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The Haunting of Dr Jacobs

A ghost story for Christmas

I haven’t, in truth, known Dr Irwin Jacobs for very long. I would stop short at calling him a friend because I don’t honestly believe he has anyone he could apply that title too. While appearing outwardly friendly, in reality, he struck me as a very self-contained person; a very private man who only very reluctantly reveals anything about himself.

   I first met him in Llandudno in North Wales at a conference on The Study of Personality Disorder. It was organised by SANE, the mental health charity and was attended largely by medics and psychiatrists and others involved in the provision of mental health services. I was there as a freelance journalist with an interest in mental health, having written on many occasions about how destructive it can be to families and relationships.

   I literally bumped into him at the hotel bar where he was sitting on a stool staring gloomily into a gin and tonic. I rather clumsily managed to spill his drink which he was about to sip. I naturally apologised profusely and immediately offered to buy him another, but he waved the offer away.

   Dr Jacobs has a rather Teutonic face; startling blue eyes, a square jaw and a firm mouth that is not given to smiling. His thinning grey hair sits above a furrowed brow and a sallow face. We shook hands and I apologised again.

   I sat on a stool next to him and introduced myself. I am Dominic Howard, quite well known in my chosen field by mental health professionals, even if I do say so with a degree of modesty! After we concluded the introductions, I asked him about his practice. He immediately became quite animated and went into some detail about the problems some of his patients present. It was, however, punctuated by nervous glances around the room, his eyes flickering from side-to side as though expecting a friend or colleague. I looked around but there were just other delegates standing in small groups in earnest discussion.

   ‘Are you expecting someone,’ I said, standing up, preparing to leave.

   ‘No, No,’ he said, placing a hand on my arm with a look that invited me to sit. I did so. ‘I thought I saw a cat,’ he muttered, almost under his breath.

   I stared at him. ‘A cat?’ I repeated looking around the bar.

   ‘I’m allergic to them,’ he said by way of explanation, looking around furtively. For some reason I did not believe him but why would he lie about something like that? Our conversation then turned to topics to do with matters of the mind. It ended with us exchanging contact details. As a journalist I have always found it useful to collect people who are experts in their fields and for all his odd behaviour, Dr Jacobs did appear to be highly knowledgeable. We shook hands and parted.

   That was a month ago and I have been busy writing a feature on stress at the workplace, a subject close to my heart, when I routinely look at my email queue and there is one from Dr Jacobs inviting me to call round for supper. To say that I am surprised would be an understatement.

   I note that Dr Jacobs lives at Bedford Square, which is not that far from my apartment at Ridgemount Gardens, near the University of London. I reply saying that I would be happy to call round. I am curious, more than anything else, to see what life is like at Bedford Square. I note his address is not an apartment!

   The door is opened by a man formally dressed. He asks me to identify myself and ushers me into a small but comfortable room to the left of the front door. I take it he must be a butler or manservant. I am astonished that they still exist in the 21st century.

   Five minutes later he returns and invites me to follow him to a plush, but rather austere lounge. Jacobs is standing near an open coal fire. He steps forward and we shake hands. He treats me to a rather watery smile and waves me into an expansive easy chair. The Butler, who he addresses as James, is standing nearby awaiting instructions. Jacobs orders two whiskies.

   I gaze around the room. It is slightly Edwardian; not quite Victorian but fussy in that everything obviously has its place. Along one wall are shelves full of tomes. I am always fascinated by bookshelves; what treasures are hidden away there, I wonder, and I am sorely tempted to explore, but I don’t. Instead, I look at Jacobs who is staring around the room furtively.

   ‘Do you hear anything?’ he asks softly.

   I listen. There is just a heavy silence which is interrupted by James bringing our whiskies. I stare at him. His face could be made of stone. It is set and expressionless as he sets our drinks down on occasional tables.

   ‘I am informed by cook Sir, that dinner will be served in 30 minutes,’ he announces in a monotone. Jacobs nods in acknowledgement and James glides out of the room.

   ‘I didn’t hear anything,’ I inform Jacobs, ‘apart from the occasional car passing outside.’

   ‘You didn’t hear a laugh,’ he asks, looking at me closely. I shake my head, puzzled, and enquire why he asked.

   He stares at a corner of the room. This is a strange house,’ he says. ‘Once the servants have left, I can’t help feeling that there are other people here. I can hear them. Mutterings and laughing, sometimes all night long. There is a cat too. I have no idea how it got in here but I see it every night, lurking in corners.’

   I look around the room and then say breezily that there is no sign of any cats now and then ask him how long he has lived at Bedford Square.

   ‘It was bought by my grandfather,’ he says, relaxing a little. ‘We have lived here for three generations. Both my father and grandfather were medical men. I am the only one to practise psychiatry.’

   ‘Did you never marry,’ I ask a little hesitantly wondering if he might be offended by such a personal question.

   He frowns and replies that he did but that his wife died suddenly just two years after they were wed.  ‘It was toxic shock. She died in just two days of the bacteria taking hold,’ he says quietly. I have been alone ever since.’

   Suddenly, James appears to announce that dinner is served so we follow him into another spacious room with a dining table in the middle with seats for ten people. There are two place settings at one end. The room is mostly lit by candles, two candelabra on the table and two meagre wall lamps which together manage to cast ominous silhouettes on the walls.

   Dinner passes in a gloomy silence and it is with some relief that we eventually rise to leave the maid to clear away the dishes. We return to the lounge which is also poorly lit with just two small wall lights.

   Jacobs walks over to a cabinet and holds up a bottle of Martell. I nod and he pours two large measures and returns to his seat by the fire. He begins a conversation about psychiatry and the unusual symptoms displayed by his patients. I listen with interest as he describes Clinical Lycanthropy.

   His patient involves a delusion that he can transform into an animal. It is often associated with turning into a wolf or werewolf; the name of the syndrome originates from the mythical condition of lycanthropy or shapeshifting into wolves.

   ‘The patient genuinely believes he can take the form of any particular animal and during delusional periods he can act like the animal.’

   He goes on to talk about another patient who suffers from Alien Hand Syndrome which is characterized by the belief that one’s hand has its own life. Individuals experiencing the syndrome have normal sensations but feel their hand is a separate entity: The affected hand has its own agenda. This syndrome may occur in individuals who have damage to the corpus callosum, which connects the two cerebral hemispheres of the brain.

   All very interesting but I notice that while he is talking, he is casting nervous glances around the room. He notices that I have almost finished my brandy and offers a refill and when I accept, walks over to the cabinet which is in a half light.

   As he uncorks the bottle, I fancy I see a shadow to his right which appears to be bending over him. He suddenly starts and shouts ‘No, no, go away, damn you,’ waving his arms wildly. He steps back and glances in my direction.

   ‘Forgive me,’ he says. ‘That was not intended for you.’

   ‘I thought I saw a shadow,’ I say looking around the room. ‘But it may have just been a trick of the light.’ I smile a little uncertainly.

   ‘She is plaguing me,’ he mutters taking a large gulp of brandy.

   ‘Who is?’ I ask.

   ‘A patient of mine who died about a year ago. In fact, she committed suicide,’ he says with a finality I find rather strange.

   I begin to think of what excuses I can conjure up to escape from this place with its sepulchral atmosphere. Did I imagine that shadow? Did he? Has this gloomy dump somehow infected his subconscious into making him believe he is haunted?

   Just then there are measured footsteps in the corridor outside, becoming louder as they approach the door. We both stare at it, and then they stop just as suddenly as they started. The door handle turns slowly twice and then stops.

   ‘Is that the butler?’ I ask, but his face is white. ‘Why doesn’t he come in?’

   ‘The servants have gone home,’ he replies quietly twisting his fingers around in his lap.

   I stand up and walk quickly to the door and wrench it open. There is nobody there but for some reason my eyes are drawn to a dark patch by an occasional table with phone directories on top. I can see two yellow eyes staring at me malevolently. They become larger and larger and begin moving towards me and I swiftly return into the room and slam the door behind me. I lean against it and then slowly walk back to my chair and sit down.

   ‘What did you see?’ he asks softly.

   ‘I thought I saw a cat,’ I say, shaking my head. ‘I have no idea who the footsteps belonged to though because there was nobody there.’

   I decide it is time to go. I stand up and thank him for his hospitality. He also stands and we both walk to the door, a little warily in my case. The hall is eerily silent as we walk down its length. He opens the front door and I step outside. I turn and thank him again but just before I walk away, I ask. ‘Are you going to be alright?’  He doesn’t reply. He just closes the door silently.

 

It is two weeks since my eerie supper with Dr Jacobs and I have managed to put him to the back of my mind. I am about to file a story for the Telegraph when I feel my mobile phone vibrating. I stare at the screen. It is Dr Jacobs. Why on earth is he ringing me? I click answer and am about to ask how he is when he asks me if I could round to Bedford Square later. He sounds strange. His voice has a rasping quality and is slightly tremulous. I reluctantly agree.

   I ring the bell and wait. Nothing happens. I ring it again. There is still no sign of life. I am about to walk away when the door half opens slowly revealing Jacobs. I stare at him in astonishment. He is unshaven, his jacket is open, his shirt half undone but it is his face that startles me. It is gaunt. His eyes are bloodshot.

   He slowly opens the door wider and I walk in with some trepidation. When in the hall I ask him where the butler is.

   ‘He left,’ he says. ‘He said he could no longer tolerate the things that go on here and just walked out’

   I am about to say that I could hardly blame him but don’t. Instead, I follow him into the lounge where the curtains have been drawn back to fill the gloomy room with daylight. It looks no more inviting than it did at night. He walks over to the drinks cabinet and offers me a whisky. I decline with a shake of my head. It is just 10.00am.

   ‘What has happened to you?’ I ask indicating his open shirt and generally unkempt appearance.

   ‘I can’t sleep,’ he says. ‘It won’t let me. I get no peace, none at all.’ He glares around the room. ‘Very soon I imagine cook will leave and then God help me. I have no idea what I will do.’

   It is on the tip of my tongue to say that he will have to do what most other single men do; cook for themselves or eat out, but I don’t.

   As he talks, I find myself looking at the door. I have no idea why. It might have been a movement that caught my attention, I’m not sure, but then as I look, the door handle begins to turn very slowly in one direction and then in the other. I stare at it in dreadful anticipation at what might be on the other side but the door remains closed.

   Jacobs has walked over to the window and is staring at the street outside. ‘Is there anyone else in the house?’ I ask.

   ‘No, just us,’ he says, turning around. ‘Why do you ask?’

   ‘I thought I saw the door handle turning,’ I say. He simply shrugs and turns back to the window. ‘Why have you asked me here Dr Jacobs?’

   ‘You have some idea of what I am going through,’ he says. ‘You know it is not the result of a fevered imagination or hallucinations. I just want someone to record what I am going through.’

   ‘There must be a cause though,’ I say. ‘Do you have no idea why you are being persecuted. There has to be a reason.’

   ‘I think it may be the result of a fixation my former patient entertained about me,’ he says staring at the other end of the room. I follow his gaze and there just by the door is a large black cat, its yellow eyes staring, unblinking. There is something malevolent about it.

   ‘Get away from me,’ he yells, throwing a book at it. But the cat has vanished.

   ‘It is always here,’ he growls. ‘It watches me day and night. There is no respite. I can hear it growling wherever I go.’

   I am standing a little way into the room near the fireplace which is unmade. There are half-burned documents in the grate. Jacobs has resumed staring out of the window so I bend down and grasp the two pieces of paper. I hastily stuff them in my pocket and as I do, I hear a dry chuckle in my right ear. I start backwards and almost fall over an occasional table. He turns around and asks if I am alright. I tell him I lost my balance.

   ‘All I would ask you do is to make a record of what you have heard and seen here,’ he says. ‘My colleagues in the profession will be interested that my experiences have been verified by an independent witness.’

   ‘Surely they will be interested in the likely cause as well,’ I say. He turns back to the window.

   ‘That will be a matter of some debate I imagine,’ he says quietly.

   I take my leave of him. He doesn’t offer to show me out so I make my way down the hall half expecting some horror to emerge from the shadows, but there is just an ominous silence.

   I cross the road and look back at the house. I can see Jacobs in the window staring gloomily at the sky and then I look more closely. Standing behind him and slightly to his left is another figure, the figure of a woman, an old woman with a pinched face and a shawl around her shoulders. She is staring at him malignantly. I continue staring for perhaps a minute or two until the figure gradually fades from view. I make my way out of the square back to Ridgemount Gardens.

   I had forgotten about the pieces of paper I found in Jacobs’ grate. I take them out of my coat pocket and lay them out on the table. The top halves are unburnt and one appears to be a bank statement belonging to a Catharine Bancroft. There are just three items visible, all withdrawals totalling £100,000. The other is a letter addressed to Jacobs saying that he had been granted Lasting Power of Attorney for Ms Catherine Bancroft. The rest of the letter is burnt. I assume she is or was a patient of his. Why, I wonder, has he attempted to destroy them in the grate? Then, another thought occurs. Could she be the patient he referred to?

   I decide to go online and see what a Google search reveals. The first is a news story in which police are appealing for information about Catharine Bancroft, aged 78, who vanished a year ago. I read the story. It seems she told a neighbour she was going to a local shop in south London and was never seen again. The neighbour is later quoted as saying she was devoted to her cat which had also disappeared. It was, apparently, a large black cat which she doted on. It was always with her. I stare at the photograph. There is no doubt about it. She is the spectral figure I saw standing behind Jacobs. And the cat I saw was no doubt hers too.

   The second news story that comes up is five years earlier in the Daily Mail saying the actress Catherine Bancroft was retiring from the stage after a lifetime in the theatre. It seems she was a regular in West End productions. It goes on to list many of the shows she appeared in.

   So why would she be haunting Jacobs, if indeed it was her I saw? And why did he say she committed suicide, if indeed it was Miss Bancroft he was referring to? The inescapable conclusion, given the documents I found, is that Jacobs was somehow involved in her disappearance but I find that difficult to believe. He may be a little odd but an eminent psychiatrist like him murdering and stealing from a patient is difficult to believe. Surely not. There must be another explanation.

   But if she weren’t murdered, what could have happened to her? Suicide is simply out of the question. A well-known actress like her taking her own life would have been certain to have made the headlines.

   I scroll through the other news items in which Catherine was mentioned but the headlines get smaller and the stories shorter as time goes on and there is no trace of her. There is only one story in which Jacobs is mentioned and that was when he revealed that she had been a patient of his for some time. No significance appears to have been attached to that.

   I decide that I can do no more but I write up my research and file it away thinking that if Catherine does re-appear there will be story in it. I put Jacobs out of my mind and immerse myself in more pressing matters.

   It is just a week later when I am sitting in a coffee shop sipping a cappuccino reading the Guardian when my mobile rings. I sigh and am minded to ignore it. I value my thinking time and interruptions are annoying. I glance at the screen which is saying ‘Dr Jacobs’. I really do not want to visit him again in that creepy house of his but I decide to answer and make an excuse, if indeed that is what he wants.

   I click on it and listen but all I can hear is an odd subdued, whispered, muttering. I keep saying ‘Dr Jacobs, are you there’ but there is no answer, just the muttering and a strange, rather eery rustling sound.

   Then, suddenly, there is scream which is so loud I almost fall off my chair. The two people sitting at the next table glance at me curiously as I hold the phone away from my ear. When I listen again there is just absolute, total, silence. Then I hear a sound that chills me to the bone; it is a sound I last heard in a butcher’s, the unmistakable sound of flesh being sliced. I rush outside and hail a cab, telling the driver to take me to Bedford Square.

   I stand looking uncertainly at the door. What am I going to find behind it? Perhaps I should have rung the police first, but then if nothing gruesome has happened despite the scream, I would look foolish. For all I know Jacobs might have just been having a fit of hysterics. Having said that my instinct is telling me otherwise.

   There is no movement in the windows; no lights are shining; they just stare down at me ominously. I press the bell and wait. There is no response. I press it again and notice that the door appears to be very slightly open. I push it gently and it swings open very slowly as though by an invisible hand, revealing the cavernous, dinghy hall.

   I stare into its gloomy space. There is no movement, no sign of life. I suddenly have an almost overwhelming urge to walk away from this place but I know I must enter; something is compelling me to.

   I walk slowly, fearfully, down the hall. I call out to Dr Jacobs several times; there is no answer, just an oppressive, brooding silence. I reach the lounge and stare at the door. I want to turn back; what will I find in there?

   As I stand there transfixed, the door gradually opens of its own accord. I step hesitatingly into the room which is in partial darkness due to the curtains being slightly open. At first, I can see nothing in the gloom. I was expecting to see Jacobs in his armchair asleep but the two chairs are empty.

   It is only then I notice the smell. It is a sickeningly dry, sweet metallic scent on the verge of being pungent and slightly suffocating, mixed with the odour of burning.

   It is only when I walk past the first armchair that I see it. At first, my senses cannot interpret the scene that confronts me. I stare in open-mouthed horror at the carnage that lies before me. Bile rises up and I rush to a plant in the corner and throw up. I leave the room trembling, the scene etched into my mind.

   Jacobs, or what is left of him, was lying in the hearth in front of the fire which had been lit and which was casting a red glow on the room.

   Embers from the fire had somehow fallen on his chest and burned their way into him exposing a few ribs. He is lying in a pool of blood, but the most horrific sight is his face which has been shredded as if by a claw. One eyeball has been forced out of its socket and hanging down his cheek.

   I stumble to the end of the hall into the kitchen and pour myself a tumbler of water. I sit on a chair until my breathing returns to normal and my heart stops its wild beating. Something is telling me to return to the room. I walk to the doorway and there, in the centre of the room, is an elderly woman. I know immediately it is Catherine Bancroft. She is staring at me, tears trickling down her cheeks. At her side is her cat, also staring at me, its eyes no longer glowing. She raises an arm and points to the floor and they both slowly disappear.

It is two weeks later that police discover a body in the cellar. It was quickly identified as that of Catherine Bancroft. I had some difficulty persuading them to search the cellar without revealing that it was Catherine herself who pointed it out. The half-burned documents I produced persuaded them that it was a possibility that Ms Bancroft had been murdered.

   At the inquest, forensic scientists were unable to satisfactorily explain how Jacobs sustained such horrific injuries. An open verdict was recorded.

   Just two days later, I found myself wide wake at 2.00am. I glance at the window. I always leave the curtains half drawn to let in light. The moon’s rays cast a sombre light on the opposite wall. I stare at the windowsill.

   A cat is sitting there.

Chapter Four

Maggie

A Chinese watcher

Day 6

I wake up this morning yawning. I didn’t sleep well at all last night to which you will no doubt say that it is hardly surprising and that my conscience must be troubling me, but you would be wrong. It is not. I do not think about Graeme or his girlfriend. They deserved what was coming to them and they are history. But I am curious, I suppose, about what happened during the police investigation. I assume there was one. There would certainly have been a post-mortem, of course, and I would be interested in what the report on my ‘death’ had to say. I must go online and find out. It is almost certain to have been in the papers.

   No, that was not the reason for my insomnia. Curiously, I found my mind churning images of Chinese students staring at me with unblinking eyes, all mixed up with ‘Mr Hostility.’ Why does that guy bug me so much? What is going on with the students? Why were they all staring at me? Is it all in my imagination?

   While I think about it, you must be wondering about the hat pin concealed down my trousers. I must admit I don’t always include it on my anatomy, but then I don’t always wear trousers. It really stems from a previous life in Ireland before I joined academia when I mixed with people of a violent nature. More about that later. Anyhow, I quickly learned how to protect myself and, I can assure you that I earned a reputation of someone not to be messed with. The hat pin was ideal. It was easy to conceal and quite deadly when used carefully in the right places. And I can guarantee you that I know exactly where those places are.

    And now, although I live a completely different and theoretically safer life, I have taken to including it again because there are so many attacks on women on the streets of the UK these days. Have you noticed how many murders of women there are? It is truly shocking. We are not safe on the streets.

   Anyway, I am having a day off and have only recently discovered that Liverpool has a Tate on the waterfront in an old sugar warehouse. I was always quite good at art at school and my art teacher in Cork, which is where I grew up, at one time thought I might take it up seriously. But the beauty of mathematics has always been my first love, and at best, art would only ever have been a hobby.

   There are two exhibitions on now that are a must. The first is a Lucian Freud show, a slightly controversial British painter known for his portraits. I like controversial. It’s my middle name. I remember reading how he was a deeply private man who painted the people closest to him. What I always liked about his stuff was his ability to capture the mood and inner essence of his sitters. 

   The second, by complete contrast, is a gallery devoted to Emily Speed, a Scot, who explores how a person is shaped by the buildings they have occupied and how they occupy their own psychological spaces. It all stacks up to a really cool day in which I can forget all about university but not, perhaps, the Chinese. Let me explain why.

   I was leaving my apartment building at The Print Works on Henry Street in the Ropewalks this morning, ready to walk down to the waterfront. I stood at the doorway yawning hugely and blearily when I noticed a figure draped casually around a lamppost almost opposite. At first, I paid it no attention. The city centre is full of dropouts and rough sleepers, so it was no surprise to see people hanging about.

   I had decided to go for a coffee. I needed a good slug of caffeine before I did anything else and so I set off and then stopped and stared at the figure more closely. He was obviously not a rough sleeper or a drop out and, and more ominously perhaps, he was Chinese. Why would a Chinese person be perched on a lamppost studying my apartment building? I decided to go and ask him, so I dodged a couple of cars to cross over the road but when I reached the other side he had vanished.

   Was he really watching me? If so, why? Is it because I’m Irish? I know the Troubles cast a long shadow, especially here in Liverpool where there is a tradition of Irish emigres. Or am I just becoming neurotic and imagining things. Maybe it is my subconscious acting up and I don’t realise it. The students are probably just curious and nothing more and Mr Darke is no doubt just an embittered middle-aged lecturer who is going nowhere. I have met the type many times before.

   I sit at a table in my local coffee shop and sigh as I spread marmalade on a teacake and sip a large latte as I stare sightlessly out of the window idly people watching. My reverie is gradually broken as I am aware of someone standing at my table talking to me. It is a man, probably in his early twenties. I stare at him blankly hoping he is just on the scrounge and will go away when he gets no response. He stands there and stares at me. I realise he has stopped speaking.

   I realise he is not on the scrounge and sit up and apologise, saying I was miles away. He treats me to a lobsided grin and announces he is Joe Halsall and a post graduate student at Liverpool uni. He is saying he enjoyed my lecture on an introduction into Forensic Psychology and intends to do a Masters in the next semester.

   I look him over and smile. He is what my mum would have called scruffy, with a half-beard, uncared for and straggly, wild, uncombed black hair and an old pair of worn jeans that could not be confused with the designer variety worn by the smart set that have ready-made holes. Joe’s is undoubtedly the real deal. His most striking feature is startling blue eyes that are studying me curiously.

   I invite him to sit and ask him what his original subject was, and he replies that it was biochemistry and that he worked in the industry for a while but hated it and returned and did a degree in psychology which he enjoyed. I said that biochemistry could be useful in forensic psychology.

   ‘I had to get out of the corporate rat race,’ he explains. ‘They don’t like you if you don’t fit into their idea of what you should think, wear, or behave.’ He shrugs. ‘I got pissed off wearing a suit and a tie and all that bollocks.’

   ‘So I see,’ I say, smiling, noting that he evidently reverted to a student ‘uniform’ as soon as he possibly could.

   ‘Who the fuck wants to sacrifice their lives climbing a ladder to nowhere. To be successful, you must be a really good rat in some corporate race or other for maybe thirty years of your life, dreading Mondays, keeping up with the Jones’s and all that crap.’

   I burst out laughing. ‘Maybe that’s why I’m a lecturer,’ I say. ‘But this can be a rat race too, just a different kind of rat race. Maybe everything is in the end. Targets are everywhere, even in universities. Perhaps the only way of escaping it is to live in a cave and become a hermit.’

   It’s his turn to laugh. ‘I have a friend called Naomi who has the right idea. She’s an artist…among other things,’ he adds almost as an afterthought. She is on her way here. You’ll like her. She’s really cool.’

   I am intrigued by the ‘among other things’ which opens up a vista of possibilities. I look at the street beyond the window to see if there are any Chinese students lurking, or anyone else for that matter. There is nobody, just cars and vans passing by. I am about to stand and announce that I am on my way to the Tate when I notice a striking, slender, woman obviously heading for the door. Could this be Joe’s friend Naomi?She is tall with casual, shoulder-length blonde hair wearing a denim jacket, bright red jacket and brown boots.

   ‘Could this be your friend?’ I ask Joe, who turns and waves. She heads for our table and looks at me curiously with two brown eyes that have a strange, magnetic, quality.

   ‘This is Naomi,’ says Joe and then, before he can continue, she asks: ‘You must be Maggie Taylor.’ I nod, a little bemused.

   ‘Somebody stopped me outside and asked if I would give you this.’ She digs into a pocket and hands me a folded sheet of paper.

   ‘Was he Chinese?’ I ask. She gives me a searching look and says: ‘Don’t think so. Could be a student. I’m not sure.’

   I open it. There is just one line of text which says: ‘We know who you really are.’

Chapter Fifteen

Admiral Street Police Station, Liverpool

Monday October 29

It is a typical November day; a thin drizzle and a piercing wind from the north penetrating everything. It is the sort of day that is not calculated to lift the spirit, and DI Salisbury arrives at his office in Admiral Street Police Station in a dejected frame of mind. 

   The case is not going well. In fact, it is not going anywhere, which is what he candidly told his superintendent late yesterday. Such news is not calculated to make a senior officer popular especially, as the super was at pains to point out, people who matter are asking critical questions about why Liverpool has had a particularly grisly murder and an attempted murder within days of each other. What is going on?  The Press are getting restless and asking questions. And they are not alone.

   Salisbury is also frustrated by having to mentor Steve Bannon and all too aware that the powers that be are watching him and how he deals with the intellectual, but arrogant, Bannon. The Force is enthusiastically recruiting graduates like him with the prospect of swift promotion, much to the disgust of colleagues who joined without a degree. Certainly, there is no doubt that Bannon is highly intelligent but in Salisbury’s experience intelligence is not always accompanied by common sense.

   Last night when he eventually arrived home only to slump in an armchair, his wife Yvonne watched him and leaned on the back of the chair, stroked his thinning hair saying: ‘Bad day luv?’ To which he replied: ‘I have a murder and an attempted murder to solve and an inexperienced, gaffe-prone, clever-dick sergeant who thinks he knows it all. What do you think?’ She smiled sympathetically. She has heard it all before. ‘Never mind, come and have your dinner. I’ve poured you a beer as well.’

   Salisbury has always been fair-minded, long before he became an inspector. He does not pull rank unless it’s necessary and he will only come down hard on subordinates if he suspects laziness, corner cutting or downright stupidity. He cannot accuse Bannon of anything like that.

   His mind turns again to the Parry killing. The forensic evidence, such as it is, is inconclusive. What indications and traces that were found do not match anybody on the Police database. The culprit or culprits have been exceptionally careful to leave very little behind, which leads Salisbury to the conclusion that he or they are professionals.

   The two women – Alex Nelson and Naomi Richards – are obviously connected and involved, even if they have no idea why and Salisbury is sure that Nelson knows more than she has admitted. Perhaps that will change following the attempt on her life. He must get Bannon to keep tabs on her. He is sure he will quite welcome that.

   An added complication is the Press, which now knows most of the facts surrounding Parry’s murder. It has propelled the case onto the front pages and has even reached the American and Canadian media. Add to that the attempted murder of Nelson and the bizarre way it was carried out, and it gives the media a field day.

   Salisbury is doing his best to keep the media away from the two women, but he doubts if he will be able to keep them in quarantine for much longer.

   His reflections are interrupted by Dr Clive Bixter, the head forensic scientist who marches into his office, closely followed by Bannon.

   ‘Morning Salisbury,’ barks Bixter, a 6ft 3in, grey-haired, stern, no-nonsense man of military bearing in his 50s with a thin pencil moustache who has a reputation for being something of a martinet by his colleagues.

   ‘What can I do for you,’ murmurs Salisbury: ‘The attempted murder of that woman,’ replies Bixter.’ He pauses to consult a clipboard. ‘Nelson?’ he says with a questioning look.

   ‘I thought you might like to know about the substance used and the ramifications that fall from it…being detectives.’ He turns and squints at Bannon who stares back at him rebuffing the put-down.

   Bixter continues unabashed: ‘I have consulted the pathologist, and we are agreed.  The substance used is Aluminium Phosphide or AlP, a common pesticide largely used in developing countries. It is cheap, effective and free from toxic residue.’

   He looks at the two detectives, but there is still no response, so he continues: ‘Since the first available report of AlP poisoning in the early 1980s in India, it is now one of the most common causes of poisoning among agricultural pesticides. Most of the cases reported are from India, while others are reported from Iran, Sri Lanka and Morocco, with case reports from many developed countries. I trust I’m not boring you?’ He throws another questioning look at Bannon who is staring vacantly unto space.

   Salisbury sighs. ‘Not at all. Do continue.’

   ‘Most AlP poisonings are of young adults from rural areas. In a recent scenario, it also poses a threat of chemical terrorism due to the immediate release of lethal phosphine gas.’

   Salisbury’s ears prick up. ‘Really. Now you are beginning to interest me, doctor. Do continue.’

   Bixter nods. ‘I thought it might. ‘Let us turn our attention to the symptoms?’ He studies his clipboard again.

   ‘They are largely nonspecific, instantaneous and depend on the dose, route of entry and time lapse since exposure. After inhalation or even injection, patients commonly have airway irritation and breathlessness. Other features may include dizziness, easy fatigability, tightness in the chest, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, ataxia, numbness, paraesthesia, tremor, muscle weakness, diplopia and jaundice.’

   ‘Quite a list,’ says Bannon throwing a glance at Salisbury. ‘Don’t be facetious young man,’ barks Bixter glaring at him.

   ‘As I was saying. the patient may develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), cardiac failure, cardiac arrhythmias, convulsion and coma, and late manifestation of hepatotoxicity and nephrotoxicity may also occur.

   ‘After ingestion, toxic features usually develop within a few minutes. In mild poisoning, nausea, repeated vomiting, diarrhoea, headache, abdominal discomfort or pain and tachycardia are common clinical features, and these patients usually show recovery, as is the case with the woman Nelson.

   ‘On the other hand, in moderate to severe poisoning, the signs and symptoms of the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, respiratory and nervous systems appear initially and, later, features of hepatic and renal failure and disseminated intravascular coagulation may also occur.’

   Bixter looks around. ‘I trust you are still with me?’

   Salisbury nods. ‘Just about.’

   ‘Now here is the really interesting bit,’ Bixter announces thoughtfully, putting a finger to his lips.

   ‘In my opinion a pro hired by a security or spy agency like the KGB or FSB, as it is known these days, is extremely unlikely to use a poison like this. Remember the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with Polonium 210, for example?’

   Both Salisbury and Bannon nod.

   ‘A state-backed hit team would have access to far more lethal poisons than Aluminium Phosphide. Ricin, for example, or our old friend cyanide.

   ‘No, what we have here my dear Salisbury are enthusiastic amateurs in the sense that they are not backed by any formal organisation with the resources to get more lethal material.’ He pauses, staring at them both, a half smile on his face. ‘But I could be wrong about that. It is entirely possible that they are state-sponsored, and they want you to believe they are amateurs. You pays your money and you takes your choice gentlemen.’

   There is a silence for a while as his remarks sink in.

   ‘I suppose that narrows it down to a few hundred two-bit murdering bastards that roam the streets,’ Bannon mutters.

   ‘Don’t be silly,’ barks Bixter. ‘Yes, they may well be murdering bastards, but they are very resourceful and organised murdering bastards. As you are finding out,’ he adds.

   ‘Thank you, doctor.’ Salisbury nods to him. ‘That has been extremely useful.’

   After he has gone, Salisbury turns to Bannon: ‘One day, your mouth is going to get you into serious trouble,’ he barks irritably. Bannon looks contrite. ‘Sorry guv…Sir,’ he says as Salisbury opens his mouth to rebuke him.

   Bannon attempts to make amends: ‘Well we do have one lead. We have the descriptions of those two guys in the pub.’

   ‘Yes, we do. But so far they might as well have jumped in the Mersey because none of our patrols have caught sight of anyone even resembling them.’

   He leans back in his chair and studies the ceiling for a while before looking at Bannon and saying softly: ‘I have a feeling that our primary task in the near future is going to be keeping those two women alive.’

Chapter Fourteen

                                              Naomi

Liverpool. Monday, October 29

It might sound a little odd, but in a way, I am not too surprised when the hospital rings. When I gave Alex a reading, I had a premonition that something unpleasant was going to happen, and probably to Alex, but I couldn’t tell her that. What these premonitions very often don’t tell me is ‘when’ or even ‘who’ at times.

   All the ward sister would say is that she has been poisoned which I must admit I think rather strange. Anyway, I jump in a black cab which happen to be passing on Rodney Street and make my way to the Royal – as it is known.

   When I arrive at Alex’s private ward, I am met by the ward sister and a constable sitting outside. I have to explain who I am and why I am there.

   The sister takes me to one side and says softly that there has been an attempt on Alex’s life by someone trying to give her a lethal injection on the street. I just stare at her askance. This is Liverpool. Things like that just don’t happen here. They only take place in the movies …don’t they?

   Then, when I see Alex, I am shocked. She looks terrible. She is drained of colour and looks like an elderly lady. She is asleep, so I nod at the sister who is looking on at the door to signify that I will stay until she wakes up.

   Hospitals are never really quiet. Even during the night, there is always a background clatter of trolleys, of people walking around, doors opening and closing and the muffled sound of people talking. In a way, it is comforting to hear the sounds of life rather than just the sound of Alex’s laboured breathing.

   Two hours later she stirs, opens her eyes and for a while stares at me unseeing until finally recognition dawns, and she whispers: ‘Naomi. You came.’

   ‘Of course, I have,’ I reply. ‘I was shocked when they told me what happened. I honestly couldn’t believe it. Is there anything I can get you?’

   She shakes her head and moments later mutters; ‘I wonder how long they are going to keep me in here?’

   ‘The sister seems to indicate it is going to be a few days.’ Then I put my hand on hers and say: ‘Alex, I don’t know how long you were planning on staying in Liverpool, but you can’t go back to that hotel given what has happened. How about moving in with me until you need to go home. I have a spare room with a single bed. You are welcome to it.?’

   She stares at me and her eyes well up with tears:

   ‘You’re a lovely person,’ she says. ‘Are you quite sure. I seem to be nothing but trouble. I don’t want to involve you.’

   ‘I’m already involved,’ I reply. ‘Remember I am the only one who has met and spoken to Parry so we can support each other, whatever happens. And apart from that, it will be nice to have someone to talk to.’

   She smiles, and mouths ’thank you’, and then, her face becomes serious, she tries to sit up:

   ‘I think that inspector wants to talk to you about those two guys in the pub. He seems to think it is all connected.’

   ‘I’m sure he’s right,’ I say.

   Then a thought occurs to me: ‘Would you like me to go to your hotel and check you out? There’s no point paying for a room you’re not going to be using.’

   ‘Good idea’. She motions to her bedside cupboard and asks for her bag. I hand it to her. She rummages in it and brings out her room key card and a credit card. She tells me the pin.

   We chat for a little while longer, and she looks brighter when I finally get up to go. ‘I’ll take your bag to my place, and then I’ll be back later.’

   When I’ve paid Alex’s bill, I make my way to her room. Once I’m in there, I have the uneasy feeling that I’m not alone. I search the bathroom, open the wardrobe door – both empty. But still.

   I check the door to discover if it locks properly. It does. Then I check Alex’s bag. It is a mess. Everything has been emptied out and just stuffed back in. I seriously doubt that Alex would be that untidy. Her clothes have been thoroughly searched; in fact, the entire room has been the subject of what looks like a professional’s touch who obviously didn’t care if it was noticed. And then a thought occurs – maybe they expected Alex to be dead.

   I pack it all up and make my way down to reception.

   ‘Has anyone been in Miss Nelson’s room,’ I ask politely.

   The girl looks at me nonplussed. She calls up the room number on her computer and says: ‘No, everything seems to be in order,’ and then she stops. ’Wait a minute a man called in yesterday and said Miss Nelson had asked him to bring her a notebook, so I gave him the room number. He was back in 10 minutes or so. Is everything all right,’ she says anxiously.’

   I sigh. ‘Yes. It’s fine. What did he look like?’

   She thinks for a while and then: ‘He was average height I would say. He was a thin face man with wispy hair. And. Oh yes, he had an accent. I do remember that because I couldn’t place it.’

   ‘Not French or German then?’

   ‘No definitely not. We get plenty of them here. And I speak both those languages. You have to in a big hotel like this,’ she explains reassuringly.

   When I get back to my apartment, Inspector Salisbury is waiting for me: ‘Glad I caught you. I wanted to talk to you about your visit to the pub with Alex.’

   ‘Yes, I thought you might, given what has happened.’

   He looks meaningfully at the suitcase. I glance at it and tell him that Alex is going to move in with me for the rest of her time in Liverpool once she is discharged from hospital.

   ‘I’m glad you’re here because I wanted to talk to you too. Alex’s room at her hotel has been searched and by one of the men at the pub.’ I give him a description of both men. ‘It was the thin-face one who searched her room,’ I tell him. ‘The receptionist was hoodwinked into telling him which room he was in. She will probably get into a ton of trouble if Alex complains.’

   ‘She also said he had an accent which she couldn’t place, other than confirming that it wasn’t French or German.’

   Salisbury has been taking notes, and then is silent for a while: ‘You know Miss Richards, this is a very serious situation. Whatever these people are searching for they are not going to be content until they’ve found it, unless we catch them first,’ he adds, almost as an afterthought.

   ‘Are you sure you have told us everything you know?’

   ‘Absolutely everything,’

   ‘I was with Parry for perhaps 20 minutes. I didn’t catch sight of whoever he was afraid of, and that was it.’

   Salisbury just nods: ‘Well, I suppose it makes sense for you both to be together. Decent of you to take her in though.’

   ‘It’s the least I could do.’

   ‘We’ll be in touch. Don’t hesitate to call,’ he says handing me a card.

   After he has left, I ponder on the strangeness of it. Why Alex, for heaven’s sake? The two men in the pub didn’t see her, or me for that matter, because we were both out of sight. So why try to kill her? It reinforces the feeling that there is something about Alex that is hidden. I can sense it and it troubles me. I can only hope that she will learn to trust me.

   As I lie there I suddenly ‘see’ death in the form of a black cloud. I shiver. I suddenly know, without any doubt, that I would soon have to move out of my apartment.

The next chapter of Poseidon will be published on Friday next week.

Chapter Three

Walk a Crooked Road

Day 2 – Later

Rathmines Garda Station, Dublin

Inspector Paddy McNeil stared at the sea of faces outside the police station. He knew the local lads but there were others he had never seen before. Word has got around that this is not some ordinary house fire and that there is more to it than the Garda are letting on to.

   They are right but he has a prepared statement and he is going to stick to it.

   He tells them that he will read a statement and that he will not be answering any questions.

‘Thank you all for coming. As I’m sure you know there was an explosion at house at Harold’s Cross Road in this neighbourhood yesterday. There has been speculation that it may have been a terrorist-related incident. I can categorically say that terrorism has been ruled out and that the explosion was gas related.’

   He pauses.

   ‘I can tell you that two bodies have been found in the house, one male and one female and that we are conducting enquiries to establish their identities. Neighbouring properties escaped the effects of the blast and there were no further casualties. That is all I am able to tell you for now. Thank you.

   And with that, as reporters shout out questions, he turns and walks back into the station.

Maggie

University of Liverpool, Peach Street

Day 5

It has been a heavy day. We have been preparing for graduations and adjudicating on exam re-sits for our second-year students. It will be the first graduations since 2019 because of the pandemic. It’s 5.30pm and I badly need a drink, so I decide to go to a pub on Catharine Street I discovered a couple of weeks ago, not long after the pubs re-opened fully. It’s just a short walk away and it’s a warm, pleasant evening. I tried to persuade one or two of my colleagues to join me, but nobody is free for an hour or two now. I didn’t even bother to ask ‘Mr Hostility’ who appears to have it in for me. His name is Harold Darke by the way. Darke by name and Darke by nature! I seem to recall a composer by that name from my days in a church choir. I was a useful alto then and it’s something I miss.

   Anyway, maybe Mr Darke has a problem with women, especially the attractive, intelligent variety which I flatter myself I am one of. It’s something I encountered in Dublin too. You really wouldn’t expect that in academia, would you? Or would you?

   There is something else that I find a bit odd too. Ever since I arrived, I could not help noticing Chinese students forming little huddles as soon as it became legal to meet more than six people again. There is nothing ominous in students getting together, of course. But as I walked towards them, they all glanced at me furtively and their conversation ceased. When I walked past them, I turned around and they were all staring at me. I thought at the time it was just a case of sizing up the new lecturer. Now I’m not so sure.

   I reach the Blackburne Arms and order a pint of Guinness and a packet of crisps. I like this place. It’s relaxing with a pleasing mix of academics and locals. I think back to getting my job so quickly. I guess I was lucky and in the right place at the right time. It seems a senior mathematics lecturer had died suddenly, leaving the faculty with a problem at a tough time. I was a gift from heaven and with my double First from Oxford as a calling card I think they would have taken me on even if there hadn’t been a vacancy. Did I mention my double First before? Possibly not. I occasionally suffer from an outbreak of modesty.

   I have never understood why anybody has difficulty with maths. It was something that always came naturally to me. They called me a genius when I was a little girl; I never really understood why because what I did was about as difficult as breathing. I was accepted into Oriel College when I was 14.

   I stare in the mirror behind the bar. I have a long, expressive face with a slightly upturned nose. It’s an attractive face, I think. I know men, and sometimes women too, also find it attractive. At least I no longer feel like a freak which I did until I got to Oxford. I hated my childhood. I was always alone, and I hated my parents too who I blamed for treating me like something from The Village of the Damned. They both died within days of each other when I was doing a post-grad teaching degree. I only went to their funeral because I was obliged to. I didn’t shed a tear and I left as soon as I could. I know my relatives were whispering about me and giving me furtive glances all the way through it, but I just didn’t care.

   I glance around the pub and spot a few people from college I have a nodding acquaintance with. We wave to each other and smile. One leaves a small group in the corner and sits next to me. She is also clutching a pint of Guinness. I know her name is Emma and that she teaches art at the city college at the end of the road.

   She asks how I am settling in. I nod sagely and say that I am finding my way around and that the only fly in the ointment is ‘Mr Hostility’ who seems to dislike me for no good reason.

   She asks if he is middle-aged and inclined to leer at females. I think about it, and she is probably right. He is. I did catch him once ogling my legs. She nods wisely and says that there is always one in every department. I ask if they ration them out and we both burst out laughing. She tells me not to be freaked out by him. I assure her that I am not about to be freaked out by anybody.

   I ask her if there are many Chinese students at her college. She shakes her head and says just a few and that it’s well known that they tend to target universities that teach the ‘hard’ subjects like maths and the sciences. She asks what my subjects are, and I tell her. She says that top universities like Liverpool increasingly depend on the Chinese for the fees they bring in.

   She says she must go and meet a boyfriend she is about to dump. I grin and wish her the best of luck. She is my kind of person. I like her candour. We agree to meet for a chat and drinks the day after tomorrow.

   I order another pint and sit at the bar lost in my thoughts. I suddenly notice that somebody has sat on the bar stool next to me. It is a man, middle-aged, thinning hair wearing a loose smile.

   ‘Not seen you before,’ he says brightly. I stare at him. Overweight, unfit, probably married and on the make. I have seen his type in bars all over the world. I call them barflies because they need to be swatted to persuade them to go away.

   ‘Can I buy you a drink,’ he says, moving closer.

   ‘Sure. A Jameson. A large one.’

   He orders it as well as a large whisky for himself. The drinks arrive and we sip.

   ‘Do you live around here?’ he asks hopefully.

   ‘I do yes,’ I say sweetly. ‘What about you?’

   ‘Oh, I’m in the suburbs. Are you new to Liverpool? From Ireland obviously. You must work around here. You can’t be a student,’ he says emphatically.

   ‘Why not?’

   ‘Well, you’re too…….’ He was obviously going to say old but thinks better of it.

   ‘Too well dressed,’ he ends up saying.

   I am beginning to tire of this chat-up nonsense. I down my Jameson and am about to stand up when he grabs me by the arm.

   ‘Why don’t we go to your apartment,’ he breathes in my ear.

   I extract a foot-long hatpin out of the side of my trousers where it is concealed in a hidden pocket. I look into his eyes as I slowly position it between his legs.

   ‘Why don’t you take a look down there,’ I say softly, nodding towards his crotch, my mouth wide open enticingly. He looks down and the smile melts from his face. He stares at me, disconcerted, and looks down again.

   ‘Unless you get up and walk out right now,’ I breathe into his ear: ‘that pin is going to pierce your cock and carry on going until it emerges from your arse. You won’t be the same man afterwards, I guarantee.’

   He stares at me, looks down at his crotch and goes pale, then the puzzlement gives way to uncertainty. He looks around the pub and just for a moment I get the feeling he might create a scene. I shake my head. ‘Don’t even think it,’ I murmur in his ear. He stands up and walks out without even a backwards glance.

   I wait a few minutes after replacing the hatpin, glance around the bar. One or two people give me a sympathetic glance. I smile briefly and walk out slowly.

   I am looking forward to seeing Emma again.

The next chapter will be published here on Monday, May 16.

Chapter Thirteen

The Poseidon Files

Liverpool city centre. Saturday, October 27

Alex has always been adept at following targets. She knows that, ideally, you should have a team of four or five to effectively keep track of someone, but as a lone investigator she has never had that luxury. There are many tricks though; like walking on the opposite side of the street or walking in front of the target and letting them pass or staying very close. It is a strange quirk of human nature that people rarely notice what is under their noses.

   Despite all that, this is the first time in her career she is aware that she may be the target. The incidence in the pub was enlightening. She was thankful for Naomi’s instincts. What would have happened if they had been spotted? The central question, however, is why? Why her? She never even met Parry so how could he have passed anything on to her?

   And who are ‘they’ anyway? Alex realises that it must mean that the files were not found when Parry was murdered. Why else would they be following anyone who has a connection with the case?

   She decides to walk to Naomi’s apartment from the Adelphi, so she turns left out of the hotel and walks up Renshaw Street until comes to the ruins of a church destroyed by the Luftwaffe in WW11. She stops to gaze at the poignant sculpture of a British and German soldier shaking hands, presumably on Christmas Day on 1914, before they play a game of football. She would have liked to go on to look around the church to breathe its atmosphere, but it is closed until the weekend. She makes a mental note to return. Out of the corner of her eye, she looks around to see if anyone else has suddenly stopped walking too.

   Nobody has.                                                                                       

   She glances to the other side of the road to see if anyone is keeping pace with her.

   Nobody is.

   Satisfied, she carries on up Leece Street and mingles with a group of tourists on their way to the Georgian Quarter and the Hope Street eateries. She knows she hasn’t got far to go; Rodney Street is just a block away.

   She is near the end of Rodney Street were a couple of buskers are performing on the pavement, one singing and the other playing a guitar. They are good. She smiles at them and is about to reach into her bag for a coin when somebody pushes into her, almost knocking her over and she feels something prick her arm. Within seconds she begins to feel dizzy and then she falls. She is dimly aware of people leaning over her and then there is just blackness.

Consciousness comes slowly. She is aware of bright lights and voices. There is something attached to her arm, and her head hurts. She feels sick.

   ‘How are you feeling?’ says a voice. It is a woman’s voice. ‘Terrible,’ she whispers. ‘What happened?’ ‘Just get some sleep,’ says the voice.

   Six hours later Alex regains consciousness. Her mouth feels like a tinderbox. She sees a carafe of water on her bedside table but cannot reach it. Then a nurse enters the room and helps her drink.

   ‘You’re in hospital. How are you feeling? You have been out for the count for most of the day.’

   A few minutes later a man enters her room: ‘Hello it’s Alex isn’t it?’ he says, sitting on the side of her bed. ‘I am Doctor Jacobs. You are a very lucky lady. You have two buskers to thank for getting here so quickly.’

   ‘I don’t feel so very lucky,’ says Alex weakly. ‘What happened?’

   ‘It looks like somebody injected you with a poison which could have been lethal,’ he says solemnly, gazing at her. ‘Fortunately, the leather inserts on the sleeve of your top, together with the wool, got most of it. All you got was a tiny, tiny amount. Anymore, and we would not be having this conversation.’

   ‘Are you saying somebody tried to kill me?

   He nods.

   ‘We are going to keep you in for a day or two just to keep an eye on you,’ he says. And then after a silence during which Alex feels a shudder mounting, he says: ‘The police are outside. Are you up to seeing them?’

   ‘For a short time. I feel tired.’

   ‘I’ll give them half an hour – no more.’.

   Shortly after, two men walk in. One comes up to her bed, pulls up a chair and sits down. He is burly, thick set with a round, beaming face but sharp, intelligent eyes. The other man, who she recognises as DS Bannon, remains standing.

   ‘Hello. I am DI Salisbury. This is DS Bannon whom I believe you have already met.’

   Alex nods.

   ‘How are you feeling?’

   ‘Sick and very tired.’

   ‘I daresay the medics have told you how lucky you are to be alive?’

   Alex looks at him: ‘Yes, it feels like my lucky day.’

   ‘Did you see whoever did it?’

   ‘All I felt was somebody shoving into me, followed by a small pricking sensation on my arm and then within seconds I started feeling dizzy and then I passed out.’

   Salisbury nods slowly. ‘Did you get a good look at your attacker?’

   ‘No, it all happened so quickly, but the two buskers may have.’

   ‘Yes, we will be talking to them when we find them. After calling for an ambulance and trying to give you First Aid, they vanished.’

   He stares around the room for a while and then: ‘Do you have any idea who it may have been or why he or they might want to kill you?’

   ‘I honestly haven’t.’  Alex wearily sinks back in her bed: ‘It must be linked to Parry’s murder, but I have no idea why. I never even met him. There is one thing though. I was in a pub with Naomi Richards at lunch time – yesterday, I think – I have no idea how long I’ve been here. Anyway, we were nicely hidden away in the snug when she glimpsed two men walk in. She quickly told me to duck, and they never spotted us. I asked her why afterwards and she simply said that she had a bad feeling. We think it is linked to Parry’s murder too. She was right because they were obviously looking for somebody. They didn’t buy a drink. Simply walked out.’ Alex doesn’t mention that she is being paid by the FBI. She has a feeling it is best to keep that secret for now.

   ‘You didn’t see them?’

   ‘No but Naomi did. Maybe she could give you a description. Also, the barmaid may well remember them.’

   The doctor put his head around the door. ‘Time’s up gentlemen,’ he says.

   Salisbury stands up. ‘Hope you feel better soon. ‘We will talk again when you are on your feet. Oh, and by the way, you are perfectly safe. We will have a uniformed officer stationed outside at all times.’ He smiles at her. ‘Take care.’

   Bannon has said nothing. He has just looks vaguely embarrassed. As they are walking out, he turns and gives her a thumb’s up. Despite feeling punk, Alex cannot resist a forlorn smile.

   Shortly afterwards the nurse asks if there is anyone they could ring for her – a relative or a friend perhaps. Alex says she will think about it.

   Alex mulls that over. Is there any point in telling Rogers? What would he do|? He would no doubt ask if she was still alive and since she is, he would simply put it in his pending tray and investigate it later. She doubts he would rush up to Liverpool to be by her side. He would probably be quite pleased about it because it means that she has trod in somebody’s toes and therefore she must be getting somewhere. She decides to send Rogers a text anyway a little later.

   The nurse returns and Alex says that her relatives are all in Canada and then she stops: ‘Actually, there is someone. Do you know where my phone is?’ The nurse finds it her bag in the bedside cupboard. You’ll find a number for Naomi Richards on there. I would be grateful if you could ring her.’

   Once the nurse has left Alex texts Rogers. Somebody tried to kill me. In hospital. Not long after a reply arrives. Are you OK? She replies. Yes, I was lucky. but why me? There is no response.

A new chapter of the Poseidon Files is published every Friday

Chapter Twelve

The Poseidon Files

Liverpool city centre, Saturday October 27

Alex is walking along Lime Street on her way to the world-famous Adelphi Hotel, a massive Victorian pile that dates from the age of elegance although, in fact, the building that stands there now is the ‘third’ Adelphi.  During the early years of the 20th century, the hotel became one of the main arrival and departure points for passengers on ocean liners, including the Titanic. The Adelphi was the most popular hotel in Liverpool for wealthy passengers before they embarked on their journey to North America.

   Alex has a friend in Toronto who had stayed at it quite recently and said that it had seen better days. Despite that, she is looking forward to meeting Rogers there who phoned her last night to announce he was coming to Liverpool. ‘About time too,’ she had muttered after his brief call.

   She climbs the steps up the entrance which has two coaches outside, one from Munich and the other from Amsterdam. She walks straight through reception and up another short flight of steps to a huge panelled lounge with glittering chandeliers and comfortable armchairs and coffee tables. Rogers is slumped in an armchair reading a paper.

   She stands in front of him. He peers over the top of his paper. ‘Miss Nelson,’ he declares, remaining seated. ‘I have ordered coffee, you want some?’ She nods. He continues staring at her. ‘Are you gonna sit down?’

   She sits as the coffee arrives. ‘So, what gives,’ he says. ‘Any progress?’

   ‘If you mean have I found the files? No, I haven’t but I have spent some time with the last person to see Parry alive. Now it’s just possible Parry gave them to her, and she has them and is just being cute. To be honest I doubt it, but I guess it’s possible.’

   ‘Who is this person?’

   ‘Her name is Naomi Richards and she is the psychic he saw before he was croaked back at his hotel.’

   ‘Why did he see a psychic for God’s sake?’

   ‘I have no idea. You’re guess is as good as mine. She says he seemed scared – terrified even – and that he might have just been using her to dodge whoever was following him.’

   ‘So, I guess it makes sense for him to give her the files. I see where you’re coming from. Good work. What do the cops think?’

   ‘No idea. I haven’t spoken to them. As far as they’re concerned, I am here to liaise with his family on behalf of HAARP. They don’t know I’m working for the agency.’

   ‘Good. Let’s keep it that way. Stay with the woman. Become her best buddy. She is the key to this. If she has the files, sooner or later she will do something with them. If she hasn’t, she may know who has. The files must be somewhere in this city. And finally, if we think she has them so will other people and she will become a target.’

   ‘I have to say Rogers that I quite like her. I just don’t see her as a criminal at all. She seems to me to be an honest woman.’

   Rogers snorts. ‘You aren’t here to like people. You are here to do a job. Stay focussed on that.’

   ‘Before you go there’s one more thing Rogers. What do you know about Poseidon?’

   Rogers sits upright, his face expressionless and Sphinx-like. He studies her. ‘Where did you get that from?’

   ‘It was in the notebook Parry left with Naomi. It also had all kinds of stuff about the weather in it as well as maths stuff, equations and so on,’ she says.

   ‘What happened to it?’

   ‘The Police have it as far as I know. Naomi said she gave it to them. What does it mean Rogers? I need to know. Give.’

    He stays silent for a few minutes staring at the ceiling, then finally he gives her a hard look. ‘OK, but this is classified. You talk about it to anyone, anyone at all, you go to jail. You hear me?

   Alex nods.

   ‘Ok. The military decided they wanted an alternative to war where our foes are concerned. Using nukes is not really an option these days. Imagine it, we drop the Bomb on Iran and we become an international pariah. Even the Brits wouldn’t talk to us. Add to that the American people are weary of body bags coming home so the military began looking for something else. And they think they found it. In Alaska. At HAARP.’

   Alex stares at him transfixed.

   ‘So, what the boys in Alaska have developed is a new way of throwing shit at people we don’t like. Imagine it. Tsunamis that drown them. Pollution that poisons them. Heat that fries them. You get the picture?’

   ‘I get the picture,’ says Alex softly.

   ‘Beautiful isn’t it,’ beams Rogers.

   Alex stares at him aghast. ‘It’s horrific.’

   Rogers snorts. ‘It sure is if you’re an enemy of Uncle Sam. That’s why the name Poseidon has been given to it. You know who he was?’ Before she can answer he continues. ‘The Greek god of storms, of chaos, of the sea. A real badass. The meanest of all the Greek gods,’ he says with a final satisfied chuckle.

   He stands up. ‘Anyway Miss Nelson. I have to blow. I’m off to London to talk with MI5. I’m glad you told me about the notebook. I shall be asking them to retrieve it and filling them in with what has been going on.’

   He stands up and stretches. At 6ft 6in he is not a man to be ignored. He stares around the room but fails to notice an inoffensive man sitting at a corner table not too far away. He appears to be immersed in his newspaper; his head bowed studying a page.

   Rogers looks down at Alex: ‘Stay with the Naomi broad and keep me posted. I should be back in a week or so and you can bring me up to date. But if anything breaks you have the panic number. Right?’

   Naomi nods. She is appalled by what she has just heard. No wonder they want the files back. She can imagine the outcry if it ever became public at what the US is planning. It would make the global environmental protests look like a tea party. A waiter approaches and asks if she would like more coffee. She nods dumbly.

   The man in the corner quietly folds his paper and walks out.

Chapter Two

Walk a Crooked Road

Maggie

Liverpool. A new life.

Day 2

I like Liverpool. It’s a vibrant city with friendly, outgoing people. Maggie Taylor is my new name by the way. I left the old one in Dublin which is where it will stay. Finding a job here has been fairly easy despite the Covid pandemic. Anyone with degrees in advance maths as well as psychology will not be unemployed for long and the University of Liverpool welcomed me into their maths department where they offer a range of BSc (Hons) courses. I also teach in their psychology department but most of my work is with maths students.

   I found a spacious and well-appointed apartment in the Ropewalks area. I like living in the city centre. It’s a pleasant change from the suburbs of Dublin. City dwellers are a different breed from the snobbishness and self-seeking that so often pervades the suburbs, with all it’s curtain-twitching and masquerading. There is none of that among us flat dwellers. Most of us are professionals, busy people who do not have time for such nonsense. I can also walk to work which is an added bonus.

   My colleagues in the maths department are a diverse bunch and I was given a cautious welcome by the majority after the mandatory PCR tests which came back negative. I would not have expected anything else quite honestly; the new kid on the block is always an unknown quantity. There was just one man who was openly hostile for reasons that escaped me other than he appeared to think that good looks do not equate with the teaching of maths. What utter nonsense! I suppose I should consider it a back-handed complement. I noticed one or two other male colleagues suppress smiles. They obviously do not have a problem with my appearance.

   I have no intention of changing anyway. I will continue dressing casually and brightly and if people want to admire me, so be it. In the first few weeks I have been here I have noticed my lectures are always well-attended. I would like to think that it is my enthusiasm for my subject rather than my looks is the reason.

   One of the things I have noticed is the preponderance of Chinese students. I would estimate that at least twenty percent are Chinese, and I understand it is the same in all the science- based subjects. Interesting. I wonder why?

   By the way, I must apologise if I startled you with my rather brusque statement that I had decided to murder my husband. I did not intend to shock, and I am sure that you will understand why it had become necessary. I really had no alternative. If I had gone to the police over my poisoning, he would almost certainly have got off because of lack of proof. He would have labelled me as neurotic, and no doubt explained away the theft of money from my account saying that he had my permission. It would have been his word against mine. He is not a literary agent for nothing!

  One thing I am absolutely certain about is that it would not have stopped him. Quite simply, he could not afford for me to divorce him. In time, he would have found other, possibly more exotic ways to finish me off. What you must understand is that Graeme was fundamentally a very lazy man and the thought of having to find a new source of income instead of the relatively relaxed and esoteric life of a literary agent must have been anathema to him.

   In fact, once I had made the decision it did not take long for me to make the appropriate arrangements. My biggest potential problem was arranging my ‘death’ and for that I needed to find a body. In fact, he or rather they, made it easy for me. I had a suspicion that he invited one of his girlfriends to the house when I was in downtown Dublin. So, one day, I waited in my car to see if anyone turned up. I actually smiled when I saw her. She was almost a carbon copy of me. I suppose I should have been flattered really.

   Graeme had brought home a bottle of Rioja the night before, no doubt intending to share it with this lady whose name, I later discovered, was Maggie Taylor. Yes, that’s right. I have become her.

   I found a quantity of Rohypnol at the back of the cupboard. I have no idea how it got there. I can only assume it was Graeme’s. I would not have put it past him to use a date rape drug. What I do know about it is that it is just about the most powerful sedative there is, about ten times more powerful than Valium. Anyway, I injected enough of the stuff into the bottle to knock out a horse. I decided to wait three hours once she arrived. That would give them enough time to polish off the bottle.

   I half expected them to be in bed when I entered the house. There was a strange silence. I at least expected music to be playing but there was nothing. I found Graeme on the floor in the kitchen. He was naked from the waist down. There was blood on the floor where he must have banged his head. It looks like he crawled there and then lost consciousness.

   She was on the sofa, naked. It looks like they had sex and were overcome shortly after. I studied her. She was the same build as me and the likeness was uncanny. It was a shame really that she had to die as well. Her handbag was on the table. I took anything that could identify her and replaced it all with the contents of my bag, including my cards and driving licence. I put my wedding ring on her finger and the engraved bracelet on her wrist. I left her on the sofa, legs apart as though Graeme had just finished with her. I am glad I have her driving licence. The photo will easily pass for me. All I needed then was her passport and birth certificate.

   My next task was to stoke up the fire so that a good flame was burning and then I went into the kitchen stepping over Graeme in the process. I had previously examined the gas connection to the cooker. The hose was attached with a jubilee clip. I loosened it slightly until I could smell gas escaping. It would not take long for the volume of gas to become critical. They would know nothing about it when the place explodes.

   I had already booked a flight to Liverpool the previous day. I drove her car to the furnished flat she rented and cleared out all her personal possessions. I found her passport and birth certificate with other papers which I stored away then I cancelled the tenancy and paid any outstanding rent. I also rang the trendy fashion shop she worked in and said that she has moved to Canada. There was just one more action I had to take and that was to transfer nearly all my money out of my account. I used Graeme’s name when making the transfer so when police make enquiries, which of course they will, it will look like Graeme had decided to steal the cash and then murder me, but then it had all gone wrong. The bank manager will back that up. They will not be able to trace the money because it all went into Wirex, a crypto currency. I will transfer it into my new bank account at some point. There’s no hurry.

   I was in my room in Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel when the house blew up. I stayed there while I was searching for an apartment. It wasn’t big news in Liverpool obviously. A gas explosion in a house on the outskirts of Dublin was only worth a couple of paragraphs even if two bodies were found.

   It is time for me to deliver a Zoom lecture on calculus to second year students. If you really are interested, it is about reduction formulae: Techniques of sketching conics: Reflection properties of conics, rotation of axes and second-degree equations.

   They can admire my figure as much as they like while I’m explaining the intricacies of differential calculus. I wonder what they would all think if they knew I had just murdered my husband and his lover.

   I can’t help smiling.

*The next chapter of A Walk on the Wilder side will be published on Monday and every Monday thereafter.

Walk a Crooked Road

Part One

Chapter One

Maggie Tailor

February 2021

Day 1

I am quite enjoying being ‘dead.’ I have started a new life with a clean slate. I have no guilt, no regrets, no baggage. My life in Dublin has ended and there is no looking back. Roisin  Doyle is dead. RIP.

   Having said that, I was naturally interested in what people had to say about me shortly after my ‘death.’ Naturally, a house inferno in which the charred remains of two people were discovered was certain to attract media interest and indeed it did, with stories in the papers and local TV. An enterprising photographer had even managed to get a picture of my mangled, charred, corpse lying on the sofa in front of the fire. My husband’s body, also much charred, was found in an adjacent room.

   The story went into some detail saying how the police had no difficulty identifying me, saying how my wedding ring and a bracelet with my name engraved inside was found in the ashes. They also discovered my handbag which had been in the hall with my cards, driving licence and other ID inside. It had escaped the conflagration because the explosion propelled it out into the garden. If they needed any convincing about the identity of my corpse, that certainly would have clinched it.

   There was also no difficulty identifying the cause of the blaze. A gas leak in the kitchen was set alight by the coal fire in the sitting room causing a fireball and explosion. It was all an unfortunate accident, the stories said.

   Naturally, police talked to our neighbours in Harold’s Cross Road in what the papers described as a close knit community who told them how we were a lovely, popular, couple. Why do the newspapers always call it a close-knit community? That was nonsense. It was anything but. It is a very wealthy area. The police were told how Graeme Doyle was a successful literary agent and I an academic at Trinity College. When asked what I taught, they would no doubt have looked uncertain.

   It would not have taken them long to discover that I was 36 and Graeme 52. I read with some amusement how the neighbours described me as attractive with long copper hair down to my shoulders and how we were ‘devoted’ and how everyone was ‘shocked’ at the tragedy. I snorted with laughter when I heard how Graeme’s family were ‘grieving’ and there was more grim amusement when I imagined them attempting to locate my family. They won’t find any because there is nobody… alive.

   All that was three months ago. None of it was even close to the truth, apart from what I do for a living. I am, or rather was, a lecturer in applied maths and psychology at Trinity. That may appear to be a curious combination but as with all sciences, psychology is partially based on a mathematical foundation. Hypotheses need to be tested, and statistical analysis provides a means of determining whether treatments appear to be effective or not.

   But I digress. The truth is that Graeme’s family despised him because he treated them with contempt and as for us being a ‘devoted’ couple, nothing could be further from the truth. The image of us being loving and caring was an act, a façade for the benefit of his literary and showbiz glitterati as well as the neighbours.

   In fact, ‘loving and caring’ Graeme was a total bastard. He lived a Walter Mitty life in which people were simply pawns to be manipulated. And as for being loving, maybe he was, but it wasn’t with me. A bout of pure stupidity must have beset me not to have realised sooner what he was up to. I am almost embarrassed to admit that it took a while for the realisation to sink in. I think I was simply reluctant to confront the truth of what kind of man I was married to. Once I discovered, I simply didn’t care.

   It was later that I discovered just how extensive his cheating was. No, I don’t just mean that kind of cheating – I had become quite indifferent to his sordid and squalid affairs. He could have slept with whomever he liked as far as I was concerned. No, his guilt was far more venal; he had been systematically stealing from me for months, no doubt to finance his affairs. At first, I didn’t notice because I am a reasonably wealthy women thanks to a bequest after my dad died and I wasn’t in the habit of going through my bank statements every month. Well, who does?

   It was a routine meeting with my bank manager that brought it to light when he casually mentioned that my expenditure would appear to have risen quite considerably of late. That stopped me and when we studied my statements it became clear that hundreds of euros had been leaving my account every month, withdrawals I knew nothing about. The manager wanted to call the police because it was a clear case of theft, but I prevailed upon him not to and that I would deal with it.

   The following day when Graeme and I had our habitual pre-evening meal drink, he was full of false bonhomie, throwing out meaningless complements and other small talk which I had wearily become accustomed to. I really wasn’t interested in how successful his clients were or what book was heading for the best-seller lists. I knew it was all a smoke screen. Well, I decided I had listened to enough of his garbage and it was time to confront him. I fixed him with a gimlet stare and a thin smile. That should have put him on guard, but it didn’t. He continued with the stream of ineffectual nonsense until I interrupted by quietly asking him how long he had been stealing from me.

   That did, at least, stop the flow of verbiage. He stared at me with a pained, puzzled, expression and I knew he was about to vehemently deny it and so before he could, I told him that the bank manager wanted to call the police and that I stopped him. A smile of relief on his face was about to be accompanied by bluster but I cut it short by telling him that all my bank details have been changed and he will longer have access to it.

   He cleared his throat noisily and started telling me that his agency had been experiencing financial problems which is why he did it. I knew that was pure boloney and I told him that if the agency was that broke, he should close the doors and look for a job. I could tell from his expression that it was not a prospect he relished. No doubt the probability of his sex life suddenly vanishing was also something that was uppermost in his thoughts as he stared at me, confusion and contrition slowly becoming replaced by anger.

   I stared at him, amused. If he thought that shouting and gesticulating could disguise the fact that he was a crook, he was bananas. Did he really think I would go on financing his agency when it was no doubt his profligacy that had led to its problems? I decided that now was the right time to deliver the coup de grâce. I stood up and told him, in measured tones, that I wanted a divorce and then walked slowly out of the room. As I was about to leave, I said that it might be better if he found somewhere else to live.

   He greeted that announcement with a look of disbelief but did not respond. He may have thought I would change my mind. If that really is what he thought, he was wrong. I didn’t.

   After that, he behaved as though nothing had changed. Neither of us walked out. We still lived under the same roof but not the same bed. We still had a communal meal of an evening, albeit in a stony, charged silence until I decided to play music – loudly! I was aware of him casting furtive looks at me from time-to-time, but I made a point of ignoring him. It was a toxic atmosphere and then it became toxic in a very different way.

   I think it was perhaps two or three weeks later that I began to feel unwell and wanting to sleep all the time. At first, I thought I had caught one of the bugs doing the rounds. I was fairly certain it wasn’t Covid because I had both jabs a few months ago and, in any case, I had none of the symptoms. I just felt ill, so decided to see my GP. He examined me thoroughly and put it down to food poisoning and suggested I monitor what I ate and drank and amend it to see what effect it has.

   So, I did, and it took a couple of days for me to smell a rat, in a metaphorical sense, of course. The ‘rat’ turned out to be the bourbon Graeme poured me as a nightcap every night. It was a process of elimination that led me to the discovery. He rarely makes any meals but pours me a drink of an evening, something he still did despite our estrangement. Maybe he thought that the problem would just go away if he ignored it and continued as before.

   It was a process of elimination really. Leaving out coffee at home made no difference and I switched our plates at meal times now and then which made no difference either, but pouring the bourbon away of an evening did. I began to feel much better after a couple of days, but I let him think I was still drinking it and pretended to be ill.

   It was then that the realisation hit me. You can accuse me of me of being a bit slow on the uptake if you like but to admit that your husband is slowly poisoning you is not something you would expect to have to do.

   So that was how Graeme intended to solve the problem of a troublesome wife, was it? I suppose I should have considered myself lucky he did not resort to more violent solutions. I realised I had to do something. I could have gone to the police, I suppose, but the evidence would have been weak, and he would probably have walked.

   There was only one answer. I knew I had to murder him.

*The next chapter of A Walk on the Wilder side will be published on Monday and every Monday thereafter.

Magic Mirror on the Wall…

My fourth ghost story which will eventually be part of an anthology

By Mike Rickett

It is half hidden behind a chest of drawers when I first spot it. It is the ornate carved mahogany surround to the mirror that catches my eye. I can only see a corner but there is something about it that impels me to try and drag it out but it is completely jammed by the heavy Victorian drawers which I simply cannot move. I look for the shop owner and at first there does not appear to be any sign of him or her.

   I wander around the shop calling out, but there is no reply. Eventually, I come a across a Chesterfield high-backed armchair in the style of Queen Anne. I almost walk past it until I spot an elbow resting on one of the arms.

   I walk around it to see an elderly man with an untidy mop of grey hair and extensive side whiskers staring at me through a pair of old -fashioned wire spectacles.

   ‘Are you the shop owner?’ I ask. He just nods. ‘I have seen something I would like to take a closer look at,’ I say. ‘But it is jammed behind a chest of drawers. Could you give me a hand to move it please?’

   He hoists himself up and I see, with some amusement, that he looks like an antique himself with his black waistcoat and Prince Albert chain and grubby-looking shirt with wing collars and a spotted bow tie. He is also quite short, just coming up to my shoulder. He looks at me grimly and wanders off in the direction of the chest of drawers. For some reason he reminds me of Mr Pickwick. How does he know what I was looking at, I think to myself and slowly follow him?

   I have always had a fascination for junk shops. I was brought up on a farm in mid-Wales and there was a shop in the village a quarter of a mile away where I spent many hours talking to the owner. To me it was an Old Curiosity Shop with all its treasures. At the time I thought the owner was quite old but that was from the perspective of a small boy who thought that anybody grown up was old. Looking back, he was probably only in his early forties. He would regale me with tales connected to the items in his shop. He somehow managed to make a Welsh Dresser sound exciting by telling me how it was made and all the people who may have owned it and what their lives would have been like.

   Ever since then I have never been able to resist the temptation to browse antique and junk shops. I now live in Liverpool and I know where most of them are. Strangely perhaps, I was quite unaware that the shop I am now in, on Renshaw Street in the city centre, even existed despite travelling down the road regularly.

   I follow the shop owner and we arrive at the chest of drawers. I point to the mirror and he looks at me, grimaces and shakes his head. ‘Are ye sure lad?’ he mutters reaching for the back of the drawers and wrenching it away from the wall with apparent ease. He is evidently stronger than he looks. He bends down and pulls the mirror out. It is covered in cobwebs and grime. He places it on top of the drawers and wipes his hand on a cloth.

   The mirror is oval, almost two feet long and the surround has figures carved into it which I can’t make out because of all the grime.

   ‘How much do you want for it?’ I ask.

   ‘There be a better un over yonder,’ he replies pointing to the opposite wall.

   ‘No, I like this one. I’ll give you a fiver for it.’ I offer him a note. He stares at it as though he has never seen one before.

   ‘Some mirrs are better not lookd at,’ he says fixing me with a piercing stare. He takes the note and shuffles off.

   I wipe the worst of the grime off and am about to thank him for his help but he has vanished. I shrug and make my way to the door. I hail a taxi and give the driver my address on the outskirts of the city.

   I have not long moved into the three-bed terrace house with my wife Amy. My name, by the way, is Dominic Burridge and I am a reporter with the Press Association. My brief is to cover the Northwest of England so I do a great deal of travelling but my ‘office’ is our front room, something many people have had to get accustomed to during the Covid pandemic.

   Amy and I have been slowly buying furniture and fittings as and when we have any spare cash. I found a nice dining room table in an Oxfam shop and a set of six chairs at a local Barnardo’s. I am sure Amy will like the mirror which will look good in the hall once I have cleaned it up.

   I get home and immediately take it to the sink. Amy joins me. ‘Where did you get that?’ she says staring at it. ‘It’s filthy. What’s the betting it is riddled with woodworm too. You should just dump it in the nearest skip.’

   ‘It’s mahogany,’ I call after her. ‘It will be really nice when I’ve cleaned it up. You wait and see. It will look good in the hall.’ There is no answer. I press on, first wiping all the grime off the glass. The mirror is perfect and cleans up well. Next, I use soapy water to clean all the dirt off the surround. The wood responds and gleams and for the first time I notice there are figures carved into it. I decide to let it dry and polish it up later. I rest it on the kitchen divider with a cloth covering it.

   I return to the kitchen a few hours later and the cloth is on the floor. I assume Amy must have had a look and the cloth must have slipped off. I examine the surround which is now quite dry and decide to rub in wax to preserve the wood.

   While I am doing it, I study the figures which at first glance look like dancing people but then, on closer inspection, I realise they are not people at all but are more like the grotesque gargoyles you see on medieval churches. That is rather odd and it probably points to the mirror being a great older than I at first thought. I know that commercial mirrors have been around since the 17th century so I speculate that perhaps that is when our mirror dates from. If that is so it is a good find for £5! I feel rather pleased with myself

   I lean it up against the wall and look at my own reflection. Suddenly, I see Amy’s reflection behind me wearing an odd white cap. She is staring at me unsmiling. I turn around but there is nobody there. I look at the mirror again but it is just my face that stares back at me. I must have imagined it. I finish waxing the wood and hang it in the hall. I feel oddly unsettled.

   I don’t see Amy until later in the day when she has finished work at the Central Library on William Brown Street opposite the iconic St Georges Hall.

   ‘I see you have hung that wretched mirror in the hall,’ she says. ‘I’m not sure I like it. There is something about it that makes me feel uneasy.’

   I decide that it would not be a good time to mention the strange reflection I think I saw. Instead, I laugh it off and tell her that I have good reason for thinking it may be 17th century. ‘It’s a genuine antique,’ I tell her enthusiastically. She looks at me doubtfully and swiftly changes the subject suggesting we have a takeaway for our evening meal.

   It is about 2:00 am when I am woken by the sound of footsteps on the stairs. They are measured, heavy footsteps like those made by boots and they gradually get louder as they ascend the stairs. I can feel the hair rising at the back of my neck. I look at Amy who is snoring softly and quite oblivious to it. I know I must investigate despite a desire to hide somewhere. I swing my legs out of bed and listen as the steps continue along the landing and then abruptly stop outside our bedroom door.

   I am scared. Who could it possibly be? What could he want? A burglar would hardly announce himself like this. And why have the footsteps just stopped. There is an old walking stick with a silver knob that belonged to my grandfather in the corner. I grab it and reach for my dressing gown, slip it on and silently walk to the door and listen. I can hear nothing. I slowly turn the handle.

   I yank the door open with all the force I can muster, raising the stick threateningly with my other hand. There is nobody there. I reach for the light switch and turn the landing lights on. I stare down the blackness of the stair well. Do I see something moving or am I imagining it?

   I can’t turn on the hall light from the landing. There is a switch but for some reason it doesn’t work. I am going to have to go down the stairs in the dark. ‘Who’s there,’ I shout stepping carefully and staring into the void.

   I am about halfway down and there is a dim light from the window above the front door. The streetlight outside is casting a yellow beam on the front half of the hall.

   I have reached the bottom of the stairs. There is a sepulchral stillness as though I am being watched by somebody or something. I quickly walk from room to room but everything is as it should be. I return to the hall and glance at the mirror. I am about to walk past it but I stop. Something is wrong. I stand in front of it but there is no image of me. There is just the hall with the door to the sitting room behind me. I move around but I am still not reflected.

   How can a mirror not reflect your image? I look at it again and I realise that while I can see the hall, it not the hall as it is now. It is a much older hall with heavy Victorian wallpaper and the doors are painted a horrible brown so loved by the Victorians. I must be going mad. First, footsteps on the stairs and now this.

   I climb the stairs and return to bed. The hall has become an alien place. Amy is still asleep and was obviously not disturbed by my shouting. That is also strange because she is normally a light sleeper and the slightest noise will waken her.

   I must have dozed off because Amy is shaking me. ‘Dom, Dom, wake up. What’s the matter with you?’ she is saying. I blink as consciousness gradually returns. I sit and stare at her.

   ‘Didn’t you say you had to go to Birkenhead for 9.30 this morning?’ she says. ‘It’s 8.30 now. You had better get moving.’

   She is right. I head for the shower. I debate whether to tell her about last night as the hot water revives my senses. I decide not to. It would only scare her but I think I will get rid of the mirror which appears to be the cause of all the weird events.

   Over breakfast I tell her that I will return it to the shop when I get back from Birkenhead. ‘Oh no, don’t do that,’ she says. ‘I like it. I get a good feeling when I look at it and you have done such an excellent job of cleaning it up.’

   ‘Are you serious. You hated it when I brought it home.’

   ‘Well, I don’t anymore. You leave it alone. I’ll clean it and polish it.’ I am lost for words. What could have brought about such a change of heart. I wait until she has left for work and take the mirror down and put it under the stairs. With any luck she won’t notice and tomorrow I will take it back to the shop and just return it to the weird old man whether he wants it or not!

   I have a particularly gruesome murder to cover in Birkenhead’s Hamilton Square where a man went berserk with an axe and hacked his wife and two children to death. I am going to do some doorstepping and get some background on him. The killer is in police custody and they will also be making a statement later in the morning.

   I arrive home a little later than expected. I have a story to write which I then must file and so I go immediately to the front room with my laptop and get to work. Amy is already in and I call out saying I could murder a coffee. There is no answer. At first, I think nothing of it and carry on working.

   Fifteen minutes later I pause because there is an unnatural silence. Amy usually has music playing when she is busy at home making a meal or anything else really. She is not a person who likes a stillness. I work for a little while longer until I have completed the killings story and file it, then I go and investigate with the primary intention of making a much-needed coffee.

   I walk into the sitting room and Amy is sprawled on the sofa. At first, I think she is simply asleep but then I stop in my tracks when I glimpse her face. It is one of the grotesque gargoyles from the mirror surround. It is the face of a harpy, half woman, half bird, the mouth wide open exposing a tongue which lolls through jagged teeth.

   I gasp and step back in terror until I reach the door. I turn and glance at the hallway. The mirror is back on the wall. Amy must have found it.

   ‘You must need a coffee,’ says Amy’s voice. I turn and look at the sofa and she is standing up, yawning. ‘I must have dozed off for a while,’ she says, walking over and giving me a hug. I must stop myself shrinking back. What is happening. Am I going mad?

   ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ she asks as I continue to stare at her. How can I tell her that she briefly had the face of a gargoyle and, while I am at it, the footsteps I heard in the middle of the night and the mirror that did not reflect me?

   I slump on the sofa and bury my head in my hands. ‘What’s the matter?’ she says, sitting next to me and putting a comforting arm around my shoulders.

   ‘It’s the mirror,’ I mutter. ‘Did you find it and replace it?’

   ‘What do mean?’

   ‘I took it off the wall and put it under the stairs,’

    She stares at me, puzzled, concerned. ‘You must have been dreaming,’ she says. ‘It was on the wall when I came home from work.

   What am I to do? She is not going to believe me whatever I say. There is only one solution and that is to get rid of it once and for all.

   ‘I am going to take it back to the shop,’ I say standing up. She shrugs, shakes her head and smiles demurely.

   ‘If you must, you must,’ she says disappearing into the kitchen. I walk to the hall and look in the mirror. My face is reflected but as I look it changes and my image begins to laugh tauntingly, sneeringly, gradually fading, leaving just a view of the hall behind me. I rub my eyes. Am I really seeing this or is it all in my mind?

   How did the mirror find its way back to the hall? Amy must have found it under the stairs. How else could it have got back?

   We eat our meal in a strained silence until I ask her if she is feeling all right. She looks surprised. ‘Never better, why do you ask?’

   ‘Well, you don’t normally fall into such a deep sleep this early in the evening,’ I say and then, half-jokingly: ‘I think you’ve been looking in that mirror too much. You know that old fairy-tale line: Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all.’ I say it wearing a big grin. ‘If you aren’t careful the seven dwarfs will come after you.’ I chuckle disarmingly.

    She glares at me and slams her knife down on the table. ‘You are talking nonsense Dom as usual. ‘Yes, I admit looking in the mirror. I feel at peace with myself when I do. I don’t know why. There is just something about it.’

   She stalks out into the kitchen taking the dirty plates with her. Twenty minutes later she is still there. I decide to go to the pub and call out saying I will be a couple of hours. There is no reply.

   Three pints later I return to an empty house. I look in the mirror but all I see is myself. I go to all three rooms but there is no sign of Amy. Has she gone out as well? I sit in an armchair and stare at the blank TV. There is an odd atmosphere I can’t quite put my finger on, almost as though something is about to happen. I hear a slight sound in the hall and glance to see the door slowly open of its own accord to reveal the mirror. There is a silvery light emanating from it.

   My first reaction is to stay away from it; I have had quite enough of the horrors that emanate from it but then I know I must look because whatever is happening is obviously intended for me.

   I walk slowly to the sitting room door and shield my eyes from the bright light which slowly dims to reveal Amy’s face but not the face I know and love. The face that stares back at me malevolently is more gargoyle than Amy. Her mouth opens to reveal jagged teeth with blood dripping from them.

   ‘Fancy giving me a kiss,’ says the apparition in a low guttural voice. I back away and slam the door and lean on it to prevent it opening. Behind it is raucous, harsh laughing.

   I decide to spend the night in the spare room. I place a chair under the door handle. I doubt I will be able to sleep and I decide to keep the light on. I lie on the bed with all my clothes on and settle into a fitful doze.

   I wake with a start. I can hear voices downstairs. Coarse, guttural voices; the sound of movement and then, interspersed, the sound of Amy’s tinkling laugh. At one point I can see my bedroom door handle turning but I press the chair even more firmly against it. There is a mocking, scornful snigger and then there is a heavy silence.

   I return to the bed and come to a decision. I know what I must do.

It is morning and I am on my way to a DIY store on the outskirts of Liverpool. Before I attempted to go to sleep last night, I went online on my phone. I wanted to find out what the melting point of glass is. Modern glass melts at around 2,500C and can mostly only be done in a kiln but older glass will often melt at around 900C.

   I quite quickly find what I am looking for: a blowtorch and a mask, together with a canister of gas. I put it all in the car boot and hurry on to my first assignment of the day which is to Southport to cover a story of a man who says he has figured out a way to make his car work on water. Probably a crackpot unless he has found a way of making hydrolysis work to split hydrogen from water. Crackpot or not, people are going to take notice.

   I return home a little earlier than expected. Amy is also home which is a complication I hadn’t expected but I am determined to press on with my plan come what may. I say hello to her and bend over to kiss her on the cheek. She looks at me with a strange, unnatural stare as though I am stranger. Hopefully, what I am about to do will release her from whatever or whoever has possessed her.

   I tell her that I have work to do in the back yard and I hurry through with my bag. I have a larger bag as well. I wait until Amy goes upstairs to the toilet before going to the hall and taking down the mirror and covering it with the bag. I am careful not to look at it. I close the kitchen door firmly behind me and place the mirror face down on a slab of concrete at the end of the yard.

   The back of the mirror is covered with a thin sheet of wood. The first job is to reduce all the wood to ash, especially the surround with all their grotesque carvings so I light the torch and cover my face with the mask. I get to work on the backing.

   At first, the backing smoulders and then bursts into flame, so then I direct the torch to the surround moving it a few inches at a time. It is then that I notice the smell. It is the stench of rotting flesh. I hold a hand to the mask, pressing it to my face and continue playing the flame as the wood begins to blacken.

   I keep my eyes fixed on it despite the smell which is making me gag. I am determined it must be reduced to ashes. As I look, I see dark shapes writhing in the flames. They are grotesque, horrible, and I can hear screams of agony as the flames gradually devour them. I continue remorselessly until all that is left is smouldering ashes.

   Now, it is time to deal with the mirror itself. The backing has been scorched by the flames so I brush the ashes aside. I suspect that the reflective surface has a film of mercury which would have been used in the Middle Ages. I also know that when I begin work with the torch it will very likely give off toxic fumes, so I make sure the mask is securely fastened covering my nose and mouth.

   After a few minutes, the glass begins to become slightly translucent and I notice that a black cloud has formed around me and that in it is a darker outline of what looks like the head of some sort of horned beast. I ignore it and concentrate on the glass which is now beginning to glow a dull red.

   Suddenly, there is an ear-piercing screech. I glance up and standing a few feet away is Amy, her face contorted into a snarl, her teeth bared and her eyes glowing a bright red. She is clutching a large kitchen knife and pointing it at me.

   A guttural growl comes from her and a deep male voice commands me to stop. I ignore it and keep my eyes fixed on the mirror which is now beginning to glow a deep red. I expect the knife to be plunged into my throat imminently but nothing happens. I glance up and Amy is still there. Suddenly, her head tilts back and she screams, dropping the knife and she collapses in a heap. I want to go and help her but I know I must continue.

   The mirror begins to melt, forming little glowing puddles on the concrete. I break it up into even smaller globules with a stick. Finally, I can switch off the torch and remove my mask. I go over to Amy and carry her into the sitting room, laying on the sofa. I pour a small brandy and cradle her head with my right arm and rub a little brandy on her lips. She coughs and her eyes open, staring at me.

   ‘I have been having really bad dreams,’ she whispers. ‘It’s the mirror Dom. It’s evil.’

   ‘I know,’ I say. ‘I have destroyed it and it will trouble us no more.’ She bursts into tears and we sit there, side by side, for what feels like eternity, safe at last.

It is a week later when I find myself in Renshaw Street once more. The trauma of that day when I melted the mirror is still with me. I can still smell the rotting flesh and see the terrifying image in the black cloud. When the bubbles of glass cooled, I swept them up and poured them in the wheelie bin which was emptied the following day.

   The house is at peace now and Amy is once more the carefree girl I married, although just occasionally I catch her glancing nervously in the direction of the hall.

   I find a parking space on Renshaw Street and walk up the road in the direction of the junk shop where I bought the mirror. I want to find out where it came from.

   I can’t find the shop. I remember which block it was on but there is no junk shop. This is impossible. The shop was here just a week or two ago. I cannot be mistaken. Instead, there is a small gallery and curio shop with pictures of old Liverpool in the window. I glance at them.

   I am about to turn away and walk down the road just in case I am mistaken about where the shop was when one of the pictures in the window catches my eye.

   It is a faded black and white photo of the junk shop with, standing outside, his arms folded over his chest, the elderly man with grey hair and side whiskers staring at the camera through wire spectacles. I look at the photo more closely. He has a sneering smile on his face.

   The caption says Hob’s Curios, Renshaw Street, 1895.