Property of a Lady
Author:Sarah Rayne

In 20 years of scientific research into the paranormal I have never heard of settlement, plumbing, or electrical wiring that caused psychic disturbances of the kind being reported to your council.

 

Please let me have copies of the reports of all sightings, and advise whether the culprit house is actually empty. Of living people, that is.

 

Yours,

 

Alice Wilson.

 

 

From: J. Lloyd to Dr A. Wilson

 

Dear Dr Wilson,

 

Charect House is unoccupied.

 

I am enclosing copies of reports of what you term ‘sightings’, but do not feel any credence can be placed on these. I would point out that most come from:

 

– Teenagers, who might be thought to have taken illegal substances.

 

– Three typists who are known to be devotees of late-night television horror films.

 

– Revellers, whose testimony cannot be trusted, since they are known to frequent the Black Boar’s real-ale bar.

 

– A character known locally as Arthur the Quaffer, whose predilection for methylated spirits causes him to regularly see all manner of strange things.

 

If you can let me know when you could come to Marston Lacy, I can arrange accommodation for you at the Black Boar.

 

With good wishes,

 

J. Lloyd

 

 

Alice Wilson to J. Lloyd

 

Dear Mr Lloyd,

 

Please don’t tell me how to do my job; your council is paying my organization very handsomely to investigate this house, and I would prefer to earn that payment.

 

I will arrive on the 18th.

 

Good wishes to you as well.

 

Alice Wilson.

 

Nell read these letters twice. So Charect House really was Marston Lacy’s haunted house – to the extent that in the 1960s a ghostbuster had been called in. She considered Alice Wilson’s letters for a moment, rather liking the sound of her and wondering if it would be possible to find out the results of her investigation. She would like to find out more, purely for her own curiosity.

 

The auction took place the following afternoon in the barn-like auction rooms of Cranston & Maltravers’ offices. Nell found a seat near the front and settled down to wait, enjoying the buzz of speculation all round her. There were several dealers whom she recognized and a sprinkling of locals.

 

The clock was Lot No. 521. Nell did not like it very much. She had seen it on one of the viewing days, when she had checked it for signs of woodworm and repairs – if it had showed either she would have told the Harpers it was not worth the reserve price. But whatever William Lee’s reputation might be, his clock was unblemished.

 

It was described as a moon-phase clock – the face of the moon was set in its own secondary arch-dial above the main, conventional one. The workings would move around to mark the passing of the moon’s cycle, and the sphere representing this had been fashioned in blue enamel and lightly marked to indicate human features. Nell supposed it was intended to look a little like illustrations in children’s books of the Man in the Moon smiling benignly down from the night sky, but seen from this angle it did not look at all benign. The face was half visible, which presumably meant it was midway between moons when it stopped, and although it was probably a trick of the light or dust on the surface, it looked exactly like a full-faced man peering slyly over a wall. A Peeping Tom, thought Nell, studying it. However much you’re worth, and however famous a workshop you’ve come out of, I wouldn’t want you in my house.

 

When the bidding opened, the room fell silent. Nell had no idea which way this would go: bidding might go through the roof and beyond her budget, or no one would bid at all and the Harpers would get it for a song.

 

The reserve price was declared, and Nell made a nod of assent to the auctioneer.

 

‘Three thousand pounds on the table,’ said the auctioneer. ‘Three thousand five-hundred, anyone?’ He looked round the room invitingly. ‘Come on, this is a nineteenth-century clock from a well-known workshop. Solid mahogany, with brass. Once the property of a lady. Three thousand five-hundred, anyone?’

 

The silence stretched out. Nell discovered she was gripping her catalogue so tightly that she had dented the corners. This was absurd. She would like to get the clock for the Harpers, even though she did not like it herself, but it would not be the end of the world if she was outbid. She would be annoyed not to have the £600 commission, but she could find other pieces for them. There was still the rosewood table to come.

 

‘Once, twice, third time,’ said the auctioneer with the air of one washing his hands of such a lacklustre audience. The gavel smacked down on the desk, and at once a faint thrumming came from the clock, as if the force of the blow had disturbed something deep inside its mechanism. For a moment the sly moon-face seemed to pulsate, then the moment passed, and there was only the sound of the next piece being carried in. Nell thought she must have imagined that glimpse of eerie movement. But as she sat back in her seat, she could feel people looking at her. William Lee, she thought, what on earth is the legacy you’ve left behind you?

 

The rosewood table came up shortly before three o’clock, and bidding went briskly up to £2,000, with Nell and three other dealers competing. At £2,250 one of the dealers dropped out, and at £2,500 another went. Nell was within £250 of Liz Harper’s budget, but she kept her nerve and in the end got the table with £50 to spare. Making out the cheque, she thought it had been a very good afternoon’s work.

 

Liz and Jack Harper had authorized the solicitors to lend Nell the keys of Charect House, but she had not yet needed to borrow them. She did not really need to do so now. Yes, she did, she wanted to make sure the rosewood table and the clock had reached their destination safely and undamaged.

 

The solicitor’s secretary confirmed that Cranston & Maltravers’ delivery men had been out to the house that morning and had returned the keys. She handed them over and asked if Nell needed directions.

 

‘I think I’ll find it,’ said Nell. ‘I know more or less where it is.’

 

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