Something Borrowed | Short Horror Story by Michael Whitehouse

Bill was late for his wife’s birthday. But then, he was always late. Martha told him time and time again ‘plan ahead’, but no matter how much he prepared he was still late for everything. It was November, and the streets of Inverness were dusted with frost that morning. The usual North of Scotland winter threatened: cold winds, cold rain, and even colder snow. So far, the latter had missed the city, but the air had a bite to it, and so a blizzard in the coming weeks seemed inevitable.

Walking along Bank Street, which flanked the River Ness, Bill moved steadily, the frozen air smoking from his mouth. At 79, he had slowed down in recent years, each winter the cold seeping further into his bones and the spaces between. He had lived in Inverness his entire life; a place he loved. But as he walked alongside the river in the centre of the city, he could not help but notice how much things had changed. Much of the 19th and early 20th century architecture had been joined by modern buildings, though the spire of Inverness Cathedral still dominated the cityscape as he passed it. As a child he was always impressed by it. The spire reached up to the sky, a large cross at its peak, and to five or six year old Bill back in the day, it was as though it touched heaven itself.

He was still not used to calling Inverness a city. It was a town when he was growing up and through most of his adult life, but in the last couple of decades it had become home to nearly 50,000 people. Still a quiet place, but busier than before. Even silence was relative. He was happy with this change though, it meant more work for the young. He had had a difficult life struggling through poverty as a teenager, taking any job he could. By the time he reached his forties he was finally settled in a career, but it had been a rough route to take, and he hoped the future held a different kind of hope for those now living in the city. The young had enough to contend with in the world.

Passing the cathedral, Bill continued along the riverside. He pulled his navy blue scarf, a gift from his sister before she passed, closer to his worn face, and as he did so he could feel the end of his nose going numb. Looking down at the flowers in his left hand and feeling the small wrapped present in his pocket, he was sure Martha would be happy with her gifts, even if he was a little late. They had been married sixty years, and even though Bill was aware that he sometimes pulled at his wife’s nerves with his ways, he knew she loved him. And he loved her. Even if they did not say it enough.

The sky was grey, and, looking up at it for a moment, Bill wondered if the snow would be as bad as it had been back in ‘92. He wondered too long, for as he looked to the street ahead once more, two shapes moved quickly towards him. 13 months earlier Bill had had a cataract out in his left eye, but the right was now clouded, his vision dimming with the rest of his body. With his ailing vision, the two figures looked for all intents and purposes like a pair of blurred monks, hoods draped over their heads ominously walking by the riverside; as though the cathedral itself had sent two spectres from its past to meet with him.

As they neared, they finally came into focus and Bill saw both young men grinning at him from beneath their hoods. Bill, always a friendly type, smiled back, but his heart began to race. There was something in their faces, something insincere. The two men parted to allow Bill enough space between them to continue down the street, but as he passed, one of the men stuck out his foot. Bill tripped forward losing his balance. Holding onto the flowers, his free hand reacted too slowly. The icy ground broke his fall, his face smashing against the frozen pavement, the cartilage in his nose cracking and both front teeth breaking in two. Blood trickled through his mouth, the pain from his teeth unbearable.

Bill let out a groan, trying desperately to shout for help. But broken teeth and blood choked in his throat.

‘Grab his wallet!’ one of the young men said to the other, looking out from his grey hood to see if anyone was coming.

The other responded, grasping at Bill’s coat, pulling it apart, buttons torn asunder. ‘Where’s yer wallet!’ the man said. But when Bill was too dazed to answer, his attacker punched him in the stomach. Tears filled Bill’s eyes.

‘Inside pocket, hurry!’ the grey hooded figure sneered.

‘Got it!’

‘No!’ Bill finally screamed, reaching out at the wallet in the man’s hand.

In response, the grey hooded figure knelt down and punched him in the face. Bill lost consciousness, his grip loosening as he lay on the ground motionless.

‘Wait, there’s something else,’ one said to the other. Quickly searching Bill’s silent body, they grabbed the small wrapped present in his other pocket and then ran off down the street, trampling on Bill’s flowers as they passed the cathedral, disappearing into the grey day ahead of them.

They had robbed people before. Whenever money was an issue, Baz and Murty would head out and find an unsuspecting victim. The first time they had mugged someone was three years previous. Back then, they had two rules: Men only, and no one older than fifty. ‘We’re no’ animals’, as Murty put it. But those rules quickly fell by the wayside as each time got easier and easier. The people no longer resembled humans -  they were just things with money. And as time went by, the two young muggers found fun in it. The buzz of taking and not being caught. But even by their standards, attacking a pensioner was a stretch. Murty felt guilty about it as they sat in their grubby little flat looking over their loot:

‘You didnae need tae smack the old guy,’ he said as he sat on an old couch.

‘And wit?’ replied Baz, sneering through a missing front tooth which had fallen out the year previous. ‘Should a hiv left you tae fight o’oer his wallet while someone called the polis?’

Murty did not reply.

‘Didnae think so. We needed tae get oot o’ there.’ Baz pawed over the wallet, looking through it as Murty unwrapped Bill’s present for Martha.

‘Anythin’ good?’ asked Baz.

Tearing the wrapping paper off, Murty revealed a small jewelry box. He opened it, and inside found a golden bracelet. Quickly, Murty’s guilt about the old man melted away at the sight of it, the elegant gold catching the light of the solitary bulb in their living room.

‘This looks worth a bit,’ Murty said, fingering the jewelry in his grimy fingers. ‘Let’s take it doon tae Fran’s and see what we can git.’

‘Don’t be daft!’ Baz leaned over and grabbed the bracelet from Murty’s grasp. ‘You want tae lead the polis here or wit?’


Baz was the smarter of the two, but only just, and even that wasn’t saying much. ‘Someb’dae would’ve phoned the polis by noo.’ He pointed to the bracelet. ‘And the first thing anybody watchin’ would’ve told them was that we took this.’

‘And?’ The penny took an age to drop with Murty.

‘You’re an idiot. If the old man was awright, he’d’ ‘ave told them whit this bracelet looked like. Aw the pawn shopes fae here tae Aberdeen ‘ill have been telt tae look oot fur it.’

As the realisation that they couldn’t take the bracelet to Fran’s for an immediate payout dawned on Murty, he wore a disappointed look on his face. ‘So, that’s that then! We cannae dae anythin’ wae this!’

Baz smiled. ‘I’ll stick it away somewhere safe. We’ll trade it in in a couple of months when naebody’s lookin’ fur it.’

Murty’s disappointment gave way to a smile. ‘Nice wan. So, how much dae ye think it’s worth?’

‘Nae idea. We’ll just wait and see.’

‘And whit aboot the wallet?’

Baz had already pocketed 50 pounds from old Bill’s wallet when Murty wasn’t looking. ‘I found a tenner, you can have it.’ Leaning over, he handed a ten pound note to Murty, just enough to keep him sweet.

Murty’s face lit up. ‘Thanks, Baz!’

‘Noo, I’ll put the bracelet and the wallet away with oor stash. Maybe ye can get us a take away wae that tenner, eh?’ Baz stood up and walked to his bedroom. There, he lifted up a floorboard - they had already sold the carpets to Fran - and placed the wallet and bracelet in with a few other things Baz and Murty had stolen over the last few weeks.

Murty was easily led astray, and Baz always knew exactly how to get what he wanted out of him. If he had told Murty that there had been nothing in the wallet, Murty might have grown suspicious; but instead, Baz gave him just enough to make him think things were fair between them. Baz grinned smugly as he replaced the floorboard. He would take the bracelet to a friend the next morning and get a good amount for it. If Murty asked any questions about it in a month or two, Baz would make up some story about how he’d seen a picture of the bracelet in The Inverness Courier, and that he had to throw it away as it was too hot.

That night, after Murty spent his ten pounds buying food, both men ate well and decided that they would try the East side of the city the next morning in search of their next victim. Murty then fell asleep on the couch in the living room, and Baz curled up in his bed like a cheshire cat.

It was the scratching that woke him. Murty had been dozing on the couch for several hours, dreaming about what he would spend his money on in a few months when they had been able to trade in the bracelet. The quiet scratching invaded his dream for a moment, mixing with his aspirations and producing an unnerving vision - the bracelet sitting somewhere in darkness, covered in soil with rats gnawing at the metal, the wriggling mass of worm-like tails scratching anyone who came near.

When he opened his eyes to the night, Murty was thankful that he was safe on the couch once more. Having been in and out of foster homes most of his life, the flat he rented with Baz was about the closest thing to a real home he had ever had.

A chink of light snuck through the window of the living room from a streetlamp outside. It cut across a small coffee table, reflecting on empty takeaway boxes and then abruptly ending where darkness resumed its cloak.

As the thought crossed Murty’s mind that the rear of the room seemed darker than usual, he became aware that the scratching was not part of his dream after all. It was very real. Looking around, he tried to pierce the shadows around him but to little avail. The thought that the scratching was the product of a rat rummaging through rubbish in the corner turned his stomach. He was always asking Baz to stop leaving food lying around, that it would attract pests. Now they were paying for it if there was an infestation of rats nearby.

Pulling himself up out of the couch, Murty walked with trepidation across the floor, his foot touching something as he did. He recoiled for a moment, picturing a large rodent readying itself to gnaw at his foot, but he breathed more easily when he realised it was an old issue of Razzle he kept next to the couch for lonelier times.

And yet the scratching was still real. Still there. Still clawing away at his nerves.

He reached into the blackness and touched the open doorway leading into the hall. From there, he stretched his hand out to the right and flicked a light switch. But instead of light coming from the solitary bulb above, Murty was greeted with only darkness. The click felt empty, and it was then that Murty noticed how comfortless the flat felt at night in the dark.

‘Baz hasnae put money in the meter again,’ he grumbled to himself, half hoping that Baz would hear him.

Standing in the doorway, Murty strained to listen. He could now hear the scratching louder than before and was certain that it was not coming from the living room. More than that, it was most definitely coming from Baz’s bedroom. Probably Baz carvin’ his name in tae somethin’, he thought. Baz had a tendency to leave his name in places, whether it was carved into a school desk with a knife when they were children or it was spray painted on someone’s front door. Baz Woz Here was about as imaginative as the signature got.

‘Baz, whit ye doin’?’ Murty said groggily.

There was no reply.

‘Baz! I’m tryin’ tae sleep, man!’

But the scratching continued.

It was rare for Murty to get really annoyed at Baz. He looked up to him in a way. Baz always had a plan, and that was something Murty never had. Any time they mugged someone, it was Baz who handled the goods and split up the money fairly. Or so Murty presumed. But, every now and then, Murty would get angry at Baz for being plain thoughtless. Causing unwanted noise at night by wrecking another part of their flat definitely qualified.

With Baz refusing to answer, Murty had had enough. He walked into the hallway and as he stumbled through the darkness, the scratching grew louder. Reaching the closed door to Baz’s room, a thought crossed his mind. Sounds like somebody’s fingernails.

At that thought, Murty paused. An uneasy feeling had washed over him, and he thought for a moment that he would be safer if he returned to the cosiness of the couch and waited until morning. Safer, now that was a strange thought to have. Why would I no’ be safe?

‘Baz’, he said through the door, but the scratching only grew more fervent, and while a part of Murty urged him to leave it be, he gave into his annoyance despite the warning in his mind.

With a push, the door opened slowly, creaking like an old boat on unsteady waters. Baz’s room was a mess, empty wrappers and rubbish across the floor. Through the window, the street lamp cast its hue as it had done in the living room, falling short before the end of the room. But as he stared at his dimly lit surroundings, Murty was unsure of what he was looking at. He could see Baz’s bed, the grey outline distinct, but he had to squint in the dark to take in the Baz’s crouched figure on the floor beside the bed.

‘Baz?’ Murty said, his voice groggy. ‘Whit yae dain?’

‘Beat it, Murty. I’m trying tae sleep,’ came a groan from the Bed as the scratching continued.

At the sound of Baz’s voice, Murty knew the truth, someone else was in the room and they were crouching beside the bed.

‘Baz,’ Murty whispered with a tremble.

Baz sat up in his bed angrily. ‘Whit!?’

Murty’s whisper shook with dread. He pointed. ‘There’s somebody sittin’ next tae ye.’

‘Oh, away and…’ But Baz never finished that sentence. He turned his head slightly to the side and stared at the dimly lit crouched figure on the floor.

The scratching sound became fevered once more, the crouched figure shuddering slightly as it finally heaved up a floorboard. Revealing Baz’s stash, the figure let out a low staggered groan, like a tree creaking in the wind.

‘Whit is it!?’ Baz tried to scramble to his feet, but the figure reached out and grabbed him by the ear, yanking his face down to the pillow. The skin split where his ear joined his face, and blood trickled from the wound.

The still crouching intruder let out another creaking groan.

‘Murty! Help me!’ Baz had never sounded so vulnerable.

But Murty had frozen. He watched in horror as the figure slowly raised up to its feet and leaned over Baz in the bed. A slither of light from the street outside caught something. A flash of discoloured cloth, like an old death shroud. Two thin hands wrapped across Baz’s face, its thumbs pushing into his eyes. He screamed, and Murty ran out of the room in abject terror. Seconds later, Baz’s screams ended.

Now in the hall, Murty lurched towards the front door. Scrambling for the lock, he pulled the door open, the icy cold air from outside stinging his lungs. As he stepped over the threshold into the night, something pulled on the back of his neck. It was cold and sharp and dug deep into his skin as his body was yanked to the ground. Something inside of him shattered as his ribs broke on the foot of the door frame, piercing his lung. Looking up, Murty gasped for air as his lungs filled with blood, and the thing from Baz’s room leaned over him, its arms outstretched. It shuddered in the cold air from outside, and, as it did so, its discoloured shroud shuddered with it. As the figure leaned over him, Murty saw that the shroud had been torn, a piece missing, revealing a glimpse of a rotten leg, and dust powdering off of the skin.

It was two weeks before old Bill fully regained consciousness in hospital. And when he did, he found himself the focus of interest for an aging police inspector by the name of Moffat, and a younger officer by the name of Wilson. When the doctors were satisfied that Bill could speak once the stitches were removed from his mouth, he was happy to answer any questions the police had.

‘Mr Nairn,’ Inspector Moffat said, holding two photos in his hand. ‘Do either of these men look familiar to you?’

Bill pulled himself up in his hospital bed, still in some discomfort from the attack, though the worst was now behind him. ‘Is that the two men who attacked me?’

‘You tell us, Mr Nairn.’ Inspector Moffat was direct with his line of questioning, but not without sympathy.

Bill peered at the photographs for a moment. ‘It could be, but it’s difficult to remember. They had hoods up and I didn’t get much of a chance to see their faces. It’s all a little fuzzy to me now, if I’m honest. All I remember is they kind of resembled monks from the old cathedral, but that’s my eyesight for you.’ Bill chuckled to himself.

Inspector Moffat handed the photographs to officer Wilson.

‘That’s okay, Mr Nairn,’ said Wilson with a softer approach. ‘The two gentlemen were found dead two weeks ago, the very night after your attack, and we were wondering if you could help us with our enquiries?’

‘Oh dear, that’s terrible,’ said Bill. ‘Was it an accident?’

‘Murder, Mr Nairn,’ said Inspector Moffat, pointedly.

‘Both men were found in their flat,’ continued Wilson. ‘One in his bed, the other lying across the threshold of his front door. It’s a puzzle, Mr Nairn. They were almost unrecognisable from these pictures. I’ve never seen such brutal injuries.’

‘That’s just awful. Young men, too.’ Bill let out a sigh, thinking to himself how much of a waste it all was.

‘Yes, they were young,’ replied Inspector Moffat. ‘But we believe they were either the two men who attacked you or at least connected to the mugging in some way.’

‘And why’s that?’ asked Bill.

‘Because lying next to one of the bodies was your wallet, Mr Murty, and a gold bracelet which matches the description of the one you bought for your wife which was stolen from you.’

‘Can I see it!’ Bill said, his eyes lighting up.

‘Ofcourse.’ Inspector Moffat handed over a sealed transparent bag with the bracelet inside of it.

‘No… Not that… My wallet!’

Puzzled, Wilson pulled out another evidence bag. This one contained the wallet.

‘Can I look inside?’ said Bill with enthusiasm. ‘I don’t want to tamper with your evidence.’

Inspector Moffat smirked. ‘I don’t think we need to worry about that. We’ve looked over the wallet for prints.’

‘Did you find any?’

Wilson looked a little pale. ‘No prints, Mr Nairn. But it was covered in a powdered substance which our labs identified as... Dead skin. That’s one of the reasons this case is so unusual.’

Bill opened the wallet frantically, and then smiled. ‘Thank God! I don’t know what I would have done if I’d lost it.’ He pulled a small piece of old white cloth out of the wallet.

‘I would have thought you would have been more concerned about the expensive bracelet, Mr Nairn,’ observed Wilson.

Bill shook his head. ‘No, this piece of cloth is priceless.’

‘What is it?’ asked Detective Moffat.

‘The morning I was attacked,’ said Bill. ‘I was on the way to see my wife. She’s buried at Tomnahurich cemetery.’

‘I’m sorry for your loss, Mr Nairn. But what does that piece of cloth have to do with your wife?’

Bill smiled. ‘We buried Martha in her wedding dress. But before she died, she asked me to cut a piece of cloth from the dress and carry it around with me. That way, wherever my wallet went, she wouldn’t be far.’

The End

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Michael Whitehouse: Something Borrowed | Short Horror Story by Michael Whitehouse
Something Borrowed | Short Horror Story by Michael Whitehouse
Michael Whitehouse
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