The snotty-nosed kid from next door rang the doorbell for the seventeenth time in three weeks. David knew it was her before he’d wrenched the door open. No one else rang SOS in Morse code.
“Hello mister! I’m sorry to bother you but -”
“You kicked your ball onto my balcony.” David stood back and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Go get it then.”
The kid bounded down the hallway and returned a moment later with a ball and a grin plastered onto her freckled face. After some blithe assurances that she’d be more careful, she was gone. David closed the front door and headed back to his laptop. The cursor blinked accusingly at him from a blank document.
His fingers hovered above the keyboard for a moment.
It was a dark and stormy night, he typed. He continued in that vein for a while, adding sinister cloaked men, corpses in the library and maids who screamed and dropped breakfast trays. Then came the village bobby on his bicycle, and the call to Scotland Yard. The overworked Scotland Yard inspector grunted into his moustache, trampled over the clues and antagonised the gossipping spinsters. Everything was set for the clever private detective and his bumbling sidekick to appear on the scene when the doorbell rang again. Not an SOS this time, but a short jab.
He opened the door to reveal a leaning tower of cardboard boxes with a delivery guy underneath.
“Uh, hi,” said David. “I’m not expecting any deliveries.”
“Got some packages here for your neighbours. Numbers fourteen, seven and twelve. Do you mind?”
And before David knew it, the packages were in his cramped hall and he was scribbling something that did not remotely resemble his signature on the delivery guy’s pad. Back at his laptop, he couldn’t remember what he was going to call the sidekick. Two syllables, he thought. Something with a B? He skimmed through the chapters he had written so far. They were utter rubbish. Page upon page of cliches and stiff dialogue that might have passed for parody had they actually been funny.
He needed something new. Something dark and twisted, that sucked readers in and sent tendrils of fear into the deepest parts of their brains. The kind of book that made you get up and doublecheck you had locked the door.
David put his laptop away and got out one of his notebooks instead. Sometimes pen and paper really were best. He let his thoughts wander as he wrote down random words. Twisted. Rope. Hang. Criminal. Murder. Investigation. The detective is the murderer.
That could work.
One of the desk drawers contained a stack of post-its. David wrote down characters, chapter outlines and little bits of dialogue that he thought of. He was sticking the post-its onto the wall above his desk when the doorbell rang again.
It was a guy he’d never met before. He had a scarf wrapped around his neck and was carrying an instrument case. Saxophone, David thought.
“Hi, I think a package was delivered for me here,” said the guy. “Number twelve.”
With some difficulty due to the seven post-its still stuck to his fingers, David handed him the correct package.
“Thanks. Hey, why does this say ‘murder victim’?” The guy held up a post-it that had gotten stuck to the box.
“Nothing. Planning my next book, that’s all.”
“Cool, you write? Anything I know?”
David thought about the three short stories he’d published in as many years, and the novel that was currently languishing around page 50.000 when you sorted books by popularity in your online shop of preference.
“No.” He closed the door before the guy could reply, and wrote ‘Saxophone player’ underneath ‘Murder victim’. That’d teach his neighbour. He slapped the post-it note onto the wall and considered the next one, which was stuck to his index finger. His detective. Very important, since he was also the murderer. The detective, he decided, would be the kind who obsessed over an old case. A killer who got away. It had to be a particularly savage killer, or a serial killer, perhaps someone who took trophies from his victims. The Viper, that was a good name. The Viper had killed half a dozen people on the streets of London in the 1930s. No, more! Dozens. And the detective… David chewed the end of his pen. Since retiring from Scotland Yard, Inspector Nicholson had spent every waking minute painstakingly sifting through the evidence. Fair enough. So far, so golden age of mystery.
He liked the idea of the murder victim being a saxophone player. It gave the whole thing a touch of romance, of jazz, of film noir. Well, he thought so anyway. He hadn’t actually ever seen any film noir movies. But he’d give Nicholson a hat, a divorce and a hip flask of whisky and see where that took him. Was the saxophone player also the Viper? That made sense. Nicholson might have found evidence, but it perhaps it was flimsy, or obtained illegally. Or the outbreak of the Second World War got in the way of justice. That would be -
The shrill sound of the doorbell shattered David’s concentration.
Once he’d given the woman from number fourteen her parcel, he picked up his pen again but his jumbled thoughts stuck in his head and would not come out onto the paper. Damn his neighbours! He turned to a fresh page in his notebook and set the tip of the pen against the paper. Just write a scene, he told himself. Any scene. Let the words flow.
The night was cold with a fog that pressed against the windows and oozed through the the narrow alleyways. The noise of the city was distant, and muted by the lateness of the hour. There was a groan of wood and rusty hinges as a door was opened, and two figures stepped out. A loud voice, its words slurred with alcohol, was answered by a high giggle. Inspector Nicholson watched the couple stagger away down the alley. He was focused on the saxophone music drifting down the alley towards him. It floated on the fog. The music of a killer.
David tore out the page and crumpled it before tossing it over his shoulder. This was just a dark and stormy night crammed with clever words and florid imagery. He could do better.
The room was barely large enough to contain all the cigarette smoke. Three walls were covered in yellowed newspaper clippings and notes written in a cramped hand. Against the fourth wall was a desk, and Nicholson sat behind this with a bottle of scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He was staring at a black and white photograph that lay on top of the messy piles of paper and dirty plates that littered his desk. The photograph showed a boy, no older than fifteen, who was lying in a puddle of blood with his eyes closed. It was the last case Nicholson had worked on before he’d been forced to retire. It was the case he always thought of when drinking whisky after midnight.
He felt the music before he heard it. It was faint, haunting. A saxophone playing at the edge of his hearing. Then the player hit a wrong note and David flung his pen down with a wordless yell. That damn neighbour! He strode out of his flat and pressed his finger against the doorbell of number twelve. The music stopped abruptly.
David was speaking before the door had even opened. “Could you stop?”
“I’ve got to practice,” said his neighbour. “There’s a contest in two weeks. Hey, I could get you tickets!”
“I can’t concentrate with you making that racket!”
“Yeah, well, maybe you should get earphones or something. It’s not like it’s the middle of the night.”
David stalked back to his flat. The song started again and this time his neighbour managed a full thirty-seven seconds without making a mistake.
Two weeks. A saxophonist neighbour might have helped set the mood if he hadn’t been so cheerfully incompetent. The Viper, of course, was a genius. He had played in all the jazz clubs. And he had killed outside most of them. The victims were always random passersby and that was what made the Viper so difficult to catch. Scotland Yard could never find a motive, because there wasn’t one. They never realised it was the same murderer either. But Inspector Nicholson had found a pattern. It was right there, in the music! A screechy false note came from next door, and David pulled himself back to the present. Two weeks. He could survive two weeks of this noise.
Inspector Nicholson was a detective turned murderer. Obsessed. The law could not catch the Viper, so he would take the law into his own hands. Hm. The word “law” appeared twice in a sentence. Was this tedious or poetic? David couldn’t tell. He wrote scattered sentences on odd bits of paper and spent a long time looking at maps of London in the 1930s. The saxophone was drilling into his skull. Just a few more days.
Not long now. Inspector Nicholson still needed a mysterious past. Or a mysterious present? David tore the post-its down from the wall and began sorting them in two piles. He’d write alternating chapters about two characters: Inspector Nicholson and George. The first would be gathering evidence and interpreting clues to catch the Viper, while George plotted the Viper’s murder. And only towards the very end would he reveal that everything was in fact about Inspector George Nicholson.
The outline was done. He had a notebook full of potential dialogue and stacks of character sheets. Now for the murder weapon! A simple kitchen knife ought to do it. Easy to use and hard to trace. Inspector George Nicholson would know exactly where to stab a man so he died quickly. David hesitated with his fingers above the keyboard. Should he start at the beginning? Or just skip straight to the murder? Before he could make a decision, the saxophone started up again.
“Thought you said it’d be over yesterday,” he said once his neighbour had deigned to open the door.
The neighbour raised one eyebrow. “The contest was yesterday. And I won, thanks for asking. Went through to the second round, so I’m practising for that now.”
“And when is -”
“Three months,” said the neighbour. He lifted his saxophone slightly. “And I’m going to play whether or not I win that. I happen to like playing.”
The door slammed shut, half an inch from David’s nose. Very well, he thought. Time for murder.
They say murder is difficult, but it was easy for him. Means, motive and opportunity was all it took. He had the means ready. A simple kitchen knife, one of thousands made and sold over the last years. He’d checked it carefully for distinguishing nicks and marks. Motive was easy, too. There were so many reasons. And opportunity was perhaps the easiest of all. He just went over there one evening. Behind the door, his intended victim was playing the saxophone. A simple tune, but quite beautiful. It stopped when he rang the doorbell. Before the man who opened the door could say anything, he’d slid the knife between his ribs.