I wake abruptly from a troubled sleep to find the dead pressing in tightly around me. Half a dozen phantoms, teeth bared, snarling mutely, scratching at my face with their insubstantial fingernails. I stifle a scream and bury my face in a pillow, waiting for the last vestiges of the nightmare to pass.
My heart is pounding and I don't move until it's back to normal. When I'm in control, I push myself up and stare blankly at the six ghosts. They've withdrawn now that I'm awake and are simply glaring at me sullenly, the way they do most of the time. They only try to get under my skin when they think I'm ripe for the freaking, choosing their moments with studious care, for maximum impact.
Usually they strike on nights like this, when they see me whimpering and fidgeting in my sleep, when they know from experience that I'll more than likely bolt awake, disorientated and temporarily vulnerable. They can't physically assault me, or they would have ripped me apart years ago. They have to settle for mind games, and they're good at those. They should be. They've had lots of practice.
I get up and shower. The ghosts follow me into the bathroom, passing through the walls as if the blocks were made of mist. I ignore them as I turn the water on cold and shiver in its bite. I'm adept at ignoring them. It's only when they occasionally catch me by surprise that they set my nerves jangling. Not like in the early days, when I was sure they were going to drive me mad. We've fought a battle of the wills, the dead and I, and I've won out. So far anyway. Though I suspect they've got the rest of my life to chip away at me. And, if they're not just figments of my imagination, then maybe far beyond.
I'm in a foul mood. I wasn't able to get back to sleep, so the day dragged. I kept as busy as I could, walking the streets of London, researching, writing up notes. But I couldn't make time pass any faster or rid myself of the headache I often get after an interrupted night's sleep. I tried to avoid people, knowing what I'm like in this frame of mind, apt to snap at the slightest irritation.
As night fell, I thought about postponing my meeting with Joe. We were due to case a house in Kilburn, in north London. Joe wouldn't have cared if I'd pushed it back. But that would have afforded the ghosts a minor victory, and they all add up. When you're fighting for your sanity, you can't cede even an inch of turf. Every slight setback empowers your foes, and there's no telling how little it might take to tip the scales.
It's shortly after eleven p.m. on July 2nd. Joe and I have been camped out in the abandoned house for the past couple of hours, waiting for its alleged spectral inhabitant to make an appearance. Joe sensed my dark mood and has kept small talk to a minimum.
I've cheered up over the course of our watch. It's times like this, when I'm immersing myself in the murky world of the dead, that I feel most at ease with my own situation. I'm a man in search of answers, and I find a certain measure of relief and peace of mind when I'm focused on my ghostly research.
Joe's gone upstairs to the toilet. It doesn't work - no water in the cistern - but he's too polite to piss against a wall. I have no such qualms. Even if I had, I'd rather risk my dignity than my life on those rickety stairs. I hope Joe doesn't expect me to haul him out of the rubble if he crashes through the planks. I don't risk my life for anyone.
The stairs creak. I slide into the corridor to watch Joe make his descent. He's less optimistic coming down than he was going up. Keeps to the edges and tests each step several times before easing his weight on to it. The sight brightens my mood another few notches. 'You should hop over the banister,' I smirk.
'And plunge through the floor?' he snorts. 'No thanks. I'll take my chances on the stairs.' Joe's from northern England and has a thick accent. I had difficulty understanding him when we first met, but it's been four days now and my ear has adjusted. I even find myself unconsciously mimicking him sometimes.
Joe makes it back safely and lets out a grateful breath, as if he'd returned from a bombing raid on Berlin. 'I could murder a cup of tea,' he mutters.
'Then you'd need to piss again.'
He nods glumly. 'We should hire a Portaloo.'
'Or you could just piss against the wall.'
'I'm a Geordie,' Joe sniffs. 'We're more civilized than that.'
We return to the drawing room. I used to think such rooms were so named because people drew in them. Joe put me right. It's short for 'withdrawing'. Goes back to the time when men and women used to withdraw from the dining room to spend the night talking, reading and praying for the invention of television.
'Any action?' Joe asks, sensing the change in the air, feeling free to chat now that I'm not scowling like Rasputin.
I try my best Geordie. 'Norra bit've it.'
Joe winces. 'Do that again and I'm off.'
'You don't think I could pass for a native?'
'In Australia, perhaps.'
We settle down in a pair of busted chairs to wait for the ghost. The chairs had been dumped in the yard out back. We dragged them in during our first night on watch, when we grew tired of standing.
We've spent the last three nights waiting for the ghost to show. (My first night in London was devoted to a traditional pub crawl, which wasn't as rowdy as it sounds, since Joe only drinks non-alcoholic beer and I rarely allow myself more than four pints.) The restless spirit is meant to put in regular appearances - once or twice a week, according to the lady who owns the place - but so far it's been elusive.
I'm a writer. All of my books have been about ghosts. It's not because I can't think of anything else to write about, or because I have scores of fans hungering for my next supernatural tome. Each book has approached the nature of poltergeists in a different way. Each has been an attempt to explain how ghosts can exist. Or, more accurately, how my ghosts exist.
I'm not stupid. I know they're probably the workings of a deluded mind. I accept that I'm most likely hovering over the abyss of an insane pit, and that the spirits are nothing more than the projections of a deeply troubled psyche. But I don't want to be crazy. I refuse to accept that I'm a loon. I want to fight this thing and find my way back to normality.
Most people would seek psychiatric help, but that's not an option in my case. So I've gone a different route. I'm trying to prove that ghosts are real. If I can do that, I can hopefully come to terms with my own retinue, maybe even find a way to banish them.
The ghosts terrified me when they first began to appear. My world turned on its head. I had screaming fits. I sought escape through alcohol and drugs, but the ghosts followed me everywhere. I almost blew my brains out, just to get away from them. I'm sure I would have, except that one night, in the middle of my mental anguish, I had the (probably crazy) idea that I might not be imagining the shades, that they might be real. That slim possibility gave me the strength to pull body and soul together, and my life since then has been a quest to prove to myself that we live in a world of wonders.
When I first started looking for proof, I read lots of ghost stories, hoping to find something that might set me on the path of true understanding. I found myself having ideas for stories of my own, based on what I had read and my experiences in the field. Having a lot of dead time to fill (pun intended), I began tinkering with the ideas, fleshing them out. The writing helped me blank out the ghosts. It served as an anchor to reality, gave me the sense that I was doing something meaningful, let me believe I wasn't the raving lunatic that I fear I am.
Short stories led to longer stories, then a rough draft of a novel. Out of curiosity, I submitted samples of my work to a few agents, to see what they'd make of my ghostly ramblings. To my surprise, a couple reacted positively and I signed with one of them. Thus Edward Sieveking the author was born, though I wasn't known as that back then.
Joe is one of my more avid fans. He's read all three of my books several times and remembers more about them than I do. In the pub that first night, he was talking about characters and events that I only dimly recalled. It's been six years since my first book saw print. I throw myself completely into a novel while I'm working on it, but when it fails to produce any answers to the riddles that plague me, I publish it, put it behind me and move on.
Joe thought that writers carried each and every book around with them for life. He doesn't understand how I can spend two or three years working on a story, then forget about the finer details overnight. He's a bit disappointed. I'll have to look through my old notes when I get home and email him a few background scraps and discarded plot lines, restore his faith in me.
'It's freezing,' Joe says, breathing warm air down the neck of his jumper.
'I noticed.' It shouldn't be. It's a balmy night outside.
'Maybe the ghost's coming. The temperature drops before an appearance, doesn't it?'
'Sometimes,' I nod. 'I was in a room once where it plunged twenty degrees in the space of a minute.'
'Did a ghost appear?' He's smiling. He's never seen a ghost. Doesn't really believe that we're going to find anything here.
'I don't know. I had to leave. It got too cold.'
Joe rubs his hands together. He's wearing a chunky grey jumper and a duffel coat, but is shivering worse than me, even though I'm only clad in a light shirt. I wouldn't have thought that someone with Joe's physique would feel the chill. He's as muscular as a wrestler. He looks odd, actually, because he's not a big man, with small hands and a neat, oval face.
He notices me studying him and grins shakily. 'Old wounds,' he explains. 'They play up in the cold. You should see me in winter - if I leave the house in less than three jumpers and two pairs of jeans, I have to be thawed out by an open fire.'
I smile sympathetically. Joe told me about his injuries a couple of days ago, when I asked why he was walking around in the middle of a heatwave fully dressed from neck to ankle. His mother grew up in Northern Ireland and they used to go back on regular visits. One day they were out shopping. There was an explosion. Joe was caught in the blast. He nearly died. Doctors patched up the worst of the damage, but his body is a mass of scars and broken skin. He never exposes his flesh in public, ashamed of how he looks. That's why he grew a thick beard - his lower face is scarred too.
'We can leave if you like,' I offer.
Joe shakes his head. 'And miss my big moment? Not bloody likely.' Joe is intent on making this book work. He's thrilled at the thought of contributing to one of my novels. He's determined to assist me in every way possible. He'd probably pump money into the venture if I let him.
'We could bring in an electric fire,' I suggest.
'No good. The ghost shies away from electrics.'
That's what the owner of the house told us. It's why we're sitting by candlelight. Ghosts are shy creatures, loath to reveal themselves. I know from previous studies that they often choose the most inopportune moments to appear, when you're fiddling with your camera or pointing it in another direction. Sceptics mock such failures, but they don't realize how canny the spirits can be.
Canny. I've picked that up from Joe. The new book is set in London. I need to get to grips with the way the locals speak. I'll have to make sure I mix with some genuine Cockneys though - if Joe's my only reference, I won't know if I'm using southern or northern terminology.
'You still haven't told me what the story's about,' Joe comments.
'I'm not sure yet,' I tell him. 'I know some of what I want, but there are still large gaps to be filled in.'
'But you're going with the SHC angle, right?'
'I kind of have to, to keep you happy, don't I?' I chuckle.
'It doesn't matter a damn to me,' Joe says. 'Honestly.'
Joe was the one who got me interested in spontaneous human combustion. He'd read a lot about it and mentioned SHC a few times in emails, told me how scientists were unable to explain how it happened, discussed a few of the differing theories with me. Intrigued, I started to do some research of my own - I've tried to cover every supernatural angle over the years, seeking answers in the most unlikely and unrelated of places. That research eventually led me here.
'It's going to be a horror book, isn't it?' Joe presses.
'Maybe,' I grunt.
'Come on,' Joe groans. 'You can tell me. It won't go any further.'
'You'll be the first to know. But you have to be patient. Sometimes plots come together quickly. More times they don't.'
'It's really not all there yet?' Joe asks.
'So . . . ' He blushes. 'If I came up with an idea, and it was really good, and you used it, could I get a credit?'
'Imagine,' he sighs. 'An Edward Sieveking and Joe Rickard book. Your name at the top, mine below, slightly smaller print.'
'Maybe your name should be at the top,' I deadpan.
Joe withers me with a look. 'No need to be cynical. I know the book's yours. I was only thinking how nice it would be to - '
'What was that?' I silence him with a sharp gesture.
There's a low rumbling noise. My hopes rise. Joe dashes them.
'Just a cat.' He laughs. 'A tom on the make.'
He's right, and I'm annoyed with myself. I should have made the connection before him. I'm the one with experience.
We settle back into silence. I think about when I first made contact with Joe, nearly a year ago. I was promoting my most recent book, Soul Vultures. It was the first time I'd released a novel under my own name. Before then I'd called myself E.S. King. (My original agent thought that Stephen King fans might buy my work on the strength of the pseudonym, but in fact it worked against me and hampered sales.) With Soul Vultures and a new agent, Edward Sieveking finally saw the light of day. My first two books, Nights of Fear and Summer's Shades, were re-released and did better business second time round. I wasn't exactly haunting the best-seller charts, but after a stumbling start, I had a definite feeling that I was on my way.
I took part in an internet chat-room session that turned out to be a damp squib. Several people lodged questions about the new book, but Joe was the only one who seemed familiar with my past work. I sent him a signed copy of Soul Vultures and the reprints of the other pair, and we became Facebook buddies. A few months ago, I told him about the start I'd made on my next novel, mentioning the fact that I was exploring the field of SHC, and he talked me into setting it in London.
'This city's spookier than a graveyard,' he vowed. 'Plus I know people in the field who could be helpful.'
It didn't take him long to persuade me. I'd been to London a few times, but years ago, before I established myself as a writer. I'd never explored it with a creative eye. My other novels were set in rural towns - two in America, one in Canada - but a city was vital to the framework this time, and London seemed as good a place as any. Besides, I was looking forward to meeting Joe. I'm a loner and don't have many friends. I thought it would be good for me to team up with an assistant. My agent keeps telling me that I come across too stiffly in interviews. I was hoping that time spent with Joe might loosen me up and help me talk more freely about my work.
Joe leans forward and taps my knee, interrupting my reverie. His dark brown eyes are wide. He points towards the opposite wall. As I turn, a wind gusts through the room and the candles blow out. Fortunately there are numerous holes and cracks in the boards covering the front windows, and enough light seeps in from the street lamps to see by.
Mist is rising from the bare brick wall. No, not rising . . . emanating. It doesn't drift like normal mist would. It's bubbling out, as if blown from an invisible pair of lips. Dirty grey mist, coming from within the wall.
'Shit,' Joe gasps, getting to his feet. 'It's real.' He's trembling. This is his first time. Nothing can prepare you for that initial encounter, that moment of confirmation that there really is more to the world than what most people ever see.
The bubble has reached its limits. About three feet in diameter, two thirds visible, one third obscured inside the wall. The mist eddies within the translucent boundaries, thick and thin tendrils overlapping, blending into one another. I lay my camera on my lap. According to the landlady, a flash frightens the apparition away and nothing develops, but I've got to try.
'Can you hear popping sounds?' Joe asks, leaning towards the bubble, face aglow, eyes wide with wonder.
'What are they?'
I shrug. 'Ghosts forming. The mist reacting with the atmosphere. Exploding air bubbles inside the wall. Take your pick.'
I rise from my chair, walk around the ball of mist and study it from the sides. I can see through it, but only barely. Cold air radiates from it.
'Ed,' croaks Joe, and raises a trembling finger. 'Faces.'
I return to my chair and stand by it. Within the mist, faces - or eerie simulacra - are forming. They aren't clearly defined, but they seem to be human. Glimpses of eyes and ears, open mouths, teeth. I think of the figures hovering behind me but I don't look back to compare their faces with those in the bubble. I don't need to. Those six faces are as familiar to me by now as my own.
I don't show it, but I'm excited. Apparitions are rarely this vivid. This is one of the most astonishing encounters I've yet to experience.
I turn towards Joe. 'Describe what you're seeing.'
He gulps, tugs nervously at his beard, then whispers reverently, almost afraid to speak. 'A woman's face, maybe twenty years old. Long hair. The face is changing now. Losing its shape. Gone.' A few seconds of silence. 'Now another's forming.'
'A boy's,' I interrupt. 'Plump. Short hair, badly cut fringe, what looks like a bruise under his left eye?'
'That's it,' Joe agrees.
'Great. We're seeing the same thing.' It's important to establish that fact. People don't always interpret apparitions the same way.
The faces so far have been small, embedded within the heart of the mist. Now one forms closer to the surface of the bubble, larger than the rest. An old man. We've been told that the other faces vary, but this one always returns.
'This is unreal,' Joe moans as the man's gaze sweeps the room. Joe is shaking badly. He glances at the door and I expect him to run. But then he bunches his fingers into fists and forces himself to stand firm.
'Do you see his pupils?' I ask. Joe stares, then nods. 'I couldn't see any on the others. Their features were blurred. This one's less ethereal.'
'They're real,' Joe mutters. 'Ghosts are real.'
'So they'd have us believe,' I say sourly, then press closer to the bubble. 'Tell me your name,' I whisper. 'Prove you are what you appear to be.'
The ghost doesn't respond. None of them ever has.
We spend a couple of minutes watching the old man's face as his eyes roam. When there are no further developments, I decide to try a snap. 'Seen all you want?' I ask Joe as I produce my camera.
He nods reluctantly. 'Yeah.'
I take a quick shot. The face dissipates instantly and the bubble loses its shape. Most of the mist is sucked back into the wall. A strong sulphurous stench fills the room. I cover my mouth with the mask I always bring along. Joe also has one - I gave it to him on our first night here - but he seems to have misplaced it. While he fumbles in his pockets and coughs, I take him by the elbow and guide him out into the corridor. Once the coughing subsides, he wipes tears from his eyes and grins weakly. 'Must have left the mask at home.' He stares through the open door at the last of the mist vanishing into thin air. 'You see shit like this all the time?'
'No two apparitions are the same, but yes.'
'Fuck.' He shivers. 'They're really real.'
I arch an eyebrow at him. 'You reckon?'
'After what we've just seen? Of course.' He squints at me. 'Are you saying you don't believe?'
'I want to,' I say softly. 'More than you could imagine. But . . . ' I check the camera. Nothing in the picture except the wall and some mist. I show it to Joe.
'So?' He frowns. 'You said ghosts are almost impossible to photograph.'
'Yes. That's why I'm sceptical.' I put the camera away, disappointed as I often am after a sighting, even one as spectacular as this.
Joe is staring at me uncertainly. 'If that's not enough proof for you, what is?'
I pull a face. 'I want one of them to tell me it's real. If that was truly the shade of a dead person, I want it to talk with me, answer my questions, confirm that it is what it seems.'
'That's never happened?' Joe asks.
I shake my head. 'I've spoken with the dead many times through mediums and Ouija boards, but how can you trust a source like that? I know most of the tricks that fakes use to fool gullible customers. Even on the few occasions when I've been surprised, when I've not been able to explain what has happened, I haven't found concrete, one hundred per cent proof.'
'What about what we saw tonight?' Joe challenges me.
I smile bitterly. 'It was incredible. But what does it prove? People used to think that the Northern Lights were dead spirits shimmering across the sky. Who's to say there isn't a scientific explanation for what we've just seen?'
Joe scratches at his beard. 'But in your books, you claim that ghosts are real.'
'And I want them to be. But I haven't found proof yet.'
'What would prove it to you, Ed?' Joe asks.
'A genuine encounter,' I reply. 'A ghost who'll address me directly, tell me its name, answer questions. One with a verifiable history, who can prove it's every bit as real as you are.'
'That's a big ask,' Joe notes.
'Not if they're real,' I laugh, then smirk at Joe. 'What do you reckon? Has that put you off ghost-hunting? Do you want to leave it here and not push on?'
'Are you shitting me?' Joe gasps. 'That was amazing! It scared me but I loved it. Back out now? Not on your nelly.'
'Not on my what?'
He waves the question away. 'I'll explain later. Where next? I'm hungry for more.'
'That's enough for tonight,' I tell him. 'Let's go home. It's late.'
Joe checks his watch and whistles. 'We've missed closing time. Fancy coming back to my place for a few drinks?'
'Thanks, but no. I want to write this up while it's fresh in my mind.'
'No problem. Are we returning tomorrow?'
'No. This house has revealed all of its secrets. It's time to move on. There's a guy I'm trying to arrange a meeting with. Pierre Vallance. He's a medium but he doesn't believe in ghosts.'
'How can a medium not believe in ghosts?' Joe frowns.
'That's what I want to find out,' I say drily, then lead Joe back to the security of the safe, boring, normal world. Behind us, my six shades glide along after me, as silent, observant and condemning as always.
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