12 October 2018, Friday evening
When Haley looked into the mirror, the face of a dead thing looked back. Skull white and smudged with the dust of centuries, the woman behind the glass was nose-less, her teeth gleaming through the rents in her cheeks, her eyes black on black, as windows opening onto the abyss.
She blinked hard a dozen times until the dark contact-lenses settled into place comfortably and her eyes stopped tearing up, then she fixed a sheer, gauzy veil to her corkscrew hair and lowered it over her head. A Victorian replica, it fell in a long trail of smoke-like pallor to just below her knees, where it met the navy blue of her floor-length skirts and frothed back in tears, rips and fluttering feathers against the longer section that descended from the back of her head.
In a darkened room, the navy skirts were close to invisible. Even here in Haley’s science-fiction themed bedroom, in front of her full-length mirror, the effect was eerie. She was a swathed form that appeared to be floating a foot above the floor. Observed directly, her face could not be seen, but if the light hit the gauze just so, there was a momentary flash of horror – that half-dead face with gaping eyes.
“Blimey,” she said, turning her head this way and that to wonder at the effect. “Glad I’m the ghost. I’d be scared witless if I was a punter.”
Closing up all the containers of makeup and paint, she picked up her mixing water and brushes in one hand and hoisted up her skirts with the other so she could get safely down the stairs and into the kitchen.
“I’m an eldritch horror again,” she commented as she came through the door, just to warn Rory in case she scared him. The guy ran a ghost-watching blog, but she hadn’t quite worked out yet whether that was because he didn’t believe in them and wanted to debunk them, or because he did and wanted to solve the mystery of how they happened, or to challenge himself against them, or all of the above. “So don’t go breaking the crockery in shock.”
Rory, an elegant beanpole of a young man with a shock of curly red hair like an explosion of Catherine wheels, was washing up their best plates—the ones with the gold rim that couldn’t go into the dishwasher. The ones that his aunt had given him and he’d been too polite to refuse. He wore classic chinos and a shirt that probably cost more than her weekly wage, with the sleeves rolled up, and yellow rubber gloves topped with bubbles. He peeled these off as he studied her and smiled.
“That works much better than the zombie-like effect you were going for at first. You’re really getting into this job, then?”
“Yeah,” Haley agreed, not having to think about it. “The bar work was doing my back in. All those crates of bottles and barrels to move? I’m not saying I don’t want to do that no more at all, but I do want to cut down the number of shifts. And this is way less hard work, physically. I can hear the punters coming, so I can even sit down in the breaks between tours. Plus it’s funny, you know? Watching them all jump when they figure out that I’m moving. I got some serious screams last night.”
“Ghosts as entertainment.” Rory shook his head, turning to shut the blinds on the kitchen window. The last light had drained from the sky and it was no longer possible to make out the shadow of the elder tree whose berried branches nodded against the window.
“You don’t approve?” Haley asked, feeling that this was kind of hypocritical for a man who made part of his living from feeding the public fascination with the supernatural.
“I suppose that’s the goal for me too,” he offered. “I just can’t shake the anxiety that if there are real hauntings in any of these old buildings, they won’t take kindly to being mocked.”
He was such a weirdo, even if he was a weirdo she now counted as a friend. “I wouldn’t worry about that. In between screams it’s pretty peaceful. Boring, to be honest. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve already had enough excitement to last me the year, thank you.”
“Absolutely.” He offered her a paper bag, neatly folded down across the top. “But I do remember you said you got peckish around nine, so I made you a snack.”
Haley’s parents had been lead to believe that she and Rory were dating. Every so often he did something really sweet like this that lead her to think that—if she had wanted anything like that—he would not be a bad candidate. He was, however, spoken for, and she didn’t.
“Thanks,” she said, “You’re a champion. I’d better go. Waiting at the stop in this get-up is hilarious, but I can’t risk missing the bus.
The bus route to Ely took approximately twenty minutes. Haley had amused herself with the reactions of the other passengers, but as she had already been at the job for a week, most of them were beginning to recognize her now, and she sat through the inevitable witticisms about “going to the dead center of the town?” “No need to make a specter of yourself… this is a grave business,” with good-natured patience. Once the job was done for the night, she would fold up her veil, wash her face and return home in mufti, but for now she was a walking advertisement for the tours and happy to provide a little entertainment for free.
Ely museum had once been the town jail. It stood on Market street, circled by its own wall, and she entered the courtyard where the hangings had taken place—now a small but charming garden—as the tour would, a quarter of an hour later.
She ignored the bright entrance of the museum with its sweep of entrance desk set in a spread of postcards and books by local authors. Carefully holding her veil against herself so as not to snag it on the rough brick wall, she eeled down the path to the back door. More often than not it was left unlocked while the museum was open, and yes—it was ajar. Someone was going in ahead of her.
Sprinting the last few feet, she caught the door from the hand that had been pulling it closed and threw it wide again. Her heart leapt into her throat at the sight that met her. Just ahead of her a glowing skull hung in the air, moving with the fluidity of flesh. Something within her recoiled, and her limbic system pumped adrenaline into her blood—she almost leapt a foot in the air and turned to run.
And then of course she recognized Keri Burbage. In a black bodysuit, with her face blackened and then painted with glow-in-the-dark paint in the shape of a skull, she made a very convincing floating head. It took a long, careful examination to pick out the rest of her features and catch the faintly smug look she sported.
“You scared the life out of me!” Haley complained, cheerfully. “Looking good!”
The floating head shrugged a near invisible shoulder and grimaced. “You ain’t a picture either.”
Haley was still the new girl on the job and this was the first full sentence she had had out of Keri, a girl who appeared to have taken her surly teenage phase very seriously.
To get a full sentence from her felt like a good sign, as though Haley had been awarded a modicum of rarely bestowed trust, and she encouraged it with extra friendliness. “No, I mean it. You’re extra scary this evening. Did you do something different?”
Pride stole reluctantly over the ghastly face as if it was unknown territory. “Might have,” Keri muttered, and then an unintelligible mumble that Haley thought might contain the words, “New brand,” and “Youtube highlighting vids.”
“It’s really working,” she praised, remembering how much positivity she had needed to hear at Keri’s age. Seventeen to eighteen was coming out of the worst of it, but the existential horror of the teens was something she remembered vividly.
‘Existential horror’ a little voice inside her head mocked. That’s bloody Rory isn’t it? You don’t want to end up sounding like him.
Checking her phone for the time, she saw it was eight twenty-seven. “Blimey. Time to get to work. Good luck! Knock ‘em dead.”
The museum’s back door opened onto a tiny corridor which lead through into the front of the building and the exhibition rooms. Off the corridor, a staircase lead up to the second floor and down to the cells. They parted on the stairs, Keri going down, and Haley picking her careful way up to her station.
As a local museum, the exhibits were mostly valueless. There were plough-shares, interesting rocks and a pair of bone skates that might have been used by Vikings. Blacksmith’s tools, copies of hundred-year-old newspapers, and so on. The curators made up for this deficit by filling the rooms with dioramas, and Haley’s station was in a large chamber at the back of the building which was almost entirely filled with a courtroom scene. Mannequins in eighteen century clothing were jeering from a public gallery as a heavily bewigged judge pronounced the sentence of death on the accused.
In the daytime the crowd of faceless dummies looked rather shabby. But at night, with the only light coming from faint spots along the underside of the walls, it was hard to repress the fear that the posed figures might suddenly begin to move. Haley was here to play on that fear. When the tour guide brought the punters up here, he would leave a long moment for them to feel the eeriness of all those human-shaped things, to be plagued by the thought of what if… and then Haley would stir from the darkest of corners, and float noiselessly toward them.
She took off her shoes in preparation, and as she did so she heard the museum’s main door open, and the voice of Anthony Povey, the tour guide, echo around the entrance hall, accompanied by a shuffling of feet. “Before it was a museum, this building was the court-house and the prison for the whole of the Ely district. As you can imagine, there are many terrible tales to tell here of those both justly and unjustly executed. And so, ladies and gentlemen, if you will accompany me first to the cells.”
Haley took a breath of dusty air. She had ten minutes to put herself into the mood of a ghastly apparition from beyond the grave. The sound of footsteps trailed away, and then redoubled as they hit the wooden stairs.
A pause. They must be entering the cells around now, where Keri was lurking. Then screams rang out.
Haley laughed under her breath as the first peal of terror echoed up the stairs—good one, Keri. Now the punters would start laughing too; there would be slightly manic, relieved laughter, as they rejoiced in their own discomfiture and the knowledge that they were safe.
But the screaming didn’t stop. A wave of sick darkness seemed to brush down Haley’s back as it went on. There was a tone to the sound that she had only heard once before in her life, when…
Oh God, this was the noise the crowd had made when they watched the body of Sidney Barr fall into the bonfire at the Straw Man festival. This was… real.
Jamming her shoes back on, sickness stirring in her gut, Haley ran downstairs.
A couple of punters fleeing into the corridor with their hands over their mouths saw her and screamed again. Their sweaty faces were as white as their eyes. They scrambled to the back door, threw it open and bolted into the night. Almost automatically, Haley found herself shutting it, making sure the Yale lock had caught. Something bad had happened. It had to be contained.
She clattered down to the cells as if she had tripped on the stairs, her ghastly appearance carving her a path through a sudden tide of people running away. “Anthony?” she called, terror scrabbling at her own throat, at her back, at the top of her skull. She couldn’t see a bloody thing in this dark. Was that a body on the floor? Where was Anthony?
Haley slapped the light switch as the smell hit her nose, rippling all the hairs on the back of her neck and arms. Blood, thick and hot.
“Everybody stand where the feck you are!” she shouted as the room blazed into merciless view. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but nobody leaves until we call the police.”
It was Anthony on the floor. In his Night Watchman costume, the fat man lay as if Santa’s goth brother had been coshed in an alleyway, his lantern overturned beside him. Haley ripped her veil off with one hand as she closed her other around his wrist. A pulse beat there like the thud of the panic in Haley’s chest. He wasn’t dead, thank God. But then—fear returned like nausea—he also wasn’t the only body.
Beyond Anthony’s outstretched hand, as though he had touched her and then fainted, overcome, was the thin figure of Keri Burbage, face-down, invisible to Haley in the dark but horribly clear now that the lights were on. From beneath her, a pool of liquid spread glistening, red as poppies.
“Keri,” Haley whispered, trying to convince herself that Keri had just found a new way of scaring the punters. This was a prank with a bladder of pig’s blood, wasn’t it, and they would all have a good laugh about it later.
She pushed Keri’s shoulder, trying to turn her over so she could get at the girl’s neck to feel for the pulse. The movement brought a glint out from the shadow of her chest. What was that?
Gently, she turned Keri over, and grayness bloomed behind her eyes. Merciful oblivion beckoned when she saw the brassy wicked gleam and black flights of the crossbow bolt that was sticking out of the girl’s heart.
Not a prank at all. This was murder.