It’s all nonsense,” said Jack Barnes. “Of course people have died in The Denizen. People die in every apartment block. As for the noises – wind rattling the windows and the sound bleed from a neighobour watching a horror film are very convincing to a nervous man. Give me another cup of tea, Meagle.”
“Lester and White are first,” said Meagle, who was presiding at the tea-table of the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms. “You’ve had two.”
Lester and White finished their cups with irritating slowness, pausing between sips to sniff the aroma, and to discover the sex and dates of arrival of the “strangers” which floated in some numbers in the beverage. Mr. Meagle served them to the brim, and then, turning to the grimly expectant Mr. Barnes, blandly requested him to call for hot water.
“We’ll try and keep your nerves in their present healthy condition,” he remarked. “For my part I have a sort of half-and-half belief in the supernatural.”
“All sensible people have,” said Lester. “An aunt of mine saw a ghost once.”
White nodded. “I had an uncle that saw one,” he said.
“It always is somebody else that sees them,” said Barnes.
“Well, there is The Denizen,” said Meagle, “full of luxury apartments available at absurdly low rents and nobody will take them. It has taken toll of at least one life of every family that has lived there – however short the time – and concierge after concierge has died there. The last caretaker died just a few weeks ago.”
“Exactly,” said Barnes. “Legends accumulate fast when we’re all connected on social media.”
“I’ll bet you a monkey you won’t spend the night there alone, for all your talk,” said White suddenly.
“And I,” said Lester.
“No,” said Barnes slowly. “I don’t believe in ghosts nor in any supernatural things whatever; all the same, I admit that I should not care to pass a night there alone. Not even for five hundred quid.”
“But why not?” inquired White.
“Noise from the underground,” said Meagle, with a grin. “Don’t you know you can’t get any sleep in those flats or those on the Barbican Estate that are close to the tunnel that runs between Moorgate and Barbican tube stations because of the terrible noise from the trains?”
“There’s a lot of rats in that train tunnel and when the weather is warm they like to swarm up into The Denizen,” chimed in Lester.
“As you like,” said Barnes colouring.
“Suppose we all go?” said Meagle. “Start after supper and get there about eleven? I met the owner of one of The Denizen investment flats yesterday and he’s willing to pay people to prove the place isn’t haunted. It will be a novelty at any rate and if we break the spell by all surviving, the grateful owner will pay us well. He’s already given me the keys.”
“Who died there last?” inquired Barnes with an air of polite derision.
“A tramp,” was the reply. “He went there for the sake of a Paul McKenna, and they found him next morning hanging from a light fitting, dead.”
“Suicide,” said Barnes. “Unsound mind. Must have been if he was prepared to spend the night in a haunted new build for only ten quid.”
“That’s what the jury brought it in,” a man at the next table interjected; “but his mind was sound enough when he went in there. I’d known him off and on for years. Always dropped a few coins in his hat when I saw him begging outside Waitrose on Cherry Tree Walk. Lovely chap, very friendly, lots of Scottish charm. And dead all for a tenner! I wouldn’t spend the night in that luxury apartment block for a million pounds.”
He repeated this remark as they left the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms. It was only a short walk to The Denzien. All they had to do was head west for a few minutes, turn north out of the Beech Street tunnel into Golden Lane, and after another minute the Taylor Wimpey’s cursed investment flats were there before them.
“It seems rather hard that we have got to lose a night’s rest in order to convince Barnes of the existence of ghosts,” said White.
“It’s in a good cause,” said Meagle. “A most worthy object, and something seems to tell me that we shall succeed.”
The main entrance door was unlocked despite there being no concierge, it was impossible to find anyone who’d take the job.
“This is where the tramp hanged himself, I suppose,” Meagle said thoughtlessly pointing up at a light fitting.
“You’ve got an unwholesome mind,” said White, as they walked on. “This place is quite creepy enough without you remembering that. Now let’s find a comfortable room and have a little nip of whisky and a pipe.”
The flat Meagle had the keys to was a small one on the first floor. They seated themselves on a sofa and a couple of chairs. White drew from his pocket a small bottle of whisky and a tin cup.
“I understand the spirits rise up from a plague pit deep in the foundations of the building,” said Meagle. “The ghosts enter this apartment block through the games room and cinema in the basement. Shall we go down there and take a look? ”
Barnes held up his hand for silence.
“Yes?” said Meagle, with a grin at the other two. “Is anybody coming?”
“Suppose we drop this game and go back,” said Barnes suddenly. “I don’t believe in the supernatural, but nerves are outside anybody’s command. You may laugh as you like, but it really seemed to me that I heard a door open below and steps on the stairs.”
His voice was drowned in a roar of laughter.
“He is coming round,” said Meagle, with a smirk. “By the time I have done with him he will be a confirmed believer. Well whose coming down to the basement with me? Will you Barnes?”
“No,” was the reply.
Meagle nodded and held out his hand for the cup. Pipes were lit and tobacco smoke filled the room. White produced a pack of cards. Talk and laughter rang out and died away reluctantly in distant corridors.
“Empty rooms always delude me into the belief that I possess a deep voice,” said Meagle. “Tomorrow —-”
He started up with a smothered exclamation as the light went out suddenly. The others sprang to their feet. Then Meagle laughed.
“It’s the utility companies,” he exclaimed. “I read an article in Tribune just the other day about how they’d let all their infrastructure rot away as they scrambled after short term profits.”
The lights came back on and Barnes sitting down took up his cards again.
“What was I going to say?” said Meagle. “Oh, I know; tomorrow —-”
“Listen!” said White, laying his hand on the other’s sleeve. “Upon my word I really thought I heard a laugh.”
“Look here!” said Barnes. “What do you say to going back? I’ve had enough of this. I keep fancying that I hear things too. Sounds of something moving about in the passage outside. I know it’s only fancy, but it’s uncomfortable.”
“You go if you want to,” said Meagle, “and we will play dummy. Or you might ask the tramp to take your hand for you, as you go downstairs.”
Barnes shivered and exclaimed angrily. He got up and, walking to the half-closed door, listened.
“Go outside,” said Meagle, winking at the other two. “I dare you to go down to the street on your own!”
Barnes came back and bending forward, lit his pipe.
“I am nervous, but rational,” he said, blowing out a thin cloud of smoke. “My nerves tell me that there is something prowling up and down the passage outside. My reason tells me that that is all nonsense. Where are my cards?”
He sat down again and taking up his hand, looked through it carefully and led.
“Your play, White,” he said, after a pause.
White made no sign.
“Why he is asleep,” said Meagle. “Wake up, old man. Wake up and play.”
Lester took the sleeping man by the arm and shook him, gently at first and then with some roughness but White, with his head bowed, didn’t respond. Meagle bawled in his ear and then turned a puzzled face to the others.
“He sleeps like the dead,” he said, grimacing. “Well, there are still three of us to keep each other company.”
“Yes,” said Lester, nodding. “Unless– Good Lord! suppose—-”
He broke off and eyed them trembling.
“Suppose what?” inquired Meagle.
“Nothing,” stammered Lester. “Let’s wake him. Try him again. White! WHITE!”
“It’s no good,” said Meagle seriously; “there’s something wrong about that sleep.”
“That’s what I meant,” said Lester; “and if he goes to sleep like that, why shouldn’t—-”
Meagle sprang to his feet. “Nonsense,” he said roughly. “He’s tired out, that’s all. Still let’s take him up and clear out of here. You take his legs and Barnes will lead the way to Barts. The hospital isn’t far and even if they no longer have an accident and emergency ward, it is an emergency so they’ll have to deal with it! Yes? Who’s that?”
He looked up quickly towards the door. “Thought I heard somebody tap,” he said with a shamefaced laugh. “Now Lester, up with him. One, two– Lester! Lester!”
He sprang forward too late. Lester with his face buried in his arms had rolled over on the sofa fast asleep, and his utmost efforts failed to awake him.
“He–is–asleep,” he stammered. “Asleep!”
Barnes stood peering at the sleepers in silence.
“We must get out of here,” said Meagle. “Quick!”
Barnes hesitated. “We can’t leave them.”
“We must,” said Meagle in strident tones. “If you go to sleep I shall go– Quick! Come!”
He seized the other by the arm and strove to drag him to the door. Barnes shook him off, and tried again to arouse the sleepers.
“It’s no good,” he said at last and turning from them watched Meagle. “Don’t you go to sleep,” he said anxiously.
Meagle shook his head and they stood for some time in uneasy silence. “May as well shut the door,” said Barnes at last.
He crossed over and closed it gently. Then at a scuffling noise behind him he turned and saw Meagle in a heap on the floor.
With a sharp catch in his breath he stood motionless. Inside the room the light flickered and showed dimly the grotesque attitudes of the sleepers. Beyond the door there seemed to his overwrought imagination a strange and stealthy unrest. He tried to whistle but his lips were parched. In a mechanical fashion he stooped and began to pick up the cards which now littered the floor.
He stopped once or twice and stood with bent head listening. The unrest outside seemed to increase. There was a loud creaking sounded from the stairs.
“Who is there?” he cried loudly.
The creaking ceased. He crossed to the door and flinging it open, strode out into the corridor. As he walked his fears left him suddenly.
“Come on!” he cried, with a low laugh. “All of you! All of you! Show your faces – your infernal ugly faces! Don’t skulk!”
He laughed again and walked on, and the heap on the floor put out its head tortoise fashion and listened in horror to the retreating footsteps. Not until they had become inaudible in the distance did the listener’s features relax.
“Good Lord Lester we’ve driven him mad,” he said, in a frightened whisper. “We must go after him.”
There was no reply. Meagle sprang to his feet.
“Do you hear?” he cried. “Stop your fooling now. This is serious. White! Lester! Do you hear?”
He bent and surveyed them in angry bewilderment. “All right,” he said in a trembling voice. “You won’t frighten me you know.”
He turned away and walked with exaggerated carelessness in the direction of the door. He even went outside and peeped through the crack, but the sleepers did not stir. He glanced down the stairwell and then came hastily into the room again.
He stood for a few seconds regarding them. The stillness in the luxury apartment block was horrible. He could not even hear them breathe. With a sudden resolution he sparked up his lighter and held the flame to White’s finger. Then as he reeled back stupefied, the footsteps again became audible.
He stood with the lighter in his shaking hand, listening. He heard the footsteps ascending the staircase, but they stopped suddenly as he went to the door. He walked a little way along the passage and they went scurrying down the stairs, then at a jog-trot along down the stairs to the basement. He went back to the stairwell and they ceased again.
For a time he hesitated. Then slowly, step by step, he made his way down to the basement and peered about him.
“Barnes!” he called. “Where are you?”
Shaking with fright he made his way into the games room. Then quite suddenly he heard the footsteps.
He followed slowly and they led him into the vast bare private cinema, with damp walls and a broken floor. In front of him a manhole cover had just closed. He ran towards it and flung it open and a cold air blew up from the black depths of an ancient plague pit. He stood aghast.
“Barnes!” he cried again. “Don’t be afraid! It’s Meagle!”
There was no answer. He stood gazing down into the darkness and all the time the idea of something close at hand watching was upon him. Then suddenly the steps broke out overhead again.
He drew back hastily and soon reached the foot of the staircase. He began to ascend it noiselessly. He reached the entrance hall just in time to see a figure disappear up the next flight of steps. Still careful to make no noise, he followed the sound of the steps until they led him to the top floor. He cornered the chase at the end of a passage.
“Barnes!” he whispered. “Barnes!”
Something stirred in the darkness. A small circular window at the end of the passage just softened the blackness and revealed the dim outlines of a motionless figure. Meagle in place of advancing stood almost as still as a sudden horrible doubt took possession of him. With his eyes fixed on the shape in front he fell back slowly and as it advanced upon him, burst into a terrible cry.
“Barnes! For God’s sake! Is it you?”
The echoes of his voice left the air quivering, but the figure before him paid no heed. For a moment he tried to brace his courage up to endure its approach, then with a smothered cry he turned and fled.
He fled down the stairs. He didn’t have time to call and wait for the lift. If only he could get out onto the street—-
He caught his breath in a sob. The steps had begun again. At a lumbering trot they clattered down the stairs after him. He stood appalled and then as they drew near entered the open door of a flat and stood behind it as they rushed down. He came out and ran swiftly and noiselessly upwards. In a moment the steps were after him. He found the top floor corridor and raced along it. The roof terrace he knew could be accessed from this floor and with the steps close he ran onto it in blind haste. Then suddenly he seemed to slip off the earth into space.
Lester awoke in the morning to find sunshine streaming into the room and White sitting up and regarding with some perplexity a badly-blistered finger.
“Where are the others?” inquired Lester.
“Gone I suppose,” said White. “We must have been asleep.”
Lester arose and stretching his stiffened limbs, dusted his clothes with his hands and went out into the corridor. White followed. At the noise of their approach a figure which had been lying asleep at the other end sat up and revealed the face of Barnes. “Why, I’ve been asleep,” he said in surprise. “I don’t remember coming here. How did I get here?”
“Nice place to come for a nap,” said Lester severely. “It’s lucky this apartment block is completely made up of empty ghost homes. If I was living in it and had found you sleeping in a public area I’d have been rather cross!”
They decided to take a breath of air in the pocket park at the rear of the building. Lester got there first and to his startled cry the others drew near. All three stood staring at the dead body of Meagle who during the night had fallen to his death from the top of The Denizen.