THE DEATH OF WILLIAM MCLOUGHLIN
“It’s like something out of The X-Files,” I said, aghast. It was close to midnight and to my horror I’d been called out to investigate the death of a child, a seven-year-old boy by the name of William McLoughlin.
The boy’s father, Patrick, had discovered the body after his son had failed to respond to his shouts following the preparation of supper. Concerned, Mr McLoughlin approached William’s room tentatively. Rain was lashing down outside, making it difficult for him to focus on anything but the sound of it. He knocked and placed his ear against the door, but still, his son failed to respond.
Finally, he had flung the door open, hastily flicking the light switch. There on the floor in the centre of the room lay his son. William’s face was pale, and there was no movement. In a panic, Patrick rushed over and attempted to resuscitate him. His attempts were unsuccessful.
Bizarrely, William’s body was soaked, head to toe.
Mr McLoughlin had searched frantically for his mobile phone and proceeded to call the emergency services. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, he noticed another oddity: a number of sodden indentations in the carpet next to William’s body. The depressions seemed to lead to the window, though it didn’t appear as though it had been opened.
The ambulance had arrived some minutes later, and the paramedics pronounced William dead at the scene.
I was called shortly afterwards.
The McLoughlins lived in a detached mid-seventeenth-century cottage at the end of a quiet street in the coastal village of Wren in the Scottish Highlands.
Me, a city detective for more than a decade, had earlier that month relocated to Wren from Aberdeen, having reached the grand old age of fifty.
After what I saw that evening, I wish I’d stayed in the city.
It was so very strange. The cause of his death, I mean. One of the paramedics, James Turner, had called to inform me the boy had drowned.
“In the bathtub?” I queried.
“Well, that’s the odd thing detective, though he isn’t anywhere near the bathtub, or any body of water, he’s totally sodden.”
“Where was the boy found?” I insisted.
“On the bedroom floor.”
“No signs of a struggle?”
I hesitated before responding.
“I’ll be right there.”
It wasn’t worth continuing over the telephone; I needed to see the body for myself.
And so there I was, trying to put the pieces together. A young boy drowned in his bedroom; unusual indentations on the carpet; and a father who claimed to have heard nothing out of the ordinary.
Andrea Nelson, a forensic investigator known throughout the region, was called to the scene due to the bizarre nature of the case. She was keenly analysing the indentations on the carpet.
“Jack, take a look at this,” she said.
I approached and took a closer look at the depressions.
“Judging by the distance between these impressions – the general shape and distribution – I think we’re looking at footprints.”
I frowned, echoing, “Footprints?”
“Yes, footprints,” she repeated. “Bare feet actually. I’d say whoever it was exited via the window there.” Nelson motioned towards the window across the room. The trail of footprints led directly to it from William’s body.
“There’s just one thing though,” she added. “The indentations move in one direction only: towards the window. Which means the perpetrator was probably already in the house. It was raining heavily around the time of the boy’s death, which precludes a window entry, as the perpetrator’s sodden footprints would be visible in both directions.”
“And then of course there’s the method of drowning. It was incredibly localised; no spills, sprays or drips.”
I shook my head dismissively, returning, “So what are you saying? Some bare-footed killer hid in the boy’s cupboard waiting to inexplicably drown him using some method unknown to us before slipping out of a second story window and disappearing into the night?”
“Well, I’m not saying that exactly, but the evidence seems to suggest as much.”
“Christ,” I returned.
I wasn’t having any of it. As a result, I ordered a thorough search of the cottage. I was convinced the perpetrator was still inside, hiding somewhere, clutching his ‘drowning paraphernalia’ and a sodden towel.
But the search of the McLoughlin cottage yielded nothing at all.
Patrick and Matilda McLoughlin were questioned regarding their activities: queries relating to places they might have visited, or company they might have kept. Patrick fleetingly referenced a recent trip to the Isle of Skye, though nothing about the family excursion had been particularly noteworthy, just your typical, sightseeing affair.
The death of William McLoughlin was quite the mystery.
THE LEGEND OF RAINMAN
Back at the station I discussed the situation further with Nelson, firm in my convictions that her forensic knowledge was second to none. Unfortunately, she had nothing else to add.
Not long after my conversation with Nelson ended, I received a telephone call. Still to this day I don’t know who it was. The connection was poor and there was a lot of interference, which is always the case up in Wren following a thunderstorm. The individual – who sounded local – was a young male, rambling endlessly about Loch Coruisk – one of the larger lochs on the nearby Isle of Skye – and something he referred to as Rainman. The call cut off mid-conversation, leaving the questions I had for him unasked.
The Isle of Skye… Hadn’t Mr McLoughlin visited the island recently?
I called Mr McLoughlin immediately, asking what he knew of Loch Coruisk. His answer was simple: he, Matilda and young William had visited the lake, along with a number of other tourists two days prior to his son’s death. Unfortunately, the tour had been cut short due to rain, and that was as much as he had to say on the subject.
Following my conversation with Mr McLoughlin, I spoke to my deputy, Andy, who had grown up on the Isle of Skye; the island itself part of the Inner Hebrides, some ten miles from Wren, across the Kyle Akin. He was familiar with Rainman, stating it was local folklore, going back decades.
According to the legend, centuries earlier, a nomadic Norseman roamed the Highlands. The stranger was in search of a mythical elixir said to belong to the elusive dwellers of certain mountainous regions. Eventually acquiring that which he sought, it was said he retreated to a quiet lake he’d discovered some years earlier: Loch Coruisk, shrouded by the Black Cuillin Mountains on the Isle of Skye.
There, on the banks of the hidden lake, the Norseman remained, sustained by the strange medicine he so fervently coveted.
The legend insists he lives there still, calm in his solitude. Those who disturb his quietude, are said to pay with their lives.
“They say he’s a Kelpie, you know? A Neck, or water ghost.”
I nodded reluctantly, remaining silent.
He continued, “It isn’t just Nessie we got up here you know!”
Andy told the tale with such fervour, that I felt any disbelief on my part would be offensive to him.
Continuing, he referred to Loch Coruisk as The Dread Lake, and spoke from experience about the eerie silence there prior to the onslaught of malevolent storms.
“Rain is his warning,” Andy said, almost nonchalantly.
“Warning?” I repeated.
“Aye,” he nodded, his face stony and severe.
In the short time I’d been in Wren, I had yet to visit the Isle of Skye, let alone Loch Coruisk. There was something about the name Dread Lake that really put me off. And the isolation of the place was off-putting too. You had two options if you wanted to pay it a visit: a boat from Port Elgol; or a two-day hike from the bay of Camasunary.
But, considering the McLoughlin’s trip, Andy’s story and the strange call I’d received, I felt the need to head out there.
THE DREAD LAKE
The following morning, Andy and I drove out to Port Elgol. We’d arranged passage aboard a small fishing boat, having absolutely no desire to accompany the tourists on a Misty Isle Boat Trip.
The old fisherman, Deckard, took us out.
I can feel the chill now: 7:00 a.m. on a late October morning; mist clinging to the dark waters; heading into what appeared to be a vast assembly of black, cragged towers under blankets of fog.
The old fella Deckard was sure to share his two pennies’ worth regarding the legend of Rainman.
“Oh aye, Rainman, aye. Coruisk’s ‘is home. Aye it is. Lived there many a moon. Strays out from time to time.” His words were less than encouraging as we plunged into the mist.
“So what exactly is Rainman?” I asked tentatively, looking for an alternative explanation.
“Who knows laddie? Best not to ask.”
Choosing to acknowledge the man silently, I raised my eyebrows and nodded.
Andy climbed to his feet and wandered across the small deck. The fine, morning drizzle had soaked his raincoat.
Deckard gazed ahead.
“She’s preparin’ for winter the ol’ loch so she is,” he said wistfully. “Doesn’t really like visitors this time o’ year. Just be thankful it’s October. Wouldn’t ne be doin’ a trip like this November through February.”
I joined Andy as we approached a rocky outcrop full of seals. The things looked playful enough, flapping and yapping like dogs on the rocks, but I couldn’t help thinking they were trying to tell us to turn back.
Deckard docked at a small wooden pier.
“I’ll be stayin’ on board lads. Be back by eleven.”
“Watch your backs,” he added. “Thee doesn’t ee know what that there dread lake ‘as in ‘er belly.”
I can’t say I was particularly fearful of water, but there was something inherently creepy about isolated bodies of water: their untold depths, the secrets lurking beneath.
“It’s just a lake!” I returned with a grin.
“Never just a lake, laddie.” Deckard winked before reaching for a flask.
Andy and I climbed the rough banking and made our way upwards along an old trail. The trail crisscrossed several small pools before leading us to an area of large boulders and flat rocks. We traversed the length of a babbling brook and were soon met by The Dread Lake herself.
Under the early morning fog, she was haunting, but beautiful. Surrounded almost entirely by craggy peaks and the Black Cuillin, Coruisk appeared as though she was supposed to be a secret. She spoke to me in ways Mother Earth never had before: hinting at an untold history; misfortunes she may have witnessed over the centuries.
We hiked along the easternmost edge towards the northern shore, where the eerie loch fell into shadow beneath the tallest of the black mountains. I jestingly remarked how on a clear, sunny day, the loch would be an absolute joy to traverse, whilst secretly harbouring an irrational fear of the place.
I was convinced there were eyes on me.
And no wildlife. Where were the gulls? Clearly the loch was beyond the reach of the seals too. The sense of isolation was strong as we hiked. No sounds other than the drizzle of rain on the water and a low, incorrigible wind.
Still to this day I’m not entirely sure what my plan was. Had it been just to get a feel for the place? Or had I secretly known that there was more to the lake than just water? Even if that was the case, what on Earth did it have to do with a seven-year-old boy from Wren?
Andy held a map – nothing more than a scrap of paper really – detailing a rough outline of the loch. On the map he’d marked the location of a campground, an area from which a lone hiker had allegedly disappeared some years earlier. We found the area with relative ease, noting evidence of usage: the vague remnants of a pit fire. Had the McLoughlins ventured this far? Had the boy stumbled upon something?
I doubted it. The loch was after all a tourist spot. Although it looked bleak and totally unexplored that morning, Andy reminded me that there had been visitors all summer long.
“What if this Rainman is nothing more than a hermit, you know, an old fella living up in the mountains during the summer months?” I ventured. “Perhaps he uses this pit fire here on the colder winter nights.”
Andy shook his head. “Jack, do you know how harsh winters get around these parts?” There was scepticism in his voice. “A mountain man living out here?” he continued, motioning towards what was assuredly a barren, challenging environment.
I had to agree with him.
Even if there was a mountain man, the thought occurred to me again: what possible connection would this hypothetical hermit have to a seven-year-old boy from Wren?
And just as the thought crossed my mind, Andy and I saw something.
“Is that … a person out there?” Andy asked, squinting.
“Surely not,” I returned.
Unsettled, we studied what appeared to be a figure bobbing up and down out on the dark water. From where I stood I could have sworn it was a man. It’s hard to mistake the tell-tale characteristics: the head; the limbs; the torso…
We watched as the strange shape slowly swam towards us. The mist above intensified, blurring our vision. We could hear the splashes – the distinctive clapping of human hands on the surface of water – but the overall impression visually was that of transparency. A trick of the light.
And then it was gone. The fog lifted, revealing nothing but the black waters of The Dread Lake.
The sense of solitude I experienced in the moments that followed was truly magnificent, though unfortunately, it was short lived.
I felt Andy’s eyes on me, and so I turned to meet his gaze. The colour had drained from his face, leaving a pale shadow of the young deputy behind. His eyes were lifeless – glazed and bloodshot – like maraschino cherries.
“Andy,” I said, coaxing absolutely no reaction out of him.
I approached, concerned.
“Andy!” I repeated.
As I neared him, his mouth slowly began to open, forming a perfect circle.
I hesitated, and whispered, “Andy?”
He returned a low, despairing groan. Coughing and spluttering, he produced several mouthfuls of water.
I lunged forwards to intervene, but I couldn’t reach him. Something unseen blocked my path.
My instincts told me to flee, but I couldn’t. Have to save Andy, I thought.
Andy collapsed to the sandy shore. I raced to his aid and attempted to resuscitate him. But to my relief, the young deputy opened his eyes and looked at me.
“What happened?” he muttered.
“I’m not really sure, are you ok?”
Pulling Andy to his feet, we turned and made our way back to Deckard’s boat. Whatever had happened that morning, we were eager to get as far away from the cause of it as possible.
THE BURDEN OF MEMORY
We returned to Wren.
The old man Deckard had been appalled to learn of Andy’s mysterious collapse. I explained it away as a lack of food and water, not wanting to further insight the old man’s already inflated belief in the supernatural.
Back at the station, I discussed Andy and I’s visit to the loch with several officers, as the thunderstorm that had so battered Wren the previous evening returned to hammer us a second time.
It was around that time, that Andy Gordon’s lifeless body was discovered in the men’s room.
I couldn’t believe it.
Just as the case had been with the McLoughlin boy, Andy was saturated, and a bizarre series of wet footprints led across the tiled floor of the men’s room towards an open window.
The post-mortem revealed the cause of death as ‘drowning’, just like young William, despite the fact Andy had been discovered alone, lying face up in the middle of the men’s room, away from the toilets, away from running water. I felt it pertinent to mention Andy’s collapse up at the loch to the medical examiner, who simply – and unsurprisingly – responded with a frown.
I decided to visit the McLoughlins.
It turned out Patrick McLoughlin was aware of the Rainman legend, claiming his father had introduced him to the idea some thirty-five years earlier. Patrick told a peculiar tale, of how he and
a group of friends, on a stormy afternoon, had watched in horror as a neighbour – an elderly gentleman by the name of Clifford – had fallen to his knees on the corner of Harbour Street, coughed up a massive quantity of water and drowned before their very eyes.
I could tell there was more, and the man hesitated before adding, “I saw Rainman that day. He spilled out of the old man and just disappeared.”
“Did you ever tell William this story?” I asked. I didn’t want to ask, but it was my duty.
Again, Mr McLoughlin hesitated before answering.
“Yes,” he said, quietly, “just as my father had told me a similar story.”
And so it seemed the legend went back generation after generation: townsfolk inexplicably drowning.
In the middle of town.
In their beds.
I told Patrick of my visit to Loch Coruisk, and I caught a glimpse of anxiety in his eyes as the words left my mouth.
“The Dread Lake,” I added, and proceeded to relate the circumstances surrounding the visit, and the events as they transpired on the northern shore.
“What happened to you up there?” I probed, locking eyes with the man.
“Not to me,” Mr McLoughlin responded, his voice barely a whisper, “to William.”
“What happened to your deputy … happened to William.”
After several moments he regained his composure and asked, quite sincerely, “Will it ever be over?”
I had no answer for him.
THE END OF THE LINE
That same evening, around 7:45 p.m., I sat at home, scotch in hand, gazing out of the window, watching the rain as it bounced off the windowsill.
I felt unsafe.
The rain used to calm me.
But the death of the boy and Andy had changed all that.
I stared intently at a tree out back. It jittered under the weight of the rain, almost as though it was trying to alert me.
And then I saw it.
A shape passed in front of the window – almost imperceptible – but there nonetheless. Then above the sound of the rain I heard a faint trickle: water seeping into the room somewhere.
I switched the overhead light on and searched frantically for the source of the trickle.
The front door!
A steady stream of water was flowing into my living room!
The capacity for rational thought left me, and I fled towards the back door. Unlocking it, I ran out into the garden and gazed back towards the house.
It was the strangest thing.
There in the doorway, stood a … person?
No. It couldn’t have been a person. It was more like a silhouette. The shadow of a person, inexplicably cast into the doorway.
But no, that wasn’t it either.
It had substance. And it was aware of me.
Though I could see right through the figure, it blurred the objects behind it. The shape refracted them, like observing things at the bottom of a swimming pool. Something really was standing in my doorway, and it was composed entirely, of water.
I stood in the pouring rain, glued to the grass, my eyes fixed upon what I so desperately wanted to believe was nothing more than a trick of the light: a hallucination.
But I knew better. The previous day had taught me that I had to know better.
And then it stepped out into the rain with me, and I lost sight of it for a moment.
Then I saw it again, its queer extremities illuminated by nearby street lamps.
It walked away from me, out onto the street.
I followed it, watching as its watery legs ambled and its aquatic arms swung.
Eyes wide, I watched as the strange entity approached the kerb and slowly poured itself into a drain, disappearing into the hidden underworld of Wren’s sewers, returning to the dark, secret depths of that Dread Lake.
Had it come to drown me like it had the McLoughlin kid? Like Andy, and countless others over the long years? Or had it come to warn me of something else? Something worse, waiting to take the lives of those who mutter its name in the company of strangers and loved ones?
I left Wren.
I quit the force.
I moved overseas to a warmer climate: the south of Spain.
I check the weather forecast often.
If there’s a storm on the horizon, I seek out the company of friends.
And I leave mention of Rainman on these pages, and these pages alone.
Credit: Muted Vocal