The first May Day following the restoration of King Charles II to the throne.
“I dare you.”
“Why should I? What do I get?”
“I’ll think of something.” Eleanor spoke with her head tilted coyly to one side. Her eyes glinted, taunting, teasing, under heavy lids. The sway of her hips promised a reward that would not be forthcoming. She was playing games again. Tamsin knew it, but was unable to say no. She tore her gaze from the strand of blond hair fluttering across Eleanor’s cheek.
For the sake of her pride, she should tell Eleanor to find herself another toy. Yet, as much as Tamsin wanted an end to the games, even more she wanted Eleanor to smile at her again, although this did not mean she had to roll over like a puppy. First, she would make Eleanor work a little harder.
“You’re being childish.” Tamsin crossed her arms and looked away in a show of indifference.
A solemn peace surrounded St. Benedict’s parish church. The service was over, and the rest of the congregation had gone to join the revelry on the village green. She and Eleanor were alone in the graveyard, except for the pair of ravens that nested in the bell tower. There was some comfort, knowing the birds would be the only witnesses when she submitted to Eleanor’s silly dare.
“You’re frightened. You’re frightened the devil will snatch you away.”
“No, I’m not.” The denial was out before Tamsin had time to think. Eleanor smirked, seeing her barb hit home. Tamsin stepped away, angry at herself for being an easy target. “But I’m not missing out on the fun. Listen. The music’s starting.”
Distant laughter mingled with the sound of fiddle and drum. The maypole was back on the green after sixteen long years of banishment by Parliament and the joyless Puritans. Now Lord Protector Cromwell was gone, and all the talk was of the new King Charles’s return. There would be dancing around the maypole for the first time since the year Tamsin was born.
“It won’t take long. Then we can go to the maypole.” Eleanor caught Tamsin’s hand and swung their arms to and fro like a skipping rope. As ever, her touch melted Tamsin’s resolve.
“RHARR. RHARR. RHARR.” The old cock raven launched himself from the bell tower, cawing as he swooped overhead.
Eleanor jumped at the sound, jerking her hand free and raising her arm as if to ward off attack. The alarmed reaction was both unexpected and telling, bringing a sudden understanding. Eleanor was on edge but had been hiding it.
Now who’s frightened?
Eleanor had picked the dare not because it was childish and she wanted to make Tamsin play the fool, but because the idea scared her. She dared not do it herself. Tamsin squared her shoulders and turned to face the ancient stone, sheltering by the yews. The game had changed, and the challenge had become irresistible.
Hobs Geat had stood in the corner of the graveyard for as long as anyone could remember. Legend said it was even older than the church. Village children grew up with the stories: the devil had turned a sinner into stone; witches danced around it naked under a full moon; folk who slept in its shadow were never seen again. Children would squeal and shudder, pretending to be frightened, but deep down inside everyone knew it was safe—or so Tamsin had assumed. Maybe some were more gullible than others. Tamsin smiled as she wove between the gravestones, aware of Eleanor trailing behind. The hems of their skirts brushed through the long grass.
Despite the midday sun, this corner of the churchyard was cold. Hobs Geat was a finger of granite more than twice Tamsin’s height, pointing to the sky. The grass around it was clear, as if even the gravestones were unwilling to approach. Only the yew trees seemed drawn to Hobs Geat. Their branches twitched in the breeze, reaching out to caress it. Their weaving shadows flitted over the weathered stone.
Tamsin stopped, close enough to touch the raw, rough rock, pockmarked by weather. How well had she studied it before? Orange lichen mottled the northern side, creating fantastic shapes, like demons or faces contorted in pain. The pagan stone did not belong here, tethered to a Christian church, but it did not frighten her.
“You don’t have to do it.”
Tamsin glanced over her shoulder, amused. For once, she had won. “Why not? You want me to go round it widdershins, right?”
She ignored the plea in Eleanor’s voice. Three times, widdershins. That was the dare, the one detail all the children’s tales agreed on. But she was no longer a child.
Tamsin began walking.
Eleanor cowered in the relative safety of the second to last row of gravestones. Self scrutiny played no part in her nature, but she was aware of being pulled between two emotions. Teasing Tamsin was so much fun—far more so than with the village boys who trailed after Eleanor, making doe eyes. They were boring. Like fairground puppets, anyone could tug their strings. Whereas she could never be quite sure if Tamsin would come to heel when she snapped her fingers.
But now, Eleanor was feeling nervous, and she did not like it. The stupid stone made her skin prickle. It was Tamsin’s fault, agreeing so easily. The dare was not meant seriously—of course not. Tamsin should have known it and insisted on going to the maypole.
The music was getting louder. Eleanor turned her head and looked in the direction of the green, although it was hidden from sight behind the houses. A burst of cheering must mean the dancing was about to start. Several lads had asked her to partner them. She had said yes to some—not that she really wanted to. Who would Tamsin dance with? She was taller than most boys. Eleanor’s mood brightened. Could two girls dance together? That would make a better dare. They should forget the nonsense with Hobs Geat.
She turned back as Tamsin began another circle. To Eleanor’s surprise, bands of mist were rising from the grass, swirling around Tamsin’s knees. Eleanor looked up. How had the weather changed so quickly? Yet the sky overhead was unbroken blue.
A sudden clamour of church bells pealed out, splitting the air, and driving both ravens from their roost. Eleanor jumped so hard she had to grip a gravestone for balance. Her heart hammered in her chest. But it was just the midday chimes, the same as every day, although seeming somehow duller than normal, as if muffled by fog.
The ravens circled the bell tower. A feather drifted down and landed at Eleanor’s feet—a black feather, dark as Tamsin’s hair. The prickling returned, sharper than before. Eleanor would not stay in the churchyard a second longer. They must leave at once and forget the horrible stone. She turned to Hobs Geat.
The mist was gone, and so was Tamsin. Eleanor was alone in the churchyard. “Tamsin. Where are you?”
Only the breeze in the yews answered.
Tamsin must be hiding behind a gravestone or a tree, ready to leap out. A mean, childish trick, as if Eleanor was not already frightened enough.
“Tamsin. Stop playing games.”
Eleanor took a step forward, then another. Despite the warm sunlight, the air around the stone was chill and damp. A raven cawed loudly, sounding like laughter.
“Tamsin. Come out. Please.”
She looked up. Hobs Geat hung over her, an evil presence, reaching for her, sucking her in. Soft voices whispered words in a strange language. They were calling to her, seeking her out, coming for her. She could tell.
Eleanor hoisted up the hem of her skirt and ran. The lychgate swung shut behind her with a wooden thud. The ravens returned to their roost. Around Hobs Geat, a final wisp of mist soaked into the ground, and faintly, from a long way away, the last echo of Tamsin’s voice faded to nothing.
Once again, St. Benedict’s church was at peace in the May sunlight.
The last Friday in April. Present day.
The high-pitch whine picked its way along Lori’s nerves and set up home in her jaw. The surgery door was useless at muffling the sound. It only meant she had to strain to hear the drill—she did not want to, but her obstinate ears insisted on tuning in. The torment was worse than a mosquito in the bedroom when trying to sleep. She shifted on the chair in the vain hope a change in angle might help. The motion sent another throbbing wave up the side of her face, sharp enough to make her nose sting.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to clear her thoughts. Where had her family been when she lost that milk tooth? Whichever part of the globe, the people did not subscribe to tooth fairy myths. Lori’s playmates insisted she drop the tooth in a rat hole as a gift, and for weeks after she had lain awake at night, worried the rats might like it so much they would come for the rest.
Lori jolted back to the here and now. This was not going to work. There must be something to take her mind off both toothache and dentist’s drill. The poster on the reception wall, a bubble-shaped blue elephant holding a toothbrush—Nelly says, “Don’t forget to brush”—might have worked better had she been three rather than thirty.
The room held two other people, the receptionist and a middle-aged Sikh man in a smartly tailored suit. Neither looked as if they were eager to strike up conversation. The businessman was hidden behind a copy of the Financial Times, while the receptionist was engaged in an ongoing battle with her computer. Judging by her expression, she was losing badly.
Her shoulder length, wavy blond hair was a match for Lori’s although in the receptionist’s case, it was clearly due to bleach and a perm, rather than genes. They had little else in common. The receptionist’s shape and posture suggested she had not seen the inside of a gym recently, if ever. Her face was a kaleidoscope of makeup. Deep purple varnish coated her half-inch long nails. Leaving anything the colour nature intended was apparently not her thing—and nor were computers. Would she welcome an offer of help?
It might provide a distraction, but before Lori could decide, another burst of pain erupted. Her tooth was trying to tunnel its way out through her ear. Helping the receptionist was a non-starter. Lori had little enough patience with the computer illiterate at the best of times, and this was most definitely not the best of times. Her life had been on a fast track to hell even before the molar started its comedy routine. Thankfully, her dentist had squeezed in an emergency appointment, else she would have been forced to survive on ibuprofen and sympathy until Monday.
In the middle of the room, a mound of magazines was threatening to slide off a low table. The glossy covers suggested all were devoted to food, or gossip about celebrities, or decorating ideas for people with a kitchen large enough to hold a five-a-side football match in. The semi-pornographic photos of cakes and desserts seemed particularly inappropriate in the circumstances. Arranging the magazines neatly would undoubtedly be more fun than reading them.
Lori riffled through the pile in the hope something more interesting had snuck in. She was nearing the bottom when the title Zettabyte caught her eye. She shunted the rest back, hoping they would stay put. However, a few escaped and landed on the foot of the Sikh businessman. Lori smiled an apology as she scooped the magazines up before returning to her chair.
As hoped, Zettabyte was devoted to computing, with headlines and artwork suggesting it was aimed at the crossover between IT professionals and gamers. The news section led with rumours of the imminent collapse of Ganymede Games and regrets that the upcoming project, Rank and File, would never be released. Old news. Ganymede Games had gone into liquidation four weeks ago, putting her out of a job. Had she known it, unemployment was just the start of her problems.
According to the magazine cover it was the March edition, and had presumably come out at the beginning of the month. The deadline for job applications would surely have passed. Even so, Lori flipped to the back, in search of adverts. Why not round off the day by tormenting herself over missed opportunities?
Instead, she found a two-page spread of puzzles, including a crossword. Someone who was clearly unfamiliar with the concept of arithmetic had attempted to complete several of the number grids. Presumably this someone was not the original purchaser. Nobody capable of switching on a computer could be so inept. Lori glanced up at the receptionist—or maybe they could.
Lori took a pen from her bag and started on one of the unspoiled grids. She was running sums through her head when the sound of the door broke her concentration. The previous patient had returned. The elderly woman stood by the desk, rummaging through a bulky purse while muttering under her breath.
“The dentist will see you now, Mr. Singh.” The receptionist peered through the gap between her monitor and the woman. The businessman folded his newspaper, flipped it smartly under his arm, and marched through the door. “You’ll be next, Ms. Cooper.”
Hardly a surprise announcement, given that it was 4:35 p.m. on a Friday and Lori was the only person waiting. After a copious amount of additional muttering, the elderly woman finally left, allowing Lori to return to the puzzles in silence, interrupted only by occasional sighs from the receptionist.
Lori finished another number grid, balancing the rows and columns. Unfortunately, the remaining puzzles were so badly scrawled over, there was nothing she could do with them. This left only the crossword and a multiple-choice section. Lori briefly considered the crossword, since the mathematically challenged bungler had left it untouched, but instead went to the multiple-choice section. The bungler’s ticks would not stop Lori from circling her own answers.
Question 1. Which comes next? 43, 41, 37, 31,
That was easy. The sequence was counting down prime numbers. Lori circled d, and then spent a full minute wondering what possible arithmetic the bungler could have been using when he or she picked b as an answer.
“Ahem—Ms. Lauren Cooper.”
Lori looked up. The Sikh businessman was back and both he and the receptionist were staring at her. This time, she had not heard the door.
“You can go in now, Ms. Cooper.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Lori returned the magazine to the pile on the table. Zettabyte had proved a very successful distraction.
Half an hour later, Lori was back in reception. Pins and needles tingled around the numb section of her face. Her nose itched and she could tell her lips were sagging to the side. But it was more than worth it to be rid of the toothache.
The receptionist’s handbag was in the middle of her desk. Her smile was tight and false, leaving no doubt that she held Lori responsible for delaying the start to her weekend. “Everything all right?”
“I hope so, once the anaesthetic wears off. How much do I owe?”
The receptionist peered at her screen, treating it to a dumfounded expression that might have been justified were it displaying in Linear B. “It’s not on the system yet.” She slid out from the desk, said, ”Excuse me a moment,” and trotted through the door leading to the restroom.
While awaiting the receptionist’s return, Lori investigated the new filling with her tongue. It felt strange, and the tingling was getting worse. How long would the receptionist be? Was it worth sitting down again? She moved to the table. Zettabyte was where she had left it, tempting her. Most of the multiple choice remained, and there were the puzzles that had been ruined by previous bungling. She could draw out new grids and even attempt the crossword. What else did she have to do that weekend?
There was still no sign of the receptionist. Quickly, Lori flipped Zettabyte open. She would not stoop to stealing the entire magazine, but nobody would miss the puzzles. Apart from the crossword, all were either complete or spoiled, and the backs of the pages were covered entirely in adverts. Squashing any feelings of guilt, Lori carefully tore out the two sheets. They were folded and safely in her pocket by the time the restroom door reopened.
The receptionist had evidently been using the time to adjust her makeup. The purple lips were questionable, and the blue blusher was wrong in so many ways. Skin should not be that colour.
“Here we are.” She tapped the keyboard with the air of a woman prodding a sleeping tiger. “That’ll be a hundred and seventy five pounds. Is that all right?”
What would happen if she said no? They could hardly take the filling back. Lori pulled out her credit card. Her savings would cover that month’s bills and the next, but soon money would become an issue. How long would finding a new job take? All the papers said there was a shortage of computer programmers.
Light rain was falling when Lori emerged into a typical grey spring evening in London. She turned up the collar of her jacket and joined the flow of people making their way home. The door of the Red Lion pub opened as she passed, allowing warmth and the hubbub of voices to escape. Groups celebrating the end of the working week surrounded the fashionably dilapidated tables.
A glass of wine would be welcome. Lori paused for a moment, but she no longer had workmates and did not want to start drinking alone. Going into the pub would be a mistake. Quite apart from anything else, until the anaesthetic wore off, half of what she tried to drink was going to end up running down her chin.
Lori continued along the street, shoulders hunched, matching her thoughts to the rhythm of her footsteps. How had everything gone so wrong, so quickly? Just one month ago, she had a job, a home, and a girlfriend. First, she had lost her job. The girlfriend and the home had followed in quick succession. Lori rubbed the side of her face in a pointless attempt to massage away the tingling. Concentrate on the positives. The toothache was gone.
Numbness was giving way to pins and needles. Lori pressed experimentally at the side of her mouth. Her lips seemed fully under her control again. Carefully, she took a sip. The tea stayed in her mouth.
Adam flopped onto the settee beside her and took a noisy slurp before setting his own mug on the coffee table. “How’s your tooth, hun? Still there?”
“I think so.”
“You think so? Do you need a second opinion?”
“Can I trust your opinion?”
Lori laughed and flexed her jaw. “The anaesthetic hasn’t fully gone. But I’m sure it’ll be fine, the dentist knows his stuff.”
“That fossil you go to? Maybe he does, but I wouldn’t let him play around in my mouth.”
“Why not? He’s good.”
“If a man’s going to put his face close to mine and tell me to open wide, I want him young and gorgeous.” Adam flipped around on the settee, imitating the pose of someone in a dentist’s chair. “Like this, looking up into his eyes. I tell you, nice scenery makes everything more bearable.”
“My vote goes with experience.”
He returned to a normal position. “I don’t mind a man learning on the job.”
“You’d let a car mechanic loose on your mouth?”
“Been there. Done that. Got the photos.”
“We’re talking about dentists.”
“They’re still men.” Adam struck his forehead dramatically. “Of course, hun. That’s your problem. Look, we’ll find you a nice, young, female dentist.”
“The receptionist was young and female.”
“And nothing. Maybe she once had a brain cell, but it must have died of loneliness.”
“What did she look like?”
“As if she’d been caught up in an explosion at a paint factory. Way too much makeup.”
“Has anyone ever told you you’ve become middle-aged far too young?”
“Yes. You have.”
“And I’m right.”
“I want someone I can have a sensible conversation with.”
“You’ve been trying sensible ever since we met, and where has it got you? I think what you need is someone who can shag you senseless.” Adam grabbed her hand and shook it to punctuate his words. “Let Nathan and me find you someone. We can be your vetting agency. We’ll take you out tomorrow night.”
“No. I know what you’re going to say. You have a broken heart and aren’t in the mood. It’s like falling off a bike. You have to get straight back in the saddle.” Adam paused, frowning. “Is that the right phrase?”
“It should be falling off a horse.”
He made a show of thinking. “In your case, bike works better.”
“I—” Lori’s phone rang. She fished it from her pocket and checked the caller ID.
“Jessica?” Adam must have seen her face fall.
Lori nodded as she thumbed to answer. “Hi, Jess. What’s up?”
“Hi. Am I interrupting anything?”
Adam held his nose. Lori ignored him and focused on the wall. “No. We were just chatting.”
“Right, well, I was wondering if you could call round and pick up your things.”
“Stuff you left behind. I’ve got it packed ready for you.”
“Can’t you hang on to it a while longer?” Adam’s spare room had been overflowing, even before she moved in.
“I’m sorry. We really need the space.”
More than I do? “Not just for a week or so?”
“Oh, come on, Lori. Be fair. You can’t expect to use my house as a storage facility forever.” Jess’s voice dropped. “It will be better to have all your belongings with you. You need to make a complete break.”
Of course. She should have guessed. It was all for her benefit. Jess was just being thoughtful. Meanwhile, Adam was lying on his back on the floor, imitating a dying fly.
Lori closed her eyes. “When would you like me to come over?”
“Is tomorrow okay?”
“Yeah. Sure. Fine. What time?”
“I’m getting my hair done in the morning and Zoe’s having friends round later. We’ll need to get the house ready.” Heaven forbid I might interrupt them vacuum cleaning. “Shall we say between two and three? And if you get caught by Mrs. Jameson, I’d rather you didn’t say anything about moving out. You know how nosy she gets.”
Anything particular you’d like me to wear? “Right. See you then.” Lori ended the call and carefully positioned her phone on the table beside the tea mug. The urge to throw something at the wall was overwhelming, and neither object was a good idea. Anger, misery, or a combination of the two, threatened to fill her eyes with tears.
In an instant, Adam had slipped onto the settee and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Hey. Come on, hun. You’re better off without her.”
“It’s just that…” Lori’s throat tightened painfully.
“It’s just that you’ve got lousy taste in girlfriends.”
As if he was anyone to talk. “I thought we were doing so well together.”
“With Jessica? To be honest, I never knew what you saw in her.”
“She’s…” What? Lori slipped out of Adam’s arm and took sip of tea to ease her throat. After four years together, what was her main impression of Jess?
Adam had his own ideas. “She’s as much fun as a wet dishcloth. She’s every cliché about a chartered accountant brought to life—no, half-life. I’m surprised she managed to have an affair. I didn’t think she had it in her.” He held a hand to his mouth. “Oops, sorry. That’s not tactful, is it? But you know what I mean. She’s dull. Always has been.”
“She’s not that bad.”
“What’s the most exciting thing she’s ever done?”
“I don’t want excitement.”
“Everyone needs excitement in their life, a bit of adventure.”
“Your parents are still going strong.”
“Precisely. I’d had enough adventure by the time I was fourteen to last the rest of my life.” Lori drained the tea. Adam was not so far off the truth. A large part of Jess’s attraction had lain in her being, not dull, but safe and normal. There were so many loonies around. Lori patted his leg. “Thanks. I need you to keep me sane.”
“That’s asking a bit much, hun.” He scooted back to the other end of the settee. “Anyway, what did the wet dishcloth want?”
“She wants me to go round tomorrow and pick up some more of my stuff.”
“Between two and three.”
“Can’t you make it later? I’d go with you for moral support, but Nathan wants me to watch him play football. We’ll be back by four.” Adam scrunched his face in thought. “Oh…I’ll come with you. I’m sure Nathan won’t mind.”
And Lori was absolutely certain he would. “It’s all right. I’ll go on my own. There’ll be more space in the car.”
“How much is there?”
“I’ve no idea.” And where was she going to put it?
The same question clearly occurred to Adam. “Maybe if we pull the settee forward we can stack stuff behind.”
Which was another thing Nathan would mind. He and Lori had never warmed to each other. The antipathy might not plumb the depths reached by some of Adam’s previous boyfriends, but Nathan definitely had his place in the string of lovers who resented their friendship.
She and Adam had meet in the GLBT group at university during freshers’ week, and had hit it off. Over the years, they had nursed each other through a series of train-wreck relationships. Jokes about using each other as a vetting agency were old. It would put them both in line for long-term celibacy. Lori was yet to date a woman Adam liked.
She shook her head. “No. I’ll take whatever Jess has found down to my parents’ house with the rest of my stuff. They’ve got plenty of space.”
“Are they back?”
“No. Still trekking down the Andes. But I’ve got a key. I can air the place out for them.”
“Do you know how they’re doing?”
“Mum’s talking about opening a sanctuary for retired llamas.”
“Presumably. I think they’re like donkeys.”
A key sounded in the lock. “I’m home.”
“We’re in the lounge,” Adam called back.
Nathan appeared in the doorway. He smiled at Adam and gave a curt nod in Lori’s general direction. “What’s for dinner? I’m starving.”
“Spag bol. The sauce is done. I just need to cook the pasta.” Adam wrapped his boyfriend in hug and planted a kiss on his lips before heading into the kitchen.
Nathan dropped into the vacated spot on the settee. “How’s the job search going?”
You want me gone. I get it. “I sent off another two applications this morning. But I’ve heard nothing back from the others.”
“Games companies?” Nathan’s tone made it clear he did not think video games were a proper job for an adult. Lori’s parents would agree, although their opinion of a motorbike courier would not come much higher. Like all Adam’s boyfriends, Nathan was pretty, but unlikely to feature on anyone’s list of inspirational thinkers. However, she had to concede he looked good in motorcycle leathers.
“No. One was telecoms and the other security systems.”
“How do you rate your chances?”
“Hard to say.”
“Do you think you’ll stay in London?”
How far away would you like me to go? “In the long term, who can say? But I’ll be heading down to my parents’ place sometime next week.”
“How long for?” Nathan made no effort to hide his eagerness.
Lori slid down in the seat. Part of the reason she and Adam stayed such good friends was knowing when to back off. She did not want Adam and Nathan arguing over her, and anyone could see it looming on the horizon. “I’d been thinking just a few days. But once I’m there, I might as well stay a while.”
Adam stuck his head around the door. “Don’t you need to be in London for jobs? Not stuck in Devon. Have they got electricity down there?”
“Dartmouth is hardly the back of beyond. It’ll be handy for Exeter and Bristol. If I get an interview in London I’ll come stay with you.”
“What about your parents?”
“They won’t mind. And they’re not due home for a month. With luck, I’ll have found a job by then.”
Nathan smiled. “Devon’s nice. You should treat yourself to a holiday.”