It's been a while since I wrote any of Mystery Tour, the horror novel I started serializing last year. Dipping back into it now. Chapter one can be found here, chapter two here, and chapter three here.
The story so far: Laurence is a twenty-something fellow who has lost his job as a teacher and broken up from his girlfriend. He doesn't take this well and decides to jump off a bridge. But just as he's about to do so, a horror-themed mystery tour bus turns up and offers him a free ride. Bad idea, right? Well, he doesn't know he's in a horror novel. He postpones his suicide indefinitely and gets on the bus. The tour-guide is an overbearing fellow in a skull mask called Ferryman (or so he claims). The only other passengers are a middle-aged lady called Helen and a young lady called Karla-- Irish despite the name-- who Laurence thinks is very yummy-looking. The tour-bus runs into a sudden storm which makes it impossible to see outside-- uh, oh!-- though at one point Laurence is sure he sees the sky turn green and a hooded figure walking towards him. Now the bus has stopped at the tour's first sight-- an old cemetery beside an abandoned church-- but just as they are about to enter, they hear a woman's scream in the distance...
Mystery Tour: Chapter Four
Laurence had never heard a scream like it. It seemed to come from the very border of sanity and insanity. He'd never heard anyone scream like this in real life, only footage of disasters and terrorists outrages on TV. It had an awful wrongness about it.
"What the hell?" asked Karl, looking towards Ferryman. "Please tell me that's part of the tour."
Laurence had suspected this might be the case when he looked at the tour guide, as he was the only one of the four who seemed-- from his posture, since his face couldn't be seen-- entirely relaxed. The others had stiffened like frightened cats. But he said, "Nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with us."
Karla looked at him suspiciously, then said: "Well, if it's really nothing to do with the tour, we can't just ignore it. That woman was in trouble."
"I repeat" said Ferryman-- slowly, but without any hint of irritation-- "it has nothing to do with us."
"It is something to do with the tour, isn't it?" asked Karla. But her face was still frightened.
"Nope", said the tall tour guide, turning back towards the churchyard gate. "But I wouldn't worry about it. I think I know who it is and I can tell you she's very exciteable."
"You know this area that well?"
"I am the proverbial much-travelled man", said Ferryman, stepping through the gateway of the churchyard. There was no gate, but nettles and brambles swarmed in the opening. "Now follow me. Our business is with the dead, not the living."
Laurence and the two women stood outside, looking at each other. "It's all part of the show, isn't it?" asked Karla, with no assurance in her voice.
"Probably" said Laurence. "I don't think he'd really..."
As Laurence and Karla stood there, hesitating, Helen walked towards the gate and began to push through the growth. A moment later, they followed her. It was almost entirely dark now; the beam of Ferryman's torch glowed vivdly ahead.
He had already gone a surprising distance away from them, and he was still moving purposefully. They followed him without hurry, as the ground was uneven and the gravestones were clumped closely and irregularly together. Helen had taken Laurence's arm, but Karla-- much to his disappointment-- had not.
Eventually, they came to where Ferryman was standing, now waiting and looking towards them. The glow of his own torch made his skull-face mask shine creepily.
His hand was extended towards a low-gravestone, and the beam of the torch was shining directly upon it. When they were close enough to make out the inscription, Laurence saw that it marked the grave of one Nellie Robertson, born 1833, died 1854. There was no other information or decoration.
And yet the headstone was far from ordinary. Uniquely amongst the nearby stones, it was surrounded by flowers-- or perhaps weeds. Both the darkness of the evening and the glare of the torch made it difficult to tell, and Laurence had never been much of a botanist anyway. He could recognise a rose and a dandelion, but that was about it. But these flowers or weeds did give off a sweet, rather musky scent.
As well as this, there were three small birds on the top of the stone, warbling lustily. They seemed to be the only birds in the graveyard.
"Who is Nellie Robertson, then?" asked Karla.
Ferryman smiled. He waited so long to reply that Laurence expected Karla to impatiently butt in. But then he said: "It's a pretty story. She's a martyr to virginity."
"How so?" asked Helen.
"She worked as a maid in Campion House, yonder", said Ferryman-- and was he gesturing towards the source of the scream? "One day the eldest son of Lord Campion, maddened by her beauty, sought to press his attentions upon her-- to ravish her, in plain language. She fled from him, and he chased her onto a balcony. The fair but virtuous maiden leapt over, perhaps hoping to grab hold of one of the braches of a nearby tree, but plunged to her death."
There was silence for a few moments, filled with the singing of the birds. Then Karla said: "Yeah, right"
"You doubt the veracity of the story?" asked Ferryman, in an ironic purr.
"You bet I do", said Karla. Her voice echoed in the empty graveyard.
"Well, you would be correct" said Ferryman, laughing. "The real story is rather less elevating. Nellie Robertson was a serving maid who stuck a knife into the heart of her employer, Lord Campion, and was hanged for it."
The silence seemed to grow deeper.
"He probably deserved it", said Karla.
"Not by all reports he was a model employer. A philanthropist. He founded a school for the local poor."
"Doesn't mean he wasn't bothering the maids, though."
Ferryman laughed bitterly.
"It's extraordinary, isn't it?", he said. "The psychological need to believe that the cosmos rewards goodness and not evil. What if this act of violence is the very reason that her grave is such a blessed place?"
"It's only a gravestone with a few weeds and birds, and a name that could be anybody's", said Laurence, pretending to be less impressed by the sight than he was. The gravestone certainly had an aura about it. "Some chemical in the soil, maybe. I think you're going to have to do better to impress your paying customers, in the era of Xbox and IMAX".
"Ah, ever the technophobe, Mr. Cahill", said Ferryman. "But I think I have something better, a little distance away. Follow me."
The group turned to follow the guide, and trudged in silence along the uneven ground of the graveyard. It was very quiet. Far away, the engine of a motorbike whined.
Laurence even liked the way Karla walked; hands folded across her breast, head down. A little like a charging bull, but somehow lady-like.
"Cop a load of this, as they say these days" said Ferryman, pointing the torch-light at another grave.
"Good grief!" exclaimed Helen.
"Holy moly" said Karla.
The gravestone at which the torch-light was pointing, which was close to the wall of the cemetery, had no name written across it-- at least, no name in recognizable letters. Symbols that bore no relation to any alphabet Laurence had ever seen across the top. There was something uncanny about their very shape.
The grave-stone itself was tall, and grey, and far less decayed than the ones around it. But the image that was engraved upon the stone was what made the two women cry out.
It was a drawing-- not crude, but very stylized-- of a face...screaming? About to devour something? Its mouth was open so wide that it filled most of the surface of the grave-stone, and its teeth were finely pointed.
The face, though highly simplified-- it was impossible to tell its sex, or even whether it was human-- conveyed an impression of insane rage. It was such a ferocious face that it made Laurence feel a little cold.
"Who is that?" asked Karla, no longer blasé. She stepped a little closer and, tentatively, reached out towards the stone and ran her fingers along the face of it. Laurence was impressed by her boldness.
"I don't know", said Ferryman.
"Well, aren't there...records? Somebody must know!"
"There are parish records in a neighbouring parish, but nothing that seems to pertain to this."
"It must be a joke", said Karla, a little hotly. "There's no body under there."
"I perceive no note of levity", said Ferryman, staring at the stone. Only his words gave any hint of sarcasm-- his tone and his bearing were utterly solemn.
"Some cult", said Helen. "There were a lot of weird cults in the nineteenth century...Freemasons and the like. How did you find out about this?"
"Simply by coming across it", said Ferryman, shrugging. "The first time I noticed it, I--"
But he stopped speaking then, for once again a scream rang through the evening air, making Laurence and the three girls jump. It only took a moment to recognise it as the woman who had been screaming previously.
But this time, the screaming did not stop after a few moment. It just went on, and on, and on.
"We have to find out who that is!", said Karla, already moving towards the graveyard gate. Almost instinctively, the other two followed her.
But Ferryman had not moved. "We don't have time for this", he called after them. "I have a very strict schedule."
Karla stopped, and looking over her shoulder at the tour guide, said: "Are you serious?"
"Is this all part of some elaborate game?"
For a moment, the girl looked at Laurence, as if seeking a cue. Not finding one, she turned back to Ferryman, and shouted: "We're going to have a look and you're going to stay here and wait for us."
"Not happening", said Ferryman. "We live in ten minutes, as per schedule."
"Screw you!" shouted Karla, and began to jog out of the graveyard, almost stumbling several times. A moment later, Helen followed her.
"Leave them, Laurence", said Ferryman, who had almost caught up with Laurence now. "Don't get caught up in this tomfoolery."
"Aren't you the tiniest bit concerned?" asked Laurence, feeling strangely spooked to be left alone with the masked tour guide.
"I am concerned about much bigger things than some silly woman screaming."
"But what if she's being-- raped, or murdered, or kidnapped?"
"What if she is?" asked Ferryman, shrugging.
"This better not be a sick joke", said Laurence, turning and beginning to run after the two women. He hoped with all his heart that it was a sick joke. But somehow, he felt sure that it wasn't.