Chapter 2

Written by: Linda Alley

The newcomer was a willowy, middle-aged woman with skin so pale that it was almost luminous against her black duffel coat. Her hair flowed from her beret to her knees like two dark, voluminous waterfalls.


She stepped into the firelight to take a bunch of keys from the mantelpiece and Damon gasped as he glimpsed her face for the first time.


A cluster of freckles crowded a small snub nose exactly like Bella’s. The visitor turned to him, hand out-stretched. 


“Hello, I’m Vanessa McGonagh.” Her fingers were glacial and rubbery and he let them fall as quickly as he dared.


“Damon. I was driving over to Parsonsdale for a veterinary conference when I saw…”


Vanessa nodded, exchanging a knowing smile with the caretaker. 


“It’s always the animal lovers.”


The caretaker tapped a transistor radio. “They’ve closed the Parsonsdale road. Perhaps you can find him a bed at the hall?”


Before Damon could voice his doubts, Vanessa strode outside. To his relief she stopped in front of a very real Bentley and opened the passenger door. Damon caught a glimpse of a russet volume on the front seat: Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management 1861. A white blur darted out, capering around Damon’s ankles before running over to play the same game with his mistress. Her whole body stiffened and to Damon’s astonishment, she dug her heels deeper into the snow as if resisting the urge to kick the animal. He cast a professional eye over the little Westland Highland White. Bright eyes. Glossy fur wrapped in a tartan dog coat. No sign of maltreatment. He reached for the book to hide his discomfort.


“You’re a historian, then?”


Vanessa hesitated for a moment then lifted a sealed crate from the boot. “You could say that.”


Damon had always loved the stillness that settled across the countryside when it snowed. But the silence inside Shadbrook Hall was something much deeper. Vanessa’s terrier pressed against his shins. Dust sheets covered furniture and portraits like snow drifts. All except one. An imposing, aristocratic woman hung at the foot of the staircase, hand clamped over a harp. For the second time that night, Damon gave a startled gasp, his breath billowing out around them. She was wearing exactly the same yellow dress he’d seen on Bella. Now as he stepped closer to the painting he realised the bodice was embroidered with a trail of tiny flowers. It was far too fine to be something worn by a servant girl.


“My ancestor, Elizabeth McGonagh,” said Vanessa. She was watching him closely.


“Tell me about Bella,” he said. “Do you see her often?”


Vanessa shook her head. “She only shows herself to men.” Her eyes wandered away to the staircase that spiralled up into the dark heart of the house. “But I’ve smelt her.”


“Smelt?” Damon stared at her.


“Sage,” she said taking the book from him and caressing a sketch of the herb on its frail spine. “Roast suckling pig was the last meal she cooked.”


This chapter throws up more questions than answers and introduces another interesting character. We certainly know what she looks like and her ancestral ties. But she is cleverly written in - in such a way - that her presence creates mystery, an integral part of supernatural stories. And what of the caretaker? Nice chapter, Linda. I love the mention of a smell of Sage in the Hall. OooAhhhh!