Haunted or not, Ledgely Infirmary was a bloody spooky place.
The hospital had been abandoned since the end of the Second World War. Hooligans and graffiti artists had left the odd scar on the building, but time and nature had proven to be the most efficient vandals of all. Rotting wooden beams jutted out of the ceiling like broken bones and whatever shreds of wall had managed to cling on were coated with scraps of mildew and ivy. The smell of dampness and decay hung even more thickly in the air than the dust tumbling from gaps in the ceiling, and every breath taken inside those walls scraped like a handful of pebbles.
The grey breezeblocks under missing sheets of plasterboard were liberally dribbled with brown and red spray-paint; at least, Tony hoped it was paint. Whenever a gust of wind picked up, it ripped clean through the windows and created hollow, guttural screams in the corridors; at least, Tony hoped that was the wind.
Could just as easily have been the ghost.
Fifty years ago, in the very spot Tony was standing at this moment (or at least within ten or so feet), a fighter pilot named Timothy Hampton had died in agony after a gash on his leg went septic from neglect. Melodramatic legends from the seedy side of the internet claimed that Timothy’s spirit still wandered the hallways of the hospital at night, knocking on walls, groaning in pain, and doing all the stuff your average ghost might be expected to do. Tony had come to the hospital hoping to confirm the ghost stories, but in all honesty, he didn’t really know whether to believe them. On the one hand, he’d been seeing and hearing bizarre things that could have been blamed on a ghost since arriving over three hours ago. On the other hand, though, he didn’t really understand why a tortured soul would spend their eternal afterlife knocking on walls and screaming. It seemed, to him, like a waste of anyone’s bloody time, dead or alive.
Unfortunately, what Tony thought of the ghost stories was irrelevant; he was here to do a job. He wasn’t just another vandal looking to immortalise another idiotic drawing on a wall nobody would ever see, nor was he another reckless teenager looking to go home with a spooky story nobody would ever believe. He was, for want of a better term, a paranormal investigator. He cleared his throat, listening to his voice wavering and cracking against the fraying walls of the ward.
“If anyone’s here, give me a sign of your presence.”
He squeezed his throat to avoid coughing up more dust, listening as his words bounced back at him and dissolved into nothing. He could hear the wind yelling for attention above and below him, shoving bits of the building out of its way in a worrying series of creaks and bangs. Tony had been visiting lonely, spooky places for two years, and he’d learnt that even in the loneliest, spookiest places, there was no such thing as silence. Whenever he asked some tortured soul to make noises from beyond the grave, therefore, he had to listen very carefully.
Suddenly, a massive CRASH sliced the lull in half as something heavy fell behind him, shaking the floor and jarring the air enough to send chunks of rock spiralling from the walls. Tony jumped so hard he almost lost his footing and fell over, even though he was meant to be expecting the sound.
“Oh my god!” he proclaimed, spinning on his heel to face the corner where the noise had come from. “What the hell was that?”
He lifted up his torch and shone it forwards, illuminating a wooden table that had, somehow, been flipped over onto its side. Currently, with Tony’s torch in the right place, nobody was visible behind it. Could have been the ghost.
Then, stumbling slightly, Tony accidentally flicked the torch upwards to reveal the man who’d tipped it over.
“Damn it, Tony!” Dave grinned, shielding his eyes from the glow of the torch as he looked up past Tony’s shoulder. “Wait, did the cameras get me that time?”
Tony sighed, breaking his act as the cameras stopped rolling for the fifteenth time that hour.
“Damn,” he said, relaxing the tension in his arms and switching the torch off. “I know, I know.”
“You clearly don’t know, Tony,” replied Philip, the TV producer. “I swear to Christ, all you’ve got to do is let the viewers think you’re seeing ghosts!”
“Sorry,” said Tony. “I just tripped. It won’t happen again.”
“It’s happened three times in the last fucking hour!”
“Okay, yeah, whatever.” Philip was a middle-aged man with a face like a slightly overcooked ham, so heavy on his feet that every step he took seemed to shake part of the building loose. “Look, Tony, I don’t care how many times we have to film this before you manage to keep David out of the frame, but the viewers can’t see him! If they see him, they’re not going to fall for shit!”
Dave piped up from behind the table. “Can I just-“
“No, David, you can’t,” Philip interrupted. “This wasn’t all Tony’s fault; if you weren’t wearing that fucking fluorescent Hawaiian shirt, maybe the cameras wouldn’t’ve seen you. Go get changed before I fire you.”
“Oh.” Dave deflated slightly. “Sorry.”
As Dave plodded out of the haunted hospital ward to change his shirt, the boss turned his attention back to Tony.
“Tony, do I have to go through all this shit again?”
“No, you really d-“
“Tony, you’re not a real paranormal scientist. That’s what all the imbeciles who watch Bump in the Night think you are, obviously. But really? What are you paid for, Tony Belgrave?”
Tony sighed. “I’m an actor.”
“That’s right. Your job is to act. The only genuine realism Bump in the Night needs is the supposed haunted house, right? But since fucking ghosts aren’t actually real, we’ve got to fake the shit out of a bunch of spooky stuff once we get there to make it more exciting. And it’s your job to pretend it’s real. That means no going off-script, no irritated sighing, and absolutely no showing everyone where the production workers are hiding. It’s not fucking Where’s Wally, Tony, and your job isn’t a hard one, so just get on with it and pretend you’re enjoying yourself for the cameras, all right?”
“But, um...” Tony fiddled awkwardly with the strap on his watch instead of looking his boss in the eye. “Wouldn’t a real paranormal scientist be even slightly, uh... scared?”
“By, um... ghosts. Or a bloody great table almost falling on top of him.”
“Tony, I swear to God, David’s not the only idiot whose job’s skating on thin ice. You’re a pretty crap actor, so if you piss me off one more time I’ll get Jean or Andy to film this scene and then you can go do as much real investigating as you want on your redundancy cheque. That clear?”
Tony tried to hide his sigh. “Yeah, sure. Sorry.”
“Good. Now, once David comes back from powdering his fucking nose, we can reshoot.”
Dave hurried back into the room right on cue; he’d replaced his neon blue t-shirt with a slightly darker version, but the optimistic smile on his face hadn’t even wavered. Dave had only been employed at the studio for a couple of weeks, and somehow, the novelty of working on a world-famous TV show hadn’t worn off, despite Philip’s best attempts to make his life hell.
“Hey, Tony! You’d better not be zoning out again!”
Tony took off his glasses and rubbed the dust from his eyes. “Yeah.”
Most kids grew up with a love of something normal, like dinosaurs or spaceships or fairy princesses, but Tony couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be a paranormal investigator. He’d been watching programmes like Bump in the Night ever since the age of six, and when he’d first been hired by the studio, he’d been dumb enough to think he was part of a genuine investigation documentary. In the usual fashion for someone whose childhood dreams had just been snatched from under his nose and smashed, Tony was so disappointed after being told the programme was fake that he nearly quit instantly.
“Tony. Tony! For fuck’s sake, cut! You missed the cue again!”
“Did I? Oh. Oh, oops. Sorry about that.”
He really, really didn’t care anymore. During his two years travelling with the phoniest TV crew on the planet, Tony had actually had a few genuine paranormal experiences, which, naturally, were never put into the programme. He remembered the inexplicable failure of every single item of electronic equipment they’d brought, including the cameras, and he remembered watching the planchette from an old Ouija board lifting clear off the ground after they’d finished filming with it. Tony’s personal favourite experience had been the time he could have sworn Philip got possessed by a demon, but he hadn’t been completely sure, since Philip acted like a manifestation of evil energy all the time anyway.
“Tony, sorry isn’t fucking good enough! How the hell can you be so dozy that you actually miss a bloody great table falling over behind you?”
“Yeah, I dunno. I guess I was just, um... distracted.”
It was obvious that neither experience nor talent had had anything to do with Tony’s casting in the programme; he doubted anyone could have gushed about paranormal intrigue in their interview as much as he had, but normally, he had less charisma than a brick wall. It couldn’t have been anything physical either; he was completely average height and slightly too skinny, with a lazy sprawl of brown hair, sullen dark blue eyes that may as well have been grey for all the personality they exuded, and glasses that got blurrier every time he cleaned them. He wasn’t exactly eye candy, unless your eyesight was as bad as his.
“Distracted my arse, Tony! I know David’s a bit of a fairy, but that was still a fucking huge noise!”
“I’m not a fairy!” Dave protested cheerfully from behind the table.
“Be quiet, David, or I swear to Christ you’re both fired. Gerry?”
The cameraman, who was even better than Tony at keeping his mouth shut, glanced up at the sound of his name.
“Gerry, I’m going outside to check on Jean. At least that girl can do as she’s told when there’s a camera pointed at her, for God’s sake. Stay here and keep trying to get something out of these two idiots.”
As soon as Philip had left, depriving them all of his deafening yelling, Tony noticed a loud knocking sound coming from above him. Dave noticed the sound too and Tony accidentally caught his eye before looking away again. The sound reminded Tony of knuckles on a wooden door, but there wasn’t an ounce of wood left in the room apart from the table Dave had tipped over, and this time, his hands were nowhere near it.
“Huh,” Dave said, raising one eyebrow. “Looks like there’s a real ghost next door.”
Tony raised both eyebrows in response. “Mocking me.”
Turning away from Dave to face the corner, Tony noticed that Philip had somehow managed to leave his empty coffee mug on the ground next to the door. The garish yellow china, printed with ‘I’M THE EFFING BOSS’ in black letters, stood out painfully well against the broken beige flagstones.
The mug began to wobble slightly as a gust of breeze hurled itself through the empty doorframe, but after the wind had died down, it only rocked more violently. Tony narrowed his eyes in confusion as the mug lifted up onto its edge, hung in the air for a second, and then toppled over, spilling damp black dregs of coffee onto the ground.
The doorframe was suddenly filled in by Philip as he stomped back into the room.
“What’re you doing, Tony? Don’t answer that. You’re standing round like a lemon again; I should’ve known. God damn, you’re actually further from the camera, if that’s even physically possible. Gerry, why didn’t you do something about this?”
Tony said nothing. Considering he was apparently an actor, he was excellent at saying nothing.
“Tony? Hey, I’m talking to you! Pay attention! What’re you staring at?”
During the pause, Tony tried to convince himself the mug had been blown over by the wind.
“Who the hell knocked my mug over?” Philip said, walking over to pick it up.
“I think it was the wind,” suggested Gerry.
“You shouldn’t’ve left it on an uneven surface,” offered Dave.
Tony paused, and then grinned. “It was a ghost.”
“Tony, I swear to God,” Philip went over to the camera, “your bullshit’s starting to really get on my nerves!”
Philip was playing back the bit of footage they’d just filmed. Tony was close enough to the tiny screen to make out his own face, which stayed hilariously void of expression even after the massive BANG rattled through the film. Craning round to watch the rest of the footage, he managed to snuff out his smile before it turned into a laugh, and Dave was clearly having similar problems across the room.
“Tony, you look kind of like you’re in a trance,” Dave said.
“David, shut it,” Philip cut in, straightening up. “But, y’know, it’s actually not quite as fucking awful as it should’ve been. You know what? Fuck it. We’ll crop it and that’ll do. I don’t care anymore.”
Tony paused, replaying the film in his head. “Really?”
“Yes, Tony, really. If that’s really the best you can do, I can’t be arsed to fight you over it anymore, so let’s go. I swear, this place isn’t haunted by anything other than rats, but it’s starting to creep me the fuck out. Let’s move on.”
“Yep,” said Tony, going to help Dave with the table as Philip swanned out of the room with his mug.
“Thanks,” Dave said to Tony, who mumbled something inaudible in response. “Y’know, I think he’s right.”
Tony laughed half-heartedly. “About what?”
“Well, this place is definitely creepy, for one thing. And also, y’know, about me being a bit of a, um... a fairy.”
“That guy’s an asshole. Don’t listen to him.”
Dave’s persistent grin was starting to confuse, irritate and unnerve him, so he was secretly relieved when it wavered into a tired half-smile.
“Um, thanks,” Dave said.
“Yeah,” Tony added, ignoring the sudden prickle of cold in his spine as he turned to leave the room. “Everyone here’s an asshole. You might want to get used to that.”