01 November 2009

Curse of the Other World, part one

Chapter One

Extract from Sarah Barclay's diary

4th May 2009 - Another night of tossing and turning, fever and a terrible pounding in my head. The illness is getting worse, and having trouble sleeping isn't helping my recovery. I hate these flare-ups and they're becoming more common. Maybe I should try the sleeping tablets the doctor prescribed? They might help me sleep, but what would help me wake up again? It's not worth it. I've probably got little enough time as it is without wasting more of it in bed. Screw the tablets, I take enough tablets already! The weather will change eventually and I'll stick it out until it does.

I've been hearing a lot of disturbing things on the radio, and local fora on the Internet. It could be nothing, but if that past has taught me anything it's that when the stakes are high you've got to cover all your bases. I'll call Peter in the morning and try to get him to come and investigate with me. I'd rather not involve any of the old guys just yet – especially Peter - but I know if there's something amiss I'll likely not spot it. I need help, and he's the closest.


Peter did not know what was worse: being woken early on his first day off in a fortnight of ten- to twelve-hour shifts; or getting stuck in traffic that turned a half hour journey into an hour-and-a-half's endurance test. He had been sitting in a hot metal box with broken air conditioning and the stench of other people's exhaust fumes for over an hour before he decided on neither. What was worst was not knowing why he was slowly baking in this snot green rental car with its crappy radio and seat moulded to fit another man's backside. Whatever Sarah wanted to show him, it had better be bloody good.

He reached over to the jacket he had tossed onto the passenger seat, and fished a handful of hard gums out of the pocket; tossing one into his mouth almost as a reflex action. He knew he should cut down on the amount of sugary snacks he ate but try as he might, he could never go more than a few days before the cravings got the better of him. He had cut out cigarettes; and after a hard battle he had even cut out alcohol, mostly anyway, but he could not cut out the occasional bag of sweets. Everyone needed their little vice, he supposed, and at least with this one he could work off the calories.

In the distance, the Cathedral dominated the horizon, a Norman giant gazing down from its plateau upon the hills and moors that had languished beneath its dominion for almost a thousand years. The streets and roads through the city twisted their way toward this monument to a faith that Peter had once held dear to his heart, but now it was simply an extravagant headstone for centuries of dead men. He snorted a dry laugh. Time was a bastard, it crept up on you and corrupted everything you cherished.

The turn-off was up ahead now, a crumbling tarmac street revealing the old cobblestones underneath. It was as if Durham still clung to its ancient past, merely covering over the remnants of the old world rather than having to part with them. The city clung to its medieval days of glory with almost obsessive fervour; terrified of embracing a future where its own importance was long gone.

Peter pulled onto the side-street and turned left into a grimy back alley, graffiti announcing to the world that “Dezza loves Jodi” and also that Dezza, whoever he was, “is a poof”. Peter wondered if the announcer had received a particularly harsh beating for that particular message. He drove on, passing three badly-scrawled “Tony”s in the same dull grey paint, and stopped outside a set of rusted metal gates. Through the gates he could see a deep blue Mini Cooper that had not moved in years. Its paint was dulled, its tyres flattening. Another symbol of a past more comforting than the modern world.

The building beyond the gates was squat and built in the post-war style, with wide, rectangular windows scraping the low, tiled roof. The ground floor had once been a newsagent and post office but was now just another vacant shop amongst many. A dull green door stood in the left-hand corner, with an intercom mounted beside it. Peter pressed the button and waited.

No answer.

He stepped back and looked up at the windows. The curtains were open, but he could see no sign of anyone inside.

'Hello?' A crackled voice came from the intercom.

'Sarah, it's me,' said Peter.

'Just a second,' said the voice.

The plastic box buzzed, the door unlocked. Peter stepped inside and climbed the staircase toward another door with peeling, yellow paint. How could Sarah stand to live in such a soulless, grotty hovel?

People change, he thought. And it has been years.

With a clunk, the yellow door opened. At first Peter did not recognise the scruffy woman that stood before him. Her short, black hair was messy, like she had only just woken up, and her skin was deathly pale. A red rash spread across her nose and cheeks, giving her a look of someone who had spent too long out in the sun, and her hazel eyes skipped left and right as she spoke.

'Thanks for coming,' she said, and smiled an uncertain smile. 'I wasn't sure if you would.'

'You said it was important,' said Peter.

She nodded and stepped back to allow him inside. 'It is. Well, I think it might be. It's worrying anyway. Come in.'

She closed the door behind him and walked down the hall to the kitchen, running her hand along the wall as a guide. He followed her.

'Can I get you a drink?' she asked. 'I think I've only got tea, or blackcurrant but there might be some coffee left.'

'Tea will be fine, thank you. What exactly is it you called me about.'

'It might be best if you sit down,' she said.

Oh God, someone's dead.

Peter pulled out a chair from the tiny kitchen table, and sat down. 'All right.'

She felt for a chair, and sat down. Peter resisted the urge to get up and help her, remembering the arguments they had once had. Her independence burned hot enough to weld with, and with his sense of guilt he had been all too eager to appear helpful.

The kettle hissed on the counter. Sarah fidgeted with cups, milk and teabags.

'It's difficult to explain,' she said. 'There's been a lot of trouble around here lately, and now people are missing. I think it's like last time, but I can't be sure.'

'What do you mean by trouble?'

'I keep an eye on the paranormal fora on the Internet and there are more sightings of strange things now. Dark figures on the hills around here. Sightings of huge black cats around Coxton. I've heard banging and scraping outside, like someone's trying to get in through the walls. Coxton's got it worst, but the Echo has been reporting more fights in town and attacks on students, too.'

'Well that could just be a sign of the times. I remember being told about all the student-bashing during the miner's strike.'

She shook her head. 'This is different. If we were talking about loudmouths and dickheads then I'd have never brought it up, but that's not what's been going on.'

Something stirred in the pit of Peter's stomach. He had an idea of what was happening, but he did not want to face it.

The kettle clicked. Sarah stood and walked to the counter. She was limping slightly, favouring her right leg, and a little unsteady on her feet.

'Are you okay?' he asked.

'I'm fine,' she replied. He wondered if the response was automatic.

She handed him a mug, and sipped at her own while leaning against the counter. If he had not known better, he would have said she was staring into space. He wondered if he should say something, but what was there to say? He had no idea what she was talking about.


The thought struck him without warning and sent a shiver down his spine. That poor young guy, barely a month into his first term at university before his parents had to take his body home. Peter had hardly known him, but he had seemed nice on the few occasions when they met.

'Why did you ask me here?' said Peter. It sounded more blunt that he had wanted.

She smirked. 'Still as forthright as ever, I see.'

'Sorry. It's just that I'm tired. I've been pulling long shifts to cope with this virus thing that's going 'round. People are dropping like flies left, right and centre and we're understaffed again.'

'It's okay. There's no need to apologise.'

'So why did you call?'

She sighed, looked down at her cup. He wondered whether she could see it or not. Sometimes she seemed to be able to see a few things if they were up close and in a good light, other times she seemed to be totally blind. He remembered a time when he had asked her about how much of her sight she had left, and remembered even more strongly how she had told him to drop the subject. He would have done the same in her situation. Being pestered by a curious, drunk man sprawled on your sofa was not going to make anyone open up.

'I think it's back,' she said. Her voice had lost all its usual strength and confidence. 'When the news mentioned squatters at an old hotel all disappearing, I had a horrible feeling that we've seen this all before. But I can't be sure, you know? Not now, anyway. I need someone to come with me to investigate the hotel. Someone who can remember the things we saw.'

Peter remembered all too well. The years had lightened the load a little, but there was no softening of the blow when the memories surfaced. Had he not thought about this himself? There had been more odd people on the streets of Newcastle but he had put it down to working too hard. Stress could do that to a person, after all.

'It could be nothing,' said Peter, but now he was not sure he believed it himself. 'It wouldn't be the first time that you've gone chasing monsters that don't exist.'

'I'm not young and stupid any more, Peter. I can tell the difference between a real problem and someone wanting their name in the papers. There's something happening, and I need your help to look into it.'

Now it was Peter's turn to be silent. It had been eight years. He had almost convinced himself that everything they went though had happened to someone else. Why now? He had just started to get his life back together!

Please God, don't shit on me again.

But God was not listening. He knew that for certain, now. In the pit of his stomach, he knew it like it was written in stone for all to see. And he knew she was right just as much. But how? He could not tell. There was a nagging feeling in the back of his mind, but nothing solid. Was that what made Sarah look for a link to all these events? On their own, they seemed less than conclusive but together? It certainly needed looking in to, even if he did it just to settle his own fears.

'Why me?' he found himself asking. 'Why not one of the others?'

'You were closest,' Sarah replied. She looked over at him, not quite focussing on him but getting close enough. 'I needed someone who could come quickly and you were the only one in the area. Sorry.'

He nodded slowly. Death by choice of housing. He knew he should have gone back to Nottingham after university.

'Will you help me?' she asked.

He snorted a hollow laugh that seemed to stick in his throat. 'Do I have a choice? If you're right, we're all in this together whether we like it or not. That was the promise, remember?'

'That was a long time ago,' she said, pausing to sip her tea. 'People change. Old promises don't always feel so binding after nearly ten years.'

Peter shook his head slowly, gazing at the mug cupped in his hands.

'Not this one,' he said.

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