Christmas Ghost Story – The Highwayman, Part 2

Greetings everyone! Hope you are enjoying my seasonal spook story so far! Please find part 2 (and a link to Part 1) below.

Part 1

2

250px-Brown_ladyEleanor 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.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“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.

“John?”

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.

“Miss Cruz?”

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 will?”

“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.

“Who?”

“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.

Creak. Click.

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.

 

<<<<< Back to Part 1                                                                             On to Part 3 >>>>>

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2 Responses to Christmas Ghost Story – The Highwayman, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Christmas Ghost Story – The Highwayman, Part 1 | J. S. Collyer Science Fiction Writer

  2. Pingback: Christmas Ghost Story – The Highwayman, Part 4 | J. S. Collyer Science Fiction Writer

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