Episode 24 – Serial ghosts

I’ve finally come to this case. I knew it was getting close. This is probably the case that frightened me the most. I even occasionally have a nightmare about it.

As I’ve said before, our inbox was full of requests for us to investigate supernatural phenomena, whether it be houses, historic buildings, or even people. We didn’t have the time to get through them all, and over the 2 and a half years of the study I watched as that inbox grew unmanageable. It was a bit like a supermarket aisle, there’s so much choice you don’t know what to choose.

Steph was the one who picked this one out of the mountain. It was a house museum in Edinburgh. Bought by the National Trust and decorated to look as it did in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was terraced, in a circle around a private garden area. There was even still cobblestones on the road outside. The email was from the manager of the property asking us to investigate a series of hauntings that staff and visitors alike had experienced.

As you can probably guess from these statements, as the study went on Strother was less picky about places we investigated. Either that or he grew to respect our opinions. At the weekend we all travelled to Edinburgh and made our way through the parallel streets to the museum. Even as we approached the grand façade we started to realise something was wrong, and I don’t mean ghost wrong.

Parked on the street outside was a small van with a relatively well-known tele (TV) channel’s logo on the side. A few people were unloading recording equipment from the back and traipsing it into the museum. After a brief conversation amongst ourselves to check if they’d emailed us about filming in the museum we approached one of the people removing stuff from the van.

He confirmed they were indeed booked to film an episode of Ghost Hunters, or Ghost Finders, I can’t remember what it was called now, some sketchy production. The atmosphere was getting chilly, and it was at this point that the museum manager spotted us. Strother went to speak with her by himself, and from where I stood it looked like a tense conversation. I thought he might’ve not so politely be telling her where to go, or refusing to investigate anymore.

To my surprise he returned and informed us that we would still investigate the house since we’d made the journey, but we weren’t giving permission to be filmed. We all nodded, taken aback that we weren’t on our way to the train station, and followed him inside with our own equipment.

One of the producers didn’t seem to like that we hadn’t given our permission for them to film us, or was irritated that they didn’t have the whole place to themselves. I only overheard mumbled conversations so I didn’t know.

I don’t think that the house museum had ever been so well-recorded. There must’ve been at least 2 cameras in every room we were allowed in, and lord knows how many audio recorders. The filming crew were nice enough people, just ordinary folk trying to make a living. The chilly atmosphere pervaded, and one of the other producers of the show did come into our base before they started filming to try and persuade us to change our minds. I think Strother summed it up best when he told her to piss off.

As I’d been setting up equipment, between short conversations with the crew, I never saw anything, but as you know by now things can go either way from there. I don’t really know what I was expecting. The last historic house we’d visited I’d been touched by bias in what I thought I saw, so this time I was a lot more discerning.

As we worked our way to the top floor, where the nursery was, I continued to see nothing out of the ordinary, and slowly began to relax. Setting up the last camera and motion sensor I made my way out of the nursery on the top floor and began to descend the stairs. I hadn’t been out of the door five seconds before I saw a spirit, as clear as day, as if they were alive. I almost said hi, thinking it was one of the crew.

This spirit isn’t what you’re probably thinking, this wasn’t some ghost of the past dressed in silks wearing glittering jewellery, this was someone from the present, or at least the near present. It was a woman, wearing jeans and a leather jacket, her hair piled on top of her head in a bun so dishevelled it was defying gravity by staying there. I slowed my pace as I approached the stairs, observing her for clues as to who she was, when she was from, and why she was here.

Unlike many ghosts I’ve encountered she didn’t acknowledge me, didn’t even look at me as I passed her. She was staring down the stairs to the floor beneath, as though there was something there causing her distress. When I began to walk down, I saw another ghost. A bit more dated in clothing and appearance, but still 21st century looking. This time it was a man, perhaps in his thirties dressed in a grey tracksuit. He too was looking down the next flight of stairs. As I approached him he didn’t move, as though he were a statue that only I could see. Like the woman near the nursery, he didn’t acknowledge me as I scrutinised him on my way past. He had the same strange look on his face that she did, a mixture between fear and despair. Taking the next small flight of stairs put me in the path of yet another ghost, another woman, a bit younger than the first, dressed smartly in pencil skirt and blouse. Staring in the same direction as the others.

I began to get that tingling at the back of my head I do when something isn’t right. Slowly I edged my way over to the polished bannister and looked down the remaining flights of stairs until the tiled reception hall on the ground floor. On every set of stairs from where I was there was a ghost, like a line of toy soldiers, set up to stare in the same direction.

I’d never encountered so many ghosts in the same place in my entire life, especially none who had no apparent connection to the building they were in. What were they all staring at? Did I really want to know? I moved past each one of them in turn, hoping at least one would be identifiable, but they were all strangers, with no connection to the building or each other that I could discern in a glance. It was like they were victims of a disaster or an attack of some kind, but nothing like that had happened in the museum.

By the time I returned to the base on the ground floor I was beyond unsettled, and had this horrible dread lodged in my stomach. This wasn’t normal, and I couldn’t even come up with a plausible theory as to why they were all here.

All I could do was go through the motions of our routine and try to distract myself with the curiosity of if they’d show up on any of the cameras. It was strange to see everyone else just walk past them as if they weren’t there. The crew running up and down the stairs, running between rooms like bees trying to make honey. The commotion grew as soon as the cast of the show turned up. Suitably unqualified people trying to make a career for themselves, inviting “professional” mediums on as guests.

I used to watch those shows as a bairn, feeling an odd kind of affinity with the mediums on it. No one else in my life saw the things I did, but watching people on the TV who did, or at least pretended to, gave me a distant kind of comfort. Until I got older and realised they couldn’t see anything at all. Watching how they film those programmes, and how many takes they do of a specific “encounter” really removes any of the magic they bring to the telly (TV).

The ghosts remained throughout, not being caught on our cameras and by the absence of reaction from the crew, not on theirs either. I also overlooked the fact that it was impossible for me to try and communicate with any of them now because every inch of that house was being recorded. The wording of our refusal to the crew may have been misleading. There was no way they wouldn’t get some footage of us, they just weren’t allowed to broadcast it. It wasn’t like we signed anything, and if some desperado in the editing room caught me talking to thin air after their guest medium claimed there was a presence, my life would’ve been over.

I was pretty stuck. All I could do was observe from a distance, try and fathom where they were all looking. They wouldn’t stay in the same place, they’d move around, blip from one floor to another, one room to the next, but it was all so chaotic and there were so many of them it was hard to discern if there was a pattern to their movements.

Our investigation was going no better. Staff members and crew were walking all over the place, into each and every room, so all our equipment was constantly going off. We ended up just watching them record the show because whatever room the cast was in was usually the quietest. There was never a ghost where they were.

This continued into the night. There’d be breaks in filming for them to re-set things, and then they’d just carry on. The premise of the show was that the cast was meant to spend the night to see if they could capture any activity, which meant that our night was about to go as well as our day had. Strother would also only let one of us return to the hotel at a time, rather than a two-man shift as usual, because things were so busy he wanted at least 3 of us in the house at all times. Ken was the first to go, leaving Strother, Steph and I to sit and watch.

Occasionally one of us would have to get up to reformat some of our equipment, but even by my standards it was dull. The ghosts continued to move around of their own free will, and I began to get a headache trying to figure out what they were staring at.

At about 2 am, Steph had switched with Ken, Strother said he noticed something on one of the cameras, but the focus was off. Ken offered to go and fix the problem. He walked up the stairs and opened the door to the room. It used to be a living room or parlour of some kind, with elegant tables and writing desks in strategic places so they’d catch the light. I observed what Strother had. In the corner, just behind one of these writing cabinets, was a blurry lump, as though it was some extra equipment, or a large speaker of some kind. I couldn’t see clearly either.

Ken fumbled his way, with his wee torch, to the camera and began fiddling with it until his face became blurry and the background came into focus. I inhaled through my teeth before covering my mouth to stop the whimper gathering there from being released.

The lump in the corner wasn’t equipment, or a speaker, but someone’s body propped against the wall to look as though they were sitting down. I still remember their glassy eyes somehow pointed straight at our camera lens. Bones are one thing, its easy to create a distance because it doesn’t look like a person, but a body still warm from where the life has just left, it shook me to my core.

Strother cursed under his breath and pulled out his phone. First, he phoned Ken and told him to leave the room, the next call was to the police.

Once again there was a flurry of activity. Blue lights reflected from the large gold framed mirrors in every room of the museum, casting a severe glow on the pastel wallpaper with vines and song birds. Police officers flooded the house like the ghosts had, and to me it quickly became overcrowded. There was a sea of people in every hallway and most rooms, the living and the dead congregated together.

We were told to stay in the base and not come out. No one was allowed to leave the museum and it was obvious that the police thought the culprit was still in the house. We’d be given updates from time to time. Steph phoned us from outside saying they wouldn’t let her in. Strother and I tried to get some sleep on the floor whilst Ken kept watch, but I don’t think either of us could close our eyes without seeing the body.

The ghosts in the house still remained, but this time they were all congregated on one floor. On my trips to the bathroom, always accompanied by an officer, I heard snippets of conversation from detectives and other officials on the scene. They began to mention the penny murderer. This name kept coming up so when I got back to the base I decided to look it up.

You might be more informed on this than I was, but the penny murderer was the name the press gave to a serial killer who was believed to have killed about twenty people over a span of a decade or so. He was given this name because at every crime scene, usually on the victim somewhere, he left a rare penny. Over the years detectives and crime enthusiasts had theorised what this token meant. Some pegged it as the stereotypical serial killer’s signature, a part of his ritual, whilst others thought it was like a weregild* or price that people used to pay to the victim or victim’s family when they’d committed a crime. Obviously, the penny murderer thought his victim’s lives were worth a penny, or a bit more than a penny since they were always rare kinds. By rare I mean special editions with commemorative prints on them like a jubilee or anniversary or an important Scottish or British event.

The police were obviously beginning to think that the victim had been put there by the penny murderer. They also obviously thought they were one of us or the film crew. I decided not to share this information with Strother or Ken. If it made me this afraid then the least I could do was spare them the same. We were relatively safe in the base with only police officers permitted to see us and question us. I knew none of us were the penny murderer.

Knowledge is a weapon, a useful one, but it can also be a curse. I should’ve stopped at the Wikipedia page, but I just had to look at newspaper articles where there were pictures of the victims. As I flicked through them, some confirmed and others suspected, I began to recognise faces, and all of them were in the building with us. The police’s suspicions were right, the penny murderer was in the museum, and no one had any idea who they were.

The floor where the ghosts were congregated was the floor where the tv crew had been confined by the police for questioning. A part of me knew I shouldn’t get involved, but back then, in my youth, that part never got to make the decisions.

I thought if I just got to one of the ghosts I could persuade it to talk to me, to tell me its story so I’d know who the penny murderer was and by some miracle tell the police, all without sounding like a nutter.

Luck was on my side as the police were getting ready to release the people they’d already interviewed and take the remainder down to the police station. Telling Ken and Strother that I needed the toilet again I managed to slip out the door and up the stairs without being noticed. Amidst the sea of ghosts, I desperately began to search for one that wasn’t in the living’s line of sight.

I tried a couple, waving my hands in front of their faces, urgently whispering to them to get them to show me who killed them, even what had happened to them. After what felt like hours doing this, they eventually all turned to stare at me en masse. For a brief second, I thought I was in danger of being thrown back down the stairs. Slowly, their arms moved until they were pointing at a room at the end of the corridor.

I slowly made my way down to the door, hearing the gentle creak of the aged floorboards beneath my feet. The door itself, painted white, was slightly ajar but beyond was darkness that only made me more uneasy. I reached out, grasped the handle, and flung the door open so I could startle whoever was inside.

But there was no one there and fumbling around on the wall I managed to find the light switch. I turned back around to the ghosts, marvelling at this group deception, but they were all still pointing in the room.

Gingerly I went inside, paranoid someone might be hiding behind the door ready to jump out, or in one of the grand wardrobes stuck against the wall. There was nothing there that was out of the ordinary, more importantly there were no bodies to be found.

Between one blink and the next a ghost appeared from outside, further in the room than I was. I hissed in fright, practically jumping a foot in the air. Just like the rest outside it began to point to a corner where there was a set of drawers, made of oak and freshly polished. It had delicate handles possibly made of gold.

I began to open each in turn, savouring the smell of fragrant wood as it wafted towards me. Most were empty, some had loose papers, guides to the house, whilst a few had what looked to be bed sheets. But, in one of the drawers near the bottom I came across something that wasn’t supposed to be there. A black jacket.

I picked it from the drawer and was surprised by how heavy it was. It was quite outdated, scuffs here, specks of dirt there, one of the zips on the pockets was broken. When I held it out I heard a jingling coming from one of the pockets.

Reaching in I pulled out a small pouch, like a coin purse. When I opened it, all I could see were pennies.

That’s when I heard people enter the room. Three men, two were police officers, and the third was a member of the crew I’d seen setting up equipment. I dropped both jacket and coin purse on the ground, and I still have nightmares about the noise of those coins as they cascaded over the wooden floor. One landed near the officers’ feet and he bent down to pick it up.

All of them were rare, a few from the golden jubilee, one from the Olympics, one with Shakespeare’s profile. The officer asked the man if that was his jacket. This might seem like a strange question to ask considering I was the one holding the damn thing. It turns out the man had asked to go and retrieve his jacket from the room and the officers had accompanied him.

The man didn’t say anything, but I’ll never forget the smile that spread on his face as he stared at me, the pennies he favoured so much glistening in the light. Joy that he finally got to tell his story.

I’d hoped to avoid visiting a police station, but with this case I’m afraid it was inevitable. When asked how I’d known where the pennies were, I told them I’d been talking to him earlier that day and he’d spoken about how he collected rare coins. After hearing the officers talk amongst themselves about the penny murderer, I got suspicious, and rather than cleverly alerting them, I decided to investigate myself.

They were understandably disgruntled, calling me reckless, nobody wants a dead hero, the usual crap. At the time I couldn’t understand their concern. Nothing had happened, the penny murderer had gone willingly. It’s only as I’ve aged, become more cautious that I realise how that encounter could’ve gone.

 As you no doubt know the penny murderer, real name Duncan Inkster, was sentenced to life after being successfully convicted of 5 murders, but the real number is thought to be much higher, and after the number of ghosts I saw, I can confirm it is much higher.

I’ve thought over the years how unlucky we were to choose to investigate the house museum at that particular time. As for why Duncan Inkster attempted a murder like that in a house with a finite number of suspects, I’ll never know. You’ll have to ask him. I don’t like coincidences, but I am a big believer in timing, and I think we were on the wrong side of it. It took us a while to do another outside investigation after this case. I think we were all shaken, in our different ways. Instead, we focused on recruitment of mediums and psychics, savouring the safety of our offices.

*Weregild – mainly Anglo-Saxon in origin, also called blood money or man price. It was a sum of money a perpetrator paid to the family of the person they had murdered.

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