The Apprentice

Old Syd had been working this spot for, ooh, coming up to about 130 years now? It was the best spot for miles around and he took his work very seriously. The King’s Arms Hotel was one of those establishments that had acquired a reputation for haunting over its long history, with the result that this actually contributed considerably to its appeal to customers. The irony at work here was that a great many of the punters whom Syd didn’t consider worth bothering with nonetheless managed to convince themselves they’d felt some atmospheric ‘presence’ and went away prepared to tell friends and relatives about the sound of a groaning water pipe they’d heard in the night that was undoubtedly the tortured wail of an unquiet spirit, while those on whom he did actually decide to lavish his attention typically had the most horrible experience of their lives, left the place at the hurry-up and never mentioned the incident to anyone else, except perhaps a psychiatrist or priest.

But the entropic effects of the passage of time affect the living and the undead alike. Over decades and centuries, the psychic energy that allows ghosts to manifest themselves within the material world gradually fades, like the pigments in a photograph left exposed to the sun for many years, and eventually all that remains is an ineffectual mote of consciousness, floating impotently around without the power to effect material phenomena until that, too, slowly dissipates into the disordered informatic background of the universe. Syd knew this, as did all ghosts that have been around for a while and seen the older ghosts in their area evaporate in tiny increments over the years. It was for this reason that he’d decided to take on an apprentice, which was unusual although not totally unheard-of. Sharon, or rather Shaz, had been knocked down and killed while drunkenly trying to cross the busy road just outside the King’s Arms on a hen do about three years ago. Since then her essence had been somewhat disconsolately wandering around the old town centre without really knowing what to do with itself, but Syd had taken a shine to her and decided that she would make an excellent apprentice to take over his rounds when he was no longer able to carry out what he considered his vocation and duty.

“It’s one point for a scream, two points if you can make ’em jump outta bed an’ free points for a bed-pissin'”, Syd had said to Shaz after inviting her over to the King’s Arms once she’d accepted his offer to show her the ropes. He’d thought adding an element of friendly competition would help get her into the spirit of it – as it were – and he hadn’t been wrong. “A one-pointer in Room 4 and a double-three-pointer with that couple in Room 12!”, she’d proudly reported to him a few weeks into her apprenticeship.

Any old fool can make chain-rattling noises or go “Woooooo….”, Syd had explained. The real artistry, the skill needed to scare the living fuck out of someone, lay in doing things that truly messed with people’s idea of what material reality was and meant. A really skilled haunter would do things like find a sleeper incautious enough to leave his or her feet protruding beyond the edge of the duvet on a warm summer’s night and then tickle, very slightly at first so that there was a protracted period in which the victim remained asleep but had tickle-related dreams that gradually increased in intensity until the sleeper awoke to the horrific realization of a full-on foot-tickling occurring in a room devoid of any other person!

There was entire arsenal of techniques available to the skilled ghost to produce those effects that would stay with the victim for life. It was not for nothing that people with traumatic memories are described as ‘haunted’, Syd said to Shaz: a really good haunting was a gift that kept on giving, as the hauntee’s own brain continued to conjure the ghost’s eldritch presence for many years, and perhaps a lifetime, after they’d left the locale to which their original tormentor’s powers were bound.

They’re both still there, by the way; both still working the ‘Zarms, as it’s known to locals, and both still occasionally giving one or two misguided thrillseekers or self-professed students of the paranormal an experience that’ll stay with them for life, and not in a good way. Old Syd’s ability to affect the coarse physical stuff of this world wanes steadily weaker each year, while Shaz is just growing into herself as an agent of delirious, sheet-soaking terror. She’s very nearly as good at this old game as Syd was in his prime, he reflects proudly, and soon she’ll be more than capable of taking over the spot and running it by herself. By which time she’ll be in a good position to train up her own apprentice, and Syd has agreed that the troubled young lad who sadly passed away in a nearby hostel after a night’s revelry on smack, Vicodin, temazepam and Buckfast would be the perfect soul for the job.

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