Hope, Faith and Charity were Jacob Anderson’s three daughters. Hope was on stage, under the bright lights, on tour in a production of Royalty Calls, a farce involving an actress marrying a prince. Now, the other two, Faith, thirteen and Charity, nine, decked out in hiking gear, accompanied Jacob along snow-covered tracks and through the endless trees of the Johnson National Park, north-west Canada. As a photographer for Toronto Times, he’d taken an assignment to photograph the wildlife and the rugged, desolate landscape there.
The day had started off fine – an early spring breeze, the snow crisp, its crystals gleaming in the sunshine and little icicles dangling from the pines. The girls were happy, pulling Jacob’s gear and some supplies on a small sled, whilst singing camp songs. “With my hand on my head and what have I here, this is my brainbox, Oh I do declare ….”
After photographing an ice-lake and the unexpected success of snapping a pair of bull moose sizing up for a fight over a female, it had suddenly grown dark. Jacob eyed the oppressive snow-laden clouds overhead. “Come on, kids, better head back to the Land Rover.”
Charity’s huge brown eyes looked up at him from beneath a green bobble hat. “How far is it, dad?”
“Only a mile or so,” he improvised. “Come on, let’s get back.”
Three days earlier they had flown into Yellowknife at the head of Great Slave Lake, then hired a Land Rover to drive to the Spruce Tree Hotel, a couple of miles off the main highway near a place called Fort Stark.
It was a surprisingly comfortable hotel with thirty-five rooms, a sauna, gym and outdoor Jacuzzi hot tub. So, Jacob thought it a good idea to bring the younger girls, expecting to leave them at the hotel in the daytime, not anticipating that they would have other ideas.
Now, Faith’s red hair protruded from her ski-cap as she let out a sigh, which expanded as mist, ghost-like into the cold forest air.
Jacob glanced at his phone, seeing that he’d either forgotten to charge it, or the battery was faulty. The indicator showed just two percent battery power left. There was no signal for miles in any case. He took a compass bearing. “Come on, kids, this way.” He gestured through widely-spaced trees, where the snow didn’t look so deep. “Soon be home!”
Half an hour later, the temperature had dropped considerably, it was starting to snow and the forest seemed unfamiliar.
“Dad, I’m scared,” Charity whimpered.
Jacob crossed his fingers. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, we’ll be fine.”
“Look, there’s a house!” Faith exclaimed , gesturing through snow-laden pines.
Sure enough, there were lights shining through windows. The forest-dwellers would be pleased to help, Jacob thought. It must be lonely out here. They would know the direction back to the track, and maybe they might have some kind of satellite phone too? Then he could let the hotel know they would be late back.
The house was large, built from timber with a substantial porch and a snow-covered sign that brushed to show Erebus. An odd name for a house, he thought. He pushed on a doorbell. Far off, there was an answering chime.
He rang again … and again, then Faith turned the door knob. “Hey, the door’s open!”
An objection stalled in his throat and he followed the girls into a large room. A fire blazed in a huge fireplace and rustic wooden tables and chairs lay around the room in disorder. A jar of coins stood on a central table.
“Hello,” Jacob called, “Hello.”
There was no response. He looked up some stairs and called again, “Hello, is anyone there. We’re lost!”
“Look!” Faith exclaimed. In a corner, a chicken carcass hung from the ceiling, swinging almost imperceptibly, as if rocked by an invisible hand.
“I don’t like this, dad,” said Charity.
“Everything’s fine,” Jacob said. “Perhaps the owners have just popped out … er, to get some wood for the fire,” he added lamely.
There was a loud rattle that made him jump like a scalded kitten. “For God’s sake, what did you do that for?”
Faith stood, regarding a pile of coins on the table, looking sheepish. “I just felt like it, I guess.”
Jacob picked one up, noticing the head of George the Fifth. He realised they were old English pennies.
“Make a wish, why don’t you?”
They all turned, startled. There stood a woman, her face as sallow as the faded dress she wore, and her skin as lined as a severely wrinkled prune. Her hair was thin and long and white, and her eyes, the palest yellow, the pupils barely visible.
“S-Sorry, we … me and my girls, we were lost. It’s snowing, we saw your lights ….”
There was a thudding sound on the stairs and a huge man appeared. He wore old brown corduroy trousers, patched and oil-stained, and a green plaid shirt over his barrel chest. They all gasped at his face. There was just one eye. Where the other would have been there was no sign of an eye socket nor eyebrow, just fleshy skin. But what frightened them even more was the meat cleaver he clasped tightly in a huge, hairy hand.
The woman turned to the man. “Look, Henry, dinner just walked in!”
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