The old stairs creaked with every step. Joseph grimaced, unable to decide what made more noise; the staircase, or his joints. He cursed the building between each laboured breath. Six floors of crumbling apartments above his own dingy quarters – and six floors of irritating tenants. Especially 5A.
Joseph paused for breath on the landing below the top floor – home to 6B. The current inhabitant took one look at the place seven months ago, and declared it perfect for her needs. Her long legs and narrow waist told Joseph she’d be perfect for his needs, but he was old enough to be her grandfather.
He hoped he might catch the leggy blonde stepping out of the shower, and propelled himself up the last flight of stairs. He reached her door, and rapped his gnarled knuckles against the flaking wood.
“Miss? Are you in? It’s just me, Joseph,” he called.
No reply. How typical. He glared down at the floor in the vague direction of 5A. The crotchety old bag complained about everyone in the building, but she complained about 6B more than anyone else. Suspicious noises, foul smells, dubious company – 5A filed a new complaint every day about the same things. Joseph knew he should have ignored her, but he wanted an excuse to ogle 6B’s cleavage.
Joseph raised his hand to knock again when the first whiff caught in his nostrils. He screwed up his face and bunched his fist up to his nose. Perhaps a rat had died inside the wall cavity. Or maybe he’d stepped in something. Against his better judgement, he sniffed again, and retched. The stench of rotting meat and rising damp came from beyond the door.
Joseph stuffed a tissue around his nose and fished his jangling bunch of keys out of his pocket. He fumbled with the correct one, eventually getting the ancient metal bone into the lock. The keyhole protested for a moment, as if aware that it was not 6B entering the apartment, but the door gave. Joseph gave it a hard shove, and stepped inside.
Newspapers covered the windows, with narrow shafts of light penetrating the occasional gap. The sunshine fell across bare floorboards covered in old clothing. Joseph glared at the mess, but realised the smell came from the bathroom. He felt his way through the apartment, stumbling over assorted junk and rubbish. He peered into the gloom and realised that 6B had very little furniture – in fact, there was nothing of her own, simply the battered basics he’d provided.
Something dark and sticky covered the floorboards in front of the bathroom door. Joseph gagged, and forced himself not to vomit. He pushed the door open with his elbow, desperate not to touch anything in this flea pit with his bare hands.
Mental note, I’ll serve her a termination in the morning. Just hope she tidies up before she goes, he thought.
Joseph froze in the doorway, jaw slack and eyes bulging. A sticky, red mess occupied the bath tub, all sinews and awkward angles. Crimson handprints stained the wash basin. Three suits hung from coat hangers dangling from the shower rail. More bile rushed up Joseph’s throat when he realised they weren’t suits – they were skins.
He stumbled backwards, willing himself to look away from the skins hung out to dry. He glanced in the mirror and saw rows of jars lined up on the shelves behind the bathroom door. A multitude of eyeless faces stared back from inside the jars, floating in dark green liquid.
Joseph wanted to scream, but a pain in his chest swallowed the sound. He dropped to the floor, his knees popping under the strain. One hand clutched at his shirt, twisted into a claw as if he sought to tear open his chest and free his burning heart.
Joseph slumped across the filthy floorboards. When his ribs stopped heaving, he looked for all the world like another pile of old rags.
* * *
The short man clambered up the stairs to 6B. He stared at the open door, and sniffed the air. Someone had been here. Not a stranger – no, the funny landlord. The landlord who stared and sprayed the air with pheromones. The short man screwed his eyes up as if to banish the mental image.
He crept into the apartment and sniffed again. No, no signs of life here. Recently, yes, but not now. He closed the door behind him and looked around. Across the room and down the hall, the bathroom door stood open. The short man made his way through the apartment, ignoring the darkness.
He found the landlord prone on the floor, one hand at his chest. The short man smirked, thinking of the man’s lust. Heartache after all, he thought.
The short man reached his fingers around the back of his neck and pried the skin away from a glistening spinal column. The skin peeled away easily, and the creature stepped out of the suit. It unfurled its long limbs and stretched, glad to be free of the short man’s prison. It crossed the corridor to the bedroom and hung the suit in the wardrobe, beside the tall attractive woman’s skin. Oh yes, the landlord liked that skin.
The creature returned to the corridor, and nudged the landlord with one claw. Satisfied he was dead, it gently peeled away its human face, and skittered into the bathroom. It deposited the face in the empty jar by the door, and took up the skinning knife from the cabinet.
The creature stood in the doorway, and looked down at the landlord. Yes, this was very good. The other tenants would let it in now, dressed as their landlord. The tenant in 5A would make a lovely new suit.
Light flashed on the creature’s blade. It swayed with joy, humming the opening bars to Eleanor Rigby as it worked.