Sheer surprise froze Peter to the spot as the house was filled with the echoing sound of the bell. That surprise was almost immediately replaced with panic, though, and Peter abandoned his attempts to be quiet, and ran.
He made it to the landing before he was caught. He called out in pain as the full weight of Michael crashed into him, and crushed him against the wall.
The man hurriedly stifled the boy’s scream with one hand while wrapping his other arm around the youth’s waist. Peter desperately tried to pull himself free of the man’s embrace, but Michael squeezed him into submission… and both fell silent.
Michael’s eyes darted about as he strained to listen, while keeping hold of the fighting child. At first, silence reined throughout the house… but the peace was shattered as that woman’s voice called out once again.
“Mr Darling… It’s Annabel Lanley, Mr Darling. I was here the other day...”
Peter tried to calm his breathing, beginning to feel almost light-headed from the adrenaline that still filled him. If he could only get free and call out for help. If he could only get to the door. He could see it clearly, only twenty feet or so in front of him at the bottom of the stairs. But Michael was holding him tightly, and showed no sign of relaxing his grip.
The man let out a gasp and quickly dragged Peter backwards as they saw the mail slot in the door open.
“Mr Darling?” Annabel looked deep into the murky depths of the old house for any sign of life.
“Mr Darling, I’m only here to help. Please let me in.”
Anna let the mail slot close and stood, considering a new tactic. She didn’t like it… it almost seemed like a threat. But Keith’s words came back to her; “I could have sworn I heard someone shouting for help.”
Anna was sure there would be an innocent explanation… but if she didn’t find out, she would be obliged to inform the police of what Keith had witnessed.
“Mr Darling, if you do not let me in to confirm you are alright I will be forced to contact the police.”
If it were possible, Michael seemed to tense even more. A few moments passed as the man considered his options, and Peter could sense his eyes upon him.
Making up his mind, Michael began to wrestle the boy down the stairs. Peter fought, of course; grabbing onto the banister and trying to plant his feet… But the man was too determined, and was soon dragging the child towards the kitchen, willing the mail slot to remain shut while they were in its field of view.
Having managed to reach the kitchen, Michael continued to drag the boy over to the cabinets. Needing it, the man reluctantly removed his right hand from the boys mouth, but kept his other arm locked securely around the child’s torso.
Peter inevitably started shouting, so Michael searched quickly. Sure enough, the bottle was where he had expected. Using a dishcloth, Michael poured a little of the contents out then let the bottle fall, ignoring the glug of the liquid as it spilled out across the floor. Grabbing up the soaked rag, he quickly clamped it over the boy’s mouth.
Peter tried to scream as he felt Michael’s hand return to his face, the cloth covering his mouth and nose. But almost immediately he felt a familiar sensation; of loosing all strength and slipping out of consciousness.
“Mr Darling?” Anna was close to giving up. Perhaps she should have gone to the police straight away. Perhaps there was something wrong. Mr Darling’s neighbours hadn’t seen him since before her last visit… so perhaps something had happened to him.
But then she heard something. Opening up the mail slot once again, she caught a brief glimpse of a figure disappearing down the hall.
“Mr Darling? Mr Darling, please just let me in. I won’t keep you long… Mr Darling?”
When no response came, she stood once more. Well, at least she knew he hadn’t died. Sighing in frustration and defeat, Anna turned away. The only thing she could do now was to ask the police for their assistance.
She was at the gate when she heard the sound of the front door unlocking and creaking open. Turning abruptly, she beheld an elderly gentlemen peering at her irritably from the house.
She was so surprised that she stood dumbstruck until the man shifted his feet uncomfortably and looked as though he was about to retreat.
“Mr Darling?” Anna almost had to shake her own head to clear it. She walked back towards the gentleman until she stood before him. He was looking her over suspiciously.
Despite his unwelcoming manner, Anna smiled warmly at him and offered her hand… which he shook reluctantly.
“My name is Annabel Lanley. I’m your community volunteer.”
Michael continued to observe her, obviously unimpressed, and Anna wavered a little, absent-mindedly biting her bottom lip. When the man still didn’t speak, she glanced over his shoulder and into the house.
“May I come in?”
“No. I’m busy.”
The man’s voice was so abrupt and cold that Anna was taken aback… But she took a deep breath to steady her nerves.
“Mr Darling, I really must insist on inspecting your home. I have to satisfy myself and my colleagues that you are coping well.”
“’Coping’? What do you mean, ‘coping’?”
“We need to make sure that you are looking after yourself, Mr Darling.”
“Of course I’m bloody looking after myself! I’m standing here, aren’t I?”
“Please, Mr Darling… I don’t mean any disrespect. There’s no shame in needing a little help...”
“I don’t need any help. I just want to be left alone!”
“I can’t do that, Mr Darling.”
Silence fell over them as Anna stood her ground and Michael waited to see if she would break. When she didn’t, he sighed in annoyance.
“Well… you can come in… but not today. I wasn’t expecting you.”
Anna considered this for a moment; on the one hand, being invited in was a breakthrough, and agreeing to Mr Darling’s request might build some trust between them… On the other, this could easily be a ploy to get rid of her, and he may never open the door to her again. If that happened, however, she would just go to the police, as she would have done if he hadn’t answered the door that day. It seemed like a risk worth taking.
“Very well, Mr Darling.” Anna held out her hand to him once more, “I will return in a week.”
Taking a moment to consider, Michael eventually shook her hand.