. Something they had in common. All of them, if I remember right, were not far off being resettled. I could check the files, if they're still here, and they probably are. One thing we've plenty of is storage space."
"So, someone" or something… "perhaps didn’t want them to leave. What Vera said…look, can you try and make sure she, and anyone who's due to leave in the near future, has extra protection tonight? I need to go home, do some research of my own."
"I can try, if I can do it without making everyone even more scared than they already are."
"You could practice a little psychology on them."
As he made his way home, Giles' mind was full of likely lines of research. There were a damn sight too many possibilities. Threshold Demons, originally minor house-spirits who'd got a bit above themselves and developed a habit of not just preserving, but petrifying the constituents of a household whether living or dead, blocking change of any kind, any way they could; Heartache Demons, which could squeeze the life out of a victim by psychic compression of the blood vessels from a distance; Skitterers, trans-dimensional hitchhikers that could burrow into the body and set up damaging temporary residence in any organ. In an extreme moment, he even considered Iatrophobic Demons, who weren't normally known to be deliberately or casually vicious. They just hated hospitals.
The message light was blinking on the answering machine in his study. He replayed the message, listening with half an ear as he pulled some ancient volumes out of a bookcase.
"Rupert, can you give me a bell? Basil Prendergast, Doyle Society. There's something that came up on the tapes from Mill Place. I know you were up there when our operative was: hush-hush, no names, no pack drill."
Giles punched in the codes to return the call. Might as well get it over with; he couldn’t in good conscience pretend he hadn’t got the message. Prendergast, caught in the middle of lunch, carried on eating throughout the conversation, and consequently was a little hard to understand, but the gist of it was clear enough. They'd been very excited at the recordings of sundry rumblings and grumblings that the BPS had assured them were indeed the imprints of the energies of past inhabitants; but on one of the tapes was something quite different.
"Like a radio play," mumbled Basil, slurping soup noisily. "Clear as anything. At first we thought 'hoax', but Jon swore no-one had touched the tapes, and no-one except you and he were there that night."
What they had recorded was a child's voice: slow and dull, but the words could be made out. "Mummy. Go home. Home now, please?" Over and over.
A ghost? As basic a thing as a haunting, enough to frighten simple people to death? One would have to discount what Vera had said: she had implied will and purpose, not just longing and loneliness. There had been no reports of poltergeist activity, common where a spirit had some quarrel, some issue with the living or the dead. Yet that voice couldn’t just be ignored in death, as it must have been in life. Giles knew that there was more than one way to relieve a place of a ghost. Exorcism might banish it by force, but it could also be set free if whoever, whatever was keeping it there gave permission for it to leave. The child didn't want to stay. He or she was trapped.
Giles held his breath as he drove up the road next to the wall around Mill Place the next morning. He'd spent the previous afternoon reviewing his notes to see if he'd overlooked any reports of a particular child, but there was nothing: no name, no date. His evening and night had been restless, dogged by a fear that another Police cordon might be waiting for him. Willow's bloody crystal hadn’t helped, vibrating like a mobile phone every time he turned the wrong page or muttered a dodgy incantation aloud. In the end he'd chucked it in a drawer in his bedside table. The gate was open, the drive was clear, if frosty. All seemed well.
All wasn't well.
The front desk was deserted. From somewhere inside the hospital came the sound of hoarse screams, things breaking, the raised voices of staff. The epicentre turned out to be Billy, who in his distress could pack quite a punch. The male orderlies were trying to restrain him without hurting him, but Billy had no such concern: he wanted only to escape.
"For fuck's sake get Caroline!" snapped Malcolm. "I'm not supposed to leave Thomas on his own. If we can't calm Bill down, he'll have to be sectioned!"
Giles stood fixed to the spot for a few seconds, oddly mesmerised by Billy's struggles, his plump face puce and contorted with terror. Malcolm's voice broke the spell.
In fact Nurse George was already on the case and quickly on the scene. She could hardly have avoided it, given the noise level, but Giles and the others were grateful to see her barrelling up the corridor even so. Billy lurched towards her, moaning her name as if she were his only saviour:
Like a dinner lady breaking up a playground ruck, she braced hands on hips and spoke calmly but firmly:
"Let him be, now." It took a moment for the instruction to sink in, but Billy had started to quieten. When they let him go, he dropped to the floor at her feet, whimpering and shaking. Giles found he had to turn his head away: the waves of fear and misery pouring off the little man, his huddled, lumpen body, Caroline George's spare, sincere tones as she comforted him: it all made a tight feeling creep around in Giles' guts.
He wasn't even sure that it was the compassion it should have been.
Malcolm hared off to track down Thomas; Gary slunk off for a quick fag by the dustbins; Caroline stroked Billy's hair as she knelt on the floor beside him, trying to make out what he was saying. The other orderly exchanged an awkward glance with Giles as he brushed past. Muttering, shifting peace descended again, the smooth, practised walls of the institution soaked up the echoes of Billy's fear, blunting its edge. By the time Caroline was able to get him up and about, administer hot, sweet tea and summon Mary to settle him back in his room, Giles was feeling like at least a fifteenth wheel, reduced to flapping uselessly on the sidelines.
As if she'd only just registered his presence- as perhaps she had- the Nurse looked at him in a dazed way, blinked and smiled shakily.
"As you can see, we are never bored at Mill Place." Leading the way, she waved Giles onward to come and sit in her office once more. Seated behind her desk, she drew the mantle of efficient authority around her, although the lost look in her eyes told a different story. "Martha says that you and she believe someone here is targeting those who are about to leave?"
"Yes. It was something Vera said, but…" There really was no way to say this without inviting her to think he was off his head. He took a deep breath, but Nurse George didn’t notice, and only nodded.
"She looked into our files. All of those whose deaths we cannot account for, had recently been found places to live outside the hospital." She stopped, as if turning it all over in her mind. "…and yet Billy, just now…"
"Yes. What was that all about?"
"I thought at first it was just the usual, but now I think about it, I wonder. He was very afraid – you saw – of not being able to leave here, of dying here. I put it down to his confusion, and to things he must have overheard. He was crying about something trying to get him, a monster…"
"In the shadows?" Giles asked her quietly, a tiny shot of acid suddenly rising in his gullet. Nurse George leaned forward urgently.
"Exactly so. Mr Giles, have you any idea what we are dealing with? Even…even if it sounds crazy?"
So here was his cue, after all. "I think the word *something* may well be the operative one here, yes. I have reason to believe that we may not be dealing with a human being, a… person as such. I'd ask you to remain open-minded about what I'm about to say. Firstly, a former resident spoke of what Billy just has, and in precisely the same terms. Secondly, er, I have access to, um, information and experience which makes me suspect human agency is not to blame. Thirdly… did you know this hospital is haunted?"
Caroline George didn’t laugh, not even a nervous giggle. Nor did she call out for someone to take this deluded man into safe custody. Instead she shuffled a few papers and rested her chin on her hand, meeting his gaze straight on.
"I would think that the ghosts far outnumber the living," she replied calmly. Giles waited for the other shoe to drop: for her to at least seem surprised by what else he had said, but she had already moved onto the more immediate, pertinent, pragmatic question. " Isn't it high time we put all the pieces together: what is it that is trying to kill my patients? Why should it want such a thing?"
Giles let out a frustrated breath. He wished he was able to give this in many ways extraordinary woman some good news. "I'm sorry but I'm not yet certain. Look, perhaps we are going at it from the wrong angle. Who are the victims? Patients in a long-stay learning disability hospital. Patients due for discharge. What else have they in common?"
Nurse George picked up on the direction he was going. "Not gender. Men and women both have been taken. Not level of disability; they spanned the full range. Age? We looked at that after the Police came. They were not of the same generation, but all had been here a very long time, most of their lives."
"How long? Since childhood?" A bell was ringing inside Giles' head. It was engraved with the words ' the devil's in the details' and he kept his ear tuned to it from old habit.
"Yes. All of them. Since childhood. Your haunting; where was it?" Although from her face, she knew the answer.
"The old Children's Ward," Giles confirmed. "But it's not the ghost who's killing, it's another spirit, force, entity, what have you. The ghost appears to be a victim as much as the rest." He drummed his fingers impatiently on the edge of the Nurse's desk. Where were those missing details, the threads connecting the dead to each other which would lead them to a killer? The bell got louder all of a sudden, a scrap of finest small print floating to the surface of memory.
"Do you have any staff who would remember the Children's Ward? The day care people seem relatively young. What about you?"
She fixed him with a reproachful eye, but it wasn't for a few moments that he realised the faux pas, and she tolerantly waved it away as he started to stammer an apology. "No spring chicken yourself, my dove, but never mind. No, I've been in the field for many years, but only at Mill Place for ten or so. Mary's the longest serving, but she won't remember the Children's Ward. It closed over twenty years ago. They all go to school now, even the most severe."
The scrap reached the level of conscious thought. "But in the paper: some time ago, an article about an award for long service. Thirty years?"
Nurse George cast around in her memory, and eventually came up with it. "Oh, that would be Ivy. One of our cleaning staff. Much longer than thirty years by now." Her indulgent smile faded. "You cannot be suggesting she would have anything…"
"A 'monster', remember. Not a person, but a 'monster' connected to this place. If she's long-connected too, she may well have knowledge without knowing, as it were. At the very least, give us some link between the victims."
Ivy Tompkins wasn't the brightest of sparks, but that didn’t stop her making the connection between the polite gentleman with the posh accent, Nurse George, and people out to dig out things they had no business unearthing.
"What you asking me for? I only work here in the evenings. I never have nothing to do with the inmates and I never have. Never so much as spoken to them, and that's fine by me, thank you very much. This place gives me the willies and that's the truth."
"Yet you've worked here for a very long time. Usually that speaks of great dedication." Giles had adopted his gentlest persona, encouraging and humane. If that didn’t work, he had a variety of other levels of persuasion to call upon, but to start with, the slightest pressure could well yield results. *Everything* about her body language told him she was hiding something.
Ivy regarded him sourly. "It's a job. It's bread on the table."
"Not very well paid, in the National Health Service. You'd make more cleaning for a family, or an office block in the City; and it's a long way to come. Still, in the course of your job, I expect you notice a lot of things other people don't, once all is quiet. Have you ever spotted something unusual…unexpected?"
"Like what?" Ivy's expression suggested that expecting the usual at Mill Place was a hopeless venture. "What's this all about?"
"People are dying, Ivy. Don’t you care ?"
"None of my business. Keep your head down and your nose clean and get on with your own life, that's what my old mother used to say, God rest her soul."
Giles tried again to appeal to her better nature. "Do you have any children, Ivy?"
Ivy's colour was rising rapidly, along with the tension in her thin frame. Her breathing became rapid, though she tried to hide it. "Two daughters. Why?" She glanced toward the door, desperate to be gone.
"All the people who live here are someone's children, someone's brother or sister," Giles began reasonably. "Don’t you feel for those families, for their loss? If you can help us find out what is happening…"
Ivy jumped to her feet, furious beyond reason. "I don't feel *nothing*, and nor do they! Why d'you think they put 'em here, ay? It's the best place for them, here, the best! Out of the way, let normal folk get on with their lives and not have to see 'em! It's what my old mother always said and she was *right*, you hear me? They should never be let out to be with normal folk!"
Giles and Nurse George looked across her, startled, the outburst out of all proportion, the point of view stark and raw and intimately connected to the deaths of five people. Had she somehow caused them, willed them to happen? Giles knew that people could possess mystical powers of which they knew nothing, which they did not consciously control. He grasped Ivy's shoulders firmly and waited until she looked up into his face. He was just about to ask her why she hated the patients here so much, when he saw that her lined cheeks were wet with tears.
"Ivy? What's the matter? Why are you crying?"
She wrenched her head away, shrugged out of his hands. Caroline tried to comfort her but she pushed her away too. For long minutes she sat huddled in the chair, crying and rocking pitifully.
"It's too late! Too bloody late!" she wailed at last. "My mother always said 'leave 'im'; leave 'im, it's for the best. Get on with your life an' forget 'im. But I never did. I never bloody did. Everyone said 'it's for the best', an' I thought it was. I wanted it to be. Until I saw 'im."
"Saw whom? Who are you talking about? A brother who was sent here?" Giles, and Caroline also from her expression, had a sneaking suspicion it must be closer than that, and Ivy confirmed it for them.
"My boy. My babby boy. When I wasn't even married, just a girl with a soft heart and a softer head and a big lummock who knew all the right things to say to make you say 'yes' when you should say 'no'. And so I ended up with a babby who couldn’t say neither, even when he was three years old. He was 'backward' they said, put 'im away. Send 'im to Mill Place and you might find a man who'll take you on, damaged goods an' all. So I did." She thrust her chin out defiantly, gulping down the tears which still flowed.
"And you 'saw him'?" The ghost or the child?
Ivy nodded mutely; Caroline had to encourage her to go on. "I saw 'im. Came up here once, when the girls were little, without telling no-one; didn’t think I'd even know 'im, but I did, and he knew I was 'is mum. An' he could talk! Clear as anything , wanting to come 'ome."
"But you weren't able to," guessed Giles. That child had never grown up away from the Children's Ward. Or ever.
"He died. They had the influenza bad here that year, and 'e was taken. I went back that summer, and 'e was gone. I never told my husband, my mother, my girls. No-one. Not 'til now."
"But did you ever wish any harm to those who live here?" Caroline wanted to know.
Ivy stared. "Harm? I never hurt so much as a fly in my life. Never even smacked the girls. What are you getting at? That I killed them five? How - *why* - am I s'posed to have done that?"
"I don’t know, Ivy. I…" Caroline turned to Giles, appealing silently for help, for an idea, but he was wrestling with his own thoughts.
"Who told you it was best to send your son here?" He asked Ivy suddenly.
She slumped in the chair. "Everyone. They said it was the only way. Everyone said it, so it must have been right…"
"Yet everything in you said otherwise. I have to tell you, Ivy, I've seen this before. At the place where two strong, opposite moral choices, two desires which can't be reconciled meet , there is power: a, a spiritual battle, if you like. The more vital the choice, the more basic the conflict, the more power. If love and guilt and fear are part of the mix, it may create a…manifestation. The stronger those feelings, the stronger the…'monster' and the more dangerous. "
"Do what?" Ivy clearly hadn't the first idea what he was going on about. He took a simpler tack.
"You can stop it, Ivy. Stop the monster that's keeping people from leaving here at the cost of their lives. Let your son leave. Finally. Then let the others leave, as well. Release the power it has over you, and it can’t terrorise them any more."
"Arthur? Arthur's here? But… I've never seen 'im. All the time I worked here, after mother died, hoping he might still be hanging around, waiting to cross over, but I never…" She turned pleading eyes to both of them. "Will you show me?"
"Here." Giles pushed open the door to the Children's Ward. Ivy hesitated on the threshold, closed her eyes for a second. She ran her hand along the wall as they walked on in, gathering mould and grime and rubbing it into her palm with her fingertips. When she reached the room with the mattresses and the burned out fire she walked to the window, standing on tiptoe to peer out through the narrow bars and blackened panes.
"You need to prepare yourself for some possibly unpleasant manifestations," Giles warned the two women. "There's no knowing how much resistance the opposing spirits will put up. But I have faith in the power of good to overcome." He fidgeted uncomfortably. Nothing like pious platitudes to expose one's inadequacies.
Ivy turned away from the window, her face serene. "It'll be all right, you'll see. Arthur was always a good boy, never any trouble; and I loved 'im, for all what he was."
It was indeed a quiet leave-taking, in the end. As soon as dusk fell, they formed a Circle of Three in simple ceremony with tallow tapers and sage set on fire in a stone bowl. A few whispered Latin words and Ivy's willing, informed presence, was all it took. The translucent figure, cheeks still ruddy from boyish games of forty years ago, ran into her arms and settled like a mist. Soaking back into her flesh and bones, as she murmured: "I'm so sorry. Forgive your old mum, Arthur, won't you?" the wraith sparkled in the candle light and was gone.
"I think I'll take 'im home, now," said Ivy, eyes brimming and legs almost giving way under her as she stumbled out into the night. "That battle you talked about, Mr Giles. Did we win?"
"It's a different place," Martha Price commented cheerfully as they walked outside on a clear cold day late in winter. " We're getting placement offers of all kinds for our residents all of a sudden." She leaned towards him with a conspiratorial air. "Between you and me, I think the Social Workers are coming out of hibernation."
Giles obliged her with a dry chuckle. "You made contact with my friend in Bath, I gather?"
"I did! Funny little man; but you were quite right; he gave me an extremely good price. I don't think I'm the jewellery type though, really."
They met Gary coming down the path to the woods, Thomas Heaton in tow. Thomas stopped and pawed at Giles' sleeve, getting up too close for comfort.
"Well, Mr Giles. I've been found a very nice place. Very kind people. I'll be saying goodbye to all this." He waved his free arm in the direction of the buildings. "I expect I'll make some nice new friends." He snickered and swallowed wetly, and Giles drew himself discreetly up and away. Gary saw his anxiety at the prospect of Thomas set free in the community and chipped in:
"I'll be going with him. Keeping an eye, you know, one to one. Someone has to." As simply as that, he'd committed himself. This boy scarcely older, scarcely less heroic than the girls Giles taught and ran research for as they faced off against monsters which could be vanquished, would do his bit. Not because he liked Thomas, or even felt he could change him for the better. Because he knew him, and someone had to. Giles had the good grace to feel a little humbled.
Back in the main block, Nurse George was celebrating.
"Billy! Billy has a home. A brand new facility for younger people who have dementia. He'll be able to move just in time for his birthday." She clasped Billy's pudgy hand as she grinned in triumph. He watched her face, catching only the one word.
"Birthday. Billy birthday."
"Do you know when that is, Billy?" Giles asked him, not really expecting an answer, but there was at least one thing still clear in Billy's mind.
"Feb-ry twenti-ef," he declared.
Giles smiled. "How extraordinary. It's the same as mine."