He walked on tiptoe across the darkened room, picking his way carefully between the sofas and armchairs. The solitary figure was sitting with her back to him, facing the bay window. The source of light was a solitary standard lamp set next to the wheelchair. Strands of frayed golden braid, partially detached from the fabric of the lampshade, caused the insipid yellow glow to cast uneven fingers of light and dark across the floor until they were absorbed into the surrounding blackness.
Closer now, he could make out the distorted reflection of her face in the window, eyes transfixed on a point in time that was not the present as she stared straight ahead at the swirling cloud of snowflakes that filled the night sky beyond the glass.
‘I’ve been expecting you,’ she said, finally. Her frail voice was laboured, the words expelled from her mouth on a current of exhaled breath.
‘For the last seventy-five years.’ A staccato cough growled in her throat. She was laughing. ‘But we were too careful to let you catch us.’
He went to move forward, to face her, but a thin bare arm, wrinkled skin hanging limp with scarcely any bone to cover, lifted to tell him to stop. And he did.
‘I have no wish to see your face,’ she said, amidst a stuttered intake of breath. ‘Do what you have to do, but I choose not to witness my executioner.’
‘You mistake my intentions. My mission was simply to find you, to seek your cooperation.’
‘Seek my cooperation—’ Another cough, a dry, jagged bark that propelled her head forward and scattered spots of blood on the handkerchief she had drawn to her mouth. ‘You are suggesting the assassin needs the victim’s help?’
‘I mean you no harm.’
She raised her hand again, this time to entice him nearer. Her eyes followed his to rest on the fungus that had blackened the nails on her skeletal fingers. ‘Not a pretty sight, am I?’
He treated the question as rhetorical. There were no words of comfort. Perchance, he glanced at the reflection of his expression in the window and hoped she had not seen it.
Silence prevailed. Slowly, she raised her head to study him. ‘Do you believe in natural justice?’ she asked.
Her eyes were blue, untinged by age and still vital, as if the final blooms on a withering plant. They were interrogating him.
‘I don’t know.’
The dismissive shrug told him the answer was inadequate, not what she expected to hear. ‘It’s natural justice that keeps me alive.’ She stopped to recharge her breath. ‘It has condemned me not only for all the wrongs I have done, but for all the wrongs done to me that I have condoned. And its sentence’ – she fought for air and inhaled afresh – ‘its sentence is to keep me breathing so that I am obliged to witness this physical decay. It knows I will not seek my own end. My punishment is to survive in pain.’ There was another pause. ‘Yet, with every passing day as the body succumbs, my mind grows stronger, the memories more vivid. Do you know what hell is? You shake your head. Then I will tell you. Hell is not being able to forget the past.’ A grimace, and then, ‘And now you come.’
‘You say you were sent to find me. Do you come to demand satisfaction or bring absolution?’
‘Absolution? Isn’t that in God’s gift?’
Her hand beckoned him nearer still, her stale breath warming his cheek. ‘Ah, God. I wondered when he would make an appearance.’ She pointed to his cheek. ‘You have a cut. It will leave a scar.’
‘I was playing with my grandchildren and got a little too overenthusiastic. Hide-and-seek. Do you know the game?’
Her mouth creased into a weak smile. The giggle was no more than a rattle in her throat. ‘I have been playing it all my life, but I cheated. You are supposed to play by the rules and, eventually, allow yourself to get caught. I never did. One step in front of the hunter is never enough. It can be a vicious game if one side or the other abandons the rules.’
‘In that case, maybe God will be the arbiter.’
‘There you go again, about God.’ Her body stiffened. He could tell she was angry, losing patience. ‘Don’t you think I know? There is no God. God is an illusion, created by those who fear death; a panacea to provide a safety net for the lost souls who tip over the abyss of life into the unknown. Only the net is not really there, so you keep falling into the darkness for eternity.’
‘You seem so certain. How can you know?’
‘I just do. Your God is benign, all powerful. Correct? Don’t nod your head. Say yes or no with conviction.’
Her eyes closed. ‘A lie. If your God existed, he would not let the innocent suffer at the hands of evil.’
‘Can the denial of innocence be reason enough to reject your faith?’
‘You ask too many naïve questions. What is it you want of me?’
‘You avoid an answer.’
There was a long pause as she appeared to be stilling herself, organising her thoughts. ‘We must acknowledge that the innocents have no choice but to abandon their faith when they realise their cry for hope has been ignored. Most succumb to evil, and perish in body or spirit at its hand. Those who manage to survive do so by discovering their innocence is replaced with malevolence as great as, or even greater than, the evil inflicting their suffering.’
‘And you survived. I need you to tell me everything that happened.’
Was that another attempt at a laugh? He wasn’t sure.
‘There is not enough breath left in my body to speak of my life … much beyond the time spent in my mother’s womb.’
He placed his hand on hers. ‘I cannot conceive you did not make provision for this day.’
‘I must sleep now. Tomorrow, it will end.’
Before he had time to reply, her eyes closed. In sleep, her breathing was laboured and uneven. Yet, as the minutes passed, she did not breathe her last. As her eyelids flickered, her pulse was regular and colour had returned to her cheeks. Her eyes opened wide and alert, as if reacting to the sound of a trap closing on the ensnared creature.
In her world, there had been no break in their conversation. She held his gaze once more, as if giving weight to his last remark. ‘Are you certain you really wish to know? You will be signing your own death warrant.’
‘I have no choice.’
She withdrew her hand from his and pointed a wavering finger. ‘The cupboard. There is a file. It’s all in there.’ Another bout of coughing overcame her. Heavier spots of blood peppered the cloth.
He returned with a small leather-bound document case. She had used sheets from a writing pad, hundred upon hundred filled in small, neat handwriting; a fine nib in black ink. There was a musty scent about the case which suggested the narrative had lain unread for many years.
She shook her head. ‘You have now been cursed with the burden, and I, by the same token, relieved.’
‘If it is not your intent to silence me, they will surely know of your coming. Death, I will welcome, but no more torture. I will tell them that someone came for the file, and they will seek you out. They will not stop until the truth is extinguished.’
He took out the black leather gloves from his overcoat pocket and put them on, interlocking the fingers tightly. Two steps and he stood behind the wheelchair, his hand releasing the brake.
‘I am beholden to you,’ he said with a smile.