It was the scratching again. Three nights in a row Quintia King had been woken up at exactly 3.30am to a scratching sound in the wall. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and padded across the room. Tia laid her head against the wall and frowned, the scratching was still going. It must be rats or mice or something, it was an old house after all. The pub Tia's parents ran was the oldest building in Linwood, there had to be something living in the walls.
Tia pulled on a dressing gown and stepped out of her room and onto the landing. She walked along to her older brother's room and poked her head through the open door; a small smile crept over her lips. Brian was lying on his back and snoring like a fog horn.
"Yikes" whispered Tia. She pulled the door closed and continued along the landing to her little sister's room. Claudette was curled up in the bed in the foetal position, sucking her thumb. Tia raised an eyebrow and pulled the door to. She stared at the door to her parent's room and bit her lip; Tia didn't really want to wake them unless she absolutely had to.
Stephen and Tabitha King, real names by the way, had moved to Linwood five years ago with their three children. They moved into the only pub in Linwood and named it The Wooden Arms. Linwood was a nice place but so tiny, it was about three miles from a main road to Scotland. It sat in Lin Woods, which is where the tiny town got its name. A wide road ran through the middle of town and dead ended at the far end of Linwood. Some bright spark had named it Puddle Street; Tia had always been confused about that. Even in heavy rain she had never seen a single puddle on it.
Leading off Puddle Street were Lilac Lane on the right with Charleston Avenue opposite. Next up was Maguire Place which boasted both the fire and police stations along with the Linwood Nursery and Primary schools. After that was Colsac Close on the right which curled around a little patch of houses to re-emerge on the back edge of town. Opposite Colsac was Harler Lane where even the most committed career criminal would not venture alone.
Linwood also had a butcher, a grocer, a newsagent and garage. There was a doctor and a dentist, library and a secondary and junior school. It was a self-contained mini universe that only had one problem. No college so Tia had to catch the bus which sucked donkey balls.
Tia pushed open the door to her parent's room and stepped inside. She padded across the bed and shook her father but he continued to snore.
"Dad, we have rats. Get up" she said. Stephen continued to snore so Tia reached out and pinched his nose between her thumb and forefinger. Stephen snorted and flailed his arms around before sitting up and peering through the gloom at Tia.
"We have rats."
"Tia? What the Hell are you doing?"
"We have rats. Come and listen." Tia took her father's hand and dragged him from the room. They went into her bedroom where she switched on the light, Stephen blinked against the sudden brightness. Tia pushed him against the wall and told him to shush while they stood with their ears against the wall. After a full minute of silence, Stephen pushed himself away from the wall and opened his mouth to speak but a loud scratching floated from behind the wall.
"Like I said, we have rats" Tia sighed. Stephen frowned and placed his ear against the wall again.
"Might just be the plumbing" he replied. Tia stared at her father and raised an eyebrow, he laughed and stood up.
"Worth a try. Do you want to sleep on our floor tonight?"
"No thanks, dad. I don't mind rats. I'll see you in the morning." Stephen kissed her cheek and went back to bed. Tia eyed the wall for a moment before removing her dressing gown and turning to her bed. The quilt was gone. Tia frowned, she remembered pushing it back when she got up but it still been on the bed. She walked around the metal bedstead and found the quilt across the room under the window. Tia shook her head and took it back to bed.
At 7.30 on Monday morning, Tia hauled herself out of bed and slammed her fist down on the alarm. The plastic front fell off and the room was suddenly silent. Tia rolled out of bed and practically ran to the bathroom, with five people in the house and only one bathroom you had be quick.
After a shower, Tia returned to her room and threw her towel into the washing hamper. She opened her wardrobe and pulled out a denim skirt and a red shirt before stepping into black ballet shoes. Tia yanked her brown frizzy hair back into a hairband before heading downstairs. The smell of frying eggs and bacon floated up the stairs as Tia walked down and into the kitchen. Tabitha was standing at the cooker while Stephen was sitting at the table; he had a phone book open in front of him.
"I'm going to call the pest control people and see if they can come today. Hopefully they'll be gone by the time you get home" he said. Tia nodded before shovelling eggs, bacon, toast and tea into her mouth. Heavy footsteps on the stairs announced the arrival of Brian and Claudette so Tia scooped her bag up from the floor and dashed from the pub.
The day was bright but not particularly warm so Tia yanked her leather jacket from her back and pulled it on. She hurried across the empty beer garden to the main road and switched on her IPod. The mellow strains of Eliza Lumley filled her head, making the bus ride much nicer.
Sanstrom College was a forty minute ride from Linwood, but they accepted students from much further away than that. It was a beautiful red brick building, three floors high with windows everywhere. Classes ran from 8am till 8pm and covered everything from physics and philosophy to drama and mythology.
Tia sat in her business studies class and scribbled her notes in a tiny, looping scrawl. She sighed and tipped her head from side to side, feeling her neck creak. Tia hadn't really wanted to take this stupid class but her parents had insisted as they expected her to take over the pub when they retired.
"I don't see why Brian couldn't do it. He's older than me" she muttered.
The class was finally over in two hours and Tia hurried to the Hone Room, she needed coffee and lots of it. There was a familiar face sitting at an almost empty table, she was a tall brunette with jeans and a blue vest. Tia collected two cups of strangely thick looking coffee and carried them over to the table.
"No offence, babe but you look awful" Tia said as she said down. Eve looked up from her sheets of English work and took the coffee with a grimace.
"I hate this crap. You shouldn't have to chew something that's meant to be liquid" replied Eve. She sipped from the cup before placing it back on the table and staring at Tia.
"You don't look so good yourself, sweetie." Tia turned and examined herself in the window, her usually dark skin was slightly pale and there were rings under her eyes.
"We have rats in the walls. I don't know what they're doing in there but the fuckers make one Hell of a noise at 3am" Tia explained. She yawned and finished her coffee before going back for a refill. Eve watched her go before leaning back in her seat and stretching.
Eve lived on Charleston Avenue with her parents; she was an only child with an only child's view of the world. Basically, it's yours if you want it. She didn't really know what 'it' was and she wasn't sure if she wanted 'it' but it was nice to know that 'it' would be there if she needed it.
"Dad said he's got an exterminator coming today. Hopefully it'll be sorted by the time I drag my arse home" said Tia. She sat back down and stretched her long legs out under the table.
"Do you really think you have rats? Your mum keeps that place spotless!"
"It might be the plumbing I suppose. That pub's older then Linwood!" Tia laughed. Eve grinned and checked her watch before deciding that four hours of revision was more than enough.
"I'm starving" she said, packing up her books and papers. Tia checked her own watch and threw her cup in the bin.
"Come back to mine, we'll get a pizza and check on the rodent situation." Eve followed Tia from the Hone room and then to the bus stop.
Back in Linwood, a 'friendly' football match was being played on the green. Unfortunately, the light was fading the guys were getting a little heated about what had been done and what hadn't been done. One of the players was Greg Owens from Maguire Place, he had lived Linwood since he was six but he didn't recognize any of the other guys playing. They must be from the new blocks of flats on Harler Lane.
Greg bounced from foot to foot in an effort to keep warm. Despite thick jeans, a jumper and a puffa jacket he was freezing out here and all these fights were just getting boring. The wet grass was soaking through his trainers and making his feet wet. Greg's mum was gonna be pissed at smelly, wet socks.
Barbara and Phillip Owens doted on their children but Greg had managed to move away slightly and make at least a little life for himself. His older sister hadn't been so lucky, Amy was 21 but she acted like a six year old. She would cry when she didn't get her own way and throw violent tantrums. Greg didn't want to be living at home when he turned 30.
Greg tensed as the ball sailed through the air in his direction; he danced backwards and kicked the ball into the goal. He grinned and was about to perform a little victory jig when someone sailed out of the darkness and tackled him. Greg landed on the grass with a teeth rattling jolt and struggled to stand.
"Who the fuck did that?" he snarled. Nobody answered but the opposite team were smirking, a tall lanky guy with greasy hair spread his hands and smiled.
"Sorry, I didn't see you. A black guy in the dark is pretty easy to miss." There was a mixture of gasps and sniggers while Greg took a step forward.
"Can you see this?" he asked before punching the guy in the face. There was a satisfying crunch as the lanky guy's nose broke. Blood spurted through his fingers and his words were muffled by his hands.
"By dose! He broke by dose! Ged him!" It was too late though; Greg had zipped up his jacket and started running. He darted into one of the side streets and pressed himself against the wall at the far end. Greg watched as the lanky guy sent his mates in every direction from the green but only one of them actually came close. It was their podgy goalkeeper, he was breathing hard and sweating feely. Greg was about to make a dash for it when he spotted movement on the other side of the green, the podgy goalkeeper saw it too. A flash of white vanished into the trees.
"Over there! He's over there!" shrieked the goalie. He ran back out of the street and joined the mob that was hurrying across the green towards the trees.
"Greg?" He jumped almost a foot off the ground and almost tripped over his own feet. A shape loomed over the wall behind him in the darkness, Greg was about to make a run for it when he recognized the sunglasses and floppy fishing hat.
"Jesus Christ on a push bike, Wren! Was that you running through the park?" The guy smirked and reached over the wall, hauling Greg up and over into the garden on the other side.
"What happened? That lot live round my way. Biggest bunch dicks I've ever met" asked Wren Blaine. Greg brushed his hands off on his jeans before following his friend through the garden.
"Someone tackled me after I scored so I punched the douche bag" Greg explained. Wren let out a sharp bark of laughter.
"Let me guess. Over grown lanky streak of piss with greasy hair?"
"Yeah, don't you have any trouble with them?" Wren raised an eyebrow behind his sunglasses and Greg added his own laugh. He should have known better, Wren was not the guy to be fucked with. He'd moved into one of the new flats on Harler Lane just a year ago. His parents, Vicky and Michael, didn't work and his younger brother, Joseph, had been dragged home by the police on more than one occasion. But Wren still tried to look out for him when he could. The few that had tried to pick on him had discovered that just because Wren had bright red hair and one blue eye and one green eye had nothing to do with his ability to kick their arse. Greg had made friends with him pretty quick and introduced him to their little crew.
They sneaked around the edge of the houses and emerged on Charleston Avenue. They turned right, checked both ways on Puddle Street and crossed to the library. Greg and Wren ducked inside and hurried around to the chemistry section. On one of the tables was a large pile of books with a hunched figure behind them, he was surrounded by note books and empty Cola cans. A black mack was thrown over the back of his chair and the sleeves of his jumper were rolled up to the elbows.
"Working hard or hardly working?" asked Wren. Benjamin Taylor jumped and knocked his latest can off the table. Wren caught it, took a sip and pushed it back towards Ben.
"I have coursework to complete. You can't tell me you two don't have anything to finish." Ben pushed the can away with a grimace, Wren smiled.
"There's not a lot of work with Sport and Nutrition" replied Gregg. He glanced towards the window as a small group of people ran past the building.
"I finished mine days ago" added Wren.
"Well aren't we the amazing ones. Excuse me for picking a real subject to take" snarled Ben. He slammed the book in front of him closed and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. Ben had moved to Linwood when he was just a few months old and didn't know any different. His parents, Ida and William, worked in the city and only came home at the weekends. Ben and his older brother, Thomas, managed on Lilac Lane by themselves.
"Headache?" Wren asked.
"Yes. Two bright sparks of pain just arrived" snapped Ben. Wren raised his eyebrows behind his sunglasses and watched Ben pack his books away.
"Do you two fancy a burger?" asked Greg. They left the library and turned left on Puddle Street. The few stores Linwood had were closing for the day and the street lights were just flicking on. Ben finished zipping up his bag as they walked; he clipped on a little padlock and swung the bag up onto his shoulder.
"Jesus Christ, man. We're going for a burger, not a stroll through downtown Bosnia" said Wren. He pushed open the door to the café and they walked across it to the counter. They ordered their food and then snagged a booth near the window, Greg made sure he was slightly hidden in case any of the football players went past.
"Have you seen Eve today? I walked into her at college and she mentioned something about going round to Tia's for pizza" said Greg. Wren stared at him as their burgers arrived; he looked down at the plate of food.
"You tell us this now?" he said. Ben lifted the bun from his burger and eyed the meat speculatively, but he started eating anyway. Greg was about to reply when his phone vibrated in his pocket, he pulled it out and answered.
"Alright mate? Yeah, just grabbing a burger . . . See ya then." Greg slipped the phone back into his pocket and picked up his burger.
In Tia's room above the crowded bar of The Wooden Arms, Eve was opening pizza boxes. She examined them before handing one to Tia and another to a slim blonde sitting opposite and then she settled into the overstuffed sofa with hers. Raearna Moppett opened her box and scopped out a slice, Tia watched her eat it with the usual pang of jealousy.
Raearna was tall and statuesque with blonde hair that curled down her back. She lived on Colsac Close with her parents and baby sister; they had moved in nearly two years ago and were generally an attractive family.
"Where are the others?" she asked. Tia shook herself a little before answering.
"Getting a dodgy burger. They are gonna be sick as frigging dogs in the morning" Tia replied, laughing around a mouthful of pizza. Eve took a mouthful of her Sprite and tapped on the wall with her knuckles.
"So what did your dad say about the scratching?"
"He called the exterminator but he couldn't find anything, not even any rat crap so he doesn't think it's an infestation. He called a plumber too but he can't find anything wrong with the pipes. Apparently, despite the fact that this building is older than God the pipes are in pretty good nick." The bedroom door swung open and Ben, Greg and Wren sauntered in.
"What have you done with Cai?" asked Tia. She blushed as Wren turned a charming but knowing grin in her direction.
"Don't panic, sweet. He's just running late is all." Before Tia could reply a loud scratching from behind the wall interrupted.
"Have you got rats?" asked Ben. He laid his head against the wall and listened. Tia shook her head and repeated what she had just told Raearna and Eve.
"See, if you had been here on time I wouldn't have had to repeat myself would I?" said Tia, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Sounds like rats to me. Your dad probably just hired an inferior exterminator" said Ben. Tia raised her eyebrows before sighing and flopping down onto a bean bag chair.
"Could be a poltergeist. They usually start with scratching and knocking. Heard any knocking or is it just the scratching?" murmured Ben. He pressed his ear against the wall as the scratching started up again.