Christmas Ghost Story – The Highwayman, Part 3

Good evening all! It’s getting closer! 3 sleeps, in fact!

Here is part 3 of my seasonal spook story. You can find links to the previous parts below. Enjoy!

Part 1

Part 2

3

00258764“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 – ”

“It isn’t.”

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.”

“But…the show.”

Abbie clutched her by the arms. “Eleanor, this is serious. Very serious.”

“I can’t cancel the show.”

“You have to.”

<<<<< Back to Part 2                                                                  On to Part 4 >>>>>

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2 Responses to Christmas Ghost Story – The Highwayman, Part 3

  1. Pingback: Christmas Ghost Story – The Highwayman, Part 2 | 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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