Merry Christmas to one and all! A tasty, fizzy, jolly, bright, shiny day and night to all. May your day/week/month/new year be filled with sparkling light and love and joy!
Christmas is a time for stories so I thought I’d post my seasonal spookfest, The Highwayman, in full in one post for anyone who prefers the whole hog. As Christmas is a time for excess, also, after all!
(If you’d rather read it in chunks, here’s the link to Part 5 which includes links to Parts 1 – 4)
(Oh, and if you enjoyed this story, you can find more of my free short fiction here and here, as well as details of my published novels here.)
The air was full with the smells of new paint and shaved wood, punctuated by the sharp tang of the evergreens Eleanor had picked that morning. Every surface was pristine, the furnishings new and spotless, the equipment gleaming and ready to go. As she wondered from room to room she breathed it all in along with the feel of the future.
The restoration had cost tens of thousands. The installation of the recording studio and performance space had cost even more. But even with the new wood, wiring, brick and plastic, computer screens, sound baffles, miles of cables and forests of microphones, the building still had…something old about it. Something aged, like long-buried bones, that couldn’t be painted over.
She put her hand on a door frame, part of the original building they’d been able to salvage, and told herself it was a good thing. She’d bought the Annex for a reason. She didn’t want another soulless, purpose-built concrete box. She wanted somewhere with character, where inspiration was woven into the very walls.
She peered through the lead-paned window into the gathering night. Chill bled through the old glass. Flecks of snow were beginning to swirl in the light from the hall and from the windows of the Highwayman next door. It lifted her spirits. A white Christmas. That was surely a good omen.
She moved downstairs, shutting lights off as she went, adjusting the holly and ivy hung from the wooden beams and banisters. She pause in the lobby and looked around. The reception desk, made to order from reclaimed oak, was decorated with plaited evergreen branches, laden with red holly berries, filling the air with the smells of wild and winter. Fairy lights sparkled in the windows and along the beams in the ceiling. A real Christmas tree, decorated with custom ornaments from a local craft market, glowed in the corner opposite the deep, sky-blue couches arranged around a newly-installed log burner.
She made herself smile. It was perfect. It really was.
Then why did she feel so nervous?
She shook her head and let herself through the side door to her private rooms. If anything it was even colder. She turned up the heating before gathering her handbag, keys, phone. She checked her hair in the mirror and froze, spun round. There was nothing there. She slowly turned back to the mirror. She saw only her face, slightly pale, and the coat rack behind her. It must have been the coats. That was all. One of the coats hanging in a way to make it look like…
She stared over her shoulder in the mirror, wondering why she couldn’t look away. There was a draught from somewhere. She became aware of a sound, so low she felt it rather than heard it.
She swore when her phone shattered the silence.
“Hey, it’s me.”
Eleanor let out a breath. “Abbie. Hi.”
“Are you ok?”
“I’m fine. The phone made me jump.”
Abbie paused a moment. “Is that all it is?”
“There hasn’t been more letters?”
Eleanor turned away from the mirror and grabbed her coat. “You worry too much. There hasn’t been a letter for over a week.”
“What did the police say?”
Eleanor took a breath. “I didn’t go to the police.”
“Eleanor – ”
“I told you, it’s just some local crackpot who doesn’t like what I’ve done to the Annex. As soon as they see I won’t be frightened off they’ll give up. May have given up already.”
“If you say so.”
Eleanor fought a sigh. “Look, I know you’d rather I’d kept the company in London – ”
“It’s not that, El,” Abbie put in. “I’m just concerned you’re too invested in this escape-to-the-country thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Running away doesn’t always leave your problems behind.”
Eleanor did sigh this time. “I haven’t run away, Abbie.” She closed her eyes a second. “Megan hurt me. She did. But I’ve not left London because of her. I’ve left London because it’s London.”
“El – ”
“Abbie,” Eleanor cut her off. “I needed this. I already feel better. More myself.”
“You don’t sound much like yourself.”
Eleanor glanced around the hall, thick with shadows even with all the lights on. The night had darkened to black outside. The old building groaned and cracked as the central heating warmed its cold corners. “I’m just nervous about the open day, that’s all.”
“Ok,” Abbie said, in a softer tone. “Well I’m just phoning to confirm I’ve got the Air BNB until at least Christmas Eve, so I’ll be there for the carol service.”
Eleanor smiled. “That’s great. Is Jack coming too?”
“His dad’s got him for Christmas this year.”
Eleanor winced. “I forgot. You ok?”
“I’m fine,” Abbie said in a voice that told Eleanor she wasn’t but wasn’t in the mood to discuss it. “I’ll be with you by about 10 tomorrow. I’ll bring some of Alberto’s coffee.”
Eleanor’s spirits brightened. “Cheers. The last batch you got me is about to run out. It’s the only thing I miss.”
“I’ll bring as much as I can carry.” The smile was back in her voice. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Thought I’d pop next door for a drink. Meet some of the locals.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
Eleanor pulled on her coat, not quite able to suppress and impatient noise. “It’s a county pub, Abbie. Not a mob den.”
“I’m just saying, there’s clearly some bad feeling in the village.”
“One crazy person sent a couple of letters,” Eleanor insisted, wrapping her scarf round her neck. “It’s not like the population of Crossways is outside my door with pitchforks.”
“And what about the stories?”
Eleanor pinched the bridge of her nose and reminded herself how long Abbie had been her solicitor and family friend. “What stories?”
“You do know that’s the inn don’t you?” Her voice was different all of a sudden. “The one from The Highwayman?”
Eleanor snorted. “That’s a poem. And Noyes wrote it a million miles away from here.”
“It’s based on a true story. And the website says all sorts of unexplained things go on there. It’s bad luck to cross the threshold with a guilty heart.”
Eleanor paused with her hand on the door handle. “I know you believe this sort of thing Abbie, but, honestly. These stories are just a 300-year old promotional campaign. Besides, I don’t have a guilty heart.”
“I don’t literally believe these things,” Abbie went on in a lower voice. “They just often have a root in the truth. Sometimes a truth we can’t always explain.”
“Abbie. It’s a lovely pub. We’ll go for dinner tomorrow.”
Eleanor’s took a moment to control her voice. “Can you just try and be happy for me?”
“I’m sorry, El,” she said, and she did sound it, though perhaps not in the way she meant. “I am happy for you, really. I’m just not done being worried about you yet.”
“You’re such a mum. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Eleanor hung up before her friend could say anything else. The wind was biting cold outside and the snow had fattened to coin-sized flakes that spiralled in the air like confetti. Eleanor breathed the cold air deep into her lungs. It seemed to brighten parts of her that she had never realised had been dark. It was so nice not to smell fumes and refuse with every inhale. She locked the door behind her and didn’t let herself think too hard about why she found it hard to glance up at the darkened windows.
She turned her back on the Annex and made for the warm lights of the Highwayman. The windows glowed in the gloom and the smell of wood smoke was rich in the air.
The smell was stronger inside, but almost swamped by the aroma of drying coats, pub chips and spilled beer. The low-ceilinged room was packed with tables and chairs, crowded with people bent over glasses and games of dominoes and draughts, laughing and talking loudly to try and be heard over the two-piece acoustic act playing on the tiny stage in the corner. Eleanor recognised the tune, an old seasonal folk ditty, stitching its way through the air like the scent of mulled cider. People swayed in time and clapped along. Eleanor spotted a few locals, two who had occupied the same space at the end of the bar every time she’d been in, but also made out plenty of tourists in designer winter wear, wolfing down plates of pie and pints of local ale, pausing only to applaud as the tune came to its end. She heard a couple of American accents echoing through from the snug.
“Busy night,” she said as she rested her elbows on the stained rosewood bar.
“Aye,” Andrew, the hairy-knuckled landlord, replied as he pulled a pint of IPA (without the sparkler) for a thin customer in expensive, unsoiled walking gear. “Got a coach-load from the Yuletide Coast Tour staying the night. What can I get ye?”
Eleanor ordered a gin and tonic whilst eyeing the guests. “Do you think they’ll come to the open day tomorrow?”
“They’re here at least ’til lunch, so maybe.” Andrew sloshed gin into a large tumbler, squirted on some tonic and topped it with a slice of lime. “How you settling in?”
Eleanor examined what she could see of his lined face over his black hedge of beard, trying to figure out if he was actually interested. “Good. It’s wonderful. So quiet.”
“The walls are so thick. I can’t even hear the pub.”
“So you’ve heard nothing…inside?”
Eleanor frowned, steadfastly ignoring the cold finger working its way up her spine. “Like what?”
“Footsteps on the stairs?” Andrew waggled his bushy eyebrows. “Shouts in the night?”
Eleanor gave him a wry look over the top of her glass. “Save the stories for the coach parties, Andrew.”
He planted his elbows on the counter. “If you say so, Miss Cruz. Just thought you might find it interesting to know that the room that’s now your recording studio,” his eyebrows lifted, crinkling his forehead into deep lines, “that was Bess’s bedchamber.”
“The landlord’s daughter,” Andrew went on. “The one what shot herself to warn the highwayman of the ambush. That’s the room where she died.”
Eleanor took another swallow of her drink. “Is that right?”
“It’s said you can sometimes hear things, is all. When he tries to return to her but she has to warn him off all over again. Coming,” he called down the bar, gave Eleanor a wink. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn ye.” He shambled to the walking party that had just crowded in with dripping coats and shivering dogs.
“Pay no notice,” came a pleasant voice over her shoulder. She jumped, the second time that day, and turned to see a young man stood just behind her. He had a tea towel over his shoulder and a tray of empty glasses in his hand. “He’s been telling the stories for so long now it’s almost impulse. Bess’s bedchamber changes every time, too. John,” he said, setting down the tray on the bar and holding out a hand.
“Eleanor,” she said, shaking his hand. “I’ve bought next door – ”
“Oh I know who you are,” he said, his smile widening. He had a pleasant face, dark hair, the nut-coloured skin of someone who spent most of year outside. His eyes were very brown, like the oak timbers over their heads and she could tell he was young, though found it hard to guess how young. “The whole village knows who you are, Miss Cruz.”
“Eleanor’s fine,” she said. “Infamous already, am I?”
His smile twitched. “Take no notice of the gossip. Villages are like tides. When there’s change everything gets stirred up. But it all settles eventually and everyone forgets there ever was a problem. Besides, they like to have something to talk about. You could say you’ve given them the best Christmas present they’ve had in years.”
Eleanor smiled, feeling something warm inside her that she hadn’t let herself admit had been cold for days. “Thanks. John, was it?”
“You work here?”
He shrugged a shoulder, brown eyes scanning the room with a distant sort of air. “Not officially. I step in to help out the guests from time to time. When the need arises.”
“Andrew must be grateful.”
The smile twitched again. “In his way. Yes. What made you choose Crossways? Hardly the first place someone might think of to set up a recording studio.”
Eleanor examined him closely, but there seemed to be nothing but honest curiosity in his eyes. “I overnighted here on my way up to Edinburgh this time last year,” she said, looking round the close, dimly-lit room wreathed with fairy lights and cheap tinsel. “I heard the choir. They’re very talented.”
“They’re just local lads and lasses. But the choirmaster at All Saints has always been a prestigious position.”
“I’d heard that. Then I heard them sing. And there was a folk festival on here that same night,” she nodded round the room. “Some real talent, too. Then Andrew told me just how many local acts there are.”
“Musicians are drawn here,” John said, eyes on the duo on the stage who had started something slow and sad. “It’s the moors, I think. And the hills, the sea. The land seems to make its own music.” Eleanor examined him again as his eyes went far away. Then he blinked and the melancholy look on his face vanished. “So you thought they deserved their own studio?”
“I know talent,” Eleanor said. “When I heard that choir well…I knew this place had a voice. I wanted to give the rest of the world a chance to hear it.”
John nodded, approving. Eleanor felt she should be nettled by someone so much younger than her presuming to judge her at all, even in a good light. But she found she wasn’t.
“I wish you the best of luck with it.”
“There’s an open day,” she put in before he moved away. “Tomorrow. And I’m putting on a carol service in the performance space on Christmas Eve. It’s being recorded for charity.”
He smiled again. “Sounds great. I’ll stop by, if I can.” He looked back over his shoulder as if hearing something, nodded to her once more, then wove back into the crowd. Eleanor finished her drink and ordered another, allowing herself to feel reassured.
Andrew served her and they finally talked business – drinks deals for the attendees of the open day and the carol service, ticket sales and Gift Aid.
The band were just closing their set and Eleanor was fighting the sneaking reluctance to return to the Annex alone, when someone, with the cold from outside still clinging to their clothing, elbowed past her and slapped a gnarled hand down on the bar. Andrew’s face went carefully blank. The man, all wild grey hair and old, stained overcoat, gave Eleanor a sharp look from the corner of his green, watering eyes then turned his attention to the landlord.
“I wants a ticket, Andrew. For the Christmas Eve Carols.”
“Mr Roberts – ”
“A ticket,” the man insisted, voice raising a notch so heads started to turn toward the bar. “Sam at post office wouldn’t do me one.”
“There’s a reason for that, Glen,” Andrew said folding his arms
“I gots just as much a right as any bugger else,” Roberts retorted, turning his sour look on Eleanor. “Don’t I gets to see the wrecking of Crossways too?”
“Glen – ” Andrew raised a hand.
“I’ve not wrecked anything,” Eleanor said, drawing herself up. The old man’s face twisted but she bulled on. “I’ve saved the Annex. The place was falling to pieces.”
“Ye don’t care about Crossways or the Annex,” he growled, pointing a twisted finger in her face. “Ye’ve torn it to pieces, and for what? To drag in more strangers, more tourists to shit in our home.”
“Glen,” Andrew’s face had grown dark. “That’ll be enough outta you. Don’t make me bar ye again.”
“Yer just as bad,” Roberts barked at the landlord. “Pandering to the interlopers and the passers-through, thinking no further than yer own pockets.” Spittle flew from his red mouth as he spoke and people began to edge away down the bar. A family that had just entered steered their kids back out into the dark with wary looks over their shoulders.
“Yer stuck in the past, you stupid old man,” Andrew growled, stalking out from behind the bar. “Ye change or ye die. Them’s the breaks. Now git. Out, now, before I call police.”
“Traitors,” Roberts gritted, eyes flaming. “All of ye. Happy to see Crossways ripped apart. This village had been ‘ere since middle ages and now the likes of you turn up and destory it overnight. No good will come of it, mark me.” He spat on the floor at Andrew’s feet, causing the large man to swear roundly and impressively before manhandling the old man out the door.
The locals went straight back to their beer. The tourists gawked at the door. The musicians, who had paused in the act of packing up, resumed fastening their instrument cases with mumbled comments.
Eleanor stared at the door a long time after Andrew had come back in. He tried to tempt her to another gin, on the house, but her mind already felt fogged, her emotions muggy. Her heart was slugging against her ribs but she plastered on a calm smile for Andrew and left, but stopped to ensure the car park was empty before crossing it back to her front door.
She told herself it really couldn’t be as cold inside as she thought. She was tired, had skipped dinner, again, and the gin was going to her head. And whether she wanted to admit it or not, the old man had shaken her. She thought of the threatening letters she’d hidden in the bottom of her desk – she’d wanted to burn them but had stopped herself, hearing Abbie’s voice in her head. Roberts’s speech reminded her of those bitter words, dripping with venom.
She was used to competitors, bossy clients, infuriated media bosses. But something so…personal. So viscous.
She blinked at herself in the hall mirror, the shadows under her eyes, the dull look in them. Her grey roots were showing and she hadn’t worn makeup in days. She didn’t recognise herself. For one instant she let herself wonder whether Abbie had been right. But then she shook the thought away.
When she opened her eyes, a shape had formed in the dark over her shoulder. She span. Only the coats on the coat stand. She sucked in deep breaths, willed her heart to calm. She clenched her eyes shut.
“Stop being stupid.”
She opened her eyes. No one in the hall or the mirror but her. She chewed her lip, staring up the stairs that led to her little apartment. She could hear the dull humming that had to be the central heating, the wind in the chimney, the clanking of old wood. She shrugged out of her coat and stomped up the stairs. She would not be intimidated, by stories, by truculent locals or by facing the future alone. She just wouldn’t.
That’s the room where she died.
She showered in her brand new bathroom, under the chrome waterfall shower, turning the heat up to almost max. She drew the thick bedroom curtains over the sight of the emptying car park and climbed into the new bed and breathed in the smells of clean linen and lavender. She stared up at the whitewashed ceiling, bathed amber in the light from her lamp. Her skin was still thrumming, her mind whirling and the low humming was still in the back of her awareness. She tried to blame the gin.
She refused to think about it. She refused to think of Roberts or Andrew or Megan.
I wish you the best of luck with it.
She allowed the young man, John’s, words in and focussed on them. They soothed the other jabbering enough to allow her to turn out the light.
Eleanor was busy chivvying the young people she’d hired for the open day into doing a little more than taking selfies behind the sound desk when Abbie’s Mazda drew up in the Highwayman’s snowy car park. Eleanor watched her climb out, rub her arms through her Gucci overcoat and look around with a faintly bewildered expression. She met her at the front door, folding her into a fierce hug, at once comforted and unnerved by the warm smell of her familiar perfume.
“Thanks so much for coming.”
“Of course,” Abbie’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes as they flicked over Eleanor’s face. “How are you feeling?”
“Great,” Eleanor lied. “We’re nearly set. Come see.”
Eleanor ushered her in through the door into the lobby and was gratified to see a look of genuine pleasure wash over Abbie’s face. “Oh, El. It’s beautiful.”
“The building is unbelievable. Let me show you.” Eleanor showed her the oak-beamed admin office, the newly-carpeted hallway, the recording studio. Abbie’s wide eyes took in the old stonework, the sloping beams hung with evergreen, the tasteful designer prints of a local photographer on the walls. She admired the Christmas tree, the fairy lights hung from the curtain rails and nestled in glass vases on every windowsill. They watched the young people laying out champagne flutes, setting up the table for the canapés and hanging the last of the fresh holly wreathes on the window ledges.
“I’ve saved the best for last,” Eleanor said with her hand on the door at the end of the studio corridor. Abbie smiled and waited. Eleanor took a breath and pushed open the door. They stepped out onto a mezzanine floor overlooking a large, vaulted space that had once been the Highwayman’s stables. The stone floor was original, as were the walls and the wooden skeleton of age-darkened beams. The stage, rows of seating, soft lighting and speaker set up were all new. Fairy lights were wound around the beams and hung in warm-white icicles from the windows. Three large Christmas trees in red pots set around the stage filled the air with the scents of pine and hillsides. Fires flickered in iron stoves against the walls, warming the large, echoing space and setting the smells of wood and Christmas spices wafting in the air.
Eleanor watched Abbie’s face light up as she took it all in. “It’s wonderful,” she said softly.
“Wait until you hear the choir. They give the Kings College Cambridge lot a run for their money.”
Abbie turned to face her. The wonder was still warm in her eyes but her mouth had taken on the hard set Eleanor recognised as a sign she was gearing up to tackle harsh reality. “And how are your bookings?”
Eleanor looked away. “Slow. At the moment. But I it will pick up after New Year.” She was grateful when Abbie didn’t say any more. She showed her the recording setup, the equipment, the small sound desk tucked in next to the corner bar.
It was only when they were back in Eleanor’s kitchen and she was brewing a batch of the rich-smelling coffee she’d brought that Abbie allowed her face to grow grim again. “You have to let me tell you that you don’t look well, El.”
Eleanor glanced at her reflection in the glass cupboard above the coffee machine and then quickly away. “It’s all the anticipation and upheaval, that’s all.”
“And you’re not hearing anything? Seeing anything strange?”
Eleanor looked at her friend sharply. “Like what?”
Abbie raised her eyebrows. “Like the stuff from the stories. Noises in the night. Shapes out the corner of your eye.”
“Abbie – ” Eleanor began a little harshly but the solicitor raised her hand, keeping her face client-placatingly calm.
“I don’t mean I think the places is actually haunted, El. I’m just wondering if you are.”
Eleanor turned back to the coffee machine, breathing in the rich, hot scent and letting it anchor her. “I’m fine.”
“Then I’ll say no more about it,” Abbie said in a very level tone. “Oh, not for me, thanks,” she said when Eleanor set out two coffee cups. “Watching my caffeine intake. What time do doors open?”
“Half an hour,” said Eleanor, checking her watch.
“Great. Well, you finish that, I’ll drop my stuff at the Air BNB then swing back to make sure the lobby is ready. Did you say there’ll be some acts?”
“I’ve got a folk duo recording in the studio from 11:30 and there’s a cellist said she’d play in the performance space from opening until lunch. Lunch until closing is an acapella act from the next town. They said they’d do Christmas songs.”
“Great,” said Abbie, face warm again. “It really is a good idea. People like a little experience with their services these days.”
“That’s what I thought,” Eleanor said, managing a smile and swallowing a large mouthful of the coffee. She sighed as it settled deep into her, warming her through and chasing away some of the prickling unease. “That’s the whole idea.”
Abbie patted her elbow and drifted back toward the recording studio. Eleanor moved around the Annex, checking equipment, decor, wine and nibbles. The young people had taken up position, ready to guide people around and serve the drinks and food. The air was warm and smelled of holly and champagne. It had stopped snowing and a wide, white sky arched outside, filling the Annex with raw winter light.
She stood at the top of the stairs and told herself that what she had told Abbie was true. The nerves were from anticipation, nothing more. Once people were looking around and the artists began, she wouldn’t be able to hear or feel the low hum that seemed to fill every room and the shadows in the mirrors would just be those from flesh-and-blood humans.
If people came.
She blinked away the dim vision of figures moving up the stairs toward her and hurried down to the lobby and flung the front doors open.
The first twenty minutes were achingly quiet. Eleanor tried not to fidget and instead helped the cellist set up in the stables and triple-checked the studio was online and ready for the folk duo, who were, of course, running late. Abbie returned and tactfully didn’t say anything about the lack of people, but then a couple of cars pulled in and out climbed a few people, holding tickets and gazing up at the old buildings.
The girl on the door stamped their tickets, ushered them in and provided them with champagne. Eleanor welcomed them, answered their questions, offered to show them round. They were local, they said, from Crossways. Not musicians themselves, but they knew many. They were curious about what she’d done to the Annex. They looked around the recording studio with slightly bewildered interest but when they were shown through to the stables their faces transformed. Eleanor smiled inwardly. The cellist has just started her set, the dark, sweet notes filling the vaulted space. The small group drifted forward and sat down to listen.
Eleanor slipped out and phoned through to the Highwayman.
“The first few are arriving, Andrew. Can you send someone over to tend bar?”
Lorna, Andrew’s wife, arrived in due course and began brewing teas, coffees and pouring whiskies at the small bar at the back of the stables like she’d been working the space her entire career.
Eleanor hurried back through to the lobby just as more people started wandering in. She scanned for the young man, John, not really knowing why, but saw no sign of him. She was soon so busy showing people round, booking taster sessions and handing out business cards that the day wore on and night started to fall outside. The fairy lights and lanterns glowed in the gathering night. Eleanor had to send to the Highwayman for more champagne and by the time the acapella act were starting their penultimate song, the stables were almost full to capacity. The quartet had clearly never sung to an audience so big and poured themselves into the performance, getting everyone to sing along to Blue Christmas with gusto.
Eleanor peeled away to man the lobby, check the ticket sales for the carol service and pour the very last of the free champagne. The shadows weren’t crowding in any more and the low hum she felt was now one of excitement and triumph. The fact that whatever she was coming down with was filling her ears with white noise and threading her limbs with aches couldn’t even dampen her mood. She let herself enjoy a glass of champagne as she sold the last ticket to the carol service to the lady that ran the local library.
“Uh, Miss Cruz?” Eleanor looked up. Shelly, the girl covering the door, was looking out into the car park with a wary expression. Glen Roberts, grey hair flying in the wind, dirty overcoat flapping about his legs, was storming out of the gloom. His eyes were bloodshot and he swayed slightly as he moved. There was a bottle in his hand.
“Bitch,” he shouted, slurring and spitting. “Stuck-up London bitch.” He raised the bottle, liquid sloshing into the snow. “Go home. Get the hell out of Crossways or ye’ll answer for it.”
“Help me, Shelly,” Eleanor urged, pulling at the heavy front doors.
“Don’t you shut that door,” Roberts yelled, staggering forward. “I’ll have my say. I will – ”
Eleanor heaved the other door over just as Shelly slammed hers but Roberts was too close. He flung the bottle. It smashed against the wood, showering Eleanor with cheap vodka and broken glass. She pulled Shelly back behind her. “Get upstairs. Lock the corridor.” Shelly did as she was told and Eleanor tried to shut the door with the weight of Roberts pushing against the other side, swearing and grabbing for her.
The cold fingers of real panic were just starting to close on her throat when there was another voice, lighter but firm, barking his name. Roberts’s struggling stilled. Eleanor clutched the door, breathing in the smell of vodka and bad breath and felt the weight lift from the door. She raised her head and peered out.
The young man, John, was speaking earnestly to Roberts in a low voice, one hand holding the older man’s shoulder as if to keep him still. Roberts’s face was twisted, his hands were clenched at his sides. His eyes were locked on the younger man’s face, wide and startled-looking. He blinked blearily, muttered something, eyes going distant then allowed John to turn him round and march him back across the car park.
When silence reigned for a few more heartbeats, Eleanor pulled the door open and breathed in the cold night air, relief rushing over her skin with the chill. Everything was still. She stepped out into the snow, scanning the dark.
There was no sign of either John or Roberts. Eleanor rubbed her eyes and turned back to the studio. She called Shelly back down. The girl was shaken, but ok. She gave her double pay and told her to go home early and get some rest.
“Are you ok, Miss Cruz? You’re covered in glass.”
“I’ll be fine,” Eleanor said, helping the girl into her coat.
Eleanor moved around the lobby in a sort of daze, sweeping up glass, mopping up the stinking vodka, brushing herself off and sponging at the stains on her top and trousers in the downstairs bathroom. She focused intently on cleaning up so she didn’t have to think about the pall that now lay over the bloom of the day.
She’d just pulled on a cardigan to hide the stains when the first attendees wandered back into the lobby. She tried to be brightened by the handshakes and smiles, the kind comments, but Roberts’s harsh words were still echoing in her ears and she could still smell his hatred on her clothes. She thanked the musicians and told her hired help that she would clean up herself and ushered everyone out. She wanted to be alone.
When the doors were shut and she’d turned the lock she sank to the damp carpet and clenched her hands together in her lap, letting her breathing go ragged. The shaking was just starting to still when there was a soft tap on the door. She froze, sweat springing out on her palms, but then she heard a voice through the wood.
Eleanor stood, brushed herself off, tucked her hair back behind her ears and opened the door. John was stood on the step in his shirtsleeves, hair dusted with snow. “Are you ok?”
“I’m fine,” Eleanor, managed. “Thank you for what you did.”
“Happy to help,” he said softly, smiling. “Don’t take it personally. Glen protests when so much as a road sign is changed round here. He’ll lose interest eventually. Or find something new to be angry with.”
“He always has before.”
Eleanor let out a breath she didn’t realise she’d been holding.
“Your evening went well?”
Eleanor dredged up a smile. “Really well. Everyone liked the acapella act. I might see if they want to record an EP for New Year release.”
“That’s great,” he said with another of his soft smiles that made him look older than he had to be.
“Do you…want to come in?” she asked, because all she could hear was her not asking. But he shook his head.
“No, thanks, I’d better get back. I just wanted to check you were ok.”
“Thanks,” she said again, searching his face. “I am.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“John,” she said quickly, “I’m gay. Well, even if I weren’t, you’re…well. You’re so young.”
His laugh broke the tension. “This is a modern, enlightened age Miss Cruz. A man can help out for no other reason than because he wants to, you know.”
She felt herself blush but mastered herself. “You’re right. Of course,” she said, holding out her hand again. “Thanks again. Not sure what might have happened if you hadn’t stepped in.”
“It’s what I do,” he said with another warm smile, shaking her hand. Then he turned and ambled back towards the Highwayman.
“El?” Eleanor jumped, cursing herself inwardly and cursing Roberts more for making her so edgy. Abbie was stood behind her with a tray full of empty champagne flutes, concern creasing her brow. “Who are you talking to?”
“No one,” she said, closing the door. “Well, the lad from next door.”
“Are you ok?”
Eleanor let out a shaky laugh and locked the door. “Yeah, fine. Narrowly dodged a flying vodka bottle but otherwise fine.”
“My God,” Abbie set down the tray and hurried forward. “What happened?”
“A critic wanting to lodge a formal protest,” Eleanor said, moving round the room and shutting off fairy lights.
“Glen Roberts. First letters, now this.”
“Is it that bad?”
Eleanor paused before shutting down the lobby computer. “I don’t know. Today went well. I know it went well. It just doesn’t…feel like it’s going well.”
Abbie wore her well-practised consolatory expression as she patted her arm. “Try and get some rest.”
Eleanor expected to be awake staring at the shifting shadows of her bedroom for hours with her mind replaying the Roberts incident on a loop, but she had barely shut out the light before she drifted off. It was quiet and the bed was warm and it had been a long day.
When she was woken she’d been so deeply asleep she hadn’t even been dreaming. That’s how she knew the sound wasn’t in her head. She kept perfectly still, straining her ears. She’d just managed to convince herself she hadn’t really heard anything when it came again. The floorboards on the landing were creaking, softly.
Creak. Click. Creak.
She might have been able to convince herself it was the old timbers shifting in the cold, if it wasn’t for the fact that the sound was steady, rhythmic and getting closer.
It stopped right outside her door. She held her breath, clutching the duvet. She tried to make herself reach for the phone, call the police, call Andrew next door, but she didn’t dare move. They knew she was awake. Whoever was stood out there knew she was awake, lying there, staring at the other side of the door. She could feel it.
The breathless silence stretched on for so long her knuckles started to ache. Then the steps started again, quietly, and faded away down the corridor.
She sat up, grabbed her phone. The battery was flat. She stared at it. She always plugged it in at night. Always. The charger was in the wall…turned on at the wall…but the cable wasn’t in the phone.
She swore, rummaged on the bedside table for the cordless landline. Then she remembered she’s left it in the lobby. She clenched her teeth, listening intently, but the normal silence of the empty house had descended. She set her teeth, grabbed a torch and crept to the door. She pressed her ear to the wood but the only sound was her the slugging of her pulse in her ears.
She straightened her spine, took a hold of the handle and pulled open the door. The landing was empty. Silent. The doors to her other rooms were all shut. The curtains were drawn across the window. She listened, holding her breath. Nothing.
She padded down the corridor, down the stairs, not daring lights, keeping the torch beam low. She ran the light over the coats, the shoes, the spare change and iPad that she’d left on the hall table. Nothing was disturbed. She made herself move past the hall mirror without looking at it.
She turned the lock in the door to the lobby and pushed it open a crack. All was dark and quiet. She could see the cordless phone on the reception desk, crept through and picked it up. She hesitated before dialling. What exactly was she going to say?
Someone walked past my bedroom. There’s someone in my house.
But everything was quiet now. The doors were all locked. Curtains were drawn across every window. The police would take ages to arrive, even if they thought it worth coming. Andrew and Lorna would be fast asleep. Nothing was disturbed. Everything looked deserted.
She slowly became aware the she was standing barefoot in the darkened lobby in her dressing gown, brandishing a torch and clutching the phone. She was being ridiculous. She was too on edge, that’s all it was. There was too much riding on The Annex. Her life savings, her dreams, her future. This was the most important thing she’d ever done, which is why the thought of failure haunted her like a spectre. That was what made her skin prickle, her head ache and her pulse pound. That was what was making her hear things, see things.
She jolted and flashed the torch beam up the stairs. Her breathing came in short, sharp gasps. She’d heard someone run up them, she was sure. Hurried, heavy steps. But there was no one in sight. She swore out loud, shoved the torch in her pocket and turned all the lights on.
“Who’s there?” she made her voice stay steady. “Is that you, Roberts? I’m calling the police.”
Her thumb rested over the 9 on the phone as she moved forward. She told herself the stairs weren’t noticeably colder, it was just her fight-or-flight response raising her blood pressure. She stepped up the staircase, ears straining, hearing nothing. She called out again. No reply.
A thump, like a something heavy being dropped on a wooden floor, echoed from the direction of the recording studio. Eleanor froze at the top of the stairs, unable to even dial the phone. Her skin tightened. Her stomach roiled. A sound came to her, a low keening cry. A woman’s voice. It rose, gained volume. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere all at once. It became a shriek, piercing and agonising. Eleanor dropped the phone to cover her ears. She clenched her eyes shut so hard her head pounded. Then it cut off.
The silence that followed was louder than any other silence she’d heard in her life. It was like all sound had been exsanguinated by force. Her head was an empty chamber, echoing with the memory of the scream.
Slowly, so slowly it hurt, normal sounds started to penetrate her consciousness – the wind in the chimney, the call of a fox outside and the normal, familiar sounds of an old building in the cold weather.
“This is my home,” she murmured, out loud, just to hear her own voice. Then again, louder. “This is my home.” She turned on the lights and moved down the corridor, repeating it over and over, willing herself to be angry because then she wouldn’t be scared. “I will not be terrorised. This is my home.”
She flung open the door to the recording studio and froze on the threshold. Her brain went blank. Blood was pooled on the floor, splashed up the walls, smeared over the monitors and speakers. Buckets of it. It was the colour of holly berries and had soaked into the foam soundproofing. Across the pristine glass of the sound booth, red, dripping letters spelled out, GET OUT.
She blinked, willing the words to vanish but they didn’t. Then the smell came to her, cloying, like old iron and butcher shops. Her mouth was so dry she couldn’t even cry out. A distant part of her screamed that she should get out of the building. But she couldn’t move, couldn’t think. She still heard the scream, felt it echoing in her flesh. She stared round at the gore transfixed.
A door slamming somewhere broke the spell. She retreated from the room, breath returning in a rush. She ran for the nearest bathroom, locked herself in, dialled 999.
“Here. I’ve put sugar in it.”
Eleanor blinked until the mug Abbie was pushing into her hands came into focus. She took it, breathed in the rich, warm smell of the coffee and willed it to anchor her flailing nerves. A mouthful, hot, rich and sweet, helped calm the trembling in her body but her mind would not be stilled.
“The butcher shop in the high street was broken into earlier tonight,” a policeman said, dumping himself in a chair opposite Eleanor. “I don’t want to promise anything but we’re pretty confident it’ll turn out to be pig’s blood.”
“And that makes it all ok then?”
The policeman pulled out a notebook without meeting Eleanor’s eye. “Can you think anyone who would want to do this to you, Miss Cruz?”
“Does this really have to happen now?” Abbie demanded in her most affirmative solicitor’s voice. “Miss Cruz has had a shock.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the middle aged officer, sounding anything but, said. “But the faster we have details the better start we’ll have.”
“It’s ok,” Eleanor said, voice creaking. She took another sip of coffee, felt the caffeine singe away the edges of the horror and sat straighter in the kitchen chair. “I’m ok, Abbie.” Abbie pursed her lips, took the seat next to her without another word but kept her sharp look on the policeman. “There was a confrontation with a local man earlier tonight. Glen Roberts.”
The policeman jotted notes. “At your open day?”
“Towards the end, yes,” Eleanor went on, glad to hear her voice staying steady. “He made it very clear he doesn’t want me here.”
“Is that a general feeling amongst the locals?”
Eleanor examined the policeman closely but could only make out boredom tinged with fatigue. With all the lights on and the sounds of people bustling about the building, the night’s events had taken on a veil of unreality. But she still had blood on her dressing gown and the scream still echoed in her ears. “I don’t know,” she said evenly. “He’s the first one to say or do anything directly.”
“We’ll speak to him,” the policeman said, pocketing his notebook. “In the meantime, we would ask that you leave the studio as it is. Forensics will arrive in the morning. Do you have somewhere to stay?”
“This is my home,” Eleanor said before Abbie could say anything. “I will not run away.”
The policeman’s bald head crinkled in consternation. “It’s for your own safety and comfort, Miss Cruz. The detectives may not want to release the building until – ”
“I have an event to prepare for,” Eleanor stood, sloshing a little of the coffee onto the table. “On Christmas Eve. I have to have the Annex back as soon as possible.”
“El,” Abbie’s soft, reasonable voice grated along the edge of Eleanor’s raw nerves. “They’re just doing their job.”
“I don’t care,” she bit out. “I have a job, too. This is important.”
The policeman sighed, scratching his forehead with his pen. “I’ll have a word. Maybe they can get the checks of your apartment and the performance space done first. You said there were no disturbances there?”
“No,” said Eleanor, feeling Abbie’s sharp look turned to her.
“Ok, leave it with me. I’ll see what I can do. But I would strongly suggest you find somewhere else to spend the rest of the night.”
“She’ll stay with me, officer,” Abbie said, squeezing Eleanor’s arm tight enough to be a warning.
Eleanor’s head started swimming. She didn’t hear the rest of the exchange between Abbie and the policeman. She was vaguely aware of her friend putting a coat round her shoulders and a bag into her hands and ushering her out into the cold night. They didn’t speak on the short drive to Abbie’s Air BNB cottage. They didn’t have to. Eleanor could hear Abbie’s I told you so hanging in the air clearer than church bells.
She was put straight to bed like a child. She flushed hot and cold, shuddering, clutching the bed clothes tight. She kept the curtains open, needing to see the snow and the stars to keep her anchored.
Somehow, she opened her eyes and day had come, almost without permission. She drifted to the window and gazed out at the blanket of even, unbroken snow covering the trees and hedges, the fields beyond. The roof of the Highwayman a few streets away was a smooth sheet of white.
Abbie waiting until after Eleanor had pushed away her plate of scrambled eggs on toast only half-finished before edging the conversation toward what was hanging in the air.
“I know you don’t want to hear it but I think you need to – ”
“Abbie – ”
“Please, El,” she said, resting her mug-warmed hand over Eleanor’s cold ones. “I’m your friend. Let me speak.”
Eleanor raised her eyes. Abbie’s grey-blonde hair was pulled back from her face, still in its plait from the night. Her blue-grey eyes were wide and full of concern, her pale mouth drawn into a line. Eleanor had always liked Abbie without makeup. She felt she looked more like the real her – older, yes, but more real. More knowing. Like she knew the answer to everything, which she often did.
Eleanor kept her mouth shut and nodded.
Abbie sighed and put her mug down, looking at it intently like she was gathering her thoughts. “This was a terrible thing. A terrible, terrible thing. And I hope they catch whoever did it. But if this is any indication of the local feeling – ”
Abbie pursed her lips. “I know how invested you are in this. And I get it, I do. I know all about desperately needing a do-over.” Her eyes looked sad a moment and Eleanor felt a stab of guilt. “But I also know how easy it is to make the wrong decisions when you’re driven by that.”
“Glen Roberts is unhinged,” Eleanor said, making her voice stay calm and reasonable. “He’s famous for being a local crackpot. His reaction is…extreme. But isolated.”
“If that’s all it was,” Abbie said with a frank look. “I’d believe you.”
“What else is there?”
“Come on, El. You’ve been jumping at shadows the whole time I’ve been here. You’re pale. You’ve lost weight.”
“I’m just…” Eleanor had to take another moment to steady her voice. “This is just important.”
“What else happened last night, Eleanor?”
“Glen Roberts broke into the studio and emptied buckets of pig’s blood in my recording studio,” Eleanor said in a slow, low voice. “I heard him leave out through the back door…I must not have locked it properly.”
Abbie ran a finger around the rim of her coffee mug, eyes lowered. “Ok. I can’t make you tell me. And I can’t make you change your mind about any of this. Just promise me…” she raised large, rather sorrowful eyes to me. “Just promise me you won’t let yourself get hurt.”
“I’m not going to get hurt.”
“I mean in here,” she replied, tapping her temple. “If it really doesn’t feel right, don’t make yourself stay just because you promised yourself you would. There are two or three studios in London would be more than happy to take you on – ”
“That would be such a step backward and you know it.”
“I do,” she said, tone level and placating. “But I also know your wellbeing is more important than any dream.”
Her words shouldn’t have stung, but they did. Eleanor made herself acknowledge them with a nod, knowing on some small, unclouded level of herself that Abbie meant well. And that she could be right.
She firmly shelved the second thought.
Unable to think of anything else to do, she let Abbie drag her out walking through the snowy fields. The air was fresh and cold, the sky a thin blue overhead. They walked as far as the sea and listened to the freezing breakers crunch against the cliffs. Eleanor wasn’t up for much conversation and Abbie eventually gave up trying to draw her into talk and started to lag behind, answering emails and texts on her phone as Eleanor wandered aimlessly along the chalk-white paths.
Whenever the scream started to fill her ears again, or her skin started to twitch with the feeling of being watched, she firmly re-directed her thoughts to the preparation for Christmas Eve.
Abbie did not fail to note the way she started when her phone buzzed.
“Hello?” she answered, turning her back on her friend.
“Eleanor Cruz? Detective Inspector Francis here. Can we meet for a word?”
They met in the small, cosy kitchen of Abbie’s cottage. Abbie hovered in the background as DI Francis sat himself at the table opposite Eleanor. He was a middle-aged man with greying hair, a smart suit and blank, veiled eyes. His Detective Constable, Evans, was younger, with a more honest, open face. She wore concern on it like some people wore makeup: a professional uniform that was none the less appealing. Eleanor has been momentarily startled by her raven-black hair cut into a sharp bob, so similar to Megan’s, but shook the thought away as quickly as it formed.
They’d been able to establish that the blood in the studio was pig’s, purloined earlier that evening from the butcher’s. They’d been unable to recover much significant forensic evidence other than the toe print of a large, male boot. They’d interviewed Glen Roberts and he had no alibi, mountains of motive, but the police did not yet have significant evidence to make an arrest.
They went over, several times, the details of the confrontation in the pub and then in the car park. He informed her that the clean-up crew were at work and that the Annex would be suitable for habitation again soon, but they strongly recommended that Eleanor stay away until they had made an arrest.
After they left, Abbie pursed her lips in response to Eleanor’s announcement that she was heading back straight away to see what she could do around the clean-up crew.
She buried herself in preparation, hired a local cleaner to go over again what the clean-up crew had done and set the rest of the Annex to rights. She responded to emails and phone calls from the choir members, the vicar, ticket holders, other guests. She made announcements on social media that there had been some vandalism to the Annex but that the carol service would go ahead as planned. She spent a rather fraught half an hour on the phone reassuring the choir master that all was well.
She checked and re-checked that all her engineers had received the Christmas Eve schedule and had made travel arrangements taking the snow into consideration. She got more than one clipped response but didn’t care.
It had to go well. It had to.
After taking delivery of more alcohol for the bar, she paused in the performance space. The vaulted, wooden-beamed room was still and quiet, smelling faintly of the pine trees and the cold stoves. The quiet had a different quality to the rest of the building. A more peaceful one. The cloying feel of contamination that now lingered in the rest of the Annex didn’t stretch to here. The chill that almost permanently settled into an empty space under her rib cage since moving in was still there and her skin still seemed prone to crawl if she focussed on it, but here, in this space, she felt the warmth of good things and was able to tell herself there were more good things to come.
She knew she wouldn’t sleep well so didn’t go to bed until well past midnight. Even then she lay with the light on a long time, listening to the house, half-hoping, half-terrified of hearing things. When she did drift off her dreams were fractured and violent. She felt blood on her hands, smelt it thick in the air. She heard screams and grunts of pain. Fury coursed through her, hotter than lava, doused only by a nameless terror that formed from nowhere. She fought the nightmare, but it was the sound of creaking floorboards woke her.
The light was still on. The clock told her it was nearing half three in the morning.
Creak. Click. Creak.
The steps stopped outside her bedroom door again. She felt it know she was there. Her heart thundered. She threw away the half-formed notion of setting her phone to record and pushed back the covers. The scream ghosted in the back of her mind. She ignored it. She stood, heart hammering against her ribs and made herself take one step, then another to the bedroom door. The floorboards under her own feet creaked.
Her hand that rested on the iron door handle was trembling. Her skin felt like it was trying to crawl off her body. She yanked the door open.
She screamed. It fell dead in the close air. She clasped her hand to her mouth to stop the sound and stood, panting and staring at her reflection in the landing window. She lent against the door frame, clenching her eyes shut until her pulse slowed. She fought back a sudden roll of nausea and straightened, stepping out into the corridor.
There was no one there.
She stepped up to the window. Beyond the drifting flakes of snow gilded gold by the light spilling out from her bedroom, all was darkness and muffled silence. She looked at the curtains, trying to remember whether she had closed them before going to bed. She peered out into the snow. There were footprints, fresh ones, leading away from the back of the house. She thought she saw a dark figure stood in the gateway to the main road. Cold filled her but she blinked and it was gone.
“Roberts,” she gritted and ran down to the lobby, up the stairs to the studio, down the corridor to the stables.
Nothing was out of place. The smell of industrial cleaner still lingered in and around the recording studio but everything else was as it should be. She went to the back door. Locked. She turned the catch, pushed it open and stepped out into the snow.
The footprints, already disappearing under new flakes, led away from the door toward the road.
“Ghosts don’t make footprints, Abbie,” she said impatiently as she searched fruitlessly through her handbag for her second pearl earring. “It’s that damn Roberts. He’s got a way to get into the house.”
“He doesn’t see the subtle, creep-about-the-house sort.”
“Who knows what sort of anything he is?”
“Have you told the police?” Abbie asked a little warily as she held out Eleanor’s mug of coffee.
“Are you saying they wouldn’t believe me?”
“There are no footprints this morning, that’s all.”
Eleanor slammed her handbag down on the windowsill. “I’m not going crazy, Abbie. And I’m getting a little sick of the implication that I am.”
“I never said that.”
“You didn’t have to.” She gave up, removed the pearl from her ear and dropped it into the bowl on the dressing table, selected a pair of citrine studs instead. She attempted to make her tone more conciliatory. “No, I’ve not told them. They’d only tell me to leave the Annex and it’s Christmas Eve tomorrow. I can’t afford any more delays.”
Abbie’s face was grave as she sipped her tea. She made polite small talk as they moved through to the kitchen and the pan of bubbling porridge. Eleanor was grateful she didn’t say anything more, though the set of her face told her she was more convinced than ever that Eleanor was cracking up.
Abbie was just winding herself up in her coat, promising to be back after lunch to help with some of the final preparations, when the doorbell buzzed. They caught each other’s eye with an uncertain look before making their way down the stairs and through to the lobby together.
Eleanor took a breath, wondering what exactly she was worried about, and pulled open the door. DI Francis and DC Evans stood on the doorstep, hair and shoulders flecked with snow, faces set and grave.
“Can you come with us, Miss Cruz?”
“Why?” she said, unable to keep the alarm from her voice.
Francis’s glance slid past Eleanor to Abbie then back again. “It’s best you talk to us in private.”
Eleanor clutched the door frame. “Tell me what this is about.”
Francis looked at his DC who squared her shoulders and stared at a point just over Eleanor’s head. “Glen Roberts was murdered last night.”
“What?” Eleanor blinked, feeling like the wind had suddenly died and encased them in a bubble of silence.
“Can you come with us now, please, ma’am?”
“I can’t, I have too much to do,” Eleanor started, haltingly.
“Miss, if you don’t come voluntarily, we will have to arrest you.”
“As Miss Cruz’s solicitor I’m advising her to go nowhere without me,” Abbie stepped up to her shoulder, a solid wall of strength that Eleanor was suddenly so grateful for it weakened her.
“Very well. This way, please.”
There was a very short and very silent car ride to the Crossways police station. Abbie held her hand the whole way. Her own felt hot and damp. They sat across from the detectives without speaking as Francis arranged notebook and files on the plastic desk, seemingly unwilling to meet her eye.
“Could you start by telling us where you were between the hours of midnight and three am last night, Miss Cruz?”
“In bed,” Eleanor said, hearing her voice like it was from far away.
“Is there anyone that can corroborate that,” Francis said, with just the tiniest flick of his eyes towards Abbie.
“No,” Eleanor stated flatly. “I live alone. What exactly happened?”
“Someone broke into Glen Roberts’s cottage somewhere between midnight and three this morning and beat him to death with a poker.”
Eleanor stared at him. She felt DC Evans’s assessing gaze but couldn’t look away from the inspector’s blank look. Abbie was very still next to her.
“We confirmed yesterday that the partial boot print we found in your recording studio belonged to footwear owned by Mr Roberts,” the DC put in, almost, but not quite, gently. “It appears he was the one that vandalised your home, Miss Cruz.”
“I didn’t kill him,” Eleanor said breathlessly. “I wouldn’t never…I didn’t want…I would never have hurt him. I just wanted him arrested.”
“Do you recognise this, Miss Cruz?” Francis pushed a plastic evidence wallet across the desk towards her. There was a pearl earring in it. Eleanor stared at it.
“Eleanor – ”
“It’s mine,” Eleanor said before Abbie could finish her warning. “Where did you find it?
“Next to Mr Robert’s body. There was also some hair found in his hand. It’s gone for DNA testing.”
Eleanor’s head swam. The room blurred in and out of focus. She heard Abbie’s firm, rational voice but couldn’t make out the words. The detectives talked more too. Eleanor answered, or didn’t, she couldn’t be sure. A wall had slammed down between her and reality.
Eventually, she felt Abbie’s steadying grip on her arm and then she was helping her to stand. She was being guided out the police station into the drifting snow and biting air. When Abbie’s voice finally penetrated, Eleanor found they were stood on the Crossways high street, under the awning of the shut-up butchers shop.
“El, they haven’t got enough for an arrest just yet. But it’s very important you tell me where you were last night.”
“I was in bed. Asleep. I swear.”
“Are you sure?”
She remembered the dreams, the blood, the shouts, the smell of pain. The footsteps in the snow, the locked back door. She blinked at the churned muddy snow of the high street. Abbie seemed to accept she wasn’t going to get an answer and talked on, Eleanor only just hearing her.
“…earring is totally circumstantial. I don’t want you to panic at this stage, but I would advise you to get a criminal lawyer out here as soon as you can.”
Abbie clutched her by the arms. “Eleanor, this is serious. Very serious.”
“I can’t cancel the show.”
“You have to.”
Eleanor stared at the ceramic tiles of her new kitchen, an uneaten bowl of Thai red curry in front of her, and tried to decide at what stage it had all started to fall apart. She found herself shying away from the moment she’d heard the All Saints choir sing at Christmas last year and had decided to bring her life to Crossways. Megan had gone back to her husband, the studio was putting increasing demands on her time and London had suddenly become a huge, noisy, hostile place.
She’d only gone along to the service for something to fill the evening. Overnighting on the way up to Edinburgh was not something she usually did, but she had been physically and emotionally drained and knew better than to risk the drive in one go. She went as a distraction but when they sang, it lightened her heart in a way nothing else had done for a long time. There was so much love in the performance, every eye shone, the conductor was smiling and proud. The pews were full with families and their children, old couples, single people, all rapt. All smiling. She’d never been a big one for Christmas, never had anyone to share it with, but at that moment she understood why people invested in it.
It had all seemed like a dream. A dream and possibly an escape. From everything. But now every time she closed her eyes she saw Roberts’s bloodshot eyes and flushed face, smelt his breath, heard his angry words. She picked over the memories of the dream of the night before until she wasn’t sure what she’d actually dreamt and what she’d filled in herself.
She stared at her hands, imagining the weight of a poker. She couldn’t remember. But she couldn’t be sure.
It was the night before Christmas Eve. The DNA results wouldn’t be back for a week. A criminal lawyer from York was coming through to meet with her and the police on Boxing Day for a formal interview. Some distant part of her was vaguely astonished that even the justice system put things off until after Christmas. Just another reminder she wasn’t in London any more.
She’d argued with Abbie to the point of shouting about cancelling the carol service. Whatever happened, it was the reason she was here. The marketing was all in place, the engineers hired, the local homeless charity had been promised the proceeds. She couldn’t let them down, any of them.
If it was the last thing she did as a free woman, she would record that album and give something back to Crossways, even if it decided to take everything from her.
She scraped the curry into the bin and stood staring out the kitchen window at the brightly-lit Highwayman, trying to ignore her crawling skin, her spinning head, her shaking breathing. She covered her face with her hands but refused to cry.
A loud pop startled her. The lights went off. Her head was already so foggy for a long moment all she could do was stand still and blink into the blackness. It was completely dark out the window too, the pub swallowed by the night. She fumbled for her phone, activated the torch app and made for the stairs.
The fuse box was in the hall. She stood at the top of the stairs looking down into the shadowed space with the coat rack and mirror and tried not to acknowledge the buffeting reluctance halting her in her tracks. She swallowed once, twice. Her hand started to shake.
“Pull yourself together,” she muttered, but her voice sound thin, strange.
She made herself move down the stairs. They cricked and creaked under her feet. She froze, listening hard. Her nerves were so raw she couldn’t tell if it was the sound of her own footsteps or others, more hurried, on the other side of the wall. The beam of her light trembled slightly. She kept listening. Nothing.
She moved to the fuse box, refusing to look in mirror. None of the fuses had gone. Power outage, then. She tried, very hard, just to be frustrated. She had a lot of work still to do getting the performance space ready and hadn’t wanted to leave it all until the morning. But the prevailing sense was the pressure of the suddenly ominous-seeming darkness.
A tiny sound in the dark made her start. She turned to the door into the lobby. She stared at the handle as it moved, slowly. Her chest tightened, her hand so tight on her phone her knuckles ached. The handle turned, one way then the other. Her breath stopped in her throat.
The door was locked and didn’t open. The handle returned to centre and everything went silent. Eleanor stared at it for several long moments, pulse thundering in her throat. She leaned forward and placed her ear to the wood. Silence. She hesitated then put her hand on the handle. She didn’t know if it was her imagination or if it was colder than usual.
She turned the lock and stood with her hand on the handle in silence for some minutes, the only sound her constricted breath.
A load banging shattered the silence. She jumped back. She clutched her chest, heart beating wildly, then there came the banging again, followed by the sound of the doorbell.
She pulled in a couple of breaths to steady herself and opened the door. She swept the torch beam round the lobby. Completely empty, though it seemed the shadows were thicker than normal.
The bell rang again and she went to the large double-doors of the main entrance. She chewed her lip a moment, told herself, once again, to pull herself together and pulled back the bolts, turned the key, heaved the big door open.
Abbie stood on the doorstep, a pale wraith in her white coat in the dark, a weak, perhaps conciliatory smile on her face. The smile fled though when she took in Eleanor’s expression.
“El, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Eleanor replied, a little tersely. “Didn’t expect anyone to ring front bell.”
“I knocked on the back door,” Abbie replied calmly. “But there was no answer. You’ve lost power too?” She added, peering into the dark lobby over Eleanor’s shoulder.
“Uh, yeah,” Eleanor said, keeping her voice steady with an effort. “It’s gone from everywhere then?”
“It would seem so. Can I come in?”
Eleanor hesitated, looking over Abbie’s shoulder into the snow that had just started to fall in fat flakes.
“Come on, El. I’ve used the power cut as an excuse but, really, I just wanted to see you.”
Eleanor met her friend’s eyes then sighed, pulled open the door. Abbie managed a soft smile and drifted in, stamping snow on the door mat.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Abbie said as she unwound her scarf. “Did something more happen?”
Eleanor gave her a hard look. “What more could happen?”
Abbie sighed and Eleanor watched her gather her patience. “Ok, fair point. Come on. Let’s get upstairs, light the fire and I’ll make us drinks.”
Eleanor built up the fire in her small living room as Abbie moved round the kitchen, heating water on the gas hob, clinking mugs and spoons. When she brought through two steaming mugs and Eleanor smelt the rich, strong smell of her favourite coffee she couldn’t help but feel a little comforted.
“I thought you were watching the caffeine?” she said as she settled back into the sofa.
“Mine’s decaf,” Abbie said softly. “Look, El. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for some of the things I said earlier. And I’m sorry for putting so much pressure on you. I’m not going to explain my reasons. You know them and I still believe I’m right. But…” she sighed, staring into the fire. “I could have been a better friend through all this, I know.”
Eleanor sipped the coffee, letting the warmth and taste chase away some of the shadows in her mind. “You don’t believe I could hurt anyone, do you?”
“Of course not,” Abbie said firmly. “Not deliberately.”
Eleanor paused with her mug at her lips. “What do you mean by that?”
Abbie bit her lip, then met her eyes. “You’ve just been under so much stress lately, El. And you’re not yourself. You have to admit that.”
Eleanor swallowed more coffee, willing it to help straighten out the whirling in her brain. “Ok?”
Abbie opened her moth, closed it again. Looked back into the fire. “Is it possible you could have done something you don’t remember?”
Eleanor stared into the black liquid in her cup, her palms prickling.
“I’m not saying I believe it,” Abbie said quickly. “I’m not saying you necessarily hurt him. Sounds like he was an unpopular character, any number of people could have had a grievance. But is it possible you might have gone to confront him? Possibly, late at night, after a hard day? Perhaps…after a drink?
Eleanor put her mug down with a slam and left the room.
“El,” Abbie called, hurrying after her and grabbing her arm. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I take it back. I just don’t know what to think any more.”
“I think you should go,” Eleanor said softly to the wall.
Abbie’s hand tightened on her arm. “I’ll go tomorrow. After the service.” Eleanor looked up. She was smiling. “Yes, I want to see the service. But then I’ll head home. And I think you should come with me.”
“Go with you? Back to London?”
“Come have Christmas with me,” Abbie said softly. “Somewhere familiar, somewhere safe. Take a couple of days off everything. Then we can tackle everything with clearer heads.”
“I don’t think the police would want me skipping town.”
“Skipping town?” Abbie laughed. “You’ve watched too much TV. I’ll drive you back for your interview on Boxing Day. But please, come stay with me for a while, until this blows over. Then you can decide what you really want.”
Eleanor searched her friend’s face but saw only kindly concern.
“I don’t want to go back to London,” Eleanor said, softly. “I made this choice for a reason. I’m going to see it through.”
Something flickered in Abbie’s eyes. Her smile slipped. For a moment her face was hard then she dropped her head and nodded. “Ok. If that’s what you really want.” She stared at the carpet a moment in silence. “Perhaps it’s best I go after all.”
“You don’t have to,” Eleanor said, though even she could head how insincere it was.
Abbie just smiled, a little sadly. “Can I just use your bathroom?”
Eleanor nodded and gestured down the hall. Abbie moved away, lighting the way with her phone. The silence and darkness seemed even more complete. Doubt surged through Eleanor in dark waves. It was the first time she recalled ever being so unsure. Of anything. Or so alone. But she’d rather face this alone and with someone who didn’t believe in her any more.
Eleanor span in the dark. She’d quite clearly heard a knocking sound. Soft, gentle, but clear in the silent night. Eleanor scrubbed a hand over her face, pulled a breath in, willed herself to calm. The knocking came again, from down the stairs, the door into the lobby.
She clenched her teeth and strode down. She’d had enough of being stalked and spooked. She would face it, if it could be faced.
She jerked the door open, expecting just to see the empty, dark lobby but made a startled noise when she saw John stood there, hand raised ready to knock again.
“John,” Eleanor said, half-relieved half-angry. “How did you get in here?”
“You have to leave,” the young man said softly. His face looked different. His voice was low, urgent.
Eleanor frowned. “What?”
“You need to leave the Annex. Now.”
Eleanor blinked at him. Her head was swimming worse than ever, her limbs were twitching. “What’s this about?”
“You’re in danger.”
Eleanor glared at him. “This isn’t funny.”
“It’s not a joke.”
“How did you get in here? Is it you that’s been creeping round my house at night? Trying to scare me?”
“No,” John shook his head. “Not me.”
Eleanor narrowed her eyes. “But you know who?”
He was silent. His eyes were earnest. “Please. Leave now.”
“Not until you tell me what the hell is going on.”
The sound of the bathroom door opening creaked in the still air. John’s eyes flicked up the staircase behind her. His face was set. “There’s no time.”
Eleanor frowned at him, then up the stairs towards the sounds of Abbie padding around. She stepped into the lobby and pulled the door closed behind her. “Is this something about Abbie?”
“I can’t explain. You just have to trust me.”
A scream, high, female, bitter and despairing keened through the lobby, rising, falling then fading away. Eleanor clenched her fists, her heart pounding, eyes wide. John was staring, wide-eye, up the stairs toward the recording studio.
“You heard it,” Eleanor breathed. “You heard it too.”
“I couldn’t save her,” John whispered, almost too quiet to hear. He turned grief-filled eyes to her. “But I can save you.”
“What are you talking about?” Eleanor pleaded, confusion warring with frustration and real fear.
“You must get out. Get out of the Annex. Get somewhere safe. Promise me.”
Eleanor stared at his earnest face, unable to think straight. Then her phone began to ring. She stared in confusion at the screen, displaying an incoming call from Martin, Abbie’s ex-husband. She stared at it a long time. John continued to look at her, urging her with his eyes.
Eleanor answered. “Hello?”
“El,” Martin said, sounding a little relieved. “Thank god I got you. Is everything ok?”
“What do you mean?” Eleanor said, alarm mounting. John stood, eyes fixed on the door behind her. She could hear Abbie moving around in the flat upstairs.
“Is Abigail with you?”
Eleanor hesitated, chills fluttering through her belly. “Why?”
“It’s important, Eleanor. The police need to know where she is.”
There was a moment of strained silence on the other end of the line. “Jack forgot his pyjamas. I went round her place to grab them…”
Martin made a frustrated noise. “I knew things were hard for her….I never suspected it would get so far…”
“Martin,” Eleanor put in. “What was in the flat?”
When he spoke again his voice was tight. “She’s been stockpiling prescription drugs. Sleeping pills, antidepressants, antipsychotics. The police think she may have been stealing them from the nursing home she worked with earlier in the year.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Eleanor said weakly. John was stood stock-still, eyes locked on her face.
“She’s only left empty bottles here,” Martin said. “We think she’s got the drugs with her, wherever she is. We’re afraid she’s going to hurt someone. Or herself.”
Her phone bleeped, the low battery warning flashing red and it died. Eleanor stared at the screen for a long moment, feeling her stomach slowly fill with ice water.
“Who was that?”
Eleanor span. Abbie stood silhouetted in the doorway. Her face was dark in the shadows. She stood very still. Eleanor looked around for John but the lobby was empty but for the two of them.
“It was Martin, Abbie,” Eleanor said softly, taking an involuntary step back.
“Martin?” she said the name like a curse. “What did he want?”
Eleanor swallowed. Her pulse slammed in her hands. She wished she could turn a light on. “What are the drugs for, Abbie?”
There was a moment of stillness and silence so complete Eleanor wasn’t sure if Abbie had heard, or understood. Then she took a step forward.
“I tried to reason with you,” she said quietly, her voice different, like a stranger’s. “I tried to make you see sense. But your ego always had to get in the way, didn’t it?”
Eleanor was suddenly very aware of her sweating palms, her crawling skin, the buzzing in her brain. The aftertaste of the coffee was bitter on her tongue. “You…you’ve been drugging me?”
“You have no idea what you’ve done,” Abbie said, voice bitter. “Upping sticks, shutting the London company down, severing ties with everyone who cared about you.”
“I’ve not severed ties,” Eleanor argued. “I’ve just – ”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Abbie hissed, stepping closer again. The clouds shifted outside and moonlight flooded the lobby. It gleamed on Abbie’s tight face, jaw clenched so tight Eleanor so could see the tendons twitching in her temples. “You were my last client. My only client.”
“That can’t be right.”
“Of course it’s right,” Abbie ground out. “You think I would have resorted to this if I didn’t have to? The bastard took everything – my house, my son. I sold everything, took out loans, did everything to get money to fund the lawyers and the suits. But he still won.”
“But…your other clients?”
“Gone,” Abbie spat. “All dropped away over the last two years. You were the only paying client I had left. And my only friend. And then you left too.”
“Why?” Eleanor breathed, stepping sideways so she could put the reception desk between them. “Why did they leave?”
“The divorce took my time, my money. I couldn’t think straight…my work suffered. Clients walked.”
“I’m sorry,” Eleanor croaked. “I’m sorry for all that Abbie…but this…drugging me?” Eleanor’s heart clenched, her vision blurring even in the dark. “Making me think I was seeing things? What for?”
“To help you make the right decision.”
Eleanor’s heart skipped about. “How much did you put in that coffee?”
“Not enough to hurt you,” Abbie said, sounding almost a little sad. “It was never meant to hurt you. I heard the stories about this place and thought if I helped your mind along, you would see your mistake and come home, set the company up again.”
“You drugged me and prowled around the Annex at night to spook me? What, did you steal a key or something?”
“Your back door doesn’t lock properly.”
“Abbie…do you know what you’re admitting to, here?”
“Of course I do,” Abbie spat. “I know the law, whatever people think.”
“You stole drugs…”
“I was desperate,” Abbie barked. “The bills were stacking up. I thought I might be able to sell them. But the nursing home got wind, fired me and I lost my nerve. But when this all happened…I had to fight, Eleanor, don’t you understand? I’ve worked too hard to lose everything.”
“You helped Roberts,” Eleanor said, realisation dawning. “You told him how to get in?”
Abbie was silent. “The drugs alone weren’t working. But I knew this place was bad for you El, I just knew it. I thought if you saw the truth of it, its people, it would change your mind. I’m not a bad person. I’m not. I just…” A choked sob in the darkness. “I need money. People I owe…they’re bad people. I can’t just give up. I have to keep fighting.”
“Roberts,” Eleanor murmured, going cold and frantically searching the dark corners of the lobby for John. “Was that you? Did you plant my earring?”
“When the police started asking him about the break in, he threatened to blab that I’d put him up to it. It’s all gone too far,” Abbie said softly. “I tried the easy way. I tried to make you make the right decision. You can’t blame me for having to do this.”
She advanced. Moonlight glinted off a needle in the dark. Eleanor scrambled away, around the desk, tried to get to the front door but Abbie lunged. Eleanor dodged her grasp and hurried up the stairs instead, desperately pushing on the power button of her phone to no avail.
“This is madness,” Eleanor said as she wrestled with the door to the performance space. “Abbie, this won’t work.”
“I assume I’m still in your will,” Abbie said. She moved into the moonlight from the windows, a large syringe in her gloved right hand. “You will help make up for what you’ve done. Though I really wish it hadn’t come to this.”
Eleanor got the door open, finally, ran out onto the mezzanine over the darkened stables. She looked frantically for a way down, remembered, too late, she’d had the ladders moved away earlier that day. Abbie advanced slowly, calmly, needle ready. Eleanor’s body was pulsing and sweating. She swayed, struggling to stay upright.
“I’ll fight,” she slurred. “There’ll be marks. They’ll know you did it. Then you’ll get nothing.”
Abbie paused a step away, head on one side. “Poor Eleanor. What’s more believable than that I tried to wrestle the needle away from you, but failed? Girlfriend left you for her husband, dreams of a new start about to go up in smoke, about to be arrested for murder? Is it any wonder you took the easy way out?”
Eleanor staggered and fell as Abbie reached her. She knelt over her, clamping a hand like a vice round her arm. Eleanor cried out, but then an ear-splitting screech, high, despair-filled, inhuman, rolled over them from the direction of the open door. Abbie looked back over her shoulder and froze solid. Eleanor blinked. John was stood by a window. He was perfectly still, his face lit by the light of the moon. His eyes were fixed on Abbie.
Abbie screamed. Eleanor scrambled back, crabbed along the wall. Abbie screamed and screamed. John stood silent and still, staring at her. Eleanor scrambled through the door and shut and locked it behind her. She ran, heart pounding, for the lobby, scrabbled for the cordless landline. She sent up frantic prayers then almost burst with relief when she heard the dial tone. She dialled 999 whilst hurrying over the snow-swept car park toward the Highwayman. Even when Andrew, rather startled, had opened the door and she’d staggered in, Eleanor could still hear Abbie screaming.
Eleanor sat in the back of the ambulance wrapped in a foil blanket while a paramedic checked her blood pressure. She felt calmer, but her flesh still twitched, her vision was blurred, her heart still raced. She watched Abbie, white-faced and staring, being marched over to a police car in handcuffs with an almost crushing sadness.
“I don’t think you’re in any danger,” the paramedic said softly as she removed the blood pressure cuff. “We’ll get you to the hospital and get a blood sample, try and figure out exactly what she’d given you. But I’d say it’s already leaving your system.”
Eleanor didn’t answer. She was watching Abbie being bundled into the back of a police car, its blue lights flashing off the white walls of the Annex.
They let her out of hospital the following morning, satisfied that whilst Abbie had drugged her with potent stuff, she hadn’t administered strong enough doses to induce anything more than some temporary physical and mental side effects. It was small comfort. She sat in the empty lobby in the early morning light for a long time, not even trying to process it all, just feeling empty.
The engineers arriving to start setting up for the carol service jerked her out of her trance. She hesitated a long moment before letting them in.
She moved through the motions of preparing for the evening, still fuzzed by the drug withdrawal and the after-effects of everything that had happened. She found herself stood in the recording studio, unable to remember why she’d come in, staring around and wondering at the empty silence. The Annex was a hive of activity; the stables were being set up with sound and video recording equipment, the choir members were arriving for rehearsal, the engineers needed retrieving from the Highwayman after more than one lunchtime pint. The atmosphere was busy, loud and excitable, but somehow, it felt more hollow than before. Quieter.
The drugs were leaving her system and taking the ghosts with them. The stairs now only creaked when people were on them. There was nothing stood behind her in the mirror in the hall. All the door handles were still.
But Abbie had heard that scream. John had heard it, too. And when Abbie had looked at John, she’d seen something Eleanor hadn’t.
She shook it all away. There would be a time for hurting. She sensed it, lurking just around the corner. When this was over and reality came knocking, Eleanor knew it was going to be with a battering ram. But she was determined to stave it off, for at least one night.
She owed it to Abbie. After everything she’d done and said to make this Carol Service happen, she had to make sure it happened now. Had to show everyone it had been worth it.
The stables started to fill. Soft acoustic Christmas tunes drifted through the air from the speakers. People queued at the bar. Eleanor stood at the back, still feeling twitchy but unable to deny the spark of something lighting up deep within her. Three local homeless people were shown to seats at the front by Andrew who then supplied them with mugs of steaming hot chocolate. They grinned gap-toothed smiles as they accepted the mugs.
She watched, almost unbelieving, as the entire space filled up. She was aware of the occasional lingering glance and more than one stranger sought her out to ask her if she was ok, but otherwise the events of the last few days might never had happened.
Eleanor wasn’t sure how she felt about that.
When DC Evans arrived, found her in the crowd and approached with a rather shy smile to ask her how she was doing, Eleanor could do little but blush and blink.
“I’m so sorry,” Evans said softly, taking a small step closer so she could lower her voice. “I’m glad you weren’t hurt.”
“No. I’m fine,” Eleanor lied, though the concern in Evans’s ocean-grey eyes went further than it should to making her feel better. She hesitated a long moment before asking. “How’s Abbie doing?”
Evans’s lips flattened. “I can’t talk about it. I’m sorry.”
Eleanor nodded, looking at the floor. “I don’t blame her, you know. Not entirely. People do crazy things when they’re desperate.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Evans murmured then looked around the room. “You’re doing a good thing here. I wish you the best of luck with it. And…well, maybe, once everything’s settled down…maybe I could buy you a drink sometime?”
Eleanor’s eyebrows rose. She felt a flush in her belly. “Really?”
Evans laughed. “Yes, really.”
“Well…ok then. Yes. I’d like that.”
Evans beamed, nodded as if pleased and wove her way back into the crowd to take a seat. The place was full, standing room only, when the choir took their places on stage to thunderous applause.
It went even better than she’d hoped. There’d still been the niggling doubt that it had just been a burning need for comfort that had put a filter on her experience from last Christmas. But as the choir started the first bars of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing she felt her heart lift and blood thrum. The choir master kept them in perfect time and the harmonies soared and filled the room. She watched the audience’s faces warm and breathed deep the scents of the wood burners and the spiced candles and fir trees and knew, then, that she really had made the right decision.
John drifted in about half way through. Eleanor was so engaged she didn’t notice him until he was stood at her shoulder.
“John,” she murmured and he smiled.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m a lot better,” she said. “What about you?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m a resilient sort.”
“What exactly did you do?” Eleanor hadn’t wanted to ask, not now the same space was filled with music and warmth. Remembering Abbie’s stricken face, the dark shadows and the struggle on the mezzanine over her head sent a wave of cold through her.
“I didn’t need to do anything,” John replied softly. “She had a guilty heart. Me being there just helped her see it. People often don’t like being confronted with the truth of themselves.”
Eleanor narrowed her eyes. “I don’t understand.”
He smiled warmly. “You don’t have to.”
“How did you know?” she breathed. “How did you know what Abbie was planning?”
John’s oak-brown eyes flickered over her face a moment. “I can read people. And situations. Quite well.”
“Well thank you. I owe you a lot.”
“You don’t owe me anything. It’s what I’m still here for.”
Eleanor frowned at the odd phrasing. The carol came to an end and the audience cheered. When Eleanor had turned back after it had died down, working up the courage to ask John about the scream, he’d gone. She looked around but couldn’t spot him anywhere.
The service ended to raucous applause. She, the choir and the choir master were heaped with congratulations and good wishes. Pre-orders for the CD went through the roof. Finally, drinks were finished and people slowly drifted out. Eleanor hunted out the sound engineer and he confirmed that the recording had gone well and he would get the files to her for editing right after Christmas. The homeless trio shook both her hands and thanked her for helping raise enough from the service alone to fund the sleeping shelter in Crossways for the whole of the winter.
Elation almost powerful enough to wipe out the lingering gloom was pulsing through her as she showed the last few people out.
“Congratulations,” Andrew boomed as he came out from behind the bar, wiping his hands on his apron. “I’d call that a success wouldn’t you?”
“Yes. Yes I would. Andrew, have you seen John? There’s something I need to ask him.”
“John?” The man’s heavy brow creased.
“Yes, the young one. He was here earlier, but I didn’t see him leave.”
Andrew’s wife had come up by his side and they exchanged looks.
“You’ve met John, then?”
“Yes,” Eleanor said, frowning. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” Andrew said, smiling through his beard, though his and Lorna’s faces had both lost a little colour. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“John helps, he does,” Lorna put in. “Remember that. He’s a force for good. You shouldn’t be afraid.”
“Afraid?” Eleanor was really baffled now.
Andrew and his wife exchanged looks again, glanced about to check they were alone then Andrew stepped closer and lowered his voice. “We’ve never met John ourselves, though many guests have, over the years.”
“Usually guests in trouble of some kind,” Lorna went on. “Or ones that need warning of something.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Did he help you last night?” Andrew asked.
“Well, yes, he did. He distracted Abbie long enough for me to get away. Why?”
“He’s a force for good,” Andrew’s wife repeated softly. “But we don’t talk about him.”
“Because he’s real,” Andrew replied, eyes deep and dark.
“What do you mean, ‘real’?”
“The other stories are just that. Stories,” Andrew went on. “John…he exists.”
“What are you saying?”
“You’ve read the Highwayman?” Andrew said softly.
“Young Bess shot herself to warn her lover of the ambush of the king’s men,” Lorna went on softly. “He escaped. But when he heard what had really happened he galloped back to the inn in a rage. This inn. And, of course, the king’s men were waiting for him.”
“I know the story,” Eleanor snapped impatiently, skin tingling with what she suspected was nothing to do with the drugs. “What’s it got to do with John?”
“The Highwayman was called John Draper,” Andrew said, face grave. “He’s buried outside the boundary of the graveyard at All Saints. He died hundreds of years ago. But when there’s danger, Bess still warns him and he still comes running.”
“He couldn’t save her,” Eleanor murmured.
“But he did save you.”
Eleanor blinked at the older couple, looking slightly eerie with their matched disquieted expressions in the flickering candlelight.
The Annex was silent when she climbed into bed that night. The normal creaks of settling timbers but no footsteps, no shapes out the corner of her eye, no barely-heard humming, no turning handles or screams shredding the air. A curious peace hung about the building. She found herself swinging between wishing John would appear and fervently wishing to never see him again. She wasn’t sure she believed what Andrew and his wife had told her, wasn’t sure she could believe it. But she felt, somewhere deep inside her, that she was finally safe and it wasn’t all down the new locks on all the doors.
She was going to spend Christmas day at the Highwayman with Andrew and Lorna. Andrew was going to cook. She found she was really looking forward to it. She found she was looking forward again, in general, rather than back, and finally liked what she saw.