He’d never before received a call from a monster. Yet here he was, sitting at his desk, watching his phone as if it could catch fire at any moment. He didn’t feel particularly nervous, too sceptical for that; too convinced that it would all prove to be one big joke. He glanced at the clock. Four-fifteen. Outside the windows of his study, the daylight was already fading. A slight gnawing in his stomach reminded him of the dire state of his fridge and he made a mental note that if no one had contacted him by four-thirty, he’d call Karen from the publisher’s office and ask her if she wanted to go out for dinner. There had to be a way to salvage the evening.
He tore his eyes away from the phone and picked up the thick Manila folder that sat right next to another, even more substantial, stack of books and papers on his desk. A draught picked up the top sheet and it drifted towards the floor before he caught it mid-air. The sheet was covered in rows of neat handwriting, something rather rare these days. Glancing at it only briefly, he put the sheet back where it belonged, then placed an empty coffee mug on top, acting as a temporary paperweight.
The Manila folder sat heavily in his lap before he finally opened it. Already familiar with its contents, he was prepared for what he would see. When all this began he had expected that, over time, a degree of callousness would set in, but no matter how many times he viewed the file, the gory images remained potent and visceral. He flipped past the worst ones, particularly the one set of remains he still couldn’t identify as being either male or female, then went straight to the official report section. This part of the file had another photo attached, but unlike the crime scene photos this one held a powerful attraction: the face of a woman in her thirties with shoulder-length hair so intensely black there was an exotic quality about it. Again, he wondered if she dyed it, or if it was natural. With looks like that she may have passed for a model, if not for the haunted look in her eyes and the ugly gash that ran down from her cheek to her clavicle. A bulky bandage peeked out from beneath the neckline of her hospital gown. He guessed the photo had been taken in the first week after her arrest.
He folded over the page and perused the written report, of less interest to him because he already knew what it said. Still, he searched for anything he might have missed, almost feeling like a detective instead of an overworked, underpaid journalist.
He re-read some of the highlighted notes: ‘…living in a perpetual fantasy world …unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. Psychological evaluation incomplete… Signs of narcissistic personality disorder…’ Strengthened by his adequate preparation, he skipped the court documents entirely. There was nothing there that shed more light on the strange case of Clare Hendry.
His eyes lingered on the box propped up against the side of the desk. He wasn’t proud of it, bribing that guard to get him some of the woman’s possessions, it was probably the worst thing he’d ever done in his career. And to make matters worse, the bounty of his illegal actions had been disappointing to say the least. Now, still deciding whether or not he was on the cusp of career-suicide, he peered inside the box again. The only even vaguely intriguing item in there was the stone; small enough to hold in the palm of his hand; too big to be mistaken for an ordinary piece of rock. Someone had even carved a pair of eyes in the rough surface, as well as what passed for a nose and primitive mouth. The longer he stared at the thing, the more uncomfortable he felt.
The phone rang, shrill and persistent. He swivelled his chair around and grabbed the phone. A woman, her high-pitched tinny voice sounding overly bright, announced he had a reverse charge call. He quickly accepted the call, then put it on speaker so that he had his hands free to take notes. He patted his pencil on the notebook as he waited.
A different female voice came on: ‘Hello?’
‘Hello, Ms Hendry. Thank you for agreeing to talk to me. May I call you Clare?’
‘Sure. You’ve received my manuscript?’
‘I have. Your solicitor actually made me sign some sort of waiver before he would even hand it over.’
‘And have you read it yet?’
‘No.’ He glanced at the pile of papers on the desk. ‘It’s quite, ehm… substantial. To be blunt, I have a few questions first. Starting with: why me? What am I letting myself in for here? Your solicitor only mentioned you wanting me to tell your side of the story. He was pretty vague on the reasons why.’
‘You’re a journalist, right?’
‘Yeah, but I’m not a ghostwriter. No pun intended. My job is to research stories, not produce biographies.’
‘How much do you know about my case?’
‘Enough.’ He glanced briefly at the closed file. ‘Arrested and tried for multiple murders while suspected of several more; acquitted, against all expectations; never confessed to anything; refuses all contact with the outside world. Also, a history of mental instability in the family. Some people view you as the female equivalent of Hannibal Lecter.’
He imagined he heard a hint of sarcasm as she let out a slight chuckle. ‘Well, I never ate anyone – as far as I know. And most of the bodies they found were too decayed and too long in the ground to be linked to me. Not for a lack of trying, though.’
He tapped his pencil again. She sounded too smug for his liking. ‘Right, but you’ve deliberately created this aura of mystery around you. That makes people think you have something to hide. Something bad. If you were innocent, why not come clean sooner? Why all the cloak and dagger?’
‘Does this mean you’re not interested?’
He slumped back in his seat. This was a waste of time.
‘It means, Clare, that I don’t understand.’
‘I promise you, my story is unique. Unless of course you don’t want to know what really happened. I’m the only one still alive to tell the truth.’
‘Well, that’s not entirely true, is it?’ He glanced at his scribbled notes, mostly doodles, and one name. Clare remained silent.
Finally, she said, ‘He’s in a coma; never going to wake up. They just refuse to pull the plug.’
His annoyance grew, but so did his curiosity. ‘Okay, Clare. I still haven’t got the foggiest what motivates you, but before I even consider listening to your story, answer me one question: if you weren’t responsible for those deaths and disappearances, who is?’
For a moment he believed she had hung up on him.
‘You’re asking the wrong question,’ said Clare. ‘And so did the police. For a long time I thought the truth was something that could exist only in my head, that if it ever got out, the world would end. But I can’t stay silent any longer. It eats away at me, slowly, every minute of every day a little piece of me dies. I have nightmares… You are the only person I have ever reached out to. Give me a chance. I promise it’ll be worth your time.’
Momentarily subdued, he stared at the fat question mark pencilled in his notebook. There was something big coming here, he could feel its approach. He tried to steady his pulse by breathing deeply, then drew a rough circle around the question mark.
‘Okay, I’m listening.’
He expected her to express a measure of gratitude, but instead he got another prolonged silence. Quickly setting his phone to record, he then shifted to a more comfortable position in his chair.
‘Let’s talk then, Clare. Where do you want to start?’
‘Abbey Lodge,’ said Clare. ‘It’s a hotel. You don’t need to know the exact location, but that’s where it all began to go wrong. If I had known the truth, or even the slightest hint, I would have run away as fast and as far as I could. But I was too curious; too self-involved. That night…’ He swore he could hear a sob on the other of the line, then Clare’s voice came back, her pain as acute as if he’d just stabbed her with his pencil.
‘Everything may have been different,’ she said. ‘And everyone would still be alive… If only I’d answered the damn phone!’
Margaret Marsh was a very unhappy woman. I watched her as she stood silently, her sense of sight restricted by the small circle of light cast by the lantern in her trembling hand.
The hotel’s dining area was quite spacious, but the darkness had reduced the room to its bare basics; outlines of chairs, tables, the original wooden floorboards. Margaret’s husband, Abbey Lodge’s long-time owner, had revealed he’d planned on removing those boards during the previous renovation, but that was before they discovered the rooms below that once belonged to the tavern that had stood here, some two hundred years before. That’s when the owner said he started seeing and hearing things. Impossible things. Hideous things.
I laid a hand on the polished oak bar, seeking to ground myself. Walking around in near-total darkness tended to mess with your sense of reality. After having done this routine a million times, it shouldn’t have bothered me any more. Chickening out was for the clients.
Margaret had acted sceptical from the start. According to her, she had never heard anything out of the ordinary. I’d wondered if she was telling the truth. She kept glancing at me from the corner of her eye, then at the other members of the team standing close by as she studied them with a wary look on her face.
‘Are you really sure?’ asked Margaret, the tremble I witnessed earlier now echoing in her voice. I smiled in the dark. Got you.
‘I’ve worked in this place for nearly forty years, and all the guests who’ve stayed here, they’ve never mentioned anything about these things.’ She glanced at our equipment. ‘And what do those do anyway?’
I smiled at her, careful to hold my own lamp at the right angle so as not to scare her more. Margaret struck me as the traditional type: family values, visits to church and Sunday roasts. She surely had to be wondering why a thirty-something woman like me, still unmarried, chose to tramp around dark buildings at night looking for ghosts and ghouls. I suspected she wouldn’t have liked the truth.
In the light of the lantern Margaret glanced across the room towards the others: Tom, too busy acting the part of team-leader, and Stephen, his face half-hidden behind the bulky hand-held camera.
I was reminded that I had my own role to play tonight.
‘He was here once,’ I said. ‘A traveller. His clothes are very distinctive, perhaps early nineteenth century? 1820s? One of those high boards. A top hat. He looks very smart but he’s a bad man.’
I closed my eyes for a moment, focusing on what only I should be able to detect. After all, on this occasion I was the gifted medium, compelled since childhood to help unfortunate individuals like Margaret connect with the Other Side.
I observed our client as she swallowed heavily, then swung the lamp towards where Tom had now focused his ‘investigation’. The light of the lantern reflected off the walls and Stephen’s camera lens. Then I turned back. Margaret swallowed again as I looked straight at her but with my eyes seemingly fixed on another time and place. I was bloody good at this.
‘The first time he encountered her was right here,’ I whispered. ‘And he liked what he saw. But not the way we would view another person. His gaze is hungrier, far more primal. He’s hunting, but he’s never done it before. He wants to know what it feels like to take a life.’ I winced. ‘No, I don’t want to see that. There’s so much blood.’ I grimaced again, for good effect, then opened my eyes. Kneeling down, I touched the floor, implying I could see the thick blood as it seeped between the cracks of the worn floorboards, then I forced my eyes down. Of course, there was nothing there but dust.
‘He’s drawn to you,’ I said. Margaret needed a second to realise she was the one being addressed; made a part of this charade. Stephen swung the camera our way and Margaret blinked, distrustful of the attention.
‘What?’ was all she could manage. This was going to need something extra.
I smiled, a strong smile, years of practise allowing me to project a kind and understanding visage, assuring Margaret that she wasn’t being made a fool of.
‘This haunting is triggered by your latent psychic ability,’ I whispered. ‘That entity is drawn to your power. It’s quite amazing.’
‘Power?’ Margaret pursed her lips, ready to tell me that this had gone on long enough, but then hesitated. I could tell what she was thinking, as clear as if she had told me so.
She didn’t want to be a ghost-magnet – something I understood remarkably well.
Tom came up beside us. ‘Listen,’ he said, his eyes glancing towards the staircase. ‘Do you hear that? Sounded like heavy footsteps coming from the upstairs landing.’
Margaret listened intently, appearing more than a little scared now.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ I said. ‘He can’t hurt you. It’s simply his energy that hasn’t left this world yet. I feel another presence here. Also male, but older. He died relatively recently, perhaps fifteen years ago, maybe twenty?’ I turned to Margaret, a look of realisation on my face. ‘Now I understand. She says he’s your father and he wants to protect you.’
‘He says he’s very sorry that he had to leave.’ When Margaret winced, I smiled again, knowing I was on the money. ‘Spirits are not so different from the living. They feel the same regret and anguish, perhaps even stronger at times.’
I abruptly turned and shone the light of my lantern the other way. ‘I’m suddenly very drawn to this corner.’ I walked the short distance, then paused.
Margaret followed in my footsteps. ‘This building wasn’t here before 1860 or so,’ she said. ‘Only the beams and floorboards are original.’
‘It makes no difference,’ I stated. ‘The older structure is still here in a way. At least its energy is. What happened in this place was fixed in time like a brand. It was here that he stabbed her, then strangled her as she didn’t die fast enough. But the experience wasn’t what he had hoped it would be. It was here that be began his career of evil, but with every life he took, he came to feel dirtier, tainted. Eventually his path led him back to where it all began.’ I lifted the lantern and Margaret followed my line of sight to the shadowy beams near the ceiling, trying to make out the place where a hook had once been thrust into the wood.
‘He came back and committed suicide.’
Margaret stuttered wordlessly, her trust in the wholeness, the solidness, of the world crumbling, on the verge of breaking down.
‘But he wasn’t here before,’ she finally managed. ‘Why would he come back after all that time? I’ve never seen a ghost.’
It was time for me to turn it up another notch. ‘He says he was called back.’ My brow furrowed, I clutched the side of my head, as if in pain. ‘Something to do with a party?’
Margaret’s face grew pale. ‘Peter,’ she muttered. ‘My son. Last summer he had friends over and I think someone brought one of those boards. You know the ones, to summon spirits…’
‘A Ouija board.’
‘I told them I wanted nothing to do with that.’ Margaret was on the verge of tears now.
‘That explains it,’ said Tom. ‘The ghost’s energy is trapped here because they meddled with things they shouldn’t have.’
‘Wait,’ I said, putting up my hand to silence the others. I looked around, searching the darkness. ‘I sense another presence. A weaker energy. It’s dominated by the angry male.’ I made a beeline for the large staircase leading to the stockrooms on the first floor, then I stopped and listened. After a few moments in which everyone seemed to hold their collective breaths, I carefully climbed the first few steps before stopping and listening again. Tom urged Margaret to follow and they both fell in line behind me.
At the top of the stairs sat a wide landing. I suddenly shivered as I watched Stephen move up to one of the empty rooms, camera at the ready. The door stood ajar, and I glanced at the pitch-black space beyond. Margaret froze as a low growl emanated from the other side. She tried to make a retreat, away from that terrible sound, but with Stephen standing right beside her on the crowded landing, there was nowhere for the poor woman to run. Margaret was as pale as a sheet now, and it was obvious that all she wanted was to get out – as fast as possible, away from whatever was lurking there, waiting.
All eyes focused on me as I appeared to go into a trance. ‘He’s here,’ I said, then turned to Margaret. ‘Please tell him to go away. This is not his world any more.’ I grabbed Margaret’s hands and squeezed lightly. ‘You can do this. Your father is here as well, remember?’
A loud bang sounded from inside the room. Margaret squeezed my hands, almost to the point of pain, her chest heaving now. I seriously hoped she wouldn’t faint, or go into cardiac arrest. It was also Tom’s job to make sure the client didn’t completely freak out – at least not beyond being able to pay us afterwards. Right now it seemed he was busy with other things.
The door slammed shut and Margaret jumped back. Stephen grabbed her arm just in time to prevent her from careening into me and dragging us both down into the dark stairwell. Hot tears were now cascading down her face.
‘Go away!’ shrieked Margaret at the top of her voice. ‘This is not your house! Leave! There’s nothing here for you!’
Tom made his way to the front of the group and in one move threw open the door. We collectively stared into the dark room. Margaret’s breath continued to wheeze as she stood with her feet rooted to the floor, expecting the unknown thing to hurl itself out of the dark at any moment. Seconds passed but nothing happened. I suddenly wasn’t sure any more if Tom had actually rigged this room or not. Never mind that my own neck felt hot and prickly, I had to play along.
‘He’s not gone yet,’ I said. ‘But he’s listening. Perhaps he still has unfinished business.’
While Stephen kept filming, I moved towards the small square box that had been set up before the investigation. We had explained to Margaret that this device could record the voices of the dead. She had been extremely sceptical at first, but after tonight, she had to be convinced anything was possible.
I turned on the device and began to ask questions, each time pausing to wait for an answer as the box whirred lightly and it spat out occasional bursts of static.
‘That’s it,’ said Tom, his voice brimming with barely concealed excitement. He had done this more often than me, but he still managed to sound surprised.
‘It said ‘enough now’,’ repeated Tom. ‘Maybe he wants us to leave, or perhaps after so many years, he just wants to be at peace.’
Everything had happened so fast, Margaret looked unsure of what she’d heard, but I was already busy rewinding the recording. This time, we listened intently. A man’s voice came through, well and clear. I ran the recording forward another few seconds. This time I heard nothing, and apparently neither did Tom. Then what sounded like a girl’s voice, the child-like thrill filled with dread.
‘Look behind you!’
I startled, almost instantly compelled to obey the command. The prickly heat at the back of my neck went off the scale. Then I noticed Margaret watching me and I quickly pulled myself together. Despite this, I couldn’t stop my fingers trembling ever so slightly as I fumbled for the dial. I continued to listen as empty static crackled.
My attention was drawn back towards the dark room that we had approached so confidently and seemingly fearless, before. Slowly, my muscles went rigid and I struggled against an invisible current while I tried to comprehend what I was seeing. Next to me, Margaret clenched her fists against her chest, an instinctive move that only made me more aware of how fast my own heart was beating. I could not help but stare into the endless blackness at the shadow there, darker than even the night itself. It wasn’t moving, only watching us; something ancient, something that made my skin crawl and the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
‘Clare?’ A sharp click from behind indicated that Tom had turned off the recorder. The removal of static left behind a soundless void. I blinked. When I focused again, the darkness in the room was just that, the stacks of crates pushed against the far wall dimly outlined in the sliver of light that fell through the narrow window. The oppressive feeling was gone and I could breathe again. The next moment a wave of nausea hit me like a kick in the stomach. I clamped my hands in front of my mouth and bolted downstairs.