Woodlands

A Supernatural Short Story by Bob Johnston

Woodlands

by Bob Johnston

More TTTV stories by Bob Johnston: https://talltaletv.com/tag/bob-johnston/

Bob Johnston lives in Scotland where he works, writes, and rides a silver motorcycle into the hills when the weather isn’t terrible. He has been writing since childhood after a too early introduction to the likes of Michael Moorcock and H P Lovecraft. He has had several stories published in the genres of horror and science fiction, but his next published piece will be a love story with a fantasy edge. Four of his stories can be found at bobjohnstonfiction.com

 

 

Ferris came off the highway, negotiated the tight, complex three-way junction and swung up the hill towards the 40 mph stretch. He was, of course, already accelerating to avoid the inevitable tailgating behind him. The road swung by a beaten-up fence and he noticed the sign again.
SELL YOUR HOUSE QUICKLY
0141 SOMETHING
He had seen it a few times as he passed and it always piqued his interest. At least it piqued his interest for a moment until he became aware of another impatient driver close to his tail, even though he was actually exceeding the speed limit.
On the days when he was not distracted from it he wondered if it ever got any business. Who, exactly, would actually phone that number, whatever it was? The sign wasn’t even particularly colorful or tidy. Just a message and a landline number, and that, in itself, was odd. Who used a landline anymore?
This time the road was quiet and he had a few seconds to actually look at the sign. Gray card, black print, nailed to a telegraph pole, but a bit back from the road and partially obscured by undergrowth. A mile further on he came to the junction into the estate where he lived. He stopped, looked in his rearview mirror, checked that the other three roads were all empty, and turned the car around and went back to the sign.
He parked on a patch of waste ground, and crossed the unusually empty road. The undergrowth was thick but the ground was level and he carefully made his way up to the post. He scribbled the phone number onto a scrap of paper and tried to find anything else on the sign. There was nothing. No address, no contact name, no printer’s information.
Behind the post was a gate so old and decrepit it looked like it had grown into the fences on either side. Beyond it another band of undergrowth, and then a field leading down towards a river just visible through trees. He turned, took a step forward and almost walked in front of a car. Behind it, tailgating, was another car and then another. The main road had suddenly come back to its normal, chaotic life.
In the near five minutes it took for a big enough gap to appear and let him cross he thought about just how bad the driving was in this part of the city. It wasn’t great anywhere, but here was truly awful. It was like some mad god had gotten hold of the controls of a Scalextric slot car racing set.
He reached his car, and the relative safety of the waste ground, where he stood and watched the traffic for a few minutes. The next trial would be getting back onto the road. He looked back across the road and wondered what sort of person would answer a sign like that? Who could be so desperate that they would call an unknown number, speak to an unknown person, and discuss selling the biggest and most important thing they had ever purchased?
And what sort of person would put their phone number on an old fashioned, unattractive piece of card on a barely visible post beside a (usually) homicidally busy main road? By the time he made it home he had an idea to run by his wife.
Sal was a gem and a reliable sounding board for his plans and schemes. And this certainly wasn’t the craziest piece of freelance consumer writing he had proposed. Pose as someone interested in selling their house quickly, make up a story about hardship, and, hopefully, expose one of those cons that read well on the internet, the newspapers, and, if luck was with him, on radio or TV. The sort of con that is transparently obvious, but usually only after the grifter is long gone with your money.
Ferris and Sal stretched out on the sofa, his arm around her shoulders, and they worked out the back story together. It had to be their own home as he had no ID for any other address. As with all the best lies, stick as close to the truth as possible; so he was a freelance writer, but the work just hadn’t been coming in. If push came to shove make vague reference to a personal money issue. Alcohol or gambling, something like that but, otherwise, keep it simple.
In truth he and Sal were far from rich but doing fine. He was just fascinated by the sign, and by the people likely to respond to it. It might turn into a piece someone would buy but, otherwise, it would be a nice personal project. Every experience was useful for something further down the line.
He went to sleep that night, with Sal snuggled up close behind, happy and relaxed. He was looking forward to the coming adventure.
#
Well rested, light breakfast eaten with a cup of hot, milky tea, and notes laid out in front of him, Ferris dialed the number. There was a delay and then a dialing note he had never heard before. He had called numbers all round the world but this gentle trill was definitely not anywhere in the city or even the country.
A click, a sound like cascading water, and then a wall of noise like every Dalek in a Doctor Who Christmas special speaking at once. Then the loveliest male voice he had heard in a long time.
“Hello. Can I help you?”
He made his several-times rehearsed pitch and waited.
“I’m sure we can help you, Mr. Ferris. You understand that we aim to make quick sales and that will probably mean below market value but I would not expect you to lose on any deal. Can you bring the relevant paperwork to one of our locations?”
There was a moment of confusion when the speaker directed him to a location close to a river to the south, rather than to the river he had seen through the trees to the north. In that moment of confusion he discovered that there were rivers to the south and north, and that they had names, the Rotten Calder and the North Calder Water respectively. He really had to go walking more often. He was directed to Woodlands the northern location.
Time and again he tried to get a name from the man with the lovely voice but there always seemed to be another piece of information that had to be exchanged first. Ferris noted down every detail of the conversation, including this apparent deflection. Finally he cut into one of the man’s short, but frequent monologs.
“Can I take your name?”
There was a moment that could easily be construed as offense, but almost immediately that beautiful, disarming voice came back.
“Of course, Mr. Ferris. I am Barnaby. I’m a middle man but you can rely on me if there are any hiccups or questions.”
The only specific problem with the arrangements was that he had to go through that gate behind the sign, and then across the field to Barnaby’s house. That, in itself, was no great problem but he had to cross that damned road again.
Sal dropped him off at the piece of waste ground and then drove home. The deal was he would call on the hour. If he didn’t then she should call the police. He crossed the road, having to jump as some idiot accelerated towards him. Then he turned and waited until Sal drove by with a gentle toot on the horn. It was broad daylight and Barnaby had sounded as straight as a die, but it was good knowing she was a mile up the road and on call.
He made his way carefully past the sign, struggled with the rusted bolt on the gate, got it open, and then made sure it was locked behind him. The last thing he wanted was some poor cow or horse getting out of the field and discovering the standard of 21st century driving.
The undergrowth beyond was narrow, and the field was flat and even as he made his way down towards the river. To his left and much higher up was the main highway and its constant rumble of traffic. Moving here had been a great decision. The neighbors were helpful but unintrusive, they were half an hour from the city center, and the local shopping was more than adequate. The only problem was the ring of main roads that surrounded the area. The noise was almost constant.
Barnaby’s house was tiny but it fitted neatly into the small clearing close to the river. A small group of people were sitting around a tidy but well-lit fire. He could feel the heat as he approached. A tall man stood as he approached and held out a hand.
“Mr. Ferris. I am Barnaby. It is so good to meet you.”
He was as attractive as his voice. He oozed trust and confidence but was not overbearing. Ferris took the offered hand and shook.
“Please, call me John.” Barnaby smiled before pointing Ferris to an empty camp chair He nodded to the group sitting round the fire and they all greeted him in one way or another.
Barnaby handed him a cup of something.
“It’s a cordial, not alcoholic, just in case you’re driving.”
It was delicious, a sublime mix of ginger, blackcurrant and something else. He sipped it like it was the finest brandy.
Barnaby looked through the papers Ferris had brought and was happy that a sale was possible. He returned them to Ferris.
“We will need the originals at some point but first, why are you selling up? This is a great area, apart from the roads. But, of course, it’s the roads that add to the appeal. You can get anywhere in half an hour.”
Ferris launched into his rehearsed story and Barnaby seemed happy with it. Then Ferris moved into his own questions.
“What do you charge for arranging the sale?”
“£1000.”
Ferris paused. “A thousand pounds? That’s it?”
Barnaby laughed, exposing his perfect white teeth. Even the laugh was perfect.
“Very well. How much do you want us to charge you?”
Ferris was suddenly on the defensive. He shook his head.
“No, of course I don’t mean that, but it isn’t a lot for a house sale.”
Barnaby pointed to the dark, silent house.
“We don’t have a lot of overheads. This is what you might call a community project, a lifeline for people struggling with the day to day.” His smile faltered a little. “It isn’t often I hear someone in financial difficulties referring to a thousand pounds as not a lot. I have spoken with people who cannot afford a pint of milk. Not a great statement in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.”
Ferris had made a mistake. The most ridiculous thing about it was that he was by no means wealthy. He and Sal would struggle to pull together a thousand, but they could do it, at a push. It really, simply was that he knew how high house-sale commissions could be. He looked into the eyes of this disarmingly handsome and reasonable man.
“My wife and I are trying to pre-empt problems. I was pulling in regular work until a year ago but I am beginning to think I need to change what I do, and where we live.”
He had gone from a twisted truth to an out and out lie. Was that a flash he had just seen in Barnaby’s right eye? Probably the reflection of a headlight up on the highway. It was getting dark. Barnaby smiled.
“Let me introduce you to the team.” He moved round the group of men and women, four in total, rhyming off names that most people would quickly forget but, in the rhyming, Ferris clicked into an old method of creating a mnemonic to recall those names.
Mary – Hair is slightly scary
Jack – really pale, not black
Garry – powerful, definitely won’t tarry
Sue – Sweet, why would I sue?
They were a regular bunch of people, nothing threatening or creepy about them. They said “Hi” and he responded.
He looked around the group who looked back. Barnaby threw some logs onto the fire. Ferris checked the time. He had a good fifteen minutes before Sal sent in the cavalry.
“So why do you do this? It seems like a lot of work to help people who maybe got themselves in deeper than they expected.” He flicked (seamlessly he hoped) into the lie. “That’s where I am. Couple of years back the money was coming in, not huge but regular and we took the plunge. Now we want something smaller. I don’t want to be that fellow who can’t afford a pint of milk.”
Barnaby smiled understandingly. For a moment too long, perhaps? No, he was fine.
“We want to help, that’s all. We find that you get to know the real person when they are dealing with a crisis. It sort of distils them down, gets rid of the nonsense, lets the truth come out. You could say we are interested in real people, and not people the way they would like to be seen.”
Ferris couldn’t imagine ever being that interested in people but, hey, each to their own. “What next?” he asked.
“Sue (sweet, why would I sue) will e-mail you to establish contact. From then on it’s just a matter of passing information back and forward. We’ll find a buyer, you agree a price, we take our thousand, and that pays for the next owner we help, as well as our…” he looked round the clearing, “…ground rent.”
Ferris sipped some more of the cordial. It was delicious, an absolute blast of midwinter sugar. He felt safe in this group, with the fire crackling in front of him and the friendly company. He looked up into the darkening sky and listened to the constant sound of traffic, and this only bolstered the sense of safety. This tiny corner of land, between two main roads and a river was an island of safety, and the people who worked here were that rare thing these days, good and interested in others.
Barnaby walked him back to the gate, even saying hello to Sal on the phone as Ferris called her to come and pick him up. Barnaby waved to her and she waved to him from across the road. A last handshake, another perilous crossing of that damned road, and Ferris and Sal were tucked up on their couch fifteen minutes later.
Ferris had enjoyed his time down at Woodlands and the company of such a strange, benevolent group. Beyond anything else it had been a revelation how many woodlands, farmlands, and rivers there were in this densely populated, suburban dormitory district of the city.
#
The first emails were businesslike, but Ferris made the mistake of ignoring them. Barnaby’s set up was odd, but a story about a charitable group looking out for people who were struggling financially didn’t really have the sort of appeal his editors were looking for. They were a bunch of good people helping out. The public prefers monsters exploiting everyone. The grubbier the better. It was hardly a noble way to make a living but it paid the bills and, if he didn’t do it, someone else would.
The third, signed by Jack (really pale, not black), was a weightier piece of correspondence. Unless Ferris explained his reasons for wasting the group’s time then legal action was a distinct possibility. Quite how spending less than an hour in someone’s company constituted some legal offense was beyond Ferris but he had stayed clear of the law all his life and preferred to remain in that non-relationship.
He replied.
‘Apologies for not getting back sooner but our circumstances have changed for the better. We don’t need to sell anymore, so thank you for your help and best wishes for the future.’
The next communication came through the letter box.
‘I have checked you out, John, sorry, Mr. Ferris. I understand that your line of work requires that you are economical with the truth from time to time. Unfortunately that is not how we work and, in our culture, there are consequences attached to lying. You would do well to get your affairs in order within the next three months.
Signed – The handsome man.’
The threat was direct (if cryptically signed) but he doubted the police could do much with it. He only knew that the piece of land he had met Barnaby on was called Woodlands after he had checked a map. What the hell had happened to communities that they didn’t know anything beyond the neighboring couple of streets? He looked at the note, realized it could not be tied to Barnaby or Woodlands, and he sighed.
What the hell had he gotten himself into?
There were no more emails and no more letters, but a final short phone call confirmed that the three-month deadline was serious. The phone had rung, he had recognized the landline number and he had answered. There was another series of bizarre sounds, as if the speaker was trying to force their way along cables and signals. Then Barnaby, as clear as day.
“Don’t speak. Jot this down.” He waited a full minute but said nothing. “Tara Mayberry, Kirkwood and Josh Aitken, Ellismuir.” Then the phone went dead. Ferris felt a chill in his gut. Those names were familiar, and the areas were only a few miles away.
As he suspected, two unsolved, mysterious murders. No excessive violence but a missing tongue in each case. Ferris took the point. Barnaby’s group didn’t like lies. But come on, people, there are lies and lies. He doubted he would get much looking into Tara and Josh, other than bringing suspicion on himself so, instead, he went to work studying Woodlands and anything associated with the sign nailed to telegraph poles. The little that came back was uniformly positive.
–       Took a chance. Got rid of the house. Happy –
–       Didn’t get the ridiculous market price but cleared my feet –
–       Glad to be part of the movement to stop our economy being based on absurd, artificial house prices. Living smaller, living happier –
–       Barnaby is gorgeous, what they are doing is gorgeous, where we are now is smaller but gorgeous, life is gorgeous –
Didn’t sound like the sort of group that might dish out three-month death threats, and then act on them.  Of course none of the contributors appeared to be journalists, a profession that received as much adulation as condemnation, depending on your personal experience of it. One thing this three-month countdown had achieved was making him look at his life and career a bit more closely. He had always complacently seen himself as one of the good guys, but he had written some questionable stuff about people. Never out and out lies but always colored in a negative way.
Then there was the fact that the threat was now unnecessary as the story wasn’t happening in any case. It was just too goody goody for his readership. Barnaby’s people came over as a group of well-intentioned folks just doing their best for their fellow man and woman. That, in itself, was actually a pretty good story, but it wasn’t the relentless misery stuff that Ferris and his closer colleagues generally peddled.
Ferris thought some sort of approach might be an idea. There was no return address and he was understandably wary of visiting Woodlands. They had used email, so he sent a message that way.
‘How do I make this right? I just thought there was a story. There is no need to threaten me. I am harmless. I wish I wasn’t, but there you are.”
Silence.
Time passed and months became weeks. Ferris thought that most people would have let Barnaby’s threats pass and would then have just gotten on with their lives. Maybe that’s what Tara and Josh did. He then began to realize that he and Sal were not as tough as they thought they were. Their safe life in their safe house became a building filled with glass weak points. The traffic, God the traffic, became a problem as every passing headlight brought to mind that flare in Barnaby’s eye.
Never had three months passed so quickly and Ferris was determined not to leave things to the last minute. Some of the stories he had done might not have been the fairest portrayals of their subjects, but he was careful with facts and he was efficient and prompt with his time. He dug deeper into Woodlands
The location itself was, as he had seen, a wooded hollow, quite isolated by the busy roads to the west and north, and a loop of the North Calder Water to the south and east. The river itself meandered away east and west, creating boggy ground that even house builders didn’t want. Despite housing schemes within a mile on all sides Woodlands might as well have been a desert island, given its inaccessibility.
Reasoning that he couldn’t be the only one who had fallen foul of Barnaby he began digging through local archives for any stories attached to the place. Nothing apart from the mysterious deaths and they were not being linked to Woodlands in any way. Why would they be? Clearly most of Barnaby’s clients were straight shooters and happy with the service he and his group had provided.
With two weeks to go he nervously drove down to the sign again. Sal stayed at home with the assurance that he would call in every half hour, and he would not go into the field or down to the river. He flipped his turning lights on and slowed down to pull into the piece of waste ground. A car mere inches behind his bumper mistook the signal for a turn at the junction twenty yards further on. Headlights filled his rearview mirror and a horn sounded several times.
‘Jeez,’ he muttered. ‘They’re complaining because you don’t do what they expect you to.’ He was growing less enchanted with the area every day.
He stopped behind a parked truck and got out of the car. Across the road Barnaby was standing by the sign talking to a shorter man. The gate to the field was open behind him. What to do now? Should he walk up to them and then put up with that awful wait while other people finish off a conversation? What if Barnaby just refused to speak with him?
He stood by the car and watched the exchange as cars zipped by on both sides, most driving too close, horns blaring regularly. Barnaby looked up, saw him, and then looked back at his companion. He wasn’t going to engage with him.
Ferris checked his watch and phoned Sal. “I can see him by the side of the road. He’s speaking with someone and he’s seen me, but I don’t think he’s going to talk.”
Twilight was coming and Ferris suddenly spotted lights coming on high above the road. He had been aware of the high land beyond the river but, partly because he had been too afraid to come back to the place, he had missed how big it was. A cliff rose sixty feet above the river and followed it as it enclosed Woodlands. The area was not only isolated, it was probably impregnable as well. Barnaby and his people had chosen a good spot to be invisible in plain sight.
The lights were from a complex of farm buildings on top of the cliff. That gave him a reason to go home. Find out what the farm was and where the access road to it was.
“I’ll be home in ten minutes, sweetheart. Put the kettle on.”
“Will do. We’ll get through this, John, I’m sure we will.”
Barnaby handed the man a bundle of bank notes and the man handed over a small grey bag. He then walked away while Barnaby looked across the road. Without smiling he lifted his arm and gently tapped an imaginary wristwatch. Then he walked through the gate, closed it behind him and walked into the gathering darkness.
Barnaby’s companion walked past Ferris without a glance and climbed into the truck parked in front of his car. Ferris saw him for a moment in the large side mirror but then he disappeared, presumably into the rear of the cab. This piece of waste ground often had truckers resting in it. Ferris pocketed his phone, took a last look at the farm on the cliff, and then made his way home.
#
Crowflat Farm was accessed from the western road, about half a mile from Ferris’s house. Of course getting onto the access road meant crossing the road and he ended up sitting with his turning lights on for several minutes before an oncoming car slowed, flashed its headlights and let him cross. Behind him horns blared as if making a wide turn was the biggest crime in the world.
He drove slowly and carefully up the steep rough road. He had considered phoning but realized he would sound like a nut. Turning up carried the same risk but it was harder to turn a desperate man away than it was to hang up on him. It was night, not a time he wanted to be anywhere near Woodlands, but probably a better time to meet the owner of the farm. In any case the small house and camp fire were sixty feet below him, the cliffs giving a measure of comfort.
The farmhouse was modern and brightly lit. The complex of buildings older but well maintained. As he came to a stop the front door opened and a woman came out. She came up to the car and bent in as he lowered the window.
“You’ve got yourself lost, young man. Where are you heading?”
“Here. I’m in trouble. I’ve managed to upset a group who live down in Woodlands and I wondered if you knew anything about them.”
She stood up straight, turned her head back to the house and called. “Tam. We’ve got another one fallen foul of Barnaby.”
A man appeared at the door, tall and a bit stooped. He waved his arm wearily.
“Come on in. I’ll make some tea.”
The Sinclairs, Tam and Jen, were a pleasant, middle aged couple who were happy to talk. Not so happy about the subject matter. Tam took a noisy swig of tea and then started.
“Barnaby and his group have been down there for years. It’s part of my land but it’s too waterlogged to be much use for anything, so having them there is no great hardship, if they would just stay there and not keep visiting. The problem is that Barnaby is convinced that his father, and then his grandfather before him, struck a deal with the owners of this farm that they could stay down there forevermore, so long as they paid an appropriate tribute to this farm.”
Ferris thought about this for a moment. “So they struck a deal with your father…”
Jen jumped in. “No, we bought the farm twenty years ago and there was no mention of camping rights or anything else. We’ve had time to think about things and we take the view that old MacFarlane wanted out and wanted out fast. The thing is that there were no people in Woodlands when we moved in. If there had been a group during MacFarlane’s time then they had left before he did, or around the same time. So we got the place for a song and everything was fine for a few years.”
Ferris waited until Tam took up the story. “Then this Barnaby appears at the door with his story about old camping rights and this ‘tribute’ they’ll pay. Says they’re back and want to ensure it’s still good to use Woodlands. He was really persuasive. By the time he left we thought it was a perfect win-win. They get the use of a field and some woodland that we can’t use and there’s a bit of money thrown in.”
Jen frowned. “Just a bit. Five hundred pounds, which is nice, but it’s never regular. And his father and grandfather may have struck a deal in the past but he’s unwilling to even give us their names.”
Tam nodded. “What is it he said? ‘Family business, Tam, arguments, best forgotten about.’”
Ferris sat back and nodded. “Not perfect, but it doesn’t sound like a bad deal. So what’s the problem? Are they bad neighbors?”
“Far from it, but I reckon at least once a year we get someone like yourself knocking at our door asking if we can help them out of trouble. Then there were the murders. We recognized the girl. She came to the door. Don’t know the boy, though, but the way they died was so similar.”
“Did you go to the police?”
Jen again. “What would they do? Talk to them, tell them what we said, and then do nothing. And then we’ve possibly got a problem of our own. Why upset the apple cart for no reason? And, as Tam says, they don’t bother us.”
Tam got up and went over to a sideboard. He opened the top drawer and took out a white pouch that chinked as he lifted it. He handed it to Ferris.
“Have a look.”
Inside were dozens of identical gold coins, all with a pentagram on one side and a beautiful but disturbing image of a goat on the other. Tam sat down again and pointed.
“That’s how Barnaby pays, with gold that’s almost pure, I’ve had it tested. He won’t take no for an answer and I can’t find a dealer who will buy the damned things from me. Some trade secret, I suppose. They won’t touch them but they won’t say why. So from time to time Barnaby appears with a little bag of these and I get to keep them in a drawer.”
Jen poured them all more tea.
“I assume you lied to them. That seems to be the consistent story we hear. They seem to be some sort of travelling people and they live by their own laws, and those laws seem to be really strict.”
She suddenly went silent as a splash of light crossed the frosted glass of the front door, came through the clear glass of their living room door, and lit up the wall behind her for a moment.
“That’s another car coming up the path.”
Tam got up. “That’s Barnaby. I spotted him swapping paper money for, I assume, those coins on the road a few days ago.”
Ferris nodded sadly. “Me too.”
Tam motioned Ferris to follow him to the front door which he opened. “Get away from here. There are more people come to our door than killings we know about. It might be that the best thing to do is just leave. Meantime, drive your car round the back of the house and stay quiet until Barnaby leaves. Go.”
Ferris nodded and ran to his car. He did as Tam had instructed and drove round the back, lights off and stopped in a shadowed spot where he could see through the Sinclair’s kitchen window and, through a serving hatch, to the room he had just left. Barnaby entered and handed Tam a small pouch. The view was hardly ideal but Tam’s reluctance to take the pouch was obvious, even at this distance.
Barnaby looked down, bent round Tam a little, and stood up holding the tea cup Ferris had been drinking from. The two men spoke a few words before Tam took the cup from Barnaby and replaced it on the coffee table. Ferris screwed up his eyes, trying to gauge Barnaby’s mood. He looked annoyed but it was none of his business who Tam and Jen invited into their home.
Some more words were exchanged before Barnaby left. Tam came back into the room and flopped down out of sight. Ferris sat back in his seat and let out a long sigh. Give Barnaby ten minutes, then get out of here, get back to the house, and arrange to get the hell out of the area as quickly as possible.
When he slowly drove away from the house Tam waved from the kitchen window. He returned the wave and turned onto the main path where he looked down into Woodlands and saw that the fire was blazing beside the little house. He drove slowly back down the steep access road.
At the bottom he stopped at the main road. He felt exhausted from the tension of the past couple of hours. The traffic suddenly slackened, and then the road cleared just as a truck appeared at the bend where the sign was. Ferris saw that it was moving a bit slower than the usual frantic dash on this stretch, but it was tricky, in the dark, to judge whether or not to move out.
Then he saw the brilliant flash of its headlights, followed by equally bright lights higher up, and he took this as a signal to come out. As he pulled out into the road, though, the truck suddenly accelerated and, as it bore down on him, he saw that the topmost lights were not a part of the truck at all. They were from the eyes of the driver and passenger who glared at him as his compact car was crushed and then ripped apart by the impact.
Barnaby stepped down from the truck so lightly he seemed to float. He walked through the burning debris without giving the flames a thought, and found the mangled remains of Ferris still strapped into his seat that had somehow come to a rest almost upright. He was still alive but not for much longer. One eye looked up at Barnaby. The other was destroyed.
The bright white glow in Barnaby’s eyes that had helped dupe Ferris into driving forward had dwindled to a steely blue. In the flickering flames Barnaby no longer looked handsome. Right now he looked more like his true self. Ferris drew in a pained, uneven breath.
“This? For a thousand pounds?”
Barnaby shook his head. “The point has to be made, the law observed.”
Ferris managed to look up and down the impossibly silent road. Somehow Barnaby was controlling drivers at both ends. Then he smiled, or at least the closest thing to a smile his wrecked face was capable of. The roads in this area were just a moving, seething network of anger and rage. And, if there were emotions that were easy to manipulate, they were anger and rage. He and Sal should never have moved here. The place was just wrong.
Behind Barnaby Ferris saw headlights coming down the hill from Tam and Jen’s farm. They must have seen the flames.
Barnaby was disarmingly handsome again. “I’d best get going. Don’t want to upset the landlord, eh?” He looked at Ferris one last time. “I’m not sure which direction you’re heading, but we may be seeing one another again real soon.”
As he passed, the truck driver went down on one knee and bowed his head.
Barnaby nodded to him. “He pulled out in front of you. Keep it simple.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
Barnaby then simply winked out of sight, leaving utter destruction behind him. As the life drained out of him the last thing Ferris heard, at both ends of the road, were the sounds of approaching vehicles.

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