In the light streaming out of the doorway, the little man looked like a startled hare. His head was thrust forward as he peered in both directions along the darkened pavement, and his hands moved nervously. After a moment, he took a couple of cautious steps and hesitated with the indecision of a man venturing into a frightening unknown. The lamp across the street caught his gold-rimmed glasses and made two round holes in his face. He stood still as though listening with a painful intentness.
John Piper was only mildly curious. It was late and he wanted to get home. The little man might have a dozen good reasons for loitering outside the block of luxury flats in the cold of a November night. He had come out without coat or hat, so it looked as though he were a tenant. Maybe his wife had sent him to look for the cat. That kind of elderly ineffectual would have a big-bosomed woman somewhere in the background, pushing him forward on every occasion with the zest of the strong exercising its thrall over the weak.
And then the sound of Piper’s footsteps must have reached him. His hands stopped moving, and he drew back, his eyes searching the haze beyond the lamplight. He gave the impression that this was what he had been listening for, but now he didn’t know what to do about it. And Piper got the idea that he wasn’t just a nervous little man whose only anxiety was to get to bed. He was frightened—badly frightened.
He waited, and stared short-sightedly until Piper passed under the street lamp. What he saw must have reassured him, because his head went up and he shuffled to the edge of the pavement. In a thin, dry voice he called out, “Excuse me—I say, excuse me. Can you spare a moment? I’d be grateful—“ He mumbled something else and teetered on the kerb as though the glistening tarmac between them was a dark river that he daren’t cross.
Piper stopped with a sense of mounting irritation. The whole evening had been a sheer waste of time. As a first attempt to get back to normal since Anne—his mind shied away from the ghosts that had begun plucking at his thoughts from the moment he had started dressing. The last time he had worn evening dress, Anne had laid out his studs, Anne had folded his white scarf, Anne had fixed his tie. He had kissed the little V of concentration between her brows as she studied him carefully when they were ready to go. And she had reached up on tiptoe and touched his mouth with her lips. That was the last time she had ever kissed him.
The little man pulled at his fingers, and said in a louder tone, “I’m sorry to trouble you but if you’ve a minute—“ He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes as though he were about to cry. And he was shivering.
Piper wanted to tell him to go to hell and take with him the hearty back-slapping branch managers, the area supervisors and all the other kindly people who had tried to be so nice to him. That was the trouble. They had all tried too damned hard. “Must buck up old Piper. See he has a good time. Bad business that about his wife—knocked him all of a heap. Hasn’t been the same fellow since. Poor old Piper . . . poor old Piper . . . .” He had known what they were saying, had felt their sympathetic eyes following him wherever he went. His emotions had had as much privacy as a fish in a floodlit tank.
And now a stupid little man had got himself into some kind of trouble and was fastening on to the first passer-by to share to burden. Why couldn’t he pick on someone else? Piper thrust his hands aggressively into his overcoat pockets and crossed over to the wide doorway and the little man standing in the pool of light that spilled out around him. “Want me?” he asked.
“Yes, oh yes, please. If you’d be so kind—“ The face that looked up at him was pale, with a patch of colour on the cheekbones. Worried lines wrinkled up from the gold spectacles and faded into the thinning hair. His lips were pressed tightly together to stop their trembling, and the pupils of his eyes’ were dilated. Piper thought he looked like a scared child. “Have you seen a man—I suppose it would be a man—coming out of here a few moments ago?” He rubbed the back of his hand slowly over his chin and keep darting little glances up and down the steet. “Just before I came out?”
“I wasn’t paying any particular attention. Why?”
“Oh dear. Maybe he’s still in—“ The little man swallowed once or twice and began flapping his hands aimlessly. “I thought he came this way but he might have—“
“Who is this man you’re talking about?” Piper asked irritably. “What’s he been doing?”
“I—I don’t know. You see, I’ve never seen him.” The pale eyes behind the thick lenses wouldn’t keep still. They looked everywhere but at Piper, and they were filled with mingled bewilderment and fear. “But this time I heard him. Oh, I heard him most distinctly running along the corridor and I’ve sworn he went this door. But if you’re sure you didn’t—“
“Look,” said Piper, “I’ve no idea what this all about, but I gather that someone has been annoying you. Why don’t you report it to the police?”
“But I have—twice. They searched my flat very carefully and asked me a lot of questions and—and that was all.” The little man’s lips were quivering, and tears weren’t far away. “The second time they were quite short with me. You’d almost have thought they didn’t believe me.” He took off his glasses again and wiped a shaky hand over his face. “Why should I imagine a thing like a burglar? It’s too silly—too, too silly for words.” His voice was fretful.
“What did you intend to do when you caught up with this man? Has he stolen anything from your flat?”
“No. That’s what no one can understand. Nothing is missing, absolutely nothing. It’s the same thing every time.”
“Then how do you know he’s been there?” Piper asked patiently. “Isn’t it possible you’re making a mistake? Perhaps you’re confusing a noise from the next flat with—“
“I’m not, I tell you, I’m not. That’s what the police suggested. They almost had me thinking that I’m suffering from delusions. Even my neighbours have been looking at me as though I’m not right in my head and—“ He shivered in the draught that sucked through the doorway, and then he caught hold of Piper’s arm appealingly. “Please come inside with me and I’ll show you. It’ll only take a minute, and you’ll see for yourself. I’m afraid to go back alone, anyway. He might have slipped in again while I’ve been out here.” His thin rabbity face was drawn and blue with cold, and the vein in his stringy neck was throbbing. In the quiet of the deserted street his breathing sounded loud and harsh.
“This is none of my business.” Piper told him. The whole affair was fantastic. He wasn’t interested in real or imaginary burglars whom no one had ever seen and who probably existed only in this crazy fellow’s imagination. “Why not ring for the caretaker? He’ll see you safely into your flat. I’m in a hurry to get home and it’s very late.”
The little man drew away, and threw a scared glance over his shoulder. “The caretaker will be in bed, and by the time he answered the bell anything might—“ He stopped miserably and wet his lips. “I know it’s asking a lot from a stranger, but if you would only come with me as far as my flat and wait while I took a look inside—just to make sure,” he went on urgently. “It won’t take you a minute, and I’d feel so much easier in mind. This thing has upset me terribly and I don’t know what I’ll do if you don’t—“
“All right,” Piper said. “I’ll come with you.”
“Thank you, oh, thank you, sir. You’ve no idea how grateful I am. I should never have ventured to follow the man in the first place. It was silly of me but I wanted to see him for myself and then I could tell the police he was real, and perhaps give them a description so that they could lay him by the heels and put a stop to this—this persecution.”
As he spoke he was jogging along beside Piper, his eyes peering fearfully ahead and his hand clutching Piper’s sleeve. There was more colour in his face and his voice had a new confidence. Piper felt sorry for him. Real or otherwise, the intruder who haunted his flat had scared all the spirit out of the little man.
They went across a circular hall, with an empty reception desk on one side facing an imitation rockery that rose almost to the ceiling in a miniature waterfall. The pool at the foot was banked with rock-plants, and lilies floated on the still water. In the bright, overhead light, the sheen of iridescent fish flashed and sparkled below the surface. The pump had been switched off, and an occasional drip of water from the glistening rocks broke the silence.
The air was warm with cloying smell of flowers. Beyond the swinging doors opposite, it was warmer still. Tiny night-lights glowed at intervals on the walls of the long carpeted corridor, and their feet made no sound. The little man kept close to Piper’s side, and he had stopped talking. His face was tense and he was shaking again.
Half-way along the corridor, a dim passage led off with only a single subdued light at the far end. They went past half a dozen doors and then the little man stopped. In an almost inaudible voice he whispered, “This is my flat. Would you mind—very much—going in first?” He cleared his throat and screwed up his face in an apologetic smile. “It’s so silly of me but—you do understand, don’t you?”
In the centre of the panel, a small metal frame held a white card with the name, “Mr. Edmund Fligg,” in the fine black script. On the other side of the door nothing stirred.
Piper put his hand on the knob with the feeling of a man about to open Pandora’s Box. In spite of his knowledge that the whole thing had probably been conjured up out of a hysterical mind, he found himself hesitating and wondering what he’d do if he walked in on some tough thug ransacking Fligg’s rooms. A cosh on the head was all that was lacking to wind up a thoroughly foul evening.
Fligg tapped him on the shoulder. “It’s not locked. Just turn the knob. And I left the lights on.” For some reason he sounded impatient. He was behind Piper and his hand was pushing him encouragingly in the small of the back.
With a shrug of annoyance, Piper pushed the door open. He stood flat-footed while it swung wide, and he had a good view of a well-lighted room. It was furnished in expensive if not conventional taste, and Fligg must have spent a lot of money on it. The carpet was the original of the forty-guinea Chinese reproductions, and the sideboard and chairs were real period pieces. So were the writing desk, the inlaid table, and the four-shelf stand laden with curios in a far corner. No two articles belonged to the same period, and there was an air of congestion, a sense of space being filled regardless of effect, that reminded Piper of an auction room. Hung over the last word in radiograms was a miniature by Holbein, alongside an old sporting print and a pair of silver horse-pistols. A dingy oil panting with a heavy gilt frame, on the opposite wall, was flanked by a Dutch mirror on one side and an Egyptian death-mask on the other.
Without changing his position, Piper stared obliquely across the room and through the half-open door that gave a knife-edge view of a bedroom. The light was on in there, too. Nothing moved, and the only sound was the ponderous ticking of a clock.
Fligg said, “Well? What are you waiting for?”
“What’s the hurry?” Piper asked. “There’s supposed to be a mysterious desperado in there. Or have you forgotten?” He was walking slowly forward as he spoke, and now he could see behind the door. With Fligg at his heels he went into the bedroom. There was no one there, either.
They stared at each other without speaking. Fligg looked away at last, uncomfortable and disappointed. He started to say something and then stopped, his eyes dragging themselves away from Piper’s. His shoulders dropped and he sat down on the bed with sigh.
“Satisfied?” Piper was annoyed with himself. His sense of relief made him feel foolish. The whole incident had been childish, especially the scene outside the door of the flat. For a few moments the little man had almost convinced him there was something in all this nonsense.
He bent down and made a theatrical inspection of the narrow space under the single bed. The covers had been turned back and a set of pyjamas lay over the foot. Fligg watched him dispiritedly and said nothing.
The big ornate wardrobe held no lurking marauder. Neatly arranged on pull-out rods were a dozen suits, a couple of overcoats, and a velvet smoking jacket. A collection of sober ties hung on a wooden rail across one of the doors, and eight or nine pairs of well-polished shoes stood on a rack below some glass-fronted drawers containing shirts and handkerchiefs.
Opposite the bedroom door, another door opened on to a bathroom. He drew a blank there, too. The pantomime was wearing a bit thin. Unless Edmund Fligg’s burglar was hidden in the well-filled linen cupboard, the flat was empty except for their two selves. And the whole place was neat, tidy, and undisturbed. He heard midnight strike as he went back to Fligg.
“I think you had better go to bed now. There’s no one here, Mr. Fligg. In the morning you’ll feel much better.”
“Thank you. I’m sorry to have caused you so much trouble.” Fligg sat with his hands hanging between his knees and his eyes fixed on the floor. He spoke mechanically, as though his thoughts were far away, and his small precise voice was colourless. Piper felt more than ever sorry for him. It must be a horrible thing for a man to have to accept the fact that his mind is betraying him.
“Please don’t think I’m being impertinent, Mr. Fligg, but—“
“What did you say?” His tired eyes lifted slowly and he chewed at his lower lip. The lines of his face were deep and pronounced, and sweat glistened in the roots of his thin fuzz of hair. “I’m afraid I wasn’t listening.”
“I was only going to suggest that you consult a good doctor,” Piper said. “Perhaps you’ve been overworking and should go away for a rest. These things happen to the best of us, you know. Life can be very trying nowadays.” He knew he sounded pompous and smug. He should have minded his own business. Nobody relishes hackneyed advice about his sanity.
“A doctor? Yes, yes, of course.” Fligg smiled pathetically, and stood up. “Maybe that’s what I need.” H nodded as though his head was on the end of a soft spring, and he rubbed one hand in the palm of the other. “I was beginning to imagine that everyone was crazy except me. That’s a bad sign, isn’t it? Even I know that that only means one thing, doesn’t it? Only one thing—“ He faltered, and his arms came up stiffly. His face worked, and his bony Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed painfully. Then he put his hands over his eyes and slumped on the bed again. Tears winked through his fingers and trickled down the channels between his sharp knuckle-bones.
Somewhere along the corridor, a door closed, and Piper listened to the smooth click of a lock. It was the only sound he had heard since they had come in from the empty street, except for the drip of water in the rock-garden. He wondered idly who lived behind the quietly shut door. And then he had a bizarre picture of long rows of comfortable rooms with beds just like this, in which scores and scores of people slept in the dark and silence while Edmund Fligg wept in the presence of a stranger because he knew he was going mad.
When at last Fligg took his hands from his face, Piper said gently, “I must go now. You’ll be all right. Things will look different tomorrow, after a good night’s rest. Try not to worry too much.” Telling this broken little man not to worry was like urging a consumptive not to cough. But he had to say something. And Fligg wasn’t listening, anyway. He was no longer in touch with anything outside of his own mind.
Piper went into the sitting-room. After a moment Fligg followed him, moving his feet as if his legs were asleep. “Who will look after all my—“ He waved a helpless hand and his lips trembled again. “I’ve no one I can turn to. If anything should happen to me—“
“Nothing is going to happen to you,” Piper said. He found himself thinking about the door he had heard closing, and a faint uneasiness possessed him. Everything was so damn quiet. And yet a hundred people could be listening behind those discreetly shut doors, listening and waiting until Fligg was alone to . . . if he weren’t careful he’d be going the same way! Fligg was obviously the victim of hallucinations. He was a lonely old man, and his loneliness had weakened his mind. He wasn’t the first, and he wouldn’t be the last of his type to suffer from a persecution complex. The police must have made sure before they—on a sudden impulse he asked, “What was it you were going to show me?”
Fligg brought recognition back into his eyes like a man pushing open a heavy door. He rubbed his hand across the back of his neck and tried to concentrate. “Show you? What could I—“ He struggled with the new thought and stared vacantly around the room with its jumble of ill-assorted furniture. “I—I can’t remember. So much has happened since I followed the man who was in—“ His voice quivered into silence and he let out his breath heavily.
“You said I’d be able to see for myself,” Piper insisted. “Surely you haven’t forgotten?”
“No. I do recall saying that. Something—“ He went hesitantly towards a tall narrow book-case alongside the bedroom door and fingered the binding of a few old books on one of the shelves. “Yes, yes! These are wrong. I always put them back in their proper order, and that’s how they were when I went out early this evening. Now they’re all mixed up. See?” He started to pull three or four volumes from the shelf, and Piper stopped him. “Couldn’t you be making a mistake?”
“No, that’s impossible. I’m always so particular. And everything in this room is like an old friend. I collect my treasures so that I’m surrounded with the rare and beautiful.” He looked up at Piper with a strange light in his face. “They are my children. I know exactly where everything is, where I bought it, what it cost, and all about its history.”
“Were the books out of order when you came back tonight?”
“I didn’t look to see. I went straight into the bedroom and prepared for bed.” He faltered, and turned his back on Piper. “At least, that’s what I intended to do,” he mumbled, “but before I could start undressing, I heard—“
“You heard what?”
“That door opened and then shut quickly.” The old fear was back and he was shaking.
“What did you do?”
“I couldn’t do anything. I was terrified. The only thing I could think of was that someone had come in and I was alone with—“ He swung round on Piper and the bones of his face were stark. “Perhaps I’m going mad; I can’t be sure of anything now. But I heard the squeak of the hinges, and I know it was my door. I know, I tell you, I know!” He caught hold of Piper’s coat and came close. “Just as surely as I know you’re here now.”
“All right. What happened after that?”
“Nothing happened until someone began running along the corridor. Somehow, at that, I felt I had to know who it was, so I came out of the bedroom. That’s when I saw that my books had been tampered with. And I wasn’t so afraid then. I made up my mind that whoever it was must have been afraid of me. So I started to follow him.” He passed his tongue over his lips. “You know the rest.”
“That brings us back to where we started,” said Piper. He felt tired and frustrated. All this was a waste of time. Someday soon, a couple of quiet, phlegmatic men would take the old man away from his over-furnished flat and drive him out to a big house in the country where he would be safe for the rest of his life. Safe—except from the visits of the man who made doors squeak and tampered with old books. He’d live with frightened little man wherever he went, a shadow that dwelt in the mind of Edmund Fligg.