Episode 14 – Breakthrough

**contains some strong language**

I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to get here. I just became so carried away with the first few months of the study that I chose to forget about the end. You know how it ended, but I’ve kept a lot of things to myself about that time.

Over the last few months my guilt has been growing like poison ivy, expanding until you can’t see anything else. You see I always knew there might be a connection, but ever since investigating who funded our study, remembering those last few months, last few cases, it’s become harder to deny the association.

So, I’ll start at the beginning of that sequence of events. Today, I’ll to tell you about the last medium we recruited to the study. It wasn’t intentional like the others had been, nor was it voluntary on their part. But their arrival marked the beginning of the end for me.

We’re jumping forward about two years from the other stories, but don’t worry, I still intend to tell everything that happened in between. We’d all grown to understand each other, to accept each other, and by that stage I was almost fond of Strother’s quirks. Almost.

My PhD thesis was coming along nicely, the light was on at the end of the tunnel, my time left on the study was short, and most importantly I’d managed to hide for nearly 3 years, all in plain sight. I was blissful in my ignorance that my past mistakes would come to haunt me.

The asylums of Victorian Britain still stand proudly in some corners of the country. Some have been renovated into other things, others pulled down so we can pretend to forget about our brutal misunderstanding of mental illness, and some, the occasional few, are left as monuments to it. As places where photographers go to capture the timeless essence of decay, of nature claiming back what is hers.

Unbelievably there are people who own them. Usually private individuals who once had a shiny plan which time has corroded into nothing. Sometimes these people get lucky and developers buy them, whilst to others they become a standing testament on how not to spend their money. Due to privacy reasons I can’t tell you who the owner was, or even the name of the building. From here on I’ll simply refer to it as the asylum.

The owner, who had bought it about 20 years previously, had been wanting to sell it for some time but had no offers. However, as soon as Strother told us about the request I knew why. This asylum had a reputation, as most abandoned buildings do, of being haunted. By this I mean so haunted TV series have stayed the night there. There’s an epidemic of witness accounts and stories attached to it of screaming, laughing, getting grabbed by an invisible force, being pushed, crying, you name it and someone’s probably reported it. Due to this kind of interest, the current owner had been unable to sell it. So, they wanted proof, once and for all, that there was nothing inside.

My opinion about places like this is that one or two accounts may be true, but the rest are usually fevered imaginations. It’s true in life that people only see things the way they want to, and haunted buildings are no different.

The email from the owner did sound more like a command than a request. They were willing to part with a considerable amount of money to get us to investigate, under the condition that we found nothing. On accepting, Strother refused the money and kept the right to report what he found to be true, whether haunted or not.

By this point in the study we’d found no proof of the paranormal. None of the ghosts, poltergeists, loops, wraiths, omens, or overseers I’d seen in the near 3 years on the study had ever been caught on any kind of device. Don’t worry, I’ll explain what an overseer is at some point. To the rest of the team this would just be another instance where there were no ghosts to be found, but to me there was endless possibility.

I’d been to my fair share of abandoned buildings, that’s why I ended up at the police station a few times when I was younger, but it’d been quite a while since I’d last stepped foot into one. There are very rarely hundreds of ghosts in the same place. From these stories you might think the world is full of ghosts, enough for there to be one per home, or one in every old building, but it’s not really like that. I only tell you about the places we went to that were haunted because there’s not usually story in the ones which weren’t.

One weekend in late winter or early spring, it’s always hard to tell in Scotland, we packed our things into the van and set off to the abandoned asylum. As had become my ritual I sat in the van on the way and read up on the building. It was a regular, if you’ll excuse the pun, haunt for photographers and there were hundreds of pictures online of variously touched up photos of both inside and outside the Gothic building. It looked more mansion than asylum, with long windows, turrets at each corner, and arches for doorways, along with decorative carved faces of what I could only assume were beings from folklore. This style of architecture was very popular when it was built in the 1850s to house the so-called “lunatics”. Obviously, this tended to include people with a varying range of mental illness. Those with depression would be treated the same as those with schizophrenia. If I lived back then I shudder to think if I’d be put into one.

Due to its reputation, and the state of the inside, most of the pictures gave it a sense of isolation. An eerie place no one dared go near in the dark. The asylum, after many name changes over the decades, had been closed to the public in the 60s and had changed hands a few times until the current owner. The pictures of the wards and empty staircases looked like something from a film set. The paint was peeling from the walls until it resembled the scaly back of a reptile, the floor was covered in debris from the bits of ceiling that had fallen off, shards of glass from the decimated windows and dead leaves that had blown in during the cold autumn. The most poignant detail to me was that there were still a few beds in the wards, stripped down to the frame and springs, but they painted a grim picture nonetheless.

I had mixed feelings about the asylum on the drive and after my research. There was no reason for it to be haunted, and yet there was every reason. How much misery had happened inside? What terrible events would be so strong that they would resonate down the centuries? What tormented souls were denied peace in death when they’d had none in life?

Even now, visiting places like that fills me with an inexplicable sense of dread. Most of the time it’s pretty mundane, just an empty building, but others…well, they’re for another time.

As we pulled up to the main entrance I admit to being awed by the asylum. If you looked past the boarded-up windows, the graffiti, and nature growing out of every crack, it was a magnificent building. It stretched 3 floors and sprawled out like a stately home. Perhaps overshadowing the magnificence was the unmissable sense of abandonment and decay. The sandstone was tinged with dark green and black, the cream paint on the archway was now a gruesome shade of grey, and the doors, once meant to appear welcoming, were shut with a heavy-duty padlock and chain, a few curse words scrawled with spray paint.

There was a man there to greet us. He introduced himself as Malcolm. He worked for the current owner as some kind of property manager, and so had a key to the lock. I could tell he was reluctant to go up the steps to the entrance, and I don’t think the mountain of litter and pigeon shite did much to entice him. He was friendly and chatted away quite the thing, but our attention was captured by another car pulling up and parking beside the van. At first, I thought it might be the owner come to greet us in person, or perhaps someone from a local newspaper investigating the activity at the abandoned asylum on a slow news day.

A young lad stepped from the car, in his late twenties at the time, yet he had something about him that felt older, a sense of knowledge that he inexplicably permeated like perfume. He took one swooping glance at the building as if committing the entire thing to memory, then came and joined us.

We all looked around at each other, confused and waiting for him to explain. But he never did. He was more interested in the building and its charms than any of us. It took Malcolm to introduce the lad as Ewan Brodie, a medium. I swear I heard the rest of the team’s internal groans as if they had uttered them aloud. Remember, by this point we hadn’t found any evidence of the supernatural and this included mediums. Each one we’d recruited to the study showed no sign of their abilities being down to anything more than chance.

I tended to share their opinion by this point. After 3 years of willing another person like me into existence and facing disappointment each time, I’d become jaded and began to think there was no one else like me. This Ewan Brodie would just be another name to add to the list.

I thought Strother would protest the medium’s presence, especially since we weren’t told there’d be someone else in the asylum with us, but mysteriously he kept his silence. Ewan didn’t seem keen to talk with us and he said the bare minimum when Ken attempted some small talk. In all honesty, my first impression was that he was too big for his boots, but that shows you how much I’d changed in the 3 years of my PhD.

After Malcolm had removed the lock and chain from the door, he left and told us to call him back when we’d finished. Ewan wasted no time in going inside, and Strother didn’t appear to mind that he wasn’t first through the door. Instead we began to remove the equipment from the van.

It was a bit gloomy in the entrance to the asylum, but that’s because there weren’t any windows, and the ones on the ground floor had all been boarded up. So we could see where we were stepping we had to use torches. As in the pictures I’d seen online the ground was littered in debris from the building and rubbish from where people had squatted or had a weird night out in an abandoned asylum. Ewan was nowhere in sight, so the rest of us just carried on.

By this time setting up had become a streamlined process. Strother hardly ever had to tell us where to put anything because we instinctively knew. Ken and I were setting up in what looked as though it used to be a consultation room when he admitted to me he didn’t expect Ewan to be so young. I asked him what he meant. It turns out that Ewan Brodie was thought to be one of the few genuine mediums in existence. He was very discerning about what he worked on and styled himself as a medium by referral. His name was passed around by word of mouth only, and he hardly ever took on the requests he was sent.

I’d met plenty of mediums, and none were as high and mighty as him. But all of them were fake. Was this how the real ones acted? Or had he just accrued such a high reputation that he could afford to appear picky? I admit I’d never heard of him, but apparently Strother had sent him an invitation to be a part of the study and received no reply.

Ewan Brodie was a bit of an enigma in psychological circles and hardly anyone had seen him in person. I could see the glint of excitement in Ken’s eye as he told me all he knew. If any professional medium was genuine, then I think the entire team thought he’d be it.

We continued setting up, systematically moving from the ground floor upwards. It was difficult not to let the stories and my imagination spook me when I was on my own. There’s something about abandoned buildings that penetrates logic. It was cold, damp, and I shuddered every time I saw an abandoned bed or wheelchair. I wasn’t the only one, Steph yelped in fright when a pigeon flew out of the room she’d gone into, and the noise echoed like a distant scream.

I slinked my way up the stairs, avoiding the pieces of plaster and wood that had fallen. The light streamed in from the window, cracked and broken but uncovered. On the first floor the decay was more obvious but had a strange delicacy to it, almost like a spiders’ web glistens in the sun. Where the darkness cast a gloomy shadow on the ground floor, upstairs was illuminated, and if you looked hard enough you could see its glory days.

The building surrounded a courtyard, so there were only two ways to go, left or right. Holding the box in my arms I stepped towards the window which looked down on the forest the courtyard had become. Everything was engulfed by green, the small saplings that had been planted before it had closed had grown into full blown trees that towered above the asylum walls. It was hard to see any resemblance to what it’d been before.

Out of the corner of my eye, or perhaps my better sense, I felt something brush past me. Immediately I looked down the hallway after it, just managing to see a tiny wisp of something drift into one of the rooms. It wasn’t anything I recognised, but I’d definitely seen something.

Someone cleared their throat behind me and I don’t exaggerate when I say I jumped a foot in the air, nearly dropping the box of equipment. I spun around to see Ewan Brodie standing there, looking in the same direction I’d been. He stared at me for a few seconds, almost narrowing his eyes in scrutiny before a ghost of a smile crossed his face.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Sarah”, I replied.

“You work for Dr Strother?” he inquired.

I nodded slowly, still bewildered from my earlier shock. I saw the small smile again, only briefly, before it disappeared. He then asked me if I’d seen something. I became quite good at answering that question over the years. I shook my head in confusion and said no, I didn’t think so. He just nodded, but I thought there was something about his expression that didn’t believe me.

We went our separate ways and caught glimpses of each other intermittently. Every time I felt scrutinised, inspected. It was hard to ignore but made easier with the equipment. It took hours to set everything up on every floor, but it meant I had a good look at the entire building.

I experienced more flashes of spirits, or what I assumed to be spirits. They were more like will-o-the-wisps, small pockets of shadow or light before they disappeared. Every time I saw one, Ewan wasn’t far behind, and I began to get the feeling that he was more genuine than any medium I’d ever met before.

It was after I’d finished setting up one of the last boxes of equipment and began to head towards the stairs that I saw a woman, a human. It didn’t startle me as it should’ve but did surprise me. Was she another medium the owner had called in? Was she an associate of Ewan’s? She was standing very still, almost statue-esque, and when she noticed me she turned to face me with the blankest look I’d ever been given.

“Excuse me, I don’t think you can be in here”, I called to her.

I was sure she’d heard me, I could still hear the echo of my voice on the walls, but she never listened. The expression on her face became darker, as if a shadow had engulfed it. Honestly, it was the expression I’d seen on murderer’s faces before they killed someone. I became frightened then. I’ve said before, people scare me more than ghosts do because ghosts can’t really do any harm. I was alone in the corridor with this strange woman who ignited my sense of dread. The way she looked at me, pinning me with a dead stare I’d never been on the receiving end of. When she began to move towards me, I would’ve screamed if I’d had the chance.

She was down the hall one moment, and then by the time I blinked she’d closed half the distance. The way she flitted in my direction wasn’t human. Every time I blinked she’d be closer until she passed straight through me. In all the years since I’ve never felt anything like that. It was cold, painful, vengeful, angry and frightened simultaneously. My blood felt like it was freezing, my organs seizing up as if gripped by a terrible frost. As she moved through me she took my essence with her, and without it I crumpled to the floor like a wet towel.

I can’t express to you how horrible it was, I can never find the right words, but it’s stayed with me all these years. I don’t know how long I was on the floor, amongst the dirt and rubble before I realised Ewan was at my side. His appearance shocked me into action, and I began to drag myself from the ground.

“You saw her, didn’t you?” he asked.

“Saw who?” I replied, hearing the quiver to my voice.

He appeared irritated by my denial but then said that he and I were the same, and that he knew I could see what he could. I adamantly denied any knowledge of it and pretended I’d stumbled over some plaster. Again, he didn’t seem convinced.

Present Day

This is going to sound crazy. Well, I suppose we’re already on that train anyway. I was in the bank this morning and whilst waiting in the queue I saw this couple. At least, they were meant to be a couple but something was just…off. Not the ghost kind – no, I can understand that, this was something else, something more instinctual. They were holding hands, standing together, but there was nothing relaxed or at ease about their posture, their expressions. I’m not an expert at relationships but that didn’t look right.

I thought nothing else of it until as I was driving home, I saw the same couple in the car behind mine. This could all just be a huge coincidence, the world’s a big place with lots of people, but I think you know by now that coincidences in my life are never what they seem.

Perhaps I’m just paranoid. With releasing these statements, trying to find the director of Inverlewis and the break-in of Strother’s family home I do feel more on edge than usual. (chuckling weakly) I mean why would someone follow me? I’m not anyone important. Alice Strother said only the TV was taken, and they’d certainly left the place in a mess. But break-ins happen all the time.

(Sighs) it’s probably just stress, all this storytelling dredging up bad memories and guilt. Maybe I’ll take a break soon, from all of this, from the past. I’ve been so caught up in finding answers everything else has skittered away. I don’t know how many more brick walls I can keep running up against in this quest of mine.

Episode 13 – Battle of Wills

We’d left the MacBride case at me being crushed by a display cabinet. It left me in a bit of a state – physically anyway. The shock wore off before the doctor arrived. We would’ve gone to the hospital if there’d been one near enough, but as it was the doctor wrapped my arm as best as he could and advised me to go to a hospital as soon as possible. I was absolutely covered in scratches, and some of the glass had embedded itself into my skin. Thankfully, I didn’t need stitches, but that didn’t make it any less painful.

Whilst I was being seen to by the doctor downstairs, Strother and Ken had remained in the room to try and clean up, or find a reason why the cabinet had fallen over in the first place. I adamantly denied touching it, or even going near it, ironically in the fear it’d crush me. Whilst the doctor bandaged me up, and Mrs McBride fussed and fretted, I thought back to the moments before the cabinet had come down. I’d heard a voice, distinct, as if it were in the same room as me, yet I hadn’t seen anything.

Could it have been the presence I sensed up the stairs? Was I wrong in thinking it had been Mr MacBride? Given that the strange occurrences had predated his death, it meant that there were multiple ghosts. All I knew for certain was that cabinets that big don’t fall over by themselves. I also didn’t think it was coincidence that the crystal bowl had been flung down the stairs minutes before the cabinet had fallen on me. The voice I’d heard, or thought I’d heard, was angry, to the point of shrill. My first instinct was that it was a woman’s, and it had said don’t look at her, as if it were talking to someone else?

Mr MacBride? Another bloody ghost? Unfortunately, we only had the information of the previous owner, the family, but before that was murky, and would require a trip to the local council.

I’ll admit waiting for Strother to come down and give his logical explanation about what had caused the cabinet to fall made the pain duller. He concluded that the cabinet had been top heavy, and my moving around had caused it to sway back and forth until its own weight pulled it down on top of me. To be fair to him he could’ve been right, but I just knew he wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like in these statements I’m always right and Strother’s always wrong. I’ll need to get to a story soon where I was the one in the wrong.

Mrs MacBride expressed her regret that she hadn’t bothered to attach the cabinet to the wall, as is recommended with things like that. I told her not to worry. In all honesty, if the alternative was it crushing her, I’m glad it was me.

Ken and Steph finished setting up the cameras, even in the storage room, whilst I sat in front of the screens checking if everything was alright. I had no energy by that point, and my body ached from where I’d fallen, not to mention the sling which now adorned my shoulder and arm. I felt a bit useless, but at the same time knew that my being injured and having to rest actually gave me the freedom I needed to investigate whatever was inside the house.

Unfortunately, Mrs MacBride was eager to follow the doctor’s instructions for me and ordered me to go to bed. To be honest my wee ordeal had sapped the energy from me. Looking at the screens was like listening to a lullaby and my eyes became heavier until someone coming in jolted me from semi-consciousness.

We were all due to stay at the MacBride house that night, so I was shown to one of the spare bedrooms and fell asleep pretty quickly. That does mean that if anything went on, or anymore furniture decided to become homicidal, I missed it.

But there was something I didn’t miss. I woke up in the middle of the night and heard people arguing outside in the hall. It was dark, and because the house was in the middle of nowhere it was true dark, the kind where you can’t even see your own hand in front of your face. Groggily, I fumbled around for my phone and used it as a torch. As I stumbled my way across the foreign room I listened as intently as I could to what was being said outside.

It was an argument – at least I was 80% sure it was an argument. At first, I thought it was Strother and Steph, but the more I heard the more I doubted it was either of them. Carefully I opened the door and slinked into the hall. At the end I could see the silhouettes of two people, one taller than the other, possibly a man and woman. I blinked a few times, rubbed the sleep from my eyes, but nothing would make them come into focus, not even training the light on them. It was like they were in a place where light couldn’t reach. No matter what I did or how hard I tried, they never came into focus, almost as if they were pixelated in some way. They flickered and flashed like a film reel from the early 20th century, before there was technicolour and even sound.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying, it sounded like someone speaking in their sleep, words strung together in a meaningless sentence. The only reason I thought they were arguing is because of the shrill tones of the woman and the barking grunts of the man.

I began to move closer, not really knowing what it’d accomplish, but then I heard a noise that was closer. It came from the bathroom, whose ajar door I’d just passed. The light wasn’t on, but I could hear the familiar sounds of retching coming from inside. If you’ve ever been a teenager eager to get alcohol poisoning, you’ll be familiar with the sound.

It distracted me for a moment, and when I looked back down the corridor the scene was gone, as was the sound of their arguing. Unsure if I’d imagined it, or experienced some strange variation on sleep walking, I decided to check if whatever was in the bathroom was real. Gingerly I pushed open the door and shone the light inside to reveal someone crumpled on the floor with their head in the toilet. I asked them if they were alright, and Ken replied, in a raspy voice, that he must’ve caught whatever his wife had brought back from her school. Ken’s wife was a primary school teacher, and as you can imagine had a very abused immune system.

He told me to leave him as he didn’t think he was done for the night, so I did, hoping that we wouldn’t meet each other on runs to the bathroom. I managed to get back to sleep, although when I woke up the next morning to daylight streaming in, I had my doubts whether any of it was real. As I joined the rest down the stairs for breakfast, I noticed that Ken was absent. Strother explained that he’d been ill during the night and had awoken with a headache, so was having to stay in bed.

Mrs MacBride apologised, as if my injuries and Ken’s illness was her fault. We assured her it wasn’t, but I was curious about what I’d seen during the night. Not being able to mention it I waited the entire morning for someone else to bring it up. Surely if I’d heard it then someone else had. It appeared Ken was the only person able to corroborate my story, and he was in a viral coma and hadn’t moved all morning. Understandably, we were all a bit reluctant to go near him.

Due to my arm I was once again relegated to watching the screens as Strother went over the footage from the night before, and Steph spoke to our hostess and continued her research of the house and previous inhabitants. The further we got into the afternoon the paler she became. It was as if someone had bleached her skin. I asked if she was alright, and she said she had a headache and took some pills. I know I haven’t spoken about Steph in detail, but I’d never heard her complain about a migraine or headache, and this was obvious when she had to ask Mrs MacBride if she had any painkillers as she didn’t carry them herself.

I’m sure Strother and I were counting down the minutes until she ran to the bathroom, having obviously caught whatever Ken had brought with him. To her credit she managed to power through the rest of the afternoon, although her complexion never returned to normal until she had more resemblance to a corpse.

During her conversations with Mrs MacBride I noticed a few poignant details about the haunting. The older woman admitted to having seen something out of the corner of her eye on a few occasions. She described it as a presence, one she could never see clearly but knew was there. This had been similar to my experience the previous day, before the cabinet had fallen on me. She mentioned sometimes thinking it was two people but could never get a clear look at them. This must be the couple I’d seen the night before. The presence she’d felt was still a mystery but could easily be her husband.

Out of nowhere Strother asked if she’d ever heard anything from these presences, and after a few moments of pensive silence, she shook her head, admitting all she heard was the creaks and groans of an old house. The reasoning behind his question became clear when Mrs MacBride went to take a glass of water up to Ken, leaving the three of us alone.

He declared quietly that he thought she was suffering from Charles Bonnet syndrome. Steph acknowledged it was a possibility. What I’ve failed to mention in these statements is that whenever they all talked technical about psychology or neurology, I always had to be the lemon that asked. My PhD helped me develop a relatively thick skin.

Charles Bonnet syndrome is a condition that causes hallucinations. I know there are many other illnesses that cause the same effect such as schizophrenia, or other psychosis, but the difference here is that it’s more ocular than neurological. It usually occurs in people with some form of visual impairment, and the difference is that the hallucinations of Charles Bonne syndrome don’t usually have any sound. This was why Strother had asked Mrs MacBride whether she’d ever heard anything from the presences she’d seen. They both reasoned that it was normal for someone of her age to have some kind of visual complaint, whether it be cataracts or something more serious. The hallucinations are the brain’s way of dealing with the sudden change in vision.

Alzheimers was also bandied about again, but without further tests and a visit to the doctor all they could do was speculate. I felt guilty sitting listening to them speak about such a kind old woman as if she was a walking, talking illness. She wasn’t having hallucinations because I’d seen what she’d seen, and I didn’t have Charles Bonnet syndrome, or Alzheimers.

None of us witnessed anything during the day and the house was relatively quiet. None of the cameras had captured what I’d seen during the previous night. We had one more night in the MacBride house, and I was no closer to having answers, because, like the cameras, I hadn’t seen anything either.

We all went to bed, although Ken hadn’t been out of his, and just like the previous night I was awoken by the sounds of arguing. Grabbing my phone I rushed from the room and again saw the couple at the end of the hall. This time it was clearer, more silent movie era than anything previous. I still couldn’t make out what they were saying to each other, but by their hand gestures and facial expressions it was definitely an argument.

The closer I got to the scene the further I was pulled in until I was surrounded by their world. Everything was coloured like a lens filter, everything a different shade of brown, like Victorian photographs. The entire house was different, the stairs were in a different place, there were less rooms, and the decoration looked outdated, antique.

I could see the couple clearly this time, but the audio was still out of tune, as though I was a few frequencies too far. Their argument became more animated, their voices louder until they were practically screaming at the other. The woman, a small thin person with cropped, sleek hair, stormed down the stairs. The man, obviously dissatisfied he hadn’t had the last word, stormed after her. For a horrible moment I thought I was about to witness a murder but knew I couldn’t find answers if I didn’t follow them. Reluctantly I trudged down the stairs.

The kitchen, which was in a different place to where it was now, was smaller and looked new. All the appliances were ancient but shiny, as if they’d just been unboxed. The argument continued, the woman began to throw things, plates, bowls, anything she could grab quickly. Suddenly, out of things to throw, the woman stalked over to the cooker, a medium sized gas appliance that was no doubt common in many homes of the era and began to turn all the knobs. She didn’t reach for a match, or a pot to use on it, and turned back around to the man with a dangerously determined set to her mouth. He started goading her, as if daring her to do something.

All I could see was their argument, not the poisonous gas that permeated the air around them. The longer it was switched on the more dangerous it became. It happened quite quickly. They were arguing, the man reached into his pocket, pulled out a lighter, and everything was engulfed by an amber light so bright I had to close my eyes. I swear I could feel heat on my face.

Slowly I opened my eyes to darkness, the only light the small LED on the back of my phone illuminating the door to the dining room of Mrs MacBride’s house. It must’ve been where the kitchen used to be. Because the archives hadn’t been digitised, it was difficult to immediately check whether what I saw was my imagination or the truth.

 I was wrong about them being poltergeists, the crystal bowl that had been thrown down the stairs had just been a coincidence, a fatality of their endless loop. There are many types of ghosts, some you can interact with, and others you can’t. The nameless couple were ghosts, but not the same as in my previous stories. It’s like they can’t accept their death, or don’t realise they’re dead, it’s hard to tell. They never interact with the living, and they just play out a specific scene, or set of scenes, from their life in some kind of cruel repetition. Most of the cases I’ve seen just fade with time, nothing but an echo of the past that still lingers. There’s not much you can do. After that explosion there’s no way anything of them would be left to find. They’d disappear with time.

Satisfied there was nothing else, I returned to bed. I woke up the next morning with a hangover, or at least what felt like one. I had a migraine that felt like it was splitting my head open, and I had no appetite. I wasn’t the only one as both Steph and Strother forced themselves to have a cup of coffee in the hopes that Mrs MacBride wouldn’t notice they weren’t touching anything else.

Mrs MacBride herself had begun to look pale but ever the hostess waved it off as old age. All of us were cursing Ken and his wife for taking us all down with whatever virus she’d picked up at her school. I don’t think any of us apart from Ken were sick, but at times it was certainly a close call.

To distract myself I decided to try and search for details about what I’d seen the previous night. To my surprise I found an archive of the local newspaper, one that had been out of print for at least 40 years, but the local historical society had uploaded the backlog. The article detailed a terrible fire that had happened just outside the village in a Bramble cottage. The cause of the fire was reported to be a gas leak somewhere in the house and had killed both the occupants, a married couple. The fire had happened in 1936, and in the article was a small, blurry picture of the ruined house. I recognised the tree that stood beside the house, grown larger in the near 100 years since the picture had been taken. If I wasn’t mistaken the Bramble cottage the couple had blown up was in fact Mrs MacBride’s cottage, rebuilt and given a new name. That would be the reason there was no other information on previous owners.

I started to fit together the pieces of information I’d been given. The occurrences had only started when the MacBride’s had moved in, the family who stayed there previously hadn’t seen anything, even the loop of the arguing couple. Why had their loop started as soon as the MacBride’s had moved in? What was different about the house now that hadn’t been before? What was the significance of that particular scene with the gas? The paper had reported it as a gas leak, and from what I’d witnessed the stove hadn’t been on long enough to cause such damage. Was there a connection somehow?

Sensing something wasn’t right I showed Strother the article, and unlike me he managed to reach a conclusion. He immediately told us all to get out of the house whilst he went to fetch Ken who was still in bed. Before he did, he asked Mrs MacBride if she had a carbon monoxide detector. She nodded, but when she went to test it, it didn’t work.

I don’t think any of us had ever voluntarily left a house in such a hurry. Steph was on the phone to the gas board and the fire brigade almost as soon as she was outside.

The couple’s loop wasn’t a coincidence. There was indeed a gas leak somewhere in the MacBride home. What we were all suffering from wasn’t a virus Ken’s wife had spread, but gas poisoning. The reason none of us had died was because it was a very small leak from an old pipe that appeared to occasionally move. This was what Mrs MacBride had been hearing when she’d referred to the creaks and groans of old houses.

Gas poisoning can cause nausea, hallucinations, and headaches, amongst other things. Mrs MacBride admitted she thought she was just getting older and more likely to catch a cold or virus.

As for the other presence in the house, I can only assume it was Mr MacBride, but I never saw it again after that first day. Perhaps he was trying to warn his wife the same way as the couple but was unable to. I suppose you could call the couple an omen, something that people see when something bad is about to happen. They didn’t do that great a job in my opinion.

Obviously because of the gas leak Strother attributed the presences that Mrs MacBride saw as hallucinations, and once again I was left knowing otherwise. I suppose the moral of this story is always test your carbon monoxide detector, because there may not be a previous occupant who’s blown themselves up.


It was difficult to find a place to start at Inverlewis. It was obvious that they had wrapped legal circles around their employees, forcing their silence, but since Mary had told me about the director taking an interest in the study I decided to start there.

The current director of Inverlewis is a woman called Margaret Donaldson, and she’s been in charge for nearly 20 years. There’s only one picture of her on the website, and it looks to be quite dated. I couldn’t find out much else, other than she managed to work her way to her position and has won many awards and recognitions.

There’s nothing about our study, or her connection to it. If she’s the director of the company you can bet she gave the instruction to fund us. But why? There’s nothing in the research I did to indicate why she’d have such an interest in the paranormal. What does it have to do with her company? What did she have to gain by it?

And what do I do now? She’s practically untouchable, and I don’t think I’ll be able to persuade her to give me answers, even if she did agree to meet me. I’ll need to have a think, but in the meantime I’ll keep digging.

Episode 12 – A Widow’s concern

Let’s get back to a good old haunted house story. Strother could be a bit of a snob, and that’s putting it politely. Where we had to mutiny against him in the Anderson case, whenever he wanted to investigate something, we all had to go along. Such was the case with the McBride house.

Strother was already established in his career by the time of the IPP study, and like many academics before and after, he’d created his own network of like-minded individuals. What’s more surprising is that he kept in touch with them and was on amiable terms. The snobbery I’m referring to is that these friends of his appeared to only have attended universities with high reputations, like Oxford and Cambridge. That’s just how I saw things at the time, when I was young and prone to disliking him.

A prominent psychologist at Cambridge, and a close colleague of Strother, had sent us a report of a house in Stirling being haunted. And so, because it was one of Strother’s colleagues, we packed our bags and set off along the motorway to investigate.

The house itself, more like a cottage really, was owned by Dr and Dr McBride, retired academics themselves. Just like the Anderson house, this was detached, but was close to the local village shops – more like shop singular.

As had become my ritual I sat in the van on my tablet whilst we travelled, reading as much as I could about the haunting. The McBrides had moved in barely 12 months previously, and almost as soon as the new locks had been put in there had been strange occurrences, like cold spots, furniture moving, feeling as though they weren’t alone in a room when no one else was in the house. The usual haunted house stuff. Like every case of a haunting we’d come across, Strother had a grounded explanation on hand.

Rather than the hallucinations of a child, they were the imaginings of a couple with the first stages of Alzheimer’s or shared psychosis. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s what he implied. I thought it was quite strange that reports of a haunting had only started when the elderly couple moved in. The family who’d owned the house before had never had any trouble, or if they did it wasn’t reported. Strother blamed the idleness of the elderly, but if you’ve ever had retired grandparents you know there’s no such thing as idle retirement. But he was the epitome of logical explanations, it wasn’t his fault he didn’t know the truth.

To be fair to him he could’ve been right. Where he always assumed logic, I always assumed otherwise, because that was what our experience had taught us. I suppose for academics neither of us ever went into an investigation unbiased.

When we arrived, Mrs McBride was already at the door to greet us. She was a kindly old woman, her grey hair unusually long and tied back in a bun at the nape of her neck. She looked be in her late sixties, but I’m about as good as identifying the age of retirees as I am with teenagers. They just all look the same. Rather than set up immediately, she insisted we all have a cup of tea and some biscuits, and uncharacteristically Strother agreed.

We didn’t have long with our break because as soon as he’d gulped his down he was on his feet and halfway back to the van to begin unloading. We set up as normal, but because the reports were so scattered around the house, equipment was spread quite thin.

The house was probably just as you imagine it. There was a lot of furniture, like display cabinets, drawers, coffee tables, and even more trinkets and ornaments to adorn the fireplace and window sills. The wallpaper was busy, that floral pattern that makes you dizzy if you look at it too long. Everything was clean, there wasn’t a particle of dust to be seen anywhere. I find the older generations have a lot of house pride, something which I’ve always lacked.

I’ll admit I took a liking to Mrs McBride. I never met either of my grandmothers, both were gone before I even went to school, and I always felt like I was missing something. So, when a kindly old lady began to feed me more biscuits, promising not to tell anyone else, I was smitten. I think she took a liking to me too. I hadn’t failed to notice the graduation and family pictures of her own children, but as with many kids, when they turn into adults, they move away to live their own lives, often some distance away from their parents.

I was putting up cameras in the kitchen, chatting away with Mrs McBride. I noticed there were occasions when she seemed to check out, if you know what I mean. She’d get a glazed look in her eyes as if she was daydreaming or distracted. Then, after a few moments, she’d come right back and continue our conversation. Dementia did occur to me, but she was fine otherwise.

She asked me how someone with my background had become entangled in ghost hunting. By background she meant my degree, not my ability to see ghosts. In the 3 years of my PhD I never managed to hone an explanation about how the hell I’d ended up on the IPP study. I fumbled my way through a pittance of an excuse, anything but the disappointing truth in that I’d had nowhere else to go, and that I had psychopathic tendencies.

Then she asked me if I believed, and I knew she didn’t mean God. That question has plagued me all my life. For most people in this world it’s a matter of faith, not dissimilar to religion. There’s no definitive proof of either God or ghosts, not to average people. To me, it wasn’t a matter of belief, but fact, what I could see with my own eyes. The larger implication behind her question was if there was life after death, and I, unlike most human beings, was privy to that answer. Yes, there was, for a certain few unfortunate souls. Beyond that was a mystery, even to me.

My answer to that question changes depending on who’s asking. It’s better to play along with people when you know they don’t really want the truth. I observed Mrs McBride, and I observed the rest of her house. More importantly, the things that weren’t there. One towel drying on the radiator, one toothbrush in the bathroom, framed black and white picture in the centre of the mantelpiece, showing the heyday of a man who’s already gone. Mrs McBride was a widow, and none of us had known. The exchange between Strother and his colleague was at least six months old, and in that time Mr McBride had passed.

Grief has a lot to do with faith. People either find religion or the supernatural in the midst of theirs. Some turn away from one and find the other to be of more comfort. Faith also becomes more important during times of loss. That’s the reason why my answer changes depending on who’s asking. Regardless of fact, faith brings comfort during a time when everything else brings pain. I saw the way Mrs McBride was looking at me. It was important for her to have her own beliefs validated by someone else, to know she wasn’t the only sceptic turned believer in the face of death.

I answered that I did, and that gave her some relief. Here was a woman who’d surrounded her entire life with science, yet now it brought her no sense of stability, only emptiness. She’d also spent her entire life a sceptic, like her husband, but now was being forced to face that she might actually have been wrong. Whether she thought the disturbances in the house had something to do with her husband wasn’t something we discussed. She was certainly one of the calmer people I’ve ever met when faced with the existence of ghosts. She seemed to almost welcome it.

It wasn’t the ghosts, or lack of, that bothered me. It was the promise of an awkward conversation between all of us somewhere down the line when she’d be forced to tell us her husband had passed. I could see the grief was still raw, and I wasn’t looking forward to the full weight of it on her face as she told us the truth.

Strother came into the kitchen and asked Mrs McBride if he could start taking her statements about the strange occurrences in the house. She was more than happy to have someone else to listen. It was about ten minutes later when I began to hear a thumping on the ceiling, as if someone was dancing around up there. I assumed it was maybe Steph or Ken setting up, but when they walked past the kitchen door both Strother and I realised it wasn’t. Something came crashing down the stairs, skittering down every step until it finally broke at the bottom. It was a crystal bowl, the pieces of it lying everywhere, on every step. Strother hastily commanded me to set up the cameras up the stairs, and I did as I was told, avoiding the glass shards.

It was a deceptively large house, with at least 5 bedrooms and an attic. I’d grown nervous after the bowl incident. You’ll notice that my stories this far have involved pretty tame ghosts, with perhaps one exception. I suppose you could call the one in the McBride home a poltergeist. In my experience they tend to be stronger than the normal ghosts, and can move things freely. They’re also more dangerous, because if they throw things down the stairs, what’s stopping them from throwing a body?

I’d only ever met one before, but that’s another story for another recording. Once I was up the stairs, I realised that all the doors were closed, meaning I had very little idea of what was behind them. So far, we’d concentrated our efforts down the stairs, setting up the base, checking if equipment was working. The first floor had been neglected. The other difference was there was definitely a presence up there. I’d see something in the corner of my eye, a man, just a glimpse, but it wasn’t uncomfortable, in fact it was quite timorous, and after a while of flashes here and there I concluded it was possibly Mr McBride. It could’ve been my wishful thinking.

The first two rooms were bedrooms, probably for guests or family when they came to visit. The third room was one everyone’ll be familiar with. It’s the storage room where things which don’t have a place anywhere else are thrown so it’s out of mind. Children’s toys, old magazines, and a myriad of trinkets were on the floor and every available surface. Sets of drawers, a wardrobe or two, cardboard and plastic boxes alike, and unused chairs were strewn about. Some drawers were so full that they wouldn’t close. The largest piece of furniture was a grand old display cabinet with glass fronted panels, made of a dark mahogany wood that shimmered in the daylight from the window. It felt like it was at least a metre taller than I was, and contained even more trinkets, and some fancy china plates which I assumed might be a wedding set, notoriously unused.

I had an idea as I looked at it, since it was so high up I could easily place a camera on it. I then also realised cabinets that large and old had a tendency to topple over, so decided to look for somewhere else.

I went further into the room, stepping on pieces of carpet that didn’t have anything on them, over and in-between the collection of a married lifetime, but I stopped suddenly when I heard a shrill voice shoot through the air.

“Don’t look at her”, it said.

It was too loud to have come from downstairs. My eyes scanned around the room quickly, trying to see something, even if it was just a flash. I was too busy searching for something around the room that I didn’t see as the monster of a display cabinet began to shake precariously. I didn’t even realise it was moving until I sensed something about to fall on top of me.

Instinctively, I put my arms up to protect myself, and the pain I felt when the cabinet connected still resonates to this day. I’ve had my fare share of scrapes in my life, but that’s definitely in the top 5. It actually broke my arm, but I didn’t realise at the time because the breaking of the bone was drowned out by the almighty shattering of the glass panels on the door and everything inside. I crumpled to the floor and would’ve been crushed to death by that cabinet if it hadn’t caught on a set of drawers behind me. I was stuck underneath with little to no space to move.

It was difficult not to panic. My arm throbbed with pain, I was covered in glass as was the floor around me, and it was dark, as if someone had pulled the curtains over the window to block out the light. It’s what I imagined being buried alive is like. It felt like the longest time that I just lay there, still, battling with the rising panic and the pain that engulfed my left arm. I wanted to scream for help but wasn’t sure if anyone would hear me underneath the cabinet and up the stairs. My voice was also frozen with shock. I think I was just in shock. All I could do was inhale, and exhale.

I didn’t hear the footsteps storming up the stairs, and only barely heard the door to the room opening. It was Strother’s voice I heard through my panic, calling my name in a questioning, serious tone, but it was calm, level, and it pulled me back to my senses.

I replied that I was fine, which I wasn’t. I heard Ken say something about the cabinet looking heavy, then Steph’s voice replying she was unsure how they were going to move it, or even how it had fallen in the first place. All I wanted was someone to pull me out, but I was slowly realising that the academics were doing what they did best. Discussing a problem to death before actually doing anything about it.

I began to move my legs, which thankfully weren’t stuck, and managed to shimmy my way towards where I could hear their voices. After a few moments I felt two hands under my arms and someone pulled me the rest of the way out. It was Strother. He propped me up on one of the wardrobes, which I’ll admit I was afraid would also decide to fall on me, and asked if I was hurt. I could no longer feel my arm and glanced at it gingerly, hoping I wouldn’t see a bone protruding from my skin. Thankfully there was only blood from the many cuts and incisions the breaking glass and china had made. They were all over my face, hands, and arms as well, but I wouldn’t find that out until later, when the shards were being removed.

Strother began to examine my arm and as soon as he did the pain returned and I whimpered like a child. Mrs McBride bustled into the room at that point and began fussing me, asking if I were faint, if I’d been hurt, and as soon as she took a good look at me she announced she was going to call the doctor and disappeared.

Strother asked if I could stand and I nodded, pulling myself from the floor but as soon as I was nearly upright the room began to spin and my legs acted as though someone had pulled the bone out of them. Strother caught me before I could fall and eased me back down to the floor, telling me to breathe slowly and that it was just the shock. I’d be fine in a few moments. His voice was reassuring and calm, and I did as I was told until the dizziness was gone.


I managed to find the person working at Inverlewis. After a few probing emails they agreed to meet with me. Even before I arrived I could sense their reluctance. I’ll call this person Mary, not her real name.

Mary arranged to meet me at some services on the M74 in the early hours of the morning. For those outside of Scotland the M74 is the only motorway that connects the West side of Scotland with England. It runs from Glasgow to the border. Understandably at that time in the morning the road is quiet, as are the services. We’d arranged to meet in Starbucks, just by the window.

Mary, a woman in her mid-fifties, wore a black wig and glasses that didn’t have any lenses. Were things so bad that she had to wear a disguise before meeting me? I sat down opposite her, without ordering anything, and begged her to tell me the connection Inverlewis had with the study.

She told me that before she’d left the company she’d been strongly encouraged to sign a non-disclosure agreement. From her tone I felt like it was more coerced than gently persuaded. Due to this she couldn’t tell me any details. However, she did confirm that Inverlewis had funded the study, although it’d be almost impossible to find proof now, and that the director of Inverlewis showed a particular interest and had asked to see all of the reports that were sent by Strother.

She then warned me, a spark of genuine fear in her eyes, to stop. I often wonder why people bother, is it to absolve them of any guilt if something bad happens? Her being so enigmatic, and the existence of a non-disclosure agreement for a distribution company’s employs had just made me more curious. What do they have to hide? Why were they involved in the study, why did they fund it? And where were they when it all went down the pan?

We’ll have to find out, won’t we?

Episode 11 – Amen

People frighten me more than ghosts. It’s not ghosts who kill people or who hurt others. They’re usually the victim, the one in need of help. At least, that’s what my experience had been before the MacQueenie possession.

Heather had spoken to me in someone else’s voice, I’d seen someone else’s face on hers. I was so afraid of what I’d seen that I desperately tried to explain it away with logic. I would’ve said she’d faked the whole thing if I hadn’t had a physical reaction to it. Reason was the only thing that I could hold onto to keep the fear at bay.

Heather had said, in someone else’s voice, that they knew I could see them, and they knew what I was. Then proceeded to call me a witch. The phrase that struck a resonating chord in my memory was that witches should burn. The other poignant detail was that the face I’d seen overlapping Heather’s was definitely human. I don’t claim to know what demons look like, if they exist, but I can’t imagine it would be anything as mundane as our own faces.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the witch trials in Scotland. If you think the epidemic in Salem was bad, you’re in for a shock. I said before, Scotland and its people are superstitious, even in this world of science and fact. It’s no surprise that back in the throes of the witch trial pandemic that thousands of innocent men and women were burned alive after being accused of using witchcraft. If it was a demon possessing Heather, why would it call me a witch, and why would it care that I should be burned?

No, this didn’t sound like a demon, this sounded like a priest of the 17th century. Had we been half right? Rather than a demon possession, was this a ghost possession? Could this level of control even be possible from a spirit? Considering the evidence had looked me straight in the eye and told me I couldn’t help made me more inclined to believe it was.

Unfortunately, the entire episode had occurred with no witnesses, and as soon as Strother had come back it had disappeared. Heather herself didn’t seem to realise what had happened, and if it weren’t for my racing heart and fearful shock, I would’ve thought I’d imagined the entire thing.

The bottom line was I knew ghosts, I knew how to deal with them. I didn’t know anything about demons. It was easier for me to convince myself this was a bad case of spirit possession. Either way, I didn’t know what to do.

I could tell Strother, but at that stage he was being so enigmatic himself that I wasn’t sure it’d do much good to tell him. If Heather herself denied it, then I’d be the person so caught up in demon fever that I imagined her threatening me and calling me a witch.

So, I said nothing and tried to calm myself down as I watched Strother conduct his tests on Heather. If anything was out of the ordinary, he never said. Nothing else happened, Heather never lapsed into the other voice, or the other face, and I sat there beginning to think I had developed some kind of paranoia.

Unbeknownst to me, Ken and Steph were downstairs with the MacQueenies and Father Alan watching recordings of the exorcisms that were performed on Heather. Strother and I were shown them after we’d finished conducting the tests. It’s not what you’d expect, or even think. Heather wasn’t strapped to a bed, or tied up, she sat in a chair in the middle of the living room, facing what I presumed to be the trained exorcist who was reciting something in Latin. All throughout his dialogue she never did anything, much like what had happened during her tests with Strother. Through both exorcisms she sat there calmly, sometimes closing her eyes, occasionally looking out of frame, even at the camera. It was during one of those instances that I glimpsed the same smile on her features as I had done when we were alone in the room. It was just a brief second where her face was masked by someone else’s, but it was too quick for me, or anyone else, to see any details. I don’t even think anyone noticed apart from me because they never asked to pause the recording, or for a closer look. Not wanting to draw attention, I kept quiet.

Looking back, I probably should’ve said something. That was the first piece of evidence we ever found of paranormal activity. It would be quite a while before we found anything similar. But I was so afraid of Heather, of whatever was inside her, that I thought by keeping quiet it wouldn’t threaten me again.

This didn’t pan out as I was hoping. During the hours we spent at the MacQueenie’s home none of the reported phenomena happened. This was as much a shock to us as it was to her family. Strother kept his silence and agreed that we would return the next day.

Whilst packing away the equipment from the MacQueenie’s room Heather once again cornered me when I was alone. My first thought was that her slender figure was blocking the only safe exit from the room. As my gaze roamed quickly I couldn’t find anything that could kill me if thrown in my direction from an invisible force.

“Witch,” she whispered again in another voice.

“What are you?” I managed to stutter but I could hear the fear in my voice.

“Your saviour. I can save your soul from eternal damnation, just as I can save this girl’s.”

It all sounded very familiar. Not personally, but we’ve all heard similar lines written in the annals of history. Saving souls, eternal damnation, my earlier theory that it was more human than demonic was beginning to look promising.

“Who are you?” I demanded, braver this time.

“You know who she is,” Strother’s voice interrupted our brief conversation as he passed Heather at the door.

She gave him a quick glance, just a small look, but whatever I’d seen on her face Strother also saw. It was a split second, but I saw his features crumple in doubt, some colour draining from his face. He saw what I saw. Not Heather, but something else. She came around after that and asked us why she was in the room. Strother used her question as a lifeline, applying logic in a situation where there was none to be found, much like I’d done after my first encounter. He queried if she blacked out a lot, couldn’t remember why she’d done something or gone somewhere. She said yes, frequently.

He simply nodded his head pensively before collecting some equipment and leaving. I was quick to follow.

That evening, in the hotel, I researched local history, concentrating on religious houses and priests or similar who had been murdered or had been related to the witch trials. Understandably, I couldn’t find anything. Deflated, and dreading the thought of returning to the MacQueenie’s the next day, I tried to sleep.

The next day Strother sat down with Heather and asked her questions about events in her life, if she’d had any accidents or had surgery. Heather said she hadn’t. He then asked if she’d ever taken recreational drugs like marijuana. She displayed the hesitation that many people do when asked a question like that. The hesitation that means they have but are too embarrassed to admit it. Predictably she denied it. After a few more questions Strother excused himself and left the two of us alone, again.

This time, though, Heather remained herself. She exhaled deeply and then asked me if I thought Strother had believed her about the drugs. I told her I didn’t know as he was a hard person to read. In an attempt to justify her actions, she stated that everyone took drugs at university, it was a way to blow off steam. I agreed and told her I’d done the same thing, which I had when I was a fresher.

This seemed to build a rapport between us and she began to confess to me that her parents had been worried about her before she began acting strangely. She’d started to miss classes and fall behind on her coursework, meaning her results had dropped and she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to graduate the following year. Her parents blamed the people Heather had become friends with, saying they were the wrong sort. Heather hadn’t believed them until she’d come home.

She then told me a story that had been passed around this group of friends one night. The area where the university was had a reputation for witches and had one of the highest number of women being killed as a result of the trials. Their souls were said to haunt one specific graveyard. On a drug high, the group had gone to the cemetery to see if they could see the tormented souls of the victims, but once there things had escalated. Heather confessed to me that she liked one of the other girls in the group and was desperate to impress her, so when that girl voiced a dare that she would buy whoever stole a skull from the cemetery a drink Heather was eager to please.

Most of the others went in but were too spooked to do anything else. Heather, fuelled by desire and alcohol, managed to find her way into a stone crypt that hadn’t been locked and had stolen one of the skulls. At first the girl had been ecstatic, they’d spent a night together, but when sobriety set in the next morning Heather was commanded to return the skull.

She paused after the confession and a haunted look passed across her face. It was like she couldn’t understand the next set of events. As if she was trying desperately to remember something that had happened when she’d blacked out.

Heather admitted that when she’d gone back to the crypt she hadn’t wanted to put the skull back, she’d wanted to keep it. Convincing herself it was a memento of a good night she had bagged the remains and taken them back to her room, and subsequently when she’d returned to her parents for the summer.

Did this skull have anything to do with Heather’s behaviour? Because the skull was in her possession did this allow the spirit to control her? These events were all new to me. As far as I’d experienced ghosts had never possessed anyone, even me. Was this how it worked? And if that were the case then how could it be stopped? Usually ghosts found peace when their remains were discovered and laid to rest, but according to Heather this spirit’s remains were already in the grave. Was all of this because she’d disturbed them?

I asked her if her episodes had started not long after she’d kept the skull and slowly, she nodded. I needed to find those remains, but before I could pose the question Heather’s face contorted, her voice deepened, and I was no longer speaking to her.

“You’ll never find me. I told you, you can’t help me.”

“Who said I was here to help you?” I replied.

Strother returned and stated that he wished to take Heather to the hospital to have some scans, but unsurprisingly by the time the door opened Heather was back to normal.

This caused me to think back to everything I’d seen, or rather what no one else had. In the tapes of the exorcisms the spirit possessing Heather hadn’t said a word, it hadn’t done anything, in the sessions with Strother and I it’d been the same. It knew that both were trying to help, attempting to loosen its hold over Heather, but they couldn’t do that if they thought that nothing was wrong. All anyone had to go on was the witness statements from Heather’s family and catholic priests. The spirit obviously thought Strother wouldn’t find anything at the hospital either because it let Heather agree to go.

I managed to avoid going with them both, stating that I wanted to get some work done back in my hotel room. Instead of going there with Ken I remained at the MacQueenie’s home and tracked down Eilidh, Heather’s younger sister. I quizzed her about the skull, hoping she would know where it was kept. She said she didn’t, but then asked a question that caught me off guard.

“Is that’s what causing it?”

If you’ve learned anything form these statements, it’s that I’m always surprised when I have a frank conversation with someone about the supernatural. Most people cling to their beliefs, to logic, and refuse to acknowledge anything outside of those bounds. So it’s refreshing not to have to walk on egg shells during a conversation. I told her I thought it might be, and she agreed to help me look.

Carefully we scoured every inch of Heather’s room. Eventually, we found it at the bottom of her wardrobe in an empty backpack. Understandably Eilidh kept her distance, but by this point finding remains was a weekly occurrence for me so I scrutinised it in my hands.

There was nothing special about the skull, it looked just as you’d expect it to. A few teeth were missing, there was a chip here and there probably from where it had been jostled on the journey from the cemetery. It was a lot less frightening than the spirit attached to it.

Eilidh asked me what we should do with it, and I didn’t have an answer. I was in unknown territory. How did you release a person possessed by a spirit? So, I did what any sane person would do. I stole the skull.

Stole might be an exaggeration. Looking back, it was also quite dangerous. I had no guarantee what was happening to Heather wouldn’t also happen to me. But I took the skull anyway and pondered on what I should or could do with it.

With the skull on the bedside table, facing away from me, I researched the graveyard Heather had told me about. As well as being a graveyard reportedly haunted by the souls of witches, it was also where a lot of the perpetrators were buried. The people who tried victims accused of witchcraft were usually prominent citizens, the people who could afford to build mausoleums for themselves and their family.

How many innocent people had this spirit killed in its lifetime? How many men and women had it sent to their deaths? My initial thought had been to return the skull to the same cemetery, but the more I read and the more I remembered, the less inclined I was to go to such lengths.

In what I can only call a streak of vindictiveness, I took the skull, shoved it in my bag and left the hotel. I bought a portable barbecue and some accelerant, lit it, and watched the flames lick around the curves of the bone. It takes a lot to burn bones to ash, a hotter flame than a disposable barbecue. I watched for hours, occasionally throwing on more accelerant. The bones became discoloured, blackened on the edges, but didn’t disintegrate.

Eventually I let the fire die out, removed the skull, and crushed it under my foot. The fire had managed to break the bones down enough so that I could grind them to ashes myself. I didn’t pick them up, I didn’t scatter them, I just left them on the ground to be washed away.

It was the first ghost I didn’t want to help, didn’t want to save. I know I’m not judge and jury, but I’m not a saint either. After everything it had done, why did it deserve my help? No one had ever said to me that it was my duty to help spirits. There was no rule book I had to follow. I was born with this ability, and no one to guide me in using it. Was what I did wrong? Possibly, depending on what side of the line you are. I may not have helped the spirits, but I did help Heather MacQueenie.

We all returned to the MacQueenie’s home for the final time the next day. This time Heather looked tired. We all sat down in their living room whilst Strother finally broke his silence. He’d gone to the hospital early to collect the results of the scans he’d taken on Heather. He showed them one or two and then pronounced that Heather had a small tumour pressing on her frontal lobe. He thought it was benign but suggested seeking further advice from a specialist doctor at the hospital. His explanation was that the tumour has slowly become bigger over time until it had started pressing on the part of the brain that controls the personality. This caused mood swings, sudden bursts of anger, and occasionally a change in way of speaking. His explanation for the Latin was that being a catholic she was more familiar with the language than most other people. As for the objects moving of their own accord he listed mundane causes but said he couldn’t be sure as he’d never witnessed anything like it.

And just like that, there was a normal, logical, explanation.

Strother was so convincing that I began to doubt. We’ve all heard stories about people’s personalities suddenly changing because they’ve hit their head or a tumour’s been found. As I remembered every detail I realised that I hadn’t seen anything paranormal. Had I really seen someone else’s face on Heathers, or had it just been a change of expression that made her face appear different? She would also be familiar with the witch trials. Was it just a coincidence that she had chosen me to level the accusation at? Had she really been possessed at all? Had that skull just been a skull, with no malignancy or ill intent?

Heather yawned a few times during Strother’s reveal and apologised, stating that she hadn’t had a lot of sleep the night before, and admitted that she had woken up screaming in the middle of the night from a nightmare that she was being burned alive. Was the timing a coincidence? Heather hadn’t known I’d taken the skull, and even if her sister had told her she couldn’t have known what I’d done to it.

To this day I’m still not convinced either way. I’ve since learned it is possible for a ghost to possess a living person, I’ve witnessed it a few times, and all are different to one another, let alone comparing them to Heather. I also know that Heather had surgery to reduce the size of the tumour and has led a normal life ever since.

Was it all just a coincidence, or was she possessed by a ghost? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Episode 10 – Thou art in hell

I’m not one for God, but I suppose if ghosts exist then there’s a possibility He might. Regardless of my opinion, the relationship between science and religion has always been tense, so when Strother decided that one of our investigations would be on a young woman claiming to be possessed by a demon, I think we were all shocked. I get why he’d chosen it. How could a scientist as arrogant as him refuse the opportunity to disprove the existence of demons, and by extension God?

As you’ve probably realised, my sight only extends to humans. I’ve never seen a demon, or an angel. At least, I don’t think I have. So, in this particular case I was going in as blind as everyone else. It made me really uncomfortable. I know ghosts, and even though my knowledge back then was limited, I knew enough to get by. Demons, if they existed, were completely foreign to me. I hadn’t even seen The Exorcist.

I’d never understood the obsession with demon possessions. How could people believe in it so much that they would call in priests and other holy leaders rather than doctors to try and help? When did superstition win over medicine? This case was one of the only times I was ever on Strother’s side of an argument. These incidents must have some kind of psychological or neurological explanation? Right?

That’s the frightening thing. The double-edged sword. If ghosts exist, if there is life after death, then what else is there? What other folklore and mythical tales are actually true? I grew up in Scotland, I’ve heard the stories about fairies and kelpies, but I’ve never seen anything. But where I can see ghosts and no one else can, can there also be people who see other things that I can’t?

Anxiety stems from ignorance, from the unknown, from the potential to be true. I couldn’t say demons weren’t real. Surely if there were ghosts, then there was also room for there to be demons? I was filled with trepidation going into this case, and I didn’t like it.

Surprisingly, Strother was a well-connected guy, and somehow he knew a catholic priest. I’m not catholic, and either was anyone else on the team, but we had all been brought up Christians and in the wake of many demonic possession films that hit the box office in quick succession. Going into this neutral was impossible.

Strother told us that the priest had got in touch with him after two failed exorcisms on a young woman in his parish called Heather MacQueenie. She’d had an average upbringing, attended church on Sundays, and by all accounts was pretty normal. She’d left for university and after she’d returned for the summer at the end of her penultimate year she’d begun to act strangely. She went from bright and happy to serious and angry. The slightest thing pushed her into a rage. At first her parents thought it was the stress of her honours degree getting on top of her, but when she started to speak in different voices, saying horrible things, they began to think differently.

Being religious their first thought was to call the priests. After talking to Heather a few times, or rather the demon inside of Heather, they announced they’d do an exorcism. After the second time one of the priests called Strother.

What was unusual about this case was that Strother never offered up any possible explanation beforehand. Usually he was always quick to dismiss the ghost stories, the mediums and psychics, by giving alternative diagnoses, but this time he was quiet. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve said they were the only things he believed might be real.

As for my younger self I couldn’t understand it. Things like this didn’t happen in real life, not in modern times with the internet and mobile phones, or at least if they did it was in America. It frightened me that it was happening on my own doorstep. I know Scottish people can be superstitious, even I’m guilty of it, but superstition and demonic possession were very different to each other.

I wasn’t the only one affected by this case, even before it started. The drive to the small parish where Heather MacQueenie lived was the most silent of the entire study. It was like nobody wanted to discuss it because they didn’t have a quick explanation. It was different to psychics and mediums who defrauded people for their own gain, Heather wasn’t gaining anything, save from the attention of catholic priests, which I can’t imagine you can use as the deposit on a seven-bedroom house.

Their silence unnerved me more, and reading the emails the priest had sent Strother only compounded my worries. Along with possible multiple personalities, objects were reported being thrown about, even at people. Her parents and the priests also claimed she now spoke fluent Latin.

It all sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? Guttural voices, flying objects, mastery of defunct languages. I felt like we were walking onto the set of a film rather than real life. I was almost disappointed when we arrived and didn’t see the crew.

As part of the church’s bid to protect Heather’s privacy, we weren’t allowed to film, only record audio and take notes. Strother didn’t seem to mind this even though we would’ve been the first researchers to film a genuine possession, if it was genuine.

The more I read about the phenomena the more reluctant I became to participating. Hundreds of people around the world have died because others thought they were possessed by demons. The most recent, as you probably know, is Anneliese Michel, a young woman who was mentally ill but thought to be possessed by a demon. After numerous failed attempts to exorcize whatever she was possessed by, she died. Most of the people involved were charged with negligent homicide. I really wish I hadn’t read the story before seeing Heather.

Rather than staying with the MacQueenie’s we had rooms in the local hotel and drove to the parish where her family stayed. Instead of going straight to the house, the priest who had contacted Strother asked if he could speak to us first.

Father Alan McClintock was a very typical priest, which might not be saying much. He was in his fifties, perhaps older, with shocking white hair and a kind smile that begged anyone who spoke to him to trust him with all their secrets. He was very welcoming and invited us into the church. In his rooms he began to explain the events surrounding Heather.

By the time we visited, Heather’s symptoms had been going on for almost 9 months. It’d been small things at first. Snapping at her family for trivial things, skipping meals, random things breaking in the house, and over time it’d worsened to physical and verbal attacks, different voices, different languages, and belongings flying across rooms without being touched. We all sat in silence listening to Father Alan’s experiences.

The man looked haggard to me, exhausted from trying to solve a problem he wasn’t equipped to. According to him the first thing Heather’s parents had done was take her to the doctors, who’d referred her to a specialist and given her a prescription. One that didn’t work. Then the church had become involved, and the Bishop of the diocese had sent in a trained exorcist. That hadn’t worked either. With all solutions producing no results they were all at a loss on what to do.

It was then that I became curious as to the reason he’d contacted Strother. Was it so he could use it in the study as the first piece of evidence demonic possession was real, or was it to diagnose and treat Heather once and for all? Was that why Strother had been uncharacteristically quiet about possible explanations?

It never became easier to know what Strother was thinking, and I admit this was another time I wanted him to be his vocal, opinionated self. It would’ve made me feel a lot better. When a priest, of any religion, tells you about a young woman who may be possessed by a demon, it’s really hard not to take everything at face value. I’m not saying he was lying, but because he thought demons were real in the first place means he wasn’t an unbiased source of information. It was very likely he was moulding the facts to his beliefs, which we all do.

The picture of Heather MacQueenie that you have now is probably the exact same as the one I did at the time. On the journey from the church to their home I had images of a girl strapped to a bed to prevent harm to herself and others. Of a woman speaking in a voice that wasn’t her own, or things being hurled across rooms of their own volition. Of Heather herself I saw an emaciated shadow of a person with dark circles under their eyes and a gaunt, haunted look cast across her face.

That’s why I was so surprised when Heather opened the door. What Father Alan had failed to mention during his horror stories was that Heather MacQueenie looked completely normal. By that I mean how any young woman in her early twenties might look. Medium height, thin, long hair tied in a bun, light makeup with jeans and a t-shirt. She looked like any university student. I think all of us were taken aback as even Strother became tongue-tied.

There was a moment when I thought we might’ve been tricked, or rather Strother might’ve been tricked. If you’ve gleaned anything about him from these stories of mine it’s that his attitude and way of speaking gained him a lot of critics. It’s not surprising one might want revenge. But there was no reveal, no laughing and pointing at hidden cameras. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a prank.

It was all a bit surreal after that. We were all shown in and introduced to Heather and her family. Her mum and dad were polite, average looking people, and her sister, who was just about to start university, was friendly and helpful. The atmosphere wasn’t what I, or probably any of us, had imagined when we were back at the church.

But, once the niceties and chitchat stopped, there was something in that house, something that hung in the air like carbon monoxide, and almost as deadly. If you looked close enough you could see the strain lines on Mr MacQueenie’s face, or the frantic glances Mrs MacQueenie kept giving her eldest daughter, as if expecting her to flip out at any time.

We all sat down and had tea whilst listening to the MacQueenie’s experiences. It was much the same as Father Alan’s account. Everything had been fine, and then slowly the descent into possession had begun. We all listened intently as we heard the stories again, with Strother, Steph, and Ken scribbling down occasional notes.

There was definitely an expectation from the family that we were there to help, rather than to test and observe. They never signed a consent form for the study. Instead, Strother explained to them the tests he could carry out on Heather to find out what was going on.

Mr and Mrs MacQueenie nodded their heads eagerly, even before Strother had finished speaking. However, Heather was an adult, and her consent was the only one that mattered. During tea and our talk Heather was very matter-of-fact, almost as if she was speaking about someone else. She’d kept a log of her experiences, when they happened, how long, what she’d done. It was very logical, almost too neat for someone claiming to be possessed by a demon. But, my own views on what demon possession was is shaped by what I’d read and seen during my research. There are case studies in other parts of the world where Christianity isn’t dominant, that report demon possessions by something as little as low mood and a string of bad luck. Demon possession in itself isn’t precisely defined.

Heather consented to have the tests done and Strother asked if there was a room where he could set everything up. The McQueenie’s said we could use their room as it was the largest. Father Alan stayed as moral support, whilst the rest of us set up the room with the EEG and other neurological testing equipment. Strother wanted the session recorded, and he asked if I could sit in.

Heather and I were almost the same age, and in case anything happened, he wanted a witness in the room with him. Steph and Ken remained downstairs with Mr and Mrs MacQueenie and Father Alan. I sat and spoke with Heather whilst Strother did his final preparations. Before we began he went to get a jug of water.

He’d probably been gone a few seconds when the door slammed violently shut. I jumped up in fright and as soon as I did I began to feel dizzy, like a bad case of headrush. My entire head felt heavy, my vision distorted, like looking through glasses with the wrong prescription. I turned around to Heather and her face wasn’t in focus. She had a cold look to her features, but she was smiling, a crooked, bent smile that made me feel ill at ease.

“Sarah” (*long drawn out*)

She began, as if calling my name across a playground. There was nothing playful about her tone. One moment it looked like Heather, and the next it looked like someone else, a man. They were just flashes, an overlay of a stranger, but the malignancy I felt in that room was something else.

“I know what you are. I know you can see me. I know that you’re a witch.”

The voice was not Heather’s, yet it was. She turned to look at me then, directly into my eyes, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more afraid of another human being as I was of her. I was so scared I couldn’t process what she saying to me.

“Witches should burn, witches are the devil’s consorts. You think you can stop me, you think you can help me. You’re wrong.”

Strother opened the door in that moment. I whirled around to look at him for a brief second, not even enough time to blink, but when I turned back around to Heather, she was herself again. Strother asked me why I’d shut the door, and I couldn’t answer him.


I managed to get into the laptop. I won’t tell you the details, but let’s just say my current social circles are a lot wider than they were back when I was an isolated PhD student.

I’ve spent the last day scouring through every file, email thread, and picture that was on it. And I finally think I may have found answers, or at least the beginning of them. In Strother’s meticulously organised email inbox there was a folder named Inverlewis. When I began to read the emails, I noticed they were from a finance manager at Inverlewis limited. For those outside of Scotland, Inverlewis is one of the largest trading companies in the country. According to recent statistics something like 1 out of every 5 things on the shelves of supermarkets is there because of Inverlewis.

In the emails Strother attached brief interim reports of the study’s progress, like you would do for a funding body. I think Inverlewis funded our study, and I have no idea why. Why would a trading company be interested in the paranormal? What do ghosts and psychics have to do with buying and selling products to the masses?

So, I asked. I emailed the person who’d been in contact with Strother for the entirety of the study, but an automatic reply came stating the address has been defunct for a number of years. But you can find anyone these days if you know how and where to look, and I wasn’t about to give up now when I’m just starting to find answers.

The search is still ongoing as I’m recording this, I just thought I should keep you updated. I won’t disclose their name for the same reason I won’t disclose Katherine Philips’. I don’t know what kind of rabbit hole I’m about to fall down, but I don’t have a right to drag others into it with me.

Episode 9 – Family

Now, where were we with the Anderson case? I think Strother and I had just been interrupted from fighting by Mr Anderson. I began to feel more unwell by the second, until I decided I needed to be sick. There’s always something humiliating about being sick, even more so in front of strangers, but it’s not like you can help it. The sink was in front of the window, and as I began to regain my senses I glanced up at the reflection in the glass. Right behind my head, in the doorway, I saw the black mass writhing and jumping like a lava lamp. My throat burned and a shiver swept over my entire body as I locked eyes with its reflection. Then as soon as I blinked, it was gone, leaving only an empty space.

Mr Anderson was at my side, frantically asking if I was alright. He blamed the time of year and that there were a lot of viruses going around. I didn’t know what it was but it certainly wasn’t something like the flu. I was tired, having kept a semi-vigil over Anna’s bedroom all night. But it was like a sickness, suddenly come over me. My entire body felt heavy, every muscle aching for no reason. Although my stomach had settled, the rest of me was acting up. It took a considerable amount of strength just to keep myself upright. Mr Anderson said I could sleep in one of the guest bedrooms. Gladly I took his offer, but noticing how unsteady I’d become Strother had to help me up the stairs. He chided me for not admitting I was unwell, but I had no strength to respond.

I slept until lunchtime and when I awoke, completely fine, I became convinced that my sudden illness wasn’t bacterial in nature. It was news to me that ghosts could affect the living like that. I mean I wasn’t a complete beginner when it came to these things, and it made me afraid. Why had it made me ill and no one else, including Anna who could see it? Had it taken a dislike to our midnight staring contest?

I awoke to the smells of Sunday roast, and thankfully for me I was starving. I’d missed the actual mealtime by a few hours, but warmed up is better than none at all. Anna had gone on a walk with her father, leaving Lorraine Anderson alone with the rest of us. Whilst I was eating in the kitchen Strother took the opportunity to bulldoze Mrs Anderson with what he thought was reason. He began to suggest other psychological problems that Anna could have to explain what she was seeing. The tests which I’d become afraid of were suggested in the next sentence. Strother offered them an appointment to use the university equipment, or he had the numbers of child phycologists he could recommend. Lorraine looked overwhelmed, as if she hadn’t thought the problem was that serious.

It reminded me of my own parents. I was younger than Anna when I was tested. About six years old. Schizophrenia, tumours, eye problems, even cancer at one point. Thinking back my Mum and Dad must have been worried in case there was something serious wrong with me. I don’t know who gave up first, my parents or me. I either began to realise that the more I mentioned ghosts the more hospitals I ended up at, or they realised that there was no diagnosis for me. I can’t say that time has made me understand their persistence, but I do understand where they were coming from. For all they knew I could’ve had a tumour that made me hallucinate.

It still affected me, and my relationship with them, growing up. And even now I’m an adult, I rarely see or speak to them. I don’t suppose I’ve ever forgiven them for not believing me. I knew I didn’t want that happening to the Andersons.

Lorraine told us she’d have to discuss it with her husband before any decisions were made, and that seemed to satisfy Strother. Thankfully, I managed to have some time alone in the kitchen with Lorraine as I was finishing my lunch. I told her she didn’t look as though she were entirely convinced by Strother’s opinion. She paled visibly and I could see she was immediately uncomfortable talking about it, refusing to meet my gaze as she busied with the pots and pans. When she did catch my eye, I recognised the look immediately, because I’d seen it many times before. It’s the look adults get when their belief system is about to breakdown. Doubts begin to surround things they’ve known their entire life. It’s the look I’d one day see on Strother’s face.

I asked her if she’d seen what Anna could. She nodded and said that sometimes, when she was alone in the house, she would catch it in the corner of her eye. I could tell by her tone she didn’t want to believe it, desperately wished her mind was impressionable and she was imagining things. She’d never got a look at it, unlike her daughter, but she described it as a shadow, cold and fleeting. One, even though she couldn’t see it properly, she knew was there. Her husband was a firm sceptic and had never seen anything. She asked me what it was, desperate for answers that she thought I could give. I don’t think I’d be able to give them now let alone back then, but I felt bad.

So, I told her that it probably didn’t mean any harm. I explained all I knew. That it was human, that it was old, that it had forgotten who it was. I also pleaded with her not to tell my team. She asked me what she could do. We were due to leave the Anderson home later that day, and her husband would want Anna to go through the tests.

Suddenly a scream ripped through the house. Not from a child but from an adult woman. I jumped in fright, and Lorraine dropped a serving plate so it smashed on their tiled floor with an equally piercing crash. Ken and Strother were at the door instantly, assuming it was one of us. When they realised it wasn’t, Ken ran up the stairs to where I presume Steph had let out the scream.

Whilst we waited, I began to help Lorraine clean up the mess, but Strother snapped that I wasn’t a maid. When I opened my mouth to protest, he cut me down viciously, more so than usual. I was stunned into silence. Stepping in to defend me was Lorraine Anderson, and the two began a vicious argument, not dissimilar to him and I the previous day, in the same room. The worst thing about it was that they were fighting over me.

I stared at Strother, hoping he’d take the hint and stop, but I began to notice something strange. I was looking at Strother, the sharp jawline, the even sharper eyes, but there was a different essence to him, not dissimilar to uncanny valley. His confrontational behaviour, the strength of his rage, they were all far from the Strother I’d come to know. I said before that he was never one to start an argument he couldn’t win, but here he was fighting with anyone. I’d felt the same the day before, but I blamed my fatigue.

Knowing he wasn’t himself, I pushed him forcefully from the room and into another one, away from Lorraine. He was so angry I thought he might hit the wall, or even me. Mrs Anderson was so angry I thought she’d follow us just to continue their fight, so I shut the door behind us. Before I could turn around I heard a thump and watched as Strother crumpled to the floor like puppet with its strings cut. At his back was the shadowy mass I’d seen at Anna’s bed the night before.

I ran to see if the fall had done any damage to Strother, keeping my eye on the ghost. Perhaps my reassurances to Lorraine of it not meaning any harm were wrong. It didn’t linger, and I was glad it didn’t show me anything like the other ghosts in these statements have. I had a feeling I wouldn’t come back the same.

Strother woke up confused and I fed him some lie that I can’t remember. The scream we’d heard had come from Steph up the stairs, who refused to admit she’d seen anything, but wouldn’t stop shaking for at least an hour afterwards. She had the same look that Lorraine Anderson had when she’d spoken about the shadow.

Due to the strange occurrences during our time in the house, Strother suggested we keep the equipment running for longer. Rather than concentrate them around Anna’s room, he decided to spread them out until every room was being recorded. He never shared his thoughts or reasons, and if Steph told him what I think she saw then I never found out.

Craig Anderson came back with Anna an hour or two later after we’d finished setting up and dinner went by without a hiccup. Craig and Anna went into the living room after dinner to watch a show together, leaving the rest of us to help tidy up and write some quick notes about the case. Strother was watching the cameras in the room where we’d set up whilst I was in the kitchen with Steph and Lorraine. It must have been an hour or two later when he shuffled into the kitchen, a look on his face that I hate to admit gave me joy. It was disappointment, the look someone wears when they realise they’re wrong. I immediately thought he must’ve seen the ghost and had come to tell us, tail between his legs.

To this day I’m embarrassed of how I acted in those few seconds between him appearing and telling us what happened. I was practically giddy. He’d finally have to admit that Anna wasn’t hallucinating, there was nothing wrong with her, and the house was genuinely haunted. It took a lot not to break into a triumphant smile. Then he opened his mouth.

Rather than telling us what he’d seen he invited Lorraine into the room with the screens, and Steph and I followed. I think Ken was on the phone to his wife, or daughter, so he was upstairs. Strother began to rewind one the recordings of the living room. We’d only just set them up that afternoon, and I’d never seen the ghost in there, so I was surprised. He began to play it.

Already something was off. Craig and Anna were sat on the sofa, but she was squeezed to one arm, sitting pertly, stiff almost. Not like bairns usually relax in their own home. Craig sat on the other end of the sofa, both were watching the TV. Anna kept fiddling with her hands, pulling her fingers, tying them in impossible knots, I worried she’d dislocate one the way she was going. Craig began to say something to her, I think he asked her if she could see the ghost, but the recording was quite quiet. Anna, to my surprise, shook her head. He demanded to know why she hadn’t told the rest of us that, and why she’d made such a scene the night before. His tone became angrier until he was standing up, towering over where Anna cowered, shouting at her. How we hadn’t heard him was beyond me, but it was a big house, and the door was closed. Then he raised his hand and began to hit her, across the face, on her back, her legs. I couldn’t stomach more than that and looked away from the screen. Lorraine Anderson was already halfway to the living room where she flung open the door and began screaming at her husband. Steph went and closed the door to the room we were in but we could still hear the muffled curses.

That has to be one of the most awkward hours of my life to date. None of us knew what to do. Lord knows what Ken did during that time. We all stayed out of the way. Their fight culminated in the police being called and Craig being taken to the station. He ended up being charged with child abuse and sentenced to 5 years in prison.

Steph filled us in as we driving back to the city. Anna was Lorraine’s daughter by an ex-partner, and she had taken Craig’s name when they were married. Not that a lack of blood relation is an excuse for beating a bairn. Some people are just arseholes, and Craig Anderson was one of them.

We were all a bit shaken, none more so than Lorraine who I’m sure went onto blame herself for what happened. For my part I’d never seen any wounds, or anything that would’ve indicated Anna was being beaten, but apparently she’d had a few trips to the hospital after her afternoons out with Craig, and he’d just said she was being clumsy and had fallen. The only unfortunate thing was that because Anna was being abused, Strother assumed it was the reason why she’d claimed to see the ghost. Rather than a plea for attention it was a cry for help. The shadow was a manifestation of her fear of Craig and what he’d do to her.

Obviously, that wasn’t true and there were a few hours when I assumed I’d never get answers to this case. We were clearing the equipment from the rooms, unplugging cameras and deactivating motion sensors when I glimpsed the shadow again. Rather than at the foot of Anna’s bed, it lingered at a door I’d never been through. I caught it twice, and deciding I’d nothing to lose I discreetly went to the door and opened it. There were stairs that led down to what I assumed would be a basement, not unusual for old buildings.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s only the idiot in scary films who goes down to the basement. It’s just as well my life isn’t a horror. There was a light switch, and it worked, so I descended the stairs. Apart from the dust, spiders’ webs, and ghostly shadows, it wasn’t a particularly eerie room. There were only empty boxes and discarded children’s toys down there. The ghost remained in one spot, like it was stuck there, and I felt like it was staring at me, despite having no visible eyes. We were locked in a staring match that I had no hope of winning, but after a few minutes it faded until there was nothing left.

Hoping more than knowing there might be some significance, I crossed the basement to where the ghost had stood, and stepped on a loose slab where it had been. The concrete around it had flaked away over the years until the slab acted like a see-saw. I managed to find a metal file which I used more like a chisel to break away the remaining vein of concrete that kept the slab in its place. I then used the file to pry it off the floor. It was heavy but I managed to flip it over and expose the soil underneath.

It wasn’t just worms and woodlice under there, but slithers of textured, white bone. They were the tops of two skulls, one smaller than the other, both lying close to one another, not dissimilar to the Lovers of Valdaro. You know, the skeletons they found in Italy who were thought to be buried embracing each other. As you’ve heard those poor souls weren’t my first skeletons, but the sight still struck me. I actually prefer ghosts to their bones, there’s a certain distance you can keep, but when you’re faced with the remnants of someone’s body, it’s a lot harder to digest.

I was faced with a problem. What was I supposed to do now? The only reason I’d found the skeletons was because the ghost had showed me. What excuse was I supposed to make for being down here, for vandalising their house, prying up floor slabs, that didn’t sound as though I was looking for the remains? But I knew if I put everything back to where it was before I’d interfered, then the ghost, whichever skeleton it was, would continue to bother Anna because she was the only who could see it. I’d told Strother I was helping Anna by listening to her, yet when the time came when I could actually help, I was contemplating looking out for myself first.

I wish I could tell these stories of mine and paint myself to be a hero, one who always does the right thing and never doubts, or questions, or hesitates. I’m afraid if you’re looking for someone like that then you’re in the wrong place. I’m only human, despite the extra sense. There have been many times when I haven’t done the right thing, some I regret. In Anna’s case, I went up the stairs and told everyone what I’d found. My excuse for being down there seemed to be generally accepted. I told everyone I thought I’d put a camera down there and when I’d went to get it had dropped something that had got stuck in the slab, forcing me to remove it. It sounded incredulous to me, but perhaps everyone was just reeling from the fact there was human remains in the basement.

The police were called again. It’s probably just as well Lorraine and Anna moved away soon after, because I’m sure they’d have got a reputation after that night. I wish I could tell you who the skeletons were, and why they were under there. All I can tell you is that the larger skeleton was a woman in her late twenties, and the smaller one was her daughter. They’d both died of various physical trauma, most likely beaten to death by someone. Unfortunately, the records of the house only go back a few decades or so, when it was converted from a barn. Whatever happened in there before is lost to time.

My hypothesis, for what it’s worth, is that the ghost I saw, the writhing shadow, was the mother keeping vigil over Anna’s bed. In its own way trying to protect her where it had failed with its own child. I could be wrong of course, but we’ll never know.

The rest of the team took everything at face value, something I never had the luxury of. There are many events in history we don’t know. You can probably dig underneath anyone’s house and eventually come across a skeleton, or some other sign of life. There was no way anyone in the present was going to solve the murder of the mother and child in the basement. After various tests were ran on the remains, they were both interred in the same plot in the local parish graveyard. You can visit if you like, the community, along with a few other donations, paid for a headstone. I was one of those donations, and I later found out Strother was as well.

Present day

It turns out I’m willing to go pretty far to get answers. I’m not proud of what I’m about to tell you and there’s no excuse for how I acted, but desperation makes monsters of us all.

I ended up ambushing Katherine Phillips in her office 2 days ago. I found her office hours and just went there. She didn’t recognise me, and to be honest I didn’t recognise her either. She thought I was a student and when I told her my name she looked as though I’d told her the world was about to end. She ordered me to get out and I refused, blurting everything I already knew, or could surmise, about her relationship with Strother.

There was a brief moment when I thought she was going to call the police, or campus security. I swear I saw her eyes flick to the phone, but she ended up asking me to close the door and take a seat.

Then it was my turn to be taken aback. Katherine Phillips told me everything. She’d been seeing Strother for a year before the study began and then all the way through until the scandal. The reason none of us had ever been introduced, or he’d never mentioned her, is because she was married, and still is. I was shocked at the news, not because I thought Strother was a saint, but because it made me doubt whether I’d known him at all. Even if it was an affair, it was also an important relationship, yet he’d never mentioned her, never introduced us, I mean we’d hardly have known she was married, would we? I think the thing that shocked me most was that Strother could be considerate.

I’m not judging their relationship, at least I’m trying not to. I’ll admit that I don’t understand why she’s still married, especially considering how long the relationship between her and Strother lasted. But what do I know?

I asked her if he’d ever mentioned the study, spoken to her about it. In my mind she was the most likely person he’d have unburdened to. Unfortunately, she told me he rarely spoke about it, except some comments in passing that were general, or that she’d forgotten, but nothing important. She told me she’d kept his laptop. This puzzled me since I’d already looked through his laptop at his family home. Turns out he had another one, and that he used it solely for study related things. I’ll admit, it got my hopes up. A secret laptop that could hold all the answers I want. What’s not to get excited about?

Graciously she told me she’d give it to me because she recognised my name. According to Katherine, Strother had mentioned me a few times over the years, enough for her to remember anyway. The last time my name had come up had been when he was trying to find the results of the tests I’d taken for the study as one of the first control subjects. I’ll get to that later.

I returned to her office yesterday to collect the laptop. When we opened it we found it was password protected. Neither of us had any idea what it would be. This left me with the job of finding someone who could crack the password on a 15-year-old laptop.

Before I left Katherine’s office I asked her where she’d been during the scandal. She told me that a week before the news had hit the headlines and Strother’s career had gone up in flames he’d asked to meet up with her. During that meeting he’d ended their relationship and told her to stay far away, to pretend like she didn’t know him. When she asked why he’d said that he didn’t want to take her down with him. A week later she saw the reports and articles. He’d known what was going to happen, but he’d done nothing to stop it, or if he had tried something then he failed. But how did he know? What had he done or said to someone to make them ruin his career, and why hadn’t he done anything to stop it or clear his name afterwards? I hope whatever’s on his laptop will finally answer those questions.

Episode 8 – Child’s Play

I’ve had a song stuck in my head for the last few days. They were doing a throwback segment on the radio and it came on. It’s quite special to me because I used to listen to it whilst doing my work. It was the heavy rock of my teenage years still lingering into my twenties. I don’t suppose I ever really listened to it so much as tuned it out when I was working.

The Anderson case started on a day where my colleagues caught me listening to it. Steph had asked us all to gather around the office table because she had something she wanted to discuss. Someone had emailed her with a case that may be relevant to the study. She gave a copy of the email thread to Strother and he dismissed it within seconds. A wee girl, the daughter of the person who’d written to Steph, claimed to see ghosts. Immediately Strother thought something else may be wrong with her and that she was hallucinating, especially considering her parents had never witnessed what she was claiming.

Steph pleaded with Strother to reconsider, stating that she owed the father, Craig Anderson, a favour. Strother was unsympathetic. When I began to read the emails, I noticed a few more details. I asked Steph why Mrs Anderson hadn’t been sleeping well, a point that Mr Anderson had commented on in passing. Apparently, she found it too cold, even when the heating was on. Strother wasn’t happy about my line of inquiry and asked me what I was “trying to get at”.

I answered that their daughter said she saw ghosts in the house, but nowhere else. If they were hallucinations wouldn’t she see them everywhere? I pointed out that cold spots were a commonly reported phenomena in the cases of hauntings. I should’ve stopped there. I wish I’d stopped there. I added that the research wasn’t a dictatorship, and that if we ignored the report and it turned out to be true then the only ones losing anything was ourselves. What can I say? I was young and confrontational.

Thankfully Steph agreed with my points, lending me some credibility instead of just mindless rebellion. When Ken jumped on the bandwagon Strother had no choice but to give in. But he was never one for letting things go and what I’m sure was out of spite he announced that we’d visit the Anderson home at the weekend.

So, early on a Saturday morning we all piled into the van and set off into the countryside where their house was. I think it was one of the nicest journeys I’ve ever been on, road quality and company aside. The further we travelled outside of the city the narrower the roads became until it was single track. There were many times I saw Strother’s knuckles turn white he was holding the steering wheel so tight, fearful something may come from the opposite direction and force us into a ditch. Since I’m being as honest as possible, I liked watching him fret. It sounds sadistic, but I hadn’t warmed to him much by this point.

The Andersons owned an old farmhouse in the middle of the countryside, with enviable views and a private driveway that led straight from the road. It sat halfway up the hill, looking down upon the valley, which wasn’t very visible due to a light mist because it was Scotland. I’ll admit there was a brief moment where I doubted they had electricity, it was just that secluded.

On the journey I’d been reading up on the Andersons and their home. The family had moved into the old farmhouse two years before and it hadn’t been long until their daughter, Anna, had reported seeing a shadow in the house. Not the normal kind, if there is such a thing, but one that moved as though it were breathing. She felt like it stared at her, and constantly followed her around the house. I was no stranger to this, and that’s probably why I’d opposed Strother’s dismissal of the case so forcefully. The girl was reluctant to go to bed on her own, frightened to death of her shadowy companion, which she claimed was always somewhere in her bedroom.

This case was a wee bit close to the bone for me, so impartiality in retelling it’s probably impossible. I’d been seeing ghosts, of every shape and form you can imagine, since I was a wee bairn. I’d also visited every kind of doctor you can imagine, and no matter what they say those tests take a toll, just not a physical one. I wanted to believe that Anna Anderson really saw something, and if that were the case to protect her from my own experiences. In case you’re curious none of the tests they did found anything wrong with me…at least that’s what they told my parents.

It was cold when we arrived, colder than I remembered it being in the city. Where it was overcast and threatening to rain, there in the country it was frosty, everything turning a beautiful white. Steph went into the house first to greet the Andersons whilst the rest of us began to sort out the equipment.

Inside the house was just as nice as outside, although it seemed a wee bit big for a family of just three. Perhaps that’s why there was a chill in the air when we went in to set up. It was also quite dark inside due to the outdated wooden panels that consumed most of the natural light. The Andersons were slowly modernising it but with such a large house it’d no doubt take some time. When we arrived, it was only Mrs Anderson inside, Anna was over at a friend’s house and Craig, her husband, was still at work.

We concentrated our efforts in every room Anna had reported seeing her shadowy friend, mostly in her bedroom. Cameras, thermometers, audio recorders and more laser grids were placed strategically, and I ensured I knew where they were. It gave me a chance to find the ghost myself, but there was nothing unusual about the home. There were no cold spots, no pieces of fractured air like there had been at St Mary’s, and no sudden waves of unease. It felt very…normal. I began to feel a twinge of disappointment. Usually there’s always something that spirits emanate, like a certain smell that you can just taste on the air before it disappears. All I could smell was Febreeze. What I disliked about the house was how clean it was. Not in the ordinary way, the quick run round when you have guests coming over, but the extremely clean, like a showroom. It gave me the sense that I shouldn’t really be there.

When we were finished, Lorraine Anderson sat us all down to make some tea and have a quick chat about her daughter and the house itself. Strother asked if Anna also saw the apparition when she was at someone else’s home, to which her mother replied she didn’t. Lorraine Anderson was a sharply dressed woman who looked as though she never had a hair out of place even during her down time. Her hair was smooth, her makeup perfect and professional, there wasn’t a chipped nail on her hand. Steph had said she had quite a high-powered job but I forget what it was.

Strother made the mistake of telling Mrs Anderson that the most common reason for children pretending to see things like ghosts was attention seeking, especially when their parents were busy or away most of the time. She was considerably taken aback and adamantly protested that she didn’t neglect her daughter. In all the years we met family members and friends Strother always displayed the finesse of a fish. Even that might be too kind a comparison.

Mr Anderson picked Anna up on his way back from work. Saying that she looked normal isn’t really telling you anything. I don’t think I look particularly strange and yet here I am talking about ghosts. Anna was about 7 or 8 years old and during dinner and before bed she was a model bairn. If she was seeking attention, like Strother implied, then surely she’d play up more with an audience? That was my logic at the time anyway, but I was desperate for Anna to be telling the truth, even though I hadn’t seen anything myself.

It was an hour or two after she’d gone to bed when we heard her scream. Immediately, we all ran to the screens where the camera feeds were. Anna was sitting up, clutching her covers so tightly I thought she’d put her fingers through them, staring intently at the foot of her bed. I saw it there, black and grey, moving like it was lava fresh from a volcano. There were no eyes, no discernible limbs, it was just a shape, and it never took a recognisable form. All it did was linger there at the bottom of her bed but I could tell why Anna thought it was staring at her. Those things, which I’ve never found a name for, still frighten me even to this day, I can only imagine the fear a seven-year-old would have.

Lorraine Anderson was about to go up and see her daughter when I stepped in and offered instead. Seeing it through the screen wasn’t as helpful as seeing it in person, and I wasn’t that familiar with them back then. I also presumed that my colleagues would need a few moments to process what they were seeing. Instead, Strother pointed at the screen and stated there was nothing there. I was just about to point it out when both Ken and Steph began to shake their heads, also unable to see it. To this day I still don’t know how it was possible. I saw it as clear as day on that screen, and yet no one else could. It wouldn’t be the last of such occurrences.

Regardless Mrs Anderson agreed to let me go up and see Anna. Strother wasn’t too happy about it as he thought I’d just be enabling the girl, but I went up anyway. I swung the door to Anna’s bedroom open a little too forcefully and only succeeded in frightening her more. The ghost, if it could be called that, remained at the foot of her bed. The door was a blind spot for the camera but as soon as I stepped towards the bed I’d be in full view. I was paranoid that the ghost would start to be picked up by the cameras the longer it remained there, and if I was caught looking at it then the game would be up. Anna, for her part, couldn’t take her eyes away, as if staring at it would keep it away from her. I called out to her and she looked at me pleadingly.

“It’s there”, she uttered so quietly I almost didn’t hear.

She was terrified and I wished I could explain everything I knew, which to be fair wasn’t much then. Aware that the recorders were still running I mouthed that I knew. When she checked if I could see it, I simply nodded, before crossing the room to sit on the side of her bed, facing the shadowy mass.

It was grotesque to look at, always shifting and moving, but because it was dark sometimes it felt like there were screaming faces on the surface. Rather than smoke or mist it felt as though it was made of viscous liquid, like black treacle. If you reached out and touched it your hand would get stuck. But it never shifted from its position at the foot of the bed, like a dog almost, wanting to stay close to its owner.

Anna confessed to me that it wouldn’t leave her alone. I pointed out that not everything meant harm, hoping more than knowing it to be true. She said it looked evil, like a monster under the bed come out to play at night. I had to be mindful of my words since I was sure Strother and the rest would be listening intently. Any reference to its appearance, or even confirming its presence, would get me in trouble. I told her that since she could see it then perhaps it wanted her to do something, which I thought was the most likely reason. Anna admitted she was scared but before I could reassure her Strother barged in and summoned me through gritted teeth.

Anna refused to let me go and clung onto my arm to stop me. Strother, at the end of his very little patience, told her that nothing was there and that ghosts didn’t exist. I don’t know what he thought it’d accomplish. I told him he wasn’t helping, to which he accused me of encouraging her. I replied that I saw it as helping a frightened young girl. He grumbled that it was a waste of time before storming off. I’d won, I just hoped I wouldn’t come to regret it.

I remained with Anna all night, and she soon went to sleep with me as protection or comfort, it was hard to tell. I wondered what her mother did during such episodes. For its part, the shadow remained, but I couldn’t risk looking at it for too long. Any ounce of humanity it’d once possessed was gone, it took no face, no shape, no anything that would discern it as human. These ghosts, because they are ghosts, have been gone for so long that they’ve forgotten who they were. It was my first time seeing one so decayed, but it wasn’t my last. I still don’t like them, they’re the worst kind, and the most difficult. They’re called different things depending on who you talk to, but I’ve never given them a name because it seems more appropriate not to. All I knew at the time was that I needed to find out who it was, or who it had been.

It disappeared at about 3 in the morning, but by that point I was drifting in and out of sleep myself. At least I’d confirmed that Anna wasn’t hallucinating, that she was genuinely seeing a ghost, and I could only hope that she’d grow out of it. Otherwise her life would always partially belong to the dead.

I woke up just after 6 in the morning feeling like I was hungover. Somehow, as soon as I left Anna’s room, Strother was there to ambush me, looking as bad as I felt. I followed him solemnly down to the kitchen where he demanded to know what I’d been thinking. He proceeded to point out, in no uncertain terms, that I’d made things worse because if Anna thought someone believed her then she’d keep claiming she could see things. A vicious fight then ensued. It was of character for me. I mean I threw Strother subtle digs here and there, but I’d never had a flat-out argument with him. Granted, we’d not been working together long, but he was still one of my supervisors. It’s like having a screaming match with your line manager. Unfortunately, I put it down to fatigue making me lose my patience. That was, of course, until the room began to spin, like I had drunk too much the night before.

I felt weird, simultaneously hot and cold, my heartbeat noticeably elevated, and the walls around me moved like a theatre set. Mr Anderson came in bleary eyed and interrupted our bickering before we could start shouting at each other. He said something to me but it was distorted, as though I were listening with ear plugs in. The room was beginning to look stranger by the minute, spinning like a carousel. I’m unsure if I began to have a panic attack, or it was something else, but I began to have trouble breathing and ended up on the floor somehow. Then the nausea came and I panicked more. I got to the sink just in time.

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.

Episode 6 – Future Blind

Let’s take a break from haunted buildings and ghosts with axes to grind. I’ve spoken about Sandra Oakes, one of the first mediums we recruited to the study, so let me tell you about the first psychic I met.

He was also one of the most famous names involved in the study. I’m sure his name has faded with time, but back in the day he claimed to be behind solving many of the country’s missing person’s cases. That man’s name is Joseph Macdonald, or Joe as he insisted everyone call him.

My thoughts on psychics are, perhaps, counterintuitive. You’d think because I can communicate with the dead that I’d believe in other people who claim the same. I suppose communicate might be the wrong word. Not all ghosts are chatty. I have a hard time believing psychics – still do – and back then, when I was in isolation from others like me, I presumed psychics were fake. Ghosts had never told me useful things, about the future, about an unsolved crime, about where I’d put my keys. So why did some people claim that they did?

I suppose it’s connected with Sandra Oakes and the question meeting her brought up. Is there only one way to see the dead, or are there more? In my opinion, just because people are dead, doesn’t mean they know everything.

Strother was quite eager to meet Joe MacDonald. I think he was giddy about having the opportunity to disprove one of the most famous psychics in the country at the time. Joe was working with the police on a missing person’s case. A young boy had gone missing on his way home from school just outside of Edinburgh, and according to the psychic, the police wasted no time in calling him.

Obviously, as outsiders, we didn’t know details of the case, but Joe was visibly proud of his involvement. He’d done multiple interviews over the years on numerous television programmes and magazines. He’d even gone on tour with his psychic show. I had a bad impression of him, mostly because I didn’t believe he was genuine. The more involved with the study I became, the more knowledge I picked up about the science behind the paranormal, the more sceptic I became. Don’t worry, the irony isn’t lost on me.

Maybe I was just jealous there might be someone who ghosts actually spoke to. Whatever the truth, he was doing very well for himself. I also thought him quite cocky. He’d volunteered to do the study, which either meant he believed what he was selling, or that he was so confident in his abilities that he thought he could fool the tests. Obviously, the third option is that he was genuine, and like me, could commune with the dead.

There are a few categories of psychics, but all of them claim to be able to know things that they can’t possibly know. Be that the future, where a missing person is, or the ring you haven’t seen in weeks. Since the birth of science there have been a few experiments conducted to investigate the phenomena. The most common way to investigate a psychic detective, like Joe, is to give them crimes to solve.

Psychics are given objects that are connected with crimes that have been solved by the police. It could be the murder weapon, it could be a shoelace, a scarf belonging to the victim. It was an important point that all the crimes had been solved, so we could test the veracity of the psychic’s statements.

It was a double-blind study, which meant that the researchers who tested Joe didn’t know anything about the crimes connected to the items he was given. Ken had volunteered to be the facilitator, in that he knew the details of the crimes. Which meant he was deprived of the opportunity to meet a celebrity psychic -not that I think he was that bothered.

Joe Macdonald took time from his busy schedule to visit us. He was in his late thirties, perhaps early forties; bald, but with striking green eyes that seemed to look straight through you. He was amiable, friendly, and patient as Strother took him through all the procedures and rules we had to follow.

There were 3 items each for 3 different crimes and Joe was given each one in turn and his statements were recorded. The theory, like with mediums, is that if you say enough vague things then one of them is bound to be true. More importantly with psychics, people tend to give their statements validation only after the fact. I couldn’t get through this statement without mentioning Nostradamus, arguably one of the most famous psychics in history. If you don’t know, Michel de Nostradame was a 16th century astrologer who wrote down hundreds of statements which are now viewed as prophecies. A lot of people claim that he has predicted every disaster and war from when the was alive to the present.

I’ll give you an example. People claim Nostradamus predicted the development of fighter aircraft and the atomic bomb due to the following passage:

They think they will have seen the sun at night

When they will see the pig half-man;

Noise, song, battle, fighting in the sky perceived;

And one will hear brute beasts talking.

It has some details, such as fighting in the sky, obviously the fighter aircraft, and seeing the sun at night, an atomic bomb detonating. It’s quite convincing, but what happens when I give you one of his prophecies without telling you what people claim it predicts?

An Emperor will be born near Italy

One who will cost his empire a high price

They will say that from the sort of people who surround him

He is to be found less prince than butcher.

Any ideas? Did you think Hitler? It fits nicely, but according to popular theory this actually predicts the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. But is so general that it could also apply to Hitler. His prophesies only make sense after the fact, when people assign meaning to general statements because they’re close enough to specific facts. This tends to be what happens when psychics start helping the police. The things they say, the vague words they string together, tend to be given more meaning after the crime is solved.

I’d only briefly caught glimpses of Joe when he’d arrived, and when he’d been in the testing room with Strother. I was never meant to be that involved with his session. The only reason I did was because Steph’s fiancé had called the office asking for her, so I’d gone into the observation room just as his final reading was about to start. Steph left, and Strother told me to stay.

Psychics claim to communicate with the ambiguous “spirit world”, whatever that is. They claim multiple spirits whisper in their ear, sometimes in conveniently vague statements, giving them information they couldn’t know otherwise. All I could see in that room with Joe MacDonald, was the ghost of a young woman.

She was so clear, almost opaque, that I, for a small moment, thought she was alive. There’s something about ghosts like that that frightens me more than the ones who’ve forgotten who they are. These ghosts look human, there’s no doubting that they were once alive. The distance that I liked to keep with the dead was made almost impossible.

I slowly eased myself into the chair beside Strother, keeping my eyes on the young woman. She looked to be a few years older than me at the time, mid-twenties at the latest, with auburn hair tied in a bun, and sharp brown eyes that were trained on Joe MacDonald. He began to talk about the objects that were in front of him and in his hands, pausing every so often as if he was talking to someone. Let me tell you, he wasn’t talking to her.

I could feel her anger through the two-way mirror. The way she glared murder at Joe as he was reeling off his vague statements, the way her fists were clenched so tightly they were shaking with the effort. If she could’ve harmed him, she would’ve. With her presence, it was hard to concentrate on what Joe was saying about the objects, but he talked a lot. It was kind of like watching an actor rehearse lines on their own. He would speak, pause as if rehearsing the other actor’s line in his head, then carry on.

I wondered if it looked as strange to everyone else as it did to me. To believers he was speaking with a world they couldn’t see, and to sceptics he was talking to himself. I know which one I was. No one claiming to have the ability to commune with the dead could be oblivious to the presence at his side. I stared, practically without blinking, trying to find some evidence he knew she was there. A twitch, a nod of the head, a glance at the reflection in the mirror, but he did nothing. He was enraptured by the objects on the table and the sound of his own voice.

When he was finished, Strother went in to see him whilst I waited in the corridor outside. I think my curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to look this man in the eye, to try to find any sign he was genuine. And also to see the woman at his side. When the door opened and they both came out of the room, I was surprised to find he was ghost-less. When you see things others can’t, your grasp of what’s real and what’s not becomes shaky. Had I imagined the woman? Was her anger at Joe just an amplified reflection of my own? I’d never imagined a ghost before, but in my world very few things were beyond the realms of possibility.

Strother introduced us and when Joe took my hand to shake, he paused in that really irritating way people do when they’re about to say something strange. He had the same look on his face as he had done when communicating with the spirit world. I almost thought he was going to start talking to himself. After the longest silence you can imagine, he looked straight into my eyes with a very serious expression and said:

“You have a great burden on your shoulders, Sarah.”

I presumed he didn’t mean having to put up with Strother. That left the question of what he was referring to. Had I misjudged him? Was he referring to my ability to see ghosts, or to something else? How many great burdens did I really have in my life? You see what I mean by assigning meaning to vague statements. It could be argued that everyone has something on their mind that they think is a burden. He could’ve said that to anyone and it would’ve been true. Perhaps my encounter with Sandra Oakes had taught me something after all. I also had the awful feeling that Strother’s view of the world was slowing creeping in and altering my own. I wasn’t as taken in by Joe’s show as I had been with Sandra’s.

To diffuse the situation Strother interjected that he wouldn’t call my PhD thesis a great burden. I laughed politely, but Joe smiled, as if he was unsure whether to pretend it was that, or to fish for something else. Thankfully, or not so much, someone interrupted him.

At the end of the corridor, where the door to our offices were, a man shouted Joe’s name at the top of his voice. Everything after that happened so quickly it was hard to see what anyone could’ve done to stop it. One moment the stranger was at the end of the corridor, and the next he was beside us punching Joe so hard in the face I thought some of his teeth had been knocked out. The psychic crumpled to the floor like a discarded ragdoll, whilst Strother tried to restrain the attacker.

Amidst the confusion and violence, I caught something in the corner of my eye. Looking down the corridor, from where the man had come from, I once again saw the ghost of the woman who’d been in Joe’s session. Her wrathful expression had vanished, and in its place was one of pure sorrow. Of regret, and pain, and yearning. It transformed her from vengeful spirit to innocent victim.

A lot of people suddenly started to appear, trying to separate the strange man from Joe, hauling him from the building. He screamed and spat curses all the way to the door. How he’d got in, how he knew Joe would be at the university, and why he’d attacked him, were all mysteries.

Steph sat with Joe, checking if his injuries were bad enough to go to the hospital, whilst Strother disappeared. Steph asked me to get him some water, which I did, knowing it wouldn’t help the swelling bruise on his lip. When I returned, Joe was in the midst of communicating with the spirit world. Both Steph and I froze, unsure whether to rush for the cameras or commit everything to memory instead.

“Have you lost something, Steph?” Joe asked.

Probably without realising Steph’s eyes glanced down to her hands. If I saw it, then so did Joe.

“A ring, perhaps?” he continued.

Steph realised what she’d done, and placed her hands, clasped, on the table. Everything about her was still, there wasn’t even a twitch of her eyebrow as she continued to listen to Joe. He paused again, as if listening to someone speak to him. He then told Steph that she would find the ring in the dishwasher, as it had fallen off when she’d been stacking it.

I’ll admit I’d never noticed Steph wear a ring, other than her engagement one, which was still there. Joe told her all of this with such confidence even I admitted I was tempted to believe him. Especially since what he was saying now was so specific, when he’d been so vague with me before.

Nothing more was said about the ring, or about my great burden, and Joe was escorted to his car by security in case the strange man returned. I didn’t see the ghost of the woman again.

The next day, during a meeting, I noticed something catching the light on the middle finger of Steph’s right hand.

It was a ring.

Our eyes met across the meeting room, and I noticed the small flicker of doubt in her gaze. She couldn’t explain it, and I certainly couldn’t. Was I wrong about Joe? Was I wrong about everything regarding mediums and psychics? Was my theory that there was different levels of communication with the dead right? It’s funny how all it took was one wee ring to make me start questioning everything I knew.

Episode 3 – The ring

It’s nearly November, I think – I hope. Work is still boring, to some extent. Not many things are sold in the shop, but that’s because nobody comes in. It’s no for a lack of people, I always see them walking past, having a wee nosy in the shop window, but the bell rarely rings. Life is busy though, with balancing lectures, coursework, and regular work. I’ve managed to find a routine of sorts, but I find myself spending a lot of time in the antique shop, doing nothing. Even to me, it sounds boring, but there’s just something about the mess that I enjoy.

There are people who come in, real people, and no all of them are nuts. The weirder thing is they always buy something, proving that there’s almost nothing you can’t find in a hoard. But those kind of customers are fewer than the special ones that come to see Madam Norna, and by now I’ve accumulated a nice wee pile of business cards on the counter, one which I expect Chronos to destroy any day now. How she hands them out them without leaving the shop is still a mystery. I’m always allowed to sit in on these meetings, no one ever objects, and the more I do the more I begin to question reality. In the beginning, the first few weeks, it was easy to laugh and scoff and diagnose them with being mental. But now, it’s harder to ignore the fact that there always seems to be more than one explanation to every tale.

The Madam, living up to her name, rarely comes down, so I have to settle for Chronos, the human-like cat who takes daily joy in irritating me. It reminds me of this story that one of my friends studying psychology told me last year down the pub. This psychologist, many moons ago, went to the arctic on his own to see what would happen to him without anyone to talk to. He slowly began to lose his grip on reality, starting questioning everything, and I can’t remember what happened to him in the end, but he proved that humans need other humans to stay sane. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can prove him right at least. The longer I spend alone in that shop, the more I find myself talking to that feline. Mostly threats, a few warnings. It was a joke at first, a way to vent my frustration, but the last few days I find things just slip out, conversational things, and even though I know he can’t understand me, sometimes, very occasionally, it seems like he can.

Anyway, about a week ago as I was trying to sort through the flimsy old books, I heard the bell ring, and whoever steps through the door becomes of immediate interest. I’ve even started betting with myself to see if I can guess what kind of customer they are. The ones who come into the shop to see Madam Norna always have the same deer in headlights look, lingering in the doorway, unsure if they’ve made a mistake and should turn around and walk back out. The minimalistic business card is usually crumpled or folded in their hands. The other kind of customer is the one who comes in and immediately choses a path to follow, their eyes roaming around wildly trying to make sense of the chaos. Those kind of customers always seem to find something, and it’s usually an item I’ve never seen before, even though I have a regular wee nosy.

This day it was a lassie of medium height, hair rippling down her shoulders in a waterfall of curls. We locked eyes for a brief second and exchanged the obligatory half-smile before she went on her own journey around the shop.

It could only have been a few minutes before I heard her call for me at the counter. As I approached, she was hovering over the glass, like a bee over a flower, enraptured by the sparkle. She was squinting longingly at something inside, and when she noticed me asked if she could see something out.

Now, have ye ever lost something, whether glasses or your keys, and frantically searched everywhere for them, convinced you’ve lost them on the bus. When you do eventually find them, it turned out you’d walked past them a few times, probably even stared at them during your search? It’s like that with the glass cabinet. I can’t tell how she managed to see this wee ring amongst all the grandeur. The ring she wanted was wee, unassuming, engulfed by the rubies and diamonds, fake or no, surrounding it. It wasn’t particularly pretty, not compared to some of the other items in there. Definitely not something I would’ve thought she’d choose. The band was a snake, with tiny scales engraved into the metal, which looked to be silver. This snake was eating its own tail. The one detail that made it stand out was that the snake had two rubies for eyes.

It shouldn’t have made me uneasy, but somehow it did. I handed it over, doubting it’d fit human hands, yet somehow the lassie slid it onto her finger with such ease you’d think it’d been made for her. She began the typical routine of holding her hand out, awing at the ring, moving her fingers this way and that so the ruby eyes glinted underneath the lights of the shop. She was like a pig in shite, exclaiming that the ring was made for her.

I didn’t say anything, though I could feel she was waiting for a compliment. Thankfully, someone else obliged. The Madam descended from her boudoir and told the lassie the ring suited her very well. When questioned on the price, the Madam gave five quid. I’m no jewellery expert, but that ring was worth well above a fiver. I couldn’t understand the low price, but who was I to question my boss about something in her shop? Maybe it wasn’t silver, and those weren’t rubies in the snake’s eyes, but as far as I’m aware they only hallmark precious metals.

The lassie whipped her purse out so quickly I nearly got whiplash, foisting her crumpled fiver in my face. Then came the madam’s condition, although to me it sounded more like a warning. The lassie couldn’t return the ring. A bit of a weird thing to say, isn’t it? I mean we both saw how well that ring fitted the lassie, so why would she return it? Was it faulty? Is that why it was so cheap?

The lassie didn’t seem to care, and without thought just nodded in agreement, and left with the bounce of someone who thinks they’ve grabbed a bargain. After she was gone, I couldn’t help but ask why the Madam had sold a hallmarked ring so cheaply. All she said was that some prices can’t be paid with money, and predicted we’d be seeing the lassie again.

I hate these predictions of hers. I’ve been in that shop weeks and not one of those predictions has ever fallen through, they all come to pass. It’s how they come about that worries me. She predicted the man who’d killed his missus would be back, and he was, screaming and cursing her. Don’t even get me started on that creepy scarecrow. I began to dread the lassie’s return, and until a few days later when the event inevitably happened, I was wracking my brains trying to figure it out.

This time her hair was dishevelled, and she wore no makeup. She was like a before and after photo, or a reality vs. Instagram comparison. I heard the bell go and this may be the solitude induced madness talking but it sounded different, a lower pitch than normal, and my brief joy at the thought of a customer turned sour when I laid my eyes on her. I even backed up a wee bit when she came charging over to the counter where I was like a bull who’s seen red.

She didn’t say a word and just thrust her hand at me. Reluctantly I inspected it and instantly regretted the bacon butty I’d had for breakfast. The finger, which still held the ring, was grim. There were scratch marks that wept with blood, as if the snake itself had been biting her. It wouldn’t come off she told me in a growl so feral you’d think it was my fault. She was in such a state that she even began to pull at the ring so viciously I thought she was going to pull the finger off entirely. I tried to explain that her finger was swollen, and if she left it a few hours then it’d probably come off.

She wasn’t convinced. Her nostrils flared and she protested that her fingers weren’t swollen, as if I were bloody blind, but she was adamant she wanted the ring off, and accused me and the Madam of playing a trick on her. It’s like the Madam is summoned if you say her name aloud because she appeared from upstairs, bringing a welcome air of calm, and – I can’t believe I’m saying this – sanity. It didn’t last long.

She informed the lassie there was no trick, and as she’d exclaimed delightfully a few days earlier, the ring was made for her. Still pulling on her finger, scratching at what little skin she had left, she said she didn’t want it and if we didn’t help her, she’d get her boyfriend to sue us.

 I glanced anxiously at the Madam, feeling the worry crease my eyebrows. I didn’t want to get sued, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I expected this threat might get some reaction, but it’s like the Madam wears a mask, a really good one, that never creases or shows any emotion. She didn’t blink at this threat. The only change to her facial expression was the slight upwards curve of her lips, like she was smiling. In reply, she asked:

“Which boyfriend would that be?”

The question took the wind of rage out the lassie’s sails and she recoiled. I’m getting used to these out the blue revelations from my boss. It’s better not to think of how she knows these things about strangers, otherwise I find it hard to sleep at night. Using the lassie’s surprise to her advantage, the Madam told her the ring wouldn’t come off until she righted what she’d done wrong. She looked to me and commented, as if we were in conversation, about fidelity and about how it was rarer these days when in the past it’d been expected. The entire situation was weird, so these comments never stood out to me.

The lassie found her voice eventually and denied the implication that she was a player, or cheater, or whatever you want to call it, claiming that she’d never do such a thing. Obviously, the Madam didn’t believe her and said her denial would place her in a precarious position If she didn’t change her attitude, or her lifestyle, and reminded her that there was no returns on the ring.

Having vented her frustration out on us, the lassie exited in a comically villainous way by vowing to make the wee shop pay. The bell clattered as she went, as happy as I was to see the back ae her.

The entire thing was…odd, so it took me a few seconds to shake it off and ask the Madam if she wasn’t going after her to convince her not to sue us. With her normal confidence, she stated we wouldn’t be getting sued by that lassie as she wouldn’t have the means to do it once the ring was done with her. She instructed me to put it back in the cabinet when it returned. Before I could point out that she’d said there were no returns, she already disappeared up the stairs like a ghost.

I tried not to think about it, and as the days went by I slowly forgot, until this morning on the way to the shop. Just as I was about to enter, I kicked something on the pavement and heard the metallic chink as it skittered from me. I paused to look at it, as you do in case it’s money, but all I saw were those rubies sparkling in the Scottish rain. My curiosity overcame me, and I bent down to pick it up, and can you believe there wasn’t a mark on it? After all that abuse it got from the lassie trying to get it off, it looked exactly the same as the day I’d first sold it to her. It’d also been on the pavement outside the shop with people kicking it, walking on it, prams rolling over it. Not a scratch, or dent, or chip was visible.

As instructed, I took it into the shop with me, and unusually the Madam was waiting. She exclaimed, with as much emotion as she could muster, that she’d been wondering when it’d show up, and took it from my hands. I told her it’d just been lying on the street outside, and why hadn’t the lassie just come back in with it herself rather than throw it away?

The answer was that she probably hadn’t even noticed it was gone. The madam turned to me then, a serious expression on her face that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

“Let me tell you about the things in this shop,” she said, “Everything in here is meant for someone, somewhere out there, and it’s here waiting for them to find it.”

The only sound I could hear was the slow thud of metal on glass as she put the ring down on the counter. I asked her why the ring hadn’t come off before when she’d been so desperate to remove it. Even though I’d thought it must be because her finger was swollen, I couldn’t understand why the madam had said the ring wasn’t done with her, as if it were alive with an agenda.

The Madam paused, never taking that serious stare from me. She said she’d leave the explanation up to me, and that I was to choose which I was more comfortable with. As if there’s more than one explanation of why a ring can’t come off someone’s finger. It had to be swollen, it had to be, that’s the only logical thing here, in a situation where logic seems to have deserted.

In that shop, reality is lost. Logic, reason, the laws of the world, become unfocused, almost as if they don’t apply. Why is it that nothing is as it should be? Why can the Madam never answer a bloody question? She’s not helping, not with this enigmatic shite she has going on. I’m honestly surprised I’ve never seen her hover over a crystal ball. Well, she can believe whatever she wants, the ring didn’t come off because the lassie’s fingers were obviously swollen. She’d left it outside because she didn’t want to see us, or her pride was hurt, or she only wanted to see us in court. I don’t know, but that ring is just a ring, like any you can buy.

So, why am I dreading someone wanting to see it again?

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