Source: Inside and Out
The old milk factory had been there forever, though it had stopped pasteurizing, bottling, and shipping years ago. He saw it from his semi-basement front windows: three brick storeys atop a stubby urban hill, the building’s white exterior seeming as faded as its future.
He could recall, walking home from grade then high schools, seeing men in rumpled overalls exit the factory’s side door, getting into long cars parked around the plant or lining up for a nearby, now discontinued bus route: one memory in a life that had started and now returned him here. Why, exactly, had he chosen just weeks ago to rent this modest, cozy apartment in a neighbourhood, a city, similar yet changed? He had seldom been happy here.
He sighed, vaguely hungry. With little in the fridge and little to do, he should go out, stretch his legs and buy things. He had been indoors all day.
It was a brisk late afternoon in October. Where to shop? He knew of a small supermarket the other side of the hill. Why not go there.
His legs felt stiff as he ascended toward the factory’s utilitarian shape above a parking space then sidewalk facing his building. Halfway uphill, he saw the wooden back of a brown brick residence across the street, spiral stairs connecting porches from top to bottom floors. He dimly remembered this house, one of many neat brick, grey-stone, and frame dwellings in a quarter quieter than before.
He had, since returning here, wondered if the factory’s closing had depressed the area, though streets and houses looked well kept, few “For Sale” or “For Rent” signs about. Yet this area, with its small stores and tiny, triangular parks, seemed seldom used, passers-by infrequent day or night. Never having spoken to his neighbours, he heard their soundproofed sounds from other apartments; saw them enter and exit, mainly at night. People drove rather than walked by his windows, again after dark.
He now noticed that the factory actually enjoyed a fairly new paint job. The side door, once for exiting workmen, had become a smooth maroon portal without handle, stronger-looking than its worn predecessor.
Reaching the top of the hill, curiosity walked him to the building’s front entrance. It was still there: a sand-coloured sheet of stone above tall dark oak doors that had once intimidated him: “Majestic Milk.” He saw long clear windows along the second and third floors. Years ago, their glass had been smudged by production, and he imagined its once-busy interior: white-coated men on one floor checking vats crowned by temperature gauges, women in white on another minding machines that squirted milk into glass bottles on conveyor trays, the product to be sealed, crated, and delivered within the city and beyond.
People stayed here decades, from youth to retirement. If his young self had ventured inside he would have seen a working world weightier than his paper route: a world he had never truly inhabited, so often had he been unemployed. He was unemployed now.
He looked upward and saw potted plants behind panes on the two floors above. Tenants, a condo? Whatever. He had things to buy.
Returning from the supermarket two days later, he noticed a closed, curtain-less window in the middle of the side wall several steps above the upgraded exit. He didn’t remember this window from the other day. It must have slipped his sight.
He saw a movement, then a figure, inside it.
A young woman stood in daylight in a white room, a windowpane and mere footsteps away. She had a white bath towel around her, and was brushing her long blonde hair in a precise yet relaxed way, probably before a bathroom mirror. Her hair was bright yellow, her slender yet firm arms golden brown. Then she stopped and looked outside. Their eyes met.
She looked at him directly; few women did. He saw no disapproval or dismissal in her blue eyes, just surprise. Her lips opened, also in surprise.
He had caught her in a private moment; she had forgotten to draw blinds. He walked on self-consciously, a car passing behind him.
Had he embarrassed her? Maybe, but she was doubtless discarding him from her mind this second. With her looks, she would have more dashing males to dwell on.
Yet he might dwell on her. He had not, save television and films rented shyly from adult sections, seen a woman in any undress for some time. And those moments had rarely been in the flesh.
He had always been an onlooker: from windows, on streets, in cafés where he took his afternoon coffee and, recently, in his apartment, having bought an HD television and DVD player. He had spent years alone, though in poorer circumstances. Now, money was not such a
worry thanks to a legacy he’d returned here to collect from a deceased uncle he’d barely known.
“It seems you are the only member of the family left,” the notary’s registered letter had stated last spring. This had not really surprised him. Thus, his uncle’s bank account and modest investments were now his. Yet they did not make him much happier. They did not change his being alone.
That evening, watching television indifferently, he felt restless. He was by himself: nothing new, but the sight of that girl underscored his being so.
All this had roots: taciturn parents made more so by death; no siblings; few friends deceased or dispersed. Small talk didn’t interest him, socializing had never been easy, and permanent, pleasing work had rarely happened. Only books, television, afternoon coffee, and the odd film night sustained him.
But they weren’t enough, not tonight. There was something about her gaze, the easy way she had brushed her blond hair; her smooth arms, her youth. He had wasted years doing little and knowing few. Now, middle-aged, seeing that girl made him wonder if returning here might bring an appealing, uplifting female into his life. He knew he would venture up that hill again.
It was mild outside: barely windbreaker weather. He would ignore routine and go out after 10 p.m.: for a coffee, perhaps even company.
An hour later he was walking back along a block that had once had rooming houses and a snack bar on whose rotating padded stools he had sat gulping foamy cream sodas, now a hair salon, sleek restaurants, and café with an unseasonably open terrace on which he had drunk coffee while reading a newspaper by diluted light. He had spoken only, and briefly, to a waiter.
There was no one about: not unusual here, but tonight seemed especially still, with only a few lit lampshades between curtains suggesting others awake. A black cat ran past as he crossed the street to his own brown brick building. Then he saw a car on the hill, official lettering on its side, headlights on, parked where he had seen that girl: the police. He saw dark figures beside it, against the starry sky.
This was a quiet area. So why the police? Something connected to that girl? Now he really was thinking too much. Despite the silent night, he slept fitfully. It was the coffee, and something else.
She had finally seen someone, and that someone had seen her.
So there was hope! The few people who passed by looked straight ahead when going up or down hill. If they did turn their heads her way, their faces showed no reaction. It was as if they were looking at a brick wall.
Yet he had seen her. It was in his eyes, his face. But he had become shy and hurried past. If he had only stopped, she could have gestured to him; tried to establish contact, to somehow relieve her isolation.
If she must be punished, why make it so painful by reminding her of others who might want to speak to her, know her. Yet that was why she was here. She had known others intimately, something natural to her but perverse to her society. Those she had been private with her became her fiercest accusers. She had made them ashamed; they had all thus punished her.
Now she was alone in a room in a space she might never leave, an insider looking out. Her only release was grooming herself in the mirror, remembering how longingly others had looked at her. She had glimpsed that same want in that man passing. She wished to see him, and that look, again.
Then she remembered the one who had brought her here: dark, powerful, borderline hostile. She had only experienced him that once. He had told her she might never leave here. If he reappeared again, it might be to inflict worse than here on her: something, someplace unthinkable.
Alan Vogt woke up annoyed, having gone to bed annoyed. Who wouldn’t after being stopped and questioned by the police solely on appearance, or lack of it, especially considering that his reason for being there had disappeared: no window, no female.
Two days ago, finished “work,” he was passing that refurbished building on the hill when he had looked into a clear closed window and seen a young blonde woman, the type he used to meet in upscale bars, restaurants, and suites. Then, not now. Now his once promising, popular self was broke and alone, avoided by former colleagues, even friends. Now he was someone who the police could bother at will. His only “witness” to this late night harassment was a figure crossing from the small park below the hill.
Still, what he had seen in daylight had merited a second sight. And she had looked at him, interest in her blue eyes. This encouraged, if only because otherwise women no longer noticed him: his mien reflected his shrunken self-image.
She had been standing in a bathroom mere feet from the street in a slight dress showing her slender but shapely arms and shoulders, hers the only window in a white wall whose exterior had a purple door without handle, probably an exit.
She had gestured to him; he wondered if they’d met before. He had smiled back; was about to speak to her through the windowpane when a sound interrupted him from behind. It was a blue and white police car cruising downhill, its driver’s bland face eyeing him. Annoyed, he turned back to the window.
She was gone, the bathroom vacant, its fresh white walls bare. Yet she had, so briefly, lifted him from his blank existence. He walked on, petulance at the police smoothed by her pleasing image.
The following night, restless in his pokey room, he thought of her, enough to get him outside and heading toward the building on the hill and lamplight visible in an upper window. Yet he now found no window where there had been, no girl, and was staring very puzzled at the blank wall when the police had stopped. An officer with a familiar bland face had asked him why he was there; had looked doubtfully at his I.D.
Then again, he doubted his own identity. Lounging in his barely furnished room, looking out a cracked window to a cool, comfortless blue sky with thin white clouds, he saw a Saturday afternoon in mid-October. He, Alan Vogt, had just spent Thanksgiving alone for the first time ever. Would he always?
He looked out the front window and blinked. Was the old factory really this big, the parking space this long? They hadn’t seemed so before. He then saw a blue and white police car cruise by.
That afternoon, noting his again ill-stocked fridge, he headed for the supermarket. Walking uphill, he thought of the police car at night, that girl in the window by day. He would pass the window and, hopefully, her any second.
He saw no window. There was only wall. He glanced to the renewed exit door: still there. He glanced back to where the window should be, and again was: closed, curtain-less. What was this? Seconds ago, there had been sheer brick there. Were his senses going, solitude finally unhinging him? Then he thought of that girl’s smooth blonde hair, her figure. She could not be an illusion.
And there she was, as if answering his wish, looking at him through a clear windowpane, the clearest pane ever. She was in a sleeveless dress with low neckline just above an attractively compact chest. Nonplussed by her sudden presence, he still noticed that V of softly tanned skin, and her smooth golden brown arms.
Yet it was her face that compelled. Before, she had been surprised. Now she was alarmed, her blue eyes wide in distress. Her mouth was open, speaking words he could not hear. Behind her was a wide male form, encroaching yet opaque.
He backed away, stumbling on the edge of the curb, almost falling onto the street and collection of leaves. Whatever was happening in that room was not his scene. He hastened downhill, shopping forgotten, a vehicle somewhere behind him. Fumbling the keys to his building’s glass front entrance, he looked up to see a police car stop at the intersection with the hill, and a driver’s bland pale face looking his way.
Alan Vogt exited a block-long building made of vertical, russet-coloured tin ducts. He thought of a similarly-tinged micro-brew he could so enjoy right now. But his bank balance was near nil, awaiting its tiny monthly supplement due to the “work” he had just quit for the day.
Not long ago he couldn’t have imagined doing what he did now to survive: 30 hours weekly in this recycling plant, wearing rough gloves as he and others stood beside a conveyer belt whose contents were to be crushed, scraped and reshaped to re-enter a world that had discarded them.
This extra “income “allowed him a small sipped coffee each afternoon. He otherwise lived on packaged soup, rice and veggies. Not eating out, he could barely afford two craft beers on “payday,” drinking them slowly in the small room he would never like. How had he come to this? Never mind. It was a short story, one that had unfolded so fast.
Approaching the corner and the plain brown brick apartment building below the old factory and a parking lot, he thought of that window and girl: neither visible from the corner if there at all. He did see someone walk past him: a past-prime man with ruffled grey-brown hair and an insular, pensive look accentuated by a crease between his eyebrows. He had seen this face before: someone probably from the brown apartment building right to his right. He saw the man’s back as it receded past the park with black iron fence and bushes denuded by deepening autumn. This figure had the sagged aspect of someone depleted. He, Alan Vogt, could tell. He saw the same look in his mirror.
She was out, escaped from her cage and captor. It still seemed unreal, as did her new surroundings: a world looking similar but with a very different feel. Even the air here was strange: sharp and cold, grudgingly sustaining the lungs. But this world also felt free, different from her realm. There, all she had was tedium and confinement.
Yes, this whole environment was singular. Skittish and sticking to a park below a hill, she had avoided the few men and women she saw. She remembered the interested reaction of those two men she had traded looks with. Were all men here so caught by a supple figure? She would have to discover.
Yet here was so chill, especially in her thin dress. She must find shelter, heat.
She thought of her captor’s dark bulk and scowling face. He symbolized those who had sentenced her, confining her to that space with one window. He had arrived unexpectedly, just as she had seen someone desired: the man who had noticed her first; a man she had appealed to as her captor loomed.
This nameless gaoler had come to take her somewhere else. He wouldn’t have been there otherwise. Panicked, she had scrambled through that usually confining pane as it inexplicably yielded. Her captor did not follow her, only stared hard at her as she escaped into this new world he did not, or couldn’t enter. Not yet, anyway.
Now she saw a man, distracted, mildly dishevelled, crossing toward the park from the corner and a brown brick building across the street. Not young, he walked slouched, his face difficult to see, not just because of a bared bush but because he looked downward.
The distracted man was being eyed by an ill-dressed man walking alongside the building. Despite the dim daylight, these two men reminded her of the two others. She tried to get a better look as the rumpled man, likely the younger, turned to glance at the downcast type as he passed the park and out of sight.
Could these really be them? The first to notice her had done so twice, outside looking in. He had fled her appeal the second time. Would others here flee her?
The second, younger one, presentable but for shabby clothes, had tried to speak to her. Then, suddenly distracted, he turned away. Returning his gaze to her, he seemed to lose sight of her, though she was right there, gesturing, waving to him.
She now saw the rumpled man cross to climb the hill topped by a building that looked oddly familiar. There were other odd things here. Still, she must adjust enough to find friends as she had before. Though disappointed by those men outside her window, she knew she could find other males able to provide her comfort in this grey new world.
She looked again at that brown brick building opposite the park. Why not start there.
Alan Vogt regarded the white wall of this renewed but prosaic building atop the hill. He had known better old buildings: brick or stone head offices and hotels, solid between glass and steel towers sheathing opulent apartments and office suites, along with bars with the plushest seats on earth. He had always liked those well-preserved relics rich in civic and corporate history, standing proud amidst hyper-modernity.
This building, while lacking like pedigree, seemed a divider against his side of the hill, with its shabby rooming house, its litter and small supermarket whose specials helped him survive. He worked on the hill’s far side, with its neat houses, clean streets and peculiar little parks deserted even on sunny days. It was odd how little-used those streets were, except by police cars.
He glanced around: no one behind, no window before him, and no girl. He knew he had seen the two latter. Where was that female in the frame? Had this square in the wall been filled up? Its brickwork looked even with the wall under the pale paint facelift. New masonry would have shown.
So why hadn’t she? Her face certainly stayed with him, at work, on the street, in cafés, or at home, where he could only brood and regret. He wanted to see, speak to her. She evoked a better life the memory of which was killing him.
Why not enter this building, try to find her? The sight of her was worth the effort, and he had little to lose.
The building’s entrance was steps away. If she were inside, he had enough of his old ways to get to see her, to speak then to know her. He used to know many women.
He tried the solid doors beneath that engraved sand-coloured stone evoking the building’s past: locked, no handle or knob. Yet this place indicated renovation, tenancy. Still, he saw no key-lock or code-box in the oak frame beside the doors; no bell or buzzer.
The windows above evidenced occupants who seemingly disdained uninvited visitors. He recalled lights up there the other night.
Should he knock loudly to summon someone, saying he was looking for a young blonde girl who probably lived there? He would have to be convincing.
He pushed one of the doors in frustration. Just then it opened abruptly, inwardly. He withdrew a surprised hand before being shoved aside by an exiting male form heading for then disappearing around the corner. Stumbling backward, shaken, his senses could only register a blurred bulk and a trail of heat.
Who had that been? An unexpected entity had fled this building, as much energy as man, now out on the streets, in the wind.
Where was she? He must find her. If she escaped for good, he would suffer for it. Like her, he would be made an example of.
He still had a chance. He was now out of that gloomy enclosure thanks to a door suddenly opening into a world he had never wanted to penetrate, but now must: a world where breathing was difficult, whose air stabbed his lungs, impeding him.
And it was so dim here, the sun so weak. In his world, all was bright, helping him uncover secret places where her and other aberrant types activated. Her actions had been rightly forbidden: She had seduced those who should have known better; had undermined society. She had been punished and would be punished further.
Yet first he had to find her in this grey world of ambiguous, transitory people. Structures here seemed inhabited but insular, hard to infiltrate.
No matter. He would return this dangerously alluring girl to their world for eternal confinement: an example to others. His determination always won.
The door was open, perhaps unlocked by that bolting figure. Who, perhaps what, had just exited: An intruder fleeing something inside? He felt unprepared to enter this unknown.
Yet Alan Vogt had always dared. His pluck had led to success then to failure that had doused his spirit. That spirit suddenly flared. The girl’s image motivated, and wasn’t trying better than never knowing?
He opened the door cautiously. Its solid wood was heavy, unwilling, and revealed a lobby with high ceiling, old white walls, and air cooler than outside. Incoming daylight from the main door helped visibility not much. But he felt history here: a residue of much coming and going.
Facing him were wide stairs leading upward, likely to refurbished apartments. To either side of him was a dark corridor even darker toward the end.
Thinking clearly despite the offbeat setting, he wondered how to reach the girl’s apartment. There must be a downstairs relative to the sloping exterior where their eyes had met.
The grey cold stone floor was faded but clean; there was no real mustiness about. Yet he sensed no human activity. This likely was a former office building, as the stone above the entrance indicated.
He could hear his own footsteps in the silence as he explored one corridor, feeling the stucco walls, his hands and eyes probing for details. This hall contained dark panelled wood doors with small stained brass plates on them, lettering unreadable in the meagre light: old office doors, their knobs tightly locked. He felt the chill here, and an atmosphere of workplaces long since cleared out. Was a caretaker around? Did anyone actually live upstairs? If so, why was it unheated inside? He was probably trespassing, but on whose property?
Yet he was here for the girl. He must find her vanished living space.
There was no girl in this wing. He tried the wing on the other side of the lobby. There were no doors here at all. Then, in a corner at the hall’s obscure end, he discovered a door-less opening leading down made detectable by an earthy smell coming from it.
He descended onto cold wooden steps, into cold air and no light. He could hear himself breathe; could hear his careful steps in the silence as he felt his way down concrete walls in complete darkness. He stopped, very uneasy: This place was otherworldly. Perhaps he should quit it. Who exactly owned, lived here?
Then the stairs ended in a flat stone floor.
His probing hand met cold wood. His fingers cautiously found the corner of smooth adjoining planes.
He felt the inlaid panel of a door, searched by touch for a handle: none. He pushed the door’s edge: closed tight. Then it began to open inwardly. He stepped back, anxious, thinking of that strange, overbearing form that had pushed past him above. The door opened fully, autonomously, to a brightness that pierced the corridor’s darkness. He blinked before a radiant white that hurt his eyes, and an intrinsic heat separate from any plumbing system.
He could only see brilliance, no objects, walls, or details. Then, squinting, he saw a gap in intensity several feet before him: a painted white room with a clear window showing blue outside, and a view to the street where he and the girl had met eyes.
Then he did hear something: A door closing firmly behind him. But he had been looking into the room from its doorway. He swung around; saw the outline of the door within the intense white, shut against the dark corridor and stairs leading here. He was now inside, surrounded by energy much brighter than any future he might have had.
VIt was November: days short and dull, trees leafless. Damp cold dug in. Even fewer people or cars passed by. He rarely heard, never saw his neighbours. That building on the hill, of course, was ever there, along with memories of that girl: enticing, exciting his imagination. Then he recalled the presence behind her, making her a woman in danger needing his help. He had never had that to give and, chagrined by it all, now took a different route to the supermarket.
Yet he felt different: restless, dissatisfied, uninterested in television, books, newspapers. That building, the lovely girl inside it, represented a crux. The box he had lived his life in was contracting. Past and present were taking from him in this neighbourhood fixed in time. As such, he had made one of his rare decisions.
He would move downtown, to where people mingled. Money was no longer a problem. He would sub-let this apartment. Someone would want a quiet area like this one.
His landlady’s dry, youth-less voice had then told him he would, as legally required, have to find a replacement tenant.
He advertised in the paper: no replies. Why, he wondered one noon-hour, forehead against the front window frame, did his few efforts never succeed? He looked up to a police car cruising by, a pale officious face scanning his apartment. Was he suspected of something? Had that girl been killed? He had studied the paper, watched TV, for related happenings on the hill: Nothing.
That night, awakening from a cascade of dreams, he raised himself from his bed in his crammed bedroom and saw a shadowy shoulder of someone on the sidewalk just outside his window. Who was it: Another tenant, a passerby? Why stand before his window?
He lay still, then got up to check. The shadow had gone. There was only a police car slowly passing by.
Someone had responded: a man sounding his age wanting a quiet place and who would visit tomorrow morning.
He was lying on the couch facing the window, the blinds raised to weak sun. Moving here had been strange, upsetting even, but it had decided him to change, catch up on life. If only someone would take his apartment. He would then find a livelier place to live.
He heard a soft but definite knock on the door. He started. So few visited him.
He looked through the spy hole: No one. Was this caller tiny or invisible? It couldn’t be that possible, momentarily premature tenant. The knock sounded again.
He opened the door to someone he didn’t quickly recognize. Then he did. It was those young blue eyes. He had last seen them wide in alarm behind that window on the hill. Here they were as bright as her blonde hair, along with a smile no woman had ever given him before.
Alan Vogt sat inside the bathroom doorway on a new cool white tile floor contemplating the unnatural warmth from the room leading to this one. He sat beside a bathtub of white glazed clay, a sea-blue shower curtain drawn around it. He did not want to wash, bathe, or relieve himself in the toilet bowl below that now hateful window.
He wanted immediate out: back to his pokey room, that cracked window held together by duct tape. He even wanted back to his workplace: dreary, but of this world.
If only he had never seen her. If only he had not been in a vulnerable state, with a desirable woman in a window filling his head with imaginings, possibilities. If only.
Who, where was she? Couldn’t she do right by him: return to set him free? He had tried to find, perhaps help her. Now he needed help. The door to the corridor, in that weirdly warm room, was sealed, pounding on it useless. It appeared a normal panelled portal, but was as thick as steel.
Then there was that light. He hated that unnatural brilliance that flowed and ebbed, especially at dusk.
He could see everything outside, as she must have. Few walked by. When they did, he banged on the window, shouted at them. It was as if he weren’t there. How could this unreality be?
There was day and night outside, but his stressed senses couldn’t register chronology. How long had he been here? Was he going mad?
He finally rose, pressed his face against the window. Feeling like a glass windowpane, it was something impenetrable that resisted his pounding fists. He had, standing on the toilet seat, tried to thrust his foot through it. His foot had bounced off the pane.
A car idled by. The few that passed drove a bit faster. This one, blue and white with large official lettering on its side, stopped directly across from the apartment window. He saw a bland officious face looking at him from its side window. That face assumed a peculiar grin..
So someone did know he was there; no one else did.
She looked at his sleeping face beside her: middle-aged, with dark-grey stubble and grey-brown hair, yet at peace, the crease between his eyebrows softened because she was there. But not for long.
It had taken little to possess this man, to fulfill his decades-long need for a female to enter and shape his life, revive his spirit in this small, welcomingly warm apartment. She made his solitude a memory; they had even gone shopping together in this neighbourhood of shy residents. But they’d always circled the hill with the old building on top. Why? He would only imply some negative knowledge of it that, he hinted, she somehow shared. Yet she didn’t; nor did she question. She did feel strange when looking upward at it from the front window. It somehow made her uneasy.
Being so close to a source of malaise was a reason to leave, as was the cold and the white flakes from the sky she had never seen before. They presaged an insular, undesirable period. She had watched his television; saw that warmer climes existed southward. She would venture there, find friends. This world was freer than hers. She could do much here.
She got up from the small bed in the small, furniture-cluttered room, a single window with worn cloth curtain looking out to the stark park she had first sought refuge in.
She gave him a departing look. Since knocking on his door, she had seen his downcast demeanour brighten. Yet ultimately he was just too sad, too old to stay with. And there was a new world to explore. She was going to do so, now.
She quietly began dressing for outdoors: new denims and a sweater; a sand-brown overcoat that matched her natural light tan. He had bought these for her, and she was grateful. He had even given her spending money. She would need that now.
She softly stepped out of the bedroom, away from his sleeping self under a tartan blanket.
He stirred and mumbled, his usual way of waking. She must go. Her hand on the bolt, she froze. She felt strange heat from corridor outside, reminding her of a world she had fled.
He was there, the man who had confined her somewhere close that she could not remember. But she remembered him and had, her first days here, fretted about his following her. Now he had found her. She felt his silent strength on the other side of the door; felt her old and new life ending.
He looked once more out the front window. There was thinly iced snow outside. The old white factory building was still there. How long would he be?
She was gone. Had it been a dream: a lovely girl framed by a window actually entering his life, transforming it not for the better but the best? Then she had left, leaving him alone, empty. Why did he always end up this way?
Yes, he had been happy. Though saying little to each other, she had fulfilled him as only fantasies once had. Then, one morning, he woke to find her departed, her clothes and some money gone. He did not blame her for that. She had shown up with an unseasonal dress and nothing else, seeking a warm niche. They had both needed warmth of some sort. She had given him that. Thinking about it now, there had been a strange residue of heat around the door just after she’d left.
He remembered, prior to her arrival, planning to leave this area, its near mortal stillness. But potential tenants had never arrived, though a young man seeking lodgings had phoned this morning, saying he might pass by later.
Looking at that building on the hill that had revealed her presence to him, he felt the bittersweet loss of her, and of things he’d never even had. He wondered about the future.
He heard a knock on the door.
Rooms, he reflected, had their own character, personalities that mirrored those of their occupants or even builders. They could be tidy, untidy, spare, elaborate, brimming with or bare of books, whatever. Rooms could, very occasionally, retain a sense of the departed: an aftertaste of felicity or grief, even trauma, felt by past residents.
The living room on whose plush grey sofa he was now lounging confirmed this. Painted an agreeable cream-white, this sunny space was economical but comfortable. Its owner, a woman he had never met, indulged without excess. Signs of a female presence, toiletry, reading material, clothes, CDs, were subtly present. A framed photo of a young brunette did testify to a captivating face and figure: her, at some stage of life.
The sofa was a bit short; his stocking feet were thus propped on the armrest, his head on a velvety grey cushion with a grey button in its middle, the cushion’s surface smooth against his face. It was a warm, dry, late-summer afternoon. His brain began slipping in and out of serene dreams, though he could hear, on this side of sleep, an airplane’s drone overhead, its engines loud enough to suggest an imminent landing. But a plane couldn’t do that here. Then the noise diminished into the distance.
He wasn’t supposed to be here; not really. The tenant, vacationing down south, had asked a co-worker to housesit. That colleague had accepted, only to be called away suddenly, obliging said co-worker to ask an old crony, himself, to substitute as quietly and cleanly as possible. He had readily accepted. This place was palatial compared to his cramped lodgings, a constant reminder of his jobless, deprived economic state, one he presumed permanent.
Raising his head, sleep sated, he heard the very last of that airplane’s engine. He looked to the living room window and a still sunny late afternoon in early September. Another summer almost over, his own unsatisfied, anchorless life unchanged. Here, at least, the creature comforts made alienation bearable. Yet it all ended tomorrow when the woman he had never met returned, to find him discretely departed, his temperament not having the time, or the liberty, to impress itself within these walls.
She gasped, her reverie broken as the plane banked suddenly, tilting enough for her to see aerials and satellite dishes on sloping or square roofs of wood or brick buildings. She gulped as the plane steadied. Two smiling stewardesses in blue appeared; a steady male voice announced that they had experienced mild turbulence but would be landing shortly: “Please fasten your seatbelts.” She was back.
She thought of her comfortable, convenient living space: a home enjoyed alone. Concerned about break-ins in her building, she had asked someone from work to housesit. Perhaps he would be there when she opened the front door. It was late afternoon, and after work. She didn’t really care. As long as he had kept things neat and secure. Security was everything. It had taken her enough to achieve it.
She sighed, fastening her seat belt. She had not truly enjoyed the eight days of sun, palm trees, white sand and large orange drinks served at beachfront bars and food stands. All had left her cold, despite the climate. A self-suggested holiday had failed to divert. She had remained indifferent to the place and people, uncaring of the interested male looks directed her way. She had spoken little to fellow hotel guests or those behind counters, in restaurants or driving taxis, with their peculiar English that took seconds to register. There, as here, she felt detached. But here was home, and welcoming as such.
She exited the airport, customs cleared and light luggage claimed. She hailed a cab. It was a warm late summer afternoon. Soon there would be falling leaves, cooler weather. Time advanced, her life stayed unchanged. This was just as she wanted.
He stood outside the small compact apartment building, its brown brick façade with sandstone scroll above plate glass doors identifying it as “The Conway.” Flanking the doors were large clear windows displaying healthy leafy plants, pale sofas in the lobby behind them. This building, like the others on this gently ascending street, had a retro air to it, as if from a vintage detective or noir film.
She should be back by six o’clock this sunny afternoon: an hour from now. He had left work early but discreetly to make a circumspect visit to her empty apartment, an extra, unsuspected copy of her keys in his pocket. He had called his “friend” at lunchtime to confirm that he was leaving, and had kept everything clean. He himself wanted to deposit something here, something she would not at first notice. Something she, and selected others, would not soon forget. Though seldom lucky, the seed he was about to plant represented a gift from above, or below.
His “friend’s” name was Andé Schurman. Not many knew André; he had few friends, little family. They had been part of a social set when in their twenties, now dispersed. André reminded him of what he did not want to become; he thus kept their encounters occasional. Yet this tiresome leftover from the 1980s had lately proved useful.
She had asked him to housesit while away. She did not go away often. Why? No place to go, no one to go with? Some men, including him, would willingly go places with her. He doubted the feeling was mutual. Then why ask him? Why didn’t this single woman in her early thirties with a shapely, chicly-dressed figure approach some friend not from work, or any family she had? He had felt irked yet interested five years ago when she was introduced to him as his new supervisor, younger but apparently more successful. Her job should have been his; he had tried for it and failed. She, a departmental outsider, had been chosen.
Though not his first frustrated promotion, it chafed. It wasn’t right. He could do the job better than she could.
He nonetheless found her alluring; had tried, hesitantly, to get to know her. Her response: cordial but cool; cooler, he saw, than with others, sweetening her requests to certain male employees with a fetching smile. Why not smile for him? Did she think less of him than those others? This house-sitting had him hoping hastily for some latent interest in him. Yet she had kept her distance, causing him to reflect gloomily that she had asked because only his reliable, unexciting self was available. He had still said yes, three days before answering his door to a casually dressed courier who had hastily handed him an envelope without return address: a package whose contents overwhelmed, then excited him.
They were photos of her, apparently taken some years ago, unclothed and physical with various men. The package included the typed names and addresses of her playmates. He recognized a couple of those names as important ones.
Who had sent this? Perhaps someone wanting what he had next begun to plan: payback not to her profit. He had always wanted to repay those who, like her, overtook or denied him in favour of others. This was his premier opportunity.
Yet it would take strategy. Then he remembered his luckless friend from yesteryear.
André Schurman lay on the bed of his tiny apartment, “enjoying” a final thrust of afternoon sun through his open, only, window. The window overlooked a backyard of junked televisions and other electronica that the janitor recycled for small profit. He had nothing to add to this. Most of his possessions, utensils, small television, portable radio, and clothes, came from thrift shops.
He contrasted where he’d just house-sat with this room. It too had a personality: one of limited resources and mobility. He had not always been so penniless, but his better days ended years ago with a layoff impossible to recover from.
That apartment: he had once lived like that, in bright, comfortable quarters, though more simply furnished. It was strange. Someone he seldom saw had called out of the blue asking a favour. He had not seen Günter Miranda for months. Never great friends, they still sometimes met. Gunter had done better than André, but was no superstar. He was, really, a titled gofer in a government office. Of course, none of their old circle had done magnificently, André least of all.
A sudden business trip, Gunter had said, prevented him from house-sitting for someone at work. Could André fill in? Someone else’s holiday could also be his, as long as he vacated by a certain noon-hour.
André had not pondered long. He was dispirited in his neighbourhood of once familial houses with handsome slab stone fronts and wrought iron railings, now declined into dwellings for the unprosperous.
He had been truly surprised to see Gunter’s tall form, just two days after moving into that woman’s place, crossing a downtown street, visibly distracted, looking straight ahead. Gunter was supposed to be away. When they’d spoken yesterday, Gunter had told him he’d just returned.
Perhaps, when they met tomorrow at that café to return keys, he would ask about this. Or perhaps not. What did it matter? He was back here, watching the sun sink past his open, only, window, wondering what to do with his evening, or others to come.
She was dozing lightly on her short grey sofa. It seemed untouched by Gunter’s stay. Though he had been tidy, she’d noticed two empty white wine bottles on the floor beside the fridge. She was mildly surprised: he had told her he rarely drank, one reason she’d asked him here. He must have invited someone over.
Awake, she glanced at the black-framed portrait on the smooth mahogany side table: herself at 23, with rich chestnut hair, deep blue eyes below trimmed eyebrows, fresh complexion and perfect cheekbones, all worth the studio session. The photo had her in a blue silk blouse with short sleeves showing slender, firm arms. That blouse had come from the man who’d arranged the session, and other arrangements mutually beneficial.
She had never minimized her looks. They had drawn instant interest from men, jealousy from women – depending. She could understand why. She had not been shy about using her physical and other assets: often in the promise, sometimes in the reward. This had gotten her what she had now, not much compared to how prosperous others lived. Of course, there had been a price of sorts. But that was the past.
He left her office, admiring its solid oak desk, its large sun-friendly window: better than his cramped cubicle. He again wondered why someone who dressed so well for work didn’t decorate her office more, give it something of her healthy self.
He had just returned her keys, though keeping that extra, unsuspected pair. He had also mentioned a friend’s subbing for him while he was busy caring for a suddenly-ill, now recovered cousin; hoped his rather absent-minded friend hadn’t left anything behind. She might want to check.
She showed only mild surprise; commented that her place had been well-kept, no intruders allowed to enter. She did not, annoyingly, comment on Gunter’s caring for his “cousin.” She could have, though he had been lying.
A thought appeased his displeasure: his casually mentioning André’s scattered ways might get her looking for something she might regret finding.
Gunter Miranda pocketed change as the youngish clerk put the sealed brown envelopes marked “Personal & Confidential’ aside, to be put into company jackets that would arrive at their destinations Monday. Today was Friday.
He had given André Schurman’s name and address as sender. He’d had to give a return address; he wasn’t going to give his own, and himself away.
He had initially considered putting her name as sender, telling the clerk he was acting for his boss: an ironic touch of truth, but too easy. Let these addressees wonder who had sent this stuff. Let them worry who André Schurman was: someone they didn’t know, but might try to find – and chasten.
But André might be gone. André had, when they’d met this week, just received an eviction notice. André had no lease; his landlord was going to renovate in a neighbourhood slated for renewal. André had been worried: Where could his penniless self go?
Perhaps, he thought, stepping onto the sidewalk, his old acquaintance’s situation might soon become a predicament. Not his problem.
She heard the knock on the dark panelled door. She rose from the grey easy chair, at an angle from the bed with golden spread in a small, fastidiously-decorated room. He was on time. They usually were.
She unlocked the door. He was a six-footer in a dark suit fitted to thick upper arms and broad shoulders, a black tie slightly loose around the collar of his white shirt. She could, from the soft yellow luminescence in the hotel hallway, see very light eyes above attractively high cheekbones. He looked like the tanned, electronically-summoned image she had based this appointment on.
“Hello,” he said in a calm deep voice.
“Hello,” she said, stepping back. “Come on in.”
He carried his wide body in smoothly, perhaps carefully. This probably wasn’t his first such “date.” Discretion was the keyword. This small hotel close to downtown was discrete, as was the staff, who knew her from other, brief, visits.
She occasionally used this service, when she felt the need. It was safer, more private than a bar, restaurant, or, especially, work. She did not want to get involved with anyone. She did not want mess, emotions, resentments. That was why she had felt safe asking Gunter to housesit. He was a neutral, a reliable employee and seeming asexual: as such, secure. He wouldn’t mistake her asking him a favour for anything else. And that friend, purportedly forgetful? Everything seemed to have been left in order, though she hadn’t fully checked. She should, later.
“Just make yourself comfortable,” she said, feeling some of the old thrill when with a fit male. He already was, placing his coat on the back of the easy chair, removing his tie, unbuttoning his pressed white shirt to reveal a smooth muscled chest: enough to initiate excitement for the hour this paid-for tryst would last.
André Schurman perched on his bed, pensive, his landlord’s letter beside him.
He couldn’t afford anywhere else. He had been lucky to find this place; other cheap apartments were worse, much worse. What would he do?
He knew no job would come his way; he hadn’t really worked for years. What work he had been forced to do then had been unbearable, and unrepeatable. Only municipal largesse kept him going.
Gunter had not cared when André had told him, days ago, of this eviction letter giving him two months notice. André, who had just helped him out, who had known him years. Yet Gunter had disregarded his near plea for a long-term “loan” to carry him through this. Long ago, he had given to Gunter without demanding repayment. Why not reciprocate for old time’s sake? Gunter could afford it.
He would never help, never wanted to see, Gunter again. This bitter satisfaction did not change that he was, as usual, alone, poor; as such, at the mercy of anything, anyone.
She was looking through her black wooden chest of drawers, across from a double bed that held a history: hers, active and dormant. This heritage chest was a gift from her mother when she had rented her first apartment on her 19th birthday. They seldom spoke now. Rancour remained. Things had once different, with real mutual goodwill when she had first ventured on her own. It was later, when her life expanded into excitement her mother disapproved of, that coolness entered.
It was there, in the middle drawer, sitting on white chiffon night-dresses: a brown wicker basket, another birthday gift from her mother, this one from her early teens. She unhooked the wooden peg from the aged yet taut string and opened the woven osier square. It was still there: a red ruby set in an intricately yet minutely whorled silver ring, a present from the man who had gotten her the job she held now. She kept it there as a memento of one of the few men she was grateful to.
She breathed a bit easier. Her house sitter had, so far, been honest. She had other items, a gold chain in tiny leaves and a diamond necklace: gifts from other men, and in a bank’s safety deposit box.
Then she noticed something beneath the basket: a tan legal-sized envelope. She did not remember putting it there. Puzzled, she opened the envelope’s tucked-in flap, her fingertips finding the smooth edges of largish photographs. She withdrew them, her heartbeat accelerating as she saw their all.
There were several photos. They showed her and her male benefactors, doing things in private that might be delightful memories for them, fading ones for her. Her brain stalled, unable to accept this. Then her thoughts went all directions: who had taken these photos, and how? And who had put them here? She immediately thought of Gunter, and his friend. But no, it was impossible. Gunter didn’t really know her, or her past. Neither would his friend. Or would he? She had not actually asked his name. She should have.
Except for a reliable janitor, no one else had keys to the flat. Gunter had returned his copies.
Perhaps burglars had intruded after all, to give rather than take. She might have preferred the latter. She was at least insured for that.
She sank onto the bed. Where had those photos come from: who, why, and how? Blackmail? Jewellery aside, she wasn’t rich. She could have been, had she married any one of the men here shown. A couple had wanted to; she hadn’t. She was just too independent.
Suddenly she remembered: one of the men photographed had been sentenced for siphoning off government funds for projects overseas. She had ignored his calls when he had been released last year, wanting someone to talk to; someone once intimate. Could this be him, paying back her cold shoulder? Whoever it was, she would be hearing from them soon enough.
She slept little that night.
The young assistant to the deputy stood before his superior, seated behind a lacquered oak desk. He handed the older but still photogenic man the red-and-white package, delivered that hour. His superior stood up decorously, as if cameras were present. He was often filmed and interviewed. When he had begun scaling the Federal ladder, images were taken with film and videotape. Now, digital didn’t make things so different: one always had to look good for the record.
His assistant gone, this tall, tastefully-suited man with a recently-acquired Florida tan that offset his light-blue eyes, refined features and smooth full grey hair slowly tore the removable strip from the jacket. Mail, if couriered to him, was usually important.
He opened the inner envelope with a silver letter opener, letting two smooth colour sheets fall into his hand. What he saw made him quiver despite a practiced self-control. They showed scenes he still sometimes remembered, even treasured, and with someone whom he’d shared very good times: encounters his current wife might not appreciate, though they’d happened when he was married to his first.
Hand trembling slightly, he grabbed the jacket to see its sender. It was a name he didn’t recognize at all.
That very morning, another middle-aged man, not so presentable, in an unbuttoned floral shirt and slacks tight around a gaining stomach, was staring at two glossy uninhibited displays of himself a decade past: enjoyable then, less so now. Thankfully, he had received this package while alone in his penthouse overlooking older, bureaucratic, buildings where he had begun his ascent.
Sweating on this cool day in early autumn, he grabbed the courier package to see who had sent this literal blowback: no one he knew. Or did he? The name was vaguely familiar. There was nothing vague about his interaction with the female in the photo. These were not his only encounters with her. Had the others had been photographed? If so, they could at least embarrass. He had profitable but sensitive honorary positions in religious and other organizations.
Something must be done about her, or whoever responsible for these mementos. What did they want? Blackmail? He wouldn’t succumb.
He must be quick but careful. There were people in construction, security, real estate, even the police, who owed him favours. He had thrown valuable work, and play, their way. Now was time to reel in.
First step: Find whoever had sent the photos. Someone probably using a pseudonym and a false address. He looked again at the clearly written name on the cardboard sleeve. Then he remembered.
He nestled in one of his several excellent easy chairs, as was his wont at this hour, holding a glass of gin and tonic with peel of dark green lime. The late afternoon sun shone through the panoramic window feet away, mellowing the vista with orange-yellow light and long shadows off buildings sharing the skyline. He smiled, enjoying his solitary elevation above rush-hour humanity.
He was thinking of possible scenarios unfolding below: those photos, all in living colour, revealing scenes that certain people might prefer as unrecorded memories. Those photos did not include him. The ones that did would never leave his safe. And that safe was very secure.
He really had nothing against her. He’d actually enjoyed their brief time together. She had helped him feel young again; they had parted amicably. He had, afterward, privately recommended her for her current position: a gift, not a payoff.
Nor did he dislike the other men she had dallied with. He even rather pitied the one who had been caught red-handed, gone to prison, then gone to ground when his former colleagues, or everyone really, had avoided him after his release.
No, he had just felt like getting some excitement going. He had always been mischievous; had liked to plant controversy and watch it sprout as confused people scrambled to regain the situation while he watched from the wings.
He had started young: taking cash from his father’s wallet, planting it in the maid’s room, then discretely informing his father of this. She, panicked, had not been fired, only warned. He wouldn’t have wanted it differently. He had nothing against her.
Neither had he resented his fellow university students before they were found with drugs they could not explain to tipped-off policemen; had actually liked his ministerial colleagues more when caught with their pants even literally down due to critical memos, damaging rumours, unexplained cancellations, unannounced audits he’d all secretly arranged. He had, his years in public service, gathered much on important private lives.
Now, retired from government, he had leisure and many assets, including property slated for renewal that had, by chance, rendered him the opportunity for entertainment once more. There were unwitting but self-interested others involved, ripe for releasing unsuspected material itself mysteriously sent to him by some kindred spirit: figurative arrows founded in connecting flesh and now shot upward: no matter how high, they must fall to hit something – or someone. Whoever got hit, it wouldn’t be him.
She studied the two-story building’s bourgeois brown stone face, once presentable, now chipped and jaded, even desecrated by graffiti around its edges. Its whorled iron railings looked unsteady, as did passersby on this street that had seen healthier days and people. She knew. She had grown up nearby, and remembered it as better; better than the shabby-genteel apartment with thinly-varnished floorboards her mother had barely been able to afford.
She was about to meet André Schurman. She’d phoned him; heard his surprised, unassertive but also worried voice agree to her visit. Perhaps it was the promised wine that decided him.
Günter had turned strange when she told him she was so pleased with his friend’s house-sitting that she must personally give André a bottle of wine as a thank-you gesture. He seemed coyly reluctant, then slyly amused in giving André’s information; smirked slightly when handing her André’s phone number.
So far, no blackmailer had approached her. Thus, was Gunter involved in putting those pictures there? Was André? Both had held her keys.
She thus wanted to see this André who may have inserted the “goods.” Sitting behind the wheel of her shiny Toyota, cold bottle in brown paper bag beside her, she hesitated. How would she handle it, or him? Using her charm was getting tiresome.
Her mother had warned that her flourishing private life would have consequences; that the men who showered her with gifts and attention would eventually drop, perhaps renounce, her; men often did. But her mother had been wrong. Her admirers had not been quite like that, and it was she who had disposed of them, skilfully, toning down, not severing relationships; telling little white lies that soothed. Though she had definitely used her assets, it was she who had stopped loving the nightlife, public and private. So, with a little help from her friends, she had quit while ahead. A couple of those friends were in those photos.
She opened the car door and almost stepped into a pothole. This street really had changed.
His fingers touched the corded black phone, then drew back. He shouldn’t. It was too risky. Perhaps the police had it tapped. It was possible.
She hadn’t shown up for work for three days, soon after he’d given her André’s number. At first people were surprised but unworried: perhaps she was too sick to phone in, but would show or call up tomorrow. She didn’t. So an employee had retrieved an emergency contact: her mother. Her mother hadn’t heard from her for months, giving the impression they didn’t often talk. She was, nonetheless, concerned, even anxious, about her daughter. She would call the police.
This morning their ambitious, politically-motivated Director, Calvin Pappas, had called the police, telling them the division would gladly cooperate. Everyone hoped for an easy explanation for her absence. Everyone there appreciated her.
Appreciated or not, few really knew her. She was, attractive, coolly courteous, highly competent, but reticent about her personal life. It was known she was, currently anyway, unmarried, perhaps unattached. She was, admittedly, not above donating a seductive smile to the male sex, motivating a few there to try to talk her up to take her out. She had politely discouraged them. Someone had hinted that perhaps she were gay. Again, no one knew.
He knew she wasn’t; not from those photos. If the police entered her apartment, they might find them. They would ask other questions; would hear about her vacation, his scheduled house-sitting. Had she told anyone of Andre’s staying at her place? Perhaps not; she did not confide. He had, after her disappearance, flushed those unsuspected keys down the toilet. Police involvement made him suspicious. He had started this ball rolling not expecting them.
He had phoned André several times the same day she had not showed up for work. No answer. Gunter had found it strange, as André was normally home right then. Virtually friendless, he had few places to go, especially with autumn here and park benches becoming cooler. André, never a fireball, had become increasingly idle. He should be home.
So where was he? Where was she? Lying dead in André’s apartment, slain by this most timid of men? Perhaps they were both sprawled there, rotting, victims of someone. Upsetting images attacked him mind; they wouldn’t stop. He reached for the phone, then hesitated.
He sat uneasily in one of his excellent easy chairs, a full glass of tonic-less gin in his hand. He had poured it straight to cut the anxiety strong inside him. The chair held no comfort; now, the view outside just made him feel miniscule.
Who had done it? Who else knew the combination? No one. That was it.
Less than an hour ago he had turned the smooth black knob to open the wall safe in his “office,” expecting to see the brown envelope and disc in plastic case inside. They weren’t. That envelope held all the controversial photos, some of them even his provocative self knew must remain un-released: pictures that could destroy, not just damage, higher powers who could take him down with them. He had personally transferred all photos onto the disc, including those with him in them.
Had he given someone the combination? No, this drill-resistant, hard-plate safe had been installed by a quality security firm that kept the combination top secret. His ex-wife woudn’t know: She knew nothing about anything. He rarely saw his two sons: married young and divorced young, but doing well anyway. He no longer had colleagues or, really, any close friends.
Then who else had entry to his apartment: The landlord, the janitor? He rarely saw them. He had chosen this place partly for its privacy.
The phone in the other room rang: a landline, now not often used, on a solid antique desk beneath the valuable landscape painting over the depleted safe. It cut into his nerves: he shook. It kept ringing.
Hand quivering, he gulped his gin, rising from the chair, the clanging line hectoring him toward the adjoining room, toward the corded telephone.
It was the doorman downstairs. He had just received a couriered package.
Gunter Miranda loved every padded inch of the black leather armchair. He had always admired it, glimpsing it when passing by the boardroom he otherwise rarely entered. Days ago, he had asked that it be placed in his new and her old office. His request was granted. Weeks ago, it wouldn’t have been. Weeks ago, this wasn’t his office.
Removing her stuff had been simple. She had kept no photos on her desk, and few personal items: some daffodils in a curved china vase; a gold pen with her signature, doubtless from a past male admirer. It had been forwarded to her mother.
It was a mild December mid-afternoon, perhaps the last this year. Ice melted atop the outer window, trickling in thin streaks down the upper panes. Sunshine through the sectioned window frame behind him formed golden squares on the green blotter before him. Neighbouring offices were quiet. He was in the executive wing, right where he had long belonged.
It had been an unexpected surprise, though: all this. Yet here he was, doing his former supervisor’s job, and doing it well. That didn’t surprise him.
He had been asked to replace her by Calvin Pappas, the only time they’d spoken privately. Pappas told him that, being principal assistant, he had the experience for the post, which needed filling immediately. Pappas had said this as if by rote. Gunter wondered if this young though senior administrator had suggested his promotion. If not, who had?
She had never returned; had never been found. Her disappearance was, so far, total. The police had thoroughly investigated. She had, talk now revealed, once been intimate with important individuals, though none had, provably, seen her recently. Perhaps not personally, he thought, but photographically. Before mailing those pictures, Gunter had scanned them onto disc before putting them someplace truly private: his to enjoy forever, her lovely curves to enjoy forever.
Hers wasn’t the only disappearance. André had also vanished, right after she’d asked for his address.
The police had asked him about her, and André. They’d found his number among his old “friend’s” meagre effects. Gunter had said that he sometimes saw André; had even tried phoning him recently to see how he was. That much was true.
Gunter had not mentioned André’s substitute house-sitting, and the investigating officer, DeGroot, seemed ignorant of that. She must have told no one. DeGroot made no mention of any photographs found anywhere, and appeared to accept his answers, though one could never tell with policemen. Not that he had much experience with them. He hoped this little would be it. He now had what he wanted, albeit inadvertently.
What he wanted: This office, more respect, bonuses. He thought of escaping this winter to somewhere sunny, sumptuous. He could picture it. He deserved it.
Someone was tapping on the wooden edge of his open door: his new assistant, a young man who, until this re-assignment, had hardly noticed him. He was attentive now. The assistant held a white and red courier jacket. They arrived every day, delivered to him unopened: a sign of his new status.
He took it absently, his mind on sunny sky and warm sand. He tugged the tab as his assistant left, removing a sealed brown envelope that felt thick for letter paper.
There was a photo inside, of himself in clear colour, dark tie loose under unbuttoned white collar, kneeling before the open middle drawer of a brown chest. He was inserting a tan, legal-size envelope into the drawer.
He grabbed the courier envelope. Who had sent this? He saw the name and did not believe. This couldn’t be.
Sunny sky and sand had just fled his mind.
Lazing in one of several excellent chairs, André Schurman rested his eyes on the large room around him, a window with omniscient view taking up almost one white wall. Safe for the seats and a dark-panelled, not empty liquor cabinet, there was little furniture, no decorations. The room adjacent, a semi-office, did have an antique desk and original painting by a once-popular local artist. The bedroom, spare but for a wide soft bed, had an HD TV. The fridge held mostly frozen food.
This apartment retained its absent tenant’s status quo: affluent, and alone. Some people bought expensive furniture, sculptures, rare books, not out of appreciation but to display purchasing power to themselves and others.
This person didn’t flaunt; he lacked the audience. Though not young, he needed uncluttered elbow-room in his solitary summit, his effects, and pleasures, kept private, at arm’s length.
Whatever. This tenant’s simplest holding outshone anything in the dreary room André had recently and hastily vacated.
He was, really, lucky to spend time here at all. Yet fortune had a price tag that had involved compromising people who had not helped him. He still felt pangs about this, but it had been cooperate or – he didn’t care to contemplate. Anyway, where had being considerate ever gotten him?
Not to here. Intimidated by all that was happening to him, he hadn’t asked whose place this penthouse was. There was nothing here to identify its owner: no personal effects, documents, photos, etc. Yet he knew the tenant was male.
He lay back. It was mid-afternoon, when drowsiness often overcame his idle self. Almost asleep, he heard a mechanical hum somewhere outside, ever closer, ever louder; loud enough to penetrate his reverie. He gasped, opening his eyes to a white passenger plane in the blue winter sky just above, straightening itself to climb away.
That plane had come close: close enough to alarm. Then he remembered a plane and another sunny afternoon in another plush place. Were these locales some scheme in which he was a cog? His life had become so strange, and so recently. Yet he somehow trusted the people who had come to fetch him, to bring him here, if only temporarily.
Here, he was higher up than he’d ever been before. He wondered where they’d take him next. They had promised him someplace pleasing, provided for, and permanent; a nest he could finally make his own, one that might retain a sense of himself even after he was gone.