The big man landed on the roof with a lightness that belied his hefty frame. He moved quickly through the cold winter night, making his way to the edge of the building. With hardly a sound he swung down onto the fire escape. White breath curled and steamed from his mouth, giving his bushy white beard the illusion of life.
Red, green, yellow and blue light played across his face as he peered into the top floor apartment. The light came from a pitiful Christmas tree, already shedding needles, sparsely decorated with a few flashing coloured lanterns and topped with a home made Angel.
Gloved hands reached for the frame, touched it just so, and with a casual deftness slid the window fully open.
He noiselessly moved the tree aside, causing it to lose even more of its needles, and pulled himself into the room, pausing a moment to control his breathing whilst he studied his surroundings.
The room was small and Spartan, the owners clearly on, if not below, the breadline. Aside from the tree the only real decoration was an old Cole Tenner movie poster and an advent calendar – all the doors open barring the 25th.
He moved to the calendar and opened up the final cardboard double door, parting Mary and Joseph and bisecting the baby Jesus as he did so. He scratched away the foil, pulled out the cheap chocolate star and popped it into his mouth, enjoying the sensation of it melting over his tongue and teeth, even if it was a bit on the grainy side.
He ran his tongue over his palette, giving it a cursory clean before he turned back to the room and closing his eyes, took in a deep breath that seemed to pull in the very essence of the surrounding space.
Opening his eyes again he took in the cheap sofa that was the room’s only seat. Even the fairy lights couldn’t disguise how worn it was; how the legs and armrests were scuffed and scratched, the fabric stained and pocked with cigarette burns. But the room was tidy with no trace of dust, and the room held a scent of cinnamon, as if the occupants had tidied just for him coming. The thought made him smile, and his decision was confirmed by the items at either end of the couch.
At one end were three parcels, beautifully wrapped and finished with silver ribbon; at the other, a plastic bag pulled tightly around its contents and a bottle of cheap white wine.
From a room off to his left he could hear the steady rhythm of a man snoring and he walked toward the sound.
He opened the door, his bulky silhouette, backlit by the coloured Christmas lights,almost filling the frame.
Straight ahead, on a double mattress beneath another Cole Tenner poster, a young couple lay side by side.
On the right side of the bed the man lay on his back, snoring like a champion. The soft glow of the fairy lights twinkling in the puddle of drool gathering on the thin pillow. The man was slight of build with a buzz cut and what looked like – in this light at least – the beginnings of a straggly handlebar moustache.
To the sleeping man’s right a young woman stared straight at the big man.
He brought up a gloved hand and raised a finger to his lips in the universal shush sign.
She nodded slightly, with just a slight gasp of breath, her wide eyes seemingly unable to blink.
The big man approached the bed and moved around to the side by the woman. Next to a few unlit candles and a box of matches was a triptych photo frame. He crouched down and picked up the memento. The man studied each photo intently, trying to reconcile the beautiful young woman, who only had eyes for the young denim-clad man posing with her in the first photo with the timid mouse cowering by his side. In the second photo the young man, now sporting a mullet and a cut off leather jacket, slouched languorously against a muscle car he surely could never afford. The third showed the couple again, but even in the poor light of the dingy bedroom, the man could see the spark was gone; the woman’s haunted eyes bore into the viewer, implanting an empathic tinge of sadness for something lost.
He gently set the frame back down and stood back up. The woman watched as he made his way round to the other side of the bed. The young man spluttered and snorted obliviously.
The move came quickly; the big man driving all of his weight through the knee that slammed into the sleeping man’s chest. The woman gasped at the sickening crack of bone; the man’s cry stifled by the thick hand clamped over his mouth. The hand brought leather clad finger and thumb together, pinching the nostrils and preventing the man from breathing, any attempts at resistance thwarted by the sheets which trapped his arms.
It was over in a matter of moments that seemed to stretch for eternity.
The big man straightened as he rose, his focus now on the woman as she rolled out of bed and got to her feet.
She wore a negligee that the big man just knew was not of her choosing, doing nothing for her slight frame. Christmas hues from the pitiful tree lights limned her pale goose-fleshed skin as she stood before him giving her an almost ghostly quality.
“Do it.” Her voice was strained but firm. The big man admired that.
He walked up to her cupping her face in a beefy hand.
“I’m sorry.” He whispered, then brought the back of his other hand across her face sending her spinning to the floor.
The young woman sat in the back of the ambulance nursing a hot chocolate that the old police sergeant had brought her. He sat opposite her, notebook open but making no move to pressure her.
She could hear more cops talking outside.
“What kind of sick bastard does a thing like this on Christmas Eve?” – a young, male voice, probably the officer who was first on the scene after she called the police.
“Well I think we can rule out Cole Tenner this time.”- a woman’s voice this time – probably the lead detective – followed by gentle chuckles at the reference. “Most likely a junkie, looking for presents to pawn.” The detective continued, “Get used to it, kid. This is the world. At least he left the girl alive.”
“A regular Christmas miracle.” A third voice, sonorous with a touch of a southern accent. The handsome detective with the piercing blue eyes.
Her attention was brought back into the ambulance as the sergeant put a tender hand on her arm. “Whenever you’re ready, ma’am. Anything you remember is good, but don’t worry if you don’t.”
“It happened so quickly. I woke up when I heard a noise. I presume it was when he broke in. I was going to wake Stevie but he was pretty drunk and I thought it might have just been my imagination. If I had…” As her voice tailed off the old sergeant handed her a tissue.
“It’s okay, miss. This can wait.”
“No, I can do this.” She straightened up and noticed how the sergeant winced at the bruise on her face. “So, I woke up and heard the noise. I got up and went to the door. Before I could open it, it was flung open and the guy was there. The lights from the tree were behind him so I couldn’t really see anything other than his silhouette; he was tall and thin, like a basketball player. I think he had a ponytail, but I’m not sure, he moved so fast. The next thing I know I’m lying on the floor and Stevie’s…” More tears. “Stevie’s gone. I grabbed my cellphone, locked myself in the bathroom and called 911. I’m sorry, that’s all I remember.”
The sergeant finished writing up his notes.
“Thank you, miss. You’ve been very helpful. Is there someone you can stay with tonight?”
“My sister is on her way here. I rang her after I called 911. I hope that’s alright.”
The sergeant smiled. “That’s fine.” He was interrupted by the young patrolman, who nervously poked his head into the ambulance.
“Sarge. There’s a woman here says she’s the lady’s sister.
“Then let her through, Baker. Let her through.” He shook his head to show the young woman just what he thought of the rookie.
The big man stood with the rest of the looky-loos near the ambulance, the blues and reds of the cop lights giving the scene an appropriate, but somehow perverted Christmas feel. He watched as his client hugged another woman whilst the cops stood around drinking coffee. He’d been close enough to hear her statement and was satisfied with the description she’d given the police. He plunged his hands into his coat pockets and slipped away into the night.