Copyright 2017 A.C. Hutchinson
The armoured bus pulled
up outside the former hotel. Malvin Boroughbridge watched it come
to a halt from his place behind the reception desk, while brushing
biscuit crumbs from the front of his faded Ramones T-shirt. The
plain digestives had fared much better than the chocolate kind, he
“What should I
do?” Danny Britton said, startling Malvin from his thoughts.
Danny’s young face had turned a sickly white. He twiddled a freshly
sharpened pencil between his thumb and forefinger.
nervous_], Malvin knew. Just like I was.
“No need to
worry.” Malvin rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder and realised how
skinny the lad was. “I’ll walk you through it. You stick with your
uncle Malvin and everything will be fine.”
“My uncle died
when one of those . . . things . . . ate his left hand.”
merchandise in here are less hungry. As long as you stick to the
rules, you’ll be fine. Can you remember the rules, Danny Boy?”
Danny let out a
sigh. His lips moved as he recited in his head.
urged. This one ain’t so bright.
the door to the room closed. Never turn your back on them. And
don’t go near their mouths.”
Malvin said, slapping the young Danny on the back. “You stick to
those three golden rules and you’ll stay alive long enough to see
your eighteenth birthday. Next week, isn’t it?” Danny nodded. “It’s
my fortieth this year. If you stay alive to celebrate that with me,
I may let you try one of the merchandise for yourself.”
activity outside. The bus had come to a halt and two guards with
mismatched weapons waited behind the barbed-wire-topped fence.
“I’ve got a
Malvin leaned towards Danny’s ear and whispered: “But she doesn’t
have to know.”
“I . . . I just
don’t know if I could do that, boss. You know, what if I caught
something . . .”
“You make sure
you don’t. We get fresh ones every Wednesday and some of them are
A man stepped
off the bus. A businessman type, wearing a suit he probably bought
before the world went crazy. [_But there’s no fashion anymore, so
“Looks like we
got a customer,” Malvin said, picking up a clipboard with a piece
of paper attached. “Last computer stopped working just before
Christmas. We’ve gone back to paper. God knows what will happen
when we run out of that. Maybe we’ll start using strips of human
skin.” Danny looked horrified. Malvin elbowed him in the ribs and
laughed. “Only messing with you, Danny Boy. We’ll probably use
toilet paper instead; God knows we’ve got enough of that stuff to
last a century-long shit storm.”
“Shall I have
that?” Danny pointed to the clipboard.
“Sure, why not.
When he comes in, ask him his name and pop it in the column marked
‘Name’. Then ask him if he’s on any medication and pop it in the
you’re a fast learner.” For a slow kid.
As the bus
pulled away, the suited man walked through the gates. The two
guards, with guns slung over their shoulders, shepherded the man
towards the door.
“I don’t think
we’ll have any trouble with this one,” Malvin said, standing. He
walked around the reception desk, pulling a set of keys from his
pocket which were attached to his belt by a chain. He whistled a
song he used to like – ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ by Bon Jovi. It had
been a long time since he’d heard the original recording. [_Since
my iPod stopped working I’ve not been able to listen to music at
all.] _A depressing thought, he mused. “You’ve just got to
treat these people like you would anyone else. Everyone has needs,
Danny Boy.” He unlocked the door and invited the man inside. The
man stepped into the foyer and the guards went back to their duty.
Malvin closed the door and locked it again.
afternoon, sir,” Malvin said, while walking back around the desk.
“Is this your first time here?”
smoothed back his greasy brown hair, cleared his throat, and said:
“Yes. I’ve heard good things about this place.”
“I’m sure you
have. This is the best place to sample merchandise anywhere in
town. We catch them fresh and don’t keep them too long – that’s the
secret. Whereabouts you from?”
adjusted his tie. Beads of sweat gathered on his forehead. “The
other side of town. Savini Street.” The man leaned forward. “I’ve
got something particular in mind.”
have. We all have our preferences. It was the same even before the
world turned to shit. Now it’s just harder to find, that’s all.
Danny, take the man’s name, will you, while I get the price
please,” Malvin urged while rummaging among the clutter under the
the man’s name on the sheet of paper attached to the clipboard.
“Are you on any medication?” the boy asked.
“No. None at
“You need to
sign the form,” Malvin said.
the man the clipboard.
“What am I
signing?” Andrew Lansbury looked like a man about to commit his
signature to a death warrant. [_This one ain’t going to have any
fun unless he loosens up a bit._]
The suited man
wiped away the sweat from his forehead with the back of his
conditions are on the back of the form, but you don’t need to worry
about that,” Malvin said, flapping his hand. “It’s just a
disclaimer. After all, we’re putting you in a room with something
we usually run away from.”
alarmed. “They were human, though. Once. Don’t forget that.”
[_Is this guy
a merchandise rights activist or something?_] “They certainly
still have many human traits, and that’s why you’re here, Mr
Lansbury.” Andrew signed the form and handed the clipboard back to
Danny. “Now, what will you be looking at today? The fresh ones are
the most expensive.” Malvin handed Andrew the price list. “You’ll
see they get cheaper as you get to the bottom there.”
“How long have
you had the ones at the bottom of the list? The cheap ones?”
months_]. “About a month. But the rooms are refrigerated during
the night. We only turn up the heat when the customer arrives.”
[_And spray the air with freshener to stop it smelling like a
The suited man
rested his elbows on the desk and spoke a little quieter, like he
didn’t want anyone else to hear. “I’m looking for one that might
have been in here for about three weeks.”
Well, we certainly have those.” This guy’s a sicko. “You
want it to have rotted just a little, right? Maybe the skin turned
a little blue?”
that, yes. And blonde. She . . . it must be blonde.”
Quite specific. “Anything else?”
About five foot seven.”
at Danny, who raised an eyebrow.
“I think we
have just the one for you, sir. Danny, get me the key for room
nineteen.” Danny stood, pushing the chair backwards; it scraped
across the tiled floor. “I think you’ll have fun with this one. I
need to run through a few rules, but we’ll do that on the way to
nineteen,” Danny said, handing Malvin the key, which was attached
to a large fob.
“Would you like
to purchase any perfume, sir?” Malvin asked.
our clients like to choose a perfume for their chosen one. It helps
the merchandise smell a little more . . . womanly, shall we say.”
And it takes away the stink of rotting flesh. Malvin
motioned to a collection of coloured bottles at the far end of the
his head in agreement. “That sounds like a good idea. I used to buy
my wife the one where the bottle is shaped like a woman. The name
escapes me now.”
“I know the
one, sir. This one here–” Smells nothing like it “–smells
just the same.” Malvin picked up a small blue bottle and placed it
in front of the customer.
it up and was about to spray some on his wrist when Malvin placed a
hand on his arm. “Don’t waste it, sir. Save it for the merchandise.
Now, shall we sort the payment?”
course.” Andrew plunged a hand into his jacket and produced a wad
of bank notes. Malvin looked at Danny, who again raised an
hundred notes, sir, and ten for the perfume.” [_That’s twenty
notes for my back pocket_].
Malvin a questioning look. “Expensive perfume.”
“Only the best,
though. You want it to smell nice, don’t you?”
The suited man
sighed and then began to place notes onto the desk. Malvin counted
every one. When he was done, Malvin gathered the notes and stuffed
them into his back pocket. [_I’ll take my cut later, when no one’s
Come along now, the merchandise awaits.”
“Shall I come
too?” Danny said, looking hopeful.
“Yes. But don’t
interrupt. I have rules to explain.”
behind, boss. You won’t even know I’m there.”
Malvin went to
a door at the far side of the room and punched in the code: 1978.
[_How many times have I punched in that code since I started
working here? Too many to count, that’s for sure_]. The suited
man followed. Danny trailed behind, like a child on his first day
door, the corridor stretched off with rooms on either side. The
carpet was red, but the pile was not as high as it had been when
Malvin started working there. In those days the hotel still showed
signs of the five-star accommodation it once boasted, he
“I take it
you’ve brought protection, sir?” Malvin asked Andrew, who was
keeping pace to his right.
“Yes. Yes, I
have.” The man patted his jacket pocket.
one: Protection must be warn at all times. Exchange of bodily
fluids can turn you into one of those things and that would be an
inconvenience for both of us.” [_And you’d have to be slightly
insane to not use protection_]. “Our merchandise still have their
teeth – makes them look nice – so don’t go sticking your tongue in
there. That’s rule two, and it’s for the same reasons we discussed
in rule one.” Malvin pushed open a door and then climbed a
stairwell. “We used to have a lift, but it stopped working a few
years back. Took us two days to rescue its occupants.”
walking, then,” Andrew said. “Are we nearly there?”
Rule three: No weird shit. Mutilation of the merchandise is not
quiver infected the suited man’s voice. “You won’t have any trouble
Allotted time is thirty minutes. If you want more time, you pay for
if the thing gets loose?”
the second floor and Malvin stopped at the top of the stairwell.
“The merchandise is chained to the bed by its wrists and ankles.
The bed is made of cast iron and bolted to the floor. There’s no
way the thing can get loose.”
open another door and then stopped. “Just have fun, sir. And we’ll
see you in half an hour.”
nodded to a door. Two golden numbers were mounted on the front.
“Room nineteen.” The number nine was slightly skewed. He made a
mental note to fix it later. “Your time starts from when I lock you
in.” Malvin pushed the key into the lock, turned it, and then
pushed the door inwards. He held his breath, knowing from
experience the room would smell of rotting flesh.
The suited man
didn’t seem to mind. He walked into the room and didn’t turn back.
A snarl rose from the semi-darkness, like a dog suspicious of an
intruder. Malvin closed the door, turned the key, and then exhaled
the breath he’d been holding.
“Sure does honk
in there,” Danny said.
standing with one hand on the corridor wall taking deep lungfuls of
air. “Give me a minute.”
his wrist and looked at his watch. “Three forty-five.”
“Set your alarm
for twenty-five minutes.” Once Malvin’s breathing had steadied,
they set off back to reception. “The longer a man’s in there, the
more trouble they’re likely to get themselves into. We had one man
who took just twenty-six minutes to decide he was in love. We found
him trying to give the thing an affectionate cuddle. He was lucky
it didn’t chew his ear off.”
resumed their seated positions behind the reception desk, Malvin
checked the paperwork. Andrew Lansbury. “Lansbury. That name
rings a bell.”
“I think I had
a friend called Lansbury once,” Danny said, chewing on the end of a
pencil. “He was in the shelter with me, the one on George Street.
There was a security breach, though, and we all got moved. Never
saw him again after that.”
a hand at Danny and told him to shush. “Get me the shipment
papers from three weeks ago.”
papers? What are those?”
“They’re in the
filing cabinet behind you. Middle draw.”
and pulled open the draw. He ran a finger along the cardboard
sleeves, reading the labels on each tab. “Three weeks ago, you
Danny plucked a
wad of papers from one of the sleeves and then dropped them on the
desk in front of Malvin. “What are you looking for?”
the ends of his thumb and index fingers and leafed through the
papers. “We have to keep a record of all the merchandise we bring
in. Some are strays, of course, so we don’t have much information
on who they are, but others–” Shit!
matter? You’ve gone a funny shade of dead.”
Andrew Lansbury say he was from?”
“The other side
of town. Savini Street, I think he said.”
“Shit!” Malvin stood, knocking the chair over.
“What? What is
merchandise. The one in room nineteen. It was called Barbara
Lansbury when it was alive. It was found at sixty-eight Savini
“So . . .”
Danny continued to chew the end of the pencil. [_This one’s got
less brain cells than the merchandise._]
“The thing in
the room with him was his wife.” [_It all makes sense. Blonde,
blue eyes, five foot seven. He was so specific about what he
wanted._] “I think he intends to break her out. Did you frisk
Danny stood; the pencil fell from the corner of his mouth and
landed on the floor with a tinny clatter. “What do you mean frisk
“I mean frisk
him.” Malvin patted Danny from his shoulders to his legs,
demonstrating what he meant.
tell me to frisk him,” Danny said in a louder, slightly aggressive,
feel his chest tightening. “You were meant to frisk him. It says so
in the paperwork I gave you.”
read the paperwork?”
give me any paperwork.”
a hand to his forehead. “Shit!”
“Well, let’s go
“No, no, no.
We’ll have to call security.”
Just then there
was a scream from the upper floors. A man’s scream. Malvin
looked over his shoulder at the door leading to the upstairs rooms
and then back to Danny.
“Shall I go
shout the guards?” Danny had turned a ghastly shade of white. He
made to stand.
snapped. “They’ll hang us for this.” Or worse. “Let’s go and
see if we can sort this problem ourselves.” A deep dread had
affected Malvin’s stomach. All he wanted to do was puke and then
run far away from this godforsaken place. He composed himself,
though, knowing it was a problem he had to sort. [_I need this
job_]. “Let’s go take a look.”
By the time
they reached the stairwell the screaming had fallen silent. Malvin
crept up the stairs, with Danny lagging behind. [_Our footfalls
are too loud_]. He put a shaking finger to his lips and turned to
Danny. The lad nodded in agreement; they took the rest of the steps
the top, Malvin turned to Danny and whispered: “We’ll go to the
door there on the landing and peek through the window.”
looked more like the merchandise with every passing second, nodded.
Keeping low, Malvin moved towards the door. [_My back is going to
kill in the morning. I’m too old for this_]. He slowly lifted his
head to the window and took a sharp intake of breath at the sight
that greeted him. Andrew Lansbury was standing in the corridor
beyond, foam dripping from his constantly chattering mouth. He was
behaving erratically, looking left and then right as if torn as to
which way to turn. The door to the room behind him – room nineteen
– was open and off its hinges. Where’s the merchandise?
against the wall and let his back slide down it until he was
sitting on the floor. “Shit, shit, shit!” He banged the back of his
head against the wall with every expletive. “Shit, shit, shit!”
said, squatting. “What is it?”
“Take a look.”
Malvin motioned to the door.
Danny stood and
peeked through the glass. “On shit.”
Danny Boy. We might as well stand against the wall ready for the
“What do you
[_Do I really
need to explain?_] “He probably had some sort of tool concealed
in his clothing. I guess he cut the thing’s chains and let it
loose. He probably thought it would remember who he was. But
merchandise don’t think, Danny Boy. Not like you and I.
Everything’s gone from up there in their head; only primal
“So . . . will
he just stand there in the corridor?”
“He? It’s not a
he anymore – it’s a thing! And it will stay right
there until it sees us. When it does, it’ll try and eat us.” Malvin
put his head in his hands. [_I liked this job. I actually liked
“Then . . . how
do we kill it?”
You’ve got to hit them in the brain.” Malvin got to his feet. He
looked around for something to use as a weapon. His eyes rested
upon a fire extinguisher hanging on the wall. That’s it.
“Danny Boy, I’ve got a job for you.” He lifted the fire
extinguisher from the wall. “You’re going to hit that thing with
“Will it kill
it?” Danny didn’t look convinced.
“Use it to
knock it to the floor, then hit it in the head with it over and
over again.” Malvin demonstrated.
“And what are
you going to do?”
“I’ll hold the
door and watch your back. The merchandise is probably still loose
in the hotel room, don’t forget.”
Danny ran his
hands through his shortly cropped hair. Malvin waited for an
answer. [_Come on, son. You can save both of our arses
said. “I’ll do it.”
boy.” Malvin slapped Danny on the back, feeling a sense of relief,
and then handed him the fire extinguisher. [_This could soon be
all over with_].
Danny held the
red canister at arm’s length, like it was a bomb about to explode.
“I’m really not sure this will work, boss.”
fine.” He took the boy by the shoulders and positioned him in front
of the door. Through the window, the thing that used to be Andrew
Lansbury was continuing to look left and then right, with foam
dripping off its chin.
Danny cried. “I think I’ve changed my mind.”
change your mind now, Danny Boy. You forgot to frisk him, remember?
It’s more your fault than mine.”
“Okay, I’ve got
this. I’ve got this.” Danny held the fire extinguisher above his
head. There were beads of sweat on his forehead.
Malvin stood by
the door. “Are you ready?”
“No.” Danny was
shaking his head and looked ready to cry.
“I’ll open the
door after three.”
“I don’t think
I can do this, boss.”
“Please . .
pulled on the door. The thing beyond it turned its head and let out
a shrill cry.
and then, with the fire extinguisher held high, ran at the thing
that used to be Andrew Lansbury. There was a dull clunk and
then the thing in the suit stumbled backwards. Malvin held the door
open, watching it all unfold. [_I’ll stay here, at a safe
distance_]. He couldn’t deny the boy was doing well, though.
Another dull clunk followed as Danny swung the fire
extinguisher at the thing’s jaw. The thing that used to be Andrew
Lansbury stumbled backwards again, but didn’t fall.
“Knock him to
the floor,” Malvin urged.
Danny swung the
fire extinguisher again, but this time he missed and went stumbling
into the wall, dropping the fire extinguisher onto his toes. He let
out a yowl and hopped around on his left leg.
But it was too
late. The thing that used to be Andrew Lansbury, teeth chomping,
foam spilling from its mouth like an overflowing bath of bubbles,
was on Danny in seconds. It opened its mouth and sunk its teeth
into Danny’s neck.
yelled. He was not a brave man, this he knew from experience, but
his own life was in danger too and he had to do something. He crept
forward as the thing forced Danny to the carpeted floor. Danny beat
his fists upon the thing’s face, but to no avail. The thing that
used to be Andrew Lansbury ripped skin and tendrils of flesh from
Danny’s neck, like it was a wild dog enjoying its kill. Malvin was
in touching distance of the fire extinguisher when the merchandise
charged from room nineteen. “Always keep the door to the room
closed,” he had told Danny earlier. “Never turn your back on them.”
If Malvin had been a second quicker he might have had chance to
grab the fire extinguisher and swing it at the fast-approaching
thing, but all he could do was push himself against the wall. [_I
really did like this job_], he thought as the merchandise with
its exposed bluing breasts sunk its teeth into the soft skin on his
neck. [_And there’s the third rule: Don’t go near their
mouths._] He fell to the carpeted floor next to Danny, hitting
his head on the fire extinguisher. As blood tricked down his neck
and dark fingers clouded his vision, he glimpsed a hacksaw on the
floor next to the thing feasting on Danny. [_You should have
frisked him, Danny Boy._]
Like waking from a deep
sleep, Malvin opened his eyes. From somewhere close came the sounds
of gunfire and shouting. Then an urgent hunger seized him. He got
to his feet and felt amazingly strong. Next to him stood a man, his
teeth chattering, foam flowing down his chin. Danny Boy. The
boy looked at him, his eyes full of anger. A noise rose from his
throat. A snarl, like that of a wild cat. Let’s eat, that
noise said. There were men standing beyond a door, Malvin saw, with
weapons raised. As Malvin charged, with Danny by his side, someone
shouted: “Aim for their legs; we want them undead.”
There was the
sound of gunfire and then Malvin’s legs seemed to disappear beneath
him. He fell forward, sprawling onto the carpet. Then he felt the
cold touch of metal around his neck. He was caught, he knew.
“We are in
urgent need of men. Take them both to the third floor and update
the paperwork. The hotel has two new merchandise.”
The Ghost and the
Be Careful What You
Thanks to: Paul Monkman for proofreading my work
(sometimes for little more than a few beers); my wife, Lindsay, for
tolerating my need to write; and you, the reader, for your