Discover the first chapter of Spotless by Camilla Monk. 🙂
1 – The Visit
“The icy professional they called ‘the Nazi’ was the cruelest, most dangerous assassin in the world, a heartless madman whose sadistic fantasies could only be fulfilled by the darkest hobbies.”
—Jayna Devile, From Russia with Lust
I could start by explaining why my parents called me Island, or even dissert on the many reasons why being the daughter of a Frenchwoman and an American curmudgeon can traumatize a child for life . . . but I suspect no one really cares. So let’s start with the day my apartment got cleaned—I promise this is more interesting than it sounds.
It was a Friday in late October, and much like the rest of my colleagues in EM Tech’s R&D department, I had spent the entire day looking for a way to fix a major bug in our latest banking app. Around 5:20, I finished the floor’s last Dr Pepper, pressed Enter, and announced to my colleagues that our software was back on track. I then proceeded to call them losers—in a common display of virile superiority over fellow engineers—and, for once, left early.
I can still see myself walking up Amsterdam Avenue that evening. I kept combing my auburn bob with my fingers and checking my reflection in store windows because I was particularly proud of my new duffle coat. Joy said it was too long, though, that it didn’t flatter a petite figure like mine, and that I needed to show some leg if I ever wanted to get laid. As my roommate and best friend, she had grown to feel it was her responsibility to ensure that I would lose my virginity before my lady-bits crumbled to dust, thus she spared me no amount of encouragement to update both my wardrobe and my profile on Yaycupid.
I mostly ignored her advice, because at twenty-five, all I had ever accomplished with men was some silent stalking and a few awkward dates. I blamed it on the combination of round hazel eyes and a childish gap-toothed grin that still occasionally got me carded for cocktails, but in truth, I feared it had more to do with . . . well, me. I wish I had been a blonde and blue-eyed hurricane like Joy. Surely that would have helped a little.
To be fair, this was a nonissue, since I had tons of romance books to occupy my Saturday nights with, whose heroes were much more exciting than any of my dates had ever been. Billionaires, vampires, werewolves, cowboys . . . you name it. And they all came wrapped up in super-passionate love stories where the heroine is not only smart but also beautiful, and no one ever tells her that real adults don’t use the Japanese restaurant’s chopsticks to pretend they possess antennae—this particular piece of advice is from my stepmom, Janice, by the way. She keeps a pic of Jimmy Kimmel in her wallet all the time, so you bet she knows what it means to be a real adult.
It wasn’t long before I entered our old building on West Eighty-First Street. I liked that place: the paint in the hallway was chipping something awful, but I’ve always had a thing for early prewar, and the neighborhood was pretty quiet. Joy and I had moved into a comfy little two-bedroom nest on the second floor after her epic breakup with Clown-dick—aka David-the-senior-accountant, who had publicly threatened to marry her and put babies in her vagina; dreadful stuff. I could tell Joy was grateful for the change of air after eleven months spent with an overly demonstrative creep, and I, on the other hand, enjoyed her joyful presence—no pun intended—as well as the privilege of more space for less money.
I climbed the stairs because the elevator was broken, as usual—kept telling myself I’d bitch to the super about it, never got around to doing so. It was only six fifteen; I rarely left my desk before seven thirty, and there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to make the most of this evening and, at long last, do some cleaning in our grotto.
Okay, I was probably lying to myself. Joy and I shared rather liberal views on housekeeping, making the jungle of poorly assembled Ikea furniture we called home a complete war zone. Heaps of clothes and books littered our respective bedrooms, three days’ worth of dishes snoozed in the sink, and a delicate sheen of dust covered our vacuum cleaner, which I believe speaks eloquently of just how many shits were given in this house.
At any rate, when I turned the key in the lock, I was confident that tonight was going to be different and that those Oreo crumbs between our couch’s cushions were going to meet their match. I was right about that specific point, by the way, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I closed the door behind me, entered the living room, and . . . nearly had a heart attack.
A huge, dark figure stood there, back turned to me.
Maybe I’m overdoing it a bit because of the initial shock. I suppose it wasn’t unlike those times when you wake up in the middle of the night and you mistake that coat hanging from the wall for a ghost. Past that second when I felt the blood thrum in my ears, I realized that while the creature before me was indeed tall—likely topping my regal five-foot-three stature by a foot—and broad shouldered, the rest of him suggested a regular male rather than a Nazgûl.
Short chestnut hair, a well-cut navy-blue jacket . . . I allowed air to escape my lungs in a long sigh: I had obviously just run into one of Joy’s conquests. She didn’t give them keys that often, but when she did, I could be sure that I’d eventually come home to some hunky asswipe helping himself to my granola bars.
In this particular case, the latest addition to her ever growing collection of “Joy toys” didn’t seem to have registered my presence yet. And I was more than a little pissed that she had once again failed to issue a proper notice regarding the arrival of a new model. Wasn’t she supposed to still be dating her Pilates instructor? That being said, I wasn’t going to bite the poor guy’s head off just because she had forgotten to warn me of his presence.
I examined the faint movement of his shoulders as he stood in front of the long black sideboard resting between the living room’s windows. In his hands I caught sight of a few papers.
Change of plan. I was going to bite his head off.
“Excuse me, those are my bank statements. Can I ask you not to touch anything here? And maybe to introduce yourself?” I had meant to sound collected, but I ended up snapping at him.
My guest didn’t bother to turn around, and kept reading my stuff as if he hadn’t heard me.
He had, though.
“Good evening, Miss Chaptal. Please make yourself comfortable while I finish this.”
The nerve of that guy . . . Concise, precise, courteous. Totally unfazed. I registered a faint accent. Been here for quite a while, but not American. British, maybe? I didn’t like his little game. “I’m glad Joy warned you that I live here too. Care to explain why you’re snooping into my papers?”
That jerk just ignored me.
Now fully pissed, I crossed the room and tried to pull at his arm to stop him. “Hey, I’m talking to you!”
When he finally turned to look at me, I registered just how thick his arm was: my grip loosened and I felt my pulse quicken a little. I was no longer merely irked by the guy’s blatant disrespect; he was starting to scare me.
A cold blue gaze met mine, and the smile he gave me didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I believe I just asked you to wait until I’m finished. Why don’t you take a seat?”
My throat went dry. I let go of his arm and took a step back. “A-Are you Joy’s . . . Is she the one who gave you the keys?”
“No. I’m here for you, Island.”
My heart rate sped up brutally, and I registered a heaving sensation in my stomach, like the room around us was spinning. I think my legs moved before I even made the conscious decision to escape: I bolted and tried to make a break for the apartment’s door, shrieking at the top of my lungs in hopes that Mrs. Josefsky, our neighbor, would have turned on her hearing aids for once. “Stay away, don’t come near me! I’m calling the police!”
A viselike grip around my shoulders hauled me backward before I could reach the door, and a chill of absolute terror spread through my body, from the center of my chest to the very tips of my fingers. My black tote bag slid off from my shoulder and landed on the floor with a soft thud, its contents scattering at our feet. A black-gloved hand released my right shoulder to clamp onto my mouth, squeezing my cheeks almost painfully. I struggled against him and let out a series of muffled howls. Tears started building at the corners of my eyes when I realized that my vocalizations were growing weaker: my throat was too raw, my breath too short.
After twenty seconds or so, all my vocal cords were able to produce were weak croaking sounds in between short pants. I felt like I was drowning. As my voice died, the grip around my mouth progressively lessened, and I registered his breath against my hair. “Can I trust you not to scream again?”
I nodded shakily. He released my mouth. The hand holding my shoulder never let go, however, as he turned me around to face him like a limp ragdoll. He didn’t seem angry, or even flustered in any way. He just brought a gloved index finger to his lips with a warning look.
We spent a good minute like that, both standing still near the apartment’s entrance door, waiting for someone, anyone, to respond to my screams. It felt like time had thickened, slowed down and trapped me: Every single muscle in my body was paralyzed; my breathing had nearly stopped. The fingers resting on my shoulder splayed and traveled down my arm, until they lingered around my wrist in a near-caress. I shivered. Blood was drumming in my ears, and in that moment, my universe shrank until it was contained entirely in this stranger’s dark blue eyes. Call it a reverse big bang if you will.
Outside the apartment, nothing came. Only silence.
The soulless smile he had greeted me with returned, and he waved a scolding finger at me. “Please don’t do that again. Why don’t you make us some coffee instead?”
I blinked. “I . . . What?”
His lips twitched and he tilted his head, amusement filling his once icy irises. “Coffee. You know? Ground roasted beans, water, cup . . . coffee.”
I can only assume that his joke was meant to ease the atmosphere a bit and make sure I wouldn’t scream again while he did whatever he had come here to do. It didn’t work. All his faint smile reminded me of was Jack Nicholson smiling at Shelley Duvall before trying to cut her to pieces with an axe in The Shining. The beads of sweat that had formed on my temples earlier now felt cold. I gave a timid nod. Anything to get away from him.
I stepped back with slow, controlled movements, my eyes never leaving his, watching for any sign that he might try to grab me again. I noticed my tote bag, which was still on the floor, a few feet away. A couple of crumpled candy wrappers had escaped during its fall, and they were now lying near the couch; his gaze focused on them as well, his smile faltering for a second.
I forced my lips into what I hoped was a friendly and submissive rictus. “Sorry about that, I’ll pick it all up.”
The smile he gave me seemed just as sincere as mine. “No, don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. Remove your coat and go prepare that coffee, please.”
He knelt down and reached for my phone first. Watching him slide it in his jeans pocket rather than back into my bag, I gulped softly. With some effort, I tore my eyes away from his hands gathering my tampons, shrugged off my coat, and flung it on the couch. As soon as he saw this, his hands stopped working, his eyes narrowed, and he gave me a long, disapproving gaze.
I felt myself shrink under his stern scrutiny. Was it maybe a fashion faux pas? As my mind raced in search for an explanation, my eyes darted to the coat stand a few feet away.
He saw this, and his smile returned. “That would be more indicated.”
Picking up the garment warily, I went to hang it, before scurrying toward the kitchen. His voice stopped me before I could make it in; my hand froze on the doorknob.
“Island, I usually try to make things like this go well, but I suppose they can also go terribly wrong.” I turned to look at him. From this angle the front of his jacket gaped slightly, revealing a gun in a black holster.
Oh God. What things, exactly?
I thought it would be better to know right away just how wrong “things” were going to be. “A-are you a mobster?”
He seemed genuinely puzzled. “I don’t know how to answer this. What’s your definition of a mobster?”
“Um, it’s someone who works for the Mafia and kills people,” I offered.
“I only kill people.”
That one turned my spine into a Popsicle.
I took a quivering breath and entered the kitchen.
As soon as the door had closed behind me, I lunged at the cutlery drawer, searching it with shaking hands. I didn’t have much of a plan, though, and when I found myself holding a flashy pink vegetable knife—the only object that came close to fitting the definition of a weapon in our apartment—I started entertaining doubts. It wouldn’t do, not against a gun. My eyes fell on the kettle. Boiling water, straight in his face. Plus knife. That could work . . .
“Do you need any help, Island?”
I jumped so badly at the sound of his voice that I nearly dropped the knife. My left hand gripped the counter for support while my heart slowed down. Forget the kettle. I needed to make that coffee, or else he’d come in, see me plotting his assassination with my pink knife, and cut me in half like a baby carrot.
“No . . . I-I’m good,” I yelled through the door.
I froze for a couple of seconds, listening to the noises coming from living room, trying to assess whether he’d come in or not. Nope. Thank you, Raptor Jesus. I searched the wooden cupboards and retrieved two long boxes, half-filled with colorful capsules. Decaf imposed itself: No need to give a self-admitted killer a caffeine rush. While the coffee machine spat drop after drop of Whatevero decaffeinatto into a small white cup, I glanced at the microwave’s clock: 7:10. Joy wouldn’t be back from Pilates before nine thirty, and Leatherface back there had taken my phone. There was the landline, though. Maybe I could distract him long enough to reach it and call 911? I stared back and forth between the pink knife, still lying on the counter, and the dark liquid now filling the cup.
Strange how the rich, smoky aroma floating in the air was almost comforting.
I made up my mind and returned to the living room with a stiff back and wobbly legs. He was still there, of course. Everything had been placed back in my bag, which was now resting near the couch and well out of reach. He seemed to be done inspecting my bank statements, but before he placed them back on the sideboard, I saw him stop to fiddle with them some more. I didn’t understand, until I focused my eyes on each sheet of paper.
That sicko was sorting them back in chronological order.
No wonder I hadn’t suspected anything when first entering the apartment: the place actually looked better than when I had left in the morning, as if he had been putting each object he touched back in its rightful place while he searched our stuff.
Which was in all likelihood what he had done.
I heard a clatter. In my trembling hands, the cup of coffee was rattling against the small saucer. I gritted my teeth and exhaled. I had to collect myself if I was going to spend the evening with some neat freak home invader and survive.
He turned to look at me with that cold and disarming smile of his. “Thank you. You can leave it on the coffee table.”
I complied, searching his eyes. “Who are you? What do you want from me?”
“People call me March,” he said, picking up the fuming cup. “And I think you know why I’m here, Island.”
No, I didn’t, and it felt very strange to realize that having a name to put on this man’s face didn’t change anything. After all, no one remembered Jack Torrance’s name; his face, however, smiling maniacally through a jagged hole in a door, axe in hand, had become the incarnation of terror and entrapment. And so, my visitor’s name was “March.” First name? Last name? What did it matter? To me, he was merely the shape fear had molded itself into. I blocked from my mind the innumerable possibilities and tried to keep my tone neutral. “You don’t seem like a burglar. What do you want, March? What do I have to do to make you go?”
At first he didn’t reply. He just took several slow sips of coffee, appraising me. I seized the opportunity to do the same, trying to memorize every detail. At least I would be able to provide the cops with a precise description, should I live to do so.
His neat and ordinary looks clearly belied his brawny build—and the extent of his civility, as I had already found out. Shaved closely, no black mobster suit or anything terribly formal: just a pair of jeans, an immaculate white shirt, that blue jacket, and well-polished brown oxfords hinting at a spit-shining fetish. Scanning his chiseled features and deep-set blue eyes, I found his physical appearance sort of deceptive, especially since he kept such a relaxed, half-smiling expression that highlighted two dimples. The faintest crow’s-feet suggested he had passed the thirty-year mark. My eyes lingered on his light chestnut hair. Here again, no crazy middle-parted hairdo that might have hinted he was a maniac. Just your basic short cut that probably got wavy when it grew.
He seemed to notice I was staring, and something shifted in his expression, a twitch of his brow, a slight hardening of his features. He placed the cup back on the table and took a few steps toward me, moving with predatory grace.
“I’m looking for two billion dollars. Any idea where I can find something worth that, Island?”
Well . . . I sure hadn’t expected that one. I know it’s going to sound stupid, but my mind suddenly started reeling with dozens of positive-outcome scenarios. March had the wrong person; he was clearly hunting for much bigger fish than me. Granted, he wasn’t exactly a gentleman, but so far he hadn’t shot me, right? Maybe he’d leave if I swore never to mention our encounter to anyone? Choosing to ignore the obvious alternative—that his routine might include eliminating witnesses—I crossed the room to retrieve a stack of crumpled sheets from the top shelf of the bookcase standing near our couch. I walked back to him, handing him my pay stubs with a pleading look. “Look, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I swear I won’t press charges if you just leave.”
His eyes widened, and what might have passed as a genuine smile deepened his dimples. “You have a remarkable sense of humor, Island. Right now, however, your priority shouldn’t be to make me laugh but to tell me where that stone is and how you plan on returning it.”
What the . . . ?
I took a step back, letting the pay stubs fall from my hands. I had wanted to believe I could rule over my fear long enough to face him. But it was back with a vengeance, squeezing my lungs.
Oddly enough, I looked up to see that March’s expression appeared to mirror mine. His throat constricted at the sight of the dozens of papers scattered at my feet. “Please pick them up and place them back on your shelf.”
All right, the guy completely had a cleaning disorder.
I figured it wasn’t worth testing him further to discover just how many wires hung loose in that brain of his: I quickly knelt down to pick up my pay stubs, as I had been instructed. Before I could complete the movement, though, a sharp pain at the base of my spine stopped me. I jerked up reflexively and panic exploded in my chest.
Oh God. Nonononono!
Above me, I heard a deep, long sigh. He had seen it. Or maybe guessed. It was all the same: March knew about the vegetable knife, the one I had clumsily tucked in my tights’ waistline under my little wool dress, and which had just—quite literally—stabbed me in the back when I’d bent down.
Performing a rigid ballet, I picked the papers up anyway, aware of the warm blade brushing again my spine with each movement, wondering if it showed that well through my dress. Once I was done gathering them in a neat stack, I got up slowly and handed them to March, my eyes downcast. He took the pay stubs wordlessly and extended an arm to place them back on the shelf without leaving me any room for escape.
I found the strength to sustain his gaze, and when my eyes met his, I physically felt myself blanch. I couldn’t see it, of course, but there was this prickling sensation, like a thousand shards of ice biting my cheeks, cooling the sweat there, and I knew blood was draining from my face.
He held out his hand without a word, pinning me in place with his intense, knowing stare. Tears built fast, blurring the edges of my vision, and my own hands were shaking so badly that it took me ages to reach behind me and fumble with the hem of my dress. It’s a little pathetic, but I tried not to lift it too much because I didn’t want to undress in front of this guy.
I finally managed to extract the flashy pink blade from under the gray wool. He remained silent, the muscles in his jaw tightening as the knife came in sight. It crossed my mind that I could try to use the knife: I mentally pictured myself taking a wild swing in his direction to wound him.
I can only assume March read my thoughts, since he . . . Well, he judoed me, for lack of a better word. In a split second, I felt a painful grip on my wrist that made me drop the knife, and one of his legs swiped mine, causing me to lose my balance. His free arm locked around my waist to catch my fall, before he hauled me like a bag and flung me over his shoulder caveman style.
That day, I discovered that all those ninety-nine-cent romance novels had lied to me. There was nothing even remotely pleasant about being swept off your feet.