Twitchy is the first one to arrive. He’s always early. He doesn’t come in immediately, not that he ever does. He sits in his van, slumped down in his seat and nervously watching the building for a while. Sometimes he does this for as long as twenty minutes before sprinting for the stairs. Today it’s only five.
Twitchy isn’t his real name; I don’t know his real name. I don’t know any of their real names, except for Lucy.
Twitchy doesn’t say anything to me. He slips past me when I open the door and only relaxes — relatively speaking — when it’s closed again. I don’t like being alone with him, but there were guarantees. I go back to making the tea. The tea is part of the deal, and the cookies are part of the deal, and they have to be perfect, or there’s complaining.
The Witch comes next, leaning on her cane. She rings the bell once and waits patiently. She smiles at me when I open the door, thanks me, calls me ‘dear’. She leaves behind a faint scent of powdered sugar and vanilla when she passes. Sometimes she asks me about my day. I try to be vague; she doesn’t pry. If I didn’t know the company she kept I would have no reason to fear her, none at all.
There are three more. Sometimes, like today, the Fat Man gives the Kid a lift, and they arrive together. Sometimes the Kid pedals up on a bike, or rolls up on a skateboard, or doesn’t show at all. Fat man is wheezy and exasperated, and immediately eats a cookie but ignores the tea; the Kid is lost in his smartphone.
By the time I see Lucy approaching the bottom of the stairs, I’m done with my part. I grab my purse and slip outside, pulling the front door closed behind me.
When Lucy reaches the landing, I begin, “Listen—”
“Is everyone here?” He interrupts again, his tone civil and imperious. “And is everything prepared?”
“There was a murder. Last time, that night.” I rehearsed this, practiced it in my head, but just being near him, the anxiety…
“I’d imagine there are murders every night.” His mouth stretches slowly into a smile. “People being people.”
“This was the kid from downstairs. From downstairs.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with—”
“The cops came. They were asking questions, was there anyone strange around, any vistors. They asked the rental office for the security footage.” I shake my head. “A kid, Lucy. A six year old kid. That wasn’t part of the deal.”
Lucy looks at me like my mother used to look at me when I was little, when I railed against an eight o’clock bedtime. He puts his hands on my shoulders; they are uncomfortably warm against my skin, but under them a chill spreads through the muscle and bone. “The deal was, you live. Instead of bleeding out all over the roof of an upside-down Charger like your boyfriend. There’s nothing about the kid downstairs in the deal. And there won’t be anything on the security tapes.” He brushes nonexistent dust off my coat-sleeves, he straightens a collar that was never askew. “So stop worrying.”
He steps past me, opens the apartment door, closes it behind him. There is polite applause from the others. I hurry down the steps. I will go to the diner on the corner, and order lunch, like I always do; I will eventually vomit it into the toilet in the back, like I always do.
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