Authors: Chris Bradbury
For Sally, George, Ellie and Frankie
(and Norma for the whole 99)
It comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes. The ashes of an Oak in the chimney, are no epitaph of that Oak, to tell me how high or large that was; It tells me not what flocks it sheltered while it stood, nor what men it hurt when it fell.
John Donne - Sermons, XV
Brooklyn, New York
Frank Matto pushed aside the low grey swing gate that divided the ‘them’ from the ‘us’. It protested with a low groan, then flipped back into place with a shudder. He took his coat off and hung it on the same peg that he’d hung it for thirty years; he didn’t even look to see if he’d hit the target. He kept his hat on until he reached his desk, then hung it on the back of his chair.
He cast a glance around the time-worn squad room; the dreary green walls, the nicotine-stained ceiling, the pall of smoke that lay like marsh gas a foot above people’s heads. The lights, always on, tried to break though the smoke like a weak sun trying to get though storm clouds.
‘This place stinks,’ said Frank. ‘It’s like walking into a gymnasium that thinks it’s a whorehouse. Sweat and stale perfume. Can’t we at least open the windows?’ He pointed at the three large sash windows that hung like a triptych of fresh murals on the far wall. The ripe green tops of trees lined up against a hard blue sky. ‘It’s a beautiful day outside. Jesus!’
‘The windows are open, Frank. Problem is, there’s as much hot air in here as there is out there and no breeze to disperse it. And you aren’t helping.’ Steve Wayt smiled wearily, his mouth too tired to rise above a crooked line. He was already sweating, his tie loose around his open shirt collar. He looked like he hadn’t slept in a year. ‘Sit down and stop moaning. Get a coffee.’
Frank got a coffee. It was black and strong, the grains at least two days old. It was bitter. He sat down and looked across at his partner. ‘What’s on today then, Steve?’
‘For me? Nothing. For you...’ He pointed at the way Frank had just come in.
Frank scowled. ‘Again? Really? This is getting to be a habit.’
A colleague walked by. ‘Hey, Sinatra, your girlfriend’s back again.’
Matto raised a finger. ‘Fuck you too, Mike.’
Mike laughed and went back to his typewriter.
‘Where is she?’ Frank asked Steve.
Steve looked over Frank’s shoulder. ‘You passed her on the way in.’
Frank turned and saw her sitting on the bench near the grey gate. ‘She wasn’t there a minute ago.’
Steve lit up a Marlboro. ‘Probably went to powder her nose. Make herself pretty.’
Frank frowned. ‘She didn’t do such a good job.’
‘You should’ve seen her before.’
‘Did she say what it was about this time? Aliens perhaps? Ghosts? Fairies in the closet?’
Steve shook his head. He was happy to have some distance on this one. ‘She wouldn’t speak to anyone but you, Frank.’
‘You could’ve told her I was on holiday.’
‘She’d sit and wait.’
‘Tell her I’m dead.’
‘She’d find your body and dig you up. Give her a break. She’s a lonely old girl.’
‘I know. I know.’ Frank stole one of Steve’s Marlboros.
‘Don’t forget to wear the hat. She likes the hat.’
‘I’m not wearing the hat. It’s like giving titbits to a stray. Forget it.’
Frank got up and went to the gate.
‘Mrs Dybek, would you like to come through?’
He held the gate open. Mrs Dybek, who Frank knew to be seventy-five but who insisted she was fifty-two and a princess of Bohemia, pushed herself up with a sigh.
‘You could give me a hand, young man.’
‘Then who would hold the gate open for you? Come on, Mrs Dybek, you’re fitter than I am and twice as good looking.’
Mrs Dybek pouted, if only to squash the smile that had started to form. ‘You cops are all the same.’
‘If we were all the same, Mrs Dybek, you wouldn’t be sitting there for half an hour waiting for me to show up, now would you?’
Mrs Dybek turned sideways to get her frame through the gate. ‘Don’t be clever with me. I’m old enough to be your girlfriend.’ She cackled and broke out into a chesty cough.
‘Oh, Mrs Dybek,’ crooned Frank. ‘You make me feel so young. You make me feel as though spring has sprung…’ He indicated a spare chair at his desk. ‘Have a seat, Mrs Dybek.’
As Mrs Dybek sat, she gave Steve the evil eye.
‘Good morning again, Mrs Dybek,’ said Steve lightly through a thick plume of smoke.
Mrs Dybek ignored him and made herself comfortable.
Frank sat and waited for her. She had the same routine every time she came in, sometimes three times a week. She would get comfortable, then she would realise that she still had her heavy, battered grey coat on, summer or no summer, and have to get up to take it off, fold it over the back of the chair, then get comfortable again. In the past month or so, she had come in four times a week. More daylight, Frank supposed. More time to fill.
Frank didn’t mind. There were worse ways to start a day.
‘What can I do for you today, Mrs Dybek?’ asked Frank. ‘Would you like some water? Some coffee?’
Mrs Dybek reached out and patted the back of his hand. ‘No, thank you. Though it was good of you to ask.’ She snuck a look at Steve. ‘You could have offered me one forty minutes ago, young man. This is why I bet you aren’t a hit with the girls. You have no manners.’ Before Steve could respond, she turned back to Frank. ‘There’s a man in my apartment.’
‘Is he a prisoner?’ asked Steve under his breath.
Mrs Dybek turned to him. ‘What did you say?’
‘I said it’s hot in here.’
‘Mrs Dybek?’ said Frank. ‘The man?’
‘There’s a man in my apartment.’
‘I know. You just said so.’ Frank opened a draw and took out a pencil and notebook. It was one that he used just for her. She liked it when he acted professionally. He thought that one day it would make a good book. He leafed through it and found a fresh page. ‘Tell me about this man. Do you know him? Did you invite him in?’
‘I most certainly did not,’ said Mrs Dybek.
‘Well, how did he get in then?’
Mrs Dybek thought hard and shook her head. ‘I have no idea.’
‘When did you first see him?’
‘A couple of nights ago.’
‘In your apartment? Shouldn’t you have told someone before this?’
‘He was gone in the morning.’
‘Yes. And yesterday morning.’
Frank leaned back in his chair. This was turning out to be more difficult than usual. He fished through his trousers and brought out his own cigarettes and lighter.
‘Would you like a cigarette, Mrs Dybek? They’re Camels. Very nice.’
Mrs Dybek looked at the proffered packet as if Frank had just shown her a piece of gold. She took one and he lit it. She coughed, then settled.
‘Steve,’ said Frank. ‘Would you be good enough to get Mrs Dybek some water?’
‘Sure,’ said Steve.
‘So what did this fella look like, Mrs Dybek?’
Mrs Dybek took a long appreciative drag on the cigarette. ‘I couldn’t say. It was dark. One minute I’m asleep, the next I wake up to see a man standing at the end of my bed.’ She shivered. ‘He was just stood there, staring.’
‘Could you see his face?’
Mrs Dybek shook her head. ‘Too dark.’
‘Could you see anything that would distinguish him? A hat perhaps?’
Mrs Dybek hesitated and looked at the floor. She rolled the cigarette between her thumb and forefinger. The smoke jiggered and rose. ‘You think I’m crazy, don’t you,’ she said sourly.
Steve came back with the water and held it out for Mrs Dybek. He looked and Frank, who shook his head. He put the water down and sat quietly back in his seat.
Frank leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, so that he could talk in a lower voice. ‘No, Mrs Dybek,’ he said. ‘I don’t think you’re crazy. I think perhaps you’re lonely. I think perhaps, sometimes, you’re scared. But I don’t think you’re crazy.’
He put the notebook in front of her. ‘You see this? This is yours. This is the notebook I use just for you. Every time you come in here, I make an entry in this book.’ He offered it to her. ‘Here, take a look.’
Mrs Dybek looked at the scruffy notebook. Frank offered it again and she took it. He sat back and let her flick through the pages. ‘I have two more of those in my desk. They’re both full. They’re both about you.’
Mrs Dybek skimmed the pages. Occasionally she would utter a sound of recognition at a visit and smile. Sometimes she would shake her head and tut at the memory.
‘You doodle a lot,’ she said.
‘I do,’ said Frank. ‘I do doodle. It helps me concentrate. I did it at school.’ He leaned back, rested his hands on his stomach and stretched his legs out. ‘I was one of those kids could never pay attention, always distracting others, always in trouble, not listening. One day, this lady, string of pearls round her neck, pretty yellow summer dress and hair as high as the Empire State and pretty as Doris day, came up to me and sat with me through a lesson – a whole lesson mind. She didn’t say a word, just let me get on with it. She saw that I was struggling to stay still, to concentrate. She turned up at the next lesson and put a piece of paper in front of me. “Draw,” she said. “Draw what?” I said. “Whatever takes your fancy,” she said. She was quite classy. So, for the entire lesson I sat there and doodled, just like I do now. And you know what?’ Mrs Dybek shrugged. ‘I remembered everything the teacher said. Turns out that all I needed was something to help me focus. It’s a condition, apparently. So I doodle.’
Mrs Dybek returned to the book and ran a stubby finger over the pages. ‘You can’t draw for shit,’ she said.
Frank laughed. ‘No, Mrs Dybek, I can’t draw. But I want you to know, by showing you this book, that I hear you. I don’t think you’re crazy and I take you as seriously as a lost dog or a murder. You understand?’
Mrs Dybek closed the diary and handed it back to Frank.
‘I could see his eyes,’ she said. She swallowed, her mouth dry. Frank gave her the water and she drank.
It seemed to Frank that the whole room had suddenly fallen into silence.
‘The man?’ he asked.
Mrs Dybek stared into the distance. ‘He was a shadow at the end of my bed. I could see arms and a head and legs, but it was all just a shadow.’ She lifted her head and looked at Frank. Her face had fallen. ‘I could see his eyes. They were white, like they were rolled back in his head. Like a dead person or one of those people in some sort of religious frenzy.’
‘Did he say anything?’
Mrs Dybek could still see him, Frank knew, and she was afraid.
‘No,’ said Mrs Dybek. She caught her breath. ‘But I could hear him breathing.’ She put her hand across her mouth. It shook. ‘Oh, I could hear him breathing. Long and deep and slow. It had this…rasp, like someone filing something, you know? I thought it was the Devil come to get me, Frank.’ Her wide eyes filled with tears. ‘I thought it was my time.’
Frank handed her a handkerchief. He was shaken. She had never used his first name before. ‘Steady, Mrs Dybek. You’re okay. You’re here now and you’re safe.’
He gave her a moment to compose herself. He looked at Steve who raised his hands palms up. He had no idea what to do. Like Frank, he had never seen her this way. She was the harmless old crazy lady who’d just been alone too long. That was what she was, to them at least.
‘Mrs Dybek,’ said Frank. ‘This happened two nights in a row? Last night as well?’
Mrs Dybek nodded. ‘Yes. Only last night, he wasn’t at the end of my bed. I woke up and he was bent over me. I could sense him. And when I opened my eyes all I could see…’ She broke down.
‘Was his eyes,’ finished Frank. ‘All you could see was his eyes.’
‘Yes,’ she cried. ‘And I felt his breath, Frank. Upon my face. It stank. It stank rotten. Like chemicals.’
‘Mrs Dybek?’ said Frank softly. ‘Could someone have broken into your apartment? Have any of the local kids been at you? Have you upset anyone?’
Mrs Dybek sniffed and blew her nose. ‘The first thing I did was check the door. I have three chains and a dead lock. They were all fine. The windows were open, it was so hot, but I’m on the top floor.’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Dybek. ‘There’s a fire escape. You think someone might have climbed up all those floors? Just to stand and stare at me?’
‘The world is full of people who stand and stare, Mrs Dybek,’ said Frank. ‘Isn’t that so, Steve?’
Steve jumped in right on cue. ‘It certainly is, Frank. It’s probably just some joker out to scare the neighbourhood. If he’d meant to do anything he’d have done it by now. And he hasn’t. I’d be surprised if he even came back. Wouldn’t you, Frank?’
‘Sure,’ said Frank. ‘These people. They’re all just after a quick thrill. Tell you what. How about Steve and I come over to your place later today and give it the once over? Maybe see how it could be more secure? We’ll take a look under the bed and in the cupboards. How about that?’
‘That would be fine,’ said Mrs Dybek. ‘And I’ll get one of our officers to run you home now and make sure that it’s all clear. Make sure you’re safe. Will that do you?’
‘Yes,’ sniffed Mrs Dybek. ‘Thank you.’
Frank stood. As he did so, he knocked his hat on the floor. He brushed it down and, without thinking, put it on his head.