Episode 7 – The Best Intentions

I’m sure by now you’ve researched Joe MacDonald, but you won’t find any information on how this story ends.

He’d managed to impress both Steph and I by telling her where to find a ring she’d apparently lost. I noticed during a meeting in the department, and for the next hour kept expecting her to bring it up. None of the cameras or recorders had been on during Joe’s display, so there was no chance of Strother finding it himself.

But let’s skip back to just after the strange man attacked Joe. After he was escorted to his car, and before I realised what he’d said to Steph was true. I went to visit Strother’s office to tell him the psychic had gone. You’ll remember Strother had disappeared not long after the assailant, and we all just assumed he’d retreated to the safety of his office. Upon opening the door, I found him at his desk, and in the chair opposite was the assailant. Unbeknownst to them, the ghostly woman was keeping them company, standing over the stranger’s shoulder like an earthly guardian angel.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to ignore something that’s staring you straight in the face. It’s hard to concentrate on what you’re saying when that’s all you can think about. You’re too busy willing yourself not to mention the ghost in the room. Strother told me to shut the door and take a seat.

He introduced the man as Matthew Beattie, a disgruntled victim of Joe McDonald’s so-called gifts. For the next hour Matthew told me the ghosts’ story.

His girlfriend, Fiona McKay, disappeared about 6 months ago on her way back from a local reading group. It was summer, so the days were long and the nights short. Fiona never gave a second thought to walking home the short distance. The Police found CCTV footage of that same journey, but she never returned home. After Matthew reported her missing, the search began, and Joe McDonald was called.

He was a valuable resource, according to the officer liaising with Fiona’s family, and he’d helped solved many of the toughest cases. Of course, none of this was ever put on record, or splashed across headlines when the statements he gave turned out to be nothing. Only his successes were recorded in the media, which is why you can’t find this story anywhere.

The police brought Joe in, gave him some of Fiona’s belongings, a jumper, jewellery, even a hairband according to Matthew. He reeled off the same vague statements I’d seen him give during his sessions. Many words strung together by pointlessness. But the police took him at his word. Poured all their efforts into gleaning meaning from those words. And it sent them every which way but the right one.

Fiona’s body was found by a dog walker in a ditch beside the canal. She hadn’t been killed instantly, according to the report, and if the police had done their job instead of listening to the words of Joe McDonald they may have saved her life. Fiona’s family were understandably devastated, and in the throes of grief, Matthew had become drowned by the desire for revenge against the psychic, whom he viewed as much of a killer as Fiona’s murderer.

All throughout his story, she was by his side, desperate to go to him, to comfort him, to reassure him. He couldn’t see her, and I always wonder if loved ones can perhaps feel them instead. Over the years I’ve heard many a tale about feeling a presence at their shoulder. Most attribute it to a guardian angel, or their imaginations, or a draught, but what if it’s really some innate sense, a deep connection with a loved one? Matthew never acknowledged Fiona, and I was overcome with the desire to tell him she was there, she was listening but powerless.

Strother tried his best to calm Matthew down when he began raving about Joe, but the rage had engulfed him so completely that he was beyond reason and logic. He wanted the psychic’s head, and soon he wouldn’t let anything get in the way of taking it.

It’s not like I couldn’t understand his anger. People trusted Joe’s ability, or rather believed that he had one, that he was able to discern information that no one else could. That belief, that faith, had possibly cost a woman her life. I couldn’t fool myself into believing this case was the only one where Joe had been wrong.

It refers back to people assigning meaning to predictions and prophecies only after the fact. That’s why you’ll only ever find tales of Joe’s successes, and none about his failures. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on Joe. He’s not the only psychic in the world, but it’s always baffled me how these people appear to have no conscience. They know how much value is placed on their words, especially if they’re working with the police on an active case, and yet they continue to speak. Perhaps Joe did truly believe the dead communicated with him, that they truly knew everything, or perhaps he was just a very convincing conman.

I was told all of this before I knew his prediction about Steph’s ring was true, and I admit, my minor irritation for the man grew into full blown distaste after Matthew’s story. The most frustrating thing to me was that I couldn’t do anything to help. Fiona’s remains weren’t hidden, and without her telling me, I couldn’t help the police find her killer. I also could do nothing for Matthew. I knew grief, but not his, the kind that stems from dissatisfaction, from injustice, from having no answers or explanation. In their place was a deep hatred for Joe McDonald because it was easier to blame him than to accept there might never be answers.

Strother had no choice but to let Matthew go. There was nothing else he could’ve done. The ghost of Fiona went with him, but before she followed him out of the door she glanced briefly back at me with a desperate expression, the kind someone has when they have a secret they can’t tell.

I asked Strother what we could do about Joe McDonald. The answer, predictably, was nothing. Even if his test results turned out to be no different than by chance, all subjects had to be anonymous when reporting them. Legally and scientifically, we couldn’t expose Joe. I left his office with dampened spirits. It looked like Fiona McKay was doomed to become just another statistic.

That brings us to the next day in the meeting where the sparkling ring on Steph’s finger caught my eye. That ring eclipsed everything I’d learned the day before from Matthew. How was his version of Joe the same as the one who had told Steph where to find her missing ring?

All through the meeting Steph refused to bring it up, or to catch my gaze as I stared desperately at her. When the meeting ended I caught up with her and she confirmed that the ring was in the dishwasher, and that she’d heard it rattling around the night before. Her excuse for not bringing it up was that it had nothing to do with the study. He hadn’t been recorded, it wasn’t under controlled conditions, and his consent form didn’t cover anything outside of the agreed upon sittings. I think her real fear was that it showed the possibility that psychic phenomena was real, which isn’t a possibility that many normal people are readily able to accept. She was frightened, and what made her more afraid was that she could find no plausible explanation for the whole thing.

Neither could I, but I also knew about Fiona McKay and the way Joe had led the police a merry dance. This caused me to do something I wouldn’t often do during my time on the study. I went to see Strother.

Steph had never sworn me to silence, which was her mistake. In hindsight this may be the reason she was always quite short with me. He called us both in and listened intently to the story. By his facial expression I couldn’t tell if he was impressed, intrigued, or disappointed. This was also one of the only times I wished he would dispel the myth, disprove the psychic. I didn’t want Joe McDonald to be real. I didn’t want to be even slightly associated with someone who had been so painfully wrong about his own abilities that he had distracted the police from saving an innocent victim.

Strother was silent for a few minutes after Steph had told her story. If you know academics, you’ll know the silence I’m talking about. It seems to last forever as they carefully place their thoughts in order, and all you can do is wait.

Strother asked if Steph had recently had a delivery; flowers, a large package, something she had to sign for. Warily, she nodded. He then asked if they’d used the bathroom. Steph froze, every muscle in her body going tense. I was still oblivious, what did that have to do with the ring being in the dishwasher?

Steph explained that it had been a flower delivery from a friend, or distant relative, a week or two ago. She had signed for it but then the delivery man had asked if he could use the bathroom. After putting his things on a counter in the kitchen he’d gone upstairs. Steph had begun to load the dishwasher, and when he came back down to collect his belongings, she’d left it open. She admitted there had been a few seconds when she’d walked towards the front door to open it for him that he had been left in the kitchen alone.

Strother concluded he hadn’t used the toilet but had instead gone into her bedroom and picked something that looked to be of sentimental value. When he was collecting his things, he had thrown it in the dishwasher. This deliveryman, Strother continued, was actually one of Joe McDonald’s associates, and the flowers weren’t from anyone she knew. Steph confirmed they hadn’t come with a card or message, and she had just assumed, like anyone would, it was a nice spontaneous gift from a loved one, a belated congratulations on her engagement.

This strategy, it turns out, is very common amongst psychics. It’s on a similar vein to the cold reading I explained in another statement. You make an appointment with a psychic some time in advance. With your name, perhaps your face, they set this all up so that when you come in they illustrate their abilities, and you keep coming back, lining their pockets further.

It’s all a bit creepy if you ask me, more criminal than mystical. With the curtain drawn back Joe was firmly in the conman’s camp. He was as fake as they came, and the cunning with which he’d arranged his wee demonstration for Steph indicated to me he was more unscrupulous than a genuine believer in his own abilities. He knew he wasn’t real, and yet pretended to help the police, wasting their time, and misdirecting their resources, at the cost of Fiona McKay’s life.

If I disliked the psychic this much with so little contact or reason, I couldn’t begin to imagine the depth of hatred Matthew Beattie had for him. It was all compounded by the knowledge that I couldn’t do anything to help.

I would’ve left it, let the dust settle and time smooth its ragged edges. But Joe McDonald couldn’t help himself. He offered to do an extra reading for the study, claiming it was important for the future of his line of work. I thought I was treading a fine line by working on the study, but he played with that line, almost daring it to trip him up.

Due to Matthew’s attack during his previous visit, security had to escort him everywhere he went inside the building. I lurked like the ghost of Fiona McKay, lingering wherever Joe was, hoping for a chance to get him alone. I was lucky that day.

It was during a break between sessions that I found him in break room having some tea. Fiona remained, and I was fearful that she would turn out to be beyond my help. Joe greeted me warmly in return for stony silence.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” I said, disappointment saturating my words.

He claimed not to know what I meant.

“Lying about being psychic to paying customers is bad, but pretending to be psychic to the police and grieving family members is on its own level,” I replied.

Joe’s face never cracked, he never showed an ounce of shock at my accusation, or outrage that I’d confronted him. I can’t have been the first, nor will I have been the last.

He was adamant that he had the ability to communicate with the dead, that they told him things he couldn’t possibly know. If that were true and they knew information that could help police, wasn’t he morally obliged to tell them? He continued that he understood my scepticism since I was an academic surrounded by science, and I had probably seen my fair share of fakes during the study, but he assured me he was the real deal.

I’m surprised I didn’t lose my temper when he painted himself as a saint. I felt like asking him which window he wanted to be thrown out of. But just as I was about to reply I started seeing flashes like I had done at St Mary’s. Someone swiping through a photo album, snapshots of instances, of events in someone else’s life. Yet I could glean a lot more than just snippets.

I told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was as fake as they came. That his parents never believed him, that his ex-wife never believed him, and that the daughter he wasn’t allowed to see would also never believe him. That was why it was so important the rest of the world did. But if he ever offered his services to the police again, I would make sure no one would believe him until the day he died.

I know, all very threatening. Why Fiona chose to show me these things I still can’t quite understand. And don’t get me wrong, I didn’t suddenly become psychic, or a mind-reader. The only things I know are what I learn myself, or what ghosts show me. I suppose that suggests psychic phenomena could be real but notice how nothing I said was a prediction. I was guessing about his daughter, it just felt like the right wound to rub salt into. It’s always one ghost, never the ambiguously named “spirit world” like Joe and his ilk claim. I suppose psychics might be real, but Joe McDonald wasn’t one of them.

Finally, I saw his face warp into genuine fear. Remember that psychopath part of myself, well it was certainly satisfied at the sight. He could’ve gone straight to Strother, to any member of the team and told them what I’d just done. But he and I both knew that everyone saw him as a liar, as someone so desperate to prove their abilities were real that he’d arranged for Steph’s ring to get lost. He had become the boy who cried wolf.

Having nothing more to say, and wanting to hear no more lies, I stood up and left Joe McDonald. Fiona followed me and I silently thanked her before she disappeared. Not all ghosts have personal grudges to settle. I hadn’t revealed her killer, I hadn’t really helped her in any way. All I’d done was threaten a man who had distracted the police. Whether he listened to me was beyond my control, yet my interference had seemingly been all she wanted.

Joe refused to do his final reading and he withdrew his consent from the study, meaning we couldn’t use any of the data he’d contributed. Despite low recruitment, none of us shed tears over the loss.

Present day

I spent days waiting for a reply to the handful of emails I sent to Katherine Phillips. Either she doesn’t check her work emails, or she was ignoring me. I ended up phoning her office. Thankfully I caught her in, but she refused to speak to me about anything related to Strother or their relationship. She didn’t want to be involved.

I can only speculate at their relationship, but considering what happened to him, she was suspiciously absent from any of the articles or news reports. In fact, she was just weirdly absent from his entire life. We didn’t make a habit of discussing personal issues in the office, but even I’d met Ken’s wife, and Steph’s fiancé. Hell, I’d even met Ken’s daughter. The point I’m trying to make is that if Strother had been in a serious relationship, why had none of us ever heard about it? Whenever Ken or Steph would suggest setting him up, he’d always say he never had time, not that he was already seeing someone. Why the effort to hide her? I’m missing something about this, but without Katherine to fill me in I’ve hit a dead end, both with their relationship and with the funders.

It was when I jumped in my car after work and drove down to the university to confront her in person that I realised how bad it’d be. Was I this person who ambushed someone who’d made it evident they didn’t want to talk? Was maintaining her privacy more important than clearing our names? Just because I’ve put myself forward doesn’t give me a right to drag anyone else with me.

I need to have a think about how far I’m going with this and what I’m willing to do to find answers.

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