Peter Brophy felt the usual stab of fear in his gut as he opened the front door, but it barely stopped him these days. Since he had met Marketa Jelinkova he had changed. He could feel it. He had purpose. He was walking with a straight back and two inches taller. Only that day he had been set on a collision course with another man on the pavement outside Pret A Manger on Tottenham Court Road, and then, at the last moment, it was the other man who gave way. Admittedly, Pete was so disconcerted he walked straight into an Evening Standard vendor, but, as he helped the man pick up his papers, he assumed that collision would have happened anyway. Some things were inevitable.
He checked his pigeon hole – a couple of window envelopes, nothing exciting, oh, hang on, is that…? – and heard a click behind him. Oh, God, he thought. He felt a cringe coming on, his face tightening as if he were looking into a bright light, all that confidence suddenly evaporating, like dry ice.
‘Evening,’ said Donna as she stepped out of her flat.
‘Hello,’ said Pete. He could barely look at her. This was excruciating. Bloody junk mail. If there had been nothing in his pigeon hole he would have been opening the door of his own flat by then. He did not need a new bloody credit card. If he had wanted a new bloody credit card, he would have…
‘I see we’re getting a new neighbour,’ Donna said, as she opened the front door.
‘Oh?’ Pete turned to her. This was the first time she had spoken to him since he was thrown out of Carny.
‘Lettings agent was sniffing around today. The police must have given the all-clear.’
For some reason it had not occurred to Pete that the flat would pass on to somebody new. On some level he was aware that it must, but it seemed wrong. More erasure of Jerzy’s traces.
‘You’d think,’ said Pete, ‘it would be a difficult flat to let, y’know, with…’
He nodded. ‘I wonder what they’ll do with all his stuff.’
‘Yeah. Anyway, new neighbour, new start…’
‘I hope he has more luck than the last one,’ Pete said.
Donna shook her head and slammed the front door behind her before he could apologise for the inappropriateness of what he had just said. Against the odds, beyond the bounds of what had previously been considered human ability, somehow Pete had made the situation with Donna worse. He dragged himself up the stairs to his flat. Once again on the sofa, with the sound of the kettle’s slow hiss as the element heated up, drifting from the kitchen, he did his daily search for news of Jerzy Gruszka. There was nothing new – no arrests, no fresh appeals for information. The waters were closing around Jerzy’s body, and it felt as if Pete were the only one trying to keep it afloat. He pulled out his notes about his conversation with Marketa, scrawled the previous night as soon as he had returned from Portobello Road, while it was still fresh, if whisky-soaked, in his memory. He pored over them, reading again and again about the break-up of Jerzy and Marketa, and Jerzy’s stupid plan. Where would he keep the files he had downloaded? He would not have printed them out, surely? No, he had tweaked Karl Chapman’s nose, but he was not a moron. Weird mix of clever and stupid – that was what Marketa had said about himself in the pub. Maybe she saw a bit of Jerzy in him. Maybe Pete saw a bit of Jerzy in himself.
OK, so what would I do? Pete wondered. He would save it somewhere, somewhere permanent. He would not keep it in the cloud. What a ridiculous name, not exactly reassuring. Keep your data in a wafty and disparate vapour, which could blow away in a soft breeze? No, thank you. Maybe if they had called it ‘The Vault’ he might have been minded to keep things there. Anyway, anybody could get at the data in the cloud, if they knew where to look. No, Jerzy would keep it within sight. Somewhere nobody else would think to look, but somewhere he could grab it in a hurry. And the man was an inveterate show-off – listen to my musical taste, see how clever I am, look, my goth friends, I have downloaded episodes of your favourite programme that even the network has not broadcast. The fact that he actually told Karl Chapman – Karl bloody Chapman – what he had done just proved he could not help himself. He would preserve the files in a way that would just demonstrate how clever he was. It would not be immediately obvious, so that he could unveil them with a flourish.
The files had to be in Jerzy’s flat. He could not keep them in work. He was surrounded by IT experts who might stumble upon them. They had to be in his flat. Pete was becoming more and more convinced of it.
So, what was he going to do about it? The kettle clicked off in the kitchen. He poured the boiling water over the tea bag in his mug, the one Sara had brought him back from York, the one that he chipped that same day, and could not bear to throw away.
He had to get into that flat, that was the only way, wasn’t it? Ridiculous. What was he going to do? Break in? This was a dead end.
No. No more dead ends. He watched the tea brew in the cup and started to think. He pulled the phone out of his pocket.
I need some advice. Can you talk for five mins?
Shes just gone off. U want to
talk or text
Talk, ideally. But if you can’t,
No its ok Si is out let me just
have something to eat. Ill call u
‘What’s up?’ Alice did not have time for preamble.
‘Is Daisy OK? She was up…’
‘Oh, she was just being a little sod. She found about 12 different reasons why she couldn’t go to sleep. Getting her up tomorrow will be fun. What’s wrong?’
‘It’s hard to say…’
‘Please don’t let it be one of those conversations, Peter, I have to catch up with House Of Cards before Si gets home. What is it?’
‘I can’t tell you exactly’ said Pete. ‘It’s… I have to do something. It’s really risky and if I mess it up there will be… consequences. But if I don’t try it, I’ll never forgive myself.’
‘I see… No, I don’t see. Is this about a girl?’
‘No! Well, not exactly, it’s, erm…’
‘If you say “complicated” I am going to reach down this phone and punch you in the face.’
There was a pause. ‘There’s something you haven’t considered,’ Alice said.
‘What if you do this risky thing, and you actually succeed?’
‘Yeah, I’m kind of assuming I won’t.’
‘Stop doing this, Pete. You’re better than this. I know when you’re determined you can do anything. Your trouble is you seem to be determined to mess up. If you want to do this thing, then do it, and assume you’re going to succeed. Just be positive. For a change.’
‘So you think I should do it?’
‘Yes! Whatever it is. As long as it isn’t against the law.’
‘I’m going to do it. Thanks.’
‘Good. Now sod off. I have television to watch.’
He waited, watching the minutes and seconds pass by. As soon as 1am came he would make his move, and not before. He would need the insistence of the clock to force him to his feet, to action. He could feel his throat closing, blood rushing in his ears. He had never done anything like this before, never anything even in the same postcode as this before. This was ridiculous, ludicrous. And actually criminal.
The clock on his phone flashed 1.00. Pete pulled himself up off the sofa. He exhaled, whistling. Time to move. Gently, he opened the door of his flat, and closed it behind him. The landing was dark, the only light was that from a street lamp shining through the gap between the houses in the next road. He swiped his phone, and used the light from the screen to illuminate the way. He gripped the banister and crept slowly down the stairs, making himself as light as possible, keeping his feet against the wall and the balustrade, reasoning that it would reduce the chances of a creak awakening Donna or one of the other tenants. He could hear his own heartbeat. It was probably vibrating through the wall.
He reached the hallway and checked Donna’s door. There was no light bleeding into the hall from the underside of the door. That was something, at least. He edged down the hallway to Jerzy’s door. OK, he thought, what now? He took his own flat key out of his pocket. Could it really be this easy? The lettings agent was quite penny-pinching. He would not have put it past that shower to have the same lock on every door. He pushed the key in and tried to turn it, but it was no use. Fine, he thought, Plan B it was. He pulled out a credit card, feeling the raised digits with his thumb. He had seen this done a hundred times in films. He shone the light from his phone over the lock and slid his credit card into the space between door and frame. He moved it down to the lock and started to wiggle it. It was definitely easier in the movies. He expected that this was because they knew what they were doing, while he was essentially just fiddling with a piece of plastic.
And then he felt it. It was engaged with something. Something was giving. Was the latch moving? He levered the card. It was moving. Something was moving…
It was the card. He had bent it in two. He needed a new bloody credit card. OK, he thought, it was time to move to Plan C. But that would have to wait until the morning.
Pete yawned at his desk. It was not until after 2am that his heart rate and adrenalin levels had dropped sufficiently to allow him to sleep. Orlando was on a call to a client. This was his chance. He picked up his desk phone and dialled.
‘Good morning, Emily Alliss Lettings Agency. How may I help you?’
‘Oh, hello, um, this is Peter Brophy. I’m one of your tenants on Croft Road, Cricklewood?’ He used a rising intonation, as if he were not entirely sure who he was.
‘West Hampstead, yes…?’ The woman corrected him.
‘Erm, I understand that one of the ground-floor flats in my building has become available. I was wondering if I could arrange a viewing…’
Pete looked across the desk at Orlando. He was on a roll and dramatically oversharing details of the previous evening’s gin crawl with his client.
‘Ah, Mr Brophy, yes. Can you do 6pm this evening?’
‘This evening? 6pm? Yes, I can manage that. I…’
‘Excuse me, darling,’ Orlando said to his client. He leant across the desk, his tie dangling dangerously closely to his mug of tea. ‘Peter Brophy, you are NOT available at 6pm today. If you dare pull out of our night out I will skin you alive and wear you as a snood.’
Pete took this in. ‘Actually, I can’t make tonight…’
‘Monday evening, Mr Brophy?’
‘Yeah, um, the important thing is that we’re discreet. I don’t really want the other tenants in my building knowing I’m viewing it yet, y’know, after what happened and everything.’
‘How about 4.30pm? We could fit you in then.’
Orlando was regarding him intently, like a cat watching a bird through French windows. ‘Yeah, that’ll be fine,’ Pete said. He had ordered some items over the internet, and he could not move to the next part of his plan until they had arrived in any case. Maybe he should just relax and enjoy his weekend.
By 10pm, Pete was outside himself looking in, as if he were controlling a Pete-shaped avatar in a video game while somebody constantly nudged him. The sounds of the Porterhouse were whooshing in his ears. Across the bar, around the corner, he could see Siobhan and Rakesh from graphics downing shots. That was way too much for him.
‘Do you want to sit down?’ Orlando asked.
‘I think I need to,’ said Pete.
He followed Orlando through a virtually impermeable wall of people, squeezing between drinkers while trying not to spill any drinks. He would not even have attempted this had he been sober, but lack of sobriety made the task considerably more difficult. Orlando led him up stairs and down steps, from level to level until they finally found a table. Pete placed his pint down carefully and fell into a chair.
‘Shall we go to karaoke?’ said Orlando.
Pete slapped him on the shoulder. ‘Karaoke! Brilliant! Yes, Orlando, yes, we shall go to karaoke and we shall sing like angels. Not Karen, though, for she is shit. Am I too loud? Do I sound drunk? I think I sound drunk.’
‘God, you needed this,’ said Orlando.
‘You’ve been walking around work like a tight-arsed fly ever since you-know-what.’
‘Is a tight-arsed fly a thing…? Yeah, I know.’
‘And you’re actually thinking of moving into that poor man’s flat?’
‘I mean, I’ve heard of “tight as a gnat’s chuff”, but never a tight-arsed fly… God, you are so nosy. No, I just want to have a look around.’
‘Why would you want to do that?’
‘Well, Orlando, between you, me, and this soggy beermat, I want to look around the place to see if I can find out who killed him… I shouldn’t have told you that.’
Orlando laughed. ‘You goose. You silly, silly goose. I’d go so far as to call you a tinker, I really would.’
‘I need a big wee,’ announced Pete. Orlando threw a thumb over his shoulder to indicate vague directions, and Pete stumbled to his feet, staggering as directed.
‘Pete?’ A woman’s voice. He turned around and saw a familiar face. Oh, God, what was her name? Sara’s friend. Something beginning with M.
‘Hello! How are you? I’m going for a wee.’
‘Have you been drinking?’ the woman said.
He leant in to her conspiratorially. ‘I am going to let you into a secret. We are in a pub. It’s kind of what they are for. Mel!’
He was delighted to have remembered. He had no idea for what Mel was short. He had never thought to ask. Melanie, or Melinda, or Melissa? Might as well be Melisma, for all he knew, or Melvin. Or Melon.
‘How are you keeping?’ she said. ‘I read about that man who was killed. What a horrible thing.’
‘I’m OK. Bit pissed. And you’re OK?’
Mel nodded. He had to ask the question, even through his befogged brain he knew that. ‘And Sara? She well?’
‘Well, not long to go now.’
‘What?! She’s dying?!’ He felt a stabbing pain in his chest.
‘No! I mean the baby.’
A new pain replaced the old. ‘Oh,’ he said, feeling himself sobering rapidly.
‘Oh, God, you didn’t know?’
‘Um, no. Wow… Erm, no, that’s good. I’m pleased for her. It’s…’
‘I’m really sorry. I thought Alice would have told you.’
‘Alice knows?!’ said Pete.
‘Shit,’ said Mel. ‘I’m not really helping, am I?’
‘No, it’s fine. It’s good news. I’m glad… I really do need that wee.’
Mel gave him a quick hug. ‘Take care, Pete,’ she said, and he disappeared into the gentlemen’s toilets.
When he emerged, Mel had gone. He returned to the table where Orlando waited. ‘Shots,’ he said. ‘I want to do shots.’
That was the last thing he remembered about that night. When he woke the next morning, with razor blades in his throat, an axe in his head, and a wooziness that would not allow him to sit up in comfort, he had no idea how he had got home. He reached for his phone. There was a text from Sara. Oh, God.
Please do not call me
like that again
He did not remember the call at all. He wished he knew what he had said.
I’m very sorry. I only found out last
night about your news and I was very,
very drunk. I don’t know what I said, but
I am sober now and pleased for
you. Sorry again. P x
Sara did not reply.
The buzzer sounded. Pete rolled out of bed and stumbled to the intercom. ‘Package for Brophy,’ the disembodied voice stated. Pete pulled on a dressing gown and slippers, and he descended the stairs to sign for the parcel. His hair sprouted from his head at a number of unlikely angles, he was unshaven, and his eyes were bloodshot. Drool had dried on his chin. He would have been by far the most horrible sight the hallway had ever seen, had not a man been stabbed to death there once. He opened the front door, and the courier visibly blanched. ‘Rough night,’ Pete said. He signed with the signature he had practised since he was 14, and took the parcel back up to his flat. He placed the parcel on the dining table and opened it up. It was all there, he thought. Now for the tricky bit.
Pete seeded his early departure soon after he arrived at Beta Bee Solutions the following Monday. ‘Do you feel cold?’ he asked Orlando, as he passed him the first tea of the day. ‘I’m a bit shivery.’ By noon, he was confiding to Orlando that he did not feel at all well. And so, at 3.30pm, he told Orlando that he could not possibly carry on, he would have to go home and see how he felt in the morning.
‘Will you be all right?’ asked Orlando.
‘I’ll get a taxi. I’ll be fine. Just a virus, probably.’
He picked up his coat and walked out of the building, slowly until he was out of sight. And then he sprinted towards Great Portland Street tube…
He arrived at the house on Croft Road at the same time as the lettings agent. It was not the same agent who had shown him his own flat, but it might as well have been. Blue suit, brown shoes, white open-necked shirt, reeking of Insincerity by Calvin Klein. ‘Mr Brophy? I’m Milo from Emily Alliss, shall we go inside?’
They reached the front door and both men pulled out their front-door keys. ‘Um,’ said Pete. ‘Probably should be you.’ Milo agreed. He opened the door and they stepped into the hall. There was nobody there. Pete felt a rush of relief. Then Milo took out the key to Jerzy’s door, attached to a purple plastic fob, which swung as the key was inserted into the lock. The key, thought Pete, was the key.
Milo opened the door and they stepped into Jerzy’s living room. They were hit immediately by an awful reek. What on earth was that? Either side of the fireplace were shelves filled with DVDs and CDs. No books. There was dust everywhere. Just a month or two’s worth, but it was there. God, that smell. Milo placed the key on the coffee table. Pete stared at it as he slipped his hands in his pockets, and felt for the clay he had put in each of them, warming it in his hands.
‘Obviously, we’ll get that cleaned,’ said Milo, pointing at a red wine stain in the rug. ‘I’m sorry, that smell is awful. Excuse me.’ Milo disappeared into the kitchen. ‘Ugh!’ he cried. Pete crept towards the key, leant down to pick it up…
‘Excuse me,’ said Milo.
‘Just going to take this out.’ A bin bag was in his hand. ‘Obviously it’s been a while. Please, have a look around while myself disposes of this.’ Milo opened the door and went out. Pete pushed it closed behind him, then ran to the table. He only had a few moments. He took the warm clay out of his pockets and sandwiched the lettings agent’s key into it, pressing down hard to make a decent impression. Milo knocked on the door.
Pete pulled the clay apart, and carefully removed the key, then he placed the clay halves in his bag, and replaced the key on the table. ‘Sorry,’ he said, as he opened Jerzy’s door. ‘I didn’t want anybody to see I was in here. Discretion and all that, y’know.’
Milo nodded, and Pete went on a tour of the flat. It was a single-bedroomed flat, like his own, with a kitchen and bathroom, but there was a lovely bay window, and… Pete, he thought, you are not actually thinking about moving into this flat. This is a recce. Focus, you idiot.
‘OK,’ said Pete. ‘I think I’ve seen enough.’
The next morning, Pete called Orlando to explain that he was not well enough to come back in to work, but he should be in the next day. Orlando was so solicitous that Pete felt guilty. He watched out of the window as Donna and the other tenants left for work. There was a cat on his window ledge. It leapt onto one of the branches of the overhanging tree. Finally, when Pete felt that the coast was clear, he went over to the dining table and picked up the key he had made for himself using the items he had ordered from the internet. It looked like a key, he thought. Now he had to test it.
He walked down the stairs to Jerzy’s flat, and pushed the key into the lock. He took a breath and turned it. The door opened. His amazement washed away his fear, and he stepped inside.
The smell from the previous day had gone, but otherwise all was as Jerzy had presumably left it. Pete took out his phone and started to take pictures of everything in the living room. He was convinced this would be where Jerzy kept Karl Chapman’s dirty little secret. Think, he told himself, what can you see? It was a tidy flat, nothing out of place. That red wine stain in the rug – was it relevant? The tidiness of the rest of the flat suggested Jerzy would have dealt with that, so why had he not? Was he drinking with his attacker and there was a struggle? That did not seem to fit. There were no other signs of a struggle, and it was not as if the police would have tidied up after themselves. Neither was it likely the lettings agency had tidied up. The smell from the kitchen would have hit them straight away. A laptop cable snaked from a socket on the wall around the sofa and onto the coffee table. No laptop, thought Pete. Had the police taken it? Maybe, but surely they would have taken the charger too? Jerzy definitely did not have a laptop with him in the hallway that night. Pete knew that for sure.
He moved to the bedroom. It was smaller than his own and yet Jerzy had managed to fit more furniture in there than Pete had. His wardrobe was twice the width of Pete’s, and there was a tall Billy bookcase from IKEA filled with paperbacks and only a few hardbacks. Pete ran his finger along a dusty shelf, examining the bookcase. Something was sticking out of the top of one of the hardbacks, a Polish translation of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. He pulled the book out and opened it. The bookmark was actually a letter in, he presumed, Polish signed ‘M x’, and there were more letters, and photographs – some nude – of Marketa, interleaved throughout. The book itself bore an inscription from Marketa, a gift. This felt private, too private. He took another look at the pictures of Marketa, slipped them back into the book, and replaced it on the shelf. He spent twenty minutes rifling through the rest of the books in the case, but there was nothing else hidden in the pages.
He left the bedroom and started to look at the DVDs and Blu-rays on the shelves in the living room. Everything was in alphabetical order. That was dedication, thought Pete. Every time he bought a new film, he had to move all the others. Pete could not have been bothered. He would rather have bought all his films in alphabetical order and if a decent film beginning with the letter C had come out, then that was just tough.
There was a gap, though, two thirds of the way down the right-hand shelving unit. It was about four or five cases wide. Why had Jerzy not closed it up? That did not seem to fit. Pete bent to see what was missing…
There was a click behind him, the sound of a key entering a lock. Shit! The lettings agent. This is why he should have done it at night, never mind the bloody light. He ran back to the bedroom as Jerzy’s door opened. His eyes darted about, looking for somewhere to hide. The bed was too low. Curtains? No. Wardrobe! He quietly opened it and stepped inside, his feet squashing the arrangement of shoes and boots left by Jerzy.
‘Hello!’ a voice called out, tentatively. A man’s voice. Could it be Milo? Pete could hear the front door close. He held his breath, keeping himself as still as he could.
He heard the man walk into the bedroom. A sliver of light bled into the wardrobe, and was suddenly blackened. The man was standing in front of the wardrobe. Pete felt an overwhelming urge to yawn. Why now? Was he bored?! Jesus.
And then the light came back. The man had left the bedroom. Moments later, he heard the door open again, and slam shut. Pete breathed in again. He counted to 30 and opened the door. What was he thinking? He had to get out. This was stupid. This is what happens when you make yourself ‘be positive’. Betrayed twice by Alice – first she gave him that advice, then he found out she knew about Sara. Why had she not told him? Christ, how come she was still in touch with her? He was going to have to have words. Later, he thought, he would see which DVDs might be missing, and then he could get out of here.
He walked out of the bedroom and stared straight into the face of Tiny Kuba Waskiewicz, standing in front of the fireplace, a cast iron poker in his hand.