It was the same every time it happened, Al thought, as he pulled on the gloves. After the bodies had been uncovered or the evidence linking the perp to the scene of the crime had been extracted from the drains, the neighbours would appear on the telly and they’d say, “oh, but he kept himself to himself. Perfectly decent, ordinary, quiet chap. It’s inconceivable that Norman Normal could have done such a thing.”
Or else they wouldn’t say that at all.
His balaclava dusty from disuse, Al stifled a sneeze. He could make it through the window at the top of the stairs and across to what the council were pleased to call a balcony at the back of Oliver Trethewey’s flat. The patio doors all had simple latches and none, to Al’s knowledge, had been replaced in the fifty years the building had been standing. A wiggle with the ol’ credit card and he’d be in.
“We always thought he was a strange one because…” Al had heard that argument often enough, too. Sometimes in the self-same news reports. These were the people who, apparently, had “always known”. Never said anything, of course, until everyone knew full well what the geezer’s true character was, but they’d have their delete-as-applicable statements from their “Reasons Why” bingo cards. Things like, “we saw him talking to himself once and we’re pretty sure he didn’t have his phone on him,” or, “he’s different from us in a rather too easily definable way, wink, wink, you know what we’re saying here, right?” Or perhaps they’d go for the absolute and irrefutable clincher, which had them agreeing with their less suspicious fellows: “He kept himself to himself.”
There was nothing, it seemed to Al, more indicative to the general public of a puppy sitting next to a pile of poo levels of guilt, than keeping yourself to yourself.
The latch lifted and Al checked round for anyone watching when no-one would at this time in the morning. Except, perhaps, Trethewey himself.
Up ‘til now, Al had had little choice but to keep a low profile. If the neighbours were going to think whatever they wanted then, he determined, he might as well keep out of their way. Away from Netta and her ever-fluttering fag-stained curtains; away from Simon, out walking his dog whenever Al wanted to poke his head out of the door for the milk; and – most of all – away from Oliver Trethewey, as much as it was possible to get away from Oliver Trethewey. Everyone knew Trethaway had been sent to the block, given the old crack den slap bang in the middle of their level, and tasked with Watching Over Them. Exactly who had sent him was up for debate. Ask Netta, if she let you, and she’d have said he was a Department for Work and Pensions spy, checking up on her every time she went out for that cleaning job she was doing, Cash in Hand, over at Mr Penrose’s gaff. Al had heard her say as much to Salty Sharon when he’d been hiding by the uric-scented staircase up from the courtyard one day, and then Trethewey had appeared, as if he’d been listening in. He’d tipped his hat and he’d asked how she was doing and Netta had giggled – giggled! – at his old world charm and told him she was perfectly well, thank you. Which was, of course, not at all what she’d said when she’d signed on for the old Incapacity. Oh, she’d felt caught out that day, Al could tell.
It was the same story elsewhere. Simon had long tiptoed around the subject of his nephew and precisely what had happened that New Year’s Eve three years back. Trethewey was overheard straight out asking him about his relatives – if Simon had any living “abroad” and how long had they been out there, then? “Will they ever be coming back, do you think?” . It was a wonder Simon had managed to get the panic back under control.
Al crept through what even an estate agent would be hard-pressed to call a lounge. It was barely furnished. The sofa, its springs out and its cushions bowed, looked as if it had come from the local tip. The coffee table was missing a corner. The walls were yellowed and the woodchip was peeling, no doubt from the cold.
He doesn’t live here, Al thought. He’s based here. Nicely turned out chap, like him, with his spats and suit and hat, he’s not from the estate. He’s been sent to us.
And he’d be watching even now. If Al knew anything about Trethewey’s habits – and there’d been a fair bit of studying in anticipation of this act – he’d be in the front of the flat. Watching.
Al’s keeping himself to himself had worked so far. The closest he had come to being publicly outed by Trethewey was being stopped by the perpetually out-of-order lift the other day. He had arched an eyebrow at him and gave him the kind of look that wasn’t so much knowing as studying for a PhD in his many misdemeanours. There’d been but one sentence before Tracksuit Barry had bowled his way between them, half empty bottle of White Lightning waving in the air as he’d yet again recounted his experience with the magistrates.
“Ah, Al,” Oliver Trethewey had said, and – no – he hadn’t been given permission to be so familiar, “Miss Grace tells me that you are settling in well.”
And there’d been no chance of a follow up because Tracksuit Barry and the White Lightning had occurred. But Al had been thinking about it ever since. Every single time he had seen the chap in the suit and the spats and he’d noticed how much attention he was paying to everyone else’s business.
Trethewey shouldn’t know his probation officer’s name, let alone have spoken to her. So, if he was prepared to be so bold –
Al would have to be, too. Before the man said any more.
There was no obvious spy equipment in the lounge or the narrow hallway just beyond. There was post on the door mat, though. All junk. Nothing with Trethewey’s name on it. Further proof that he didn’t really live here.
If he was in the front of the flat and at the upstairs front bedroom window, then it was a matter of getting up the stairs and waiting by the airing cupboard on the top landing for the man to succumb to the call of nature.
Which had to happen. Eventually. It was cold enough in the flat, after all, and Al’s own bladder wasn’t going to cope in these conditions.
No longer than an hour or two, anyway.
Al slammed back into consciousness at the sound of the first of the thuds at the front door.
This was a council door. Al knew It wouldn’t stand up to the abuse.
Now, really, they ought to have shouted that the first time. Maybe they had. The landing was dark now and Al couldn’t tell how much time had passed. Somehow, the stand had become a squat, had become a sit, had become a sideways slide into slumber.
Another shout from downstairs. The door frame cracked and, Al knew, he was seconds from the feet in the hallway before he was forced face down onto the floor with his arm behind his back and a replay of everything that had first brought him to this benighted place.
Bastard Trethewey. He must have seen him. He must have known about his plans. Must have tipped them off.
There was only one thing to do. If their government-paid Watcher wasn’t in the room beyond, then Al might be able to get in there, slide under the bed or climb into the wardrobe or any number of other things that had worked for him before. Apart from that one time.
Not caring about the noise, given the racket from the door still being shattered in its frame down below, Al heaved on the bedroom door and tumbled inside.
Tumbled inside and over.
Over the body sprawled fully across the foot of the bed. Shiny shoes with spats and sharply creased trousers and a once white shirtfront covered with so much blood.
As heavy feet pounded up the stairs, Al just had time to wonder which variety of “kept to himself” his neighbours would accuse him of being.