He stared at his watch for the third time and fumbled with a box of matches as he attempted to light another cigarette using fingers that had frozen into useless lolly sticks. He gave the gate an angry shake and the padlock clanged against it with a hollow metallic echo. Where the fuck was Parker? He was about to give up and walk back to the car when a sudden gust of wind whipped up a pile of fallen leaves and stopped him in his tracks. An old man stood on the other side of the gate. Marcus almost leapt out of his Timberlands.
‘Jesus Christ, you nearly gave me a heart attack!’
‘Sorry,’ the old man muttered. He was fiddling with a bunch of ancient looking black keys.
‘Never mind,’ said Marcus. He stamped his feet and blew on his hands to try and warm himself up, then he picked up his briefcase and rifled through it for the property particulars that Parker had given him. He thrust the papers towards the old man. The old man just nodded; the gate was open now and he ushered Marcus through. Marcus tried again. ‘I’m Marcus Skelton,’ he said, stuffing the papers back into his briefcase and now imposing his hand on the old man to shake.
The old man ignored him and started walking. More tired than pissed off now, Marcus followed. In the fading autumn light, the building looked dark and brooding. Only a few windows remained intact. Some were boarded up; others stared down at him with an empty blackness. The grounds were unkempt, and some of the outside walls had already succumbed to the clutches of the trailing vine weed. Marcus shivered. The kid at the estate agents – Parker – had told him the place was creepy; which was probably why he hadn’t bothered to show up. The old man hadn’t spoken since they were at the gate, and now, as they stood outside the front entrance of the building that had once been an asylum, and in its latter years, an orphanage, Marcus felt uneasy.
‘So, are you the caretaker, or something?’
The old man sighed and led them inside. It was colder inside than out. The old man produced a couple of gas lamps, handed one to Marcus. ‘No ‘lectrics,’ he said.
Marcus stared at the lamp. The old man was already making his way down a corridor that in the flickering light of the gas lamps, with the eerie jumping shadows, had instantly become the last place on earth that Marcus wanted to be. But he’d already started walking, and all he could see in the distance was the fuzzy yellow light of the old man’s lamp, and in the other direction he could see nothing. He liked to think he didn’t scare easily, but in the middle of this dark labyrinth he now regretted not taking the early morning appointment that Parker had suggested.
He hurried down the corridor in the direction of the lamp, but after a few fast steps, he realised he couldn’t see it anymore.
Marcus stopped, listening for footsteps, trying to work out what to do. He was pretty sure if he just about turned and walked back exactly the same way he’d come, he would make it back to the front door, but the lack of light in the narrow corridor was disorientating and when he turned round, each way seemed to be blacker and more confusing than the other. He felt his heart begin to pick up pace.
‘Hello?’ he called. The sound of his voice echoed down the corridor. ‘Hello?’ he tried again. His heart was thudding now. Then he heard another sound; an intermittent squeak and step. Like the sound of someone wheeling a rusty bicycle. ‘Who’s there?’ he said.
Another squeak, followed by laughter; a child’s voice.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. ‘Co…come on now,’ he stammered. ‘This isn’t funny.’ Another burst of laughter. Marcus stood still, held his breath, waited for another sound, but the sound of his own heart threatening to burst through his chest was almost deafening. He lifted his lamp higher, trying to cast a wider arc of light. The light flickered.
‘Oh no… no…’ Marcus whimpered as the light flickered once more before going out. He leant back against the wall, panting. With shaking hands, he pulled his matches from his coat pocket and managed to strike one on the second attempt. As he held the flame to the wick, the lamp flared bright and Marcus came to the sudden realisation that he was no longer alone.
He couldn’t move.
Pinned to the wall by fear, he surveyed the faces of the children that stood around him. One of them was leaning on a small red bike. The frame was bent out of shape and it looked like one of the tyres was flat. The children stared at him; their dirty faces streaked with silent tears. A small girl with a smattering of blonde curls looked up at him, and as he leant instinctively to touch her, she crumbled into dust. Then from somewhere nearby, came a piercing scream that flipped Marcus out of his trance and suddenly he was running; running faster than he thought he could ever run, blood pounding in his ears, his heart in his throat, away; away from the scream that carried on and on and on until he burst out of the front door when suddenly, it stopped.
His knees buckled and he fell onto the grass, clutching his head in his hands. He heard the crunch of tyres on gravel and eventually, he looked up. A car was pulling in behind his; the lights on full beam illuminating the building that Marcus had stupidly thought would make a great development of luxury flats. He pulled himself to his feet and realised that at some point he’d pissed himself. Cold air whipped at his wet trousers as he ambled slowly towards the gate, the adrenaline that had swept his body already dissipating through his veins.
‘How the hell did you get in there?’ said Parker, from behind the locked gate. He was brandishing a shiny set of keys.
‘Care…taker,’ managed Marcus, his voice shook.
Parker swung the gate open and gave him a puzzled look. ‘But there’s no caretaker,’ he said. Parker glanced around and Marcus followed his gaze. They both saw the abandoned red bike that lay on the grass behind the gate. Another, smaller, one leant against the gatepost. It was pink.
Marcus felt sick. He placed his hands on his knees, tried to steady himself. ‘But… I−’
‘Been no one near this place since… that… that… thing…’ Parker interrupted, struggling with his words as he stared at Marcus with a face that couldn’t disguise his own terror. ‘You ok, mate?’ He took a couple of steps towards him. ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’
* * *
Originally posted at The Black Flag