Taken from Chapter 1:
The letter was delivered as innocuously as any other, its arrival announced by the sprung letterbox which snapped shut like a mantrap with a resounding metallic crack – Chase Black always imagined the postman and paperboy wincing whenever they had to deliver something to the house with the snapping letterbox.
Picking the letter up with the rest of the morning post, she walked through to the dining room and dropped the letters on the table. Opening the curtains, she took in the bleak suburban view and yawned, stretching her arms to try and shrug off the last vestiges of sleep.
Since being made redundant, life had become monotonous, a mundane carousel of television and comfort food. She rarely got out of bed before noon; rarely went to bed before 3 a.m., existing in the hours of the insomniac. She had only risen early this morning because sleep eluded her. She wondered where her life had gone wrong?
To kill the silence, she switched on the radio - just catching the end of a Limp Bizkit track – and turned her attention to the highlight of her day: the morning mail. Most of the letters were bills, which she threw aside. She knew she would have to pay them, especially as some of them were red letters, but she liked to leave it to the last minute, as though in a final act of defiance. Recognising her own handwriting, she knew that one of the letters was a reply to a job she had applied for and she opened it with an excited flutter in her stomach. Perhaps this would be the one!
But the anticipation soon turned to a sickly feeling - the position had already been filled and she silently cursed the company for wasting her time by advertising a non-existent job. They hadn’t even given her a chance. How many jobs had she applied for now? One hundred? Two hundred? However many it was, she had only received a handful of replies, and out of the handful she had only secured three interviews. All unsuccessful.
The last letter caught her attention as it was in a crisp white envelope with elegant Gothic handwriting. Curious, her chocolate coloured eyes sparkled as she examined the envelope, turning it this way and that, delaying the moment of opening to prolong the anticipation. Even though she was twenty-five years old, she still got the same feeling on Christmas morning. Now she only hoped the letter wasn’t junk mail in pretty packaging, a postal Trojan horse designed to entice.
Who could it be from? Feeling a tingle of excitement, she slid her long nail along the gummed flap and tore it open, quickly pulling out a single sheet of paper that sliced through her finger like a razor.
“Shit ...” She winced, leaving a smear of blood on the paper. Putting her finger in her mouth she sucked at the wound, tasting the coppery tang of her own vital fluid as she read the letter:
Dear Ms Black,
It is with great pleasure that I am writing to inform you that your entry into the Dream House competition has been selected as the winning entry. A representative of Storm will call on you on Saturday, 27th of July at 9.00 a.m. to drive you to view your prize, High Top Cottage, a picturesque period house of great charm and character, overlooking the village of Paradise in Staffordshire. The viewing will necessitate staying over, so can you please keep this in mind when thinking what to bring in the way of clothes and toiletries.
Chase read the letter again - several times.
She’d entered a few in the past, but she was sure none of them were for a house.
It must be a joke, but she failed to find it funny.
The heading on the paper read: Storm Enterprises, P.O. Box 666, London. There was no telephone number.
She suddenly wondered if it had been delivered to the wrong house? Wasn’t it illegal to open someone else’s mail? She checked the name and address on the envelope. But no, thankfully it was addressed to her, so she hadn’t broken the law. She frowned. Having never won anything in her life, not even a pound on a scratch card, she didn’t think she was going to start now, especially with something like a house!
Making a cup of tea and some toast, she sat and contemplated the letter, absently wiping crumbs from the corner of her thin lips. Staring out of the window at the depressing urban street of terraced houses, she wished she really had won a house.
Running a hand through her unruly short brown hair failed to stop it looking as if a madman had struck during the night. Her pretty features had a pixie-like quality that could be mistaken for impishness, and she had a wicked sense of humour, but she failed to find anything funny about the letter.
A couple of the buildings over the road had been boarded up after being burnt by teenage arsonists; vandals daubed others with graffiti, marking their territory like dogs. The area had not always been like this, but it had slowly deteriorated and her house was now way beyond negative equity - you couldn’t give it away. At one time the houses would have been the first rungs on the homeowners ladder; now they were the impoverished dwellings of those resigned to a life of unemployment and drudgery. The only people who lived here were forced to by monetary circumstances or by the council.
When the sun went down, it just got worse. Gangs of teenagers gathered on corners and in doorways, the night their domain as they smoked cigarettes and swigged bottles of beer, the smashed bottles sparkling like diamonds on the floor; broken dreams.
Roberta’s Wine Bar was virtually deserted; its chrome fittings and neon lights made it look like the set from a science fiction movie. “Of course I don’t believe it, Jane. I’ve never won anything in my life, never mind bloody High Top Cottage.” Chase let the name linger on the tip of her tongue, savouring it before complementing the taste with a mouthful of wine. If only it was true. “You didn’t really think I’d fall for your joke, did you?” Reclining in her seat, she smiled, waiting for Jane to burst out laughing.
Jane brushed a strand of long black hair from her face. Her Caribbean roots gave her a sultry, exotic appearance that Chase envied. At six feet tall, Jane also had five inches on Chase, and as Chase knew, size does matter! Where Jane looked like an Amazonian warrior, Chase felt like one of the seven dwarfs. It wasn’t that she was unattractive. Far from it. It was just that she felt she looked plain when Jane was with her. Men always noticed Jane, which would be fine if she wasn’t gay. When they found out, they would either try harder in the misguided belief that they could convert her, or they scurried off, tails between their legs. Either way, Chase was ignored as they assumed she was Jane’s partner.
“Not guilty, sugar,” Jane said in her Caribbean lilt. She took a sip of wine, her purple latex top stretching over her ample charms like a bizarre second skin.
Although Chase didn’t want to believe her, she did. The one thing Jane couldn’t do very convincingly was lie. But if it wasn’t Jane, then who was it?
Gazing out of the window, she absently noticed a man leaning in the doorway of the house over the road. He was staring at the wine bar; Chase felt he was staring right at her and the hairs on her neck prickled. A lorry trundled past, and when it had gone, so had the man.
Up until now she had assumed the letter was a joke. But after talking to Jane, she was beginning to wonder, and perhaps even secretly hope that it was real. But she still couldn’t bring herself to get excited. Things like this didn’t happen to Chase Black.
But what if ...?
Then it would be her first bit of good luck in ages. First, Mat had dumped her after six years, with no explanation bar a hastily scribbled note pushed through her letterbox (she hoped it had bitten him), announcing he was going away ‘to sort his head out,’ and it would be better, in the circumstances, to stop seeing each other. She had noticed he had gone moody and taciturn before disappearing, and their lovemaking, when it occurred, had become more urgent, but she had just put it down to stress. Although they had never officially moved in together, Mat stayed at her house whenever he wasn’t working away, so bar the piece of paper they were as good as married (she often practised his surname in her head to see if it felt right: Chase Underwood, and she did think it had a certain ring to it). But then on top of Mat disappearing she had lost her job as an administrative assistant in a car manufacturing company that was ‘down sizing’ to revive a flagging share price. But didn’t luck, good or bad, always come in three’s? So where was piece of bad luck number three? Could she really dare to hope that her luck was changing?
“So where is it again, this house?” Jane asked.
“Paradise. It says it’s somewhere in Staffordshire.”
“Well, I looked for it on a map but I couldn’t find it. The place doesn’t seem to exist.”
“Just because it’s not on a map, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Perhaps it’s too small to put on. Let me have another look at that letter.”
Chase passed her the letter, absently noticing the dried bloodstain that looked disturbingly like the silhouette of a devil.
“It’s a bit obscure isn’t it?” Jane turned the piece of paper over, as though looking for more writing. “You’d have thought they would have put a phone number on so you could ring to confirm.”
Chase had already considered this. “The post mark’s too smudged to read, so I can’t even tell where it was posted from. I even rang directory enquiries, but they couldn’t help me unless I said what town I wanted. So I said London because of the address, but there was no listing. I also tried the Internet which just directed me to a porn site!”
“Strange.” Jane frowned, shook her head and handed the letter back.
“No you would have liked it, lots of flesh.” Chase laughed.
Jane raised her eyebrows in feigned disgust.
Chase didn’t want to think about it anymore. Her head was spinning, but a funny feeling danced in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t know whether it was excitement or apprehension.
Unlike Jane’s daring manner of dress, Chase was wearing a smart blue, knee length skirt and a white blouse, allowing her to blend in with the few office workers drowning another day in an alcoholic haze. She envied them the luxury of receiving a wage, but not the tedium of a nine to five.
The thought of Mat came uninvited and unwanted into her mind. Tears bristled in her eyes. Wiping them away, she took a sip of wine.
“Are you okay?” Jane asked.
“Yes, just smoke in my eyes.”
Jane frowned, “No one’s smoking. What is it? Is it Mat?”
Chase nodded, instantly regretting the action as the room started to spin.
“That bastard. He isn’t worth spitting on, never mind crying over. It’s his loss. He won’t get a honey like you again. Now if you batted for the other side ...”
Chase laughed. “Then you would be my first choice, but I doubt Gina would like it.”
“What she don’t see, sugar.”
“Now you know you don’t mean that.”
“Just don’t ever try me.”
Chase wagged her finger in mock admonishment. “Easy tiger, I don’t want Gina scratching my eyes out, so don’t even think about it.”
“Oh, I think about it all right!”
“You’re terrible. I don’t know how Gina ever trusts you.”
Jane laughed. “I’m going to have to go to the toilet, and I may be some time.” She winked salaciously.
“Get out of here.” She watched Jane walk away, as did most of the men in the room, and turned her thoughts back to Mat. She still couldn’t believe he had left her in such a cowardly way. It was just not like him. They had been able to talk about anything. She would have known if there was a problem. He was her soul mate, or at least she’d thought he was. In the last year he had performed more disappearing acts than Houdini.
At first she had thought he might have another girlfriend; that he was leading a double life, flitting between two partners, but she knew that was just silly. He wouldn’t do that to her. Would he? There were times when she did wonder. Especially when he once called her by another girl’s name. It had only been a slip of the tongue, and Mat couldn’t even remember doing it, but she had definitely heard him. He didn’t offer any explanation for the disappearances - he said that he couldn’t remember where he’d been. When she questioned him further, he got angry. She had never seen him like that before and when he started smashing plates, he had scared her more than she would like to admit, and she had run out of the house. When she returned, it was as if nothing had happened. The incident was never mentioned again. Another time he assaulted a man in a bar who accidentally knocked into him. That just wasn’t like Mat. He was a pacifist.
But this time he had been gone for nearly four months! She had tried to find him, unconcerned that she might not like what she found, but not even his friends or family knew where he was. Or so they said - she had her doubts, especially as his mother never seemed to like her, always staring down her nose, as though Chase wasn’t good enough for her son.
She had even considered reporting him as missing, but shrugged it off as a stupid idea. He was an adult, and free to do as he pleased. More tears bristled in her eyes and she wiped them away before Jane came back and admonished her again.
It was at times like this that she wished her parents hadn’t emigrated to the other side of the world.
As she waited for Jane, she read the letter again.
It had to be a joke.
Outside, the night smothered the world beneath its huge raven wing.
As a car drove past, its headlights momentarily illuminated the doorway of the building opposite.
The man was back.
And he was still staring at the wine bar.