Phil Fontaine took to his feet and removed the crumpled sheaf of papers from the inside pocket of his jacket. They were written by hand in black ink with two levels of rewriting on them, first in red and then in green. They would be almost indecipherable to anyone other than the writer and, possibly, the translators of the Rosetta Stone. For most members of the Circle, this was the first time they had ever heard Phil read.
“So,” he began, “this is the first chapter of my latest book. It doesn’t have a plot yet…” he smiled grimly at Billy Hunt, “but I’m sure it will come along when it is ready.” He tapped the papers on his thigh in bitter imitation of Billy, but they were much too crumpled to be satisfactorily patted into shape. Phil found a certain comfort in that. He lowered himself back into his chair and began to read. “‘It was one of those dawns where the pale, sickly sunshine actually cooled the atmosphere. Tiny pin-pricks of rain hung, twisting like a veil, falling from who-knows-where, casting glistening tiny frozen rainbows on the air, the only relief from the slate grey backdrop of the sky. Early morning commuters shuffled by, hunched in winter overcoats and hand-knitted mufflers, cursing the jobs that drew them so early from their now cooling beds. On the corner, under the recently extinguished street light by the bins, Harry Hoe pulled the collar of his thinning, threadbare jacket over his ears and drew deeply on a strangely sock-scented Vape. It wasn’t ideal, but it was all he had since the damp had got into his Zippo.
Across the road, third floor curtains remained tightly drawn, as they had been since 6pm the previous evening. It had been a long night for Harry and he was beginning to flag. His hipflask was empty, as was the brown paper sandwich bag; the battery on his Vape was dangerously low and the contents level within his bladder was close to critical. He had managed to get away with a crafty wee into the dog bin at three a.m., but there were far too many people around now to try that again. There were limits to what even he would do for cash in hand and being arrested for indecent exposure was one of them. Besides, he was so cold he could barely feel his fingers and he knew he would not be able to trust them to open his zip until they had warmed a little. He figured he had about thirty minutes before he would have to find an early morning café which might let him use their staff lavatory in return for the purchase of a mug of thrice-brewed tea and a dog-eared sausage bap. Thirty minutes and no more. Whatever the client had stipulated, that was his limit.
The client’s stipulations had, in fact, occupied his mind through much of the night. Two hundred quid in an envelope was never to be sniffed at, but the instruction was odd. A black and white photograph of a building – the building he had been watching all night – with a window circled in red. On the back a scribbled note instructing him to watch the window from 5pm and to report back with the time the curtains closed, and the time they re-opened. Why? They had closed at 6pm. It was a woman who closed them, he could see that, and he presumed that whoever it was had only recently entered the flat because the light had just come on and she was still wearing a coat. Unless she had been there all the time and had just put her coat on to leave. But why put the light on if that was the case? Security? On the third floor, he doubted that. To throw him off the scent? Could she even know that he was there? He’d only been there an hour by then. This was a London street. He would have to have been there for weeks before anybody noticed. And dead probably. He seriously doubted if anyone in this neighbourhood would pick up the telephone to call the police even then. Short of blocking access to the Waitrose Delivery Van, there was little he could do to impinge upon the consciousness of these people.
Anyway, whatever the answers, the client did not want to know them, just the precise times that the curtains opened and closed. Really odd. It was quite specific. Not the times that anybody entered or left the flat, just the curtain opening and closing times. Watching out for people entering or leaving the flat would have been more tricky – a little work on the pin-entry system – but definitely achievable and certainly warmer.
It was at about 4am, in that brief window between the latest of home-comers and the earliest of risers, that an uneasy suspicion had begun to settle upon him. Just suppose that it was not about the people in the flat at all? Suppose it was about him. Suppose it was all about watching him. He had to stand where he was standing in order to keep the window in view. Whoever had sent the money would know exactly where he was for an extended period of time and they would know immediately if he had not done what he had been paid to do. It was that realisation alone that had kept him there these last two hours. It could all be a test.
But it could also be a set-up. Incriminating someone when you know exactly where they are and what they are doing; when you know that they have no idea why they are there, nor who sent them – piece of cake.
Harry decided that the time to move on had come. The curtains might never open – that could be the plan. He’d earned the money by now. Whoever had put the two hundred into the envelope would have to come and fetch it if they felt differently. They would have to admit they had been watching him; to explain exactly what was going on. He crumpled his paper bag and dropped it into the bin before taking one final glance up at the window, when he noticed the curtains had opened, just a crack, revealing that the light was still on behind them. He resolved that he would go and ring the bell adjacent to the flat door. He would ask whoever answered it to explain exactly what was going on here. And he would have done too, if the sudden, friendly wave from the window had not coincided so precisely with the flashing pain across the back of his skull…’
So, that’s the set up,” said Phil, looking at his little sheaf of notes fleetingly. “Utter tripe of course.” He slowly and very deliberately tore them in two. “The trick is knowing that it’s rubbish, don’t you think?”