“Right, so I’ll get an ongoing payment for surviving one night in your haunted house?” Mickey Dean wanted assurance even while shaking the other man’s cold hand.
“You answered the advertisement, and there isn’t a man alive who’d argue with the word of Pete Glistor.” The man standing in the shadows gave a quiet chuckle.“You’re the one who wanted this rare opportunity.”
Mickey Dean adjusted the bag hanging from his shoulder. “Why did I have to park at the edge of the forest?” He looked from the stranger beside him in the shadows to the overgrown pathway in the moonlight. The house was a massive dark shape within the trees. “That was a mile I didn’t need to walk when I could have driven all the way here.”
“If the forest and track didn’t look uninviting we’d be like a regular tourist location,” Glistor said. “We have no desire to be regular.”
“Yes, but leaving my car so far … oh well,” Mickey shrugged. “I suppose arriving late at night and all the rest adds to the creepy adventure.”
A hint of pale features could be seen when Glistor nodded. “You brought what was suggested in the advertisement?”
“I did.” Mickey tapped the large canvas bag hanging from his left shoulder and there was a metallic chink as a hammer, axe, saw and various knives clanged against each other. “Wait a minute, you said, ‘we have no desire to be regular’ … so you don’t run this alone?”
“No, but you can trust me, my associates only make themselves known when required.”
“Okay, I’ll put myself in your hands, but I’ll warn you that I’m not easily scared. I’ve taken part in these challenges before, and nothing’s beaten me yet.” He grinned. “I’ve won a lot of cash.”
“I would guess that not one of the buildings were as remote as this one.”
“No, I suppose you’re right, and this house really does have the classic creepy look.”
“I hope you have an awful experience.” Glistor gave a low chuckle as he held out a hand. At that moment a cloud shielded the full moon and the two men became more like shadows.
When they shook hands, Mickey shuddered and glanced down into the darkness. He felt as if he’d just been holding a sculpted ice cube. “Wow, you are cold.”
“Dead cold, I’ve been told.” Glistor sniggered. “I’ve been called many things, and yes, I admit, I get the chilled variations often.” His thin lips pressed together and faint dimples appeared on the pale cheeks of his partially obscured face.
“I suppose it’s all part of a realistic spirit-chasing experience,” Mickey said. “Before I forget, is there a keyword I have to say to exit the haunted house at the end?”
Glistor said, “There is a mirror and the only thing that sticks to the surface is fresh blood.”
“Yuk. Why do I need to use fresh blood on a dirty mirror?”
“As long as you’ve suffered enough or you’ve made it through the appointed eight hours you have to solve a horror anagram and you’ll be set free to rejoin the living.”
“To rejoin the living?” Mickey grinned.
“Yes … can you do horror anagrams?”
“Hell, yeah.” Mickey amused himself with his own humour.
“Oh, very droll. If you are good at anagrams, make a single word from my name, PETE GLISTOR.” His laugh drifted from a murmur to a guttural cry. “Your challenge starts now.”
Mickey half-turned to look along the dark path towards the house. “Do I need a key or anything?” When there was no reply he turned back but Pete Glistor was gone. “Okay, okay, I get it. I’ll see you later.” He set off tripping over numerous potholes in the paving before he reached the house. “I’ve got to hand it to you guys, this is the best I’ve seen yet.”
Mickey’s heart pounded as he pushed the door open and stepped inside. Narrow shafts of moonlight offered a faint view of a staircase a few paces to the front. The spookiness of this house felt more immediate than any another other he’d experienced in the past.
“There has to be air-conditioning or something being used in here. It’s bloody freezing.” There was more to the sense of foreboding, and then it struck him, the smell of the place wasn’t rotten wood like some ruins, it was more like rotting flesh. He wrinkled his nose and held his breath.
When the door slammed behind him the smell of rotting flesh was joined by the pungent aroma of puke, urine and faeces. Mickey congratulated himself on not emptying his stomach to increase the stench. The banging door made dust motes appear, floating in the thin beams of faint light. He gasped.
Eyes wide, and lips parted, Mickey turned his head slightly left and right. He knew the trick of using his peripheral vision to see better in the dark. He was certain that a once-beautiful young woman stood only a few feet away in the darkness near the staircase, her beauty marred by the long slash marks around her neck and across her tattered, blood-soaked clothing.
“Whoever set this place up is good.” Mickey reached into his bag to produce his big flashlight. He was expressly told what to bring, but this particular item was against the rules. Somewhere in the advert for the ‘one night only’ visit it stated that breaking the rules would be punishable, but there was nothing to suggest what the penalty might be. Mickey figured it was all a part of the dubious macabre attraction to create a veiled threat that something nasty might happen.
“Let’s see what we’ve got here.” Mickey pressed the button on his flashlight. A searing pain shot up his right arm as if he’d just pressed his fingers into an electrical socket. He dropped the flashlight and as he instinctively reached his left hand to hold his trembling right arm, he dropped the heavy bag of tools and weapons. The bag landed on his feet and Mickey gasped, suddenly wishing he didn’t wear training shoes. He was sure the mass of equipment had broken several bones in his left foot.
As he experienced the agonising burning sensation, an apparition of a man appeared. His eyes were wide, and the pupils rolled back. His mouth was agape, the tongue severed at the halfway point, blood pouring down his chin. The man’s hair stood on end, his limbs stretched away from his body, jerking in spasms.
Mickey stood still for a moment, his left foot throbbing and his right side aching from his fingers to his shoulder. Following the brief flash and horrific vision, the flashlight beam had disappeared and left him staring into the pitch blackness. “Shit, this place is definitely the best I’ve been in.” For five minutes Mickey stayed still as the tingling of his right arm and his fingers calmed but the throb in his foot was causing concern.
He squatted to try and find his flashlight and bag by groping around on the damp, sticky, wooden floorboards. “Where the hell is the damned thing?” Mickey knelt to search a little farther away.
“Got it.” He lifted what he thought was the long, heavy, flashlight but there was a stomach-churning smell and it was getting stronger. He squinted, moving in closer to try and see what had stuck to the surface. As he moved his hand in the thin strips of moonlight he saw that instead of his big flashlight he held a dismembered and bleeding forearm. “Shit.” Mickey threw the limb into the darkness and heard a dull thud before spine-chilling laughter echoed around the hallway.
“It couldn’t have been an arm,” he murmured, “it must have been a … pig’s leg or something … it was just a … trick of my mind … jeez.”
At the back of the building a set of wooden shutters creaked and groaned as they opened and closed in the breeze outside. Mickey would normally associate it with being movie sound effect but now, the sounds intensified the sense that not everything in this place was a hoax. Mickey wasn’t so sure now about doing a quick tour of this place—he no longer wanted the money, he wanted out.
He slid his feet forward a few inches at a time in the darkness, the floorboards creaking as if the place was about to fall down. The extreme pain in his left foot was making him feel nauseous. A journey that might have taken a few steps with lights on was taking forever. When the vague oblong shape of a doorway loomed up. The door was attached but hanging at a precarious angle from one hinge. Mickey placed a hand on the door frame and sighed.
“Something real.” He stepped inside.
The dense woodland around the house caused the occasional moonlight to flit across surfaces and shadows which made it more difficult instead of easier to focus. A glimpse of the double shutters outside the back door assured Mickey that he’d found the source of the irritating banging. “Am I being rational—it’s only damaged shutters?” He took two steps and winced when his damaged foot caused him to limp.
His left toecap caught in something bulky and pliable on the floor intensifying the pain of the many small broken bones. He cried out, lost his footing, and flew headlong into the large pane of broken glass still stuck in the frame of the back door.
“What the f—” Mickey screamed in pain. “My eye!” He was half-sitting, half-lying between the back door and a kitchen cupboard. Glass particles were all around and when he moved his hands they were covered in blood. He reached up to his left eye which was causing him excruciating pain. Before his fingertips touched the damaged area of his face he felt the instant sting and burn of glass cutting into his palm and he drew his hand away. Instinctively he bent forward to look at the hand in the darkness and a pain shot through his sore eye.
Mickey screamed as he touched the pointed shard of glass jutting from his eye, slicing his hand in the process. It cut into his open hand. “Fucking hell … what have I done?” The pain in his head, eye, hand and foot threatened to overwhelm him. Carefully, he reached over and tried to take hold of what had to be a long glass splinter. He sobbed and pulled.
He sat there, trembling in the darkness, panting, as moonlight flitted across the dark kitchen, Mickey lifted his damaged hand. “I can do this … I can,” he murmured unconvincingly.
Mickey’s breath hitched. “I didn’t ask for this … it’s too much … far too much.” Never in several visits to such places had he ever suffered more than a bruise, but this was damage in the extreme. No financial reward was worth the injuries he’d had inflicted by stumbling around in the darkness.
He tried to get to his feet without touching the filthy, glass-covered floor. To prevent using his bleeding hands he leant to one side and used his forearms to give himself leverage. Shards of glass and what felt like nails, probably rusty nails, tore into his flesh. Mickey cried out and fell forward. His face pressed into the putrid, fleshy mound that he’d tripped over.
“Jeez … what the fu—” He tried to focus with his good eye and saw several large rats scurry around the open carcass in front of him. He fought the pain as he struggled to get to his feet.
“Okay … okay, you win … Pete Glistor … wherever you are, I can’t take this anymore.”
“That’s not how it works,” a soft female voice whispered from nearby in the darkness.
“Who are you … where are you … I said I’ve had enough … why can’t I leave?”
“I’m over here, Mickey … and you’re bleeding heavily now … did you realise?”
Mickey’s vision in his remaining good eye was fading. He turned towards the soft, hoarse whisper as moonlight flitted across the woman’s body. Mickey wretched and tried to puke again as the bulging eyes and distended features of a naked and tortured woman became clear. She was dangling from a light cord and where her body had been butchered it looked like fresh wounds where the blood still dripped and her internal organs were visible.
“Please, Mickey … cut the cord … while you have strength … I can help you.”
“Not so brave now that it’s real, are you … ha ha ha ha ha?” A male voice which sounded like it was gargling and whispering at once.
“Please, let me go … I’m sorry I—”
Pete Glistor stepped out of the shadows a few paces in front of the visitor. “You know the answer … the mirror, and the anagram, and you’ve just been told by somebody that you are losing blood … so you’d better get moving.”
Mickey’s undamaged eye opened wide and his jaw dropped. He slowly shook his head. “Okay … okay … where is … the mirror?”
Mickey sighed in resignation as he turned and then groaned when a new surge of pain shot through his foot. “A banister … I’ve found a … banister.” He reached out and winced when his damaged fingers tried to grip the dusty, rotten wood before he ascended the darkened steps.
“Mickey,” the young woman’s voice cried and echoed around the house. “Please … help me.”
Mickey ascended the creaking, splintered steps as if he were reaching the summit of a mountain. He reached a landing and turned. He stared at what appeared to be a full-length mirror along a short passageway. A nearby broken window allowed more moonlight than had been getting in downstairs.
I’m leaving this place behind. I can remove the broken glass and jump to freedom.
Mickey used his undamaged hand to lever a large piece of glass back and forward. When he pulled upward a shard of glass fell from the top of the frame and sliced off two of his fingers. Blood spurted out over the window frame as a fresh attack of pain shot through his wrecked body.
Mickey screamed, stepped back from the window and impaled his wrist on the dirty and jagged window pane.
“No … no … no.” He held his breath and brought his hand up quickly. Blood was spurting out of his artery as if fired from a weapon. He used his previously perforated hand to clamp against his damaged wrist. “No … please … don’t let this pain … this situation … be real.”
Mickey knelt in front of the cracked mirror and his head fell against the grimy, reflective surface as he tried to deal with the new levels of pain.
The only way out now is the anagram in fresh blood—my blood.
He lifted his head from the damaged glass and noticed smudge marks over the surface, probably previous attempts at the anagram puzzle. On a torn piece of paper hanging from a bent nail beside the mirror a message read:
‘Solve the anagram.
Produce a single word from the name Pete Glistor
and you can leave, perhaps to live.’
For several agonising minutes Mickey’s one-eyed vision blurred time and again. He had his most seriously damaged hand tucked up under his other arm. He used a fingertip to dip into and wipe his own blood on the dirty surface.
“Five different words … all nonsense.” Mickey panted for breath and winced as fresh paint shot through his torn wrist. “Please let me leave this cursed place?”
“Not so cocky now, are we,” a familiar voice whispered nearby.
“Help me … please … Pete Glistor … help me solve … the anagram of your name.”
“I’ll give you a clue first you weakling,” Pete Glistor breathed in Mickey’s ear. “I’m standing right behind you.”
Mickey looked at the mirror and blinked several times. “No, you’re not—” A light touch which lifted his hair and then let it fall slowly stopped the injured man from saying more.
“Now my careless friend use some of your gushing life’s blood and write what I tell you.”
Mickey swallowed hard and stared again at the dirty reflection of himself but there was nobody behind him. “Okay … I’m ready.” Oh my god, I can hear the word being spelt out. He dipped a finger into his wrist and then wrote one painful letter at a time.
“Welcome to your new reality, Mickey,” Pete Glistor whispered inside the visitor’s tortured mind. “For every fresh soul I can capture I am allowed one hour of true life outside the front door.” A hollow-sounding roar of laughter filled the haunted house with the rejoicing of the others trapped there.
Mickey stared at the dirty mirror with the distorted vision of his one eye. His own reflection was fading. “I must see the word,” he murmured with quivering lips. Mickey’s vision blurred and his breaths became shallower as the life drained from him. He concentrated and focused on the letters he’d written on the mirror, whispering them with his final breaths.
“P . O . L . T . E . R . G . E . I . S . T.”
Selected from Shadow: and other stories