Each year since 2004 I've had a story to share for Halloween, because it's a significant date for me. This year's a taste of Tawnholme, with a twist. Let me know what you think?
The fact that everyone at Sam’s day job thought that Halloween was some American import for children wasn’t going to stop Sam from using his regular Saturday slot at The Palace to put on a Halloween party in a decidedly adult context. He was confident that his punters would be up for fancy dress, and the venue practically demanded it. The bones of the old theater were clearly visible under the layers of conversion – music hall to cinema, cinema to bingo hall, bingo hall to club.
He'd done a little bit of research into the history of the building when he first persuaded the management to take a chance on his promotion skills to get punters through the doors and cash in the bar tills. None of his reading had said anything about a ghost – not even any particularly tragic accidents or major fires, but that didn't really matter: it was beyond easy to start spreading rumors that The Palace was haunted. The Halloween party was going to be the biggest and the best, Sam just knew it. He'd been the one who made them up, and part of Sam still wanted to believe in the tragic and tawdry story of the Victorian stagehand, his noble lover, and the actress who betrayed them.
The Palace was a big jump up from the back rooms of pubs and the student union nights Sam had started out with. Most of the clubs and gigs that used the old theater just wanted the space, but Sam's plan from the start had been to use the history and the atmosphere of the place as well. So far the plan was working – Madame's Palace Parties had decent turn outs, a growing member's list of people willing to pay for access to the play rooms, more performers contacting him than he could audition, and some decent press - not just local press and scene websites, but a short review in Bizarre, and a photo-page in Coilhouse.
So far, Sam’s predictions about his punters willingness to celebrate Halloween a couple of days late were right on the money. It was still early, and the dance floor was already busy, all three bars doing swift business, and the energy was good. Sam was a big believer in energy. There were a thousand and one things you needed to take care of to run a successful club night, but Sam pretty much thought that his job boiled down to getting the energy right, creating a space that was fun and safe and magical, a space that felt different to the outside world, different to any of the other places you might go to dance and find someone to get hold of, to take home for the night.
Halloween made his job real easy in that regard – Madame Palace's dress-code was always strict, but adding the mask requirement really turned things up a notch. Everyone, even the doormen, wore masks in shades of bronze and cream, in keeping with the club's logo. Sam had every confidence that the people he was aiming Madame Palace at would embrace the theme wholeheartedly, and so far, he was right.
It was early yet, but so far, everyone had really embraced the opportunity to dress up and mask themselves. Buck hadn’t reported anyone trying to get in without a mask, although he had a few basic black eye-bands available if someone he deemed worthy found themselves without. Sam suspected that, once the pubs closed, their might be some opportunistic norms who’d try their luck, but he trusted Buck and Sarah to handle them if they did. At this point in the evening, things were still building up – the bar a little busier than the dance floor – but some of the costumes on display were really impressive.
Even with the elaborate costumes and full-face masks worn by many, Sam still recognized his regulars, though. Dresden's tattoos and bare muscles were as obvious as ever, but even those who had effected total transformations - Becca and Dianna were holding court in their usual corner, the tilt of Steve's head gave away that he was still watching Marc from behind that feathered monstrosity he was wearing, even if his eyes were hidden by it, and Cam was waving his glass high in emphasis, as ever, the line of his wrist as much a part of him as his striking eyes, but not hidden at all by a mask.
Sam smiled - seven months wasn't so very long, but Madame Palace was his baby, and the people who'd been along for the ride since the first one - he was kind of fond of them.
He turned his attention away from the bar, watching the dance floor, Kelly working her magic from the decks. There were three or four women - and a couple of guys who weren't so good at reading the cues - loitering by the booth, watching her work and no doubt trying to sneak her phone numbers under the pretense of making requests. Same thing, every month, and still Kelly chose to go home alone. She was something else, was Kelly.
An hour later, Sam was behind the upstairs bar, covering for Tanya while she took her break. Not too challenging an assignment, as the first of the evening’s performers was on stage, and holding most everyone’s attention. Syan’s combination of trapeze and enormous feather fans was eye catching, and she’d put together a new routine for the evening, floating above the stage like a ghost, to some languorous classical music that Sam didn’t recognize. The upstairs area had originally been part of the stalls when the building was a theatre, before being partitioned up into boxy offices for the bingo company. When returning the building to use as a public entertainments venue, the owners had knocked together some of the offices to create a bar area facing the stage, with two mid-sized rooms flanking the staircases on the sides, which created a perfect Members-Only area for Sam. Most of the wood paneling was new, but the floorboards were original, and the lamps over the bar modeled after photos of the theatre in its prime.
At the moment the private rooms were quiet – too early in the evening for people to be making their own entertainment that way – and the three sided corridor facing the stage was lined one or two deep with members watching the performance below.
The bar itself was quiet: since pouring his last Black Magic a few minutes after Syan started, he hadn’t had any customers to serve, so was taking the opportunity to make sure that everything was clean and ship-shape, and ready to go for the rush that would no doubt hit as soon as the show ended. He was slicing limes on the back bar, when someone tickled cold fingers up the back of his bare neck.
Sam jumped, the knife slipping to catch his finger.
He spun around, the cut already burning from the lime juice.
“What the …” Sam yelled. At no one.
The space behind the bar was empty. The nearest punters were the far side of the room, looking down at the stage below, and it wasn’t like he’d memorized the line of backs, but it didn’t look like anyone had moved. Certainly no one looked like they’d just vaulted a bar and run the width of the room in less than half a second.
After a moment, Sam realized that he was dripping blood onto the floorboards, and sucked on his bleeding finger, as he stared around the room.
He was losing his mind.
The expected rush at the end of Syan’s show was, indeed, a thing, so Sam stayed on a little longer to help Tanya out, and then took a tour of the floor before heading back downstairs to check in with the others.
The energy was – Sam wasn’t sure.
It looked like everyone was having a good time – his tour was paused several times by friends and regulars wanting to check in. Sam complimented costumes, and accepted hugs, and shoulder pats, and a kiss on the lips from Marsha, who had taken ownership of the smaller private members room, and was holding court there, encouraging two young men Sam didn’t recognize to kiss and touch each other in front of an audience. Both were wearing tight jeans, but one had red horns and a tail, the other cardboard and feather angel wings.
It looked like everyone was having a good time, but Sam himself – he wasn’t feeling it anymore. Normally the thrum of the bass, and glorious cacophony of a hundred people talking over to each other, the flash and spin of the lights, and beneath them the ebb and flow of his people keeping the wheels turning came together into something that felt just right, but now, Sam was on edge.
Something was going to go wrong, he was sure of it.
Crossing the upstairs bar for the final time, Sam checked with Tanya before heading downstairs: signing ‘OK?’ and getting a thumbs up and a smile in return.
Downstairs, Sam’s progress was quicker – fewer regulars, more people who had no idea who the compact guy in the highway man costume was.
The main bar was fine, three staff members keeping the queues to a minimum under Stella’s expert team-lead. She was a find – one of the few of the venue’s regular staff who were enthusiastic about working an alternative burlesque-stroke-fetish club: she’d even been to a couple as a punter when she could take the time off, and had become a friend as well as a colleague.
“Stop worrying,” she whispered into his ear, pulling his head down with a hand around the back of his neck. “Everything’s peachy.”
“Yeah, cool.” Sam pulled back, and had to raise his voice to cover the distance. Stella and the bar staff were wearing their ear-protectors: Sam probably should have been, but he hated how they made everything feel somewhat distanced.
Stella shooed him away, and Sam went to check on the cloakroom, and the smaller bottle-bar.
At least there he could be useful – they were doing brisk business, and Sam offered to restock a couple of their bins, so that Levon and Paul could keep serving.
The stairs down to the basement were chilly, and, once the fire door swung shut behind Sam, abruptly quieter than the rest of the building. Sam took a moment in the dim, relatively quiet and private spot, to roll his shoulders and tell himself to take a couple of deep breaths. He was off tonight, obviously: jumping at nothing, and looking for problems where there weren’t any. He mentally re-walked the floors, checking of staff and tasks as he went, everything running fine and smooth – the bar teams, the DJ, security, cloakroom, reliable regulars in the private rooms… He was half considering whether he could afford to add Marsha to the payroll, as a host, when –
Sam slapped at the back of his neck and spun around.
The stairs behind him were empty.
The landing he was standing on was empty.
There was no-one fucking here, but Sam knew what he had felt. Less tickling this time, more caressing, but still – cool fingers on the back of his neck, stroking up into his undercut, almost to the edge of his highwayman’s mask.
There was no-one here. There couldn’t be anyone here. The only way in was through the door he was standing in front of.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Sam swore on a single long outbreath.
He stood there for a few heat-beats longer, still clasping the back of his neck like an idiot. Then he shook his head. Whether or not he was losing his mind, the bottle bar still needed Red Stripe and water.
The evening’s energy definitely seemed off to Sam now. He couldn’t see anything wrong as he re-stocked the bottle bar, and worked his way back across the room. Thumbs up from each member of staff he made eye contact with, and happy punters, dancing and chatting and drinking on all sides. Everything looked fine, but the energy … Sam felt like the evening was spiky, somehow. Prickles and jabs. Made him want to put his hackles up and growl at people, although he was professional enough to slap a welcoming smile on his face for the punters.
He headed for the front door, looking for some fresh air as much as to check on the door team. Buck was a friend, and he’d been partnering with Sam on events, as security, for years, and it wasn’t like he needed to be checked on, but it was as good an excuse as any.
Outside, the rain was still coming down, but fairly gently, leaving the pavement outside shiny and reflecting streaks of streetlight and neon. Sarah and Buck had a table set up just inside the open door, sheltered from the rain, and they were happy to chat, now that the line for entry was dealt with, they clearly didn’t feel whatever it was that Sam was feeling either.
“You expecting something, boss?” Sarah asked, after the second time he asked if they’d had any trouble with seasonal thrill-seekers. She had a crease between her eyebrows as she looked him over.
“Nah.” Sam made himself smile. “Only that Halloween seems to bring out the drunken idiots almost as much as New Year or Christmas.”
“Sarah and me, we can handle a few drunk Uni kids,” Buck assured him. “We’ve had a couple, a bit ago, but, honestly, they just asked the cover price and gave up. No hassle. And it’s nearly midnight. If there was going to be an issue with hordes of drunk students in Poundland witches hats, it would have happened by now.”
“Fair point,” Sam agreed, and after a couple more minutes of chat, he headed back inside.
Stella flashed him another thumbs up as he passed the bar, and the crowd was thick, lured towards the stage by Aiden’s MC patter. He was getting ready to announce their next act – a Halloween-themed burlesque show. Mike, Chris and friends were taking to the stage to enthusiastic applause as Sam slipped through the door to the backstage area. He could watch from the wings, where he could keep the punters and the performers in his eye line.
With everyone on stage, either performing, working the wings, or watching from them, the changing room was empty, and a little eerie. The two fire doors between him and the crowd muffled the sound of the club, and empty masks seemed to stare back at Sam. His sense of being prickled and spiked-at only intensified. Sam stood in the middle of the room, and turned around slowly, scanning for anything out of place. There wasn’t anything to see – just the usual chaos of clothes and bags and makeup strewn along the bench under the illuminated mirror. Nothing to justify Sam’s sense that there was something strange going on.
He was facing the mirror when it happened again – cool fingers stroking up his neck. Sam froze. He was looking in the mirror as it happened, and there was no one there, and it didn’t stop, and there was still no one there. Sam forced himself to close his eyes, and to breathe. In, one two three four. Out, one two three four. The sensation of someone stroking his neck stopped. In, one two three four. Out, one two three four. Sam re-opened his eyes. The mirror showed nothing different, but the sensation had stopped. Was this what going crazy felt like? Maybe it was stress – tense muscles pinching a nerve or something?
Outside, Sam could make out the music dipping, the audience applauding, and a new tune beginning. Taking a final look at his own reflection, Sam turned towards the door.
He should be out there, watching.
Instead, Sam closed his eyes once more, a few more deep breaths.
Sam jumped, hand going instantly to his chest.
The mask he was wearing cut into his peripheral vision, so it wasn't until he jerked his head and had to look up that he realized quite how close - and how big - the guy speaking to him was. Big, like, six five? Six six? And no bean pole, either.
Sam’s eyes darted past the big guy, and registered that the door to the room – the only door to the room – showed no signs of having been opened recently. It had one of those fire-door-arm-thingies that meant you couldn’t prop it open, but it closed really slowly
“How did you… I’m sorry, but you can’t be back stage.” Sam fell back on many years of defending the back stage area for his performers.
“I can,” the man said with a smile, “But if you would rather I didn’t – will you come with me?”
He turned his broad shoulders to start moving towards the door. Sam extended an arm to keep ushering this rather strange stranger back out of the room.
In the corridor that ran from front of house to the wings, the noise level rose again. Sam had watched the tech rehearsal and most of the dress, so he could tell from the music that they were still on the second song – there was another fifteen, twenty minutes before the show would be over. He kept ushing the tall man down the corridor, away from the stage area, and the man seemed to be going willingly enough until they were almost at the fire door back to the main room.
“I didn’t mean to trespass,” the man said, coming to a halt. “Or to startle you. I have been watching you, though. You’re here every week. You run this, don’t you?”
“I do, yes.” Sam stopped alongside him. Sam’s eyes flickered briefly down, to check if the guy was wearing platforms or stilts, or if he really was that tall, and then back up to search his face, trying to recognize who this was. None of his regulars were this kind of tall and broad, and the neatly trimmed dark beard below the plain black velveteen mask didn’t give him any clues.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you before, though? Would I recognize you under the mask?”
The man looked away, and didn’t answer immediately. Something about this felt – off. Not so much the prickly sensation of before, but something about the way the man spoke, the idea that he’d been watching Sam unawares, the fact that he felt almost hypnotized by him – drawn to him.
“We haven’t met. I am Nathaniel.”
He held out his hand, and Sam responded before he had made a decision to. The very last thing that he expected was for Nathaniel to take his hand, bow, and kiss his hand. Cool, dry lips pressed to the back of Sam’s hand, and somehow it felt like sparks and tingles.
“Sam,” Sam murmured. It wasn’t like him to be lost for words like this, especially when he was working. No matter that Nathaniel Tall-Dark-and-Handsome was exactly his type, Sam didn’t do tongue tied, and he didn’t do dreamy. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“Let’s rejoin the party,” he said, briskly. He made himself pull his hand from Nathaniel’s hold, and open the fire door.
The door let out far to the side of the stage, where the crowd was thinner. Sam slipped between a couple wearing Japanese Noh masks, and found a smile and a wave for Cam as he passed them. The music shifted as they stepped into the club lights, and the main press of people around the stage front, switching to a steampunk waltz. Sam twisted to check that all was well on stage, smiling at the sight of two pairs of same-sex dancers launched into a jerky zombie waltz.
Despite the crush around him, Sam startled when someone stroked cool fingers up the back of his neck. However, this time, when he turned his head, there was Nathaniel. The tall man leant close.
"May I have this dance?" he yelled in Sam's ear, leaving his hand on Sam’s neck.
Nathaniel gestured towards the dance floor at the back of the crowd, where a number of punters has chosen to dance rather than watch, taking partners to waltz, or spinning alone.
Sam blinked, and shook his head. “I’m – I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I don’t dance, I’m afraid. I have to …” He trailed off, gesturing towards the bar. He was sure there must be something he should be doing, but somehow he couldn’t quite put his finger on what.
The man leaned in to speak over the music. “A shame,” he murmured, and as far as Sam could tell between the mask and the rapidly changing lights, he seemed saddened by Sam’s refusal. “It is many years since I asked a man to dance.”
“Perhaps next week. We won’t be as busy then,” Sam offered by way of something to soften the “no”.
“Perhaps,” Nathaniel accepted with a nod. He slid his hand down Sam’s arm, and took Sam’s left hand this time. He raised it to his lips again, only this time the cool, dry kiss was followed by a stinging suck on Sam’s finger. Sam snatched his hand back – the cut had re-opened.
“What the …” he demanded, but his anger drained away before he could say more.
Nathaniel leaned back into Sam’s personal space to speak once more.
“Perhaps next year – when I am able to return again,” he said, and he stroked the back of Sam’s neck once more.
Nothing about this was making sense to Sam any more. Sam nodded, not sure what could be said in response to such an odd statement, and pulled back. He walked three steps back towards the backstage door, and then, turned to look back at Nathaniel. The dance floor was still busy, but there was no sign of the tall, dark stranger. He should have been standing a head or more clear of the rest of the crowd, but Sam couldn’t see him, no matter how he looked.
He must be going daft. The Palace wasn’t haunted. There wasn’t anything special about the minutes before and after midnight… Was there? He must really be losing his mind. Nothing else made sense.
Sam shook his head.
He was already feeling sharper, like the past ten minutes had been the dream. He looked around him again, taking in the crowd and the music and the lights, and Paul and Levon passing out bottles off to the right, and took a deep breath. The energy was better now. This Halloween party was going to be the biggest and the best.
~ fin ~
No beta readers to thank for this one, as life conspired to have me writing to the wire, but - here we are. Another year, another story, and a promise kept. My apologies for any mistakes.
If you're interested in reading the previous stories I've posted as Halloween gifts they are:
1) Dream Come True
2) Thirteen Kisses
3) All Souls
($0.99) & two free snippets Soar and Raining Cats
6) Everything changes
7) It’s not the dead that haunt graveyards
8) Here Comes The Rain
9) Mellow Mists
10) Sunset Starts
11) Unexpected Callers
You'll find these and other seasonally appropriate snippets under 'seasonal : autumn'
in the tags list
(If I was doing this as a promotional thing, I would have picked a less popular date, because there's an awful lot of fabulous fiction being released for Halloween - more of it every year - but I'm doing this because it's a significant date for me, so, thank you, everyone who reads this, and twice thanks to those of you who let me know that you did.)