The male had been standing there, motionless, alert. His eyes flickered relentlessly from side to side, and his ears were tuned to register any sound that would tell him someone else was about. A duffel bag hung from one hand, the other brushed the bristles at his cheeks as he leaned against the lone tree.
He did expect to see anyone. Not only was it just before midnight, but the building that rose before him was situated far from the main hospital complex. It loomed five levels high, the white paint gleaming under the high light-mast. The structure itself looked like a fortress, solid and impregnable. But the man knew of a way inside.
He slipped out from the shadows beneath the tree, and giving the light a wide berth, made his way to the back of the women’s hostel. Grass that had grown thick in the rains dulled the sound of his footfalls, and his form merged with the darkness that enveloped the rear portion of the edifice.
He had been here before and found the ventilation grill without any trouble, using only the glow of his mobile’s screen. There was a tiny squeak as the door opened outward, and he halted his actions for some instants, waiting to see if the noise had been noticed. But he heard nothing untoward, nothing save the whistle of the wind and the thud of his heart in his ears.
He smiled, exultant at how ridiculously simple it was to gain access. The shaft behind the gate led into the heart of the facility. All he had to do was crawl through the passage, and he was in. The shaft opened out into a disused corner of what had once been a dining hall. The room was now heaped with disused furniture, most of it abandoned by previous hostel occupants. He crept through the room quickly, nose covered with his free hand, painfully aware of the dust all around, threatening to trigger a sneezing fit.
The door opened and he stepped out into the darkened corridor. The residential quarters were all on the upper floors. And the one that was his destination was all the way up, on the top storey.
Room 401 was on the east face, at the near-distant end of a long and silent corridor. He moved like a wraith toward it, shoes in his hand, almost jogging, knowing that if a single door in between opened, he would be seen.
The door to room 401 was like the others, painted pale blue, lifeless, nondescript. He reached above the doorframe, feeling about near the ventilator above for the key.
His fingers touched metal. What this meant of course, was that she was not in the room. This was not a surprise: he knew she worked late, that such were her hours. He cast a final, searching glance about him, wanting to be certain he had not been spotted. Quietly, he slipped the key into the hole and turned it and himself in before returning the key to its original position.
The room was small, and though it was dark it was not utter blackness. He stood in the center of the room, footwear still in his hands, breathing in the delicate, feminine fragrance in the air while his eyes adjusted to the gloom. He could make out the single bed vaguely, propped against the wall. He dropped his shoes near the bed, out of the way and walked over to the en-suite bathroom.
The zero-watt light inside was on. He stood at its doorway, scanning the confines for recent signs of her. A photo frame was perched on the mantel near her shampoo and conditioner bottles. He picked it up, studying the girl and the young man with their arms linked. He lowered it, and looked at himself in the mirror. His foot touched something soft; he looked down and picked up a white lace panty. The feel of the materiel against his skin sent shivers down his spine. He could barely wait; he hoped it would be long before she returned.
Sandra got out of her car, locked it and walked to the entrance of the ladies hostel.
She buzzed, and shortly, the grille-gate guarding the door was opened to admit her. The elderly duty watchman nodded to her, wiping sleep from his eyes. “Hello, doctor.”
She gave him a perfunctory smile, barely noticing the bandage on his left arm as he re-locked the heavy gate. Two months ago, there had been no lock on the gate, and no watchman. All that changed after the suicides. The first one had taken place one night about six weeks ago, in the state-run Central Institute of Mental Health hospital where all of them worked. A technician had been found hanging from the ceiling fan. Whilst the community had still been reeling from the shock, twenty four hours later, another woman employee living in the hostel had died. She had fallen from the top floor of the hostel and broken her neck. There was nothing to suggest foul play, but the two deaths, coming so quickly after one another had sent fear surging through the hostel’s occupants. Rather than risk a paralysis of the hospital’s evening operations if the hostel were to be abandoned, the management had quickly arranged for a watchman to be on-duty round-the-clock until the police investigation had reached its conclusion.
Sandra took the steps one at a time. Though her shift had started only at midday, she was still exhausted enough not to rush up the steps, using up the last reserves of energy. Fortunately the next day had a late start as well, so she time enough for a shower and a bite, even though it was nothing more filling than a sandwich from the hospital cafeteria.
She looked around quickly before reaching for the key above her door. Even though it was late, she could stillsee lights burning in some of the rooms. Surrounded by medical types who liked to keep odd hours, there was telling who might suddenly pop out of a room, unlikely though that might seem at the present.
Inside, she dropped the key into her pocket and shut the door. Her hand went to the light panel at the side of the doorframe, to turn on the lamp. It clicked, but nothing happened. Damn bulb must have blown, she thought, kicking off her heels.
There was no spare light in the room, so she would just have to manage with the glow from the bathroom. She shrugged off her top and unzipped her skirt, tossing both into a heap at the side. It was one of the perks of not living at home: out here, the only rules in play were the ones she wanted to keep. Walking through the darkness, she entered the bathroom, reaching for her towel on the way, and turned on the water.
Still in her undergarments, she went to the picture frame next to her shampoo. It was an odd place for a frame, but as she pointed out to those who had asked, she did spend a lot of time in here, either on the potty or in front of the mirror. It gave her ample time to stare at the frame and the love of her life. Her fiancé was a real estate consultant in the city. He had just completed his apprenticeship and had secured a permanent job at the firm. He worked a 9 to 5 job, and the only times she got to see him was when he took the train down on Sundays. Slipping her hair expertly into a shower cap, she wondered what he would think if he could see her now.
A sharp rap on the door to the room made her jump. She frowned. At this hour, it could only be that bitch housed next door, Gia. She was always coming over to borrow her things, food, clothes, study materiel; whatever lay in plain sight was fair game. She was probably studying late again. She probably wanted to see if Sandra had brought back any snacks.
“Sandra!” called out a female voice. “Open up! It’s me – Gia.”
Tightening her lips, Sandra drew her towel around her and stepped out of the bathroom.
She opened the door and there was Gia, wearing a t-shirt and from what Sandra could see, nothing beneath.
Gia eyed the towel with a grin. “Looks like I caught you right in time.” She held out a tray with two large mugs. “I made some hot chocolate. I was just waiting for you to get back. I know how much you love the stuff.”
Sandra was taken aback. She hadn’t been expecting this. “Uh – oh… Well, I was just about to take a shower…”
Gia nodded. “Yeah, I heard your shower come on; that’s how I knew you were back.”
Sandra opened the door wide and retreated into her room. “Come in. You’ll have to give me five minutes for a shower.” She slipped back into the bathroom.
Later, he realized that he had fallen asleep. He had stretched himself out on Sandra’s bed, his plan to wait her arrival, to wait until she entered, finding the room darkened and then pounce as she entered. He had removed the bulb and kept it aside, then hidden himself beneath the thin coverlet. He had not thought that he might fall asleep while waiting for her. And what had woken him was the pounding on the door.
And when he had woken, startled, it had taken a few moments to grasp his position, that he was inside a women’s hostel and that he was lying in the bed. It was then, to his shock, that Sandra had emerged from the bathroom to open the door. She had already returned! The conversation that followed came to his ears clearly and now, as Gia walked into the room with her tray, he cursed his ill-fortune.
He heard her curse as the switch at the door clicked without result. Through narrowed eyes, he saw her move deeper into the room, her movements slow and cautious. Gia placed the tray on the table top and wiped her hands against each other, as if drying them. She crossed the room and went to the door of the bathroom and as he watched, she pushed it open.
The lighting in the bathroom was dim, but it was enough for her to make out the look on her face. “Sandra?” she said. “It’s too dark in your room; the light isn’t working. Can I come in?”
As if suddenly seeing Gia for the first time, he noticed that the t-shirt she was wearing was short, so short he could see the upper expanse of her thighs, curving inward suggestively beneath the clinging garment. He felt his pulse quicken as forbidden thoughts rushed to his mind.
Above the sound of falling water, he heard Sandra say something but the words were unclear. Gia stared ahead and then she curled a lock of her dark hair back, tucking it behind her ear. On her face was a smile, but it was edged with uncertainty; and then she took a step forward, placing a foot on the cold bathroom tiles.
The man sat up, his breathing almost frantic. Was it his imagination or was there something happening here? He could not remain in the bed any longer; he had to see for himself.
His feet were already going over the edge of the bed, hitting the floor. He barely noticed his own nakedness as he strode forward, excitement bubbling within him, hands in front of him clenching nervously, toward the open door of the bathroom.
He was through the doorway in a few hasty steps, entering in time to see the woman die, her eyes bulging as her life was choked out of her.
And in the shower stall behind her, Sandra stared out, her eyes filled with the rage of one that has seen too much madness for too long, at the horror-stricken face of her fiancé.