by Gabriel Bergmoser
Haddock House appeared from behind the drooping branches of willows as I ploughed my way towards it in a cumbersome rowboat. The stately old manor perched on the bank of a vast lake was a sight to see, and would have taken my breath away if I wasn’t already panting from my efforts. The sun was setting and the manor’s large windows were filled with warm light that reflected on the surface of the water. It was almost welcoming.
I had spent some time rowing across a vast lake, twisting in my seat every few minutes to see if my goal was in sight. My arms were tired and I was constantly fighting the urge to just stop. The lake was peaceful and pretty, and what I had to do in Haddock House promised to be the exact opposite.
After a blessedly short time I reached the edge of the lake and beached the boat, leaping out onto the damp sand and diving behind a bush. Peaking up, I saw no one around. Quickly standing, I dusted off my tuxedo and started walking towards the house. I was able to join the milling crowd out the front without being noticed. People who looked more comfortable in fancy clothes than I felt milled around a fountain that was shaped like a manatee. More guests emerged from shiny cars, greeting each other with fake laughter and sharklike smiles. I plastered a smile on my own face in an attempt to blend in.
Eventually I reached the front doors, only to be stopped by a haughty man with slicked back hair and a pencil thin moustache. Without a word he extended his hand and cleared his throat. Unsure, I just stared at him, until someone elbowed me and muttered, ‘he wants your invitation!’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Yes my invitation. I received one of those when I was invited here.’ I reached into my pocket and removed the crumpled piece of paper, handing it to the man.
‘Lord Rasputin Huxley VIII,’ the man intoned, reading the paper.
‘That’s the name, don’t wear it out.’
‘Enter,’ he said. With a feeble smile, I strode into the vast entrance hall of Haddock House.
If the outside of the manor looked impressive, that was nothing compared to in here. A gleaming chandelier hung from the ceiling in the middle of the foyer, and the floor was so polished I could see myself in it. Guests already crowded the space, drinking and eating from silver trays held by waiters, and talking loudly over each other. With some difficulty I maintained my attempt at a smile as I made my way through the crowd. If I could help it, I wouldn’t be here long.
Snippets of conversation assaulted my ears as I moved through the room.
‘She’s finally going to choose a suitor!’
‘I’ve been trying to set her up with my son for years now…’
‘I must find out who carved that manatee fountain…’
‘Marvellous woman. I’ve never met her, but I know she’s marvellous.’
‘She’s ignored all my invitations to dinner. I’m so outraged. I can’t wait to see her.’
‘Did you know she’s richer than the Queen?’
‘Was that Boone Shepard?’
I hurried quickly on when I heard that, thankful I wasn’t tall enough to stand out in the crowd. I cast a quick eye over the assembly, most of whom were still deep in their speculations about the woman who had invited us all here tonight, who, after years of being a recluse, was finally making her re-entry into polite society. The woman who just happened to have something that belonged to me, something I had every intention of getting back.
I also had every intention of getting out of here before someone realised that I was not Rasputin Huxley VIII, editor of The Chronicle, but Boone Shepard, lowly journalist in his employ, albeit one with a growing reputation. I wasn’t entirely sure if Langston and Huxley had met, but I wasn’t going to take the risk. My plan was to get to the library, find what I needed and disappear across the lake in the dead of night. An easy job, quickly done.
A small door sat in the far wall, beyond the lavish staircase that led from the foyer up to a landing. No one paid any attention to me as I casually slipped through, pulling it quietly shut behind me. The noise of the guests was immediately cut off and I found myself alone in a shadowy corridor.
As well as inadequate lighting, the corridor looked to have been neglected by the cleaning staff for some time. It seemed like the rumours about Duchess Langston were true. She hadn’t received visitors for a long time.
The door at the far end creaked as I opened it, and looking in it seemed the dim room was as unoccupied as the corridor. The same low lighting cast an eerie glow on shelves that reached up into the distant shadows of the ceiling. A large double door stood at the other end of the room. Any spare floor space was filled with tables, chairs and comfortable looking couches, all stacked high with piles of books. The shelves were packed, and as I made my way into the room I tried to imagine how one would go about finding a specific book in all this disorder. As a general rule I liked libraries an awful lot. This one reminded me how much I did not like doing what I had come here to do. But I had no choice.
In my quest to find and destroy every last copy of The Book That No-one Could Ever Read, I had found myself in some challenging situations. I had been fired, chased by angry mobs, escaped from burning buildings, duelled irate flautists and outrun a gang of crossbow wielding skiers on the back of a moose. Each of those situations had something in common: adrenaline. Scanning hundreds of spines until I found the book I was looking for promised to be only boring. With a resigned sigh, I got to work.
I jumped and spun around. Sitting in a chair in a corner, right where I hadn’t looked, was an old woman. She wore large glasses and was dressed in trousers and a baggy blouse. An explosion of white hair framed her head, and she had so many wrinkles that her face looked like a strange rock formation.
‘Do I know you?’ she said. ‘My eyesight is getting worse all the time. Come a little closer, would you?’
I shouldn’t have obeyed, but I did. With surprising strength the woman stood, squinting through her glasses at my face.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t recognise you at all.’
I fumbled for my invitation. ‘Lord Rasputin Huxley VIII,’ I said. ‘It’s a pleasure to–’
‘Well my boy, that’s simply not true,’ she said. ‘Rasputin is the size of an elephant and twice your age. Who are you really?’
‘I could ask you the same question,’ I said. ‘Sneaking into Duchess Langston’s library like this. Are you a thief?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m Duchess Langston.’
‘And as you are lying about your identity, I suppose you must be the thief here,’ she said. ‘Am I correct?’
‘Certainly not! I’m…’ I looked around, realised how suspicious that made me seem and said the first thing that came to my head. ‘I’m a ghost hunter.’
There was a long silence. Duchess Langston frowned. I tried to look as serious as I could. The Duchess opened her mouth and I braced myself.
‘Thank goodness!’ she said. ‘We have had the most dreadful trouble with hauntings here, and I was beginning to think there was no end in sight.’
I stared at her. ‘You’ve had what?’
‘Hauntings, dear. The reason you’re here, surely?’
‘The very same. But you’re sure? Hauntings?’
The double door burst open. A strong gust of wind rushed through it. At the same time several books tumbled from a high shelf, hitting the floor in a succession of thumps. I glanced behind me as a low moan sounded through the room, an otherworldly wail that sent a chill through me. I turned back to Duchess Langston, trying not to look as terrified as I felt.
She smiled. ‘Yes dear. A haunting. It’s gotten rather bad, so I daresay you’re right on time.’
I could only gape at her. She seemed at ease with the whole thing. Swallowing, I walked towards the open door. Another moan filled the air, seeming to come from everywhere at once. I tried to ignore a sudden weakness in my knees.
‘Do you think you’re capable of dealing with it?’ Langston said, as if asking whether I could fix a window. ‘It’s become rather annoying.’
‘Well, as a ghost hunter, hunting ghosts certainly is something I like to do and am quite good at.’ And as a journalist hunting down frauds trying to scare old ladies out of their money is even better. I pushed away my irrational fear and strode from the room. I had some experience with the strange and unnatural, but I was yet to encounter any evidence that there was such thing as a ghost. Creepy sounds and some falling books weren’t going to change my mind on that, no matter how unsettling they were.
Through the double door was another long hallway, still dimly lit but clean, as if people moved through it frequently. I squinted in the low light, looking for any sign of movement.
The moaning returned, bringing with it another gust of wind. One of the chandeliers fell to the floor with a resounding crash, sending shards of broken glass along the hallway.
‘Well that won’t do,’ Langston said. ‘Those are expensive.’
I started walking down the hall.
‘I wouldn’t, dear,’ the Duchess said. ‘There’s broken glass everywhere.’
‘I imagine that’s meant to discourage us,’ I said. ‘Especially if the source of the wind is down this hall.’
‘The source of the wind is a ghost,’ the Duchess said from behind me. ‘That ought to be discouragement enough.’
Now halfway down the hall I turned to face her with a smile. ‘Didn’t I mention, Duchess? I’m a profession–’
Something grabbed hold of my ankles and I was hoisted up into the air feet first. My glasses fell from my face and I barely managed to catch them as I flew up, swinging wildly from side to side.
‘Let me down!’
‘It’s alright to admit defeat dear!’ the Duchess yelled. ‘I’d best go warn the other guests of the danger. Don’t worry; I’ll remember you for your bravery!’
I saw the blurry shape of her hurrying away. The swinging slowed and I was left dangling upside down in the quiet hall. I waited for another gust of wind but none came. With some difficulty I replaced my glasses. The ghost seemed content just to hold me. I looked up at my feet to see that, instead of an invisible force they were held together by thin grey rope, hard to see even with my glasses on. You wouldn’t notice it lying on the floor in a dimly lit hallway until it grabbed you and threw you around the place. It was exactly the kind of thing that could convince the gullible that they were in the clutches of a ghost. Of course, it did have me trapped in this undignified position until I could figure out a way to free myself.
So there was more to Haddock House than met the eye. Somebody was trying very hard to convince the old lady that she was the victim of a terrible haunting, and as much as I wanted to get what I had come for and be out of this place, I could hardly let this continue. But how to get free?
Further down the hall was another chandelier. I muttered a quiet apology to the Duchess and began to move my body, wriggling to build momentum. I was very grateful that nobody had yet come to find me, or I would have been laughed out of the place. Soon I had a decent swing going.
Slowly I made progress, the arc of my swing growing wider. I reached out for the chandelier, missed, swung back, reached again, brushed the glass with my fingertips then swung back again. As I approached the chandelier again I reached out and grabbed. My fingers wrapped around the metal frame and I brought my other hand up to join them. Gritting my teeth I climbed hand over hand up the frame, trying to reach the ceiling.
The chandelier gave way, ripping part of the ceiling out with it. I plummeted down and swung back up again, the momentum slamming me painfully into the ceiling as the chandelier shattered on the ground below. I had only a second to register as I swung hard back towards the hole I had made. I caught the rough edge and found purchase on a wooden beam. I hung on.
My arms were already straining. The rope was loose around my ankles, and with a bit of wriggling I managed to slip free. Grunting with the effort I pulled myself up through the hole in the ceiling and collapsed across the beams.
None of that would have been impressive to watch. Thanking my luck that a certain photographer I knew wasn’t here to witness any of it, I struggled to my feet and took a look around this new place I had found myself in.
It was an attic, lit by only a couple of dangling bulbs. Presumably the ghost had left them on. The space was filled with odd shapes, most covered by canvas or wrapped in plastic.
I walked past piles of boxes, crates and other items collected over a long life that now had no place in the rest of the house. A grand piano covered in dust, several frames with the paintings ripped out, a pile of rusty swords behind an unstrung bow and quiver, what looked to be the remains of a catapult and a couple of ratty pirate flags. Now, deep in the shadows of the attic, I frowned and looked around again, taking it all in. Were these family heirlooms, or the belongings of Duchess Langston herself? If so, what kind of life had this woman had?
I found the answer in a large old book precariously balanced atop a stack of three wooden chests. Something about it caught my eye and once I had it in my hands I sat cross legged on the ground, blew the dust off and opened it.
In her younger years Duchess Langston had cut quite the impressive figure. Tall and willowy with perfectly arranged hair down to her shoulders, captured by black and white photos in a variety of situations. On safari, perched atop a half-submerged submarine with a wave and a smile for the camera, sitting on the head of the Sphinx with a mischievous grin and boarding a large ship called RMS Titanic, a name I was reasonably sure I recognised but couldn’t quite place.
Every picture, whether it depicted her holding a parasol or riding an elephant, seemed to show the same bold delight, the same adventurousness, the same excitement. All the strange items that filled the attic started to make a little more sense.
For a few minutes all I could feel was the life this woman had led, the world she had explored and the retirement in this dull little corner all that had led her to. Then I thought again about the ‘ghost’ disturbing her rest and all the unpleasant people clogging up the entry hall below, ready to take advantage the moment she opened her doors.
I got to my feet and weaved back through the piles of boxes and items, back to the hole I had made. I looked down into the hall, at the broken glass of the chandelier and the barely visible curl of the rope that somebody had tried to pass off as a ghost. I was missing something here, something big. But one thing was for certain. The ghost was not real and everybody out there was about to think that it was, meaning that whoever had planned this whole thing was winning.
I grabbed a hold of the edges of the hole and dropped, landing on the ground with a jolt of pain in my legs. Staggering slightly, I hurried past the broken glass, back towards the library. I ran past the books to the door that would lead me back to the entrance hall.
I arrived to a cacophony of scared and angry voices as the rich people yelled and pointed at Duchess Langston, who stood alone on the stairs.
‘There is a ghost,’ she was insisting, ‘and I am very worried about it. We all need to leave; it’s already taken the ghost hunter!’
‘She’s losing her marbles!’ someone yelled.
‘Take the house off her!’
‘And the money; I’ll keep it safe for her!’
‘Call the police, it’s all a scam!’
‘There’s no such thing as a ghost hunter!’
I whistled as loudly as I could. Everyone fell silent and looked at me.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘I’m the ghost hunter. Still alive, as it turns out. And I’m very happy to reassure you all that–’
I caught Duchess Langston’s eye. She looked at me steadily. There was no fear in her eyes and suddenly I had found the last piece of the puzzle, even if I hadn’t put it all together yet.
‘–that there very much is a ghost,’ I said. ‘A ghost that grabbed me by the feet and violently threw me around the place. Luckily as a professional hunter of ghosts I am rather adept at fighting them, and with an almighty punch to the face I drove that dastardly apparition away. But it will be back and personally I don’t think it will be as gentle this time around. Trust me, I know.’ I tapped my nose, trying to look like a person who knew things about ghosts but not look totally insane at the same time. Which is about as hard as it sounds.
For a moment the whole congregation stared at me. Then someone screamed and the crowd reacted as one, moving towards the exit. As if on cue, the ghostly moaning filled the room and all the doors burst open at once. Guests clawed at each other in their haste to escape, and within seconds the room emptied, leaving only myself, Duchess Langston and the howling, which had an odd crackling quality to it.
I smiled at the Duchess. ‘I’d get that record player fixed if I were you.’
‘Hopefully I won’t need to.’ She sat on the stairs and patted a spot next to her.
‘Why did you do it?’ I said as I sat.
‘Because I am old,’ she replied. ‘And I am tired and I am sick of these high society vultures trying to get their claws on my home and my money. If they think that the inheritance they want is haunted, they’re less likely to want it.’ Her grin was devious and utterly charming. ‘I’ve earned my peace and quiet.’
‘I saw the photos. You’ve had quite a life.’
‘So have you,’ she said. It was then that I saw, resting on her lap, the book she had been reading in the library.
‘Oh,’ I said.
‘We’ve met before, you know,’ she said. ‘I was only a child, but I thought you were quite exciting. Both of you.’
‘Both of us.’ I looked away. ‘Have you read the end?’
‘The part that was written by the historians?’ she snorted. ‘I know a fabrication when I see it. Or read it rather. I know things didn’t end the way this says they did. And a werewolf? People will believe anything.’
‘Apparently they will.’ I looked back towards the door. ‘I’ll keep your secret Duchess, as long as you keep mine.’
She handed me the book. ‘It’s a deal, Mr Shepard.’
I got to my feet and walked away. I was stopped at the bottom of the stairs by the Duchess’ voice. ‘Boone Shepard.’
I turned to face her. She was watching me with a thoughtful expression. ‘You came here tonight looking for that book. It’s not the first copy you’ve found, is it?’
I shook my head.
‘May I ask what you do with them?’
‘Destroy them,’ I said.
‘I suppose I understand,’ she replied. ‘Although I hate to hear it. It really is a most marvellous story.’
‘Speaking as the subject of the story, I disagree.’
‘You might,’ she said. ‘But the past is who you are. It never goes away. And you can run, or you can miss it, but one day you will learn that every part of it, every part that you love or hate, is what makes you the person you are. For better or worse. So you can burn all the books you like and if you’re lucky nobody will know your story. Maybe. But at a certain point the only person the truth hurts is you, and you can’t run away from who you are.’
‘It’s not that simple.’
‘On the contrary, I think it’s exactly that simple. But I also know that it’s something you have to learn for yourself.’ She smiled. ‘Just some food for thought.’
I watched her for a moment. Then I walked back up the stairs and handed her the book.
‘Keep it safe,’ I said.
‘You have my word.’ She got to her feet. ‘Just remember Shepard, you might be scared of the life you’ve had, but your life is far from over. You’re only at the start. And if I had to guess? What’s ahead of you is going to be quite amazing.’
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. I nodded, turned and walked down the stairs again and out into the cool night air. All the cars were gone and I stood alone, staring out at the shimmering lake reflecting the endless starry sky.
It was beautiful. It looked like the future.