How he came to finding her was funny. Funny ha ha. But fuck all else about this was funny.
He dropped the key. Or the key dropped out of his hand. Depending on your level of charitability.
Double fuck and bollocks.
He stood on his finger as he attempted a rescue of said key. His eyes were fuzzy; everything around him kept jumping, merging, disappearing. He wondered whether he’d slipped into another dimension, one where it was normal for objects to sprout legs and vanish. He’d seen programmes on these dimensions. Read books.
Ssshhhhh. People sleepin’.
Christ. Who said that? He had thought himself alone. Was someone watching him? Something? His head flew up, his finger throbbing, the key still on the floor. A good job that his hair was his own, otherwise it would be cosying up to the key by now. His Uncle Fred had worn a wig. Back when he was alive, that is. A ginger monstrosity that the slightest breeze could upend. Joshua once told him that he’d be better off super-gluing it down. Or at least sellotaping it. His Uncle Fred hadn’t rated these suggestions, practical though they were.
SSShhhhh. Noise. Keep down.
His head swivelling back and forth, Joshua took in the whole corridor. Not a soul about. There were two lines of doors, facing each other in a gladiatorial stand-off, and all were shut, the people on the other side of them no doubt tucked up in bed and floating with the sleep fairies.
A grain of clarity percolated through and Joshua realised that the admonishments were coming from his own mouth.
Tryin’ to be quiet. Leave fuck alone.
Joshua might as well join in. Admonish his admonishments. They were getting to be cheeky little buggers.
Just chill it, yeah?
More determined this time, more determined than ever before in his life, Joshua bent down again. This fucking arse of a key wouldn’t defeat him.
It didn’t want to be rescued. Fuck the bastard to hell, then. Let it sink. More than one way to skin a cat. Anyway, who used a key these days?
Joshua took four steps back. Or was it five? No matter. Not to worry. Counting was as antiquated a concept as key-using. They’d invented calculators for all that shite. And shoulders for fucking doors that wouldn’t fucking open.
He’d never been much of a rugby player. Bowls was more his sport. He should’ve known better. But it was three in the morning and he was exhausted. And pissed. He wanted his bed – his super-comfy, super-king-size slice of heaven. He’d have to want, alas. His bed was three miles away. Hannah, his darling wife of seven years, packed a bag and kicked him out two weeks ago. Shoved him out the door and told him to not even think about coming back. Called him a useless feck and accused him of putting the booze before their marriage. This was a lie. A damn fucking lie. She made it sound like he put all booze before their marriage. It was only the vodka that he put first. And only Black Cow at that. He’d been crashing in his brother’s spare room ever since – and it was to this cluttered box and creaking camp-bed that he was now endeavouring to return. As he nursed his shoulder and considered his next step, he heard a click. Unless he was hearing himself again. His ears had a habit of bending the truth when alcohol was on the scene.
’Ere, what you up to? Clear off.
As if performing some elaborate hip-hop dance move, Joshua gasped, stumbled, then twatted his head on the door. Hitler. Hitler alive and well and standing two metres away.
Oi, you, beat it.
Hitler alive and well and quoting Michael Jackson. Nursing his head along with his shoulder, his injuries accumulating, Joshua stared at the man – at the man’s moustache. Was this dude right in the head? All there? He was a ringer for Hitler and the terrifying tache sealed the deal. Hitler stepped out of his doorway, revealing threadbare slippers, scrawny legs and a frayed vest. His apartment was just across the way but Joshua hadn’t clapped eyes on him before. This wasn’t surprising: a creature of the night, Joshua spent most of the day in bed. Life felt more bearable when half the day had been and gone before the curtains were even opened. His company let him go two weeks before Hannah did. Poor timekeeping, lots of sick days, falling asleep at his desk, reeking of booze, swearing at colleagues. Insignificant things. His boss was a cunt and had it in for him.
Hit…Sir…I am Adam’s brother. Staying with him.
Hitler’s beady eyes searched Joshua’s face, sizing him up like two SS guards.
Adam? Who’s Adam? George lives here. Nice fella. Not Adam. And I’ve never seen no brother knocking about.
Blimey. Hitler was more off his nuts than him. He didn’t even know his neighbour’s name. Play along.
Yes, George. That’s what I said. My brother. My key. See. Dropped it. Butter fingers.
Hitler yawned, his mouth an O of brown stubs, and turned towards his apartment.
Okay, well, yes, I can see the key. Pick it up and get yourself inside. People are trying to sleep, you know.
He knew that people were trying to sleep. He wasn’t thick. Hence his trying to be quiet. Hitler was making more of a racket than him. His voice was starting to grate. Someone gift the guy a hankie. A pound of phlegm was residing in his nose.
His arse leading the way, Hitler edged back, his expression torn, pained. Joshua could hear the internal questions. Smell Hitler’s uncertainty. Defend or flee? Enemy or ally? Freeze his balls off playing Miss. Marple or venture back to a warm bed and a glug of the old whiskey?
And, just like that, Hitler’s tache was no more. His door was shut and Joshua was alone again. Thank fuck for that. He’d had his fill of the Dark Lord. People were forever involving themselves in his business, telling him what to do. Nagging him. Hannah. His cunt of a boss. Even Adam. “Speak to your wife.” “Wash up after yourself.” “Turn the TV down.” He was the oldest, Adam should show him some respect. He all but brought the lad up. Cooked for him and helped with his homework when their Mum was comatose on the settee and their Dad was out romancing his latest slag in some piss-stained alleyway.
Joshua shook his head. No point dwelling on the past. The past was dead. Done. His parents couldn’t hurt him now. His Mum had passed away, her liver as shrivelled as her once beautiful face. His Dad had fucked off – for good. Adam was letting him stay. Being good to him. Because his kid brother was good. Adam had done alright for himself. A-Levels. Uni. A decent job – a job that he enjoyed. Fuck. An enjoyable job. Unfathomable. Joshua’s own job – pre-letting-go – was something that he’d endured. Like root canal surgery. Painful. Laborious. But the result allowed him to function.
Adam was away with work for the night – he worked for a theatre company and was down in London. Some conference or forum on the Theatre of the Absurd. A pile of shite, in other words. Joshua thought the theatre utter bollocks, the whole lot of it was fucking absurd, a stage for narcissists, but Adam was passionate about it. So, fair enough, like. Any other night, he would’ve just knocked Adam up. But maybe his being away was a blessing. That look of disappointment when he staggered in after a heavy session. Adam’s eyes dropping. His lips curling downwards. Their Mum’s lips, thick and blood-red. History repeating itself, a fucked-up Ferris wheel. Their Mum looked at their Dad like that. Then they looked at their Mum like that. Now Adam looked at him like that.
Nothing else for it.
He’d tried – and failed – to pick the key up. Twice. He wouldn’t be trying again. He had some pride. Third time lucky could get fucked. He’d tried – and failed – to bash the door in. Only one option remained; he’d exhausted every other possibility. Why hadn’t he done this to begin with?
He’d have to pick the lock.
This he’d done before, plenty of times, so the mechanics were not an issue. In his late teens, he fell in with a gang of ‘eccentrics’. Matt, their self-appointed Leader, had little regard for personal property. Houses included. Under his tutelage, Joshua became quite adept at lock-picking, but moved on to pastures new when he met Hannah. She had no time for Matt. She called him Fagin and, a true scholar, pointed out that Joshua was too old to be the Artful Dodger.
Like an engineer surveying their kit, Joshua focused on the lock. Its structure wasn’t intricate. One minute to pick, tops, even with his alcohol-wonky eyes and wobbly fingers. But fuck. Getting ahead of himself. How would he do it? In practical terms? He didn’t have the tools; no longer in the business of robbing, he had no call for them. Once upon a time, he’d never gone anywhere sans screw driver.
Think. Think. Think.
His card. His good-for-nothing, maxed-out credit card. Wedge it in, grip, twist. He felt in his back pocket for his wallet – empty, bar a few pennies, his solo pub-crawl clearing him out – and removed his card. Bingo. This baby would get him through the door and into the camp-bed. Hell, screw that. This baby would get him through the door and into Adam’s bed. Whilst the cat’s away.
That was easy. Easier than he remembered. And – whisper it – satisfying. The thrill was still there. That rush of energy, a shot of electricity through the system. Pick, pick, pick, yank…and Fred’s your uncle…one open door. He was fucking invincible. Fucking. Unstoppable.
What took you so long? Get on your fuckin’ knees, boy. And. Don’t. Say. A. Word.
Less speech, more growl. Low, gruff, the words clinging to his throat, but distinct enough to be heard. Joshua felt stone-cold sober, the fancy-named cocktails and tangy shots vanishing from his bloodstream; though he hadn’t the foggiest what was going on, his eyes were clear and his ears sharp. He dropped to his knees, an obedient private. Now wasn’t the time to fool around or feign deafness. This much he did know.
Put your hands on your head. Do as I say and you’ll be just fine.
A man was looking down at him – and pointing a gun. Joshua hadn’t seen one in real-life before. Plenty on the TV but they didn’t count. Black and shiny, its nozzle made him think of a dog’s nose. A vicious, yapping Rottweiler, hungry for his flesh.
Hands. On. Your. Head. Stop being a dick.
This man was a stranger. And, yet, there was something familiar about him. A face seen in a crowd. A profile glimpsed in a walkway. He looked so…so…ordinary. Ordinary height. Ordinary build. Ordinary hair.
Heard you havin’ quite the convo with my neighbour. Fuckin’ bell-end that he is. Too damn nosy for his own good. There’s this book called The Valley of the Squinting Windows. They made us read it at school. He should be the main character.
He’d heard him with Hitler. And Hitler was his neighbour. Huh? Who was this guy, this ordinary-looking bloke with a gun? And what was he doing in Adam’s flat?
Adam’s flat. It looked different. But the same. The same layout. A narrow kitchen. A lounge-diner off it. A bedroom off that. But different furniture. Was that a chaise longue? Adam didn’t have a chaise longue. Canvases on the walls. Adam didn’t have canvases. He liked his walls bare, uninterrupted.
You not worked it out yet? You’re a fuckin’ slow one. You’ve got the wrong flat.
Shit. Shit. Shit. What the actual fuck?
Ordinarily I’d be pissed as hell. See, this is breakin’ and enterin’. But tonight is your lucky night. Because tonight I need your help. And. You. Will. Help. Me.
He flipped her like a pancake. He even whistled. Throw in an apron and morning radio and he could be fixing breakfast.
Give us a hand, yeah? Don’t just stand there.
Joshua just stood there.
Move it. Now.
Joshua moved it. Now. His mind was full-empty; so full that it might as well be empty.
You grab the feet. I’ll take the hands.
She had beautiful feet. Small, delicate toes, painted a tasteful pink. A slim ankle. Blemish free. His own were ugly, ten years of five-a-side smashing them to smithereens. Fractured more times than he cared to remember, his little toes no longer understood how to come to rest. They stuck up and out like splayed teeth on a comb.
Lift on three. One. Two. Three.
The weight of her. A tiny doll of a girl, size six at the most, he hadn’t expected it. Like a rain-soaked pair of jeans, light to the eye but heavy to the touch.
Place her on top of the blanket. Be gentle with her. We don’t want the bitch tearing up the fabric. They do that, you know. Their fuckin’ fake tits and fake nails.
Joshua didn’t know. These were uncharted waters.
He tried not to look at her face.
He looked at her face.
He tried not to look at her naked breasts.
He looked at her naked breasts. Pale. Pert. Perfect. The man followed his eyes and smiled. A kid in a sweet shop. A pig in shit. Satan in Hell.
Go on, lad. Cop a feel whilst you still can.
Joshua turned to the side and vomited. A semi-processed version of his end-of-sesh-kebab lay at the foot of the bed. A kernel of undigested sweetcorn surfed atop the brown puddle, the proprietor’s sole concession to the government’s healthy eating regime.
Jesus. Get a grip. This carpet’s expensive.
Tutting, the man took out his gun, which had been sitting in a holster around his waist.
Wipe that shite up right now.
Joshua bent down and set about scraping together the smelly mush.
Not with your fuckin’ hands, boy. There’s a cloth and a bucket in the kitchen. Under the sink. No funny business, mind. Straight there and back. I can see you from here. As can my little friend.
The man stroked his gun. Calm, unhurried, the patter of a man who knows that his every word will be followed.
DCI George Davidson at your service. Remember. No. Dawdling.
Tucking his soiled hands into his chest so as not to unleash further mess, Joshua scrambled to his feet and headed towards the kitchen. He could smell the vomit, his vomit, feel it rolling under his fingernails, lodging in his cuticles. More jumped into his mouth from the pit of his stomach; somehow, he managed to quell the deluge and swallow it back down. His eyes picked out the front door – but didn’t register it. Moving…moving…his feet moving to the beat of the man’s words.
The police. A fucking police fucking officer. You had to do what the police said.
Joshua found the bucket and cloth and hurried back. Lowering himself, he scraped for a second time.
Good man, good man. Make sure you get it all. Once you’re done, we’ll get the bitch out of here. She’s starting to annoy me.
Jesus. Get a grip. This carpet’s expensive.
What the…? A long line of cockroaches skulked down Joshua’s spine. George, standing there, staring, his thick legs an upturned V. Her feet in his hands, as soft and smooth as melted butter. Livid marks peppering her neck; bruises darkening, ripening, matter’s final flourish before the Long Decay. George’s car. Woods. Soil all over him. Dirty. So dirty. Never be clean again.
Joshua, mate, watch yourself. You’ve spilt coffee on the carpet again.
A tan brogue circled Joshua’s latest offering.
Bro, this can’t go on. Sorry for shouting, but you’ve got to pull yourself together.
The cockroaches halted. Adam. Just Adam.
Adam’s lounge-diner sharpened into focus. Outlines acquired details. Flesh affixed itself to bones. Joshua reached out and touched Adam’s armchair. No chaise longue. He checked the walls. No canvases. Safe. He was safe.
You’re hurting. Missing Hannah. I get it. I do. But you’re getting worse. It’s like…like…you’ve been on a different planet these past few weeks.
Joshua looked at Adam. Since when had his baby brother got so grown up? The concern, pain, etched into his face snagged Joshua’s heart; somewhere along the line, everything had got mashed up and Adam was rendered the older, wiser brother.
Enough. Enough now.
Time to restore the natural order.
He had to stop thinking about that night – that awful, hateful, disgusting night. It had happened. He had not gone looking for it. A gun was pressed against his head. The voice behind the gun told him to do a series of shitty and despicable things and, with rattling hands and his guts on the verge of crashing through the floor, he did them. Not strong enough to say no, to fight back and do the right thing, he did them. And now he saw her feet everywhere. And now he cried in the shower. When trying to eat. Dress himself. He was a broken tap. Drip, drip, dripping. The tears were not always on the outside. But always the tears were there.
Addy, listen, I’m the one that should be sorry. Don’t be worrying yourself about me. I’m okay…I’ll be okay. I’ll talk to Hannah. Straighten myself out.
Something like hope, or at least its seed, opened up inside him. Yes, he would bury The Night. Live with it. His secret. His cross to bear, though there was nothing noble about this cross. What else could he do? Spend the rest of his days balling his eyes out and not functioning? Kill himself? He had considered it. Fantasised about it. More than once. But he was scared. Surprise-fucking-surprise. Remnants of his Catholic schooling lingered. What was awaiting him on the other side? Hell? Eternal blackness? And Adam. What would that do to Adam? Their parents’ legacy of trauma was hefty enough without his adding to it. He could go to the police. Tell them everything. What George did. What he did. Admit his part and face the consequences like a man.
No. No. No. NO.
He couldn’t trust them. Any of them. His Dad had been right about something. Fucking busies. Too busy fucking around. Never trust a busy, son. They might all be in on it. All be bent. Even a different branch. Part of some murderous ring, like something you’d see on an American cop show. A freaky cult involving all the top brass – all the country over. All the world over.
Joshua was stuck. Trapped. His hands were tied and George fucking knew it. He was a dead man if a word of this got out. Adam was a dead man. Even if George was locked up. A buddy would step in and do the honours. One bullet. Gone. He told him this in the woods that night. His voice didn’t waver once – he could’ve been relaying tomorrow’s weather forecast. Crystal clear. Cool as ice. Since that night, George had taken to calling on him when Adam was at work, the bulge of his gun unmissable beneath his tailored suit jacket. George never said anything during his ‘visits’. His stare said enough.
George might be full of bullshit. His stares might be empty. But they might not be. Too many mights. Joshua couldn’t risk it, couldn’t put his brother – his blood, God damn it – in danger. And what if he harmed Hannah? As far as he knew, he didn’t know that he was married, but men like George did their homework. They liked their leverage. They were thorough.
Mouth shut, head down, keep the fuck away from George. Tolerate his visits. Learn from them. Silence is its own reward. In time, encourage Adam to move. Get things back on track with Hannah. Tell her that they should start afresh somewhere else. New country. New job. New husband. A better one. She’d always wanted to move overseas – he’d always said no. He loved her. They had something worth saving. He’d get Adam away first, settled and miles from that bastard, then him and Hannah would leave. Adam was only talking the other day about a life-changing job opportunity in London. Joshua would don his salesman hat and sell it to him. He could do this. He could keep his family safe. Running alone wasn’t an option, never was. His two loves would be left wide open to George. To his manipulations. His sick desires.
I’ll call Han right now.
Joshua picked up his phone. Adam filled the kettle and permitted himself a smile, Joshua’s newfound positivity catching.
Oh, before I forget, I saw George from the floor above in the lift this morning. Didn’t realise you knew him. Said you helped him shift some old furniture a couple of weeks back. He’s having another clear-out tonight.
The kettle screamed as it came to the boil.
He’s a sound fella. He’ll chuck fifty quid your way if you give him a hand.
Joshua dropped his phone. The screen smashed into a million little pieces. The cockroaches resumed their creeping descent.