Night Off

Written by Glassdarkly, October 2006

"You're very naughty boys, both of you."

Dave almost jumped out of his skin at the sound of a female voice coming out of the darkness. He was spooked enough anyway, what with being in a bloody cemetery on Halloween, though of course he hadn't let on how he felt to Jase.

It'd been Jase's idea of course. He'd been over the back wall and into Highgate many times nicking stuff – bits and pieces off gravestones – rare ferns stolen to order – but it was Dave's first time.

"Who's there?" The beam of Jase's torch swung in a wild arc over the surrounding undergrowth, barely penetrating the crepuscular gloom under the trees. The light picked out a stone angel, hands folded in prayer, and there, with her arms around the angel's waist and her head resting on its shoulder as if it were an old familiar friend, was a girl. She was a looker too, if you liked that sort of thing – small and delicate, her heart-shaped face framed by long dark curls. Her pale eyes caught the light of the torch and seemed to reflect it, like a cat's.

"Bloody hell!" Jase's hand holding the torch steadied. "You scared the crap out of us, you daft cow. What're you doing here?"

Dave realised he'd edged behind Jase, using the other man's bulk as a shield. He hoped Jase hadn't noticed.

The girl, meanwhile, answered Jase's question by kissing the stone angel on the cheek and letting go of it. She began to move towards them, her feet below the reach of the torch beam so she seemed to glide across the ground rather than walk. It was bloody creepy – and made even more so by the fact that she wore a flimsy-looking long white dress, like some kind of fancy nightie.

Suddenly, there was a heavy weight on Dave's foot and he yelped. Jase had taken a step backwards in face of the girl's advance and trodden on him.

"Watch it, mate!" Jase looked back over his shoulder to see what he'd stepped on and his momentary distraction caused the torch beam to dip wildly. When he lifted it again the girl was right in front of them, close enough to touch.

"Fuck!" This time Jase dropped the torch completely so all that could be seen were the girl's bare feet, the toenails painted so dark that in the sickly glare of yellow light, they looked black as ink.

"Clumsy boy!" A dainty hand appeared in the pool of fallen light and the girl bent down and retrieved the torch, holding it out to Jase and – when he took it gingerly – giving him a little curtsey.

It was at this point Dave decided she had to be barmy. How else to explain her complete lack of fear? After all, they were men, both of them twice her size if not more, and there were two of them while she was all alone.

Jase seemed to have recovered a little from his fright because he began to bluster.

"Dunno what you're on," he said to the girl, "wanderin' round here by yourself in the middle of the night. Just fuck off out of it."

The girl tilted her head on one side like a bird and regarded them unblinking. It was hard to tell the colour of her eyes in what light there was but Dave thought maybe they were blue.

"I can't," she said, in a matter-of-fact voice. "Not tonight. It's our night off, see, and my little Spike says I'm not allowed."

She began to drift away from them again, arms outstretched as if she were flying. The wind was getting up and above them the trees were creaking and groaning under their festoons of ivy. The thrashing foliage was all yellow and black in the torchlight and under Dave's feet the carpet of fallen leaves lifted and heaved as if some enormous beast underneath was shaking itself and trying to dislodge him.

"Spike? That a bloke or a dog?" Jase laughed. He'd got his bottle back, it seemed, and Dave was beginning to feel better too. It was just some silly little Goth bint, he told himself, off her head on something and wandered away from a Halloween party. Nothing to be scared of.

The girl had reached a monument with a stone lion on it. She ran a hand along the curve of its back. "Nice kitty," she said. Then she looked back over her shoulder at Dave and Jase, eyes big and pale as lamps. "Why don't you come and see?" she said. "I left him in Egypt but I'm going back there now before he misses me. You can come with me if you like."

"What the bloody hell's she talking about?" Dave watched her fade back into the gloom until her white dress and pale arms were the only parts of her that remained to be seen. He shivered. The wind was bloody chilly.

Jase didn't answer. Instead, he set off after her. "Come on, mate."

Puzzled, Dave followed him. "Where're we goin'?"

Jase laughed again. "Goin' to bloody Egypt, aren't we? You should see this, Dave old son. They got this big gateway see – done up like some temple in Ancient Egypt - sloping passageway on the other side with doorways leading off from it down into family crypts – posh ones, like Park Avenue for stiffs. Always meant to have a shufti around there and see what wasn't nailed down."

Dave hurried after him, because much as he didn't want to go he wanted even less to be left alone in the dark with nothing but the sound of the wind in the trees for company.

"Thought you said you were just after a few plants this evenin'," he protested. "Nick a few ferns for a regular client, you said."

"Yeah, I know." Jase didn't stop but he lowered his voice as he answered. "Had second thoughts, mate. Besides, she's off her trolley – play our cards right and I think she'll be up for it."

Dave hadn't even thought of the girl that way until Jase said it. She'd been too creepy by half to have any attraction for him. But when Jase began to run like a hound on the scent he followed him, pounding down the dirt track in the direction the girl had taken. Dead leaves blew in his face and the torchlight flicked past tombstones half-overgrown with ivy, some upright, some leaning drunkenly, like broken teeth in the earth's gaping mouth. The night smelt of leaf-mould and mud and decay.

Jase was beginning to pant, being a big bloke and a smoker to boot. Up ahead, all they could see of the girl was a faint white glimmer like a marshlight. She didn't appear to be moving very fast but they couldn't seem to catch her. Dave could hear her singing to herself – something that sounded suspiciously like a nursery rhyme, though Dave didn't know it.

"Here it is." Jase stopped so suddenly that Dave ran into the back of him. Jase was breathing hard, bent over, hands on knees, as he tried to get his breath back. "Where the bloody hell did she go?"

He held out the torch to Dave and Dave took it. They were in an open space, bounded on all sides by massive trees, their branches rattling and thrashing in the roaring wind. It was like being lost at sea. Dave shone the torch around him and gasped in astonishment as the beam glanced over worn stone pillars decorated with crumbling patterns. They stood sentinel on each side of a yawning gateway that led into an upwards-sloping tunnel. The light didn't reach far into it but Dave could see walls on both sides and black openings in those walls, like blind eyes leading into yet deeper darkness.

"What the fuck -?" he began, thoroughly rattled now, but Jase laughed the wheezing ghost of a laugh.

"Used to bury 'em in style, didn't they?" he said. "Posh bastards thought they were the sodding Pharoahs."

In spite of himself, Dave moved closer to the black gateway as if something were pulling him. The rusty gates were wide open and the wind blew straight down the hill through them. There was no sign of the girl but suddenly a small wavering flame appeared in the shadows inside the tunnel and then a cigarette-tip glowed bright red.

"Couldn't've put it better myself," a man's voice said, and then the darkness seemed to unfold itself and someone was there, leaning against the wall next to one of the black doorways. Dave's heart lurched in his chest. He shone the torch beam upwards, across dully gleaming black leather until it reached a pale face with cheekbones sharp as blades, then on up to a crown of bleached-blond hair all tousled and blown about by the wind.

Jase had move up behind Dave by this time. "Must be her boyfriend," he muttered, sounding disappointed. "They make a right bloody pair don't they?"

"Boo!" The girl's voice came from their left, right next to Dave, and there she was resolving out of the stygian darkness under the trees. She wafted past them towards the man, who pushed away from the wall and strolled out through the gates to meet her.

"Dru," he said, and his voice was velvet-soft when he said the name, "Where'd you pick this lot up, then? It's our night off, remember?"

The girl walked round behind him, long pale fingers trailing across his black leather shoulders. "I told them that," she said. "They came here to rob the nice dead people, naughty boys, but I can't help it if they want to be friends with me instead."

The man laughed – a dirty snigger of a laugh, earthy and real, contrasting oddly with the eeriness of their surroundings. He began to walk to his right while the girl circled back round to her left, and now Dave found himself turning around, trying to keep them both in sight. He was scared and he didn't know why, because the bloke was only pint-sized and the girl was tiny. But there was something about them – the sure-footed way they moved – prowled almost – like big cats or wolves – something predatory anyway.

"Friends," the man said now. "That what you call it? Can't say they look very friendly to me."

By this time, they'd travelled in a complete circle round Dave and Jase and were facing them. Now they joined hands and began to move forward. Dave felt Jase's hand on his arm and realised he was moving backwards in the direction of the looming gateway.

"Steady, mate," Jase said, but his voice wobbled. "They're just a couple of silly kids dressed up – think they're scary but they aren't really."

"Oh, but we are," the girl said. "We're very scary – especially me. Daddy always said so."

"She's fucking nuts!" Dave heard his voice say but the white-haired man only laughed again.

"Seems whatever else they are, they're not completely clueless," he said. "What d'you think, Dru? Should we let 'em go or not?"

"Let them go?" The girl's voice was almost a wail. "But Spike – we haven't even played any games with them yet."

The man rolled his eyes, as if he'd heard this too many times already. "Well, that's the whole fucking point of Halloween, isn't it? We're not supposed to play games tonight. It's our night off."

The girl made a sound in her throat like a kitten mewing. "But I'm hungry," she said. "My tummy's all growly."

"Why the fuck are we listening to this?" Jase muttered. He pulled at Dave's arm but Dave couldn't tear his eyes off the squabbling couple, beautiful and terrifying, white hair and white dress glimmering in the near total darkness. As he watched, the torch in his hand shaking, the man raised the girl's hand to his lips and kissed it.

"You know what, Dru, pet," he said, "Fuck tradition. Besides, it's not as if we went looking for 'em, is it?"

Then they turned as one, eyes glittering and feral, and continued their slow advance.

"They're raving! Come on, mate, let's get out of here!" Jase pulled Dave's arm again but Dave still couldn't move. The girl's huge pale eyes had caught him somehow –frozen him in place like a fly trapped in a spider's web. "Oh, God!" he heard himself say.

Jase turned on the advancing couple. "Fuck off out of it, you freaks!" he shouted. "What do you think you are – vampires or somethin'?"

This time they both laughed and then there was a strange grinding noise, like bone scraping past bone, and suddenly they'd become hideous, their faces all lumpy and their mouths full of horrible sharp-looking teeth. Yellow-eyed, they regarded their victims.

"Good guess," the man, said. The fangs made him lisp a little but Dave didn't feel like laughing. As for Jase, he screamed, let go of Dave's arm and ran. The man – creature – whatever-it-was – was after him in a flash, like a white-furred wolf on the hunt.

"Enjoy your tea, love," he said to the girl. "I'll be back in a jiffy."

Then he was gone and a moment later, Dave heard a scream that grew louder and louder and then ended in a horrible gurgle.

He felt cold stone at his back. Somehow, he was pressed right against one of the stone pillars that framed the archway. The wind was still roaring down through the darkness and suddenly he realised that meant there must be a way out at the other end. The girl was close to him now, her long fingers stretched out towards him.

"Come and give Mummy a kiss, dearie," she said, and she tilted her head again, looking at him like he was dinner.

"No!" At the last moment, Dave turned and ran. The blackness closed around him, the dark doors on either side of the passageway flashing past as he fled. There were names carved in stone on some of the lintels and on one – bizarrely – a smart address somewhere in Belgravia. At every moment Dave expected to feel that small hand on his shoulder, pulling him back – dragging him down – but then he felt the night open up around him. He was through the tunnel and into another open space, where a rounded wall studded with yet more doorways into blackness was crowned by one solitary tree. Its branches waved in the wind and above it, Dave could see the sky.

He ran, following the line of wall with his fingertips, feeling cold stone and rusty metal and hearing the blood pounding in his ears. In the distance there was a sound like a lion roaring. Dave thought of the man, all black and silver, imagined him crouched over Jase, slaver dripping from bloodied fangs.

Steps – there were steps. He ran up them, breathing hard now because he hadn't done much running since school. If only he could get back to the edge of the cemetery he could climb over the wall, return to where there were people and houses – ordinary things and not this nightmare. Just for a moment, he felt guilty about Jase. He ought to help him, oughtn't he? But then he remembered just whose fault it was he was here in the first place.

Instead, he ran on upwards, glancing back once over his shoulder to see no sign of the girl following. But when he turned round again, she was right in front of him and her dainty hand plucked him out of the air and held him effortlessly. He had just a moment to wonder how she could be so strong, but then her other hand grabbed him by the throat and brought him closer. He screamed. There was wetness inside his jeans and the scrape of something sharp on the side of his neck.

"Naughty boy," the girl said, in a reproving tone. "You shouldn't make me work so hard when it's my night off." And then there was the smell of blood and then there was pain.