Friendly, tidy, young professional, the application had read. I suppose I never thought to ask what kind of professional, but you usually assume something in IT or finance or maybe marketing. Gabrielle Poole: non-smoker, meat-eater, does not play the accordion. I assumed that was a bit of humour. By that time I had already had a few people round to visit the flat: one sweaty young man with a creased shirt who had asked exactly how often the landlord usually came to visit, an exceedingly tall woman who felt inclined to kick each inch of skirting board with her heavy platform boots, and Ziggy, who had offered to pay extra to persuade me to turn a blind eye to any "commercial" activity that might go on. So I could hardly afford to be picky.
When Gabrielle Poole mentioned that she sometimes worked from home, I felt obliged to warn her that the WiFi connection was temperamental at best. “That won’t be a problem,” she assured me, and she moved in at the beginning of August.
At the time, I was entering the final year of a non-specific PhD course which kept me in my room or out of the house for long periods of time. For the first month or so, Gabrielle and I saw each other rarely. When we did, our encounters were always offputtingly brief, invariably cut short by her phone ringing or an idea appearing to strike her out of nowhere. More than once, in the middle of a totally banal conversation, she would suddenly raise her head and repeat what I had said with bizarre emphasis.
“You’re right! Because the blender doesn’t just mix. It chops,” and she would fly out of the front door, leaving me to wipe baked bean juice from my chin and wonder what on earth she had thought we were talking about.
She seemed to work around the clock, and I couldn’t work out when she slept or when she ate. Occasionally she produced from the fridge door a bottle of water or juice that I couldn’t remember seeing there before, and that appeared to keep her going for days at a time. Her phone was always ringing, at all hours of the day and night.
As autumn arrived, she was around the house more frequently. Although we were in each other's company, you can hardly say we got to know each other. Apparently, she had developed a passion for soliloquising, particularly in front of the window or the mirror. Her voice could be heard from behind the bathroom door for half an hour at a time, and I was left to brush my teeth with a finger over the kitchen sink and squint at my reflection in the shiny fridge door to decide whether or not my hair looked passable.
The topics of her musings varied broadly, from disconnected memories of childhood to vivid imagery of a stranger she had passed one day or a bizarre, unintelligible dream she had once had. Once, as she reflected at length about the evolution of her parents’ relationship during her life, staring out of the window at the stained bricked wall of the house opposite, I managed to get a word in edgeways. I was working on my untitled thesis at the kitchen counter and barely listening until she got onto the subject of her job.
“What exactly do you do?” I asked, cutting her off mid-sentence. She glanced around at me.
“I’m a detective,” she said. I raised my eyebrows abruptly, wondering whether to laugh. I didn’t know how long it usually took to become a detective, but Gabrielle couldn’t have been older than 23. She didn’t seem to be joking, though.
“Wow,” I said, struggling to sound sincere. “That’s very impressive. What kind of detective?”
“Homicide,” she said, and my poorly supressed mirth suddenly seemed inappropriate. To my bafflement, she grabbed a shiny silver badge out of her back pocket as she said it and brandished it at me. I wondered vaguely whether I was being arrested.
“Christ,” I said. “What’s that like?”
“I’m on the trail of notorious serial killer Pietr Lambast,” she said. I nodded, trying to look impressed, though I was certain I had never heard of the man. She took advantage of my silence to launch back into her speech. “My grandmother was my hero,” she began, and I returned to my document.
Over time, I got used to most of her strange habits. Yes, she was a bit odd, but least she wasn't particularly noisy or unclean, and, as promised, she did not play the accordion.
One time she called me at the flat, sounding extremely serious. She asked in a low, urgent voice, whether a package had been delivered here today. When I said that it had, she immediately launched into highly detailed instructions involving a pair of leather gloves, a metre of tin foil, a decoy taxi, a location in the woods and a midnight rendez-vous. I waited politely for her to finish before informing her that I had already opened the package this morning to find that it was, as expected, the drying rack I had ordered, having dropped a heavy saucepan on our old one. I couldn't resist adding,
"If something else comes, though, I'll definitely remember the tin foil thing."
It was all much less funny a couple of weeks later. I was working late at my desk, having been on the phone to my anonymous parents who lived somewhere elsewhere, when I heard our front door burst open. I turned from my desk to listen. There was a shuffling noise from the kitchen, and a tap started running.
“Gabrielle?” I called out. When she didn’t reply, I wrapped my ragged old blanket around me and went out of my room. The lights were off but I could see her form at the kitchen sink. I flicked the light switch. Gabrielle turned around. I gasped as if I had been slapped.
“Oh, my God,” I said, dropping my blanket where I stood, leaving me in faded fleecy Christmas pyjamas and no bra. I approached slowly, a bit dazzled by the room’s brightness. “Oh, my God,” I felt light-headed. I picked up a magazine from the kitchen counter and put it down again, in a state of distraction. Gabrielle was rinsing blood out of her shirt.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“No, you’re not!” I wailed, covering my eyes with one hand, peering through the fingers. There was a huge, blooming patch of blood on her right shoulder and a dark wound beneath. I grabbed the side of the counter. “What happened?” I cried, bowing my head, gone suddenly dizzy.
“I was shot,” she said.
“You were what?” I groaned. I felt sick, I was panicking. “Stay there, then. I’ll call an ambulance.”
“No, it’ll be fine,” said Gabrielle. I peered over the edge of the kitchen counter to see that she was pressing a tea towel to the wound. Her hair was hardly out of place, her makeup only barely running. Meanwhile, I was sweating like I’d run a mile. “My colleague got the bullet out,” she added. That was too much for me: I slid, moaning, to the floor. One-handed, Gabrielle plucked a clean wine glass from one of our cupboards, which I would have sworn contained only a single, questionable, jar of mayonnaise. She poured a measure of red wine from a bottle under the counter.
I squinted upside-down at her from the floor as she leaned casually against the sink, one hand holding the tea towel to her wound and the other elegantly supporting the wine glass. I became aware that a cold wet curl of onion skin was sticking itself to my neck.
Her recovery was nothing short of miraculous. For a couple of days, she wore a large white gauze pad over the site of her injury as she carried on with her usual business, and a week later she showed me that the wound had shrunk to the size of a penny. I stared at it in bafflement. Unnerved, I just told her I was glad she felt better.
Not long after that, I arrived home to the flat one evening balancing a pizza box in one hand. I had already cracked into it on the way home and was holding a slice of pizza between my teeth to unlock the door, my eyes watering at the searing cheese grease currently slithering down my chin. It had been a long day and I was hoping to creep across the flat and hide in my room. Instead, the door swung open and I stood on the threshold, staring.
Five people in stern-looking uniforms were assembled in my living room. They had set up computer monitors and laptops on our coffee table, wires trailing over an old pair of socks and the breakfast plate I had left on the floor. I noticed that my forgotten orthodontic retainer had been moved to the kitchen counter and the dead flowers I had been meaning to dispose of for a week had disappeared. Gabrielle had somehow dredged up five matching mugs from somewhere, which was nothing short of unbelievable in itself, not to mention that she seemed to have wrestled the WiFi into submission. Now, she wore headphones and peered closely at scrolling, unintelligible blue text on a screen.
I tried to shove the rest of the pizza slice into my mouth but I gagged in the process. Five stern pairs of eyes looked up at me.
“Hello,” I garbled.
“We’re doing an interception,” said Gabrielle. “Pietr is on the move.” One of her colleagues made to say something but she silenced him with a hand. “She knows,” she said. I didn’t correct her, though it would be impossible to overstate how little I knew. “We’ll probably be here all night.”
“Oh, sure,” I said, although she hadn’t asked for permission. “You go ahead. I’ll just be- ” I gestured clumsily at my bedroom door, suddenly desperate to make myself scarce. The blank stares of Gabrielle’s colleagues were intensely unnerving. I couldn’t help noticing, too, that one of them was extremely attractive while the other three were barely distinguishable from one another.
I sat on my bed chomping on my lukewarm crusts with the TV on mute, unable to resist trying to eavesdrop. Most of what I could hear sounded absolutely incomprehensible, anyway.
“He’s gone to the warehouse,” someone said at one point. I wondered what range they were actually intercepting from, because I couldn’t think of a single warehouse anywhere around here. “Why’s he done that?”
There was a short pause. Then Gabrielle’s voice rang out.
“The shipment!” She snapped. “Shipment C95 from Croatia. How did we miss it?”
After that, there was a lot of shuffling, then a period of silence. I must have dozed off eventually because the next thing I knew it was dark outside my windows and I was slumped against the wall with the TV having migrated to a teleshopping channel.
I needed to go to the bathroom so I crept over to my door and listened. Were my ears ringing or was that music? I scratched my chin and felt the sting of a spot brewing. I probably should have washed my face before I fell asleep. Through the door, I was sure I could hear something, like someone pacing the floor or trying to close a stubborn cupboard.
I cracked the door open. The first thing I took in were the candles, which seemed to have sprung from nowhere to perch on our various tables and surfaces. They filled the living room with warm, wavering light. The music playing out of my speaker was slow and instrumental. Then I saw Gabrielle and one of her colleagues, pressed up against the kitchen counter.
“Oh, God,” I muttered, and slammed my bedroom door. I suddenly felt I could wait for the bathroom until the morning. At least, I assumed, that meant the interception had gone well.
After that, it seemed the job was over, for now at least. Ten months after she had moved in, Gabrielle informed me, in a passionate speech mediated by the outside wall, that she had received a promotion and was going to London to “finish what she had started”. She left behind a set of nice wine glasses and two strange black puncture marks on the living room wall which I had chosen never to ask about.
I finished writing up my thesis over the summer. When I went into her room to prepare it for the next tenant, I found it virtually untouched, as if she had never been there. That was convenient, because Ziggy was moving in at the end of the week.