Old Tricks, a short story by Jane Casey
Nina gets more than she bargained for in this tale of the unexpected from the bestselling author of the Maeve Kerrigan series
Jane Casey: her latest book, Let the Dead Speak, is published on March 9th. Photograph: Annie Armitage
Nina rang the doorbell and waited halfway down the path. A light came on in the hall. She got ready, shivering. She was only wearing a thin anorak, leggings, a T-shirt. Not enough for a cold night.
That was deliberate.
The man opened the door slowly. His face was pinched in the streetlight that flashed on his glasses, hiding his eyes. Grey hair slicked back, cardigan buttoned up, leather slippers, hunched shoulders. Old.
Old was good.
‘Hi, I’m really sorry to bother you . . .’ She stopped. There were men who liked her kind of prettiness, her skinny legs and pale skin, the halo of fair hair that was wilder than ever in the light rain that had started to fall. This old man wasn’t one of them. His mouth was a thin line.
‘I live at number twelve.’ She gestured vaguely down the road. ‘I’ve run out of money for the electricity meter, and I’ve got no light or heat. I can’t cook dinner for my little girl.’
‘Your little girl?’ He leaned out to see. ‘Where is she?’
‘I left her with my sister. She’s got no money either. I can get more tomorrow. I’ll pay you back.’
‘Why are you asking me?’ His voice was harsh, as if he hadn’t spoken for a while.
‘There’s no one home near me. I’ve been walking down the road, looking for someone. I saw your light on.’
‘How much do you want?’ he asked.
‘Anything you can spare.’ Ten pounds, she thought, daring to hope. Twenty?
He shook his head. ‘I can’t stand here. It’s too cold. Come inside.’
He stood back, holding the door open so she could see a narrow hall full of dark furniture, potted plants. It smelled of old person.
‘I’ve got to get the money out. I don’t want to leave the door open,’ he said.
No getting around it. Money was money. She went up the steps. She would stay in the hall, get the money, and go.
He shut the door behind her. Nina wondered if she’d heard the key turn in the lock. She could understand him trying to stay safe. You had to be careful these days. You never could tell, she thought. Anyone could be waiting to rob you blind.
It was hard not to giggle, all the same.
‘Here is my proposal.’ He sounded less feeble now. ‘I will give you one hundred pounds.’
Nina was twenty-two, but she’d been doing this a long time. No one had ever offered her a hundred quid before.
‘What’s the catch?’
‘You have to stay in this house for one hour to earn it.’
He pointed at a tall grandfather clock at the back of the hall. ‘It’s almost seven o’clock. That clock will chime seven times at seven o’clock. If you stay until it chimes eight times, I will give you one hundred pounds. Cash.’
‘Is this a trick?’ Nina asked, suspicious.
‘Not at all.’
‘I’m not doing sex.’ Better to get it out there. She wouldn’t, either. She never had and she wasn’t going to start with this one. Though now that she was close to him, he didn’t look so old. Fifty, she guessed, not really knowing. He was standing with his back to the wall, his hands down by his sides.
‘You just have to stay.’
‘Maybe I’m lonely.’ The light was flashing off his glasses again and Nina couldn’t really guess at his expression.
A whirring sound made Nina jump. The clock at the back of the hall started to chime. She counted along with it. Seven chimes.
She could do this – talk to an old man for an hour. For a hundred quid, she could do a lot of talking.
‘All right, then.’
‘Good.’ He pointed. ‘In there, please.’
‘What’s in there?’
‘The living room.’
‘Okay,’ Nina muttered and started for the door, then stopped. She looked down at her scuffed trainers. ‘Should I take these off? They’re a bit muddy.’
‘But I don’t want to get mud everywhere.’
‘I said no.’
Nina swallowed. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
But a hundred pounds. It would take her days of knocking on doors to get that. If she was lucky.
And there was always the danger of the cops catching up with her.
So she opened the door.
The room was small and very warm, the fire blazing up the chimney. The only other light was a reading lamp shining over a faded, threadbare armchair. The walls were lined with books, hundreds of them. Big heavy curtains blocked out all the sounds and light from the street. Pictures covered every surface, fighting for space with stuffed animals in glass cases.
‘It’s like a museum,’ she blurted out, then realised it sounded rude.
She perched on the edge of a lumpy sofa.
He crossed to a table with a tray on it: glasses, bottles, cut-glass decanters. ‘Drink?’
‘I’m all right, thanks.’
He stood and looked at her. The fire was behind him so he was dark, a shadow. Something about the way he was standing, though – it was different. More upright. More confident.
‘I don’t like drinking alone,’ he said.
‘Whatever you’re having, then.’
She wasn’t stupid: she watched his hands. She watched the liquid splash into the glasses, the same amount in each. It was the colour of honey and she could smell it from across the room.
He walked across and held out one of the glasses so she could take it.
‘Can I have the other one?’ she asked.
‘They’re the same.’
‘So it doesn’t matter if you give me the other one.’ She stared up at him, not backing down.
‘No. It doesn’t.’ He gave her the other glass. She had a strange feeling that he’d expected her to ask for it. She ran her fingers over the outside of the glass, over the pattern cut into it, then took a gulp that made her cough.
‘It’s very good whisky. Drink it slowly.’ He put his own glass down beside the worn armchair. ‘Some music?’
‘Yeah. Okay.’ She checked her phone while he was flicking through his records. Seven minutes past seven. God!
‘So do you live here on your own?’
‘Most of the time.’
What did that mean? Nina sipped her drink this time. It turned to heat in her mouth, spreading warmth down her throat, making her head sing. She squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again. She hadn’t had lunch.
He found what he was looking for and slid the record out of the sleeve. He squinted at it, checking for dust and scratches, before he slid it onto the turntable of a record player.
There was silence and then the first notes fell into the room: scratchy old violins. The sound swelled and Nina wanted to laugh. It was like nothing she’d heard before.
‘What is it?’
‘A Schubert quartet called Death and the Maiden.’
Nina wished she hadn’t asked.
The man came back and sat down in his chair, turning the light away so he was still in shadow. All around the room, black unblinking eyes stared at Nina: a squirrel on a branch, a blackbird with its head tilted to one side. The more she looked, the more she saw. The largest case was full of tiny bright birds fluttering around wax flowers.
‘Did you make these?’
He paused, his glass almost to his lips. ‘A long time ago.’
‘Nice to have a hobby.’
He gave a little bark of laughter. Nina didn’t know why. She hadn’t been being funny.
The music, the heat, the booze: it was all making her feel dizzy. She wanted to check the time again but it would be rude. She didn’t want to piss him off before she got her money.
‘Have you actually got the hundred quid?’
‘Can I see it?’
‘You haven’t earned it yet.’
‘I just want to see.’
‘You don’t trust me.’
‘I mean, I do. Obviously.’
‘Or you wouldn’t be here.’ He crossed his legs. ‘Unless you were desperate.’
‘I am desperate. That’s why I was knocking on doors.’
‘Your little boy, so cold and hungry, shivering in the dark with your poor sister.’
‘Yeah.’ Nina took another gulp of whisky.
He reached into his cardigan pocket and took out a roll of notes. It was hard to see but Nina thought it had to be a grand. More. He counted off five and set them on the table at his elbow.
‘There. You can look at it but don’t touch.’ He put the rest of the money back in his pocket.
Nina couldn’t stop thinking about it. Two grand, she guessed. More.
It made a hundred quid look like not very much money at all.
She sipped her drink again, watching him. He was old. If she knocked him down . . .
No. She couldn’t.
If she made him like her more, maybe he’d give her more.
She could ask.
What would she do for two grand? Nina knew very well, but she didn’t want to think about it.
She felt too edgy to stay on the sofa. She jumped up to peer at the photographs on a side table. ‘Are these your family?’
‘Some of them.’
Black and white pictures. Old people. Stiff poses.
‘Are they all dead now?’
‘I suppose so.’ He sounded amused. ‘Do you like photographs?’
‘Yeah.’ She straightened up and found herself looking at a ferret, its tiny paws clutching a rock. ‘I’ve got loads on my phone.’
‘Your little one.’
‘Mmm,’ Nina said, seeing the trap too late. A mother would have loads of pictures of her kid, she supposed.
‘Was it a boy, did you say?’
‘Yep.’ Nina couldn’t remember now. Maybe she’d said a girl, before. But he didn’t seem to care, anyway.
‘What’s his name?’
‘Darren. After his dad.’ Not that Darren would let her keep a baby.
‘Why couldn’t Darren give you money?’
‘He’s in prison.’ It wasn’t a lie.
Armed robbery, Nina thought. ‘A mistake, that’s all.’
She sat down again. The music was creeping her out.
‘Can I show you some pictures?’ he asked.
‘What kind of pictures?’
‘Just some girls I used to know.’
‘Girls,’ she repeated. It was porn, obviously.
He looked almost young as he went to a heavy, carved cupboard in the corner and unlocked it. Nina checked her phone. Half an hour left. She couldn’t stand it.
She had to.
He came back with a heavy album, black and fat. ‘May I?’
Nina made room for him on the sofa, watching him out of the corner of her eye. Bigger than her. Not as old as she’d thought. There was a smell as he moved: something unhealthy. It smelled wrong. She tried to breathe through her mouth.
He leafed through the album until he found the page he wanted.
‘There.’ He held it so she could see: a girl with fair hair, lips parted in surprise, eyes wide. She was in a garden, spring blossom on the tree behind her.
‘Her name was Sandra.’
‘She died. In 1994.’
‘I was born in 1994.’
‘She was the first,’ he said, as if she hadn’t spoken.
He was looking for something else. ‘There. Vivienne. Five years later.’
Vivienne was sitting on a chair – the armchair he’d been sitting in, Nina realised, but the fabric was brighter, not ripped. Dark hair, pale skin. She looked up at the camera, her face wary.
‘Why isn’t she smiling?’
‘She was afraid.’
He was turning pages again, pausing on one that made his mouth curl into a smile.
‘Afraid of what?’ Nina asked again and he turned to look at her.
‘Of me, I think.’
Nina shot off the sofa. Her heart was thumping. ‘What do you mean?’
He offered her the album. ‘Don’t you want to see Sarah? Or Beth? Beth was young, like you. She wanted to live very much.’
‘You’re sick.’ She turned and ran for the door, fumbling with the handle, feeling her heart thud.
He was coming after her. ‘You’ve got to wait another twenty-six minutes to get your money.’
‘Let me go!’ She’d made it to the front door but it wouldn’t open. She tugged at it, desperate. It was greed that had made her stay, greed that had made her ignore her instincts. Greed was going to get her killed.
‘Are you sure?’
He held out the key to her and she snatched it, stabbing it into the lock, praying as she turned it that he’d let her go, that it wasn’t a trick . . .
Night air. Freedom. She ran as fast as she could, sobbing, half-blind with terror. The street behind her was empty. He wasn’t following.
But Nina didn’t stop running until she was outside the police station.
She was halfway through the door when her brain kicked in. There was no point in trying to make a complaint. What could she say?
An old man scared me.
And what were you doing in his house? Nina asked herself.
Asking him for money.
I said I had a kid at home and no money for the meter.
And do you?
Which is fraud by false representation. You’re nicked.
Nina rubbed her wrists as if the handcuffs were already chafing them. No way. She couldn’t say anything. Couldn’t warn anyone. She wasn’t a reliable witness.
She’d get herself into trouble.
And she’d had just about enough trouble for one night.
She walked away from the police station door, fading into the darkness as if she’d never been there at all.
He made sure the door was locked before he returned to his sitting room. He straightened the cushions and picked up the empty glass that had rolled across the floor. There was still a smudge of the girl’s lipstick on the edge. He ran his thumb over it. Then he sat down to listen while the music played on. When the record ended, he lifted his telephone and dialled a number. It rang and rang but he waited patiently until the call was answered.
‘Hello, Judith?’ he said loudly. She was very deaf.
‘Yes?’ She sounded worried and a little out of breath.
‘It’s Philip from next door,’ he yelled. ‘Just wanted to let you know that girl was round again. The one who took money off you last year.’
‘Oh no. Did she trick you too?’
‘I rather turned the tables on her, Judith. I scared the living daylights out of her.’
‘Oh, did you? How marvellous.’ Then she said, a little uncertain, ‘You didn’t hurt her, though.’
‘Would I do a thing like that?’ Philip said and laughed when she did. ‘I don’t think she’ll come here again.’
‘You’re my hero, Philip,’ Judith said sincerely.
‘My pleasure,’ he shouted and wished her goodnight.
Dear sweet Judith, who had been so upset when she found out she’d been tricked. The girl had deserved to be scared with a little music and play-acting, Philip thought.
Actually, she had deserved much more than that. He raised his thumb to his nose to smell the fake vanilla of her lipstick. Then he licked it clean, slowly. Those narrow bones would have snapped in his hands like twigs, but she had spirit. She would have lasted longer than some of them. Judith was too deaf to hear screaming, luckily.
He’d always had good luck.
Philip sighed. Retirement was dull, but he had to accept that he wasn’t quick enough or strong enough any more. He’d had his day. He had his memories. It was greedy to want one more.
He had wanted to scare the girl away, and he was sure he’d succeeded. But it was a shame, all the same, that she wouldn’t be back.
Old Tricks by Jane Casey is one of eight killer reads from short story crime collection Dead Simple (Orion, £1). This is one of six titles published for Galaxy® Quick Reads, an annual initiative from The Reading Agency to get more people reading more often. Jane’s new book Let the Dead Speak is published by HarperCollins on March 9th