In an effort to earn a rejection for my Rejection Club chart, I entered a competition to take part in a writers’ workshop at the Lord Mayor of Sheffield’s parlour. Unexpectedly, I got in. Then I had to write and submit a short story, with the winner being published in the local newspaper. I wrote it, and… didn’t win. I was a runner-up though! Here it is.
‘Undying Mysteries’, Episode 57
“What we’re doing next is extremely dangerous. I want to be really clear about that before we go any further.” Kailynne looked directly into the camera, pausing for dramatic effect. The wings of her sharp black eyeliner were still unfairly perfect, considering it was nearly 3am and they’d been sitting in the warmth of the Lord Mayor’s Parlour since before 10. Ellie thought she’d like the girl more if her makeup had smudged, even a little.
“We made contact using the Flux Matrix Responder,” Kailynne said, gesturing towards a small pyramid-shaped device on the table in front of her. “So next, we want to get more information from the spirit we’ve got here in Sheffield Town Hall. Fans of my channel will know what that means: ghost writing! I’m going to offer myself as a vessel, and let the spirit use my hand to write.” With a swish of her skirt, she went to stand at the easel beside the Mayor’s desk. Edgar, the moustachioed cameraman, followed closely behind Kailynne, expertly manoeuvring his tricked-out vlogging rig.
“Now, guys, don’t try this at home. Remember, I’m a professional. I’ve also got backup: Ellie Jackson here is the UK’s most experienced spirit medium, and she’s ready to step in if anything goes wrong.” Kailynne shot Ellie a big smile, full of teeth. Edgar didn’t turn around, though, so Ellie sank back into her chair, grateful for the break from the camera’s watchful eye. The pressure to perform was stressful; far more intrusive than she’d expected when she’d agreed to appear on ‘Undying Mysteries’.
The whole production was throwing her off her game. When she’d arrived, she’d felt something in the Parlour, but it had since receded, as if it had been blocked. Automatic writing was the first technique the YouTubers had used tonight that she was familiar with. Everything else had involved expensive-looking gadgets she’d never seen before. Three decades of honing her gift – from giggly teenage séances in the ‘90s to a particularly harrowing exorcism last year – had proven she didn’t need props, so nowadays she only brought out a crystal pendulum or alphabet board if a client asked.
She had to admit, though, there was something appealing about the electronic gizmos. Earlier, Kailynne had demonstrated something called an EMF meter, and its cute array of tiny lightbulbs had made Ellie think of Christmas lights.
She was reaching out to grab it for a closer look when Kailynne shrieked. Feeling like she’d been told off, Ellie yanked her hand back and leapt to her feet, ready to confront whatever threat might’ve shown itself.
But Kailynne didn’t need her. Almost an entire page of her oversized sketchpad was now covered with thick black Sharpie scribble; her scream merely signalled the end of the automatic writing session. Edgar was moving again, framing Kailynne against the bay windows, where the orange glow of the streetlamps outside threw spooky shadows across her face. “She’s gone,” Kailynne reported breathlessly, right down the lens. “That was intense. I hope we got something useful!”
Ellie squinted at the pad. Not much of it made sense, but she could make out the words “help”, “justice”, and “sorry”, plus a sketch that might’ve been a cabbage. Kailynne’s silver rings glinted as she traced her fingers over the tangle of interlocking shapes, picking out more letters. “K-I-L-L-E-D H-I-M? And is that… ‘S-O-R-R-Y’? And… ‘H-E-L-P M-E’? Oh. Oh, wow. You guys, I think I know who our ghost is.” She jabbed a long fingernail into the cabbage-y thing. “That’s a rose. I think we’re talking to Rose Perkins.”
An icy hand clasped the back of Ellie’s neck. Rose was a local legend, so she knew the story even before Kailynne recounted it. The daughter of a steelworks owner, Rose had been born into privilege in the 1880s, but a string of scandals had seen her disinherited in her late teens. More bad decisions and worse luck led to her being discovered sitting astride the mutilated body of one of her father’s footmen, her hands and dress smeared with blood. She’d refused to speak to anyone about what had happened, maintaining a silence that the court had interpreted as guilt throughout the gruelling six-day trial that saw her sentenced to death.
Sentenced right here, at the Town Hall, in the former Crown Court.
“If I’m right, we could put to rest a mystery that’s been unsolved for over a hundred years,” said Kailynne, smiling brightly. Ellie shivered. Rose had taken her secrets to her grave, and on her own terms. Defying her executioner, she’d died in her cell, forearms sliced open from wrist to elbow with a blade no-one had ever found.
“Tonight, we could help Rose Perkins finally speak her truth!”
Edgar had turned off his camera while he and the rest of Kailynne’s crew reset the Parlour. Ellie thought the other team members had gone home hours ago, but no, here they were: Vic, a small blonde in square black glasses, and Lukas, a set of walking cheekbones in a Monster Energy t-shirt. They’d spent the night shooting B-roll from the street, and were now chatting animatedly as they rearranged the room. Before she’d headed out in search of a late-night caffeine fix, Kailynne had left strict instructions about how she wanted the next scene to look, so the grandest armchair had been shifted in front of the hearth, tightly bracketed by the fireplace’s imposing marble.
Not wanting to get roped into helping them move furniture, Ellie had tucked herself away into a corner beside a display of Ukrainian ceramics. She shouldn’t have worried; no-one was paying her any attention.
“Mate, that stuff about the stabbing was sick,” Edgar enthused, as he and Lukas dragged a heavy coffee table into place. “As soon as I saw your notes, I knew this was gonna be a good episode.”
“I know, right? I found a couple of old police reports and couldn’t resist.”
“Kay loved it. We’ve never gone that far.”
Lukas snorted. “Well, ‘Undying Mysteries’ didn’t even have a researcher until a month ago, so that’s no shocker. She’s really not bothered about details, is she? This moving-on ritual was meant to have like five more steps, but I took ‘em out so we could get home quicker.”
Ellie’s head snapped up, acid pooling in her stomach. Kailynne’s methods were overly theatrical, but Ellie had assumed it was all in good faith. If these kids were making it up as they went along, this really could get dangerous.
“You should’ve put in some comedy names,” Vic chipped in, setting up an incense burner on the table. “You know, like that old Most Haunted clip? ‘Mary loves Dick! Mary loves Dick!’”
Lukas shot her a wry grin. “Next time, for sure. Be good ammo for when I do my big ‘UNDYING KAILYNNE EXPOSED’ video, yeah? I also thought, like, when she starts giving it some during the exorcism, we could try and get—”
He cut himself off abruptly as the jingling of bracelets heralded Kailynne’s imminent return.
“That chair looks perfect, Eggers!” she said, full-beam influencer smile back in place. “Let’s fix the lights, though, they’re all going to be pointing up my nose.” Kailynne snatched up one of the bigger candlelight-effect lamps and aimed it towards the armchair. “Do you think we can move that cabinet?”
While Kailynne played director, Ellie slipped out of the Parlour and headed to the women’s toilets. Anxiety squirmed in her gut, but she tamped it down. She should never have said yes when the Mayor’s office reached out in the first place; she’d never liked showy ghost hunts, and the idea of filming it for the internet made her cringe. But the woman had sounded so sincere on the phone, almost pleading as she described the alleged haunting, and Ellie had never been able to ignore someone in genuine need. She knew how it felt not to be believed. Should’ve checked out those kids’ credentials, she thought. Should’ve made them do it my way.
She was washing her hands, thankful for the lack of unfriendly mirror to judge her tired face, when something shifted. Reality’s volume had been turned down; the water was still running, but she couldn’t hear it. A strange pressure began building inside her head, as though the altitude had changed. She looked down at hands that no longer seemed like her own, and then she was moving, being guided back down the hallway to the staircase, where the enormous electrolier cast strange, pointy shadows.
Her boots scuffed against the time-worn carpet as Ellie approached the Council Room. The oak panelling of its walls bulged obscenely towards her, distorting, as if something on the other side was pushing through, trying to grab her. She wanted to scream, but couldn’t find her voice. Velvety shadows wrapped themselves around her like a ceremonial cloak, warm and smothering. Her legs had gone numb and weightless, her feet unmoored, pushing against nothing.
A whisper out of the darkness coaxed her to give in, let go, drift away…
When she opened her eyes, she was lying on an uncomfortable floor. Watery light played across the crevices of an ornate ceiling, the distant rumble of a tram signalling the beginning of a new day. Wincing, Ellie sat up. Fragments of the previous night drifted back into place: the Town Hall, the summoning, and that crappy excuse for a rose. Kailynne really ought to practise drawing flowers if she ever wants to try that trick again, she thought.
“Lukas? Hello?” came a voice from above, echoing around the sweeping marble staircase. “Lukas? Ellie? Where are you?”
Her tongue was thick in her mouth, like she’d been chewing cotton wool, and a faint chemical flavour lingered at the back of her throat. She swallowed with difficulty. “In here! In the, um—” She looked around at the rows of black and white photographs of, judging by their robes and chains, past Lord Mayors of Sheffield. “In the little room by the Council Chamber!”
Footsteps jogged closer, then Vic stuck her head around the door. “Where were you? We had to do the ritual without you, Kay was devvo. And where’s…” She trailed off, eyes fixed on the door into the main chamber. “What is that? What is that?” Her voice rose to a shriek, and Ellie could hear the others coming, the atmosphere congealing.
Using a chair to pull herself upright, she hurried after Vic. The thing that had caught her attention was a glistening red-black streak that started at the edge of the doorway, waist-high, and continued across the door and along the wall of the Chamber. It might not be blood, Ellie assured herself, it might not be. She brushed past Vic, who’d frozen in place with a hand clapped across her mouth, and felt the pressure inside her skull building again.
Lukas lay in the centre of the Chamber. Ellie didn’t need to feel for a pulse to know he was dead; his throat had been torn open, messily, and his blood-covered hands were clenched at his collarbone. His face was grey, eyes staring at nothing, shirt ripped open.
With effort, Ellie stepped backwards. There was a dull ringing sound in her ears, a tingling in her fingertips, and for a hysterical moment she thought she might start laughing. As Kailynne and Edgar picked their way across the blood-spattered carpet towards her, Ellie realised that they were looking, not down at Lukas, but up towards the ceiling. She followed their gaze, realisation punching the air from her lungs.
Daubed across the wall, high above the ceremonial chair and dripping down onto the carved wooden panels below were the words “THANKS FOR YOUR HELP. HERE IS MY JUSTICE. NOT SORRY”.
When Kailynne turned to her and started to scream, it sounded like the first unrehearsed reaction she’d had all night. Maybe, Ellie thought uncharitably, she wasn’t completely oblivious after all.