Hayley tucked FLOWERHAIR THE INVINCIBLE, now worth at least $.69 on eBay because it was signed by the author, back into her bag, I put my pen away, and we turned back toward the house. “I still want it, you know,” I said. “The house. In spite of how hard it’s going to be to heat in the winter.”
“We’re going to ask the owner about putting in a woodstove,” Hayley said briskly. “It hasn’t been on the market that long. Some cousin or something lived in it till two years ago and it’s sat empty since. Mr Demerara only approached us about it about six months ago and Sally almost turned him down because she doesn’t like properties on her books that she can’t shift, or landlords that live in Italy. The rest of us sort of ganged up on her because it’s old and unusual and has some kind of story, even if no one knows what it is.”
I wondered if the Homeric Homes employees were a secret coven of Lovecraft readers. Although I would have thought a close acquaintance with Lovecraft would mitigate against wanting to get involved in the fate of a mysterious old house with an owner no one ever met. I also wondered how many realtors this area could support. Perhaps my views of population density were skewed by having lived all my life in a city of modest geographic dimensions containing eight million people.
“And it makes a change from ranch houses, you know?” she went on. “Sally did get him to agree that if we found—er—someone to sign a contract he’d plough a few months’ rent back into the house. As if he needed the money,” she added scornfully.
You could probably be poor in Italy too, I thought. Wealthy old families didn’t always stay wealthy. Although you could wonder why someone from Cold Valley had ended up there. Italy must have lots of haunted villas. Maybe that was the attraction.
“The insulation doesn’t come up to modern standards, of course, and I think the furnace is nearly as old as the house, and he’s already refused to replace the central heating. But even if they have to line the chimney, a woodstove would be less expensive than a new furnace. And wood is still pretty cheap—I can give you the name of someone who’ll bring you a couple of cords and stack them for you—there’s lots of room under the porch.”
If it doesn’t annoy the deinonychus, I thought. “Thanks,” I said.
I watched her in her four-inch heels climbing the stairs to the kitchen door: there weren’t as many stairs as out front, but they were steeper. I decided that Hayley’s pelvis was double-jointed. She opened the kitchen door, waved me through, and put another gigantic key in the keyhole. Solid brass locks were probably proof against malign witches and soul-seeking demons but I wondered if the doorframes were up to a determined attack by a family of pissed-off deinonychus. This key didn’t want to turn and Hayley took it out again, looked at it, and started doing all those things you do when a lock misbehaves: opened the door, closed it, rattled the handle, stared at the key . . . I wandered a step or two away to take another look at the kitchen, now that I was pretty officially the sucker who was going to sign that contract with the enigmatic Mr D.
The old porcelain sink was nearly big enough to take a bath in and the elderly refrigerator was one of those bulgy things that look like a small 1950s Cadillac standing on one end. The stove rather let down this picture of domestic bliss of half a century ago, however, by looking like something that had been pulled out of a college dorm last week. I wondered if there was a melted rubber between the burners, as there had been in my freshman dorm third floor kitchen. Stories varied as to how it got there, but as long as you didn’t use the left front burner you were fine.
There was a dark alcove in the wall opposite the door into the big parlour. Hayley was muttering things that I guessed Sally wouldn’t want a client hearing, so I ambled toward the alcove. It was deeper than I thought—and darker, at least this time of day with no curtains on the windows, because of the way the sunlight slanted in past it, adding a layer of shadow as thick as the bogeyman’s cape, the one that he wraps up bad children in, to steal them away forever.
There was something in it. In the alcove.
Something huge. Something that loomed.
Something with a mad, irregular outline. . . .
I stopped breathing, and then, with an effort of will, started again. If it was Yog-Sothoth, having escaped from the cellar, he’d had plenty of time to leap on us and smother us with loathsomeness or whatever his deal was, and he hadn’t. Hayley was still muttering. I took another step forward. I may have clutched at the front of my jacket for reasons that didn’t have to do with the temperature in an empty house in spring in a place called Cold Valley.
There was a clunk behind me, and an exclamation of satisfaction from Hayley.
“Look,” I said. “Come look at this.”
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