His father had explained it to him, but it still didn't make any sense. Why couldn't they let her back in? He often woke because he thought he'd heard her down in the street.
If he heard her again he'd let her back in whatever his father told him.
He listened to the rhythm of the inside of his body and sank his head deeper into the pillow to try and dampen the throbbing in his ear. Tam thought about what had happened to him that afternoon as he'd stood by the grille. He knew what he'd heard. Would he be a statue again?
“I've landed.” Will clasped the mobile to his ear as he walked unsteadily along the familiar, polished concourse of Orlando International. The air smelt overpoweringly of sun lotion. He'd cleared passport control and been fingerprinted. In a golf store he'd quickly purchased a pair of black and white chequered leather gloves. Jetlag lurked beneath the sickening prospect of what lay ahead. He remembered being in the same airport under happier circumstances. How old had Libby been on that holiday?
“Have you seen the site?” The tremor in Carla's voice told him she already had.
“Yes.” All around him families and vacationers in pastel colours excitedly made a beeline for car hire.
“Those people in the house...” He could discern her lips parting to articulate a reaction. “As if the first photograph of Libby wasn't enough.” Her eventual response was inflected with contempt.
“They're giving us a clear message so we don't go to the police.”
“Try to get hold of a firearm.”
“This is obviously a sick game for whoever has Libby. They're not going to harm me.” Yet.
“You need to be able to protect yourself.”
“I don't have time.” He looked down at his feet against the shiny, champagne floor. “I have to get there before the police.”
“What if this is all a trap?”
It had already occurred to Will. But if it was, why be so intricate? “If they can photograph our home they could certainly have saved themselves a lot of trouble.”
“Then why are they making you do this?”
“I don't know, but we've no choice but to follow their instructions.” He didn't want to debate the inevitability of what he had to do any longer. “What's the situation there?”
“Nissa knows something's up. I've got her pulling files on the Eastern Seaboard ops. There's a lot of Ingram territory to cover in Southeast Asia, a mountain of data to go through. I don't know what I'm looking for, but there may be something here...” Carla sounded suddenly distant. She was obviously still processing the new images on the site.
“I project managed every phase. There was no friction in the territory during the whole op. Their kidnap could be completely unrelated. Just be sure not to let anything slip. And make sure security only allow senior staff up to that level.” He felt like he was issuing his own demands now.
“I'm not worried about me, Will,” she said. “The address on the site is only about fourteen kilometres from the airport. I've already booked you a car. It'll have Sat Nav.” Like him she was trying to concentrate on the logistics of what they were doing and not why they were doing it.
Will nodded absently.
“If I don't hear from you ten minutes after you've arrivedâ¦”
“Do nothing. I'll call you as quickly as I can, but we can't even entertain calling the police until Libby is safe.” He thought of the image of her dumped on the mattress. Carla would have it stitched to her mind as well.
“There must be more I can do here.” She sounded like the wait would be unendurable.
“Think about everyone who knew Libby and Luke's movements; try to remember anyone suspicious, any strangers who've been in our home in the last couple of months.” He knew she desperately needed to be occupied.
“OK. Call me when you get there.” Her last word disintegrated as she rang off.
Carla had checked Will in online so he skipped the crowd at the rental booth and picked the nearest blue Volvo S40 from the rows of luxury cars, SUVs and outlanders in the covered lot. The valet sensed his impatience and cut his happy vacation patter short before handing over the keys.
Will slung his bag and laptop into the back seat, punched the zip code into the Sat Nav and took the car out of neutral. He accelerated to the exit, but had to join a long line of vehicles waiting to leave. He regarded the red dot of his destination and felt a current of panic. As he waited, he felt like he was sealed in the vacuum of his worst possible nightmare.
Will usually relished driving in the States. It always presented a challenge to his usual road reflexes, but now it was the last thing his overtaxed nerves needed. He almost missed the north exit sign and had to swerve suddenly into the middle lane for SR-528. The signs changed from airport brown to the regular green and he settled into the lunchtime pace of the busy freeway into downtown Orlando.
He looked at his watch. It was still on UK time â 5.55pm. The skeleton staff at Ingram would soon be heading for home leaving Carla there alone. He still couldn't help feeling leaving her was a mistake.
Watching the Sat Nav and trying to monitor the lanes distracted him from further speculation. He headed towards International Drive and Interstate 4. The cloudless blue skies and unfiltered sunshine had him squinting his eyes as he attempted to negotiate the traffic.
As he settled into the rhythm of the road, gift malls, miniature golf courses and steak houses started to pop up either side of the freeway. Their neon looked dull in the daylight. It was a place waiting to come alive, waiting to put on its show. His kneecaps trembled as he worked the pedals and took a long sweeping right to the 528 heading west.
He calculated Libby to have been twelve years old the one and only time they'd been to Orlando. They'd done the Disney thing. He remembered how she'd gone missing from the line for “It's A Small World” and how he and Carla had frantically hunted for her, a dead heat between panic and nausea throughout every long second. That time had felt like hours, but it had been only minutes before they'd found her chatting to a gang of boys.
Boys had a mystique for Libby and she'd always been disproportionately grateful for any attention she got from them. He'd known she was going to be a handful long before her teenage years, dreaded what would happen when she was out of his sight. He wasn't one of those parents who was blinded by the idea of their own child's perfection, hadn't forgotten what he'd been like as a kid.
They'd at least been able to monitor the procession of male playmates that came to the house, but he couldn't remember at which point they became boyfriends. He was away from home so often during that time that he'd been stunned to have Carla show him the condom wrapper she'd found in her wastebasket. She'd been barely fifteen, but Carla hadn't been fazed by it, just relieved that Libby was being sensible.
A chunk of her childhood had whipped by without him registering it. A number of boyfriends followed, of all shapes and sizes, but Will had been waiting for her to get it out of her system before finding the right guy. He still wasn't sure Luke Chandler was. But the pregnancy had suddenly made him more than the occasional visitor to their home the others had been.
Libby had jokingly started to call Will Granddad. He hadn't even considered the implications of that. She was still emotionally immature and it was his fault. He knew he'd indulged her to compensate for his absence.
Libby only believed she was independent; at eight she'd announced she was leaving home to live in the tree house. Before her first night, however, a wild boar had escaped from Joe Sloman's neighbouring farmland and chased her though the grounds. She'd run terrified into the kitchen where they'd been waiting for her and comforted her as they'd comforted her each time things ended disastrously with her boyfriends. It made him feel powerless, like she was always going to be a victim of her own bad choices. He'd allowed her to make her biggest one by saying “Yes” to her trip away with Luke.
He halted at the toll. Tinny radio, body odour and hostility poured out of the window of the booth as he paid with a twenty-dollar bill. The obese male attendant blinked at him as he handed him his change, regarding him as if he had no business there.
Tam looked down into the street, one storey from ground level. He knew how noisy it would be to drop the metal ladder from the end of the fire escape and didn't want anybody behind the shuttered window beside him or in the bottom apartment to hear. He waited for a break in the conveyor belt of people below and then slid through the gap in the handrail. He hung down from it so his feet were as near the ground as possible and then dropped onto the paving.
His light frame easily withstood the impact. Tam rose from his crouching position and a large group of tourists obliviously swept past him, reeking of the perfume and aftershave they sold in the market.
He'd been on the streets at nighttime before, but he'd never walked around this late without his father. His mother had tucked him in and he'd pretended to be asleep. He prayed nobody else would come into his room until morning.
Tam didn't know the name of the street where the grille was, but knew his way to the night market and from there he was sure he'd be able to find it using the landmarks he'd memorised from his father's delivery round. Everything looked so different at night, though. Everything felt different. It was exciting, but at the same time he knew it was dangerous.
He left the commotion of the main street and took the short cut through the narrow passageway he used to get to the school van stop. It was pitch black and somebody passed him coming the other way. He turned to watch them take shape as they emerged into the orange glare of the street â a broad man in a silk shirt. He paused to light a cigarette and looked back down the passage in Tam's direction.
Tam turned and trotted quietly towards the other end, his shoulder scraping the wall as he kept to one side in the hope that he'd slip by anyone else he ran into. He needed a cigarette now; he wanted to suck on the filter of one of his father's discarded smokes and watch the glow die as he took the last vapours into his lungs.
Suddenly he was tempted to go back, climb up the fire escape and into the warmth of his bed. But in front of him was a needle of light and, as his scurrying feet widened it, he wondered if Songsuda might be somewhere beyond.
He told himself she couldn't be the girl behind the grille, that the scream he'd heard could have been anyone, but as he reached the end of the passage and let go of the breath he'd held clenched in his lungs, a larger part of him hoped she was there waiting patiently for him to rescue her.
Taxi horns jabbed their warnings at him as he zigzagged through the slowly rolling traffic and joined the throng of people on foot.
1815 North Street was off Highway 193. A restaurant that had a giant lobster on its roof squatted like a sinister landmark, the extended claw pointing in the direction the Sat Nav told Will to go. The road narrowed as he left the traffic. He passed tall, yellow hedges that revealed brief glimpses of the palatial properties behind them as he rolled by their closed, electric gates. He slowed at mailbox 1801 and then crawled, counting the gates, but finding 1815 much sooner than he anticipated.
The vacation villa lay at the end of a curved pathway demarcated by potted, spherical bay trees. He switched off the engine and got out of the car, noticing the dry heat for the first time. He stood at the gates, peering through the ornate leaves of black metal, but not wanting to touch them. His feet settled on the coarse gravel and the only sound was the buzz of an aeroplane overhead. Everything beyond the gates was still.
Will could still recall the starched feel of his dead father's sepia skin, as he lay motionless on top of the bed in the hospice. He'd fleetingly touched the back of his hand before the orderlies had taken him away on the trolley. It was the only time he'd witnessed death. Never death like this though. He knew the repugnance of the images hadn't even begun to prepare him for seeing it in reality.
He pulled his mobile out of his pocket; grateful he could speak to Carla. “I'm here. I'm outside,” he said emotionlessly as soon as she picked up. He knew she'd be tracking him on the GPS and would be expecting his call. “Although I don't know how I'm going to get in.”
“Ten minutes. Ten minutes and then I'm calling the police.” She was nervous.
“I might need longer.”
The gate was set into an arch in the hedge. The hedge had been recently trimmed, leaving a small gap above the top prongs. Bar trying to scale or hack through the shrubbery, there was no other way in to the front. He wondered if there was a road or lane running behind the property, but it already felt like he'd been deliberating too long. He squinted at both ends of the street â no traffic or pedestrians. Will pulled on the chequered gloves.
The image of Libby on the website launched him at the gates and he found himself clinging below the prongs. He knew if he fell back he wouldn't be able to achieve the same take-off so curled his fingers painfully tighter as they took the weight of his body. The muscles in his sides fluttered from the exertion. He tautened his wrists, bent his elbows and dragged himself higher.
His frame shuddered as he took all of the weight into the crook of his arm and got his foot across the top of the gate. The prongs had gold-tipped leaves that were higher in the middle so he swung his leg over the lower end and shifted across to follow it. The points scraped his stomach as he dragged himself over to the other side.
He was just about to let himself drop to the pathway when something above him caught his eye. The aeroplane had written the words JESUS LOVES YOU against the blue sky.
A shower of leaves accompanied him as he landed hard on the balls of his feet and the impact reverberated harshly through his gut. Something had been pulled or, worse, ruptured, but he ignored the pain and turned towards the house.
He could hear wind chimes tinkling and the low rumble of traffic. But as he made his way up the path the sound tailed away â the tall hedges virtually soundproofed the pathway. He rounded the corner and the house with its mosaic-paned front door, familiar now from the website, came into view.
Will swiftly climbed four dirty, white marble steps and was in front of the door, not knowing whether to ring the brass bell set into the stone panel beside it. He rang it anyway.
He wanted the door to open; wanted whomever it was that had summoned him to greet him, for whatever purpose. But his instructions were implicit and he knew nobody inside would unlock it and release him from his task. After half a minute of waiting he peered through the coloured glass, seeing a red-and-green distortion of the hallway. It was empty, wooden-tiled. Several closed doors led off it, and a low seating area was to its right.
He went back onto the gravel, his feet broadcasting his presence as he made his way across the front of the house and round the side. He could hear the low hum of a generator and smell charcoal smoke. A double garage was at the end of a second driveway, a blue Chevrolet and silver Oldsmobile parked in its shaded interior.
He reached a green, wooden side gate with a heart shape cut out at its centre. He peered through and saw the turquoise water of a swimming pool. He pushed on the gate and its large spring squawked at him. The expansive decked area beyond it presented a conventional image of a vacationing family's occupations. Some fluffy blue towels were stacked on a table alongside an array of lotion bottles and an iPod dock.
Then he saw the blackened food on the barbecue and the muddy footprints leading from the open back door, across the decking and to the white tiles at the edge of the pool. He hesitated at the doorway, muzzling his fear. But as he moved into the house the footprints got darker. He realised they were blood and that they'd been sun-dried brown outside. On the kitchen tiles they still had a dull glisten, some of them smeared by a fainter set coming back into the house.
He moved through the large kitchen to an open door and found himself looking down the hallway. To his right were the set of doors he'd seen from the other side and to his left was a turning to the bottom of the stairs. More bloodied footsteps there. A dark copper slick led from the rug, across the hallway and was cut off by the closed door to his right.
His nostrils discerned something his brain had rarely had to process before, the intensity of which he'd only ever had a suggestion of when he'd visited his father's hospice. It was the aroma every human sense recoils at. His circulation thundered and he put his fingers to the handle and pulled down.
The door mechanism clicked. He put the tips of his gloved fingers against the glazed pine and exerted just enough pressure to swing it inward. He braced himself for what he'd discover the other side, but found himself looking at a framed mural of a cave painting of buffaloes that covered the opposite wall. An ornamental table and chairs were positioned in front of it. He would have to step right inside the room and peer around the door.
Before he moved his body forward he felt the cold presence of the room's occupants brush over him and sting the sweat patch at his back. He gripped the handle again and turned his body to look around the edge of the door.
The family were seated on the couch as they had been in the photograph. A sudden movement made him recoil. For a split second he thought the bodies had made an abrupt motion towards him, but he realised the flies coating their faces had been briefly startled enough to leave their hosts before quickly returning.
Will's senses recoiled against what lay putrefying on the other side of the room. He had to move close to them and tried to focus on the coloured beads around the father's left wrist. As he released the handle and followed the blood path to the couch, the cool neon blue of the pool water glowed beyond the slatted blinds.
He wished he could cover his eyes as they covered their own. They were at least shielded from the spectacle of their own bloodshed. He reached the couch and grabbed quickly for the mulberry coloured beads, grasping a couple against his palm.
The bracelet was tight, pinching into the father's stocky wrist. The beads were connected by wire. The pudgy fingers taped to the dead man's face had to be unstuck before Will could pull it over his hand. He briefly considered getting a knife or scissors from the kitchen to cut the wire, but knew if he left the room he wouldn't return.
He repositioned himself, hearing the blood in the rug crackle under his weight. He moved the beads up to the father's knuckles. Then he grasped the back of his cold hand and yanked it away.
The tape ripped revealing the blackness of a hollow socket where his left eye should have been. Will could see inside the man's skull. The hole looked like it had been burnt into the man's head. He looked down and at the human gristle hanging from his stomach and the caked blood gluing him to his family.
Will gripped the bracelet and pulled it up and over the fingers, all the time the flies landing and taking off from the skin exposed between the gloves and his sleeves. The movement caused the father's other hand to come unstuck. Another carved out hollow where his eyeball should have been. Both crooked elbows remained stiffly in position.
Will had to get out of the room now, not see the twin craters in the man's face anymore. He staggered from the lounge and slammed the door behind him as if he were being pursued.
Tam listened with lips clamped firmly shut. The air coming through the grille was cool, but the putrid smell that accompanied it stung his nostrils. He held his breath and listened.
Nothing. He jammed his index finger in his other ear and flinched; pain from the blackened nail he'd been trying carefully not to touch anything with. He turned from the grille to examine it and took a few deep breaths before returning to his position.
There was a sound, a faint puttering underneath the gush of air through the slats. He pushed the flesh of his ear flush against the concrete, but this blocked it and he heard even less. Tam stood up, his bare legs shaking from crouching.
Whatever the sound, it was nothing like the one he'd heard earlier that day. He looked quickly over his shoulder, expecting to find someone looking down at him. He was in a place he shouldn't be at a time he wasn't meant to be awake. He examined the grille and the metal shuttered window above it. It wasn't connected to the Eastern Wish where they made their deliveries. The dirty, mushroom-coloured building had a set of double doors that had been chained shut. Tam's lips moved as he tried to read the sign pasted inside the dirty glass.
CLOSED PENDING HYGIENE EXAMINATION
There was some other finer print below that, but even when he squinted, Tam couldn't read it through the grubby pane. He walked the length of the wall, away from the breakfast cafÃ©, and came to a corrugated iron shed next to it. It looked small from the front, but extended the length of the long, junk-strewn alleyway beside the building. Tam could see the lights of fast flowing traffic at the end. As soon as he thought about going down there, a dog barked a warning from one of the tenements on the right. His bladder felt very full.
Ten steps. That's all he'd take. Ten steps and he'd turn back.
He counted them loudly in his head, taking a breath between each one. Ten became twelve, twelve became fourteen. At sixteen he could see from the weak light shining out of the windows of the tenements that there were no doors or windows for the entire length of the shed. Up ahead of him, however, was a tripwire of thin yellow light, extending across the path about four feet away from him. He moved forward to investigate, pausing when his foot upset a hubcap full of water.
When he reached the light he could see it was escaping from a gap in the corrugated iron. Tam put his eye to it and saw the circular blue neon of a flycatcher inside and the dark shapes of industrial equipment. Two luminous squares glowed feebly beyond. Tam guessed they must be swing doors and, from their position, he could tell they led into the main building. No other lights were on. If Songsuda were inside, now would be the time to rescue her. But the prospect of trying to find his way around in the dark contracted his bladder even further and he suddenly needed to relieve himself.
He urinated against the opposite wall, all the time looking up at the open, second-storey window above him and the ceiling shadow of somebody using an ironing board. The pee kept coming and he looked down at it gathering up fragments of soil and dried moss the rain had washed from the roof above. It snaked and bubbled around his sandals and he stepped out of the pool as he finished and quickly zipped his shorts back up.
Emptied out, he felt less panicky and looked back to the street he'd entered the alleyway from. Less than twenty steps and he would be back out onto the main road. No distance at all.
The gap in the corrugated panel wasn't big enough for him to crawl though, but after briefly checking the lit window again, he gripped its edge. Tam wrenched it and it shuddered loosely, the still-warm metal bending towards him like the upturned corner of a page. Three tugs gave him the aperture he needed. Still nobody was peering down into the alleyway to investigate.
He slipped through the gap, metallic edges scraping his skin as he wriggled through. Every sound he made was suddenly on top of him and he wanted to return to the fresher air. The smell he'd detected earlier was overpowering here, and there was the aroma of sawdust mixed with it as well. He could taste it in his mouth.
He stood motionless for a moment and listened, hearing nothing but his own small breaths. He put his palms out in front of him. They immediately touched something cold and metallic. Realising it was the edge of a worktop; he ran his fingers along it. Tam felt his way to the corner and down the thinner end of it towards the neon flytrap and the swing doors to its left.
His sandals squeaked on tiles and his fingertips butted the door. He pushed and they swung noiselessly open. The area beyond was dimly illuminated. Thick pipes lagged with yellowing fibreglass ran the length of the peeling walls. Dirty, transparent drapes filled a doorway at the far end.
The other direction ended in darkness so Tam turned right and headed for whatever lay beyond the plastic strips. The screeches of his sandals against the polished grey floor echoed loudly, so he removed them and padded down the corridor.
He stopped and peered through the jaundiced and scratched curtain into the gloom. It was a factory floor. More flycatchers glowing blue were fixed up high and extended to tiny pinpricks at the far end. His black nail throbbed. Tam pushed through the drapes.
As soon as he emerged the other side the smell of disinfectant scalded his nostrils and he could hear the sound he'd heard at the grille, only much louder now. Its volume over the buzzing of industrial fans made it easy to identify. It was the rippling sound of many birds; a current of plaints and nervous babble and Tam could see why they sounded so agitated.
Will couldn't remember scaling the gate again. He just sat in the car wiping at the backs of his wrists, still feeling the legs of the flies there. He'd removed the gloves, but his hands felt tacky. He opened his right palm and the coloured beads of the bracelet lay hotly against it.
He'd intended to drive immediately back to the freeway, stop off at a diner and use the bathroom. But the atmosphere of the lounge was still heavily draped over him. He grabbed the mobile from the dash and got out into the fresh air again. He had no idea how long he'd been in the house.
“Will?” Carla waited for him to reply.
Will looked up and down North Vine Street and then walked towards the grass verge on the other side of it. “I've got the bracelet.” He could almost feel the air of her exhalation. “Those people...” His own voice sounded muffled as he focussed on the dried yellow leaves of the hedge in front of him.
There was silence from the other end.
“â¦I don't think I can leave them in there like that.”
“You have to.” Carla's voice barely registered.
Should he tell her what had been done to their eyes?