Property of a Lady
Author:Sarah Rayne

The ticking of a clock. He could hear it quite clearly, which was unexpected because he had thought the house entirely empty of furniture – in fact the auction that included the long-case clock was not until next week. Perhaps there was an old wall clock or a kitchen clock somewhere.

 

He walked through the rooms, listing them carefully and making notes about them. Three reception rooms on the ground floor – one of which was a beautiful long room with windows overlooking the tanglewood gardens and a deep window seat. There was a dingy fireplace with bookshelves on each side.

 

At the back was a big stone-floored kitchen. When Michael tried the water in the outer scullery something clanked and shuddered in the depths of the house, then a thin reddish stream came from the tap. He turned the tap off and went back to the front of the house. The clock was still ticking away to itself somewhere. It was rather a friendly sound; people did not have ticking clocks very often these days.

 

The main hall had the wide, elegant stairway of its era. The stairs went straight up to a big landing, then swung back on themselves in a hairpin bend, a smaller, narrower flight obviously winding up to the second floor. Attic stairs.

 

It was barely half-past four, but the light was already fading, and Michael thought he would come back tomorrow and see the rest of the place in daylight. He had reached the front door when unmistakably and disconcertingly three loud knocks sounded somewhere inside the house – peremptory, fist-on-wood rapping, startlingly loud. Michael’s heart jumped, and he turned back to the hall, but nothing moved anywhere and the only sound was the ticking clock still faintly tapping out the minutes somewhere. Probably, it had been his imagination, or a bird in the eaves or even old timbers creaking somewhere. Or someone outside? He opened the front door and looked out, but there was only the dismal drip of rain from the leaves, so he came back in and rather apprehensively looked into all the downstairs rooms. Nothing. But as he went into the long drawing-room there was movement in the shadowy garden beyond the windows, then something pallid pressed itself against the glass. Someone’s out there, thought Michael, trying not to panic, but feeling his pulse racing. Someone’s standing in the garden, knocking at the window to come in.

 

And then he saw that after all it was only the remains of an untidy shrub that had dipped its boughs against the window pane. As he watched, it moved again, claw-like branches brushing the glass with a faint, goblin-claw scratch. That was certainly not the sound he had heard.

 

He was in the hall when the rapping came again, and this time it was unmistakably overhead. It was coming from the bedrooms.

 

It was probably perfectly innocent – a window open and banging against the wall, or a trapped animal. No, an animal would bark or yowl. Wilberforce had once been accidentally shut in a cupboard on one of Oriel’s landings, and the entire college had heard his indignant demands to be rescued. And this sound was sharp and echoing and somehow filled with desperation. Michael remembered, and wished he had not, the Rachmaninov suite that began with three sonorous piano chords intended to represent a man buried alive knocking on the underside of his coffin lid to get out. He was so annoyed with himself for remembering this that he started up the stairs before he could change his mind. The stairs creaked ominously, and he expected the knocking to ring out again at any moment. It did not, but Michael had the strong impression that someone was listening.

 

As he reached the main landing, the knocking suddenly came again, louder and more frenzied. Did it spell out a plea? Was it saying: let-me-out . . . Or was it: let-me-in . . . ? On the crest of this thought something moved on the edge of his vision, and Michael looked across to the attic stair.

 

Fear rose up, clutching at his throat, because there was someone there. Within the clotted shadows was a thickset figure crouched against the banisters.

 

For several seconds Michael stood motionless, staring at the figure, a dozen possible actions chasing across his mind. There was a confused impression of a pallid face, with the eyes so deep in the shadows that they appeared to be black pits, and of thick fingers curled round the banister rails.

 

Michael heard himself say, challengingly, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’ and at once the man moved, flinching back into the shadows. There was a scrabbling movement, and the man turned and ran up the narrow stairs to the top floor.

 

Michael thought he was as brave as most people, but he was damned if he was going to confront an intruder in a deserted attic with nobody in calling distance. He ran back down the stairs, slammed the door and locked it, then dived into his car and reached for his phone to call the police.

 

By the time a portly constable arrived, the intruder appeared to have got away.

 

‘Very sorry indeed, sir, but it seems he’s escaped us.’

 

‘It’s impossible,’ said Michael as they stood outside the house, staring up at the windows. ‘He was on the stairs, and he went up to the top of the house – I saw him go up there. There can’t be any way for him to have got out. In any case, I locked the front door when I came out – to keep him in there. And I waited in my car until you got here.’

 

‘You saw for yourself, Dr Flint,’ said the policeman. ‘We went in every room and every last cupboard.’

 

‘Yes, we did,’ said Michael, puzzled.

 

‘And the two other outer doors were locked. The scullery door, and the garden door at the side, as well.’

 

‘There were no keys in any of the locks,’ said Michael, frowning. ‘Which means that if he got out that way, he could only have done it by unlocking a door and locking it again behind him.’ He looked at the policeman. ‘And that’s absurd. Unless—’

 

‘Unless what?’

 

‘Unless he’s got keys to the house,’ said Michael slowly and unwillingly.