A message flashed up on the computer screen: Josh Widger, check under your bed. Josh blinked a few times, convinced he was hallucinating. The computer desk was wedged under the stairs and vibrated as Maria stomped up to put the kids to bed. Josh stretched and yawned. The message remained. It must be spam, he thought, though it was a strange advert. Maybe someone was playing a joke. He deleted the message.
He almost forgot as he watched television and rubbed Maria’s feet while she dozed next to him, but going to bed reminded him of the message.
‘Here, Maria. Help me shift this mattress.’
‘Please – I just need to check underneath.’
Maria sighed, rubbing her back in a way that made her swollen belly stick out between her pyjama top and bottoms. ‘Fine. But you’ll have to take most of the weight.’
They lifted the mattress and found… nothing. Maria folded her arms and didn’t say anything. Josh dropped the mattress. ‘What the hell?’
‘I just…’ Josh cleared his throat. ‘The computer told me to look here.’
‘I told you not to believe anything you read on the internet.’
‘It wasn’t like that – it was a personal message.’
‘Whatever.’ Maria yawned and started to climb into bed.
‘Hang on, I assumed it meant under the mattress.’
Maria sat on the edge of the bed and yawned again. ‘So?’
‘It said under the bed.’
Maria groaned as Josh flopped onto his stomach and reached under the bed. He pulled out a bunch of crumpled car magazines and an empty tube of antiseptic cream. Then he found a plastic bag. Covered with an inch of dust, it was wrapped around something shaped like a brick. A wad of twenty pound notes fell out of the bag when Josh opened it. Maria snatched and counted them: a thousand pounds.
She shook her head and put the money back in the bag, which she thrust towards Josh. ‘Have you got something to tell me?’
‘I swear, babe, I know nothing.’
‘Where’s it come from?’
‘Dunno.’ Josh sat on the edge of the bed and clutched the bag. ‘I just got a message on the computer – a window opened up. It said my name and told me to look under the bed.’
‘Handy, though.’ Josh drew Maria towards him and rested his head on her bump.
‘I’m not comfortable with this, Josh.’
‘I know, but it’s a thousand quid.’
‘It’s not ours.’
‘So what’s it doing under our bed?’
Maria ruffled his hair and kissed him before she scrambled under the duvet. ‘Let’s sleep on it.’
Josh got up and stood by the window, staring at the scattered pinpricks of light that mapped out Lurmleigh. There were no streetlamps, since it was little more than a hamlet with a church and a handful of houses. Nobody came here except the odd history nut seeking the Bonneville crypt. Most people passed through. Leaning against the windowpane, Josh could see the edge of Lurmdon, the nearest village, a beacon in the gloom.
He kept glancing at the silhouette of the money on his nightstand. When he was lying in bed and couldn’t see it, its presence was palpable. It was in his house: he might have stashed the money and forgotten it. Yeah, right. He was a mechanic — he couldn’t afford to forget about large amounts of cash.
Who hid it there? They hadn’t been away since they moved in, Maria was as stunned as he was and the kids were under five. He shuddered at the idea of an intruder planting the cash. Did someone want to get him in trouble?
Josh woke up to Daisy bouncing on his groin. The two-year-old alarm clock was tempered by the pleasant surprise of his having slept. ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! It morning time.’
Maria groaned. ‘What’s the time?’
‘Ten past five. I’ll take her downstairs.’
‘Thanks.’ Maria rolled over and rubbed her back.
Daisy emptied her toy box across the living room floor and was jumping on the couch by the time Josh made her breakfast. Her shouts woke Alfie, who was four. He trudged downstairs in his pyjamas and said, ‘I don’t get no peace around here.’
‘Yes, you lead a very challenging life, mate,’ said Josh, as he used the sleeve of his dressing gown to wipe the egg yolk dripping down Daisy’s chin.
‘Can I have muesli?’
‘Sure. Give me a sec.’
Once the kids were fed, clean-ish, dressed and settled in front of the television, Josh switched on the computer. The message was a coincidence, he decided, like when your horoscope seems pertinent. A message flashed up before he opened the internet browser: You’re welcome.
There was a blank window underneath the message, so Josh typed Is this a scam?
The reply took half a second: No. The thousand pounds is yours. It will be useful, with your wife five months pregnant.
Josh blinked at the screen. Nobody could type that fast. The message must be automated — his question wasn’t unpredictable — or maybe the sender selected the appropriate response from several possibilities. Anyone could answer in half a second if they only had to click on an option. But why would those words be an option? They were too personal, too specific.
He typed thanks and went to tell Maria about their mystery Samaritan.
The next message came a few days later, after they had used some of the money to buy a new pushchair and put the rest in their savings account. Josh logged on and it flashed up: Maria is in danger. There was no window for a reply.
Josh raked his fingers through his hair. He felt sick. He didn’t want Maria to worry, but it might be better to inform her so she would be prepared. He deliberated for fifteen minutes and decided that knowledge was, indeed, power.
Maria laughed. ‘It’s a sick joke. Someone’s having a laugh. Ignore it.’
‘But he was right about the money under the bed.’
‘Why’d you assume it’s a bloke?’
Josh raked his hands through his hair again. A few strands fell out and he wondered if stress would make him bald. ‘Just be careful, that’s all I’m saying.’
‘Yeah, because so far I’ve been smoking crack and bungee jumping.’ Maria patted her bump.
‘What if it’s right?’
‘What if it isn’t?’ She kissed his forehead. ‘It’s no good worrying about something that might not happen.’
Josh tried not to stress, but was plagued by headaches and heartburn. He imagined Maria collapsing at home, with the kids too bewildered to seek help. He lay awake at night, listening to the chimes of Lurmleigh’s church clock. He prodded Maria every half hour, to make sure she was breathing. She woke up twice and swore at him.
He spent his spare time on the computer, hoping to receive more information. Maria beseeched him to stop, said it was driving them both doolally. He reminded her about the money; she clenched her teeth and walked off.
A message flashed up one night a few weeks later: Danger imminent.
Maria blanched when Josh told her. ‘That’s impossible — I turned off the internet connection.’
‘I got a message, I swear. You’ve got to be really careful.’
‘I got sick of you always waiting, so I switched off the modem. Two days ago.’ She took out her phone and showed him there wasn’t a wireless connection. ‘In fact, I was getting scared about you not noticing.’
Josh raked his fingers through his hair. ‘You say you turned it off?’
‘So you were worried I’d get another message.’
Maria wrapped her arms over her belly. ‘I knew it was a possibility.’
‘You knew the messages were true.’
‘No. I was worried about your irrational reactions to the messages.’ Maria rubbed her back as she bent down to pick up an abandoned toy car. ‘The money was useful, but stressing about something you can’t control isn’t. It’s actually very destructive.’
‘But what if you are in danger?’
‘It’s more likely to be due to your behaviour than anything else.’ Maria chucked the car into Alfie’s toy box.
Josh checked the router when Maria was in the bath, convinced she was lying. But it was off. How did someone send a message to his computer when there was no connection?
Gary at work said it must be a virus. He slammed the bonnet of the car he was working on. ‘They trick you with a message that’s not only true, but beneficial to you, then the messages get more sinister.’ Gary tossed a spanner in the air and caught it behind his back. ‘Once you’re in, like, a frenzy the messages will persuade you to give away your bank details or something. They exchange their grand of cash for several grand off your credit card.’
Josh admitted it was more plausible than a secret benefactor. It was foolish, but he found some security in thinking of the message sender as a sort of guardian angel. He was reluctant to give it up.
He received a message that night: Gary is brim-full of horses**t. What does such a moron as him know?
Maria scanned the hard drive for viruses and programmes downloaded around the time the messages started. She found nothing. She called a computer expert, who also found nothing but charged thirty quid for the privilege of spending half an hour running tests. He confirmed that there was no internet when their modem was off: the computer was not automatically connecting to a neighbour’s wireless signal. In fact, the neighbours on both sides had password protected connections.
Josh paced up and down in front of the bedroom window at night. He noted which homes had lights on until late, wondering if the inhabitants were spying on him. He checked on Daisy and Alfie in the tiny back bedroom, smoothing Alfie’s Aston Villa quilt cover. He found Daisy’s teddy on the floor and tucked it underneath her arm; she didn’t stir.
Maria caught him and told him to see a doctor about his ‘extreme anxiety.’ He wondered why she wasn’t bothered about a stranger accessing their computer.
He complained to Gary. ‘She doesn’t seem to understand that whoever is sending them knows personal details about us.’
‘Probably hacked into your email or Facebook, mate.’
‘She says I’m unreasonable. She said I should see my bloody GP.’
Gary shrugged as he pulled out a sparkplug. ‘Maybe she’s got a point. It’s eating you up, ain’t it?’
Josh got a phone call the same afternoon: Maria had collapsed at the supermarket.
She was sitting up in bed and scowling when Josh got to Lurminster hospital. ‘I only fainted,’ she said, ‘I didn’t need all this fuss.’
‘Then why are you here?’ Josh kissed her and nodded to Maria’s mother, Cora, who sat next to the bed with her hands folded in her lap.
‘The first aider wasn’t comfortable with letting me go without being checked over, but I’m fine.’
‘She’s anaemic,’ said Cora. ‘But not bad enough to need a transfusion, thank goodness. They’ve prescribed iron tablets – we’re waiting for them now.’
Josh clasped Maria close to him; she sat rigid, rejecting the embrace. ‘Where are the kids?’
‘Dad took them to play on the swings.’
‘How did your parents get here before me?’
‘I called them first.’ She grabbed her handbag from the locker and riffled through it. ‘Mum was the one who insisted on calling you. You didn’t need to miss work.’
Josh could guess the real reason, but he didn’t want to discuss the messages in front of Cora. They dropped him off at the supermarket to bring the car home. They brought home fish and chips for dinner, so Cora stayed until late, fussing over Maria and the kids. Then Maria said she was tired and went to bed.
Josh switched on the computer and found another message: Told you so.
The messages came every day after Maria’s collapse. Most of them told Josh not to trust people and to have faith in his own judgment. Josh spent hours researching conditions online, wondering if the hospital could have missed something. He rubbed Maria’s bump whenever he could, checking the baby was still moving. She was compliant at first, but got fed up and batted him away. When a message with a reply window appeared, he typed Who are you?
He waited ten minutes before getting a reply: One who knows time is not linear and space is not discrete. There was no reply window.
He knew it was flattery: the messenger pretended to divulge mystical secrets so Josh would be flattered by the attention. And why not? Maria was either busy or tired whenever he wanted to talk, let alone do anything else. The kids lived in their own world where parents were constants who could be ignored – and he didn’t want that perspective to change. His mates were good for a laugh, but crap at serious conversations. When Josh’s dad died last October, all they managed to mumble was ‘sorry mate’.
He watched Gary play skittles at the Jolly Fisherman in Lurmdon and tried to talk about Maria and how he worried. ‘She’s fine mate – tough as steel,’ said Gary. ‘It’s you who’s looking exhausted. Are you ill, mate?’
‘No, just… concerned.’
‘Have another pint and forget your troubles. My round.’
The messenger cared about Josh. It was ridiculous to think so, but he could feel it. The messenger had given him money (well, pretty much) and warned him Maria’s health was in danger. The messenger didn’t treat him like a loser.
That’s why he didn’t hesitate when a message said Go to the Oak halfway down Monks Lane and dig on the North side. At least half a yard down.
Monks Lane connected Lurmleigh and Lurmdon. A few cottages were strewn along it, but few people used the lane other than dog walkers. Josh knew the oak in question: it was over two hundred years old and rumoured to have been used as a hanging tree.
He went at midnight, taking a shovel, a torch and a flask of coffee. The moon and stars were obscured by clouds, which meant nobody could see him and there wasn’t too much of a chill. The north side of the tree was in a field, so Josh had to clamber over a barred metal gate further down the lane and walk back along the hedge to the tree. He stopped breathing when he saw a shadow loom close to him on the left. Josh pressed against the hedge; the shadow moved closer. He held his breath. The shadow mooed. Josh chuckled with relief and started digging under the black mass of leaves that towered above him.
The ground was flint-studded clay. Josh took an hour to dig a hole eighteen inches deep and strike something that gave way. He shone the torch into the hole, but it just looked dark. He gritted his teeth and felt with his fingers: damp hessian or sackcloth.
It was light and tied in a way he couldn’t fathom, even with both hands free and the torch held in his mouth. A stench like rotten potatoes rose up and made him gag. He took the sack home.
The sack was shrouded with grey mould. He cut it open and found a wodge of soggy paper. In the midst of this was a key. The large key was edged with rust. Josh stared at it for a long time before putting it in the top drawer of the computer desk. It was the kind of key he imagined to be found in mediaeval castles or fairy tales. It was unlikely to serve a practical purpose. Josh chided himself for being disappointed — he’d already been given a thousand pounds, so why did he expect buried treasure?
Maria didn’t move when he slipped into bed. Even in sleep, her forehead was pleated in distress and there were shadows under her eyes. He stroked her bump before falling into a fitful sleep.
The next day was Saturday, which meant taking the kids swimming in Lurminster. Josh packed their swimming bags in double-quick time and went on the computer while they ate porridge with raisins for breakfast. The screen hadn’t finished loading before a message flashed up: The key is mine, but I no longer have the means to use it. You must go to the Bonneville crypt in Lurmleigh Church and unlock it. Upon entering, the final resting place of Sir Richard Lloyd Bonneville is on your right. Wrench open his coffin and retrieve the Gold Ring on the fourth finger of his right hand. It has a large Ruby with Emeralds on each side. He owes me that ring – he never paid his debt.
Josh rubbed his eyes and reread it three times before he was convinced it wasn’t a hallucination caused by sleep deprivation. The Bonnevilles had ruled the Lurm valley since Norman times and died out at the beginning of the twentieth century. The crypt was said to be haunted, of course, but nobody had entered it since the last Bonneville to be buried there was committed to its depths in 1872.
Another message flashed up: If you do not obey, you will regret it.
Josh shook his head and tittered, glancing around to make sure Maria wasn’t reading over his shoulder. He wondered what power the messenger had to punish him.
A new message appeared: You don’t want to find out.
He couldn’t confide in anyone. They would think him crazy for considering it. Despite his reluctance, Josh kept mulling over the practicalities. The crypt was accessed from outside the church and the churchyard was bordered with ash and yew, so nobody would be able to see. He could nip over at night and not a soul would know.
But how could he return the ring to the messenger? And how did the messenger get a key to the Bonneville crypt? Some PhD student had requested permission to examine the crypt a couple of years back and it was denied.
He didn’t want to get in trouble for possessing stolen goods. What would happen to Maria and the kids if he went to prison? If he got away with a fine, they wouldn’t be able to pay. To carry out the messenger’s demand, he wanted to deliver the ring to the messenger within twenty-four hours. He wouldn’t be able to sell it on behalf of the messenger; no reputable dealer would accept an expensive ring without provenance from a mechanic who struggled to pay the mortgage. He would sit tight until the messenger arranged a meeting.
A week later, there was a new message with a reply window: Why have you not procured my Ring?
Josh typed I need to meet you straight after. When can you meet me?
Never. I no longer possess the means.
He frowned at the message, trying to understand.
I have lived my time in the World, though it was short. Richard Bonneville owed me money and said he would use his Ring to settle. On this Promise, I received on his behalf a Barrel of Whiskey. As I climbed the cliff at Lurmdon, I fell and the Barrel broke my neck. Bonneville lived another forty years and I was buried at three and twenty in a Pauper’s Grave.
Josh shuddered as thoughts fired into his consciousness in quick succession: the messenger was a ghost, this was a sick joke, he must be mad, someone was playing a trick on him, it made sense in a weird way, he was in danger… The idea that he was communicating with a dead smuggler would explain how the messenger knew so much, too much. It had a terrible logic.
Now the smuggler expected Josh to rob a grave. And threatened to harm him if he didn’t comply. Either option would put his family at risk. He had been set an impossible task, yet he would be punished for failing to complete the task. Maria was right: Someone was having a laugh. At his expense. Josh logged off. He would ignore the smuggler – for now.
About the Author
Hayley N. Jones has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Exeter. She has been published in Confingo 2 and Thresholds. She blogs about her experiences as a writer with mental health problems at hayleynjones.blogspot.co.uk
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