Dinner was about to be served. Sitting on his balcony on the 25th floor, Robert Laing stirred the bright embers of the fire he had lit from pages of a telephone directory. The flames illuminated the handsome shoulders and thorax of the alsatian roasting on its spit. Laing fanned the flames, hoping that Alice and Eleanor Powell, lying together in his sister’s bed, would
Appreciate all he had done. He methodically basted the dark skin of the alsatian, which he had stuffed with garlic and herbs.
“One rule in life,” he murmured to himself. “If you can smell garlic, everything is all right.”
For the moment, at least, everything was highly satisfactory. The alsatian was almost cooked, and a large meal would do the women good. Both had become querulous recently as a result of the shortage of food, and had been too tired to appreciate Laing’s skill and courage in capturing the dog, let alone the exhausting task of skinning and disembowelling this huge animal.
They had even complained about its nervous whimpering as Laing turned the pages of an advanced cookery book he had found in a nearby apartment. Laing had debated for some time how best to cook the dog. From the extent of its shivering and whining, the problem had communicated itself to the alsatian, as if it was aware that it was one of the last animals in the high-rise and for that reason alone merited a major culinary effort.
The thought of the weeks of hunger to come momentarily unsettled Laing, and he fed more sheets of paper into the balcony fire. Perhaps there was game to be found on the lower levels, though Laing never ventured below the 20th floor. The stench from the swimming-pool on the 10th floor was too disturbing, and reached up every ventilation flue and elevator shaft. Laing had descended to the lower levels only once during the previous month, when he had briefly played
Samaritan to Anthony Royal.
Laing had found the dying architect
while chopping firewood in the 25th-floor lobby. As he pulled an antique dressing-table from the disused barricade, Royal had fallen through the gap,
Almost knocking Laing to the floor. A small wound had opened Royal’s chest, covering his white jacket with huge bloodstains in the outline of his hands, as if he had tried to identify himself
With these imprints of his own death to come. He was clearly on his last legs, eyes unfocused, the bones of his forehead cutting through the over-stretched skin. Somehow he had managed to descend all the way from the 40th floor. Rambling continually, he stumbled down the staircase, partly supported by Laing, until they reached the loth floor. As they stepped on to the shopping mall the stench of rotting flesh hung over the deserted counters of the supermarket, and at first Laing assumed that a concealed meat-store had burst open and begun to putrefy. Appetite keening, he had been about to drop Royal and head off in search of food.
But Royal, eyes almost closed, one hand gripping Laing’s shoulder, pointed towards the swimming-pool.
In the yellow light reflected off the greasy tiles, the long tank of the bone-pit stretched in front of them. The water had long since drained away, but the sloping floor was covered with the skulls, bones and dismembered limbs of dozens of corpses. Tangled together where they had been flung, they lay about like the tenants of a crowded beach visited by a sudden
Disturbed less by the sight of these mutilated bodies – residents who had died of old age or disease and then been attacked by wild dogs, Laing assumed – than by the stench, Laing turned away.