Episode 8 – The Allure

The bell above the shop door is a regular feature of my days there. It’s as much a part of the package as Chronos or the Madam. It’s like a signal, a delicate flare to indicate that I’ve crossed the threshold into weird. The shop’s a quiet place, and often it’s the only noise I’ll hear for hours. Every time it jingles there’s always something interesting coming after. I thought the lack of noise would eventually send me to a loony bin, but I’ve become used to it. It’s tranquil, a respite from the busy, selfish world outside.

But not today. Today it was disturbed by two roasters, and they weren’t even customers. Fionn and Reid had beaten me to the shop and were bickering with such animation I was sure something would be knocked off the counter or one of the shelves. Voices were raised, arms and fingers were animated. So heated was their *witty-wattying they didn’t even hear the bell or notice I’d come in.

The only thing that had was Chronos, who was uncharacteristically glad to see me. No wonder with those *bawbags bickering like a pair of fish wives. We both stood near the door, listening to their fighting, wondering when they were going to realise they had an audience. From what I could glean, amidst the barbs and insults, they were arguing over where to put something, I couldn’t tell what this something was.

I became impatient and decided to interrupt, inadvertently joining Fionn’s side of the argument when I took my own wee pop at Reid for lolling about the shop all day every day like a *ned outside of *Greggs. Ever since he became my familiar he’s always there, in the shop, when I get in, when I leave. I’m sure he lives there now, or maybe he’s too afraid to leave seeing as people are meant to be after him. But we’ll get onto that later.

Fionn showed me what they were fighting over. It was a vase, ae all things. The way they were going on you’d have thought it was the *footie, or the bloody holy grail. It was a pretty vase though, reminded me a wee bit of a stained-glass window you yet in *kirks and cathedrals. No two pieces were the same size, or even the same colour, but its beauty didn’t keep my mind from wondering what sort of horror it had in store for the poor sod who bought it. There always seems to be an edge to the things in the shop, and it’s impossible to know just by looking at them. There was also the bad feeling I had in my gut whenever I looked at it, and I know by now that can’t be good.

The two lads had been having a disagreement on where to put it, the window display or in the shop. I settled it by saying that whoever it was meant for would find it anywhere. I know, how good am I? I’m beginning to sound like the Madam. Reid wasn’t happy I’d disagreed with him, but just because he’s my familiar doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other all the time, does it?

I’m beginning to get the impression that Fionn and Reid don’t get along, which is great for me being stick in the middle like a *numpty. To be quite honest I’m not quite sure why Fionn’s hanging around a lot more recently, and I don’t want to ask. I like Fionn, he’s nice, and I like having him around or it’d just be me and the grumpy shite. Reid’s always asking me why I haven’t cleaned the shop up, as if I haven’t bloody spent the entire time trying to do just that. Fucking prick. He and Fionn fight, him and I fight, I don’t think he realises he’s the common denominator here.

It’s been at least a week since the ring, and Reid, have been in my life, and none of these gangster pals of his have shown up. I asked Reid the same thing, and when they were expected so I could doll myself up. All he could retaliate with was that they were not his pals. He’s not the sharpest tool. Fionn latched onto this conversation like a pig in shite, and began to tease Reid at being unable to protect himself.

Then something weird happened. Reid said something back, I can’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t rude, he didn’t even swear, it was a pretty tame retort, yet Fionn went from amused to anger like that *snap fingers*. His reply was even stranger. He told Reid to watch who he was talking to and that he was a bit too far down the food chain to be talking like that. I know, I feel like as soon as I get answers more questions appear. It’s like that dragon in Greek mythology if ye cut off one head two more’d appear. It’s exhausting.

Thankfully the bell saved us, and it heralded the arrival of a customer. It wasn’t the only thing. Almost as soon as the last echo of the bell had faded away I began to smell perfume. I say smell bit it was more like assaulted by it. Up my nostrils, down my throat, I can still smell it as I speak. You know when you were in school, at a dance or an *empty, the lads would smell so strong you’d think they bathed in aftershave. It was like this lassie who’d come in had done the same thing, as if no one told her perfume should be applied sparingly. It was a heavy scent, hung in the air, musky and overpowering. I could even bloody taste it.

That wasn’t the only thing. The lassie, when I tried to look at her, was blurry around the edges, the granny glasses effect that the roaster at the club had. What I could see clearly was that she was pretty, and I mean artists’ muse level of beauty. You know, the Helen of Troy type, a face that launches a thousand ships, or starts a thousand fights down the pub. Before I could even open my mouth to welcome her, or to say hi, Reid and Fionn had gravitated their way over to this lassie, like positive magnets after a negative one, stumbling over their feet to speak to her first. The paths are barely wide enough for one person, and both were blocking the poor lassie’s way to the counter, where she wanted to be.

She told them, in the meekest voice I’ve ever heard, to leave her alone, but she never made eye contact with any of us. The two lads are obviously strangers to consent and paid her no mind, which pissed me off. I scolded them to leave her alone, and as soon as I’d said it Reid’s whole body went rigid, straightening, as if someone had given him an electric shock. It was hilarious, and it made him leave the customer alone. My words didn’t have the same effect on Fionn, who continued to practically hover on her shoulder.

I wasn’t having this, so I took a few paces towards him and grabbed his wrist tightly, managing’ to hold back the “what the fuck is wrong with you?” that threatened to fall out my mouth. He eventually looked at me, this strange dazed look in his face. Honestly, if I didn’t know any better I’d have said he’d been smoking *wacky baccy. It kind of reminded me of Chelle in the club with that weirdo. As soon as I’d touched her, she’d gone like that as well, dazed and confused.

I shoved Fionn out the lassie’s way, which was surprisingly easy to do he was that out of it. I apologised to her, not even going near an explanation of why those two *bawbags had acted that way.

She began to shake her head, and explained that it wasn’t just them, and that all men, and even some women, were all over her wherever she went. Someone had given her the Madam’s card, which she procured and handed to me. There was a story here, and I couldn’t have been happier.

I invited her to follow me to the door upstairs, and before I closed it behind us I ordered the two roasters to stay in the shop. You’ve probably guessed by now who was waiting at the top of the stairs for us. After making the tea it was time to sit on the floor and listen to story time.

The lassie repeated what she’d said to me in the shop, about men not leaving her alone. Turns out it’s been so bad in some cases she’s had to phone the police. I know I sound amused but there was nothing funny in her expression or tone. She looked genuinely afraid, as if leaving her house was a struggle.

I turned to the Madam with bated breath. I’ve never met someone so unpredictable. I know it’s not been long since I started working in the shop and sitting in on these meetings, but I honestly can never tell what’s going to come out her mouth. What was she hearing that I couldn’t? What was this lassie thinking? Was her story even the truth?

Eventually, in her soothing tone, she asked if the lassie had a boyfriend. The lassie answered that she had, but it had ended a few months ago. I glanced back to the Madam, as if looking at her would make me able to see inside her head. She checked if the lassie’s problems had started after she stopped seeing the boyfriend. The lassie, understandably, didn’t know how to answer this question, but I’m getting to know the signs by now. And sure enough, in the wake of the lassie’s hesitation, Madam Norna asked who’d ended the relationship, the lad, or his *missus?

I’m not a beginner at this, I’ve sat it on many meetings when revelations like this come out, but even I was impressed with this one. The lassie was taken aback, body going rigid. I don’t think I’ve ever realised how it must feel to have your secrets just exposed like that, without you having to say a word. I certainly wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of it.

After the lassie gathered herself, she immediately stated she hadn’t known about her boyfriend’s missus. I’m not sure what to believe, and the Madam never told me afterwards. So, the truth of that matter is lost to me, and I couldn’t tell just by looking. Relationships, love, marriage, it’s all so complicated, and something I don’t understand. Are some people great at lying? Definitely. So good they’d be able to have a *missus and a girlfriend? I don’t doubt it. But I didn’t know this lassie, she was a stranger to me, and to be honest I’m not the morality police, if she knowingly wanted to have a relationship with a married man then that was her choice. I just hope she liked being called a homewrecker.

Regardless of the truth, the Madam told the lassie that there was a price for her help. Now that was a new one. In the months I’ve been there I don’t think the Madam’s ever charged these special customers for her services. They come in, spill their guts, and leave with some kind of candle, and never have to open their purses or wallets. Why the exception for this lassie?

She was a bit too eager with her answer, and made the mistake of saying she’d pay anything. Without hesitation Madam Norna told her that no one would ever fall in love with her again. The words sent out a finality that made the air in the room heavy and lethargic. I joined in the lassie as we both gaped at the Madam.

She took the words right out of my mouth when she queried how that was even possible. Typically, there was no further explanation. My boss told her that was the price, and asked if she wanted some time to think about it.

Silence fell. The lassie wasn’t the only one who needed time to think. How was this even possible? What sort of candle could stop people from falling in love with you? I began to realise even after all I’ve seen I’m still narrow-minded. This is the antique shop, where a ring can sort your life out, a scarecrow can curse your family, and people who need jobs see signs that aren’t there. There’s no such thing as impossible here.

The lassie answered quicker than I was comfortable with. She agreed. I don’t think she really knew what she was agreeing to, and to be fair to her neither did I. The only difference was I believed it was possible, and by her calm demeanour she obviously thought it wasn’t. I inspected her, hoping to hear even a snippet of her thoughts. What was going through her mind?

It was the Madam’s voice that snapped me out of it as she told me to go and fetch a small wooden box from the cabinet, on the lid would be a single onyx stone. It’s not a long walk, but one of my feet had gone numb and so I nearly fell face first after a few steps. It didn’t take me long to find this box, amongst the glass vials of strange liquid and the loose papers with barely legible writing.

I handed it to the Madam, who procured a silver necklace from inside, a weird swirly pattern engraved on the teardrop charm that hung from it. It looked expensive and old but well-cared for. There wasn’t a mark on the silver chain, no discolouration. It was very fine and delicate, as if holding it too tightly would make it disintegrate. The Madam placed it lightly on the table.

The lassie was told to wear the necklace for seven days. She wasn’t allowed to take it off because if she did it wouldn’t work. After the seven days had ended no man, or woman, would ever bother her that way again. I’ve never seen anyone move as fast as that lassie did for the pendant. With happy tone she thanked the Madam, but I began to feel that unease again, like that lassie had signed away her soul.

She left the shop, but I stayed with the Madam, disliking the bitter aftertaste in my mouth. I asked my boss what had been wrong with the lassie, and if that was the reason Fionn and Reid had acted so strangely around her? The Madam’s smile had a sinister edge as she explained the boyfriend’s missus was the jealous type.

“You think the missus did something to her, to make people instantly attracted to her?” I questioned, before admitting I still didn’t understand.

Because the lassie had stolen her husband, the missus had made it so that every man she met wouldn’t be able to leave her alone. She’d be harassed wherever she went, tormented. The missus had cursed her husband’s mistress, and curses filled with bitterness and hurt were strong, and usually lasted a lifetime. The necklace was a charm that would protect her for the rest of her life. This answer took the air out of the room, plunging it into this horrible silence. There was something a bit too permanent about this payment, and what was even more tragic was that I don’t think the lassie believed it. I mean, who would?

I eventually asked my boss if the lassie had known her boyfriend was married. She gave me this look, like she couldn’t tell what I was thinking for the first time since we’d met.

“Would it matter? His wife seems to think she did,” was the answer.

I know people joke about the missus never being wrong, but it’s just a joke. We’re all human, and we all make mistakes. But I kind of understood. If she hadn’t known, like she claimed, then what happened to her was tragic. On the other hand, if she had known and did it anyway, was this karma, or poetic justice? I think what annoyed me more was the fact that it takes two people to cheat. Where was the husband in all of this? Then again, if she had the power to curse her husband’s mistress, what else could she do? And if she’d gone after the lassie, I could only imagine what she would’ve done to her husband.

There was something bitter about it all. I wasn’t satisfied like I usually am with these cases. It felt like nobody won. It also raised the sticky question of what kind of person can physically curse someone? I’d seen it in the shop, the behaviour of Fionn and Reid around the lassie, as if someone had cast a spell on them. There’s so much I don’t know, and this is the first time I’ve felt uneasy in ignorance.

Footnotes:

*witty-wattying – Scottish slang for chatting, gossiping, etc. No official spelling.

*bawbag – Scottish slang for idiot (yes, another one).

*ned – Scottish slang, usually means non-educated delinquent. Similar to the English word Chav. Someone who’s possibly unemployed, collecting benefit, and generally just causing trouble. Can always be spotted wearing a tracksuit.

*Greggs – UK baked goods chain.

*footie – British slang, short for football (real football, not the American kind).

*Kirk – mostly Scottish word for a church, predominately Church of Scotland (yes, we have our own branch of Christianity).

*numpty – yes, you guessed it, another word for idiot.

*empty – (possibly old) Scottish slang for a house party. Called an empty because parents were usually not at home.

*wacky baccy – Cannabis.

*missus – British slang term usually for wife/female partner.

Episode 7 – The Familiar

This is going be a story and a half. I thought all of the things until now were unbelievable, but we’re nowhere near the pinnacle of strange yet. It’s been a few days since Madam Norna told me the truth about mostly everything. I took a few days away just to, you know, take it all in, and I think I’m fine with it now. Destiny, fate, a shop full of horrors just waiting to turn unsuspecting customer’s lives upside down – I’m all caught up. Still feels like there’s more than a few things missing in this puzzle, but doesn’t look like I’ll be getting more answers for a while yet, so I’ll have to make do.

Anyway, I went back to the shop this morning, and on entering was greeted by Chronos, lounging on the counter like an emperor on his elevated throne. He glanced at me lethargically as I came in, as if to say “what took you so long to get here?”. I informed him I was early, then checked myself. Why the fuck am I still talking to that wee shite? He never says anything back.

The Madam was nowhere to be seen, which is no unusual thing, but this time I didn’t search her out. After our last conversation I didn’t think she had anything more to tell me, and it seemed a bit weird just looking for her to have a chat. I also didn’t know if she was alone, I mean her and Fionn might be up there, and I didn’t want to see that. Equally likely was a customer and if I wasn’t there for the beginning then there was no point in interrupting.

I resigned myself to looking busy, attempting to familiarise myself with the items in the shop, as far as that’s possible. I must’ve sorted one display or another at least a hundred times since I started but it never even makes a dent in the rest of the mess. I do have a habit of climbing under the tables and drawers to see what’s hidden there. One time I found this wicker basket full of old cigarette cards. I admit I had to Google what they were. From the Victorian era to WWII cigarette companies used to put these tiny wee cards into packets of *fags in order to stiffen them. These were collectible and featured famous actors and actresses, sports players, even new fashions. I’ve found a few of these albums filled to bursting with these cards. Dusty, worn old books, some falling apart at the seams, with famous 30s starlets faces’ slotted into the pages.

I keep finding these albums recently, ever since the first one it’s been a flood of them. I can’t tell you what fascinates me so much about them, the owner probably died of lung cancer they must’ve smoked so many fags. I think it’s the condition. Some of the albums may be battered, but the cards themselves look like they could’ve been manufactured yesterday. Such care gone into something so…I don’t know…normal.

I was rummaging through yet another basket filled with these albums when I heard a door somewhere slam open. It didn’t just cut through the silence of the shop, it completely obliterated it. There was no sound of the bell, so it must be the private door up to the madam’s rooms.

I’d got such a fright I’d smacked ma head on the table, again. I’ll give myself a concussion one of these days. I didn’t want to come out. Under the table was safe, whoever it was couldn’t have seen me, and fuck knows who the Madam had pissed off now with her mind reading. It could be a serial killer for all I knew.

“I know you’re here”, a deep, gruff burr resounded around the shop, no making me any more eager to leave ma hiding place.

It wasn’t looking good. I couldn’t get to the door from where I was without him seeing me. I was more afraid than I’d like to admit. What if he’d done something to the Madam? I’d even left Chronos on the counter, if I was lucky maybe he’d get it first.

When the Madam’s velvety tones swirled around the shop, reassuring me that whoever it was meant no harm, I emerged from my hiding place. As soon as I came into sight, this broad-shouldered lad with dark hair and eyes that screamed murder came charging for me like a bull after red. I honestly thought he was going to bulldoze me out the way, but he stopped barely an arm’s length away, glowering as though I’d nicked his wallet. I never knew how much I liked my personal space until that moment.

He was eyeing me as much as I was him. He then demanded gruffly that I help him. There was no further explanation, no more detail, just that. As always, I seemed to be the only one in the room missing something. The madam informed the stranger, because fuck if I was getting an introduction, that he couldn’t force me to help him and that I had to choose to do so.

I had two words to say to him and neither were polite, or best said in front of my boss. The lad whirled to the madam and huffed angrily that she’d said I would. My boss corrected him and said I could, only if I wanted to. He turned his irritated gaze back on me but before he could say anything I interupted.

“Who are you?”

It wasn’t said politely but at least I hadn’t sworn. The lad didn’t answer, Madam Norna did, introducing this brazen stranger as Reid. She told me that he’d made a mistake and that he needed some help.

“Can you not speak for yourself?” I snapped.

He’d pissed me off. I may not be swearing but that didn’t mean I had to be civil. Turns out I was right because he refused to answer my question or give me any more details on what he wanted my help with or what the trouble was. Again, the Madam stepped in, telling me this lad, Reid, wished to become my familiar.

I laughed, more of a snort really. Isn’t a familiar a weird word for pet? Like in those fantasy novels you get about witches and warlocks. Come to think about it, I’m not sure I’ve fully accepted my life is turning into one of those novels. I blurted this to the Madam and Reid, which only caused his frown to deepen and the loathing in his eyes grow claws before he snarled that he wasn’t a pet.

That was hardly the way to speak to someone he wanted a favour from, I reminded him smugly. I then point blank refused to help someone I didn’t know out of no one knows how much trouble. He could be embroiled in some crazy shite, and I have coursework to hand in.

This Reid character doesn’t seem to like answering questions, only snapping at people. Yet again Madam Norna filled in the blanks. This trouble involved a gang, although she didn’t elaborate, and only by becoming my familiar could he save himself.

The last few months haven’t made me soft in the head just yet. There was no way I was helping a *rando from a gang. And let’s not forget, he’d come to the shop to see the Madam, not me. He wanted her help, so what was I even doing in this conversation? I said as much to my boss, with a nicer tone than that.

 She gave me a bullshit answer if ever I heard one. It would be “more beneficial” for me to help him. I could see the relish sparking in her eyes like the gems and jewels beneath the counter and hear a hint of an agenda in her softy spoken reply.

I started to think, really take a few seconds. How could this human lad become my familiar? Weren’t they pets, like owls and cats? How could a person be a familiar to another person? Wasn’t that more like slavery…or marriage.

“Where’s the catch?” I questioned.

None, according to her. This Reid lad would be my familiar and do anything I commanded. She was telling me that I could, somehow, degrade this bad-tempered, rude lump into my personal servant? I should’ve felt bad, disgusted at this arrangement, but I hesitate to admit I didn’t feel those things. I was so bewildered and frustrated that any way at getting back at this stranger was good enough for me.

I didn’t know how being attached to me was going to save him from a gang, and to be quite frank I probably should’ve asked. But you know me, I’m a headfirst kind of lassie. I also don’t seem to be making a habit of long-term thinking. All I wanted to do at the time was embarrass this lad, teach him what manners were. He obviously wasn’t happy about being my familiar instead of the madams and seeing how irritated that made him was addictively satisfying. I’ve never taken such a quick dislike to someone, especially with hardly any provocation. I mean he was a prick, but I’ve been spoken to worse down the pub on a Saturday.

It’s probably best not dwelt on. I made the decision and we both have to live with it now. I agreed to this arrangement of master and familiar, whatever that means. The Madam conjured a small ring from her pocket, as if she bloody knew what my answer would be. Maybe it’s not just the front room where her powers of telepathy work.

She handed it to Reid, and without ceremony or grace he slid it onto my pinky, and that’s where it’s been for the last few days. It’s not an ugly ring, it is strange though. I think it’s probably gold, I’d check for a hallmark if it’d come off my bloody finger. I’m getting unwelcome flashbacks to that lassie with the snake ring. I get why she was so worked up now.

I’ve tried everything; fat, oil, soap, even cutting it off, but it won’t budge. And every time I fail, the wee beady eyes of the fox’s face glimmer triumphantly.

*fags – British slang, not to be confused for the offensive word that starts with the same three letters, and can be shortened to this. Another word for a cigarette.

*rando – Scottish slang, short for randomer. A stranger, a random person.

Episode 6 – The memory & The Truth

It’s been a few days since my encounter at the club, with the psycho and with Fionn. I was hoping to find some more sand to bury my head in, but I didn’t manage it. So, this morning’ I finally went to the shop.

I stood on the other side of the road so long someone thought I’d been given a *dizzy. I wish I had been waiting on someone from Tinder, I’m sure that couldn’t have been worse than what I was actually doing. I was inspecting the shop front, like by staring at it long enough I could puzzle out its secrets. But there was nothing out of the ordinary, and there never has been just looking at it. I’d been standing staring for so long that I did begin to notice something that was odd. No one walking past the shop ever looked into the window. This may not sound strange, but when I think back on it I don’t remember ever seeing anyone stop and look at the display, and there’s some nice things in there. Even the café next door received a cursory glance from passers-by, and they don’t even have anything in the window.

Why would no one ever look in the shop, even to check their own reflection? I do it, and whoever pretends they don’t is a liar. It was like the shop didn’t exist or was empty to everyone that walked by. But that was impossible. I was staring at it, I’d been inside and seen the hoard, got lost a few times, even added an item or two to the display. There was definitely a shop there, why people never looked inside, why everyone who does manage to find the door always buys something that alters their life in some way, and why the lost souls who come to see Madam Norna always have an impossible problem are all questions I was dying to have the answer to.

How did the Madam know that man, Sutherland, had murdered his missus? Why hadn’t the lassie been able to remove the snake ring when she’d wanted to? What had been up with that scarecrow, and had I just hallucinated those hounds that had chased me round the shop? Every day gets stranger, odder with every second confined by the shop, and now it’s followed me outside, to ma real life.

With what courage I’d managed to gather I went into the shop, heard the bell welcoming me back, the only thing to do so. The shop was empty, no Chronos, the wee shite, no Madam Norna. If I wanted answers, I’d have to go and find them. I went and put my jacket and bag behind the counter and just as I was about to make my way towards the private door, I heard the bell go again. Out of habit I whipped ma head up and saw a couple enter. Thinking back I’m not sure why I presumed they were a couple because they weren’t holding hands or anything like that. They didn’t even speak a word. It was just the way they were in each other’s space, as though magnets were drawing them to one another, two people so accustomed to being in each other’s company that it’s now their natural state. They both walked down one path and then the next, browsing in comfortable silence.

One of them looked sad. He was the taller of the two, dressed smart with crisp shirt and tailored trousers. He was more interested in his boyfriend than the many trinkets and objects in the shop. After they were both finished looking round, they came over to the counter, a black box in one of their hands. I think there were cufflinks inside, if I’m remembering the right box. I’ve looked through the hoard so many times I should know for certain. The smaller one, who had the box in his hand, placed it on the counter and fished around in his pocket for his wallet. I took the box, opening a paper bag to put it in, and casually asked if the cufflinks were for the handsome lad that he’d come in with.

“What lad?” he questioned, stating that he’d come in alone. The cufflinks were a birthday present for his Dad.

I almost dropped the paper bag. I glanced between the lads, from one to the other, expecting the punchline, the obnoxious laugh of someone who’s pulled a successful prank, but there was nothing, just one of the most awkward silences I’ve ever experienced. My entire life’s beginning to feel like the lead up to a punchline, except I’m still waiting. To me, the two lads were as real as each other, both flesh and blood. Yet, somehow, the taller one was…what, another hallucination?

What was identical between the two was the sadness dug into the grooves and lines of their faces, hiding in the furrow of their brows. I didn’t say a word, my voice all but lost to me, and solemnly I handed over the paper bag with the cufflinks. I offered an apologetic smile but knew there was nothing I could say that would explain or make sense of what I’d just done.

The lad and his shadow left the shop, and I kept my eyes on them until they were out of sight of the window. I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realised I was holding, and when I perched my hands on the edge of the counter, I noticed they were shaking. I didn’t need to look at the private door to know Madam Norna had joined me.

“What was that?” I questioned with a calm I was sure couldn’t last.

“A memory,” was the simple yet cryptic answer.

I stared at her, across the drawers and chairs and books. I noticed her fiery red hair, the impossibly blue eyes, and it was like I was seeing her fae the first time, again. Something in her eyes told me she understood that I knew the world wasn’t what I’d thought. I asked her how I could see this memory.

“They are called memories because they are neither a ghost nor a poltergeist, they have no earthly remains or unfinished business, but the longing they have for a person they left behind or of that person for them is so strong it creates a bridge over the void of this world and the next, so they can always be beside the one they long for. Memories fade with time, ghosts do not. They are harmless, noticed by few, including us.”

I don’t really know how I feel about the term “us”. It suggests I‘ve been initiated into this club I don’t remember joining, and I’m not sure I want to. What I was beginning to understand was that ghosts and memories weren’t the only things I didn’t understand. She invited me to join her upstairs as it was time for explanations.

We couldn’t go into the parlour without making some tea, except this time I wasn’t the one making it. From what I could smell and see the leaves she used looked to be more harm than good. The kitchen itself seemed no different from the last time I was in it. I don’t know what I expected, but shouldn’t things appear changed now? Shouldn’t the walls be brighter, the sky a deeper blue, the pavement a sharper grey? Shouldn’t I be seeing in 4K instead of HD?

Eventually the kettle was boiled, the pot filled, and it was time to go into the parlour. I half expected her to invite me to sit where customers usually do. Was that what I was? She didn’t say anything, and out of habit I sat on the floor and immediately asked her what the antique shop was. Her answer was that it was an antique shop, full of old items waiting for owners to find them. Realising this wasn’t going to be an easy conversation, I pointed out that wasn’t all it was. The Madam liked that I hadn’t phrased it as a question and gave me one of her subtle smiles. According to her, the shop is there for people who need it, as is she. There are things that must be done, and she was there to ensure they were. If this sounds to you an awful lot like fate then you’re not alone, and I said as much.

“The all-encompassing fate, the premise that your life is written for you and everything you do is predestined is not quite true. There are some things that must happen in a person’s life, predefined points that they must live through; as for the rest that is entirely up to them, to a certain extent. If someone strays too far from their fated point then nature will correct them, one way or another. I observe the power of fate, I help it along if needs be, but I am here for other purposes, there are more forces at work than just destiny, but that is for another day. Tell me, how do you think you ended up in this shop?”

That was easy, I’d seen a notice in the window, and stumbled through the door with a CV in hand. By the sly smile she gave me I started to think that wasn’t the right answer.

“There was no notice, I did not place one there.”

The teacup stopped halfway to my lips, close enough for me to smell the bouquet of herbs she’d made it with. I stared at her blankly, my mind takin a few minutes to wrap itself around what she was implying.

“So, I imagined it?” I checked after a while.

Apparently, no. Well, she said not quite. The fact is there was no sign in the window, not a physical one anyway. She reminded me of what she’d told me when I’d first started, about people only entering the shop if they needed to be there. Therefore, I needed to be in the shop, and the only way I’d have gone in was by seeing a job advert in my hour of need.

The handful of brain cells I possess were working overtime, pulling all the information I’d been given together to try and form some understanding. I’ve taken easier exams.

“You’re saying that my working here is a destined point in my life?” I questioned.

The only reply I got was a gentle nod of her head. I narrowed ma eyes.

“What are you?”

Unfortunately, she said it wasn’t time for me to know that yet, but it would come, like so many other things. We continued in silence as she sipped her tea and I tried to swallow mine. I sensed we were beginning a new kind of relationship. I began to feel like she’d never been my boss, but instead, a teacher. I just wish I knew what she was teaching me, and why.

I then proceeded to grill the Madam about everything that’d happened to me since starting my job, and the first on the list was, obviously, the scarecrow. The creepy wee doll that had changed an innocent wee lassie into a demon, and according to the madam caused all the misfortune around her Mum’s pals and neighbours. It met a fiery end in the Madam’s fireplace. I was starving for answers, but the Madam takes her time doing everything. Taking a long sip of tea was more important than putting me out ma misery.

“It was a cursed object, it brings misfortune to all that own it, or rather those who are near the person who owns it. It feeds from its owner’s hatred and anger. There are not many left. It is a rare thing to see.”

It’s quite hard to pick up on what Madam Norna really thinks, her tone is always level, her gaze always calm. I’m getting to know wee signs, wee details that tell me something. One of them is tone. Underneath the silk voice, you can sometimes catch an emotion. She explained the cursed object with some reverence, as if she was happy she’d got to see a rare thing, despite its aforementioned destructive capabilities.

I queried why she hadn’t been more insistent on taking it from the wee lassie if it could cause, and did cause, so much harm. At the time she’d told me to leave it in the shop, but that sentence reminded me that it’d also disappeared from where I’d put it. I, in my voluntary ignorance, assumed the lassie had taken it – more wanted the lassie to have taken it. I checked with the Madam, and yes, that scarecrow did literally climb out the bucket I’d tossed it in and walked out of the shop. I was more than happy to leave the logistics of its escape to ma imagination.

I sipped the tea, more out of politeness. It’s a bit like alcohol, it gets better after a few sips. Sitting on the floor, after more than a month of working in that shop, I realised in that time I’d exchanged very few words with my employer, or whatever she was now. We’d never chatted or gossiped, or anything you’d normally do with a colleague. I still didn’t know anything about her. Perhaps that would come in time, like the other things had.

The front room has a different feel to it when there’s no customers. It’s like a sanctuary, a place people go to be safe, and although I didn’t need help, I still felt like the darker side of what I’d experienced couldn’t get me in there. Perhaps it was the Madam. Everything about her is calm, like still water in a loch, and there’s a touch of the otherworldly, as if she’s not all human.

That sounds daft, what else can she be? I can’t put my finger on it, but at times there’s a streak of the unexplainable about her, on a different level from the rest of the shop.

Next on the list was the snake ring that wouldn’t come off the lassie’s finger. I’d actually looked this one up, or at least tried to, and Google had told me that a snake eating its own tail was called an Ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a cycle. As you can tell it didn’t give me any more of a clue on what the ring had been.

Turns out the snake design is more literal than symbolical. It’s literally a serpent eating its own tail, which translates to someone who destroys their own chances of happiness through the decisions they make. The lassie was being unfaithful to her boyfriend, so the ring wouldn’t come off until she fixed her mistake.

This one was a bit far-fetched for me. If there was such a thing as anti-cheating jewellery, why couldn’t I get it at Primark? I said as much to Madam Norna. That got a delicate chortle. Unfortunately, there isn’t such an object that prevents infidelity, it’d just worked that way on the lassie, and wouldn’t work the same way fae the next person who it ended up with.

I’ve thought about this since. If there’s an item like that in the shop as I speak that can sort out people’s lives for them, then what does everything else do? I’ve definitely said before that everyone who comes in and buys something always seems to find an item I’ve never seen before. Is it like selective blindness? The people who buy things are the only ones who can see it because it’s meant for them? That’s how the shop works, isn’t it? The people who go in and seek help, the people who go in and find a job, and the people who enter to have a look. They all need to be there. I don’t see the objects they buy until they hand over the money because that item isn’t meant for me.

I find it so fascinating. At least most of me does. The rest is afraid I’ll touch something I’m not supposed to and end up cursed for life. I understand why I’m getting paid so well now.

I wasn’t done with my questions though. I finally asked my boss how she knew the things she did about customers. The man on my first day who’d killed his missus, the cheating lassie who’d bought the ring. The Madam had known all of it.

She informed me it was her job to know, and that she could see these things about customers. I didn’t understand what she meant by see. She explained that when a customer was in the parlour, she could essentially read their mind. She didn’t put it that way, but that’s how I understood it. During their conversations whenever the Madam asked a question there were two answers. The one which the customer said aloud, and the other which they thought, subconsciously or not.

I glanced at the sofa where the customers always sat and vowed to never sit there. I was a bit disappointed. I’d wanted her to be clairvoyant, you know seeing into the future, but I’ll just have to settle for telepathic.

The final question I managed to ask her was probably the one I was more personally interested in. Who was Fionn? I told her about how he’d saved me at the weekend from the psycho in the alley. Madam Norna paused here to sip her tea, even though I knew there wasn’t enough left in her cup. It was the first time I’d ever seen her hesitate before answering, and I began to feel like I’d overstepped. There was something in her gaze, something that hurt me to look at, as though it was hurting her as well. It was gone almost as quickly as I’d glimpsed it.

She told me he was an old friend. The reason he’d said we were even was because I’d saved him the first time we’d met in the shop. I didn’t need to dig far to remember the day we’d first met. Sometimes when I’m in the flat by myself I can hear the feral growls rumbling around.

I’d been right. They were dogs, I just couldn’t see them right, although I was assured that my sight would develop in time. The dogs were debt collectors, and Fionn had fallen into some trouble over unpaid debts and had visited Madam Norna to ask for help getting out of it. I don’t know what these debts were, she wasn’t forthcoming about that. Maybe it was a student loan.

They entered the shop to collect Fionn, and make sure he paid his debt, but I’d expelled them before they managed. Not sure how – unless I can wish for things now. If the Madam can read people’s thoughts, does that mean I get a cool ability? I think I’d rather have telepathy than whatever I did to those dogs.

There was one last question I wanted to confirm, about Fionn and her. But I couldn’t bring myself to ask. There was no mistaking what I’d seen when I’d asked about him the first time. I’m not a complete cow, I didn’t want to rub salt on a wound. Thankfully, we both heard the bell on the door ring. It was fainter up here, but it also echoed, lingered in the air like spring rain. Knowing a cue when I saw one I got up and tended to the customer, who predictably parted with some cash.

*a dizzy – Scottish slang; to be stood up.

Episode 5 – The Club

*Croaks* I’m a bit hungover today, no surprise there. *Clears throat*. I don’t usually do this now, after 4 hours of sleep, but I want to get this recorded before I forget. I haven’t been to the shop in a few days, ever since…whatever it was happened. I’ve been having nightmares of being chased by something I never see, but I can hear the low growls, and somehow I know what it is and that I need to get away from it. As much as I’d like to think it’s just me, stress getting to me, or an undiagnosed mental condition, I just can’t convince myself. It’s that shop, it’s Madam Norna and the work she does, tearing away my perspective of the world until I’m left with something I don’t recognise.

I try not to dwell on these things, in fact I’ve actively been avoiding the subject with a very healthy dose of booze and nights out. Maybe it’s done something to my memory, making me see things…

So, me and my pals are at this club not far from here in the town centre. The one where every student and their dog ends up on a Friday and Saturday night because it’s the only decent place to go. Maybe not even decent, just the only place. We’ve all been drinking for hours, mostly shots, *Buckie, and I want to say gin, but after a while it all tastes the same. We’re all *steaming, so the night’s gone well.

We’re dancing together, with each other, with *randos, the music is so loud you can feel it beneath your feet. Everyone has their hands up, down, swirling around them. I’m having a grand old time, then it starts to get hot, and I begin to feel my calves burning. The alcohol’s starting to wear off, and the reality of my surroundings is starting to show itself. I’ve been splashed with something I hope is beer, it’s not just my calves that hurt but my feet, and the two grinding together beside me is beginning to make me feel like I stumbled into a private show.

To completely kill my buzz one of my pals, Michelle, weaved her way through the crowd like only a master can, coming in our direction. She didn’t look happy, more like the burden that alcohol had made her forget had returned with a vengeance. I stopped dancing, much to my leg’s relief, to ask her what was the matter? By asking I mean going as close as I could to her ear and shouting so she could hear me over the beat.

She said that she was being followed around the place by a lad who wouldn’t leave her alone. I started to scan the crowd to see if I could tell who this lad was, searching the sea ae faces and bodies that surrounded us. The strange thing was that it didn’t take me long to find the likely culprit. He was tall, rising above most of the people in the club, but the most distinctive feature was the cleft chin that I could make out even at some distance. He was leaning against the bar, practically on the other side of the club from us, looking straight in our direction with an intense stare and trouble carved into the set of his features. I say looking at us, but his eyes were glued to Michelle, almost predatorily.

What worried me more was I couldn’t seem to focus on his face. It was distorted, and no matter how many times I blinked, squinted, or blamed the flashing lights, it wouldn’t clear up. The shape of his face and the colour of his hair were the only details I could be certain about. It was probably the alcohol; it’d no worn off as much as I’d thought. I’m also blaming that for the light layer of smoke that floated in the air around his hand and the drink he held in it. Needless to say, I didn’t need to go nearer to know I didn’t like him.

In the off chance I was wrong, I checked with Michelle and she confirmed, solemnly, that he was the lad. Now, I wanted to go and say something, why should he get away with ruining her night? But Michelle shook her head when she saw what I was thinking told me that if she ignored him he might go away. I didn’t believe it, but I wasn’t about to upset her.

Instead, I pulled the rest of our group further into the crowd, hoping he’d lose sight of us. It wasn’t closing time for another few hours and the rest of my pals didn’t want to leave, so we stayed. A club’s really shite if you’re starting to sober up, but I couldn’t go and get another drink because of that arsehole, so he ruined my night as well, in more ways than just that.

I tried to keep an eye on Michelle, but as the most sober one of the group it was like trying to herd sheep. One was about to have a fight with a lassie we didn’t know, claiming there had been some kicking going on, another’s phone had to be confiscated to stop her fae calling her *roaster of an ex, the usual drama. At some point I inevitably lost Michelle, and the next time we met was closing time when we were all in line to get our jackets.

Amidst the drunken `I love you pal` I noticed that Michelle wasn’t with us. No sooner had I started looking for her I saw her as she walked past us, arm in arm with the cleft-chinned lad from earlier. Without really thinking I left the rest of the mob in the queue and ran after her, managing to catch them before they got to the stairs to leave. The first thing that came to my mind to say was “ye forgot your jacket”. Michelle leaned in close and whispered that she wouldn’t be needing it, followed by a suggestive wink that even I wasn’t drunk enough to miss. Before I could say anything’ in reply her new pal interrupted us, ensuring that he’d make sure she was safe.

Saying’ it like that makes anyone with any sense think you’re going to do the opposite. This time he was close, a bit too close for my liking, and the unsettling thing was I still couldn’t quite focus on his face, as if I was looking through ma grannie’s glasses. I could see his dark grey eyes, the neatly combed honey blonde hair, but everything else, the shape of his nose, the state of his skin, the wee details were blurred.

I focused my attention on Michelle, trying to contort my face into a question, checking if she was really sure she wanted to go anywhere with this creep. But her face had this glazed look to it, almost like she’d mixed alcohol with medication. Growing quite concerned by this point I reached out and placed my hand on her wrist, giving it a wee squeeze in the hopes it’d wake her from her trance. I asked her if she was sure, my final attempt at throwing her a lifeline before I’d be forced to watch as she left with the weirdo.

As soon as the question had fallen from my mouth Michelle dropped the stranger’s arm like it was infected, and stumbled unsteadily back, glancing with panic between the both of us. She began shaking her head confusedly, stating that she wanted to go home. I directed her to our pals who were waiting in the queue for the cloakroom and didn’t turn to the lad until I saw her safely with them. When I did look back at him, he was eyeing me with a peculiar expression. Not like the one he gave Michelle, predatory and confident. The one he gave me was something I’ve not seen since I punched a lad at school when I was twelve because he pinged the back of my bra – an unsteady concoction of confusion and fear.

I warned him, channelling my inner twelve-year-old, to leave Michelle alone. I’m not stupid enough to stick around to hear a retaliation so I walked away towards my pals in the queue, and eventually lost sight of the stalker.

 I would’ve said I was almost completely sober by this point, but it’s what happened next that makes me think otherwise. As we were still waiting in the eternal queue for the cloakroom, I glimpsed something that shouldn’t be there. Beside the door to the stairs that led outside, was a wee brown rabbit, sitting bonnie, with its ears sticking up. Its button nose wiggled ever so slightly from left to right, as if it were smelling a fresh carrot. By the way it was staring at me, glassy eyes wide and innocent, you’d have thought I was the one with the carrot. As soon as it realised it had my attention it began to hop its way over to the stairs. I thought it’d get trampled on, it was so wee, but not one of the drunken partiers stumbled anywhere near it. It arrived at the top step, and a few seconds later the white cotton ball of an arse disappeared down.

I don’t know what anyone else would do, but apparently I just follow my hallucinations now. After carelessly handing over my cloakroom ticket to one of my pals, the next thing I remember is being halfway down the stairs, eyes fixated on that white tail. Somehow, I managed to swerve around the rest of the people taking their first unsteady steps home.

Why did I follow? That’s a fuckin’ good question. There was no song, like with the sailors and the sirens, no encouragement from someone. In short, no rhyme or reason, but something in my head, so hidden and unknown, wanted me to follow that rabbit. I must be going *daft, but whatever it is, mental illness or something else, is starting to scare me…a lot.

I continued to follow it until it led me to the cobbled alleyway beside the club entrance. I know how that sounds. At the time it should’ve got some reaction, but I was hypnotised, lured into tunnel vision. Then it disappeared. I’m no talking ran off or disappeared in a poof of smoke. One minute it was hopping and the next it was gone.

My eyes scanned around, barely able to see anything in the amber light streaming fae the lampposts. Mostly everything was in shadow. That was when I heard something from deeper into the alleyway, where the giant bins and steaming grates are. It was a loud thud, like something falling on the ground – if that something was a person. I began to squint, edging further into the alleyway, trying not to be tripped up by the uneven cobblestones. When I realised what I was seeing I wished I hadn’t left the queue inside.

I was closer than I wished to be so I’m pretty sure this is what I saw. There was a man, bent over, dragging a barely conscious, if not completely out of it, lassie further into the alley. She was leaving a trail, and by the metallic taste in the air and the glistening surface, I began to think it was blood. The man pulled her further into the darkness of the alleyway. He eventually placed her into a circle on the ground, scrawled with what I was hoping was black paint. There were a few candles on the boundary, lighting up more detail than I wanted to see.

I must’ve still been drunk because no sober person would ever be this stupid. I stepped further into the alley and said that I’d call the police if he didn’t let the lassie go. *sighs* Why didn’t I run? Why didn’t I go and get help? I’ve played this bit over and over in my head and I can’t understand myself. Standing up to a creep in a club is expected, a right of female passage, but interrupting an assault or murder, or whatever it was, is *mental.

When he whipped his head up to look at me, can you believe it was Mr cleft-chin from earlier? Obviously after no getting his way with Michelle he’d found another poor lassie to take advantage of. It would be my luck to meet him in a dark alley, wouldn’t it?

He said something strange next, although I don’t think you can say anything normal in a situation like that.

“You again?” he sighed, “I would meet someone like you, wouldn’t I?”

Well aye, if ye want to avoid meeting drunken *ijits then the only club in town is not the place to go, pal. I at least had the sense not to say anything, or maybe his question didn’t seem weird at the time. I kept my distance, hoping my phone wouldn’t slip out ma hand it was so sweaty.

Again, I channelled my inner twelve-year-old and told him to let the lassie go in my most threatening tone, which doesn’t seem to work on Chronos, the cat, so probably had no change of working on this psycho. Predictably, he refused and gave the reason that he needed a lassie as a sacrifice for the ritual, and that I’d already taken away the perfect one. Oh, and he wasn’t afraid of me, but it was said with an ounce of uncertainty, like that bairn in class who refuses to do something the teacher tells him to so he can look cool in front of his pals, but deep down he knows he’s getting a *bollocking after.

I have no words, and I had no words at the time. He lost me at sacrifice. It was hard to concentrate on what he was saying over the deep thud of my heart pounding in my ears. My vision was already beginning to spin, and I knew the hangover headache wasn’t far behind it.

A mixture of booze, confusion, and general *roaster-ness stopped me from knowing what to do or being able to think clearly. I should call the police, my phone was in my hand, but there was a disconnect between my brain and my fingers. They never made it to the emergency button.

It might’ve been a few seconds, it might’ve been a millisecond, but the man was within arms’ reach of me quicker than he should’ve been at that distance. I wasn’t that close, I made sure of that. Before he could reach me someone else joined us in the alley.

You’re never going to believe it because I didn’t – it was Fionn, Madam Norna’s friend with benefits. He was right beside me, his hand grabbing the man’s wrist, preventing a very sharp looking knife from being plunged into my stomach.

I might’ve yelped, I might’ve been silent, but I nearly fell on my arse stumbling back. It was like I was in a nightmare, except I couldn’t wake up. Everything made so little sense it may as well have been a dream. After a few seconds of tense silence, Fionn threw the man’s wrist away in disgust. Of all the things Fionn could’ve said, he chose “You know who I am?”. It made as much as sense at the time as it does now. None.

Cleft-chin stared at Fionn, as if trying to find something, like the answer was lying in the curves and lines of his face. Whatever he saw there he didn’t like because after a moment or two his eyes bulged, he paled, and them stumbled back as if Fionn had given him a slap.

From where I was barely standing, I couldn’t see Fionn’s face, but his shoulders were tense, squared, and I could just make out the outline of the veins on his neck as they pushed against his skin. I knew from what I was seeing, and the faint tingling in my fingertips that he was *raging. He told cleft-chin to run back to the rat’s nest he’d come from, and he didn’t want to see his face again.

 The psycho didn’t need to be told twice, and much like myself with a spider, gave Fionn a wide berth as he scuttled from the alley. I half expected Fionn to turn on me next with the rage I could feel radiating from him like steam from a boiling kettle. But when he turned to look at me he had an amused smile spread across his face.

He told me I should be more careful, and that lassies weren’t supposed to wander the streets by themselves at night. And then he said we were even.

“Even?” I managed to repeat.

In a very madam-esque way he shrugged, and informed me I’d find out soon enough, before he suggested I return to my pals, and that he’d help the lassie.

I was more than willing to follow the last order and I left the alley to return to the club. I was silent all the way home, not able to join in the drunken karaoke session of my pals. A part of me thinks I should’ve stayed, helped him with the lassie, and the police…if he even called them. But I was saturated with weird. I’d had enough.

I hadn’t gone to the shop in days because I wanted a break, I wanted that normality life had before the shop, where the biggest problem I had was what *Pot noodle to buy for dinner. But it found me anyway, and I’m beginning to understand that there is no normal anymore. The shop, the things in it, the events that orbit it, that’s the new normal.

I get it now. I can’t keep burying my head in the sand, can I? I can’t keep stringing things together with incomplete and outlandish theories, that deep down, I think I’ve always known don’t fit right, don’t explain everything. I’m ready for answers now, whatever they may be.

*Buckie – Scottish slang for Buckfast, a fortified wine that gets people drunk quite quickly.

*Steaming – Scottish slang for drunk. Yes, we have a lot of words for this too, watch out for them in the podcast.

*Randos – short for randomers, British phrase for strangers.

*roaster – you guessed it, yet another word for a stupid person/an idiot. This one will come up a lot, so best to try and remember it.

*daft – mostly means stupid i.e. don’t be daft, but in this context can mean crazy.

*mental – always means crazy i.e. that goal was pure mental.

*bollocking – in my experience this usually means a dressing down, or being given into trouble by someone. Occasionally I think it can also refer to minor physical violence, but not really sure. I’ve only ever used it or heard it used in the context of a verbal telling off i.e. His Mum gave him a bollocking for taking the car without permission.

*raging – Scottish slang term for very angry, livid.

*Pot noodle – brand of instant snack in the UK. As the name implies, its dried noodles in sauce – just add boiling water. Needless to say, not the healthiest food on the shelves.

Episode 4 – The hounds

I don’t really want to record this. I could do with forgetting the whole thing. But, perhaps if I talk about it it’ll make sense, it’ll frighten me less. That’s what they say, isn’t it? If you talk about a problem it lightens the burden. Does that only apply if you talk to someone else, or does talking’ out loud count as well?

It was another day in the shop, everything’ had been pretty normal, by shop standards. I was testing’ my design skills by trying’ to make a wee display on the counter. It’d taken me a good hour or more to clear everything’ off it in the first place, and then another hour to reorganise it so it was presentable instead of the hoarder’s dream it’d been before. Finally, I could stand back and admire my handiwork, feeling’ a smug sense of accomplishment that I’d managed to make a dent in the endless task of cleaning the shop up. When Chronos, the cat, jumped from nowhere up onto the counter, I got that dread I assume most cat owners get when they see their feline companion eyeing the fishbowl.

That wee shite stared at me, the same mischievous glint in his eye that’s always there when I’m around. His head turned towards the new display of magazines and boxes of vinyl, and then back to me. His wee paw reached out, and I knew then that I wouldn’t be able to reach the counter in time. With one quick flick of his paw the entire display was on the ground, pooling’ around my feet and sprawling every which way. I may not have lunged for the display but I was certainly going to lunge for that wee shite, and skin him if I got a hold of him. I said as much as I watched him scamper off.

A man’s deep voice startled me out my rage, though, when it said that Chronos was hard to get along with. Isn’t that a bloody understatement? This bloke stood on the other side of the remnants of my display, giving me an intense stare for no good reason. It made me uncomfortable, but what disconcerted me more was I’d never heard him come into the shop, because the bell had never rung. At least, I’d never heard it. The sound of my display falling’ on the floor must have drowned it out…right?

I agreed with his statement about the wee shite, Chronos, but it was only then I started to question how this stranger knew the cat’s name. The stranger introduced himself’ as Fionn (Finn), and then asked mine, which I told him, like an ijit*. I blame his accent. I dare anyone not to be charmed by an Irish accent. He asked me if I worked in the shop. Now, this wasn’t like an, `oh, you work here!` This was more of a, `you work…here?` As if I didn’t belong or something’.

I replied that I was a shop assistant, although even I could hear the question in my tone. He smiled at me, nodding his head slowly but it felt as though he hadn’t really listened to my answer. He’d never stopped staring’ at me the entire time, and I was gathering’ up the courage to ask him what his problem was when the Madam appeared from the door to her rooms.

She addressed him by name, commenting’ it’d been a long time since he’d come to visit her. The way she looked at him was different, something I’d never seen in her before, and it looked an awful lot like emotion, identifying which one was hard. Fionn agreed with her and admitted he’d been very neglectful of their friendship. The look he returned was all I needed to see that this was a complicated friendship, one that involved sharing a bed from time to time. Madam Norna invited him upstairs and told me I didn’t need to go with them as it was “personal business”. Worst words she could’ve used. I’ve been working’ in that shop for about a month now and I know nothing’ about her. She never talks about herself, before this there’d never been anyone come to see her on a personal level; no friends, no partner, no bairns, no family, no anything. I wasn’t about to miss this, especially when I’d seen the look Fionn had given her.

I edged my way over to the door up to her rooms and opened it, sticking my head through. I didn’t want to go up the stairs, even though they wouldn’t have been able to see me from the living’ room, where I assumed they’d gone. The stairs are creaky and noisy, and there’s no way of getting up them without making some noise. I stuck my head further through the door until I could just barely make out what they were saying’.

Fionn asked when she’d started taking in my lot. What the fuck did “my lot” mean, students, young people, locals? Madam Norna simply answered when they were needed. Their conversation made so little sense that I’ve become convinced I didn’t hear them right. And it only got weirder. Fionn asked her who I was, and the previous mirth in his tone had turned surprisingly solemn. Madam Norna didn’t answer him. He then said that I must be something if I was in the shop, but that I didn’t seem to know what he was.

Then the bell to the shop rang giving me a heart attack. I had to close the door, so I didn’t hear anything’ more of their conversation, no that I’d heard a great deal, and none of it made sense. It wasn’t even a customer that’d come in, just the wind blowing at the door. Weather’s shite as always. In case ye were wondering.

Fionn was up there for ages, and I didn’t have the courage to eavesdrop again, so I returned to ma task of trying to clean up the shop. The dust in there is so thick at times I’m glad I don’t have asthma. It’s peaceful though, watching as the specs and particles flutter in the air around you, it’s especially haunting when the sun shines through the windows.

As I was cleaning, I suddenly saw, or felt, I’m no sure which, movement from the corner of my eye. It’s like when you’re sitting’ somewhere at home, minding your own business, but then you sense movement, your eye catches something and you look, only to find a spider crawling up the wall, or a fly making its way to the window. By instinct, I turned my head towards it, but saw nothing but trinkets and books and antiques. I didn’t think anything of it, there was a lot of dust floating around, maybe a bit had caught the light at the wrong time. Except, it happened again, and when I looked there was still nothing there. The first time was explainable, the second time made goosebumps erupt across my skin. I moved further towards the guilty corner of the shop and called the wee shite’s name, which makes no sense since it’s not like he’d just pop out and say hi. He didn’t appear from the nooks and crannies the clutter of the shop creates.

But I could feel something was in the shop with me, sharing the space, so I continued to walk slowly further doon the narrow paths, running my eyes across the floor, in between the old cabinets, chairs, and tables, searching every visible square inch. And nothing appeared. I scoffed aloud, I remember, but it wasn’t out of humour. I turned around to go back the way I’d come, return to my task, but when a low growl crackled through the air, I stopped dead in the middle of the aisle. Something about the noise told me it wasn’t Chronos. I was looking in the direction of the door to the shop, but the air in front of it fractured and shifted, as if I’d smoked a bad batch of *wacky baccy, seeing flashes of bared teeth and bloodshot eyes. It was kind of like looking’ through those old Victorian Zoetropes, you know the ones with all the slits and are shaped like a lampshade. You’d peer through one of the holes and spin it round fast until all the images together would create an animated loop, of a couple dancing or birds flying away.

From the flashes I was seeing there looked like there was giant dogs in the shop, more like the hounds of nightmares than anything domesticated, and their low, wild growls saturated the air around me. I didn’t stick around long after I realised what I was seeing and began to sprint as fast as I could in the opposite direction, further into the shop. It didn’t take long for me to hear the tap of their claws on the wooden floor as they ran right after me, letting out a deep bark here and there.

When I came to the dead end that was the back of the shop, in my panic, I ungraciously began to clamber over the tables and cabinets, hearing as everything on top of them was kicked and hurled without mercy onto the floor. I didn’t care what I broke, nothing in that shop was worth my life.

Obviously, the only way out the shop is the front door, but in all my scrambling about I’d lost my sense of direction. Luck wasn’t on my side, though, and I eventually ended up right where I’d started, near the door, but my way was blocked. Through all of this I’d been able to hear more than I could see, but the flashes of giant hounds blocking the door persisted. I took a step back, finally remembering the door to upstairs, but tripped over something and landed sorely on my arse.

The hounds edged closer, and to all this chaos was added the sound of feline hissing. Chronos, the wee shite, had appeared, his back arched, tail rigid, hissing at the predators prowling towards us. I grabbed him, knowing he didn’t stand a chance, and when I looked towards the hounds again they were poised to pounce at us. Out of some human instinct I put my hand out, as if that’d stop them, and clenched my eyes shut, waiting for the pain of their vicious teeth to tear into my skin.

But nothing happened. Like a wee bairn peeping out from behind the sheets I opened one eye, and then the other, to find two normal, domesticated dogs where the beasts of hell should’ve been. They gave me that look most animals give humans when they’re being stupid, the one of `what the fuck you doing?`.

My arms went slack and I let Chronos go, but I couldn’t feel my legs so I sat like a ragdoll on the floor, staring into space. The bell above the door sounded around the shop and a middle-aged man ran in, out of breath and holding two leads. He apologised and explained they’d suddenly ran off. He hoped they hadn’t caused any trouble. He must’ve been blind because the shop was a mess, like a bomb had gone off, and I was sitting amongst the debris like a right *numpty.

The man managed to get me on my feet, which somehow didn’t buckle under me, and soon after left me in a daze in the shop. I don’t know how long I stood there before I came to, got my jacket and left.

And here I am, talking about it. I clearly remember what happened…but what actually happened? I’ve no smoked *wacky baccy this week, or in the last few months…so do I just hallucinate now? I mean I blame the shop, but what if it’s me that’s the problem? I just…just don’t understand why this is happening to me. It’s never happened before, and I don’t know what to do about it.

*ijit – (Pronounced ee-jit) Scottish slang for idiot/a stupid person.

*wacky baccy – Scottish slang for marijuana/cannabis.

*numpty – yet another British slang word for idiot/stupid person. I know, we have a lot.

Episode 25 – Time of dying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 24 – Serial ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 23 – Lucid dream

Have you ever had a recurring dream? I’ve had a few, but there is one in particular that I’ve had since I was a bairn. Now, I know I’ve never addressed what happens to ghosts after they move on, because I don’t know for sure, but these dreams certainly make it hard to refute the possibility of reincarnation. I say recurring dream, but that might be misleading, recurring implies the same every time. The only thing that’s the same in each of my dreams is the setting, and occasionally the people. Events, however, are varied.

It’s a nice place, where I have this dream. It’s a small town, perhaps even a village, with a few rows of stone cottages, a steady stream of smoke curling from the chimneys. There’s no pavement, not like we’d know it today, just dirt. In some dreams it’s solid, others it’s no better than a swamp. There are people everywhere, walking about with baskets, sacks, buckets, with people, on their own. There’s no organisation, it’s just chaos. People are walking beside horses pulling carts, jumping out of the way of a lone rider in a rush. Women wear white linen caps, sometimes trimmed with lace, other times plain. Pattens* are on their feet in an attempt to elevate their hems above the muck. Men’s hair is long, often tied back away from their face with a cord. Their trousers are short with buttons on the front, their jackets sometimes made of fading wool.

There’s smells in the air, of burning coal, manure, shite, piss, metal, and bread. It’s always noisy, although you wouldn’t expect it to be. Sometimes I can feel the thud beneath the ground as a horse approaches, or the clatter of a door knocker as someone leaves their home, or the squawking of two fish wives blethering* away.

I’ve never heard the name of this place, no one I speak to ever has any reason to mention it in conversation because they obviously know. I’m not myself in these dreams, not really. People talk to me like they know me, have known me for years, and I talk back exactly the same way, even though I couldn’t tell you their names.

I’m a bit like a passenger, what I’ve always assumed a ghost possessing someone else would experience. The irony isn’t lost on me. I’m conscious, I experience everything in the first person, but I’m not in control of what I do, say, or where I go. I don’t even know my own first name. Everyone just calls me Mrs McIlwraith.

I have a husband, although by the looks of my hands I’m quite young. In some dreams I have bairns, either cradling them in my arms, watching them play together, or watching as their coffins are lowered into the ground. It’s difficult to tell how much time has passed in these dreams because nothing about the town changes. The skin on my hands wrinkles, age spots appear. I notice the people I speak to can have strands of white hair in one dream, have none the next, and then not be there at all.

They’re never in order, these dreams of mine. It jumps around, from funeral, to christening, to wedding. The people are relatively constant, one generation after the next, all looking alike and becoming the same thing as their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. Everything is stagnant, to some extent, and nothing really changes.

It’s quite comforting really, there’s a sense of certainty and predictability that modern life lacks. People are simpler, they speak how they find, they’re more honest because they believe God’s watching and He’ll punish those who lie.

But it’s far from boring or monotonous. Every dream I’ve had, and there have been plenty, gives me a glimpse into this person’s life and the challenges we both share. Whether figment of my imagination or something more grounded in history it doesn’t really matter, because these dreams mostly bring me comfort that I’m not the only person like me. This was especially important when I was the only person like me that I knew, before Ewan.

I write them all down, the parts I can remember anyway. That’s the only bad thing about dreams, it’s difficult to remember linear time, it’s usually just scenes, snippets of nonsensical events. I’ve found that you’re more likely to remember your dreams if they make sense, if they tell you a story. So, I’ll tell you one.

I’m married in this dream, I know because I’m Mrs McIlwraith. There has been one dream where I’ve been a Miss, but it was very brief, and no matter how hard I try I can never remember what the surname was. I think I’m pregnant, either that or I’m eating too much. My stomach protrudes beneath the layers of clothing, but not enough to make it certain either way. My hands are relatively young. I know I’m referring to hands a lot but I’ve never seen my face in a mirror, there’s never a scene where I’m looking into one. So, the only way I can discern my age is by my hands, or sometimes by the bairns running around.

There are no other children, so I assume I’m carrying my first. There are dreams when I feel it kick or move around, and sometimes it’s so vivid that when I wake up I feel my stomach expecting it to still be there. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, apron tied around my waist, stained and repaired from many uses. The fire’s always on and the door’s always open. A lot of people walk past and each one of them shouts a greeting. Some of them even stop in the doorway to have a chat.

It’s mostly women, pausing to spread the local gossip, because there always is some. The Ogilvie’s eldest son is engaged to the Robertson’s second daughter, Mrs McClure is expecting her fifth bairn, or that Mr Cox has run off with his mistress. This time a young woman stops at the doorway. She’s not dressed like the other people in the village, she’s more flamboyant, her clothes a wee bit more expensive and eye catching, her makeup obvious where others look not to have any on.

I know her and exclaim her name in delight, but I also have this strange feeling, a bit like dread or anxiety. I invite her in, but then proceed to close the door, a wee voice in my head hoping that no one saw her come in. This young woman’s name is Ann, and she’s a prostitute, or whoore as the locals often say. How I’m friends with her is a mystery. From what I know of history, lassies of the night don’t usually mix with married women. It’s all to do with respectability. It’s fine to hear gossip of others, but every respectable soul lives in fear of being the subject of it. This is back in the day where everyone still went to church on a Sunday and appearances meant a lot.

You never know, perhaps this person who’s eyes I see through was a whoore. Ann seems a good deal younger than me, I’d maybe say she was about 18 or 19, far too young to my modern eyes to be forced into stranger’s beds. I remove my apron, but not without wiping my hands on it first, and offer her a seat, which she takes with an ease that suggests she’s a regular visitor.

I sit down beside her and after the polite chitchat is over she gives me a grave look, as though something terrible has happened. I ask her if something’s wrong and she hesitates, glancing into the fire as though it’ll give her the words she’s looking for.

She tells me business has been slow of late, the brothel where she works isn’t getting as many customers as it usually does. I’ve gleaned the impression over the course of my dreams that a brothel is a place that working lasses want to work because there’s a measure of safety and security when it comes to themselves and their stream of income. That’s why when Ann tells me the man who runs the brothel is thinking about releasing some of the girls I can tell things are bad.

I share my condolences and try to reassure her that she may not be let go. She shakes her head lightly and then turns her watery gaze directly on me. Ann confesses that her visiting me wasn’t just to appraise me of events, it was to ask for my help.

I’m surprised as I have no power to change her predicament. My husband, Mr McIlwraith, is a foreman in the local mines, hardly in a position to entice customers to the brothel. At least, I’d hope not. Ann goes on to explain that the reason the brothel is losing its patrons is because there’s been a series of disturbances in one of the rooms. These events, such as people being harmed in some way, have led rumours to start that it’s haunted.

She then goes on to tell me the reason she came to me is because she knows I have the sight. That seems to be a common way to refer to my ability to see ghosts. The person who I am in the dream, Mrs McIlwraith, has the same gift as I do. However, she doesn’t appear to like it being mentioned. I can’t imagine any woman back then was. From what I can tell there are no witch trials going on, it’s a bit late for that, but their consequences are still felt, especially for people like Mrs McIlwraith who would probably be classed as one.

It’s the village’s worst kept secret. This isn’t the only dream I’ve had where someone’s propositioned me regarding an apparent haunting. But every time they do I feel my stomach clench, and an unwelcome feeling of dread bleeds into my mood. In this time, I don’t like being able to see things others can’t. I can’t tell how everyone knows about it, I can’t even glean if it’s a family thing, like my maiden name carries a reputation. Somehow, everyone knows, or at least it feels like everyone, but no one speaks about it unless they want me to do something with it.

The weird thing is despite my dread and apprehension I inquire further about the haunting at the brothel. Even though I don’t want to help, I feel like I have a duty to, as though it’s my job.

Ann tells me small things began happening 6 months ago. The door would open, or refuse to close, the windows acted the same way. Occasionally a patron would hear something coming from inside, but when someone went in to investigate there was nothing there. It was always cold in that room, even with a fire going. Things began to escalate when patrons were thrown out of the room, and some of the lasses would wake up with injuries on them like scratches and bruises, which they claimed were not from the client. It’d become so infamous that the man who ran the brothel had permanently locked the room but the sounds still came from inside.

His actions came too late, and in fear for their safety and their reputations, men had begun to frequent other places. Ann pleaded with me to help, implying I was the only one who could. Apparently, a minister, or church affiliated exorcist, had already had a go but understandably failed.

Despite believing in God, I understand that the souls of the dead aren’t his domain, and that there was very little the minister could do to free the spirit. I’m the brothel’s last hope, and I don’t like it.

Despite this, I still intend to help, but I worry how to go about it without being seen and without my husband finding out. I agree to visit early in the morning, when all the patrons have disappeared but the village hasn’t fully woken up. I sneak out of our house whilst my husband sleeps and have an excuse if he wakes up before I’ve returned.

The ease with which Mrs McIlwraith can investigate hauntings or ghosts is enviable. It’s strange the freedom she has because mostly everyone around her believes in them. There’s no science, there’s no journal articles disproving them, or budding scientists willing to reveal a fake medium or psychic. People aren’t educated to the same extent, and I’m pretty sure not many of the people I speak to can even read or write. Without education, without the foundations for questioning or investigative thoughts, it’s simpler for people to believe what their parents believed, and the stories that have been passed down the generations. This is rural Scotland, and if we’re superstitious in the 21st century, I can only imagine how much we were in the centuries before.

The brothel isn’t what I, modern me, expected. It’s very normal and looks just like every other house in the area. I can’t imagine the neighbours on either side were too happy about their being a brothel next door. There was no sign post, or anything that would indicate what it was, but I guarantee you everyone knew. This was the morning though, and it was probably an entirely different picture at night. I was reluctant to go inside and kept looking over my shoulder expecting someone to see me. I was very aware of the rumours that would fly around if I was seen. I almost left without knocking, but I managed to gather the courage to chap on the wooden door.

The man who ran the brothel, or was, at least, a manager of sorts, let me in where Ann was waiting for me, looking a bit more bedraggled than she’d been the day before. They both took me up to the room and my stomach squirmed around as the door was unlocked and swung open.

There was no fire in the fireplace, the window was closed, but everything else was ordinary. There was a bed, neatly made, a few chairs and tables near the flames. It was basic but comfortable. Ann was right about it being cold and my fingertips were the first to feel the lack of heat.

I took a few reluctant steps inside, not failing to notice that Ann or her employer didn’t follow me. I gazed around in every corner, under the bed, even near the wooden beams of the ceiling, but I couldn’t see anything. I began to relax a bit. I also recalled Ann’s descriptions of the phenomena in the room and realised that no one had actually seen anything. But I knew better than to try and find some normal explanation.

My heart jumped against my ribcage when I heard the door to the room slam violently shut. I whirled around, but I wasn’t really surprised. The handle began to rattle, as though someone on the outside was trying to open it again. Ann called that it was locked. I checked, and it wasn’t. There was no reason I couldn’t just go and open it, but I knew that’d be impossible.

I turned back around to face the room, deciding not to waste my time with the door. My eyes snagged on the one thing that had changed. A woman, dressed in bright clothing, perched on the side of the bed, the buckles on her shoes sparkling even in death. I had a brief moment of recognition, as though we’d met before, but it was too fleeting to grasp onto.

“I know why you’re here,” she stated sourly.

I asked why.

“Tae get rid ae’ me!” she snapped.

I tried to explain that no one wanted to get rid of her, that they only wanted to help. She mentioned the minister who’d visited and shouted to the room for her to leave. I reassured her I wasn’t going to repeat those events. I then asked her who she was.

She opened her mouth, closed it, and repeated this a few times, whispered syllables falling from her mouth but never forming a coherent answer. I inquired if she couldn’t remember.

“It doesnae matter if I cannae,” she answered dejectedly.

After a moment of silence, she checked if I truly wanted to help her. I nodded. She commented that it was unusual for married women to want anything to do with people like her. I couldn’t answer her, knowing I’d felt nothing but reluctance and dread at the thought of helping prostitutes.

She began by acknowledging she couldn’t remember who she was, even her name. There were only two things that lingered in her mind. One was that she’d been murdered by a patron. Rather than seek justice, payment, the male manager had simply thrown her body in the river. The second was that in her short life she’d given birth to a handful of bairns, only one of which had survived. She was adamant she hadn’t wanted to keep it, and that she didn’t regret her decision to give it away. But I could tell from the way her eyes watered that those words were hollow.

There’d been something she’d forgotten to give her daughter before she was sent away, the only item that she wanted her to have. It was a necklace. A small silver cross with one modest ruby in the centre. Fortunately, she hadn’t been wearing it when she’d died, and it was still somewhere in the room, hidden beneath a loose floorboard.

At her request, I recovered the soft piece of velvet it was enrobed in. I couldn’t help my hand hovering over my own stomach and thanking God I’d been born with a better fortune than this woman, and Ann, and the girls like her. If the bairn I was carrying was a daughter, I vowed upon my life she’d never set foot in a place like this.

The nameless woman elicited a promise from me that I’d ensure the necklace reached her daughter, and in return she’d stop haunting the brothel where she’d died. I agreed, and just as she disappeared there was a click from the door and it swung open to reveal a frantic Ann and the man whom I knew had disposed of the spirit’s body.

I reassured them I was fine, stuffing the velvet scrap into my pocket before they could see what it was. Before I left the brothel to complete my side of the promise, I stared into that man’s eyes as coldly as I could and delivered a prophecy that he, one day soon, would meet as bloody an end as the women who he’d disposed of. And I had no doubt in my mind that my words would come true.

Seeing as it was a small village, there was only one church that looked after orphans and abandoned bairns. There was a name embroidered on the piece of velvet in unsteady hand. I assumed the ghost’s daughter was Martha.

I went to the church to find the minister and the volunteers who looked after the parish’s bairns and requested they give the necklace to Martha. When asked if I wanted to see her, I declined, feeling like it was too close to the bone. I don’t think I’d removed my hand from my stomach for more than 5 seconds since my visit to the brothel.

I did catch a glimpse of the bairn, who couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5. She was in clothes that barely fit her, and shoes that had to be tied to her ankles to prevent them from flying off as she played. She was a bonnie bairn, with the essence of her mother in her dark hair. I found it best not to think about what she’d become. I’d only promised the ghost to deliver the necklace, I hadn’t promised to be the girls keeper. I wasn’t wealthy enough to sponsor her, nor I was in a position to adopt her. The only thing I could really do was make her clothes that fit, and that’s exactly what I did.

I can’t tell you what happened to Martha, this is the only dream so far that she’s been in. I like to think she did better than her origins would imply, but it’s perhaps my wishful thinking.

I don’t know who Mrs McIlwraith is, if she’s even real or it’s just my imagination running amock whilst I’m asleep. If I was so inclined I could delve into my ancestry, but without a first name it’s impossible to verify. So, I’ll leave that decision whether she’s real or not up to you.

*Pattens: special shoes usually made of wood or metal that would go over the shoe and elevate the wearer so the hems of their skirts, and their actual shoes, wouldn’t get dirty.

*Blethering: Scottish colloquialism for chatting/talking, mostly in a gossip-y way.

Episode 22 – Haunted or not?

**Content warning: strong language.

I’ve come to a case in Strother’s files that took me a minute to remember. It’s strange to read someone else’s perspective of the same set of events, especially because they’re so different. My memories, which have eroded in places with time, differ with the accounts I’m reading, for obvious reasons. Even so, I forget some details, things not ghost related. Yet because Strother is writing them in real time, as they’re happening or just happened, his account is the truest one there is when it comes to the small details, about people’s names, about dates, places, directions, and history.

I was afraid it’d be like reading someone’s diary, an uncomfortably close look into their mind that you feel you have no right to. But Strother was a consummate professional and academic, there’s very little if any emotion in these reports. It allows me to distance myself, or at least try my hardest to.

I have a fear whenever I pick these up that somewhere in the lines there’s going to be an observation about me. He must’ve grown suspicious of me somewhere down the line, but did he ever write it down? What was the exact event that made him begin to mistrust me? Every line I read I think I’m going to find it, and I haven’t yet. I don’t know why I’m so desperate to know, it’s not like I can go back and change anything. I suppose that’s the hardest part of this whole thing. All these events, these observations of his, are in the past, a place where they’re safe. Some days, waking up on the floor, or on an uncomfortable mattress, I long to go back there, to the simpler time.

*Pause*

Right, no more wallowing. Let me tell you about this case, I think you’ll enjoy it. As you know we received a steady stream of requests from all kinds of people about all kinds of places. As time went on Strother was more inclined to let us decide which ones we should investigate, although I don’t remember ever choosing one myself – I was only a student after all.

It was Ken who spotted this one in our growing inbox. The emails we received varied in believability, even from my perspective, and when you have a few hundred unread emails in your inbox you tend to just let them jump from page to page in the hopes they’ll eventually go away. It took something a bit more than cold spots and objects moving to pique our attention.

There was an exception to this rule. Infamy. Some of us love a good haunted house, and the organisations who run stately homes are part of this group. The more haunted a house is reported to be, the more PR you can spin around it and the more visitors you can attract.

Obviously, it sounds better for the PR leaflets if the house has been investigated by ghost hunters, even better if those ghost hunters are academic researchers with stellar careers. This wasn’t the first time we’d had a request from a historic building, but when they realised that they couldn’t invite television crews in at the same time the requests just faded away.

Ken was very eager about this one, and I admit I’d not heard of it. Inchinnan House was a neo-classical mansion perched somewhere along the River Forth on the east coast of Scotland. Built in the late 17th century to a wealthy mine owner, it boasted numerous priceless art pieces, antique furniture, vast grounds with varied wildlife, and about 50 or so ghosts.

I wish I was exaggerating but if you pooled all the accounts together the number totalled 50. It’s not as surprising as it sounds, especially in a house that’s over 300 years old. The accounts I saw all varied, with some being typical like a white lady, a grey lady, bairns, a creepy man or two – all staples of historic haunted houses. Nothing stood out to me, nothing that would divide it from the rest. We all knew the only reason Ken wanted to go was to see if any stories were true, but the one he spun to us was that due to its age it was surely the most likely to have some measurable activity?

*laughs*

I loved that about Ken. He was always transparent, even when he was lying. If you hadn’t already noticed I got on with Ken the best of the three. I’d known him longer, and he was always more amiable and open. Strother was busy, closed off, and Steph just never took a liking to me, which happens. I’ll always be grateful to him for being in my corner, even on the day I was dismissed. If you are listening, somewhere, somehow, I wanted you to know that.

I didn’t think anyone would agree to it, but I never stopped being surprised at which places the team wanted to investigate. Thankfully, the team who ran the house agreed there’d be no TV crew there to film, so we’d have the place to ourselves. We weren’t the first ones to investigate the hauntings, as we later found out. A few professional mediums had visited and reported their findings, which of course there were. Some even introduced new ghosts and gave names to the ones already reported.

The staff who worked at the house also had their five minutes of fame with their personal sightings and experiences detailed in every blog and ghostly publication the house agreed to do. There was no lack of witness accounts about the house and its dead inhabitants.

Due to the size of the building, and the many accounts, we were there for 3 days. We didn’t have enough equipment to cover the entire house at once, so we sectioned it into 3 and investigated one each day we were there.

It was tricky to set up because there were numerous antiques and pieces of history in each room that we weren’t allowed to touch. Giant paintings of nobles gone by, landscapes by famous historical artists, and 200-year-old tables and cabinets were some obstacles we had to manoeuvre around. Eventually, we had everything to Strother’s liking and the waiting game began.

I never saw anything concrete during the first day. The setting up was my opportunity to get a feel for the place, to be in many rooms before the cameras began recording and things became tricky. It was colder in some rooms than others, but nowhere was particularly warm with high ceilings and single glazed windows. Whenever I thought I’d’ heard something it’d always turn out to be a creaking floorboard in another room where someone else was setting things up. Everything made a noise, the doors whined as they were opened and there wasn’t a piece of flooring you could step on without hearing it groan and squeak as though it were being murdered.

Disappointed, but not disheartened, we took our regular watches during the night. Thankfully, there was a small lodge in the grounds that the trust rented out to guests for holidays and that’s where we’d sleep. Ken and I were placed in the same watch, which obviously meant I was watching by myself whilst he slept. His snoozing was something we never discussed at any point in the three years of the study. I’m not convinced he even realised he was doing it.

Hyped up on coffee we both sat in the small staff room we used as a base staring at the screens, monitoring the temperature and the remote sensors of the motion detectors. I had earphones on attached to the audio recorders but all I heard was white noise, the creaks and groans of an old house, and a few pigeons. It was hard to keep track of every camera as there were so many in different rooms. In a way we’d spread ourselves too thin, so there were more than a few blind spots for the cameras.

At about 3am something caught my eye in one of the marvellous drawing rooms. It was difficult to make out, but to my eyes it looked like someone walking from the fireplace to one of the doors, which led into another equally impressive space. It never looked at the camera, and there wasn’t really anything distinct about it, as though it were wearing some kind of cloak or mantle. I couldn’t even tell if it was a woman or man.

I checked if Ken was asleep enough for me to sneak out and then left to go and investigate. It was a lot harder than I anticipated, and a lot darker. There in the countryside dark wasn’t the dark of the city, it was pitch black, there was no light pollution and so everything was just gloom. The only lights I could see were the flashing red and green from the equipment. I almost gave up and returned to the base because I thought there was no way I’d get through all these rooms without being caught on something.

I barely managed it, but if I hadn’t I could always make up an excuse, it’s not like I wasn’t good at it by this point. When I got to the drawing room I obviously couldn’t see anything. The figure I’d noticed had been on the night vision camera, so obviously it was more visible. To the naked eye, everything was black. I could barely trace the outline of the some of the furniture, and the reflection of the equipment’s flashing lights in the gold framed mirror, but that was it.

Slowly realising it’d been a stupid idea, I returned to the base and Ken, knowing that my previous freedoms of buildings at night time was barred to me in this case. I couldn’t use a torch because the light would be caught on the cameras and motion sensors. I was relegated to the base and hoping that whatever I saw on the screens would be nice enough to come out during the day.

Strother and Steph returned in the morning to relieve us of our watch, but none of us saw anything during the night and early morning. After some sleep and breakfast, we moved all the equipment to the next part of the house. Set up was quicker this time because all the equipment had been calibrated the day before, it was just a matter of altering their positions.

It was in the same drawing room that had caught my attention the night before that I saw the figure again, almost out of the corner of my eye. By the time I’d turned my head to look fully at it, all I glimpsed was tendrils of shadow disappearing out of the door. Quickly, but not too much, I hurried after it, cringing as the floorboards protested my haste.

By the time I caught up to it, entering a smaller room that looked more personal living room than the grandeur of before, I again only caught the few tendrils as they disappeared out of yet another door. I don’t know if you’ve ever visited a neo-classical mansion. There are very few corridors, one room leads to another, and leads to another. You just move from one to the next with fluidity reserved for the very wealthy. That’s why it was so easy to just keep following, like a bairn after a renegade balloon.

I was so determined to catch up, to observe some concrete detail that I didn’t realise how many rooms I’d passed. It was only when I rushed into the room where Strother was connecting some equipment that I realised what I’d done.

As anyone would do, he assumed I was there to speak to him and I think I made up some random question to make it seem as though I hadn’t just been following what was barely a ghost. As he was answering I took the opportunity to observe, to see if the ghost had allowed me to catch up, but there was nothing there.

You may find my doggedness strange, and to be fair I do too. I never stopped to think it might be strange that a ghost, beings that usually need help, would run away from one of the only people who could help it. I was determined to do just that, even if the ghost wasn’t having it.

For the entire day that we set up and monitored the equipment, I would catch occasional glimpses of the shadow. Always in a drawing room of sorts, although not the same one. I began to feel like it was taunting me in some way. Never lingering long enough for me to get a proper look, to take a wild guess who it’d be. Perhaps it didn’t want my help, perhaps it liked remaining in the house and didn’t have any sinister unfinished business.

When I read the temperature readings from the night before I noticed that the drawing room where I’d first seen it was consistently colder than the rest of the house. What was strange was that the night vision cameras had caught what I’d seen. This was the first time it’d ever happened, and I was as puzzled as the rest of the team were.

Strother gathered us all round to show us and didn’t seem to be annoyed that Ken and I hadn’t bothered to mention it. There were a lot of cameras to keep track of, and the sighting could only have been one or two seconds long, therefore easily missed. The rest of the team, unsurprisingly, were unconvinced by the evidence. Night vision, although good, isn’t perfect, and our equipment, although top of the range, wasn’t impervious to malfunction.

We all began to brainstorm normal explanations. A trick of the darkness, a glitch in the camera, some reflected light from a car or a house in the distance. Anything but the truth. It was an apparition of some kind, and yet as soon as we had proof the team were trying to disprove it. It irritated me that we’d been trying to find something like this for so long, that when it did land in our laps they were all sceptical.

What more did they want? We had cold spots, and now footage of a ghost. I’ll admit, it wasn’t as clear as it could’ve been, but it was a ghost. It was frustrating not being able to just tell them. My word didn’t mean anything, because they didn’t know I’d been seeing them for years.

I was convinced that if it’d been caught on camera once, there was a good chance it’d be caught again. One piece of footage could be argued with, but I’d dare even the strongest sceptic to argue with multiple.

I continued doggedly on for the next 2 days. Following tendrils of smoke from one room to the next, one wing of the house to the other. I never caught up, I never saw what it was, who it was. The cameras never caught it again. My determination quickly turned to despondency. Perhaps this was just one ghost who didn’t need me.

On the final day as we were about to pack up all the equipment, there was a strange noise coming from one of the rooms. It was distant at first, then it got louder and louder until there was a giant thunk that permeated every adjoining room. We all ran to the source and saw that a few bird’s nests, and a dead squirrel or two, had tumbled from one of the large chimneys into the grand fireplace of the drawing room. There was soot and dust and a thin layer of smoke everywhere. Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw the tendrils again.

I gingerly followed them, from one room to the other, and they never became anything else, only smoke. That’s the thing about old mansions, they’re draughty and if there’s smoke in one room, it’s quite an easy journey next door. When I returned to the room with the debris a staff member was there beginning to clean up. She said it was quite common to have birds roosting in the fireplaces as they hadn’t been blocked up. On particularly windy days, or after some bad weather, they sometimes came down the chimney and brought layers of dirt and old soot with them, creating a mess. The way the daylight entered the room through the large windows you could see the wisps of smog and soot curling in the air. If the light caught them just right, they looked opaque, solid enough to be ghost tendrils.

Take from this what you will. We had footage of something, whether it was just debris from the chimney, or a spirit, is up for discussion. But I never saw anything else in the entire 3 days we were there. If I hadn’t been so blinded, I may have stopped to think that it was suspicious this was the only ghost that had been caught on camera.

I’ve included this story for two reasons. One is to prove I wasn’t always right, and there isn’t always a ghost in every historic house. The second is the importance of remaining unbiased when faced with a reportedly supernatural event. I whinge about Strother’s arrogance, his stubbornness when it came to refuting the existence of ghosts, yet I was just as bad when it came to proving they were real. Whether I was aware or not, over the time I’d been on the study, regularly being proven right, it’d altered my perception until I assumed I was always right, and there was always a ghost to be helped. We all need lessons like this one, we all need to make mistakes to keep us on the right path, even though at the time it may seem as though it’s done the opposite.

I was more cautious when it came to believing everything I thought I saw after this case, but there were still a few times I thought there was a spirit and there wasn’t. No one’s perfect, after all.

Present day

You’re not going to believe this, I’m certainly having trouble and that’s saying a lot. I received a phone call yesterday from a number I didn’t recognise. Not being completely brain dead, I didn’t answer but the caller left a voicemail.

Margaret. Fucking. Donaldson.

It sounded like her, the same harsh Weegie tones she uses during her interviews on the radio. She denied the accusation I and my anonymous source laid at her feet about her being a serial killer, denied she had anything to do with the break in at my or Strother’s house. All she wanted, she said, was the files on the study, for which she would be willing to pay a substantial sum, in the region of six figures.

I firmly believe Margaret Donaldson is guilty of all the crimes I’ve levelled at her, and since I don’t button up the back it was definitely her, or someone under her employment, who broke into my house. The only reason this offer is being extended after all this time is because she can’t find me.

Well, Marge, because I know you’re listening, you can go and fuck yourself. I don’t need or want your blood-soaked money. I’m going to ensure you pay for the lives you’ve taken and the ones you’ve destroyed. You better enjoy your last months of freedom because by the time I’m finished with you, all you’ll be seeing for the rest of your life is the inside of a prison cell.

Episode 21 – Unbound

**Content warning – reference to suicide

Even if you’ve never seen a ghost before I bet you’d be able to describe them. With the occasional exception, they look just like they did in life. It’s what you’d expect considering they’re the souls of the dead. Why would they look different?

That’s why every muscle in my body froze when I saw what I thought to be a ghost return my stare with ruby red eyes. No ghost I’d ever seen before had shared that trait. This could’ve meant a couple of things, but the foremost in my mind at the time was that I’d been wrong, and this wasn’t a ghost at all.

Remember, these were the days before Ewan and my ghostly education, back in the simpler time when all I thought existed were ghosts and loops. In my opinion, ghosts didn’t have red eyes, therefore it wasn’t a ghost.

Our staring match didn’t last long, it probably wasn’t even a second, and as soon as it disappeared time restarted. It was like I’d been underwater where everything was peaceful, silent, calm, and as soon as whatever it was vanished, I’d broken through the surface and taken one long gulp of air. I could hear the young lad sobbing, the choking sounds the young woman was making as she wriggled pointlessly.

When I glanced back into the room, about to race towards the two and help get her down, there was a loud thud that they would’ve been able to hear three floors down. There was a mish mash of body parts and clothing. The shirt had buckled under the girls’ weight, or whatever had attached it to the ceiling hadn’t been able to withstand her struggling, and had sent her falling to the ground, gulping in air as if she were in outer space.

The young lad continued to sob as he watched the girl claw at the bind around her neck. I gathered myself long enough to call the emergency services. I honestly don’t know how I got away with this one. The coincidences sounded preposterous.

I just happened to go and stretch my legs up the stairs just as someone was attempting to take their own life. I mean who voluntarily goes up the stairs to stretch their legs? Unless you’re training for a marathon, which I wasn’t. Again, the team believed me, although it may have been for a lack of an alternative explanation.

Looking back on it now, remembering Strother and I’s penultimate meeting, he must’ve been suspicious enough to do something to those cameras in the asylum. For nearly three years I’d been following and talking to ghosts of all kinds, and none had been caught on camera. Yet, at the asylum, I’d seen it clearly on the screen. I may have gotten away with my pathetic excuses in the short term, but I think in the long run they unravelled me.

The young woman, Leyla, was taken to hospital and understandably placed on suicide prevention watch. The story from the young man, who turned out to be her boyfriend, was that they’d been revising together and he’d went to make them a late dinner, but when he’d returned he found her in the middle of a suicide attempt.

The paramedics thought it was lucky the ceiling, and whatever contraption she’d set up for herself, hadn’t managed to hold her weight. Obviously, I don’t think it was that simple. The shirt she’d used to do the deed wasn’t attached to the ceiling by anything visible, no nails, no industrial strength cement. So, what was it held there with?

At the time I didn’t really want to think about it. Ghosts didn’t usually have the kind of power to kill someone, not unless it’s one heck of a grudge they’re harbouring. Which made me more certain it wasn’t a ghost, a thought which frightened me more, because if it wasn’t a spirit, then what the hell was it?

I did the healthy thing and buried my fear and doubt deep down in my mind where it wouldn’t bother me and continued. Just a small piece of life advice, if I may. Don’t do this, it’s not healthy, and it doesn’t help. Ignoring something doesn’t make it go away.

We saw nothing else for the rest of the night, which forced Strother to conclude that there wasn’t anything in the accommodation. A few days later Steph was allowed to go and see Leyla, along with a rep from student support, to ask a few questions. On her return, she reported that Leyla denied she’d tried to kill herself and was adamant that her shirt had wrapped itself around her neck.

Understandably, after this story she was placed quietly into the psychiatric ward for further tests. She’d have to learn the hard way that talking about strange things to doctors never did you any favours.

During further research Ken also found that Leyla, Emily, and Kieran were all on the same exclusive course together. In light of this information the team concluded that perhaps the course was putting too much stress on their students, causing them to take extreme measures. I also found this connection suspicious but didn’t arrive at the same conclusions. You know how I feel about coincidence.

Strother recommended to the dean that every student on that course be given an evaluation by university counsellors to see if any others were thinking about taking their own lives. As a reward for suggesting this the dean asked if Strother, Ken and Steph would use their psychological expertise and help out with evaluations.

I can tell you now, I’d never seen Strother so disgruntled. I’m unsure if he thought it beneath him to evaluate undergraduates, or he thought his time might be better spent doing his own research, but he stormed around the place like a petulant bairn who hasn’t got their own way for the few days the evaluations took place.

Whilst all of this was going on, I was abusing the power we’d been given to investigate the rest of the students on the course. Why was it three from the same degree, an exclusive one at that? Why was whatever it was harming them, going so far as to try to take their lives? Were those three connected in some other way? It was difficult for me to accept I might not be dealing with a ghost, so I convinced myself it was a ghost, just not one I’d seen before. I preferred the theory that there were different species of spirit to it being something else entirely. Perhaps its eyes were red and it had the power to harm the living because its grudge was so great. I mean, I’d seen spirits that no longer took the form they had in life because they’d been dead for so long, maybe this was similar.

But no matter how much logic I piled onto the mystery my nightmares about those eyes wouldn’t stop waking me up in the middle of the night.

It comforted me to do something, to pretend like illegally looking through confidential student files could solve the problem. It was as I was going over the victim’s records that I noticed, in passing, that they were all at the top of the class. Surely this was a sticking point when it came to the suicide theory? Why would students who were heading for a first-class degree suddenly decide to end their lives? I kept these questions to myself as the atmosphere in our team was subdued at the time.

As the only member of the team who didn’t have a background in psychology, I remained safe in the office as disgruntled and nervous undergrads piled into our office space. Sometimes I recognised them from the picture on their file, and some were unknown since I hadn’t managed to get to theirs yet. There weren’t many on the course, between 20 and 30, but since I wasn’t supposed to have access I had to do my digging covertly, which took longer.

When I’d go to get a cup of tea or coffee, even to get lunch, there always seemed to be a student waiting in the hallway or coming out of one of the interview rooms. It was when I was on one of my runs to the kitchen that I noticed something unusual. It’s difficult to describe this feeling. It’s kind of like a noise that you can’t consciously hear but your jaw clenches anyway, as if steeling yourself against it somehow. The muscles in my face tightened and I could feel my teeth grinding together yet didn’t seem to have enough control to get them to stop.

I heard Ken speaking from the door to our office space and out of habit I looked towards the noise. He and a young lad were walking towards where I stood, empty mug in hand, feeling the muscle in my jaw spasm painfully. Ken was telling the lad about what was going to happen during the meeting and that it was nothing to worry about. I stepped aside to let them pass me, and this is going to sound crazy, but I swear I heard whispering in my head as the lad passed. It built up gradually until it was at its loudest at the point he passed me, and then it faded away.

It wasn’t a pleasant sensation, and as soon as Ken led him into one of the small meeting rooms it felt like a weight had been lifted in my mind, the brain fog dissipated. Believe me, they ran every test imaginable when I was a bairn, and schizophrenia was ruled out, so the voices weren’t in my head, per se.

I didn’t recognise the lad, and I didn’t have his name. Luckily for me students were supposed to leave their bags in the small meeting room before going for their interview. Almost as soon as Ken closed the door I went to rifle through the student’s belongings. Just in case you thought I was a moral person.

I found his student card, which identified him as Adam Balantine, and thankfully this matched the driver’s licence in his wallet. Don’t fret, I didn’t steal any money, I’m not that bad. He had books, pens, an Ipad, but the more I dug into his bag the quicker the heaviness returned. By the time I found the black leather-bound book I thought I was going to have to make a trip to the dentist.

The book I dug from the depths of his rucksack was the scabbiest thing I’d ever seen. The leather was cracked, marked, and dented from what looked to be centuries of abuse. There was no writing on the cover or the spine, and in all honesty I was reluctant to open it to see if there was one on the inside page. I turned it over in my hands, felt the scaly leather beneath my fingertips, grinding my teeth to try and overcome the sudden pressure I felt on my temples and the constant stream of nonsensical whispers that thrummed through my ears. It was only when I glanced at the skin around my nails that I noticed it starting to turn black, tiny veins of dark grey feeling their way up my fingers.

Instinctively I dropped it, spiralling quickly into a panic. But when I scrutinised my hands again they were back to normal, no marks that shouldn’t be there, no creepy dark veins. Still feeling panicky I stuffed everything back into Adam’s bag, zipped it up, and left.

I may not have known then what I do now, but even I could sense that something wasn’t right with that book. Why did he have such a thing? What was the pressure and the whispers I heard whenever I was near it?

I retreated to the safety of the office, and after I popped an aspirin I looked up Adam Balantine’s student record. He, like the other 3 victims, was near the top of his class, on track for a first-class degree. The score he received on their last test placed him fifth in the class, after Leyla, Emily, and Kieran, who were the top 3.

Was this bigger than just those 3? Was that red-eyed monster going after top achievers in that course? But what, if anything, did that book have to do with it? Was that how it got to its victims? The book would appear out of nowhere in its victim’s belongings, and then after it’d succeeded in harming them would disappear? Or was the book more like a pin on a map, a target the creature was aimed at? Did it have its own free will, or was it being controlled by someone?

Was Adam future victim, or perpetrator? Unfortunately, the answer to that question wasn’t in his record, so I’d just have to ask.

Another obvious coincidence was that Adam shared the same accommodation with Kieran and Leyla. I decided, after work hours, to go and pay him a visit. Was this dangerous? Perhaps, but if the creature had wanted to hurt me it had ample opportunity before, and it didn’t really occur to me at the time that Adam posed a threat.

I arrived at the flat number recorded in his file. His flatmates let me in after I told them who I was looking for, and I knocked on his door. For a brief moment, between my knock and the door opening, I had an unwelcomed flash back to Leyla’s so-called suicide attempt. I was building up to forcing the door open when he opened it himself.

There was no recognition in his eyes as he looked at me. Obviously, our encounter earlier that day had struck me more than him. My plan, going in, was to somehow get the book from his bag and take it away with me. My working theory was that somehow the book was a target for whatever that creature was, and it went after the person who had it in their possession. I didn’t know how true this theory was, all I knew was that the book was malignant, and it wasn’t a coincidence it’d turned up now, so close to the three incidents.

I told a lie as close to the truth as possible. I said I was a colleague of Ken’s and that I was sent to do the follow-up interview Adam was told about. When he returned a blank stare, I pretended Ken had just failed to mention it. Using his confusion to my advantage I brushed past him into his room. As soon as my feet crossed the threshold, I was looking for his bag. It wasn’t long before I could hear the whispers again, faint, like white noise.

I began asking mundane questions, ones I, in my ignorance, assumed psychologists asked their patients. How they were, what they’d been getting up to, if they’d had any relapses or other symptoms. I then threw, as casually as possible, a question about whether he’d seen anything out of the ordinary. I made it seem as though high levels of stress could bring on hallucinations. He gave a similar reply to all my inquiries. A grunt of refusal. But when I asked if he’d seen strange things his eyes immediately darted to his desk. When I followed his line of sight I saw the book lying open, strange symbols and even stranger writing scrawled across its bruised pages.

I’ll confess, I was naïve. I’d gone in assuming Adam to be possible victim since whatever it was appeared to be targeting high achievers, of which he was one. I also had no idea how that book was connected to the ghost-like creature. I’d assumed the book was like an anchor, something that it was connected to, not something it was driven by.

As if craving attention the whispering became louder, more rushed and chaotic. My guard slipped and I asked, panic in my voice, what it was. He told me he wasn’t sure and that one day it’d just appeared in his bag. When he’d got to reading it he realised it was a grimoire. For us mere mortals, grimoire is a fancy word for spellbook.

Now, ghosts was one thing, witches quite another. But young Sarah was about to find out the world was a lot bigger than she’d ever thought. Adam turned into what I’d always thought a psychopath caught by the police would act like. It was as though he’d been desperate to tell someone how clever he was figuring out how to use it. He said it was simple, he collected a few ingredients, some from specialist shops, said a few words over a few nights, and his wishes came true.

One of those wishes was to be the top of his class. The course, that was the vein connecting all the victims, was cut throat and only the top 3 students were offered employment with partner companies at the end of their degrees. Adam, at number 5, was just missing out. I was unsure if the book functioned like a twisted genie. The owner simply stated a wish, and the book would do whatever it liked to make that wish come true. Or it was more sinister, and Adam had purposely found a spell that removed people from his path?

I mean I’d just found out that magic possibly existed, so I wasn’t in any position to theorise. The stranger thing was that Adam just kept on talking, the words were falling from his mouth like teeth in a nightmare. He was showing me pages filled with severely written words, nonsensical diagrams, and stains on the page that, honestly, looked like dried blood. He came to rest on a page which had a drawing of something I immediately recognised, complete with ruby red eyes.

The page it was spread across named it as a vengeful spirit, someone who’s died with regret and anguish and lingers in the world aimlessly. What the spell claimed to do was harness this spirit and turn it into a weapon.

If you’d told me, at that stage of my life, that it was possible to control a spirit I’d have scoffed arrogantly. But I was staring at proof it was possible, and with what looked to be very little effort.

 When the shock wore off, or at least lessened, I began to realise I was in a difficult position. He’d told me all his secrets, everything that he’d done to his course mates; what happened to me now? Would I be able to just walk out? Could I make a run for it, or would that vengeful spirit find me anyway?

I didn’t care about that book, or about getting it away from him. These were powers I had no experience or knowledge of. And why was this my responsibility? I understood ghosts, to a certain extent, I could sympathise with them, and that sympathy compelled me to help them as best as I was able. But this? A book filled with spells that whispered curses. No thanks.

As I was trying to manoeuvre my quick exit from his room the door burst open as if a hurricane had torn it down. A petite woman, no more than 5 feet, stormed in with a frosty look on her features. Adam still had the book in his hands, thumbing through the pages, not realising his fingers had turned black.

The woman didn’t say a word, she made a beeline for Adam and swiped the book from his hands before either of us could do anything. Before our eyes she wrapped the volume in some red cloth, possibly linen, and suddenly the whispering stopped.

She seemed to know that it was Adam who was responsible, or who’d been using it for his own gain. I felt like a fly on the wall as she never once looked at me, or even acknowledged I was there. She pinned Adam with a cold stare and warned him, in the most threatening tone I’d ever heard, that if he tried to mess with things he didn’t understand again she’d let the spirit he’d enslaved loose on him to do what it liked.

On her way out of the room, bundle tucked under her arm, she stopped for a brief moment and glanced at me, narrowing her eyes as if I had a spot on my face that offended her. She warned, rather than told, me to never mention what I’d seen in that room to anyone.

And for a few years I kept that promise, until I met Ewan and emerged from the darkness of ignorance. I’ve never met her again, I couldn’t even tell you her name, but I know what she is. You probably know as well. A witch. A very powerful witch from a very powerful family of witches.

I won’t go into detail as it’s not really relevant, but yes, there are witches, and yes there are spellbooks. But the thing Adam had was more of a curse book, created to cause suffering and death. Witches don’t like to have those kind of things loose, so they retrieve them with as much stealth as they can muster, scaring the shit out of whoever gets in their way.

As for the consequences, Adam dropped out of uni, became a lorry driver and runs a paranormal investigation blog. *laughs* I’m kidding. He took the witch’s warning to heart, and unfortunately reaped the benefits of his paranormal interference. He was offered one of the coveted 3 jobs for the top 3 in the year, and after that I lost track of him. I like to believe that somewhere down the line karma caught up with him, but I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on that one.

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