Mrs Bigsby was, in technical terms, a mad, old cat-lady. Nine of the creatures ambled imperiously around the flat, whilst countless photos of tabbies, sphynxes and cheshires stared down from the walls. Every conceivable surface was dusted with a thin layer of cat hair, and the musty smell dominating the cramped flat could only be described as pungently feline.
Ian, never one for cats in the first place, sat awkwardly on the sofa. If he could survive this without one of the fatter animals clambering over him, he would count it a success. One of the cats sat on the cushion beside him, glaring at him with a contempt beyond words.
“Well,” the young man announced, ticking the last box on the form. “Everything seems to be in order, as far as I can see.” It wasn’t. There was a leak in the bathroom, the hall’s wallpaper had been scratched to oblivion, and Ian was sure the radiator shouldn’t be making that noise. But he was quickly accumulating fur, and he wanted to go home.
“Why, thank you, Mr Hurston,” Mrs Bigsby said, gifting him a gummy smile. “I told my babies we were having a special guest this afternoon, and that they had to be on their best behaviour, especially Monty here!”
Ian turned again to the scowling cat. He shuffled slightly away, withering beneath Monty’s killer glare. Another cat sauntered into the room, spared its owner only the briefest of glances, before promptly rubbing its body against Ian’s legs.
“Go away, Monty!” the old woman snapped, kicking the newcomer away.
“I – I thought this one was called Monty?”
“Oh, they’re all called Monty, dear,” Mrs Bigsby revealed, chuckling happily. “It saves me getting confused.”
The logic failed to appear for Ian. “Right,” he said, hoping the stunned look on his face could pass for politeness. “Before I leave,” he hastily added, looking down at his clipboard. “Were there any problems you wanted to bring up?”
The old woman’s face suddenly scrunched up, giving it even more of a prune-like appearance. An internal struggle was going on within Mrs Bigsby. She looked towards one of the Monties for advice. Finally, she broke her silence. “It’s the people down the corridor . . . number 24,” she said, fiddling with the hem of her shawl. “They’re . . . strange.”
Ian glanced up at the old woman, his pen poised over the form. “Strange? How do you mean?”
It was clear the lady didn’t like to speak ill of anyone, yet at the same time, there was a little gleam in her eyes. Ian knew she wouldn’t need too much coaxing. In fact, she invited a third Monty onto her lap and then snuggled back into the cushions. “They’re just very odd,” she said. “I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but I keep hearing the strangest of noises. And the smells? They’re worse than what come from the Khatri flat downstairs!” She scratched Monty behind its ears whilst Ian pretended to take down some notes. “And, what’s worse, is they scare Monty!”
“All of them!”
With that, Ian rose to his feet, avoiding making eye contact with any Monty. “I’m looking at their flat next, so I’ll be sure to have a word.”
“Oh, how kind of you!” Mrs Bigsby declared. Scooping up her Monty, she guided Ian through the flat, holding the door open as he stepped out. “You know, Mr Hurston,” she said, collaring him as he was about to make his escape. “Your predecessor would never have been so helpful.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, but –”
“It is strange what happened to him,” she went on, oblivious to the cat in her arms desperately fighting to be let go. “The way he just disappeared like that!”
Ian frowned. “I heard he just moved to Bognor Regis?”
The old woman shook her head sadly. “Such a tragedy.” With that, and one final, hateful glare from one of the Monties, the door was shut in Ian’s face. He heaved a sigh and then tucked the clipboard under his arm. His first day as a property inspector for the council was not going as he had hoped. He had only taken the job at his mother’s insistence. She had assured him that, as well as finally being able to move out, the job would be a walk in the park. Mrs Hurston’s view on the council was dim. If the state of the roads was anything to go by, then the most strenuous work done at the council’s office was opening a new packet of digestives. In Ian’s eyes, this sounded like the perfect job.
So far, he had visited every flat on the ground and first floor and was relieved to find nothing wrong. Nor had the tenants expressed any problems to him. In fact, after those two floors, Ian had begun to believe he might be able to leave for an early lunch. However, when he reached the second floor, that’s when the threat of doing some work began to loom. Complaints started coming. Complaints about strange noises, almost like chanting; stomach-churning smells, like a boy’s locker room at a secondary school in the height of summer; and odd visitors in the middle of the night. Hearing these protests had put a particular image into Ian’s head. He’d seen enough police shows to know what he was going to face. But, when he had glanced at the flat’s paperwork, all he found was the details of a perfectly ordinary sounding family. A father, mother and two young sons. But, even though it might sound ideal, the complaints still had to be investigated.
Ian glanced at his watch and sighed. At this rate he’d miss Countdown. He straightened his tie, gifted to him by a grandmother who really thought puce brought out his eyes, and then approached number twenty-four.
He gave the door a sharp tap and then waited. He took another glance at his watch. There was also that library book he ought to return. It wasn’t due for another week, but the walk would give him something to do. He gave the door another impatient knock. This time it opened straight away. A hooded figure stood in the doorway. It was dressed from head to toe in a large, dark brown cloak. The hood draped down past the nose, leaving only a stubble-coated chin visible. The mouth screwed up angrily. “Yes?” the man asked.
“Erm . . .” Ian said, still floundering from the shock at seeing such a figure appear. “Are – are you Mr Jaspar Greenwell?”
“Who are you?” the man snapped.
“Ian Hurston, I’m with the council,” the young man said, holding up his clipboard and lanyard. “I’m here to do an inspection?”
There was a moment of silence before Mr Greenwell threw the hood back. He suddenly became a middle-aged man who happened to be wearing a large robe which, in the right light, could be mistaken for a dressing gown. His eyes darted back inside flat anxiously.
“That’s today?” he asked.
“Yes,” Ian said. “You did get a letter.”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Mr Greenwell stammered. “I just completely forgot. So did the wife, we got it into our heads it was tomorrow. Is – is there any chance you could come back tomorrow?”
“I’m afraid not.”
There absolutely was. He had nothing much to do in the office tomorrow except type up his reports. But, as he was going to miss Rachel Riley anyway, there was no chance he was going to accommodate someone who couldn’t be bothered to read a letter properly.
Mr Greenwell looked like a deer that’s just heard the land-rover approaching. He took a quick look over his shoulder, and then back at Ian. “Really? Are you sure?”
“What is keeping you, Brother Jaspar?!” A shorter, more high-strung sounding figure suddenly materialised behind the cloaked Mr Greenwell.
“Monica, my sweet,” Mr Greenwell said, flashing Ian an awkward smile. “This is Mr Hurston. From the council. He’s here to do an inspection.”
The hood was immediately snatched off. The flushed, wide-eyed Mrs Greenwell offered Ian a second, equally pained smile. “Mr Hurston!” she exclaimed, her voice dripping with honey. “What a nice surprise! I thought you were coming tomorrow?”
“No,” Ian said, looking down his nose at this pair, still in their dressing gowns at nearly three in the afternoon. “It’s today.”
“Ah . . .” Mrs Greenwell looked to her husband, then to Ian. “Our son is ill.”
“Yes!” Mr Greenwell exclaimed, a broad grin lighting up his features.
The married pair glanced at one another, a flicker of annoyance scurrying over each face. “He’s got both,” Mrs Greenwell explained. “Highly contagious!”
“I guess I can avoid his room today,” Ian said, drumming his fingers against the clipboard. “As for the rest of the flat, I’m afraid I really do have to have a look.”
The Greenwells shared a look. A look that said a hundred words that only married couples could understand. Eventually Mr Greenwell opened the door fully and sheepishly stood aside. “Please come inside, Mr Hurston,” he said reluctantly.
Taking another glance at the couple’s matching robes, Ian stepped through the doorway and into the hall. He stumbled slightly as he walked into the living room, his eyes shocked by the sudden gloom. “Is there something wrong with your electrics?” he asked, staring at the large collection of yellowing candles. Their flickering flames sent shadows dancing up and down the walls.
“Oh, oh no,” Mrs Greenwell said, barely a few centimetres behind Ian. “We just wanted them for the – the ambience!”
Mr Greenwell slammed his fist against the light switch. The young property inspector had to blink several times as the room was filled with the garish light of cheap bulbs. The two sofas had been pushed against the wall and were both covered in stained dust sheets. But what drew Ian’s attention most was the rolled-up carpet in the corner. In the centre of the now bare, wooden floor was, in chalk, a large drawing of a five-pointed star.
“What’s that?” Ian asked, staring in horror at the symbol.
“Oh – ah, yes, sorry, young – young Anthony did that,” Mr Greenwell stammered. “You know what children are like.”
“Does he often rip up the carpet to draw?” Ian asked innocently.
“Better that than the wallpaper,” Mrs Greenwell said.
“So, where did you want to start?” the husband asked, cutting in before Ian could say anything more. Mrs Greenwell quickly threw open the curtains, bathing the room in the grimy daylight of a wet Thursday.
“Kitchen?” Ian suggested.
“No!” the pair shouted. Mr Greenwell laughed lightly at the young inspector’s horrified expression. “I – I just mean, well, it’s very messy in there,” he explained.
“Yes,” Mrs Greenwell said, stepping in front of the kitchen door. “As we said, we weren’t expecting you today.”
“I appreciate that,” Ian said, loosening his tie slightly. “But I still have to take a look.” Besides, he added to himself, how much worse can it get?
Just as he took a step closer the kitchen door suddenly swung open. “What is going on?” an ominous voice boomed. Both Ian and the Greenwells jumped in alarm. Standing in the centre of the kitchen was a four-foot figure. His robe, still the same shade as the married pair, had fine, gold thread embroidered into the hem. A badge of a red eye was sewn onto the left-hand breast. In his small, rather pudgy hand, was a piece of string. At the end of this tether was a nonchalant-looking goat, absently munching on a lettuce leaf.
“Anthony!” Mr Greenwell hissed, barging past Ian. “Go to your room, quickly!”
“This insubordination shall not go unpunished!” the young boy declared darkly. He gave the string a quick tug, and then marched out of the kitchen. The goat bleated quite cheerfully, trotting after the child.
Ian continued to stand there, rooted to the spot. He didn’t know what had shocked him more. The child’s unnaturally deep, almost guttural voice, or the goat. He turned to the parents, both shedding their dressing gowns. “You do know pets aren’t allowed, right?” he asked.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Mr Greenwell said chirpily. “We’re getting rid of it today.”
The young man shot a suspicious glance towards the married man. But, for the first time since stepping into the flat, Ian felt sure Mr Greenwell was telling the truth. “Well . . . good,” he said lamely. Nevertheless, he made a note of it on the clipboard. Perhaps Ms. Marshall might take the matter out of his hands.
He took a step into the kitchen and gave it a cursory glance. He didn’t know what they meant by ‘messy’. As far as he could see it was perfectly sound. A couple of pots were on the stove, steaming and leaking water. A ram’s skull was hung on the wall, a place where Ian would have personally put a clock. The only worrying thing was the large, ornate-looking dagger sat on the work-surface. The handle was pure ivory and carved into a twirling snake, its jaws opened to bite. Ian gave it a nervous point. “Is – is that safe?” he asked.
“No,” Mrs Greenwell said, “it’s a knife.”
“Err . . . I mean for . . . the children?”
“Oh! Them, yes. Yes, don’t worry,” Mr Greenwell said with a chuckle. “We’re always very careful.”
“I see.” Ian edged past the pair and walked back towards the hall. Mrs Greenwell winced as the young man stepped on the chalk drawing, scuffing it with the heel of his shoe. The councillor stepped into the corridor and turned to the first door on his left. Before the couple could object, he opened the door. His face turned pale, his mouth dropped open and he slammed the door shut again.
“There is a naked couple in your bathroom,” Ian announced, his face burning red.
“As we keep saying,” Mr Greenwell said with a shrug, “we thought you were coming tomorrow.”
“But you have children!” Ian objected.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Mrs Greenwell said with a chuckle. “They’re both used to it by now.”
Ian Hurston stared at the parents with horrified fascination. He could understand the complaints now. There was something very, very odd going on in this rather uncomfortable flat. Almost certain he had an idea as to what was going on, Ian turned around, his attention fixed on the door opposite.
“That’s young Tim’s room,” the husband said, making his way towards the door.
“Mr Greenwell,” Ian said, holding up his hand. “I am beginning to suspect your son is not ill.” The couple swapped a terrified glance. “Something is going on here,” the inspector continued, “and I plan on finding out what.”
He took another glance at the married pair’s fearful expressions. He took a deep breath and then threw the door open.
It was a refreshingly normal-looking room. There was a bookcase in one corner, a small desk in another, and the walls were decorated with posters of superheroes and footballers. The conventional mood was slightly spoilt by the sight of a six-year-old boy tied by the hands and feet to his bed, whilst surrounded by a ring of spluttering red candles. The small child looked up at Ian with a cheerful smile. “I’m a sacrifice!” the boy declared.
Ian turned around suddenly. His eyes widened in alarm as he took in the lamp Mr Greenwell had raised above his head. The man paused, stared at the young inspector, then at the makeshift club in his hand. He flashed an awkward smile. “Got it at a car-boot sale,” he said innocently. “Nice, don’t you think?”
The young council worker stood for a moment, fiddling with his pen. Occasionally he would glance back at the bound, cheerful child, and then at the anxious-looking parents. He also spared a glance towards the lamp, now fortunately back on the bureau.
“Okay,” he said. “Something’s not right here.”
Mrs Greenwell gave her husband a resigned look. “I think, dear,” she said with a sigh, “that we’d best tell the truth.”
He nodded and then turned to Ian. “The thing is, Mr Hurston,” he said, meekly picking at his buttons. “We didn’t want to say anything when we signed the lease –”
“What with all the stigma and prejudice,” his wife added.
“Exactly,” Mr Greenwell said. “Well, the wife and I, we just so happen to be – we’re practicing Satanists.”
Ian blinked in surprise. His suspicions had been way off the mark. “Satanists?” he repeated. He’d never met one before. In fact, the closest he’d come to satanism was when he watched The Omen whilst his mother went bowling. When his thoughts travelled to Devil worshippers, this pair of nervously smiling, suburban parents did not fit the bill.
“We only started a couple of years back,” Mrs Greenwell said conversationally. “Having two young children there’s so little time to go out and do things.”
“And when you do get a babysitter, just where do you go?”
“But then, one of my mates from work suggested we head down to the local community centre,” the husband continued. “He and his partner go every Thursday, and they suggested we tag along one week.”
“He’s a Satanist as well?” Ian asked.
“No, no, he does a nude modelling class,” Mrs Greenwell answered. “But that wasn’t for us.”
“We’re not that arty.”
“So, we tried the room next door,” the wife went on. “Next thing you know, I’m slaughtering a goat and Jaspar’s having sex with a succubus!”
“I keep telling you, her name was Janine!”
“I . . . see,” Ian said. He glanced down at the clipboard. For once it failed to hold the answers he needed.
“It’s not – not a problem? Is it?” Mr Greenwell asked, panic in his eyes. “The place isn’t usually like this,” he added, waving his arm towards his bound son, the dripping candles, and the goat shuffling out of another room.
“We’re usually very tidy,” his wife insisted.
“I – I’m not sure,” Ian admitted. “I – I don’t think the council can do anything. After all, I think it still classed as a religious matter.”
“Oh, no!” Mrs Greenwell said with a chuckle. “It’s not a religion for us!”
“No, no,” Mr Greenwell said smiling. “We just do it for fun, really.”
“It gets us out of the house for a couple of hours each week, and we’re always meeting new people.”
“Really?” Ian asked. What were his Thursdays like? Spent in with his mother. Chicken and chips for dinner, Emmerdale on the TV, and then a thrilling game of chequers, where he’ll have to spend every other turn explaining the rules. Just the thought made his break out in a cold sweat.
“So . . . it’s – erm –it’s fun then?” he asked, trying to sound indifferent.
“Depends on your thoughts on orgies.”
The married couple shared another glance. They then turned to Ian. “You know,” Mr Greenwell said. “Glen, our Chief Defiler, he’s always eager to welcome new members.”
“Really?” Ian said. “You think that would be all right?”
“Of course!” Mrs Greenwell said cheerfully. “Everyone’s welcome in the arms of the Dark Lord!”
Throughout his childhood Ian’s mother had warned him about the devil. She had enjoyed teaching about all the tricks he would pull, and what Ian would have to do in order to avoid falling into temptation. What she had never warned him about, though, was what to do when a mild-mannered married couple offered him a scheduled, weekly orgy. Ian Hurston couldn’t help but grin.
“A-all right!” the young man said, eagerly putting his clipboard down.
“Smashing!” Mr Greenwell exclaimed, clapping Ian on the shoulder. “Let’s get the initiation ceremony underway!”
“I’ll go get the goat!”
“And I’ll give Janine a ring!”
As Ian watched the suburban Satanists bustle around the flat, relighting the candles, fixing the scuffed pentagram, coaxing the goat out of the bedroom with a fresh head of lettuce, he couldn’t help but think one thing: This was turning into one Hell of a first day.