The Ghost Formerly Known As….

I sat with the crime-scene photographs and the dead star of the show swaying above them leaching most of the light from my desk lamp and the warmth from the room. The ghost was a hulking, tattered thing with little memory of the person it had been in life and driven more than a little mad by its brutal exit. The taint of mildew, mould and rot saturated the air, as though I was standing in the middle of an old grave. As long as it didn’t have my name on it, I wasn’t too concerned.


I took off the dark glasses and studied it with more interest. There was a partial notion of a face: a snub nose so extreme it could have graced a shrunken head, and a sliding slant of facial feature that only just fell this side of human. This was what happened to the dead. Over time they forgot the exact size and shape of the flesh over-coats they had worn in life. Finally they lost all resemblance to the people they had been, spiritually decomposing in ironic homage to the way of the flesh. At the end they were nothing more than a plume of dirty smoke or patch of cold that you might feel as a shiver down your spine if you walked through it, but nothing more. The emotions were always last to go, stubbornly clinging on like dim-witted hangers-on after the main attraction had upped sticks and gotten the hell out of Dodge.

But some ghosts had a compelling reason to hang on delaying the decay and I was looking at a prime example. In life, it had been a woman called Amy, murdered in one of the most baffling unsolved cases I’d ever come across. From the evidence the police did manage to find, there was no avoiding the conclusion that death had been a release. The marks on the bones showed that flesh had been cut raising the grim possibility it had been done while she was still alive. The bindings found with the pitiful remains, told a dismal tale of captivity for at least a few days, maybe a week. A rusty hook and three skewers with traces of old blood had been found in her lonely cellar grave leading police to the conclusion Amy had been tortured until they had ground her down into so much meat. These weren’t empty guesses: the police had seen this type of murder before, not often, but enough know a thing or two about this type of predator and what they got off on.

So no, it had not been hard to work out why the ghost formerly known as Amy had decided to stick around.

The question was, what was it going to do now?

On the face of it you’d think there was nothing to fear from what was after all only a collection of spectral filaments. And nine times out of ten you’d be right. But the unadulterated rage that held this spectre together made it the exception that proved the rule. The fact that I had summoned it by using the photographs and some of Amy’s old clothes supplied by her grieving family didn’t protect me.

“Amy,” I murmured, “listen to me.”

The ghost howled, more sense than sound of an emotion so intense my vision began to spot, colours flashing at the periphery, and I could feel the first stirrings of a monster migraine. It lowered its partially composed face to mine, the intense cold raising the hackles on the back of my neck, and began to swirl around the chair I sat in, faster, faster, creating a thick, choking blanket making it impossible to breathe without extreme effort.

“Amy,” I whispered, traitorous tongue unable to shape the clotted air into meaningful sound. “Ben and Sarah-”

But apparently the ghost understood, because it keened, a high despairing sound sharp enough to shatter the glass of whisky on my desk, soaking my papers and lobbing an eye watering stench of ethanol into the room for good measure. But that must have distracted it somehow because the pressure eased slightly and my breathing adjusted itself to the restricted supply of air.

“Amy,” I said deliberately using its name in life as much as possible, “Jerry’s asked me to find and kill the people who did this to you. I said I would.”

Promises, the very words that contain them, have power and no one knows that better than the dead. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when it let me go. What I wasn’t prepared for was force of it and I almost fell off the chair, choking. As I righted myself and my lungs became reacquainted with an unrestricted oxygen supply, it calmly took up its original position hanging like a ragged curtain above the photographs as though nothing had happened.

Now all I had to do was come up with the goods.

What Deacon Brodie Did Next

Of course every Edinburgher worth his or her salt knew that old story. He had been a councillor and skilled cabinet maker by day and a gambler and rotten thief by night. The cabinet maker got invited into his victims’ homes where he took wax impressions of their keys, and the thief sneaked back while they were sleeping and robbed them blind. He led this double life until caught and hung on a gibbet ironically designed by his own fair hand.

Or so legend would have it.

But rumours persisted that he did not really die on the gallows and was instead spirited away to another life in the Americas.

The lesson to me was clear: don’t spend your time designing gibbets. If you do, you’d better have a rope-proof escape plan.

Dead Men Hunting

Despite the terrorist toxic gas story not everyone had left Dodge as I discovered walking down Lothian Road. It was a lonely trek under a steely sky, head bent against the rain squall driving into my face and chased by a nipping wind fresh from the icy 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 to take mind and body both for a walk and see where it took me. I turned left at Shandwick Place 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 had 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 had me in their tractor beam. Hurrying towards it I found to my utter amazement that it was indeed 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, now reduced to eking a living trying to pretend it was someone’s living room where strangers came to drink coffee. Two rooms were connected by stairs with 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 even a smattering of customers determined to pretend that it was just another day in the land of the living. All of them young, bright eyed and feverish, creating the kind of vibe that I had always imagined would have been around during the war but had never thought I’d get to experience first hand.

I took the creased paper out of my wallet and dialled the number it contained on my mobile. 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 in Edinburgh and why. The lunatic stay-at-homes in the room I was in consisted of a huddle of young women at the table next to mine. They were pouring what looked suspiciously like whisky into their coffee cups and giggling with the manic intensity of people who clearly believed, like REM, that it really was the end of the world as we knew it. Except feeling fine wasn’t even on the menu.

Sad, messed up, crazy, maybe, but fine was for lunatics and suicides.

The rain was a blurry sheet outside, life beyond the confines of the window reduced to a smear of grey and sepia. A dark shape slid by blotting out what meagre light the day was willing to offer. The dead were becoming more substantial by the day and this darkness was a pack of them out on the hunt.

I felt the heft of their attention as surely as if it had been a rope tightened around my neck. The barbed hooks of their desires and wants trailed gently over my thoughts searching for a hold, an anchor, a breach in my defences to latch onto. I kept my mind a careful blank because my wants weren’t so different from theirs and I needed the additional temptation like a hole in the head.

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 these particular antelopes seen in last few days?

I was about to find out what the lives of ordinary folk had come down to on the first Boxing Day after the dead had risen in Auld Reekie.

The Meadows By Gaslight

There it was again. A soft footfall behind me somewhere out there in the darkness. I whipped round seeing nothing but the sodium glow of arching streetlights on the walkways that criss-crossed the grass of the Meadows. Another gust of wind tore through leafless trees like teasing whispers in a classroom where the only one who didn’t know what was going on was me.

A scrape of claws on stone as though something was gathering itself for flight and a trickling growl the only warning in the split second before it struck me square in the back taking me down, down, down onto concrete and a spreading pool of blood.

The Last Drop

A crowd of thousands appeared from nowhere and I was trapped in the middle of a milling, shrieking mob. Buffeted this way and that under louring, rain soaked skies and choking on mud and worse, I began to feel oddly disconnected, as though this was happening to someone else.

Or at least I did, right up until the moment the roaring, filthy throng surged unexpectedly forward, carrying me along for the ride. I prayed to the god unlucky enough to rule over such rabble that it wasn’t a one-way ticket.

As though in answer, the forward momentum came to an abrupt halt and a deep throated baying began. There was no mistaking that sound: something or someone was going to die.

Even had I been deaf the source of such collective joy was blindingly obvious as it loomed above the heads of the crowd a mere hundred yards in front of me. But it still took me a moment to recognise it for what it was: gibbet and hangman’s noose perched jauntily on top of a raised, wooden platform.

Some lucky soul was heading for the short drop with the sudden stop.

The stark, clean lines of the gibbet made gothic poetry against a darkened sky.

Until it occurred to me that it might be meant for me…