A single drop of rain rolled over the tip of Leigh’s nose and hit the map with a thud. Its splatter distorted the icon for one of the many tourist attractions along the Royal Mile, which struck Leigh as appropriate. The rain had calmed, but fresh pools of it had formed in every crevice, pocket, and hole of the city. Leigh refolded the map sloppily, allowing only some of the folds to line up, and stuffed it into her back pack. An irritation was flickering inside of her and one more minute of that useless map was going to ignite it. Flinging her hood back she pulled open the heavy wooden door to the pub she had been pacing in front of for what seemed an immeasurable amount of time. The bartender gave little more than a slight glance upwards before returning her eyes to the ketchup bottles she was marrying. Leigh took a deep breath and approached her.
“I’m sorry to bother, but I’m looking for South Bridge. Can you point me in the right direction?”
The bartender raised her head, sluggishly, as if it too had been weighted down by the heavy rainfall. Without a smile, she asked, “The vaults, then?”
Leigh nodded nervously. The acknowledgement of her desire to engage in paranormal exoticism still made her uncomfortable, even after months of travel.
The bartender gave a sort of grunt, before jotting down a few quick directions on a napkin and silently sliding it towards Leigh. Before she could be thanked, she turned 180 degrees and began removing half empty whiskey bottles from the display shelf.
“Pay Becky no mind. Hospitality is not her strong suit.”
Leigh torqued her head to the right to see that the Australian accent belonged to a tanned, stout, man of about thirty. He had a cartoonish smile plastered on his face, and was gripping a half empty pint glass with both hands.
Leigh nodded graciously and headed for the door, but he called out to her to wait up. After downing what was left of his pint, he jogged towards Leigh and they exited into the cool, grey, day.
After a short walk, the two of them joined what looked very much like a rag tag team of wannabe investigators at the meet-up location. Leigh was surprised, since these tours more often tended to attract couples looking for something out of the ordinary to define their vacations.
“First time?” her companion asked. He had introduced himself as Duck on the way over.
“Here.” Leigh tried to keep her responses short and concise, purposefully revealing very little of herself.
In truth, she had been on so many ghost walks lately that the experiences were all beginning to bleed into one another. But then, she figured that pretty well described tourism as a whole. She had been in Scotland for four days now, but this was her first venture into its ghostly underground. She had been to Castlehill, the site of many historical witch burnings, but was discouraged by the vast number of unthoughtful feet trampling it; dripping ice cream into the porous cobblestone of what Leigh thought one might consider sacred ground. She left in a hurry.
“Been here three times myself.”
This caught Leigh off guard, and she felt her head cock in a very obvious, and perhaps judgemental, way.
“I know,” he replied to her reaction. “But you never know when something will happen. I’d hate to miss it.”
Leigh offered a sympathetic nod. She wasn’t sure why she was being so patronizing. Weren’t they all here for just that? To see something; feel something – to have any type of visceral experience that they could then use to obtain to a sense of knowledge about life and death. That was probably, on some level, why Leigh was there. She attributed her curiosity to a fondness for history, but ghosts aren’t really about history. Ghosts are about the the future, and our inability to understand it; our fear of it. That, Leigh thought to herself, should be the real premise of her book.
Before they entered the vaults, the tour guide offered a rehearsed spiel about the importance of understanding the risks involved. Terrible things had happened in the vaults, and those who had become trapped down there (she explained) were often filled with anger, resentment, and vengeance. As Leigh looked discreetly about her she caught flashes of discomfort in more than a few tourists eyes. Some twitched a little, others fidgeted with their fingers or tried to steady their breathing. During her paranormal travels, Leigh had discovered that most people who did these tours were secretly terrified, as though testing their personal limits. People had become so easy to read. Duck was one of the others, though. He wanted to see something. Needed to, even. He was a man seeking concrete answers, and nothing short of concrete evidence would do. Leigh, on the other hand, was looking to immerse herself in the past. Her research grant depended upon it. Ghost stories interpreted through contemporary frameworks – it would be a bestseller.
In the vaults, they listened to stories about class divides in Edinburgh, about immigration and poverty, gardyloo, and crime. A man who looked as though he’d dressed for bird-watching rather than ghost-hunting gave an audible shudder when the guide talked about grave-digging and the sale of corpses to university professors. Duck laughed more than Leigh was comfortable with, but the damp darkness of the vaults kept her rather distracted.
She took a deep breath and let herself feel it. She tuned out the sound of the guide’s theatrically hoarse voice, and made the restless excitement of the group fade behind her eyes until everything melted away. Then, there was just her… and him.
At first it was just a flicker of light, so faint she almost didn’t notice it. But as she focused, it became more clear. It was the flame of a match, migrating upwards until the glow of a cigarette revealed his face. Or, rather, an echo of his face. More real than a shadow, but less tangible than the touch of someone familiar. They caught eyes and he nodded politely from across the cave-like space. Leigh smiled, and breathed a shallow sigh of relief. He approached her and as he did so the dark engulfed them, hiding them from prying, curious, eyes.
Leigh brought her pen to her paper, still smiling, and whispered, “Hello sir. Thank you for visiting me. Please, share your story.”
The man smiled, and began his tale.