FROM THE RECOLLECTIONS OF ALASDAIR LOCKHART WRAYBURN esq, 22 May, 1931.
THE CLOCK was just striking 11 with the sun flashing brilliantly across the rooftops of the New Town as I entered the study, clutching my silver platter as a desultory afterthought. I looked a sight, I knew. From the brief glimpse I’d given myself in the mirror in the hallway, I was aware that my hair was unkempt, my jaw unshaven, my tunic ill-buttoned and my eyes red-rimmed and bleary from a heavy night of carousing and versifying, with perhaps the emphasis on the former rather than the latter.
Ealasaid, naturally, and unlike many employers, couldn’t give two hoots for my appearance and she didn’t even look up from the complex array of weights, winches and pulleys arraigned upon the table before her. She did, however, indulge her full irritation when she finally deigned to address me.
‘What is it? You can see that I’m occupied, can’t you?’
‘You have a visitor.’ My voice was heavy and phlegmatic and not solely due to hangover. I scooped the card from the tray and squinted at it blearily. ‘Lord Andrew Gilmerton,’ I read, making no attempt to conceal my contempt.
Ealasaid frowned. The name was not unknown to us and, in fact, had become something of an irritation over the past few weeks. Missives and telegrams on a daily basis requesting her to call upon him at his earliest convenience. At first, these had been studiously ignored, but still the appeals persisted until Ealasaid had been forced to take a more direct approach.
‘You did send that telegram?’ she said, finally raising her head from her work.
‘Well, of course I did.’ I did my best to summon up a semblance of righteous indignation to provide cover while wracked my poppy-sodden memory for internal corroboration. ‘No,’ I added eventually, but with no greater sense of conviction. ‘I definitely did.’
‘Then, why, pray, is the person to whom that particular message was directed now standing in my hallway?’
‘Do you want me to send him away?’
‘That would be ideal.’
‘Only, it’s just that he’s rather on the formidable side. Ordinarily, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to box this oaf about the ears but, truth be told, I’m not feeling all that today.’
Ealasaid regarded me with a look that I can only describe as ‘withering’. In truth, I wasn’t sure I could even blame her. I am in many ways a Titan; I come from good blood, I am one of the finest poets Scotland has ever produced. But I am quite simply not built for rough-housing and that morning especially I was singularly incapable or wrestling with my own conscience, let alone anything more corporeal.
She sighed. ‘Fine. Send him in then and let’s get this over with.’
Oliver Gilmerton was indeed formidable, although perhaps not quite what you might expect. He was a lot younger for one thing. The scratchy, careless handwriting and the one of pompous entitlement evident in his written communications might lead you to construct an image of someone in their later years — a whiskery and bloated captain of industry perhaps, or one who had gained their title from mercantile services to the nations coffers, or perhaps even just assiduous brown-nosing to the Stuarts.
But the man who walked into her workshop could not have been much more than 35 with a lithe build and a confident, almost cat-like stride. Ealasaid did not condescend to rise from her bench as he entered, something that clearly made the man bristle somewhat.
‘Miss Doonean?’ he said brusquely.
Ealasaid raised an eyebrow. ‘Mr Gilmerton, isn’t it?’
‘Of course,’ Ealasaid said, with a thin smile.
‘I have to say, Miss Doonean, you have proved a rather recalcitrant correspondent. I had hoped we would have been able to arrange a meeting long before this.’
‘Well, I am rather busy. A state of affairs, I regret to say, that has not manifestly changed, so if you would just state your business, I would be grateful.’
During all this, Gilmerton had been holding his hat out towards me while I continued to stare dumbly at it. ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ I demanded.
‘Damn your impudence, sir! Take the blessed thing.’
I looked towards Ealasaid, who merely shrugged. I tutted volubly and let Gilmerton’s face redden to a sclerotic crimson for a moment or two longer before I took the hat, exercising considerable restraint in not succumbing to the temptation to crush the wretched thing between my fingers.
‘You may leave us,’ Gilmerton said, turning his back to me.
‘I’ll leave when I’m good and ready and never on your damned say-so.’
‘That will do, Wrayburn,’ But I could tell that I had amused Ealasaid — something I always liked to do. ‘You may go.’
I tossed both hat and tray into a Queen Anne by the door and neglected to close the door behind me, which is what allowed me to eavesdrop and report the conversation that now follows.
‘What a damned impudent fellow,’ Gilmerton said, after (erroneously) waiting a moment until I was out of earshot. ‘Although I can’t help wondering if I might have seen his face somewhere before.’
‘Possibly you have,’ Ealasaid said. ‘He does have something of a reputation.’
‘I’ve no doubt he has. But I dread to think for what.’
‘I’m sure you did not come here to discuss my staffing arrangments.’
‘No, no, I did not. I have come to avail myself of your services.’
‘I suspected as much. Did the fact that I did not reply to any of your messages suggest that I might not be for hire?’
‘It is a matter of some urgency, Miss Doonean.’
‘No doubt. In my experience, it usually is. However—’
‘I think,’ Gilmerton said sharply, ‘that you could at least hear me out.’
‘At the moment,’ Ealasaid said, ‘my primary concerns are the effects of strong magnetic forces upon objects in motion and the transmission of heat through a vacuum.’ She pointed to the abstruse workings laid out on her workbench. ‘If either of those topics are of interest to you then perhaps we may have room for discussion.’
‘Regrettably not,’ Gilmerton said, with a thin smile. ‘I was thinking of your, ah, rather more specialised skills.’
‘Yes, that’s what I thought.’ She shook her head. ‘So, no, I’m afraid I’m not interested.’
‘If it’s a matter of money, I’ll happily allow you to name your price. Within reason, of course.’
‘It’s not about the money. It’s simply that I no longer take cases such as yours.’
‘May I ask why?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘You may not.’
‘And if I told you that I believed my life to be in danger?’ His triumphant tone spoke to his belief that he had just played his trump card.
‘Then I would recommend you to the local constabulary. They are rather good at this sort of thing and are, after all, why you pay your taxes.’ She raised an eyebrow at Gilmerton. ‘You do pay your taxes?’
Gilmerton gave a low laugh. ‘Very well. My welfare may mean nothing to you. But what of my intended? I find it hard to believe that you would want a young lady, who is entirely innocent of these matters, to come to any sort of harm, particularly when it was in your — and only your — power to prevent it.’
Ealasaid was silent for a moment. Whatever else Gilmerton was, he was no fool and had known precisely where to strike Ealasaid. ‘Very well,’ she said finally. ‘I’m listening.’
Gilmerton placed something on the table. It was out of my line of sight but it clinked when he laid it down, suggesting an awkward package containing multiple objects. When we discussed it later, Ealasaid informed that it was, in fact, four equally proportioned glass sections that, if placed together, would have constituted a lead crystal whisky tumbler.
‘I was having a nightcap,’ Gilmerton said. ‘And left the room just for a moment. When I returned my glass was like this. The whisky all over the table.’
Ealasaid lifted one of the sections and ran a finger along one of the edges. It was smooth, as if it had been machined or filed. ‘It is singular,’ she said. ‘Anything else?’
Gilmerton lifted the hair at his temple. Just visible was a single cut surrounded by a new-fading bruise.
‘And what happened there?’ Ealasaid asked.
‘A trophy cup came flying across the room at me,’ he said. ‘And I wasn’t quite fast enough. Just clipped me as I ducked.’ He patted his hair back into place. ‘And then there was the incident with the corbie.’
‘The corbie? Now you’re making this up.’
‘I assure you I am not. It strikes you as fanciful?’
‘Prosaic certainly. Tell me about this corbie.’
‘I was out in my carriage,’ Gilmerton said. ‘And my driver almost veered us off the road. He insists he had no choice and that this enormous raven had come flying at his face but when I looked—’
‘And these have been the only occurrences?’
‘No, there have been numerous others.’
‘Where do you want to begin?’ Gilmerton said. ‘More destroyed glassware. Muddy footprints to go nowhere. Scratches on the walls. Things flying across the room at us.’
‘Ah, all the so-called classics.’
‘I’m glad you find this amusing, Miss Doonean,’ he said. ‘Because, quite frankly, I’m failing to see the funny side.’
‘Forgive me,’ Ealasaid said. ‘And tell me, where did all these startling events take place?’
‘In and around my estate at Forres.’
‘And you do, I presume, have some inkling of who this troubled spirit might be?’
Gilmerton nodded. ‘I suspect it to be Caro. That is Lady Caroline McHay. We were … betrothed.’
‘Another intended? Your love life certainly seems to have been eventful, Mr Gilmerton.’
Gilmerton’s face darkened. ‘Caro was a very troubled soul. Who I did my best to help, but who I ultimately failed. I’m afraid she ended up taking her own life. I do not intend to fail again. And that is why I am here.’
Ealasaid nodded. ‘And now I suppose we must now come to the question, what do you expect me to do about it?’
‘Isn’t it obvious? I want you to do … whatever it is that you do.’
‘Which is where we came in,’ Ealasaid said. ‘And I’m still not interested.’
‘May I ask why not?’
‘I told you. I’m not in this line of work anymore.’
‘Oh really?’ Gilmerton raised an eyebrow. ‘Is that why you helped Mrs Emma Buller with her little case? And that wasn’t much more than six weeks ago, was it?’
The truth of this made Ealasaid decidedly uncomfortable. Despite her best attempts to remain disciplined she did find herself lapsing alarmingly often. She was, she found, highly susceptible to a hard-luck case. ‘You seem remarkably well-informed,’ she said.
‘It is my business,’ Gilmerton said silkily.
‘As my client choice is mine.’
‘So, you admit that your refusal is based upon a prejudice? That you just don’t like me.’ Gilmerton smiled triumphantly. ‘Perhaps you’re one of those Radicals that we hear so much about these days.’
‘There’s little of the Radical about me, more’s the pity,’ Ealasaid laughed. ‘But you’re right, I don’t like you. Although that’s by-the-by because, I repeat, I am not taking any clients at the moment. Now, if you’d like to show yourself out. I’m afraid it may be asking too much to presume any further upon Wrayburn’s patience today.’ She raised her intonation as she said this to make clear her awareness of my hovering just outside the open door.
‘And that’s your last word on the matter?’ Gilmerton demanded.
‘No, my last words are “leave” and also “immediately”.’
Gilmerton scowled but he stood. ‘I am not accustomed to anyone speaking to me in this fashion, Miss Doonean.’
‘I’m sure you’ll rise ably to the challenge,’ Ealasaid said. ‘Now, if you’d be so kind.’
‘And should anything befall my intended?’
‘Then that will be unfortunate but really no concern of mine. Now, goodbye, Mr Gilmerton.’
I hurried away from the doorway before Gilmerton came storming, thunder-faced, through it.
When I returned late that evening, I found the lamps turned low and Ealasaid slumped in one of the armchairs beside the dying fire. She was barely visible in the darkness, save as slivers of golden light reflected in the gloom.
‘My lady, the daughter of night, she doth brood, yay, unto the very darkness.’
‘Oh, do be quiet, Wrayburn.’
I grinned and entered the room, helping myself to a full goblet of brandy from the decanter before throwing myself in the armchair opposite her’s.
‘So, it’s this Gilmerton oaf, is it?’
Ealasaid smiled. ‘What did you make of him?’
‘Not much to make anything of, is there?’ I replied, shrugging. ‘Your typically entitled Jacobin horse’s ass. Probably likes to make out that his forebears were right there beside Charlie himself.’
‘Well, you would know, I suppose.’
I scowled. ‘Thank you for that, my lady. But you’re quite right. He and my father will undoubtedly fine at the same clubs.’
‘Vicious, do you think?’
‘Almost certainly. They always are once their purses accrue a certain bloat.’
‘Not that you’re bitter, of course.’
‘Undoubtedly. That, however, does not render the point by any means invalid.’
‘And what about her?’
‘You mean his intended? Oh, she’ll want for nothing.’
‘Not quite nothing, if Gilmerton is to be believed.’
‘Lady Jane Arbuthnot. Her family won a few hundred acres of some no-doubt dismal backwoods of Fife.’
Ealasaid smiled. ‘Not like you to be so energetic in your inquiries, Wrayburn.’
‘It required no special effort, believe me. Otherwise I would not have bothered. I merely raised the topic among some my better-heeled acquaintances at the club. And I thought you might find the information of some use.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘You’ve already assumed that I’m taking a hand in this affair, haven’t you?’
‘Well, naturally.’ I produced the small crystal bottle om personal laudanum from my coat pocket and added a couple of drops to my brandy. ‘I would have thought it went without saying.’
‘And this assumption is based upon what exactly?’
‘Upon knowledge. My insight into the human heart. I am your conscience, dear lady. That is why you retain me.’
‘Well, it certainly isn’t for your domestic skills, that much is certain.’ Ealasaid laid her empty goblet aside and stood. ‘But I suppose that since you have already decided that I am to run this particular errand, I had best get some sleep. Can you be relied upon to lock the doors and tend to the fires?’
‘Almost certainly not,’ I said, sinking deeper into my chair. ‘But let us both assume that I can and get you to bed.’
And with that, Ealasaid ascended to bed and left me brooding upon injustice and bad verse by dying fire.
The morning brought a hectic round of activity that neither of us usually like to countenance of a morning. We ran our errands separately before reconvening at The Doric Bar shortly before noon. The companions I had accrued predictably melted away under Ealasaid’s impatience (rather than disapproval) as she took a seat opposite me. She nodded towards my pint pot.
‘Starting early, are we?’
‘On the contrary, this is most precisely timed. And how was dear old Buchanan?’
Ealasaid placed a tattered, official buff folder upon the table. A medical examiner’s report, procured from James Buchanan, a pliable source within the mortuary department. I hadn’t attended because Bucky and I don’t much care for each other. He is also a prolific consumer and writer of grisly supernatural pot-boilers — which I can’t quite decide is appropriate or apposite for someone in his profession — and I’m always wary of those with quite visible talent in fields that even tangentially approach my own.
‘And how is it?’ I nodded towards the report. ‘Instructive?’
‘Suggestive certainly. And you? You’ve been successful?’
‘Yes. Burke will take on the job. You’ll have it by the end of the week.’
‘Good. And he can be trusted?’
‘Of course he can’t be trusted. He’s a thief and a blaggard. But you did do him a considerable favour over that business with the Greyfriars Revenant and he doesn’t forget a debt. I think he can be relied upon.’
‘Good.’ Ealasaid reached for the report. ‘Then we are almost ready to begin.’
Chill twilight descended as we waited outside an address in a wide New Town crescent. Ealasaid had dumped her battered Gladstone at her feet and had plunged her hands into her coat and was stamping her feet impatiently. I had had the foresight to insulate myself with a couple of brandies but even I was feeling the cold, my breath freezing and smoking into the mist. But eventually a car pulled up and Gilmerton emerged, as sour faced as ever.
‘What the devil is the meaning of this? I had expected you at Forres.’
‘This is your property, is it not?’ Ealasaid consulted her notebook. ‘Albeit registered in the name of one of your trading interests. That is so, yes?’
‘What of it?’ Gilmerton demanded,. ‘It’s not as if Caroline was ever here, is it?’
‘No?’ Ealasaid removed a second, smallish, book from her coat pocket and rifled through the pages. This is what we had commissioned Burke and his equally insalubrious acquaintances to procure for us. ‘According to this, she visited here on at least eleven occasions. The last one just days before her death.’
‘And what is that you’ve got there?’ Gilmerton demanded.
‘Lady Caroline’s diary.’
‘I know what it is. My question is what you are doing with it?’
‘You asked me to investigate this matter, did you not?’ She waved the diary. ‘This is me investigating.’
‘I would just have hoped to have avoided bringing the family any more pain, that’s all.’
Ealasaid continued to flick through the diary. ‘Well, there are passages in here that would suggest otherwise on that particular score. But regardless, the family are entirely ignorant of my having this in my possession. A state of affairs that will, with luck, remain unchanged even after it is returned.’ She tucked the diary back into her coat. ‘Now, shall we proceed?’
Gilmerton nodded and fished into his coat pocket for his keys. But the front door opened even as they approached and a slim young woman with blonde hair and delicate features stood there.
‘Jane!’ Gilmerton face was pale and wore the briefest expression of surprise. It was, Ealasaid thought, the first time she’d ever seen anything other than the mask of sardonic arrogance that was his usual contenance.
‘Hello, Oliver,’ Jane said.
‘You two are already acquainted, I take it,’ Ealasaid said, picking up her bag and walking into the apartment.
‘I cannot believe that I’ve allowed you to drag me all the way out here,’ I grumbled as we trudged up the main driveway towards the front of Arbuthnot Lodge. The sky was low and black and a dour Fife smirr picked at our faces. I tilted my face against it and scowled. ‘Remind me why I’m standing in this Godforsaken hellhole.’ I was, it must be owned, not in the best of humours — a predictable consequence of removing me from the comfortable environs of the capital.
‘You know why,’ Ealasaid said. ‘Because I would have no hope of gaining entry on my own. I need your good name, Wrayburn. Befouled and besmirched as it may be.’
She was not wrong. It took the invocation of my — or rather my father’s — name and title to allow them to negotiate the Cerberus that was the house’s head butler (a humourless and calcified snob as typical of all his class). But they were led into a cramped and damp drawing room with as much churlish ill grace as Cerberus could muster.
‘Do you think he locked us in?’ Ealasaid asked when the door had been closed upon them.
‘I wouldn’t put it at all past him,’ I said as I searched, without success, for some kind of refreshment about the room. Eventually, I gave up and threw myself disconsolately into an armchair by the unlit fire. ‘God, it’s grim,’ I said, before looking at Ealasaid and demanding, ‘it is, isn’t it? It’s not just me?’
‘No,’ Ealasaid said. ‘It’s not just you.’
Lady Jane Arbuthnot entered the room. She was a slightly built woman, with wispy blonde curls and delicate, nervous features that had, nonetheless, an inner fierceness to them. Ealasaid could see what might have attracted Gilmerton to her. She glowed like a daffodil in a rain shower.
‘My dear Mr Wrayburn,’ she said, offering her hand. ‘You cannot know what a surprise and a delight this is,’ Jane said. ‘I am a great fan of your work. Particularly your last volume of sonnets. Such beauty, sir. Such insight.’
‘You’re too kind, my lady,’ I said.
‘That’s remarkable,’ Ealasaid said dryly. ‘I didn’t think anybody actually read you, Wrayburn. Save for those barroom dissolutes you muck around with.’
Jane turned her gaze on Ealasaid. ‘And who is this?’
‘This, my lady, is the reason for our visit. This is my friend, Miss Ealasaid Doonean, and she has a request to make of you.’
‘You both have a great deal of explaining to do,’ Gilmerton thundered as he followed us down the hallway of his townhouse towards its drawing room.
‘Really?’ Ealasaid said. ‘You engaged me to solve this matter and that is what I am doing?’
‘By breaking into people’s homes? By purloining the personal property of the dead?’
‘You employ me to contravene the laws of eternity itself and yet you quibble over a few locks? That sounds more than a little preposterous, if you don’t mind my saying.’
They entered the drawing room where the lamps and fire had already been lit. Ealasaid pointed to the dining table at the back of the room.
‘I’ve already set up over there,’ she said, ‘so if you’d like to take your places.’
We gathered around the table upon which were laid a black velvet cloth embroidered with silver symbology, two silver candlesticks, with their candles already lit and some burning incense, and some various other mystical paraphernalia. It was little more than window dressing, designed to fulfil client expectations and little else, and I could see that it had had the desired effect on Jane at least.
Gilmerton and Jane took their places at the table, and after a few moments, we joined them. Ealasaid instructed us to join hands and we did so. I slipped my fingers into Jane’s and gave what I hope was a reassuring squeeze, almost imagining the fluttering terror beneath her soft fingertips.
‘What happens now?’ Gilmerton asked. His customary expression of sardonic contempt had, if anything, increased. ‘Because, if you don’t mind me saying so, this all seems rather, um, Gothic.’
‘I don’t disagree,’ Ealasaid said. ‘But it’s what you wanted so you can’t start carping about it now. But essentially now you sit here and keep your mouth closed. You don’t say a thing and you don’t break the connection, no matter what happens.’
The words were spoken in a mish-mash of Latin and Gaelic and again didn’t necessarily mean all that much. It was the force behind them, the invocation, that was the real point. I recall Ealasaid telling me once of one operator who had just used gibberish of his own devising and had claimed that it had still been successful. But she spoke her improvised incantation quickly, fluently and with a guttural conviction. And while I had been expecting something, the force of what happened next still took me utterly by surprise.
This was not my first possession in Ealasaid’s service but it did have to rank as one of the most unpleasant. I started as she suddenly convulsed, her back arching unnaturally and she gasped and groaned, as if the breath were being violently forced from her. And then a single word escaped from lips, in a painful, rasping voice that was entirely unlike Ealasaid’s own.
And then she was on the floor, thrown violently from the chair and breaking our little circle. I hurried to her side, with Gilmerton and Jane at my heels, and gently lifted her head from the pool of her own sticky bood-vomit pooling around her cheek.
‘Are you alright?’
She waved me away. ‘Well,’ she rubbed her cheek which I had seen hit the table hard on the way down. There would undoubtedly be a bruise. ‘She’s very direct in her expression, isn’t she?’
If Jane had looked terrified before, she now looked ready to flee the building altogether. Ealasaid gave her what she hoped was a reassuring smile, although she was aware that she probably looked too awful to offer much in the way of comfort.
‘Don’t worry. It’s fine.’
Jane said nothing, clearly unconvinced.
‘What happens now?’ Gilmerton said. Despite the drama of what had just taken place, his eyes were glittering with excitement, a mania bordering on arousal.
‘Now you two clear out,’ Ealasaid said. ‘Let me get prepared for next time?’
‘Next time?’ Jane said, clearly alarmed.
‘Of course. We’ve got precisely nowhere with this affair as yet.’
‘Clear out?’ Gilmerton said. ‘You want us to leave?’
‘Just for an hour or so. Caroline clearly wishes to play rough, so I have to too. That will require some preparation. I suggest you take Jane for a spot of late supper and meet me back here in an hour or so.’
‘But couldn’t we?’ Jane began, ‘couldn’t we just do this another evening? I mean, when she’s less … angry?’
‘Angry is good,’ Ealasaid said. ‘It means she might let her guard down. And I’m afraid this is a single-evening engagement as far as I’m concerned. We do this tonight or not at all.’
After a few more desultory protests, we managed to get them out the door. I found Gilmerton’s brandy and gave Ealasaid (and myself) a generous measure.
‘Alright,’ I said. ‘What happens now?’
‘I’m not sure. I’m still thinking.’
‘Because Lady Jane is right. That spirit did seem rather angry.’
‘No,’ Ealasaid shook her head. ‘Not angry. Terrified. The chances are that of all the people in this room, Caroline is the most terrified of all. And I have no intention of leaving her in that state.’ She drained her brandy and set the glass down. ‘Come on, let’s take a look around.’
The bedroom was furnished in the same expensive but overly fussy fashion as the rest of the apartment but upon lighting a lamp Ealasaid found signs of a previous, darker, existence. Indentations on the carpet pointed to some long-standing heavy items that had since been removed. And four smooth squares of fresh plaster upon one wall also suggested something large and heavy had once been affixed there. A rack, maybe.
Ealasaid placed her hands on the squares, closing her eyes and murmuring softly in another of her homemade incantations. I hovered behind her, fully expecting another violent display of the kind we had just witnessed downstairs but none came. Instead, Ealasaid stepped back from the wall, her face vaguely troubled, pained.
‘Everything alright?’ I asked.
She frowned and loosened her dress, with a disregard for my presence or gaze. Despite the speculation that undoubtedly went around town about us, our relationship had never been a physically intimate one, although I cannot deny that in its early days it wasn’t a thought I hadn’t periodically entertained myself. But there was no temptation on seeing Ealasaid’s pale flesh now, partly from the context but mostly from the candy-stripe of wide, fresh scars across her torso.
‘I’m assuming those weren’t there before?’ I said.
‘Of course not. These are a gift from Caro. You recall the autopsy report.’
I did and suddenly back in the Doric with Ealasaid, discussing its unpleasant contents.
‘Significant scarring. Suggesting the removal of narrow strips of flesh, a good inch in width.’
‘Strips. He carved into her. Peeled her like a piece of fruit.’
‘That’s not the worst of it. We’re talking layers of scar tissue here. He did it once, waited for it to heal and then did it again. And again. There’s evidence of old bone fractures and other legacy injuries too.’
‘Gods. No wonder she killed herself. Couldn’t take it anymore, I shouldn’t wonder.’
‘So, what are you going to do?’
‘What I always do. What I have to.’
‘Alright,’ I said now. ‘What next?’
Ealasaid moved towards the bed. ‘I rest. I’m going to need my strength for what lies ahead.’ She looked at me. ‘You’ll watch over me?’
‘You can rely upon it.’
‘Good. Wake me when Gilmerton and Jane are here.’
Gilmerton and Jane returned shortly afterwards, neither looking any happier than when they had left. Ealasaid led them back into the drawing room. I had cleaned up the mess left by the first abortive attempt to contact Caroline and Ealasaid had altered the configuration of the items on the table. Another heavy, black velvet cloth had been laid out, this one with an ornate protection circle woven in silver thread upon which she had laid a long silver dagger with an ornately carved handle.
‘Are you sure you want to do this again?’ I had asked as I watched her lay out the items.
‘I think we’ll be alright.’ Ealasaid looked at me. ‘When I woke the scars were gone. I think an agreement has been reached.’
‘Yes, but at what price?’
‘What’s all this?’ Gilmerton asked, as we resumed our places around the table. ‘Expecting trouble, are you?’
‘Let’s just say I’m not taking any chances this time,’ Ealasaid said. ‘Now, if you’d like to take your places, we can get on with this.’
The invocation went a lot more smoothly this time and it was only with hindsight that I realised just how heavy the air had been with Caroline’s angry presence before. We had been told to back off in no uncertain terms and even Ealasaid had missed it. But this time, the words flowed and there was no drama, no violence. In fact, I hadn’t been sure if anything at all had happened until a gasp from Jane made her realise that Caroline herself was standing at the other end of the table.
It never failed to amuse and sometimes irritate me at how wrong people’s perceptions of apparitions often were. It’s a phenomenon I blame solely on Buchanan’s lurid romances. True spirits neither glow, nor are they particularly ethereal or transparent. They have a solidity but it is one that has little objective reality about it. Rather they are a blank presence upon which the viewer projects their own particular memory of the deceased. Thus my Caroline was probably markedly different to what Jane was seeing now, which in turn would bear little relation to what Gilmerton was experiencing. It was a phenomenon truly in the eyes of the beholder.
I was relieved to see Caroline wasn’t moving, or making any kind of threatening gestures. Or perhaps she somehow knew that to do so with the protection circle invoked would be a very bad idea. Ghosts can’t speak and are no longer capable of much in the way of reason. They are creatures of instinct, of raw emotion. Which was why they often threw stuff about the place, being driven by frustration and grievance. A ghost is little more than a tantrum of the soul, Ealasaid once told me. But there was little of the tantrum about Caroline’s current manifestation. She just stood there, sorrowful, but expectant.
I became aware of Gilmerton looking from Caroline to Ealasaid and for once he looked pale and rattled. ‘What’s she doing?’ he whispered.
‘Waiting,’ Ealasaid said.
‘Waiting? For what?’
She picked up the knife and thrust it into Gilmerton’s side in one swift, fluid motion. Jane gasped, already too terrified to scream. Gilmerton looked at Ealasaid with what was initially surprise, but which quickly turned to rage. But if he had been intending any violence, he did not get the chance because now Caroline, finally, made her move.
It’s not possible to see a possession taking place but if it were one would have now seen the raw energy that was Caroline flooding into the wound Ealasaid had created in Gilmerton’s midriff. Gilmerton’s back arched and his mouth contorted in a silent scream of agony. And now Caro’s form at the end of the table became more spectral and indistinct as it slowly streamed its way into Gilmerton’s body.
And then it was done. The figure at the end of the table was still there, but its form and features had transformed from those of Caroline Dempster-Fellowes to those of Oliver Ross Gilmerton. For a moment, it stayed still and then its face twisted with rage and it launched itself at Ealasaid.
Gilmerton’s phantom form hit the protection circle hard and the psychic explosion threw them all away from the table. I was sure she heard Gilmerton give a final scream of impotent rage before his ghostly form dissipated for good.
‘What happened?’ asked the person now housed in Gilmerton’s body. A young mind stared out from older eyes, glittered with the fear and the wonder of having a voice, and thoughts, and life, once more.
‘You’re getting a second chance,’ Ealasaid said. ‘Congratulations.’ She took a handkerchief from the pocket of her dress and began cleaning the possession knife of Gilmerton’s blood. ‘I’d get that seen to if I were you,’ she said.
Caroline looked down at the narrow, still weeping, wound, as if seeing it for the first time. ‘I really don’t feel anything, you know.’
‘All the same.’
‘Really I’m more concerned about how long I have got,’ Caroline said.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well … this body.’
‘Oh that. For as long as you like. Think of it as less of a possession and more of an eviction.’
‘Is he really … gone?’ Jane asked nervously, her voice hushed as she looked around the room, no doubt half expecting Gilmerton to come bursting out the walls at her.
‘For now. He’s scattered. Whether he gets any kind of cohesion back, well, that depends how determined he is. Or how angry.’
‘He could get pretty angry,’ Jane said.
‘Well, if he comes back I’m sure we can deal with it. There’s not much point worrying about it until then.’
‘So, what do we do now?’ Caroline asked.
‘You go and you live,’ Ealasaid said. ‘But if you could do it somewhere else, I would be greatly obliged. Because I consider my duties here to be officially at an end.’
The three women left the house, with Ealasaid locking the door behind her and handing the key to Caro.
‘It is miraculous,’ Caroline said, gulping in the cool night air through a delighted, thankful grin. ‘I cannot thank you enough.’
‘Please don’t even try,’ Ealasaid said. ‘Although you will, of course, be receiving my invoice through the post.’
‘Which will be gladly paid I’m sure,’ Jane said. She slipped her arm through Caroline’s. ‘Now come, let’s attend to your injuries and then I’m sure we shall have much to discuss.’ She looked at Ealasaid. ‘You’re more than welcome to join us, Miss Doonean.’
‘Thank you, no,’ Ealasaid said. She looked at me. ‘I’m sure you must be positively burning for a drink and just this once I think I shall join you.’
‘It will be my pleasure,’ I said.
We watched Jane and Caroline disappear into the fog-shrouded Edinburgh night, no doubt in a daze as they contemplated the new directions their lives had suddenly taken. The night was cold and misty but also fresh and new and as they departed none of them paid any attention to the pale, barely perceptible vortex swirling in the window of the darkened townhouse, or saw how it was slowly attempting to form itself into something recognisable. Something vaguely man-shaped.