As soon as Jake Parker opened his eyes, his brain switched on. He was awake. He lifted his mobile phone from the bedside table and checked the time. 3:18 am. The backlight of the screen hurt his eyes, the afterglow screwing through right to the back of his head. He felt sick and in pain. Why have the Christmas party on a work night, rather than the weekend? That was what had woken him: the surety that he would sleep through the alarm. That uncomfortable sleep when the mind just can’t shut down. He rubbed his eyes, still oily from the serum he’d applied after washing his face, a process that somehow he’d managed to accomplish before making it to bed. This would be a long Friday. At least everyone in the office would be feeling the same.
Jake rolled over, his arm over the duvet. He stuffed it back beneath the sheets. The room was cold, freezing cold. Visitors always marvelled at the sea-view, for which he paid a hefty premium. But it was a different thing entirely living there, when winter arrived and the broken sash window allowed the channel wind to pour through. Visitors. When had he last had one of those? That’s one of the reasons why he’d chosen to not get a tree, just draped the Christmas lights over the mirror in the sitting room. That might have been the thing that woke him up, he thought, as he noticed light creeping beneath the bedroom door. He must have forgotten to turn them off.
It seemed the largest of missions: stepping out of the warm bed to go and turn them off. He pulled the duvet over his head. If he couldn’t see the light, perhaps he’d be able to sleep until the alarm went off. But cash was tight; he even turned the kettle and T V off at the socket to save on electricity. It would keep him awake, just knowing that the digits of digital metre would keep blinking forward. His chest was tight. He was shivering beneath the sheets. This was going to be a bad hangover. After ten painful minutes, he knew what he would have to do if he were to sleep.
Standing on the laminate floor, his shivers doubled. The uncontrollable dancing made his sickness rise. He put a hand on his stomach and stepped on to the faux sheepskin rug, curling his toes through the fur. Even through his discomfort, he pondered for a moment why he had decided to turn on the Christmas lights when he had returned last night. It certainly wasn’t because he was feeling Christmassy. The single life in this cold flat was grim. Christmas was for families. Hangovers were for singletons. Moving towards the door, he decided that he’d check on the kettle and T V too. He turned the handle.
The Christmas lights weren’t on. But the room was not in darkness. In the centre of the room, on the rug where the coffee table usually was, was a floor-standing lamp that was not Jakes. Beneath the lamp was an old leather wingback armchair that Jake had never seen. Sitting in the chair, reading a book set upon his knee, was a man. Jake’s shivers ceased. His stomach cramped. His mouth dried. His lips parted to speak. The cold hit his tongue.
Jake could see the man in profile, side-on to him. The man’s head was tilted at forty-five degrees, towards the pages. One hand was on his upraised knee, the other holding the book. His nose was large and hooked, the skin thin above the stretched nostrils. His head was mostly bald, save for the wisps of white hairs, translucent in the light. Jake saw him blink. The man licked a long finger and turned a page. His eyebrows were thick and long, casting winged shadows down his cheeks. The chair was tall and the man’s length filled it. All of his features were hideously extended, his bony kneecap stretching the tweed trousers. The overcoat that he was wearing spilled over the seat of the chair. He licked a finger, turned a page.
Without turning his head, Jake looked towards the window. The curtain was moving in front of another leaky sash window, the orange streetlight showing and then hidden. Looking the other way, he saw that the chain was still across the front door. With the slightest movement, he looked around for anything that he could use to protect himself. There was his desk lamp with the square base, plugged in, switched off. On the sideboard was a wooden jug – hardly a weapon. The child-size lightsabre that he’d been given as a Secret Santa gift. His chest tightened once more. His stomach shrank. As Jake watched, the man carefully folded the book closed. He placed both hands on the cover. And Jake watched.
A noise screeched into Jake’s ears. A sound like a wet finger running around the top of a wine glass. Becoming louder, shriller in a devilish crescendo. He lifted his hands towards his head but could reach no higher than his shoulders. His fingers stretched out like claws, trying to move towards his ears. Jake’s eyes were straining at his sockets, watching the man. Seeing the man begin to turn his head towards him . . .
~ ~ ~
When I first founded my company, Paranatural, I was called all kinds of names. All kinds. Mostly charlatan. It’s been that way throughout history, I guess, in my line of work. My aim is to try and understand what we don’t understand. The world’s just like that. So it keeps me busy. People want answers; to be reassured in the event of the unexplainable. So I’m not a charlatan at all. See, most of the time I’ll be able to explain to people that what they thought might be a poltergeist is actually just bad plumbing knocking things off the wall. That a strange sound that appears every night is next door’s generator. There’s the famous case of the Marfa Lights, for example: a place in West Texas where tens of people are drawn each night to watch the mysterious arrival of lights. It’s a signposted visitor’s spot. What these folks are gathering to watch is car headlights passing over the distant Chinati Mountains. And they gather still. Some folks you just can’t convince. But some things you just can’t explain.
Ghosts exist. They often appear in the same place, at the same time of the day or of the year. They are exactly what you’ve been told, some soul stuck between death and the afterlife, wandering lost, trying to make good things that they couldn’t when they were alive or stuck in confusion in a hellish purgatory. They’re harmless. People live around them in old houses, completely aware that they are sharing their house with a previous occupant. Sometimes it is a case of moments of time merging in the same location, like the Roman ghost army that troops through the cellar of a house in York, cart horses et al. It’s time indestructible. Hell, when you think about our very existence, is it so impossible to believe that anything is possible? I don’t think so. Otherwise I wouldn’t have started up my business to investigate these occurrences.
I’ve been employed by outside sources too. Some of those television programmes designed to freak out the viewer with carefully placed props. I’m not proud of those, but it pays the bills. Although I leave the props to the producers and am just employed as a talking head. I also write for a couple of magazines, Mysteries of the Unexplained and Paranormal Activities. That’s good fun. I get to explain some of the supernatural incidents that I’ve encountered. Obviously I ham them up a bit, but they’re all true, all things that I’ve either experienced myself or have witnessed the aftermath of.
Haunted houses come up a lot – my favourite is of a couple who moved into an old Hall House and on their first night both saw an invalid old woman on her hands and knees pushing a candle along the corridor with her head. The locals all knew about her as she’d shown herself to occupant after occupant. Possessed animals: a huge stallion that would cower and bow on its haunches when it ventured to a particular part of its paddock – research taught me that it was located on the site of an old monastery, where a barbaric monk performed horrific acts on the horses to tame them, until he was one day trampled to death by a mare; plenty of previously happy, loving dogs who turn savage when a family moves into a new house with history. Even when people are possessed, like the sad story of a little boy who would only ever talk in a low growl and would never look anybody in the eye. In turns out that his family lived in a house where a little boy of the same age had been kidnaped and held captive by a politician and his wife who couldn’t have children of their own. They had kept him locked in a darkened, boarded-up room for years. Well, it didn’t ever work out well for the little boy from the past, but we got help for the boy and his family. This is only the second time, though, that I’ve ever had to assist with a police enquiry. So tonight I’m on my way to The Better Half pub in Hove to meet an old school friend who is in the force.
The first time that we met to talk over an incident was when a young woman had been found dead in Friston Forest, with strange objects littered around the tree that she was positioned beneath. Ribbons of various colours had been strung to the branches and spooky miniature towers tied with string positioned around the body, burnt out tea lights beneath them. It was later found that a pentagram had been etched into the dirt beneath the body. The murder was attributed to amateurish cult activity. No suspects were ever apprehended. But that had been murder. No doubt about it. By the tone of Steven’s email, this second case that he needed advice with was very different.
I see him as soon as I walk into the pub, sitting in one of the tall wooden booths with leather bench seats, two pints of ale in front of him. Beneath the plastic holly and the Christmas lights, he’s scrolling through something on his phone. Whenever I see him, it always strikes me as funny just how much he looks like a policeman, with his short dark hair, sticking-out bottom lip, leather raincoat and heavy black shoes. Still, everyday perception isn’t his strong point. He doesn’t notice me at all until I’m sitting down opposite him.
‘So,’ I say straight of the bat, ‘what’s up?’
‘’Ello, mate,’ he replies, offering his hand, ‘how are you?’ He looks like he hasn’t been sleeping well. But then once you hit our age I suppose that the bags both under and above the eyes always make you look that way.
‘Feel like death’ I reply, coughing into my hand and sniffing. ‘A festive cold that won’t go away.’
‘Jesus, you sound it,’ Steve says, rubbing his chin. I can hear each scratch. Even at school he was that kid who has to shave twice a day. His nickname was Desperate Dan. ‘Sure you don’t mind meeting tonight? I could do with your opinion on something.’
‘Sure,’ I reply, taking a gulp of the strong ale. It soothes my throat. So I take another gulp. ‘What’s up?’ I repeat. He resumes stroking his chin. He looks over at a nearby table with three groups of couples sitting around it. Watching, I see that one of them is entertaining the group, gesticulating dramatically as he recounts some anecdote. Brash Christmas pop songs are playing loudly. Almost everyone seems to be full of festive cheer. It doesn’t stretch to our booth, though, to find someone sick and another anxious.
‘A case came up the other day.’ Steve won’t meet my eye. He’s chewing on that bottom lip. He starts picking at the corner of the card coaster.
‘Murder?’ I ask.
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘But . . . I don’t know.’
‘A tough one?’ He stays silent, watching his hand strip away the damp pieces of card. ‘A kid?’ I ask.
‘No. Not a kid. It’s just . . .’ He sucks his lips, a frown on his forehead. When he does look up, his face is drawn, desperate. ‘It was like something from a horror movie, Chris. It was . . .’ He rests his forehead against his hand and closes his eyes, but quickly reopens them. ‘I don’t see how it could be murder.’
‘But you just said that it was.’ It’s my turn to scratch my chin. ‘What can you tell me?’ Even opening my mouth causes a prolonged coughing fit. At least it seems to have helped to snap Steven into life.
‘Young male,’ he says, sitting upright, both hands on the table. ‘Twenty-nine years old. Lives alone on the Kingsway road. He was found in his apartment on Sunday night. After missing an arranged meeting with his sister, she became concerned and reported her concerns to us after visiting his building. We found out that he hadn’t been in to work on Friday – not that he was the only one; Christmas party the night before. So when were let in to the apartment by the property manager later that evening . . .’ He reached for his beer. I could see that his hand was shaking. He took a deep breath and held it. ‘The coroner’s report said that he’d had a heart attack. Killed him instantly. Almost instantly.’
I make a fist and put it to my mouth, thinking. I haven’t ever seen Steven acting this way. When he first started in the force, he used to deal with all kinds of horrific road traffic accidents but always just considered them “a part of the job”. I can’t breathe out of my nose. I move my hand. I cough. I take a drink. My throat is scorching. ‘It doesn’t sound like murder at all, Steve. It just sounds like a tragedy.’ We hold each others look. I lean in, on my elbows. I straighten a bit from where my back hurts. It makes me cough. ‘What is it that’s really bothering you?’
He leans back, I guess to avoid catching my winter cold. In truth, it hasn’t been a cold for all of that time, more a bothering cough that just won’t go away. It started at about the beginning of November, more than a month ago. That’s what has started to make my back hurt, from all that coughing. His eyes fall away. He looks at the shredded pieces of card and uses a finger to make a neat little pile. A little piece sticks to his finger. He rolls it around and then flicks it away. If we were just having a beer then I’d make a joke about littering. ‘Steve?’ Biting into his lips, he looks over at the crowd of couples around the circular table. And then he leans forward.
‘The flat was locked from the inside. Chain across the door. All of the windows were sealed and locked. It should be an open and closed case, especially confirmed as it was by the coroner’s report. But . . .’ He tucks a hand under one armpit and resumes scratching his chin. ‘Excess adrenaline was detected in the autopsy report. That could be assigned to the terror of the heart attack affecting such a young, fit man. Shock, if you like. The sudden thought that he might be dying; the knowledge that he was. Even though the levels of adrenaline were abnormal by standard diagnosis, I would have accepted that. But you should have seen his face, Chris. He . . .’ Steven winces. He swallows, hard. ‘There might not have been any blood or signs of a struggle, but he looked as though he had been scared to death.’
~ ~ ~
It is possible to be literally frightened to death. It happens to healthy people, like this guy Jake Parker, not just those with frail or damaged hearts. He was found to have extremely high levels of alcohol in his system, but I don’t like how Steve described Jake’s face and the stricken position of his body: his frozen scream; his hands stiffened as if holding a concrete ball; halfway down on one knee, impossibly balanced even though his body had ceased to function. The autopsy revealed no evidence of a tumour or brain injury. So what was it that had terrified him, enough to kill him?
I remember seeing a story about man who died whilst watching a horror film in the cinema. You know that feeling of fright, the one that sends of a cold shock all through your body? It’s a thrill, right? That’s why we love to go on ghost trains when we’re kids. But Jake’s T V wasn’t on. In fact, all of his appliances were switched off at the socket. Yet something happened to him, of that I’m sure. Not something that I’ve ever encountered. People tend to run when they see a ghost, get out of the house to find other people. To feel safe. It’s simply not possible to be scared so much to seal such an anguished demise.
Since we met last week, Steven has fixed it that I can see the body before it is handed over to the family. It’s Christmas Eve now, so it might not be until the middle of next week. At least that gives me some time to read up about other studies like this. Already I know that it’s not going to be best Christmas. Not just for this incident hanging over my head and bothering my brain. I feel worse than ever. I doubt that I’ll be able to even taste Christmas lunch. My nose isn’t streaming like it was, but my cough has reached whooping degrees. Rox hasn’t got the cold, but I’ve been relegated to the spare room. My coughing keeps waking me in the middle of the night, even her in the room next door. I can’t lay comfortable because of my backache. So even though I went to bed at ten, absolutely exhausted, I’m awake again now. I look at the alarm clock. 2:14 am. Sitting up, I notice the soft light creeping beneath the door. So I must have woken Roxanne again. I’d better go and see if she’s okay.