This is the third part in a trilogy. If you haven’t read them yet, then I recommend reading “If, Never” and “Jenkins Is The Problem” first…

“What’s this?” Eric asked, looking through the recent photos.

Lusha looked away from her canvas and back at the screen.

“Hmm?” she pondered. “Looks like the building over the road.”

“Not that,” Eric zoomed in, pointing at the screen. “Here.”

In the window, clearly visible now, were a man and a woman kissing.

“Oh yeah,” Lusha giggled. “Didn’t see that when I took it.”

“Knew that SLR was good,” Eric said. “Told you it was, didn’t I? Costs a bit but we’ve never had anyone return one yet.”

“It’s okay,” she grunted. “I mean, you know, it’s a bit flat and the colour palette is a bit washed out, but it’s pretty servicable.”

“Washed out?” He shook his head. “Compared to that jurassic heap you had before?”

She waved her brush at him. “That jurassic heap, as you put it, won me two prizes for photography.”

“Whatever, sis.” He shrugged and closed the laptop. “Anyway, I gotta split, I’m meeting Keira for lunch in twenty minutes and I’m going to have to run for it as it is.”

She put her brushes down and wiped her hands on the white smock. “Thanks for getting it working again, anyway.”

“You’re welcome,” he said, moving in for a hug. “And stop clicking on stuff people send you if you’re not expecting it.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” she protested, noticing a still wet paint splodge on one hand and awkwardly hugging him with only one and a half arms.

“They all say that,” he grinned. Grabbing his bag from the chair by the door, he slung it over one shoulder. “See ya,” he winked, opened the door, and let himself out.

Lusha put the finishing touches with the blue. She needed to mix some brown for the lowlights in the bottom corner, but there was an idea forming in her head. It wasn’t a nice idea, but… She sighed. No good would come of thinking like that.

She tidied up for the day, deciding that while she was in this mood, nothing productive was going to get done.

Lusha opened the fridge, prepared a small chicken salad and a glass of filtered water from the fridge and sat at the kitchen counter, eating. The bills on the noticeboard burned red down at her. OK, there was the show coming up in two weeks – she could maybe sell three, perhaps four canvases there. But that would just cover the rent. Then if she did three shifts at the coffee shop this week, well, that would cover the rest of the bills for the month. And if she could persuade Dan to give her a couple of shifts next week as well, that would mean she could pay a little bit extra on that credit card, and maybe go a bit towards shifting the overdraft.

She shook her head, as though trying to get rid of the nagging voice in her ear. She was trying to ignore it – trying to ignore the insistence that if only she’d be brave enough, there could be plenty of money for the taking.

She moved automatically, her mind ticking over. She finished the salad, idly, and drank down the rest of the water. She moved to the sink, washed the plate and the glass, and put them to dry, all the time thinking, thinking.

What if they’re not having an affair? What if nobody cares? What if they go to the police? What do I do then?

And for every little objection, that nagging voice said: “but what if they pay up?”

She picked up her keys from the table in the hall, and a couple of shopping bags from the basket underneath, and headed out the front door. It was a short walk to the supermarket – what bliss it was to have something so useful so close at hand. So different from the old place. Yes, it was more expensive living here, but it was worth it – wasn’t it? After all…

She did her shopping on autopilot – butter, bread, milk – until she spotted something in the clearance area. “Voice changing capability!” said the hype sticker.

Lusha blinked, turned her head on one side thoughtfully, and looked at it again. The toy mask was sitting on a shelf above the freezer, with a “discounted” sticker on it. What was it? Science fiction or something? It looked a bit familiar.

“Try me!” said another sticker.

Idly, she reached a hand onto the shelf. She pressed the button and spoke into the mask.

“I need salad, apples, red wine and maybe some chocolate,” she said into the back of the mask. The words came out of the front at the same time, the electronics inside changing her voice into a robot. Lusha giggled.

“Oh they’re fun, aren’t they?” said a woman standing next to her. She turned to look, and smiled.

“I bought one for my nephew for his birthday a couple of weeks ago. All he does now is run around shouting ‘exterminate’, even though that’s totally the wrong mask for it, of course.”

“Right,” Lusha smiled. “I just thought it was fun is all.”

The woman giggled. “Oh me and my husband played with it for hours before we wrapped it! Mind you, the batteries do last well, I’ll say that.”

“Thanks.” Lusha nodded. She hesitated for a moment, then put it in her basket.

The woman smiled and moved away, examining the price tickets above the freezers.

If you had asked her later, Lusha would not have been able to remember buying the mask. The in-store cameras would clearly have shown her buying it, but per corporate policy, as the store was not robbed that day, the recording was deleted thirty-two minutes before the police were first called.

“What are you working on?” Eric said over the phone.

Lusha peered at the screen on the back of the digital camera, the telephoto lens peeping round the edge of the net curtain at the office block opposite.

“Not much,” she said. “The muse is kind of dry at the moment. I keep trying to work on a sketch of the people you saw in that photo the other day, of all things. Somehow, they interest me.”

“Oh,” Eric said, disinterestedly. “You know, we had someone in Thursday morning said he was an artist. Had a folder marked ‘art – private – do not touch’. Always makes me think it’s the porn folder or something, so I never look, but Rob did. You’ll never guess what it was?”

The couple had gone into the meeting room. Lusha started taking photographs.

“What was it?” she asked, trying to sound interested.

“Of all things,” Eric said, “he takes photos of flowers. That’s all. Just really close up pictures of flowers. Some of them were quite nice, too.”

“Uh-huh.”. The couple had advanced towards the window, and closed the blind.

Someone shouted in the background of the call.

“OK mum,” Eric said. “Listen, I have to go as she’s got lunch ready. You’re doing Sunday dinner this week, right?”

“Looking forward to it,” Lusha lied.

“Right, better go. See ya sis.”

He hung up.

Lusha sighed. They were gone.

She opened her laptop, and downloaded the pictures.

Am I really going to do this? she thought.

She took the laptop to her bedroom, put it back on the table, and started to research.

Using Google Maps, she went through Street View to find the office block. From that she found the address of the building.

A web search brought up eight companies in the building, one each on the first, third and fourth floors, two on the second and three on the fifth.

“Fourth floor. So who are they?” she asked the desk lamp. The lamp, switched off, didn’t reply.

A quick search for how to find people suggested several professional networking sites. There were thirty or forty people to search through. Looking through each individual profile one by one was tiring. But the third one worked.

“Hello Francesca,” Lusha said.

Francesca Lott, 33. Receptionist. Lusha shrugged.

Three more profiles later, she found the man.

Kevin Hill, 46. General Manager.

Lusha printed out both profiles. Hill had even put his mobile number on the profile. How helpful. She typed “mobile phone untraceable” into the search box, and started reading.

 

The next afternoon, Lusha spent a long time sitting on the living room sofa, turning the mask over in her hands. Turning it, over and over and over.

Had she really had this use in mind when she bought it?

She looked at the eye sockets, open so that the wearer could see through. The small microphone near the mouth.

She’d practised with it. Recorded the voice. You could hear her voice behind it, but faintly, so she had had to be careful and speak at a lower pitch than she usually did. She found if she did a harsh whisper what came out sounded straight from a horror film. Finally, she deleted all the sound files, just in case. Evidence would not be a good idea.

 

It had taken about an hour to find the right position to put the camera, and although it wasn’t perfect, it was the best she could do. She could see Hill at his desk, which was good. She couldn’t see much of the office, despite the fact that his office had a glass wall and glass door. In fact, there was only one other person she could clearly see – a man with a beard. She hadn’t seen him on that business site, but he didn’t really matter. Just so long as she waited until he was away. She’d have to hope nobody else was close enough.

Just before six, beard man went away. He had put his coat on, and was leaving. Lusha waited for a few moments, just enough for him to get far enough away that he wouldn’t hear.

She felt unusual. This was a one-way street. It couldn’t ever be undone. She felt not only terrified but elated.

“This is my time,” she whispered to herself. “This is my power. I’ve worked for it, and I deserve it.”

She picked up the new mobile phone. A “burner phone”, as the articles had put it. Bought with cash, at a small back street phone shop that didn’t have a camera. It was cheap, made calls and she’d managed to work out how to switch off caller id. That was all she needed. She put the mask on, took a deep breath and dialled.

In the camera’s screen, she watched Hill pick up his phone, look at the screen, and briefly hesitate. Then he answered.

“Hello,” he answered. “Kevin Hill speaking.”

“Mr Hill,” she hissed into the mask. “I have pictures of you and Miss Lott. If you do not wish your wife to see them, then I will need money.”

“Who is this?”

“Ten thousand pounds. By Thursday. I will call later with instructions.”

She hung up, and Hill took the phone from his ear. He looked at it, puzzled, and then rang the number. Lusha watched the phone in her hand, the display flashing silently. She switched the phone off.

Hill looked at the phone, thoughtfully, and then put it back. He sat there for five, maybe six minutes, thinking, and then walked off from his desk, leaving the phone behind.

Beard man came back to his desk, opened the drawer, brought something out, and then went away again. Maybe he forgot his bus pass, she thought.

Lusha began painting a new canvas that night. A slightly abstract version of Jael killing Sisera.

 

The next day, she called again. Again, she waited for the coast to be clear. She waited until she saw beard man come out of the front door and turn, walking back through the park, before dialling.

Like Pavlov’s dog, Hill started to get nervous every time beard man left. Good. Beard man was his knight in shining armour, she thought, and without him, he was vulnerable and alone. Exactly as she wanted him.

“Hello,” he said, answering. “Who is this?”

She ignored the question. “You have three more days to get my money, Mr Hill.” she hissed.

“It’s not possible,” he pleaded, whispering. He was standing up now. “It’s not. Not in three days. I can get it, I promise you, but it will take time. Really.”

Lusha watching him for a moment, pacing around the office, looking out of the window on the other side, nervous and scared.

“How much time?” she hissed.

Suddenly, his body language changed. He turned away from the window, smiling. She could see that smile clearly. She wanted to tell him not to smile, but she daren’t.

“Why aren’t you answering me, Mr Hill?”

“Because I just saw…” he paused. “I just worked out how to get you the money is all. But it will take two weeks, at least.”

“Then I want more.”

His smile didn’t falter.

He’s just realised he can rob the company, she thought, excited. That means I can ask for more. Much, much more.

“This will be a down payment, Hill,” she said. “Paying late incurs interest.”

He kept smiling. Clearly there was going to be something in this for him as well. Something big.

“I’ll get it,” he said. “I’ll get it.”

She hung up. Hill looked at the phone, and then left his office. Lusha suspected he went off to find the receptionist. No doubt his embezzlement scheme was going to need her help. Well, she thought, let them fly off to Rio. So long as I get my credit card paid off…

 

The pattern of calling twice a week started. She tried to keep the times and the days as varied as possible, to keep him scared and vulnerable, always making sure the coast was clear each time.

Hill would always answer the phone with “who is this?” As though such a childish ploy would actually work!

Lusha didn’t feel guilty about this. These people clearly weren’t clever enough to work this out on their own. They had no choice. She watched them, like beetles under glass.

Finally, he caved in.“I can get the money next Tuesday,” he said.

She looked at the calendar on the kitchen wall. Two weeks. It had felt longer.

“Very well,” she hissed into the mouthpiece. “Ten thousand, cash. Tuesday afternoon, 4pm.”

“All right. Ten thousand”, he replied.

“I will call you.”

She hung up.

Lusha took a deep breath and smiled. Everything was going according to plan.

Her main mobile rang, silently. No calls during business.

“Sis!” Eric said. “Long time no speak! What’s been happening with you?”

“Hi,” she replied. “Sorry, been wrapped up in a canvas.”

“Painting?”

“That and some shifts at the coffee shop, keep the wolf from the door.”

“What are you painting?”

She looked over at the canvas, still only sketched out with a rough outline of Jael and Sisera.

“Murder,” she said.

 

She went to bed late Monday night and almost didn’t sleep. The excitement buzzed through her. Today was the day.

She bounced out of bed at six, showered and dressed by six thirty. Most days when she wasn’t working at the coffee shop, she wouldn’t be up until eleven. Not today.

The camera was already in place, switched on. The lights went on at the office early, it seemed, as an elderly cleaner drudged her way through the office.

Lusha was drinking coffee by now. Not the good stuff that they had in the coffee shop, but the cheap supermarket stuff.

By seven the office was empty. The cleaner started work on the entrance hall, using a big machine to polish the floor. She saw a woman arrive and walk into the building with a shopping bag, and almost missed her. It could have been Lott, she thought, but maybe not.

Not much else happened until a familiar figure came into view about quarter to eight.

“Hello, Mr Hill,” she said, peering into the small camera screen.

Lusha looked up, and noticed Francesca peering out of the kitchen window. She smiled.

“You can’t see me,” she whispered. “But I can see you.”

The cleaner left. Hill came out again, carrying the shopping bag from earlier, and hid in the bushes.

“What the?” she asked, zoomed the lens out and started taking photos.

A few moments later, Francesca waves, and Hill comes out of the bushes, carrying the bag, and starts painting the lobby with fake blood.

What are they up to? she wonders.

Hill managed to hide, ducking round a corner, just before someone came in the front door. She took some more photos, watching. Whoever this new person was stopped, held his head. Is this like some kind of flashback? Lusha thought. Ex military?

The new person turned to their left, and she thought for a moment that Hill was about to be discovered, but in the end he went up to the lift and pressed the button. New person disappeared in the lift, and Hill appeared again. This time, he left the plastic bag on the ground and appeared with a cloth and a spray bottle, cleaning up the fake blood.

Lusha smiled. They were up to something. It would be interesting to find out what.

And then she froze.

What if this was an ex-serviceman? Someone with flashbacks to Afghanistan? Had they found out where she lived? Maybe this was their idea of how to cope with her.

She grabbed her mobile phone and dialled.

“Hello?”

“Eric?”

“Sis, I’m in a meeting,” he whispered. “I think they might be about to close the store down. I might be losing my job here. Can’t this wait?”

“I’m in trouble. Big trouble.”

 

Some time later, Inspector Lennox stood at the door.

“Lusha Gardiner?” he shouted. “This is the police, open up please.”

There was no reply.

“What sort of name is Lusha, anyway?” he muttered. The officer next to him shrugged.

“Miss Gardiner?” He shouted again. “We want to talk to you about some matters.”

No answer.

“Blackmail, Miss Gardiner.”

No reply.

Lennox stood back, and motioned to the two uniformed officers. One of them nodded, and they moved in with the battering ram. In three blows, the door was opened.

Lusha lay face down on the white living room carpet, a kitchen knife sticking out of her back.

“Not another one,” Lennox groaned.

 

Two minutes earlier, Francesca was waiting for Kevin in the foyer of the police station.

“How did it go?” she asked.

“About as we expected,” he smiled. He was lying, of course. His wife had screamed and told him never to come back, so he hung up on her.

She smiled back, more confidently than she appeared.

“Not fun, I know”, he said. “But we’ve done it.”

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and nodded.

“Are you all right?” he asked her.

“Of course,” she said. “It’s stress, that’s all.”

“Let’s go eat something,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but -”

His phone rang, interrupting them.

“You too?” she asked.

He nodded. “Had to tell three journalists to go away today.” He picked the phone out of his pocket, expecting it to be his wife calling back. “Probably another one.”

Number unknown. He pressed the answer button.

“Where’s my money?” said a voice. “You’re late.”

Sometimes, fate hands you a fat plum, Eric Gardiner thought, looking through the eyeholes of the voice changer mask. And you only ever get the one chance to take it.

The post “The Killer, Unmasked (If, Never part 3)” first appeared on simoncollis.com and is Copyright © Simon Collis 2018. All rights reserved.