The Squatter

by Rob Francis

Nick stubbed his cigarette out on the paving slabs and placed the still-warm dog-end in his jacket pocket before he crossed the threshold of No. 60. It wouldn’t do to show any disrespect. The front door was long gone, but he hesitated a moment anyway, considering how best to announce himself. He glanced back at the office Merc, its shining blue magnificence incongruous in the derelict street. Don gave him a thumbs-up from behind the wheel. Nick nodded.

“Prick,” he muttered through clenched teeth. He shifted the model house he held against the crook of his elbow and cleared his throat. Keep it simple, he decided.

“So. I’m coming in now.”

The front entrance opened onto the living room, No. 60 being a late Victorian two-up, two-down terrace. Everything was the same as the last time he’d visited. Wooden floor sturdy but covered in dust. Old wallpaper hanging down in reams, like peeling skin. Gaping holes in the plaster where thieves had ripped wiring or pipes from the dilapidated house. Rotten-brick chimney, the fireplace clogged with detritus: old clothes, pamphlets, food containers. A stink of damp and mould that tickled his nose.

They’d found the Simmons boy in the front of that fireplace. Nick hadn’t been there in person, but he’d seen the photos.

“Afternoon,” said Nick, to the aching silence. “I’m Nick Pearson, of Moggridge, Pearson and Tench. We’re housing developers.” He looked back through the open door, though from his position all he could see was the waist-high weeds that choked the tiny front yard. “My partner Don Tench is outside.”

If he could be called a partner. Nick had seen the emails Don had sent his wife. And her encouraging replies. He didn’t know what either of them was thinking. They both had kids, after all.  

“I know you’ve been here for a long time. Maybe as long as the house. I’m not sure how these things work. City records show these went up about 1890, so that’s a good hundred and thirty years. I’m guessing you were here by 1900 at least. That’s the earliest record I could find. When the mother burned her baby alive in its crib. I’m assuming that was you. That, and all the others up to the Simmons boy.”

And what a list it was. Almost a dozen incidents over the years, the last couple after the house had been abandoned. Murders, fatal accidents, suicides. Nick had sensed something amiss that first time he visited No. 60, back when they were starting to plan the new estate. High Hallows: Quality Homes for Quality People. Whatever that meant. It was Don’s stupid tagline.

The Simmons boy had confirmed it. The vagrant who did it — if he did it — had no memory of the act, and no history of violence. Said he’d only come in to shelter from the rain.

Nick sighed. “Here’s how it is. We’re knocking the place down. Razing the entire street. All new houses. We — I — don’t want any trouble. Accidents, workers killed and so forth. So. I have a proposition.”

Because that’s how the world worked. Nick believed in God, and when he prayed, he didn’t ask Him for anything. Because why would God give anything for free? No. He offered deals. Look after little May and Ellie, he’d say. Keep them safe. Keep Clara happy and loving. (And faithful.) And I’ll be the best husband and father I can. And if there’s suffering to be done, send it my way. Not theirs. Or better yet, send it to someone else entirely.

Whatever was in this house wasn’t anything like God. But he thought the same principles would work.

He crossed to where the boy’s ragged body had lain and placed the model house carefully on the boards. He’d made it himself from plans he’d found in the city archives, a scaled replica of No. 60 in balsa wood and foam.

“If we tear it down and you’re still here, things’ll go bad. I can tell. No knowing where you might end up. So.” He patted the model. “Move in here, on a temporary basis. Just for a little while. Then we’ll get you rehoused somewhere better, I promise. I never go back on a deal.”

He walked to the door to give the house — or whatever occupied it — some time to consider the offer. In the Merc, Don held up his hand and tapped his watch. Time was wasting. Nick took a few deep breaths, scenting the yard’s wildflowers with their undertone of decay, then nodded. Did he hear something from the room? A faint scraping on the boards? He went back inside.

When he lifted the house, it felt just a little heavier. He smiled.

Back at the car, Don was checking his phone when Nick slipped into the passenger seat, resting the house on his knee. Don put the phone away.

“All good? We’ll be late for the meeting.”

“Sure.” Nick nodded to the model. “Just needed to check a few things before we schedule the demo.”

Don smiled. “That’s a nice miniature. Man, our Simon would love that. He’s well into all kinds of models and things. Bedroom full of ‘em.”

“Yeah? Well, he can have it.”

“What? Oh no, I didn’t mean—”

“Really. I don’t need it anymore. It’s served its purpose.”

“Thanks, Nick!” Don looked genuinely pleased.

“No problem, Don. Happy for it to go to a good home.”

Don pulled the car away from the curb and turned towards the bypass. “You’re a good man, Nick.”

“You said it.”

They drove in companionable silence through the ruined streets.

Rob Francis is an academic and writer based in London. He mainly writes short fantasy and horror, and his stories have appeared in magazines such as The Arcanist, Apparition Lit, Metaphorosis, Tales to Terrify and Novel Noctule. Rob has also contributed stories to several anthologies, including DeadSteam by Grimmer & Grimmer, Under the Full Moon’s Light by Owl Hollow Press, and Scare Me by Esskaye Books. He is an affiliate member of the HWA. Rob lurks on Twitter @RAFurbaneco

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