Silicon Fiction

July 29, 2007

Mr. Boots

Filed under: Horror,Short Stories — Chris Neal @ 6:45 pm

What began as a light drizzle from the darkening sky above Edinburgh’s Old Town now grew into a spiteful shower. Pedestrians along Cowgate quickened their steps or ducked for cover into shop doorways and cafés. In one such café, two young men faced each other in its warm yellowish light, chatting amiably over their cappuccinos… or so it seemed.

Dirk gripped Timothy’s scrawny wrist and pulled him closer.

“You will do it!” he hissed under his breath, his eyes darting around the other tables.

“Ow! Let go! You’re hurting me!” whined Timothy.

“I’ll do more than that if you don’t stick to the plan you little weed!” said Dirk.

“I don’t like it, that’s all.”

“Nonsense, you’ll be fine. Besides, it’s not like there’s no lights down there. Just think of the money!”

They got up to leave. Timothy looked up at Dirk towering over him and knew there was no point continuing the discussion. Dirk would win; he always did.

‘The Money’ would probably amount to no more than thirty pounds per night between them, but to a couple of first-year university students it would make a world of difference.

They left the café and headed up the hill to the market square just off The Royal Mile, the glistening cobbled streets mirroring the lights of the city. Timothy toddled along behind Dirk’s flapping cape like a duckling following its mother. He felt a long way from home but cheered himself up by humming his favourite hymn — All Things Bright And Beautiful, though under his breath for fear of Dirk belittling him about it again. He felt safe under Dirk’s wing. He knew that such protection would have a price tag, and he was about to make the first instalment. So what if he allowed himself to be used by Dirk? It wouldn’t be the first time a security blanket had cost him his self respect.

They stopped in a side street at a small, heavy-looking wooden door in between two shops.

“Right, you know what to do, don’t you Timmy?” Dirk produced a large black key from under his cape and rattled it in the lock.

Timothy’s face paled and he instinctively took a step back. The door creaked open and he saw the dark, damp stairwell.

It’s dark down there. My hand is shaking so much I can’t hold the candle steady.
“Go on Timmy, don’t be a cissy! We’ve all done it, haven’t we lads?”
Some mumbled confirmations more authoritative than others, but they all supply one.
“Come on, you know the rules. There’s no getting out of it so you might as well get down there and get it over with.”

“Please Dirk, I don’t want to be down there on my own!”

“Oh, stop moaning!” said Dirk. “The first night’s bound to be the worst. After that it’ll get easier, you’ll see.”

Pushed through the door, take a few steps down, have to hold my cassock up with my other hand so I don’t trip.
“Right, we’ll let you out in ten minutes.”
Why are they giggling? The door slams and I’m alone.

Timothy frowned, and with a shrug stepped into the narrow passage that led to the first step. A dusty daisy chain of naked electric bulbs tacked to the left-hand wall cast a dirty yellow light down the winding stairs, disappearing around the first corner after a few feet.

“You left the lights on.” said Timothy.

“No, they’re on a timer. They come on at seven and go off again at midnight.” Dirk grinned and added, “One less thing to remember.”

They descended the stairway together, footsteps echoing loudly. The bottom was blocked by a black wrought iron grille. Dirk unlocked the new brass padlock and the grille swung open with a creak.

“Why the grille?” asked Timothy, stepping through.

“It was here when the vaults were re-discovered. God knows why they built it in the first place. Probably to keep the scum who lived down here out of sight.” Dirk swung the grille noisily shut from the stair side. “Right, see you in about an hour then.” His right hand reached for the padlock.

“You’re… not going to lock that too are you?” Timothy asked, bony fingers gripping the bars, now imprisoned. “With the top door locked it’s not like I can go anywhere!”

“You don’t get it do you?” said Dirk. “It’s all part of the build-up. The locked grille will spook them, then when you add your ‘sound effects’ to my stories they’ll be so scared the tips will come rolling in.”

Dirk snapped the padlock shut before Timothy could reply.

“OK. I’ve left the props where we agreed. I suggest you get practising and I’ll see you later.”

Dirk bounded up the stairs two at a time, cape billowing in his wake. Timothy heard the muffled sound of the top door thudding shut, followed by the key’s metallic echo, then silence. All he could hear now was his own heart thumping in his chest. He looked at his watch. It was eight fifty-five. The tour would start at nine o’clock; his part would come at ten.

Musty darkness, damp brick surrounds me. The candle’s flickering light sends monstrous shadows dancing down the walls. I move further into the crypt, staying at the centre of the candle’s tent of light. How long did they say? Ten minutes. How long have I been down here?

***

The night before, Timothy had attended the tour at Dirk’s suggestion to familiarise himself with the experience. He sneaked in at the back of the group of tourists waiting by the cross in the market square outside St. Giles’ Cathedral. The tourists regarded each other tentatively, as the tune Scotland The Brave wafted down the Mile from a kilted piper doing a little busking further up. After a couple of minutes Dirk appeared and strode up the three steps of the ancient stone monument. At the top he paused, then turned with a swirl of his cape to address the audience.

“Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to the Ghosts & Ghouls Tour. My name is Dirk and I will be your guide this evening. Come with me as I show you some of the more sinister landmarks of The Royal Mile, and I will tell you of Edinburgh’s bloody past, with enough murders, executions, and torture to satisfy even the most bloodthirsty mob!”
The audience of about thirty-five looked about at each other and some laughed self-consciously.

“For the final part of the tour I will take you down, underground to the infamous South Bridge Vaults, the most haunted place in the United Kingdom. There you will hear of the lost souls who still wander the corridors to this day.”

The party set off and Timothy stayed in the background, listening as Dirk told horror stories of 18th century Edinburgh. He admired Dirk’s ability to hold the crowd transfixed with his rich, brown theatrical voice, imposing cloaked frame and dark, twinkling eyes. They spent an hour walking from one ancient landmark to the next, then finally reached the small entrance to the vaults. Timothy took a deep breath and followed the group inside, more afraid of Dirk’s wrath than any lurking spectre.

Dirk led the group down the long, winding flight of stone stairs and along a dimly-lit narrow passageway, from which a network of interconnected rooms fanned out. Mouldy, damp brick arched up from the dirt floor on all sides to meet in ceilings he could have touched with an extended arm, but didn’t want to. Deeper in, the lights became further spaced apart until the gloom prevented them from seeing further than the far wall of the room they were in. When he got to one of the larger rooms, Dirk walked across, then stopped in the open doorway on the far side and turned to face his audience. The flickering flame from the thick white candle he held in his upturned hands cast an eerie glow on his face, and the ghost stories began. The most chilling story was that of ‘Mr. Boots’ – a vicious murderer by the name of Robert Douglas who stalked Old Town in the 1750’s, preying on gullible rich visitors. He would befriend them at The World’s End Inn and, over a few drinks, would get them to reveal their particular vice. Whether it was girls, drugs, or worse, Mr. Boots would, by coincidence, happen to have that very diversion on offer ‘not far from here’. They would follow him into the vaults, where he would dispatch them by cutting out their tongues while they were still alive to muffle their screams, then cutting off their ears and stuffing them into the now-spacious mouth, before finally slitting their throats and making off with their valuables. Dirk told how the ghost earned his nickname by clomping noisily around the vaults, muttering and swearing to himself. Some of the tourists shuffled uncomfortably and looked around them, and one even reported feeling something brush against her leg. Timothy edged further back, his breath shortening, the oppressive atmosphere of the vaults closing in on him.

That was yesterday and in company. Now Timothy was alone in the vaults, and the cold, smothering feeling was far worse.

Where are they? Must be an hour at least by now. What was that? A clanking sound, in the shadows behind me. Who’s there? I run back up to the door, banging and screaming let me out, but I know they’ve all gone and left me. I sing to myself…

All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all

The Choirmaster had said that in all his years at St. Mary’s he’d never heard the first verse sung quite so angelically. The other boys had sneered and sniggered.

His eyes scanned the dark archways to left and right of the passage now leading away from him, echoes of last night’s Mr. Boots story bouncing off the walls and flying at him like bloodthirsty bats.

Hours in that black tomb alone. Cold, afraid. Then the voices begin. Months later Dr. McKenzie would tell me they were all in my head, that I’d imagined companions to share and thus dilute my dread. What does he know? He wasn’t there! He didn’t hear them!

Timothy told himself not to worry: Dirk would be back soon and then things would be OK. He crept down to the end of the short passage and found the props in the smallest alcove on the left, just where Dirk had said they would be. An old cricket bat leaned against the mouldy wall and next to it on the floor were a length of chain, an empty milk bottle and a six-inch nail. He started to imagine what deliciously terrifying percussion he’d be able to make, hidden in a dark corner with this equipment. Tonight’s group would truly believe that Mr. Boots still prowls the vaults! He picked up the cricket bat and, holding it vertically in his left hand, pounded the dirt floor. The end of the bat gave a muted thud that echoed dully round the cells and passageways. Mr. Boots’ footsteps! thought Timothy. He limited his practice to that one experiment, not wanting to advertise his presence here more than necessary before the others came, though to whom or what he could not say.

He checked his watch – 9.45. He finished inspecting the bat and had just returned it to its resting place when there was a soft, dull thud from the other end of the passage.
Timothy span around, searching the gloom for the source. “Who’s there? Dirk, is that you?” On realising his blunder he gasped and brought his hands to his mouth. Maybe Dirk had come back early, but if he had he’d have brought the tour group with him and Timothy’s outburst would have given the game away. He listened for several seconds for any further evidence of Dirk’s early return but heard nothing. He swore inwardly. If he wanted to impress Dirk he’d need to exercise much better self-control, despite the surroundings and the memories they invoked. He returned to the small alcove and sat down next to the props with his back against the far wall, and waited. Ten o’clock came and went, and by 10.15 he was starting to get really worried. Where the hell is he? The tour timings are pretty tight, he shouldn’t be this late. Timothy held the cricket bat in front of him, it’s other end resting on the ground, and span it slowly round by the handle, gazing absently through its revolving sides.

10.30: Timothy was at the grille, ear pressed to the iron, fingers gripping the bars. Still no sound from above, no sign of the group approaching, no sign of getting out.
He returned to the small alcove and tried to take his mind off his predicament by focusing on ordinary things. His first idea was to list his ten favourite pubs in Edinburgh but that quickly departed on a train of thought whose line ended with a jolt at a Friday night two months earlier. A group of louts on a pub crawl had spotted Timothy nursing his pint of Guinness in a corner and immediately decided he was “too weedy to live”. His relative sobriety had made the crucial difference in the ensuing chase up a cobbled hill, and he had lived to tell another tale, but it ruined any chance he had of having a favourite pub here. He thought about how the university campus ought to feel like a safe haven in the middle of the city, but even universities have their bullies and, although smaller in number and less voracious in appetite — sating themselves on a withering look or a sarcastic comment — their barbs were no less sharp than the kicks and punches he grew up on. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” — Bullshit.

11.20. Another dull thud broke the silence, the echoes camouflaging its origin. “Shit!” thought Timothy, “What the hell was that?” He got onto all fours and crawled to the alcove’s entrance. He peered to the right, down the passageway that ended at the iron grille. Nothing.

Thud.

Louder this time but still impossible to place.

“Who’s there?” Any commitment to playing Dirk’s game had left him and he just wanted out. Now. “This isn’t funny! Come out Dirk!” He crawled into the passage, eyes straining through the gloom for any movement. It couldn’t be Dirk and yet it must be Dirk. How could he have gotten back in without Timothy hearing? Another entrance perhaps? If not Dirk then who?

Thud, thud. Two heavy footsteps. Unmistakable.

“Oh my God, who is that?” yelled Timothy, tears starting to well in his eyes. “Whoever you are you’ve had your joke so just pack it in now! My friend will be back any minute and you don’t want to mess with him, believe me!” He got to his feet and edged further down the passage, past arched entrances to larger, darker vaults on both sides.

Thud.

This time it was definitely from the cell to his right and sounded only a few feet away. Timothy turned to face the cell and reeled backwards into the room opposite. He could still see nothing but he began to feel another presence. He was not alone down here. The room he was in connected with several others and he sprawled into the labyrinth to get away, trying to keep his bearings relative to the central passageway. Each vault looked like the last in this light and this was not a good time to be getting lost.

Thud, thud, thud, thud.

He’s coming after me! Timothy’s mind raced as fast as his feet, searching for a safe hiding place. Twice he thumped his shoulder against the brickwork as he dashed from one room to the next, desperate to get away from his pursuer. He ran and ran, and eventually found himself reaching the main passageway again. He darted for the small alcove and hid there, his thin body rolled up into a ball, and rocked back and forth while singing to himself in a voice no louder than a whisper:

All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all

He stopped and listened to the silence. Nothing. Gingerly he crawled out of the alcove and stood up. Still nothing. He started down the passageway, every cell in his body trying to help his ears, but the silence was total.

THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD

“Oh Jesus help me!” yelled Timothy and set off down the passageway as fast as he could, the heavy footsteps beating out a rhythm behind him. He clattered into the iron grille and turned with a look of sheer terror on his face. The cathedral clock far above struck midnight and the vaults were plunged into darkness.

***

Timothy’s welfare was only the second thing Dirk thought about as he emerged from the police station at 6am the next morning. His first thought was how much nicer Edinburgh would be as a place to live if only it could get rid of its alcohol culture. The Ghouls and Ghosts Tour was just one of many attempts to carry over Edinburgh’s historic, classical daytime persona to the hours of darkness, trying to mix a little history lesson with some scary movie theatrics to appeal to the widest audience. But the young, tattooed, shouting, binge-drinking underclass of the city came out in force after dark, reclaiming the cobbled streets for their own vulgar amusement and casting a threatening shadow over those who would venture out at night in search of anything more highbrow than a large whisky. It was one such group – a stag party from Leith – that had ruined the tour and caused Dirk to spend the whole night with the police. He had just been released having finally satisfied the inspector that he and his tour group were innocently going about their business and that it was the stag party that started the trouble. The inspector never really doubted this of course, but there had been a fatality so it was vital to have the facts spelled out from every angle. The group of men had begun taunting the tour group and jostling them. A scuffle ensued, during which one of the “stags” had made a grab for the camera of a German tourist, was pushed back, stumbled into the road and was killed by a passing bus. An accidental death, and now a fully written-up one. Dirk had kept Timothy and ‘the plan’ quiet during his interview and subsequent statements. A few times during the night he’d thought of Timothy stuck in the vaults, and felt sorry for him, but not sorry enough to put himself in trouble.

Now it was all over and Dirk hurried back to the vaults to release his diminutive partner. What state would he be in after a whole night in that dark deserted place? Dirk then remembered the timer switch and doubled his pace. God, in pitch darkness too! He reached the door and had it open in seconds, took a small aluminium torch from the pocket of his cape and started down the steps.

“Timmy?” The walls threw the sound of his voice back at him. “Timmy where are you?”
No response. Dirk reached the grille at the bottom of the steps and waited, shining the torch’s beam through the gaps in the ironwork. “Timmy, It’s me. You OK? You won’t believe the night I’ve had!”

Still the only reply was his own echo. He fumbled with the lock and swung the grille open, and took two steps into the passage. “Timmy! Come on, this isn’t funny. I know you must’ve had a bad time down here but it couldn’t be helped. Let’s go home to freshen up, then I’ll take you out for lunch and a few beers.”

There was a muffled scraping sound from up ahead, too far for the little torch’s beam to reach.

“For Christ’s sake Timmy knock it off!” Dirk was getting angry now. Sure he owed the little shit for locking him down here all night but it was an accident. Timothy had better end this game soon or Dirk would have to get nasty. He walked down the passage towards the source of the sound, fanning the torch beam to left and right. As he drew level with the first large cell to the right of the passage he saw a flash of dull yellow, as the torchlight caught the willow of the cricket bat in its rapid, violent arc from the dark of the cell to his forehead, then CRACK! and everything went black.

Dirk’s first sensations on regaining consciousness were a severe throbbing pain from the blow to his head, and the feeling of something strange in his mouth. He looked around the cell. The lights were back on, indicating that it was now evening, 7pm at the earliest. He realised that he must have been unconscious for hours. He began the slow, fuzzy process of mentally checking out the rest of his body for injuries or other intrusions. His hands were tied to two iron rings set into the wall with the chain he’d provided and he had been hanging there, in his unconscious state, unable to stand and too high to kneel on the ground. Now he stood up to relieve his wrists from their burden and felt bolts of sharp pain shoot down both his arms. He tried to cry out to Timothy but couldn’t make much of a sound. He realised two things about his mouth: there was a cloth stuffed into it – a handkerchief perhaps, and it was also the source of more pain – a heavy, oppressive pain that seemed to spread from the back of his mouth down into his core. A drop of water fell onto his forehead from above and he looked up to see where it had come from. But it was not water. It was blood. Two feet above his head he saw his tongue, pinned to the wall through its centre by the six inch nail, it’s cut, ragged end dripping his own blood on him. He tried to scream but all he could manage was a weak guttural moan. He slumped and began to cry. What the hell was happening to him? Who had done this? Couldn’t possibly be Timothy, he was afraid of his own weedy shadow. But he knew there was no-one else down here. Dirk’s body flinched at the sound of footsteps coming down the passage, the chains rattling as he struggled against them. Around the corner and into the room crept Timothy, in as sorry a state as Dirk had ever seen him. His hair was messed up and full of cobwebs, his hands calloused and bloodstained, and there was a dark stain down the front of his trousers to explain the smell of stale urine.

“H-hello Dirk.” said Timothy shyly, avoiding eye contact.

Dirk tried to reply: yell, scream, shout, anything. But of course he couldn’t, so Timothy continued.

“That was a very bad thing you did last night, leaving me down here. I was so afraid. You see, it’s happened to me before, when I was a boy, and people got hurt that time too. Dr. McKenzie told me never to go near underground enclosed places like this, but I wanted to be your friend, I wanted you to like me and be impressed, and I thought I could trust you and it would be alright…. But it wasn’t alright. You left me here. All night. In the dark. I think I would have gone mad if Mr. Boots hadn’t kept me company.”

Dirk’s head snapped up at this, and he shot a wild stare at Timothy, who now met his eyes for the first time.

“Yes, I met old Mr. Boots last night. I was scared of him at first but then he started talking and I felt better. We talked about lots of things: uni, Mum & Dad, that time in the church crypt, and we talked about you. About how you never liked me and were just using me to make some money. And about how you could do such a ghastly, hateful thing to me. Mr. Boots said you must be punished, so he did this to you.”

Dirk’s mind was racing, trying to absorb the impact of Timothy’s words over the din of pain. What the hell was he talking about? Mr. Boots died hundreds of years ago – if he even existed at all. It was just a story, a story for the tourists.

Timothy straightened and looked Dirk in the eye. “And now I’m afraid I must say goodbye. Mr. Boots says it we must finish our work here, otherwise we won’t be ready in time. I’ll go and get him.” And with that, he tottered out of the room and turned left into the passage. There was a pause of about ten seconds, but to Dirk it seemed like an hour, then he heard it.

THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD

Whatever it was, it was running down the passage towards the room, gaining speed and volume with each clomping step. A figure ran into the room, wild-eyed and holding its left arm high above its head. Dirk immediately recognized Timothy’s body, but this was not Timothy. Whatever it was it had a maniacal energy, a hunger even, and as it leapt towards him from the middle of the room it gave out a scream, and Dirk, for an instant, marvelled at the agility and power of this body that he had dismissed as being good for nothing. But then he followed the flying shape of the body up to the left arm, to the gripping hand, and saw, glinting in the dim light, a long shard of glass which once belonged to a milk bottle. Then the creature was on him and, while he continued to feel sensations – breath on him, pulling, cutting, warm wetness – he felt no further pain.

Timothy checked his watch and straightened his hair, while perusing Mr. Boots’ work. Dirk’s body was a bloody mess hanging from the wall. The tongue was still pinned to the wall above his head, and his ears had been severed and stuffed into his mouth. His white shirt was dyed a dark red from his lifeblood, the cascade from the slit in his throat now slowed to a trickle. Timothy donned the cape and set off down the passage. It was several sizes too big for him and dragged along the floor behind as he walked. Tonight’s group would get a tour they would never forget.

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