I opened the front door and bent down to pick up the envelope that was lying on the mat. It didn’t look good. There was the embossed image of the Netherwold School shield, a wyvern rampant on an azure field, in the top left hand corner, and there were the words For the attention of the Parents/ Guardians of Caspian Deadlake in a bold, ominous font. Oh no. Please don’t let Caspian be in any trouble, not after all that business at Blasted Oak. I held the letter in my hand, wondering whether to open it immediately, or whether to keep it until later, when I’d had a chance to relax after my day at Havelock Ellis. There was an open bottle of chardonnay in the fridge, and maybe I’d pour myself a glass first and...
“Ah! You are home, dear lady. Have you collected the henbane yet?” a voice purred in my ear.
“Ralphie!” I jumped. “Must you do that?”
“Do what, my dear lady?” he frowned at me over the top of his death’s head stick.
“You startled me!” I thrust the letter into my school bag. “You have such a soundless way of moving around the house.”
“Of course I have,” he looked down at his Turkish slippers with a wry smile. “I have perfecting the art of moving silently for more than half a century.”
“I expect you have,” I said. I walked past him into the kitchen and dumped my bag down on the table. “But I’m afraid I’m not really in the mood for shocks.”
“Oh dear,” he looked at me with regret from the kitchen. That’s a pity.
Because, much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I’m afraid you must
prepare yourself for another one.”
“What do you mean?” I paused, one hand on the fridge door.
“It’s in the living room,” he said.
“Oh, my God!”
Nothing could have prepared for that sickening squelch as I pushed open the door and stepped across the threshold. The sensation under my feet suggested the polished floorboards were turning to mush and the smell was appalling, like a mixture of raw sewage, rotting seaweed and bad eggs. The room was filled with a glistening, smelly lake of slime, and just to add to the horror, I could see several deep cracks running across the walls. I couldn’t imagine what could have happened since I’d left for school that morning. I’d noticed that the small green puddle under the sofa had reappeared, but I thought I’d soaked that up with some kitchen roll, but this was appalling. I couldn’t make any sense of the sight. Had all the local drains leaked and come up through my floor? Was the house collapsing into the canal?
“What on earth’s happened?” I gasped. “Is it a leaking pipe? Have you called a plumber?”
“A plumber?” Ralphie raised one eyebrow. “My dear lady, what good could a plumber do? Unless, of course, you know one who is intimately acquainted with Darnley’s Demonolgie.”
“Darnley’s Demonologie? What are you talking about?” I clapped my hand to my face, trying to block out the sewage stench.
“I’ve done what I could,” Ralphie said. “As you can see, I’ve packed away all the contents of your shelves. You’ll find them on the upstairs landing. Unfortunately, I was unable to move the sofa.”
“Yes, yes, I see...”
“But there was no point trying to do anything else. Not until I can ascertain which malevolent entity is at work here.”
“A malevolent entity?”
“A demon,” Ralphie said calmly. “By which, I don’t mean a crude-looking medieval fright with horns and a tail. I’m speaking of a dark, elemental force. My guess, at this moment, is that someone, a person or person unknown somewhere in this area, is attempting to raise a powerful and highly destructive demon and what we see here are merely the by-products of that activity. In fact, I’d go so far as to say your home is merely in the pathway of the forthcoming diabolic ascension. I suppose it may be no consolation, but I don’t think this is a personal attack.”
“So it’s not one of my mothers-in-law this time?” I was doing my best to see the lighter side of this situation.
“I don’t think so. Although if you do happen to know someone who has sold their soul to a demon, then they might be our first port of call.”
“I don’t know anyone who’s sold their soul to a demon! I didn’t even know that was possible in the twenty first century!”
“Oh, indeed it is! I estimate that are at least four thousand people living in Britain today who have harnessed the power of demons for profit, power and gain. Politicians, business people, so-called ‘celebrities’, members of the legal profession, bankers and journalists, oh, the list is endless. Then there are the thrill seekers, the experimenters, the dabblers, and the descendents of the old alchemists. Open any newspaper and you will see the faces of those who have mortgaged their souls. And they’re easily identifiable. After a while, those who have sold their soul to a demon begin to be afflicted by the characteristics of their Masters. An acolyte of Beelzebub, for example, will attract flies. A devotee of Dagon is likely to fall into the sea.
Remember that tycoon? The one who disappeared off his yacht?”
“Yes, I think I know the one you mean. But Ralphie, what about my house? What am I going to do?”
“Do not panic. In the absence of any henbane, I suggest a few practical steps.
First, you must seal up the room. That way, the infection may not spread any further. Then, you must get some henbane and I will distribute it with a few basic charms. And I will do some further research to ascertain just what is happening here. Oh, and do feel free to peruse Darnley’s Demonologie yourself. There’s a copy on the lectern, up in my room.”
“Yes, I think I saw it there. In fact, I read some of it. But it all sounded like nonsense to me.”
“Ah! You must not dismiss the old legends. They may have more relevance than you think. And now, dear lady, I’m sorry to leave you with all this,” he flapped his wrinkled old hand at the slimy lake, “But I am on my way out now. I will see you later. Good night.”
I closed the living room door and got some duct tape from the tool box under the stairs, and put some all round the frame. Then I wedged some newspapers and towels into the space between the bottom of the door and the floor, and put a sign on the door reading ‘Keep Out’. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to tell Caspian, but I supposed I could always make up a story about a dangerous dry cleaning fluid that had been used on the rug and the sofa. Then, resisting the urge to scream, I went into the kitchen and poured myself that glass of white wine. Perhaps, after all that, the letter from Netherwold would seem the lesser evil.
I took it out of my bag, slit the envelope open and unfolded the sheet of cream vellum:
Dear Mr and Mrs Deadlake,
I would very much appreciate it if you could call at the school tomorrow
at 3.00 p.m. I wish to discuss your son, Caspian Deadlake, as soon as possible. I apologise for the short notice.
Dominic Montague, M.A Cantab.
Tomorrow, I reflected. Well, at least I’d be spared an afternoon at Havelock Ellis, although, of course, that meant I’d lose half a day’s pay. But it looked as though Mr Montague wanted to see me urgently, and that couldn’t be good. Was Caspian in trouble, and if he was, what was I going to do about him now. With a sigh, I poured myself another glass of wine and began to reflect, not for the first time, on the mystery that was my younger son.
My experience of motherhood could be divided neatly into two sections. Before Caspian and After Caspian. Caspian’s birth had been like a seismic shift, forcing me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about young children.
Seb had been around for twelve years before Caspian appeared, and he’d never given me a moment’s anxiety, not cheerful, uncomplicated, open-hearted Seb, who quickly learned to sleep through the night, who didn’t grizzle when teething, who developed exactly as the text books said he would, who laughed and joked all the time. By fourteen months, Seb was burbling and chatting away, using real words and invented words, (tigoo for tiger, curgo for car, I remember), he was running around the dining room table and flinging his arms round my neck. At nursery, he was a star, he sailed through primary school, and loved skateboarding, riding his bike and
collecting football stickers. Then Caspian arrived.
Caspian lay in his cot with a solemn expression on his face. He looked with disdain at the mobile with the yellow chicken, the red cow and the pink pig that had delighted Seb. By eighteen months, Caspian was sitting, silent and solemn in his high chair, as stony-faced and mute as Buster Keaton. He frowned at adults who tried to play ‘peep-o’ with him, sing nursery rhymes or show him videos of Spot the lovable dog. Instead, he maintained a dark, brooding expression that was unnerving to say the least.
Peregrine insisted that Caspian was normal and that there was no need to take him anywhere for tests. In fact, he told me that he’d been very much the same as a baby. Without telling Peregrine, I took Caspian to the clinic, but no-one could explain why Caspian appeared to be a mute. There were no physiological reasons, and mentally, he proved to be above average, judging from the results of the tests they gave him, using Lego and crayons, and building blocks and percussion instruments. He had no difficulty in following spoken instructions. So why won’t he speak, I asked the young male doctor, who sat in front of me in his white suit and turban looking venerable. Perhaps he’s just biding his time, the young doctor said. Biding his time. It was a phrase that sent a shiver down my spine.
Caspian spoke for the first time when he was two and a half. I was clearing the table after Sunday lunch, carrying a pile of plates with a vegetable dish balanced on top in one hand, and the gravy boat and a handful of cutlery in the other, when he suddenly announced, “You risk a serious breakage if you carry so many items simultaneously.” I screamed and dropped the gravy boat into the stone fireplace. It shattered, along with my nerves.
Peregrine, I remember, was furious with me. It wasn’t just that the gravy boat
was part of the dinner service that Cynthia had given us as a wedding present.
It was also the fact that, in his words, ‘normal’ mothers were delighted to hear their child’s first words. He had no idea why I was so freaked out. Wasn’t it obvious that Caspian hadn’t been prepared to say a single word until he’d had found something important to say? What the hell did I mean, it was spooky?
There was no doubt that Caspian was an advanced child, but it soon became clear that he was drawn to the darker side of life. He always wanted to wear black, and Hallowe’en was his favourite time of the year. And then there’d been that business at Blasted Oak. And now, just when I thought I’d got him safely settled at Netherwold, here was this letter. As if I didn’t have enough to worry me. Such as a green slimy lake in the living room and cracks appearing all over the house, not to mention nasty-looking cobwebs in the bathroom. Why me? Why my house? Was it just coincidental, as Ralphie had suggested, or was it something worse? Was someone targeting me deliberately, and if so, who would that be?
If you happen to know someone who’s sold their soul to a demon. That was what Ralphie had said. It sounded ridiculous. In any case, I didn’t know anything about demons, apart from that Old Testament one I’d read about on Friday. Asmodeus, the one who lusted after married women and killed bridegrooms and who was repelled by…oh! What was it Ralphie had told me about people who had sold their souls to demons in exchange for worldly success coming to resemble their masters? If a follower of Beelzebub attracted flies, then surely a follower of Asmodeus...no, surely not! And yet the more I thought about it, the more plausible it seemed.
I’d just remembered something about Peregrine that seemed very significant indeed.