The fire crackled as Carla poked at it with a stick sending a shower of sparks up into the night sky. She pulled her cardigan tighter.
‘Who wants a story?’
It was Ian who spoke. Tall, muscular with a large bushy beard he was one of those guys that looked like he belonged in the woods.
‘Aren’t we all a bit old for stories?’ Carla replied. She wasn’t relishing the thought of another night under canvas but Ian had warned her that if she didn’t come on this team-building trip it would look bad. That meant no bonus.
‘We’re all storytellers, Carla,’ Geoff from marketing perked up. ‘As a marketer I create stories to sell products.’
‘We all know about your marketing prowess,’ laughed Lisa from sales.
‘Keeps you in a job!’ After almost two days of listening to Geoff’s stories of campaign successes everyone had had enough.
‘And I suppose actually getting people to sign on the dotted line has nothing to do with it!’ Lisa wasn’t laughing.
‘Alright, alright!’ Carla shuffled on the log to get comfortable. ‘
‘Watch it, that’s a verbal warning from Human Resources.’ It was Sue from accounting this time.
‘If you can get the client to visualise the benefits of the product and worry about not having it, that’s half the battle,’ Geoff pressed on.
‘Whatever, Geoff,’ Lisa rolled her eyes.
‘We all have something to offer. We’re a family!’ Ian was the company director. Geoff was a thorn in his side. He’d discovered the embessling two months ago but he didn’t have any solid evidence. Gathering the managers together was just the opportunity he needed. Mind games were his specialty.
‘Go on then,’ Sue spoke up. ‘I could do with a bit of escapism!’
Ian cleared his throat. ‘There’s a beast that roams these woods …’
A unanimous groan interrupted Ian.
‘Just listen.’ The tone of the director’s voice cut through the night air.
Resignation rippled through the group.
‘In some places the wood is darker than dark; pitch black, the air is heavy and thick. This is where the beast lives.’
Carla shivered pulling her cardigan tighter. She hated horror stories. Her imagination didn’t need help.
‘It feeds on the guilty,’ Ian continued.
‘What a load of …,’ Geoff was cut short as Ian raised a hand and continued.
‘Panther-like its soft black fur melds effortlessly with the night. A village had a baker who claimed he had placed a guinea in one of his loaves of bread. Sales increased and people came to buy his bread from miles around, eager to win the guinea. Six months went by and no one had won the gold. The blacksmith called a meeting.
‘What are we going to do about it?’ he asked.
‘I don’t see there’s anything we can do.’
‘It’s alright for the farmer, you sell him the grain.’
‘We could stop buying his bread!’
‘I don’t have time to walk to the next town. I have seven children!’
‘The beast will get him.’ Old Man Bennett spoke up. ‘Just you wait and see.’
The villagers were stuck. They couldn’t prove the baker wasn’t putting a guinea in the bread but they were sure of his guilt.
‘We’ll confront him,’ said the blacksmith.
‘When?’ the villagers chorused.
Ian’s managers were silent, leaning toward the fire waiting for the fate of the baker to be revealed. Ian threw another log on the fire.
‘The villagers marched to the baker’s house and banged on the door. Torches lit and pitchforks in hand they demanded he come out and face them. The baker’s face appeared at the window, white as the moon. Opening the sash, he called down.
‘I’m not coming out, if you don’t like my bread, don’t buy it.’
‘You’re a cheat,’ yelled the blacksmith.
‘Go home,’ countered the baker.
The villagers started to shout all at once when out of the hubbub of voices came a blood-curdling scream.
‘What was that?’
‘It came from up there,’ the blacksmith pointed at the baker’s window. The villagers saw the fear on the baker’s face as he was dragged from view, replaced by two yellow eyes shining out of the black.
‘I told you,’ said Old Man Bennett.
From that day on the villagers were as honest as the day was long, none of them dared to anger the beast that could seek them out by the smell of their guilt.’
A hush reigned in the group. Carla looked around at the faces lit up by the flames.
‘That’s a ridiculous story,’ Lisa said, scowling at Ian from across the fire.
‘Don’t you see?’ Carla said.
‘See what?’ Lisa frowned.
‘It’s a metaphor. The wood is your conscience and the beast is your guilt.’
Lisa was still frowning.
‘Guilt will eat you up in the end,’ Carla said, throwing another stick on the fire.
‘Very good,’ Geoff smirked and stretched his hands out to warm them. ‘I’m off to bed, if you can call it that. I still don’t see why we had to go camping, Ian.’
‘It’s good for the soul, Geoff!’ Ian replied.
‘I’m off too,’ Lisa said.
‘Me too!’ Sue followed.
‘All that talk of beast has given me the heebie-jeebies, I doubt I’ll be able to sleep,’ Carla huffed.
‘You’ll be fine with Lisa and Sue,’ Ian patted Carla’s shoulder
Ian was right; at least she was sharing a tent. The men had separate tents.
Carla slept surprisingly well and awoke to the blackbirds morning call. She almost thought she could get used to the idyllic woodland noises when a scream cut through them.
‘What’s going on?’ Ian stuck his head out of his tent.
‘It’s Geoff,’ Lisa sobbed, ‘he’s dead!’
Huddled around the entrance to Geoff’s tent, Ian peered through the canvas doorway. Three red angry lines ran across Geoff’s throat, his gaping mouth and wide eyes a death mask of surprise.
Ian backed out of the tent and faced the three women. ‘The beast got him!’
Enjoyed this story? More of D S Nelson’s work can be found here.
If you’ve written a story for the twelve story challenge then I’d love to read it, so make sure you add your link to your story, in the comments below and thanks for joining in!
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ALL CHARACTERS AND EVENTS IN THIS PUBLICATION ARE FICTITIOUS AND ANY RESEMBLANCE TO REAL PERSONS, ORGANISATION, PLACE, EVENT OR THING LIVING OR DEAD, IS PURELY COINCIDENTAL AND COMPLETELY UNINTENTIONAL.