Bronte's Inferno XXI ("Com-for-ta-ble")
I trudged up the track, glad that I'd left the mysterious box in the trunk. Charon could deal with it. I'd no doubt she'd contact the Editor-At-Large with the news that I'd palmed it off on her, as slick as a music-hall cardician forcing the two of spades on a small town spinster. I leaned into the driving rain, half-expecting to see some demented Emily Bronte fan channelling Kate Bush and running hell for leather down the hillside, without actually wearing any shoes. The rain was falling faster and heavier still, but at least the lightning had stopped. But the landscape was deserted: up ahead I thought I could see a five-barred gate, but it could have been anything at all.
The sou'wester was a little too large, my baseball boots would never be wearable again. I had seen a gate, the padlock and chain looked like something for locking a beast in a cellar. There was a stile at the side and I entered the field, slipping and sliding as I tried to keep hold of my messenger bag. Part of the grass was worn where a tractor had been driven over it, but not any time within the last year. I followed the trail uphill. At the end of it stood a farmhouse and a couple of buildings that could have been anything from stables to milking parlours for all I knew. A huge and decrepit generator stood outside, juddering for all the world as though being soaked in the rain had given it the mother of all chills.
I made my way to the door of the farmhouse and attempted to use the knocker in the shape of an gnome's head. It had rusted to its plate, so I hammered hard on the door. I was about to take shelter in one of the outbuildings when the door opened with a creak that should have been in black-and-white.
I gave a gasp when the door opened to reveal a woman in what used to be called the prime of life. Well dressed, too, in the kind of trouser suit women wore on American TV in police procedurals. Her hair was long and very dark except for an arresting white stripe.
'Mr Bulgakov? For the Shepherd's Hut?' She held out a hand. I took it.
'I'm Hella, very pleased to meet you. I'm sorry, but the hut has not done well in the storm. I would be delighted if you would stay in one of the farmhouse's bedrooms. In the far wing. It is quite private. Really.' There was something exotic about the way she turned the 'w' of 'would' to 'v'.
An eye-tooth strayed over her lower lip, whilst her eyelids closed and then opened again, slowly.
'Do stay, please. I'll do my very best to make you…' She took a deep breath and then exhaled all the way through saying "com-for-ta-ble".