THE RIDDLE HOUSE
The villagers of Little Hangleron still called it “the Riddle House,” even
though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there. It stood
on a hill overlooking the village, some of its windows boarded, tiles missing
from its roof, and ivy spreading unchecked over its face. Once a fine-looking
manor, and easily the largest and grandest building for miles around, the Riddle
House was now damp, derelict, and unoccupied.
The Little Hagletons all agreed that the old house was “creepy.” Half a century
ago, something strange and horrible had happened there, something that the older
inhabitants of the village still liked to discuss when topics for gossip were
scarce. The story had been picked over so many times, and had been embroidered
in so many places, that nobody was quite sure what the truth was anymore. Every
version of the tale, however, started in the same place: Fifty years before,
at daybreak on a fine summer's morning when the Riddle House had still been
well kept and impressive, a maid had entered the drawing room to find all three
The maid had run screaming down the hill into the village and roused as many
people as she could.
“Lying there with their eyes wide open! Cold as ice! Still in their dinner
The police were summoned, and the whole of Little Hangleton had seethed with
shocked curiosity and ill-disguised excitement. Nobody wasted their breath pretending
to feel very sad about the Riddles, for they had been most unpopular. Elderly
Mr. and Mrs. Riddle had been rich, snobbish, and rude, and their grown-up son,
Tom, had been, if anything, worse. All the villagers cared about was the identity
of their murderer—for plainly, three apparently healthy people did not all drop
dead of natural causes on the same night.
The Hanged Man, the village pub, did a roaring trade that night; the whole
village seemed to have turned out to discuss the murders. They were rewarded
for leaving their firesides when the Riddles' cook arrived dramatically in their
midst and announced to the suddenly silent pub that a man called Frank Bryce
had just been arrested.
“Frank!” cried several people. “Never!”
Frank Bryce was the Riddles' gardener. He lived alone in a run-down cottage
on the grounds of the Riddle House. Frank had come back from the war with a
very stiff leg and a great dislike of crowds and loud noises, and had been working
for the Riddles ever since.
There was a rush to buy the cook drinks and hear more details.
“Always thought he was odd,” she told the eagerly listening villagers, after
her fourth sherry. “Unfriendly, like. I'm sure if I've offered him a cuppa once,
I've offered it a hundred times. Never wanted to mix, he didn't.”
“Ah, now,” said a woman at the bar, “he had a hard war, Frank. He likes the
quiet life. That's no reason to—”
“Who else had a key to the back door, then?” barked the cook. “There's been
a spare key hanging in the gardener's cottage far back as I can remember! Nobody
forced the door last night! No broken windows! All Frank had to do was creep
up to the big house while we was all sleeping...”
The villagers exchanged dark looks.
“I always thought that he had a nasty look about him, right enough,” grunted
a man at the bar.
“War turned him funny, if you ask me,” said the landlord.
“Told you I wouldn't like to get on the wrong side of Frank, didn't I, Dot?”
said an excited woman in the corner.
“Horrible temper,” said Dot, nodding fervently. “I remember, when he was
By the following morning, hardly anyone in Little Hangleton doubted that
Frank Bryce had killed the Riddles.
But over in the neighboring town of Great Hangleton, in the dark and dingy
police station, Frank was stubbornly repeating, again and again, that he was
innocent, and that the only person he had seen near the house on the day of
the Riddles' deaths had been a teenage boy, a stranger, dark-haired and pale.
Nobody else in the village had seen any such boy, and the police were quite
sure Frank had invented him.
Then, just when things were looking very serious for Frank, the report on
the Riddles' bodies came back and changed everything.
The police had never read an odder report. A team of doctors had examined
the bodies and had concluded that none of the Riddles had been poisoned, stabbed,
shot, strangles, suffocated, or (as far as they could tell) harmed at all. In
fact (the report continued, in a tone of unmistakable bewilderment), the Riddles
all appeared to be in perfet health—apart from the fact that they were all dead.
The doctors did note (as though determined to find something wrong with the
bodies) that each of the Riddles had a look of terror upon his or her face—but
as the frustrated police said, whoever heard of three people being frightened
As there was no proof that the Riddles had been murdered at all, the police
were forced to let Frank go. The Riddles were buried in the Little Hangleton
churchyard, and their graves remained objects of curiosity for a while. To everyone's
surprise, and amid a cloud of suspicion, Frank Bryce returned to his cottage
on the grounds of the Riddle House.
“'S far as I'm concerned, he killed them, and I don't care what the police
say,” said Dot in the Hanged Man. “And if he had any decency, he'd leave here,
knowing as how we knows he did it.”
But Frank did not leave. He stayed to tend the garden for the next family
who lived in the Riddle House, and then the next—for neither family stayed long.
Perhaps it was partly because of Frank that the new owners said there was a
nasty feeling about the place, which, in the absence of inhabitants, started
to fall into disrepair.
The wealthy man who owned the Riddle House these days neither lived there
nor put it to any use; they said in the village that he kept it for “tax reasons,”
though nobody was very clear what these might be. The wealthy owner continued
to pay Frank to do the gardening, however. Frank was nearing his seventy-seventh
birthday now, very deaf, his bad leg stiffer than ever, but could be seen pottering
around the flower beds in fine weather, even though the weeds were starting
to creep up on him, try as he might to suppress them.
Weeds were not the only things Frank had to contend with either. Boys from
the village made a habit of throwing stones through the windows of the Riddle
House. They rode their bicycles over the lawns Frank worked so hard to keep
smooth. Once or twice, they broke into the old house for a dare. They knew that
old Frank's devotion to the house and the grounds amounted almost to an obsession,
and it amused them to see him limping across the garden, brandishing his stick
and yelling croakily at them. Frank, for his part, believed the boys tormented
him because they, like their parents and grandparents, though him a murderer.
So when Frank awoke one night in August and saw something very odd up at the
old house, he merely assumed that the boys had gone one step further in their
attempts to punish him.
It was Frank's bad leg that woke him; it was paining him worse than ever
in his old age. He got up and limped downstairs into the kitchen with the idea
of refilling his hot-water bottle to ease the stiffness in his knee. Standing
at the sink, filling the kettle, he looked up at the Riddle House and saw lights
glimmering in its upper windows. Frank knew at once what was going on. The boys
had broken into the house again, and judging by the flickering quality of the
light, they had started a fire.
Frank had no telephone, in any case, he had deeply mistrusted the police
ever since they had taken him in for questioning about the Riddles' deaths.
He put down the kettle at once, hurried back upstairs as fast as his bad leg
would allow, and was soon back in his kitchen, fully dressed and removing a
rusty old key from its hook by the door. He picked up his walking stick, which
was propped against the wall, and set off into the night.
The front door of the Riddle House bore no sign of being forced, nor did
any of the windows. Frank limped around to the back of the house until he reached
a door almost completely hidden by ivy, took out the old key, put it into the
lock, and opened the door noiselessly.
He let himself into the cavernous kitchen. Frank had not entered it for many
years; nevertheless, although it was very dark, he remembered where the door
into the hall was, and he groped his way towards it, his nostrils full of the
smell of decay, ears pricked for any sound of footsteps or voices from overhead.
He reached the hall, which was a little lighter owing to the large mullioned
windows on either side of the front door, and started to climb the stairs, blessing
the dust that lay thick upon the stone, because it muffled the sound of his
feet and stick.
On the landing, Frank turned right, and saw at once where the intruders were:
At the every end of the passage a door stood ajar, and a flickering light shone
through the gap, casting a long sliver of gold across the black floor. Frank
edged closer and closer, he was able to see a narrow slice of the room beyond.
The fire, he now saw, had been lit in the grate. This surprised him. Then
he stopped moving and listened intently, for a man's voice spoke within the
room; it sounded timid and fearful.
“There is a little more in the bottle, My Lord, if you are still hungry.”
“Later,” said a second voice. This too belonged to a man—but it was strangely
high-pitched, and cold as a sudden blast of icy wind. Something about that voice
made the sparse hairs on the back of Frank's neck stand up. “Move me closer
to the fire, Wormtail.”
Frank turned his right ear toward the door, the better to hear. There came
the clink of a bottle being put down upon some hard surface, and then the dull
scraping noise of a heavy chair being dragged across the floor. Frank caught
a glimpse of a small man, his back to the door, pushing the chair into place.
He was wearing a long black cloak, and there was a bald patch at the back of
his head. Then he went out of sight again.
“Where is Nagini?” said the cold voice.
“I—I don't know, My Lord,” said the first voice nervously. “She set out to
explore the house, I think...”
“You will milk her before we retire, Wormtail,” said the second voice. “I
will need feeding in the night. The journey has tired me greatly.”
Brow furrowed, Frank inclined his good ear still closer to the door, listening
very hard. There was a pause, and then the man called Wormtail spoke again.
“My Lord, may I ask how long we are going to stay here?”
“A week,” said the cold voice. “Perhapse longer. The place is moderately
comfortable, and the plan cannot proceed yet. It would be foolish to act before
the Quidditch World Cup is over.”
Frank inserted a gnarled finger into his ear and rotated it. Owing, no doubt,
to a buildup of earwax, he had heard the word “Quidditch,” which was not a word
“The—the Quidditch World Cup, My Lord?” said Wormtail. (Frank dug his finger
still more vigorously into his ear.) “Forgive me, but—I do not understand—why
should we wait until the World Cup is over?”
“Because, fool, at this very moment wizards are pouring into the country
from all over the world, and every meddler from the Ministry of Magic will be
on duty, on the watch for signs of ususual activity, checking and double-checking
identities. They will be obsessed with security, lest the Muggles notice anything.
So we wait.”
Frank stopped trying to clear out his ear. He had distinctly heard the words
“Ministry of Magic,” “wizards,” and “Muggles.” Plainly, each of these expressions
meant something secret, and Frank could think of only two sorts of people who
would speak in code: spies and criminals. Frank tightened his hold on his walking
stick once more, and listened more closely still.
“Your Lordship is still determined, then?” Wormtail said quietly.
“Certainly I am determined, Wormtail.” There was a note of menace in the
cold voice now.
A slight pause followed—and the Wormtail spoke, the words tumbling from him
in a rush, as though he was forcing himself to say this before he lost his nerve.
“It could be done without Harry Potter, My Lord.”
Another pause, more protracted, and then—
“Without Harry Potter?” breathed the second voice softly. “I see...”
“My Lord, I do not say this out of concern for the boy!” said Wormtail, his
voice rising squeakily. “The boy is nothing to me, nothing at all! It is merely
that if we were to use another witch or wizard—any wizard—the thing could be
done so much more quickly! If you allowed me to leave you for a short while—you
know that I can disguise myself most effectively—I could be back here in as
little as two days with a suitable person—”
“I could use another wizard,” said the cold voice softly, “that is true...”
“My Lord, it makes sense,” said Wormtail, sounding thoroughly relieved now.
“Laying hands on Harry Potter would be so difficult, he is so well protected—”
“And so you volunteer to go and fetch me a substitute? I wonder... perhaps
the task of nursing me has become wearisome for you, Wormtail? Could this suggestion
of abandoning the plan be nothing more than an attempt to desert me?”
“My Lord! I—I have no wish to leave you, none at all—”
“Do not lie to me!” hissed the second voice. “I can always tell, Wormtail!
You are regretting that you ever returned to me. I revolt you. I see you flinch
when you look at me, feel you shudder when you touch me...”
“No! My devotion to Your Lordship—”
“Your devotion is nothing more than cowardice. You would not be here if you
had anywhere else to go. How am I to survive without you, when I need feeding
every few hours? Who is to milk Nagini?”
“But you seem so much stronger, My Lord—”
“Liar,” breathed the second voice. “I am no stronger, and a few days alone
would be enough to rob me of the little health I have regained under your clumsy