Episode 25 – Time of dying

This story is difficult, but I want to tell it before I forget the details. A few days ago, I agreed to meet with Margaret Donaldson. Not because she asked me to, or because she forced me, but because I made a choice to face her and try my best to get her to answer for everything she’s done. There were smarter ways, but I was tired of running, tired of always looking over my shoulder, of scrutinising people who walked past me in the street. I know I talked a big game a few statements ago, but I buckled under the pressure. My life is already in pieces, so what do I have to lose? I contacted her, gave her the time and place, and told her I wanted to give her the files and be done with it. In a way it was true, just not the whole truth.

Knowing her reputation and the people she’s had killed, I thought the safest place would be a busy coffee shop. It wasn’t impossible for her to try something, but at least the probability was smaller this way than say, an abandoned car park, or somewhere she’d chosen. If I chose the place then I could pick somewhere familiar, somewhere where I knew the exits, how many there were, and how fast I could get to them. There’d also be lots of witnesses, or bystanders depending on which way you look at it.

She never replied to my email, but I went to the coffee shop anyway. I don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious in my life. If you think waiting for a job or university interview is bad, you should try waiting for a serial killer. I bought a water, and sat waiting, not touching it. It’s weird how quickly all those ridiculous conspiracy theories become genuine fears when you’re anxious.

It was acceptably busy. Three or four baristas behind the counter, a couple having an intense conversation two tables opposite, and two old hens blethering away about God knew what. I picked a table by the window, and near a fire exit. Strangers walked by, occasionally looking in, others on their phones, or talking to each other. I’d have given anything to be one of them.

Every time someone came through the door my head would snap up to look, to scrutinise. Was that man dressed in a business suit one of her associates? Was that couple like the two who followed me all those months ago? Were all these people, in fact, her employees? The mind spirals if you let it.

Finally, a woman came in, late 40s or early fifties, dressed smartly in a grey suit and pointed toed shoes that were painful to even look at. By her side was a young blonde lassie, her hair in bunches with pink bauble elastic bands holding them in place. The woman and I locked eyes and we both knew we’d found who we were looking for. She weaved her way gracefully between the tables and chairs with such fluidity she reminded me of a spirit. Her hair’s short, cropped into a business bob. You can barely see the flecks of grey through the hair dye, a honey chestnut brown that caught the lights of the coffee shop as she moved.

I remained seated as she took the chair opposite, placing her black leather bag on the ground. I’m positive it cost what I make in a year. She’s not a particularly tall woman, but not short either. She’s quite thin, and by the glow and lack of age lines and spots on her skin I presumed she took good care of herself. The nails I caught glimpses of were perfectly manicured, not a chipped or ragged one visible.

She greeted me confidently, stern almost, as though by the greeting she was asserting her dominance over the situation. This was a woman used to having control. The wee girl didn’t sit, ghosts don’t really need to, and our table for 2 quickly became crowded. I stole glances at the lassie, observing her as closely as I could to try and discern who she was, and why she was here. I became positive that it wasn’t just a horrible coincidence, or a ghost with bad timing.

Disliking my silence Margaret reminded me that I’d set up the meeting because I wanted to hand over the files. I replied that I wanted some answers first. She wanted proof I had the files with me, and so I placed the ones I’d brought on the table, along with a USB of my own, and a key to the storage facility where I keep the rest. Margaret was satisfied and asked me what I wanted to know.

“Why are you killing people who can see ghosts?” I queried.

Margaret’s face never faltered or creased at my question. She had one of the best poker faces I’ve ever seen. I could sense there was pride there, at the reputation she’d made for herself. I wondered bitterly what she was more proud of, her successful business, or her dark hobby.

She nodded her head slowly and began to tell her story. In her youth she’d been an ambitious associate at Inverlewis, working all hours of the day to try and get ahead, to get those promotions and positions of influence. She did the work, and she played with all the right people. Parties here, soirees there, kissing up to people she wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire.

It was at one of these social gatherings that she met her first psychic medium. They’d been hired by the hosts to provide their guests with some light entertainment. This was back in the days were contacting the dead and predicting the future was a little more accepted, and not as widely disproven as it is these days. Everyone was a sceptic, until they met a practitioner.

Margaret confessed she had little interest in having her fortune told, but everyone else was doing it, and so she thought, why not? After all her friends had gone in and come out buoyant, she’d entered the small room where the medium had been allowed to set up. It was all very stereotypical, incense sticks everywhere, their scents battling for supremacy, a round table with purple velvet cover, and an ominous set of tarot cards lying in the middle.

The psychic medium was a woman, probably in her late 40s, and called herself Madam Ramona. Margaret paused here to snigger derisively at the name, still after so long thinking it tacky. Her clothes were a suitably poor attempt to look exotic, with long flowing sleeves, stars, moons, and galaxies everywhere in sight. She looked more magician than medium.

Margaret sat down at the table, firm in her scepticism, and waited for Madam Ramona to do whatever it is she was paid to. The medium explained that she used a combination of tarot cards and channelling of her spirit guide to be able to see someone’s future. The tarot cards were first. She fanned the cards out and asked Margaret to pick 6 or 7 before organising them into a shape, almost like a cross.

Madam Ramona was spot on about a few things, how hard Margaret worked, how she’d practically come from nothing, how determined she was to be successful and what she’d sacrificed to do so. Between her spirit guide and the cards Madam Ramona predicted that one day Margaret would become very successful by becoming Director of the company.

Margaret was so impressed by what Ramona knew about her past that she believed her reading. True to her prediction, Margaret did become the Director of Inverlewis. The detail Margaret had left out was what she’d had to sacrifice to get there. As Madam Ramona had read in her cards, Margaret had been married to what she described as a small man, someone who could never accept she wanted a career as well as a family. They had one bairn together, a daughter called Fiona.

I glanced to the ghost of the lassie that had come in with Margaret and who hadn’t said or done a thing since. Her features were melancholy, and she seemed more interested in Margaret than me. It was like she wanted to say something, desperately wanted to communicate, but no one would listen.

Margaret ended up divorcing her husband, which she maintained was one of the best things she ever did. She raised Fiona on her own, with the help of her family and sitters. She made her way up the ladder and life was fine. Until it wasn’t. It had been a fever at first, flu like symptoms, but when they hadn’t lifted Margaret had taken her daughter to the doctor, and then the hospital. When Fiona was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia Margaret did everything in her power and beyond to try and help. Specialist doctors, trips to Europe where there were trials of a new treatment, even to soothsayers who claimed they had the answer. Nothing worked, and Fiona passed away in her mother’s arms.

Devastated, Margaret clung onto the only thing that would stave off the grief. Anger. And she was angry at the psychic who years before had predicted her rise to Director, but not the death of her daughter. Margaret reasoned that if she’d been warned during her meeting, or even given a hint of what was awaiting her daughter, then she would have moved the sun and earth to help, to prevent it, to get her checked earlier. Margaret wanted someone to blame, and Madam Ramona was it.

Before the dust had settled on her loss, Margaret found the medium’s address and stormed over for a confrontation. The bewildered medium tried to defend herself, claiming that no one wanted a bad reading. But despite her hollow defence, her words didn’t save her, and in a fit of anger and pain Margaret lashed out. Madam Ramona became Margaret Donaldson’s first victim.

It was hard to tell from Margaret’s version if Ramona was genuine. It’s not hard to do a cold reading on someone ambitious, because they all want the same thing. Success. Whether or not she was real, she didn’t deserve to die over it.

Margaret didn’t seem to have realised I’d record her. She didn’t even check. In hindsight she probably thought she could take it and erase it when we were finished. She was used to getting her own way, by stick or carrot.

She confessed to me she didn’t regret it. Ramona was a career liar, how many other people had she hurt by not telling them the truth about their futures? It was at this point that I realised Margaret believed Ramona to be real because she’d predicted her rise to Director. I don’t know if it’d ever occurred to her that Ramona was a fake, or if it had she’d ignored it in order to justify what she’d done.

Regardless, using the influence, money, and connections Ramona predicted for her, Margaret covered up her crime. And it didn’t stop there. She’d found a cause, a reason to live on after her daughter’s death. She took it upon herself to rid the world of as many mediums and psychics as she could because they were deceitful, and didn’t use their abilities to help others, only to hurt them for personal gain.

She started looking into them, finding them, visiting them, and meting out her personal form of justice. But then she began to realise that there were fakes, ones who got nothing right. She deemed them harmless enough, they were so bad how could anyone truly believe them?

It turns out finding real mediums and psychics was difficult. She carried on as best she could, sometimes doing it herself, and when she was busy she’d send in a contractor. But as an entrepreneur she knew there must be an easier way to find real ones instead of having to go through all the fakes first.

As luck would have it, there was, and it presented itself in the form of an eager and well-respected academic. Dr Robin Strother. She told me they met at a conference that Inverlewis had sponsored. She’d seen his presentation on abnormal psychology, and approached him afterwards, offering to fund a study. Abnormal psychology included mediums and psychics and everything in between. Rather than sifting through the chaf, Strother would hand her the flour.

And so, our study was born from one woman’s need for revenge against an invisible enemy. I can’t really describe how I felt after hearing this story. Fear, pity, confusion, regret, it was an unsettling mix. How one smart, educated woman could be so misled was a mystery. How could she go on this ridiculous crusade against everyone like me because of one reading from a probable fake? How damaged could someone become? I began to see that to Margaret the world was controllable if you just had the right connections or enough money. She’d managed to get everything she wanted by putting in the effort, by fixing the problem. Then she came across a problem that she couldn’t fix, and the only thing left to do was place blame. The target of her blame was people like me, all because of one bad tarot reading.

I don’t agree with what Madam Ramona did. Just because you can see ghosts, if she could, doesn’t mean you can predict the future. I’ve certainly never been able to, nor have any of my medium friends. We help spirits in the present, but we don’t get a glimpse into the future as payment. The prediction for Margaret was probably down to cold reading and fishing for information, just like every other psychic out there. Nothing could’ve been done to prevent what happened to Fiona Donaldson, but to Margaret who doesn’t know we can’t see what’s ahead of us, she thought Ramona could but for some selfish reason didn’t share it.

Margaret’s reaction to what happened is extreme, frighteningly so, how many innocent people have been killed because of her beliefs? How many times has she been wrong, and killed a fake instead of the real thing? The Director of Inverlewis presents herself as a successful entrepreneur who worked her way to the top by sheer force of will, but somewhere along the way she broke, fragmented until all that was left was a vengeful spirit. Margaret Donaldson may technically be alive, but her soul died with her daughter, and what remained was something that was barely human.

Then I asked her the question that began this journey. Was she the one who destroyed the teams’ careers? And if so, why, when she was funding the study?

A sickening smile spread across her features, one of triumph. She told me that for nearly three years Strother had sent the company, and her, interim reports detailing what they’d found and what they’d investigated. Strother theorised that some subjects showed promise of being genuine but required further testing. His final report stated that he’d managed to find another two candidates who were promising, and as close to genuine as he’d ever seen.

But Strother hadn’t included the data or the names of those mediums, who I presume was myself and Ewan. Margaret called him into her office and demanded all the names he’d previously alluded to. Strother explained that wasn’t how it worked, and that all participants in the study were anonymised to protect their identity. That was part of the participation form everyone signed. Margaret, a woman unaccustomed to being refused, said she’d pull the funding if he didn’t give her a list of names.

Margaret paused here and threw me a strange look of satisfaction, as though she was the cat who got the milk. She said that after she’d listened to statement 15 she realised that the mediums who Strother refused to give up were myself and Ewan. I asked why she still wanted the files when she knew who Ewan and I were.

“To find the others,” she answered, as though it were obvious.

Then it was my turn to smile. There were no others, I told her. In Strother’s files, in mine, the only EEG graphs that were different were mine and Ewan’s. Every other psychic and medium tested in the study were fakes. I’ll savour that moment, her reaction to the news that she’d gone through all the effort and all the intimidation tactics for nothing.

Predictably she didn’t believe me, so I said she could look through the files to see for herself. She had everything she needed.

I barely saw her draw the gun. It was small, compact so it could fit in her bag, or even a purse. I realised then that I’d played my hand too early. The files were my bargaining chip, she got them and I got to live. Now they were worthless, of no use in her crusade. And neither was I.

She explained this anyway, one last moment of triumph. She thanked me, cynically, for my help. It took a few seconds for my instincts to kick in, they just weren’t very good instincts. I looked around the café, at the couple, at the baristas, none had noticed there was an armed psycho in their midst. I told her, rather too confidently, that she wouldn’t shoot me in a crowded place.

The last thing I remember is that smile of hers, small, pursed, showing no teeth, and the sound of gunshot.

Ewan’s helping me record this, he’s the only one who can. He’s kept me updated on the aftermath. Margaret was, thankfully, arrested after multiple witnesses and multiple CCTV footage caught the whole thing. In the chaos after she’d shot me she also wasn’t able to find my recorder, so all the audio is with the police. The charges just keep piling up, but I’m certain they’re nowhere near the real number. Ewan thinks a conviction is likely, despite her massive legal team.

I’ve had my own fighting to do, and coming to terms with a new future, one I didn’t ever imagine for myself. Sorry, that sounds as though the worst happened. I’m not dead, by some miracle or trick of fate. The bullet did hit me though, and hours of surgery and a few weeks of coma later, I woke up. Being shot at practically point-blank range, everyone was beyond surprised I opened my eyes, but no one comes out of that unscathed. The bullet shattered some of my vertebrae, grazing organs as it went. The doctors told me not to expect to use my legs again. Attempted murder is just one of many charges against the Director of Inverlewis.

I hate this hospital, it’s depressing, and crowded, and not just with living patients. Ewan and I both share hatred of the places, but he visits anyway to keep me company. He offered me a job again, a partner this time rather than assistant. I told him I’d think about it.

There’s a lot of time to think when you’re in hospital, there’s nothing else to do. And I can’t stop thinking about Strother. He obviously never gave Margaret our names, he did what I asked, what I begged him to do. And it cost him his career. I never thought he liked me, and since then I thought he loathed me. He could easily have given her my name back then when she threatened him, but he didn’t. I’m not so self-absorbed that I think he did it for my sake. Honestly, Strother wasn’t sentimental. I think he chose to maintain his scientific integrity over the study and money. Perhaps my plea did help, but I’ll never know. Regardless of motivation or intention, Strother saved my life. If he’d given our names to her back then I don’t think I’d be talking to you now. I’d be another name on that list I was given.

Instead I can still talk, I can still live my life. I know I say ghosts only stay because they have unfinished business. But it feels like the reason I stayed, I fought to live, was also because I’m not done yet. I still have ghosts to help, careers and reputations to salvage, so it looks like I’ll be around for a while longer. After some rest, a lot of rest.

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