Pryce stepped out of the car, shooting a furtive glance up and down the street. He was relieved to see the road was deserted. If anyone saw him now, saw what he was about to do, he could kiss his career goodbye. Both his reputation and his business would be left to smoulder in the furnace of public humiliation.
“Come on, Sweetie!” Madeline whined. “Madam Shimmy hates it when people are late!”
Pryce shuddered. A psychic?! What did he ever do to deserve such a fate? Well, he knew exactly the answer to that. He married Madeline Hooper. He’d done it out of love, a love which had dwindled quickly once Madeline’s father died and left his immense fortune to a Goddamn dog charity. Despite this, the pair had endured eighteen happy years together. Of course, Pryce had found his happiness in the arms of multiple mistresses over the years, including, at one point, Madeline’s sister. But he always made sure his wife had no reason to doubt his fidelity. He was a very careful man.
So, here he was, playing the doting husband and visiting a crazed crackpot. However, because he had no idea how doting a natural husband ought to be, he vocalised his disgust gleefully.
Madeline shot him a vicious look. “You promised!”
“I don’t remember,” Pryce muttered, stomping childishly as he followed his dumpy wife across the street.
“Fine,” Madeline said sourly. “Call it a Christmas present.”
Not bloody likely, Pryce thought. This damned farce was costing him fifty quid, and that was twice as much as he normally spent on her. Then again, if he put it down as a work expense he could claim it back for the next financial year.
With this thought bringing a smile to his lips, Pryce Fairley followed his wife inside.
Madam Shimmy was everything Pryce feared. Buckets of eyeshadow, lipstick and rouge had been slathered onto the haggard woman’s pinched face. So many trinkets and bracelets adorned her twig-thin wrists that she could hardly lift her hands an inch above the round table. With each turn of her head, the dream-catchers dangling from her ears rattled and tangled themselves amongst the large ruff that enveloped her wrinkled neck.
As Pryce and his wife took their seats, the woman’s thin lips stretched into what would normally be described as a smile. “Welcome,” Madam Shimmy cooed, a soft eastern European accent dripping from her words. “I have been expecting you.”
“That’s because we made an appointment,” Pryce snapped, cutting whatever atmosphere the woman had been trying to build.
Madeline shot him a dark look.
“I notice a new face among us today.” Madam Shimmy turned her heavy eyes towards Pryce. “Tell me,” she continued. “Have you ever tried communing with the dead before?”
“No,” Pryce said firmly. “I find that corpses aren’t that chatty.”
He winced as his wife drove her foot into his shin. Pryce returned her bitter glare with one of his own before looking back at the old woman.
“Let us join hands,” Madam Shimmy crooned, offering out a wrinkled palm. Feeling Madeline’s steel-tipped gaze drilling into the side of his head, Pryce reluctantly took it. He shuddered as his fingertips brushed against her mottled skin. It was like grasping a leather glove stuffed with gravel. Madeline took Shimmy’s hand with an excited smile, and Pryce’s with a vindictive squeeze. He knew what that meant: “Embarrass me again, and I’ll make sure you pay.”
Pryce deftly ignored it.
“We are ready,” the medium declared, “to make contact.”
Before Pryce could make his next witty remark, Shimmy’s eyes rolled to the back of her head. Her mouth dropped open, revealing a cavern of fillings and yellowing lumps that passed for her teeth. Her hand slackened in Pryce’s as a guttural moaning crawled out of her throat. Pryce took a look at his wife. By her expression, he had to assume that this sort of charade was all part of the act. Once again, he silently lamented the loss of that precious fifty quid.
Suddenly her head snapped straight. Her eyes became focused on the wall ahead of her, and the moaning was silenced.
“I have a message from beyond the veil,” she announced, her voice cracked and hoarse.
“Yes?” Madeline said eagerly. “Who is it?”
“It is . . .” her eyes drifted for a moment, as if she was rifling through her mental filing cabinet of names. “. . . from . . . Aunty Beryl!”
“We don’t want to hear from Aunty Beryl,” Madeline yapped. “We heard from Beryl last month!”
“But she has a message -”
“Tell her to wait!” A flushed expression appeared in Madeline’s cheeks. She gave the medium a pointed look, one that Pryce should have recognised. “Isn’t there anyone else?” she asked, making it clear that ‘No’ was not an available answer.
Shimmy licked her lips nervously. “Right,” she murmured. “Someone else . . .” Again, the whites of her eyes became visible, and the incessant moaning reappeared. This time the trance lasted only a moment before she made another announcement. “I have a cousin Lionel -?”
The medium barked in pain, then spat Madeline a dark look. Pryce didn’t know what was happening, but he was beginning to enjoy himself.
The eyes were barely rolled for two seconds before Shimmy emerged with a start from her communion. “There is someone else here,” she stated.
“Who is it this time?” Pryce asked with a smirk. “I’m not sure we have many relatives left to wheel out.”
“It’s . . . it’s a man,” the woman said, her eyes narrowed. “I . . . I sense a name . . .”
“Shall we give you a clue?”
“Shut up, Pryce!”
“I have a . . . a Tony!”
Pryce looked at his wife blankly. “Who the hell’s Tony?”
Madeline shrugged. The medium glanced at the pair nervously. “Does anybody know a Tony?” she asked weakly.
“Maybe she means Anthony!” Madeline suddenly exclaimed.
“Yes,” Shimmy quickly agreed. “That’s who I meant. Anthony.”
“Anthony? You mean . . .?”
“Your business partner!”
“Oh. Him.” Dread suddenly blossomed in Pryce’s gut. There was a look on his face that Madeline, his wife of eighteen years, had never seen before. He raked his tongue across his now dry lips and tried to clear his throat. It felt like swallowing a billiard ball. “Anthony, you say?”
“He has a message for you,” the medium said with a knowing smile.
“Does he really? How nice.”
“Do you want to hear it?”
“I think I’m fine, actually.” Pryce tried to stand but found his wife’s hand dragging him back into his seat.
“Don’t be silly,” Madeline said with a light, but threatening chuckle. “Of course he wants to hear it!”
“Very well.” Madam Shimmy coughed slightly, straightened herself up in her chair and appeared to deflate. Her eyelids flickered and her mouth began to twist.
“This is where she allows her body to be taken over by the spirits,” Madeline whispered to her husband, who was now looking rather paler than usual.
What next came out of the old woman’s mouth was a in a tone that sounded like the slamming of a mausoleum door, had the echoes of death knell, and turned Pryce’s stomach into a ball of cold lead. “I Know What You Did.”
Pryce nearly choked on his tongue as he fought to keep the words from firing out. There was no way this was real, of course it wasn’t. It was all a trick. A small, humourless laugh bounced up his throat. Fake. That’s it. The sweat prickling on his brow was because of how warm it was in the room, that’s all. The incense wasn’t helping either. It was thanks to the sickening aromas that his mouth was drying up. Yes, that’s right.
“What does he mean, Pryce?” Madeline was staring at him, her eyes the shapes of saucers, and a naïve look of belief on her face.
“No idea,” he stated, hoping the confidence in his voice sounded believable. “I told you it was all a load of old rubbish.” He clapped his hands together and folded his arms across his chest. “Are we done here?”
Anthony Croones had been Pryce’s business partner, and equal stakeholder in the soon-to-be-successful property development firm: Fairley & Croones Property. What had ended his involvement in the firm had been his rather sudden and untimely death. No one had thought it strange, no one had raised any objections when the coroner had announced the death as ‘accidental’. And certainly no one had accused Pryce of playing a part in his partner’s death. The main reason being that no one knew Pryce had been present at his partner’s death, he didn’t think anyone needed to know that nugget. After all, if they had, the police might have decided to take an interest. No, Anthony Croones had died naturally and accidentally. Anyone could have fallen off of the third story of a building that had yet to be finished. Why he had been at the building site in the first place, no one knew. Well, except for Pryce, but he wasn’t telling.
Pryce sat in bed, absently nibbling his nails. He had laughed and joked about the idea of ghosts and mediums, scoffed at the idea of communicating with the dead. But his wife believed it, so what if . . .?
No, he thought, shaking his head. His wife believed she had once been hit on by a member of The Bee Gees. Her judgment was the last he trusted. But still . . . even idiots were allowed to be right about one thing in their lives. If she was right about this, and ghosts were real, and able to communicate with the living, who knew what might come out?
Pryce almost fell out of bed. “What murder?! Who said anything about murder? What are you talking about?”
Madeline stared at him, a pencil between her teeth and a crossword puzzle in her lap. “I’m talking about my puzzle,” she said tartly. “A murder of crows, it’s one of the answers.”
“Oh, right.” His heart slowly began to calm down, but the cold weight of dread failed to slink away. His wife continued to stare. “What’s gotten into you?” she asked accusingly. “You’ve been funny ever since we got back from Madam Shimmy’s.”
“No I haven’t,” Pryce countered, continuing to savage his usually well-manicured nails.
“Yes, you have,” Madeline stated. “Is there something on your mind?”
“I’m a busy man,” Pryce snapped. “I have lots of things on my mind.”
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were feeling guilty about something.”
“Look, are you going to be much longer with that damned puzzle? I want to get some sleep!” Pryce barked, ignoring his wife’s probing gaze.
“I’ve only got a couple left to go,” she said. “It’s a tricky one tonight.”
“Let me help.” Before Madeline could protest, the paper was snatched out of her lap and Pryce began scribbling in the blank spaces. “There,” he said, handing the paper back. “All done.” With that, he switched the light off and laid back, ready to escape into the embrace of sleep.
“Hey! None of these are right!” Madeline said angrily. “Seven down isn’t hippopotamus! And look – look at this! You’ve written them all in pen! What am I supposed to do now? Honestly, Pryce, you are such an arse.”
With the angry murmurings of his wife beside him, and the thoughts of ghosts drifting through his head, Pryce Fairley drifted into a fitful sleep.
The next morning all thoughts of spirits and hauntings had vanished from Pryce’s head. As were the small pangs of guilt that had, the previous night, been niggling him like a trapped fish-bone. Instead, all he felt was excitement. Because, after an agonising wait, his building site had finally been reopened.
After Anthony’s death Police had closed the site, desperate to make a show of doing their job. It was completely clean. Not a shred of evidence could paint the incident as anything but a tragic accident. And now, with a spring in his step and an unusual grin on his face, Pryce arrived bright and early to make sure everything on the property was completed to his satisfaction.
The smile slipped from his face, and the spring went shot when he saw the gaggle of builders outside his office. The foreman was standing at the head of the group, wearing a sheepish expression on his otherwise granite-esque features. The sight of this turned Pryce’s spit sour.
“Mr Fairley,” the builder grumbled. “Could we have a quick word?”
“So long as it is that, Mr Askell,” Pryce said impatiently. “I wouldn’t want to keep you all from the work you have to be doing.”
“Err . . . it’s about that, actually.”
He felt his eyes roll. Of course it was. “Is there a problem?”
“Well, it’s just us startin’ work again, so soon after Mr Croones’ –”
“Accident, Mr Askell. Mr Croones accidentally fell from the fourth floor, where he broke his neck upon impact. That’s what happened. The police have agreed that it was an accident. Our site is now open, and we have a block of luxurious flats to complete!”
Pryce felt all eyes on him, even eyes belonging to the casual passer-by were fixed on him. He’d been raising his voice and hadn’t even realised it. Askell looked at him worriedly.
“We know it was an accident,” he said, as if trying to soothe a man standing on a cliff-edge. “No idea what he could have been doin’ up there, that time o’ night an’ all. No one should’ve been on the site at all. But, nonetheless, my boys and I are . . . worried.”
“Watch your step then,” Pryce said dismissively. But, rather than slink off, reminded of their place in the pecking-order, they continued to stand there. They put him in mind of a gang of sheep hoping to negotiate with the shepherd.
“It’s just we’ve all seen what happens in the films,” one builder said, safely tucked near the back of the crowd.
“That’s right,” Askell said with an eager nod. “We’re worried about the stuff that always happens right after an unexpected death!”
“What sort of ‘stuff’?” Pryce snapped.
“We are not going to be haunted!” Fairley barked, his eyes burning.
“We think it might already have started,” the foreman explained.
“My drill went missing,” said one builder.
“You mean the drill you’re holding?”
“Well, yeah, I found it,” the short man murmured. “But it took me a while!”
“That’s how it starts, though, don’t it?” a third builder remarked.
“My sister, Janice, she got haunted once.”
“It’s ‘cos they can’t move on, what with having unfinished business.”
“Look!” Pryce could feel the vein in his forehead tap-dancing its way towards popping. “This isn’t like a movie, or like what happened to Colin’s sister Janice. No spirit is going to start wandering around the building site rattling their chains and groaning!” He could see his words were barely denting the concrete-like dedication they had to their fantasy. He sighed. “You said something about ‘unfinished business’, yes? Well, let me tell you, Mr Croones had one thing left to do in life, and that was finish a block of luxurious, high-end flats. The only reason he would haunt us, is if a bunch of lazy, superstitious, half-witted builders decided to down tools!”
This time the words hit home. They gave each other awkward looks before, reluctantly, breaking apart. Eventually only Askell remained.
“Sorry about that, Mr Fairley,” he said. “You know what the lads can be like with their imagination. But, it might make ‘em feel better if you got someone to, you know, check over the place. An exorcist, maybe?”
“Oh, sure,” Fairley said sourly. “Let me just ring up the Ghostbusters!”
“Really? That would be great!”
“I am not calling the God damn Ghostbusters!” Pryce yelled. He took a moment to collect himself, then wrapped an arm around the foreman’s burly shoulders. “Askell – Jim. I may call you Jim, right?”
“My name’s not –”
“Jim, do you know why I hired your firm?”
“Because you’re a shrewd, stolid set of men who won’t let anything get in the way of going a good job.” Pryce clapped the man on the back. “I’m sure you’re not going to let childish superstition jeopardise that positive opinion I have, now are you?”
“No, sir, not me.”
“Good, I’m trusting you, Jim.” He then flashed Askell a patented grin and gave him another companionable pat. “also, if I hear anyone mention ghosts and hauntings again, they’re fired.”
Pryce turned away from the builder. What he saw next almost caused a shriek to escape his lips. Not four paces away was a gaunt, sallow-faced figure. There was a deadness in the stranger’s eyes that sent the skin along Pryce’s spine turn pimply and cold. Damp, long hair clung to the man’s head, shrouding his ears and ending just short of his long, furrowed monobrow. His lips were parted slightly, revealing oak-coloured teeth. The figure put Pryce in mind of a ghoul, freshly escaped from a tomb. He felt his throat drying up, and his eyes desperately trying to wrench themselves away from the sight.
Fairley tried to take a step back, only to bump into Askell.
“Oh yeah,” the foreman said, “I forgot to mention young Rodney.”
“R-Rodney?” Pryce murmured.
“My cousin’s boy,” Askell said with a nod. The spectre known a Rodney gave a heavy nod back.
Now that Pryce collected himself, he realised that what he had mistaken for a cadaverous hue in the figure’s features, was nothing more than the unhealthy pallor of a teenager who didn’t get enough fresh air. Also, the orange, high-viz vest was something a zombie would usually reject.
“I thought, given Mr Croones’ accident,” Askell continued, “we could do with someone watching over the sight, making sure no one was here that shouldn’t be.”
“Ah, right, yes,” Pryce said, nodding weakly. “Very good idea, very good.” He took another glance at Rodney, who had yet to blink, and then retreated into his office. Once inside, and with the door safely locked behind him, he tried to calm his mile-a-minute beating heart. He’d have to get a new shirt, this one was dripping with icy sweat.
“It’s just a spotty-faced hippy,” Pryce cooed to himself. “Calm yourself.”
But, despite this assurance, Pryce couldn’t shake that haunted feeling.
After a heavy lunch, and a quick visit to the nearest Primark, Pryce sauntered back onto the building site. Only his furtive, restless eyes gave any indication towards the nervousness that bubbled beneath. There was no reason for this, he knew that. But he also knew that something wasn’t right. All morning he had struggled to shift the sensation of being watched. Even after closing all the blinds in his office the feeling had remained.
He was halfway towards his office, the keys out of his pocket, when he froze. The door was open. His pulse began to quicken. He would never do something as stupid as leave it unlocked, not with the sort of documents he had in there. He quickly looked round. There was no one near. Slowly, shifting the keys in his hand, Pryce approached the small portacabin. He winced as each step brought a crunch from the gravel. If there was someone still in there he wanted to catch them off guard. Because there will be someone in there, Pryce assured himself.
“Ah ha!” he yelled, throwing the door open.
The office was empty. But there had been someone.
The carnage Pryce beheld left him stunned. Paper had been torn from every drawer and file and scattered across the room. Some bits had been screwed up, others had been torn to shreds, and a few had been carefully folded into little boats. His filing cabinet stood with its drawers dangling open like a panting pup’s tongue. Slowly, trying not to tread on any of the debris, Pryce made his way towards his desk. The chair had been knocked on its back, and Pryce’s nameplate had been chucked halfway across the room. His laptop was sitting open and on in the centre of the otherwise bare surface. Feeling his throat drying and the sweat on his forehead prickling, Pryce stared at the glowing screen.
Someone, after ransacking his office, had taken the time to load up Microsoft office. They hadn’t done much with it, only typed out a couple of words. But the sight of them sent a shiver plunge down Pryce’s spine.
He stumbled back, his heart pounding and his chest heaving as he tried to steady his ragged breathing. His eyes darted round, probing all corners of the cramped office. There was nowhere for a person to hide, unless they were small enough to fit into a cupboard. His eyes suddenly fell on the back door. It was never used, except to let some fresh air in when things got too stuffy. Pryce marched over, the sweat dripping into his eyes. He kicked the door open without halting his stride. He shoved his head out and looked both left and then right.
An empty Wotsits packet trembled in the slight breeze. But, other than that, the small alley between the cabin and the chain-link fence was empty.
He knew the door had been locked, he was always careful. Sure, the more incriminating documents were now tucked away inside a safety-deposit box, but it always paid to be extra secure. And as for the laptop, not only had it been in the drawer, but other than Pryce only one person knew his password. Well, two if you counted –
Thud, thud, thud.
Pryce froze. The room had suddenly turned cold. Not only that, he began to feel something prickling the back of his neck. A feeling of being watched. The sensation of having a pair of eyes boring into his skull. Dark, malevolent eyes. Pryce didn’t want to see who those eyes belonged to. It was hard enough controlling his bladder as it was. Perhaps, if he waited long enough, with his back to the figure, and with his eyes closed, whoever it was would simply go away.
No, a voice whispered in his ear. You’re never getting rid of him.
Pryce rocketed round, relief blooming. It was just Askell standing in the doorway and staring at the wreckage that remained of the office.
“Having a sort-out?” he asked.
“No, I am not having a sort-out!” Fairley barked, the anger only slightly masking his relief. “Someone broke into my office over lunch.”
“Eh?” Askell said. “We didn’t see any one about.”
“Well, someone has obviously been in here!”
“Sure it was someone and not . . . something?”
“It was not a ghost!”
“Who said anything about a ghost?” Askell asked innocently. “Might have been the wind.”
“What? The wind got my laptop out of my desk drawer and booted up Microsoft word?”
“There was a bit of a strong gust about half-hour –”
“What do you want, Askell?”
“Your wife’s here.”
“Oh, right. Her.” That’s right, Pryce remembered he had promised to give her a tour of the site. He didn’t know why, she’d never been interested in his work before. But it would be a good enough distraction, and maybe even clear his mind of superstition. But, after taking another look at the carnage that had been made of the cabin, he didn’t think it much likely.
Pryce cranked the shower up, only stopping when the deluge was a couple of degrees away from scalding. Standing there, with the water cascading down him, he tried to regain a grasp on common sense.
Obviously, during lunch someone – living, most definitely – had snuck onto the site and broken into his office. Somehow, they had found out about his . . . off-the-books dealings. That was it. It was nothing to do with Anthony. After all, that was an accident. So, whoever it was, they had to work on the development. If that was the case it wouldn’t take Pryce too long to discover them, and then he’d sort things out. He’d make that little shit pay.
The shrill jangling of the landline broke through Pryce’s angry mutterings. He let it continue for several rings, waiting for it to die. When it didn’t, he sighed. “Madeline!” he roared, shoving his head out of the shower. “Get the phone!”
The ringing went on. “Madeline!”
It soon became clear that no one was going to answer, and whoever was calling had no interest in hanging up. Well, perhaps swearing at a cold-caller would make him feel a little better. He clambered out, wrapped a towel around his dripping body, and then hurried down the stairs. Now that he had a litany of curses lined-up he didn’t want to miss the chance.
In the lounge, mid-ring, Pryce snatched up the receiver. “Hello?” he snapped. There was no response. “Hello?” He heard a creaking from overhead. So she was in, he thought bitterly. “Look,” he said. “I know you’re there, I can hear you breathing!”
There was a click and then a dead tone. “You bastard!” Pryce growled, slamming the phone down. He let loose a few more colourful words, then turned to head back upstairs. That’s when he noticed the key rack. His keys were there, but Madeline’s were noticeably missing. Strange, he thought. He could have sworn he heard –
There was another creak. This one came from the landing. He looked again at the key rack before hurrying towards the window. He stared out at the drive.
Her car was gone. His sweat began to mingle with the beads of water decorating his ample body. There was no doubt about it, he was alone in the house. But, if that was the case, then who was stepping on the dodgy floorboard upstairs?
Slowly, trying to keep his breath steady, Pryce climbed the stairs. The hall was empty. The door to his study was shut, as were both bedrooms. The only door open was the bathroom. Tightening the towel around his waist, he stepped in. The shower was still running, filling the room with steam. But, other than that, the room was empty.
Pryce nodded, smiling. “Just my imagination,” he murmured. He pulled the towel off, ready to climb back in, when something caught his eye and made him glance at the mirror. He gave a sudden yelp, slipped back and landed on the toilet with a painful thud. He could feel the seat crack beneath his sudden weight, but that was something to worry about later. Right now, he was focused on the words someone had written in the mirror’s condensation. The letters were dripping, but still eligible.
He placed a trembling hand on his sweaty chest. His diet was less than exemplary, and if he wasn’t careful he’d have a coronary attack at any moment. This was beyond the realms of ordinary blackmail. He was the only one in the house, and not even the most demented of freaks would break in just with the hope of writing a disturbing message on his bathroom mirror.
“You don’t scare me!” Pryce murmured, rising from the toilet seat with trembling knees. He took a swift look around the room, his eyes avoiding the message on the mirror, and stumbled out. He clambered down the stairs, glancing over his shoulder at every other step. He kept expecting to see a shadowy apparition above him.
When he reached the lounge, he slammed the connecting door shut and exhaled a small sigh. Ha, he thought. He’d like to see someone get at him now.
He then remembered that he was dealing with a ghost.
Pryce sprang away from the door with a yelp. At the moment it was free of spectres. His head snapped up as another creak sounded from above. “Like Hell I’m spending the rest of my days getting haunted!”
Squaring his jaw, and trying to ignore the tremble in his knees, Pryce stormed over to the phone. Ignoring the fact that his naked, glistening body was in full view of the window, he bent over and snatched up his wife’s little grey book of contacts. His eyes flickered between the ceiling and the pages he was rifling through. He stopped when he reached the S’s.
Sharon, Simone, Sandra, Sarah, Sarah-Louise, Sarah-Louise (The fat one) . . .There were several pages like this. But, finally, Pryce found the number he was looking for. There wasn’t a long wait before a heavy, Welsh voice answered the phone.
“H-Hello, I – I need to speak with Madam Shimmy,” Pryce said, stuttering as there was another, heavier creak, this time outside the door to his study.
The voice at the other end sighed wearily. “Vivian!” he called, his voice sounding more distant now. “You’ve got one of your nutters on the line – I told you not to call them that! – and I told you not let them call at this bloody hour! – Let me have the phone, Nigel – Hello?” This was the thick accented voice Pryce needed. “This is Madam Shimmy, how may I aid you?”
“Madam Shimmy? Thank God! This – this is Mr Fairley – Madeline Fairley’s husband.”
“Oh, Mr Fairley – erm, what can I do for you?”
“You have to help me!” Pryce whined, shuffling away from the door like it had suddenly grown teeth. “He’s after me! He’s actually after me!”
“Mr Fairley, it’s very late, and I’m not sure –”
“Anthony! My old business partner! Remember? You said he had a message for me, and now he’s haunting me!”
“Is he now? Right, um, well, Mr Fairley, I can understand why, in this scenario, you would think I would be able to help.”
“What do I do? How do I get rid of him?”
“Okay, Mr Fairley,” Shimmy said, her voice slow and calming. “What you need to do is – hello? Hello? Can you hear me?”
“Hello? Madam Shimmy?” A terror began to crawl up his spine.
“I – think there’s a bad line – I can’t hear you Mr –”
The line went dead. It had sounded as if Shimmy had hung up on him, but Pryce was certain that wasn’t the case. He knew who had gotten between them. His eyes drifted towards the door. The noises he could hear from the other side were unmistakable. Someone was coming down the stairs.
He didn’t even think, he simply span round and burst into the kitchen. He took a moment to thank his lucky stars that his wife hadn’t finished the washing, as he grabbed a pair of jeans and his sweat-stained shirt. Goosebumps danced along as his flesh as he threw the clothes on, mangling several of the buttons and very nearly catching himself in the fly of the jeans. By the back door was a pair of tatty loafers that were two sizes too small, but he stepped into them regardless of the pinch. Then, with a terrified glare at the living room door, Pryce bounded out of the house, down the garden, and out the gate that led to the back alley.
The man wandering down the high-street, flinching at every flashing street-lamp, was a dishevelled remnant of Pryce Fairley. His hair was sticking up at the back, and his nails were nibbled to shreds.
He’d been out for hours, wandering the streets, trying to escape. Occasionally someone would approach, willing to lend a hand to this obviously distressed man. But, when they got closer and saw the manic look in his eyes and the state of his clothes, they quickly swerved and kept walking, as if going around him had been their intention all along. He didn’t blame them, they couldn’t probably sense . . . him!
Oh, what a fool Pryce had been all these years. Scoffing at the idea of the paranormal, brushing off his wife’s fears as mere womanly delusions. Only now, as he was being hunted by a vengeful spirit, did he regret not paying attention.
“Church,” he muttered, his eyes swivelling madly, trying to catch a glimpse of the spectre he could feel nearby. “Must find a church! He won’t get me there!” The only problem was, Pryce had absolutely no idea where his local church was. And so, hoping to see a helpful sign, like a neon cross, a gaggle of choir singers, or even a mad old man ranting about the end-times, Pryce stumbled down the high-street.
He stepped into the road, oblivious to the oncoming car. It was only when the bellow of the horn rang out that Pryce became aware of the glaring headlights. He quickened his pace, only just stumbling onto the opposite curb. He took a step back and felt something brush against his back.
A scream leapt from his lips. He jolted forwards, nearly toppling back into the road. He twisted round, took a look and sighed. It was no more than a chain-link fence. His eyes then drifted up.
It was a sign!
Literally. It was the billboard he and Croones had spent hours arguing over, the one advertising their soon-to-be-opened block of luxury flats. So, he thought, you’ve led me back here, have you? It was only fitting, he supposed. Like the builders, he too had seen the films. If he was going to rid himself of this phantom, then this was the perfect place. He followed the fence around the corner, stopping when he reached the gates. One was standing open, invitingly. Pryce glanced around. The street was suddenly deserted. He looked back. Was it his imagination, or was the door standing just a little more open?
His fingers trembling, he pulled the gate the rest of the way. A creak from the hinges almost made him scream again. Instead, realising this was the only chance he had, Pryce squared his jaw and stepped into the site. Croones had once suggested they install lights on the site, Pryce had countered that this would cost too much. Now he was cursing his decision; he could practically hear Croones laughing as he tried to feel his way through the inky gloom.
He was a few feet inside the site, his eyes adjusting to the darkness, when he heard the shuffling. It was coming from behind him, approaching from the entrance gate. It was a slow, steady stride. Pryce fell still, his ears straining. Could he see him? Could ghosts see in the dark? He realised he didn’t want to find out the answer. He continued on, quickening his step.
The pace behind him also increased.
Cold lead began to course through Pryce’s veins as his walk turned into a brisk jog. He knew where he had to go, he knew where he’d confront him. All he had to do was –
He looked over his shoulder and this time did scream. His foot smacked against something hard. He tried to keep his balance, but he felt, with a sickening crunch, his ankle twist and he collapsed to the gravel. Pryce didn’t let the pain in his ankle stop him; he continued on, clawing his way forward on his hands and knees.
There was no mistaking what he had seen. The thin, crooked form was Croones all right. He was even wearing that stupid, pompous bowler hat he’d always worn when he was alive. Oh, how Pryce had been glad to see the back of that bloody hat. But now it was behind him, and if he wasn’t quick it would catch up with him.
Soon the feel of gravel under his hand became the smooth surface of freshly laid cement. He’d reached the building. With a grunt of pain Pryce pushed himself to his feet. He looked over his shoulder and saw Croones only six-feet behind him. One clawed hand was groping forward, the other was curled up, disappearing into the silhouette that was his current form. Christ, that’s how he fell, Pryce thought. His left arm crushed beneath his body, the other reaching out, hoping to be caught.
“Get away!” Pryce screeched. He limped on, reaching the blank grey stairs and mounting them without a pause for breath. And then there he was. Nothing had changed. It seemed that the fear of Croones return had kept the builders away from this floor. Only the addition of two slightly conspicuous traffic cones marked any difference from the last time Pryce had been up here.
He turned around just in time to see a crooked figure emerge from the dense recesses of the stairwell. The gloom was too thick for Pryce to make out Croones’ face, and for that he was grateful. It also sounded as if the apparition was trying to mumble something, but Pryce’s own pained wheezing, and the sound of blood pumping through his ears deafened him.
“Look, Croones – Tony, I’m sorry, okay?” Pryce babbled, backing away from the approaching mass. “I didn’t mean to embezzle all that money – well, I did, but I didn’t mean for you to find out!”
The figure paused.
“So . . . mate, surely, if I can forgive you for threatening to call the police,” Pryce said, “can’t you forgive me for pushing you to your death?”
A shaft of light erupted from Croones, swallowing Pryce. He threw his arms up defensively, his scream echoing through the night. He took another step back, the beam moved forward. He took one more step.
His foot landed on air.
It had always been an ambition of Pryce’s to appear in a newspaper headline. Though, of course, he hadn’t had: ‘Second Property Mogul Falls to Death’ in mind.
‘Pryce Lloyd Fairley, (49), was pronounced dead at the scene of his development site, having fallen from the third floor. An eyewitness, Rodney Gill, (22), the site’s night watchman, described Mr Fairley’s behaviour prior to falling as “erratic”, and “like he had a screw loose, or something.” Police are, at the moment, treating Mr Fairley’s death as suicide.
His Wife, Madeline Fiona Fairley, (47), described her husband as ‘philandering’, ‘obnoxious’ and several other choice adjectives that the editor of this paper has wisely decided to censor. When asked what might have driven her husband to take his own life, Mrs Fairley stated quite clearly: “It was the guilt, obviously.” She went on to explain Mr Fairley’s frequent infidelity. “He thought I didn’t know,” she explained. “But I did. I knew. I always knew.”