It began to dawn on Arthur that this journey might take considerably longer than he had anticipated. In his head, he had pictured himself making swift work of the motorway, followed by a carefree jaunt through rural England. He had lazily assumed he’d be on his third pint in an Edgeharrow pub by six o’clock. It was now past five and for the life of him, Arthur could not get his bearings. He was parked in a lay-by, frowning over a road map, as the rain hammered down on the roof of his Seat Ibiza. Momentarily, he wondered if this was the sort of place where certain men convened for a spot of ‘dogging’, or whatever it was they called it. He could think of a million more appealing activities in which to indulge, regardless of sexual orientation or weather conditions.
At first, he had been glad to leave the motorway and the weekend traffic behind. That was over two hours ago. Now, on this poorly-maintained country road, he was beginning to yearn for a bit of civilisation, or at least a sign pointing him in the direction of civilisation. The map showed a right turning somewhere along here, but he had found nothing, not even a dirt track. It was odd that he was the only motorist on this road, given that this was supposed to lead to the coast. Wasn’t Sidmouth somewhere near here? Had he taken a wrong turn, somehow? Arthur obstinately refused to accept that he might have made a mistake. His mother often berated him for not investing in GPS, but he gave her the same response he gave everyone else: “I don’t see why I have to take orders from a robotic voice, when I have a map, a brain and road signs at my disposal.”
The trouble was, his map was not very forthcoming and he had not seen one sign since coming off an A-road many miles back. All he had to rely on now was the grey matter inside his skull. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in good working order this afternoon, the late night catching up with him. He had lain in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking about Elena, about all those nights of passion they had shared. The memory of her soft lips, exquisite cheekbones and come-hither eyes would often return to him after all the distractions of the day had passed. Last night, he could almost smell her long, dark hair again, feel it brush against his skin as it had once done, so many times. At that point, he would have given anything to be with her again. He would gladly have gone through all the emotional exhaustion, the arguments and the paranoia that he had endured for almost a year, just so that he could enjoy her for one more night. It would have been worth it; she was always worth it. The trouble was, she had never truly felt he was good enough for her. In Elena’s eyes, he would always remain a small-town boy, a slacker. During their last week together, Arthur couldn’t wait to see the back of her, relishing the prospect of not having to listen to her complaints and her criticism. Nevertheless, the sound of the front door closing as she walked out of his life forever was quite possibly the most awful sound to which his ears had ever been subjected. It was the leitmotif of a new, lonely, chapter in his life. Last night, he had lost himself in the memory of those ecstatic moments with her, his mind filtering out all the negativity. The image of her beneath him, moaning with pleasure, her breath hot on his neck, had been both arousing and comforting in those dark hours. The things that girl could do…
He was startled out of his reverie by the sound of the car radio. A shrill-voiced actress was breathlessly announcing an Autumn sale going on at some clothing shop in a town he had never heard of, on a street he would never care to remember. He switched it off, puzzled that it should come on by itself and at such a loud volume. Throwing his useless map onto the passenger seat, Arthur started the engine, got into gear and continued down the empty road. The radio came on again, louder than before.
“- cheaper car insurance? Then why not give us a try on 0800 555 -”
“Bloody thing’s playing up,” Arthur said as he jabbed the power button again. After it came on a third time, Arthur thumped the radio a few times until it ceased its chatter. It was at that moment that he noticed the car coming up in his rear-view mirror. A tatty old black Ford Escort, its driver obscured by rain and condensation, was driving very fast towards him.
“What the hell –?” Arthur managed, just before the vehicle slammed into him. The force of the impact made him lurch forward and it was only through quick thinking that he managed to regain control of the car. He steered away from the edge of the road, narrowly avoiding a crash into the hedgerow that bordered it. He signalled left, he expected the other driver to do the same (wasn’t that what civilised folk did? Pull over and exchange insurance information, that sort of thing?), but the lunatic in the Escort was having none of it. For a second time, he rammed into Arthur’s car, once again sending him swerving.
“You son of a bitch!” Arthur screamed, hoping that the other motorist would somehow hear the insult through two panes of glass, two engines and eight screeching tyres. His initial shock had given way to outrage. His Seat Ibiza, immaculate and well-maintained until now, was being pounded to oblivion by some scumbag boy-racer from the wrong side of the tracks. He guessed that it wasn’t even his own car, more likely something he’d stolen from a higher life-form. Arthur put his foot down in a bid to out-run the other car, although he was sorely tempted to retaliate in kind. It was to no avail. The Escort was still right behind him, close enough that he could make out four people inside. The driver and the passenger to his left leered out at him through the rain-spattered windshield. Their pale faces appeared distorted, their pupils dilated, shark-like, their teeth like little daggers. Were they all wearing masks, or was he imagining things? Arthur had no time to ponder this, as up ahead he saw a sharp bend in the road. This was his chance. Approaching it, he quickly steered to the left, hoping that the driver behind him would hit the corner. The gamble paid off. He looked behind him to see the Escort plough into a large oak tree at the corner.
“Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!” he laughed, giving them the middle finger. His little moment of triumph was short-lived, however. Turning back to the road ahead, he saw – only too late – a man in the middle of the road, standing there, staring at him.
“Oh, shit!” He hit the brake and swerved to the right. The car tyres screamed in protest as they slid against the wet tarmac. His car span like a dervish as Arthur frantically tried to regain control. Blurred images swam before his eyes: hedgerows, trees, a leaden-grey sky, windscreen wipers, the man in the road, the malicious grin on his face, the same sharp teeth and black, soulless eyes that he had seen before on the faces of those joyriders. The car continued to spin on the road for what seemed like an eternity, as if the laws of physics no longer applied. On and on it went until his head hit the steering wheel and the sea of green and Autumn grey turned to the blackness of unconsciousness.
When he came to, Arthur found that the car had come to a halt by the side of the road. He stumbled out, his head pounding, and checked the damage. It wasn’t half as bad as he had feared – a large, ugly-looking dent, a smashed tail-light and a few scratches, nothing more – but where in the world was he? The darkening sky overhead was mostly obscured by the forest canopy overhead. As far as the eye could see, the road, which looked like it hadn’t been resurfaced in forty years, was lined by oak, ash, birch, maple and a whole lot of other trees he couldn’t name. He had no recollection of driving into this dense wood.
“Some holiday this has turned out to be,” he muttered. Reaching for his phone, he considered calling the police, then decided that would be a waste of time. For a start, there was no signal. Second, what would he tell them? That his car had been rammed by insane mutants and that he had almost run over another insane mutant, only to end up in a wood? Glancing at his watch – it was almost seven o’clock – he decided that his first priority was to get to the nearest town or village and ask directions from someone who was sound of mind. Just as he was about to get back in the car, something up ahead caught his eye. Grimy and almost obscured by the branch of a gnarled old tree was a road sign, the first he had seen in hours. He approached it and pulled back the branch to read what it said: ‘Edgeharrow – 5 miles’. He was almost there! He had no idea how, but with such a throbbing ache in his head, he didn’t particularly care. He snapped off the branch and was about to return to his car when –
“What the hell?” Nailed to the old tree, its tongue lolling out and its eyes glazed, was the carcase of a dog. It didn’t smell too bad, so it cannot have been there very long, but it was a grisly sight nonetheless. There were large nails driven through its throat and its groin into the tree trunk. There was dried blood on the bark and on the unfortunate animal’s fur. Who would have done such a thing? The same people that he had run into earlier? For a good few minutes, he stared at the dead dog with horrified fascination, trying to decide what to do next. He supposed the right thing to do would be to take the poor thing down and bring it into Edgeharrow; this could be someone’s beloved pet, after all, though there was no collar to indicate as much. However, Arthur came to the conclusion that he was in no state to be civic-minded after what he had been through. His head ached, he was tired and his nerves were shot, plus the idea of an animal carcase putrefying in his car boot made him nauseous. He walked back to the car, promising himself that he would mention this macabre discovery later on. Perhaps after dinner.
He drove through the forest slowly and remained vigilant, in case the black Ford Escort returned, its occupants bent on murderous revenge. Gradually, the forest gave way to farmland and he noticed that the rain had finally subsided. In the wan light, he could make out a cattle shed to his left, a large hill to his right and, up ahead, the the lights of a village. As he approached, the car headlights revealed thatched roofs, thick stone walls, latticed windows and well-kept gardens. In the distance loomed the silhouette of a church spire – St. Morcar’s, presumably. It was a small place, not much more than two or three rows of houses tucked away in a valley. Before long, he caught sight of his destination. On the website, the Wyvern Inn boasted ‘cask ales, fine wines, excellent pub food and relaxing accommodation’. Arthur sincerely hoped that this was true, as his stomach was rumbling and he badly needed a beer. He did not have to worry about spaces in the car park, as there were only two other vehicles there. The one nearest to him was a tatty-looking Nissan with yellow furry dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. An empty drink can and a tawdry gossip magazine lay on the passenger seat. Arthur wondered what sort of person owned this rust-bucket, then suddenly felt very self-conscious, nosing around other people’s cars.
Returning to the front with his belongings, he looked up at the creaking inn sign. Though the paint was flaking, the mythical beast daubed on it nonetheless looked rather imposing, illuminated as it was by the lamp light. He opened the heavy wooden door and stepped inside. The orange glow and heat of the interior was a pleasant change from the cold, damp night outside. The decor within was a mixture of ancient and modern: half-timbered walls, a large fireplace, old pictures and trinkets hanging from the walls alongside leather sofas and a flat-screen television set. To his right he could see an elderly couple chatting over dinner. The smell of their food hung in the air, making Arthur’s mouth water. Seated by the fire to his left was an old man wearing a flat cap, apparently fast asleep. The local drunkard, he guessed. Every town and village had them, keeping pub landlords in business and boring them to tears with their tall tales. Arthur hoped he would never end up that way, but he suspected it was a vain hope. Ahead of him was the bar itself, where a plump middle-aged woman was emptying coins into the till. She looked up and gave him a big smile.
“Y’all right, sir? What can I get you?”
“Hello. I’ve booked a room here. The name’s -”
“Ah, yes. You must be Mr. Clipp, is that right?”
“Er, yeah. Good guess.”
Her smile widened. “We don’t get too many people at this time of year. Off-season, you see. It’s just you and a couple of other people this week. Care for a drink?”
“Like never before! I’ll have a pint of the local stuff.”
“One Wyvern Ale it is.” She poured him his ale then fetched his room key as he drank.
“There you go, young man. Room’s around the back and up the stairs. How’s the ale?”
Arthur likened the taste of it to good-quality pond water. “Very nice,” he lied, not wishing to offend.
“Glad to hear it! Have you come far?”
Sitting himself down on a bar stool and dumping his suitcase on the floor, he told her a little about his home town, his job and how keen he had been to get away from both. The landlady, whose name was Sandra, listened and nodded as he talked.
“Sounds to me like you’ve come to the right place,” she said. “Edgeharrow’s got some beautiful countryside surrounding it. We get a lot of ramblers and cyclists during the summer and it ain’t too far from the sea, either. It’s a pity you didn’t come here last month, what with the ale festival.”
“You have an ale festival here?” Here, in this backwater?
“Oh, yes,” she replied, her chubby face glowing pink with pride and enthusiasm, “we have it every year. People come from miles around to sample the drinks and there’s live music as well.”
Arthur imagined this ‘festival’ was nothing more than an excuse for lots of over-fiftys to get drunk during the day. He’d been to one or two such events in his time, lured by the siren’s call of good-quality beer, but always felt underwhelmed. He ordered his dinner – a game pie, which he devoured like a starving man – and a few more drinks. He didn’t like the ale, particularly, but it was making his headache subside and lifting his spirits, after the unpleasant journey he’d undertaken. As he drank, he listened to Sandra wax lyrical about Edgeharrow’s festival and about all the other events that took place over the year. Though the subject matter did not interest him, Arthur found himself warming to the landlady. He had always found it easier to get on with talkative types; indeed, his two best friends both had a serious case of verbal diarrhoea. By the same token, he found quiet people difficult to trust, as if they had something to hide. The irony that he, himself, tended not to say much was not lost on him. After a while, the pace of her chatter slowed, so he took the opportunity to mention the dead dog he had seen by the road. Sandra gave him a puzzled look.
“Nailed to a tree?”
“Are you sure that’s what you saw?”
“Yes, of course!” He was sure, wasn’t he? Arthur thought back to the car chase, the distorted, leering faces in the rain, the world spinning before his eyes, coming to in a forest with no recollection of having driven there. Could his mind have been playing tricks on him?
“I swear to you,” he continued, “that’s what I saw. Have any pets gone missing around here lately?”
“No, not at all! I’d have heard about it if anyone in Edgeharrow lost a dog.” Her tone was light and breezy, but there was a look in her eyes that told Arthur she was lying. He decided not to press the point.
“Well, it could have been teenagers from the nearby town, or something,” he said. “I mean, the poor mutt was probably already dead when it was put there.” Deep down, however, Arthur knew that wasn’t the case.
“Teenagers, eh? Who needs ’em?” she laughed, nervously. “Anyway, enjoy your stay here and if there’s anything you need, let me or Wilbur know. Wilbur’s my husband.”
“Thanks,” he replied, but she was already away through a doorway at the back of the room. Arthur remained at the bar with a half-finished pint and a lot of thoughts in his head. Did she have something to do with the nailed dog? Perhaps she had a reprobate son who preferred torturing and killing animals to ale festivals. That would be one village tradition they really didn’t want to advertise, he thought with a smile. He looked around the bar room. The married couple had left, but the old sot by the fire had got up and was coming his way. Great, Arthur thought, I’m going to have to listen to his insane ramblings. Crazy old alcoholics always seemed to home in on him, for some reason. Perhaps they considered him to be a good listener. Arthur watched the television in the corner, hoping that the old man would pass him by. There was a news report about two boys who had gone missing recently. He didn’t catch the whole story as there was no sound, but he gathered from the subtitles that they had gone on a fishing trip on their own and had not been seen since. The name of the town they were from looked familiar, somehow. He tried to remember where he had seen the name before.
“That dog weren’t the only one, y’know.”
Startled, Arthur turned to the old man, now standing right next to him. His eyes were red, he hadn’t shaved in days and his breath smelled of stale beer.
“What are you talking about?”
“The dog you saw by the road,” the man replied. “There’ve been others, killed like that. Other ways, too. I found some dead cats the other day, out in the field. Throats slit, all of ’em.” He made a slitting gesture with his thumb. “Buried north, south, east, west.”
Arthur stared at him, unsure if he were being toyed with or not. “You’re saying someone’s going around, killing pets? Is that it?”
“There’s more than one doin’ it. And not just pets, either. You want to be careful.”
“What do you mean, ‘not just pets’? Is this a joke?”
The man leaned in close, grasped the sleeve of Arthur’s jacket and lowered his voice to a murmur. “This ain’t no time to be jokin’, lad. Something’s not right in Edgeharrow. You want to get out of ‘ere, soon as. They’s stirring somethin’ up. Openin’ doors they’s not supposed to open.”
Before Arthur had a chance to ask another question, the old man let go of him and stumbled out of the door, leaving him alone in the bar. What on earth was that about? He checked his watch: half past ten. Deciding that it was time to put this unusual day behind him, he grabbed his suitcase and followed the landlady’s directions to his room. There was no sign of her or her husband, although he could hear a low conversation in another room somewhere. His quarters, situated at the front of the inn, were not exactly five-star, but they were clean. A double bed took up most of the bedroom, while the only decoration was an old photograph of the church. A scowling priest in a cassock stood in front of the building. That must be St. Morcar’s, thought Arthur. He would see for himself on the morrow. For now, though, he was tired. Getting ready for bed, his mind went over what had happened that day, in particular the drunkard’s parting words. Was there any truth in them? Was there really something strange going on in this village? He lay his head on the cool, crisp fabric of the pillow and closed his eyes. As he drifted off to sleep, he heard the sound of solitary footsteps on the street outside; whether they were moving further away or coming closer, he could not tell.