Read The Crowmaster Online

Authors: Barry Hutchison

The Crowmaster




For my big sis, Carol Anne.

Sorry for turning your Bucks Fizz record into a clock.

But it was 18 years ago.

Let it go.



Chapter Six


hat had I expected to see? I wasn't sure. An empty street. One or two late-night wanderers, maybe.

But not this. Never this.

There were hundreds of them.
. They scuttled and scurried through the darkness, swarming over the village like an infection; relentless and unstoppable.

I leaned closer to the window and looked down at the front of the hospital. One of the larger creatures was tearing through the fence, its claws slicing through the wrought-iron bars as if they were cardboard. My breath fogged the glass and the monster vanished behind a cloud of condensation. By the time the pane cleared the
would be inside the hospital. It would be up the stairs in moments. Everyone in here was as good as dead.

The distant thunder of gunfire ricocheted from somewhere near the village centre. A scream followed – short and sharp, then suddenly silenced. There were no more gunshots after that, just the triumphant roar of something sickening and grotesque.

I heard Ameena take a step closer behind me. I didn't need to look at her reflection in the window to know how terrified she was. The crack in her voice said it all.

‘It's the same everywhere,' she whispered.

I nodded, slowly. ‘The town as well?'

She hesitated long enough for me to realise what she meant. I turned away from the devastation outside. ‘Wait… You really mean
, don't you?'

Her only reply was a single nod of her head.

' I snapped. It couldn't be true. This couldn't be happening. She stooped and picked up the TV remote from the day-room coffee table. It shook in her hand as she held it out to me.

‘See for yourself.'

Hesitantly, I took the remote. ‘What channel?'

She glanced at the ceiling, steadying her voice. ‘Any of them.'

The old television set gave a faint
as I switched it on. In a few seconds, an all-too-familiar scene appeared.

Hundreds of the creatures. Cars and buildings ablaze. People screaming. People running. People

Hell on Earth.

‘That's New York,' she said.

. Another channel, but the footage was almost identical.



‘I'm… I'm not sure. Somewhere in Japan. Tokyo, maybe?'

It could have been Tokyo, but then again it could have been anywhere. I clicked through half a dozen more channels, but the images were always the same.

‘It happened,' I gasped. ‘It actually happened.'

I turned back to the window and gazed out. The clouds above the next town were tinged with orange and red. It was already burning. They were destroying everything, just like
told me they would.

This was it.

The world was ending.


And it was all my fault.

he house was quieter than I ever remembered it being. The stairs didn't creak as I tiptoed barefoot down them. The kitchen door didn't make a sound when I edged it open. Even the fridge, which usually gives a strange gurgle when anyone so much as touches it, stayed silent as I pulled back the door and blinked in the faint orange glow of the light.

The floor was cold beneath my feet. I curled my toes in and tried to balance on my heels, minimising contact between my skin and the chill of the lino. I'd been given slippers at Christmas, but in all the…
of the day, they'd got lost.

The shelves of the fridge were almost bare. Tomorrow was shopping day – well, technically, since it was after midnight, today was shopping day, but since I hadn't been to sleep yet I was still classing it as ‘tomorrow'. Pity. There was never anything decent in the fridge on the day before shopping day.

The milk carton felt light when I picked it up and carried it across to the table. If I drank some there probably wouldn't be enough left for cereal in the morning. I grabbed a glass from the draining board and half filled it anyway. Nan always said milky drinks were good for helping you get to sleep, and drinks don't come much milkier than milk.

On the wall above the microwave the plastic hands of the clock crept past 3 a.m. There were no ticks, no tocks, just the same flat silence that seemed to have fallen like a blanket across the world.

I put the carton with its dribble of milk back in the fridge and closed the door. It gave a gurgle, but it was short and faint, and nowhere near its usual high standard.

With glass in hand I wandered through to the living room, where the carpet slowly warmed the soles of my feet. The lamp post outside spilled light through a gap in the curtains – not much, but enough to help me avoid most of the room's major obstacles.

Lifting the remote control from the top of the TV I made for the couch. I wasn't sure what television stations filled their night-time slots with, but it had to be more interesting than lying on my back staring at the ceiling until morning.

Sipping my milk, I sat on the couch and curled my legs up beneath me. The TV came on at the first press of the remote, and the silence was suddenly shattered by a loud, nasal laugh. The sound made me jump, and a splosh of milk slid up the side of the glass and spilled down the sleeve of my pyjamas. The thumb of my other hand frantically searched for the mute switch.

At last I found the button. The laughter was immediately cut short. I sat there with the remote still pointed at the television, breath held, listening for any sign that I'd woken anyone up.

Not a bedspring groaned. Not a floorboard creaked. Gradually, my muscles began to relax and I leaned back against the cushions. The milk had trickled down past my elbow, but was now being absorbed into my PJs, so at least I didn't have to worry about cleaning it up.

On the TV, the laughing man was still guffawing away, only now I couldn't hear him. I recognised him as a chef from one of the cookery programmes that Mum watches. He and another man were in a room filled with big wooden barrels and racks of wine bottles. Every so often they'd fill a glass, take a sip, spit it back out into a bucket, then start laughing again like a couple of maniacs. I'd tasted wine on Mum's birthday a few months ago. It tasted like vinegar and left a horrible film on my tongue. No wonder the men on the telly were gobbing the stuff out rather than drinking it. I'd been tempted to do the same thing myself.

In the bottom-right corner of the screen, a little woman was making a series of frantic hand gestures. I knew she was signing for the deaf, but I didn't understand why whenever the men on screen laughed, she pretended to laugh too.

What was the point in that? Surely deaf people could see the men were laughing? They didn't need her shaking her belly and contorting her face into a big Santa-Claus-style chortle, did they?

I flicked over to another channel. A skeleton-faced man with a long white beard was looking at an even longer mathematical equation on a whiteboard. I quickly hit a button on the remote and moved on.

The next programme I found was about Egypt. The pyramids were a dead giveaway. Someone was signing for the deaf on this channel too. This time the person doing the sign language was a man. He looked very excited about being on telly. His face moved as if it was made of living Plasticine, and his hand gestures were so wild and frantic he looked in danger of slapping himself unconscious. Every movement and gesture he made was ridiculously exaggerated. I wondered if that was how deaf people shouted at each other.

I watched the strange animated little man until I'd finished the rest of my milk. He was far more interesting than the actual programme and I could have kept watching him all night, but I was yawning now and it felt like sleep might be at least a vague possibility.

I hit the red button on the remote and the picture on screen turned into a thin line of colour, then disappeared completely. Pushing with my legs I bounced up off the couch and took a few steps towards the kitchen.

Something hidden by the gloom on the floor snagged my foot. I barely had time to realise it was one of Ameena's boots before I stumbled, staggered, then started to fall.

I managed to catch the edge of the coffee table, but still came down hard on my knees. The jolt of my abrupt stop shuddered through me, and I felt the wet glass slip from my fingers.

. The milky tumbler smashed against the wooden tabletop, showering it and the carpet in a hundred sharp crystalline slivers. The shattering sound shook me to the core, and not because I was worried about getting into trouble. It was because the sound had reminded me of something – something I'd been trying hard to forget.

The last time I'd heard glass break had been here in this very room. That time it hadn't been a drinking glass smashing, though. It had been the window, as my childhood imaginary friend, Mr Mumbles, came crashing through.

Kneeling there on the floor I could remember it all so clearly. The panic as the window came in. The shock as Mr Mumbles fixed me with his beady glare. The sight of him. The smell of him. The feeling of his rough hands around my neck.

My throat tightened as I pushed myself up on trembling legs. I could hear the faint murmurings of movement upstairs now. Someone had heard the glass breaking. A feeling of relief washed over me, easing the knot in my stomach. The memory of my all-too-real imaginary friend had disturbed me, and right at that moment I really didn't feel like being alone.

And then I realised.

I wasn't alone.

He was standing there in front of the curtains, just as he had been last time. His wide-brimmed hat curved down, hiding his face in a mask of shadow. His heavy overcoat swished softly back and forth on a breeze I couldn't feel or hear. His stench hit my nostrils; the familiar stink of filth and decay and of things long dead. It caught way back in my throat and made me gag.

He tilted his head and the light from outside pulled the dark veil from his face. There was the cracked, papery skin. There were the narrowed eyes; the hooked nose, through which his foul breath came whistling in and out.

And there, stretched into a humourless smile, were the lips – thick and bloated, and criss-crossed by a series of short grubby stitches that sealed his mouth tight shut.

My head shook all by itself, trying to deny what my eyes were seeing. But there was no avoiding it. There was no other way of explaining away what I was looking at. I didn't know he'd done it, but he had. Somehow he'd come back.

Mr Mumbles was back.


‘Kyle?' I heard Mum's voice at the same time the living-room light came on.

‘Mum, move, get out!' I cried, spinning quickly to face her. She was standing at the bottom of the stairs, dressing gown wrapped around her, a finger still on the light switch.

‘What?' she frowned. ‘Why? What's wrong?'

‘It's him,' I spluttered, turning back to the window. ‘It's…
. Where did he go?'

‘Where did who go?'

‘Mr Mumbles,' I yelped. ‘He was there. By the window!'

‘What? Are… are you sure?'

‘Of course I'm sure,' I told her as I began to search the room. ‘He was right there when you switched the light on.'

‘I didn't see anyone. It was dark, are you sure—?'

‘He was
, OK?'

Mum stood in silence, watching me check behind the curtains, the couch – anywhere Mr Mumbles might be hiding.

‘What's all the ruckus?' asked Ameena, who had now appeared behind Mum. She was wearing the pyjamas Mum had bought for her, and an old dressing gown of Nan's. This was the fourth night Ameena had slept here, but I still hadn't got used to seeing her. The sight of her knocked my train of thought, and Mum replied before I could.

‘He thinks he saw Mr Mumbles,' she explained.

‘I don't
I saw him, I
see him!' I dropped to my knees and looked under the coffee table. It was a long shot, but I checked just in case.

‘Well unless he's eight centimetres tall I doubt he's under there,' Ameena said.

‘What, you think this is funny?' I demanded. ‘Have you forgotten what he did to me? To all of us?'

‘No, I haven't forgotten,' she said defensively, ‘but—'

‘But what? But

‘Look, chill out,' she told me. ‘If he
here then he's not here now.'

‘Ameena's right,' said Mum before I could reply. ‘Let's just all go back to bed and we can talk about it in the morning.'

I looked at them both in turn, barely able to believe what I was hearing.

‘Are you
?' I cried. ‘I'm telling you I just saw Mr Mumbles and you think it can wait till morning?'

‘I know that's what you think you saw,' Mum continued, ‘but I was standing right here and I couldn't see anyone.'

‘He was here!' I insisted. ‘He was right here! What, was I imagining him or something, is that what you're saying?'

Mum didn't speak, but her face said it all.

‘I dunno,' Ameena shrugged. ‘I saw what happened to him up on the roof, and I don't think that's something you come back from. Even if you
an imaginary evil monster guy.'

I glanced between them, still amazed at what I was hearing, but fully aware I wasn't going to win this argument. Not against both of them.

‘Fine,' I scowled, ‘let's all go back to bed. But if you both get murdered in your sleep, don't come crying to me in the morning.'

*  *  *

I'm not sure how long I lay there on my bed, propped up against my pillows. An hour? Two? The world outside was still wrapped in darkness and morning felt like a long way away.

I hadn't been able to relax since returning to my room. I was certain I'd seen Mr Mumbles, but the more time passed the more unbelievable that seemed. Mr Mumbles was dead. Very dead. You couldn't get much deader. But I'd seen him.

Hadn't I?

What if he hadn't been there? Could it have been that I'd been dreaming somehow? Or hallucinating? The lack of sleep and the flashback of the breaking glass could have sent my imagination into overdrive. It was possible, I supposed. And Mum must've been there for at least a few seconds before she switched the light on, yet she hadn't seen anyone in the room besides me.

I felt the muscles in my back relax a little. The headache that had been pulsing behind my eyes since I'd come back to bed eased off a few notches. Maybe Mum and Ameena were right. Maybe I was worrying about nothing. Nothing that a few hours of sleep wouldn't fix, anyway.

A glance at my bedside clock told me it was barely after four. School had been closed for the past few days while investigators tried to work out how every pupil and teacher had managed to develop temporary amnesia at exactly the same time; so I could sleep on for as long as I wanted.

I closed my eyes and allowed myself a smile. I could still remember the looks of panicked confusion on the faces of the teachers and students as they ‘awoke' to find themselves standing in my front garden. The police and the school inspectors and anyone else who fancied could investigate all they liked. There was no way they'd figure out the truth. It was just too weird. There was no way they'd ever find out about—

The soft giggle from the end of my bed seemed deafening in the silence. My childhood instincts screamed at me to pull the covers over my head and hide, while my more grown-up ones ordered me to sit up and face whatever was with me in my room.

In the end I came up with a compromise. I kicked off the covers and rolled out of bed, pushing myself into the corner of the room and as far from the source of the sound as possible.

A small, frail figure stood watching me from the gloom. Her flowing white dress was caked thick with dried blood. In her hands she clutched a dirty porcelain-faced rag doll. Raggy Maggie's single eye bored into me as the girl waved one of the doll's stubby arms up and down.

‘Peek-a-boo,' sang Caddie. ‘I see you!'

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