Archive for May, 2011

Coffee Break

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

Despite the terrorist toxic gas story, not everyone had left Dodge, as I discovered walking down Lothian Road under a steely sky, head bent against the rain squall and vindictive, nipping wind freshly blown in from whipping up the icy, grey waters of the North Sea.  I needed to clear my head and now my sanctuary had been invaded, the best place to do that was just to walk and see where it took me.  I turned left at Shandwick into the city’s West End, normally a thrumming hub, but now a water sodden, wind-blown waste-land.  The darkened windows of the Art Deco building that housed Fraser’s Department Store stared onto the street like the empty eye sockets of a long dead giant.  A particularly vicious tug of the wind almost cost me my hat and by the time I had things under control the welcome orange glow of lights bursting out of the crepuscular gloom from a Starbucks at the corner of Palmerston Place caught my attention.  I hurried towards it and to my utter amazement, found it was open for business.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, maybe no matter what happens, nuclear war, bubonic plague, return of the living dead, there will always be a Starbucks, staffed and ready to serve.  It was housed in an imposing building, a bank in a former life with high vaulted ceilings and now was reduced to eking a living trying to pretend it was someone’s living room complete with comfy chairs where strangers came to drink coffee.  There were two rooms connected by stairs and a long counter near the door, behind which a skinny young man with lank blond hair did the necessary.  I sat in the furthest away room and sipped my drink, glaring unseeingly at the chocolate cake I’d also bought.  There was around fifteen to twenty people in the place and they were all relatively young, bright eyed and feverish, the kind of vibe that I had always imagined would have been around during the war: trying to carry on as though the day was like any other, but knowing it might be your last.

If only I had looked for that damned voodoo doll of Lucille’s.  It was too risky to have sent Keira to collect because I didn’t know where the damned thing was or what Viridian had done with it.  Clearly he hadn’t done very much with it if it was Lucille who’d sent the Hand.  But what death did it’s owner have planned for me?  Well, not doubt I’d be finding that one out and soon, if memory served about these kinds of curses.  I decided to call my old pal Stella.  If she was in on it, it didn’t really make any difference, I wouldn’t be giving away any state secrets: someone had sent me a death curse and I was going to die.  Simple.  But her type were always grandiose, contemptuous of others and it was often their undoing.  She might let something slip.  If she wasn’t in on it, or didn’t at least know about it, she might be persuaded to give a handy hint about what on earth I was going to do to stay alive.  I had done 1471 when she had called me at Lucille’s house and taken a note of the number.  Very organised for me I thought.

I took the creased paper out of my wallet, my mobile from my pocket and dialled.  No answer and there was no way in hell I was leaving a message, because the only thing I could think of was a long, profane and detailed list of what she could do to herself and with what.

I wondered how many people had stayed behind.  The only other customers apart from me in the room I was in, was a huddle of young women at the table next to mine and they appeared to be pouring what looked suspiciously like whisky into their coffee cups and giggling with the manic intensity of people who clearly believe, like REM, that it’s the end of the world as we know it.  Except feeling fine wasn’t even on the menu.  Sad, fucked up, crazy, maybe, but fine was for lunatics and suicides.

Rain pelted down outside and a dark shape slid by the window blotting out what meagre light the day was willing to give up.  Although I hadn’t seen anything much on the way down, the dead were becoming more substantial by the day it seemed.  There was still that sense of waiting for something, an expectation hanging in the air that the world was going to come down upon your defenceless head.  This was a pack of them hunting and I felt the heft of their attention, no, hunger was more precise.  The weight of their desire was a leaden chain around my neck and I felt trapped and panicky.  The barbed hooks of their wants trailed gently over my thoughts searching for a hold, something to anchor on to.  I kept my mind a careful blank, something I had had a lot of practice doing.

The darkness slid by a second time like a crocodile circling an injured baby antelope that had fallen into the river.  The girls fell silent, whisky consumption halted as they scented danger.  What had they seen in last few days?  I was about to find out what the lives of ordinary folk had come down to on Boxing Day in Auld Reekie.

I got up and stood by the connecting archway between the two rooms and wandered down the stairs, just to make sure.  The Starbuck’s employee had obviously gotten the vibe too because he hurried to the door and quickly shut the outside one that led to the street, reassuringly huge and wooden, like it was guarding a fortress.  He clanked the bolts shut and was just returning to the counter when the window imploded inward and a dark, sucking, jabbering whirlwind flew in uprooting chairs and tables and smashing the glass counter in a hail of glass, cakes, pastries and the blood and brains of the young man.  Part of his head, mercifully minus the face rolled awkwardly into the corner of the room where it came to its final resting place.

One of the customers, a red head wearing a purple fleece that clashed with her hair, began screaming in a high pitched whine that sliced into the brain like a red hot knife through butter.  I’d never not drink again if I got the chance.  The older man sitting beside her tried to calm her down and move to the farthest away corner of the room without much success.  One young guy trapped between the darkness and the window managed to get himself impaled an a huge shard of glass as he tried to force his way out the window and his blood ran like black rain and pooled, oily and viscous on the floor and down the remnants of the glass.

It was an enormous mass, a density of darkness that whirled and turned in on itself in a complex fascinating series of motions that held me transfixed.  I was still spellbound when the entire building began to shake and the detritus from what had already been smashed was borne upwards, and then rained down on the terrified little crowd who all had the same thought: escape.  But it seemed we had a sentient being on our hands because it snatched up the chairs and what remained of the tables within its reach and threw them at the door blocking the only escape route bar the hole in the window, but it was in front of that and the moaning man impaled on the glass shard illustrated the dangers of that particular plan with exquisite clarity.

The darkness boiled in on itself in an endless, sickening churn of billowing black.  And then saw them.  A multitude of faces formed and reformed, teeth bared, eyes wild, black on black and yet every snarl, every ferocious grimace appeared etched indelibly into the formless mass before it disappeared again.  But then I noticed that it wasn’t just made out of darkness; this fusion of partial souls, ghosts and revenants had begun to grow flesh.  I could see an oiled skin under the darkness as it moved in constant motion, another stage perhaps in its evolution.  Was this the change that the thinning of the membrane between worlds was bringing about?

Two of the girls at the table next to mine for some incomprehensible reason had run past me into the room and had tried to jam themselves under a nearby table.  The other three were rooted to the spot on the steps just behind me, crying and screaming for mercy and I didn’t blame them.  A stinking, sulphurous smell radiated out from the heads and one of the girls was copiously sick from her perch under the table.

A high shrieking sound like a freight train being derailed rent the air and the darkness expanded becoming a vast ten foot pillar in the middle of the room, whirling like a dervish making the detritus dance with the power of it and radiating a fevered, humid heat.  But the sound began to take on a rhythm almost as though…yes, it was talking, shaping words with whatever foul collective consciousness it possessed.  I couldn’t make it out at first and then:

“Hungggggggggggggggggggggggggggggrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy”.

A long, snaking limb broke from the pillar and wrapped itself around one of girls behind me, a statuesque blond with dread-locked hair.  Her screams had gone from terrified to ear splittingly hysterical within seconds and the smoke continued to coil around her until only her face was visible.  It was almost a sensual motion, like a lover’s embrace.  She stopped screaming and began to pray, snapping me out of my trance and reminding me forcibly of that little thing called priorities.

“Get to the next room, all of you.  I’ll take care of your friend.” I shouted above the cacophony.  “There’s a window there, break it and get the fuck out of here.”

None of them answered me, shock probably, but that wasn’t going to save their lives.

“Listen to me,” I shouted, “This thing will kill you.  Go.  Now.”  A piece of glass struck one of the girls a glancing blow on her temple and that seemed to galvanise them.  Without a backward glance at their trapped friend they fled screaming up the stairs into the other room and I heard the sound of breaking glass and wondered if Nick Lowe had really known what he was talking about.

“Go now, I’ll take care of it,” I screamed in what I hoped was a reassuring manner, but then another column of darkness went after the girls and I knew I had to do something and do it fast.

Midnight Falls Part 2

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

I drove carefully down into the village.  To my right, half way up what looked like an outcrop of volcanic rock sat a church with lights blazing like a beacon from every window.  I wondered just how the faithful managed the treacherous climb because I couldn’t see any obvious road or path.  To my left was a harbour filled with a motley collection of boats that sat still on the greasily smooth water.  Here and there people had put on lights in their houses, because even this early you needed a warm orange glow to ward off the smother of perpetual night in the freezing dark heart of winter.

My directions were thankfully excellent and for a change I hadn’t gotten lost as I drove along what passed for the main street: a huddle of shuttered shops and bedraggled collection of houses.  The place seemed deserted without so much as a stray car to pollute the silence.  I pulled over into a parking space just to read the directions over one more time and stuck the interior light on noticing it was snowing heavily.  I was supposed to carry straight on and out of the village, up a ubiquitously steep incline and the Harper-Hodges’ house was the first on the left.  I caught a movement at the edge of my vision and got an impression of a pale blur being pressed up at the window.  I whipped around but only saw a shadowy figure backing away from the car at speed.  I peered down the length of the street, but whoever, or whatever it was had disappeared into the snow storm.  The street was as before, completely empty, with the only sign of life being the lights from the houses.

It was probably just one of the crazy Deliverance style banjo playing locals, I reassured myself.  It never fails to amaze me how being in an unknown place, far from city life, can bring out the terrified bigot in you.  I decided I should get to the house pronto and dig in for the long night ahead.

I indicated, although there was no need with no one around, and set off for the house.  Where the village ended, the road was again thickly lined with massive trees, so enormous it was hard to see through them even in winter.  The thought came unbidden that it was as though they were trying to hide something from prying eyes.  Sure enough, the first left was the winding driveway to a Victorian monstrosity set in formal gardens that had been allowed to run wild.  No doubt the occupants had better things to do with their time.  Reproduction old-fashioned lamps lined the drive and more lights were set on the house itself drawing attention to the sheer scale of the house’s awesome ugliness.  There also seemed to be a small wood to one side of the grounds.  I’d explore them tomorrow when the weather was better and have a good old poke around.

I was starving and desperate for a drink, so I quickly parked and started to unload the car at the entrance to the monstrosity as I already thought of it.  Close up I could see that gargoyle’s had been dotted around the building which looked as though it had been carved from a dark red sandstone and glowed in the winter light like phosphorescent blood.

The snow had stopped and an intense cold had set in.  Frost had slimed a possessive, glittering trail over grass and statue, roof tile and path.  Wood-smoke mingled with pine and other night scents I couldn’t name.  A crow cawed hoarsely from the wood, I paused for a second, enjoying the heady sensation of being away from the enormous simmering bell jar of the city where millions of lives intersected but rarely touched.

I fumbled for the key to the Harper-Hodges’ house and, after bad temperedly dislodging most of the contents of my pocket, even managed to find it.

Lucille had thoughtfully arranged for the central heating to be left on given it was the depths of December and I was profoundly grateful.  This made me feel a little guilty about hating her house but it had to be done.

Walking down the narrow hall-way, I began to sweat slightly in my full length fake fur coat.  I headed for what I thought was the living room at the back of the house and as I did, the telephone rang, its insistent summons ringing through the empty house.  It could only be the client, so I ignored it – the arrangement had been that I’d check in the following day so that’s what I was going to do.  There had to be some perks to being a psycho, sorry psychic.

The décor of the house was clearly fighting a running battle with its obvious age, being modern and full of designer type stuff straight from those lifestyle magazines to which I could never imagine anyone seriously aspiring.  A cream deep pile carpet made the room difficult to relax in.  Why did people choose colours like that?  The doomed guest with a tragically full glass of red wine, predestined to spill it over the unspoiled expanse, would have recurring nightmares ever after.  The only thing that wouldn’t recur would be the invitation.

The furniture was chrome and white and the overall effect was of being in a dentist’s waiting room.  There was no real sense of the person or people that lived here, just a shit load of money.  The funny thing was that I couldn’t pick up anything at all about the room’s past, almost as though it had been wiped clean, like the décor.  It was such a complete void that I had no sense whatsoever of the history of the place.  Now that was a disturbing thought.  Give me a room, any room and I could usually sense at least some of the things that had happened in it over the years.  The residue of emotions, deeds and lives past was well nigh impossible to get rid of.  But not here.  I looked around and saw a few framed photos scattered around showing a smiling, bronzed, blond couple looking unnervingly like brother and sister.  Must be mine hosts.

The large French windows faced into the garden and I could see a whole battery of yet more lights.  The place must be lit up like Blackpool by night.  There were so many of them that I began to appreciate that it went beyond the cosmetic or even security.  The Harper-Hodges’ were definitely scared of something, the question was, what.  I hadn’t really been able to make head or tale of the story of the malign presence.  The storm outside had intensified, so it didn’t look like I was going anywhere anytime soon.  I spied a fine malt whiskey being held prisoner by a gaggle of crystal tumblers and made straight for it, pouring a hefty belt.  No sense in using up my emergency stash when there was no emergency.

Sitting on the uncomfortable white leather sofa, drink teetering precariously on the arm, I waited for whatever the house had to show me.  The whiskey was going down well, so much so I’d have to replace it before I left this featureless hell-hole.  And that was when it struck me.  Every city, town, street, tenement, flat had its own history which left imprints, traces of those who had lived and died there.  Mostly those traces were like video re-runs, stories on a loop which only the sensitive could watch.  Occasionally however, it was more sinister: genuine hauntings by the vengeful dead, those who by sheer willpower had resisted the natural progression of things because of some wrong, real or imagined.  But not in this house.

But there was no commotion in this house.  Just a vacuum – and it wasn’t just the natural world that abhorred it.  The supernatural wasn’t keen either.  You never could tell what might be attracted by such a space.  I shivered despite the heat and leaned back, closing my eyes.   The ‘phone, which was right beside me on a fussy looking glass table, began to ring.  Stretching a languid hand over, I picked up the receiver:

“Hello?”

“Rosie” a familiar voice rasped.

“Who’s this?”

“It’s the flamin’ Archbishop of Canterbury, who do you think?”

I couldn’t believe this.

“Who gave you this number Stella?” I said, voice tight with dislike.

“Listen shit-for-brains,” she coughed and there was a hawking and spitting sound, “You know I wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire, so I’m only going to say this once”

I was intrigued and disgusted and didn’t know which way I wanted to fall.  Stella was a powerful witch, and also one of the most degenerate characters I’d ever had the misfortune to rub shoulders with. She was of indeterminate age, small, blond and looked like a misanthropic pig.  Which was just about the size of it really.  If there was something unsavoury, foul or downright wicked going on, Stella had a trotter in it.  She was also obsessed with what she thought were the finer things in life, and would sacrifice anyone or anything to get her hands on them.  We had had innumerable run ins over the years and sad to say we probably knew each other better than a lot of friends.  Although come to think of it, she didn’t have any.  Ahhh, maybe she was missing me.

“Get on with it, for Christ’s sake” I muttered.

“You’re all heart.  And you’re going to love this,” she dragged the moment out to its kicking, screaming limit, and I could just see her in my mind’s eye, lush, blond hair framing a podgy face lascivious with malice.

“Ruby told me you’re in Midnight Falls, but if you don’t get the hell out of Dodge tonight, you’re going to die there.”  The words came out in a rush like a bob sleigh whizzing down the north face of K2.  She waited, no doubt relishing the prospect of my horror at the thought of an untimely demise. I didn’t give her the benefit of a reaction, thinking she might give me more detail that way and I could find out what the hell she was on about.  The lady was nothing if not perverse.  But then, why tell me at all?

“Straight up,” she continued chattily, “I’ve been casting the runes for months now and the message is always the same.  Although…” she paused clearly thinking about something she didn’t like as much as my long overdue shuffling off of the old mortal coil.  That was interesting because Stella didn’t really do thoughtful.

“Midnight Falls has always been a favourite spot for me, there’s lots of juice up there ‘cos the village is cursed.  But you knew that, right?”  She seemed to be having difficulty containing herself, as though she were about to impart a wonderful surprise.

“I can’t believe you buy into all that cursed crap.  Listen to yourself, you sound about three years old.”

She didn’t miss a beat, clearly a woman with a mission, “I’ve heard reports of four different sightings of Black Dogs around that area within the last month.”

That brought me up short because I knew this was bad, the worst.  Black Dogs were associated with black magic, sacrifice and portents of death.  Genuine sightings were very rare and the unfortunates who’d done the seeing generally didn’t get the chance to see much of anything else.

“But that’s not all,” Get on with it, I thought, refusing to play her stupid game.  Just when I was about to put the receiver down, she cracked, caught up in the orgasmic rush of being the bearer of bad news.

“Given the fact that you’ve got all the psychic ability of a teaspoon, you probably haven’t noticed that there’s a spell of forgetting hovering over Midnight Falls.  I saw it right away when I consulted the runes.  Something big is about to happen there.  No idea what it is,” here a raucous gurgle of laughter worthy of the witches in MacBeth,

“But Black Dog sightings mean that there’s heavy duty black magic being performed.  And the fact that this just happens to be in and around the place where you’ve decided to do your Mystic Meg routine, ain’t exactly what I’d call good.  Actually on second thoughts, I’m being a wee bit previous, it could be very good.  Stay where you are my darling and worst of luck to you.”

I laughed along with her, genuinely amused, “And you just thought you’d call me to make sure I knew about my impending doom did you?  I didn’t know you cared Stell.”

“I don’t – and don’t call me Stell you little shit, or you’ll be in an even sorrier state than you are now.  You’re a pathetic loser Rose.  I can’t believe that Ruby rates you, because no one else does.  You’re, well know one actually knows what the hell you are.  One thing I do know is that you’ll drag Ruby down with you and anyone else stupid enough to get involved with you.  But a deal’s a deal and I made Ruby a promise.  And I always keep my promises – you know that Rosie.”

That was a thinly veiled threat and I knew how good the vindictive old harridan was at fulfilling them.  Some said she was into every kind of dark magic there was, including a few that no one except her knew about.  She was quite capable of sending me one of her deadly little surprises one of these long winter nights, just for the hell of it.

But I had to hand it to Ruby.  My soft hearted, irresistible friend, to whom even malevolent old monsters held themselves in debt.  I wondered though what Ruby could possibly have done to have achieved this sort of honour.  I’d better have a firm word with her: she was far too trusting for her own good and Stella was, well, Stella.  The thing was though, Stella was right.  I wasn’t popular with a lot of the, shall we say, psychic community in Edinburgh.  I was seen at best as a loose cannon and at worst as spawn of the devil.  That didn’t make the Satanists or black magic brethren take me to their collective bosoms.  No, they hated me the most seeing in me a threat to their carefully constructed bullshit beliefs.  The fact was, no one knew what I was because no one had had the sort of powers I had.  And when people can’t make sense of something, well, you know the script.

Confused and not a little pissed, I hung up on the evil old cow who was still in mid-curse and promptly fell asleep on the infernal sofa.  I woke up in the afternoon with a crick in my neck, drink all over the carpet, and the sound of birds intoning  a funereal dirge in the uncanny, blue twilight that passed for dusk.

At least the carpet had lost its cherry.

A Portrait Of The Spirit As A Young Girl

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Although the place had been wiped clean of ghosts, there was one that had not been persuaded to go. One that was so much a part of the fabric of the house and the people who lived here, that it had refused to make that final journey along the Highway of the Dead.

The question was why.

Looking at me warily from the corner of the room, the ghost fiddled with its over-sized granny glasses, the pattern of the wall paper behind it showing clearly through the insubstantial body. The forehead just above the left eye had been stoved in and something fluid glistened inside. This was how it remembered the injury it had received, a vague recollection of an outrage perpetrated on a body it no longer possessed.

I held out my hand and it came.

A wave of loneliness crashed over me casting me adrift on a vast featureless sea under a sullen sky, moorings cut, compass broken. But there was a lifeline because now we had a connection, a conduit through which, with a little luck, the spirit would yield its secrets.

Grudging details came at first, like reluctant suitors on a first date. In life it had been called Anne, but what had rooted it here in death was still buried deep down under the surface like a sleeping leviathan. My death sense began to whisper to it, threats and enticements in equal measure, prodding the monster to wake. The two shape-shifters in the room with me whined, afraid of something that could never be the quarry of mere tooth and claw. Creatures of rage and appetite, death held no such hot-blooded seductions.

Capitulation when it came was as sudden as it was complete. My death sense swarmed eagerly over and around the spirit in filaments of spun blue and silver lights. The ghost gained more solidity and in the process the extent of the head-injury was more clearly revealed. Previous reluctance forgotten, it, she, now wanted desperately to tell me everything and the trickle of information became a flood.

At last the frenetic jumble of images slowed into a sequence: two boys one of whom had short fair hair and looked around ten, the other a teenager. There was now a third child, a girl, all of them playing in a fast flowing stream swollen with recent rain. The rich scent of damp earth carried with it the tease of summer and the children’s laughter hung lightly on the warmed air. A brief moment of suspension and then I was inside the girl, Anne, and into a running commentary: a loop run by this forlorn piece of consciousness for more years now than it had been alive.

Adam starts saying that Phineas fancied Jenny so we laugh and Phineas tells us we’re being stupid. That just makes it funnier though. Stupid is as stupid does, mum always says. It’s kind of cold in the shallows of the stream and maybe that’s why mum has told us not to play here. I get a picture of her with her angry face on, but she always worries too much. My big brothers are here so it’ll be okay.

Phin lifts a big rock and shouts to us to come over and see what he’s found underneath it. I think he’s playing a joke on Adam and I for laughing at him. He can be mean like that sometimes. But then Adam shouts to me to come see. I turn too quick and put my foot down hard on a stone that moves when I stand on it. I lose my balance and fall face down into the river bed and smack my head hard and everything goes all black. Then it’s all weird because I’m above my body, looking at it face down in the water. It’s all red round my head and I think it must be blood, but then I think no, silly, how could it be? I watch the red bits spread in the water and shout to my brothers as they pull me onto the bank. They look so funny with their mouths flapping trying to pick me up and Phineas even blows air from his mouth into mine when they get me onto the bank. Yuck, why are boys so gross! I really hope Amanda Strathmartin didn’t see that because she’d blab to the whole school about how I was snogging my brother and then I’d have to go to a new school and and it would all just be stupid and I don’t think there are any others, not near ones anyway.

But then some men with stretchers come and take my body away, but that’s daft, ‘cos it can’t really be me can it? I’m here, amn’t I? Anyway, I’d better stay by the river and wait for mum to come get me because I don’t know if I can move. It’s so cold out here and now I don’t know how long I’ve been waiting. But it’s gone all dark and I start to cry ‘cos mum’s not come for me. She must be really angry with me this time, because she’s never not come before. After a while though I get the hang of things and find that if I really try, I can move. It takes ages though and it’s quite hard to do, so as I head off in the direction of our house I have plenty time to grump about why they’ve just left me behind.

I finally make it back to the house in a total strop and all I want to do is find mum. But the door is hanging open and the house is empty and that’s never happened before – not that I remember anyway. Where have they all gone?

Now it’s all changed and somehow I’m floating above my own body. I must be in hospital ‘cos people in white coats are shouting and putting metal things on my bare, naked chest with electricity coming out. Either that or I’m in the loony bin. Amanda Strathmartin would really love this. I think about this for so long I start to feel funny. I can see mum and dad just outside, dad being held back by more people in white coats. What does he think he’s doing? Maybe I’m dreaming or something, maybe that’s it and it’s all okay. I try to call out mum and dad, but either they can’t hear or my voice has packed up. Dad’s face is all red and mum looks like she’s been crying. I float near the ceiling and next thing hear this man with a stupid pointy beard say: “She was dead on arrival, it’s no use. Simon, better get someone to tell the parents.”

They can’t mean me can they? What is dead anyway? How can I be dead if I can still think things and see and hear stuff? But everything changes again and now I’m back at the house and it really does look as though someone has died because dad has his black suit on and the boys have their hair brushed in daft side partings which makes me laugh because I know how much they hate that! Dad’s face is all screwed up and he smells of that stuff adults drink that makes them act all silly and embarrassing.

“What is it dad?” I say and touch him on the arm but he doesn’t seem to hear me. I find mum in the kitchen crying and she won’t pay attention to me either. What’s wrong with everyone? Are they playing a joke to teach me a lesson about playing in the stream? But the boys were doing it too, so how is that fair?

But then I have a thought which makes me think that maybe I have gone loop the loop and am in the loony bin: they’re not ignoring me on purpose, this is my funeral. It must be because I don’t have a body and now I don’t have a mum and dad and two stinky brothers anymore. Did I do something wrong? I shouldn’t have played where mum told me not to, but I wasn’t bad enough for this, was I? Maybe if I say I’m sorry, it’ll come all right again. I’m a bit worried about mum and dad to be honest, hope they’re going to be okay because they look awful upset…

Midnight Falls

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

And so a week before Christmas and the business end of dawn’s crack I was on my way to a little village in the Highlands, called  Midnight Falls.  My grey Volvo was unremarkable, something I had found to be a lifesaver on more than a few occasions.  Attracting unwanted attention had certain, usually unfortunate, consequences as I had found out the hard way.  I had loaded up the car with anything I thought I might need: clothes, Scooby snacks, a couple of bottles of my favourite gut rot and, oh yes, some of the tools of my trade, although pitifully few, if I’m honest.  I had brought two of the best of my remaining scrying glasses, formed from highly polished obsidian and a ouija board just in case I really wanted to cut up rough down among the dead men.

Fact is though, if you have the gift, you don’t really need props, you just need enough flim-flammery to, shall we say, get you in the mood.  I didn’t even have a spirit guide.  Oh, I did contact some of the same spirits and even thought of some as friends in a weird beyond-the-grave messed up kind of a way, but no guide in the sense you often hear about.  I always found that the more psychically challenged my brethren were, the more likely it was they’d have guides – usually of the Native American variety.

No one with even the slightest ounce of natural ability needed a spirit guide.  I often wondered why on earth a wee wummin from Airdrie should suddenly discover she has a Native American as guide.  Surely the spirit of Harry Lauder would be more appropriate?  Come to think of it, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

If things really went tits up, I had a small handgun with a mix of silver and iron bullets which covered most of the supernatural beasties you were likely to meet.  It was deeply and absolutely illegal, but little details like that never troubled me.  Anyway, I’d rarely had to use it though, because although it might slow the supernaturals down, it hardly ever killed them.  That might be to do with the fact that I was a terrible shot, but I didn’t think so.  The old stories: silver killing werewolves; stakes for vampires, it simply wasn’t the case.  True, a silver bullet had more effect than the ordinary variety, but you could also be assured that if the beastie hadn’t wanted to kill you before you drilled a hole in it, you would definitely be dead meat after.  It was so little use in fact, I don’t know why I still bothered to bring it along.  Maybe because it was just not a comforting thought that you had pretty much nothing to rely on but your wits.  Like the unfortunate Alec’s, mine didn’t seem to stretch as far as they used to.

The sun eventually prised itself clear of the horizon to reveal a clear, crisp winter’s day and I began to enjoy the sensation of leaving all the debris and detritus of my life behind.  There had been a vicious frost the night before and it had silvered the vegetation.  Here and there patches of freezing mist clung close to the ground softening the stark lines of the landscape.  As I drove north over the Forth Road Bridge and into Fife I decided I was going to take the back roads wherever possible.  Driving was fine as long as it was a road less travelled.  On the radio some horrendous boy band were demolishing an old song, aided and abetted by its elderly creator, who, frankly, should have known better.  I could feel a rant coming on, so  I turned the radio off and stuck on a compilation I’d downloaded.  Placebo kicked off with “Every Me and Every You,” followed by Snapper’s “Dumping You,” and on it went.

I sang along, drumming my hands on the wheel as I made my way north and into the wilds of the Highlands of Scotland.  I stopped off in Inverurie at a pub called The Bingo Wings and had a massive lard-ridden fry up washed down with stewed tea .  Delicious.  I looked around at the formica interior and the small collection of punters: some eating; some going about the serious business of getting as pissed as they could, in as short a time as possible.  I felt a surge of optimism that this was going to be a good trip and things were going to work out for a change.  Little did I know.

I resumed the journey and eventually got onto a relentlessly long and winding road that was to take me to Midnight Falls.  It coiled, serpentine, around the banks of a Loch with a surface as smooth and dark as one of my obsidian scrying glasses and I wondered what lurked beneath.  There were always local stories about such spots, usually along the lines of drowned villages where church bells could still be heard tolling on quiet nights when the moon was full.  Or others about unlucky wives and husbands, killed by the untender mercies of loved ones, then laid to restless sleep within the glacial depths, only to return for a satisfyingly hideous and bloody revenge.

The road continued through mountain passes and got progressively narrower and harder to navigate.  The spectacular mountain scenery suddenly seemed slightly oppressive as the jagged snow covered peaks loomed above my car tenaciously threading its way through.  Not a good place to break down I thought as the sky darkened and light sleet began to fall.  The wild beauty of these lonely places always appealed but what it would be like to live in such remote parts? During those few wan, stillborn months laughingly called summer, the Highlands gave way to its insect conquerors and became a biting, buzzing, stinging hell; reverting to freezing cold winters when you got snowed in and had to eat your own family to stay alive.  Okay, maybe not, but perhaps not so much of an exaggeration as you might think.

I had been travelling since six in the morning and it was now nearly eleven so I was thoroughly fed up with the CDs in the car.  I couldn’t listen to the radio anymore, because the mountains had swallowed the signal whole.  Heavy clouds besieged the sky and I was still in the middle of a vast mountainous nowhere.  Sleet turned to heavy rain and I set my wipers at full tilt, which made no difference as the world became a distorted smear just beyond the windscreen.  The grunt and thrust of Snapper’s “I’ll Stand By Your Man” started up from mobile on the passenger seat, startling me momentarily.  I swore with feeling, not just because I must have been drunker than I thought to have downloaded the track onto my phone, but because I hated the damned things.  I loathed the idea that people could contact you at any hour of the day or night, wherever you were and couldn’t quite fathom why so many people couldn’t do without them.  As though they had to prove their own existences to themselves - even if it was just a lover severing all ties by text.  I solved that particular problem by not having any relationships, at least none worth the name.  No, I was betting it was the client.  Lucille Harper-Hodge struck me as a woman who was used to being in control.  Nice work if you can get it.

The road was now a one track affair, so narrow that two people would have had difficulty passing each other never mind cars.  Okay, slight exaggeration but fortunately for me, the road was completely and utterly empty.  Turning the headlights on to full beam I caught sight of a tiny, dirty sign at a crossroads pointing to the right, partially obscured by snow covered bushes.  I slowed down and on closer inspection it turned out to be the sign for Midnight Falls which was apparently two miles away.  I had almost missed it.  You’d think the inhabitants of the village didn’t want to be found, a sentiment I agreed with whole-heartedly.  Maybe this was going to turn out to be my kind of town.  I swung the car to the right and travelled down what was little more than a dirt track overhung with a tunnel of  huge trees, spectral in a perpetual dusk of their own creation which leeched most of the remaining light of  the day although it wasn’t even lunchtime.

Once free of the trees it brightened slightly as I drove up a steep hill, the gradient so extreme, the car was struggling even in seond gear.  When I eventually I got to the top, it turned out to be worth the effort as I took in the dramatic view laid out beneath me.  Midnight Falls was a coastal village nestling between the turbulent Irish Sea on one side and massive mountains on the other.  Sort of made you wonder what such effective protection would mean for the gene pool of this place: what manner of man or beast made their home in such an isolated Godforsaken spot?

I was about to find out.

In Nomine Patris

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

The thing clinging to the living room ceiling winked at me and wiggled its little backside before venting the contents of its bowels on the corpse in the half-open casket beneath.  It giggled, a high girlish sound and scuttled to the corner of the room where it hung upside down, watching me and rubbing its six fingered hands over vestigial ears like a monstrous, mutated bat.

Not paying it any attention, I picked my way through the wrecked furniture, moved aside the teetering pile of clothes on the untouched fake leather sofa, and sat down.  Sure enough, within a couple of minutes, it began to creep back towards the centre of the room and the dead body.   Posing for a moment like a prize diver showing off a new move, it stealthily dropped down onto the open portion of the half casket where it began to vigorously dry hump the stiff.  I sighed and pretended to examine my nails knowing that as in showbiz, timing was everything.

Beyond the window, the dark extinguished the remaining light.  Not a difficult task given this was the frozen heart of a Scottish winter: perpetual dark leavened occasionally by shades of grey, or that’s how it felt.  Meanwhile I was caught on a job in a run down housing estate in Gilmerton which although within city limits, was not a place to which any other type was brave enough to apply.  The family that lived here thought they had a poltergeist; not that they’d seen it, but they’d felt the freezing temperatures unrelated to the season and witnessed the damage done.

A phlegmy chuckle this time, muffled by whatever it was doing to the corpse, a woman of indeterminate age, although given the part of town I was in she could easily have been anything under thirty.  Isa Simpson had been a big woman, someone doctors would have classified as morbidly obese.  The collapsed lower third of her face and absence of lips indicated the complete absence of teeth and grey, straggling hair struggled to make it to her shoulders.  Her distraught husband had told me that the whole sorry business began last week when she’d died of a heart-attack.  Furniture had been thrown including plates and cutlery, some of which had struck the two little boys Kenny and Ryan glancing blows and injured the dog.  Worst of all, no one could get near the body to take it for burial due to the hail of missiles which had ensued when they’d tried.

A feral growling sound reminded me what I was here for.  Crossing the room, I took the scrying glass out of my pocket and, studiously ignoring the humper, positioned the obsidian surface to reflect the corpse’s eyes.  Scrying glasses, if you made them properly and had the eyes to see, showed not just the surface, but the behemoth lurking underneath waiting to break it.

And there it was: a fluttering of eyelids that should have been well beyond that type of tease.  I edged carefully forward to get a better look, making sure I didn’t touch the monstrous little bastard: time for that later.  I moved the glass closer and the creature went motionless for a few seconds before abruptly looking up, goggling at me in mock horror while its jaw dislocated itself stretching all the way down to its bony knees, like a Halloween cartoon parody.  But there was nothing funny about that vast maw, flipped open to reveal countless layers of jagged, yellow teeth.  The skin was black and lustrous like a seal, broken by protruding outcrops of malformed bone jutting out all over the head.  It was as though it couldn’t decide what species of creature it had wanted to be and had tried out several, not liking any of them enough to evolve one way or the other.  It stared at me out of the sewn up slits where its eyes should have been, tiny ticks of movement underneath, like pupae trying to hatch.  The arms and legs were elongated with too many joints like a spider without any of its good points.  I was sure of one thing: it was dead and the spirit had stayed here for a very good reason.

Through this glass the news was dark indeed: a spectral face behind the fleshly mask silently thrashing, mouth agape, like a film negative of a particularly bad scream queen with the sound turned down.  A piece of what had been the sideboard flew towards me and I managed to duck just in time, missing a nasty concussion.  We had been doing this dance for a good hour now and after my discovery with the scrying glass, I had to admit with a bitter, sinking heart, that it was going to take a whole lot longer.

The door leading to the hall opened and Mr Simpson’s wizened little head appeared as though on the end of something sharp:

“Are you okay hen?  Is it over-”

Naturally that was the incantation.  The sofa I’d sat on levitated into the air and hurtled towards the window overlooking the back garden, breaking it into smithereens.  A mini cyclone started dangerously near the coffin whipping up all the debris that had been created since I’d started this little adventure including shards of glass and metal from what had been the coffee table.  The temperature plummeted as arctic air replaced fetid and I could see my own breath rise in frozen plumes although I wasn’t sure this was an improvement.

“I told you to stay out the house with the rest of your family Mr Simpson.  Go back to your neighbour’s and don’t come back until I tell you it’s-“

A mighty crash reverberated upstairs and the head, to which the rest of Mr Simpson was attached, disappeared to be replaced by the sound of footsteps as he ran to find the source.  Why did client’s never pay any attention?  I seriously doubted however that this particular client could have followed the yellow brick road after extensive and detailed briefings by the Munchkins complete with flip charts and a Sat-Nav.

I flicked the light on wall and the room was bathed in harsh artificial light that did nothing to flatter the damage done.  There was a rat-like scurrying sound followed by the smash of a light bulb as I was plunged back into a smothering darkness only relieved the orange murk of the streetlights outside.

“Okay, let’s do it your way,” I said to the thing in the room.  There were two doors: one led to the kitchen, the other, through which Mr Simpson had popped earlier, to the hall.  It was a terraced house with two sets of windows facing front and back gardens, so these were the only escape routes for either of us.  A chill wind whipped through the living room along with the first flakes of snow and the dark obliterated what lay beyond the window, narrowing the world down to just me and it; both of us concentrating on the next move.

“I thought we already had this sorted-“ another missile was thrown with some violence grazing my temple which began to bleed freely.

“C’mon-” I was cut off by another resounding crash from upstairs as though a heavy wardrobe had fallen over and I could hear my client’s scream of pain or fright it was hard to tell.  So it could move objects in different rooms without much apparent effort; that would have taken some power from a spirit like this.  I heard the sound of the carpet being ripped free from its tacks before I saw the hideous floral pattern move.  A forceful yank and the carpet was literally pulled out from under me and I stumbled back landing with a painful crunch of my back on the windowsill.

I saw a flash of something shiny and the door to the kitchen was yanked open, a faint titter, and the thing ran into the kitchen and from the sounds of more breaking glass, through the window into the back garden.  Just what was so flaming funny, that’s what I’d really like to know.  How the hell did it have the juice to leave the house and cause so much damage?  Now I’d have to go after it.  Christ, I really needed a drink, I should have brought my hip flask; I just hadn’t thought this would take so long.  Seriously pissed off now, I made my way over the crap on the floor, squeezed past the sofa by the other window facing the back and into the kitchen, not bothering with the light.  From the smell there was a fair amount of garbage and rotting food and I didn’t need to see it too.  Sure enough the kitchen window had been broken and, opening the back door, I stepped into the night.

The back garden was surprisingly large and was flanked by others to the side and at the bottom.  No one was around; hardly surprising since it was Baltic and had begun to snow with real enthusiasm.  I shivered and rubbed my upper arms in a doomed but automatic attempt to generate some heat.  Standing perfectly still. listened intently: not a sound apart from the distant hum of traffic and the neighbours to my right clanking around in the kitchen.  It was darker here because there were no sodium lights, just the reflected glow from the other houses.  But my inner dark adapted eye was more attuned than purely physical and I saw it clearly; crouched on its haunches half-way down the grass like a thermal image writ large.  It wasn’t an improvement: the face and body a hideous clash of reds and greens and electric blue as though it had been turned into a Halloween version of itself.  But it was the aura that got me: violet shot through with pale blue, signifying a much younger spirit that I’d thought.

The snow had provided a fair covering by now making the garden seem like an alien landscape no longer part of a run down housing scheme where half the houses had been demolished due to subsidence.

It started to dig, all the while grinning at me, as though it was some family pet looking for its bone.

“Got something to show me boy?”  I asked simulating enthusiasm.   “What is it?  Let me see?”  But it wouldn’t.  The close I got, the more it turned its back as though trying to hide what it was doing.

And then they appeared: five mauve lights that danced in a circle around the thing as it scrabbled uselessly in the frozen earth, without making a dent.  I’d heard about Will O’ the Wisps or Corpse Candles, either omens of death, but also the tell-tale signs that death had already occurred.  It couldn’t be.  Not here, not know, surely to the God I didn’t believe in.  They wove in and around the scrabbler as though caressing it, with a perverse fondness.  As I watched, it paused in its labours and reaching out captured one of the lights in its misbegotten hand, then setting it free to continue its dance.  It had to be one of the most pitiful sights I’d had the misfortune to witness.  Surely this could not mean that there were five, possibly six bodies buried out here in the garden.  And if there were, how many more?  It was too much to take in.

Then again, all that was missing was a big neon arrow pointing at x marks the spot.  Given the number of lights, I didn’t think my untimely demise was being predicted five times; no, five corpses and from the colour of the lights, young ones too.  The thing is, this isn’t rocket science.  Untimely death and all that accounts for a huge proportion of hauntings, so this really wasn’t a huge leap of logic.  Maybe the creature I’d been dancing with for what felt like the past three months was just a stronger soul than the others, more able to flesh out its purpose as it were.

“How did you die?” I asked.  It performed the now familiar wiggle of its backside as it gathered itself.  I tried to move, but it was too late.  A whoosh of air and it landed square on my chest with a mighty screech, knocking me over onto the snow and then it sat on top of me, drooling.

I flung my arms around it like a long lost lover “Gotcha,”  And I did.  Any contact with a soul or spirit living or dead and I would experience every dirty little secret they ever had.  The family couldn’t even see this particular house-guest, just experienced some of the consequences; but me, I could see and touch the little darling just fine.  My ability to not just communicate, but empathise with the dead always seemed to me to be like a serious of hooks implanted into its flesh through which the garrotte of my power wound itself, tighter, tighter, until I broke through.  It was visceral, bloody and felt like performing surgery without the anaesthetic for the patient.  It was also like having my own 3D Technicolor cinema complete with surround sound, except no cinema could compete, because I lived through all the petty little betrayals, shameful imaginings and unfulfilled desires of others as if they were my own.  And they became my own, because once I’d gone through this, the spirit or ghost was imprinted upon me and they were mine totally irrevocably.  All I needed was the spirit itself or something belonging to it.  After that I could call it, keep it with me like a pet, or if I was in the mood, kill it.  The spirits of the dead sometimes lingered, more often moved on to whatever was next, but if I exterminated what remained of their essence they didn’t exist on any plane.  Other people in the psychic community thought I was murderer and most of the time I didn’t see what the problem was.

The images came slowly at first; quickly becoming a torrent and I had no more time as me because I was plunged in over my head.  A confused serious of pictures played out before me like a badly edited montage in a film which only gradually began to make sense.  It was of two naked people glued together in varying positions at different times of the day and night in a room with a dirty single bed; the unmistakeable slapping and moaning sounds an unnecessary accompaniment to a very old song.  The sun tracked its way across the sky and the lovers progress and still it went on, indefatigable, relentless.  The small ill-fitting window in the corner sometimes open, sometimes not, the dirty lace curtain illuminated by rising and setting suns and then silvered in the moonlight.  Both were young, the woman with long, dark, abundant hair.  As time passed they aged and the identity of one of them became all too apparent.

Sensing my comprehension, the creatures in whose peepshow I was rummaging, screamed its excitement and the pincers of a thousand red-hot needles plunged into the meat of my head.  I yelled in agony and just as suddenly the pain was gone.  What I was seeing hadn’t necessarily happened, it was the spirit’s perception of what had happened in that shabby little room.  Not that this version wasn’t true, just that what I was re-living was a result of everything the spirit had learned, assumed and pieced together about what had happened.

“Do…You…See?” it said in a voice of flutes and trills as though from many tiny throats, a malevolent, chilling sound.

“Show me,” I released my obscene invitation into the fetid womb of the enveloping dark, not knowing what strange fruit would result.

The scene jarringly shifted, the lovers apparently sated for now.  The images had a grainy, gritty quality as though much replayed and I knew I was being shown the sequence of events at the root of the haunting.  With much swearing and fumbling and the sound of plastic being manhandled providing the soundtrack, the couple was trying to bundle a small object into a bag and from there into a small swing bin.  The object was making snuffling, whining noises, eventually muffled by bin once inside.  The atmosphere was tense, neither looking at each other, intent only on the job in hand.  There was blood on the bed, a basin of hot water and some bloody rags at the foot of it.  A scrap of what looked like discarded flesh lay unnoticed on the on the chicken-shit green carpet.

“It’s still alive,” the man whined.

“Leave it,” snapped the woman, “It’ll be dead soon enough.  Just put it in the boot and drive around ‘til it is dead.  And don’t bother coming back ‘til it is mind.  I’m not getting saddled with a wee bastard of yours and have the neighbours talking behind my back – it’s me’ll get the blame.  It’s your fault anyway,” she continued voice rising, “If we get found out, I’ll just say it was you that raped me like and then killed the bairn after it was born.  Like one of those psychos on the telly.”

He looked at her for a long time, dark eyes meditative, finally saying: “We won’t get found out.  It’ll be okay Myra.”

The other side of my empathic gift for dirty laundry kicked in, as it always did: the urge to kill the messenger in the ultimate act of consumer frenzy.   And nothing could whet my appetite for murder quite like an all singing all dancing peepshow.  It would be a mercy, the killer in me wheedled, this spirit could never recover from the damage that had been done to it.  Best to put an end to its misery.  Best for all concerned.  It was like expecting a lion to give up the zebra after having sunk its teeth into the jugular while the prey was still wriggling, just because you’d asked nicely.

Then the scene changed again and I was in the suffocating dark.  Not in the room any more, no: in a confined, stuffy space with the smell of garbage.  There was a rocking motion and I could hear a continuous low rumbling sound.  I screamed and cried until I was physically sick, but no one came.  Fear and pain alternated as I fought to draw breath through snot and vomit, what was this place and how had I come here?  The rumbling stopped and I thought for a brief, blessed moment rescue would find me, but it didn’t.  Then the heat came and I boiled as I spluttered and battled for air.  I struggled until the will left me, the weak spark of life lent to me, snuffed out, tossed away with the rubbish because I didn’t count.  And still no one came.

Another shift and six little corpses lay side by side on the grass, blue, faces contorted in death.  It hadn’t happened that way in terms of time, but the spirit was showing me what it believed to be true.  Grief, fury, confusion and an unbearable sense of loss ran through me, not my emotion, all of it theirs; raging at the incomprehensible waste and suffering they’d endured not just then but since, waiting for someone to come, take notice of the fact that they’d lived and then died; but no one did.

The spirit spoke in a voice that struck me like live electrical cable:

“Do you see?  Do you see us?” it hissed.

“Yes pet,” I whispered, inclined for the moment towards murderously maternal, “yes, I see.  Let’s see what you’re dad has to say about this, shall we?”

I got up without bothering to brush myself off and marched into the darkened house shouting: “Mr Simpson get your skinny arse in here.  Now.”

I just about fell over him in the living room and, pulling him out the front door away from that place, the house to which I was never again going to set foot.

“Get in,” I said unlocking my car parked at the kerb.

“But I haven’t got a coat, I’ll freeze my knackers-”

“In,” I shouted tearing the door open and pushing him in, which was tiny as he was stick thin and tiny.

“Fucks this about eh?”  I ignored him and locked the doors again, still outside.  He started banging on the windows and shouting obscenities, mouth flapping, eyes wild.  I ignored him and set about removing the accumulation of snow on the windscreen to get a grip on myself and also to make sure I was ready for a very quick getaway when I’d finished.

I unlocked my side again and got in, grabbing him by the scruff of the neck as he simultaneously tried to make a swift exit.

“WHAT THE-” he landed awkwardly back in his seat and fought to turn round and face me.

“So how many did you murder then?  All of them?  Just a couple?  Bet it was all of them wasn’t it?”  By the time I’d finished there was dead silence in the car apart from Mr Simpson’s breathing, which he was fighting to control.

“I dinnae need to listen to this shite,” he erupted, furious face inches from mine and despite the obvious rage I also aw clearly all the ghosts of disappointments past and a fair few in the present and future in the hard, dark gaze.

He raised his fist to lamp me one so I brought my forehead sharply forward to meet the bridge of his nose and broke it releasing a geyser of blood that looked black in the darkness of the interior of the car and would be impossible to clean in the morning.

“Stupid bitch, you’ve broken my nose.  What the fuck did you do that for?”

“If you want, I could break all the bones in your entire body just because I feel like it.  No?  Doesn’t appeal?  Then you’d better listen to what I’ve got to say.

“Sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin.  It’s not a poltergeist like you thought.  You’re being haunted by the spirit of your dead son-“

“I’m not going to listen-”

“Yes, you are.  And then you’re going to the police.  If you don’t, I will.  Besides there are some things you need to do to stop the haunting because if you don’t it’s only going to get worse.  Understand?”

A little nod of the head indicated he did understand and I wondered just how bad the past week had been.  Whatever had happened, it wasn’t nearly bad enough.

“As I was saying, you’re being haunted by the spirit of your dead son-“

“I don’t have a kid.”

“That’s strange.  What about the six you had with your sister, Myra, wasn’t it?  You know Myra, the stiff in the coffin, the sister you’ve been shagging for the last twenty years, you must remember that at least.  So, anyway, can you tell me why they don’t count, the babies I mean?  Because you killed them maybe, or because you were porking big sis?  That would be a good get out clause wouldn’t it?  Sadly for you it doesn’t work like that.  Didn’t you at any stage connect the dots?  Forget that last bit; of course you didn’t.”

A convulsive shaking of the shoulders followed by great wracking sobs told me I’d sort of got his attention.

“I never meant-“

“To hurt them?  Well, you can tell the nice policemen and I’m sure they’ll see it your way.  But there’s other things you need to worry about more than that.  You see, now Myra’s dead, things have been stirred things up a little, you could say.  C’mon Mr Simpson, I need you to focus-”

“What does it matter now anyway.  They’re dead, so’s Myra. No one knows apart from you and I could fix that…”  The threat was eagerly made as though one more minor bit of murder on top of the other six was suddenly the solution to all his considerable problems.

“My agency know where I am Mr Simpson.  And anyway, even if you managed it, which isn’t bloody likely let’s face it, it wouldn’t sort what’s going on in your house and with Myra.”

“What’s wrong with Myra?  She’s dead isn’t she, nothing can hurt her now,” his voice broke so I hurried on fearing a fresh onslaught.

“Doesn’t work like that.”

“How’d you mean, it doesn’t work like that.  How doesn’t it work like that.  Talk English you dozy cow.”

“Don’t bother yelling at me, it’s not going to help.  I mean that your son-”

“That thing in there is not my fucking son.”

“Your son didn’t pass on like he’s supposed to.  Some spirits just sort of hang around.  Mostly because they died when they weren’t ready, or in your son’s case, because he was so pissed off he didn’t want to.  Over time he grew, not physically obviously, but he was around so long he started learning stuff, developing you might say.  And the more he developed, the angrier he felt which meant he became more powerful and on it went.

“When Myra died a few weeks ago, that was the queue for him to do something about all that rage.  And so he crossed through to this world, gave you some pay back, but that still wasn’t enough.  And he’d gotten very strong.  So strong, you wouldn’t believe Mr Simpson.  Anyway, when your sister died-”

He interrupted, eyes wide, “He killed her.  I know he fucking killed her…”

“What?  How do you know?  Look,” I said holding up a hand to stop the flow, “even if that’s true, it’s irrelevant just now.  You need to know what I’m about to tell you.”

Client care was ever the Fox-Garnet Agency’s watch-word even for multiple murderers.

“Your son has somehow managed to trap Myra’s soul in her body.”

He stared at me, wordlessly, eyes pleading.

“He chose not to pass on and now he’s stopping her.  It means her soul is still inhabiting her body.  It doesn’t mean she’s alive,” I said hastily, “her brain is dead and her body is starting to rot.”  I ignored the flinch and carried on, “Her soul is trapped in the shell of her body and can’t move on to where she’s supposed to go.  And don’t ask me where, I don’t know.  I just know it isn’t here.  Her spirit is fighting hard to leave and he won’t let her.

“Now, I don’t know what this is going to mean for her corpse, whether when she’s buried she’ll experience it like being buried alive, but I don’t think we can take the chance.  Your son has also gotten very strong and he’s managed to link up with the other five and together I don’t know how powerful they’ll be.  They could all develop like him and that really would be a laugh I can tell you – and one I wouldn’t be helping you with.  I also think there’s a danger they might try to kill you.”

“If I went to jail they couldn’t do nothing.”

“How do you know?  Sometimes it’s a house that’s haunted, sometimes a person and there’s every possibility your kids are strong enough to change venue quite easily.  How’d you like that?  Is that a chance you’d like to take?  But anyway, what about your sister.  You must have cared for her I assume, er, in your own way…”

I could see the fight leach out of him like a punctured balloon, shoulders sagging, head down.

“What do I have to do.”  The resigned tone didn’t even bother to make the words a question.

“Well, first off, I should warn you there’s a good chance it won’t work.  But,” I held a finger up to forestall any interruption, “It’s the only chance you and Myra have.  You need to ask the spirits to forgive you and you’d better mean it or it won’t work.  You go back into the house and try to connect with them, beg them to forgive you.”

“What?”  He almost snorted in his contempt.  “Forgive me?  And how the hell am I going to do that?  Eh?  And what if they don’t?  What if they kill me?”

“Then, Mr Simpson, in my professional opinion, if they kill you, that’s when you’ll really be screwed.  Now go back in there and get on with it.  I’ll wait out here.”

“Won’t you even come in with me?  What the fuck am I paying you for?”

“In the first place, it’s you they want, not me.  In the second, you told my agency you didn’t have any dosh, so we were doing it for free because it sounded serious.  And in the third I rather scrape my own brains out with a rusty spoon than take money from a murdering bastard like you.  Now, go.”

He refused of course.  Eventually I had to drag him bodily out the car taking the chance someone might call the police, but given the neighbourhood didn’t seriously think anyone would.  The front door had been left open and snow had settled on the carpet.  I pushed him in and shut the door, taking the chance he’d just run out the back.  I could hear him careering round the house, sobbing, screaming, pleading, falling over, switching on lights and then, silence.  I sighed, swore silently and then went inside.

“Mr Simpson?  Where are you?”  Silence; and then very faintly the sound of someone sobbing as though trying to suppress it.  I switched the hall light on and climbed to the top of the stairs that curved up to the first storey of the house.  Seventies patterned wallpaper shrieking in glaring orange and shit-for-brains brown complementing a mustard carpet of dubious antiquity.  The toilet was straight ahead with two rooms to my right, probably bedrooms.  I pushed open the door of the one furthest away and switched on the light: nothing, just a dingy squalid looking bedroom with a stained mattress on the floor and a heap of blankets at the bottom.  The master bedroom I was guessing.

I heard a noise like a suppressed sob and knew whatever was waiting was in the other room.  I put the light on and so him sitting on the single bed in what had clearly been the spare room.  Assorted clothes and bits of furniture littered the room and it was beyond bleak.  Mr Simpson was clutching a pillow to his chest with a corner of it rammed in his mouth, like he was trying to swallow it.  Finally he managed to extricate himself.

“What does it want?”

“I’m sure we’ll soon find out.”

“But-”

“Shhh.  Listen.”

That’s when we both heard it, a slow slithering in the hall and then sounding as though it was getting closer.  A pattering of feet as though the owners couldn’t be very big accompanied it.

“See?  You did really want to hear the pattering of tiny feet didn’t you?  Why did you kill them?  It’s Alec isn’t it?  Why did you do it Alec?”

The slithering had come to a halt outside the door.

“I don’t really know like.”  A small giggle from behind the door like that of a child and then the handle began to turn.

“Well,” he gabbled more out of nerves than a desire to confess, “Our folks died and we stayed on in this house like, together if you get me.  And well, you know, we ah, had sex like and I don’t like to, you know, wear anything and she wasn’t all that bothered and well it just happened.  And she kept getting up the stick.  So once we done one, the next one wasn’t so bad and hardly noticed the next one.  She was a big woman like, big here,” he cupped his hands to his chest miming mammeries with the ghost of a leer on his wasted little face.  “And no one really noticed.  She quite liked being pregnant did Myra.  No idea why like…

“But wasn’t is simpler to just wear a condom or even get an abortion, for Christ’s sake?”

The door began to open and he kept gibbering, eyes fixed on whatever was coming through, “But I told you I don’t like them things.  Like having a bath with your socks on.  And she, lazy fat cow, she couldn’t be bothered to take the pill or anything.  And she never held with abortion,” and here he actually looked at me with righteous indignation, “and neither do I.”

“Ah.  But murder’s okay.”

“We were young ourselves and confused and we didn’t really-”

“But if abortion was wrong, why was murdering them after birth okay?  Alec?”

“Ehm, well, you’re just confusing me.  But I’m right sorry about it now like.  No, I really am.  If I could take it all back.  No one know’s what I’ve lost in all this,” and with that he broke down crying as if his heart would break.

The spirit, on the ceiling again, slid over the top of the door, reached down an impossibly long arm to switch off the light and proceeded to hang above the snivelling Alec, five mauve lights by his side.  The room became eerily illuminated by the glow and I could see by it that the spirit had turned his head one hundred and eighty degrees so that he could see the wretch who’d fathered him.  Listening to Alec I finally understood the phrase ‘the banality of evil’.  Alec and Myra murdered six children not out of blood lust or some weird notion about why it would be a good idea, but just because they couldn’t be bothered taking any precautions and couldn’t be arsed thinking it through.  Simple and all the more terrible for it.

The spirit dropped silently down and putting misshapen hands on his father’s shoulders, whispered:

“Father why hast thou forsaken me?” it said in a grotesquely deep voice that thrummed in my chest.

“Get off me, get away from me.  I’m not you’re father-

The doppelganger

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

She’s walking along the Bridges, hair glinting like copper wire in the December sun, unaware that by the time she reaches the High Street she is as good as dead.  Although dead would be better than what’s waiting for her, literally just around the corner.  The fact that she’s got no choice in the matter is an irony sweet enough to suck on, because she has herself been Chosen.  Through every fault of her own, she’s come top of the stupid-cow-born-to-be-a-victim Hit Parade and she’ll get hers, make no mistake.

Heading down the High Street now the bitch actually has a jaunty spring in her step so it is definitely time to decide which part of her to latch onto.  It’s a big decision and well worth taking time over. She’s pretty well rugged up but the face is naked (flesh is best), and what a young, open face it is, all freckles and big brown eyes, now squinting against the low slung sun, oblivious to everything but the rut of her small, nothing life.  She’s so thick that she has no idea what’s about to hit her.  The fact is she’s being given an honour she doesn’t deserve by becoming a member of a very select and exclusive club.  She is after all only human.  But looking on the bright side, all of that humanity can be rinsed away like blood and matter down the plug hole: the hideous boyfriend; the dreary friends she never really liked; and that appalling record collection mostly consisting of some little dwarf called Prince.  Well the victim formerly known as Jane was herself going to be renamed if she played her cards wrong.

The steady pulse of her life force ebbs and flows and the intimacy of this moment is so profound it feels raw, exposed, like being flayed alive by a true connoisseur of the craft.  It will take time to replicate this girl down to the last eyelash but when it’s finally done, the simulacrum will stalk the world; spirit made flesh while the so-called ‘real’ Jane lies rotting somewhere, anywhere.  This dance has been done so many times, the names, faces, identities of the Chosen have blurred, become a composite making up a greater whole, superior in every way that counts.  Oh, some of her so-called friends might notice some improvements to the original model, true, but that is a risk worth taking.  Most of them would assume she’d just changed, maybe even coming up with entertaining hypotheses on those dismal nights out down the pub about why that would be.  But whatever they decided, it wouldn’t change the script and they’d do what humans always did with anything they couldn’t quite grasp: pretend they did.

But at some point the new body always destroyed itself, as though responding to an alarm call that could not be bargained with or shut down.  And so it would begin again in a never-ending cycle and yes, the club became a little less exclusive with the passage of time as more and more members swelled its ranks.  For now though, the girl’s essence is like fine wine coursing through veins soon-to-be-made flesh and her blind instinct to survive makes her malleable.

What was the legend humans told about this?  Ah yes: if you met your doppelganger, or double, you would surely die.  True in a way, but not the whole truth.  But what could you expect from creatures who were only fit to be food.  Doppelgangers were as far above humans in the evolutionary chain as humans were to amoebas.  Like a pupa emerging from its chrysalis, I begin to remember myself and the rebirth begins.  And in the act of naming, the ‘I’ becomes separate from yet connected to her.  At least for now.

Like a drunk on the stroke of New Year poised for an unsought kiss, my mouth extends wider, wider, until her face is covered by it and the hooks slide into the tender meat in a movement that is almost sexual, although I cannot feel such a thing, not yet anyway.  In the time spent between the Chosen after the last body has worn out, most of the vices of the living are quickly forgotten, until the next one of course.  She continues walking, although she stumbles slightly and I feel her brief moment of nausea.

I delve deeper, deeper into the bare essentials of her, until I am she and she is me and we are Jane.

She is shopping for ingredients for a meal she’s going to make for her boyfriend Tom.  It’s a complicated vegetarian curry, because Tom’s a veggie and she wants to surprise him with what she can do if she really tries.  She’s been thinking about going veggie herself because he’s always going on and on about how her eating habits are ‘an affront to any right-minded person’.  He’s probably right and anyway if they’re going to spend the rest of their lives together, a little compromise goes a long way.  Besides, tonight’s the night and she’s going to ask him to move in so they can be a proper couple.  He’s been a bit distant recently and she did wonder for a bit if he was having an affair, but he’d never do that to her.  Not her Tom.  They just need to spend more time together that’s all.

I absorb her thoughts about tonight although her mind barely registers the violation, like a stone skiffing the smooth surface of a pond.  She feels a surge of brief but intense panic as though something terrible has happened, but she can’t think what it is.  Shush my pet, my darling, everything’s fine, no need to worry about a thing.  And after I refine her thoughts a little, divert them into more exciting channels, she does shush, starting to feel a little better.  Pretty soon she’s verging on perky, giggling even, as a thought comes out of nowhere accompanied by an sense of ineffable rightness with the world.

She can’t believe she didn’t see it before, but, she could really turn this Tom situation around and have some fun for a change.  Why not give the fat tosser a gourmet meal of iron filings; a playful reminder that he really shouldn’t be two-timing her with that raddled old tart from down the road?  A wavering smile, not entirely her own, lifts the corners of her mouth causing an old woman passing by to smile in return.  If only she knew.

Yes, iron filings, that should do the job nicely.  Compared to the revolting swill he usually ate, she wouldn’t be surprised if he begged for seconds.  And let’s not forget, the cheap, meat-dodging bastard was always looking for new ways to supplement the iron in his diet.

And that was where I stepped out of the doppelganger’s thoughts and back into my own.  Momentarily disorientated, I watched Jane saunter ahead down the Royal Mile with the doppelganger swinging gently from her face.

Who am I?  Well, that’s a good question and most days I’m not sure I know the answer.  My name though is Rose Garnett and I’m a stealer of souls.  By the time I’m finished with the doppelganger, it won’t be doubling up on anyone anytime soon.

Enter The Ghoul

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

The next job was what I had pegged as a ghoul haunting in a cemetery in Liberton, on the southern outskirts of the city.  The man that I needed to see, Keith Morrison worked for the council and had been tasked with the upkeep of the cemetery and obviously wished that he hadn’t.  He thought the problem was Satanists digging up the stiffs for fun and not tidying them away again once they’d had it, like naughty children with their dolls.  This meant corpses in various states of decomposition lying around in the churchyard and municipal cemetery.  The stiffs in the churchyard had been put there over one hundred and fifty years ago, but the ones in the adjoining municipal cemetery were of much more recent vintage and caused the most upset to the lucky folk who found them in the morning.  It must have been bad for a coonsel employee to be willing to meet me at the week-end.  Wonders would never cease.

They’d tried to set up cameras and recording equipment, but nothing electrical would work for some reason.  The police had kept watch for a few months but it was simply to expensive and draining on man power to keep this up and naturally nothing was discovered during the time they did have.  Aside from some vandalism in and around the Kirk, more serious incidents befell two unlucky coppers resulting in them both having to be treated in the city’s nuthouse, the Royal Edinburgh.  Nearest I could tell, they were still there.  And that’s when the rumour mill started grinding in overtime because the actual details had been deliberately withheld.  The word was though that at least one copper had disappeared and that was why they pulled the plug until they could come up with a better plan.  Some brave civvy souls volunteered to keep watch and some garbled tales of dancing corpses came out but this was dismissed as sensationalism or nutters looking for attention.  The locals apparently thought it was a Hell’s Angels gang and wouldn’t go near the place reasoning that if the police couldn’t catch the culprits the Angels were welcome to their own particular brand of Hell.

I’d read about it in the Scotsman and called the council and that was how Keith’s and my relationship had started.  Naturally I didn’t tell him what my crack-pot theory was, just that I was private investigator who was willing to stay up all night to see what was happening.  Keithie-boy was at the end of his tether having his boss riding him about the negative publicity and the cost to the tax-payer and was more than happy to contract that particular little job out to a free-lancer because he sure as hell didn’t fancy a go.

While most of my business came from word of mouth, I got the most interesting jobs by scanning the papers and net on a daily basis.  It also meant I got a wide variety of work, sometimes very high profile too.  Folk while in denial about what was actually going on (there must be a reasonable, scientific explanation surely Miss Garnett) were quite happy to give me the go ahead if I told them I could fix it, whatever it might turn out to be helped along by a raft of testimonials from satisfied customers.  The trick was to keep your trap shut and just do the work.  If they wanted to believe I was a PI rather than a one woman psychic clear up crew, that was fine by me as long as it paid the rent.  And it did, comfortably thank you for not asking.

I drove out to Liberton and parked in a side street next to the Kirk.  This was a once wealthy little suburb judging from the size of the stone built Victorian villas with their massive windows and even bigger gardens.  The Kirk sat atop a hill from which the skyline of the city could be seen, the hulking bulk of Arthur’s Seat a constant reminder of Edinburgh’s volcanic past.  What I was worried about was the equally volatile present.  The supernatural activity in the city had been building steadily for as long as I’d been here, which was my whole life.

I had always thought that Edinburgh’s hag-ridden spiritual state was because it had started out as a volcanic plug spewed up from the belly of a bilious god.  The fortress built on top gave great view, but wasn’t so hot at being impregnable, so the inhabitants got to see death coming in whatever shape or form it fancied.  Instead of choosing life and moving the hell away from such a god-forsaken spot, they chose long-drawn out, diseased, disgusting death.  And what a choice that turned out to be.  Edinburgh gave birth to the first slum high rises in the world ringed around by city walls just to make sure they built up instead of out and the inhabitants died in their droves, hemmed in by the confines of their assiduously built stone girdle.  But hey, no one loves a fat baby.

Sheol was piled upon Gehenna as one hovel was built upon the next with the spaces in between serving as hot and cold running sewers.  These triumphs of human desperation were built so close to their neighbours, a flea shouldn’t have been able to pass in between them, but they did anyway and brought plague and pestilence to the party.  In the end, whole streets were bricked up to try to contain the amorous attentions of whatever microbe came courting.  In this particular combat, those who were about to die were too busy retching to keep down a last hearty meal, never mind having the space to salute.

But that only served to make them more determined and still they built, up and up and up, as though trying to clear the stench of the sewers from their nostrils or perhaps to get closer to a god that didn’t believe in them any more.  But still the walled city endured, testament to a confused but indomitable drive to survive no matter how great the suffering, how high the price.  And then, when they had gone as high as they could go, leeching the light from the cold rain-filled sky, they started scrabbling at the soft sandstone ridge the city precariously perched on and burrowed down.  Lo and behold, Hell on earth, above and below.  The crush of the souls who had died in this rabbit warren, transformed it into an underground necropolis and it became an albatross around the neck of anyone with the slightest sensitivity to such things.  The weight of the world indeed.

As I walked into the cemetery I pushed these thoughts aside, not without effort, and plastered a smile on my face to greet Keith, who turned out to be a nervous ferrety little man, with the grey skin of the chronic smoker and wisps of hair he for some reason kept long, giving him an unkempt appearance.  Liberton Kirk was an impressive building with a bell that dated, so my charming companion told me, from 1747.  It’s grandeur was in keeping with the houses, but there was something decayed and forlorn about the place, or maybe that was just the mood I was in.  The stone it had been built with was dark and the tall, square, tower wore a crenellated crown, the pinnacles of which pierced a jaundiced sky.  The red doors were bright against the darkness and gloom of the day and I knew it for what it was: a place of power.  You often found with churches, that the spot on which they were built had been used by human kind since time immemorial and it hadn’t surprised me to learn from Keith in one of our innumerable telephone conversations that a Celtic place of worship had been built there in the ninth century (always the ninth).

All in all, the Kirk was a brooding Gothic presence, an impression enhanced by the Kirk-yard dotted with the tombs of the once high and mighty, now laid low under the emerald green turf, the Great and the Good broken down into worm food.  Shelley’s Ozymandias sprang unbidden to my mind, so I shoved it away quickly, pushing away memories of a school-bedevilled childhood not enhanced by the force-feeding of so called culture.

That’s when I noticed the clean up job.  The tombs, most of them anyway had been broken and put back together, but like Humpty Dumpty, not altogether successfully.  The repair work left scars across the old stonework like botched plastic surgery.  The red arched doorways of the Kirk gleamed like the baleful red eyes of a predator that was tracking you for now but couldn’t quite be bothered to finish you off.

Keith pointed behind him, “The cemetery is to the north-west of here and we haven’t gotten around to repairs yet, if you want to see that.  We’ve managed to rebury the bodies from yesterday though,” he rubbed his eyes and I saw how tired and sick of it he was.  I couldn’t blame him either.  Hell of a way to spend your week-end and I couldn’t imagine he was getting paid anything like nearly enough for this shit.

“Thing is,” he went on nervously, “the police said they put the place under surveillance, but I don’t believe they went through with it.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well I think they got more than they bargained for and decided to cut their losses.  Without admitting it publicly of course, no, that would never do.  After those two policemen went, you know, gaga” he made a circle with his finger next to his ear, “and the one that disappeared, I reckon they decided to pull out and pretend everything was hunky dory.  Leave it to some other sucker to sort.”

“Mm-hmm.  That’s how it works Mr Morrison-”

“Keith, call me Keith, please,” he said.

“Rose,”  I smiled and stuck out my hand, which he took in a crushing vice-like grip belying the fragility of his appearance.  Men often did that though, the bone crusher thing having been told that strength of grip was a measure of man-hood.  Never made sense to me, but that was men for you.  I wasn’t a man-hater, oh no. I was an equal opportunity misanthrope and disliked both sexes with just the same zeal.

It was gone two o’clock and a searing, sniping wind had sprung fully armed out of nowhere.  The light  was already draining from the sky and it would be dark by four thirty.

Keith shivered and pulled his old parka tighter, but I didn’t think it was the cold he was trying to keep out.

“I uh, I wanted to meet you Rose, because I’m not very happy about a young girl like you spending the night here alone.  If there’s trouble you won’t be able to count on the locals, that’s for sure.  Hear no evil, see no evil, that’s them all right,” he said peevishly.

“You were probably also wanting to be sure I wasn’t some kind of crack-pot who’d do more harm than good,” I smiled.  He started to protest but I cut him off.

“It’s fine.  In my line of work, that comes with the territory.  Have the police really left you to your own devices?”  I was always fascinated by the authorities supernatural denial and ability to ignore everything that didn’t fit.

“Oh aye,” he said nodding sagely and from the thawing in his manner it seemed he had decided I wasn’t a crack-pot after all and from the looks of me could probably look after myself.  “That about sums it up.  They said they had no leads, but d’you know what I think?  I think they were frightened out their wits,” he spat the last word and I wondered how many hours of his life he’d wasted trying to get them to finish the job.  “You know what they suggested?  They actually had the cheek to suggest we use “a little self help”,  Can you believe it?”

Actually that was the one rule I had in the world: believe anything.

“So let me get it straight,” I said, “bodies are being dug up at night and left lying around.  They get re-buried just to be dug back up.  We don’t actually know for sure what the full story is because you’re not convinced anyone’s actually surveilled the place properly.  Right?

“It’s worse than that,” he said.

“Worse?  Worse how?”

“A fair few look like they’ve been arranged.  Some in, well, if you’ll pardon me saying, pornographic poses, well what’s left you understand.  Some as though they’d been having a tea party.  Others look like they’ve been hurled around the place, you know bits of them have to be recovered from the furthest away parts of the cemetery up by.  It’s not right.  Not right at all.  You know I think it’s them Satanists.  You read about them and you know, what they do and either no one takes them seriously, or thinks it’ll happen in their back yard.  Well, it’s bloody well happened!  Sorry, shouldn’t use such language, but I’m at my wits end with this.”

Since I wasn’t sure how far Keith’s wits stretched, or my own for that matter, I wasn’t sure what this meant.  It was clear though he was scared and not just because of the way his eyes kept darting around the bone-yard as though hoping to keep whatever it was at bay if he concentrated hard enough.

“I have to tell you I don’t to be here much longer Rose.  It’ll be dark soon and I’m still not convinced about you being here either.  I’m not so sure this is a good idea.”

I could see he was genuinely concerned, but concern was struggling with his need for a solution, even the promise of one.  It had gone beyond his job: this was an obsession, a need to know what the hell was going on.  A nice change from the usual run of the mill humanity which just wanted to bury their collective head in the sand.  And that of course was why he was here on a Saturday.

“Nonsense.  I’ll do it from a safe distance,” I lied.  I was going to wrap myself up and sit in the Kirk-yard until something showed if it took me all night.  I loved this part of it, never knowing what was going to come crawling out of the bear-pit until it was upon me.  The thrum of power from the site ebbed and flowed as though it was alive, an insectile humming meant for my ears only.  What sweet music we could make together.

“Besides,” I went on, “I think I can solve the problem for you.”

“But how when the police have failed-”

“Leave that to me.  By the way Keith, do you by any chance know what  the name Liberton means?”  I’d learned very early on that you sometimes picked up a clue or two if you asked about the history of the place.

“Nearest anyone can say is that it was a leper colony.  You know, Leper Town.”

I did ask.

*********************************************************************

I drove back to my flat in Viewforth Gardens in the Bruntsfield area of town and bounded up the communal stairs to the very top.  After a few hours of snoozing on the couch I had a massive and intensely satisfying fry up consisting of dead animals and burned fat, washed down with two mugs of strong tea reviving body and mind.  One  hot shower later, I put on every thermal piece of underwear in my possession topped with further layers of wool and cotton.  Shoving my feet into my most comfortable pair of biker boots I slipped into a fleeced, wadded overcoat that normally I wouldn’t be seen dead in.  Hopefully this proud tradition would continue and I wouldn’t be seen dead in it tomorrow morning in the boneyard.  It was my stake-out gear and I prepared a flask of strong coffee laced with sugar to keep me awake.  I also took a couple of ham sandwiches I’d picked up earlier but hadn’t worked up the enthusiasm to eat and crammed them into my capacious right hand pocket.  No doubt I’d need all the energy I could get, so I took the box of doughnuts that had I hadn’t touched and were going stale.

My flat looked out over the Firth of Forth and since it was now dark the twinkling lights of Fife reminded me of all the other souls out there going about the business of life and death each in his or her own little rat-run.  Stripped wooden floors ran throughout it topped by Persian rugs.  Furniture was minimalist but comfortable and the walls were dominated by art-works I’d collected over the years ranging from Bacon to Munch, to Schiele.
The very select few who’d ever seen my bower of bliss all informed me that the effect was disturbing in the extreme, but it was soothing to my wicked little soul and that’s what mattered.  It was my bedroom that I loved the most.  It was a large room dominated by a four poster with curtains and matching duvet decked in crimson and black peonys.  I had the urge as I always did to crawl in and pull the curtains but as I’d had a witch acquaintance put a sleep spell on it that wasn’t surprising.  I caught sight of a pale young woman at the foot of my bed, wringing her hands and crying.  She looked at me with narrowed eyes and an expression curiously close to dislike.

It was a new ghost, which was slightly unsettling but I didn’t have any time to do anything about her now.  Some of us had work to do.

At around midnight, I made sure I had my emergency kit: holy water (it worked on the beasties that believed in it); a generous selection of stakes (you never knew when you’d need on ‘til you needed one); flashlight and matches; a Hand of Glory; mobile phone in the front pocket of my chunky, flannel shirt; and lastly an old Celtic amulet found in the ancient burial ground at Cairnpapple, West Lothian.  It depicted a Celtic cross and a figure standing at a crossroads with a staff held aloft as though in salute.  Like all my stuff, I had got it on the black market and it would have to be prised from my cold, dead hands before I’d give it up.  Dull bronze in colour it wasn’t pretty, but it protected the wearer from harm and directed it back from whence it came.  Not infallible, but it had saved my bacon many a time.  I specialised in getting hold of various dodgy items that Ruby and her ‘community’ would have damned me for, if I hadn’t already been beyond redemption.  It gave my hunts a little edge, because I didn’t always know how they would perform.

Cursing as I manoeuvred my little Mini around an Astra that had double parked beside the car in front of me I then made my way back out to the sticks and toward whatever waited for somewhere out there in the dark.

I headed south, urban sprawl gradually giving way to suburban slump.  Actually that was unfair because it was a pleasant enough drive through the posh Morningside area of town and along the golf-course ridden Braid Hills Road, revelling in its superiority over the city sprawled beneath.   When I got there I dumped the car in Kirkgate pulled out the keys to the cemetery gates and checked my hip flask was fully equipped and firmly ensconced.  Satisfied I had all the essentials, I hefted the bag that contained my illicit in-case-of kit.  It was freezing and my breath escaped in plumes before being swallowed up by the dark.  Despite the fact that this was a populous area, there were few signs of night life and the Kirk was set back from the main road with a fair bit of land as a buffer protecting it from unwanted hustle and bustle.  Only the occasional car went by, but no pedestrian traffic that I could see.

An owl hooted and to celebrate the cliché I took a hefty belt of Talisker from my hip flask and laid my bag none to carefully in front of the door in the square tower.  I carefully opened it and slipped the vials of holy water into my pockets and then selected a stake, testing the sharpened tip against my finger which drew blood, as I had intended.

I gingerly picked the Hand of Glory out of the bag, wrinkling my nose against the smell and placed it on the grass beside the nearest tomb to the Kirk.  The miasma that surrounded the Kirk seemed to dim the street lights and I needed to hold my small flashlight in my mouth as I worked.  The tomb had what looked like a cross between a gargoyle and a screaming human head and the shadows moving across it from the bobbing light, made it seem as though the figures were animated with a life of their own.

The Hand of Glory was the hand of a murderer cut down from the gibbet and then worked over by a black magic practitioner.  A milky sheen emanated from it as though it had its own light source and the fingertips all contained candle wicks which I was trying to light with the matches.  It took me a few goes because the cold made me slow and clumsy, then the wicks fizzed with light like a child’s sparkler and started to burn down the digits which began to melt as though they were indeed made of wax.

The Hand was supposed to be used for sending people to sleep, the idea being you left it in a house and the occupants would either fall or stay in an enchanted sleep from which they wouldn’t wake.  But like most folk tales it was only partially true.  Sleep was a euphemism for death and the owner of the Hand could kill his or her chosen victim merely by placing it nearby.  But what I hunted wasn’t human so I was betting the Hand wouldn’t affect it in that way.  My theory was that whatever was haunting the place would be attracted to the stench of death in much the same was as it was attracted to the cemetery.  This was my lure, my latest new and awful toy.  I was hoping it would prove so irresistible that whatever it was would reveal itself.  That was The Plan, what actually would happen was anyone’s guess.  As I walked away, it pulsed with a green-tinged gaseous life, magic awoken and eager to do its stuff.

Ghouls were very much alive and I couldn’t siphon them.  Or at least I hadn’t tried, but they were so low down on the evolutionary scale that I’d been never been remotely tempted.  So it would have be another method tonight.  At least that meant it might not sense me straight away.  I walked around the tombs aware of the cemetery on the north side of the Kirk like a physical space in my head.  I thought, against all logic, that the action was going to take place here among the older, grander graves.  Frost had slimed an obsessive trail over ground and grave alike and the glow of the Hand lit the tomb it guarded with an eerie, flickering light.  I could still see it out the corner of my eye as I walked around the old yew tree, a lurking black mass picked out only at the last minute by the sickly beam of my torch.

I took a healthy swig of Talisker, unable to face the coffee yet.  I’m always at peace in these places, down amongst the dead.  Very few ghosts haunt where they’re buried, most having better places to be: the ones they haunted in life, or where they had a particularly vivid memory and didn’t fade as they did, just before they slipped off the edge into the void of whatever is Next.  And don’t ask, because I don’t know anymore than anyone else.  Not until I get there myself of course.  But what I did know had been seen through a glass darkly and had nothing to recommend it as far as I was concerned.  The idea of eternal life in one form or another scared the shit out of me.  Imagine lingering as a breath of wind or the spray on the waves like Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid: truly immortal, but doomed to live in a form of your choosing, forced to go in true Beckettian fashion:  I can’t go on.  Ah fuck it.

After countless circuits of the Kirk-yard more to keep warm than anything else, my hip-flask was considerably lighter and as I passed by, I noticed the Hand’s fingers had burned right down almost to the knuckles.  There were many cross currents of power in this place pulling this way and that, like being caught in a strong undertow.  Where the hell was this thing and when was going to deign to make an appearance?

On drunken impulse, I closed my eyes and reached out with that well-spring of power that I had that honed in on the dead.  I thought of it as a dead-light because that’s literally what it was, like an enormously powerful torch that sought out and sucked in the dead things that hadn’t had the sense to get the hell on with the afterlife.  I didn’t usually leave myself open like this because all manner of undesirables came calling.  I used the dead-light for specific spirits, not just a general trawl through a murky necropolis like I was doing now.  It was akin to going out and leaving the door wide open and a trail of goodies leading up to it: an open invitation to anyone who fancied their luck.  The dead-light played over ground and grave in an interplay of pale motes of light above and below ground, searching probing for any blip on the radar.  Nothing.  Because this part of the graveyard was so old and with no recent burials, my sense of the dead was faint, wavering, like a faltering morse code.  This was because most of the souls had passed on and the remnants were like specks of a partial consciousness that wasn’t aware of itself.

The dark draw of the Kirk wrapped itself around me and I was painfully aware of its slumbering presence, the slumbering reservoir of power that dwelt here and fed on human worship.  These sacred places to humankind were bottomless pools of unfocussed power just waiting to be channeled by someone or something that had the knous and ability to do it.  But it was not the quarry I was after and it didn’t stir itself as though oblivious or indifferent to what was happening to the bodies of the faithful that inadvertently nourished it with every act of worship they ever performed.  Nothing was ever wasted and the raw energy generated by the worship of an absentee land-lord was always going to be food for some other spirit not too fussy to take another’s leavings.

After yet another unproductive tour of the bone-yard, my death-adapted eye hit the jack-pot.  A cross shaped grave-stone ten yards away from the Kirk shimmered with a queasy green tinged glow as though it had been slimed by a giant phosphorescent slug.  As I got closer, a great waft of a ferocious, insatiable appetite rose up like a wall; a blind, sickening tsunami of want that could never be satisfied, a black hole with a connoisseur’s taste for pain that couldn’t be sated.  Like the doppelganger, the evil spirits of this world and the next all wanted the same thing: blood and pain equal measures.  Personally I could see the attraction, but more to the point, it told me that this was the spot as surely as if it had been marked with a large X.

Checking there was no sign of movement, I walked carefully over, knelt down and started to brush the snow away around the base and, pulling my gloves off, started to feel around the ground.  It was frustrating and slow work but I was being driven by something more compelling than mere sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.  Death vision, some called it; I didn’t care about the semantics, I just wanted the damn thing to work.  After scrabbling around and getting nothing but numb hands, I felt an indentation in the ground.  Running my fingers around the groove in the turf, it was a rough oval about a metre and a half across.  It was no use though, no amount of heaving would pry it loose.  Not in the time-frame I had to work to.

I turned the little flashlight onto my watch: two o’ clock in the morning and it looked like it was going to be another ghoul free night, as Crystal Gayle might have sang if she’d had a funky death sense like mine to play with.  Big fat flakes of snow began to fall as I headed back towards the Kirk to get the Hand and I knew I was wasting my time right up until the moment I heard a low warning growl and the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention like the good little soldiers they were not.

Not expecting to see much because of its size, I swung my flashlight right and left and just behind an ornate square tomb got that unmistakable glint you get from animals eyes, an unnerving, demonic cast that surely man’s best friend ought not to have.  I hated dogs, always had.  Probably because they hated me back and a fair few had tried to kill me when I was young as though they knew I was a bad seed, something unnatural that was better off dead and they were the devil-dog to do it.

“Easy boy,” I said, walking towards it, hoping the tone was friendly.  Again the thing growled, a low, rolling noise that gathered itself into a snapping snarl.  After that first sighting of the eyes, I couldn’t find it again, as though it had dematerialised.  Except I could hear it panting as though it had run a long way.  I moved the torch around, searching among the tomb stones and was rewarded with nothing but the pointless stone and marble tributes to stiffs long gone and some scrubby trees.  The snow was falling thick and fast now and I had a better idea.  There was light covering of the stuff that made it easier to see and crept slowly round to where I’d seen the eyes.

It was a particularly ugly tomb I couldn’t help noticing.  A skeleton and some incomprehensible Victorian message that probably hadn’t made sense when the late, great Charles Henderson had been laid to his intermittent rest.  Still, at least he’d been a loving husband.  I had always thought they should have inscribed what the person had actually been like in life.  Here lies Charles Henderson, wife beater and adulterer to the end.  Here lies Mary Graham, to those who knew her slut, liar and above all else, thief.  I’m always being told that honesty’s the best policy except of course when it comes to the dead.

That spine tingling growl again, more of a warning this time, but I still couldn’t tell where the hell it was because it seemed behind me now.  Going on nothing but sheer stupidity I extended my gloved left hand behind the tomb near the ground holding the torch in my right where I’d seen the eyes and a something with teeth clamped down on it and a ferocious snarling ensued.  The teeth pierced my coat and from the sharp pain I knew it had pierced my skin as well, although even with the benefit of the torch I couldn’t see what was biting me: it was as though it was invisible.  And the damned thing wouldn’t let go.  I tried to think about what I knew about dog psychology and came up with nothing.  If it was a pit bull or some such, didn’t they hang on until the bitter end?

But it hadn’t made a full frontal attack, it had responded to me invading its space, so maybe if I wasn’t so stupid as to offer myself as a midnight snack I might avoid getting another chunk taken out of me.  I didn’t have a weapon, not the conventional kind anyway, because that didn’t do any good with the beasties I went after.  All this silver shot shit just pissed them off and rest assured you wouldn’t live to regret that one.  The initial shock had worn off and the arm was beginning to throb.  I tried to withdraw the arm and it growled and shook its head tearing further into the meat of me.

“Drop,” I hissed impotently, cursing my own ineptitude.  My arm had crossed through some sort of barrier and the dog hadn’t been visible except in that brief flash.  The dog wasn’t dead but it was in a space usually occupied by the dead and I hadn’t a clue why that should be or how it was possible.  An intense dizziness assailed me and thought I was going to pass out or vomit.  I remembered the ham sandwiches, put the pencil sized flashlight between my teeth and scrabbled around as the dog shook my arm like a terrier with a bone.  The problem was that the bone in question happened to be mine and still attached, at least for now.  I tried to get the wrapping off one handed and it fell to the ground.  I cursed loudly if incomprehensibly round the confines of the light and tried to kick the packet in the dog’s direction.  With a nauseous rush it let go and slavering, snarling noises followed as it fought with my foil wrapped snack.

I couldn’t see a damned thing and the arm started to really throb.  I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to last the night at this rate.  My dead-lights surged up against the barrier that clearly my hand could cross, but my eyes couldn’t.  The snow was being whipped by a vicious east wind into my face and if anything, I could see less.  But then I started to make out a large shape lying on the ground to the side of the tomb and then those eyes.  Angry, suspicious red eyes above snapping jaws tearing through the foil and devouring the meat beneath, just like it had done to my arm.  God, I hated these beasts.  Whoever christened them mans’ best friend hadn’t spent quality time with this particular specimen.

I saw the faint outline of something going from the dog’s neck into the ground.  I made out a huge shaggy head with a torn ear attached to the dark mass of its trunk ending in massive paws crowned with wicked, curved claws as though it hadn’t walked for a long time and the claws had grown apace.  It looked starved and its coat was bedraggled and patchy.  Because it wasn’t fully in our world the snow didn’t fall on it and it lay imprisoned by the cord around it’s neck.  I could see what looked like barbed wire around the makeshift collar so if it pulled to tight, the barbs would enter its flesh.  And the dark pool beside the creature that I hadn’t initially noticed seemed to be coming from a gaping wound in its side through which I could clearly see bone, ribs to be exact.  Now that I looked there seemed to be something wrong with one of its eye, which wept some gungy mucus type substance.  The beast seemed on its last legs despite the ferocity of the attack and the chain securing it meant it was not in a position to chase after me and finish what it had started.

It looked suddenly up and to the side of me, good eye opened wide as if in fear and that was the only warning I had before the rotten decapitated head clipped mine with a dull thunk, leaving a sticky residue on my forehead.  The head, eyes and nose long gone, appeared to be thrown for the dog as it landed right beside it.  But the beast, while clearly starving resolutely ignored it and there was something about its demeanour that made me think it was angry, offended, as though it was a sentient being capable of such things.  Fanciful nonsense of course.  But enough of the dog, what had thrown the head?  An arm sailed by next landing next to the head, so rotted it was almost completely skeletal and from what I could see, with most of its bones missing.

It was as the leg was being hefted my way I began to think the thrower couldn’t see me and that this was for the dog’s benefit.  A high pitched chittering came from other end of the Kirkyard, near the gate where I’d come in accompanied by the sound of frenzied digging.  The dog raised its head in the direction of the noise and stared, growling softly, showing a flash of fang.  On impulse, but also because the dog seemed hostile to the body-part thrower, I took a sharp Swiss army knife out my inside pocket and began to saw through the cord that bound the dog taking the chance it wouldn’t attack me.  My enemies enemy is my friend and all that bollocks, but maybe it wasn’t so fanciful because the beast let me do it.  And then I realised that the knife wasn’t cutting it in any sense.  I smacked myself on the forehead in disgust trusting to the storm and the ghoul’s preoccupation.  I was about to leave with the dog still tied to the spot when I realised I could try something else.  I fished out the vial of holy water and with clumsy gloved fingers tried to unstopper the bottle with no success.

Cursing I stuck the cork between my teeth and pulled, suddenly unsure if it was going to be my teeth that would be pulled out.  Why was I bothering with this mangy cdur anyway?  Eventually I worked the cork stopper out of the bottle and I poured onto the cord.  Nothing happened.  I shrugged and moved off in the direction from which the head had come, but before I got very far I heard a hiss, yelp and frantic scrabbling.  Holy water, you couldn’t beat it for it’s corrosive qualities in the spiritual plane and not for the reasons the god-botherers would have you believe.

I couldn’t see where the gate was because of the swirling snow and gusting wind, but was mercifully able to follow my own footsteps back the way I’d come.  That’s why, when the torso came at me out of nowhere, it was thrown with such force it took me down and I fell on my backside with an agonising thump.  Immediately I started wind-milling my right arm, desperate to get the thing off of me and back on my feet.

The chittering paused as though whatever it was had heard and was listening.  I froze, scarcely daring to breathe, hoping that the noise of the storm had masked my clumsy moment of panic.  As I moved I realised something was weighing my coat down and I didn’t really want to speculate too hard about what it might be.  The torso had had weight to it, as though it was fresh, but if it was it hadn’t been harvested in this part of the bone-yard.  The rain of body parts resumed, thick and fast making me feel like a soldier in one of the Great Wars who had been ordered over the top into no man’s land.  I couldn’t believe I was getting this close, either that or the ghoul had suddenly discovered a talent for tactics and was luring me in for the kill.  The chittering changed to a lower register and settled into a monotonous drone like ancient buzz-saw.  I walked closer not bothering to hide my approach because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

The ghoul itself was just a blurred shape and it was only as I drew closer that my eyes began making sense of the scene.  The dog meanwhile had started up a low mournful howling from another part of the graveyard I couldn’t see.  I thought it had broken free, although I had had direct experience of it being able to throw its voice like a demented canine ventriloquist.  There was a pause in the limb tossing and something streaked by me in the direction of the sound.  I swore and turned back after it, treading as carefully as I could, but it didn’t matter: I could have driven a monster truck complete with blaring klaxon and the corpse-botherer wouldn’t have noticed because from the sounds of it, a life or death fight was going on between it and the dog.

The dog appeared to be getting the worst of it judging by the shrieks of pain.  I had a better idea and decided to take advantage of the ghoul’s distraction.  Rather than confront the beast, I could take a look at its lair first because there was bound to be more of them down there.  Maybe this wasn’t going to be quite as dull as I had thought.  Turning on my heel I headed for the tower door, the dogs cries getting fainter, swallowed up by distance and the storm.  The Hand of Glory was still lit despite the storm and I picked it up by the wrist, hurrying to the northern side of the graveyard to the stone where I’d felt the oval opening.  If the creature was out, maybe it had left the door open and the lights on.

Even though fresh snow had fallen the dead-light having once located the lair had it mapped and led me unerringly to it still clutching the flash light and Hand of Glory.    Setting the Hand of Glory down I shone the light down into the hole and picked out a leg broken off at the knee with a tennis shoe on the foot.  While the dead-light was great for finding the dead, it wasn’t so hot at the obstacles thoughtlessly placed in the way of the living.  It was at least a twenty foot drop but that didn’t matter because the ghoul had left a rickety ladder it must have stolen, because they just weren’t smart enough for construction.  That’s why they lived in incestuous family groups, and I’d heard of one that had held more than seventy individuals.

But while they were stupid, they could communicate with each other telepathically and if you came to the attention of the one, your fame would spread to the many.  Before you died, you’d get to experience their hospitality in their underground layer where you would be kept alive long enough to feed their offspring.  I couldn’t see anything else in the hole, but that didn’t mean they weren’t down there.  What bothered me was how strong this one was.  That was another reason they lived in family packs: as individuals they were too weak and stupid to survive, but collectively they managed to keep the larder stocked even if they could only pick off the old, the sick or the very careless.  But if this one was so powerful, what were the other family members like?

I swung my leg onto the ladder and climbed down into the hole.  Despite the cold above, a fetid, warm miasma soon had me sweating.  Waiting for me at the bottom was a crunching layer of old bones, so ancient and crumbling they were past identification.  Raising my flashlight to what I thought was a wall of earth, I soon discovered I was in a warren consisting of four small tunnels.  If I wanted to go on, I’d have to crawl on my hands and knees for the privilege.  But which one?

The sense of the dead was overpowering and I let the dead-light and go where it wanted.  My power spread through the warren and that was a big mistake because it wasn’t just corpses that had been dragged down here, but also the living, whose last experience of this world was this stinking lethal dark.  Fear and pain hung in a miasma over this charnel house so thick that it felt as though I was having to wade my way through it.  A multitude had died here an died hard.

The last tunnel on the left it was then.

I hunkered down, still clutching the Hand and noticed two of the finger nubs had been extinguished.  I checked for my matches and swore softly as I realised I’d left them on the Kirk steps.  Fuck, fuck and triple fuck.

The tunnel was small and I wouldn’t get through it with my bulky overcoat.  Taking it off and extracting my still lit torch, I placed the coat at the foot of the ladder on the bare bones.  As the beam of the torch took in this new hell, I noticed they were everywhere and some were identifiable after all.  Bleached human thigh bones, skulls, some the size of newborns.  Just at the entrance to my tunnel of choice lay a deformed skull with massive eye sockets and a mostly fleshless hand complete with six long digits.  Odd enough on its own until I discovered a dozen more.

I turned back to the tunnel and keeping a firm grip of the Hand with the torch in my mouth I slid my way along it, trying to ignore the stench of rotted meat and the thousand nicks in my flesh caused by the bones.  Death by a thousand cuts indeed.  I lost track of time and my life narrowed down until all it consisted of was the task of inching my way painfully through this wretched worm hole.  The worst point was when I discovered I’d let go of the Hand and had to go all the way back for it.  It struck me that this was the only way I would ever be caught alive or dead actually holding a man’s hand.  Looking ahead I picked out a tiny glimmer of light and inched my way painfully toward it, out into a cavern dug out of the earth and thought I had actually dug my way into Hell itself.

Hauling myself out of my earthen tomb I saw I was in a fair sized chamber about sixteen feet high by fifteen with the ceiling and sides reinforced with a timber frame.  That was when I realised I’d made a big mistake.  Ghouls didn’t build and they always lived in nests.  Always.  I hadn’t come across any other individuals and it occurred to me that maybe this was the first to enjoy the single life.  Not only that, but it was far smarter than it was supposed to be.

Flicking the beam of my torch around the room I saw that death had made its playground here, down among the body parts and scraps of human meat left by a creature whose murderous aspirations were greater than its capacity to ever consume.  I remembered a shed I’d been in where the spiders clearly ruled and every inch of the walls was covered in webbing and the partially consumed bodies of the insects they’d caught.  This was just on a much larger scale.  The ghoul seemed to have a twisted aesthetic sense too, because on one side of the cavern was an earthen wall decorated by still dripping intestines.  A dessicated brain had been carefully placed above it complete with two still fresh eyeballs still attached to the nerves.  It was almost comical if your taste ran to the grotesque, as though a murderous child had tried to depict a human being using body parts instead of its own fingers.  A primitive but discernable organisation had gone on here judging by the mound of legs separated from an adjacent mound of arms in the far corner of the room and in the other, a carefully constructed hill of skulls built in a rough pyramid.

But the piece de resistance and the sole source of light was the human head at the apex of the pyramid.  The skull pan had been roughly sawn open and the brain scooped out to be replaced with a guttering fat yellow candle that I would have be money on was made up of human fat.  That was the last fry up I’d be having for a while. The head must have been reasonably fresh because the face still had flesh and the features were still contorted in agony, a three d reminder of his or her final moments.  The eyes had been hollowed out and the lids sewn shut as though in a parody of sleep.

The smell was so intense that every breath had to be carefully judged so I didn’t vomit up the good Talisker I’d just had.  There was no avoiding it, it demanded acknowledgment and that’s what I had to give it to stay on this killing floor.  On the wall opposite the intestines, a neat array of human ears had been pinned in a straight line.  They were in various stages of decomposition and thin clear coloured gel dripped from them onto the floor.  One of the ears had a stud stained with its owners dried blood.  It occurred to me the ghoul had tried some interior decorating on for size and uncovered hidden talent.  The floor was carpeted with the now familiar mostly pulverised bone and in the middle was a roughly hewn block of wood, roughly the size of a human body complete with restraints and blood stained implements comprising a large curved blade, axe and saw.  All were encrusted with dark stains that it didn’t take a genius to figure out what they were.

And then a soft moan that seemed to come from above.

Snapping my head up, I saw that a series of bodies had been stuck to the cavern ceiling by the same glutinous gel that secured the ears.   Most of them were missing vital body parts like the head, except for one which seemed relatively untouched where the makeshift ceiling joined the top of the longest wall.  I shone my torch on the face and the eyes popped open, bright blue against the red mask of blood.  The mouth opened and shut as though the brain had forgotten how to work it.

“Please.  Kill me,” rasped the voice.  “Please.”

“Please.”

In that one whispered word was an end of hope, sanity and the only certainty, pain beyond any capacity to endure.  A gentle sobbing followed as though the throat from which it came was so lacerated from screaming that there was nothing left but this small, hopeless sound.  I sighed and thought very seriously about leaving him there.  He spoiled it of course by starting to plead with me to kill him again.  He must have thought I was the creature returning for more fun and games.

And then it did return, trailing the scent of death and old meat.  But it hadn’t come in the way I had.  No, it had used a door at the furthest away end of the chamber.  A door that was even now, temptingly ajar.  I didn’t have much time to think about the significance of that because the guttering light from the skull pan candle revealed the creature in its full glory.  I estimated it was about seven feet tall roughly twice the size it should have been.  Long, skeletal arms hung from misshapen shoulders.  The arms themselves had more joints than any mere human giving it an insect-like appearance and culminated in six fingered taloned hands that rang a vague bell somewhere in the jumbled recesses of what passed for my brain.  The head, shoulders and buttocks were covered in what looked like tumerous growths that were dark against the bony whiteness of the rest of its body.  Red eyes flicked feverishly from side to side and drool fell continuously through a motley collection of incisors of different shapes and sizes, some grown monstrous like tusks so the mouth couldn’t close properly and some stunted stumps that that looked like they were used for grinding the marrow out of bones.  A gaping hole graced where the nose should have been as though it had been cut off.  It was wearing something on its back and as I looked I realised it was a cloak of fresh intestines: I knew they were fresh because they were dripping a blackish stain down the ghouls ribs and splattering onto the bones underfoot with a dull, pattering sound.

Ghouls couldn’t see very well, or that was the theory.  The truth was, not many people had actually come across them and most of what we knew was conjecture.  Here’s hoping the nerds had got something right for a change because according to them, ghouls hunted their prey by sensing vibrations.  Just like spiders.  There was in any event nowhere for me to hide.  I wondered briefly why it had bothered with a light source.  Either it could see to some extent, or more disturbingly, maybe the light was for the victims benefit so they could see what was about to be done to them or others.

The live victim stuck to the ceiling began to groan and the ghoul quicker than the time it took me to comprehend what it was doing, scuttled up the wall on all fours, using the bodies as purchase, digging wickedly sharp claws into the flesh and from the sounds of it, not all were quite dead yet.  It sat on the ceiling beside the groaner and just watched him, drool and blood dripping down onto the floor in equal measure.  I stood perfectly still and calculated my chances.  I could make a run for the tunnel and have the ghoul dismember me at leisure as I tried to worm my way out of here.  I could run for the door, but who the hell knew where it lead?  But it must lead to the surface because that’s where it had come from.  If there was indeed only one of them.

“Please,” begged the prisoner, “please, don’t.”  He broke off into a desperate dry throated sobbing that seemed to be working the creature into a frenzy because it started to shake and broke into a high chittering that I’d already heard above ground.  Down here in its lair sixteen or so feet below the sod, it froze the blood.  It began to stroke the captives face with long knife-like claws drawing blood and cutting down to the bone.

Not daring to move a muscle, I glanced down at the Hand cursing silently as I noticed two more of the finger nubs had gone out, leaving only the thumb, burned down almost to its fullest extent.  It would have to do, although I couldn’t throw the damn thing now for fear the last digit would go out.  Just as the captive started to really scream, big, full throated roars that I hadn’t thought him capable of, I said:

“Brought you a housewarming.”

The ghoul stopped the torture immediately as though someone had thrown a bucket of water over it and when the man wouldn’t stop screaming clamped a huge hand over his mouth.

“You’re going to have to come and get it though.”

The monster scuttled crab-like across the ceiling and down the wall with a burst of that same amazing speed it had shown earlier.  The man started his caterwauling again making the ghoul stop and turn back towards him.

“Get down here you sick son of a bitch.  Don’t make me come and get-” and then it was in front of me, so close I could smell the carrion stink of its breath, red eyes glowing in the twilight of the lair.  I raised the Hand and its sightless gaze followed, attracted by it, just as I had hoped.  It must have had some sort of motion tracking ability because it gripped my wrist so hard I felt something break.  It had of course to be the wrist of the left arm, the one that the dog had chowed down on earlier and the pain was so bad I thought I was either going to pass out or vomit, neither of which were viable options if I wanted out of here.  The ghoul’s thin, black lips drew back from rows withing rows of jagged brown teeth and got the damndest sense it was laughing, secure its lair, it didn’t seem to regard me as a threat.  I was just another captive soon to be reduced to a seeping, bleeding hunk of meat like all the others.

Over the ghoul’s shoulder I could see the silent ranks of the dead, doing nothing, just watching, waiting to see who the victor might be.  The shock of their deaths for many of them still the most overwhelming factor of their new and joyless existence. There were so many of them, men, women, children, all murdered by this monster for being in the wrong place at just the right time.  Their presence made me careless, which was the only explanation, make that excuse, for what I did next.

I began to siphon the ghoul.  I can call it siphoning, but it’s not.  It’s much worse.  It’s a consumption, a digestive process so complete that when it’s finished the ghoul’s mind, spirit, consciousness such as it was, would become part of me.  It would of course not survive the process, but its urges, its sick ambitions, would live on and flower through me along with all the other cess-pit bargain bucket monsters I’d collected along the way.

It was the worst low point in a life scarred by too many to mention.  Images burned themselves into my memory in fast moving flow as though I was being made to watch a slide show where the projector had a demonic life and force of its own.  The six fingered skeletal hands that I’d seen were explained as the story unfolded.  It had killed and eaten its own family, every single one including the newborns just wrested from their mother’s innards.

The ghoul finally began to sense its peril and started struggling.  That distracted me and, like awaking from a deep sleep and realising you’re eating rotting meat from a rubbish bin, the full horror of what I was about to do, drew me back from the edge.  Flicking all of my finger-knives to their fullest extent on both hands, I stuck them as forcefully as I could into the bloated belly of the creature and sliced upwards, cutting through the greasy flesh, gutting the wearer with an ease I hadn’t expected.

A look of almost comical surprise crossed the noseless, lipless face and I smiled.  I’ll never know where it found the strength, but it pushed against me causing me to stagger backward and in the process freeing itself from my knives.  It began to whine in a high pitched call of distress that struck me as funny making me laugh out loud.  I picked myself and the knife up and headed for the stricken creature where it lay sprawled, hands clasped to its belly trying to keep the spool of its guts from unwinding onto the floor.  If I hadn’t known better I’d have said it was afraid and that made me want to be cruel, to play with it awhile down among the dead men.

Bending down I was about to finally have some fun when the captive roared with an energy I hadn’t dreamed he possessed:

“NO!  Let the Guardian finish it!  It’s the only way it can regain its strength and keep the others out!”

“The others?  What are you talking about?”

I didn’t bother to press for an answer, because that’s when I heard it: a dragging sound as though something wounded was making its slow torturous way into the chamber.  I wasn’t sure I was up to any more surprises and stood with my knives out, ready to cut and run.  The dragging was louder now accompanied by tiny yips of pain that sounded as though the owner was trying to suppress them.  The door was nudged open and the dog crawled into view, using its front legs one in front of the other to drag the rest of its sorry carcase, back legs trailing behind it, broken and useless.  It snarled at me, eyes wild, but it’s threat was hollow, it was almost dead itself and I didn’t need to see the blood smeared trail it had left behind to know that.

“Let the Guardian kill it!  It’s the only way!” shouted the man, who I’m sorry to say was seriously beginning to piss me off.  But what he said made a certain sense.  I’d heard of church yard Guardians before.  It wasn’t so long ago that black dogs were ritually killed and placed in the foundations of a church so that they could protect the dead.  On nothing more than impulse and the sure knowledge the Ghoul was itself dying, I withdrew the knife and stepped back.

The dog dragged itself over to the creature, the remnants of the chord that had bound it trailing and tried to rip its throat out, whining in frustration and pain after each failed attempt.  The Ghoul although lying on the floor had enough life in it to thrash it’s head to side avoiding the jaws of death with an insulting impunity.  I decided to help and ignoring the warning growls put my booted foot on the Ghouls over-sized skull pinning it down.  It was over in seconds as the Guardian ripped the throat and a good part of the oesophagus out, wolfing it down with a sickening relish, covering me with blood and gore in the process.

I didn’t mind that part so much.  What I did mind was that I hadn’t needed my Hand of Glory and it could only be used once.

A wild snickering from the Man Who Lived On The Ceiling made me wonder how much sanity remained.  There was no way I could get him down myself, I’d have to call the emergency services.  I dug out my mobile from the pocket in my shirt but the damned thing didn’t have a signal.  Stepping over the dog I made my way out of the door the Ghoul had used and found it led to a steep but passable mud slide up to the surface.  I was already filthy so applied myself to the task with the kind of fervour I imagined the character in the Shawshank Redemption had as he crawled through the sewage pipe to freedom.

The storm had abated when got to the surface and the cold air had never been sweeter as I took great lungfuls of it in.  I fished the phone out and made the calls.  Christ knows what they’d make of it, but that wasn’t really my problem and I wasn’t going to be here when they arrived.  The guy stuck to the ceiling and any other poor sod that had survived would need serious medical attention and I’d given enough information so they’d be certain of finding them.  I collapsed by a tombstone, ready to pass out with sheer exhaustion despite the cold.

“You know this is only the start of it, don’t you,” said a wispy voice from the neighbouring gravestone which was low and flat like a table.  The ghost, a young girl, sat on top of it, surprisingly life-like for one that was supposed to be dead.

“What?” was the best I could manage and I was even proud of it.

“The Ghoul was only strong enough to overpower the Guardian because they’re coming.  You haven’t got a prayer,” she giggled.  Ghosts weren’t usually this substantial or coherent and that was a bloody fine thing to my way of thinking.

“What’s coming?”

“You’ll find out,” and then she winked out of existence in the blink of my overtired eye and I was left with nothing but the sad and sorry content of my own thoughts as I limped slowly to the car and drove away.