Still only 23 years old and still nowhere near as prolific as he thinks he should be, Joe Rattigan is the author of one previously published collection Love Stories of the Undead, the forthcoming Ghosts Far From Subtle, dozens of widely-published dark fantasy stories, and a feature-length screenplay which is currently with a film/tv company for consideration. Joe also writes reviews, articles and other non-fiction for various publications and websites. His interests include all manner of art and arts, psychology and the supernatural. Many of his stories are based on his real-life ghostly experiences. He is currently battling with an overwhelming cigarette habit whilst thinking up ideas for more terrors. His website is www.joerattigan.com
It was Friday afternoon, the end of another working week, and they were just about to go to press when the story broke. Reading over it later in the bar, Carter couldn't even recall who'd done the writing job on the two paragraph piece that made it onto page 18, but that wasn't important. His journalist's curiosity had been aroused, and before too long he would set about investigating.
He hadn't much in this issue - hadn't been involved in any great stories for a while now. A report on a local festival, a piece about a public house that was being closed down by the environmental health people, all pretty bland and unexciting. He'd been turned down again when he'd applied to the newspaper offices in the city, and was getting increasingly frustrated and feeling that he would be trapped behind his desk at the town newspaper for the rest of his life. Just like Bob Stoker. Or Richard Finch. Or Pete Frampton - the ancient photographer who shuffled about dryly down in his studio like an old spider afraid of the light after all these decades.
Carter wasn't a young hotshot anymore. He was almost thirty-six, and the flecks of grey were showing in the once-thick hair at his temples. He'd started as a journalist ten years ago, and didn't seem to be able to make any progress whatsoever. He couldn't understand it - his work was good and the editor was always pleased with it. He met his deadlines, and wasn't afraid of a bit of hard work or overtime if it was called for. His pieces were always well researched and accurate. A friend of his who worked on a city paper down in London had once told him over a few beers that the office wanted to hang onto him - that they wouldn't ever let him go - they had him just where they wanted him now, producing a good standard of work. If he wanted out, he had to break away for himself.
And now this story - could be something, could be nothing, he told himself over his third beer, his fifth cigarette. But just enough to get his interest. He relaxed in the corner booth of the bar, which was just beginning to get uncomfortably full with the rowdy young weekend crowds. He spread the folded newspaper across his knee, and squinted down through the smoke at the small typeface, reading again the short piece.
BOY ATTACKED IN DERELICT AREA
Christopher Howard, aged nine, of Coal Hill estate, is in hospital after suffering mysterious injuries whilst playing with friends near the deserted shops only minutes from his family home.
The boy's condition is not regarded as serious, and the injuries are currently believed to have come from a vicious stray dog.
There it was, nothing much really. Perhaps anyone else would have just glanced over the piece without a second thought. Normally, Carter would have done the same thing. He'd known other reporters in the past who'd constantly chased their own tails, following up one obscure story after another in a vain attempt to sniff out something larger and even vaguely more interesting. But this was at least worth a look. He knew about the Coal Hill estate. He'd been brought up near there as a kid, though in those days it had been in much more a presentable condition, and the family had moved away when he was sixteen. These days it was a black spot on the town map. Large areas of it were now completely derelict, awaiting destruction that would ultimately put them out of their misery. But for now the misery went on, and the bulldozers showed no signs of moving in. The areas of the estate still inhabited were rows of bleak, faceless council houses, populated by the poor and the desperate and just pure criminal. It was a hopeless place - a place of neglect and shadows and an almost frightening lack of hygiene or order. Personally, Carter couldn't understand how people lived in such a place.
He knew about the shops, too. The ones in question were at the summit of the hill that the estate was named after. Decades ago the little area had been a popular and busy centre for the folk on the estate. There was a car park, a library (long since burned down by vandals), and a row of shops. He seemed to recall a general store, a greengrocer and maybe a butcher, but that was over twenty years ago. The shops had long since been boarded-over and fallen into ruin
He hunched protectively over the paper as a boisterous teenaged couple slid onto the seat next to him. Carter looked up. The place was almost full, and reminded him of a crowd at a football match. He'd better make a move. He raised the last quarter of his pint and began to drink it down steadily.
It was the area behind the shops that would interest him, though. He knew it, although he hadn't seen it for many years. As soon as the report had come into the offices earlier that day, an old story had resurfaced in his mind. Something similar had happened behind the shops, in an eerie and closed-in passageway that had once been used for getting supplies into the back of the shops. Carter didn't know if the Howard boy had been injured in the same place, but it was worth checking out.
He put down his now empty glass, lined with froth, and squeezed past the love-struck kids and through the noisy crowds into the relative quiet of the town centre early evening. Darkness was beginning to draw in. His head was swimming slightly from the alcohol, but he was used to it and would have no problems driving. He walked briskly across the town square to where he'd parked an hour or so ago after leaving work.
It was time to pay some visits.
His first port of call was the hospital. He drove for three minutes along the main road north out of the town centre, and pulled off the road into the huge car park of the building. The hospital was lit up like a fortress, by floodlights aiming up at the pale cream walls from the generous grass borders. Carter marched briskly through the cool evening, veered away from the reception desk and headed instead into the gift shop where he picked up a large and expensive teddy bear decked out in the local team's kit, and that staple diet of the ill, a bottle of Lucozade.
At the reception he was met by a sullen overweight lady in blue uniform and faded cardigan. Carter smiled falsely and tried to lay on the charm.
'Hi, I'm here to see my nephew? Chris Howard? He was brought in yesterday after being bitten by a dog?'
The receptionist started up at him from underneath her eyebrows as though sulking. 'Your name is?'
'Carter. The boy's uncle.'
'Mmm.' She looked down at her desk, prodded some papers with a finger as thick as a Churchill cigar. Just when Carter was beginning to suspect she'd fallen asleep like that, she looked back up at him with her cold lizard's eyes and loudly declared (he thought with a hint of satisfaction) 'I'm afraid you're too late. Young Christopher was discharged this afternoon.'
'Discharged?' Carter tried not to show disappointment. 'Oh, that's great. How is the little tyke?'
Her face remained blank. 'Well, I imagine.'
'So he's back home then?'
'With his parents, yes.'
Carter didn't even think about trying to get the address out of her. He'd 'phone Mike Rogers and get the details off him instead. He smiled sweetly, and turned to leave. In the foyer he slipped a coin into the telephone, and while he was waiting for Rogers to answer he watched the automatic doors gasping open and shut as people approached from either side. After eight rings, Mike's gruff voice answered.
'Mike,' he said 'it's Carter.'
'And what can I do for you this time?' Rogers asked wearily.
Dean Road was long and gently winding, and it finished right on top of Coal Hill itself. Carter started at the top and began to drive slowly down it; squinted through the poor light to read the numbers on those doors that still had them. Small groups of young people lurked beneath streetlights, their faces unnaturally pasty and emotionless, turned to watch as he drove past slowly. They were all dressed alike - tracksuits and training shoes and baseball caps were their uniforms. They all looked like zombies. Some yelled things after him, one even threw something after the car, but most couldn't even summon up the energy to do that. He swerved to avoid an overturned pram in the middle of the road, and then a splintered crate on the other side. The hill began to get a little steeper, and he touched the brake as the car headed down it.
Number 64 was almost at the foot of the hill. Carter noticed it and pulled over to the right. The house was the same as all the others - square, one front door, one downstairs window, two upstairs, although unusually none were boarded up. Beyond the small front yard a light burned in the window. People were home. As he switched off the engine, he noticed a group of three young lads on bikes were watching him carefully from the corner of the street. He made a show of locking the car and switching on the alarm, and then he turned and walked towards No. 64.
The gate hung askew off one hinge as he pushed through it, and along the cracked path that was sprouting weeds. The front door was painted some awful murky shit colour, and he shrank back from the shrill noise of the rusty letterbox as he flapped it to announce his presence. A television show was burbling through the window of the main room, occasionally there would be a splatter of applause. Carter waited, feeling the eyes of the lads burning into his back. He was about to poke at the letterbox again when a door opened inside the house and the hallway was flooded with light. A bulky silhouette appeared in the cracked glass panel of the front door, and Carter cleared his throat softly as the door was pulled open and a balding overweight man in a stained vest pressed himself up to the gap.
'Yeah?' he muttered, showing two missing teeth, and quivering cheeks pricked with stubble.
'I'm sorry to disturb you, Mr Howard. My name's Carter and I'm from the Chronicle. I've just stopped by at the hospital to see how your son was doing and they told me he'd been let out earlier today.'
'Yeah, that's right. So?'
'Well I was just wondering how young Christopher was, that's all. Is there any chance I might be permitted to have a few words with the boy?'
The father rolled his head back on his fat neck and regarded Carter with a frown. 'I don't think so. The lad's in bed. It's his bedtime.'
'Of course, of course. So I hope he's fully recovered from the attack? The dog I mean. Nasty business that.'
The man screwed up his eyes suspiciously. 'Weren't no dog,' he mumbled.
'Oh, I'm sorry. I was told that a stray dog attacked Christopher when he was playing with his friends. What happened then?'
The boy's father just shook his head. 'Weren't no dog,' he repeated. 'My boy knows a dog when he sees one. Don't know what it was but it could be bloody anything up in that area. Giant bloody rats probably. Your lot wants to get it cleaned up before we get overrun by the bloody things.'
Before Carter retorted angrily, he took a deep breath and stepped backwards away from the door. There was no use arguing with a man like this. If he thought journalists were the same folk who neglected the estates while he himself lived almost literally like a pig in muck, then Carter could recognise the warning signs.
'Okay, right then,' he said, backing away slowly as the fat man clenched and unclenched his meaty fists, hanging by his sides like clubs. 'I'll be off. I hope your son is well, Mr Howard.'
Howard watched him intently as he turned and walked back to the car, opened the door and slipped into the driver's seat. In the cool dark interior of the vehicle, Carter settled back, and glanced across at the house as the front door slammed shut again. Movement down on the corner of the street drew his eyes, and he remembered the gang of lads on the bikes. They were all looking at him. Just as he was wondering exactly what their intentions were, they turned and pedalled off out of sight.
Well. That was that. The estate closed around him like a grimy fist as he turned the key in the ignition and began to pull away from the house. So all he'd learned was that Coal Hill was no better than when he'd last been here, and young Christopher's father was an ignorant meathead bigot. Not the most fruitful of research trips.
But, he reminded himself as he turned at the corner and began to drive back up the hill along Dean Road, the best is yet to come...
Carter didn't know if the little area at the top of the hill had its own name. He didn't think so. Here the street-lamps were mostly broken, deflated tyres hung around them like bracelets on slender concrete wrists. Glass glittered like jewels laid out for approval as he pulled his vehicle into the parking area. Only one other vehicle shared it with him - a burned out Toyota with three wheels missing. High brick walls surrounded the parking area, and the street behind him was packed tightly with derelict houses. Just off to his left, over another wall, would be the shops - and behind them, that famed passageway...
He didn't know what the hell he was doing here exactly. Following a hunch, playing Sherlock Holmes in the case of The Hound of Coal Hill, or just wasting a perfectly good Friday night instead of going home to his apartment across town and drinking himself asleep while listening to Bruce Springsteen and gazing at photographs of his ex-wife. What did it matter. Here he was, working. Work was work and work didn't have to be meaningful or even interesting. He sighed, climbed out of the car and slammed the door behind him.
Glass crunched underfoot, like snow. His breath was misting slightly. If he'd been wearing anything less than the beaten old car coat he would have felt the chill instantly. Stars twinkled innocently in between drifting scraps of grey cloud. He walked out of the car park and headed left, avoiding the gaze of the tall derelict houses and turning towards the shops. Their façade was no better. They seemed cramped beneath their roof, as though weighed down by it. The top of Coal Hill was just visible above it. The buildings were pressed right up against it as though afraid of falling. He glanced along the row. Boarded-up windows, some with rusted grills, boarded-up doors, some showing signs of arson. He stopped and looked over his shoulder.
In between the wall of the car park and the first of the shops was a narrow walkway. At the end of that was another brick wall. He walked towards it carefully, and stopped a few metres away. Now he could see it - the passage that ran along behind the buildings, the passage through the summit of Coal Hill itself. It was a large portal - perhaps three metres high and nearly that wide. Now it was covered by a double grill-gate, padlocked securely. Nothing would be going in or out of there. Not without bolt-cutters, anyway. Carter smirked. The passageway ran along the back of the shops, opening into each of them, before terminating in a similar alley perhaps a hundred yards along. He couldn't see any sign of the opposite end from here, but he imagined that would be bolted securely too. The rust on the padlock was thick - the Howard boy couldn't have been playing in there, and the gaps in the gate were too small for any mutant rat to force itself through, let alone a feral hound.
Carter stepped up to the gate, his face only inches away from the mesh bars. He squinted into the darkness to try and make out the passageway, but it remained black. Perhaps that was something, a few yards in from the gate, slumped against the wall like a sleeping tramp or a corpse? Spilled refuse bags from a bygone age, surely. The trash that time forgot. He was about to turn away when he heard something like a high-pitched chittering or a whine.
He stepped closer, his face almost touching the gate, his fingers locked around the rusted metal. It gave slightly under his weight until the padlock chain caught it. There was something coming towards him, along the passage. He could feel, rushing along like a foul wind, a huge breath, carrying with it the stench of decay. As it washed over him, he screwed up his face and turned away too late. Jesus, what a stench. What kind of disrepair and neglect had the buildings and the passage fallen into? He'd soon be finding out. He walked back along the alley and around to his car.
In the boot he searched through the heaps of assorted tools and rags and other anonymous and long forgotten junk, and pulled out a large heavy flashlight and a compact but strong pair of bolt-cutters. After only a momentary hesitation he rummaged around again and dug out a pair of thick oil-stained gloves, which he hadn't used in years. If there was a stray dog or, God forbid, any rats, to come across, then he didn't want to run any risks. Getting a look at whatever it was would be more than enough for him. Getting attacked would be... well, that would just be getting a little more involved than he was prepared to.
He slammed the car boot shut and turned around, then stopped dead in his tracks. Instantly he recognised who was waiting for him. It was the three young lads who'd been watching him outside the Howard's house. They sat astride their bikes, faces lost in shadow beneath the peak of their caps, but their eyes sparkled coldly as they regarded him.
He hefted the bolt-cutters in his hand, letting them know that they wouldn't stand a chance if they tried anything. 'All right lads?' he asked.
They stared back at him silently. Carter regarded them with disgusted amusement. Were all young people this bad nowadays? He never had been. He'd been a bit of a tearaway, but these kids were something else. There was just no response from them; they may as well have been a different species. And he imagined that Coal Hill had produced far worse animals than these.
Then one of them nodded and said 'You're looking for what done the Howard boy ain't you?'
Carter froze in mid-step. He'd been about to walk around the youths and get on with his business, but now he turned back and looked at the one who'd spoken. 'Yes,' he said 'I am. Why? Do you know anything about what happened?'
One of the other youths spoke next. 'Are you from the council then?'
'No,' Carter replied 'I'm not. I'm just a reporter.' He watched the boys faces carefully, then asked again 'Do you know what happened to the boy here?'
There were various assorted shrugs and grunts, as though they were reluctant to say anything, but then the first teenager spoke again. 'It wasn't a dog, not like they said it was.'
'Really? So what was it then?'
What the youth said next caught him by surprise. 'There's weird things down there,' he said, nodding in the direction of the passageway.
'What would they be then? Rats? Tramps?' Carter studied the blank faces carefully. Was it just his imagination or were they finally betraying some slight hint of emotion... and was that emotion fear?
'It ain't rats or tramps. Everybody knows about it round here but no-one ever says nothing. There's things down there... I don't know what the fuck they are but they're not... they're not right. I wouldn't go near it. That kid was stupid, and it almost got to him.' The teenager jutted his jaw aggressively as though to say that he were too brave to ever be so stupid. Carter was stunned at the way the boys were talking, but at the same time he knew that they were genuinely convinced by what they said. They weren't laughing, or even smirking at him. They looked deadly seirous. He felt a glimmer of unease about being here, about whatever it was that had frightened the people of Coal Hill estate so much. These were not particularly intelligent people, given to flights of fantasy. They were not at all an imaginative breed. They were basic, even primtive, rough living.
'How do you know all this?' he asked.
'Dunno... stuff you hear about. Stuff people've seen. Some nights we used to hang around down here and we saw some weird things back then. We wouldn't hang out round here anymore. People get hurt. Cats and dogs go missing. Kids get shit scared. It's just not a good place.'
Carter laughed. Coal Hill wasn't a good place, never mind any one particular area of it. But what the teenagers, and his own gut instincts, were telling him made him uneasy. As though to try and shout down his own growing unease, he said 'Well, I'm still going to take a look anyway.'
The teenager who'd spoke last nodded like he'd known this would be the answer all along. He turned to speak to his mates. 'Come on, we'd best not hang around here any longer.' With that they kicked off on their bikes and cycled off down the street without another word or backward glance.
Carter walked across to the gate at the end of the passageway. When the shops had been open, this must have been where deliveries had been made, but now of course it was just as run-down as the rest of the estate. No, he thought, as he stared into the blackness beyond the metal grille, this is much more run-down. He didn't understand how the local authorities could let places get in such a state; it disgusted him that whole areas could suffer from such rotten neglect, but perhaps what disgusted him even more was the fact that people were happy to live on such estates without doing anything to improve their own conditions.
He hefted the bolt-cutters around the padlock, and slowly closed them until it was trapped in a vice-like grip. Do I really want to be doing this, he thought as he tried to hold his breath against the foul odours from the passageway. Then, just as he was about to break the rusted padlock, something distracted his attention.
He didn't get more than a glance as the thing rushed towards him. In a split second he saw the outline of something pale and glistening peel itself away from beneath a pile of rubble a couple of yards from the mouth of the passageway and rush towards him. The faint reaches of the streetlights gave him only a glimpse of the creature as it hurled itself at the gate, mere inches away from his face. Carter screamed; something which he hadn't done for as many years as he could remember, and stumbled back against the rough alley wall behind him, his shoes sliding in garbage spilled from bags that had long since given up hope of collection. His body slammed against the bricks, and he stared back at the gate, which was still shaking violently from the impact of whatever had launched the attack at him.
The pitch blackness of the passageway allowed him to see very little, but what he could see was undeniable. Where his face had been pressed against the gate only seconds before, long and vicious-looking claws had gripped hold of the grille and were curled around the metal bars as something in the shadows held onto the gate.
What it was could not be easily explained. It certainly wasn't human for the hands were no bigger than a small child's, the fingers far too thin to belong to one. The skin was pale, as though whatever creature it belonged to had never seen the daylight. Each of the fingers (of which he now saw there were three on each hand) ended in a black claw that must have been two inches long.
'Holy Shit...' Carter breathed, and then the creature dropped down from the gate, back onto the floor of the passageway, and he heard it scurrying back into the deeper shadows where light could not reach.
His heart was pounding. His throat was dry. He wanted to throw up, he wanted to sit down, he wanted to faint. He wanted to do all of these things, but not here... anywhere but here...
Over the following days, Carter looked deeper into the mystery that surrounded Coal Hill. What he found whilst looking into the town records and the newspaper archives disgusted him in general. The estate wasn't that old, had used to be nothing more than a few muddy fields on the edge of some farmland. But of course, as the world's population continued its uncontrollable multiplication, nature was being shouldered aside in favour of such dreary council estates.
It had always been in decline, he gathered, because the people who had been thrown into it were the lowest of the low. The buildings were cheaply made and tightly-packed and as such the rent was dirt cheap. Police now knew all about it, and expected it to be a place of trouble. They turned a blind eye to the goings-on there, happy to let the residents fight it out amongst themselves, like dogs. Carter thought long and hard, usually aided by beer or scotch. It was little wonder, he surmised, that in such squalor and decay, something unnatural could be breeding in the shadows.
As for what exactly that was... well, there was just no answering that now was there? His mind toyed with the idea of some mutated rat, or rats if it wasn't alone. This idea usually appealed to his drunken sense of romance. Whatever it was that had evolved in the urban decay, it sickened him thoroughly. The fucking thing would be crawling with diseases of all kinds. If places like Coal Hill were allowed to decay all across the world, then such creatures would become as common as dogs, but by no means as pleasant or hygienic.
More than once he'd thrown up his hands and asked himself what the fuck he was doing. Stuck here on some crummy little no-town newspaper and taking it upon himself to investigate a case of giant rats on a scummy council estate. It was hardly glamour... it was hardly the high life. This wasn't what he'd got into journalism for. But he knew that he couldn't walk away from it either. This was, at the heart of the matter, a serious social issue, and could get him known. This could well be his ticket to a better workplace. But more than that still... it had become somehow personal. When that creature had thrown itself at the gate in the split-second before he'd cracked the lock open, Carter had realised why the residents of Coal Hill lived in fear. A part of that fear was alive inside of him.
The newspaper archives held little interest. Cats and dogs went missing, but why should that have anything to do with his mystery? Yet still, it would be stupid to ignore such information. Where he had to draw the line however was at the missing children. From what he'd seen, the creature was too small to act as a bogeyman and run away with toddlers when it was smaller than them itself. Carter found reports of two missing children, though one of whom had parents involved in a messy divorce case, and though he didn't chase it up to any great extent, he imagined that the father - a small-time criminal - was somehow involved.
There were injuries too, mainly of children, one or two workmen and homeless people, but these were mainly two-line affairs and he found little information to back them up. All in all, there was no concrete evidence to suggest that anything unusual was breeding in the slums, but taken with the fact of what he'd seen, it all lent weight.
And so Carter made up his mind to go back there, and to bag himself a gremlin.
He'd only had two pints, yet his head felt frustratingly muddled. He sat in his car on the abandoned car-park near the passageway and stared out at the deserted street. It was so fucking empty here. Almost everywhere else on the estate, groups of youths loitered on street corners, houses blared music and lights, cars screeched up and down the roads, people scurried like rats in a concrete maze.
He smirked cynically, but didn't know at what. At the residents fear of this place? At their odd little primitive lives? At his own bad luck for being alone here? At even being here in the first place? The plan was simple. He was going to venture into the passageway, this time armed with the knowledge that there was a weird creature scurrying about in the rubble in there. But that wasn't all he was armed with. Along with the bolt-cutters he had a sturdy combat knife, which would be more than enough to see off the over-fed rat. Hanging from his shoulder, and bumping against his hip as he stepped out of the car into the chill evening air, he also had a camera. He would take pictures. Pictures of the area, of the passageway, of the conditions within. If the little bastard creature managed to evade him and wasn't so forthcoming with its greetings this time, he'd take a picture of that too.
No longer would Coal Hill be ignored and left to rot in its own decaying filth.
He marched along the alley and right up to the gate, looking up and down its full height. It was a lot sturdier than it looked. He could see that it had taken a great deal of wear and tear over the years, yet still it stood strong. He reached out a hand to grab hold off the grille, but then thought the better of it as he remembered the last time he'd stood too close to it. He dug into the pockets of his coat and pulled out his gloves. There was no way he was going to risk getting any infections from whatever shit-sucking little beasts were spawning in the filth.
'Okay, you little fuck,' he whispered as he closed the bolt-cutters tight around the lock. 'Let's see how brave you are now.'
The bar on the padlock snapped with a brisk crack, and as he tugged the bolt-cutters free, it dropped to the ground, making him skip away from its impact. It was a huge lock - he didn't fancy that dropping on his toes. He glanced up sharply, as the passageway seemed to breathe its foul-smelling, fetid air at him. He felt as though he were being watched. A chill washed over his spine, but he shrugged it off, clenching the bolt-cutters in his fist. Let the little bastards watch, he told himself, he'd mash their little skulls in and leave them in their own filth until somebody decided to clean this place up. One way or another, he'd draw some attention to this problem... even if he had to march into the god-damned council offices and drop one of their corpses onto the reception desk.
Okay, here we go... he reached out and pushed one of the gates open. Its rusted hinges squealed in protest... perhaps that would frighten them off, he thought, and tried to listen for any sounds of frantic movement in the darkness. He couldn't see a thing, but gradually his eyes were adjusting. As soon as he stepped into the passageway, he could already make out its slime-coated walls all around him, the puddles of unidentifiable liquid in the pitted floor at his feet, the mounds of trash and sodden cardboard boxes piled against the walls up ahead.
He was behind the shops now. The wall to his left was the back wall of the row of what had once been the local shopping area. Now of course another had sprung up about four or five blocks away. Many of the residents of this estate never ventured further than that. But for over two decades now, these buildings had been closed down and boarded-up. As he walked carefully, he noticed doors set into the wall, which would lead into the shops themselves. The door nearest the mouth of the passageway had been locked securely, the next one (which was just a few more steps away now) was hanging off its hinges. Carter pulled out his flashlight, and switched it on, at first directing the beam straight at the floor, until his eyes adjusted to the new source of light. He hadn't wanted to attract any attention to himself until he could see properly.
He shone the beam of white light into the doorway, and revealed more shadows. Bare concrete walls led into complete darkness within the building, stripped wires dangled through holes in the patchwork plaster, water dripped, seeping its way through the building. Patches of mould covered the woodwork of the door and its frame. Carter barely had time to wrinkle up his face in mounting disgust before something ran out of the doorway and off down the passageway.
Holy Shit! His heart pounding, his hand slapped at his chest, sending the flashlight beam whirling crazily across the walls and ceiling of the passage. Within seconds he had recovered enough to heft the bolt-cutters defensively and aim the beam of light just a few feet ahead of him. He'd caught more of a glimpse of the creature this time. Really, he'd been stupid for it to have startled him, he should have expected it at any moment. If it had been as aggressive as it had been on their last encounter then he might well be missing best part of his face by now.
As it was, the creature had seemed eager to avoid him. Nature wasn't stupid... most animals, wherever they sprung up, would avoid hostile confrontations with a much bigger species. But still, he berated himself, he should've been ready just in case. The dirty little fucker could have any kind of disease that drove it wild and aggressive and prone to protect itself from a perceived threat. But the fact that it had run away was now making Carter feel just that little bit braver.
If it was running, it was afraid, and it needed protection. He didn't stop to think about that right now. Certainly the creature had launched itself at the gate the last time he'd peered into its lair, but perhaps it knew he couldn't reach it. Sure, a kid or two may have been attacked by the beasts, but kids were much smaller than a fully-grown man, and even then the creatures had never been out in the open (as far as he knew). And anyway, hadn't he been prepared for the creature, or creatures, to come to him? His fist squeezed tight upon the bolt-cutters, and he smiled in the darkness. A corpse of one of the little shits would be lovely, thank you very much... bring it on.
There was an excited chittering sound up ahead. Rats, he thought, it sounded just like rats. But what he'd seen running from the doorway moments ago had not been a rat. It ran on two legs, though it had four limbs that he'd noticed and had been extremely stooped the upper pair had been held just above the ground. That followed... he'd seen the creature at the gate, and that had hands... not paws like a dog. Whatever was in here with him used one set of their limbs for reaching, grabbing, holding, tearing... He hadn't seen much more... just a sleek, elongated head... similar to a dog's, but he hadn't made out any features... and skin... pale, hairless skin. It had been small. If it had stood up to its full height, he guessed it would have been just over a foot tall.
All in all, he had the upper hand here.
But they had the darkness, Carter realised, as the chittering sounds echoed from the walls and he paused in his creeping exploration of the passageway. Foul scents filled his head, but he tried to close them out. These creatures had bred in the darkness, and they would be much more at home in these conditions than he ever would be. He couldn't afford to let them sneak up on him. He let the camera slide from his shoulder into his hand, and flipped back the lens cover, listening to the soft whine of the batteries charging the flash. The next glimpse he caught, he would be ready.
The noises were getting closer... whether there was a multitude of the creatures, or the passageway was echoing, he couldn't be sure. He didn't expect the creature to be the only one of its kind, but perhaps the others would be more well hidden. If not, then he would have to defend himself if they fancied their chances at hunting in a pack. He glanced briefly over his shoulder and could just about make out the entrance to the passageway, almost fifty yards behind him.
Something moved again, and he whirled round to face it. He heard claws ticking across the stone floor, splashing through puddles, a high-pitched noise of some kind. He raised the flashlight and a small hunched shadow tore through its beam, disappearing through a ragged hole in the collapsed wall to his left. As it hurried through he noticed another pair of eyes already in there, watching him, before they too retreated further into the darkness.
So there was definitely more than one of the creatures. Company didn't seem to make them any braver. He realised with irritation that he'd still yet to make a move towards them or even fire off a photograph. They were moving too damn fast for him, like naughty children evading their frustrated parents. Carter approached the collapsed wall through which the creature had vanished. This too would lead into the back rooms of what had once been the shops. The gap was big enough for him, and he climbed a small pile of rubble and slipped through.
Filthy water dripped through the ruined concrete above his head, running through his hair and down his neck, pattering on the shoulders of his coat. He shivered with revulsion, then squinted hard to make out the dimensions of the area that he was in. Maybe once it had been a large and spacious room, but now it had collapsed into a maze of tight and crooked corridors, blocked with obstacles - chunks of the ceiling hanging precariously down, piles of rubble and unidentifiable pulpy trash on the ground, holes in the wall big enough to climb through. Carter waved the torch beam around, glad that he wasn't prone to claustrophobia.
Something moved behind him. He could hear it clambering over the rubble at the gap in the wall he'd stepped through. It sounded larger than the creatures, and slower, not as hurried. For a moment he suspected that there was somebody else in here with him, but then he remembered just how terrified the Coal Hill residents were, and knew that they would not be eager to venture here. Right now, he could only think of one other option. One of the creatures had followed him through, and the weird acoustics of the place had made the clatter of rubble sound louder than it really was.
Just as he was about to turn and face the newcomer, Carter noticed eyes glimmering in the darkness, patient and watching. At first there was only the two pairs that he imagined he'd been following in here, but then he saw some more, higher up - presumably perched on a mound of rubble, some more peering through gaps in the walls... there were over a dozen eyes watching him from the darkness. He felt frozen, held immobile by the fact of how unprepared he was for this ambush. The little bastards were no longer running away, they'd let him in here, and now they were all around...
The movement, behind him, again... this time he whirled around, and the surface beneath his feet shifted with a clatter of rock, making him lose his balance and fall to the ground. He heard his camera smack onto the hard floor, but right now he had other things to concern him. He still had hold of the flashlight, and he directed the beam towards the loud noises. He forced himself to smirk, to think aggressively. There was no way these fucking overgrown rats were going to frighten him. Mankind was king fucking animal... here, and everywhere else on this planet. He squeezed his fist around the bolt-cutters, and tried to ignore his pounding heart, and the cold waves of fear that gripped his spine.
As the creatures behind him began their excited chittering noise again, and the beam of his flashlight fell upon the thing that had slowly followed him in here, Carter realised that he had made two vital mistakes. He looked up at the huge, bulky shadow that stood over him, and the light played across its pale skin, gleaming black eyes, and open mouth...
His first mistake had been coming back here in the first place.
His second mistake was assuming that the creatures he'd seen before now had been fully grown.
(C) Joe Rattigan 2003
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.