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.”
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.
“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.