Alfie lived on the top floor of a five-storey walk-up in Sheung Wan, close to Central. He left the office at seven, by which time it was dark, and walked home, head blurry from a day of staring at a computer screen and drinking too much coffee. At least it was a Tuesday, which meant Dolores, his domestic helper, had been round to tidy the flat and cook him dinner. It was strange, he thought, how he could hardly imagine cleaning his own flat any more; that was a skill that had atrophied since he’d moved to Hong Kong. Not that he missed doing the dishes or dusting things very much.
The building he lived in was in an alleyway down hill from Hollywood Road; although that was always busy with traffic, his alleyway was dark and silent. Although there were red neon signs glaring from the roofs on either side of the street, the alleyway was lined with shuttered metal boxes, that during the day would fold out into stalls selling dried fish, or underpants, or combs made from the bones of endangered species, or whatever other essentials people who lived nearby purchased. The canopies protruding from the stalls blocked most of the light, so at ground level there was scant illumination.
His footsteps echoed as he walked away from Hollywood Road. As he approached his front door, he grew tense, suffering as he imagined somebody walking up behind him and – and what? He turned: nobody there. He shook his head, fumbled with his keys, only to realise the front door was already ajar. Dolores must have failed to close it properly. Nobody else was living in the building at the moment, nobody else to blame.
“Idiot” Alfie said to himself, and slammed the door close behind him. He’d have to have words with Dolores about this next time she came round, if he was ever actually in. He shook his head a few times and then began the long walk up five flights of stairs.
A week ago, the bulb had gone in the stairwell, so he had to walk up in darkness. Each step was slightly too high to make comfortably, and as he ascended he began to wheeze, feeling the pain in his knees and the dust filtering into his lungs from the still air. It was only March, but it was already too hot for him; the walk back from the office had been bad enough, but now he was climbing upstairs, sweat was oozing out of him. Beads of it were rolling down between his buttocks as he attained the third floor, and his shirt was soaked through.
No matter. He’d bang the air conditioning on when he got into his flat, and sit there in the chilly air until he felt like a human being again. Dolores might not have remembered to close the front door firmly enough, but she would have been excellent at removing all the dirty clothes from the floor and making the flat habitable again.
By the time he reached the top floor, he was barely capable of standing. This was no good. Alfie had to start going to the gym again. He was far too young to be defeated by a sub-tropical climate and five sets of stairs. As soon as the current project at work was done, he’d try and scale back his hours and do something –
His door was ajar. In the dark of the stairwell, he could see light seeping from the side, where it was cracked open. Not much light; just the reddish stain from the neon a couple of streets over, that never spilt into the alleyway below, but seemed perfectly aimed to stream through his windows in the evening.
He tried to control his breathing, not give any sign that he was there. Dolores might have failed to shut the front door of the building occasionally, but she always closed the door to his flat firmly. Had there been a break-in? Was there still somebody in the flat? If there was, they would have heard him making his way up the steps; the building was silent apart from him. Nobody had come rushing out of the flat. Either they were hiding there, waiting for him, or he’d been burgled several hours ago and they were long gone.
He had his keys, his wallet and his phone. Not very effective weapons. He stood there for a few more minutes, trying not to breathe, wondering what to do. Maybe he should just walk back out? But then that wouldn’t solve the problem if somebody was still in there, and if they’d been and gone, that was another walk back up the stairs. Or perhaps Dolores had just been forgetful this once.
Indignation got the better of him. If Dolores had done this and she was making him stress out after a hard day, then he’d be sending her home to Manila or wherever she came from tout suite. If it was some other person coming in and robbing his computer, then either it was gone, or he was going to give that person what for, if they’d been stupid enough to hang around. He pushed the door open.
The flat was a wreck. His bookshelves had been knocked down and the contents spilt across the floor. The pictures on the walls were askew, his precious lamp was in pieces, and the whole place stank of whisky. His sofa was up on one end against the window, and the floor was scuffed and scattered with laundry that Dolores had carefully folded this morning, only to have it flung around. And at the epicentre of the destruction, sat a large white guy wearing a blindfold, drinking from Alfie’s bottle of 25-year Glenfiddich.
“What the hell -” Alfie started.
“Ssh” the man slurred. “They might hear.”
Alfie recognised the voice, despite it being fogged with drunkenness. He looked again at the man sitting on the floor, the grubby jacket, the stained trousers, the unruly mess of hair …
“Barnsie? How the hell did you get in?”
“The key. Maybe you shouldn’t leave it under your doormat.”
“Never mind that. What have you done to my apartment? Why are you drinking my booze? And what’s that ridiculous blindfold you’re wearing?”
“Alfie, shut up and listen. We haven’t got much time.”