There were only two other people on the bus.
It was a fairly typical bus, aside from its horror props. There were perhaps forty seats, which were well upholstered and cushioned. (They were all coloured red with a pattern of little black bats worked into them.) The curtains on the windows were designed to look like cobwebs. An eerie green light shone on the ceiling. It was a little bit roomier than most buses Laurence had been in—and he had been in a lot of buses in his time.
A door separated the driver’s section of the bus from the rest of it. The wall dividing the two sections was covered with a montage of horror images—skinny hands extending from open graves, full moons, Grim Reapers—against a dark blue background.
The other two passengers were sitting near the front of the bus, not beside each other but in consecutive rows.
One caught Laurence’s eye immediately. She was an attractive young woman, of a similar age to himself. She had shoulder-length black hair, a red t-shirt with a picture of Snoopy on it, and jeans. She was, as he thought appreciatively, nice and curvy. She had a bit of acne around her chin, which didn’t make her any less cute in Laurence’s eyes.
The other passenger was another woman, who might have been in her fifties or perhaps her early sixties. She was wearing a dark brown dress and a black cardigan. She had a thin, sharp face. Her hair was grey-blonde and short. She looked to Laurence like she might be a university professor, or perhaps a retired university professor.
Both of them smiled politely as Laurence sat down, opposite the cute girl. “Hi” he said to both of them. “Are you both free vouchers too?”
The cute girl nodded, and the older lady said: “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” Skull-face had disappeared into the driver’s section, closing the door behind him.
“My name is Laurence.”
“Karla” said the cute girl, in an impeccably Dublin accent. “And no, I’m not Swedish, or Scandinavian. My parents just liked the name.”
“Helen” said the older lady.
“Doesn’t seem to be very many people taking advantage of the offer”, said Laurence, looking at all the empty seats.
“Uh-uh”, said Karla.
“Well, I got on first” said Helen. “And that was on the other side of the city. He’s only stopped for both of you.” Her voice only made her seem more like a university professor; it was, as people said, an ‘educated’ voice.
“That’s a bit odd” said Laurence. “I wonder why?”
“My guess”, said Helen, “is that this is a trial run and he only wants a small audience. If he mucks it up and he has a big audience…”
“Right” said Karla, nodding. “Right.”
“Unless there are more to come” said Laurence, but at that moment the door of the driver’s section opened.
Skull Face stepped out, and clapped his hands together enthusiastically. The clap was surprisingly loud, like a boxing glove hitting a punch bag. He clicked the door closed behind him. He had to crouch a little inside the bus.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome!” he cried, extending his arms as far as the bus would allow him. “Welcome to the fright of your lives!”
“Only three of us?” asked Helen.
Skull Face shrugged. “We are most discerning about our customers”, he said. “Also, this is the first try-out of our Dublin tour, so we are happy to invite only a very select audience.” Helen nodded, looking satisfied that she had guessed right.
“How long does it last?” asked Karla.
“As to that, young lady” said Skull Face, leaning towards her a little, his voice dropping, “there is no easy answer. Time is so mysterious.”
“Well, I need to catch the last bus tonight, unless you’re going to drive me all the way home to Fairview” she said, with a little smile.
Skull Face laughed. It was a deep, good-humoured laugh. “Well, in non-subjective terms”, he said, “you should be back in Dublin city centre by six p.m. Last stop O’Connell Street.”
Laurence had no objection to sitting opposite Karla for a little over six hours. And maybe their acquaintance would not end there, either.
“What I don’t understand” said Helen, “is how you can have a regular mystery tour. Surely a mystery tour is a once off?”
Skull Face smiled. He had, appropriately enough, a bonily handsome kind of face—large, like the rest of him, and with a powerful nose, cheekbones and chin. He reminded Laurence of King Henry VIIII.
“Well, that is part of the mystery” he said, with a playful smile. “Now, before we start, may I ask a few questions?”
“Shoot” said Karla.
“Is there anybody here with a history of heart problems?”
There was no response, and Skull Face nodded briskly. “Very good. Is there anybody here with orthodox religious beliefs of any kind?” He was still smiling rather playfully, but the question seemed serious.
This time there was a longer silence, and Helen said: “I’m not sure you’re even allowed to ask that.”
Skull Face laughed, with amusement that was obviously genuine. It struck Laurence that he still hadn’t told them his name yet.
“No? Well, that is something we’ll have to look into for future tours, then.”
“Not that I mind answering”, said Helen. “For me, it’s a simple 'no'. I was raised a Quaker, but I don’t have any beliefs.”
“No beliefs at all?” asked Skull Face, raising an eyebrow.
“Not religiously speaking” said Helen. “No.”
Skull Face turned to Laurence. “How about you, sir?”
Laurence shrugged. “I’m on the same page”, he said. “Put me down as an agnostic, I guess.”
“What’s the point of this question?”, blurted out Karla, sounding less than happy.
Skull Face turned to her and examined her expression in silence for a few moments. Finally he replied: “It’s a matter of tailoring the experience. There are some things I wouldn’t try with a true believer.”
Laurence wondered if the others found that statement as perplexing as he did.
“Well, I’m not telling you something so personal” said Karla, with a small frown. “It’s nobody’s business but mine.”
“Madam”, said Skull Face—and this time the formality did not sound cheesy or theatrical, but sincere--- “let me apologize. To offend you was the furthest thing from my mind.”
“I’m not offended one little bit.” She smiled. Boy, she had a sweet smile. “I’m just not telling you, that’s all.”
“So be it”, said Skull Face. “So be it. We will work our way round it, I suppose. That only leaves the matter of your cards.” He reached into the folds of his cloak, and distributed three plastic cards to Karla, Laurence and Helen.
The first thing that struck Laurence about the card was how cold it felt to the touch. Hard and cold. So much so that he thought it might be metal, but its flexibility was more like plastic.
The second thing that struck him about the card was its appearance. It was basically silver, but the entire card had the iridescence of a holographic strip. It shimmered different colours as it moved, and different images appeared—now it showed a skeleton, now a crescent moon, now a curved dagger.
Written across the front of the card, in silvery script, was his name: “Laurence Mortimer Cahill”. Skull-Face had asked him to fill out a basic registration card before he had come aboard. There was no other text.
“Some kind of…loyalty card?” asked Helen.
“That, and more” said Skull Face. “When you take a Monstrous Mystery Tour you don’t just become a customer. You become…part of the family, I suppose. Treasure these cards like you treasure your lives.”
The phrase, hammily delivered as it was, seemed grimly ironic to Laurence, considering the decision he had reached earlier that day.
“What can we get for them?” asked Karla, with a hint for avidity.
“Everything short of salvation” said Skull Face.
Karla gave him a sharp look. “What, though?”
Skull Face raised a hand in the air, airily. “All sorts of things. Free admission to over a hundred establishments. Concessions. Food and drink. Most importantly, an ongoing relationship with Monstrous Mystery Tours.”
“Well, do you have a list?” asked Karla, a little bit suspiciously. She seemed a lot more inclined than Helen to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Not a full one”, said Skull Face. “We can speak again about this at the end of the tour.”
“So we can’t use them during it?”
“Believe me, Madam”, said Skull Face, whose good humour did not seem in the least bit dented by Karla’s pushiness, “all your needs will be catered for throughout the tour. Including your deepest need, which is the need for awe and wonder and dread.”
“Good” said Karla, evenly.
Laurence noticed that the homeless lady to whom he’d given two hundred euros (what was he thinking?) was standing outside the tour bus, staring into the very window opposite him. He thought she was staring at him until he remembered that the glasses were dark from the outside. Even from inside, they had a greeny tinge. She wore a look of deep confusion.
“Well, in that case, we are ready to begin”, said Skull Face. “Prepare for the tour of a thousand lifetimes.” He clapped his hands again, to similarly resounding effect, and disappeared into the driver’s cabin.
As soon as the door to the cabin had closed, the wheels began to move.
“Well, you know how to speak your mind”, Laurence said to Karla, giving her a smile which he intended to be flirtatious.
In return, she gave him a quick frown utterly devoid of flirtatiousness. “Yes, I do” she said. “Don’t you?”
“No” said Laurence. “It’s not something I was ever especially good at.”
“More fool you”, she said. Unexpectedly, she did flash him a smile now—although it still didn’t seem in the least bit flirtatious.
At that moment—more suddenly then Laurence would have thought possible—the wind began to howl.
“Holy cow” said Helen. “Sound effects and all.”
“That came out of nowhere” said Karla.
They were moving through the city quays, where shops began to be replaced by pubs and business offices. Laurence saw a mother wrap her arm around her little daughter’s shoulders as the wind buffeted them both, even pushing them backwards a few steps.
A few moments later, rain and hail began to pelt against the windows, and against the side and roof of the bus. It was a non-stop barrage, and its thud-thud-thud filled the inside of the bus.
“Holy cow” Helen repeated. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
Rain was streaming down the windows in such quantities now that it was impossible to make out anything beyond them except patches and light and darkness. Laurence also noticed that the evening seemed to have grown significantly darker in a matter of seconds.
The intercom crackled and Skull Face’s voice filled the air. “Just the right weather for the scariest day of your lives”, he said.