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The Short Story Project ~ A Story

First published: Thursday, September 10th, 2009
3,890 words ~ spooky scale: ••••• 13+

His Only Friend

“This your first stiff, son?” said the elder Police Inspector to his colleague, clapping him on the shoulder as he spoke.

“Nah!”

The other retched, moving to the side with a jerky movement, his hand over his mouth and nose.

“Look, if you’re gonna puke… Not on the Scene, right?”

The Inspector kept his hands firmly on the other’s upper arm, and lead him out of the room, out of the flat, and into the stairwell. Graffiti, tags and scribbles bawled down from the cracked, damp and dirty walls and ceilings. They seated themselves on the steps, on a smattering of abandoned free news sheets and fly bills and junk mail, facing the padlocked lift doors as the younger of the two took deep breaths, his head between his knees.

“I’m… I’m better now,” he breathed. He looked sheepish, embarrassed like a school kid caught at fault by the teacher. “God, I never imagined…”

“Yeah, they can get quite pungent when they’ve been stewing like that for a few days. ‘Specially when it gets a bit warm. Like now. Of course, that’s how we finds them. The neighbours get a whiff, and then they suddenly remember they haven’t seen ole Whatsisname for three weeks…” He looked over the stairwell, the light seeping in here with the heat and the smell. No lights here. The switches were smashed or hanging loose. He eyed the broken railings. Probably half a dozen health and safety regulations were being flaunted right here under their noses.

The other tugged at his collar, pulling the top button open. “And the smell. It doesn’t get to you?” he asked, red-faced.

The older Inspector slipped a hand into a greasy pocket and pulled out a small pot. “Vicks,” he said. “Rub a bit just under your nostrils. Burns a bit, but kills the stink.” He chuckled. “You’ll learn.”

The sound of boots echoed up the stairwell, following by a Constable, sweating under his cap and uniform and yellow jacket.

“You must be the lucky fellow who called us in,” said the Inspector standing up. “DI Todd Turner.” He flashed a warrant card. “And he’s DS Price.” He indicated the other man still down on the steps. The squatting man nodded.

“Constable Burns,” said the uniformed man. “Sorry, I wasn’t up here. Just had to go get some fresh air, y’know.”

Nobody shook hands, the detectives were wearing latex gloves.

“Well, it’s not like he’s going anywhere fast is it?” said Turner.

“Even so…” said the other. He knew he really should have stayed outside the room to preserve what was considered a crime scene until further notice.

“Forget it,” said the Inspector. “We’re gonna need some air too soon, or someone’ll be bringing oxygen tanks up all these stairs…” He waved his hand, and then took a small notebook from an inside pocket. “It was you who opened the door?”

“To the bedroom, yes,” said the Constable. “For the flat, the littl’un answered when I knocked.” He jerked his thumb towards the room. Through the door, they could see a spindly child hunched over a low table, busy writing or drawing with a bright yellow ballpoint.

“You didn’t get him out?” DI Todd wanted to know.

“He won’t budge. Doesn’t seem to hear you,” said the other. “Waiting for Social Services to come and see whether they can get through to him. Seems they already know him.”

“You should warn ‘em first if you have to bring them up here. ‘Bout the smell.” He scribbled in the notepad. “And the deceased?”

“Probably the father. They lived alone here. That’s about all I’ve got out of the neighbours for the moment.”

“And he’s been living with this stench all this time? He must have known something was up, no?”

“Don’t ask me,” said the Constable. “But I can tell you that the room was locked from the inside. A Yale lock. Curious choice for a bedroom, innit? The key’s still in place. Didn’t touch anything, right.”

He had kicked the door open, splintering the frame and destroying whatever evidence might have been there. But it was understandable. Only human. From the smell when you got inside the flat you expected to find half a dozen bodies behind the door.

“But it’s the kid’s room, no?” asked DS Price. He vaguely remembered seeing brightly coloured posters on the walls, through the haze that had formed in front of his eyes. “So why was he in there? You don’t think the kid… He couldn’t, could he?”

All three looked at each other, then at the kneeling child absorbed in his activities. No, it didn’t seem possible.

The radio hanging from Constable Burns shoulder hissed with a noise like a deep sighing. He lifted it towards his ear.

“Mr B, there’s a woman from Social Services—” A crackle interrupted the message, “— I’m sending her up. Over.”

The Constable looked at the DI who nodded back.

“OK Pete, send her on up.” He went to drop the radio into place, then pulled it back towards his mouth. “Oh, and Pete. Don’t forget to warn her about the stink.”

“Will do, Mr B. Pathologist just arriving too. Maybe someone can give her a mask. Out.”

“C’mon son,” said DI Turner, turning to the Detective Sergeant. “Think you can pull yourself together long enough for another dekko before we get thrown out?”

The younger man nodded, stood and brushed down the back of his trousers.

DI Turner replaced his notebook in his jacket, then slipped a hand into a pocket and dropped the small tub of Vicks into DS Price’s hands.

“That’ll help a bit,” he said. Seeing the Constable staring he added. “Tricks of the trade, PC Burns. First thing you’ll need if you ever plump for CID…”

Back inside the flat, a handkerchief over his nose, DI Turner stopped to look around. First impressions. Don’t stop to think. Just let your mind wander round the place and take things in.

A couple of armchairs, a sofa with a pillow and a folded blanket stacked at the end, a buffet against the wall and few cardboard boxes stacked against the wall, the low table where the kid was busy scribbling…

The armchairs didn’t match, but it wasn’t your usual disposable junk, more probably second-hand. But what was missing? A woman’s touch, he thought. Thinking of home and the ridiculous souvenirs and odds and ends his wife was always lining up on the dresser and shelves in the kitchen. Things plunked around the place ‘to decorate’.

Now he was looking for things that weren’t there, he saw things differently: no telly for a start. Most living rooms seemed to be built around the idiot box, but here there was nothing. The chairs circled the table, there was no obvious place were a TV would fit in. It was unusual, he thought, but about the only legal way to get out of paying the license fee.

No pictures, no photos. That was another thing missing. Woman were always wanting to put up pictures and framed photos of Aunty Whatnot.

So no telly, no ornaments, no pictures. No wife or mum or girlfriend then. Father and son lived here alone. He’d check the bathroom later to be absolutely sure. Bathrooms were always a giveaway.

He looked around again. What else was he missing?

No bookcase. No books. Not even the phonebook as far as he could see. No magazines.

In fact, no reading matter except the newspaper that the kid was scribbling on.

He walked over to the table and looked at the small kid. The boy looked up briefly, eyes flashing. For a moment he got the image of some small wild animal, cornered. Then the boy resumed his scribbles. He was slowly filling the border at the bottom of the page with loops and zigzags, like smoke circling. Looking at the discarded sheets on the floor and the table, it appeared he stopped once he’d completely filled this area, and moved on to the next page. It obviously kept him occupied…

DI Turner wondered if he should open the window that looked out over the Estate, but forensics would only complain. He sniffed. His nostrils still burned a little.

He crouched down opposite the boy, studying him. He noticed that he blinked incessantly as he concentrated on his drawing, his scribbling. And only at the bottom of the pages.

Was this some disorder? Some obsession? Some way of dealing with the corpse in the next room?

He realised that the boy was blocking him out too. He’d lost the initiative. He should have started speaking before coming down to the kid’s level. Outfoxed by a — how old was he? Can’t be more than eight or nine. Now it was going to be more difficult to ask questions…

“You alright, son?” he asked, gently but firmly. “You’ve been fending for yourself for a while now, haven’t you?”

That was true. Had someone been been caring for him? Did someone else know about the death? The kid’s clothes looked reasonably clean, not like he’d been wearing them for weeks on end.

“Is that your Dad in there?” he asked. “How long has he been in the bedroom like that?”

The boy stopped, looked across the table at him, still blinking.

“Me Dad’s in me bedroom,” he said flatly. He tapped the ballpoint on the paper, three staccato beats. Then bent his head back to the paper and his colouring.

“How long has he been in there?” he insisted a little.

The boy stopped and blinked.

“He ain’t coming out.”

“We’ll be taking him away.” He paused. “To the hospital,” he added. A white lie, he hoped.

“Nah. He’s gone. He ain’t coming back.”

Tread carefully.

“Can you tell me why that is?”

The boy stopped scribbling and started rocking on his heels, forwards and backwards. He said nothing.

“Why is your father in the bedroom son?”

“Shut your mouth, right!” the boy shouted. “Only babies are scared of the dark! Shut your snivelling or I’ll give you something to cry about, I will!” His face was red, his eyes bulged out. At least, he’d stopped blinking. “Let up will ya! Let me get some sleep!” He started blinking and swaying again. “Me Dad’s asleep in me bedroom…” And he gave a short dry laugh, like a hiccough.

“OK, kid,” said DI Turner, getting up. “It’ll all be alright.”

He had put out a hand to tap the boy on the shoulder, but he was scribbling again, obliviously, lost in his own world.

At the door, the uniformed Constable coughed. He was standing in the doorway, next to a red-headed woman in a lime green trouser suit. She was screwing her face up against the stench. DI Turner walked over.

“Ms Fields,” the Constable said. “Social Services.”

DI Turner nodded and held his gloved hands wide.

“Can’t really shake hands,” he said. “Not with these things on.”

“I told her she’d probably have to wait outside,” the Constable volunteered. “Until the pathologist has finished, and maybe SOCO too.”

“Right,” he acknowledged. Then turning to the woman. “That was quick, wasn’t it?”

“I wasn’t far,” she said. “And besides, we already know Terry…”

She wrinkled her nose as she spoke.

He ushered them out of the doorway, and, he hoped, out of earshot.

“That’s the kid, I’m taking it?”

She nodded.

“How much can you tell me?” he asked.

“Just the basics. Sorry,” she gave a half smile. “Confidentiality and everything. You know how it goes…”

He nodded. Papers would have to be sent. Through the correct channels. And then they’d still probably refuse to say anything. To protect the kid.

“What age would you give Terry, Inspector? It is Inspector, isn’t it?” she started.

“Sorry, Ms Fields,” he said. “Detective Inspector Turner. Todd Turner. And to answer your question… He looks about eight, perhaps nine? But—” He held up a finger. “If you’re asking the question, then that’s probably not the right answer. Am I on the right track? So, ten perhaps?”

“You are on the right track,” she said with that curious half smile again. “He’s nearly thirteen.”

DI Turner let out a low sigh. Then repeated it as he inhaled. He coughed.

“The smell’s not bothering you?” he asked.

“A little,” she admitted. She reached into the bag she had over her shoulder. “Your colleague said to return this to you.” She handed over the small tub of Vicks rub. “And it does help. Thanks,” she added.

“So what can you tell me about Terry then?” said the Inspector.

“Oh yes. Just what you could find out by asking around, I suppose… Abusive father, I’m afraid. And no one else to look after him. He was taken into care at one point, but the father won an appeal and took him back. So we keep a close eye on them. Regular visits. And irregular ones too. Quite sincerely, he seemed to have calmed down, the father I mean. It’s been over a year we found any signs of physical problems…”

DI Turner lifted his eyebrows.

“Bumps, breaks, bruises… The father always claimed that Terry was difficult and turbulent, fragile and always falling over. Without witnesses, and the child taking care to never contradict his father, it’s all impossible to prove…”

He nodded. “And..?” he started.

“What do we think? Strictly off the record, it appears a pretty typical case of child abuse. On the record, we play by the book and just drop in unannounced so that he understands we’re keeping him on a tight leash.” She paused and brushed a lock of hair that had fallen from where it had been pinned back. “It seems to be working… Or seemed,” she added in a low voice. Then, making eye contact she said, “And what can you tell me?”

He shook his head.

“For the moment, nothing that you can’t see for yourself. As you might guess, the neighbours complained about the smell. The kid — Terry? — opened the door to Constable Burns here. He found the father — or at this stage we believe it’s the father — in the bedroom. And he appears to be very dead. That’s about it… One thing though. We need to find out when someone last saw the father alive. Of you’ve got a date for a last visit, that’ll give us a start narrowing things down…”

“I can let you know when I get back to the office. Will that do?” she asked. She looked over at the boy.

He nodded, and passed over a business card.

“Thanks.”

“One thing…” she started. “Do you..? Was it Terry?”

“I was rather hoping you could help us with that. It doesn’t look like it, but…” He shrugged.

“I know what you mean. He’s not very talkative at the best of times. And he can get quite obsessed by moments. Autistic like. He’s not though, by the way. Not clinically. He just seems to shut himself away. A sort of protection.”

“I see…” said DI Turner, hoping that he did. He heard a bustle of noise from down below. The pathologist had finished suiting up and was arriving up the stairs. “Perhaps you’d better help me get him out of here? You’re probably better at that sort of thing?”

She gave him a sharp look.

“Because I’m a woman, DI Turner?”

“Because you know him.” He sighed. “I’ve had no luck communicating.”

“And you don’t think..?” Her voice trailed off.

“That he’s got something to do with it? No, not really. Constable Burns here says the bedroom was shut from the inside—”

“Key was in the lock and all,” the Constable volunteered.

“Thank you, Constable,” DI Turner sighed. “It’ll probably come down to suicide, then. But I would like to speak with Terry. If you can make contact.”

He held out his palms, in conciliation.

“I’ll do my best,” she said, and made to move to the door.

“I have no doubt Ms Fields.” He followed her. “Oh!” he said. He pulled a pair of white rubbery gloves from a packet in his pocket. “You’ll be needing these. Sorry.”

The boy was still scribbling.

As they approached the table, two men in baggy white suits, each carrying a solid rectangular box, appeared in the doorway.

“Just follow the smell!” called DI Turner. Then “Oops!” as he remembered the boy. But the child continued his drawing, unperturbed except for his blinking.

“Terry, Terry.. It’s Cathy,” said the woman. She knelt down next to him, and DI Turner twigged why she preferred a trouser suit for her work.

“Hello Cathy,” said the boy slowly, still engrossed in the clouds of smoke billowing in the borders of his newspaper. She reached out a hand, placing it over his, stilling it. The scribbling stopped. He looked up with empty eyes, and blicked at her.

“Cathy. Me Dad’s gone.”

“Yes, Terry, he is. But it’s alright if you feel funny about it…”

“Funny ha-ha, or funny strange, Cathy?”

“Funny strange, Terry.”

The boy looked up. White flashes pilled from the bedroom like lightning from a distant storm as the men started recording the room as it had had been found.

“No. I don’t feel funny strange Cathy. Can I finish me drawing now?”

The Social Worker was still holding his hand.

“You can finish it later, Terry. For now, I think you’d better come with me.” She darted a look up at the Inspector standing over them.

The boy considered her suggestion.

“Nah, I’d better finish it now so I can give it to him.”

“Give it to who, Terry?” She glanced at DI Turner, who nodded, encouraging her on. “Was there someone else here?”

“He’s in me bedroom,” said the boy, flatly.

“In your bedroom, Terry?”

“I don’t know his name, so I draws him. So he can see what he looks like.” He lowered his voice. “He’s me friend. He looks after me.”

“You mean your Dad, Terry? He’s in your bedroom, isn’t he?”

“Nah! Me Dad’s gone now.”

A draft like a gust blew through the flat. The bedroom door slammed. There was a muffled cry from the room.

“He doesn’t like people he doesn’t know,” said the boy.

“Who?”

“Who’s playing games?” came a shout from the bedroom, as if in echo. “We’re trying to work in here!”

DI Turner walked over and pushed at the door. It was stuck solid. It seemed sealed with darkness through the splintered wood and paint.

“You can switch the light on,” said the boy. “He doesn’t like that.”

There was a shout of what sounded like ‘Gerrof!’, and muffled shamblings from the closed room.

“Switch the light on!” called DI Turner through the door. He pushed and pulled at the door handle.

“Where is it then, wise guy?” came a voice.

“Where’s the light switch, Terry?”

He turned to the boy who was now rocking backwards and forwards at the table.

“Terry?” said the Social Worker softly, putting her hand on his shoulder to try and calm him.

“He’s just playing,” said the boy. “He gets lonely too.”

“Terry!” she said, a little more sharply.

“It’s just there. Right by ‘is hand.” The boy pointed.

On the wall, next to the door was a light switch. DI Turner had assumed it was for the living room. He clicked it on, and the door opened.

“Me Dad moved it. Shuts me in the dark when I’m a bad boy.”

The white figures erupted from the bedroom.

“What was that stupid trick?” the first one barked, redfaced, his mask askew. “Who’s buggering around like that?”

DI Turner stepped back, hands outstretched.

“No one,” he said. “No one here did anything. We were just trying to open the door.”

“He just wants to get to know you,” murmured the boy from the table.

“God knows I’ve seen my share of stuff, but that was damn creepy,” said the other. “Like if someone was in there, pressing in on me…”

DI Turner moved over and poked his head round the door. The room was bathed in white light from above, like an overexposed photo. There were no windows, he noted. In the cold hard light pressing down from above it was as if there were no shadows anywhere. The livid flesh of the swollen body lying on the bed glowed white, leaving the impression of an aureole round the head and hands.

The head was propped up on the pillow, and the face seemed frozen in an expression, as if he was straining, or screaming. Strange that, he thought, rigor mortis only works for a time after death. He must have been here a lot longer than that. After that the cadavre should have lost its expression as the flesh softened and started to decay. All in all, the effect did give you the creeps, the hairs on the nape of his neck prickled.

Still standing outside the door, he got down on his knees. All the shadows in the room seemed to have collected under the back. It was pitch black and seething down there.

The light’s playing tricks with my eyes, he thought.

And he remembered the kid’s drawings, the scribbles curving, writhing, flowing. And all filling just the bottom of the page. Like the shadows under the bed.

Stiffly, he pulled himself up.

“Door must be wonky,” he said. “Although I’d have sworn Constable Burns had done the lock in.” Turning to the pathologist and his assistant, he said, “If I were you, I’d block it with a chair or something.” He moved away. “Gentlemen,” he said, motioning the two white clad figures back to the bedroom. He turned his attention back to the boy.

“What is it under the bed?” he asked.

Terry looked up, startled. He stopped blinking for at least thirty seconds.

“Nuffin’,” he said. “Dad says it don’t exist. Gonna show me, he was. I told him no, but ‘e didn’t listen.” He blinked in salves. “Now ‘e’s gone.”

DI Turner got the impression that the boy wasn’t talking just about his father.

“Come on Terry,” the Social Worker said, standing up and smoothing out the creases in her trousers. “I bet you’re peckish. Let’s go and get something to eat…”

She took the boy by the hand. Still clutching at his ballpoint he stood up. She lead him round the table, chattering, filling the empty space as she did.

“Have you got an anorak or something? That’s it. Not like you need one with this heat, but it’ll get cooler later. And your school bag, we’d better take that. Don’t worry, we can come back for the rest later..”

Suddenly the boy pulled himself out of her grip, and darted over to the bedroom door.

DI Turner looked over. The small boy seemed like a puppy, with oversized hands and feet as he stopped outside the door. He paused. Then he lifted a hand and waved.

“Bye,” he said, before turning away.

From where he was standing, DI Turner could see that it wasn’t the figure lying on the bed he had been speaking to.

He shivered.

What sort of life was it, he wondered, when the only person who really cares for you is the monster under the bed?

THE END

There we go. A quick, nice story. I think I’ve always liked monsters under the bed. Probably something to do with Calvin and Hobbes. Sorry, by the way, if the Police Procedure is a bit off, I didn’t have time to research thoroughly.

See you next week.

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Last edited: Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

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