Elevation


A rough-draft short written in 2008, about a woman who goes missing. Prompted to pop it on the website in relation to this blog post about Lord Lucan.


Elevation

 

You know when something is wrong, because something isn’t right.


The echo of her laughter lingered in the late-summer apartment, as though she had only just left. No matter how many windows James opened, or how long he left the ceiling fan swiping out its whap-whap-whap, the air never seemed to shift; never lightened.


He walked across the room to the side where his bed nestled beneath a promotional picture of Gillian Anderson. To the left was the only closed-off room in the flat: the en suite. He ran the cold tap and cupped a couple of generous handfuls across his face. When he eventually stopped to gaze in the mirror, he was only faintly surprised by what he saw.


His five o’clock shadow had passed on well into the evening. His thick black hair, once trendily spiked with a glob of ShockWaves, still bore the same gel of a week ago and now stood up flat at the back where he slept on it. Deep, dark bags hung below bloodshot eyes.


He was a mess.


Raising one arm, he took a tentative sniff and recoiled in disgust. It couldn’t go on like this. Something had to give. Progress had to be made.


The phone rang. He picked up the retro, red dial-tone, balancing it against his shoulder. Reaching for the packet of menthols on the table, he found they were empty.


“James Pills?”


“Speaking.” Even his voice sounded like tar.


“DI Benton, how are you holding up?”


“Yeah,” was all he could think to say.


“Not to disturb you, James, it’s just to say we’ve spoken to Mandy’s mother again. She really can't see any reason for her daughter to leave town without telling anyone. Then, you said as much yourself, didn’t you?”


“Yeah.”


“I just wanted to check again, just to go over something you said in your statement..." He could hear the ruffle of notepaper. "You said that Mandy had a ‘crazy sense of humour’-”


“Look, I didn’t murder her. I didn’t strangle her, drown her, or dump her body in the trash.”


There was a long pause.


“That wasn’t what I was going to ask, but it’s nice to know. Are you getting any sleep?”


“Yeah.”


“Okay. Well, what did you mean by a ‘crazy’ sense of humour? Do you think this could be part of an elaborate prank?”


It was James’ turn to be silent.


“You there?”


James blinked and reached for the packet of menthols again. They were still empty.


“No, I don’t think this is a joke. It's for real.”


*


“Push!”


“I’m trying!” she screeched, in a fit of giggles.


Mandy’s blue eyes matched the sofa perfectly, that’s why they’d bought it. Her blonde ringlets coiled like Medusa’s snakes down either side of her face, the majority bundled at the back with a red clip.


“Put some ass into it.”


She turned her back to him and tried once more. The IKEA special was a big box sofa, diagonally wedged on its side in the doorway to James’ new apartment. They’d bought it two months after they first started going out, to celebrate Mandy getting her first ‘proper’ job as a social worker in Green’s Park. She’d supported herself through temping jobs whilst studying, but now she had expendable income, and they could think of a thousand ways to spend it.


“We should have flat-packed it,” she huffed, face turning red as she strained to lever it over the threshold.


“Then what’d we do for fun?”


“You know I don’t need to push a sofa upstairs to get this sweaty.” She turned to wink.


There was a terrific tearing sound as the whole thing, like a bar of soap, slid through the door, knocking James off his feet. “Ah, fuck! My cox!”


“Your what?”


“My co-” he burst out laughing. “My coccyx.”


“Uh-huh. Would you like me to rub that for you?”


She held out a hand to help him to his feet.


“Look at that,” he said, shaking his head.


The white padding of the sofa smiled through a long, curved tear in the fabric. He stood back a little and watched while she traced a finger along the line.


“It’s okay, I’ll take the cover with me. I can fix this.”


“Christ, it’s only IKEA. We can buy another.”


“Waste not, want not.”


James rolled his eyes. He remembered what it was like to have your first job fresh off a course; to know you had money, but not quite believe it yet.


He walked over and closed the door.


“Hey, there’s another box in the car.”


“It can wait. We’ve earned a break.”


She sat on the arm of the sofa, arms folded in mock disapproval.


“Have we now?” she teased, voice husky. She licked her lips, a tell-tale sign that she was ready to play.


He got down on all fours and crawled towards her, coming up between her legs and sliding his hands around her waist.


She didn’t move.


She was patient; steady as the snake who knows its chance will be soon.


Onetwothree


His fingers sprang into action, tickling harder than he had tickled before in his life. With the thigh muscles of a champion equestrian, she clamped under his ribs and rolled backwards off the arm, onto the sofa, pulling him up and over with her. As she turned onto her stomach to make her escape, he straddled her back and pinned her down, magic fingers squirming like many fleshy worms beneath her arms.


“Mercy! Mercy!” She shouted. “Stop stop stop stop stop!”


“What’s the word?”


“STOP!”


“Wrong word.” He kept tickling.


“Boobies!”


He relented, sitting back on her buttocks triumphantly.


A sound made them both look up. The door to the apartment was slowly opening. The tapping of fingernails against wood, eerily suggesting that the person behind it wanted to interrupt without interrupting.


“Hello?” James swung to his feet whilst Mandy adjusted her top.


A man appeared: tall, in a crisp white shirt and black suit. A wide-brimmed hat sat perfectly straight on top of his head, for all the world like an Amish elder. His face was leathery, with the faintest trace of a grey goatee clinging to his chin.


“Hi,” James repeated, taking a step towards him. “What’s up?”


The man’s eyes were little chips of jet, set back in sleep-worn hollows. They kept a steady gaze, looking past him at Mandy.


“I thought I heard something,” he rasped.


James frowned and followed his eyes to Mandy. He looking back. Something about the old man wasn’t right. Just walking into someone’s flat like that, not even saying ‘hello’ or introducing himself.


“Like what?”


The man’s gaze didn’t falter. He nodded towards her.


“I heard her shouting. She said ‘stop’.”


“Yeah, we were just playing a game. It’s nothing to worry about – she’s fine.”


The man kept staring. James felt he wasn’t convinced, so he continued: “I’m moving in, see?” He gestured an arm around at the boxes.


The man looked as though he were physically chewing over his thoughts for a moment. Then he nodded and turned, pulling the door closed behind him.


A second passed. He met Mandy’s eyes and they burst out laughing. “What a freak!”


“Hey," she grinned. "You should tell him to drop by my office sometime, during work hours.”


They laughed again, then James turned to the door. “Ah, what the hell. Got to get to know him sooner or later.” He opened the door and peered out. “Hey, you still there? Sorry – we weren’t expecting visitors so soon. Come on back, I’ll rustle up a kettle and a couple of mugs.”


The corridor was silent.


*


The digital display barked 7:15 and The La’s, There She Goes, crackled into play over the radio.


James rolled over and buried his head under the pillow.


It had been three weeks since Mandy disappeared. One week off a month. Work had been fantastic about it, but he couldn’t stay holed up forever. He was out of food, out of clean clothes, and out of cigarettes. Last night he had decided it was time to venture out. Now, in the cold light of day, it didn’t seem such a good idea.


It’s funny how long it takes to realise someone is missing. When the people you love aren’t with you, you just assume they’re somewhere else, doing something else, with the other people they know. You don’t always know exactly where they are, but you can imagine it. You know that if you called them, they would tell you.


It took four days to realise she couldn’t tell him where she was. She left his place that evening after a cheap Chinese and a bottle of red. They’d christened the new apartment on the sofa, then she’d taken the cover with her to mend. It was a Sunday.


The next day, he’d been busy at work. Tuesday, he’d had to drive across town for a business meeting. He stopped by her house on the way back, to see whether she was home early. She wasn’t, and he was tired, so he left her a note, just a soppy one-liner, then headed back to start unpacking.


Wednesday, he started to feel unsettled. He tried texting her to ask whether she fancied going to the cinema that evening, but she didn’t reply. Sometimes, when they were both bored at work, they’d chat to each other online. He left MSN running in the background all day, but she never logged-in. He tried to call her when work finished. No reply, and still no text message. He drove past her house again and knocked – nobody home.


That's when he'd phoned her mum, when he got back to the apartment. He asked if she’d been in contact.


“No, luv. Haven’t heard from her all week. I assumed you two were nesting?” Andrea replied. They’d always got on well, and he didn’t want to alarm her, but there was a rising sense of unease crawling up his spine.


Thursday had been the day he’d known for sure. He still felt ill when he thought about it. He hadn’t slept well that night. That sense of unease had turned to panic somewhere in the lucidity of his dark-drifting mind. He’d woken in a cold sweat around 4:00 a.m., unable to settle again. He sat up drinking coffee and chain smoking until it got light, then showered, shaved and drove to the other side of town where her office was. He’d sat in the parking lot until it opened, then watched her colleagues filter in. Some of them he knew from nights out, most were nameless strangers in smart clothes. He let the clock tick on a little: nine twenty, half-nine, nine forty-five… Mandy wasn’t among them.


Time slipped away as he talked his mind to some sort of calm. That resigned blank you achieve, to protect your own sanity, when you know that the thing you care about most in the world is already beyond your control. The sensation after an interview, just before you open the letter, knowing that it could go either way and fearing to breathe in case you change the result.


“Hi, Sam.” He smiled cheerfully over the reception desk at Mandy’s closest colleague.


The plump, hazel-eyed queen of the disco divas looked up in surprise.


“Hey, James. What’re you doing here?” Her face suddenly darkened. “Has something happened?”


The guillotine fell.


He knew in that instant that she was missing.


“What do you mean?”


“Well, Mandy hasn’t been in all week. Hasn’t called in sick or anything. We wondered if something was going on? We tried to call you, but I think we only have your old number.”


Colour drained from his face. His hand moved to his mouth, running against his bottom lip as though physical sensation could keep him in the present.


A voice called to him from a long way off: “James, what’s wrong?”


“I have to go.”


*


On the fourth knock, the door opened. It was Marc, Mandy’s father. He was in his late sixties, balding, with silver-rimmed spectacles and a kind face.


“James, lovely to see you-”


“Can I come in?”


They sat in the kitchen. Andrea had already boiled the kettle and set an extra cup down for him. She automatically piled in a spoonful of coffee, one of sugar, and a dash of milk, as she knew he liked it.


Marc sat opposite, pushing his sliding spectacles to the top of his nose.


“What’s wrong? You look ill,” Andrea commented as she slid the cup towards him and took a seat.


“I need you to listen to me. I think what I’m about to say may sound mad, but I need you to tell me, okay?”


They exchanged a glance but said nothing.


“I think Mandy’s gone missing.”


He expected them to laugh, to say ‘whatever do you mean’. He desperately wanted them to shake their heads and say ‘you silly thing, she’s visiting her aunt up North, didn’t she say?’. But they did neither of those things. Instead, Marc pushed his glasses back up and Andrea’s asked him to “Go on.”


He took a deep breath.


“She left my flat on Sunday night. I haven’t heard from her since. She came home, right?”


Andrea shook her head, eyes never leaving his.


“She would have gone back to her house,” Marc said hesitently.


“I’ve been there. She isn’t in.”


Marc and Andrea looked at one another again.


She wasn’t there, she wasn’t anywhere. Nobody had heard from her, not her colleagues, her friends or even her family. She was gone. Disappeared.


They phoned the police.


*


Going back to work had been a mistake. The looks from his colleagues, the sympathetic soft-tone and the simpering well-meaningness of it all had turned his stomach, like he’d been the victim of some horrific car crash. In a way, he had, only the damage was internal and the slightest reminder made it hurt. He wanted to go to work to forget, but they just wouldn’t let him.


He’d lasted until three, then came home. Standing in the whitewashed stairwell of the high-rise, he wondered how he would ever face the world again. Beneath the smiles and the "there theres" he knew what they were thinking. He knew Andrea was thinking it too. The most common cause of disappearing girlfriends are their boyfriends. He’d expected the police to scrutinise him hard, but so far they’d been kind. They didn’t seem to share his urgency. They didn’t seem to class it as a serious missing person’s case at all. They would in time, he knew that - when she didn’t turn up to collect her pension.


He kicked the elevator door. He was tired, he wanted to crawl back under his duvet and the bloody lift wasn’t working.


He walked to the foot of the stairs and glanced up.


One weary foot in front of the other, he began to climb.


Fourfivesix… Two bends in the stairwell between each floor. Up, up they went… eightnineten… He miscounted …ten… and, eventually, twelve.


So tired he could barely think, he slipped the key into the latch and let himself in, leaning against the door as it swung open. Slipping off his shoes without undoing the laces, he walked to his bed and slept for almost five hours solid.


It was nine o’clock and dark by the time he woke. His mouth was dry and his pillow clammy with sweat. When he eventually sat up, he reached for a packet of menthols on the bedside table. They were empty. He was smoking far too much, almost a pack and a half a day since he realised she was gone, but he didn’t want to stop. He stepped into the bathroom and splashed water over his face, then shrugged on his jacket and stepped out into the hall, fingering the loose change in his pocket.


Pressing the button on the wall, he waited for the lift to arrive. He hated generic landings where every floor and corridor looked exactly the same. You could be in a hotel or a high-rise; same stagnant silence, disturbed only by the faint buzz of overhead lighting. A timeless zone where daylight never dared to tread.


The metal jaws slid back, making him jump. There was nobody in the lift, so he stepped in and hit the ground floor. The doors slid smoothly closed and he remembered his sweat-breaking climb earlier. They must have fixed it since.


*


“Hey, my man!” Jiko flashed his pearly-whites as James walked into the corner shop on Lentle Street. Jiko was an Afro-Caribbean guy who worked out and, judging by the stack of papers in the lavatory, was probably a secret Sudoku genius. They’d spent many evenings sitting on the step out back, drinking beer and smoking weed, leaving Jiko’s younger sister to tended the till.


“Jiko, how’s it hangin’ my man?” They shook hands, breaking the shake to clasp thumbs, then back to a shake.


“Hey man,” he turned conspiratorial, “you know I’m a friend, right?”


James nodded. “Right.”


“Well man, you gotta hear what they sayin’ ‘bout choo.”


James didn’t stay long at the shop. He didn’t need to hear street gossip from Jiko. He knew what people were saying, what they were thinking. He didn’t need to hear it from anybody.


He reached the door to his building with a plastic bag, so cheap it had split, clenched beneath his arm. Fags, milk, coffee. It’d keep him alive for a few more days.


He walked up to the lift and pressed the button.


The light was off, the lift was out.


“Fuck you!” he shouted, and kicked the metal doors so hard his toe smarted. “Fuck you, you piece of-”


He took a deep breath.


The stress of the past few weeks was eating away at him like some cancerous rust.


Head lowered in resignation, he began to climb the stairs…


Twenty minutes later he reappeared in the ground stairwell, a deep frown across his face.


He stared at the lift. He stared back at the stairs. He began to climb again.


teneleventwelve. Floor twelve. This was his floor. Only it wasn’t. The one above was. But that would make it floor thirteen, and there were only twelve floors in the building. He lived on the top one. So, whose floor was this?


Putting his shopping bag down, he peered through the mesh glass of the fire door to the corridor beyond. It looked exactly the same as all the rest. Same white walls, same durable grey carpet; yet there was something different about it. He couldn’t quite place it, but something was odd.


Then he saw it. Both walls of the corridor were completely flat. From the door, all the way to the far end, they were straight. No lift shaft. On every other floor the wall on the left indented where the lift stopped.


He laughed. Absurd. Impossible to have a high-rise with a lift that just didn’t exist on one floor. He went to push the door. As the light reflected off the glass he let out a yelp.


The Amish man stood behind him in his black suit and hat. He was no more than a foot away, staring straight through James with his beady black eyes.


The man walked up to him, uncomfortably close, and looked through the window.


“Wouldn’t go in there,” he said, in his wind-hushed voice.


“Why not?”


The man’s face turned slowly towards James and he could feel the cool breath from his nostrils against his cheek.


“I’m no friend of yours, but I’m no enemy either. Stay clear.”


The man tipped the side of his hat and started walking down the stairs.


“Wait!” James shouted as he disappeared round the corner. “You know where she is, don’t you?” He leaped down the flight after him, but it was too late. The man was gone.


James stormed back up the stairs, mind reeling from the encounter. He bent to pick up his shopping, but that was gone too!


The creek of a door came from beyond the glass, down the forbidden corridor. He looked up just in time to see the fourth door on the right close. He pushed his hand against the fire door. It opened an inch.


A sudden shiver caused him to step back.


*


It was three in the morning. James hadn’t slept a wink. What the hell kind of place was this? Freaks for neighbours, stealing your shopping - floors that weren’t there. He couldn’t get it out of his mind. It was a ridiculous hour to be walking about the building, but he had to put it to rest.


The lift was working again. Dressed only in his dressing gown and pyjama bottoms, he stepped inside the metal box and examined the numbers on the panel. Twelve. There had always been twelve. He ran his hand through his hair before hitting number eleven. Systematically, he went through every number on the panel. Each time it stopped, he got out and looked along the hallway. Nothing unusual.


When he got to the ground floor he hit number eleven again, got out of the lift and walked up one flight of stairs to the floor that didn’t exist.


The light in the stairwell was out, but beyond the wired pane of glass the overhead lighting hummed reassuringly.


Glancing behind, to make sure he wouldn’t be surprised again, he slowly reached forward and pushed the door open. His bare feet stepped silently forward on the brittle, grey carpet. The door drifted quietly closed behind.


What had he been worried about? It was just a corridor, like any of the other monotone hallways smelling of new carpet and humming softly to themselves. It had to be an architectural quirk. Perhaps this hall was just set further back from the rest and they forgot to add lift access. Perhaps it was the ‘quiet hall’ for people who didn’t want to be disturbed by its mechanical whirring in the night. Perhaps – he had seen something.


At the far end of the corridor, beyond the last door, there was something piled up in the corner. Something he recognised as he walked towards it.


Something blue.


The IKEA cover lay in a crumbled heap on the floor.


He reached forward to examine it.


As his fingers touched the fabric, the lights went out.


His senses instantly came to life. All that had seemed ridiculously before - the old man’s warning, his involuntary shiver at opening the door – flooded his mind as an instinct to run. This floor was no design fault; it was dangerous.


He felt his way back to the end of the corridor, reaching out his hand to push.


The door wasn’t there. Just solid wall. He hit it with his fists, eyes wide in panic.


Without the overhead lights, and with no windows to the outside world, the corridor was pitch black. There were only two noises: the sound of his breathing, tense and fast, and the creek, creek, creek behind him.


James had never been afraid of death before, but he didn’t want to die. He turned, reaching out with his hand to find the wall on his right. He followed it, feeling the indent of a door. A second, a third, and on to the fourth, from behind which the noise was coming.


With a thick gulp of air, he twisted the handle. In the faint moonlight from the window, his eyes adjusted to see a silhouette in a rocking chair.


Creek, creek, creek.


He took a step closer and knelt down between her legs, placing a hand on either side to stem the motion. It was Mandy. Only, her face was a leather mask of rhinoceros skin. Her hair as silver as the moonlight that tarnished it. Her fingernails grown long like talons, and her eyes completely faded of life.


Yet still he knew her.


Sadness overwhelmed him. A hiccuping half-laugh spread as spears of saltwater splashed down his cheeks. He held his hands beneath her emaciated ribs, softly tickling his fingers as though she might burst into life and pull him over in the rag-tag, rough-and-tumble way they always used to play.


Deep down he knew there would be no response, and there wasn’t.


Wiping his nose on the back of his sleeve, he noticed another silhouette on the table: a black, wide-brimmed hat.


Needles of ice pricked the back of his neck as he stood and turned.


The Amish man leant against the wall, a kitchen knife in his hand.


“What have you done?” James asked.


“Nothing that cannot be undone.”


This was not what James had expected to hear. “How?”


“There is a price. You have to get through me first!” the man said, holding up the knife and stepping forward. His mouth split in an ugly smile, unmasking rotten teeth and breath that stank of death.


James sidestepped, reaching out for the hand as it descended with the blade. He brought his knee up and connected with the man's abdomen. The knife clattered to the floor. Without pausing to think, James grasped it and drove it home, deep into the Amish man’s neck.


Blood flowed forward like the rivers of the Nile. A gurgling, coughing sound erupted from his failing lungs.


The cough sounded more like a laugh.


The man was laughing.


“A price…” he muttered.


Holding the knife, James felt himself being sucked into the man. The serrated edge disappeared, then the wooden handle with his hand still attached - sucked into the bloody mess. His arm, his elbow, his shoulder. It swallowed his head.


He woke, staring out at the dark, empty room. Nobody now sat in the rocking chair, yet still it rocked back and forth.


James' clammy hands slipped against the wall as he tried to push himself to his feet. What the hell had just happened?


He collected himself enough to open the door, a wash of relief flowing through him. The hall light was off, but there was the fire door at the far end, the stairwell light glowing reassuringly through the wire-meshed pane. He ran to it, hope throbbing through his adrenaline-aching veins. He reached for the handle and pulled.


It was stuck.


The sound of familiar voices rose in the stairwell as footsteps, step-by-step, came closer.


It was Mandy!


Mandy and her mother and father appeared beyond the glass, looking like they ever had: real, beautiful, alive.


“I just don’t know if I can.” She paused and her father put a comforting arm around her.


“It’s okay, Amanda. We’re here with you.”


“But I haven’t been back to the apartment since he disappeared.”


Her mother put a hand on her shoulder.


“I just miss him so much." Her voice cracked and she began to tremble.


They turned the corner and vanished up the next flight.


James’ heart missed a beat. He stepped back, stunned.


And then he knew.


In the reflection of the glass, he saw a time-weathered face with beady black eyes and a wide-brimmed hat.


The reflection screamed, but no sound came out.

 

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