Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 14
At first it seemed like a mad idea. He’d always believed the adage better to arrive late than not at all. Although the traffic on the main road was slow it was still moving. He turned his attention to the radio. The last piece of music had stopped and the host was interviewing a young violinist who was telling him about the quartet’s forthcoming events. He tried to concentrate on what she was saying but the mad idea in his head kept pushing to the forefront. The short cut skirting the Stone Tower was less than a mile away. To drive on a twisty road in such foul weather might be risky but it would save several miles and be free of traffic. Easing back on the accelerator to widen the gap between himself and the lorry he switched the wipers to maximum speed and slowed down looking out for the turning which was tucked away at the side of the road and could be easily missed. He was still debating the wisdom of choosing to take it when the turning appeared. Without a second thought he braked, turned sharp left and having made the decision was compelled to keep going. The quartet had started playing a discordant jangle which Trevor was tempted to switch off but didn’t. If nothing else it provided the illusion of having company in the car on a dark, unfamiliar route.
After travelling no more than a mile the road ran into a series of tight corners where the trees were so dense they absorbed most of the light from the headlamps. Trevor was having second thoughts wondering if he should cut his losses and return to the main road. He was approaching a hill and the banks on either side were growing steeper and shedding rivers of mud across the road. Giving up hope of finding anywhere to turn he carried on accepting that he was trapped with nowhere to go but ahead.
At the top of the hill the road straightened out, widened slightly and levelled off. With fewer trees it was not so dark. There might have been room to turn around but having come this far it made more sense to keep going. There were fewer bends and before long he found himself on an open straight. He picked up speed and was soon making up for lost time. With no trees for shelter the rain was lashing against the windscreen even more fiercely making it almost impossible to see any distance ahead despite the wipers working at maximum speed. He was nearing the end of the straight approaching a bend when disaster struck. The windscreen wiper on the driver’s side dislodged itself and disappeared over the roof of the car.
Trevor stopped and without bothering to reach for his coat he was out in the wind and rain in the vain hope of finding the wiper. He knew it would be hopeless but the thought of attempting to drive on that perilous road in the dark and wet without a wiper gave him no choice but to search. He began by looking on the road in the unlikely chance that it might have landed somewhere easy to find. He walked several yards along the road but seeing nothing he was forced to get down on all fours and fumble blindly through the ditch at the side of the road drenched to the skin and praying for a miracle.
As he combed through the wet grass with his bare fingers his thoughts turned to the cottage. He pictured Sophie who by now would have changed into the blue evening dress that she kept for special occasions. She’d be wearing the silver brooch and the necklace he’d given her on their last anniversary. The wine would be opened and the glasses placed on the table waiting to be filled as soon as he walked through the door. In his mind he was already there with her listening to all she’d have to tell him about her day. So vivid were the images he almost believed he was in the cottage when an unexpectedly violent gust brought him back to reality. He wasn’t with Sophie. He was here, alone, still miles from home. Giving up on finding the wiper he returned to the car determined to carry on come what may.
Back in the car with rain running down his face he turned on the ignition. Nothing happened. After several attempts the engine finally sputtered into action and picked up enough revs for him to pull away.
As soon as he’d rounded the next bend the road began climbing again, twisting and turning through dense woodland. He was making slow progress when the radio reception faded away. Irritated by the intermittent crackle he took his eyes off the road for a second and tried to retune it. Not having any success he switched it off and looking ahead was alarmed to see the contorted figure of a man standing in the middle of the road waving frantically. For the second time Trevor stamped on the brakes which sent the car skidding out of control and coming to rest at an awkward angle with its nearside wheels lodged in the ditch. Trevor sat motionless glued to the seat wondering what to do next. The man was staggering towards him gesticulating wildly. Common sense told Trevor to keep the window closed but he wound it down instinctively and shouted from shock more than concern, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’
He expected to be asked if he was all right but the man lurched towards the car and gripped the sill to make sure the window stayed down. His head was almost inside the car as he begged, ‘Help me please, you must help me.’
Trevor was seized by a momentary flash-back to Liz’s comment about someone pleading for help. ‘Can’t you see what you’ve done you moron?’ he shouted. ‘Look at me! How am I supposed to get out of this mess? I’m late as it is. What do you expect me to do you idiot, you stupid idiot?’ Acting completely out of character he found it was almost impossible to stop himself from pouring out an endless stream of abuse. After the tension of driving through a storm, losing a wiper and knowing he was late, his overriding impulse was to leap out and throttle the man.
The explosive outburst had no effect. The stranger was still staring at him begging for all his worth. ‘Help me, please, you must help me.’
Having vented his anger Trevor began to calm down. He looked at the fellow’s distraught expression and reluctantly concluded that the poor man really was in dire need of assistance. His forehead was blue with bruising. Blood was congealing in his hair and on the side of his face. His left eyelid was badly swollen. Trevor then looked at his hands and noticed more blood trapped beneath his fingernails. He was wearing a dark green anorak over a red checked shirt. ‘You’d better get in the car,’ Trevor said. ‘There’s a first-aid box in the boot.’ It was Sophie who always insisted on having one in the car. Now for the first time it looked as though it might be needed.
Trevor climbed out of the car and was about to unlock the boot when the man grabbed hold of him and started shouting. ‘There’s no time. You must come now, before it’s too late.’ He released his hands and began to limp away.
‘Come back!’ Trevor called after him. ‘Where are you going? It’s pouring.’
‘There’s no time. Just follow me!’ In spite of his limp the man was moving quickly. Whatever his need might be it was clearly urgent.
‘Follow you where?’
The man turned round with look of desperation. ‘The tower.’
‘We can’t. It’s miles from here.’
‘It isn’t. Just follow me, please!’
Without saying anything more the man was hurrying on as though his life depended on reaching the tower. Trevor knew he should stay in the car and wait for help. It was madness to climb through the trees in the rain with the wind rising. But against all reason he chased after the stricken man.
He ran at speed but before he could reach him the man had jumped the ditch and was scrambling up the bank through the trees. Close behind but losing sight of him, Trevor began the ascent tugging at branches to help him up. All he could hear was the whine of the wind thrashing the tree tops and whistling through the woodland. There were brambles all around caning his face and arms. The ground slipped beneath his feet and with every step the climb grew steeper and the brambles thicker. He was panting for breath and on the point of giving up when he reached the top. The rain had suddenly stopped and the wind was easing. A dazzlingly bright moon appeared between gaps in the angry clouds. He was on a flat, grassy clearing with the Stone Tower looming in front of him silhouetted against the stormy sky. The man he’d been following was standing by the door at the bottom of the tower looking towards him. Without wa
‘Just here,’ came an answer from somewhere above.
‘How many steps are there?’
‘Not many. Keep coming!’
Trevor was nearly at the top when he heard the door at the bottom slam with a deafening boom that shook the foundations and echoed. The rumblings reverberated for some time then faded away to a ghostly silence. Trevor had purposely left the door open to give him the means of escape if required. ‘Are you still there?’ he called.
‘I’m in here.’
‘Where? It’s pitch dark. I can’t see a thing.’
‘Look for the door.’
Realising there were no more steps and that he must have reached the top, Trevor placed the palms of his hands against the cold, damp walls and felt around until he found the low arched door.
‘Give it a push!’
He pushed. It resisted but slowly opened. Although he could see nothing in the darkness he could hear the man fumbling with what sounded like a box of matches. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
‘I’m in here. Come and see!’
Trevor went in and groped his way around the room in the general direction of the man’s voice. No one was there. He could feel with his feet that the floor was unevenly boarded. Somewhere close by he could hear the sound of a match being struck but there was no spark of light. ‘What are doing? What’s wrong?’
‘I can’t get a light. The box is damp.’
‘Try the wall!’
At that moment a sudden flare lit up the man’s face. He was moving across the room to a recess where he picked up a candle and lit it. He crossed to the middle of the room and knelt down. Trevor knelt beside him. ‘What are you looking for?’
‘Loose boards. I know they’re here, somewhere.’
He started tugging at the floorboards but Trevor could see from his bleeding hands how painful it was. ‘Here, let me try,’ he said. ‘You won’t have any fingers left if you carry on like that.’ A sudden draught extinguished the candle but Trevor located the loose boards and began prizing them away from the others. ‘Are there any more matches?’ he asked feeling around and finding one before the man had time to reply. He struck it against the wall and relit the candle. The sight of the burning wick made him think of the restaurant where candlelight was one of its main attractions. As he wrestled with the loose boards he wondered what Sophie would be thinking. He’d lost all track of the time but knew that whatever happened there was no prospect of getting home in time to take her out. By now she would know something was wrong. She’d have phoned the office and learned from Liz that he’d left early as planned. After that she’d have contacted the police who’d have no idea of his whereabouts. As it was she would have to wait, and wait for a long time.
The thought of Sophie waiting for him reminded him of the car stuck in a ditch. He wondered whether or not he’d be able to get it free. The man beside him would be in no state to help. There was no chance of hitching a lift. Nobody else would be stupid enough to be taking the route he’d chosen. He would have to walk and how many hours would that take? As he pulled at the last loose board he spat out his rage. ‘You, whoever you are, do you realise how much of a mess you’ve got me into?’ He turned to look at the man but no one was there. Trevor stood and pointed the candle in every direction but the room was empty. He listened for footsteps on the stairs but there wasn’t a sound. Cupping one hand around the flame to keep it alight he knelt at the spot where the boards had been lifted and holding the candle over the cavity he looked inside. On discovering what was there he recoiled in terror. He turned away desperately wanting to disbelieve what he’d seen but a second glance confirmed there’d been no mistake. He realised now why the man he’d followed was no longer in the room. He was lying in front of him squashed into that foul space beneath the floorboards staring up at nothing. There was no doubt in Trevor’s mind that the body before him was the man who’d brought him here. Without thinking he tried to lift him as though it might bring him back to life but the corpse was a dead weight. The red checked shirt and anorak were soaked in uncongealed blood still sticky and warm to the touch. His fingernails were broken and jagged as though he’d been buried half alive and had tried till his dying breath to claw his way out. Repulsed at the sight and realising that his own hands were also covered in blood he wiped them on his shirt and trousers. If only Liz could see him now. Not only would she know that he now believed in ghosts but had actually met one and chased it to where it lay, no longer a ghost but a lump of dead human flesh. He’d read about murdered spirits refusing to rest until the cause of their death was discovered and wondered why he had been the singled out as the victim’s witness.
There was no time to dwell on such thoughts. The reality of his present position was becoming painfully clear and had to be dealt with. He knew from the still warm body that what had happened had happened recently. For all he knew the killer was still at large and not far away. He blew out the candle, backed away from the body and made a hasty retreat. He fled down the spiral staircase hitting the wall at every turn till he reached the bottom. The door was jammed but summoning strength from somewhere he forced it open and ran like a fugitive over the clearing towards the woods. Sliding and trampling down brambles he bulldozed his way through everything in his path and on reaching the road leapt over the ditch. Not recognising where he was he stood for a while to get his bearings. He was nowhere near where he’d left the road on his way to the tower. Facing in what he believed was the right direction he started to sprint. It was further than he expected. All the while he was glancing towards the bank half expecting the victim’s killer to jump from the trees and pounce on him. None of the bends brought the car into view but he kept on running. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and gazing up saw that the sky had completely cleared and was filled with glimmering stars. A full moon shone down on the road which after the rain was glistening like a silver ribbon. Running again he reached the place where he’d jumped the ditch on his way to the tower. One more bend and he’d be back at the car. On rounding the bend the sight that met him was not what he was expecting. His car was still there leaning into the bank and beside it a second car was parked with its blue lights flashing. Trevor composed himself and walked towards a pair of uniformed policemen. Without moving they waited as he approached.
‘Hi,’ said Trevor trying to look as casual as possible.
‘Good evening sir. Is this your car?’ They were looking down at his hands and his blood-stained clothes.
It was almost midnight. Sophie was drinking her fifth glass of wine when she heard a knock. Draining the dregs and hiding the glass with an empty bottle behind a cushion she opened the door to a tall, middle-aged, grim-faced man.
‘Detective Inspector Walters,’ he said, presenting his warrant card. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you at this late hour. Are you Mrs Goldman?’
Sophie was trembling but managed to force an answer. ‘Yes, has any...’
‘And your husband is Trevor Goldman?’
‘He is. Oh God! Have you found him? Has something happened?’
The detective declined to answer. ‘May I come in?’ he said.
‘Time for coffee I think.’ Howard had left his chair and was on his way to the kitchen to fetch the percolator.
‘I take it you’ve finished the story,’ I said, surprised by its abrupt ending. ‘I’d like to have known what Trevor said to the police.’
‘What could he say? His clothes and hands were covered in blood. No policeman however gullible would believe he’d followed a ghost to its grave. They arrested him on suspicion of murder.’
‘But he had no motive for murder. Surel
‘They did, with dogs, but no tracks or footprints other than Trevor’s and the deceased’s were discovered.’
‘What happened at the trial?’
‘Against his counsel’s advice Trevor kept to his story even though it was implausible. The defence called Liz and Sophie who described their strange experiences on the day in question but the prosecution dismissed them as being fanciful and irrelevant. Psychiatric reports found no signs of insanity. The circumstantial evidence was overwhelming and the guilty verdict was unanimous.’
There was little more to be said. We sat and talked about other things. It had been a long day with no exercise or light-hearted diversions to relieve the intensity other than our short afternoon stroll. Even that had been clouded in mystery with Howard telling me he wouldn’t be there in the spring to see the bluebells even though he had no plans to move. He’d promised all would become clear before I left though I couldn’t think how. I sat back in my chair in front of the fire and closed my eyes thinking about Trevor and the other stories which merged like bizarre music from different fairground rides all competing for dominance. Dark images ran through my head and blended into a crazy collage of gory scenes. I drove them to the back of my mind and was on the point of falling asleep when Howard saw me lying back with my eyelids drooping. ‘Don’t mind me,’ he said. ‘You look exhausted. Why don’t you have a nap?’