The Burning Web
Published by Wittegen Press
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Copyright © 2014 by Sophie Duncan
Artwork by Sophie Duncan
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
Thanks to my editor and beta-readers. Especially my twin, Tash – I couldn't do this without you.
I wrote this story for the A to Z Blogging Challenge 2014, for which I chose a theme of ghosts. I wanted to share my own ghost story with my blog visitors during the challenge and I'm a fan of traditional ghost stories, like M R James and Susan Hill. Thus, I decided to try my hand at my own traditional -style story with its own haunted house. However, I wanted to put a modern spin on it as well, which I hope comes through my characters and their situations.
I've modified the story from its original 26-part delivery and added in some more colour that can be afforded in novel format. I hope you enjoy my offering.
Tris blinked into the bright afternoon light and shielded his eyes with one hand as the natural shine was joined by dozens of flash bulbs. He'd tried to prepare himself for the glare he knew would be outside, but his head was thumping, had been since he'd been called back into the courtroom to hear the verdict. He was so tired he just wanted to get home and collapse next to Xander on the sofa. Yet, from the way Xander was gripping his hand and pulling him towards the top of the court building steps, Tris knew it wasn't to be. He meekly followed his husband in front of the melee of reporters.
Each burst of camera light was like pins poking into his retinas, so Tris watched the back of Xander's left ear. All he could really see was a dark patch of hair and his husband's chocolate skin rather than any detail, since his eyesight was shifting in and out of focus. He had no more words, no comments for the horde that had been dogging him since this whole crappy business had begun, so he let Xander speak for him.
People were yelling questions from all directions and calling for them to turn this way and that, but Xander held up one hand in what to most would have looked like a very confident gesture for silence. Since the other one was clasped around Tris' hand like a vice, Tris knew better. It worked though, and the crowd rumbled into mostly silence.
"Tristan and I," Xander began, since it had been a long time since anyone reporting on the case had called him DC McCall, "would firstly like to thank everyone who has stood by us through the last eighteen months. It has been a difficult time, when Tris has been tried both by the media and by the law, and finally, justice has been done: as has always been maintained by Tris and I, he is innocent of any crime."
"He still shot an innocent boy!" someone yelled from the back of the crowd and more flashes went off.
Tris kept his attention on Xander, forcing his face to stay straight, despite the knot of sickness that knowledge kept in the bottom of his stomach. Xander had to have felt him tremble though, because he squeezed his fingers reassuringly.
"As Tris has stated on many occasions, he wholeheartedly regrets the awful sequence of events that led to this terrible incident, but Abdi San ran at him holding a gun during a night of terrible violence on the New Cross estate," Xander added, tone firm, authoritative. "A jury has now agreed with us that under those conditions, Tris had no chance of telling that gun was a replica and he reacted lawfully while defending his own life, those of his fellow officers and members of the public."
A whole wave of more yelled questions started at that and Tris cringed. He rubbed his face, eyes half closed and chill sweat running down his back under the smart suit that was becoming unbearably tight at the collar. He didn't want to think about this now, not any more. What had happened had been dissected every which way by two enquiries and, finally, thanks to public pressure, his trial for manslaughter.
Yet, then one question cut over all the others, a shrill, young voice demanding, "McCall, would you still have shot Abdi San if he'd been white?"
Tris couldn't help it then, he reacted to the shock of that accusation and glanced around, wide-eyed, for its source.
"One thing my husband is not is racist!" Xander barked back defensively, sounding a lot less in control this time.
People were yelling at him again, but Tris needed to find that one accuser, to meet his eye and tell him exactly where he could shove his stereotypes. He winced at the daggers of light exploding in his face as he scanned the crowd, but most of the pain was inside and it had to come out. Everything was pretty much a blur, a mess of pinks and greys and brilliant white, but, suddenly, Tris' world clarified on a face that still haunted his dreams.
Tris froze as, between the ranks of the unknown reporters, his gaze fell upon a frozen, cold stare. Abdi San, paler than that fateful evening when the Asian teenager had surprised him, no scream on those thin lips now, but the boy needed no voice to challenge Tris right then. Conscience did a much better job than any reporter and all his grief and fear hit Tris at once. Heart hammering, body shaking, the rest of Tris' world exploded in brilliance a hundred times worse than any flashbulb and he was left with that flat, lifeless, denunciatory scrutiny boring into his soul. Nothing could take away the pain then, sharp and clear as it was, and the worst part of it was Tris knew he deserved it. He had taken a life, a young life that stood before him, phantom accuser, and there was only one price. Tris surrendered to the agony and everything went black.
From the passenger seat, Tris watched the trees go by. Like a latticed tunnel, they lined the single-track road that Xander was navigating, most of the leaves now gone after the early Autumn storms, but their branches tangling overhead. Tris found himself leaning back in his seat and looking up at the way the frosty light broke through in thin shards. He'd never have even taken the time to notice before, but he smiled as the beauty of the morning rippled by.
The dappled world only added to the excitement building in Tris and he could feel his smile getting wider and wider the closer he and Xander came to their future. He looked across at his husband, who was concentrating on the road. However, apparently Xander still had half an eye on him, because, without even glancing over, Xander immediately told Tris, "Easy does it today. It's a house, not an excuse for a marathon."
"Yes, Dad," Tris teased back, petulant-teenager strong in his tone.
"I mean it," Xander carried on and he did glance at Tris this time, worry in his dark eyes. "Promise me, if you feel anything, you'll let me know."
That anxious glance tempered Tris' excitement and he shifted in his seat at the reminder all was not as it had once been with his health.
"I promise," he mumbled, his hand rubbing over the top of the walking stick that was resting against his right knee.
"Look, I don't want to rain on your parade, Love," Xander rushed on and reached over to squeeze Tris' knee as he steered them round a long bend. "This is important to me too, and I'm as pumped as you, but let's take this visit one step at a time. The place is going to be a mess with all the work that's going on. Don't be disappointed."
Tris laughed gently at the ever so slight condescension in Xander's manner. He'd become used to it in the last five months, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to call his husband on it.
"One thing this bloody aneurysm didn't break was my sense of perspective, Xan," he quipped, determined not to let his mood slip.
"Oh really," Xander teased right on back, the corner of his mouth twitching. "I'll remind you of that when you-"
Tris didn't hear the rest of what Xander said, because just then they turned right between a pair of rusted, but ornate iron gates and, as soon as they were past the hedge of trees, not fifty yards away, up rose all three Victorian Gothic stories of Berwick House to greet him. Tris sat forward a little, dropping his gaze under the top edge of the windscreen to get a full view of their soon-to-be home as it loomed over their approach and, blood pressure be damned, Tris couldn't help it, he was excited by what he saw.
The place actually had four levels if you counted the cellar; he'd poured over all the pictures that he'd made Xander take on the previous visits he hadn't been fit enough to attend. He'd seen those images so many times, he knew the layout by heart, but this was his first view of the place for real and it was breath-taking. She wasn't a beauty. If she had been a woman, she would have been what the Victorians referred to as 'handsome', if somewhat shabby at the present. The surrounds of her bow windows, once a gleaming cream stone which contrasted with the grey of her walls, were green with moss and mould and some of the external sills were missing pieces. Still, Tris had seen past the decay from years of neglect as soon as he'd seen the advert in the paper and it had been love at first sight.
As soon as Xander drew the car to a stop on the weedy gravel in front of the house, Tris pushed open his door and put out his good foot. A little more hastily than he knew was advisable, he reached up to the top edge of the door and then hauled himself out of his seat, dragging his gammy leg and walking stick after him. Looking up, he let the door swing shut behind him and shifted his weight as he shoved the foot of his stick into the gravel and leant on it. This was it, the moment he's been planning for months, the reason he had been pushing himself to get fit. Months of rehab and a lot of dreaming had gone into Berwick House and finally he was here.
As Xander crunched round the back of their car and joined him, Tris grinned widely and felt the first flush of real hope he'd had in a long time. He grabbed for Xander's hand, squeezing tightly, and breathed, "Finally."
Xander smiled too and took his own glance upward, his profile revealing at least a tinge of disbelief.
"Y'know, renovating an old pile like this is somewhat beyond the gentle rehabilitation recommended for those recovering from a subarachnoid haemorrhage," Xander murmured and slipped a protective arm round Tris' waist.
Tris continued to grin though: nothing was going to ruin this moment.
"You know me, I'd have died of boredom without all the planning to keep me going," he countered, knowing he had to be sounding like an over-excited schoolboy.
"Just remember you did almost die, okay?" Xander sighed and tightened his hold for a moment.
Tris shrugged, but didn't reply, there was no need. Instead, he turned his attention to the large door with peeling paint, but with what looked like an original lion-headed knocker. It had once been grand, just like the house, but now there was something not quite right and it took Tris a few seconds to realise what it was: the door wasn't straight in the frame, in fact, it was so twisted there wasn't a hope in hell of it opening. Tris glanced sideways again, and from Xander's squint he knew his husband had come to the same conclusion.
"Round the back?" he suggested.
Xander nodded and so they headed past the right rank of bow windows and followed the gravel round the side of the house. The path was uneven, fading into grass at times, so Tris took it slowly, or rather, Xander took it slowly, moving in front of Tris as the path narrowed, and therefore making Tris keep to the measured pace. However, it did give Tris a chance to look down over what had once been a lawn, but was now more of a meadow that dropped gently away from them down to a large pond.
Half way down the side of the house, he paused to take in the view backed by a tight line of overly tall pines that hid any countryside beyond. He wasn't sure why his eye was drawn to the place that was largely in shadow. Reeds and weed choked the dark water, obscuring the details of a small statue in the centre, strangling what had once been some kind of cherub. The whole image gave Tris the chills, but he found his attention held, nevertheless, his vision swimming a little as he concentrated on the half-hidden features of the childlike form.
Tris squinted to try and make the scene stand still, but it shifted even more and the brown-green of the cherubic stone face sunk away, leaving another dark-eyed visage in its place. Tris has seen that face, felt those eyes boring into him so many times he recognised the chill feel of them before they had even clarified in his vision: Abdi, his personal ghost, guilty reminder of the disaster that had changed everything. Gasping a breath, Tris turned away and grabbed for the wall to steady his retreat.
"Tris?" Xander asked anxiously, instantly by his side and reaching out to help.
"I'm okay," Tris told himself more than he did Xander, the need to chase away the games his mind played on him making him sharper than he wanted to be.
Immediately sorry for his tone, Tris took the hand that was offered to him and apologised with a look. He took another deep breath and relaxed up against his husband, glad when Xander's hand came round his waist. Pushing away the momentary brainstorm, he mirrored the gesture.
"Long distance made me dizzy for a minute. I'm okay now," he lied and waved his stick in the direction of the pond without daring to look back at it: Xander and his doctors knew all about Abdi, a symptom of his damaged brain reliving the moment of trauma, but Tris wasn't about to put this trip at risk by admitting to seeing him.
Xander accepted the answer, although he didn't let go of Tris again when Tris stood straight, so they walked slowly the rest of the way half on and half off the path, getting their trousers dampen on the long grass.
The loud rumbling of an engine greeted them as they turned the corner of the house and the image of Abdi faded right to the back of Tris' thoughts in favour of a much more exciting scene - a back patio covered in machinery, bags of plaster, lengths of wood and all manner of other building materials. The hum was coming from a generator from which long black cables were trailing into the house via an open door, a much more humble affair than the front one, but greatly more welcoming.
They were halfway through the assault course of material when a large figure filled that doorway. Xander straightened immediately, and Tris dropped his arm from around his husband's waist, allowing Xander to stride forward without him, hand held out, and he greeted, "Bill, good to see you again."
Tris could have guessed this was Bill Gregson, their builder and expert in renovations, although he'd never met the man. Xander had described Bill to him as 'built like a brick shit house' when Tris had interrogated his husband for information after the first planning visit to the house.
"Xander," Bill replied, shaking hands, "glad you could both finally make it down here."
"This is my husband, Tris," Xander turned as Bill's attention shifted to Tris, and held out his arm.
Tris walked over, quickly swapped the stick into his left hand and held out his right. He found his hand completely enveloped by Bill's large mitt and, despite being six foot himself, he had to look up into the man's bearded face. Bill Gregson was, frankly, a giant.
"Good to meet you," Bill nodded as he shook hands firmly, his manner cordial, but unsmiling.
"And you," Tris replied, trying to keep down the excitement that was starting to bubble out of him again at the meeting he'd been striving for over the weeks of bed rest.
He couldn't help himself, though. While continuing to shake hands, he glanced over Bill's shoulder into the dim interior of the house and his exuberance had to have been coming off him in waves. Bill snorted and loosed hands, turning and looking back inside.
"Structural work's complete," he told them with a slight huff of pride if Tris was not mistaken. "You want a tour?"
Tris frowned at Xander's over-protective stare. However, Xander had the look again, the one that held so much worry bottled up that Tris would have capitulated if he hadn't been daydreaming about visiting each room all the way from London.
"I'll let you know if I get tired," he promised, feeling his cheeks heating up as he admitted his weakness in front of Bill, but he wanted the tour far too much not to try the cajoling.
Xander pursed his lips for a second, glanced at Bill, who was standing there, arms crossed, wearing a completely neutral expression, and then looked back at Tris. Tris grinned as he saw a flicker in his husband's eyes that told him he'd won this round.
"Thanks, Bill, a short tour would be great," Xander finally let the builder know their decision, emphasis on the 'short'.
Instantly, Bill turned and led the way into the house. Tris stepped after him and, blinking away the Autumn light, found himself in a high-ceilinged kitchen that could have been right out of costume drama. Opposite the door and slightly to the left was a large blacked range in its own recess, and a deep, white, enamelled sink and draining board sat against the wall to Tris' left. However, the whole room was dominated by a large wooden table and chairs that was, at that moment, covered in a collection of mugs covered in copious dusty finger marks.
"Kitchen," Bill started, shoving his hands into his pockets and hovering by a second doorway directly opposite the first that led into the rest of the house. "Water works, but don't drink it, the mains connection is going in this week. There's bottled water in the cupboard under the sink. No power yet, but the generator will boil the kettle."
With that, Bill turned and strode off through the inner door. Tris hooked his arm through Xander's, gave him a stupidly exuberant grin and then pulled them both off after their guide.
Bare floorboards squeaked under their feet as soon as they stepped off the flagstones of the kitchen floor, and the walls were a mixture of bared plasterboard and wires in the hallway outside, but that didn't stop Tris' sense of pride as he walked into his future home. There was a stairwell and then a doorway off to the right almost immediately and, even though Bill was way up the corridor, Tris dragged Xander into the unexplored space beyond. The room into which they stepped would have been unimpressive, being much the same as the corridor outside, unfinished and bare, but there was a modest window looking out over more abandoned meadow. However, this time the view stretched back much further, the pine border being shrunk into the distance and the old garden, at least a couple of acres of it, was lit by bright Autumn sunshine.
It was Xander who led them both over to the window and Tris watched his husband's captivated profile as Xander gazed out at the wild view.
"If I ever try to tell you again that we shouldn't have spent all your payout on this place, bring me here," Xander murmured, clearly losing himself in the sweeping beauty outside.
Tris didn't get to see his doctor husband's romantic side all that much, especially lately when he had been patient as well as partner, so he indulged the moment, letting the magic of the view take over Xander a little more before he pushed his luck.
"Then let's stay here tonight, in this room," he whispered as he leant close to Xander's ear.
Xander tensed at that and Tris regretted his haste as the moment broke. They'd had this argument already back at their London flat and neither of them had won, which is why there was a blow-up mattress and an overnight bag in the boot of the car. His husband frowned at him and his wobble at the side of the house meant Tris was almost ready to back down and return to the city after the tour. Yet, there was something in Xander's look that told Tris he might not have to argue too hard. He smiled again at Xander, not the over-excited schoolboy grin this time, but still a genuinely happy expression and he laid his palm on Xander's arm as he pushed, "Just one night, our first in our future home."
Still nothing, just a conflicted stare, so Tris decided on the blatant truth.
"I know you want to, I can see it in your face," he risked all on his final gambit, "and you don't need to worry about me. Staying here will be less stressful than London traffic on a Saturday, anyway."
Tris added the last bit with a playful shrug and then waited. He could see the responsible doctor and the once adventurous man he had fallen in love with warring for supremacy on Xander's features. Mentally crossing his fingers, he really hoped that, after a long time in decline thanks to the struggles of the last two years, the latter would win out.
"Butler's pantry, new trip switch fuse box'll be going in here," Bill interrupted the moment and Xander took a rapid step back from Tris and took in a breath as he looked over to where their guide was filling the second doorway.
"We'll discuss it later," Xander stalled, which gave Tris a little hope he hadn't lost yet, but then the moment was truly over as Xander turned back to Bill and observed lightly, "There's a beautiful view from here."
"Can't say I'd noticed," Bill shrugged and then headed back off down the corridor.
Xander glanced at Tris again, the added decision at the back of his gaze, but Tris knew it was best to let the idea ruminate in his husband's brain for a little longer. A few more views, some talk of their plans and he was almost sure he'd have him. So, deliberately not dwelling on the overnight proposal, Tris reached out, took Xander's hand and cajoled, "I think we're supposed to follow him."
Bill was waiting for them when they stepped out of what was quite a long, dark back corridor into a wide open hallway practically the size of their whole flat back in London. Tris looked up and around at the high ceilinged open space in wonder: the photos just didn't do it justice. The walls were lined with dark wood panels, which were propped up against the walls in places where work was underway, and the place could have been very sombre. Yet, two banks of windows, one either side of the front door let in plenty of light from that side of the house and from the back, bright, southern light came streaming down the first flight of a wide staircase in the same dark wood as the panels. There was a tall window in front of a small landing where the stairs turned to carry on up to the next floor.
The place was strewn with more equipment, plumbing pipes, tools and bits of wood, like the patio, making it more like an obstacle course than a hallway, but the open space still had a majesty all its own. This area had been designed to impress anyone coming through that big old door, which looked even more askew from the inside.
Bill had to have noted Tris' attention on the entrance, because he waved his hand in that direction and told them, "Nothing wrong with that 'cept a bit of rot in the frame. The lads'll be mending and rehanging that pretty soon."
"Thank you," Tris beamed at the man and Bill took that as a cue to move off.
"We're halfway through the installation of the heating system in the three big downstairs rooms," Bill informed them, leading them between the debris towards the door immediately opposite the end of the hallway, which, during his planning phases, Tris had labelled in his head, 'The Dining Room'.
Their guide opened the dining room door, sending a wave of air over Tris' face which carried a scattering of building dust with it, right into his eyes. Tris' first view over Bill's shoulder, therefore, was of a blob of light through watering eyes and he blinked rapidly to clear them. Bill and the door were just a shadow against the brightness from the windows within and as the big man ducked out of the way, a second rush of air, much cooler than the first wave hit Tris and he shivered. The shadows shifted after Bill's hulking shape as well, making him see double for a second.
Tris wobbled, which meant Xander was looking at him sternly when he had managed to clear the dust from his eyes, but the effect only lasted a second and he grinned reassuringly at Xander and headed on into the dining room after Bill. Xander didn't make any comment, but he was sticking very close to Tris and Tris had the feeling his husband was watching him more than the room. However, if it meant he got to stand in the middle of the bright and airy chamber and admire the views both west and south, he was willing to put up with the attention.
There were radiators lying up against the walls under each of the two banks of windows and more bits of pipe lying around, but Tris ignored that in favour of the beautiful, if slightly chilly atmosphere of the room. Tris just put that down to it having been shut up all morning and dragged Xander over to the south-facing of the two sets of windows, hoping to help his husband lose the frown that had slid back onto his face.
"Imagine entertaining in here, day or night," he enthused. "There's enough room in here to seat twenty, no more struggling to fit people round the table at dinner parties."
Xander hummed a sort of agreement and Tris smiled to himself, because he saw the faraway look returning to Xander's eyes as the view did its job.
They dallied in the dining room for a while, Bill waiting silently by the wall as Tris spun the magic of the place in Xander's ear. He was almost sure he had his husband back in the mood he wanted him when Bill led them out to see the other two downstairs reception rooms. The second, on the same wall as the dining room, but at the front of the house, was really pretty similar in dimensions to what they'd already seen and it was full of clangs and bangs as Craig, one of Bill's 'lads' and the only other workman in the place on a Saturday, installed pipes, so they did not pause long there. However, the third reception, also at the front of the house, was empty, so Bill took them in.
This one was even larger than the others, a huge fireplace dominating the inside wall that backed onto the corridor to the kitchen. Like the others though, the architect had wanted to get as much light into the room as possible, and much of the two outside walls were bow windows, two sets facing front and one facing east, opposite the doorway in. That eastern aspect held the view down to the choked pond and Tris quickly diverted his attention to the ornate, marble mantelpiece. He dragged Xander over to it and asked Bill, "Does this chimney still function?"
"Stack needs repointing and there's a lot of debris up there to clear, but it will," Bill replied firmly and slapped the marble with more fondness than he seemed to reserve for people.
Tris looked up at the wide chimney breast, which, like all the other walls in the place, was peeling its once rich, burgundy paint. However, there was a patch that took up most of the space that was darker, fresher than the rest, a large rectangle. Tris traced the edges of the once protected paint with his gaze, not sure why it interested him: it had clearly been the place where a picture had hung. Yet, as he examined it, the hairs on the back of his neck began to stand up and Tris realised he didn't like that spot. Confused by his reaction to a bit of wall, Tris turned away and looked instead out at the drive sweeping away to the gate.
"I can't get used to all this space," he breathed, distracting himself from the odd feelings still sitting at the bottom of his stomach, and then he laughed at himself.
The scoff didn't last long, but the feeling remained and the idea that he wanted to get out of the room followed it. He looked to Bill and asked, "Can we see upstairs?"
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Sophie was born with the writing bug in her blood, boring her primary school teachers with pages of creative writing and killing her first typewriter from over use when she was thirteen. She began publishing her work on line while at university where she discovered the internet and fanfiction. It took another decade for Sophie to realise her long-time dream of releasing her own original fiction.
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Realising his memories are his only hope of controlling his awakening instincts, Tom returns to, Coombedown, the sleepy, Cornish village in which he was born, unknowing that the night-breed in his veins will lead him into danger.
"Night Blood" is a young adult, paranormal novel.
This is the first story in the "The Night Blood Chronicles".
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