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"Can I stay here?"
Her mother looked at
"Please? You just
said it won't take long, and I'd like to have another look
"I don't know,
Steph . . ."
stayed on my own before. I won't break anything, I swear."
Her mother laughed.
"Okay, fine. I shouldn't be any more than an hour, all right? An
hour and a half at the most." Her mother gave her a quick kiss on
the cheek. "Call me if you need anything."
She ran back outside
and jumped into the cab, next to the dog, who proceeded to slobber
all over her face. Stephanie watched their car being towed off into
the distance, and then it vanished from sight.
She did a little more
exploring, now that she was on her own. She climbed the stairs and
went straight to Gordon's study.
His publisher, Seamus
T. Steepe of Arc Light Books, had phoned them earlier that day,
passing on his condolences and inquiring about the state of Gordon's
last book. Her mother had told him that they'd find out if Gordon
had completed it, and if he had, they'd send it on. Mr. Steepe was
very keen to get the book on the shelves, certain that it would crash
onto the bestseller list and stay there for a long time. "Dead
writers sell," he had said, like he approved of Gordon's clever
Stephanie opened a desk
drawer and found the manuscript in a neat stack. She pulled it out
carefully and laid it on the desktop, careful not to smudge the
paper. The first page held the title, nothing more, in bold
And the Darkness
Rained upon Them
The manuscript was
thick and heavy, like all of Gordon's books. She'd read most of
them and, the odd splash of pretension aside, had quite enjoyed his
work. His stories tended to be about people who could do astonishing
and wonderful things, and the strange and terrible events that
invariably led up to their bizarre and horrible deaths. She noticed
the way he would set up a strong and noble hero and, over the course
of the book, systematically subject his hero to brutal punishment in
a bid to strip away all his arrogance and certainty, so that by the
end he was humbled and had learned a great lesson. And then Gordon
killed him off, usually in the most undignified way possible.
Stephanie could almost hear Gordon laughing with mischievous glee as
She lifted the title
page and carefully laid it facedown on the desk beside the
manuscript. She started reading. She didn't mean to spend long at
it, but soon she was devouring every word, oblivious to the creaking
old house and the rain outside.
Her mobile phone rang,
making her jump. She had been reading for two hours. She thumbed the
answer button and held it to her ear.
"Hi, sweetie," came
her mother's voice. "Everything okay?"
answered. "Just reading."
"You're not reading
one of Gordon's books, are you? Steph, he writes about horrible
monsters and scary stuff and bad people doing worse things. It'll
give you nightmares."
"No, Mum, I'm . . .
I'm reading the dictionary."
Even the brief silence
from the other end of the phone was skeptical. "The dictionary?"
her mother said. "Really?"
said. "Did you know that popple is a word?"
"You are stranger
than your father, you know that?"
"I suspected. . . .
So is the car fixed yet?"
"No, and that's why
I'm calling. They can't get it going, and the road up to you is
flooded. I'm going to get a taxi up as far as it'll go, and then
I'll see if I can find some way around on foot. It's going to be
another two hours, at least."
Stephanie sensed an
opportunity. Ever since she was a child, she had much preferred her
own company to the company of others, and it occurred to her that she
had never spent a whole night without her parents nearby. A small
taste of freedom, and it almost tingled on her tongue.
"Mum, it's fine,
you don't have to. I'm okay here."
"There's no way I'm
leaving you in a strange house by yourself."
"It's not a strange
house; it's Gordon's, and it's fine. There's no point in you
trying to get here tonight; it's lashing rain."
"Sweetie, it won't
take me long."
"It'll take you
ages. Where's it flooded?"
Her mother paused. "At
"The bridge? And you
want to walk from the bridge to here?"
"If I speed walk--"
"Mum, don't be
silly. Get Dad to pick you up."
"Sweetheart, are you
"I like it here,
"Well, okay," her
mother said reluctantly. "I'll be over first thing in the morning
to pick you up, all right? And I saw some food in the cupboards, so
if you're hungry, you can make yourself something."
"Okay. I'll see you
"Call us if you need
anything, or if you just want some company."
"I will. Night, Mum."
"I love you."
Stephanie hung up and
grinned. She slipped the phone back into her jacket and put her feet
up on the desk, relaxing in the chair, and went back to reading.
When she looked up
again, she was surprised to find that it was almost midnight and the
rain had stopped. If she were home right now, she'd be in bed. She
blinked, her eyes sore, and stood up from the desk and went
downstairs to the kitchen. For all his wealth and success and
extravagant tastes, Stephanie was thankful that when it came to food,
Gordon was a pretty standard guy. The bread was stale and the fruit
was a bit too ripe, but there were biscuits and there was cereal, and
the milk in the fridge was still good for one more day. She made
herself a snack and wandered into the living room, where she flicked
on the TV. She sat on the couch and was just getting comfy when the
house phone rang.
She looked at it,
resting there on the table at her elbow. Who would be calling? Anyone
who knew Gordon had died wouldn't be calling, because they'd know
he had died, and she didn't really want to be the one to tell
anyone who didn't know. It could be her parents--but then why
didn't they just call her mobile?
Figuring that as the
new owner of the house it was her responsibility to answer her own
phone, Stephanie picked it up. "Hello?"
"Who is this?" came
a man's voice.
Stephanie said, "who are you looking for?"
"Who is this?"
responded the voice, more irritably this time.
"If you're looking
for Gordon Edgley," Stephanie said, "I'm afraid that he's--"
"I know Edgley's
dead," snapped the man. "Who are you? Your name?"
"Why do you want to know?" she asked.
"What are you doing
in that house? Why are you in his house?"
"If you want to call
want to, all right? Listen to me, girlie: If you mess up my master's
plans, he will be very displeased, and he is not a man you
want to displease--you got that? Now tell me who you are!"
Stephanie realized her
hands were shaking. She forced herself to calm down, and quickly
found anger replacing her nervousness. "My name is none of your
business," she said. "If you want to talk to someone, call back
tomorrow at a reasonable hour."
"You don't talk to
me like that," the man hissed.
Stephanie said firmly.
"You do not
talk to me like--"
But Stephanie was
already putting the phone down. Suddenly the idea of spending the
whole night here wasn't as appealing as it had first seemed. She
considered calling her parents, then scolded herself for being so
childish. No need to worry them, she thought; no need to worry them
about something so--
Someone pounded on the
"Open up!" came the
man's voice between the pounding. Stephanie got to her feet,
staring through to the hall beyond the living room. She could see a
dark shape behind the frosted glass around the front door. "Open
the damn door!"
Stephanie backed up to
the fireplace, her heart pounding in her chest. He knew she was in
here--there was no use pretending that she wasn't--but maybe if
she stayed really quiet, he'd give up and go away. She heard him
cursing, and the pounding grew so heavy that the front door rattled
under the blows.
"Leave me alone!"
"Open the door!"
"No!" she shouted
back. She liked shouting; it disguised her fear. "I'm calling the
police! I'm calling the police right now!"
The pounding stopped
immediately, and she saw the shape move away from the door. Was that
it? Had she scared him away? She thought of the back door--was it
locked? Of course it was locked--it had to be locked. But she wasn't
sure, she wasn't certain. She grabbed a poker from the fireplace
and was reaching for the phone when she heard a knock on the window
She cried out and
jumped back. The curtains were open, and outside the window was
pitch-black. She couldn't see a thing.
"Are you alone in
there?" came the voice. It was teasing now, playing with her.
"Go away," she said
loudly, holding up the poker so that he could see it. She heard the
"What are you going
to do with that?" he asked from outside.
"I'll break your
head open with it!" Stephanie screamed at him, fear and fury
bubbling inside her. She heard him laugh again.
"I just want to come
in," he said. "Open the door for me, girlie. Let me come in."
"The police are on
their way," she said.
"You're a liar."
Still she could see
nothing beyond the glass, and he could see everything. She snatched
the phone from its cradle.
"Don't do that,"
came the voice.
"I'm calling the
"The road's closed,
girlie. You call them, I'll break down that door and kill you hours
before they get here."
Fear became terror and
Stephanie froze. She was going to cry. She could feel the tears
welling up inside her. She hadn't cried in years. "What do you
want?" she said to the darkness. "Why do you want to come in?"
"It's got nothing
to do with me, girlie. I've just been sent to pick something
up. Let me in; I'll look around, get what I came here for, and
leave. I won't harm a pretty little hair on your pretty little
head, I promise. Now you just open that door right this
Stephanie gripped the
poker in both hands and shook her head. She was crying now, tears
rolling down her cheeks. "No," she said.
She screamed as a fist
smashed through the window, showering the carpet with glass. She
stumbled back as the man started climbing in, glaring at her with
blazing eyes, unmindful of the glass that cut into him. The moment
his foot touched the floor inside the house, Stephanie bolted out of
the room and over to the front door, fumbling at the lock.
Strong hands grabbed
her from behind. She screamed again as she was lifted off her feet
and carried back. She kicked out, slamming a heel into his shin. The
man grunted and let go. Stephanie twisted, trying to swing the poker
into his face, but he caught it and pulled it from her grasp. One
hand went to her throat, and Stephanie gagged, unable to breathe as
the man forced her back into the living room.
He pushed her into an
armchair and leaned in on her. No matter how hard she tried, she
could not break his grip.
"Now then," the man
said, his mouth contorting into a sneer, "why don't you just give
me the key, little girlie?"
And that's when the
front door was flung off its hinges and Skulduggery Pleasant burst
into the house.
The man cursed and
released Stephanie and swung the poker, but Skulduggery moved
straight to him and hit him so hard, Stephanie thought the man's
head might come off. He hit the ground and tumbled backward, but
rolled to his feet as Skulduggery moved in again.
The man launched
himself forward. The two men collided and went backward over the
couch, and Skulduggery lost his hat. Stephanie saw a flash of white
above the scarf.
They got to their feet,
grappling, and the man swung a punch that knocked Skulduggery's
sunglasses to the other side of the room. Skulduggery responded by
moving in low, grabbing the man around the waist, and twisting his
hip into him. The man was flipped to the floor, hard.
He cursed a little more
while he was down there, then remembered Stephanie and made for her.
Stephanie leaped out of the chair, but before he reached her,
Skulduggery was there, kicking the man's legs out from under him.
The man hit a small coffee table with his chin and howled in pain.
"You think you can
stop me?" he screamed as he tried to stand. His knees seemed
shaky. "Do you know who I am?"
foggiest," Skulduggery said.
The man spat blood and
grinned defiantly. "Well, I know about you," he said. "My
master told me all about you, Detective, and you're going to
have to do a lot more than that to stop me."
and Stephanie watched in amazement as a ball of fire flared up in his
hand. He hurled it, and the man was suddenly covered in flame. But
instead of screaming, the man tilted his head back and roared with
laughter. The fire might have engulfed him, but it wasn't burning
"More!" He laughed.
"Give me more!"
"If you insist."
And then Skulduggery
took an old-fashioned revolver from his jacket and fired, the gun
bucking slightly with the recoil. The bullet hit the man in the
shoulder and he screamed, then tried to run and tripped. He scrambled
for the doorway, ducking and dodging lest he get shot again, the
flames obstructing his vision so much that he hit a wall on his way
And then he was gone.
Stephanie stared at the
door, trying to make sense of the impossible.
said from behind her, "that's something you don't see every
She turned. When his
hat had come off, his hair had come off too. In the confusion, all
she had seen was a chalk-white scalp, so she turned expecting to see
a bald albino, maybe. But no. With his sunglasses gone and his scarf
hanging down, there was no denying the fact that he had no flesh, he
had no skin, he had no eyes, and he had no face.
All he had was a skull
for a head.
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Skulduggery Pleasant. Copyright © 2007 by Derek Landy.
All rights reserved. HarperCollins Publishers