“Of the hobbies I’ve picked up recently,” Whitford said, swirling scotch like it was brandy in his glass, “can you guess which one happens to be my favorite?”
Ben Hanson, seated across from him in the penthouse’s biggest armchair, sighed and tapped his thumbs together. “Let me guess…would it be photography?”
Amy Grant (the former Mrs. Grant) stood at the bay window, slick silhouette picked out by the last slanting rays of sunlight. Her comely face was arranged in a frown.
“Exactly right!” Whitford slapped a stack of glossy papers down on the table. “It all started once I rented the little place across the way. Only the 27th floor, nothing so grand as this, but my new telephoto lens more than makes up for it.”
Amy made a snorting sound like the intake of a water jet. Ben ran fingers through the hair at his temples.
“I have to say, though, that a close second favorite hobby of mine has to be people-watching. The little lady who goes to the corner shop every afternoon. The gentleman in the corner suite who practices tantric meditation. Your late husband, my dear Amy.”
“You really like drawing this out, don’t you,” Amy said dryly, slinking from her place on the wall. “Can I tip you to get to the fucking point?”
“Such vulgarity.” Whitford clicked his tongue. “And from such—”
“She has a point, Whitford. We all know what’s on those photos.”
“And what is that?” Whitford drained his scotch and licked the taste from his lips.
“Something you seem to think is worth money.”
Whitford drew back in mock-horror. “How gauche! And with a lady-in-mourning present! I would never make such vulgar demands on such a young widow. Such a young and comely—”
“That’s enough,” Ben said crisply.
“Is that umbridge? Now? From you? I’ve been watching for quite some time, and not only when the late Mr. Grant was home, and let me tell you—”
“I fucking bet, you overeducated pervert.”
Amy, drink in hand, sidled over to Ben as if their conversation wasn’t even happening. She picked up the photos with an almost bored look on her face, sipping as she paged through the stack. Her face slowly drew into a knot of confusion.
“What, just because I didn’t take classes in the age-old art of defenestration you feel—”
“This isn’t funny,” Amy said abruptly, slapping the photos back down on the table.
“Funny? My dear Amy, it isn’t—”
“Okay, look, you clearly photoshopped these, and no cop in the country is going to give you the time of day.” Amy shoved the pile over. “Get out. You’re insulting my intelligence.”
Whitford turned a bit red. “Let me illuminate this for you, former Mrs. Grant.” He whipped out a square magnifying glass. “In this particular specimen, note the form of your husband on the balcony, just so. Now note the figure of your dashing young paramour coming out—”
“Yes, and what the hell is that?” Amy tapped the corner of the photo.
Puzzled, Whitford spun the paper around. In the corner of the photo, so indistinct it almost seemed a mistake, was a shadow that resembled a hand nearly the size of the window it sat upon.
Whitford frowned. “I didn’t…was that there when I developed?”
They spread the photos out on the glass top of the table. Besides a clear timeline of Mr. Grant being helped off the balcony by his former secretary, there was a blurry something that looked very much like a long man with spidery hands and feet traversing the building just beneath that.
Whitford squinted. “I was so focused on the central drama that I didn’t…”
Ben and Amy were looking very carefully at him. “So you say you didn’t add that?”
Whitford looked up. “No. Why would I? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Ben looked over his shoulder at the balcony door, as if the answer lay that way. “Well, I never saw anything…”
“You wouldn’t have.” Amy was studying the photos intensely. “It was at least a story beneath your line of vision.”
Whitford looked from one photo to the next. “So, you say you’ve never seen this thing before?”
Both interlopers shook their heads.
All three turned to the balcony door.
“Suppose it’s out there now?” Ben asked, rising from his seat. “What’s it doing? And why?”
Amy gripped his lapels. “Don’t you dare.”
Ben eased her fingers off. “Don’t worry. It’s not like I’m going to hurl myself off the edge.”
Whitford half knelt, watching over the back of the couch. Amy gripped her elbows, chewing the insides of her cheeks.
Ben slid open the balcony door and stepped out. The night breeze was a constant current from the edge of the safety partition. He slowly paced the width of the platform, carefully peeking down and around to the building below. He rested a hand on one white rail.
“Well,” he said, “it’s not—”
The rail moved.
As Whitford and Amy gaped, a great, round face rose above the wall separating the balcony from empty air. It was flat and white and had full, black eyes like something that lived deep in the ocean. Its mouth, invisible when closed, opened like a great cut full of darkness.
A hand encompassed Ben’s torso and he was yanked, screaming, from the balcony.
Amy dropped her arms. “Ben? Oh my god, Ben!”
Whitford moved. He scrambled over the couch and slammed the sliding door so hard it bounced. He re-shut it with shaking hands, sliding the lever lock until it clicked.
The face and hand were gone from the balcony, Ben with them.
Amy pressed face and hands against the glass. “What the hell? What was that? I meant, what the hell even was that?”
Whitford, face white, drew back to sit on the couch again. He looked at his shaking hands as if he didn’t know what they were, rubbing them together.
“I think,” he said once he found his voice, “we should phone the police.”
Amy opened a tortoiseshell case. Inside were white, slim, filterless cigarettes. She took four tries to light one and drew the smoke in shakily.
“Yeah? And what? Tell them what?”
Whitford’s face had gone quite blank. “Tell them…there’s something large on the outside of the building. They’ll bring firetrucks. Guns.”
Amy snorted. She crushed the already-spent cigarette like an insect.
“And in the meantime, what? Can it get in here? How the hell didn’t you see it all those weeks of voyeurism? Why are you—”
Whitford’s gaze had drifted past her face. She followed it to the bay of windows behind her.
The thing on the building pulled itself along smoothly, like a skeletal shark swimming past their aquarium. Once it reached a certain point, it settled. Then, without any kind of warning, it slid into the colors of the night cityscape beyond it.
Amy’s color fell. “Oh you have got to be fucking kidding me.”
Whitford rose. “We should call—we need to—that isn’t—”
Amy held up a finger capped in a bloodred nail. “It’s on the window.”
Amy made a quieting motion with her hand. The late Mr. Grant had a wallful of bladed weapons above the penthouse’s faux-fireplace(far away from where it would have helped with the late Mr. Hanson, Whitford noted.) Amy took off an impressive polearm, grunting with the weight. She looked to Whitford and motioned with her eyes.
Whitford looked to the window and back, shaking his head. Amy made another, more emphatic look. Whitford pressed himself back into the leather of the couch.
Amy rolled her eyes and dragged the weapon to the window, making a neat gouge in the wooden floor. The windows were the kind that opened slanting outward, so as to discourage rain. Amy pushed one open, scanning the scenery outside the window. Determination knit every muscle in her body, her red hair cascaded past her shoulder. Whitford admitted she made quite a lovely sight, standing with the eternal firefly glow of the city around her, moon floating just above her shoulder.
Then the moon opened its eyes and before Whitford could even shout, Amy was snagged by the thing’s hand. She had time to make a breathy little yelp before the thing started pulling. The opening was not quite big enough for her, but eventually she came through.
Whitford could hear the glass shatter on the pavement, or imagined he could. There was now a gaping hole where the window had been. He had urinated sometime in the past minute. All rational thought had fled.
With a slowness borne of utter terror, Whitford rose from the couch. There was no movement from the window. Backing his way down the front hall, Whitford nearly yelled when he felt something solid behind him. It was one of Grant’s hideous statues. Now in possession of slightly more of his faculties, Whitford crept sideways to the front door.
No movement from the penthouse.
Whitford let himself out, holding the knob so that it barely clicked. The hall to the elevator was bare and empty. As he waited, Whitford leaned his forehead into the wall and thought in scattershot.
The penthouse—evidence?—drink—saliva—DNA. He slapped his forehead. Extortion—no—nothing written—confrontation—deaths?—accident—murder-suicide—
The door chimed like a cherub as it opened to admit him. Whitford slumped against the wall and allowed himself time to breathe
Car—safe?—underground parking—drive away—think—regroup.
The elevator slid like silk down ten floors. Then it stopped.
Whitford frowned, pushing the B1 button. No response. He pressed the call button. No answer.
Whitford pounded on all the buttons, heart hammering. It didn’t matter what floor he got off, he would take the stairs.
The elevator car rocked. Whitford stopped pressing floors. The clack of the plastic buttons halted and let him hear another noise, one far more subtle. It was the guitar-string thrum of a steel line being plucked, the unmistakable sound of something descending the elevator cable and coming closer and closer…