As he strolled down it a young woman was coming the opposite way. As she passed under the lamp he could see she was carrying a canary yellow clutch purse against her chest. He absently thinned his mouth in the automatic gesture of friendly assurance. Her pronounced bottom lip tightened in response, but her dark eyes only darted momentarily to meet his. As she moved by him he turned left into the narrow lane.
Brambles were only just falling back into place after the woman had brushed past them and they tapped his shoulder and snagged the denim of his jeans. The smell of urine pricked his nose. He counted to the third gate and found it off the latch. This lapse of security seemed less foreboding than the lights being off at dusk. Either the occupants were actually out or no one was able to turn them on.
He pushed the gate the rest of the way open and looked up the lush, long lawn to the back of number 127. He could see the back door was open as it had been at the house in Florida. The black aperture seemed to shrink away from him as his instincts tried to restrain him from taking another step forward.
Libby's beads felt heavy around his wrist as light birdsong filled the silence. He strode up the centre of the lawn, his eyes darting to the tall row of conifers either side of him, trying not to contemplate the entrance until he was at the back step.
The sprinklers at the flower borders squirted to life and the rotating plastic and low hiss sounded like a warning from a coiled snake. The kitchen interior delineated itself as he reached the doorway.
When he stepped inside he saw Libby.
Libby and Luke were positioned where they could immediately be identified as soon as Will switched the light on. A cluster of snaps covered the wall in front of him. A family of five sharing the same fair hair and toothy smiles grouped together across the years the images represented. Libby and Luke's faces were in a matte black frame at their centre.
He placed his laptop quietly on the counter and moved towards it. The photo was screwed into the wall by a bracket in the middle of the top edge. It was a recent shot; both of them smiling, cheeks pressed together and Luke concentrating as he'd held the camera at arm's length and took the picture himself.
He briefly considered they might actually know the people in the house, but the frame's position was too contrived. It was also not big enough to occupy the considerable gap it filled and he could see the outline of the much larger frame that had originally hung in its space. It was clothing he was to collect. Libby and Luke had been fixed in place to remind him who was at stake.
He hurriedly absorbed the rest of the room. There was the grand mantel with teenage fantasy artwork taped to the green tiles. Above it was a professional photographic portrait. The parents had three sons, one of them nearly an adult, the other two he estimated to be early teens. None of them were vaguely familiar.
The chairs were at angles to the table as if the occupants had recently pushed them out to leave. The dishwasher door was open and a half-load of dirty plates had been stacked inside. Two large silver bowls were piled high with dog food and biscuits. Where was the family pet now?
Will listened for signs of movement. The fridge purred, but there was another sound. At first he thought it was the beat of his own heart, but realised there was a muffled knocking coming from beyond the kitchen. He edged into the hallway. The aroma of stale incense was in the air and he looked along the runner carpet to the front door.
The doors to his left were open and the last dregs of evening light struggled through each. There were no windows in the hallway so the neighbours opposite wouldn't be able to see him there. Switches were to his right and he quickly flicked them all down. The bulbs buzzed as they illuminated the closed door beside them. The knocking was coming from behind it.
He pulled on its gold handle and it popped open. He was looking into the interior of a dark utility room. He grazed his glove on a rough cement wall as it sought a switch and found a string to pull. It clicked loudly, strip lights strobing the interior before pinging on. He faced a rack of detergents and fabric conditioners as well as a selection of brightly coloured tennis bats, skittles and a chewed, orange Frisbee.
A motor buzzed and vibrated and the smell of damp and detergent crept cold up his nose as he stepped into the room. It was L-shaped and he turned left, finding two washing machines tucked away at the end, under the recess of the stairs. One was chewing clothes through grey water and something inside it sporadically bumped the cylinder. He could see the dark shape of something nudge through the froth at the glass. As he moved towards it, the drone of the chest freezer to his right suddenly cut out.
He bent his legs in front of the portal and squinted through the dirty foam. Colours flashed and he waited for the knocking sound again. As if on cue, the machine stopped and started draining. He got a glimpse of a blue, rubber sole as it dropped from the top of the drum into the shiny dark clothes below. It was one of a pair of crocs and he assumed the other was buried beneath the rest of the load. He stood as the machine started filling again and turned to leave.
He knew he wouldn't be able to pass the chest freezer. Halted beside it, examining its slightly rusted lid. Cold water rushed through the pipes behind him as he estimated the white unit's depth and what could be fitted inside.
Despite the small fibre of hope he'd entertained, he knew the family hadn't gone out and left the back of the house open.
He gripped the lid handle and heaved it quickly up. Frozen meat greeted his eyes, trays of chops, bags of drumsticks and an enormous turkey all leaking white vapour. He peered down into the mist as the draught from the lid's motion sucked some of it out. Burgers and unidentifiable meat frost bitten and stacked high next to bags of corn and green vegetables; just the staples of a healthy American family. He let the lid drop heavily back into place.
He returned to the hallway. He hadn't seen anyone in the lounge when he'd peered in from the window outside. But he'd been looking across it and the floor had been below his line of vision.
It was one large through-lounge and he'd be able to take in the whole room by stepping through either open door. He stood in the frame of the first he came to and a board cracked as he crossed the threshold.
There was nobody in evidence, not arranged on the quilted throws of the couches at either end or lying on the Moroccan rugs. A clock ticked somewhere, but he couldn't see it. He had already turned to face the stairs.
He started to ascend immediately, his shoes pounding the mauve carpet runner and the white painted wood sounding like it was splintering with every step. If he stopped he knew he wouldn't climb any higher.
When he reached the top he couldn't believe how dark it had got. A block of solid darkness filled the pane at the end of the landing and he quickly flicked down the switches he found to his left. The light revealed a dark shape lying underneath the window.
It was the dog, a red setter, curled tighter than it should have been if it was sleeping. Carla used to own a similar dog. She'd called him Apollo. He'd been one of the first rescue dogs she'd taken on. He walked towards it, but stopped at the open doorway to his left. It was a tiled wet room. Apart from a few towels piled on the floor, it was pristine.
He moved closer to the coiled pet and peered in the next. A boy's room, monster trucks and glow stars on the wall, duvet tangled at the foot of the bed. He advanced and found another similar â AC/DC and glamour girls as sexual as they were allowed to be by monitoring parents.
The room beyond, on the opposite side of the landing, obviously belonged to the eldest, lots of books and a dusty rowing machine. University pennants also signalled why it looked more like a guest room than a son's daily retreat.
He reached the dog and the final doorway. The red setter's head was crooked into its body and he could see solidified vomit on its fur. Poisoned first to make sure whoever had targeted the family wouldn't be disturbed?
Will didn't need to go into the parents' bedroom. A large mirrored wardrobe reflected the entire interior. The bed had been stripped, the mattress bare and naked pillows piled on the floor. No sign of anybody.
Will looked slowly past the dog under the window to the second flight of stairs. It was a process of elimination, but what about behind those tall, mirrored wardrobe doors? His eyes caught something at the landing pane, a pale shape within the slab of night.
He moved his face closer to the glass so he was peering past the yellow reflection of his surroundings. He was looking into the back garden and there was a light mass at the end of the lawn, not six feet from the wooden gate he'd just entered through. It looked like people crouching against the brick wall there.
They weren't crouching though.
Will quickly descended the stairs. He hadn't looked back as he'd entered the garden. Why would he have when he expected to find the family inside the house? He grabbed his laptop and headed outside where the sprinklers were still hissing.
At first he thought the people kneeling in a circle had been beheaded. But as he moved closer he could discern the two adults and two teenagers were crouching on all fours with their heads entirely buried in the border of earth.
Now he could see the mother's jade summer dress was streaked with dark blood. When he reached them, he could tell how hard the mud had been compacted around their shoulders. They were all buried up to the neck and when he tried to shift the mother back from the circle she didn't budge. The bodies were rooted in the ground, their fingers touching at the centre as if they'd dug themselves in.
Will ditched the laptop and knelt in the dirt with the corpses, felt the impact in his knees as he tried to fix on his reason for being there. He slid his hands into the pockets of the boys' jeans, feeling the pressure of their dead flesh against his gloved fingers. What item of clothing was he looking for? He unbuttoned the back pockets of the father's chinos, but there was nothing concealed within. He looked over the tableau for something that could be removed â no jewellery that he recognised as Libby's.
Then he saw the garden spade leaning against the wall and knew it hadn't been carelessly left there after the family had been positioned. Will got to his feet and grabbed the handle. He aimed the blade at the centre of the human circle, trying to estimate where their heads would be and lifted one of his legs over the bodies. He slowly exerted pressure on the edge with his foot.
The spade slid slowly into the dry, compacted soil, half an inch at a time. As he waggled it from side to side, he prayed he wouldn't contact bone. The blade creaked, grated and went deeper. He tried to maintain his balance and pushed harder against the metal. It hit the looser earth below and gave to his weight, sinking all the way so the sole of his shoe was almost flush to the ground.
He carefully levered it and, as the ground parted, the bodies slumped sideways and he could see their hair emerge, matted with soil. He tugged them away from the hole by their cold ankles and turned them. The dirt fell inside the hollows in their heads.
There was something protruding from the father's mouth. It looked like a sharpened tongue, but its colour was too bright to be blood red. Will tugged it. It was a piece of material balled there. He yanked the headscarf out and clutched it in his hand.
While Weaver was out of earshot, Pope made the call. Waiting for a police statement was a good time to use up the free minutes on your cell, but this was one conversation he'd been nervous about since he'd opened his eyes that morning.
“Patrice?” When there was no greeting after she'd picked up, he assumed she still had his name in her phone. “I tried you at home, but I got your voicemail.”
“I'm at the mallâ¦” She left the statement trailing as if she might be waiting for specific directions.
They both needed a map for these conversations. Pope gave her the chance to elaborate, but she didn't. “Should I call back later?”
“No,” she said a little too quickly. Did she just want it over and done with?
Pope tried to picture Patrice with the phone clasped to her face. It had been three years since they'd seen each other. She'd filled out a little the last time, but it had suited her. She'd let her hair go grey and that had worked too. He wondered if she still had it in a spiky bob. “Just wondered what plans you had for tomorrow.”
“Sean's eighteenth, Sean's twenty-first â do you really think it matters if you put in an appearance?” Patrice's voice had the resignation of someone who knew Pope would forever disappoint her, but had given up being angry about it.
He hated to hear that more than anything else. He'd always felt that he'd have time to make amends. But he was fifty-five and nothing had changed since their last meeting. That had coincided with him moving in with Lenora and when he thought his minor celebrity status might have led to better things. Looking back he was sure Patrice might have been looking for friendship if not reconciliation. It had been his last chance to be decent to her and he'd blown it. He'd spent every minute they'd had telling her how good things had been for him when he suspected they hadn't been for her. “I could drop everything tomorrow and head over for the day.”
“Drop everything?” For once she wasn't referring to the job that his inability to uncouple himself from had made him a stranger to her and Sean. Patrice was alluding to the fact he had someone else at home now. She wasn't aware his relationship was now based largely on the sharing of an apartment.
“It would be good to see you.” Getting older made him mean it more and more. “How are things?” He knew the question was a mistake before he asked it.
“I've got to finish the shopping.”
It was like she'd made the conscious decision to shut him out of every part of her life. He sensed she was lonely. “I'm not taking no for an answer, Patrice.”
“You might have to,” she said tiredly, as if rejecting his demands was the one luxury she'd earned.
Pope resisted the urge to say her name as Weaver returned from the bathroom. He knew she'd hung up so folded his phone and put it on the table top. He looked down at his quesadillas and tried to decide if they were breakfast or dinner. It was dark outside, that ruled out lunch.
“It's ten to.” Weaver was still zipping his pants. He sucked the last of his Sprite though the ice in his cup and pointed at Pope's plate. “Don't make a career of those. We've got to get back.”
He left Pope to consider how, when he was married, he yearned to be single and now he was virtually single he yearned to be married. He pushed the plate aside and rose unsteadily to his feet.
A waitress approached his table with a pad and pencil.
“I'm good thanks. Just the cheque.”
“I was just wondering if I could get your autograph.”
Pope took her in a little more. Slim, late forties, dark ringlets and handsome Hispanic features to match her accent. Her eyes were a deep chocolate brown. Flirt with this woman when the cops were about to issue a statement, what was he thinking? “Sure.”
“I thought it was you then I saw the news truck parked out front.”
“Who am I signing this to?”
Pope felt her gaze on his exposed legs while he signed the pad and smiled. It was the first time this had happened in a good while.
“Working a story around here?”
“Yeah. I've got to run, but switch on News 55 and you'll see what it's all about.”
“It's been quite a happening place today. Glad my shift's over, I can't take any more excitement.”
Pope didn't know if there was a proposition there, but smiled again and moved towards the door.
“First the weird guy in the parking lot and now you turning up here.”
Pope looked through the window at Weaver pulling the OB vehicle out of its space and waving frantically at him. “Weird guy in the parking lot?” He only repeated it to humour her.
“Came in to use the computers and then stood frozen in the lot on the way back to his car. Didn't move for a couple of minutes. It was freaky.”
Although middle age was rounding off Pope's instincts he knew he'd be mad to dismiss any story with such proximity to the homicide in North Vine Street; Pope waved at Weaver to hold on. He turned from the door. “What time was this?”
“Around lunchtime.” She rolled her eyes briefly upwards and then nodded to confirm.
Pope moved back into the dining area. “And he used these computers?” He gestured towards them and walked to the rear of the restaurant. There were four there. Surely a perp wouldn't log into a computer so near a crime scene. “Do you remember which desk he was at?”
“The end one. Where you're stood.”
“Any chance I can log in here?”
Albertine looked around. A handful of diners seemed disinterested in their exchange. She joined Pope and quickly tapped in a password. “Don't tell my boss I did this. Facebook is the only way I keep sane in this place.”
Pope examined the surfing history for that day. “Has anybody used this computer since then?”
“Maybe. I haven't kept track.”
He scrolled through the list. A couple of hotmail accounts had been accessed as well as a selection of employment sites. There was no point looking at those though because he'd need the personal passwords. Google maps had been used prior to them. He clicked on it and a page opened up with a map of Maryland on it. Albertine leaned in to look over his shoulder and he could smell her heavy floral scent.
“I get off my shift now. Just have to get changed and I'm out of here.”
She waited for a moment and then he heard her heels clack away from him. “Thanks, Albertine, I won't be long here.” Pope said eventually and looked at his watch. He was cutting it fine. There was nothing here. But he still clicked the previous website even though it looked like it was porno
Momentarily he thought he was looking at some cryptic gaming site, but he recognised the house on North Vine Street before he had time to read the words against the dark blue sky above it. He clicked it and it opened up the page of images taken of the interior.