The story so far: Laurence is a young man whose life has taken a few wrong turns. He decides to jump off a bridge, but just as he's about to do so, a mysterious tour bus pulls up beside him and a man in a skull-faced costume, who calls himself Mr. Ferryman, offers him a free ride on a new horror-themed mystery tour. He accepts-- of course he accepts!-- and he joins two others, Karla (a young lady) and Helen (a middle-aged academic). He is rather attracted to Karla-- of course he is! The bus hits a storm, and for a moment Laurence thinks he sees a mysterious cloaked figure moving towards the bus, against a green flash. The first stop of the bus is a creepy graveyard, but as they are being guided around it, the company hear the hysterical screams of a woman from some distance away. Despite Mr. Ferryman's warnings that he won't wait for them, they go to help-- of course they do! They come to a pub and learn that the screaming was only a local woman having nightmares-- but, reader, you're not taken in by that 'only' for a moment, are you?
Also, our heroes have noticed a few odd things about this place they've found themselves in. An ad for The Fellowship of the Ring movie advertises Patrick Stewart rather than Ian McKellen as Gandalf. Also, Osama Bin Laden is still alive. What's going on, reader? You'll have to read to find out...
Oh, and Mr. Ferryman drove away and left them behind, just as he threatened. Or course he did!
"We have to be careful", said Helen, her voice low.
The trio were sitting in a corner of the pub, as far from the other occupants as they could get. And it wasn't difficult; if it was ever busy in Casey's pub, it certainly wasn't tonight.
"I think it might be too late to be careful", said Karla. Her face was pale. "That bus just left. Pun very much intended."
"Well, yes", said Helen. She spoke as calmly as she might speak if she was giving a lecture, although she looked every bit as frightened as Karla-- and as frightened as Laurence felt. "That bus has left. But let's not make any more mistakes."
"It doesn't seem to me like we have any cards to play one way or the other", said Karla.
"There are always cards to play" said Helen. "First off, let's just admit it-- this isn't the world we left, is it?"
There was a long silence, filled with 'Two Princes' by the Spin Doctors, which was playing on the sound system of the pub. At the bar, somebody laughed.
"What does that even mean?" asked Karla.
"Well, Karla, what do you call it when a world-famous terrorist mastermind apparently comes back to life and nobody thinks there's anything strange about this?"
Karla was silent. She looked angry.
"It's not the world we left", said Laurence. It was a wrench to say it, even though he was aware of a certain exhilaration buried deep under his panic.
"There's only one world", said Karla, and for a moment she seemed childishly petulant. "What other world could this be?"
"Oh come on", said Helen, in a patient tone. "We've all heard about alternate dimensions, the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, time travel...."
"Next you'll be telling me we're subjects of some....some government mind control experiment", said Karla. The way she said it made Laurence suspect that this was the very thing she feared the most.
"Anything is possible", said Helen, shrugging. "But this is the point I'm making; I don't think it's a very good idea for us to go around asking people what happened to the world we knew, or what year it is, or who the President of America is at the present moment."
"Or who the latest James Bond is. Or the latest Dr. Who." Karla's tone was sarcastic.
"Precisely", said Helen. "Though I won't pretend I could have answered either of those questions this morning."
"It's Ferryman", said Laurence. He felt a strong reluctance to dwell on the subject of what world they were occupying. "We have to find Ferryman. He's the key."
"That might be difficult", said Karla, rather heatedly. "Did you see how quickly he pulled away? Don't tell me he wasn't breaking the speed limit-- whatever the speed limit is in this alternative universe of yours."
"You're not being very constructive, Karla", said Helen, with a little frown.
Karla stood up. She looked more frightened than ever, and now she looked angry to boot.
"You know what?" she asked. "I don't know anything about either of you. It seems to me that you're both taking this a little too calmly. I recognize a put-up job when I see one."
"Sit down" said Helen-- and now her tone was that of a school-teacher rather than a university lecturer.
"No thanks", said Karla, her eyes flashing. "Ever since I stepped on that bus, I've had the very strong feeling that I'm part of some kind of sick game. And, sorry to say, but there seems something a little off about both of you. I'm not playing any more. Deal with that!"
She rose from their corner table, and strode towards the door, without looking back. A few moments later she had disappeared into the night. One woman, watching her from the bar, looked accusingly at Laurence.
"Should we follow her?", asked Laurence.
"I don't think that would serve any purpose" said Helen. "She'd just storm away."
"I don't know why she got mad at us", said Laurence. He was surprised how distressed he felt at this turn of events, considering the weirdness of the situation as it already stood.
"It's the kind of person she is", said Helen. "If she was taken hostage in a bank robbery, she'd take that in her stride. But anything she can't make sense of, anything that challenges her worldview-- well, she can't deal with that."
Helen spoke with such conviction that Laurence asked: "Did you know her...before?"
Helen shook her head. "I just know the type."
Laurence found himself wondering if Helen knew his type, as well. If she did, she knew him better than himself, because Laurence had spent almost thirty years feeling like a stranger in his own soul.
A barmaid approached them. She looked very tired, but she smiled gamely. "Can I get you guys anything?"
After a brief silence, Helen said: "A pint of Guinness for me, and Laurence...?"
"A Coke", said Laurence. Suddenly, the thought of a Coke was very, very appealing.
He half-expected the barmaid to ask what a Coke was; but she simply nodded and said: "Anything else?"
"Do you do food?" asked Helen.
"Only sandwiches this time of night", said the barmaid. "Cheese and ham."
"A sandwich each", said Helen. "Ham for me."
"Me too", said Laurence, who felt less enthusiastic about food.
The girl nodded again, and withdrew. She was very pale.
"I don't have any money" said Laurence. "I lost my wallet."
"No, you didn't" said Helen, her voice soft but firm. She looked straight into his eyes. "You gave it to a beggar, just as we were about to turn onto the bridge."
Laurence flushed. "You saw that?" he asked. For a moment, embarrassment drowned out his fear.
She nodded again, and now he noticed a new look in her face-- sympathy.
"I think", she said, reaching out and taking his hand, "that we are going to have to be honest with each other, in this situation. A man who gives away his wallet-- it seems like the act of a man who has reached the end of his tether."
Laurence looked at the bar. The woman who had given him an accusing look was now putting on her coat.
"Sure", said Laurence.
Helen squeezed his hand, and-- to his horror-- tears came into his eyes. He lowered his gaze, unwilling to let anyone else see his emotion. It had been a long time-- it seemed forever-- since anybody had offered him any sympathy.
Please don't let me lose it, he prayed-- to the God he'd never really believed in.
"I understand", said Helen, her voice firmer now, as though realising the effect that her sympathetic tones had had upon him. She withdrew her hand. "Laurence, I'm an extremely private person, but I'm going to tell you something personal because I think it might be relevant."
Laurence looked up, curious, and a little startled.
"I have very few years left to live", she said, dispassionately. "And the years that I have-- they are likely to be increasingly unpleasant."
"I'm sorry" said Laurence, feeling foolish even as he spoke the words.
"Not as sorry as I am", said Helen, with a smile that was grim but not bitter. "This very morning I had made my mind up to ask my sister....if she would help me avoid the unpleasantness, when it became too unpleasant."
"I mean euthanasia", said Helen, briskly. "Assisted suicide. Whatever term you want to use."
Another long silence intervened. 'Two Princes' had changed to a song that sounded like Michael Jackson but that Laurence didn't recognise. Perhaps it was a song that Michael Jackson had never released in the world they had come from. It was pretty catchy. He found himself wondering, irrelevantly, whether the King of Pop was still alive and breathing here.
"So you think", he asked, "you think this isn't just a coincidence, that we were both....?".
"We have to consider every hypothesis", said Helen.
"So that would mean Karla...?"
Helen nodded. "A nice girl", she said. "But didn't she strike you as being a little...high-strung?"
Laurence, who only ever fell for high-strung girls, nodded. "I guess so", he said.
"She struck me as somebody who has recovering from a recent....episode of some kind", said Helen.
Laurence thought about Karla wandering the streets of this strange new world. Where on earth had she gone? What would happen to her?
She's a tough cookie, he told himself. But he wasn't convinced.
"But what difference does any of this make?" asked Laurence.
"Maybe no difference at all", said Helen, with that air of detachment of which only intellectuals-- and doctors giving bad news-- seem capable. "But it might make all the difference in the world. Maybe we are here for a reason, and maybe knowing that reason can help us get back to where we came from. If we even want to get back, that is."
Laurence was only surprised at the last remark for a brief moment. After all, he had been about to top himself, Helen was dying, and Karla seemed to have some trouble of her own.
"Are you saying...this is some kind of second chance?" asked Laurence, feeling suddenly hopeful at the idea.
Helen nodded. "It could be. It could be. If so many things are different in this world, how do I know that I'm still dying here? How do we know that whatever...whatever might be the matter with any of us might still be the case?"
Laurence wasn't sure how to reply to that, so he was grateful when the barmaid reappeared, carrying her tray of drinks and sandwiches. He was pleased to see that the sandwiches were far from skimpy.
"Here you go", she said, laying the glasses and plate out on the table. "That comes to fifteen twenty."
Helen reached into her jacket pocket, and after a moment's fumbling produced a twenty euro note. She extended it towards the barmaid.
But the barmaid, not reaching out for it, looked at it strangely. "Uh..." she said.
"I'm sorry", said Helen, giving a little laugh and crunching the twenty euro note in her fist. "I've just been on holiday..."
The barmaid laughed a little awkwardly. "Where to?", she asked. "I didn't think they took euro anywhere anymore", she said.
"Monaco, believe it or not", said Helen. Laurence was impressed at her quick thinking. "Card?"
"Sure", said the barmaid, taking the Visa from Helen's fingers. As she did so, she glanced at Laurence, and she seemed to give a start. For a moment, she stared at him intensely.
But almost immediately, she turned her gaze away, and she was running the card through the portable card reader she had on her belt. She seemed very shaken.
Laurence glanced at Helen, wondering if she had noticed the barmaid's reaction. Her eyes told him that she had.
"Uh..." said the barmaid. "Uh, I'm sorry but this, but the payment is being rejected."
"Oh dear", said Helen. "Try this one."
As the waitress took the second card from Helen's hand, she looked at Laurence again. It was only for a moment, but once again Laurence saw her eyes widen in what seemed like alarm.
"No", said the barmaid. "This one too. I'm sorry."
"My fault", said Helen. Now she had her wallet out on the table, and she was drawing out card after card. She took out a blood donor card, a business card, and a university ID card before she hit on another credit card. "Try this."
This time the barmaid kept her eyes averted from Laurence. "No", she said. "Rejected."
"I don't have anything else on me, I'm afraid", said Helen. "Is there an ATM around here?"
"How about that one?" asked the barmaid, pointing. "We certainly take Excelsior."
Helen looked down at the table. The barmaid was pointing at the laminated card that Ferryman had given each one of them. Helen had left her own lying on the table beside her. It was a rather goofy-looking card with the words Monstrous Mystery Tour written in cartoonish letters.
"Of course", said Helen, picking it up. "I forgot all about it."
The barmaid ran the ridiculous-looking card through her machine, and gave a smile of relief. "That's fine", she said. "I'm sorry about all that."
"Not at all", said Helen, signing the slip that the barmaid offered her. "I'm sorry, I don't know what could have happened with the others. I was sure they were still good."
"Don't worry about it", said the barmaid. "I've, uh, I've been there myself."
Once again-- as though she couldn't help herself-- she looked at Laurence. Once again alarm filled her face.
"What's wrong?", asked Laurence.
"I'm sorry" said the barmaid, forcing her expression into an almost-neutral smile. "It's just....I think maybe I recognize you. Are you from around here?"
"From near about here", chimed in Helen, before Laurence could respond.
"It's really weird", said the girl, suddenly dropping her professional tone, "but I think I've been...I've been dreaming about you."
Laurence was embarrassed. Only one girl had ever told him she'd dreamed about him. And she'd turned out to be crazy.
The girl flushed suddenly, as though the connotations of her confession had just struck her. "Well, when I say a dream, I really mean...a nightmare."
Laurence shuddered. Somehow, he had the strange sensation that he knew what the girl was going to say-- even though he didn't.
"What kind of nightmare?" asked Helen.
The girl didn't turn to look at her. Her eyes seemed glued on Laurence now. She replied in a low, strangely child-like voice.
"It's the middle of nowhere", she said. "A place I've never been before....a place that nobody's ever been before. That's what it feels like. It feels like a completely empty place, like a wasteland, except that....I can't see anything around me. Everything is surrounded by a mist. A green mist."
Laurence began to tremble. The vision he'd seen from the tour bus window came to his mind.
"I know I'm asleep in the dream", the barmaid continued. "And I'm frightened I'm never going to wake up again."
The unidentified Michael Jackson song had now changed to 'God Only Knows' by the Beach Boys. It had always seemed a spooky song to Laurence. Not it seemed spookier and more haunting than ever before.
"And then...then I see three figures coming out of the mist. They are all wearing cloaks and hoods, and they are walking towards me. I want to run away, but I can't."
Now the girl seemed to be shivering, too. She seemed to have completely forgotten her surroundings-- almost as though she was hypnotized.
"And then one of the figures steps towards me. At first I think his face is a skull, but I realize it's a skull mask when he takes it off."
Now Laurence did know what was coming next.
"It's you", said the barmaid. "Not somebody who looks like you. You. Except...except the look on your face is completely and utterly evil. And you say...."
The girl fell silent, and the sound of the Beach Boys seemed to be coming from a whole world away.
"Yes?", asked Helen. "What does he say?"
"You say, I am the end of your world."
The call came from the bar. The barmaid seemed to wake up from her trance, and looked around in surprise. Then she looked embarrassed.
"I'm sorry", she said, backing away. "It's probably just...it's just a stupid dream." She laughed unconvincingly. "But it's been keeping me awake for nights."
She hurried away, but not without one last look over her shoulder at Laurence. And once again, it was a look of fear.
Laurence reached for his Coke and took a deep gulp of it. He didn't want to look at Helen, or discuss what had just been said. At least, not for a few moments.
As the girl had described the dream, it was as though he could see it himself.
The Coke tasted better than any Coke he had ever tasted in his life.
"Karla", whispered Helen.
Laurence looked up, towards the bar. Karla had reappeared, and she was walking towards them. She looked angrier than ever-- but chastened, too.
"OK", she said, when she had reached them. "I'm sorry. I freaked out there. My bad. I shouldn't have said what I said. I think we should stick together. I most definitely think we should stick together."
It had been raining, and her hair was plastered down across her forehead. She looked prettier than ever, Laurence thought.
He was still shivering.