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"Can I stay here?"

Her mother looked at her. "Alone?"

"Please? You just said it won't take long, and I'd like to have another look around."

"I don't know, Steph . . ."

"Please? I've stayed on my own before. I won't break anything, I swear."

Her mother laughed. "Okay, fine. I shouldn't be any more than an hour, all right? An hour and a half at the most." Her mother gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. "Call me if you need anything."

She ran back outside and jumped into the cab, next to the dog, who proceeded to slobber all over her face. Stephanie watched their car being towed off into the distance, and then it vanished from sight.

She did a little more exploring, now that she was on her own. She climbed the stairs and went straight to Gordon's study.

His publisher, Seamus T. Steepe of Arc Light Books, had phoned them earlier that day, passing on his condolences and inquiring about the state of Gordon's last book. Her mother had told him that they'd find out if Gordon had completed it, and if he had, they'd send it on. Mr. Steepe was very keen to get the book on the shelves, certain that it would crash onto the bestseller list and stay there for a long time. "Dead writers sell," he had said, like he approved of Gordon's clever marketing ploy.

Stephanie opened a desk drawer and found the manuscript in a neat stack. She pulled it out carefully and laid it on the desktop, careful not to smudge the paper. The first page held the title, nothing more, in bold lettering:

And the Darkness Rained upon Them

Basse Bag Three Normandie Tote Words Canvas Eddany The manuscript was thick and heavy, like all of Gordon's books. She'd read most of them and, the odd splash of pretension aside, had quite enjoyed his work. His stories tended to be about people who could do astonishing and wonderful things, and the strange and terrible events that invariably led up to their bizarre and horrible deaths. She noticed the way he would set up a strong and noble hero and, over the course of the book, systematically subject his hero to brutal punishment in a bid to strip away all his arrogance and certainty, so that by the end he was humbled and had learned a great lesson. And then Gordon killed him off, usually in the most undignified way possible. Stephanie could almost hear Gordon laughing with mischievous glee as she read.

She lifted the title page and carefully laid it facedown on the desk beside the manuscript. She started reading. She didn't mean to spend long at it, but soon she was devouring every word, oblivious to the creaking old house and the rain outside.

Her mobile phone rang, making her jump. She had been reading for two hours. She thumbed the answer button and held it to her ear.

"Hi, sweetie," came her mother's voice. "Everything okay?"

"Yes," she answered. "Just reading."

"You're not reading one of Gordon's books, are you? Steph, he writes about horrible monsters and scary stuff and bad people doing worse things. It'll give you nightmares."

"No, Mum, I'm . . . I'm reading the dictionary."

Even the brief silence from the other end of the phone was skeptical. "The dictionary?" her mother said. "Really?"

"Yeah," Stephanie said. "Did you know that popple is a word?"

"You are stranger than your father, you know that?"

"I suspected. . . . So is the car fixed yet?"

"No, and that's why I'm calling. They can't get it going, and the road up to you is flooded. I'm going to get a taxi up as far as it'll go, and then I'll see if I can find some way around on foot. It's going to be another two hours, at least."

Stephanie sensed an opportunity. Ever since she was a child, she had much preferred her own company to the company of others, and it occurred to her that she had never spent a whole night without her parents nearby. A small taste of freedom, and it almost tingled on her tongue.

"Mum, it's fine, you don't have to. I'm okay here."

"There's no way I'm leaving you in a strange house by yourself."

"It's not a strange house; it's Gordon's, and it's fine. There's no point in you trying to get here tonight; it's lashing rain."

"Sweetie, it won't take me long."

"It'll take you ages. Where's it flooded?"

Her mother paused. "At the bridge."

"The bridge? And you want to walk from the bridge to here?"

"If I speed walk--"

"Mum, don't be silly. Get Dad to pick you up."

"Sweetheart, are you sure?"

"I like it here, really. Okay?"

"Well, okay," her mother said reluctantly. "I'll be over first thing in the morning to pick you up, all right? And I saw some food in the cupboards, so if you're hungry, you can make yourself something."

"Okay. I'll see you tomorrow, then."

"Call us if you need anything, or if you just want some company."

"I will. Night, Mum."

"I love you."

"I know."

Stephanie hung up and grinned. She slipped the phone back into her jacket and put her feet up on the desk, relaxing in the chair, and went back to reading.

When she looked up again, she was surprised to find that it was almost midnight and the rain had stopped. If she were home right now, she'd be in bed. She blinked, her eyes sore, and stood up from the desk and went downstairs to the kitchen. For all his wealth and success and extravagant tastes, Stephanie was thankful that when it came to food, Gordon was a pretty standard guy. The bread was stale and the fruit was a bit too ripe, but there were biscuits and there was cereal, and the milk in the fridge was still good for one more day. She made herself a snack and wandered into the living room, where she flicked on the TV. She sat on the couch and was just getting comfy when the house phone rang.

She looked at it, resting there on the table at her elbow. Who would be calling? Anyone who knew Gordon had died wouldn't be calling, because they'd know he had died, and she didn't really want to be the one to tell anyone who didn't know. It could be her parents--but then why didn't they just call her mobile?

Figuring that as the new owner of the house it was her responsibility to answer her own phone, Stephanie picked it up. "Hello?"

Silence.

"Hello?" Stephanie repeated.

"Who is this?" came a man's voice.

"I'm sorry," Stephanie said, "who are you looking for?"

"Who is this?" responded the voice, more irritably this time.

"If you're looking for Gordon Edgley," Stephanie said, "I'm afraid that he's--"

"I know Edgley's dead," snapped the man. "Who are you? Your name?"

Stephanie hesitated. "Why do you want to know?" she asked.

"What are you doing in that house? Why are you in his house?"

"If you want to call back tomorrow--"

"I don't want to, all right? Listen to me, girlie: If you mess up my master's plans, he will be very displeased, and he is not a man you want to displease--you got that? Now tell me who you are!"

Stephanie realized her hands were shaking. She forced herself to calm down, and quickly found anger replacing her nervousness. "My name is none of your business," she said. "If you want to talk to someone, call back tomorrow at a reasonable hour."

Canvas Normandie Three Basse Eddany Words Tote Bag "You don't talk to me like that," the man hissed.

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"Good night," Stephanie said firmly.

"You do not talk to me like--"

But Stephanie was already putting the phone down. Suddenly the idea of spending the whole night here wasn't as appealing as it had first seemed. She considered calling her parents, then scolded herself for being so childish. No need to worry them, she thought; no need to worry them about something so--

Someone pounded on the front door.

"Open up!" came the man's voice between the pounding. Stephanie got to her feet, staring through to the hall beyond the living room. She could see a dark shape behind the frosted glass around the front door. "Open the damn door!"

Stephanie backed up to the fireplace, her heart pounding in her chest. He knew she was in here--there was no use pretending that she wasn't--but maybe if she stayed really quiet, he'd give up and go away. She heard him cursing, and the pounding grew so heavy that the front door rattled under the blows.

"Leave me alone!" Stephanie shouted.

"Open the door!"

"No!" she shouted back. She liked shouting; it disguised her fear. "I'm calling the police! I'm calling the police right now!"

The pounding stopped immediately, and she saw the shape move away from the door. Was that it? Had she scared him away? She thought of the back door--was it locked? Of course it was locked--it had to be locked. But she wasn't sure, she wasn't certain. She grabbed a poker from the fireplace and was reaching for the phone when she heard a knock on the window beside her.

She cried out and jumped back. The curtains were open, and outside the window was pitch-black. She couldn't see a thing.

"Are you alone in there?" came the voice. It was teasing now, playing with her.

"Go away," she said loudly, holding up the poker so that he could see it. She heard the man laugh.

"What are you going to do with that?" he asked from outside.

"I'll break your head open with it!" Stephanie screamed at him, fear and fury bubbling inside her. She heard him laugh again.

"I just want to come in," he said. "Open the door for me, girlie. Let me come in."

"The police are on their way," she said.

"You're a liar."

Canvas Eddany Words Bag Tote Three Basse Normandie Still she could see nothing beyond the glass, and he could see everything. She snatched the phone from its cradle.

"Don't do that," came the voice.

"I'm calling the police."

"The road's closed, girlie. You call them, I'll break down that door and kill you hours before they get here."

Fear became terror and Stephanie froze. She was going to cry. She could feel the tears welling up inside her. She hadn't cried in years. "What do you want?" she said to the darkness. "Why do you want to come in?"

"It's got nothing to do with me, girlie. I've just been sent to pick something up. Let me in; I'll look around, get what I came here for, and leave. I won't harm a pretty little hair on your pretty little head, I promise. Now you just open that door right this second."

Stephanie gripped the poker in both hands and shook her head. She was crying now, tears rolling down her cheeks. "No," she said.

She screamed as a fist smashed through the window, showering the carpet with glass. She stumbled back as the man started climbing in, glaring at her with blazing eyes, unmindful of the glass that cut into him. The moment his foot touched the floor inside the house, Stephanie bolted out of the room and over to the front door, fumbling at the lock.

Basse Bag Three Canvas Eddany Words Normandie Tote Strong hands grabbed her from behind. She screamed again as she was lifted off her feet and carried back. She kicked out, slamming a heel into his shin. The man grunted and let go. Stephanie twisted, trying to swing the poker into his face, but he caught it and pulled it from her grasp. One hand went to her throat, and Stephanie gagged, unable to breathe as the man forced her back into the living room.

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He pushed her into an armchair and leaned in on her. No matter how hard she tried, she could not break his grip.

"Now then," the man said, his mouth contorting into a sneer, "why don't you just give me the key, little girlie?"

Tote Bag Normandie Eddany Canvas Basse Words Three And that's when the front door was flung off its hinges and Skulduggery Pleasant burst into the house.

The man cursed and released Stephanie and swung the poker, but Skulduggery moved straight to him and hit him so hard, Stephanie thought the man's head might come off. He hit the ground and tumbled backward, but rolled to his feet as Skulduggery moved in again.

The man launched himself forward. The two men collided and went backward over the couch, and Skulduggery lost his hat. Stephanie saw a flash of white above the scarf.

They got to their feet, grappling, and the man swung a punch that knocked Skulduggery's sunglasses to the other side of the room. Skulduggery responded by moving in low, grabbing the man around the waist, and twisting his hip into him. The man was flipped to the floor, hard.

He cursed a little more while he was down there, then remembered Stephanie and made for her. Stephanie leaped out of the chair, but before he reached her, Skulduggery was there, kicking the man's legs out from under him. The man hit a small coffee table with his chin and howled in pain.

"You think you can stop meFor Small Leather Yorkie Casual Mini Backpack Girl Pattern Idea Ipad Buldog2 Shoulder Pu Knapsack Terrier Hugs Bag xTCq16Uw?" he screamed as he tried to stand. His knees seemed shaky. "Do you know who I am?"

"Haven't the foggiest," Skulduggery said.

The man spat blood and grinned defiantly. "Well, I know about you," he said. "My master told me all about youZipper Dark Leather color Retro Coffee Messenger Sports Chest Men's Bag Brown Outdoor Shoulder Color nzwWEPA, Detective, and you're going to have to do a lot more than that to stop me."

Skulduggery shrugged, and Stephanie watched in amazement as a ball of fire flared up in his hand. He hurled it, and the man was suddenly covered in flame. But instead of screaming, the man tilted his head back and roared with laughter. The fire might have engulfed him, but it wasn't burning him.

"More!" He laughed. "Give me more!"

"If you insist."

Basse Bag Eddany Canvas Three Tote Words Normandie And then Skulduggery took an old-fashioned revolver from his jacket and fired, the gun bucking slightly with the recoil. The bullet hit the man in the shoulder and he screamed, then tried to run and tripped. He scrambled for the doorway, ducking and dodging lest he get shot again, the flames obstructing his vision so much that he hit a wall on his way out.

And then he was gone.

Stephanie stared at the door, trying to make sense of the impossible.

"Well," Skulduggery said from behind her, "that's something you don't see every day."

She turned. When his hat had come off, his hair had come off too. In the confusion, all she had seen was a chalk-white scalp, so she turned expecting to see a bald albino, maybe. But no. With his sunglasses gone and his scarf hanging down, there was no denying the fact that he had no flesh, he had no skin, he had no eyes, and he had no face.

All he had was a skull for a head.

Excerpted from SKULDUGGERY PLEASANT © Copyright 2012 by Derek Landy. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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by by Derek Landy