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Thursday, 12 March 2015

Into the Wild Wolf's fold

Great changes have been afoot in this 'umble scribbler's little corner of the writerly world over the last week or so, one which for a while I thought would herald disaster but in actual fact has turned out to be wonderful. 

Without further ado, it is with great delight, not to mention great pride, that I make the following announcement. I am now officially a Wolfite, having been taken into the warm and welcoming fold of Wild Wolf Publishing.

Consequently Offshore and In The Garden of Stones can be found at Smashwords, and at the Amazon Kindlestore local to you (linkies below). 

I very much hope you will consider reading and, if you like it, leaving a review. 

Jill x


Amazon:

Offshore
In The Garden of Stones

Smashwords:

Offshore
In The Garden of Stones

Proceeds from sales go to support the following charities:

Offshore - The Piper Alpha Memorial Fund (PoundforPiper)
In The Garden of Stones - Combat Stress

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Read an E-Book week 2015




It's that time again folks!

 Read an E-book week is on us again over at Smashwords - March 1 - 7 inc. 

All my stories are enrolled and are a teeny tiny 99c each (box set $1.25) Use the coupons at the checkout. Let me know if you like what you read and you can choose another for free (outwith the promotion; ask me for the coupon code)
Enjoy!

Follow this link to see what stories I have for you: Read an E Book Week

Jill x

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Come to our party!!




It's happening now!

Come to our Valentine's Audiobook giveaway party over on Facebook and be in with a chance to win some fantastic prizes - audiobook versions of novels by Thorstruck authors. Click the link:

Valentine's Audiobook Giveaway Party.

Invite your friends. Come one, come all. The more the merrier. 

See you there!

xx

Monday, 2 February 2015

The Secrets of Castle Drakon blog hop: Day 2





Welcome to the 

THE SECRETS OF CASTLE DRAKON 

blog hop, in association with Thorstruck Press.



Hello wanderer, and welcome to the site.


Now you're here, you may be wondering what this is all about.


Well, this is how it works, and it is very simple. Every blog involved in the 'hop' is hosting one story from the Secrets of Castle Drakon anthology (published by Thorstruck Press). For each blog site you visit,  you get the opportunity to read one story from the collection. If you want to continue reading more stories - there are 11 in total - you have a choice. Either click the link to the next blog in the tour which will be available tomorrow, or follow the link to Amazon Kindlestore and purchase the anthology in its entirety (links at the bottom of the page). Only readers who follow each blog link will read every story for free. It's up to you.


So, for your delight and delectation, here is my story from the anthology, Brotherly Love?



BROTHERLY LOVE?




by
Jillian Ward


The man was tall, rail thin, with a pale, almost translucent complexion. His deep set black eyes glittered behind a pair of gold coloured pince-nez glasses, which clung precariously to a long beaky nose set above a thin tight mouth, and as he strode down the main street of Bishopston on this bright October morning, his black cloak billowing about him like crow’s wings, he made no sound and cast no shadow.
Without breaking his stride he swept into Bolton Brothers Estate Agent’s High Street office, dragging behind him a blast of air that carried on it the threat of frost.
“Good morning!” he said, in a voice that crackled like dry leaves. “Are you open for business?”
Larry and Barry Bolton, the twin incumbents of the establishment, whose unfortunate nomenclature came as a result of a father with a cruel sense of humour, both looked up from their respective magazine and computer screen to stare at their unexpected visitor.
“Morning,” said Larry, standing and putting out his hand. “Bolton Brothers are open seven days a week. I’m Larry Bolton, senior partner. This is my second in command, my little brother, Barry.”
Barry, a sour pout on his podgy features at being downgraded yet again, nodded acknowledgement, but did not stand. There wasn’t any point. Larry would only push himself in front, as he always did. Best to stay seated and save the embarrassment.
“My name is Carlton Greenleaf,” the cadaverous man said, ignoring Larry’s extended hand. “Of Greenleaf and McCafferty, solicitors. Mr McCafferty is, alas, no longer practising.”
“Retired?”
“Deceased.”
“Well, it’s very nice to meet you, Mr Greenleaf,” Larry said. “Please come in, take a seat. How may we be of service?”
From beneath his cloak Greenleaf pulled a dusty folder bound with red ribbon. “Would either of you two gentlemen be interested in an opportunity to make a lot of money?”
“That depends on what it is you want us to do,” Larry said, smiling his broadest smile, the one he saved for when he smelled an opportunity, the false, toothsome smile of a shark that stretched his cheeks, but did not come within hailing distance of his eyes
Greenleaf also smiled, if a retraction of his top lip to expose a rank of discoloured tombstone teeth could be so called.


“The proposition is quite simple,” Carlton Greenleaf said, now seated in one of the office’s visitor’s chairs and nursing a cup of tea. “I represent a client who has a substantial property he no longer requires. I was given instruction to find a suitable agency willing to take it on. I could have gone with one of the major establishments, but as you are local, know the area, the market and…” The grin grew wider, more unsettling. “…are desperate for business, I thought I’d give you first refusal.”
“What makes you think—”
“I’ve done my research Mr Bolton, and from what I understand, your little establishment is standing on the precipice of bankruptcy. One more overdue payment and…” Greenleaf made a swan dive gesture with his long fingered hand. “Business, homes, cars, reputations…all gone.” Out came those teeth again. “I promise you, if you do a good job and get a good price, the sale's commission alone will be enough to save you from all that ignominy. Sell it within the next, let’s say, three months, and I may even throw in a little thank you bonus. How does that sound?”
Somewhat rattled by Greenleaf’s brass necked yet accurate observation of their precarious financial situation, Larry’s rictus grin stayed in place. “You can count on us, Mr Greenleaf,” he said, the corners of his mouth twitching. “I—”
Greenleaf cut him off with a raised hand and turned his pebble eyes on Barry. “Mr Bolton, you’ve been very quiet up until now. What do you think? You are a partner in this business after all.”
Barry felt his scalp begin to prickle under Greenleaf’s dead fish gaze. “We always do our utmost to offer complete customer satisfaction,” he said flatly, as if reading from some invisible cue card.
Greenleaf beamed his tombstone teeth and nodded. “Good,” he murmured. “Very good.” He sipped purse-lipped at his tea, before setting the cup down in the saucer. “The property in question is a large house on the edge of the town,” he continued. “You may already know of it. Castle Drakon?”
The brothers looked at each other, no trace of any smiles now, an exchange which did not go unnoticed by Greenleaf.
“I see that you do,” he said, and reached for the folder. “So you will know its history?”
“I know it’s huge, about three hundred years old, a manor house that’s changed hands a few times, most recently owned by that musician fellow,” Larry said. “Called himself Count Malachi Drakon and named the house after himself. Didn’t stay long though. Moved out about six or seven years ago and the place has been empty ever since. Judging by the number of boards that have been up since then, a fresh one every few months or so it seems, nobody’s had much luck moving it.”
“By anyone’s reckoning it’s proving to be something of a…white elephant,” Barry offered.
“Perhaps so,” Greenleaf said. “Or perhaps the agents didn’t have the requisite skills to take on a property quite so…” He pursed his lips as if searching for the appropriate word. “…challenging?” He leaned forward in his chair, fixing Larry with the flat stare of a reptile eyeing up a tasty passing bug. “Do you think you are up to the challenge, Mr Bolton ?”
Larry smiled his best estate agent’s smile with teeth that wouldn’t look out of place in a toothpaste ad. “I think you’ll find us more than up to it, Mr Greenleaf,” he said, before realising Greenleaf wasn’t talking to him. He wasn’t even looking at him any more. He was addressing Barry.
“Mr Bolton,” Greenleaf said again.
Barry started and cleared his throat. “Well…I think given time and opportunity and with the right marketing strategy in place, we could produce a satisfactory outcome for your client.”
Greenleaf made a hoarse coughing sound, and it took Barry a moment to realise he was laughing. “Excellent,” Greenleaf said wheezily. “Spoken like a true marketeer.” He laid the dusty folder carefully on Barry’s desk. “Everything you need to know is in here. I trust I can leave everything in your capable hands.”
“You can count on us, Mr Greenleaf,” interrupted Larry. “In fact, we would go so far as to say that you should consider Castle Drakon as good as sold, wouldn’t we Barry?”
Greenleaf continued to gaze at Barry, and Barry, feeling the uncomfortable prickle of a cold sweat gathering between his shoulder blades, ran his finger around the collar of his shirt and nodded. “Absolutely.”
Greenleaf unfolded himself from the chair and rose to his feet. “Very good,” he said, and dipped his hand into the folds of his cloak. “You will be needing this.” He placed something hard and metallic on top of the folder. A long black key. “Please don’t lose it. It is the only one.” He turned to Larry. “Now I shall take my leave of you, bid you good day and good luck. My address and telephone number are in the file; please don’t hesitate to contact me, day or night. Thank you for the tea.” He folded at the waist in a low bow, pulled his cloak snugly around his skeletal frame, and swept out into the street, leaving behind a cold cup of tea and a lingering unpleasant odour which reminded Barry of clothes left too long in the washer.
As soon as Greenleaf was out of sight, Larry slumped into his office chair and shivered. “What a weirdo.” He then sprang to his feet again to fiddle with the heater, cranking it up to full. “Bloody freezing in here,” he said, extending his palms into the warm air flow.
Barry picked up the key. It was solid and heavy and looked old. “I didn’t much like him either,” he said. “He gave me the willies. His eyes were too… starey, like they were looking right into me… and did you see his fingernails? Like bloody talons they were.”
“He probably plays the guitar,” Larry said, untying the red ribbon from the folder. “Guitarists always keep their fingernails long. Helps them pluck the strings better or something. He seems to like you though.”
“What makes you think that?” asked Barry
“Because even though I was sitting there right in front of me, all the time he was really talking to you.” Larry winked salaciously. “Maybe he fancies you. Pass me the file.”
Barry did, then brushed his fingertips down the front of his jacket to clean the dusty feel off them.
Larry opened the file, releasing a waft of the aged paper smell most associated with antique book shops. After a few moments he sat back in his chair, eyes sparkling, his face carrying an expression Barry recognised all too well. Naked greed.
“Castle Drakon on our books,” he said, grinning widely. “A big house like that, in its own grounds and in a prime, out of town, semi rural location. It’s got to be worth what, a million and a half? Two? Three if we can unload it onto one of those camel jockey oil wallahs. They’ll buy anything.” He rubbed his hands together like a latter day Ebeneezer Scrooge. “Oh, yes, Baz my man, if we can pull this off, it’s going to be a real feather in our caps. We’ll take the commission, sell up, and get out this piddling little town and set ourselves up where the real money is … Edinburgh, or Aberdeen. This time next year, mon frère we’ll be millionaires.”
Barry, the younger of the pair by fifteen minutes, yet so wholly different in temperament - quieter, more thoughtful, less impulsive than his brother, watched with growing apprehension as a gleeful Larry, now in full on Del Boy mode, spread the yellowed contents across his desk and began to read through them.


“Is there anything in the file about this Drakon chap, this client of Greenleaf’s?” Barry asked, after Larry had been poring over the paperwork for more than half an hour. “Our client now, I suppose. Is he really a foreign count?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Larry said. “I doubt it. Are there any such things as Counts nowadays?”
“Only in fiction.”
“Such as?”
“Off the top of my head there’s the Count of Monte Cristo…and Count Dracula—”
“Or Count Dooku from Star Wars—”
“Weren’t they both played by Christopher Lee?”
“I think you might be right,” Larry chuckled, getting into the spirit of the game. “How about Count Duckula, the vegetarian vampire?”
Now both brothers were laughing, the tension broken. “I’ll look this Drakon character up on the internet. With a name like that he’s bound to have his own Wikipedia page,” Larry said, and fired up his computer.
After a little clicking and tapping he announced his findings. “There’s not a lot,” he said. “No Wiki page. The best info I can find is a mention on one or two obscure conspiracy sites. One says the name’s pronounced Dra-kon, like dragon, and he’s a full blown Carpathian count, whatever the fuck one of those might be.”
“Carpathia? That’s foreign isn’t it? Eastern Europe. Maybe he’s Dracula’s first cousin ten times removed.”
More tapping and clicking. “Well this one says he’s no more foreign than I am, that his name isn’t Malachi Drakon at all, that it’s actually Michael Conrad, some ned from a council estate in Gateshead. He changed his name to enter a talent contest, won it, made it big in the music industry, first as a head banging rock’n’roller, then as an impresario. Made millions out of it.”
“Does it say what happened to him, to the money,” Barry asked.
“There hasn’t been a mention of him for nearly a decade,” Larry said. “Speculation is that he whored, gambled, snorted and injected the money away faster than he could make it, that creditors – and for that read bookies, dealers and pimps - were on his back demanding their due, and one day, or night rather, he just vanished without a trace. Done a midnight flit, upped sticks and gone into hiding, leaving his lawyers to sell off his assets of which that house is the last.” He sighed. “Whatever happened to him, it’s not our problem. Ours is to turn that property into a big fat commission and get our own fiscal disaster sorted out. And before you say it, yes I know I made a few bad decisions that got us into this mess, but remember, your name is on the paperwork too. If I go down, you’re going with me. We’re in this together, bro. Okay?”
Barry dipped into the bag of liquorice Allsorts sitting on his desk and pulled out a pink coconut ring. He popped it in his mouth and chewed. “So what do we do first?” he said. “Site visit?”
“Soonest begun, soonest done,” Larry said. “We’ll pop on first thing Monday morning and have a quick shufti. And by we, I mean both of us. There’s no way on this earth that I’m going there on my own.”
“What about the office? We can’t leave it empty.”
“It won’t do any harm to shut up shop for a couple of hours,” Larry said. “We’ll put a sign in the window. Staff training or burst pipe or something.” He grinned. “I can only see good things coming from this, Baz. Good things indeed.”


Monday morning was cold and bright, with a stiff wind blowing from the north, bringing with it the threat of snow.
Although Castle Drakon was within walking distance of the agency office, less than an hour at a good pace, the Bolton brothers rode there in Larry’s Land Rover Discovery, which was now parked outside the main gate, the two men eyeing up the property from behind the safety of the glass windshield, neither one of them willing to be the first out of the car.
On the face of it, the ‘Castle’ was just a rambling old baronial style house, complete with turrets, on the outskirts of the town, in need of time and deep pockets to put it back together again.
No amount of money, however, could wipe out a bad reputation. Mud sticks, don’t they say? Then again, didn’t all houses that looked a little weird attract rumour and superstition? What better to scare the kiddies with than, “Behave yourself or the witch will get you,” or, “Don’t go near the haunted house or it will gobble you up”. Not even the bravest kid would dare ring that bell on Hallowe’en and demand a treat.
The place looked like the setting for a Gothic horror movie, the type Hammer used to make with Vincent Price overacting the creepy Victorian madman, or perhaps somewhere the Addams family feel right at home, but it didn’t start out like that.
Larry’s reading of the yellowed papers in the file told him the house had begun life as plain old Bishopston House, and it wasn’t even as old as he had assumed, dating back only to the mid 18th century when it had been built to house the new squire who happened to inherit the title, the land, and a collection of workers’ cottages and rural workshops – cooper, farrier, flesher, which had over time grown into the thriving, bustling community of Bishopston.
By all accounts this squire was an honest and decent chap who treated his tenants well. It was only after his death, when the property passed to his less than trustworthy eldest son, fresh back from the West Indies with tales of human sacrifice and other strange and exotic rituals, that the rumours of dark deeds being carried out behind the house’s closed doors began.
Following his mysterious death – some claim he was eaten alive by one of his own snakes – change of ownership of the property was sporadic and shortlived. Nobody stayed for more than a couple of years, during which they would make various alterations, some for the better, many for the worse – that hideous crenulated tower with the blacked out windows for a start – until they were driven out by strange ‘occurrences’ – noises and smells, and sights that could not be accounted for.
Finally, almost decade ago, the house had been sold in order to settle a hefty inheritance tax bill, and was taken on by what locals had variously described as a drugged up, long haired, headbanging, tattooed tosspot, who thought it a good idea to change its name, pretentiously calling it after himself.
Sitting here at the end of the drive, getting their first proper look at the house’s current state of dilapidation, the Bolton brothers now understood the scale of their problems, scotching the rumours and superstitions surrounding the property being the least of them. Marketing this place as the ultimate des res, with or without all mod cons, let alone making a profit from it, was going to take nothing short of a miracle.
The two men finally abandoned the warmth and comfort of the Disco and were now standing, cocooned in padded jackets, hats, scarves and gloves, huddled beneath the ivy covered front porch of Castle Drakon, considering the massive key Greenleaf had given them as it lay heavy in Larry’s hand.
Six inches long and shiny black, it was cast from one solid piece of metal. The bit was an intricate pattern made up of key wards and cut outs, which made it look, to Barry’s eyes at least, a little like a skull. From the key’s bow dangled a curled up paper luggage tag tied on with string, two age-faded barely legible words written on it. Larry had the key poised ready to insert into the lock, when Barry made a suggestion.
“Shouldn’t we ring the bell first, in case somebody’s home?”
Larry gave his brother a narrow sideways squint. “What?”
“I said—”
“I heard what you said. Did you get out of the stupid side of the bed again this morning or what? Who exactly do you expect to answer it? The frigging butler?”
Barry shrugged. “Just sayin’.”
“Well don’t. Just…shut up. You’re harshing my pre sale tingle.”
Larry slid the key into the equally massive lock in the studded oak door, paused, then gave it a turn. Once. Twice. From deep inside the wood came a muted clunk, and the door swung open, effortlessly and with nary a squeak. This surprised Larry. He had imagined it being rusted shut and both of them having to put their shoulders to it, to force it open, making it creak like a horror movie sound effect.
A wave of stale foosty air breathed out from the open doorway, cats pawing both their faces.
“After you,” Larry said, standing back.
“No please,” Barry said. “After you.”
“Age before beauty,” Larry countered.
“Pearls before swine.”
“Alphabetical so…you first,” Larry said, and gave Barry a shove in the back. When he did not hear screaming or snarling or gnashing of teeth and tearing of flesh, Larry too stepped through the doorway.
“Welcome to Castle Drakon,” he said.


Larry followed his brother into the cavernous hallway, as cold, damp and empty as a politician’s promise.
Daylight tried to follow them over the threshold, creeping a couple of feet beyond the doorway before coming to a dead halt, too scared to go any further, too weak to beat back the shadow.
Barry pulled a torch from the depths of his pocket, snapped it on and strafed the walls with its beam, looking for a light switch. He found one, and flicked it up and down a few times. Nothing.
“Power’s off,” he said.
Larry followed close behind. “Bloody freezing in here,” he said, his breath pluming around him. He made to shut the door behind them, to keep out the stiff autumnal breeze.
“Leave it!” Barry yelled. “I don’t care if it’s blowing a hoolie blizzard out there, that door stays open.”
“Don’t tell me you’re scared,” Larry said. “It’s just a crummy old house.”
“Maybe, but I’ve seen the movies. I’m not taking any chances.” Barry pointed with the torch beam. It managed to illuminate a few feet ahead of them before it too was swallowed by the dark. “Let’s get this over with before I change my mind.”
They set off down the passageway. Behind them, unnoticed, the door swung noiselessly closed, setting itself back into the frame with a soft click.


“What room is this?” Larry said, wafting his torch around. “I’ve lost count.”
Barry stuck the handle of his torch in his mouth, freeing his hands to unfold a creased paper floor plan. “Should be the front parlour,” he said.
A sweep of the flashlight showed him a variety of lumpy things covered by dusty sheets which might once have been white but which were now a dull grey, speckled with patches of brown and green. “Looks like there’s furniture still in here,” he said, and tugged one of the sheets. It fell apart in his hand, exploding into a cloud of dust and cobwebs and mould, revealing a pair of shiny red eyes and a widely grinning mouth filled with fangs and death.
Barry screamed, stumbled back over his own feet and fell on his well padded backside. Before he could recover his wits, there was a clatter and a scrape and the room was flooded with light. Larry had opened the shutters, letting the daylight in.
In it they could see what had scared Barry off his feet. It was nothing more than a stuffed monkey in a glass case. Or at least he thought it was a monkey. On second glance it looked more like something a taxidermist had created whilst in the grip of an absinthe hallucination - a random collection of bits and pieces from several species sewn together to create a whole new one.
With his bum bruised and feeling like a fool, Barry got to his feet, brushed himself down and pulled out his digital camera from the inside pocket of his coat. “Not a word,” he said to his broadly grinning sibling. “Not a sodding word.”
They had no trouble seeing in the next room they entered. Weak yet bright sunlight forced its way through gaps in the thick layer of foliage and dead leaves covering the vaulted glass ceiling, streaming down in spotlighting shafts to make pools on a floor which was painted a vivid electric blue.
The same colour covered every inch of the walls from floor to ceiling, each wall divided into panels, those separated by columns of gold. The rich blue acted as background to a collection of strange gold symbols and sigils scrawled there, sets of silver stars and moons, and a pair of intricately detailed fire breathing dragons, claws extended, mouths open, painted gold and green and red.
“It looks like an explosion in a paint factory,” Larry said glibly, turning himself in circles to see all aspects of the huge room. There were a lot of chairs and sofas in here, as well as several chaise longues and bean bags, all set in a rough circle surrounding several occasional tables pushed together in the centre. “What do you think, Baz? Some kind of meeting room? Group therapy?”
Soda and beer cans, some crushed, some whole, were strewn every which way on the floor and between the chairs, and on the tables, between ashtrays filled to overflowing with cigarette butts, were several Jack Daniels bottles, in the neck of each stood a burned down candle. Scattered about were a collection of heat blackened spoons, pieces of creased silver foil, and some objects that looked like jaunty glass erections.
These Barry recognised as bongs. “More like a drugs den,” he said. “Your mix and match variety too.” He sniffed the neck of one of the bongs. “I can still smell it, which means either Drakon’s mob smoked some pretty strong stuff, or…”
“Or we’ve had visitors, and recently too. Watch out for needles.”
Larry squatted to examine a mark on the bare boards, roughly circular, dark brown, and about eight pints wide. “What do you think this is?”
“Bottle of wine?” Barry offered.
“Must have been a bloody big bottle. And what about those scratches. They’ve gone right through to the wood underneath. Ruined the finish.” A vision of Greenleaf’s wizened outstretched hand with its overgrown nails sprang into Larry’s mind. “Maybe their dog needs its claws trimming.”


They passed through a set of double doors and into the next room. A dining room if the furnishings were anything to go by, but one which had probably never been used for the purpose.
Several more rooms were examined. One looked like it might have been a library. There were plenty of shelves, but not a single book. Another was a further sitting room, the last was a music room complete with drum kit and old fashioned upright piano.
They made their way upstairs, to the bedrooms. There were a lot of bedrooms. Some were tidy, some were not, some had round beds, some had water beds (long since ruptured and emptied).
One even had an old fashioned four poster complete with drapes, but the one thing each room did have in common was that they all had mirrored ceilings.
“What’s the betting they are two way,” Larry said, craning his neck as he looked up to see himself looking up at himself.
Barry emerged from the en suite bathroom. “Taps are gone,” he said. “So’s the copper pipe. Looks like the pikeys have been in and swiped ‘em for scrap. Thieving bastards.” He stopped and cocked his head, listening. “What was that? Did you hear that?”
Larry put his torch under his chin, the light turning his face into a goblin mask. “Maybe they’re still here,” he said in an exaggerated Igor voice. “They live behind the walls.”
“Will you shut up,” Barry said in an urgent whisper. “I thought I heard something.” He looked up to the ceiling. “Up there.”
They both listened hard to the silence.
“Probably rats,” said Larry. “You know what they say, you are never more than three yards away from one. Come on. Time’s getting on.”
One more room left on this level, the biggest of them all, at the far end of the landing.
Barry’s torch swept around it like a lighthouse beam. With its deep red painted walls and matching plush carpet at his feet, it was like walking into a blood clot.
He saw no shutters or curtains, so either there was no window to open, or it had been deliberately blocked off. He settled for the latter. This room he decided was intended to be kept dark, and as his light picked out an assortment of chains, whips, manacles and handcuffs hanging on the walls, other dangling from the ceiling, he thought he understood why. He let out a low whistle.
“Looks like we found the torture chamber,” he said, as he skirted a long table replete with all manner of chains and straps and ropes. Holes had been cut out of it in strategic places – where the face and the groin of an average man might lie.
Larry snorted. “Close but no coconut,” he said.
“Meaning?”
“You don’t get out much, do you, Baz? This is not a torture chamber, it’s a sex chamber, although for some there’s not much difference. Just what you need for a little after dinner entertainment. Beats a round of whist any day of the week.”
Something squished under Barry’s foot. He bent down and picked up a red rubbery object shaped like a large mushroom, its ‘stalk’ long and deeply ribbed and ending in a ball. “Any idea what this is?” he said, holding out his hand, the object lying in his palm.
Larry trained his light on it. “Butt plug,” he said.
“What?”
“You shove it up yer arse. That ball thingy is supposed to tickle your prostate or something. Makes you come harder.”
“Eww.” Barry threw the red mushroom away and wiped his hand down his trouser leg.
Larry laughed and picked up what looked like a long leather snake. “Looks like Indiana Jones was a regular,” he said, uncoiling the bullwhip. “Yee hah, Miss Whiplash!” He dropped it onto the table and let his light drift around the room some more, until it came to rest on a cabinet with lots of drawers. He pulled open the top one, closed it, then moved on to the next. “Oh my God,” he cried. “Hey, Baz, come and look at this lot.”
Barry came to join him. “What have you found? What the hell...?”
“Cock rings, nipple clamps, vibrators, it’s like a branch of Ann Summers,” Larry said, stirring up the drawer’s contents. He pulled open the next drawer. In it were several small boxes with dials and transformers and coloured wires. “Have a guess at what this is.”
“No idea,” said Barry. “Enlighten me.”
“If I’m not mistaken this is an electro-stim machine.” Barry still looked blank. “If you think putting a rubber mushroom up yer backside is kinky, try shoving this baby up there—” He held up a piece of flesh coloured rubber that looked like an oversized, very engorged penis, a length of black wire emerging from the ball end. “You stick that thingummy there…” He held up a wire from the box and introduced its connector to a matching one on the black wire. “…to that…and run an electric current through it. Bzzzzzz. Lights you up like a fecking Christmas tree and makes you squirt like a fire hose! I wonder if…” He opened the door of an adjacent closet and pulled out what looked like a deflated black Michelin man, all zips and buckles and spikes. “Gimp suit,” he said. “Your full on rubber jolly. See the hole in the back. That’s where you plug yourself in. These people certainly knew how to party.”
Barry’s face crumpled with disgust. “That’s just sick,” he said, then turned to torch beam full on Larry’s face. “How come you know so much about this stuff? Something you want to confess?”
“That depends.”
“On what?”
Larry winked. “On how hard you want to spank me, Matron.” He laughed. “Come on, let’s get moving. Time’s a wasting and we’ve still got a few rooms to get through before my batteries go flat, unless you can find a glow in the dark dildo.” He cackled wildly; a horrible sound in the dark.


“I want to see the kitchen,” said Barry.
“Always thinking about your bloody stomach,” Larry grumbled.
“Kitchen and bathrooms are what sell houses. We already know the bathrooms are screwed so we give the kitchen five minutes to see what sort of state they are in and then we’re out of here. Deal?”
“Deal.”
They reached the kitchen down a flight of stairs, and it was a pleasant surprise to both of them. Compared to the rest of the house, it looked … normal. No rotting food, no sign of cobwebs or mouse infestation. It didn’t even smell bad. As expected, however, the central heating boiler and all its associated piping were missing.
They made their way back through the labyrinth of rooms to the now closed front door.
“I thought I told you to leave this open,” Barry said.
“Wind must have blown it closed.”
“Not unless it was a hurricane. This door weighs a bloody ton.”
Larry heaved the door open and the pair stepped out into the daylight. “Want to do the grounds?” he asked as he relocked the door.
“Not today. I don’t know about you but I’m damned relieved to be out in the fresh air again. The place is like a maze. I thought we’d never get out.”
“You’ve been watching too many bad movies,” Larry grinned and pulled up the collar of his coat. “Come on. I need a brew.”


“So, what do you think?” Larry said when they were back in the estate agency’s office.
“I think we’re screwed,” said Barry.
“You think you can make it look good in the presentation?”
“Only if I take a course in creative writing. What is that old saying, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? Here have a classic case of porcine pinnae.”
“Try your best, eh? No pressure, but this sale is going to make the difference between boom and bust. Know what I mean?”
“And whose fault is that?” Barry murmured. A meaty hand fell on his shoulder and began to squeeze.
“I warned you before, I’m not good with figures,” Larry said, his voice low and tight, the hand moving to the nape of Barry’s neck. “It’s not my fault. If we could have afforded a proper accountant it would never have happened, but we can’t and it did, and I’m handling it the best I can okay?” Squeezing, squeezing.
“If you say so,” said Barry. “And let up a little will you, that hurts.”
Larry let up a little. “I know we’ve been struggling of late what with the austerity measures and all, house prices falling, mortgages all but impossible to get, and I know that as a result we’re in danger of losing the roofs over both our heads, but we have to make the best of what we can. Can you do this, Barry?”
After a long pause, Barry nodded slowly. “Yeah.”
“Good.” Larry slapped Barry on his back, making him flinch. “I’ll leave you to get your creative hat on and make the place into the most desirable must-have property this town, this county, hell this whole godforsaken country, has ever known – at least on paper.”


Barry leaned his elbows on his desk, closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He had been working industriously for the past hour, muttering and cursing under his breath as he shifted and clicked his mouse and stabbed at his keyboard.
“This is hopeless,” he said, letting his head fall back and staring at the ceiling. “Talk about flogging a dead horse.”
“What have you got so far?” Larry asked as he slipped a folder into the top drawer of the filing cabinet.
Barry reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a packet of indigestion tablets, took out two and began to crunch them. “Next to nothing,” he said through a mouthful of ground up chalk.
Larry took a seat at his desk, separated from Barry’s by a partition, necessary in the small office – which in true estate agency parlance they would have described as compact and bijou - to ensure privacy when dealing with clients. “Read it to me.”
Barry didn’t need to read it. The words were already burned onto his retinas. “For Sale – A rare opportunity to acquire a truly unique property in need of some refurbishment—” He paused. “Refurbishment my arse. The place is all but derelict. Gonna take more than a trip to B&Q to put that place right. I’m going to change that to…” He tapped a pencil against his top teeth. “Substantial detached property with development potential in need of significant renovation.” His fingers clattered across the keyboard. “Yeah, that sounds better.”
“What else?”
“Situated within private secluded gardens, although it might be stretching it a bit to call two acres of dead wood, weeds and stinking bog ‘gardens’.”
“True,” agreed Larry. “It does lack a certain… kerb appeal I’ll grant you.”
“Did you notice there were no birds either? Not a one.”
“So? It’s winter. They’ve migrated.”
“All of them?” Barry leaned back in his chair and rubbed at the spot on his chest where the heartburn lived. “I was in the pub last night,” he said, “and got talking to some of the old folks, the ones who have been here longest and might know something. I made some… subtle enquiries. Testing the water you might say.”
“Oh aye. And what did they say?”
“That the place has had its ups and downs, but it only really started to go seriously downhill the day that weirdo Drakon and his family of freaks moved in there. Straightaway everything started to die off, and since then not a leaf has opened up or a flower bloomed since, and never will again.”
“So gardening didn’t figure highly on their to-do list. Not everyone is green fingered.”
“I know, but that’s not all. The consensus of opinion seems to be that the place is just… bad. That it would be best if it met with a little… accident. The sort that comes with petrol cans and matches.”
The room fell totally and utterly silent, a quiet so absolute that the only sound Barry could hear was his own blood whooshing in his ears. A cold feeling grew in the pit of his stomach and he knew he’d said too much. “Oh God… no. I didn’t say anything. Don’t even—”
“Too late bro. The cat’s out of the bag now.”
Barry planted his elbows on the table and buried his head in his hands as his brother, that naked greed look back in his eyes, only twice as bright as before, got to his feet and began to pace back and forth across the room as he outlined out loud the most outrageous plan his twisted mind could come up with.
“You’re onto something there, Baz.” Pace. Pace. “Yes, it could work. We could do it.” Back and forth. “If we pool our resources, sell both our houses, our cars, cash in our life insurances, we could do it. We could buy the place ourselves. Insure it, get someone to torch it, raze the ruins to the ground, collect the insurance, flog off the vacant lot to a developer to throw up some shiny new office block or executive flats, and we could market them.” He raked at his hair, making it stand up on end. “We could make a fecking fortune. Far more than trying to get an oil sheik to buy a monstrosity that nobody else in their right minds will touch with a stick.” He seized his brother’s chubby cheeks in both hands and planted a wet kiss full on his forehead. “Oh yes!” he cried, almost orgasmically. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Barry felt acid rising in his throat again and reached for more indigestion tablets, unwrapping one as the telephone rang. He snatched it up. “Bolton Brothers Estate Agency. This is Barry. Good afternoon.”
“Good afternoon, Mr Bolton. Greenleaf here. Just giving you a call to see how you are getting on. Did you manage to arrange a site visit?”
Barry’s heartburn turned from glowing ember to smoking coal. “Erm… yes, we did.”
“And was everything alright?”
“Yes… fine.” Barry closed his eyes, feeling sick. “One moment, Mr Greenleaf.” He pressed the telephone to his chest, hauled in a couple of deep breaths, counted to ten and returned to his call, professional to the core. “Sorry about that, Mr Greenleaf. Yes, we’ve done a quick visit and we’re putting together the details now.”
“Excellent. Everything… in order? No sign of intruders or squatters? Wouldn’t want to risk anyone getting in there and starting an accidental fire or something.”
The heat in Barry’s chest increased to full on furnace. “Nope, everything was locked up as tight as a drum when we got there, although it looks like some light fingered sort has made away with the piping.”
“That’s to be expected I suppose. It can be replaced.”
“It’s a very unusual place,” Barry said, trying to keep the quiver out of his voice. “Interesting décor.”
“Yes indeed. Mr Drakon had exquisite taste.”
“Well I wouldn’t go quite that far.”
“And what did you think of the Eroticorium? Quite the experience, isn’t it?”
It took a moment for Barry to realise that Greenleaf was referring to the sex chamber. “It was certainly unexpected, I’ll give you that.” A wheezy laugh came through the earpiece and Barry looked at his notepad. “Two other points came to mind, Mr Greenleaf, if you can help.”
“If I can.”
“Firstly, there are a lot of personal items left in the house. Furniture, books… other stuff that might not be… strictly legal. Has there been any arrangement made for their removal?”
“No. All is exactly as the previous residents left it. Perhaps you could have someone pack them up and find some kind of storage facility. My firm will cover the bill and recover the expenses from the estate.”
“Including the, what did you call it, Eroticum?”
“Eroticorium. Yes that too, please, although you may want to use plain brown boxes in that case.” More breathy laughter.
“We could do that, no problem,” Barry said. “And with your permission we would also like to bring in some people to give the place a thorough clean, although to do that we would need to have the power and water put back on, for the lights and cleaning machines.”
“Of course. I’ll see to that right away. Will today be soon enough?”
“That would be splendid, thank you. I’ll organise the packers and cleaners and we can get cracking. Then, when everything is spick and span, I’ll get some photos taken.”
“I’m so pleased to hear you are on the ball, Mr Bolton … Barry. You seem very efficient and knowledgeable, and your efforts are much appreciated. I can see I made a wise choice in selecting you.”
Barry could feel a hot flush creeping up his neck. “Thank you, Mr Greenleaf. Bolton Brothers appreciate—”
“Not Bolton Brothers,” Greenleaf said. “…you.” A pause. “May I tell you something in confidence… Barry?”
“Of course.”
“I don’t completely trust that brother of yours. I get the feeling he doesn’t totally have my client’s best interests at heart; that his primary concern is to make money, that possibly he has plans of his own. Would I be correct in my assumptions?”
Barry didn’t know how to answer that. Greenleaf had only met the two of them for the first time that day, so how could he possibly know the devious tracks Larry’s mind walked. Lucky guess, or the same way he knew about their financial problems? By pulling a few legal strings and asking questions. He was a lawyer after all, and lawyers were, by nature, suspicious creatures. That, or Greenleaf had somehow managed to bug the office at sometime during his visit.
“I… erm…” Barry swallowed. Tell the truth and shame the devil, that’s what Grandma always said. “Yes,” he said firmly, looking across the table at Larry, busily scribbling on a yellow legal pad. “You are correct.”
“I thought as much.” A pause. “I hope I can trust you not to do anything silly, Barry. I would very much like to be able to convince my client that you do have his best interests in your heart?”
“Yes, you can… to both.”
“I’m very pleased to hear it, and my client will be too. I got the impression that you are a decent man, Barry. Honest. Trustworthy. Not the epithets one would usually associate with a property salesman, so I hope you won’t disappoint me.”
“No, Mr Greenleaf.”
“Excellent. I’ll be in touch shortly regarding the other matter, in the meantime, keep up the good work.”
“I will. Thank you, Mr Greenleaf.”
“No, Barry. Thank you.”
Greenleaf hung up, leaving Barry clutching the handset in a sweaty hand, pearls of perspiration sitting on his brow, and his heart beating like a jackhammer. His indigestion, however, had gone.


The electricity supply to Castle Drakon was restored, as Greenleaf had promised, providing ample light and power to run cleaning machines and heat up water.
Finding cleaners and packers to use them, however, was a different story. When they found out where they were required to work, not one of the companies Bolton Brothers approached had anyone available, blaming a sudden and catastrophic outbreak of Norovirus. Apparently it was doing the rounds and laying staff low left and right with explosive diarrhoea and projectile vomiting.
With regard to getting the Castle clean and tidy and looking its best ready for photographing for the sales brochure within their strict time limit, the brothers were on their own.
They did their best, taking it in turns to scrub and clean what they could while the other manned the office, working together after hours until nearly midnight some nights, but neither were well versed in the art of domesticity and their efforts were haphazard at best.
Without help, the job took them twice as long as anticipated. And no matter how hard they scrubbed or how much bleach they employed, they still could not get rid of the persistent stain on the floor of what they had come to call the ‘blue’ room, or the cloying smell of neglect and decay that seemed to permeate the very walls. A mildewy mouldy bread smell that tickled the back of their noses as it elbowed its way through the cloud of air freshener they sprayed everywhere.
“We’ve done our best,” Larry said, turning the key in the front door lock and opening the door. The smell once more rolled over him and he wrinkled his nose. “Good job photos don’t smell. What?”
Barry couldn’t help but smile as he followed his brother inside, weighed down by a large bag. “Scratch and sniff - a new concept in property marketing. Bringing you all the aromas of new paint, freshly baked bread and mouldering dead body. We could patent it.”
Larry called him a few choice names as he put on the lights.
“You know they had the fake ghost hunters off the telly in here,” Larry grumbled as he pulled the video camera from the bag.
Barry didn’t. “Oh really?”
“Yeah. I found it on YouTube. You should watch it. They made out like the place is haunted by some blood sucking vampire, pretending one of them got bitten and claiming that’s why nobody’s seen him in public since. All total bollocks of course… or rather lack of them.”
“What do you mean?”
“The real reason nobody has seen the ‘bitee’ since his ‘incident’ is that he is now a she. A quick snip and a shot of monkey glands and Arthur is now Martha and selling dodgy hair removal gadgets on the shopping channel.”
“Get away!”
“Honest truth. I swear.”
“Why didn’t Mr Greenleaf say anything about it?”
Larry gave his brother an indulgent ‘mother please’ look. “Would you?” He returned to setting up his camera. “Tell you, all that reality TV is fakery from top to bottom, every minute of it set up with only one object in mind, to reel in the gullible then bombard them with ads for haemorrhoid cream and internet bingo.”
“Yeah, probably, but still…” Barry sniffed. “This place does give me the willies. Every time I come in here I get this prickly feeling down the back of my neck, like there’s somebody here, watching from the shadows. Don’t you feel it?”
“No.” A lie. No matter how many times he tried to deny it, Larry did feel it, but he wasn’t going to admit it to his little brother and make himself look like an idiot.
“According to the barflies at the Black Bull, a lot of weird stuff went on here after that guy Drakon and his entourage moved in,” he said. “He called himself a rock musician, yet did anyone ever hear any music? No. What they did notice though were a load of massive cars, Hummers I think they’re called, coming and going at all hours of the night with their windows all blacked out. Rumour was that he was trafficking young girls. Blondes.” He lowered his voice to a murmur. "Vir-gins for his sex chamber."
Barry barked out a laugh. “Virgins? Round here? Good luck finding one of those. You’ve got more chance of finding Lord Lucan hiding out in the attic.”
“Hey, rock stars have groupies, and if they are young and female and virginal, so much the better. They also like to have wild parties. Remember all that stuff in the blue room – the fags, the spoons, the bongs? That’s your mari-jew-ahna, Barry. Your smack, your skag, maybe even some meth. Sex, drugs and sausage rolls. That’s rock and roll, baby.”
Barry had to agree, although he knew Larry didn’t know methamphetamine from methylated spirits, or a bong from a bongo, despite having watched Trainspotting at least a dozen times.
“Right, I’m ready,” Larry said, his camera at the ready. “I want to get this job done either before lunchtime or before I lose the will to live, whichever comes sooner.” He let off a test flash. “Oh, by the way, you should make mention of the crypt in your purple prose,” he said over the whine of the recharge.
Barry raised a quizzical eyebrow. “I didn’t even know there was one. Where is it?”
“You’ve seen that stone building in the grounds, haven’t you? The one that looks like a shed or a workman’s hut.” Barry nodded. “That’s the way in. You go down some steps and there are all these stone shelves. That’s where the bodies are kept and they don’t go off because it’s cool and dark in there, like a fridge.”
Barry looked horrified. “Please don’t tell me there are bodies down there.”
Larry shook his head. “Nah. They were cleared out long ago and given a proper burial at St Stephen’s. I read it in the paperwork Greenleaf gave us. It’s empty now, but it is where the telly man claims to have been bitten by a …” He threw his arm across his face and put on his best Bela Lugosi accent. “…wampire, ha ha hah.” Seeing Barry was not impressed with his Dracula impersonation, he gave it up. “I think you should mention it in the details. Every property has to have its unique selling point, and you never know, there might be a commune of Goths out there looking for a fixer upper opportunity with en suite mausoleum.”
They continued their photography and video task until hunger got the better of them and they packed up. They had lunch at the White Bear Inn before returning to the office mid afternoon.
“We’re going to have to take more photos,” Barry said. “I’ve been going through the ones you took and they are rubbish.”
“What’s wrong with them?”
“To put it bluntly, David Bailey you ain’t.” He clicked through the display on his computer screen. “Underexposed, too much flare, foggy. Most of them are useless, and the ones that are okay… well, no matter how I try and tart them up with the photoshopper, I can’t make the place look halfway decent. The video is all shaky too.”
“They’ll have to do. We don’t have time for any more.”
“We have to. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these are saying a thousand times over, avoid like the plague.”
Larry looked across the desk at his brother. “You want to go back and take more? Fine, go, but you’re going on your own.”
“What happened to teamwork? The Bolton brothers pulling together for the good of the business? For the good of our client?”
Larry’s mouth contracted to a tight chicken’s bum. “Client be buggered. Quite frankly, I don’t care if we have to put out these particulars with hand drawn cartoons in them. I am not setting foot back in that place again. We’ve wasted enough time already.”
“But—”
“No buts, Barry. That so called castle has been a right royal pain in the arse from day one and I’ve had enough. We’ve been at it nearly a month and haven’t moved a step forward. At this rate it’s going to cost us more to market the blasted place than we’re going to make from selling it. I’m putting my foot down as senior partner here and telling you – enough.” He got up and put on his coat.
“Where are you going?” Barry asked. “It’s not quitting time yet.”
Larry pulled the zip up to his throat. “I’m going back to the pub where it’s warm and there’s beer, and then I’m going home. I even might stop off at the garage to buy petrol and matches on the way. If you smell smoke and hear the fire engines, don’t panic, it’ll be the smell and sound of an executive decision being made.”
He swept out of the office and into the dark, slamming the door behind him.
“Arsehole!” Barry shouted after him. He sat for a moment, sulking, before getting up and going to the ever percolating coffee machine. Where were all the cups? In the washroom basin of course, ready to be washed up. He tended to the chore, returning to the office a few minutes later to be startled out of his skin by an unexpected voice.
“Good afternoon, Barry!”
Barry squealed and jerked, dropping the cup. It pinged on the carpet and shattered into four large jagged pieces.
“Oh dear. I’m so sorry. Did I startle you?”
Barry stared goggle eyed at the black shadow silhouetted against the light coming through the glass door. Carlton Greenleaf stepped into the room, long cape flowing, golden pince-nez sparkling in the shadow of a cowl hood pulled low over his forehead.
He pushed the hood back revealing his bald pate and parchment skin, and smiled. “I’ll replace the cup of course.”
Barry’s wits restored themselves and he bent to pick up the shards. “No problem, Mr Greenleaf,” he said. “Take a seat while I… argh, bugger!”
A sharp edge of broken porcelain had cut his finger, not deep, but it wasted no time in oozing blood. Barry dropped the broken cup into the waste bin and stuffed the finger in his mouth to suck on it.
“Please, take this,” Greenleaf said, holding out a piece of white cloth. “We wouldn’t want to get blood on the carpet. Such a terribly difficult stain to get out.”
Barry took the offered handkerchief with thanks and pressed it to the wound. A small scarlet poppy immediately began to bloom as the cloth absorbed the seed pearl of blood. He invited Greenleaf to take a seat.
“I’m sorry Mr Greenleaf, but Larry’s already gone,” he said, settling into his own chair. “Can I be of assistance?”
“Actually, it is you I came to see,” Greenleaf said. “I have been speaking to my client and he wants to pass on his good wishes and thank you for what you have done for him so far.”
“We haven’t done anything really,” Barry said. “We’ve hardly had a chance to get started—”
Greenleaf held up a hand and Barry’s mouth closed with an audible clack.
“Such modesty,” he said. “I know for a fact that you have been working terribly hard to whip the house into shape without professional help, and that it has been eating into your personal time, and my client would like to pass on his appreciation… in person.” Greenleaf held out an envelope. “He asked me to give you this.”
Barry took the envelope and turned it over. The flap had been sealed with a small circle of red wax, the centre of which had been embossed with an intricate monogram formed from two letters, MD. Carefully, he prised the seal open and took out a small card. The message on it was short, badly misspelled and written in the large looping scrawl of a primary school child;

Barry
Come to diner Friday 8 o’clock. No need to dress fancy. Greenleaf will tell you wear.
Drakon

“It’s a dinner invitation,” Barry said, who had never before in his life been invited anywhere, let alone to ‘dinner’. “From someone claiming to be Mr Drakon.”
Greenleaf leaned forward in his seat. “Not claiming, Barry.”
“But I thought he was … Everyone says he’s…”
“Dead? Speculation and rumour borne of a desperate need to sell papers. Mr Drakon is indeed alive, if not very well, and living in… let’s call it secluded retirement.”
“Where?”
“Where do you think?”
Barry stared at Greenleaf for a long time, his mouth hanging open on the suddenly lax hinge of his jaw, until the penny dropped with a deafening clang.
He then gasped, dumbfounded. “He never left,” he said, his voice a low whisper. “He’s been here all the time. In the house.”
Greenleaf brought his tombstone teeth out to shine and touched the side of his nose with a yellowed finger. “Not all the time, but for a while. Knowledge I trust you will keep to yourself.”
Barry nodded and inside felt something swell a little. It was good to know something Larry did not. “Oh, indeed I will, Mr Greenleaf. Indeed I will.”


Barry told his brother nothing about his invitation to dine with Malachi Drakon. He merely left the office dead on five o’clock as usual, went upstairs to his flat, (living ‘over the store’ as he termed it, rent free and with no need for a parking space), where he fed his cat and watched TV until Larry too went home at six. He then showered, dressed, and left by the back door.
He arrived at Castle Drakon at ten minutes to eight, to find the place in darkness. The front door however, was not locked.
He gave it a nudge, just wide enough to put his head through and call out. “Hello? Anybody here?”
No reply.
He pushed open the door and stepped through, closing the door behind him. “Hello? It’s Barry Bolton. I’m expected.”
“Indeed you are, Mr Bolton ”
Barry wheeled at the sound of the voice, staggering back a step, eyes scrunched shut against the ice white beam of a torch in his face. “Hey!”
The beam fell away. “Sorry about that. Welcome to my home, Mr Bolton … may I call you Barry?”
Barry nodded. “Sure. Mr Drakon?”
“The one and only. Please come in. Dinner’s ready. Only takeaway pizza, I’m afraid. It would have been fish and chips, but I forgot they are not open on Thursdays.” He put his arm around Barry’s shoulders to guide him down the corridor, the torch beam leading the way. “I must apologise for the lack of light,” he said, “I could put them on now that the power is restored, but that would only arouse curiosity. Luckily I’m well used to the dark. We’ll be okay in the kitchen, though. No windows. Mind your step.” They descended the set of concrete steps that led below ground, to the kitchen.
The room was bathed in the gentle glow of candlelight, and in it Barry got his first good look at Malachi Drakon, He looked… ordinary, standing there in what looked like a loose fitting monk’s robe, his hand extended in greeting. Not a phantom, not a hideously disfigured monster. Just… a man.


“Let me tell you something, Barry,” Drakon said, picking a slice of pepperoni from his pizza. “I’m a quiet man at heart. Private. When I bought this place, I thought it would be the perfect retreat, out of the city, away from all the hurly burly, somewhere I could live a quiet life with lots of fresh air and country walks; a nice place to invite a few friends to stay, somewhere we could enjoy ourselves out of the public spotlight. At first they came and went and it was fun, but after a while the novelty wore off, too quiet for them I suppose, and they stopped coming. With only the staff and Greenleaf to talk to, I got lonely.”
His shoulders slumped. “So I declared open house, let anyone and everyone come and make themselves at home at Castle Drakon, mi casa su casa don’t they say, to let themselves go and enjoy themselves. Big mistake. Huge. They partied too hard, played music too loud, drank and used drugs, and at first I thought, that’s okay, I’m cool with that, I’m a musician, it’s expected. I like a drink, I’ve snorted a few lines and banged a few groupies. Unfortunately a certain sect made themselves too much at home and some very unpleasant things started happening…some girls…” He stopped, his mouth drawn into a grim line. “Never mind.”
He turned his goblet around and around on the table, drained it, then refilled it. Actions all designed to take up time as he considered what to say next.
“I couldn’t get rid of them,” he continued. “I tried threatening them with the police and legal eviction, I even tried paying them to go somewhere else, but they wouldn’t. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I was the one that left. I walked out in the middle of the night with just the clothes on my back. And that’s when the rumour mill really got started. First, I’d been murdered in my bed and my body dismembered or put through a wood chipper. Then they decided I’d died of a drug overdose or I’d drunk myself to death. One website even suggested I’d been running a Satanist cult that practised sex torture, human sacrifice and cannibalism, and had either gone on the run with my coven or been the victim of sacrifice myself. You can see why that one got a lot of attention. You’ve seen the state of the place; the décor, all those weird signs and symbols, the sex room, and that …” He pointed to the range and its large spit. “I suppose that was one of the things that gave them the idea. It’s never been used, as far as I know, but it looks big enough to take a whole pig, and if your mind was warped enough you’d say that what can take a pig can take a man.”
“Long pig,” Barry murmured, staring at the spit and letting his imagination take over. “That’s what the cannibal islanders call human meat, because once the hands and feet and head are off and the meat is over the fire, there’s no difference.”
“I didn’t know that,” Drakon said. “But it sounds logical.”
Barry took a drink of his wine and returned to the original subject. “So what else happened?”
“Orgies, drugs parties, BDSM games gone wrong, you name it,” Drakon continued, “and like Topsy the rumours just grew and grew out of all proportion. Of course with me suddenly vanished from the face of the earth without a word of explanation, my ‘guests’ got nervous. Rumours and conspiracy theories attract questions, and unanswered questions attract nosey parkers and the authorities. It wasn’t long before they too abandoned the place. The mess you see lying around is exactly as they left it, although it has been added to by the few visitors there have been in the interim. They are the ones who helped themselves to the copper pipes, and left behind their empty beer cans, drugs paraphernalia and used condoms.”
“Why didn’t you come back as soon as they were gone?” Barry asked. “Take back ownership. Start afresh.”
“I thought about it, but I knew as soon as I showed my face, it would have all started over again.”
“So why now?”
Drakon took a deep quaff from his goblet. “Running away and going into hiding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, Barry. It was fine for a while, but being well known has its drawbacks. When your face is always on the telly or plastered on the cover of some magazine or newspaper or other, there’s nowhere to hide. You have to be on your guard every minute of the day. I ran out of places to hide.” Another sip, smaller this time. “The only thing worse than death, Barry, is a hell of your own making, but as the old saying goes ‘better the devil you know’, so I came back, simply because I had nowhere else to go and because I thought nobody would think of looking for me here.”
So many questions fluttered around in Barry’s head. “But…how do you live? What do you do all day? Do you never go out? How do you manage not to be seen? Were you here the day we came to do the walkthrough?”
Drakon smiled. “In order of asking; frugally, I manage, once in a blue moon, I use the secret passage that leads from the crypt to the wine cellar, and yes.”
Barry’s face lit up. “There’s a secret passage? Seriously?”
“Absolutely. Want to see it?”
“Yes please.”
“Come on then.”


When they returned from viewing the secret passage, Drakon showed Barry where he had been spending the majority of his time; a hidden room with no windows high up the crenulated tower. It was sparsely furnished with a bed, a table, and two chairs beside a fireplace in which gentle embers still glowed.
Although it could not be described as warm, the room did not have the mouldy mildew smell which permeated the rest of the house. Candles provided light in here too, as did a tiny arrow slit which at the right time of day, could admit a narrow shaft of sunlight as well as providing a little fresh air. This room, Barry thought, holds less comfort than the average prison cell.
They both sat in the chairs at the hearth, appreciating the little heat the fire gave off.
“Greenleaf has been taking care of my basic needs,” Drakon said. “He brings me food and books, medicine if I need it. I go down to the kitchen after dark, more for a change of scenery than anything else. Sometimes I walk the grounds to get some fresh air, although everything out there is dead now.” He gave the fire a poke, stirring the flames into fragile life. “So now you can see why I’m so keen to sell this place, can’t you Barry.”
Barry nodded. He understood everything now. “Yes. You can’t touch any of Drakon’s money without giving the game away, so you’re living here like the Prisoner of Zenda on breadcrumbs and firelight because you have no other choice.”
“Until next month.”
“What happens next month?”
“It will be a full seven years since I disappeared. After seven years I can be legally declared dead. All my assets, including the money from this place, will then pass into the hands of a trustee, namely Greenleaf, for him to do with as he pleases. He has already been quietly arranging things, setting up a false identity for me, a bank account, everything. The sale of this place is the last link in the chain. It will provide a nice pot of cash to enable me to be free again.” Drakon smiled wistfully. “It would be nice to be able to sit in the sun again, to walk on a beach, although…” His eyes changed focus, as if he were looking inward. When he spoke again his voice was soft and low. “I don’t want to do it on my own. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I don’t want my new life to be like my old one. What I need most of all, what I really crave, is company. But not just anyone, not a hanger-on or a leech out for what they can get. I want a true companion. A faithful friend. Don’t get me wrong. Greenleaf has been admirable over the years., as loyal as a puppy, but he’s an old man now and way past retirement age. What I need is someone more my own age. Someone to have a drink and a laugh with, or just sit quietly and watch a sunset with, to share my many and varied…interests. Someone to…”
“Play with?”
“Precisely. What I need, is somebody like you, Barry. Young, free and single. No ties. Looking for adventure.”
Barry moved in his chair, as if taking an involuntary step back. “Me? No chance.” He saw how his rejection had stung. “I’m flattered, but—”
Drakon smiled reassuringly. “Don’t panic, Barry. I wasn’t thinking of you. You have better things to do with your life than waste it being my lap dog. Besides, there are certain needs you won’t be able to fulfil, if you know what I mean.” That wistful look came into his eyes again. “Maybe I could go abroad and take a wife. I’d like to think it’s not too late for that, someone open minded and willing to try new things, although it would help if she wasn’t… particular, about who she’s seen with. As you can see, my time on the run has taken its toll.”
It had indeed. The man was supposed to be in his early forties but he looked nearer sixty with his thin wispy hair grown past collar length and his grey lifeless skin, deeply lined and drawn. His brows were sparse and pale above eyes deep set and shadow ringed, and in them Barry saw a sadness he recognised all too well because he saw it every day when he looked in his mirror. A burning, soul crushing, loneliness.
“Maybe… you could spend some time at a health resort,” Barry suggested. “Build yourself up a bit. Have some work done.”
Drakon smiled. “That, my dear Barry, is a splendid idea. I might just do that.”
“And I’ll do whatever I can to make sure you can, Mr Drakon,” Barry said. “I’m going to make selling this place my main priority. I’m going to get you the best price I can so that you can get out of here, get you well again and give you a normal life.”
Tears welled in Drakon’s sad eyes. “Thank you, my friend. Thank you.”
My friend. Barry liked the sound of that.
“So what about you, Barry Bolton?” Drakon said, after a long and contemplative silence. “If you could have one wish, what would it be? Money? Women? Power? Because it seems only fair that if you are going to put yourself to all this trouble for me, I should try to do something for you in return as soon as I am able.”
Barry barked out a harsh, brittle laugh. “Nobody can give me what I want.”
Drakon looked at him keenly, reached a hand over the table and laid it on his wrist, his expression one of deep sympathy and understanding. “Tell me what you want.”
Barry wiped his hand over his eyes and glanced at his watch. Nearly one in the morning. How had it got so late so quickly?
“It’s late. I should go,” he said, standing. “I have a lot of work ahead of me tomorrow. Thank you for your hospitality, Mr Drakon. It has been a pleasure to meet you.”
Drakon too rose, although it seemed to be more of a struggle for him.“You too, Barry,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I won’t walk you to the door. I’m very tired. You can find your own way out, I’m sure. You should know the layout of the house like the back of your hand by now.”
“It’s beginning to feel like it,” Barry said with a shy smile. “Goodnight, Mr Drakon.”
“Goodnight, Barry.”
Barry took a step toward the hidden stairs that would take him down the tower to the main floor of the house, then turned back. “Before I go, can I ask you something?” he said. “About yourself?”
Drakon nodded. “Of course.”
“Your name, your ancestry, is it true what I’ve read?”
“That depends on what you’ve read.”
“Some say you are Malachi Drakon, that you’re a lot older than you look, the last living descendant of a long line of foreign aristocracy with a strange and exotic background. Others seem to think you’re just plain old Michael Conrad, unemployed wannabe drummer from Tyneside. Which is it?”
Drakon draped an arm around Barry’s shoulder and gave it a friendly shoogle. “Does it really matter? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Besides, in a few weeks both of them will cease to exist and nobody will give a shit.”


Barry was first into the office next morning, keen to fulfil his promise to his new friend.
This imposing 10 bedroom detached property is situated within private secluded grounds two miles outside the much sought after village of Bishopton. Accommodation comprises a reception hallway, splendidly proportioned dining room with traditional feature fireplace, cosy sitting room with architecturally dramatic vaulted glazed ceiling, he wrote.
“…bacon butty?”
Barry looked up to see Larry standing over him, jacket on, expectant look on his face.
“What?”
“Where are you? Land of the fairies? I’m going to get lunch. Do you want your usual – bacon and egg butty?”
Suddenly Barry was back in Drakon’s kitchen with its oversized range and vicious looking spit.
Bacon… pig… long pig… man crackling… slices of crispy human backside between soft white bread… with ketchup… blood red… sticky…
His stomach lurched two steps to the left and warm saliva flooded his mouth. “No thanks,” he gulped. “No bacon.”
“What then?”
“Not hungry.
Larry regarded him through narrowed eyes. “You okay, bro. You look like crap. You coming down with something?”
“I’m fine.”
In truth, his head ached and his stomach was gurgling and grumbling like a blocked drain. Barry was a light drinker, favouring lager over beer, and the wine he had consumed at Drakon’s place last night had been far too rich for his taste.
He wasn’t overly keen on spicy food either, so it seemed reasonable to assume that the wine, in combination with several slices of hot and spicy pepperoni pizza, not to mention the deep and meaningful discussion he’d had with Malachi Drakon, was responsible for his hangover, delicate stomach, and general feeling of melancholy. “Must have been something I ate,” he said, and rubbed at his bubbling abdomen.
“Probably picked up something from that manky old house. Speaking of which, did you give any thought to my super brilliant idea.”
“Remind me again which one that is. There have been so many I’ve lost count.”
Either Barry’s sarcasm had gone right over Larry’s head, or he deliberately chose to ignore it. “The best one I’ve ever had, stupid. Of buying the place ourselves and ‘redeveloping’ the site?”
“I thought about it,” Barry said.
“And?”
“The answer is still no.”
Larry stared at him for a moment, then shrugged and smiled. “Okay.”
Barry’s stomach clenched. He knew that gesture of old, and it wasn’t good. He knew what it meant. No matter what answer he gave, how hard he argued, Larry had every intention of going ahead and doing whatever he wanted to do by himself. Barry wouldn’t have been surprised if he went out to the Disco now, opened the back and found a can of petrol and a book of matches already in there.
He thought of his new friend, his kindred spirit, trapped in the windowless room in a home going up in flames, with no means of escape, choking on smoke, suffocating to death, skin blistering and burning, his charred remains indistinguishable from the rest of the rubble, and he felt sick. He had to warn Drakon of Larry’s plan, and quickly.
Unfortunately he had no means of contacting him directly, could not go to the house without arousing suspicion, and so had to settle for going through a third party and hope the message got across.
“You know I had dinner with Mr Drakon last night?” Barry said, the phone clutched so tightly in his hand his knuckles were standing out like rivets.
“I should. I was the one who arranged it,” said Carlton Greenleaf. “I’m sorry the food wasn’t exactly cordon bleu, our options were limited, but the wine is rather splendid don’t you think?”
“Never mind about that now. I need you to contact Mr Drakon for me as a matter of urgency. Today if you can.”
“I’ll try, but why the almighty hurry?”
“Because there is every chance our friend’s life may be in danger.”
A pause. “Go on.”
Barry chewed on the inside of his cheek. “There is something I should have told him, but I didn’t because I thought it was just Larry sounding off. I didn’t give it any real credence at the time, but I should have, because now it seems like he’s totally serious.”
“Stop babbling, Barry,” Greenleaf’s voice exploded out of the earpiece. “You’re not making any sense.”
Barry clamped his mouth closed.
“Try again, and slowly and clearly this time please.”
Barry sucked in a deep breath and told Greenleaf all about Larry’s idea of purchasing the Castle on the cheap, burning it to the ground, claiming the insurance, clearing the site, selling it on to developers and making a profit so obscene it would make Croesus blush.
“I can’t keep an eye on him 24 hours a day, so you need to warn Mr Drakon to be on his guard. He said something about wanting to go away. Maybe he should bring those plans forward and get out now before Larry does something stupid, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he hasn’t already set the ball in motion. He tried to rope me in with him, but I told him I didn’t want anything to do with it. He mentioned it again this morning and well… I’m pretty sure he’s going to go ahead with it regardless of whether I’m in or not… which I’m not, I swear. I wouldn’t be telling you about it if I were.”
When Greenleaf’s voice came back over the telephone, it was low and dangerous. “Thank you for the warning, Barry. You leave it with me. I’ll take care of everything.”
Barry felt relief wash through him. “Thank you Mr Greenleaf.”


Larry did not come into work the next morning. Barry rang him at his home, in case he was sleeping of a hangover of his own. No reply. He went round and banged on the door. No answer.
He used his own key to let himself in. The house was deserted. The garage too. A faint scent of petrol hung in the air, which was odd because the Discovery, also absent, ran on diesel. He noticed a wet stain on the concrete floor. An oil leak perhaps? Closer examination revealed it to be a sticky and gelatinous patch of clotting blood.
Barry’s first reaction was to call the police and report some wrongdoing, and he already had his finger poised over the 9 digit of the telephone when he stopped.
“I’ll take care of everything.” That’s what Greenleaf had said. Perhaps he had.
Barry grinned to himself and instead of calling the police, he dialled Carlton Greenleaf’s office.


“You were absolutely right to tell me your brother’s plans,” Greenleaf said, handing Barry a cup of tea and a custard cream biscuit before taking his seat in a massive leather and wood chair. His paper strewn desk stretched between them like the deck of a ship. “I paid him a little visit at his home last night, to see whether your suspicions were correct, maybe talk things over with him, and guess what I found.”
Barry shrugged. He knew a rhetorical question when he heard one.
“There he was, beavering away in the garage,” Greenleaf went on. “Decanting petroleum into empty wine bottles and bunging up the necks with torn up strips of towel. A proper little firebomb production line he had going there. Suffice to say his little factory of mayhem is now out of business. Thanks for the tip off.”
“There was… blood on the garage floor,” Barry said, hesitantly.
“He got a little… agitated, and it was necessary to subdue him. A little bleach will bring that out no problem.”
“So he’s still alive?”
“And well… for now.”
“Where is he?”
Greenleaf’s eyes held Barry’s in his usual flat eyed stare. “Keeping Mr Drakon company. If you can give me a ride to the house, you can see for yourself.”


There was nobody about to give Barry’s green Ford Focus a second glance as it pulled in through the gates of Drakon Castle, crunched up the gravel drive past the For Sale sign, and around the back of the building.
Greenleaf led the way through the tunnel from the crypt to the wine cellar, the rear door of the house long since having been boarded up to keep out intruders, and through the house to the secret door and hidden stairs that took them up to the blacked out room in the tower. He tapped lightly on the door to Drakon’s spartan accommodation. “Mr Drakon, it’s me, Greenleaf… and guest.”
The door opened a crack, revealing a glittering eye. “Barry!” Drakon exclaimed, heaving the door open. He looked… happy. “Welcome, welcome. Come in.”
Both Greenleaf and Barry entered the room. Greenleaf immediately dropped wearily into the chair by the fire and fell instantly asleep.
“Must have had a rough night,” Drakon said, as he swept Barry up in a tight hug yet manly hug. He held his friend at arm’s length. “Barry, my dear friend. I have so much to thank you for. You did the right thing telling us about Larry’s plan, and very likely saved my life.”
“Where is Larry?” Barry asked.
Drakon put his finger to his lips. “Shhhh. He’s resting.” He pulled aside a heavy tapestry to reveal a deep alcove set in the wall. Larry was in there, sitting on the floor, his back against the stones, hands shackled together, a ball gag stuffed in his mouth, a trickle of blood dried on his temple. He looked dazed and woozy.
“Is he okay?”
“He’s probably got a bit of a headache, and I gave him a dose of Benadril to help him relax.” Drakon kicked Larry’s foot. “Hey, Larry! Wakey wakey. We’ve got visitors.”
Larry’s eyes opened slowly. He raised his head, blinking. When he saw the two men gathered in the mouth of the alcove, looking down on him, he began to wriggle and writhe, struggling against his shackles and the collar attaching him to a ring set in the solid wall by a length of chain, his cheeks puffing and straining as he screamed behind the ball gag.
“What are you going to do with him?” asked Barry.
“Thanks to Greenleaf, in a couple of days I’ll have a new place to move into. It has lots of room and I can keep him there until this place is safely sold. He’ll be good company for me, won’t you Larry?” Drakon patted Larry’s head as if he were a golden retriever.
“And then what?”
“I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Any ideas?”
Barry shrugged.
Drakon placed a hand on Barry’s shoulder, turned him around and led him away from the alcove. “You’ve done me a great service today Barry, in more ways than one, so if there is anything I can give you in return, you only have to say and I’ll try my best to get it for you.”
“No really. There’s no—”
“I insist.”
Barry, glanced back over his shoulder to the still struggling Larry, and shifted from foot to foot “Can I have some time to think about it?”
“We’re leaving the day after tomorrow.”
“Then I’ll get back to you tomorrow at the latest.”


Barry spent a sleepless night tossing and turning.
There was something Malachi Drakon could do for him. He could use his money, power, and Greenleaf’s help, to, very possibly, fulfil Barry Bolton’s dearest wish. His only wish.
This was too good an opportunity to let slide by.


The change in Malachi Drakon was remarkable in such a short time. He looked much less haggard than he had a mere twenty-four hours previously.
His hollow cheeks had filled a little, and his eyes glittered. Overall, he seemed to be… glowing. Larry, on the other hand, had lost much of his fight and was just sitting there, head bowed, hair standing up in haystacks. He was still chained to the wall, but the ball gag had been replaced with what looked like an oversized baby’s dummy.
Barry wondered if Drakon had treated his guest to a visit to the Eroticorium, to try out some of the toys that had been left in there. The ones with spikes and prongs and high voltage electricity. He sincerely hoped so.
You arse shafted me without the aid of lubricant for long enough, he thought. Time for you to get a taste of your own medicine.
“So, have you thought of something I can do for you to reward you for all your hard work and friendship, Barry?” Drakon asked eagerly.
“Yes, I have,” Barry said. He looked down on his brother with eyes filled with nothing short of contempt. “You can keep him,” he said. “I have no use for him. Consider him yours. I’m giving him to you.”
Drakon frowned. “I don’t understand. How is my taking possession of your brother going to benefit you?”
“I’ll tell you how,” Barry said, and took a packet of jelly babies from the pocket of his coat and picked out two, one yellow, one red. He held up the red one. “Me,” he said, followed by the yellow one. “Larry.” He pressed the red baby against the yellow one, back to back, and squeezed them until they appeared to be conjoined. “This has been me for the whole of my life.” When he saw he had Drakon’s undivided curiosity, he separated the babies again and handed the yellow one to Drakon. “The one thing I have ever wanted from the day I was born,” he said, holding up the singular red baby “Is to be an only child.”
Drakon grinned and nodded. “Consider it done, my friend,” he said, and with a savage bite, ripped the head off the yellow baby. He then popped it into his mouth and chewed on it.


Three Months Later

Barry Bolton stood back to admire the shop front of his smart new city centre premises, all crystal clear glass and concrete with a shiny hand painted sign, pristine in yellow and green.
The Bolton Agency. Not ‘Bolton Brothers’ like before; just Bolton. Singular. Just as it should be. As it should always have been. It was a pity about the fire, to see a fine building like Castle Drakon go up in smoke, but it was never going to sell.
Some reputations were just too off-putting, some properties just unsellable. It put on a spectacular show as the flames consumed it. Well, it would have been a shame to let all those Molotov cocktails go to waste. Luckily for Barry the blame for the fire had fallen on a well known gang of child arsonists looking for bigger kicks on Bonfire Night than the village fireworks display could offer.
They denied it vehemently of course, but the police weren’t having it. They’d done it before, and old habits die hard, even in kids the law judged to be below the age of criminal responsibility.
There was nothing there now but an area of levelled out hardpacked hardcore, the foundations of the new block of twenty-five luxury apartments already marked out; apartments Barry Bolton’s new property agency would be selling both on and off plan.
Larry had been right all along about the development potential. And good for Greenleaf, now retired and living in Thailand, for keeping the insurance premiums up to date. To say Drakon had made a killing out of the deal was surely an understatement.


The little silver bell over the agency’s front door tinkled. There was muffled conversation between the visitor and Wendy, the new receptionist, before his intercom buzzed.
“Someone to see you, Mr Bolton. Michael Conrad? He says you’re expecting him, but I can’t find him in the book.”
“Send him through, Wendy. Mr Conrad is always welcome here.”
Moments later the door opened and Wendy ushered a tall, tanned, smartly dressed man into Barry’s office. The change was astounding, but Barry recognised the man at once. It was the eyes.
Apart from losing their cloudiness of fatigue, they hadn’t changed at all. Barry held out his hand in greeting. “Mr… Conrad. How lovely to see you. You are looking very well. Been on holiday?”
Malachi Drakon smiled. “Just got back. A spell in the sun has done wonders for me.” He touched the side of his face. “Got myself a nip and a tuck, gained a few pounds, and I’m feeling pretty darned good for the first time in years. I’ve also got myself a new home, some new toys, and a companion to play with, and it’s all thanks to you. You have my eternal gratitude, my friend. How are you liking your new offices?”
“They are wonderful, Mr Drakon… I mean Mr Conrad. Business is flooding in already. Couldn’t be happier. So what is it I can do for you?”
Drakon’s grin was wide and toothsome. “I’m in the market to expand my property portfolio,” he said. “You wouldn’t happen to have a castle or two on your books, would you?”



THE END


To read the first story in this anthology series, My Sweet Matryoshka, by Poppet, visit Poppet's Imagination Captivation


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