‘He wants you to break in,’ says Control.
We’ve been prowling around the outside of the house, casing the joint, pressing our faces up to windows at different angles, shielding our eyes from the light, doing whatever we can to cheat the nets and see if anything looks amiss. But the house is tidy and quiet, exactly as you might expect a house to look after the owner had gone out.
Or not come down.
I look around.
There’s a tortoiseshell cat, calmly cleaning herself on an upturned apple crate. She stops to watch as I try some of the windows, then gives a condescending little shrug and carries on. The garden behind her is as quiet as the house – cane pyramids for the last of this year’s runner beans; an orderly bed of late flowering plants; a shed with its door half-open. I step up onto a low brick wall to get a better view, half expecting to see a pair of stockinged legs sticking out onto the path. The whole place has taken on the sharper, darker lines of a film set, variations on a theme of death and sudden collapse.
‘The toilet window’s not secured,’ says Rae.
It’s a PVC affair, a white hatch, levered at the top and opening a fair amount.
I drag a dustbin over, grasp the window ledge, and hop up so that both feet are planted either side of the bin. I pull myself up just enough to look inside, half expecting to see Mrs Appleby slumped on the toilet. But the space is clear, just the toilet seat, a metal handrail screwed into the wall either side, and a paper holder.
I pull myself up and stuff myself through the window head first, wriggling forwards as far as I can, upside-down lizard-style down the back of the toilet wall until I can just reach the handrails. As soon as I’ve got a good hold, I pull myself through, drop my legs down onto the toilet seat, and stand up.
I go through into the rest of the house.
The kitchen is swept and clean, towels folded away, a lemony glow around the metal sink and a dishcloth hung out to dry on the mixer tap.
I can see Rae looking in through the window again, shielding her eyes to counteract the glare.
‘I’ll let you in the front,’ I mime and say.
I go through an empty lounge to the hallway.
But the front door’s locked and I can’t find a key.
Rae is round the front now, waiting on the little patch of lawn there.
‘I can’t open it,’ I shout through the door. ‘She’s definitely not down here, though. I’ll just check the rest of the house.’
I walk up the carpeted stairs.
I call ahead of me. ‘Ambulance! Hello?’ She might still be in bed – it’s about ten o’clock, but she could be having a lie-in. I don’t want to terrify her.
‘Hello? Mrs Appleby?’
All the doors on the landing are shut.
She must have gone out. Who would shut all the doors like this if they were staying in?
I open the first.
A box-room, used for storage. A giant stuffed teddy in an I wuv you t-shirt, gawping crazily from the top of a pile of bags and boxes.
I shut the door again.
‘Mrs Appleby? Ambulance.’
I open the second door.
The shower curtains are drawn.
I pull them aside.
There’s a big garden spider in the bath, sitting by the plughole. I could swear it looks up at me with the same expression as the cat.
I let the shower curtains fall to again, and go back out onto the landing.
This third door must be the bedroom.
I knock and open it.
There’s a mound in the bed.
But when I get closer I realise she’s arranged the pillows on one side of the bed to act as a barrier – a comforter? – and then draped the duvet over everything.
I shut the door and go back down stairs. I can see Rae pacing about in the front garden, reading something on her phone. I pull the net curtains aside and knock on the window. When she looks up I mouth she’s not here. Then I go into the kitchen, open one of the big windows and hop up onto the draining board, knocking over a bottle of dishwashing liquid with my boot.
I pause on the window-ledge, figuring out the best way to jump.
The cat studies me from the apple crate.
She makes it pretty clear what she thinks.