From the Background:
The Goat and Knife is one of two pubs in Little Tapston, reputed for its fine bitter and delicious cheap lunches. Locals are friendly enough to strangers, helpful in giving directions, certainly eager for news from outside their secluded county. You head back to the bar for half a Hewit Risk Ale to wash down your ploughman's lunch. A tall, swarthy man leans on the bar, who turns at your approach. He fixes you with piercing blue eyes.
"Ah, a stranger to these parts, I see!" he says, voice deep but not menacing. A toothy grin parts his bearded face, his hand clasps your own firmly. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Terry, by the way. So, are you a tourist or here on business?"
"Just passing through - stopped for a quick bite before meeting friends further on."
"Hmm, watch those country roads, mate, they're narrow with hairpin bends - some motorists, mad as March hares!"
You nod, but grin, "Well, let's hope I don't meet a nasty end, then. I've only ten miles to go, Terry."
"Right," his brow wrinkles in thought. "Ten miles, eh? There's not much to see around these parts, Tapston is a fair place but stuck in the middle of no-where...ah!" he clicks his fingers: "Your friends are farmers, I'd wager!"
You smile at his attempts to guess your destination - a little game you're both enjoying - but it almost seems he was hoping the answer to be correct. His face drops at your response. "It's no good, Terry, I'll have to put you out of your misery. I'm meeting them at some ruined old house that burned down..."
A sudden hush descends over the entire pub. Slowly, you regard the other patrons - they return your puzzled look with frightened eyes. You turn back to Terry who's still gobsmacked.
"Tell me you're joking," he finally stammers, "please."
"What are you talking about?"
"The-the Earl of Drumer's place," he gasps, "you must have heard the stories. Yes, that must be it! You're having a joke with all of us," he laughs nervously, slaps the bar with sheer delight, "go on, own up to it!"
Your face remains puzzled, no hint of a mischievous grin emerges. Terry's face falls into one of despair. "Look, look," his hand grips your shoulder, almost crushing it, "you don't know me, I don't know you, but listen, listen," he grits his teeth to emphasise the point: "Don't go there! Please, you mustn't. That place is cursed, I tell you, cursed! For years people have been going missing."
"But I have important business there, Terry..."
"It doesn't matter! Do you understand? Your meeting, call it off. Whatever your business, avoid that place. Oh, why did you have to choose that accursed house for a meeting spot? Of all the places! Look, my friend, just call it off!"
"You can't be serious?" you laugh perplexedly, look to the surrounding faces again, but find no salvation save dread and concern - for you. "I don't believe this. You're all basing your fears on fireside ghost stories. Call it off? Even if I wanted to, how? I can't! They're waiting for me as we speak. I'm late as it is..."
Terry is horror-stricken. "Your friends are already there?" he sighs, closes his eyes, looks skyward as if seeking divination.
You feel like doing the same but for different reasons. "Alright, look, enough of this charade! It's quite obvious you're all mad..." you fumble for your wallet, pull out a tenner, offer it to the landlord, "...so I'd like to pay my bill, thank you."
But the landlord simply shakes his head. He leans on the bar and regards you with sad eyes. "It's on the house, sir. Good journey." With that, he crosses himself before placing empties into the washer.
Astonishing! At once, you feel humbled by such generosity, but anxious to leave the Goat and Knife - yes, a blade would come in handy to cut through the atmosphere!
As you pass, Terry avows, "I'll pray for you."
You pause outside, expecting to hear the sudden whoop of laughter - none comes, but:
"Say, Sid, you should have taken his money."
"No, it's not right to charge a man for what could well be his last meal."