The hitchhiker tramped along the unlit rural b-road, physically weary and mentally thoroughly fed up. The last time he had seen a vehicle on this road was before midnight and that had no intention of stopping to give him a lift. He probably didn’t look like somebody a lone driver in the dark would want for company, anyway. It had been different earlier in the day when he got off the train at the furthest destination he had been able to afford and set off thumbing for rides the rest of the way. Then, they could see that he was clean-shaven and his backpack and coat tidy - that he wasn’t just a tramp with personal hygiene issues or somebody who might knock a man on the head and steal his car.
He should have stayed in Carlisle while it was still daylight and there were plenty of cheap b&b’s he could have booked into. Having pressed on with a series of lifts, none of them going as far as he would have liked, he ought to have stuck to the main roads. The last car had dropped him off here, still a good thirty miles from Glasgow and on a largely unlit country road.
And he was tired, which made shouldering his heavy backpack all the harder. It made him feel colder. It made him want to just find somewhere, a barn or something, where he could unroll his sleeping bag and get a few hours. He could set off again in daylight, maybe when some local bus service was running that would take him back to the main drag.
The trouble was, farmers locked up their barns these days. They didn’t want people sleeping in them.
But there was some sort of building beyond the trees, along a track that didn’t look like it had been used for a while. If it was empty, if there was some way in – ok, it was trespassing, and even if he was short of cash, he was no criminal. But it was just for a few hours. He’d be gone before anyone knew anything about it.
Closer to, he could see that the house was beyond empty. It was derelict. Nobody had lived here for a long time. Nobody was going to be checking to see if the boarded up window had been pulled open. He stopped, first, to empty his bladder, since it was unlikely there were any working bathroom facilities inside then he hauled himself over the dusty sill into the room.
It was musty with disuse and a faint idea of damp somewhere, but the floor was dry. He kicked away enough debris to put his bedroll down and laid his weary head on his backpack.
He thought he would sleep easily, but something other than the fact that a backpack was hardly a feather pillow kept him awake. Something about this place sent shivers up his spine.
That was weird. It was hardly the first time he had slept rough, and he wasn’t somebody who scared easily. But there was something….
He sat up abruptly. He had heard….
It sounded like voices… but not in any language he recognised. Then again, these days there were all sorts of languages going around. It could be Czech, Azerbajani – or whatever language they spoke there.
Definitely something East European he decided as the sound echoed through from another part of the house.
“Look...” he called out. “I’m just trying to get a couple of hours kip. If you’re in the same boat, I’m not going to bother you. Just settle down. In the morning we’ll all be off on our ways.”
The voices stopped – for about twenty seconds. Then they started again, and this time he was sure there was music of some sort, too. Not normal music, but something old-fashioned, crackly, like a radio programme from before digital.
He stood up and walked towards an inner door leading into – he presumed – another room or a corridor. As his hands closed around a heavy metal doorknob that squeaked and turned slowly from lack of use, he noticed a sliver of light coming from the other side. Not torchlight, but proper electric light.
“What the fuck!” he exclaimed as he yanked the door open. He stared at the sight that lay beyond the threshold. “What is all this? How the hell are you….”
Then a strange sensation came over him. It was a bit like being travel sick, except he hadn’t been that since he was a kid, and besides, he was standing on solid ground.
Or he thought he was. The sensation grew until he wasn’t certain if he was standing anywhere or on anything. His sight blurred. His ears rang with the strange foreign voices and the even stranger English voice coming from the crackly radio as the music finished.
Then his mind gave up trying to understand anything and his body collapsed under the strain.
"The only good thing about the countryside is staying overnight in a country pub," Owen Harper announced as he downed another pint of locally brewed beer with a name loosely connected to Scottish Baronial families that he had stopped caring about after the second round.
He and Dougal Drummond had both enjoyed the beer thoroughly. Munroe Macdonald had been more careful about his alcohol intake, making a double measure of single malt last most of the night. Shona Stuart had drunk mineral water and glared at the men, pointing out that they were all drinking on duty.
"Duty starts tomorrow morning," Owen replied. "This is acclimatisation."
"We didn't even need to come out here this evening," Shona reminded him. "We're only an hour's drive from Glasgow. We could have made an early start in the morning."
She was right, on both counts. They were drinking too much and the overnight stay at the Bridge Inn, a ten minute drive from the M74 and what Owen Harper - a man who used to find Cardiff too small for his city mentality - would call real ‘civilisation, wasn't technically necessary.
"Like I said, acclimatisation," he repeated. "Talk to the locals and find out anything useful before tomorrow."
"By useful, you mean gossip, rumour and supposition?" Munroe suggested.
"All of the above," Owen answered and was pleased when the easy going middle aged Scotsman got into a lively conversation with a group of domino players by the big, ambient log fireplace. Shona, meanwhile let the barman think he was onto something with her and steered his train of thought usefully. The fact that Owen and Dougal didn't find out much other than the specific gravity of the beer didn't matter so much.
The following morning, a couple of pills based on an alien recipe cured the hangovers and neutralised any alcohol left in the bloodstream. They ate heartily of the country breakfast before setting off in the Ford Escape with their equipment safely stored.
The trip was literally only a few minutes. There was barely time to go over the argument about whether there was any point in the overnight stay before they reached the overgrown and rutted private road that led to the house that had come to their attention as worthy of a Torchwood investigation.
"Eastend House," Owen said of the rambling stone building of no one single era or aesthetic ideal that couldn’t quite be called beautiful by any stretch of imagination. "A sixteenth century stone keep added to in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to create a thirty-seven room mansion for a branch of the Carmichael family who used to own most of the countryside we’ve driven through. Closed up and derelict for decades, subject of local ghost stories and a magnet for urban explorers - otherwise known as trespassers."
"They don't do any harm as a rule," Dougal said in defence of the Urban Explorers as he shouldered two of the heaviest bags of equipment and headed towards what might pass for the front door, though it was hard to say if they were looking at the back, front or side of the property. If any of them had any particular interest in architectural features they might have cared that the door was set into the 1673 wing that featured crow-stepped gables – a defining feature of that era.
None of them did.
"They don't have permission to be in the place,” Owen continued in his diatribe against urban explorers. “But if one of them fell through a rotten floor you could bet he'd be straight onto Injury-Lawyers-R-Us suing for compo."
"If I fall through a rotten floor I know I will be," Shona remarked. "And as my employer, you’ll be the one they’ll be suing. We don't do haunted houses. Why are we here?"
"Two of the said Urban Explorers have vanished without trace after telling people they were coming here. So has an architect commissioned by the owner of the property to draw up plans for refurbishment. In all three cases cars were found on the driveway and personal effects in the house, but no trace of the individuals."
“Local gossip varies,” Munroe said recalling his evening’s work. “The ghost of a seventeenth century Carmichael, a Red Cap that chose the old house as its killing ground, or just an ordinary, common and garden murderer picking on the unwary.”
“Callum behind the bar favours a cannibal dismembering the bodies and storing them in a deep freeze,” Shona pointed out. “Stupid prick,” she added.
“We did cannibals back in Wales,” Owen said. “I’m going to be really pissed off if I find it going on up here, too.”
He produced an impressive set of keys on a big brass ring and used it to open the creaking door. He stepped inside first, followed by the rest of the field team.
"As the only woman here, do I have to be the first to say that it smells absolutely MINGING?" Shona asked.
"You don't need feminine sensibilities to agree on that point," Munroe told her. "But it's just damp and neglect, nothing sinister."
They stepped through several rooms, each one partially lit by the dull morning light penetrating windows that hadn’t been washed in decades, tattered curtains and broken shutters. They trod on crunching debris consisting of broken window glass, collapsed ceiling plaster, broken bits of furniture and some things that could not be so readily identifiable. Where the damp had penetrated there were well established mushroom growths.
Despite the neglect, there were signs that this had once been a luxury home. Those doors still attached to their hinges were made of oak with carved panels. The door frames were sturdily designed. A few relatively intact ceilings had the sort of mouldings that Scottish nobility of the nineteenth century commissioned in order to keep up with the Balmoral set. If anyone had really cared they might have known it was called Scottish Baronial and was a regional variation of the Gothic Revival, but they had all given up caring about such things at least two minutes before they stepped into the house.
"This will do," Owen declared as they came into a large room in the seventeenth century wing that might once have been the gentleman's smoking room while ladies sat daintily in the drawing room next door. Owen opened the casement windows to let in fresh air and natural light while Dougal and Shona started setting up the portable generator to supply electrical power to their equipment and Munroe assembled the most important apparatus of all – the camping stove to keep the kettle boiling and provide the tea and coffee that fuelled the team on any field trip.
This was by no means the first time anyone had lugged boxes of equipment into one of these rooms. At least three times in the past twenty years people with theories about old houses and ghosts had tested the spectral ambience. With more realistic ambitions, surveyors and architects had brought the tools of their trade and prepared reports detailing just how much work, costing how many millions, it would take to restore the place to its former glory. Even the richest of the Urban Explorers had brought some expensive cameras and tripods into the more interesting rooms.
The Torchwood equipment was different because most of it was retro-engineered from scavenged alien technology and could measure ethereal spectrums that the ghost hunters couldn't begin to imagine. The internal dimensions of the house could be scanned and computer-modelled in not just three, but five dimensions, outclassing anything in a surveyor's tool kit. The movement and the composition of the air and any chemical change in that composition could be measured. The presence or absence of at least fifteen known types of energy and another thirty unknown ones could be detected.
And just for good measure, Dougal had a camera that could take pictures using infra red, ultra violet and night vision as well as producing crystal clear images in the dimmest light without needing a flashbulb.
All of which left Owen especially pissed off when, after three hours placing sensors all around the house, and two more scanning, monitoring, testing and photographing every inch of it, they had nothing out of the ordinary to report apart from a possible new variety of stink cap mushroom found under the broken lump of discoloured porcelain that had once been a bathroom sink.
"There must be SOMETHING funny going on here," he insisted grumpily as he sat on a folding chair and accepted his share of the sandwiches brought along for lunch and a mug of coffee. "All the evidence points to it. People have been disappearing for decades."
"Well," Munroe answered, summing up the problem as it appeared to him. "If it isn't a time rift snatching them, and there are no sinister statues that move when you're not looking..."
"Statues?" Dougal queried.
"I know about those," Shona told him. "UNIT have a file. There are these creatures who look like stone carvings of angels, the sort you get in cemeteries – but these are quantum-locked. They can only move if they’re not being watched. And that’s when they're dangerous. If they touch you, you're gone."
"If I hadn't been with Torchwood I'd think that was some kind of Halloween wind up," Dougal remarked.
“If I hadn't been with UNIT I'd think the same," Shona addded.
"But the closest thing we have to a statue is those bloody headless mannequins all over the place," Owen confirmed. Everybody other than Shona sniggered. She scowled. She hadn't quite forgiven them all for laughing at her earlier when she had taken a break from positioning the sensor beacons in selected parts of the house and gone to the room where Munroe had installed one of the few pieces of equipment not inspired by alien technology - the chemical toilet. She had pulled down her slacks and knickers and was about to sit on the plastic seat when she saw something standing in the shadows by the door. She had screamed. Dougal had run to her aid just a few seconds too quickly and she was still pulling up her pants. She had threatened to shoot him if he said a word about THAT aspect of the embarrassing situation, but there was no denying that she had screamed over a battered shop window dummy.
"There’s some stuff in UNIT files about plastic mannequins, too," she pointed out.
"That's true enough," Owen confirmed. "But these aren't that sort.”
“The Urban Explorer websites have speculated for years about the mannequins,” Dougal confirmed. “Nobody knows what they’re about, unless one of their crowd brought them here as a wind up.”
“They got their wish,” Munroe confirmed. “Shona wasn’t the only one who got a fright. When I saw that one standing on the landing with the window behind it… I nearly had an accident!”
Shona gave him a grateful look. He had deflected the embarrassment onto himself. As a rule she wasn’t in favour of male chivalry, but this was an exception.
The Torchwood team weren’t looking at any of their monitors. Like the man in the advert who missed photographing the ice-skating polar bears when he took a Kitkat break they were paying more attention to their lunch. They didn’t see the carefully placed motion-sensor cameras detecting movements on the upper floor as the headless mannequins were moved into new and intriguing positions. They didn’t notice the microphones recording the muted sounds of mirth when one of the mannequins was placed with its wooden neck inside a rusted up gas oven in the dilapidated kitchen in imitation of a classic suicide. They were unaware of the displacement of air caused by all this activity.
“Basically,” Owen admitted as he finished his sandwiches and got ready to spend the afternoon in fruitless monitoring. “There is nothing here that really comes under the Torchwood weird shit banner except that people HAVE disappeared, and the only one who looks like an ordinary murder victim is poor bloody Annie McVeigh."
They had all read the copies of the report from ten years ago. Annie had been seventeen at the time when she had hidden in Eastend House after running away from her abusive stepfather. Her diary had been found in one of the upstairs rooms by police looking for her. The accounts of what had been done to her before she ran away were enough to put her stepfather in jail, but there was no trace of where Annie went after those nights she spent in Eastend House.
"He got here before the police and did her in," Shona suggested.
"That would be my theory," Owen agreed. "But the police sprayed enough Luminol around the place to make it glow in the dark. If he killed her it was somewhere else, and if he had the brains to do that, you would think he'd have destroyed the diary, too."
"And there's the latest one," Munroe added pointing to the bundle of personal effects found in the room when they arrived. A signing-on card from a job centre in Gillingham identified a twenty two year old man called Fitzgerald McBride – one of those Scotsmen with two surnames like Munroe himself. A train ticket from London to Preston, the wrapper from a sandwich bought at Forton services on the M6, and a receipt for a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of coke bought in Carslisle told of a journey north throughout the course of yesterday - a journey that seemed to have ended here, in the same place it had ended for Annie Mcveigh, runaway, for Alex Andrews and Peter Lawless, the two Urban Explorers who had vanished without a trace, and Gerard McIntosh, accredited member of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
"Historically, we could also include Lady Angela Carmichael, wife of the Eighth Earl, who went missing in 1911," Munroe added. "Though it is always possible she was murdered and buried in the herb garden. Luminol wasn't invented until 1936, so her husband might have got away with it. Even further back, there was a little girl, Alice Balding, eight year old daughter of the housekeeper from the 1850s. A gypsy was convicted and hanged for her murder although her body was never found. Local legend has it that she vanished from a locked room on the top floor. Another story is that a child can be heard laughing inside the said room and a cradle - one of the few bits of furniture left in the house - rocks when nobody is near it."
"You mean THIS cradle?" Dougal held up a photograph he had taken in one of the upstairs rooms. The room had a large window and the walls were covered in flaking cream paint so it was one of the most naturally bright pictures he had taken. The only thing in the entire room was a white painted wooden cradle. “For one thing this isn't on the top floor. For another, this cradle is art deco style, from the 1920s. And, anyway, eight year olds don’t sleep in cradles. That’s a load of hogwash - courtesy of Callum the friendly barman."
"Too bloody friendly," Shona remarked. "Don’t let on about him back at the Hub or Darius will be flying down to give him a bite in remembrance of me."
"There is another story about rooms with funny noises," Munroe continued. "I heard it from the domino players. Apparently the room next door to this one sometimes rings with music and radio announcements from the 1940s and voices talking in Polish."
"That’s bollocks, too," Dougal announced. "It all comes from this place being used by officers of the Free Polish Army and Air Force during the war - the men who escaped from the Nazi invasion and threw in their lot with our troops. There’s a plaque commemorating their billeting out in the hallway."
"If you hear any of them, just say 'shut up, in Polish," Munroe told him.
"I dont know how to say shut up in Polish," Dougal replied. Munroe laughed and explained that it was a humorous line from the otherwise serious film ‘Battle of Britain’ when an exasperated group captain had told his squadron to "shut up - in Polish."
Dougal, Shona and Owen exchanged puzzled glances.
“Shut up – in Polish,” Munroe repeated.
"I think the joke misfires out of context," Owen commented. "We’ll all come round to your place and watch the DVD sometime. Maybe it will make sense, then. Meanwhile, I'm ruling out all the 'sinister noises' and moving furniture bollocks on the grounds that neither Shona's randy barnan nor the domino players have actually been in here. That's all just pub talk. The only provable facts are that a lot of people have disappeared from this house and unless these bloody instruments start working, I’m not ready to believe that their ghosts are still confined within these manky walls.”
With that he declared the lunch break over and told his subordinates to go and check that the sensors were actually plugged in. He used several swear words as adjectives to describe the sensors leaving nobody in any doubt that he was losing enthusiasm for this field trip.
Nobody had anything to report apart from Munroe who had gone to the kitchen and thus found the suicidal mannequin.
“Which one of you ‘cooked’ that up?” he asked when they all returned to the smoking room. Everyone else denied having anything to do with it, but admitted that it was a ‘good joke’.
“There’s one kneeling by the bath with its ‘head’ under water, too,” Dougal confirmed. “If it had a head and there was any water. I think next time we check the sensors I might hang one of them from the broken chandelier in the dining room, and take a set of photos of ‘suicidal mannequins’. It’ll get a few likes on Facebook, at least.”
“And you’d call that a result?” Owen asked. The joke was wearing thin and his bad mood was returning.
“I’d call it something to do. There’s bugger all else,” Dougal replied. “We ARE going to be out of here before nightfall, aren’t we? I don’t particularly fancy sitting around here in the dark doing fuck all.”
Owen looked at his watch. It was two o’clock. They had managed to make checking the sensors last an hour. That was at least forty-five minutes longer than it ought to have taken. No wonder there had been time to play silly buggers with the mannequins.
At three o’clock, Munroe made more tea and broke out a packet of biscuits. Everyone talked over the salient points again, but they really were just going over old ground. There was no proof that anything that fell within Torchwood’s remit had ever happened in this house.
The only person who had anything to do other than speculate was Dougal. Owen watched him typing rapidly at his laptop for a long time before asking him what he was actually doing.
“Uploading MY report to 28 Days Later,” he answered.
“What the fuck is that, apart from a gruesome zombie movie?”
“It’s the biggest website for Urban Explorers,” he answered. “My pictures are better than almost everyone else’s. The suicide mannequins will be good for a laugh, if nothing else.”
Owen let off a whole series of expletives that illustrated his contempt for Urban Explorers and their websites. Dougal pressed ‘send’ and submitted his report.
“Tosh could have that whole fucking site wiped out with three keystrokes,” he said. “If you contribute anything that relates to Torchwood that’s exactly what will happen.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Dougal promised. Owen swore again, just for good measure then in a fit of pique compounded by boredom and frustration kicked the plug out of the sound recorder. There was a fizzing noise and a squeal of feedback. Munroe checked the machine and confirmed that IF anything worthwhile had been recorded he would have wiped it all out.
“Bollocks,” Owen replied. “All right, that’s it. This has been a total waste of time. Pack everything up and head back to the pub. I want at least four beers and one of their home made steak and ale pies and somebody else as the designated driver on the way back to Glasgow.”
Munroe volunteered to stay sober if it meant they would get home this evening. He liked the countryside generally, but he was as bored with this part of it as everyone else.
Only a half an hour later the sound of the Ford Escape reversing down the driveway was heard by two people who watched out of the window of the room with the empty cradle in it.
“Explain to me again about this interstitial portal thing,” Fitz McBride said to the pretty young woman at his side.
“It’s like… an alternative world… or at least a small bit of one… that exists in the same space as the ‘real’ world. This house… in the alternative… is still lived in, still beautiful. There are eight of us. Little Alice, Lady Angela, Karol and Leonek the two Polish airmen, Andrew, Peter and Gerard – and me. We’re none of us sure how it works, exactly, but time stands still for the house and for us. None of us get older. None of us die, and life within the house is better for us than anything we had going for us in reality. It certainly is for me. My stepfather….”
Annie shuddered and was glad when Fitz reached out and took her hand gently. She had not told him the full story of her unhappy past, but he had guessed, anyway.
“I was trying to get to Glasgow – to my dad’s funeral.”
“You could still go, if you want. You’ve only been here a few hours. You could carry on.”
“There’s nothing for me. My dad was my only reason to come up north again. There’s nothing back down south but a bitch at the dole office nagging at me to do more to find work. If you lot will have me… I’ll stay. But what about that lot… Torchwood…. Who are they? Will they be back?”
“Lady Angela says she heard about Torchwood back in her day. They investigate strange things. It was really naughty of Andrew and Peter to move those mannequins about while they were here. We ALL should have kept really quiet. But I think we got away with it. They think there’s nothing here. They won’t be back.”
“Good.” Fitz held her hand even tighter as they turned and walked out of the decayed room in the ‘real world’ as Annie had called it, and into the warm, beautiful, luxurious mansion that made the ‘unreal’ world so much more tempting. Downstairs, in the common room, it was still 1940 for Karol and Leonek, listening to some radio programme they liked. Lady Angela and Alice were in the drawing room, the other three men in the games room playing pool. He might join them later. But first he wanted to spend a bit more quiet time with Annie, who, by the warm way she smiled at him, looked like a very good reason to stay in this unreal world.