“Yes and a fine block of luxury investment apartments it might have been too if it had been properly designed and constructed rather than jerry built to save money. Hearing so much talk about it often makes us feel as if we know every flat in the building, though it has fallen to ruin. Only one man ever lived in it after it was built. Nobody wanted to stop in the place. There used to be awful noises, as if something was being pitched from the top floor, down the lift shaft and into the entrance hall. There would be a sound as if a hundred people were clinking glasses and talking all together at once. And then it seemed as if barrels were rolling in the basement although it only contained a private cinema and games room. There would be screeches and howls, and laughing, fit to make your blood run cold. They say there is gold hidden away in one of the derelict apartments, but no one has ever ventured to find it. Children won’t come here to play, when they are cavorting in Fortune Street Park opposite The Denizen, nothing will make them stay once the light begins to fade. When the night is coming on, and the shadows creep over the park, many believe they’ve seen mighty queer things on the site of The Denizen.”
“But what is it they think they see?” I wanted to know
“Do you really wanna know the doings of Denizen property investors? They were rich, every one of them – all in good stead with the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and as for wickedness, you might have searched Manchuria through and not found their match.”
“Oh pray tell me!” I pleaded.
“The last mortal being that tried to live in The Denizen was a creature by the name of Molly Leary. You may be sure she thought herself a made woman when an estate agent said, yes she might stop in The Denizen rent free. She picked a penthouse apartment to sleep in, and for a while all went quiet, till one night she was wakened by feeling her bed lifted and shaken like a carpet. Her life seemed to go out of her with the fear. If the bed had been a ship in a storm, it couldn’t have pitched any worse, all of a sudden, it was dropped with such a bang as nearly drove her heart into her mouth.
“But that she said was nothing to the screaming and laughing, and hustling and rushing that filled the apartment block. If a hundred people had been running hard along the passages and tumbling downstairs, they could not have made greater noise.
“Molly never was able to tell how she got clear of the place but a man coming home late from the pub found her crouched under the locked gates of Fortune Street Park, naked. She had a bad fever and talked about strange things and never was the same woman after.”
“But what was the beginning of all this? When did The Denizen first get a reputation for being haunted?” I demanded.
“Soon after it was built an investor called Maurice Wong came to visit. He was old. Nearly a hundred years old. But he held himself as upright as ever and could have drunk a whole roomful under the table, and walked up to bed as unconcerned as you please at the dead of the night.”
“He was a terrible man. You couldn’t lay your tongue to a wickedness he had not been in the forefront of – drinking, swindling, gambling, – all manner of sins had been meat and drink to him since he was a boy. But at last he did something in Shanghai so bad, so beyond the beyonds, he thought he had best come live among people who did not know him. It was said that he wanted to try and stay in this world forever, and that he had got some secret drops that kept him well and hearty. There was something wonderful queer about him, anyhow.”
“He could hold foot with the youngest, was strong, and had a fine fresh colour in his face. His eyes were like a hawk’s and there was not a break in his voice – and he was nearly a hundred years old!”
“The March before Wong turned one hundred was the worst ever known in London – such blowing, sheeting, snowing, had not been experienced in living memory. One blusterous night there was a terrible road accident on the corner of Golden Lane and Old Street. A tourist coach ended up overturned with all thirty passengers killed, a few cars were wrecked too as a pile up followed. They say it was an awful sound to hear the deathery that went up high above the noise of the wind. It was a terrible sight to see Old Street strewn with corpses.”
“No one knew who the tourists were or where they came from but the Cripplegate alderman said they should all be buried in the old plague pit on Charterhouse Square, since the one beneath The Denizen was no longer accessible. Miraculously a puncheon of brandy survived the carnage. Old Maurice Wong claimed it. He’d been in a taxi that suffered minor damage in the pile up. There was sore ill will because he kept all the booze to himself and most witnesses were sure the puncheon had not fallen from Wong’s taxi as he claimed, but had come out of the coach.”
“Long story short, that was the most wonderful liquor anybody ever tasted. Wong’s friends came from far and near to booze with him, and it was cards and dice, and drinking and story-telling night after night – week in, week out. Even on Sundays, God forgive them! Wong’s family and friends would fly over from China and sit emptying tumbler after tumbler till Monday morning came, for it made beautiful punch.”
“But all at once people quit coming – word went round that the liquor was not all it ought to be. Nobody could say what ailed it, but it got about that in some way men found it did not suit them. For one thing, they were losing money very fast. They could not make head against the Wong’s luck, and a hint was dropped the puncheon ought to have been taken to The Thames, and sunk in its tidal waters.”
“It was getting to the end of April, and fine, warm weather for the time of year, when first one and then another, and then another still, began to take notice of a stranger who walked Golden Lane alone at night. He was a sun-kissed man, his skin as tanned as the dead tourists lying in the Charterhouse Square plague pit, and he had rings in his ears, and wore a strange kind of hat, and cut wonderful antics as he walked, and had an ambling sort of gait, curious to look at. Many tried to talk to him, but he only shook his head. So, as nobody could make out where he came from or what he wanted, they concluded he was the spirit of some poor wretch who’d died in the road accident on Old Street and wasn’t much taken with the Charterhouse plague pit.”
“The Cripplegate alderman went and tried to get some sense out of him. ‘Is it a Christian burial you’re wanting?’ the alderman asked, but the creature only shook his head. ‘Is it word sent to the wives and daughters you’ve left orphans and widows, you’d like?’ But no, it wasn’t that. ‘Is it for sin committed you’re doomed to walk this way? Could a minister comfort you? There’s a heathen,’ said the alderman; ‘Did you ever hear tell of a Christian that shook his head when ministers were mentioned?’ ”
” ‘Perhaps he doesn’t understand English,’ said one of the beadles, ‘Try some Spanish.’ “No sooner said than done. The alderman started off with such a string of ‘holas’ and ‘vales’ that the stranger fairly took to his heels and ran. ‘He is an evil spirit,’ the alderman explained later, ‘I have exorcised him using a ritual I learned at the Guildhall Lodge.’ ”
“But next night the gentleman was back again, as unconcerned as ever. ‘He’ll just have to stay,’ said the alderman, ‘for I’ve got lumbago and pains in all my joints – as well as a hoarseness from shouting all the Masonic secret words. I don’t believe he understood a thing I said.’ ”
“This went on for a while and people got that frightened of the man, or appearance of a man. They would not go near The Denizen because the stranger spent most of his time pacing up and down outside it. In the end Maurice Wong, who had always scoffed at the talk, took it into his head he would see into the rights of the matter.”
“Maybe he was feeling lonesome because as I told you before, people had left off coming to The Denizen, and there was nobody for him to drink with. Out he goes, bold as brass. The man came forward at the sight of Wong and took off his hat with a flourish. Not to be behind in civility, Maurice lifted his. ‘I have come, sir,’ Wong said, ‘to know if you are looking for anything, and whether I can assist you to find it.’ The man looked at Wong as if he had taken the greatest liking to him, and took off his hat again.”
” ‘Is it the coach that crashed you are distressed about?’ There came no answer, only a mournful shake of the head. ‘Well, I haven’t got the coach, it went to the scrap yard months ago and, as for the dead, they are snug and sound enough in a local plague pit.’ The man stood and looked at Wong with a queer sort of smile on his face. ‘What do you want?’ asked Wong passionately. ‘If anything belonging to you was in the coach, it’s the police you need to ask about it, unless its the brandy you’re fretting about!’ ”
“Wong had tried him in English and Mandarin, and was now speaking a language you’d have thought nobody could understand. But it seemed as natural as kissing to the stranger. ‘Oh! That’s where you are from, is it?’ said Wong. ‘Why couldn’t you have told me so at once? I can’t give you the brandy because it is mostly drunk, but come along and you shall have as stiff a glass of punch as ever crossed your lips.’ And without more to-do off they went, as sociable as you please, jabbering together in some outlandish tongue that made moderate folks’ jaws ache to hear it.”
“That was the first night they conversed together but it wasn’t the last. The stranger must have been the height of good company, for Wong never tired of him. Every evening, regularly, he came up to The Denizen, always dressed the same, always smiling and polite, and then Wong called for brandy and hot water, and they drank and played cards till cock-crow, talking and laughing into the small hours.”
“This went on for weeks and weeks, nobody knowing where the man came from, or where he went. Only two things The Denizen concierge did know – that the puncheon was nearly empty and that Wong’s flesh was wasting off him. The concierge felt so uneasy he went to the police about this but they could give him no comfort. The concierge got so concerned that he felt bound to eavesdrop at the door to Wong’s apartment. But they always talked in gibberish and whether it was blessing or cursing they were at the concierge couldn’t tell.”
“Well, the upshot of it came one night in July – on the eve of Wong’s birthday – there wasn’t a drop of spirit left in the puncheon. No not as much as would drown a fly. They had drunk the whole lot clean up – and the concierge stood trembling, expecting any minute to hear Wong call up from the games room for more brandy, for where was he to get more if they wanted any?”
“All at once Wong and the stranger came up to The Denizen’s reception. It was a full moon and light as day.” ‘I’ll go home with you tonight by way of a change,’ says Wong. ‘Will you so?’ asked the other. ‘That I will,’ answered Wong. ‘It is your own choice, you know.’ ‘Yes; it is my own choice. Let us go.'”
“So they went. And running out of The Denizen the concierge watched the way they took. Wong walked south beside the strange man, then they turned right into Beech Street. The concierge followed them and saw them walk on, and on, and on, and on, until they came to The Thames. They ambled down some steps at Queenshithe till the water took them to their knees, and then to their waists, and then to their arm-pits, and then to their throats and their heads. Before long the concierge was dialing the cops on his smartphone but it did no good because by the time the boys in blue turned up, Wong and his companion had disappeared.”
“Well?” I said. “What happened?”
“Living or dead, Maurice Wong never came back again. Next morning, when the Thames tide ebbed, a man who was mudlarking saw the print of a cloven foot – that he tracked to the water’s edge. Then everybody knew where Wong had gone and with whom.”
“And no more search was made?”
“What would have been the use searching?”
“Not much, I suppose. It’s a strange story, anyhow.”
“But true, every word of it.”
“Oh! I have no doubt of that,” I replied.