The Listener

Theme: Guilt
Mood: Blue

Start with murder - Action

Dispose of incriminating items.

He never meant to throw her from the balcony. In a panic he looked round. There was no one else in the dimly lit theatre other than himself and the girl who had confronted him.

Duncan Smith was used to meeting young women after shows. Women were the bulk of the audience for his “Crossing the Divide” shows. Young women who’d recently lost their fathers were drawn to him for support. If they were willing enough, he’d schedule private time after a show to attempt a personal seance with the departed, and maybe some more intimate support afterwards.

What he hadn’t expected was a young woman by the projection box with a microphone. She claimed she had a recording she claimed revealed all his tricks. Unlikely, he cheated in so many ways, but no one needed the illusion shattered.

He’d never meant to push her. He simply wanted the recording. She’d struggled but she didn’t have to. If she had given him the recording none of this need have happened. It was almost like she wanted to jump.

He stared down at the figure below, broken across the seats in the stalls, looking back up at him. She’d won. She’d jumped out of spite to end his career, and show she looked back up, gloating in death. She’d won. She had the recording.

He looked by the seats and found her bag. Sure enough there was a small microphone, plugged into a phone. He tried unlocking the phone to delete the recording, but he didn’t have to the code. Damn.

He looked up from the phone, and saw her dead blue eyes. This could look bad. He needed to show he’d done nothing wrong. He’d tried to stop her from jumping, and now… He took out his own phone and called the emergency services. “I need an ambulance at the Meridian Theatre. There’s been a terrible accident.”

Aftermath - Background

Skeptics and believers info.
Establish blue guilt.

He walked out of the theatre, to the upper lobby outside. There was a coffee machine. He could see along the street outside and see when the ambulance arrived. He saw the blue lights of the ambulance reflect in the shop windows across the street. With the shock he dropped his coffee, and felt a pounding in his chest. He dropped to his knees. What had he done?

The pounding stopped. He breathed deeply… Again, his heart beat frantically and again it stopped. The third time he felt it in his chest he remembered the girl’s phone was in his pocket. She must have set it to vibrate. He saw the ambulance crew enter the lobby. He shouted for them to go downstairs to the stalls.

God, he had her phone. How could he explain that to the police? He kept his finger on the power button and thankfully it shut off, but he needed to dump it.

“What happened?” A voice called from below.

“She fell. She jumped. I tried to stop her, oh god. Is she alright?”

“Wait there, Sue will be up to see to you.” He heard the ambulance man call for the police. The girl’s phone was burning him, and there was no time to dump it. In a panic, he stashed it and the microphone in the lighting booth. He’d know where to look later.

He didn’t know if Sue was treating him for shock, or discreetly making sure he didn’t run. He didn’t have to, he had nothing to hide. By the time the police had turned up he knew what had happened.

“I saw she was hanging around after the show. She’d seemed distressed. I asked her what the problem was, and she broke down. She’d been a sceptic. I get those at the show, people who don’t believe in the gift. But she’d realised that someone had touched her, and…”

Get it right. Get it right.

“She said she couldn’t live with the guilt. She felt like she’d been keeping loved ones apart. I told her not to be so silly, but she said she was going to join him. I asked her who, and she didn’t say - just ‘He loves me.’ Then she straddled the balcony and I realised she was going to jump. I tried to stop her. I tried to stop her, but I couldn’t hold her. She struggled and jumped. I… I called the ambulance. How is she?”

She’d wanted to stop him and in a way she’d won. The shows had been cancelled. The suicide had made sure of that. Becky Stevens, he found out her name from the papers, had hoped to expose him as a fraud. She’d been egged on by smug trolls on the internet. Most of the sceptic message boards were keeping quiet for now. He was due to resume his tour at another provincial theatre next week, but with her death at the show he was unlikely even to break even.

In fact, once he could return to his scheduled shows Duncan was surprised, but not shocked, by the response from the public. Sales went through the roof. Maybe it was fame, maybe it was notoriety. He had on the bottom of all the posters. The show is for entertainment only. What could be more entertaining than a haunted medium?

There was certainly a spirit in the air that night. Normally the first half would be low-key. The aim wasn’t to impress straight away with messages from other other side. Instead Duncan would casually throw out messages and see who responded. He looked for what everyone on the circuit called the Weepers. The people who were desperate for a message from the other side.

You didn’t pounce on these people, you put them to one side. Duncan liked to use one before the interval, one straight after and keep the most responsive weeper for the big finale. This is what the sceptics never understood. It wasn’t about getting ‘hits’ it was about putting on a show.

This time the show was going too well. Spurred on by the publicity and a persecution-complex-by-proxy they had come to show their support. It meant he couldn’t help scoring hits. It would look impressive to a statistician, but it was hardly a show.

He came off at the interval exhausted. He’d used up most of his routine responses. He had some techniques for improvising when things were going bad, but nothing for when the audience were in the palm of his hand.

He stuck to routine for the next half of the show. The light was reduced and tinted slightly blue. Usually he’d steer the mood towards profound and talk about how souls needed to journey to heaven. He wanted to spend less time interacting with the audience, so he expanded on this. The pace was slower, and he could feel the show building to an anti-climax.

He picked up the pace, and delivered a routine where he reduced a middle-aged woman to tears, when he reassured her “Daddy still loves you, even though he can’t cuddle you like he used to.” Normally that would be a highlight to finish a show, but he’d already done something like this before the break.

He looked out at the crowd of spellbound faces and realised he had nowhere left to go. He would be left with nothing under the harsh blue light. Despite it being the most accurate show of his career, with no big finish it could only be disappointing. All the publicity of the girl’s death would be undone by Word-Of-Mouth as hundred of people would tell their friends the next day “He was alright. The first half was good but…”

He looked into the blue lights and remembered there was on hit he hadn’t used yet.

“We come together tonight in love. We want to share the love we have for our relatives, whether here with us tonight, or on the other side. But not all spirits understand the love they have. Tonight there has been an unhappy spirit among us. But you are welcome. Please speak to us!”

Duncan closed his eyes, he had to pitch this right, and he didn’t know if he could look at his audience. “So much pain. So much regret. She’s so sorry for the trouble she’s caused. She feels like a restless soul. So much regret. I didn’t mean to do it.”

Duncan dramatically shivered. Keep it on the right side of drama. “She’s a spirit in a lot of pain. She thinks she’s caused a lot of pain with her cynicism. Hush! It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault… Becky.”

The response was better than he hoped. The intake of breath was accompanied by a stifled squeal from the back of audience somewhere. He opened his eyes, to look at the audience under the blue light. What was he doing? He could see her falling again, her blue eyes looking back up at him. He stared at his hands, his guilty hands that had pushed her of their own accord and sank to his knees.

“No more. I can’t do this.”

He wasn’t sure how he got off stage. He knew someone had helped him. He just knew he needed a drink. Sure, the girl had jumped and deserved what she got, but there was a line and he’d crossed it.

He helped with packing after the show, to thank the crew for sticking with him. He also made sure he retrieved the phone and microphone. The phone was easy enough to slip in his jacket. The slightly more bulky microphone his stowed in his bag.

Back on the Road - Development

Break down with guilt wins TV appearance.
Kate’s death becomes a selling point.

He resolved to keep the girl out of his future shows and made it clear to every reporter at every local paper when his show visited town, that he had no interest in exploiting her death for publicity.

If they didn’t mention the death at all during the interview, then he’d make a point of reminding them not to mention it as the reporter left. It never worked. They were vultures.

Even though he’d tried to shut her out, he could feel Becky’s presence in the theatres where he performed. She was following him, blaming him for what happened.

Despite her influence, the audiences kept coming. In the end it had been his most successful tour, but Duncan Smith hadn’t realised quite how successful it had been until his first day at home after the tour when the phone rang.

“Dunc, amazing news!” his agent said. “They want you on the sofa for Coffee Chat.”

“What?” Duncan avoided daytime television after an unfortunate morning when he discovered what the Jeremy Kyle Show was.

Coffee Chat with Cliff and Pat, it’s the big morning show after Jeremy Kyle. They want you on sofa on Wednesday, talking about contacting the other side.”

A smile started to cross Duncan’s face. He’d been after a break for a while. He knew he could outdo other TV mediums like Derek and Colin. A regular spot might be too much to hope for, but a role on a lifestyle channel show would be feasible, and then books become an option…

“…and they were looking for this missing girl, so I said you could help.”

Reality snapped back. “What the hell?” asked Duncan.

“Sarah Bloom, she’s been missing for a week now. Pat will give you her scarf and you’ll tell us what you sense.”

“Christ, Steve, why did you say I’d do that?”

“It’s news, and it was their idea. A researcher saw how you spoke to that girl who died and she was sold. They think you’ve got the gift. It’s no big deal, just read round the clips, say she loves her mother very much and you’ll be fine. No one’s going to remember what you said, just that you were sympathetic when you said it.”

There wasn’t much time to dwell on the mess his agent had dumped on him. Duncan booked a train ticket to London and a hotel to stop overnight before show. He also remembered to set it to record, so he could watch it when he got home.

He was awake early on the Wednesday morning. He’d slept badly the previous night and decided to walk in the cold morning air to the studios. His breathe collapsed into vapour in front of him. Above the night sky faded from midnight to azure.

Just short of the studio he paused by a canal bank and watched the ripples on the water. He wasn’t due to be on air till after ten, but it was still an early start to prepare. Hah! He was prepared and no one would stop him. That girl had tried, but he’d shown her. He watched the last of the street lights wink out against the clear sky. It would look better with a coffee. He patted his pockets to locate some change.

What the hell was that?

In a pocket he rarely used he felt an unfamilar lump, a phone. How long had that been there? How had it got that? Had she planted it on him as a last petty act before killing herself?

Duncan bought a coffee to go from a local shop and returned to the canal bank. Carefully he poured coffee over the phone, then rubbed at it with a napkin to remove his fingerprints. He checked no one was watching, then he dropped the phone into the canal. The last connection between him and the girl was gone. He was ready.

TV appearance - Climax

He was charm itself in the studio. He didn’t imagine that the make-up team or the runners would have any say in who got booked for a show, but they might supply the gossip columns with stories. Best to be on their good side. Besides, it always helped to create a positive buzz.

He was only briefly introduced to Cliff and Pat before the show. Most of the work around the studio seemed geared to making sure everyone was in the right spot at the right time. Duncan had been forewarned that he wouldn’t be on air till twelve past eleven. It meant watching for almost three-quarters of an hour, but the behind-the-scenes view of the show made it more interesting than watching it from home.

When time came, he was politely herded onto the sofa next to a concerned-looking Pat. She briefly introduced him as someone who spoke to the other side. He almost tuned out before he realised she had asked a question: “What is like to talk to the dead?”

Duncan smiled modestly. “It’s not really a matter of talking to the dead. I talk to spirits who are very much alive, but in another form of existence. They’re like you and I. They have their own personalities and perspectives.”

“Does this perspective mean they can see things that we can’t.”

“Yes, it does, but they are like us and sometimes like us they get things wrong.”

“Well, I hope that’s not the case today. Duncan, could you tell us anything about this?” Pat handed over a blue scarf.

Duncan held the scarf. Something wasn’t quite right. He started to describe a location, an old biscuit factory. He had hoped that a tearful relative would have been present to confirm that there was indeed a biscuit factory near where the scarf-owner lived. It was the kind of insight that you had to be a genuine medium to get. Or else prepare by looking up Sarah Bloom’s hometown on Wikipedia. This was gold that the hardly anyone would recognise.

The scarf itself was a royal blue, not unlike Pat’s eyes. And her dress. And some of the set. All of it blue like the girl’s eyes as she fell. Duncan attempted to pull himself together. Put her out your mind, man. She’s trying to find a way in…

“Well, that’s not what we were expecting, but it’s impressive all the same. Let’s hope the leads are useful for the Police.” Pat was wrapping up the segment. What had happened?

He was ushered from sofa again, and clearly he’d made a good impression, but he had no idea why. He remembered holding the scarf, looking into Pat’s eyes and then… and then? He left for home, puzzled and uneasy.

Watching the recording - Ending

It was late afternoon when he finally got home. He nodded at the neighbours as he entered his house and made his way to the television. The programme had recorded. At a rough guess he was forty minutes in, so he skimmed until he saw Kelly in the Kitchen doing something improbable with citrus fruit. Then he was on.

He needed to lose weight, but he wasn’t bad. He wasn’t as relaxed as Russell Grant, but he was passable. He poured himself a scotch, and admired his work. He was better than passable. He looked like he belonged there.

Then on the television he stumbled over his words. This must have been when he’d done something. He watched himself as on the television he brushed the scarf against his face. Sarah Bloom was a schoolgirl, this could be creepy. Then it wasn’t about Sarah.

“There’s another voice,” he heard himself say. “Another girl. She’s lost. She’s been lost a while. You’ll find her phone in the canal lock outside. She says… she says… help me find my way home.”

Duncan became aware of the spirits. The smell of whisky filled the room. He realised he’d dropped his glass and the drink had spilled across the carpet. Damn! Why did she have to be there? She’d gone. He’d thrown away her phone, her microphone… No he hadn’t. She was still here.

A quick search revealed he still had her microphone. It wasn’t important, one looked like another. It couldn’t tie her to him, but maybe she was using it as an anchor? He dropped it in the bin outside, and wheeled it out for collection tomorrow morning. She’d be gone by lunchtime.

That done, he poured another drink to calm his nerves. A few minutes later he had another to celebrate keeping on top of the situation without going to pieces. He ordered a take-away and set down to watch the television for the evening. He’d be on there soon enough.

The girl wasn’t giving up without a fight. He saw her flashing blue across the wall of the room. It took a while to realise what it was, and Duncan turned to look out the front window to see if one of the neighbours had called an ambulance.

There was a knock at the door. The police.

Duncan Smith did not like Detective Inspector Evans. He was too much like the cynical sceptics. Why couldn’t he just believe?

“Could you tell me again sir, how you knew where the phone was?”

“I told you, a spirit told me.”

“Is there no other way you might have known the location of the phone?”

“How could there be? It might not fit your scientistic view of the world, Inspector, but the spirit world doesn’t care about what you or I believe.”

“The phone belonged to Rebecca Stevens, the young lady who died at one of your performances. Have you any idea how her phone ended up in London?”

“Maybe it was stolen?”

“It wasn’t switched on at any time after being stolen. This is not usual for a stolen phone. Could you have carried it accidentally?”

“Officer, I have been through this before with your colleagues. There is no connection between myself and Miss Stevens, other than her visit to my show. I didn’t kill her. I tried to stop her from killing herself. You found me innocent.”

“We didn’t have the evidence to press charges,” said DI Evans, correcting him. “You’re aware we have been trying to locate missing artefacts belonging to Miss Stevens?”

“Maybe that’s how I found the phone. Maybe I was psychically tuned in, and it was being so close to it that helped.”

Another policeman, one of many around the house now, entered and passed DI Evans something in a plastic bag. “The microphone, sir. We got prints.”

“Oh for goodness sake!” Duncan had had enough. “Of course you got prints. It’s my microphone. I used it with the computer at home, but it’s not working so I’ve thrown it out.”

Evans flipped through the notes in silence before nodding at the officer. “Sir, if this microphone was only used in your house, could you explain the other set of prints on it?”