Chapter 1: Chapter One
They said the house was haunted. It had been empty for nearly ten years, and its last inhabitant had been an elderly lady who had lived there for fifty years – shut up alone with the ghosts, they said. Its present owner was away and there was only a caretaker now who came in as few times in a year as possible. The wallpaper was peeling away in long strips of arsenical green and the whole building smelt of damp. If electric power had been installed, it had long since been cut off, so they were all gathered here by candlelight. It added to the mood, Jack supposed, but he still wasn’t sure why he’d come.
It had all seemed a bit of a laugh, back in the warmth of the Arnhirsts’, even if some of the others had been taking it too seriously from the start. They’d decided to take a medium along to the local supernatural hotspot and scare themselves, because why shouldn’t they? One had to do something, after all. And unreal terrors were so much better than the memories of real ones that wouldn’t ever quite leave. Jack didn’t know how it was for the others, all the fellows at least, but there was always thunder in his head these days.
It wasn’t really his sort of thing, though. He’d have been happier to be there if he’d believed there was any chance of a genuine ghost turning up. You’d probably get more sense out of a ghost than Reg when he’d had a few, but his sister had wanted to come, so here he was. He moved away from the rest, tired of their frivolous talk about spirits and which room held the most potential for spectral activity. He found himself next to a tall man, who was standing against the wall, picking at the wallpaper. Jack didn’t know who he was. He wasn’t even sure he’d been with them at the start – maybe they’d picked him up somewhere along the way. But then, he wasn’t the sort of man you noticed especially: thin, quiet, grey, of indeterminate age, although he certainly looked too old for this kind of lark.
“Oh, well,” said Jack, making conversation. “I suppose we’ve got to go through with it now, eh?”
The man turned a curious grey gaze in his direction, although he was still playing with the ends of the wallpaper and it seemed to take him a moment to register Jack fully and bring him into focus. He considered Jack’s rhetorical question with a seriousness it didn’t deserve. “I don’t think it’s too late to leave yet,” he said. “Go while you’ve got the chance.”
“But you’re staying?” said Jack, puzzled, because he didn’t sound at all keen on the plan.
The man shrugged. “I was sent.”
“Right,” Jack said, thrown by that odd response. He couldn’t think what the chap could mean. “Bad luck, old thing.”
“You really should leave,” the man said. “It won’t do you any good to stay.”
Jack watched the others forming a circle in the centre. He’d have loved to walk out, but it wasn’t an option for him, either. “I can’t leave Eddy,” he told the man. “My sister, you know.” Eddy might think she was old enough for anything, but she was still his baby sister, even now. Trying to get her to leave wouldn’t do, either. She’d kick up one hell of a fuss, and he couldn’t blame her, not if he tried to play the heavy-handed elder brother in front of their friends.
Not feeling he had much else he could say to the strange man, he ambled back towards the others in the circle, watching them shuffle about before joining them, sitting on the floor between Lily Arnhirst and Reg Chapple. He wondered how the medium – Madame Celeste (definitely not her real name) – would fare without the usual table. That was how they did it, wasn’t it? Knocking the table or pulling a thread, plus a few well-chosen and vague questions? He supposed it was all very well, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about people who made a living out of other people’s grief.
Madame Celeste went through all the motions. Jack admired her showmanship if nothing else. As they all remained sitting around the candle, she called out into the darkness beyond them for any spirits here to reveal themselves. Despite himself, Jack drew in his breath, waiting for a response. Here, in this house, it seemed as if something surely had to respond. There was nothing, however, and after the first few minutes his reaction shifted to one of boredom and cynicism. It was cold sitting here on the floor, and he didn’t want to spend the whole evening holding Lily’s and Reg’s hands. He could sense his own impatience echoed in the others, as people began to fidget about, and someone to one side of him was whispering.
Just when he was desperately hoping that someone would at last call it a night, Madame Celeste stiffened, and, in a low voice unlike her own, said, “Diana – Diana – are you here? Don’t leave me!”
It wasn’t the usual sort of spiel, and Jack stifled a shiver as the medium kept repeating the question until one of the women – the one Reg had been flirting with earlier, Bel something or other – gave a gasp and gripped her partners’ hands so tightly that they protested. Before Jack could see what had happened, the candle blew out and the darkness swallowed them.
Suddenly, everything felt different. Jack waited for his eyes to adjust to the lack of light, but the blackness seemed to remain absolute. He couldn’t seem even to sense Reg or Lily on either side of him. He couldn’t feel their hands in his or hear surprised cries from anyone else in the circle. He had the uneasy feeling that he might not be in the house any more.
The voice was still here, as if a disembodied thing: “Diana,” it said. “You’ll stay now, won’t you? You’ll stay this time.”
Jack was finding it hard to breathe, but then another voice broke the silence; something completely different – coming from somewhere behind him –
“You’re late.” It was the tall man who was speaking, Jack realised in surprise. He’d felt so sure he was utterly alone in this blackness.
“And you’re falling down on the job,” said another voice; this one new and abrasive. “You were supposed to prevent this from happening.”
“I was told the house would be empty. Something’s gone wrong. I hoped they’d send someone else before it got to this point.”
There was a woman with them now. “You’re right, Copper. We’re late. Maybe too late.” Jack couldn’t see her, but she sounded perhaps a little haughty, maybe aristocratic. He could hear the smile in her voice, though, as she continued: “They should have sent Silver.”
“Sapphire.” The abrasive man again, sounding more urgent this time. “Stop this. Bring them all back.”
“Find a way,” said the man, and Jack knew there’d be no disobeying that order.
The tall man – Copper – spoke again: “The wiring,” he said. “Sapphire – use the wiring – with me –”
The darkness passed as abruptly as it had come and reality reasserted itself. Jack blinked, almost instantly disregarding everything that had happened between the extinguishing of the candles and the lights coming back on.
(But, he thought, somewhere in the back of his head, the electricity was disconnected. There shouldn’t be any power. There shouldn’t be any lights.)
However, the sight that met his eyes drove all thoughts of darkness and light out of his head: Bel was lying in the centre of the circle, passed out from fright or something. Or no . . . She was dead, Jack thought with sudden certainty. He’d seen enough death to know what it looked like. Oh, God, how could she be dead?
He left the others to come to that conclusion for themselves. He cast any considerations of the game, the séance, to the winds, and broke the circle to cross to Eddy, crouching down beside her and taking her hand. For once, she didn’t snap at him for fussing.
He glanced up then and saw that the tall man was still standing at the side of the room, but he had company now, a man and a woman. Jack had a sudden, sick flashback to the moment in the darkness: they matched the voices – a short man sporting evening wear and what looked like a permanent frown, and a woman in a dress of midnight blue satin, long black beads hanging around her neck. Unlike the nondescript Copper, they seemed to have dressed for a party.
Jack stood up, letting go of Eddy. “What are you going to do?” he asked them, drawing everyone else’s attention to the strangers. He couldn’t explain to himself why he’d asked, even as soon as the words were out of his mouth. It was that conversation that maybe he’d only imagined that had made him do it – they’d sounded as if they knew what was going on somehow. As if they could do something about this.
“Who the hell are you?” demanded Reg, turning and seeming to notice them for the first time. “Did you do this?”
The woman smiled. It was strangely dazzling. “I’m Sapphire, and this is Steel. Oh, and that’s Copper. And, no, we didn’t. You did.”
“Look,” Eddy said, “never mind blaming anyone – Bel needs help! Someone needs to go fetch a doctor –”
“No,” said Steel. “No one can leave.”
Reg started forward. “Now, look here –”
“She’s dead,” said Sapphire quietly. “The girl. I’m sorry. It’s too late to help her. And what Steel means is that you can’t leave. Try if you like, but what you’ve done has trapped all of us here.”
Dead? Are you sure?
Twenty-two years, three months and four days. Thirteen hours. Yes, Steel, I’m sure. It took her.
And you just stood there, Copper?
You know that’s unfair, Steel. A technician couldn’t have done anything against – Sapphire stopped, a shadow in her eyes for a moment. Against that.
He could have tried.
I couldn’t, Copper said, but it was said only as a matter of fact, not a defence. I was unable to move. I did what I could with the wiring, but It fixed on me immediately. I warned those people to leave and I tried to get into the connections, but It had taken my measure. There was nothing I could do. I said. Someone’s made a mistake. This isn’t what I was told.
Steel turned slowly, as if to glare at each of the walls in turn. When is it ever?
“I couldn’t move,” said Copper suddenly, as if another conversation had been going on somewhere. Jack looked at him. “And you need to do something now. I can feel it, building up power again, in the wiring. This time it might have sized you up as well.”
Reg stared. “What the devil are you blithering about? Come on – let’s do as Eddy says and go and get help!”
“Yes, do,” said Steel, striding past Reg, back towards Bel – towards the body, although he stopped short of her. It. “Get out of the way. You’ve done more than enough damage, all of you.”
Jack watched Reg hurry to the door, followed by Lily and Henry. Eddy moved to go after them, but he grabbed her arm. “Wait,” he said in her ear. “This is getting strange. Just – wait.”
A séance, said Steel, his disgust evident in his thoughts. Why?
Boredom, Sapphire said. She shrugged. Boredom, fear, grief, the need for reassurance.
And because of that, they’re probably all going to die, and the damage here may be irreparable!
They’re always reckless, Copper agreed. Although, I wonder –
Copper? said Sapphire.
Sapphire put her hand on her partner’s arm. Steel, Copper doesn’t have idle thoughts.
I think there’s something else, said Copper. Beyond the break. I think they may have been drawn here deliberately. He hesitated and, then, with less certainty, added: I think perhaps even we may have been.
Sapphire leant against the wall with both hands behind her back, tracing the lines of the wallpaper. There’s a number, she said suddenly: twelve.
How many of them are there? asked Steel and then answered his own question, his disapproving gaze sweeping the room. Thirteen. Now there are twelve.
“Damn it,” said Reg, marching back into the room, dark brows locked into a scowl. “We can’t get out.” He rounded on Steel, making all the use of the few inches he had on the man, although it didn’t seem to visibly move him. “You! What the hell did you people do?”
Steel hardly even bothered to look at him. He sounded almost bored. “Not us. You did this – all of you. You held a séance here. You might as well have set the house alight and locked yourselves in it.”
“I say,” Peter Ivey objected. “What a foul thing to come out with!”
“Whose idea was it?” Steel waited, and when an answer wasn’t forthcoming, said, with distaste, “This – séance.”
Jack wished they’d all stop arguing. As if it mattered now who was to blame. They just needed to get out of here, preferably alive. He found his gaze straying to the tall man again, to Copper, who was also busy ignoring the exchange. He was still attending to the wallpaper, running long fingers down the raised green patterns and halting by a tear, pulling first paper away, and then, somehow, tugging at a revealed wire, although how it could have come through the plaster, God only knew.
“I’ve been all round the bloody place,” Reg said, running a hand through his hair, making it look even more fly-away than usual. He didn’t even bother to apologise for his bad language, even when Lily flinched at it. “I can’t open the windows – can’t even break them – and the doors won’t budge. I don’t understand it. None of this should be possible!”
Sapphire turned to him. “And yet you were trying to raise a ghost. Didn’t you believe something might answer your call? What was the point if not?”
“We shifted backwards,” said Steel. “In time. The whole building. How long, Sapphire?”
Sapphire’s hazel eyes changed colour, becoming an impossible glowing blue. Jack felt Eddy press up against him in alarm. He tightened his hold on her hand, no less for his own comfort than hers. Another impossibility. He wished he could believe it was an hallucination.
“Six months, four days, three hours, fifty-three minutes,” said Sapphire distantly.
Steel faced Reg. “That’s why you can’t get out. Just as well. Let you all out into the past and the wall between us and the corridor would shatter.”
“You think there’s structural damage?” said Peter, frowning and clearly not following. Jack couldn’t say that he blamed him. “The house might fall in on us?”
Sapphire gave a passing smile. “If you want to look at it like that, yes. We’re here to prevent that happening.”
“What the hell are you people blathering about?” Reg demanded. “God, are you even sane?”
Steel rounded on him. “It was your idea, wasn’t it?”
“Blaming people isn’t going to help,” Lily said. “Leave Reg alone. It wasn’t his fault.”
Sapphire moved past her to Reg. “It’s not about blame. It’s about locating the source of the problem.”
“Not his fault, or not his idea?” said Steel. “Then who came up with it?”
Jack racked his brains for the answer to that and couldn’t think. Eddy caught his eye for a moment, clearly coming to the same conclusion, and when he glanced round at the rest of their friends, no one seemed to be any the wiser.
“None of you remember?” said Sapphire. She turned back to Steel, with a significant look, although Jack was damned if he could see why it mattered now that things had come to this pass.
Copper, meanwhile, merely continued to wind electrical wire around his hand. The lights flickered and he looked up. “It’s happening again.”
The lights went out, as if on cue, and everybody yelled, no one having much nerve left. Jack hung onto Eddy, hoping fervently that this was some strange nightmare he’d wake from soon. It couldn’t possibly be real.
“You won’t leave me,” said Madame Celeste, much as she had before, causing Eddy to give a shiver that Jack was close enough to feel. There was no name this time, though. She said it again, and this time it wasn’t lost or plaintive, there was force behind it: “You won’t leave me!”
When the lights came back on, everybody else had gone.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
When the lights go out, somebody dies...
Apologies for the long hiatus, but this fic is now in hand, and the only further delay should be summer, generally.
It wasn’t everyone else who had gone, Jack realised as he got his breath back. He was on his own and in what must be one of the upstairs rooms. It was small and bare of furniture, barring one old chest of drawers in the corner. He crossed over to it, the floorboards creaking alarmingly under his feet.
He pulled open the first drawer, stiff with disuse, and found inside it a packet of letters, tied up with string, not a ribbon. He pulled open the second, and found a pistol. Jack caught his breath.
For a moment, he knew exactly what he had to do, and he reached in –
From somewhere else in the house, he heard a shout, and he straightened up, and ran to the door. Better find out what had happened to the others – to Eddy. Today was getting stranger by the minute.
“Sapphire,” said Steel, his voice a low growl. “What does it want?” He glanced over at Madame Celeste, now the sole human in the room. “Find out.”
Sapphire followed his gaze. “I don’t think I can. Whatever this is, Copper’s right. It’s dangerous. It’s ready for us.”
“We need to know,” insisted Steel. As she stepped forward, something in his expression softened. I’m here, Sapphire. Do it.
Copper turned back from the wall. “Wait.” He held out a hand to Sapphire, and when she took it, she found a coiled piece of copper wiring in her palm.
“It may help,” he said, in explanation.
Steel nodded. “Now, Sapphire. Before we lose any more of them – before we lose any more time!”
Two years, four months, seven days, three hours. Sapphire calculated it almost automatically as she stepped forwards towards the medium, who was staring vacantly at the wall.
“It’s getting worse.”
Copper nodded. “That much is obvious.”
“Then do something about it!” said Steel, rounding on him. “That’s why they sent you.”
Copper looked at the wire he was still winding round his hand. He raised his eyebrows in mild surprise. “I am. It would be worse if I wasn’t. But I told you. It got my measure straight away.”
Sapphire, said Steel. He nodded towards Madame Celeste and watched, still but alert, as Sapphire approached the woman.
“What do you want?” Sapphire asked, and when that got no response, she sent it by means of thought instead: What do you want? Who are you?
Madame Celeste’s head jerked up, as if being pulled by a string, and her eyes were dark. “They must stay,” she said. Her voice was not her own; it was querulous, weak. “Stay here. They’ll be safe.”
“Safe!” said Steel. “At least one of them is dead.”
Sapphire looked up. “Two,” she said, a shadow passing over her face. “Two of them now.”
“Hardly safe, then, is it?”
Shh, Steel. Sapphire crouched down in front of Madame Celeste, fighting to hold the thing’s gaze. Her own eyes glowed blue. “But who are you? What do you want?”
That came directly to her mind, not in the other, elderly voice, but with such violent malevolence that Sapphire was forced bodily back against the wall, feeling the wallpaper subtly shift under her, as if it was composed of a myriad of tiny insects. She gasped.
“Sapphire,” said Copper mildly. The metal in her hand gleamed for an instant and Steel had her arm. The worst of the sensation faded away.
Sapphire, Steel said. “Sapphire!”
She couldn’t move yet, however. It’s powerful, Steel. There’s an old woman – the old woman who used to live her, but it’s something else as well. Something much worse.
What does it want with the humans? And the number twelve, what does that mean?
Sapphire could see it now. Her eyes glowed bright blue again. “The old lady wants them all here, with her. To stay forever. Kept back in time, frozen. Before everything went wrong.”
“Her childhood: long summer days, the house filled with voices – warmth – music – light –” Sapphire smiled sadly. “Not real, of course. But it is in her mind. Or it was. When she was alive.”
Sapphire turned her head, losing the link with Madame Celeste. Her eyes faded to their more usual hazel. “It wants to go back too – but further back. To take us all back.”
“Back to where – back to what?”
“Nothing,” said Sapphire. “Or perhaps I just can’t see. I don’t know. But I know how.”
Behind them, sitting on the floor, Copper nodded. “The humans.”
“The old woman’s memories,” said Steel. “What went wrong – their deaths?”
“And it’s going to kill them all. It’s going to kill them all again. We might already be too far back to stop it.”
Jack walked out onto the landing, trying to forget the room he’d found himself in. There had been something familiar about it, as if he’d been there before, or if it was the set from a play and he almost knew what his lines were, but in this case, he didn’t want to remember.
The first person he ran into in the hallway was Eddy, to his great relief. She gripped his arm.
“Jack! What’s going on? What just happened?”
Before Jack could even attempt to say that he didn’t have the first clue, one of the others ran out from the dining room. A young man – Henry’s friend, Jack thought, fighting for the name. Christian? No, Christopher Melford, that was it.
“Quickly,” Melford said. He was shaking. “My God. In there. It’s Noel. He’s hurt. I don’t know how – I just found him.”
Jack and Eddy ran past him into the room. Noel had been the youngest of the party, barring Eddy. Now he was lying on the dusty floorboards in the semi-darkness, bruised and bleeding, and seemingly every bit as dead as Bel.
“It’s not possible,” said Melford. His voice was still unsteady. “An hallucination – something like that. Or, God, a sick joke. That’s all. Reg put him up to it, maybe – he would.”
Jack crouched down beside the boy, feeling for his pulse. It was there, but very weak, almost non-existent. He seemed to have been badly battered and there might well also be internal bleeding. What the hell was there to do for him, when they couldn’t get out, or even call for help? None of them was a doctor.
“Is he alive?”
Jack waited, no longer feeling Noel’s pulse. He tried again, then put his fingers against his neck and drew back. “No. Not now. Get Lily or Pru.” They had both been VADs, and at least they would have a better idea than he did.
“But how?” said Melford. “My God, my God, Mayhew, how?”
“He was beaten to death,” said one of the strangers from behind them.
It was Sapphire. They all jumped, and Jack and Eddy turned. She merely continued, seemingly unmoved: “It enabled something to pull us further back in time. It’s getting worse with each event and it hasn’t finished yet. You’d better get back in the other room. We need to keep you together and prevent it happening again. If we can’t, the consequences could be catastrophic.”
There ought to be something to say to such an outrageous claim. Jack ought to have argued, but these events were all so uncanny, and Sapphire so very certain, that he merely nodded and grabbed at Eddy’s hand. She had stopped making any objections about him playing the protective older brother, which meant that she must be pretty damn scared, too, poor kid.
“What do we do?” Eddy asked.
Sapphire merely nodded to the door. “Hurry. There really isn’t much time. It seems to be hungry.” She put a hand to Melford’s arm. “Come on, Christopher. With me.”
Downstairs, Steel paced across the drawing room and back, while Copper moved out into the hallway, listening to the walls.
“You said it had your measure,” Steel said, suddenly beside Copper again. “Whatever’s doing this.”
Copper nodded, straightening up and moving away from the wall, although his gaze strayed to the light switch. “Yes.”
“What is it? Some sort of fault in the wiring?” Steel nodded to the wiring Copper still had wound around his hand.
Copper nodded. “Yes. Over there.” He gestured to the opposite side of the hallway where there was a grandfather clock standing next to a small table with a telephone on it.
Steel strode across to the clock. It was still working. “Is it connected to the mains?”
“No, not that,” said Copper, amusement lightening his face for a moment. “It’s the old-fashioned, wind-up sort. The telephone. Its wires, the electrical wires – power and voices tangled together. I keep trying to disentangle it, but it’s not working. As I said, it got my measure. It keeps trying to assign me a part in its little play.”
Steel picked up the telephone, removing the mouthpiece from its cradle and listening to the receiver. “It’s dead.”
“It was cut off several years ago,” said Copper. “But then, so was the mains supply. Now they’re both connected to something else.”
Steel glared at the phone and then put it down. “What?” Sapphire. Where are you? We need you.
The telephone rang, impossibly, with nobody on the end of the line. Steel’s glare intensified in his distaste.
“I think it may have your measure too,” said Copper, his brief amusement now gone. “I feel – I can’t explain – perhaps it isn’t reliable. I may be wrong.”
Steel turned. Copper usually stuck to the facts, unlike certain other technicians he could mention who bordered on the fanciful. “What?”
“I think there’s something waiting on the other end. Of the line – of the wires,” said Copper. “Waiting for me. For us, now. There’s something bigger that’s obscuring it – the initial source of the break – and destroying these people, but I feel there’s something behind it that wants to stop us.”
“But it might not be reliable – this, this feeling.”
Copper put his hand back on the wall, running it down the textured wallpaper. “This is poisonous, you know.”
“That’s the cause?”
Copper grinned. “No. It’s what they used to colour it with. Arsenic. Not very sensible. Never mind if it hurts you, as long as it looks pretty.”
“Copper,” growled Steel. “Explain what you meant. You’re beginning to sound like Silver. ”
Copper remained very still. “Unkind, Steel. Although perhaps that’s the trouble – perhaps I’m too predictable. He always said so.”
Steel waited. Something was wrong. “Copper!”
I’m trying, Copper said, and his mental voice in Steel’s head revealed the strain in a way he hadn’t aloud, to rewire things – hold it back. It’s getting stronger, though.
“And this feeling? Is it reliable?”
Copper looked down at the wiring wrapped around his hand. “I think so – but then I’m becoming unreliable.”
Steel leant forward and gripped Copper’s wrist, but whatever was or wasn’t affecting Copper, it wasn’t obvious to him, nor could he stop it, not like that.
“I’ve been trying to re-route things. Buy us some more time. It’s building up again, you see. But the more I do, the more it’s in me.”
“You’re not making sense,” said Steel.
“I think he is,” Sapphire said, as she came down the stairs to join them. Steel hesitated to pursue the matter, irritated to find that she had done exactly as he had asked and had returned with several of the humans in tow and the rest of his questions must wait. The most pressing matter was to keep as many of them alive as possible.
“How long?” said Steel to Copper, as Jack and Eddy followed Sapphire and the others down the stairs. Steel had scowled at all of them, but now he turned back to Copper. “You said it was building up again. How long?”
There always seemed to be missing conversations with those three. Jack tightened his hold on Eddy’s hand, because strange as they were they seemed to be the only hope any of them had. If Reg wasn’t right and it wasn’t all their fault.
Copper looked upward and then held up his hand, his fingers and thumb stretched out, signalling five.
Five what, wondered Jack. Minutes, seconds, hours, days?
Sapphire stretched out her hand towards Copper, but she didn’t reach him, not before it all happened again.
The lights went out. (Seconds, thought Jack distantly in the nothingness that followed. He meant seconds.)
It was the same as last time: Jack was on his own and in what must be one of the upstairs rooms. It was small and bare of furniture, barring one old chest of drawers in the corner. He crossed over to it, the floorboards creaking alarmingly under his feet.
He pulled open the first drawer, stiff with disuse, and found inside it a packet of letters, tied up with string, not a ribbon. He pulled open the second, and found a pistol.
He reached out and took hold of it, feeling the familiar weight of it in his hand. (There was thunder in his head; there was always thunder in his head these days.)
He had been here before. He knew what he had to do.
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
There's a deadly game going on, and Jack's finding he's got a date with a gun...
“Sapphire,” said Steel, in the darkness, cutting through the chaos of the moment as the house shifted further back in time. The three of them could hear it, almost taste it, the gears of time protesting as they went the wrong way. “Sapphire. Fight it! Bring us forward – a few minutes, a second, even. Don’t let it have it all its own way.”
Sapphire’s eyes were glowing. The lights came on, and then went off again. On, off.
“You and I,” Steel said to Copper, “need to bring them back.”
Copper looked at the wire around his hand and back at the wall, but he didn’t protest. He nodded.
On, off, went the lights.
Upstairs, in the dark, Jack took the gun, curled his fingers around it –
Upstairs, in the light, Jack pulled open the first drawer, stiff with disuse, and found inside it a packet of letters, tied up with string, not a ribbon. He pulled open the second, and found a pistol.
Upstairs, in the dark, there was blood on the floor –
Upstairs, in the light, Jack pulled open the first drawer, stiff with disuse, and found inside it a packet of letters, tied up with string, not a ribbon. He pulled open the second, and found a pistol.
“I’ll take that,” said someone from behind him. Copper. He took the gun from Jack’s hand. He turned it over. “I haven’t seen one of these in a long while. Double action. Not officially army issue, but it’s seen battle. Made around sixty-eight years ago, as far as one can tell, given the current state of time in this house. Used, but not for –” Copper gave the weapon a closer examination – “about fifty or sixty years. Real. It’s not actually loaded, but I doubt that would have made a difference to the outcome.”
Jack was caught up in the feelings that had possessed him until Copper’s appearance. “What?”
“Of course, the trouble with us slipping backwards is that even if I dismantle it, it’ll be here again ten minutes ago. And I’m not sure such practical actions are of much help here in any case. Nevertheless,” he said, and gave Jack a brief smile as he dropped the gun into his jacket pocket.
The light went out, but Copper remained standing beside him and the scenario failed to repeat itself. Jack blinked, feeling more normal. “What?”
“It’s perfectly simple,” Copper said, as the lights came back on, and stayed, illuminating only the bare room, no other details. “Just a nasty trick of the wiring – and Time.”
“Yes, the wiring,” said Copper. “For the electricity, and the telephone. Something’s in there.”
Jack shook himself. “Are you mad?”
“Possibly,” said Copper. “It wants me to think I’m one of its memories too. The Colonel’s batman. A tragic accident with an electrical item in the bathroom. Ironic, I suppose, and possibly anachronistic. But then I’m not sure all of these deaths actually happened the first time around, either.”
Jack found the memory of the moment in the room with the gun was slipping away from him, but it was as yet present enough that he began to feel Copper’s strange statements almost made sense.
“What’s in the wiring?”
Copper met his gaze, in mild, grey surprise. “Memories. Pain. Grief. Trouble.” He held out his hand, with a small piece of ordinary copper wiring in it, and gestured for Jack to take it. Jack hesitated, but there seemed to be no reason to refuse, so he put it in his pocket.
“And the truth, perhaps,” Copper added.
Jack was trying to find the right question to ask next, to begin to understand this impossible situation, when he was interrupted by a screaming from the floor below.
“Oh, no,” he said. “Damn!” He’d thought that it must have been meant to be him that died this time, and Copper had saved him, but apparently that was wishful thinking. It had been someone else.
He raced out onto the landing, colliding with Eddy again as he did so – and wondered which room she had been in, and if she had an unpleasant fate awaiting her there, too. The thought made him want to punch somebody, but whatever was acting against them here was far too nebulous for that. Pretty much everyone had lost someone in the War, or after, in the ‘flu epidemic, so it was nothing unusual, but Jack had once had an elder brother, Tom, as well as a younger sister. He didn’t want to think about what their parents would do if he or Eddy, or both, didn’t make it home after tonight. He didn’t want to think about what he would do, either, if he had to go home without Eddy. How would he even begin to explain?
Eddy grabbed him by the arm. “Who?” she said, tugging at him. “Who is it this time?”
“Come on, get into the parlour,” Steel said, interrupting them from halfway down the stairwell below. “Before it happens again.”
Reg had emerged onto the opposite end of the landing, before they could walk away down the stairs. “More orders?” he said, quivering with what Jack suspected was both anger and fear. “Well, I’m coming down right enough – I want another word with you! This is your doing, and it’s murder, bloody murder!”
So, is someone else dead? Steel asked.
Sapphire was in the back bedroom with Lily and Henry Arnhirst. Lily was lying on the bed, her hair red against the white pillows. The bedclothes should not have been there in a house that had been closed up and neglected for so long. Sapphire reached out, putting the back of her fingers lightly to Lily’s forehead. Yes. Someone else is dead.
Behind her, Lydia Knowles pressed herself back against the dark wallpaper, her hand over her mouth, as she tried to stifle panic and tears. She was the one who had screamed. Henry Arnhirst and one of the other women were by the bedside. Henry was hanging onto Lily’s hand.
“She’s gone,” said the woman. (Pru, Sapphire noted carefully. She had been a VAD in the war, a few years before. Not technically a nurse, but more than close enough to know plenty about death and injury. She was twenty-eight years, seven months and three days old. She should have at least that again left to her, if this house didn’t take it away.) “I don’t know what did it.”
Sapphire took a step back. “Measles,” she said.
“Measles?” said Pru. “Like this?” Then her shoulders sagged. “Why should I even expect any of this to make sense?”
Henry was still looking at Lily. “But this can’t – she can’t –” He gave up and stared at her again.
“Reg is right,” said Lydia from behind them. She hadn’t stopped trembling. “We should smash our way out – anything! We can’t stay here!”
Sapphire turned around. “That won’t work. You can’t leave yet – and it wouldn’t help.”
Sapphire? Steel, elsewhere, was getting impatient. Who? How did it happen this time? If there’s a pattern, we need to find it.
Sapphire glanced back at Lily, letting her hand fall to her side. Measles. A childish ailment, but still sometimes fatal. Worse back then. A child. This used to be the nursery.
And how much more time have we lost?
Sapphire closed her eyes and shivered at the magnitude of it. Ten years, five months, two days and seventeen minutes. It’s May 1912.
Is the date significant?
No, not especially. It seems to be pushing us back as far as it can – and it’s getting more powerful with each death.
“We need to escape from here,” Eddy said, still hanging onto Jack, pressing in close against his arm. “It’s horrible. Surely there must be a way out of the house? It’s not a prison.”
Jack turned his head. “Reg tried before – it really does seem to be impossible. Besides, they told us to stay together.”
“We can’t seem to do that, either,” said Eddy. “And we were together when Bel died…” Her voice trailed away on the last word, and she swallowed, before moving in nearer to him and saying more quietly, “Oh, this can’t be true, any of it! It must be some awful nightmare.”
He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile, but he couldn’t help thinking of Tom again. He’d been four years older, so Jack had always been closer to Eddy, but Tom’s absence unbalanced everything. Tom had been the one who was clever at school, who was going to be a doctor, so Jack was to follow Father into his business. Tom had always been there, ahead of Jack. Jack had always an invisible letter of recommendation: he was Tom’s brother, and that spoke for itself at school. Then Jack had been the one who’d fought, and Tom had patched people up, but Tom was the one who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time at a field Station. It seemed so unfair. Maybe that was why Jack had a gun waiting for him upstairs. Maybe it was the only way to make it fair.
“Jack,” said Eddy. “Everything’s horrid and you’re not even listening. Pig.”
Jack let out a short laugh, and squeezed her hand. He bet that Eddy would disagree with that idea of fairness, and she was probably right. It did make him wonder, though, what sort of fate everyone else had found waiting for them in this house. If it was happening to him, and to Copper, then they couldn’t be the only ones.
“It’s like a game,” said Pru, pacing about with her arms folded in against herself. “Someone seems to be playing Murder in the Dark with us.”
Steel turned, marching over to her. “Murder in the Dark?”
“Oh, you know,” Angela said, lifting her head. She was sitting in the corner against the wall. “There’s a victim, and a murderer and a detective, and then when the lights go out, the murderer goes round touching people until somebody falls down dead – that’s the victim, except sometimes they do it where you’re all the victims – and then you yell out murder and switch the lights back on. Then whoever’s the detective comes back in and questions everyone about what happened. Jolly good fun – usually.”
Sapphire moved across to Steel, and they exchanged a glance before either of them spoke.
“I suppose that makes you the detectives,” said Jack. “Is one of us the murderer?”
They all looked at Madame Celeste, sitting blankly in the centre of the room.
“No. It isn’t one of you,” Sapphire said. “And it isn’t a game. The memories in this house – the old woman’s memories – weren’t enough to do what it needed. One of you must have come here at some point – visited just long enough for the idea to take root in the mind. The séance – and all of this.”
Pru shook herself. “It doesn’t make sense, any of it. I thought I’d seen just about everything out in France, but this is something else again.”
“I was thinking,” Jack said in the uncomfortable silence that followed. Everyone immediately turned their attention to him and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other and gave a cough. “It’s only – where do we all go, when the lights go off? Because I wind up upstairs each time it happens, in one of the bedrooms. And there’s a gun.” He hesitated on whether or not to go further, mindful of Eddy. “There’s a gun,” he said again, helplessly.
“Jack,” said Eddy under her breath, almost involuntarily.
He squeezed her hand, but he looked to Steel. “That’s what’s waiting for me. And if we knew that for all of us, maybe we could stop it.”
“It can’t hurt,” said Steel. “Tell us.” He nodded to Sapphire and to Copper, further over in the doorway. “Quickly!”
Steel turned to Reg, who had been strangely quiet throughout, despite his bluster upstairs, while Sapphire looked at Pru and Angela.
“You, we know,” said Copper to Jack and then switched his attention to Eddy.
Jack found his mouth was dry. “Yes, but – you said there was a fate waiting for you, too. How did you escape it?”
“I’m a technician,” he said, as if that was an answer, and then looked at Eddy intently. “You?”
“I’m in one of the other rooms,” said Eddy, sounding slightly breathless. “I –”
“Five,” murmured Copper distantly, as if listening to something else instead.
Four – three – two – one, Jack finished for him and tried to hang onto Eddy, as if that might work this time.
The lights went out.
Sapphire stood in the middle of the room, trying to bring the building forward rather than back. The lights flickered with her efforts, but she spared a moment to direct a thought to Steel: Pru. Through the kitchen, in the scullery, by the sink. Lydia – in the top bedroom. Hurry.
Yes, said Steel. Sapphire could feel his movements: down the hall, into the kitchen –
She smiled. The lights held for a moment longer.
Copper? said Steel suddenly. (Sapphire paused to pinpoint Steel’s location. He was in the kitchen, no doubt pushing Pru back from the sink.) Sapphire, where’s Copper?
Sapphire blinked. She didn’t sense Copper anywhere. I don’t know. But you’d better get to as many of the others as you can, even if he’s not helping.
It would be easier if he was.
Yes. Now let me concentrate, or else we’ll lose more time. And more people.
But at the edge of her mind, she was still aware that Steel was right, as he so often was, and she couldn’t feel Copper’s presence in the house any more.
Jack was standing alone in what must be one of the upstairs rooms. It was small and bare of furniture, barring one old chest of drawers in the corner. He crossed over to it, the floorboards creaking alarmingly under his feet.
He pulled open the first drawer, stiff with disuse, and found inside it a packet of letters, tied up with string, not a ribbon. He pulled open the second, and found a pistol.
He shut the drawer hastily, remembering Copper from last time. He’d been talking about the electricity in the most peculiar fashion. Instinctively, Jack put his hand in his pocket and found the piece of wiring. For a moment, as the lights flickered, he could have sworn it shone.
What’s in the wiring, Jack had asked, and he wasn’t quite sure what Copper had said. That moment was fuzzy in his mind; the way that the feeling that came with the gun became whenever he wasn’t looking at it. He looked again at the twisted piece of thin wiring in his hand. Memories, that was what Copper had told him.
Memories were important right now: what had Eddy said to Copper? Because she had, in between the counting down that had distracted him. Jack raced out of the empty bedroom, heedless of the way the floorboards creaked and protested under him, out onto the landing – and straight into Eddy again, both of them clutching at each other in relief.
They headed down the stairs, mindful of the need to regroup and exchange stories, and how little time there seemed to be for that, only to reach the hallway as Reg keeled over onto the mosaic-tiled floor.
“I think it’s his heart,” said Pru, who was kneeling on one side of Reg. She looked pale as she glanced up at Jack and Eddy, frozen in dismay on the stairs. “Bloody hell. Pardon my French. It’s just – we’re all going to die here, aren’t we? Picked off one by one by some kind of ghost.”
“As you said,” Eddy agreed, miserably, descending heavily down the last few steps. “Murder in the dark.”
Copper walked down the stairs, Jack moving aside to let him pass, and then leaping down the last few to join Eddy.
“I don’t know. I think those three might actually be able to do something.” His hand went to the wiring in his pocket, as if it was a talisman. “Chin up, eh?”
Pru raised an eyebrow and stood again as Copper crouched down beside Reg. “Do you? I think they might only be making it worse.” But she didn’t say that directly to Copper, or try to stop him from examining Reg.
“Sir,” said Copper. He looked up at the others. “Someone should fetch help. The Colonel seems to have had one of his turns.”
Pru raised the other eyebrow. “Colonel?” she said, her voice rising. “Reg? Hardly! Besides, it’s too late for help – he’s dead.”
“So much for your detectives,” said Eddy to Jack. “Where are the other two, anyway?”
“Interesting,” said Sapphire, standing in the kitchen. “I think perhaps now it does have our measure. It’s found our place.”
Steel glanced around him with more than his usual distaste. “In the kitchen?”
“I was drawn here. Were you?”
“I was in the scullery. Making sure one of them didn’t drown in the sink.”
“And that’s all?”
Steel paused. “No. I was at the back door.”
“It could be.”
Steel crossed back to the door, opening it. It was ink-dark outside in a way that appeared almost solid. Steel reached out a hand, and Sapphire could see from the way that he pushed at it that it reacted more like liquid than air.
“Where is Copper?” said Steel in annoyance. “I know he’s worried about the wiring, but there are other things to be done.”
Sapphire had more leisure to attend to that question now. She tried to reach Copper, and came up with a blank. She tried again, and still the same result. She drew in her breath.
He’s gone? said Steel.
Sapphire gave a small twitch of her mouth. “I don’t know. He’s simply… not here any more.”
It was difficult to know what to say to someone who suddenly appeared to think he was someone he couldn’t be, and didn’t seem to know who they were. Jack should have been relieved at any interruption, but Madame Celeste suddenly speaking in that flat, distant way wasn’t an improvement.
“Papa,” she said. “Stay now. Diana – Louisa – Caroline.”
Henry took a step forward, and then back again. “She’s doing this – listen to her! What is she, a witch?”
What century is this? Jack was tempted to respond, but according to Sapphire and Steel, that was a very good question, so he didn’t.
“Stop that,” said Steel to Henry, walking in. He then directed a frown at Copper, who didn’t seem to notice.
“But she must be doing it! She started up the séance, she’s the one who keeps sitting there, chanting out people’s names!”
Sapphire took hold Henry’s arm. “In one sense she is the key, yes. But it’s not her. It’s the memories in this house. The old woman, who lived here alone for so long. And when your medium opened herself up to the possibility of such things in this place, they took her over. But she didn’t start it, and we couldn’t stop it by hurting her. It would merely use another channel.”
“It’s all the fault of a ghost?”
Pru hugged herself again, glancing over at Angela. “Well, it seems to be, doesn’t it? Wasn’t that what I was saying?”
“Blaming each other isn’t going to help,” said Steel, crossing to stand beside Reg’s body. He looked down at Copper kneeling there. “Get up. We need you to finish the job.”
Copper glanced up, his expression vague and blank. “I’m sorry?”
“Steel,” said Sapphire. It sounded like a warning to Jack.
Steel paused, looking back at Sapphire. “Who are you?” he asked of Copper, eventually.
Copper got to his feet slowly. “Austin,” he said. “Nicholas Austin.” He was practically towering over Steel, but Steel dominated the scene. “I am – was – the Colonel’s man. Can’t you do anything for him?”
“No,” said Sapphire, crossing over. She put one hand on Steel’s arm, much as she had done with Henry, and raised her head to meet Copper’s gaze as she spoke. “He’s dead. What is it you think we could do for a dead man, Mr Austin?”
For one moment, Jack thought she had reached her possessed colleague, but then Copper only shrugged and backed away until he was leaning against the wallpaper.
“Quickly,” said Steel. “Those of you we didn’t get to last time – we need to know where you end up after the lights go out.”
Copper’s still in there, isn’t he?
Sapphire nodded, in between listening to Angela’s hesitant explanation of her waiting fate. I’m not certain. I think so. Submerged. I’m sure I almost caught a glimpse of him when we spoke.
Can he be retrieved? We need a technician to finish this job. They can’t send us another, not now.
Sapphire shook her head. Shh; these accounts first, or all of these people are so much –
“Steel,” said Sapphire.
They both turned as Madame Celeste spoke again. The woman was looking straight at Jack. “Felix,” she said, and it did feel like a curse. Henry Arnhirst had been wrong, but there was an element of truth in his fears.
The lights went out.
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
Jack worries he might be next, Copper is AWOL - and Sapphire and Steel are having a tea party.
There was another confused period of darkness, but this time it was different. For one moment, Jack was in the upstairs room, but he barely had time to take one step towards the chest of drawers, the floorboards creaking in protest underfoot, before he found himself back downstairs in the front parlour with the others.
They all exchanged uncertain glances, no one quite daring to speak in case their luck broke.
“We’re all here,” said Eddy after the silence had gone on for long enough. Her voice sounded louder than it should have done.
Pru nodded. “We seem to be. Well, that’s something, I suppose.”
“Yes, you’re all here,” Sapphire said, from the doorway. “That is something.”
Steel was beside her. Neither of them looked particularly relieved about the lack of fatalities, and the likeliest reason why struck Jack in the same instant. Copper had been with them, and now he wasn’t. He could have been in the hallway, or upstairs, but Jack didn’t think so. There was a fate waiting for him, too, Copper had said. Maybe it had caught up with him.
“Jack?” said Eddy, catching his unease as he shifted about, scanning the room again to be certain.
He turned his head towards her. “Don’t worry. I’m going to the bathroom.”
“We had better return to the kitchen,” said Sapphire to Steel.
Jack had been going to explain to them what Copper had said to him about an ironic accident in the bath, but if they weren’t interested, he wasn’t sure he had the nerve to try and make them understand. He hurried on up the stairs.
“What are you doing?”
Sapphire busied herself at the range. “Making you tea.”
“I don’t drink. And that stove is cold. I’m not sure we’ve got that long, even if I did.”
Sapphire smiled. I didn’t say it was a real cup of tea.
Is this wise?
Letting ourselves play the parts it wants us to? I think it may be illuminating. And that’s the point: Steel doesn’t drink tea, but Mr Moore the gardener enjoys a good brew, especially in cold weather. It’s December out there. 1904.
“It should be November. November 1922.”
“I can’t push us forward that far. Not yet – not even with –” Sapphire caught her breath on the word – “Copper.”
No, it’s not enough said Steel, after a brief pause. He didn’t need to say anything else.
Sapphire nodded. Nevertheless we have a little space to work things out while the creature deals with him.
You’re sure this is a good idea?
Steel almost smiled back. “As usual, then.”
“Yes,” said Sapphire. She didn’t change appearance, but her stance shifted abruptly, and she turned her attention back to the kettle. We need time, and we need to understand as much as we can about what happened in this house before it’s too late.
“Well, then,” said Mr Moore the gardener, sitting himself down at the scrubbed wooden table. “Where’s that cup of tea you promised, Mrs B?”
The bathroom had been elaborate in its day, but now it was as faded and shabby as the rest of the building; the blue and white tiles dusty and chipped, and dirt and dust floating around in the white enamel bath tub. The brass shower head hung limply on its hose, fallen out of its holder, as if despairing of its existence.
And what was worse, there was a man in the bath, fallen backwards fully clothed, as if he’d collapsed for some reason before even attempting to get in. It was Copper. He looked oddly peaceful.
“No, damn it,” said Jack, and moved forwards to pull him out, dragging the body back onto the tiles, but it was only a body now, heavy and lifeless, with its jacket and shirt half-sodden: a small puddle forming where it lay.
It wasn’t as bad as if it had been one of the others, but Jack didn’t want it to be anybody. And while he didn’t understand Sapphire, Steel, or Copper, they hadn’t been the ones who’d had the stupid idea to come here and hold a séance. Copper had seemed to be trying to fix something, and he thought Sapphire and Steel probably were, too. It was another unfair thing, and he swore again under his breath, then kicked the bath for good measure.
“I’m sorry,” said Jack to Copper, as he sat on the edge of the bath and got his breath back. He fished in his pocket for a cigarette, but he didn’t have one, and found himself wondering if Reg had had some; he usually did. He should have searched his pockets. Then he closed his eyes. He’d believed the time for that sort of thinking was long past. Perhaps it never was.
He got up, heading out of the room before anyone else realised what he was about and tried to follow him. No one else needed to see another corpse. Jack shut the door behind him and went downstairs.
“You must be glad to get inside for a minute or two,” said Sapphire, carefully carrying across an impossible tea cup. “It’s raining cats and dogs out there.”
“You don’t need to tell me.” Steel took the cup and glowered at it. I’m not sure this is going to help.
For one thing, if we’re playing along, it won’t worry about us. And I may learn something.
Steel sighed. “Tea’s good,” he said. So you think we should give ourselves up, like Copper? I don’t agree.
Of course not. Sapphire bustled about the kitchen, transferring pots and pans about. None of them were real, either. It amused her, at least a little, despite the gravity of the situation. It would buy them some more time, but then what?
Steel drank his tea, and read an imaginary, borrowed newspaper, The Times for the 15th December 1885. The alternative seems to be letting it take them, until it’s only us and the medium. The result is the same.
So, we stop it taking them. We know where each of them will be. It’s possible.
Steel put down the tea cup, the unreal plain but quality white china on the scrubbed clean (broken, dirty and uneven) kitchen table. “Any more in the pot?” He watched her closely. Possible, yes, but it would only be staving off the inevitable, and it would get worse each time we failed. We need Copper. I can hunt down the centre – it’s in the wiring, Copper said. In the telephone, and it’s using the medium as its conduit. He stopped.
“Need you ask?” said Sapphire, reaching for the teapot. What is it?
I’m not sure. Could you do it?
Make you this cup of tea? Probably, if you really want me to try. I take it that’s not what you meant.
Steel got to his feet. “On second thoughts, better not. I’ve got to finish off the shrubbery path.” Take us back – forwards, rather – to 1922?
It’s where we should be – where a sizeable part of the house is. I could, but I’d need to be free of interference – I’d need something to use against it.
Good. Steel headed to the door. So, we let them die.
He leant against the door for a moment. “What was that, Mrs B?”
“Oh, nothing, although I wish you’d make up your mind whether you’re coming or going.” Sapphire carefully replaced the teapot on the table. The pot and the cup both faded away and the table grew dusty and listed a little as reality reclaimed it. Letting them die will worsen the break. You said so yourself.
There aren’t so many of them left. And if we choose which of them survive and which of them don’t –
Sapphire grasped his thinking – to create emotions of loss that might be strong enough to counter-balance those of the old woman. You think that will work?
“I can’t think of anything else that could under these circumstances.” Steel watched her. “You said you could take us back to the right time. And their reactions should give you the extra push to counter the creature’s pull. You’ve been observing them, haven’t you? The connections between them. You’ll know which to choose.”
“One other thing,” said Steel. “We need Copper. Otherwise, we can get back, but we can’t prevent this starting all over again.”
Sapphire instinctively gazed upwards. “I’ll try, Steel. But you might have to deal with the wiring yourself if he’s gone.”
“First, that lot in there.”
Sapphire nodded. “Unless you’d like another cup of tea first.”
Steel didn’t even bother to glare, and Sapphire bit back a laugh.
Jack sat down next to Eddy on the bare floorboards, by the wall. Standing opposite, Pru and Angela tried their best to comfort Lydia, while Henry Arnhirst stared out of the window into the darkness. In the corner, Christopher Melford and Peter Ivey were arguing over something, their voices beginning to rise, and Jack heard Melford spit out the insult ‘Conshie’ at Ivey. As if that mattered now, he thought in disgust, pressing his head back against the peeling wallpaper.
“Of course you want to run,” Melford said.
“That’s not cowardice, it’s common sense! We’re all going to die if we stay here!”
Melford shrugged. “You try. I had a go at one of the windows earlier, upstairs, and they’re right, you know. There is no way of getting out. You simply… can’t. But maybe you can, being the only one with principles, while the rest of us just have to get on with the dirty work. Perhaps you can talk your way out of this one as well!”
It was hard not to feel that resentment, or the echo of it, but the War was over, so there wasn’t much point. Jack bit back a sigh. Anyway, he knew for a fact Ivey had been an ambulance driver; it wasn’t as if he had been sitting safely at home. He’d been as much at risk as Tom; more so, even. But they were all afraid and tempers were fraying. He glanced upwards and caught Pru’s look, and knew she was thinking much the same thing, but neither of them had anything to say to mend matters.
Eddy poked Jack’s arm, and he twisted back round. “Do you think it’s stopped now? This is the longest we’ve had between – well, between what happens. Maybe it would be different if we tried to leave now.”
Madame Celeste was still muttering. She had been doing that for so long, it had become mere background noise, but Jack took that as an answer to Eddy’s question in itself. If it was over, she wouldn’t be calling out names in that unnerving way.
“Stay,” she said, looking at him now, as if she sensed his attention. “Felix.”
Jack shifted his position against the wall, and made himself focus on Eddy again, but he kept thinking about Noel earlier, and Copper in the bathroom, and the other corner of the room where Reg and Bel were both lying. And there was Madame Celeste, darkly chanting names, as if cursing them all. And with those thoughts came other memories that he didn’t want to recall.
“A séance,” he said, and ran a hand through his hair. “What a stupid idea. As if anyone can call back the dead.”
Sapphire and Steel walked back into the room, and they all turned, probably hoping for news as much as Jack was, but the two of them only had more questions. They wanted to know again about the fates that awaited each of them when the lights went out. As they moved round the room, Sapphire put a hand to the arm of one, a touch on the shoulder of another. When it came to his turn, it made Jack uneasy, although he couldn’t have said why. It looked friendly and sympathetic enough, but Sapphire seemed suddenly even more distant than before.
Something’s up, Jack thought, fear twisting inside him. Madame Celeste was staring at him again, too, calling out the name she associated with him – Felix. It felt right in Jack’s head; it went with the room upstairs and the packet of letters and the gun. He could taste the memory of blood in his mouth and feel the weapon in his hand. That was all the more disconcerting for being simultaneously illusory and entirely real.
“Shut up,” said Steel suddenly, and Jack, Eddy and Sapphire turned to see that he’d finally got Melford and Ivey to give up their quarrel.
Sapphire put her hand on Eddy’s arm now. “We know about you,” she said to Jack, “but we hadn’t finished with your sister, had we?”
“I’m sorry,” Jack said, taking the opportunity while he had it. When Sapphire halted her questions, cocking her head in a gesture of query, he added. “About Copper, I mean. I went upstairs and I saw. I am sorry.”
Something in Sapphire shifted: the expression in her eyes was both softer and darker. “Thank you,” she said, but looked to Eddy, brisk again. “How about you?”
Eddy gave a short shrug. “I don’t want to talk about it. It isn’t real anyway – it won’t be real! I’m in that bedroom at the back, next to the one Jack keeps ending up in. That’s all.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Sapphire, reasonable and smiling and implacable.
Eddy swallowed and wouldn’t meet Jack’s gaze. “I’m cold,” she said, eventually. “I want to sit near the fire, so –” She stopped and raised her head again. “It can’t be anything, can it? There’s nothing sinister about that. It’s not as if I’m freezing to death when I’m there. I just feel cold.”
“Not freezing,” said Sapphire, seeing past her. “Burning. Fires are dangerous things.”
Jack slipped his arm around Eddy. “But we can stop it,” he said. “That’s the point, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Sapphire, with a nod. “That won’t happen, I promise.”
Jack shot her a grateful look.
“I promise,” she said, but the way she said it was a warning: she hadn’t made any such promise to him. His heart was beating faster and he could hear Madame Celeste in the background, calling for him by that other name.
The lights flickered and Jack shivered.
“We’ve got a little time,” said Sapphire. “But I need to speak to the others.”
Jack nodded, his mouth dry. He coughed before he spoke, unsure how to phrase what he wanted to ask. “Time,” he said. “How we’ve got it, I mean. Was it to do with Copper?”
“Yes,” said Sapphire.
Jack frowned. It felt ever more unreal, all of this. “You know, he said to me that he didn’t think all of these deaths had actually happened. But if that’s true, then what is it all about?”
“Did he?” said Sapphire. It was impossible to know whether that was news to her or not, or what she thought about it. “Now I must speak to the others. And then,” she added, with a glimmer of humour in her eyes, and something more, a challenge perhaps, “I’m going to call back the dead.”
But as she moved on, all Jack could hear was Madame Celeste saying his name, and he wondered how long the light could last.
Not long, he thought, and the thunder in his head was louder than before.
Chapter 5: Chapter Five
It's time to try and turn the tables before it's too late...
At Steel’s nod, Sapphire left him to finish questioning Henry Arnhirst, and made her way up the stairs, through grey-edged gloom and silence, and into the bathroom.
She perched herself on the narrow edge of the bath, perfectly poised in defiance of her precarious position. She surveyed the body on the floor, twisting her hands in her lap. Could she retrieve Copper, or had he gone too far? No, she corrected herself, had he been taken too far? Stolen away, devoured. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
“Copper,” she said. “I know you can hear me. You’re still in there, aren’t you? We need you. We can’t see to the people here and fix the technical fault.”
The body on the floor didn’t move. Was she too late? A quiver of pain and loss passed through her at the idea.
Sapphire stretched out a hand, her eyes glowing faintly for a moment. She could sense above everything else the death of the human: a freak accident – electrocution. Nicholas Austin had fallen backwards against the half full tub already lifeless. Forty-seven years, four months and six days, and then this sudden full stop.
“Is that even possible?” said Sapphire, reviewing the method of his demise. “I suppose if the old woman has help from whatever’s lurking in the wiring, it may be. Or perhaps her memories are confused. Wrong. You’ll know, of course. You do, don’t you?”
Underneath it, underneath the bare facts of a human’s death, Sapphire could feel the creature, dark and consuming, but buried further beneath that, she could finally sense their technician. She could almost touch gleaming wires and know the connections between them all. Copper was still there, somewhere. She curled her hand around the piece of wire that he’d given her earlier: she could recite its history, but it also spoke to her of Copper. Sapphire played with it between her fingers, before laying it down on the blue and white tiles beside the body. Then she straightened herself up and waited.
“It’s got your measure, you said,” Sapphire told the body on the chequered tiles, once she was ready. “Not quite, I think. You know, Silver always did say that was the trouble with you –”
Sapphire was almost certain the body had twitched. She stared serenely down. “Yes, Silver always said the trouble with you is that you underestimate yourself. That you impose artificial limits on yourself.”
Not artificial limits. Necessary ones.
Sapphire smiled. “I knew you hadn’t left us yet. After all, if Nicholas Austin was getting too much for you, the only thing left to do was to let him die, wasn’t it? And you bought us some time. Risky, but it may have succeeded.”
That’s not – I’m not –
Sapphire pushed herself away from the bath and knelt down beside Copper. “I know,” she said, more gently, and pressed her hand against his arm, feeling the damp serge jacket under her fingers. How much did it take from you? I thought we really had lost you for a while. Even Steel did.
Copper opened his eyes, and looked up at her. “Sapphire. Thank you.”
She helped him to sit, and then he looked down at himself, half wet still in his grey three piece suit. “Of course,” she said, as she held on lightly for a few more moments, waiting until he was more himself, “it’s possible that Silver is merely confused by the concept of modesty.”
She felt Copper’s amusement in return: a brief lightening within, and then it was gone again. All he said was, “How much worse is it?”
“As I said, you occupied the creature for a little while, perhaps long enough, but now we need to put everything back where it belongs or the break will become catastrophic.”
Copper nodded, getting to his feet again, Sapphire at his side. “Yes. I don’t think we would enjoy being left to its clutches, either.”
“It won’t come to that,” said Sapphire.
“Steel wouldn’t allow it.” She moved on too quickly, not about to let him see whether she was serious or not. Half, she admitted to herself.
“Sapphire,” said Copper, suddenly, in a different tone. “It’s about to start again. I can feel it.”
She did too, now that he said it: a creeping icy fog at the edges of her being. “Quickly,” she said, as the lights went out and they were swallowed up in darkness. “There are three of them we need to protect.”
“Three?” said Copper. “You didn’t tell me you’d lost that many.”
We haven’t. There are three specifically we mustn’t lose, that’s all. I’ll explain as we go, she added, as darkness swallowed them. Quickly, Copper! Steel will need us.
Steel didn’t remark on Copper’s return, merely giving the technician a brief nod of acknowledgement. Sapphire was holding this moment for them and she couldn’t manage it for very long in these circumstances, so there was even less time than usual for conversation. Steel paced from one end of the kitchen to the other, pausing at the back door and touching the lintel before swinging round. “I think we’re missing something. That telephone, Copper. Tell me again.”
“It’s not the trigger as such, but it is part of what’s happening here. The creature seems to be using it.”
Sapphire held up a hand. “Copper. You said something to one of them – you didn’t think all of these deaths actually took place, or not in the way they’ve played out here. I think you may be right. Some of them did - the little girl with measles in the back bedroom. That one was true. But not all of the others had the same resonance within the house.”
“Copper?” said Steel, rounding on him again.
In reply, Copper led them out into the hallway and picked up the telephone, removing the mouthpiece from its cradle. “Yes. I heard echoes of old conversations. The deaths in this house don’t match. Some of the names attached – they were alive for much longer than the old woman’s memories would allow.”
Copper gave a weary shrug. “Too old now to recover the entire conversations. Too many other calls before and after. I picked up enough to be sure some of the speakers were members of the family – and not dead at the time these memories would suggest.”
“When we were playing our parts,” said Sapphire, “Mrs Briskett knew the make-up of the household. I don’t know how reliable it is, especially if it’s already deceiving us on one front, but perhaps, if we compare notes –”
Copper nodded. “Yes. The house was occupied by a Colonel Henry Cardew and his wife and eleven children.”
“A family of thirteen,” said Sapphire. “Elizabeth, the oldest – the child who died of measles in the nursery – then William, Anne, Henry, Caroline, Louisa, Philip, Felix, Beatrice – she’s the old woman, the one who stayed – Henry, and Diana. Diana maps to Bel, the first death. Beyond that it’s hard to say. But I agree with Copper: I don’t think they all died when or how they were supposed to have done.”
“Mr Austin could certainly not have been electrocuted in the bathroom,” said Copper.
“Right,” said Steel. “Tell that to her, then, Copper. The old woman – the psychic. See if it’s possible to shake her out of this. What’s left of her, that is.”
Copper looked from Sapphire to Steel in alarm. “You know I don’t handle people well. I’m a technician – that’s not why I’m here.”
“It is now,” said Steel. “Get in there. You can attend to the wiring at the same time. I’ll be busy stopping the rest from dying, and Sapphire has to get us back to where we belong.”
“In some ways we never left. But yes. And it will try to stop me, so giving it twice as much to think about will be a great help, Copper.”
Copper gave in. “I understand.”
“But if it goes wrong and we’re destroyed,” said Sapphire in Copper’s ear as she passed by him, “it’s not your forté, so I won’t blame you. Steel might, though.”
“Sapphire,” growled Steel. “Hurry up!”
Jack was on his own and in what must be one of the upstairs rooms. It was small and bare of furniture, barring one old chest of drawers in the corner. He crossed over to it, the floorboards creaking alarmingly under his feet.
He pulled open the first drawer, stiff with disuse, and found inside it a packet of letters, tied up with string, not a ribbon. He pulled open the second, and found a pistol.
He reached out and took hold of it, feeling the familiar weight of it in his hand. (There was thunder in his head; there was always thunder in his head these days.)
He had been here before. He knew what he had to do.
Steel made it back up the stairs in the darkness at the same moment as a shot rang out. Somewhere else in the house somebody screamed, and he raised his head, listening, but then dived into the nearest empty bedroom and emerged seconds later, dragging Eddy after him.
“I heard a shot,” she said breathlessly.
Eddy almost gasped as she came up against that one word as a wall, but Steel had hold of her arm. “No,” she said, after she regained her breath. “No! It can’t be. Jack isn’t – Jack wouldn’t –” She tried again to pull away from him, but Steel held on.
“You don’t want to see the body, do you?” he said, giving her a small shake as he spoke. “Well, do you?”
Eddy struggled for something to say and then shook her head.
“Well, then, stand still.”
“Why?” she said, fighting tears. “How? Jack wouldn’t.”
Steel gave a short shrug. “Echoes of another soldier, from another war, nearly seventy years ago. Both broken.”
“Jack isn’t,” she said, bristling.
Eddy raised her head. “Not like that. Wait – isn’t he dead?”
“Yes. Do you want him back?”
“What sort of question is that?” She was trembling now.
“How badly?” said Steel, meeting her gaze.
Eddy stepped away, and hesitated.
She took a breath, and then raised her chin. “I’d do anything.”
“Good. Now, follow me.”
“He’d do the same for me,” she said. “But how? Nobody can bring back the dead.”
Steel turned. “One of you said this was a nightmare. Or a game. In some ways you’re right. Time to end the game – time to wake up. Or none of us ever will. Now follow me.”
“Right-o,” said Eddy, but she was still shaking as she trailed along in his wake.
Jack was in darkness, and there seemed to be no end to it this time. He’d been in the room and reached for the gun. An impossible memory played in his head. He’d picked up the gun, he’d pulled the trigger…
He was dead. He must be.
Was this what it was like? Darkness, nowhere, nothing. Perhaps it was. He was conscious in some way, but he wasn’t entirely sure he was real, or really here, or where here was. If he was dead, what about the others? What about all the others before that, in the war? What about Tom? There was no sign of any of them.
The only thing he knew, in a creeping chill certainty, was that he might be cut off from everyone he knew, but he was not alone. There was something else here, and it was moving nearer. In this nothing-world, all he could feel was its hunger…
Copper could sense Sapphire’s location without turning his attention from the next strand of wire that he pulled out of the wall in the front parlour. She was now placing herself in position in the hallway outside, standing as still and as straight as the nearby grandfather clock, waiting for a signal from Steel.
As much as I’ll ever be. This isn’t what I’m designed for.
Then consider it in that light: this is merely another fault to be corrected. Or merely as a distraction. A vital distraction.
A good point. Copper took strength from her momentary presence in his mind, and turned around to survey the room. Madame Celeste, sitting in the centre, muttering, was hardly there underneath the echo of the old woman and the power that was trying to claw its way to freedom.
Copper took a step forward, winding wire around his fingers, collecting it, much as he had been since he had first arrived. “Beatrice,” he said. “I need to speak to you.”
Madame Celeste turned her head slowly and stared at him out of those unseeing black eyes, before something flickered within them. “Mr Austin? But – wait – no, that isn’t right –”
“No,” he agreed. “I’m not Austin. But then that fate you gave him wasn’t real, either, was it? Did you know that? The thing that is keeping us here does know.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Copper stifled a sigh, and crouched down, setting to work on easing up one of the floorboards, his attention apparently more on that task than the conversation. “You do. And we can both feel it, waiting.”
Madame Celeste stared ahead, as Copper looked up, a broken piece of floorboard now in his hand.
“It’ll take me back to the time when we were all here, and then we’ll stay together.”
“You weren’t so worried about keeping in touch when you were alive.”
She almost gasped. “I lost them all! They died!”
“Not all of them,” said Copper. He laid down on the floor and put his hand in the gap between the floorboards, feeling around for the right cable. Something stung him when he touched it; an impossible electrical charge. He ignored that, too. “Some of them, I think, yes. Not uncommon back then. But the others didn’t, not the way you’ve remembered, and not here.”
“They’re all dead!”
“They are now, I expect. It was a very long time ago. You should have paid attention to the telegrams and telephone calls.”
“Those were impostors – people after money! And there was none to be had, anyway. I couldn’t listen to them.”
Copper straightened up, and laid his collection of wires across his lap, rearranging them first, then knotting them together to make a net.
They both heard the voices that he loosed from them as he worked, confused, crackling and faint, but the real echoes left on the lines: it’s me – I had a letter the other day – whatever you do, don’t tell Beatrice – it’s me – listen –
“This house wasn’t connected to an electricity supply until 1902. Your Mr Austin died in 1860, so it’s impossible that he could have been electrocuted. That was vindictiveness. Possibly an unpleasant joke. I didn’t enjoy it very much.”
Madame Celeste (or Beatrice) put her hands to her face. “No – don’t – you’re spoiling it all! They have to die again – it’s the only way to keep them here, to take us back –”
“These people are strangers, not your family,” said Copper. “And this thing wants to destroy us all, not save anyone. It’s building on these lies of yours – you need to stop it.”
“They are not lies!”
Copper lifted his head. He could already feel the atmosphere in the house shifting. Sapphire must be having some effect. He only hoped it would be enough. He could feel the lurking darkness in Madame Celeste – he recognised it only too well after his supposed death. If it attacked him now, there would be little he could do, not yet, and not while it was so strong. It would consume him again.
He looked up and caught the small smile on Madame Celeste’s face as something stared back from within. The creature knew it too.
Chapter 6: Chapter Six
The lights go out in the house for the final time...
Steel marched Eddy down the stairs into the hallway, where Henry Arnhirst was already waiting – pale, mouth set in a line, but there. Steel merely strode past him, into the kitchen, and then into the pantry where he dragged Pru up out of the water.
“Are we all that’s left?” said Eddy.
Steel pushed a dazed Pru ahead of him. “In the hallway. And no. Or possibly. It isn’t important.”
“Isn’t important?” said Pru, as she shook herself. She was already dry; no trace left of the unreal water in the sink. “I should have thought it was all that mattered.”
Steel glared. “The thing that’s important is: do you want to fix this and get out of here – get the others back?”
“That doesn’t seem to be possible,” said Henry, slumped back against the wall, next to the telephone. He ran a hand through his hair before shoving it in the pocket of his jacket. There wasn’t much fight in him. Steel wondered if Sapphire had chosen correctly. She had what he saw as eccentricities, even fancies, sometimes.
Steel looked round at the three humans: Henry, defeated already, Pru with her arms folded, and Eddy standing, unsure, between them. “You’ve got to concentrate. Think about your –” he hesitated over the various relationships in question – “friends. How much you want them back.”
“That’s all?” said Eddy, frowning. “Isn’t that a bit – well –?”
“Clap if you still believe in fairies?” said Pru for her. “I’ll say. But I’ll try anything at this point.”
Steel failed to understand the reference to imaginary creatures (stories of which sometimes caused all too real problems and which sometimes had all too real things at the root of them) but decided it was irrelevant. “Yes. Concentrate. You’ll find it difficult enough. It won’t like it.”
“Is it dangerous?” asked Eddy.
Steel held her gaze for a moment. “Would that stop you?”
Eddy hesitated, but she shook her head. “Not now. Not if it can bring them all back.”
“Think about your brother,” he told her. “Just one. The same for you two – focus on one person.” Then he glanced back at Eddy. “There’s danger,” he said, “but not as much as standing here waiting for your fate to catch up with you.”
Sapphire, he called, unheard by the three humans. Ready?
Yes, but Steel – She caught her breath. I’m afraid.
Sapphire turned around on the landing, one hand stretched out in front of her, palm outwards, trying to find the place closest to the initial trigger. She’d started by the telephone, downstairs in the hall, but it hadn’t felt like the true centre. Now, she leant back against a narrow strip of wall between two of the bedroom doorways and closed her eyes.
She could feel that Copper’s conversation with the old woman had already loosened something in the house. Sapphire could push back a few more hours, but the creature was holding on. Then there was the problem that if it did let go they might, like a stretched piece of elastic, bounce back into their rightful place and time too hard, too fast. The house, after all, in some ways had never moved at all and it was only the power of the creature that was keeping it outside of its proper time. Breaking that had to be done the right way, and then at least some of the people now in the house – and Copper, Sapphire, and Steel – might also survive. If she couldn’t do it, or she couldn’t do it safely, then it was waiting to devour them all and from that set itself free. That would be catastrophic.
She opened her eyes. It would, of course, be equally catastrophic if she never tried.
Ready now, Sapphire? Steel asked.
She smiled, sensing his mingled impatience and concern. Yes. I am. Are you?
Lost nowhere, Jack felt rather than heard the call that broke through. The darkness had been everything a moment ago. He had felt as if it was creeping into him, or he was dissolving into it, painlessly and silently, but relentlessly, everything blurring even more than it already had. Now, as he heard his name spoken again, his sense of self sharpened and reasserted itself against the shapelessness of this place.
This time it was clearer. It was Eddy, he realised, and for a moment, he wasn’t nowhere, he was squeezed into a dark and narrow space, up against a wall, finding it hard to breathe, before he was hidden in nothingness again.
Jack. Can you hear me?
He was still too spread out to respond, but he tried. Eddy. After all, he’d said he wouldn’t leave her, not in this mess. Eddy?
This is Steel.
Jack almost flinched from Steel’s intrusion: it was Eddy he wanted to hear and see, not someone was to him only another part of this nightmare.
Follow my voice.
Jack didn’t understand, and he had no idea how to respond when words wouldn’t seem to form into sentences, but Steel’s voice, or presence, was closer now, as he said, This way. No arguing.
Jack found it was possible. He seemed to drift back into form, if not into light –
He was on his own and in what must be one of the upstairs rooms. It was small and bare of furniture, barring one old chest of drawers in the corner. He crossed over to it, the floorboards creaking alarmingly under his feet –
“No,” said Sapphire, somehow at his side in the room, placing her hand on his arm. “Not that. Don’t remember that. It never happened. Not like that.”
Jack tried to shake himself, but he seemed to be unreal again and Sapphire had gone. Eddy, he tried in panic, and then there was light and Steel had hold of his arm, gripping him painfully until he solidified and the world around him came back into full focus. He was standing in the dreary hallway of the house with Steel, Eddy, Henry, and Pru. He drew in a breath and let it out again, relieved to find that he could. He was alive.
Words, though, were still a step too far. He reached for Eddy’s hand.
“You’re a liar,” said Madame Celeste, and hissed at Copper.
Copper continued working on the wires, fixing one to the other, continuing to build them into a makeshift metal net. “No. I don’t lie. Someone I often work with tells me I lack the imagination. For instance, one of your brothers emigrated. I can try to bring back the echoes of that call, if you like, and we can work out which one.”
“I was alone. They left. They died.”
Copper folded one more wire over another. “Yes. You were alone. I’m sorry. But it was your choice.”
He sighed a little. “Yes. You ignored them when they tried to contact you. But, even aside from that, you stayed here alone. Nothing stopped you leaving. No ailment of the mind or body, not to begin with. You carried on in the same rigid line.”
“I was told they died!”
It was almost impossible, even for him, not to see more of Beatrice’s memories – and the guilt she had left behind that had brought them to this pass. “Dead people don’t telephone, they don’t send telegrams, and they don’t write postcards,” he said. “That isn’t very hard to understand. And even if it was not a pleasant life, you can’t sacrifice thirteen other people to bring back a time that never existed.”
“Liar,” she said again, but her protests were growing weaker.
“You are creating a monster to devour us all. A monster built of isolation and lies. It might have eaten me if Sapphire hadn’t brought me back. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience. And that’s what’s happening to the others now. Why don’t you stop it?”
“It’s too late.”
Copper shrugged. “No. Not yet.”
Madame Celeste stared ahead. “If my family – if they left – if they chose to go – then why can’t I have these others instead?”
“Which of you is it speaking?” said Copper. He concentrated on the net, because he disliked dealing with such entities even more than he disliked dealing with tangled human emotions. The room felt colder. “Because if it’s you I’m talking to, Beatrice, I like you even less than I did before.”
She snarled, the darkness uppermost, and launched herself at him.
Sapphire felt the force working against her weaken as it divided its attention: trying to maintain its hold over the medium, and trying to claw back its human sources of energy from Steel.
She gathered her strength and pushed the house and its memories a few years forward. She felt its howl of protest, but before it could round on her, it had to deal with Steel, in reach of yet another of its victims. And once he had saved that person, she could push it that step further into its rightful place – carefully, slowly, against its gradually weakening resistance.
Outside, daylight flickered for a moment in the room, then night fell, and she thought she could hear rain on the windows, then there was nothing outside again.
The entity reached for her with icy tendrils of cloud and small, stinging electric shocks, trying to frighten her off. Sapphire, her eyes glowing bright blue, and with her mission set, hid a small smile. She was not frightened any more. It was losing its battle to try and keep dragging the house out of its time and place and expending far more effort than she was in nudging it back into place.
Don’t stop. She sent the thought to both Steel and Copper. Keep pressing it.
She understood Steel’s more private question, and was warmed by his concern. Yes, she told him. I’m all right, Steel. It’s working – as long as you both continue. If you stop – She shivered, and added simply, It’s angry.
In the front parlour, Madame Celeste stared back at Copper as she pinned him to the floor: one moment only the darkness in her eyes, the next he could see the mingled confusion of the medium who never signed on for this and a bitter, lonely old woman, too closely bound up in the house to leave.
He removed himself from under her, reappearing beside her as she fell forwards onto the floorboards, shaking.
Copper rescued the tangle of wires from the floor, tying the last knot in his net, and then lifted his head sharply before Madame Celeste screamed, a murky, swirling cloud pouring out of her mouth. He flung the wire net out between them. It widened and grew and shone against the darkness, hanging in the air as a barrier.
“As it happens, I’ve been taking your measure, too,” he said evenly. Sapphire. Steel. I’ve caught it – but not for long. I’d appreciate some help before it gets loose again.
“So I see,” said Steel, marching in through the door, three of the humans trailing after him. “I need to retrieve the last two.” He nodded towards Reg and Bel’s bodies in the corner, and then stared hard at the darkness at the centre of the room, as it pulsated under the glowing metal net, weakened but barely contained.
Copper pulled himself to his feet. “Good. Then you can see to this.” He waved a hand the cloud and at Madame Celeste, who was trembling uncontrollably and still muttering under her breath. “I shall go and disconnect the telephone.” Then he frowned, taking in Steel’s appearance, seeing that the sleeve of his dinner jacket had been torn into shreds. He raised his eyebrows.
Steel? Has it harmed you?
“No, though it had a try,” said Steel. He jerked his head towards the door. “Yes, Copper. Go. Do what you have to.”
Eddy, standing in the corner of the parlour, made as if to move forward after Steel, but Jack caught hold of her wrist. “They seem to have it in hand.”
“He’s bringing back Bel?” she said, breathless. “And Reg, of course.”
“Worse luck,” said Jack, and when she turned her head, drawing breath to scold him for his rotten taste in jokes, he winked.
It was easier to do that, and concentrate on Eddy than worry about what Sapphire was doing up on the landing, or the way reality seemed to shift in a manner that was impossible to pin down but kept putting his teeth on edge – and worst of all, Steel glaring at that dark patch in the centre that nauseated him to look at. Jack knew why. It was what had been creeping towards him in the darkness, and it was too easy to remember how powerless he had been against its malevolent approach.
Steel, however, only cast another contemptuous glance at the shape wavering under the impossible net, and then strode past it to tug at something in the shadows. “Think about your friend, can’t you? The man,” he said, looking over at Jack and Eddy and Pru and Angela, all hanging back by the door. “We haven’t finished, or had you forgotten?”
Jack and Eddy exchanged a grimace, and Jack shifted his grip, taking hold of her hand.
“Remind me, what good points did Reg have?” he murmured in her ear, and she trod on his foot, biting back giggles that were more nerves than anything else. It was a good question, though, and Jack closed his eyes. Reg got things done, you could say that much for him, and, of course, one didn’t want to leave anyone to be devoured by the creature. And he probably would have a cigarette on him somewhere.
Luckily, the process seemed to be getting easier with each release. Jack remembered the way he had felt in the nothing-place and he thought he understood: they were its energy sources. The more Steel deprived it of them, the weaker its grip became. Nobody had to want Reg back badly enough to risk the ire of the creature for Steel to be able to bend down and drag him up out of the shadows, coughing and still midway through blustering about Steel and the blasted haunted house before he took in the strange scene he’d returned to and fell abruptly silent.
There was only Bel left, and Bel was Reg’s friend, so Jack gave Eddy’s hand a brief squeeze in reassurance and slipped out into the hallway where Copper was dismantling the telephone.
“Is that going to help?” Jack asked. He presumed it must, but he didn’t know what else to say when he only wanted to blurt out that last time he’d seen Copper, the man had been lying dead on the bathroom tiles.
Copper picked up the smaller pieces of the telephone and placed them in his pockets. “Your friends are in the kitchen.”
“In the kitchen?”
“I told them to watch the back door closely.”
Jack put up a hand to the wall, leaning his weight against it. “Oh? Is that important?”
“Yes,” said Copper. “It got them out of the way. I’d suggest you join them, but I’ve finished. The rest is up to Sapphire and Steel now.”
“You’re looking better than when I saw you last.”
Copper gave a faint smile. “That wasn’t really me. I think something similar could be said of you. Of most of you now.” He frowned and then ran a hand over the nearest stretch of wallpaper. “No, no,” he murmured, “I think that really is it.”
“You were dead. I pulled you out of the bath.”
Copper dusted down his jacket and stood. “Should I thank you for your trouble, or apologise? Both perhaps.”
“No. I just –” Jack gave up. He wasn’t sure what it was he wanted to ask, and he didn’t think Copper would answer, even if he found the right question. He shrugged.
Copper put out a hand to his arm, surprising him. “Don’t think about it. It’s better that way. None of this will truly have happened very soon. Most of it will fade away.”
“I can’t forget that thing in the dark,” said Jack. “If you went where I went – where we all went – you must have felt it too. It’s the same thing that’s in that room, with Madame Celeste, isn’t it? I didn’t want to stay in there with it.”
“It will fade,” Copper said. “Especially that. It’s the least real thing here, I promise.” He looked upwards, holding out a hand to silence Jack. “Sapphire.”
Sapphire concentrated, ignoring Steel’s voice. It was growing easier to guide the place back to its true location, and she could allow no distractions. She had her mind set on the 17th of November, 1922, 8. 15 p.m. It was raining outside, but only lightly as yet.
The darkness might be partially bound downstairs but a remnant of it was also in the walls and under the floorboards, and it was screaming at her.
“Be quiet,” said Sapphire. “You’re barely even here any more. Steel has taken back the humans, Copper has dismantled the telephone and pulled out the wiring, and even the old lady isn’t sure she wants you here any more. What does that leave of you but a swiftly forgotten nightmare?”
Its screams grew fainter.
Sapphire smiled, and her eyes glowed a stronger blue as the house slid back into place. She felt the two parts of the building realign and merge; reality overwhelming what was left of the creature’s hold. “There,” she said, feeling the house stabilise in time. Steel. It’s done.
Steel was standing in the front parlour, the net between him and Madame Celeste. He didn’t turn around when Copper walked back in, followed by one of the humans – Jack Mayhew. Bel and Reg were hanging onto each other, while Pru and Angela were still standing by the door with Eddy
“What’s her name?” said Steel, as Copper reached his side. “The old woman.”
“Beatrice,” Copper murmured.
Steel marched past the net, now lying on the floor with barely a puddle of darkness left under it, but that darkness was still shifting and struggling and it had not yet entirely gone, despite the house’s return.
“Beatrice,” Steel said, standing over her. “Tell it to go. You don’t want it here, either.”
Madame Celeste, lying on the floor, merely shook her head and whimpered.
She lifted her head, taking the path of least resistance against Steel’s immovability. “Go, go!”
They all looked at the wriggling patch under the net and watched it evaporate.
“And now it’s time for you to leave as well,” said Steel to the old woman. He held out a hand, waiting immovably until she took it. Sapphire, he called, suddenly uncomfortable. This last part was for her, not him.
Yes, Steel. I’m here.
Sapphire smiled at him, as he turned his head sharply to find her immediately beside him. “Right here,” she said, and rested her hand on his shoulder, sharing strength, before turning to Madame Celeste. Sapphire’s eyes glowed blue again, but faintly. “You must,” she said, as if to some unheard objection, and then Madame Celeste fell to the floor, coughing and gasping and swearing.
“I say,” said Henry, as Lily flinched at the tirade. “Ladies present!”
Eddy, pressed up against Jack’s arm, choked back another nervous laugh.
“Is it done?” Steel asked Sapphire.
She nodded. “Yes. Time for everyone to go home.”
The light in the room winked out and all that was left was a candle in the centre of a circle of people, here for a séance.
“Whose bloody idea was this?” said Reg.
Steel glanced at Sapphire, and then extinguished the candle.
Chapter 7: Epilogue
It was dark in the front parlour, and quiet enough to hear the rain on the panes of the bay windows, interrupted only by as rustling as Christopher Melford searched around for a match. When he held it up, its flickering light revealed twelve of them standing in a circle around Madame Celeste, sitting on the floor in the centre.
“Who’s got a torch?” said Reg. “Noel, you had mine, didn’t you? Where did you put it?”
“Ouch!” said Melford, the match burning his fingers as it reached the end of its life, casting them back into the gloom.
Bel shivered, and then coughed even as Noel found and switched on the torch. She slipped her arm through Reg’s. “There’s no point staying here, is there? Let’s go.”
Before they could move, two people walked in through the door, causing them all to fall silent.
“Yes, you should leave,” said the woman. Sapphire, thought Jack, the name sliding through from the other version of this evening he had in his head. She was blonde, tall, and wearing a dark blue evening dress that was at odds with their faded, damp setting. She sounded utterly sure of herself. “This place isn’t safe. There should have been a notice.”
The man with her scowled round at them. “In any case, you’re trespassing.”
Henry Arnhirst turned. “You’re from the council, I suppose?” But Jack noticed that he hesitated over the words, and was relieved to know that everyone else hadn’t entirely forgotten, either.
“That would make sense,” agreed the man – Steel – and after that, they all shuffled out through the hallway, like schoolchildren caught somewhere out of bounds.
Jack and Eddy were at the tail end. He almost stopped to say something to Sapphire and Steel, but of the two versions of this evening in his mind, the one where he knew who they were was already a fast-fading nightmare, the details beginning to elude him, and he felt too embarrassed to acknowledge it in their face of their detachment.
“Doesn’t anyone else remember?” said Eddy to Jack, gripping his arm as they picked their way carefully through the overgrown front garden in the dark. “I mean, it is very hazy in my mind, but Sapphire and Steel were there again at the end, and if they were real, then it did happen.”
Jack watched the others, turning back into the street. “Yes. It happened, I think, but then I suppose it un-happened. It’s already easier to let it go, isn’t it?”
“I don’t want to,” said Eddy. “That is, I do. It was awful, but I wouldn’t want to forget that you – that I should keep an eye on you –”
He shook his head. “You needn’t worry on that account. Promise.”
“That other soldier,” said Eddy. “Whoever he was. Steel told me he was broken, and when I said that you weren’t, he didn’t seem to believe me.”
After what they’d been through, he couldn’t give her a glib answer. There was always, too, the ghost of Tom, and that hadn’t been laid with those of the house. “You were right. But I suppose it is complicated. Not broken, not like some, but maybe a bit battered at the edges. I’m staying here, though. You needn’t worry about that.”
“Right,” she said, and nodded. “Good-o.”
Jack gave her a smile, and then increased his speed, catching hold of Reg just ahead of them, walking along with his arm around Bel’s shoulders. “Got a cigarette?”
“Get lost, Mayhew.”
“Only one, and then I’ll leave you in peace.”
Reg snorted and then obliged. He hesitated as he handed it over, while Bel shivered a little in the night air, and coughed again.
“In there – should we report it?” Reg gave a shifty nod back towards the house. “You know.”
Reg shrugged. “I don’t know. But it was – it was odd, yes?”
“Damned odd. No more séances for me,” agreed Jack, and then fell back with Eddy. “Oh, hell,” he said, patting his pockets. “I don’t have a light.”
Eddy put her hand in his coat pocket on her side and produced a book of matches. “Yes, you do.”
It’s over now, he said to himself as he took the match. Just another nightmare. But he knew only too well how often the nightmares never quite went away.
Sapphire drew back inside. “It’s hard to be precise. Containable, I think.”
“It’s impossible to make exact estimates for each of them,” she said. “The length of life will have been shortened, and it will be worse for those who were taken earlier. My calculations suggest that the impact will not be significant, but there will inevitably be an impact. Nothing we shouldn’t be able to deal with, though. Nothing on the scale of this break.”
Steel glanced around at the hallway, and then ushered Sapphire out into the night, drizzle dampening their clothes, as they made their way down the overgrown gravel path.
Copper met them halfway to the gate, coming from the garden. “There’s no sign of any more activity.”
“And what about Copper?” said Steel to Sapphire, as if the technician wasn’t there. “Is he damaged?”
Sapphire suppressed a smile and raised an eyebrow in Copper’s direction.
“I’m fully functional for now, thank you, Steel,” said Copper. “But this house will never be safe, not as it is.”
Steel stopped and turned.
“No need to worry, however,” Copper added. “It won’t be around after tonight.”
Sapphire no longer troubled to conceal her smile, following Copper’s thoughts. “A fire. How fortunate.”
“Yes,” agreed Copper. “A fault in the wiring, I believe.”
“I thought the building wasn’t connected to the mains supply any more,” said Steel.
Copper moved ahead to the gate. “Yes, true. How strange,” he murmured as he vanished into the night. “I expect it will puzzle their authorities for a while, but they always find some explanation.”
“I suppose it will have to do,” said Steel. He put his hand to Sapphire’s shoulder, and then she felt the pressure cease – he had gone, like Copper. The assignment was over. And none of them would be dragged back through time into the clutches of something hungry to meet them, so she was satisfied with the outcome, even if Steel would prefer it to be tidier.
The damage was containable, safely limited, although Sapphire did not make her reckonings without regret. She saw that Bel had walked away with a cough she had not had when she came in, and that Madame Celeste would not reach the front door of the lodging house where she lived before she collapsed on its steps, and she paused to note the years, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds that, unseen by anybody else, had been swallowed by something greedy for its escape.
Time was always a thief, and Sapphire could only save so much from its grasp.
She closed her eyes and read the immediate future of the house, making one final check. It would soon be only a shell that would have to be demolished for safety’s sake. Something new would be built here, something without any dangerous history.
“No more ghosts,” Sapphire said out loud in the garden. “Only ashes and silence.”
Then she, too, faded into the night.