The house was a modern monstrosity, all sharp lines, glass, and concrete, like a city office block mysteriously teleported into otherwise pleasant countryside.
Jilly wrinkled her nose. Disappointing that someone of hero status—at least in Jilly’s eyes—should live somewhere so ugly.
“What makes them think they have a poltergeist?” she murmured. “It’s more likely to be the locals throwing stones at their windows.”
Beside her, in the driver’s seat, Sera gave a wry smile. “Don’t think there are many locals. The house is pretty isolated.” Which was quite an achievement only half an hour’s drive from Edinburgh.
“Not surprised,” Jilly muttered.
Sera drove the battered Citroen around the curve of the drive and pulled up outside the huge office-house. The front door—disguised as part of the wall of glass that fronted the whole building—opened before they were out of the car, but then they were expected. They’d had to identify themselves to a talking wrought iron gate at the beginning of the long, sweeping drive. The Ewans, it seemed, valued their privacy.
Jilly got out, inhaling the sharp, frosted scent of the countryside on a bright January morning. She narrowed her eyes against the low sun and settled her laptop bag over one shoulder while she counted the security cameras and alarm sensors. “Bloody hell. You couldn’t get much past that lot.”
“Spirits don’t need to get past them,” Sera pointed out. “They form inside.”
Sera was allowed to make statements like that. She talked to the dead all the time.
“So, remind me why I’m here,” Jilly murmured as they walked together toward the open door. Not that she was sorry to tag along; Dale Ewan, the cofounder of Genesis Gaming, was pretty high on her list of people to meet. “I can’t help you beat up a poltergeist, can I?”
“I told you. I don’t know anything about computer games, let alone this new virtual reality stuff. I need you here to spot when he’s talking bollocks.”
“And to make sure we’re not the ones being scammed for once?”
Sera grinned, which made Jilly anxious. The Ewans, being disgustingly wealthy—and having such offensive taste in architecture—were prime targets for a bit of unique Serafina’s Investigations-style scamming. Jilly, on the other hand, was more inclined to give a lot of leeway to the people who’d come up with such clever and innovative systems that not only brought virtual reality gaming into every enthusiast’s home but increased the effectiveness so drastically. Jilly wanted to pick the guy’s brains, have long and involved conversations with him about present technology and future possibilities. On this particular occasion, she really didn’t want Sera taking the piss.
Unless, of course, he pissed first.
Besides, Sera always sussed her clients out before she acted—people made up stories for all sorts of reasons—and after the vampire fiasco last year, she was much warier of making snap judgments. Jilly was warier of lots of things, mostly vampires.
A slender, glamorous woman appeared in the threshold. She was a little older than Jilly and Sera—maybe midthirties—blonde, fully made-up even in her carefully casual designer jeans and artfully sloppy shirt in a stunning shade of blue. Jilly found herself coveting that shirt. It probably cost a month’s mortgage payment on her flat.
“Miss MacBride? I’m Petra Ewan.” Her accent was English without being limited to region, somewhere between posh and merely privately educated.
Sera, who was seldom upstaged by money or glamour, even in her cheap jeans and lived-in leather jacket, smiled back and held out her hand. “Mrs. Ewan,” she returned, and as their hands clasped, she went on, “This is my colleague, Jill Kerr. We hear you have a troublesome poltergeist.”
Petra Ewan’s gaze flipped briefly to Jilly and, clearly recognising her as of little account, moved back to Sera. “Not sure what it is, to be honest, but it’s scaring the hell out of me. Out of both of us.”
Sera smiled noncommittally and released the woman’s hand. By now, she’d know if the wealthy Petra was lying. As their hostess turned and led them inside the house, Sera glanced at Jilly, lifting one eyebrow and one corner of her mouth. Petra, it seemed, was truthful thus far. She really was scared of something.
“So who all lives here?” Sera asked as they entered a bright, spacious hall, which seemed to double as a kind of reception room. It had white walls and wooden floors, and there were no coats or shoes lying around. Not even an umbrella. “Besides you and your husband.”
A wide staircase swept up one side to a horseshoe-shaped gallery above, where there were lots of white pillars and arches and almost-hidden doors, and a large, floor-to-ceiling mirror at the halfway point of the horseshoe.
“Just us,” Petra said, walking across the space to where two sofas were tastefully arranged around a fake fireplace. She gestured to them to sit.
Jilly sat, resisting the urge to perch on the very edge. She felt as if she was waiting to be interviewed for a job. She tried to imagine living in a house this large. Even with five or six other people, you could probably avoid each other successfully for days at a time. Satisfying or lonely? She wouldn’t mind finding out. Providing she could eventually go back to her cosy—and safe—little tenement flat overlooking Holyrood Park.
“It’s a big house,” Sera observed. “Don’t you have staff?”
“Oh yes, but they don’t live in.”
“Are they here now?” Jilly asked, wondering if it was normal for Petra to open her own front door.
Petra’s groomed eyebrows flew up, as though surprised that Jilly could speak. People often looked at Jilly like that. They imagined that, because she looked like a pretty china doll, she had no brain.
Petra said, “No. Mrs Forbes doesn’t come in on Tuesdays. Neither does the cleaner. The gardener might be around outside.”
“It was your husband who spoke to my receptionist,” Sera observed. “Are you both bothered by this poltergeist, or does it favour one of you over the other?”
Petra shuddered. “It’s just there.”
“Is it here now?” Sera asked.
“You tell us,” said quite another voice entirely. Jilly twisted around to see a man in the wide arch that led beyond the entrance hall. This must be Dale Ewan, cofounder of Genesis Gaming. Jilly had read an article on him a few weeks ago, after she’d got their newest game for Christmas. Having never bothered much with VR before—it had seemed at too early a stage to be interesting—she’d been blown away. Jilly didn’t often have yearnings to meet the rich or famous, but she reckoned the mind behind Genesis games must be worth knowing.
And he did appear to be a dramatic man, about as far from technical geek as you could get: tall, good-looking and well-groomed, with smartly cut, short, brown hair. He wore a shirt without a tie and suit trousers without the jacket.
He swaggered toward them, saying, “Being able to recognise the presence of a poltergeist is the only reason we’d consider hiring you.”
Sera said at once, “Well, that works out okay, because it’s also the only reason we’d consider being hired.” Which wasn’t strictly true. If there wasn’t a poltergeist, they were quite capable of taking the money anyway for scaring off an imaginary one. As Sera had often pointed out, their clients still slept more soundly in their beds, so it was still a service of sorts.
Jilly rose to her feet along with Sera, who said, “Mr. Ewan, I presume.”
“Miss MacBride.” He accepted Sera’s outstretched hand, but only for a moment. Unlike his wife, his accent bore traces of Scots, although again, Jilly couldn’t have labelled it with any particular region.
Dale Ewan had all the presence of a confident, successful man without any obvious signs of the social awkwardness Jilly observed in many of her geekish friends. Curiously, she was disappointed. Geeks were easier to talk to.
Dale turned his piercing blue gaze on her, and his eyes widened.
Jilly’s disappointment deepened. Although she often had this effect on men, she’d expected better from Dale Ewan. Still, over the years, she’d learned to use men’s admiration, and so she smiled as he murmured, “And this is…?”
“My colleague, Jill Kerr,” Sera said, amusement tingeing her tone.
Dale Ewan, owner and director of the most successful and innovative computer game company in the country, if not the world, took her hand and held it for longer than he had Sera’s.
“I’m a huge fan of your games,” Jilly blurted with perfect honesty. “Totally ingenious.”
“Thank you,” he replied with a winning smile. Although it came to Jilly with yet another stab of disappointment that if he’d actually heard what she’d said, he didn’t rate it. What did a blonde bimbo know of the technical genius necessary for the sort of wonders Genesis Gaming produced?
Well, why should he perceive what no one else did?
She slid her hand free to find Petra watching her with cynical amusement. As if she tolerated her husband looking because there was nothing about Jilly besides a pretty face to inspire him to do anything about it. Fair point.
“So tell us about this poltergeist,” Sera urged. “How long has it been bothering you? When did you first notice it?”
“Months ago,” Petra said bitterly. She glanced at her husband. “About five?”
He nodded. “Around then, although at first it was so slight that we didn’t pay much attention. It was just little things, like a glass falling off a shelf, papers blown around on my desk as though the window had been left open. Only it’s gradually got worse.”
“So what does it do now?” Sera asked, sitting down as if to get comfortable for a long story.
Dale Ewan moved, hemming Jilly in, and sitting down where she’d been, forcing her to move along and sit beside him. She kept a decent space between them, was aware without looking of Petra observing her.
“Trashes the place,” he said at last.
“Oh dear. When was the last time it did that?”
“Last night,” Petra said, her voice hollow.
Sera and Jilly both glanced around the clear, spotless room.
Jilly said, “You must have been up early clearing the mess.” Maybe that was why there was no stuff lying around.
“Oh, it wasn’t here in this room,” Dale said. “It was upstairs. Do you want to see?”
“I think we should,” Sera said with careful patience. “Jilly?”
Obligingly, Jilly got out her laptop and the “gizmo” she carried around mostly for show. Sera was the only instrument they really needed.
Jilly opened the laptop, pressed the power button, and twisted the monitor panel until she could lay it flat like a slightly fat tablet.
Although Dale Ewan cast an amused eye in its direction, his gaze lingered on the less recognisable gizmo. “What’s that?”
“It reads any unusual elements in the environment—gasses, radiation, etc. It also reads changes in temperature very quickly, which can be a useful guide to the presence of spirits.” Jilly switched it on and stood, jerking the laptop bag into a more comfortable position on her shoulder.
“What does it say now?” Dale demanded.
“Nothing very much.”
“We’ll take readings here first, and then in the place the spirit was last active,” Sera explained.
“I thought you were a medium,” Petra said, frowning.
Sera said. “I am. In this day and age, we use all the technical help we can find too. Lead on.”
Both the Ewans led the way toward the staircase, although Petra kept glancing back over her shoulder, as though anxious to make sure they were following.
“Well?” Jilly murmured.
“There’s something going on,” Sera breathed. “Gives me the creeps. Very, very faint creeps, it’s true, but there could well be something in the house.”
“Well, there’s bugger all furniture.”
Sera swallowed a laugh and hurried after their hosts. Jilly followed more slowly, the gizmo attached to the screen of the laptop which she carried as she walked. She’d already detected Wi-Fi, and found her way into the Ewans’ network. Several personal computers and printers and assorted unidentified hardware. The gizmo was picking up powerful electronic activity, far more than was justified by the hardware she’d located. Interesting.
She’d leave it to Sera to pick up the psychic stuff, while she tried to figure out the electronics.
“You work from home, Mr. Ewan?” Jilly asked as they reached the top of the stairs.
“Dale, please. And yes, very often I do. We have offices in Edinburgh and London, of course. I divide my time between there and here.”
“Any of your colleagues come here to work?” Sera asked.
“No. Or at least only occasionally as messengers or for a quick chat. Never to sit down and actually work. Why?” They were walking around the gallery, past arches and closed doors. One door, about the centre of the gallery, wasn’t quite closed, but Dale and Petra led them past it. The gizmo was quite excited by now—either there was even more electronic activity up here, or they were closer to its source. Or both. Jilly pretended to ignore it.
For an instant, she caught sight of them all trouping past the large mirror: Dale and Petra, the perfect, beautiful couple, tragically worried, like the leads in a popular suspense film; Sera, cool, capable, and active in her leather jacket and short, almost spiky black hair framing her fine-featured, ever-curious face. Sera seemed almost to glow with vitality these days, as if she were happy.
And finally, glancing surreptitiously at the mirror, came Jilly herself in her figure-hugging, short-skirted, grey suit, clutching tablet and gizmo, not a blonde hair or a fleck of makeup out of place; the stranger she’d so carefully manufactured and plastered on for the world. With a rare jolt, she wondered if she, Jilly, was still in there.
Sera said, “A poltergeist can form from negative thoughts and emotions of the living, not just the angry spirits of the dead. To get it to disperse, it helps to understand where it came from. It could be from you or from frequent visitors to your house.”
Dale paused outside the final door and cast them a sardonic smile. “I don’t think any of my workers are that unhappy. This is where it went ape last night.”
He flung open the door, and Sera stepped forward. Petra, Jilly noticed, made no effort to go in.
The room had certainly been spectacularly trashed. The entire floor was covered with splintered wood, feathers, ripped books, shards of glass, what looked like bits of machinery and clothing, and, surely, a shredded mattress. The light fitting was no more than a frayed wire dangling from the ceiling. Dents and scratches of various sizes were scattered over the walls and the door, as if hard objects had been flung at them with considerable force.
“Bloody hell,” Sera observed in awed tones. “It looks like someone took a wrecking ball to the place. Except,” she added as her glance moved on, “the window isn’t broken. What is this room? Your bedroom?”
“No, thank God,” Dale said fervently. “It’s just a spare bedroom. We used it a bit like a storeroom, shoved things in here to get them out of the way—old computers, books, clothes for charity collections, that kind of thing.”
Jilly stepped into the midst of the rubble. Beside her, Sera had gone still and quiet, trying to feel for whatever had caused this mess. If the Ewans hadn’t just had a massive fight and wrecked the place from temper. Although even Jilly had to admit it would have to have been a hell of a temper and pretty drawn out to achieve quite this much carnage.
“So what actually happened?” Jilly asked. “Were you in here when the trouble started?”
“No, I woke up to these awful crashing sounds,” Petra said from outside the door. “I thought a plane had crashed into the house or something, but it was all coming from this direction, and it didn’t let up, so then I knew… I yelled for Dale.”
“And where were you?” Jilly asked him. He stood on the other side of the door, looking in with a wariness that seemed genuine.
“In my study along the gallery there.” Dale nodded back the way they’d come, perhaps toward the slightly open door Jilly had already noticed—if it was his study, it would perhaps explain the massive electronic activity in that area of the house. “I ran around when I heard it, met Petra at our bedroom door. We both knew what it was. We didn’t go in until it stopped. It would have been suicide.”
“But you did go in immediately after?” Jilly pursued. “You didn’t go away and then come back?”
“No, we huddled in the hall here and waited for it to stop. After about five minutes of silence, I opened the door and found this.”
“And was the window open or closed?” Jilly asked.
“Closed and locked,” Petra said. “Why? Are you imagining some disgruntled employee broke in, trashed the place, and climbed back out through the window?”
Jilly shrugged. “It crossed my mind. We have to eliminate all the physical possibilities before the psychic can really be considered.” She glanced at Sera, who’d started to move around the room again as best she could, picking her way through the mess.
“There’s nothing here now,” Sera said shortly. “But I can feel something, an echo.”
She reached out, touched the pristine window frame. Her breath caught, and she drew back, blinking.
“What?” Jilly asked and received a false, bright smile.
“Nothing. Yet.” She swung toward the door. “Does it always stick to this room?”
“Oh no, it roams all over the house. It’s flung things around the kitchen, the main sitting room, my study, Petra’s sitting room. But never as badly as this. This made me realise we really have to do something about it. It’s going to kill us.”
Sera nodded. “It’s obviously growing, picking up your negative energy and adding it to its own. Does it only make its presence felt at night?”
“So far. Why is that?”
Sera shrugged. “Humans’ primal fear of darkness. More negative emotions around, makes it stronger. Okay,” she said decisively, making for the door. “Let’s see if we can’t have a chat with it while it’s weak enough not to hurl us off the walls.”
Petra’s jaw dropped. “You want to bring it?” she managed at last, pointing with a shaking hand back into the bedroom. “That?”
“Worth a shot,” Sera said breezily. “Let’s try somewhere it’s been before but somewhere you still feel comfortable.”
“Like with chairs,” Jilly murmured, clambering over the broken wood with her laptop still intact.
“I don’t want to do this,” Petra said, sounding genuinely frightened. “I thought you were going to get rid of it, not invite it in again.”
“Afraid it’s here already. We need it to come out of hiding to get rid of it,” Sera said cheerfully.
Jilly tried and failed to peer in the crack of the one not-quite-shut door.
“Don’t worry,” Sera continued. “I can handle poltergeists. Remember, it doesn’t seem to be trying to kill you—it didn’t form in your presence when it did that.” She jerked her head back toward the spare bedroom.
“Then what the hell’s its problem?” Dale fumed, throwing open one of the farther doors.
“I’ll ask it,” Sera said without emphasis, and Jilly stifled a grin.
Dale paused, frowning. “You mean you actually hold conversations with these—things?” he said uneasily.
Jilly brushed past him into the room—again white and tediously empty of anything more interesting than an abstract painting and a large vase of expensive dried flowers—and perched on the arm of the nearest sofa, the laptop bag still dangling carelessly off her shoulder. She arranged the laptop on her knee while Sera answered.
“Well, I can converse up to a point. Poltergeists use their violence to communicate, so understanding tends not to come from words.”
Behind Sera’s back, Dale and Petra exchanged a hurried, almost panicked glance. Dale gave an infinitesimal shrug and Petra’s eyes fell.
Whoa. Something’s going on here… The back of Jilly’s neck prickled like a pincushion. From disappointment in Dale’s…ordinariness, she was now hearing definite alarm bells.
Sera was the one with the psychic gifts. She could tell truth from lies, read past events and emotions from a simple touch. But Jilly had grown up in a family of criminals. She could spot shifty when she saw it.
Shifty plus all that unexplained electronic energy equalled what? Were they going to create a fake poltergeist electronically for Sera’s benefit? Sera would spot it, of course, and besides, Jilly couldn’t really see the point unless the couple were really, really bored.
Whatever, they seemed prepared to cooperate. Well, it was their own money they were spending.
They all sat down in what was, apparently, Petra’s sitting room, although it was hardly Jilly’s idea of cosy. It was a magazine’s idea of tasteful. White walls, clean lines, minimalist furniture made of steel and limited upholstery. Uncomfortable for arm perching, but what Jilly really wondered was where all Petra’s stuff was. Nothing here proclaimed her interest in anything other than interior design—probably someone else’s interior design. Maybe her bedroom gave more away, or some other room in the bowels of the massive house that no casual visitors ever saw. That was okay; Jilly could relate to privacy.
While Sera sat back, eyes closed, reaching out to any dead intelligence she could find, the Ewans watched her with anxious fascination. And Jilly watched them. She almost missed the cooling of the temperature, the change in Sera’s breathing that signified her excitement. She’d found something.
The curtains swished; air brushed against Jilly’s cheek. Her spine tingled in alarm. The rug under her feet undulated. Petra squeaked. Dale muttered something that sounded like, “Oh fuck.” They clutched each other.
Jilly knew how they felt. This sort of thing gave her the willies. However, at least she was used to it to the extent that it no longer paralysed her, and none of it—except the vampires last year—had ever fazed Sera. So when everyone’s attention was on the shifting items in the room or on Sera herself, Jilly simply stood up and slipped away, leaving her friend to face it alone.