Though Abbie hadn’t snuck into the room, it appeared the woman crouched over the dead man hadn’t heard her and would never notice her if left to her own devices.
So Abbie said, “Hiya.”
And the woman’s head shot up, and she jumped back with a gasp.
“Who the hell are you?”
Abbie tilted her head. Didn’t step towards the woman who had now backed up to the desk. She was pleased to see she had nailed the gender call. Beneath the hood was a pale-skinned female with shoulder-length dirty blonde hair and green eyes. Her lips were thin, and she wore no makeup. Not that many women did while breaking and entering at one thirty am. She was a few years younger than Abbie. Early twenties. Abbie tried a comforting smile.
“I’m Abbie. You look afraid of me, but shouldn’t it be the other way around? After all, you’re the murderer. Murderers are scary. Or so I’ve heard it said.”
Kneeling over the dead man, the woman had been snared by panic-induced indecision. Abbie’s introduction seemed to have snapped her from stasis. Leaning against the office’s desk, she started to regulate her breathing. Forcing herself back under control.
That was good. A rational conversation could no doubt ensue.
While the mysterious hooded woman continued getting herself together, Abbie stepped forward and looked over the dead man.
No need to check his pulse. The killer had struck with ruthless efficiency. Maybe they’d first thrown a few punches to the gut. Perhaps they’d snuck up behind. Either way, how the altercation had ended was clear. With the killer going at the victim’s throat like they were carving a turkey—a turkey the killer had recently caught in bed with their wife.
Calming down, the woman said again, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I’m still Abbie,” said still Abbie. “I’m new in town, and my mum taught me the importance of making friends in a new place. It grounds you. Helps you settle. Making a fast friend can be the difference between coming to love a place and wanting to get the next train out.”
Abbie paused. Someone had once told her this, but Abbie couldn’t remember who. It certainly hadn’t been her mother—a woman Abbie had despised and who never gave advice, only orders. Still, ‘mum’ sounded good in the context.
“You were the first person I saw,” Abbie continued. “Straight away, I knew we could be best friends. I watched you break in and considered waiting for you to leave, but once I get an idea, I’m like a dog with a bone. Can’t let it go and can’t wait. I scaled the fence and followed you so we could start getting to know each other right away. You ready? I thought we’d start with some quick-fire questions.”
The breathing was under control. Confusion and frustration, both directed at Abbie, had replaced shock and fear. That was nice. Abbie liked to help.
“This has to be some kind of sick joke,” said the woman.
Ignoring her, Abbie said, “First up: name, favourite colour, favourite pass time. Go.”
Clutching the desk, the woman pulled herself to feet.
“Hey,” said Abbie, nodding at the dead man on the carpet. “Glass houses and all that. And wouldn’t you know, a glass house is exactly where we are.”
The office walls were more chrome than glass, but the ceiling seemed to be made of a single transparent sheet. Looking up, Abbie could see a sky littered with clouds. A fat moon poked through a few whisps, shining its searchlight on the office and corpse.
The woman didn’t want to entertain Abbie, the crazy person who appeared from nowhere and started asking semi-invasive questions. But it’s hard to resist responding to a murder accusation. Only a true sociopath could let that comment go.
“I didn’t kill him,” she said. “I’ve not killed anyone.”
“Waste of words,” said Abbie. “You’d say that if you’d killed him or if you hadn’t, so what’s the point? Know what you should say?”
“What?” said the woman, then bit her lip, angry she’d engaged.
“Your name, your favourite colour, your favourite passtime. Once we get to know each other, it’ll be easier for me to believe you’re innocent.”
“Who the hell are you?” said the woman.
“Keep returning to that well, don’t you?” said Abbie. “Well, you know my name. Taken, not given. As to who I am…” Abbie shrugged. “Stranger, wanderer, interloper. Interferer, many people would say. I’m Miss No One. My identity is irrelevant, it is my purpose that matters.”
“And what’s that? You like following strangers, or did someone send you?”
“Did someone send me?” Abbie mused. “Interesting question. Did you suspect someone would have you followed? Are you entangled in some kind of nefarious plot? Go on, tell me you are. I love a nefarious plot. Gives me something to quash.”
The look on the woman’s face suggested she would never become Abbie’s friend, but Abbie chose not to believe it. People always gave her that look, first time they met, and only some of them later tried to murder her.
“Well?” asked Abbie. The woman shook her head.
“I asked first.”
“Oh, that’s childish,” said Abbie. “But I like it. It’s fair. So I’ll confess: I’m in town because I have reason to believe a little girl is in serious danger.”
“What little girl?”
“Which little girl,” Abbie corrected. Then moved on when the woman looked as though she might pick up the bloodied murder weapon and start stabbing.
“She’s young. Six, seven, eight. Dark skin, probably African or of African descent, with lovely straight black hair and the most beautiful blue eyes. She seemed bright. Worthy of saving. I love it when they’re worthy.”
“What’s her name?”
“Good question. I’ll let you know once I find out.”
The woman, who still hadn’t given her name, stared at Abbie. There was a dead body between them, but somehow Abbie’s verbal sparring partner had forgotten. Given how panicked and hung up she’d been a couple of minutes ago, Abbie felt a sense of triumph that her conversational weaving had shifted the woman’s focus.
“This is insane,” said the unnamed lady.
“Says the murderer.”
The woman flushed. “I’m not a killer.”
Abbie smiled. “Don’t worry, I know.”
She stepped forward again, so she was right over the dead guy. He was between forty and fifty, overweight. Greying, thinning hair. His skin was greasy, but his hands smooth. Not a labourer. He wore a shirt and brown trousers. Boring, inexpensive. Unlike his watch, which might have been a fake. If it wasn’t, it probably cost more than the combined value of all the clothes in the office, on all three of its occupants.
“Who is he then?” said Abbie.
“What do you mean, you know I’m not a killer?”
“I asked first,” said Abbie.
“I don’t give a toss,” said the woman. “What do you mean you know I’m not a killer?”
“You know that’s a double standard, making me answer first. It’s hypocritical, too. Not good traits in a person so far as I’m concerned. I may have to reconsider our burgeoning friendship.”
“Just answer the damn question.”
Abbie rolled her eyes. “So demanding.” She hesitated, looked at the corpse, then shrugged. “I misspoke, okay? You happy?“
“You do think I’m a killer?”
“No. I just don’t have the information to say with any degree of certainty if you are, or you aren’t. Dig up your back garden, I might find fifty bodies, all killed within the last week. Which would be good going. Not just all that murder but the digging. Your arms would be bigger, which probably rules out so many bodies in such a short time. Unless you have an accomplice. Or a JCB.”
“Are you for real?”
“Are any of us? Anyway, I didn’t mean to imply I knew you weren’t a killer because I don’t. I meant to imply I know you didn’t kill this particular man.”
“And what makes you say that?”
“Because you can’t have.”
The woman gritted her teeth. “And what makes you say that?”
“Look,” said Abbie, “before we continue, can you just tell me your name? I hate to rabbit on when I don’t even know what to call you. What do you say? I’m not asking for your address or even your surname. I’m not even asking for the truth, just something to call you.”
The woman considered. She’d had enough of Abbie—that much was clear—but they were already a long way down the rabbit hole. Travelling a little further made sense.
“Christine,” she said at last.
“Do your friends call you Chris?”
“What my friends call me isn’t relevant to you and never will be. You can call me Christine.”
“Well, Christine, you may not be holding the knife but turns out your tongue’s plenty sharp. I need to check if I’m bleeding.”
“How do you know I didn’t kill this man?” Pushed Christine.
Abbie lowered to her haunches. “I don’t. I misspoke again.”
Christine’s eyes blazed with fury. Abbie raised a hand before the younger woman could Hulk-out, pick up the desk, and smash it over Abbie’s head.
“I’ve been right behind you since you jumped the fence,” said Abbie. “No way you could have killed this guy without me hearing. Even if you were a Ninja and did assassinate him in silence, you didn’t do it since I saw you arrive.” Abbie pointed to the stained carpet. “That’s not fresh blood, spilt within the last few minutes. It’s already dried, stained the carpet. I’m no mortician, but my guess is this guy’s been dead at least an hour.”
Abbie rose, stepped away from the corpse. There was nothing to be learned from his body, and Abbie didn’t want to slip and get her prints on his skin. The cops would take a dim view of that.
“That’s not to say it wasn’t you,” she said. “The cogs are still turning up here,” she tapped her head. “It’s possible you came here earlier tonight, got in a fight with this man, killed him, then fled. In my experience, people struggle to reason after unplanned murder. You could have been a mile away or more before your mind reengaged. Suddenly you’re replaying the scene. Crap, you think, did I leave behind evidence? Maybe you know you did. Your hair clip fell out, or your ring dropped from your finger. If the murder weapon’s still here and you weren’t wearing gloves, you’re truly screwed. Even if you didn’t leave the knife, there has to be evidence on the body. See what happens? Rational thought leads to panic. You know there’s almost no chance anyone’s found the body. It’s still safe, you reason, to return to the scene of the crime and remove any evidence. You’ve seen CSI. How hard can it be?”
Christine was leaning against the desk, glaring. Her breathing sounded normal, but Abbie got the impression she was fighting to keep it that way. Focusing on it while trying to work Abbie out.
“‘In my experience,’” the woman quoted. “Strange phrasing.”
“A little. You been around many killers?”
“Countless,” said Abbie. “But we’re talking about accidental murderers. Been around less of them, but enough to form an opinion. Enough to know they don’t always act in their best interests. For example, even if you accepted that the accidental killer fled immediately post-murder, only later considering evidence, you might not believe said killer, upon returning to the scene, would hang around. They’d be expecting the body, you might say. They could prepare for it. Thus, as soon as they arrived, they could get to business and flee. You might say the fact I caught you on your knees over the guy, obviously shocked, panicking, proves that you’re innocent.”
“The thought had crossed my mind.”
“Except that’s not how accidental killers behave. They might think they’re prepared to see their victim again, but they rarely are. The visual brings home what they’ve done like a hammer. It’s common for their legs to give out, for them to go to ground as waves of guilt overcome them. Many murderers get caught that way.”
Christine stared at Abbie. She played with her hands. She was trying to be annoyed but was mostly confused while struggling to keep the panic at bay.
“Who the hell are you?” she said.
“Asked and answered.”
“You follow me here and start throwing around accusations—”
“I’m not throwing anything,” Abbie cut in. “I’m hypothesising. I don’t know enough to draw any conclusions, as it stands. If I had to follow my gut, I’d say you didn’t do it. Doesn’t track for me, but that doesn’t mean I’d rule you out as a suspect. No chance.”
“You a cop?”
“Then maybe you’re the killer.”
“Cops can be killers.”
“And that could be a distraction,” said Christine. “All this could be distraction. There you stand, asking me about my favourite colour—“
“—Which you’ve not answered, by the way.“
“Accusing me of murder and telling me cops can be killers and all to throw me off the scent. I reckon you knew Davesh was dead when you walked in. Did you kill him? Is that what this is? I think you killed him.”
A sound from outside. Close by. Distinctive. Turning from Christine, Abbie moved towards the window. As she walked, she spoke.
“You’re losing control. Need to focus on keeping your breathing nice and even. You can’t afford to freeze up. Not now.”
“There you go again, trying to distract me. Just like the killer would.”
There were curtains over the window on the opposite side of the room to the desk. Flicking them aside, Abbie could see the rings of cars through which she had earlier walked, leading to the gate.
“If you truly think I’m the killer,” said Abbie, not looking away from the window, “you’re either wrong or in serious danger.”
Still, Abbie didn’t look back, but she could almost hear Christine’s body tense.
“You threatening me?”
Abbie tutted. “Be better. Think about what I said.”
The sound grew louder. Abbie saw headlights turn onto the street from which she had first spied Christine.
Christine who was thinking. She didn’t know whether she wanted to play the game, but nor did she want to come across as stupid.
“If you killed Davesh, you left and watched the place,” she said at last. “You saw me come in. But there would be no reason to follow me. Your best bet would be to call the police and report a break in, try put me in the frame for your crime. If you were the killer, and you followed me, that would indicate…” Christine stopped. She couldn’t say it.
“That I deemed you a problem but thought it was a problem I could handle. Probably by slitting your throat. Murderers aren’t a particularly imaginative bunch. They tend to execute people in the same way again and again. Very dull.”
Abbie watched the car stop and moved her hand from the curtain, letting it drape the window once more. She turned to Christine.
“Time to decide if you think I’m the killer,” said Abbie.
“What, why?” said Christine.
There was a clink of metal from outside, followed by the scrape of a gate on gravel. Then the engine started again.
“That’s the sound of new arrivals,” said Abbie. “This intimate gathering’s about to become a party, so I say again, do you think I’m the killer?
“Because I think you’re about to have to pick a side.”