They were parked on main street, watching the snow blow across the road in front of the car. A snow squall was moving in from the north and it was starting to settle. Jones seemed nervous, unusual for such a seasoned officer.
“What’s up?” asked Smith.
The older man glanced at him.
“I hate this night. I hate being on patrol.”
“Christmas Eve? Why?”
“I do my best to avoid the Christmas Eve shift. We all do. Every cop in town fights to avoid this night.”
“Have you noticed how quiet it is?”
“Yes, it’s weird. I expected the town to be buzzing.”
“Not here, not in this town.”
“Maybe it’s the weather.”
“No, it’s been like this every year for twenty years.”
“I’ll tell you. You have a right to know.”
Jones took a sip of coffee.
“It happened on Christmas Eve, 1996. I’d been here for about six months. The bars in town were full and the streets were busy. I was on patrol with John Williams, driving up and down main street looking for drunk drivers. We got the call. Crash on the main road heading into town. It was a mess. A car had t-boned a pick-up, forcing the truck into the ditch. The driver of the car was a young man; he was sitting on the verge when we arrived. The driver of the pick-up was trapped in his vehicle. We saw straight away that it was Peter Ellis. Every cop in town knew Ellis; he wasn’t a bad man, just a bit rough. Eccentric. Angry. He lived by himself in a shack up in the hills, came down into town once in a while for supplies. Drove a ratty old pick-up, rusty as hell. The muffler was shot and you could hear him coming a mile away.
I could smell smoke. Before we could do anything the pick-up erupted in flames. Must have been a fuel leak, maybe a cigarette ignited it. The heat was too intense, we couldn’t get close. Our extinguishers made no impact and the volunteer fire department was still five minutes out. By the time they arrived, the fire was raging. Ellis was dead. I can still see him, sitting in the driver’s seat as the flames consumed him.”
“We charged the kid with DUI. He was hammered, barely able to stand. His name was James Peterson. Local guy, son of a teacher. He went to jail for six months. Lost his license.”
“I don’t understand. Why do you hate this shift? Because of that crash?”
Jones ignored the question.
“I was assigned the same shift the year after. I was sitting in this very spot. There was a knock on my window. It was James, the kid that’d caused the crash. He was out with a couple of friends for the evening. He was sober and wanted to apologise and thank me. We shook hands and then he walked down main street. It was then I heard it.”
“I know, but I heard it. Everyone else on Main Street did too. I stepped out the car and stood in the snow, waiting as the noise got louder. Ellis’s truck turned the corner of Fifth and Main and headed slowly down the street. As it passed me I made eye contact with the driver. Is was Peter Ellis himself. He looked the same as the night he died, burnt up, with his skin mostly gone. For a second I thought I’d lost my mind.”
“No joke. There were about a hundred folk out on that street that night and we all saw him. James saw it too and I think he knew what was about to happen. Ellis gunned the engine and sped up. His truck mounted the sidewalk. James didn’t have a chance, he was hit and went under. Ellis rolled over him then headed down Main Street. His truck turned the corner and disappeared. No trace of him was ever found.”
“But he’d been killed.”
“Yup. I told you, he was an angry man. Maybe he couldn’t rest knowing the kid who’d killed him was free to live the rest of his life. I guess Ellis couldn’t stand that thought, so he came back to set things straight. But it wasn’t enough for him.”
“What do you mean?”
“Every year on this night, Ellis comes back, seeking vengeance. That’s why the town is deserted every Christmas Eve. No-one dare leave their houses, no-one except us.”
Smith decided he’d had enough. Jones was clearly trying to have a joke at his expense.
“Very funny. Not sure why you think I’m going to believe you. Your tale is ridiculous. I need a cigarette.”
“I wouldn’t leave the car. Can’t you hear it?”
Smith heard a faint noise in the distance.
“Just a car back-firing.”
Smith shook his head.
Smith pulled the door handle and opened it, feeling the rush of cold air. He stepped out, reaching for his cigarettes. He was the newest addition to the town’s police force and because of that he expected a certain amount of leg-pulling, but he didn’t see why he should be the brunt of such a bullshit story. He glanced up as the engine noise increased. A vehicle turned the corner onto Main Street, heading towards him. Smith couldn’t see what it was, the headlights were on full beam. It wasn’t until it drew next to him that he saw it was an ancient pick-up. He glanced at the driver and saw a vision of hell. The driver was hideously burnt, the skin and hair almost totally gone. It grinned insanely at him. Dropping his cigarettes, all reason gone, Smith started to run, ignoring the shout of alarm from within the patrol car. The last sound he heard was an engine roaring behind him.
Copyright © 2016 by Richard Meldrum