Mr Cardington glanced at the clock on the wall and realised he should have left the office a good twenty minutes ago. His fellow bridge players would be kept waiting, doubtless drumming their fingers and making jokes at his expense. He capped his fountain pen and sighed. He would have to stand them all an extra round of drinks for his tardiness. The papers on his desk still needed to be filed away properly, too.
“Can’t leave confidential legal papers all over the place for the cleaners to peer at,” he joked to himself, wincing slightly at how the previously comforting silence was disturbed by his voice. He glanced up at his open door and through into the reception room where his assistant worked and greeted clients. Of course, young Stanley Cribbs had said his evening farewells almost an hour earlier so the ante-room was quiet and still, illuminated by just a couple of wall lamps. His eyes seemed to be held entranced by the view through the door frame, as if there was something there, just out of sight.
He could see, to the left of his portrait-framed view, the edge of Stanley’s desk; a segment of oval rug lurking behind it in the centre of the floor; while to the right of this lifeless still life, bookshelves pressed along the wall. Peeking out at the top and bottom were the curving bare limbs of a hat and coat stand.
Cardington realised he had been holding his breath and let it out. His throat felt dry. He really needed a drink down at the club. Or two. But mostly he needed to get out of the office.
He gathered his paperwork together and tapped it hurriedly into square order before sliding the loose pages into a manila folder. He had just clipped the folder closed when he heard a sound from the ante-room: the brief but alarmingly loud bray of a wooden chair leg moving a few inches on the wooden floor.
Cardington’s heart had almost leapt from his throat and was now pounding away like a steam train, his ears echoing with thudding pulses. He tried to swallow but his mouth was like a desert, no moisture and, other than a faint whispering of breath, no sound. He eventually mustered enough control to call out loudly, if not terribly confidently, “Hello? Who’s there?”
An almost silent static hiss of fabric in motion reached his ears, but no-one answered him.
“Hello? S-Stanley?” he asked again.
And now he could tell that feet were moving across the floor of the room beyond. He stared through the doorway at the still motionless slice of room, fingers gripped tightly around his forgotten folder.
His eyes widened as a shapeless shadow entered the frame, moving slowly from the left, onto the rug and turning towards the door. The lights in the room struggled to throw any definition onto the shape but he felt that he was looking at a woman, dressed in black, possibly with some form of headwear. He could discern no face, the shadows and perhaps a veil preventing any hope of identification. A second shadowy figure now stood at her side. A man by the look of him, thought Cardington as he reined in his alarm and began to wonder who they were and what they could possibly want at this time in the evening.
“Sorry, can I help you?” he said, rising out of his chair.
The figures stopped just beyond the threshold to his office. The lamp on his desk completely failed to help him make out any more detail of his visitors. The woman took a step into his office and spoke with a dull, muffled voice. “Mr Cardington?”
“Yes,” he replied, “I’m Mr Cardington, owner of this practice.”
The man now followed the woman into the room. “We know,” he said.
“Well, my name is on the door I suppose…” he began.
“No,” interrupted the woman, “we… know, Mr Cardington. About Captain Sykes.”
The solicitor blinked and paused before responding. “About… the late Captain Sykes? Ship lost at sea, what, three years ago? 1919 was it?”
He looked at them expectantly. “And?”
“And Mrs Sykes,” said the shadowy man.
“Ah, yes, so that would also be, ah, the late Mrs Sykes. Terribly unfortunate, so soon after hearing the news of her husband. So, how can I help you?”
“And,” continued the woman ignoring him, “their children.”
Mr Cardington looked at them and frowned. “I’m sorry, who are you? I’m afraid I can’t discuss confidential legal affairs with just anyone, you know.”
The couple took another step closer to his desk. An unusual mix of aromas percolated into the air around them. Sea weed and oil; lilies and damp earth.
“There is a trust fund,” said the man with a voice that sounded as if it came from far away. “For the children. That you drew up. That you now draw on.”
“A-ha,” laughed the lawyer, nervously, “yes, well, it’s still there. Yes, I am the trustee and have some limited access, for investment purposes and what have you. Rest assured, once the children turn twenty one they will gain access to a fine inheritance.”
The woman seemed to tremble as she leant forward and said, “The children need it now. You must release the funds to my…” she paused, “to their aunt.”
“I’m sorry, but the fund was set up to pass an inheritance on to the children of the late Captain Sykes once they become adults. And, when Mrs Sykes passed away, her estate also went into the trust.” He looked from one shadowy figure to the other. “If only the late Mrs Sykes had signed her estate over to her sister in the event of her death…”
The woman took another almost shambling step forward and held out a crumpled document. The lawyer cautiously reached out, took it from her black-gloved fingers and examined it.
“This appears to be the last will of the late Mrs Sykes, but…” he frowned once more as he turned the pages, “but it’s the version she never signed.”
“It is signed,” said the woman, raising her hands to her black veil.
“Signed?” muttered Cardington, looking incredulously at the signature on the bottom, “but how?”
The woman lifted her veil, drawing his eyes up to the macabre horror of her face. “Better late than never,” she whispered.
Image of the Martin Wilkinson of Newark clock from “The Woman In Black”, courtesy of Cross Creek Pictures, Hammer Films, Alliance Films, Talisman Productions, Filmgate Films et al. Image lifted from http://watchesinmovies.info/movies/woman-in-black-the-2012/