Bump in the Night

They’ve built their careers on camera trickery and false advertising, but they’ve gotten so used to faking it, none of them have even considered the possibility that something real might be lurking just beyond the reaches of the camera lens. Until tonight, that is. Tonight, they realise that they’ve been playing with fire all along. They’ve never been real ghost hunters, but that doesn’t matter any more, because these ghosts don’t want to be hunted.

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1. Smoke and Mirrors

Tony’s first impression of Ledgely Infirmary had been that it definitely looked haunted.

The hospital had been abandoned since the end of the Second World War; the odd scar had been left on the building by hooligans and graffiti artists, 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 you took when you were in there scraped your throat like a handful of pebbles.

Tony really, really hoped the brown and red stains dribbled onto the exposed breezeblocks were just paint, almost as much as he hoped the guttural screams in the corridor outside were just the wind.

Nah, this place was haunted as fuck, just like everywhere else.

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 ghosts tended to do once they’d found themselves trapped in an endless purgatory of bullshit and boredom. Tony had come to the hospital hoping to confirm the ghost stories and, only halfway through his fifteen-hour work shift, he was pretty satisfied he’d managed it.

Shame he wasn’t allowed to leave until sunrise.

Tony was a depressingly ordinary-looking guy; he was paler than milk at the best of times and whiter than paper when he was frightened, which was awfully often considering his line of work. He was average height and average weight with a lazy sprawl of hair in an average variety of mud-brown, and his clothes were just boring enough that you wouldn’t notice him if he walked past you on the street, which was about right, because there was no reason why you should have noticed him in the first place. His eyes were blue, but it was the sullen stormy sort of blue that radiated all the charisma of grey or beige. The colour was all but cancelled out anyway by his glasses, which only got more smudgy the more he tried to clean them. Tony was bored of his appearance, sure, but he was also bored of pretty much everything else. Even ghosts got dull when you saw them every day, after all.

Tony wasn’t another vandal looking to immortalise a drawing on a wall nobody would ever see. He wasn’t another reckless teenager looking to go home with a spooky story nobody would ever believe. Even though he knew his job title was something else entirely, he liked to think of himself as a paranormal investigator. Giving himself the airs of a scientific professional was one way to get through every day, he’d realised, so whenever he went out on a lockdown, he’d close his eyes and imagine a world where he really was.

Tony tried not to sigh as he cleared his throat, listening to his voice wavering and cracking against the fraying walls.

“If anyone’s here, give me a sign of your presence.”

Squeezing his throat to avoid coughing up more dust, Tony listened to his words bouncing back at him and dissolving 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. Investigator or not, he’d been visiting allegedly haunted locations for two years; some of them weren’t haunted, the vast majority of them were, all of them were spooky as hell, and none of them were ever silent. If his job had taught him one thing, it was that there was always something to hear if you listened closely enough.

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, his heart lurched sideways in his ribcage, and he almost lost his footing and balance to boot. That was especially weird, since he’d known the sound was coming.

“Oh my god!” he proclaimed after a pause, 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. Somehow.

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. I’m sorry, did you get me that time?”

“Cut!”

Tony sighed, breaking his act as the cameras stopped rolling for the fifteenth time that hour.

Damn,” he muttered, 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. 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. “I swear to Christ, all you’ve got to do is let the viewers think you’re seeing ghosts! I don’t understand what’s so bloody difficult about putting on a fucking act!

“Sorry,” said Tony. “I just tripped. It won’t happen again.”

“It’s happened three times in the last fucking hour!”

“Sorry.”

“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, trying not to let the misery show on his face as he repeated his real job title for all the world to hear.

“I’m an actor.”

He’d worked for the program for two years, but he was still ashamed.

“That’s right. Your job’s to act. The only genuine realism Bump in the Night needs is the supposed haunted house, right? But since 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 what?”

“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 yet again. Yet again, he failed. “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 Hawaiian shirt with a negligibly more understated version, and the optimistic smile on his face hadn’t even wavered. Dave had only been employed at the studio for a couple of weeks, and Tony was already struggling not to like him. A couple of years younger than Tony and at least half a foot shorter, Dave was a mess of blonde hair and freckles with dark eyes that always seemed to be open a bit too wide and practically shining with excitement. His fashion sense could only be summed up by the statement that he clearly enjoyed attracting attention, regardless of the type, from anyone and everyone. He always spoke a little too loudly, and his voice was tinged with the faintest trace of a Geordie accent which only served to make his words sound more cheerfully boisterous. Tony envied Dave’s innocent optimism and felt desperate to ignore him, just in case he started feeling even more depressed by proximity.

“Hey, Tony! You’d better not be zoning out again!”

Tony took off his glasses and rubbed the dust from his eyes, trying to delay having to look at Philip again. “Yeah.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony vaguely noticed the red light on the camera jumping to life, but it soon blurred into the black background as he started zoning out, despite his boss’ warning, yet again. He couldn’t help it; the periods of his acting job where he actually had to act were the worst bits, and he was longing for the next break, when he could run up the stairs he’d been eyeing and try to explore the entire fourth floor of the hospital in twenty minutes flat. He looked at his watch, his hand clenching and unclenching impatiently in time with the jumpy second hand and his heartbeat plodding and trailing in time with the minute hand. Fifteen minutes.

“Tony. Tony! For fuck’s sake, cut! You missed the cue again!”

“Did I? Oh. Oh, oops. Sorry about that.”

“It’s your job! Jesus bloody Christ! I know you hate this job, but you’re bloody paid to do it! I’m paid to get something out of you, whether you like it or not! So get on with it!”

In the black rectangular doorway behind Dave, a cloud of dust suddenly swelled up from the ground and exploded, diffusing in different directions. Tony blinked and focused. Dave jumped and turned around as a muffled BANG shot up the stairs from the second floor. He turned back to Tony, his eyes widened in an even more manic expression than usual. Tony broke eye contact.

“What the hell was that?” Dave said. Philip turned around to glare at him.

“What was what?”

“That noise.” Dave looked at the ground, embarrassed. “The bang?”

“I didn’t hear anything.” Philip waved his hand. “Probably just Jean downstairs.”

Dave shrugged.

“She’s meant to be in the basement, isn’t she?” Tony muttered. Everyone ignored him, as usual.

“Okay, action!”

After two years travelling with the phoniest TV crew on the planet, Tony had never felt more sure of the existence of ghosts, which was odd, considering that in the extremely likely event something unexplainable did happen, it would be swept under the rug and never ended up in the programme. He remembered, in the first lockdown he’d ever taken part in, the inexplicable failure of every single item of electronic equipment they’d brought, including the cameras. He remembered visiting an abandoned church bordering a ridiculously remote village, only for filming to be sabotaged by a group of decidedly unhinged locals insisting the Devil himself lived there in completely illegible words. He remembered watching the planchette from an old Ouija board lifting clear off the ground after they’d finished filming with it. Once, about half a year ago, Tony could have sworn Philip had been possessed by a demon, but it had been impossible to tell for sure since Philip acted like a manifestation of evil energy all the time anyway.

“Cut!” Philip rubbed his forehead and swore under his breath. “Tony…”

 “Yeah, I dunno. Sorry. I guess I was just, um... distracted.”

“Distracted my arse, Tony! I know David’s a fairy, but that was still a fucking huge noise!”

“Don’t call me a fairy,” Dave mumbled from behind the table.

“I can call you whatever the hell I want so long as I’m paying your wages. No normal guy dresses like that.”

The smile dropped from Dave’s face. “Uh-”

“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 downstairs 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.”

Gerry nodded.

As soon as Philip had left, the room fell into silence and Tony heard 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 became more muffled and broke itself up with a couple of shuffling thumps, then scattered itself across the ceiling before stopping.  It sounded like footsteps.

“Huh,” Dave said, raising one eyebrow and grinning at Tony. “Looks like there’s a real ghost upstairs.”

“Stop it.”

“Stop what?”

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. Philip never went anywhere without it, but he hadn’t noticed it there a few minutes ago, so he found himself staring. 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 started 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 are 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 are 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, then shrugged. “It was a ghost.”

“Tony, I swear to God,” Philip went over to the camera. “Your bullshit’s really getting on my nerves tonight!”

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. Yet again, he caught Dave’s eye as Dave stifled a giggle.

“Tony, you look kind of like you’re in a trance,” Dave said.

“David, shut it,” Philip cut in, straightening up. “But, you 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. Everyone take a break.”

“Yep,” said Tony, trying not to act too excited. He went 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’re going to have to get used to that.”

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