Part Ten of Everyone a Winner

James parked his reliable old Saab in the hotel carpark but didn’t relish the short walk to the door. It was blowing a hooley, as his old mother would have said, and as soon as he switched off the windscreen wipers, the glass became opaque with the amount of water flowing over it. Thankfully, his overnight bag was in the back seat and he wouldn’t  have to go round the back of the car and mess with the boot. Steeling himself, grabbing the bag close, he opened the door. It immediately blew out of his grip and opened to its fullest extent with a worrying creak. He got out, and with some effort, closed and locked the door, before crossing the 10 yards to the hotel porch as quickly as possible whilst trying to avoid the worst of the puddles.

The reception desk was immediately opposite the door. Surrounded in wood panelling, two anachronistic flat panel computer monitors stood side-by-side, next to a sign in painted gothic script bearing the legend The Most Haunted Hotel in England!

James was a writer, though not yet at the stage where he could make any kind of living from it. He’d had a modicum of success here and there, but in the new modern age of self-publishing and ebooks, the actual life of a freelance author wasn’t everything that popular fiction would lead you to believe. James’ speciality was horror, and his latest project was a tour of every so-called haunted hotel in the UK. This one was the sixth, and so far he’d enjoyed unbroken sleep in a variety of beds and locations around the south and the east of England. This little place, a 17th Century coaching inn, certainly had the reputation and from what he’d seen of the outside and the small fenland village that surrounded it, it had the looks. 

The Captain’s Rest had white walls and black beams, an arch over the old coaching yard (now the beer garden) and with its popularity, had been extended twice in the past century. James however was booked into the  room, number 26, in the original building. This was purportedly haunted by The White Lady, a woman who had been held in the inn overnight after being tried, and was subsequently hanged by the infamous Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General. It was said that, despite her violent and wholly unwarranted end, she was a benign spirit and the manageress was proud to tell him that people slept well in that room. 

It wasn’t lost on James that at that same time, the English were pursuing their campaigns of conquest and practical enslavement across the country of his forebears, slaughtering people at will without any pretence of consorting with Satan – other than perhaps being papists. 

James checked in and was given directions to his room, down a short corridor to a worn stone staircase, leading up to the first floor. Signs on the walls reminded him to be careful on the stairs and to mind his (balding) head when he got to the top. The door to the room obviously wasn’t the original and opened with a regular yale lock – but then James realised that even that was a relic of the past, and he couldn’t actually remember the last time he stayed in a hotel that used actual physical keys. 

The room was large and may at one time have been larger, as a part of it had been made into a tastefully designed ensuite bathroom. Opposite the door was a wide window that was divided into four leaded sections by wide black wooden  mullions. A grey fitted carpet covered the creaking floorboards, the walls and ceiling were painted white, the walls criss-crossed, for some reason James couldn’t fathom, by laths and small beams of black-painted wood. They must have served some kind of structural function. Two massive black-painted rough wooden beams ran across the ceiling. 

On the right as he walked in was what looked like an antique four-poster bed, complete with purple satin curtains and canopy. The bed platform was higher than James’ waist, which added to his impression that this wasn’t some kind of ersatz copy. Next to the bedside table on the right of the bed was a two-seater leather sofa  and a coffee table. Opposite that on the other wall was a writing desk and chair, with two fabric-shaded lamps mounted on the wall above it. The bodies of the lamps had been made out of white plastic to resemble candles, with fake drips and runs down the sides as if they had gutted – but each one held an elliptical halogen bulb. Next to the desk on the left was an old tall-boy wardrobe. James tried to pull the door open but it was slightly stuck; it eventually opened with a jerk. He took off his jacket and hung it in there on a clothes hanger.

The room certainly looked the part, but then he’d known what to expect from the website, though actually it was better than he’d hoped. He put his bag on the sofa and opened it, taking out his clear plastic toilet bag, putting that next to the sink in the ensuite. He took out his Mac and put that on the desk, trying to find a mains socket in range of the power cable. Next to the laptop he set his new writing buddy – a little plush toy keyring of that famous mouse, wearing the red velvet robe and spangled hat of a wizard. It seemed somehow appropriate and he’d taken the random win of the toy, from an old semi-abandoned machine in the corner of a dingy arcade, to be an omen of good fortune. 

James dined in the hotel restaurant in the new part of the hotel. The food was surprisingly excellent. He had one of the specialities, a sea bass risotto, accompanied by a nice spanish tinto that perfectly complimented the fish.  The single waitress was a blur of perpetual motion and the service was professional, yet maintained a homey quality. It was so far out of the holiday season – the middle of November – that the place was practically empty. 

After signing off the dinner to his room, James decided to go into the main bar and see if he could pick up any more anecdotes or local knowledge from the patrons. The bar was open to the public as a regular pub – and this was the only disappointing part of the building so far. There was a big fireplace in the middle of the room, the chimney breast dividing the room effectively into two, the fire being open on both sides. The bar however seemed hardly to be a permanent feature, constructed from chipboard and fake veneer, for all the world the kind of temporary bar that you found in church halls at weddings. The one redeeming factor was that the young barman was obviously not yet sufficiently trained, and when he asked for a double whiskey the lad didn’t use a measure and poured a good inch into a large tumbler. 

James found it hard to strike up a conversation with anyone until he managed to get chatting with a middle aged man who told him at some length, and in excruciating detail,  about what the village had done for the war effort during WWII. There had been a US staging point nearby, and apparently because the village was so old – and so unlike anything the yanks had seen before – they used to practice taking and occupying it. Some of the more important buildings had been entirely requisitioned by the army for the duration and the man even claimed that General Eisenhower had slept in the inn. James found it practically impossible to separate himself from the man. Good natured as he was, he had one topic of conversation only. Any questions about the history of the village in general or of the inn in particular were just met with blank looks – before once again he began telling anecdotes of these handsome cowboys who came to save the day…

Eventually, last orders was called and before the man could offer to buy James another, he made his apologies and beat a hasty retreat to his room. 

The lights over the desk were on – he thought he must have forgotten to switch them off before he left. Then he noticed that his laptop was open. Why would someone come into his room and mess with his stuff? He ran his ringers over the touchpad and the screen came back to life. It was password protected, and so all he had on the screen was the password prompt and his wallpaper, which at the moment was the photo he’d used for the cover of his last book – a black and white picture of a spooky old ruined house he’d shot with a fisheye lens. 

Sitting down on the chair, he entered the password and hit return. Word opened – and a message had been typed across the top of a new file:

There is evil here. 

You brought it with you. 

You must leave.

He read it a couple of times and chuckled to himself. He was a little concerned that somehow they’d managed to get through his password, but he had to applaud their efforts! After this, he wondered what else they might have in store to keep him entertained during the night. He saved the file to the desktop, and then shut down the computer. He decided to just go to bed, and wait for the evening’s entertainment to begin. 

He changed into his pyjamas – which was a T shirt and shorts, and went to brush his teeth. As he put the brush under the cold tap, it sputtered and stopped – and then suddenly with a series of bangs like gunshots, it shot brown silty water into the sink, causing him to jump back. After a few more coughs, the pressure stabilised and clean water started to come out. James smiled to himself, par for the course. No doubt there would be a few random bangs and knockings during the night from ancient plumbing, rather than the ghosts of  ancient plumbers. 

The mattress this bed would have originally had would have been stuffed with straw. This one was soft but also sunk in the middle, but comfortable nonetheless. He looked up at the silk canopy and wondered whether the curtains would draw all around the bed, of if the pleated hangings were not real curtains at all. He reached over and undid the thick purple rope that held the curtain on the right by his head. The rope fell to the floor and revealed that the curtain was real. He decided not to draw the curtains – he might need the visibility and despite the storm outside and the ancient windows, it still felt quite warm in the room so far. 

James knew from his ghost lore that temperature drops were often reported before manifestations, but there was no evidence of that here yet. He did have a thermometer in his bag, just in case, but then his ghost hunting wasn’t based in amassing scientific evidence but more on the anecdotal and whether his experience, positive or negative, could add credence to the stories. 

He been single for a while now but still always slept on one side of a double bed rather than the middle. Two divorces and an eight year-old son at the age of 37, here he was on the road. Perhaps this whole idea of writing was an expression of an early-onset mid-life crisis. At least that’s what Maureen, his most recent ex and mother of Alex, his Avengers-obsessed son, had explained to him at length in their last telephone conversation.  

This last marriage wasn’t an acrimonious split. He saw as much of Alex as he wanted and he was still very much involved in the day-to-day. He still got on with Maureen though there was an obvious limit to how much time they could spend in each others’ company. It was almost possible to set a timer for when the smiles, easy companionship and laughs about good times shared turned into sour acrimony and the smallest little thing started to annoy. She had this habit of constantly sucking her teeth that…

Immediately James could hear that sound, in the corner of the room by the desk, as plain as day. He shook his head – he was hearing things, he must be dreaming. He tried to dismiss it and started to think about how good the fish was, and whether he could remember the name of that wine…

It was louder, as if she was actually sitting right there.

That part of the room was in shadow, the bedside light not penetrating that far. It must be something, a mouse, an electrical short? He got out of bed, and using the switch at the bedside he turned on the lamps over the desk. 

Immediately, the noise stopped. 

He walked over, the carpet feeling rough under his bare feet. In the corner, next to the desk, was an old washstand – he didn’t remember seeing it before. A large ornate porcelain bowl sat in a round hole in a triangular frame. On one side of the bowl was a perfect bar of orange coal tar soap, and a clean folded flannel. Underneath, in its appointed place in the frame, was a large enamelled water jug – with water in it. There was nothing behind the washstand, and he could see nothing in the water that would have caused the noise. Simply his mind playing tricks as he fell asleep, he thought, going back to the bed and switching out the desk lamps. 

The bed had lost all the heat he had so far invested in it and so his toes were doubly cold as he slid them under the covers. He decided to read for a bit to clear his mind, so picked up his kindle and unlocked it with a slide of his finger. 

But the book he was reading – indeed the entirety of his purchased library was not there. The screen revealed the following message, that as he desperately found, he could not dismiss:

You brought evil here.

We will not tolerate it.

You must leave.

Now.

In frustration, James tossed the unresponsive kindle onto the sofa. The computer was one thing, but how the hell had the hotel managed to hack his bloody kindle? It didn’t make sense. James sat up in the bed and rubbed his eyes. Was he dreaming already? 

He picked up his phone – he had some books in the app on there too, but the phone was just as unresponsive. But he had already plugged it in to charge – it couldn’t be a flat battery. 

TV, he thought? But he realised there was no TV in the room. There was free wifi so he got out of bed again and grabbed his laptop off the desk. He opened it, and it booted normally – and there was no trace of the file he’d seen previously. So they’d been back in, deleted the file, and hacked his kindle? That must have been it. He clicked on the YouTube app – a video opened immediately and began to play a video – Gollum, from Lord of the Rings. It had been edited to show one phrase – 

“Leave now, and never come back!”

The image zoomed in on Gollum’s face.

“Leave now, and… 

Never

Come 

BACK!

…Never

Come 

BACK!”

He tried to close the window, but it wouldn’t respond. As he moved the cursor with the touchpad, it seemed to move away from him, as if controlled by someone else. He closed the lid, which stopped Gollum in mid phrase. So they still  had control of his computer! This was beyond a joke. This was going to illegal territory – he had half a mind to complain right now…

His room door opened. Light from the landing spilled into the room. 

“Hello?” he called? 

There was no answer.

He got up, and turned the corner where the bathroom made a short hallway. The door was all the way open. He went over to the doorway to look out, to see who had opened it. As he stood on the threshold, he felt a strong sudden push in the small of his back that made him stumble forwards. As he turned, the door was starting to close but then it stopped – as if the door had hit an obstruction mid-swing. Then it slowly swung open again. James looked all around the lintel and the door for some kind of controlling mechanism, but could see none. Just the movement of an old building on a windy night. He stepped inside again, closing and bolting the door behind him. For good measure, he clicked the catch on the old yale, locking the door. 

 All the lights in the room were on again. He put his laptop back on the desk, switched off the desk lamps and got back into bed. He was starting to lose patience with these games. The other thing that worried him was that they must be able to see him – surely that was also illegal? Anyway, he decided he would not be playing their games anymore. And said it out loud.

“I’m not playing your games anymore! I’m going to get some sleep now, so you can pack it in. And if you don’t fix my stuff tomorrow, I’ll have the police on you! Good night!”

He switched off the bedside light, and laid down, turning onto his left side, the side he usually slept on.

“Good night,” whispered a voice, so close he felt cold breath – lips brushed his ear.

Out of reflex he batted whatever was there away from his ear with his hand and sat up. The room was pitch black – he couldn’t see anything. He crawled over and switched on the bedside light. The room was exactly as it had been before. He checked all around and under the bed, then knelt on the mattress and probed the satin canopy with his fingers. 

Nothing.

He got up and walked all the way around the bed, looked under the desk, checked the bathroom, even checking to make sure that door was still locked. 

Nothing at all. 

He realised that the room had started to feel cooler – well, the heating had probably gone off. He went over and checked the windows – all tightly closed against the storm. As he looked out, rain started to batter the old leaded panes, hard enough to make them rattle. A sudden flash of lightning immediately followed by a crash of thunder simultaneously dazzled and deafened. The storm was real enough – perhaps that was the source of all this nonsense after all. 

He closed the curtains as the rain intensified and the wind got up again. Now he was definitely chilled. He realised that he could actually see his breath. There was an ancient steam radiator on the wall next to the tall boy. He went over to that and touched the white painted iron and recoiled immediately, sucking his fingertips. The radiator was burning hot – yet even stood right over it, he was freezing from his toes to his ears, and his breath was still smoky white. 

He jumped back into the bed and got under the covers, that once again felt icy cold to the touch. Right, he thought, I don’t know what’s going on here but I’m not giving in – he decided to snuggle down again, pulling the covers right up to his neck, but this time he would leave the light on. He scanned the room with his eyes from where he was, listened intently for any sign of movement or life over the crashing weather outside the windows, and managing to detect nothing, settled down and closed his eyes again, this time on his right side, facing the windows and the middle of the room. Despite the nervous hammering in his chest and how cold his nose now felt, he did feel really tired, and so after a few minutes he started to drift off, and his eyes began to flutter and close. 

“Leave NOW, and NEVER 

COME

BACK!”

James woke with a start, his spine jolting straight. The voice had been impossibly loud, impossibly close, his ear rang with the noise. He sat up and opened his eyes. 

Someone was standing in the middle of the room, facing away from him, the head slightly bowed. They were dressed in some sort of white chiffon, that fell shapeless to the floor and covered the head with a veil. James was freezing cold. He began to shiver uncontrollably, his teeth chattering. His eyes were so wide from shock they actually hurt, and it felt as if his heart would literally burst from his chest at any minute. 

“Who…who are you? What are you doing… in m-my room?” his voice was so quiet and his mouth so dry, he hardly heard himself speak. 

Leave now.

You brought evil here.

You must go. 

This is your last warning. 

The voice seemed to be almost not there, and so faint he couldn’t tell whether it was male or female, or even came from that figure. Somehow however, he heard it clearly over the thunderous storm. 

“P-please? Look, I… I’ll write a g-good review… but this needs to s-stop now…”

No.

You must leave. 

Now.

The door suddenly crashed open again, smashing into the wall behind it. James heard plaster shatter and tumble to the floor, and instinctively looked to the source of the noise, though he couldn’t see the door from the bed. When he turned back, the person had utterly vanished. James’ stomach turned to water. Perhaps the easiest thing would be to leave? 

He jumped out of the bed and going to his overnight bag, took out his jeans and pulled them on over his shorts, then a pair of socks. He pushed his feet into his trainers and quickly got together everything he could and pushed it messily into the bag. He didn’t bother with his toilet kit. He was still freezing however, and so went to the tall boy to get his jacket. As before, the door seemed to be jammed shut. He tugged at the small brass handle but it didn’t budge. As he pulled, the whole wardrobe started to rock backwards and forwards. He put one hand against the body of the thing to stabilise it, and pulled again – the door flew open, and the body of a child fell out on top of him. 

James sat down on the carpet, though the body wasn’t heavy enough to knock him down. It was a boy, dark brown curls covering his head, freckles on the back of his hands. He was wearing Captain America pyjamas…

“Oh Jesus…” breathed James, grabbing one cold shoulder to turn the boy over. “Alex…?

The body flopped onto its back in his lap, the head lolling loosely. The boy’s skin was parchment white, dark circles under the closed eyes with their long brown lashes, the lips and nose quite blue. 

Tears burst from James’ eyes. “How…”

The eyes snapped open, fixing him with a dry stare. 

“You killed me daddy. You have to leave. If you aren’t there to save me, I’ll die. You can’t let me die, daddy. You have to leave now, and never come back.”

“What… what… what is happening?” James mumbled. As he reached to stroke the boys cheek, it faded away, as if very quickly moving into the distance.

“Please! Please stop this!” he cried, looking down at his empty arms. 

The door slammed closed, the bolt crashed home. James jumped from the sudden shock. A thin wail came from the bed behind him. 

He struggled to his feet, almost falling as he stood on his untied laces. Someone was lying on the bed, on top of the covers. It was himself –  dressed precisely as he was now. James staggered back slightly, his chest now starting to hurt, every breath a freezing rasp in his lungs. 

James on the bed sat up. The rope from the bed curtains made a noose tight around his neck. His tongue appeared blue and swollen, the eyes half-open. 

“You must leave now, and never come back,” James on the bed said, hoarsely, without moving his lips. James turned, forgetting his bag and jacket, and ran towards the door. He dragged back the black painted iron bolt, but once withdrawn, he felt the urge to slide it back again – and watched himself do it. 

“Leave now, and never come back.”

James looked over his shoulder. James on the bed was now standing behind him, silhouetted by the lights from the room. 

James drew the bolt back again, though finding it incredibly hard to do so, almost to the point where he had to use two hands to get it done. His freezing fingers couldn’t get any purchase on the cold metal of the yale lock, the button for the catch so cold on his fingertips it seemed to burn them.

Leave now, and never come back.

James didn’t know whether the voice was right behind his head or within it. He began to sob in sheer terror, hot steaming piss flowed down his leg.

He managed to click the catch back, but every time he tried to turn the knob on the old lock it slipped from his grasp. James felt a cold hard pressure in the small of his back. Then, as he thought he’d done it, he turned the door handle with his other hand and pulled the door toward him – for it to rattle in the frame as the yale sprang back again. 

“Oh, please… please Jesus…. Please help me…” he whimpered. 

Leave

“Oh god oh god oh god…. No!”

Now

Taking his left hand off the door handle, he used two hands on the yale lock, to turn it and work the catch. The skin his fingers and thumbs had turned white and entirely numb. 

And

“Oh, sweet Jesus Mary and Joseph…”

He turned the knob all the way back… and the catch clicked into place. He almost fainted with relief.

Never

He turned the door handle and pulled toward him. The door smacked into the toe of his trainers – he was standing too close to the door to open it. His legs started to shake uncontrollably. 

Come

He shuffled back away from the door, bile rising in his throat, pulling the door towards him all the while, opening the gap wider and wider.

Back!

The door was just open wide enough for him to squeeze through – suddenly, as if picked up by something impossibly solid he was thrown out of the door into the corridor and landing outside, bouncing off the opposite wall and sliding to the floor. Then something else hit him in the back – something small and soft – and the door slammed shut with such force it felt like an explosion inside his head. 

He collapsed flat to floor, out of breath. His heart was beating so hard that he could actually see it, looking at the damp T-shirt that covered his chest. He tried to calm down. The feeling of cold had almost entirely dissipated, apart from in his crotch and the dark wet stain on the right leg of his jeans. 

 He sat up, leaning against the wall. His arms and chest felt bruised, and his fingers were still numb. The door in front of him looked entirely normal. All he could hear was the muffled sound of the storm outside. Surely the noise must have disturbed someone? But now he was convinced that what he’d experienced had nothing to do with the staff at the hotel. There was another force here. But what had it meant when it said that he’d  brought evil with him? He put his hands down on the carpet to push himself up and felt something under the palm of his right hand. He grabbed it and held it up to see what it was. 

A little push toy, the head ripped off, white fabric stuffing spilling from the ragged neck.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Author, photographer and trade union activist. Lived in Japan for 5 years, now working at Cambridge University. Written for Big Finish/BBC Enterprises - Doctor Who and Robin Hood. Two books currently available on Amazon - see my non-fiction on Medium. All content ©Michael Abberton 2020

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