In the taxi on the way to Fountains Abbey, Celia slugged back one of her Gordons and reviewed the messages she had received from @RiponOff44. Looking again at his picture, the now familiar shiver of expectation ran through her, from her riding boots to her pashmina.
He was just so exactly her type. Tall, too, he said in his profile. Athletic build. But, on top of all that, he brought her the golden bounty of blood-curdling bus tales.
It had vaguely crossed her mind that it might not be the best publicity for the festival’s sponsors if she were to tell a story of something terrible happening on their bus service… But she couldn’t let mere commercial considerations stand in the way of her art, could she, for goodness’ sake? And in any case, it was a CRIME festival, and she was a CRIME writer. What did they expect, roses and chocolates?
Laura had scheduled a ‘self-guided tour’ of the Abbey for Celia. She was met at the Visitor Centre by the Marketing Manager – an woman who looked impossibly young to Celia to be holding such a job – who handed her a map.
Celia peered at the sheet of paper. ‘Where’s Anne Boleyn’s seat?’
The Marketing Manager pointed out a structure, set beside a lake that looked like a comma, or some sort of sperm. ‘Lovely view from up there,’ she said.
‘I’m sure there will be,’ Celia said, raising a salacious eyebrow. It looked gloriously isolated, unutterably romantic.
Because she hadn’t checked its scale, Celia found the map quite misleading. What she had thought was going to be a short stroll around pleasantly wooded lakeside gardens was more of a lengthy hike in extremely muddy, hilly conditions. The earlier cold blue skies had given way to something altogether darker and cloudier and, as sharp spikes of rain began to fall, Celia downed two of the Smirnoff miniatures to keep her pecker up.
It took her far longer than she had anticipated to reach Anne Boleyn’s seat. The abbey ruins were extensive and, with their lofty, crumbling reaches – home to clamours of cawing rooks – Celia reckoned they could provide an ideal setting for some sort of nasty denouement.
As she left the abbey behind and skirted round a lake to climb a steep path up to the top of the hill, the rain really began to set in. While there were trees overhead, they offered little cover because they had shed their leaves a month ago, leaving a treacherously slippery deciduous litter underfoot. It was tricky going, even in boots.
Despite the fact that she was running late by over quarter of an hour, Celia stopped to check her appearance in the little mirror she always carried with her. She congratulated herself on having the foresight to bring her beret to keep her hair in order, and her Dior mascara was living up to its claims to be waterproof.
Sure that she looked as good as possible, given the circumstances, she gave herself a quick spritz of perfume, then got her phone out of her bag for one last check on @RiponOff44’s appearance. It wasn’t as if she was going to have to pick him out of a crowd: she had only crossed paths with one other soul on this increasingly dark and cold afternoon, and he– a middle-aged dog-walker – had been hurrying towards the exit. But she wanted to remind herself of the sheer beauty of the man she was going to meet, and just how worth it all this struggle with the elements was going to be.
To her dismay, as she gazed on his image, her phone screen went black. A spinning ball appeared for a couple of minutes, and then there was nothing. She tried to turn it on, but it appeared that the battery was dead. As often happened when she had downed a couple of bottles of wine at night, she must have forgotten to charge it when she went to bed.
She threw the useless gadget back into her handbag, instead pulling out a Gordons miniature, which she slugged back. Why did this sort of thing always happen to her?
At least @RiponOff44 would have a phone, so she could call a taxi (for them both, perhaps? Back to her hotel, perhaps?) after their meeting.
He had chosen a strange venue, Celia thought as she set off again, slipping and sliding on the leaf-mould – her agonising new boots seemed to have no grip whatsoever on their soles. But at least it was atmospheric. And perhaps Anne Boleyn had a little canoodling shelter up there…
‘I mean,’ she said out loud in the rain-spattered air, ‘If he didn’t have something deliciously naughty in mind, then why meet me up here?’
Her hopes high – it had been three years since she had met a man she thought measured up as perfectly as @RiponOff44 – she rounded the bend at the top of the hill and saw the back of a wooden shelter facing on to a stunning view of gale-whipped water and trees, the Abbey looming out of the murky gloom to form a perfect backdrop.
But where was @RiponOff44? Had he given up waiting?
Celia stepped around the side of the shelter and peered inside. There, sitting on a bench, his eyes closed, was a little frog of a man with a face so grease-coated that it managed to shine even in the dim afternoon light. He wore a filthy overcoat which, as he heard her footstep snapping a twig and jumped awake, gave off exactly the kind of odour Celia had suspected it might.
She thought perhaps she ought to run away. But @RiponOff44 must be around somewhere. Surely he’d keep her from any harm.
‘Oh!’ the little man said. ‘Miss Fairweather, I presume.’
‘Yes?’ Celia frowned.
The little man stood up and raced forward to clasp her hand. ‘I’m your biggest fan, Miss Fairweather.’ He gestured to a rucksack back on the bench. ‘I’ve brought your thirteen most recent books and I’d love you to sign them for me.’
‘Who on earth are you?’ Celia said.
‘Can’t you guess? I arranged to meet you up here,’ the man said. His breath, which came in saliva-flecked gasps, smelled of scampi-flavoured Nik Naks.
‘You’re @RiponOff44?’ Celia said. ‘But–?’
‘I don’t look much like Daniel Craig, do I?’ @RiponOff44 said, sticking his scarlet, wet tongue out and laughing.
“Daniel Craig. That’s him on my account. It’s a joke,’ @RiponOff44 said. ‘You couldn’t find anyone less like Daniel Craig than me!’
‘Indeed,’ Celia said, failing entirely to see the joke. An immense heat was brewing somewhere behind her eyes.
‘And to be quite honest, you don’t look all that much like your picture either,’ he said.
‘How dare you!’ she said.
‘Don’t be cross, Miss Fairweather. I didn’t mean it. You look beautiful. I’ve read all your books, you see,’ the man went on, still holding fast on to her hands with his hot, sweaty paws. ‘Mother buys me one every week when she goes to the shops. I love Inspector Wildman and the evil Daniel.’
‘Yes,’ Celia said through tight lips.
‘And the way you make us feel that Father James really deserves what he gets. You are a genius, Miss Fairweather.’
‘Thank you.’ Despite all this praise, Celia was furious. It was as if every ounce of her patience had been used up in the past four days. From the moment she stepped on the freezing train with no food, the whole venture had been completely annoying and frustrating. She was there under duress. Not one idea had hit her for a story. All she had met were cheerful, positive people who seemed to love what they did, the places they worked in, the bloody buses they travelled in. And now, even the hope of some sort of romantic dalliance had been dashed from her grasp.
She eyed the little man with barely concealed disgust as, babbling his appreciation of her plot lines, he took her books from his rucksack and arranged them in a straight and ordered line on the wooden bench.
‘Mother says I’m a little obsessed, but wouldn’t you be? I mean, you are the best writer in the whole world, better than E L James, better than Dan Brown, better than Shakespeare. The way you shape words is masterful. Or,’ he laughed, ‘should I say mistressful? I think Mother might be a mite jealous, but she can’t have all of me all the time, can she? You are the Goddess of Crime in my eyes. Will you sign them for me? Please?’
He turned to her, holding out a horrible biro.
‘I’ll use this,’ Celia said, fishing in her bag for her Mont Blanc. She was beginning to feel a little concerned about this man. While outwardly he seemed harmless enough – and he was so small she reckoned she could just swat him away if he tried anything on – there was a strange glint in his eye, as if something inside were slightly out of kilter.
She decided she’d sign the books, then get out as fast as she could. She wondered if it would be possible to run down the slope back to the abbey without slipping.
‘No, no, NO!’ the man said, as she bent to sign the first, Deathly Wishes. He grabbed her arm and tugged her away.
‘Get off me!’ she said, shaking him off.
‘Sorry, but you’ve got to do it properly,’ he said, giggling. ‘You have to sit over there – he pointed to a picnic bench at the other side of the shelter – ‘And I come to you. We’re going to pretend you’ve been on the stage at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and I’m coming up to you afterwards to sign your books.’
‘But this is preposterous!’
‘I’m not allowed to go to the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Mother says it’s a sink of iniquity. They have beer there, you know.’
‘Look. I’ve had enough of this,’ Celia said. ‘I’m going back to the visitor centre and getting a taxi back to Harrogate.’
‘But you haven’t signed my books! You’ve got to sign my books. They’re special, you know.’
‘You got me here by deception!’
‘It was a joke!’
‘Not a very funny one.’
‘And I’ve still got my hair-raising tale to tell you. About the bus.’
Celia paused. She had forgotten about his story. Perhaps she could walk away from this disastrous meeting with at least one thing to her advantage. ‘All right then,’ she sighed. ‘Tell me your story.’
‘But sign my books first.’ He pointed to the picnic bench.
Celia looked at the books, all laid out. If she played along, she’d get the thing over and done with quicker than if she protested. Avoiding his stare, she positioned herself behind the table, ready with her pen.
‘Ready?’ the man said.
He gathered her books into a pile and carried them to her. ‘I really enjoyed your talk, Miss Fairweather,’ he said. ‘Here at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.’
‘Why thank you,’ Celia said.
‘You’re very lovely,’ the man said. He was leaning towards her, smiling strangely. Celia felt a small chill at the back of her neck, and it wasn’t due to the icy rain, which had just turned to sleet.
‘Who shall I make it out to?’ Celia asked, her pen hovering over the page.
‘John,’ he said. ‘My darling John.’
‘How do you spell it?’
‘D A R L I N G.’
‘No, John. Is it John with an H or just J O N?’
‘With an H, of course.’ John looked offended.
After Celia had signed all thirteen books, she replaced the cap on her pen and stood up. ‘Well,’ she said. ‘Your story?’
‘Shall we talk as we walk?’ John said, as he wrapped each book individually in its own plastic bag then put them all back in his rucksack. ‘I think we’re both heading in the same direction.’
Something moving caught Celia’s eye – a flash of something crossing the path in her peripheral vision, making her jump. With a jolt, she turned to see that it was just a group of pheasants, fatted for the kill, fleeing from their unexpected human company.
‘Tell me your hair-raising tale, then,’ she said, turning to go back the way she came.
‘NOT THAT WAY, SILLY!’ John said. ‘This way.’ He pointed in the opposite direction. ‘There’s a much quicker way, through the Serpentine Tunnel.’
‘Yes. It’s ever so exciting.’
Celia shrugged and let him lead her along the path, which seemed, in fact, to be taking them further away from the Abbey.
‘You don’t need that,’ he said, pulling the map from her hands as she tried to look where they were going. ‘I know the way.’
‘What’s your story, then?’ Celia said, trying to keep up with him. She was really getting rather cross now. The man clearly had problems, and was no doubt deserving of some pity. But he was imposing himself far too much on her day. ‘You got me here on false pretences and now you’re playing silly games.’
John stopped and turned on her, his face suddenly puce. ‘THEY’RE NOT SILLY GAMES,’ he yelled, his little fist raised above his head. ‘THIS IS DEADLY SERIOUS.’
‘All right,’ Celia said, backing off from him, holding her hands out in case he lunged at her. He really was a trying man, an odious little man, bent on playing power games. She had really just about had enough of him.
‘I’ll tell you my story when we get to the Serpentine Tunnel.’
‘How long is that going to be?’
‘Not long now,’ he said in a sing-song voice. Then he set off again, like a small, prancing beetle, his rucksack on his back like a scaly carapace. Celia wanted to rip it from him and take her books away. He didn’t deserve her work.
She certainly didn’t want to follow him. But without map, phone, or – it had to be said – sense of direction, she had no choice. The sleet was soaking through her cape now – she knew the wool would be ruined, and she could feel the dampness creeping into her bones. At least she no longer gave a damn about how she looked. She hoped her eyes and nose were red and that her mascara had reached its point of surrender to the rain.
‘Here we are!’ John said, standing at what looked like a brick-built entrance to a cave. ‘The Serpentine Tunnel.’
‘But it’s pitch black inside.’
‘I know. It is. It curves so that you reach a point of utter darkness. Then you come out half way down the hill and you’re nearly back home.’
‘I’m not going in there,’ Celia said. Apart from being scared witless of the dark – not a fact she generally liked to broadcast – there was no way she was going down that God-awful hole with this deranged, stinking little gnome of a man.
‘But I won’t tell you my hair-raising bus tale unless you do,’ he said, smiling at her, showing his yellowed teeth which had a sliver of what looked like kale caught up in them.
‘How long is it?’
‘Only about a hundred yards. But you save a mile over going back the way you came.’
Celia peered into the maw of the tunnel. ‘All right. But then I’m going straight back to the visitor centre.’
‘As you wish.’
‘It’d better be a good story.’
‘It is. The best. Come on, then.’
Celia shuddered as he led her into the dark, damp, tunnel. Mud and God knew what else squelched underfoot and there was a strong stench of something she thought might be rats’ urine. Every part of her knew it was wrong to be following him in there, but she was too tired, too cold, and too desperate for a story to object any further.
‘Stop here,’ John said, as they reached the darkest part, where Celia could not even see the flash of her bruiser of a diamond ring.
‘How far does it stay dark like this?’ she asked, trying not to let the terror sound in her voice. Afraid of reaching her hands out in case she touched him, she hugged her arms around herself and closed her eyes. ‘I want to get out of here.’
‘But I’m going to tell you my story,’ John said.
‘All right, then. But make it snappy, eh?’
‘So…’ John’s voice went quivery. ‘So… I was on the number 36 bus when this man got on and sat next to me. He looked right shifty, so I turned to him and I said “What’s up mate,” I said, and he looked at me and his eyes were sort of glowing red, like coals, then he put his hand forward as sharp as you like and these sparks of fire came flashing out of his fingertips and all I knew next was I was falling, falling through space, and time, falling down into the mouth of Hell, and…’
‘STOP THIS BLOODY RUBBISH AT ONCE!’ Celia yelled. Her limits had been met.
In the damp blackness, something fluttery brushed across her face. Celia had no idea what it was – a bat? A bird? The horrible, creepy little man?
Blind with panic, sick with anger, she bolted forward, swinging out at whatever it was with her Mulberry bag, again and again and again. She hit something soft, bulky.
Using every bit of strength she could muster, she pushed him away. He squealed, tumbled, and she heard the crack of bone on brick. Unstoppable now, she lashed out with her new riding boots, kicking and stamping at where the noise was coming from, until all sound, all whimpers, all screams, even all resistance underfoot, ceased and everything was still and quiet except for her own, heavy panting.
Staggering, she edged her way towards the far end of the tunnel and shortly, thankfully, a dim light began to penetrate the darkness. Once on the other side, she steadied herself against a tree and downed the final Gordons, craning to hear if there was anything other than silence coming from within the tunnel.
Finally satisfied that all was still inside, she checked her reflection and cleaned something nasty from her boots. An unaccustomed calm had come over her. She realised that the last time she had felt such a sense of satisfaction had been thanks to Sergio, in Italy. Following the edge of the lake, she made her way back down to the Visitor Centre. That vile little man had been right about one thing: the tunnel had, indeed, provided a shortcut.
She found the Marketing Manager and asked her if she could use a phone to call a taxi.
‘Did the photographer find you?’ the Visitor Experience and Marketing Manager asked her.
‘There was a large photographer chap. I sent him off in your direction, but you must have missed each other.’
‘Perhaps he didn’t want to get his slippers muddy,’ Celia joked.
‘Did you find what you needed?’ the Marketing Manager asked her.
‘Oh, yes,’ Celia said. ‘I think I did.’