by Nick Cooke
No, not feet.
I stare up. It can’t be.
Onto the floor.
The wooden floor.
Like from my nose.
But not from my nose, from the ceiling.
I run to the kitchen.
Open the cupboard under the sink.
Drag out a metal pail.
Rush back, stick the pail under the drip.
A different sound, louder, more plosive.
Good word, plosive.
Good one for my students.
What the hell do I do?
Get upstairs, of course.
Run upstairs and knock.
Break the door down.
Rooted to the bloody spot.
No pun intended.
Okay, now what?
I go down to Ian’s.
He’s my downstairs neighbour, early thirties, an accountant, decent guy if a bit po-faced. Never complained about the noise I make walking about on floorboards.
I knock on the door.
He’s probably gone to work.
But no, I hear movement.
Here he is.
Dressed in a pinstriped suit.
Blacky curly hair and steel-rimmed glasses. Puckered lips that don’t smile much.
A shocked look on his face, even before I speak.
Because of the look on mine.
Blood? What do you mean blood?
He shakes his head. That isn’t the question he meant to ask.
I mean, where from?
From upstairs. The corner of my sitting room ceiling. A steady drip. I’ve put a pail down, so it won’t come through to you.
A bucket, a metal bucket.
He looks at me like that’s hardly the point.
What I’ve put down, I mean.
What do we do?
Exactly my words. Not what should we do, or what must we do. Present simple, why? One for my advanced students.
We’ve got to call the police, I say.
Yes. I’ll call them.
But he just stands there. And I stare at him.
We don’t want to call the police.
Why the hell not?
I don’t think either of us could say.
We just want to deal with this ourselves.
Is it something to do with relishing the fear, the thrill? The fact that this is a once in a lifetime thing, which we’ll lose if we hand it over to the police? Or anyone else.
He ushers me inside, closes the door. We stand there face to face. He turns and starts pacing up and down his hallway.
How well do you know her? he asks. He means my upstairs neighbour, a Spanish girl in her late twenties.
You know what it’s like, I answer. I’ve been here three years and you’re the only person I’ve said more than ten words to. I’ve seen her on the stairs once or twice.
Doesn’t she have a boyfriend?
What is he, a detective now?
But I’m the same. I’m wondering if she still has the boyfriend I saw with her once. A tall, good-looking guy with sultry looks. He could have been Spanish too.
You’re sure you didn’t hear anything? he says. No sound of a struggle?
Not a thing. Mind you, I’m a heavy sleeper.
He looks at his watch. I’m gonna be late for work.
Me too. I’m teaching the pre-intermediates in forty-five minutes.
We’ve got to go up there, he says.
We’ve got to.
But his face is frozen in terror.
I know mine is too. I can see it reflected in his eyes, his staring eyes.
But you know you’re knocking in vain.
How can they, if they’re dead?
Let’s be honest about this, let’s tell it like it is.
But you keep knocking.
And calling, Lavinia? Lavinia?
You had to check an envelope in the hallway, to make sure of the name.
And you, Mr Literary, can’t help thinking: Titus Andronicus, his daughter, raped and mutilated.
Poor Lavinia. Poor, poor Lavinia. What the hell happened? Maybe there was no murder, maybe you just fell and cracked your head open. Would that be any better?
Kind of, yeah.
Ian takes over the knocking, the calling, as if it somehow makes a difference who knocks and calls, like there’s a technique to it.
We’re gonna have to break it down, he says.
I know we are, I’ve known it from the start.
Have you ever done that before? I ask him.
He doesn’t bother answering. Stand back, he says.
Hang on a second, why is he assuming it has to be him? Do I look like the kind of man who can’t break a door down?
You sure you want to do it? I ask him. I have to hit back some way.
I don’t want to do it, I got to do it. He looks at me like I’m a bit simple.
I could do it if you like, I say.
He’s psyching himself up.
If I try and stop him or hold him up, he could get violent.
I stand aside.
He steps back to the top of the stairs, goes through his motions. Breathing through those huge nostrils. His eyes like planets.
He charges forward, flings his shoulder at the door.
And bounces straight back with a yelp.
These doors are thick, Chubb-locked.
He should know, his is the same.
Did he really think he could just charge it in with his shoulder?
I could have told him it was absurd, but he never asked.
He’s rubbing his shoulder, as well he might. Shit! he hisses.
We’re going to need an axe, I say.
An axe? Where the hell from?
There’s a hardware store on Smithson Road. It probably opens at eight thirty.
What about your work?
I’m going to call in sick.
Twenty minutes later, there we are.
With an axe.
Not the kind you’d use to execute Anne Boleyn.
Just a regular domestic, hardware store one. With a short handle – maybe nine inches long.
The guy who sold it me must have wondered. I tried not to look too urgent, but I think he saw something in my eyes.
There’s something there too, now. It’s aimed at Ian and it’s saying, this time it’s my turn.
I bought this and I’m the one who’s using it.
Your turn to step aside, amigo.
Of course I don’t try to hack through the main body of the door, just the lock area.
It doesn’t take long. Four swings. I get this huge sense of power. Like I was doing it with my bare hand, like a karate chop.
Ian tried and failed. He was being irrational. I used reason, and I succeeded.
The lock is in ruins. All it needs is a light kick.
Here goes. I raise my right leg and smash through.
The door swings open, with a creak.
I turn to look at Ian. There’s a challenge in my eyes.
He nods, but a little gingerly.
I wonder if he’ll try to push ahead of me, to be the first in, prove he’s not scared. He does no such thing. Gripping the axe tight, I enter the hallway.
After only a slight hesitation I push open the door to the sitting-room.
I take the deepest breath of my entire life. Then go in.
There’s no one there, alive or dead. And no sign of any struggle
But there is a stain. A blood stain. A big pool, in fact, right where the drip’s coming from.
I turn. Ian’s staring right through me, in the direction of the stain.
Where the hell is she?
Let’s check the bedroom.
We check that, and the bathroom and kitchen too, and find no one.
Jesus, he says. He must have taken her out in the night. Dragged her down the stairs. Are you sure you didn’t hear anything?
Who are you talking about? I say.
Who’d you think? The boyfriend!
I do a deliberate double-take. Why do you assume it was him? For that matter, why do you assume that stain is her? And talking of stains – did you see any on the stairs? Surely there’d have been some if she’d been dragged down?
Oh come on, he says, like I’m a child that knows nothing of the world. But I’m thinking it’s him that doesn’t know so much.
But it could have been anyone. Anyone with access to his place. It could have been you, for Christ’s sake.
He looks at me with even wider nostrils and eyeballs than he had when preparing to charge the door.
You could have knocked on the door and when she opened – wham! Or it could have been me. Or both of us together. We could have been drugged by someone so we don’t remember what we’ve done.
What are you talking about? he asks in horror.
I’m kind of enjoying his reaction. Maybe you got in, tried it on with her. And when she turned you down –
Are you out of your fucking mind?
There’s something about him I’ve never liked. He’s okay as a neighbour but there’s something not right. Something to do with sense of humour. Or lack of. He needs winding up, he really needs a good tease.
I’m just saying. It doesn’t have to have been that guy. Who I’m not even sure was her boyfriend, he was just some guy I saw her with once. There are many more possibilities.
He stares at me, grimaces, stretches the corners of his mouth as wide as they’ll go. Puts his hand to his face and rubs it with tense vigour.
We have to call the police, I say gently.
His hand falls back to his side. I’m going to work.
What about the police?
You call them.
It was you that first saw the blood.
This makes me laugh out loud. They’ll want to talk to you too, don’t you realise? If you’re not here, they’ll call you at work. Is that what you want?
Is that what you want? is his bizarre retort.
I called in sick, remember?
He looks at me like that’s unfair, I’ve pulled a fast one. I’ve got an important meeting at midday, he says. Then he turns and runs, almost jumps down the stairs.
I shake my head. I’m alone now, alone with all this.
With no one to consult, but no one to answer to.
I don’t know why, but I start scouting around. Looking for anything that might shed light, any tiny thing.
In a bedside drawer I find a black moleskin notebook. A quick flip establishes it as Lavinia’s diary. I feel as though I’m on the threshold, the cusp of right and wrong. I shouldn’t even have touched the bloody thing, it’ll have my prints on now. And instinctively I rub the thing on the bedclothes, front and back.
I come back downstairs. I’m going to phone the police, honest I am. But I’m gripping that diary harder than I did the axe five minutes ago, and I don’t really care about fingerprints any longer, because –
Because I don’t think I’m going to be able to hand it over.
I walk to a coffer under my CD player, where I keep my private papers. Put the diary right at the bottom, underneath all my half-written novels, my love letters from decades ago, the originals of my documents. I close the coffer lid and put the CD player back on top.
I hear a splat. I look over at the pail on the floor.
Then I pick up the phone.
Nick Cooke’s short fiction has been published in Dream Catcher magazine and Sentinel Literary Quarterly. He has also had around fifty poems published in outlets including Agenda, Ink, Sweat & Tears, and The High Window Journal.