A roaring wind battered the building. It whistled through the cracks of the ill-fitting single-glazed windows and pelted the glass with debris ripped from the poplars in the park beyond. Driving rain slammed against the rattling panes, and attacked the roof and walls. In a corner of the room, the steady plop, plop of water dripping into metal buckets picked up its tempo.
Shivering, Lucy buttoned her cardigan and folded her arms across her chest. She hated storms and staying late at work while this one raged was testing her nerve. Peering at the skies through the uncurtained windows, she saw nothing but dark, scudding clouds eerily illuminated by the sodium street lamps. She’d get drenched walking back to her digs and a taxi at that time of night would cost a fortune. She placed a hand on the glass, felt the vibration. Maybe it would blow over.
Glancing down at the street, Lucy gasped. Someone was standing in the rain staring up at the theatre. Head tilted, his gaze appeared to be settled on her. Unnerved, she stepped back out of sight. She waited then cautiously peeped. The man was gone.
Lucy got back to work. The washing machine had reached the rinse cycle with the final spin next but at least another two loads of costumes were heaped in baskets beside it. Some could wait but those soaked with fake blood needed washing immediately. She’d worked on productions of Macbeth before and never encountered costumes this blood-spattered. The main characters all carried hidden blood pouches that gushed realistically and to enhance the effect, the costumes were predominantly white – stunning for the audience but a pain for her. She kicked Gloucester’s blood-drenched shirt with the toe of her shoe and couldn’t help cracking a smile. She’d been stage side for that scene. It was truly gruesome.
Drumming her fingers on the worktop, Lucy listened to the washing machine’s steady drone and the static hiss of the show relay monitor. She cursed the lack of facilities: a large theatre like this with only one washing machine? There was plenty of room for more and marks on the floor indicated there had been at some point. Frustrated, she contemplated ironing the costumes that didn’t need washing but decided against it. She was too tired. The midweek matinee had meant laundry duties between performances as well as now and she’d missed her break. Hunger and dehydration on top of a very early start – not a great beginning to her new job.
A door slammed somewhere below and looking up, Lucy noticed a change in the light around the window. Investigating, she saw the external billboards were no longer lit, the empty pavement glowing sodium orange, like the sky. The street was deserted. She watched the wind chase a newspaper it had stolen from a bin. It caught on railings, flapping helplessly. A distant rumble sent fear rolling through her like waves swelled by the tempest. Thunder. She hated thunder.
Lucy shuddered. The theatre was eerie. Foyers that had thrummed with the bustle of sell-out performances now lay still; the maze of backstage corridors creaked and moaned. The building made noises she hadn’t noticed during the day when dressing rooms were a hive of chatter and activity. How different it was after the curtain fell and the applause faded. Another door slammed loud enough to startle her. Apprehensive, she stepped into the corridor.
Up on the second floor, the Wardrobe Room was at the far end of a narrow corridor with a concrete floor worn down to a shine and old-style fluorescent tubes dangling from the ceiling. One of the tubes flicked and swayed in the draught that crept along the passage like freezing fog. The chill air sent a shiver down Lucy’s spine. A door creaked. Was that movement in the shadows near the stairwell?
She heard the distinct rattle of keys and a faint whistled tune. Yes, that must be Nathan, the Stage Door keeper. The sounds were below her – way below – so perhaps he was locking the ground floor dressing rooms or the auditorium fire exits. She leaned against the wall, listening, but the washing machine began its spin cycle, the clatter and whine drowning out everything. She rubbed her eyes, tiredness catching up with her. The sooner she got out of the theatre, the better. She glared at the washing machine, willing it to hurry up. As if obeying, the old machine slowed and clunked to a juddering halt. Muttering thanks, Lucy set about dealing with the second load.
Now the machine was silent, Lucy picked out Nathan’s whistled tune… or bits of it. It drifted through the floorboards, evaporated, then rose again from a different direction. It was a cheery tune befitting Nathan’s sunny disposition. He was nice and far friendlier than Stuart, who’d been on duty that morning. Stuart had grunted a greeting upon Lucy’s arrival and made no attempt to show her around, even though he must have known she was pushed for time. Stepping in last minute wasn’t easy, especially at an unfamiliar theatre, but Stuart didn’t seem to care.
Nathan did. He’d popped his head around the Wardrobe Room door and introduced himself before starting his post-show rounds. He’d told her not to rush and even promised to make her a cup of tea once he’d locked up. And he’d smiled. Something Stuart seemed incapable of.
Washing machine running again, Lucy hung up the wet clothes. The costume rails were old and rusted. Indeed, the whole room had seen better days. The carpet was threadbare, the magnolia paint peeling, and the buckets catching the leaks were filling fast. The Victorian theatre had been extended, renovated, and revamped multiple times over the years. It looked beautiful from the outside but backstage had barely been touched. Original tiles clung to the walls in the corridors, the doors had to be slammed shut, and the steep stairs were worn. Negotiating them with arms full of costumes was tricky bordering on downright dangerous. Not ideal, but she’d only be there ’till the end of the week and the bonus for working at such short notice was quite substantial.
Thunder growled, closer this time. Lucy wished she’d brought her car but with no free parking at the theatre, she’d left it outside her temporary digs and walked. It had seemed a good idea at the time and was indeed a pleasant stroll on what had been a cool but sunny October morning. She’d never predicted such a drastic change. Another thunderclap. Lucy tried to ignore it. The wind howled, the rain was relentless and… What was that?
Lucy froze. There… faint voices. They appeared to be coming from the show relay but it was difficult to tell over the noisy washing machine. Lucy dragged a chair and stood on it beneath the wall-mounted speaker. Yes, two distinct voices could be heard – one male, one female. They sounded agitated, words tumbling, overlapping, the intonation that of an argument. Reaching up, she increased the volume. Better, but still muffled. Perhaps the voices were originating from the stage wings where the microphones couldn’t pick them up clearly? She frowned; surely that area was locked?
A sudden, shrill, piercing scream sent Lucy teetering backwards. Losing her balance, she jumped from the chair before she fell. She landed awkwardly and pain stabbed through her right ankle. Pulling up her trouser leg, she touched the flesh: tender but not broken. Thunder roared and over the din, a woman cried, “No, no, you’ve got it wrong. Please listen,” the desperate plea accompanied by alarming scuffles and thuds. Lucy lifted her eyes to the relay speaker.
Then the lights went out.
It was pitch black. Even the street lights had been doused, swallowed by an inky black abyss. Lucy squealed, heart in her mouth. Shaking, she fumbled for her phone, needing its light. It wasn’t in her pockets so she crawled on hands and knees, patting the ground, searching. She felt through the clutter on the worktops and racked her brain to think where she’d left it, but fear marred all logical thought. She stopped and clutched her head. Think. The room was deathly quiet. The washing machine died when the power went off and the wind had lulled as if the storm was holding its breath, waiting. The show relay was silent too.
A sudden thunderclap exploded overhead, shaking the floorboards and rattling the windows so hard Lucy was sure they’d shatter. Terrified, she cowered until the uproar subsided. Abandoning her search, she crawled to the door. A single pale green exit light glowed above the stairwell at the far end of the corridor. Focusing on it, Lucy groped her way along the passage, fingertips tracing the grout between the cool porcelain tiles.
The clatter of running footsteps brought Lucy to an abrupt stop. A door slammed shut, the sound carried from one of the dressing rooms beneath her, not the show relay speakers. Then a female voice cried, “No, I won’t let you in. Not until you calm down.”
A man responded, “Bitch!”
Lucy trembled. The man’s single word response was spoken with such venom it struck fear into her heart. She held her breath, listening to thuds, lots of them, as if the man was kicking a door or striking it with his fists. Hearing footsteps on the stairs, she whimpered and curled into a ball.
The voice was soft, almost whispering. Peeping between her fingers, Lucy saw a figure appear in the stairwell doorway: a dark silhouette against the green light.
“Lucy? That you?”
Lucy exhaled. Blinking moisture from her eyes, she unfurled. “Nathan?”
“Yeah. Shush!” Nathan walked towards her, a finger to his lips. “We’ve got intruders.”
“I know.” Lucy gingerly put weight on her throbbing ankle and pushed to her feet. “I’ve twisted it,” she said when Nathan drew nearer.
“Not because of…” He pointed below.
“No. No, I’ve not met whoever they are.”
“Good. Me neither. I don’t know what’s going on but I need to get to my office to call the police. It’s downstairs so I’ll go quickly and—”
“No, don’t leave me,” Lucy begged, wide-eyed.
“Shh… okay. I won’t, I promise.” Nathan ran fingers through his hair. “You’ll have to come with me,” he said, beckoning. “Now. Let’s go.”
Another thunderclap shook the building and the rain intensified. Lucy’s teeth chattered but scared of falling behind, she hurried after Nathan. Every step hurt and her legs were jelly.
The stairwell was brighter than the corridor. Emergency lighting was dotted at intervals along the walls but there were dark patches, places the prowlers could lurk. She faltered, listened. The building groaned but there were no human sounds and the dreadful thumping below had ceased. But what did that mean? Reading her expression, Nathan shrugged.
“I don’t know what they’re doing,” he whispered, “but we have to keep going. Hurry and mind your step.”
Lucy grasped the handrail and started down. She winced every time she put weight on her ankle and was scared she’d miss a step and slip. Trying not to panic, she focussed on the exit at the bottom of the stairs. Phoning the police was a good idea; leaving the theatre was even better. At a turn in the stairs halfway to the first floor landing, a cold draught wafted over Lucy’s skin. She looked up in time to see doors fly open and two figures crash onto the stairs.
“It’s all in your head,” screamed the female. She wriggled from the large man’s grasp and leaned back against the wall. Her eyes shone with tears, tousled hair stuck to her face with sweat. Her chest heaved as she struggled to catch her breath. “Stay away from me. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Nothing? Liar!” spat the man, spittle flying. “I’ve seen you. I saw the show; saw you and that man—”
“I was acting. That’s what I do. No, n-no,” the woman stammered, raising her palms, “put that away.”
Lucy saw the glint of a blade and took a sharp intake of breath. The woman turned, eyes darting up the stairwell. Her gaze hovered over the dark corner where Lucy and Nathan stood watching, motionless. Her lips moved and a flicker of confusion creased her brow before she spun on her heels and charged downstairs, the man in hot pursuit.
“Christ… it’s Julie,” Nathan murmured. He leaned over the bannister, peering after her. “That was her boyfriend. He’s a nut-job. I should have…” He dithered, hands trembling. “Can you go to my office and call the police?”
“What?” Lucy gaped.
“Go to my office, get help. Okay?” He nodded once then took off down the stairs, bounding two at a time. “Go,” he yelled as he disappeared.
Blood sang in Lucy’s ears. Gripping the bannister, she followed. She assumed Nathan meant the office where she’d met Stuart that morning. She wasn’t aware of any other. Not that it mattered. She was heading for the exit, nowhere else. She’d phone the police from a safe distance. She took the stairs as fast as she dared but her progress was painfully slow, like walking through treacle or trying to run a race with a bungee cord tethering you to the start line. The stuff of nightmares. And the noises were back – crashes, thumps, and shouts that rivalled Macbeth’s final battle scene. At least she knew where the fight was.
Three voices carried over the relay monitors as the drama unfolded centre stage. Glass shattered as something was upended – a mirror, perhaps, from a quick-change area. There was a ripping sound and cries among the melee of, “Get off me, get off!”
Lucy stumbled down the last flight of steps and threw herself at the Stage Door. She twisted the handle, shoved hard, but the door wouldn’t budge. “No,” she cried, “no, no!” Frantic, she hobbled to the office and tried that. Locked. Nathan had the keys. Lucy stared at the door to the stage wondering what to do. Another piercing scream had her blood running cold. And the screams continued. She clamped hands over her ears while the show relay speakers broadcast Julie’s terrible ordeal throughout the building. The echo reverberated for an eternity before all was quiet.
Fight or flight. Those are the choices when faced with true peril. Flight had failed so fight kicked in. Ankle pain forgotten, Lucy marched forward with adrenaline dictating her actions. She needed Nathan’s keys so she’d have to go and get them. She tugged at the door that led onto the stage and slipped silently through.
Both stage and wings were in total darkness. Creeping forward, she stubbed a foot on something solid and tripped. She slammed her hands over her mouth to stifle a shriek and dropped soundlessly to the floor. She caught her breath, listened. Silence. Crawling seemed a safer option than walking. The floor was dusty and paint flakes lodged under her fingernails as she inched along. She scraped a knee on a protruding screw head. Cloth brushed her face and she recognised the musty smell and scratchy texture of the heavy black fabric used to mask the wings. She paused, listened. Still quiet. Why? Conscious of her breathing, she took shallow breaths while straining to hear.
A floorboard creaked.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are. Can’t hide forever,” a deep male voice boomed out, alarmingly close.
Lucy crouched low. Something crashed down in front of her and glanced past her face.
“I’ll find you,” the man bellowed. “Nathan, isn’t it? Were you screwing her as well?”
There was a faint scuffling and Lucy heard keys jangle.
“Ha! Got you. Over here, huh?”
Lucy saw a hulking figure stomp by, passing so close it ruffled the cloth she was hunkered against.
“Told you I’d get you,” the man snarled.
There were more scuffles and a horrifying, sickening cry like an animal caught in a snare. Screaming inside, Lucy crawled back the way she’d come. Desperate to escape, she abandoned caution and, moving faster, blundered headfirst into a sharp metal object. The lighting stand toppled with an almighty crash.
“Another one?” hollered the man. “Where are you?”
Lucy’s head pounded, fit to burst. There was material beneath her fingertips, soft cotton caught beneath the upended stand. Tugging it free, she pressed it to her forehead. Far more afraid of the man than any obstacles she may encounter, she clambered to her feet and ran.
Escaping the stage, Lucy charged at the Stage Door exit and hammered with her fists. “Help, please. Someone help!” She kicked and hollered, anguish growing.
Yelping, she spun around. Nathan was standing in front of her. Clutching his stomach, he stared wide-eyed, a dark stain spreading over his shirt. He reached out and opened a bloodied palm. “My keys. I forgot—” His words dried, interrupted by a jarring slam. The door behind him nearly flew from its hinges and the man with the knife filled the doorway. Nathan didn’t flinch. Turning slowly, he stood firm. “Not her too,” he said, calmly. “No way.”
Lucy watched helplessly as the man raised the knife. Suddenly faint, she slumped to the floor.
“Miss? You okay?”
Lucy opened her eyes, squinting blearily. “Nathan?”
“No, it’s Stuart. Did you faint?”
“Did I what?” Lucy’s eyes widened. Sitting up, she gazed around, blinking in disbelief. “Where’s Nathan? And the woman?”
“Woman? What woman?”
“On stage.” She pointed. “She’s…” Lucy’s hand wavered and she dropped it to her side. Where was Nathan? Surely he hadn’t chased the man? “Nathan, the other Stage Door keeper. Where is he?”
Stuart crouched beside her. “I’m the only Stage Door keeper, love. Did you bump your head? You weren’t collecting costumes on stage when the power went out, were you? The emergency lighting’s a bit sparse in there.”
Lucy tilted her head and shielded her eyes from the bright lights. “When…”
“Don’t worry, they won’t go off anytime soon, the batteries last for hours. Are you hurt?”
“No. My ankle’s twisted but…” Lucy followed Stuart’s gaze to the cloth still clutched in her hand. Holding it aloft she saw it was a bloodstained shirt. “Oh no, that’s not mine, that’s fake blood.”
“Yes, I’m…” She touched her forehead, feeling wetness. “Isn’t it?”
“I’m calling for an ambulance; you need to be checked over.”
“Where’s Nathan?” she asked again. “He was here.”
“Really? Well, whoever Nathan is, he’s gone now. And he’s not a Stage Door keeper.” Frowning, Stuart fished his phone from his pocket and tapped it. “Oh just great, it’s flat. Wait here,” he said, holding up a finger.
Lucy watched him unlock the Stage Door office and disappear inside. She touched her head, winced. Her gaze drifted to the floor. It was spotless, no blood anywhere. How? Had Stuart mopped it up? She held her head, mind reeling.
“Ambulance is on its way,” said Stuart returning. “Might be a bit of a wait, though. You know how it is.”
“I don’t understand…”
“What? Where this Nathan guy’s gone? Me neither. And I don’t know how he got in. I locked everything and I swear it was just you and me here. Did he have something to do with your bump? Shit,” Stuart peered at Lucy’s forehead, “that is nasty. This Nathan fellow, he told you he worked here?”
“Right.” Stuart stroked his chin, looking pensive. “I think someone in the cast’s been winding you up. There was a Nathan working here before I started. A Stage Door keeper. I bet the cast talked about him, right? No?” he said when Lucy shrugged. “Hmm… odd. They like to freak out newbies.”
Lucy stared blankly.
“Newbies. New staff? Nathan died, you see, right here: stabbed by the jealous boyfriend of a budding young starlet. He chased the bloke away but the actress was already dead.” He twisted his mouth, nodding thoughtfully. “You sure the cast didn’t yap about it?”
Lucy shook her head then a cold shiver ran down her spine. “Julie. Was the actress called Julie?”
“Yeah, that’s right. Pretty girl. The tabloids loved it, wouldn’t let it drop. Then the boyfriend took his own life and it all sparked up again.”
“Was there a wardrobe mistress involved?”
“Yeah, Lucy. No, wait, that’s your name.” Stuart flapped a hand. “Her name was something similar, can’t remember exactly. So, you have been discussing it? Thought so,” he said smugly. “Their silly tales and your head bump could explain your confusion. And the wardrobe mistress lived… in case that lot told you otherwise. Bit of concussion, that’s all.”
“Nathan saved her,” said Lucy absently.
“Did he? Well, there you go, you know more than me. I don’t remember reading that.”
“You wouldn’t have.”
“She didn’t remember.”
Stuart crouched and looked Lucy in the eyes. “No offence love, but you look awful. It’s been a hell of a day, hasn’t it? And never ending,” he said, checking his watch. “You know, they say this place is haunted but I’ve never seen anything. ’Course, your predecessor would disagree,” he said with a derisive snigger. “I’ve never seen anyone leave the building as fast as she did last night, shouting about voices over the show relay and people screaming. She was adamant it was ghosts but I reckon the cast were out to scare her too. Not hard. She wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box. Ghosts,” he snorted. “I don’t believe in them. Do you?”