Queen Anne Boleyn slowly lifted her head... and placed it on the table before her. It was her favourite party trick and one guaranteed to get results. As it did now. The room fell instantly quiet.
'Good afternoon, everyone, and may I thank you for inviting me into your magnificent home and allowing me to, uh, spearhead this truly ambitious project. Perhaps I could begin by asking you all to introduce yourselves and tell me something of the circumstances of your passing. Let's start with the handsome, leather-clad gentleman in front, shall we?'
The handsome, leather-clad gentleman in question blushed a fierier shade of red even than the magnificent rubies nestling against the speaker's imposing bosom and rose uncertainly to his feet.
'The, er... name's Dave, Miss - I mean Your Majesty,' he said, bobbing the disembodied head a cross between a curtsy and a bow, 'and I... passed over when I came off me bike on the driveway in '98. I was motorin', I admit, but you don't get paid if the pizza's late, see. Anyway, I tore through the gates just as 'er Ladyship - that's the current one, o' course - was coming out in 'er Bentley. Never stood a chance, broke me neck and died instant.' By way of demonstration, he twisted his head grotesquely through a hundred and eighty degrees, a feat that had the young Royal clapping her hands in delight.
'Oh, excellent,' she exclaimed, 'that'll get the shivers running up and down their spines, or I'm the Queen of England. Which, come to think of it, I am,' she finished gleefully, giving Dave a saucy wink.
His cheeks turned an even deeper shade of damask than they already were and he hastily resumed his seat. The Queen, meanwhile, was turning her attention to the next person along, an elderly woman dressed all in grey, with sunken eyes and a face more withered than the driest crab-apple.
'And what about you, Madam?' she enquired. 'What's your story, pray?'
'My name is Hester Burridge, Your Majesty,' the woman answered in a querulous, self-important voice, 'and I am - was - housekeeper to the first Lord and Lady Westlake. I perished in the fire in the east wing in 1647, along with their daughter, little Imogen here.' She moved aside her woollen shawl to reveal a baby of about three months of age, its cream satin Christening gown speckled with telltale smudges of soot.
'Ohh, a baby,' cooed the Queen, her dark eyes shining, 'and tell me, does she cry very much?'
The old woman nodded eagerly. 'Oh, yes, Ma'am, she's got a lovely wail on her once she gets going. All thin and reedy it is, really piteous.'
'Wonderful,' beamed the Queen. 'A crying baby beats all else when it comes to chilling the blood. I've known them turn the most sceptical souls into quivering wrecks.' She clicked her fingers over her right shoulder as if in response to some unheard remark, adding, 'And it doesn't matter a jot that it's not a boy, Sire. For work such as this, girls' lungs are every bit as good as boys'. So, who do we have next?'
The middle-aged man at whom she was staring swallowed nervously and tugged at the collar of his dingy white smock. 'I wonder, Mum, if I might ask...'
The Queen arched her slender brows enquiringly. 'Yes?'
'Well, the thing is...' Again words failed him as he fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat.
'What he wants, lady,' interrupted a pert and pretty girl seated two rows back, 'is for you t' put yer flippin' 'ead back on. His father came a cropper with a scythe when Seth was just a lad and the daft old fool's never been the same since. Couldn't even watch me top an' tail carrots without blubbing!'
The Queen's eyes glittered dangerously. 'And you are?'
'Ethel Metcalfe, Miss,' the girl answered, quite unperturbed. 'Me and Seth started at the Manor the same time, Christmas, 1863. Fourteen, we was. He worked the land and I 'elped in the kitchens.'
The Queen frowned in puzzlement. 'You are of an age?' she asked, looking from the girl's youthful features to Seth's lined and weather-beaten face. 'How so?'
'We copped it at different times,' Ethel explained. 'I fell through the 'atch of the disused well three weeks after me seventeenth birthday, Seth 'eld on till his fifties 'fore succumbin' to pneumonia.'
'Pneumonia?' the Queen echoed. 'A blameless enough sort of death, surely? Why does he linger?'
'Because it weren't blameless, was it?' Ethel declared stoutly. 'Lord Westlake 'ad him out mending fences in one of the worst winters on record. Snow up to his knees and winds cold enough to freeze the whatsits off a bull. Good as murdered him. Swine should've swung fer it, if you ask me.'
'Yes, well, no one is asking you, are they?' hissed Hester Burridge, twisting in her seat. 'Naturally, I never had the privilege of knowing your Lord Westlake but I'm sure he was every bit as fine a man as his predecessor. Time you started showing a bit more respect for your elders and betters, young lady.'
The Queen eyed the two women with amusement. Their sparring put her in mind of her own spats with Henry's first wife, the po-faced Spaniard, Catherine. Such fun. Taking up her head, she eased it back on.
'There, good Sir,' she said, turning to Seth, 'is that any better for you?'
Seth beamed his gratitude. 'Much better, thank 'e, Mum,' he agreed, clearly relieved.
With her eyeline restored to its natural level, the Queen was able to see the couple seated at the rear of the room for the first time. One was a strikingly attractive girl with sun-gold hair and milk-white skin, the other a wan-faced lad maybe a year or two into his twenties. 'So, then, my dears,' she said, 'would you be so kind as to tell us your tales?'
But it was the redoubtable Mrs Burridge who answered for them.
'That's our Tom and Jenny, Your Highness. Our 'tragic lovers',' she said in a confidential whisper. 'Tom's a deaf mute who was boot boy to the third Lord Westlake back in 1758. It must have been a lonely sort of existence, what with his deafness and the other lads' teasing. But when Jenny was taken on as lady's maid to Her Ladyship she took him under her wing, so to speak. She started looking out for him, taking his side when things got bad. If only she hadn't been such a beauty, perhaps things might have been different.'
The Queen gave the girl a second glance. Yes, looks such as hers were indeed a mixed blessing. She certainly wouldn't have relished having such a ravishing creature around at Court to catch Henry's eye.
'Put bluntly, Ma'am, there was a fight. Tom entered the kitchen one evening to find one of the footmen molesting young Jenny. He was a strapping lad and it was clear he was getting the upper hand. Our Tom intervened. Handled himself well, too, by all accounts. That is, until the other lad grabbed the knife.'
The Queen grimaced. 'Tom was stabbed?'
'Through the heart,' Mrs Burridge confirmed. 'Died in Jenny's arms right there on the flagstone floor. Poor thing was distraught, completely beside herself. Took herself up to the west tower that very night and threw herself off, screaming in torment as she went. Dreadful business, dreadful.'
The Queen nodded forlornly. 'Sad, very sad. All grist to the mill for us, though,' she added, brightening. 'After all, if we'd all died in our beds we'd have been up with the angels long ago and no need for this meeting now. So, ladies and gentlemen, we have our players. We know our parts. All we need now is our audience...'
Bursting with excitement, Hortense and Bernard Lethbridge lugged their cases back across the rapidly darkening car park to their battered old Ford Estate.
'Brilliant, brilliant,' panted Bernard for the umpteenth time. 'We're made, Hortie, old girl, made!'
'I know, I know,' puffed his equally ecstatic wife, 'with the stuff we've got here, we'll be on every chat show and in every magazine in the country.'
'The world, Hortie, the world,' corrected Bernard, setting down the cases and unlocking the boot. 'Why, I bet we even make the pages of Dear Departed. Did you hear that baby wailing? Utterly bloodcurdling, and I swear I could smell the smoke.'
'You could, Bernie, you could. It's just a shame these things can't record odours too,' his wife enthused, tapping the sensor machine under her arm.
'It'll come, my darling, it'll come. Technology's improving all the time, you know,' Bernard declared heartily, taking the case and shoving it in alongside the others. 'Still, with photos, video, and the audio stuff, we're going to be rich! How many of 'em did we get, do you think?'
Hortense frowned in concentration. 'Well, there was the boy on the motorbike when we arrived. What an opener that was, driving straight through us with his head lolling like that. Good job I had the video going. Then you snapped that girl disappearing down the well and picked up the death rattle of the boy in the kitchen. I think I got the screams of that lass jumping off the roof, although she did take me a bit by surprise, shooting past the window like that. How many's that, five?'
'Counting the baby,' Bernard confirmed, slamming the boot shut, 'and I definitely got a shot of that old crone in grey. And what about that chap we mistook for a scarecrow? It was sweltering in that field yesterday yet I felt like I was freezing to death.' His eyes shone in the darkness. 'It's possible we've got footage of him actually fading, you know, a genuine dematerialisation. Wonderful. There's only one that puzzles me,' he finished thoughtfully, getting in to the car.
'Oh, yes, dear,' said Hortense, sliding in beside him, 'which one's that?'
'That one you reckoned was Anne Boleyn. I mean, it doesn't make sense. This place wasn't even built till a century after her execution, so what on earth would she be doing here?'
'Well, it was definitely her,' Hortense insisted, 'I noticed the extra finger on her left hand as she was taking off her head. And that was a bit of a giveaway, too, come to think of it.'
'Hmm,' said Bernie, sounding less than convinced. 'Anyway, whoever she is, it still makes eight in all. Ghost Getters' best haul yet. So good that I think we should nominate Westlake Manor for the Most Haunted House in Britain Award. What do you think?'
'I think it's a great idea, darling,' said his wife, snuggling into her seat. 'In fact, I'll make it the title of my report.'
They were both far too busy talking to notice, but as Bernard and Hortense drove away from the imposing old pile, the faint but unmistakable sound of cheering could be heard coming from the Great Hall. It was, as the Queen had just declared, mission accomplished!