Free Fiction

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but there is such a thing as free fiction. Every so often I’ll be popping some stories up here for you to enjoy, so gather round. Now are you sitting comfortably? Then I will begin.

Glory Days

The crate sat on the table, a bent butter knife beside it that he’d used to pry the top off. It wasn’t what he’d expected when he’d seen the sender’s stamp on the top, Spital Inn, so he knew that the gift must have been sent by his fiancé’s parents. But instead of wine or – he’d hoped – a customary bottle of champagne, inside was something far more gruesome. It wasn’t exactly what he’d meant when he’d asked his prospective father-in-law, for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Rather than a celebratory bottle of booze; there nestled in a bed of curling wood shavings was a dead, leathery hand. Shoving the lid back on, Joe gingerly lifted the crate back off the table, hoping that nothing had oozed out between the slats at the bottom. Holding it away from himself he headed towards the backdoor. He’d put it in the garden until he knew what to do with it.

*

“What’s in the crate?” Julie walked into the kitchen, crinkling her nose at the overwhelming smell of garlic and the underlying smell of rancid fat. “You been sneaking bacon sandwiches whilst I’ve been at work? You know we’re supposed to be doing veganuary.”

Joe was about to deny everything, when he realised that he’d have to explain what the smell was if he did. He should have remembered to move the crate behind the shed before Julie got home. She had always been strangely adamant that she didn’t want her parents involved in her personal life; he’d never even met them before, he couldn’t even remember if Julie had seen them since they’d been together, there appeared to be little contact between them except for a Christmas card each year, with their address stuck on the back of the envelope on a little sticker. Joe had wanted to go about the proposal properly and he’d told himself that Julie couldn’t mind too much if he asked her father for permission before he proposed, it wasn’t as if they wouldn’t find out about it, they’d be at the wedding at the very least. And Joe had always been taught to ask before he took anything. So he’d snuck the envelope out of the trash last December and had driven up to the pub they owned and introduced himself.

Julie’s parents had seemed fine; a bit too jovial, a bit too middle England, and maybe a bit too overly enthusiastic about their daughter’s upcoming nuptials to a man they’d never even met. But Joe was just grateful that they agreed to him marrying their daughter. He was going to tell her about his visit to see them, after she’d opened the box on Christmas Day; but when she opened it her face had clouded over. He hoped that her silence was down to her trying to figure out if the ring was an actual engagement ring; or instead just a promise or eternity ring. Was her silence just a defence against disappointment, to her not wanting to respond too happily, in case she screamed Yes and then he either had to explain that it wasn’t actually a proposal; or that he would cave and propose even if that hadn’t really been the intent of the gift. But even when he knelt on one knee and took her hand, he was unsure if the tears she blinked away were due to joy or dismay, and her halting response of “Yes” seemed to take forever to pass her lips.

*

“You did what?” Julie stormed out of the kitchen into the garden, flinging the loose lid aside. Inside the crate the hand lay nestled, curled up like a hamster in its nest of wood shavings.

“It wasn’t like that…”

“Wasn’t like what? Wasn’t like you went behind my back? Wasn’t like you were talking about our business to other people? I knew that this would happen.” Julie glared at Joe, but he wasn’t looking at her, it wasn’t that he was avoiding her glare, or staring at his feet in contrition; he was staring at the box, eyes so wide that it looked as if she could pop them out with a melon baller if she’d wanted to.

“No. Like that…” Joe’s finger quivered as he pointed at the hand, his own curling up as he withdrew it shakily and hid it behind his back, as if fearful that the hand in the box might have sprang out and grabbed at him. “It was flat before, not all curled up on itself like that.”

“It’s probably just contracted in the heat. God it stinks. I better put the lid back on in case… in case the local cats smell it. Could you imagine the uproar if Mrs Robinson’s tabby dragged it through the cat flap?”

*

The decision to eat in the lounge wasn’t even discussed, the rancid meat smell of the hand had stunk the kitchen out. Even through two shut doors Joe thought that he could still smell it. He sniffed at the forkful of vegetable pasta, it smelt as if it had been fried in week old bacon grease. His stomach grumbled and lurched up into his chest. Placing the bowl down, he rubbed at his sternum.

“Heartburn?”

“Probably. I’m just feeling a bit queasy.” Joe thought about the tales he’d heard as a child, about Tutankhamen, his curse; or was it a virus that had been released when they’d exhumed his tomb. “I hope there wasn’t anything odd in that crate.”

“Odd? What you mean odder than a dried up leathery old hand?”

“Like a miasma or a virus. You know like with Tutankhamen or bananas.”

“Bananas?”

“Yeah they bring all sorts of things over in bananas; black widows, mosquitoes, ebola.”

“Look you’ll be fine. Dad’s had that hand for donkey’s years, there’s no chance in catching something from it. It’s probably just the shock. We’ll get rid of it in the morning.”

*

Julie crouched in the early morning light, swiping her hand through the dew covered, too long grass, wishing that Joe had mowed it at the weekend like he said he was going to. The crate sat emptily next to her, the wooden lid split and splintered. Trails cut silver where the long grass lay flattened where something had crawled across the garden. The lines headed towards the hedge that bordered their garden, Julie headed over and looked at the space beneath, a divot had been burrowed between the woody stalks of the bushes before the trail vanished into Mrs Robinson’s immaculately kept lawn. Julie sighed knowing that she’d have to go over and try to find the hand, hopefully her neighbour would still be asleep, as she wasn’t sure how she’d be able to explain to the dear old lady what the present was that her cat had brought in.

*

“Hello dear. Have you lost something?”

Julie cursed under her breath as she straightened. Fixing a smile on her face as she turned round to explain herself to her neighbour. “Hi. Sorry. Yes. I’m…I’m looking for my…chicken. Yes my chicken. I’d put it outside to defrost overnight and something has dragged it away.”

“A chicken, and you thought it would be in my garden?”

“Yes. Sorry I probably sound mad. There’s drag marks in our lawn, they led to the hedge.” Julie indicated at where she’d been searching. “I just didn’t want you finding a half eaten animal on your lawn and having to clean it up.” Julie started at the tabby cat that lay nestled, purring in Mrs Robinson’s arms, it yawned and licked its paw, looking at her with contempt.

“Well I expect it’s been had by a fox. I’d probably put it in the sink next time.”

“The sink?”

“Yes to defrost. Bound to be snaffled by some animal or other if you leave it outside. Well I’ll leave you to your search. But I’d probably cook yourself something else for dinner, if you find it, stick it in the bin with a brick on the lid. That’ll stop scavengers.”

“Thanks. Sorry for the intrusion.”

“No problem dear. Hope you find it. I better go in and get Tiddles his breakfast.”

*

Joe was drinking his second cup of coffee when Julie walked dejectedly into the house and slumped into the armchair. “Coffee?”

Julie nodded, her unruly hair bounced in the movement. Joe plucked a bur out of the tangles “What you been doing? Looks like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.” Without waiting for an answer Joe headed through to the kitchen “Do you want any breakfast with your…” The back door sat open, the crate sat open on the doorstep, its contents strewn across the patio. “Julie. What’s…”

“It’s gone.”

“What’s gone?”

“The hand.”

“What do you mean it’s gone?”

“When I went out to get the milk this morning, the lid was off and it had gone.”

“Good riddance. A fox has probably had it.”

“I don’t think so.” Julie sighed and sat down at the kitchen table. “Pour us a coffee and sit down. I need to tell you something, about my parents.”

“My Dad used to scare me with it when I was little. It sat in a glass case above the fireplace in the lounge bar. He said it was there to keep the punters in line, but if I was ever naughty then the hand would know, and would come and smack me in the night when I was asleep. It’s what’s commonly known as a glory hand, but if the stories my parents used to tell me were right I suppose it’s a glory, glory hand; or something.”

“What’s a glory hand?”

“A glory hand was the right hand of a criminal. Thieves used to come and cut them off the bodies when they hung them at the side of the road. They’d dip the fingers in wax and light them. It was said that while the fingers were burning the people in the house they were stealing from would remain asleep. When the thieves had finished and were far enough away they’d dip the fingers in milk to put out the flames and the family would wake.

My parents used to tell me that the hand above the fireplace was special, that one day I’d inherit it and that it would sit pride of place in my own family home. They told me that years ago a thief had broken into the inn and had lit a glory hand. What the thief didn’t know was that night the inn was empty. My Mother had gone into labour with me that night, and my Dad had driven her to the local hospital. He’d just popped back to grab her glasses, that she’d forgotten in their rush to get to the hospital. When he saw the open front door.

The thief didn’t realise my Dad was there. My Dad always said that the thief was so intent on opening the safe in the back room, a parade of elephants could have walked past and the thief would have been none the wiser.

My Dad cracked him over the head with the cricket bat that he kept beneath the bar. He always said that he didn’t intend to kill him, just to stun him until the police got there. But he’d never hit anyone in the head with a bat before and he didn’t know how hard that was. As soon as he realised that the thief was dead, he set about hiding the body. He was dragging it out of the back door when he spied the burning hand wedged in a plant pot in the garden. Now my Dad said he knew all about glory hands, apparently he learnt about them off some sort of tea or cigarette cards that he’d collected as a child. And he said his natural curiosity got to him. If a glory hand in the possession of a thief could allow them to send a household to sleep, what would the glory hand of that thief do?”

“Well what did it do?”

“Apparently the hand was so contrite about the behaviour of its previous owner. That it brought us gifts, stolen gifts I presumed as a child as it couldn’t exactly buy anything. But my parents didn’t seem too bothered about that. They always said it was the hand that brought me any presents. There was no Santa, no Easter bunny, and it wasn’t the tooth fairy that slipped 20 pence under my pillow as a child and removed the tooth, it was the hand.”

“God, no wonder you don’t speak to them.”

“When my teeth fell out, I used to flush them down the loo.” Julie took a sip of her coffee, it dripped from the bottom of the cup where the liquid had sloshed out as her shaky hand lifted it to her mouth. “I always presumed they were lying. That it was just their little joke. A good way to stop me misbehaving, but now.” Julie thrust her cup at the empty crate, burning coffee splashing her hand.

“It’ll have been a fox or Mrs Robinson’s cat. Don’t worry about it. It’s just a stupid story your parents used to try and scare you with.”

“Try. Huh! Succeeded at scaring me with. Look at me a grown woman scared of an empty box.”

“Well at least it’s gone. If that was your parents idea of an engagement present. I hate to think what they’ll bring to the wedding.”

*

Joe’s heart thudded in the darkness. He was wide awake and alert, straining at the bedclothes as he lifted his head from the pillow listening intently. Something had woken him; the house now lay silent as a grave. Joe cocked his head this way and that, and eased the bed covers off him so as not to disturb Julie as he slipped out of the bed. He’d managed to get one foot in his slipper and had hooked the other one with his toe, ready to put on before the silence was broken by the thump, thump, thump of someone making their way up the stairs. Joe froze, the skin on his back and testicles crawled, as if they were trying to back away from the approaching noise. It sounded like a one legged pirate was making its way up the stairs, thump, thump, thump. Like a child. Joe drew his legs back under the covers; one slipper on, the other falling back to the bedroom floor. The gentle thud as it hit the carpet sounded like a base drum being hit. His muscles clenched as he hopped that whatever was coming didn’t hear the noise over its own banging ascent. The thudding stopped.  Whatever or whoever it was had reached the top of the stairs. If he strained and listened carefully Joe was sure he could hear the gentle susurration of something being dragged across the landing carpet, but he could no longer pinpoint wherever the intruder was, and if it hadn’t been for the proceeding cacophony he wouldn’t even have noticed the soft whisper as whatever it was inched it’s way across the landing and towards the bedroom.

“What’s the matter?”

Joe spun round, biting back a scream. Pointlessly in the dark room he raised a finger to his lips as if shushing a child.

“Joe are you okay? What’s up…” Joe placed his hand over Julie’s mouth, causing her to squirm and squeal round his fingers.

“Sssshh! There’s someone outside.” Joe indicated with his head towards the door. “On the landing.” Removing his hand, he listened for any sign of movement at the door. Was the creak the bedroom door handle turning slowly or just the sound of the house settling under the weight of the stranger that waited outside their bedroom?

“I can’t hear anything. Are you sure you didn’t dream it?”

Joe had never understood the saying Silence is deafening but he did now. Like a child expecting the monsters under his bed to grab his ankles, he didn’t want to set foot outside the sanctity of his bed clothes, but there was no way he could stay there, waiting for whatever was outside the door to come crashing through and attack them. “Dial 999.” Joe swung his legs out of the bed and made his way towards the door, his one slipper echoing the thump, thump, thump from earlier. Behind him he could hear the whispered voice of Julie as she spoke to the operator. He twisted the handle and yanked the door towards him, hoping that if the intruder was poised on the other side it might unsteady him; but there was no one behind the door.

Joe craned his neck from side to side, wildly sweeping the landing for a sign of a burglar, ready to run back into the room and barricade the door at the first sign of a madman hurtling down the landing brandishing a knife. But the landing was empty.

“The police are on their way.”

Joe hesitated, his foot hovering above the threshold. He wanted nothing more than to wait for the police to arrive; but his fiancée sat in the bed, the covers pulled up to her chin. There was no way he could wait impotently in his own house. Waiting for some other man to come and rescue them both. If he couldn’t protect her now, what sort of husband would he be? Joe took a tentative step over the threshold, though instead of the soft tickle of the carpet his foot found something warm and wet. A sharp pain stabbed through the soft arch of his foot before he yanked it free from the cloying mess.

*

“Well there’s no sign of entry.”

“What do you mean there’s no sign of entry. Who do you think left that?” Joe indicated towards the shoebox that now sat inside a clear plastic evidence bag on the table. “It didn’t fly in on its own, not in that state.”

“I expect it was a fox.”

Joe took the slip of paper that the policeman proffered. We’ll log it as an incident, if there are any further issues you can contact us. Joe stared at the number on the paper “Is this a phone…” but his question was cut off by the slamming of the police car door. Stuffing the piece of paper in his pocket, he made his way round the corner of the house to the shed, to get his shovel.

*

“To be fair he was probably right.” The patch of carpet that Julie was scrubbing smelled strongly of bleach, the nap faded and bleach burnt into a halo round the darker stain where the crow had been.

“How’d it get in? As far as I was aware a Fox can’t open a door.”

“Hmm, maybe.” Julie wrung the sponge out in the bucket of grimy water “I’ve heard that foxes are really clever like that. Or maybe it was a cat. Yes. A fox would have eaten it, not just left it on the landing. That’s much more likely, it probably climbed through a window, cats like leaving their owners presents.”

“But we don’t own a cat.”

“Huh” Julie snorted in laughter “You keep petting Mrs Robinson’s cat. It’s probably trying to ingratiate itself with you, hoping that you’ll start feeding it as well.”

“Well not anymore, not if it’s going to do stuff like this.”

*

Joe finally succumbed to venting the windows on the latch, and only then because the smell of bleach was giving him a headache, and the carrion odour of the dead crow still lingered on the landing. Julie had wanted to bury it in the garden but Joe had insisted in double bagging it and putting it in the bin, wedging the top closed with an old broom handle to stop anything rooting through that might be attracted to the smell. His main worry was that Mrs Robinson’s cat would sneak in and dig it up, and bring it back inside again. He’d spent the day hissing at the cat until it slunk out of reach up into the branches of the old apple tree that bordered the garden. He’d tried squirting it with the house pipe but the water pressure wasn’t strong enough, and all he actually managed to do was water himself. With squelching shoes and socks Joe headed down to the high street to grab a water pistol from the toy shop.

*

The cat was gone from the tree when he got back. He’d gotten himself a pump action super-soaker. He was pretty sure it wouldn’t actually hurt the cat, if kids were allowed to shoot each other in the face with it, surely he would be okay taking pot shots at the neighbour’s cat. He headed round the back of the house to fill it at the garden tap. As he rounded the corner he saw that the back door stood wide open. Cursing her name under his breath, Joe called out “Julie. Julie. Where are you?” He pulled the door to, hard, causing it to shake in its frame. “Why’d you leave the door open. You know we’re trying to keep that damn cat out.” The garden was empty, but there were sounds of chatting and the clinking of spoons on china emanating from across the hedge. Joe edged closer, the prickly privet scratching his cheek as he hollered “Julie!” There was the tinkling of shattering crockery, followed by a “Fuck” and then the muted mutterings of apologies. Joe headed round towards Mrs Robinson’s, biting back a smirk he arranged his face into what he hoped looked like a contrite expression.

Julie was on her hands and knees, picking up shards of china, whilst gently pushing Mrs Robinson’s cat away from the clotted cream it was greedily trying to lick up from the shattered mess on the patio.

*

“You didn’t have to shout.”

“You left the kitchen door open. I didn’t know where you were.”

“I didn’t, and that’s still no reason to shout. You made me break one of the tea plates.”

“We can always buy her another.”

“She said not to bother, they were old anyway, a family heirloom.”

The pointed comment was lost on Joe as he replied “See she needed a new set anyway, gives her a good excuse…” his words petered out as they rounded the side of the house and saw the kitchen door was wide open.

“Stay out here, and dial 999.”

“But…”

“I’ll go and check the house.”

*

The police officer was the same one from earlier, though on his own now, his face was set into a weary expression as he took yet another statement from them.

“So you say that you locked the door.”

“No, I shut the door.”

The policeman scribbled something else on his pad before flipping it closed. “Probably didn’t shut properly.”

“I know how to shut a door.” Joe bit back a retort. “I slammed it. So I know it was properly shut.”

The policeman bent over the door, turning the handle to and fro, poking at the latch, before repeatedly opening and closing the door, waiting for the latch to click into place before shaking the door handle. “That’s probably the issue. I expect it bounced back out with the force.” He slammed the door, before trying to prise the door back open without using the handle.

“What about fingerprints?”

“No reason to look for fingerprints sir. There doesn’t appear to have been a crime. Anyway, any prints that would have been there would be useless anyway.”

Joe opened his mouth to says something about maybe the prints would have been okay if the policeman hadn’t been messing around with the door, but he was cut off, by the officer shoving a piece of paper into his hand. “What’s this? Another incident number?”

“No sir. It’s the number for a locksmith. It might be worth getting this lock looked at, before you need to phone us again.”

Joe watched as Julie walked the officer to the front gate, nodding and smiling as he spoke, even though he couldn’t hear what they were saying the sound of Julie’s laughter carried across the still garden. Pain erupted in his hand. The paper that the policeman had given to him was scrunched up in his fist, the edge slicing into the skin that stretched between his thumb and forefinger. Easing his fist apart, he felt the stiff tendons protest at the movement. Carefully avoiding the cut he massaged his palm, his cramped fingers reminding him of the mummified hand from the crate.

*

Joe searched the house from top to bottom after the policeman left – Joe really thought that the policeman should have done it himself, but the officer hadn’t even set foot inside the house this time. Once he was satisfied that there was no sign of any animal inside, dead of alive, he locked and bolted all the doors, before making sure the windows were shut tight. He was just shutting the casement window in their bedroom when Julie walked in.

“Can’t you just leave that one open? It’s not like anything could get in through there, we’re on the second floor.”

Joe shook his head as he did a final check of the bedroom, his knees creaking as he bent to look under the bed.

“We’ll boil. You know how stuffy it gets.”

“I’ll grab the fan out of the loft. I could do with checking up there anyway.”

Julie sighed in defeat, she wanted to point out that there was no way a fox could have got up into the loft, or for that matter would be able to climb up the side of the house. But Joe was already out on the landing hauling the loft hatch down, and she was well aware that when he was in this mood it was best to leave him to just get on with it. The whole thing would have been forgotten in a couple of day anyway.

*

Joe hadn’t realised that he’d fallen asleep, he’d been lying in bed with his eyes closed for what seemed like hours, but he’d tossed and turned, straining at every tiny pop and creak the house made as it settled. He’d even rolled the pillow into a log and wedged it under his neck, hoping that once his head wasn’t nestled in it, and it no longer covered his ears, he would fall asleep; instead of straining to work out if the noises he could hear were footstep getting closer on the stairs or only his blood, beating against his eardrum. Not realising he’d fallen asleep, Joe was shocked when he woke from a particularly vivid dream were he’d been searching the house for a mummified cat. Disorientated at the creeping shadows that bathed the room as dawn inched ever closer over the horizon. Vertigo made the bed spin as his body tried to assimilate to its new position, his stomach fighting against gravity as nausea overcame him, acid burning his throat, stopping his breath until he managed to force himself upright. Joe took several deep breaths, the bed next to him remained still and as silent as the grave, part of him was glad that he hadn’t woken Julie once again, but the other part wanted her to wake so she could comfort him, so he could switch on the bedside light without feeling like a complete arsehole for waking her, or worse for feeling like a baby, scared of the dark. Joe took several deep breaths, calming himself, each one he took slower then the last, trying to trick his brain into slowing his heart rate before he had a heart attack. The taste of blood and bile coated his throat, his lungs burned, as if he’d inhaled the escaping stomach acid, his chest hitched and a cough built, tickling at the back of his throat, swallowing Joe tried to produce enough saliva to calm the irritation, but the cough exploded from his chest, his lips tight shut, his hand across his mouth, caused his ears to pop and his eyes water. There was still no sign of movement from Julie’s side of the bed, her bedclothes piled high threw shadows that looked like tentacles or slender spider’s legs reaching across the bed towards him, Joe reached towards the pile of blankets, if she woke whilst he was straightening them, he could just say he was trying to get some of the covers back, that he’s woken cause he was cold. As his fingers touched the edge of the blanket, a scream pierced the night. Joe pulled his fingers back as if the blankets were electrified, but it took him a moment to realise that the sound had come from downstairs and not from the motionless pile next to him. Flicking on the bedside light Joe saw that the pile of blankets was nothing more than that, a crumpled heap of bedding, bundled into a pile on the bed, the shape drawn by the crepuscular light that bleed through the thin curtains that framed their window.

“Joe” Julie’s voice echoed through the silent house, the fear palpable in the stuffy bedroom. Joe jumped out of bed and was halfway down the stairs before he realised that he was unarmed, wearing nothing but his boxers and a pair of slippers. “Joe.” The voice came from the kitchen, and Joe pushed the fears to the back of his mind as he ran down the remaining stairs, swinging himself round the newel post at the bottom and skidded across the hallway towards the open kitchen door and the pale light that crept across the threshold.

The cat lay on its back on the kitchen table, its legs akimbo, tail straight, pointing towards the hallway. It looked like one of those tiger skin rugs that had been de rigueur in the 70’s, though this one lay on its back, its head bent back at an unnatural angle so its eyes and bared teeth glinted in the early morning light that shone through the kitchen window. It may have looked as if it was just sleeping, if it wasn’t for the ragged wound that ran the length of its belly from crotch to neck. Joe felt his gorge rise and ran to the sink where he dry heaved, acid and bile burning his throat again as his body tried to empty the contents of its stomach, in the same way as whatever had eviscerated the cat had done.

*

Joe and Julie lifted the table out onto the patio, the pine top stained a dark mahogany where the cat had lain. The sound of a spoon being hit against a metal bowl rang out from Mrs Robinson’s garden.

“Don’t you think we should tell her?” Joe grunted as he manoeuvred the heavy table onto its side, hiding the stain against the wall of the house.

“What good would it do? It’s not as if the cat went peacefully in its sleep. Would you want to see that?” Julie nodded towards the tapped bin bag that lay on the lawn.

“Well at least that rules the cat out. It must have been a fox, but God knows how it got in.”

Pulling the broom handle out from where it was wedged against the top of the bin, she picked up the bin bag and holding it at arms length dropped it on top of the crow. “Joe, do you really still think it’s a fox.”

“Well I suppose it could be a dog, but…”

“How would a dog get in, the windows and doors were shut. You checked them yourself before bed. It’s that hand.”

Joe was about to ask if Julie was serious, or was she playing a joke, for a second it even crossed his mind that maybe it was an elaborate prank, that she’d killed the crow and the cat and displayed them in the house, some kind of family initiation, but the idea of her doing something so gruesome was impossible, and any tiny vestiges of doubt disappeared when he saw the fear on her face.

*

The list sat on the couch between them. A thick line lay scoured through each entry except two.

“Look, it must be your parents. They’ve got our address and from what you’ve said it sounds like the cruel prank they’d play.”

Julie just shook her head, “No. They wouldn’t kill a cat. It’s the hand.”

“Why would the hand kill the cat; I thought you said it was indebted to you, it bought you nice things, money and presents.”

Julie shrugged “It was probably out there in the garden, hiding. I bet it saw you chasing the cat off, and decided that you wanted it gone.”

Joe stared at his fiancé, what she was saying was utterly insane, but her face showed no sign of madness, her features composed, her body calm, still, no outward signs of stress. There were no apparent tics or tremors, her hands lay folded in her lap, the nails long and elegantly manicured; unlike his own which were ragged and torn, his cuticles ripped and bloody from where he’d started biting them again. Joe took Julie’s cool hands in his own, and took a couple of deep breaths, trying to absorb some of her calm, some of her strength “Well if it is the hand. What can we do about it?”

*

The bowl of milk sat on the empty tiled floor where the kitchen table once stood. A gentle breeze crept in and caressed Joe as he sat in the hallway, watching the bowl’s reflection in the mirror that they’d angled to give a good view of when the hand took the bait.

“You should just come to bed. You’ll freeze down here.”

“What if it doesn’t come? What if something else, a cat or a hedgehog or something comes in instead and drinks the milk? Then this’ll have all been a waste. Anyway, I couldn’t sleep, not knowing that the backdoor was open, anyone could creep in whilst we slept. No you go. Anyway I can always sleep tomorrow, once it’s been caught.” Joe tapped the wooden box that sat next to him. Iron bands lay along the edges, and an iron hasp and lock finished off the lid. It hadn’t taken long to find a Blacksmith, though each one was adamant that they couldn’t complete the work for at least a couple of weeks. In the end Joe had agreed to pay the last Blacksmith on their list an exorbitant amount of money to fix up the box, to which the Smith agreed that he could just about fit it in that day, if he worked through his lunch break.

Joe settled down on the hard floor and listened to Julie getting ready for bed, the sounds of her routing gradually dimming as the sun set outside. Grimacing Joe levered himself up from the hard floor and went through his checks for a final time before settling down for the night. Joe bent to check that the door wedge was firmly in place holding the door open, before switching on the outside light, and making his way round the rest of the downstairs switching off the rest of the lights. He was pretty sure that the hand didn’t have eyes; but even though he hadn’t said anything more to Julie, he was pretty sure it wasn’t the hand that was leaving dead creatures scattered through their house. With the lights off he hoped that whoever was paying them these nightly visits would think they were still in bed, and that the he’d hear them before they realised that they’d been rumbled.

*

It was the sound of the metal bowl ringing against the tiled floor that woke him. Fear coursed through him, allowing him to spring to his feet and ignore the stiffness in his leaden limbs. The sound of muffled swearing covering up any noise that his movement may have made, as he inched his way along the hallway.

“They must have a cat.”

“Strange fucking place to leave its bowl, out in the middle of the ro–”

Joe paused as the voice cut off mid-sentence, adrenaline pumped through his body as fear and anger fought their way through his mind. At least there was a normal explanation for everything, though he wasn’t sure how he was going to deal with his prospective in-laws if they though creeping round someone’s house in the middle of the night, scaring them half to death, and mutilating animals was their idea of fun. Taking a deep breath he stepped into the kitchen, switching the light on as he did so, praying that Julie’s parents hadn’t already upended whatever gift they’d bought onto the kitchen floor.

Joe’s heart stopped, ice filling his veins as he realised the man standing in front of him wasn’t Julie’s father.

“What did you do to him?” The man lunged towards Joe, before stopping dead, his body straining like a dog on a leash.

Joe stepped back, shaking his head, his hand fumbling in his pocket for his phone, as the intruders hands grasped uselessly towards him, before the man toppled backwards, hitting the upturned metal bowl and causing it to slide across the floor, a trail of milk seeping into the blood that leaked from the body of the other intruder that lay beneath his writhing accomplice whose sudden screams were cut off by the gnarled, leathery hand that sealed up his mouth and nose. Joe watched rooted to the spot as the terror dulled in the intruder’s eyes, only moving when the hand stirred once more.

*

“You’ll have to let us know if you are intending to travel sir.”

The words echoed through Joe’s mind. The detectives had seemed to accept that it was in self defence, but they’d seemed less accepting of the fact that Joe stated he had no memory of the attack, that he had no idea how he could manage to overpower two men single handedly, especially with no weapon.

Julie had stashed the box up in the loft. An interrupted midnight drink and a smashed milk bottled explained the milk that puddled on the kitchen floor.

“Are you sure you didn’t know them Sir?”

The detective had nosed round for ages, asking questions.

“It’s just strange. Your recent reports, especially the mutilated bird. Is there anybody who might have a grievance against you or your girlfriend?”

Joe rolled over and closed his eyes, trying to force his body to sleep.

“You’ll have to come into the station first thing tomorrow. We’ll need to ask you some more questions. No you’re not being arrested; we just need to clear some things up. Yes you can bring a lawyer if you wish.”

Joe lay in bed and took deep breaths in for four, hold for five, out for six. In the loft above him the hand drummed its fingers against the base of its crate in time to his counts.