Life in the secluded town of Ridgewood is charming, simple, safe – isn’t it? The bubble that isolates the hamlet protects, or so the eclectic residents believe. Lurking in the background of every day life is a curse that comes in cycles and picks off the innocent as it pleases. But this time there’s something different, this time the curse wants more.
Roberta Arlington’s life changes the moment she finds one of her pupils, pale, frozen, DEAD. Her mind is filled with uncharacteristic thoughts, dreams and visions create bizarre scenes, and her blood boils as she lashes out at those she loves. Amidst her turmoil there are friends, and enemies, who come to her aid, piecing together the puzzle laid before them.
But with the ancient evil having struck down so many through the centuries, Roberta will have to muster every ounce of strength she has to survive. An entire world, a strange land, has unveiled itself. If Roberta knows one thing for sure, it’s that she alone won’t be able to escape as death comes calling…….
Inside Evil is a paranormal mystery set in a small town on the borders of England and Scotland. Like so many similar places, its residents cannot help but be drawn into each others lives, as they rarely venture from their seclusion. But, with such isolation comes danger, and whilst the world is blissfully unaware, an ancient terror is preparing for murder.
On a small cobbled alleyway off of Ridgewood’s main high street, a small bookstore stood illuminated by the lights from inside. Simply named ‘Best Books’, it had become a Mecca for all those looking for that aloof novel, for that timeless classic or for a safe haven in which to sit, read and forget about the world outside. Two large plate glass windows stood either side of a sturdy cabin style door, advertising the latest best sellers and upcoming book signings along with small, unheard of novels just waiting to be opened by that unsuspecting reader. At first glance this was just an ordinary bookstore but on closer inspection it was found to have those additional features and qualities that made it somewhat less than ordinary. Upon entering, customers found themselves in a large room with the left half housing row upon row of floor to ceiling shelves, holding the books that were so highly sought after. The right wall housed a large open fire bordered by a simple stone fireplace with brick hearth that burned continuously through all winter opening hours, the cracking of the fire and the warmth of the flames giving the room a homely orange glow. On either side of the hearth were two, well worn, leather sofas at the end of which were wicker baskets, one containing a number of cushions and pillows whilst the other held woollen rugs. It was not uncommon in the depths of the winter to find several customers wrapped up on a sofa engrossed in a book while the fire crackled beside them. And, although this sight dwindled in the summer months, come the autumn, the readers would all be back accompanied by friends and family wanting to know where their loved ones disappeared to for so long.
Upon this particular night three individuals sat and laughed at a small round table at the rear of the room, behind one of the sofas. A coffee machine sat on a bench to the right and although originally purchased for the staff, it had soon become an additional lure for the customers.
“Another?” Susan Lingly beamed as she brandished the bottle of whisky in her hand at the others.
Susan, along with her husband Bernard, had owned Best Books for just over six years and had converted the shell of the shop into the place it was today. She was a tall, slight woman with shoulder length mousy hair that was always slightly wild; it was her ‘woolly’ look. She was a somewhat unconventional business lady and boss, but the shop was more to her than a source of income, it was her getaway. She loved her husband but they’d simply run out of things to say to each other, and over the years she had resigned herself to the fact that the new loves of her life, and the ones that would probably be around until she passed on, were books and whisky. And anyway, what could come of a dash of whisky in your coffee at the end of a cold winters day? Apart from that warm glow in your belly. She loved her customers, her staff even more, and this book shop; well this was the place where she hoped people would come and become totally involved in the other reality that a good book brings.
Across from Susan sat Sam, a thin man in his twenties who was wearing an oversized jumper. He pushed his glasses up his nose towards the mop of mousy hair and grinned.
“Go on then Sue, fill her up.”
Susan reached over with the bottle and started to pour, what to her, was a standard amount of liquor.
“Oh my god, stop…stop…..that’s enough!”
Susan pulled a face, “Sam, it’s not every day that your boss lets you get, well, drunk at work”
“But I’d like to be able to actually drink it!” Sam said with wide eyes, gingerly taking a sip before grimacing.
Susan looked around the room which was unusually void of people, “It’s not like we’re packing them into tonight?”
“Yeah, what’s up with that? I know it’s a Friday evening, but there’s usually a couple of people here.”
The other woman at the table piped up. “It’s those woods. They’re too foreboding. You know what it’s like when the winter comes, it gets dark and the woods get wild. People want to be safe at home, not walking the streets.” She paused and Susan leaned over to fill her glass whilst rolling her eyes in Sam’s direction. “Not for me thank you, I’ve got to be getting on.”
Martha was an elegant looking woman, not at all what you’d expect to find working in a little off-street bookstore in the back and beyond. She’d be much more suited to swanning around in a Harvey Nicks or Gucci store in London. Her hair was always immaculately curled at the edges, her clothes always spotless and she was as conscientious as they come.
“Martha, don’t worry about it, we can do it tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? We can’t Susan, there’s always a rush on Saturday mornings. I need to re-stack the shelves and put up that new window display,” and without waiting to hear another word, she strode off and soon disappeared behind the multitude of books that were piled up at the ends of several of the shelf rows.
“You’d think she was the boss around here wouldn’t you?” Susan smiled as she took an enormous gulp of her drink. “Not that I mind, keeps her happy.”
Sam leaned in towards Susan and, putting his drink on the table which was now far too strong, lowered his voice.
“What’s all that about the woods?”
“Oh,” Susan sighed, “I’ve no idea. I‘ve long given up trying to work out her eccentricities. Ever since her husband died she’s been a little strange, always muttering about the woods, about their wildness. I just leave her to it.”
“But don’t you find it odd? She can be a bit creepy.”
“You’ll get used to her Sam, I know you will. Give it a couple of weeks and you won’t be taking any notice of it. She’s lovely, she really is, but when her husband disappeared in those woods she fell to pieces. Never been quite the same since.”
“Yep, plain vanished. Went for a walk one day, never came back. The police searched for weeks and never found anything, not a single trace of where he’d gone. In the end they left him for dead.”
“How awful.” Sam paused, and Susan could see his mind ticking over what Martha must’ve gone through. She’d thought about it many a time, and whilst she and Bernard didn’t say much to each other these days, at least they did have each other. For Martha, Barry had simply disappeared and there was no way of telling just what had happened to him. He could be happily living another life, with another wife at this very moment, and Martha would be none the wiser.
“Sue, I really wanted to thank you for taking me on,” Sam said, changing the subject. “I know I’ve only been working here two weeks but I really am enjoying it. You’ve made me feel so welcome.”
“Don’t thank me, I should be thanking you. It’s great to have you here. Now that my daughter’s not at home anymore I’d forgotten how good it is to have someone young around. Livens the place up don’t you think? Gives it that extra vibrance. I’ll just be sorry to lose you when your paper’s done.”
Sam had happened upon Ridgewood quite suddenly. A telephone to Susan out of the blue from an eager young student who’d been looking for a collection of mythological and paranormal literature, and Sam had soon become part of the furnishings. He was supposed to be in the back most of the day, busying himself with reading and researching, but he’d soon taken to making customers’ coffees. After only a few days he’d all but become a member of staff, and Susan couldn’t imagine the shop without him.
“Don’t worry Sue, somehow I think I’ll be here for a while. You’ve got such an immense collection of literature here, and I just love this place. It’s got an ancient feel to it, do you know what I mean?”
“Martha would say it was the forest,” Susan replied, a grin spreading across her face. “I just put it down to the town being so old and such. This building itself is over 200 years old, apparently it was once part of a brothel! Plus, even two weeks in this place is enough for you to see how much eerie weather we get. Sun and mist at the same time, day in, day out. Then what seems like tropical downpours. It’s all very odd, but,” she shrugged her shoulders, “I’ve grown used to it now and wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Before the conversation could continue, there was a sudden crash from behind one of the bookshelves along with a small squeal of pain before Martha came running over to the table. Her usual elegance was gone, and she staggered over to where they sat with a complete lack of self control. Her trembling hands slammed into the table and as Susan and Sam looked up into her eyes, they saw that they were wide with fear.
“Martha, whatever’s wrong?”
But Martha couldn’t speak, her mouth simply opened and shut without uttering any sound, her eyes flicking from one to the other of them, but never completely focussing. Her body visibly shook as she slouched sideways onto a chair. Grabbing the bottle of whisky, she took a long swig that seemed to jolt her back to reality. Coughing and spluttering as the alcohol seared her throat, she paused and looked around before leaning into the table. Her voice trembled, not as if she was about to cry but as if she were in mortal danger.
“It’s opened, the, the, the…woods,” she said in a whisper. Noting the confusion on her friends’ faces, she gripped their hands tightly. “Don’t you understand? It’s too late, it’s happening again.”
Roberta stared vacantly out of the classroom window. The students had long left, leaving her alone with her thoughts and only the dropping sun to gaze at. Fading light cast shadows across the papers on the desk in front of her, and Roberta glanced to where she’d marked the essays with her green pen. She hated marking with red; it only went to dishearten pupils more. Writing in green allowed her to convey everything that she wanted to without having to splash scarlet ink across her youngsters work. It wasn’t this that played on Roberta’s mind though; it was the shrinking sun and the onset of another dark, cold and eerie November night.
Looking to the fading sun, she saw light catch on a line of trees, shedding a sliver of golden light into the boarding school classroom as it did so. Roberta squinted as she tried to make out the horizon caught in the fiery glow. Unease always set in about this time, late in the afternoon when she knew that there was still the scurry home amidst frosty tendrils. Looking back to the stack of work in front of her, Roberta buried her thoughts and took up her green scrawling with an increased pace.
Ridgewood was a small, sleepy and somewhat forgotten town. As the rolling hills of the north fell away, giving rise to the increasingly haunting and craggy landscape of the fast approaching Scottish border, the town was all but blotted out, a shroud of wind, rain and cloud covering it like a heavy blanket. Lying deep in a valley, the surrounding countryside was a maze of dry stone walls, the few scattered sheep chewing in vain at the sparse and somewhat inedible grasses. Small copses dotted the horizon, and the very occasional dwelling bore its walls up against the unceasing battle with the elements. Here, sitting quietly in the throng of Mother Nature’s forces, Ridgewood remained relatively protected.
Or so it seemed, but Roberta often felt that the bubble around the town seemed more likely to keep something in, than to protect her from the world outside. Once inside the confines of the town, the outside world seemed to be forgotten, fading like a foggy memory that couldn’t be reached. Cold November nights drew a cloud of darkness over Ridgewood and it was as if, to the rest of the world, the town ceased to exist, inhabitants and all. Driving raindrops scattered as they hit the towering pines of the surrounding forests whilst the wind rattled through the branches as if an ancient being was howling out for all to hear. The bitter cold crept over the surrounding hills and swept, keeping close to the ground, towards the sleepy town houses. As the odd sheep or two took shelter in a craggy nook, or huddled together, wet and miserable, lights flickered on and the town was soon lit up like a beacon amongst the trees; a glowing ember in a vast expanse of emptiness.
Ridgewood had retained much of its medieval architecture and character, the streets threading their way over cobbles and down dark alleys. Though the thoroughfare had gradually become more modern and commercial over the past few decades, there was still an air of peace and tranquillity, a slowness and quietness that the residents always indulged in. Many of the shop fronts still had their windows squeezed between ancient beams, various plaques of history dotted here and there on the side of once important buildings. The few 20th century buildings that had crept their way in looked out of place and squashed, as if history was trying to squeeze them out. The paper was filled with the local scandal; Mrs Jenkins absentmindedly forgetting to pay her corner store bill of £5.77 or Mr Bains being found drunk on a bench. Likewise, the emergency services were not too much bothered, and the height of excitement for the firemen was Penelope Harris’s fat ginger tom getting stuck in its cat flap, again. All the police had to be concerned about was making sure the local kids and boarding school pupils weren’t wandering the street all hours of the night. The closest town, Mornington, was 11 miles away and the only connecting road was hardly used. Lorries trundled back and forth and people made the occasional trip out to stock up on supplies but, strangely, most of the residents seemed to be completely content living their lives in this little unknown hamlet, feeling no need to move or even visit any other area.
Roberta sifted through the remaining pile of unmarked homework before her. Why she thought teaching would be a great profession evaded her. Her naivety had led her to believe that the fulfilling nature of the job, sharing one’s knowledge and experience with others and helping to shape the next generation, would far outweigh rebellious teens and unruly children. But here, in the midst of her marking nightmare, it was neither of these matters that preyed on her mind. It was one of ongoing paperwork, class plans, complicated syllabuses and league tables. Where had her life gone? It was a Friday night and she was sitting in her office at Ridgewood boarding school without so much as a text inviting her out for a night of drinks and dancing. She was young, single and plagued by the difficult task of trying to keep snotty nosed kids out of bother lest their parents arrived only to cause yet more trouble.
With a sigh she pushed back her chair and stood up.
“Sod it, I’ll do it tomorrow.”
She gave a last glance around the room, flicked off the light and set off towards the staff room. The classrooms and labs of the school were entirely separate from the dorm blocks, making the unlit corridors quiet and eerie. A blanket of clouds outside shut out any light from the moon, and she cursed the lack of lighting as she groped and grasped her way along the usually familiar corridors. Rounding the corner she saw that the light in the staff room was still on. Who would still be here at this hour? Roberta crept up quietly, deciding that the best thing was to try and take a peek at who had stayed behind, and sneak away if it were bore-master and RE teacher Alan. However, she couldn’t see anything through the crack in the door so, with a sudden burst, she pushed it open.
“Roberta, crikey you gave me a fright.” Malcolm Swithburn, the headmaster, gasped and clutched his chest in panic, “I thought everyone had gone, what are you still doing here? It’s a Friday night, haven’t you got plans?”
“I was just finishing some marking, I’m off out now to meet up with some friends,” Roberta lied to save explaining her flagging social life.
“Well I’m glad you’ve got a night planned, I’m up to my ears with work that I can’t even concentrate on what with the problems we’re having with Vanessa.” He took his small oval glasses off and laid them on the table. He sighed as he rubbed his tired eyes, “I just don’t understand what’s happening to that girl, she was one of our brightest students, someone that was going to go on from here and do big and wonderful things. But this –,” he looked down at the papers in front of him, “this is a complete waste, there’s nothing here in any of her recent work that shows her old spark, it’s simply gone.” He looked up at Roberta hopefully, “You haven’t had any luck with her have you?”
“I’ve tried, I really have, but I just can’t get through to her. It’s like talking to a ghost, the Vanessa we all knew has just vanished. She’s non-existent in classes, just staring off into space, and it’s no point keeping her behind either because she’s just the same. It’s so awful to see. Nobody’s mentioned the word yet, but I think a lot of us are thinking it.”
“You think it’s drugs,” Malcolm commented with a sigh and nod. “It’s crossed my mind too but we’ve never found anything, and we can’t just go storming in with accusations. Her parents would be all over us like a rash, not to mention the invasion of privacy for her, especially if nothing’s found.” He stared back to the papers in front of him and scratched his wrinkled forehead. “No, we have to play it by the book and just keep persevering. It’s all we can do. Though I don’t know if it’s going to work. I mean, we’ve already let her move into the school which we don’t usually do for locals. She seemed happier to start with, but it hasn’t lasted very long.”
Malcolm continued to cast his eyes over the reams of papers before him and surveyed the mountain of work with tiredness.
“Well, I guess I’ll be getting off then Malcolm. You should too.”
Malcolm looked up and gave a smile. “Thanks Roberta, I’ll try. Have a good time tonight and I’ll see you Monday.”
More like tomorrow thought Roberta. That pile of work on her desk couldn’t wait till Monday and long gone were the weekends when she didn’t end up at the school at least once. “Night then.”
“Martha, what on earth are you talking about?” Susan looked at Sam, who seemed visibly shaken by the ordeal. Martha, still clutching Sam’s hands, looked up and gave a self-conscious smile.
“Oh yes, I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me. I just…” Martha’s voice trailed off, her embarrassment clearly apparent.
“You what?” asked Sam in a slightly shaky tone.
“It’s silly, I know, but I just got this feeling. That something horrible was about to happen. Not a vision, just a feeling. I haven’t felt that since -,” she paused. “Since the night Barry went missing.”
“I think you’ve been reading too many of Sam’s books Martha,” Susan quipped. “Look, let’s leave the work…,” and on seeing Martha’s expression added, “We can do it tomorrow, don’t worry about the morning rush, it’s dead in here.”
“Are you sure? I don’t mind staying, we really do need to finish it off.”
“Martha! Leave it, really…come and have a drink…”
“No, no, I’m fine. Can I get off though? I think I need a nice hot bath and then bed.”
Susan nodded, and Martha got up and went through a small door at the back of the shop to collect her coat and bag. The atmosphere was thick, and in the few seconds of silence that followed, all that could be heard was the whistling wind outside battering on the door and the raindrops as they smashed across the windows. Sam looked up from the table with an expression of shock and utter disbelief.
“It’s OK Sam, she’s done this before. Never this emotional, but she says she sees things sometimes, gets bad feelings. She did it a lot when her husband vanished, went completely potty, but gradually she’s got herself back together. It’s another one of her eccentricities that we have to deal with!”
“Sue, you don’t think she had a, well, a real vision? I mean, I’m as sceptical as you, well, I was, but the look in her eyes just then. Perhaps she did feel or see something, perhaps it is all real?”
“Oh no, don’t be silly! It’s just Martha being Martha,” Susan said as she reached over and topped up her glass. “The brain does funny things to some people, it certainly has to her. You’ve been reading way to much funny stuff. Don’t you start going that way too, I’ll never be able to cope with two of y-.”
Martha entered the room again and noticed the sudden gap in the conversation.
“So you both think I’m a nutcase do you? Martha Wittle does a mad one again…” she cried. Although her elegance had returned to her after the sudden outburst, she seemed somewhat wild. “Going to sell tickets to see batty Martha are we?!”
“No, no, Martha, we’re just concerned. It’s never been quite like that before, never that strong,” Susan said as she grabbed the arm of her upset friend. “Do you want us to walk you home?”
“I’ll be fine, I can use my powers to ward off the demons,” Martha responded with an angry face. Susan, who was now holding Martha by the shoulders, looked her straight in the eyes.
“Martha, now you know we didn’t mean…,” but before she could finish, Martha put her hand to her mouth to stifle the beginnings of a giggle and before long the three of them were doubled up with tears in their eyes.
Laughing, although with a distinct uneasiness, Sam giggled, “You sure do know how to sober a guy up don’t you!”
Susan unlatched the lock and ushered Martha out of the door. Kissing her on both cheeks, she gave her friend a hug and smile. “I’ll see you tomorrow, OK.”
Martha smiled back and hurried off down the street, soon disappearing into the darkness. Closing the door, Susan turned back to Sam and strode back to the table.
“After all of that? Hell yes.”
It seemed to be only a matter of minutes later, that a screaming and knocking at the book shop door roused Susan and Sam from their conversation. Hurrying through the room, Susan unlatched the door, whereupon a bedraggled and distraught Martha almost fell into her arms.
“Martha? What on earth?”
But Martha seemed too distraught to say anything immediately, and it was only after several minutes of sitting by the fire that she started to gain any colour. Her hair was plastered to her face, mascara tracks running down her cheeks, and when Susan had gingerly led her to sit down, she’d noticed that many of Martha’s carefully manicured false nails were snapped. Sam, having not known what to do, had quickly whipped up one the coffees that the customers were coming to love. Pushing it into Martha’s hands he was the first to ask.
“Are you OK Martha? Were you attacked?”
She looked up at him, and then across to Susan, before nodding her head.
“I’m not hurt,” she said abruptly, “It didn’t touch me. I just fell and banged my head on the cobbles.” She put her hand to where a dark bruise was swiftly appearing on her jaw. “It all happened so quickly…”
“What happened?” Susan asked, not wanting to press the matter but also determined to discover what had occurred.
“I was just minding my own business,” Martha said. “Home, bath, bed, that’s all I wanted. It came out of nowhere, this hooded figure, tall, wearing a long robe. It just rushed out of a side street, glanced in my direction and then started moving towards me.”
She paused as she recalled the events. “I turned to run, I don’t even know why, it just looked so menacing. I felt that fear from earlier, from when I was in here, and before I knew it, I’d slipped, smashed my head, broken my nails.” She paused again, before saying slowly, “It didn’t say anything, nothing at all. I threw my purse at it, but whatever it was, it didn’t even stop staring at my face for the slightest second.” She shuddered and took a sip of the coffee which was gripped tightly between her fingers.
“Did you get a good look at it?” Susan urged.
“Nothing. It was right over me and all I could see was the small glint of dark eyes. There was a howling roar of wind down the street, we both looked round and when I looked back, it was gone.”
Roberta was glad to be out of the classroom. She often spent six out of seven days at the school, and it wasn’t uncommon to find her slaving away on a Sunday too. It wasn’t that she was a bad teacher, or that she just took longer to do everything. She, and all the other teachers, just had too much work. It was that plain and simple.
After leaving Malcolm in the staff room, Roberta had grabbed her things and was now on her way off the premises. She hoped that her housemate was in, but these days it was more likely that he’d have stayed behind at the bookstore with Susan Lingly for more than a little tipple. Sam was a friend from her high school and college days. They’d grown up together in Suffolk and had gone through the usual rights of passage, first kiss, not with each other, first booze, first smoke. After losing contact with her friend when she’d graduated from university, Roberta had been very surprised when she’d had an email from Sam saying that he was coming up to Ridgewood to study for a thesis paper and was wondering if he could crash for a few nights while he looked for somewhere to stay long term. Roberta had welcomed the possibility of renewing her friendship, and had offered to accommodate Sam indefinitely. He’d agreed. However, as happens with many things in life, it hadn’t worked out quite like she’d imagined. In the two weeks that Sam had been in Ridgewood, he’d only had an evening in with Roberta twice. The first night, they’d unloaded the car, got a takeaway and got completely intoxicated reminiscing about their childhood and college years over several bottles of wine. The second night, they’d just chilled out and watched TV. Sam had a tonne of reading to do and he’d really hit it off with Mrs Lingly. As Roberta often didn’t return home until late in the evening, Sam had started to stay after hours at the bookstore.
Reaching the main doors to the school, Roberta swore as she found them locked. She couldn’t bear this place and someone seemed to be making it highly difficult for her to leave. She gave a gasp of frustration and set off down another dark corridor as she re-mapped her route and decided to go through to the dorms and take the exit there. That’s if that door hadn’t already been locked too.
Roberta’s thoughts shifted to the mundane evening ahead of her. There was some stale bread, probably a jar of slightly mouldy jam, oh yes, and a single red onion in the kitchen. Well, that sounded like a feast. Having never really grown out of the student phase, Roberta found it very difficult to plan ahead, especially when it came to food shopping. And anyway, living on her own, she couldn’t be bothered to buy in bulk as it only went off before she had time to eat it. It was Friday night. She’d treat herself and have another takeaway.
Roberta rounded the corner to the dorm block and immediately noticed what she thought was a crumpled heap of linen laying at the far end of the hall.
“Damn cleaners,” she muttered under her breath. Ridgewood boarding school had seemed like the ideal place to work, until she’d got there. Though many of the kids were privately funded and their parents paid for the highest quality, it seemed that the upkeep of the building was coming down around Roberta’s ears.
She flicked the light switch nearest her. It didn’t work, and the only light was that of the moon in the clearing sky. The hall was at the side of the dorm block, and strange pale light streamed through the windows, casting a collage of light and dark upon the floor. Shaking her head with irritation, Roberta set off again, determined just to get home. As she neared the heap on the floor, her face fell to one of shock as, with a gasp, she realised that it wasn’t linen at all but the motionless body of a girl. Dropping her bag, Roberta put her hands to her mouth.
The girl lay face down with her shoulder length blonde hair covering her head and concealing her identity. Her hands lay loosely by her sides, whilst her legs were bent as if she’d simply collapsed on the spot. Her skin was a sickly shade of blue green. She wore a green, knee length party dress and high heels, though the heel of the left shoe had snapped off and lay about a yard from the girl’s rigid left hand. The air was deathly cold and the hairs on Roberta’s neck stood on end as she ran over to the motionless figure.
Kneeling down, Roberta pulled the girl over without thinking and let out a gasp.
Feeling frantically for a non existent pulse, Roberta started to feel sick. Only a few minutes ago, she and Malcolm had been discussing this girl’s problems. They were too late. Nothing could be done now.
Vanessa’s eyes, wide open and staring, were glazed over, whilst her mouth was locked open as if she had been startled. The room began to spin, and Roberta’s hands recoiled at the feeling of Vanessa’s cold, damp skin beneath her fingers. A strange warmth crept up through Roberta’s body, starting deep within her and continuing to spread until her skin was radiating heat. Her head started to burn like fire, and Roberta could feel her stomach starting to convulse. Within a few seconds she lost her vision, her mind went black and she passed out, falling forwards and landing over the outstretched corpse of the dead girl.