The phone is rattling across the desk as Michael comes crashing through the front door.
“I’m here,” he says, lifting it to his ear while tearing back the curtain to scan the wall of the adjacent building. In the rectangular light display, he sees Katrina’s shadow. She’s in the kitchen, holding the phone. Several feet away, the butcher stands in what must be the living room. Eyes on both of them, Michael’s able to monitor each of their movements simultaneously.
“He’s in the next room, so keep your voice low,” Michael says.
“Did you find anything?” she asks.
“I searched the bedrooms, the bathroom, and the closets. Nothing.”
“Nothing, no blood stains, no strange odors?”
“The only strange odor was the heavy chemical smell in the bathroom,” Michael says.
“Do you think he might have put her in a bathtub full of body dissolving acids?” Katrina asks.
“What, like in Breaking Bad?” Michael asks.
“Do you think it’s possible?” Katrina says.
“No, of course not. People don’t just have body dissolving acids lying around. Besides, you saw what those acids did to that bathtub, they ate right through the bottom of it.”
“So, there’s no body in this house? And you’re sure you checked everywhere?”
“Everywhere except the kitchen,” Michael admits.
“The most obvious place?”
“I was being thorough.”
“Right,” Katrina declares, “because you thought he might have stashed the body under the bed where he sleeps.”
“Listen, you need to get out of there,” Michael tells her.
“Hold on,” she says, going quiet.
“What, what is it?”
In a voice, almost too faint for him to hear, she whispers, “The pantry door.”
“What about it?” Michael asks.
“Inside, I can see one of those large freestanding freezer chests,” Katrina says.
“So, I think I can get to it without him seeing.”
“Katrina, you need to get out of there right now!”
“We may not get another chance, Michael!”
“This isn’t a game, Katrina! You need to get—”
“All right, he’s not looking. I’m going for it,” she says, setting the phone on the counter.
“Damn it, Katrina!” Michael hisses, through his teeth.
In the other room, the butcher stands, back turned, facing what appears to be a long bookshelf.
On the wall, Katrina’s shadow grows larger before shrinking and disappearing behind the pantry door. Michael sets his eyes on the one visible shadow. Book in hand, the butcher is flipping through the pages when suddenly his head turns.
Michael looks to the other rectangle of light but it’s empty. Like his own apartment, the kitchen sits behind a wall partitioning it from the living room, making it so you have to pass through the dining room to reach it. It also means it’s impossible to see around the corner from the living room into the kitchen, let alone the pantry. But he could certainly hear the lifting of a freezer lid or Katrina bumping into something in the dark.
Whatever it was that had excited his attention, the butcher chooses to ignore it, returning instead to his book.
“Michael?” Katrina’s voice is in his ear again.
“What happened?” he says.
“The freezer. It’s fastened with a padlock. But get this…”
In the other room, the butcher, still holding the book, takes a seat on the sofa as he thumbs through the pages.
Katrina continues, “Right next to the freezer, just behind the door, there’s a large spool of plastic tarp for wrapping meat. In the garbage bin next to it, there must be a dozen or more bloody towels.”
“I don’t care anymore. I just want you out of there.”
“You don’t care anymore? Michael, this is a kitchen, not a slaughterhouse. If he’s going to chop meat, he’d do it in his shop, not here.”
“Maybe, maybe not. What do we know about how a butcher does his business? Now, get off the phone and get the hell out of—”
“Look!” she says, lifting a long-bladed knife against the light so that it’s shadow casts against the wall outside.
“That’s it!” Michael exclaims. “That’s the knife, the one I saw!”
“I know, I know. But what do we do?”
“Do you think you can get it out of the house, maybe in your purse—?”
The phone drops from his hand as fear lays its cold, dark hand across his heart. His blood changes in an instant from fire to sluggish ice. The phone bounces as it hits the floor. Unable to move, to think, he watches as the butcher’s shadow, having crept up behind Katrina, clutches her wrist.
“Katrina!” he cries.
The door slams hard behind him as he ignites down the stairs. Flooded with adrenaline, he comes barreling down the stairs, out the building’s front entrance, and onto the sidewalk. In full sprint, he races down the footpath. Reaching the corner at top speed, he tries to round it without slowing but on the rain-slicked pavement his feet lose traction. As his legs skid out from underneath him, he throws out his hands to break the fall. The impact opens a gash across his palm.
Blood pumping, he scrambles to his feet, continuing toward the building where Katrina stands walled in with a killer. A woman with an umbrella is coming out of the building as he clears the stoop. He knocks into her but doesn’t stop, floating a meager apology over his shoulder as he rushes past her on his way up the stairs. Still running on adrenaline by the time he reaches the third floor, Michael comes charging down the corridor ready to break down the door. But, fifteen feet from the butcher’s apartment, he pulls up as the front door peels back and out saunters Katrina, laughing and unscathed with the butcher right behind her.
Sopping wet and struggling to recover his breathing, Michael searches for something to say.
“You all right there, son?” the butcher asks.
“I, uh… I just sliced my hand,” Michael says, offering his injured palm as evidence.
“My goodness,” the butcher observes, “you’re soaking wet.”
“Did your sink explode?” Katrina asks. He feels she’s leading him with the question, offering him a believable excuse.
“Yeah, I was trying to drain the garbage disposal and flipped the switch on what I thought was the light. The blades sliced right into my hand. Water went everywhere.”
“Have you called the paramedics?” she asks.
“The storm, it’s been doing funny things to my phone. The power keeps cutting in and out all the time. I tried knocking three different doors, but no one seems to be home. I could really use a lift to the hospital.”
“Is it that bad?” the butcher asks, reaching out his hand.
Michael recoils his arm, “Could either of you give me a lift?”
“I just called a cab,” Katrina says. “If you’d like, we can share it. St. Luke’s is just off my route home.”
“Let me see,” the butcher says, and with lightning speed he catches Michael’s forearm, pulls it toward him. In the dim hallway light, he inspects the severity of the injury. His hands are thick, fleshy. His grip is strong. “Doctor nothing, I can have this thing bandaged up in two minutes,” he says, hauling Michael into his apartment.
Michael gives Katrina a pleading glance over his shoulder, but all she can do is offer one of those, ‘you’re on your own’ shrugs.
Led into the bathroom, Michael is told to wait while the butcher leaves to grab a chair and something with which to clean and bandage his hand. Michael breathes a sigh. At least Katrina is safe. Would she consider calling the police? What would she say? How would she explain it? Before he has a chance to answer those questions, the butcher is back, carrying an armful of first aid supplies and dragging a chair behind him.
“Name’s Wayne,” he says, placing the supplies on the counter. Afterwards, he settles into the chair, scooches forward, and, taking hold of Michael’s hand, lays it flat, palm up.
Michael offers his own name in return.
“How long have you been living on the third floor?” Wayne asks, while pouring a splash of isopropyl alcohol over the wound. “That is, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Ahh…” Michael seethes, as the alcohol bubbles and fizzes into a frothy foam. “Huh? Oh, just a few months,” he lies.
“That’s funny,” Wayne says, gripping Michael’s hand to keep it from moving, “I thought I knew everybody on this floor. Say, which apartment is yours?”
Michael sputters, “I, uh… damn that really stings.”
“You must be in the flat down there at the opposite end of the hall, the one just next to the stairs,” Wayne surmises.
“That’s right,” Michael says.
“Or is that Mrs. McAllister’s apartment?” he ponders. “Say, are you facing the street or back against the courtyard?”
Michael knows he’s in a fix. Was he being tested? Did Wayne the butcher really know everyone on the entire floor? Michael had been living in his building for over a decade and could tell you more about the people in the building across the way than he could about those living just two doors down. And this Mrs. McAllister, if there even is a Mrs. McAllister, did she really live at the end of the hall and, if so, on which side? Did Wayne already know? What would happen if he answered wrong?
“What’s the matter, son, did you forget which side of the hall you live on?”
“No,” he says, “mine’s the one facing the street.” It takes all of Michael’s will power not to peer up at the man’s face, to read whether he knew Michael was lying or not.
“I suppose you would know better than I would,” he says, turning the knobs on the faucet to run a stream of cold water over the gash on Michael’s hand.
After a long silence, Michael looks up to see Wayne studying his hand and the little specks of asphalt embedded in his palm.
Michael tries to gauge his expression, wishing he’d come up with a story closer to the truth. But Wayne doesn’t mention it, reaching instead for a Q-tip to brush the pebbles free. Michael is offered a hand towel before Wayne applies Neosporin to the wound. Lastly, Wayne helps dress his palm with bandaging tape.
“Thirsty?” Wayne asks.
“You know,” Michael says, “I really should get going.”
“Nonsense, I insist,” he says, guiding Michael towards the living room. At the end of the hallway, Wayne stops, blocking the front door while motioning for Michael to have a seat at the table in the dining room.
Michael chooses the seat on the end, nearest the front door.
“Whiskey?” Wayne asks, disappearing into the kitchen.
“Sure,” he says, glancing at the door, which has been both bolted and chained.
“I guess I owe you an apology,” Wayne says, placing two glasses on the table and filling them from a bottle of Jack Daniels.
“You see, I try to make a point of getting to know all of my neighbors, especially all of the people on my same floor. But you…” he pauses, setting his gaze, “well… I don’t know how I managed to miss you.”
Michael’s shoulders pinch.
“I don’t blame you for not knowing me. Sometimes I feel pretty invisible.”
“You live alone?” Wayne asks.
“I understand how that is,” he says, taking a hard gulp. “It’s cruel, you know. The loneliness.”
Wayne brings his glass down hard on the table. “Another?”
“Still working on the first, thanks.”
“Suit yourself,” he says, refilling his own. “So what’cha plying?”
“Plying?” Michael crooks his head.
“Your trade, your craft, the thing that pays the bills, I’m asking what you do for a living.”
“I’m a writer,” he answers, modestly.
“Novelist,” Michael affirms.
Wayne lets out a low whistle. “Would you look at that? Written anything I’d know?”
“Do you read?”
Wayne cuts him a sharp glance.
“That is,” Michael catches himself, “do you read romance?”
“You write romance?” Wayne challenges. “I thought only women wrote romance.”
“A common misconception,” Michael says.
“Well, I can’t say I have much time for reading these days, although when I do, I go in more for crime fiction or spy thrillers. I used to like a guy named Mickey Spillane. But, hey, throw out one of your titles and we’ll see if I recognize it.”
“A Slip of the Tongue, The Night before Tomorrow, Between the Sheikhs.”
“Sorry, pal, not ringing any bells. Can’t be easy though, being a writer. That’s a lonely profession.”
“It is lonely.”
“I’m sort of an expert on loneliness these days,” he admits, holding up his ring finger to reveal a thin gold band. “Had me a wife right up until about eight months ago, when I found out she’d been cheating on me for over two years with a couple of twin bus drivers.”
“Good god!” Michael says.
“I was good to her, you know. Never hit her, never even raised my voice. Made her breakfast every morning, even served it to her in bed. And that’s how she repays me, by ripping the goddamn heart from my chest, throwing it on the mucky ground, and stepping on it with the pair of two-inch custom designed high heels I bought her. And would you believe it, after all that, the bitch has the audacity to petition the courts for half the value of my business in addition to alimony payments?”
“Where is she now?” Michael asks.
“Lives halfway across town in some fancy apartment I’ll probably end up paying for. But, I suppose, it’s like they say, the best way to get over the last one is to get onto the next one.”
“It’s been eight months,” Michael encourages, “surely, you’ve brought a woman or two home at some point.”
“Yeah, but it always seems to end the same way.”
“What way is that?” Michael asks.
“You’re a man, you know how it is. Eight months is a hell of a long time, physically speaking. But these women nowadays, they got all these social constraints, it’s like treading a goddamn minefield and I just ain’t got the patience for those types of games.”
Michael wonders if that’s what happened last night between Wayne and the woman. Had Wayne made a play for sex and come across one of those landmines? Did being rejected cause him to lose patience and try to force himself on her? Is that why she was trying to get around him, why she slapped him?
“It’s not right, you know,” Wayne says. “Man ought to have a woman. Friends, anyway. Man ought to live in a world with other folks. Humans ain’t no good on their own. Too much isolation makes a man go loony, starts inventing things and people just to have someone to relate to. Papa used to always say the worst thing you could do to a man was to ignore him. Said that’s why they put the worst criminals in solitary confinement. Loneliness is a killer, let me tell you. It’s its own kind of torture. Papa would know. Mama left him for another man just before my eighth birthday. Only about a year after that, papa got arrested for making love to a teenage girl who didn’t want any. I suppose you think that makes him bad. Maybe you’d be right. The judge certainly felt so. Found him guilty. But guilty of what? He got fifteen years for being lonesome, wound up dying in prison. I always blamed mama, but I’m starting to think she knew he wasn’t set right. You know, sometimes I wonder if I haven’t got some of papa’s bad blood in me, makes me think bad things, do bad things.”
Michael skirts another glance at the door. It has the telescoping effect of having grown increasingly distant.
“I know what you’re thinking,” the butcher says.
Michael snaps up.
“You think that’s just the loneliness talking.”
“You’re right,” Michael agrees.
The butcher’s eyes go dark. He grows taller in his chair.
“About loneliness,” Michael scrambles. “You’re right about the loneliness. It isn’t right for a man to be alone.”
Wayne’s shoulders relax a little. “Yeah, well, this certainly doesn’t help, does it?” he says, referring to the bottle in his hand. “But it’s worse for me.”
“Everyone thinks it’s worse for them.”
“I suppose you’re right. Though, it’d sure be nice to have someone, someone close. I don’t know what it is about being physically close to someone that just feels… Say,” he pauses, locking eyes with Michael, “you don’t suppose you and I could…?”
Michael’s face whitens. A swollen lump balls in his throat. “You mean…?” His voice falters. It’s difficult to swallow. Unable to think, he begins sputtering, “But I’m not… you see … I don’t…”
“What are you saying?” the butcher barks.
“I think you must have misread something I said.”
The man comes out of his chair. A mass of towering bulk, he stares down at Michael. “I suppose it’s time we refilled that glass,” he says, lifting the bottle of Jack Daniels.
Michael’s legs go weak watching a sloppy stream of whiskey splatter into his cup. He cheats another glance at the door. But his feet are as heavy as lead. He’s lost the instinct, the will to run. Arms flopped to the side, fear and cowardice are forcing him into submission.
“What happens now?” he whimpers.
“You’re going to drink that,” Wayne says. “And then I’m going to pour you another.”
The glass shakes and spills as Michael struggles to hold it to his lips. Behind watery eyes he peers up at the butcher. In a faint and feeble voice, Michael offers one last appeal.
“You don’t have to do this.”
“Oh, yes, I do.”