'John Sinclair - My First Case' by Jason Dark Translated from the German by Dr. Tony Page (2007) Ghost Hunter John Sinclair:
My Very First Case
(translated from the German by Dr. Tony Page: begun 25 July ’07, finished 3 August ’07).
To the readers of my numerous adventures, I am (if modesty will permit) well known – ghost hunter John Sinclair. My readers all know about my crucifix, my Beretta, my engraved gem and magic boomerang. Yet there was a time – many years back, even before the time of my encounter with the necromancer, Orgow – when I was not yet the ghost hunter I am today and when I never envisaged, not even in my wildest dreams, that I would ever become such a person.
I would like to tell you of that time. For that is when everything began.
I was still very young and had just left school. I was virtually waiting for life to begin. Moreover, I was still living with my parents. My father was working as a lawyer with a bank and was just about to strike out on his own by setting up his own legal practice. We were living in London at the time, the town that was to become my destiny, so to speak.
If anyone had told me as a young man who I would one day become – I would just have laughed. I had resolved to study a somewhat peculiar subject. Despite all the opposition which this drew from my parents, I gave myself over to the study of psychology and criminology – for even then, I was determined one day to become a policeman, very much to the chagrin of my father, who would only too gladly have seen me become a partner in his forthcoming legal chambers.
But old Horace F. Sinclair could say what he liked: I had a mind and will of my own and, after all, we Scots are famous for a degree of dour pig-headedness. I mean to indicate by this that our family hailed from Scotland.
I was victorious in the battle of wills that was fought between father and son - with the help of my mother, who took my part - and commenced studying only that which gave me pleasure. I was also determined to move out of my parents’ home; after all, every twenty-year-old wants to be independent. What’s more, there was the “other sex”, which naturally interested me greatly! When I occasionally brought a girl back to my parents’ house, I unfailingly harvested the rather disapproving look of my mother, as she glared simultaneously at me and her watch. I always knew what was going through her mind. “No visitors until after breakfast” – that was what her look expressed in silent words. And, in fact, I stuck to her rule. Apart from two exceptional occasions when I had to summon up all my nerve and ingenuity to smuggle the girls past my mother in the morning.
My father still managed to catch a glimpse of these goings-on. But he said nothing, and just winked at me with a conspiratorial twinkle in his eye.
So I set about looking for a flat, avidly reading all that was on offer on the noticeboards at the university. Most of the rooms were too expensive. And I did not want to sponge off my parents. In consequence the search was really difficult and dragged on. I had almost given up hope – much to the delight of my mother, by the way! – when one wonderful Sunday in May I happened to find myself near the university and suddenly thought that I would just pop in and give it another try. On Sundays the porter always used to pin the new addresses to the noticeboard.
I appeared just at the right moment. The porter – we called him Chicken Bill, because he raised poultry – was just in the process of putting up some new cards on the board. When he saw me, he stopped and looked at me in astonishment.
“In the university of your own free will, young man?”
“Well, not exactly”
“What brings you here, then?”
I pointed to the noticeboard. “The ‘for-rent’ accommodation ads.”
“Ah.” He understood and nodded. “You still haven’t found a place to stay, then?”
There was still a lingering whiff of country air about him, and his face boasted a healthy, rosy complexion.
“Um,” he reflected, “there’s not much new here. Still the same old stuff. And the people who rent out their rooms demand prices that even I couldn’t afford – and I’m earning a salary.”
I was disappointed. “So there’s no point in my hanging around here, then?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I haven’t read all of these yet.” I think he felt sorry for me, as he handed me the new room offers, giving me the chance to look through them before anyone else could see what was available.
I only needed to see what parts of town the rooms were in to dismiss them: Kensington, Mayfair, Chelsea: all wonderful places to live in, but for me - a student - far too expensive.
But the last-but-one room made me look twice. A certain Mrs. Osborne was offering a room that cost no more than £10.00 per month. If that wasn’t a good deal, I didn’t know what was!
I laughed out loud, so that even Chicken Bill stopped his work and asked what was the matter. I showed him the ad. He read it through very carefully. “I don’t know, young man, I really don’t know.” He shook his head. “That is indeed marvellous value, but …”
“What do you mean, ‘but’?”
“Such flat offers are often traps, if you know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Look, I’ve worked here at the university for over 20 years. The problem of room-hunting is just as old. Actually, much older!” he corrected himself. “I know all about such tempting offers. There are usually strings attached!”
“What kind of strings?”
“In addition to your monthly rent they might demand something else from you: babysitting, shopping, providing various other services or even comforting lonely women. I’ve seen it all before!”
I grinned. “The last one would suit me just fine!”
Chicken Bill raised a warning finger. “Son, that depends on the woman.”
“Oh, I see.” I laughed. “You mean that it can sometimes be a dreadful old witch.”
“Worse than that.”
“OK, everything’s clear, sir – I understand. But I’d still like to have a look at the flat sometime - and at the landlady.”
“I can understand that. But just remember my warning.”
“Sure, I will. Thanks again.” I was already on my way, full of optimism. After all, what could happen to me? I was young, my whole life lay ahead of me, and everything was simply terrific and wonderful.
I already possessed an old banger at that time that was halfways serviceable: not a Bentley, oh no – a Morris Mini. I’d acquired the vehicle from a scrapyard. Two friends of mine had helped me get it into some sort of roadworthy shape. OK, the back seats were missing, but that wasn’t so bad after all, since my friends regarded my Morris and me as the perfect transporter of crates of beer!
I had made a note of the address and checked it once more before I set out. The house was in Holborn, near the Royal Courts of Justice and also not far from Fleet Street, the world-famous newspaper street. I cruised in my old banger through the streets of London. I suffered a few mechanical hitches on the way, but with patient encouragement and loving caresses of the steering wheel I always managed to get the Morris going at full tilt once again. Sometimes she surpassed herself, even overtaking a Jaguar – but only because the Jaguar was parking!
It was May, and I drove with the windows open, enjoying the wind in my face, the sunshine, and smiling at all the delectable girls who skipped across the road. Most of them actually smiled back at me.
When I reached my destination, things suddenly took on a gloomy aspect. I don’t mean the sky, which was radiantly blue as before like a postcard: it was the narrow gorge of road into which I turned. To the right and to the left the houses seemed to form a solid grim wall. What is more, the facades were old, covered with stucco, with big bay windows at the front, and roofs adorned with numerous dormer windows.
So this was the street in which I was to live!
I was accustomed to looking out onto greenery. But here there was not a single tree, not even a bush to be seen – just houses pressed tightly up against one another. On Sundays everything is quiet, even in a giant city like London. And it was particularly quiet in this narrow street. There was scarcely anyone about – but at least, in compensation, there was somewhere to park my Mini!
I got out and had to walk back a few steps. Then I stopped momentarily, with my heart beating fast, in front of house number 18. I already had a strange feeling. My first flat, the first time living away from my parent’s house, a step forward in life, responsibility for myself, no help in the mornings, no one to lay the table for me any longer – yes, it was going to be quite something. I thought of the people who had trodden this path before me, as well as those who would walk it after me. They all had – or would have – the same problems as myself.
Three more steps brought me to the front door, where I again stood still, and where the doorbell, with the name of the owner inscribed beneath it, stared out at me.
I still hesitated. But in the end I plucked up courage and rang.
Even from outside I could hear the shrill ringing of the bell. At first nothing happened. Then I heard a buzzing noise and leaned against the solid wooden door. I pushed it open, entered a gloomy hallway with a high ceiling, saw a staircase in front of me and a woman who lived on the ground floor who had come out of her flat in answer to my ring. She was waiting for me in front of her door. To reach her I still had to climb three more steps. I smiled, in a rather forced way, and must have come across as pretty diffident.
Before I could say a word, the woman spoke, enquiring, “You have come about the room, young man?”
“That was quick!”
“I happened to have something to do at the university,” I lied.
“I think it’s good when students work even on Sundays.” She stepped aside to let me come into her flat. “Do come in, Mr. ??”
“Sinclair,” I said. “John Sinclair.”
“I am Mrs. Gilda Osborne.”
I had the opportunity to study the woman. She certainly was not an old bag or an old spinster. I judged her to be around forty. She looked like a painted doll or mannequin. Her face indeed bore a doll-like expression, while her cheeks were plastered with powder and her eyes accentuated by dark liner. Her lips were cherry-shaped and shone as if with red lacquer. She wore her hair backcombed, in the fashion of the day. The colour was far too blond to be genuine. Her green dress gave me a kind of colour- shock, and under it she wore a bra which pushed her breasts up uneasily high. Her height was roughly similar to mine: in other words, pretty lofty. Perhaps she gave the impression of being so tall because of her backcombed hair.
“Do sit down, John.”
She had led me into a room furnished with bucket armchairs and a kidney-shaped table. I also saw a chest of drawers, a stove and a wooden floor painted dark red. Somehow the place had the feel of a waiting room about it. Opposite me was a picture hanging on the wall. It depicted a man with a black beard and bushy walrus moustache.
The woman sat down facing me. She scanned me with her eyes from top to toe. I couldn’t help thinking of the words of the porter, that many lonely women fetch students into their homes for a bit of “diversion”. I blushed.
She noticed it and smiled. “A bit shy, eh?”
I shrugged and was irritated that she had already seen through me. “Well,” I said. “This is the first flat I’ve ever moved into, and so I don’t want to be too pushy.”
She laughed. As she did so, I noticed two gold teeth glinting in her mouth. “I can well imagine that, my Dear. You know how much the rent is, right, John?”
“Yes. Ten pounds a month.”
“Can you manage that?”
“I’ll have to, if I am offered the room.”
Mrs. Osborne hauled herself to her feet out of the armchair. “Let’s take a look at the room then, shall we?”
“That would be nice, thank you.” I got to my feet as well.
Mrs. Osborne kept close beside me. I could smell her perfume. A heavy cloud of fragrance enveloped the woman and did violence to my nose.
“The room is on the first floor. I’ve rented out several rooms there. The floors above are empty. I want to get them redecorated.” She told me all about this as she walked ahead of me and turned her head round at the same time. Then she climbed up the stairs. Her shocking green dress was as tight-fitting as skin. I saw the powerful backs of her knees in front of my eyes and, when my gaze travelled upwards, it was met by her excessively curvaceous curves. She had not said a word about her husband, so I plucked up courage and asked.
She stopped on the first-floor landing and turned round, wanting to give me an answer. “Edwin is often away on business. He rarely comes home. In any case, he is very quiet. You will hardly hear him. Didn’t you notice the picture on the wall just now, John?”
“Do you mean the oil painting – the portrait?”
“I couldn’t really miss it.”
She gave a broad smile. “That’s my husband, you know.” And then she said something that surprised me. “That’s why I always have him with me.”
I was still pondering upon her words when we reached the first floor. A corridor opened up before us. It wasn’t closed off from the stairs by a door. I counted the doors in the corridor: three on each side and an additional one at the end of the passage.
Mrs. Osborne had stopped and was pointing to the door. “That’s the bathroom, by the way.”
“Do I have to share it with the other tenants?”
“Not other tenants. Only one tenant. The other rooms are empty.”
I was surprised. She noticed my reaction and knew that I didn’t dare ask her why she had not rented out the other rooms. She gave me the answer of her own volition.
“I only like to rent our two or, at most, three rooms. Otherwise it’s too noisy for me. You take my meaning?”
“Of course, Mrs. Osborne.”
“And while we’re on the subject: I don’t prohibit female visitors, but there is a closing time, so to speak: by 10 o’clock at night all girls must have left the house. Do you agree to that, John?”
She looked at me in such a direct and sharp manner that, quite contrary to my inclination, I nodded and couldn’t help turning red. I might as well have stayed with my parents, I thought. I heard the voice of my new landlady drifting towards me as if from a great distance: “I’m glad you think in that way. Not every young man of your age is like you. Excellent. Now I’ll show you your room. I always make every effort to furnish it nicely.” She laughed and walked ahead of me.
She stopped in front of the middle of the three doors on the right-hand side of the corridor. It was not locked. She opened the door and let me walk in ahead of her.
I entered a not particularly large, yet high-ceilinged room, which, despite the window, somehow purveyed a sense of gloom. Perhaps it was the wallpaper, with its flowery pattern which I did not like at all. The bed was at right angles to the window, pushed up close to the wall. Opposite was the wardrobe, and next to that a washbasin. Between the bed and the wardrobe I saw a square table. An armchair, a hard chair and a small stove completed the picture.
In front of the window hung long net curtains, in which Dyer’s sawwort was nesting. The floor was made of thick wooden planks. As in the landlady’s living room, these planks were painted red.
“Do you like the room?” I was asked.
I would really have liked to say ‘no’, but I did not want to offend the woman, so I nodded.
“That is splendid. So can I assume that you will take it, John?”
“Good. Now, we agreed the rent, didn’t we?”
“Your ad said £10.00.”
She smiled and fondled my cheek. “Oh no! I like you. I’ll give you a discount. Let’s say £8.00, shall we? Do you agree?”
I’ll say! That was more than OK with me. If I could save two pounds, that represented several lunches!
“Gladly, Mrs. Osborne.”
“Then let me welcome you most warmly, John. Now and then I also make breakfast for my guests. Especially on Sundays. It’s always a very cosy affair.”
“And there’s nothing else that I need to do?”
She looked at me strangely and smiled in a cryptic way. “What do you mean by that, John?”
“It was just a question.”
“We shall see.” She knitted her brows. “When would you like to move in?”
“That’s up to you, Mrs. Osborne.”
“As far as I’m concerned, you can move in straight away.”
“No, I’m afraid I can’t. I’ll come back tomorrow with all my things.”
“That’s fine. Till tomorrow morning, then.”
She accompanied me all the way down. I almost fled from the house. Outside I stopped when I reached my car, and laid my elbow on the roof. My knees were slightly trembling. The last quarter-of-an-hour seemed a dream to me.
I had actually rented a room of my own!
Once again I cast a glance back at the house. On the ground floor, where Mrs. Osborne lived, the net curtains twitched. For a moment I saw her doll-like face and thought I caught that cryptic smile snaking its way across it. I breathed in deeply. Suddenly the street seemed oppressively narrow to me.
For some reason I had the feeling that I would not be staying in this strange house too long. After all, there were six rooms in the building, but only two of them were occupied. Moreover, the upper floors were all empty. That was not normal, in my view. This Mrs. Gilda Osborne was throwing her money out of the window. Maybe she had more than enough. But in any case, it was not for me to prescribe to her what, and to whom, she should rent.
I got into my car and drove off. The road led me to my parents’ place. I first had to tell them that I had been searching for a room.
Now I already saw my mother’s face and thought how worried about me she would certainly be.
With these thoughts in mind, I drove off.
The next day – it was Monday – I moved in. I successfully crammed everything I needed into the Morris: books and clothes. Needless to say, there had been “discussions”. My mother had even cried, and my father, too, looked very solemn, although he had complete understanding for my wish to move out. He promised to visit me in the course of the week – and even pressed a banknote into my hand.
My mother of course wanted to know who the woman was, whether I would be well looked after and who would do my washing for me. As I didn’t know the answer to the last question, she offered to do my washing herself. So it was arranged that I would drive over to my parents’ place at least once a week.
Along with my clothes and books, my mother had made up a big pack of goodies for me to eat. After all, she didn’t want her son to starve.
I reached the house around 9 o’clock. Mrs. Osborne must have observed my arrival, since, as I stepped up in front of the house, she was already wedging a wooden doorstop into the door to secure it.
“Ah, there you are!” she called out in greeting. “A hearty welcome to you!” She was wearing the same green dress as before. Her hair was backcombed again and doused in hairspray. Not a single hair was out of place. When I looked at her, I was again reminded of a shop-window mannequin. It would be difficult for me to get used to this woman.
First I took out the bags. Two of them were full of clothes, and the third filled with books. Mrs. Osborne took the lightest one from me.
“Do you have anything else?” she asked as we strode up the staircase.
“Only a holdall full of books. I’ll get it in a second.”
“Then just pop in and see me before you do that. Are you going to the university today?”
“No, I’m having the day off.”
She gave a false laugh and said, “Oh yes, it’s so nice to be a student!”
She could talk! I bet she did nothing all day long.
We deposited the bags in my room and went downstairs again together. With the holdall in my right hand I entered her flat. Once more she led me into the room whose décor and furniture were so little to my taste. On the table there were a bottle and two glasses.
“That’s cream liqueur,” she said. “We always drink it ice-cold.”
She poured out two glasses and handed me one, saying “cheers” as she did so. “Cheerio, John. To a good partnership.”
The liqueur was indeed ice-cold, but also very sweet. I didn’t particularly like it. But I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of this woman on my very first day, so I nodded approvingly. “Yes, it’s good.”
“As I said to you.” She placed the glass on the table. “By the way, your house-mate is already up and out.”
“Is he a student too?”
“No, he works as a volunteer on a newspaper in Fleet Street.”
“So he’s quite young?”
She gave me a searching look. “About the same age as you, John. Anyway, I don’t want to detain you any longer. I’m sure you’ve got lots to do. I’ll leave you to put all your stuff away in peace.”
“There’s one more thing,” I said, fetching out my wallet. “I’d like to pay the rent.”
“Oh, I see. You could have done that later. How much did I say? £8.00?”
“That’s what we agreed.”
“Then that is what it is.” She laughed once again.
I handed her the money, which I had already counted. She took it from me, but gave me no receipt. I didn’t dare ask for one. But I did ask for a tenancy agreement. Mrs. Osborne waved the idea aside. “We’ll see to that later, my dear. Really, it’s better, you know. Anyway I’ve always done things this way and haven’t had any trouble up to now.”
If I had told that answer to my father, he would certainly have burst a blood-vessel! He, as a lawyer, would never have accepted such an arrangement.
“OK. I’ll go up now,” I said.
“Of course, John. And if you feel like a tea or coffee, just let me know. There’s always some on offer here. I know you students often study until late into the night.”
Once I was up in my room, the first thing I did was to throw open the window and breathe in deeply. Despite the loneliness of the street, there was a good deal of noise and traffic. Vans loaded with newspapers from Fleet Street used this street as a through-road.
I unpacked my things. I didn’t have much in the way of clothing, and I didn’t need much, either. Everything fitted into the one wardrobe. I put my books on the wooden shelf behind the door.
It was still not yet midday when I had finished all my work and was thinking about driving to uni, since I wanted to attend a seminar. It proved impossible for me to creep out of the house: scarcely had Mrs. Osborne heard my footsteps on the stairs than she appeared in the hallway and looked in my direction. “Are you going out, John?”
“Yes, I’m going to a seminar.”
“Oh, marvellous; I find that marvellous.”
I smiled – with great difficulty. This Gilda Osborne was already getting on my wick. If she continued like this, I’d soon be moving out.
As I walked past her, she bestowed a look upon me that was so disparaging that it gave me the shivers all the way down my spine. This person really was not to my taste.
I left the house more swiftly than expected and was glad to be away from it. I decided to ask my fellow tenant all about this woman. After all, he had known her longer than I had.
I spent over three hours at the university. Weighted down with informational handouts, I set off for home again. Furthermore, I had heard from a fellow student that it was much better to study at Oxford. I couldn’t get these words out of my mind, and later I did indeed pass several terms at Oxford.
When I reached the house and was about to park my car in front of it, I noticed that my parking spot had already been taken. A Fiat Spider was standing there. From the distance it looked like a red flounder. On coming closer I noticed quite a bit of rust on it, and I assumed that this car must belong to my fellow lodger.
The weather had taken a turn for the worse: the sky had grown overcast, and I could smell rain in the air. Nothing unusual for London, of course.
Once again I was met by the landlady - this time in front of the house, with a shopping bag in her hand. She had slipped a cardigan over her green dress. Even the slight wind was unable to disturb her dyed blond hair: there was simply too much hairspray all over it.
“Back again?” she asked. “Where’s your car, then?”
I pointed down the street. “I had to park it further down.”
She laughed. “Yes, the Fiat. By the way, it belongs to your neighbour.”
“I guessed that.”
She pushed the shopping bag into my hand and opened the front door. A moment later I saw the kitchen for the first time. The furniture was all composed of old items. One shelf, in particular, caught my eye, since there was a whole array of knives on it. They shone like burnished steel. Almost every imaginable kind of knife was there: from a small kitchen knife to a very broad-bladed one with which you could hack thick slabs of meat to pieces.
Mrs. Osborne noticed what I was looking at and laughed quietly. “Are you afraid of knives?”
“Not really. Do you need so many?”
“Oh, young man, you’ve surely never cooked for yourself, have you?”
“You need such knives when preparing various dishes.”
I took her at her word and left the room, with a distinct feeling of uneasiness.
As soon as I got to the staircase I heard music coming from a radio. A Beatles song was blaring out to greet me, and I remembered that I had left my radio at home. I would have to fetch it on my next visit to my parents’ house.
I was really curious to know who lived next-door to me, but I lacked the courage to knock. We would surely meet each other in the course of the evening. So I went into my room and looked over the seminar notes I had taken during the last few hours. Then I decided to go to the pub and have a few pints. My hand was already resting on my jacket when I heard a knock at my door. It couldn’t be Mrs. Osborne – I would have heard her footsteps on the stairs. Maybe it was my neighbour.
“Come in!” I called out. The door opened, and I stared with curiosity at the person standing on the threshold of my room.
It was a young man, roughly the same age as me. He had brown hair and wore it relatively long. He had tight jeans, and his checked shirt was open at the neck; over this he wore a leather waistcoat, which showed signs of wear. He was leaning casually against the doorframe.
“Hey, partner!” he said. I returned his greeting. The young man looked round and entered my room. “It’s all a bit sterile-looking, isn’t it?”
I shrugged. “What can we do? I’ve only just moved in.”
“Of course, I understand.” He turned round and offered me his hand. “By the way, I’m Bill, the newspaper stallion. My full name is Bill Conolly.”
I liked my neighbour’s casual air. “John Sinclair”, I introduced myself.
“Okay, John. Here’s to good neighbourliness!”
“Won’t you come in?” I asked him.
Bill looked about him. “It’s not very cosy in here,” he remarked and pulled a face.
“Is it more cosy in your room?”
“Not in the least.”
“Where, then?” I asked.
Bill grinned. “I know a place that’s bearable.”
“The pub,” I took the words out of his mouth.
“Exactly.” Bill Conolly laughed. “I can see we’re going to get along just fine. Come on, let’s get out of this stuffy old den.”
“You bet!” I stopped in front of the door and shook my head.
“What’s the matter?” my new friend asked.
“Have you not got a key, either?”
Bill waved the query aside. “You can borrow mine. In this shitty house one key fits all the doors. I bet you that the old hooded crow is standing in front of her door right now and is going to ask us all sorts of stupid questions.”
“I only bet when I’m sure to win.” Bill laughed and went on ahead of me. He was right. Mrs. Osborne was standing in front of her flat. She was cleaning the entrance hall and was just in the process of wringing out a grey cloth. When she saw us, she straightened herself up.
“You’re going out?”
“Yes indeed, madam. Always when the weather’s like this.”
“Going for a beer?”
“Maybe even two,” retorted Bill.
“So it could be late by the time you get back?”
Mrs. Osborne gave a false laugh. “You and your jokes. If you say early, that usually means after midnight.”
Bill ducked, and jumped with one big bound over the newly-washed spot, waving as he did so. I did likewise. “Have a nice evening, Mrs. Osborne,” I called out.
“Thank you, thank you the pair of you.”
Outside, Bill shook his head. “If there was ever anyone who gets on my wick, it’s that woman. But the digs are cheap. How much are you paying?”
I told him what my rent was. “I have to pay £8.00 too,” said Bill, adjusting his belt. “Do you know your way around this part of town? I mean the pubs.”
“OK, then, let me show you. I work as a volunteer on the newspaper. The first thing I learnt there was fetching the beer and drinking it. My buddies on the paper live in a permanent kind of haze. You have to get used to it. If you don’t join in, you won’t get anywhere.”
“I’ve got no idea about such things.”
“You’re a student, aren’t you?”
Bill waved a dismissive hand. “I wanted to be one as well, once. But then I felt the lure of the newspapers. I am the type who needs action. Studying is too boring for me. So what do you want to become, apart from older?”
Bill suddenly stopped short, as if he had run into a wall. He flipped his forehead with his hand. “Did I hear right? Policeman?”
Conolly began to make the sound of a siren, so that a few passers-by looked our way. I shook my head. “What’s all that about?”
“That’s the noise the cops make.” I began to make a squeaking sound, but had to laugh when I saw Bill’s dumb expression. “Do you know what that is?”
“That’s the squeaking of the beard-curling machine that’s in my cellar. That’s how old your jokes are.”
Bill was enjoying himself, now. He slapped me on the shoulder. “You’re right, mate, truly. I think we’re going to have fun together.”
If anyone at that time had told us how long our friendship would last, we would never have believed it. Who of us knows what course fate is going to lay down for us? Bill is still my best friend, along with Suko, down to this very day, and many a time he has spat in the Devil’s eye. But at that time we had no such thoughts. We were just thinking of how thirsty we were.
Bill found a pub. They knew him there. The newspaper people hung out in that bar. It even smelled of printer’s ink. Next to the toilette door there stood an old black-lacquered printing press. And the phone was always ringing.
The bar was empty. I made a beeline for it, but Bill held me back. “We can’t stand there, my dear friend.”
“That bar is only for proper paid-up reporters.”
“Are the rules so strict?”
“OK, then we’ll have to keep to them.”
There was another table free, at which we were able to find a place. It was very small, not bigger than a chessboard. I found the dark chairs uncomfortable.
A waiter came up to us. He had an apron on over his stomach, and the apron looked like a newspaper made out of material. Anyway, it had headlines printed all over it. Without having even asked us, he plonked down two pints of beer in front of us. Bill raised his jar. “Cheers then! And as we always say: May the precious muck make waves in our gut!”
We drank. It tasted good. I half-emptied my pint in one go. When I put my glass back down on the table and wiped the foam from my mouth, I saw that Bill was already staring down into his jar.
“Well, not bad for a beginner.”
“What do you mean? What about yours?”
“Ha ha!” laughed Bill. He turned his beer glass upside down and placed it on the table. “Empty. That’s what comes from training!” The waiter was moving around the bar with an eagle’s eye. Scarcely had Bill turned his pint upside down than a newly filled one was right there in front of him.
“Swallowed too much printer’s ink?” the man asked.
“I’ll say. The stuff has to swim.”
“I know what you mean.”
Bill pointed his thumb at the man, who was hurrying off. “He knows a bit about it. He was a printer himself.”
“And now he’s working as a waiter?”
“As well. The pub belongs to him.”
Bill leaned back and crossed his legs. “That’s what I mean. Let’s see how things go with the paper. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll open a pub.”
“Then I’ll register right now as a regular!”
Bill leaned forward and held out his right hand to me. “Your word on it, partner?”
“Yes, you have my word.”
After that, we got back to our drinks. This time I managed to down the whole lot and turned the jar on its head. I soon got a fresh one, and we changed the topic of our conversation. “Tell, me Bill: what do you really think of our landlady?”
“Osborne?” My friend waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t ask. Ask me another one.”
“No, I want to know.”
“Then you will be prejudiced against her.”
“I was already that as soon as I set eyes on her.”
“So why did you take the room?”
“Because it’s cheap.”
“The same with me.” Bill mumbled something. “D’you know what? In my opinion the old woman is not quite right in the head. She drove all the previous tenants out, because they couldn’t stand her. And then there’s the whole business with her husband.”
“I’ve never seen him, and I’ve been living there for over two months. I am not a nervy guy, John, but sometimes I wake up at night and hear voices and noises.”
“Yes – and from her Edwin!”
“What are they doing?”
“Not what you think. Although you can sometimes hear groaning. I don’t know what goes on.”
“You’ve never tried to see?”
I frowned. “Haven’t you ever searched the house? I mean the upper floors and the cellar?”
“How could I get to do that? What’s more, Osborne’s got eyes in the back of her head. You can forget that. Anyway I’ve got the feeling that things are not quite as they ought to be in that place. This woman’s got something to hide, John. Maybe she’s got a dead body hidden in the cellar.”
“Figuratively speaking, you mean?”
Bill shrugged his shoulders. The conversation made us turn serious. I admitted to myself that Bill’s words had unsettled me. This Gilda Osborne was indeed a little bit odd. Added to that was the low rent, and then the husband who existed, but was practically never at home. Something didn’t seem right here.
Even at that time I thought like a policeman. “How would it be if we took a closer look at the house? I mean the two of us.”
“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me,” replied Bill after a thoughtful pause.
“When shall it be?”
“Not right away. That would arouse suspicion.” He leaned forward and spoke in a conspiratorial tone of voice. “We’ll lull the old biddy into a false sense of security, and then we’ll make our move on the house.”
“Have you ever been in the kitchen, John?”
“And didn’t you notice anything there?”
I thought for a moment. “The furniture is not exactly modern …”
“I don’t mean that,” the volunteer interrupted me. “What about the shelf on the wall?”
“Exactly. That’s what I mean.” Bill thumped the table. “What woman possesses so many knives?”
“She told me that a cook needs them.”
“Rubbish, John. Three knives are more than enough. One day I surprised her when she was standing in the kitchen and holding a knife in her hand. The expression in her eyes …” Bill shook his head. “You haven’t known me very long, John. Be honest: do you think I’m the nervous type?”
“No, not at all.”
“You can bet on that. But when I stood in the kitchen and saw Osborne with that knife, I was shit-scared.” Bill emptied his pint. As he set it down again, he said, “She looked like a killer. Like someone who has just rammed a blade into someone’s body and taken pleasure in doing it. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I didn’t like it one bit. And nor would you.”
“You’re probably right,” I admitted. “But you don’t have any concrete suspicion, do you?”
“What do you mean?”
“What I’m about to say is just speculation. I’m wondering whether Osborne could be a murderess.”
“For God’s sake! Don’t say that! I just think the woman is pretty weird, that’s all.”
“I do too. We would have to determine whether there is any substance to your suspicions.”
Bill Conolly laughed. “Now you’re sounding like a future policeman again. You’ll make a good one. But make sure that you get a job at the Yard. When I am a reporter, we can provide each other with information. That would be pretty cool, eh?”
I couldn’t help laughing. I had no idea at the time that it would all come true. “Chumminess is forbidden in the police,” I averred.
“In theory. But in practice things are rather different, John. You can depend on that.”
Bill was probably right, but I was not in the mood to discuss the matter with him. I was far more interested in our landlady. “We must concern ourselves with Osborne, Bill. Perhaps you’ll get a story out of it. Then you, as a volunteer, will really do well.”
“The thought had occurred to me too.”
“So what’s stopped you from getting fully involved until now?” I wanted to know.
“I just wasn’t ready for it. That was all. I needed someone to give me a push.”
“Well, now you’ve got me.”
“Right, and we’ll surely fight this battle through to its end. Let’s have another little drink to that!”
“This time it’s on me.”
Bill was surprised. “Are you made of money?”
“No, but I’ve saved two pounds on my rent, so we might as well drink it!”
We stayed another two hours in the pub. In between, we had something to eat, and when we got up to leave, around midnight, if we were not exactly plastered, we had certainly had more than our fill. In the pub the air was stale, and it was a miracle that I could still see Bill – so thick had the clouds of smoke become in the meantime.
Outside, the air was better. We were both sweating, and we breathed deeply at first. Nearby was a big building with numerous windows. Since not all of them were closed, we could hear the sounds of a running rotary press. In Fleet Street, where this pub was, people worked day and night.
The fresh air did us so much good that it very soon dispelled the hazy veil that lay mistily over our brains. It is true that we were not yet sober – I would never have driven a car in our state – but we were not staggering any longer - I think!
On the way home we encountered a number of nocturnal revellers. A few girls were amongst them. But they cost money, and neither of us had any of that. In any case, neither of us needed to pay for a lay – and we told this to the “damsels of the night”, who then pelted us with swear words!
“Have you got your front-door key?” I asked, as we stood in front of the Fiat.
Bill grinned. “I have indeed.” He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the key. Meanwhile I was gazing at the window that lay to the left of the front door: it was lit up. If I remembered correctly, it was part of the kitchen. Apparently Mrs. Osborne had not yet gone to bed. I drew Bill’s attention to this unwelcome fact. He nodded. “The woman usually stays up late. She’s always spying through her window”
“You mean for girls?”
“That too. Once I brought a girl back with me, and it’s a miracle that she didn’t spit in the little one’s face. She never came back to the house with me again. What can we do?” Bill shrugged. “We can’t change anything – unless we move out.” He walked up to the front door and opened it.
As I entered the hall, I could smell the perfume. A most disgusting odour that I would never get accustomed to. Bill didn’t like it either. I could see that from his face, as he turned round and simultaneously whispered to me, “I don’t think Osborne’s about.”
“Otherwise she’d already be here, you mean?”
“That’s right.” Bill advanced forward. I trailed behind him in his wake. We were very quiet, as we did not want to break the silence of the house. The door to Osborne’s apartment was not locked: it was wide open. We were surprised at this. “Do you think we should take a look inside?” whispered Bill.
“What if she catches us?”
“Just say that we wanted to let her know we are back.”
“OK”. I felt uneasy about the whole thing. After all, the flat was part of an individual’s private sphere. Bill Conolly had a more relaxed attitude to the whole matter. Perhaps he needed to, as an up-and-coming reporter.
Bill had already entered the flat and disappeared from my sight. I followed him more cautiously and saw him go into the kitchen as I stepped into the apartment. I came up beside him.
The reporter stood in the middle of the room. His gaze was directed at the shelf. I was about to say something to him when I noticed his fixed expression and looked in the same direction. What I saw gave me a fright: two of the knives were missing! And of all things it was the two with the longest blades.
Neither of us could say – or dared to comment. We were both too surprised. The seconds passed. Finally Bill breathed in loudly. “Man!” he whispered. “What does this woman want with that pair of knives?”
Bill slowly turned his head to look at me. I could see goose-pimples on his face. “Has she bumped somebody off with them?” Bill raised his arm and drew the edge of his hand across his throat from right to left.
“You say that very easily. But I’m not so sure, John.”
“No, I can’t imagine such a thing.”
“Well, what’s your explanation, then?” he demanded
“I haven’t got one. But I’m sure she’s harmless. After all, she said that she is a good cook.”
“The only question is: what does she cook?”
“What do you mean?”
“I like cooking dinners, gentlemen!”
The voice had sounded out sharply behind our backs. We felt like sinners caught in the act, and we both started and turned round.
Mrs. Osborne was standing before us. In her right hand she was holding a knife. The blade was pointing downwards, and from its tip was dripping blood …
The sound of the drops of blood as they fell to the floor was the only sound in that kitchen. We held our breath, as the colour gradually drained from our faces and our eyes fixed wholly upon the knife.
But in her other hand she was holding a big slab of meat. Judging from its darkish hue – roast beef. She must have hacked it off. When I saw that, a weight fell from my mind. Our tacit suspicion had been ridiculous after all. We heaved a sigh of relief.
She was still wearing her poisonous green dress, though she had slipped a clean smock over it. Her laugh was as false as her two gold teeth.
“Have the gentlemen enjoyed themselves?” she enquired.
“We have,” I admitted.
“I can smell the alcohol on your breath … Well, I’m sure you must be hungry – otherwise why else would you come into my kitchen?” She gave us a challenging look.
Bill shrugged his shoulders. “Well, not exactly, Mrs. Osborne. We saw the light still on.”
“Sometimes I work into the night. It’s nothing to be concerned about.”
“We would really like to apologise,” I began. “It was impolite of us, I know …”
She walked past us and deposited the meat on the table.
“Forget it. Young people should be curious – but not too curious, if you get my meaning,” she added with a sinister laugh.
“Of course, Mrs. Osborne,” we replied in unison.
“Then go up to your rooms now. After all, you’ve got a hard day ahead of you tomorrow.”
We slunk away like two naughty schoolchildren. Her voice overtook us at the door. “Just one more thing, you two. My husband will be coming back in the next few days. I just want to let you know.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Osborne.”
Only when we had reached the foot of the stairs did we pass any comments. “Have you ever seen this Edwin Osborne?” I asked my new friend.
“No, I’ve only heard him.”
“What do you mean?”
“At night-time, I’ve often heard steps wandering around the house like a ghost’s. I know the woman’s tread. These other steps are heavier, kind of dragging. It’s real creepy.”
“He sure seems like some weird type of guy,” I observed.
“You can say that again.”
Meantime we had reached our rooms. I yawned, opened the door and was held back by Bill Conolly as I was about to go in. “Didn’t anything strike you down there just now, John?”
“Something else, you mean?”
I thought. But I couldn’t for the life of me hit upon anything at all.
Bill grinned. “If you’re going to be a policeman, you’ve still got lots to learn. Above all, you must be observant. When we went into the kitchen, there were two knives missing. But Osborne only had one in her hand. So I ask you, John: what’s become of the other one?”
Damn! Bill was right. “I’ve no idea,” I replied.
“Me neither. But think about it … Good night.” He disappeared into his room.
I likewise went into my room, got undressed and threw myself onto the bed. I could scarcely sleep in the hours that followed. And when I did, my sleep was plagued by bad dreams: dreams of a woman holding a long knife in her hand, the blade of which glistened red with blood …
Over the next few days nothing happened. We didn’t catch any glimpse of the husband - not even once. I had driven over to my parents’ place, and there I had to endure all the concerned questions that issued from my mother’s solicitous lips. Naturally I did not tell her the truth. I portrayed the landlady in a light that was reassuring to my mother and which relieved her somewhat of her anxieties.
“Well, it seems that you are in pretty safe hands, my boy,” she said when the time came for me to depart, and handed me a goodie-bag full of cakes and smoked sausage. I felt like a schoolboy going on a class outing.
My parents wanted to visit me in the coming week. I looked forward to that. But to be honest I also felt a degree of apprehension. When my mother got to see the house and my room, she would surely clap her hands over her head in horror and try to persuade me to come back home immediately.
On Wednesday I had been at my parents’ place. On Sunday I wanted to drive over to them once again and take Bill Conolly with me, providing he agreed.
For the time being we were both without a steady girlfriend and had time in the evenings to hit the road. We had planned to do just that this coming Friday. Unfortunately I was held up at uni, getting embroiled in a protracted discussion, and did not get home until around 6.00 p.m. As soon as I entered the house I was struck by the fact that Mrs. Osborne was not there to greet me, as was her wont. Instead, Bill Conolly was squatting on the staircase. I pulled up sharp, in surprise. “Have you lost something on the stairs?”
“Yes. I’ve lost yesterday!” He stood up, stretched and grinned. “But what’s more to the point, I’ve been waiting all of forty minutes for you.”
“Oh, there’s no great rush, surely?” I argued. “The girls are not going to do a runner on us.”
“They won’t, but, well – go upstairs first.”
I didn’t wish to. “Why? What’s the matter?”
“No, now.” I was firm.
Bill Conolly looked at me and grinned. “Have you really not noticed anything?”
“What do you mean?”
“What - again?”
“Yes. Who greeted you?”
“Oh, right. Old Osborne isn’t here.”
I frowned. “When did she go out?”
“Not very long ago. I was just arriving back as she was getting into a taxi.”
“Did you say anything to her?”
“Of course. She told me that she would not be back until late.”
“In other words, the whole house is practically ours. We can look around undisturbed.”
“Right you are, John. And we can also keep our eyes open for this Edwin character, the master of the house.”
“Is he really here?”
“I haven’t seen him, but I’ve heard him. I told you yesterday how I’ve heard his footsteps.”
“Sure, but …”
Bill pressed his hand into the small of my back. “Go up first and get rid of your bag. And then we’ll start searching …”
“Yes, in the shower.”
“OK, I’ll grant you that!”
While I went into the bathroom, Bill waited for me in my room. The shower was a pretty primitive contraption, and I was irritated by the feeble water pressure. The walls of the bathroom were painted in a green oil paint, and the window scarcely deserved to be designated as such: it was just a hole in the wall. When I opened it, all I could see was a shaft of light between two grimy houses.
While I stood under the shower, I pondered upon our plan. It was actually madness what we intended to do – to undertake, this evening, the search of a strange boarding house, when we could better utilise our time at the commencement of the weekend with other things which would have been far more fun. But I had promised my friend that I would help him, and I didn’t want to let him down now.
After I had finished my shower I dried myself, wrapped a towel around my waist and went back into my room, where I found Bill lying on the bed.
“The second knife is still missing,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“I’ve just been down in the kitchen and taken a look.”
I pulled on my underpants. “And Osborne hasn’t locked up?”
“That’s surprising. Especially after she caught us only a few days ago. She seems very trusting.”
“Maybe she wants us to search the house.”
I was pulling a clean shirt over my head when Bill made his comment, and so I couldn’t answer immediately. “I don’t understand. Why would she want that?”
“It’s conceivable that we’re meant to find something.” Bill straightened himself up. “There’s a screw loose in the old bat.” He tapped his temple with his finger. “She’s not quite all there.”
“Oh, that’s just your prejudice.”
“Well, we’ll see.” Bill got up from the bed.
Meantime I had finished getting dressed and looked out of the window once more. The weather was fit for the weekend. In the course of the day the temperature had risen. A splendid spring evening lay before us - hours of pleasure; perhaps we could even pick up some girls …
Bill noticed my look. “If you’re not in the mood, John, I don’t want to force you to do anything …”
“A promise is a promise.” I looked at my watch. “It’ll scarcely take us more than two hours. And afterwards there’ll still be time for a little outing.”
“That’s what I was thinking, too.”
“Where shall we start?” I asked.
Bill replied, “At the bottom, and work our way up. Let’s begin in the cellar first.” I agreed to his suggestion.
It was strange: even though there was no one else in the house beside ourselves, we didn’t move around in a normal way, but trod very cautiously. It was force of habit that caused us to act in this manner, as we knew that at normal times the Osborne woman could be lurking round every corner or behind every door. But now she had vanished, and we both hoped that she would stay away long enough for our mission to succeed.
“Have you ever been down in the cellar?” I asked the future reporter.
“I’ve never had the opportunity. A few weeks ago, when the heating was still on, I asked Osborne if I might fetch up some coal from the cellar, and she got really shirty about my offer.”
“Then she’s obviously got something to hide.”
Bill had brought along a torch for safety’s sake, as we didn’t know how dark it would be down in the cellar. The steps to the nether regions lay under the regular hallway staircase. To reach them, we had to pull open a wooden door which squeaked most painfully on its hinges.
Bill felt like a “tour guide”. After all, he had lived longer in the house than I had. He paused for a moment in the rectangle of the open door, before moving his hand carefully along the whitewashed wall. I found the light switch before he did and turned it on.
The steps were made of stone. The light was just sufficient for us to discern those same steps and the film of dust which covered them. Beneath our feet we could hear the crunching of gravel as we stepped down into the depths. On the right-hand side of the wall there was a handrail, which led diagonally down into what awaited us below.
When we had reached the bottom of the steps, Bill Conolly pointed to the ground. He was indicating the dark spots which had also caught my attention and whose track led deeper into the cellar.
“That could be blood,” I whispered.
“Well, Osborne does get her meat from the cellar.”
“True,” Bill conceded. “She does.” He shrugged. “Let’s see where her refrigeration chamber is. But I can’t help wondering who eats all that meat.”
“I haven’t seen any sign of him till now.”
I pushed my hand into the small of Bill’s back. “Enough of the long lectures. Let’s get cracking.”
We did. I remained at his side, since the cellar vault was just about large enough to accommodate both of us. To our right and to our left we were hemmed in by dirty walls. Up to this point we had not seen any door. Instead, a pale lamp was shining at exactly the spot where a side passage forked off to the right. There we stopped. It was dark in that side passage. Moreover, the ceiling was low, so that we both had to duck as we proceeded in that direction. Bill fetched out his torch. Its beam fell on the wall and painted a white circle of light, fraying at the edges. When Bill moved the torch, we saw indentations in the door niches of the walls. The relevant dungeons must lie behind those – perhaps the refrigeration room too.
There were two doors which seemed likely candidates.
“What shall we do?” Bill asked. “The right door or the left door?”
“Let’s take a look behind the left door first.”
We ducked our heads and crept up to it. Bill shone his torch on the lock and suppressed a curse, with difficulty. The lock was not modern, but even old padlocks are not all that easy to crack.
“Try the other door!” I whispered.
We turned, and Bill shone the torch in the direction of the right-hand door. No lock could be seen.
“Goodness, John! The door’s open!”
“If it’s not locked from the inside.”
“How is that possible?” He looked at me in astonishment.
“Let’s see.” I pressed my hand against the planks of the door, applied some pressure and saw that the door budged, albeit not without scratching and scraping against the floor, where dust and little pieces of gravel had accumulated. The nerve-jangling scraping noise gave me goose pimples.
When the door was open a little space, I stopped and looked at Bill. “Do you think we really should go in?”
Bill nodded vigorously. “Of course, John. We can’t go back now. Are you scared?”
I pulled a face. “If I’m honest, I am a bit.”
“But there are two of us, after all.”
“OK.” I pushed the door further open, and as quietly as possible we entered the room that lay behind. It was a kind of cellar dungeon with a low ceiling. Bill Conolly pushed past me. Up until that point he had held the torch downwards, pointing at the ground, but now he raised his arm so that we could get a good look all around, at about waist height. The light from the torch flitted across all kinds of old rubbish: empty boxes, old containers, cartons, and in one corner of the cellar, right beneath a grated window, lay a veritable mountain of coal. We had both stopped in the middle of the room and now sucked in the strange air.
“Something’s not right here,” Bill asserted.
“What do you mean?”
“It smells weird.”
“Yes, like a cellar.”
Bill nodded. “That too.” Then he raised his head too abruptly and bumped it on the ceiling. “Damn! It does have the dank stink of a cellar, you’re right, but there’s something else as well that I can smell.”
Bill grabbed hold of my arm. “John, don’t think I’m an idiot or crazy or round the bend. But I’ve smelt something like this before. It was on my first operation as a volunteer …”
“Well, what is it then?!” I urged him on.
“It stinks of decay – of rotting flesh!” Bill Conolly whispered. “Damn it, John! This is just how old corpses smell.”
I took an involuntary step backwards, let out a gurgling noise and pressed the balls of my thumbs against my lips. That was a bit too much to take! Decay, corpses …
I glanced at Bill and saw how very serious and concerned he had become. “There’s no mistaking it, John. This really is how old corpses smell. I know what I’m talking about. You won’t have had the experience, but I have.”
I dropped my hands again. “If you’re right, that means that there’s a dead body in this cellar.”
Bill did not answer. He turned round and illuminated all the piled-up junk with his torch. Everything was in just too much of a muddle. We simply couldn’t make out whether a corpse was buried under all this rubbish or not. But it had to be conceded: bulky blocks of wood, laths, cartons, two suitcases – it was the perfect place for hiding a corpse.
Bill had taken a small step forward. He cast me a sideways glance over his shoulder, a glance which simultaneously had something challenging about it.
“I’m not digging through all that junk,” I said.
He grinned. “You’ll have to learn to do such things, if you want to be a policeman.”
“There’s still plenty of time for that.”
The future reporter nodded. “You’re right, John. Why should we bother our heads about all this here? Maybe I just imagined the funny smell. It’s possible.” I concurred, although inwardly I assumed otherwise and castigated myself as a coward. First we had taken the decision to search the cellar, and now we were preparing to flee like two little girls.
Bill stepped backwards in the direction of the door, holding the torch in his right hand and pointing it directly in front of us, shining its beam all around us when he found himself on the same level as myself. The bright finger of light moved across the heap of coal, and Bill was already reaching for the door handle when I heard a rolling sound. It was a soft but unmistakeable noise – just as one hears when chunks of coal roll down from the top of a coal pile to the bottom. I immediately froze. Bill noticed something too. “What is it?” he whispered. I shook my head. He understood the meaning of my gesture and also did not move.
“The coal shifted,” I said breathlessly.
“You’re mad.” Bill accompanied his words with a smile. It didn’t convince me. I was certain that I was not mistaken.
“Shine the torch there on the coal.”
“If you like.” Bill Conolly let the torch beam wander in the desired direction. The individual pieces of coal had a black, slightly oily sheen to their surface. Whether any of them had moved, we could not tell. Seconds passed. All that we could hear was our own breathing. Apart from that, there was complete silence.
“John, you’re mistaken.”
“Then go and take a look.”
I glanced at Bill. His figure stood out as a dark silhouette against the door. “OK, I will. Even if I have to shovel the coal aside with my bare hands – you can depend on it.”
“But remember - you’ve just had your shower!”
“Then I’ll have to take another one, won’t I?” I had in the meantime reached the pile of coal and stopped right in front of it. I was just about to bend over when I received the confirmation I had dreaded. At that very same moment pieces of coal at the top of the mound began to stir and roll down. At least a dozen pieces of coal slid down. That couldn’t have happened by itself. Someone must have applied pressure from beneath. I was no longer looking at the coal; I had turned my head and was looking at Bill. I noticed that he, too, was now a little frightened, and the torch was trembling in his hand.
“Do you still want to go over and look, John?”
“Of course …”
Bill raised his free hand and scratched his head. I could see that he was not feeling well. He swallowed a few times, and I asked, “Are you OK?”
“Oh, stop it, man! How can coal move by its own stupid self?”
“Not by itself.”
“Then what’s the explanation.”
“Perhaps someone’s under there.”
“Someone dead – or …?”
“Something like that.”
“You’re crazy. Since when can dead bodies move?”
“I don’t know,” I retorted. “Anyway, I’m going to take a look.” In the meantime I had decided how I would proceed. I had seen a shovel leaning against the wall, behind the door. I now fetched it. “All you have to do is shine the torch over here,” I explained to Bill, who was now coming closer and laterally pointing the torch at the mountain of coal.
I commenced my digging. Due to my vigorous movements, dust was sent whirling up into the air and veiled us in its acrid shroud. I still felt no resistance to the shovel. I tossed the coal aside onto the pile of junk. It was lucky that no one else was living in the house, as they would certainly have been disturbed by the noise. Moreover, we were both hoping that Mrs. Osborne would stay away long enough for us to complete our mission.
I had not counted the number of my shovel strokes, but I inwardly jumped when I suddenly felt resistance at the front end of the shovel blade. It wasn’t coal, for the resistance was much softer. Like that of a body …
I stopped at once. Bill, too, had noticed something and drew closer, looking at me. “Well?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “There’s something there.”
“Then dig deeper.”
I did. More carefully than at my first attempt. And in the light of the torch we saw something.
“Man! The old biddy has shoved someone in a sack!”
It took a while until I had laid the sack fully bare. It was made of jute, so that, despite the torchlight, we could not make out what was inside. It could easily have been a human body – the size was certainly right.
The sack did not move. Nothing at that moment indicated that there might be a living person inside. All was quiet – until I jumped back with a start and nearly knocked Bill Conolly off his feet. He was as shocked as me, for he had heard the sound too.
A groaning noise was issuing from the sack!
Neither of us could believe our ears. We stood rigid and transfixed, staring at each other in horror. Shudders of fright ran down our spines and spilled over onto our faces. What was being played out before our very feet was monstrous and at the same time incomprehensible. Who could be in this accursed bag?
Bill shone his torch upon the sack and trembled violently as he did so. I was the same. Like Bill, I didn’t dare touch the thing. I would have liked most of all to make an immediate exit. But I would never have admitted as much to my friend Bill Conolly, and so I stuck it out.
“We’ve got to do something, John.”
Bill was right.
“OK, I’ll open it.” Once again I bent over and was about to untie the sack, when the object inside stirred yet again, doubtless attempting to assume a different position, which was not at first possible, as the sack was too tight. And yet it managed to effect this manoeuvre, and it achieved this through the employment of a tool with which we would never in a million years have reckoned. From the bottom of the bag something began to cut through the brown sacking. Something shiny, sharp and coruscating …
The blade of a knife.
The knife that had been removed from the kitchen shelf!
At Hyde Park Mrs. Osborne got the taxi driver to stop. “I want to get out here, Mister.”
“That’s fine by me.”
Mrs. Osborne got out, paid and added a small tip to the sum, which the driver took with a bitter-sweet smile.
Mrs. Osborne looked after the taxi as it disappeared from sight. Her eyes narrowed slightly and her mouth formed a tight and hard line. Her mannequin-like face gave the impression of a mask. Her hair continued to shine an unnatural blond colour. It was backcombed as high as ever, but she had put on a change of clothing. However, her pink outfit generated the same negative impression upon the sartorial taste buds of those who saw her as did her poisonous green dress that she usually preferred to wear during the daytime.
A warm spring day was drawing to its close. Numerous Londoners were taking advantage of the fine weather and going for a stroll through the green lungs of this huge multi-million capital city. People were enjoying the warm temperature, laughing, playing, and having fun.
But not Mrs. Osborne. Her thoughts were focussed upon gruesome affairs. And at the centre of her machinations were her two new lodgers. The woman could not bear them. They were as thick as thieves together. When just Conolly lived with her, it was still tolerable; but the other one was as compatible with Conolly as a lid with its pot. Moreover, there was the whole business of the two knives. The two scamps had noticed that two of the knives were missing. Something had to be done!
She thought long and hard and forged a plan. Now it was fully formed and nothing could weaken her resolve. The die had been cast and the trial had commenced. If the two tenants behaved as she expected they would, then things would not go at all pleasantly for them. If they reacted differently, then Gilda would have been wrong in her assumptions. Also fine by her. The bait had been set, and all that was required now was that the mice should tumble into her trap.
Gilda Osborne looked at her watch. It was already some time since her departure from home. Although curiosity gnawed within her, she suppressed the feeling and gave herself plenty of time before returning to the house. Just like the other strollers, the woman visited the green lungs of Hyde Park, listened to the entertainments, the voices, the laughter, the twittering of the radios – but she only registered these things subconsciously. Her thoughts were preoccupied with quite other matters.
Sometimes people barged into her, and she gave a start; yet when she looked up, it was with blank indifference - she didn’t even notice the people who had jostled her. She moved along like a robot amidst the living. A few times people spoke to her, and a couple of men even attempted to chat her up, in more or less original ways. But she paid them no attention. She already had her husband – Edwin.
When she thought of him, her lips began to move, and she murmured the name of her husband lovingly. She stared fixedly ahead. She had slightly narrowed her eyes. Within her, a process of transformation had taken place, which also manifested itself externally.
She had come by taxi, and by taxi she would return. So she hailed a cab, got into it and told the driver where she wanted to go. She then sat like a marionette in the back of the vehicle, rigid and motionless. Her gaze was directed fixedly ahead of her, her lips formed a cruel line, and the thoughts of the woman were occupied with things that would have been at home in the mind of a criminal. She was thinking of murder, blood, death, …
London’s evening scenery rushed past. Mrs. Osborne had no eyes for it. She just kept on looking forward. Sometimes she breathed more heavily, and at such times she would stertorously suck the air in through her nose and open her clenched fists. A slight film of sweat glistened on her palms, betraying nervousness.
When the taxi turned into the street where she lived, she told the driver to stop. Gilda Osborne paid, got out and waited until the car had disappeared. She found herself on the side of the street where her house was situated. As she stepped forward, she kept herself in the shadow of the house fronts. She didn’t want to be accidentally seen by the neighbours.
At this time of day, the street was dead. Only an elderly married couple were gazing out of a window in the building opposite. Gilda Osborne moved her lips without saying a word. Her steps were studied and measured, and by the time the niche of the front door had swallowed her up, she already had the front-door key ready in her hand.
“Your last chance!” she whispered. “Your last damned chance, you two!”
Very cautiously she turned the key in the lock and listened attentively. She opened the door only sufficiently to allow herself ingress into the hallway, where she remained for a moment, breathing heavily. Gradually her racing heart calmed down. Her throat was parched, and she suddenly felt as though she were a stranger in her own home. Then she noticed the stillness that spread all over her like a sheet. Something was different about the place today. She had no concrete sense of what it was, yet felt it distinctly. She also felt a pressure bearing down upon her breast.
On tiptoe she advanced towards her flat. Once inside, she flitted through all the rooms like a ghost. Neither of the two young men was concealing themselves there.
Whenever Gilda Osborne did something, she played safe. She therefore climbed the stairs as quietly as possible and peered into the rooms of her two tenants. Empty. So: they were not there. Irresolute, Mrs. Osborne stood still. She tried to imagine herself in their position. What would she have done if she had been them? She would of course have given the whole house a thorough search. Including the cellar. It was large, and what was more, it was divided into various rooms, and represented an irresistible magnet for the inquisitive.
Osborne moved towards the staircase, carefully climbed down the stairs once more and a few seconds later arrived at the cellar door. As soon as she was there, she noticed signs of the two’s young men’s presence within.
Edwin! She immediately thought of her husband. If Sinclair and Conolly had found him, it would be all over for them. After all, they knew nothing, they were both clueless. What is it that always happens to curious cats ….?
Gilda Osborne did not think the thought to its end, but just allowed herself a cold smile. She knew every inch of that house. After all, she had lived there long enough. Like a phantom, she glided down the cellar steps. A cold smile still played about her lips. She did not make a single sound and only came to a halt when she had left the steps behind her and was standing beside a chimney whose soot vent was approximately waist high. This vent served a most special purpose. It could easily be opened. She only needed to open it halfway to reach her hand inside and lay it securely upon what she required. The dim light of the cellar fell upon the blade of an axe.
For a moment, the woman’s eyes shone, as she gazed upon the hatchet in her hand. It was fantastic. She had not used this weapon for ages, but now it would find useful employment once again. She slashed through the air with it, twice. On hearing the swhooshing sound it made, her lips twisted into a smile. She was pleased. Her arms were still lithe and serviceable. She knew how to handle the weapon - she knew how to kill.
First she would take care of her two tenants, whose voices she now heard. The secret of the house lay buried there – from where their voices had arisen. They had surely discovered her secret. Just like the others before them. But those previous ones – now Gilda Osborne smiled diabolically – they were all dead …
We could not comprehend it, simply could not believe what we saw. It was just too overwhelming for us to take in all at once. The discovery of the sack, the sound of the groaning, and then the knife blade which actually belonged in the kitchen but was now protruding from the sack and was held in someone’s hand … We had the identical suspicion, to which I gave expression:
That single word passed across my lips in a fearful whisper. I saw Bill nod. He, too, could not conceive of any other explanation.
Edwin, Gilda Osborne’s husband. Was it really him?
We simply had to look - but we dare not. The shock of this moment held us in its thrall. We both felt fear. Never before in our entire lives had we been confronted with a situation like this.
Bill and I only had eyes for the knife. It did not remain stationery. The person who was holding it, whom we could not see, was turning it over in his hand, so that this time not the flat side but the narrow edge of the blade pointed towards us. It was exceedingly sharp. All that was required was a short snip, the application of some slight pressure - and the opening in the sack would grow much larger.
It was now so wide that a hand was able to emerge! We could see nothing of the handle of the knife, since it was gripped by a yellowish-white claw. This claw-like hand held the knife tight in its clutches. There could no longer be any doubt: the man in the sack was cutting his way through the material in order to climb free!
We had to do something. It was obvious to us that something bizarre was going on here. But neither Bill nor myself had in those moments any idea what to do, and simply stood there, rooted to the spot. I couldn’t help thinking of the horror films I had seen in the past. I was reminded of all those creepy cellar scenes. But one can leave the cinema if the film gets too much for one’s nerves: here, this was no film, but reality.
The horror was real and tangible, right before us. All we needed to do was make a quick grab at it, but neither of us had the guts. Bill Conolly had turned as pale as I was. He was still holding his arm in a downward direction, so that the finger of light from the torch illuminated the sack, as well as the blade of polished steel. Bill Conolly was the first to wrench himself out of his petrified stupor. He gave me a thrust in the side and whispered, “Damn it, John, we’ve got to get out of here!”
I nodded, but could not move. Instead, the cone of light danced around furiously as Bill tried to drag me back. In the previous few seconds the blade of the knife had ceased moving. But at this point the situation changed. The hand made a lateral cut, and the knife sheared through the entire breadth of the sack.
Now it was open!
A large aperture gaped before us like an open wound. There was no longer anything that could obstruct the figure in the sack from stepping free from its incarceration.
At that moment, the door slammed shut.
I was so in thrall to the sight of the figure emerging slowly from the sack that I scarcely paid any attention to the sound and merely registered it in my subconscious - until Bill’s cry alerted me. “Damn it, John! There’s somebody outside!”
Only then did I spin round.
We both heard the scolding voice. “Yes, there is somebody outside, you damned rascals. It’s me. And now you’ll go to your graves to the sound of my laughter …”
We both knew who had spoken these words. Gilda Osborne!
I was not even surprised. To cap it all, this had to happen. We heard a key turn in the lock from outside, locking the door tightly, so that we were all alone with this uncanny creature in the cellar. I kept him under close observation, but Bill could not come to terms with the situation. He hammered furiously against the door with both fists.
“Damn it, Mrs. Osborne! Open the door! Open up, in the Devil’s name! If you don’t, you’ll immediately …”
A screeching laugh cut across his words.
“Devil you say, boy? Of course, you’ll both be shaking hands with the Devil soon enough, and you can send warm greetings to him from me, too. Do you hear, you lousy good-for-nothings!”
“Be reasonable …”
“I’ll show you how reasonable I am!” Mrs. Osborne had scarcely spoken these words when she began to act. This time it was not Bill who beat against the door, but Gilda Osborne, from the outside. And she did not use fists, like my friend. The door shook under her blows. The hammering made a dull, thudding sound. Suddenly the door timber began to split, and the next moment I had to warm Bill with a shout. “Get away from there!” The future reporter did not react so quickly and was unbelievably lucky when something shiny erupted through the wood but missed his forehead by a hand’s breadth. It was the blade of an axe! For a moment it could still be seen, and then it was pulled back, and the next blow came hammering down against the door from outside with renewed fury.
Fortunately, Bill had moved slightly to one side, so that this blow also failed to smite him. He blanched. His mouth fell open. Beads of sweat ran down his skin, and his breathing came out in sharp gasps across his lips. When another blow thundered against the door, he staggered towards me.
“Damn it, John. We’re trapped!”
“Maybe.” I turned around. He understood the significance of my movement and shone his torch on the sack. There had been a change there. The sack lay in two halves on the floor. And on the jute there squatted a figure that could only have sprung from a nightmare.
My eyes took in the creature; and yet I could not comprehend that such a thing could ever exist. This was horror of the highest order.
The figure was now holding the knife in its two hands. Its hideous features could not fairly be described any longer as a face. Its visage was lacerated, and the skin had partially peeled off. Pale bones visibly protruded, and its hair had the appearance of matted strands of filth. The being was dressed in rags - torn, dirt-encrusted fragments of clothing – and oozed out a stench that all but turned my stomach. He reeked of decay, death, and the grave. Yes, that is indeed how the dead smell. And I had one of their number immediately before me. Yet it was a dead body that was alive and capable of movement.
That was an impossibility! I swallowed several times. No! The living dead were surely the invention of over-imaginative writers and filmmakers, who had used old horror tales as the basis for their fantastical narratives. I simply could not accept what stood before me as real, and shook my head in disbelief.
Bill, too, had seen the creature. Doubtless he was as shocked as I was. He expressed his recognition in a single word, and therewith hit the bull’s-eye.
I looked at Bill. My friend’s face had assumed a hue that can only be described as pallid. I saw his goose pimples and his flickering gaze, for it was as clear to him as to me that we were caught in a perfect trap. In the cellar lurked this being from the ranks of the living dead. Outside was the crazed Osborne with her hatchet. And we had to take a stand against both of them. Surely an utter impossibility.
The cellar was alive with the sense of imminent murder. And we were the up-and-coming victims …
I suffered dreadfully at that time; I knew nothing, I had no experience. I wanted one thing only: to escape from that accursed cellar.
The room had but a single exit. The walls were smooth, and the little window had bars up to it.
The sounds of the axe had ceased, but instead we now heard the screeching voice of Gilda Osborne. “Well, you two bastards? Have you made the acquaintance of my husband yet? Has Edwin given you his greeting?”
Bill wanted to answer and had already swung around, when I put a finger to my lips. He understood my gesture and remained silent.
“Heh, you wretched rats! Answer me!” Gilda Osborne’s voice almost cracked with hatred. We gave no response. The bark of dogs is often worse than their bite. I couldn’t help thinking of the old proverb. Osborne could rant and rave as much as she wanted, I didn’t care. The pressing thing was Edwin, the zombie. He stood there and stretched his shoulders forward – a movement that was not without comic effect. Yet neither Bill nor myself were laughing. We just gazed at him and stared in particular at his hands, which were locked in claw-like fashion around the handle of the knife. He began to raise his arm.
At that same moment, I leapt to one side and grabbed hold of the shovel which I had left lying against the wall. Shovel in hand, I swung round. Bill understood my movement and jumped aside, so that he would not be struck by its blade. In this way I had adequate room.
The zombie launched itself at me. He lowered his arms and aimed diagonally at my chest. My shovel whooshed up from the side. I had initiated a powerful attack, and struck the shuffling shape of the zombie with the entire flat of the blade. Bill and I heard the sound of the impact. I had aimed at his head, so that my blow shook the attacker to the core. This put him off his stroke. His knife missed me, and with my second blow I hurled him so far backwards that he fell onto his back onto the pile of coal. Some pieces were dislodged and started to roll down, quickly covering Edwin’s body.
“Now, John!” hissed Bill, pointing to the shovel.
It was the voice of Mrs. Osborne, interrupting my plan of assault. I lowered the strike-ready shovel and turned round. This time it was Bill who raised a warning finger to his lips. It was obvious what he intended for us to do. We were to play possum and hold Osborne in a state of uncertainty. But would the plan work?
I still had not mastered my nerves. Sweat and dust had left a sticky film on my face. With Bill it was the same. Both of us were under unimaginable pressure during those moments.
“Edwin!” Once again we heard the shrill, shrieking voice of this hideous female. But Edwin did not answer. He was busy trying to get to his feet again.
I held my shovel in readiness for the attack. I was ready, willing and able to defend myself.
“Edwin, have you got rid of them yet?”
Bill and I involuntarily started when we heard the voice. No, Edwin had not killed us yet, but he was attacking again. This time he walked like a sailor on a swaying ship’s timbers – his legs wide apart and his arms extended. In his eyes there was a fixed and staring look, and this time he commenced his attack with more cunning. He did not concentrate his efforts on just one of us, but swung his right arm round in a semi-circle to catch both of us with the blade of his knife.
Gilda Osborne kept up a running commentary on his attacks. “Kill the pair! Give it to them! Cut them to ribbons!”
How could Osborne know what was going on? I mistakenly glanced round at the door. The explanation was simple. The blade of her axe had chiselled out holes in the door. Gilda Osborne was thus able to follow all the proceedings in the cellar.
A metallic sound gave me a warning, as did Bill’s simultaneous cry.
“John! The zombie!”
Edwin was standing right before me. The noise had been engendered by the blade of the knife passing across the blade of the shovel. He had come up so close, and had dropped down in order to plunge the long knife into my body. It seemed there was no escape for me.
Fortunately, Bill had witnessed what was happening. He lifted his leg and delivered a vigorous kick at the precise moment when the zombie was about to ram the knife into my body. The force of the kick knocked the undead to one side. His knife missed me, and Edwin fell crashing down amongst the junk.
I turned even more pale and stared at Bill with wide-open eyes. The saviour of my life nodded. “He nearly had you.”
“Go on, let him have it now!”
“No! No!” screamed Gilda Osborne. “You cannot kill him! Edwin is stronger than you damned bastards!” She giggled loudly and shrilly in hysterical excitement.
Bill suddenly tore the shovel from my hand. I let him do so as my nerves were pretty much frayed to bits. The trash under which the zombie was buried began to shift. Edwin was creeping out once more. In the following seconds Bill Conolly displayed the strength of his own nerves, for scarcely had Edwin shown himself than the future reporter raised up the shovel and launched himself at this undead being, not just once, but repeatedly, accompanying his blows with piercing cries. When my friend turned round, an uncanny light was burning in his eyes.
“Is he - is he …?” I asked eagerly.
Bill nodded and therewith pre-empted my incomplete question. “I hope he’s finished. And now let’s smash down the door.” Bill took up the heavy shovel and slammed its blade against the door. The wood shook under its heavy blows. It splintered, and we both heard the shrieking voice of Mrs. Osborne on the other side.
“You damned pigs, you damned bastards! Don’t imagine that you’ll get away from me. You won’t leave this cellar alive. Edwin will devour you. He will …”
Meanwhile I, too, had found a weapon: a crowbar. While Bill Conolly was hammering against the door and making the chips of wood fly, I wedged the crowbar between wall and door. It served as a lever. I required all my strength. I applied all my force and hoped that I would be able to crack the lock. In vain.
“I’m through!” The cry of triumph came from Bill Conolly. He laughed simultaneously. I ceased my labours and looked at the hole which Bill had created with his shovel. He really had succeeded in smashing in two of the door planks. Now we had our first real hole. We bashed against two different spots of the door, smashed more and more laths to pieces and heard no further sound from the Osborne woman. She had vanished.
It wasn’t long before the opening in the door was big enough for us to squeeze through. I breathed in deeply as we stood in the cellar passageway.
“Where’s Osborne?” I whispered sharply.
I was surprised. “Really?”
“Yes, I see no sign of her. God knows where she’s hiding.”
“But she’ll be back,” Bill said, drawing in his breath deeply. “Or we can track her down.”
“That’s probably best.”
He glanced at the iron crowbar in my right fist. “You’re armed too, I see.”
“But I can’t just bash her brains in,” I said softly.
“Do you think I could?”
“Then what are we going to do?”
“We’ll have to lock her in. If we can.”
“But she’s got that axe,” I added.
With that, Bill started to walk on tiptoe. I followed, half a pace behind him, and stood still as soon as he stopped. It was exactly where our passageway connected to the main corridor. We held our breaths and looked cautiously around. No sign of Mrs. Osborne. It seemed as if the ground had swallowed her up.
“Damn it,” said Bill softly. “I’m sure she’s lying in wait for us somewhere. The house is big.”
“We can’t stay here,” I said, breathily.
“Right, OK …”
Without discussing it, we both automatically turned to the left and moved towards the stairs. This time I led the vanguard. I could not see Mrs. Osborne in the hall after I had passed through the cellar door. The hall lay ahead of us, all gloom and shade. No light was burning. Meanwhile, outside it had become darker, and a pale light was being filtered through the window.
“Shall we go into her flat?” whispered Bill close to my ear, already pushing past me. Yes, that was best. How many times had I walked this way over the past few days? But never with such an oppressive feeling as I experienced now. We were surrounded by a truly ghostly stillness, and my feeling of unease intensified.
We stopped in front of the door to Osborne’s flat. Even Bill Conolly had lost a little of his resolve. But he knew there was no going back now. We had to face the reality that awaited us.
Neither of us dared to make the first move. We stood before the apartment door and stared across the threshold. The door was not shut, but nor was it wholly open, with the result that we could only see part of the flat inside.
“Is she there?” Bill breathed.
I shrugged my shoulders. If we wanted to learn more, we would have to enter. I kicked the door open. It shot back, banged against the wall, rebounded back again and was caught once more by my foot. Now the entrance hall lay freely before us. We could also see the doors to the other rooms.
The kitchen door was not shut. It was our visit to the kitchen that had first put us on the scent, and so we now wanted to take a look first of all at that room.
“I’m going into the kitchen,” I said softly. “Cover my back.”
Bill agreed, but impressed upon me that I must to be very careful.
I hesitated for a moment in front of the kitchen door. I sensed that something decisive was about to transpire.
I had a clear view.
She was there!
For the first second I thought it was a nightmare. The knives were gone. Mrs. Osborne had taken them down and had spread them out on the table in front of her. In her left hand she was holding the axe, while in her right she was playing with the longest of the blades. Her mannequin-like face was frozen into an evil grimace. Her cheeks were glowing red like the curves of a Christmas apple. Her mouth was open. Spittle lay on her lips, from which a horrid hissing sound issued, before she hurled the knife - - - at me ….
No one had ever thrown a knife at me before. It was sheer good fortune that I was not struck by the deadly blade. I simply sank to my knees. At the same instant I heard the dull thud of the knife. It penetrated into the wooden door behind me and remained transfixed there.
“John?!” I heard Bill’s questioning cry. I could make no answer, as now the Osborne woman was on the attack again. Since she had failed with the knife, she now wanted to make an attempt on my life with her axe. But she did not throw it.
Instead, she brought it crashing down above my head!
I saw the woman like a spectre looming up before me, and I suddenly remembered my weapon. I lashed out with it blindly. A clashing sound told me that I had struck the blade of the axe and had thus deflected it from its deadly descent. I heard her scream of fury close beside my left ear and hit out again. This time I caught her. I had got her on the shoulder. My next blow smashed into her hip, and she keeled over to the ground, where she writhed around for a moment – before leaping to her feet again. I should never have let things go this far, but I was simply caught off-guard. Never before had I had to use so much force.
Osborne propped herself up for a moment against the table. I calculated that she would make a grab for another knife; but I was mistaken, for she stuck with her axe, simultaneously hissing at me with the spitting sound of a cat: “Come on, little scoundrel, just you come near me! I’ll smash your damned skull in and …”
“John, get away from there!”
Suddenly Bill Conolly was on the spot. He must have noticed the condition in which I found myself. He pushed me aside, so that he could have complete freedom of manoeuvre. He lunged at the woman with the shovel, striking its side against her. Osborne intended to duck, but she was not swift enough. The edge of the shovel caught her on the head. The next moment blood could be seen glistening through her dyed-blond strands of hair, as she keeled over towards the wall and tried with much effort to support herself against it.
“You dog!” she panted. “You cursed dog!” She again seized hold of the axe. Only this time she flung the dangerous weapon at Bill. I saw the bright flash of the blade and thought Bill’s life was over. A piercing cry of horror escaped my lips, as Bill Conolly tumbled back, but luckily the axe had not embedded itself in his body.
Fortune had favoured him, for the weapon had not struck him, but the broad shovel-blade of sheet steel instead. Nevertheless the shock had thrown Bill to his knees. He swayed backwards, went even more pale than before, and saw the axe lying on the ground between him and the woman.
Osborne recovered herself more rapidly than Bill. Despite the blows which she had endured, she pushed herself forwards and slithered towards the hatchet, dragging herself on hands and knees across the floor. She propelled herself closer and ever closer to the axe.
“I’ll kill you both!” she panted and wheezed. “I did away with all the other ones. Every tenant before you. I’ll do the same with you too! I …”
That was a classic murder confession. And it was precisely those words which snatched me out of my lethargy. If I did not intervene now, she would have the whip hand over us …
I sprang forward. All that was required was one huge step for me to reach the weapon. But that was not what I desired. Literally at the last second I changed my plan.
As the woman reached out and her fingers curled around the handle of the axe, I struck. The pole whooshed down from top to bottom and hit the flood of dyed hair in the centre.
I registered the dull thud of the impact, heard a choking sound and stared at the right hand of the woman. The handle of the axe had slipped from it.
For a moment I shut my eyes tight. During those seconds I felt truly awful. Never before in my life had I been compelled to make such a decision. With horror I realised that the woman might be dead. I felt a dampness rising to my eyes. It was fear, which had somehow to give vent to itself, and I also heard a strange voice in my head, accusingly repeating, “Murderer! Murderer …!”
When I heard the footsteps, I could scarcely look up. It was Bill Conolly, who had got up from where he had lain and was now coming towards me. He stopped close to me, bent over and examined the woman. I looked away and did not react when my friend spoke to me. Only at his second call did I look down at him. Bill straightened himself up, shaking his head. “Man – have we been lucky!”
I understood and yet did not comprehend. Bill grabbed hold of me and shook me. “Come on, John! We’re in luck. She is not dead. Perhaps a severe shock to the brain, who knows. Anyhow …”
I didn’t register the rest of his words. Only one sentence resounded again and again in my head: “She is not dead”!
I had not killed her after all.
Slowly I looked up. Bill’s face was just as dirty as mine. His lips now formed into a broad and relieved smile. We had done it: we had escaped from hell, and I had ended up killing no one.
“We must leave this house and call the police at once,” Bill said.
Suddenly I felt better. The pressure had gone. We had survived; we were alive and …
A shadow loomed up in the doorway. A horrible groaning sound struck our ears, a sound such as I had never heard in my life before.
We could hardly believe it. Inwardly we did not wish to face the horrendous truth, for now the horror was commencing all over again, just when we thought it was all over.
Bill had left his mark on the monstrous figure. That was clearly visible. A normal human being would have long since expired, but not this “corpse”, who was still on his feet and wielding the knife as before.
I couldn’t register the details – the sight was simply too horrific. To designate this being as human would have been mistaken. Before us stood a veritable horror product that knew only one thing: to kill. It had followed us and was now pushing itself away from the doorframe.
“How can he be killed?” Bill Conolly cried. “Damn it, John, tell me!”
But I had no answer in those seconds. Too many thoughts were whirling around my brain. I stepped back, like my friend Bill, striking my back against the kitchen table. Here I stopped. “Out of the way!” I shouted to Bill, as I seized hold of the table and the next moment lifted it off the ground, turning it over onto its side. Bill provided me with cover.
The zombie advanced with brute force, but little brains. He wanted to slash the table out of his path with the knife. He stabbed at its top, but could not penetrate it, as the table was made of the most solid, massive wood.
I tipped it over and flung it headlong at him. As I released it, there were two successive impacts. First the table went crashing to the ground, and then I heard the dull thud that was emitted as the zombie was lifted off his feet. The table had fallen in such a way that its four legs were facing upwards and thus did not impede my field of vision. Bill had dodged to one side. He was already almost at the threshold of the door and called to me in an urgent voice to leave the house. I shook my head. Suddenly I had grown mightily stubborn. Moreover, Edwin was on the move again. He had clutched one of the table legs with his claw-like hand and was using this as a support to raise himself up to his feet. My gaze fell upon the axe. And suddenly I knew exactly what had to be done. The saving knowledge came to me of how this creature could be despatched.
“Get out, Bill,” I said in a voice that seemed foreign even to me. Bill just stared at me uncomprehendingly.
“Please, go!” I shouted.
“What about you?”
“Don’t ask questions!”
Bill Conolly must have registered the fiery resolve in my face, and felt frightened. He did indeed leave me. I heard his steps in the hallway and turned round to take up the axe. As I curled my fingers around the handle of the hatchet, my heart began to pound violently. What I intended to do was horrendous. But should I regard it as murder?
The weapon seemed to weigh several hundredweight. My right arm trembled as I held the axe firmly in my grip. I could barely lift it. But meanwhile the zombie had struggled to its feet and was standing before me, legs wide apart, albeit experiencing difficulty maintaining its balance.
I kept my gaze fixed on this living dead thing.
The zombie raised his right arm. He was now holding the knife horizontally. If he struck out, he would slash my throat.
But my arm shot up, too. The blade of the axe was equally on a level with the monster’s throat. And I was quicker than this animated corpse.
The head of the zombie was severed by my blow and fell with a heavy thud to the ground …
At some point I shut the kitchen door and went into the living room. There was a phone there. With trembling fingers I called the police. The number I dialled was that of Scotland Yard.
A rat’s tail of enquiries ensued. Bill and I were put through a veritable mill of interrogations and cross-examinations, but all this happened outside of the public gaze.
The next day specialists examined the house. They hacked down partitions and broke down the walls. They found what Osborne had been hiding – four corpses. In the case of two of them, only the bare bones remained. It turned out that these people were all on the missing persons register and had all lived at one time or another in Mrs. Gilda Osborne’s house.
The detectives scratched their heads over that one. Nothing coherent could be obtained from Gilda Osborne herself. Her mind was in a state of confusion. But she did speak of necromancy, of zombies, and of the Devil whom she had served …
Bill and I came out of the whole affair very well. My father engaged himself on our behalf, and in the end we were viewed as virtual heroes within our little circle. But that meant nothing to me. However, this time when I mentioned that I wanted to become a policeman after the completion of my studies – I met with understanding, especially from a man whom I got to know as James Powell of Scotland Yard and who gave me a two-hour interview.
Very soon afterwards I was back living with my parents again. My father later set up his own chambers, and I went on to Oxford to pursue my studies there.
My friendship with Bill Conolly never waned. He followed his own path, it is true, and I followed mine, but now and again we would meet up and swap our respective experiences. Bill was surprised when he learnt that I had studied a further subject: parapsychology.
“Do you intend to hunt out zombies in the future?” he asked me, teasingly.
“It’s possible. You know, Bill: through the experience we underwent together I’ve realised that there are phenomena out there that need an explanation. Maybe one day I can concern myself with such things.”
“That might not be such a bad idea,” the reporter conceded.
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, then I’ll always have a good story to write up!”
Neither of us at that time could see into the future. But those who are familiar with my adventures already know that all of this has since come true.
It all began with Mrs. Osborne. How it will all end, I simply do not know.