Book1. The Highgate Ghost
Cassandra Ayers embarks on a case of grave desecration at Highgate Cemetery allegedly haunted by a terrifying ghost; however, the most mysterious and frightening case she is challenged to solve lies in her own past and is related to her mother’s death. Maybe now, after Cassandra sees her mother’s ghostly hand in her photo, she will be able to find the answers.
There’s No Such Thing As Ghosts
Any more or less respected cemetery would cherish its ghost stories; however, no spirits had disturbed the life or death at London’s Highgate Cemetery. No lost souls had wandered among the moss-covered gravestones, and no apparitions had spooked the visitors; that is, until recently.
Young Harmon entered the Circle of Lebanon – the heart of London’s Highgate Cemetery. He pushed a wheelbarrow that jumped along the bumpy gravel road, and smiled at how joyfully the gardening tools danced on the bottom of the barrow.
Harmon liked it here at the cemetery. Usually, people were not nice to him. They called him names which he didn’t understand, but they made his mother cry bitterly, so he gathered those words were bad. At the cemetery, though, all the groundsmen were nice to him. They called him Harmon-boy and made him feel like part of the family.
It was lightly drizzling. Harmon stopped and threw his head back to look up at the cedar tree sitting atop twenty chambers for the dead that formed the Lebanon Circle. That huge tree stood over the graves and crypts like an ancient god of death, watching indifferently as people came into the cemetery, but never left.
After his traditional awe-stricken tribute to the god-like tree, Harmon proceeded to trim the ferns opposite the family vault of Henry Pearse Hughs. He cut off the faded branches and put them into the wheelbarrow.
Mr Brockington’s gardening shears were clipping somewhere near the Terrace Catacombs, as if measuring the time like an old and rattling grandfather clock. The clipping sound set the rhythm to Harmon’s work routine. He had been dealing with the unruly vegetation until the clip-clopping of a woman’s high-heeled shoes made Harmon raise his flap-eared head.
'Good evening, Miss Tesmond, Miss,' Harmon said to the young woman descending the stairs from the Terrace Catacombs.
He removed his peaked cap, as his mother had taught him to do. Miss Tesmond amiably smiled at him. She was the secretary of the cemetery’s superintendent, always walking down the lanes with her sketchbook on her hours off.
'How you like the weavver today, Miss Tesmond?' Harmon asked, initiating appropriate small talk with the discussion of the elements, like any worldly and educated person would do, although he was neither this nor that.
'The rain tarnished my sketch.' The woman sighed and wrapped herself more tightly in her shawl. 'Do you want to see what I discovered today?'
Harmon put his gardening shears onto a heap of garden waste and peeked into the sketchbook Miss Tesmond opened for him. Every page was covered with drawings of the symbols and imagery from the gravestones: ivy, urn, hourglass, grapes, anchor, a chalice with a protective hand over it.
'Here is a snake biting its own tail,' she said. 'It is a symbol of eternity. And this is an inverted torch, which represents an extinguished life.'
'I like doves,' Harmon said, and with his filthy finger pointed at the sketch of one.
'Yes, doves are nice.'
Miss Tesmond squeezed his shoulder, smiling condescendingly like people always did around him.
'See you later, Harmon,' she said as she walked away.
By six o’clock, he was done with the ferns in the Circle of Lebanon. Only two more at the entrance to the Egyptian Avenue were left to do. Mr Ed Brockington came down the same stairs Miss Tesmond had ascended two hours before. He carried two squeaky buckets full of garden waste. When he came up to his younger colleague, Ed Brockington stopped and thoroughly stretched his sore back.
'It’s getting dark, Harmon-boy,' the man said, taking out a tin with chewing tobacco. 'Don’t want to stay here after dark.' He tucked a pinch of tobacco between his teeth and cheek. 'Not with all these stories about a ghost wandering around. Gives me the creeps.'
'I don’t believe in vem ghosts.' Harmon squared his shoulders with a child-like resolution, his Cockney pronunciation, gained along with lice in the poorest neighbourhood of London, thickened, as if it was supposed to be an elixir boosting his bravery. 'Me mum says vere ain’t such a fing as ghosts, and me mum is a respectable woman. We go to church every Sunday.'
The older man spat on the ground and started cleaning the caked-on dirt from his gardening tools. Harmon watched the tiny puddle of saliva, brownish from chewing tobacco, seep through the pebbles.
'Course, mate.' Ed Brockington nodded his grey head of unkempt, greasy hair, thoroughly uninterested. 'Old Tommy says he heard a woman cry near the Egyptian Avenue. But there wasn’t no woman. That’s how it goes. 'Course, Tommy is just an old fool and blabberer. I’d never believe it if I didn’t see it with me own eyes. Just yesterday I saw the bloody thing in the Egyptian Avenue, right by the crypts.'
Harmon did not look so brave anymore. He listened, his eyes wide open, his mouth gaping. Ed Brockington threw the tools back into the bucket. 'Tommy said he was quitting his job. Can ye believe it? Good to know at least someone has their guts.' The groundsman patted his younger colleague on the shoulder. The boy’s lopsided smile made him seriously question his bravery? 'So? Are ye comin’?'
'I ‘ave two more bushes ‘ere,' the young worker swallowed.
'Aight, then, Harmon-boy. See you tomorrow.' The groundsman pulled up his baggy pants, collected the buckets and quickly disappeared around the curve of the Lebanon Circle. The metal squeaking of the buckets that accompanied his walk died away in the distance of the lush cemetery grounds. Harmon wiped the rain droplets off his face with the back of his sleeve and proceeded to work.
Twilight descended quickly, and in the gloom of impending night, the cedar tree no longer seemed so peaceful. It towered over the cemetery, its roots clutching deep into the ground like claws. Were they penetrating the crypts? Were they troubling the dead?
Harmon hastily finished tidying the last two ferns and headed back. The Egyptian Avenue, a tunnel with rows of crypt doors on both sides, lay in his way. He stopped at the entrance, plucking up his courage to enter into the darkness. The visitors would often say fear overcame them as they found themselves between the rows of the crypts. Harmon tried to shake the superstitions out of his head and stepped into the tunnel, ready to pass through as quickly as possible, but the wheelbarrow was stubborn on the gravel. In the darkness of the tunnel, he couldn’t see anything except the dull light at the end. He quickened his pace, despite the barrow wriggling in his hands like an insane cat.
A sound coming from outside the tunnel made Harmon stop dead. The sound came again. It resembled the whimpering of a child or a woman. He strained his eyes but couldn’t make out anything.
'Who’s vere?' he asked the pitch-black void that surrounded him.
The whimpering stopped. The gravel crunched under someone’s feet. The steps were getting closer, but the boy still couldn’t see anyone in the darkness. They were a couple of feet away already.
'Vere ain’t such fing as ghosts!' his voice betrayed him.
He felt a raspy breath on his cheek. The hairs on the back of his head stood up. And then, out of the darkness, a ghoulish white figure advanced at him and cold fingers locked around his arm.
'No!' Harmon yelled, dropped the barrow and ran for his life.
The Case of A Typical Gypsy
The room was full of dreadful things. Woven dolls, bird claws, bunches of animal tails and mummified hooves. Everything Cassandra would expect to see in a gypsy’s parlour. As she stood waiting for her appointment, she took in the occult atmosphere of the place with a slight smile. This trove of dreadful things did not scare her, but rather stunned her with its unscrupulous combination of some serious religious artifacts and cheap scares like bottles of fake blood or mice skeletons.
Cassandra picked up a green brass figure of Buddha from a shelf. He had such a peaceful countenance and broad smile, as though he had managed to accept the world as it is. She grinned back at him and replaced the figure on the shelf among the ones of Jesus, St Mary, Zarathustra, Santa Muerte, African tribal gods, Scandinavian gods and others who promised redemption. She was merely in her late twenties, but tempered and beaten like an old sailor who had sailed the roughest seas – she knew well enough that some things could not be redeemed, neither by people nor by gods.
Leaning on an unusually thick walking stick with a handle carved in the form of a leaping panther, Cassandra strolled around the room. The autumn weather worsened her limp.
The ventilation hole, weirdly placed in the middle of the wall and covered with a decorative screen, proved useless because it supplied not a bit of fresh air into the room. Cassandra tried to open the dirty window that was hiding behind the draping, but it was locked. Outside, London smeared the sky with the grey saliva of its factories, dragging itself into the new, twentieth century. It was October of 1900. In the article issued that day, they called Great Britain the richest empire in the world.
However, the other articles in the newspaper Cassandra read at breakfast revealed quite the opposite side of the empire. Thousands of paupers toiled in the workhouses; a little girl was beaten to death for stealing a rich lady’s frock; women in domestic service were raped and then laughed at in the courts of justice. The upper class wrinkled their noses and turned the pages they didn’t want to read, so as to not spoil their breakfasts. But who can blame them? It’s not easy to see the dark when your candles and diamonds are shining so brightly. Neither can you hear the lament through the jolly tunes of the concert halls.
As Cassandra decided to make herself comfortable to massage her leg in the only armchair amidst the occult junk, the mistress of the house came in. She appeared dramatically from a waterfall of beads that covered the doorway between two rooms. The mistress was a short gypsy, around fifty, whose every move was accompanied by the chiming of her bracelets and earrings. It was impossible to imagine a more gypsy-looking gypsy.
'My apologies that I’ve kept you waiting Miss –' she said with an accent whose origin was hard to identify.
'It’s Miss Clarke.' Cassandra used a false name as she always did when she went undercover. The gypsy invited her into the adjacent room with a gesture of her hand, and the guest entered.
'I think you know my name.'
Cassandra nodded. Gypsy Hester was a rather well-known persona in London, with certain circles of people.
Here, it was even stuffier and harder to breathe. The light struggled through half-closed shutters and fell to the floor, exhausted, forming a very thin line of illumination. Candles occupied every vacant spot. They melted on the mantelpiece and formed long white beards of hardened wax that almost reached the floor.
With another florid gesture, the gypsy invited Cassandra to sit at the table covered with a velvet tablecloth. The woman sat across from her client, and put her hands, fingers adorned with rings, on the table. Her sharp, pitch-black eyes studied the client.
'So why are you here, dear?' the gypsy asked.
Cassandra took off her sunglasses with the round green lenses and put them aside. She peeled the gloves off her hands and asked, 'Do you mind if I smoke?'
The mistress of the house allowed her with a blink of her eyes. The client took out a cigarette box and lit a cigarette from a ritual candle.
'A friend of mine, Mrs Roberts, has assured me that you can answer the question that haunts me,' Cassandra said.
'Ah, Mrs Roberts! Such a lovely woman,' the gypsy grinned, revealing brown and broken teeth. 'What is your question, dear?'
'When I was a little girl, I had an accident.' She pulled at the cigarette, a veil of smoke hanging between them. 'The doctors say my child’s brain was trying to cope with the trauma; that’s why it blocked the memories. But now I want to remember that day.'
The gypsy nodded to every word.
'And you want old Gypsy Hester to help you recover your memory? Give me your hand.'
The gypsy placed Cassandra’s hand on her wrinkled forehead. She closed her eyes and started whispering incantations.
'I see darkness and suffering. You were an unhappy child. Many appalling things happened to you. Every day spent in your family home was bleak. And then... I see an injury. You fell.'
'This is exactly what I want to know about. How did it happen?' Cassandra asked.
The gypsy winced as though trying hard to see the answer.
'I can’t see. Dark energy obscures that day.'
'What does this mean?'
She opened her eyes and patted her client’s hand with sympathy.
'It seems, dear, you need to order a cleansing ritual. It will enable me to see into your past. And, since you are Mrs Roberts’s friend, it will be just ten shillings for you.'
Cassandra produced the required sum from her purse. The coins appeared on the velvet tablecloth.
'No, no, no, no, my dear,' the gypsy said. 'These things need preparation. Come in a week.'
'Oh, it’s very convenient, of course,' the client chuckled. 'But unimpressive.'
'What is that?'
Cassandra sat back in her armchair. The false identity of a damsel in distress vanished, together with the cigarette smoke she puffed in the gypsy’s face.
'Unhappy child, problems in the family. This could be applied to any troubled soul who comes to you. Happy people don’t seek your help, do they? As for the injury and my fall, it doesn’t take a genius to come to this conclusion,' she nodded at her walking stick.
'I don’t understand. Who are you?' Hester demanded.
'You watch your clients through that ventilation hole.' Cassandra pointed with her walking stick at the decorative screen that was covering the misplaced ventilation. 'You observe how they behave. You study them before inviting them in. Then you load their minds with some easily
predictable nonsense and offer them a cleansing ritual. Before their next visit, you do a little research about who they are. The next time they come, you are ready to manipulate them, drawing out of them new, unsolved problems, traumas and money, over and over again, until they can’t take a step without consulting with you.'
The gypsy crossed her hands.
'What is it you want?' she asked, her voice suddenly Irish.
'I want you, you old manipulative witch, to leave Mrs Roberts alone,' she said calmly, removing a tobacco bit from the tip of her tongue.
'Or I’ll expose you. I’m sure the newspapers will find your story ravishing.'
'Pfft. You don’t have anything on me.'
'Come on, Hester. I’ve also done some research. Or maybe you prefer me to call you Mrs Kyra O’Brien?'
The woman’s face melted.
'If you don’t want to learn firsthand about my method, you’ll leave Mrs Roberts alone and return all the money you’ve ever tricked out of her.' Cassandra stood up and put her cigarette out in Hester’s tray full of ritual coins. She turned over the top card in the Tarot deck – it was bearing the image of The Hanged Man.
'If I’m not mistaken, if upright, this card means a dead-end situation, an impasse,' she commented. 'Cards never lie, do they?'
'Who the hell are you?'
'Cassandra Ayers. A private detective at your service.' She tossed her business card on the table. 'I investigate the so-called supernatural cases.'