Certain buildings, like certain persons, somehow proclaim their evil character. In the case of the latter, no particular feature need betray them; they may boast an open countenance and an ingenuous smile; and yet a little of their company leaves the unalterable conviction that there is something radically amiss with their being: that they are evil. They seem to exude an atmosphere of secret and wicked thoughts that make others shrink from them as from a thing diseased.
And, perhaps, with apartment blocks the same principle is operative, and it is the aroma of evil deeds committed were they stand long before their roofs were raised, that makes the gooseflesh come and hair rise. Something of the original passion of the evil-doer, and of the horror felt by his victims, enters the heart of the innocent watcher, and he is suddenly conscious of tingling nerves, creeping skin, and a chilling of the blood. He is terror-stricken without apparent cause.
There was nothing in the bland external appearance of Taylor Wimpey’s luxury apartment block The Denizen to bear out the tales of the horror that were said to reign within. It was neither lonely nor unkempt. It was packed in between the Barbican and Golden Lane Estate, and looked exactly like similar developments aimed at property investors throughout London and beyond. It may not have been aimed at the very wealthiest investors, and so it did not boast a private swimming pool, but there was a private cinema and games room.
And yet this apartment block in Golden Lane, externally extremely similar to dozens of other bland and ugly ghost home developments on the City fringe, was entirely different, horribly different.
Wherein lay this marked, invisible difference is impossible to say. It cannot be ascribed wholly to the imagination, because persons who had spent mere minutes in The Denizen, knowing nothing of the facts, had declared positively that certain flats were so disagreeable they would rather die than enter them again, and that the atmosphere of the luxury apartment block produced in them symptoms of a genuine terror; while a series of Chinese property investors who had tried to take short holidays in their speculative purchase had been forced to decamp at the shortest possible notice, and this was little less than a scandal. These disgruntled owners had witnessed demonstrations against UK property firms in Hong Kong, and wished to stage more so that they might gain redress.
When Seymour arrived to pay a weekend visit to his Aunt Agatha in her one bedroom council flat in Great Arthur House on the Golden Lane Estate, he found her charged to the brim with mystery and excitement. He had only received her email that morning, and had come anticipating boredom; but the moment he touched her hand and kissed her apple-skin wrinkled cheek, he caught the first wave of her electric condition. The impression deepened when he learned that there were to be no other visitors, and that he had been called for from Chorleywood with a very special object in mind.
Something was in the wind, and the something would doubtless bear fruit; for this elderly spinster aunt, with a mania for psychical research, had brains as well as will power, and by hook or by crook she usually managed to accomplish her ends. The revelation was made soon after tea, when she sidled close up to him as they paced slowly along the Barbican high walk in the dusk.
“I’ve got the keys,” she announced in a delighted, yet half awesome voice. “Got them till Monday!”
“The keys to the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s pad?” he asked innocently, looking from the artificial lake in the centre of The Barbican to one of the curved windows on a top floor flat. Nothing brought his aunt so quickly to the point as his feigning stupidity.
“Neither,” she whispered. “I’ve got the keys to a haunted flat in The Denizen and I’m going there tonight.”
Seymour was conscious of the slightest possible tremor down his back. He dropped his teasing tone. Something in her voice and manner thrilled him. She was in earnest.
“But you can’t go alone,” he began.
“That’s why I emailed you,” she said with decision.
He turned to look at her. The ugly, lined, enigmatical face was alive with excitement. There was the glow of genuine enthusiasm round it like a halo. The eyes shone. He caught another wave of her excitement, and a second tremor, more marked than the first, accompanied it.
“Thanks, Aunt Agatha,” he said politely; “thanks awfully.”
“I should not dare to go quite alone,” she went on, raising her voice; “but with you I should enjoy it immensely. You’re afraid of nothing, I know.”
“Thanks so much,” he said again. “But is anything likely to happen?”
“A great deal has already happened,” she whispered, “though it’s been most cleverly hushed up. Three ghost home owners have visited their purchases in the last few months, but all decamped to hotels within an hour of entering the property. The entire development is empty now and no one who owns a flat there is prepared to stay in it overnight.”
In spite of himself Seymour became interested. His aunt was so very much in earnest.
“The development is brand spanking new,” she went on, “but there are many unpleasant stories associated with the site, and it sits right next to the old City morgue and is built over a plague pit. There are a myriad of old stories about the location, including one about a bent cop who was murdered on the site back in Victorian times. Now this man may not have been straight goer but he identified with his uniform and his ghost was happy enough when the Corporation of London erected a police section house there in 1960. Now his spirit is angry about housing for 110 coppers being knocked down and replaced with ghost homes. So the spook has set about scaring the new owners.”
“How did the bent copper die?”
“He was hacked to death with a cutlass by a crook who’d paid him off for turning a blind eye to his brothel keeping activities but the maniac cop wanted more money from him. But this all happened in the nineteenth-century, and I’ve not been able to get more details yet.”
Seymour now felt his interest thoroughly aroused; but though he was not particularly nervous for himself, he hesitated a little on his aunt’s account.
“On one condition,” he said at length.
“Nothing will prevent my going,” she said firmly; “but I may as well hear your condition.”
“That you guarantee your power of self-control if anything really horrible happens. Are you sure you won’t get too frightened.”
“Seymour,” she said scornfully, “I’m not young, I know, nor are my nerves, but with you I should be afraid of nothing in the world!”
This settled it for Seymour had no pretensions to being other than a very ordinary young man, and an appeal to his vanity was irresistible. He agreed to go.
Instinctively, by a sort of sub-conscious preparation, he kept himself and his forces well in hand the whole evening, compelling an accumulative reserve of control by that nameless inward process of gradually putting all his emotions away and turning the key upon them in a process difficult to describe, but wonderfully effective, as all men who have lived through severe trials of nerve well understand. Later, it stood him in good stead.
But it was not until half-past ten, when they stood in the reception of The Denizen and still surrounded by comforting human influences, that he had to make the first call upon this store of collected strength. For once the door was closed, and he saw the empty desk where the concierge would have stood if Taylor Wimpey could have found somebody man enough to occupy the post, it came to him clearly that the real test that night would be in dealing with two fears instead of one. He would have to carry his aunt’s fear as well as his own. And, as he glanced down at her sphinx-like countenance and realised that it might assume no pleasant aspect in a rush of real terror, he felt satisfied with only one thing in the whole adventure – that he had confidence in his own will and power to stand against any shock that might come.
“The number of the apartment I have the keys to is thirteen,” whispered a voice at his side; and neither of them made the obvious reference, but passed across the entrance to the stairs.
It was about half-way up the stairs that Seymour felt an arm slipped quietly but significantly into his own, and knew then that their adventure had begun in earnest, and that his companion was already yielding imperceptibly to the influences against them. She needed support.
Moments later they stopped at the first floor apartment. The paintwork on the door was new but badly done and had cracked as it dried. Beyond the forlorn appearance of an unoccupied flat, there was nothing at first sight to single out this particular ghost home and the others in the block for the evil character they had recently acquired.
Taking a look over her shoulders to make sure they had not been followed, Agatha handed her nephew the keys. The first wave of nervousness was now upon them, and Seymour fumbled a long time with the keys before he managed to open the lock. For a moment, if truth were told, they both hoped it would not open, for they were prey to various unpleasant emotions as they stood there on the threshold of their ghostly adventure. Seymour, shuffling with the key and hampered by the steady weight on his arm, certainly felt the solemnity of the moment. It was as if the whole world was listening to the grating noise of that lock.
They passed quickly in and the door slammed behind them with a roar that echoed prodigiously through empty halls and passages. But, instantly, with the echoes, another sound made itself heard, and Aunt Agatha suddenly leaned so heavily upon Seymour that he had to take a step backwards to save himself from falling.
A man had coughed close beside them, so close that it seemed they must have been actually by his side in the darkness.
With the possibility of practical jokes in his mind, Seymour at once swung his heavy stick in the direction of the sound; but it met nothing more solid than air. He heard his aunt give a little gasp beside him.
“There’s someone here,” she whispered, “I heard him.”
“Be quiet!” he said sternly. “It was nothing but the noise of the front door.”
“Oh! Find the light switch!” she replied, as her nephew, fumbling to set the torch on his iPhone, let the mobile tumble with a clatter to the floor.
The sound, however, was not repeated, and there was no evidence of retreating footsteps. In another minute they had the lights on and were surveying the scene. And it was dreary enough in all conscience, for there is nothing more desolate in all the abodes of men than an unfurnished luxury apartment, over-lit, silent, and forsaken, and yet tenanted by rumour with the memories of violent and evil histories.
Seymour cut the lights and gradually their eyes became accustomed to darkness. The room was lit up with the eerie radiance of the full moon, with its corners draped in shadows. The huge moon lent everything its light touched a misty outline that was infinitely more suggestive and ghostly than complete darkness. Filtered moonlight always seems to paint faces on the surrounding gloom, and as Seymour peered up into the well of darkness and thought of the countless empty rooms and passages in the huge Denizen complex, he caught himself longing again for the safety of the Golden Lane Estate, and his Aunt’s cosy, one bedroom flat. Then realising that these thoughts were dangerous, he thrust them away and summoned all his energy for concentration on the present.
“Aunt Agatha,” he said aloud, severely, “we must now go through this apartment from top to bottom and make a thorough search.”
The echoes of his voice died away slowly all over the building, and in the intense silence that followed he turned to look at her. In the moonlight he saw that her face was already ghastly pale.”
“I agree.” Aunt Agatha replied. “We must be sure there’s no one hiding in here. That’s the first thing. It’s a palace! I can’t believe it. Three bedrooms and on one is living here. What a waste!”
She spoke with the evident conviction of someone who wished they were living in something bigger than a one bedroom council flat.
“You feel quite sure of yourself? You don’t want to return to your tiny flat?”
“I’d like an extra room,” she whispered, her eyes shifting nervously toward the shadows behind. “And quite sure of something else too.”
“You must never leave me alone here, not even for an instant.”
“As long as you understand that any sound or appearance must be investigated at once, for to hesitate means to admit fear. That is fatal.”
“Agreed,” she said, a little shakily, after a moment’s hesitation. “I’ll try.”
Arm in arm, figures of utter comedy to all but themselves, they began a systematic search.
Stealthily, walking on tip-toe and crouching lest they should betray their presence through the curtainless windows, they went first into the big living room. There was not a stick of furniture to be seen. Bare ugly walls stared at them. Everything, they felt, resented their intrusion, watching them, as it were, with veiled eyes. Whispers followed them. Shadows flitted noiselessly to right and left. Something seemed ever at their back, watching, waiting an opportunity to do them injury. There was the inevitable sense that operations which went on when the room was empty had been temporarily suspended till they were well out of the way again. The whole dark interior of the recently built Taylor Wimpey apartment seemed to become a malignant presence that rose up, warning them to desist and mind their own business. Every moment the strain on the nerves increased.