Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Show

The Show

The camera crew struggled with the twisting, narrow stairs. Their kit was portable, Steadicams being all the rage. They were lucky that the nature of their work did not require more light. Shadows added atmosphere. Dark corners added depth. It was cold down in the cellar. It turned their breath to mist, which gathered in the stark white pools shed by the bare bulbs overhead.

Martha smiled. It was sublime. Television gold.

Tonight there’d been a crowd. Word had got out. She’d have to find out who blabbed. There had been only a few fans at the start but now they needed security to keep them back.

She’d joined the presenter, Pippa, and her producer-husband, Greg, at the barrier. The three of them had posed for photographs and signed autographs. Pip had been strict about that. Be nice to the public. The audience would make or break the show, not studio executives.

Martha laughed out loud when a woman produced a photo of Pip and Greg in their previous incarnation as chat show hosts.

“Nice haircuts,” she said as they both signed it. Their fashionable styles dated this period of fame, but Martha was careful when she joked about their pasts. It was Pippa’s new idea that had reinvented their careers.

Pippa was popular, but it was really Martha the crowd wanted. She recognised the faithful amid the curious locals. The ones who wanted to touch her hand, as if it were a blessing. To ask her help to reach the dead, to say what they’d left unsaid.

A man reached out as Martha tried to leave, snatching at her coat sleeve.

“Good luck,” he said. “May God keep you through the night.”

• • • •

Martha leant against the cellar wall to watch Pippa in discussion with the team. She could tell Pippa was well pleased. The first part of the show comprised of interviews. The bar staff had been verbose in their remembering. The tall tales of the spooked. The cellar had fallen fallow. Too many broken beer bottles. Boxes overturned, alcopops leaking on the floor. Too many barmaids emerging with bruises flowering on their arms. Too many accusations. Too many resignations.

Yes, it was horrible down here. Its history appalled. The chill seeped from the floor, through her boot soles and crept into her feet. She fastened up her coat. Red cashmere. She’d decided to live a vivid life. She wouldn’t exist in shades of grey. She’d no longer bow or obey. She’d promised herself good money. In the bank. Not tatty fivers from someone’s housekeeping, like the ones her mother would take with embarrassment and stuff into the chipped teapot on the dresser. Iris never asked for more. Only barely enough. You can’t abuse the gift. Cheap meat on Sundays as a treat. For Martha and her sister Suki, white knee socks gone grey, but still too good to throw away.

The second part of the show was a vigil. The team were busy setting up thermometers and motion sensors to add the illusion of science, but it was Martha that added the something special to the mix.

“Don’t forget,” Pippa would say, face tight into the lens, “Martha, our psychic, doesn’t know our destination. She’ll be brought here and do a reading, blind.”

Martha stamped her feet to expel the cold. Pippa was busy with her preparations. Vocal exercises. Shaking her limbs. If Martha channelled spirits, then Pippa channelled the audience. With the cameras on, Pippa (like Martha) became a true believer. Her range spanned from nervous to hysterical. Her tears of fear turned her heavy eye makeup to muddy pools. Her performance heightened suggestibility and atmosphere.

“Have you destroyed them?” Greg sidled up to Martha. He was talking about the copy of his research notes that he always gave her.

“Don’t treat me like I’m an amateur. You know I learn them and then burn them.”

These were hot readings, as they were called within the trade, when a medium was already primed. Martha would reveal the memorised histories of suicidal serving girls, murdered travellers, and Victorian serial killers.

Martha’s key was subtlety. She was frugal with the facts. Too direct and the show would be a pantomime. Too detailed and she’d be reciting by rote. And what couldn’t be confirmed couldn’t be denied, which was useful when the truth wasn’t juicy enough to appeal. All Martha needed was a name, a date, a hard fact around which to embroider her yarns. Greg, who also played on-screen researcher, would fake surprise with widened eyes, saying such as, “Yes, Martha, there was a third son here by the name of Walter, but we can’t corroborate there was a maid by the name Elaine whom he killed on Midsummer’s Day.”

“New coat?” Greg’s fingers stroked her collar.

“Keep your paws off.”

“Watch it. Pippa will think we’re paying you too much.”

Greg was clumsy where Pippa’s angling had been more oblique. Martha had chosen to ignore her jibes and hints, having stuck to the deal made when they were all green and keen. She’d not allow Greg to change the terms.

“You’re not, and I’m worth every penny.”

Worth a better time slot and channel. Worth another series.

“How many personal clients do you have now? How much for your last tour?”

A lot. The world was ripe. She’d weighed it in her palm.

“None of your business.”

Martha was brisk. Even with her clients she was sharp. She’d not pander to their fantasies that mediums were soft and ethereal.

“Take care. We built you up and we can pull you down.”

Her laughter echoed around the empty cellar. Pip turned and stared at them.

“You won’t. You can’t.”

To reveal Martha as a fraud was to expose them all. The true believers would be incensed. Most viewers though were sceptics, they would already suspect, but the fun lay in the possibility of doubt. The chance that Martha might be real. So, not perjury, not a lie to shatter worlds, but was it one to shatter careers?

“We can find someone new. You’d be easy to replace.”

“Don’t threaten me. I’ll send you all to hell.”

“Keep it down,” Pippa stalked over. “Do you want everyone to hear? We’ll talk about this later. Do you understand, Martha? There are things to be addressed. Now get ready, it’s time to start the show.”

• • • •

Martha had learnt from watching Iris and Suki. Both had reigned at Lamp Street, lumpish in their muddy-coloured cardigans, giving readings to anyone who called. Muttering thanks to spirit guides. Turning tatty Tarot cards.

Martha had no claim to special gifts. She learnt to read the hands and face, the gestures that betrayed need and greed. The skill of deciphering a tic, interpreting a pause. Martha studied hard and learnt how to put on a show.

“Yes, David. Thanks.”

Made-up-David helped Martha to the other side. A fictional spirit guide to help usher in an imaginary spectral presence or fake demonic possession. David was a friar. Shaman. Priest. Rabbi. Denomination was irrelevant. People seemed to find religious men more comforting in the afterlife than in the flesh. David was based on an engraving that Iris kept by her bed. A monk with his hands folded in prayer.

“What do you make of it?” Pippa asked, now in character.

“It’s a big place.” Martha sniffed. “It smells bad. Like something’s rotted down here.”

The low ceiling pressed down on them, while the walls stretched out into shadow. Martha rubbed her temples, where pain had started to gather. She walked to the opposite wall, as if in search of something. It was her trick. The camera was forced to follow and the others had to orbit her to stay in shot.

“Brother David, help me.” Martha gained momentum. She covered her ears with flat hands. “Make them stop. They’re deafening me.”

“What is it?”

“Clanging. Fit to wake the dead. The sound of banging metal.” She winced as if uncomfortable. Tonight had to be special. She had a point to prove. “It’s claustrophobic. Too many souls in too small a space. A strong sense of punishment.”

Pippa made a display of her excitement, trying to reclaim screen time for her and Greg. “Greg, can you tell us more?”

“It’s a fascinating place. A gruesome history. It was a prison in the eighteenth century.”

His eyes shone in the viewfinder.

“What about the clanging?” Pippa asked. More professional than Greg, she’d not prove a point at the show’s expense.

“An inmate, Samuel Greenwood, was questioned by the prison board. One of them, shocked, recorded the interview in his diary. The main gates were locked but down here the doors were all open. New arrivals were greeted by the banging of the cell doors.” He mimed a man clutching bars and rattling them. “An unholy din, by all accounts.”

Martha took off her gloves and trailed her fingers along the crumbling mortar of the wall, talking continually to David as she went. Her eyes closed in concentration. The camera loved the gesture.

“Of course. I see it now.” She stopped and the spotlight overshot her. “There’s so much misery here. Pain. Searing. Physical.”

The cameraman tripped up on an empty crate. The world was upended as an explosion of panicked feathers went off in his face. Too stunned to scream, Pippa did it for him. The bird, in its eagerness to escape incarceration in the upturned crate, sprang up and hit the ceiling. It landed with a dull thud upon the floor. It jerked and flapped, a reflex of the freshly dead, until finally it came to rest. Martha knelt and picked it up. It was a scrawny thing, its feet deformed, head lolling on its broken neck.

Pippa had stopped screaming, looking over Martha’s shoulder.

“I wonder how it got down here. And how long ago.”

Martha laid the carcass back on the crate. She shook her head in disbelief. Sickened by this small, crushed life, her headache was suddenly much worse. She’d never experienced a full-blown migraine but recognised the signs. Lights danced at the periphery of her vision. Strange patterns hovered in the air. It interfered with coherent thought. She tried to reassert herself.

“This is no ordinary prison, is it, Greg? All these voices cry out, but no-one comes. No-one keeps the peace.”

“Samuel Greenwood said the inmates ran the place. The authorities didn’t get in their way.”

Martha tasted bile rising in her throat. I’ll not be sick. I’ll not be sick. Not a mantra but a command. She’d last vomited in childhood. Its associations were too painful to encounter. Not like this. Not here. Martha fought it back.

“There’s uncontrolled rage within these walls. Frenzy. Violation.” She turned on Greg as if he were to blame. “Men, women, children, all mixed in together.”

“Yes,” Greg’s voice was serious and low. “Murderers and thieves,” he savoured the words, “cheats and fraudsters.”

Martha wasn’t listening. The lingering odour of decay she’d noted was getting worse. It was rotting flowers, fungi and burnt sugar. The pain in her head was punctuated by explosions. Monstrous white blooms contracted and expanded before her eyes. She clutched the wall with one hand, bent double, and threw her stomach contents upon the floor.

The sensation of muscles moving in her throat, of acid burning in her nose, evoked the shock and grief of that distant summer her father died. Passed over was the term they used at home. Martha despised this euphemism, even though it was part of her work’s vocabulary. Not long after her father’s sudden death, she had been burnt up by a fever. She’d vomited without relief. She had the same sensations now as then, like she’d died and was floating out of reach.

“Where’s Daddy?” Hot and hallucinating, Martha was emphatic. She wanted her father, not her mother’s comforts.

“Daddy’s here,” Iris replied. “He’s in the room. He’s telling you he loves you. Can’t you hear?”

“No,” Martha whimpered. Had there been a time when the world was full of voices? She couldn’t recall.

“Oh, my sweetheart,” and under her breath, Iris spoke the damaging, damning words that separated Martha from her tribe, “you used to be like us. You used to see but now you’re blind.”

So Martha was left in darkness, Iris and Suki in the light.

Martha dabbed her mouth, vomit dripping on her coat. Greg motioned for the filming to continue. Pippa ladled on concern.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry. It’s the smell.”

“It’s bad, isn’t it? Maybe there’s a dead bird or rat that’s rotting.” Then, because Martha’s pallor couldn’t be feigned, “Do you want us to stop?”

Martha clutched a crumpled tissue to her mouth to stem the swelling tide. She recognised the smell now. It was death. Bedridden Iris, nursed by her girls in the front parlour, had been rank with it. Devoured by a cancer in her breast that had ulcerated and wept pus throughout her long slide towards a terrible demise.

People still came, even at the end. To see her. Just for a minute. Just to ask advice. Women whose daughters followed Suki and Martha home from school. Hair pullers, name callers, shin kickers who loved to plague the pair of witches. These same mothers would sit and wait, watching the girls no older than their own move around the unclean kitchen, washing their mother’s soiled sheet in the sink. Not a single one offered aid.

Suki started reading to give Iris peace. So this wall-eyed girl who was clumsy at PE and hated school inherited her mother’s mantle and the regulars. She stayed at home and read the cards, while Martha passed her exams and got into fights with anyone who looked at her askew.

“I’m dying, a little more each day. There’s no need to be afraid.” Iris had beckoned Martha over. “They’re waiting for me on the other side. Suki will be just fine. She has the gift but what will become of you, Martha? What will you do?”

Yes, Martha was familiar with the smell. It was enough to make her turn and vomit once again before the floor rose up to meet her. She felt her bones crunch with the impact.

“Martha, can you hear me?”

She was shaken back to consciousness by rough, frightened hands. The pain had gone and left her empty headed, her brain replaced by cotton wool, her mouth with acid and sand.

“Thank God. What happened?” Greg motioned for the crew to stand back and give her air. She tried to sit.

“Just a faint.”

In the seconds she was away, the cellar had reassembled itself. She could see anew. The investigators were still there. The bare bulbs still shed their light, but there was a whole world superimposed upon their own. A past that occupied the present, which shared their time and space. Figures moved around them, weak imprints on here and now. She had peeled back the skin of the world and was looking underneath. When one of these shadow prisoners walked through Martha, she shuddered. It felt like cobwebs were being brushed against her skin.

“There’s a lot of residual energy here.” The stock phrase had been given shape. Martha wanted to cry. Something locked away was liberated. Was this how Iris saw the world? She realised it had been six years since she last spoke with Suki. How much they had to share. “This place was a health hazard. They’re all filthy.”

Ragged figures milled around or else they squatted in huddles. Food was piled in troughs as though for swine. There was a gentle buzz. They were too afraid to speak up.

A group of convicts emerged from the far end of the prison, the overlords of this peculiar hell. These self-tattooed, beribboned demons strutted with such swagger that Martha quailed with fear. They singled out a shadow-boy for sport. They hauled him up and took their time at play. One swung his knife about and it passed through Martha’s chest, making her gasp, even though it was only a projection of things past. Another one unfolded his razor and the boy’s face was devastated. The crime he suffered for most was his prettiness.

“Martha, what is it?”

“A gang ran this place.” She found her voice. She talked too loudly so she could hear herself above the shrieks and jeers.

“They kept the peace,” Greg said.

“Not peace. I wouldn’t call it that.”

Martha struggled to her feet. She tipped and tilted until the horizon righted.

“Jimmy Bailey, Michael O’Connor, Kit Williams, Simeon Weaver . . .” Martha repeated the names as they were shouted at roll call.

“I don’t have it here but there is a ledger . . .” Greg fumbled with his notes.

“Check if you want. They’ll all be there.”

Greg twitched. This was unexpected. She had raised the stakes. He hadn’t thought she’d do her own research.

“Emma Parker,” Martha’s eyes were horrified. Emma lay on the floor. Slit from pubic bone to ribcage, her blood sprayed upon the walls. “They were animals. When she fell pregnant they opened her up with a knife. They cut out her womb and watched her bleed to death.”

Greg frowned at her nasty embellishments. After all, this was a family show.

“The smell. It’s death.”

She walked back towards the twisted stairs. She had been shocked, but now she was afraid. Something was missing from this nether, neither world. Someone was missing.

“There’s something about this spot.” She strained to listen to the henchman who stood beside the steps like a lackey at some royal court making proclamations. “Thomas the Knife, that’s his name.”

It sparked of recognition. The name in Greg’s notes was Thomas Filcher. Where was he?

“Close. Thomas the Blade.” Greg was glad of her return to the script. “He sat waiting for new inmates to be brought down. Tapping on his boot heel with a knife.”

Martha pushed her fists against her eyes. Where was the architect of this regime? Why could she not see him?

The clearing of a throat. It was a quiet sound.

“Did you hear that?” Pip piped up. “Who’s there? We mean no harm. Give us a sign.”

It came again. This time between a chuckle and a growl.

“Did you hear it?”

Greg was normally subtle in the projections of his voice, but in for a penny, in for a pound.

Cold trickled down Martha’s spine. What did it mean that the others could hear him too? There came a laugh, cruel and amused. Martha held up a hand to silence Pip. “Come out. Show yourself. Or else leave us well alone.”

He rose to her challenge, stepping from shadow into light. Thomas the Knife stood before her, denser than the other shades. There was enough of him to trip a movement sensor. It called out in alarm.

“What is it?” Pippa hissed.

They can hear him, Martha thought, but they can’t see him.

“Everyone, step back towards the stairs.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.” Martha could smell her own stale vomit and fear. “This isn’t residual energy. It’s active. He’s here.”

The crew started to retreat but Pip hovered by her side. She’d not be upstaged.

“Martha, tell us what you see.”

“He’s tall. Handsome.” Thomas smirked at that. “Well dressed and fed compared to the rest. A dandy in a blood-splattered shirt.”

He was a gentleman butcher, linen stained by the evidence of his industry. Long hair tied back and boots up to his thighs. Even dead, he bristled with an energy Martha rarely saw in men. She watched him like he was a predator. Magnificent and unpredictable. Her eyes were fixed on him in retreat. She clasped Pippa’s elbow but the presenter shook her off.

“He’s King down here. He thrived. He sniffed out the proudest and the most delicate. Broke their spirit as if it were a game.” Martha looked up, a line of girls crucified upon the bars, their modesty and disfigurements on display. “He’s full of hate and it’s women that he hates the most.”

Martha knew the cleansing rituals, protective circles and holy chants. Iris had been most insistent that they learn, even if Martha wasn’t blessed with special sight. Arrogant and adamant in her disbelief, she’d come down here totally unarmed.

“We have to get out now.”

Too late. Too late. Thomas the Knife wanted company. His boots fell heavily on stone. Surprisingly loud, considering he was a ghost.

All the lights went out, leaving only sounds. Pip’s screaming and struggling. Greg shouting for her. The metallic crunch as a camera hit the ground. One of the bulbs shattered overhead, showering them in glass. Tiny fragments lodged in Martha’s face. A dozen tiny stings.

“Leave her alone.” Martha tried to help, calling over muffled cries. “Please stop. Don’t hurt her.”

He did stop. Eventually. Then the movement sensors were set off one by one, marking Thomas’ progress around the room. Martha found the wall and groped along it in the direction of the stairs. Greg shouted out, a single cry of pain.

The lights came on and the carnage was revealed. Greg was within Martha’s reach, lying on the floor. She crouched beside him, dabbing at his wound. A neat line joined his ear to the corner of his mouth, blood oozing from the deep wedge of red flesh revealed.

“Where’s Pip?” Greg, dizzy and disorientated, struggled to lift his head.

They followed the soft sobbing to the corner. This was not Pippa’s TV histrionics but the heartbreak of the truly wounded. Thomas stood back, well satisfied with his work.

Pip was revealed in the dim circle of the lamp. She was curled against the wall, bare torso revealed. Thomas had remade her. When the blood crusted and the scabs fell off, she would be a work of art. That a single, common blade could carve such detail was remarkable. She was etched with arcane calligraphy. Profane flourishes. No plastic surgeon could eradicate his dirty graffiti. But that would be for later. For now she was slick and slippery with snot and tears and blood. Martha slipped her coat off to cover her. Greg moved to enclose her in his arms. Nothing could diminish her distress until the paramedics arrived and she slipped into the dreams of deep sedation.

• • • •

The traffic was streaks of light. Neon discoloured the night. The police kept the crowds at bay. Greg went to where Martha stood alone. Her hair, soaked with perspiration, stuck to her head in unflattering curls.

“You did this, didn’t you? When I find out how, I’ll kill you.”

A policeman came over, casting them a warning look.

“Miss Palmer. We’re taking everyone in for questioning. It’s time for you to come along with me.”

“Greg, he says you got it wrong.” Her last words to him. “It’s Thomas the Knife. Not Thomas the Blade.”

Martha settled into the slippery car seat. Her new travelling companion by her side. They stared at one another, neither speaking. Iris’ lessons came to mind.

A medium must take care. The opening of consciousness is a special time in a girl’s life. When a spirit guide is acquired, don’t be scared. I’ll be here to keep you safe.

Suki had smirked when it was her time. The advent of Martha’s menstruation seemed paltry by comparison.

You’ll never want for company.

You’ll never be alone.

For all those years, I believed all the things you said, Martha thought. You’re not the gifted one. You’re not gifted. It was always you and Suki, talking to voices I couldn’t hear.

Talking to Dad.

If only you could see me now, Iris. If only you could see me now.

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Priya Sharma

Priya Sharma’s fiction has appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Albedo One and on Tor.com. She’s been anthologised in several of Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series, Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror series, Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2014, Steve Haynes’ Best British Fantasy 2014 and Johnny Main’s Best British Horror 2015. She’s also been on previous Locus’ Recommended Reading Lists (2010, 2012, 2013 & 2015). She is a Shirley Jackson Award Nominee and British Fantasy Award nominee for her story “Fabulous Beasts”, which appeared on Tor.com in 2015. Find her online at www.priyasharmafiction.wordpress.com.