I try the windows and the door at the front of the bungalow, but everything is locked shut, the curtains drawn, no sign of life.
‘I haven’t seen her all week,’ says the neighbour, standing at the front gate. ‘I hope she’s all right.’
‘I’ll try round the back.’
‘I’ve been here before,’ says Rae. ‘Eccentric, a bit isolated. I’m pretty sure we put in a vulnerable adult report for her. Oh – and I think she’s got a dog.’
A kitchen window is open, just enough to fit my hand through and flip the latch. It doesn’t open all that far though, and it’s quite high, so I have a struggle to climb up and slot myself in sideways, going in head first and bracing myself on the draining board enough to squeeze the rest of my body through.
A strip curtain separating the kitchen from the lounge, everything quiet and dark.
I move the strips aside and go through.
Mrs Westerling is slumped at the end of the sofa, her right arm underneath her body, her left down by her side. An old dog is lying next to her, its head partially obscured by a homemade lampshade collar. The dog doesn’t have enough energy to lift his head to look at me; instead he raises his eyes, and feebly bares his teeth.
‘Good boy. There’s a good boy.’
I edge round the room out of reach of the dog, and get closer to Mrs Westerling. She’s obviously been dead for some time, so I change my attention to opening the front door. Unfortunately it’s locked, and there’s no sign of a key. I draw the curtain aside and knock on the window to attract Rae’s attention.
‘She’s dead,’ I tell her. ‘I’m just looking for a key to let you in.’
I have to be careful where I’m walking. The poor dog has been trapped inside all this time and there are faeces on the hall floor.
‘Good boy. There’s a good boy.’
I go back into the kitchen, find a bowl and run some water into it. I go back into the lounge and carefully approach the dog, who seems a little more settled.
‘Good boy. Hey? Who’s a good boy?’
His eyebrows flicker up and down as he stares at me.
I gently offer him the water, setting it down on the cushion just in front of him. Immediately he starts lapping it up, tilting it a little with his paw to get past the edge of the lampshade. I leave him to drink whilst I go to the back door and look for a key there, without success. I go back into the lounge and look at Mrs Westerling.
I try to picture her locking up the house, the sequence she might have followed.
Front door, back door, sofa.
Somewhere between the kitchen and the sofa, then.
But the place is surprisingly bare. There’s a bread bin, but the top is clear. No row of hooks on the back of the larder door. No bowl of buttons and bits and pieces on the work surface, the pockets of the coat draped over the back of a chair are empty. There is a table in the lounge with an improbably old radio unit on a faded square of tartan, a photo of the dog posing by a Christmas tree, and an uneaten Mars bar on a china plate, but no key.
What could she have done with it?
I go back to the sofa. The dog has accepted me now, busily drinking from the bowl.
I look at Mrs Westerling.
No sign of anything round her neck.
There’s a handbag on the floor by her feet, but nothing much in it, a library card, bus pass, a quarter bottle of brandy and some tissues.
I straighten up again, then on an impulse, reach over to look in her left hand.
I move Mrs Westerling just enough to free her right arm – and there are the keys, her livid fingers still wrapped around them.
The dog looks up at me as I free them. He pauses a while, water dripping from his muzzle, then lowers his head again and carries on drinking.
I go to unlock the door.
‘He hasn’t seen a vet in a while,’ says Rae, bending down next to the dog. Het hasn’t moved from the sofa, even though the room is completely changed now, flooded with light and air when the door was opened and the curtains drawn back, two police officers moving around, opening drawers, looking for information, speaking on the radio.
The dog has a gross and bloody mass on its jaw, and a lampshade that Mrs Westerling had adapted to put round his neck to stop him scratching. He’s been lying next to her on the sofa for three or four days, and he’s so weak now he probably couldn’t move from this position if he wanted to.
‘Heya, Buddy,’ says Rae, crouching down next to him, letting the dog sniff her hand, then gently stroking his head.
‘The police say there’s someone coming to care of him soon,’ she says. She gives me a wry, sideways look. We both know what that’ll mean.
‘Here,’ she says, a little more brightly. ‘Look what I found! What’s this, hey? What’s this?’ And she holds a little bone-shaped dog-biscuit just in front of his nose.He gives it a sniff, pauses, like it reminds him of something he’s obliged to let go of now, then relaxes back again, and closes his eyes to sleep.