CHORUS OF SPIRITS
Gary clenched his jaw wondering if he was doing the right thing, or making the biggest mistake of his career. This could so easily blow up in his face, and what if he just got the door slammed in his face? She had no reason to trust him; not many did.
He lifted his fist, pausing just long enough to utter a low curse then hit the door. He knew she was in due to the light in the main window and the low sound of music; something classical that was quite nice and even moving. He had no idea what it was being a heavy rock fan.
A figure moved in the hallway, slim and dressed in dark clothing then a chain was pulled and the door opened a few inches. A narrow face with wide set eyes regarding him, "What do you want Gary?"
Shocked at the use of his name Gary Bates composed himself; there was a file photo of him on the online edition of the Piper.
"Can we talk," he asked in his most modest yet enticing voice, "I know you don't owe me anything but this is important; I'm not wasting your time," hopefully.
"I've nothing to say to that rag you work for," Dunleavy's tone was barely civil but then why should it after that last editorial?
FLAKY FLO FLUFFS IT AGAIN followed by a stinging condemnation claiming she had barely got anything right.
Nothing could have been further from the truth because actually the medium had been most impressive with her evidence. When Gary had confronted his boss he was told.
"Good news doesn't sell lad, anyway these psychics are all frauds they make it up."
Not convinced Gary hadn't argued, after all he didn't want to lose his job.
"I'm here off my own bat, this has nothing to the do with the Piper," a low-quality rag even by regional standards.
"I've no interest in talking to a reporter," Flo was about to shut the door on him he could tell.
"This could be beneficial to both of us Florence, a feature article your side of the story in your own words."
This was his pitch; he'd rehearsed it on the way over in the car to get the tone just right.
"If not for the Piper then who," Flo was no fool?
"A bigger rag maybe even a national," Gary was desperate to move on especially after hearing Lisa talk about engagement rings. She wanted to get married in Gran Canaria; something his salary didn't stretch to. What he needed was an exclusive he could pitch to a big-time editor; something career defining a meaty piece of writing way beyond anything you'd find in the bog roll he worked for.
"On the way up are we," Flo didn't mask her cynicism?
"It could open doors for you to," Gary prompted, "Put you up there with T J Higgs and Mia Dolan," he'd looked them up online and was proud of his research into female mediums with high profiles.
"I'm not interested in celebrity or bright lights," said Florence.
"Okay but a little media exposure never hurt anyone, it could bring in more clients, better paying ones maybe even a radio or TV slot," everyone needed more cash coming in Gary had reasoned he sure did.
"A feature article," Flo considered and Gary felt his heart flutter he was in.
"Your life in your words," it never hurt to over egg the pudding, "No editing on my part I promise," well maybe a little but she didn't need to know that up front.
"Half an hour," the door opened and she stood back, Gary gave his best smile he could stretch 30 minutes into 60 no sweat he was a pro after all a charmer, everyone said so. Good on the tele according to Lisa who doted on him, as well she might.
Nice place he thought small but comfortable with some nicely coloured carpet, decent wall paper, wood carvings of various animals, an angel painting and a lovely scent of sage and lemon.
Unlike him Flo didn't live in a pig sty but then his flat was temporary, a stepping stone like so much else in the life of an ambitious hack.
Leading him into a lounge lit only by candle light Flo extinguished a joss stick and turned off the CD of classical music she'd been meditating to.
"Bach," Gary risked a guess?
"Prokofiev," Dunleavy returned waving him to a seat whilst she took the sofa in the small cube shaped room on the wall of which was another angel, what was it about angels that bugged him – guilty conscience? He wasn't exploiting her (much) just angling for a scoop, she'd benefit to of course.
He took his notepad and biro out, Lisa always said they made him look serious and professional "like a real reporter," the cheeky mare.
"It won't last," was the first thing Dunleavy said as she sat down and interlaced her fingers.
"Excuse me," wrong footed Gary blinked at her pen poised.
"You and Lisa, she's seeing someone else."
It was like a kick in the guts and he almost dropped his biro, "You what?"
"I'm sorry but I must give you what I'm picking up, we are being candid after all aren't we Gary, Lisa is seeing someone called Tim."
Tim White was the sports editor and a right cheeky sod pumped up with muscle and a big ego. He'd been sniffing around Lisa at the office party, making comments about that short dress and the cleavage eon display. Gary would have clumped him if he'd had the guts and about two more stones of muscle.
"No, you're wrong he isn't her type."
"He drives a white jag with large back seats," Flo said meaningfully, "it started in January."
Mouth open Gary just sat there as his world unspooled around him; this had to be rubbish Dunleavy was playing him. So how did she know about the jag or that Tim bought it in January on his 30th birthday?
"We're getting engaged," he said feebly his mind in turmoil?
"Tim's beaten you too it, as I said I'm very sorry."
So was Gary he was gutted, how could Lisa do this to him how could she be so two-faced?
"Mark knows you're here by the way," Dunleavy said next. Mark was his boss and a bloody tyrant.
"He can't, I haven't told anyone," no way could Mark find out.
"He's been hacking your private email account for weeks, you mentioned me to a contact of yours on the Mirror Justin...no Justine."
It was disastrous; if Mark had read his emails then he might be out of a job already.
"Are you all right Gary; would you like some tea or something stronger?"
Yeah a double whisky neat with another to follow, "What; err no thanks," he put his pad down with shaking fingers. This was not going a she'd expected, he had planned to stroke and play Dunleavy to get her to open up. He was normally very good with women but her gifts were stunning.
As she returned, he could hear a kettle boiling, he avoided her gaze. What if he'd been fired, if he turned up for work tomorrow to find his computer locked and a security guard waiting for him?
He wouldn't put this past Mark, who was a real bastard. How had he hacked the email account, Gary was sure his firewall was top class?
"Has your toe stopped hurting," Flo asked and for a moment he didn't know what she meant before realising it had. The toe, which had been giving him jip for days, was now fine.
"Did you do that," he asked?
"I'm a healer as well as a clairvoyant."
So can you cure unemployment, he almost asked then touched his right ear was Prokofiev back on? He could hear whispering voices, men and women but no music.
"Is the CD back on," he asked and now she was listening her head cocked to one side.
"No it isn't," taking a step forwards she closed her eyes and seemed to listen more intently. The voices were getting louder like more people were joining the chorus, their emotion and enthusiasm filling the room.
On his feet Gary felt his heart rate going up, what the hell was going on?
"Where are they," the tremor in his voice was undisguised and he wanted more than anything to flee the small house. Only ambition overrode his fear, he couldn't leave without getting what he'd come for.
The voices were like water in a pipe only travelling upwards, soon he could make out individual words like 'help' and 'pain' and then 'fire'. Several of them mentioned fire and burning and the fact they couldn't escape.
Then he saw something several things they were like balloons made of light, dust and fog orbs that floated into the room from nowhere to orbit him, circling over his head, as big as his head.
"Don't be afraid," at first he thought Flo was talking to him until he released she was addressing the balloons, "There's nothing to fear now," moving towards them arms outstretched she offered them a smile; Gary could have done with one himself.
He made out an eye, a nose and a couple of open mouths, some had hair but most didn't, he saw an ear, a cheek and a forehead. The balloons were people, spirits, ghosts and they were agitated for some reason panicking.
"What's wrong with them," he demanded?
"I'm not sure yet," Flo sniffed, "You getting that," she asked? It was on his tongue to say no when it hit him right in the sinuses, coughing at once he covered his face – smoke, fumes, cooking meat – it was horrendous.
"Christ they're on fire," he coughed again.
Flo nodded, "its how they died."
Was she saying that all these spirits were consumed in the same fire; but there were so many of them? "I can see them now, men and women of all ages," he coughed and spat phlegm, "They're insane with fear."
"Many don't know they're dead," said the medium like this was a common occurrence.
"How can they not know if they've died," it made no sense to him?
"Most people have no concept of an afterlife, a spiritual existence they think they are just skin and possessions, a job and a house."
It was pretty much what he believed so he was having a hard time seeing real ghosts; if that's what these really were.
"So they've come to you for help, is that it, for advice?"
"I'm not entirely sure," frowning now Flo moved amongst the orbiting heads the anguished faces, "So much fear and pain, it was a horrible death."
He could believe it fancy burning alive; it was his least favourite way to go, "I don't recall any recent fires," he said.
"There is no time in the next life," Flo responded.
"You mean this could have been from years ago," he searched his memory; there was only one big blaze he could think of where so many people had perished.
He'd been a rookie at the time a cub reporter following a more experienced hack around like a puppy dog, "Archer Street," he muttered, "Five years ago," he couldn't believe so much time had passed, "I was there, well close by not actually in the station or I'd be," he didn't need to finish.
Then he made out one of the floating heads a balding man with squinting myopic eyes and a small goatee, bloody hell it was Ian, Ian Smart the journo he'd been shadowing the guy whose job he ended up with.
Ian had rushed into the station to get some photos maybe snag a few quotes, Gary had followed reluctantly not going all the way.
"Oh no," backing away he watched Ian approach him just a head a nebulous form, "Ian."
Having also seen Ian, Flo reached out with one hand, "He knows you."
"We worked together," Gary admitted, "Taught me everything I know."
Ian's mouth was moving but Gary couldn't make out the words; Ian did not look happy indeed his features were tight with anger and it seemed to be directed at his former protégé.
"You pushed him," Dunleavy gasped, "Something fell a burning support and you shoved him."
Gary remembered, he didn't want to but the images were clear in his mind. The pillar had fallen towards them blazing and hot, "It was him or me," he spluttered.
"So you shoved him into the way of the pillar," Dunleavy did not sound impressed.
"I had to," Gary blurted.
"You could have pulled him back."
"There wasn't time," but that wasn't it.
"You wanted his job you wanted his desk and contacts; and you got them,"
Avoiding her accusing eyes Gary thought about how he'd envied Ian who was everything he wasn't – polished, popular, his own by-line.
"It was an accident," this was what he'd told himself ever since.
"That isn't what Ian is telling me, he called out to you to help him and you walked away."
"It wasn't like that, it was chaos everyone shouting and pushing, I could hardly breathe."
Flo sighed, "He left a widow and 3 kids," Gary had seen them at the funeral but not since he hadn't been able to face them.
"He was getting old, he was hanging on," he had been in Gary's way and Gary had been a young man in a hurry.
Then a female head swam forwards, she was younger and vaguely oriental with short cropped dark hair and hazel eyes.
"Sammy," the name flew from his lips, she'd been his girlfriend at the time and a staff photographer.
"She did go to try and help Ian," Flo was picking up a lot, "She called to you then she got her camera strap stuck on something and couldn't pull free, a wall fell on her."
Yes it had trapped her legs probably broken them making Sammy scream, her hair and jacket on fire and her cheek smudged with black dust.
Gary could have gone back for her they were after all dating, he'd been planning to buy her a ring but he didn't go back no matter how loud she screamed.
"I had to get out; it was awful you've no idea."
Not impressed Flo aid, "Worse for them," she nodded at the two spirits then waved at the others the passengers and rail staff consumed that day.
"Okay so I was a coward," Gary turned away shaking and getting angry now, "You shouldn't judge me."
"I'm, not," said Flo, "They are, they want to know why you didn't do anything Gary why you ran away?"
Why was the old bag pushing this couldn't she work it out, Ian and Sammy were no longer of any use to him they couldn't progress his career and this was all that bothered Gary it was the centre of his life.
"I had a future," he said, "They didn't."
"They were your friends," Flo whispered.
"Reporters don't have friends," he looked back at them seeing only sadness now only disappointment. The other floating heads had come to a halt and were gazing at him a mix of housewives, sales reps, students, porters and ticket inspectors.
What could he tell them, he'd lived and they hadn't that was how the cards fell. Why where they all staring at him, watching him; he felt judged.
"Tell them to go away," he bellowed to which the medium answered.
"Why don't you tell them and while you're at it you might want to apologise and ask for their understanding."
Was she serious, did she really think he'd ask a bunch of spooks for their understanding, "I did what I had to Florence?"
"You don't have to ignore the world of spirit Gary."
He made to leave; this had been a bad idea after all, "Guess I'm not getting my exclusive."
"Isn't this exclusive enough for you," she waved at the glistening unearthly heads?
"All I wanted to do was talk about you," he snapped.
"Maybe your life is more interesting, why don't you write about yourself?"
No way was he confessing to leaving two colleagues behind to perish in a fire, "Life goes on," he said simply walking to the door. She didn't try to stop him but one by one the spirits followed Gary Bates to the door, through it and down the path to his car.
She watched him go, "Yes it does," she muttered, "In one form or another."
As he drove off, his car fill of luminous spirit heads Gary put his foot down hard so that rubber burned tarmac.
It was just before breakfast when the report came over the radio about the crash, a car hit by a large truck with one fatality. The announcer didn't say who it was but Flo knew, she was clairvoyant and she could see the single ghostly head hovering in her kitchen.
Life did indeed go on.