Cosine, a short story

I've been thinking and blogging recently on the role of time and of memory. I have also been thinking hard about why the order of events is so important, and why jumbling them seems to work for some writers at some times, but not for others, or not at all times.

The inspiration for this story goes, however, to the BBC's dramatization of PD James' The Skull Beneath the Skin – a curious period piece in itself that both reviles and celebrates the classic English country house murder. The following story is in no way an English country house murder. Go figure.

Harry Dewulf

It began with a bloodstained nightdress. I thought—at first I thought—that it must have been an accident. But when I reached forward to touch her—I wanted to know if she was still alive—to feel some warmth—I felt the unexpected hard resistance of a knife handle. I have no idea why I took hold of it; it was slick with blood and I nicked my hand, inside the first joint of my forefinger. I expected it to be an irritation, but I soon forgot it entirely. I couldn't let go of the handle. It must have been some sort of horror, or fascination. Besides, she was dead; what difference would it make?

I slowly withdrew it, and more blood bubbled up. I don't know anything about anatomy, and that oversized nightdress hid much of the middle of her body, but wherever it was, it had been effective, and bloody.

I . . . didn't look at her face. You surprise someone like that; I suppose I was the one surprised; I hadn't expected to see anyone. I hadn't expected anyone, alive or dead. I turned back to the window, and wiped the blood from my hands on the curtain. My hand had stopped bleeding though there was an ugly livid mark. Somehow I still didn't want to give up the knife. I gave it a last wipe on the carpet before ducking through the window onto the fire escape.

It seemed hotter outside than it had been inside. I looked at the aircon unit sticking its arse out of the adjacent window; wondered if it worked better than mine did; it was silent. I realized I needed to keep quiet on the metal stairs; don't want to be heard or seen sneaking away from a murder scene, especially with a knife in your hand, presumably the murder weapon. But it is the lot of the petty criminal. You are so often somewhere that you should not be; it is so easy to stumble upon the scene of a less petty crime.

My feet faltered a little on the last flight of stairs and as I slipped and caught myself there was an ugly clatter as the blade of the knife caught on the handrail. I was suddenly reminded of my silly little injury, and lifted my hand to my mouth. It had begun to bleed again.

One of those irritating random thoughts: "my God, so many things you can catch from a transfer of blood!"

I climbed more carefully the rest of the way. I had to tuck the knife into my pocket—handle first—so I could hang from the lowest deck and drop to the ground just behind the dumpster that quite failed to be conveniently below.

Straightening up I withdrew the knife carefully, almost delicately, from my pocket. I stared at it for a while in the half-light. What possessed me?

Now I would have to dispose of it. I was "known to the Police", and they to me. I knew very well that the careful criminal builds an all too familiar edifice, that almost guarantees that he will be caught; whereas the carefree, opportunist. He can only be caught by chance. Noone can fight chance.

I set off along the alley, holding the knife with an air of casual curiosity, imagining that I had just picked it up; found it unlooked-for and unexpected, as was, indeed, true.

At the end of the alley was a pizzeria. Not one of those classy uptown joints full of businessmen making deals with mafiosos, nor one of those midtown joints full of wise-guys promising that the tomato-pie was as good as back in some old country they've never been. It was a rat-infested grot hole. I couldn't imagine the bums wanting to look for scraps in the bins outside a place like that.

I chuckled aloud. When you're homeless you have to be careful what you eat.

The point is that there was an open window to the kitchen, and through the window an open invitation in the form of an open dishwasher. One of those stainless steel ones that open both sides with a cloud of steam hot enough to burn your face off. A rack had just been loaded with utensils and dishes. I just leaned in and dropped the knife into the rack.

I just knew I was going to remember that bit of opportunism forever. Too good ever to repeat.

I went a couple of blocks before checking my reflection. I looked like every other man on the street: like a man who'd had enough of the heat and had gone out into the street and found it was no cooler. Not a trace of blood on me except, I remembered, that cut on my hand. It had stopped bleeding again.

It was another five blocks to my apartment building. I've always been used to the city but in America they do things differently. You have to go everywhere in straight lines. Maybe they think it makes you honest. Maybe it's why I turned to crime. If you grow up in the labyrinth of a medieval European city, you have to keep twisting and turning. All those wide streets, all those straight line and right-angled intersections. My internal navigator was still looking for the quickest route through a city with no straight lines, as if it had never learned that in this city there are only straight lines.

Like the line straight to jail. There were two cop-cars outside my block. For a few more paces I started telling myself I knew perfectly well they weren't there for me. But I was "known to the Police" and they were known to me. Best assumption? Someone ratted me out. But for what? Couldn't be anything too serious I hadn't done anything too serious. So why bother? Because someone ratted me out. Easy arrest, easy conviction. Something for the statistics. I'd oh-so-nearly gone that way before.

No prizes for guessing who. A criminal rival? I suppose you might say that. A jealous lover? Not jealous. Not all that lovely, either. Americans use the word so freely that it has no real weight in their mouths, but when I grew up, it was a word for a lady dog and it was just fine to say it if that was what you were talking about. And it was a word for a bad woman, and you could just about say it if you knew everyone listening was in agreement.

Bitch. The bitch ratted me out. Can't say I was surprised. A couple of things I think I knew about her from the very start. One day she'd rat me out for the sheer hell of it, and that she was a bitch.

Maybe that's what turned me on. She was all about power, but in the bedroom she gaily submitted. I don't mean some sort of S&M shit. I mean she did what I wanted. I didn't even have to ask.

And things had gone sour a couple of weeks ago. Something I wouldn't let her into. She slapped me around a bit. Still makes me smile to think about it. I'm sure there are plenty of men who'd rather die than let a woman strike them; others who'd hit back; others who wouldn't hit back but steadily have their confidence, their manhood—I suppose there is such a thing—eroded. I've been hit plenty of times, so it made me laugh that she was able to hit hard enough to split my lip.

Maybe I should have pretended to be bothered. Contrite. It's hard. I try not to be too controlled. You have to have your eyes open for the good luck, for the opportunities.

I did a smart about face on the pavement, imagining that I decided I forgot something but couldn't remember what it was, and then after a few paces found myself thinking I could do with something to eat.

My feet led me a few blocks back the way I came. I didn't pay really close attention to where I was. I try not to. It relieves the monotony. I dug in my pockets for a few dollars, then remembered why I didn't have any. Bitch.

I confess I started to feel a little anger at this point. I stopped and took a look at myself in a shop window. I looked overheated. Ragged. And thin. I like to tell myself I'm good looking but a long hot night and an empty stomach does a man's looks no good at all.

When I looked up I realized where I was. Her place was just a few twists and turns away. A straight line, ninety degrees, and another straight line. I started wondering. Would she be surprised to see me? At this time of night would she even be there? Bitch was probably out spending my money looking for someone else to bang her.

Perfect. Like I said, I'm a petty criminal. Mostly thieving. I liked the idea of stealing from her. Had a certain symmetry. Besides I knew the place. Easiest sneak-in sneak-out ever. And if the bitch was there?

The thought brought a little knot to my throat and I flushed hotter still, if that was even possible.

If she was there I'd have to give her a little surprise, and then take what I wanted. Give her a fright; rough her up a little.

It was starting to sound like one of those boy's adventure books from when I was a child; Dick Tracey . . . or was it Barton? But petty criminals do rough-up women. I'm pretty sure it's just the big-time players who rape them and then beat them to death.

My hunger had been replaced by a different sensation in my stomach. I ducked down the alleyway behind her block, and as I passed an open window—a kitchen or something—I gave in to the impulse to snatch through, quick as a snake, without breaking my stride. My hand brought back a kitchen knife with a smooth wooden handle.

Noone could have seen my little performance except from behind, but I still did what I always do; I imagined I just picked it up off the floor and was looking at it in puzzlement. I probably even looked around to see who might have dropped it.

I was "known to the Police" and they to me. I know how it works. You look guilty because you are; you are guilty because you look it. When they're questioning you the worst you can do is give answers. Explanations will always bury you. You have to be interested in something else. Last time they pulled me in I obsessed over the sergeant's jeans. They were green for God's sake! And completely wrong for his shoes. I told him so. It became quite the preoccupation.

Denying something is just the same as admitting it. The guilty usually deny. But anyone can get distracted. You can't be guilty if you're distracted.

Her window was a few floors up, and it was open. Or I could imagine it was open. All those aircon units hanging out the windows like Bruegel painted robots. Maybe he did? The dumpster was in exactly the wrong place to get up onto the fire escape, and I wasn't going to put my shoulder to it. I was already hot enough without having a shirt that stank of dumpster.
Handling the knife gingerly by the blade, I slipped the handle into my pocket, and without looking around to see if anyone was watching, jumped up and caught the bottom of the ladder. I knew from memory that it was chained up, so I pulled myself up until I could hook the side of a foot onto it. I was excessively conscious of that sharp kitchen knife sticking out of my pocket. Couldn't imagine what I needed it for, but it was part of the night's loot and I didn't want to lose it.

Getting onto the first platform was an effort. More, as it turned out, than I realized. As I got to the top of the first flight of stairs I was suddenly overtaken by dizziness and realized I was beginning to fall. I flailed out for the handrail and caught it, but as my hand slid down it must've got caught on a loose screw or something. The inside of the first joint of my right forefinger was torn and bleeding. It hurt.

I probably should have turned back there. But I wanted more than just to make the effort worthwhile and more, I realized, since I probably couldn't go back home now. I wanted to be sure that the bitch knew that I knew, and that she got hers in return for my getting mine.

There were three more flights to go, and I was feeling the heat. I had to pull the knife back out of my pocket because climbing the stairs was grinding the back of the blade into my ribs. I needed my left hand for the rail, so I held it in my right, pressing the handle into that irritating little wound as if to keep it from bleeding. It couldn't have bled much, as by the time I reached the top it was sticky, as much with sweat as with drying blood.

Her window was open. I wondered if her aircon was on. Be nice to clean the place out in the cool. I couldn't hear it above the roaring in my ears though. I waited for it to subside, and I was about to grab the frame and climb inside when I thought of my hand, all bloody. Nothing like leaving a handprint in your own blood. I couldn't see how much there was in the half-light, so I resolved to keep my hand on the knife, so that I wouldn't accidentally use it for anything.

Left-handed, I slipped through the window. The curtains were long, heavy and clammy; I tucked my right hand under me and pushed through sideways with my left; the curtains wiped over me like a dishcloth. As I turned and straightened up, a billowing white shape loomed over me. At first I thought it was another curtain, and I made to shove it away. I didn't need to look up at her face to know, and tried to shove her away, first with one hand, then the other.

That oversized nightdress hid most of her torso, and I really couldn't tell what I was pushing against. I only know that when the knife met with resistance I gripped it all the tighter, and slowly drove it in. The knife itself pushed back against me even as she fell away, and the blade slid back into my slick grip, cutting into the inside of the first joint of my first finger; I let go, and the handle of the knife was sucked into the excessive white folds. As she came to rest in front of me I reached out. Her body was hot and wet. Almost as hot and wet as I was; even the hard resistance of the knife handle was unexpectedly hot.

I wondered as I sat waiting; I guess I knew what I was waiting for. It came home to me as the half light revealed how it all ended: with a blood-stained nightdress.

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