Winner: Sarah Alcock - The Manor (read it below)
Winner: W R Daniel - Sympathy and The Devil
Winner: Louise Taylor - The Thin Places
Runner-up: The Not-so-human Soul - Rick Limentani
Winner: Mary Prior - United
Winner: Doors & Creature - Snickerdoodle
Lucy Underhill - Run
Shaun Baines - To Cheshire, With Love
Winner: Doors & Creature - A Creature
Runner-up: Airen Lang - Andrew
October 2017: Anna Haldane - The Silver Whisper
September 2017: Olivia Dunnett - Whistling Monster
August 2017: John McNorvell - Christmas Present
July 2017: Annalisa Crawford - The Fear of Ghosts
Read W R Daniel's winning story below. Think you can do better? Then subscribe monthly - or pay a one-off entry fee - and send us YOUR story:
Winner : Valentine Williams - Get Away From The Window!
Jerry Ibbotson - 97 Seconds
Caleb Stephens - Gone Fishing
C.R. Berry - Ery Mai's Dream
by Sarah Alcock
Gravel crunched under leather soles in the dark. Three pairs of numbed feet carried cold bodies in sodden clothes towards the lights of the manor. The rain had lessened but the mud had been deep; each man was splattered. Extracting the car from the ditch would be a herculean task, and their hands were weakened by keyboards, phones and coffee in cardboard cups.
Arriving under the gable roof first, it was Fred who pushed the doorbell. They wiped their faces as best they could, on sleeves and coattails, trying to look presentable. But there was no returning to the dapper men who’d climbed into the black Audi just an hour ago.
The door opened inwards, showering them with light. The lady sparkled in her elegant gown, her smile welcoming them as if they were expected friends. This had not been their destination, but all three were briefly happy to be there as they bathed in her warmth.
Fred was angry enough to break the spell.
“Sorry to trouble you.” He didn’t sound sorry for her at all. “Our car is fucked and our phones don’t have a signal, can we use yours?”
Her attention shone on him, despite his brash language. She would have indulged him, but David stepped between them. Her consideration switched.
“My apologies for my colleague ma’am, he’s rather frustrated with our situation. It’s true that our car is inoperable and we have an important dinner to get to… perhaps the gentleman of the house could help us?”
Her crystal laugh tinkled.
“There are no gentlemen here. Just me, and Hobbs.” She indicated the slim man in a dark grey suit, still holding the door handle and awaiting his next instruction. “We’ll help you, of course. Come in.”
She swept backwards and opened her arm gracefully. They shuffled in, even Fred aware of the mess they were making. Unsure, they stopped just inside the threshold. The manor was made of marble and gold and mirrored surfaces, white flowers and flowing material, ivory candles and gilt. She allowed them to stare for a moment.
“Take off your clothes,” she instructed. Eyes snapped back to her, the spell momentarily broken. She arched a perfectly shaped eyebrow. “You are filthy, my darlings,” she smiled. They relaxed again.
Three dinner jackets, shrunken by rainwater, were shrugged off and held awkwardly. Six shoes were pulled away from heavy socks. Thirty water wrinkled toes appeared. After some hesitation they followed the example shown by Steve – he’d tried his hardest to free the car, and so was the muddiest – and belt buckles clinked open, trousers stepped out of.
Their once pristine white shirts were grubby and clinging to their skin. Fred had lost a button and his hairy belly peered out. None of them were willing to take the final step to nakedness, and they looked at her uncertainly.
The smile had never left her face.
“Wonderful,” she proclaimed, and their spirits lifted. “Leave them there. Hobbs will wash and dry them, you can be back in them in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”
“They’re dry clean only. He won’t shrink them will he?” Fred glared at Hobbs, who did not return his gaze.
“Don’t you worry darling. Hobbs is an expert at what he does.” She dismissed his concerns confidently, and they stopped worrying.
“Now.” She moved to stand in front of David. “We have showers and robes by the pool. Clean yourselves up and get comfortable.”
“Yes ma’am, thank you.” Without further questions he moved to the doors she indicated, bare feet slapping on the tiled floor that should have been cold, but wasn’t. Fred followed, then Steve who knew his place at the end of the queue. He raised his young face to meet the blonde-haired beauty’s eyes as he passed. The intensity of her attention was too much and he babbled.
“It was my fault of course, that’s what they’ll say, sorry. I didn’t think I was driving that fast but I’m not used to that car, the acceleration is loads quicker than mine, it just got away from me.” He had to stop to breathe, and she hushed him with a finger lightly touched to her own lips.
“Be quick.” Hands on shoulders, she guided him on his way.
She didn’t have to wait long for them to reappear. Without her presence their stress levels rose; they were in danger of missing their dinner. They’d left in plenty of time, but for cocktails, not this diversion. Fred was the first to return, wearing a white robe and waving his phone above his head.
“Still no signal,” he barked. “Where’s your phone?”
“I’ve called someone, and they’re on their way to collect you. You’ll get where you need to be.” Her reassurance was powerful, calming even him. He stopped to look at this new room.
The walls were far away and dark, but the ceiling was low and the reflection of the pool danced a never ending dance. Tables draped in white linen surrounded them, carrying champagne bottles, fruit and delicate canapés on golden plates. Fred settled. This was the type of place he was supposed to be.
Steve found them next and his awe was plain to see. He worked towards the others at the edge of the pool, fingers lightly trailing over tables as if to check they were real. Fred scoffed at him.
David appeared, pausing to touch and smell the open flowers at the entrance. Rejuvenated, he called to their host across the room.
“My dear, your home is stunning. Do you really live here alone?”
“Oh I have plenty of visitors,” she assured him. “Plenty to keep me busy.”
“It certainly looks like you’re expecting some company.” He waved his hand expansively across the food. “Having a party?”
“Not as such,” she smiled. “I have lots of companions. You must be hungry; help is on the way but for now – eat.”
Hobbs had reappeared and offered them champagne in crystal flutes, murmuring answers to their questions about the various mouth sized bites. Across the pool, a green and blue shimmer, there was an archway through which the water led. Soft music emanated from that direction and playful shadows fluttered.
“Our dinner starts at nine,” Fred announced through a mouthful of smoked salmon. “We have to be there. I’m getting an award.”
“You’re nominated,” David corrected mildly.
“Yeah, and I’m getting it. I know there is no one else with my sales record. Old Robert thought he could compete with me, but I showed him. If he’s going to leave his leads just sitting in an unlocked drawer he can’t complain when someone else gets there first.” Fred snorted in victory, spraying blini crumbs from his lips. “That award is as good as mine. That’s how it’s done Steve, you gotta learn from the best.”
Steve had been mesmerised by the inviting archway across the room, but snapped his head back to his superior.
“Oh yes,” he agreed. “Although... it doesn’t seem too fair, you taking Robert’s client.”
Fred’s eyes narrowed as Steve continued, confidence buoyed by their surroundings. He was aware of their host smiling at him.
“I mean, it’s like I tell the boys in our club. It’s not just about the win, it’s about being part of a team. Got to do what’s best for the team. Got to enjoy the game.”
“I enjoy the fucking game,” growled Fred. “And I fucking win. If Robert was so good I wouldn’t have been able to take the client from him. The company got the contract, that means the team won too. What’s your problem?”
Steve shrugged and his face betrayed an internal struggle. Behind him a thunderous knocking echoed out, metal on a dark wooden door none of them had noticed. Their host clapped her hands excitedly, her face glowing.
“She’s here! Wonderful!”
She passed them as if on wheels, her dress flowing behind her and wisps of hair moving in the breeze. The heavy door was slow to open, ancient wood fighting her. At first only darkness could be seen, then a pale face emerged.
The two could be sisters, except in everything. The newcomer was tall and straight, a black dress covering one arm and extending to the opposing knee. The bare arm was almost white and flawless, her hair short and matching black. Where their host exuded warmth and benevolence, the newcomer pulled safety from the room. Her piercing eyes never left the frozen three as their host greeted her like a long-lost friend.
“Which one is mine?” her voice crackled.
“I don’t know,” laughed their host. “I’m playing a game, trying to guess. Just for fun.”
The two stood closely together, and the newcomer looked down her straight nose to her shining opposite.
“Why do you tease? You’re supposed to be the good one.” Indulgent but exasperated.
She broke away and moved round the edge of the room towards them. The darkness grew deeper where she walked, just as all light perpetually focused on their host.
“Where’s the book?” she scratched.
“Oh, Hobbs has it. I think this one.” Their host was back with her guests. Her long fingers were tipped with gold glitter which twinkled as she lifted a morsel of food to Fred’s surprised lips. “He’s kind of mean.”
Hobbs had stepped forward at the mention of his name and was holding an oversized leather-bound book. Carefully he leafed through the many pages, yellowed with age. Finally he settled on one, and held it out wordlessly to the newcomer. Without touching it, she read.
“Ha! Wrong!” Her laugh was piercing and the three winced. “You lost your own game!”
“Really?” Their host was disappointed, and all three men wanted to comfort her. It lasted only seconds. “Oh well. A bit obvious I suppose. Go on then – who?”
The newcomer moved again, now on the opposite wall from her entrance. The men had turned to watch her. They looked like they might want to speak, might want to move, but she was closer now and her darkness was draining them. She looked in turn at each of them. Her first smile was wide and manic, her teeth white and sharp, her gums too red and her tongue too long.
“This one,” she hissed, wrapping her hand around his throat and marching towards her door. Propelled backwards, he flailed uselessly against her unbearable grip, knocking tables as they passed. He tried to release her fingers but their strength was impenetrable. By the time they reached the door his face was a deep red that was almost purple, terror etched across it. He reached out to his colleagues one last time. The door slammed behind them.
The remaining two were stunned. A plate was spinning gently on the floor. But with the closing of the door, the warmth returned to the room. Nothing was fighting it anymore. They turned at her soft sigh.
She’d taken the book from Hobbs and was reading.
“Young boys. Huh. You just can’t tell.” She snapped it shut decisively.
“Time to move on, gentlemen.” Her eyes were bright. “Time to get going.” She gestured towards the archway, and the calming music rose.
“You first Fred,” she mothered, holding his hand as he navigated the steps into the water. Feet on the bottom, gentle waves lapped thigh high. He turned back to her as if to ask a question.
“Go on,” she encouraged. “Nothing else to worry about.”
He nodded, and walked towards the arch. Residual tension left his body as he approached the brickwork and when he glanced back one last time, his smile was serene.
David was already stepping into the water. He was ready. She smiled her approval and waved them both off.
Copyright (c) Sarah Alcock 2018