by Chalky MacLaan
My head was spinning in an alcoholic daze as I turned my van out of the pub car park. I switched the radio on and headed towards the back road that meanders between old dockside warehouses. Their great, crumbling edifices towered either side like the walls of a canyon.
As I entered the abyss, what was left of the moonlight was extinguished. I squinted ahead, trying to see the road, the van’s headlights barely reaching a few metres. I flicked the high beams on. As I did so, the stupid cheap-arsed reversing camera screen flashed on, its wireless transmitter mistakenly brought to life with the brief change in current.
The screen’s brightness temporarily blinded me. The van swerved sharply as I hit a pot hole. I over corrected and the van drifted as if it were on ice. I swore to myself as I regained control.
“Fricken’ camera!” I thought, as it flickered back to black.
I had installed the camera a year earlier when my first grandkid had just started walking. The missus was worried that I’d run over the little tacker when I was reversing, so I bought the cheapest one I could find and installed it myself – anything for a quiet life!
It kept turning on for no reason and sometimes it would randomly show footage from other wireless cameras that I drove past: an empty driveway, the inside of an Indian supermarket or the inside of a store room where a couple of teenagers were getting friendly with each other.
With the van back under control, I thought I’d better take it a bit more carefully. I was not likely to run into any cops out here, but it was not unheard of for a patrol to do a quick sweep of the docks. One more offence and I’d lose my licence. My days of delivering parcels on my treadly were long behind me.
A pain in my bladder suddenly made me wince. I really needed to pee. I pulled to the kerb, switched off the radio and killed the engine. Stepping out into the complete darkness, the silence whistled past my ears as if all sound were being sucked into a vacuum.
As my eyes started to adjust, I noticed an alleyway fifty metres or so behind my van. I jogged to it, the sound of my footsteps like the drumming of a heartbeat. As I turned into the alleyway, I felt the hairs on my arms stand on end as a cold sea breeze brushed my skin.
When I had relieved myself against a wall, I turned back to the van. I could just make out its white bulk against the darkness.
It was then that I heard a sound. It was a faint, high wailing…. moaning… screaming? What the hell was it? A cat? Or…
The sound faded, the last remnants of it being carried off by the breeze. I waited to see if it returned, but it didn’t.
Fear took hold of me and I sprinted for the van. Despite my gut and age, I made it in a few seconds. I swung myself into the driver’s seat and locked the door. I sat for a moment, hyperventilating, wondering what to do. Should I go and see what’s wrong? Should I call the police and risk losing my licence? I decided to just go home. “It was probably nothing anyway,” I told myself.
I switched the headlights back on as I reached for the keys. I started to turn the engine over when the monitor flickered again. Static filled the tiny screen and then, all at once, a scene appeared that made my heart skip a beat.
A man was bending over what appeared to be a naked body. Thick black rivulets meandered out in all directions like demented sunbeams, disappearing off screen.
The man stood up, his beanied head coming close to the lens. He blocked the body from view completely, but it was clear that he held a large, bloody butcher’s knife in his right hand. He seemed to survey his handiwork for a few moments and then he bent down, grabbed the body and dragged it off screen. I studied the screen, trying to see the body as it went past the camera but the picture was fuzzy and the contrast too bright. What I could see now was a trail of liquid smearing the tiles.
Despite the chill, sweat started to drip from my brow. I leant down to the ignition, thought again, and grabbed for my phone. I held it for a moment in my slippery palm, went to press a button and stopped. I couldn’t ring the cops, they’d never believe me. I couldn’t leave either. Suppose the murderer heard me start the van and came out brandishing a shotgun or something? My hands started shaking.
On the screen, the man could be seen walking back through the room, his gumboots distorting the black ooze on the floor. Then, the screen went dark as the light in the room was extinguished. Maybe the man was leaving? I froze with horror, “What if he came outside and saw me here?”
As silently as I could, I pushed the door open and staggered to the asphalt. As I squinted across the road, looking for a hiding place, two beams of light appeared from a side street a hundred metres ahead of the van. “It’s him,” I told myself, “run!”
I ducked around behind the van, and using it as cover, ran back to the alleyway. I threw myself around the corner, the stench of piss hitting me as I crouched down.
I could hear the engine of the vehicle as it came nearer. I held my breath and prayed to the god of shadows that the murderer wouldn’t see me. Even though the corner hid me from sight, I looked down, afraid my eyes might reflect a stray beam of light.
After what felt like hours, the vehicle roared past and shot off into the night.
I exhaled and leant back against the wall with relief. He was gone and I was safe. Feeling the dampness of piss starting to seep into my windcheater, I stood up and strode to my van.
When I had almost reached it, I stopped and looked up the road toward the spot where the headlights had emerged. What if the body was still alive? It had only been a couple of minutes; there could still be a chance. Now that my initial panic was gone, I was starting to think about the poor bugger in that warehouse, in agony and alone.
Shutting my eyes and taking a deep breath, I gathered my courage. I went to the back of the van and retrieved an old torch. It wavered slightly as I switched it on and then it settled into a steady glow. I turned its beam up the road and followed it. The darkness at its edges was total.
Just up the road and around the corner, I found a set of double doors standing slightly apart. I put my ear to the cold corrugated iron and listened. I could hear nothing but the creaking of old wood and the distant splashing of water. I pushed against one half of the door. It opened with a sharp creak.
I stepped through the gap and shone the torch around. The warehouse was huge. It was so big that the torch beam couldn’t penetrate the gloom. Running my hand along the wall, I turned to my left and, stepping carefully over rusted machine parts, made my way to one end of the building where I found a row of doors.
I shone my light inside the first door, pushing the door open with my foot. It was an empty office.
I tried two more doors and they were both empty too.
The fourth room was different. Its door was open wide. From the darkness inside wafted a metallic odour carried on cold air. I felt like I was being brushed all over by invisible fingertips as I stepped into the room. I kept my torch down low near my feet, fearing to lift it too soon.
With every footstep, time seemed to slow and it felt like an eternity until my torch fell upon the tiles at the opposite end of the room. “Maybe there‘s nothing in here after all,” I considered, lifting the torch with new found confidence. I shone the spotlight to the left and… It was like some grotesque parody of an abstract painting. Blood smears, sprays and stains covered the floor and wall.
I stepped forward and quickly scanned the torchlight back and forth across the room, my breathing quick and light. Where was the body?
In one pass of the light, near the door, I noticed a table covered in objects. I moved closer to inspect them. At one end was the butcher’s knife. At the other were various tools, one of which looked like a power saw. My bowels turned to water. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t.
I tried to think, to decide what to do, but a persistent humming sound was making my mind shaky with confusion. I did another sweep of the room with my beam and in the furthest corner saw a steel plated door, a trail of red smears leading to its base.
I froze as a roar of creaking metal filled the air. The double doors were being opened. The murderer was coming back!
As two blinding headlights tore into the black insides of the warehouse, I decided my best chance was to run for the double doors. As I went to leave the room, I was knocked back by an assault of bright white light as the warehouse lights were turned on.
I dived for cover behind the door frame and, trying not to breathe too loudly, considered my options. The warehouse was so light that I had no chance of escaping unseen. “Maybe he won’t come in here,” I assured myself.
I listened intently for his footsteps. There they were, coming straight towards me.
I followed the blood trail towards the steel plated door. I found myself sliding and my torch skidded away from me. I heard the man’s footsteps pause and then break into a run. I scrambled to my feet, opened the door, threw myself in the room and, with a small hiss, the door shut behind me. As I stood there, trying to quell my panting, I was cold with fright. My hands out in front of me, I carefully felt my way along.
I stopped… My hands felt something cold, something sticky, something wet. I felt like chucking as I slowly backed away. I knew that texture. That was skin: Cold, clammy, dead skin.
The door opened. I turned to face my executioner; I had nowhere to hide.
He came towards me; I flinched. The light fell on his face as he came and suddenly I saw, not the cold eyes of a killer, but something softer.
“What are you doing?” said the man, appearing confused as I was.
I took a step backwards, bumping into the body and setting it swinging. I yelped and swung around, the light coming in the doorway illuminating the object. The beheaded pink-skinned carcass hung from a big silver hook. Behind it hung a row of other dead pigs waiting to be dissected.
“If you don’t mind,” said the man, “could you kindly bugger off? I have to get the whole lot of these ready for deliveries tomorrow.”
“Sorry mate,” I said and I slunk off to my van.
As I pulled away from the curb, my heart only just settling back into its old rhythm, I thought about how nice a cooked breakfast would be right about now.
This week’s narrative was inspired by a true story… well, at least in part. No, I don’t drink and drive (Hey, I barely drink!) nor do I go wandering around creepy old warehouses at night.
I did, however, install a ‘cheap-arsed’ wireless reversing camera in my mum’s campervan. Sometimes, when she is staying with us, I borrow her van to get to work to give myself a precious extra half an hour’s sleep. At various points on the journey, the reversing camera screen will come alive with footage from people’s wireless security cameras: Someone’s driveway, someone’s television feed, an empty room, an Indian grocery store. I even received a feed from someone’s in-card baby monitor camera one time. This experience gave me the premise for this story.
In this week’s story, I really wanted to experiment with a first person narrative. In the past, my least successful stories have been from a first person perspective and I wanted to give it another go. I always had trouble sustaining a voice different from my own. With the help of the wonderful Mrs MacLaan and her editing prowess, I think I was able to created an interesting and consistent voice.
Also, at school this week, I introduced my year eleven students to the concept of the ‘unreliable’ narrator. I had a lot of fun using this technique to help make my story and its twist reasonably credible.
The ‘mystery/suspense/thriller with a twist ending’ genre is one of my favourites, so I was really looking forward to writing this story. I found my method acting skills from drama school helpful when I was trying to create suspense and build fear and panic into my character. So much so that when my mother in law walked past the window while I was writing one night, I jumped a mile and almost needed a new pair of underpants. She thought it was hilarious.