‘Let’s go this way. It’s a short cut.’
Martin didn’t care if it magically transported him back to his front room. No way was he going through any graveyard, but specifically not this graveyard.
‘Are you mad, or what?’ You know what happened here last year.’ Any slight inebriation still lingering after five pints of Best had fled as quickly as his courage. The thought of traversing that awful place where the man had been found impaled on the rotting fence post with most of his...no, he didn’t want to think about it. Video nasties were one thing, but this was real life. No way.
‘Oh, come on.’ Tony, dwarfed by the intimidating bulk of Derek standing so near, laughed weakly. ‘He was drunk and he tripped, and anyway it was a fox what ate his gizzards. Well we’re going.’ he slurred, clambering over the low crumbling wall as quickly as his advanced state of drunkenness would allow. His tumbling gait propelled him into a fence post, catching and ripping his jacket which tore with a sickening sound that reminded Martin of...no, he wasn’t going to think of it.
Derek leaped nimbly over, brushing the wet leaves from his coat disdainfully while Tony clambered to his feet and leaned against a rotting oak tree simulating a confidence that his eyes readily betrayed.
‘We’re going, and if you don’t, you’re really going to cop it tomorrow. You know what the lads think of wimps.’ Derek still seemed to be itching for a fight since they’d been asked to leave the pub before he could get even with those blokes from the design department at work who’d been getting a bit too mouthy.
Martin turned away determinedly, knowing full well what they would tell everyone on the track the next day if he did not go with them, and the abuse that would result. Attempting, quite unsuccessfully, to maintain his dignity he ignored their now distant cat-calls.
‘Don’t care.’ he muttered, spouting geysers of steam up into the freezing December night. Should have started Karate like his dad had said. He knew Derek was just a bully who would run after a good kick, and the only reason Tony hung around so much was because he was afraid of him.
He turned, peering hopefully for an empty taxi. It was only two miles home but he was tired and there was no way he was going to drive after boozing no matter what Derek said. Dave had done that a couple of years ago and look at him now. Progressive Vegetative something-or-other. All he knew was that the best pool and darts player in the pub now spent his whole life being spoon fed by his mum and messing his nappy while staring at nothing and saying goo to everyone he saw.
Looked like snow again, he sighed, squinting upwards into the low swirling clouds. Best just get home. He didn’t care what they said tomorrow.
He winced at the bitter wind whistling mournfully around the empty streets. No one seemed to be out, which was probably wise. Made it spooky, though. The shops, always so bright and busy in the daytime, now resembled dark sinister eyes glaring malevolently out at him. Even the clanking of the loose reflector on the single working street lamp sounded like a monotonous death knell. He shut the images out of his mind, while he rummaged through his pockets. After his third attempt to light a cigarette in the gusting wind, he ducked into a shop front. This time the flame lit the end of his quivering cigarette. He gagged at the still course taste of this newly acquired habit. He didn’t even like smoking, anyway. Just on the point of dropping the guttering match, he jumped in terror as the quivering flame illuminated the cowering figure staring menacingly at him.
‘Idiot.’ He muttered angrily, watching his own reflection in the glass fading with the spent match. Thinking about that dead man had scared him badly. Yet it wasn’t even as if the police had been looking for anyone in connection with the poor bloke. It was just such a gruesome story and this village being so far from civilisation, the local rags had lost no opportunity in juicing it up so that it sounded scarier than it really was.
He moved on again, the cold now penetrating even the thick greatcoat he’d bought at the army and navy a couple of months ago. He was definitely going to see a lot less of Derek and Tony in future. And he was going to think some more on what his dad had been on at him about for years. The army might be a good idea after all. And what about that postcard he’d got from, what was that kid’s name from school? The one who’d joined the infantry. That beach in Cyprus had looked really good. Lots of sun, cheap booze; cheap girls too if what’s-his-name could be believed.
A flake of snow landed gently on his nose. Looking up, the sky had gone now as the slowly fluttering flakes became even thicker. He’d better move it. Didn’t want to freeze to death. His mum was always going on to him about his chest. Not that he would ever admit it to the rest of them but if he got the sniffles tonight it would be weeks before they went away.
A sight nipping in his nostrils told him that it was getting even colder. He tugged the thick collar even higher abut his neck, throwing the cigarette into the gutter and blowing into his hands before stopping again. He could have sworn he’d heard a distant but blood curdling scream.
‘Tossers.’ They never gave up. Well he’d show them tomorrow. An idea had begun to form. There was the long plastic scar he’d bought at the joke shop that he’d worn to the fancy dress do at the pub last Halloween. The one that looked like pus was dripping from it. Actually that had been his own little embellishment. The custard he’d poured over it had looked really good. Maybe he’d wear it on his arm to work tomorrow. Stagger screaming into the canteen before the shift began, a bit of ketchup on his jacket. Then fall onto Derek or Tony and let the jacket drop to reveal the scar. And the story he’d croak just before fainting away. That’d fix them. Everyone on his shift wanted to see Derek look stupid for a change. Smiling now he turned towards the long hill to his house.
‘Could I trouble you for a light?’
Caught completely by surprise, he fell backwards, tripping on an old cola can and falling heavily against a dead street lamp, crying out as his head connected painfully.
‘I, er, don’t smoke.’ He said automatically, just like he always did, because you could never tell if you’d get anything back; especially with some of the people who hung around the streets these days.
‘Oh well, it’s a bad habit anyway.’ sighed an old man sheltering in a doorway, shrouded by a voluminous overcoat at least five sizes too large for him. Martin cursed himself for being a wimp.
‘Wait, hang on.’ He rifled his pockets. ‘I think I might have some matches.’ Had to keep some of his credibility, even if it was just an old man. ‘I usually keep it some, just in case.’
‘Good.’ The old man said, taking the proffered box with an emaciated hand. ‘Most youngsters today don’t think of things like that. Always keep a light handy. You never know when a lady might need it, my old mother used to say. Never forgot that. Always kept me in good stead.’
He had a surprisingly cultured voice for a wino. ‘Yes, most of the youngsters today have no manners at all’ he continued, passing the matches back. ‘Present company accepted of course.’
‘Huh? Oh, yes.’ He knew he should be going but something about the old man’s voice compelled him to stay.
‘Cold night.’ he muttered pulling his coat tighter. The man looked pitiful somehow. It didn’t seem fair for him to be out on a night like this. Him being bald and with no hat. ‘Are you all right? I mean,’ he mumbled awkwardly, ‘have you anywhere to go? You’re not hungry or anything?’ The old man smiled faintly. The glow from a distant light just enough to illuminate his pinched face.
‘Oh yes. I’ve got somewhere to go tonight. And I’ll be fine later when I’ve had a snack. I have something planned.’
‘Right, then.’ Now his conscience had been partially cleansed, he felt better about going. Couldn’t stand here all night. He turned to the man for the last time. ‘I’ll see you around.’
‘Not taking the short cut through the graveyard?’
‘What?’ Could the old man read his mind? ‘Er, no, I don’t like going through...’ He felt stupid enough without revealing his fears to an old man.
‘Yes, you’re probably right.’ the man reassured him gently, his eyes suddenly glowing bright red as he seemed to double in size, the overcoat becoming tight on an incredibly powerful body from which immensely long arms suddenly protruded. Easily overpowering the struggles of his prey he grabbed Martin’s head, his eyes now wide in terror. Fangs appeared at the man’s mouth – black and stained with things he would never have time to ponder. And it was just as the realisation of death washed over him, accompanied by urine coursing down his leg, when the pressure ceased. Those eyes, still red, had swivelled, no longer staring at him. A moment after that an almighty whoosh of air flung him backwards as the creature flew, throwing Martin backwards, to hit the ground with a painful thump.
Was that it? Had this all been a dream? Martin could see the creature, whatever it was now laying on the ground, its black huddled mass shrinking, smouldering in the cold air. Regaining partial use of his wits, he clambered up, ready to spring away, a scream bubbling deep in his throat. Only for something else to grab his shoulders, the biting grip even stronger than before. He could feel long knives, or perhaps talons sinking effortlessly through the coat and his skin, grating painfully against his bones.
Now another pair of eyes fastened on him. In a brief second of lucidity, he turned to the other shape, now a huddled mass, scarcely more than the old overcoat it had worn. Something long and razor sharp suddenly piercing the skin beneath his jaw, forced his head back to this new horror. The new eyes stared malevolently at him. These eyes were not red but another colour; one that he never could have named. However he was given no time to ponder the question. For with a tearing sound he barely heard, two more fangs sank into his neck. Now almost immune to the pain, he hardly felt them as his life drained away. Terror became blackness then nothing.
His body hit the ground with a soggy thud. And towering over both Martin and the first fallen creature, something detached itself. An aura of blackness even darker than the night filled the air, pulsating, stilling the few night birds startled by the noise. The thing turned, Martin already forgotten. It moved away, neither walking nor floating, but something in between. For a moment those glowing eyes fastened on the dead thing at its feet. Then it moved away with a disdainful mutter.