When my cell phone went off I was between cases the same way an ocean liner in the middle of the Pacific could be said to be between America and China. Behind me lay the utterly mundane and featureless incident with the poltergeist in the attic. That happened months ago. Since then, nothing. Not a peep from the usual parade of cranks, schizophrenics and pranksters who are drawn to my agency like maggots to rotting meat. Luckily for me the poltergeist case paid enough to keep me stocked with enough gin and cigarettes to pass the long monotonous weeks. But by the time the phone rang that morning my patience had run out faster than my bank account. In my line of work, if the pagans don't get to you the boredom will.
So there I was, slouched in my chair in the tiny office I rent by the week, half out of my mind and half out of cigarettes when phone rang. Since premonitions are rot, I hadn't the foggiest notion what was waiting for me behind the illuminated screen which read “Caller Unknown.” So I answered it.
“This is Clark.”
“Have I reached Clark's Paranormal Investigative Agency?” The man sounded polite but exhausted.
“Yeah. What can I do for you?”
“My name is Ronald Cartwright, and I own a private security company. I have a bit of a situation on my
“Yeah? What kind of situation?”
There was a pause. “Well, it's with a property we've recently been contracted to patrol. I . . . would it be possible to discuss this in person?”
I stubbed my cigarette out. “Sure. But you should know I don't do seances, exorcisms, channeling, or anything of that ilk. If you want me to check something out because you've had a problem, I'm your man. Otherwise, I can recommend you to someone who believes in that kind of rubbish.”
There was another pause. Talking like this may be bad for business, but it's sure as hell a good way to weed out some of the fruitier of the fruit loops who try to engage my services.
“Of course not, Mr. Clark. I only called you because you were recommended to me by someone I used to work with. When may I drop in?”
“Whenever you want. You know where I am?”
“I can be there in fifteen minutes. I am not far from your offices.”
I glanced quickly at the standing army of empty gin bottles had amassed on my desk, the overflowing ashtray and the cigarettes strewn across the floor like confetti from a party that died out early.
“You'd better make it thirty.”
I suppose before I go any further I should tell you who I am and what I do and why the Case of Colney Hatch came close to breaking my sanity. I have never bothered to write up one of my cases before and I don't know if I will be able to take another one on after what happened. And it's not that I think other people should know about it. I have no idea what it tells me about death and what happens after. I don't know what it means, period. But I must write it to clear my head, to wrap my mind around these events so maybe I can leave this behind me without the help of half a bottle of liquid oblivion.
My name is Peter Clark, I have worked as a paranormal investigator for ten years and I don't believe in the afterlife. I am what you might call a vulgar materialist, but in spite of my philosophical disposition, I have an uncanny sensitivity to things that aren't there, that shouldn’t exist. I sense presences. I can feel affective alterations from invisible sources. I don't see dead people (generally), but I can walk into an empty room and know I am not alone.
When I started the agency it was half a joke. It's a long sob story, but thanks to my “gift” my career as a scientist came to a sudden and inglorious end. I was angry, I was between jobs, and I wanted answers. I knew these things were real, whatever they were. And I knew how to get rid of them. The average paranormal investigator is the kind of weak-minded dolt who thinks that their dead grandmother talks to them or that Jesus is manifesting in their refrigerator mold, but I understand what it is like to approach the unknown systematically, scientifically. I might have missed my chance to make next breakthrough in chemical engineering, but I sure as hell wasn't going to retreat into a fantasy world where dead loved ones spend their time prancing about among the stars. Stars are gigantic balls of burning gas and there is no hereafter.
I began my work with the assumption that these “ghosts” were not really fully present or self-conscious. I understood that they were not the spirits of people, exactly, but vestiges of some sort, minimally self-conscious. Generally, hauntings happen when some trauma has occurred, destroying the organism but leaving some psychical residue. In acute cases, so much of the psyche had been entailed in the trauma that the residue is capable of recognizing the environment and the energy of the living, and will sometimes use objects or “manifestations” to communicate.
That's where I come in. Not exactly something I could tell the board of the British Society for Psychological Studies, but I guess you could call me a therapist for ghosts.
Cartwright arrived at the office half an hour later dressed in a security uniform and carrying an oversized umbrella. A glance at his conservative haircut and his tastelessly bland tie told me he was probably a man without an imagination, and in my line of work an unimaginative client is a boon. I gave him my slickest smile and offered him a cigarette, which he waved away. I shrugged and lit mine. “Have a seat, Mr. Cartwright.”
He lowered himself onto the chair and looked at my cigarette incredulously. “Do they let you smoke in this building?”
“The kind of rent I pay, I don't think they'd care if I were selling organs on the black market.” I took my notebook out of the desk drawer, flipping through it to find a page that hadn't been on the business end of a spilled G&T. “So what's the problem?”
“Like I told you over the line, I am the owner of a private security force. Well, six months ago I got a call from a client who just bought this property which had been on the market for over ten years. It was a place called Colney Hatch, which up until about 1995 had been a huge sanitarium in the country not far from here. Old place, lots of buildings—even had its own movie theater. The furniture and equipment hadn't been auctioned off. It had just been closed down and everything was left where it was. Anyway, she said that it'd been vandalised and was in pretty bad repair. Most of it had been looted and some of the buildings were letting the rain in and beginning to rot. She wanted to discourage the local youth and vandals from trespassing while she got the funds to convert it into a hotel, so she hired me and my crew to keep an eye out.
“From the first, there were complaints from those on duty about strange things happening during their shift. At first it was just odd noises. I'd just hired a new kid for the job, and after the first night he abandoned his post because he heard things. I fired the poor lad.” He shook his head ruefully. “The place is eerie enough by itself, of course, and I'd chalked it up to an overactive imagination. Then as time went on, even my veteran employees reported hearing things. Faint footsteps following them as they walked through the halls. A man's voice in the distance. No words, just a despairing, nattering sort of noise. I scolded them for acting like frightened chidren, but after a while things got worse. While he was in one of the wards, Brad heard the distant voice again, and when he looked up he saw a man's face on the outside of the third story window. Just for a moment. Said he couldn't really make out his features, but swore he saw it all the same. From then on those on watch began to see a dark shadow gliding into one of the rooms, and the voices and footsteps got worse. Marta heard it once and said she heard a frantic voice saying 'birdie, birdie, birdie' over and over before it faded into a moan. She's the only one who's been able to make out words.”
“How long did this go on?”
“Three weeks, on and off.” Cartwright pursed his lips. “It's a bad business. I don't know if I believe in this sort of thing myself, but so many of my employees say they saw or heard something in the godawful place. I've known some of them for 20 years, and none of them have come up with this kind of garbage before. Normally I'd just ignore it and tell them to get back to work, but no one will patrol there at night. I'm in a bind, Mr. Clark. My business is a small one and I can't afford to lose this client to some spook.”
“I see.” I lit another cigarette. It was plain even after our brief conversation that Mr. Cartwright didn't have the disposition to invent a story like this. The first rule of paranormal investigation is always look for a natural explanation. More than half the time the ghost in the machine is just a loose cog. “I'll need to interview everyone in your company who has seen something. I'll need to have access to their employment history, the history of your company, as well as someone to lead me through Colney Hatch during the day. And,” I added, sizing up Cartwright's probable income, “a security deposit. Cash. My rate is 60 pounds a day, plus expenses. First three days up front.”
“Why on earth should I give you access to the private information of my most trusted employees?” Cartwright snapped.
“Because, Mr. Cartwright,” I told him in a level voice, “I need to know everything I can about every piece of this problem. I need to isolate the variables. If I bring you a 'spook,' fine. If I don't, I strongly suggest that you place a want ad in the paper and find yourself new employees. Either way, you'll be better off than you are now.”
Mr. Cartwright deflated. “Very well,” he sighed and pulled out his wallet. I almost felt sorry for him. He was clearly desperate.
I had him sign on the appropriate dotted lines and sent him on his way before watching him get into his car from the greasy-paned window. Clients are all the same. They want me to fetch them ghosts and get angry when I bring them improbable imposters, optical illusions or psychological delusions. Mostly, they want their money back. Well, nuts to them, I thought as I slipped the 180 quid into my breast pocket. I care about getting results. I couldn't care less whether or not they were results my clients liked.