02 November 2009

Curse of the Other World, part two


Sarah's computer was surprisingly modern. For someone who had lived in a world of dry old books, archaic rituals and superstitious folklore, Peter thought her choice of computers was at first surprising. The machine was entirely contained in a large, flat screen and sat on a small table in the corner of the room, where Peter thought most people would likely keep a television. A keyboard, with the lettering wearing off the keys, and mouse sat in front of the screen. A battered dictaphone, a mobile phone and an iPod that had clearly been dropped a few too many times were the only other things on the table.

Sarah felt for the power button and turned on the computer. A few moments later, it asked her, in a clear but slightly artificial fashion, for her username and password. She typed quickly, and the screen flickered; settling on a hugely magnified arrowhead.

'Wow,' said Peter, from the sofa. 'How can you see anything with the mouse that big?' He could have kicked himself the moment the words left his mouth, and tried to cover his own sense of embarrassment by continuing talking. 'Doesn't it get in the way?'

Sarah shrugged. 'You get used to it. Give me a second and I'll bring up the article.'

He waited while she found the website for the local newspaper and brought up a story to show him. Despite himself, Peter could not help but be amazed that she could use a computer so easily. He felt ashamed of himself for it, her loss of sight had not accompanied a loss of intelligence, but part of him, at the back of his mind, still expected her to be some frail and helpless young woman who needed his help. She would tell him he was being an arse, and she would have been right.

'Ah,' she said, sounding triumphant. 'I think this is it.'

She tapped a few keys. The computer read out the article's title, in the same clear mechanical tones. 'Strange lights accompany disappearances in Coxton.'

'Yes, this is the one. Do you want to read it or listen to it?'

Peter read the article. Listening had never been one of his strong points. As a student he had always preferred textbooks to lectures, and after he left university this preference had solidified even further. Given a choice between a medical journal and a conference, he would take the journal any day. Text fitted neatly into his mind. It could be filed away carefully, matched with other information like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Give him a lecture to focus on and his mind would simply wander.

He sat down at the computer and zoomed the screen out. The text shrank to a more manageable size. He began to read.


By John Phillips, Regional Correspondent

Thirteen squatters disappeared from the famous Coxton Hall amidst a weekend of strange lights over the famously haunted town.

Local residents began complaining of strange noises and lights in the sky above Coxton Hall on the evening of Friday 16th May at around nine o'clock. Bethan Gilbert, 78, called the police complaining of “a loud banging from underground” and “deafening screams like a wild animal was being slaughtered”.

Det. Sergent James McAlroy of Northumberland Constabulary told us: “We arrived at approximately 9:30PM following a series of reports of strange lights and noises coming from the property. We attempted to contact the Hall's residents but received no answer and we were unable to gain entry.”

Neil Roberts, 57, the landlord of the Coxton Arms watched the lights from his bedroom window and reported several periods of activity between 1AM and 8AM on Saturday morning. His wife, Mary, made several calls to the police to report “hideous screams”, “howling” and “chanting, like something from a horror film” in the Hall's south field. Police visited the Hall again after Mr Roberts spotted a group of hooded figures performing “some sort of ceremony” in the field, but found no evidence of anyone having been present.

Further reports of strange activity were recorded on Saturday night, with police visiting the Hall again. Det. Sergent McAlroy told this newspaper: “We received a record number of complaints about lights in the sky, loud banging and chanting coming from the area of Coxton Hall on the evening of Saturday 17th May, but found no evidence of any untoward activity in that area.”

The squatters were reported missing on Sunday afternoon when Kelly Marsted, 17, of Greenwood Terrace, visited the property in search of her boyfriend and discovered the Hall was empty. “The place is normally buzzing,” said Miss Marsted. “But when I got there it looked like a bomb had gone off. There was soot everywhere and the place stank of burned hair. I didn't see anyone else there.”

Northumbria Police are treating the disappearance of the squatters as suspicious and have urged anyone with information to call their dedicated case line.

Coxton Hall has been a regular home to squatters since the mid 1960s, when local coal baron George William Johnston died, leaving no clear heir to his fortune. The Hall fell into disrepair while Johnston's family fought lengthy court battles over the millionaire's estate, during which time the owner of the land on which the hall rests became clouded.

The Hall has been a regular host to folk legends and strange sightings, the oldest of which dates to the late seventeenth century when William Jennings Coxton, the infamous cousin of the then-Earl of Durham, built the Hall and was burned as a witch in its grounds soon after. In 1904, John Motson and his notorious occultist commune, the Friends of the True Lords of Earth, committed suicide en-mass in the Hall's main dining room.

In 2007, the Johnston family's ownership battles were finally resolved and the Hall and its surrounds were purchased by software tycoon James Pearlman. Mr Pearlman, 42, said of the missing squatters: “I've been no fan of theirs and I'm glad to have my property back, but I wish them no harm and hope for their safe return.”

Peter turned away from the computer and rubbed his face with his palm. He could feel himself turning cold and clammy. This could not be happening. Not now. He was just getting his life back together. There had to be some other explanation for it. There had to be.

Sarah looked over at him in that usual, not quite focussed manner of hers. He met her gaze, then looked away.

'Well?' she asked.

'There has to be another explanation,' he said, his tone embodying the bitterness he felt.

'I'd like to think so too. That's why I need to go there and have a look for myself.'

What exactly are you expecting to see? he wondered. Everyone else moved on, but not you. You want this, don't you? Why can't you put it behind you and get on with your life?

Because it hurt her. The thought struck him hard and fast. She had been there when David died. It may have been the last thing she ever saw. It had hurt them all, but of those who came out of that final encounter, she was the one who could never fully heal. The chance of the thing returning was always slim in his mind, but she had clearly believed it was a real threat. Could he deny her a chance to see that the world was going to be all right? What kind of man would he be then?

He took a deep breath, let it out slowly. His stomach was churning now.

'Peter?' Sarah asked. He realised she had been talking, but his mind had drifted.

'Sorry, what?'

'Will you come with me?'

Images of David's body, of the river of blood flooded into his mind and threatened to overwhelm him. Could he put himself through that again? All those months of pure hell had been almost too much. Could he put himself through all that again if she was right? He had never wanted any of this. Why could he not just be left alone? All he had ever wanted was to have a normal, quiet life.

If this is back, you won't get a quiet life. Nobody will.

It's up to you.

He sighed a deep, resentful sigh. If it was back, it had to be dealt with. If it was not, he could go home and get back to his blessedly dull existence. There was only one way to find out for sure which life he was going to get.

'Yes,' he said. 'But I never really had a choice, did I?'


'Mister Pearlman?' asked Sarah. The receiver creaked in her hand. She was gripping it too tightly. Nerves had always been her weak point.

Peter sat on the sofa and nursed his mug of cold tea. He should go and warm it in her microwave, but he seemed to lack the strength to move. Was it strength, or willpower? He was not sure. He was not sure of anything any more. The world had spun around him, leaving him grasping for any firm handhold he could get. It was better to just sit tight and wait for things to fall back into place.

Sarah felt for the seat beside him on the sofa. He had not heard her hang up the telephone. How long had he been drifting in his own thoughts? He checked his watch. Ten minutes had passed.

'Are you okay?' she asked.

He sighed. 'No,' he said. Honesty was the best policy.

She looked down at her hands, resting on her knees. They were deathly white except for red knuckles. He could see the veins in her wrists; all blue-green. Did she not have a single drop of melanin in her entire body?

'I know I'm asking a lot,' she said. 'You don't have to come if you don't want to.'

'I know,' he said. He reached over and took her hand in his. She held it tightly, her skin cold to the touch.

'What did he say?' he asked.

'The Police have finished with the scene. We can look around any time we like.'

Peter drummed his fingers on his mug. 'Okay. Let's get this over with.'

'You want to go now?'

'I'd prefer to get there and back before we spend more time fretting over it.'

Sarah mulled this over for a moment before nodding. 'Okay. Fine. I just need to get a couple of things together.'

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