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Flash Fiction – The Watchmen

I wrote this one a while ago when I was  all alone, at night,  in the grounds of the old Gladesville hospital. I submitted it to Strange Horizons but they weren’t interested…

The old watchman ambled over to where the new guy was standing, all spick and span in his freshly ironed uniform. A camera lay in the gutter; one of those compact digital jobs best suited for happy snaps. Its lipstick red cover was scratched as if it had been kicked along the gravel path before coming to rest. Sighing he picked it up and flicked the switch to the off position. Continuing on his round, he showed the new guy the meandering route through the old hospital grounds. They rattled doors, checked ground story windows for loose boards and upper story windows for broken panes. They cleared away a pile of broken beer bottles and empty chip packets that had appeared overnight. Contractors came in once a week to mow the lawns and weed the garden beds, but they refused to do cleanup. Back at the gatehouse he placed the discarded camera in the lost and found trunk beside the door before heading for the tiny kitchenette.

The new guy stood a bit awkwardly by the door. “Aren’t you going to look at the pictures? Maybe it will give us a clue who it belongs to.”

The watchman briefly glanced back over his shoulder before continuing to gather the fixings for tea. “No point.”

“But…”

He turned and lent back against the kitchen bench. “Look, whoever owed it is long gone. And the pictures on it, they ain’t real. Them digital cameras, they’re not like the old sort. The ones with real film, they only showed what was there. The new sort, these digital ones, they record what you see.”

“But isn’t that the same?” asked the new guy as he wandered further into the room and sat at the tiny table.

“Course not. Why do you think there weren’t never any ‘evidence’ of spooks and such before the digital cameras started being used? Since it weren’t there, the old film cameras didn’t record it. Now, you get pictures of all sorts of stuff going around; spooks and weird shadows and faces appearing where no-one is and all that. If you want to work here you got to get it in your head – that stuff ain’t real. Else you’ll end up like the ones who owned that camera. I bet they were running like their pants was on fire. And all because of their own imaginings. Got it?”

“Um, sure.”

“So, cup of tea?”

“Thanks.”

The watchman put the mug of tea in front of the latest new guy before plonking himself down in the other chair. “Anyway, you gonna stick around? Most don’t last the first week but your mum talked me into giving you a go. Said you would be ok. Said you wasn’t one for imagining things. I tell you, I don’t usually bother remembering names unless a guy lasts at least a week.”

“It’s Barry. And I’m pretty sure I’ll last at least a week. Mum would kill me otherwise and I’m more scared of her than…um, stuff.”

“Yeh, she’s a tarter alright. Ok then Barry, you stick by me and you’ll get by ok.” He smiled as a thought suddenly occurred to him. “You play chess?”

It was well after midnight and the two men were into their second game. A muted scream followed by a crash and the tinkle of broken glass caused Barry to jump to his feet, nearly upsetting the chess board. The watchman sat forward a bit but didn’t move from his chair.

“Shouldn’t we …”

“No, wait.” The screaming got louder as whoever was causing the racket approached the gatehouse. Someone charged passed the small building and kept on going. The screaming was cut-off by the slam of a car door. The men could hear tyres squealing against the tarmac as the car rapidly accelerated away.

The watchman settled back into his chair. “Nothing we can do tonight. We’ll see what’s what in the morning.”

Barry walked to the window and peered through it towards where the noise had originated. “But what if someone else is hurt?”

“Oh, they usually run in here if that happens, or we get an anonymous phone call. Only had one dead one, no matter what all them tabloids say.” He glanced involuntarily over at the lost and found box. “God knows what he was doing up on that roof.”

“Only one dead. Um, but what about the missing?”

“Well if they’re missing, we ain’t gonna find them. Now sit on down. It’s your move.”

The next morning the two watchmen stood outside the old psych ward. The basement door had been forced open and one of the second story windows was blown out. A camera lay in the gutter below the missing window; one of those flash SLR digital jobs with a zoom lens. Barry picked up the battered silver case and flicked the switch to the off position. As they continued on their rounds the old watchman explained where the tools and ply were kept, what sort of repairs they were expected to do themselves and what warranted a tradesman being called out. At the gatehouse the discarded camera went into the lost and found trunk beside the door.

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