I hung around the apartment this morning, my work lying untouched on my old colleague’s huge wooden desk. Mostly I stayed by the window that overlooked the street, watching the movement of cars as they parked and unparked. Once or twice, I thought a certain vehicle was loitering around a little too long for my taste, but then they would pick up a passenger or drop one off and I’d be left feeling frustrated.
At some point in the long afternoon, I heard a familiar commotion on the staircase—gravelly cursing, the clang of metal, the shuffling friction of clothing. From the window, I watched Erdnuss heave a trolley of egg cartons over the street to his truck and was amazed again at the old man’s brawn. I watched him nearly crash into a passing bus and I decided this was my opportunity.
I stole up the staircase to the top floor, giving the old man’s door a sharp rap for good measure. Nothing, no response.
The ladder was weathered, stripped of its outer coat of paint, full of splinters. I inched my way up, stopping now and then to listen for any sounds from below, but I appeared to be safe. As I climbed, I got this flash of my current colleagues as they would be now—sat at their desks, happily working, maybe getting ready to go for lunch soon. How long since any of them climbed a rotten ladder? Probably many years.
I pushed my way through the door in the roof and emerged into the rooftops of the Capital. I blinked. All around were chimney stacks and satellite dishes and white-painted walls reflecting the sun.
‘Hello?’ I said, then, ‘Hello?’ in their language.
Nothing came back to me. No sound at all.
I crossed the nearest open space and peered around the corner. There was a cage there of dark wood and chicken-wire and my breath caught in my throat, thinking, thinking… But I heard the soft coo of birds and saw it was doves or pigeons or whatever inside the cage. I came close to them and fifty black beads observed my every movement.
I sort of laughed at the feeling of panic leave my system. It was a pretty good feeling. I sniffed and pressed my nose closed and realised I had been an idiot to think there was anything untoward up there.
And then—on the far side of the rooftop, something glinting in the sun. I went over and crouched. Attached to the rigid piping there was a pair of handcuffs, sharp and new. Beside them, a brown pair of men’s shoes were lined up against the wall, a wristwatch laid across the toe of the shoe nearest me.
There was something intensely familiar about that watch. I knew I had checked the time on it at least once before. It must have belonged to my old colleague. What other explanation was there?
I darted up and the caged birds fluttered all together in fright.