It was raining out, the wind roared and rain fell in sheets. It was night; the house was dark, except for a few upstairs lights.
There was a knock at the door.
There was no response, not even a dog barking.
Rapping sounded at the door again.
“Hello?” a voice called. “My van ran out of gas. I was wondering if I could use your phone?”
Nothing. Only silence from the empty rooms and still furniture, and the sound of wind and rain outside.
A few minutes passed.
There was the sound of scratching at the outside lock. Then nothing. A moment later, a window was pushed open. For a second, the house seemed to wait expectantly.
“Hello,” called the figure, just outside the door. “Can I come in, the door’s unlocked. I just want to use the phone.”
Again, there was a still pregnant moment. A black canvas bag fell through the opened window. There was another ten seconds pause.
A figure crawled in. A woman.
The Thief was young, early twenties, wearing a leather and suede jacket and blue jeans. Her wet runners squeaked on the hardwood floor.
She lowered the window behind her, carefully not locking it.
There was a light switch beside the door. She flicked it. Lamplight flooded the room.
She was standing in the living room. There was a couch, large television, comfortable chairs. Bay windows opened onto it. The windows were one way. You couldn’t see in. She’d discovered that.
“Hello?” she said. “Is anyone home? I just want to use the phone. My car broke down.”
As she took off her soaking jacket and tied it to the canvas bag, her studied eye swept the room, cataloguing various items. Estimating their portability and value.
Off of the living room was a dining room. She walked in, looking around, taking in the heavy old wooden table. There was something solid and bulky about it. Its surface and edges looked scratched and scarred from long use. Probably an antique.
She stepped around, examining it. Along the edges of the table were deep runnels. She recognized it as part of an ancient grape press, the grape juice or wine, ran down the runnels.
The house smelled of money.
There were end tables up against the wall, a small door. She looked in. Just a closet of some sort.
In a corner of the dining room, near the closet, there was a dumbwaiter. She slid the door open and looked inside. Nothing. She slid the door shut and punched a button. UP. Only the barest whisper indicated that it worked.
She smiled, amused.
The Thief walked back to the hall, past the living room into the kitchen. She glanced around at the assortment of spotless kitchen gadgets. There was a heavy garbage disposal, an industrial sized blender.
There was a calendar on the kitchen door. She stared at it. Various dates were X’d out, including a three day period. The notation indicated airline times. She put her finger on the date. This was the second day of the trip.
Lots of time to empty the house.
On the other side of the kitchen were two doors. One lead to a pantry. From there, to the outdoors
She reached over to the phone hanging on the wall, fumbling in her pockets for the piece of paper with a phone number. She pressed buttons, paused, there was no dial tone.
The Thief listened for a moment. She flicked the receiver a few times. Still nothing. She stared at the receiver and hung up.
She poked around.
Climbing the stairs, she came to a bathroom. Sitting on the toilet, she used the bath towels to dry her hair. Getting up, she flushed and tossed the towels back onto the hooks. She examined the medicine cabinet, dropping a small assortment of drugs, Tylenol 3, Diazepam, Percocets, into her bag.
The Thief proceeded through the rooms, looking in drawers, and behind wall paintings. In the bedroom, she found a safe behind the medium sized painting of a clown. She left the painting crooked.
In the study, there was a larger floor safe. The Thief sat down at the desk, leaning back in the swivel chair. There was an opened package of cigarettes on the desk. She picked them up, shook one out, and put the rest in her pocket.
She opened the desk drawer and froze, the cigarette dangling from her lips.
There was a nickel plated pistol sitting in the desk drawer.
Gingerly, she reached out and picked it up, examining it carefully.
She pulled the trigger. A little flame appeared at the gunsight. She smiled and lit her cigarette.
The Thief pawed through the drawer, finding an assortment of papers and paraphernalia. There was a ring of keys. She set them carefully on the corner of the desk.
She pulled the drawer out completely and dumped it on the floor, examining the underside of the drawer. There was no combination written on the back of the drawer. She pulled another drawer out, and after rifling through it, emptied it and examined the back.
The Thief smiled.
After emptying both safes, she skipped down the stairs into the living room.
The Thief picked up the remote and turned on the television. Sitting down in the comfortable lounge chair she put her feet up on the coffee table and channel surfed for a few minutes, pausing on the weather channel, before settling onto a Spanish language slasher film.
The light of the television cast strange shadows on her face as she watched it for a few minutes.
Abruptly, she got up and strode to the kitchen. Humming tunelessly, the television blaring softly in the other room, the Thief flung open the fridge door.
She grabbed a can of beer and popped the top, peering into the fridge. She sipped beer.
Pulling out a tub of margarine, she weighed it casually in her hands, before putting it on the counter. There was a jar of pickles, way back. Some cold meats. A couple of tomatoes in the bottom.
Lettuce? She wanted lettuce.
No lettuce in the bottom tray.
There was a salad bowl, covered with tinfoil.
Any old port in a storm.
She pulled it forward to the edge of the fridge and peeled back the tinfoil.
In the bowl, smothered in lettuce, was a severed human head.
Beer went spraying out of her mouth as she pinwheeled backwards. The bowl, overbalanced tipped off its ledge and tumbled out of the fridge, lettuce flying everywhere. She watched with wide eyes, mouth gaping, coughing as the head rolled across the floor, coming to rest on its cheek, staring at nothing at all.
The can of beer lay beside her, gulping as it emptied its contents. Quickly, she set it upright.
The Thief sat there on the floor for a few minutes, staring.
The mouth hung wide open, smeared with garish lipstick, unseeing eyes thick with mascara. It was a woman’s head, but the makeup had been inexpertly applied. Probably after death.
As if galvanized, she scrambled across the floor, tossing lettuce back in the bowl. Her features twisted as she used the tinfoil to grab the head and replace it. She covered the salad bowl with the tinfoil as best she could, and shoved it back into the refrigerator.
The Thief held the refrigerator shut, as if afraid it would open on its own, and took three deep breaths.
She looked around wildly, then hurriedly stuffed the condiments back into the fridge.
The beer went into the trash. Hurriedly, she used dish towels to wipe up the spilled beer, squeezing them out, running them under the sink and mopping up some more. She stuffed the soggy towels into a small garbage bag, and then shoved them into the bottom tray of the fridge.
Striding back into the living room, she shut off the television.
A sudden wash of light flooded the living room. The Thief ran to the door window.
A car was pulling in, she couldn’t see more than the glare of its lights.
She retreated back into the room for a second, chewing on her lip.
Outside, in the rain, she thought she heard the sound of a car door opening and closing. She looked around wildly.
The lights were on all over the house.
There was a scuff mark on the shimmering coffee table where she’d put her foot up. She moved an ash tray to cover it.
Grabbing her bag, she headed back to the kitchen, running swiftly to the pantry door.
Locked. Double locked, inside and out. You’d need a key to open it from the inside as well.
The Thief stepped back into the kitchen, her eyes darted. The loaf of bread she’d taken was still out, butter knife beside it. She grabbed the loaf and tucked it under her arm, holding the butter knife like a weapon.
The front door creaked open. She looked up.
The door closed.
She had to retreat. The Thief opened the other door; it was a shallow closet full of brooms. The next one led to a staircase that yawned into absolute darkness.
She closed the door gently behind her, standing just inside, listening.
Footsteps padded into the kitchen.
Moving cautiously, she retreated down the steps.
A step creaked loudly. Heart pounding, she stopped, a cold sweat breaking out over her body. There was no reaction. Then she continued, carefully as she could.
She took a few tentative steps into the darkness, reaching into her pocket for matches.
Suddenly the basement lights turned on. She heard heavy footsteps on the stairs.
Taking in the basement at a glance she saw an assembly of crates and trunks, rough hewn wooden walls, locked by simple doors. The basement had been sectioned off; the area that she was in was small. She’d hoped to hide behind the furnace, but it was behind one of the locked doors.
Who would lock the doors in the basement?
The sort of man who would keep a severed human head in the refrigerator.
The Thief crouched behind the stairs, turning her face away into the wall. The stair creaked loudly above her. She struggled not to whimper, her body trembled uncontrollably. Three more footsteps. A shadow passed over her, footsteps moving past. Keys rattled. There was the sound of a lock being turned.
She looked out to see a broad back disappearing into one of the rooms.
The Thief stuffed the loaf of bread under the stair. Scrambling out from behind the stairs she began to climb the steps. On the third step, her foot hovering above the next step, she stopped. Brow furrowing with concentration, the Thief slowly lowered her foot to the fourth step and leaned weight on it.
With a sigh of relief, she lifted her foot high, skipping the next step and pulled herself up. Moving as quietly as she could, she fled up the next few steps out into the kitchen.
For a second, the Thief examined the basement door, but could see no effective way to lock it. Down there, she could hear the man moving around.
She walked quickly and carefully through the kitchen, into the hallway, moving down until she was at the door. She didn’t see anyone else. She grabbed the doorknob.
It was locked. She grimaced. Double lock. You’d need a key to get in or out. It was a security measure that was becoming increasingly common to prevent burglars from simply breaking a window and reaching in to unlock the door.
She stepped over to the window she had come through, and tried to gently pull it open. It came up a few inches with an audible creak. She put down her bag and pulled harder, it resisted.
Behind her, with senses made acute by fear, she heard the basement door open in the kitchen. Unconcerned footsteps began moving towards her.
She turned around and around in a slow circle. Then she leaped up the stairs, taking them two at a time. At the top of the stairs she halted. She’d forgotten her bag. She turned and descended a few steps, retreating suddenly, as a shape passed beneath.
The Thief waited, her heart pounding. She listened.
The footsteps moved on. The dining room door opened, but she didn’t hear it close.
She crept halfway down the stairs. She could see the curtains fluttering in the breeze of the open window, and her black bag sitting in the corner. Just out of sight, she could hear the man moving around.
She listened for a moment, creeping further until she was almost at the base of the stairs. Staring at the bag, the Thief listened to the sounds of movement.
She squinted and licked her lips.
Then quickly, gracefully, she took three steps out into the hall, grabbed the bag, and withdrew back up the stairs.
She froze, the movements in the dining room had stopped. Holding her breath, she waited. Abruptly, the figure crossed her line of view, stepping to the window. It creaked as the man pushed it shut. The figure pushed the curtains aside, staring out the window for a second.
At the figure’s feet, she could see a small puddle of water and droplets where the rain had seeped in through the evening. She stared at his wet footprints glistening, leading away towards the stairs. Her stomach fluttered, and her heart started to pound against her ribs.
The figure turned and without hesitation, walked back the way it came.
She let her breath out, exhaling softly, trembling with relief.
Listening carefully to the sounds of movement downstairs, she proceeded quietly into the study, closing the bedroom door as she passed it.
Kneeling beside the desk, she grabbed the keys from the desk corner. The Thief stared helplessly at the elaborate key ring, at its dozen keys. The nickel plated lighter/pistol was there beside them. On impulse, she snatched it.
There was the soft creak of footsteps on the stair.
She looked up, panicked, and began to fumble objects back into the drawers. She pushed them back in, one at a time.
The bedroom! She remembered the state she had left it in. She wanted to rush into the bedroom and shove the drawers shut. To close the wall safe, spinning the dial to lock it and put the picture of the clown back over it. She could hide in the closet, or under the bed.
She glanced across the study. The floor safe’s door hung open.
The footsteps had reached the top of the stairs.
The footsteps were coming towards her. The Thief closed the safe door, but it would take a yank on the handle and a spin of the dial to lock it. There wasn’t time.
The footsteps were almost at the study. She took one last look around to see if anything was missing.
The Thief ducked under the desk, hiding.
Suddenly, she felt the cigarettes in her pocket. Squirming, she threw the package of cigarettes onto the desk.
The door swung open.
Sweating, breath caught in her throat, heart pounding, she listened as the footsteps approached, heading straight towards her.
They stopped. She heard rustling sounds above her. The cigarettes. The Thief listened as the man took a cigarette out of the pack, slipped the package into his pocket.
The man walked around the desk. She could see his legs, inches from her.
The man pulled the desk drawer open and began rifling through it. Underneath, she watched the man’s legs. The man was looking for the cigarette lighter, she realized. She clutched it in her hands and whispered a silent prayer.
The man opened another drawer and shuffled through papers.
Abruptly, the figure got up from the desk and walked away, into the bedroom. Under the desk, the Thief could hear a drawer opening, the sound of a match being struck.
She heard the man exhale.
More footsteps. The Thief bent down, pressing her face to the floor so she could peek out from under the desk. She caught a glimpse of the man’s feet down the hall.
Heading for the bathroom.
The Thief’s blood ran cold. Had she remembered to flush? She hadn’t cared. She’d used the towels. In her mind’s eye, she saw them, hanging in disarray. She visualized the man starring at them, in growing recognition of her presence.
She heard the sound of a thin stream of urine striking the bowl.
The Thief scrambled out from under the desk, heading for the hall. The floor creaked loudly under her. She slammed to a stop.
The sound of urination stopped. She held her breath, standing in the hallway. The bathroom door was open. She could almost see the man’s shadow spilling out of it. She waited.
The sound of urination started up again.
The Thief backed away in barely controlled panic.
Up against the wall, there was a dumbwaiter. She sidled over to it, until the bathroom door was out of sight around the corner. A little metal plaque announced it was rated for 200 pounds. Another note indicated unsafe for human use.
The Thief slid open the dumbwaiter door. There was enough room, she crawled in, pressed the button, and slid the door shut.
The dumbwaiter silently slid down to the main floor. Sliding open the door, she froze.
She was staring at a nude woman laying on the dining room table.
The woman’s head turned. She stared at the Thief. She had blue eyes.
She was gagged, the Thief realized after a heartbeat. She was spread eagled on the table, her wrists and ankles bound tightly around with cords anchoring her to the legs underneath.
The Thief put her finger to her lips as she climbed out.
The woman’s eyes were pleading, her jaw worked.
The Thief smiled and shrugged apologetically, sidling around the table past the woman. She moved her head to follow the Thief, blinking.
At the base of the table was a five gallon plastic bucket. It was to collect the blood, the Thief realized. The blood would spill down the runnels around the table, and into the buckets.
The woman squeaked through the gag.
From the base of the table, the Thief looked up at her, past bruises on her legs, past her black pubic thatch, exposed immodestly, past her breasts, the nipples hardened by fear, to her raised head, her pleading eyes. She squeaked again.
The toilet flushed.
They both glanced up at the ceiling.
The Thief spread her hands helplessly, and grinned at the woman. She mouthed silent words of reassurance and then turned her back. Water ran in the sink upstairs.
She stepped into the hall, looking for a likely window. Not the one she’d come through, that had made too much noise. She put down her bag and jerked the window up with all her might. It came with barely a squeak.
The Thief looked back to where the bound woman was.
She stared back out the open window into the safe and welcoming darkness.
She turned quickly, and rushed back into the room. The Thief brushed her hand against the woman’s hair, her teeth bared in something that wasn’t quite reassurance, and placed the lighter/pistol on a dresser beside the table, up against the wall.
She worked at the binding around the woman’s left wrist. She pulled. It came free. They heard steps descending the stairs. The Thief left off as the woman reached over, pulling desperately at her other wrist’s bonds.
The Thief scanned the room wildly. There was the small service alcove, the closet just off the dumbwaiter, she stepped into it, pulling the door half closed.
She heard the door into the dining room swing open; saw the woman freeze, staring in horror. The woman uttered a muffled shriek around her gag.
The Thief pressed herself as far back into the service closet as she could, sinking to her knees, trembling as she watched the flurry of motion through the crack in the door. The sound of flesh slapping against flesh rang out.
Had he hit her? Had she lashed out? Had he slammed her head against the table?
The struggle ceased abruptly.
For a second, there was no sound, except tortured breathing. She tried to muffle her own, to breathe slowly and calmly, but each breath she took seemed to push her harder, until she was almost hyperventilating. The sure knowledge that he must hear her almost tore a scream out of her. She stuffed the corner of her jacket into his mouth, biting on it, breathing through her nose.
She saw the pistol/lighter glinting on the table. It seemed monstrously huge. Any moment now, he’d look at it. He’d see it, and know there was someone else in the house.
The man, without apparently looking, placed a pistol on the table beside it, further up. A real gun. It appeared identical to the lighter.
On trembling knees, the Thief straightened up. Staring through the break in the door, she could see the man undressing. His back was to the Thief’s closet.
As quietly as she could, the Thief stepped forward the two or three feet to the table and retrieved the gun.
A second later, the man turned and picked up the lighter/ pistol.
The Thief clutched the gun to her breasts, squeezing the handle.
Through the crack in the door, she watched the man caressing the bound woman with the lighter. The woman jerked, as he drew it along the curve of her leg. Her hips lifted as the barrel probed through her pubic hair. The false weapon slid up her stomach, circled her breasts.
The woman turned her face away, whimpering through the gag, as he slid the barrel against her cheek. The Thief watched the man seize the woman’s head, holding it steady by force. She struggled, her whole body thrashing against the ropes that bound it tightly.
The Thief took a deep breath and held the gun out in front of her. She steeled herself to rush out.
Did the gun have a safety? Was it on? She paused and ran her free hand over the gun, feeling strange metal ridges and protrusions.
Her fingers felt a rectangular hole in the bottom of the gun. She turned the weapon over and stared at the hole in mute uncomprehending shock.
From the table there was a sudden click, a sharp odour of urine assaulted her nostrils. She looked out through the crack in the door. She’d opened the door wider retrieving the useless weapon. Now she was afraid to close it further, fearing the movement would attract his attention.
The lighter was pressed against the woman’s temple, its flame on. The Thief could see the man now; see a fleeting expression of surprise as he stared at the lighter flame. The pistol clip hung loosely clenched in his other hand.
He’d meant to fire the empty pistol, the Thief realized, and then show her the clip.
The woman’s eyes were wet with tears.
The man could have made a mistake, the Thief thought desperately. He might think he’d accidentally left the pistol/lighter in the dining room, and picked up the wrong weapon by mistake.
But he knew where he’d put the pistol.
What happened when he looked back for it, and it wasn’t there?
He would know.
The woman screeched around the gag, struggled wildly. The man grabbed her. Again, for a second, his back was to the door.
The Thief put the useless weapon back on the table, almost hidden beside a book.
The man turned and picked it up. There was a click, as of the clip being shoved back into place. The Thief watched through the crack, the man put placed gun and the lighter on another narrow wall table behind the woman.
With economical movements, he removed the other objects, books, magazines, a small vase of flowers, from the table near the Thief to the other table.
The man stood at the table. The Thief shrunk back, crouching. She could see the man’s arms; almost see the tip of his face in profile as the man unrolled a leather packet. The man lifted it. The Thief caught glints of silver. Silver and surgical sharpness.
The man laid it standing upright against the edge of the table. With professional calm, the man unrolled another leather bundle, pushing it against the first, so that it held the first in its upright position.
With exquisite care the man began unwrapping separate, strange silver instruments. They caught the light as he held them, exposing strange curves and clasps and serrated sharp edges.
Through the crack in the door, the Thief could see the woman glancing at the man, then determinedly looking away.
The man turned to the woman.
He caressed her forehead. Tried to pull her face over to look at the instruments. She struggled. He gripped her head fiercely, turning it to face the rows of instruments. Reaching into her eyes with his fingers, he pulled her eyelids open, holding her so she could stare.
The Thief stuffed the corner of her jacket into her mouth, breathing hard. Her stomach churned, a pit of acid. She struggled not to throw up.
Abruptly, the man released the woman, heading towards the closet.
The Thief almost screamed.
But the man just stood in front of the table. The Thief watched the man’s hand gently touch the instruments, fingering their surfaces in mock indecision.
The Thief could see the gun on the table behind the woman’s head. She would have to get past the man to reach it.
The hand selected a delicate scalpel and withdrew.
The Thief stared at the glints of silver and almost reached for them. It would at least make them almost equal.
No. The man was too close to the gun.
Through the crack, she saw the man caressing the woman’s face with the scalpel. His face close against hers, he slid the scalpel down between her breasts, sighting along the line of her body.
Past her body. The Thief watched the man’s expression shift as he stared down past the line of her body, out the dining room.
He’d seen something.
The man stood up from the bound woman, staring out of the room. The Thief shrunk back further into the closet, pressing herself against the wall, staring hypnotized at the crack, and at the slice of the man it revealed.
Suddenly, it moved. The man crossed in front of the table, stepping out of the room.
The Thief waited a heartbeat. She left the closet, stepping towards the gun. She grabbed the longest knife she could see from the leather casings. Four strides took her to the pistol. Her hand hovered uncertainly. The pistol and the lighter were identical.
Behind her, the woman squeaked.
The man was standing there, on the other side of the table, naked, holding her black bag. He was huge, well over six feet tall; his frame was ridged with muscles. The man grinned, baring perfect teeth, his blue eyes flashing.
He rushed the Thief. The black bag bounced off the Thief’s body as she grabbed for the gun. The man was almost on top of her. She waved the knife and pulled the trigger. A small flame appeared at the end of the pistol muzzle.
The man slammed her up against the wall, the lighter flying from her hand. The table overturned. The Thief, struggling wildly somehow pushed the man back. They fell against the dining table, for a brief second, the Thief felt the woman’s body at her back. Then they rolled off.
The Thief came down on top of the man. Her knee kicked, but missed the man’s groin. He held her wrist in a vicelike grip, forcing the knife from her nerveless fingers. The man, grinning, punched the Thief. They rolled until the man was on top of the Thief. He slammed the Thief’s head against the floor. Blood filled her nostrils.
Out of the corner of her eye, the Thief saw a glint of nickel plated silver. With a final effort, she squirmed out from under the man and scrambled across the floor towards it.
As her fingers closed on it, she froze at the touch of something small and hard at the base of her skull.
Carefully, she turned, looking back.
The man, grinning, held the pistol above the Thief’s eyes, pressing against her forehead.
His blue eyes flashed, his grin grew even wider, his pearl white teeth gleamed.
He pulled the trigger.
A small lighter flame emerged.
* * *
It was raining out. Thunder pealed and lightning cracked, rain came down in sheets.
The door to the house opened, its white silhouette of interior light cutting through the night.
The Thief stepped out into the rain, ignoring it, glancing around. Behind her, came the woman, dressed now.
Calmly, they walked to the car. The Thief selected among keys until he found one that opened the car door. The woman entered the car, reaching over to unlock the other door as the Thief crossed over.
After a moment, the car started up and drove away.
The rain continued to pour.