It was 2:30 in the afternoon and Nadia was negotiating a roundabout on her heavily laden Vespa scooter. It wasn't the most practical vehicle for carrying bulky bags of clothing, but it was all she had and, besides, she loved it. The 125cc engine in the old Italian scooter struggled on the Yorkshire hills, especially when Nadia was coming home after a good day in the charity shops, but by applying a little elementary planning and logistical thinking, she could usually ensure that she always avoided the worst of the hills on the return leg each day.
This afternoon she had finished with her shopping trip to the various shops that accepted donations of clothes from the general public. As always, she was thankful that most people still didn't realise the potential value of some of their old clothes, although she still had to sort through a lot of bags to find anything that was good enough to make much of a profit. She was now on her way to the recycling centre, hoping to have a successful fishing trip in the clothing recycling bins.
It was when she was just about to leave the roundabout that an oxide red plumber's van cut across in front of her, forcing her into the kerb. The old scooter wobbled, then fell on it's side, rapidly coming to a halt and then stalling. Fortunately, the huge bags of clothing acted like buffers, preventing too much damage to Nadia and the scooter but, with the long scratch on the engine cowling, and the large graze on her leg, Nadia had had it for the day. She tried to swing it backward onto it's kickstand so she could restart it but, what with the scooter still being heavily laden and with her leg now beginning to hurt, it was too much for her.
'It's at times like these, I wish I'd got a van, or a car, or even a wheel barrow,' she grumbled, cursing under her breath. 'There's never anyone to help when you need someone either', she continued, feeling uncharacteristically glum.
And then it began to rain.
When you're a soaking wet 5 foot 2 inch high Goth, not many cars stop for you when you're on the side of the road. When you're also wheeling a tatty old scooter with bags of clothes ballooning out from it in all directions, not many becomes none at all. Even if you're limping and you're a girl, you're going to have next to no chance of being helped. When a open-backed pick-up shot through a puddle directly beside her, spraying her with cold muddy water, Nadia was raising her hand to give the driver a one-finger salute, when it suddenly stopped twenty yards in front of her, as though the driver was waiting. She was almost up to to the rear of the truck, when the driver leapt out, pulling a bulky yellow waterproof around himself.
'Jeez! You certainly pick your days to break down, kid. You got far to go?' The driver was tall, standing well over six feet tall, and was swarthy skinned and sported a light covering of stubble. 'I'll help you in the back with your scooter and all your stuff, and then you can sit up front with me, son.'
'Miss', Nadia protested, weakly. 'It's Miss.'
'You what, Miss, you said? Really?' Nadia's lanky rescuer looked questioningly at her, as she stood getting steadily wetter and more depressed. 'No matter, you jump in now, and I'll take care of everything.' Nadia nodded, her mood starting to lift, giving him a warm genuine smile. 'Thank you so very much,' she said, opening the passenger door and pulling herself up onto the step and into the cab. 'You've no idea how glad I am that you've stopped to help me!'
'You shouldn't say things like that, my dear,' the driver answered, getting in beside her, having made short work of stowing Nadia's things in the back of the truck. 'Some people would be likely to try to take advantage of your gratitude, with you being so thankful and that. You really ought to just say 'thank you very much' and then let the other person make the conversation after that. I'm Harry, by the way,' he said holding out a large bony hand. 'Where do you want to go, my dear? I'm going to Buslinthwaite. Is that anywhere near where you want to be?'
'I was going to Buslinthwaite too. Grimshaw Way, near the tyre wholesalers. It's a small commercial unit just opposite the office supplies lock-up.'
'I know the area. I think I may have bought a set of radials from there, one time. They weren't very good, I seem to remember.' He paused, chewing his bottom lip. 'I can take you there,' he continued. 'Can I trouble you for your name, my dear? We've a way to go, and we might as well make conversation, rather than just sit together staring at the rain.'
A few minutes later, they were passing Buslinthwaite Mere, the local reservoir, when Nadia looked across the waters and saw a familiar building with an impressive looking balcony with a full width, full height set of glass windows and doors to the rear. She shivered, momentarily, remembering the last time she'd seen it. 'Hey.' she said, what's that house over there,' waving toward it as they slowed to round a bend and then thread their way across a narrow stone bridge. Her new companion glanced in the direction she'd indicated. 'That's the Dawson place,' he said. 'Some heap big bad ju-ju about that place,' he grinned, adopting a cod-injun accent. 'The lady of the house died a few months ago. Really sad story. Got mixed up with a rock star or something and it all went south very quickly after that. There was some talk of black magic and that sort of thing. All hushed up big time.' He looked across at Nadia and tapped his nose knowingly. 'I used to do the gardening there until the widower husband closed the place up and moved away. I was told to keep it stumm but, now it's all blown over and I no longer work there, I'm guessing no-one's too bothered now, not that I know much about what went on.'
Nadia just stared at him open-mouthed. 'Better close your mouth, my dear. You'll be catching flies, if you sit like that long.' Harry turned away, concentrating on the narrow bridge ahead. 'I understand the house is up for sale still, not that they'd let reprobates like us anywhere near it. I mean, it's a 'top-dollar' property and folk like us, excusing me my dear, cause you're hardly dressed for a society ball, and with me in my dirty and rather distressed denim jeans and jacket, we hardly look like the sort of potential customers the estate agents would expect to put in a bid.'
Nadia laughed. 'No, I suppose not,' she said, starting to have an idea. 'Although I would quite like to have a look round a place like that, just to see what it's like inside.'
'Me too,' Harry agreed. 'I never got past the inside of the kitchen, when I worked there. Mrs Dawson was a stickler for keeping everything clean and in order and with me being a gardener, you know, dirt and muck are pretty much where I'm at!'
They pulled up outside the industrial unit where Nadia lived. 'I'd invite you in for a cup of tea, but the place is a mess', she smiled, thanking Harry for helping her down with the scooter and all her bags of clothes.
'Nah! No worries, my dear. I gotta be moving on any ways. Got a job to go to. Been nice talking though. Maybe see you around, sometime.'
He walked back round to the driver's door of the truck then stopped. 'Here,' he said pushing his hand into the back pocket of his jeans. 'If you need any gardening doing, give me a call.' He handed Nadia a crumpled business card that looked like it had been buried and dug up at least a couple of times. 'Mind you,' he continued, looking around, 'there's little chance of that if you live here!'
'You never know,' Nadia grinned, glad of the chance to make a new friend. 'You never know.'
It was only a couple of days later that Nadia and Harry walked briskly down Merchant Street into the Buslinthwaite branch of the Everrett and Simons' estate agency. Harry was impressively pink, looking well scrubbed and wearing an expensive grey silk suit. Nadia was dressed in a summery strapless lilac chiffon dress and was carrying an immaculate matching beaded hand bag.
'You scrub up well, Mr Harold Barker,' she said, smirking at him.
'You don't look too bad yourself, Miss Nadia Brooks', Harry replied. 'Although, I'm not sure that you look like any cousin of mine! Who'd have thought that you'd have such a collection of clothes to hand!'
Nadia smiled archly at him. 'Just don't ask me how I got them!'
'Ahem! Sir. Madam. Can I help you, please?' 'The well manicured blonde at the reception desk tried to catch their attention. 'Can I interest you in buying a property, perhaps?'
Harry looked down his nose at her, looking at her in puzzlement like he'd just been spoken to by a dog. 'No. I'm afraid not.' He peered at her name badge, quizzically. 'I think that you, Ms Sophie Palmer, need to go into the back office and fetch out your most senior, most superior manager or partner, and ask them to ask me the same question. Then, and maybe then, I might be prepared to talk business with them.'
The blonde stood up, smiling sweetly but with ice in her eyes. 'I'll go fetch Mr Watkins. He's one of the senior business partners. I'll see if he can spare you a few minutes.' She clomped aggressively up the three steps into the back office, her stilettos punching dents into the beige carpet.
A couple of minutes later, a balding harassed-looking man strode confidently down the steps with Ms Palmer close at his heels. He massaged his hands together as though he was washing them then rubbed them down the sides of his trouser legs, as if he was smoothing creases out of the material. 'Good afternoon, Sir, Madam. I'm Senior Partner James Watkins. Ms Palmer tells me that you may be interested in looking at some properties that we have available. Have you anything particular in mind that you'd like to consider, or have you a particular price range or an area in which you'd like me to show you the range of properties that we have?
'We want to look at the Dawson property,' Nadia said bluntly, coming straight to the point. 'The one beside 'The Mere'.
A sudden but quickly suppressed moment of elation swept across Watkins' face, then he looked quickly back at his colleague, making brief eye contact, then nodding sharply twice. She got the hint and then disappeared back into the office to the rear, leaving them alone.
'An excellent property, well situated but in a most private and well secluded location. It's one of our more exclusive properties and demands a special kind of buyer more able to appreciate the finer things in life but, nonetheless, I'm sure that you'll find it more than worth the paltry sum that the owner would be prepared to let it go for.' He looked appealingly at Harry, trying to engage his enthusiasm.
'We'd obviously need to spend some time looking around the property,' Harry said, looking back at him blankly. 'We need to get an idea of the ambiance, more than anything. Any physical problems can obviously be sorted out, at a cost to be deducted from the asking price, of course!'
Watkins wasn't particularly bothered about details like that at that moment. He was already thinking about how he was going to invest the commission he'd get. 'I can drive you out there right now, if you'd like, then we can discuss matters further over lunch, if that would please you. Sir? Madam?'
He looked across at Harry, waited until he got an affirmative nod then picked up his jacket from the hat stand near the door. 'If you would just follow me, please...?' He led them to a maroon Jaguar saloon parked outside and popped the locks open using his remote. 'Would Sir prefer to sit beside me or in the back with the young Miss,' he asked.
'We'd prefer to sit together,' Nadia said, bristling. 'We can talk to one another better that way.'
The estate agent was a little nonplussed by Nadia's forcefulness. 'Sir?' he said, looking across and appealing to Harry for direction.
'As the lady said,' Harry nodded.
It only took a few minutes for Watkins to realise that he wasn't going to get much conversation from Nadia and Harry. He frowned disappointedly then turned the CD player on at a low volume, choosing an album of Bach solo organ music and then humming to himself self-comfortingly. However, it didn't take long for them to reach The Mere, so he tried again. 'Have you any particular interest in this property itself, or is it just that it happens to be that it's the right sort of property at the right price in the right location?
Harry took the lead this time. 'We're particularly keen to look at this property. It's got an incredible view and it's been specifically built to take advantage of that. Aside from that, it's in a good location where it's nicely secluded but also conveniently close to both a pleasant small town and also a thriving metropolitan city. I also understand that it's well appointed inside and has a lot of attractive novel features that make it quite unique.'
The car pulled up to the electric gate and Watkins pulled a remote out of his pocket, opening the gate, which then closed behind them. 'Here we are, folks. El Casa Dawson, or maybe something more appropriate to you two, perhaps?
The driveway twisted through the small hills beneath the house, rising upwards all the time. The house was always in sight, providing a focus for them as they grew closer and closer, until they rounded the last curve and it stood there in front of them. It was an Art Moderne structure with white walls, curved lines and lots of large glass windows. The door facing the driveway was huge; constructed from chromed steel and darkened glass and hung on three massive hinges. Watkins pulled the remote out from his pocket again, and there was a loud 'clunk' as, inside the door, large heavy bolts retreated back into their sockets.
The door arced inwards, welcoming them inside as, beyond, the lights in the hall came on dimly but gradually grew in intensity until the hallway was tastefully but not overly lit.
'Sir. Madam. After you, please?'
Inside, a deep pile white carpet pulled at their feet like a heavy accumulation of newly fallen snow and Nadia felt the sudden urge to take her shoes off so that she could walk barefoot through the hallway. The hallway was huge, nearly as wide as the industrial unit Nadia lived in, and she began to realise how large the gulf between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' really was. The lilac coloured walls were spotted irregularly with large chromed mirrors and bright tastefully chosen landscape paintings and huge framed photos of people who all seemed strangely familiar in a way that people you regularly see in glossy society magazines usually do.
'Anything I could say to describe this incredible property would be such an understatement, so I think we'd be best just walking around and, if you have any questions, I'll do my best to answer them.'
The next room was dominated by a huge central crystal chandelier that was complimented by a number of wall-mounted smaller cloned versions of itself. There were three opulent circular couches arranged 'just-so' but, in the centre of the room, there was a huge low smoked glass and chrome table like Nadia had never seen before, the glass being almost two inches thick. 'Wow' she said. 'You could dance on that, I'd bet!'
Watkins looked at her disapprovingly, his lips tightening. 'If that was what Madam wanted to do, I sure that you could,' he replied, totally deadpan. He sniffed audibly and looked around to find Harry, hoping to find someone that he'd consider more becoming and agreeable.
Harry was walking around slowly, taking it all in. He'd never suspected what the rest of the house was like, having only seen the modern kitchen on the rare occasions he'd been permitted into the house. This room was an eye-opener to him with it's double height ceilings and elaborate highly polished parquet floor and, with the wall shared between that and the next room being made entirely out of solid glass bricks, it was nothing like anything he'd ever seen before. 'Hmm,' he said. 'It all looks quite in order. Would the furnishings be included in the asking price?'
The estate agent looked at him coolly. 'The majority of the furniture would be included, Sir. There may be a few of the Objets D’art that are personal to the family and might be retained by Mr Dawson but, since he has now left the country, there is little likelihood that he would wish to keep anything significant. I believe that he has now set up a new home in Europe in a more contemporary style and has refurnished it accordingly. Obviously the price of the property reflects the value of the property itself and all it's contents but, I've been assured, there is nothing here that wouldn't be extremely saleable, should you wish the individualise the property to something more to your taste.'
Harry shook his head. 'It's all been so very well and tastefully decorated and furnished. There's obviously been a lot of thought and, dare I say, professional experience used to produce a unified whole. It's just perfect.'
Watkins smiled, seeming to take a degree of satisfaction from the thought that his prize property on his portfolio wouldn't be tarnished by any ill-advised and rash alterations. 'Can I direct you upstairs, please, Sir, Madam?'
The doorway led through into what was obviously the main hallway of the building, since the huge chrome and glass windows that stood either side of an even larger polished silver-metalled door formed an elaborate archway that opened directly onto the front of the house, facing The Mere below. Beyond them, a breath-taking white marble and stainless steel staircase swept up from in front of them, spiralling clockwise in an angular but still graceful curve that flowed past more elaborate chromed windows and further rooms that all seemed to hold promise of further delights. Nadia took the lead, keen to see upstairs.
The moment she grasped the volute that terminated the square sectioned handrail she felt her stomach shift suddenly, as though she'd begun to fall through a hole in the floor that had just magically appeared beneath her.
'Oh no. Oh No! Oh No!'
Harry rushed over to her, seeing her already pale face blanch even further. 'Nadia? Are you alright, hon?'
Nadia saw him hurry across toward her. She saw his mouth move; calling her name, but she felt strangely dislocated from it all. She began to see other people appearing in the hallway, vague nebulous forms that grew in solidity as the light in the hallway dimmed around her. She saw her hand change in front of her eyes, her fingers lengthening and becoming more slender and more elegantly manicured with their nails now decorated in silver and gold. She felt the room shift again as her viewpoint rose so that she was standing taller than before, looking up the stairs toward a darkly clad man who was grinning roguishly down at her.
A man that she knew.