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OFF DUTY

CHAPTER ONE

           To say the house was silent would seem merely to suggest the absence of noise. The house wasn’t without noises - the creak of old copper piping, the gentle drip of a tap that no longer tightened, the tiny sound of wind whistling through glazing that had seen better days. 

           But had there been an observer in this small, unassuming property, wedged between identikit houses in an unassuming road, they would surely say the house was silent.

           Room after room lay still, the chaos of half-unpacked boxes and suitcases leading in a winding trail towards an open bedroom door. Moonlight stole through crooked blinds, ricocheting from the slats to land on the face of the single, sleeping occupant, who sprawled on the bed as untidily as her belongings.

           The house’s quiet soundtrack didn’t stir her, and her gentle breathing added to the score as she slumbered peacefully amongst the mess. 

           Over so many small sounds, the wardrobe’s softly opening door went unnoticed.

           It brushed across the carpet, yawning wide, revealing the dark interior of the cupboard, where there was… nothing. No boxes had been unpacked into the tidy, empty space. No possessions sat on the shelves or hung from the rail. Nothing was inside the wardrobe. And after a long moment, Nothing left it.

           Nothing stared down at the figure in the bed, who still slept peacefully, unaware of the door which now hung open only inches from her sleeping face. Nothing moved silently around the edge of the bed, getting closer and closer to the slight rise and fall of the crumpled duvet, closer and closer to the imperceptibly breathing face.

           Then the house chimed in, with an uncharacter­isti­cally loud bang, perhaps a pipe, perhaps the whistling breeze catching something at just the right angle to topple it. Whatever the source, Nothing wanted to know about it.

           Moving through the door, down the darkened hallway, slipping between boxes and cases, Nothing headed down the stairs, unlit by moonlight that spilled in a jagged, colourful pattern through the stained glass of the front door. It travelled around the corner of the stairs, past the empty nails where pictures once hung, past the kitchen, and on into the half-unpacked lounge.

           On a low, old-fashioned coffee table, stained with years of loving use from former owners, sat a large, black kit bag, in such pristine condition that it practically gleamed in the moonlit living room. Its open zip revealed flashes of the cuffs, boots and vest nestled inside. Paper timetables and itineraries were stacked next to it, topped with a leather card holder. 

           The card holder itself lay open, proudly display­ing a similarly pristine ID card, showing the slightly panicked face of PC Jess Layton, newly arrived member of the Huntshire Police Force. Her long brown hair and sporadically plucked eyebrows suggested that she might, in fact, be the untidy figure sleeping peacefully upstairs. 

           Without warning, the whole pile was swept violently from the coffee table, tumbling into a stack of jumbled boxes and sending a lamp crashing to the floor. As the silence in the house shattered, Jess Layton sat bolt upright in bed. 

           Stumbling groggily from her slumber, she burst out onto the landing and then stopped, listening intently to the seemingly empty house. The hair on her head was piled untidily from sleep, the hair on her arms stood on end. Taking a deep breath, she began to edge towards the stairs. 

           ‘Police!’ Jess called in an unsteady voice, trying to sound braver than she looked in her baggy old pyjamas. She took a couple of gentle steps down the stairs, straining to hear a reaction. Nothing moved. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she peered into the dark hallway, before groping for the light switch. Light flared into the darkness - but still nothing emerged.

           Jess trod quietly towards the front door, peering through the patterned glass of the window. There didn’t seem to be any sign of movement in the darkness beyond her quietly sheltered porch. As she stood there, squinting into the gloom, she heard the soft rustle of something shifting behind her. 

           Whirling around, Jess stared down the now lit hallway, towards the gaping door of the lounge. Clenching her fists, she began to edge towards it, feeling her heart beginning to race beneath the thin cotton of her pyjama top. Crossing the threshold, she flipped the light switch and raised her fists. 

           The lit room revealed nothing more than a mess of tumbled boxes and spilled possessions. Spotting her kit bag, Jess lunged forwards and reached in­side, withdrawing a sleek metal baton. With her other hand she seized the leather badge holder, before racking the baton open with a crisp click, and drawing herself upright. 

           ‘We could be about to set a record for burglary response times here…’ she called, struggling to keep her voice light. The room stayed still and silent. 

           Slowly, carefully, Jess travelled through the empty house, turning on every light and opening every door. Each window lock was carefully exam­ined, every handle turned, the location of every key double-checked. No sign of any intruder could be found.

           Eventually, as Jess stood framed in yet another empty cupboard doorway, she made an exasperated time check on her phone. The numbers seemed to mock her as she realised it was now 2:00am and every nerve in her body was still firing like she was about to run a hundred-metre dash. 

           As she stood, heart still pounding even in the bright, reassuring lights of her hallway, the silence was suddenly broken by a loud gurgle from Jess’s empty stomach. It seemed her body wasn’t too keen on skipping dinner after a hectic day of house moving, and then a full sweep of her new home to boot. Sighing, Jess left all the upstairs lights blazing and headed back down towards the quiet kitchen.

           The polythene film covering a microwave meal for one took the brunt of Jess’s feelings. After pounding it repeatedly with a fork, she wasn’t sure it would be a particularly effective steam trap, but it definitely made her feel better.

           As she slammed it into the microwave and started the timer, Jess hunted through a half-unpacked box to find a dusty wine glass. She gave it a rinse under the tap and pulled a cheap bottle of red wine from the small bag of groceries she had grabbed in the course of her chaotic house move. 

           The microwave whirred comfortingly, and Jess took a deep, steadying breath as she poured the wine. The first sip was sharp and acidic, but helped to calm her as she looked around the still unfamiliar kitchen. Her eyes travelled across the slightly chipped tiles, battered cupboards and scuffed floor, none of which were improved by the chaos of Jess’s moving boxes. Taking her mind off mysterious late-night noises was definitely harder in a house that didn’t yet feel like home. 

           Suddenly feeling the overwhelming need to hear other human voices, she reached out for the radio that perched on the kitchen side and flicked it on. It crackled into life with the artificially happy chatter of a local radio DJ.

           ‘Hello, and welcome back to the late show with me, Ricky White - getting you through the night!’ the radio trilled. ‘In just a few minutes, we’ll be asking you to tell us why you’ve had the world’s greatest Monday, in a ground-breaking new seg­ment called… Hashtag Humblebrag.’

           Jess groaned slightly and rubbed her eyes.

           ‘But first,’ Ricky White added jovially, ‘here’s one for all you winners. This is the Black Dog Blues, enjoy it with your meal for one!’

           Jess glowered at the radio and went to turn over the station. As she reached for the dial, the lights suddenly flickered, and the radio’s feed distorted for a moment. The gentle background hum of the microwave seemed to be faltering. Confused, Jess turned to look at it, wondering whether the old appliance was overloading a circuit.

           She turned the microwave off for a moment, and the lights and radio returned to normal. After a careful pause, she tried pushing the button to start cooking again. The lights and music held steady. 

           Shrugging, Jess polished off the remains of her glass while waiting for the meal to finish cooking. As the microwave chimed its successful conclusion, she poured herself another generous measure, before seizing the meal and retreating to the sofa next door. 

           The living room felt a little more comfortable to Jess. Despite being just as untidy as the rest of her house, it had one major advantage - this was where she had brought the squashy old sofa from her mother’s home, the one she had spent many years playing, napping and watching TV on. There was a little groove in one cushion that she had come to think of as her particular place, worn smooth from years of being lounged upon.

           It was this familiar spot that she now curled up in, wine on the coffee table in front of her, wolfing down the microwave meal directly from its plastic container. She kept the racked baton perched on the table next to her wine glass, only a single lunge away from her hand. 

           The rest of the living room still loomed strange around her, and Jess found herself huddling slightly into the crook of the sofa’s arm, enjoying the sensation of the old worn fabric brushing against her skin. The shabby overhead lampshade cast odd shadows onto the hulking, dark piano that still stood against one wall, the relic of a former occupant who hadn’t had the inclination to either tune it or haul it away across the worn carpet. 

           But as Jess shifted in her seat, she released the faintest whiff of her mother’s old perfume, drifting softly out of the threadbare cushions. A slight smile twitched the corner of her mouth. 

           With the strains of music still chirping from the radio next door, and a warm meal in her belly, Jess felt herself finally beginning to relax. 

           Then the lights flickered once and went out.

           The radio fell silent in the next room, and Jess became acutely aware of her own breathing, sud­denly loud and panicked in the dark. In the gloom, she reached out and clumsily set the meal down on the coffee table, picked up the baton, and made her way cautiously across the room, treading carefully around the forest of boxes. 

           Reaching the window, she cracked the blinds, allowing a small amount of moonlight to edge through into the darkness. After a hurried glance into the shadows now pooling in every corner, she peered out into her back garden, wondering if this was a sudden power cut. 

           Along the backs of the oblivious houses that lined her garden, Jess could see the golden glow of security lights, night lights spilling from bedroom windows, and the faint strains of someone’s television as they sat up late into the warm summer night. For a moment, she lingered by the window, overcome with a sudden longing to be in one of those other houses - any house would do, it just needed to be full of people, noise and light, not this strange shell in an unfamiliar town. 

           Then she heard something behind her - a soft, gentle thump. 

           Jess whirled around. Her glass had fallen to the floor and was bleeding red wine all over the beige carpet. Instinctively, she lunged for it, as though to clean it up, and then hesitated. It didn’t take a police officer to deduce that glasses didn’t simply knock themselves over. 

           Trying to fight back a rising sense of panic, she peered into every corner of the dark room. Nothing was there. 

           Jess took a single step forwards – and a single, untuned note rang out from the piano. 

           She froze, as the echoes of the discordant sound faded away. Her eyes were glued to the brooding shape of the piano, squatting ominously in the dark. A shaft of moonlight spilled onto the keys, and they almost seemed to glow a little in the gloom. 

           In the dim light, Jess watched in horror as another key was pressed, and another, and another. Nothing was playing them. 

           It took a moment for Jess to realise that the sudden cry in the darkness had come from her own lips. As she began to run, she seized the black kit bag instinctively, and pelted for the door to the living room. As her feet thundered towards the hallway, the door ahead suddenly flew shut in front of her. 

           Jess staggered backwards as it slammed, then lunged instinctively for the handle, trying to push the door open, but it was stuck fast. She grappled with the metal of the handle, trying to wrestle it free, but it felt like something was gripping it hard from the other side. 

           Almost sobbing in frustration and fear, Jess pounded a fist against the door, but it wouldn’t budge. She took a deep breath, stepped back, then hurled herself bodily at the wood. 

           The door finally whirled open, and Jess shot out into the moonlit hallway. She made it to the front door, scrabbling for her keys on the hallway table and thrusting them frantically into the lock. She turned backwards just in time to see the open lounge door fly shut again with a crash.

           Without question, there couldn’t be anyone else in the house.

           With that thought churning through her mind, Jess yanked the front door open and bolted into the night, with nothing but her police kit, baton and old pyjamas. She flew down the path towards her car, jerking the door open before throwing herself inside and slamming it shut. 

           She disentangled herself clumsily, then sat for a long moment behind the wheel of her battered third-hand Peugeot, staring up at the house she was now too scared to live in alone. Tears prickled the corners of her eyes, before the feeling finally overcame her, and Jess began to sob.

 

*

 

           One really good cry later, Jess wiped the smeared mascara from her cheeks, and pulled out her phone. She opened up her browser, fingers hovering over the touchscreen, wondering how best to phrase her rather unusual search. 

           ‘What to do if my house is haunted,’ she began eventually, feeling a little foolish as she did so. The search results all seemed to quickly draw the same conclusion as they rattled in, and she scrolled down the list of previewed pages. 

 

Cleanse the house… not sure what to do? Call a psychic!

 

Go to a psychic… don’t fuck about with the dead!

 

Try a psychic - can’t put a price on a poltergeist-free home!

 

Is your house haunted? Try our psychic services! Our prices are spoooookily low…

 

           Jess rolled her eyes a little at the last one, but then looked back up at the dark façade of her house. There was something about the way it innocently sat there, nestled in its neat little row of matching homes, that made the whole thing seem worse. No one else from the neighbourhood was sat out here in their pyjamas, with a baton nestling on their lap. 

           Sighing, she looked back down at the phone and tried another search. 

           ‘Psychic Services in my area,’ she tried. To her tear-stained surprise, a highly-rated entry suggested she might like to call Leaford Psychic Services, whose great reviews promised such delights as ‘quick response times’, ‘reassuring service,’ and ‘lovely cup of tea while I waited’. 

           So she did.

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