Read the second of my eight stories which comprised the Chronicles of Mark Johnson.
THE PORTHERN CASE
Since resolving the matter of the trapped spirits at the old Morton house a few years prior, Mark Johnson’s expertise and skills as a photojournalist were in demand again. He was now getting serious job offers for both his photographic and writing skills. Even though wealth was heading his way, Mark had not changed. He preferred to stay a recluse in his cottage by the coast, his only contact with the outside world being his lady friend, the artist Annette Palmer, and his agent, Phil Moore. He had met Annette a few months earlier while on a case. He had felt an affinity towards her from the moment they met.
Today he was out walking the dog, when the house phone rang.
“Hello, Phil, what can we do for you?" Annette asked.
“Hi, Annette. I think I might have a story for Mark, plus a chance of some art work for you at the same time.”
“Sounds interesting. Go on.”
"I've just had a call from a man called Patrick Kingsley. He said he'd like the two of you to meet him at Darringby."
“Did he say what he wanted us for, Phil?”
"No. All he said was that it would be right up your street, both for you as a painter and for Mark as a photojournalist.”
“Sounds interesting. All we need do is sell it to Mark, but we know how obstinate he can be at times.”
“You don’t need to tell me. I've known him a long time and I still can't work him out. Here he is making a living again, instead of just surviving, and you are still stuck in the back of nowhere with little comforts. Can’t you convince him to get some luxuries?”
“Now Phil, you should know there is no way I can get him to buy something unless he wants it - or I can coax him to get it for us. We're happy here. Neither of us watches the television. We have our music, our food and each other.”
“How about a new car for the pair of you? Your old one is near its end.”
“That’s true, especially as Mark can’t walk far these days, since his leg got injured.”
"Then how are we going to pitch this to get his interest?”
“I have to admit that’s going to be hard. He doesn’t go out on a limb for strangers, unless he spots something to pique his interest. Wait! I have an idea, Phil!”
“If you can get a vague idea of what this man wants, I can take the two of us out for a drive one day. I’ll take him in the direction of our mystery caller to see if he shows an interest.”
“Sneaky, but it might work," Phil laughed as they ended their call.
Days turned into weeks. Mark and Annette continued enjoying time together, loving the seclusion of their cottage. Annette sold her paintings at local fairs in the nearby town, which gave them a little extra spending money. Mark was happy taking photographs in the area, pleased to see his work admired as well as his writing being published and read. They were content with their lot.
Then one Tuesday the phone rang.
Mark answered. “Hi, Phil.”
“Hi, Mark. Is Annette in?”
“Yes, she is. I’ll get her for you. Can I tell her what it’s about?”
“Don’t worry, my friend, she’ll know.”
Mark was curious. What on earth was Phil phoning Annette about that she already knew? I wonder what can this be about? Phil only calls me ‘my friend’ when he wants something, he mused, stepping through the back door to find Annette.
As he strode into the garden, Mark observed Annette sitting in the far corner, looking out over the cove. As he watched the swooping of the gulls and guillemots amid the beauty of the countryside around them, he could see Annette watching the shoreline and could not help giving silent thanks for the gift of such a wonderful woman. They had been together for four months now, with never a cross word. Attuned to each other, they calmly discussed their differences of opinion, rather than fighting. Hugs of appreciation usually ended such debates.
“Love, Phil is on the telling-bone,” Mark called out. Recalling the television series Catweazle, he laughed at the phrase he had used.
“Oh, okay, on my way.”
As she passed him, she gave him a quick kiss and a hug. Mark knew something was afoot, but could not figure out what scheme his love and best friend were cooking up.
As Annette picked up the phone, she looked around to check where Mark was. He might be intrigued, but he always gave her privacy.
“If it’s to do with me, she will say something," Mark thought as he ambled over to the kitchen.
Phil started talking. “About the matter we discussed earlier - our client got back to me yesterday and said if you are still interested, you might be able to help solve a mystery.”
“How are you going to pitch it to Mark? You need to get him up there.”
“I have the answer already.”
“Oh! That quick? I thought it would take a lot longer.”
“You gave me the answer to our problem.”
“I did! How?"
“When you said we needed a new car! I saw one in the Market Holm Times last week that seems just right for us.”
“Well, that's lucky. It's just down the road from Darringby. Once you have the car, perhaps you can go for a ride to see what our friend wants.”
“That's what I thought we'd do.”
“He gave me directions. When you get to Darringby, take the Porthern Road, about two miles down the hill, you'll see an old derelict house that's supposedly haunted!”
“What happened there?”
“That's the mystery, nobody knows or if they do, they won't say. There have been reports of strange sightings and noises at all hours of the day.”
“That's odd! Most spirits come out at dusk. This has me really puzzled, Phil. I am truly motivated to drive Mark out there, now."
“Great news, Annette. So you think you can do it then?”
“Consider it done! When does he want to see us?”
“He didn't’ say. I explained about getting Mark involved in this and how hard it might be. We agreed that once you get Mark interested, you will phone me, then I can call him and we can see about arranging a meeting.”
“We can probably get things underway by next Tuesday. I know we will be free as Mark chose that day to get revitalized - no shooting or writing.”
When the weekend came, Annette started to drop hints about the trip.
“Darling, we really need a new car!”
“Yes. I suppose we do and we can afford one now. Let's put this poor old thing to rest; she's been good and deserves her peace now.”
“I saw the perfect car for us in the Market Holm Times last week.”
“I did wonder why you were reading it, love. Thought you might be thinking of us getting another house there.”
Annette laughed at the idea. “You! Talking of a second house? The very idea!”
“Well, what else was I to think?”
“No, I was just looking for a new car for us. It's something we need now, and Market Holm has the perfect one for us. I thought since we are free on Tuesday, we could pick it up then and later spend the day in Darringby.”
“Does this have something to do with that phone call from Phil a few days ago?”
“Yes. In some ways it does.”
“Some ways? In what way?”
“I can’t tell you, love. I want you to see something for yourself, before you make a decision.”
Mark smirked and gave Annette a wink and a sly grin. “That explains so much! Phil called me ‘my friend', which is something he only does when he wants my help!"
Tuesday arrived and the couple drove to Market Holm to view their prospective new car.
“She certainly looks like good value,” Mark commented. “Not too many miles on the clock and nice paintwork. A few dents and scratches, nothing excessive that I can’t repair myself. We'll take her.”
“I know it was wrong of me to get you here under false pretences," Annette said warmly, "but we do need the car.”
Mark winked at Annette. "Well, we won’t say 'false pretences' then, will we, darling? Just hidden truths. So, now we know there is another reason for the trip. What are we looking for, love?”
“I'm as much in the dark as you, honestly. All I know is that a man contacted Phil, saying he thought we could solve a mystery here. We haven’t arranged to meet him yet, as we didn't know if you would be willing to do a piece on this - whatever it is!”
“Well, I am certainly intrigued so far. You know how I love a juicy mystery!”
They got into their new car, drove out of Darringby and headed along the coast road. When they reached the junction that turned onto the Porthern Road, they drove slowly, not knowing the route. They were about two miles down the road, looking for the house that Phil had described, when the engine stalled. The fuel gauge was reading full, yet the engine was dead. All other power was working - the radio, lights and wipers worked, but not the engine.As they gazed down the road, they could see the house. It was only a few hundred yards away, yet it appeared to be covered in darkness. As Mark and Annette sat in their car, surrounded by blue skies and bright sunlight, they watched in amazement as they heard thunder and saw rain lashing down on the house.
Mark looked on in shock, “As you have the talent to tune in to things as well, can you see the snake winding around the house? Look at the grounds as well. The area by the fence is dead. It is almost as if there is an oil seepage there, killing everything it touches.”
Annette shook her head as she looked at the house. “Yes, I see the snake. It is not around the house. The house is the source. It is spreading out away from the house. If you look carefully, you can see the ripples as it moves away.”
“Now I am more than interested,” Mark said, as the engine suddenly decided to turn over.
They drove back to the crossroads.
Annette was having trouble breathing. She had gone very pale and her hands shook as she said, “Wow, that was weird, and scary!” Mark could hear the emotion in her voice.
He looked at her. “You can call Phil and tell him that I am in.”
They drove back to Darringby, stopping at a petrol station to have a drink of coffee to calm their nerves. As he looked back at the house from the petrol station, Mark could see the air movement patterns gathering the heavy clouds together, blocking the light out. It was almost as if an evil spirit was within, sucking darkness to the house and as the darkness got stronger, pushing the light away. Something was sucking energy from somewhere and blocking off the sun. Mark was now determined to find out what it was.When they arrived home they had a serious discussion about what had transpired.
“What did you make of it, love?" Annette asked.
“I don’t know, darling. It didn't look good. Whatever it is, it's feeding from energies deep within the dead ground near the house.”
“Are you still interested, now that we've been there?”
“Try and stop me! I thrive on these stories!”
“How are we going to go about this?”
“I have a great idea. I'll take some video shots showing the air movement I saw. Then we'll go down with clear minds - no images of what we saw the other day. You can paint the spirits around the house, and I will move around taking photos.”
“From what we saw, will you have the light for that, love?”
“Couldn't be better for what I am doing.”
“Sorry! You have lost me now!”
“For what I wish to do, I need infrared films.”
“So what, if anything, do you think we'll find?”
“I have no idea, love. Which is why we need to have a clear mind in order to let the spirits tell us who or what is in that house.”
“I will phone Phil in the morning and tell him your idea.”
All that night Mark tossed and turned, hardly daring to close his eyes, afraid of the demons he might find when they returned to Porthern.
Annette called Phil the next morning to tell him the plans for the trip.
“I'm worried!” Phil said. “If this power is as evil as you say, there may be a grave chance you will not return, and I couldn't bear to lose my best friends on a wild chase into Lord knows where. Believe me, Annette, I have seen Mark do hairy things and barely get back.”
“Then you know, there is no way he won’t go through with this now?”
“Yes. I just pray to God you do get back.”
“Count me in on that, Phil. This really creeps me out. I wish now we'd never thought of this plan."
“Me, too. It seemed a good idea at the time. Now I have to hope my best friends don’t get killed, or I'd never forgive myself!”
Later that afternoon, Phil telephoned Patrick Kingsley and made arrangements for them all to meet at the Darringby Library. When Phil, Annette and Mark arrived at the library, they were met by an old man wearing a battered raincoat and a seaman’s cap.
“Hello, I am Patrick Kingsley," he said.
“Pleased to meet you. I am Phil Moore. You phoned me about the mystery - and these are my very close friends, Mark Johnson and . . ."
Before Phil could complete the introductions, he was interrupted by Mr. Kingsley.
“The attractive young lady is none other than Annette Palmer. I am so honoured, Miss Palmer. I have admired your work for many years."
“Thank you so much, kind sir,” Annette replied, blushing slightly.
The older man continued. “As you can see, I am an ex-sailor. I sailed for most of my life in trawlers, steamers and even the odd tramp when times got hard.”
“Excuse my ignorance, but what is a tramp?" Annette queried.
“She is an unchartered ship, usually flying a flag of convenience, which means she is paid to do dirty works like smuggling or things other ships consider too dangerous.”
“Isn't that extremely dangerous?” Annette asked with concern.
“Yes it is, ma’am! We got a slightly raised pay but took a lot more risks. We ran closer than was safe to shore in order to outrun customs men, went up rivers nobody else dared to go. We lost many a good man running the tides and rocky rivulets. I wasn't proud of what I did, but a job puts food in your belly. A starving man will do things no other would consider. That is what the bosses relied on.”
“I see Mr. Johnson has come fully equipped," Patrick continued. “I am asking for your help in this case. My last ship went down ten years ago, out there." With tears in his eyes, he pointed to the rocky headland.
“Yes, I noticed from the garage at the top of the road there were atmospheric anomalies. When we went there a few days ago, it was so dark that normal film would not record, so I loaded up infrared films, this time.”
“That is the mystery, Mr. Johnson. My ship was pulled onto the rocks and all hands and cargo were lost. Even though we had four men on the wheel, pulling like lunatics, we still ran aground. I lost all my mates that night.”
Patrick stopped for a while as he fought to get his words out. Tears of pain and loneliness coursed down his cheeks as he mopped them with an old handkerchief.
“How or why I got out, I cannot say. All I know is that I got blamed for the loss of the ship. I lost my license, family and friends. I became a pariah here. Nobody would let me onboard, not even as a lowly deckhand. For a while I had enough back pay to feed myself, but when that ran out, I had to try and go back to fishing to get some food. It was while I was out crabbing that I came across something totally strange.”
He paused, whether for breath or effect it did not matter, his audience was fascinated.
“If you could please spare a few coppers for a pie and a pint for an old sea-dog, I'd be happy to continue.”
Mark went over to the Porthern Arms to get them all some food and drink, returning to a very grateful sailor.
“Thank you, kind sir,” said old Patrick appreciatively. “As I was saying, out past Middern point, where the rocks are on the left, is a giant eddy. Most ships steer wide of the rocks and never get bothered by it. That day, as I said, I was out crabbing and my pots almost got me dragged down. I can tell you, I thought I was dead!”
“Do you think that is what caused the wreck?” Phil queried.
“No, sir, I do not. That was a magnetic surge that pulled us in, of that I am sure. It's the only thing I do know. What happened was caused by something in that house. Which is why I want you to find out what it is and clear my name. I don't have much else left. I just want a clear name when I meet the Lord." As Patrick rose to leave, he turned and said, “I will see you in a few days. If you cannot clear my name, I thank you for taking the time to listen to me, for believing in me and my story, when others just shunned me.”
As the trio looked at the ex-sailor, who had been forced by circumstances to beg a meal from strangers, tears filled their eyes. They wondered if this poor soul would last until they came back. He looked so bedraggled as if a strong breeze would crush his poor body.
“I can only say, please do not go into the house. Some foolish people went in about five years ago and the only thing left of them is the deathly screams we sometimes hear on a cold night, as their souls cry for peace.”
“I will take that into consideration, thank you," Mark replied, almost casually.
Listening to Mark, a chill ran down Phil’s spine. He knew what his friend had in mind.
“Please tell me, Mark, you are not going to do what I think you are?”
“Honestly, Phil, I don’t know myself until I get there. As you know from our past, I go where instinct dictates. I have no plans at all.”
“That's what worries me about you. Sometimes you take so many risks, I wonder if I will have to bury you.”
“The excitement of freeing a soul is so exhilarating it enlivens me.”
“Is it worth the possible cost this time, Mark? I would hate to lose my closest and dearest friend, because he was trying to save souls who probably should have stayed away.”
The trio left the library and walked into the bright sunlit day. It seemed impossible to think that only a few short miles away was an evil force that actually devoured light, excluded all life and fed on the dark energy within the dead ground around the abandoned house. Phil could see from the look on Mark’s face that he was planning something - years of friendship had taught him what to look for.
The group crossed the road to where Phil had parked his car. As he turned the engine on, Phil could see Mark checking his camera bag, and as he pulled out onto the road he asked a question he wished he did not have to. “Everything packed and ready to roll?” The worried look on his friend’s face showed him that Mark was also concerned.
Shortly afterwards the car topped the hill. In the distance, the house could be seen shimmering. Phil stopped the engine. Turning to the two men Annette asked, “Can we have a little prayer, please, so we can concentrate on this moment. We may not be here again.”
Sitting in the silent car, Mark debated what to do. He thought about what Patrick had told him - and then considered Phil's words. He knew Phil was right. Too many times he had challenged death and won. Sooner or later he was bound to lose.
Mark turned to the others. “Phil, you stay with the car, keep the engine ticking over in case of an emergency. Annette, if you come with me and sit just outside the grounds, I’ll let you find a spot to paint from. I beg of you, under no circumstances come in. I don't know what's in there. If I get in trouble, do not think twice. Run like hell, tell Phil to gun the car and get away as quickly as possible."
Phil shuddered at the thought of losing his best friend.“This could be your best story yet, Mark!” Annette added, “Or your epitaph. . . He died saving souls and fighting demons.”
Mark laughed, “Talking of epitaphs, can’t I choose one? How about:He died doing what he loved?"
Annette and Phil agreed – that was the appropriate epitaph.
Looking at their sad faces, Mark laughed, “Hey! I'm still here; don’t write Mark Johnson off just yet.”
With jaunty strides, Mark and Annette left the car. Walking down the road, their thoughts were as one. Would they see each other again? Or would Annette be writing the story as a memorial to her lost love?
A few hundred yards from the gate, Mark stopped. Turning, he said, “This is our parting, love. Go pick your spot." With that he kissed her and walked on.
As he arrived at the gated entrance, he turned to look back, blew a kiss and crossed himself before entering the doomed and darkened grounds. All he could see was blackness so dark that at times he could not see his hands. He could feel the evil creeping around him, trying to find any weakness in his soul to exploit.
The essence found only a kind soul in Mark, with no signs of greed, jealousy, anger or malice. It was forced to accept a stalemate, as it could not devour Mark any more than Mark could banish it. Mark walked around the grounds, shooting pictures with his camera, not knowing if it would record, as this was essence not substance. He was walking around taking his photographs when suddenly he was forced to blink as a flash of blue light shot at him.
Outside the gate, Annette was sitting still, brush in hand, waiting for guidance from the spirits. Suddenly, her hand started to paint and as she painted, she could see forms inside the house taking shape, moving and changing. All the time that new faces appeared at other windows, new voices asked to be painted in order to capture the agony of being alone.
Mark walked around the grounds, feeling a pull on his soul, half of him wanting to go in, the other half saying “stay here.” It was a tough choice to make. He knew one way or another no one would blame him for his actions. Slowly plucking up courage, he advanced to the door of the old house. It was covered with the slime of old decayed wood and emitted a pungent and disgusting stench. Mark slowly opened the door and was immediately hit with an overwhelming feeling of misery from within the house. Many lost souls lived within these walls, yet he somehow felt that to free them was beyond his control.
Annette’s spirit guide was painting a giant worm that covered the house, encircled the grounds, with teeth and faces exuding from every pore. It was almost as if this had lived deep within the grounds for centuries.
Mark was walking around the upper floors when he heard Annette call to him. “Please do not open the door, love!”
The terror in her voice was so clear that he obeyed, walking past the door, leaving it closed. After he had run down the stairs and out the door, he looked back, kissed his cross and never turned around.
“Thanks for the warning love,” he called to Annette.
“What warning? I didn't shout to you. I thought you wouldn't hear me if I did, anyway.”
“But I heard you clear as now!”
“Believe me, darling, I did not call out to you. Where were you when you heard me?”
“On the upper floor, third door on the left.”
“Oh God!” Annette cried.
“What’s up, love?”
“Look at the spirit painting!”
As Mark examined the painting, he could see that behind the door in question was the main mouth of the snake, its jaws snapping and drooling.
The next few minutes passed slowly, as the couple thanked the spirits for saving Mark, and bringing him back to safety. Then the two lovers walked back to the car. Sitting in the car, knuckles tense and ready, Phil hardly noticed the pair until Annette said, “It’s okay, Phil, you can relax now.”
“I saw Mark go in and thought the next thing I would hear would be Annette screaming at me! Why aren't you harmed, Mark?”
“The only reason I can think of," Mark explained, "is that because I never craved material wealth, nor was I envious of those who did, the essence couldn't find a weakness in me.”
* * *
A few days later, the group met with Patrick. Mark was the one to give him the good news. “I can say without a doubt you are not to blame for the wreck. I went personally to the Gazette and told them the whole story. I made a point of impressing upon them that they should let everyone know the wreck was absolutely not your fault.”
“I cannot thank you enough, young man. I lost everything after that, especially my good name. Thank you for getting it back for me.”
“You are so welcome, Captain Kingsley.”
“It's been so long since I've heard that, I've forgotten the sound of it.”
For the next few months Patrick was treated like royalty. He was asked to give lectures about his adventures and to give sailing tips to young men.
And then, one day, an obituary appeared in the Porthern Gazette.
Former Captain Patrick Kingsley passed away peacefully last week in his sleep. The people of this town deeply regret the many wrongs we did him in the past, and hope he forgave us.
It has been proven beyond doubt that the loss of the SS Pameridge had nothing to do with Captain Kingsley. It was caused by forces unknown. This paper wishes to let the truth be known.
The article ended with the comment “Patrick will be deeply missed around the town.”
As they stood by the grave, Phil spoke. “I'm glad you were able to clear his good name, Mark, but something still bothers me about this!”
“What's that, Phil?”
“What was the huge anomaly that pulled the ship into the rocks? And has it gone?”
“I really have no idea, although I suspect it was an unnatural magnetic charge caused by all the grief I felt around me. For the moment all we can hope to do is contain it. This power will never leave as long as men want and crave what others have. Maybe one day we will find a way to neutralize it, but for now we will just keep watch. "
Phil turned to Annette and said, “I have never really understood the connection you two have or how you met.”
Annette thought for a while before replying, “Remind me to tell you one day, Phil.”