The inside of the minibus was so scorching hot that Jean’s heavily applied black eyeliner was starting to melt. She didn’t seem to have noticed; she was too busy adjusting her hair, which she’d dyed black over the weekend, and listening to music on the earphones she was meant to be using to talk to ghosts.
“I thought the black hair would make me look kind of gothic, y’know? Add to the atmosphere of the show,” she announced to no-one in particular, opening her compact mirror and frowning nervously when she saw the trickles of black liquid beginning to form on her cheeks.
Andy, who was sitting in the seat next to Jean, was ignoring her; he was glaring out of the grimy window at the bright red Ferrari waiting at the traffic lights next to them.
“Nice car, don’t you think, Tony?” Andy said, trying to stretch in his seat and almost punching his girlfriend in the face. Tony leaned forwards, pretending to have noticed the car for the first time; he considered his reply for a minute before settling for a simple “Meh.”
“Huh,” said Andy. “Guess you’re not exactly a motor expert, what with your old Jeep that looks like it was dragged backwards through a desert. Why don’t you buy yourself a proper car?”
“Because I spend the money I have on food, Andy.”
“At least you can drive, Tony,” called Dave cheerfully from the back of the bus, where he’d spread out his belongings across all four seats. “I was kicked out of my driving test five times before I gave up.”
“How on earth did you manage that?”
Dave thought for a moment. “Well, there was the time I swerved to avoid my elderly neighbour’s cat and mounted the pavement and almost killed my elderly neighbour.” When Dave paused, Tony had time to catch Andy’s contemptuous expression. “I think that happened twice, actually. Oh, and there was that time I stepped on my other foot instead of the brake pedal and smacked into a parked car. I was knocked out, but when I woke up the doctors told me I’d just got three broken toes.”
Dave stopped talking for a minute, and when he spoke again his voice had a guilty edge to it. “Actually, I was driving Julianne’s car when that happened. I crumpled it like a tin can. She would’ve done the same to me when she found out, if I’d been conscious at the time.”
Julianne. Julianne. Am I supposed to know that name?
“Oh, my sister. She was so totally furious with me for wrecking her car, she almost killed me. Actually, I feel kind of bad for her; I don’t think I ever said sorry to her properly. I just kind of laughed, right after I got out of hospital.”
“Oh, that sucks,” said Tony, without a trace of humour in his voice. “I’m just reading this new article on Lansfield; it was published this morning.” He held his phone up. “Did you know they’ve just issued an access ban to everyone, including all the research teams? We’re going to be the last group that gets to go there, and then it’s being closed down permanently.”
Dave unbuckled his seatbelt and leant forwards, kneeling up on his seat so he could see over Tony’s shoulder. “Is it because of that guy who died?”
“I’m not sure...” Tony scrolled down on his phone with his finger. “Oh, wait, here we go. ’The announcement comes six days after the suicide of paranormal scientist Alan Fitzgerald, who became mentally damaged following a visit to the property...’ Yeah, I guess so.”
“Oh,” Dave said, leaning back in his seat and returning to his PSP.
Nobody talked for the remainder of the journey. Even Andy remained uncharacteristically quiet.
When the minibus pulled up in the city car park, Tony grabbed his backpack and then helped Dave pack up his stuff, which was still strewn all over the back seats. Jean, Andy and the three cameramen had hopped off the minute the doors had opened, so Tony and Dave had a little while to talk in private. Sentences kept half-forming in Tony’s head but he dismissed them, and in the end all he said, just as they prepared to step off the bus, was “You ready?”
“Hell no,” was the reply.
Tony took a deep breath. “Me neither.”
The minibus ride was followed by a half-hour walk into the countryside, down a hot and dusty dirt road that made Jean moan a lot about the state of her new boots. The track quickly narrowed to about three feet wide and became stonier, and during the last ten minutes or so into the hike the undergrowth completely swamped it. By that time, though, their destination had become visible in the distance.
Tony had been the first to spot the dark sprawl of shadows on the hillside. If it hadn’t been for all the photographs he’d seen, he wouldn’t even have recognised the mangled smudge as a building, but at the moment he’d first glanced up and caught sight of it, he’d known they were heading in the right direction. Or was it the wrong direction? Either way, they were definitely heading towards the house.
As the small group drew closer to the end of their journey, the neglected weeds and grass grew so tall that the hillside was obscured from view completely and there was frequent swearing as various people sustained stings from fighting off nettles. Tony, who was at the front of the single-file line, had just received his nineteenth sting when suddenly the mud-and-grass soup beneath his feet became an overgrown gravel driveway. The sharp crunch of the stones under his foot surprised him so much that he almost tripped and fell, but when he looked up he froze in his tracks. The driveway belonged to a house, and that house was Lansfield Hall.
He’d seen countless pictures of the ruins of the mansion house before, but somehow seeing it in person felt different. It wasn’t that the photos had been misleading; rather, Tony was expecting that the house would look less creepy in real life, in broad daylight. He was wrong.
The rest of the team emerged from the field and continued straight inside— Andy paused only to wave a hand in front of Tony’s unresponsive face— but when Dave stumbled out last, cursing a stone in his shoe, he stopped right next to Tony. Both of them gazed at the place where they were spending the night, unsure of what to say or do.
The manor house hadn’t been touched since the fire in 1822, which was obvious from the black, congealing stones that covered most of the building. It looked like the jagged edges of the brickwork had been coated with tar, and for a second Tony was reminded of Jean’s new hairstyle. The slate roof had collapsed inwards and shards of tile were still scattered on the ground, although most of them had been pushed to either side of the driveway and kept at bay by orange plastic barriers. It was obvious to see which part of the house had been the kitchen; on the left-hand side of the lower level was an enormous dark hole fringed with black, and the room above it had fallen down into the gap. Basically, what Tony was looking at was half of a house and a huge pile of blackened bricks, slate shards and flagstone fragments next to it. Dangerous areas were clearly marked out with more orange plastic barriers, yellow police tape and ‘KEEP OUT: DANGER OF DEATH’ signs, but most of them had been broken or trodden into the ground by years of fatigue and bad weather. The ruin was draped in an almost solid blanket of dead ivy and climbing weeds, which curled in through some of the windows and overflowed from holes in the roof.
Tony remembered a very poetic article he’d read that claimed it was like the devil was dragging the house down to hell. He’d laughed then. Now, he wasn’t so sure.
“Holy shit,” said Dave, pulling a nettle off his jumper and kicking a fragment of roof tile that lay at his feet.
“You ruined the atmosphere,” Tony whispered to him.
There was a long pause. All that could be heard was the wind whistling in through the manor’s empty window frames and straight back out of the roof.
“Is that the tree where Mr Lansfield hung himself?” Asked Dave a little too loudly, pointing to the right. He jogged off down the driveway, and then shouted to Tony.
“Yeah, it is, there’s a little signpost. Come and look!”
Tony walked over to the tree; it was the tallest in the orchard by far, but the bark was cracked and beginning to crumble into grey dust. The remains of a cardboard-stiff rope were still knotted around the branch above Dave, but Dave was too busy reading the plaque on the ground to notice. Tony peered over his friend’s shoulder and couldn’t resist reading the words aloud.
“’This is the tree where Henry Lansfield took his own life by hanging on 15 September 1822. Some people who have visited this site report hearing ghostly voices and being grasped by a disembodied hand in this spot, even when nobody else is here.’”
Dave, who had jumped slightly at the sound of Tony’s voice, turned to look at him nervously; the spark of excitement in his eyes had long since been extinguished. The echo of Tony’s words seemed to get louder and louder until the wind was screaming at him, and still Dave said nothing. He was almost as good at saying nothing as Tony was.
As always, the silent moment of mutual unease was interrupted by the arrival of the producer. He’d refused to travel with them in the minibus, which was probably just as well because firstly, it meant one less annoyance on the three-hour drive and secondly, a man of his size probably wouldn’t have survived the trek through the wilderness. He pulled right up to the front door in his enormous silver Mercedes, despite the numerous PRIVATE PROPERTY signs that had filled the area for the previous few miles. Stepping out onto the driveway, the producer immediately demanded that the camera crew begin filming establishing shots of the house. The camera crew had barely had time to see their own establishing shots of the house.
“Tony, David, what the fuck are you doing under that tree, exchanging love letters? Get in there and get set up, it’s getting dark and we’ve got to start work immediately! Get a shift-on, you pair of pansies, we haven’t got all fucking night!”
Without waiting for a response, the producer cruised through the front door and let it slam shut behind him with a fatigued THUMP. Once the throb of noise had died down again, Tony and Dave were alone.
A chilling breeze gently swayed the dead tree from side to side. Dave made a move to go inside, but then he froze in his tracks, eyes wide. Tony opened his mouth to say something, but then he felt it too. Goosebumps prickled on his skin and he flinched instinctively, but the sensation had long since vanished.
Tony rolled up the sleeve of his hoodie and stared in confusion and terror at the blank skin of his forearm, which was right where he’d felt the ice-cold human hand wrap its fingers round his wrist.
“What the hell was that?” Dave had pushed his sleeve up to his elbow too.
Tony didn’t reply to Dave’s question. It had probably been rhetorical anyway.
Without exchanging any more words, they both rolled down their sleeves, picked up their belongings and hurried inside. Deeper into the belly of the beast.