“She is,” I reply. “Oh, you don't know the half of it. She's the most wonderful girl I could have hoped for.”
“That's a sign of a good upbringing.”
“I can't take all the credit,” I tell him. “She has a very wise and intelligent soul. Very caring, too.”
“Not the kind to go wandering off, eh?”
He turns and wanders over to look at the strange markings on the wall.
“I'll pay for those to be removed,” I tell him. “I'm so sorry, I can't imagine where they came from.”
“Don't worry about it too much,” he mutters. “It's certainly a rather rum display, though, isn't it? What do you think it's all about?”
I shake my head, and suddenly I feel tears welling behind my eyes. I manage to hold them back, as I've held them back since I arrived in London so far, but I fear I'm in danger of becoming rather emotional. Preferring to keep a distance, I turn and head back over to the window. In just a few minutes since I last looked out, the city has noticeably darkened a little more, and rain is falling more steadily.
“Everything is out there, you know,” Tim says suddenly.
I turn to him.
“You can't fix London as one thing or another,” he continues. “It's not good or bad, it's not safe or dangerous... It's everything at once. You can be in a perfectly lovely place one moment, and then you take a wrong turn down a different street and suddenly...”
His voice trails off for a moment.
“Well, perhaps it isn't very helpful of me to say things like that,” he adds, taking another sip of sherry. He's already almost down to the bottom of his glass. “The bad parts are certainly outweighed by the good. And a girl like Katie, with a decent head on her shoulders, should be able to keep herself safe. It's not rocket science, really. One quickly learns how to spot the danger signs if one has a dash of common sense. Although I suppose no system is infallible, is it?”
“This is my first time in London,” I tell him.
“It is? Really?”
I nod. “You must think that I'm wretchedly sheltered, but I've barely left Shropley before. I just never felt the need. I always planned to come and visit London at
point, I thought it might be rather fun to come up for a weekend and see the sights, but somehow I never quite got around to it.”
I nod again.
“Pity about the circumstances,” he adds.
“I just want to find Katie and leave.”
“Well, you mustn't listen to old curmudgeons like me,” he continues, coming over to join me at the window. “London's a city for young people these days, so it's natural that old fogies such as myself are going to see things a little differently. It's all very well for us to stand here, looking out at the place and muttering about all the dangers, but for the younger generation... All they see are opportunities.”
I open my mouth to reply, but suddenly I feel a tear running down my cheek.
“Chin up,” Tim says after a moment, reaching into his pocket for a moment and then passing me a handkerchief. “I'm sure she's fine.”
“But what if she's not?” I ask, dabbing at my eyes.
“She'll come barreling through the door tonight or tomorrow morning, laughing at you for being so worried. I'm sure she'll be glad you cleaned, though. Mum can still be useful, eh?”
“You didn't see her Skype messages,” I continue. “They were awful, it was clear something had gone wrong. And she was hanging around with those two awful people, Fernando and Agnes. I didn't like them at all. From the first moment I saw them, I knew they were leading Katie astray.”
notice that Katie had been entertaining visitors recently,” Tim replies. “I live in the downstairs flat, so I usually hear when people are coming and going. I have no problem with my tenants receiving guests, so long as they keep the noise down.” He pauses for a moment. “I must admit, I had certain concerns when I realized they were staying overnight. I rather meant to mention that to Katie the next time I saw her.”
“They stayed overnight?” I ask, troubled by the idea.
“A couple of times. I think so, anyway. Like I said, I didn't want to overreact, but... I just like to look out for the people who stay in my building, that's all. And from a legal standpoint, I need to have some idea of who's staying here in case there's a fire. The odd night now and again is fine, but when it seems like they're almost moving in...”
I feel a shiver pass through my chest as I glance back across the living room. A moment later, I turn and look out at the city, and again it's as if the world has become noticeably darker. I can't see the rain falling anymore, but I can hear it tapping against the window. It's almost as if scores of tiny fingers are trying to warn me about something.
“She's in trouble,” I whisper.
“You can't be -”
“I feel it in my chest,” I continue, staring at the window. “She needs my help. She's out there somewhere and she can't come home, and she needs me. And if I don't work out what to do fast enough, I might be too late.”
We stand in silence for a moment.
“Well let's hope things aren't quite so bad,” Tim mutters finally. “What do you say to one more drink, eh?”
He starts pouring, while I continue to look out the window. Night has fallen and the view is one of utter darkness, with just a few lights burning bright.
I hate it.
I hate London with a passion. The city has swallowed my girl and I have to find a way to get her back.
Sitting up suddenly, it takes me a moment to remember where I am. My heart is pounding as I look around the darkened room, but finally I remember that I decided to stay in the apartment overnight. Tim was only too happy to give me a spare key, and I suppose those three glasses of sherry made it possible for me to sleep, even just for a few hours. I was dreaming, though. God, I was dreaming, and I dare say I might even have been crying out.
Checking my watch, I see that it's 3am.
Sighing, I get to my feet and make my way across the unlit room until I reach the doorway in the corner. I look at the front door, but clearly Katie still hasn't come home. Once I'm in the bathroom, I switch the light on and see my reflection in the mirror, and I can't help noticing that I look utterly worn out. I feel very stiff, too, thanks to having dozed in the armchair. I know I was dreaming about Katie, and I think she was calling to me, but already the details of the dream are starting to fade away. She needed me, though, and I was trying to help her. It's almost as if she was reaching out, from wherever she is right now, and she was trying to tell me something.
I run some cold water and wash my face.
“Mum, get me out of here!”
I freeze for a moment.
calling to me in the dream. I remember now. She was trapped somewhere, and she was begging me to help her. I only remember those six words, as if she was screaming to me over and over again, but she sounded so desperate and fearful.
“It was just a dream,” I whisper, staring at my reflection in the mirror. “It was nothing more than a -”
Suddenly I hear a bump nearby. I turn and look over at the door, but all I see beyond the brightly-lit bathroom is the darkness of the apartment's hallway. I wait, and a moment later I hear the bump again, and this time I feel certain that someone is out there.
“Katie?” I call out, filled with a brief, bursting hope that she might have snuck through the door during the night and left me to sleep. “Is that you?”
And then yet another bump, as if somebody just stumbled against one of the walls.
“Katie?” I shout, hurrying through to the hallway and then into the front room. There's no sign of anyone, so I fumble for the light-switch. Even after the bare bulb has flickered to life, however, I find myself standing completely alone.
“Katie, is that you?” I ask, making my way to the kitchen, then back to the hallway, then to the bathroom and finally to the living room again. I've checked the whole apartment, but there's still no sign of her. “Katie, say something! Are you -”
Before I can finish, I hear a sudden, brief scratching sound over my shoulder. I turn and look at the wall, where the strange black symbols remain daubed. The sound seemed to come from this very spot, but there's no way anyone could have been behind me. Stepping closer, I reach out and run a hand across the wall, just to make sure that all the black paint is still dry. The markings are certainly very thick, and I can feel little ridges beneath my fingertips. For a moment, almost mesmerized, I trace my fingers across the black paint, trying to -
Suddenly I hear footsteps coming closer, walking fast across the room. I turn just as they reach me, but there's no sign of anyone.
“Hello?” I stammer, looking around, convinced that I'm not alone in the apartment. “Is there -”
I stop as soon as I hear the sound of someone breathing.
A moment later, a loud bump rings out from Katie's bedroom, and now I know for certain that someone is here. I take a couple of steps forward, before hearing a brief, annoyed grunt that most certainly can't have come from my daughter. She's far too refined. I swallow hard, very much aware that I have no means of defending myself, and then I start slowly making my way toward the front door. There's only one way in or out of the apartment, and I remember seeing a security camera down in the lobby, so I'm sure the intruder will have been caught on tape.
I flinch as I hear a louder bump from the bedroom, followed by what sounds like a drawer being tossed to the floor. Someone seems to be going through Katie's things, although I have no idea how they got into the place. They must have entered while I was asleep, and either they didn't hear me calling out or they don't care.
Reaching the hallway, I grab the front door handle and pull. At that moment, however, I spot a shadow on the wall of Katie's bedroom. There's definitely a man in there, but he seems impossibly tall, almost as high as the room and with part of his broad-shouldered shadow extending to the ceiling. I stare for a moment, before suddenly the silhouette of his head turns as if he's looking directly toward me.
Panicking, I pull the door open and race down the stairs, almost tripping over my own feet. The stairwell is narrow and twists around several times, running past several other doors, but finally I get to the foyer. Running over to the farthest door, I start banging as hard as I can manage, while looking over my shoulder to make sure that the figure hasn't followed me down.
Suddenly the door opens and I turn, gasping as I very nearly hammer my fists against Tim's face.
“What's wrong?” he asks, stepping past me and looking around. “Did she come back?”
“There's someone in the apartment!” I tell him, with tears running down my face. “Someone's going through Katie's things!”
“Are you sure?” he replies. “You fell asleep in the armchair earlier, maybe you were just -”
“There's someone in there!” I scream, stepping back. “Call the police!”
“Are you -”
“There's someone in Katie's apartment!”
He sighs. “The front door is locked at all times. Perhaps you merely -”
“There's someone in there!” I yell. “What do you take me for, someone kind of fool? There's a man in there!”
“Hang on a sec,” he replies.
He hurries back into his apartment, and a moment later he emerges with a shotgun.
“License be damned,” he mutters, as he loads two cartridges and then snaps the weapon shut. “If there's somebody sneaking about in my house, I'll bally well give them what's what. Wait here, Winifred. I'm going to deal with this the old-fashioned way.”
He makes his way toward the bottom of the stairs, while aiming his gun up high.
“Wait!” I hiss. “Be careful! Why can't you just call the police?”
“You can call them,” he replies, as he starts making his way cautiously up toward the first floor. “There's a phone in my study, but I promise you, by the time they get here, the bugger'll be gone. I want to catch him red-handed. Let's see him argue with the barrels of this little beauty, eh? I always knew it'd come in handy one day.”
He disappears up the remaining steps and around the corner.
I open my mouth to call out to him, but I'm worried about attracting the intruder's attention. Reaching into my pocket, I fumble for my phone before realizing that I must have left it upstairs. I briefly consider going into Tim's apartment and trying to find some way of calling for help, but finally I head to the bottom of the stairs and look up, just in time to spot Tim pushing open the door to Katie's apartment and making his way inside.
“Be careful!” I hiss, but I'm sure he didn't hear me.
For a moment, I remain frozen in place, before slowly making my way up the first few steps. My heart is pounding and I'm terrified that the intruder will give Tim the jump, but I stay quiet until I'm halfway to the next floor, at which point I hesitate for a moment.
“Tim?” I whisper. “Are you still there?”
I wait, but there's no reply.
“Tim? Are you -”
Suddenly he reappears in the doorway, and he waves for me to join him before slipping back out of view again.
“Is it safe?” I whisper.
“Tim, is it safe?” I ask again. “Did you find something?”
I glance around, still terrified, but I quickly tell myself that Tim would never tell me to go up and join him unless he's certain the coast is clear. I start making my way up the rest of the steps, until I reach the landing and make my way cautiously toward the half-open door. My heart is pounding and I'm still convinced that something must be horribly wrong, but at the same time I know I have to see for myself.
I flinch as I hear a brief bumping sound from one of the rooms, followed by the sound of breaking glass.
A moment later, I spot something dark rushing through the hallway of Katie's apartment, and then Tim hurries in the same direction.
“Out!” I hear him yell. “Go on, shoo! Get back out there where you belong!”
This is followed by the sound of something bumping against the wall, followed by a series of thuds.
“Damn thing!” Tim hisses. “Pesky winged vermin!”
Pushing the door open, I step into the hallway just in time to see Tim running across the living room with his arms in the air. His shotgun is resting on the counter, and suddenly I spot a large black crow flying toward the window. I stare, wide-eyed and shocked, scarcely able to believe what's right in front of my eyes.
“Out!” Tim shouts. “Get the hell out! That's right!”
When I reach the door, I look through and see the crow heading out through the window, which Tim promptly slides shut before stepping back against the wall.
“Crow,” he stammers breathlessly, leaning his shoulder against the wall for a moment. “There was a crow in the bedroom. Can you believe it? A full-sized ruddy crow, just hopping about like it didn't have a care in the world. What's the world coming to?”
“No,” I reply, “that's not what I saw! I saw a man!”
“There's no man,” he continues. “Just a crow. Well, not
a crow. It's caused quite a bit of damage, I must say. They're certainly not the tidiest of house-guests.”
I pause, running through the events of the past few minutes in my mind, before realizing that I'm quite certain of what I saw. I must be a little riled and unsettled, but I'm certainly not in such a fuzz that I'd hallucinate.
“There was a man,” I say firmly. “He was in Katie's bedroom! I saw him as clearly as I see you now! Well, at least I saw his silhouette.”
Tim stares at me for a moment, before shaking his head.
“There was a man!” I hiss, turning and hurrying across the hallway. Before I even have time to consider whether this is a good idea, I step into the bedroom, only to see that the whole place is once again a mess. The duvet has been pushed aside, and several items have been knocked off the dresser. In addition, the bird has defecated against the far wall.
“I think you'll find this was all the crow's doing,” Tim mutters as he comes to join me. “It was a big brute. I wouldn't have minded catching him and plucking his hide, and then shoving him in the oven. They're usually not so keen on coming into houses, so God knows what got into the mind of this one. I suppose he must have been confused.”
“I saw a man,” I whisper, staring at the wall where I saw the silhouette earlier. “A tall man. A big man. He was in this room.”
Suddenly I feel Tim's hand on my shoulder, and I turn to him.
“Don't take this the wrong way,” he says cautiously, “but you must be in an awful state right now. It's hardly surprising that you'd mistake a -”
“There was a man here!” I say firmly, stepping over to the table in the far corner and looking down at Katie's make-up, which has been left scattered across the floor. Spotting something unfamiliar, I kneel down and pick up a small glass tube, which turns out to contain some type of glittery eye-shadow. “This isn't Katie's,” I whisper.
“I beg your pardon?”
“She didn't use this type of thing,” I continue, holding the tube up for him to see. “Emerald green eye-shadow? With
? Absolutely not!”
“I know my daughter,” I tell him, “and I promise you, she was not the type of girl to use flashy make-up at all. Nothing like this, anyway. A few subtle tones here and there, just to make herself look presentable if she was going somewhere special, but she most certainly didn't ever get dressed up like some kind of... tart!”
“Green, eh?” he replies, looking increasingly awkward as he stands framed in the doorway. “Well, I don't know, I think maybe I...”
His voice trails off.
?” I continue, picking up some bright red lipstick. “This is not hers! None of this is hers...”
I read the name from the side of the lipstick.
“Devilish Red Dare?” I stammer. “No. Absolutely not. Not my Katie.”
I stare down in silence for a moment at all the broken and spilled make-up. My mind is racing, but I know one thing for certain. None of these items belong to my daughter. Then again, I suddenly remember that she was using make-up the other night, while we talked on Skype, so maybe she
decide to experiment a little. Only a little, though. She most certainly didn't start painting herself all over.