The heat in the apartment was overwhelming. Hugo reached out for the window and opened it wide onto a warm and pale blue summer evening… Below, passers-by walked lazily hand in hand, stopping here and there as they made their way into the Marolles’ neighbourhood.
Hugo leaned out of the window to get some fresh air. His tired body marked a black slender line between Brussels overpowering courthouse that towered in the distance and the pebble street below. Sounds and smells were coming up to him as people settled down for an evening meal on terraces all around.
From the back of the living room, Miles Davis’ trumpet played hypnotic notes. “What a fine moment” he thought as the evening breeze gently blew inside the room and over his hot skin. As he turned around to get himself a drink, the voice of a young woman reached up to him. “Stop, you are going to make me fall!” she argued playfully. He looked out just in time to see her pass under his window, unsteady on heels that seemed too high for her and definitely not adapted for Brussels’ cobblestones. Ahead of her, a tall blond man was urging her to walk quicker: “come on we are going to be late!” In an attempt to catch up with him she accelerated the pace and ended up falling on the ground. “You see, there you go, I knew I’d end up on the floor.” From above, she looked just like Paola, Hugo told himself…the same pale skin, the same long dark hair…and a green summer dress… He looked out, a little concerned, but the cheerfulness of her tone reassured him immediately: “Come and get me Tom! I can’t get up.” The man came back towards her and stretched out his arm. Laughing as she pulled herself up, she tilted her head back for just a minute and her eyes caught Hugo’s. He felt an electric shock as their gaze connected and she smiled at him. He barely had the time to smile back at her that she was already back on her feet and gone, resting on his arm as she went.
Caught in the moment, Hugo stayed there for a few minutes, watching her walk away until his stare became a gaze. “Paola…” he thought with a sharp pinch in his heart. It had been more than a year now. He reached over for his packet of cigarettes and lit one up, looking out, remembering her, remembering them. “It’s strange how a person can be everything to you and then disappear completely of your life” he noted sadly. But she hadn’t disappeared completely, did she? He still had some pictures, some jewellery…an old pullover of hers he couldn’t get himself to throw away… Everything was of course safely stored in a box somewhere, too painful for him to see, to feel…But no matter what he did, no matter how much time went by, she remained somewhere inside of him. A constant reminder of a loss he would forever grieve.
The sun was slowly setting. Hugo had promised himself that he would finish this last chapter tonight. His editor was getting impatient and he felt that if he didn’t deliver the ending soon, he would just give up on him and on the book all together. He didn’t need the money, or the fame. He had been very lucky on both these levels. But maintaining one’s success was an all other business and he’d worked too hard to let it all go now. “First, we ritualize” he said out loud as he pushed his desk against the open window to get a clear view of the courthouse’s golden dome. He fixed himself a drink, Southern Comfort with two ice cubes, and put Miles David’s record back on. As he sat down to work, he could see that the sun had almost completely descended behind the horizon now. It would soon be dark.
Paragraph after paragraph, the story was building itself in a way Hugo had not expected. Some stories have a way to take the lead without letting the writer interfere anymore. He just had to watch it unfold under his fingers, getting lost in a world that only existed in his head and on the screen. Three hours went by without him noticing it. It was a cramp in his right shoulder that brought him back to reality. His glass was empty and the record had ended a good while ago. The room had become cool as the early evening breeze had turned into a colder draught, very typical of Brussels’ summer nights. He rose to close the window but, as he reached out to pull it shut, he thought he caught the glimpse of something moving quickly at the bottom of his street. When he looked again, nothing was there. “I shouldn’t spend so much time on my computer screen” he told himself distractedly as he went towards the kitchen to fix himself a new drink. The living room had become pitch dark except for the light of his computer screen that shone by the window. He went over to the record player and put Miles back on; he liked it that way, working with just some jazz reaching out to him in the darkness. Before the first trumpet note started, his bell rang. One sharp ring. “Who can it be at this time?” he thought. He wasn’t expecting anyone.
– “Yes, who is it?” he asked into the interphone.
– A faint and scared voice came through “good evening Mr Epping, I’m sorry for bothering you this late but…”
– He cut her off immediately “listen I don’t know how you got my address but I don’t like it when fans show up uninvited“.
He hung up the receiver and walked into the kitchen as the bell rang again, this time more insistently. Ignoring it, he fixed himself a drink then came back into the living room, planning to get back to work. But the bell kept on ringing, for longer and longer lapses of time. Exasperated, he went over to the window but couldn’t see the building’s front door as it was recessed in the façade. The ringing stopped for a while only to start again, this time much stronger. He walked hastily to the intercom.
– “Listen I’m going to call the police if you don’t stop” he said firmly.
– “Please, don’t hang up. Just listen to me. Three men have assaulted us. I…they’ve got my friend. Please I think he’s seriously hurt. I need your help.”
– His blood turned cold. “What? Where?”
– “At the end of the rue du Miroir…when it reaches the T junction. They came from the back. Please help him, he’s still over there, I think they might have hurt him severely” she sobbed frantically.
– “Ok, ok calm down. Move away from the interphone so I can see you“.
He looked out of the window and saw her standing in the middle of the street. The woman with the green summer dress… His palms felt sweaty, his heartbeat uneven. He went back to the interphone.
“Ok, come in“. The interphone rang with a metallic sound when he buzzed her in.
He opened the apartment door and watched as the elevator light went from red to green, announcing it had just reached his floor. The door opened slowly onto the silhouette of the frail young woman. As she stepped forward on the landing, the overhead light illuminated her face and her long dark hair in a cold white glow. A blood stream ran from the side of her mouth and her green summer dress was torn in places. He also noticed that she no longer had her shoes on.
“Can I come in?” she asked, trembling. “I’m frozen“.
He gave way and led her through to the living room.
“Sit down, I’ll get you a drink” he said as he turned on the stained glass Tiffany lamp by the sofa.
As Hugo stood in front of the sink in the kitchen, he caught his breath; she was the spitting image of Paola, maybe a little taller, and with a lighter voice, but otherwise they could have been twins. He got a hold of himself and hurried back into the living room with a glass of water and ice wrapped in a kitchen towel for her lip.
“Are you ok?”
“I am now. Thank you for opening, I didn’t know where to go”
“I should have walked faster! Oh…Tom!” she cried as she raised her hand to her lip, feeling the cut and wincing at the pain at the same time.
“What happened?” He could barely make out her face in the dimly lit room but her perfume overwhelmed him. The smell of violets, just like Paola. His head got dizzy.
“We came out of the club, Tom was already well ahead and I was walking too slowly because of my stupid shoes…they came from the back. One of them had a knife so I screamed and Tom ran up in a hurry; but they were three… He started hitting one of them, the one who held me. He let me go and Tom told me to run away so I did. But he stayed on. Oh my…” she sobbed silently.
Hugo put a hand on her shoulder, unable to say much.
“I ran further up the street and stopped to call the police for help with my phone. They said not to move, that they were coming. But one of the men was already coming back up towards me. Everything is closed at this time of the night so I didn’t know where to go…”
“It’s ok, don’t worry I understand.” He passed the kitchen cloth over her cheeks then on her swollen lip, whipping the blood away. “It’s a good thing you came back here. You can stay here; we’ll call the police again. The police station is really close by; they might already be there.”
“No please, you have to go immediately. He might be dead or in need of urgent help. What if the police hasn’t made it yet?” She grabbed his arm and looked at him in the eyes with so much desperation, it made him weak. “Please” she pleaded.
“Well I’m sure they are there by now. If you want we can call the station to tell them you are here, and to know if he’s ok“.
She got up and sighed. “No we can’t wait. Someone has to go to him now or he might not make it. If you don’t want to I’ll go, just give me some kind of weapon I can use against them.”
He went to her, trying to reason her. “Come on don’t be foolish, you can’t go back in that state, you don’t even have shoes on.”
“Please” she implored him, facing him so very close, he was overcome by the scent of violets.
He paused and looked over at his golf bag that was next to the entrance door. “Ok I’ll go. What time did you call the police you said?”
She picked up her phone in her bag and went through it nervously. “I’d say about 15 minutes ago“.
“They should be there by now. I’ll go down and see. You stay here and let me know if ever he tries to call you, here’s my number.” He wrote it down hastily on a piece of paper that lay on the dining table.
A few seconds later, he was out in the street with a golf club in one hand and his phone in the other. Outside the night was calm. Only a few persons were still hanging around but as this was a week night, everything was already closed. He jogged rapidly towards the rue du Miroir, which was just on the right when he reached the rue Haute, a few meters down his street. He picked up the pace as he descended the street, reaching the rue des Tanneurs almost out of breath. On the ground he could see the shape of a man, lying unconscious. When he reached him, something hit him very hard on the back of his head. The last thing he saw as he lost consciousness was the shape of the man getting up.
Amy was waiting for David in front of the Havana Club. Because she was nervously looking at the screen of her phone she didn’t see him approach her from the back and jumped when he pushed her gently forward.
“Oh you idiot! What did you do that for?”
“Did I scare you?” he laughed .
“What do you think?” she retorted. “Isn’t the whole thing scary enough? You have to make it worse? Where were you? Is it part of the experience to keep me waiting in front of it?”
“Come on babe, I’m here now aren’t I?” he slipped his arms around her waist and pulled her close.
She pushed him but didn’t move away. “This better be good…”
He looked at his watch. “If it happens tonight, it will be great. The window is already open, so that’s a good sign. My brother said he was here last month with two of his colleagues. Said he saw the whole thing and that it was the scariest thing ever!”
“How will this happen again?”
“I’ve told you a million times babe. First the window opens, early in the evening. Then it should close in about…” He looked at his watch “8 minutes.”
“Then we’ll see a faint light come on in about 15 minutes from now. The light should go off in another 10 minutes after that. If everything concurs, we can then run to the Rue du Miroir and watch Hugo Epping’s ghost walk up towards us before vanishing in thin air.”
“I think I saw another couple down the street waiting too and looking up at the window.”
“It’s getting popular; I saw a few people on Facebook talking about it.” “I wouldn’t be surprised if they make the whole thing an attraction soon” he pestered. “It’s the ones living in the building that have it best. The guy who lives on the third floor told me that sometimes he can hear the elevator going up and stopping just below his floor in the dead of night. But there is nobody there. The apartment is empty since it happened 4 years ago.”
“What a sad story when you think about it” she uttered. “The poor guy didn’t stand a chance. They stole everything he had?”
“Emptied his apartment babe, and clubbed him to death.”
Above them, the window was closed shut by an invisible hand.
“We’re in luck babe, the show is on tonight.”