Dan was an old and dying man. If the truth be known, he had been the walking dead since before he could remember, substance abuse dulling his mind. Unlike the majority of homeless derelicts that slept rough, he had had a loving, caring upbringing and was not subject to any demeaning abuse, not early on in any case. He had been the son of a hard-working lower middle class couple who endeavoured to give him a fruitful start to his life and a promising future.
A disastrous fire had descended him to where he was today, a man without family, a man with no future and a long-forgotten past of comfort and happiness. A man with no responsibility, not even for his own wellbeing. He hated Christmas, and particularly hated God and all that Christian religion stood for.
It could have been Faulty Christmas lights, or an aging lead wired electrical system throughout the home, arson even, nobody in authority discovered the actual cause of the blaze. It was eventually marked down as an unfortunate accident. One that had left a ten-year-old boy homeless and alone in the world, and as his parents had lived payday to payday he was also left a pauper. Just to make the whole situation all the worse, they left no detail for what was to be done with their only child, their passing being so sudden at their relatively young ages they had not left a will or provision for their only child.
What followed were a succession of children’s homes, prisons, mental facilities and all the abuse that came with them. Being an only child of only children his extended family were long since gone, even before the fire. He had no uncles, aunts, cousins or even grandparents. Without a guardian, he ended up in children’s home after children’s home, in turn this led him into a life of alcohol, drugs and crime to the extent that there was no way back, a self-destructive path, a vicious circle of abhorrence.
Presently, he preferred life alone, without the company of other people. Others meant trouble and misunderstandings. When he arrived at the grange, he had been in great awe of the magnificent building which he had found by chance, it appealed to his solitary nature.
“Looks like a nice place to stay for a change.” He had said turning his head and smiling toward the dog that subserviently walked by his side.
Despite still being a puppy, the sandy coloured dog was already tall and occasional bouts of starvation kept him slender and lean. Just like Dan he too had had a tough start to life. Another wing clipped free spirit.
They were both forgotten souls, creatures that drifted on the periphery of the social order, invisible in plain view to the rest of mankind. The two of them had only been together for a couple of years, two winters. Their relationship was more of a partnership than one of master and servant, they looked after each other, particularly during the bitterness of the years’ end. They often huddled for shared warmth at night, even shared food, although Dan drew the line at raw squirrel.
The grange stood defiant, despite its dilapidation, like Dan it was well past its usability but existed on. For hundreds of years it had suffered wars, weather and industrialization. It had seen good times, but had suffered more than its fair share of the bad. The Patcham family had the grange built near Southam back in the eighteenth century. They had owned the building and its surrounding estate for many generations. Their era ended when the last son and heir to the estate died, childless, during the First World War. He had died a hero, as one of the first officers over the top, at the Somme.
From that point on the grange fell into the hands of the government to settle the extortionate death duties. The war office were particularly interested in its remoteness. During World War Two the main house became a military hospital, some of its grounds were given over to a prisoner of war camp. It was close enough to towns to be handy, far enough away to be innocuous.
For a decade after the war the house remained empty. During the mid-nineteen fifties, the building and grounds were taken over by the newly formed ministry of health. It then became a very important government research laboratory. It led the world with research into diseases, such as rubella, rabies and smallpox and had many breakthroughs that, in time, aided scientists the World over.
It was not without it controversies as any scientific research carries risks. Towards the end of the seventies vivisection became more and more frowned upon by a public that were becoming vocal about the morality of using animals for research. Despite the wonderful work in preventative medicines and inoculates it had done, public consensus and the new decade forced the governments’ hand. In 1982 the work at the lab became clandestine. Security was strengthened and little to nothing about its research became public knowledge. People in the local area had forgotten of its existence, not even realizing the place was mothballed in 1992. It had lost its cost effectiveness in a drowning economy. It was cheaper to build modern laboratories in far more secure areas than to justify the upkeep of the aging mansion hidden by acres of woodland and overgrown gardens.
Dan was moved when he had come upon the clearing where the mansion stood, he knew not of its history, nor did he care. It was a roof, protection from the elements, and a particularly opulent one in its time. He had fought through overgrown ancient woodland for nearly a mile. No sound of life apart from the unlikely couple. Despite his dog sticking close, it was still a lonely place. Wildlife generally thrived in an area such as this. Here, there was not a peep, no scurrying in the undergrowth not even a bird in the sky.
Dan clicked his tongue, unable or unwilling to move. His flesh and bones ached, skin that had not seen light, or soap, for as long back as he could remember was slick with cold sweat. Numerous layers of ripe clothing kept him warm but he still shivered.
Dan’s first impression of the building was wonder at how such a magnificent edifice such as this could be left to rot and decay. After circling the entire house he surmised that at some point in its life it had been used for some sort of industrial purpose. Like most businesses in tough times the assumption was it had gone bust many years previous.
The house itself was large but not in its footprint, its general area had been increased by the addition of two wings that were of modern metal and glass construction. The wings were tacked on to the main building, and were wearing their dereliction far worse than the older main building which still seemed structurally intact.
A peeling lichen covered sign on the circular driveway announced the direction of the reception.
Dan found a good access point. On the side of the newer part, close to where it was joined to the much older red brickwork, was a shattered glass fire exit. Flailing tendrils of climbing weeds stretched through the gap, entwining with the escape bar that was still chained in place, never to be operated again.
Dan chortled, then smiled.
“Looks like we’re in boy.”
The dog sniffed the air then strolled through into the dark interior. Dan bent down low with a puff and a pant. He edged carefully inside with glass pellets crackling under foot.
To most people the mustiness of the old laboratories would have been disgusting, over the years Dan had slept in far worse smelling places. The corridors were dark and dank, many ceilings collapsed. He turned towards the original building, with its internal solidity still intact.
Dan had become ill during the first night at the grange. He had found a comfortable area within the old part of the building. It was apparent that the room he resided in was originally the library of the old house. Unlike many of the other rooms in the building the windows were all intact, much of the glass had fallen in where the putty had shrunk and crumbled to dust, degenerated through decades of weathering. The ones in this room had been protected from damage and the seasons by tall undergrowth, naturally protected.
The room was empty apart from the built-in hard wood shelving which adorned every wall. Books were a distant memory, they held nothing more than dust. Dan was laid in his makeshift bed of soiled blankets and sleeping bag in a position opposite the wide open double doors that led through to the reception hall and allowed access to the rest of the building.
Over the years Dan had suffered greatly due to lack of hygiene and a thorough disregard for his own health, a few infections incurable that he carried with him like his trusty haversack. Nothing compared to how he felt at that moment.
He jumped involuntarily when he saw a shadow standing in the shade of the doorway. He eased with relief when he realised it was his trusty pal, Sandy.
“Dog? Is that you?” he wheezed.
His eyes were misted with glaucoma. He could just make out the canine silhouette ahead of him. More than ever, he needed his companion, he needed something, someone close. The illness made him feel lonelier than ever.
The dog padded closer slowly, cautiously. Dan smiled weakly, he outstretched his hand to stroke the only friend he had, the best friend he had ever known. Unnoticed by Dan, the dogs heckles were up and his teeth were bared. The virus Dan had picked up coursed throughout his body, splitting and multiplying at an incredible rate the infection in him was rampant. His scent had altered; it was now the smell of a dying beast. An infected, dying animal, a weakness that created a fear.
His dog sensed it on his approach, the smell of death. With a growl he snapped his powerful jaws at Dan’s outstretched hand. First bite he almost severed the man’s index finger between his powerful jaws. Dan’s expression altered immediately to one of shock as the intense pain hit him like a brick wall, shaded in mist his hand looked wrong, blackness spewed from it.
Sandy began to bark with intermittent growls at the prone man. The old man’s best friend from the last couple of winters turned on him. The dog was determined to protect himself from the evil his partner had become. It was already too late, if human the dog may have thought twice about ripping the old man’s throat out. He could not have helped but swallow some of his sour, metallic blood. A blood that carried an amalgam of the diseases already there, and something new and far more dangerous.
As the buildings degenerated with age and dereliction, so too did life in the safe and secure confines of the private grounds.
When the laboratory was in its heyday even those working above on the lifesaving pharmaceutical products were unaware of the research being done in the basement laboratories below.
Saving people and animals made very little in the monetary form. Weaponization of common ailments was, on the other hand, lucrative on a global scale. The modification of these diseases could have altered how they would react over time. Some may even have become more potent over the decades of inactivity. Government clean-up of the facility had been quick enough to be cost effective, but not slow enough to be thorough.
As night fell, one living thing was evident. A tan coloured dog left the building and sloped towards the woodland. It wouldn’t take the dog long to get far away from the grange. Within its body and bloodstream it was also taking with it a terrible legacy of death.