This is the third part of a fiction serial, in 703 words.
At first, what Janice had said didn’t sink in. We hung around for a while, and then the fireman in charge said we could go and retrieve our personal possessions. They suspected a gas leak in the apartment, and an electrical fault, but that had to be investigated by the Gas Company, and the Fire Investigation Branch. Police officers had sealed off the approaches to Dockside View with their striped tape, and we were not going to be allowed back to carry on working, obviously.
It was when I had got my phone and given Neil back his charger that the number clicked inside my brain.
Seventeenth floor, flat three. 3 and 17, just like the time on my bedside clock when I had woken up that morning. Janice was gabbling into her phone, arranging for head office to send security guards down to watch the development over the full twenty-four hour period. With the investigators coming and going, we were not just going to be able to lock up the sales floor as usual. And once the news got out, it was unlikely we would have any potential customers to worry about anyway.
When her call was over, Janice turned to us. “There’s not going to be anything happening work-wise here today. Darren, you might as well go back to where you usually work and report in there. Neil, you can stay here with me, help fend off any enquiries about flats, and make sure all the viewings know they are cancelled. Can you go and find me a coffee and a sandwich, honey? Large Americano, and maybe a chicken and pesto panini? There’s a love”.
I grinned at Neil’s chances of finding anything like that around there. The nearest decent coffee places were inside or near the station. He had a long walk. As I had already been dismissed, I set off for the station. The last thing I wanted was to have to do that walk with Neil crowing about staying behind to help Janice.
Diverting into a couple of shops on the way, I picked up two special offer DVD films for two ninety-nine each, then a microwave Chinese and a six-pack of Stella for later. No way was I intending to go back to where I usually worked. They wouldn’t be expecting me in, and I was sure Janice would be too busy to ring my manager to tell him. Once the news got out, he would probably know anyway, but I would just say that by the time I got back, it was close to finishing time. John was okay, he wouldn’t care.
By the time I got to the station, it was mid-afternoon, well before the rush hour. The place was almost deserted. Along the concourse a guy wearing the hi-vis coat of the train company was fixing a large paper sign into a display case. I walked up to him, and waited until he had finished, and had closed the case. Then I asked him when the next Southend train was due to depart. I was only going to Basildon, but needed that line.
He checked a huge Casio digital watch that looked like a museum piece, then turned and pointed. “You can check on the indicator board you know. But seeing as you asked so nicely, it leaves at fifteen-seventeen. That’s three-seventeen to you mate”. I thanked him and walked away, then realised I hadn’t asked which platform. Heading for the indicator board to check, I suddenly stopped dead. 3:17? Not again.
On the train, the uneasy feeling I had during the night came back. But this time with knobs on.
I had woken up thinking someone was in my bedroom at 3:17 AM. Then the flat that had caught fire and exploded was number three, on the seventeeth floor, 317. I wasn’t supposed to be getting a train home this early, and my arrival at the station had been completely random, delayed by the short shopping trip. Only to find that the next train home was at 3:17. That was a lot of coincidence to swallow, even for someone as sceptical as me.
Now I was beginning to wonder if I should have actually got on this train.