The house had been abandoned for fifteen years. The windows were boarded up, the door was locked and padlocked; someone had driven metal eyehooks the size of a hand into the doorframe and the door and padlocked them together. Even the chimney had been blocked up; Jim had been on the roof and seen for himself. While he was up there, crouching low to avoid being seen by anyone carelessly looking up at the skyline, he’d discovered that the roof tiles were loose. A couple had slipped his feet beneath him, and when he fell, grabbing at the peak of the roof with his good hand, more still had slipped away. He’d waited there, hanging on as he heard the tiles fall into the overgrown garden below and hoped that no-one else had heard them. When, minutes later when his arm felt as though it was on fire, there were still no voices or footsteps below, he’d tucked his legs up, got his feet back underneath him and taken the weight off his arm. Then, half-crouching, half-lying on the roof, he’d looked at the damage. A hole into the attic looked back at him.
Peering over the edge of the roof he could see that the street was clear, which wasn’t that surprising; the sun was starting to set and no-one came down this end of the village much at night. There wasn’t a need too; apart from the abandoned house there was a shed used for shearing sheep, some kind of old stone ring that children played around after school, and a dirt path that led out into the cow pasture and then disappeared. Satisfied, he pulled more of the tiles loose, dropping them through into the attic so as to avoid any more noise that might be heard. The house was abandoned, it wasn’t like anyone was going to complain that he was messing up the attic. And this way, if anyone did come and find it later, it wouldn’t look like anyone had been trying to get in.
When the hole was big enough he slipped through; the attic was long and the roof was slanted on both sides so it wasn’t much of a drop. He crouched, and waddled a little into the middle of the room where he could stand up properly, and looked around.
It was disappointing; there were some tea-chests that contained dust and dead spiders, and there were a couple of piles of newspapers bound with frayed cord that snapped limply when he touched it. He moved around, his feet stirring up dust from the reddish carpet on the floor, and then realised that if anyone did come in here now they’d see that someone had been here. He started dragging his feet, scuffing out the footprints so that hopefully it would look like a largish animal had done it. Further in there was a rocking horse that creaked and squealed when he touched it, swaying about too many axes to be in good condition. Against the end wall was a door with a key in the lock, and next to that a fireplace. Some cast-iron tools were still propped up against it, and there was cold, grey, lacy ash in the grate as well.
He tried the door, and to his surprise found it locked. He started to turn the key, and then paused and looked at it. How could it be in the lock on this side if the door were locked? He turned back, and looked around the attic again, unsure now of what he might find, and if he wanted to.
There was another door at the other end, this time without a keyhole. He pushed it, and it swung open silently, revealing a rectangle of darkness beyond. He felt beside the door out of habit and found a light-switch. He depressed it, not expecting it to work, and jumped, startled, when two small lamps flickered several times, strobing yellow light across the room, and finally came on. The light they gave was weak and a brownish yellow colour, casting everything in the room in sepia, but he quickly saw that the room had no windows so the light was unlikely to give him away.
The room was tiny, maybe ten feet square. There was a bed pushed up against the far wall, tight in to the slope of the roof so that anyone sleeping in it couldn’t sit up without banging their head, and on the other wall, next to the door, was a full-length portrait of William Black.
Jim looked at it, seeing the little brass plaque at the bottom with the name, William Black engraved on it, and the years of his life, 1886-1938. The man was ugly, swollen-faced with mottled skin and bulging eyes that were more white than iris. Tiny little pinpricks of black were presumably his pupils. He was dressed in a dark suit that seemed to be straining to contain his bulk, and he was standing but leaning on a cane. The hand that gripped the cane was normal, if pudgy, but the other hand, laid across his stomach, was missing all but two fingers, and those fingers were fused together and looked almost tentacular. Jim shivered, and looked down at his own bad hand; missing the littlest two fingers at the knuckles before the palm, and his thumb crooked and almost immobile. They were different, but close enough to make him shiver.
Suddenly he realised that the cane in the picture was leaning against the frame of the picture. He picked it up, discovering that it was surprisingly heavy; it felt like it would do damage to someone if they were hit with it. It was slightly warm to the touch, and fit well in his hand. He leaned his weight on it, and though the floorboard creaked a little, the cane was silent and stoic.
Then he looked over at the bed, and noticed for the first time that the blankets were mounded up slightly. Suddenly nervous, he made himself breathe steadily, counting under his breath until he reached ten. Then, his nerves still all ajangle, but his hand steady and his mind braced for what he might find, he pulled the blankets back.