I was distracted. I had a short story all ready to go, cover made and everything. Yet something wasn’t right. I kept looking back at it. Then I noticed.
It wasn’t a short story at all. It was a Chapter One. So the short story won’t appear because it is now something much longer. It’s going to take time to finish but not very much because this one is writing itself. It’s kept me away from the newspaper websites all day – which is good for my health – but it won’t let me sleep. So, since I have no idea what’s in the news today so have nothing to rage about, here is the original short story.
Robert Odin kissed the cheque before pocketing it. It was a lot of money for one night’s work. Well, why not? He worked hard for his money. He had to pay his accomplices, his anonymous assistants who mingled with the audience before every show, gleaning information that he could relay back to the punters later on stage.
They fell for it every time. They really believed he was communicating with their dead relatives, receiving messages from the other side. All he had to do was remember what his assistants had put on his crib sheets and which sucker each sheet related to. Finding them in the audience was never difficult. Tickets and seats were numbered and the number was on the sheet. Robert had no need of psychic powers. All he needed was a good memory.
Leaving the theatre, he met the ever-present crowd of admirers at the stage door. Wide-eyed and expectant, they asked him, as usual, to autograph copies of one of his books, which he was always pleased to do. He rebuffed their requests for communication with dead parents or spouses with one of his stock excuses. He was tired, it had been a difficult evening, the spirits were quiet now. As always, his gaping admirers accepted this without question and he climbed into his waiting limousine with his usual suppressed grin at their credulity.
“Back to the hotel, Wallace.” Robert settled into the comfortable seat and closed his eyes as the car pulled out into the late evening traffic. Tomorrow he would bank the cheque before preparing for another show.
“Alice. I have someone called Alice here.” Robert glanced at Bethany and Julie, his assistants, who watched from the wings, and gave a barely perceptible shrug. He had goofed. There was no Alice on any of his crib sheets for the night, but the name had left his lips before he could stop it.
“Alice. Does anyone here recognise the name?” He had to go with it now, try to bluff it out. If he was lucky, none of the audience would know an Alice and he could move along to the last name on his list. Robert made a show of looking to his left as though addressing an invisible entity. “Sorry, Alice, there’s nobody here who knows you.” A nervous laugh drifted through the crowd.
“Nobody for Alice Dunkeld.” Robert smiled up at his audience. The last name on his list was William Brown. He paused for a moment, wondering why he had given the fictional Alice a surname, then his eyes widened when a hand shot up, near the front of the audience.
Robert ran his fingers over the buttons of his waistcoat, following the curve of his well-fed stomach. He fingered his watch chain. In the wings, Bethany had turned away. Julie rubbed her hands together, her face pale. Robert stepped towards the audience member. He had no choice but to try cold reading, something he hadn’t done for years.
The audience member was a woman, elderly, so she was probably looking for a sister, maybe her mother. Robert started with his stock question.
“Alice is telling me she’s related to you. Is that right?”
The woman nodded. A tear formed in her eye. “She’s my—”
“Daughter.” Robert tensed the muscles in his right arm to stop his hand flying over his mouth. This woman was ready to give him the answers, yet he had blurted out a guess.
“That’s right.” The woman dabbed at her eye with a lace handkerchief.
“She died of liver failure. It wasn’t AIDS, it was hepatitis. She wants you to know that.” The thoughts, the words, popped into his mind and issued from his mouth before he could stop them. Robert risked a glance at his assistants. Bethany was nowhere to be seen. Julie hung onto one of the stage ropes, her eyes round. Robert swallowed, hard, and turned his attention to the old woman, who wiped at her eyes with her handkerchief.
“Oh, thank God,” she whispered. “The gossip, the rumours have been killing me. She died so far away, you see.”
“In Cambodia, yes. She’s safe now. There’s no pain where she is.” Robert placed his hand on the woman’s shoulder, as much to steady himself as to comfort her. “You have a photo of her in your purse, but she’d cut her hair short.”
“Yes, yes, that’s right.” The woman looked up at Robert, her lined face filled with wonder. She reached into her purse and took out a creased photo, showing a young woman with long blonde hair. “When they flew her body home, her hair was short. I thought they did it to her after her death.”
“No, she cut it because of the heat.” Robert bit into his lip. Behind the woman, several of the audience leaned forward to get a better look at the photograph. Robert barely registered their amazed gasps and mutterings. He was astounded. He had made many lucky guesses in the past, but this was too much. Time to end the show.
“Alice says she loves you, and she’s looking over you. There’s no need to grieve for her, Maureen, she’s perfectly happy.” Robert closed his eyes. Why had he called this woman Maureen? He moved his lips in a silent prayer, hoping she had missed it.
“That’s right. That’s my name. She called me Maureen, not Mother. I always told her it was disrespectful, but she just laughed.” The woman clutched at her purse and stared at the photo.
Robert backed away from the audience. He forced his theatrical smile into place and flashed it for a few moments while he composed himself.
“That’s all we have time for, Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for coming along this evening. I hope to see you again soon.” To thunderous applause, Robert half-ran into the curtained wings. He pushed past Julie and made straight for his dressing-room.
Robert had already downed two neat gins and was about to pour his third when Julie threw open the door. Her face burned with rage, her small fists clenched along the seams of her tight jeans. She stormed across the room and stood facing Robert. Behind her, Bethany’s long skirt swished as she followed Julie.
“What the hell was that?” Julie grabbed the bottle before Robert could pour himself another. “Some kind of set-up? You primed that woman before the show, didn’t you? How much did you pay her?”
“Calm down. I got the name wrong. I had to improvise.” Robert reached for the bottle. Julie held it higher. “I did a bit of cold reading. Now will you give me that gin, or do I have to fire you first?”
“That wasn’t a cold reading.” Bethany said. “She didn’t even give you clues. You must have known all that stuff beforehand.”
“No.” Robert retrieved the bottle from Julie. “I’ve never seen that woman before. Besides, even if I had set it up, what’s it to you? Sometimes you two forget who’s paying the wages around here.”
“Oh? How do you think you’re making all this money? By talking to dead people?” Julie folded her arms. “If it weren’t for us pumping the saps for info before the show, there’d be no show. You can’t fire us in case we tell the world.”
Robert poured gin into his glass. This was a familiar argument, one they had fought many times before. He sighed and waited for Julie’s next line.
“We’re a team, Bob, and don’t you forget it. You’re the front man, but only because we put you there. Without us—”
“Okay, okay, I get the point.” Robert took a sip of his gin. “I have no idea what happened out there. I give you my word I didn’t set it up. I screwed up, then I got lucky. That’s all.”
Robert drained his glass, stood and pulled on his overcoat. “I need a holiday. We have two more shows this week, then nothing for the week after. Don’t accept any bookings for that week.” He pulled the door open. “We could all do with a break, I think.” Robert stepped into the corridor.
Behind him, a voice whispered “Thank you.” Robert stared over his shoulder at Julie and Bethany.
“Did you say something?”
“No.” Julie said. She and Bethany exchanged a smirk. “Maybe you do need a holiday.”
The following night, Robert broke with tradition and downed a large gin before going on stage. His head pounded, as it had all last night and all day today. He felt as though people were shouting at him, so many, so loud it was all just an incomprehensible roar. Robert accepted the night’s crib sheets from Bethany.
“Is something wrong?” Bethany sounded concerned, and with good reason. All the makeup in the world could not hide Robert’s haggard face. Despite hours in front of his dressing-room mirror, Robert knew he looked as though he hadn’t slept for days.
“Sore head. Might be coming down with the ‘flu or something.” Robert concentrated on the sheets. Normally he could memorise them all, but tonight he would work on just enough for the first half of the show. He would read the rest in the interval.
“We’ve got a good one to start with.” Julie indicated a sheet with the seat number twelve marked in the top left corner. “She’s hoping to meet up with her brother, who was a fireman who died while saving children from an orphanage. That should set up some credibility.”
“Right.” Robert’s lips moved while he read the sheet. The information mingled with the shouting in his head. He drew a breath. If he could remember most of the details he’d be fine. Robert handed the sheets to Bethany and walked onto the stage, his arms held high and his trademark superior smile plastered over his face. The audience burst into applause.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.” Robert waited for the applause to stop. “Good evening to all of you here tonight, visible and invisible.” The audience laughed with nervous anticipation. Robert winced at the noise in his head. It pounded against his temples like a storm surge.
“We have someone here with us who’s anxious to get through.” Robert closed his eyes and put his hand to his forehead. He decided to dispense with his usual preamble tonight. The sooner this was over, the better. “He’s directing me over here.” The seat layout was the same as always. Robert raised his arm and pointed to where seat twelve should be. He opened his eyes.
His finger pointed in entirely the wrong direction. In the wings, Bethany closed her eyes. Julie let her head slump forward onto her chest. Robert tried to swing his arm around, as though guided by spirit, but it refused to move. The sounds in his head coalesced and subsided into a murmur, low and threatening.
“Martin Newton.” Robert spoke the name, though he had never heard it before. Where his finger pointed, the colour drained from a dark-haired man’s face.
“That’s my name. How did you know?” Martin Newton stammered the words.
“I have someone for you.” Robert walked without knowing why, towards the man. He lowered his arm. “A message from Joseph Blackthorn.”
“No.” Martin half-rose from his seat, then fell back into it. “It can’t be.”
“He died in a ravine. You spent months in an asylum afterwards, but you recovered. Joseph is angry.” Robert wanted to bite his lip, but the words kept coming. “You killed him.”
The audience whispered and murmured. Martin’s mouth worked, and sweat ran between his eyes. Robert saw visions of lawsuits. Why was he saying these things? Perhaps his headache was more than the ‘flu. Perhaps he was losing his mind.
“I didn’t kill anyone.” Martin surged to his feet. “It was an accident.” He grabbed Robert’s lapels.
Two security guards ran from their places at the exits. Robert raised his hands, palms outwards.
“I can only repeat what the spirits tell me.” His chest heaved with the effort of breathing. “Please, sir, calm down. The spirits are not always right.” That should do it. Whatever this man might try, he could not sue the dead. The next words came out before Robert realised he was speaking.
“Joseph Blackthorn tells me you killed him, and you were also responsible for the death of his wife, Sheila.”
Martin released Robert’s lapels. The security guards each took one of Martin’s arms.
“How?” Martin stared into Robert’s eyes. Robert sucked his teeth.
“I don’t know,” he whispered. Robert stood motionless while the guards led Martin away. The hubbub of the audience filtered through the sounds in his head. That steady buzz, overlaid with mutterings and shouts, wordless noises that were nonetheless definitely voices, surged again.
The audience burst into applause. Robert clutched his head. It’s good business. Wherever it came from, it’s a good show. They’ll talk about it for weeks. Robert clung to his thoughts, but the voices shouted him down. If only Julie and Bethany would come and lead him away. They dare not, he knew. If they were recognised, the game would be up. Robert faced his audience and tried to smile.
There was a blonde girl in the third row. Mary Parker. My daughter. I have to speak with her. Robert shifted his gaze to an old man in the fifth row. Sam Torrance. My brother. A middle-aged woman at the front. Pat, my wife Pat. He knew them all. Any face, any age, sparked one or more of the voices in his head. They jostled within him, calling and pushing themselves forward. Robert closed his eyes.
“Shut up! All of you, shut up.”
The audience fell silent. Robert opened his eyes. They stared at him, every one, some shocked, some indignant, others shaking their heads in disapproval. The voices roared on.
There’s my mother. Brother. Aunt. Within Robert’s head, the crowds gathered. They saw through his eyes, heard through his ears. His own mind, pushed aside, cowered and gibbered at the onslaught. Trodden under ethereal feet, Robert Odin’s self-assured, easy confidence snapped. His thoughts flew at random into the dark crevices of his skull. The invaders tried to coax them out. Each tried to persuade Robert that their message was important. They had come such a long way. They must be heard.
Robert fell to his knees and covered his head with his hands. Look, look at my son. My father. My sister. The voices forced themselves into him, their pressure threatened to burst his skull. Robert could impose no order, no restriction on them. He had no control.
His scream burst through his clip-on microphone. It deafened the audience, shook the room, and ended the career of Robert Odin, the stage psychic, forever.
It was never going to end there, now I look back on it.
The original was around 2500 words. So far it’s at 10,000 and still roaring along. A ghost story that writes itself…