Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Room 26

by J.J. Beazley

Monday 17th April, 2001 was Fiona Colclough’s eighteenth birthday. She was a full time student at the local FE college and had decided to forgo all her classes that day. She planned to lie in, have a lazy day at home and then spend the evening in celebration with her sister and a group of friends. She rose late, dressed scruffily and made her way downstairs. Her mother was in the kitchen and called out to her.

“Special breakfast today. What would you like?”

“Just some toast, thanks. I’m not really hungry,” said the birthday girl as she sauntered lazily into the kitchen. “Never am when I’ve slept in.”

“But it’s a special birthday,” came the reply. “You’re not eighteen every day, you know.”

Fiona had learned to tolerate her mother’s habit of stating the obvious as though it were some profound revelation.

“I know, but I just don’t feel like a big breakfast.”

Her mother tutted and gave in without further protest.

“OK. Go and sit down and I’ll bring your toast. Your cards are on the dining table.”

Fiona wasn’t yet fully awake and ignored the cards for the time being. She slumped into an armchair in the living room of their smart suburban semi and yawned repeatedly until the toast appeared.

“Many happy returns, dear,” said her mother as she handed over a tray, prepared in a grandiose manner disproportionate to the nature of the fare placed upon it.

Fiona took the tray gratefully and noticed that her mother’s hands were trembling slightly. She also saw a look in her eye and an awkwardness about her general demeanour that suggested some sort of concern.

“You OK?” she asked.

“Don’t know what you mean,” said her mother. “Why shouldn’t I be?”

Fiona knew her mother well. She knew that she didn’t like lying and that she usually avoided doing so by the use of some clumsy evasion and counter question. It was obvious that she was unhappy about something. Birthday or no birthday, Fiona wasn’t the sort to let problems fester. She knew that they didn’t usually go away on their own and had always been inclined towards openness and direct, curative action.

“Come on mum, spit it out. What’s the matter?”

“Never mind,” said her mother. “It can wait until later, when your dad gets home.” She hurried back into the kitchen.

“What can?” Fiona called to her mother’s receding back.

There was silence from the kitchen. Fiona placed the tray on the floor and walked through to where her mother was filling a bowl to do the washing up.

“What can wait until later?”

“Never mind,” repeated her mother irritably.

“Look, if there’s something difficult to tell me, I’d rather you did it now. Otherwise I’ll be on pins all day.”

Mrs Colclough turned off the tap and her shoulders dropped in resignation. She remained quiet for a few moments and looked out of the window. Without turning around she said quietly

“The idea was that your dad and I should tell you tonight, after dinner. But you’re right; it wouldn’t be fair to leave you hanging on all day, now that I’ve opened my big mouth. God, I wish I was better at hiding my feelings.”

She turned her head and looked at her daughter.

“I’ll make some coffee and then we can talk. Why don’t you go and sit down and I’ll bring it through.”

Five minutes later Fiona and her mother were settled and Mrs Colclough began to speak, hesitatingly at first but with increasing fluency as the tale unfolded.

“We told you when you were a little girl that you weren’t our natural child, that you were adopted.”

Fiona nodded. She had always been aware of the fact and it had never concerned her that much. She had thought occasionally that she might like to contact her real parents one day, but she had never known any other than the Colcloughs and had always put back any attempt at finding them until some point in the future when the matter might become relevant. Her mother continued.

“Part of what we told you was a lie. We said that we didn’t know who your real parents were, that you had come to us through an adoption agency. Well, we did. We knew them very well indeed.”

Mrs Colclough paused for a second. Admitting to a lie of that magnitude did not come easily to her.

“Your parents were close friends of ours. Your dad – Mr Colclough, that is – had known your real father for years, ever since they were boys; and your mum and I became close friends after they were married. We used to go everywhere together as a foursome and were like one big, happy family. When you were born I’d just discovered that I was pregnant and we all had this lovely, rosy picture of both sets of kids growing up like brothers and sisters. Little did we know what was in store.”

She paused again and gathered herself.

“When you were about six months old your mum and dad decided they fancied a weekend break and asked us to look after you while they were away. I was only about a month off having Fliss and thought the practice might be useful, so we agreed. They dropped you off here early one Friday morning and set off for somewhere in Wales.

“On the Sunday your dad came back in a terrible state. It seemed your mum had died suddenly in her sleep, during the second night of their stay. From what, nobody knew at that stage; they would have to wait for the post mortem. Your dad was completely distraught. He doted on your mum and the shock had sent him a bit strange. It was a hell of a shock to us too, but he asked if you could stay here for a while, just until the port mortem had been completed and the inquest was over. We agreed immediately, of course; we were glad to be able to help.

“We didn’t hear from him for some weeks and didn’t like to pester him. Obviously we were worried about him but respected his need to have time to sort things out and get over the shock. He never did. Eventually, he came round one night and told us that Maggie, your mum, had suffocated to death but what had caused it was a mystery. He said there was some suggestion that she might have suffered from some sort of a ‘syndrome’, but there was no direct evidence of that either.

“He was a complete wreck, worse than he’d been when it first happened. He said he couldn’t cope with you on his own and asked us if we would adopt you, as he wanted to be sure that you had a good home.

“It was quite a bombshell and we were a bit reluctant as I was about to give birth myself, but eventually we agreed. What else could we do? It was obvious that he would have been quite incapable of looking after you in the state he was in, and we felt we owed it to Maggie to take care of you.

“The formalities were gone through and then your dad disappeared for a while. He asked us never to tell you about the adoption – felt it would be better that way – but we decided that you had a right know. Apart from anything else, you would have twigged eventually that your sister was only seven months younger than you and put two and two together. And so we broke it to you gently when you were about five or six.

“One day – it must have been a good two years after your mum died – he rang us to ask how you were. He didn’t want to see you, or us for that matter - said he’d started a new life and felt it was better not to disturb you. But he did give us his address, in case any sort of emergency cropped up and we needed to contact him. It was the address of a flat in Stoke on Trent and we realised he’d gone there because that was where your mother came from. We never heard from him again, but we used to write occasionally and let him know how you were doing. He never replied. Then, about five years later, your dad had to go to Stoke on business and decided to look him up.

“The address turned out to be in a scruffy council block, one of several near the main bus station. It was really tatty, your dad said; graffiti everywhere, broken fences, a couple of abandoned cars with their windscreens smashed – that sort of thing.

“He went and knocked on the door. It was opened by a scruffy, middle-aged woman who was obviously the worse for drink. But she was polite enough, apparently, and invited him in. Your own dad, your natural father that is, was asleep on the sofa. He’d put a lot of weight on and aged considerably. There were empty cider bottles and lager cans lying about, and several ashtrays full of cigarette ends.

“The woman apologised for the mess and started clearing it up. She was going to wake your father but your dad said that he suddenly felt he didn’t want to speak to him. He was shocked to see him in that condition and I think he felt a bit embarrassed. He just said ‘no, just tell him I called’ and then left. And we’ve never seen or heard from him since. I sometimes felt a bit guilty actually – wondered whether we should have done something to help. But your dad said he was beyond that and we let it drop.

“Anyway, we decided that you should know the truth and agreed that we would tell you on your eighteenth birthday. We thought you should have the right to choose whether to try and make contact with him. And, just to be fair, we wrote to him and told him what we were going to do. He never wrote back and objected, so here we are.”

Mrs Colclough stopped speaking and waited for a response. It came immediately.

“What was his name?”

Fiona had been leaning forward throughout the revelation, listening to the details with evident interest and showing no sign of concern. Mrs Colclough had been half-expecting an emotional outburst and was relieved at the brightness of Fiona’s manner.

“Frobisher,” she said. “Alan Frobisher.”

“Hmm,” said Fiona. “I like that. Has a nice ring to it.”

“He used to be a nice man,” said her mother. “God knows what he’s like now, after all those years of drink. Probably taken to drugs too, I shouldn’t wonder.”

Fiona was irritated that her mother should make such a predictable assumption, but said nothing and fell silent. Her mother rose.

“I’ll go and finish off that washing up; leave you to think. I know it’s a lot to take in suddenly.”

“It isn’t actually,” said Fiona. “I’ve always known I was adopted so there’s no shock there. This has just added some fascinating detail. I’m not upset at all, just intrigued.”

Mrs Colclough breathed another sigh of relief.

“Did he give you a phone number?”

“No, just an address: 14 Willfield Court, Hanley. Why, are you going to try and see him?”

“You bet, as soon as I can,” said Fiona with an air of certainty that was typical of her nature.

“Well, just be careful dear,” said Mrs Colclough. “There’s no telling what sort of state he might be in now and he might not want to see you. I suppose he might even be dead for that matter.”

She went off to the kitchen to busy herself with the familiar comfort of the post-breakfast washing up. While she was out of the room, she heard Fiona using the telephone. It was obvious from one side of the conversation that her daughter was calling Directory Enquiries and having no luck. She put the phone down and came through into the kitchen.

“There’s no Alan Frobisher listed at Willfield Court,” she said, obviously disappointed.

“He could have moved,” offered her mother. “It’s been a long time.”

“Suppose so. But I can’t think where else to start. I’m going to drive up there. It’s not that far, is it? If he’s not there, maybe the current tenant will know where he went. I’ll go on Wednesday. I’ve only got one lecture that day and it’s not that important.”

“It won’t be that easy to find,” said her mother. “Stoke’s a big place, you know.”

“Is it?” said Fiona brightly. “Never mind. Dad will give me some directions, and I can always ask the way to the bus station. The rest should be easy.”

With that, she skipped off back to her room to phone her best friend with the news. Mrs Colclough shook her head with a mixture of concern and admiration. Her daughter was so much more decisive that she’d ever been.

“Just like Maggie,” she said sadly under her breath.

When Mr Colclough arrived home that night, his wife told him of the conversation. He admitted to being relieved to have been spared the ordeal. He was happy to give Fiona approximate directions to the city centre, but pointed out that the road layout would probably have changed over the years and suggested that she should seek directions to the bus station when she got close.

“I was going to do that anyway,” said his daughter.

“Of course you were, darling,” he said with a knowing smile. “How could I have thought otherwise?”

Two days later, Fiona was driving up the motorway heading for more than one sort of unknown territory. She felt a tingle of excitement at the prospect of meeting her natural father, or at least beginning the search for him. The prospect of rejection didn’t worry her unduly as she felt no emotional attachment. She only wanted to see what he looked like and ask him a couple of questions. Whatever followed could take its natural course and it would be part of the adventure to see what it might be.

She found the drive on a busy motorway tiring and a little stressful. She had passed her test a mere five months earlier and had only acquired her own vehicle at Christmas. But that was part of the adventure too, and careful reading of the road signs soon had her approaching the centre of Stoke on Trent.

A helpful pedestrian pointed her in the direction of the bus station and she spotted the blocks of flats just where Mr Colclough had told her they would be. She drove around the access roads until she saw the sign for Willfield Court and parked in a bay close to a set of concrete steps. It was a low-rise block on three levels, with the front doors accessed from external walkways. The plate on the wall read Flat Nos. 2 – 18. She had arrived.

It was a dull day, and chilly for April. A cold, gusting wind shook the weeds that grew out of every crevice and parapet, and the air of seediness was little short of palpable. She saw only one abandoned car, but the graffiti was well in evidence and the pavements were patchily stained and strewn with the detritus of urban culture. She climbed the steps nervously, avoiding two polystyrene trays that had been abandoned with half their festering contents still in place, and a mess of vomit two steps higher. She reached the top of the second flight and turned to walk along a concrete walkway lined with faded and rusting iron railings. There was no-one around and she was glad that she was at least spared the ordeal of running the gauntlet of gangs of youthful residents.

The door marked 14 was, like all the others, dark blue and shabby; with old, flaking paintwork and just a simple Yale lock for furniture. The flap that should have covered the letterbox was missing.

Her heartbeat quickened as she knocked firmly. One knock was enough. Within seconds the door opened and a shabby, overweight man stood in the doorway. Fiona was quick to notice his greasy hair, several day’s growth of beard and the tell-tale red flecks on his nose and cheeks. But it was his eyes that spoke most fluently. They were the eyes of a man who had long since given up. He looked back at her, and then she spoke.

“Are you Alan Frobisher?”

He didn’t answer the question. To her surprise, he simply said

“You must be Fiona.” His speech was only slightly slurred, but he smelled strongly of drink. He didn’t smile or show any overt sign of welcome. “I suppose you’d better come in.”

Fiona followed him through a narrow hallway and into the sparsely furnished living room.

“How did you know it was me?” she asked as he beckoned her to sit down.

“It was your birthday two days ago, wasn’t it? The Colcloughs said years ago that they were going to tell you about me on your eighteenth. And you look too much like your mother to be anybody else.”

Fiona sat down on a worn old sofa that stood in front of a cheap gas fire. Alan Frobisher sat in an armchair of similar vintage and condition, and picked up a half drunk mug of tea from the floor. Fiona wasn’t sure how to take him and felt nervous. His manner was cold and distant, but there was no sign of outright hostility. She began cautiously.

“I was worried you might not want to see me,” she said.

“I don’t,” said Alan flatly, then took a sip of his tea. “I thought about you a lot in the early years, but life moves on. I suppose I should say I’m sorry for abandoning you but, to be honest, I don’t give a toss; so don’t expect any emotional reunion. I had a lifetime’s worth of emotion eighteen years ago. I don’t do emotion anymore.”

Fiona felt slightly stung by the directness of his rejection but hadn’t expected, or even wanted, any “emotional reunion” herself so her composure remained intact.

“So why did you let me in?”

“Because I realised you’d have questions that only I could answer, and decided you had a right to ask them. And I figured you’d track me down one day anyway, so it seemed a good idea to get it out of the way as soon as possible. Then we can both get on with our lives.”

He smiled a sad, sardonic smile as his eyes flicked around the shabby living room.

“Not that you can call this a life, but that’s my problem. So, go on; what do you want to know?”

Fiona sat on the edge of her seat, taken by surprise at this sudden projection into the practicality of her visit. She had hoped for some polite, preparatory conversation first; but no matter. She had long thought that there were two things she wanted to know and put them to her father in his own direct manner.

“OK – a couple of things. First, where’s mum buried? I’d like to pay her a visit. Second, how did she die? I gather there was some mystery about it.”

“The first one’s easy,” said Alan. “She isn’t buried anywhere. I couldn’t stand the thought of her body lying in a wooden box under the earth so I had her cremated, then scattered her ashes on Derwentwater in the Lake District. That’s where we first met, at a conference in Keswick, so the place was special to us. I went back up there, took a rowing boat out onto the lake and chucked her over the side. As for the second one, that’s a bit more difficult. It’s a long story.”

He sat and looked blankly at the gas fire for a while, then drew himself up.

“OK, I didn’t really want to relive all this so I’ll make it as brief as I can.”

He thought for a few moments more and then launched into the story.

“Maggie and I had been happily married for two years and, one day, we decided we fancied a long weekend break. She said she’d always wanted to go to The Mumbles in South Wales so, one Friday morning - the 7th of October 1983 it was, I’ll never forget it – we left you with the Colcloughs and headed off for Swansea. We hadn’t bothered to book a place to stay as it was late in the year and we knew it wouldn’t be difficult to find somewhere.

“I was all for taking the Heads of the Valleys road all the way to Swansea but Maggie wanted to get down to the coast as soon as we could, so I turned south at Merthyr and headed for the Vale of Glamorgan. The road brought us out at a place called Cowbridge and we spotted a sign for some hotel called Plas something-or-other – it was in Welsh – that was supposed to be a historic building. As we weren’t far from Swansea and the day was wearing on, we decided to go and take a look. It was pretty spectacular. A big stone-built place set among trees and obviously very old. We liked the look of it from the outside so we went in and booked a three-night stay.

“We were shown to our room by the landlady and it turned out that we didn’t just have a room, we had the whole wing on that floor to ourselves. We went up some old stone stairs and noticed how shabby everything was. It had all been done on the cheap. Nothing matched, the carpet was frayed, the fittings were cheap and tacky, that sort of thing. There was another staircase leading off the landing and several other doors along the corridor.

“Maggie didn’t like it. She was always one for feeling ‘atmospheres’ as she put it, and told me when the landlady had gone that it gave her the creeps and that she wanted to move on. I was more practical and persuaded her that it was only for three nights and it would do. God knows I regretted that later, though I don’t suppose it would have made any difference.

“The first night passed OK, but we didn’t much care for the state of the dining room when we went down for breakfast and decided we would eat out for the rest of the stay. We spent the Saturday exploring The Mumbles and found a nice restaurant on the main road where we had dinner. We got back to the hotel at about nine o’clock and sat up talking for a bit before turning in. Maggie was still unhappy with the place, but otherwise seemed fine.”

Alan went quiet for a minute.

“The following morning I woke up and got a shock I’ll never forget. I shook her to wake her up and she was stiff and cold. Dead. I couldn’t take it in and didn’t know what to do for a while. Eventually I managed to pull myself together and found the landlord to tell him what had happened. He called the police. They took me into the lounge and asked me a load of damn fool questions while the doctor examined the body. I never saw her again. They must have taken her out by a back door or something, as they didn’t come through the lobby. Bad for business I suppose.

“The police asked me to go down to the station and kept me there for hours, prodding and poking to try and get me to say something they could pounce on. It was obvious they suspected I might have murdered her. Eventually they let me go and took me back to the hotel. I packed up our things and drove home. They’d told me that the body would have to be held for a post mortem and they would be in touch when the results were known.

“I went straight to the Colcloughs and made an arrangement with them that you should stay there until it was all over, and then went back to the house and went to pieces. The doctor gave me a sick note and a load of pills but they didn’t make a jot of difference. As far as I was concerned, my life was over. God knows why I didn’t commit suicide – didn’t have the guts, I suppose. Some time later I got called to Cardiff to attend the inquest. I didn’t want to go, but dragged myself down there out of a sense of duty to your mother.

“The police had already told me that she’d died of asphyxiation but they were pretty tight lipped about the cause. I didn’t press them – I didn’t really want to know; didn’t see that it made any difference. They just said their investigations were continuing. At the inquest I heard the full story.

“The post mortem showed that she hadn’t died suddenly; her death had been caused by a gradual drying up of the oxygen supply to the heart. There were no visible marks or signs of a struggle and they’d found no motive for murder. The pathologist said that he couldn’t explain the cause and suggested that some kind of syndrome might have been responsible. He obviously didn’t know and the coroner had no option but to give a verdict of natural causes.

“The body was released and I arranged for a private funeral locally. Neither of us had any close relatives and the Colcloughs were our only real friends. But then, I didn’t want anybody there anyway. I was completely distraught and just wanted to say goodbye to her quietly and then crawl into the nearest hole and leave the world behind. In a moment of madness I came up here to Stoke where she’d been born and raised. I’ve been stuck in this God-forsaken dump ever since.

“Being close to where she’d been brought up was both a comfort and a torture at the same time. I was in such a state that the doctor referred me for psychiatric assessment and I ended up on incapacity benefit. I took to drink; it was the only thing that numbed the pain for a while. But I got used to it and now I’m permanently numb. That’s how I like it.”

Alan stopped and looked blankly at the gas fire again. Fiona felt a stirring of pity for him, but it was clouded by a sense of distaste for his weakness in being unable to handle the situation. She felt, selfishly perhaps, that her mother would have reacted better if things had happened the other way around. She was also intrigued about the manner of her mother’s death and put her mixed emotions easily to one side.

“I take it you never found out the cause?” she asked.

“No. Wasn’t interested. Something a bit strange happened at the inquest, but I couldn’t be bothered to follow it up and I don’t suppose it amounted to anything anyway.”

“Oh, what?”

Alan looked at her and uttered a tired sigh. It was obvious he wanted the meeting to be over, but continued with a few more sentences.

“There was a journalist there, from the South Wales Echo. Perky little sod he was; didn’t like him. He asked me, ‘did I know that the same thing had happened in the same hotel twenty years earlier?’ ‘No’ I said, ‘does it matter?’ Then I walked away. He was all I needed, the way I was feeling. He kept pestering me as I was walking out of the building but he gave up eventually and I drove off.”

Fiona’s interest leapt to a new level at this intriguing bit of information.

“Didn’t you follow it up?”

“Of course I didn’t,” said Alan peevishly. “Why should I? What did it matter? I didn’t give a toss about somebody else dying the same way. Perhaps they had a fuckin’ syndrome too. So what?”

“Do you remember his name?” asked Fiona.

“Who?” asked Alan, his voice becoming raised at what he began to see as an interrogation.

“The journalist.”

“No I don’t, I didn’t ask him,” he retorted, stung by the implication of criticism. “Will there be anything else?”

It was obvious that the reunion had turned into a difficult interview for Alan. He wanted to get back to the comfort of his bottles and cans, and Fiona wanted to be on her way home. She stood up and prepared to leave.

“Thanks for seeing me anyway,” she said coldly. “I’ll let myself out”.

Alan shrugged and remained seated.

Out on the exposed landing, Fiona pulled her coat collar around her neck to keep out the cold wind. She made her way to her car and retraced her route back to the motorway.

As she drove home she thought of nothing else but the circumstances of her mother’s death and the mystery of the previous occurrence. She wasn’t the sort to let mysteries go uninvestigated and planned to do what her father should have done eighteen years earlier.

It would mean another trip into unknown territory, to the offices of the South Wales Echo. Their archive should contain the inquest report and name the reporter. Perhaps he would still be around and she could talk to him. She planned to go at the earliest opportunity. This situation had moved away from a matter of dubious, familial reunion and taken on the potential of a detective story. It had the makings of a fascinating adventure and Fiona began to feel the thrill of the chase.

That evening she told the Colcloughs all there was to tell about her meeting with Alan Frobisher, including the bit about the earlier death. They were mildly interested, but took the view that it was all old news and not worth pursuing. They were more interested in the fact that their daughter showed no inclination to keep in touch with her natural father and were relieved that a fly had been removed from the proverbial ointment. Now they could get back to the familiar routine of uncomplicated family life.

Fiona, however, was determined to pursue the mystery and rang the offices of the South Wales Echo the following day. She made an arrangement to go down the following Wednesday, her quiet day at college, and obtained the necessary directions for getting there. The few friends that she told showed only polite interest in the story, and the reaction of her sister was the same.

“I think you’re wasting your time,” she said.

“Well I’ve got plenty of time to waste, haven’t I?” retorted Fiona. “I might as well waste it on something interesting.”

It was apparent that she would be doing this on her own, and was happy enough with that.

She arrived at the newspaper offices just before lunchtime on the following Wednesday and was soon settled into the archive. She had already realised that she had never asked Alan for the date of the inquest, but reasoned that the death itself would probably have been reported. Indeed it had, on Monday 10th October 1983.

It was a small piece on an inside page and told her nothing that she didn’t already know, apart from the inconsequential fact that the establishment had previously been called The Manor Hotel. What was important, however, was that it named the reporter as one David Griffiths. She didn’t know whether he was the same journalist who had covered the inquest and pestered her father, but he would be good starting place if she could track him down.

While she was there, she looked at the papers for twenty years earlier, starting with 10th October 1963 and looking a couple of days either side. She found nothing and realised that ‘twenty years’ could have been an approximation and that she could spend all week there going through the records. She went over and asked the librarian whether David Griffiths still worked on the paper. Apparently he had moved on years before. Fiona persisted.

“Do you know where he went?”

The librarian asked one of her colleagues, an older man who had been with the paper for most of his working life.

“One of the London papers,” he said. “Evening Standard, I think.”

“Do you have their number?”

The librarian searched the database and gave Fiona the direct line for the news desk.

“Thanks a lot,” said Fiona and left the building.

She went back to her car and unwrapped the packed lunch that she had brought with her. Then she reached for her mobile phone and called the London Evening Standard. She asked whether a David Griffiths still worked for them and was visibly thrilled at being told that he did. She asked if she could speak to him. The operator went off the line for a few moments and then informed her that he wasn’t in at present, but was expected later that evening.

“What’s it about?” asked the man.

Fiona couldn’t be bothered to run through the whole story. She simply said that she needed to talk about a case that David had covered some years earlier and that had resurfaced. The operator was happy with that.

“OK,” he said. “I’ll leave a note for him to call you when he comes in.”

Fiona gave him the numbers for both the home phone and her mobile, then drove home feeling excited that some small progress had been made. She was concerned that offers to return calls didn’t always materialise, but was determined not to let the matter drop even if no call was forthcoming. In the event, she needn’t have worried. At eight o’clock that evening her mobile rang and a male voice said

“Hello, I’m Dave Griffiths from the Evening Standard. I gather you’ve got some information about an old story of mine.”

Fiona’s vague message had obviously intrigued him and she felt slightly embarrassed at having to correct him.

“Well, actually, no. I’m afraid I was hoping to get some information from you.”

There was a hint of deflation in his reply.

“Oh, alright; what do you want to know?”

“Eighteen years ago you covered a story for the South Wales Echo, about a woman who had died in her sleep at the Manor Hotel near Cowbridge. I wonder if you remember anything about it, and whether it was you who covered the inquest.”

David Griffiths’ voice regained its enthusiasm.

“Remember it?” he said. “I became quite obsessed with it for a while. I take it you’re talking about the Frobisher woman?”

“Yes,” said Fiona. “She was my mother.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“It’s OK” said Fiona reassuringly. “I was only a baby at the time, but I’m curious to know what happened to her. I understand there was some question of another death twenty years earlier. The reporter who covered the inquest told my father that.”

“Yes, that was me.”

“I looked in the archive and couldn’t find anything for twenty years earlier.”

“What dates did you look at?”

Fiona thought for a moment. Her mother’s death had been on 8th October and she had searched a couple of days either way.

“From 5th October 1963 - that was the Saturday - to the 10th.”

“You didn’t look far enough. The date of the earlier death was the 13th October. I remember it well. I remember all the dates well, because there turned out to be more to it. And the story might not be over yet. I think you might be very interested to hear the rest.”

Fiona was, indeed, very interested to hear the rest.

“OK,” said David. “Let’s meet. I’m a bit too busy right now to give you all the facts over the phone. Where do you live?”


“Right, that’s not too far. I’m off this weekend. Could you get the train down on Saturday and I’ll meet you at the station. Let’s see, that would be Euston wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

Fiona’s vocal reticence was not reflected in her feelings. A thrill of excitement and expectation set her nerve ends tingling. She would have travelled to the other end of the country to hear the story unfold.

“I’ll call the timetable tomorrow morning and let you know what time the train gets in,” she said.

“Right,” said David. “Expect to hear from you. Leave a message if I’m not here. Oh, and by the way, you’ll know me by the red baseball cap I’ll be carrying. Not wearing, you understand, carrying. It’s my standard recognition signal.”

Fiona couldn’t wait to ring the timetable the next morning. There was a train that arrived at Euston at eleven forty-five. She rang the Evening Standard straight away and left a message. At eleven forty seven on Saturday morning she was hurrying along the platform towards the exit gates. Once through them, she almost bumped into a short, dark haired man in his late thirties.

“Sorry,” she said instinctively, then noticed the red baseball cap he was holding in his right hand. She looked at him more closely.

“David Griffiths?”

“Fiona,” he said with a broad smile. “Pleased to meet you.”

They shook hands and David guided her towards the food franchise area at the side of the concourse.

“You paid for the train ticket, I’ll buy the lunch,” he said.

“Poor bargain” joked Fiona. David lifted his shoulders in a mock shrug.

They were soon settled with baguettes and coffee, and this time there was some polite chat before the conversation began in earnest. Fiona instinctively used the time of exchanging pleasantries to weigh up her companion.

His manner was a little on the brash side for her taste, but his general appearance was casual and unpretentious, and there was an openness about him that she found appealing. She came to the point of her visit with a brief account of what she had recently learned about her mother’s death. David listened patiently and without interruption. Being the silent partner, he finished his lunch first and was already drinking his coffee when his turn came to talk.

“Well,” he said, “I’m not surprised you were intrigued. And I think you’ll be even more blown away when you hear the full story. There’s a lot more to it than you’d credit. If you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.”

Fiona indulged his predictable whimsy with a polite smile.

“Back in 1983, I was in my second year as a reporter with the South Wales Echo. My editor was just beginning to give me more serious stuff than whist drives and village fetes, and when a report came in of a sudden death at a hotel in Cowbridge, he sent me out there to bring in a report. Everybody at the hotel, including the police – especially the police - were keeping stum, and I had to settle for the barest of facts and write a small piece which didn’t really say very much.

“So, the next day I went back to try and find out more. As I expected, the landlady played the whole thing down; but she did let me see the room. Number twenty-six it was; I remember thinking it was two thirteens – I’ve always been a bit superstitious, you see. Anyway, she even left me alone in there. Why not? It was unoccupied and everything had been tidied up, so there was nothing to see or find anyway.

“As I was leaving the room, I saw a chambermaid coming down the corridor. I struck up a conversation with her and asked her about the death. She was a bit reticent too, but there was something about her manner that suggested she knew something, so I persevered.

“After a bit of flattery and a quick backhander, she whispered to me that there was something not quite right about it. She said that the same thing had happened in the very same room twenty years earlier. Apparently she’d worked there for twenty-five years and remembered it well.

“Obviously, that was quite a revelation; but I was a bit sceptical at first and asked her if she could remember the date so that I could check it out. She knew that it was 1963, she said, because it was the year before she got married and she remembered telling her fiancé about it. And she was sure it had been in October because it wasn’t long after they’d changed the duty routines at the end of the tourist season.

“I was pretty excited about it. It would have been quite a feather in my cap to come up with a mystery story to intrigue the readership. That sort of thing sold papers then, just as it does now.

“So I went to the police station and talked to the inspector in charge of the case. He was totally offhand with me. Said he knew nothing about any earlier death, but that they had investigated the current one and there was no suggestion of foul play. I would have to wait for the inquest to get any further information.

“I went back to the office and checked the archive. It was all still on microfilm in those days and it was a bloody long job trailing through all the papers, starting on October 1st. Eventually I found it. The date of the death was Sunday 13th October 1963 – another 13!

“Some businessman from the north of England had come down that day, presumably to get an early start on the Monday morning, and had been found dead in bed the next day. It didn’t say which room he’d been in but I was happy to take the chambermaid’s word for that. I searched through to the inquest and found that the cause of death had been asphyxiation, but the reason for it was unknown. The verdict was ‘natural causes’, just as it later turned out to be in your mother’s case.

“Out of curiosity, I calculated the number of days between the two dates. It turned out to be 7300. That’s twenty times 365 – exactly twenty years worth of days. The difference in dates is caused by the intervening leap years, of course.

“I tried to interest my editor in the mystery but he wasn’t really into that sort of thing. He was a cautious sort of bloke and said we’d have to wait for the inquest. When the verdict turned out to be ‘natural causes’, he told me to drop it; said there was no story there. The two deaths were just coincidental.

“Obviously I wasn’t prepared to drop it. I was young and excitable and sure there was something there to be found if only I looked deep enough. I was fascinated by the exact number of years and wondered, a bit fancifully you might think, whether it might be part of a repeating pattern.

“So I calculated back another 7300 days and came up with 18th October 1943. I checked the archive again and found – nothing at all. Lots of stuff about war casualties, but no suspicious deaths in hotels. Was I disappointed! I checked the dates either side for several days but drew a complete blank. It seemed there probably wasn’t anything in it after all and I decided to let it go.

“I thought no more about it for a couple of years but then, one day, they had this reunion for some of the old reporters who’d been on the paper during the war – it was in 1985 and part of the fortieth anniversary do’s they were having.

“I got talking to one old chap who was having a whale of a time telling me how tough the job had been in those days, how they didn’t have word processors and mobile phones, how easy we’d got it today; that sort of stuff. To be honest I was beginning to find him a bit tedious; but then he mentioned the old Manor Hotel and my ears pricked up.

“He told me that it had been requisitioned by the military during the war and used as some kind of research establishment. The talk in the town was that they were doing work on some sort of biological or chemical weapons, but nothing could be reported because it was top secret. And then he told me – and I couldn’t believe my ears – that there had been a suspicious death there one day that they weren’t allowed to report. My interest rocketed and I pressed him for details.

“It seems that, one evening, he’d been called out to cover a bad road accident involving a couple of fatalities. When he arrived on the scene he found a nurse there who was friend of his; she was with one of the ambulances that had been called out. She told him that the dead men weren’t local, but worked for the MOD up at the Manor Hotel. He knew he wouldn’t be able to report that because of security restrictions and would only be able to say that they were strangers to the area.

“It seemed like a routine job, but then the nurse joked that the mortuary would soon be full of Manor Hotel people, because they’d had another one brought in the day before. That one was a bit strange, she said, because she’d been told that he’d died of suffocation and there was a suspicion of foul play.

“Sniffing the possibility of something a bit more juicy, he tried to press her but she clammed up; said she’d told him too much already and it was more than her job was worth. He was intrigued and wanted to follow the story up but the editor sat on it. He said they’d only have a D Notice slapped on them if they tried and there was no point. So it never did get reported. Things like that happened during the war, said the old chap.

“I really couldn’t believe what I’d heard. A suspicious death by asphyxiation at the Manor Hotel - and one that went unreported because of security restrictions. I thought Christmas had arrived early. I asked him if he remembered the date. No, of course he didn’t; it was over forty years ago. But then he thought for a bit and said he was sure it was in the middle of the war – ’42 or ’43 - and he remembered it being in the autumn because the accident had been caused by an early cold snap that had put some black ice on the road.

“That was good enough to warrant another bit of research, so I did my sums. If my theory about the date was right and the death had occurred on 18th October, the body would probably have been taken to the mortuary on the 19th. The nurse had said that it had been brought in ‘yesterday’, so the road accident would have been on the 20th and reported on the 21st. I went back to the archive and looked up the paper for Thursday 21st October 1943. And there it was: ‘Road accident kills two men. Police have yet to identify the victims’.

“That was good enough for me. Obviously there was no way of checking that the ’43 death had been in the same room, but I felt reasonably justified in assuming that it had. Three deaths in the same mysterious circumstances at exactly twenty-year intervals. Very strange, eh?”

Fiona had sat and listened to the journalist’s account with mounting interest.

“So what did you do about it?”

“Nothing, I’m afraid. What could I do?” continued Dave. “The 1943 story was based on hearsay, the body of the man from 1963 would have been well-rotted and, if you’ll pardon me for saying so, your mother had been cremated. There would have been no forensics to check even if anybody had listened to me. And the hotel room was, well, just a hotel room. What was there to find?”

“Hmm,” said Fiona, “but didn’t you say on the phone that the story might not be finished yet?”

“Of course,” said Dave. “If it happened three times at twenty year intervals, what’s to say it won’t happen again? I calculated 7300 days forward from your mother’s death.”

He paused dramatically.

“And?” asked Fiona.

“Friday 3rd October 2003. That’s only eighteen months away”.

Fiona frowned.

“So what are you going to do, buy a guinea pig and sit it on the bed?”

“No. I’m going to be the guinea pig.”

“You can’t. If there is something in all this, you’ll probably die. How will you know what happened if you’re dead?”

“Well, I’m hoping it won’t come to that. Forewarned is forearmed as they say.”

“So what then?”

“Well, obviously I gave some thought to what might possibly have caused the deaths. Something had apparently cut off the victims’ oxygen supply, but done it slowly; your mother’s inquest showed as much. That ruled out the possibility that they’d been smothered.

“Then I wondered whether it might have been some kind of gas, something they’d developed there during the war perhaps. There were two problems with that. Firstly, why would it reappear at exactly twenty-year intervals? And, secondly, why did it only affect your mother and not your father who was sleeping in the same room? Besides, some traces would surely have shown up in a modern post mortem.

“There had to be some sort of a third agent and, quite honestly, I couldn’t think what it could be. But I reasoned that, if I were to spend the night in the room and stay awake, I would be in a position to witness whatever was responsible and take the necessary precautions to stay alive.

“So, I intend to spend the night of 3rd October 2003 in that room and keep a couple of oxygen cylinders with me, the sort they carry in ambulances. If I get affected I can take a whiff of that and get out of the room p.d.q.”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” said Fiona after a moment’s thought. “As far as we know, all the victims were sleeping when they were killed. It might be that this thing only affects sleeping people. If you stay awake it might not affect you. If you go to sleep you’ll be dead before you know it.”

“I did think of that, actually,” said Dave. “But the only way to get over that problem would be to have a companion with me, somebody who can keep watch and take the necessary action at the right time. Who’s going to do that? It would be placing a hell of a burden of responsibility on somebody.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” said Fiona. “I’d do it.”

“Oh, come on,” said Dave. “You’re young. You’ve got your life ahead of you. It’s not worth it.”

“It is to me,” answered Fiona enthusiastically. “I want to know what killed my mother. And I love a mystery.”

Dave looked unconvinced and offered a compromise.

“Tell you what,” he said. “It’s eighteen months away yet. Your circumstances might have changed dramatically by then. I’m going to do it anyway, so let’s leave it like this: if you really still want to come along a month or so before the date, give me a call and we’ll do it together.”

“OK,” said Fiona, “sounds fair enough. We’ll leave it at that for now.”

Dave gave her his mobile phone number, just in case he’d moved on from the Evening Standard by then, and went off about his business. Fiona caught the next train back to Northampton.

That night she told her parents everything she had learned from the reporter and wasn’t surprised that their interest was superficial. They were a comfortable, suburban couple who prided themselves on their rational approach to life. They weren’t the sort to feel the incessant tug of a mystery or acknowledge such a feeling in others. Their need for predictability and provable certainties was well entrenched and formed a strong barrier against anything that might disturb the established order.

And, of course, she omitted to mention her plan to accompany Dave to the hotel. She knew there was no point. They would only have called her silly and would probably have objected strongly to the moral ambiguity of spending a night alone with a strange man. She would carry on with her life as usual and see what the next eighteen months would bring.

In the event, the next eighteen months brought nothing of substance at all - certainly nothing to alter her life or dull her desire to solve the mystery of her mother’s death. She continued her college course to the end, obtained the attendant and effectively worthless qualifications, and ended up working as a receptionist at a local health club.

By the end of summer 2003 she was so keenly in need of something to break up the humdrum nature of her life that she looked forward more and more to the big adventure. Despite the obvious danger, her only concern was the possibility that nothing would happen on the appointed night and there would be no further avenue to explore. Her diary entry for Monday 1st September read:

Rang Dave today - obviously still unsure about my going along but relented when pressed. Made arrangement to meet at J.15 of the M1 at 10 am and then it’s off to Wales. Can’t wait! Don’t know what to tell the folks yet but will come up with something. Wonder how much it costs to get a taxi to J15?? Or should I use the car? Don’t know yet. Dave has booked hotel. Roll on next 5 weeks.

She didn’t normally keep her diary locked away but decided that, from now on, she would keep it with her at all times. She wanted to avoid any possibility of her parents gaining premature knowledge of her plan.

As the appointed day approached, she became increasingly concerned about what to tell them. She was reluctant to lie, but equally reluctant to tell the whole truth. She considered a range of excuses but they all amounted to lies of one sort or another. Eventually she decided to say nothing but indulge in a minor subterfuge. On the morning of 3rd October she left the house at her usual time for going to work. Her mother called out

“See you later dear.”

Fiona said nothing. She had left a note in her bedroom explaining that she had something important to do, that she would be away overnight and that they weren’t to worry - she would be home tomorrow and explain everything. She knew her mother would find it some time during the morning when she made the bed. She was painfully aware that her parents would worry and felt wretched about it, but had decided that it was the least problematic of the options.

At eight thirty she parked her car in the health club car park and called a taxi to take her to Junction 15. She arrived at nine thirty and waited at the top of the southbound slip road. Fortunately, Dave was early and they were on their way before ten o’clock. Fiona turned off her mobile phone as she was sure that her mother would ring as soon as she found the note.

“How are you feeling?” asked Dave.

“Fine,” said Fiona brightly. “Excited.”


“Mm, not frightened exactly. Nervous, I suppose.”

“You can still pull out, you know,” said Dave. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how dangerous this could be.”

Of course Fiona didn’t need to be told; she wasn’t stupid. But she was confident by nature and still possessed of that youthful naiveté in which a belief in her ability to deal with whatever came along had, so far in her life, gone unchallenged.

“No way,” she said. “Let’s do it. What’s the plan?”

“Well, for a start I’ve booked us in as a couple; hope you don’t mind. It seemed pointless paying for separate rooms in this day and age. No doubt they’ll form their own opinions when they see the difference in our ages. Is that a problem?”

Fiona shook her head.

“I thought we’d split the night into two periods for sleeping purposes. I realised that it’s not going to be easy getting to sleep in these circumstances, so I deliberately didn’t go to bed last night. I reckon I should be ready to drop by ten o’clock, so I thought I could take the first sleep from ten till three while you keep watch, then you could take three till eight. How’s that sound? Hopefully, whatever it is will strike early and you won’t be in any danger.”

“Must admit, I hadn’t thought of that,” said Fiona with an irritated frown. “It won’t be easy, will it, going to sleep when you know something homicidal might be about to pounce on you? I should have stayed awake last night as well. Oh well, let’s hope I’m dead on my feet by three in the morning.”

They looked at one another.

“Unfortunate choice of phrase,” said Dave.


The conversation was fitful and largely trivial as they drove towards their destination, and only became earnest when they reached Cowbridge. Fiona asked Dave how he had arranged for them to have the right room.

“Booked it a year ago. Told them it was a special anniversary and I wanted that room for nostalgic reasons. Well it was partly true, wasn’t it?”

They arrived at the gates and drove through a long arcade of trees that opened eventually into a capacious car park. The building before them was a large, impressive Jacobean mansion; set in a valley and almost entirely surrounded by woods.

“Imposing, isn’t it?” said Dave. “The oldest part dates from medieval times. The local baron had a castle here and successive generations added to it until the seventeenth century when it was knocked about by Cromwell. Then ownership passed to a Roundhead branch of the family. They changed sides when it mattered and came out of the Restoration well enough to have the money to rebuild the place in a grand style. Room twenty six is in the old bit – the creepy bit, no doubt.”

They got out of the car, collected their small amount of luggage and went into the lobby. Dave went through the booking formalities while Fiona wandered around taking in the look and feel of the place.

Although there had been a few superficial changes since her parents had stayed there twenty years earlier, it had the same air of seediness that her father had described. The rich, ancient fabric of wood and stone was badly set off by cheap and tawdry fittings; and the curtains, carpets and wallpaper could well have been the same that her parents had encountered. She felt a sense of unease that she presumed was something similar to how her mother had felt.

The booking clerk led them through a corridor to the next wing, stealing a sly look at Fiona and smiling a false smile. She led them up a carpeted staircase and then a second flight of stone steps that ended in a quiet landing. The first door on the left was marked 26 and stood ajar. The other doors off the landing were shut and another flight of stone steps climbed at the far end.

“What’s up there?” asked Fiona.

“Just another room that we only use when we’re full,” said the young woman with a patronising tone. “It’s empty at the moment. All the rooms are. You’ve got the whole wing to yourselves.”

She handed a key to Dave and left them alone. Dave sat on the double bed and yawned. Fiona looked out of the small window onto a wooded landscape that ran as far as she could see.

“I’m ready for sleep now,” said Dave, stifling another yawn. “That wouldn’t do, would it? Are you hungry?”

Fiona nodded. It was early afternoon and she was ready for lunch.

“Right,” said Dave, “let’s go and get something to eat and then I’ll take you for a drive around some of my old haunts. I’ll tell you some of the stories attached to them. It’ll pass the time until tonight.”

“Sounds good.”

They left the hotel and drove to the town where they found a pub and had a light meal. The next four or five hours were spent driving around Dave’s old stamping grounds, and Fiona was entertained with a selection of his stories from his days on the South Wales Echo.

It was dark by the time they returned to the hotel and they took dinner in the dining room before retiring at nine o’clock. Dave had been yawning increasingly as the evening had progressed and it was obvious that his self-imposed sleep deprivation was having the desired effect. He unzipped his bag and took out two oxygen cylinders with attached mouthpieces.

“It’s nearly time,” he said. “I’ve waited for this for nearly twenty years and I’m getting a bit nervous. Trouble is, I need to stay relaxed or I won’t be able to go to sleep. Let me show you how these things work.”

“You look dead beat to me,” said Fiona, not knowing whether she should be pleased or alarmed that she would soon be left with the sole responsibility of monitoring the situation. Dave offered a tired smile.

“I wish you’d stop using that word. But you’re right, I am pretty knackered. There’s a bit of a war going on at the moment. My brain and body are telling me to go to sleep, but my instinct is offering strong resistance.” He yawned another long yawn. “I think it’s going to lose.”

He showed Fiona the controls on the oxygen cylinders and then gave her a notepad and pen.

“Write down anything strange you see or hear - or smell or feel for that matter - while I’m asleep.”

He went over to the door and snapped the latch to the open position.

“I want to be sure that this can be opened without any fumbling” he said.

Fiona was dubious. She’d have been happier with it well locked, but understood the logic.

“It’s starting to hit me too,” she said. “Up to now I’ve seen this whole thing as an adventure but, now we’re here, I’ve got mixed feelings. Half of me thinks it’s probably all just a coincidence and that nothing will happen. The other half is aware that three people died in this room and nobody knows why. And it could happen to me – tonight.”

“It won’t,” said Dave reassuringly. “If all’s well by the time you wake me at three o’clock, you can rest assured that I’ll take good care of you when it’s your turn.”

Fiona wasn’t so easily reassured, but smiled anyway.

“Ten to ten,” said Dave. “Might as well see if I can get to sleep, I suppose.”

He took off his shoes and lay on the bed, pulling the duvet over himself.

“Do me a favour and switch off the ceiling light, would you. It’s in my eyes.”

Fiona turned on the small table lamp that stood on the dressing table and walked over to the light switch by the door.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “I won’t be able to see you as well.”

“You’ll see me well enough,” replied Dave. Fiona flicked the switch.

She sat in the armchair that stood beside the dressing table and prepared for the next five hours. They might be the most tedious five hours she’d ever spent, or the most dangerous. She took a deep breath then lifted a book out of her bag and settled down to read it.

Fifteen minutes later she heard a snort come from the direction of the bed. She got up immediately and went over to find Dave lying on his side, looking fully relaxed and breathing normally. His fatigue had obviously been well advanced and he had gone to sleep quickly. She went back to her chair and picked up the newspaper that she had brought from home. She turned to the crossword page and rummaged for a pen. The first clue shook her slightly. It read:

5 Across. Red Rum returns for the kill (6)

Cryptic clues don’t come any easier. It was hardly necessary to have seen The Shining to know that Red Rum spells “murder” backwards, and she wasn’t in the mood for reading bad omens.

She put down the paper and settled back into the chair. She glanced at Dave again and saw the duvet moving slightly as he breathed. The room was uncannily quiet apart from the ticking of a wall clock that she hadn’t noticed earlier. Now it sounded intrusively loud against a backdrop of near silence. The only other sound was the occasional spitting of rain when a gust of wind blew it against the window. She looked at the door that was closed but unlocked, and felt a slight thrill of fear that something might come through it at any moment. She suppressed the feeling and picked up her book again.

For the next hour she read fitfully, stopping every so often to reassure herself that the door was still fully shut and that Dave was breathing normally. She got up and paced around the room for a while. She did some stretching exercises as she was beginning to feel tired herself. She thought over the whole story and reasoned that, if anything was going to attack her or the sleeping Dave, it would have to come through the door. The windows were tightly shut, there were no ventilation grills and there was no other way into the room.

The door became the focus of her attention and it began to worry her that she might fall asleep before it was time to wake her companion. As a precaution, she fetched the copy of the Gideon Bible from the bedside cabinet and balanced it on the door handle. If anyone tried to enter the room, the book would fall to the floor and wake her – she hoped.

She went back to her chair and continued to read, occasionally glancing around the room. She looked at Dave’s sleeping form and at the rain running down the window. She looked at the door and the skirting boards. She looked in all directions except up at the ceiling. It didn’t occur to her that any danger might come from there.

Shortly before 1 am, something that had the appearance of a light, misty substance oozed out of the tiny gap between the light fitting and the ceiling. It was about the size of a fifty pence piece and would have been virtually invisible even in the bright light of day, let alone in a room lit only by a sixty-watt bulb burning in a table lamp on the far side of the room. It was, in fact, a gathering of hundreds of tiny microbes that drifted together down from the ceiling and towards David Griffiths’ warm, sleeping body.

They settled on the duvet and moved silently towards his face, unseen by the young woman sitting a mere twelve feet away. Some entered by his nostrils and others by his half open mouth. So tiny were they that they were able to move into his larynx and travel down into his lungs without affecting the sensitive membranes that would otherwise have triggered a cough. Dave felt nothing and Fiona was blissfully unaware that anything untoward was happening.

Once they reached his lungs, they latched themselves onto the capillaries that carried the newly oxygenated blood and began to feed. Not, as you might imagine, on the blood itself, but on the oxygen contained within the red corpuscles. Dave continued to sleep and Fiona continued to read. And as the microbes fed, they grew.

At 1.30 Fiona put her book down and stood up. She was feeling drowsy and took a walk around the room in an attempt to ward off the desire for sleep. In her lethargic state she was beginning to doubt that there was any point in being there and felt irritable. She looked at Dave who appeared to be still breathing normally and wished it were three o’clock so that she could go to sleep.

The drama being enacted inside her companion’s lungs, where the microbes had now grown to the size of small maggots, was hidden from view. She sat down again and picked up the crossword. She scribbled “murder” into 5 across and moved onto the next clue. The mental effort of working out the cryptic puzzles proved too much and, half an hour later, she fell asleep.

By then the disruption to the oxygen supplying David Griffiths’ brain had caused him to go into a coma. He was no longer asleep, but unconscious. At 2.15 his heart stopped beating and he exhaled his last breath. Ten minutes later, the mindless creatures that had caused his demise began their journey home while Fiona slept.

They erupted as a wriggling mass back into his drying mouth and sought the nearest exit. Some crawled over his tongue and teeth and oozed out between his lips; some found their way into his nasal cavity and crawled out of his nostrils; a few went further still and squeezed out between his eyeballs and their sockets.

They were the size of mealworms; pink, hairless and transparent. Their rudimentary organs could have been seen by the naked eye, had there been anyone awake to witness the grotesque exodus that was underway.

They made their way slowly to the edge of the bed and dropped to the floor. From there they crawled to a gap behind the skirting board where it ran beneath the bed, and then made their way up to ceiling level behind the plasterboard wall. There they settled to live out their pointless, twenty-year life cycle of inactivity, living off the oxygen that was stored in their bodies. Such a redundant existence should have no place in nature; but they were not natural creatures. They had been created exactly sixty years earlier by the scientist who had been their first victim.

Fiona woke with a start at 2.45. She was disoriented and felt a mixture of panic and shame. Her first thought was to look at the book perched on the door handle and she relaxed a little at seeing it still in place. She checked her watch. Seeing that it wasn’t yet three o’clock, she was relieved that she would be able to take her place on the front line at the appointed hour. She rose unsteadily to her feet and went over to wake Dave.

The next few hours brought a range of emotions crashing so heavily into Fiona’s young mind that they threatened to drive her to the edge of true despair. First the shock, then the intense panic, then the guilt, and finally the sense of disbelief were more than she felt she could stand.

When the police arrived they questioned her as harshly as they had questioned her father twenty years earlier. She told them every detail of the facts and research that had led up to the visit. Eventually they seemed sufficiently convinced of her honesty as to concede that there might be something strange about the case that would warrant further investigation.

She had no doubt that it would prove fruitless. She was sure that the post mortem would produce the same inconclusive result as the previous ones had done, and that the police would have no more idea of where to look, or what to look for, than she had. The following morning a police car drove her home to an emotional reunion with her anxious parents.

For several weeks she vacillated between states of distress and a manic determination to continue the quest for an answer. Dave’s editor came to see her, as did several members of his family and a number of journalists from several papers. And, of course, there were more interviews with the police. They all went away convinced of her innocence and the baffling nature of the circumstances.

But none of them came up with any plausible explanation. Intense forensic examination had found nothing out of the ordinary and her inability to offer the slightest clue as to where to start looking meant that the mystery would remain unsolved, at least for another twenty years.

She found a date calculator on the Internet and worked out that if the pattern were to repeat, it would do so on Thursday 28th September 2023. A couple of the journalists who had come to see her had done the same thing. They expressed their intention to mobilise their scientific contacts and conduct a more sophisticated investigation next time. They weren’t to know that it would be too late.

They had no way of knowing that above the ceiling of room 26, hundreds of tiny worm-like creatures were undergoing a change. They had been created by an unnatural artifice of science a mere sixty years earlier, but nature had started to claim them for her own and the process of evolution was working swiftly.

The latest renewal of their life force had triggered the development of a simple form of asexual reproduction that would soon see them doubling their numbers in exponential certainty. And the offspring would be ready for their first intake of energy as soon as they came into existence, just as the originals had been in 1943. The next victim would not be as far into the future as everybody thought.

The End

© 2008 J.J. Beazley

JJ Beazley lives near a small village in rural England and has been fascinated by all things metaphysical since early childhood. He has published short stories in a variety of periodicals. He loves dogs, kind people and most things weird.

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