As they left the graveyard behind them, Laurence couldn't help feeling a certain tingle of excitement. He half hoped that the tour bus would be gone by the time they returned. For one thing, Ferryman-- or whatever his name was-- was beginning to disturb him.
But, more importantly, he liked the idea of being thrown into a common cause with Karla. And with Helen, too.
As he had sat in the train station café, mulling over his future, it had occurred to Laurence that he had no real friends. This came as something of a surprise. He wouldn't have said that he was unpopular. People laughed at his jokes-- more often than not, anyway-- and seemed inclined to enjoy his company while he was with them. He was invited to get-togethers regularly enough. The notebook in which he kept his list of telephone numbers-- he was rather proud of owning such a thing, in this era of mobile phones-- was quite full.
But as for blood brothers, or blood sisters, or bosom companions-- there were none. And when the darkness had descended, he had realised how alone he really was.
But now-- now, for a moment at least, he had comrades. And who knew what would come of it? Bizarre as the things he had seen this evening were-- the sudden storm, the hooded figure, the weird grave-- they made him feel strangely exhilarated, as well as disturbed. The world seemed full of possibilities, both dark and beckoning.
He wished he had been the first to respond to the scream, rather than the last. But now he had caught up with the two ladies, who were jogging more slowly along the country road. Screened as it was by trees on either side, it was impossible to see anything in the middle distance-- only a flickering of city lights in the distance.
The screaming would stop intermittently, and then begin again after a few moments. It was less intense each time.
"It's coming from this direction", said Helen, pointing diagonally from the direction of the road. "We're probably moving away from it. I hope this road branches off somewhere."
"Bloody phone still not working," said Karla, trying her own. "Yours?"
"Nothing", said Helen, after a few moments. "It's really weird."
"We just have to press on," said Laurence, taking the lead, still embarrassed at his previous shilly-shallying. "Come on!"
He couldn't help feeling a certain satisfaction in the fact that Karla and Helen seemed fagged out, while he had plenty of steam left. The only exercise he ever took were long walks, but he took a lot of them. Restlessness was a hound that had stalked him from his early teens.
Nevertheless, ten minutes later, even he was getting tired-- and Karla and Helen had fallen far behind. The lady had stopped screaming some time ago.
Then, around a bend in the road, the monotony of the long country road was suddenly broken. There was a row of three shops-- a dry-cleaners, a newsagent's, and a betting shop. They were all closed and shuttered.
There was also a long, illuminated billboard. Laurence recognised it instantly. It was an advertisement for the movie version of Lord of the Rings-- In Cinemas December 2015 read the caption at the bottom.
He halted to examine it. The artwork, the lettering of the title, and most of the advertisement's features were instantly recognisable. But there was one startling difference. The image on the billboard showed Gandalf, in near-darkness, using the point of his staff as a torch. But it was not Gandalf played by Ian McKellen. It was quite clearly the features of Patrick Stewart lit up by the eerie blue-white glow.
Baffled, Laurence stood there staring, only half-aware of Karla and Helen's panting in the near-distance, drawing closer.
His first thought was that it was a theatrical version. But now-- it quite clearly said in cinemas. Could it possibly be a remake? After one decade? For a movie so vastly expensive and elaborate? And how could he have not have heard any whisper of such a thing?
Once again, the notion that he had actually gone ahead with his suicide, that this whole evening's events were simply the hallucination of a dying brain, came into his mind.
Or perhaps-- perhaps he had gone ahead with his suicide, and this was what was waiting for him on the other side, a punishment for taking his own life?
"Or maybe it's just some kind of joke, Laurence", he muttered to himself, as Karla and Helen finally caught up with him. They were too exhausted to take any interest in the billboard-- both of them instinctively crouched forward, hands on their thighs, breathing in deep lungfuls of air. In all this time, no car had passed them.
"OK", said Karla, after a surprisingly short interval, "Come on!"
She seemed to have caught her second breath. She was ten yards away before Laurence had started to jog after her, still wondering about Patrick Stewart.
This time they didn't have long to run. Quite suddenly, there was a dip in the road, and the lights of a building were visible in the middle distance. A minute later, they could see that it was a pub-- a rather large pub, with quite a few cars parked outside.
"Oh you sweet little thing!" shouted Karla.
Both of them slowed and then came to a halt, almost automatically, seeing that they had so little distance left to cover. Helen was nowhere to be seen.
"I'm going to contact the police about that bastard in the mask" said Karla, viciously. "What a bastard!"
"I saw something weird back there" said Laurence. "It was--"
"Never mind that," Karla said, breaking into a run again. "Come on!"
It was all downhill. A few more moments told them that the pub was called Casey's; and a minute or two later stepped inside.
It was bright and spacious, though its space was divided by low walls and frosted-glass panels. It had comfortable-looking upholstered couches rather than the stools and wooden chairs that were usual in country pubs. An open fire smouldered a few feet away from them. There were two people standing at the bar-- a bald man in a pink shirt, and a girl who looked like a college student. They looked up as Laurence and the women entered. There were a handful of customers here and there-- none of them turned to look at the new arrivals.
"Are you OK?" asked the barman, in a Dublin accent. He had kind, concerned eyes, and he had noticed their air of agitation.
"We're fine" said Karla, quickly. "We heard a woman screaming, not far from here. Screaming like she was being--- well, like something awful was happening."
"We heard that too" said the man. "At least, Shauna was outside having a smoke and she heard it. We phoned the guards. They said they'd look into it right away."
"But I didn't hear a siren," said Karla.
The barman shrugged. "They hardly need one around here, do they?" he asked.
"And maybe they didn't want to scare anyone away" said the girl behind the bar. She was pretty, with black hair and pale skin, but excessively thin.
For a few moments there was silence, Karla and Laurence panting and leaning against the bar, their heads bowed.
"What happened?" asked Karla.
The barman looked surprised. "How would I know?"
"Well, can't you find it? Can't you at least ask?"
The barman nodded, and took his phone from his pocket. Laurence was surprised both by its size and its shininess; it was a rather lurid purple.
Laurence looked at Karla. The anxiety written on her face made him feel rather guilty. He was not taking this situation nearly as much to heart as she was.
"Frank?" asked the barman, in a rather embarrassed voice. "I have a couple of customers here who heard the screams earlier....I hope you don't mind me asking but could you tell me...."
He fell silent for a few moments as the faceless voice on the phone buzzed; then, suddenly, he smiled and said: "Seriously? I've heard it all now. OK, Frank. Thanks a million. Talk to you again."
Putting his phone away into his pocket, still smiling, he looked up at Karla and Laurence and said: "You'll never guess what it was all about."
Neither Karla nor Laurence spoke, so he continued: "A nightmare. A nightmare! Mrs. Hanratty down the road having a nightmare!"
By now some of the other customers were watching the conversation, and there was a ripple of laughter across the pub. Somebody even clapped.
"I find that hard to believe" said Karla.
"Me too" said the barman, with obvious sincerity. "But there you go!"
"Well, how do we know she isn't lying? Maybe she's being pressured to keep quiet?"
"I don't know. Her husband."
"Mrs. Hanratty is a widow. She lives on her own."
There was a television screen behind the bar, with the sound turned down so low it was barely audible. Laurence happened to glance at it at that very moment. A video of Osama Bin Laden, addressing the viewer in grainy footage, with an AK-47 propped behind him, occupied the screen.
The caption read: "New Footage Suspected Genuine."
Laurence pointed at the screen, and Karla's gaze followed her finger. Her eyes widened.
"That's nuts", she said. "Is this the National Enquirer channel or something?"
The barman looked over his shoulder. "Looks like him to me", he said, shrugging.
"It looks like him?" asked Karla. "If that's him, who did the Americans shoot?"
"Now you sound like the one reading the National Enquirer", said the barman, grinning. "What conspiracy theory is this? What are you talking about?"
Karla looked at the barman, and then at Laurence, and then at the screen, her mouth open. She looked very frightened.
At that moment, Helen appeared behind them. She was out of breath, red-cheeked, and agitated-looking.
"He wasn't lying" she said. "He really did it."
"Who?" asked Laurence.
"Ferryman. Or whatever his name might be. As I was walking up here the bus passed me and drove away."
"It did?" asked Karla, now beginning to sound panicked.
"He saw me, too" said Helen. "He slowed down, slid down the window, and said: Don't forget your Monstrous Mystery Tour card for literally thousands of concessions. Exactly those words. Then he just smiled at me, and the bus drove away."