It wasn’t hard to find Diana Zindel. Steph, Matt and Dale went straight from Westlake forest to Westlake library, where they collected as many books on town history as they could find, which amounted to four. Arthur T. Zindel, being a relatively famous author, was mentioned briefly in two of them, not at all in one of them, and extensively in the fourth. In that one, he was described as ‘one of Westlake’s literary triumphs, a man who brought mystery and adventure to adults and children alike.’ That alone didn’t help much, of course, but when Dale reached the last paragraph of the miniature biography, he clapped his hands and grinned up at the other two, who had been scanning through hundreds of pages of detailed and vastly boring Westlake history.
‘What?’ Steph said without looking up. Matt took a break, rubbing his eyes and breathing a long, tired sigh.
‘I got it. I know where he lived.’ Matt stopped mid rub and Steph glanced up, hopeful.
‘Listen to this,’ Dale went on, and cleared his throat: ‘Seven years after his disappearance, an eccentric end to an eccentric life, Zindel’s estate was legally passed on to his youngest daughter, Diana Zindel, who lives in the great Victorian Manor on Ridge Road, Westlake, to this day. Many of his books continue to sell in schools and bookstores all over the world, and it seems he represents a page in Westlake’s history that will never truly be forgotten, blah blah blah.’
He looked up, and now Steph was grinning back at him, though Matt still looked dubious. ‘What’s the publication date of that book, though?’ he said.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Steph said. ‘We don’t need Diana to be living there. We just need the house, and the doors he left behind.’
‘That’s what I mean,’ Matt continued. ‘What if they knocked it down or something. What if trees got cut down and they dug a hole and filled it with concrete and built something else. What would happen to the doors?’
Dale felt a sour twinge in his stomach, but shook his head. ‘I dunno. But Zindel says destroying the door doesn’t work remember? He mentions trying it in the book, but the door was never gone, it just transferred to something else in the same place. Even if the house is demolished, the doors would still be there somewhere, hidden. It’ll be alright.’
‘Yeah, I remember that,’ Steph said.
‘Well, what the hell are we waiting for, then?’
Ridge road was about as far out of Westlake as it was possible to get while still being in the suburb. The road itself rose on a hill whose highest point was far above anywhere else in the area including Westlake park, but there was no view because all the surrounding roads were lined on either sides with tall trees that only let strips of sunlight shine intermittently through their branches.
‘No wonder none of us ever heard of this place,’ Matt said as they struggled up the steep hill to the top of the arch. They’d been walking for close to forty minutes and, with their long pants and sleeves, they were sweating hard. Still, better that than get a fly bite and spend the next few days wondering. ‘It’s a bloody jungle.’
The others saved their breath for the climb, and at last they arrived at the top of Ridge road, where the winding gravel became a straight and pleasant asphalt lane, trees descending steeply to their right and a tall hedge to their left. Dale saw a gap in the hedge up ahead, where a metal gate stood. They stopped in front of it, gentle wind cooling the sweat on their brows, trees rustling all around them, and looked up at the letters engraved in the metal: Z I N D E L
‘Well that was easy,’ Dale said.
The gate was unlocked, and it let out a cringe inducing squeal as they pushed it open. The vision on the other side was much more pleasant, however: the hedges concealed a garden of neatly cut grass and perfectly maintained and colourful flowerbeds, the smell of fresh fertiliser reaching them from across the lawn. There was a pond in one corner and a narrow artificial stream branched off from it and wound its way in a loop around the whole garden and then back again. A clay brick driveway led to the front door of the large house – three stories at least – built from heavy wood and stone.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Steph said.
‘Yeah, well, I dunno about you guys, but every second we spend smelling the roses out here is another one Brian and Elyse spend waiting for the apocalypse,’ Matt said, and without another word he marched up the driveway and knocked on the front door.
The other two stepped up beside him, and when no one answered Dale knocked again.
He’d barely taken his hand away from the door when it swung open, revealing a squat old woman with suspicious slit eyes and a tight lipped mouth. She didn’t relax in the slightest when she saw that they were mere teenagers and not insurance salesmen. ‘Yes?’
For a moment they were all lost for words, and then Steph said: ‘Mrs – Miss… Um, are you Diana Zindel?’
She looked at Steph for a long time, her expression deadpan, Steph holding the smile on her face as best she could. ‘Yes, that’s me.’
‘I…’ Steph looked across at Matt, who gave her a smile of his own and rescued her. Of the three of them, he’d always been the best liar, after all. ‘Mrs. Zindel,’
‘It’s Miss,’ she interrupted.
‘Miss Zindel,’ he went on, unfazed, ‘We are all really big fans of your father’s work – Arthur T. Zindel –
‘What’s his middle name?’
‘If you’re such big fans, what’s his middle name? What does the T stand for?’
Matt could only stare, and the words were out of Dale’s mind before he could even remember where he’d seen them. ‘Terrence,’ he said. ‘His middle name is Terrence.’
Her face softened slightly as she took in their expressions. ‘Well alright. I’m sorry, it’s just, we’ve had some vandals in the area. Was a little suspicious you might be looking around for things to steal or something. Paranoia. Come in.’
She turned around and walked into the house, leaving the front door open behind her, and the other two looked at Dale, relieved and curious. ‘It’s on the last page of the book,’ he explained. ‘He signs off with his whole name. I just remembered randomly.’
‘Jesus, she’s nuts,’ Matt whispered. ‘Let’s get this over with.’
They followed her into the house, and found her brewing tea in a kettle on the stove. She’d set out four china teacups on the marble counter. The house seemed somehow larger now that they were inside, only sparse furniture here and there, no clutter, barely a speck of dust to be found. Paintings of all kinds lined every wall in the house.
‘So,’ Diana began after a brief silence in which she eyed their long sleeves and thick pants suspiciously. ‘All I know about you is that you are probably not vandals and you are a fan of my grandfather’s. How can I help you?’
Matt took the lead again, and Dale marvelled that he could imagine such detail in the space of mere seconds, and deliver it so convincingly. ‘The thing is, Mrs – Miss Zindel, we found a book of his, Book of Worlds it was called, and well, like I said, we’re all big fans. The reason we’re here now is, like, we want to go on a kind of uh…’ he glanced at the other two, but Dale and Steph just raised their eyebrows. They had no idea where he was going with this. ‘Pilgrimage, that’s the word. We thought the book was really cool, and you know how like, in New Zealand they go on the Lord of the Rings tour, and all that, yeah? We sort of figured wouldn’t it be cool to go around this house and check all the places he mentions in the book. Also…’ And the expression of nervous hopefulness was perfect. Dale couldn’t help but smile. ‘Also we were kind of hoping you might have some more stuff of his. Any unpublished books or things like that? Or keys…’
She passed them each their cup of tea, and led them into the next room, where they sat down on large but uncomfortable wooden chairs. Her mouth showed a hint of a smile now, and Dale felt a surge of hope. She’d known what they were talking about.
‘Well, you really are fans, I can see that now.’
‘That’s for sure,’ Steph put in, nodding. ‘We’re probably his biggest fans.’ Dale saw Matt nudge her foot with his own.
‘And all you want to do is… look around the house? I can’t really remember much of what’s in the book, but…’
‘Oh, you read the book as well?’ Matt said.
‘I read the first few chapters, but my father’s work never particularly caught my imagination. He was just so… fantastical. I was always a very practical girl, never much interested in fiction and magic and all that.’
She caught herself before she said the word nonsense, but Dale saw it. She’s chucked it. Oh, God, she’s thrown the keys away. By the look on his face, Matt was thinking something similar.
‘Oh, not to say there’s anything wrong with it,’ she went on. ‘It just wasn’t for me, personally. I think it irritated my grandfather very much. He was always writing things for me, trying to enchant me, trying to make it all seem real. Sometimes I wonder if his final disappearance wasn’t some silly attempt on his part to make me think he’d gone to another world. To get me into all of that once and for all.’ She smiled and looked down at her tea. ‘Strange man, my father.’
‘Um, so, you didn’t… I mean did you keep anything of his?’ Matt said, literally on the edge of his seat.
‘Oh, listen to me ramble on,’ she said, looking up at them. ‘Of course I kept all of it. I had a feeling someone like you lot might track me down one day. Truth be told, I was hoping some of the things he’d left behind would appreciate in value as the years went by. Doesn’t look like I’m having much luck, though. Anyway, come along and I’ll show you.’
She stood up and was already on her way out of the vast living room, and so didn’t see the looks of utter relief on all of their faces. Dale gave Matt a nod and smile as they started after her. We got this, man.
She took them up to the second floor, a maze of dusty hallways and empty rooms, and into an ancient bedroom. It was large, a window taking up most of one wall and looking out into the rolling back garden, but it felt cramped. The bed was enormous, and a desk of almost the same dimensions stood against one wall. Shelves of books lined every possible inch of spare space. ‘This was his bedroom,’ she explained, heading over to a small cupboard near the window.
‘Bloody hell,’ Dale said, staring at a wall of books. ‘Look how many he wrote. Half of these have his name on them.’ It was true. Standing so close, Dale realised that the thick, musty smell of the room was coming from the books, as though they were developing, becoming richer with age.
‘Yes, he was very prolific. Up at eight o clock every morning, writing almost nonstop until lunch time. You couldn’t have woken him up from those dreamworlds with a sledgehammer. I imagine this might interest you a bit more though, on your pilgrimage.’
They turned to look, and Dale’s heart thumped in his chest. Diana Zindel was holding an unadorned wooden case about the size of a lunchbox. ‘He mentions in the first part of the Book of Worlds the tree where he hid them, and out of curiosity I dug at the foot of it and found this. Like I said, he’d go to any lengths to add realism to his books, just for me.’
She handed the box to Dale, who opened it. There they were, about twenty or so ornately carved keys, done with much more care than any they’d done so far, looped together with a piece of string. Some were bark, some chipped stone, a couple of hard clay, and one even of glass. ‘Wow,’ Steph said. ‘He really made those?’
‘Yes.’ She stood back, watching their reactions with arms folded over her chest, clearly enjoying herself. ‘You can keep them if you want.’
‘Matt swallowed loudly, looking at her with wide eyes. ‘We can… keep them?’
‘Yes, of course. Like I said, I doubt they’d be of much value to anyone else, and I suppose I’ve got enough money I don’t need to take the pocket money from a few teenagers for a box of wood chippings.’
‘Thank you so much, Miss Zindel,’ Dale said. You just saved the world, lady, and you’ll never even know it.
‘Diana is fine,’ she said.
‘Thanks. Oh, right. My name is Dale, that’s Steph and that’s Matt. Sorry, we were just all excited, you know?’
‘That’s fine,’ she said.
‘So, would you mind if we, uh, looked around his room a bit? You never know, he might have hidden more things from the book, right?’
‘Yes, that’s fine. I’ve got a few things to do in the house, so just let me know when you’re ready to go. As it happens I do have a manuscript of his. He disappeared before he published it. I’ll let you have it before you go.’
‘Uh, wow, thankyou so much,’ Steph said.
‘That’s alright. I’ll leave you to it, I suppose.’ She looked them over one more time, as if trying to decide whether she could really trust them alone in her house for more than a few minutes, and then she gave an almost imperceptible nod and left the room. A minute later they heard one of the chairs creak downstairs. She was going to stay by the front door, just in case.
‘That was easy,’ Matt said quietly.
‘That’s because it was the easy part,’ Dale said. He’d dropped to all fours as soon as he was sure she wasn’t coming back, and was now feeling the floorboards with his fingers, as if searching for a loose one.
‘What are you doing?’ Steph said, but by then Matt had caught on and was searching the boards on the other side of the room.
‘Don’t you remember?’ he explained, lifting the small bedside table to check underneath. ‘The door to Pandemonium? It was a trapdoor, in his bedroom.’ So they searched in silence until they’d covered every inch of floor they could find, inhaling enough dust along the way to insulate a house, when Steph suggested they move the bed. Dale leaned against a bookshelf, massaging his scalp, and nodded. ‘She might hear, though,’ he said, glancing up at Matt, who simply replied: ‘We’ll tell her the truth. We were looking for a door from the book. She already thinks we’re weird, doesn’t she?’
The bed was made of some dark, dense wood, but Dale and Matt managed to lift the bottom half off the ground so it didn’t make a sound, and move it until it almost touched one of the walls. The trapdoor was there, deep scratches in a clear square in the wood, and a small hole in the middle. For a minute, the three of them stood in the dusty, cramped room, and stared at the floor. On the bedside table, an old alarm clock ticked the seconds loudly away.
‘Pretty funny, when you think about it,’ Matt said, smiling.
‘What?’ Dale said.
‘Everyone’s scared of monsters hiding under their bed, and this guy straight up opens a portal to hell under his, like, on purpose. Right?’
Dale and Steph just stared at Matt, and his smile faded. ‘I guess it’s not that funny.’
Dale put the box down and took out the key ring. It wasn’t hard to find the right key – small and sharply cut, and the only one made of the same varnished wood as the floor. He dropped to his knees and pushed it into the tiny lock, the other two standing over him, and heard the familiar, satisfying click as he turned it.
‘You guys ready?’
Neither of them answered, so he pulled open the trapdoor. The three of them looked down into the square hole. It was absolutely, totally black, the kind of darkness that not even the sun in all its blinding brilliance could illuminate. Impenetrable, all consuming.
‘So,’ Steph said in a shaky voice. ‘Who’s first?’