Bill’s Bones (A Tale of Skullduggery)

Recently sacked and single, Walt is about to learn what it truly means to be cursed.

About the Author

Mike Jack Stoumbos lives with his wife, puppy, and parrot, and enjoys finding hope and humor in speculative fiction. His stories have appeared in collections from Writers of the Future, Zombies Need Brains, WordFire Press, and others.

About the Narrator

Eddie Knight has been a technical leader in organizations ranging from financial services to software security, enabling him to gain the wealth of experience and insight that he brings as a speaker, author, and strategist.

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To many, falling asleep behind the wheel of a moving vehicle is one of the scariest things imaginable. To Walt Simkins, waking up to assess the damage was far worse.

Fortunately, when it comes to slow-moving heavy machinery, driver error poses little human danger. Civilians can casually stroll out of the way, and the operator is safely preserved in a garish yellow cage. Anything rooted to the ground, however, including the ground itself, is fair game for a bulldozer, who makes no judgments or discriminations about what it plows through. In Walt’s case, by the time the driver was woken and engine cut, the highly valued putting grounds of the Stratford Sports Club had one less hill.

On a heap of upturned up dirt lay an unburied box, cracked under pressure. Though only a few inches of light made their way in, Walt was certain he saw the telltale grooves of a skull.

“Don’t leave us in suspense,” prompted Des, later that evening. “What happened next?”

Sunken into the armchair, under the poster of the Globe Theatre, Walt would have preferred contemplating the nature of the universe and lamenting that few kings and queens in classic tragedies were less fortunate than he. Even so, Walt’s despondent expression wouldn’t shake his flatmate’s enthusiasm, so he said, “You know what happened. I was promptly sacked. Left with hardhat in hand. Awaiting impending lawsuit.” More than melancholic, Walt moaned, “Probably banned from Stratford forever.”

Des, the shorter, thinner, and far more animated, lean in and said, “No, not that. The skull. You turned up a bloody skull. Whose was it?”

Walt raised his thick eyebrows. “Is that the only part you care about?”

“Pretty much,” said Des, shuffling out of the way of their third flatmate, Yousef, en route with liquid comfort.

Yousef, whose spectacles and stache spoke to his IT profession better than a nametag, was still wearing his work polo, but had switched from black loafers to pink slippers for the night. “The skull was the only part they really talked about on the radio,” Yousef added, handing Walt another serving of their signature cocktail: lager without ice.

“It’s on the radio!” Walt abandoned the futile hope that the reporters were just from a Stratford newspaper; clearly, word had reached London.

“Sure,” said Des. “They called you Walter Simkins, but otherwise the story fits. Though they never actually said who the skull belonged to.”

“We thought maybe you’d know, being the gravedigger and all,” said Yousef. “Been waiting half the day to find out.” He went to the sofa, where Walt’s oldest friend (Yousef’s new girlfriend), Jen, kept her eyes the script in her hands. She lifted her feet, then lay them comfortably across Yousef’s lap.

“Jen, did you hear it on the radio too?” Walt asked her.

“Only losers listen to the radio, Walt, you know that,” Jen replied with the kind of flippancy only heard among close friends or theatre rivals. “I caught it on Twitter.”

Walt mused, “I wonder if Ash—”

But he was cut off by very supportive boos from the other three. Des sang his objection loudest of all, having headed the charge to ban ex-talk in the flat just a few days prior.

Holding up a hand of surrender, Walt turned his attention to the beer.

“So, did they tell you about the skull?” Yousef prompted again, eager to change the subject from Ash.

“No, actually, they have no idea whose it is.”

Walt had expected this to be disappointing news, but Des reacted by clapping his hands together rapidly and proclaiming, “Ooh, that’s lovely! It’s delicious. Like we’re in an episode of Midsomer Murders.”

“Or Midsommar,” suggested Yousef.

“Oh, gods, no!” hollered Jen. “I still can’t believe you made us watch that.”

Walt actually smirked—a far cry from happiness, but a start. “This skull’s too old to be anything like that.”

“How old?” asked Des, sitting cross-legged on the floor as if it were a far better option than the open chair.

“Ages,” said Walt. “Literally centuries. Someone from the historical society—sweet lady, name like a retired Aunt—guessed about four-hundred years. But she said she’d do carbon dating to be sure.”

This apparently gave Des hope. “That’s brilliant, isn’t it? Got to be worth way more than a tip on some unsolved murder.”

“Well, I didn’t get to keep it, Des. Some stuffy museum types gathered it and its box in plastic bags for research. Plus it’s—” He gestured nebulously. “—owned by the golf course or the city or maybe a great-great-grand-nephew or something.”

“Yeah, but you’d get a finder’s fee! What if it’s someone really famous?”

“He’s right,” agreed Yousef, “could help offset the cost if the club decides to sue.”

Keeping her page marked with one finger, Jen swatted Yousef with the script. “He’s not getting sued. They’ve got insurance for this sort of thing. Right, Walt?”

“I hope so. Foreman, Mister Abner, read me the riot act on the property I’d run through, saying how it could bankrupt him.” Walt tried to massage the bridge of his nose but found the tactic ineffective. “Why does the price of dirt go up exponentially the moment someone decides to plug in a few holes for flags and balls?”

Des snorted at the inadvertent innuendo.

“Well, this Abner’s an ass,” Jen said, then paraphrased one she and Walt both knew: “Though it not be written down, yet forget not that Abner is an ass.”

Walt smiled more genuinely and nodded.

Surrounded by thespians, Yousef was the odd man out on the reference, and so asked, “Which’s that from?”

Not wanting to say Midsummer again, Jen skillfully ignored the question. “I’ve got an audition tomorrow, Walt. You could read lines with me.” She held up the script to him so he could easily read the title of the Shakespearean comedy, The Taming of the Shrew.

“I’m a bit Shakespeared out, thanks,” said Walt.

Des scrunched his nose in confusion. “You? Shakespeared out?”

Reopening the script, Jen said, “Well, he did just finish a Hamlet workshop, Des.”

“Yeah, but only as an understudy!” protested Des.

Walt tried to shove past that comment. “And with the crew hauling rocks in bloody Shakespeareville for the last three days—”

x“Until you were sacked,” supplied Yousef.

“Thanks for that, Yousef.”

“No problem.”

Walt shook his head. The truth was he had really liked spending time in Stratford-upon-Avon, just across the water from the Holy Trinity Church and the final resting place of the man himself. And, despite the occasionally trying commutes, working with a landscaping and construction crew during the day made enough money to fund his theatre habit after hours. Or rather it had done, struck down by a touch of narcolepsy following a breakup.

The ding of an oven timer interrupted Walt’s brood. It also urged Yousef to his feet and thereby Jen out of her lounging posture.

Ever the soul of tact, Jen observed, “You look like death, Walt. When’s the last time you ate?”

Walt shrugged one shoulder. “Not really hungry.”

From the kitchen, Yousef gestured with a hotpad already in-hand. “You sure? I’ve made more than enough chicken.”

Feeling that he probably couldn’t afford to pitch in, and familiar with Yousef’s heavy-handed spicing, Walt politely declined. “No thanks. I don’t think my stomach’s up for it. Probably should just try to get some sleep.” He extracted himself from the chair and then from the sitting room.

“There you go, finding flaws with the meat, ya shrew.” Jen flashed a charming, Cheshire-cat grin. “Just getting inspired, Walt.”

Walt shook his head, lacking in amusement, and went into the kitchen to wash his glass.

Behind him, Des continued pestering. “You can always read with me, Jen.”

“Nope. You made a crack about me trying for the lead.”

“Oh, but I can see it now: Jennifer Lawson, starring as Petruchio in the all-lesbian production of The Shrew!”

“It’s called an all-female production, you git.”

In the kitchen, Walt and Yousef shared a familiar look, tacitly agreeing on a policy of non-interference.

Walt excused himself quietly, while Des and Jen’s argument escalated, from casually playful to wake-the-neighbors outrageous, each trying to insult the other’s theatre-cred and making no headway.

He ascended the narrow stairway to his room. The word flat was a misnomer to describe their place, as each of the three miniature floors was askew and asymmetrical. Still, it was a cozy enough North London home for a few actors and a techie. Walt reached his door, squeaked it out of its frame, then shut it behind him with enough force to briefly contend against Des and Jen.

Closed in his matchbox-sized room, Walt could be (unfortunately) alone with his thoughts, his music, the still-viable-but-growing-obsolete laptop, and a pile of scripts to leaf through. And, of course, amongst the various production posters, there were photos of himself and Ash, their expressions giving no hint of the looming heartache. Worried he might snooze at even this reminder, Walt slumped onto his bed while he got his bearings.

The online nurse’s diagnosis read, cataplectic narcolepsy triggered by emotional aversion. Recommendations, get your shit together and see a shrink.

Of course, he hadn’t anticipated nodding off at the lever of a bulldozer. But, apparently, looking out over a green field, on a beautiful summer day, across the river from a monument to Shakespeare, and one glorious date— It wasn’t a fate worthy of the bard, albeit an embarrassing disaster, which left Walt freshly unemployed and alone in his room.

Despite everything, Walt still felt too restless to want to sleep. So he began to clean with deliberate vigor, starting with pictures of the ex. He tore them from the walls with equal parts speed and tenderness, and buried them in the wastepaper basket under a left-behind sweater.

He opened the window to air out the room but caught a chill immediately, along with the continued argument from downstairs, as his friends debated the best way to kill a wife with kindness in the style of the play.

Walt changed his mind and shut the window, but clearly employed too much force. The tinkling tones of shattered glass acted as unwanted accompaniment to his malaise. It wasn’t a mirror, but he had a strong feeling there would be some years’ bad luck. When he leant down, thinking to pick up the shards, Walt yelped at an image reflected in the glass.

The skull! Had it followed him here? Was it on the ceiling, hovering behind him, ready to enact vengeance for— No, Walt realized. He must have seen his own face, gaunt from depression.

“Brilliant!” he remarked, and gave up his project. Perhaps the best answer was in fact sleep. “To sleep,” he sighed, “perchance not to dream.”

Leaving the room unfinished, Walt switched into pajama bottoms and turned out the lights.

The bed still brought no comfort. He turned this way and that, trying to find the right position to avoid mattress lumps he’d never noticed before. As soon as he’d situated himself, he discovered the blankets and sheets inadequate for the task. They lay unevenly and had trouble covering both feet; they’d slip off and onto the floor if he twitched.

It should have been a warm night. After all, it had been a hot summer day, but the draft through the broken window was anything but pleasant.

Walt began to fret. Of course, he already had much to fret about, but to top it all off, whenever he closed his eyes, he pictured the skull. He began to hear whispering voices that were surely in his head, either that or coming from his mates, or maybe someone had left the telly on.

When he’d finally shut out the whispers, Walt heard a yell through the outside window and leapt to his feet, wide-eyed and alert. Was Des practicing banshee calls at the witching hour? Walt went to the door, preparing to tell everyone to shut up, but found it stuck in the frame. He banged and hollered, but received no answer; he surmised the moulding had swollen from the moisture of the open window, which was still letting in city noise, including the crying of a tea kettle, which someone had failed to remove from a stovetop. Did Jen forget to turn off the gas while tackling Yousef?

The wind worsened, the noises intensified. Walt contributed his own cries of dismay. He threw the covers off the bed and tried to staple them against the window, but the wind turned to rain and pelted through, soaking him. He reached for the first available sweater, saw that it was Ash’s, the one he’d thrown away—

This final detail sufficed. Walt’s eyelids fell closed, his arms and legs shut down, and his head followed suit to the floor, landing conveniently on a sweater.

Walt woke the next morning to someone rapping on the door. Opening his eyes, he found, with alarm, the state of his room.

“Yeah, what?” Walt wondered, his trained theatre voice still clear.

Yousef answered, “Walt, you up? Someone’s here to see you.”

Walt could imagine no good someone at this hour, especially if Yousef didn’t call them by name, but he pulled on a shirt to make himself moderately presentable. “Alright, hang on. The door’s wedged in the frame. You might need to—”

But Yousef turned the knob and opened it quite easily, then stared open-mouthed at the chaos. “What in hell happened here?”

“I hardly got any sleep,” Walt began. “There was so much noise, and then the window was—Well, it’s rubbish.”

“I thought you said the door was stuck.”

“It was stuck. Hey, did you and Jen leave the kettle on last night?”

“Er—No.” Yousef seemed unsure with his own response. “You okay?”

“Er…” He considered, echoing the more put-together man, but said, “I’m fine. Just— Who’s here to see me? Lawyer type?”

“No, no one like that. Just a lady from the Stratford Historical Society. Said she’s been driving since six in the morning and needs to talk to you, but clammed right up otherwise.”

“Oh right. The—er—lady with an old-bird name. Right, she asked me for the address. What time is it anyway?”

“It’s nearly nine, mate,” said Yousef, his head tilted, his concern readable even through glasses. “You’re sure you’re okay? You look like you saw a ghost.”

Walt forced a chuckle. “I’m fine. Really. Meet you downstairs in five. And would you mind starting the coffee.”

“Started.” Yousef took one last look around before taking his exit.

Walt quickly donned real trousers and socks. Without checking a mirror, he did his best to spit-smooth his wavy hair into something without delusions of lion.

He shuffled his way out into the hallway and nearly ran into Des. Des wore considerably less to sleep and had zero issues with bumping into Walt on his way to the loo.

But today, Walt paused him with one palm against the other man’s semi-recently waxed chest. “Des, were you shouting after midnight last night?”

“Well, good morning to you too, Maestro.”

“No, seriously, Des, there was shouting. Like practically caterwauls from right outside my window. Now, was it you?”

“Steady-on, mate. No, it wasn’t me.” Des pressed up on his toes to achieve better eye-level and squinted. “Jesus, Walt, you look—”

“I know, like death or like I saw a ghost.”

“No, ridiculously hungover. Like still pissed hungover.” Des reached a hand to pat or slap Walt on the cheek, but Walt reacted away. “How’d you get that loaded on two pints now, Walt? You havin’ something else in your room?” He began to mime something Walt suspected would be too graphic for such an early hour.

“No, I’m not using or carrying. Just didn’t sleep well. Woke up on the floor.”

With a half-assed flourish and an affected accent, Des said. “Then I see Queen Mab’s been with you, boyo.” This time, Walt remained still when Des patted him on the cheek, with some affection, however impolite. Soon, Des had shut himself in the washroom and was humming an old Disney favorite while preparing his shower.

Walt remained in the cramped upstairs hallway for only a few more seconds, aware of a nagging sensation at the back of his mind, but too lacking in focus to form conclusion.

He clomped down into the main sitting room, his thoughts surrounded in a sort of cobweb haze, for which he blamed his brief, poor sleep.

Jen sat on the couch in about the same position as the night before, and gave a curt nod from behind her script. Yousef stood at the kitchen counter, pouring coffee for two. And a short woman in a long skirt waited just within the door, gripping a squarish paper bag in both hands. She wore a hat and coat that suggested a very different season; her eyes were wide, but her lips pressed closed.

Walt forced a quick smile. “Good morning,” he said en route to the coffee. To Yousef he quietly asked, “You didn’t invite her to sit?”

With all seriousness, Yousef replied, “She refused.”

“Oh, I’m not staying, thank you,” she called over without much volume but a great degree of earnestness.

“But you’ve driven all the way from Stratford,” Walt protested. “You could have a cup of tea or—”

“No, thank you.” When she swallowed, it was clear that her whole frame trembled and her neck and jaw stood tense. “We only met briefly yesterday, Mister Simkins. My name is Florence, and I— We, at the Historical Society, collected your find for research.”

“No, yeah, I remember,” he said, trying to remain as casual as possible in the face of such a strange early-morning caller. “Are you— Are you alright?”

“No, not so much, Mister Simkins. My research partner is in a sort of coma.”

Florence had made the remark so flatly that Walt and Yousef had to demand its repetition.

“Yes, well, he was examining the skull, and was finding a great deal to support our original estimate, almost exactly four centuries.” Her face grew paler, and her grip on the bag tightened. “He and I both guessed the connection, and—Lord forgive us—we shared a few jokes in the style of the bard. But when Henry—” Here, Florence shut her eyes and refrained from so much as a whimper, despite apparent anguish. She set the wrapped cube on the floor and retreated two steps from it. “Henry, my fellow researcher, was monologuing to himself, quoting about a thing like death and waking up in the tomb. But when he said, ‘I’ll give thee remedy…’”

“He fell asleep,” finished Walt.

Florence nodded, “Looked like someone dosed his water bottle. But with something very dangerous. No modern doctor would dare use—”

“Wait, I don’t understand,” interrupted Yousef. “What does it have to do with what he was saying?”

“It’s from Romeo and Juliet,” supplied Walt.

“And, why is that important?” Yousef wondered.

“I should think it obvious, considering whose skull Mister Simkins dug up,” Florence began, but once more, she was cut off.

A dripping Des, wrapped in a towel, was sprinting down the stairs. “The water’s bloody freezing! Did someone— Oh, hello!” he exclaimed, with an over-enthusiastic lilt. “Sorry about my lack of decorum in my own home when no one told me we had guests.”

“Des, she’s from the Stratford Historical Society.”

“Of course!” Tempting the knot of his towel, Des rushed in and stopped short of a full embrace. “That’d be the skull then.”

“What?” asked Yousef. “You brought the skull here?”

“No.” She unwrapped the paper bag and produced a simple wooden cube about ten inches on each side. It looked quite a bit cleaner and more put-together than the last time Walt had seen it. “Just the box it was in. Fixed it, made it ready.”

The cold spidering up Walt’s back must have been worse than anything Des got from their low-pressure piping. “Ready for what?”

“Well, there’s the rub, isn’t it?” said Florence. “The skull sort of vanished. I was hoping you’d seen it, Mister Simkins. And that you could put it back.”

Intrigued, Des brought a hand to his chin, while the tattoo of the Little Mermaid on his right hip tried to dance free of the towel.

Jen, who had remained silent, interjected with, “Oh.”

“Hold on, everyone!” commanded Yousef, with more force than he usually employed. “What’s going on here? Do you actually know whose skull it is?”

Jennifer lay down the script, title and author facing the ceiling. “Shakespeare. It’s William-Bloody-Shakespeare’s skull.”

With an intense shudder, Florence put distance between herself and the box. “Yes. And now, they’re your responsibility.” Apparently unable to resist the melodramatic addition, she drew a rosary from her blouse pocket, crossed herself, and exited, without giving anyone time to protest.

Three flatmates and a Jen regarded the empty wooden box, which, resting in a hill in Stratford, had kept a skull safe for centuries. The wind spoke up to fill the silence.

Des, ever one for the comedy, addressed the weather: “‘Hey, ho, the wind and the rain.’”

As if on cue, a shout of thunder accompanied a flash outside, and the streetfacing windows were pelted by aggressive rain.

“Bloody hell!” yelled Walt, and began to race up the stairs to protect his room from the inclement effects of broken window.

Jen did some furious screen-swiping, then showed her phone to Yousef, saying, “The forecast said sunny!”

This time, it was a dripping-wet Walt who came back down the stairs.

Des had dressed, and he and Jen were both sitting in chairs facing the sofa like a pair of overeager therapists.

“Walt, you should sit down,” said Jen.

Walt complied, and informed them, “We need a new shower curtain.”

Des, who shared the upstairs washroom asked, “Why?”

“Because I stapled it to my wall and out the window.” After a sigh, Walt noticed his friends’ postures, including Yousef, who remained in the kitchen massaging the back of his neck. “What’s going on now?”

Yousef waved one hand at the other two. “They have a ridiculous theory.”

Walt furrowed his bushy, dark brows. “What?”

“Walt,” began Jen, with the caution of a bomb squad, “we think you’ve been cursed.”

Walt chuckled ruefully. “You and me both, mate.”

“No, Walt,” echoed Des, equally concerned—which was out of character enough to be disturbing. “You’re cursed by Shakespeare.”

Having waited patiently for the opportune moment, the thunder commented.

“What do you mean?”

Jen licked her lips. Her fingers drummed on her phone, facedown on her thigh. “Shakespeare’s epitaph. In Stratford. You remember what it says?”

“Sure, I do. ‘Blessed be he that keeps these stones, and cursed be he that moves me bones,’” Walt chanted, sure it was close if not exact.

“And now it’s hit you because you turned up the skull.”

Walt laughed, mostly at Des’s uncommonly deadpan expression. “You’re havin’ me on. It’s not actually Shakespeare’s skull; he’s buried in the church.” Even as he spoke, Jen was preparing her electronic evidence. “If he’s in the church, how would his skull be in a box across the river?”

“That’s what I said,” chimed Yousef.

“Not the skull! That went missing.” Jen scrambled to her feet and thrust her smartphone screen in Walt’s face to display the article. “Few years ago, they SONARed the grave. Did a—What was it, Des?”

“Ground-penetrating radar.”

“Right. Don’t you read the news, Walt? They scanned the grave, and found the skull was already missing, and no one knew where. Until now.”

“Or, rather, yesterday,” corrected Des. “And it’s cursed you, mate.”

Walt’s mouth fell open. He managed an indelicate impression of a codfish, which is rarely taught at prestigious acting conservatories.

Yousef scoffed from the kitchen. “Oh, come off it! You don’t believe this too.”

Jen’s voice grew a little higher in both excitement and fear. “Well, it all fits! The bit with the archaeologist’s coma from the R-n-J potion, and you said Walt couldn’t sleep last night.”

“What does that—”

“I called him a shrew, and then from the play— Look!” She quickly opened to the dog-eared page. “Finds fault with the meat, disrupts the bed, and ‘If she chance to nod I’ll rail and brawl and with the clamour keep her still awake’—It’s there, Yousef.”

“I’ll be damned,” muttered Walt.

Des took the opportunity to stand, and gesticulated wildly while saying, “Mate, you’re freshly dumped, newly sacked, and being haunted by the bones of Bill-bloody-Shakespeare. I don’t know whether to feel sorry or jealous!”

Walt suddenly yelped, causing everyone to hold their breath and look his way. Anticlimactically, he had merely felt a buzz in his trouser pocket and extracted his own cellular device. “It’s—er— It’s an alert from the crew.” Apparently, Walt hadn’t been removed from group texts yet. “The foreman didn’t show up onsite today. He’s gone missing, but—er—in his home they found—” Walt paused, reread, then said, “Foreman Abner’s been replaced by a donkey.”

Silence had reign for mere seconds before Des busted into giggles. Between chortles, he accused Jen, “You called him an ass, you did!”

“Well, no use pointing fingers. What we have to do now is get him back in the box, back in the ground, and break the curse!”

With all due skepticism, Yousef clarified: “By him you mean—”

“Shakespeare!”

“Right…”

“What makes you think it’ll work like it does in storybooks?” wondered Des.

“It’s Shakespeare!” hollered Jen, skipping her projecting voice and going full-shout.

Walt snapped his fingers—literally snapped his fingers, like an old-time detective with an idea. “I need to conjure him. I need to get his skull here or find it somewhere and trick it into the box.”

Jen agreed, “Yes! Well, we’ve already been conjuring him, we just need him here.” She and Walt scouted the room, its various production posters and the then-and-now print of the Globe Theatre. Des got out of their way, and Yousef failed to come up with proper objection. “Do you think we brought the storm?”

“Might have,” mused Walt. “We could use that. There are loads of storms in Shakespeare. Lear, The Tempest.”

“Ooh, Winter’s Tale,” suggested Des.

Jen rolled her eyes. “No, there’s nothing interesting in that one other than the name ‘Hermione’ and Shakespeare’s longest stage direction.”

“What’s Shakespeare’s longest stage direction?” prompted Yousef.

Though less studied than Jen or Walt, Des dutifully supplied, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

A low growling sound filled the room, and all eyes whipped toward the staircase.

Were it anyone else’s home—were it an amusing anecdote on the news or a cheeky blog, they would have laughed about the occurrence. The very idea of a fully-grown grizzly bear squeezing down a narrow stairway in north London sounded cartoonish at best. However, even the skeptical Yousef wasn’t willing to test the validity of the predator who clawed and practically tumbled its way onto the ground floor.

Cries of “Exit!” and “Exeunt” were barely audible over the bear’s congested snarls, but no one needed to hear directions in order to find their feet and bolt toward the front door. Following in Florence’s footsteps, the doubting Yousef now intended to take his vehicle to the nearest motorway and “floor it,” and was so adamant on that path that he gave his shoes a miss and led the procession in pink slippers.

Before Walt could follow, Jen pressed his better judgment, calling, “The box!”

So Walt snagged it as he fled, and exited, rightly pursued by the bear.

Fortunately for all four, bears were not built for slick exterior brick stairways.

Yousef did not fumble for the keys, and was ready to gun the engine as soon as Walt had both feet in the passenger door. Jen and Des had already belted in the back bench.

The screams of fright from neighbors, and the sounds of slamming doors and windows grew louder than the bear’s roars as they pulled away.

Walt kept both hands on the antique box, but craned his neck to yell at Des. “Jesus, man! What are you thinking? You might as well yell Macbeth in a theatre.”

“Well, if all the world’s a stage, then—”

“Shut up!” hissed Yousef from the driver’s seat. “All of you. Not another line, not another reference. When you say his words, you suggest things to—to—” Fearful of the name, but loath to enlist Youknowwho, Yousef settled on, “Bill, and we don’t want to suggest anything to Bill. So for now. Keep quiet.”

Through rear windows and mirrors, they could clearly see a very real, live bear, who had so struggled with the cramped and winding layout of the residential complex, it couldn’t effectively chase them.

A few turns later, and Yousef broke the silence with a murmur. “And you all wound me up about buying a car in the city…”

“What’s the plan?” asked Jen. “Who do we even call for a conjured bear in London?”

Simultaneously, Walt said “Defra” and Des said “Ghostbusters.” Neither government agency nor fictional supernatural experts seemed helpful.

“Do you have a plan for getting him in the box?” Yousef asked Walt.

Walt thought hard about it. He thought of all of the posters they’d pasted on the walls, his most recent workshop production, the skull itself. The whole affair was ludacris—from emotionally-triggered narcolepsy to the ghost of a literary genius—and yet, here they were, and Yousef needed a direction to drive. “Alright, I’ve an idea. Yousef, head south to Blackfriar’s Bridge. We’re going to confront Bill in a place where we know his rules. And I think he’ll play by them.”

Yousef switched lanes and prepared to hook right toward the A201. He came to a stop at the light, signal on.

“The Globe?” asked Jen.

“The Globe,” Walt confirmed. With only a minor inkling of what he was doing, he tried another bit of conjuring. Subtle, but hopefully the bait to draw out Bill. “‘The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.’”

A wind whispered through the vehicle, though all doors and windows were closed. A thin trail of chilled vapor collected between the rear passengers, and an eerie voice that sounded like a regal pirate seemed to congratulate Walt his assessment, saying the more obscure companion line: “‘…very potent with such spirits…’”

The spectre’s skull materialized first, in the middle of the back bench. Both Des and Jen screamed as the ghostly body filled in, down the torso, toward the legs, too quickly for anyone to debate its reality. They’d unbelted and bolted as the hands began to reach forward to Walt.

Yousef forgot which was gas or brake and jerked the car horribly while he tried to press his body against the door, away from the conjured Bill.

But what happens when a narcoleptic, who dozes to escape dealing with strong emotions, comes face-to-face with a zombified ghost of a curse-slinging genius? The answer should be painfully obvious.

“‘Who’s there?’”

“‘Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.’”

Walt woke with new respect for costume designers and a fervent wish that he would live to speak to one again. The dark doublet he now wore was too tight across the middle but too big in the shoulders, and the less he had to dwell on the tights, the better.

That he was seated on the stage of the restored Globe was hardly the shock or novelty that he would have appreciated even a day before. That a skull was bouncing between two otherwise headless guards and saying their opening lines was… Well, here, terms defied him.

Walt realized that not only had he been physically brought to the Globe, but that the bloody skull had started him at act-one-scene-one of the excruciatingly long masterpiece and cast him as the lead. Five acts of attempting to remember lines of a role he’d never played all the way through was an exquisite form of torture.

At least, it was an empty house. The sight of the ghost ferrying in Walt’s limp form must have been too much for whatever unlucky early-morners had been in the theatre. It also meant there would be no audience for his, Hamlet’s dramatic death scene, which he doubted would employ prop swords.

Walt let out a groan.

But the skull, and the night watchmen characters he employed, suddenly stopped talking to stare at the currently living actor. It was as if they were compelled to halt by his groan, and now waited for his line.

Though the scene would still be several pages away, Walt took the chance. Either from instinct or conditioning, when he next opened his mouth, out spilled the unhappy prince’s first monologue. “‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt…’”

By Walt’s unintended command, the two guards dissipated, vanishing into thin air. The stage, which had been sparsely arranged before, was reassembled to resemble a throne room.

Walt laughed, with the sudden giddy understanding of one who has realized his misstep was a short stumble, not a plummet to the death. He didn’t have to do the whole play, only to be stabbed and poisoned in the climax; he merely needed to skip to the correct scene.

A commotion and chorus of footsteps accompanied the arrival of Jen, Des, and Yousef, along with two terrified looking staff of the restored Globe rushing into the auditorium.

Jen, holding the box, started to speak. But Walt put one finger to his lips and gestured her to join him on the stage.

Walt continued the first monologue of Hamlet, much to his and (hopefully) Bill’s delight. When Jen arrived, he introduced her into the drama, saying the opportune line: “‘I am glad to see you well—Horatio? Or do I forget myself?’”

Jen fumbled a moment, then said, “‘The same, my lord.’”

Then, Walt, as Prince Hamlet, changed the tone, skipped the plot, strode across the stage. He went one way, then the other, with Jen following, more than a little confused and the skull nowhere to be seen—presumably waiting for a cue.

Walt placed the box front-and-center, then knelt. He reached forward, palm up. When he spoke, it was with more conviction than any director had ever managed to extract from him. “‘Let me see,’” then, overwriting the recognizable Yorick, Walt said, “‘Alas, poor William! I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.’”

And, indeed, he had been, for the skull of Shakespeare couldn’t resist appearing for Hamlet to hold.

Walt worked through the speech in full, not a word missed, no tear unshed. The best performance of his career, as if his life depended on it. Then, once concluded, he set the skull gently in the box. And closed the lid.

The stage scenery faded away. Walt’s doublet and tights were replaced by shirt and trousers again. No sound or sight of ghost remained.

The now heavier box in-hand, Walt bid farewell, saying, “‘The rest is silence.’” He prayed this would remain true, long enough for them to get Bill’s skull back to Stratford and in the ground where it belonged.

(Curtain)