His eyelids grew heavy as he listened to the church clock chiming eleven. A muffled thud made him sit bolt upright in his bed. He craned his neck, trying to locate the source of the sound. He was pretty sure that it had emanated from the upper floor, not the ground. He relaxed slightly, satisfied that his fortune wasn’t in peril. A second thud came and the gas lights dimmed. The fire, already burning low, started to belch smoke into the room. He coughed and spluttered, wiping tears from his eyes as the fumes spread. Strange. That had never happened before, at least not to his knowledge.
A third thud, louder now, came clearly from the parlour. There was nothing for it, he had to go and look.
Stepping gingerly from his bed Smooge felt around with his feet, sliding them into the fleecy lining of his slippers. He reached into the fireplace and grasped the warm metal knob of the poker.
“Who’s there?” He challenged the night. There was no reply.
He crept slowly towards the door, the poker raised and ready to strike at the first hint of trouble. Using his finger nails he eased the door open, then swung it hard, crashing it back against the wall.
“Ah ha.” He shouted as he sprang into the dim light of the parlour.
“Don’t be such an arse.” A voice said, originating from somewhere near his chaise longue.
Smooge peered into the gloom cast by the dying embers of the fire. There, stretched out on the chaise, was a figure. It looked familiar. It wasn’t alone. He crept closer.
“As I live and breathe,” whispered Smooge. “Harley. Jacob Harley.”
“The one and only. Your one time partner and now resident of the underworld.”
“But you’re dead. I buried you myself.”
“You did, and I note approvingly that you spent barely a penny on my interment. The plot you chose was the coldest, most remote in the cemetery, the stone you erected so tiny you can barely read my name. I congratulate you. I would have done no more had the boot been on the other foot.”
“What magic is this that brings you to my parlour in the dead of night.”
“No magic, Ebenezer. I have been sent.”
“Who sent you?”
“You would not wish me to break a professional confidence, would you?” Jacob Harley raised a disapproving eyebrow. “That is not the way of Harley and Smooge.”
“Smooge and Harley. I changed the name the day I buried you.”
“Ah yes. Of course. How is business these days?
“Not bad. I plan to take on new partners; A Mr Goldman and a Mr Sachs. They tell me that there are shed loads of money to be made advising the government on privatising its assets then undervaluing them. We plan to start with the postal service.”
“That sounds very promising. However, I’m not here to talk business. I was sent to bring you a warning.”
“What warning could you bring me.”
“Change your ways Ebenezer. Change your ways this very night.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then you will end up like me.”
“That doesn’t look too much like a hardship.” Smooge waved his hand to indicate the two barely clothed handmaidens. The one by Harley’s feet plumped up her pneumatic breasts in case Smooge hadn’t fully appreciated them.
“Ah, now I understand your warning. But I’m not fearful. I am righteous, I cannot go where you went. You lived a dissolute life, Jacob, whereas I am abstemious in the extreme.”
“What you were doing to Elisa Scratchit could hardly be classed as abstemious. You’re a randy old goat. I was most impressed. Did she say how my children are?”
“You fathered her children?”
“Not all of them. Numbers three through five I believe are mine. Twelve is almost certainly yours by the way. The sickly one.”
“So at least Scratchit fathered the others.”
Harley choked on his laughter and would have died had he not been dead already. “Goodness gracious no. He is, perhaps, the father of the first. The others are mine, yours or of unknown provenance. Anyway, back to matters at hand. You are a greedy old lecher” Harley intoned. “You will be visited tonight by three shades. Listen carefully to them and heed their warnings. If you do not then you are doomed to join me in my eternal torment.”
Harley faded out of existence, but the two girls stayed where they were, eyeing Smooge up as though trying to work out how much he would fetch at a fat stock sale. Harley blinked back into the room again. “Come on girls.” He hastened his companions. “Strictly’s on in five minutes.”
Smooge shook his head to try to clear it of the vision of Harley and the two women. Hallucination, he concluded, brought about by indigestion, which in turn had been brought on by fornicating on a full stomach. He went over to the sideboard and dispensed a very large brandy from the decanter. He poured it down his throat, which he had to say was an insult to the makers of such a fine cognac. Noticing that he was still holding the poker he realised that maybe it hadn’t all been in his imagination.
Smooge made his weary way back to his bedroom and climbed into the bed, though it now felt cold and clammy. He struggled to find sleep but eventually was able to succumb after he had spent half an hour mentally evicting people from the houses he owned.
* * *
Episode Three of this story continues next week. To be sure to receive a reminder go to Facebook and 'like' my page at http://tinyurl.com/o4gtb6v or 'follow' me on Twitter @Robert_Cubitt