Freddie Jacobs didn’t know what Mr Perskine looked like, but he recognised him all the same. There was no mistaking a buyer, particularly the wet, pliant sort. They were Freddie’s favourite kind. He smiled to himself as he took a last drag off his fag, flicked it out of the window and sprayed some deodoriser to mask the smell. When the scent of Alpine Forest had spread through the car’s interior, he switched on the engine and drove over to pick up Perskine.
It was a horrible day, no mistake about it. The rain had come late last night and didn’t show any signs of abating. There were reports of floods in the next county, but that wasn’t about to stop Freddie from continuing with business as usual.
“Mr Perskine?” he said to the bedraggled man standing in the rain and when he nodded, Freddie opened the passenger door and told him to get in.
Perskine clambered into the car awkwardly, dripping all over the upholstery. Freddie had just had it valeted.
“Don’t worry about the leather,” Freddie said, “just get yourself inside.”
Perskine used several combinations of the words “thanks”, “sorry” and “urgh” to get across what an awkward time he was having. Once he had finally settled, he turned to look at Freddie, who took control of the the conversation.
“Freddie Jacobs,” he said, sticking out his hand, “it’s good to finally meet you in the flesh, Mr Perskine.”
“You too, Mr Jacobs.”
“Call me Freddie.”
Mr Perskine didn’t offer his first name. That didn’t bother Freddie. The customer was always right, even when he was uptight.
“Hope you weren’t waiting too long,” Freddie said. “The trains on that little line can be a bit erratic.”
“Is that so?” Perskine said. Freddie realised that he was undermining the transport links of the property he was trying to sell and backtracked smoothly.
“Can be,” he conceded, “but the property we’re going to is actually closer to Crowborough, which has the proper mainline service to Hastings.”
“Then why did I have to come here?”
The atmosphere in the car turned chilly. Freddie turned up the heater.
“Ah, well, I had other meetings in the area. Hope I didn’t inconvenience you too much.”
“No,” Perskine said. “Not too much.”
Freddie realised that he had somewhat misread Perskine. While he was a bit of a cold fish, he wasn’t as wet as he first appeared and that business was a better option than banter.
“Seen many other properties in the area, Mr Perskine?”
“A few. Mostly around Mayfield, Rotherfield, some of the villages around that way.”
“Seen much you like?”
Perskine shrugged his shoulders. “OK, I suppose. A lot of new builds.”
“Not your sort of thing?”
“Not at the prices they’re asking, no.”
“And who’s been showing you them?”
“Peterson & Lowe. You know them?”
“Aha. Yes, I know them alright,” Freddie chuckled.
“Oh, no. Peterson and Lowe are a good company. Very successful, do a lot of business.”
Freddie sucked his teeth. “Not exactly known for the personal touch.”
Perskine’s eyes narrowed. “No… I suppose not. I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“Look, I’m not knocking them,” Freddie said. “They’re a big firm. Six offices, lots of agents, big contracts. All well and good, but sometimes the customer gets left behind in the shuffle, you know what I mean? They’ve got all these agents trying so hard to screw each other out of commission that sometimes they forget that people have to live in the places they’re selling. It’s one way of doing business, I suppose, but I’ve been in this game for twenty years and I’ll tell you something that most agents have either forgotten or never knew.”
“The property business is the people business.”
Freddie paused a moment to let his great truth sink in, before then going on to expand on it.
“Sure, we deal in bricks and mortar, but it’s about people. It’s about their homes, their businesses, their lives. Our homes and our places of business are where most of our time is spent. The connection you feel with a place doesn’t just boil down to facts and figures. It comes from here-” he took one hand off the wheel and touched the centre of his chest. “-you know?”
“Yes. I do, actually.”
“You trying that to the kids Waterson & Lowe have got working for ‘em and they won’t know what you’re talking about.”
Perskine nodded, but didn’t say anything and the two men sat quietly for a while. Freddie glanced over at Perskine and saw that he was playing with his wedding ring.
“You married?” Freddie asked, nodding at the gold band on Perskine’s finger.
“Oh. Um… yes.”
That ‘um’ told Freddie a lot.
“She’s not coming with you to look at houses?”
“She’s in the States at the moment. Working. You know how it is…”
Freddie nodded. He suspected there was some doubt as to whether the wife was coming back at all. From Perskine’s agitated state, Freddie guessed that he himself wasn’t sure of this fact and perhaps was banking on a new house and a fresh start to seal the deal. Perskine’s battered shoes and tatty briefcase told Freddie that money was tight, but a woman who flies to the states for business probably did alright for herself. People could be old fashioned, though – even career women who expected their husband to be the main breadwinner, even though he had no hope of living up her overachieving standards. Freddie had seen it all before, but said nothing. Instead, he just said: “You must miss her.”
Perskine looked surprised and said that he did. Very much.
Conversation fell away again and as the A-road disappeared beneath the tyres of the Vauxhall Insignia. Perskine didn’t want to talk and Freddie was trying to ignore a feeling in his gut. Eventually, he could disregard it no longer and broke the silence.
“Can I be straight with you, Mr Perskine?”
“Um… Yes. Of course.”
“The house we’re going to look at probably isn’t for you. I mean, it’s nice enough, but it’s not going to be much different from anything Waterson & Lowe would show you. It might have the features you’re looking for – two bed, one bath, blah blah blah – but it’s just a box on a street full of other boxes that all look the same. Fine if you like that sort of thing, but I get the impression that you’re after somewhere a little different. Somewhere that’s going to feel special. Somewhere that your wife will want to come home to. Am I right?”
Perskine looked at Freddie curiously, swallowed and then said: “Yes. That’s exactly right.”
“Then, if you don’t mind, I want to take you somewhere else. It’s a bit out of the way, but it’s a one-of-a-kind property that’s going for an absolute song. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I suspect it might be yours and if you’re willing to indulge me, I think you’ll find it’s worth your while.”
“Ok…” Perskine said, slightly suspiciously.
“If you don’t like it, we’ll go on to the terrace in Furness Road, but for the sake of half an hour, I really think you should take a look. All right?”
“OK,” Perskine said. “Let’s do it.”
“There’s just one thing I need to know beforehand,” Freddie said, “and it’s going to sound a little bit peculiar, but I ask you to bear with me and just be honest.”
“Are you superstitious?”
Perskine’s eyes widened with surprise. “Not as a rule, no.”
“What about your wife? Would you say she’s given to that sort of thing?”
Perskine snorted and said: “She’s American”, as if that was all that needed to be said.
“OK then,” Freddie said as he flicked his indicators to change lanes. “Let’s have a look then, shall we?”
“What does that mean, about being superstitious?” Perskine asked.
“I promise I’ll tell you everything,” Freddie said, “I won’t leave anything out. But after you’ve seen the property, OK?”
Perskine considered for a moment and then shrugged and said: “Fair enough.”
Pine Barrow didn’t so much stand on top of the hill as it did crouch. The farmhouse squatted low, as if ready to pounce on anything that dared to cross its path. Not much did, however, as the house was some 500 yards from the road, with only a jutted driveway connecting it to the thoroughfare.
“That’s it?” Perskine said quietly as the car approached.
“That’s it,” Freddie said, glancing at his client and seeing that he was already taken with the place. Sometimes you needed to help them along, talk them up and point out the reasons they and the house were right for each other. Other times, though, you just needed to stand quietly by while they got acquainted. Pine Barrow wasn’t like other properties, but they could go through that later. For the moment, Freddie was content just to quietly by while Perskine fell in love with the place.
The car crunched its way along the surface of the rough driveway. It sagged and bobbed on the pitted path, but Perskine’s eyes never left the house. Once the car was parked, the two of them sat there for a moment.
“You want to have a look?” Freddie asked.
Perskine just nodded, but Freddie knew that this wasn’t due to taciturnity. He was smitten.
Strictly speaking, Pine Barrow was a farmhouse, although it hadn’t served as one for sixty years. The surrounding fields had been absorbed by a neighbouring farm, then turned over to the National Grid and other anonymous concerns. The house still stood, however, and had been modified and adapted by each of its subsequent owners, with various extensions and enhancements extruded out from its core. At the centre of it all was a tough stone structure, impervious to the elements. So it had to be, for as much as its position on top of the hill afforded Pine Barrow stunning views, it also left it exposed to the elements. Rain, wind and hail lashed against it constantly and such barrages left no trees to offer cover in winter or shade in the summer. Still, the enduring strength of the building gave it character. While the surface was battered, its heart remained strong and the weathered appearance gave it character. Freddie let Perskine admire the front while he got busy trying to find the right key.
The back door led straight into the kitchen, which despite being stripped of most of its features still had enough of them to make a good impression. Perskine’s eyes went straight to the Aga.
“Yeah,” Freddie said, “that’s worth about three grand in and of itself. Heats the kitchen, too. I’ve never used one myself – more of a microwave man – but people tell me nothing but good things about them.”
Perskine nodded, but said nothing. Freddie let him find his own way through the house, trailing him at a discreet distance and making comments only when they seemed necessary.
“Fireplace works,” he said as they went through to the living room. “From what I’m told, between that and the Aga, you won’t go cold downstairs. Upstairs, well, you can put electric heaters in the bedrooms and there’s an electric bar in the bathroom.”
Again, Perskine nodded and allowed himself to be led upstairs. In each of the bedrooms, he looked in wonder at both the rooms themselves and the views out of the windows. All three bedrooms were all of a good size and he started to see himself making a future in Pine Barrow. Both he and his wife could have an office of their own and fulfil their long held dream of working from home. The box room would make a perfect walk-in closet for her clothes and even though the bathroom was small, there was a huge bathtub in there. Big enough for two.
When Perskine had seen enough, Freddie took him back down to the front room and asked him what he thought.
“It’s… amazing,” Perskine said. “It’s really, really… amazing.” He shook his head. “But there’s no way I can afford it. I would love to live here, but it’s got to be five times the price of what I’m looking for.”
“You’ll be surprised,” Freddie said and mentioned a figure that made Perskine’s jaw drop.
“That can’t be right, can it?” Perskine said, agog. “That’s like giving it away.”
“But nobody wants it.” Freddie said.
“You asked me if I was superstitious,” Perskine said. “Is it… haunted?”
“No,” Freddie said and they both shared a laugh at the notion.
“Not to my knowledge,” Freddie continued, “and I’ve lived around here all my life. I don’t believe in that sort of thing, but there’s plenty that do and one of them would have told me by now. It’s not haunted, but nobody’s lived here for over ten years.”
“It used to belong to John and Freida Cooper.”
It was clear that Perskine didn’t recognise the names.
“They killed thirteen people in this house,” Freddie said. “Chopped them up and buried the pieces in the ground.”
That made Perskine’s eyes widen.
“Wow,” he said. “Here?”
Freddie watched as Perskine looked around the house, the new information altering everything he thought he knew about the property.
“Amazing,” Perskine murmured. He turned back to Freddie. “Tell me more.”
“I don’t know a lot,” Freddie said with a sigh, “but from what I can recall, it was mostly hitch-hikers, or kids that had run away from home. They would offer them a place to stay for the night, or a hot meal and then… they would do away with them.”
“‘Do away with them’?” Perskine insisted. “How do you mean, exactly?”
Freddie sighed. “I don’t know all the details, but from what I recall it was mainly done with an axe from the woodshed. Frieda would make them dinner and she would flirt with them and then John would split their head open with an axe. There used to be a chest freezer in the kitchen. They would put the bodies in there for a while, then bury them in the cellar.”
“There’s a cellar?” Perskine asked.
“Can I see it?”
Freddie looked at Perskine, as if considering whether he could refuse. Eventually, he relented.
“If you must.”
After the right key had been found, Freddie opened the cellar door and handed a large Duracell torch to Perskine, who switched it on and gingerly crept into the cold, dark basement. Freddie stayed by the door, where it was light. After a few minutes of wandering around and shining the torch here and there, Perskine turned back to Freddie.
“How were they caught?”
“I think they got careless,” Freddie said with a shrug. “They’d been doing it so long, they probably thought they could go on forever. Living here, you know, away from people, they must have got further and further away from reality. They just got sloppy, by all accounts.”
“Still…” Perskine muttered. “Thirteen people…”
“And now no-one wants to live here?” Perskine said, running the torch beam across the cold dirt floor of the cellar.
“Live here? No. People visit from time to time.”
“Yeah,” Freddie sighed, seemingly disappointed that he was forced into this further revelation. “You know the type – people who get off on murder and stuff. You don’t get ‘em so much any more, but a few years ago, when the case was in the papers, they were up here pretty regular. I mean, I doubt you’d get any now, if that’s a worry…”
“And, what, they just wanted to look around?”
“Some. Others wanted… well, there were a couple of teenagers who came here one night and… they said it was one of them suicide pact things. Both of them took pills and never woke up.”
“Yeah. And there was the homeless guy who broke in. Junkie, you know. Overdosed in the front room.”
“Blimey. And that’s why people don’t want to live here?”
“I suppose. It’s not like people think it’s haunted; it’s just that they know so many people died here. Not just with John and Frieda, but after that and all.”
“Was that all of them – the kids and the junkie?”
“No. There were a few more hitchhikers. They came here and never left. Nobody ever found the bodies. I think that when people come here, they sort of sense all the death in the air. That’s why most people don’t like it.”
“Huh,” Perskine said, taking one last look at the floor and ruminating on the secrets it held. “Well, that sort of thing doesn’t bother me. To be honest, I find it all quite fascinating. Has anyone ever written a book about it, because-?”
Perskine stopped mid-sentence as a thought suddenly struck him.
“But if they never found the bodies, how-?”
He turned to Freddie, who was standing in the doorway and watching Perskine very, very closely.
“Um… I think I’ve seen enough now,” Perskine said. “Can we go back upstairs?”
Freddie didn’t move. He just smiled.
“Really,” Perskine said. “I’d like to get out of here. Now.”
Freddie kept smiling.
He was, after all, in the people business.