Cornwall, England, 2014
Kazik Cecka was cold, wet, tired and hungry when he finally decided to stop running and find somewhere to rest.
The cloudless night was full-moon bright, the raindrops picked out in flashes of silver, and the air was fresh with the first chill of autumn. Kaz pulled his tattered jacket tight and considered his options.
He was miles from the nearest town, in open countryside. He could see a copse of trees on the other side of the field, a dark interruption in a horizon which stretched away as far as the eye could see; undulations of ploughed fields and pasture.
He had hoped that by now he would see the welcoming orange glow of a small town or village, but there was nothing; if there was a town nearby, the clear skies and full moon were swamping its light pollution and keeping its location a secret.
Sighing, he decided that the copse offered his best chance of shelter. He trudged across the field, avoiding the sleeping cows. At least he was wearing the new Gore-Tex boots his father had bought for him before their fight, so his feet were warm and dry. Unlike the rest of him.
This was not the adventure he had been hoping for when he’d run away from home.
Not for the first time he replayed the afternoon’s events in his head, questioning his actions, wishing that just this once he’d managed to keep his cool and not shoot his mouth off. But even as he chided himself for his temper he found his pulse quickening and the sense of injustice and anger rising inside him again.
It wasn’t fair. He’d worked hard in the orchards all day, every day. He’d allowed himself to be exploited and abused, and had never complained about the hours, the accommodation, the flea-ridden mattress and the harsh, cheap vodka. To then find that his wages were docked to pay for the food he was given, food not fit to serve to pigs and which could only have cost a fraction of what the farmer was taking from his pay packet to cover it … it was too much for him to bear.
A week’s worth of beaten-down resentment, simmering anger and carefully nurtured scorn had burst out of him in a furious tirade directed at his employer. The farmer had shrugged and smiled the condescending smile of someone confronted by a powerless underling. It was that smug grin that had finally pushed Kaz too far.
He wouldn’t deny that he’d enjoyed holding the farmer down in the mud and forcing the pigswill down his throat, but he had to admit that it wasn’t the best choice he’d ever made. He’d been run off the farm at the barrel of a shotgun.
Now here he was, far from home, nowhere to sleep, no money in his pocket, and no passport; that had been confiscated by the farmer when he’d arrived in Cornwall ten days ago.
It was fake anyway. His father had the real one in safekeeping. The man who’d organised the whole thing, a minor gangster in the small Polish town Kaz called home, had provided him with a new identity to get him into the UK. It would have taken three months’ work to pay off that debt.
He stopped walking as a terrible thought occurred to him. The gangster would reclaim that money somehow. If he stayed on the run, there was a good chance he would go after his father, adding whatever rate of interest he chose.
Kaz cursed his own selfishess as he realised that it wasn’t just himself that he’d let down. As angry as he was with his father, he didn’t wish him any harm. But what could he do about it now? He dismissed the thought. He’d worry about that tomorrow.
He jogged to the edge of the trees, trying to get his blood pumping. An English boy might have worried about spending the night outside in such weather, but Kaz had spent many winters in parts of the world where the temperature regularly sat below zero for months at a time. He was unconcerned by the idea of a slight frost.
As soon as he walked under the canopy of the trees, he noticed the copse was not what it seemed. Once through the first layer of trees he found himself in the ruins of a formal garden. In the shadows he could just make out the ghostly impressions of old walkways winding between wildly overgrown hedges which loomed over him in the darkness. A crumbling stone statue stood forlorn in the basin of a long-dry fountain, wreathed in ivy. And rising above it all, the three turrets of an old mansion.
Kaz pushed through the thick undergrowth until he saw a glint of metal in the darkness ahead. He stepped forward cautiously and was confronted by a tall chain-link fence that weaved in between the brambly hedges.
He peered through the fence and was able to make out the silhouette of the house beyond the perimeter. It was huge and old, but it appeared derelict. Had it not been for the shiny new fence he’d have thought the house long forgotten.
Nonetheless, an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere was too big a stroke of good fortune to ignore. He was about to start climbing the fence when he noticed a gap at ground level where the wire had broken apart. He could fit through there, easy.
Had he not been so cold, tired and preoccupied by his earlier actions, he might have paused to wonder why a brand-new fence had a hole in it; he might have examined the hole more closely and noticed that the links had been cut deliberately; he might have wondered whether the hole was in fact an invitation, or a trap.
But he didn’t.
He slithered through the opening and approached the moonlit house thinking only of dryness and sleep.
Sweetclover Hall sat shadowed and sullen amongst its copse of trees. Its windows were boarded up and flaps of plastic patched the holes in the roof, preventing the worst of the weather getting inside, but apart from that the house appeared unloved and forgotten.
Had there been a nicely printed guidebook to tell Kaz the history of the building he was walking towards, he would have learned some very interesting things indeed. He might even have thought twice about entering. But there was no one and nothing to warn him about the house’s bloody and mysterious past, so he pushed open a rust-hinged door and walked across the threshold without a second thought.
The room that had once been the beating heart of the manor lay under a thick layer of dust and cobwebs abandoned by spiders that had moved on in search of richer pickings. The furniture had been removed long ago. Only the presence of a brick baking oven built into the chimney breast revealed the room’s original function.
Kaz sniffed the air. The house smelt of mould and damp and crumbling plaster. Still, it beat sleeping on the cold, wet earth. He walked across the room, brushing away the cobwebs that snagged his face and hair, and pushed open a thick oak door into a wood-panelled corridor.
The bright moonlight barely penetrated this far into the house. The thick darkness and utter silence would have been enough to give most people pause, but Kaz was practical and unsuperstitious. He didn’t believe in ghosts and wasn’t afraid of the unseen things that lurked in the gloom. He knew that the scariest thing this house was likely to contain would be a few rats, scurrying around beneath rotting floorboards.
He moved deeper into the decaying building, not noticing a cellar door on the right, secured with a padlock. Neither did he register the tiny red light in the far corner of the ceiling, hidden behind layers of cobwebs, that denoted the presence of an active infrared camera transmitting his every move back to unseen eyes.
At the end of the corridor stood two tall, wide doors. They were warped and stuck, half open. Kaz squeezed through the opening into a large room, lit by a beam of moonlight that cut across the blackness through a gap in the window boards. This would do.
In one corner of the room a dim grey mound revealed itself, on closer inspection, to be a pile of discarded curtains. They were musty but Kaz arranged them into a makeshift mattress and lay down.
He was bone tired, emotionally drained, unsure what tomorrow would bring. The only thing he knew for certain was that he would be better able to face his problems after a good night’s sleep. Having identified that as his top priority, he banished all thought from his head and closed his eyes.
He opened them again immediately as the room crackled and burned. A circle of firework-bright crimson snapped into existence near the ceiling and spat out a young woman, who crashed to the floorboards with a heavy thud.
The fire vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Silence and darkness reclaimed the room. The only evidence that something unusual had occurred was the fading patterns that danced on Kaz’s retinas, and the swirls of disturbed dust that billowed in the single shaft of cold, blue moonlight.
Kaz’s exhausted body had been sinking into sleep but now it flooded with adrenaline. He leapt up and stood ready to defend himself from … what? He forced himself to take a few deep breaths and relax. He wasn’t under attack, not as far as he could tell. But what had just happened?
A groan from the centre of the room reminded Kaz that he was not alone. He ran to the girl, who lay on the floor. He reached out to touch her, but as his fingertips approached her they crackled with sparks of crimson, and he leapt back in alarm. The sparks vanished.
‘What … happened?’ gasped the woman on the floor.
Kaz had no idea how to answer that, so he said nothing.
The woman slowly raised herself up on her arms and glanced around the dim grey room. Kaz could see that she was dressed in a plain shirt and trousers. When the woman noticed Kaz she jumped, startled, and quickly tried to rise to her feet, but her legs gave way and she crumpled to the floor in a heap. She swore.
Kaz felt he’d better say something. ‘I am called Kaz. What is your name?’ was the best he could come up with.
‘Yojana,’ replied the heap in an American accent. ‘Sorry, no, Jana. My name’s Jana.’
Jana managed to raise herself again but this time she went for the less ambitious option of sitting up.
‘Hi,’ she replied.
Before either of them could start asking the questions that were forming in their minds, there was another burst of vivid scarlet light. They both leapt backwards to clear a landing space for the dripping-wet girl who dropped from nowhere with a piercing scream and crashed in the spot vacated by Jana only a second before.
Once again the fire vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Dust billowed and swirled in the moonlight.
Then the two main doors groaned in protest as they were forced inwards. A tall man stepped forward, framed in torchlight, looking down at the three figures sprawled on the floor.
‘Welcome to Sweetclover Hall,’ he said. ‘We’ve been expecting you.’
The wet girl looked up, apparently recognising the man’s voice.
‘Hello, Dora,’ said the man. ‘Welcome back. You’ve been away for a very, very long time.’
Kaz smiled to himself; maybe he’d found the adventure he’d been hoping for after all.