Had I guessed where the answers would lead, I would not have asked Victor Reynolds, the janitor, what he knew about the children of the Greystorm Building. But authors -- especially those who are fascinated by the macabre -- are an inquisitive lot, and neither the threat of injury to body or sanity will stop them when in pursuit of the perfect tale.
So far during my investigation, Victor presented the most promising piece of the puzzle. A quiet man, he went about his daily chores without calling attention to himself. But I had seen him peeking out his door fearfully when I walked down the hall. I had seen fright dance a ballet over his features when someone mentioned the disappearances. He knew something -- something important -- and I eventually approached him with questions about the secrets he kept bottled up inside.
In response, he stared at me, his mouth trembling, and said nothing.
I did not intend to become angry with him. Friendliness, I believed, would take me farther than hostility. When he refused to acknowledge my questions, however, I felt my face grow warm and I reached out to grab him by the arm.
"You have to tell me, Victor."
The older man looked away. Everyone who lived in the apartment building knew that, except when it came to mechanical repair, a skill at which he excelled, Victor's mental capacity was not great. When he answered, not looking towards me, he seemed sluggish and unsure. "I . . . can't. You won't . . . believe me."
"No! I ain't telling anybody!"
He gazed at me briefly, and I took a step back. His expression, the intensity of which startled me, was a mutating mixture of anger and fear. He shoved me aside and rushed down the hall.
I sighed and walked up the stairs to the second floor. The steps groaned more loudly with every passing day. The Greystorm Building, I thought, would not be standing much longer. Once, when the building had been constructed over fifty years ago, it had been a top-of-the-line hotel in
one of the fanciest, most prosperous, neighborhoods of the city. Now the building teetered on the edge of condemnation, dim in the long shadows of taller, more advanced skyscrapers. Iron bars covered every window, taking the places of beautiful hand-crafted shutters. Inside, decorative wallpaper had peeled away, revealing yellowed plaster. After Brandon Greystorm passed away, a large corporation -- the name of which no one remembered -- purchased the building and converted it from a hotel into low income apartments. I had lived there for a little over a year, watching people come and go, listening to the voices of others through the paper-thin walls, sitting at my manual typewriter well into the night, dreaming of the day when I would be able to move on to something better.
I unlocked the door and entered my studio apartment. A sleeper/sofa sat opposite the door. My typewriter sat in the middle of the room, on top of a desk I had picked up for a few dollars at a garage sale. My father had given me the typewriter when I started college, and I still used it, even though a few of the keys stuck and it was next to impossible to find ribbon for. A few feet away was a bookshelf. I had been writing young adult horror novels under a pseudonym for the past three years. But even though four of the Mr. Morbid Presents series were in publication, I was far from earning the money or respect that I wanted.
All I needed was one story. The perfect story.
Some newspapers were piled on the floor beside the sofa. I had read them before, over and over, but I picked one up as I sat down. It was three weeks old, and the pages had been folded back to a small article circled in red ink. It read:
THIRD GREYSTORM CHILD VANISHES
Yet another child has disappeared from the Greystorm apartment building, located downtown on Wilheimer Avenue. Reggie Armstrong, who has lived in the building for three years, discovered that his son, Willis, age seven, was missing at eight o'clock on Monday morning.
"I put him to bed, tucked him in, just like always," Armstrong said. "And when I went to check on him the next day, he was gone."
Within the past two months, three children in all have disappeared from the Greystorm Building.
Police are looking into the case but have not yet found any answers. . . .
Swearing, I threw the paper aside. The police investigation had lasted no more than a few hours, just long enough for a few token questions to be asked. They were concerned with more important crimes. Nobody cared about the problems within a run-down apartment building. A news story about a missing child would have once been on the front page. Now the headlines
were so small, the story so brief, that one might miss it if not looking closely. More sensational news took top billing. Few people wanted to know about such everyday tragedies. But I was right in the middle of it all. I knew that hidden somewhere in the Greystorm Building were the answers that would solve the mystery and give me material for a story that would be worth the effort.
I sat on the couch for a while, doing nothing, alone with my thoughts, drifting into a state between awareness and sleep. I couldn't write. Not yet. Trying to work on any other story would only distract me, obscure my ideas for a masterpiece.
Suddenly, someone banged on the door so forcefully that the rattling frame threatened to come loose from the wall. I wasn't sure how long I had been on the couch before being roused by the noise. More than a few hours, I guessed, because through the window I saw that the sun throbbed red from behind nearby buildings. Stumbling from my seat, I went to answer the knocking.
"Mr. Bishop!" a frantic voice called from the hallway. "Mr. Bishop!"
When I pulled the door open, Elizabeth Harris, who lived just down the hall, greeted me. Her eyes were red and wet. Her mouth hung open. She held her hands to her chest, clenched tightly together.
"Liz. What's wrong?"
"I've seen her, Mr. Bishop." Although I often asked her to drop the formal titles, she insisted on calling me Mr. Bishop. "I've seen Becky!"
I ran a hand through my hair. Becky, Elizabeth's daughter, had disappeared a week earlier. Elizabeth, normally very attractive, looked tired and old. The past few days had been torture for her, sapping her of strength and, quite possibly, her mind. I doubted that she had really seen her child . . . but could I afford not to listen to her? I asked her to show me where she had seen Becky.
"I was doing some laundry downstairs. When I came up, I saw her. Right down there." She pointed to the end of the hall. "You're the only other person on this floor now. So I came to get your help."
She grabbed my hand and pulled me after her. One of the light bulbs at that end of the hall had shorted out. Another flickered. We stepped into shadow, where doors stood on either side.
"She was standing right here. Then I lost sight of her. I think she went in one of the rooms."
I tried the door on the left. The handle was loose, but wouldn't turn. The door on the right would not open either. "Locked."
"I know I saw her, Mr. Bishop," she said. "Maybe she locked the door."
I took her hand. "Okay. Maybe she did. But why would she lock her own mother out?"
Elizabeth looked down. "I . . . I don't know."
"Look. It's okay. You're tired. Why don't we go back to your place and talk about this? I'm sure we can figure something out."
"Maybe you're right."
A half empty bottle of whiskey sat on the cluttered coffee table in her apartment.. Next to it, a small leather-bound book. Becky's diary. Elizabeth and I talked for a couple of hours. She apologized for seeming so crazy and for disturbing me, and she thanked me for being such a help. I tried to comfort her, assuring her that everything would be fine, Becky would be found, and they'd be reunited. I couldn't help staring at that diary. What clues might it contain? Eventually, Elizabeth nodded off to sleep. I covered her with a quilt which hung on the back of the couch and quietly let myself out -- but not before grabbing the diary. Elizabeth wouldn't miss it for a few hours.
Locking myself in my apartment, I thumbed through Becky's diary. For the most part, the painstakingly handwritten entries were nothing more than standard school girl fare. The last few pages, however, intrigued me:
Another kid is gone. This time it was Jimmy Kreegan from down the hall. I hear some people say he ran away. I hope they are right, because I'm the only one that's left. Jimmy used to pull my hair in class but I didn't want anything bad to happen to him.
I asked mamma if we could move because I been hearing noises, just like the ones Sarah told me about before she disappeared. I think they're coming for me. Mamma cried and said we couldn't afford to go some place new.
I don't sleep any more. I go to school awful tired and Mrs. Brewer jumped all over me for being slack. I'm scared they'll get me if I sleep.
Mamma says that keeping a diary will make me smarter. She says it will keep me from being scared if I write about what's happening, too. I think she told me that so I wouldn't bother her. I'm so scared that I almost wet my pants when I see a shadow. And if I was smart I could figure out how to stop them from getting me.
Some mistakenly believe that those who pass their time writing stories concerned with ghouls, mass-murderers, and vampires are the hardest people to frighten. Quite the contrary, spending time delving into the darker aspects of the imagination causes one to become more paranoid -- more unsure -- about the world around them. While paging through the diary, I sat
shivering, jumping at every sound, no matter how minuscule, horrified by the implications of a little girl's writing.
Still, reading the diary presented no new avenues of exploration. Only after I had finished did I chance upon something of interest. As I closed the book I noticed something scrawled in a margin, written quickly and barely legible:
Mr. Willerby -- he scares me.
Willerby lived by himself on the third floor, a friendly old gentleman, who I would had never before been suspected of anything foul. He never caused a disturbance and rarely left except to visit a neighbor, to go to the grocery store, or to eat dinner at George's Grill. This last activity bordered on habit. Almost every evening at exactly six o'clock he went to the tiny restaurant across the street, returning a little under an hour later. I had always thought him to be one of the nicest people in the Greystorm Building. Now, with my curiosity fueled, I found myself attempting to recall any signs of strange behavior he had displayed.
I called upon Mr. Willerby that night. Luckily, by the time I knocked on his door, my initial anxieties were fading or I would have seemed a nervous wreck. In all likelihood, I decided, Becky's fears were unfounded. I did not, however, let my guard down. As a writer of children's fiction, I considered myself well versed on the workings of a child's mind. They could be incredibly perceptive at times.
The door creaked open a few inches. Mr. Willerby peeked out. "Who is it?"
"It's Marcus. From downstairs. Marcus Bishop."
"Oh, yes. Hold on a moment, would you?"
He pushed the door shut, and for several seconds I stayed in the hall. Then the door opened wide, and Mr. Willerby let me enter.
"You'll have to excuse the wait," he said. "An old man doesn't get many visitors, and he doesn't have cause to keep the place too tidy. I just didn't want you to see a mess."
"I hope I'm not intruding."
"Not at all. Not at all. To tell the truth, I was a bit lonely."
An olive green sofa almost completely filled the living room. A few bookcases, filled with more knickknacks than books, lined the walls. Several black and white photographs decorated the room, as did a calendar with a print of a flower garden.
"What can I do for you?" Mr. Willerby asked.
At this point I found myself at a loss for words. I had been anticipating the visit for hours, yet I hadn't considered an excuse for coming. "I just wanted to make sure everything was all right with you. You know, with all that's going on."
"I'm fine. I appreciate the concern, though. I tell you, a fella can get fidgety when something strange starts happening."
"I know what you mean," I said, not thinking he looked "fidgety" at all.
"Can I get you something to drink? Coke? Tea?"
"Actually, some water would be nice."
He walked into the kitchen, leaving me alone, which is exactly what I wanted. I had asked for water because I wanted to be able to hear the faucet in the kitchen running. That way, I would know when Willerby was returning, and I wouldn't be caught snooping. Scanning the bookcases, I saw little of interest. Just some old paperback westerns and some garage sale variety statuettes.
From the kitchen, Willerby said, "It certainly is nice of you to stop by like this. I tell all the folks at George's that there's a writer living in my building that's going to be famous. They sure are impressed."
I moved to examine the pictures. Most were of Willerby, a woman, and a teenage boy. The calendar, a beacon of floral colors surrounded by the white of the wall and the dull graininess of the photos, caught my eye. A single date was marked, noting the birthday of someone named Evan. I heard the clinking of glass from the kitchen and the faucet was shut off. Quickly, I flipped to the calendar page for last month. Two more dates were marked as birthdays.
"I brought some crackers, too," Mr. Willerby said, coming around the corner. I jumped away from the calendar, hoping he hadn't seen. "I thought you might be hungry."
I pointed to the photos and, trying to keep my voice steady, asked, "Is this your family?"
He put the tray on the coffee table. "Yes. That's Martha and Rich. My wife and son. They . . . died some time ago. An automobile accident."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"It's all right. It's been a long while." He looked at the tray. "Don't you want your water?"
"No. No, thanks. I'm sorry. I just realized that I need to get back to work. I've got to go. Sorry."
I let myself out before Willerby could respond. I walked quickly down the hall, breathing heavily, my nerves completely shot.
The birthdays on Willerby's calendar were familiar to me.
They were the dates on which the children disappeared!
I didn't go to my apartment. Instead, I all but jumped down the two flights of stairs to the first floor. Victor lived just down the hall. I started calling him before I reached his door. I saw him look out, then try to close the door when he saw me. But I shoved my foot inside and forced my way in.
"You've got to tell me what you know, Victor!"
Shaking his head, he backed away.
"Yes! This is important!"
He looked as if he would scream.
"Victor, I'm trying to help the children," I said, knowing that I couldn't do anything for the missing children, but also knowing that it was the only way to get Victor to talk to me. "Don't you want to help them?"
"You'll think I'm nuts," he said.
"No. I won't. I need to know."
Without further encouragement, he spoke, starting slowly, but building up speed until his sentences almost blurred together, as if he wanted to get the words out of his mouth and be done with it, as if he wanted nobody else to hear.
"I never told anybody about this before. I was scared people would think I'm nuts. But they think that, anyhow, don't they? So I guess it don't matter.
"Couple of weeks back, I was up in the attic, looking for some carpet cleaner I put there. I couldn't find it. Somebody swiped it, I guess. I was looking around up there and I hear these sounds. Out of the blue, I hear whistling and singing, only the song ain't like nothing I've heard before. I listen to the radio a lot. I know most of the words. It was coming from the roof, so I climbed up to take a look.
"I didn't stick my head out very far, but I saw shadows moving around. I could hear better, but the song still didn't make sense. It sounded like they was just wagging their tongues around in their mouths.
"Then there was this noise, sort of like trains make when they hit the brakes too fast. I jumped down and ran home, but not before I saw this thing, sort of like a bat -- only big -- flying up from the roof, straight up, like it was heading towards the moon.
"That ain't the worst part, though, Mr. Bishop. The worst part was that singing. Cause -- God help me -- it sounded like children!"
My heart pounded brutally. Fear, was it? Or excitement? I was close to the end of the mystery. I could feel it. "I need you to show me, Victor."
He nodded. "I'll show you. But I won't go up there."
"That's all I'm asking."
Victor led me to the top floor of the Greystorm building without saying a word. That level, stripped out of all plumbing and walls, served as a storage area. Buckets of paint, boxes, and mildewed and rat-infested furniture had been shoved into corners and piled haphazardly on the floor. A ladder stood against one wall, leading to a small trap door.
"Will you wait here for me?" I asked Victor.
He nodded and handed me a flashlight he had brought with him. "Hurry up. I don't like it here."
Crawling up the ladder, I pushed the trap door open, and squeezed through. Cold wind blasted me immediately. Dark clouds slithered overhead. Occasionally, when the undulating cloud formations broke, I caught a glimpse of the stars. Air vents, which lined either side of the roof, spun in the wind.
"See anything?" Victor called from below.
I looked around for several minutes. Whatever happened here, I thought, is over and done. I'm wasting my time. Then, as I walked back to the ladder, I spotted something in the beam of the flashlight. I knelt. Tiny droplets of reddish-brown speckled the roof. I scratched at one, and it disintegrated into dust. Dried blood. The droplets were sparse around the edges of the roof, but grew more concentrated in the center.
"Find something?" Victor called.
As I turned to answer, I saw that one of the air vents to my left had stopped spinning, only momentarily, as if something was stopping it. Something inside. I no longer felt alone or safe on the roof. I hurried to the ladder, crawled down, and closed the door.
"Are we done?" Victor asked.
"Not yet," I said, catching my breath. "I need one more favor."
"What is it?"
"I need you to let me into Mr. Willerby's apartment when he goes to dinner tomorrow night."
Victor shook his head. "Nothing doing. I could get in trouble for that. That's illegal."
"Nobody will know."
"They wouldn't let me live here if I helped you."
"Okay, Victor. Just give me your key. I'll do this myself. If I get caught, I'll say you knew nothing about it."
"I don't know." He scratched his head.
"I wouldn't ask you to do this if it wasn't necessary."
"Okay." Victor handed me his master key. "But remember your promise. I don't know you have that."
"I will. Thank you, Victor."
I did not sleep that evening. Although I hoped to be well rested for the following day's events, I tossed and turned, barely able to stay still for a moment. Becky had heard things before she disappeared . . . heard things in the walls. Perhaps something crawled in the spaces I couldn't see -- through the air ducts! Perhaps something watched now, just as it had watched from the vent on the roof. Still, I stayed in bed late the following morning, plotting the steps I would take. I ate lightly, because in my nervous condition I didn't believe I could tolerate heavy foods. I waited as patiently as possible through the day, watching the clock, going over my plans mentally again, whispering a brief prayer, even though I was not religious. One thing more. I pocketed the revolver that I had bought when I moved to the city. I was not skilled with the weapon, but I didn't want to take any chances. When I was certain that Willerby had gone on his evening trip, I headed upstairs.
Reaching the third floor, I saw that the majority of the lights were out. A short in the wiring, I assumed, which Victor was no doubt working hard to correct. I thought, for a moment, I spied a small figure standing at the end of the hall. I blinked, and the figure vanished. I attributed the brief delusion to lack of sleep and approached the door to Willerby's apartment.
I knocked just to make sure that he was out, unlocked the door, and let myself in. My theory was simple. Mr. Willerby knew something about the missing children. The calendar bore the fact out. Yesterday, when I had called on him, he would not let me in until he had "straightened up." I believed that he had not been cleaning at all, but hiding some vital evidence. I intended to find what he had hidden.
Time was short, so I rushed through the rooms, checking under couch cushions, behind books, in kitchen drawers and cabinets. Nothing. I searched the bathroom without luck. The closets, also, revealed nothing. I wondered if Willerby had disposed of the evidence after my visit. In
the bedroom, however, I spotted something. The hiding place was so obvious that I almost overlooked it. A canvas tarp lay, folded and wrinkled, under the bed. The tarp might have been unspectacular if not for the droplets of reddish brown that sprinkled the white cloth.
Pulling the cloth, I found it to be heavy, as if wrapped around something. I yanked at it, and it came from under the bed, spilling its loathsome contents across the floor.
Skeletal remains flew from the covering as if leaping to attack me before crashing to the floor. Not scattered bones, but complete skeletons, still held in their proper formations, four in all, the skeletons of children.
I scrambled back, pulling the pistol, almost choking.
The bones were picked completely clean, as if some force had sucked all flesh and tissue away from the framework. What could have done such a thing? I looked at the bloodstained tarp, the knife, and the book.
The book was little more than a composition notepad, the kind my English teachers used to make me keep journals in. I flipped it open. The yellowed pages crinkled. Written in faded pencil, the title page read: Of the Calling and Sealing of an Oath With He Who Should Not Be Named.
I might have read further if I hadn't heard the door open. I tried to push the tarp and its contents back under the bed. Willerby had returned. I had been caught. I turned, aiming the pistol at the bedroom door.
He stood there, that emaciated sorcerer, his face contorted in surprise and anger. "What are you doing here?"
"Don't move!" I yelled. My hands shook. I couldn't hold the pistol steady.
Willerby looked from the bones, to the door to the hall, to the revolver, trying to decided if he should test me or not. I couldn't be sure if I could shoot him if necessary. I only wanted a second or two to think.
"Get out!" he snapped. "Get out of my home!"
"I'm not going anywhere." I looked for a phone. "I'm calling the police."
Somewhere, within the rotting walls, something stirred, sliding against the wood, hissing or maybe whispering. I glanced at the air vent and saw the rusted metal vibrating.
"No!" Willerby screamed, turning and running for the front door. "You weren't supposed to know! No one was supposed to find out! They'll leave! I can't let my family leave again!"
"Stop!" I couldn't bring myself to fire the gun, but I chased after him into the hall, where I saw him scurry up the stairs. "Come back here!"
By the time I got into the attic, Willerby was already climbing onto the roof. I grabbed at his leg and received a kick to the face for my trouble. I fell back, stunned.
"I won't lose my family," Willerby cried. "Not again."
From above, I could hear the old man screaming and . . . children singing. Not truly singing. Chanting. I shrugged off the pain and climbed the ladder.
The stars shone brightly overhead, providing a little light. Willerby crawled towards the center of the roof . . . where a ring of four children danced in slow circles. I recognized each child. Sarah, Reggie, Jimmy, and Becky. At least, they looked like the children. But I had seen their remains. I knew that those children had died to give way to something far more sinister than old man Willerby. Some supernatural energy fused the stolen flesh into wicked doppelgangers. Even in the dim light of the roof, I could see the slight ripples moving over their soft skin. Swirls of colors -- whites and reds -- surged over their faces.
"Don't go!" Willerby sobbed, reaching towards them.
The foursome looked upon the man as he groveled before them and spoke as one. Their voices, monotone and barely whispers, were almost drowned out by the wind.
"We are the grandchildren of the Unnamable One, a gift to you, father, a granted boon which you have squandered. You allowed us to be found. Now we must return, as was the condition of the oath, across the emptiness of space, to Taurus, where we shall dwell for eternity."
"Please," Willerby begged. "Don't leave me. Not again."
The children turned to stare at the sky.
"The courier comes," they said.
"No!" Willerby fell to his knees.
A shadow fell upon him, and he looked up, covering his face. A screech, so sharp that I thought my eardrums would rupture, came from the sky. I realized, with lightning-like shocks firing through my spine, what the loathsome incantation of the children meant. I looked up, a scream already forming in my throat. I am thankful that I did not get a clear view as the courier landed on the roof. A mere glimpse was enough. The monstrosity was larger than a horse, scaled and furred, wings outstretched like massive sheets of leather, screeching, steaming, ice-covered from a flight through space.
The children -- or the beings that now used their flesh -- moved towards the malformed creature. Their bodies seemed to give way, losing all consistency, melting into prehistoric jellies, and I knew what it was that had been oozing through the walls and vents.
Sobbing, Willerby tried to grab hold of the masses, his fingers sliding into them, grasping nothing.
I crawled towards the ladder. The beckoning screech of the winged creature and the pitiful cries of Willerby were maddening. Before leaping into the darkness below, I glanced back, briefly, to see the shapeless forms slide onto the frosty legs of the courier and wrap around it, as the flapping wings lifted it from the roof and it sailed towards the stars. Willerby chased after the bat-like creature in a feeble attempt to stop the ascent. He stumbled at the edge of the roof, wailing in sadness, and tumbled to the street below.
For a time after that, all was blackness and babbling.
I awoke later, drenched in sweat, wrapped in a thick comforter. I tried to sit up, but fell back, my head throbbing, the room spinning.
Although dazed, I heard a familiar, soothing voice from across the room. Elizabeth. "Stay still. You need to rest."
"Don't worry about that now." She touched my forehead. "You should concentrate on beating this fever. Besides . . . it's over now."
"What about Willerby?"
"Dead. He jumped from the roof." She paused for a few seconds, then asked, "He killed them, didn't he? The children, I mean."
"Get some sleep."
As I closed my eyes, too weary to stay awake, but too frightened to truly sleep, I heard Elizabeth walk away, crying softly.
I spent much of my recovery time deep in thought. I pondered Willerby's motivation for committing such inhuman acts. Certainly the grief of losing his family was the key. I also wondered how and where he acquired the relatively modern notebook filled with pages of handwritten formulas and incantations. Eventually, I turned my attention to working on the story I had set out to write, although I delayed sending the finished manuscript to any publisher for some time out of fear that revealing such blasphemous truths would not only bring condemnation from the moral majority, but might also draw the attention of the nameless beings that lurk in shadows of our world and in the farthest reaches of our universe.
I considered burning the old composition book, forever burying the secrets it held. For a brief instant I had it set alight, but before any terrible damage had been caused I beat out the flame and placed the scorched book in a safe place under more than a few locks and keys. Willerby, an ordinary man by all outward appearances, had found the power to seal a pact with something that can only be defined by human standards as demonic . . . and was corrupted for his efforts. It was altogether possible that another, driven to desperation, might resort to vile practices, and I kept the book in hopes that it might be of some use in case that eventuality came to light.
With time, I worked up enough courage to climb to the roof again. I paced along the edges, looking at the fading drops of dried blood, the slowly spinning vents, and the incomprehensible arrangement of stars which dotted the night sky. I stayed until a chill came over me and I retired to my apartment, prepared a small meal, and settled back with a book. Perhaps, I thought, I was already marked for my interference, and ageless eyes stared down on me, for I knew forbidden secrets. If so, there might be little I could do to prevent a grisly fate from befalling me. For the time being, I would wait, prepare myself as best I could, and be ever observant.
For although I saw no clouds, I knew that a storm was coming.
Created: May 16, 2000; Current Update: August 9, 2004