His eyelids stung as if they were held open by sharp needles. He felt tired, but it wasn’t just an every-now-and-then feeling. He felt perpetually tired, as though life and blood were slowly oozing out of him. Tired of being around the sick and the grieving, tired of his starched white coat, grey slacks and polished black shoes, tired of feeling lonely and having no-one at home waiting for him.
For a moment, he entertained the idea of crashing out in the on-call room at the hospital, but the bunk bed with its lumpy, cheap mattress held little appeal. The Borgo Trento hospital in Verona, one of the best in Italy, didn’t offer much in this regard. Then there was the constant smell of ammonia, laundry soap and bed sweat hovering in the air, impregnating the walls, the furniture, the clothes he was wearing. Sometimes it filled his nostrils and almost suffocated him and its acrid taste remained at the back of his throat for days.
He’d go home instead.
He took off his coat and carefully put it on the coat hanger in the closet by the door. He fished out a small hair comb he religiously kept inside the breast pocket of his shirt, looked in the mirror hung on the inside of the closet door and began tidying his unruly hair. He had always been obsessed with this. If he didn’t comb his hair every few hours, it started looking like a half-built bird’s nest.
He focused all of his attention on his hair and tried to ignore the sagging pale face in the mirror. He was forty-five, but his hectic life-style and the sterile light in the room added at least another decade to that. With a receding hairline and his black hair developing more than just a few grey friends, his dull-brown eyes slightly too close, and his waist puffing out like rising bread dough – although he tried to hide it under large sweaters and shirts – he knew he wasn’t exactly Brad Pitt.
In his opinion, men fell into four categories: the gorgeous scoundrels, who had half of the female population swooning at their feet; the handsome good guys, who also encountered no difficulties in finding a partner; the ugly, but charming, who still had their fair share of success with the opposite sex. And then came the invisible ones. The men who were neither good-looking, nor ugly. The ones you saw once and failed to remember the next day. They were the nice guys. And he was one of them.
He sighed and turned away from the mirror. He took the leather jacket from the coat hanger, grabbed his briefcase and stepped out of his office into the brightly lit corridor of the virology wing. It was Sunday evening, a little over eight o’clock, and he had just finished a thirty-six-hour shift.
“Good night, Doctor Pasetto,” the nurse at the reception desk said, her red-rimmed eyes peering at him from behind thick glasses. Then she resumed staring at the computer screen in front of her, pounding on the keyboard.
“Good night, Dorina,” he answered, always polite, always using first names.
In his twenties and thirties, he had been too busy studying and making a name for himself to think about starting a family, although his mother had gradually become more vocal in expressing her desire to have grandchildren. But once he had established an excellent reputation for himself, his lonely existence started to weigh him down, and he found himself wishing for someone in his life, a person he could share everything with, who’d be at home when he arrived in the evenings, ask about his day and tell him in great detail about her own.
He stepped outside into the grey twilight gloom and ambled to his car. He thought about the date he had a few evenings ago. An intelligent and beautiful woman with a healthy sense of humour, a woman he certainly wished to see again. But that would never happen.
It’s not you, it’s me, she had told him, you’re such a nice man, Niccolò, you deserve someone with less emotional baggage.
He was tired of hearing what a nice guy he was.
The thought of sleeping at the hospital popped into his mind again, more persistent this time. But he pushed it aside. His own bed was much more comfortable.
He turned the key in the ignition, and with a soft purr, the car started. He drove out of the parking lot and joined the traffic. His apartment was ten minutes away from the hospital.
There were few cars on the streets now, the city’s inhabitants relaxing in front of the television, beer in one hand, remote control in the other. He loved the quiet of the dark, the sleepiness of Verona like a cat curled up on the warm mat in front of the fireplace dozing off into oblivion. At least until the next morning when the Veronese invaded the streets once again, driving to work, and day-dreaming about the next summer holiday.
He parked the car in his private underground garage, and dragged his feet to the door that connected the garage to his apartment building.
As his right foot hovered over the first step, a strange, unsettling feeling washed over him and made him freeze for a few seconds. He felt the muscles in his stomach tighten and a tremor rippled through his body. This had never happened to him before. He stood their motionless, feeling confused and ridiculous, a grown man behaving like a superstitious old fool.
He finally snapped out of it and went up the stairs, every step feeling heavier somehow.
His apartment was on the first floor, and he stopped in front of the door, patting down his pockets and trying to remember where the hell he had shoved his keys. After two full minutes and a lot of mental swearing, he finally found them in the front compartment of his briefcase.
I definitely need a holiday, he decided as he took them out and unlocked the door.
He went inside, closed the door behind him and turned on the lights. The uneasy feeling returned full force and he felt scared. He almost wanted to run out of his apartment.
Don’t be an idiot!
But as an extra-precaution he locked and bolted the door carefully. Then he dragged his feet into the bathroom, but not before he turned off the lights in the corridor. Wasting the planet’s already depleted resources wasn’t something he took lightly. He was that kind of man.
He stripped down, threw his clothes in the blue hamper behind the door, and got in the shower.
He turned his body away from the faucet and placed his hands on the wall, letting the hot water beat down his back. Doing this usually relaxed him, but now it somehow amplified this weird restlessness, this foreboding feeling he couldn’t shake off. Annoyed at himself, he quickly washed his body, turned off the faucet and reached for the brown towel on the hook.
A heavy silence filled his apartment. A few drops of water from the shower head splashed onto the ceramic tiles below, the sound deafening to his ears. His heart started beating faster. All of a sudden he wanted to hear human voices, his neighbours yelling at each other, their baby crying, anything but this dead silence and the rhythmic tapping of the water drops.
An icy shiver rippled down his spine and his body started shaking. Unseen walls were sliding down around him, trapping him. Suffocating him.
What the hell is wrong with me? Could this be a panic attack?
He had never had one in his life, but his mother suffered from them periodically. Maybe somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind the prospect of leading a lonely existence scared the hell out of him.
He took a few deep breaths and managed to bring his erratic heartbeat down a notch.
And then he heard a noise. It sounded like footsteps in the bedroom. He stopped breathing and his body went rigid. Cold water trickled from his hair down his face. And pure panic constricted his throat.
I’m naked. In the shower box.
And yet he wasn’t sure he wanted to get out. The air around him became menacing, as if something evil was lurking in the shadows of his apartment. He closed his eyes.
This is getting ridiculous! Nobody could have gotten in!
With jerky movements he dried his body, put on a pair of black boxers and an old grey t-shirt, and went to the sink. He opened the medicine cabinet to the right of the mirror and took out the bottle of Xanax he kept there for his mother. He put it on the sink and stared at it. He’d never thought he would actually come to need it himself.
He placed his palms on either side of the sink, holding himself up, his head lowered, his forehead and chin beaded with sweat.
His gaze fell on the pair of scissors he used the previous morning to cut off the plastic wrap holding two bottles of mouthwash he had bought for the price of one. Grey steel and black plastic against the immaculate white ceramic of the sink. Kind of like his own life. No colours, no joy in it.
He decided he needed the Xanax. He grabbed the bottle and was about to unscrew the cap.
“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that.”
He froze. His heart started hammering hard against his rib cage.
A man’s voice. Inside his house.
His breathing turned shallow and quick, and a cold clammy sweat covered his skin.
But I locked the door. I locked the door!
Then he understood. The intruder had already been inside. The bottle of Xanax slid from his hand and clattered to the floor, rolling under the sink.
“Now look what you’ve done!” the intruder said, his jeering voice mean and hollow like a dead man’s laugh.
It came from the darkness of the corridor.
You need to do something! Do something!
He wished he knew what to do. He had never attacked anyone in his life and had no idea how to go about it. What if the burglar was armed? Maybe he should just give him whatever the hell he wanted and be done with it.
He saw the scissors on the sink.
He felt a rush of adrenaline surge through his body as he realised the man couldn’t see the scissors. His whole body tensed, his blood ran faster and his muscles were ready for attack. In one swift movement he grabbed the scissors and lunged at the figure in the dark shadows.
But instead of driving the scissors deep inside a warm body, he stabbed… nothing. He lost his balance and fell on the cold, hard tiles in the small corridor connecting the two bedrooms to the bathroom and living-room.
He didn’t have the scissors anymore. He had dropped them trying to break the fall, and they were now lying somewhere out of his reach.
He heard a laugh behind him, cruel and evil like the depths of Dante’s inferno.
He did as instructed, slowly. His legs were unsteady as he had injured his right knee when he fell, and he almost felt like checking to make sure the scissors weren’t stuck in his kneecap, so excruciating was the pain.
“Turn on the light.”
With a trembling hand he flipped the light switch up.
As the warm glow flooded the corridor, he understood he was going to die.
And at the exact same moment he realised how much he wanted to live. How rich and blessed his life really was, how he still had time to meet the right woman, start a family, buy a house in the suburbs and fill it with love and laughter, just like in those sappy movies played year after year on TV at Christmas.
A scornful smile stretched across the features of this soulless shell of a man all dressed in black. “I’m afraid that’s just not in the cards for you. You see, you made one fatal mistake six years ago.” He paused, his face hard and ruthless, then added in a voice as final as a judge giving the death sentence. “You worked for Doc.”
“Who…? I never—”
The words died on his lips. The heavily guarded medical lab, the creepy doctor in charge… it all came back to him.
“Exactly,” the killer nodded as if he could actually read his thoughts. “And now it’s time to pay the price. But if it’s any consolation, you won’t be the only one.”