Poppy applied some cherry ChapStick and rolled her lips into her mouth, but the only flavour she could taste was anticipation. It needled her cheeks and burnt at her earlobes.
Brett wanted to go all the way tonight.
She'd positioned herself in front of a blank wall and adjusted the webcam so her head and shoulders were centre of frame on her laptop. Beside her the washing machine grumbled and heaved around a family load.
Brett waited patiently for Poppy to log on and sipped his cranberry and vodka. He was seated at a desk looking at his own image. He swiped his straw hair a few times.
He had a surprise for Poppy.
Poppy logged in. Brett was waiting for her online. She clicked on his name and his live image filled the screen of her laptop.
“Hi, Pop. Need some company?” He smiled, like he knew exactly how much his boyish grin poleaxed the girls.
Brett shifted in his swivel chair. He liked the way the deep chestnut of Poppy's eyes and long tresses of dark hair accentuated her pale, willowy features. He'd quickly noted she was wearing a white, towelling robe with the collar pulled tight around her. He wondered how much longer it would remain there.
“So what does Poppy want to do to pass the time?”
Brett was too busy looking at her pronounced bottom lip. He liked the way it hung away from her teeth as she looked into his world. There were a few moments of silence. “Excuse me?”
“Hanging behind you.”
Brett knew it was there, but turned to look at the hooded Japanese street wear on the hook of his bedroom door. A lot of girls did this, played for time before they got down to it. “Yeah. Picked it up in Sawgrass Mills.” He kept the impatience out of his voice.
“Can I see it?”
“Maybe after.” When she didn't reply, only nodded contritely, Brett knew she wanted him to instigate. This was his third session with Poppy. The adult chat room promised fun and friendship, but everyone who paid up and logged on was after the same thing. The third session was usually when both parties were happy to admit it.
“Let me see some more of your room. Your lair.” She swallowed and smiled lopsidedly.
“OK.” He panned his camera. The curtains were drawn and only his desk lamp was on, so he knew she wouldn't be able to see too much. He scrutinised her face when she leaned closer to her screen. She wasn't squeaky sugary, more handsome than cute. Her features were elegant bordering on anorexic. She was older than Brett as well. Mid-twenties, he liked that.
“Want to see where I hang out?” She leaned back again.
Brett fought the reflex to say no, but she was already moving, lifting her laptop so the camera could take in her surroundings. She was still delaying.
She held the laptop steady. It appeared she was in a utility room. A lot of girls used anonymous ute rooms for their online quickies. They gave nothing away while they laid everything else bare.
“Need to see more?” Her voice said from the other side of the camera.
Brett watched his fake interest wane on the screen as she opened the ute room door and walked into the space beyond. But his expression rapidly altered to incomprehension as his attention locked on the kitchen. It was the kitchen at the bottom of his stairs.
Poppy moved the laptop past the buttermilk tiles and familiar see-through tubs of cereal on the breakfast bar, produced a key and unlocked the back lounge. When she pushed the door he could see his mother, father and sister in there.
Even though they were sitting up in a row on the couch with their hands covering their eyes he knew they were dead. It was their stillness that made it undeniable before he registered the blood crusting in their laps. Black tape stuck their fingers to their faces.
Poppy wondered if he'd lock himself in his bedroom, but she had the key to that as well. It looked like blind panic had won out, however. She met Brett when she was a third of the way up the stairs. He was naked from the waist down.
She jabbed a Taser into the centre of his chest and he dropped like he'd been filleted. He juddered down the rest of the staircase on his spine and his tee shirt rode up his back. She followed his body to the bottom. Then she took the same broad-bladed sushi knife she'd used on the rest of the family out of the pocket of her robe.
Poppy pushed it into his stomach and his spasms halted. He turned to face her with incredulity. She gripped the handle firmly and dragged it towards her. She felt it hot on the heel of her hand, but Poppy didn't see the blood, had perfected the art of creating blind spots where she needed them. Like biting down on her lip and not feeling it.
She seated herself on the bottom stair and studied the tips of his shuddering toes scraping the Turkish hallway rug. She listened to Brett cry, his voice at an almost inaudible pitch in the back of his throat as oxygen escaped his body.
She wanted to use the pool now, needed to cool off. The blue water had looked so inviting from the window of the ute room while she'd waited for Brett to get back from his day trip. Poppy had figured she and Mom to be a similar costume size.
Brett tried to form some words, but the blood in his windpipe coated then engulfed them. When his lips stopped whispering and clicking, Poppy stepped over his ruined body. She squelched from the hallway, through the kitchen and into the cool breeze skimming the patio. She slipped out of Mom's white robe and kicked off her flip-flops. She only vaguely registered the footprints of blood she left before diving into the pool.
She didn't have to worry about leaving fingerprints or hair strands. Poppy didn't exist.
Friday cooked the London traffic on a slow heat and road rage bubbled up. The weekend lay tantalisingly out of reach. Feeling his shirt starting to stick at his back, Will turned up the air con and leaned back. He was still learning how to leave the office in the office.
Nineteen years ago he'd just been helming water supply contracts in the UK. Now he was CEO of Ingram International. Surely he could afford a guilt-free anniversary weekend with Carla. He envied his wife and his daughter, Libby. They both knew how to disconnect, Libby maybe too much.
His presence wasn't indispensable at Ingram anymore, but in the past he wouldn't have been able to stay away from HQ at such a critical stage. Every stage to him used to be critical and the Remada project was one he found it difficult to relinquish. But even though he'd also spent the day coordinating secondary phase pipeline ops in Aden and Eastern Navajo, his most rigorous task was still to be completed.
Nineteen years as man and wife,
And still so many years ahead,
It was the first two lines he'd scribbled into Carla's anniversary card in the six minutes he'd classed as lunch. He'd assumed the rest would come as easily. Nothing had. No matter how many times he'd run them in his head. He was committed to those first lines, though, had written them in the card in ink.
Will pulled back on the stick and watched the traffic shrink below. The helicopter used to be his regular mode of transport, but now his licence only granted him these occasional indulgences away from the boardroom. He levelled out and looked down at the metallic congestion glinting like mercury that had trickled into the gaps of the city. The building tops canted to the right as he swung west from the South Bank, their windows winking white sunshine as he climbed.
Carla said the helicopter was the perfect vehicle for him because it was impossible to coast in. It demanded constant application. She also said he wasn't a control freak, just pathologically hands-on. He didn't know what the difference was.
He'd removed himself from frontline project management and still struggled with the frustration of coordinating pipe ops from UK HQ. It was particularly difficult to be hands-off with the contracts he'd doggedly pursued during the years he'd evolved the company, but after the events of the previous year he'd rapidly reappraised the priorities in his life.
Will swung and righted the Longranger. He settled into the current and held it steady, observing the secret roof life spread out under the heat. He navigated his route home by the parks. Hurlingham was first before he crossed the expanse of Richmond.
At forty-two he was hamstrung by his own success. Even though his angular, weatherworn features were more suited to the outdoors, his astute business instincts had sentenced him to a constricting, corporate lifestyle. He hated wearing a collar and, as protest, covered it with his ash brown, shoulder length hair.
After last summer he'd been resolute. Pilot from the back seat and enjoy more home life. He was still coming to terms with it.
He should be sitting in the back now enjoying the view. Ingram's pilot had wanted to fly him home, but Will would have ended up hijacking the controls. He'd always preferred flying clients to site more than socialising with them. Was even happier alone in the air. Seeing everything spread out rather than stacked up always helped his perspective.
He knew he was almost home when he saw the golf courses of Strawberry Hill and Fulwell. He'd never been to either. Didn't like golf. Wasn't comfortable with the private clubs and hierarchical membership. But what would he and Carla do with their time when Libby left home?
She was almost gone. Was her month in Thailand a trial for permanently living with Luke? Will knew the girl he hugged when she came back would be different to the one he'd waved off at departures. He looked across the simmering smog haze of the horizon and thought of her thousands of miles away, three months pregnant and out of reach.
His work had necessitated him spending plenty of time in Southeast Asia. He'd enjoyed the life there and it was probably his accounts that had turned Libby on to the idea of her own pilgrimage. He'd worried about her being so far from his protection. It was no place for the naÃ¯ve and had plenty of dark pockets to swallow backpackers.
Will had looked forward to having time alone with Carla while Libby was away, but the fact was he missed her more than he'd anticipated. From the half-eaten breakfast apple she always left on the kitchen counter to the smell of her eczema cream around the house. It had taken him a few days to remember only to set two places at the table and it had struck him that it was something he'd have to get used to. She would be back tomorrow, though, for a few days at least. He and Carla were picking them up from the airport.
His plan was then to steal Libby from Luke for the rest of the weekend so they could be a family again. That way he could speak to Libby without Luke answering for her. Find out what she really thought about their plans to move in together and if any of them were hers. He had reservations at Cawley Manor, his wife and daughter's favourite spa and hotel. Anniversary treat. Not very romantic, but he knew Carla would be just as eager to have Libby along after her month away from them. Would Libby be as keen though?
He knew she'd outgrown them and wanted to get on with her own life. She wasn't theirs anymore and had proved it when she'd come home with the lotus blossom tattoo at the base of her spine. Will had been shocked. Not just that she hadn't consulted them, but that she'd scarred the flesh he thought so precious and acquired such an obvious distinguishing feature. He wondered if every parent had the same reaction â would he ever need to mention it as a means of identification?
Will quickly shook off the thought as he flew over the edge of the golf course and the rolling fields took on a familiar significance. He focussed on positioning himself for his descent. Three copses were hurdled and then he dipped into Hanworth. Easton Grey squatted in an elliptical ring of yew trees within walled grounds.
The house had originally been built as a hunting lodge in the sixteenth century but, following a fire in 1797, had been completely rebuilt as a country home. Will loved its history, particularly the period it had been used as a military hospital in the Second World War. He'd bought and renovated the grade two listed building before it could collapse from neglect.
He gripped the collective lever as he started his approach to the orange helipad at the rear. The trees exploded crows as he sank towards it. Nudging the cyclic stick to dip the nose, Will used the pedals to keep the aircraft directed. He'd made hundreds of landings before, but knew he could never get complacent.
The Longranger veered slightly, but he used the cyclic to keep the rotor flat. There was hardly any impact as he felt himself re-engage with the ground. He waited, the weakening vibrations allowing his muscles to gradually relax. He held the controls level and waited for the rotor to stop.
Carla wended her way from the two men she was conversing with at the rear of the house. Three of her rescue dogs bounced on the grass beside her. The only giveaway that she'd recently been working in the office was that her blaze of red hair was piled and clipped to her head. Her pale midriff was visible between her olive tee shirt and wraparound saffron skirt. Nothing about her elegant stride was about show. It was purposeful and it was good to see it back.
As she approached, a call came through on her phone. She answered and bit the fingers of the gardening glove of her free hand. She shook it off and dropped it. Bruce, the chocolate brown lab, dutifully picked it up and circled her. She continued her conversation as she stopped at the periphery of the draught from the rotor blades. It plastered her clothes to her tall, slim frame, but she looked as if she'd been fixed there like a peg. She flicked her shades up into her hair and he could see the vibrancy of her green eyes as she blinked them against the rushing air.
years as man and wife,
And still so many years ahead,
It seemed inconceivable that he'd almost lost her.
“You're early,” she said with mock surprise, folding her phone shut as he reached her.
He kissed her lips. Her scented perspiration smelt much better than his. “I thought they were running final tests this morning.” Will nodded towards the two men staring up at the newly fitted vandal-proof dome camera over the back entrance.
“There were some glitches with the Ethernet connection, but I've just been assured it's all on track.” She sounded dubious. “I told you this would be more trouble than it's worth.”
“I know you think this is overkill, but just indulge me.”
Easton Grey had always had adequate security systems in place, but Carla had acquiesced to the cameras after the unsettling incident in June. Nobody had attempted to break in, but somebody had lit a mini bonfire on the front steps of the house in the early hours of the morning. It could well have been a prank, but Will wanted to be able to identify any trespassers in the future.
“I really don't think it'll happen again.” She still sounded dubious.
The reason the episode had left them both feeling uneasy was because of Carla's involvement in a local protest against the redevelopment of neighbouring land. Hanworth's only primary school was threatened with closure to make way for the proposed Motex Radials tyre manufacturing plant. Suspecting payoffs and corruption in local government had led to Carla running for council in order to block the plans.
Motex was a powerful organisation and her intervention had quickly led to an overt smear campaign that they'd first found out about when a neighbour had given them one of the green fliers being posted around the village. Accusations of hypocrisy were being levelled at Carla because of her connection with Ingram and its own industrial pipeline ops.
She'd elected to carry on, organising an open day at the house to rally support. Will suspected the bonfire had been set afterwards as a further intimidation tactic. Carla was already preparing a case against David Wardour. He was the friendly media face of Motex. Will had never had any dealings with him, but it was common knowledge his empire had been built on myriad unscrupulous shortcuts that had secured other sites in Asia and Europe as well as the UK.
There was no way of proving that any of the duplicity was down to Motex. It could easily have originated in Hanworth. Carla hadn't made many friends by muscling into council affairs. Privately Will hoped the fire had been started by vandals paid by disgruntled farmers eager for fallow land to be taken off their hands. It seemed inconceivable that David Wardour didn't know exactly who he was taking on.
They briefly observed a minor fracas between the two men in rolled shirtsleeves as they ran another test with a laptop. A thought occurred to Will that just beat his smile. “Libby's going to freak when she gets back to find the place under surveillance.”
Carla nodded and raised one eyebrow. “She'll soon find the blind spots.”
“We should have got one fitted in the summer house.” Will knew Libby had taken boys, alcohol and marijuana there. “Maybe that's one lot of footage I don't want to show the police though.”
Carla gently gripped the front of his shirt. “Come on, before they want us to watch another demo.”
Will allowed himself to be led away. He knew where she was taking him. Tomorrow Libby would be home and they'd be a family unit again. Tonight they still had to themselves.
Brett was heavier than Poppy'd anticipated, but she had managed to squeeze him onto the couch with the rest of his family. She squirted some cream from a plastic tube and dabbed the avocado and pomegranate body butter around the insides of her nostrils. Cooped up like this in the Florida heat, the Ambersons wouldn't smell so good in a few hours.
She looked at Mom, Dad and Gemma shielding their faces from what she'd done to them and then at Brett's eyes.
Poppy thought about how the family's murder would be received on the news. How shocked everyone would be. It was inevitable that any wrongs these people had executed would immediately be forgotten because she'd pushed a piece of metal inside them.
Did they love each other as a family? Or, like all human behaviour, was that simply the word they used to describe their survival instinct? Safety in numbers, children clinging to parents until they had to face the same truth; that every human action was to service bodily needs â thirst, hunger, reproduction. Enzymes, hormones and urges drove people to every outwardly romantic or altruistic decision.
She could so easily divorce herself from conditioned emotions. Could filter out the lighter blood drying in perfect bars in the sunlight coming through the slats of the blinds.
The movement and sound of Gemma's iPhone on the coffee table startled her. Its ring tone was an excerpt of a pop song Poppy recognised from the radio. She watched it vibrate within its rainbow cover on the coffee table. It was probably one of Gemma's girlfriends waiting for her to pick up.
She set her canary yellow clutch purse next to it. There was also a half empty bag of clipped up tortilla chips and a bowl containing a tangle of Gemma's colourful hair bands on the table. The roll of black duct tape Poppy had put there. She would use it to fix Brett's hands to his eyes like she had the others.