Bob had barely got off the phone from giving the morons at Save The Pets a piece of his mind when the radio started up again.
It wasn’t his radio. The insistent chirruping came from the room next door, in the apartment next door.
Bob threw the phone on the couch, making his ex’s cat leap for the windowsill. Noise was the last thing he needed. He was trying to relax, for Christ’s sake. When it wasn’t charity bleeding-hearts calling up wanting money, it was inconsiderate neighbors playing their talk shows at full volume at all hours.
He strode into the kitchen to grab a beer and the cat followed him. It sprang onto the counter and thrust its nose in his face. Bob got a closeup of ginger fur and thick white whiskers. Two green eyes gave him the Feed Me glare. “Ugh.”
He shoved the cat onto the floor and gave it dinner. Not the cornfed chicken nonsense his ex-girlfriend had spoiled the thing with. This was no-brand cat meat from the corner store, probably made from other cats. Bob laughed. The cat looked at its dinner, and then up at Bob.
When would his ex come round and collect the beast? —When she judged that he had “learned to care for another living being,” that was when. Which would be about the same time he put back up those motivational memes she’d printed off and stuck around the apartment. She loved that junk. She thought he ought to love them too. She thought he ought to calm down and take life less seriously.
But if he took life less seriously, how would he afford this apartment? This was Manhattan—just. It certainly charged Manhattan rents.
The seriously/less seriously argument had ultimately separated Bob from his ex-girlfriend. She floated off to be less serious with some guy she met at an organic cafe. But she left the memes, and the cat. Bob ought to take the moggy to the pound, say it was a stray. He hoped it wasn’t weakness which made him keep the animal. Or guilt.
The cat chewed two mouthfuls of food, then spat it on the floor and stared at it in disgust. Bob aimed a kick at the cat, but it dodged, hissing.
The radio noise was still audible from the kitchen. It wasn’t loud, so much as annoying. Kind of high-pitched, but voices. Like mouse voices. No. Just like some moron had left the radio on and gone out for the evening, so that other people would suffer.
Bob drained the beer. It wasn’t cold enough. New York summer, what could you do? This apartment block was old. Prestigious, the realtor had said. Old, Bob said, but the ex-girlfriend liked the ambiance and so Bob took it. His high-level safety inspection work paid pretty well. People wanted you to get in a harness and dangle over a fifty-storey drop, they had to pay you the dollars.
He reached for a second beer and changed his mind. How could he enjoy anything with that cheep-cheep-cheep going on? He stalked back into the living room, then back to the kitchen. The radio next door was inescapable. It sounded like chitchat, some station where the public called in and gave their idiotic opinions to a jerk with a phony bedside manner.
He couldn’t stand this all night. Not again. It was like the people next door got up at two am for the express purpose of listening to their inane talk show.
It was time to do something about it. He didn’t know the neighbors, had never seen them. They got deliveries, small parcels left outside their door, or sometimes, irritatingly, outside his door, so he had to shove them along the hall with the toe of his boot—but he had never met them. Well, they were about to meet him now, tonight, seven PM when there was a chance he might get them to quiet the hell down and let him enjoy the rest of his evening.
He pocketed his front door key and let himself into the hall. The radio noise was fainter now, but still there. He knocked on the neighbors’ door.
No reply. He knocked again, and rang the bell.
He played that little psychological game where you ring the bell a little too long, then a lot too long, then go for it and stand there with the heel of your hand over the buzzer til it seems like it might snap off and the bell goes on and on but you no longer care.
Why wouldn’t they answer? What kind of manners was that? He was glad he gave that latest delivery a hefty boot along the carpet.
Maybe they were out. Maybe they really did switch the radio on and leave for twenty hours, the selfish—
He pushed the door a little and it opened. Bob stiffened, ready for the kind of New York interaction which made life in the city so bracing.
There was nobody there. A trail of string ran from a nail tacked to the bottom inside edge of the door, into the apartment.
“Hello?” He leaned a little over the threshold. “Hello?”
This was weird. —This was like where the psycho invites you inside and then you’re never seen again.
Then again, they might be hurt. They might be lying on the bedroom floor unable to call 911. Or switch off the radio. Care for another living being.
“Are you OK?” he called. “Hello?” He glanced around. He didn’t have his phone. Should he maybe go and get it before investigating any more? Or just go back to his place? Call the cops, that was it. He didn’t even know these people.
He was retreating into the hall when a tiny mouse voice called from inside his neighbors’ apartment. “Come in.”
They were in the kitchen. The place was set up like an office, four or five slim silver laptop computers out and plugged into the wall, wires everywhere, flowing over sheets of paper printed with numbers. A pot of coffee wafted high-class aromas from its place on the counter. A tube ran from the jug down into a kind of tray beside it.
There was a radio, but it was switched off.
“Welcome to our dominion,” said the mouse voice. Bob looked down at the kitchen table where the computers were, and saw his neighbors.
They were tiny. Really tiny, a finger’s length tall, the size of a cruet set. A man and a woman, in business suits, she in tiny high heels, standing next to a computer keyboard that came up to their knees.
“I’m Jim,” said the man in a mouse-voice. You could hear it was a man’s voice, but it sounded far away as if he was on the other side of a canyon. Or a radio turned down really low. “This is Beverley.”
The woman smiled. Her hair was really neat, that fancy ponytail bun thing like the women in the offices Bob did the inspections for. Offices fifty storeys in the sky.
“. . . Hey,” he said faintly.
“We’re small,” said Jim.
“Yeah.” That was obvious. “Uh . . . I could hear you from next door . . . I thought it was the radio . . .”
“Dammit,” said Beverly in a woman’s mouse voice. “I knew we should keep it down, Jim.”
Jim turned to her and spread his hands. His hands were like something you’d see under a microscope, filaments on the ends of his arms. “What can I do? I don’t control when the markets open.”
“We’re traders,” Beverly said to Bob. “Stock market. You know. Hedge fund managers.”
“Right.” He looked around. The tube from the coffee pot ran into the tray, and in that he saw miniature cups, dollhouse stuff he guessed, filled with the black liquid. There were dolls’ plates nearby, and takeout containers.
“We order in a lot,” said Beverly. “I’m not much of a cook.”
“Plus, the stove could incinerate us on ignition,” said Jim. He chortled.
“Yeah. Uh, I mean—”
“How did we get like this? Well, that’s a long story.” Jim waved at the coffee pot. “You want some? We’re up all night a lot of the time, dealing with Hong Kong and such, so it’s always on.”
Bob took some coffee, in a regular sized cup. He might as well. They owed him.
“Like I say, said Jim, perching on the edge of a closed computer, “It’s a long story.”
“Not if I tell it,” said Beverley. She faced Bob and folded her arms over her neat white blouse and pinstripe coat. “We did someone a bad turn and got cursed. Woke up like this.”
“OK,” said Jim. “When you tell it like that’s it’s pretty short.”
“Jesus,” said Bob. “What did you do?”
“It took us most of a morning to get off the bed,” said Jim. “but then we realised that London was open, and we just had to get to work.”
Bob said, “I mean—”
Beverley said, “What did we do to get cursed?” She shrugged. “Didn’t help when we should have.” She shrugged again.
“Jesus,” said Bob.
“We’re not really religious,” said Beverley.
“Nah, we practice the dark arts, am I right?” Jim slapped his thigh. “Stock markets, get it?” He chuckled.
“The money keeps us in this apartment,” said Beverly. “I guess that’s the one blessing. Maybe the curse was not so bad after all. I tell you though, the Dolls House Emporium has fashion sense from the eighties.” She plucked at her clothes.
“The eighties is coming back,” said Bob. He was feeling queasy. Their tiny voices and their obvious imprisonment in the apartment—what did they do, jump on the keyboards to type?—were making him nauseous.
“He’s a character,” said Jim to Beverley.
“Huh,” said Beverly. “So you’re next door, huh? The guy always fighting with his girlfriend?”
“Uh, she’s not my—”
“You know anything about damaged parcels?”
“Now, Bev,” said Jim.
“No,” said Bob. “I don’t know anything about that.” Fighting with his girlfriend? She fought with him, more like. And offloaded her cat. He gave an elaborate shrug. “This city, you know.”
“A load of equipment was busted,” said Beverly. “We had to wait to get a fresh delivery. You sure you didn’t kick our parcels along the hall?” She stuck her hands on her hips and glared at Bob.
“No,” said Bob. He glared back.
“Fine,” said Jim. “Well, London’s open. Nice to meet you.”
Bob grunted. This place was giving him the creeps. He drained his coffee cup and put it up on a high counter.
Jim and Beverly exchanged looks.
“I’m sorry about the parcel thing,” Beverly said. “Just we are kind of stuck, here. It would be nice if you could lend us a hand some time. Maybe—pick up that redelivery I mentioned?” She bent and shoved a card the size of a surfboard, to her, across the kitchen table.
“That would really help us out,” said Jim.
Bob hesitated. They were miniature, sure, and they were screwed by the curse, sure, but they were bankers. Didn’t the bankers screw everybody? “Sure,” he said, and took the card. When he was outside, he balled it up and tossed it on the floor.
Bob woke late, feeling hungover. He hadn’t had that much beer, just enough to drown the memory of going next door and finding freaks in the kitchen.
The covers were over his face. He hated that. His ex hadn’t minded—called it cosy—but it drove him crazy. He fought with the sheet for a while and eventually threw it aside.
The ceiling seemed really far away. So did the nightstand.
He sat up in a hurry.
He was small. Small like Jim and Beverly. Small like a person who has been . . . cursed.
Had they done it, the evil freaks?
He was going to go round there and punch Jim’s tiny lights out. At least now it would be a fair fight.
That was it. He would ring his ex, she’d come and help him. And he would threaten to expose Jim and Beverley, tell the world what they’d done, sue them—they must be rich, right?—and if they didn’t help him, pronto, he’d tell his ex to get the vacuum out.
First, the phone.
He clambered to where his phone lay on his enormous pillow, and in a series of laborious skids across the touch screen, dialed his ex. She would pick up and come right over. It was the least she could do.
He stood by the giant slab of the phone, and at the other end of the line, it rang, and rang.
The bed juddered, sending quakes through the mattress. Bob stumbled in a fold of the sheet, and fell. He got up, cursing, and turned back to the phone. Then he stopped, and became very still. A rippling burr of satisfaction filled the air, along with a scent of cheap catmeat. And resting on the phone, claws easing into the attack position, was an enormous ginger paw.