A long-ago crime continues to menace the present in this spine-chilling tale of supernatural suspense.
When Michael Flint is asked by a colleague to investigate a reputedly haunted house, he is intrigued. Leo Rosendale’s childhood was blighted by a macabre tragedy in the grim Deadlight Hall – a tragedy that occurred towards the end of World War II, involving a set of twins who vanished. The fate of Sophie and Susannah Reiss was never discovered, and Leo has never been able to forget them.
When Michael, together with his fiancee Nell, begins to explore Deadlight Hall’s history, he discovers that in the 1880s another pair of sisters vanished from the house – and that there may also be much older and darker secrets lurking within its walls.
As Michael and Nell gradually peel back the sinister layers of the Hall’s unhappy past, they are unprepared for the eerie and threatening resonances they encounter – nor for the shocking truth of what took place there one long-ago midnight.
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Series:||A Nell West and Michael Flint Haunted House Story Series , #5|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Sarah Rayne is the author of novels of supernatural suspense, including the new series featuring Michael Flint and Nell West. She lives in Staffordshire.
Read an Excerpt
By Sarah Rayne
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2014 Sarah Rayne
All rights reserved.
'I don't mean to imply the house is haunted,' said Professor Rosendale firmly. 'And it's probably nothing more than childhood memories that have become distorted with the years. I really do think that's all it is, Dr Flint.' He waited for Michael to tip Wilberforce off the most comfortable chair, on which Wilberforce had shed cat hairs before going to sleep on a wodge of Michael's lecture notes, then sat down.
Michael Flint, whom the professor had approached midway through one of Oriel College's more somnolent autumn afternoons, said childhood memories could be strange things, and asked where the house was.
'It's just this side of Wolvercote. Only a few miles out of Oxford. It's an early Victorian mansion and it's been derelict for years. But now it's being renovated – turned into apartments. Six or eight of them. It sounds as if they'll be very smart,' said the professor, rather wistfully.
'Professor, I'll help in any way I can,' said Michael, 'but I hardly know a roof joist from a window frame. I'm the last person to advise anyone about property purchase.'
'Oh, I'm not buying,' said Professor Rosendale at once. 'It's the house itself. I'm concerned about people going to live there. I knew it for a while when I was a child, and there's a strangeness – a darkness to it. Now you'll think I'm strange myself,' he said, apologetically.
'I don't think that,' said Michael at once. 'Houses can be odd things.'
'And childhood memories can play odd tricks.'
'Well, yes. But events – tragedies, perhaps – can sometimes leave an imprint on a building. And an impressionable child witnessing something traumatic—'
'But that's the difficulty,' said Leo Rosendale. 'I don't know if I'm remembering actual events, or if it's all in my imagination. And I don't know how reliable my memory is either. Not,' he said, rather wryly, 'after so many years. So I thought if somebody could go in there and take an objective look round – someone who understands that houses sometimes possess—'
'Darknesses?' Michael deliberately repeated the professor's own word.
'Yes. I don't mean to sound melodramatic, and I'm fairly sure I'm not succumbing to some weird illness. But I believe you've had one or two strange experiences with old houses. Dr Bracegirdle from the History Faculty was talking about it the other day in the SCR. Somewhere in the Fens, I think he said.'
Michael silently cursed Owen Bracegirdle, who was a good friend, but also the liveliest gossip in College. He said carefully that he had stayed recently in a couple of places that had slightly macabre histories.
'I really would be most grateful if you could spare an hour or so,' said the professor. 'I thought you might be the one person in College who might understand.'
'How would I get in?' asked Michael.
The professor's face lit up. 'The builders are working there during the week,' he said, 'so you'd be able to go inside quite openly.'
Michael was becoming intrigued. He said, 'I've got a free morning tomorrow. I could take a look then.'
'Could you? I'm sure I'm making much out of very little, but it would put my mind at rest.'
'Of course. What's the address?'
'It's called Deadlight Hall,' said Rosendale, and Michael had the curious impression that by saying the house's name aloud, an invisible hand had scribbled the words on to the air in black, greasy letters. It was absurd to imagine the black scribble remained there for the rest of the afternoon.
It had taken Leo Rosendale a long time to decide to approach Dr Flint. He did not know Michael very well – his own faculty and the English Literature department did not have particularly close contact – but there had been one or two vaguely friendly meetings in the SCR or in Hall.
English literature was hardly a subject that qualified someone to grapple with Deadlight Hall. No matter how learned Michael Flint was about the Romantic poets, and no matter how many odd experiences he had had, what lay at Deadlight Hall's dark core was worlds away from elegies in graveyards and cobwebbed mausoleums. But after today's meeting Leo felt he had done the right thing. Dr Flint was said to be trustworthy and generally well liked by his colleagues and his students. The fact that he bore that strong resemblance to the English romantic poets – Keats before he succumbed to consumption or even Byron before he succumbed to debauchery – would have helped Flint's popularity, of course. The professor had occasionally wished he had been given the gift of good looks himself, although good looks probably only brought trouble with the opposite sex. He sometimes thought it might be nice to have got married and had children, but these were things that had never come his way and he had not really missed them. There had been Sophie, of course, but she had been lost to him a very long time ago.
He let himself into his own rooms, and sat down to read the advertisement for Deadlight Hall's new apartments again. There was a photograph of the Hall, which appeared to have been taken either at midnight or in the middle of a thunderstorm, and which made the old house look more like a gothic ghost setting than any house had a right to look. Leo read the description of the proposed flats again, and the comments from the builder, one Jack Hurst, whose firm were doing the work.
'Unusual old place,' Hurst had said. 'But we're hoping to retain the character of it – although we're having to rip out some of the original features and fittings, of course.'
The original features and fittings ... Such as what lay behind the iron door deep in the basement ...? Leo frowned, and threw the cutting into the bin. Too many memories, and most of them so dark.
Or were the memories what nowadays were called false memories – memories that seemed real, but that had never happened? But some of the memories are real, he thought.
During all the years when Deadlight Hall had been empty and derelict and more or less forgotten, he had been able to keep the memories – real, imaginary or simply just exaggerated – banked down; to enjoy his modest, rather quiet life at Oxford. Then, a few months ago, had come this advertisement about the Hall's renovations. At first, Leo had wondered if he could go along to the house, even present himself as a potential buyer. Would that lay the ghosts and the memories once and for all? But immediately the fear had come scudding in. To go back there, to enter that place again ...
Had the builders working there – Jack Hurst and his workmen – sensed anything wrong about the house? Would Michael Flint? Or would Dr Flint return to say he had not heard or seen anything in the least peculiar, and remark what a splendid job the builders were making of the renovations?
Leo got up, opened the locked cupboard on one side of the fireplace of his study, and sat for a long time looking at what lay inside it. The trouble with old possessions was that memories clung to them, and those memories were not always good or happy. Could he discard this particular memory after so many years? Sophie was part of the memory, of course, but he did not need physical possessions to remember Sophie.
He snapped the box shut, replaced it in the cupboard, and with decision reached for the phone to dial Michael Flint's number.
'Professor Rosendale phoned after the meeting to say he's decided to sell what he calls an old memory,' said Michael to Nell West, later that evening over supper in the little house behind her Quire Court shop. 'He wondered if you might be interested in helping with the sale of it, so I said I'd ask. I have no idea what it is, this memory.'
'Does he need the money? I thought professors were quite well paid.'
'He just said he was shaking off the past. I don't know if that's true or if he needs the money. I don't know him very well, but I think he's rather unworldly.'
'What is he? I mean, what's his subject?'
'Philosophy and Theology. The Joint School thereof. He's supposed to be brilliant when it comes to all those philosophy questions – logic and perception and free will and all the rest. He's Czechoslovakian or Polish, I'm not sure which, and he's been at Oriel since anyone can remember.'
'I suppose he came here after the war?' Nell spooned chilli con carne on to the plates, and accepted the glass of wine Michael had poured.
'No idea. He's well into his seventies, I should think, but he never talks about his childhood or his family. Actually, he doesn't seem to have any family. If he comes into the shop, you'll do what you can for him, won't you?'
'Yes, of course.'
'He's a nice old boy,' said Michael, rather absently.
Nell looked at him. 'There's something worrying you, though. Is it to do with Professor Rosendale and the old memory? Or is the chilli too hot?'
'The chilli's fine.'
Nell was usually hesitant to press Michael – he was unfailingly courteous, but he had a way of occasionally putting up a barrier which it was difficult to penetrate. But she said, 'Are you worried by the prospect of grappling with an eerie old house? Yet again.'
'Since I met you,' said Michael, 'I think I've encountered more eerie old houses than Wilberforce has caught mice.'
The barrier appeared to have come down slightly. Nell said, 'How will you get in?'
'There's a firm of builders working on it. Apparently they're perfectly used to people wandering in at random to look at the flats.'
'Would you like me to come with you? Oh wait, I've got that Italian couple coming to look at the rosewood table tomorrow.'
'Then I'll have to ghost-hunt alone,' said Michael.
Nell spent the first half of the following morning applying Danish oil to the rosewood table, then setting it in the shop where it would display to the best advantage. She had bought it quite cheaply because it had been in a very neglected state, and had spent hours restoring it. If the Italian customers bought it, she would probably buy Beth the piano she wanted from the proceeds. It was nice that Beth was enjoying her music lessons so much; Beth's father had loved music, and Nell was trying to encourage Beth without overkill. Enthusiasms at the age of ten did not necessarily last, of course, but there was room in the little house for a cottage piano at least.
She was just putting away the oil and the cloths when the shop door opened somewhat tentatively, and a tallish, rather elderly gentleman came in. He was wearing a long overcoat, and he had dark eyes and strongly marked cheekbones. Professor Rosendale, thought Nell. Or if it isn't, I'll drink the rest of the Danish oil.
But it was the professor, of course. He introduced himself with careful courtesy, and although he did not quite have an accent, there was something about the phrasing of his speech that was not quite English. Nell found this rather attractive.
He explained that Michael had suggested she might take care of the selling of something for him.
'Of course I will. Michael said you might look in. I'll be very happy to help if I can.'
'I'm having a kind of mental Spring cleaning,' said the professor confidingly, and with extreme care placed on the desk a small wrapped object. As he unfolded the soft dark cloth around it, Nell felt a sudden prickling of anticipation. This is going to be something good. Something really unusual. He folded back the wrappings, and there it was. A figure fashioned in what looked like solid silver – a chunky man-shaped outline about eight or nine inches high. There was a rudimentary face with a markedly benign appearance.
Nell lifted it from its cocoon, and turned it over in her hands, loving the smooth, cool feel of the surface.
'It's what is called a golem,' said Professor Rosendale.
'I've heard of them, but only in a very general way, and I've never seen one. I'm not very knowledgeable in this area, but it's from Jewish mythology, isn't it?'
'Yes. The Hebrew word gôlem means formless. So a golem is a figure supposedly created from inanimate matter – you can see how this one has been crafted to represent the legend of the being hewn from clay or fashioned from mud. The legend tells how at times it could be activated by mystical force. It's usually regarded as a force for good, but some of the tales relate times when it was harnessed for malevolence.' He smiled. 'People will always find a darker side to any story, won't they?'
'Sadly, yes.' Nell went on studying the figure, which was attractive and endearing.
'All the stories about golem figures animating are myth, of course. But interesting to hear and pass down – and analyse. There's said to have been a sixteenth-century figure – the Golem of Prague – created by a rabbi of the day to protect the Jewish people. It's supposed to have been stored in an attic or entombed in a graveyard in Prague's Zizkov district. All good tales, but no provenance for any of them.'
'Is there any kind of provenance for this figure?' asked Nell.
'I'm afraid not. Nothing written down, that is. It's also said to be from Prague, but I suspect that's said of all golems, in homage to the famous one. What I do know is that this figure came from the synagogue in my home – it was there for a great many years. I used to see it as a boy. It's one of the few things I brought with me to England.'
Nell reached for a magnifying glass to inspect the figure in more detail, and the professor waited, leaving her to concentrate. After a few moments, Nell said, 'I think this is very valuable, and I think that, offered in the right way, it might attract a good deal of interest. But I'm not an expert in this kind of antique. There's a hallmark just here under the feet which should identify where it was made, although I'd need to look in the reference books on that.'
'Would that mean leaving the figure with you, though?'
He sounded unsure, so Nell said, 'Not if you'd rather not. I could take some photos right away. Some close-ups of the hallmark, particularly. Then you can keep the figure until we know a bit more about it.'
'That would be very acceptable. And you could arrange its sale?'
'Yes, certainly I could, in fact I'd love to handle the selling of something so unusual and beautiful, but, Professor, are you sure you want to part with this? It's such a wonderful heirloom, and it's obviously part of your family's history – and of your religion.'
She hoped this was not a tactless remark, but Rosendale only said, 'I am quite sure. It's very nice of you to ask, though.' He smiled at her.
It was a strange thing, thought Nell, that Leo Rosendale was not a particularly good- looking man, apart from his eyes, which were very nearly mesmerizing. But when he smiled, such extraordinary sweetness touched his face that you wanted to keep looking at him.
He said, 'It has, you see, rather mixed memories for me, and sometimes one can carry memories around for too long. I believe it's time to put those memories away for good.'
'Then I'll very happily deal with it for you. I think, though, that it would do better at auction. Would you be all right with that?' He nodded. 'Good. Then what I'd like to do is sound out an auction house where I've got a couple of good contacts. They're called Ashby's. They aren't quite Christie's or Sotheby's, but I think they'd do a good job of selling and their commission is very reasonable.'
'I regard you as my agent,' he said, and the smile came again.
Excerpted from Deadlight Hall by Sarah Rayne. Copyright © 2014 Sarah Rayne. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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