Boom. Lassie from the slums winds up in a castle. Ain’t that a right old fairy tale? If I didn’t know any better, I’d have done up my dreadlocks, worn a tiara and called myself princess. Nah, screw that Disney malarkey. I’m just loving the Isle of Skye right now. This must be what being on holiday feels like. Though how would I know? Seeing as I’ve never done nothing posh like that.
Frances Cockburn wouldn’t let me bring my fox, River, along. Her being a boss lady type, with a big ol’ stick up her arse, who doesn’t want me working in Scottish magic. She said no pets allowed on this particular jaunt, or some such jazz. It’s a proper downer, but hey ho …
In terms of the day job, it’s nose to the grindstone, ’cause I’ve been seconded to what we call the Hamster Squad. They’re the admin gophers where I work. We’re helping organize the Society of Sceptical Enquirers’ biennial conference at Dunvegan Castle.
That’s real, important work right there. And it means little ol’ me is mixing with the great and good of Scottish magic. But being me, l’ve also nabbed myself a wee ghostalking side hustle in Skye’s village of Dunvegan, just for while we’re here. The Society don’t pay me nothing for my labouring, so I have to be creative. Inshallah, they’ll turn my unpaid internship into a proper apprenticeship any day now. I flunked my last test on a technicality, so all I have to do is to take it again and I’m in, baby. But right now, the island’s sea air smells like crisp banknotes to me, and I’m sat in a cottage with a couple in dire need of my skills.
‘So, this here lassie be a real magician? We dinnae need none of that,’ says the husband, Brodie Budge, all gruff like, tossing peat into the stove.
‘I’m a registered ghostalker,’ I correct him. Impersonating a registered magician’s a big offence.
‘Still our shillings you want, right enough.’ He sounds proper annoyed, but I can tell he’s actually masking shame. Poverty does that to you. Better to lash out than admit you’re hard up.
I give his partner, Ellie, a look. She’s a wee mouse. Narrow face, long snout, hunched shoulders like she could disappear into that hole in the skirting board. Brodie’s kinda the same, but more extreme ’cause he’s got actual whiskers poking out round his cheeks. They’re that kind of couple who’ve blended till they resemble each other. It’s there in their body language and facial expressions, and a weird tic of flinching at random moments. Too much sorrow’s written in their eyes too.
‘I’ve been saving from the cleaning jobs I’ve been doing,’ Ellie says, barely audibly. ‘It’s got tae be done.’
‘If my boat hadnae sunk, I’d be good for it,’ Brodie replies, softening.
‘Ah ken. You survived. That’s all that matters, love.’
‘I’m useless. Nae jobs to be had anywhere on this goddamned island.’
‘Dinnae be silly.’ Ellie reaches out and strokes his arm. ‘We’ll be alright.’
Folks out here lost everything during the Big Yin. A massive storm that was. The Hebrides were devastated and so was a huge slice of the west coast of Scotland. Fishermen like Brodie Budge lost their livelihoods as Mother Nature devoured their boats. There’ve even been news reports of debris from broken-up vessels washing up on beaches in Florida. Broke the camel’s back, that did. It was always lean times in the fishing trade anyway, with the way fish stocks were decimated round about the time of the Catastrophe when everything went to shit. Since then, people have been leaving the Island of skye like it was the nineteenth century all over again.
Still, Ellie asked me here to help them, so it is what it is. Be a pro, Ropa, just like them suit and tie folks.
Her and him live in this old shepherd’s cottage on the outskirts of the village. The whitewashed walls could do with some DIY. Walking in, I was also worried the slate would fall off the roof on top of my head. The room we’re in now is pretty glum, with the windows boarded up, and a solar lamp illuminating ’cause the power’s gone again. Springs in the sofa poke my behind. Could do with some reupholstering – I’m sure these date from before them two were sprogs. There’s wires dangling out of a broken socket in the wall too. It’s definitely seen better days, but I still don’t see how this pair could afford a pad like this. Reckon one of them must have inherited it.
There’s a pink teddy bear underneath the coffee table.
I can smell damp in the air and glance at the black mould painting Guernica on the walls. An almighty draught’s blowing in from somewhere, cancelling out the fire’s warmth.
‘Morag said you could help us,’ Ellie says with an air of desperation. Good ol’ Morag. She’s a good egg, my favourite of the staff at the castle, and has had my back since we got there. Her and me have been lounging in downtimes blethering about the myths and legends woven into the fabric of Skye. Half the time I don’t know if she’s spinning yarns or she believes these tales to be true.
‘Sometimes it’s best to leave things the way they are,’ Brodie complains.
‘I cannae sleep nights on account o’ that awful racket. Then I have tae get oot each morning and work mysel tae the bone while you’re moping and wallowing. I cannae take it anymore, Brodie. It’s got tae stop, you hear?’
Ellie breaks away from him and storms off to the far side of the room, keeping her back to us. Brodie clenches his jaw and stays schtum. I’m beginning to regret taking on this gig. Dramarama. Keep it pro, Ropa, I tell myself. When emotions flare, I must be the grown-up in the room. Good thing is, I’ve got tons of practice dealing with my little sister’s wild moods.
‘How long’s this been going on? The haunting?’ I ask to bring them back firmly to the matter at hand.
‘Couple of months,’ Brodie replies.
‘A year and some,’ Ellie contradicts. ‘Started a few weeks after Ava died. Christ, do yous even remember her?’ she snaps at Brodie.
‘What kind of twisted question is that? She was my daughter too. My own flesh and bone.”
‘How often does it happen? I say quickly. I need them to stop bickering and stick to the facts.
‘Used tae be odd times. Once or twice a week, maybe. Now it’s every single night. I wake up tae hear the sound of my dead bairn wailing. And all I can think about is how I used tae hold her in my arms and rock her tae sleep at night.’
‘Both of you hear these sounds?’ I ask.
‘Aye. I’ve entered the nursery many times and seen the cot bed rocking back and forth all by itself,’ says Brodie. ‘But it’s nothing tae be afeard of. Ava’s soul is just here with us. Cannae you see that?’
‘Jesus Christ. Listen tae yersel. It’s got tae stop,’ says Ellie.
Morag, who lined up this gig for me, didn’t tell me the couple weren’t in alignment. But I’ve seen it all. Not everyone who has a resident poltergeist wants it gone. There’s people who hold on to the souls of the dearly departed, unwilling to let go. My grandmother told me that kind of situation’s none too salubrious. Grief and growth go hand in scythe. Eventually, you have to move on. Try telling that to those who’ve loved and lost, though. But I also know that the souls of babies don’t linger unless they’re held by force, by strong emotions. The well of sorrow’s a tough place to tread water in. But in the murky waters after loss, there are those spirits who aren’t in the light and who may try to move in. That’s when shit gets real dark. First, I have to work out which of these is going on here
Read full excerpt here: Google Books
Excerpt from THE MYSTERY AT DUNVEGAN CASTLE published by Tor Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by T. L. Huchu.