By popular demand, another short story by author Michael Collins. Dark, horror themes.
“Did you get ‘em?” asks Fox, his moustache bristling with anticipation as Devine wrenches open the driver’s side door. An answering grunt comes from his partner, and Fox claps his hands together as Devine pours himself into the car, a plain white plastic bag trapped in his meaty paw. His truncheon bangs against the doorframe as he takes his seat and the springs of the old Ford bouncing in protest as he lands, handing the bag containing the sandwiches to Fox.
“For the life of me, I can’t believe you can get through two of those damn things,” he says, indicating the wrapped bundles of meat and bread that his partner is about to devour. “God only knows how many calories you get in ‘em.”
“Best meatball sandwiches in town, my boy,” answers Fox through a mouthful of beef and tomato sauce. “Broke dozens of cases ‘cause of these. Did you get me a can of Coke too?”
Clutching his coffee, Devine indicates the carrier bag. Fox leans in and grabs the can, brandishes it above his head like Bobby Charlton lifting the World Cup.
Devine lifts an unimpressed eyebrow. Over the years he’s seen Fox plough his way through Big Macs, Whoppers, KFC buckets, innumerable quantities of those killer meatball subs and countless cans of Coke, Seven Up and Sprite. Not to mention on the station nights out when the man gets through enough booze to sink the QE2, to be inevitably followed by a trip to Jimmy’s Kebab shop for a large portion of heart disease in a tray. Yet the man weighs perhaps ten stones whilst he, Devine, in spite of cutting his red meat intake by half in the last year (by order of the missus, of course) and forsaking the booze during the week, outweighs his partner by perhaps three stones. Where does the man put it all?
The first sandwich is disappeared. When Fox comes up for air, he says, “Got a call from dispatch when you were in the shop.”
“What it is?”
Fox shrugs. “Noise complaint. Turner St.”
Devine turns to Fox, who’s now nose deep in the second meatball sandwich. They’ve been partners now for twelve years and are attuned to each other deeply; able to read each other’s moods, intentions and thoughts as easily as the words on a page. Devine intuits from the clipped way Fox imparts this information that there’s something about Turner Street that Fox knows and Devine doesn’t. That Turner Street lies on the west side of town, the run-down, low-rent wrong side of the tracks, Devine is well aware. But there’s something else. Something in the way that Fox remains intent on the carcass of his second meatball sub that indicates he’s thinking of something other than his stomach.
“Spill it,” says Devine. For a moment, Fox’s only reply is the sound of his chewing. Then he says, “It’s nothing, really.”
It’s a curiously clumsy attempt to allay his partner’s suspicions; one that fails.
“Come on, Jerry. Spill it.”
Now Fox turns to Devine, fingers fluttering over his moustache like an insect’s antennae. A sure sign that he’s thinking hard. “It’s probably nothing. It’s just – “
“Turner Street? That’s where the Grindle kid lived.”
“The one that- “
“Shit,” Devine mutters, and says no more. The Grindle kid. There’s no need to regurgitate that strange, awful story. But it explains Fox’s sudden quiet and, like a drop of blood in a glass of water, darkens the colour of their mood as Devine turns the key and starts up the car.
Devine’s driving is careful and considered; there’s no need to flash the blues for a noise complaint, and he’s really not in any hurry to hit Turner Street, at least until he has cleared his mind and composed himself. The Ford cruises westwards, Fox giving a group of kids standing astride their bikes on one corner the stern eye. The kids all glare back, at turns aggressive and impassive. Fox watches the town change as they travel; bookies, chicken and kebab shops, and cash exchanges replace the branded fashion outlets. The roads are narrower; houses appear closed and dark, devoid of life; the weeds in their unkempt front porches wave solemnly in the breeze. Potholes in the road and dog shit on the pavement. The people on the corners stare with hollow eyes and cheeks as they pass. Even the air seems to change, to cloud over and darken as they go west.
Devine swings the car into a long, lazy turn into Turner Street. It is quiet, residential, sparsely populated. There are only a few cars parked along its length. No curtains twitch as they trundle along.
“What number is it?” asks Devine. “33,” says Fox. Somewhere a tiny dog is yapping, yapping. The sound echoes in the air.
Devine slows to a stop outside number 33. It’s the same as the others; terraced, boxy, utterly normal. Curtains are pulled across the bay windows both downstairs and up; the front garden is neatly paved and squared off. As they exit the car neither can hear any sound coming from the house; the only noise they can hear is coming from that tiny dog, yapping, still yapping.
“Who made the complaint?” asks Devine. Fox shakes his head; he doesn’t know. A neighbour most likely, although there’s nobody here to greet them. In fact the road appears deserted like Pripyat after the Chernobyl disaster, and the air hangs, still and oppressive. Devine hitches his belt, adjusting his truncheon and cuffs, and strides up the path to the front door. There’s no doorbell, so he grasps the knocker and raps on the door, which produces a flat, undramatic thud. Yap, yap, yap goes the dog in the distance.
The inside of the house could be the Moon, or the planet Jupiter, for all the response that Devine’s knock elicits. He’s been a copper for thirteen years and has knocked on thousands of doors. He knows when a house is empty. Fox, meanwhile, is peering in through the curtained windows. He retreats with a shake of the head. The dog in the distance continues its brainless cacophony.
Fox and Devine share a glance. To an outsider that brief look is meaningless. However, like an old married couple, these two have long developed a kind of brute telepathy, so an entire conversation is carried out in that look: What do you reckon? Dunno, mate. Something’s not quite right. Call it in? Let’s take a closer look, first. Fox points to the side of the house, where a gate leads to a path round the back. Devine moves to the gate. He isn’t sure what Fox is onto here, but there’s something about the atmosphere of this place all right. Fox and Devine have seen some strange things in their twelve year tour of this town; a deserted house in the bad streets they can handle. And they’re uniforms out on a call; they have to check it out.
The gate is latched at the top; Devine reaches up and pulls it back to open it. As he does there’s a hissing rush of air, like a car tyre with a quick puncture. Devine takes an involuntary sniff and recoils; the air smells rancid and sick, like rotten eggs and spoiled meat. It passes after an instant, but its aftertaste lingers at the back of his throat. He can’t help but gag and spit onto the paved path.
“What’s up?” asks Fox from behind him. Devine, hands on his knees, spits once more, trying to get that awful taste out of his mouth. Fox shrugs, his attention drawn by something on the path in front of him. Twining up for three or four inches from between two of the path’s paving stones is what looks like the root of a weed; although as it is bright red, topped with a sharp barb and pulsing slightly in and out, it doesn’t remotely resemble any weed he has ever seen. “Brian,” he says, pulling on his partner’s shoulder. “Take a look at this.”
Devine, recovered, leans in. “What the hell is that?”
“You’re the gardener, right?” says Fox. “You ever seen anything like that?”
Devine shakes his head, the horrible smell gone from his mind as he, fascinated, examines the odd root. Fox leans in closer. The faraway dog continues to bark, but neither hears it. They’re engrossed in this thing, an alien weed magically sprung up out of a Hertfordshire garden path. Fox and Devine share another quick telepathic glance. Devine nods and pulls out his phone, takes a picture. Then before they move on down to the back of the house, Fox takes a quick glance up the path. He can see more plants thrusting up from beneath the ground, cracking the paving stones. Some have that rich blood-red colour; others a veiny purple, still others an odd luminescence he cannot identify. He closes his eyes and shakes his head, hoping that this bizarre horticultural vision will disappear. It does not.
They turn the corner onto the patio of the back garden, navigating a pitchfork that leans against the wall like a drunken sentry, its sharp tines gleaming. The sight that greets them as they enter the garden is the fever-dream of a surrealist painter; something Dali might conjure in the midst of one of his fugues. The garden looks stretched, somehow; elongated beyond its normal proportions into something unnatural and nightmarish. It narrows down its impossible length to some indecipherable horizon. The hydrangea bushes blur into a sickening morass of purple and green streaks. To look at this weird tableau hurts Brian Devine’s eyes; more, it offends him, seems to mock his sense of the rational.
It’s back here that they first encounter the sound. It’s a deep, throbbing sub-aural moaning bass that assaults their ears just as the hellish vision before them has attacked their eyes. It is toneless and tuneless, an endless unformed non-sound. It’s the sound of a broken man moaning in a dirty Abu Ghraib cell. It’s the sound of a rusty nail dragged down a blackboard. It’s the sound of one hand clapping and it strikes a chord of terror through Fox and Devine.
The noise seems to throb and pulse in time with Jerry Fox’s arrhythmic heartbeat. For a long moment he feels sure that his heart will just pop with the strain. He risks a quick look at his mate – Devine’s colourless pallor and stricken expression confirm that he’s feeling the same. Devine suddenly turns and retches twice into a plant pot filled with ancient dust. Fox clasps his hands to either side of his head. It takes a number of minutes before their equilibrium returns.
It’s Devine who revives first and, turning away from the impossible scene in front of him, it’s him who grasps and twists the handle of the house’s back door. He’s surprised – and at the same time, totally not – when it opens smoothly and soundlessly. The same sensation of abandonment strikes him at the dark, warm space the door reveals. It’s empty, this place. And at the same time, clearly not.
The door opens on a small kitchen area. It’s dark because the window blinds have been pulled down. It’s uncomfortably warm. The thudding bass of that sound feels louder in here; Fox can see the plates on the sideboard quivering from the vibration. He can’t quite believe it, but he can now hear that faraway dog again, yapping, yapping, yapping as if it’s inside the house, trapped somewhere, hurt and frightened. Although this is surely impossible, the dog’s barks match that thumping bass exactly, each yap matching a thump. The room holds a dry, dusty smell; old leaves, yellowed bones. Fox feels nauseated. Those tasty meatball subs threaten to reappear on the kitchen floor.
Despite his roiling stomach Fox sees his partner advance into the room. Devine holds one hand against the rear wall, feeling for the vibration of that unsettling noise. He pulls it back sharply with a hiss and a grimace. ‘Hot,’ he says, shaking his hand in the air. It’s not just the wall, the whole room is oven baked. The air feels like a physical thing, a thing with hands and teeth.
At the far end of the kitchen a closed door bars their entry to the rest of the bad house. It’s shaking slightly in its frame, also in time with the beat of the un-sound that fills the air. Above the door is something that cannot be, simply cannot exist. Fox sees it and lets out an involuntary cry. His hand reaches for Devine’s shoulder.
It’s a framed painting on the wall. The painting shows in glorious detailed watercolour the two of them on the stone patio of the garden, reeling from the house’s malign music and the sight of the impossible garden. Fox has his hands to his face, and Devine is leant over. An event that happened moments ago. An even that could not be known or predicted is immortalised above their heads, depicted in oil and pencil in front of them, like an Old Master hung in the National Gallery, brought to life by Constable or Turner centuries ago. Fox’s heart hammers against his chest. He can’t breathe. What the fuck is this place?
Devine is less fazed at this new impossibility. His logical, ordered mind simply dismisses the utterly impossible things that have been set before him. The bizarre alien plants lining the alley, the stretched-like-elastic garden to infinity, the sound from nowhere that’s everywhere – every unconceivable thing they have witnessed Devine somehow shrugs off. Some kind of temporary hallucination, he thinks; the guy who owns this house must be cooking up some sick variant of meth or spice. The fumes are making them see things that aren’t there. He cannot – or will not – accept the fundamentally improbable fact of the reality of this place. They’re coppers, he tells himself, and they have a job to do. So he files it all away, chokes it all down and, certain in his rejection of what he is seeing he grabs his bunky by one meaty shoulder, turns him toward the closed, thrumming door and grasps the handle firmly with his other. Fox, momentarily disabled by the vision of him rendered in oil and brush on the wall in front of him, makes no move to stop.
Devine opens the door and steps through into a narrow hallway that appears blessedly free of the paranormal. It’s dark and devoid of interest, although the carpet, a garish brown and yellow concoction that can only belong to that glum category called 1970s British Drear, is a horror show all its own. The non-sound is louder in here; they can feel it in their boots, thrumming through the floor. It’s underlain with an ominous disharmonic hum – an awful choir clearing its throat. There are two closed doors on the left; living and dining rooms, Devine suspects, and the looming façade of a staircase on the right. In the faraway distance at the other end of the hallway stands the front door upon which Brian Devine had knocked fifty years ago.
They reach the end of the hallway without incident. Fox tries the doors off to living rooms; both are locked. As they reach the front door, another impossibility: standing on a small cabinet table in a nook by the front door is a telephone. Nothing extraordinary about that, unless Fox and Devine ignore the offensive vomit yellow colour of the thing. But stacked neatly next to the telephone are some notes – ten-pound notes. Fox picks one up, inspects it. Then he looks closer and recoils, murmurs, “What the hell?” He fumbles about for his wallet and pulls a tenner out, looks at the two side by side. In many respects the two are identical; the slick tactile feel of the polymer, the brown and red colour scheme, Jane Austen on the back with her declaration that ‘there is no enjoyment like reading’. But whereas on Fox’s note the Queen gazes resolutely out to the bearer, the note grabbed from the hallway table displays the thin, angular features of a man, with a long, hooked nose and close-cropped hair. The words underneath the figure informs Fox and Devine that the bearer of this note remains a loyal subject of His Excellency Emperor T’Thant III, Supreme Ruler of the United Kingdom of Endless Britainia. The two coppers share a look. Devine seems almost uninterested, and Fox can read the word ‘counterfeit’ in his eyes. But Fox knows – he knows! –the note is real, somewhere in the unending universe it’s real. He thumbs his radio but there’s no signal, only the hissing white noise of a dead line.
Devine turns to the stairs and looks up. The stairs are moving; not smoothly rolling upwards like a set of shopping centre escalators, these stairs are zigging and zagging wildly left and right, like a tall building swaying in a hurricane, or like a desperate man trying to dodge the bullets of an assassin. The individual steps of the staircase are bumping up and down in irregular patterns, like the keys of a piano. Devine closes his eyes, takes a breath, then re-opens them. The stairs are now regular and immobile. But that sound, that unholy wail, is louder.
Devine starts up the stairs. After a long moment to steady himself, Fox follows, gripping the banister hard. The sound is roaring in their ears, following them, pushing them upwards, to the heart of this bad house. There is a presence surrounding them, something unseen but felt, like the sense of an approaching storm, rumbling in the far distance. Fox feels as if the house itself is watching them, bristling with malign intent, and an image comes to him – sharp teeth bared in a vicious grin. The thudding, wailing un-sound assaults him again. If he has to hear that for much longer, he thinks to himself, his mind will go, untether itself from his consciousness and just float away, leaving him bereft and useless.
Devine ploughs up the staircase, teeth gritted, ignoring the sound. At the top there’s a brief landing carpeted with the same awful print, and a door, closed but vibrating in its frame. It’s hot – hotter than downstairs – and there is a red glow pooling out from under the door and between the hinges. Even in his stoicism Brian Devine can feel the appalling strangeness of this place; the sense that he’s stepped out of England and into some nightmare fantasy land. But he shrugs it off. He’s a copper with a job to do, and he’ll shut this noise down if it’s the last thing he does.
He grips the doorknob and turns. The door swings open easily. The room it reveals is small, square. Other than a desk, and a wardrobe in the corner it is unfurnished, and carpeted in a dull grey. Thick curtains mask the windows. It would be entirely normal apart from the bright red sun hovering in mid-air in the middle of the room. The sun is perhaps the size of a watermelon, slowly revolving, casting out a terrible red glow that lights the faces of Fox and Devine. It’s terrifically hot. Fox can see that the sun is throbbing, in time with the thudding bass of the unsound that pervades and poisons the house. In fact, the sun is the source of the noise; it’s the centre of this dreadful little universe. The presence he has felt throughout the house is at its strongest here; whomever or whatever owns this space and calls it home, its epicentre is here in this room. The red sun is its heart. And as the sound swells again he can feel that presence approaching.
The red sun swells too; it grows. And at its very centre appears a dark blotch, a black spot. As the sun grows, now a basketball, now a beach ball, so does that imperfection on its surface. The sound roars and moans again in answer, and Fox and Devine realise that it’s a call, an imprecation: come home, the sun is saying to its master. And something has responded. Something unknown and unknowable, but undeniably real. And it’s coming.
Fox drops to his knees and puts his hands over his eyes, and Brian Devine realises that his partner has given himself to whatever is coming. If they’re to get out of here it’s got to be him that does it. He reaches into himself and finds that well of calm stoicism that lives deep in the heart of every British constable that’s ever strapped on the helmet; the weary, slightly cynical, capable core that seems bred in them. That calm centre may have temporarily deserted Jerry Fox, but Devine kept his grip on his core, and it gives him the strength to stare right into the heart of that red sun, and at the blight in its centre that is the manifestation of the owner of this bad house. He takes his truncheon from its clip, and how good it feels to his hand, the thick rubber worm smooth over the years. Speaking calmly and slowly he says to the red sun:
“Sir, we’ve had a noise complaint. I’ll need to shut this down. If you do continue to antagonise your neighbours with this unwanted noise then I’ll be forced to declare this a statutory nuisance and you will be issued with a fixed penalty notice. Do you understand?”
The red sun roars its defiance, and the black spot grows louder.
Devine grins in its face. He raises his truncheon and thrusts it right into the red sun at the epicentre of the black mark. The sound rises to a scream of fury. The heat grows even more intense. For a moment the sun swells as if to the point of explosion; its red glow burns and Devine has to close his eyes against its intensity; even with eyes closed, the afterimage sears his retinas. But he keeps his truncheon stuck in the centre of the thing.
The fireball expands once more, and then with a whistling rush of hot air it collapses into itself and vanishes, leaving Devine stood in the centre of the room with his arm outstretched, clasping the charred, melted remains of his truncheon. He drops it with a grunt of disgust and it clatters to the floor. Where the sun used to be a picture now hovers in the air. It’s a close-up of a man’s grinning mouth; red lips and sharp white teeth. Even without the wider context of the man’s face, Devine can see the dark humour and the malevolence inherent in that grin; teeth that were made to tear and slash. The picture hovers in the air, a warning, then it too vanishes.
Devine stumbles wearily over to Fox, who’s still on his knees in the corner of the room with his hands over his face. He puts one hand under the man’s shoulder and pulls him up. Fox comes easily, and when Devine pulls the man’s hands away from his eyes Devine can see that he’s smiling, even as tears fall down his cheeks.
“I don’t think we’ll write this one up for CID, do you Jerry?” asks Devine with a smile. Fox laughs. “Useless bastards wouldn’t know what to do with it,” he says. “Let’s keep the coppering to the professionals, eh?”
“Natural poleece,” says Devine.
They take the stairs without incident, and open the front door to the street. Devine lets Fox goes first and turns to close the door. As he does he takes one last look back inside the house. The sound is still there, he realises, but it’s dulled, faraway. Not a problem. He smiles. “Case closed,” he says.
As Devine joins Fox by the car he hears a sound off in the distance. Yap, yap, yap, goes the dog. It’s the sound of normality restored, he thinks. Then Fox says, “Jesus, I wish somebody would shut that bloody dog up.”
Devine says, “Somebody should call the police.” Fox’s laughter drowns out the dog’s barking as they start up the car and drive away.