Horla Flash Fiction (April 2021)

 

GHOSTIES IN THE MACHINE

by DAVID RUDD

“ANOTHER round?” said Peter.

All three of us nodded. We were in the “Bark and Quack”, officially the Dog and Duck. I’d just fronted my first “Ghosties” tour: up the Shambles and across the road to York Minster. Previously I’d done bit parts: dressing up and moaning, generally scaring people. But the others – Steve, Peter and Mark, who’d been running the tours since they’d left drama school – had thought I was ready for more. Among ourselves, the tour was known as “The Shambolic”, which it was in more ways than one. No one was ever quite sure what was going to happen, or who might pull a stunt. It kept us on our toes.

I’m biased, but I thought my tour was a great success. It had a different feel, no thanks to me. There was something strange going on at the top of the Shambles, something mystical that the audience also seemed to pick up on.

While Peter was at the bar, Steve was getting increasingly “techie”. He was trying to work out how to stage the illusion of some Roman soldiers marching, visible only from the knee up. The most famous ghosts in York were seen like this in the cellars of the Treasurer’s House, for the Roman road had run lower down.

We groaned as Steve detailed the oscillating frequencies of strobe lighting. Mark got up to poke the fire. He and Steve were an item. I’d met them through Peter. We too were once together, but it hadn’t worked out. We were still friends, though, and I’d managed to keep my own room in the communal house.

I started to mention the weird feeling I’d experienced at the top of the Shambles, but Peter interrupted, returning with the drinks: “Did you see how the audience were dressed tonight?  Impressive or what!”

“Yeah, some great costumes,” said Mark. “Almost upstaged us.”

Ghosties had developed a reputation for having people dress up for their tours. Our website features many of their get-ups to inspire future punters. We try to theme our tours, too, featuring particular periods. Tonight was meant to be Elizabethan, but the audience were an anachronistic bunch, dressed mainly in Victorian and Medieval outfits, with a few Romans and one lone Viking. But, as I always maintain, anachronism is a meaningless concept to ghosts, for that’s what they are: beings out of time. I’d worked this up into quite a spiel. Too much so, according to Peter.

“Apart from that boring-looking couple,” said Steve, “everyone was in costume tonight.”

“Who were those two, anyway?” asked Peter. “They always stood apart from the rest.”

“Well, it’s funny you should ask, Peter, because one of them,” Mark paused, “dropped this.” He passed Peter a business card.

“Time-Machine Tours,” Peter read out. “Visit your Favourite Historical Era! Experience Genuine Period Shopping!” He studied the card for a few moments before a smile spread across his face. “Whose brainwave was this?”

“What do you mean?” said Mark, all innocent. It took a while for him to come clean. “Good one, eh?” he smiled. “We could work it into the tours, yeah? For that extra dimension?”

“And while we’re discussing set-ups, who was the Viking?” I asked. The others denied any knowledge. “Come on,” I said. “He can’t have been for real, spouting that Noggin-the-Nog gobbledegook.”

But the others were intransigent. I changed the subject, back to the elephant in the room. “Didn’t you feel it? That shuddery sensation at the top of the Shambles?”

“You don’t mean that man who came out of the alley with the meat cleaver, dripping blood?” said Steve.

“No, I don’t!” I knew Steve was peeved that I’d not yet mentioned his unscheduled appearance, terrifying us all. “I knew it was you. I recognised the trainers.” My eyes travelled down to his feet. No trainers! “But … it was you …,” I stumbled on.

“What, these trainers?” Steve pulled them from a carrier bag while the others hooted. “Got you there!”

I said no more until we were back at the house, sitting over coffee. Just as I was about to mention the ghost in our machine again, Peter’s mobile rang. “It’s the Viking,” he said, passing me the phone.

I could see the others sniggering. I had been set up! Sven, as he was called, had agreed to play the Viking in exchange for a chat with me. I was really not in the mood and was about to hang up when, impulsively, I asked him if he’d experienced anything strange at the top of the Shambles.

I put the phone on speaker so they could all hear his response: “… there was certainly a … coldness. A walk over the grave feeling, you say? Very good illusion!” I thanked Sven and promised a return call.

“See!” I said. “Punter feedback!”

“It was windy,” conceded Steve, the others nodding.

“No!” I protested. “It was a coldness. Through your bones. A fluttering in your guts. Like something passed through us. You could see it on people’s faces.”

The three wise monkeys were silent.

“Maybe …,” suggested Peter, “it was those Roman soldiers coming through!”

The others laughed. It was like competing against Blackpool illuminations with a candle.

“Yeah!” said Mark. “Steve, how about we have a bit of cloth stretched out, looking just like a Shambles shopfront? Then three of us walk behind it, dressed as Romans, so our legs below the knee are hidden.”

“That’s it!” said Steve. “And we could light it with a strobe!”

I got up, leaving the boys to their smoke and mirrors. “No ghost stands a chance with you lot around!” I shouted from the door.

There was silence till I was about halfway up the stairs, when their laughter erupted again.

 

 

***

Dr David Rudd, aged 71, from Bolton, Lancashire, UK, is an emeritus professor of literature who has published extensively in academia but only recently turned to creative writing. His stories have appeared in “Horla”, “TigerShark”, “Erotic Review”, “Black Cat Mystery Magazine”, “Bandit Fiction”, “Literally Stories” and a Didcot Writers anthology, “First Contact”. He also enjoys playing folk and blues music, but says this pastime is far more derivative than his writing. 

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Title photo credit – Jona Friedri on Unsplash

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