12 Dec The Duke’s Head
“The Duke’s Head”Written by Hank Belbin Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 54 minutes
Devon, England. October 1991
The Duke’s Head pub had been derelict for two years now; boarded up, condemned; but no one missed it. It had never been a place anyone wanted to visit. It was one of those buildings that should have been knocked down long ago; along with all the other relics of the 1700s. But it wasn’t knocked down. And now, after its closure, there it sat, a dilapidated ancient mess of bricks; faded, leaking, and grey. Clumps of brown moss grew unhindered out of every hole in its structure. Rag water dripped down from holes in the roof. Years of neglect had crumpled it in on itself. The pub had never done well, even in the height of summer when tourists from all over the country flocked to area for staycations. There it remained, just off the main road, alone, neglected, decaying into ruin; its only clientele now being drifters and junkies who squatted in its leaking skeleton to shoot up.
The reason the pub had failed, among other things, was it was situated in a very awkward location. The building sat halfway down this long and lonely road that was seldom used by the local folk, instead only used as a quicker route down to Plymouth by visitors. There wasn’t much else on this bolt of tarmac save for the pub. South was Black Dog, the nearest village. North was a vast and gloomy pine forest that stretched all the way up to No-man’s-land and eventually a beach. And in between them laid the forlorn pub that had been forgotten about by everyone. Too far from the village, too inaccessible for walkers, too difficult to pull into. The only people who would be inclined to visit were people with cars; and the pub had only served drinks before it had closed down anyway, so that ruled out that niche clientele. It was just too isolated for anyone to bother visiting. The locals had all they needed in the village. Plenty of good watering holes there. The beach had fine seaside restaurants and bars for the tourists. No one had any need for the Duke’s Head.
As the years drew by, the pub had slowly faded into obscurity before finally nailing up its doors for good two years ago. Some things happened before it was boarded up—evil things, and that was enough of a reason to close it down permanently and ensure no one crossed its threshold again. Some people, local folk mainly, would mutter that the place was cursed; built over a gateway to the umbral plains; built over an ancient effigy of some primordial entity. Superstitions and bad omens seemed to hover around the place like a dark cloud. They would all say that there was something off with The Duke’s Head Pub. No one could explain what exactly, only that there was a restless aura surrounding it. When one looked at its past it was easy to see why they all thought that. In days of old there were rumors of witchcraft and Satanism. Goats from nearby farms went missing at regular intervals, and some mornings, after a full moon, the adjacent Dalch River would smell oddly copper-like and froth at its banks. In 1892, the establishment briefly shut its doors for unknown reasons before reopening again to muted response in 1893.
Since that reopening, there has been a permanent black cloud over The Duke’s Head. Every single previous owner had either committed suicide, gone psychotic, or gone bankrupt from trying to make the place work. The last owner, Mr. Michael Vincent, had gone mad in a fit of rage one night and chopped his family up before stuffing their parts down the drainage pipes. The next day he was found in the basement with a hatchet buried in his head. His doing. The last thing he had done with his sorry life was slam that rusty blade into his skull. There was no note, nor explanation; only a crumpled heap of overdue bills lying around his body in a semi-circle like fallen autumn leaves. In total there had been sixteen cases of murder at the Duke’s Head Pub. There were also three recorded suicides, two deaths of natural causes, four recorded disappearances, and ten cases of animal mutilation. All of them within the last hundred years. The building had consumed twenty-one souls. Twenty-one people died in there.
None of that fazed Ian Halbrin, however. He stood in front of the place proudly, hands on his hips, grinning to himself with a twinkle of triumph in his eyes. He’d just taken out a huge loan to buy the location. After weeks of back and forth with the banks, it was finally approved and he had bought the spot to the tune of a hundred thousand pounds. The deed had been signed and the place was his. An absolute steal, Ian smirked to himself as he marveled upon his project. He stood there in the cold grey air and just took it all in.
The locals were not happy that it was being opened once more, but unfortunately for them, Ian had powerful friends in the local council and planning permission departments. Brown envelopes and backhanders put the building on life support, and now, he was going to make the place work, nurse it back to health. Fifty thousand pounds more in renovations and the pub would be nothing short of spectacular. The potential practically oozing out of the faded brick walls in front of him. He could see it all now, rising out of the ruddy ether of his imagination—A bespoke country pub that served only the finest British cuisine. A brass and marble bar. Gorgeous brown leather chairs. Cultural art on the walls. Maybe a Mona Lisa? Or a Rembrandt? The outdoor area paved in the finest Italian sandstone. An outdoor barbecue spot to boot. Even the toilets would be all decked out with porcelain and marble. It would be somewhere you would have to book six months in advance to even get a window table. Somewhere they would actively turn away people who have not dressed appropriately. He loved the idea of that. What class. What sophistication. The thought rolled around in the waves of his mind like a precious emerald and made his belly feel warm.
Ian looked up at the long slate-tiled roof and smiled coyly to himself. A flock of ravens had perched themselves along the spine of the premises. They squawked and crowed at each other in the biting autumn wind.
The Duke’s Head pub was originally an old carriage house back in the 1800s. It served as a trading outpost between Plymouth and Tavistock. Back then, goods from the docks were carted up the dirt track and the travelers would often stop over in the Duke’s Head for rest. It was a big place, even with the low-bearing ceilings. It had six bedrooms, two upstairs bathrooms, and a large smoking room; all on the first floor. The bar area on the ground floor had three fireplaces and enough tables to seat a hundred people. The basement ran the length of the building and was only accessible from behind the bar. It served as the primary maintenance hub of the premises. Down there, it had a large wood burner complete with a back-burner, hot water tank, cold water tanks, and a pantry that could stock enough food for six months. Down there was where Michael Vincent had fed his family down the pipes. Down there was where his body was found.
Ian Halbrin knew all about it. He didn’t care. If anything, it was trivial to him. As the estate agent reluctantly showed him around, sweating, nervous, Ian wryly dismissed the building’s gruesome history entirely.
Stupid idiot, Ian smirked as the agent quickly showed Ian the basement. You’d have to be a bum to not make this work. You were just too weak to pull it off, he thought quietly to himself as he mocked the dead man. He put all of the events down to circumstance. Some must have been drunk, others were gypsies, most were too in over their heads to even see a way out. So, they turned to the only recourse they had left—death. Ian had read all the headlines and knew the whole story; he just didn’t care about any of it. There wasn’t a square meter of England’s green and pleasant land that hadn’t suffered some form of bloodshed or death through the ages. William Blake’s poem aside, Ian simply assumed he was better than the previous owners in every way. He always had a sense of superiority about him.
He was often abrasive with people. He had come up the hard way and had swilled around with nasty people before, but he believed himself to be better than those he consorted with. He was different. Driven, calculating, horrible, but most of all… ruthless. He’d cut a lot of people out in his climb to the top, including his own flesh and blood.
His brother had told him he was a man with delusions of grandeur. That was the last thing Jack said to him before Ian cut him out of the purchase too. He didn’t recognize the dream that Ian had. He was a stupid drunk, just like their father. The difference between the two was Ian used his rough upbringing to compound his desire for success, while his brother used it as an explanation for his failures. Jack was weak, and Ian hated him for it. Ian was the younger of the two, yet still proved himself to be the more mature and capable. He knew he was right to cut Jack out. He would have been a liability anyway. No doubt, after the monthly stock takes Ian would have found Jack down in the basement, sprawled next to an army of empty bottles, having drunk all the finest whiskey to himself; drinking himself into an unresponsive stupor, just like their useless father. He was always the weaker of the two brothers. And that was why he cut him out.
When the sale was agreed, sometime in September, Ian had called Jack in the evening and told him that he didn’t require his finances anymore; not that it was much of an offering anyway. Jack shouted; screamed even. He went into a violent diatribe and barked all sorts of obscenities at Ian. Ian simply smiled on the other end of the line. The bigger the bark, the smaller the bite, he thought callously. His brother’s words meant nothing to him. Jack then pleaded to be a partner. He needed the security. But all those appeals of goodwill and sibling camaraderie fell on deaf ears. Ian didn’t need Jack, didn’t need his father, didn’t need anyone to make his way. That phone call was the last time he had spoken to Jack.
Later, after the estate agent had handed over the keys and left in a hurry, Ian sauntered around the perimeter of the pub alone before stopping outside the entrance again. His waxed Barbour jacket and cashmere jumper kept him from feeling the worst of the weather. Ian admired the building. It made him feel nostalgic for a time that he was never a part of but seemingly remembered oddly. The front was made up of a dignified old gable with ancient Oak beams for struts. So archaic, so strong. Despite its appearance, the condemned and dilapidated building was beautiful to him. Sure, it was run-down, but he recognized the allure nonetheless. There was simply something enchanting about the building to him. How many souls had passed through its doors? he wondered. A little piece of history right here. And did those feet in ancient times… he began quoting Blake’s poem to himself but soon resigned himself to quiet reflection instead. He stood there and breathed in the fresh countryside air. All of it is beautiful.
Sally, one of the newly-hired waitresses maneuvered up next to Ian as he looked upon the place. She was a cute little thing. Ian hired her because she was pretty. He knew customers liked pretty waitresses. She had long blonde hair and a sophisticated presence about her. Someone with distinction. That was exactly what he was trying to create with the place—sophistication. Nice legs too.
Sally didn’t say anything as she ushered up to him; she merely smiled in acknowledgment at what he was looking at.
“This place is going to make a killing soon,” Ian said confidently, more to himself than anything else. A sort of self-acknowledgment.
“I think so,” Sally smiled. “I think, finally, you could be the person to make this place work.”
Ian looked across at her. He liked that compliment. He respected her faith in him. She would receive a pay rise when the place began to take hold. Maybe she could even become head concierge? Perhaps he would get to fuck her when the place was making serious money. He could see it in his mind—a salacious encounter after hours. She would come into his office and announce that the bar is all cleaned down. He would acknowledge it. She would move closer to him, sit coyly on his desk. He would look up at her with ambivalence. No doubt, she would thrust herself upon him and they would have sex right there on the office desk. He could see it all in the sparkle in her eyes.
“Well, anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow,” Sally grinned meekly.
“Okay, Sally,” Ian replied, making a point of emphasizing her name. “Thank you for all your hard work. I do appreciate it. I am just so glad I hired you.” He knew just what tone to use. The sincerity was unmistakable to her.
She blushed and looked at the gravel. “Wow… thank you. Um, so I’ll see you tomorrow then,” she said quietly as she walked away, a wry little smile crawling across her face as she looked back at him.
Ian winked at her. It was almost hilarious to him how easily he could manipulate people. But, all the same, something about her response whispered to him quietly that it was all going to work out. He liked her. She installed a certain sense of confidence in him whenever she was around. But beyond that, he just had a very good feeling about everything. He just knew it was all going to work.
One Month Later
The place was taking shape. Ian had been working fifteen-hour days since the day he had bought the spot, and for the first time in weeks, he recognized his work taking hold. He could see the fruition of his efforts and money. What was once a decrepit and hollow shell now gleamed like a lone jewel in the heart of a dark forest. A fresh breath of life filled the building. All the veritable contractors of Devon had been collectively working on it. The roof had been re-done with a fine clay tiling, the sullen and drab walls had been painted in a thick and luxurious beige masonry paint, the windowsills had been refitted with a superb Midnight granite all the way from India.
In one month, Ian had made the condemned old building come back to life. He imagined it as metaphorically raising the Titanic once more.
Ian had been there all day. It was well into the night when Sally came into his office again. She apologetically rapped on his door and then entered quietly. The door was open and anyone could clearly see that he was sat at his desk, yet she still felt the need to knock.
“Hi, Sally,” Ian said without looking up from the documents sprawled across his desk. He was writing something down in a ledger, scratching the Cross Classic Gold pen deep into the pages.
“Mr. Halbrin, sir,” she said and Ian felt a hot rush of lust coarse through his loins when she said ‘sir’.
“Yep?” He replied casually.
“We’ve finished for the day. All the stock is accounted for. Debbie has the count. The bar is looking good. All the kegs are loaded. We should be on schedule to open by Friday.”
“Brilliant. Is all the bespoke booze accounted for?”
“Yes, sir,” she muttered with her hands crossed in front of her.
Ian grinned. “You don’t need to call me ‘sir’, he said glibly, even though he liked it. “Just call me Ian for Christ’s sake,” he chided.
“Right,” Sally smirked. She stood there, tugged at her skirt, and rubbed her thighs shyly. Ian noticed. He looked up and smiled.
Was tonight the night? It was always how he imagined it. He knew she wanted him. Every day for the past month he had felt her lusty eyes fall upon him.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Sally looked away. There was something else in her eyes now. What was it?—reluctance? Ian waited, gently tapping his fingers on his ledger.
“Yeah. I’m fine… It’s just…” she said.
Sally squirmed to meet Ian’s gaze. Then she looked down at the corner of the room and felt ill for doing so. “… I don’t know how to say this without sounding stupid, but…”
“No, go on, honestly,” Ian said as he smiled reassuringly.
“It’s just… I heard some weird noises coming from the basement today. It was when Callum was moving the barrels down to the stock. Kind of gargling noises? It sounded like… voices…”
“Okay,” Ian replied with an air of dismissiveness.
“Yeah. I mean, it could have been anything, but they sounded like… they were talking to me…”
Ian frowned and just stared at her. Sally slowly recoiled.
“Talking to you?” he said after a long pause.
“Yeah. Like, they asked about my mum. And you know she’s sick. These sounds… they… they asked if she was going to live…”
“It’s an old building. Old plumbing. It tends to gargle because it’s so inadequate. It can sound like a lot of things, I guess. Don’t worry, though, it is on my list of things to do. It’s a glorified shed, you know?” he chuckled, then stopped when Sally wasn’t chuckling with him. He straightened and switched to a more serious tone. “But we’re getting there. It just needs re-jigging, is all.”
“Right,” Sally said, feeling unappeased. “It’s just this sound, it sounded like… my grandmother… and she’s been dead for about ten years now. I swear it was her voice. I remember her voice so clearly. When I heard it down there, I was like…”
There was a heavy silence as Sally hesitated. Ian smoldered and just looked at her. “Well, I don’t know what to say to that, Sally.”
Sally sighed and looked at Ian. “I know. I know…”
“Are you saying that you don’t want to work here anymore?”
“No! No, honestly! I want to be here,” she said a little too quickly. “It’s just…”
Sally fidgeted and rolled her fingers around in her palms. “There’s something… off with this place… I think. I don’t know how to explain it, but… it’s like the shadows move when you’re not looking.”
Ian Halbrin exhaled slowly and looked away from her. What a disappointment. Up until that point he had been incredibly attracted to her. He resigned himself to staring at the bookcase instead; it was all full of Shakespeare’s plays and Ancient Greek philosophers. He’d never read any of them but he felt it made him look more intelligent and gave his office an air of authority.
“Jesus Christ. You and all the others, huh?” Ian huffed. He leaned forward. “They told me about its history, you know? It’s just a fucking building, Sally. There’s nothing spooky about it. I know a few people have done themselves in here, but that’s the same for pretty much every hotel in the whole country. I implore you to find a single goddamn hotel that hasn’t suffered at least one suicide. Honestly, it doesn’t matter that a bunch of people checked out here. It’s just four walls and a bloody roof. There’s nothing malevolent about it. Okay? There’s no such thing as ghosts, or specters, or apparitions. This place is what it is. So, please, do not go down that road, because I just do not believe it.”
Ian then leaned back into his Camel-skin swivel chair. Sally stood before him quaking. She stopped just short of bursting out into tears. Her hands shook and she felt cold and sweaty suddenly. Ian looked her up and down and wondered if he could exploit her frailty and have sex with her now.
“Look, I’m sorry,” Ian said calmly. His voice was soft and warm. “I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just everyone around me keeps telling me this place is cursed or something. And I want this pub to work so badly; I know it will work. I can see it now. But for it to work, I need all the sailors rowing in the same direction, you know? Now I personally cannot see any ‘evil’ here. But if you said you heard something, or you felt something, or you don’t feel comfortable working here, then I will respect that and let you leave…”
“I know that,” Sally said, forcing a smile.
“Can I tell you a story?” Ian asked.
“Okay,” she said quietly. She wanted to grin at how gently he asked her.
“When I was a boy, me and my brother used to live near Epping Forest with our dad. My mother left when I was young. So for the majority of my childhood, it was just us three in this rundown cottage. Grandparents’ old house. And both my brother and my dad would do nothing but complain about how hard-dun-by they were and how cruel life can be. My dad was a religious man. Long story short he would often beat us both while quoting from the bible like a lunatic. He was also a superstitious man who had done some bad things in his time. Ex-con and all that. He felt as if God’s judgment was coming for him for all the sins he’d committed. And do you know what he did about it? Nothing. Drank himself to death on cheap spirits, blamed everyone but himself for the state of his existence; and I watched the whole thing. It was pathetic. He would go on and on about how the voices of God were guiding him to make amends, yet he did nothing. I was different from him; I knew I would never live like him and I would do anything to not follow in his footsteps. I left home and went to college, then university, and now I’m here. He would always listen to that doubting voice in his head telling him not to go anywhere— the self-destructive voice. He never did go anywhere and he died in a gutter,” Ian said and realized he was narrating his own story a little too morbidly. “What I’m saying is,” he then said, switching tones to a friendlier one, “ignore the voices. They only want to bring you down to their level… they will never help you. There’s a lot of confusion and people seeking to deceive you, but if you just believe in yourself and stay strong none of this can touch you. Don’t listen to the voices, listen to yourself,” Ian said and rounded off his speech with a measured silence for effect.
“Okay,” Sally smiled sheepishly after a pause.
“Okay?” Ian reaffirmed. “You’re doing a wonderful job, Sally,” he said calmly, then after letting her ponder, looked back down to his papers.
Sally nodded in agreement. “Sure. Thank you… Ian.”
Ian looked up once more and smiled, but only with half his mouth.
“Well, I better get moving. I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said and fluttered a shy wave in his direction. She moved too quickly for Ian to say anything else. She walked down the hall and down the narrow Victorian stairs then out the backdoor. Ian stood up and listened to her leave. When she was gone, he plunged his hands into his pockets and sighed. He thought tonight was the night.
“Dammit,” he muttered to himself. “She had a nice ass as well…”
He thought he had her with that cute little story about his childhood. Recounting it made him feel annoyed, however. He hated the delusional narrative of all things spiritual. Ian didn’t believe in anything supernatural, not like his dumb father, and he didn’t want any of his staff falling into that same pit of superstition.
He fell back into the chair and rubbed his furrowed brows, knowing the only thing left to do now was go over the projected earnings and expenses of the next month.
It was a little over an hour since Sally left. All the other staff had gone home for the night too and Ian was the only one left in the building. He knew it but it didn’t bother him. He liked the silence and solitude. It gave him room to think. There was a lot to be done before the big opening on Friday and he needed to make sure everything behind the scenes was squeaky clean.
It was midnight and he was still sitting alone at his desk, kitted out with flash stationery and leather-bound booklets that he knew he’d never use. Ian briefly noted that it would be the first night that he had stayed overnight at the place.
He was going over the stock register, ticking each correct entry off against the delivery note. He should really hire someone else to do it but he found it meditative. An antique clock ticked away sullenly on the wall behind. He looked away from his count for a moment and scanned his eyes over the layout of the room, nodding appreciatively to himself. There was an original Francis Bacon painting on one wall. The shelves were filled with trinkets: a Kukri knife, a Buddha head, and other small artifacts that Ian had collected along his travels. Everything in its right place, he mused. To Ian, it was all about the statement. He was born in April, a Taurus, which by the zodiac’s calendar, made him naturally materialistic; which he was. Ian always appreciated the finer things in life. He felt like after all the hard work he deserved them. That trait was only compounded by his meager upbringing. He wanted people to feel his authority whenever they stepped into his office.
One possession he treasured was a bottle of single malt Talisker whiskey. A gorgeous dark bottle imbued with gold inlays. It was gifted to him at a local business gala dinner in Epping. Ten years previous. Ian had received top awards for his contributions to the local community. He remembered getting his photo taken with the local mayor, the bottle in between them. He remembered rubbing shoulders with all the venerable members of the county council and celebrities alike; he thought at that moment, that he’d somehow eschewed his origins and was now a part of the elite clan. The current market price for it was more than what he’d paid for his saloon car. It was forty years old and only twelve were ever produced.
Ian looked across to the antique globe in the corner of his office, knowing it was lurking in there. As much as he would deny that he drank, he secretly adored the harsh taste of a warm whiskey with a splash of water. That was his favorite. But he knew he could not trust himself with it. He was aware he had the same disease as his family. Ian often became like his abusive father and his embittered brother if he drank; callous, aggressive, vindictive, and he could not allow that. Mr. Jekyll and Hyde himself. He’d ruined a few relationships because of it. Now, he would not concede and become like them. On the strong whiskey, he would become dangerous. He knew that.
But tonight was different. It was a cause for celebration. And he was on his own. He’d made it. The place was going to be a hit. What better reason could there be for a good hard drink? I have worked hard for this. I deserve this, he reaffirmed to himself.
Ian stood up and headed for the globe. He lifted the lid and reached inside the world to pull out the bottle. Then he sauntered back to his desk and plunked the bottle in front of him. He thought about it for a while, before pulling out a crystal tumbler and pouring himself four fingers worth of the forty-year-old whiskey. As he lifted the glass to his lips, he remembered his dad. In one ceremonious gesture, Ian looked down at the floor of his office and toasted his glass to it.
“Here’s to you dad, you old fuck. You said I’d never amount to anything. Yet I proved you wrong, didn’t I?”
With that, he gulped a fifth of the tumbler and winced as the whiskey slid down his throat, imagining his father to be down there in Hell. It was where he belonged. It was where Ian had wanted him to end up.
He leaned back into the chair and let the tingling euphoria take him over. All his hard work had culminated in this moment. The clock ticked lazily on the wall. He listened to it. A dull mantra. He’d been working crazy hours since he’d bought the place, and tonight was the first night he was allowed to relax. Tick-tock, Tick-tock, the clock went.
Ian let the buzz take him over. He leaned back deeper into the chair and groaned in satisfaction as he took another gulp with his eyes closed. He held the tumbler loosely in his hands. Somewhere below, wood creaked, like heavy footsteps walking over them. Ian heard it. He didn’t react, however. Maybe the floorboards were squirming? Temperature changes have that effect. It didn’t matter. The thought soon left him.
At some point, he felt the world fall away from him too. His head felt heavy against the leather-backed chair. He breathed in deeply through his nose and went loose. Ian slipped off into a doze.
Two Hours Later
There was a loud growling all of a sudden. Something gargling and sharp that sounded like the sputtering of pressured water. It jolted Ian awake and he shot up from his snooze, tossing his blazer from himself as he did. Then it was gone.
“What?” he barked out on auto-pilot, not quite sure where he was. “Hello?” he asked, but there was no reply.
Ian could’ve sworn he heard something. It was so distinct. He sat up in the reclining office chair and regarded the silence for a while. That sounded like water. What was that? Was that the pipes that Sally was on about? he thought. Although it didn’t quite sound right to him. It sounded very organic, like a noise an animal would make when trapped somewhere. Ian’s bleary eyes scanned lazily over his office. Only darkness now. The lights were all off for some reason save for a dull amber desk lamp twitching nervously in front of him. I don’t remember turning the lights off… nor turning that one on…
The desk light flickered, barely able to sustain a glow. Ian looked up and around at the office, trying to shake the fog from his mind. Nothing moved. He rubbed the dust from his eyes, coaxing some sort of vitality back to his face. How long had he been asleep?
He looked across at the ticking clock in the shadows—2:12 am.
Jesus, I’ve been napping for two hours? As he massaged his temples, he heard it again, quieter this time, further away—low rumblings and shuffling around down below in what he could only presume was coming from the bar area. His hands fell away from his face and he cocked his head to the side. Footsteps? Yelping?
“Hello?” Ian called out after squinting to listen. “Sally? Is that you?”
The silence was disorientating to him.
What is this? Are drunken teenagers casing the joint? Ian waited patiently for a few minutes before he disregarded the noises entirely. He shrugged and turned to his glass again. It’s nothing. Old pipes, he thought as he poured himself another drink and prepared to go back to sleep. He lifted it to his mouth and slurped the whole glass down this time.
10 minutes went by…
Just as he set the tumbler back onto the desk after another drink, it came yet again. Something downstairs was definitely rumbling. A swishing of liquids. Then it seemed to be all around him. Ian stood up from his chair and looked around at the walls, then the ceilings, then the floor, following the low trickling noise with his eyes. It moved and swirled all around him. What the fuck is that? Blocked pipes? He listened intently, making sure to control his breathing so he could better hear the strange noises.
After a few minutes of trying to trace the sound, he realized he better go check it out; just in case a pipe has exploded somewhere below and flooded all of the new bar area.
Ian headed for the light switch. He flicked it on, and without warning, the lights all around surged with an unnaturally intense effulgence. Ian squinted and looked away from the one burning in the center of the room in case the bulb burst onto him. It hummed as it illuminated sharply.
Then, without prelude, the whole room plunged into smothering darkness. The bulb just switched off. Ian jumped back and felt the dark loud against him with each breath. He tried to feel around for the edges of the room. Ian navigated slowly to the third drawer of his desk and pulled out a heavy metal flashlight. He held it firmly, almost as if it were comforting him, and he pushed the button down until a thick blue beam emitted and carved its way across the room. When it did, a short gasp of relief escaped him. At least that’s working. What the hell was that all about?
Ian assumed that the mains circuit had shorted out somewhere. Probably caused by all the old piping in the building. The mains switch and fuse box were in the basement, behind the pantry, right above the pipes, right above where Michael Vincent was found two years earlier.
In the dimness, Ian poured himself one more drink before he ventured out of his office. The biggest one yet. His hands were shaking and he didn’t know why. Something was not right. Something in the air? The lights everywhere were off and for the first time that night, he felt distinctly alone. He wanted a little bit of the ol’ ‘Dutch Courage’ before he investigated.
It went down hard and Ian licked his teeth to savor the flavor for a while longer. Then he headed for the door and gently pulled it open. Everything was quiet. The clicking of the lock sounded much louder in the silence.
Ian poked his head out and shone his torch in both directions down the hallway. Nothing there. Just the moon slanting its way through the Venetian blinds at the end. The trees outside were swaying gently in the wind.
Suddenly, in a wave of bravado, he realized he was being incredibly ridiculous and juvenile. What the hell am I doing? It’s a tripped fuse. Ian scoffed at his cowardice and took one firm step out of his office and into the hallway. The floorboards creaked and groaned under his feet, just like he heard them do earlier. Is someone else in the building with me? The thought ushered in a new wave of unease and paranoia. He stood there for a pause and looked ahead at the porcelain-white full moon filtering down onto him like some tableau. His breaths came out short and sharp. His heart was thumping in his ribcage now. Maybe there is?
He walked forward and the aged floorboards squirmed with each new step. Whatever noise he thought he heard had now vanished like the stir of autumn leaves. Ian crept forward some more. Each step was slow and calculated. He moved and moved, checking behind him as he did. When he almost rounded the corner to the stairs below, he stopped. Then the hollow beam of the flashlight cascaded downward over the darkness in the staircase.
“Hello?” He barked out sharply. But there was no reply. If they were there, they weren’t making their presence known.
He scanned slowly and squinted past the torchlight to see the pinewood floor of the downstairs bar area. Then he headed down. He imagined it was a break-in, and if he wasn’t careful, at any moment a gang of thugs with bats could ambush him and beat him up until dawn, or until Sally and the rest of the staff came back. It was at this point that Ian thought he should have brought a weapon down with him. Too late now. Perhaps he could find a wrench or a bat behind the bar?
Ian constantly checked behind himself as he moved forward. He didn’t know how to justify it but it was like a person was walking too close behind him, he just felt this shadow hanging off his back. He crept to the bar and then used the back staircase located behind the kitchen. It led down into the basement. He pulled the heavy wood and copper-imbued door open before once again surveying the staircase below.
“Nothing there,” he whispered to himself and wondered why he did so. Ian gripped the cold steel handrail and navigated slowly down to the bowels of the building. The heels of his Italian Calf-skin loafers clinked softly against the steel steps.
When he made it down to the basement, Ian headed past the rows of beer kegs and then to the back of the gloomy room. Usually, the basement was bathed in bright white lighting that ran the length, but now, with them all off, it looked like some forgotten and stygian crypt. There was a stench of dampness in the air. Perhaps it was coming from the floorboards above? The rafters had been there for over three hundred years. The torchlight caught mold spores and dust floating around in it, descending languidly from the ceiling.
Ian crept forward, past the pantry and the fridges. His torchlight fell on the fuse box in the corner on the back wall and he headed for it. He unlocked the beige metal door and gently pulled it open to reveal the fuse box’s bare skeleton underneath. A row of trip switches with plastic labels glued above each one. Ian drew his eyes across from left to right. ‘Fridge’, ‘cooker’, ‘bar area’, ‘toilets’, ‘outdoor back’, ‘basement’, so on. As he examined each switch, he noticed something strange. They had all been flicked off. Ian stood in the darkness for a pause and speculated as to how that was possible. If there was a power shortage, then surely only the mains switch would trip? Not all of them?
The most peculiar thing about it was the fuse box had been locked, and only Ian Halbrin had the key to it. Ian rubbed his furrowed brow and tried to remember whether he had switched them all off for some reason. I did drink a lot… No, it couldn’t have been me. ‘Cause, the lights only short-circuited when I got up to turn the office light on. So who the hell did it then?
After Ian became aggravated at trying to think of an explanation of how it happened, he grumbled and flicked back on each switch one by one before clicking the mains one up last. Like clockwork, all the lights ‘twink-twinked’ and then came on without hesitation. The basement was awash with a harsh white light once more. Everything grumbled back to life. All the industrial fridges and freezers whooshed and buzzed as they went through their cycles. The building sucked in a long gulp of electricity and was alive again.
Ian waited by the fuse box for a minute, looking up at the run of halogen lights ahead, just in case they tripped again. After he was satisfied that it wasn’t going to shut off, he nodded, content, then locked the fuse box back up.
As he headed back down the length of the basement, past the now humming fridges, he heard that noise again. Only it wasn’t coming from the basement where he’d previously thought it was. Instead, it seemed to be coming from above him… from his office. It sounded like… footsteps again? He stopped and looked up at the ceiling of the basement. Thick black jack-rafters ran across the white ceiling at meter intervals.
Then there was a loud thud from the floor above. It came from his office. It sounded like something heavy slamming against the hardwood floor. A clothes rack? A picture frame? A book?
Someone’s in my office. They tripped the switches to get me out so they could… what? Ian pondered then realized. Get to my safe! It has all my bank details in there. His reluctance morphed into anger. Ian raced up the stairs out of the basement and headed for his office. Any number of culprits could be responsible. He knew a few dodgy people who weren’t above robbing one of their pals. A list of possible names flew through his thoughts as he dashed out from behind the bar. With everything now glowing a warm amber, Ian didn’t feel as on edge. He whizzed past the copper and marble dining area, leapt up the stairs, and thundered down the hallway to the door of his office. Standing outside, catching his breath once more, he could hear the strange bubbling noises emanating from the other side of the door. He imagined it as a cauldron simmering away, or an over-boiling kettle, but he didn’t have a kettle in his office.
Ian sucked in a sharp breath and reached out to clasp the brass doorknob. He twisted it and held the door in its place. Then with one thrust he pushed the door open and stepped into his office to confront the assailant. When he did though, he confronted only silence. The noises ceased the instant the door had opened. And his office was exactly how he had left it. Nothing was out of place. No books had fallen from the shelves. Nothing.
But he had heard the noises as clear as he would hear the phone ringing, whiskey or no whiskey. He stood in the center of the room completely bewildered and slightly drunk, utterly convinced he had heard something. In the stillness now there was only the absence of sound. Ian rubbed his face and then slapped himself, denying his gut feeling. Come on, Ian. Stop this stupid game. Nothing is going on! You’re just tired. Anyone working as many hours as you would be burned out. I haven’t had any dinner and been drinking tonight. No wonder I’m hearing things…
He grunted and maneuvered behind the desk and fell into the chair with a groan of tedium. Seeing the night as utterly wasted now he poured himself the rest of the bottle and drank greedily. Then he put the vinyl player on to his favorite album and kicked off his loafers before propping his feet up on the desk.
A Forest by The Cure began to play on the vinyl. He crossed his arms behind his head and closed his eyes. He was beyond sleep, but all the same, he felt as if he was in a trance-like state, or maybe a dream. Perhaps he could fall asleep once more if he concentrated.
“Come closer and see. See into the dark. Just follow your eyes. Just follow your eyes…”
Ian opened his eyes slowly and let the amber light bleed into his vision. He stared at the ceiling frowning. Something was wrong. The song had repeated the same line at least ten times. The vinyl had gotten stuck and was now replayed the same verse over and over. Ian straightened up from his calm and stood over the vinyl player with his hands thrust into his pockets; the vinyl spinning around aimlessly as the lyrics filled the room.
“Come closer and see. See into the dark. Just follow your eyes. Just follow your eyes…”
Does nothing in this place fucking work? Ian groused. He yanked the needle from the vinyl and had the overwhelming desire to take his fist and smash it right in the center of the cheap Chinese knockoff of a Garrard 301/401 player. He restrained himself and switched it off, pulling the plug from the wall instead. Then the room was quiet. Just calm down Ian… You’re stressed. Just chill out…
Ian exhaled deeply, trying to breathe the annoyance out of his lungs. He looked up from the player and caught a glimpse of himself reflecting in the glass of an old painting. He was happy with what he saw. Sharp, chiseled features with perfectly quaffed brown hair. This is the face of the new Duke’s Head, Ian thought arrogantly. He could see it on the front page of the local chronicle now. ‘Property developer turns around condemned pub’, the headline would say. A photo of him standing outside shaking hands with the mayor.
He imagined all the local people gossiping to each other about how good-looking he was and how successful the place is. Two days away from the grand opening and everything was looking good. All he needed to do was keep the ship on course and make sure to fix the lights so they didn’t trip out on the big night. He would call the electrician in the morning.
He knew the place would be a hit. The celebrity guest list was already completely full and he’d bolstered the numbers with some of his local council pals. He’d greased their palms to get the planning applications through quickly and it seemed appropriate to invite them to the event as appreciation. After all, he never knew when he would need someone like them again.
But, all the success of the place was because of him and him alone. No one else had the gall to take on the Duke’s Head, except for Ian. He gazed at his reflection and smirked to himself acknowledging that fact.
As he admired his lean face, the clock next to him slowed, then stopped ticking completely, landing on 3:13 am exactly. He didn’t notice.
All of a sudden, Ian felt a bitter chill course its way through him. It was like something was breathing on the back of his neck. What was that? Something he’d felt before, when he was outside, near the back of the building. He’d felt it more so than ever tonight. Something in the air. A heaviness, or some kind of a deathly presence. Smelt like … sulfur. Ian sniffed. Methane, gas, and all the other rotting smells straight from the cosmos crawled up his nose, making him gag.
Without warning, the vinyl player hissed and snapped back into life. “Come closer and see. See into the dark. Just follow your eyes. Just follow your eyes…”
Ian jumped back and darted his gaze down to it. The song continued to loop around over and over, dragging itself slower with each repetition of the chorus. Ian, completely stunned, peered around at the back of the thing and saw that it was both unplugged at the wall and the needle was not on the vinyl, instead it was hovering nervously above the pitch-black disc. His mouth dropped with astonishment. How is that possible?
Something else in the room changed. With the decaying music, the room seemed to grow darker; the song lagged so much so that the words of the lyrics melted into each other in unison with the dying light.
“Cooooomme cloosserrr annnnd seeeeeeeee intooooo theeee darrrrrk. Juuuyyst fffolllooooowww youuuur eyyyyyyeeesssssss. Juuuuuuuusssssssstttt ffoooooollllllooowwww yyouuuuurrrr eyeeeeeeesssssssssss…”
The song soon became indistinguishable, blurring into white noise. He stopped, turned away from the player, and looked around—footsteps coming from outside now, in the hallway, low and trotting. He focused on the closed door of his office. His gaze fell to the floor. At the foot of it, he saw the lights on the other side fade quietly into darkness. Another tripped fuse? The silence widened around him and the atmosphere seemed like it had dropped somehow. The air began to vibrate unnaturally. A low hum flowed through the walls. What the hell is this?
Ian looked at the time. The clock on the wall read 3.13 am yet Ian was confident he hadn’t fallen asleep; so how had an hour gone by? Ian stood behind his desk, completely unsure of what to do next. He wrestled to control his panting in the quiet. Down below, he heard the footsteps he had been hearing all night. Slow drudging footsteps across the hardwood floor; like someone with a stump for a leg wandering around aimlessly.
Then he heard a voice he had not heard since late September. The sound of it horrified him.
“Iaaaaaan, you must feeeeeeed the pipes,” Jack’s ghostly voice gargled quietly from somewhere down in the bar area. The color drained from Ian’s face. An icy shiver scraped its way down his spine and Ian sincerely wondered whether the stories about The Duke’s Head were true after all. The voice he heard didn’t sound natural. It had a metallic guttural rasp to it which didn’t sound entirely human. This is beyond a joke now… What the hell is going on?
Ian hesitantly crept forward on the balls of his feet like a digitigrade. He reached up, took the Kukri knife from its place on the shelf and unsheathed it, holding the glistening blade out in front like an axe. With his free hand, he reached out for the door and felt the cold bite of the brass doorknob. The door creaked open and Ian peered into the empty hallway, the blade above him, ready to swing down onto whoever it was out there.
“Hello?” Ian called out. “Jack, is that you?” Ian asked, trying to mask the veneer of panic in his voice.
“Come closer and see. See into the dark. Just follow your eyes, just follow your eyes…” Jack replied from down below.
The hairs stood up on his neck. He heard Jack’s voice much clearer this time. He pulled the door wide-open and stepped into the hallway.
After a long and drawn-out silence, “Come on, Jack, stop fucking around…”
There was no response.
Ian had no choice but to go and check it out. He slipped down the stairs and eventually into the main bar area to investigate. The wind howled ceaselessly outside and the fog rolled against the dark windows. The whole building seemed to be humming, thumping, like a heartbeat. The floor below Ian’s bare feet was rumbling like an idling engine. This is not real. This is a dream, ain’t it?
Ian briefly entertained the notion that it was all a big prank set up by Jack to make him feel guilty. Perhaps he had brought a few mates along with him? Or maybe it was a scheme by the resident drug addicts to scare Ian away? The thought of that gave Ian a sudden rush of anger, but it was false; in reality, Ian simply hoped that it was indeed just a prank. It would be much easier to deal with if that were the case.
“Listen, if you’re trying to play games with me; maybe you’re crackheads, you know? You want me gone so you can carry on shooting the dragon in here; this is not that place anymore! Okay?” Ian barked out to the room, but he was only met with the eerie humming of the building and the relentless gales outside. He snuck forward into the tenebrous dark and began checking behind curtains and under tables.
“You lot need to get out of here before I call the police. They will be here in fifteen minutes flat to cart you away. So what do you say? Huh? Just fuck off now and leave the goods and I won’t report this; but, if you do…”
“…Feeeed the piiiiipes!” Jack’s voice growled lowly in response. Ian snapped around and tried to see Jack. He looked and tried to hone in on where the voice was issuing from. Jack repeated the sentence, “Feed the pipes…”
Ian’s gaze fell over cow-skin-backed chairs, oak tables with brass inlays. Somewhere in the dining area, Jack’s voice echoed. “Feed the pipes… Feed. The. Pipes…”
It seemed like it was coming from under one of the tables in the dining room. The center table with a giant gold chandelier hanging precariously above. A long white cloth draped over it, reaching down to the floor.
“Jack?” Ian said as he edged towards it. “Jack, come on out.”
Ian knelt next to the table and snatched up the cloth, expecting to find Jack huddled under there in a whiskey-soaked frenzy, giggling and swearing to himself, just like their father. The cloth at the other end of the table wafted up with the sudden jerk. But there was no Jack. Ian just stared at the table legs, completely taken back by what was happening. How could any of this be possible? Ian imagined himself to be in some sort of fever-dream. No doubt he would jerk back up in his chair in his office any second now, soaked in a cold sweat. It must be a nightmare. There was no other plausible explanation. He’d been feeling oddly disconnected since midnight, since… he had that whiskey… That’s it! The bottle! The people at that bloody gala dinner must have spiked it as a prank! Ten years later and I’ve just had a big hit of acid?
The realization dawned on him and he almost laughed to himself. You idiot. You must be high as a fucking kite right now? He chuckled and prepared to stay up. As he turned away, smirking to himself, assuming that his pupils were like two jet-black dinner plates, he heard the pitter-patter of something dripping onto the hardwood floor at the other end of the table. It sounded like water dripping onto a scolding hot frying pan.
‘Psssst, psst, pssst.’
What’s that? Ian looked under the table once more and reeled back at what he saw. His heart leapt into his throat.
A pair of feet gently sunk into view at the other end of the table, as if they were being lowered down. They were coated in a loathsome black ichor that dripped down from their toes. The substance bubbled and smoked as each drop hit the wood. The skin on the legs was sickly pale and had no hair on it. And the shines were stick-thin and sinewy. The talon-like feet touched the hardwood floor and the legs stood there, not moving.
“Whaaat the fuuuck?” Ian whispered to himself, gasping. He stared at the pale feet. Nothing moved for what seemed like eons to Ian, he just laid there on his chest, too scared to run away.
“Dad is here…” a voice from above the table said after a tense pause. Ian didn’t move; he couldn’t take command of himself. His whole body shuddered with terror.
“Jack?” Ian asked.
“He told me to tell you that you always had delusions of grandeur. He said you will never amount to anything.”
“Jack?” Ian growled and lurched up from the floor, slamming his head hard against the underside of the table as he did. Ian fell facedown onto the floor with a thump.
When he came around again, the dull ringing in his ears subsiding, he opened his eyes and saw something hovering over him. What is that?— a shadow? There was a throbbing pain in the center of his skull, sharp and constant, and he felt sick to the bone all over. Between the thick pulsing pain, he could make out a lot of muffled conversations and laughter all around him. He squinted and tried to look up at where the voices were coming from. Blinding coruscating lights pierced his retinas; twinkling amber danced in his peripheries. The shadow above became clearer as it moved towards him. Ian blinked slowly and tried to focus his gaze. Now, standing over Ian was a well-dressed waiter, reaching down to help him up. What sounded like more clapping and laughter echoed all around Ian. Where am I? Ian thought while trying not to vomit.
The waiter was wearing an immaculate tuxedo and white gloves. He smiled as he held his hand out to Ian. Ian looked up at him bleary-eyed. As the waiter pulled him to his feet and dusted him off, a crowd of dinner guests all cheered and toasted their glasses of champagne. Ian rubbed his face and tried to concentrate on what was happening. He scanned across the crowd at the scene. The jazz band continued playing and all the gala guests in their tuxedos and dresses went merrily back to their conversations. The waiter straightened Ian’s bowtie for him and patted him on the shoulder.
“A marvelous party trick, sir. You had us all thoroughly convinced there!” the unnamed waiter chortled.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Ian asked, his eyes still not quite focusing on anything.
“However, I wouldn’t try that again, Sir. You don’t want to bang your head, do you?”
Ian glanced at the waiter with bewilderment. He caught a man over the waiter’s shoulder, someone he didn’t know, wearing a midnight-blue tuxedo. The man acknowledged Ian and raised his tumbler to him, smirking as he did.
“Where the fuck am I?” Ian asked, disorientated and nauseous.
The waiter smiled wryly, but only half of his mouth. “… Where you’ve been all night—the Duke’s Head. This is your big night after all.”
He had thin lips—just a dark red slit that seemed to draw back in glee. They made Ian feel uncomfortable for some unexplainable reason.
Ian looked around in a daze. He was in the main dining area of the Duke’s Head pub, right by the table where he’d been looking under for Jack. The room was alive with the clinking of glasses and the smug laughter of the dinner guests. The fire roared in the fireplace and cigar smoke wafted up from corners of the room. Ian looked around vacantly, trying to recall the events that led up to this moment.
“What about the feet?” He asked.
“I saw a pair of pale… I was… looking for Jack. Where is he?” Ian asked, coughing a tickle out of his throat.
“He’s here. I believe he’s by the bar,” the waiter said dismissively.
“Take me to him. I need to know.”
“In time,” the waiter acknowledged, and then he stepped closer. “There is one thing you need to do first, sir. It’s very important if you want the night to be a success.”
Ian cocked his head, unsure of what the waiter was implying. “A success? What’s that?”
The waiter grinned with a sheen of malice. The whites of his teeth glistened under the lights. He reached out to pat Ian once more on the shoulder.
“Feed the pipes, sir,” he said calmly. It was as if he was requesting that Ian put more logs on the fire. The request was so innocuous.
Ian stared back at the waiter. “What?” he snapped. “What the fuck do you mean?”
The waiter’s hand dropped from Ian’s shoulder and he leaned into Ian’s space. “Feed. The. Pipes…” he said.
The waiter practically snarled it at Ian and the whole room noticed. They all turned to face the pair. The band stopped playing and all the guests were now staring at them. Some were sneering and shaking their heads disapprovingly. Ian looked around at the anonymous crowd, then back to the waiter.
“Look, I don’t understand. What do you mean?” Ian begged.
The waiter simply smiled. “To keep them out,” he said while gesturing to the floor, “you must feed the pipes…”
The waiter took hold of Ian firmly. “It comes with the lease.”
“Take your hands off me!” Ian bellowed.
The waiter gripped Ian and pushed him one step back until he almost fell backwards over the table.
“Feed the pipes!” the waiter shouted. “Call Sally, call all of them, tell them to come back here then feed the pipes!” the waiter hissed. “They must be satiated.”
“I don’t know what you mean!” Ian shouted, trying to break free of the waiter’s tremendous grip. It was like a mechanical vice had taken him by the shoulders and held him in place.
“Feed the pipes, Ian!” the waiter sneered.
The guests crowded around him too. Everyone in the room set down their glasses and moved closer. One by one the guests joined in. “Feed the pipes! Feed the pipes!”
Ian looked around at all of their empty pale faces; their eyes glowed with a fiery red each; a demonic twinkling of brimstone.
Ian shook his head in disbelief. “This isn’t real. I’m fucking high. I’m tripping. I’m dreaming,” he whispered to himself as he spun around at all the guests shouting at him. They barked and bayed in unison, “Feed the pipes. Feed the pipes! Feed the pipes!”
Ian stumbled and fell. The shouting rose into a crescendo. The unknown waiter slithered back into the rows of people and disappeared from view.
“Feed the pipes, feed the pipes, feed the pipes, feed the pipes, feed the pipes!” they all yelled like an obscene choir. The voices were unbearable, spilling over each other, chanting, screaming at Ian.
“Feed the pipes, feed the pipes, feed the pipes, feed the pipes, feed the pipes!”
Ian clasped his ears and tried to block the voices out. “Stop!” he screamed, but they would not stop. His head was swimming and he felt like he was about to pass out.
“ Feed the pipes, feed the pipes, feed the pipes, feed the pipes, feed the pipes!”
The room spun around in a dizzying haze of colors. Ian pushed his hands hard against his ears and tried to force his eyes shut. The blur of tuxedos and dresses smeared into black.
“This isn’t real. This isn’t real. I’m tripping. This isn’t real,” Ian muttered to himself, desperately trying to reassure himself that it was all a bad dream. The room whirled into darkness. The shouting of the mob slowly withdrew like the cold tides. The warmth and the glow of the party grew faint with it. Then the room fell silent apart from Ian.
“This isn’t real. This isn’t real. This isn’t real,” Ian muttered to himself. He had been doing so for what seemed like days. In between the insane mumblings, Ian solemnly wondered whether he would ever sober up from the trip or if this was how he would be from now on. He felt his mind decaying, losing its tenuous grip on reality; what would no doubt remain would be a husk of a man, the shell of Ian Halbrin. Headlines will say he went crazy in the pub one night—just like all the others. That would be all that remained of his legacy. Just another ignominious end to a hard and pointless life.
When the room was quiet once more, he finally opened his eyes to view only an empty bar area. The party guests had vanished. The smoking and dining area was desolate now. An icy draft crept its way through the empty rooms followed only by an eerie silence. There was ash and smoldering embers scattered on the floor. The tables and chairs all around were caved in, cut up, and broken. Parts of the floorboards had been put through and all the bottles behind the bar were smashed; the shards were strewn across the marble bar like twinkling stars in the abyssal hollow of space.
He was huddled on the floor in the middle of the room, sitting cross-legged, jabbering inanely to himself; just like his brother would do in a similar stupor. How long had he been there? The wind howled and clawed at the windows, trying to find its way in. Dark brown fetid water dripped down from gashes in the ceiling. Yet Ian remained there on the floor for hours more, refusing to acknowledge his surroundings. He began to truly believe that he would never leave the room. He simply stared ahead, across the room, at the sickeningly tall pale figure standing against the back wall. The thing didn’t move. There was no escaping the building with it there; Ian knew that.
It was almost imperceptible against the dark wall, but Ian was sure it was there; he was sure it was the waiter and it would not let him leave. Ian stared up at its absent face intently. The whole building was humming lowly and trembling, the noises laden with foreboding.
“This isn’t fuckin’ real,” he rambled to himself over and over.
Palls of black smoke hovered around the rooms. The clock above the bar read 3:13 am. It ticked and ticked but still, the hands did not edge forward. Time stopped and Ian and the specter were locked into a stare-down.
“Why are you sitting there?” the pale humanoid figure at the back wall asked Ian, its dreadfully thick metallic rasp echoing off the walls.
“This can’t be real. I’m tripping,” Ian continued mumbling.
“Come closer and see…” its voice rose further out of the shadows.
After an indiscernible amount of time passed, Ian finally replied. “See what?” he asked from the floor.
“Jaaaaack,” the voice teased from the yawning blackness in the corner of the room.
“I don’t understand…” Ian replied. The walls vibrated, seemingly laughing at Ian’s despair.
He looked all around into the shrouded corners of the room. Then he dropped his gaze back to where the thing in the corner had been.
Above where the voice emanated from, a harsh white halogen light suddenly snapped on and illuminated a small scene. It was a little bathroom where the corner booths of the main dining area should have been. The walls were now a tobacco-stained white tiling with mold and mildew spots in the corners, instead of the large Picasso painting and exposed red brick walls. In the middle of the rank exhibition was a dull beige bathtub with a dripping tap. The dirty shower curtain was pulled back like the revealing proscenium curtain on a stage. And in the bath was a body. Draped over the side was a limp and lifeless hand. Crimson drops fell from its fingertips.
Ian rolled onto his feet and stood upright for the first time in hours. He was battered, cuts and bruises all over his body. His shirt was ripped and the dried blood from his head wound was sticky against his face. He wearily limped over to the corner scene where the light twitched above the bathtub, holding his hand out as he did, groping at the air. Ian believed somehow that he recognized the bathroom from somewhere, but he couldn’t place where exactly.
When he came to its edge, he saw it. He gasped and gripped his mouth tight to stop himself from crying.
Lying in the bath was his brother, lying in the red water was Jack.
Ian shuddered and cried. The sight of it made his heart seize up and his chest draw tight. The room was quiet save for Ian. He leaned down to look at the body. When Jack’s dull lifeless face rolled up to regard his brother, Ian could not restrain himself anymore.
“Oh, Jack…” Ian wept. “What have you done?”
“This was you…” Jack mouthed.
Ian grimaced. “I don’t understand,” he said as he looked at the swirls of blood flowing around in the cold water.
“This happened tonight because of you. You left me behind,” Jack accused.
“No, I didn’t.”
“But you did,” Jack’s corpse smiled. “And I left two hours ago.”
“Right here in this bathtub. Hot water and a cold razor…”
Ian gazed down in disbelief at his brother’s shriveled and pale body, the downward lacerations visible on his forearms. A cheap bottle of supermarket whiskey sat next to the bath. A bloodied Bic razor blade thrown on the floor too. It was all too much to comprehend anymore.
“Jack, listen, I’m sorry! Okay! I’m sorry!” Ian wept desperately, kneeling down to the corpse. “… I didn’t think you were up to it. I couldn’t have that risk! I needed this place to work. Do you know how much money I’ve spent to get this off the ground? You were always more like dad, and dad was… I’m sorry!”
“It’s too late Ian.”
“I just wanted you to know it’s your fault… I only wanted to help you, and you took my money and threw me to the curb. Because of you, I’m with dad now…”
“Jack, I’m sorry!” Ian shouted, shaking the body, but there was no response from Jack’s lifeless corpse anymore. Ian stared down into his hollow fish-like eyes and saw there was nothing there. He was gone, and it was Ian’s fault. Out of everyone he should have helped, it was his brother. Jack was the only other member of his family still above ground. Ian remembered briefly the times when they were both children. They were so close back then. They would play in the woods near their house for hours, pretending to be shopkeepers, soldiers, heroes. And now he’s dead, down there in Hell with their father. All of this because Ian wanted to keep all the profits of the Duke’s Head Pub for himself. Years of dismissing and neglecting Jack suddenly culminated into a cutting resounding guilt that hurt in the pit of his stomach. Ian began to sob uncontrollably, holding the corpse, begging for a response or some sort of forgiveness, but none came. He closed his eyes for what seemed like a long time.
“No,” Ian whimpered as he held the cold body. He wanted to scream until his face collapsed in on itself, to claw his eyes out so he would never see another thing. Ian wanted to shut it all out. He cried and cried. Above the bathroom, the Pale thing hovered, watching.
After a long time, Ian opened his eyes again to find everything evaporating in front of him as if it were built out of smoke and shadows. The body of his brother fell away in his hands like ash in the winds. He looked down at his empty palms and watched the particles blow into nothingness.
“Oh no… please… stay…” he begged.
His mind recoiled and prepared to depart forever. The thought of Jack being gone now made Ian feel truly sick and overwrought.
“I can bring him back,” the loathsome alien voice echoed above Ian.
“He’s not dead! You’re a fucking liar!” Ian wailed.
The pale humanoid shadow simply chuckled. Its presence was all around him now, over him, in his mind. Ian was in the midst of this horrible maelstrom that he couldn’t seem to escape from. Ian clutched his face in his hands, refusing to believe it all. The thing was trying to trick him. It wasn’t even real. Jack was alive. Ian was tripping on 10-year-old acid and 24-year-old scotch. None of this was real. Ian just had to keep reminding himself of that fact. Soon, the hallucinations would stop and everything would be back to normal. But Ian didn’t believe that it was a hallucination anymore. The pale thing knew too much—what if it was right and Jack was gone? This could be his only chance to bring him back.
“Feed the pipes, Ian. I can bring him back,” the thing said.
Ian sobbed and knew that he had no way out now. He would have to do what this thing wanted if he would have Jack back.
“How?” Ian asked, resigning himself to the task.
“Below the basement, there is a room. Take them there and feed the pipes.”
“How do I get to it?”
With that, the door behind the bar creaked open. Ian looked around at it. The blackness was eager to escape.
“See into the dark. Just follow your eyes,” the creature jibbed.
Ian stood up from the corner of the room, moved towards it, stumbling over debris and broken furniture; it was as if he was being dragged along on rails. He was no longer in control of his body. Something else was pulling him along now. He had to make this right. There were no choices anymore.
He headed for the concierge phone and picked it up. It was cold to the touch and the plastic stuck to his skin. He raised it to his ear and spoke when she answered.
“Sally—It’s Ian. I need you to come to the Duke’s Head right away. We have a big problem,” Ian said in a detached monotone voice.
After Sally agreed to come back, Ian put the phone back on the receiver and sauntered behind the bar, towards the stairwell down to the basement. Was this it? Was this how all the others went out? It doesn’t matter now. Ian would do anything to bring his brother back; he could see that now. For the matter of his sanity, Ian had to bring Jack back. Ian felt utterly disconnected from his body as he headed down into the basement to find the chamber and prepare.
Down there, behind the wall where Michael Vincent was found, there was a stairwell carved out of the rock. Ian had smashed the wall through with a sledgehammer to reveal a gaping hollow that led through a fissure and into cold dread. He stepped over the brick wall and went in. Then he began to navigate slowly down the steps, holding his Zippo lighter outstretched in front of him; the dim flame barely illuminating the way ahead.
The steps didn’t appear to be man-made. They looked like they could have been created by some underwater river eons ago. But Ian began to wonder if they were created by something totally different instead. How old is this place? he reflected softly. The cavernous walls of the tunnel were wet to the touch and it was silent in there save for the odd dripping of stale water. Pointed stalactites hung from the ceiling like a stream of blades. Along with a draft, there was a nauseating stench of rotting meat and wet fabric radiating from somewhere further below. It was beyond smell; beyond stench; it was an impenetrable loathsome miasma of stink that burned as it slithered up Ian’s nose. It was the same sulfuric smell he had smelt all night, only stronger.
He went on. Ian didn’t know how long he had been heading downward for, only that he could no longer see the lights from the basement twinkling behind him. It was as if it had sealed up the instant he climbed in. The rock, the air, everything seemed to be closing in around him the further in he went. Darkness prevailed. His stomach went in knots and he felt as if he was about to faint. That heaviness was in the air again. Ian was smothered by it, enveloped by the impenetrable claustrophobic gloom. Soon his senses left him. Ian felt as if his body was swishing around in a pool of thick salty water as he reluctantly headed down the rugged stairs deeper into the primordial hole.
He knew what he was about to do was completely wrong. He’d never killed anyone before, but beyond that, he did not want to murder six innocent people just to bring back one guilty person. He just couldn’t do that, but it seemed he was left with little choice.
When Ian came into the chamber, he saw the grotesque effigy immediately. His heart sank. At the end of the cavernous tomb was a stone statue of a tall and pale humanoid figure. It was him—the Pale Man, the waiter. Ian gasped as his eyes fell fully on it in the darkness. The effigy sat on top of a pile of decaying skulls and ripped clothes. It had four arms, two of which were clasped together in silent prayer; the other two stretched upwards to the ceiling of the chamber, holding their palms out flat to capture what was dripping from the ceiling. Above the two outstretched hands were old pipes made out of clay. From them, a thick black ichor fell into the awaiting palms of the Pale Man—blood. It was the sacrificial chamber from days of old. Ian saw below the figure all the skulls of the previous offerings. He briefly wondered which bones belonged to Michael Vincent’s wife, his son, his daughter. He also wondered where his own would sit amongst the tattered remnants of humanity.
Ian turned around. He definitely could no longer see the way back out. All around the walls sloped down and back, headlong into pitch-black nothingness. In an instant, he knew it was never the thing’s plan to give Jack back to Ian in exchange for the others. He was trapped in the chamber with the effigy. The realization ushered in an overwhelming heaviness in him. With that, Ian faced the thing again and resigned himself to his fate. It was blindingly obvious to him what would happen next—he would die down there in the impalpable lightless dark and his skull would be thrown on to the pile with all the others, and no one would ever know what happened at the Duke’s Head pub. He was soon to join his father, where they both belonged—Hell. Ian stood in the emptiness, contemplating his end, letting the thought take over him. It was not how he thought he would die. He imagined it to be forty years from this moment, on a beach in Italy. But in a peculiar way, he believed he didn’t deserve it to end like that. This death was much more deserving of him.
The figure before him moved its head almost imperceptibly towards Ian. Without moving, it spoke. There were no facial features on the figure yet Ian imagined it to be smiling.
“Bring me blood or Jack will stay there with your father forever.”
“… They’re coming. Won’t be long now,” Ian replied in a sullen tone. “Show me Jack is still alive first…”
“He’s not alive!” The effigy hissed. “But I can bring him back…”
“How do I know?”
“You saw him…”
Ian shook his head. For some unexplainable reason that just didn’t make sense to him. He just didn’t believe it. He knew the thing was lying. It was never going to honor their agreement. It was lying—but how? Ian thought for a long time. Then, between the numbing fear and silent dread, Ian had an epiphany. That’s it! he thought.
It practically shot its way up his spinal column as he realized something—the bathroom where Jack was supposedly dead was not his own, it was their grandmother’s bathroom. A bathroom Ian hadn’t seen since he was five years old yet he knew he recognized it when saw it there in the corner of the Duke’s Head pub. He remembered the awful shower curtain anew. It had flowers on it. The bath was one of them Victorian baths and the black paint on the legs had begun to flake off. He remembered the smell of medicine and iodine in there. It was all an illusion, a con, a deception; which meant Jack wasn’t dead. This thing was trying to trick him, just like it had done so to all the others.
The revelation breathed a new wave of resilience into Ian’s tired body.
“You have until sunrise to feed them or Jack will be gone forever…” it said to him.
“You’re a liar,” Ian screamed at it. “He’s still alive and I know it…”
“BRING THEM TO ME!! FEED THE PIPES!!!” The effigy growled in response. Its volume deafening in the echoing tomb.
The statue never moved, Ian just felt its hollow stare on him; wherever he stood in the stygian chamber, the thing’s hateful gaze would follow him. There was no escape. As much as he believed Jack was still alive now Ian knew he would never leave the tomb. But he would not allow this pale creature to have the others. There was no other recourse. The last thing he was going to do with his cruel and depraved life was something noble.
With one big sigh of defeat, Ian fell to his knees in front of the thing, groveling at the base of the pyramid of skulls.
“You can’t have them… but you can have me,” he said.
“I already haaaaaave youuuuuu! I want them tooooooooo!”
“Well, you can’t,” Ian said defiantly. “It’s me or nothing.”
“Death will not be the end,” the eldritch menhir said. “You will die here and I shall feast upon your soul for all eternity, as I have done so to all the sons and daughters of man; and then shall you know my true name…”
“So be it…” Ian said and was astonished at this unanticipated surge of nobility. He really meant it. Never before in his whole life had he put others before himself. But with everything that had happened, it seemed like the right thing to do now.
“So be it,” the pale stone effigy replied, acknowledging Ian’s request.
Ian felt the air run cold, colder than it already was. Something dark, shadowy and swirling rose up from the pyramid of skulls and moved towards him. He clicked the Zippo lighter shut and slid it into his pocket. Then he closed his eyes in the darkness and prepared for the final curtain. He didn’t want to see what it was about to do to him.
But the bitter release of death never came. Instead, just as Ian felt the deathly presence crawl closer to him, he heard something ringing from behind him. He frowned and imagined it to be a part of his damnation, but it wasn’t.
What’s that? It’s coming from above. It sounds like ringing. It sounds like a… PHONE!
His eyes bulged open. Ian leapt up from his knees, bolted around and began running in the direction of the noise, away from the chasing shadow. He held his hands out in front of him as he ran up the inchoate staircase back to the basement. He didn’t want to even consider whether he was imagining it or not, all he could indulge was that if it was real then he could use the sound to find his way back out. He wheezed and wailed as he hurled himself up the primeval steps. The notion that he could escape was driving him on, pumping him full of adrenaline. As he scurried up the shaft, he saw ahead of him the unfurling hole to the basement. It was real. The white light emitting at the top of the tunnel was like a single gibbous moon against a matte black night sky. The phone was still buzzing somewhere up there. Ian scraped and banged his body against the walls of the cavern as he pushed forward towards the light, towards the phone. Perhaps it was Sally ringing back? Maybe even Jack?
He kept scrambling up. The light was getting closer, so close he could almost reach out and touch it. Behind Ian, the pale man’s voice screeched after him. It was on his heels, the eldritch force chasing him up the shaft as he ran. Ian yelped as he rushed forward, daring not to look behind him. He was a whirlwind of fear and pure survival instinct. He’d gone from certain-death, to a-fleeting-chance, to so-close-he-could-touch-it, to almost-certain-death again in the space of ten seconds. He climbed and ran until his muscles felt like they were filled with battery acid. Everything hurt.
Ian finally burst out of the tunnel and slammed onto the concrete floor of the basement in front of him. Laying on the cold surface, he panted in relief and tried to catch his breath. A single tear ran down his face. Then he remembered the dreadful specter behind him. He flipped over onto his back and gazed back down the tunnel to see if it was there, in the twilight, staring back at him from beyond the threshold. But there was nothing in the black hole in the wall.
He clambered to his feet and paused, staring down into the abyss he had just escaped. The phone had stopped ringing up in the bar area and Ian briefly wondered whether it was coincidence or providence that had brought him out. Whether he would make it out of the basement now or not was something he wasn’t even considering anymore. There was another reason why he had found a way out, and he knew what it was straight away.
If this was to be the end, then he would have to swallow his pride and do the right thing before he checked out of the hotel. The thing could not be found. No one else could come to the Duke’s Head. Ian would have to destroy the building and bury the morbidly ancient deity along with it.
There was only one way to do that. He turned and headed to the row of beer kegs. Unplugging the gas lines from each, he instantly smelt the potent methane gas spew out and slowly fill the room. The next few minutes were a frenzied blur of ripping the rest of the pipes from walls and slashing the other gas tubes. Soon, the whole basement was swimming in a thick haze of vapor. Then, the lights tripped off and the backup generators jerked on. A carbon monoxide alarm began blaring incessantly while the basement was awash in dark red emergency lighting.
“Ok, you fucker, you want blood? Hope you like it warm!” Ian cursed as he backed away from the kegs.
Ian then headed up the stairs to the bar area before he passed out from the fumes. He needed one more gulp of fresh air before he died. Turning and looking back down into the basement, Ian imagined the pulsing red lights and the horrible maelstrom of poisonous gas below his feet to be the gateway to Hell. In essence, it was. The Duke’s Head pub was truly evil. If only he had listened to everyone.
No one else can ever come here.
After waiting a few more moments at the top of the stairs for the basement to fill with the gas, Ian took his Zippo lighter from his pocket once more and held it gently in his hand. It was a gold Zippo USA lighter carved in the Venetian style. On the bottom was an engraving from Jack. It was a birthday present from him to Ian five years ago, the last present anyone had bothered to buy him. Ian allowed himself a small sniffle and tear before he flicked the lid open.
The flint ignited and the flame danced in the twilight, begging to be thrown down there into the pit of carcinogenic air. Ian thought he should say something; a recognition of the fact he was about to destroy all his hard work and dreams to bury an ancient evil. Instead, he stood there at the top of the stairs, struggling to find the right words. He thought of Jack and could only hope that Jack was still alive somewhere out there and somehow—when he would hear the news that Ian had died—he would forgive Ian for what he had done.
Ian let out one final sigh then threw it in. The lighter dropped into darkness. The entrance to Hell burst into a mushroom of debris, smoke, and flames. The Duke’s Head pub exploded. Giant chunks of brick and wood flung into the air. Glass and tiles and chairs scattered across the land like charred confetti. The forest behind glowed unnaturally with the flames from the building, candescent in the twilight. The aftermath of billowing smoke and effulgence from the crater was seen for miles around, all the way from Black Dog.
Then the fire died down and it was quiet again.
Just after sunrise, Ian’s body was found. Sally and Tom, the head chef, had pulled into the carpark to find only a smoking ruin where the Duke’s Head pub used to be. Plumes of thick black smoke billowed up from cinder and into the grey morning sky in ash-stained benediction. Sally clasped at her mouth in disbelief. What had happened? Where was everyone else? The ragged and charred stretch of concrete where the pub used to sit looked like the aftermath of a Blitzkrieg campaign. The early morning breeze carried with it the stench of death and methane as it blew languidly across the carpark.
Sally and Tom stood in the eerie quiet, too afraid to move any closer. Eventually, they went around the back of what remained; that’s when they found him; with the first hints of sunrise coming up in front of his lifeless body. She found Ian lying face down in the back garden near an overturned picnic bench. Tom, after seeing the body, immediately jumped back into his car to find the nearest phone and call for the police. He slammed it into reverse and kicked up shards of gravel as he pulled away. Sally stayed with Ian. She knelt down to his corpse laying there pitifully in the grass. But when she reached down to touch him, he groaned.
“Oh my god, Ian! You’re alive,” she squealed as she drew her hand away instinctively. Then she rolled him over fully onto his back and he yelped in agony. When Sally gazed upon the bloodied tangle of what was left of his face, she could not help but gasp. It looked like tenderized steak; seared up the left side, eyebrow singed; and one of his eyes was swollen shut. Yet the other eye lazily looked up at her with warm familiarity. He was still there. Blood was seeping from all over his body; his clothing had been slashed to pieces by shrapnel from the explosion. He looked like someone who’d just been run over by an 18-wheeler. But he looked like he was going to be alright.
“Sally,” he croaked, trying to raise his hand to her. She grasped it and held it tight.
“I’m here. It’s me,” she said and suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of affection for the man who was her boss. “What happened?” she asked.
Ian coughed phlegm and tar out of his lungs. “You were right. I’m sorry. There was something else there… down in the basement,” he rasped between wheezing breaths. “Something old…”
Sally drew back in horror. “What do you mean?”
Ian tried sitting up to face her, he clasped desperately at her collar. “It got inside my head, Sally. It could see my memories. It used them. I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. I can’t stop thinking about it…”
He began blubbering as he searched for the right words to explain. They never came. Sally didn’t know what to say either. She could only hug him gently in reassurance. They sat quietly together, him sniveling in her arms. Sally had never seen a person so distraught before.
Tom came back with a whole cavalcade of emergency service vehicles in tow. By this point, Ian was able to sit up and was taking sips of water from a bottle Sally had with her. She had wrapped her coat over him to shield him from the freezing autumn air. She never left his side. As he leaned against her, he could not help but notice her attentiveness. She really cared for him. No one else in the world showed as much affection towards him as she did. With everything that had happened, he suddenly wondered if he secretly had feelings for her. He’d always felt something towards her, but what it was he could not codify. Perhaps it was simply after the traumatic night he’d just endured it was nice to have something not try to kill him now. But he felt truly safe with her.
He didn’t tell her any more of what happened the night before; only that he wanted to be taken away from the building as soon as possible.
The police cordoned off the area and E.O.D conducted their searches of what remained of the Duke’s head. They interviewed Ian briefly before he was taken to Plymouth General Hospital. Sally went with him in the ambulance.
When the E.O.D and forensics teams had finished their searches later that day, the police strung blue and white police tape across the whole area and boarded the remains up. They didn’t find a thing; only that the explosion was possibly caused by a gas leak.
One Year Later
Ian had made a full recovery and Jack was alive. When Ian was in intensive care, Jack came and visited him daily. The two reconciled finally. Sally would visit Ian too, bringing him flowers and reading the paper to him. Behind his bandages, he would smirk at the headlines and what was going on out there in the world. England began its qualification campaign for the 1994 FIFA world cup with a 1-1 draw against Norway at Wembley. John Major had been announcing the closure of all the coal mines across the country.
Ian and Sally would eventually marry. They had a small wedding on a beach in Cornwall. Ian also went on to set up an estate agents business with his brother. Jack had been sober for over twelve months when the pair made their first million pounds through the business.
Ian still had nightmares about the Duke’s Head pub and what lay beneath it. He would still wake up in cold sweats, thinking he was still trapped down there in that tomb with the effigy. He never told anyone about the Pale Man and we had almost done that night. He was still unsure himself whether it all truly happened or not; he could only recall that night in an odd lingering kind of way; like a childhood nightmare or a fever dream. It all seemed so far away yet the feelings were still very strong. He never spoke of the place, but in the small hours of the evenings, when he was on his own, he still believed somewhere out there that thing still existed and that maybe it always had done.
Just as it did three years previously, the Duke’s Head pub now laid crumpled in the dirt of its own predestination. A burnt-out and blackened whisper of the past. A collapsed pile of rubble and ash, now filled in with all the mystery and unknown horrors of the universe. No one ever went near the building again. No one dared to confront the rumors: that there was an ancient evil lingering under the foundations, silently waiting for its next offering. No one wanted to know. So it sat there year after year, a grim reminder of what could be out there in the furthest reaches of oblivion: the notion that there are forces beyond humanity’s comprehension, and humanity would do well to stay in blissful ignorance of them. Some things are best kept unknown.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Hank BelbinPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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