Henry Mullins appears at the bottom of a residential North London street at exactly four minutes past eleven on a cold Friday evening.
He doesn’t emerge from a car, tired and yawning and ready to collapse in his bed after a long shift at work, he doesn’t shuffle down a pathway littered with overgrown plants and weeds, joining the rest of his neighbours as they peer curiously at the fanfare occurring just a few doors down. He simply appears.
Nobody reacts to his sudden presence. Not the growing crowd of gossiping neighbours, all dressed in the type of attire you’d normally relegate to lazy weekends spent lounging around your home and not much else – some are even wearing mismatched shoes, hurriedly shoved on without a care for the actual owner of the shoe in their haste to rush outside and get a first-hand look at all the commotion.
The frantic police officers don’t notice him either, too busy trying to keep the aforementioned crowd as far away from the scene as they can manage, doing their best to inject as much authority into their voices as possible as they repeat rehearsed lines like ‘madam, I’m going to need you to stand behind the tape’ and ‘sir, I’m afraid I can’t divulge that information, but if you’d just stand behind the tape—’ over and over again.
The firefighters pay him no mind as they hurry in and out of the semi-destroyed home, muttering amongst themselves, expressions tinged with the kind of resigned fatigue and sadness that comes about after having been doing this job for as long as they have.
Not even the reporters trying and failing to duck under the police tape – the people whose very job it is to notice the unusual – pay him any mind as Henry strolls past the crowd, past the officers, past the firefighters, and makes his way up the charred pathway.
The air is tinged with smoke, which is to be expected given that a good two-thirds of the house are still smouldering, but it irritates his senses all the same. He’s never been fond of fires.
Henry wrinkles his nose as he steps across the threshold, kicking aside the remains of the front door – number 35, Henry notes as the crooked ‘3’ drops to the floor with a clang – cut down by the firefighters in their haste to enter the house and rescue any of its inhabitants.
Henry sighs as he slides down the cramped corridor. He’d purposely timed his appearance to avoid the removal of the bodies but the house is full of reminders that, until just an hour or so ago, this building had been one full of life. He kicks a semi-deflated football to the side, watching sadly as it bounces pathetically down the length of the corridor before coming to a halt beside a closed door.
Sometimes Henry wonders if maybe he’s a little too empathic for the line of business he’s found himself in.
Yes, he thinks, staring at the photographs mounted on the wall beside him. Yes, I am. Many of the photographs have been damaged by the fire, corners curled and browned, and glass from a few shattered frames crunches under his feet as he walks, but a few are still in good enough condition for him to make out the family grinning up at him from within the frames.
The warrant in his pocket suddenly feels heavy, but he doesn’t take it out. He doesn’t need to. The Ryman’s are a family of four, but Henry is only here for three. He glances the photograph nearest him and immediately picks out who he’s here for.
There’s Jacob Ryman stood front and centre in the photograph, lips stretched into a wide, open-mouthed grin as he pulls a tall woman in for a hug, hands resting loosely on her waist. Anita Ryman looks just as happy as her husband, mouth wide, eyes squeezed tightly shut, head thrown back as a silent laugh wracks through her body. Joseph Ryman is squatting down in front of them, throwing up a peace sign as he grins a grin that, save for the two missing front teeth, is a mirror image of his father’s smile. And then there’s Natalie Ryman smiling softly as she runs a hand through her brother’s hair. Natalie gets off lucky, with only severe respiratory problems and the knowledge that the rest of her family perished in a deadly fire to haunt her for the rest of her life. Henry pauses, gaze lingering on the photograph for a split second longer before he turns away. Maybe lucky isn’t the right word to use here.
He sighs again as he continues on his journey through the remains of the home, making a mental note to have a meeting with Amy from Human Resources about the kinds of cases he gets assigned in the near future. No fires. No families.
It’s not until Henry reaches the third floor of the Ryman home – a trendy loft conversion with a large window that offers a rather breathtaking view of the city around them – that he realises something is amiss.
The house is silent, empty, and cold. So very, very cold.
He frowns as he steps further into the room. “Mr. Ryman?” Henry calls, wincing slightly at how uncertain he sounds. He clears his throat and tries again. “Mr. Ryman? Mrs. Ryman?” He pauses and listens out for a response, frown deepening when the only thing he hears is the sounds of the crowd just aside. He shuffles further into the room, unable to shake the feeling of pure dread that’s shrouded itself over him, and tries again one last time. “Joseph? Joseph Ryman?”
Henry exhales a deep breath and runs a hand through his hair. He peers around the room for a second longer as if he half expects the Ryman family to suddenly leap out of the wardrobe yelling ‘surprise!’ before he turns on his heel and makes his way back down the staircase. He’s beginning to wonder if he overlooked a room in his haste to find the Ryman family and get the hell away from their destroyed home as fast as possible when something catches his eye. Something odd.
Henry grinds to a halt outside a bedroom he’d inspected just a few minutes ago – Joseph’s bedroom, judging by the overall decor of the room and the large red ‘J’ hung over a car-shaped bed.
Black tendrils are billowing out from underneath the door, twisting and writhing as they claw at the charred wood. Henry’s frown deepens as he takes a step closer to the door, tentatively pressing his hand against the wood. It’s cold to the touch. Freezing cold. Which, considering the rest of the house is still smouldering away, is more than a little bit disconcerting.
“Mr. Ryman?” Henry calls again, voice a touch quieter than before as he presses his palm flat against the door and gives it a gentle shove. “Mrs. Ryman? Joseph?” The door swings open and Henry is met with an inky darkness, unlike anything he’s ever seen before.
“He—” Henry’s nervous greeting dies on his tongue as a thick black wisp of smoke lashes out from the darkness and wraps itself around his midsection several times over, squeezing tightly. Henry thrashes in its grip, opening his mouth as wide as he can, ready to scream for help in the hope that someone – one of his colleagues perhaps? – will be near enough to hear and come to his rescue.
But Henry doesn’t get the chance to scream.
He barely gets the chance to gurgle out a pathetic ‘please’ before the smoke coils around him even more, squeezing and squeezing and squeezing and—
Henry Mullins doesn’t exit the Ryman home.
Henry Mullins disappears from existence at exactly twenty-seven minutes past eleven on a cold Friday evening.