Authors: Amy Cross
by Amy Cross
Copyright Amy Cross
All Rights Reserved
Published by Dark Season Books
First published: August 2013
This edition: July 2014
With thanks to Linda Hare
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment. If you enjoy it and wish to share it with others, please consider buying them their own copy. Feedback is always welcome. The author reserves all rights in respect of this work.
ALSO BY AMY CROSS
The Night Girl
The House We Haunted
The Devil's Photographer
Darper Danver series 1
Fantasy / Horror
Dark Season series 1, 2 & 3
The Hollow Church (Abby Hart 1)
Vampire Asylum (Abby Hart 2)
Lupine Howl series 1, 2, 3 & 4
The Ghosts of London
The Library (The Library 1)
Journey to the Library (The Library 2)
The Vampire's Grave
The Werewolf's Curse
The Girl Who Never Came Back
The Dead and the Dying (Joanna Mason 1)
The House of Broken Bodies (Joanna Mason 2)
Other People's Bodies
Finality series 1
Mass Extinction Event series 1, 2 & 3
Woken by the sound of someone banging on the door, Walter Simpkin slips into his wife's dressing gown and makes his way slowly down the creaking stairs. Carrying his hulking girth slowly, he has to stop halfway to the door so that he can catch his breath; Simpkin was a big man once, and tough, but old age hasn't been kind to him and now the extra weight is dragging him down. After glancing at the clock and noting that midnight came and went several hours ago, he finally reaches the door and looks out through the small glass panel. He can see a human shape standing outside in the driving rain, but Simpkin's too cautious a man to just throw his door open to anyone who happens to come along, particularly at such a queer hour, particularly in such a queer town, and particularly given recent events.
"Who's there?" he shouts, deliberately lowering his voice an octave in an attempt to sound more menacing.
"It's me!" shouts the visitor. "Stop messing about and let me in!"
Sighing, Simpkin unbolts the door and pulls it open. His visitor, soaked from head to toe, immediately steps inside and stands dripping on the mat, rainwater glistening on his large black cloak.
"Do you have any idea what time it is?" Simpkin asks, pushing the door shut. Until two years ago, Simpkin was the town's undertaker; he retired precisely because he no longer wanted to be woken at ungodly hours.
have any idea how long I've been standing out there?" Mayor Guff Winters replies. "I've been banging for half an hour!"
"And I've been ignoring you for half an hour," Simpkin replies, grabbing an old newspaper from the side and starting to spread the pages out across the floor, creating a narrow path to the kitchen. "Or trying to, anyway. I'm on new pills. Take your shoes off and come through. Try not to get mud everywhere. Maud hates having to clean first thing in the morning."
"I'm not stopping," Mayor Winters replies. "I just came to let you know that I need an advertisement in the paper this morning."
morning?" Simpkin stares at him. "Impossible. I've already printed the damn thing. You'll have to wait 'til next Thursday."
"I can't wait 'til Thursday. I need a new man for the cemetery immediately."
"A new man for the..." Simpkin sighs. "Oh, not again. Are you serious? How many is that already this year? Four? Five?"
"Five," Mayor Winters replies uneasily. "Five unsuitable, cowardly, weak-backed, weak-willed dilettantes who wouldn't know an honest day's work if it came up and slapped them in the face. I really thought Faraday was the one. You saw the man: big, broad shoulders, and a face that terrified children. He'd done a spell in Wandsworth prison, you know; the old fool should have been able to handle anything."
"Quit, did he?"
"No," Mayor Winters says darkly. "Not exactly." Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a human jawbone.
"Oh." Simpkin pauses. "The angels again?"
"The angels," Mayor Winters replies. "I swear, every time I think they're under control..."
The two men stand in silence for a moment, reflecting upon the dark nature of their business.
"I'm sure you can appreciate my problem," Mayor Winters says eventually, setting the jawbone on a nearby chair. "I'm afraid it was a rather nasty mess, but such things aside,
has to take the job. People aren't going to stop dying around here just because we've got no-one to run the cemetery, and there's all that business in the catacombs to take care of. The job can't be left open for too long."
"Of course not.” Simpkin pauses for a moment, lost in thought.
"What is it?" Mayor Winters asks eventually. "What are you thinking?
are you thinking? Just go and get your notepad so I can dictate the wording of the advertisement."
"I suppose," Simpkin replies, briefly turning to go through to his office, before pausing and glancing back at his visitor. "Well, I was just... It's nothing much, really, but... Well, you haven't exactly had much luck finding someone permanent, have you? All these advertisements, all these candidates, all these failures."
"You're very observant," Mayor Winters says dourly.
"And at the end of the day, the stress of finding someone to run the cemetery permanently is clearly getting to you." He pauses for a moment. "I can hear your heart beating from here, Guff."
"It's a hard walk up that hill.”
"You look puffy," Simpkin adds. "There are bags around your eyes, your skin's pale, and you stink of sweat."
"And maybe you should try something different. Cast your net further afield, so to speak. Let's be honest, Guff. Everyone in Rippon has a vague idea about the job, and what it entails, and what usually ends up happening, which is why only idiots and fools apply. You keep this up, you'll never find the right kind of person. Unless you're gonna start conscripting people, you need a different approach."
"And what kind of approach would that be
?" Mayor Winters asks.
Simpkin pauses for a moment. "You tried the internet?"
Mayor Winters stares at him. "The internet?"
Simpkin nods. "If you put an ad or two on the internet, maybe you'll find someone from further afield. I used the internet once, to sell my bike to a man in Rochdale. Worked a treat. I know it's a risk, but you never know how it might turn out. Get someone from one of the cities. Manchester, maybe, or Newcastle. Even London. Point is, someone with a different kind of constitution. Someone tough. Someone who isn't gonna crack at the first sign of pressure. Someone who's lived a less sheltered life and who, accordingly, might be better equipped to deal with the... delicacies... of the cemetery. Someone who, frankly, will make Faraday seem like a fairy princess. Someone who'll last more than a month."
Mayor Winters stares at him for a moment. "You might have a point," he admits grudgingly.
"Now here's the idea," Simpkin continues, leaning on the bannister. "That twenty quid you were gonna give me to run an ad in the paper?" He shakes his head. "Save it. Instead, give me
quid and I'll organize an ad on some websites. Utilize some social networking, viral trends, hashtags, that kind of thing. I've been reading about hashtags. People use 'em to find things, so why don't we use 'em to find someone to take over the cemetery? Someone who can do the job for more than a month without quitting or dying, at least."
Reaching into his pocket, Mayor Winters pulls out three fresh, crisp banknotes and hands them to Simpkin. "Make it a good advertisement," he says. "For this kind of money, I want results. You know what the cemetery's like. It's not for everyone, so I need a real man. Someone with the balls and the guts to take that place by the scruff of the neck and wrestle it into submission. Literally, in some respects. Someone who's not going to turn and run at the first sight of something... unpleasant."
"Leave it with me," Simpkin replies, carefully folding the cash and slipping it into his wife's dressing gown pocket. "I'll find the man you need, even if I have to search the whole world in the process. And that's the beauty of the internet: I
search the whole world. Even if there's only one man on Earth who can do the job, I'll find him."
"I'm counting on you," Mayor Winters says, as Simpkin lumbers past him and opens the front door, at which point a howling, icy wind almost blows both men off their feet.
"Nice night," Simpkin mutters.
"We can't keep hiring someone new every month!" Mayor Winters replies as he heads back outside. "It's giving me indigestion! This has been going on for long enough. If you don't find me someone who can stick it out for at least a year, Simpkin, I'll be having that thirty quid back off you! I'm sick of this business!"
"No need to worry," Simpkin replies, pushing the door shut. Turning and shuffling back over to the foot of the stairs, he sighs to himself. "I'll find the right man for you, you skinflint old bastard. I'll find the toughest son of a bitch who ever walked the land."
Glancing over at the chair by the kitchen door, he sees Faraday's jawbone picked out by the moonlight; after a brief shiver passes up his spine, Simpkin turns and starts the long, slow job of going back up to bed. He can feel his tired old bones grinding together, sending sharp jabs of pain shooting through his body. Stopping halfway up the stairs, however, he turns and looks back over at the door; slowly, he makes his way back down to the hallway and back to the door, giving the handle a quick tug just to make doubly sure that it's locked. If the angels are hungry again, he figures, it's probably best not to take any chances.
Just to be safe on the safe side.
On a lonely, barren country road in the middle of nowhere, a rickety old bus grinds to a creaking halt and sits in silence. Moments later, a figure appears on the horizon, running as fast as it can despite the huge backpack strapped to its shoulders. By the time the figure reaches the bus, it - or rather, she - has to hold onto the side for a moment to catch her breath, before stumbling to the open door.
"I almost didn't stop," says the bus driver.
The girl, panting like a dog, nods her appreciation, while bent double thanks to a nasty case of cramp.
"Are you getting on or not?" the driver continues dourly, checking his watch.
The girl steps up onto the bus, briefly getting her backpack caught in the door and having to wriggle her way through.
"Where you going?" the driver asks.
"Rippon," the girl manages to say eventually, still a little out of breath. "I'm going to Rippon. Are
going to Rippon? Please say you are!"
The bus driver stares at her. "Where?"
"Rippon," the girl says with a sigh. "Or as close as you can get me."
Sniffing, the bus driver grabs an old, beaten-up map and flicks through the pages until finally he reaches a double-spread of the local area. "Oh," he says finally, "well, I'm not going
Rippon, but I'm going close by. Maybe half a mile."
"That'll do," the girl says gladly, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a handful of coins. "How much?"
"Single or return?"
The girl pauses for a moment. "Single. I guess."
Punching some numbers into his ticket machine, the driver waits for the screen to update. "Five pounds and fifty pence," he says skeptically, peering at the paltry collection of coins in the girl's outstretched hand.
"Right," the girl says, starting to count out her money. Her hands are shaking slightly, and she's still breathing heavily thanks to having to run for half a mile to catch up to the bus. "Twenty," she says, placing each coin on the counter one by one, "thirty, eighty, one pound, one pound ten..."
"You haven't got it, have you?" the bus driver says with a sigh.
"Maybe," the girl says. "Hold on. One twenty, one thirty, one fifty..."
"You haven't got it," the bus driver replies. "You've got about two quid, some fluff, and a mint."
"Huh," the girl says, stopping to stare at the coins. "You're right. I think I'm about two pounds short." Glancing along the interior of the bus, she sees nothing but empty seats. "Here's the thing," she says after a moment, turning back to the bus driver. "I've already walked three hours from the train station. My feet are killing me.
killing me. I thought I could walk the whole eleven miles to Rippon, but I'm starting to flag. If there's
way you can bring yourself to let me come on your bus without the whole fare -"
The bus driver shakes his head.
"I understand why this is difficult," the girl continues, "but as one human being to another, is there no way we can just come to some kind of understanding? Look -" She reaches down and carefully, tentatively removes one of her shoes; there's a slight ripping sound as part of a blister, stuck to the fabric, is peeled away. "Look at this," she says, placing the shoe on the dashboard. "There's blood in there. That's how far I've walked. I'm worried I'll get an infection if I have to walk the rest of the way. I might die!"
"Should've thought of that before you set off, shouldn't you?" the driver replies.
"Yes," the girl says. "Yes, I should. You're absolutely correct. I
have thought of that before I set off, and I will never,
make such a stupid mistake again. But in order to prove that I've learned my lesson, I first need to survive this trip, so if you can find it in your heart to just let me on the bus, I swear I'll grow from this experience." She takes a deep breath, waiting for a response. "I'll become a better person."
The driver stares at her for a moment, his expression almost completely blank. After a moment, he punches some more numbers into the ticket machine. "Single to Rippon's five pounds fifty," he says eventually. "There's no getting around it. The machine doesn't lie."
"But if you -"
"Yeah, but -"
"Five," he says firmly, raising his voice a little, “fifty."
"Okay," the girl says, counting out some more coins. "Here. I can give you three pounds and about eight pence. Can you take me..." She pauses for a moment, her lips moving as she does the arithmetic in her head. "Can you take me 70% of the way to Rippon?"
The bus driver sighs again. "Article thirty-five of the transport regulations specifically prohibits the breaking down of statutory fares into smaller, discretionary units. The routes of all commercial vehicles are in fact mandated to be broken down into specific divisions that cannot be redrawn to suit the particular needs of customers who wish to create fractional fares, and no driver shall offer to split a fare in any such way as to reduce the revenue delivered to the company." He pauses for a moment. "That's a direct quote."
"So can I get a ride?"
"For all I can tell," he continues, "you might be a company revenue protection officer, sent to test me and make sure I don't break the rules."
"I'm not a company revenue protection officer," the girl replies. "I'm a -"
"That's just what you'd say," the driver adds, "if you
a company revenue protection officer. They're sneaky. They don't go around advertising themselves. They try to disguise themselves so no-one'll recognize them." He pauses for a moment. "Thinking about it, you look so unlike any company revenue protection officer I've ever seen, I'm pretty convinced you
be one. Disguised as a young female backpacker from Yorkshire."
"Please," the girl says, reaching into her shoe and wiping some blood from the inside. "Look at this. It's
feet. I'm only going to Rippon because I've been offered a job, and once I'm there I'll need to be able to walk around 'cause, well, it's quite a physical job. I'm sorry I don't have the full fare, but isn't there any way you could bend the rules for me?"
She waits for the driver to say something.
He stares at her.
"What if I get attacked?" she asks. "How would you feel if you got home tonight, turned on the news, and saw that I'd been murdered out here, or that some kind of escaped big cat had got at me? Could you live with my death on your conscience for the rest of your life?"
"Thanks to you," the driver says, checking his watch, "I'm now three minutes behind schedule. Can you live with
on your conscience?”
"Fine," the girl says angrily, stepping back off the bus. "If you can honestly leave a teenage girl on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, carrying a heavy backpack, with blistered feet, under a leaden sky, six miles from her destination on a day when rain is forecast that could even turn into sleet, in a country where escaped big cats from circuses and private zoos are not as uncommon as you'd think, at a time when crime levels in general across the whole world are going up, and with no means of defending herself other than her wits and half an umbrella, then go ahead. Leave me here. Take your cold, unbending heart and drive off into the sunset. Just promise me one thing. In about five minutes, when you've covered the distance that it's gonna take me hours and hours to walk on broken, bloody feet, promise you'll spare a thought for me back here, trudging along. And if, some day in the future, you're driving along this route and you happen to spot some bleached bones by the side of the road, picked clean by the carrion crow, then don't stop to mark my passing. Just drive along and forget you ever met me."
The bus driver stares at her for a moment, almost as if he's teasing her with the faintest possibility that he might be persuaded to let her on-board.
"Have a nice day," he says suddenly, closing the doors and accelerating away along the road.
The girl stands and watches as the bus makes its way to the horizon, bouncing over a pothole before it eventually dips out of view. At that exact moment, a few drops of rain start to fall.
"Hey," the girl says quietly to herself, looking down at her bare right foot. "Hey!" she shouts suddenly, starting to run after the bus. "Hey! Stop! You've still got my shoe!"