The Night of the Haunted by Michael McCarthy

A hit man is haunted by the memories of two of his victims, by Michael McCarthy.

It's a balmy evening, there's a couple leaning out of a dimly lit window at the side of a house overlooking an alley. They're both naked and their heads are wreathed in smoke from their cigarettes, its effect heightened by the intermittent blinking of a faulty street light. You can't even see the moon or stars.

Let's call her Kate and him Daniel.

There's a very light drizzle shining on their skin. If you saw them, and you were that way inclined, you might find their bearing iconic like a scene from a European Art House film.

This house is empty apart from them. There was a fire in which two people died. The only two people in the house: the owner and his female friend. The house had been in the process of being converted into flats for rich singles as an additional pension for the owner.

The man is clearly older, he's tanned and balding with cropped grey hair. Kate is a dyed blonde, her hair lying loose on her shoulders. She looks about twenty years younger than Daniel, but neither of them care. Age is irrelevant to them.

Kate prefers the cool shade of her back garden, while Daniel is very well travelled. They're both smiling. There's some music playing in the background, an infectious pop song. It's not loud, it just... carries. Kate's moving her head from side to side in time, while Daniel's swinging his hand in front of him and clicking his fingers like a band leader.

They've clearly found each other. It took them long enough.

Kate traces arcane patterns on Daniel's shoulder and he puts his arm around her and pulls her close, gently. They drop their cigarette butts and they fall through the grill in the gutter below. They never miss.

They love the night. It belongs to them. The other sounds of the night: traffic, dogs barking, drunks, voices, breaking glass, don't trouble them. They're not startled by or curious about abrupt noises.

Daniel reaches for the cigarettes between them on the window sill, hits the bottom of the packet against the heel of his hand and takes one out with his mouth, strikes a match with one hand, lights the cigarette and places it in Kate's mouth. Then he repeats the action for himself.

They like stroking each other. It's almost like their way of conversing. They don't need words. Looking at them, you would feel that this is their time. They have all they need, each other. There's something else about them; they know their destiny. Time doesn't weigh heavily. They have all the time in the world. If you walked into their room you would see two naked bodies, but they wouldn't be concerned. They wouldn't need to be. They spent their first night together here. Now they're inseparable.

Somebody is on the way to see them. He has unfinished business. Let's call him Barry, he's a hit man. He's sweating. It's warm, but that's not why he's sweating.

They know he's coming and that, unlike them, he's frightened, but he can't stop himself. Barry's alone and he's armed.

He did a bad thing. He tried to separate them. That unleashed a terrifying inevitability. For him. He had no idea of the possible outcome of his actions. He never thinks that far ahead. But that's tough. Some people have to learn the hard way, a lesson they'll never forget. If they live long enough.

His boss doesn't know Barry's here. Barry heard a whisper that two people had been seen cuddling and leaning out of the window, again. Barry doesn't understand that.

Barry's standing at the corner of the street, but he's not looking at the house overlooking the alley.

He's thinking about the night he first came here and what he'd been told by his boss that evening.

'I want you to get rid of two people. No questions asked and no, absolutely no, talking to anyone. Not even me.' His boss had barked. He was always loud, always seemed to be shouting at somebody.

'Shooter?' Barry had whispered.

He always felt in awe of his boss and felt uneasy being on his own with him. His boss had the unsettling habit of staring at people when he spoke to them. He had stunning, ice blue eyes.

Just staring coldly, analytically, even after that person had finished speaking. Nobody could hold that gaze. Barry just looked at the floor.

Otherwise, Barry's boss was an unremarkable figure, short, round shouldered, grey hair cut in a pudding basin style. In fact he reminded Barry of an office clerk longing for retirement. Until he looked at you. Barry had never seen anybody try to compete with those eyes.

'Burn them.' His boss answered, after an eternity.

Barry had known this day was coming. He'd built a reputation for chilling and unrestrained violence. So he was ready.

Barry was given the keys and the address. It was just like tonight. It had been drizzling then as well and the moon and stars had been invisible. He'd walked up to the house. The couple were at the open window at the side. He hadn't give them a second glance. Orders are orders. They were smoking and listening to music. It wasn't loud, it just... carried.

Barry didn't know the song but it had a killer melody. He could hear them laughing. An intimate exchange of joy.

He'd let himself in silently. Feeling his way carefully, he'd padded up the heavily carpeted stairs, not making a sound. He hadn't even turned the light on. He stood outside the door and listened. The song was just fading to its end. He unlocked the flat door and stood inside, a door directly opposite him, at the end of a hallway, was partially open, shafts of faint light leaking out.

Barry had a bottle containing a flammable liquid with him. He lit the rag in the neck of the bottle and waited. Then he pushed the door completely open, it was the kitchen.

The couple turned around. He knew them and they knew him, he froze as his mind weighed up the situation in a split second. In that moment he knew, without a doubt, that he was an incurable coward. He had no choice. He knew if he didn't carry out the hit his boss would kill him. Without discussion. His boss wasn't interested in excuses. If he told you to do something, you did it.

Barry threw the bottle into the room, pulled the door closed and locked it, and ran down the stairs and out of the house. He was shivering and crying uncontrollably. As soon as he was in safety, skulking in the alley, he pulled out his phone to dial 999, just as he heard the sirens of the approaching emergency services.

He waited until they had extinguished the fire. The damage was contained.

Barry rocked backwards and forwards on his haunches, his hands clamped over his ears to block out the screams of Kate and Daniel. But that was impossible. Then he left. He hasn't slept properly since. He can still hear their screams. He will for the rest of his life.

Barry's not in sight yet but Kate and Daniel can sense him.

Kate leans into Daniel's shoulder, he pulls her closer, gently. Daniel lights two more cigarettes. They only smoke non-filter, some exotic brand Daniel picked up on his travels.

There are even longer gaps between the sporadic flickering of the street light now and there's still no sign of the moon or stars.

Daniel starts conducting the music, the end of his cigarette is like a fire fly darting here and there.

Barry is approaching. He can see them in the open window. He can see the gutted and flame-scarred upper building, even in the intermittent dark. And he can see the cigarette end moving around. It looks like it's stabbing holes in the night. And he can hear the music. That same contagiously catchy song playing in the background. It's not loud, it just... carries. He concentrates on the couple at the window.

Could it really be them? He thinks it is. His boss's wife was a lovely looking woman. Homely, kind and fresh. But she had sad eyes. Barry had sensed something about her. She'd experienced something horrible. He just knew it. The first time he saw her she'd looked at him in a motherly manner. He'd known it was motherly because he'd never seen it before. She made him look at himself anew.

In the mirror Barry was furtive, cheaply dressed with greasy black hair. He could barely face his own reflection. He didn't like looking at himself, it brought back too many memories of nothing. Kate had always been good to Barry, treated him like her own.

'How's my Barry?' She`d coo whenever he visited the house, which was nearly every day. Either to collect his boss or deliver him or deliver papers or collect them. Or just wait. Barry never asked questions, he just did as he was told. Then she'd make Barry a cup of tea, and sometimes a meal, and they'd talk. She'd been so easy to talk to.

During his first visit, he'd told her his entire life story. It hadn't taken long. Not many people had ever listened to Barry, but she always had.

'Call me Kate,' she used to say.

Barry couldn't do that. His boss called her Babe. Barry certainly couldn't do that. Daniel and the others called her Kate. He wanted to call her Mum, but he was too shy. So he settled for, Mrs W, short for White. Barry thought the boss would like that; respect. The boss was big on respect.

Once when his boss was away somewhere, Mrs W had been a little drunk and had poured her heart out to Barry. He couldn't help her, but he'd listened, nervously in case his boss came back early. Thankfully, she went to lie down on the couch to sober up, while Barry retreated to the kitchen to read the tabloids.

She'd found out her husband had been cheating on her, yet again.

'I've never even looked at another man,' she'd told Barry.

Barry had believed her. He couldn't understand it; she was the woman of his dreams, older certainly, but she was pure class and she listened. She'd told him other things which Barry decided he hadn't heard. No wonder she was sad. She used to ruffle his hair sometimes, he'd melt.

He didn't know how it had happened but she'd transformed him. After a while when he looked in the mirror, he saw somebody he didn't recognize. Somebody well dressed with clean, shiny, bouncy hair. Somebody who could even meet his own gaze. She'd done that, little by little. And with enormous patience.

Daniel had treated Barry like his little brother, promised to be there for his first hit. He was.

'Alright, son?' He'd ask.

They used to go out for a few drinks once a week. Barry looked up to Daniel. He knew Daniel had a reputation as a ladies' man.

'Piece of advice, son?' Daniel had often asked him, in his distinctive raspy tone.

'You bet, Danny,' Barry always answered.

He instinctively knew Daniel was worldly and sophisticated. Somebody he could and did learn from. Not just about the mechanics of the job, Barry had a natural talent for the intricacies of violence and associated matters, but about life; drinking, eating, clothes and women.

'You could go far, son. Remember, don't shit on your own doorstep,' Daniel advised him once.

Barry thought back to that now. He'd suspected that his friendliness to the boss's wife had rung alarm bells and that Daniel was looking out for him. Now he knows it was something else.

Barry is standing in front of the house. He's looking up at the window, his mouth is open wide and he's dribbling. He's confused. It must be the lack of sleep.

The only sleep he has is alcohol induced, but that's not real sleep he knows, and that's getting difficult. Even worse is the debilitating self hatred he feels and the echoing sense of loss. He doesn't know how much more he can take.

Barry has packed his bags. He's going to drive up north after this visit. Barry can't face his boss. He thinks his boss will take him out after all.

Barry knows he's on the way to becoming a liability. If he isn't already. He's a nervous wreck. His boss isn't speaking at all and Barry just stands there wilting. His appearance has deteriorated. Barry doesn't look in the mirror anymore.

But he's got money. He wants to leave the country. The thing is, he's never been abroad. He doesn't know what to do. He misses Mrs W and Daniel. So does his boss. More than he ever thought possible.

Barry had thought about going to the police and spilling the beans about the fire, but that wouldn't bring Kate and Daniel back.

At least, the police aren't after him, although he almost wishes they were. A man was seen running from the scene of the fire, but his description was too vague.

Barry can't shut out the screams.

Are Mrs W and Daniel waiting for him? They're holding out their hands, making ushering gestures to him. Barry has a good feeling. He rips away the red and white police tape from across the doorway and enters the house. The front door is easy to open, and he makes his way excitedly up the stairs, ignoring the cloying stench of charred destruction. He stops before he gets to the flat and listens, the song is playing again and Kate and Daniel are laughing. That song must be their all time favourite. It's his too.

The flat door is lying off to the side on the floor so Barry walks in, the kitchen door is half open. Barry knocks on the kitchen door before he pushes it open.

A day later Barry's car was found by the police just up the road from the house. His luggage was inside. But Barry wasn't. Somebody had rung the police to say that a person roughly corresponding to the description of the man who had fled the fire had been seen lurking in the area again.

The police decided to watch the house that night.

Two officers parked outside, but fell asleep and awoke after midnight. It was warm and the car windows were open. They woke up to what they described as:

'The sound of a song playing, something that, even after one listening, stayed in your head.'

But they'd never heard it before.

'It wasn't loud,' they said, 'it just... carried.'

Then they'd seen a weak light at the window. They'd walked up to the house and looked up at the window at a couple moving to the music. The street light was flickering on and off irregularly, and the moon and stars weren't there. Two cigarette butts fell from the window and dropped into the drain at their feet. They heard them sizzle out.

They noticed the police tape lying coiled in front of the door and entered the house carefully, carrying torches. The door was easy to open. They made their way up to the burnt out flat. The door was lying to the side. The music they had heard outside came to an abrupt end.

They stood in the doorway. Directly opposite them through the blackened and acrid destruction, was a half open door with a hint of subdued light bleeding out. They pushed open the door, there was still smoke in the air. The room was a scorched mess, but clearly there was nobody there.

After securing the house they hurried away. They stood leaning against their car, shaking their clothes and running their hands through their hair.

'This burnt smell, it just clings to you,' one said.

'Have a cigarette. It might mask the smell,' the other answered without irony.

'Good idea.'

It started to rain and that song started playing again, not loudly, it just... carried. They looked up at the window and saw a couple smoking and swaying to the song.

Even in that light and through a thin film of drizzle they could see a couple clearly in love.

And with all the time in the world.


  1. Another with your trademark atmospheric and haunting style, Michael. Wonderfully descriptive, and the story is so well-woven you're both pulled in and pulled along.
    Nicely done

  2. Very nice. A gentle ghost story and a love story. Barry’s remorse will haunt him even if Mrs. W and Daniel don’t.

  3. Don't know what to believe in this story. That may be the point.

  4. Many thanks Jim, David & Doug for Your comments and your time. Much appreciated

  5. Love the atmosphere and sense of mystery in this one. Read it twice and still thinking about it...

  6. I like the 2 cigarette butts that drop and fizzle out. Mysterious atmosphere.

  7. Hi Ronald & Harris,

    Thank you for reading my story and for your kind comments.