As March progressed, so the final shift happened in Nick's life. With Valerie gone, there was no pretence to maintain, which was a relief, but it was also as if the last guyrope anchoring him to normality had become unpegged. There was nothing, now, to stop him from doing whatever he wanted, and what he really wanted was to be inside the Faulkners' house. The thought excited him, it was getting too light in the evenings now to hide very well outside, and anyway, he wanted more than glimpses through a window now. He wanted sounds and smells, and maybe even some contact.
Gaining access to the house while Cara was off playing Badminton proved to be no problem at all. The window of little ground-floor study was a doddle. Of course it would have been a problem, had the alarm been connected to it, but Nick alone knew that it wasn't. Once inside, though, there was a problem. The entire house was wired up with detectors of every sort. He couldn't get past the study. He sat in Mr Faulkners' creaky brown leather chair, moving it gently from side to side while he figured out what to do next. He could, of course, remember the code he had set the alarm with in the first place. It formed a part of his now vast database on the Faulkners. But had they, for any reason, changed the code? Mr Faulkner had been most specific that it should be 3442. Their ages perhaps? In which case, had either of them had a birthday and if so, had they changed the code accordingly? Nick came to a decision, and it was 'Fuck it!' He'd come this far, and he wasn't prepared to go home having seen nothing more than the inside of Mr Faulkner's study. He picked a pair of scissors from the desk. As soon as he opened the door, the alarm would begin to bleep. He would then have thirty seconds to input the code, and if 3442 proved to be wrong, he'd cut the power supply, and the backup battery supply. If it came to that, then have to get out of there fast.
He could actually hear the blood rushing in his ears as he gripped the door handle. A slow grinding noise, like someone dragging a heavy bag over concrete. He was aware that this was a further step-too-far. With his heart hammering in his chest, he turned the brass handle, and pushed.
He attempted to stifle a giggle, then realised there was no need and let it out. They hadn't even set the alarm! This was too perfect. He'd heard it so many times, 'often I think it's enough just to have that little box on the front of the house - puts intruders off by itself. Doesn't have to be connected to anything.' Maybe it was just laziness, or maybe they forgot. Whatever. It wasn't important. He was in!
First, he located the control panel anyway and tapped in 3442, just to see what happened. The system began to beep, so he tapped it in again, and it stopped. So they hadn't changed the code, that was worth knowing. Now he could relax.
He had an hour before he expected Cara home, so what to do with himself? He went for a little wander round the house. It was nice to have the place to himself. The beauty of the house was undiminished, it still screamed money and class, and now it was his as much as anyone's. He could come and go as he pleased.
The Faulkners' bedroom was something special, it was more than a bedroom, it was a suite of rooms. Leading off the actual room with the canopied four-poster, each of them had a dressing room, each lined with mirror-fronted wardrobes. Off each of their dressing rooms, they had their own separate bathrooms. His quite austere, with nothing to soften the gleaming marble; hers more lived in, with plants and orderly rows of products. He'd watched her in this bathroom. It was where she came after badminton. He recognised a small bottle on the windowsill. It was one she liked, he'd watched her unscrew the glass cap and inhale deeply before pouring some into her bath. He unscrewed it himself and sniffed, it was vanilla oil, a sweet, smoky, sexy smell. He could feel himself getting hard. This was dynamite for his fantasies. He dabbed a little on a pink tissue from a box by the basin, and put it in his pocket.
In a little under an hour, Cara would be here, in this room, in that bath, naked. She'd probably put some vanilla oil in first and it would make her skin slightly slick. He could feel his breath becoming laboured, and he almost masturbated there and then, but decided against it. There would be plenty of time for that later. What he wanted was a bolthole, and he had forty minutes to find one.
What he was looking for, was somewhere that he could hide. He knew now that he'd be back here. In fact, now that he knew the ropes, he intended to spend quite a lot of time here, and he needed somewhere that he could get to fast, and remain undetected, if someone came home when he wasn't expecting them. He hit lucky and found two.
Upstairs there was a huge airing cupboard, piled high with sheets and towels and tablecloths. It smelt wonderful in there - all clean linen - and of course, it was womb-like in its warmth. On the third shelf up on the right hand side - the most inaccessible spot - there were three large plastic bags, containing sleeping bags and spare duvets. The kind of things that aren't needed often. Behind them there was room for Nick, if he curled up, to hide.
Downstairs, off the kitchen, there was a tiny wine cellar. Orderly matrices of bottles, like huge compound eyes glimmered on every dark wall. It was no good in itself, but Nick noticed a little hatch in the wall below eye level. Upon closer investigation he found that it gave into a crawl-space, which extended under the entire house. No creature comforts down here, there were in fact, rather a lot of actual creatures which was unfortunate, but he'd never be detected down there.
He left the house with a vanilla scented facial tissue, and a whole lot more information than he'd had before.
Real life changed for Nick too. He sold the house, and, because he simply couldn't be bothered with it anymore, his business too. Valerie picked over the bones of each but even so Nick was left with a tidy sum of money. He bought a little flat outright, had money left to keep him for a while, and so all that was left was his obsession with Cara Faulkner. He had no schedule to keep but hers. He still watched from outside the house sometimes, but preferred to be inside. Sometimes, they set their alarm, sometimes they didn't, either way it was no problem. His newfound freedom allowed him to catalogue her movements twenty-four hours a day. His own sleeping patterns, which for nearly a year now had been shot-to-pieces, ceased to matter at all. Sometimes, he'd take something of Cara's away with him. Not underwear, or anything perverted, just something that was hers - like a pen, or a magazine. With something of hers in his hand, he always slept well. He never slept better though, than when in the Faulkners' house. If he knew, or thought it was likely that the house would be empty for more than a couple of hours, he'd strip naked and sleep in their bed, on Cara's side. He always set her alarm clock to wake him after an hour, and always took great care to ensure that everything was just as he found it. It wasn't easy, and he found that he developed a very fine eye for detail.
He roamed the whole house, believing now that he was perfectly entitled to be there, sometimes just nosing through things, sometimes just relaxing, occasionally sitting on the edge of her bath masturbating lazily. It was all very satisfying. Best of all though, was when he concealed himself in one of his hiding places and listened to the sounds of Cara's life.
At first he favoured the back of the airing cupboard. It was warm and soft and close to the bedroom, but he reluctantly had to give that one up, as he had a tendency to feel so snug there, that he'd nod off, and that wouldn't do at all. Instead he concentrated on the crawl space. At first approach it was a grim place. The ground was carpeted with filthy builder's rubble with the occasional sixty-year-old fag packet or newspaper, presumably dating from the time that the house was built. Huge dusty cobwebs wreathed every dark corner, and every piece of rubble sheltered shoals of scuttling insect life. The ceiling consisted of the undersides of the floorboards above, and varied in height from almost five feet in places, only a couple of feet towards the back of the house.
In this shallow dungeon, Nick made himself quite at home. While the Faulkners were out, he smoothed an area of rubble under the living room and laid down a sleeping bag - a cotton one, as it rustled less. He brought a large empty plastic bottle that he could pee into if necessary, and he was set.
On a sortie through the empty house one morning, he found a long slender needle in a sewing kit in the kitchen. He took it to the living room, and sat on the sofa in the same way that Cara always did, lying along it with her right foot on the floor. He made a minor adjustment for her height, then, at the point where her foot would rest, pushed the needle through the carpet and through the gap between the floorboards, the dense carpet held the needle in place. Returning to the crawl space once more, it took him almost an hour to locate the point of the needle as it hung like a single shiny stalactite from the low ceiling. He pulled it through and marked the spot. It was not, as he had thought it would be, right over his sleeping bag, and he had to adjust his quarters accordingly.
For two weeks that spring, Nick was completely happy. He would get himself into the crawl space whenever he could, and when Cara watched The Simpsons in the early evening, he'd silently lie directly underneath her. He would press his palm against the place where he knew her foot would be resting above. The knowledge that their flesh was separated by just half an inch of pine made him breathless. He wondered if the heat of his palm could be felt through the carpet above, and if it comforted her. Perhaps she thought there was a warm pipe under the floor there. Her proximity made him weak. Sometimes he had to gently massage his crotch to ease the ache there. He didn't dare masturbate fully for fear of making a noise, but he felt the electric sexual charge between them none-the-less, and he actually came to believe that this was totally innocent. After all, nobody knew that he was there and he wasn't actually hurting anybody.
The only drawback to spending time with Cara in this way, was that it meant he was stuck there overnight, and it wasn't nice down there with the insects. It was definitely worth it, but he was always glad to hear a second car pull off the driveway the following day. Once he was stuck under the floor for 48 hours, and when he emerged he ached all over and was weak with hunger. That was the only time he gave into the urge to raid their fridge, helping himself to a slice of bread and a little coleslaw.
This situation may have lasted. Maybe, if Nick's finances balanced and his desires stayed the same, it might have continued for a long time. Maybe, if the Faulkners had moved house, he'd have somehow moved with them. Nick certainly didn't look to the future, he was only concerned with making himself happy in the present.
But all good things must come to an end.
One day, Nick was boldly standing in the Faulkners' kitchen when he heard a squeal of tyres outside. Funnily enough, this had never happened before - he'd never actually been disturbed, but he knew what to do. He quickly bolted for the cellar and the hatch into the crawl space. Normally he'd allow a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the gloom, but there was no time, he could hear a key in the front door. He got into the crawl space in time, and eased the hatch shut with no sound, but disorientated by the speed of his subterranean plunge, he turned the wrong way and cracked his head hard against the rough brick wall that underpinned the inside edge of the kitchen. He went spinning quickly into swirling black unconsciousness.
He wasn't out for long, a minute at the most, but when he surfaced again it was as if a complete system reboot had happened. A little knock on the head had given him some clarity on the situation. He was angry and disappointed with himself. What had he become? How could he be happy, wriggling about down here like some blind worm, some pallid underground Caliban, panting and sweating and peeing in a Coke bottle? It just wouldn't do. As the Nick who used to run a business would have said, 'What can we do to turn this around?' As if in answer to his thoughts, Mr Faulkner's voice boomed from above. There was a telephone extension in the kitchen, presumably he was using it.
'...Anton, the merger is almost completely fucked. Do you understand what I'm saying? Do you know what that means? SHUT UP. That means that the last eight months have been completely PISSED DOWN THE DRAIN. Understand? You can forget your fortnight in Florida, you and me - I DON'T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT YOUR KIDS - you and me are going to Zurich tomorrow to sort this out. We fly tomorrow, and we'll come back when - and only when - it's sorted. We'll need to get Nigel out there, and Harry, and probably a few of those ungodly expensive bastard consultants too. Tell your wife not to expect you before next Tuesday. Anton, do you think I want to do this?'
The ranting continued, but Nick had heard all he needed to. Cara would be alone for the rest of the week. He crawled back to his sleeping bag and lay down to think about how to make this special.
He sniffed the top of the bottle, the musky vanilla smell was so familiar now - it really made him think of home. He tipped the bottle, and let four...five drops fall into the steaming bath water. The scent instantly filled the room. He lit a candle and placed it by the side of the bath, and turned off the overhead light. Perfect.
He had champagne on ice in the toilet. If he felt like something else, he could pop downstairs to the drinks cabinet. Tonight he and Cara would start their new life. In fact, if he wasn't very much mistaken, he could hear her red MG pulling onto the drive now. He could hardly contain himself, She was going to be completely bowled over. He heard the sound of her key in the door, and then the door closing. In a routine that he knew so well now, he listened as she checked the messages on the answerphone. Actually, he was surprised that it still worked after he cut the phoneline, but it seemed to be OK. Of course, he'd deleted the message from her shitbag husband saying that he'd be home from Zurich at 9am tomorrow. Silly billy had left her mobile phone at home too. She really would forget her head one day! It was a nice mobile, one of those shiny ones, and it had given a good account of itself, but the spinning jaws of the waste disposal unit had won in the end, though it seemed to be making a different noise after. Never mind, it had to be done.
After she checked the answerphone, she went to the fridge, and got a bottle of mineral water. He didn't have to watch her to know that she'd put her badminton racquet on the kitchen table. Later, after her bath, she'd put it in her wardrobe. He heard her mounting the stairs and in his heart he felt nothing but love. A rising sense of connection with this woman about whom he knew everything. He saw her startled look as she opened the bathroom door, and her scream was easily thwarted, by the simple measure of slapping electrical tape over her mouth. She struggled - well, she always was a live wire - but it must have quickly become apparent to her that he was stronger here. He secured her wrists and ankles with smooth rope, so as not to chafe her skin.
'I've run your bath, just as you like it - with the vanilla oil in.' He looked into her eyes, seeking a sign of approval, a sign that he'd done well. He found none.
He took a Stanley knife from a bag on the floor, and a strange guttural noise came from somewhere behind her electrical tape. He rolled his eyes, as if she were making a big drama out of nothing. 'It's for your clothes, silly. Can't very well have a bath with those on, can you?' He cut her clothes off, taking care not to hurt her. It was difficult to put her in the bath because she bucked and resisted, and when she eventually went in she sloshed vanilla scented water over the side and all over the floor.
'Now,' said Nick, 'isn't that nice? I know you like to have your bath after badminton. Did you win tonight?' He paused as if it were possible for her to answer. 'Your cunt of a husband phoned earlier - I wasn't actually here when he rang but I heard the message - he's going to be back tomorrow morning, so we haven't really got that long, but we're going to have a lovely evening, you and I. Do you mind if I...?' He held up the champagne bottle as if awaiting her consent, then poured himself a glass. As he drank he studied her. She seemed to have stopped rolling her eyes, and instead had closed them, which was odd. How could she not want to look at him after all this time? He slipped a hand into the water and caressed her right foot - with no floorboards in the way this time. It was everything he knew it would be - silky and shapely. She tried to kick him, but the rope made it impossible, instead she just twitched and her head slipped underwater for a second.
'Let's get you dry,' he said, and lifted her out of the bath. He became very aroused by drying her, but he noticed that no matter how many times he dried her face, it was wet with tears immediately after. He was feeling quite emotional himself, so he decided to be a gentleman about it. After all, he wanted eternity, not a quick fuck. He'd lost a lot of sleep over this woman, and tonight he intended to get his money back.
'I've taped The Simpsons for you, I thought we might watch it before bed. I know how you like it. I like to hear you laughing - you've got such a pretty laugh. Do you think we know each other well enough now, that I can take the tape off?'
He placed a towelling dressing gown around her shoulders and carried her down to the living room. Once there, he gently removed the tape from her mouth. Instantly, she screamed - a violent, piercing noise that ripped through the silent house, and seemed, frankly, quite ungrateful. Unfortunately the tape wouldn't stick down very well again, so he had to press his hand hard over her mouth to keep her quiet. 'Oh dear,' he said 'I was hoping that I wouldn't have to do this until later.' In one quick motion he removed his hand from her mouth, then closed both hands round her neck. Again she thrashed and tried to fight but the game was up.
Nick was surprised at how easy it was. The trick was in not relaxing your grip. He blocked out the noises she was making - as if she wanted to cough or choke, but couldn't get any air to do so. It did seem to take a while though, Cara's pretty brown eyes remained open and alert for a long time. In fact they never closed. Cara Faulkner died staring into the face of a man she couldn't quite place, but was entirely certain she'd met before. She died with her eyes open and her arms and legs tied. When she was still, Nick untied her, and was able to hold her at last.
They sat together and watched The Simpsons, and as the closing credits played, Nick knocked back a quarter of a pint of Brandy, and sixty Paracetamol. While he still could, he finally took Cara to bed.
Sleep was a long time coming, but Nick was certain that it would come. How could it not, with Cara's warm, soft body so close and comforting under the homely, fresh-laundry-scented sheets? This was home. Hell, this was domestic bliss. People killed for this. There was neither reason to be tense, nor to be awake. He glanced at the luminous hands of the bedside clock - 21:15 - there was plenty of time. In fact, as he closed his eyes again, he was sure that he could feel the swimmy velvet edges of the sinking place somewhere just behind the middle of his forehead, that would, if he let it, gently blossom into the dark iris of sleep. Nick let it.