A Ghost Story for Christmas (1)
“He’s evil, there’s no other word to describe him.”
Mike Wallace smiled, as he recalled his friend’s words. He found consolation in the fact the Frank O Connor, his best friend, had always been one for overstatement and while his flair for the dramatic bode well for him in his chosen field of law, it tended to grate on the nerves of those who preferred plain speaking. The bus jolted again and he was forced to grab on to the seat back in front of him. When he bought the ticket, the company boasted that its buses were fitted with all the mod cons and that was the case, but there wasn’t a vehicle built yet that could cope with the rough terrain they traveled over.
The place he was heading for drew thousands of tourists each year that came in search of peace in its scarred wilderness, but somehow, the council’s budget was spent on something they considered much more pressing than the roads.
Perhaps, they imagined the potholed and uneven surfaces added to the sense of timelessness and those who flocked in search of sanctuary found their condition quaint. The bus swayed from side to side as the driver tried to navigate around the bumps. Mike’s stomach lurched and he realized he was feeling seasick on dry land.
The rain battering against the windows made it impossible to see anything outside, other than the odd flash of white from fields where sheep grazed and the grey multi-toned shadows of stone built walls.
The heater on the bus vied with that of the air conditioning so the interior was humid. This increased the stench as those with stouter stomachs than his bit into an assortment of sandwiches. The scent of assorted meats rose making his stomach revolt and he tried to concentrate on a raindrop, following its progress down the glass. The bus slowed and lumbered to a stop at the side of the road.
“Maam’s Cross,” the drive called, as he stood up to stretch his aching bones.
Two sets of doors hissed open and the cold air that rushed in was a welcome relief. Not far to go now, Mike thought, as he watched his fellow passengers reach for the luggage rack above their heads. Some smiled and said goodbye as they passed by him and he returned their farewell with a nod. All wore the smug expression of the weary traveller who knew his journey was at an end.
“If anyone wants to stretch their legs,” the driver said. “We’ll be stopping here for ten minutes.”
Some took advantage of this and ran with head bent against the rains onslaught, to the building across the road. Nothing would stop the determined smoker getting a fix before continuing on their way. It was cold now, as the driver had left the doors open, so Mike pulled his coat from beneath the holdall on the seat beside him. It would serve as a blanket for now and he was glad of the familiar scent of the wool. It was quiet within the bus as those who chose to remain were weary and without realizing Mike drifted off to sleep. As he slept, he brought a hand up trying to brush away Frank’s words, but their echo remained.
Mike sat in the modern, plush reception area of O Connor and Co Solicitors, waiting for his friend to appear. The smiling receptionist assured him that Mr O Connor was just finishing up with a client and would be with him shortly. Mike thanked her and accepted her offer of a coffee while he waited. Frank could take as long as he liked, as far as Mike was concerned. The radiator behind his chair was going full blast and its heat was comforting after the cold and damp of his bedsit. The clothes he wore still gave a hint of prosperity, but he doubted if the young woman behind the desk would have been as gushing if she knew his real circumstances.
It was hard to believe how far he had fallen in the past two years. His once thriving company was no more as the Celtic Tiger’s roar was reduced to a whimper. At the first sign of trouble his wife decided that their happy marriage wasn’t so happy after all and took off, but not before stripping him of his few remaining assets. He was now like thousands of men in the forties with a wealth of experience behind him and no job prospects. This was the reason he was waiting to speak to Frank. His friend phoned that morning hinting about a job that might suit. Mike was glad of anything that took him out of the squalor of his surrounding and gave him something to do. December arrived and brought with it the threat of snow. During his lower moments Mike envisioned himself being found frozen to death like those he’d read about in the past, the loners, the unwanted, he could never have imagined empathizing with until now. The pills his doctor prescribe helped take the edge off, but his nerves were at breaking point.
“Hey buddy,” Frank came breezing out from his inner sanctum.
Mike stood up and the men touched shoulders, their idea of a manly hug.
“Come on in,” Frank held the door open for him. “I ordered lunch in, so we’ll have a chance to talk.”
Mike knew, as he followed his friend down the thickly carpeted hallway, that Frank was doing this to be kind. He was well aware at how badly off Mike was, almost starving at times, but knew better than to offer any kind of monetary help as this would have ended their friendship faster than any insult could.
“How about a drink?” Frank pulled open the bottom drawer of his desk.
“Not for me, thanks,” Mike shook his head and sat in the seat opposite the desk; dismissing his refusal with a white lie. “I’m on antibiotics.”
“Of course, stupid of me,” Frank slammed the drawer shut. “I ordered some soft drinks with the food.”
As if on cue, the young woman from reception phoned to say the delivery boy was there. Excusing himself, Frank hurried from the room and came back laded down with paper bags.
“Spicy king prawn, right?” He asked, tearing through the paper in his haste to feed his friend.
“You’ve enough there to feed an army,” Mike laughed, as tray after tray was placed before him.
“You’re my excuse to pig out,” Frank handed him a plastic fork and knife. “Sheila says I’m getting a bit of a paunch,” he patted his stomach. “I am too.”
Mike bit down on an aromatic, pink prawn and for a moment his senses were overwhelmed. It was ages since he’d tasted anything so good. His usual fare consisted of bread, beans and tea. He realised Frank was watching him and the concern in his face made Mike throat grow tight. To lighten the atmosphere, he asked.
“What’s this about a job?”
“Ah, yes,” Frank twirled some noodles round his fork. “You might think it a bit beneath you, but I thought it was worth running by you.”
He searched through the papers on the desk as he chewed.
“Here it is,” he handed Mike a map.
“And?” Mike waited for him to go on.
“Well, it’s like this. We have a client, he’s been with the firm since my father’s time and he needs some help in getting his papers in order. It’s more secretarial work really, but there’s no typing or any of that sort of stuff. The money is good and there’s free accommodation.”
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Mike studied the map.
“That’s why I thought of you and he said he didn’t want some young filly,” Frank took another mouthful of food.
“I don’t have much experience.” Mike said.
“Nonsense, you know all about paperwork,” Frank waved away his worry. “It will have to be done by hand though. Our Mr Price is not one for computers.”
“It would get me away from the city,” Mike thought out loud.
The Christmas lights and music were a constant reminder at how much he had lost.
“He’s willing to pay all expenses,” Frank continued. “Though there’s only the bus fare and maybe a taxi to get you from the bus stop to the house, once you arrive.”
“Tell me a bit about your Mr Price,” Mike said.
“There’s not that much to tell,” Frank avoided his eyes. “He’s old money, lives in one of the few manor houses that are still occupied in this day and age. My father knew him better than I, but he’s stinking rich, that’s one thing I do know.”
“There’s something else,” Mike said. “Something you’re not telling me.”
“It’s probably just me,” Frank gave a nervous laugh. “You know what my imaginations like.”
“I’ve only met the man twice,” Frank dabbed his lips with a paper napkin. “But I didn’t like him.”
“For what reason?” Mike asked.
“There’s something about him, something unwholesome.”
“Tell me the truth,” Mike inched forward in his seat. “We’ve never lied to one another before, so be straight with me now.”
“He’s evil,” Frank shrugged his shoulder and had the grace to blush. “I know you think the word a bit over the top, but that’s how I feel about him.”
“Why, what had he done?”
“Nothing that I know of,” again the nervous laugh. “He’s got no criminal record and I’ve heard no stories about him. It’s just an impression.”
“Fine,” Mike sat back in his chair. “I’ll no doubt find out for myself.”
“So you’ll take the job?”
“I’ve nothing better to do. How long will it last?”
“No more than a week, but as I said, the money is excellent and you’ll have a change of scene and the sea air will do you good,” Frank opened the drawer in front of him and took out an envelope. “There’s two hundred there,” he pushed the envelope across to Mike.
“I don’t need charity,” Mike felt his face grow hot with indignation.
“I wouldn’t dare,” Frank said. “I’m giving you this on Mr Price’s orders. It’s some up front money so you can buy your ticket and whatever else you need.”
“Very well,” Mike tucked the envelope into the pocket of his coat. “When do I leave?”
“As soon as possible; Mr Price is anxious for you to start and I’ve told him all about you.”
“Oh yeah,” Mike gave a weak smile. “That couldn’t have taken very long. Does he live alone?”
“No, there’s a maiden aunt, as far as I know, but no other relations.”
The conversation changed as they finished their meal and they spoke of childhood days and the mischief they usually managed to get into. The past few years were a taboo subject that was best left alone.
The sound of the engine shuddering into life brought Mike back to consciousness with a start. He sat up straight and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The rain had stopped and as the windows dried he saw how narrow the roads had become. At times he was sure the bus would hit the wall that ran the length of the road, but the skill and experience of the driver was amazing. At times they stopped to let an oncoming vehicle pass and he was able to view the land. On his left the shadow of the 12 Bens mountain range cast its shadow over the fields. On his right and in the distance, a blue line showed him the first promise of the Atlantic Ocean. There were three more stops until he reached his destination and he felt a strange sense of loss as the last passenger alighted and he was alone with the driver.
“Not long now sir,” the driver called down the aisle.
“I’ll come up and keep you company, if you don’t mind?” Mike stood and put on his coat.
Picking up his holdall he walked to the front of the bus and sat down. Mike felt like a child again, sitting in the front seat with almost a bird’s eye view of the road ahead.
“You visiting family?” The driver asked.
“No, I’m here to work.” Mike said.
“And what sort of work would that be?” The driver seemed amazed.
Mike told him the name of his new employer.
“Do you know him?” Mike asked.
“Aye, I know him well enough,” the man seemed unwilling to elaborate further and they traveled the next few miles in silence.
Mike was surprised to see a taxi waiting when the bus finally arrived at his destination.
“I’m in luck,” he smiled at the driver.
“That’s Bob Ross. He’s got the only taxi around these parts. There’s not a lot of call for it, but he must have known you were coming.”
Mike picked up his holdall and climbed down the steps.
“Thanks a lot,” he said to the bus driver.
“God protect you from all harm,” the man’s face was grey in the descending twilight.
Christ, Mike thought, as he walked towards the waiting taxi. I’m Jonathan Harker about to meet my own Dracula. Once settled in the back seat, he patted the pouch in the front of the holdall and heard the soothing rattle of the pill bottle. His antidepressants would have there work cut out for them if everything he heard about the elusive Mr Price was true. His hands shook a little as he patted the course material beneath his fingers. The effect of his last dose was wearing off and the memory of Frank’s words and the bus driver’s superstitious nonsense hadn’t helped. This was the 21st century and there was nothing that science could not explain. There were no vampires, no monsters or hideous creatures of the night.
He had a lot to learn.