I killed a woman when I was younger. I did my time for that. And once you’ve done your time in The Heights you’re not eager to do it again.
Man, Sonaya’s a city like none you’ve ever seen. You can trust me on that. They were smart guys, whoever designed that prison. The worse your crime, the higher you go. I was up on sixty-third with the other murderers. From sixty-third you get one hell of a view. Windows, you see. Small, of course, and barred, but damn good enough for a view. The harbour, the old town, the opera house, downtown, the dome of the football stadium. The skyscrapers by the waterfront, the old village down by the market square. They wanted us to see it all. To see what we were missing. Maybe they were just teasing us, taunting us with the view. Maybe it was to make us appreciate the city more, so we’d never sin again.
Maybe it all started when I cut off my ear. That was a new one back then. Loads of guys do it these days. It’s pretty easy to make yourself despicable. I grew my hair long, past the shoulders, shaved off one side. The side with no ear, of course. There’s no point cutting off your ear if no one can see it. Then I stopped washing my hair. Let it get matted, thick, tangled in places. The greasier the better. Then I got Dustin Fairchild to break my nose. It took three solid punches before he got it right. Then we left it for a few months and broke it again. Crooked, double time. It was that simple.
I was a changed man. The next time I went in for my assessment, I was marked down to a five. I used to be a ten. It was that easy to drop five points. I never would have gotten away with it now; everyone’s trying it. But I was one of the first. Maybe the very first. And I had more reason than most. Tens aren’t that common. I was uncommonly handsome. And that’s not me being arrogant; that’s official. An uncommonly handsome man. But nobody wants to be a ten anymore.
They said it was because of the low birth rate. No one wanted to do it anymore. The guys weren’t picking up girls in bars; they were dating video game characters. I never got into any of that rubbish. The girls wanted careers; they didn’t want to hook up with some geek and then quit their job as soon as they got pregnant. I guess it was all a bit messed up. They said that the population was dropping by one percent a year. And that’s not healthy.
And then some genius in that government of hyenas came up with the new tax. The handsome tax, they called it. I reckon women loved being chosen for the panels at first. In come the guys, rate them from one to ten on appearance. How messed up is that? They didn’t want guys like me to have such an advantage. The ugly guys weren’t getting any, I guess, and I was getting loads. They wanted to even up the playing field.
But the tax didn’t work in the way they wanted. After a couple of years it wasn’t just the common man who got taxed, but the employer too. Companies didn’t want good-looking guys working for them anymore; it cost them too much money. Why hire a ten when you can hire a six for half the price? All the tax did was screw me over. You’ve no idea how hard it is for a ten to find a job. Lose all your money because you’re too good-looking? Messed up. A guy gets pretty desperate in a situation like that. Goodbye ear. Nose, nice knowing you. Now give me some damn work.
I’m not a bad guy. Scrap that. I killed a woman. But I saw screwed up guys in prison, and I wasn’t anything like them. Some people are really messed up, but I only killed one woman. And I didn’t kill her because the wires in my head were all mixed up. I didn’t just burst into her house and chop her up or anything like that. I killed her because I loved her, and because she chose another guy. I’m not saying I was right. Hell, no. I killed a woman. A woman with a newborn baby. How messed up am I? But at least I had a reason. Most of those guys up on sixty-third, they didn’t even have a reason.
Maybe it was the pain thing. Like those wild kids who get tattoos and get addicted to the pain of it. You can’t chop off your whole damn ear and be the same person. You get used to the sight of blood, and it doesn’t seem such a big deal anymore. You see yourself in the mirror everyday and you know what you look like. You look like a gangster? A tramp? You become one. Murder for the woman you love? Big deal.
And I’m not a changed man or anything. I didn’t cry afterwards, not once. Not that I didn’t regret it, because I do. It’s true, and I think they all knew it. Probably why I got out after ten years. Good behaviour. Damn, I should have been in there for thirty. But I’m still the same guy who did it. I’m a murderer with one ear and a broken nose, and I do whatever jobs I can find for money. But I still have a place in Sonaya. I know a lot of people.
There’s a party tonight at old Kosuke’s place. He’s got the damn coolest place in the city. Richest man in town. He bought a whole apartment block, forty floors down by the opera house. Did something different with each floor. Never even needs to leave the apartment. A cinema on twelfth, a pool on sixteenth, an arcade on thirtieth, a gym on thirty-second. Screen golf, karaoke rooms, restaurants, bars, aquarium, club, botanical garden, artificial beach, you name it, he has it in there. Best building in the city. Old Kosuke’s a good guy to be friends with. Overweight, boss eyed. That’s the way to buy a whole apartment block.
The party’s up on the roof. Pool and bar up there, naturally. A club on the floor below. Kosuke knows how to throw a party.
It’s a shame someone has to die there tonight.
He’s got a good crowd out, old Kosuke. He knows all the best people, and he knows the night for a party. Half the city wants to be in on the action when Kosuke’s having a party. All the richest guys are here. Ugly losers, of course. But their girls are damn hot. And Kosuke isn’t all about the money people; he knows what he’s doing. He’s got the actors out, the wild crowds, the young up-and-coming little delicates who know how to party and not much else. All the best ex-pats, too. A bunch of artists, that crowd. Writers, painters, poets, musicians. Something about the city inspires them, apparently. Lola is here, damn craziest artist in the world. He could take a piss on a wall and they’d put it behind some glass and pay a million for it. I like the writers the best. Smart people. Fun, too. It wouldn’t be a party without them. Even young Sara is here, and she never comes out. Hasn’t written anything good for years. Never known writer’s block like it. It has to be a big night if she’s been tempted to leave that little basement.
A bunch of girls are in bikinis around the pool. I’ve never seen them before. Kosuke has probably just hired them to walk around and look hot. Some of them are coming round with trays of drinks. Champagne, naturally. I take two flutes from the off. I’ve never been blessed with patience. Kosuke has eighties ballads blasting out from behind the bar. No one cares. His party, his music. It’s all good as long as the champagne keeps coming round and no one’s dead yet.
I’m standing at the bar with young Sara and this damned crazy writer called Stones. Don’t know how he writes so well; I’ve never seen the man sober.
‘How’s the book coming?’ he asks Sara.
He doesn’t need to ask. You can see in the way she walks that she hasn’t made the breakthrough yet. First book was damn good. Damn good. She knows there’s no way to follow it. But then, what’s she meant to do with the rest of her life? She can only be twenty four, twenty five. She’s a cool girl. Black, big lips, short hair like a schoolboy. Damn beautiful skin.
‘You need to get out more,’ Stones says. He’s holding two glasses. His wife’s probably around somewhere picking up some gear. Local girl, good body, terrible taste in men. ‘A basement’s no place to write. You’ve gotta live if you wanna write well. You know that.’
‘It’s not a basement,’ Sara says. ‘It’s a studio.’
It’s a basement. I’ve been there myself. Damn small place, stuffy. No windows.
Sara’s on whisky. I’ve seen her finish three glasses already. Holding it well so far.
‘Your man Fairchild’s here,’ she says to me. I look around. Fairchild’s a liability. Like a brother to me, though.
‘Screw him,’ I say. I’m drunk and I want something to happen. People are just talking. Scanning faces. Anyone here interesting enough to shake this party up?
Then I see him. The man I lost out to. Just an average guy. A policeman, I heard. Two ears and everything. Probably a good dad. A single dad, at any rate. He’s talking to Lola over by the pool. Probably talking about his latest painting. I can’t see what the fuss is about. I stand up and leave the bar.
‘Where you going?’ Stones says to me. I hold up a hand. Later.
Kosuke’s leaning over the railings, looking over towards the beach. You can just make out the line of hotels from here, the flashes of neon. He’s with a young girl, can’t be twenty yet.
‘Kosuke,’ I say, and I stand next to him at the railing. He asks his girl to get him another drink.
‘Why’s that guy here?’ I say.
Kosuke looks at me. He smiles.
‘The widower,’ he says. I nod.
‘That guy messed up my life,’ I say.
‘You messed up your life, Dag,’ he says.
‘How do you know him? Why’s he here?’
‘He helped me with some matters recently. Good man. He’s got a little girl.’
‘Damn straight. I killed her mum,’ I say. Kosuke tries to smile but can’t seem to manage it, the old man. ‘Damn stupidest thing I ever did,’ I say.
‘No trouble here tonight,’ Kosuke says.
‘It wouldn’t be a party without trouble,’ I say, and I drop my glass over the railings and walk away. I imagine the sound of the glass shattering forty stories down.
Fairchild grabs me over by the pool. He’s watching the girls.
‘Terrible party,’ he says. We both know he’s lying, but he wants something to happen, same as me.
‘Let’s take them for a tour,’ he says, nodding to the girls. They’re all in the same tiny red bikinis, sitting around the edge of the pool.
We walk over and take one each. Brunettes, locals, both of them. They just smile. Kosuke must be paying them a lot. We take the stairs next to the bar and go down to the club. No one’s there yet. The party will move down there once it really gets started. We go down one more flight. The bowling alleys. Fairchild knows this building well, and he turns on the lights. I go behind the bar and turn on the music. It’s just the four of us, and we take one lane. I bring a bottle of champagne from the fridge, stick another one in ice on the table.
The girls keep hitting gutter balls. They’re still in their bikinis and they just drink and smile about it all. Fairchild’s throwing strikes without trying. His girl sits on his lap and then they don’t get up for their turns anymore. I take my girl by the hand and we go down one more flight. We’ll stop anywhere we can pick up a drink.
‘What happened to your ear?’ the girl says to me.
She knows what happened to my ear. ‘Lost it to the wolves,’ I say.
We stop on thirty third. Movie screen. I don’t even bother turning the projector on. Nor the lights. She just walks in front of the screen and takes off her bikini top, then her bottoms.
The girl wants to get back to the party. I’m ready too. It’s probably time things got crazy. Fairchild and his girl are gone from the bowling alley. When we get to the club it’s pumping. Disco lights on, dance floor packed. The girl kisses me on the cheek and walks off. I watch her leave and find Sara at the bar.
‘Don’t you get bored of bagging these young girls?’ she asks. She tries to look tired, but I know she’s enjoying it. She’s still here.
‘I’m bored of everything,’ I say.
We watch the dancers. The music’s terrible but no one seems to care. The dancing’s terrible, too.
‘Where’s the action?’ I ask.
‘Everywhere. Stones has pulled out the coke. I don’t partake.’
‘You don’t partake in life,’ I say. She stares at me cold. She doesn’t really care what I say to her. She leans slowly towards me and her lips caress my cheek, earless side. She slides her tongue up my jaw and skirts the hole where my ear used to be. She whispers something, I can feel her breath. But I don’t hear anything. It’s damn hard to hear anything on that side, especially in a club.
‘Talk to my good ear,’ I say to her.
She brings her face around the front of mine so that our noses graze. Then she whispers into my good ear.
‘You’ll always be a fool,’ she says.
I pull my face away and look at her. The scream pierces through the room before I can respond. The music stops. Everyone knows that something’s happened. A death, I’d say, judging by Kosuke’s face. It’s amazing how surprised everyone is. This is Sonaya, after all.
There’s too much commotion in the club, and Kosuke calls everyone back up to the roof.
‘A girl has died,’ he says to the crowd. It feels like a school assembly. Some people put their hands over their mouths. Not me. ‘The doors have been locked, and the police are on the way. No one leaves this building until the police are done with their questioning.’
Everyone’s looking at Kosuke like they want him to say more, but how do you finish that speech? Sorry? Thank you? A girl’s dead, you fools.
No one asks where the body is. Everybody knows. I look over the railings, but it’s dark and you can barely see the floor from here. Forty floors is a long way to fall.
People are whispering everywhere, but it’s all just speculation. She was thrown, she jumped. Who was she? No one has a name. A bikini girl? Damn, a bikini girl. I know I’m in trouble before Sara tells me.
‘People will have seen you walking off with that doll in red,’ she says. Damn right. ‘The cops will be after you if it’s her.’
‘You saw me leave her,’ I say. I’m not worried. Not yet. A tap on the shoulder.
‘It’s not your girl, Dag,’ Fairchild says. He has that look on his face. ‘It’s my girl. It’s my girl, Dag.’
I roll my eyes. It had to be his girl. Fairchild’s already done two stretches inside. He’d throw himself after the girl before he does another.
‘What happened?’ I ask.
Sara stands up and leaves us, shaking her head.
‘Nothing,’ Fairchild says. ‘But we need to get out of this building before the cops come.’
He looks panicky. I wish he’d stay still. I get him to sit down and he looks like he’s gonna throw up. Kosuke comes over, and he knows from the look on my face that we’re in trouble.
‘Thirty nine floors should be plenty enough to hide in,’ I say.
‘Go for thirty,’ he says. ‘Fuses are blown.’
I put my hand on his shoulder. Good guy, old Kosuke.
The party’s over. The roof looks a sad place without the neon and the music. Just a bunch of rich folks sitting around, trying to look concerned. Stones and his wife are next to the pool. They’ve probably thrown their snow over the side. Lola is there, too, looking guilty as hell. Richest ones have the most to lose.
‘Let’s go,’ I say, and Fairchild follows me to the stairs. The police are in.
Thirty eight, thirty seven, thirty six. We keep going down to thirty, to the old arcade. The lights are out. Rows of empty chairs and machines in the darkness. Fairchild and I skulk into a corner, and we take a sofa in the darkness. We watch the elevator lights flashing ascending numbers. The police are on the way to the roof.
‘Tell me,’ I say. I look at Fairchild, and his eyes are closed, breathing hard. What’s the fool done this time?
‘I didn’t kill her,’ he says. ‘I swear it.’
‘Then why are her bones smashed up on the pavement?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know. I can’t go back, Dag.’
I swear under my breath. ‘Then why the hell are we hiding here? Hardly shines the light of innocence on you. Disappearing as soon as the cops show up.’
‘Lola said it was the girl I was with. But I didn’t do anything, I swear. She just walked off when we went back upstairs.’
‘Lola,’ I say. Damn artists. Trust him to stir something up.
The elevator flashes thirty nine. They’ll be out now, walking up to the roof. Kosuke will be there to greet them. I wonder how long it will take before they find out two ex-cons are at the party. Not that anybody needs to tell them.
‘She was on the panel,’ Fairchild says.
‘Your girl? Whose panel?’
‘Trust you to forget a face,’ Fairchild says.
‘Which assessment? Two ears or one?’
‘Did she look old enough to be on the panel fifteen years ago? Idiot. One ear, of course. They’ll be after you as soon as they find out.’
Damn. A woman murdered in Sonaya? One in four will be a panel girl. The murderer? Nine out of ten will be a man they’ve rated. Bribes, blackmail, threats. You’ve no idea how much trouble those ratings cause. An ear is a small price to pay for a five; these days people have it a lot worse. And me already a murderer? I’m suspect number one.
‘No one’s ever killed for a five,’ I say. ‘I have no motive. An ugly man has no reason to kill.’
‘Everyone has a reason to kill,’ Fairchild says.
The elevator numbers start flashing again. They’re coming down. We hear footsteps, shouts from the stairway. The police are splitting up, and they’re after us.
‘What do we do?’ Fairchild asks.
A dog barks. It sets another two off.
‘Damn,’ I say. Those hounds can smell a guilty thought. ‘They’ll scour every floor. We need to get back up to the roof.’
‘Impossible. We’ll never get past them.’
‘The cops aren’t leaving without a murderer in the back of their car. We better give them one, or it’ll be one of us. And I’ll throw you in there before I hold my hands up.’
Fairchild is sweating. Poor guy.
Someone enters the room. Two, judging by the shadows and the footsteps. I hold my breath. Fairchild looks like he might pass out.
‘Turn the lights on,’ one of the men says.
‘The electrics are out,’ the other one answers. It’s Kosuke. ‘Some kids blew the fuse last week. It’s alarmed, though,’ he adds to the silence. ‘If anyone came in here, I’d know about it.’
Good old Kosuke.
‘Go on down, I’ll make sure it’s clear here.’
The cop seems to hesitate in the darkness, but then one set of footsteps moves back to the stairwell. Kosuke is standing alone in the darkness.
‘Kosuke,’ I whisper, craning my neck around the slot machines. He’s standing alone in the doorway, and he hurries over when he sees my face.
‘Get us out of here,’ I say. Fairchild is silent next to me.
‘What happened?’ Kosuke says.
‘Panel girl,’ I say. ‘Mine. They’ll pin me with it as soon as they find out.’
‘They’re after the both of you,’ Kosuke says. ‘They’re saying Fairchild was with the girl last time she was seen.’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ Fairchild barks. ‘Just get us the hell out of here.’
‘They’ve locked the doors,’ Kosuke says. ‘Your only way out is the same way the girl went.’
‘Get us back to the roof,’ I say.
‘There are two cops still up there.’
‘Get us up there. The other cops are already below, the way up is clear.’
Kosuke looks from me to Fairchild.
‘Come on then,’ he says.
We run back to the stairwell, and I see the swinging torches of the cops below, hear their footsteps. We take the stairs up. Thirty seven, thirty eight, thirty nine. The club is empty again, but the lights are on and the place is a mess. Coke left on the tables, glasses everywhere. Fairchild picks up a bottle as we make our way to the stairs to the roof.
‘What are you gonna do?’ he asks, taking a swig from the bottle and passing it to me.
I don’t even know yet.
‘Get those cops out the way,’ I say to Kosuke.
He walks up the stairs and I hear the guests sitting around. I pull Fairchild into the woman’s toilet. We watch as the two cops come down the stairs and through the club. Kosuke must have told them something was going on downstairs. We won’t have much time until they realise what’s happened.
As soon as they’re out of sight we run up to the roof. I half expect people to call for our heads when they see us, but it seems that no one’s that desperate to go home just yet. I look around at the staring faces. Sara’s shaking her head at me. She still looks bored. Stones is smiling and he raises his glass. That crazy artist Lola has one of the bikini girls on his knee. She’s crying. It’s my girl.
‘Hey,’ I say, standing in front of them. I forget the girl’s name. ‘Hey.’ She lifts her head off Lola’s chest and looks at me with her wet eyes. ‘Get off this clown,’ I say, and Lola holds his hands out, an arrogant smile under that stupid moustache.
‘Someone’s been a naughty boy,’ Lola says, standing up.
I ignore him and take the girl by the arm. I pull her over to the railing where no one is. Fairchild follows us, and Kosuke is behind him.
‘Do you know what happened?’ I ask the girl.
Her eye make up’s a mess and she says nothing. I feel the eyes of the crowd behind us. I find Sara’s eyes and nod at her. She grabs a tray of drinks from the poolside and starts to do the rounds. Stones gets up and turns the music back on, low volume. We won’t have long until the police are back.
‘What happened?’ I say again, shaking the girl’s arm. ‘She was a panel girl, wasn’t she? Your friend. Who did she judge for? Is there anyone else here she judged for?’
The girl cries, and Kosuke takes my arm and pulls me away.
‘Let the poor girl alone,’ Kosuke says. There’s another bikini behind him. It’s Fairchild’s girl. Alive. For a moment I think it’s all over. But then I look at Kosuke’s face.
‘It’s you, Dag,’ he says. ‘They want you. It’s all a fix, don’t you see?’
I look between the two girls, to Kosuke. No one looks confused, and I can’t understand it. I look around, and all eyes are on us. I’m the only one who doesn’t know, whatever it is.
‘How did someone get thrown from here without anyone seeing?’ I ask. Stupid question. It all seems so stupid now. Kosuke only shakes his head.
‘Don’t be a fool, Dag. There’s no body down there, there never was.’
‘Then why the police?’
I hold his shoulders and look deep at the old man, but he looks tired.
‘He didn’t give me any choice,’ he says.
I’m about to ask who he’s talking about, but then it all comes crashing together.
‘Why did you let him come here?’ I ask.
‘I had no choice, Dag,’ Kosuke says. ‘He’s a sergeant now. He could finish me if he wanted. He’s wanted you ever since you got out. Said ten years wasn’t enough for what you did to him and his daughter.’
‘And so you sold me out, you old fool. Where is he, the coward? Why doesn’t he just stand up and arrest me himself? I’ll make an orphan of that girl of his.’
Five cops choose this moment to come crashing up the stairs with their hounds, and this time the guests barely drop the glasses from their lips. This is a Sonaya party, and the guests are bored of the drama now. The men in black find me in seconds. There’s nowhere to run.
‘Dustin Fairchild, Daganae Kawasaki, you are under arrest on suspicion of the murder of Yukiko Uchida.’
Yuki Uchida. A waster. Died two days ago from a drugs overdose. Everyone who knows anyone knows that. The hyenas will do anything to turn a blind eye to the drug ring.
I look to Fairchild, who sits with his head in his hands. He knows he’ll get out of this now. They’ll pin it on me in the end if that damn cop’s involved. Then I find his face, the man whose wife I killed, the man who won her love and left me alone. He does not smile, but I see the hate in his eyes. A sergeant now, eh? And corruption to start his new position, of course.
The police close in around us, and I look for a way out. Sara is there behind them. Her eyes tell me not to try anything stupid. Does she want me to spend the rest of my life in The Heights, watching the city turn its slow circles of day and night from the sky? I look to Kosuke for one last favour. Get me out of here. I did my time.
‘One moment, officers,’ he says as they close in. ‘This man has no hearing, as you can see.’ My one good ear is covered by the greasy mane. ‘I must have someone explain to him first the situation.’
The leading officer hesitates.
‘I’m sure he can be informed once he’s handcuffed,’ the man says. So boring. I’ll have to make my move any second.
Kosuke whispers in my good ear.
‘Thirty eight, trash chute. Now.’
Then he turns and faces the officers, raising his hands in the air, the act of an innocent man. Suddenly he turns and pushes me into the crowd. Someone somewhere turns up the music, and the strobe lights return to the roof, and suddenly there is a commotion around the arresting officers that gives me a moment to break away. I still have friends somewhere at the party.
Head down, I drive straight into the crowd. Safety in numbers, they can’t shoot me now. My hand flies inside my jacket pocket. Old trusty is there, and I pull out my faithful knife, ready by my side. The man who ruined my life is far too slow to realise what’s going on, the fool. He calls for the music and the lights to cease, but no one will listen to him. The knife pierces his heart before he even knows I’m in front of him. It’s not a party until someone’s dead, and this time someone really is. I’m down the stairs before the screams are heard, and now there’s only one person in front of me.
Sara stands with her arms folded at the entrance to the stairwell. I don’t have time for this.
‘Hold them off as long as you can,’ I say.
She looks disappointed in me. What does she want me to do? I became a butcher when I hacked off my own ear, and I will forever be a butcher.
‘Write something good,’ I say, and she stands aside as I run for thirty eight.
The trash chute is truly where I belong. What a fine exit from this party the murderer makes. And once I reach the bottom, where then? My time in Sonaya is done for certain this time. But there is someone I must see first. There is a girl alone in the city, and I have taken both her parents because I am a despicable worm. But I am not a heartless one.
‘Your father’s been murdered,’ I’ll tell her. ‘And the city isn’t safe for you anymore. I’m an old friend of your mum’s.’
And then we will fly from this foul city of rats, and she will start a life away from it all with the man who should have been her father.
Tomas Marcantonio is a Brighton-born writer and English teacher. He graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree in English Language and Film, and has since been travelling widely. His travels have influenced much of his writing, which includes travelogue Gift of the Gap, and his first novel The Leap of Grebes. He is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he teaches English and writes whenever he can escape the classroom.