Flat Mates

 He had been driving four hours before he saw her. No one had prepared him for how lonesome it would be out on the dusty Texas highway. Lonesome. That was a good word, a good American word. He was alone – had always been alone, of course, he knew that, and always would be – but out here, under that huge sky, it didn’t feel quite as right as it did back home. As right as rain. So when he saw the girl with her arm stuck out, her thumb twitching, the traditional hitch-hiker pose, he was more than willing to stop and get some company on board. She would while away the hours for him; some ceaseless prattle to keep him going; that was all he needed. Maybe they could stop for a bite to eat, if there was anywhere to stop out here. Who knows what could happen between them?

********

It was raining again. It always seemed to get worse when it rained: the voices became indistinct; they mingled with the raindrops into a murmur. Judy would say it was nothing, or the house settling, but it was only old houses that tricked you like that and this was not old; wasn’t a house, either. There was no settling here. She had never felt settled, anyway.

She smiled at the weakness of the joke and pressed the redial. Voicemail. Hang up, try again in two minutes.

Would he be coming by? What did he want? She tried to remember when the sound of his key in the door, his footsteps in the hall, had first alarmed her. He hadn’t always been … unpleasant. When she had taken the place, he had charmed her. Had that been an act? Or was it an act now, this surly, barely concealed aggression? Was he trying to get her out? Evict her? A victor. Was that what the voices were trying to warn her of? If only it didn’t keep on raining; then she could make out what they were trying to say. Meanwhile there was too much in her head, too much to think about.

She checked her watch; waited for the seconds to count down; pressed the redial.

********

‘So then Mike and I had this real furious row and he said I had to get out of the car. I mean, what a bastard, right? You can see that, can’t you, Bob? I mean, you wouldn’t make your girlfriend get out of the car because she wanted to fly back to Minneapolis and pick up her handbag, would you? Of course you wouldn’t! Jesus! So anyway, now I'm not his girlfriend. I mean, even if he drove right back and apologised and paid for a first-class flight, I wouldn’t take him back. We’re done. We’re over. We’re ex. You get me? Course you do. Everyone deserves a second chance. You know, you’re the kind of guy I can talk to. Most guys, they pick up a girl on the highway like that, they’re gonna hit on her straightaway. You’re not like that, are you? You’re the silent type. I mean, what, are we driving two hours and you haven’t said more than two words the whole time. I mean, maybe more than two words, I haven’t exactly been keeping score, but even if it is more than two words it can’t be many more, do you know what I mean. Hey, look at that up there. Is that a diner? Yeah. It’s a truck stop. Look, there’s a gas station. Jesus, we must be heading back to civilization, do you think so? What are you doing? You want to stop up there. Oh sure, you want to get something to eat, don’t you? I remember you said that about twenty miles back. See, that was more than two words. You’re quite a chatty chap really, aren’t you? So anyway, listen, Bob, what are you thinking? You want to drop me off here and I can hitch a ride with a truck driver, maybe get to an airport, or at least the nearest real town. Or, if you like, we can carry on travelling together. I mean, it must get pretty lonesome for you just driving around on your own all the time, and I sure like your company and what with us both being English and all, well it kinds makes sense out here, don’t you think. I mean you never know what some of these truck drivers are going to be like. Do you know what I mean?’

********

Two minutes later, Judy’s mobile rang.

What now? she thought. Can’t she manage for five minutes without me?

‘Jesus, Shaneena, I’m nearly there! It’s only round the corner from our office, you know. I’m going as fast as I bloody well can.’ The other end was silence. ‘Shaneena?’ Reception was terrible today. Then a voice came on the line. It was her voice.

‘Judy?’

‘Jess! Oh, it’s you! Sorry, I thought … I’m on my way to a meeting. Can I call you back?’

‘They’re coming out the walls, Judy. They’re coming up through the floor.’

Shit. She hadn’t been taking her medication again.

‘I can hear them. They’re pushing up the nails in the floorboards. I can hear their voices, Judy.’

Traffic lights. She had to stop. ‘Jessica, you know what’s going to happen. If you don’t keep to your prescribed dosage, Dr Pryce will stick you back in the clinic. You don’t want to go back to the clinic, do you?’

‘But it’s different this time, you’ve got to believe me. I can hear their voices.’

‘I know. And the last time you heard voices, they told you to  – ’

‘This isn’t like the last time. They say I’m their friend. They want me to help them.’

‘I can’t hear you, Jess. I’m crossing the street, there’s too much noise here. Listen, I really have to get to this meeting. It’s a child-in-care meeting. I’m helping the children. You like it when I help the children, don’t you?’

‘Don’t leave me, Judy!’

‘I’ve got to. Take your medication, you’ll be alright. I’ll call you as soon as I come out of the meeting, OK? Is that OK, Jessie?’

‘But you can’t let me go, Judy. I need you. He may come back at any minute.’

‘So what if he does?’

‘I’m scared of him. They’re scared of him, too.’

Oh Jesus, Jessica, you always do this to me!

‘OK, I’ll come. I need to hang up now, but I’ll be over soon, OK?’

This is the last time I’m doing this, she thought.

‘Hi, Shaneena, it’s me. I’m sorry, but I need you to cover for me in the meeting…. Something’s come up. … An emergency. … You’ll be alright, just stick to what I told you. … I’ll drop the paperwork off now and tell them you’re on your way. … I’ve got to go, bye.’

She never should have let Judy take that place. She’d told her at the time, but had she been firm enough? Clearly not. You can’t share a flat with a man, not a man you don’t know. It’s asking for trouble.

‘I can do what I like! It’s my life, isn’t it? And anyway, he’s hardly ever there. He’s more of a landlord really. I’ll have the place to myself, and it’s a great flat, Judy.’

It was a great flat, a split-level two-bedroom affair with a large, airy living-room and a sunken Jacuzzi in the bathroom. Being on the ground floor, it even had a cellar, although it was just used for storage. The flat was one of those down by the park, a Victorian school conversion. Maybe she should try calling the landlord, let him know the state Jess was in, warn him against popping round – if that’s really what he was doing. How did Jess know that anyway? She found the number on the phone and called.

‘Oh, Hi, Judy. You’re late. Are you coming in then?’

It was ringing.

‘Actually, Philip, I can’t make the meeting today. Shaneena will be here in a minute.’

‘But we really need your input. You’re the case worker.’

‘Everything’s in the notes. Here you go.’ No one was answering. She ended the call. ‘I’ll be back as soon as I can. Text me if there’s any important decisions to be made.’

‘Don’t worry, I’m sure Shaneena will cope. It’s not the first time, after all.’

Fuck you, Philip.

It would take her twenty minutes to walk there, but that was still the quickest mode of transport in this part of London. It was years ago that she and Jessica had shared a flat together, but still she felt guilty, responsible. She always had. They’d been inseparable back in the day; like sisters, everybody said. And it was true, there was a connection between them; a closeness, a fondness for the same things, like drinking cheap wine until the early hours, giggling like schoolgirls over the same silly sitcoms. But all the attention had been one way and it still was. When they met, Jessica had been quite open about her mental health issues, her diagnosis of schizophrenia that she wore like a badge of honour around her neck, the various meds she’d been prescribed. Judy always thought she could handle it. Then, when she found herself in too deep, it had taken Phil and some of her other colleagues to persuade her that she had to leave; and then the guilt came in to roost and there it still was, so there she still was, whatever Phil thought: on her way over to Jessica’s place. Again.

********

He checked his reflection before leaving the toilet. The john. The washroom. He liked the solidity of American terms, enjoyed the sturdiness of their tone when pronounced with that southern accent. ‘I’m just going to the washroom,’ he’d told her. He preferred ‘washroom’ to ‘rest room’. He wasn’t having a rest. It was important to use the right words for things, he thought.

A three-day beard growled back at him from the mirror. He could have shaved in the last motel, of course; but he liked the look of the rugged men in the beer commercials. He wanted to be like that, wanted other tourists to think he belonged here, he was the real thing, the face of America they saw advertised. He’d just stepped off an oil rig after a seventy-two hour shift and what he needed now was a cold brew. There’s nothing colder than … and anyway now he had the rugged look to impress this girl … what was her name?

Where was she anyway?

The air was like an oven here, that’s what people said. It was a lazy expression; untrue anyway. An oven heats gradually and is hotter in some parts than others. This was an always-on heat, even in the early mornings. But then he was used to London air, the thin, drizzling atmosphere of smoke and tourists; the cold, unrelenting breath of the city; the air that hurt. What was that song? The wind that whips/the clouds that frown/the rain that beats/in London town. The weather that wears you down.

Returning to the table, he didn’t see any sign of her. She must have gone to the ladies’ room. Yeah, she’d gone for a rest. She could have waited until he got back. It must be the beers: American beer runs straight through you. Although come to think of it, the girl hadn’t had any beers. In the car, she had told him she didn’t like anything much about America, she missed the comforts of home, especially when it came to the drinks. She hadn’t mentioned the weather. A hot cup of tea was her favourite, she was not a very adventurous girl, but he didn’t mind. He liked the way she closed her eyes when she took her first sip, then smacked her lips and breathed a sigh of contentment. He liked everything about her, so he didn’t mind. She was perfect. And she trusted him. He sat and waited. Their plates had already been cleared away. The rest of the diner looked about the same as five minutes earlier. Most of the tables were taken, there was a line of guys sitting up at the counter, too. It was pretty busy for a place way out here off the highway. Or the freeway. Or whatever it was. Maybe that was it, the sign that said it was the last place for a good meal for another two hundred miles, maybe that was what lured them in. Nothing to do but sit and stare. The sun was beating heavily through the window, even with the blinds down.

After ten minutes, she still wasn’t back. When the waitress came with his check, he ordered a slice of apple pie instead, ate it and waited. Why were they called waitresses? It was the customers who did the waiting. Ten minutes later, she still wasn’t back. The waitress reappeared and he asked her if she’d mind checking the washroom.

‘What for, honey?’

‘My … girlfriend. I think she must be in there. In trouble maybe.’

‘Oh. OK. What’s her name, darlin’?’

He growled at her, kept his eyes on the table. ‘Just check, will you?’

But she wasn’t there. That’s what the waitress said. Had she even bothered to check? Had she taken offence or something? He went to check himself, walking boldly into the empty toilet, kicking open the stall doors. Nothing.

By the time he emerged, the whole place seemed to be informed. The waitress wasn’t slow at delivering news, anyway. No one remembered seeing the girl leave. None of them even seemed to recall the pair of them walking into the place. Somebody suggested she went outside for some air, so he barged past them all and out, into the Texas sunshine. Shielding his eyes, he scanned the horizon. All that was out here was the road and the big cars of America, the automobiles, the trucks, all parked haphazardly by the entrance. There was no air out here. He went back inside.

‘Can I use your phone?’

‘You want to call the cops? I’ll do it for you.’

The same waitress brought him more coffee while the owner phoned the police. He felt the fear of the foreign-born. He thought of all he knew about the girl.

She’d been standing there, she said, for a couple of hours or more. His was the first vehicle that had passed that way. What was she doing there? Her boyfriend had kicked her out. She was English. She’d rather be alone by the side of the dusty road than assaulted by some sweaty redneck in the cab of a truck. But she’d liked him, wanted to stay travelling with him. She had something, some quality that reminded him of … no, he did not know what, but it didn’t matter. The police wouldn’t care about that. They would want to know her name, though.

He could hear the owner of the place telling the cops some guy’s girlfriend had disappeared. He never should have told that lie. Now he was going to have to explain to some gum-chewing officer with mirrored shades and a motorbike why he had wanted to pretend a girl he’d just picked up at the side of the road was his girlfriend; or else maintain the lie, which was always difficult, especially with the police. They liked to try and trip you up and, of course, he’d be a suspect. Fuck it. He should have just let the girl go and got out of there himself. Nobody even missed her, but where the fuck was she?

********

‘They were clearer today. Sounded more mature too, they had the insistence of age. “Watch out!” they keep saying, right through the walls. “Watch the knives! Watch the rope!” The floor reverberated with the sound of their voices. Eventually, I got out of bed and went to investigate. The only knives were the ones in the kitchen drawer. They looked hardly used; I felt sorry for them. Sharp bastards. I could feel the attraction between the metal and the skin, could feel the bite of them, then I felt it for real. Good release. I wanted more, but I guess the meds were kicking in. I wanted to take all my clothes off and let them dance a red trail across my body, but I stopped. The voices were quiet when I looked at the knives. They were scared, I could tell.’

The pages of the diary were thick and thick was the writing, full the force that had pressed the ink into the page. Judy stopped reading and flicked through to the latest entry. It was a week old.

‘I was looking for the TV remote when I saw it, a sleeping cobra, curled on the floor down the back of the sofa. I picked it up, let it play through my hands, stretched it taut like a noose. It was thick and knotted in places, heavy fibres. I wanted to try it for size, but then I heard his key in the door. Him. He rarely comes around, what did he want? Did he know that I’d found it? Was that what he’d been waiting for? I chucked it back where I’d got it from and sat on the sofa like a doll. I thought, if I am still enough, he won’t see me, but he never came in the living-room anyway. He was fetching something from his bedroom. The girls were dead quiet. I could hear him rummaging around in there. Then he left. As soon as the door shut, they started again. Watch the rope! Watch the knives! But I’m watching the walls. They won’t talk when he’s here because they’re scared of him, but I’m not scared, not yet. I wouldn’t have minded if he had found me. It’s only them that make me wary of him. They keep saying they’re my friends and I believe them. They want to protect me. I’ve stopped taking the pills so I can hear them better. What’s the bloody point?’

A noise behind made her turn. It was Jess. She let the book fall back on the duvet. Jess cleared her throat.

‘It’s OK, Judy; I left it out for you to read.’

‘Jessica, you’ve got to take your medication.’

‘I know.’ She seemed compliant; that was a worrying sign. Judy checked her arms: fresh cuts and a little dribble of blood.

‘Let me get a bandage, Jess, OK?’

‘Yes, Judy.’

With a sigh, Judy went to the bathroom. She knew where all the supplies were kept; it was she who had to keep re-stocking the damn things. Jess had been cutting, which meant the pressure had got too much. She knew how the arc of her condition worked itself out: first there were the friendly voices, soothing and reassuring. Then they became urgent, insistent, suggesting that she do things to herself. Finally, only the pain of self-harm would make them stop. Without medication, she’d move on to something life-threatening.

As a child, Jessica had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, for which she’d been prescribed amphetamine-based drugs that made her feel ‘flat’, she’d said. Shortly afterwards, she stopped sleeping and started hearing voices in her head. The doctors told her mother that this was a possible side-effect of the amphetamine and changed her dosage. Then Jessica started drinking, as soon as she hit puberty. The alcohol combined with the prescription meds to give her horrific nightmares, menstrual problems and vivid hallucinations.

By the time Judy met her, Jessica had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and given a new course of drugs. The hallucinations stopped, but depression set in, which Jess sought to self-medicate with booze. When this inevitably failed, she was given a new course of drugs to treat the depression. Back came the voices, together with the dreams and hallucinations. That was when Judy got out. Nowadays, Jessica’s drug regime seemed to bounce between amphetamines like Benzedrine or Adderall to stimulate the central nervous system and Clozapine or even Haloperidol to stop the hallucinations the amphetamines caused. It was a mess.

Judy picked up whatever was on the most recently prescription, along with a fresh set of bandages. Jess was as good as gold in accepting both and Judy sat with her, stroking her hair, making sure she was calm enough to be left alone.

‘I know what you think of me, Judy, but this isn’t like the other times.’

‘Sure, Jess.’

‘No, really. This time, they’re really out there. The walls. The floor. They’re real.’

‘You’ve got to go back to the hospital, I think. After all this time, they should be better at regulating your moods.’

‘No. They’ll just say it’s because I haven’t stuck to the proper dosage. If I don’t keep taking them, they can’t tell if they’re doing the job or not.’

‘Well, you know what the answer is to that, don’t you?’

‘But they stop the voices and I want to hear what they have to say. I really want to hear them.’

‘These are the same voices that are not in your head, right?’

‘I thought you at least might believe me, Jude.’

Judy sighed. It had already been a very long morning; it wasn’t getting any easier. If only she could have known this was the last time she would see her friend alive.

********

OK, sir. Why don’t we start at the beginning? What’s your name?

Bob Strathey.

Your wife’s gone missing, you say. What’s her name?

She’s not my wife. And her name is Jessica, Jessica Walker.

What happened?

Well, about two hours ago now, we stopped for a bite to eat. When we’d finished, she went to the … to the john. She never came back.

You from England?

That’s right. Both of us. We’re from London.

On vacation, huh?

We’re driving through the southern states.

Been here before?

No, officer.

What about your wife?

She’s my girlfriend. I don’t know. We hadn’t been together that long.

How long?

A couple of months.

So she could have relatives or friends over here. Or enemies.

I guess it’s possible, but she never mentioned it. You’d mention it, wouldn’t you, if you were going someplace where you had relatives or friends? You’d want to look them up.

Maybe. Maybe not. Which table were you sitting at? This one?

Yeah.

This one right here?

The same table.

The waitress says she never took an order for this table. She says it hasn’t been in use today.

Really?

That’s right. I just spoke to her, right before I came over to speak to you.

Well, I don’t know what to tell you, officer. We came in and had a meal, that’s for sure. Maybe the waitress didn’t write the order down, or she lost the pad or something. It was busy.

What did you have?

Scrambled eggs and chorizo.

What about your wife?

She’s my girlfriend, officer.

You ever been married?

No, sir.

What did she have?

Eggs over easy.

OK. Well, sir, I believe your story and I’m going to check it out. I’m going to check out the rest rooms, I’m going to talk to the other customers and then I’m going to file a report. I have to tell you that seventy percent of missing persons cases remain unsolved in this state. Do you understand, sir?

Yes. I understand, officer.

You seem calm at the moment, Mr Strathey, but soon you’re going to start suffering from shock. I recommend you don’t drive anywhere today. I can arrange a lift into the nearest town, if you like.

Thank-you, but I think I’ll be OK.

I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist.  You’re going to have to stay in town for a few days, until we give you permission to leave. I’ll impound your vehicle until that time is over. Do you understand what I have said to you, Mr Strathey?

Yes, officer. I understand.

********

Hi, I’m Sam. I’ve seen you here before, right?

Hi. Judy. Yeah, I’ve been here the last few times.

But you’ve never shared.

I don’t want to. It helps just to listen.

Sure. There’s no obligation. We’re here to help.

You’re one of the counsellors?

If you feel you do want to talk at any time…

Yeah. Maybe. I wouldn’t know what to say.

Why don’t we start with who you lost?

Ummm…

We could sit over here, away from the others.

OK.

So. A family member?

Flatmate. Ex-flatmate, actually. A friend.

You were close?

It’s difficult to explain. I felt responsible for her.

When was the last time you saw her?

She called me. She was hearing voices in her head, not for the first time. I went over to her flat, talked her into taking her meds. I intended to go back and check on her, but – I’m a social worker, at least I was. I had other responsibilities.

You mustn’t blame yourself.

And then I never heard from her again. I called – maybe a week later. I went round. Nothing. I had a key, her spare. The whole place was empty, no sign of anyone.

You don’t think she just moved out?

Without telling me? You didn’t know Jess. She couldn’t move from a chair without having a nervous breakdown about it.

Don’t worry, it’s OK to smile.

You know, I think that’s the first time I’ve cracked a joke like that … first time I’ve smiled in a month.

It's good for you. What makes you so sure something happened to your friend?

Partly because she consulted me over everything, partly her own sense of foreboding last time I saw her, and partly I don’t know … just a feeling I have.

So, tell me about this flat she had. She lived there alone?

No, there’s a resident landlord. It was a flat-share, but she said he was hardly ever there. He came in, maybe once a week.

She knew him before?

No. She answered a card in the newsagent’s, I think. I tried to talk her out of it.

What does the landlord say?

I haven’t been able to get hold of him. I don’t know where he is. I have tried. I had a number for him, but when I called it was … just a dead tone. Discontinued. After I was made redundant, I … well, it sounds silly, but I staked out the house for a while. He didn’t show and it turned out my limit for sitting in a car was a day and a half, so … I asked neighbours, went to the police … there was nothing anyone could do.

So you think the landlord holds the key, so to speak?

Yeah. Yeah, I do.

Well, maybe we can help you track him down.

Really?

I know someone who does a little private detective work. He’s very good at finding people who don’t want to be found.

Isn’t that a little bit beyond your remit, Counsellor?

My remit, Judy, is to help people, that’s all. If finding this guy is what it takes to help you, we’ll find him. Don’t worry about that. We’ll find him.

********

The Texas air was unforgiving. Every time when he came home, it was the same; the sun beat down upon his back like blame upon his soul. But he was tough, he was a tough guy; he was Bob Strathey; he had been through worse and it wouldn’t be much longer now. He’d had to stick around through the investigation. Well, it wouldn’t have looked right if he hadn’t. It had been a mistake to claim the girl as his, but once the mistake was made he had to stand by his story; had to watch the play unfold; had to perform the correct responses to the accusations. And that’s what he had done, and now it nearly was done. The case would be closed; suspicion would not be upon him; he’d be free to move on, return to London. Maybe he wouldn’t return. Maybe he’d stay out here, get a proper job, become an American citizen, if that was possible. The kind of life he liked was a lot easier out here in the big, wide open spaces of Texas.

He slammed the screen door shut and headed for the cool of the den, snapped a beer out of the six-pack in the fridge and sat back in his recliner. The jolt of the ice-cold beer at the back of his throat and the buzz of the flies just outside the window was all he was aware of. Then the harsh sound of the doorbell pierced his reverie and he got up with a muttered curse and a slow, lumbering passage to the hallway.

‘Mr Strathey?’

‘Yeah, that’s me. What do you want?’

The visitor was a short, stocky man; a Texan, by his accent; a sweat-draped white-shirted salesman, by the look of him. No, he wasn’t that.

‘I wonder if I could come in for a few minutes, sir. I have some questions to ask you; I’m a private detective.’

‘What kind of questions?’

‘It would really be a lot easier if we went inside, sir.’

Five minutes. He’d have him out of here in that time, he reckoned. In any case, it was always better to make it look as if he had nothing to hide. Fuck it, he did have nothing to hide. He didn’t know where that fucking girl had got to. Christ!

The fat guy didn’t want a beer. He didn’t want anything except answers to his questions, it seemed. But he wasn’t asking him about the hitch-hiker. He didn’t even seem to know anything about the fucking hitch-hiker. Damn!

‘This is your property, sir?’

What was this? A photograph of his apartment in London. How the hell did some PI in Texas know about that?

‘It’s your name on the lease, sir. I have a copy of it here, if you don’t remember.’

‘No, I remember. It’s been a long time, that’s all.’

‘This is your home in London?’

‘No, I … I have lived there, but I have a few homes in London. I earn a living through renting them out.’

‘Do you remember who the last tenant at this address was, sir?’

He had to think carefully now. What exactly did this sweaty guy want?

‘I’m sorry, I thought you had come to ask me questions about the hitch-hiker who disappeared.’

‘What hitch-hiker would that be, sir?’

‘I picked up a girl at the side of the road about a year ago. She was pretty friendly, you know. We stopped at this diner and I went to the john. When I came back, she had vanished. I told the cops she was my girl. Well, she kinda was. I don’t know what they thought happened to her, but they never found a trace. I thought that’s why you were here.’

‘What was this girl’s name?’

‘Jessica. Jessica Walker.’ Even after all this time, he still had to stop and think about it. Why was that girl’s name so difficult to remember?

‘That’s very interesting, sir. By a strange coincidence, the last tenant you had at your London apartment was also named Jessica Walker.’

‘Was she?’ Was that right? He couldn’t remember all the goddam names of all the girls he’d rented apartments to. Why was that girl’s name so easy to forget? Well, so what? It was a strange coincidence. This PI had really done his homework. But so what? ‘I’m sorry, I don’t see the connection.’

‘Neither do I, sir. It’s just that this Jessica Walker also disappeared. That was a few years ago now. Her disappearance was reported by a friend of hers, but no trace of her was ever found. You have to admit, this is rather peculiar: two women with exactly the same name, both associated with you, both disappearing without a trace. What do you make of that, sir?’

He really, honestly, did not know what to make of it. He could see how it looked strange. But this girl in Texas, he had nothing to do with her. They had shared a ride, that was all. He didn’t know what to say.

‘Here’s another strange coincidence, sir.’ The fat man clearly wasn’t finished. ‘Jessica Walker wasn’t the first person to disappear while living at your London address. In fact, there are five other women whose whereabouts I could not trace. The only thing they had in common was they had all spent time as tenants at your apartment.’

He stared more closely at the fat guy. The detective’s back was to the window and the late afternoon sun made it difficult to discern his features exactly. The face was sweat-lined, jowly, but the hair didn’t seem right. It was too slick, too fixed in place, like it was glued there. And the hands and feet, they seemed too slight to belong to such a heavy body. He looked like he’d been taken in, like an ill-fitting dress, or a stapled stomach. This guy could do with a stapling: beneath his shirt, his stomach bulged; but it didn’t move as he breathed, as if it had died already, before the rest of him. Maybe the guy was about to keel over with a heart attack. That would do just fine, he thought, and then realised that time was ticking by without him saying anything at all and that looked bad. That looked like he had something to hide.

‘I’m not sure quite what you’re getting at, but I have nothing to hide. Are these women – the five women – are they missing persons?’

‘Their disappearance has never been reported, and yet there is no trace of them.’

‘Well, I’m afraid I don’t keep records of where my tenants move to when they leave. I just wave them bye-bye.’ That was good. He was on firmer ground now. This private dick had nothing. Just a dick in the wind.

‘You have to admit it’s peculiar, sir.’

‘Not really. People move from place to place in London all the time. Maybe they can’t afford the rent and look for somewhere cheaper. Maybe they get a pay rise and look for something better. If you can’t find them, might that not be because you’re not a very good detective?’

Was that too much? No. Fuck him!

‘Is that all you have to say, sir?’

He was safe. This guy had nothing on him, was just on a fishing trip. If he had something, let him go to the cops with it.

‘Yeah, that’s all I have to say. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m rather busy.’

‘There’s just one more thing.’

The sun was streaming in through the window. Its white light was like the beam of a spotlight. What was this fucking detective doing now? Was that a wig? He was taking off a wig? Christ, he didn’t want to have to look at this guy’s bald head. But that was a full head of hair, wasn’t it? Why was this guy hiding all that hair under a stupid wig like that? He looked like some heavy metal headbanger now, complete with curls. And now what? Taking off his suit? Was he a fag or something? What was this guy up to? Shit. This was no guy. And what the fuck was that? A gun? The guy was standing up now. He wasn’t fat. He wasn’t a man. And he was pointing a fucking gun right at him.

‘Who – who are you?’ stammered Bob.

It felt good to be herself at last. She could drop the act now.

‘Don’t you recognise me, Bob? Let me stand in the light.’

‘You’re Jessica! You’re the bitch I picked up on the road. You’re the one they’ve been looking for.’

‘Sure, Bob. I’m that bitch. I’m not Jessica Walker, though, that’s not my name. Jessica Walker was my friend. She used to be my flatmate. Then she went to live with you. The last time I saw her, she said there were voices in your flat, voices that were warning her that something was going to happen. Something bad. And it was going to happen to her. For some reason, Bob, she thought you were going to do that bad thing. Now, Jessica had a history of mental illness and so I thought, when she talked about voices, that was just something in her head. But it wasn’t. You see, I’ve found out some things in the last few years, like the names of the girls who lived in that apartment and then vanished. And your name. You, Bob Strathey, the landlord. Jess wasn’t crazy, was she? Those girls were really talking to her. They were saying, “Help us, Jess.”’

The bastard started squirming in his chair. He was looking for a way out, looking towards the door. She had to stop him.

‘Stand up, Bob.’

He shook his head.

‘Stand up. I won’t ask again.’

The handgun was surprisingly loud, but easy to fire. The next second, there was a burning smell and a hole in Bob’s recliner, an inch from his left arm.

‘Now stand the fuck up. Turn around. Put your hands behind your back.’

She slapped the cuffs on his wrist like a true veteran viewer of every cheesy TV cop show. Then she kicked him hard in the back of his knees, causing him to fall forward onto the recliner, making it easy for her to roll him down and onto the floor. Only when she stood with one foot on his chest and the gun pointed straight at his head did she speak again.

‘I had a spare key to the apartment. I don’t think you knew that, did you? Maybe you should have kept a closer eye on the place, Bob. You left it empty a long time. I took that place apart. Eventually, I found them, all your former tenants, all laid out flat beneath the cellar floor. Just bones, mostly. You must have been at it for years. Jessica wasn’t crazy. The bones told her, they warned her, but I didn’t listen. And then I found Jessica. ’

She stamped down hard on his sternum and enjoyed watching him wince in pain. Down on the floor, under the heel of her boot, Bob found his own voice.

‘You’re crazy. The dead don’t talk. So what if I buried them? If you dug those bitches up again, you’d have gone to the police, got a real detective out here on my trail. What did you do? Try to pin me as a suspect in a missing persons case? What the fuck was that about? What are you here for? If it was revenge, you could have had it much more easily out on the road.’

Judy shook her head.

‘Too easy, Bob, and too quick. And the police? They don’t understand how to make people suffer. I don’t know how those girls died, but I know they suffered alright, and now you’re going to suffer, too. Jessica, she thought you strung them up with a rope and then cut them to pieces. Maybe you did; I don’t know, though. You’re looking for a way to get out of here, aren’t you, Bob? The shoe is on the other foot now, don’t you think? And the foot is this one, the one squeezing down on your lungs. Getting kind of hard to breathe? Don’t worry. You know what I think, Bob? I kind of think you buried those girls alive. What do you say to that? Does that sound like a good way to get out of this place? You have a cellar here, don’t you, Bob? Americans call it a basement, don’t they? Hey Bob, my old buddy, you got a basememt here, don’tcha? What say you and I take a little look at it, huh?’

********

Officer Koons sipped his beer at the bar. Yes, sir, it certainly was a strange case. First the girl, now her boyfriend. It was pretty clear he didn’t know anything about her disappearance and, from what they could piece together, he didn’t have any enemies in Texas that wanted shot of him. Didn’t have any friends, either. A loner. Maybe that was it: he’d taken to the road again, now the case on his girl was closed. Strange that he had left all his possessions behind, not to mention his car, but sometimes that was the way. Everyone deserved a fresh start.