Beyond the veil that shrouds the outer limits of our rational universe lies another, where conventional scientific laws break down. I operate along that boundary, watching places where the fabric wears thin or gets punched through. Stuff leaks out. Psychic effluvium polluting our jaded world. It’s my job to deal with it. Call me a paranormal plumber if you like.
There was a leak in the seaside town of Gillsbrough. Reverend Newlands had referred the leader of the parish council to me. That’s how I get all my work; from priests and other members of the cloth. A common misconception is that psychic investigators are sought in the yellow pages, or through desperate searches on web browsers. But most people get straight on the blower to the nearest parsonage. The clergy pass on cases they can’t deal with – those that find them in over their heads.
“Mr Absolom,” said the councillor, “thank you for coming. I’m Rob Fletcher.” The man holding out his hand wore an expression befitting a condemned man. Dark shadows underscored eyes that hadn’t seen the back of his lids for days. We stood on the doorstep of a two-up two-down. Curtainless windows overlooked a cobbled street where a scattering of teenagers finished their kick-about before lost light.
“Good to meet you, Mr Fletcher. This is my colleague, Shandice Kelly.”
Fletcher nodded at Shandice. “Let’s go through to my room and talk.” He held open the door, stealing a glance down the street as if checking something, then followed us in. We entered his sitting room, declining the offer of a drink.
He poured himself a double whisky.
“So you’ve got a ghost problem,” I said, once we were seated.
Fletcher knocked back the whisky and exhaled. “If you’d told me last month I’d be talking to ghost hunters I’d have thought you were as mad as a mongoose. But things are happening here. Things that’d make your skin crawl and a grown man piss his pants.” He looked at Shandice. “Begging your pardon, young lady.”
“It’s okay,” Shandice said, with a sweet smile.
Shandice was a mixed-race, twenty-five year old chit who’d heard more industrial language than Fletcher had slugged single malts – and that was a fair few judging from appearances. She’d also witnessed events that turned the bowels to water. You would never guess this from her cheerful, cherubic face – some said she radiated pure Aretha Franklin warmth.
I took out my notebook. “Tell me more, Mr Fletcher.”
“It started in the Ellis’ bed and breakfast,” he began. “Three weeks ago, young Amelia Ellis went to the kitchen for a glass of water in the early hours. Her parents were woken by her cries – and screams of something less human. They found her perched half-way up the wall as if something was holding her there. She was kicking, writhing and trying to break free. Whatever it was, filled the room with its hellish noise until, all of a sudden, she dropped to the floor. Afterwards, they found deep red weals on her arms and shoulders. She said it was like an animal pinning her against the wall, digging in its talons.”
I wrote it all down and looked over at Shandice. Her expression said, Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
“You said there were other events?” I prompted.
“Sure.” Fletcher emptied the rest of his glass and refilled it; then told us of other hauntings. The locations varied from houses to pubs to seafront arcades, even a disturbance at the fish and chip shop. Incidents multiplied over the weeks, each accompanied by nightmarish screams, and the victims left with deep scratches or whiplash-like marks on their skin.
“These wounds,” I said, “do you have any photographic evidence?”
“I can do better than that,” he said, placing his tumbler on the dresser.
He lifted his shirt to reveal an impressive beer-gut. There, marked across the folds of flesh were angry, rake-like furrows, scored in a criss-cross fashion.
I’d seen these marks before. A signature.
“Oh God. You poor dear,” said Shandice.
“I’ve had worse from when I fought in the Falklands,” Fletcher said. “But this has scarred me up here.” He pointed a nail-bitten finger to his temple.
I got up to view his chest more closely. “Looks like they’ve been inflicted by more than one assailant.”
“Don’t I know it,” Fletcher said. ” I was locking up the town hall after a council meeting, switching off the lights when I heard multiple voices. Some high-pitched, like Queen’s drummer – the one who sang the operatic bits. Others were low, dog-like growls. Males and females, all of them shouting and screeching at me. But I never saw anything.”
“Did you hear any words?” asked Shandice.
“They said you’re nothing but meat, and tell the priest we have come.”
Fletcher lowered his shirt and I placed a hand on his shoulder. He found greater solace in the bottle, uncorking it again.
“You did the right thing contacting Reverend Newlands,” I said.
“This town is in a state of hysteria. Dozens have moved away – up and left without even their belongings.
He looked at me earnestly. “Can you can help us Mr Absolom?”
I sighed. “It won’t be easy, but we’ve experienced these phenomena before. Leave it with us.”
“You need anything? Extra man-power and the like?” he asked.
“I think that’s all the information we need, and we’ve got the necessary tools. We work best when it’s just me and Shandice.”
Fletcher seemed relieved. “How will you find them?”
I pulled out a small box with an LCD display and gave it to Fletcher. It showed a map of Gillsbrough, a green marker flashing at its centre.
“It’s the local theatre,” he said. “What is this contraption? A paranormal detector?”
“Kind of. It pays to be one step ahead in this game. Now, you wait here and lock your doors. Tell everyone you know to do the same.”
“I will. Those of us who are left.”
We stepped from our van onto the deserted seafront. A strong, gusty seabreeze blew in, carrying a salty moisture you could taste. Gulls tumbled erratically in the darkening sky, calling out in a squawking cacophony.
“Dizbusters,” Shandice said. “I hate those mothers.”
“Me too,” I replied, opening the rear doors of the van.
Shandice didn’t mean the gulls. Dizbusters are ancient souls of the dead, driven mad by endless sojourns in the sixty six prisons of the outer realm. After a millennium or two, even their diabolical jailers can’t bear listening to them anymore. They get kicked over to this side, giving the jailers and inmates some respite. “We’ll need the triangulation apparatus and the ectoplasm cage,” I said, handing them over.
She lifted her gabardine coat collar against the wind. “You didn’t tell Fletcher that dizbusters usually haunt alone.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“And they’ve created a helluva splash in a short time.”
“Yeah, I know that too.”
“So, what’s the plan? Scissor action?”
“Not on multiple entities. We’ll employ the peregrine strategy.”
“The peregrine? We’ve only practiced it once. It’s a bit risky.”
“Trust me,” I said, zipping a hold-all swollen with gear.
She twisted her mouth. “Now I’m really worried.”
Inside the theatre, I strode down the central aisle to the stage.
They were here. I could smell them.
Another misconception – all ghosts smell of death and decay. Dizbusters are distinctive, their odour like burnt plastic. The acrid stink penetrates your sinuses and makes your eyes water.
I accessed the stage and circled its perimeter, dropping rubber-coated pods every two paces.
Was I scared? You might as well ask if the Pope prays. Some feel chills running down their spines, others get goosebumps. I get a humming-bird beating of tiny wings behind my eyes.
I needed to finish this.
“Show yourselves,” I yelled.
They must’ve known I was coming. They came at once like banshees, whipping round me like miniature tornadoes.
“Absalom” they screeched, “We have been waiting for you.”
Invisible claws scratched my face and my neck; shredding clothes and torturing me with agonising barbs.
I couldn’t stand much more.
“Now, Shandice, now!” I could only hope she heard above the din.
She descended on a taut line of steel; plunging like a falcon, ready to confront and defeat the startled wraiths. Only they weren’t surprised.
I sensed something wrong. Shandice spun round uncontrollably.
“Absolom,” she cried, “this shouldn’t be happening.”
More dizbusters joined the fray. “You thought we didn’t know of your companion? Foolish mortal.”
Still more flocked toward Shandice, tormenting her as they twisted her ever faster.
This was their undoing.
I removed a cylinder from my pocket, pressing a red button on top. A myriad of green sparks illuminated the stage, dancing about in a crackling, emerald firestorm. They discharged from the pods I’d dropped earlier, encapsulating the dizbusters in cocoons like burning iron wool. The cocoons tightened, constricting until each was an intense plasmic globule. The screams were ear-splitting, the acrylic stench overpowering, but I had to wait for the right moment.
One by one, dark plumes of smoke emerged from the globules. I counted seventeen, eighteen then nineteen. That was all of them. I pressed the button again.
The screaming had ended.
I grabbed hold of Shandice’s spinning form and lowered her to the ground.
“Are you alright?” I said.
“I will be, once I’ve spewed out my guts.”
On the way out, I reached above a plinth overhanging the main exit and retrieved a dense metal orb. The surface was formed from congealed twists of alchemical alloy.
Shandice looked and scowled. “A psychic lodestone. You planted it here?”
“Six weeks ago.”
“It drew them. You planned this, didn’t you?”
“Meticulously. They would’ve taken years to eradicate individually – caused a hundred times the pain.” I looked at her and grinned. “It always pays to be one step ahead in this game.”
“I don’t suppose you thought about letting me in on your subterfuge?”
“Sorry. Its my weak point – employing the human touch. Will a bottle of disaronno buy your forgiveness?”