The Good Neighbour

The Good Neighbour

He knocked at the front door of her new home. Later, he would so badly want to kill her that he would tremble at the thought, but, for the moment, he just stood and waited for her to answer.

The sound echoed around the old house and she turned her head towards it, breaking the spell she had fallen under as she looked through the bedroom window. The view was wonderful: the gently curving valley that had over thousands of years been carved into the land by rivers of ice; the fertile earth now bursting with the greenery of late spring; the painterly blue of the sky on this bright and glorious day. She wondered how long it had been since the very first people had found this place, what they thought when they arrived, whether they might have been enraptured like her. She wondered too if they might have thought of it as a Paradise, and then she laughed. People have been in this valley for thousands of years, she realised, long before the nonsense of Heaven and Hell had been visited on mankind. They would just have loved it, she thought. Like I do.

The woman turned slowly away from the view out of the rear bedroom and walked to the head of the stairs. She caught sight of herself in the mirror on the wall facing the stairs. The reflection showed a woman in her mid-thirties, with a good figure and a pretty face, although this was a practical self-assessment rather than vanity. She had only checked the mirror to make sure she was presentable enough to receive visitors, not because she liked to see herself. From the top of the stairs, the view to the front of the house could be seen through the tall sash windows of the master bedroom. The woman paused to look at the sunshine pouring down on the Yorkshire countryside. From this room on the first floor she could see for several miles, right down towards the range of purple hills at the other end of the valley. She smiled to herself as she walked down the stairs.

It had taken six months from finding the place to actually getting the keys. She’d had some much needed work done, a full re-wire and a re-plumb, and after that every room had been professionally decorated. It would have been impossible to live in the house while all that was going on and so she’d waited patiently until the last bit of work had been completed before moving in. This was her first full day in the house and she was enjoying every moment of it. She’d toured each room to check that the furniture had been put in just the right place. She’d stood in the centre of each room for several minutes, breathing in, breathing out, just absorbing the feeling of her new home, and the feeling had been good. It had been very good.

The house was an old stone farmhouse a short walk from the local village, just far enough away from any neighbours to ensure privacy but not so far as to be out of reach in the wild winter weather. The estate agents had rattled on about how perfectly proportioned the house was but it was her emotional response to the place that had made her decide to buy it. She had just felt better when she was in this building than she had felt inside any of the others.

She came down the creaky wooden steps of the staircase and crossed the reception hall and opened the door. There was nobody there. As she stepped forward someone came towards her from the path that ran in front of the living room window. He had slightly bowed legs and rolled from side to side a little as he walked. He stopped in front of her, smiling broadly. He tugged the brim of his cap and held out his hand.

“Hello,” he said. “Didn’t think you were in. I’m Eric. Pleased to meet you.”

He was wearing the local uniform of flat cap and green Barbour jacket with cowhide gloves, although he was wearing a battered pair of trainers rather than the regulation Hunter wellington boots. His accent wasn’t local though. She guessed that the man was in his early forties. He was a touch under six feet tall and a little overweight. He had bright blue eyes that seemed to twinkle in the sunlight. He looked like a favourite uncle.

“I live just down the road. Thought I’d come and welcome you to the village. Wife would have come along too but she’s come down with something this morning so it’s just me I’m afraid. How’re you settling in? D’you need anything?”

The woman realised that the man was still holding out his hand so she came out onto the flagged steps leading up to her door and shook it. His handshake was surprisingly soft, almost flaccid.

“Hello, Eric. Pleased to meet you too. I’m Annabelle.”

“Annabelle. Lovely name,” he said.

“Thank you. Yes, I like it too. Just as well I suppose.”

He looked puzzled for a moment and then saw the smile on her lips. “Ha-ha, yes. Wouldn’t do to not like your own name would it? So, are you settling in OK? Is this your first day in residence? Any problems? Do you need any help? Anything I can do?”

“Gosh, what a lot of questions.” She smiled at him and held her hands up in mock defence.

“Yes. Sorry. I do that sometimes. Sorry.” The man took off his hat and scratched his thinning brown hair and looked down at the ground.

“Don’t worry. I used to be a journalist so I’m used to questions. I’m more used to asking them, though. Everything seems to be fine thanks; no problems up to now. I think I’m coping nicely.”

“That’s good. Journalist, eh? Who for?”

“Oh, different rags and mags and what have you but that was a good while ago. I moved into publishing and was lucky enough to make a bit of money out of it. Saved all my pennies and used them to buy this lovely place.”

“Yes, it is lovely isn’t it? I bet your hubby is a happy man too.”

She almost laughed at the lack of subtlety. “There’s no hubby, Eric. No boyfriend or partner of any kind. There’s just me. I’m quite happy on my own. I prefer my own company, to be honest. I’m planning to do some writing now that I’ve got somewhere quiet and inspiring to do it in and being alone is the best way to make sure I get that done.”

“I see,” he said, and a look of realisation spread across his face. “Oh, I’ve interrupted haven’t I? I am sorry. I’ll get off.” He put on his hat and stepped away from the door.

“Oh, Eric,” she said, taking hold of his arm. “Now it’s my turn to be sorry. I’ve been unforgivably rude haven’t I? I’ve made you feel as though you were intruding and I’ve not even invited you in for a cup of coffee. What will the village think if I let you go back to them with that sort of impression of me? Come on in – let’s have a drink and a chat.” She turned and walked into the house and held the door open for him.

Eric looked from side to side and then gave her a bashful grin, stuffing his hat into a jacket pocket. “Well if you’re sure…”

“Yes, of course. Please – I insist.”

The man walked into her house, his battered shoes trailing odd gobbets of muck on the newly laid wood flooring.

They walked along the waxed wood floor of the hallway into the large kitchen at the back of the house. It had exposed ceiling beams and wooden window lintels. Egg-shell blue custom made kitchen units ran along each wall, a colour echoed by the feature wall behind the range cooker. A large oblong solid wooden table stood in the centre of the room. Annabelle motioned Eric to sit in one of the rustic style chairs that surrounded the table.

“Tea or coffee?”

“Whatever is easiest for you. Coffee will be fine.”

“Proper coffee or instant?”

“Proper coffee?” Eric wrinkled his forehead. “Oh, you mean the ground stuff. Takes too long. Instant will do.”

“I’m having proper coffee,” said Annabelle. “Espresso. It’s one of those bean to cup machines so it’s no bother.”

“OK then – fine. Thank you.”

She turned the black dual-cup coffee machine on and got the cups and saucers out. While she was doing this Eric got up from the chair and went to the kitchen window. He leaned forward so that he could peer far to the left and then to the right.

“It’s a fantastic view, isn’t it?” said Annabelle.

“Sure is,” said Eric. “You could see anyone coming from miles away. Surprised you didn’t see me.”

“I was looking out of the back bedroom window when you arrived,” she said. “I meant that the view was beautiful, actually.”

“Ah – yes. Yes, it’s wonderful.”

“I wasn’t looking for anyone coming anyway. I’m not expecting anyone else today. Did you walk?”

“What makes you say that?”

“You’re wearing trainers. And I didn’t hear a car.”

“Bunions,” said Eric after a pause, “and the car’s parked behind that little outhouse you’ve got there.” He pointed to an old stone outbuilding that could be seen from the kitchen window. “The road at the front of the house is too narrow to park on.”

The coffee machine hummed and gurgled and spat out two espressos. Annabelle brought them to the table and Eric came and sat down again.

“I hope it isn’t anything serious,” said Annabelle.

“I’m sorry?” said Eric.

“Your wife. I hope she hasn’t got anything too bad.”

“Oh, she’ll be fine. Don’t you worry about her.” He reached out as if to drink his coffee but simply moved the cup an inch or two. She noticed that he was still wearing his gloves.

“Have you two lived in the village long?” she asked.

“The wife has. You can probably tell from my accent that I’m not a native.”

“I thought so. I can’t actually tell where you’re from, though. Your accent is difficult to place.”

Eric blinked, an odd double-blink. “Yes, people have said that before,” he said. “I moved around a lot when I was a lad. Dad was in the forces. Nothing really stuck.”

She paused. When nothing else came from the smiling man she tried once again.

“So what do you do Eric? You have a country look but you don’t strike me as a farmer.”

“A farmer – me? No. No, I’m a… I suppose I’m… an entrepreneur. Ducking and diving, as they say. Finding opportunities and trying to capitalise on them.”

“That sounds intriguing.”

“Not really. It’s not much fun living on your wits all the time. So you’re in publishing are you?”

“Well, I was. I’ve stepped out of the industry for a while. I’ve still got an interest in the company I ran but I was lucky enough to make a bit of money from a couple of opportunities that came my way. Ducked and dived at the right time I suppose!” She smiled at Eric, who grinned back. “Anyway, I used most of the money to buy this place. I’ve always wanted to write and now I’ve got the opportunity to do it. It’ll be interesting to see what I can do in a place where I can think and read and create without any interruptions or pressures from other people. I’m really looking forward to getting started.”

“Yes, I can see that. Great place to do it in too. Nice and quiet and away from it all. Just the odd little thing to sort out.”

“Odd little thing?”

“You know – house maintenance work. That gutter, for example.”

“What gutter?”

“At the back of the house. Leaks like a tap when it rains. Haven’t you noticed?”

“No, I haven’t actually. I don’t think it’s been raining on any of the days I’ve been here up to now. It’s odd that the surveyor didn’t spot it when he came to check out the place.”

“Didn’t you get a full survey done?”

“No, just a valuation survey. I viewed the house with a friend who had experience of buying old places like this and he said the house was in relatively good repair so I didn’t see the need for the full survey.”

“There’s your answer then.”

“Well, that’s annoying. Are you sure about the leak?”

“I’m afraid so. You can see it whenever it’s raining if you drive along the road from the village towards your house.” He paused. “You might be able to see the problem yourself from one of the back bedroom windows.” He paused again. “I could have a look for you if you want. I might even be able to fix it for you if it isn’t too bad.”

“Really?” she said. “Would you mind?”

“Not at all,” he said. “It’s just being neighbourly, isn’t it?”

“And what a good neighbour you are, Eric,” said Annabelle as she got to her feet. “I’m going to be so happy here. I can just feel it.”

Eric smiled.

“I like what you’ve done with the place, Annabelle,” said Eric as they walked up the stairs.

“I haven’t actually done anything significant, really. I don’t intend to either. One of the reasons I loved the place on first sight was that it was done out in pretty much the sort of style that I would have done myself. That saved me a lot of upheaval and effort and expense. Did you come here much?”

“Here? No He , not very often.”

“Oh. How did you get on with Frances?”

“As well as anyone I suppose. Nice enough chap.”

Annabelle stopped at the top of the stairs and turned to look at Eric. “I mean Frances. The woman who lived here.”

“Sorry – wasn’t listening properly. Yes, she was a nice old girl.”

“Old girl? She can’t have been much older than you!”

“Ha! Turn of phrase. Is this the room?”

“It depends where the leak is I suppose. You can just see the far end of the gutter from this room though.”

“Let’s have a look then.”

Annabelle entered the room. Eric followed her and they both walked up to the high sash window facing the rear of the property. The view from this room was spectacular. The long curve of the valley stretched away to the right, disappearing behind great limestone cliffs on the right of the scene. Late spring foliage coated every feature that could be seen beneath the gradated blue sky.

“God, I love this place,” said Annabelle.

“Wonderful isn’t it?” said Eric, looking out of the window. He looked upwards. “There’s your problem,” he said, pointing with his gloved hands. He stepped back to let Annabelle see.

Annabelle stepped forward and moved her face close to the window pane. As she turned her back to him, Eric took his cap out of his jacket pocket. Holding the cap in his left hand he used his right hand to pull a cosh from an inside pocket of his jacket. With the cap wrapped around the cosh to reduce the likelihood of breaking skin, he stepped forward and hit Annabelle hard on the back of her head.

He waited for a couple of minutes after she had fallen to the floor to make sure she wasn’t going to be a problem. When he was satisfied that she was unconscious he checked her head to make sure he hadn’t caused any real damage and then pulled a reel of duct tape out of a pocket in his jacket. He bound her hands together at the wrists and then bound her legs around her ankles before wrapping tape around her head to cover her mouth. He picked up the limp body and carried it to the bed. He fastened the woman to the Victorian style brass headboard by looping more duct tape through the top bars of the headboard and the fastening around her wrists. When he was satisfied that the woman was securely bound he began.

The bedroom they were in was the first place he searched. It was sparsely furnished with just the double bed, a small wardrobe and a small bedside cabinet. He found nothing in any of these pieces of furniture. Of the next two bedrooms, one contained empty packing crates and the detritus of a house move, with the other furnished in a similar fashion to the first bedroom he had searched. Finding nothing in either room he moved along to the remaining bedroom.

The master bedroom contained a king-sized bed, two wardrobes, two bedside cabinets and a tallboy. The wardrobes contained some dresses, suits and shoes. In the hanging section of the tallboy were some jackets. The drawer section was filled with jumpers, tops and underwear. One of the bedside cabinets was empty apart from a box of tissues. The other held a collection of tights and stockings, more tissues, some face creams, costume jewellery, and a pair of handcuffs.

He held the handcuffs out in front of himself and smiled.

“Well you’re a dark horse, aren’t you young Annabelle?”

He put the handcuffs in his jacket pocket and went downstairs. He searched the living room and the dining room. The only item to attract his attention was an antique roll-top desk in the living room. It was locked. He went back into the kitchen and brought the woman’s handbag into the living room. He emptied the whole contents onto the low coffee table in front of the brown leather sofa. Neither of the two sets of keys that now sat on the table contained the key he was looking for. He picked up the purse that had also been deposited on the table and took out a small bundle of notes. He also took out the pair of keys that were kept in a zippered compartment of the purse.

Opening the roll-top desk with one key, the man found a small cash-box that he opened with the second key. He took out another bundle of notes plus two diamond necklaces and a set of diamond rings. He searched through the small drawers and niches inside the desk but found nothing more.

He carried out a brief search of the kitchen. He tried the door to the cellar but it was locked with a keypad lock. He gave the door a heavy kick but it was solid wood. He tapped the keypad and smiled.

He returned to the woman in the bedroom.

She was awake. She had pulled herself up the bed to a more comfortable position. Her hands gripped the top rail of the headboard so tightly that the knuckles shone white. She watched with no show of emotion as he came towards her.

“How are you, love?” asked Eric.

She didn’t acknowledge the enquiry.

“Now, I’ve been all around this house while you’ve been – um – sleeping,” he said, smiling at her. “For someone who has enough money to buy a place like this there is precious little of any value to be found. Where do you keep your stash, dear? Where’s the money? That’s all I’m after.” He stood beside her, his feet splayed apart, his fists on his hips. “Come on, come on. You country types always keep a pile to hand. I knew as soon as I found out that this place had been sold to a young woman that there would be a little pot of gold hidden away somewhere. Just hand it over and I’ll be on my way.”

He moved towards the woman. As he did so he drew the handcuffs from his jacket pocket and jangled them in front of her. “I found some of your little toys,” he said. He stood over her and sniggered to himself as he leaned in close to her face. “I hope you’re going to come quietly,” he said.

The woman just watched him, her eyes revealing nothing of her thoughts or feelings.

“Silly me,” he said, slapping himself on the forehead. “You can’t talk. Bound and gagged, aren’t you? Trussed up like a chicken.” He took out a multi-bladed pen knife and opened it. “I’m going to take the tape off your mouth now so that we can chat. We’re so far out of the village that nobody would hear even your loudest scream but, just to be clear, if you make even the tiniest squeal I will give you another tap on the head and then tape you up again. Do you understand?”

The woman said nothing.

“I’m not going to take the tape off until I’m sure you’re going to be sensible, love. I can leave it on and go round the house with a crowbar. I’m just trying to make things easier for both of us. Now, are you going to play the game or not?”

The woman gave a barely perceptible nod.

“Lovely. It’s much better to be sensible about these things. I remember one place I did in Kent, the silly creature just screeched her head off as soon as I took the tape away. Taped her back up and then just about dismantled the entire house. Took bloody ages but I eventually found the stash hidden under a floorboard in the bedroom.” He looked down at the carpeted floor. “Not likely to be anything like that here though, is there?” He looked at the woman. “I wonder what we’ll find in the cellar though.” She didn’t respond.

“OK, let’s get it off.” He raised the knife to the side of her face and slid it under the tape, the blade facing away from her skin. He ran the blade upwards and it sliced through the heavy tape. He tugged one end of the tape across her face and then yanked the other end away from her hair, taking several strands of hair with it. Both of these moves must have been very painful but the woman made no sound.

“Tough girl,” he said. He stood beside her, waiting to see if she would scream. She just kept looking at him. “Good girl,” he said.

Satisfied that she was not going to be a problem he walked away from the woman and looked out of the bedroom window. He turned his back on her as he checked that the road was clear.

“Beautiful place you have here love,” he said, pausing to admire the view.

The headboard to which the woman had been fastened was made of push-fit sectional brass tubing which the woman had loosened while the man searched her house. She now slid her feet off the bed, grasped the main tube at the top of the headboard and yanked it off, leaning forward as she did so in order to swing the pipe above her head. It caught the wall as it swung round and made a scraping noise. The man turned to see what the sound was just as the tube reached maximum speed.

When he awoke he could see that he was lying on a sheet of blue plastic laid out on a solid floor. The taste of blood was in his mouth and his tongue probed a new gap in his teeth. The right side of his face raged with pain and he couldn’t see out of his right eye. His left eye was hurting from the glare of a powerful light. He was cold and when he tried to move he realised that his hands had been tied together behind his knees and that his feet were bound at the ankles with his own heavy duty tape. He was curled in a foetal position on his right side.

The woman walked into his field of view. She was wearing a pair of white coveralls with the hood down. She carried some black rubber gloves in her left hand. She walked backwards and forwards in his field of view for several minutes, stopping occasionally to bend down and look at him more closely. When she finally stopped and spoke her voice was tender, almost sympathetic.

“Hello, Eric,” said Annabelle. “How are you, love?”

The man didn’t respond.

“While you were sleeping,” she paused to smile at him, “I’ve searched around the house too. I’ve collected your grubby little trainers and put them in that bag,” she indicated a black plastic bin liner a couple of feet behind her, “along with your jacket. I’ll burn everything later. I’ve found the little van too. I’m pretty certain that you must have stolen it as it’s full of decorating equipment. There is nothing in it that looks like it would belong to a thief like you, although I managed to find these handy little coveralls in the back. I think I’ll drive it into one of the towns on the coast tomorrow and leave the car there so that the owner can retrieve it.”

She paused to look at him.

“I’ve got the documents from your jacket so I know your name isn’t really Eric but I’m going to stick with it for now. Where do you think you are, Eric?”

He raised his head from the floor to look around. He could see a white plastered ceiling studded with down lights. The walls were covered in some sort of dimpled padding. Around him were ranged a set of cameras on tripods. Green, blinking lights told him that they were running. The room smelt of damp and paint and seemed to be bare apart from the two people and the plastic sheet. He looked back at her but said nothing.

“You’re in the cellar Eric. And I’m afraid you’re in trouble.”

The man squirmed as she smiled at him.

“You may have guessed by now that I’m not really a journalist. I didn’t really make my money from publishing. I made it in a much more specialised field. That’s what this room is going to be used for Eric. I’ve already had it soundproofed and over the next few weeks I’ll be installing my equipment.” She hugged herself and walked around in a small circle, looking all around the bare room. “I haven’t got all my equipment up here yet though so I’m going to have to improvise today. I’ve got to fetch and carry and install all the big stuff by myself over the next few weeks. You see, I have to be discreet. I don’t want the neighbours to find out. I don’t want them to get the wrong impression of me.” She smiled. “I want to be a good neighbour.”

She stopped and turned to him again. She came and knelt beside him and leaned towards his face.

“You’ve really annoyed me, you know. Although I suppose what I really mean is that I’ve annoyed myself. I wanted to believe that I had come to the sort of place where really nice people lived, nice people who did really nice things for each other. I wanted to believe that so much that I let my guard down and you were able to just wander in to my life. I should have noticed that you kept your gloves on to avoid fingerprints and that you didn’t drink your coffee to avoid leaving any DNA. I won’t be so stupid in the future though. And the upside is that, when we’re done, there’ll be no evidence, no residual trace that you’ve ever been here.”

He looked up at her. He began to shiver.

“It isn’t cold you know. I had under floor heating installed too. The absence of a direct heat source sometimes confuses the body, that’s all. But you aren’t shivering from cold, are you? You’re just beginning to understand the situation a little better.”

The woman moved from a kneeling position to one where she was sitting cross-legged at his head. She leaned forward again, resting her elbows on her knees.

“Do you want to know how I made my money Eric? No? I’ll tell you anyway. I provide a very specialist service to the great and the good; to politicians and judges and police from all over the world, all the malformed, damaged, wounded people who run our planet. I help them to actually feel something. I help them to connect with a world that they have become de-sensitized to and careless of. I do this through pain. I am very good at pain, you see.”

Her eyes shone in her pretty face. She was almost in tears of excitement.

“And I want to help you now Eric. You’ve given me an opportunity I’ve always dreamed of. I want to help you to find out how much pain a person can take. How much hurt your body can bear before it starts shutting down, before it ceases to function; before you die, Eric. Perhaps we’ll discover how long it takes for physical agony to become spiritual ecstasy. The agony of the Christ! Imagine that Eric. Imagine a sensation so far beyond anything that a still-living person has experienced; a pain so fundamental and intense that it becomes more than physical. Where pain becomes the most important thing in your life, the only thing in your life; where you beg for more pain; where you beg me to hurt you.”

The woman stopped speaking and reached out to stroke the man’s face. He was trembling uncontrollably now, tears running down his face.

“We’ll begin soon Eric, but you must understand this first of all,” said the woman. “I’m not like you. I’m not like anyone else. I love what I do; love it. And because of that I’m terrifying to ordinary people. I’m their nightmare. I’m a monster to them, to people like you.”

She reached out behind her and dragged a black leather carriage bag towards her. She turned back to face him, her hand resting on the catch of the bag. She unclasped the catch and reached into the bag and took something out.

“You’ve offended me Eric. You soiled my house with your presence. You struck me. You bound me up. You must be punished.”

She brought two small, bloodied plastic bags and held them in front of the man’s face.

“I’ve made a start,” she said.

He saw the contents of the bags and finally understood what was to come. He began to sob.

“An eye for an eye, Eric. A tooth for a tooth.”

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