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This story has been completed and edited by Tsolaelia. It is now archived at http://tenlittleforumites.rilngard.net, together with a lot of other goodies it spawned, including an audio trailer, bloopers, fanfic, fanart, and the house plans. I strongly urge you to read it over there.. the editing made a lot of difference. :smile:


Ten Little Forumites
- a Dread Hill House mystery -


Things are not always what they seem.. or are they?


Prologue

"You know your duties, Walker. Do I need to go over them again?" articulated professor David Styles slowly, as if his butler was incapable of understanding normal speech.

"No need, Professor," replied the butler, a tinge too loud. He bowed respectfully as his master departed the main hall.

Left alone, Walker took a final tour of the place to check that everything was in order. The long mahogany table was set for ten in the cheerfully lit dining room, the beds were made, the maid was at her station in her kitchen, and everything that should have been hidden was. Just as he was moving back into the main hall, the massive doorbell gave one long, plaintive ring.

Walker grinned to himself. The party had just begun.

Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 12:13 am on Oct. 2, 2006 | Link to this post
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Friday Evening

“Be welcome, Madam Marion, to Dread Hill House. I am Walker, the professor’s servant, and now yours as well.”

Completely ignoring the butler’s curtsey, Marion rushed inside the vestibule, shaking her umbrella and muttering things. The things got louder and louder, but the aggravating man kept nodding with an idiotic smile and not reacting, so she abandoned the pretense and looked the butler straight in the face.

“I rang the damn bell three times. Even I heard it over this pouring thunderstorm. My new silk blouse is ruined! How can I ever wear it again with these wet stains all over it? It’ll get.. wrinkly!” She caught sight of the mirror and screamed. “My hair!! Oh, my hair..”

The butler nodded.

Marion straightened what she could of her pathetic hairdo and bounded on him. “What’s wrong with you, are you deaf??”

“Yes, Madam.”

“What??”

“I am deaf.”

“Well.. how can you hear me then?” sputtered Marion, having decided to lay the entire blame on him for the absurdity of the situation.

“I can hear loud sounds, and for the rest I can read lips.”

“Ah.” Before she had a chance to think about starting to feel stupid, she shook her head and petted her clothes miserably. “Can I go someplace and change from these?” she yelled in the butler’s face.

“No need to strain your voice, Madam. Right this way, please.” ‘Walker’ turned and motioned for Marion to follow him inside the house.

“How did you know I was straining my voice?”

“I could hear what you were saying.”

This house had better be worth it. Marion tightened her mouth into a very thin line of disapproval and followed him inside. Any muttering would have been wasted on him.

***


Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 12:18 am on Oct. 2, 2006 | Link to this post
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“And where did you say the kitchen was?” inquired Bearic for the second time. The Walker dude seemed deaf, or at least stupid, but damn if he was going to keep him hungry after being on the road for hours.

Okay, tens of minutes.

Bearic shook the water out of his denim jacket as he took in the huge house. He had thought the main hall was the largest room he’d ever seen apart from lecture halls, but, as he passed it towards the gigantic staircase, he could spy even larger rooms on both sides of it, and one in front.

This was cool.

“What’re those rooms, Mr. Walker?” he asked as the butler turned towards him and pointed up the stairs.

“The room on your left is the living room. The one on your right is the dining room, and the kitchen is accessible from there. In front you have the projection room.”

“What food do you have here?”

“Just cold snacks until dinner is properly served, Sir Bearic.”

Bearic heard his stomach rumble, and for once was glad the guy was deaf. “Do you have dumplings?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, we have frog dumplings. The maid will help you with food after you have arranged your things in your bedroom.”

Frog dumplings? Oh well, as long as they were dumplings.

Bearic’s joints started making a fuss long before they arrived on the landing of the second floor. A huge heavy oak door loomed right in front, and Bearic wondered if that was the master bedroom as he followed the butler towards the right. From here, if he leant over the railing, he could get a cool aerial view of the hall below and the chandelier that dangled over it, hurting his eyes with its million little bulbs.

There were ten identical, smaller doors, on the right and the left of the staircase, facing each other over the chandelier. The butler led him to one of the five on the right. Bearic stole a short glance to the other side and, just then, from the room opposite his, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen opened the door a crack, met his eyes and disappeared back inside. He had only had time to register a flash of red hair and two blue eyes circled with black.

“Who was that?” he asked, dreamily.

“That, Sir, is Madam Marion. The model,” Walker added. “She will be a guest at this house at the same time as you.”

“Wow..” And Bearic decided he’d go downstairs to the living room as soon as he had tamed his hair and his heartbeat enough.

***


Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 1:22 am on Oct. 2, 2006 | Link to this post
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gabnic took another sip of water as he moved about in the living room. He had seen plenty such fancy houses on the outside, but very few on the inside; only when the men had wanted extra service from him.

As he brushed a hand through his long hair, he wondered if the Styles fellow had a pool. He needed the money. Although, fat chance of that with the storm outside. But if he played his cards right, he could have his own pool in front of Dread Hill House at the end of the week. And his own master bedroom on the second floor. And his own maid and butler..

A pretty redhead entered the room, gave him a bored look, immediately followed by a interested one, and went to the bar, brushing against him in passing. gabnic sighed inwardly.

“There’s no alcohol there, I checked,” he informed the woman.

“No alcohol!? What can they possibly think of next?” she scoffed, stealing a quick check in the mirror— probably to see if she had managed the pretty angry face.

She seemed satisfied, because her reflection met his eyes, blushed and smiled with a lot of teeth. The woman poured herself some water from the tap and practically slid over the floor to where he was. She propped herself delicately against the table, took a few sips, jerked her right red high-heeled shoe impatiently, and gave him the look over the rim of her glass.

I should have brought along the flowery shirt. They seem to get that one.

“So..” she drawled.

“So?” he asked.

“So.. Styles gave me the nickname Marion for tonight. I'm a supermodel. And you are..?”

“gabnic. It’s nice to meet you.” He shook her hand briefly.

“What are the likes of you doing in a dump like this?”

“Same as you, I suppose.” He moved a little farther from her, because his water was starting to taste like perfume.

“So you are my competition for the house. It could have been worse.” She played with her fingertip on the rim of the glass and gave him a look that said they could share. The house. And the drink, of course.

“I’m not your only competition.”

“Oh, yes.. did you see that kid’s hair? Sticks out in every direction! I pity him, though, having to wear that unflattering school uniform.” She petted her spotless pink jacket affectionately.

And they all ask me why I don’t like women.

“He’s right behind you, you know.”

The look on her face as she spun around and blushed for real was priceless. The look on the poor kid’s face, not that much. gabnic decided he was more interested in the green vase from the hundredth Bing dynasty, and wondered how he was going to survive the weekend.

***

Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 2:18 am on Oct. 2, 2006 | Link to this post
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“What d’you mean, nothing to drink?” r leaned on the bar to keep himself somewhat upright and tried to focus on the butler, who kept shifting in and out of existence in front of him. Either there was something wrong with the butler, or he himself was drunk silly.

The damn house makes me all philosophical.

“Sir r, there is a fine collection of fruit juice, and of course there is water running everywhere in the house.”

r’s heart leapt a little. “Water.. running? In the house? What the hell, man!”

“I was referring to the taps in the sinks and the tubs, of course.” The butler flickered and vanished. r rubbed his eyes and looked again. Damn, he was still there.

“Oh. You can take the foul liquids and make a fire with them. I want my spirit. I haven’t had a drink in three hours.”

“I’m afraid there is nothing I can do to help you, Sir. Professor Styles insisted there would be no alcohol served to the guests on the duration of the weekend.”

r nodded knowingly. “How much does he pay you? I’ll triple.”

“How much money do you have, Sir?”

“Well.. lessee.” r counted the coins in his pocket. “”Five bucks. Take or leave.”

“I think I will do both.” The butler took the money and left.

“Hey! Where’d you.. Where’s my spirit??”

“Try our collection of tropical punches,” the butler threw over his shoulder and disappeared into the kitchen.

r cursed a bit, and then cursed some more, and then realized the three (or was it four?) people remaining were staring at him from behind that huge table. There was the redhead, who looked like someone had punched both her eyes at the same time, and there was the kid, munching on some gross lumpy food, and the pretty blond boy, who was obviously a fruitcake. Men only grew their hair if they were vampires or gay. Or gay vampires. And they were still staring at him.

“What’re you looking at?”

The redhead scoffed and turned back towards the pretty boy, who was still hanging by the glass case that showed off expensive crap. The kid blinked. “I’m called Bearic here.. Nice to meet you.” He extended his hand.

After three tries, r shook it. “I’m r. Styles called me r cause it’s the only letter I can spell.”

The kid widened his eyes. “But you did get a letter, like the rest of us?”

“Yeah.”

“And could you read it?”

“Nah. Styles read it to me when he picked me from the corner downtown. I should buy a drink to my buddy who entered my name in the contest. And I could use one for myself right now. You hear that, Walker??”

“How many of us do you think there are?” asked Bearic, sitting down on one of the chairs that looked they’d been made for people with canes where their spines had used to be.

“How the hell should I know? Not too many, I hope. Why d’you need it?”

The boy scratched his head absently. “I’m a student, but I still live in the basement of my parents' house. They won’t let me go away unless I buy my own house. And.. well. And you?”

“I need this house cause I don’t have any.”

“Ah.. Um.. I wonder why she needs it.” He spoke “she” with a reverence that gave r the urge to puke. Or maybe he was just drunk silly.

“Who knows, maybe the trash cans filled up in her other three.”

Before Bearic could fire some sort of reply, the doorbell rang.

***

Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 5:39 pm on Oct. 2, 2006 | Link to this post
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Krss shut the door unceremoniously in the face of the butler and threw herself on the soft bed with a deep content sigh. She remained in a flat starfish position for a couple of minutes, until all the ache of the road had gone and been replaced by a headache from the way-too-pink canopy. Groaning in disgust, she stood upright, took off her black corset jacket and aimed it towards the hanger. It fell smoothly on one of the hooks. She congratulated herself and rose to assess her surroundings.

The prof hadn’t spared any expense with the bedrooms. The bed could accommodate four fat people piled one on top of the other. Under the window there was a large writing table with all necessary supplies. She could also see a gigantic clothes closet, a dressing screen painted with penguins, two armchairs, a fluffy carpet of a suspicious yellow color, a reading lamp, a small, tacky version of the chandelier downstairs and an empty bedside table. The walls were plastered with a whole lot of tapestries that depicted the mating rituals of vegetables, and five paintings of hideous frilly women, whose age was inversely proportional to the amount of clothing they wore.

I think the redecoration will cost more than this house.

With a yawn, Krss strolled over to the heavily barred windows that looked like they’d never been opened. She sketched the useless gesture of wiping the dust and grime that were on the outside of the glass; the rain was probably their only cleaner, and so far the storm had made a half-arsed job of it, managing only to smudge them into a shape that vaguely resembled an atomic mushroom.

The sudden knock on the door made her jump.

“Madam Krss?”

She threw open the door. The stuck-up, greasy-haired, beady-eyed butler was arranging his cuff links, which matched his tie pin. “What is it, Walker?”

“Dinner will be served at eight o’clock precisely, Madam.”

“Did you come all the way here to tell me this?”

“Yes, Madam.”

“That’s a bit inefficient, isn’t it? It’s a big house. Don’t you have some sort of telephone, closed-circuit TV, interphone, smoke signal machine, to communicate with other floors?”

“No, Madam. Although sometimes when Mrs. Perkins, the maid, gets her cooking wrong, there is smoke.”

“You.. made a joke! You might be human after all!”

“I apologize, Madam.”

“Oh, never mind.”  As an afterthought, she added, “At least I have my cellphone.”

She thought she caught the butler grinning, but after two split-seconds he was back to his severe countenance. “Is there anything else you’d like, Madam?”

“Not really. You’re dismissed. Go back to..” She made a vague gesture. “.. whence you came.”

“Indeed I shall.” And Walker disappeared with a bow.

Now that she had seen more of the room than she cared to, it was time to expand her territory. She closed the door to the bedroom behind her without locking it –she hoped none of the guests had the same size and taste in clothes– and found herself in the front left corner of the second floor landing, from where she could hear animated voices floating from below and could see the ghastly chandelier.

That thing better fall by the end of the week.

Her bedroom was on the left of the master bedroom, and was separated from it by a small staircase. She was in no hurry to get down to the others, so she climbed the flight and emerged into a dark, smelly attic, full of junk and walls. She walked around carefully for a bit, feeling the silence follow her around.

A low, angry moan came from behind Krss. She turned so abruptly that she sprained a neck muscle. Rubbing her neck, she took in the sight of a woman dressed in a very clichéd maid attire, who looked and smelled as if she had just swallowed an entire mouthful of cat food.

“Mrs. Perkins?”

The maid continued to make angry, guttural sounds, shaking her finger, giving the unmistakable message that the attic was off-limits.

“Okay, I get it. I’m going down. Down,” she spelled out, very slowly and carefully.

With one last warning noise, the maid vanished inside a door. Krss decided she’d had too much excitement for one day and went down the stairs to the dining room.

They better have veggie food.

***

Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 3:54 am on Oct. 3, 2006 | Link to this post
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“Now, if you will follow me, I will carry your luggage into your bedroom, Madam.”

“I have no luggage,” remarked Almirena dryly. It was not up to her, as a lady of proper upbringing, to offer a comment on it, but was the man blind as well as deaf? The butler was looking at her in curiosity, so she said, “The airline misplaced the suitcase in which I had all my clothes.”

“I am sorry to hear that, Madam. Perhaps one of the other lady guests will be able to offer you some clothing.”

Almirena severely doubted any of the other guests shared her fine taste and propriety, but she didn’t show it outwards. Self-restraint was the mark of a superior woman. “I think I will manage with what I am wearing now.”

“As you wish, Madam. I can lead you upstairs.”

“No, I think I will lounge in the living room awhile. My head hurts from being forced to argue with the airline employees like a commoner. I will converse with myself in peace and quiet.”

The butler bowed and left. A decent servant, this Walker. He knew how to treat a lady. Almirena entered the lavish living room and sat on one of the firm couches, her straight posture never betraying her travel weariness and disgust for the state of the world. After a few seconds of rubbing her aching temples, she straightened her high hairdo and turned her attention to the room around her.

Her couch was one of three arranged in a circle around a small cards table. Further in front of her there was a pool table, with cue sticks and chalk, which sat in the view of two loveseats. Behind her, the wall that separated this room from the projection room was made up entirely of bookshelves. Her attention piqued, as she was a devourer of books, of course in the polite sense of the word, she rose and walked to the bookcase.

She gasped with delight at the large, rich collection of famous philosophers and artists, paragons of light and knowledge from the old dark ages in the new ones. She ran her finger down the spine of one book, reveling in the smoothness of its fiber. The only area in which it was proper to show well mannered frivolity was reading, and Almirena let her hair down by taking out books and leafing through them. The professor’s library contained the wonderful Aristotle’s Organon, Physica, Parva Naturalia, Historia Animalium, Ars Rhetorica and Ars Poetica; illuminated Umberto Eco’s Sviluppo dell'estetica medievale, Opera aperta, Il nome della rosa and Il pendolo di Foucault; sage Ouspensky’s A New Model of the Universe and The Fourth Way; Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake Vampire Hunter series, of which.. Guilty Pleasures..? The Laughing Corpse? Circus of the Damned, The Lunatic Café, Bloody Bones???

Almirena’s hand stopped just in time from touching these foul creations. She made a polite snort and stopped giving attention to the library of a person with such appalling taste in books.

***


Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 4:32 am on Oct. 4, 2006 | Link to this post
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The heavy raindrops scrolling down on the outside of the car’s window brushed translucent shadows over the plain white paper that Santi had opened for the tenth time that evening. The snores of his taxi companion, the one of the strange name that sounded like Guys with an unhealthy throat-clearing sound at the beginning, mixed with the wails of the storm to create a comforting atmosphere. It was good to be in a close, warm place when nature tore its hair out.

The rereading of the letter revealed nothing different from the first nine times, yet Santi insisted something would jump at him if he studied it enough. Signed Professor David Styles and addressed from Dread Hill House, Dread Hill, Oxford, the text said:

“Esteemed competitor,

Congratulations! You are among the few chosen to proceed to the final selection of the next owner of Dread Hill House. Since I will be retiring overseas in less than two months' time and I am anxious to leave the manor in good hands, the gathering and evaluation will take place on the weekend between September 29th and October 1st.

To be eligible for the ownership, you have to arrive no later than dinner time on Friday evening and you have to remain here until Sunday morning at the least. During your stay at the manor, you will use the pseudonym Santi and address the other guests by their own pseudonyms. To assure objectivity, you will be met and instructed by my butler, Walker. He and my maid, Mrs. Perkins, will attend to all your needs.

Attached you will find a map of the area. RSVP to confirm your attendance.

Sincerely yours..”


No doubt, the pocket of the man beside him contained a similar letter. They had met at the station and, since there had been only one cab available in the stormy darkness and they had had the same destination, they had shared it.

To be honest, even if he kept rereading the whole letter, the only part that bugged Santi was the “evaluation” bit. Yes, the restriction on time was odd, and the pseudonym thing was creepy, and why wouldn’t the host be there to meet them? But it was the “evaluation” that unsettled his mind used to solve the little mysteries of the human body on a regular basis. It disturbed him; and it did so because it reminded him of his own work with lab animals.

Or maybe spending his life in a laboratory had warped his judgment so much that he would let it come between him and the million pound house.

His beeper went off shrilly, and he stole a guilty look to his sleeping partner, but the man only stirred and moved his head a little. The number was from the hospital; he’d have to phone as soon as he arrived, and tell them with great satisfaction that for once he wasn’t in his laboratory and couldn’t be there in five minutes to fix their sloppy butchering work.

The man next to him whimpered in his sleep, and Santi turned to look at him. His long white-blond hair covered a large part of his thin face, tips brushing against his lips in the rhythm of the car, and he was frowning. Maybe he was having a nightmare. Santi was debating whether to wake him when the man opened his lips slightly and murmured something that sounded like Jeegwal.

Since Santi had never heard of Jeegwal, and wasn’t particularly interested either, he sighed, propped his forehead on his hand and opened the letter again. He’d maybe ask “Guys” about it during the long “evaluation” weekend.

***

Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 6:26 am on Oct. 4, 2006 | Link to this post
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First floor of Dread Hill House, as drawn by its architect, Santi.
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Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 10:52 pm on Oct. 4, 2006 | Link to this post
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Gijs rang the bell for the fifth time. “D’you think it was all a hoax?” he shouted to Santi over the noise of the storm, and kicked the massive wood three times, which didn’t help his nerves or his foot any.

“I can see lights in the house. If we are patient, someone will hear us and open,” replied Santi.

Gijs couldn’t believe this guy’s cool. They were both soaked to the skin, the taxi was waiting to see if they managed to enter, and its damn meter was running.

“Anyone home??!” screamed Gijs. He raised his foot again to kick at the doors, but just then the right door opened inwards and his foot connected with the leg of a woman, who gave a nasty curse and bent down to rub it. Gijs hurried inside, while Santi went back into the storm to pay the driver.

The woman Gijs had just crippled didn’t look like a maid, or at least didn’t dress like a maid. Maids didn’t wear red corsets, seven inches long skirts and gigantic chunky abominations as shoes. Maids didn’t swear like sailors either. Gijs stepped to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Of course I’m not okay, you just made three holes in my leg,” she scoffed and raised her head to look at him. “Serves me right for opening you the door. The butler should’ve received your physical abuse, but I don’t know where he is.”

Offended, Gijs replied, “But I only hit you once, and I don’t think my shoe is sharp enough to..” He trailed off, because her face was disturbingly close. She was as tall and thin as him, had a very white complexion, very black hair and very green eyes. Gijs hoped against hope that he didn’t look too pathetic from the storm, and flashed her his trademark grin. She didn’t return it.

“Oh, well, the other two holes must be from your stare. Have you never seen a short skirt before?” There was something familiar in her expression, something Gijs remembered like a shadow of a different life, but that was all.

Maybe he’d just dreamt it.

“Last time I saw a short skirt like that on a woman I didn’t see it for long, if you know what I mean..” He winked.

“Is that the best you can come up with?” She gave him a grin for the first time and extended her hand. “I’m Krss.”

“I’m Gijs.” He held her hand for three seconds, and then the doorbell rang so loudly that he dropped it. He was turning to open the door for Santi when he noticed the woman had thrown her hands over her ears and closed her eyes, with a painful expression on her face.

“Are you okay?” he asked, stupidly, for the second time that evening.

She opened her eyes, shook her head and slowly took her hands from her ears. “I have a problem with loud noises.. you could call it a phobia. Please open that door before your lover rings again.”

“He’s not my lover!” sputtered Gijs.

“Oh, I saw you came here together so I assumed..”

“He is not my lover!” Indignant, Gijs opened the door and Santi hurried inside. He shook himself like a wet dog. Water splattered everywhere on the fancy walls of the vestibule.

“I thought you were going to let me sleep in the storm. By the way, you owe me fifty pounds.”

Every other coherent thought from Gijs’ brain fluttered off.

***

Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 10:53 pm on Oct. 5, 2006 | Link to this post
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Tsolaelia avoided crowds. They overwhelmed her; she needed to cut out bearable slices of them, which she could study without, if possible, entering the agglomeration. It was her job to make sense out of individuals extracted from their environments. The people roaming about the dining room, killing time until they could have their dinner, were neatly sliced into three groups.

The first group, by the bar, was made up of the red-haired diva, the handsome object of her attentions, and the cute student. Marion was chatting excitedly about her latest apparition on the catwalk.

“.. And I heard Versace tell Ralph Lauren that he wanted that blue-eyed red-haired vision of loveliness at his party.”  

“Who was he talking about?” asked gabnic, trying to suppress a smile.

Marion did a double-take. “Me, of course! But I was depressed because I had missed a step, so I left early, to cry.”

The student, Bearic, was feeding on her every word and on a dumpling, and drinking some kind of juice in a porcelain mug. He seemed decidedly out of place, but didn’t seem to care. That boy would be sorely hurt by the end of this week.. But she never sought out the patients. They had to come to her first.

The second group was in fact a pair, and was not together from affinity, but from mutual satisfaction.  The holier-than-thou lady reveled in treating the tipsy fellow like a gum on her shoe, while he was having a lot of fun at her expense.

As Tsolaelia looked, Almirena wrinkled her nose. “Young man, I must say that being close to you makes this discussion very difficult. There is no need for alcohol at the bar; your breath is enough to knock people over.”

r snickered and toasted her with orange juice. “If my breath fails to knock them, you can always move your head around a bit.”

Tsolaelia smiled and turned the attention to the final threesome. They had drawn three chairs together and seemed to be having fun over the jokes Gijs kept telling, only to quickly check Krss’ reaction to them. Despite laughing with the others, and giving Gijs the attention he craved, Santi didn’t seem very happy.

After a particularly juicy joke of Gijs’ that sent Krss into a fit of giggles, Santi cleared his throat and said, “It worries me that we have no connection to the outside. There are no phones in this entire house.”

Gijs and Krss stopped from laughing. Krss was still smiling when she said, “Yes, Walker told me as much. Can’t you use my cellphone?”

“If you will let me, I will try.”

“Sure, let me rush and get it.” She disappeared into the main hall, and Tsolaelia caught both Gijs’ quick glance after her and Santi’s quick glance at Gijs.

They were entertaining. Both groups of three contained an apparent leader and a real leader; each of them contained an obnoxious element; each of them had at least one person dissatisfied; and in each of them one person got too much attention. The pair was, strangely enough, the best balanced, because both talkers got what they wanted out of it.

The animation seemed to have subsided. Tsolaelia stared into her glass of tropical punch and thought how she’d rather be in her office listening to a patient instead of this huge alien house that scared her, mostly because it was like taken out of a horror movie. And she hated horror movies— the slasher variety. Jack the Ripper had given her nightmares for months.

“Where’ve you gone?”

She raised her head abruptly and spilled a little juice on her hand. gabnic had somehow escaped Marion’s claws and was crouched in front of her, giving her a pleasant smile. She felt her face grow hot.

“Oh, just.. daydreaming, I guess.” She returned the smile. “What did you tell her that she let you go?”

“Nothing, I just took off when she was looking at her makeup in the mirror.”

“She’ll be missing you,” grinned Tsolaelia.

“She’ll survive. Maybe she’ll get to know the kid. He’s decent..”

“Yes.. So what do you think?”

“Of the house, of the people, or of the weather?” He took a sip of his drink and looked at her seriously.

“Any of them.”

“Well, the house creeps me out. At first it was okay, but now that I’ve spent a while here I’m starting to feel a bit weird.”

“Hmm.. I can’t feel anything yet. But maybe it’s not ventilated..”

She was cut off by a shrill cry. gabnic and Tsolaelia raised their heads, searching for the sound. It had come from Marion. She was exhibiting the symptoms of a panic attack; she was holding a hand over her heart, shaking and sweating, and her other hand pointed to Bearic’s cup. Tsolaelia rushed to her side and, gently, helped her onto a chair. The others gathered in a circle around them.

“Shh.. You’re okay. You won’t have a heart attack. It’s your body’s way of defending itself. You can’t die from this. Calm down,” whispered Tsolaelia. Someone gave her a glass of milk, and she handed it to the trembling woman. She didn’t look like a haughty diva anymore, just a human being in pain. “Can you speak?”

Marion nodded slowly. Her breath was evening out.

“What happened?”

“I saw the.. cup. There was..” She shivered. “.. blood in the cup.”

“It’s just tomato juice.”  Bearic looked mortified.

“I know.. I knew that at the beginning. But then.. I didn’t. And it was blood.”

Just then, Krss returned with a cellphone. “What’s the commotion?”

“She had a panic attack with hallucinations. I think she needs a doctor.”

“I am a doctor,” said Santi, crouching next to Marion. “If you will allow me..” He checked her pulse, while everyone held their breaths. The woman was still wearing a scared expression, but it was getting better by the second. “It is high, but not high enough for a heart attack. Are you having pains in your left arm?”

Marion nodded ‘no’.

“Then there is no serious cause for concern.”

“Sure, it’s not you who almost died, is it?” Marion had gotten back to her self pretty fast. Someone snickered, and Tsolaelia assumed it was gabnic.

She left Marion with the milk and turned to Santi. “Is she really okay? Hallucinations like those aren’t good signs. I don’t have any medication on me except sedatives.”

“I believe she is, for now. Maybe we ought to take her to a hospital, as a prevention.”

“There’s no taking me anywhere! You just want to eliminate a competition. I need this house!” Marion declared.

“As you wish,” Santi said, and returned to Gijs and Krss, taking the cellphone. The others sat down around the table, leaving Bearic crouched by Marion. As Tsolaelia watched, Santi opened the phone and gave a groan of displeasure, then shook it up and down uselessly.

No phones for them, it seemed.

***

Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 1:14 am on Oct. 6, 2006 | Link to this post
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“Hurry up, it’s 7:50!” shouted Nico to the driver, who was taking a lot of precious seconds counting the change. Dinnertime was in ten minutes. What if they had already had dinner at 7? “Come on!” The driver was doing it on purpose, he knew it. He must have relatives in the house who wanted to eliminate him from the race. He must have been waiting at the station especially for him! Didn’t he refuse a customer right in front? At the time he had thought it was just luck, but what if..

“What’s the rush, gov’ner?”

“I’ll miss dinner.. But you already know that! Agh, 7:53! Just keep the change.”

Nico jumped out of the taxi and, ignoring the puddles, the rain, the clingy clothes and his wet head, ran up the steps to the front door. Where was the bell? He had seven minutes to get into that house! The windows were too high to knock. He searched the door again and finally found the bell right where bells were supposed to be. He rang it with all his strength, and then rang it again and again and again. It was almost 7:54! His tie was beginning to bother him, pressing against his throat. He untied it, but it felt like it was still there. At five minutes to 8, a man clad in a black suit opened the door very, very slowly.

“Sir Nico?” he asked, politely.

“Did I miss dinner? Am I disqualified??” shouted Nico.

“You are just in time. Step inside, you have five minutes to change before the meal begins. Are you feeling quite all right, Sir?”

“Yes.. I’m okay. Now where’s my bedroom?”

“On the second landing, Sir.”

Nico entered the house without even bothering to shed his wet clothes, made the length of the huge hall in one minute and rushed up the stairs before the butler was even halfway to them. The second landing had way too many doors. “Which one of these is my bedroom?”

“That would be the third one on your right.”

Nico rushed to the door, but it was locked. “Throw me the key!”

The dignified butler took out a key from a keychain and threw it to the second landing towards Nico’s hands. Nico dropped it, so he had to wait until Walker collected it and walked up the stairs to open the door, and by that time the old grandfather clock on the first floor had started striking 8.

One.. Two.. Nico threw his wet overcoat on a chair. Three.. He shook the water out of his hair. Four.. He wiped his shoes on the bedcovers, and ran down the stairs. Five.. Six.. Seven.. He entered the dining room, breathing so hard he didn’t hear the last strike.

Everyone turned to look at him.

“Surprised, huh? Didn’t think I’d make it!” he wheezed out.

They did look surprised; but their plans had been foiled, and now that he was here he could as well enjoy dinner. He fell on one of the chairs and cradled his face in his hands, trying hard to ignore the burning sensation in the back of his neck.

Just then, the gong rang.

***


Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 3:06 pm on Oct. 6, 2006 | Link to this post
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Walker waited for the voices to die down, cleared his throat and said, “Please take a seat wherever it accommodates you best, ladies and gentlemen. Dinner will be brought to you in a minute.” He was sitting in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, monitoring both Mrs. Perkins’ whereabouts and any gestures from the guests.

“I have to run to the ladies’ room, or more precisely the people’s room. You can start without me,” said Krss towards Walker. “Save me a place,” she pronounced in Gijs’ general direction and left the room. The rest of the guests gathered around the table, looking at the seats and the others, and Walker wondered why dinner places were so important for people who barely knew each other.

Almirena was the first to seat herself, at the far head of the table. r took the seat on her left, which made her move as if to change her place, but she obviously enjoyed her vantage position too much to do that, so she remained where she was, with a sour expression on her face. The other head of the table was snatched by Marion, immediately joined on her left by Bearic and on her right by Tsolaelia, who both seemed to fuss about her. Santi and Gijs occupied the two places next to Bearic, gabnic sat down next to r, and Nico filled in the gap between gabnic and Tsolaelia, giving them both suspicious looks. An empty seat remained between Gijs and Almirena.

The lights in the room were making each guest cast a shadow on his own plate. The storm added to it with its own random flashes, and Walker could even hear some of the thunders. It was a mother of a storm outside. He wouldn’t like to be out there right now.. but maybe they would, soon.

He signaled to Mrs. Perkins to bring in the entrée: ham, bacon and fish eggs. The scowling woman wheeled the cart in a complete rectangle around the table and set their food in front of each of them, then retreated to the kitchen. Everyone started eating except Nico, who was poking at the ham with his fork as if he expected to see worms crawling out of it.

Krss returned from the bathroom and grinned at seeing where her empty place was. Then she approached the table and the grin faded into confusion. She quickly looked at all the other guests’ plates and the confusion became anger.

“There is no veggie food at this table!” she shouted at Walker.

“I am aware of that, Madam.”

“I told Styles in that damned questionnaire of his that I was a vegetarian!” She put her hands on her waist and dared him with her eyes to reply to that. Gijs had stood up and was giving Walker the same dare.

Walker’s mouth corners were hurting from the effort of staying serious. “The professor did not leave any specific orders about that, Madam.”

“What do you mean he didn’t..” Krss started.

r stood up from opposite her. “But he took some effort to order no spirits, didn’t he?” he shouted.

Walker calmly looked them both in the eye, remaining silent.

“Are you telling me I won’t have anything to eat all weekend?” She was growing angrier, judging by the flush spreading on her cheeks.

“Hey, how about fish eggs? Eggs aren’t meat, are they?” asked r.

gabnic made a face that said, “Oh, you are in so much trouble now.”

If not for the table, Krss would have pounced on r. Walker had to approach to read her lips.

“These are fish eggs!! Do you slice chicken open to get their eggs??”

“Actually, it’s hens who..”

Krss picked up a knife and r stopped. Santi turned towards Walker. “I am sure Mrs. Perkins will have something in the kitchen to satisfy Krss’ need for vegetables.” He ended the sentence with a raised eyebrow.

”I will verify that with Mrs. Perkins right now, Sir.” Walker went into the kitchen, counted to ten, and returned. “I’m afraid the only vegetarian food we have in the manor is bread, potatoes and blue cheese.”

“What??” screamed Krss. “I hate blue cheese! I told him that in the questionnaire!”

Walker shrugged politely.

“You need to.. you need to go out and get me some food!”

“In the storm outside I wouldn’t get too far, Madam. The professor took the car when he left. You will have to do with what we have until the storm subsides.. or eat meat.”

Krss punched the table and stormed from the room. Gijs darted after her. Santi half-raised himself to follow, but refrained and started eating his ham. The uninvolved guests had followed the exchange with only a mild interest, between bites of food. Sensible people. As long as they had what to eat, why would they care if she didn’t? Walker moved to stand between the two empty chairs, so he could get a good look at all their faces.

“Why did he need all that stuff anyway?” asked Bearic.

“What stuff?” said gabnic.

“The questionnaire..”

“I couldn’t read mine, what’d it say?” asked r.

“Some were really weird questions. Why would he want to know what things we read?” asked Bearic.

“Obviously, young man, the professor wanted to assess the level of education each person had, judging by the kind of books he favored,” replied Almirena, stiffly.

“Yeah, okay, but.. why did he want to know our eating habits if he never gave Krss vegetarian food? Or our fears? Why do these even matter to own this house?”

“The questionnaire is quite strange, I agree with you,” said Santi. “But this whole situation is strange. For instance, why is the host not here to greet us?”

“Professor Styles is not here so that he is not influenced by subjective impressions. I am his eyes and ears among you,” said Walker. Marion rolled her eyes, but he continued, “Breakfast tomorrow will bring you a message from him. Do not worry yourselves tonight.”

“I don’t like this house.”

Everyone turned to look at Nico, but he’d returned to poking his food absently with a fork.

***


Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 11:57 pm on Oct. 7, 2006 | Link to this post
Krss
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The second floor of Dread Hill House, by the talented Santi. I added the names afterwards.
Krss_30

Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 12:30 am on Oct. 8, 2006 | Link to this post
Krss
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Friday Night

Almirena could have been married to insomnia for how faithful a partner it was. The snores of the drunkard in the next bedroom were even louder than the storm. The grandfather clock had struck midnight a few hours ago, it seemed, and the only good thing about that was she wouldn’t get to hear so many strikes in one place until noon the next day. At the next single strike, she finally decided she had had enough of unceremonious tossing about, and she could fill up dead time by watching a worthwhile film downstairs. Maybe the professor had Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Nosferatu; she needed to extend the delicate strings of her nerves to the limit.

The second floor was quiet and in twilight— most of the chandelier bulbs had been extinguished, no doubt to preserve energy. That also made walking difficult, but, feeling her way and clutching the banister, Almirena went down into the main hall. Walking among the deserted ancient walls, under the humbling gaze of the ancient protectors of the home, she felt as if the house was already hers.

She closed herself in the projection room, opening the feeble light enough to choose a film. She couldn’t find any of the ones she wanted to see, but she realized she wouldn’t have known to operate the projector anyway. Luckily, there already was a roll of film in it. She started it and sat down to watch in one of the fifteen chairs.

The title on the screen proclaimed it to be “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”. A by-the-dozen action trash, but it would do as a sleeping draught. For a long time she watched the mishaps of the adventurer as he battled South American natives, Nazis, Arabs and a Frenchman, the worst enemy by far. Finally, Indiana Jones discovered the location of the Well of Souls and was lowered in it with a rope.

The cavern was swarming with snakes.

Almirena recoiled and felt her pulse quickening in her throat. That was one thing she shared with Jones— fear of snakes. And there seemed to be all kinds of venomous reptiles in that room. Lots of asps, and even an Egyptian cobra. Her skin crawled whenever they crawled. She was glad it was happening to Jones and not to her.

But there was something wrong about the projector. It should normally project everything on the screen. So why was a shape moving under the rectangle of light? She turned to look at the projector, but nothing came between it and the screen, and, anyway, the shadow was outside the screen, and was slowly slithering down the wall.

Her heart knew what it was even before she saw it crawling over the floor towards her feet. Her throat let out a strangled sound, her ears seemed to crush her skull from both sides and merciful darkness embraced her.

***


Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 2:30 am on Oct. 8, 2006 | Link to this post
Krss
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r’s first thought as he opened his eyes was that he’d fallen asleep in the bar and they’d locked him inside again. Then he realized the room smelled worse than the bar, so he couldn’t be in the bar. Where was he, now?

Ah, in a bedroom. In a huge house. Styles’ house.

Someone knocked on the door impatiently three times, and then again twice. That explained why he was awake. He groaned an “Enter!” and tried to sit up in bed. His hand went automatically for the bottle under his pillow, but couldn’t find it.

Right. He had nothing to drink. Damn Styles.

A very agitated man with a mop of spiky hair rushed into the room. r barely had time to understand that he was Nico before the man crashed onto the bed and started shaking him, mumbling some words r couldn’t understand. The shaking was annoying, so r grabbed Nico’s hands, locked them behind his back and forced him to sit still.

“Okay, now out with what you wanted to say.”

Nico scowled, and his body kept shaking, but he managed to utter, “Have you taken my pills?”

r stared at him in disbelief.

“You have, haven’t you? I’m sure you have. You have a guilty look on your face.”

“Calm down. I don’t have your pills. I didn’t know you had pills. I never even entered your room.”

Nico gave him a wild look. “Then who took them? I can’t find them. I need to take them, even if they don’t do anything, because without them it’s much worse. I need to find them. Let me go!”

r allowed him to go, and watched Nico run out the door to wake up others. The guy was out of control. He had to stop him if he could catch some sleep around here, so he dragged himself out of bed and went out on the landing.

Nico was banging desperately on Bearic’s door. After five bangs, a very sleepy Bearic opened the door and got the same shaking treatment.

“Hey! What’d I do! Leave me alone! You’re crazy!” screamed the kid.

r had had just about enough of that. He went to Nico, disentangled him from Bearic and gave him three hard slaps. Nico cried out and tried to hit back, but r caught his wrists and held him steady until his squirming subsided.

“Go get Santi,” r told Bearic. “I’ll keep him here. No sense waking Tsolaelia.”

Bearic nodded, still confused, and went to knock on the second bedroom of the opposite side. While r struggled to keep Nico under control, he saw Bearic knock a few times, but the door remained closed. Finally, Bearic came back and shrugged. “He’s not in there.”

“Okay. Bring a glass of warm milk from the kitchen. That’s what the nuns gave my homies if they got into fits.”

“But.. it’s..”

“What?”

“It’s deserted down there.” Bearic’s eyes were very wide.

“And are you afraid the boogeyman will come out of the closet and eat you? This guy is having a fit and he needs milk. Go.”

Bearic left, but he obviously didn’t like it. Oh well. He had other problems to worry about than babysit a kid.

***


Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 3:22 am on Oct. 8, 2006 | Link to this post
Krss
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Bearic held his breath as he counted the steps down to the hall. As long as he counted, as long as he didn’t look back, and as long as he didn’t fall, the white ghost with large eyes that he knew was following one step behind him would leave him alone. Or so he hoped.

Fifteen..

The hairs on the nape of his neck were so upright they hurt. The stairs seemed to stretch forever. So did the house.

Sixteen. Seventeen.

He stumbled, but grabbed the banister and managed to stay up. His heart kept throwing itself at the walls of his chest. He could feel the eyes of the ghost, so close behind. Close enough he could have felt its breath, if ghosts breathed. Staring at the back of his neck. Waiting.  

Eighteen, nineteen, twenty.

He had made the first floor. He breathed out and dared a look behind. No one was there. With a quick prayer of thanks, he hurried towards the dining room. It was almost completely dark, but at the crack of a lightning he found the light switch. Relief flooded over him at the same time as the light. It was just an old house. Just an old, cobwebby house, with secrets under all its creaking floors.

No, don’t go there.

***

Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 4:46 am on Oct. 8, 2006 | Link to this post
Krss
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Tsolaelia wasn’t sleeping when the men knocked on her door. It took her a long time to fall asleep in new surroundings; the basic human need for shelter was in fact the need for the familiar. She had heard some voices outside, but hadn’t wanted to go out in her nightie. Now it seemed she’d have to. She sighed, put on a robe and opened the door.

“Yes, what is it?”

In the doorway she could see r holding a very distraught Nico, who shouted, “Did you steal my pills?”

“Sorry to disturb you,” said r apologetically, ”but d’you think you can calm this guy down? Santi isn’t in his room, and Bearic is taking a long time with the milk.”

“Milk? For a manic episode? Why didn’t you come to me sooner? Here, let me get you a sedative. No, two sedatives.” She fumbled in her bag and gave r two pills. “Wait, I’ll get you some water too.”

She took a glass from the room and rushed to the closest communal bathroom. The sink taps weren’t working very easily, and the water looked a little like rust, but it would do. She rushed back with the glass.

“Take these, Nico, they will help you sleep. We’ll find your medicine tomorrow. We’ll search together, I promise.” She tried to make her voice as soothing as possible.

Nico reluctantly took the pills and swallowed them with the water, then grimaced. “This water tastes like iron.”

“Okay, now get him to bed,” Tsolaelia urged. “He’ll be knocked out in two minutes.”

She watched r disappear with Nico and sighed again. What had Styles thought when he’d chosen an unstable bipolar patient as a candidate?

***


Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 5:05 am on Oct. 8, 2006 | Link to this post
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By the time he had arrived to the door of the kitchen, Bearic’s heart had almost gotten back to normal. He opened the door and.. darkness. All the blinds were closed, and the windows were far away. And he couldn’t see the light switch.

Okay. This is just a kitchen. The ghost stays on the stairs.

Why didn’t that sound so reassuring? Maybe because he was shaking so much? He had to go in, though. The first window on the right wasn’t that far, surely nothing had time to get him until he arrived there to open it. If he made a dash for it..

He ran without looking back. He arrived at the window after four steps and threw open the blinds. The night outside was barely casting shadows over the closest part of the kitchen, and, together with the light coming in from the dining room, he could make out a light switch on the wall of the freezer. The freezer, which was on the other side of the room. The long side.

But he’d gotten this far. He could do this. He started walking towards the switch. Walking was hard when you had to force each foot to move. He was almost there..

The door to the freezer creaked.

Bearic stopped dead in his tracks. The door couldn’t have done that. There was no one else in the room, and there was nothing alive in the freezer. He must have imagined it. He looked at it intently for a few seconds. It didn’t move. He had imagined it.

And then, the door started opening slowly. Bearic’s heart contracted in pain as he stood and could only stare as the door inched open, without him being able to see who.. what was opening it from inside. He would only see it when the door was fully open, when whatever it was came out of there and looked at him.

The door slammed shut.

Bearic cried out and grabbed his chest, which was hurting so badly, but that didn’t matter now, all it mattered was to run away from there, run as quickly as possible and don’t look back.

***


Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 5:06 am on Oct. 8, 2006 | Link to this post
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Krss’ stomach growled for the third time that night. It was useless, she couldn’t sleep while she was hungry. She was weak, she was sore, and she was very pissed off. The hideous women in the paintings seemed amused at her angry pacing. What had she thought, coming to this stupid house with its stupid pink beds and lots of meat? She felt right about ready to murder someone.

A high-pitched, annoying scream came in through the closed door. Maybe she’d just murder the author of that noise. She rushed to the door and flung it open. The first thing she saw was Bearic on the stairs, looking up towards Krss' right with a vacant expression. She followed his gaze and saw Marion in a very skimpy red frilly nightgown, trying to cross the railing while screaming her head off.

The woman was about to jump!

“Do something!” shouted Krss to Bearic, while running towards the hysterical woman. He didn’t seem to hear. What on Earth could he do anyway? Catch her?

Before Krss reached her, Marion had managed to put both her legs over the railing, and was sitting on top of it, holding on with her hands and looking down at the hall below. It was quite a drop. She wouldn’t make it. Krss touched her shoulder, and Marion shook violently. Okay, maybe touching her wasn’t that good an idea. Krss was running out of options. Bearic was still staring, in a daze, and Marion was still screaming, in hysterics. Was there no able person around there who could help? Ten freaking doors, for freak’s sake.

gabnic opened the door right behind Krss and, after a half-second, his eyes widened.

“Good boy. Now do something,” she snapped.

gabnic hastened to the screaming woman and took her easily in his arms, lifting her over the railing and back to safety. She crumpled at his feet, sobbing. Krss felt the urgent need to puke at the sight.

Why am I a woman, again? Right, because I like men better.

Bearic seemed to have finally come to his senses, and he ran along the landing towards Marion. While gabnic and Bearic gave all their attention to the pathetic woman, Krss realized there was something wrong about this. gabnic had heard Marion. Krss had heard Marion. Their two bedrooms were on the two ends of the left side of the house. So the whole left side could have heard Marion.

Where were Gijs and Santi?

Telling herself it was just concern, Krss knocked on Gijs’ bedroom. There was no answer. She knocked louder. Still no answer.

Okay, now that was wrong.

Feeling entitled to it by her worry, Krss tried the handle. The door was unlocked. She opened it a crack and looked inside.

Gijs was lying on his bed with his shirt wide open. His long white-blond hair was plastered to his face by sweat, and he was gasping audibly for air. His face was twisted in pain, or was it pleasure? because his tense hands were reaching convulsively for Santi, who was seated on the bed next to him, leaning over him.

The sound of the door banging on the wall made Santi raise his head. Krss’ face must have had some sort of really weird expression, because he raised both his hands and said, “This is not what it looks like!”

“Then what is it?” She approached the bed cautiously. She didn’t care she had interrupted something. She needed to know.

“He has had an attack. It is subsiding now, but it was serious enough that his screams could be heard from my room. I opened his nightshirt to allow him to breathe.”

“Why? Why did he have an attack?” Krss noticed that Gijs was slowly coming back to his senses, so she knelt next to his bed and brushed a strand of wet hair from his face. “First Marion, now him.. What’s going on here, Santi?”

“I wish I knew. My hypothesis is that Marion and Gijs are both hypersensitive individuals, and being in new surroundings has affected both. But I did not think Marion’s attack was as bad at Gijs’.”

“She had another one. She just tried to jump off the landing.”

“Oh.”

Gijs groaned and stirred. Both Krss and Santi turned to him. He was blinking slowly, trying to focus his gaze.

“Are you okay?” Krss asked.

Gijs grinned. “Stupid question..”

“What happened?” asked Santi.

“Well..” He swallowed. “The canopy.”

“What about it?” Krss fought off the urge to shake the whole thing out of him.

“I was looking up. It was familiar, somehow. Don’t ask me how. The memories were bad. And then it.. descended on me.”

“Descended?” asked Krss and Santi at the same time, looking up at the very undisturbed bed canopy.

“Yes. And I couldn’t move. So it came closer.. Until it was right next to my face. It pressed me down into the mattress. I couldn’t breathe.. I panicked. Then I think Santi came in. Thanks, man..”

Santi nodded.

“And that’s it.”

“You need rest now. We will discuss this tomorrow at breakfast,” said Santi and rose to his feet, imitated by Krss. “Are you going to be able to sleep without a sedative?”

Gijs nodded slowly, and turned to her. “Thank you too, for coming to check on me.”

Krss grinned. “How could I lose the opportunity of watching a male bonding moment?”

Santi cleared his throat. “Please don’t tell anyone about this. I mean, the.. male matter.”

“Sure. Go to bed, Gijs.”

He closed his eyes with a smile. She followed Santi to the door and whispered, “Did your first-aid classes teach you to hold the victim’s hand?”

Santi blushed furiously and didn’t reply.

***

Total Posts: 2307 | Joined Aug. 2006 | Posted on: 10:35 pm on Oct. 8, 2006 | Link to this post
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