Sunday, February 3rd, 7.33 p.m.
The small man stepped from the lift, rang the apartment's doorbell and waited, his head close against the panels to catch any sounds of movement within.
Utter silence. No one came. Was no one left to come?
So it was real, what he saw from the road? Thought he'd seen?
It could still be illusion, his recurrent echo of childhood trauma. But that only happened when he balanced on the edge of sleep: the memory of torture, of being forced to watch while ...
No. This time he'd been awake, stepping on to the kerb and looking up at the tall building he was bound for.
Who else had seen what happened? There had been no sudden panic around him, no screaming, no crowd gathering to point upwards to the penthouse window. With home-seeking traffic intent on beating the lights, and the sparse pedestrians burrowing against a sleety wind, was he the only witness?
Or was it - as he'd feared after the first transfixed instant - a re-enactment inside his own head, a half-emergence of something demonic his mind refused full memory of? And now the recurring nightmare was visiting him awake. A superstitious man, he half-believed Hell could be black-magicked on him from the other side of the world and more than half a lifetime away.
He knew again the same heart-clutching horror: gazing up at a height. And a body dropping out of the sky, turning over and over as it fell, this time silent all the way, disappearing finally from sight. Like frames of film in slow motion, while his body raced with terror. The same, but quite wrong, because this wasn't Sulu. No craggy mountains; just urban English streets, and for tropical heat a slicing wind carrying chips of ice to sting your face.
He leaned his forehead against the door frame, compelling sanity to re-establish itself, wipe out the past.
He drew in a deep, soughing breath, counting the heartbeats loud in his throat. Sort it. Act. Control the moment. And the door he leant on clicked open.
He rang again, received no answer, then exerted soft pressure on the panels and went in. 'Anyone here?' he called, standing in the hall, ready, if challenged, to explain that he'd found the door ajar.
Still silence, except for the central heating clicking into action, and behind it the low humming of a fridge. Even so slight a sound set his nerves aquiver. Tensed, he moved cautiously forward.
The hall lights were on. Every door of the apartment stood open. He was free to walk through. It was the sleet-laden wind driving in from the darkened lounge that sent him in that direction. He knew then he hadn't been deceived. Because a panel of the glass wall gaped open.
As he'd stepped off the pedestrian crossing, looking up, he had seen the old woman fall from her seventh-floor window. (But not into the street. The body would have landed somewhere behind the hangar-like building of the stationery warehouse.)
Now, all senses alerted, learnt skills took over. He ran, crouched double, into the room, again the boy insurgent trained to kill. And, instantly ice-keen, he felt the old feral passion, once second nature, sliding back over him tight as an outer skin. But today no knife in his hand.
And the room was empty.
This was wrong. The woman couldn't, unaided, have climbed over the guard rail and balanced there ready to jump. Couldn't, for that matter, have got out of bed alone, walked this far. Certainly her bent little claws would be useless, fumbling with the complicated lock that secured the sliding panel.
So if someone else had been here, where was he now? The other lift hadn't passed his, going down as he came up. Which left the staircase.
He ran back and craned over the rail, scanning the perspective of six double flights dropping to the marble-tiled lobby. Nothing moved anywhere down there. No sound came but his own taut breathing.
It was impossible. Someone must still be in the apartment, if only her personal carer. Someone who'd just killed the old woman, or had helped her to kill herself.
Silently he moved back into the apartment. In the hall he reached across the table for the ebony carving of three monkeys, curling his fingers round the smoother base. Steeled for action he slid into the passage, hesitated a bare instant to draw breath, and dived through the doorway of the first bedroom.
The air burst from his lungs in an aggressive roar and he stood there, his upraised arm an empty gesture.
Again this couldn't be. He let the carving drop as he sank on the bed's rumpled covers to take in the scene. Long moments passed while nothing happened. There was no sound. Nobody came. No doorbell rang. It was as though, entering the building, he had stepped outside present reality.
The tension slowly easing, his whole frame began to tremble, sweat drying on his skin. He recognized, and condemned, fear as possession by a demon. Forced himself to face it down, swore explosively and then instantly was ashamed.
There was no cause for fear. He was alone, and therefore safe. Nobody knew what had happened. There was no reason for anyone to rush in and find him there. All the same, he must protect himself.
He stood, smoothed out the rumpled bedding, returned the carving to the table in the hall, then went slowly back to the opened panel in the huge observation window He leaned right out, peered all the way down; and by the inadequate lighting of the parking area could barely make out the body as a bundle of rags discarded among piled junk in the unused corner of the warehouse yard.
This window wasn't frontal to the main road but on the building's side, specifically designed to provide a view over the town centre towards the rolling Chiltern hills. Never meant for craning out to see what lay directly below. Such mundane commercial objects wouldn't interest those wealthy enough to buy property commanding such a panorama, although today, veiled in mist and sleet, the Chilterns were no more than a smear of indigo. He drew his head and shoulders back in, shook off cold rain.
He removed a tissue from its box on the coffee table and covered one hand as he reached to slide the panel closed. It snappedfirmly locked. The wind ceased shrieking in.
On the glass to one side was a smear of blood, part of it etched in fine lines, like a palm print. The woman had bled before she fell; reached out to save herself. Never an accident.
He wiped off the stain, took a second tissue, spat on it and rubbed at the glass until it gleamed. He stood looking at the window, the glass wall that stood between him and violent murder. He carefully put the tissues away in his pocket.
He was satisfied that nothing showed now. It was as though nothing untoward had happened. He could not be blamed.
Next he must walk away, and no one would know he had been here. Except that he'd been expected. Nurse Orme had arranged it. He must do what he had come to do.
He thought back. At the street door below he had followed a neighbour in, some woman from one of the lower apartments. She would remember if questions were asked. She had keyed in the electronic code to gain entry and held the door for him, taking him for another resident. Later it could be assumed that someone had also let him into this apartment, because he had no key Who would believe the door was left ajar?
But, being here, he must make his story fit the findings. It could be some days before the body was discovered in the walled yard below, and then why should anyone think it happened when he was anywhere near?
If later he was interrogated he had surely faced worse in the past. These people wouldn't threaten to cut out his tongue.
He went through to the kitchen, made strong coffee and sat to drink it, hunched in thought. The next move must be deliberate choice. He could leave the body to be discovered and deny any connection, or he could remove it by night to a safer distance, leading suspicion away. For that he would need transport. And he knew where cars stood unused overnight. He sat considering his options and what he must do to ensure survival.
He didn't know why he'd done what he did, covering up. Except from acquired wisdom. For so long he'd been wiping out traces of his own existence, the past being all bad. And what he'd just seen happen was already become a part of that badness.
He wished he had never been drawn in, because in Western society there could be no convenient ignoring of a violent act. The consequences would be a manhunt and punishment. He must be sure he wasn't caught up in them.
Over native superstition, experience had made him a fatalist. He knew that every move in life must lead to another, links of a chain that locked you in. It had always been so with him. And now, as some earlier action drew him into this present dilemma, he was for all time involved in another man's evil.
So where had this process started? What, and whose, was the decisive act from which this moment had become the inescapable consequence?
At the start, if he had turned down the woman's invitation, he wouldn't have received the nurse's offer and he wouldn't have come here, to be touched by this killing. Must he acknowledge that moment as the conception from which he'd been made destiny's fool?
She had not even been attractive. He had accepted from inertia, because a few weeks without disasters had lulled him into feeling safe. He had thought to learn something from her: how to fit into this alien world.
As though he was not picked out by fate for something worse.
He remembered the little black carving in the hall and how once he'd been told of the fourth monkey. See no Evil; Hear no Evil; Speak no Evil. The last one, invisible, and which the carver never dared to represent, was Do no Evil.