David stood up from the park bench and started back the way he had come. An hour had passed since his initial sweep of Eve’s apartment and the tops of buildings were encroached in shadows. There was a faint aroma of grilled fish, a sense of preparation for evening meals. Reaching the intersection of Eve's street, David stopped in front of the conbini where he had read manga and took out cell phone, engaging in a phantom conversation. Feigning distraction, he took a long careful look down the street––the empty car was gone, another one parked in its place. The dark tinted car was still in the same spot, the grey smudge of cigarette ashes seeming to cover a wider area. There was a strong chance that Eve’s apartment was being watched––walking in through the front door was not an option.
David continued past the conbini without turning onto Eve’s street and made a quick left onto a smaller parallel street. Just as she had indicated on the scrawled map, he found a thin strip of grass between two houses, an unobtrusive pathway leading to the building’s trash cans and gas meters. He hefted himself up and over the low railing, not pausing long enough to let anxiety set in. A breath of relief that the curtains were fully drawn, suppressed jitters as he took stock of his exposed position and realized there was only one way––up.
The floors were of a more compact dimension than those in the U.S.––standing fully extended on the six inch-wide rail, he could just manage to heft himself up and over the side of the next balcony. On the second floor balcony the curtains were also closed behind sliding glass doors. He took a moment to shake out suddenly aching arms, sweat running down his neck. Three more to go––you can do this.
David hefted himself up another level, this time feeling a deeper ache of muscles as his arms neared their limits of elasticity. Perched on the landing, he glanced down long enough to make sure that no one was in the alleyway. Focus. Balance was now a primary concern––he had reached a height at which a slip would be highly injurious, if not fatal.
Heaving himself over the fourth floor balcony, David confronted half-open curtains, lights on, the sliding glass door thankfully shut against late afternoon chill. If someone was inside, there was no discernible movement. No choice but to push through––balance carefully, don’t rush, one last floor to go. Positioning his feet on the rail without giving his aching muscles quite enough time to rest, David let go for a vertiginous moment, swaying precariously as he reached on tiptoes for the balcony above. Off balance, lurching, he grasped the bottom of the rails and gathered strength for one last pull upward––no guarantee that his feet would find a tenable hold on the rail again if his hands slipped.
Muscles extended well past apparent limits, a sudden jolt of adrenalin gave David strength to lift in a way that his arms alone would not. Then he was up and over, tumbling awkwardly onto Eve’s balcony floor. Taking a ragged series of breaths as he lay on his back, unwilling to move through the ache of rag doll arms, he finally straightened into a crouch and peeked over the side. Nothing stirred from the street or the surrounding houses. What a bitch, he muttered through heaving breaths, not quite sure if he was referencing the climb he had just been through or Eve, for putting him up to this. Whatever the case he had made it, the hard part was over––on the way down he would simply let gravity do the work. Just as Eve had indicated, the balcony door was unlocked––thanking Eve inwardly for small miracles, feeling slightly guilty despite himself, he slid the door open and pushed through curtains into darkness.
The apartment slowly took form as David let his eyes adjust. Not wanting to risk turning on the light, he spent the next fifteen minutes groping through drawers and closets, gathering up a haphazard selection of clothes, shoes, and accessories. He felt a growing sense of alarm––the one item of real importance was missing. The laptop was not where Eve said she had left it, on the bedroom dresser. There was a possibility that it was hidden somewhere in plain view, given the necessary darkness, but the likelier explanation seemed that Eve was a known quantity to organizations able to get through locks. Stuffing the items he had set aside into his backpack, he dug out a piece of pull-behind luggage from Eve’s closet and packed the rest.
Ready to get a move on, David thought he could just about manage the descending series of balcony landings by swinging and dropping the luggage to the level below, before letting himself down behind. About to head to the balcony, something in him resisted––wary of heights under the best of circumstances, the idea of clumsily maneuvering a heavily packed piece of luggage five floors to the ground stuck in his throat. Danger aside, each swing-and-drop maneuver would make a considerable noise––resonating thuds were a serious matter, considering that the apartment below was likely not empty.
Refusing to accept that he had to leave the carefully packed bag behind, David cast stubbornly for another solution. There must be a way…. perhaps… what would have been suicide going up might just be feasible on the way out. Even if there was a stakeout in progress, there were a dozen units in the building. Whoever was watching would have no way of knowing he was coming from Eve’s apartment… there was no accounting for who had gone in or out today, unless they had been watching the place since well before the love hotel murder. Beyond that, they were on the lookout for a specific person––foreign identity aside, he was not blonde or female.
New rationalizations materialized as David opened the refrigerator and pulled out a couple of small plastic Yakult bottles, gulping down one and then the other. If someone had already been up in the apartment, going through Eve’s belongings––as the missing laptop suggested––they would assume it was still empty. There were a few ways of enacting a crude disguise that came to mind––a club-ready baseball cap, glitter-embroidered BOY, in Eve’s closet. With sunglasses further disguising his identity, he might look weird but not foreign. A million reasons for taking the easy, non-vertiginous route, and yet….
David decided to risk a look through the front window, check whether the car had moved. Maybe it was gone by now, revealing the idea that someone was waiting as pure paranoia. David walked to the window and took a long look out through shuttered blinds at a car still planted across the street. The tinted side window was open a crack, there appeared to be a wisp of cigarette smoke coming out. He waited for the window to roll down further––if the cigarette was not yet butt end, there must necessarily be a tapping out of ash. Sure enough, the window slid open a quarter way and a stubby hand engaged in the practiced act of flicking out cigarette ash… he could not make out a face but the movement struck him as habitual, a gesture of waiting. David widened the gap between the blinds slightly and took out cell phone, zooming in as far as he could. He made out a half shadowed face through the slant of opened window. Maybe with some pixel-dust exposure and contrast adjustments he could make out an identifiable face––for what purpose exactly, he was not sure––it was not as if they could go to the police with evidence––still…
His eyes focused on the screen, fingers pinched into a tight photographic zoom, David did not immediately notice the figure making a beeline to the car from conbini, sandwich and coffee in hand. When he did identify the man on the screen David caught his breath––law enforcement from his gait and demeanor, and not one of the neighborhood police-box variety. Before he could take his camera away from the blinds, he caught the practiced sweep of the man’s eyes up to Eve’s apartment. Their eyes seemed to lock for a second, although, given the darkness inside, David could not tell whether he had been spotted. Whatever. He needed to get the hell out of here. Glancing through the blinds one last time, he saw the man speak into the now halfway opened car window, his posture one of studied calmness, gaze directed almost purposefully away from the apartment. Paranoia flashed––if he was trying to lull him into thinking he had not been spotted, he was doing a good job
Through the force of habit, David hefted Eve’s luggage onto the balcony before realizing he did not have time to take it down. He looked down at the substantial distance to the ground and gulped. Take your time, catch a couple breaths… even if you have been spotted they will try the front entrance first. At that moment he became aware of a figure in dark suit on the street, sprinting past the narrow pathway. He crouched… sure enough, 10 seconds later, the figure moved methodically back and scanned the back of the apartment, as if apprising that this was the correct spot at which to move in.