A Damned Agreement by Jason Beech

“No. I’ll not do it.” The man upstairs almost slammed the door off its hinges.

Peter made more marks on the pen he had  been chewing than on the income column in his accounts. He stared at the roaring  fire he’d set to welcome his guests. He thought, maybe, it was roaring for his business plan. The man upstairs had stopped playing ball, and now the ghost party tip-toed into Peter’s isolated joint. They chattered about the moonlit frost surrounding his historic inn and eyed dark corners for apparitions. The inn stood desolate on the misty Yorkshire Moors, and the camera-ready guests ooohed and aaahed at the silvery romance and the prospect of a good haunting.

Peter greeted all ten and gave a taste of the building’s history.

Welcome. Welcome all, to my little inn.” He rubbed his nose and ran his tongue across the back of his teeth. He wished he’d prepared. He didn’t give speeches. “The gentleman highwayman, Dick Turpin, drank here.” He couldn’t help rubbing his hands as he hoped he’d soon rub notes. He waved a hand to the sword above the fireplace. “This was found in the cellar only last year – it could have been his.”

Lips pressed, heads nodded. A woman, maybe in her sixties, introduced herself as “Margery.” Her attention flitted around the dining room. She brushed a little side-table with the back of her fingers as if she tried to read its history from touch.

“How is it living alone out here?” she said. “Financially viable?”

Peter’s head wrinkled as he forced a smile from his stone-set face, surprised at how her eyes turned and pinned him. “Rather scary, actually,” he said. “When the ghosts start moaning … well … it still gets to me.” He grinned at his success in grabbing that stutter.

He rushed back behind the bar, ready to pull beers and serve food.

Margery harrumphed, “Have you had this place renovated?”

“Yes,” he said. He tried to project confidence through each letter, but the ‘s’ elongated into a non-committal drawl. He stroked his arm, calming himself by calculating how much of her cash would transfer to his pocket.

She screwed up her nose. If she hadn’t asked the question, he would have feared she had sniffed the night’s banquet.

“I’m a bit of an amateur historian,” she said to the crowd.

They shuffled their feet, nodded out of politeness, and pretended they had an interest in the horsey paintings which overawed the room.

She whispered loud enough for him to hear, “I don’t believe ghosts have been anywhere near this place. The man is clearly desperate. I think I’ll stick to water, I don’t want his tipples inducing visions that aren’t there.”

*

He’d turned to ghost tours as standards had slipped. Nobody came for the food anymore. Tonight’s coordinator had stayed one evening to shelter from the moor’s bitter cold. The man had played with his food, but he saw the location’s potential, and left his Ghost Tour company business card. Peter had just the thing for them.

Tonight they toured, they waited, they ate, and they drank. And that’s all they did. The coordinator’s bead of sweat must have had contagious qualities, because it made Peter dab at his own brow. Peter gave him a few smug nods at his first anxious glances.
Don’t you worry, his grin said, it’ll happen.
His second grin said, patience.
His eyes couldn’t join in the third grin.

The clock told him midnight had scurried by without a single squeak from the floorboards. Peter mopped his forehead with a napkin. Every word on his tongue had primed for him upstairs. These customers would never return if he let a sentence escape.

“Excuse me,” he said to his guests. “I’ll be right back.”

He crept up the stairs wanting to see the strange shadows which had once made his heart punch his rib cage. The white walls up to the landing shimmered from the moonshine coming through the square above, more a cat-flap than a window.

“Are you there?” he whispered. “Are you there?”

He reached the top and rubbed his chest. He felt like he’d climbed up The Calf in Howgill Fells. He sucked air and regulated his breathing.

“You’ve got to help me out here. Please. Come out … Please …”

He hoped the long silence signified a dramatic effect, but nothing stirred. His head dropped into his shoulders and each step back downstairs felt like a walk to the financial gallows.

He shook as the guests trooped out at one in the morning. Their eyes threw all kinds of cutlery at him, looks that would haunt him for not haunting them. He croaked a “Good night” as the last one left, the customer’s shaking head and wobbly cheeks a damning review. He should have had a plan B, at least had somebody bang a spanner on the pipes.

He thanked his cook and waved her goodbye. He stood alone. His forehead sought comfort against the cold glass in the front door as he watched the party make slow progress into their mini-van.

A scrape on the floorboards in his bedroom made him bolt up the stairs. Too late, you bastard,he said at every other step. Peter kicked his bedroom door open, a little bravado to suppress his nerves. His tiny antique bedside lamp threw less light than the man who stared at him.

“What happened?”

“I’m not your monkey.”

Peter, even after all these months, had not got used to Isaiah’s low growl. Or the way his chin rested and swayed on his chest – his ghost a mirror of his death from the rope. The noose still dangled from his neck, swinging each time his head shifted.

“We had a deal,” Peter insisted. “And you cocked it up. I’m on the verge of financial ruin … we had a damned agreement.”

Isaiah turned from the wardrobe he seemed always to study, like it showed the way to freedom. He strained his eyeballs upward, unable to lift his broken neck. Peter held the door handle tight and put all weight on his back heel.

“I don’t see where my benefit is. What can I do with money?”

“You get your benefits. All you need to do is moan, tramp around the building, and reveal yourself at the end for the paranormal crowd. It’s once a week for God’s sake.”

“You ask too much.”

“I demand what we agreed.” Peter pushed his weight back to the front foot.

“You should never have made me aware. I was happy in oblivion, repeating each day in blissful ignorance until you pulled me into realizing my condition. It’s you who owes me.”

“You live in my place …”

“It’s my place,” Isaiah barked, stamping forwards until they stood toe-to-toe.

Peter’s every sinew shook. The effect clattered from his teeth. The first time he had seen Isaiah, he had run from the house to the wild moors. He had almost broken both ankles in various rabbit and fox holes. He had left his wife alone in bed, frantic with worry at his screams and had returned to find her the colour of flour after she too had encountered the ghost.

Peter didn’t know how, but Isaiah pulled him to the wardrobe and gestured for him to open itdoor. Peter complied, trying his best not to rattle the handle. He half-expected to see his wife’s ghost pointing a Banquo-like finger at him. Instead, he saw a room lit by the three-quarter moon, and felt blood beginning to stabbing his nostrils. He squinted into the gloom. Two women, dressed in smocks, lied listless. Dark gashes exposed their neck vertebrae. At their feet a man laid equally still, a seventeenth-century farmer, his neck the same as the women’s. His open sightless eyes locked to the ceiling. The longer Peter gaped, the more bodies he saw. Old women, young women, varieties of men – their clothes hardly more than rags.

“Is this what you want to trade in?

Peter swayed, swinging the door with each loss of balance. He planted his feet wide apart to gain stability.

“We had an agreement,” Peter whispered. “Let’s do it.”

“You know what I want.”

I just have to say yes?”

“You have to give your permission. All I’ll take is a few hours a day.”

“You’ll come back out?”

“Yes.”

Peter nodded and Isaiah slid into his frame as if he pulled on a new pair of boots.. He could feel Isaiah swim in his blood, luxuriate in tissue he had not experienced for hundreds of years, and then take control of his mind.

Peter gasped for air and realized Isaiah was a liar.

*

“Come on, Margery, let’s get a move on, this place gives me the creeps,” the driver said.

“I have a stone in my shoe, hold your horses.” She had one hand on the mini-van for balance as she emptied gravel from her shoe. “I don’t think there’s any danger of the supernatural in this place.”

Peter heard her voice above the fire, above the wash of Isaiah’s red thoughts. His hands reached, lifted, and weighed the sword. He said no. Isaiah said yes. His consciousness seemed smothered by a pillow, though he felt Isaiah’s strength fill his old muscles. Peter just couldn’t see anything but gravel as his head swiveled side to side across his chest.

I’ll give thee a bloody phantasm, woman!” he heard the Isaiah hiss inside.

“Oh look,” Margery said. “Here’s the ghost. You could at least have poured flour on your head for effect.”

Peter heard the screams burst from within the mini-van. He could only see his feet, yet felt his hands rise above his head. He slashed the sword downward and stumbled. The woman sounded a grunt, but remained agile as she danced round the attempt on her head. Blood curled around gravel stones in the drivewayHe tried to lift his head to see the woman, but it only swivelled round his chest.

Useless,” Isaiah thought, and Peter felt every pang in that disapproval.

Peter realised the blood came from his own leg. That downward swing had sliced his thigh. He loosened his grip on the sword and it bounced off the floor as he slipped to one knee and into the cold steel. His left leg had numbed and now sharpness ran through his stomach. Peter fell to his side and spat blood, his hands on the blade which had sliced through his leg and pierced his lolling neck. He watched Isaiah pull from his body, leaving a vacuum for pain to fill. The ghost cursed. Again, it called him useless.

More screams. Peter would like to have joined their yells, but he could only gurgle and thrash. Shouts of “ghost” tolled in his ears.

Margery bent over him and tutted.

Well, I never, you weren’t lying after all.”

*

BIO: Jason Beech writes crime stories and the occasional bit of horror. He loves a bit of James Ellroy, a binge of Breaking Bad, and a dash of Peaky Blinders. Bullets, Teeth & Fists and Triple Zombie are available on Amazon, and you can read his short stories at Pulp Metal Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Plots with Guns, and The Flash Fiction Offensive.

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