Read an Extract from The House on Cold Hill by Peter James

Read an Extract from The House on Cold Hill by Peter James

‘Are we nearly there yet?’

Johnny, a smouldering cigar in his mouth, looked in the rear-view mirror. He loved his kids, but Felix, who had just turned eight, could be an irritating little sod sometimes. ‘That’s the third time you’ve asked in ten minutes,’ he said, loudly, above the sound of the Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ blaring from the radio. Then he took the cigar out and sang along to the tune. ‘The tax man’s taken all my dough and left me in my stately home—’

‘I need to wee,’ Daisy said.

‘Are we? Are we nearly there?’ Felix whined again.

Johnny shot a grin at Rowena, who was luxuriating on the huge front passenger seat of the red and white Cadillac Eldorado.

She looked happy, ridiculously happy. Everything was ridiculous right now. This classic 1966 left-hand-drive monster was a ridiculous car for these narrow country lanes but he liked it because it was flash, and in his role as a rock promoter, he was flash all over. And their new home was ridiculous as well. Ridiculously – but very seriously – flash. Rowena loved it, too. She could see herself in a few years’ time as the lady of the manor, and she could picture the grand parties they would hold! There was something very special about this place. But first it was badly in need of a makeover and a lot of TLC.

They’d bought the house despite the surveyor’s report, which had been twenty-seven pages of doom and gloom. The window frames were badly rotted, the roof needed replacing, there were large patches of damp and the cellar and some of the roof timbers had dangerous infestations of dry rot. But nothing that the shedloads of money he was making right now could not fix.

Their daughter was obsessed with death. Last year they’d gone on a fishing holiday to Ireland, and the highlight of the trip for Daisy, who was six, had been visiting a graveyard where she discovered she could see into some of the tombs and look down at the bones below.

‘Dad, can we have the top down?’ Felix said. ‘Can we?’

‘It’s too windy, darling!’ Rowena said.

Although the late-October sun was shining brightly, straight in their faces, it was blowing a hooley, and darkening storm clouds were massing on the horizon.

‘We’ll be there in five minutes,’ Johnny announced. ‘This is the village now.’

They passed a sign saying Cold Hill – please drive slowly, with 30mph warning roundels on either side of the narrow road, then swooped over a humpback bridge, passing a cricket pitch to their left. To their right was a decrepit-looking Norman church. It was set well back and perched dominatingly high above the road. The graveyard, bounded by a low flint wall, was pretty, with rows of weathered headstones, many of them tilting, and some partially concealed beneath the spreading branches of a massive yew tree.

‘Are there dead people in there, Mum?’ Daisy asked.

‘It’s a graveyard, darling, yes, there are.’ She glanced at the low flint wall.

Daisy pressed her face against the window. ‘Is that where we’ll go when we’re dead?’

Their daughter was obsessed with death. Last year they’d gone on a fishing holiday to Ireland, and the highlight of the trip for Daisy, who was six, had been visiting a graveyard where she discovered she could see into some of the tombs and look down at the bones below.

Rowena turned round. ‘Let’s talk about something more cheerful, shall we? Are you looking forward to our new home?’

Daisy cuddled her toy monkey to her chest. ‘Yes,’ she said, a tad reluctantly. ‘Maybe.’

‘Only maybe?’ Johnny asked.

They drove past a row of terraced Victorian artisan cottages, a rather drab-looking pub called The Crown, a smithy, a cottage with a ‘Bed & Breakfast’ sign, and a village store. The road wound steeply uphill, past detached houses and bungalows of various sizes on either side. A white van came tearing down the hill towards them without slowing. Johnny, cursing, pulled the massive car as far over to the left as he could, scraping against bushes, and the van passed with inches to spare.

On their right, opposite a red postbox, were two stone pillars, topped with savage-looking ornamental wyverns, and with open, rusted, wrought-iron gates. Below the large Strutt and Parker ‘Sold’ board, fixed to the right-hand gatepost, was a smaller, barely legible sign announcing Cold Hill House.

‘I think we’re going to need another car for our new country life,’ Rowena said. ‘Something more sensible.’

‘I don’t do sensible,’ Johnny replied.

‘Don’t I know it! That’s why I love you, my darling! But I’m not going to be able to walk the kids round the corner to school any more when the new term starts. And I can hardly do the school run in this.’

Johnny slowed the car and pulled down the right-turn indicator. ‘Here we are! The O’Hare family has arrived!’

On their right, opposite a red postbox, were two stone pillars, topped with savage-looking ornamental wyverns, and with open, rusted, wrought-iron gates. Below the large Strutt and Parker ‘Sold’ board, fixed to the right-hand gatepost, was a smaller, barely legible sign announcing Cold Hill House.

As he turned in, Johnny stopped the car for a moment, watching in the rear-view mirror for the removals van; then he saw it as a tiny lumbering speck in the distance. He carried on up the steep, winding, potholed tarmac drive. It was bounded on each side by a railed metal fence, beyond which sheep grazed on the steeply sloping fields. All this land belonged to the house, but was leased to a local tenant farmer.

After a quarter of a mile, the drive curved sharply to the right and they crossed a cattle grid. As they reached a gravel-surfaced plateau at the top of the hill, the house came into view ahead.

‘Is that it?’ Felix said. ‘Wow! Wowwwwww!’

‘It’s a palace!’ Daisy squealed, excitedly. ‘We’re going to live in a palace!’

The central part of the house was fronted by a classically proportioned Georgian facade clad in weather-stained grey rendering, on three floors, or four if the cellar was included. There was a porch with a columned balcony above it – ‘Like a super-grand Juliet balcony!’ Rowena had said the first time she had seen it. On either side were tall sash windows and there were two dormer windows in the slate-tiled roof.

On the left side of the building was, incongruously, a crenellated tower with windows at the very top, and on the right was a two-storey extension which, the estate agent had told them, had been added a century after the main house had been built.

‘Who’s that?’ Rowena asked, pointing up at a window.

‘What?’ Johnny replied.

‘There’s a woman up in that window – up in that dormer in the attic – looking at us.’

‘Maybe it’s the cleaners still here.’ He peered up through the windscreen. ‘I can’t see anyone.’

The car rocked in a gust of wind, and an unseasonably cold draught blew through the interior. With a huge grin, Johnny pulled up right in front of the porch, jammed his cigar back in his mouth, took a puff, and through a cloud of smoke said, ‘Here we are, guys! Home sweet home!’

The sky darkened, suddenly. There was a rumble above them that sounded, to him, ominously like thunder.

‘Oh God,’ Rowena said, reaching for the door handle. ‘Let’s get inside quickly.’

As she spoke, a solitary slate broke free and began sliding down the roof, dislodging and collecting more slates in its path, creating a small avalanche. They smashed through the rusted guttering and fell, gathering speed, sharp as razors, slicing through the fabric roof of the Cadillac, one severing Rowena’s right arm, another splitting Johnny’s head in two, like a wood axe through a log.

As Rowena and the children screamed, chunks of masonry began raining down on them, ripping through the roof, smashing their skulls and bones. Then an entire slab of stonework fell from near the top of the facade, landing directly on the remains of the roof, flattening the car down on its suspension, buckling its wheels, and crushing its four occupants into a mangled pulp of flesh and bone and blood.

Minutes later, as the removals van crested the hill, all the driver and his crewmates could see was a small mountain of stonework, slates and timber. And above the sound of the howling wind, they could hear the monotone blare of a car horn.