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Vampyrrhic (1998)

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Hodder cover 1998

Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1998, ISBN 9780340696088 hardback

Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 1998, ISBN 9780340696095 paperback

Leisure Books, USA, 2002, ISBN 9780843950311 paperback

Cemetery Dance, USA, 2008, ISBN 9781587670763 hardback

‘Maximilian saw heads dart down at the throats, then the heads twisted from side to side like dogs gnawing at a bone. When he next saw the youths, their throats were torn; blood pumped vibrantly, squirting in crimson jets as high as his shoulders. Then the heads came down again. And this time they looked like so many pigs jostling for food at the trough. And the sound of hungry mouths eagerly feeding was loud to his ears…’

WELCOME TO LEPPINGTON

Not far from the coastal town of Whitby is Leppington, nestling in the purple hills of the North Yorkshire Moors. Quiet, unassuming, a forgotten backwater – yet beneath Leppington’s streets terrifying creatures stir. They are driven by ancient passion that has become obsession. They are united in their burning hunger. They share an unending craving. They are Nosferatu. And they have the power to drain your will to resist. To drain it so utterly that you will cheerfully, gladly, eagerly surrender yourself to their sharp, brutal teeth.

AND IN LEPPINGTON DEATH ISN’T ALWAYS FOREVER...

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Simon writes:

The universe has a neat trick to prevent us from being eaten by dinosaurs, chased by Attila the Hun, or robbed by Bluebeard the pirate. This neat trick is ‘time’. Neither extinct creatures nor history’s villains can invade our lives now. T-Rex is long dead, so are Attila’s warriors. We’re safe. This thing ‘time’ insulates us from the past.

But wait a minute. That’s not exactly true. Even though the ancient tyrants and legendary warriors of the past might be bone dust, every now and again they reach out a ghostly hand to touch our shoulder and remind us that they were the all-powerful of their day. For example, you’re probably reading this in July: a month named after ancient Rome’s Julius Caesar. If you’ve been out of town and are seeing this in August, then this is the month named after the Emperor Augustus. We even invoke the names of ancient gods whenever we say something as down-to-earth as, “Meet me Thursday.” Thursday – Thor’s Day – is the day of the Viking god of war. Wednesday belongs to the father of the gods – Wodin’s Day. Wodin’s wife, Frig, isn’t forgotten either. From her we get Friday.

I’d been longing to write a vampire novel for a long time, but I wanted to approach it from a different direction with vampire-like creatures who didn’t adhere to the usual vampire rules, sleeping by day and crying ‘Aaagh!’ to crucifixes. It was this idea of the past leaking like some toxic waste into the present that really sparked the story for me. I imagined that those ancient Viking gods (the same ones whose names are unwittingly uttered billions of times a day the world over) becoming frustrated by their lack of influence in the world. And the gods like nothing more than to interfere in the affairs of humankind.

Over the course of nine months I wrote Vampyrrhic with my characters time and again having to confront the reality that what lay in the past could seep into the present and not only affect but destroy their lives.

In Vampyrrhic I pull together a group of characters who by chance find themselves stopping in the same Gothic hotel in the remote English town of Leppington. The town is dominated by an old slaughterhouse that channels the blood of butchered animals into sewers that form a dark labyrinth beneath the streets. Even though the characters don’t appear to have met before they begin to realize that they knew each other in an earlier life. David Leppington hasn’t visited the town since his childhood. His ancestors lived here; they gave Leppington its name. Bernice Mochardi works in a laboratory that breeds leeches. Jack Black is a brutish thug. He hates Leppington but finds himself drawn to it. Electra Charnwood dresses like a Goth and owns the hotel where this disparate group have made their temporary home. Electra avoids visiting the cellar because she hears strange, frightening sounds coming from beyond a sealed door that leads into the town’s sewers. With the stage set those pagan gods, whose names we all invoke so many times a week, raise their vampire army from the dead. Every army must have its leader and David Leppington is presented with a dilemma that goes beyond a matter of life and death.

Writing Vampyrrhic fascinated me. It won’t let go. So much so, I’m now writing its sequel, Vampyrrhic Rites. Who says stories don’t get in your blood?

Exclusive extract: Chapter 4

One

Bernice Mochardi took her lunch break in the farmhouse kitchen where she worked. Although lunch today was nothing more than a slice of toast and cup of Earl Grey Tea.

She pretended to herself that too many meals at the Peking Garden, Leppington’s only Chinese restaurant, were leaving their mark on her waistline. But the real reason was she had little appetite these days; in fact, her figure was equal to that of a catwalk model.

And the real reason for that is the videos, she told herself. They prey on your mind, don’t they, Bernice?

She put the kettle smartly down on the hob and lit the gas.

You can’t get the man from the video out of your mind, can you? He has (had?) such a nice face; the voice turned her skin to gooseflesh. What had happened to him in the basement?

Bernice dropped a tea bag into her mug.

He was grazed; he was screaming even though no sound came from his mouth. His face was horrible, a leer of fright.

I should take that video, drop it in one of those market place dumpsters. Squirt lighter fuel over it and burn the stupid thing. That tape is taking possession of your soul. And then forget the name Mike Stroud. Forget it completely. It’s not as if you’d ever met him in person.

“Don’t frown at the milk like that, luvvie, you’ll sour it.”

“Oh, Mavis? I was just making tea.” Bernice snapped free of her morbid thoughts. “Like one?”

“Only if you haven’t turned the milk with that face of yours,” Mavis said good naturedly. She was around sixty, with a plump face and pink rimmed glasses. “I’ll put the milk in the cups, you raid the biscuit tin.”

“I’m having a slice of lemon. Don’t worry, I’ll cut it.”

“A slice of lemon in your tea? Oh, you and your fancy city ways.”

Mavis was only gently teasing. She liked to play the country bumpkin with Bernice, goggling at her clothes before she donned the overalls that made all the workers in the farm look like hospital theatre staff. “Ooh,” she’d coo, “that blouse is real silk isn’t it? And blue nail varnish. Mr. Thomas won’t be able to keep his hands off of you.”

“I painted them specially for Mr. Thomas.” Bernice had grinned wickedly. “I want to ravish his senses.”

They’d both broken off into peals of laughter. Mr. Thomas, the owner, was seventy if he was a day, and a dour methodist at that. Once he’d sent one of the packers home after dryly proclaiming he could smell beer on the man’s breath, and would swear to Heaven of the fact on the Book itself.

Now they moved about the farmhouse kitchen – a clinical looking place that gleamed of white tiles and silvery stainless steel – making their lunches; Mavis pulled a microwave hot-pot from its box.

When Bernice Mochardi had told her friends that she had found work on a farm they’d been amazed.

As they sat in a pizzeria on Canal Street in Manchester they had fired questions at her, clearly imagining her slopping through the farmhouse muck all day, wearing a checked shirt, with a piece of straw jammed in her mouth, and perhaps occasionally slapping some chubby sow on the rump while announcing, “Now which little piggy’s going to market, then?”

When she told them what kind of farm they couldn’t believe their ears.

“Leeches?”

“Yes, a farm that produces leeches.”

“But what on Earth do they grow leeches for?” they’d asked horrified.

“Well, what do you think those black things are on your pizza?”

They’d shrieked. Rita had spat her mouthful into a serviette. Aerial had swallowed half a glass of beer in one go.

Bernice had laughed. “Those are black olives, you nitwits. Leeches are the latest big thing in medicine. They’re used to prevent wounds becoming infected, help circulation, that kind of thing.”

“But leeches?”

“But leeches,” she mimicked. “Well, it’s better than working for peanuts in that cafe. If I cook one more all-day breakfast I’ll go nuts.”

The conversation had turned to boys but Aerial and Rita said they were full and moved quickly onto the icecream.

Bernice had been at the leech farm for two months. She liked it. Her job mainly involved packing the leeches up into their moist little travel boxes for despatch to hospitals throughout the country. If a patient had crappy circulation in a finger or a toe or some other extremity, particularly after an operation, the leech, which is a close cousin to the common earthworm, would be applied to the affected area; there it would use its three tiny jaws to chew – painlessly, thank God – through the skin; then it would happily suck out the sluggish blood and quicken the blood flow, and so bring an influx of fresh, oxygen rich blood to the flagging tissues. Best of all she liked the big Amazonian leeches. They looked like giant caterpillars and enjoyed their softly flabby backs being stroked. She was surprised to find she wasn’t squeamish at all.

And she liked Mavis, who today was happily chatting about a trip to the travel agent. “I’ve booked Pete and myself on that Florida tour – we’re doing the works: Disney Land, Orlando, Space Centre, Miami.”

As she talked, Bernice found herself being drawn back to the video tape. What had happened to the man? What had he seen in the hotel corridor?

Mr. Morrow with no eyes and graveyard lips…

She closed off that train of thought. No, he’d seen something; it had snatched him from the room. She’d seen him on television struggling frantically with… with what?

And who had filmed the fight?

Then a surprising thought struck her.

After work tonight, I’m going back to the hotel and I’m going to go down into the basement and see what’s really there.

Two

Jesus encountered two demoniacs when He travelled through Gadarenes. They were so fierce no-one could pass. The demoniacs cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Nearby, a herd of swine grazed. Jesus cast the demoniacs into the pigs. Immediately, the herd rushed down a steep bank into the sea and were drowned.

Jason Morrow knew the story well enough. He would often think of it as the pigs were herded into the slaughter house, where their squeals echoed from the white tiled walls. Jason Morrow no longer even noticed the sound, but he smiled when he saw visitors screw up their faces at the sheer volume and intensity of the pigs’ squealing. It made an electric drill boring into brick sound as pleasant as a garden waterfall.

Pigs came trotting onto the killing floor, their pink bodies nicely plumped up from weeks of porking out on pig swill. Jason Morrow ticked off the relevant boxes of his inventory as the men moved forward with the electric paddles that they clamped to either side of the pigs’ heads. There were no sparks or smoke or fuss. The jolt of electricity snapped from the metal contacts of the paddles, blasted the brain to buggery; piggy went down kicking then lay unconscious all ready for the coup de grace.

Jason Morrow moved efficiently from pig to pig as they fell, nodding to the men with razor sharp axes when he’d satisfied himself the pig was stunned. He wouldn’t claim to enjoy the job – ‘I work to live, not live to work’ is what he’d tell his wife when she complained he didn’t work more over-time – only on pig days he walked with a spring in his step, hummed pop songs under his breath, while he watched the electrical contacts of the stunner being clamped to another meaty, porcine head.

Slap. Another pig went down kicking its muddy trotters; its piggy eyes, black as olives, bulged glassily. Jason nodded to Jacob who planted one bloody boot on the pigs head and raised his axe above the pig’s neck.

Would axes have killed the demoniac infested pigs Jesus had despatched so efficiently? He liked to think they would. The axes glittered in the fluorescent lights; they were sharp as damned scalpels. One stroke severed the windpipe and major arteries. Blood gushed into specially stone cut channels in the floor then out of sight into the drains with a gurgling, sucking sound as if the drains were thirsty mouths sucking at that blood for all they were worth. Where the blood went then he didn’t know; but it didn’t take much imagination to picture it surging through the Victorian sewer system beneath Leppington’s streets, a mini-tidal wave of blood sending a pink curling wave ahead of it to God knew where.

The pigs came in like… (“like lambs to the slaughter” he smiled to himself); axes glinted as they rose and fell; pigs still awaiting oblivion in the shape of a squirt of electricity across the frontal lobes squealed their hearts out; the sound beating back from the walls was terrific.

Jason Morrow checked the tally of pigs. One hundred and twenty-one. That was a lot of bacon. His stomach rumbled with hunger. In ten minutes he could grab a mug of tea and, yeah, why not? A bacon sandwich. He ticked yet another box and signed his name at the bottom of the form.

As he moved on from pig to pig, giving a nod to men waiting with the axes raised, he mentally replayed the story of Jesus’s encounter with the demoniacs. He pictured the hot dusty hillside.

The tombs that the demoniacs occupied would be deep tunnels cut into a cliff-face. He saw the pigs run squealing into the sea where they thrashed at the water with their stumpy trotters as they drowned, taking the demoniacs with them. Hasta la vista, baby.

He didn’t know why he found the story so satisfying; endless variations would work their way through his mind; sometimes, when the demoniacs entered the bodies of the pigs, the pigs’ heads would morph into those of human beings with tormented faces all pig snouted and drooling with bulging eyes…

He nodded at Ben Starkey who raised the axe. Down it came. Jason Morrow felt the heat of the blood ooze through the rubber skin of his wellington boots.

And if, at that moment, you told Jason Morrow that a hundred years ago to the day his great grandfather, William Morrow, had gassed himself in room 406 on the top floor of the Station Hotel he would have been surprised. His surprise would have increased if you’d shown him great grandad Morrow’s signature on the bottom of the suicide note, because he would have seen the ghostly echo of it in his own signature complete with the same vigorous zig-zag underlining. Although he would have been surprised he would have believed it all.

But if you told Jason Morrow that by this time tomorrow he would be dead – dead as the pig twitching and gushing blood at his feet – he wouldn’t have believed you at all.

But both nuggets of information were true.

He nodded his head again. The axe came down. Jason Morrow moved across the killing floor.

And one by one the pigs, at last, stopped squealing.

Three

Dr. David Leppington sipped his coffee and wondered whether to order another cake from the girl behind the cafe counter. It seemed shamelessly greedy – the Bakewell tart he’d just eaten had been huge – but now he was definitely gripped by the school’s out feeling and he was ready to make the most of his holiday.

I could walk up to the girl at the counter – pretty, blonde, red varnished nails – ask her if she can recommend any good restaurants, then when she mentions a couple of names casually follow through and ask her for a date. Go on, David, urged a voice in his head. I dare you.

As the saying goes he was as free as a bird since the break up with Sarah; well not so much as a break up, things just gently and gradually, very gradually, dissolved over the last six months until they reached the point when they both had to agree that they were no longer an item. At least it was a painless separation for both parties. Even more painless because they weren’t living together.

He watched the blond waitress moving around the cafe, wiping down tables and straightening menus and sugar bowls. He’d begun to rehearse his opening lines when he noticed the glint of diamonds on the ring finger of her left hand.

Damn, he thought mildly. Oh well, there was still a fortnight ahead of him in Leppington; if the town held enough interest for him after all. Already he was thinking of perhaps moving on up the coast in a couple of days.

He sipped his coffee. Through the window he could see the great clot of dark cloud hanging over the quad towers of the Station Hotel. There was no sign of the crow now.

Another twenty minutes and he could check in. The lure of a hot bath seemed particularly strong now after the long train journey from Liverpool.

With time still to kill he pulled one of the two letters from his pocket. It was from a Dr. Pat Ferman, one of the town’s general practitioners; in a nutshell Dr. Ferman was inviting David to consider taking over the practice on Dr. Ferman’s retirement in six months. I’m sure you’ll enjoy working in Leppington, ran the letter, and would have much to gain professionally and socially, especially so as you have family ties that extend back many centuries… The letter was chatty and friendly and mentioned David’s uncle, George Leppington, who Dr. Ferman had known as a good friend and neighbour for the last thirty years, so the letter said. David hadn’t seen his uncle since he left the town when he was six.

Would he accept the invitation to become a GP in this little town of his ancestors? He just didn’t know. The idea of tootling round the lanes in a Land Rover like some medical version of Postman Pat was strangely appealing. There’d be no more nine to five in the mind-numbingly dull office at the Occupational Health Centre where all that was expected of him was to confirm or deny another doctor’s diagnosis, or to advise businessmen to drink less booze and take more exercise. You might as well as stand on a beach and recommend to the sea that the tide doesn’t come in today. The sea’d probably take more notice than the businessmen with expense accounts just itching to be used in expensive restaurants.

An elderly couple came into the cafe; they ordered toasted teacakes, hot chocolate and sat down by the window. He noticed them glance in his direction (‘By heck, Ethel. There’s a stranger in town’ – no, it didn’t need a mind reader to know what they were thinking).

David glanced at the clock above the counter. Ten minutes to check-in time. As he returned the letter to his pocket another envelope closed over his fingers as if trying to attract his attention.

He’d not opened this letter yet, although he knew Katrina’s handwriting well enough to realise who it was from.

OK, David, you’re relaxed, you’re in a good enough frame of mind to deal with it now; go ahead; read the damned thing; get it over and done with.

He pulled the white envelope from his pocket; quickly tore it open.

See, David, painless isn’t it. Read it, then tear it up and feed it to the bin in the corner.

But he knew he wouldn’t do that. He’d read it a dozen more times before destroying it.

He pulled the letter from the envelope. The moment he opened it he knew he’d made a mistake. He should have postponed opening it that bit longer – postpone opening the damn thing until you’ve anaesthetised yourself with a couple of beers, he thought suddenly angry. You don’t need this anymore. You’ve not seen the woman in five years.

He opened the letter. The first thing that caught his eye was the housefly sellotaped above the words ‘Dear David.’

The fly’s black body looked absurdly plump beneath the clear sticky tape. Its wings were missing. Not pulled off, he noted, but neatly snipped away with scissors. He jammed the letter back into the envelope unread and stuffed it back into his pocket.

A bitter taste welled up into his mouth.

Four

From the deepest tunnels they surged upwards. They were hungry, eager for food. They moved quickly, purposefully, climbing upward to the passage-ways that ran just below the surface, and although they moved through absolute darkness instincts stamped deep into their very blood guided them.

When they reached their destination they waited, faces turned upward, knowing that in a second the deluge would come. Their sense of expectation filled the air; their bodies trembled with excitement.

Then it came, a torrent gushing down into a hundred or more open mouths.

The liquid sound filled the cave.

They fed. Their food was warm, wet, sweet. If there’d been enough light it would have revealed its colour. Red. Very red.

Five

Wap!

The four toss-pots lay at his feet in the grass. That had been a piece of friggin’ cake. Easy or what.

The man ran his palm across his shaved head, the scar that ran like a streak of bright red lipstick from the corner of his eye to his ear tingled pleasantly. The way it did when he crushed vermin. He’d gashed the knuckles of his right hand planting his fist in one of the toss-pot’s baby soft mouths but he didn’t feel a thing. He wiped his bloody knuckles on a fistful of stinging nettles. Still he felt nothing.

“Listen to me,” he told the four teenagers that groaned and spat blood into the dirt. “From now on you’ll do exactly as I tell you. All right?”

“Uh… ff-shit.”

Wap!

He slapped the one struggling to his feet.

“You will do exactly as I say. Got that?”

“Fug off,” one blubbered through a mouthful of spit, blood and drool.

Wap!

“I am…” Wap! “the boss…” Wap! “Now. Got it?” Wap, wap.

He yanked the kids to their feet and slapped their faces hard with the palm of his hand.

After five minutes work, slapping their stupid heads, they started to come around to his way of thinking.

“Now, listen to me. Get up onto your knees. And kneel there until I tell you to move. Got it?”

Heads nodded.

“So what’re you waiting for?”

The four, still wiping bloody noses and blinking tears from swollen eyes, dragged themselves to their knees, like they were kneeling in the presence of their king.

The scar on the side of the youth’s head tingled even more strongly – like electricity was shooting from his eye to his ear. He felt good; he felt as strong as a monster from hell.

“I’ll tell you this only once. I rule you now, okay?”

The four looked crushed. And all four nodded obediently.

Shit hot, he thought pleased. Now I’m back in business.

Six

Electra Charnwood unlocked the basement door of the Station Hotel.

Electra? You can thank my poetry-loving mother for that pretty little posy of a name, she’d tell people, grinning. She was thirty-five years old, tall, sophisticated looking, with black hair that reached her shoulders. She was also a cuckoo. Born bright in a dull town. It wasn’t conceit on her part; it was just that she’d never felt as if she’d really belonged here, and that perhaps her parents had found her floating in a rush basket in the River Lepping. Maybe that wasn’t so far off the mark; her dark hair, almost a bluey-black, and strong nose gave her a Semitic, perhaps even an Egyptian princess look. In fact, she bore little resemblance at all to her parents who were mousy, freckled and anything but tall.

Electra was certainly no willow; she was big boned and had drawn many an appreciative whistle from the brewery truck drivers as she’d hefted beer kegs into the basement lift. That was when her boozy, glass-backed cellar man hadn’t shown up for work, as was his wont on a Monday morning (‘must be the flu,’ cellarman Jim would snuffle into the phone; or ‘I think I’m going down with a migraine’; or ‘it’s my bloody wisdom teeth again; you don’t know the pain I’m in.’) Once she’d been so pissed off with the wisdom teeth one that she’d driven him to her dentist in Whitby, forced him into the chair and watched with a satisfaction that was near monstrous when the dentist told Jim that he needed more than a dozen fillings. The poor man’s face had gone as white as snow. She could have sacked him for more reasons than she had fingers and toes, but when he did turn up to work he was conscientious enough – also, once she’d fed him enough booze – he didn’t mind staying late to straighten up, empty ashtrays, wash the glasses; and, once she’d boosted his Dutch courage levels, he was the only one brave enough to go down into the basement at night.

Electra switched on the basement lights. Light and dark in the basement had come to some kind of uneasy truce, she’d tell herself. When the lights came on the darkness would retreat, but only so far.

She walked briskly down the steps. She didn’t want to be down there, she didn’t like the hotel basement; she never had ever since she’d been a child. But it had gone beyond fear now. A fatalism had soaked into her blood down through the years.

She checked the cases of wine, soft drinks and spirits. There’d be enough to see the hotel through to the end of the week. There would hardly be a rush of wine quaffing tourists. Leppington wasn’t on any tourist maps – unless slaughter houses of titanic proportions were your thing.

Standing in the centre of the basement – as far from the walls, and their shadows, as she could possible get – she let her sharp eyes roam over the cases of drink, beer kegs and plastic hoses that fed the beer to the hand pumps in the bar upstairs (one day she’d install electric pumps – but there never seemed a pressing need).

She noted everything was in its place and as it should be. After the sounds she’d heard coming from down here last night she half expected to find the place completely wrecked. But then it was always the case. A lot of noise and fury, but she’d find not so much as a can of Pepsi out of place.

Now for the iron door at the end of the basement. Come on, Electra. You can do it. Best foot forward.

She steeled herself to walk the few metres into the shadows. You should have brought your torch, you silly mare, she scolded herself. But again that fatalism kicked in. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

She paused, licked her suddenly dry lips.

I shouldn’t be here, she told herself. I don’t belong here.

As if saying that would change the past. OK, so she’d been a bright young thing at school; she won the prizes for academic brilliance. She’s studied English at university. She’d landed the job as a researcher with a TV station in London. At twenty-five she was poised to be promoted front of camera as co-presenter on Business Tonight but that’s when it all went pear shaped. Her mother died suddenly (Dad had found Mum wide-eyed and cold on these very basement slabs, a broom clutched in her hand – by the brush head not the handle). Electra had come home for the funeral. Then the day she was due to return to London to resume her glittering career (and take possession of royal blue Porsche she’d ordered from the dealer in Hampstead) her father had suffered a crippling stroke.

With no brothers and sisters to help out she’d taken over the running of the hotel, and effectively waved her TV career good-bye. Her father had been bed ridden for the next six months, unable to walk, unable to go to the toilet himself, unable to even pronounce the letter ‘r’.

“Electwa. Don’t waste your time here. You’ve a caweer,” he’d say – or at least try to say, fighting to get the words clear of his distorted lips.

“Don’t worry, Dad. As soon as we can find a hotel manager I’ll pick up the threads in London.”

Her father had died that same year as her mother. She’d watched his coffin being lowered into the ground, his voice still going around in her head: Don’t cwy for me, Electwa, twy not to cwy.

She never had found that hotel manager. And ten years later she was still here in this shitty hotel. The career in TV was well and truly buried with dear old Dad. Damn. This hotel wasn’t an asset; it was like a damn virus in her blood just waiting to go full blown. The noises in the basement at night – it was enough to drive a bloody saint to drink. Thank you Mum, thank you, Dad. Why didn’t you drive a stake through my heart when I was born and have done with it? The sudden upwelling of bitterness caught her by surprise. Her eyes pricked, she clenched her teeth and she found herself digging her nails into the palms of her hands.

Suddenly she walked forward into the shadows at the end of the basement where it narrowed until it was little more than a passageway to–

to nowhere, Electra. It goes nowhere. It’s a dead end…

(just like your life, kid)

Now she could see nothing. She held out her hands into the darkness and walked forward.

Her fingers met it. It was cold and hard. The iron door that had frightened her so much as a child.

Frightened her mother, too (‘I can hear noises at the other side of the door,’ her mother had said, ‘sometimes I think I can hear people moving about through there.’ Dad had laughed it off, saying that there was nothing at the other side of the door but a section of disused basement).

Mum claimed to have heard noises in the basement the day she died.

Found dead in the basement. She died alone. Cold when they found her; eyes wide; brush head gripped in both hands the way the Angel Gabriel holds his sword when smiting demons; ‘there was a little pool of wee spweading out fwom her bottom,’ her father had mumbled towards the end, ‘a little pool of wee, Electwa. Can you imagine it? Your mother would have been so embawassed if she’d have known.’

Well, she wouldn’t know anything. She was as dead as a doornail.

By touch, Electra checked the two padlocks that held the door shut. With a fatalistic shrug she gave the locks a good hard pull, almost daring them to come flying off in her hand.

When she was fifteen she’d seen a war documentary at school. It showed a soldier single handedly firing a big field gun. Stripped to the waist, he lifted this big artillery shell up in his arms as if it was a baby, slipped it into the gun’s breech, then fired it; the shock wave from the gun shook leaves from the trees. Most of her classmates wriggled or chatted – war documentaries interested teenage girls NOT! But Electra had seen something extraordinary. The single gunner’s comrades all hid behind a mound of earth because the enemy were swarming over the hill, and firing down at the lone gunner.

Fatalistically, that lone gunner, working in an exposed clearing in the wood, must have known that any second one of the hundreds of bullets buzzing through the air toward him would take his life. But he was beyond caring. He’d carry on firing the big gun until he was killed.

Even then Electra had a premonition that the clip of film was somehow significant. Now she empathised with that doomed gunner with an intensity that bordered on the monstrous.

She too felt as if she was fighting a losing battle (not the hotel; oh no, not the hotel, that was running at a profit).

Death’s hurtling toward me, she thought, not in the shape of a bullet. No, it’s something else. Just as lethal. She could feel it; just as she felt the blood running through her veins.

At that moment, the bell on the reception desk rang, breaking the spell.

With a sigh she stepped back out of the shadows and headed for the basement steps.

Maybe it’s my Prince Charming; he’s come to take me away from all this. But she knew it wasn’t going to be as easy as that. Prince Charmings don’t call on one horse towns like Leppington. Just like the soldier in the documentary, she’d have to face the onslaught alone.