The Problem with Disused Buildings

Not sure if you’re aware of this, but there is an epidemic of unused buildings in cities around the world. Big companies purchase these buildings during times of economic downturn, nothing a few offshore investments can’t weather, so these companies use their unaccountable funds to buy up the establishments of those who can no longer afford their mortgages. The investors pour money into the buildings to prepare them for whatever kind of business the new owners have planned, we’re talking full renovation; gutting the place, re-carpet, re-plaster, repaint, renew. 

Of course, the economy is a fickle mistress. Sometimes, just as quickly as these once thriving buildings are bought up and emptied out, they’re forgotten about. Maybe the companies that buy them go bankrupt, perhaps a new opportunity arises and they seek that out instead. It’s also possible they simply buy so many of these buildings that they just forget how many they own.

That’s Monopoly for you; as soon as you’ve bought up the oranges and reds, no one gives a damn about the browns.

The result is you get these magnificent buildings around city centres, brand-spanking-new insides, all eggshell walls and navy blue carpets, devoid of any purpose. Barren. The companies don’t need to use them for anything, their money comes from elsewhere. To turn them into anything else would come at a high price and to sell them on would mean losing an asset which is costing them nothing and could be worth a great deal more in the future. So they sit there, slowly rotting.

Or at least, they would, if not for me.

These conglomerates hire me and my crew to go around and tend to their empty fortresses. We do a bit of cleaning, sweeping up cobwebs and making sure black mould doesn’t have a chance to grow. We also check the building’s plumbing and electrics are still in workable order if and when the place is put back to use. 

However, what they really hire us for is a kind of unspoken responsibility. We have the added bonus of scaring off the miscreants who infest those pristine places. No, not rats or insects, we can poison those. I’m talking about much larger vermin, far more hazardous to the market-value of a property; squatters.

Squatters, for those of you who don’t know, are people who take up residence in a place without the consent of the property owner. There are all kinds of squatters. You get your hippy libertarians, free-the-whalelegalise-it-man types. This group talks big, pretending to know the laws and threatening to use Daddy’s lawyer when we tell them the party’s over, but one look at Big Greg and they’re usually out the door trouble-free. Next, you have your homelesses. I feel kinda bad for this group. They need a place to shelter, no support network to help them out and inadequate protection from the government to prevent them slipping through the cracks. A lot of them suffer with mental illness or drug addiction, often both, that makes them volatile, unpredictable. They’re the reason we wear stab-vests. One of my guys got bitten by one of these people a while back when we were cleaning out an office-block-that-never-was, developed a nasty case of Hepatitis C. Poor bastard. Expensive mess that one. God bless insurance. 

Things can get dicey when we’re dealing with mental illness or drugs. Most of the time, when things go south we just step outside, call the cops, let them deal with the situation, then install extra security measures around the building and be done with it. 

If it was up to me, I’d use the buildings as shelters, a place for these people to get their lives back together. I guess it would require permits, licences, paperwork; trouble. The companies can’t be bothered with all of that, not when there’s money to be made. Anyway, I don’t get paid to enact social change, I get paid to evict, secure and repaint.

Maybe if these groups didn’t make such a vile mess of the buildings, the owners would be more likely to accept them. I guess picking up after yourself doesn’t factor high up on the list of priorities when you’re out of your mind on Heroin. You’d have thought the meth-heads would relish the cleaning, a chance to turn their rotted brains to a task, but they seem to be more content with tearing up the carpets, scratching up the plaster and digging away at the concrete. I have no idea what they’re trying to find, they probably don’t either. The trustafarian kids have apparently never been spanked for having an untidy bedroom either. 

Most of the defacement is graffiti, most of that lame tags and bad drawings of genitals. Every now and again a real artist will show up, almost feels like a shame to blast their work off the eggshell. All the other art just feels like a waste of time. 

I guess it must have been about a year ago that I started noticing the skulls cropping up. At first I thought it was the work of some tagger with a horror fetish; three skulls linked by some kind of rope, mouths open, screaming at each other. Creepy sure but that wasn’t the weird thing, what really stuck out was the medium. The logo was spray-painted in some buildings, in others scratched into the walls, crude versions smeared on basement floors in food waste or, in a few cases, human excrement. 

We had to call the cops a few times for the symbols alone when we found the skulls painted in blood. The police cordoned those buildings off, brought in their crime scene guys. It mostly came back as animal blood; rat, pigeon, cat, dog. A couple of times it tested as human. Never any bodies but enough blood to suggest there must have been one.

The newspapers got hold of the story, I got my name in the paper and everything. They hypothesised it was some kind of homeless/drug-addict/trustafraian cult operating out of these buildings. There was the standard circus after the moral panic, must have been a good time to own a security company or CCTV wholesalers. But nothing ever came of it. When the police failed to link the skulls to anyone, the media got bored and moved on to their next outrage.

When I say these symbols appeared in abandoned buildings, I mean abandoned. That was the other strange thing about the skulls, they always appeared in buildings showing clear signs of squatters, but there were never any squatters to be found. We found all their stuff; their sleeping mats, tinned food, clothes, even wraps of whatever they’d been shooting or smoking, but never any people.

I don’t remember ever really getting scared working this job before those damned skulls showed up, even the crustiest junkies always felt more like an annoyance than a real threat. These buildings felt alive. That’s the only way I can put it. I could be walking through a room with vaulted ceilings, blue skies pouring light in through the room-height windows and still feel claustrophobic, like the walls were breathing. I’d be power-washing the carpet and feel a presence creep up my neck, spin around to nothing there. The boys didn’t want to admit they were spooked and I’d be damned if I was going to admit it to them but we wordlessly agreed to start working in pairs as we checked the buildings and cleaned up after the missing squatters. 

Funny that a job involving evicting drug addicts could get more grim when the drug addicts aren’t there. 

Must have been three months after the skulls showed up that I lost my first guy. We didn’t even notice Harris had gone until the end of the day when we were getting ready to drive back to the depot. Found his power-washer on the second floor, no sign of Tim anywhere. We combed the building calling out for him but he never replied. After an hour of walking around that wretched place we gave up, decided Tim must have had something to do and skipped out on us. Truth be told, none of us much wanted to be in that place looking for him past sunset.

When Tim didn’t show up the next day I should have been angry, instead all I felt was this deep, gut wrenching dread. I called his house but no one answered. Tried three or four times but nothing. The other guys shared some nervous jokes about it amongst themselves, lazy bastard and so on. But we knew something was wrong. I knew Tim, knew his wife, she was a full time mother, home most of the time when she wasn’t carting their kid around to school or clubs or whatever kids do. 

That evening I decided to call around Tim’s place on the way home. The day he went missing he had carpooled with one of the other guys so his wife could use the car. Their car was still right there in the driveway. I rang the bell, nothing. Knocked, shouted through the letterbox. Nothing. I walked around the side of the house, peered in through the windows, careful for nosy neighbours. The TV was on inside the living room, kids’ shows, but no one watching from the sofa. I went around to the back of the house, through the gate into the garden. The hosepipe was laying in the middle of lawn spewing water out into the marsh that had formed around the nozzle, the back door hanging wide open. My heart stopped when I walked into the kitchen. Accompanying the rising feeling of unseen eyes watching me as I entered the house, there smeared onto the floor in thick mud, the skulls.

Of course I called the police. They arrived and questioned me. I told them the same thing I’ve just told you. They called the other guys in for questioning too. Got statements from the neighbours, Tim and his wife’s parents. No one had seen or heard anything from the Harris’s since the day Tim disappeared. It was like they had evaporated. 

Things started to unravel pretty quickly after Tim and his family vanished. Four of my guys quit that week, one after the other. They said other jobs had come up, they wanted to spend more time with their families or whatever. I know the truth, I could see it on their faces. They were scared. After a while, it was just me and Big Greg on the jobs. No one else wanted to work for me. Even tried to call in favours from some of my other friends in similar jobs, but everyone had an excuse. Word travels fast, superstition faster. 

I guess looking back I should have listened to the signs and called it a day on the business, refused to go into those buildings or send anyone else into them. But a contract is a contract. I’ve got bills to pay, a mortgage, my pension so I don’t have to clean junkie shit off walls until I’m 80. It was my responsibility to call it quits, so I don’t care what anyone says, it was my fault what happened to Greg.

We were going through one of the old buildings just outside the city centre. It had been bought by a bank which for legal reasons will remain nameless. Greg and I had to go room by room alone, it being just the two of us to go around in a pair would have simply taken too long. Time is money. And anyway, we hadn’t seen so much as a passed out crackhead for months, we didn’t even bother with the stab-vests at that point. 

This place must have been used as some kind of commune. In the lobby alone I counted 37 sleeping mats, all in pretty good condition, also reserves of food and drink stacked up to one side, enough for a small army. Whoever had settled here had had enough know-how to get past the CCTV outside, cut their way inside and disable the alarm. How they had managed to do all that and then move a small community into the place I still have no idea. 

It was near the end of the day, we had removed most of the stuff, thrown it into the skip I had rented. I was taking care of the main lobby, Greg was in the back clearing out the bathroom. There was something about this building. It felt dark. I don’t mean like no light, I mean it felt like a pit. A void. It was almost as if the building was right on the verge of speaking, like a scream was held in the halls ready to be released at any moment. The place pulsed. You could almost hear it. Almost. 

I finished up my job as quickly as possible, called for Greg. No answer. I remember standing there, just listening to the nothingness. I called out again. Nothing. I could have cried. I mean, I could literally feel myself welling up as I started walking towards the bathroom. By the time I reached the door there was a lump in my throat I hadn’t felt since I was 8 years old, lost and alone at a theme park. I pushed the door open. There in the corner of the bathroom, huddled up in a ball was Greg. All I could make out at first, apart from his bulk, were his eyes, wild, pinned open. His jaw was working around but no sound was coming out. I stopped at the door. I wanted to go in and help him but I couldn’t force my feet to take me inside. It was as though every instinct in my body was preventing me from going inside. He looked at me. Eyes pleading and terrified. The most awful expression of anguish I have ever seen. I backed up, told him I was going to go and get help. I barely even noticed but I was just saying sorry, over and over again and before I realised I was out the door on the street. 

The fresh air hit me and I came to my senses. I sprinted back into the building, through the lobby, up to the bathroom door, threw it open. Greg was gone. One by one I swung open the cubicle doors. Sure enough, etched into the wall of the furthest cubicle, the skulls, screaming at me.

The police listened to my story under raised eyebrows. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe me, just that it didn’t explain anything. They searched the building, photographed the bathroom, including the skulls, told me they would contact Greg’s family and let me know when he turned up.

He never did. Greg had a wife and 2 kids. The police found his youngest alone at home, poor kid had already tucked herself into bed when the police arrived. As far as I know she’s in foster care now. 

After Greg I put in a call to my contract holders. No amount of money could make me send anyone into one of those buildings again. I was passed around to legal teams, dodged and ducked like the plague. It was like they wanted nothing to do with me, not even to hear out what I had to tell them.

Eventually I got through to someone, he sounded high up. I didn’t get his name, not sure it would end well for me if I wrote his name down anyway. After all of the threats of libel and civil suits from the legal teams, it was refreshing to speak to someone who sounded calm and non-condescending. He asked me about what happened, listened as I told him everything. After I had spilled my guts he asked me about the state of the buildings. I was confused at first. He asked if they were fit for purpose. I told him they were. He thanked me for my services and told me to expect a generous severance package. He rang off with a warning, I was not to mention the names or locations of any of the buildings my team and I had worked on over the past 6 months to anyone. If I failed to abide by this, defamation and libel would be the least of my concerns. He asked if I understood and I told him I did.

My cheque came in the mail two days later. Generous really fails to do justice to describing the amount. Enough to pay the guys who quit on me the rest of their contracts. Least I could do. Enough to pay off my mortgage too and then some. 

It wasn’t just the money that kept me quiet all this time. I realised I’ve been terrified ever since those skulls first showed up, just waiting for something awful to happen. Some kind of catastrophe. But it just hasn’t come. Life has gone on, people have forgotten. Tim and Greg and their families are still missing, their cases have gone cold. I guess I just didn’t want to bring it down on myself by acknowledging it. Whatever it is. 

At this point I just want answers. I want to know what took my men, what those skulls were and who created them, how it’s all connected. I can’t find anything on the internet about the symbol. No one seems to know anything about it. I’ve drawn crude sketches, even contacted the police about their photos of the symbol but they say those records are locked. They won’t tell me any more than that.

Over the last few months, some of my ex-employers have begun using the buildings again. As far as I can tell, nothing out of the ordinary has happened, no more missing people or skulls. From what I’ve heard, business is better than ever in those places, thriving even. I’m not sure if that means anything. 

Not sure of much these days.

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