Alarm bells start ringing when he arrives at Craven Manor. The mansion's front door hangs open, and leaves and cobwebs coat the marble foyer. It's clear no one has lived there in a long time.
But an envelope waits for him inside the doorway. It contains money, and promises more.
Daniel is desperate. Against his better judgement, he moves into the groundskeeper's cottage behind the crypt. He's determined to ignore the strange occurrences that plague the estate.
But when a candle flickers to life in the abandoned tower window, Daniel realises Craven Manor is hiding a terrible secret... one that threatens to bury him with it.
Finalist in the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards
Release date: December 11, 2017
Publisher: Black Owl Books
Print pages: 300
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Daniel’s shoe scuffed over the hallway runner and dragged up loose threads. He gave it a pitying glance as he turned the corner that led to his cousin’s room.
The six-story apartment block was desperate for a bit of care. The thick white paint slathered over the walls had turned yellow where it wasn’t already stained from water damage, and two out of his hall’s four lights were dead. Daniel doubted it had been an inviting place in its prime, but by the time he’d moved in, it had become a space for the unemployed, the dying, and those with nowhere left to turn.
A house for desperate people. He flexed his shoulders. They ached from a day of scrubbing a casino’s bathroom floor. It wasn’t a permanent job. Most of Daniel’s mornings were spent handing out applications to any business with a Help Wanted sign posted outside, no matter how unappealing the job seemed. When he was really tight for money, he would scout around the town’s red district to see if anyone wanted to hire him for the day. He could usually get a few hours of janitorial work in a nightclub, a pub, or one of the down-market hotels. The pay was well below minimum wage, but he wasn’t in a position to bargain.
“Daniel! Daniel!” A tiny, wrinkled woman tottered out of her room and waved to him. She’d dressed for the day but seemed to have forgotten that she was still wearing her nightcap. Squinted eyes blinked from behind massive, thick glasses as she held out a china plate. “Daniel, I baked biscuits. Try!”
Some of Daniel’s weariness fell away as he met his neighbour at her door. “Thanks, Mrs. Kirshner. That’s really sweet.”
She only came up to his waist but seemed to swell at his words. “I bake them especially for you, Daniel. Young boy like you needs to eat more.”
Daniel took one of the plain brown biscuits she held up to him. It was hard and a little dry, but he was ravenous and chewed it quickly. “It’s good. One of your recipes?”
“Yes, yes.” The tiny woman nudged her glasses a little higher, and her smile flickered. “Normally has cranberries, but… but not today.”
“Oh.” Daniel’s heart sank. He glanced over her to see inside her apartment. Her grey cat, Alonzo, slept on the windowsill. Without curtains, the light through the window cast its glare across the sparse room. He could have sworn she’d owned more furniture when she moved in. A cup of tea sat on the floor next to her chair. The drink was black, even though he knew she preferred it with milk. “Um, Mrs. Kirshner, are you doing all right? I mean, are you getting by?”
“Do not worry, Daniel.” She gave his chest a pat. Her hands were tiny and bent with arthritis, but her smile didn’t falter. “We are fine. I will call my daughter, yes? She is sending money next week.”
Today’s Tuesday. A week’s a long time to wait. And she never calls her daughter unless things are dire… Daniel dug into his pocket for the twenty dollars he’d earned cleaning the bathrooms. He’d planned for it to go towards dinner that night and lunch the next day, but he really wasn’t that hungry, he decided. “Here. It’s not much, but it should help until next week.”
“Oooh.” She made a shushing noise and tried to fold his hand back around the note. “No, no, Daniel’s money.”
“Really.” He laughed and tucked it into the front pocket of her cardigan before she could object any further. “It’s payment for all of the biscuits you bake me. Take care, Mrs. Kirshner.”
“Good boy, good boy,” she crooned, shaking the plate at him. “Have more.”
“Thanks.” He took a second biscuit then waved as she retreated into her home. As she shut the door, he heard her sing a lullaby to her cat. She sounded happy.
Daniel chewed on the biscuit as he tilted his head back to stare at the stained ceiling a foot above his head. Down the hallway, a baby began crying. Two men were arguing on the floor below. The light at the end of the hallway—one of the two remaining working bulbs—hissed and flickered.
A house for the desperate…
He exhaled through his nose as he turned towards his cousin’s apartment. The biscuits would have to do for dinner. If he was lucky, he could pick up a new cash-in-hand cleaning job the following day. Or—he didn’t dare hope too much—he might get a reply to one of his applications.
The city was starving for jobs, and any time he walked into an interview, he had to sit alongside at least twenty other candidates waiting for their names to be called. And he had minimal work experience, no qualifications, and no car. His bike got him around the city well enough, but employers expected him to have more reliable transportation.
It was a catch-22. If he could get out of the city, he might have a better chance of finding work, but he would have nowhere to stay. He was lucky to have a roof over his head as it was. His cousin, Kyle, had invited him to stay in his apartment “while he got back onto his feet.” That had been six months ago.
Two bronze numbers, 1 and 6, hung on the front of their door. It was technically apartment 616, but no one had bothered to replace the missing digit. Daniel scuffed his shoes on the mat outside while he jimmied his key in the lock. The door scraped open eventually, and Daniel nearly stepped on the white envelope lying on the linoleum floor.
“Dan, that you?”
The voice came from the living room and blended in with the explosions and automatic machine fire of Kyle’s video game.
Daniel bent to pick up the envelope. “Yeah, it’s me. I wasn’t expecting you to be home.”
“Boss left early. So I figured I might as well, too.” An explosion, then a disappointed mechanical chime signalled that Kyle had lost the match. He swore loudly.
The letter was thick card stock, not the usual flimsy paper the bills came in. It didn’t have an address, but Daniel’s name had been written on the front in a flowing script. He turned the envelope over. No return address.
The console game played a jingle as a new round began. Daniel shut the door behind himself then drifted into the tiny kitchen as he stared at the letter. Plates and pots sticky with the residue of some rice-based meal filled the sink. Daniel turned on the taps to try to soften the glue-like substance then lifted the envelope’s unsealed flap.
He never received mail—and especially not unaddressed, hand-written notes with thick card stock. His first, panicked thought was that it might be an eviction notice, but that made no sense. The apartment was in Kyle’s name. Besides, their landlord wouldn’t splurge on such decadent paper. He pulled the sheet out and unfolded it.
The letter was short but written in a neat curling script. The lines were all impeccably straight and the words small, seemingly dwarfed by the white space around them. Daniel read it twice before the message sank in.
Mr. Daniel Kane,
I would like to offer you the job of groundskeeper for Craven Manor, starting immediately.
Follow Tilbrook Street until it forks at the dead oak. Turn right and travel on for two miles to reach the property.
I look forward to your direct response.
Daniel turned the paper over. The reverse was blank. Is this a joke? If it is, I don’t get it. He’d been desperately waiting for a job offer for months, but the letter was so bizarre that he was having trouble imagining it was serious. Who gives directions to a property, rather than an address? And why hire me as a groundskeeper, of all things? It’s not like I have any experience.
That wasn’t completely true. He’d loved to garden when he lived with his grandmother before her death. They would spend hours in her backyard on the weekends, weeding, pruning, and tending. The space had made him feel safe.
There were no plants around the apartment block. At one time, a tree had been planted in the sidewalk outside, but now only its stump remained. He could sometimes go a full day without seeing any green except for the algae in a drain or an occasional weed struggling out of a crack in the sidewalk. Being paid to work in a garden sounded like a dream.
But it’s not a real offer. It can’t be. Someone’s playing a prank.
The pots were overflowing, so he turned off the tap and moved into the living room. Kyle sat on the couch, seemingly unconcerned that he’d planted himself over the stained section, and bent forward as he stared, fixated, at the TV screen. His character ran through an abandoned warehouse, sniping any enemy infantry that popped up, and occasionally throwing grenades. Daniel cleared his throat, but Kyle didn’t respond, so he rested his aching back against the wall and waited for his cousin to finish.
It was hard to believe Kyle had played football in college. He’d been a popular guy back then, with bulging muscles and hair the same shade of bronze as Daniel’s. He hadn’t been good enough to make a career of it after school, though, and had eventually gotten a job with a construction crew. Daniel knew he worked hard, but a diet of soft drinks and greasy takeaway had ruined his figure. Fragments of chips dusted the black T-shirt that clung tightly around his midsection, and he’d started to develop fat on his cheeks and the back of his neck. He gnawed at his lower lip as he coaxed his avatar into mowing down another sniper. The game chimed to signal the end of the match. Kyle’s team was the victor, and he let out a whoop as he collapsed back.
“Hey,” Daniel said and held up the sheet of paper. “Did you leave me this?”
“What the hell is it?” Kyle squinted at the page but didn’t leave his couch to get a closer look. “Did you finally get a job?”
“No—I mean, I—”
“Because I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. We’re going to have to bring in a third roommate.” Kyle scratched at his stubble and threw the game controller aside. “I know you pitch in for rent, but utilities are going up next month, and what you give me just isn’t cutting it. I already talked to a friend from work. I think he’s game.”
“Oh.” Daniel felt the familiar sinking sensation in his stomach. He slipped an inch down the wall. “But we’ve only got two bedrooms—”
“Yeah, so he’d have to share with you. I can’t risk my sleep being interrupted, y’know? I need to get up early for work.”
Kyle rarely left the house before nine, but Daniel bit his tongue on that topic. “A second bed won’t fit in my room. There’s almost no space as it is.”
“Do you have a job? Can you pay me more?” Kyle jutted out his lower lip and lifted his eyebrows. “’Cause if not, we’ll both be out on the street.”
“I understand. If we need to get a third renter… well, we have to, don’t we?” Daniel rubbed his hand across the back of his neck and shrugged. “Could we switch rooms, maybe? Yours is big enough for two beds, and you’d still have privacy in mine.”
“Sorry, buddy.” He picked up the game controller and began selecting options for a new match. “You know I have too much stuff to fit into that poky space. Hey, can you fetch me a drink from the fridge on your way past?”
Daniel obediently collected a can of soft drink, tossed it to Kyle, then slipped through the apartment’s door. His heart pounded, and his palms felt sweaty. The idea of living on the street again—panhandling and digging food out of trash cans the way he had before Kyle found him—made nausea flood his mouth with a metallic flavour.
He stood on the doormat, listening to the crying baby’s shrieks echo along the hall. The light flickered, and every flash of light seemed to tighten the nerves inside him.
He ran his thumb over the cool paper, feeling the texture and the weight. Of course it couldn’t be one of Kyle’s jokes; it was too nuanced and strange. His cousin preferred the flashier, louder variety, like putting firecrackers in Daniel’s bed at three in the morning. His sheets were still singed from that one.
But who else would leave this note? Not Mrs. Kirshner. She’s too sweet, and her writing isn’t this neat. But I don’t think anyone else in this apartment block knows my surname.
Daniel practiced folding and unfolding the note. The creases were sharp and precise. He murmured the words to himself. “Offer you the job of groundskeeper…”
The baby’s wails finally subsided into hiccups. Daniel tucked the letter into his jeans’ pocket and jogged down the stairs to the foyer, where he stored his bike. It was nearing dinnertime, but the sun wouldn’t set for another couple of hours, so he had time to at least check whether the property existed.
He lived in a home for desperate people, and desperate people couldn’t be choosy.
Daniel leaned forward on his bike and relished the sensation of cold air whipping his hair about his face. Whenever he got out of the city, he liked to pump the pedals as fast as he could and race over the hills and dips. If he found just the right angle, it felt like he was flying.
Surrounded by bird chatter, he turned down Tilbrook Street, following the note’s instructions, and found himself in an area he wasn’t familiar with. He occasionally passed farmhouses and turnoffs, but no cars disturbed the tranquillity of early evening. The farther he biked, the more remote the buildings became, until he was surrounded by only thick pines and strangling vines.
He followed the road’s bend. A massive, long-dead oak tree stood at the end of the path. Its branches seemed to extend towards Daniel like gnarled, twisted fingers. His breathing ragged, he slowed as he neared it and stopped in its shadow.
The path took a sharp curve to the left at the oak tree, as though it had hit the obstacle and been forced to go around. The note said to go right. Daniel looked, but there was no sign of any path—just dense, clumpy vegetation.
It was a prank after all. He turned to search behind himself. Uneasiness made the hairs on his arms rise. It wasn’t hard to imagine a crime cartel luring a desperate, friendless young adult down a remote road with the promise of a job, only to knock him unconscious with a brick and steal his kidneys. Daniel knew human organs could sell for a lot on the black market; he’d researched it on some of his more desperate nights.
The dirt path was bare, and as far as he could see, nothing lurked amongst the vegetation on either side. He stepped off his bike, remaining alert, and moved closer to the tree.
Kids and teens had scratched messages into the trunk. Some looked old enough to predate Daniel; none looked recent. Many used the familiar initials and plus sign enveloped in a heart, and one appeared to be a rhyme that had been broken off partway through. And one simply read Craven Manor with a tiny arrow pointing to the right.
Daniel turned. There was still no path through the trees. The sun was getting lower, and now that he was no longer moving, he’d begun to feel chilled. Turn around. Go home.
He imagined what the evening might hold: lying awake in bed, hungry and frustrated, while he listened to Kyle play his game. He would be bone tired, but the aches in his muscles wouldn’t let him sleep for hours. Daniel grimaced.
Walking the bike at his side, he approached the patch of trees and vines where the path should have forked. When he drew close enough, he saw a series of grey shapes embedded in the ground. He scraped his shoe across one to clear the dirt away and found a flat, manmade flagstone. He lifted his eyes and saw more of them leading into the woods. Some poked up at strange angles where tree roots had excised them from the ground. Others had sunk deep into the dirt and were barely visible. He suspected still others lurked out of sight, hidden by time, creating something like a path.
“Well, how about that.” Daniel cast one final glance behind himself to make sure he wasn’t about to be kidnapped, then he lifted his bike and carried it over the oak tree’s massive roots.
He didn’t think he was imagining that the air was growing colder. The forest had become dense enough to block out light, and drops of water clung to the plants. They splashed onto him as he brushed past, running under his collar and making him shudder.
The path wove erratically. In some places, trees grew up through the stones, interrupting the path, and Daniel had to hunt around to find where it continued. He didn’t like how neglected the trail was. He supposed it was possible that another road approached the manor from a different direction and that the house’s owner had simply given him a long-disused shortcut. But he felt vulnerable. The birdcalls seemed distorted, and the trees dwarfed him. Their trunks were so wide that he could have wrapped his arms around them without his fingers touching.
The path tended uphill. Daniel considered leaving his bike and collecting it on the way back, but the idea of losing it in the woods was enough to keep his clammy fingers gripping its handles. Vines and branches kept catching in its wheels, and the path was so rough that he had to carry it more often than not.
Daniel was breathless by the time the forest opened up. The sky had entered the twilight stage when shapes began to lose their colour. Already-strained muscles ached from the exertion, but he couldn’t repress a grin when he stumbled on a massive wrought-iron gate blocking his path.
So the manor is real. Does that mean the job offer is real, too? For the first time in what felt like months, a spark of hope warmed his insides. Then he stepped closer to the gates, and trepidation returned to extinguish his hope.
The massive iron structure towered over him, with rows of vicious spikes at its top. But it was also incredibly old. Vines grew through and around it, and thick chunks of rust had flaked off the structure. Eroding ground had caused one half to fall ajar, creating a small gap where he could enter through. Beyond, overgrown tangled gardens obscured the manor. He could glimpse the dark roof, silhouetted against the fading light, a few minutes’ walk away.
This has to be the right place, doesn’t it? The gates look ancient, though. Words had been inscribed in the metal bar that ran along the centre of the gates. Daniel brushed the grime off to read the name: Craven Manor.
He clung to the hope that he was coming from a back path. It didn’t matter that the gates were neglected to the point of falling apart if no one ever visited that part of the grounds. And based on the riotous gardens, he suspected no one had been to this corner in a long time.
Strange that the instructions brought me by this route. Even if it’s a shorter trip, it’s nearly impossible to find.
The gap between the gates was wide enough to squeeze through, but they wouldn’t be easy to get back out of. He hesitated—imagining trying to flee while being chased by vicious guard dogs, spit flying from their teeth as they bit at his ankles—and squeezed his lips together.
Desperate people can’t be picky.
He rested his bike against the gate then lifted a foot, extended it through the gap, and balanced on a rock just inside the property. He had to brace himself on the rusted metal as he eased through, doing his best not to ruin his clothes, though the grime was staining his hands black. He wouldn’t have been surprised if the gate hadn’t been touched in more than a century; it looked at least that old.
Vines snagged his foot as he pulled it through, and he stumbled then caught himself on a tree. Visibility diminished as night fell, and Daniel grew nervous about finding his way home. But the letter had said it wanted him to start work immediately. They were clearly desperate for a gardener. If he balked and left, the owner might think he didn’t want the job and offer it to someone else.
The flagstone path was clearer inside the property’s bounds, but weeds choked the spaces between the stones. Plants spilled beyond their boundaries in uncontrollable tangles, fighting for space. There were nearly as many dead trees as living ones, though many had collapsed and were slowly being turned into compost by tiny insects. Daniel had to clamber over several large fallen logs as he followed the path towards the house.
A deep, prolonged, melancholy cry startled Daniel. A flock of crows perched on a tree near the house, seemingly watching over the building. Two of them took flight as Daniel passed beneath them. Their massive wings made a whirring whistle as they churned the air. He watched them swoop away, the fading light catching in their silky black feathers.
Then he turned towards the house, and the little spark of warm hope he’d been nurturing withered into a dead coal.
Craven Manor was a massive building. Its three stories seemed to have burst out of the ground like an abomination, full of disorderly protrusions and jumbled ledges. More than two dozen black windows overlooked the entryway, which was comprised of three broad stone steps leading up to a wooden-arch double door. Pillars supported an awning that could easily shelter twenty people. The stones were all old, worn down, and speckled with green-and-grey lichen. A tower extended from the building’s side, rising above the roof’s highest peak.
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