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A Trick of the Light

by Cornelia 

Posted: 09 July 2012
Word Count: 1196
Summary: A mystery story with a twist for TSBFF's 'Spine Chiller' category

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The car tyres splashed through ruts in the narrow lane and the windscreen-wipers kept a steady beat as Cheryl and Andrea dozed on the back seat. There was nothing but blackness beyond the headlights.

Suddenly, a bright red flash passed Jo’s right shoulder, above the level of the car roof. The thunder of hooves pounded in her ears.

‘That’ll be an excise man, chasing smugglers’.

It was only when her friends in the back laughed that Jo realised she’d spoken aloud. They were suddenly wide awake and asking questions.

‘Not now. I need to concentrate on driving.’ Jo’s answer put an end to their enquiries.

Besides, it was true: Jo was relying light reflected from the trees to spot the cottage. With only an address to go on –‘Coastguard’s View, Frenchman’s beach.’, and a map she couldn’t see on the seat beside her, it wasn’t easy.

She was exhausted, having driven from London on a rainy October night and beginning to regret she’d agreed to spend the weekend in a seaside cottage. It had been Cheryl’s idea, but Jo was the only driver.

‘Bound to meet some hunky fishermen types in those cable-knit jumpers’, Cheryl had said in the staffroom that afternoon. She’d only just dumped the latest in a string of boy-friends.

Once inside the cottage she couldn’t wait to question Jo. ‘So, go on! Don’t keep us in suspense. What’s an excise man?’ Jo managed to persuade her to wait at least until they’d eaten.

The owners had left basic supplies in the modern kitchen. There was even a microwave oven which helped speed up cooking of the food they’d brought with them. While Cheryl and Jo saw to the meal, Andrea tried to start a blaze under logs in the fire-place.

After dinner, the rain was still pelting at the windows, but hot food and wine had restored them. The cottage was cosy now, the logs crackling and throwing up flames that made the corners of the room brighten and then disappear.

It was late, but they were all set, or so Jo thought, to continue with staffroom gossip and moans about boyfriends. But Cheryl wouldn't let her forget what she’d said in the car.

A typical drama teacher, thought Jo, Cheryl over-reacted at the best of times. Now she sat on the sofa with a shawl round her shoulders, rolling a wine glass between her hands. Her silver ear-rings gleamed among her dark curls and her brown eyes reflected the firelight.

Andrea murmured, ‘Cheryl, leave her alone. She doesn’t want to talk about it.’ Andrea probably sent herself to sleep most nights with a nice book of maths equations, Jo thought.

‘Oh, come on, Jo! If you don’t tell us, I won’t sleep for wondering.’ Cheryl wasn’t to be put off.

Jo shrugged. ‘Well, smugglers used this coast in the past. Red-coated excise men on horse-back tried to catch them as they landed their barrels on the beach. It’s nothing, really…’

‘Yes, but it sounded as if you actually saw one!’

There was nothing for it. Jo needed to explain. Maybe then they could all get some sleep.

‘OK. I’ll tell you. She glanced at her friend in turn. ‘It’s just that since I was twelve I’ve had the knack of latching on to things … things that happened in the past. I see things and people that nobody else can. How can I explain? It’s like when you stare at something and then close your eyes. You can see a sort of shape left behind…'

‘Ooh! You mean ghosts?’ Cheryl’s eyes widened. Andrea frowned.

‘ I imagined I saw an excise man back there. It must have been a trick of the light.’

Jo was too tired to talk anymore; they all were. As Andrea raked the grate, the silence outside told them the rain had stopped, though the wind still stirred the curtains.

Tomorrow, first thing, they’d visit the tourist information centre in the town, to find out more about about smugglers.

Next morning dawned with a sea-reflected brightness. Any doubts or gloominess disappeared and the friends were keen to get out walking by the sea, to explore the quaint old town with its historic pubs, and forget all about work.

Andrea was already in the kitchen setting out bowls when Jo came down to breakfast.Cheryl’s feet made muffled sounds on the boards above.

‘You know, I’ve been thinking that the story you told last night…’ Andrea spoke slowly. ‘I’m sure it comes from reading all those novels you have to teach’. She laughed, and added in a low voice, ‘Last night I dreamt of Manderly …’

‘Yes. Or maybe it was something I saw in a brochure…’

As Jo drove them towards the town, all memories of the night before seemed washed away by the coastal brightness. Narrow and winding in places, the lane was lined with an untidy hedge of brambles and hawthorn. Gaps revealed placid sheep grazing in fields. Soon a row of cottages came into view, their gardens bright with Chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daisies.

Suddenly, Cheryl laughed out loud and pointed. ‘Oh, look, there’s your excise man!’ Straight ahead, fixed to a telegraph pole at chest height, was a bright red mail box.

Andrea patted Jo's arm. ‘You know, a lot depends on a place, and how we feel about it. It made sense to think you saw a man last night, when you glimpsed something red. You were right –it was just a trick of the light.’

Jo didn’t mention the beating of hooves, so loud that she felt rather than heard them. Could it have been thunder?

They called in at the tourist office, as planned. While Cheryl and Andrea examined postcard racks and lifted shells and tiny model boats, Jo approached a tiny grey-haired woman perched on a stool behind the counter.

‘Excuse me, but are there any old smugglers’ caves round here?’

‘Caves?’ The wrinkled face lit up at Jo’'s question. ’Bless you, m’dear, no caves; just places for boats to land on moonlit nights.’ She seemed pleased to be asked. ‘In fact …there’s one not far from here, called Frenchman’s Beach. Just a minute…’

She turned to consult a calendar on a rack behind her, then let out a heavy sigh.

‘Ah, what a shame; you’ve just missed him’.
‘Missed who?'

The old woman gave a lop-sided smile, and unfolded a paper map on the counter. Her gnarled finger pointed to a cove. Sure enough, Frenchman’s Beach was clearly marked, and a line of cottages. Leaning towards Jo, the old lady lowered her voice.

‘ The excise man - ambushed and killed he was, in the days when smugglers roamed the coast. Some claim they’ve heard his horse galloping along the lanes and some say they’ve glimpsed his red coat – always on the last Friday of October. Yes, m’dear; you’ve missed him by a day. ’

‘Right, then, where’s this Mermaid Inn?’ asked Cheryl, holding up a picture postcard of a quaint old tavern. ‘It’s not too late to meet up with a real hunk, and I don't mind what colour coat he's wearing!’

Jo decided her news could wait.

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