The Ghost Experts

NOMMED FOR MOVELLA OF THE YEAR 2016

*Formerly Bump in the Night*

The Ghost Experts is a ghost-hunting programme that’s different from all the others. That’s because none of it’s real.

Tony has always wanted to be a real paranormal investigator. His co-workers are perfectly happy to build their careers on falsehoods and cheap tricks, but Tony’s always wanted something more. Something real. Unfortunately, he’s about to get his wish.

When the crew set up in the infamous Lansfield Hall, it soon becomes clear that this won’t just be another normal day. One by one, the crew start to realise there’s more to those spooky ghost stories than they first thought. Subtly spooky antics turn into all-out carnage, bottled-up tensions rise to the surface, and a simple job turns into a fight for survival. If they want to live to see the sunrise, they’ll have to abandon the script.

They aren’t real ghost hunters, but that doesn’t matter any more, because these ghosts don’t want to be hunted.

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1. The Graveyard Shift

Tony had been a ghost hunter for long enough to come up with a scale. On the scale, with one being ‘not haunted at all’ and ten being ‘haunted as hell itself’, he’d have given Ledgely Infirmary a four. Maybe a five. He’d have to see how the rest of the night went.

Abandoned since the end of the second world war, the hospital had been scarred by vandals and disembowelled by nature. It was more like a carcass, really, than a building, with rotting beams sticking out of every ceiling and wall like broken bones and every remaining scrap of wall lathered in mildew and ivy. Dust and decay had crusted every last breath of air Tony had taken since setting foot in the front porch, scraping his throat like he was swallowing gravel, and he was pretty sure it wasn’t the freezing winter air tugging the hairs away from his skin and knocking his heartbeat out of whack. It wasn’t the wind hollowing guttural screams from the air in the corridors.

But Tony really, really hoped those red and brown stains dribbled onto the breezeblocks were paint.

Fifty years ago, in this exact room on the third floor of the hospital, a fighter pilot named Timothy Hampton had died in agony after a gash on his arm went septic from neglect. Twenty separate websites, only seven or so of which were definitely seedy, claimed that Timothy’s spirit still wandered the corridors, knocking on walls, groaning in pain, and doing all the stuff ghosts seemed to tend towards once they were trapped in their endless purgatory of bullshit and boredom. Tony had come to the hospital hoping to confirm those ghost stories- he wasn’t sure exactly what he’d been expecting, but he was pretty sure he’d managed it.

He was only halfway through his fifteen-hour work shift, though, and he wasn’t allowed to leave till morning.

Tony had always been interested in what it was, exactly, that got the idiots in horror movies trapped in their haunted houses. It was sometimes accidental, sure- stumbling across a seemingly abandoned house in the middle of the woods at night apparently wasn’t a red flag for anyone- but other times it was dumb bravery, intrigue, boredom. Money. Money was why he was here. He wasn’t a vandal trying to immortalise a scribble on a wall nobody would see, nor was he a bored teenager trying to go home with a spooky story nobody would believe; he was here on business. Goosebumps and ghost stories were the way he made his living, so it was only natural, really, that he’d grown bored of them long ago.

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

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

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 at all, but every last one was spooky as hell. And noisy. He’d always felt the key to communicating with the dead was subtlety.  

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 lurching sideways in his ribcage, and he almost lost his footing and tripped. This would have been especially embarrassing, considering he’d known the sound was coming.

“Oh my god!” Tony pushed his glasses back into place as he spun on his heel, fixing his eyes on 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.

“You clearly don’t know, Tony,” replied Philip, the TV producer. Philip was a middle-aged man with the complexion of an 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 you find so bloody difficult about putting on a damned act!

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

“Oh, really? It’s happened three times in the last 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 goddamned 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 The Ghost Experts 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 declared his job title for all the world to hear.

“I’m an actor.”

He was an actor. Two years on the job, and he was still ashamed. He was a liar, for a start, but there was also the matter of how completely and utterly boring he found himself. He was average height and average weight, with a lazy sprawl of hair in a thoroughly average shade of mud-brown, and he dressed like he wanted to go unnoticed, because he did. He was a national TV star who wanted to disappear. So sick was he of his life that he’d even managed to make his blue eyes look boring, muddying them up with sullenness till they may as well have been grey. He wasn’t ugly- a few minutes every morning of staring at himself in the mirror, added to the fact that a London studio had always been more than happy to plaster him all over their daytime TV ads, had convinced him of that- but there was just nothing… special about him. At all. And yet here he was anyway.

“That’s right. Your job’s to act. The only genuine realism The Ghost Experts needs is the supposed haunted house. There’s a reason we fake all the ghost stuff.” Philip held up his hand and started counting on his fingers. “One: Ghosts aren’t real. Two: The stuff we can do is more interesting than what all those other idiotic programmes do. And three: It’s easier. Except from where you’re concerned. Tony, for the last time, no going off-script, no irritated sighing, and absolutely no showing everyone where the production workers are hiding. You got that?”

Tony fiddled awkwardly with the strap on his watch instead of looking his boss in the eye. “But, um...”

“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. 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 goddamned 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 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 like those of a child at Disneyland. His fashion sense could only be summed up by the statement that he clearly enjoyed attracting attention 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 had envied Dave’s carefree optimism ever since they’d first met, becoming determined to ignore him in case he started feeling 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 stopped paying attention. 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. See if he could find some real ghosts. He glanced at his watch, his fist 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! And more importantly, 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. Dave jumped and spun as a muffled BANG shot up the stairs from the second floor. He turned back to Tony, his eyes wider 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 Jean downstairs.”

Dave shrugged.

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

“Okay, action!”

After two years travelling with the phoniest TV crew on the planet, Tony had never been surer that ghosts existed. Unfortunately, he seemed to be the only one. In the extremely likely event that something unexplainable did happen, it would be swept under the rug and ignored. All the cameras simultaneously failing on full battery? Ignore. Every last resident of a village claiming the Devil lives in that church you’re visiting? Ignore. The planchette from a Oujia board lifting clear off the ground, after you’ve finished using it? Ignore. What if your boss gets possessed by a demon? Well, to be fair, Tony had been almost inclined to ignore that one too. It had been impossible to tell for sure, since Philip acted like a manifestation of evil energy all the time.

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

 “Sorry. Got a bit, uh… Distracted, I guess.”

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

“Uh, sir?” Dave mumbled from behind the table. “I did ask you not to call me a fairy.”

Philip spun. “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 flask 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 flask 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 flask lifted up onto its edge, hung in the air for a second, and then toppled over, knocking its lid off and 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. He was excellent at saying nothing, considering he was an actor.

“Tony? Hey, I’m talking to you! Pay attention! What are you staring at?”

During the pause, Tony tried to convince himself the flask had been blown over by the wind.

“Who the hell knocked my flask over?” Philip said, walking over to pick it up.

“I think it was the wind,” said Gerry.

“You shouldn’t’ve left it on an uneven surface,” said Dave.

Tony paused, then shrugged.

Philip had started playing back the bit of footage they’d 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 had 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 let the excitement show on his face. He briefly toyed with leaving straight away, but decided to go and help Dave with the table as Philip swanned out of the room with his flask.

“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 want to get used to that.”

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