Cold Feet

The night was dry and fine. Hayden Lane walked the dark streets, crossing over every time to avoid the street lamps, keeping to the shadows under the trees. His footsteps made no sound in the calm air. Cats foraging in rubbish bins watched impassively as he passed.

He liked to walk at night. The empty streets cleared his mind, gave him breathing space away from the small room where he lived and worked. Two or three nights a week he left the basement flat after midnight, closing the door quietly so as not to attract the unwelcome attention of Mrs. Knowles, his landlady. He went out the back way, down the garden path to a door that led onto a rear lane. His complicated route took him through most of the back streets of Saddington, avoiding thoroughfares where he was likely to meet other pedestrians. He counted it an achievement to get back home without encountering anyone.

This night, he was almost halfway through his walk, approaching the corner of Renney Street, when a woman came staggering out of the black entrance of a laneway. She clutched at him as she fell, almost dragging him down with her. The shock of her sudden appearance made him cry out in fright. He beat at her with his fists, trying to get away.

“God damn you, what do you think you’re doing,” he shouted angrily.

She fell awkwardly and lay still in the gutter.

He glared at the figure on the ground, torn between the urge to walk on and a sense of obligation to find out if she was hurt. Reluctantly he drew nearer. A choking moan came from the prone figure.

“Bloody stupid, mad, woman, ” he muttered.

He circled, trying to see her face but an outflung arm and tousled hair hid her features.

“Are you all right?’’ he asked, irritably.

There was no answer. He looked up and down the street for assistance but the pavements were deserted, the houses blank and dark. Reaching down he shook her by the shoulder. Her head rolled loosely. He bent, gripping her shoulders and gingerly turned her over onto her back. She groaned. As the light illuminated her face he started back with a cry of horror.

A large, jagged wound gaped dark and bloody across her neck. Blood flowed freely, soaking her clothes, smearing her face. Her eyes were open, staring wildly. She tried to speak but blood choked her.

He backed away, terror edging him towards panic. He became acutely aware of the dark entrance to the laneway, of the certainty that her attacker was hidden in its shadows.

The woman’s eyes were fixed on him in mute appeal but he continued to move away. He sensed a sinister presence lurking close to the wall in the menacing darkness of the laneway, just outside the light. There was a sound as of a careful footstep. He imagined he saw a movement in the shadows. It was enough.

With a despairing cry, he turned and ran as fast as he could. Fear clutched at him, his eyes were streaming as he fled. Pursued by horror he ran without once looking back. His breath came in ragged sobs of fear but he forced his legs to keep moving. Eventually a stitch in his side forced him to a halt, gasping for breath in the shadow of a tree.

He listened for sounds of pursuit but none came. The night was still and quiet as always, but his panic would not let him rest. He stumbled on, trying to distance himself from the dying woman and her invisible assailant. He ran up the darkened lane at the rear of the terraces until he reached the familiar garden gate. Without stopping he flung it open and blundered up the garden path, falling against the garbage bins. He fumbled his keys to unlock the door of the basement flat and with unutterable relief gained the sanctuary of his room.

He leaned against the door with eyes closed, trying to calm the pounding of his heart. He buried his face in his hands only to snatch them away as he discovered they were covered with blood. He looked down at himself, at the dark stains that mottled his shirt and trousers. There was blood everywhere. He propelled himself away from the door and tore off his clothes as though they were on fire. Staggering into the shower he turned on the hot water and washed himself furiously, trying to get rid of the red stains.

He stayed under the scalding water for a long time. When he came out he was weak and faint. Wrapped in a dressing gown he forced himself to pick up the bloodstained clothes and place them in a garbage bag, carefully so as not to soil his hands. Taking a deep breath he opened the door again and hurried across the yard to dump the bag in the garbage.

Back inside he wished he had a bottle of liquor. Then he remembered some tranquillisers left over from his recent illness. He took two with some hot tea and went to bed. It was a long time before sleep assailed him. He had nightmares of being chased along dark streets and woke up twice, covered in sweat as though in a fever.

In the morning he found no comfort in the familiar surroundings of his room. The walls seemed to close in, forcing him out of bed. He moved anxiously into the kitchen to brew coffee. Turning on the radio he waited impatiently for the half-hour news.

The dead woman got a mention, the newsreader describing it as a Ripper-style murder. Police warned residents to be on the alert, fearing the killer might strike again. They were conducting house-to-house investigations throughout the suburb.

He jumped up and switched off the radio, alarmed as the terror of the night surged back. He examined his hands for any trace of blood.

A movement outside the window attracted his attention. Through the grimy pane he stared with growing dismay at Mrs. Knowles, his landlady, poking around the garbage bags in the back yard. She didn’t like garbage bags sticking out of the bins, keeping the lids open; cats tore the plastic, scattering rubbish everywhere. She liked to keep the yard clean. He moved behind the curtain, watching as she pulled his bag out of the bin, squeezing it experimentally before tearing it open to check its contents.

Mrs. Knowles was a sharp-faced, acquisitive woman who lived on the first floor. She knew everything that went on in the terrace house she shared with her six lodgers. Old and irascible, she regarded Hayden Lane with deep suspicion. When he moved in three months before, she imagined he’d be as malleable as the other young men in her house. On his first appearance at the front door he seemed a subdued young man who answered her queries in a quiet voice.

Once established in the basement flat however, he proved troublesome, exhibiting a mania for privacy that to her seemed to hint at dark, personal secrets. When she called for the rent he stood in the doorway, blocking her determined advance across the threshold. There was a brief embarrassing collision before she stepped back and had to listen while he informed her that in future he’d pay by the month to minimise the intrusion caused by her rent collections.

Mrs. Knowles liked to know all about her lodgers. Ten years of widowhood, renting rooms to single men had sharpened her suspicious nature. From that day on she kept a close watch on her reclusive lodger, noting his comings and goings.

It was now his turn to spy on her as she drew his shirt out of the bag and held it up to view the blood stains. She became visibly agitated, turning it this way and that before laying it down to plunge her hand into the bag again. This time she came up with his equally bloodstained trousers. He watched breathlessly as she carefully examined them, then she turned slowly and stared malevolently at the basement window. His head snapped back out of sight, fear gripping his stomach, a sudden chill sweat causing him to shiver.

Mrs. Knowles marched determinedly towards his back door.

“Mr Lane, open up, I want to speak to you.”

There was a timbre of vindictive triumph in her shrill voice as she hammered on the door.

“I know you’re in there, open this door or I’ll use my own keys,” she persisted.

He stared at the door trying control his shaking limbs. He felt like a trapped animal, his body quivering, tense and straining for escape. The sound of keys in the lock spurred him into action.

He jerked the door open abruptly and stared down at Mrs. Knowles. She was fumbling with her bunch of keys, the bloodstained clothes trailed on the ground beside her.

“What do you want? ” he demanded, savagely.

“You did it, you cold-blooded bastard. I always knew you were a bad’un. I knew it the moment I laid eyes on you,” she said, holding up the clothes to shake them in his face.

“What do you mean? Did what? For God’s sake woman make sense,” he replied angrily, knocking the clothes away from him. “What are you talking about?“

“Oh, you don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about you, sonny Jim. You and these,” she responded with sneering sarcasm, holding up the clothes again.

He didn’t look at them.

“What about them? I’ve never seen them before in my life,” he answered evenly.

“Hah! You liar. As well as being a murderer, you’re a bloody liar,” she accused, almost jumping with rage. “I saw you last night sneaking out of the house like the low mongrel you are. And I saw you putting out the garbage bag this morning at dawn, don’t think I didn’t. I’ve got your measure, you savage pervert.”

His face felt as though it was carved from stone. A dizzying red mist threatened to swamp his senses as her tirade battered against him.

’’Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about but I’m darned if I’ll put up with this kind of abuse. I’m leaving here today.”

He made to close the door but she leaped forward, jamming her foot in the gap.

“Leaving? We’ll see about that. I’m going to phone the police. There’s only one place for swine like you. I hope they bloody well hang you for it.”

She was shouting, red-faced, her frizzy hair falling in disarray over her boiling eyes. She turned to go up the stairs. He pulled the door open again and grabbed her arm.

“No, don’t do that, please. I’ve done nothing wrong, I promise. It’s all a mistake, let me explain,” he pleaded.

She screeched, trying to twist from his grip.

“Let me go, you bastard, let me go. Help! Help’”

He struggled to silence her, getting a hand over her mouth to muffle her cries. She redoubled her efforts to break free, kicking at his legs. He shook her violently, shouting at her to be quiet, that he could explain.

Suddenly she was quiet. The fight went out of her and she draped limply against him, a dead weight in his arms. He dragged her inside the flat and locked the door.

There was an area at the back of the house, screened by bushes, between the laundry and the garden shed. He was digging a long, narrow trench, sweating in the late morning heat when the uniformed policemen came around the shrubbery. There were two of them, one older, the other very young.

“Good day. We’re conducting a house-to-house search for information about last night’s murder,” said the older.

Hayden Lane straightened slowly. He watched as the younger constable tugged at his companion’s arm and nodded, bug-eyed, in the direction of the bushes. Reluctantly Hayden turned to follow their astonished eyes. Mrs. Knowles’ stockinged feet stuck out from her covering of garbage bags in the bushes.

He looked down at the half-dug grave, at the spade in his hands, before lifting his gaze to the silent policemen.

“I didn’t do it,” he said.

But he knew that he had.

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