Alison was disheartened to see Geoff Baker's posh new car precede her battered old one into the staff parking lot. She had been unaware that the supervisor was on duty that night. However, after a mere ten days working at the museum, the intricacies of the duty rota were still largely a mystery to her.
Maybe Baker was just paying a quick visit, rather than preparing for a full shift. Alison hoped so. Her spirits dipped at the thought of eight hours, listening to yet another diatribe from Baker against his soon-to-be ex-wife. Alison was unsure whether Baker's attitude towards herself made it better or worse. To give the man his credit, unlike many of the others guards, he had made no disparaging anti "woman's lib" remarks about her being the first ever female member of the security team. If he suspected that she was a lesbian, he had similarly made no comment. However, he clearly felt that if Alison was doing a man's job, she should act like a man and sympathise with his bitching about women in general, and his nearly ex-wife in particular.
He was though, a small price to pay, offset against the advantages of the job. With an eye to the Sex Discrimination Act that looked certain to become law the following year, in 1975, the museum management had agreed to open the work to women. At 5 foot 10, Alison was taller than some of the men, and her brown belt in karate showed that she was also fitter and better able to deal with trouble than most. Since leaving school, ten years before, Alison had done a range of jobs, from assembly line packer to barmaid. Being a night security guard was easily the best. Not only was it the least physically demanding work she had ever done, but it paid twice as much as anything else.
Baker speaking into the mike by the staff entrance when she caught up with him. She waited until the buzz indicted that whoever was on duty had pressed the unlock switch before saying. "Hi. I didn't think you'd be here tonight."
As he pulled the door open, Baker glanced back. "Johnson and Davies phoned in sick. I got the call 20 minutes ago. We couldn't have you on alone."
Baker's shrug in reply looked more like a nervous twitch.
Alison was surprised, and now that they were in the light, she could see that Baker did not look particularly well either. He was in his mid-forties, bald and slightly overweight. Despite the chill autumn night they had just left, a sheen of sweat glistened on top of his round head. His face was paler than normal, even with the last remnants of the tan from his package holiday in Spain.
"Are you all right?"
"Of course. I'm not one of those widow idiots."
Alison frowned. The answer did not seem to fit her question, but she decided against asking for more information. Undoubtedly it would turn out, in some way, to be his wife's fault. As far as Baker was concerned, everything else that was wrong with the world could be blamed on the woman. The divorce lawyers ought to be on danger money.
They continued to the security office in silence. When they arrived, they found Pete Ashwell, seated alone in front of the bank of TV monitors. Alison came to a halt. Something strange was definitely going on. "Hi Pete. Where are the others?"
Pete swivelled round in his chair. His face showed amusement, but maybe also just a hint of relief. "Jim Haines rang in sick. Don Stevens was here, but he legged it a couple of hours back, when the alarm system in East-3 died."
"East-3?" Baker cut in sharply, his voice an octave higher than normal.
Alison's eyes jumped from one man to the other in confusion. "Do you know what's wrong with it?"
"After Don went, I was on my own, and somebody has to keep an eye on the monitors. It wasn't an intruder, just the circuit going dead, so I've left it." As he spoke, Pete pulled on his jacket and picked up his rucksack, ready to go.
"OK." Alison looked at Baker. The supervisor should be taking the lead, but he looked as if he had been poleaxed. "Do you want to go and check out East-3 while I watch the monitors?"
"No." Baker was definitely not all right.
"Umm...do you want me to check out East-3, while you stay here?"
"Yes. Yes that..." Baker took a deep breath and gathered his composure. "Yes, you do that. I'll fill in the log book."
The staff entrance lay on the route to gallery East-3. Alison joined Pete in the corridor for the short walk As soon as the door closed, leaving Baker in the security office, Alison asked. "What's going on tonight? Everyone sick and Baker acting like he's about to pass out."
"Widowmaker." Pete's grin had a shade of grimace about it. He was tall and lanky. His blond hair was even lighter and longer than Alison's, reaching below his shoulders, which earned him taunts from the older men. Alison was fairly certain that Pete was not queer, despite the predictable name-calling. However, that neither was totally accepted in the team was a bond between them.
"A Celtic artefact. It's in East-3."
Alison frowned, searching her memory. "What does it look like?"
"A figurine, with tentacles for hair and a gapping mouth--like a cross between medusa and that painting by Munch."
"Yep--I know it." Last time she had been on duty with Baker, she had spent a couple of hours looking at the displays, as a way to avoid his moaning.
"It was found just after World War I at the bottom of a Roman mineshaft a few miles south of here. It had been sealed in a lead box and deliberately buried. An American collector, Fernhoff, bought it and took it to New York."
"So what about it? And why is it back here?"
While talking, they had reached the staff doorway. Pete pulled his bicycle clips from a pocket, but showed no urge to rush off. He was a history undergrad and always ready to talk about the exhibits. The night job was supplementing his university grant, while allowing him plenty of time to study. Thus he was probably the only security guard on record ever to take full advantage of staff privileges regarding use of the museum library and records.
"Do you want the scary story or the facts?" Pete asked, smiling.
"Start with the story."
"The lead case had a Latin inscription which Fernhoff, who fancied himself as a historian, spent some time decoding. He claimed it was a warning about an evil female spirit called the widowmaker, who would appear to take a new husband whenever a full moon fell on Samheim."
"The Celtic name for Halloween."
"Which is tonight...and it's a full moon." Alison said in sudden enlightenment, but then paused. "But is that it? They can't all be frightened by an inscription."
"You're jumping ahead. Fernhoff kept the artefact in his own private museum for a few years, until 1925, when he was found lying dead by the exhibit--the day after the full moon had shone on Halloween. He'd died sometime during the night before. His widow refused to keep the artefact in the house, either due to distress, or a disinterested in history. And so it ended up back here, near where it had been found."
A faint sound, like creaking timber, whispered down the corridor. Alison turned her head towards, it, but the noise faded so quickly that she was left unsure whether she had imagined it.
Pete went on. "The next time a full moon hit Halloween was 1944, during World War II, when the museum was closed, and all the exhibits where held in an underground vault for safety. Yet, in the morning, a man was found dead, huddled in a nearby bomb crater. The last time we had the Halloween full moon was 1955. One of the security guards died inexplicably during the night. He was found dead by the widowmaker display. And that is what has everyone shitting their pants tonight."
Alison felt a chill fist clench her stomach. "But you don't believe it?"
"Well, as I said--that's the story." Pete's smile broadened. "Now have the facts. I looked into the records. For starters, Fernhoff didn't die on Halloween--nowhere close. In one of the letters his wife sent while arranging to have the widowmaker shipped over, she said he died on the 11th of January. Finding a dead man in a bomb crater during the blitz is hardly proof of the supernatural. The security guard died right enough--of a heart attack. Sad, but just one of those thing. However, it was enough to set people off making up the widowmaker curse, and twisting the facts retrospectively to fit the story. Furthermore, I had a quick look at the inscription. I didn't have time to read it all, but I can tell you that Fernhoff's Latin was very rusty. It's isn't about an evil spirit, it's a vengeful wife. And she isn't looking for a new husband--her husband had been murdered by somebody else. If I get more time tomorrow, I'll have a better go at it. But don't worry. I've been here all shift and there hasn't been even a hint of ectoplasm."
Alison did a quick sum in her head. "Shouldn't we only get a full moon on Halloween once every 28 years? It's been coming round a lot quicker than that."
"Just the way the phases work out. But if we all get through tonight, we'll be OK for 46 years. The next one isn't due until 2020."
"And you really aren't the least bit scared?" Alison had the feeling that Pete was not quite as blas- as he was acting. He might not believe the story, but sitting alone must have had some impact on his nerves. She remembered his air of relief when she arrived in the security office.
Pete bent to put the bicycle clips round at his ankles, hiding his expression while he replied. "I want to work as an archaeologist after uni. I can't afford to be frightened of the mummy's curse and things like that. Anyway, I reckon you've got the worst of it. You'll have to put up with Baker all night. Rather you than me. He's such a miserable sod."
"At least he had the guts to show up."
"He's a supervisor. He's supposed to set a good example for the rest of us. And management might just have decided to come down on him hard, if he'd refused. Baker won't risk getting the sack, not with the divorce coming. It wouldn't look good to the judge." Pete stood up, his flared jeans suitably constrained for his bike ride home, smiled again and backed through the door. "Night."
"Goodnight." Alison wiggled her fingers in an informal wave and headed along the corridor, towards East-3.
Alison's footsteps reverberated along the deserted hallways. A breeze scuffed a discarded pamphlet around the base of a pillar as she passed. When she arrived outside the gallery, the red light on the security control box on the wall shone red.
The museum management were very proud of their new, state of the art, security system. The computer controlling it had been shown off to Alison during her interview. It was about the size of a tall filing cabinet with a row of lights along the front. The interviewer enthusiastically told her that, only a few years before, it would have needed a computer as big as the room to control the dozens of cameras and sensors.
Alison had even been sent on a day long training course when she started, although the instruction amounted to no more than: if the lights were green the system was working; if they were red then it wasn't; when in doubt, press the reset buttons; and if you saw on the TV monitors somebody climbing in through a window, it meant the museum was being burgled.
In accordance with the instructions, Alison therefore unlocked the cover on the control box and pressed the reset switch. The red light did not flicker. Alison pulled the walkie-talkie off her belt and called Baker.
"I'm at East-3."
"Anything odd there?"
"No. The system is dead. I'm going to check inside. Maybe a cable is loose or something."
"Right. Do that." Baker's voice was tight. He was clearly happy for Alison to be there, rather than him.
Only after Alison had opened the door and stepped into the dark gallery did she wonder if she wanted to be there herself. The ranks of display cases stretched away on either side, lit only by the dim row of emergency lights down the middle of the room. The edges were in darkness. No sound disturbed the silence.
Alison flicked on her torch. The narrow beam made the darkness feel thicker, emphasising that anything might lie outside the cone of light. Alison clenched her teeth. She would make one circuit of the room, checking the installations and then go back to the office. She turned to the left and began pacing.
Her footsteps, clicking on the tiled floor were the only things to be heard, but before she had taken six of them, she had the sense that the echo was off, as if something was swallowing the sound in the gallery and spitting it out, twisted and mistimed. The urge to turn the torch back on the room, to see what was behind her, grew. Alison fought it down and kept the beam of light high on the upper wall, tracing the cable linking the alarm sensors. She took another step, and then, below the echo of her feet, she heard another noise, soft and dry, like sand rolling over parchment.
Alison spun around, her heart pounding. The noise stopped. The torchlight picked out no motion in the room.
"Don't be stupid. It's nothing. Just the wind outside," she whispered under her breath.
The museum could be spooky at night, but the job was too good to give up. She could not afford to let her nerves get the better of her. Most likely half the exhibits had legends attached to them. She was going to show that she could stick it out and do a man's job, for a man's wage. Pete had not been worried and he had sat for hours on his own. He had taken the rational approach, been sensible, checked out the story. He had said that the facts did not fit. Fernhoff had not even died on Halloween.
Alison turned and continued her circuit, but something had started nagging at the back of her mind--something that Pete had said.
She reached the corner of the room. One of the cameras was positioned directly above her. The light on its mounting glowed red, like an unblinking eye in the darkness. Alison shoved the unwanted image from her mind and focused her torch on the cable connection, trying to see if she could spot an obvious fault.
She was in the darkest part of the room. The beam of light shimmered, as if catching on wisps of smoke. Alison sniffed the air, thinking there might be a small electrical fire--it would explain the malfunction, but what she smelt was reminiscent of mildew, spiced with a sweet, cinnamon edge. Which one of the exhibits was that?
Again she heard the dry whisper, but now she could imagine there was a voice in it or something that was trying to become a voice. "I won't be the only one." The words were lisped and drawn out, distorted. Alison clenched her teeth. She was imagining things. She had to keep her nerves under control. Of course it was only the wind over the roof; of course there was not really a voice.
Abruptly, her determination departed. What she was doing was pointless, she had no idea why the alarm was out of action, no way to find out, and no hope of putting it right even if she did. Walking around the room was a waste of time. It was a job for maintenance to sort out tomorrow.
Alison turned back to the door. Again the voice hissed between the cabinets, clearer this time. "I won't, I won't, I won't be the only one."
Alison swung the torch back and forth. The shadows leapt grotesquely over the displays, making them look like a dancing tableau of nightmares. Ancient broken objects, cut by a beam of white light.
The breath rasped in Alison's throat as she struggled to keep calm. Fernhoff had not died on Halloween. There was nothing in the story to worry about, she forced the belief into her head. There was nothing in the room to worry about--nothing, until a particular bit of nothing caught her eye; a nothing where there should have been a something; the widowmaker figurine was missing from its stand.
In panic, Alison slammed back against the wall, needing the primeval reassurance that no danger was creeping up behind her. "It wasn't Halloween. It wasn't Halloween. It was..." The word drummed through her head, until the nagging set off by remembering Pete's words slipped to the forefront.
He had said Fernhoff died on the 11th of January, but was that was his widow had put in her letter? Or had she put the date in numerals...11/1/1925? Americans wrote their dates out of order. Alison knew it from a childhood pen-friend. Surely Pete would know it too. He was educated. Surely he read US journals. How were dates written there? He must have known to correct the date to the 1st of November, if that had been the case...if Fernhoff had really died sometime after midnight on Halloween.
Slowly, very slowly, Alison began to slide along the wall, back towards the door. The dry whisper was growing louder, clearer, crueller. Something malevolent was in the room, Alison knew, and growing stronger by the second, building its strength, ready for the hunt.
"They took him from me. I won't be the only one to lose. I won't be the only one to mourn."
Alison cut the light on her torch, although her gut said that it was too late for her to hide. She took another sideways step. And then she saw it, through the glass of a display cabinet. The reflection of her touch had hidden it before. The form was not so much indistinct as ill-formed, drifting like a cloud--or poison gas. The same shape as the figurine, but now taller than a man. The face was hungry and contorted in an inhuman snarl.
"They hated me. They feared me. They wanted to make me leave."
Alison's knees gave way and she sank to the floor. The widowmaker was now blocked from view, but it knew she was there. It was coming for her. Tendrils of green phosphor snaked from behind the corner of the nearest cabinet, and then the widowmaker flowed into full view. Alison could not drag her eyes away.
"They feared my power. The power the moon gives to her chosen. They dared not hurt me. But they killed him. They killed my beloved, my helpmate, my soulmate. They killed my husband so I would go. But I won't. I'll never go." The widowmaker's lips moved, but out of time with the words that seemed to form directly in Alison's head.
She shuffled backwards, away from the apparition's advance, until her back hit the corner of the room, under the TV camera. She had nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide. The figure came closer, seeping down the room in a haze of evil, torturous inch by inch. At last, the edge flowed over her foot, cold like the grave, and the face loomed above her. Hands reached for Alison's heart.
"I lost him. I won't be the only one to lose. I won't be the only one to mourn."
The widowmaker's hands touched Alison's chest, burning like ice, freezing like fire. The pain ripped through her, but then the hands withdrew a little.
"Ah...man's clothes, but no man inside. A woman waits at home for you, but you are not a husband. Will she be a widow?" The apparition swayed, suddenly more tenuous than before, drifting in the air. The face shifted, molten, conveying indecision, but then it drew back, reforming. "No. No, you will not do."
Alison's heart was trying to break through her chest. Her throat felt solid. She was too numb with terror to realise at first when the widowmaker vanished, but then, suddenly she was alone, lying on the floor of the gallery.
With no conscious thought in mind, Alison scrambled to her feet and staggered to the door, not wanting to be there should the widowmaker return. She ran for a while and then unthinking, dived into the space under some stairs, following the animal instinct to hide--somewhere small, somewhere you can't be seen, or followed--shelter.
Slowly the shock faded and the reaction set in. Her stomach heaved, emptying itself of her evening meal. Her bladder made similar impromptu arrangements. But the panic was fading, enough to let her mind start working again. Her thoughts became coherent.
The widowmaker had rejected her. Whatever it was looking for, she did not fit the bill. Pete had spoken of a vengeful wife, whose husband had been murdered.
That was it.
The widowmaker's goal was not just to take a life, but to make a widow. Alison eyes snapped open--Baker. Pete was young and single, hence he had been safe, but Baker had a wife. Would the widowmaker care that the wife would not mourn him? The man was a pain in the arse, but he did not deserve to die.
Alison yanked the walkie-talkie to her mouth. "Baker. Baker, listen, you've got to go. Run NOW."
"Run. She's here."
"I--" Baker's voice cut off.
Over the radio in the background, Alison heard again the dry whisper. "I won't be the only one to grieve."
Baker's voice rose in a scream, again cut off, and then silence.
There was nothing she could do to help, but she could not leave him alone. Alison scrambled from hiding and raced down the corridor. Doorways flew past. She skidded to a halt and burst into the security office, but too late. She had known that she would be.
Baker lay dead on the floor. His eyes stared blankly at the ceiling. His mouth was open, with a thin line of spittle running from one corner. His hands were clasped, clawed at his unmoving chest.
The widowmaker had made another widow.