by Sean Hodges
These days, Grant Buglass of the Cumbrian Constabulary dislikes going to the coast. The mere sight of the ocean waves is enough to trigger deep, clammy discomfort in him, and the feelings only become worse on days when the Irish Sea is wreathed in impenetrable mist. If only he hadn’t taken up the case of Edward Smith, and if only he hadn’t read that damned man’s diary.
If only he had never seen the light in the fog.
He had been called to the beach near St. Bee’s head just a scant three weeks ago, a simple report of someone having drowned being his call to action. Grim things, drownings; he had never liked the way they left a body looking, and even though they were rare enough the waters near that coastline could be unpredictable and violent when the weather had a mind to whip them up. Wincing as the cold autumn air struck his head and neck, the policeman gritted his teeth and strode out into the icy world outside, making his way up the valley roads from the comfortable yet small station in Whitehaven up to the shelterless heights of St. Bees, the village from which the cliff head gathered its name. It didn’t take him long to reach the beach, nor to discover the body. The locals had done their best to keep what few tourists were around away from it, and as he approached one of them ran to meet him, a sturdy woman of fifty who’d lived in the area her entire life.
“A tolt ‘im, ‘divn’t you go out thar,’ burree nivar did listen. ‘Ere, ‘e left this wi’ me, figger ew’d want it afore this ‘ole thing’s dun.”
Officer Buglass gathered very quickly that the man wasn’t from around here, that he was some stranger who’d been in the area for a few days with a mind to investigate some manner of event at the beach. The journal which the old lass handed him was of fairly good nick, and clearly the property of someone who had a bit of spare cash about him. It was soon time to get the dead man back to somewhere they could keep him until the coroner sent for him, however, and without much ceremony the constable and his men carted the body off. It was only back at the station that the note in the drowned man’s hand was found. For his part, Grant didn’t much like spending time around the body—some strange trick of rigor mortis had blasted the corpses’ last facial expression into one that resembled inhuman terror—and so it wasn’t him but his shift-mate who found the thing. Settling down to review the journal for clues as to what had led the body in the room to his left to the unfortunate end that had found it, Buglass began to take in the man’s work and understand just what it was that had brought him out here, so far away from home.
The Journal of Edward Smith
I arrived in Whitehaven yesterday afternoon, after a long and pretty tiresome journey on what passes for rail transport in this country. Have to admit, it’s nice to see the old town again, though my happiness at being back has been fairly watered down by the state in which I found the place. Unfortunately, like many old northern towns that’ve had the money of the mines taken from them, Whitehaven’s in something of a state these days. Without the work offered by Sellafield, the place would probably dry up completely except for the few tourist spots in it. I walked down Duke Street, hoping to see some familiar faces, but nothing doing; A few of the places I passed were boarded up completely, and the rest were the sort of kebab places and cheap booze shops that cling on like weeds in such a grim environment. The Three Tuns was still open, though, so while I waited to meet a friend I stopped for a pint or two and thought about the strange coincidences that led me back to this corner of West Cumbria.
My old mate Will called just three days ago, and asked if I happened to be busy. Strictly between us, that’s how he phrased what he was calling me about. Anyway, seeing as I told him I wasn’t, he asked if I had the time to perhaps come up and lend him some advice, again strictly between the pair of us as friends, on a very strange case he’d ended up working on recently. He was a writer, was Will, an author of a whole series of short stories. I’d never really taken to his work much myself, but I’d always admired the absolutely ridiculous lengths he’d go to in order to research a story he was writing. The man was mad for accuracy, and though I never got the appeal of it I guess it must have worked because he could always find some fool willing to buy his stuff. This time, he had claimed to have really been on to something, a story he said would catapult him to the heights of fame in his profession. He was always talking like that. As I sat in thought and wondered just what it was all about, the man himself entered the pub and, spotting me, quickly and somewhat surreptitiously made his way over. He looked like he hadn’t slept recently, though as I’d known his unusual habits back when we’d been closer friends I didn’t think much of it. He’d always been like that, after all.
“Good to see you, mate. Good thing you came up here so quick, too, I’ve a doozy of a story to tell you.”
He didn’t bother with a drink, and seemed to barely notice my returned greeting as he launched into his account. He had been up in St. Bees just a few days ago and had been sitting on the cliffside paths when he’d seen a strange light appear in the distance. Suggestions that it might have been a ship brought a scornful grunt from his lips. No boat made a light like that, according to him. There was something about the way it shone, apparently, some quality of its’ brightness and odd phosphorescence that held his attention. Two more times he went up there, once each night immediately after his first sighting of it, and two more times he saw it gleaming out at him—a firefly standing sentinel on the waters of the Irish Sea. The third time he’d had the sense to bring binoculars, and swore to me that he’d seen a little shape approaching the light far off in the waters. Too big to be a fishing boat, he’d said, and yet too small to be a man; he was sure it was a little rowboat, though the idea of someone rowing out in the darkness and fog sounded absolutely daft.
It was in the morning that they found the body. Will slapped down a paper clipping in front of me with a sense of grim, fatalistic triumph, a cut-out article that reported on the event. The article itself treated it as a tragedy, but nothing in which foul play had been suspected. The police apparently believed the lad to have been drunk and simply caught by some undercurrent or other, a conclusion that my author friend treated with as much scorn as he had the idea that the light had been some ship’s lantern.
“Rubbish, that’s what it is. No, I’m telling you, the little thing I saw was a rowboat, and I’d bet money on this drowned lad being the one inside. It’s something to do with that light, man, I’m sure of it, and I reckon there’d be a hell of a book in it were someone to, you know, take inspiration from events. Look, you remember when you used to do research for me, for my—hey, don’t roll your eyes, I’ll pay you this time. It’s important to me, all right? I need to know what that light is all about.”
Looking at him as he practically begged for my help, I decided I’d do it if only to shut him up. He’d probably lose interest in the reality of the thing when he found out it was just a coincidence, and make something fantastical up himself anyway. Shaking on it, my friend finally relaxed and we got into the details of the deal—discussions aided, of course, with the help of a pint or two. It’d be simple. I’d stay in the area for a week or so, gather up any local legends associated with this light of his and come back to him with a solid chunk of myth that he could chip away at and craft into a story of his own to rival the big authors of the day. He promised a credit in the finished thing and perhaps even some of the royalties if he could swing it, though frankly given his track record the former was far more likely to occur. He was always one for making promises he couldn’t manage to keep, after all.
Settling on terms, we spent the rest of the day in good spirits, and all in all I was glad I’d come back to the North, even if it proved to be a daft little imagining of Will’s that brought me here.
Finally got up to St. Bees’ Head itself, using the walk that snakes between Whitehaven and the little village where the drowning actually occurred. The walk itself was nice, but cold as hell, and there were only a few people brave or persistent enough to be sharing this little road with me today. The view from the top of that cliff was definitely something, all right, and on such a clear day the Isle of Man was as easy to spot as if it had been marked out for me. All traces of the sinister tale Will had blabbed to me seemed entirely absent; in fact, it was pretty much impossible to imagine anything grim happening around this place at all. The worst that could happen here, I thought to myself as I stared out over the dull blue waters, was the occasional drunk fight.
Of course, it’s easy to say things like that in the light of day, when the sky’s clear and the wind’s whipping around and freezing whatever bits of you it can reach.
I started my investigations in the seafront area of the village itself, making my rounds of the local pubs and chatting to a few of the villagers and tourists about what they thought had happened. Most were friendly enough, though we had the occasional bit of difficulty understanding one another what with how thick the accent can be around these parts. The gist I got was that most people around here accepted the official version of events and saw no reason at all to be questioning it, with some opining that the sort who would had been at the beer a little too much themselves. Only one or two of the older folks around the place, migrating from pub to pub, seemed to have anything more to say about the whole thing. In their case, they often simply shook their heads and warned me not to bother with this task I’d been set, that there wasn’t much to find anyway. They were probably right, all in all, and yet I supposed I owed it to Will and the paycheck he was promising to look into it for at least a few more days. As a result, I booked myself into the Seacote, a hotel right on the beachfront itself, and prepared for a few days of uninteresting research into that light.
It was late at night when I first saw the phenomenon for myself. The sea mist had, as usual, rolled in and cut the Isle of Man off from sight, and I was sitting across my bed reviewing my admittedly scant notes when I happened to glance up at the window. There it was, a pinprick in the dark. I felt a crawling chill slither its way up my spine as I stared out of the window at the light, and I rushed to laugh the thing off as clearly the lantern of an old boat out at night for some reason or other. It was that or accept that the strangeness Will had described was real—and the fact was, it was strange. There was some curious quality to the thing, a trick of color or flicker of motion perhaps that no man-made light possesses, that set me on edge and caused me to leap after rationality in an attempt to dispel the sudden unease that stole up on me. I rapped my fingers on the windowsill for a moment, staring still out at the prick of luminescence out on the water, until I managed to break my stare and check the clock. Half twelve at night, it was. Whoever was out there, they’d picked a hell of a time to go sailing. For a moment I wondered if perhaps I ought to go out onto the beach and get a better view of it—disprove once and for all my friend’s idea of the light that had set him off—but in the end I decided it’d be better to stay in my room, try for some sleep and ask a few more questions of folk around here in the morning. No point going out now, I reasoned with myself, I’d freeze half to death before I got so far as the promenade.
I gave no voice to the other, more instinctual reasons for not going out to spy on the light that danced through my mind as I lay in bed.
Struck gold today, to use a particularly bad metaphor. There’s some old folk who still live in the village, closer to the water than most, and it’s these people who’ve finally given me some clues as to the nature of the light. It seems they’ve seen it before, though it never seems to appear regularly and my suggestion that it was the light of some fool pottering about on his ship met with a solemn shake of my interviewees’ heads, no matter which one I tried this idea on. No, they said, it wasn’t any boat they’ve ever heard of that carries a lantern like that. One, a friendly old lass who walks the cliff paths every day as she’s done all her life, seemed particularly concerned for me.
“Don’t you go poking your nose into it,” she told me, “it’ll do you no good. Every beggar I’ve ever known who got interested in the thing ended up in bad fettle one way or another.”
Thanking her for her time and dismissing her warning mentally as simple superstition, I ignored the building tightness in my chest. Bad ends, curses, it was all nonsense. I was a grown man. What next? No, I decided that if I was going to get to the bottom of this daft business I’d have to take more drastic steps. Thankfully, I had some old binoculars that my grandfather had used to use when he went bird-watching; old ones, yes, but perfectly workable given the circumstances. I’ll have to go up to St Bee’s Head, and this time try to spy out the source of the light when it appears again tonight. Hopefully, this’ll put an end to the business and me and Will can have a good old laugh about it tomorrow over a decent meal.
A little way down the page, a new note had been scrawled in the pages of the journal.
I can’t keep my hands steady. Spilled half my whiskey just trying to pour, can’t think.
Went up to the Head as I planned, binoculars around my neck. It was uncommonly cold even for autumn around here, and yet no wind at all besides the usual gentle breeze you get near the sea. There were a few good spots to sit, a little chilly but good, and I picked one close to where the grass and greenery of the hill slides slowly over into the bare rock of the cliff. Confident, I was practically convinced that tonight I’d clear up this little mystery once and for all. I should’ve heeded the advice of the lass in the village, or listened to my own instincts as they quivered and sparked in the back of my head for me not to go.
The night was black as coal when the light finally swirled into existence, far away in the depths of the nightly mist that swathed the area off the shore. I couldn’t be sure at the time and can’t be sure even now, but I got the feeling that it was in a slightly different spot to last night, that it’d moved more towards where I knew the Isle of Man would be if I could see it through the fog. Once again, the firefly spark seemed off, uncanny, and I hesitated for a moment before I brought the binoculars up to my face to try and see it clearer. Something nagged at me about it, the way it seemed to stay exactly still and yet dance about perhaps, and I felt a feeling of creeping oddness that only increased when it was viewed through the lens of the instrument I’d brought with me. I bit my lip for a moment, puzzling over what it was that was bothering me so about it. There are some things the human mind just can’t work out due to their complexity—and then there’s the things you don’t get at first because they’re so obvious. As I said, I had thought perhaps it was the shade of the light that was causing me such trouble, but when I stared at it lazily flickering out there, the realization swept over me and brought with it a crawling sensation of nausea and a chill that had nothing to do with the season. The light, while clearly emanating from something, was not reflecting off the ocean water.
I was shocked into paralysis, rendered unable to so much as blink by the knowledge. No light did that, surely it wasn’t even possible for such a thing to occur, and yet here it was before me. The longer I peered through the lenses, stunned, the more I began to observe other things that did nothing for the cold pricks of fear now making their way down my neck. There was a shape in the mist, just under the light but not illuminated by it, a dull mound or lump that, as far as I know, corresponded to no known sandbar on the maps. I couldn’t make it out properly—just a hint of its shape—but as I stared through my binos at it my eyes seemed to sting faintly and then water up, which perhaps explains why the damn thing, whatever it was, seemed to shift only slightly. At this point, I was too unnerved to even think of blaming my eyes on the cold. I managed just a few more moments of quietly panicking vigil before every fibre of my body screamed for release, for me to leave the cliff, the cold and the light behind and quit back to my room. I was just lowering the binoculars when I caught a glimpse of something that, at first, I was sure had to be a trick of the light or else a hallucination. Fool that I am, I decided against all good reason to make sure of myself and peered out at the second object now scuttling its way across the waves towards the source of the light, and this time the shock brought from me a yell of pure hoarse fright. I think I dropped the binoculars and ran, as I don’t remember getting back to the hotel, much less my room. My grandad’s old kit is probably long gone, but right now that loss barely registers with me compared to the sudden shot of fear I get whenever I think back to what I last saw.
The sight that had met my eyes, his face twisted in an expression so wild and unlike him as to be barely recognizable, was my friend Will, sat in a cheap dinghy and rowing with all his might out to sea and to the will-o-wisp that awaited him.
Never been a faithful man, but couldn’t stop praying last night. Panicked prayers, the kind you said as a kid when you couldn’t get to sleep for fright. It can’t have been Will out there. Can’t have been, not a chance. I must have been imagining it, driven half-daft by that light and my own stupid lack of spine. I called the hotel he’s been staying at this past week, called his room directly every time, but no answer. Doesn’t mean a thing. He’s probably just wrapped up in that stupid writing he does, and I’ll get a call off him soon enough claiming he doesn’t need my research any more, that he’s got his bestseller all wrapped up without me. Even if he refuses to pay me it’ll be a relief just to know that my mind’s been playing tricks with me. Might even let him off without crediting me. Yes, that’s what will happen.
Can’t stop thinking about the light, though, and not for lack of trying. Keep pushing it aside, doing anything I think might keep me distracted. Must have gone through the guidebooks and maps for this area of Cumbria a thousand and one times by now. Thing is, it catches you unawares. One minute you’re considering taking a trip up to Ravenglass to get away from it all and let yourself rest, the next that firefly-glint is bouncing around in front of your eyes and you’re thinking maybe just another look will solve this whole stupid, sinister mystery. Just another look.
It’s no use. I can’t help but think about the way it flickered in the mist, the way the seawater caught no light whatsoever no matter how close it was. I’ll take a walk by the beach. It’s the middle of the day, no light to be seen but the sun’s. Maybe it’ll clear my head.
Once more Smith’s narrative broke, only to be taken up again below, this time barely legible given the fury in which it had been written.
I have to know. I have to know.
I have to go … I have to go out there. Everything’s changed now.
They found a dinghy on the rocks, near a pool folks say monks used to bathe in. Police were called, but they said it must have been left behind by some careless person and swept out.
I took one look at it and nearly dropped unconscious in front of them all, but I managed to pass off my paleness as a touch of sickness. It was the dinghy I saw Will in last night.
It can’t have been a dream then, and that means that … it means I have to go out there myself. Tonight, if possible. Tonight! Even thinking about it makes me want to vomit, and I have to lie down for a few minutes just to get rid of the shakiness in my legs. I’ve got no choice, though. Will is out there, somewhere, perhaps foundered on that shadowy spit of rock that keeps disappearing and reappearing whenever that devil’s lantern or whatever it is starts shining. Thought about going down to the hotel bar and drinking everything they have to offer me, but then the shakes catch me and I can barely breathe for panic. Then again, perhaps it’s better this way. Even if I get out to the place Will vanished trying to reach, I’ll be no good to anyone drunk. No time to drink anyway, the sun’s going down fast. Dark soon. Dark except for that spot of brightness.
Managed to sneak a steak knife off of a table while the staff weren’t looking, and whisked it up to my room. Holding it in my hand. It looks stupid, too small to be a real weapon, but I feel a little better knowing I have it. Don’t expect there’ll be much call for it anyway, I mean, I have no idea what I expect to find out there. Suppose I’ll find out soon enough. There’s a little rowing boat stored near the lifeboat hut, and the chain holding it there isn’t much of a deterrent. I can break it. Before I do, though, I need to leave this with someone. The old lady, I think, the one who so wisely warned me about getting involved in this whole mess. Someone should hear about this business, even if it’s not from my lips that they hear it. I’ll post it through her door, then be on my way before anyone sees.
I have to get to that light, and find Will if I can. That light … even when I’m resting I can see it behind my eyelids. Can’t stop thinking about it. The way it flickers and dances without moving at all. That light. I have to get to it.
I have to get to it.
A last scribbled set of words ends the journal, the signature of its owner.
Officer Buglass thought about that book a lot over the coming days and visited St Bees just as often. It sounded, to the Cumbrian’s solid and practical mind, like either a morbid joke on the part of the dead man or a terrible attempt at covering up foul play. There’d been no evidence on Smith’s body that suggested murder, of course, but you never knew with these kinds of cases.
They’d checked up on this writer friend of the deceased, of course, but apparently the man had checked out and claimed he was heading “back to London” on the day Smith claimed he’d disappeared. At least, that was according to the hotel receptionist, who’d been the last person in these parts to have seen him. No reports of any stolen dinghies, either. Thankfully they’d been quick in sending a message to other precincts, and if this author character was anywhere between here and Brighton someone should pick him up sooner or later. Sighing a little in effort as he sat down on a bench near the seafront, he stared out at the iron-grey water, knowing that just a few hundred meters away a person had met their end. Well, you couldn’t solve them all. He’d left both the journal and the note back at the station before coming here, of course. For one thing, it was awful practice to be swiping evidence out of the station, and was probably a firing offence at that. Thankfully, he’d left O’Dorrell to try and decipher the scrawled and water-logged note they’d pulled out of the corpses’ fingers, so perhaps they’d have a clue as to what had actually gone on soon enough.
He’d come to this beach often as a lad, he recalled as he stretched out his legs and stifled a yawn. Most kids in the area had, from one generation to the next. It’d never been a bad little place despite the usually gloomy weather, and drownings were actually fairly rare besides the two that had happened recently. Then again, there wasn’t a seaside town in the world in which the locals were poor swimmers, and many knew these waters even better than he did and so knew when to avoid swimming. Still, accidents happened, and he suspected that the unpredictability of the sea—especially in bad weather—caused enough trouble for late-night bathers without the need of ghost stories and mysterious happenings to liven up the narrative.
Anyway, judging by the rapidly disappearing sunlight, it was probably time to be heading home. Ignoring the stiffness in his legs, Grant leaned forward slightly—but just as he tried to stand up, a sudden blaring call echoed out, shockingly close. He nearly jumped out of his seat before he realised it was just his phone going off. He’d let that madman’s diary spook him more than he thought, it seemed. Chuckling a little ruefully at his own silliness, Buglass extracted the brick of a device from his pocket and opened the message with a self-depreciatory smile.
The smile wavered, then slid from his face entirely as he read.
Got the note translated. Says the following:
Not a light. A lure. It got Will. It uses the fog to hide. Stay away from the fog. Don’t look at the light.
Grant Buglass had never felt so cold before. A shiver walked its way up his spine and he was suddenly achingly aware of how dry his mouth was all of a sudden. Just the words of a madman, that’s all this was. Nothing more. They could definitely chalk it up as misadventure, or—
Slowly, almost without him realizing at first, he felt the hairs on his neck stand rigid, and mechanically his head began to rise, his gaze slowly slipping past the grass of the hillock to the stones of the beach, then the sea lapping against them. It was now dark, and the waters in the distance were now cloaked in a thick, near-impenetrable grey sheet.
He stared into the mist, his heart suddenly pounding in his ears and his lips drawn back over his teeth. Out to sea, somewhere where there were no landmasses for it to perch on, a pinprick of light flickered and danced without movement in the fog, a light that belonged to no ship.
Sean Hodges is a freelance writer of speculative fiction, though he particularly enjoys writing fantasy and horror. He has spent a great deal of time in Cumbria due to his extended family residing there, and in particular enjoys visiting the little seaside town of St. Bees, though he’ll be the first to admit that the scariest thing he’s ever seen there was a particularly aggressive seagull.