The stale air filtered through the open door straight into their gaping mouths. Alf grimaced, his face contorting with nauseous discomfort. They may as well have been looking into an empty void as all they could see was a black canvas. Bill flicked on his torch light and shone it into the hallway.
A floral patterned carpet swept through into the open plan living area. Directly up ahead of them was the kitchen. Tobe was trying to peer over Alf’s shoulder to get a better look inside.
“Man, get off me! You think I want your stank ass breath in my eye?” grumbled Alf.
Bill spun around and cupped a gloved hand over his mouth. “Ssshhh, you dumb bitch!” he whispered. “I said keep it down earlier or didn’t that register before. Your eye will be fine. Now just be quiet!” He stepped lightly onto the matted surface. The light from the phone danced across the walls as the others followed suit and entered through the doorway. A musty scent clung to the air as Alf held his nose in protest. Bill made a hand gesture and they filed furtively into the lounge. The area was littered with old antiques varying from a vintage gramophone player to an iron statue of Sir Winston Churchill chomping down on a cuban. The source of the stench seemed to stem from somewhere within here as its foul odour almost overpowered Tobe.
“I think I’m going to heave, man.” he groaned quietly as he tapped Bill on the shoulder. Bill didn’t respond.
“OK, let’s just start looking around and hurry this up. You guys all got gloves on so don’t worry about infecting yourselves by touching anything.” he said humourlessly, keeping one arm firmly pressed up against his nostrils. He pointed the light at Jules, who instinctively winced at its intensity. “You, upstairs. See what you can find. Remember, you need to keep the noise down the most out of all of us as that bitch will be up there with you. So do just that.”
The men dispersed from their huddled gathering and crept off in different directions. Jules took in a deep sigh, then made his way toward the stairs. He checked his phone to see how much time was left. “20 minutes, plenty to go.” he murmured softly. Gripping the side rail tightly, he carefully ascended. Every footfall onto a new step was eased down with the gentlest of pressure. No creaks, no sounds. That was a professional burglar’s mentality. The house seemed very old and decrepit. “If ever a house was to be haunted, here would be the perfect candidate.” he whispered soundlessly.
As Jules made it to the top, he examined his surroundings. The upstairs landing branched off into three separate doorways. Two of them were closed shut while one was opened just a chink. Fear progressively sunk its claws in as his imagination started playing games with his mind. He saw himself taking his first step into the murky gloom as one of the doors burst open to reveal a screeching, skeletal banshee flailing toward him. A cold chill ran through his entire body as a growing sense of terror pervaded.
Jules all of a sudden became all too aware of a small scuffle downstairs. He shook his head in reproach, wondering how after all this time, they had still managed to evade the police. As luck would have it, hearing his partners-in-crime did have the added advantage of boosting his confidence a little and the despair he felt a moment ago started to subside.
Trying to be as silent as possible, he inched forward and reached the open door. The moonlight beaming through the windows was adequate enough for him to catch a glimpse of an expensive looking pendant sitting upon a dummy necklace on an old fashioned dressing table. The rest of the room was obscured by the door itself. Not knowing if anyone else was in the room, he pondered for a split second if he should enter or not. Curiosity got the better of him.
He slid next to the gap and squeezed himself through the opening, pushing some of the door with him. There was now just enough room for him to poke his head in to get a better view. Heart pounding, he did just that and what he saw made his blood run cold. A large, Victorian-style bed rested up against the centre of the wall opposite. Large, thick padded sheets of fabric and duvet were spread evenly across the mattress and under it, a small mass shuddered tenuously in the dark.
Jules stared wide-eyed as the object under the covers began writhing faster and faster, until halting abruptly. A sallow hand appeared, grabbing the top of the duvet. As the covers were pulled down languidly, a menacing demonic face glowered back at him savagely. Blood dripped from razor sharp fangs as beady yellow eyes affixed to its objective. Horror consumed Jules by the second as he gripped the door handle firmly, body rigid with panic. He shook his head wildly to rid himself of the terrifying apparition. Upon focusing back onto the bed, he breathed a sigh of unbidden relief as his imagination had finally ceased playing its mental trickery on him.
However the small mystery still remained, vibrating incessantly under the sheets.
Dubious over whether to advance into the room, he weighed up what to do. But again, the implications of pulling out now and facing the wrath of his team downstairs didn’t warrant such a bold move. He had no choice but to push on. A quick snatch and grab would do it, he thought.
Jules raced into the room making a beeline for the dressing table. He plucked the pendant up into a clenched fist and bolted straight for the doorway. The figure under the sheets persisted with its ritualistic movement. About to scarper through his exit, Jules then stopped dead in his tracks. He no longer felt any notion of danger in the room. In fact, the preceding apprehensive vibes had now given way to much more of a morbid inquisitiveness. The fact that he would never know what was under those blankets would play on his mind for years to come and he just didn’t need that level of wasted reflective thought. He looked at the bed again, this time with a sense of purpose. On closer inspection, the underlying shape took on a more human-like semblance. Unable to contain his puzzlement of this enigma any longer, he deftly strode over to the thick blankets and flung them to one side.
His mouth hung open in shock. There, lying in the centre of the bed, curled up into a small foetal position, was an old lady. A very old lady. She wore a white nightgown with frills on each sleeve. He noticed a large, round wet patch near her derriere. Her hair was long and tousled, some of it sticking to her pale, pruned face. She was gripping fiercely at a finely woven handkerchief in her left hand. Her right arm was nestled next to her rib cage, trembling disturbingly. Her eyes were shut tight, adding a few more lines to her face. She looked so very fragile and frail, as if the slightly touch would shatter her bones like a porcelain doll. He stood watching her, speechless.
She suddenly called out, weakly. “Please… don’t hurt me. I beg of you. I have nothing much of value here. Take anything you want, just please don’t hurt me or my family.” Her eyes lingered shut. Out of the darkness behind her pillow, a ginger cat poked its head out, sleepily scouting out what all the disturbance was. The animal itself looked quite aged too.
Call it a moment of clarity, of revelation, of moral understanding even, but Jules was not the same man who had previously entered that room. A flurry of tears burst forth from his eyes, only to be wiped away with a singular arm motion. His constant battle of conscience had finally favoured a victor. This was the result of their unlawful activities. The erosion and unravelling of vulnerable people’s lives. The unseen indirect consequences of a thieves actions. The systemic abuse of the innocent. Bill would choose victims of a defenceless predisposition. Isolated homes where the occupants were either away or unable to fight back. They all needed the money regardless, but never really had to come face-to-face with the aftermath of those criminal events. It was all Jules had to see.
He carefully moved over to the bed and grabbed one side of the blanket. The old woman’s seizures increased as she felt the intruder’s presence beside her. “Ma’am” he whispered. She jolted with fright at the seemingly explosive sound ringing in her ears. “Please, listen. You’re gonna be fine. Nobody is gonna hurt you. Just rest.” With that, he drew the blankets back over her feeble frame. The cat sat hidden from view with the exception of its round, furry head. It purred with contentment. The wretched feeling within him gnawed at his guts. He was done with this life. The time to turn over a new leaf and start again was upon him. As he respectfully placed the pendant on a small bedside table, Jules backed away silently and disappeared onto the landing.
As he made his way down the stairs, he was all too aware that things down here had turned into a much more muted affair. He didn’t want to waste any more time here in this house than he had already done. Entering into the living area, the first of his affiliates to be encountered was Alf. He was busily rifling through a desk drawer, though with surprising reticence. He looked over at Jules and beckoned him over.
“Man, you won’t believe what that stench was!” he said with a wry smile. “There’s all sorts of dead shit back there past the kitchen. Mice, birds, just carcasses piling up all over the place. It’s literally "Pet Semetary". Stephen King would have a field day, man!”
“Look, where’s Bill? I gotta talk to you guys, important like.” said Jules, frustrated with having bumped into Alf.
“Err, yeah sure, he’s out back. What’s the deal up there? You find anything worth anything up there? Coz I tell you, there ain’t nothing down here.” He looked about the place and could see papers and ornaments strewn everywhere. Jules glared at Alf. “Man, did you ransack the place like this?”
“No. Well, sort of.” He looked at Jules with a dumb expression of confusion. “I mean, it was already pretty fucked up. We just kinda like, accessorised it. I mean, what does it matter anyways?”
At that moment, Bill walked in, phone torch flitting about the darkened place. “Hey Jules, what you find?” he murmured.
He took a deep breath and continued. “Guys, listen. There’s an old lady up there. Seems Tobe's intel was spot on after all. Anyways, while I was up there, she woke up. She’s really afraid and distressed. You should see her. Looks like her heart is gonna give out any minute now. I say we get the fuck outta here and concentrate on our next job.”
Bill took a step toward Jules and looked him square in the face. A gust of hot, tarred breath hit Jules flush in the face. “What? She’s awake up there? I told you to be quiet, didn’t I. Did she see your face?” He seemed agitated and his patience was wearing thin.
“No, she had her eyes closed the whole time. She’s just real scared, that’s all. Come on, man.” Jules said meekly, as he knew that they were all delving into uncharted territory. “Let’s just put tonight down as a bad job and get going, yeah?” Alf watched on in a sort of perverse delight.
Bill dropped his phone to the floor and lunged forward, pushing him violently up against the wall. Fire seethed behind his maniacal gaze as he looked like a psychopath on steroids. He studied Jules’s face. “Man, do you know who I am? You think you got this gig under lockdown? You joined us. Always remember that. I’m the one you call master. You ain’t fucking up shit for us and tonight you are gonna prove your merit to me, you traitorous asshole.” He pulled out the pocket-knife from his trousers and flicked out a short, sharp blade. It glinted from the torch light flooding the room. Bill held it up to his right eye. Jules could feel his muscles tense as he stood rooted to the spot. “It ain’t how long it is, it’s where you put it that counts.” Bill said menacingly as he brushed the tip of the blade across Jules’s fine eyelashes. Alf continued to gawk at the drama unfolding before him with a level of intensity and excitement he'd never felt before. Jules had to think fast and now.
“Sure, Bill. I’m sorry. Please, I wasn’t thinking straight.” he said, petrified at how close the blade was hovering near his eyeball. Tobe walked in from the back of the house. He noticed what was going on and almost tripped up yet agan. “Goddamn, guys! What’s going on here?”
Alf turned to him grinning. “Nothing we can’t handle. Seems our man here has had a sudden change of heart as to where his loyalties lie.”
“No, guys. I wasn’t thinking. It was just nerves. Let’s grab what we need and get the fuck outta here. Bill, please man.” Jules felt disgusted in himself for grovelling the way he did, but realised what lay on the flip side of that coin. He knew he just had to feed them what they wanted to hear. Servility and allegiance to their merry little band. So far, it seemed to be working.
Bill looked at the others. “See this right here, boys. I’d put that shit on record and store it in your brains for future reference.” He unhooked Jules and pushed the blade back into its slot. He then smiled triumphantly and picked up the phone from the floor, pointing the beam straight at Jules. “Let that be a lesson to you. You know I’m a reasonable guy but everybody has a limit and it just so happens that you witnessed mine. Now, back to work. Tobe, go upstairs with him and do what you gotta do. Cleanly, as we discussed. Alfie, come out back with me and help out there.”
“Don’t you think I better go with Jules instead of Tobe?” Alf said with an air of scepticism and authority. “I mean, you really think he got the message fully?”
Jules detested the dirty dog that was Alf, but kept this fact discreetly camouflaged in secrecy. Bill shone the torch onto Jules, contemplating his reaction for a moment. “No, no. He understands, alright. Plus I need a strong pair of hands out back, not this fat grease bucket here.” Tobe looked away timidly.
Bill then signalled towards Alf who obediently followed him to the back of the house.
“OK, Jules, let’s just get this over and done with, man.”
He followed Tobe clandestinely up the steps. “What do you mean? Get what over and done with?” he asked, totally lost in the conversation.
“We gotta off her, man. She saw you and we can’t have no comebacks. I’m too young to go to jail, plus she’s old and nearly dead anyways.” Jules put a firm hand on his shoulder.
“No, I told you downstairs, she didn’t see nothing. She had her eyes closed the whole time. She’s scared witless, man. We don’t have to do this!”
“Oh yeah? Well, I ain’t a virgin to this type of thing, let’s put it that way. Besides, with the way Bill is acting, I reckon it’s a toss-up between you and her right now. Don’t push him too far, man. I've seen what he’s capable of and it ain't pretty.” Jules twitched nervously as the bulbous girth of Tobe waddled up the steps. This situation had spiralled out of control and it seemed all hope of salvaging any kind of peaceful resolution was lost. They reached the landing and Jules pointed in the direction of the open door. Tobe crept up to the entrance, his heft straining the floorboards loudly under his shoes.
Tobe peered in and saw the mound under the blankets which was now still. “OK.” he said in an unusually confident tone. “A pillow should do it. We enter on three. Got it?” Jules replied by nodding his head emphatically. “OK, here goes. One… Two…”
A powerful arm grabbed Tobe around the neck and overpowered him into submission. A hand covered his mouth to restrain his vocal cords as the world slowly blacked out. The whole thing was over in a matter of a few seconds. The limp, fat mass lay sprawled on the floor, a sliver of spittle collecting at the corner of his mouth. Jules spun round to check if he could hear anything coming from downstairs.
Nothing, but the sound of silence drifted back up…
(To be continued...)