“What time do you get off?” the girl had asked me. Surprised, I’d turned from flipping a burger. She was tall, slim, with blonde hair in a short pony tail.
“I’ve a break in twenty minutes. Why?”
“Can we chat? I need a favour.”
The next twenty minutes had crawled past. I could see the girl sitting in a corner, fiddling with her phone. What the hell did she want?
“Look, my name’s Martha, I come here sometimes, you’ve served me a couple of times,” she said when I was free to join her.
Now I came to think about it, she did seem somewhat familiar, but then we served a lot of people.
“You seem a nice guy and I need someone to do me a favour.”
“My sister phoned me to say she’s mislaid her house keys. I’ve got a spare but I’m a nurse and I’m needed on the other side of town, I’ve really gotta go. Like, now.”
“Well, where’s your sister?”
“She works at Jacksons.” She gave a wry smile. “They make toilets. It’s half an hour in the opposite direction.”
“What, will she come here then? I don’t finish till eight.”
“No, she’s on shifts. She won’t finish till ten, then she has to wait for a bus. She won’t be home till half-past.”
Martha had told me to go to her sister’s flat, let myself in and wait for her. That she was a friendly girl, but quiet and lonely after her dog had died. For me to keep her company for a bit. She’d shown me a photo. Her sister was older than Martha and plumper, with glasses. But she had a kindly face, not unattractive, and curly black hair.
“What’s her name?” I’d asked.
I’d weighed up the pros and cons, hoping I was doing the right thing. “Ah … OK then.”
“Thank you so much.” She came round and kissed me on the cheek, making me blush.
The light wasn’t working properly on the landing. Instead of the soulless white glare from the fluorescent strip, there was a faint orange glow, like a dying star. I took the key I’d been given and turned it in the lock. Inside, it was dark. There was a musty smell, an odour of unlived-in-ness. I stood and listened. I heard the faint sound of a car door slamming on the street, way down below, then nothing, total silence. Then I became aware of a low, deep hum and a faint bubbling sound. I turned back to the grey rectangle that was the open front door and felt around for a light switch. Blinking in the bright light, I found myself in a long hallway with several closed doors.
The first one I tried opened onto a small cloakroom. There were several coats and jackets on pegs. I ran my fingers over the black fur trim of a jacket. It felt soft and smelt of perfume.
The next one opened onto a large space. I could see a faint area of luminescence some distance away, the glow of the city through the curtains. I turned the light on and found myself in a large lounge where three sofas were arranged in a rough triangle about three feet apart. In a corner was the source of the humming and bubbling – a large tank full of water. I clicked a switch on a cable and the tank lit up. Tiny fish of silver and gold swirled around, whilst an angel fish hung motionless, blinking forlornly. Fronds of green plant life extended up to the surface and a replica of the colosseum stood on multicoloured gravel, alongside models of other ancient architectural wonders.
In a neat bedroom there was a double bed with a lemon-coloured bedspread featuring a design of small pink rosebuds. A little table stood in an alcove. On it were an upright wooden crucifix and a pair of plaster hands, held in a praying position and holding a small tea light. On either side were pink candles, about a quarter burnt down, and on the wall in front of the table, a large framed photograph of a dog, a border collie – brown and white – looking up with huge eyes. A small vase of smoked glass held a single red rose.
I became aware of old-fashioned music and realised I must have nodded off. Surprised at being in unfamiliar surroundings, it took me a moment to remember where I was. The news had finished and it was now an old black and white movie. I didn’t know they showed those any more. I recognised the pale, angular face of a famous old actor. The one who looked like Peter Cushing. What was his name? I couldn’t remember and got up and turned the TV off. I looked at the clock and got a shock. It was nearly midnight!
Where the hell was Rose? I looked around the apartment, just to make sure she wasn’t back. In the alcove in the bedroom I was surprised to find several rose petals on the little table. That was odd.
I found some notepaper and a pen and scribbled a message to leave outside the front door in case Rose came back in the meantime, then grabbed my coat and went out. I took the lift down to the lobby and walked out into the deserted street. There was a quiet, cold rain. I looked up and down, seeing the yellow lamplight reflected on the wet paving slabs. In the distance I could see flashing blue and red lights. I decided to walk in that direction.
As I approached, I could feel apprehension building in my gut. There were a number of police cars and an ambulance, and on the pavement, a small wet crowd. As I grew closer, the ambulance drove off and the crowd, seeming to lose interest, began to drift away.
“Excuse me. What happened?” I asked a large middle-aged woman in a raincoat and beret.
“There was an accident. The police were chasing a motorbike.” She gestured to a mangled wreck behind a police car, which I could now see. It was surrounded by chequered tape. “It crashed and hit a pedestrian.” In the street light her face looked like a slab of orange clay. “They said they were both killed.”
“Who was the pedestrian? D’you know?”
“No. They said it was a young woman. She had a photo of a dog. That’s all I know.” She turned away and her bulky silhouette shuffled off slowly into the rain.
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