‘There’s no reply from number sixteen, but there is a key safe just round the corner. We wondered if you had the number for it.’
I tap the radio aerial in the centre of my forehead waiting for the call back, idly watching my feet as they shuffle a hundred miles or so beneath me on the pavement. Frank yawns noisily, slapping his arms to warm up, like a restless yellow bird, dreaming of migration. It’s not that cold – all the snow has melted and gone - but at three o’clock in the morning your fire burns dangerously low and anything can put it out – the dismal fall of light from a streetlamp, the shadowy recess of a door.
‘Ring seventeen, eighteen or nineteen and ask for Pauli.’
‘Seriously? It’s three o’clock in the morning. You want us to ring every bell in the block?’
‘Seventeen, eighteen or nineteen. Ask for Pauli.’
‘Thanks for that.’
I re-holster my radio like a dumb-ass gunslinger, then reach out and press seventeen. Pause. Then eighteen. Pause. Then nineteen. I’m just pressing seventeen again when the door suddenly buzzes open. I drift through the magical opening, and Frank floats along in my wake.
The lobby is a chlorinated blue lino vacuum of institutional living. We ride up the stairs on the steely clean stink of it all.
Number sixteen is locked, of course. Shawn is on the floor, so how would he open it? I bend down, open the flap of the letter box and peer through.
A voice from somewhere inside.
‘I’m on the floor.’
‘Where can we get a key?’
‘I’ll let you in.’
‘I’ll shuffle along the floor. Just a minute.’
Then I hear him carrying on a conversation.
‘Shawn? Are you on the phone?’
‘Yeah. The ambulance.’
‘Well tell them we’re in. We made it inside. You can put the phone down now. Just concentrate on getting yourself to the door.’
‘They’re telling me to hang up.’
‘Just hang up.’
‘Right. Right. Okay.’
‘Just hang up.’
But he carries on talking on the phone. I straighten up and let the flap of the letter box spring shut again.
‘I’m not getting this at all,’ I say to Frank, who’s standing with his arms folded and his eyes shut, leaning over at an unnatural angle.
There is the sound of shuffling and puffing from behind the door, like a huge seal making its way across an ice flow. I sigh, bob down and lift the flap again. In the dim interior of the hallway I can make out Shawn’s bulky shape dragging itself towards me.
‘I’m coming,’ says Shawn. ‘Won’t be long.’
‘Are you hurt, Shawn?’
‘But you can’t get up?’
‘What do you want me to do now?’
‘Shawn? Hang up the phone, mate. We’re here now. It’s only complicating things.’
‘I’m dragging myself across the floor.’
I stand up again. The door to number eighteen suddenly opens and a huge black man is there, staring at us with bulging eyes veined red with sleeplessness. He doesn’t say anything, but slowly scratches his chest and stares, his plump mouth hanging open, his hair so dishevelled it would take an industrial team a week to bring it under control.
‘What the fuck you doing?’ he says at last, the recoil from that fuck tipping his head back a foot.
‘Shawn’s fallen over and we need to get in.’
Pauli doesn’t blink for a full year. The hallway is silent, save for the dragging sounds behind the door, and Shawn’s endless prattling on the phone.
Eventually it comes back to me – our mission – what I needed, what I wanted. I came here to do something.
‘I don’t suppose you have a key?’
Pauli grunts, and suddenly what looks like a joke key appears in his hand. His huge feet slap on the lino as he comes across to open the door.
But he’s gone before Shawn has even acknowledged that the door stands open.
‘Oh. Hi guys,’ he says, beaming up at us and breathing hard. ‘I was watching Air Wolf and I fell out the chair.’