The Spa

The consultant wore spectacles that hung from a chain.

His dark eyes looked sad.

He said, “Louise, how much do you know about the purpose of last week’s tests? Do you know what we were looking for?”

“Cancer?”

“Yes. We got the results. The diverticular tumour in your colon is sinister. It’s cancer. I’m sorry.”

“Oh God.”

“I’ve booked you in for surgery at the end of this week. I notice you’ve come here on your own. Do you have someone you can talk to about this?”

“I’m divorced. And my parents are both dead. Of cancer.”

“That doesn’t mean that you are going to die, though. Everyone’s different.”

I went back at work. Life goes on, even with death.

I went back to a scuffed open-plan office to write a story about a fall in nationwide church attendances. I phoned a religious group who a colleague claimed were usually good for a quote.

A male voice said, “Hello?”

“My name is Louise Flanagan. I’m a journalist with the Sunday Chronicle. I wonder if you could spare me a minute of your time.”

The voice said, “I hate journalists.”

“Yes, me too sometimes, and I am one! I’m doing a piece about falling church attendance. New figures are coming out next week. In the past your organisation was critical of this kind of survey.”

“They are scum. The lowest of the low.”

“Who are?”

“You. And your kind. Journalists. You’re sociopaths and parasites.”

“Could we talk about falling congregations?”

“I could tell you a real story, Miss Flanagan.”

“Is it possible you could put me through to someone in your organization who deals with the press?”

“A juicy story. Hard news, I think you people call it.”

“I’m on a deadline. All I want is a few words…”

“Do you believe in the supernatural, Louise?“

“I’m open-minded. Although, my beliefs are usually evidence-based.”

“But what if I could give you evidence?” the voice said.

“Sorry for disturbing you,” I said, and put the receiver down. The phone rang immediately.

The voice said, “Would you like to see some evidence-based proof of the survival of the personality after death?”

“The way my life is going I might be interested. But you’re coming across as someone who is a bit scary and unlikely to provide that proof.”

“Something important is happening down here.”

“Okay, I’ll bite, what?”

“You’ll have to come down and see for yourself.”

“I’d need a story.”

“I guarantee you this will be the story of your career, Louise. Frightening phenomena, black magic, witchcraft, life after death. What if I told you there is a place where all of those things are happening?”

“Let me phone you back.”

Tim the news editor was an old-fashioned journalist-alcoholic with a red face and prematurely grey hair.

I said, “I need to check out a story. It would mean me being out of the office.”

“Okay. What is it?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“That’s not a great start.’

“It’s a ghost story. I was speaking to a guy from a faith group. He reckons there are lots of unexplained phenomena going on.”

“Like what?”

“Well. Ghosts, witchcraft. It’s not hard news, I’ll admit. More of a colour piece.”

“When was the last time you saw a ghost story in a national newspaper?”

“The Sun did one a couple of months ago. Page five I think.”

“As I remember the photos were later exposed as faked in an iPhone app.”

“It’s just a day, Tim. We’re a Sunday – no-one does anything this early in the week anyway.”

“No. I’m sorry. I can’t afford to give you a day away from your desk for that. It’s a stupid idea.”

I preferred Tim’s predecessor, Bernard, now dead. He was a tough guy but had more charm.

Later on I met my friend Hannah in a pub.

She said, “So, have you told your work about the cancer?”

“No.”

“Don’t you have to give notice?”

“I won’t tell them until the last minute. I’m not staff, I work shifts. I need the money.”

“Are you going to tell Michael?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re divorced. And we haven’t spoken for eighteen months.”

“Right.”

“I’m going up north tomorrow.”

“What’s the story?”

“It’s a haunted English village kind of thing.”

Hannah laughed and said, “What?”

“It’s a day out, basically.”

Next morning the train’s air brakes hissed and the carriage doors opened onto the platform of a provincial station.

A grey-haired man with a stooped back stood by the car park’s open iron gate.

He said, “Hello. Sorry, I went off on one over the phone. I’ve been stitched-up by journalists a couple of times, that’s all.  Bill Beard.”

“Nice to meet you.”

He drove me through open countryside. The roads narrowed. We pulled up by the side of some trees and got out.

“Where are we?” I said.

“This is where the story starts, in the clearing just over that stile.”

A sign said, ‘Private Property. No Trespassing.’”

“Ignore it,” Bill said.

We walked through a meadow towards an ornate stone building stuck in the middle of a field.

Bill said, “It’s a mausoleum.”

We stood inside a square room. There was a long glass window in the stone floor.

“What is that?”

“A dead body. This is a grave with a glass top.”

I looked closer. I could see a white face looking out now, the skin sagging over the bones.

“Who is it?”

“His name was Jamieson Calloway.”

“But why is he buried here, like this?”

“He wanted to carry on seeing the fields that he loved after he was dead. His estate owns all the land around here.”

“This can’t be legal. It’s horrible. Bill, why have you brought me here?”

“What if I told you people were coming back from the dead?”

“You mean rising from their graves?”

“In spirit.”

“Bill, I don’t know if I can help you.”

“What if I could show you proof?  Data from full spectrum cameras, digital thermometers, EMF metre readings.”

“I work for a national newspaper. This is too macabre. I’m sorry. Maybe get in touch with a blog or something.”

“People have been murdered.”

“Who?”

“Four members of our staff are dead. That’s almost the entire workforce.”

“How were they killed?”

“One in a car crash. One a stroke. The other two were heart attacks.”

“You said murder.”

“I did.”

“Who killed them?”

“The man in this grave.”

“Before he died?”

“Two before. Two afterwards.”

“I don’t understand.”

“This is only his body, Louise.”

Bill tapped his foot on the window.

I said, “Have you shared your theories with the authorities, the police maybe?”

“Written off as natural causes. All the victims were old so no-one bothered to investigate.”

“What about the coroner?”

“Same.”

“What about the first death you mentioned, the car crash?”

“They claimed Jan fell asleep at the wheel. She was my wife. Look, I can show you proof. My office is on the way to the railway station.”

Bill drove me to set of rooms above a dry cleaner.

“What do you do here?”

“We are a multi-faith ministry.”

“What does that mean?”

“We offer counselling of a spiritual nature to people of all beliefs.”

“Who pays for all this?”

“Me. I own the building. I own and manage several properties in the area.”

A tall, snub-nosed woman walked into the room and said, “Hello?”

“Louise, meet the Reverend Jackie Holmes. She is our multi-faith pastor.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Jackie said, “are you with the Herald?”

“No, I work for the Chronicle, in London.”

“Oh.”

Bill sat in front of a computer and said, “Louise, I’ve got visual and auditory proof. Sit yourself down here.”

He patted a chair.

“What you are about to hear is called EVP or Electronic Voice Phenomenon. It’s the background noise in a recording through which spirits of the dead or other entities sometimes communicate with us. You cannot hear it when it’s being recorded, only afterwards. This is a recording made at the exact time my wife Jay died.”

The video was infra-red and showed a dark room.

There was a stuttering background hum in which a guttural voice, barely audible, said, “Jay, Jay, goodnight Jay.”

“Well, what do you think about that?” Bill said.

“How long is it since your wife passed away?”

“Two years.”

“How long were you married?”

“Fifty-nine years.”

“Bill, maybe you’re still going through the grieving process.”

“This recording was made in our living room the exact moment she was murdered.”

Bill’s eyes welled with water.

Jackie said, “Is everything okay over there?”

“Yes it is. Listen to this, Louise. It was recorded later on in the same session.”

A faint guttural voice said, “You will die, Louise. Jamie says so.”

“Did the voice just say Louise?”

“It did. I thought that would get your attention. That was recorded two years ago.”

“What did ‘Jamie says so’ mean?”

“Jamieson Calloway is the name of the body we just visited.”

Jackie walked over and said, “He was a local farmer. Bill’s a bit obsessed with him.”

“He wasn’t a farmer. He was a landowner. He got other people to do his farming.”

“I’m not saying what you are saying is true,” I said, “but why would Calloway want to murder your colleagues?”

“He was being exposed by our organisation.”

“Exposed as what?”

“A fraud. He was using magic and satanism as s cover up for drug-dealing and prostitution.”

Jackie said, “We don’t actually know that.”

Bill said, “He held pretend black magic parties at the Spa where they had ritual sex. Some of the girls there were trafficked. He had his own light aircraft and his own airstrip.”

“Why didn’t you tell the police?”

“We did. They said they had received a complaint from Calloway that I was harassing them. Jay and I were warned to stay away from him. We had to take down our website and burn our leaflets.”

My phone went off.

“You’re up North aren’t you?” Said Tim. “Get back here. Or you will be in serious trouble.”

The phone cut off.

Bill said, “The reason they murdered my wife, Louise, was because we had got up a petition about the goings-on at the Spa and it got into the Herald newspaper. We were asking questions about the airstrip.”

My phone went off again.

A guttural, metallic voice, barely audible, said, “Die, Louise, in pain.”

“Who is this?”

The phone cut off.

“Everything all right?” Jackie said.

“I think I just got a phone call saying I was going to die.”

“I get them all the time,” Bill said, “my wife got three on the day she was murdered.”

“Perhaps it was a wrong number,” Jackie said.

Bill said, “Shut up, Jackie.“

I looked at my phone.

“That’s weird. It’s not showing up on my recent calls.”

“Funny that,” Bill said. “But then phone calls from demons and dead people wouldn’t show up in the telephone records, would they? I usually get mine at two in the morning.”

“Whoever rang me was right. I am going to die.”

“I’m sorry?” said Bill.

“I have cancer. I found out a few days ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Jackie said, “I’ve heard things have really come on in the last few years with cancer, research-wise.”

“I’m beginning to think this may not be the ideal place for you, Louise,” Bill said.

“No. I’m sorry, I’ve wasted your time. I don’t think I can help you.”

“I’ll drive you to the station.”

Four days later I was rolled into small anaesthetic room.

A man in a surgical mask said, “Good morning, I’m your anaesthetist.”

“Hi. I don’t suppose you could get the surgeon to do a bit of liposuction on my bingo wings?”

“Sense of humour. That’s good. I’m going to put a mask on your face. I want you to breathe slowly.”

Darkness. Then hospital curtains were drawn around a bed.

Mr Singh’s voice said, “I’m sorry Louise, bad news. The tumour was too big. Plan A didn’t work. It’s time for plan B. Oncology.”

I tell myself not to fear the coming death – it will be just like sleeping. I went back to work, and turned up at an NHS cancer ward where a young nurse said, “Louise Flanagan?”

“Yes.”

“I have your chair ready. Over in the corner.”

Hannah said, “Looks comfy.”

The nurse said, “Your notes say you’ve had a PICC line put in?”

A few days before they had surgically implanted a tube that went into my heart.

“Below my right shoulder.”

We were silent while she hooked me up.

Hannah said, “How are you doing?”

“You shouldn’t have bothered coming with me.”

“Michael phoned again.”

“I wish he would stop phoning you.”

“I told him about your diagnosis.”

“What? Why?”

“I thought he might want to know.”

“We’re divorced. He had an affair. He doesn’t care.”

“He’s left her.”

“So. Why should I care? How could I ever trust him again? I would rather die alone in agony than let him anywhere near me. You shouldn’t interfere.”

“I’m sorry. I thought as you’re going through such a hard time..”

“You’re making it harder.”

“Louise, it was me who had the affair. With Michael.”

“What? You pick your moments, don’t you?”

I felt a tear roll down each cheek.

“There was never a good time to tell you. I hoped the operation would make you better. It hasn’t so I had to tell you. I couldn’t have it on my conscience.”

“Did you do it in my house?”

“What?”

“Did you have sex in my house with my husband?”

The nurse walked over and said, “Please. We can’t have that kind of behaviour in here.”

That night I lay in the dark with the light off, my eyes closed, but the sleep didn’t come. The landline rang. I picked it up.

A whispering, metallic voice said, “Die. You’re going to die.”

“Tell me something I don’t know, mate,” I said.

A few hours later I buzzed the intercom of the ‘Faith First’ office.

Jackie opened the door and said, “Louise what on earth are you doing down here?”

“I don’t know. Thought I’d visit.”

“Your hair.”

“I just finished chemo.”

She ushered me inside.

“What can I do for you?”

“I’ve had a few weird phone calls. Is Bill here?”

“I’m so sorry, Bill is dead.”

“What? Oh no. When did he die?”

“He died the night you came and spoke to us.”

“How?”

“He fell outside his house and cracked his skull. His neighbour found him the following morning.”

We walked up the stairs and went into the office.

“Careful where you stand,” Jackie said.

“Why?”

“Glass. Someone threw a brick through the window last night.”

“What? Have you told the police?

“The CCTV wasn’t working outside. The police said there is not much they can do.”

“What will happen to this place?”

“It will close. It was Bill’s thing really. He paid for everything. His children aren’t so keen on it.”

“What will you do?”

“Go freelance. Try and find somewhere that needs a multi-faith minister.”

I said, “That’s an odd job description. Forgive me for asking, are you a person of faith?”

“I suppose so.”

“Do you believe in an afterlife?”

“Actually I do. Yes.”

“Then it could just be feasible that Jamieson Calloway is reaching out and murdering people from beyond the grave.”

“Well, that’s different. That’s just ridiculous.”

“It’s what Bill and his wife believed.”

“What about you, Louise, what do you believe?”

“Right now, I’d like to believe in something, anything. I think that’s why I came down here for a non-existent story. But I need proof. Like the blood in the toilet bowl when the cancer started.”

“Are you married?” Jackie said.

“Divorced. You?”

“I’m in a long-term relationship. What have your doctors said about the cancer?”

“I get my scan results tomorrow. The prognosis isn’t great.”

“You must be frightened.”

“That comes and goes. It’s hard to be brave all the time. I tried to phone the Jamieson Calloway Spa this morning. He had a listed telephone number. The line was dead.”

“To be honest I think you should leave things alone now. As you said, there’s no story.”

“Who lives in the spa?”

“I think a couple of his old girlfriends and some cronies. Don’t you have somewhere better to be?”

“No.”

“Bill and his wife were obsessed with that place. He thought they were a cult who used devil worshipping as a cover for their criminal activity.”

“Were they?”

“I don’t know.”

“I suppose as a multi-faith pastor you would have to minister to a devil-worshipper.”

“That trivialises what I do. But yes, maybe I would.”

She sighed.

“You’ve chosen the wrong day to come down. It’s the winter solstice tonight.”

“What does that mean?

“It means that there will be celebrations at the Spa. I don’t think they would be keen on having a journalist around.”

“I’m not here as a reporter.”

“Oh. Why are you here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Louise, this is the wrong place for you to find any answers.”

“Could I ask you a favour. Can you drive me there?”

The Calloway Spa was ringed by high fences. Jackie drove me to a modern-looking steel gate.

She said, “Be careful in there.”

“I’m a news reporter. I deal with the delusional every day.”

“They probably tell you to get lost. I’ll wait here.”

I walked up a gravel drive and buzzed on an intercom.

“Hello, my name is Louise Flanagan. I’m a… freelance researcher. I’m doing a feature on alternative lifestyles.”

A heavily distorted female voice said, “No journalists.”

“I want to speak to Jamieson Calloway.”

“Mr Calloway is dead.”

“I still want to speak to him.”

There was a pause. Maybe twenty seconds. Then a pedestrian entrato the right of the front gate swung open.

I saw an old stone building that made me think of a castle.

A young woman walked across the gravel, holding out her hand.

“Miss Flanagan? My name is Aurora, Mr Calloway’s senior assistant.”

“How many assistants are there?”

“A few. Everybody gotta serve somebody, isn’t that what Bob Dylan says?”

I followed her into the building.

“Welcome to the Abbey of Calloway Jamieson. Although most people around here call it the Spa.”

We walked into a red-carpeted reception room.

“What goes on in this place?” I said.

“People come from all over the world to take part in rituals, chanting, fasting, spiritual exercises and of course to confer with Mr Calloway. Also field sports, which he was fond of. Amongst other things. May I see your National Union of Journalists card?”

I instinctively rummaged in my hand bag. Then I realised I said I was a researcher.

I said, “Do you get many journalists here?

“No. In fact I’m surprised Mr Calloway allowed you in.”

“Mr Calloway?”

Aurora examined my card and handed it back to me. The phone rang at front desk.

Aurora picked it up and said, “The pilgrim has arrived.”

My mobile rang.

I said, “Hello?”

Jackie’s said, “I’m still outside. I’m just checking you are all right. Remember you’re vulnerable.”

“I can’t talk.”

Aurora said, “I’m sorry. We don’t allow mobile phones here, Miss Flanagan. The micro-waves are harmful. I can keep it for you behind the desk.”

“Could I just switch it off?”

“Rules are rules.”

We walked up a long corridor with a thick red carpet.

I said, “Lots of rooms.”

“In my father’s house there are many mansions.”

We stopped by a dark oak door.

A voice said, “Come in.”

We went into a studio. The curtains were drawn. A tall, dark-haired woman sat cross-legged on the floor.

Aurora said, “Louise, this is Paulina, Jamieson Calloway’s voice.”

Paulina said, “On this spiritual plane, anyway.”

She was about seventy, I thought.

“What’s that smell in here?”

“Incense,” Aurora said.

Paulina said, “I am seeing you because Jamieson likes you.”

Thick smoke curled from tapers placed in a circle around the room.

I said, “I can’t breathe.”

“It’s just an aromatic mixture we sometimes use to help get things going. You’ll get used to it.”

“It’s making me feel light headed.”

“Just sit down in the circle.”

Close up I could see her hair was dyed jet black.

Thee was a pentagram chalked on the floor.

“The five-pointed star has always been important in every age of man. It has been found on the walls of Neolithic caves and in the ancient civilisations of the Babylonians and the Mayans.”

I said, “I don’t have a photographer with me. I don’t have my phone either. I’d like to take a picture.”

“Mr Calloway hates photographs. He thinks they can be taken out of context, like words.”

I heard Aurora say, “I’ll leave you two to it then.”

The oak door shut.

I said, “Can I speak to Mr Calloway?”

“Mr Calloway will not speak to anyone until he has observed them. You will be sent a guide from the spiritual plane. Someone who knows you.”

“As in, a dead person?”

Then I heard a voice.

It said, “Hello?”

I said, “Bill?”

“Where am I?”

“The Spa.”

“I’m cold. What’s happened to me”

“You fell over and cracked your head. You… died.”

Paulina said, “That is the wrong spirit. A hanger-on.”

I heard another voice I recognised. Bernard O’Dwyer, my first news editor. A voice long since silenced by death.

He said, “Hello, Hello, is there anybody out there?”

“Bernard?”

“Louise, great to see you again. You look a bit thinner. You’ve lost your hair.”

“I can’t see you.”

“But I can see you. How long has it been, eight years? Sorry I didn’t send you a postcard. They don’t have card shops in hell.”

“You’re in hell?”

“I don’t know if you’d actually call it hell with a capital ‘H’. It is pretty unpleasant, though. What are you doing at the Spa? Have you become a demon-worshipper?”

“I’m on a story.”

“Great stuff. What is it?”

“Needs a bit of work at the moment. Colour piece. Suspicious deaths, village in terror of local Satanists.”

“Ah. If I was still your news editor I’d say drop it. From what I’ve heard those deaths were natural causes. And no one believes in all that supernatural claptrap anymore. I wouldn’t be able to sell it in the morning news conference.”

“I came here because I wanted to know if there might be anything after… life.”

“Life not good enough for you?”

“No, it’s not that.”

“Looking for some answers?”

“Yes.”

“Look. You may not like this, it’s not good for the story – but the truth is I’m not sure if there is an afterlife. Although I’m a spirit. I could very well be a hallucination. Louise, can I go off the record for this?”

“It’s always more valuable on the record.”

“I think only evil people live on after death.”

“What?”

“Good people are too wishy-washy. They’re always thinking about others. It dilutes them. After they die they just evaporate. Whereas evil people linger on. Because the more selfish you are, the more concentrated you are and the longer your shade remains. Like a stain that doesn’t wash out.”

“That’s horrible.”

“Don’t you worry though. You’re a journalist. You’ll be around for a long time.”

He laughed at this.

Bill’s voice said,   “Hello, hello, I’m not enjoying myself, here.”

Bernard said, “Join the club, mate. Now leave us alone.”

I said, “What was it like, dying?”

Bernard said, “I’ll take that one. People’s end of life experiences are all different. Mine wasn’t great, to be honest. Lot of pain. Didn’t like morphine. Made me hallucinate.”

“What happened after that, when you died?”

“Some people see a tunnel.”

“Did you?”

“No.”

“I’m going to need more than that for a story, Bernard.  Paulina said you’re supposed to be my guide.”

“This will interest you,” Bernard’s voice said, “one of the positive things about being dead is you can watch football for free.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah, I’m free to roam you see. Just pick someone with a big telly.”

“Doesn’t sound too bad. I thought you said you were in hell?”

“I never said that. You’re quoting me out of context. I said I didn’t know where I was.”

“Is it awful?”

“I have this theory. Nothing is as awful as haunting a High Street on a weekday afternoon. The drizzling grey sky. The soulless chain stores. The charity shops.”

“I have cancer.”

“Tough gig. That’s what I had.”

“I remember.”

Bill’s said, “Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on here?”

Bernard’s voice said, “Go away you old loser. How’s that boyfriend of yours doing, Louise, Michael, was it?”

“We got married. And then divorced.”

Bill said, “I can’t find Jay.  Please, I’m lost.”

Bernard made a kind of whistling sound and said, “Life hasn’t turned out how you wanted. Let’s face it you wouldn’t be hanging around here otherwise.”

“That’s very cruel. I never did like you, Bernard,” I said.

“Charming. Do you remember a woman called Alex Gough?”

“No, why, should I?”

“You used her as a case study in a story you wrote.”

“I don’t remember.”

“You killed her.”

“What?”

“You heard me. You murdered her. You did a story about a condition she suffered from – I can’t remember what it was. Something chronic. You used her words selectively to make her sound like a benefits scrounger. Like a skiver. Remember now?”

“Vaguely.”

“She topped herself.”

“What?”

“Half an hour after reading the story.  Ashamed. Took an overdose. Or did she hang herself? Anyway, every time you stitch someone up in a story – by adding words that they didn’t say – or quoting them out of context – it creates a little grain of untruth. Before long the little grains become a sand-pit, and then swells into great big desert where there’s no truth any more. The victims are people like Alex.”

“You were always pond life, Bernard. Don’t lecture me about ethics. You were a complete cowboy. You gave me that stupid story. You were obsessed with supposed female interest stories that were actually misogynist nonsense.”

“It wasn’t me. The editor liked them!”

“I feel faint,” I said, “I need some fresh air.”

“You know, you’ve come to the right place, Louise. You belong here. You’re going to fit in very well.”

I opened the door into the corridor and threw up. Smoke gushed out of the open doorway.

Paulina said, “It’s probably the herbs. South American. They are the bridge between worlds. But they take a little getting used to. I’ll go and find an intern to mop up.”

I heard Bill’s voice and went back into the smoky room.

“Louise?”

“Leave me alone, Bill.”

“Jay has gone. Totally disappeared. I think my wife may have moved on.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

“This isn’t what I was expecting. I shouldn’t have brought you down here. I think you’re in great danger.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“They’ve got something planned for you.”

“What, you think they are going to sacrifice me on an altar or something?”

“I hear things.”

The door opened.

Paulina said, “Feeling any brighter? We’re having a little celebration tonight. I hope you will feel well enough to join us.”

“I have to go home. I’ve got some scan results tomorrow.”

“All the more reason to enjoy tonight. I’ll get someone to run you up to London afterwards.”

“Er. Okay. That’s very kind. Could I have my mobile phone back?”

“Of course. We do ask that you use it outside the building.”

I went outside and rang Jackie.

“Jackie, it’s Louise.”

“Louise, I’ve been half frantic. Where are you?”

“I’m still at the Spa.”

“Are you okay?”

“Look, I’m going to be here tonight, so no need for a lift.”

“Please be careful. Bill and Jay and everyone at the “Faith First” were obsessed with the Spa. Maybe I should come up?”

“I’ll be okay.”

An hour later I was on a field with Paulina watching fireworks explode in the night air.

I said, “What a lot of people. I feel a bit underdressed.”

“Big day for us. Marking the seasons.”

A light aircraft flew overhead.

“Where are all these people from?”

“Some are local, most aren’t. We have an airstrip. People fly in from all over. That aeroplane is someone arriving now.  Jamieson had important friends all over the world.”

“Do you miss him?”

“Why would I? We talk every day. He likes you.”

“I don’t know how I could be any use. Or even how long I’ll be around.”

“At the Spa we have access to a network of renowned consultants and treatment centres, all over the world. We can guarantee you a significantly better survival rate.”

“Why are you so interested in me?”

“We think you would fit in. We are always looking for new blood. Particularly friendly journalists.”

“I can’t help you unless there’s a story.”

“We can get you stories.”

“I went to the “Faith First” offices a few weeks ago. It sounds ridiculous, but they alleged you were killing staff members there and pretending to use black magic.”

Paulina laughed.

“We help people who are lost to find themselves.  Like you, Louise. Let’s get some mulled wine.”

We watched a four-piece orchestra and sipped our drinks.

I said, “I never asked, what actually goes on here?”

“I like to think of us as being like Victorian journeymen carpenters. We make a cupboard here, a chair there.”

“What does that mean?”

“We like success. We believe the power of individual will. The only command is ‘Do what thou wilt.’”

Another light aircraft buzzed overhead.

“So what’s the catch?” I said.

“We value loyalty highly. Once you join there’s no leaving. Are you interested?”

“Yes.”

Aurora emerged from the night and said, “Ah, I’ve found you.  Paulina, some guests from overseas have arrived.”

“Good. Aurora. I promised Louise a lift to London. Would you mind driving her?”

The next day I sat in a London outpatient clinic watching Mr Singh turn pages in my much-expanded file.

He said, “Louise. The CT scan results are much better than we hoped. The tumour has responded to chemo and is significantly smaller than it was. I think it’s time for another operation.”

“Wow. Good news for a change.”

He smiled for the first time since I had met him.

A few days later I was wheeled into an operating theatre anaesthetic room.

A mask descended on my face. The darkness came again.

A nurse said “Miss Flanagan? Miss Flanagan? You are in the recovery ward.”

Someone coughed twice.

A guttural voice said, “Look at the state of those ceiling tiles.  God, the NHS is grubby.”

“Hello? Who is this?”

“I think you already know the answer to that.”

“Jamieson Calloway?”

“I have so many names. My birth name was Thomas Carrot. I’m here about the bargain you struck with Paulina.”

“I’ve just had major surgery. Can you come back later?”

“Later you will not between worlds.”

“In journalism we leave hard questions until the end but I’m going to come right out with it. Are you evil in any way? Into black magic?”

The voice laughed, and then coughed.

“All the hocus pocus stuff was just a bit of fun, annoy the neighbours. I was always a bit of a provocateur. Paulina tells me you’ve been on a losing streak.”

“Yes.”

“It’s time the Spa turned you around.”

“Yes.”

“Did she tell you about the medical help? They’re better than anything you would get in this dump. There’s also the lifestyle as well. Full Spa members get the house, the swimming pool, the sports car, all of that. We can even find you a new life partner if that’s what you want.”

“Where does all your money come from?”

“From the airstrip, mainly. Let’s be honest about this, Louise, you’re a failure. Horrible ex-husband, no children, sleazy job. No offence.”

“I can’t write lies for you.”

“Of course not. We won’t ask anything you don’t do already. ‘Simplify and exaggerate.’ Isn’t that the advice they give to budding young journos?”

Bill’s voice said, “Ah, Louise you’re here.”

“Bill?”

“This hospital is enormous.”

Calloway said, “You’re not supposed to be here. We’re having a business meeting. Get lost you old loony.”

Bill said, “I heard Mr Singh talking. The operation was a success.”

“Really?”

Calloway said, “Come on. Get lost you old freak. We’re discussing grown-up stuff.”

Bill said, “Louise, I don’t know what Mr Calloway is up to, but I really would be wary of him. He is doing very bad things at the Spa.”

Calloway said, “Typical Christian hysteria.”

“Actually I’m a Buddhist. That peed on your bonfire, didn’t it?” Bill said.

“Then why do you always bang on about Satanism. You were always harassing me about that,” Calloway said.

Bill said, “It was just a pose you used to attract lost souls.”

“Unlike your multi-faith centre,” Calloway said.

“I thought you said you weren’t a Satanist, Jamieson,” I said.

“I’m not, okay? You’re quoting me out of context. We follow a philosophy of self-empowerment. All religion is a delusion anyway. It’s what we do when we’re alive that matters.”

Bill said, “Exactly, which is why you should stay away from him. Things have been rough, Louise, but don’t give up, you don’t need the Spa.”

Calloway’s voice said, “We don’t have much time, the anaesthetic is wearing off and so is the time between worlds. Louise, I need a verbal undertaking that you will be joining us at the Spa.”

Bill said, “Louise. You may not be pleased with how your life has panned out, that doesn’t mean you have to give up on what is good about yourself.”

I heard the nurse’s voice say, “Are you all right Louise? You’re blood pressure is up.”

Calloway said, “I guarantee I can turn your life around.”

Bill said, “We all know what you bring on the airstrip: heroin, meth, people. Destroying lives so you can spout your rubbish about empowerment.”

Calloway was close to my ear. Very close.

“You are going to die in agony, alone. I can change that. Give me an undertaking.”

The Nurse said, “How are we doing?”

“I’m hearing voices,” I said.

“That’s probably the meds. I’ll tell the doctor. The porters are going to take you back to the ward.”

My bed was wheeled up an interminable corridor.

I said, “Jamieson. I don’t need you. To be honest, I’m not even sure you exist.”

Calloway’s voice said, “Hope your ward has had a deep clean recently.”

Bill said, “Goodbye, Louise.”

Jackie visited two days later.

“Jackie. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine. More to the point, how is the patient?”

“They’ve taken all the wires and things out of me.”

There was the sound of many footsteps walking up the corridor.

“Ward round,” I said, “This is an important one. You stay. I’ll pretend you’re a family member.”

“Your younger sister, maybe?”

“You’d be lucky.”

The curtains were pulled around the bed and several people stood in the small space around me.

Mr Singh said, “And how are you doing today, Louise?”

“Fine, thank you.”

“Any pain?”

“No.”

“As you know, we got the tumour out. We sent the surrounding tissue for analysis.  All cancer free.”

“Oh God. Thank you.”

“Well done. We’re going to discharge you today or tomorrow.  I’ll see you as an outpatient in a few weeks.”

The curtains were opened and the footsteps disappeared up the ward.

I said, “That’s great, a happy ending to the story.  No need for any of that supernatural mumbo jumbo either.”

Jackie said, “Speaking Of which, I had some of my own good news today. They’ve offered me a job at the Calloway Spa.”

“What? Are you going to take it?”

“It’s that or starve. I couldn’t refuse the package they were offering. You know what they say – needs must when the devil drives.”