Authors: James Herbert
Tags: #Horror, #Fiction, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Animals, #Juvenile Fiction, #Fiction - General, #Animals - Mice Hamsters Guinea Pigs etc., #Mice; Hamsters; Guinea Pigs; Etc
It was only when the bones of the first devoured victims were discovered that the true nature and power of these swarming black creatures with their razor sharp teeth and the taste for human blood began to be realised by a panic-stricken city. For millions of years man and rats had been natural enemies. But now for the first time ' suddenly, shockingly, horribly ' the balance of power had shifted'Ś 'The effectiveness of the gruesome set pieces and brilliant finale are all its own. ' Sunday Times.
By James Herbert and published by
New English Library
Copyright 1974 by James Herbert
First published in Great Britainin 1974 by New English Library, Mill Road, Dunton Green, Sevenoaks, Kent.
Editorial office: 47 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3DP
Second impression 1985
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may he reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without permission of the publishers.
Printed in Great Britain by St Edmundsbury Press
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Title 823’ .914[F] PR6058.E62 ISBN 0-450-01867-9
The old house had been empty for more than a year. It stood, detached and faded, next to a disused canal, away from the road, screened by foliage gone wild. No one went there, nobody showed much interest anymore. A few windows had been shattered by the neighbourhood kids, but even they lost interest when nothing more than silence responded to the crash of broken glass. In fact, the only interest that had ever been shown by others was on the day they took the old woman away.
They knew she’d been living alone since her husband had died, never went out, and was only rarely seen peering from behind lace curtains. She never parted the curtains, just gazed through them,so only a hazy, spectral form could be seen by anyone interested enough to look. Her groceries were delivered every week and left on the back step. Powdered milk was included amongst them. The local grocer said the old woman’s bank paid her bills regularly every three months with never any queries as to the contents of his delivery. Which suited him. He’d been given a list at the beginning for a regular order, but if he forgot to include a pound of butter or two pounds of sugar now and again, no one noticed- no one complained.
Still, he was curious. He used to see her occasionally when her husband was alive, but even then she didn’t have much to say. They were a couple of queer old birds, her and her old man. Never going out, never having company. But well off because they’d’ been abroad for years and since their return the husband never seemed to work. Then the old boy had died. The grocer wasn’t sure of what but it had been a recurrence of some tropical disease he’d caught whilst abroad. The old woman was never seen after that, but the grocer had heard her. Nothing much, just the scraping of chairs or a door dosing. He’d once heard her shouting at someone, but never discovered who.
People had begun to wonder about her. Some heard wailing coming from the house one night. Laughter another.
Finally, complete silence for over a month.
It was only when the grocer found his previous week’s delivery still on the doorstep that he reluctantly reported the matter to the police. Reluctantly, because he feared the worst and hated to see a nice little, regular order come to an end.
Anyway, it turned out she wasn’t dead. A policeman was sent to investigate and then an ambulance arrived and took her away. She wasn’t dead, just a lunatic. As far as the grocer was concerned she might just as well have passed on because that was the end of his little number. It had been too good to last.
So the house was empty. Nobody came, nobody went, nobody really bothered. In a year it was barely visible from the road. The undergrowth was tall, the bushes thick and the trees hid the upper storey.
Eventually, people were hardly aware it existed.
Henry Guilfoyle was slowly drinking himself to death. He’d started six years ago, at the age of forty.
He’d been a successful salesman for a Midland paper company and was ready to become area manager.
The trouble was, he’d fallen in love late in life. And unfortunately, he’d fallen for one of his junior salesmen. He’d trained young Francis for five weeks, taking him on his business journeys up and down the country. At first he wasn’t sure if the boy had the same inclinations as himself but as he grew to know him, the shyness, and the quiet loneliness of his protégé seemed slowly to dissolve that incredible gap he’d always felt with other men.
Why Francis had decided to become a salesman he’d never discovered. He wasn’t the type. Guilfoyle could hold his own in the company of any group of men. He could be the typical bluff salesman; the dirty jokes, the sly wink, the back slapping, the professionalism of his trade hiding any imperfections in his maleness. He was a good actor.
Francis was different. It seemed the shadow of his homosexuality dampened his natural spirits, guilt tainting his moods. But he wanted to prove himself, to be accepted, and he had chosen a career that would make him forget his own personality by reflecting that of others.
The third week they’d stayed in a small hotel in Bradford.
Only double rooms were available, so they shared one with single beds. They’d been drinking most of the afternoon with a client, after lunch, taking him to the usual local strip club.
Guilfoyle had watched Francis in the darkened basement called a club because it had a bar and a membership fee.
The boy had watched the girls all right, but not with the exaggerated look of lust shown on the face of their client–and on himself, of course. And when the final sequinned garment of the girl had been thrown aside, he slapped the boy’s thigh, under the table with skilful heartiness, letting his hand linger, just for a moment, but long enough for their eyes to meet. And then he knew–oh, that glorious moment when he really knew.
There had been signs after the first week of course. Little tests Guilfoyle had set. Nothing daring, nothing that could cause even slight embarrassment if rebuffed. But he’d been right. He knew. He’d seen the smile in the boy’s eyes, no surprise, not even apprehension, and certainly not alarm.
The rest of the afternoon passed with a dreamlike quality.
His heart beat wildly every time he looked at the boy, But still he acted superbly. His vulgar, and ugly–most definitely ugly–client never suspected. They were men, in a man’s world, leering at big breasted, deformed women. The boy was a bit green of course, but they’d shown him how real men acted when they were confronted by naked thighs and fleshy tits. Guilfoyle emptied his glass of Scotch, threw back his head, and laughed.
When they got back to the hotel–the hotel Guilfoyle had chosen for special reasons–the boy was sick.
He wasn’t used to drink, but Guilfoyle had plied him with whisky all after-noon. Now he began to have regrets. Perhaps he’d overdone it. Francis had been sick in the cab on the way back from the club, and then again in their room, in the sink. Guilfoyle had ordered black coffee and poured three cups into the half-conscious boy. Them was a mess on the boy’s coat and shirt so Guilfoyle tenderly took them off and scrubbed the worst spots in hot water.
Then Francis began to cry.
He was sitting on his bed, head in his hands, his pale shoulders shuddering convulsively. A lock of fair hair fell over his long, thin fingers. Guilfoyle sat next to him and put his arm over the boy’s shoulder. The boy’s head leaned into Guilfoyle’s chest, and then he was cradling him in his arms. They stayed like that for a long time, the older man rocking the younger one back and forth like a five-year-old until the sobbing faded into an occasional whimper.
Guilfoyle slowly undressed Francis and put him into the bed. He gazed at him for a while then undressed himself.
He got in beside the boy and closed his eyes.
Guilfoyle would never forget that night. They’d made love and the boy had surprised him. He wasn’t the innocent he had seemed. Nevertheless, Guilfoyle had fallen in love. He knew the dangers. He’d heard the stories of middle-aged men and young boys, knew their vulnerability. But he was happy. For the first time, after making love to another man, he felt clean. Purged was the feeling of guilt, gone was the feeling of self-contempt, disgust. He felt free- and alive . . . more alive than he’d ever been.
They’d gone back to their company after collecting a fair-sized order from their client in Bradford, and all had gone well for a while.
Guilfoyle expected to be area manager in a few weeks, large orders were coming in, and he saw Francis every day and most evenings.
Then, slowly at first, things began to change. The younger lads seemed to be losing their respect for him.
Nothing much, just a few cheeky back-answers to him. His older colleagues didn’t seem to have too much to say to him anymore. They didn’t avoid him exactly, but when in his company their conversation was always slightly strained. He put it down to the fact that he was soon to be manager and they didn’t know quite how to treat him.
But then he caught some of the typists smirking behind his back at each other. Old Miss Robson, the office spinster, wouldn’t even speak to him.
A fear of rat
Finally, that fateful day. It was just after lunch, he’d returned from the local office pub where a table was always reserved for him when he was in town, and had gone into the staff toilet. He went into a cubicle, took his trousers down, sat and began to think about a new business venture he had in mind once he was area manager.
Then he glanced at the back of the door. He froze. It was covered with graffiti. All about him. Evidently, after the first one, it had developed into a game, for marks had been awarded to each one. The crude drawings were all of him (he assumed), and Francis, unmistakably Francis, because of the long hair that fell across his forehead and the gaunt features, cartoon drawings making his love ridiculous. Ugly drawings.
Blood rushed to his head, tears filled his eyes. How could they? How could they destroy their precious love like this?
Dirty little minds, coming in here, scratching on the door, sniggering.
He sat there for half an hour, quietly weeping. He finally realised how ridiculous, how pathetic he looked; a middle aged man in love with a young boy, sitting in a toilet with his trousers round his ankles, crying over words and drawings that understood nothing of his life.
He went home–he couldn’t face returning to the office and the smirks of his m-called friends. He drank a bottle of Scotch.
That was the beginning of his deterioration. He went back to work next day but now it was different. He was aware. He saw a jibe in every remark made.
He went home again that lunch time, buying a fresh bottle of Scotch on the way.
After two weeks he began to get a grip on himself but suddenly Francis left. He hadn’t said goodbye, just left a brief note saying he was sorry but couldn’t stand the persecution from the people he worked with any longer.
He went to the boy’s home but a hysterical scene with Francis’s mother made him realise it was finished.
Her threat of involving the law convinced him of this. Francis was very young.
His downhill plunge was rapid after this. He lost his chance of promotion, and was never quite sure if it was because of his reputation or the fact he was rarely sober now. Probably both.
He resigned and moved down to London, to lose himself in the quagmire of countless other disillusioned people. So for six years he hadn’t worked much, but had drunk steadily till his money ran out. He was thrown out of lodgings more times than he could remember. He did odd jobs now and then in the markets, mostly Spitalfields, pushing barrows, loadinglorries . With the few pence he made from this he bought cheap booze. He slept rough. At one time he’d been able to fulfill his sexual needs in dusty old cinemas, sitting next to men of his own kind. Only twice had he been threatened, once very quietly, with menace, the other time with much shouting and fist-waving, all eyes in the cinema centred on his shame.
But now he was too unkempt for even that. His clothes reeked, his body smelt of grime picked up in the market and the sheds where he slept. Any desire left in his body had been burned out by the cheaply concocted alcohol he now drank.
All he cared for now was saving up his meagre earnings to buy more oblivion.
Guilfoyle had worked hard that week. He’d conquered his craving for drink so that he could buy a complete bottle of cheap gin that Saturday. How he had survived, he never knew, but somehow he’d managed, the mental picture of a full bottle of gin ever-present in his mind. Now, as he shuffled along the dark streets by the docks, he drank until his head spun and his steps became more unsteady.
He climbed through a crumbling window of a house the slum-clearance people hadn’t yet cleared.
Staggering over rubble, he made his way to the back of the house to be out of the way of any lights shone in by policemen with nothing better to do.
He sat down in the comer of what must have once been the kitchen. Before the bottle was completely empty, he fell into a drunken stupor.
Hours later, Guilfoyle woke with a start. His befogged mind had registered something, but he didn’t know what.
He’d drained the rest of the gin before he felt the sharp pain in his left hand. As he jerked the hand up to his mouth, he heard something scuttle away. He threw the bottle after the sound when he tasted blood on the back of his hand. It began to throb and the taste of his own sticky blood made him retch.
He rolled on to his side as the gin began to pump from his body and laid there while his body shook.
Suddenly, he felt the pain again in his outstretched left hand. He shrieked when he realised something was gnawing at the tendons. He tried to get to his feet but only stumbled and fell heavily, bruising the side of his face. As he lifted his hand to his face again he felt something warm clinging to it. Something heavy.
He tried to shake it away, but by now it had a firm grip.
He pulled at the body with his other hand and felt brittle hair. Through his panic he understood what held him in this monstrous grip. It was a rat. But it was big. Very big. It could have been mistaken for a small dog, but there was no growling, no long legs to kick his body. Only what seemed to be razor-edged claws, frantically beating on his lower leg.
He tried to gain his feet again as he felt more pain in his leg. He screamed.
The blinding pain seemed to run up his leg to his very testicles. More teeth sank into his thigh.
As he stood he felt tiny feet running up the length of his body. He actually felt hot, fetid breath as he looked down to see what could climb a man’s body with such speed. Huge teeth that were meant for his throat sank into his cheek and tore away a huge flap.
His body poured blood now as he threshed around. Once he thought he’d found the door, but something heavy leapt up on to his back and pulled him forward on to the floor again.
Rats! His mind screamed the words. Rats eating me alive!
God, God help me.
Flesh was ripped away from the back of his neck. He couldn’t rise now for the sheer weight of writhing, furry vermin feeding from his body, drinking his blood.
Shivers ran along his spine, to his shocked brain. The dim shadows seemed to float before him, then a redness ran across his vision. It was the redness of unbelievable pain. He couldn’t see any more–the rats had already eaten his eyes.
Then, he felt nothing, just a spreading sweetness over his body. He died with no thoughts on his mind, not even of his beloved, almost forgotten, Francis. Just sweetness, not even pain. He was beyond that.
The rots had had their fill of his body, but were still hungry.
So they searched. Searched for more food of the same kind.
They had tasted theft first human blood.