The Lady In Red
Home alone on her five-year anniversary, Erica resigns herself to another boring Friday night in. But when a mysterious package arrives at her door, she’s thrust into cryptic game of Simon Says, where losing could mean having her intimate secrets exposed.
“You’re mad, I can tell.”
I shake my head but I can’t shake off the petulance – lips pursed, jaw slung lazily into my palm. Because truth is I am mad. It’s our anniversary and he’s miles away, again. I can tell he hates this as much me, even through the video call I spot the guilt etched between his eyebrows. Doesn’t make it any less shitty.
“I’m not mad at you, Michael. Just upset. And I know it’s not your fault,” I add when a response plays on his lips. “Important client, big opportunity.”
“And just one more year.”
“I know,” I say. But a year is a long time. This time apart is taking its toll. More than he realises.
“Well, I better go. I love you.”
I manage a quiet smile. He clicks off with a resigned exhale and now my own guilt settles in my tummy. I pick up the Clearblue from the empty space beside me, drawing my knees in and wrapping my arms around them. Better to tell him in person.
The doorbell goes. Shaking free of my daze, I jump up, stuffing the test in my pocket. I swing open the door and flinch with shock as I’m met with a noisy gust of wind – an incessant bee-swarm buzzing – and there before me, hovering in a loose circle, is a drone. As much as the noise peals in my ears and the four propellers whip up a mini dust tornado, it’s the box I’m fixated on: long and rectangular, wrapped in ritzy red ribbon and nestled between two clamps protruding from the device’s underbelly.
What the…? I crane my head around it; my street is deserted, misty rain falls slanted beneath a cone of streetlight. “Hello…?” – the whir of the propellers swallows my voice. I buzz with an electric excitement that something’s about to happen. Gingerly, I press my palms into either side of the box and the clamps release. My chest fizzes with the new weight in my hands and before I can decide whether this is a good idea, the buzzing zings up in pitch and the drone whisks up into the air. Tottering out onto the damp welcome mat I watch it disappear into the night sky. I give the street one more sweep before stepping inside.
I place the box on the counter, my pulse all bass, and tug at the red bow bundled on top. I'm tentative at first but I’m soon pulling at it like I’m five again and it’s Christmas morning. I toss the ribbon to the side, and something gives me pause. What the hell am I doing? This obviously wasn’t meant for me…
…or was it? It did come to my door… and wasn’t addressed to anyone. Oh what the hell - forgiveness over permission, any day.
I lift the lid. Inside is a plume of beautiful red fabric. On top is an envelope, which I pick up, as gently as if it were a butterfly, pull out the paper inside and… gosh. It’s a poem:
I send this gift
Try on the dress
Hope it fits snug
Michael, I smile to myself, so deeply there’s an ache below my ears. Must be a gift for our anniversary. I snatch the dress from the box and it dazzles held up to the light, the silk passing through my fingers like water. I strip like there are spiders on my clothes, then carefully ease myself into the strapless number. I have to shimmy a little at the hips and the cup is ever-so-slightly too large, but overall, it’s perfect. Practically squealing, I reach for my phone to thank him when I notice another envelope, must’ve been under the dress. My chest glows warm as I open it – and then my heart plunges, a six-storey drop.
Photos, four of them, each one worse than the last. I realise they’re screenshots of a recording and dread pools in my stomach. And there’s another poem:
How to stop this leak?
Keep on that red dress
And go to the phone box on Greek Street
No… this cannot be happening. If these get out…
Gripped by panic I punch ‘Greek Street’ into Maps, stamp into my trainers by the door, and dart off into the rain.
Soho is busy, even for a Friday night. I step onto Greek Street – muffled bass leaking from bars, drunks arguing, cigarette-smoke clouds – with frayed nerves and clammy skin. The streets are glassy with rain. I needle my way through the crowd, bumping shoulders, apologising. Agitated, I start elbowing people out the way, throwing up a flurry of tuts around me. I bounce into the solid frame of a man.
“Lady in red,” he grins down at me.
I sidestep him, patience rubbed raw, and almost stumble into the red phone box. I slip inside and offload a breath in the safety of an enclosed space. Hanging on the frame of the phone is a bejewelled clutch bag and I know, instinctively, it’s the next part of this sick little game. I pry it open with trembling hands.
A dark bubble of horror opens up inside me. Tucked inside, its dull grey casing glinting in the pastel hues of the surrounding neon lights – a gun. I glance about me, stricken, but the revellers streaming past hardly seem to notice me. I root around the bag, the gun’s cold metal chilling my fingers to the bone, and enclose my hand around another envelope. I catch the bag under my arm and clumsily pull the note free.
Text this number for more instructions
My breaths start coming in shallow and sharp. I grasp desperately at the idea I can get a handle on this but it’s receding, like the details of a dream when you wake up. Around me, signature blue-red lights start to shimmer. I look up, poised, and see a police car rolling along the crossroad ahead. I consider marching over there and handing in the bag. It’s the only thought not consumed by this ink-black terror, but it's quickly curbed by those four images pulsing through my mind like a haunted highlight reel.
Ok, think, Erica. Who would do this? I’m racking my brains just as an idea flickers to life: the poems.
I unlock my phone, dropping the clutch bag by my feet. My heart thumps against my sternum as the international dial tone beeps in my ear. His voice is groggy when he answers.
“Baby,” I breathe.
“Erica?” The familiarity of his voice bruises and soothes. How could I have been so stupid? “What’s the time?”
“Just… please. If this is you, tell me now and let’s work it out. I’ll explain.”
I hear him sit up. “Explain what?”
“The dress… the notes.” It has to be him. The poems... “Just stop with the games and we’ll talk, OK?”
“Erica.” The grogginess shaken off. “You’re scaring me now. Where are you? I can hear people.”
Shit… he has no idea. Feels like I’ve misjudged a puddle and sunken into it. Words stumble on my lips before I tell him I have to go and hang up.
I’m a frickin’ idiot! I’m unravelling, frantically grasping for the loose ends. If he finds out… a chill shudders through me.
I text the number, rejecting Michael’s calls as they come, my hand tremors claw up to my forearms. Time seems to stretch out before me – and snaps back like an elastic band when the ping of the reply echoes around the phone box.
Unknown: Hello Erica
Erica: Who is this? What do you want?
Unknown: I want you to do what I want
There’s a sickening jolt in my stomach. A location pops up. Seems to be somewhere in Northwest London.
Unknown: There's a pearl necklace at this pawnshop. Steal it. I left you a gift in the handbag to help
No, I can't. Please, no.
Unknown: You have 90mins, otherwise:
Four images pop up in succession. A whimper dribbles from my lips.
Tidal waves of nauseating panic crash over me, but what choice do I have?
I watch the brightly lit pawnshop from the shadows beneath a tree across the road. It looks deserted. Cars lash by in loud sprays of water, jarring my frayed nerves. When the street settles, I hoist up the hem of the dress and hobble across.
A bell tinkles when I enter. The pawnbroker – a middle-aged South Asian man – is leaning over an open folder. He glances up at me and back down at his papers. Dammit, there’s a mother and son in here – I couldn’t see them from across the road! I pass a hand over my forehead, swiping away strands of sweat-pasted hair. I straighten my back, jut back my shoulders, and walk to the counter.
“P-pearl necklace. To buy,” I add when his eyes flick up. I catch my reflection in the mirrored panel behind him: hollowed, haunted, red dress vibrant in the harsh tubelights.
My phone rings from the bag. I jolt from the tinny vibrations against the metal of the gun. Michael – this is the thirteenth call since I hung up on him.
The pawnbroker’s gaze sweeps between the jingling bag pressed against my chest, and my face. “Is costing more to buy back.”
“Sorry?” I’m chewing my lip furiously.
“Buying selling different, no same price.”
He pins me with a narrowed stare, like he’s trying to extract something from my eyes. I feel like he’s about to call me out. Tension surges up through me and I’m about to explode and –
“Sorry,” he chuckles. “Mistaking you for somebody else. Yes, one pearl necklace here.” He crouches to the glass display counter between us.
But my panic pushes past the paper cap of his chuckle so that when he stands, necklace draped over his fingers, the gun’s aimed between his O-shaped eyes.
“Give it to me.” The words tumble out desperately.
He shows me his palms. “Sorry, no cash.”
“The necklace!” The gun rattles in my hand.
His eyes zip between the barrel and my face. “I’m scared to move.”
My skin burns. I use my free wrist to wipe a sheet of sweat from my face. “Just bloody… use that hand – no! That one, your left. Slide it towards me.”
Figures slip into my peripheral. “Mum!”
My head jerks right. The woman, clutching her son, terror painted vividly on their faces. “Keep him quiet!”. The walls, the ceiling, they’re pressing in. “The necklace!” I shrill at the pawnbroker. “I swear to frickin’ God I will shoot you!”
The boy’s whimpering presses against the edges of the silent tension, the burst of my ringtone pierces through it.
I’m distracted – just for a second – and in a flash the pawnbroker launches across the counter, yanks me towards him by my wrists. The clutch bag drops, my shrieking phone tumbles out onto the floor, violent vibrations against the laminate. Screaming all around me. I try to pull away, grunting wildly like an animal in a snare.
Jangling shattered glass peals in my ears. The pawnbroker, as if by central locking, frees me from his grip. I swing the gun-hand at his temple – DOOF! – he slumps to the floor.
The obliterated glass panel gathers in a shimmering pile on the shelf, grey bullet stark against the glisten. I stuff the pearl necklace into the clutch bag with me phone and scurry out of there, glimpsing mother and son cowering in a corner, the bell tinkling on my way out.
I run for what seems like forever. Splashing through puddles, drawing gazes as I zip past. A row of residential houses gives way to a park, and I slip inside, slowing to a jog until I find a bench – slick with rain – and fall onto it, panting lungfuls of cold, damp air.
I send the text.
Unknown: Send proof
I clasp the pearls behind my neck with sausage fingers. I open my front camera and although I barely recognise the girl staring back – dishevelled, sweaty – there’s also an uncanny resemblance to someone; the recognition beyond reach, me too mentally exhausted to reach for it. I snap the photo and hit send.
There’s an easing of some tension in me...
Until my phone pings again.
Unknown: With dress and pearls
You look the part
Now meet your date
At Greenwich Park
My date? I get a sharp rush of despair – this could go on all night! Anguished, I consider going back to the pawnshop, to explain, to let that poor man call the police. I’d wait quietly, hand myself in, show them the notes, the dress – everything. I was blackmailed! Surely they’d understand?
But would Michael? My family? I think about them seeing those images and all the blood drains to my feet. I can’t...
My phone pings again, my tormentor sends another location. I stuff my phone back in the bag and trudge towards the entrance of the park.
A pale shaft of moonlight illuminates this patch of the park.
A snapping twig shoots through the silence. My insides turn liquid. “Hello…” I call out. Nothing, but the rustle of some bushes. My liquid insides freeze solid. I clutch the bag, fumble to get it open. More rustling… footsteps. The gun’s stuck, lodged in at an awkward angle.
A figure emerges from a thicket of trees, cloaked in shadow. A scream catches in my throat as it lumbers forwards. Its…
A delicious wave of relief washes over me, quickly chased off with a white-hot rage.
“Arsehole!” I slap him. “You think this is funny?”
“Erica..?” My brother-in-law steps into the moonlight and I stumble back, shocked. He’s a picture of destruction: swollen eye; busted lip; bedraggled suit, ripped shirt blotted with red. “Oh thank God,” he says on an outbreath.
He steps forwards, moving stiffly, as if his ribs hurt. “You’ve been getting the messages too, the texts?” His eyes flash. “OK, we can work with this. It’s your sister, she’s trying to fucking kill me, man!”
“She knows?” My chest clenches.
“OK – whew.” He looks dazed and incredulous, handsomeness under strain. “She knows about us. Found out somehow, I dunno, but she’s hell bent on revenge, man, she wants me dead. She’s got something planned for you too – dunno what – but me? What I’ve been through tonight? She just won’t… fucking… stop; just keeps texting more instructions –” he runs both hands through his hair – “but you can talk to her. Go see her, tell her you’re sorry, that it only happened once and, and, and, it didn’t mean shit and to just stop all this, y’know? Let’s talk – wait, why are you wearing all that?”
My ringtone startles us both, we spring apart. Incoming video call from Unknown.
My sister’s face pops up and all at once I’m ablaze with humiliation. “Melissa.” My voice disintegrates into sobs.
“Save it.” Hers cracks like a whip. “Is Morris there?"
“Why’ve you put her in that outfit?” he calls over, keeping his distance, fists bunched by his sides. “The one from our first date.”
“Hello darling,” she drawls. “Because she wants to be me, of course. Always been jealous of me.”
“Melissa, I’m so sorry.” I’m bawling my eyes out. “I can explain, please don’t tell Michael, I -”
“- AND because it’s symbolic. You in the suit and me –” in air quotes – “in the dress. Fitting it should end how it started.”
Morris’ face is a mask of horror.
“Your final test, Erica,” she says. “I can tell Michael everything, or you can make sure Morris doesn't leave the park alive. I want the image of me in that dress to be the last thing he sees.”
He snorts, eyes crazed. “She’s nuts! You know you’ll be next, right? Ask her, what's her plan for you!”
My sister and I share a look. Her face flickers, just for a second, like a faltering Snapchat filter.
“My plan for you is this. Do this and all will be forgotten. You have ten minutes.” She hangs up.
A wet gust whistles between us.
“You’re not seriously considering this are you?” he says with a contemptuous bark of a laugh.
Thinking of Michael, palm on my tummy, I stare at him from beneath my eyelids. He can see it in my eyes.
Without warning he lunges, whacks me across the face – a bright crack like a camera flash – so hard and fast I don’t know what’s happened, I barely even remember hitting the floor, or tussling with him in the mud. Only the ensuing gunshot ringing into the air clears the fog.
Body numb, ears ringing, I emerge from Greenwich Park exhausted and devoid of feeling, the bulky clutch bag slung over my shoulder. I’m so bleached out by apathy that I’m not at all startled when the distant sound of sirens starts to ring in my ears, or when the flashing blue and red hues floods the street.
A convoy of police cars skids to a halt before me, throwing up a dirty spray. I let the bag drop from my shoulder. Everything is a series of stills, each flash of the beacons shifting the image like the click of a kaleidoscope: guns pointed, officers running towards me, twitching curtains. Everything sounds muffled, like my ears have been stuffed with cotton wool. I’m lifted off the ground and hustled towards the flashing lights.
Before I’m bundled into a car, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the window: red dress, red hue from the lights, and crimson spatters all over my face.
The lady in red.