The intermittent terror left with the dawn, driven out by the first slices of pink that cut through the grey clouds and striped the patterned carpet. Gwendolyn sat up warily, still listening for the horrifying cries of the night. But she heard nothing save the caw of the rooks in the trees and the crash of the waves outside her windows. She picked up her whisky glass and sniffed. Could there have been something in that whisky? Something that caused her to hear what wasn’t, couldn’t have possibly been, there? She tamped down the idea that what she’d heard had been generated by her overwrought, unreliable mind, refusing, as best she could, to entertain that particular fear.
She stood up, padded over to the window and was surprised to see sunlight glistening on a calm sea below. As is always the case, it was difficult to fully recall the worries of a dark night in the face of a sunny morning. Gwendolyn dismissed the sound as the result of her exhaustion from travel. Perhaps it wasn't as dramatic as she’d thought. She pulled a jumper on over her pajamas and went out into the hall. Pausing on the landing to gaze out over the front garden, she once again noticed the stained glass apostles surrounding the view, each one intricate and beautiful. On closer inspection, and after counting them over twice, she realized one of the twelve was missing. In its place was a winged boar, an almost identical replica of the stone pair glowering back at her from the tall pillars outside.
The day was so glorious, Gwendolyn spent its majority outdoors. It was easier to feel optimistic, and more importantly, easier to dismiss the events of the previous night in the bright light beaming up from the water below. Though the sea was as much a feature of the house as the stone of its making, its location, so far down the jagged rocks of the cliff side, made it impossible to reach the shore. So she sat underneath a rather ragged tree that clung to the cliff, reveling in the quiet and the salty breeze. She ate warmed-over soup for lunch, fresh fruit and cheese for dinner. She read at bit and dozed in one of the comfortable chairs in the library. Deciding that whisky was not the best idea before bedtime, she made herself a cup of cocoa and headed upstairs when the stars came out, reading in bed till she fell asleep.
It started just before dawn, when the dark is deepest. A sobbing so despairing, so real, it buried itself into the very cells of her being. Properly terrified now, Gwendolyn had no whisky to blame. But she couldn’t just lie there. She had to know who, or what, was making this dreadful sound.
Getting out of bed, she went across the room to the fireplace and grabbed a poker from the hearth. Wielding it like a sword, she turned the handle on the bedroom door and stepped out into the hallway. Outside her room the crying seemed even louder and impossible to locate. It was as though it emanated from every room, through every window. The house was lavender with moonlight and Gwendolyn crept through it, poker raised and heart thumping. There was no one in the entry and the library was just as she’d left it, the embers of the dying fire glowing orange in the grate. Turning towards the dining room her eyes were drawn to the painting of the pink-dressed girl. With a breath-stealing horror she could clearly see the girl’s once shy smile and innocent countenance was gone. In their place was an open-mouthed scream, as hideous as the crying that now filled every room of the house. Gwendolyn slammed the door and fled.
Upstairs, her hands shaking, she fumbled in her bag for her phone and dialed Albert’s number, caring nothing about the time. Several rings and his sleepy, grumpy voice came on the line.
“Hullo. Who the devil is this?”
“Albert, it’s Gwennie. What is going on here? What haven’t you told me? There's something wrong with this place, isn’t there? I swear, Albert, you get me out of here now. Tonight. I don’t care what time it is, you get in touch with that man, what’s his name? The one that brought me over. Henry, that’s it. You call Henry tonight, do you hear me? I am packing my bags and I want out of here first thing.”
“Now, Gwennie. Calm down. You hear something in the night? It’s just the wind, old girl. Just the wind. Why, I remember how hard it blows up there. Easy to work on the imagination. But that’s why you’re there! A good old jolt to the imagination is just what you need. Am I right?
“Dammit, Albert. I’m serious. You get me off this blasted island immediately or I’m calling the police. I mean it, Albert. I swear I’ll never write another word for you! Do it, Albert. Do it NOW.”
Static popped and crackled for a moment then the phone went silent. Gwendolyn threw it across the bed, only then noticing that the sobbing, the horrible sobbing, had ceased. She got dressed and sat on the edge of the bed to wait for morning.
The painting looked normal once again. Refusing to stay cowered in her room all day, Gwendolyn had come down the stairs at first light. She’d stood for a long moment with her hand closed around the glass doorknob before finally turning it. The fragrance of gardenias surrounded her, almost visibly white in the early grey light of this rainy day. Her eyes rose slowly to meet the girl in the painting. The smile had returned. Gwendolyn stood in the entry hall, reluctant to enter the room, torn between memory of the night before and the reality now in front of her. She quietly closed the door to the room as one does to the room of the sick, then went down the hall to the rear entry of the kitchen to make herself a cup on strong tea and phone Albert once again. Her heart sank when she heard the recording, the crisply pleasant voice of Caroline Dunn filling her ear.
“Hello. You’ve reached the offices of Albert Pepperidge, Esq. Mr. Pepperidge regrets he cannot speak with you personally, but he is away from his desk at the moment. Please leave your name and number and he will happily ring you back as soon as he can.”
Gwendolyn took a deep breath and spoke. “Albert. I’m begging you. Get me off this island. Your plan to get me writing is not going to work here. There’s something going on up here Albert. I do not like it. I will NOT stay here. Send someone to get me now. Do you hear me? I have packed my bags and I am waiting.”
Back on Cadogan Gardens, Albert Pepperidge, seeing Gwendolyn’s number come up, had ignored the call, letting it go to voicemail. Now he sat at his desk, his breakfast getting cold, thoroughly irritated. He couldn’t ask Mrs. Dunn for advice, as would be his usual inclination. She’d already told him in no uncertain terms what she thought of his plan. But he’d been so certain it would work. Now, listening to the obvious distress in Gwendolyn’s voice, he was beginning to doubt himself, a feeling as unwelcome to him as it was, frankly, unknown. With the sigh of disappointment tinged with guilt, Albert picked up the phone and dialed. A young women’s voice answered.
“GS Productions. We do things on a Grand Scale. How may I direct your call?”
“Um, Hullo. This is Albert Pepperidge. I wish to speak to Charlie Blake on a matter of some urgency.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Pepperidge, but Mr. Blake is out of the country at the moment. Can I leave a message for when he returns?”
“No, you cannot. I need to speak with him. Or with somebody in charge of the project up on Greyrocks Island. I wish to end it early. I wish to end it today.”
“Oh. Mr. Pepperidge, I’m a little confused. We received your earlier message, as well as your check. You were most generous, by the way. ‘Specially as we didn’t really do anything for you. It’s all been taken care of, you’re not to worry. These things happen. I can assure you, Mr. Blake was fine with it.”
“Fine with what?!” What message? I didn't leave any message!” Confusion made Albert thunderous.
“Well, somebody did. A few nights ago. Told us to scupper the whole project immediately. Which we did, sir.”
“But it wasn’t scuppered, as you so eloquently say! It’s going on as we speak. And from what I can tell, you’re doing a damn good job. Too good, if you ask me. I told Charlie I didn’t want him to go too far.”
“First of all, Mr. Pepperidge. I have to say I do not appreciate being hollered at.” The young woman’s east end accent, so professionally hidden only moments before, was rearing its offended head. “Second, as I done told you, we ain’t done nothing up there. Not one thing. Nobody went up there, nobody’s there now. We did a lot of prep work, I can tell you. But we didn’t do anything up there after your lady called and cancelled.”
Flustered, addled, and red in the face, Albert slammed down the phone and bellowed, “Mrs. Dunn! In here! Now!”
It was around two when Albert finally phoned. Gwendolyn had been sitting at the kitchen table, refilling her cup of tea whenever it got cold, and trying to call her mounting panic. She’d built a large fire and its crackling warmth and glowing light was comforting but she was certain she couldn’t stay one more night in this house. To make matters worse, the weather was changing. All afternoon harsh gusts of wind had flown up from the sea, crashing into the back of the house, making the old windows shudder and rattle. It was the worst possible soundtrack for fear. She almost dropped her mobile when it rang.
“Albert?”. Her voice sounded strange and small, even to herself.
“Yes, Gwennie. Look, I’m sorry, love. I’ve phoned Henry, but he tells me he won’t be able to get to you till morning. Seems a gale is blowing in from the west. Should be gone by daybreak, if we’re lucky, and he’ll get right over to get you. I’m, um, well, I’m sorry you don’t like the house.”
“Albert. I want out of here. There’s something not right with this place. Why didn’t you tell me? I don’t want to spend another night here.”
“I know, old girl, I know. And believe me, if I could get you off myself, I’d surely do it. But it’s just not possible till morning. Henry says the boat would never make it in the storm. He could set off, but he’d never get there. Just turn on all the lights and do something to take your mind off things. Got any whisky?”
Gwendolyn did not respond and Albert, knowing the people he’d hired to add the proper atmosphere of a haunted house to the place had not, in fact, done so, was attempting to keep the worry he’d begun to feel out of his voice. He cleared his throat. “Listen now, Gwennie. It’s true I haven’t been up there since I was a boy, but, well, I’ve heard the stories. Never believed a one of them. Not a one. Because I’m a rational man, just like you’re a rational woman. Think about it, Gwennie. You know whatever you’ve seen or heard must be the result of something completely normal and easily explained. You’re just tired, old girl. You’ve been thinking about scary stories for too long. You’ll leave there tomorrow, and I promise I’ll get you out of this contract. I will. After all, I’m the best agent in the world, aren’t I? I can do anything, can’t I? Just one more night and Henry will get you at first light. It’s a promise.”
Gwendolyn put the phone down on the table without giving Albert a goodbye and rubbed her forehead with the palm of her hands. Here she was, a master of the supernatural, stuck in what she believed was a haunted house. The irony wasn’t lost on her. He was right, she was a rational woman. She knew she’d been able to write successful thrillers because she’d seen them as fun, and fun only. She’d never believed one whit in the supernatural. Did she do so now? Of course not. It was all too ridiculous. Or was she, as she feared above all, experiencing some sort of mental or nervous breakdown? This thought lurked in the back of her mind, threatening to overwhelm her. She sat there pondering her situation all afternoon as the windows shivered and shook in the continuous wind, a wind that sounded ever more determined to hold her in the house till morning, at least.
Even the kitchen, easily the brightest room in the house, began to darken late in the afternoon as the storm outside gathered strength. Though she thought herself too tense to eat, Gwendolyn went ahead and reheated the soup she’d made and poured herself a glass of wine. When she finished she busied herself by cleaning up, making the kitchen as spotless as when she’d first entered it two days ago. But finally, as the shadows of afternoon gave way to the darkness of evening, she knew she had to make a decision. Was she staying in this room all night, or was she going to face her fears and retreat to her bedroom to try and get some desperately needed sleep?
She steeled herself, took a large gulp of tea and turned to stare at the closed door to the dining room. All this simply had to be her imagination, overwrought by overuse and therefore unreliable. Of course the mind can play incredible tricks, it was a plot point she’d often employed, for God’s sake. She stood up, slammed her mug back down on the table, crossed the room to the dining room door and in one quick motion, threw it open.
The room was dark, the weak light of the day having left it completely now. Her eyes traveled over the long flower-filled table, adjusting gradually to the darkness, pausing to rest on each chair in turn as they made their way to the painting. She looked up and then froze, ice-still and stunned. The young girl was gone. The dark blues that swirled on the painted curtain behind her were unchanged, as was the tapestry chair on which she’d sat. But in her place, nothing but black.
Gwendolyn blinked, her heart racing. And then she heard it. Rising up from the very earth and falling from the ceilings. Laughter. High-pitched and cruel. Laughter. Without another thought save escape, Gwendolyn turned and ran through the kitchen to the back door, threw it open and fled outside into the driving rain, the horrifying laughter at her heels.
She ran without thought till she reached the stand of rough lichen-covered trees at the edge of the drive. From here she could see the house, its tall windows dark as the eyes of the blind. The wind was roaring now. It shook the trees under which she crouched. And still she could hear the laughter flowing from the house, its intensity more than equal competition with the wind. She wiped the rain from her eyes and stared up at the house. There was nowhere to go, she knew that. She was the only person on the island and would be till morning. She would just shelter here as best she could, forever watching the house for any sign she was being searched out, and then follow the road back down to the dock at daybreak to wait for Henry. If he didn’t come… she couldn’t think about that now.
She stared at the house barely blinking, her eyes stinging from the effort and the wind. The laughter ebbed away after an hour, just as the crying had done the night before. And then, as a flaming finger of lightning illuminated the roiling sky, she saw a flash of pink pass across an upstairs window. Her eyes followed it, window by window, till it rested, silhouetted in the center of the stained glass apostles on the landing. Undeniable. A pink-dressed figure stood there, staring out into the night, staring right at her. The laughter rose again, louder than before, drowning out the wind, filling every knife-edged drop of rain that fell around her. Frightened out of movement, out of thought, Gwendolyn watched in terror as the pink dress disappeared and reappeared in the dining room window. It was coming for her. She knew it. She turned and ran, not seeing, not caring, just running for her very life. She could hear the roar of the sea taking control, its power stronger and more ferocious than the haunted laughter behind her. She ran towards it like an old friend.
On a cold early morning in November, Caroline Dunn turned her key in the lock of the grand old house on Cadogan Gardens and entered, grateful for the warmth that enveloped her immediately, a sure signal that her boss was already up and about his day. The fires were lit and burning brightly in every downstairs room. A faint fragrance of sausages, cinnamon and coffee wafted down the stairs from his rooms above, a cosy smell that mingled perfectly with the large vase of red and orange roses that sat in the entry hall, perfect echoes of the colours now worn on the trees lining the street outside. Miss Dunn thought to herself, and not for the first time, that there are worse places to work.
She hung up her coat in the hall closet and went over to her desk. Yes, he’d finished writing the press releases as she’d asked him to. She’d go ahead and type them up and get them to the printer. One less thing to do before she began preparations for lunch. Mr. Pepperidge was having a favourite guest for lunch today. She picked up the press releases and read them over, unable to contain a smile….
From the offices of Albert Pepperidge, Esq.: It is with deep sadness and personal regret that I announce the death of famed horror novelist, Millicent Penfield, who passed from this life on October 31st whilst on holiday in the Hebrides. Her marvelous books were a delight to many and hers is a great loss to readers everywhere, both here and around the world. I am pleased to say that, in tribute to Miss Penfield and as a gift to her loyal readership, her publisher, Billington Press, will be releasing a new leather-bound collection of her books in the coming months.
And on another note, I am also thrilled to announce that the eminent historical writer, Gwendolyn Sharp, is once again hard at work on what I’m sure will be an illuminating and definitive biography of the artistic Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll. It should be released next autumn to what I’m sure will be ecstatic reviews from critics and readers alike. I would like to personally congratulate Miss Sharp on what I know will be a phenomenal accomplishment.