Joseph’s leg was going to sleep. He hadn't counted on waiting this long. He’d been sat in his car for about an hour, no, at least an hour. He should have been and gone by now. In and out. This was getting ridiculous. Finally he saw a shape move behind the glass front door of the block of flats. He grabbed the three shopping bags and was out of the car like a shot. He was across the street and juggling the bags around, trying to get one hand into his pocket, by the time the old man was hefting the door open. He looked up at the moustachioed gentleman in his heavy navy Barbour coat and smiled at him apologetically, making sure the bags looked heavier than they were. The man nodded, stepped aside, and let him slip by. Joseph was inside.
He moved quickly over to the lift, still carrying the bags on the off chance that the old man looked back. He saw an A4 sheet of paper sellotaped to the lift door. Out of order. Shit. Never mind. He refused to allow himself time to think. He would go up to the fourth floor as planned. He had been watching the couple that lived there. They should be out at work for at least another hour. That was the flat, that was that.
He considered dropping the bags but decided against it. Just in case. He started up the stairs, counting the floors in his head as he went. He fought the urge to panic. This was fine. It was just a broken lift. Nothing had changed. Third floor. Just keep going. Keep the head down. Look like you’re finding your keys.
Caught between keeping going and stopping, he almost tripped on the step. Get it together, he told himself. Take a breath. He looked up. A thin, dark-haired woman, dark blue jumper, black skirt, standing by door 37A, one orange plastic bag in her hand, looking at him. She didn't seem to pose an immediate problem. He smiled. Keep moving.
“Hi there,” he said, and turned to go.
“You’re on the fourth floor, right?” she asked.
He stopped again. Of course there had been the chance that someone might see him, might want to talk to him, why was he fumbling? He was better than this. He was good at this. No backing out now.
“That’s right,” he said, with a grin that was friendly enough, a few teeth, but not so friendly as to suggest he wanted to keep talking.
“McGrath?” she asked.
He nodded. Maybe a mistake but too late. He was now McGrath. The woman smiled and he reminded himself that, pretty as she was, she wasn't smiling at him, she was smiling at McGrath.
“I spoke to your wife yesterday. I’m Lydia. Lydia Schwartz? She said that you’d both be coming for a drink. I guess she’s running late, but why don’t you come in?”
He made noises that he hoped were discouraging. Clock ticking. Time to get going. But she was having none of it.
“Please, come in and have a drink.”
He paused. She smiled again. It was a tough smile to say no to. Slightly fragile in that way that Joseph found very difficult to risk upsetting.
“Come on. You look like you could use a drink. Come on. I’m not taking no for an answer. I’ll take offence if you don’t.”
And before he knew it he was walking towards her, walking right through the front door. How could he be so stupid? He would leave quickly. He could fake a phone call. Suddenly notice the time. Remember some prior engagement.
Maybe he didn't have to. As he slipped off his shoes and followed her down the corridor he told himself that there was sure to be enough worth taking here. Same area, same building even. Better to take advantage of this situation, not go chasing after a plan that was completely wrecked. She wouldn't even have to know. He wasn't a violent man, there was no need for any of that, was there? No. He would wait until she was out of the room, then he would grab a couple of things and go. Easy.
She was staring at him. She’d been talking to him and he’d let himself drift. This was no good. This was not helping.
“Sorry, I was miles away,” he said, and smiled. Aiming for reassuring.
“I just asked what I could get you to drink.”
He asked for tea. No need for anything to muddle his head. He was muddled enough already.
“Great,” she said, “I’ll make a pot. Do you want to come and take a seat in the kitchen?”
He didn't but couldn't see any way around it. He followed her into the kitchen and sat on one of the flimsy-looking wooden chairs as she took off her coat and threw it over the door. As the kettle grumbled into life she turned to look at him, one hand on her hip. It might have been something about the way she was standing or the way that the light was hitting her but he was finding it difficult to keep thinking clean thoughts. It was the nervousness, he told himself. It had him all jittery. He couldn't be preoccupying himself with this now. He was here to do a job. In a way she should count herself lucky, he thought. He wasn't a violent man. And he certainly wasn't the kind of man to...well, he would never do that. The fact that he even thought about thinking it made him uncomfortable. Was he an intruder? He’d been invited in. Forget it; he was just going to grab a few valuables and leave. Make the best of a bad situation. Quick sip of tea. The back of his tongue felt bone dry. It was that nervousness again, creeping up from the stomach, right up to the back of the throat.
“So how are you finding the flat so far?” she asked.
“It’s lovely,” he said. “Really very nice”
“And does your wife like it? Are you happy?”
“She is. We’re very happy in it.”
She frowned. Her brow furrowed. Something in Joseph’s gut did an unhappy back-flip. Maybe his answers were too simple. Not enough detail. He took a moment to collect himself.
“Well,” he said finally, “We’re very happy. To be honest, though, we could be happier with the flat. It’s not quite as it was described to us. There’s...” and he thought of a good turn of phrase, “quite a lot to be desired.”
She bit her lip. The panic helped him think clean thoughts.
“How do you take your tea?” she asked, and he told her that just a splash of milk would be fine. She put it gently down on the table in front of him. He took a sip and burned his tongue.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Before Joseph could tell her that his scalded tongue wasn't her fault she grabbed his hand and continued. There was something in her face that he’d been too preoccupied to notice before. That smile wasn't fragile. It was broken.
“ I've invited you in under a false pretence.” She paused. “Am I saying that right? False pretences? There’s something I simply have to tell you. And I really don’t...I didn't know how to tell you but I simply have to, there’s no other way. Your wife has been sleeping with my husband.”
She paused for a moment, presumably to let the fact sink in. Joseph didn't know what to do. He tried to look shocked and confused. Not much of a stretch.
“I know, you've only just moved in and already he’s sticking his...I’m sorry, I know this is a terrible way to find out, but I just went up there to ask her what time you were getting home and the door was unlocked and I thought maybe you were already there so I went in to say hello and they were there and he was there and he was and she and they...”
She paused for breath. She took a gulp of air so big it Joseph thought he could sense it leaving the room.
“I knew he was unhappy but...I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I’m being so selfish. You've been...Can’t we just...”
She looked into Joseph’s eyes and he forgot everything. He stopped thinking. There was only her. The trembling, broken smile under the tears running from those big green eyes. Any control he had over the situation was lost forever when she reached out and took his hand.
There was a scream from upstairs. She took her hand away. It was a man screaming. Howling. She grabbed his hand again.
“You have to understand, Mr. McGrath, I had to do it. I couldn't let them get away with it. Get away with doing that to me, to the both of us? Don’t you understand? I was trying to tell you, trying to explain, tell me you wouldn't have done the same thing...”
The screamer from upstairs began to form words. At first they were indistinguishable sounds but they quickly made sense. He heard the word “dead.” Then he heard the word “wife.” He was suddenly aware that he had to leave. Right now. But something in her staring eyes kept him rooted to his creaking seat.
Her grip on his hand tightened. Her nails dug into his hand. He yelped as tiny pools of blood formed around her fingertips.
“Who are you?” she asked.