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.”
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-