Episode 20 – Out of our control

***Content warning: reference to suicide.

Right, let’s get back to the study. I’ve been going through the files that Strother kept and the notes he took. It’s weird to compare what he saw, or what he didn’t, and what I experienced myself. It’s like getting a glimpse into the normal world, the one that the majority of people see. It must be nice to only know normal fear, of losing your job, of failing, of being late for work. I read Strother’s notes, his reports on the study, and sometimes I prefer the world he saw. The one where there was no such thing as ghosts or wraiths or Overseers. The one where there was a down to earth, rational explanation for everything.

I wonder how he lived the remainder of his life realising he was wrong. We never spoke after he dismissed me from my position on the study, and after the scandal had passed, I didn’t want to or have the ability to find him and ask. How wronged he must’ve felt all these years, knowing that ghosts were real, having the proof, but being branded a liar. How did he sleep at night knowing that there might be something in the darkness? How well did he transition to a new belief system, or did he desperately cling to his old one where ghosts and people who saw them were confined to the pages of fiction? These are all just more questions I’ll never have an answer to.

This case was closer to home in that we didn’t have to stay in anyone’s house or dingy local hotels. I don’t think there were many people in the building we were in on campus that really knew what we were doing. They knew about testing psychics and mediums, and Lord knows there’s plenty of studies that’ve done the same thing, but I can’t imagine they ever knew the true extent. Some did, of course, and that’s how we became acquainted with the universities’ ghost stories.

Strother was reluctant to investigate any of the claims we heard or were reported to us. Mostly because he assumed they were fake, tales students passed amongst themselves during Halloween to seem interesting. But then student reports began to flood central administration, and a few unfortunate cases ended up at the hospital.

They all had one thing in common. Unexplained phenomena. Which was why, through the long grapevine of academia, it ended up on our desk in the office. Strother, ever prideful, tried to make it seem like it was his choice, but there were mumbles that we’d also received some emails from the Dean encouraging us to put minds at ease.

The good thing was that we didn’t have far to go. The bad thing was that it was exam season, and the reports were varied and came from all over campus. How did we sort the genuine from the fakes?

Exam time in a university isn’t a place many people wish to be. Libraries are full, cafes are full, pubs are even fuller. There’s an awful tension permeating lecture theatres, labs, and offices. It gets to some more than others. When students started getting hurt and ending up in the hospital it sent a wave of panic across the student body. And from that panic stemmed paranoia and opportunists. I even heard, from a psychology PhD student, that an undergrad had flung themselves down the stairs and claimed they were pushed by a ghost, all to get out of their final exam. The sadder thing was, they weren’t the only one.

Thanks to them we had to investigate each and every case that cried ghost. Interviewing people wasn’t my speciality, so I was saved the more arduous task. Occasionally I’d have to accompany one of the others, but I never said much. Everyone I went to see were suitably vague about what they may or may not have seen, and some had been so careless that even the doctors diagnosed self-harm.

Having said that, there were a few which came back suspicious. The first that I saw, and went with Steph to investigate, was someone who’d managed to get themselves locked into a private study room in the library for 3 days. When someone had eventually managed to get the door open the student had to be sent to the hospital for dehydration. The strange detail was that the door had never been locked from the inside or outside. The librarian who’d found the student had simply opened the door. When the student, a final year undergraduate called Emily, had spoken to us she maintained that the door wouldn’t open and her phone had died, despite being at least 70% full.

The second, also a final year undergraduate, called Kieran, had been pushed from his balcony door on the second floor. He’d broken a few bones but had got away relatively unscathed considering it could’ve been much worse.

There were another 2 or 3 cases, but to the team they weren’t serious enough to warrant further investigation. None of them were injured, and it didn’t seem to me as though they were connected with Emily and Kieran.

Workmen, health and safety officers, and a locksmith had all been to the study room where Emily had been trapped. Even though they couldn’t find anything wrong, they’d replaced everything anyway, just to be on the safe side. As for Kieran…let’s just say he wasn’t allowed to open the door in his room anymore.

Over and above their serious nature there was something else tying the two together. Both were enrolled on the same course. Now, for the life of me, I can’t remember the name of it, but it was a very niche subject, and highly competitive. There were only about 20 to 30 places available, and students fought tooth and nail to get them. The course worked as a feeder of sorts, having connections to jobs, and boasted an impressive 99% employment rate.

Obviously with that kind of exclusive atmosphere comes pressure, and the university was going at the incidents from the angle that the students had just snapped, their stories just a cry for help. We investigated the library, and there was nothing there, and to be thorough we set up our equipment in Kieran’s accommodation.

Obviously, during exam time, the students weren’t happy at being relocated elsewhere for a night or two, but the university was more concerned with quelling the ghost fever that swept around campus leaving mayhem in its wake.

We primarily focused on the floor where Kieran’s room was, setting up cameras, audio recorders, thermometers and motion sensors. We placed some of the lighter equipment on the stairwell, and the floor above and below.

This was probably the first case where all of us lacked the professionalism we’d cultivated since the beginning of the study. Even I wasn’t entirely convinced, so you can imagine what the already disillusioned psychologists felt about it. It was more of going through the motions, jumping through the hoops, so we could tell the Dean what she wanted to hear.

During the day the motion sensors were set off a lot, and all were mundane causes. Floors were thin, and the walls even thinner. Someone slamming their bedroom door closed caused a domino effect to where we were. There was loud music playing on the other side of the accommodation building but managed to find its way to us. Occasional students would pop back in to retrieve something they’d left behind.

By the evening dinner run we were all bored and counting down the minutes until the end. That’s why I almost missed the brief flash of black red smoke on the stairs. It was difficult to see on the small screens we had, but the presence was caught by each camera in turn. Whatever it was ascended the stairs, like a human would.

It was never there for long and I scrambled to keep up without trying to draw attention to the fact I was seeing something. I’ve seen similar spirits before, like the wee girl in my first statement, or the poor creature from the Anderson house, but this was somehow different.

Ghosts usually occupy the same colour spectrum, from black to grey, occasionally white, but this one was blood red, so deep it was practically black. Whoever it had once been was completely engulfed by this strange smoke, almost as if they were trapped by it. I’d catch a glimpse of a hand or a neck, slender fingers, but they’d be smothered soon after.

The smoke itself acted like a separate entity, always slightly lagged from the spirit it encased. It was like someone had dropped food colouring into water, the moments before they completely mix together. There’s still patches of clear crystal, surrounded by thin ribbons of red. Through those clear patches I tried to see what was inside, but the red was too quick for me.

We didn’t have many cameras on the stairs, and it disappeared quite quickly after the last one. From the direction it was going in I assumed it would continue upwards. But what was there? Why was it here?

Something prickled the back of my head, a sense I still get to this day when something is about to go wrong. I excused myself from the rest of the team and made my way to the stairs. Unfortunately, there was no way of not getting caught by the cameras, I’d have to think of an excuse later.

As I made my way up, I listened carefully for any sound, hoping beyond all experience that the black-red mass would make some noise that I could follow. It was colder on the stairwell, but whether that was because there were no radiators or due to paranormal activity would be something Strother and the rest would debate later.

I continued on, unable to hear anything but the occasional thud of speakers and chatting students. No one passed me, and no one came out of any of the other floors. By the time I was four floors up and out of breath I was beginning to lose hope.

That was when I heard the cry. A scared and confused shout for help coming from the floor I’d just reached. I scrambled to open the door and burst into the flat. Whoever had called out in the first place was now sobbing, their pleas for assistance drowned in their petrified confusion.

The flats themselves were long corridors with rooms on each side, and from where I stood I noticed one of the doors was open. I ran towards it and when I looked inside my breath caught at the back of my throat.

A young woman dangled from the ceiling, her entire body shaking as the air was cut off. Holding her there was a cotton shirt tightening around her neck. How the shirt itself was attached to the roof escaped my notice at the time. There was a young man, about her age, desperately trying to support her legs and feet so she couldn’t suffocate to death, but his desperate sobs did little to help him.

I admit I was so shell-shocked by what I saw that it felt like hours I just stood there watching the scene unfold, unable to do or say anything useful. Time slowed, as if someone had mercifully pushed the pause button on my life. There was perfect silence. The door to the flat was swinging closed at the end of the corridor, and for some reason it caught my eye. For the briefest of moments I glanced at it, perhaps hoping someone would come in to help or take control of the situation, but all I saw at the end was the black red mass I’d followed up the stairs.

It stared back, and through the miasma I saw a pair of crimson eyes.

Present Day

I’ve been going through the list of names sent by the anonymous informant. It’s not looking great for this tip being untrue. So far, all the names I’ve investigated are dead. But I’m not convinced they were all hunted down by Margaret Donaldson, unless she has the ability to murder by heart attack. Now that I say that aloud it should be ridiculous, so why does it only frighten me more?

There are a handful who do appear to have died naturally. Old age, hereditary conditions, general accidents on the road or otherwise. However, it’s the ones that don’t look natural that concern me, and the number keeps rising. The first one I came across was a suicide. I think I might’ve been reading too many conspiracy theories because if I was going to kill someone and get away with it, making it look like they did it themselves would be one of my first choices.

I went to visit their family, well aware I might be overstepping, especially when I pretended to be a family liaison officer with the police checking if everything had been handled in the case to their satisfaction. They were devastated at their loss, and every second I spent there, lying to their faces, made what self-respect I’ve accumulated trickle away. They told me they’d been shocked at the time because there’d been no signs, everything had been going well. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the first time parents hadn’t known the ins and outs of their bairn’s life, but there were too many coincidences here for my liking.

This pattern kept emerging in all the family’s I visited. Disbelief that they were gone, confusion as to the circumstances surrounding their death. Perfectly content people taking their own lives, one or two stabbed in an area they’d never have gone because they knew how dangerous it was, a few car accidents on road that wasn’t on their normal route, even one person killed by a red light runner on a crossing they never used. The bodies are starting to pile up around me and they’re all reportedly put there by Margaret Donaldson.

When I asked Ewan to look over the list he pulled out a few names he recognised, and they were all dead. One was actually murdered but as far as he knew no one had been brought to trial over it.

I didn’t want to believe this list was real, and every time I search for a name I hope more then I ever have before that it turns out to be no one. Every time I’m disappointed. Margaret Donaldson, Director of Inverlewis limited, charity benefactor, award winning employer, is probably a serial killer, and unfortunately for me, I’m on her black list.

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