Nathan wondered if he’d made a mistake coming around. The guy who’d opened the door looked like some lunatic. His eyes were wide and feverish, his hands were covered in blood, and the way he stared at Nathan like he was some vision of the dead was not really how Nathan had expected to be greeted when he’d rushed over to help.
As soon as he heard the banging and screaming, Nathan thought the guy was being murdered or something. Nathan had been about to call the cops when the banging and screaming had stopped. Not sure if he should still call them, Nathan had decided to find out what was going on first. He wasn’t really fond of the cops, not since they’d failed to help him when he’d been robbed a few weeks ago. Granted, this was different, but calling triple zero when it wasn’t an emergency could get him fined, and Nathan couldn’t afford a fine. He also couldn’t ignore the fact his neighbor was in some sort of trouble. Mercifully, being murdered wasn’t it, but the man was definitely injured.
“Are you all right?” Nathan asked again, eyeing the blood covering both the guy’s hands and face, and trying to figure out where it originated.
“Something’s wrong.” The slightly wild look in his next-door neighbor’s dark brown eyes told Nathan as much, but he still wasn’t sure what.
“Are you hurt?” He took another step over the threshold. This time the guy didn’t try to stop him. From where Nathan now stood, he could see the blood was coming from cuts in the guy’s hands, and the blood on his face was from secondary contact. “How did you cut yourself?”
“I didn’t. I mean… Did you put the doll on my bed?”
Confused and a little wary, Nathan shook his head. He had no idea what the crazy man was going on about, but it was obvious he needed some help.
“It looked just like you.”
“Pardon?” Totally confused now, Nathan thought about scarpering back to his own place. Maybe trying to be the Good Samaritan hadn’t been the right move.
“The doll. It…”
Nathan worried his neighbor was going to have a breakdown. The man looked really scared, terrified actually, but then he frowned.
“Who are you?” he asked.
For a few moments, Nathan didn’t know if he should answer—if it was actually safe to do so—but then decided he couldn’t be rude. “Nathan Davis. I live next door.”
“Of course you do. My day just couldn’t get any better, could it?” Though the words sounded sarcastic, the tone his neighbor used wasn’t. He sounded tired, resigned, beaten. He stared at Nathan, his face showing all the signs of fatigue. “You honestly don’t know anything about the doll?”
“No, I don’t. I heard you pounding on the wall, and I thought you might be calling for help or something.”
“I didn’t imagine it. There was a doll.” Every word the guy muttered sounded like he was talking to himself. He stopped staring at Nathan and started glancing around his apartment as if he was searching for something.
Nathan surreptitiously took a look around the apartment as well. It was nicely furnished, which had Nathan quirking up his lips a little. Then again, any furniture would have seemed nice to him, considering he didn’t have any. The large couch was a sectional, which looked comfortable. There was a low timber coffee table, a couple of lamp tables, but what impressed Nathan the most was the entertainment center that fully covered one wall. It held books and DVDs, CDs, and a few pictures, but best of all was the large flat-screen television. Eyeing it with more than a little envy, Nathan sighed. The sound brought a dark brown gaze arrowing back on him again.
Nathan hadn’t really taken a proper look at his neighbor when he’d opened the door, but he did so now. He’d never spotted the guy around the building but knew he’d moved in about six months ago. He was around the same height as Nathan, maybe an inch taller, but he was a lot heavier. Nathan wouldn’t have called his neighbor fat or even overweight because his broad shoulders did taper to narrow hips, but there was just a little extra meat around his middle. His hair was a dark chestnut-brown, cut short, and not really all that stylish, but it looked soft, and his face was, well…pleasant. His best feature though was his mouth, luscious and full and perfectly kissable. Nathan also would have said his neighbor had nice eyes, except for the way he was looking at him.
“Do you need any help? Because if you’re okay…?” Nathan took a step back toward the door, finally deciding it might be prudent to not get involved.
“Why did it look like you?”
Definitely time to go. Nathan smiled, though it was all for show. “If you’re okay then,” he said, taking another step backward.
“No. Don’t go. I should say sorry. My name’s Steve. Steve Forbes. I live here.”
Nathan knew he’d never had such a stilted or baffling conversation before. He’d never felt so uncomfortable before either. He generally got on well with people, even strangers. Everyone said he made them feel at ease. This guy, however, looked anything but. He was still strung-out tighter than—well, every cliché Nathan could think of—and it actually made him start to worry about his own safety.
“Well, nice to meet you, Steve, but you don’t have to say sorry. I was just being neighborly. So…” Nathan pointed over his shoulder, indicating the open door, basically telling the guy he was leaving.
“The banging. It was wrong of me. I promise I won’t do it again. It was the music. It was driving me nuts, but it wasn’t just that. When I heard the voice I just snapped.” Steve’s eyes suddenly narrowed. “It said, ‘stop him.’”
“I assume you.”
Okay, this was getting more than weird. Ignoring the part where Steve had said he’d heard a voice because, well, how did you react to that? Nathan tipped his head to the side. “Stop me from doing what?”
“Playing the music.”
Music? “You mean the tape?”
“It blares through the walls, and you play it over and over again. Every night.” Steve didn’t sound like he was complaining, more like he was justifying his actions.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you’d be able to hear it.” Nathan frowned, really surprised the song he’d been playing could be heard by Steve in his apartment. It wasn’t like he played it loud or anything, and he thought the walls had good insulation. “I won’t play it anymore if it annoyed you that much. But why didn’t you say anything? You could have asked me to turn it down or turn it off.”
Steve suddenly looked abashed as if it never occurred for him to do so, or maybe he’d been afraid to confront Nathan about it.
“I really wish you’d said something. I feel pretty bad about disturbing you.” Nathan felt a need to apologize again, just in case Steve decided banging on the wall hadn’t been enough.
Steve nodded. “I shouldn’t have lost my temper like that. I honestly don’t know what came over me. It just seemed like I…” He ran his fingers through his hair, grimacing as he noticed the blood still covering his hand.
“It’s okay. Really.” Nathan gripped the frame of the door as he backed into the hallway. “Sorry,” he said again but decided that was the last time. If Steve didn’t have the guts to tell him to stop before now… Well, that was Steve’s fault.
Nathan left the door open and headed back to his apartment. As he did, he thought he saw a shadow dart across the wall. He stopped and searched the floor. A few months back, the building had suffered problems with rats, but he’d been told they’d all been eradicated. Wondering if one or two of them had survived or if there was a new infestation, Nathan checked along the baseboard to see if there had been recent signs of activity. Seeing none, he nevertheless decided to notify the building caretaker, just in case. He shivered. He hated rats.
Once safely ensconced within his own place, Nathan thought back to Steve. The man had obviously been very stressed, and Nathan truly regretted causing Steve’s breakdown or whatever it was, but a doll? What was that about?
Nathan wouldn’t have said Steve was a recluse, because he heard his door close occasionally, but Steve never used any of the building’s facilities like the gym or the pool. If he did, Nathan had never seen him, and none of the other tenants had mentioned seeing him either. It could mean Steve was simply antisocial, but what about the doll he claimed looked like Nathan? There was something wrong with that. Seriously wrong.
He checked his door again to make sure it was locked. He never usually bothered because it wasn’t as if there was anything in his apartment to steal. All he had was a mattress, his sleeping bag, a few clothes, and the tape player. Right now the little handheld machine was sitting on the floor in his living room. It was where Rob had left it, and that was where it had stayed.
Ignoring the living room, Nathan continued to his bedroom. That was where he spent most of his time, since that was where all his possessions lay. Rob leaving had been a shock, but on reflection his stripping the apartment down to the bare walls was something Nathan should have expected. He wouldn’t have said Rob was vindictive, but recently there had been times when Rob had shown levels of being overassertive. Even so, Nathan had no idea Rob had been unhappy or that he’d wanted to break up. That loss, however, was tempered by Rob taking everything with him, even the things belonging to Nathan. So instead of Nathan being devastated when he’d come home, he’d been pissed.
The cops had done nothing, and Nathan had suspected it was because he’d told them Rob had been his boyfriend and not just a flatmate, but Nathan had never hidden he was gay, and he certainly wasn’t going to start. So he’d been left with nothing and was forced to buy a mattress, a sleeping bag, and essential clothing, since that was all he could afford. The rest of his money he used for rent and food. He didn’t even have electricity, relying on a battery-powered torch for light.
Throwing himself onto his “bed,” Nathan sighed. The past month his life had been a struggle—still was—but he’d managed to keep himself afloat. Next week he was supposed to start a new job, and he’d have a little more cash. Not enough to go crazy, but he’d be able to get the electricity turned back on and pay the couple of weeks’ back rent he owed. He’d only needed to work part-time when Rob had been there, and he’d found it difficult to find a full-time job after Rob left. The restaurant Nathan had sometimes worked for had offered him a position, but he’d had to wait until one had become available, and no one else had anything, making every effort at finding work frustrating and depressing.
He lay there for a moment, thinking of Rob and the life he thought they were building together, but then decided there was no point dwelling on what wasn’t to be. He’d eventually find someone who would love him for who he was; he just hoped it wouldn’t take too long. Being alone unnerved him. It made him feel edgy and vulnerable, and Nathan hated feeling vulnerable.
* * * *
A sharp, stabbing pain woke Nathan from what had been a restless sleep. He slapped his hand over his neck and almost fell off the mattress in shock. Sweat covered his body, and his sleeping bag lay in a mess at his feet where he must have kicked free of it. His torch sat beside him, and on instinct, Nathan grabbed it and turned it on, illuminating his room. He pushed up into a sitting position and then tentatively checked his neck. His fingers came away smeared with blood.
“What the fuck?” His first thought was he’d been bitten, but when he probed at the site again, he found a long, shallow gash and not something that felt like puncture wounds. Looking around to see what could have caused the damage, Nathan saw spatters of blood making a ragged path across the carpet, but nothing else.
Shaken, he climbed to his feet, and with torch in hand made his way to the bathroom. The mirror showed what he’d felt—a one-inch cut. It looked sliced and was most definitely not a bite, but he had no idea what could have caused it. It wasn’t deep enough to need stitches, though the red drops that still oozed from the cut slithered down Nathan’s neck and soaked into his gray T-shirt.
Grimacing, he pulled his T-shirt off over his head and dumped it onto the floor with the rest of his dirty clothes. He didn’t own a laundry basket, but as he was due to wash his things tomorrow, he wasn’t too worried about leaving it there. What he was worried about was taking care of the cut.
His supplies were limited, but he had antiseptic cream, which he smeared on liberally, wincing as it stung. Then he checked out the rest of his body, but there were no other marks or cuts, no scratches or bruises, nothing to indicate what had happened to him. Though more confused than ever, Nathan decided it had to have been a rat that attacked him, despite it being unlikely, because what was the alternative?
Before heading back to bed, he took a quick look around his apartment, even pulling open the doors of the kitchen cupboards though there was nothing stored in there. There was nowhere else for rats to hide, but to make sure, he inspected the skirting board and architrave. Nothing. No evidence of the little fuckers whatsoever.
Creeping back into his sleeping bag, Nathan decided he couldn’t sleep. His brain was too wired, his body too galvanized, so he picked up the book he’d borrowed from the local library, and tried to read. For some odd reason though, his mind kept wandering back to his next-door neighbor.
Steve had clearly been suffering from anxiety or something. Nathan had never seen anyone act so strangely. Most of what Steve said hadn’t made sense, and the thing he’d spouted about the doll had seemed almost maniacal. Even Steve’s complaint about the music being loud hadn’t really added up. Granted, the tape held the same track—their song, which Nathan played over and over in a masochistic, macabre way—but he barely heard it from his bedroom, and he always left the door open, so how could Steve hear it through an insulated wall? And if itwas that loud, why hadn’t the other neighbors complained?
Giving up on reading, Nathan put the book down beside him. He clicked off the torch, but the idea of rats sneaking up on him in the dark forced him to turn it back on again. Agitated and unable to ignore the uneasy feeling that something wasn’t quite right, Nathan got up and paced his small bedroom. His pile of washing beckoned, and though it wasn’t the ideal time, Nathan decided to do his laundry. Anything to keep from thinking a rodent had tried to make a meal of him.
He pulled on a pair of shorts and the slightly cleaner T-shirt he’d been wearing earlier, gathered up everything he needed, then set off for the basement where the washing and drying machines were situated. Some of the apartments had their own machines in situ, but for the tenants who didn’t, the building’s facilities were perfect. It was usually there that Nathan got to know most of his neighbors.
The building was made up of three sides that formed a U shape. The center held the pool and a courtyard for those who wanted to sit outdoors. The space under the one-bedroom apartments, which was north facing, had the gym and the laundry; and the two and three-bedroom apartments, which were south and east facing, had underground parking. All the apartments had balconies, both on the outside and looking over the inner courtyard and pool, so the tenants had a choice of which to use. It was a great place, and Nathan liked living there. The only problem was the rent, which was pretty high for the neighborhood, but the building was always clean and well maintained. So it was with surprise that Nathan noticed all the lights to the basement stairs were out.
It took him more than a few seconds to decide whether to go down into the depths. Not that he was afraid of the dark, but if there were rats in his apartment, they could be in the basement, and Nathan wasn’t afraid to admit he was scared of them. He fingered his neck, revolted at the idea that some rodent had been gnawing on it.
He could do his washing later; it wasn’t as if he had anything else to do with his day. However, thinking about it, he decided he wasn’t going to let a few rats stop him from doing what he’d set out to do, and anyway, maybe the lights were on in the laundry proper. With that in mind, Nathan grasped the handrail on his right and started down the stairs. He’d barely taken two steps when hot pain pierced his ankle. Shocked, he dropped his washing and let go of the handrail, but before he had a chance to regain his grip, another stabbing pain hit him. His scream echoed off the painted brick walls, becoming louder as he fell.
Trying vainly to stop the plummet to the bottom, Nathan reached out, but that was when he felt his face smash into the edge of a step. Stunned, he could do nothing more until he finally landed on a solid concrete floor in a bruised, bloody, and agonized heap.
Fighting back unwanted tears, Nathan lay where he was, trying to take deep, fortifying breaths. A trickle of blood oozed from his cut lip into his open mouth, the metallic taste against his tongue almost making him gag. He moaned, cautiously shifting to assess the damage, but stopping when that small movement caused his body to convulse as if he was being tortured.
Frozen in place, in time, his pulse thundering in his ears, Nathan barely registered the scamper of little feet approaching until they were so close they sounded right next to his head. He flinched, fearing a rat, but quickly realized it wasn’t the scrape of claws on concrete he heard, but the shuffle of soft cloth. For some reason, the sound was distinctive, as if it had been magnified by the cramped space between the bottom of the steps and the wall behind him.
Terror, irrational but unmistakable, swept through Nathan. He blinked in an attempt to clear his eyes of the white spots dancing before them. Something was ready to pounce on him; he could feel its presence, watching, waiting. As his limbs tightened in panicked trepidation, he tried to tell himself there was nothing there, that it was all in his imagination, but the minute puffs of air he could feel on the back of his neck told him otherwise.
“Get away from me. Get the fuck away from me!”
Unmindful of his injuries, Nathan lashed out, but it made no difference. Little hands tugged at his hair, and just before he blacked out—the crack to his head finally taking its toll—a tiny, manic laugh cackled in his ear.