Evening everyone! Hope everyone’s enjoying their weekend before the Big Day and that everything’s on it’s way to being prepared. Even if it’s not, take a few mins to yourself and enjoy the next instalment of my seasonal spookfest – The Highwayman. Part 4, the penultimate chapter, & links to previous parts below!
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.