The rain was falling now in heavy sheets, swamping the sewers and clearing the streets of foot traffic. The wind had picked up too, bending trees and threatening anything not tied down. Shielded by a darkening sky and dense rain, Katrina stands shivering beside the circuit breaker box in the tiny alley behind the butcher shop. The plan is a simple one. Run interference while Michael searches the butcher’s apartment. To eliminate even the possibility of a surprise, Katrina would need to keep him occupied. This she would do by, first, flipping the telephone’s breaker switch on the building’s power box, which, lucky for them, happened to be located outside on the back of the building. As Michael explained, a lot of fires, resulting from faulty wiring or over amperage, have led many civil engineers to demand the boxes be placed outside, in a fire safe area. Once the telephone line had been switched off, Katrina would then make her way to the butcher shop and ask to use the phone, knowing it would be dead. The butcher, blaming the storm, would most likely suggest she wait a few minutes for it to power back up. She’d then keep him engaged as long as she could. Meanwhile, Michael, after forcing his way into the butcher’s apartment, would search all the spare rooms and closets for clues, evidence, even the awful remains of the murder.
So, after cutting the paperclip thin wire lock, Katrina lifts the panel lid. For convenience, the switches had all been labeled, removing the need for the identification sheet Michael had printed off the Internet. Flipping the switch labeled telephone, she lowers the panel lid before hurrying out of the alley. There’s a phone booth just across the street from the shop’s main window. Puddled water creeps past her heels as she steps off the sidewalk. Rushing across the street, she huddles into the phone booth where, aware that she might be being watched, Katrina makes a show of plunking the hook switch several times before throwing up a pair of exasperated arms. Afterwards, she steps back out into the rain, on her way across the street. Seconds later, the door chimes as she enters, clothes dripping, through the doors of the well-lit neighborhood butcher shop.
“Can I help you?” a voice, deep and grainy, calls out from somewhere in the back room.
At the same time, back at the butcher’s apartment Michael removes an old credit card from his wallet. In the tiny crevice between the door and the jamb, he inserts the durable-plastic card at a slight angle, drawing it downwards until it wedges against the latch trigger. It takes about a minute of joggling to work the trigger back far enough to push through the door. As it falls open, Michael is left staring through a large black rectangle at the unseen recesses of the butcher’s apartment. A bead of sweat trickles down the groove behind his ear.
As he steps forward his body is swallowed by darkness.
At that moment, a sturdy, thickset man emerges from behind a heavy plastic strip curtain. His face is large and hard, peppered with thick pockmarks. Behind labored breath, he looks down at Katrina and asks, “And what can I do for you?”
Basic in design, the floor plan offers a modified version of Michael’s own apartment. To his immediate right, a coat closet. In front of him, the living room. To the right of that, a kitchen with attached dining room. To his left, a narrow hallway with three doors, two bedrooms and a bathroom at the end. For the next several minutes, time no longer runs forward but down to some, as yet unknown, expiration.
Michael reaches for the handle on the coat closet.
A block away, Katrina finishes with her more elaborate than necessary explanation of how she’d wound up stranded in the rain without her cellphone and how she’d tried the payphone outside to call a cab but it wasn’t working, something to do with the storm. The man waits through her elucidation before offering to let her to use his phone.
“I ain’t got no cellphone, but there’s a landline on the wall.”
“I can pay you,” Katrina offers, reaching into her purse.
“You calling long distance?”
“Just the local Yellow Cab.”
“Keep your money. Phone’s right over here,” he says, directing her to follow him around the counter. With a rag tucked away in his waist, he wipes the bloodstains from his hands. The phone rests on the wall just behind the cash register. Lifting the receiver, he places it to his cheek while plunking the hook switch for a dial tone.
“It’s dead,” he says.
“It must be the phone’s power grid,” Katrina suggests. “Perhaps it’ll come back on in a couple of minutes.”
“You in a rush to be somewhere?”
“I can wait,” she smiles.
The man stares at her with a peculiar expression on his face. Then, after a moment’s deliberation, says, “Oh, what the hell. No one’s coming in with what’s going on out there. Give me a second to close up and we’ll head over to my apartment around the corner. It’ll be a much more comfortable place to wait, and perhaps the phone there will be working.”
Michael lowers the bed mattress. Like the coat closet, the bathroom, and the spare bedroom, he finds nothing, no body, no parts, not even a trace of blood. The same goes for the bedroom closet. That leaves only the kitchen. On his way to the living room, a sound from the outer hallway stills his heart.
“You know, it’s really not necessary me coming all the way up here like this,” he hears Katrina say.
They’re here! Michael tries to run. He needs to run. But his feet are welded to the floorboards. There’s nowhere to go.
In the dimly lit hallway, a thin crease of light cheats out from the base of the door. Katrina sees it. He’s still inside! Quickly, she begins scanning the area for something, some way to stall them. She looks for a fire alarm but there isn’t one. Desperation mounts. Keys in hand, the butcher reaches for the door, jostles the knob. Key’s jangle. In a fit of inspiration, Katrina spits the piece of gum she’s chewing onto the floor.
Michael hears the swish of shuffling feet outside followed by the terrifying sound of keys being inserted into the lock. There’s a window on the far side of the room leading to a fire escape. The distance between it and him vanishes in less than a second. Palms pressed to the glass, he tries sliding it up, but it’s locked. Scrambling, he reaches for the latch. A mist of rust flies up as he twists it back. The glass lifts easily. Sliding the window up far enough to fit his torso through, he lifts his right leg. His pants catch and tear on something. He doesn’t bother looking to see what it is as he hoists his leg over the sill and onto the fire escape. The slick sole of his shoe slides across the wet metal grate. Rain batters his face as he pulls his head through to the other side. He’s about to pull his other leg through when, looking back, he realizes the lights are still on.
The switch is all the way back on the wall beside the front door.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Katrina cries.
The butcher turns around, startled. Katrina is bent down scraping chewing gum off the bottom of her shoe.
“It drives me nuts the way people leave gum on the ground for other people to step on,” she fumes.
A ravenous grin darkens the butcher’s greasy face. “Need some help?” he asks, bending down.
“I think I can manage,” she says, placing one hand on the wall for support as she crooks her leg against the other to study the bottom of her shoe. “I just don’t want to be tracking gum all over your floor.”
“Here, let me see what I can do,” he offers, as a pair of meaty hands takes hold of her calf.
With the butcher bent low, Katrina steals a glance over his shoulder just as the light beneath the door disappears.
It only takes a few seconds to scrape the gum off her shoe and to pluck what’s left of it out of the carpet. After wrapping it all together in a piece of paper from his pocket, the butcher rises to his feet, patting around for his keys before spotting them sticking out of the lock in the door.
A moment later the knob turns and the door opens. Through the darkness, his hand gropes along the wall for a switch. Finding it, the room fills with light. Entering ahead of her, Katrina watches him carefully, studying the twitching of his eye. She can tell he senses something, something out of place. It’s not something he sees but something he feels. In the doorway, he pauses, letting his eyes rove around the apartment before coming to rest on the window at the far side of the room where a subtle breath of wind flutters the curtain.
Stock-still, Michael braces himself against the wall on the fire escape outside. The muscles in his stomach tighten. From the corner of his eye, he watches through the mesh curtain as the dark figure of the butcher approaches the open window. Michael’s heart pounds so fiercely in his chest, he worries it might detach from its coronaries.
A subtle screech follows as the window is lowered.