(copyrighted material Caron Allan 2007)
Amy found herself a seat in a corner of the dining-room. She could hear the sound of trampling feet above her as the IPA crew – seven or eight people in all – were getting into their positions ready to start filming the start of the night’s vigil.
Suddenly there was the sound of a car horn from outside and in response, thunderous footsteps came down the stairs and raced across the lobby to the main street door. Talk about enough to wake the dead, Amy thought, annoyed by the disruption. Doors slammed. Feet pounded back and forth. A second or two later she heard voices, getting gradually quieter as everyone went upstairs once more. Here in the downstairs part of the hotel, the room again grew still around her, and she sat alertly, waiting, watching in the darkness.
The threads of her concentration had been broken by the disturbance. She felt edgy. Some part of her was afraid that every time she got settled and began to concentrate on her environment, a bunch of IPA crew-members were going to blunder in like so many untrained puppies and crash about and spoil things. The noise and sense of disorder they carried with them was astonishing given their occupation. It seemed inevitable that they would, if only for the sake of appearances, carry out at least a brief investigation in the dining-room after what Stephanie had told Jake and Steve—and Amy—earlier.
The room was pretty dark. A little light crept in at the terrace doors and was reflected by the mirrored wall at the back. The air smelled musty and disused in here, like an abandoned warehouse. Yet it was a room in regular use by large numbers of people. It was eerie sitting alone at a table in a large room full of empty chairs and tables dressed for a meal that no one would eat. Every piece of cutlery or glass gleamed with strange light. This whole experience would have felt a lot more comfortable if Stephanie’s staff had cleared all the tables before the vigils began. Amy longed to throw the windows wide and let some fresh air into the place. She felt like she couldn’t breathe. Something was going to happen, she could feel it lurking, gathering. The dining-room, with its sense of emptiness along with the dim reflections images in the dusty mirror, was peopled with enough ghosts already, before anything paranormal occurred.
There were sounds from upstairs, a loud voice exclaiming, no doubt Jake, followed by the sound of feet hurrying. She wondered if she was missing any excitement. She had reached the stage of the investigation she always termed ‘stupid o’clock’, mainly because after sitting alone in a dark room for almost two hours her concentration levels always dipped, and she would begin obsessing about her life with all its doubts and dissatisfactions.
Her mother’s voice in her head pointed out that sitting here like this wasn’t going to pay her bills – not now, not ever. And she didn’t have a plan, she didn’t have insurance, she had an overdraft she couldn’t repay, and her freezer was empty. More importantly, as her mother had pointed out to her on more than one occasion since the end of her relationship with Lyle, she also no longer had a boyfriend. No one to ‘take care’ of her. Which meant she was a dismal failure at life.
If she had any sense, she would walk out of here right now, drive back to her motel room, get some sleep and first thing in the morning drive all the way back to London and beg her former boss to let her have her old job back. She could say she had been ill, had a breakdown or something – she could get some counselling and be back at her desk first thing on Monday morning. Why the hell had she quit? The money had been great, she had the prospect of promotion after a year or two, she had fringe benefits, a nice office, parking, and last but by no means least, there had been Lyle Best – the sexiest man in a three-piece suit, now her ex-fiancé.
But this was stupid o’clock, and she didn’t have any common sense, so from sheer bloody-minded determination, she continued to sit where she was and wonder what she was going to do with her life.
Maybe even Lyle would take her back? He had loved her once, maybe it wasn’t too late? Maybe she could persuade him to give things one more try?
‘Oh God!’ Amy groaned to herself and leaned back in her chair, throwing her pen down on the table. ‘What am I going to do?’
She heard a sound. Just a plain ordinary, everyday sound. It came from right in front of her. It was a sound she could hear a hundred times a day and not think anything of it. But here in the darkened empty dining-room, knowing she was all alone, it was definitely a supernatural occurrence.
Someone had just cleared their throat.
Everything else left Amy’s mind. A quick glance round showed her absolutely nothing, just as she had expected. She concentrated her thoughts, her emotions, reaching out as she had learned to do, trying to communicate with whatever spirit or entity was out there. She spoke:
‘Hello? Is there anyone here in this room with me? If you would like to speak with me, I’m ready to listen.’
She spoke quietly but clearly. She hoped she sounded confident but not arrogant. Too often, in person or on television, she had seen the brash way investigators marched into someone else’s space and started to lay the law down or make demands. All too often, any paranormal event made them flinch and shriek or startled them into bad language. Amy had lost count of how often she had thought, it’s that mouth of yours that cost you any findings, spirits don’t expect someone to barge into their sphere and then start mouthing off, it’s just so – wrong. That kind of rudeness seldom got the results they hoped for with spirits from an older, more mannered era where f-words were few and far between, and definitely not socially acceptable.
She waited for a few moments. When nothing else happened she added,
‘If you can’t speak to me, you might be able to make some other kind of sound. Maybe you could try something else?’
Almost before she had finished speaking a candle on a nearby table fell onto its side. The sudden sound almost made her jump, even though she’d been expecting exactly that sort of thing. It was an encouraging sign. She nodded her approval.
‘That’s great,’ she said, enthused. ‘Can you stand it up again?’ And whilst she waited, she fished in her bag for her small torch. Finding it, she clicked it on and focused the narrow beam on the candle. Although the torchlight was weak, she could clearly see the candle rolling to and fro on the tablecloth.
‘You almost got it that time, keep trying, this is excellent!’ she said. An idea came to her – she should be recording this! She felt annoyed with herself for forgetting such a vital aspect of the investigation. She tried to find her phone in her bag but it was hiding. Reluctantly she had to take her eyes off the candle and concentrate on finding her phone.
Finally she found it. She selected the video-record mode and held up both the torch and the phone, jiggling them until she had both in a firm hold and the light was directed on the candle.
The candle was once again upright in its holder. It stood there, proud and steady, in the centre of the table.
‘Wow!’ Amy exclaimed involuntarily. ‘That was amazing! How did you do that? You really had to concentrate hard on that, which shows you have tremendous strength. Is there any way you could show me again?’ Hearing herself, she cringed. I sound just like one of the other group, she thought.
Obligingly, the candle fell over, and as Amy watched, it seemed to wobble and roll about on the table, twice rising a short distance up in the air before falling back again.
Just then, the door from the hallway burst open and four people entered, a cameraman and a boom-mike operator entering backside-first into the room. A powerful beam of light played across Amy’s face, blinding her momentarily. As she turned, she saw the IPA guys beyond the beam of their torches, and out of the corner of her eye she just saw the candle as it eased itself back into an upright position for the second time. Amy let her arm drop but the beam of the IPAs torch illuminated her phone.
‘Sorry to bust in on you, sweetheart, I guess you’ll need to go outside if you want to text your boyfriend. It’s just that we’re trying to run an investigation here, and we need to come into this room now.’
It was Jake. Of course, she thought, why am I not surprised?
She was angry, and got to her feet, ready to argue her right to stay, but as soon as she stood up, she had a strong sense of all the energy draining from the room. Immediately the room felt hollow, like an empty shell. Who, or whatever, she had been communicating with had now left. Which made everything okay.
‘Fine. See you later. Good luck with your investigations,’ she said sweetly. She saw that Steve the Nice Guy was watching her closely as she put her torch and phone away then hitched her bag onto her shoulder. He wasn’t fooled. She winked at him as she went past on her way to the door, only to collide with a tall dark figure in the doorway as she did so.
‘Oh excuse me,’ said the voice, a pleasant female voice, a deep contralto. The medium, Amy realised. That was what the car horn had been all about. Her arrival. They always brought in a medium on these night-time investigations. Not the same person each week, although the format of the show was always the same. The medium would arrive blindfolded to make it clear to the audience at home that they were doing a ‘cold read’ from the venue, and had not been tipped off in advance with any vital information. Which on some shows they often were, Amy knew, though she wasn’t too sure about the IPA, they seemed genuine enough, if somewhat inept and very annoying.
‘Sorry,’ Amy said. ‘My fault, I wasn’t watching where I was going.’ She continued on into the hallway.
In the lobby she stood for a few seconds debating where to go next, and as she stood there thinking it over, a slight sound behind her made her turn, and even before she saw him, she knew it was Steve.
‘Hi,’ he said. ‘I’m really sorry about crashing your investigation. That’s kind of the way they expect to do things in the IPA. They always think they’re top dog.’
‘It’s okay,’ she told him, thinking it was odd that he said ‘they’ instead of ‘we’. ‘Whatever was in there has gone now anyway. I’m just trying to decide the best place to go next.’
‘Sure. Um—what about upstairs? We kind of skated through pretty quickly, but I think there could be something interesting up there. Um, did you video anything on your phone?’
She looked at him, assessing him. Was he to be trusted?
In the end she was saved from making a decision: Noisy Boss appeared in the doorway and said to Nice Guy:
‘Yo Steve, we’re burning daylight here, if you can spare some time from playing footsie with your girlfriend, I’d like to remind you that we’ve got an investigation to run.’
Jake, clearly fancying himself as the star of their big Stateside show, disappeared back into the dining-room, grouch-lines etched deep between his eyebrows. Steve hesitated as he looked at Amy, clearly torn between duty and a promising lead.
‘Trouble in Paradise?’ Amy asked sweetly. Steve frowned at her and turned on his heel and went back into the dining-room. Through the open door she could hear Jake snarling,
‘And where’s that goddamned psychic got to? Considering what we are paying her, you’d think she could manage to turn up on time once in a while!’
Interesting, she thought, the medium had been there a second ago. Amy headed for the stairs.
The staircase was old. It was panelled at the side, and the newel posts were elaborately carved. Although the wood was dark, Amy didn’t find it oppressive, and the carvings were of pleasant images, fruits and leaves, flowers and birds, instead of the usual gargoyles and monsters of Gothic-inspired craftsmen. The handrail was very smooth, worn by generations of hands sliding over its surface. In the dim night-light, the polished wood gleamed softly.
She hadn’t really noticed it earlier but now she saw that the staircase had been the living heart of the Old Mill and an essential part of its history. In her mind’s eye she saw the continuous coming and going on the staircase that was the building’s life – generation after generation of workmen, businessmen, salespeople, customers, office workers, guests, not to mention the people who had stayed in the building more recently as hotel guests, the army of cleaners, chambermaids, receptionists, catering and waiting staff, all running up and down these stairs. The stairs were the artery that fed the old building its lifeblood. Nothing would happen in this building without its impression being left here, imprinted in the very fabric of the place, in the wood that was now under her feet and surrounding her. She felt warm and relaxed, at home to an unusual degree. She put her foot on the bottom step.
Amy began to climb but didn’t make it beyond halfway up the stairs before being enveloped by a sense of oppression. She felt as if something was pushing down on her head, her neck, her shoulders. She found she had an almost irresistible urge to turn and run back down to the lobby. To safety, her mind said.
‘Are you there?’ she asked softly, looking about her and adding, ‘Can I help you? Do you…?’
But there was no time to finish what she was saying. She felt a sudden onslaught of anger rush over her and the sharp sound of a voice snarling ‘No!’
Then, just as abruptly, Amy had a sense that the something or someone had gone, completely gone, and the oppression lifted and she ran lightly up the remaining stairs, pausing with relief in the wide-open area at the top of the stairs. She turned to look back down, puzzling over what had just happened.
A door opened nearby, not by ghostly but by mortal hands, and the tall figure of the medium appeared, a powerful torch in her hand. She saw Amy and began to draw back into the room with a murmured apology.
‘It’s okay, I’ve only just come upstairs. I’m not doing anything,’ Amy called. ‘At least, I did just have a kind of weird experience as I was coming up.’
‘Really? What happened?’ The medium came over to join Amy and they both stood looking down the stairs. Amy quickly told her. In the semi-darkness she saw the medium’s eyebrows lift and she nodded.
‘Interesting! Kym Carpenter, by the way. I’m their tame medium.’ She held out a hand. Amy shook it.
‘Nice to finally meet you. I’m Amy Harper. I’m their two-bit rival. Um – I think they’re looking for you, actually. Noisy Boss seems a little cranky. They’re in the dining-room. I thought I saw you there a moment ago?’
‘Noisy Boss? You mean Jake? They are pretty loud, aren’t they? And yes, he usually is a little cranky! I just had to step out for a moment. Okay, well, I’d better go see what they want. I think you should have some success up here, there’s definitely something here. Maybe in that second room on the right.’
‘What about that room you just came out of?’ Amy asked, convinced she was being diverted from something good. Kym just laughed.
‘That’s the bathroom! Too much coffee!’ And she went downstairs.
Amy checked. She opened the door of the room Kym had just exited. The soft murmur of water in pipes and the gleam of porcelain made her back out of the room with a smile. It was a bathroom!
Amy stood for a moment to get her bearings, trying to remember which was the room where she had spoken to Analina. She knew it was on the right somewhere, a short way along the corridor. And Kym had suggested she try the second door.
But when she drew close to the second door, it didn’t seem quite far enough along the corridor though she still wasn’t completely sure. As she went on a little further to the third door, that seemed a better fit with her memory.
She reached out to touch the handle, and as she did so, she felt a sudden chill and a shiver stole through her body. All senses alert, she halted and looked around her.
There was a figure, shadowy, to her left, a little behind her. Amy turned right round and stepped back against the wall. The figure was already fading, and all Amy could really discern was that the shadow seemed smaller than the one she and Analina had seen earlier that day.
It was gone, leaving Amy with just the vaguest impression of size and shape. She was convinced it was not the same shadow she had seen before. She waited but nothing else happened, so she stepped up to the third door again, turned the handle and taking a deep breath, went inside the dark room.
That was the bit she always hated – stepping into a dark room – she knew it was simply the fear of the unknown and that once she got in there she would be fine, but that moment between gripping the handle and entering the room, when she had no idea what might be there waiting behind the door in the silence. She didn’t like the uncertainty of that little aperture of time.
A veiled moon slanted a shaft of light in at the window, catching everything in its path and turning it silver and black. The rest of the room seemed even darker by comparison, and Amy stood by the door for several seconds, waiting for her eyes to adjust so she could make out the interior of the room. Her torch stayed in her shoulder bag; she’d only use it if absolutely necessary.
She could make out the general shapes of the twin single beds ahead of her, the window of course was easy, the wardrobe, the dressing-table with its mirror. The tall rectangular frame of the door the led to the en-suite bathroom. She went across to the door and opened it, adding a little more light to the room. The bathroom itself was all white porcelain and empty air.
Turning back, she now saw an armchair near the window, drawn up to a little round side-table. That would be perfect. She crossed the room to make this her vantage point. She settled herself in the chair and waited, looking around for any clues to what might be going on in this place. After a few minutes she began to ask the usual questions, but even as she asked them, she knew there would be no response. She felt so strongly that there was nothing and no one in the room apart from herself.
After twenty minutes or so, she decided to go back next door to the room Kym Carpenter had suggested.
The curtains were shut in this room making the room so much darker. Leaving them closed, Amy left the door from the hallway standing open to let in a little light, and as before, she crossed the room to open the door to the en-suite bathroom, to let the light in from there too. These actions gave her enough light to see the contents of the room and putting away her torch, she saw the room was a mirror-image of the one next door. She went to sit on the chair by the window again. And she sat and waited.
This room felt different. Although it was dark, it was a warm, friendly darkness. Walking into the room had been like hiding under the bedclothes on a cold winter’s morning and having another five minutes’ snooze – it was comforting, enveloping, reassuring.
Amy tentatively began to ask the usual questions, was anyone there, would they like to speak to her, if they couldn’t speak, would they like to make some other sound, or possibly move something. The room was heavy with a sense of expectation, of interest. When she tried to describe it to herself, she felt it was as if the room was listening, waiting, getting together the courage to make itself known.
But nothing happened. For an hour she persisted, alternating listening with speaking, allowing plenty of time for a spirit to respond. In the end she decided it was time to move on. But at the door, on an impulse she couldn’t explain, she turned and said, as if reassuring someone:
‘I’ll be back tomorrow night. Think about what I’ve said. If you change your mind, you can talk to me tomorrow night. I really want to help you. Bye for now.’
She closed the door gently.
Now. There was one place left that she wanted to check out. Analina had told her about experiences when cleaning on the third floor, particularly room 303. So it seemed a logical choice to make that her next port of call.
The worst thing about her newly-chosen career, she thought as she picked her way up the first few stairs, was the ever-present danger of tripping over something in the dark and hurting herself. Health and safety was a nightmare in the paranormal investigation industry. She giggled a little as her imagination ran through a series of mental images of white-coated men with clipboards tsking with disappointment over her unsafe working conditions as she battled through dark, obstacle-filled rooms calling out ‘knock twice for yes, once for no’. She stopped on the stairs trying to get her giggles under control so she could get on with the next task.
Immediately an angry thought came into her head, almost as clearly as if it had been spoken aloud: ‘This is no laughing matter.’
Sobering at once, Amy said out loud, ‘Who said that? Show yourself!’
Suddenly a black shadow rushed at her. She leapt back, shocked, and slipped down three steps before she managed to clutch at the handrail and stop herself, her strangled cry of surprise still hanging in the air as she nursed her wrenched ankle. Taking a minute to regain her composure, she looked over her shoulder back up to the top of the stairs to where she felt the entity was waiting.
She stood up, leaning on the handrail for support. She tested her ankle. It hurt but it was okay. She thought she could manage.
‘Now look what you did!’ she snapped, looking up, her chin high, determined to hold her ground. ‘That’s not a very nice welcome for your guests. I want an apology!’
There it was. The dark angry shadow she had seen with Analina only that morning. This shadow was in a whole different league to the other, much smaller and less intimidating shadow. This one oozed menace, brooded, and even as she watched it, it seemed to grow a little. Amy could feel waves of fury coming from it, directed at her, at anyone, trying to drive away not just Amy but anything it encountered.
Determined to provoke another reaction, Amy stood her ground, fixing all her attention on the shadow. It was a form of spirit, she knew, but just not as strong as the usual kind of passed-over spirit people associated with conventional ghostly hauntings.
‘I’m not afraid of you,’ Amy said softly. ‘I’ve seen your kind before. You think you can bully people into doing whatever you want, just as you did in life, I’ll bet. But I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. I’m the one in charge here, whether you like it or not.’
Behind and below her she heard the sound of running footsteps and inwardly she groaned. The IPA crew! Perfect.
Sure enough a girl and a guy carrying cameras and sound equipment were hurrying backwards up the steps towards her as they filmed the two main IPA investigators arriving on the scene. Behind them, Amy could also see Kym, fixing eyes bright with interest on Amy.
As Amy turned back towards the entity, the shadow rushed at her for the second time, and a wave of air, as hard as a physical impact sent her falling back again, and this time she fell onto her backside, momentum causing her to slam the back of her head into the paneled wood of the stairwell. She lay on the floor, stunned for a second or two, but aware that somewhere, about a million miles away, male voices were excitedly asking,
‘What in hell was that?’
Resisting the urge to curl up and go to sleep, Amy opened her eyes to find Kym kneeling over her. There was a sound of rummaging in a bag followed by a click then a shaft of light piercing her eye, causing her to yelp and recoil. The beam then shone in her other eye and Kym said,
‘I don’t think you have a concussion.’ Then, ‘I trained as a nurse in my previous life.’
‘What happened up here? Tell us exactly what’s been going on, starting from the moment you left the dining-room,’ Noisy Boss Jake demanded. The young girl with the mic pushed it close into Amy’s face. Amy groaned as the pain flashed through her head.
‘Speak to the camera,’ Jake urged.
Amy tried to move, but Kym motioned to her to stay put. Kym said,
‘She’s not able to tell you anything right now, she needs to get somewhere more comfortable although really, I’d be a lot happier if she went to the emergency room.’
‘I thought you said she was okay?’ Jake snapped.
Kym snapped back, ‘I said, I didn’t think she had a concussion, which is not the same as saying she’s okay. In any case, kindly remember that Ms Harper is not a member of your team, so you can’t tell her what to do, and she has no obligation to share any information with you at all. Her only obligation is to her client.’
‘Well,’ Jake said in an I-told-you-so voice, ‘Her client is actually my…’
‘…our,’ Steve chipped in.
‘…our client. So she needs to let us know everything she has discovered up to this point.’
‘If you share all your discoveries with her, I’m sure Amy will be happy to share hers with you,’ Kym pointed out mildly.
There was a long silence. Then Jake said,
‘This is ridiculous. Let’s get back to what we were doing. Are you coming?’ He addressed this last part to Kym. He might just as well have told her to pick a side, or to say who she wanted to be her best friend.
‘No,’ Kym said. ‘Amy needs to go to the emergency room. I’m going to take her there right now. We’ll catch up later.’
‘Now look, we’re paying you to assist us…’
‘Yes well, I don’t think anything else is going to happen here tonight.’
‘Oh really? What, your spirit-guide gone on strike or taken a vacation or something?’ Jake sniped.
Kym gave a weary sigh. ‘I told you before, Jake, I don’t have a spirit-guide. This is just a gut feeling. It’s my professional opinion. I’m telling you, it’s over for now. Now, if you still want my help, I can meet up with you at dinner later tonight and let you have my report. It’s up to you. But right now, I’m taking this woman to the hospital.’
Jake looked like he wanted to say more but in the end he made a frustrated sound and turned on his heel, snarling, ‘Women!’ as he stalked away. Steve and the others followed after him.
Kym helped Amy up. Amy leaned on her and together they went slowly down the last few stairs and headed for the lobby.
‘Shadow person?’ Kym asked.
‘Hmm,’ Amy said, her hand pressed against her forehead.
‘Same as the other one? Or a different one?’
‘Different. Bigger. Really, really angry. Able to speak in my head. Powerful. He knocked me down.’
‘Oh my God!’ Kym said, impressed. ‘He?’
They got to the front door and paused. Kym asked, ‘Got anything to collect?’
Amy had been about to shake her head then thought better of it, opting instead for less-demanding speech.
Outside the cold air of the pre-dawn night hit them and Amy felt partially revived.
‘Could you just take me back to my motel room? I don’t want to go to the hospital.’
‘Well, I don’t know…’ Kym was doubtful.
‘You said you didn’t think I had a concussion.’
‘Yes, again to clarify, I said I didn’t think you had a concussion. Does anybody listen to a word I say? You need to get checked out.’
‘I just want to go back to my room and lie down. I’ll be fine, I just need to rest.’
‘Okay, but if you die before lunch, just don’t come back and haunt me, okay?’
Amy was helped into Kym’s car. Kym shoved Amy’s coat and bag onto the back seat and got in and started up the engine. In a sudden panic, Amy sat bolt upright and said,
‘What about my car?’
But Kym was already reversing out of the parking area.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll persuade one of the IPA guys to bring it back to your motel later.’
‘It’s the motel near the dual carriageway,’ Amy said. ‘But I can’t remember the name of the place.’
‘It’s okay, relax. There’s only one motel. We’re all staying there. Now stop getting yourself all worked up, or you really will make yourself sick.’
Amy apologized twice and said thank you three times, then settled back and they drove the remaining distance in silence. When they reached the motel, Kym ran around and helped Amy out and got her stuff. She held the bag whilst Amy rummaged in it and finally found the key to her room and also the key to her car which she handed to Kym.
‘Do you need any help with anything like undressing or – you know, anything else?’ Kym asked, a delicate wrinkling of her nose indicating she was hoping for a negative. Even with the pain, that made Amy smile.
‘No, it’s okay. I’m just going to kick off my shoes and that’s it. Except – could you get me some water and some painkillers?’
Kym could and did. Five minutes later she softly closed the door behind her and went back to her car. Amy was already lying on her side, sleeping peacefully.