Bad Press ( Part 1)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: The Dark And Suspenseful

Jack Corbett is a reporter that has reached rock bottom, he is reduced to selling stories to whoever will pay enough to feed his drink habit. When he finds himself investigating the apparent suicide of a former gossip columnist, he is suddenly drawn into the shadows.

 

The piercing sound drilling into his brain brought him struggling to consciousness, dragging him against his will from the comforting numbness of oblivion. Jack Corbett’s first instinct was to pull the grubby sweat-stained pillow over his head and seek out the sanctuary of unconsciousness one again, but the shrill ringing of the phone was relentless. It felt like red hot needles burrowing through his ears into his brain, he silently cursed himself for paying the phone bill before they withdrew service from him. After all, he had ignored almost every other utility bill in favor of hard liquor, but Jack still clung stubbornly to the illusion that he was capable of getting his career back on track. After all, he could not possibly be a top investigative journalist without access to a phone.

It seemed a lifetime ago now since he was one of the most sought-after journalists in the trade, all the major publications were clamoring to hire him. The problem was he had begun to believe in his invincibility, the awards and accolades had gone to his head. Jack became sloppy and the celebratory drinks began to turn into full-blown benders. His stories morphed from cutting-edge investigative pieces, into rambling self-opinionated self-righteous drivel. The drink only served to fuel his arrogance to a point where any critic of his work became a personal attack on him; the people he had worked for tried to help. But Jack was beyond help, so now he eked out an existence as a freelance reporter, selling his stories to whoever was willing to pay enough for his next bender.

The ringing finally ceased and for a brief moment he harbored the slight hope that he could return to the deep dreamless sleep he been awakened from, but moments later the phone began its torturous shrill sound once again. Cursing loudly he threw his legs over the side of the bed and sat up, the sudden movement causing the room to lurch alarmingly. Jack hung his head between his legs fighting a wave of nausea, and waited for the dizzy feeling to pass. All the while the ringing of the phone threatened to give him a brain bleed; eventually, he made his way to the hall table and picked up the receiver. The resulting silence was blissful and he was tempted to just leave the phone off the hook, but a small urgent voice on the other end of the line called his name over and over. “Hello” The word came out as a hoarse croak from his parched throat, he had to clear his throat and try again. The voice on the other end delivered the message as he listened in silence, his befuddled mind struggling to comprehend what he was being told. Jack had hung up before he realized that he had not even given the caller the curtsey of a thank you, or even said goodbye.

The luminous hands of his watch told him it was six-thirty, but he was at a loss as to whether it was a.m. or p.m.; as a matter of fact, he was at a total loss as to what day, month, or year it was. The water running cold in the shower seemed to be the catalyst and his mind began to clear, by the time he stood shivering in the bedroom he had begun to decipher what the telephone call was about. It was from an old contact at the police station, tipping him off regarding the suicide of a once-prominent gossip columnist. Corbett had not recognized the name but his contact at the police station seemed to think there was a story in it. He felt like death warmed up and his first instinct was to crawl back into bed and wallow in self-pity, but as per usual he was broke and he needed to sell some kind of story to feed his habit. He dressed in the cleanest clothes he could find, finished the dregs of cheap whiskey in the bottle laying by his bedside, and headed out into the wet darkness outside.

Corbett finally got the engine of the old ford to cough into life, and the needle of the fuel gauge hovered just above the red sector on the dial. He could not remember when he had last filled the tank, and he hoped he had enough fuel to get him to the address he had been given. He felt the onset of the tremors and wished he had spared some whiskey for the morning. A thorough rummage through the glove compartment turned up a cannabis joint that looked like it had been there quite a while, the grass tasted moldy but by the time he had finished it, the worst effects of the hangover seemed to be abating. He switched the radio on just in time to get the end of seven a.m. news, at least now he knew what part of the day he was in. The wind-driven rain made driving difficult, and he felt his heart sink when he drove into the morning rush hour traffic. Not for the first time recently Corbett found himself wondering whether his life was worth living, or if maybe he should contemplate putting an end to it all.

Corbett followed the directions he had been given and was relieved to find himself leaving the rush hour traffic in his wake, out here in the leafy suburbs the rat race seemed very far removed. But as he drove down tree-lined boulevards flanked with palatial houses, he found himself once more thinking depressing thoughts. It was a stark reminder of how far down the food chain he had slipped; the people that lived here were as far removed from his life as the gods of Olympia. The effects of the joint were beginning to wear off now and he was getting antsy, he had completely lost his sense of direction and his body was screaming out for a drink. He was on the brink of abandoning his mission and heading for one of the early house bars he frequented when he caught the flashing light of the ambulance in his peripheral vision. The ambulance and a police car were parked in a quiet cul de sac on his left, outside a formidable-looking Georgian house. He pulled the car to the curbside and watched the scene; the quiet square was devoid of people bar a lone cop who leaned against the patrol car smoking a cigarette.

The whole scene had a forlorn feel to it that just fuelled the underlying melancholy that clung to him lately like a funeral shroud. The thought of dealing with the tragic end of the man that lived in the house suddenly filled him with dread. Suicide had been an all too frequent subject matter in his mind recently, and a part of his mind now wondered whether it was just a coincidence that he ended up here this dreary November morning. The antsy feeling was quickly turning into a full-blown anxiety attack, as his thoughts spiraled towards a very dark place. Corbett grabbed the handle of the door and forced himself to step out onto the wet footpath; he fumbled in his breast pocket and found the dog eared press pass. He hoped that the bored cop would not twig the fact that his press pass had been due for renewal for over two years now. Taking just a little too long to brace himself, he eventually walked in the direction of the patrol car, doing his best to exude confidence that was completely absent from him.

The cop dropped the cigarette butt on the pavement and ground it into the wet surface with the heel of his boot. Corbett cleared his throat and the cop looked up with an expression that hovered between annoyance and downright hostility. The man in uniform did not look far off retirement age, and he had that hard expression in his eyes that told he was sick of the world and all the shit that came with it. Corbett did his best to offer a friendly smile and was rewarded with a scowl from the old cop, he held up the press pass as if it would miraculously impress the cop or at least evoke some professional curtsey from the man. Briefly, a hint of a smile played on the cop’s lips but it quickly changed to a sneer. “Fuck off you parasite, if you want to know what is going on here, then ring the press office later”. The anger in his voice and his expression caused Corbett to retreat a couple of steps. For one terrifying moment he believed the cop was going to assault him, and he was relieved when the cop’s attention was drawn to the front door of the house.

Two ambulance men came out wheeling a gurney with a body bag on it, followed closely by the angry cop’s partner. The paramedics nonchalantly loaded the remains into the back of the ambulance, before driving away as if on a Sunday outing. Angry cop muttered something to his partner, and the other man treated Corbett to a condescending sneer before they too drove off in the wake of the ambulance. Corbett was left like a stray dog standing in the rain; the brief interaction with the old cop had shaken him badly. As if a veil had been lifted from his mind, the thought hit him like a freight train. He was no longer capable of doing this job, and the tears welled up in his eyes before tumbling down his cheeks, melding with the cold November rain. Dejected he began to shuffle towards the car; inside he rested his forehead on the steering wheel and wallowed in self-pity. The sudden banging on the window startled him, and for a moment he believed his heart would stop.

The rain running down the driver’s window allowed only a blurry image of the figure standing outside, it was small and he wondered whether it was a child. Again the bony knuckles tapped urgently on the wet window, and his first instinct was to start the engine and drive away. “Sir, are you alright in there? I just need to speak with you for a moment.” The voice sounded husky and hesitant, and it was female. Corbett wiped his face on the sleeve of his jacket and glanced at his image in the rearview mirror. The haunted look in his bloodshot eyes did little to lift the crushing hopelessness that enveloped him, bracing himself he rolled down the window. The hunched figure standing on the pavement was lost in a hooded coat the looked several sizes too big. “Sorry to bother you officer but I was wondering whether I could speak with you regarding poor Mr, Granger. You see I find it hard to believe that he would end his own life, well to be honest with you he was just too selfish to do such a thing.” These last few words were spoken in a whisper and trailed off until he could scarcely hear them.

Corbett’s first instinct was to point out the fact that the woman was mistaken; he was just about to tell her he was not a cop when the reporter’s curiosity kicked in. Taking his notebook from his trench coat pocket he once again stepped out into the inclement weather, the woman pointed to the house directly across the square from the deceased man’s house and asked him if he would rather talk inside. It couldn’t hurt to see what the woman had to say, and he followed her across the road. A faint glimmer of excitement fluttered in the darkness and for a moment he felt like a real reporter again, a small voice deep inside his head cautioned about the consequences of impersonating a police officer, but he brushed it aside. He was already at rock bottom so the cops could hardly make life much worse for him, and he had a growing feeling that there was a story here. The woman opened the door of the large townhouse and he followed her into the darkness of the hallway, a sudden shudder came over him but he put it down to the withdrawal from the drink.

The hallway was dim and felt claustrophobic and he almost cried out when the door closed plunging his surroundings into pitch darkness, directly behind him he heard a noise and the hallway was suddenly illuminated in a faint yellowish light. The woman brushed past him and he caught her scent, expensive perfume, and stale tobacco. She entered the open doorway at the far end of the hall, and that room was illuminated. The lights of the other room entered the hallway and he could make out his surroundings. The walls were covered with what once might have been very expensive wallpaper, and the antique mahogany hall stand was covered with a layer of dust, as was the old-style upright phone, the overall impression was one of wealth in decline. A slight musty smell hung in the air, and for some reason, it projected an air of loneliness. “This way officer, I have put on the kettle for tea.”  Corbett made his way hesitantly towards the voice.

The kitchen in stark contrast to the hallway was brightly lit by several lamps strategically placed around the room; it was warm and had a cozy lived-in feeling about it. A copper kettle sat on a big AGA cooker, a faint wisp of steam rising from its spout. Corbett was surprised to find himself alone in the room and was slightly startled when the woman reappeared from a doorway that was concealed by a large antique dresser. The oversized coat had been discarded, and he was looking at a woman of indiscernible age. At first glance, she could have passed for a woman of forty, but on closer inspection, the lines beneath her makeup told a different story. She nodded her head and her blonde curls fell forward partially concealing her features, her figure was rounded in all the right places, and Corbett realized that in an earlier life she would have been very desirable. “Please sit down officer while I make us some tea.” Her voice seemed different now as if the fact of being in her own house had instilled more confidence in her.

The handle of the fine china cup seemed impossible small to his clumsy fingers, and the trembling of his hand threatened to shatter it. He was conscious of the woman sitting across the table from him, and her silent appraisal of him made him nervous. The heavy silence in the room was oppressive, and he blurted it out before even thinking. “Sorry Ms, but there seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding here, I am not a police officer I am a reporter.” Even as he spoke he knew he had blown any chance of getting her to talk, and prepared for angry indignation. But his confession was met only with an awkward silence; she pulled on her cigarette and was lost from view behind a veil of smoke. He rose from the table and turned to leave. Her hand reached through the cloud of smoke and latched on to his wrist, he was surprised with the strength of her grip. “Sit down Mr; I never did trust the cops anyway.” Corbett glanced over expecting to catch a mocking expression on her face, but all that was there was a steely look of determination.

The kitchen was shrouded in a haze of tobacco smoke that stung his eyes, and the hand holding the pen had long since stopped moving. The woman named Sophia Ellsworth had started hesitantly, but once she got going the words flowed nonstop for what seemed like a very long time. Corbett had stopped writing a while back and he was aware that what he had written so far would be dismissed as poor fiction; the woman pacing the kitchen floor was telling a story so farfetched that most people would dismiss every word as fiction or the ramblings of a deranged mind. But for some reason, Corbett believed her, and he could also see why she had not gone to the cops with this. When she finally stopped talking she seemed exhausted as if the retelling of the story had drained her, they both sat in silence.

Maurice Granger had not started his working career as a gossip columnist; as a matter of fact, his previous life would have been a gossip columnist wet dream. According to Sophia Maurice Granger moved in extremely powerful circles, and when he fell foul of the people in those circles, he had used contacts in the media to get the position of a gossip columnist. His articles appeared under the name of Fredrick Sykes. That name had jogged Corbett’s memory back to the phone call that woke him this morning, his contact had mentioned the deceased as being one Fredrick Sykes. Granger aka Sykes used his column to do hit pieces on his former colleagues, these stories caused quite a stir in the beginning. Sykes became somewhat of a celebrity, but endless threats of lawsuits to anyone that printed his work soon found him unemployable, and his short-lived notoriety faded and he became a recluse. But Sophia told Corbett that Sykes had made a reappearance lately, attending venues where the powerful gathered and telling anyone that would listen to him that he would soon publish his memoirs. Memoirs he claimed would rock the establishment of the country to its very foundations. According to Sophia, he had told her that his latest project might put him in grave danger.

“I know this whole thing sounds farfetched Mr. Corbett, but I don’t believe he took his own life. Maurice had made several complaints to the police lately; he believed that dark forces were threatening his life. Of course, they dismissed his complaints as fanciful illusions of a troubled mind. Maurice may have been many things, but delusional he was not. I want you to help me get to the bottom of this.” Corbett broke from his muse and studied the woman sitting opposite him; her eyes seemed to look straight through him, beyond the outer shell of flesh and bone and deep into his essence. Something told him that there just might be a story of a lifetime here, but deep down he feared that he was not the man to dig it out. Corbett settled on promising her he would try and find out what the cops thought of this. As he walked out into the dreary November morning, he felt her eyes on him the whole way back to the car. In the car, he lit a cigarette and contemplated his future, and by the time he threw the butt out the window he had made up his mind. There was nowhere left for him to turn, so following this story was all the choice he had left.

Corbett rooted through his pockets in search of small change; through the grimy glass of the phone box, he could see the police station across the street from him. Back in the day he could have swanned in there, and have a cozy chat with anyone from the desk sergeant to the lead detective regarding any newsworthy stories. There was always someone in the establishment willing to talk to him, but nowadays he would be told to fuck off. Mind you, who could blame them; towards the end, he had written some nasty things about this police force. Things that were by and large truthful, but things he would never have written if he was sober. Still, there were a couple of people, who if not friends, were still willing to pass a civil word with him. A gruff voice answered the phone, and Corbett pushed the button and the coins dropped into the box. Corbett asked for Detective Jones and was put on hold; it seemed like forever before Jones came on the line. Jones sounded anything but happy to hear from Corbett but agreed to a quick chat.

Corbett made his way down the narrow rubbish-strewn alleyway and found Jones standing in the open doorway at the back of the station house. A cigarette hung from the corner of the detective’s mouth, and Corbett was a little shocked to see how Jones had aged. Before he could pass any pleasantries, Jones spoke in a hoarse voice. “I haven’t got time for any of your bullshit Jack; just tell me what you want.”  Jones listened to Corbett’s request regarding Sykes apparent suicide, for a moment Corbett was certain the detective would refuse his request. But to Jack’s surprise, he was told to wait there, as the detective went back inside closing the door behind him. By the time Jones returned, Corbett was wet through and shivering with the cold. “Look Corbett, the guy was suffering from mental issues. The voices in his head got too much for him, and he put a rope around his neck and stopped them. A clear-cut case of suicide.” Jones was about to close the door and Corbett put his foot in the jam. “What about the complaints he made to the cops that his life was being threatened?”

The look on Jones's face told a lot, it was a mixture of anger and concern. He opened his mouth but thought better of it; instead, he turned his back on Corbett. Corbett was almost at the end of the alleyway when Jones's voice drifted to him. “Leave this one alone Jack, this is not a story you want to be poking about in. Find yourself a whiskey bottle and crawl into it, stay there until you forget all about Fredrick Sykes.”  Corbett began to turn towards Jones but the slamming of the door told him the conversation was over. For a brief moment, a flash of indignation set a fire in his belly, but he no longer had the willpower for even this. The angry feeling simply faded and was replaced with the familiar feeling of hopelessness. Back on the main street, he turned in the opposite direction to where he had parked the car; he walked at a brisk pace towards the market area. Where he knew he would find an open bar that would extend him some credit.

The surly-looking barman paused in the act of polishing the same glass that he had been polishing for the past ten minutes. The expression on his face told Jack that he had already outstayed his welcome, but with a drunk’s false sense of optimism. Jack held the empty whiskey glass aloft and asked for a refill. An angry grimace flitted across the barman’s face, but he strode across and took the glass and refilled it. Joe Hayes placed the glass of whiskey on the counter in front of Jack, with enough force to make some of the liquid slop over the rim. “That’s your last one Jack; you have reached your credit limit.”  Hayes returned to polishing the glass and Jack downed the whiskey in one. He was little more than twenty feet from the front door of the bar when the figure stepped out of the shadows. The first punch made fireworks go off inside his head; he went down like a sack of spuds. Kicks rained down on him for what seemed an eternity. Jack was already fading into oblivion when the voice drifted to him through the on-rushing darkness. “If you want to live any longer, you better forget all about Fredrick Sykes.”


Submitted: July 12, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Patrick G Moloney. All rights reserved.

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Rob73

A wonderfully dark horror crime story, Patrick.

Mon, July 12th, 2021 11:03pm

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