What little light the moon might have given us is lost behind a spread of low cloud. Even the street lamps are struggling, their muted orange glow lending a kind of hectic, orange sweat to everything. The houses are set back from the road; that and the poor light make it difficult to read any of the numbers. We cruise along slowly, me with my window down, prodding about with a torch.
Just up ahead there’s a man standing underneath a porch light, smoking.
I turn off my torch as we draw alongside.
‘Are you thirty-nine?’ I ask him.
He scratches his bare chest but doesn’t say anything.
Does he think I’ve asked him his age?
‘No,’ he says, then flicks the cigarette away, steps back inside and firmly closes the door.
But at least I can see his number – from that we count to the house we want, and I hit At Scene.
A house just like any other in this road, except a security light snaps on the moment we open the front gate. Artificial flowers in a gravel enclosure, with plastic dragonflies and butterflies on sticks. The crick-croak of a frog – plastic, motion sensor. A black and yellow notice on the front door: CCTV in operation.
‘Not the most welcoming house front,’ says Rae. ‘Oh – look!’
A black cat has hopped down from its perch on some recycling bins and begun wrapping itself around her legs.
‘Yep’ she says, stroking its back. ‘I can feel batteries.’
The house is as dark as any of its neighbours. Certainly no indication that a male, overdose is inside. The call came from a mental health line, so it could be they’ve confused the address. After knocking and ringing for a while, we let Control know. They tell us to wait until they can find out some more information.
We look round the back. Another blinding security light.
A side door, as secure as the front, with a patch of intense smoke damage, as if someone had tried to break in with an oxy-acetylene torch. Beyond that, a high and solid gate, with barbed wire along the top.
‘Breaking in won’t be easy.’
Just then we hear the plastic frog speak again. Crick-Croak. Crick-Croak. Someone coming down the steps from the road. We go round the side to meet them, saying Hello. Ambulance, ahead of us, just to underline the fact that we’re not burglars and good for shooting or something.
The back-lit silhouette of a doughy, hunched man in his forties.
‘Oh God!’ he says. ‘Don’t tell me! He’s done it again.’
The cat has wrapped itself round his legs now, in an ecstasy of greeting.
‘Hello pud-pud!’ he says, bending down and tickling her sides. ‘Who’s a clever pud-pud?’
‘We haven’t been told much’ I say to the man. ‘Just that someone at this address may have taken an overdose.’
‘Well I can tell you now that’s a lot of …’ He mimes the word bullshit fully and emphatically, turning sideways slightly and leaning forwards like a pantomime dame sharing a naughty confidence across the footlights. ‘I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s done this. The police know all about it. It’s been going on for years and quite frankly I’ve had enough. But look – where are my manners? Would you like to come inside like civilised adults? I can tell you the whole sorry saga in comfort.’
He double, triple, quadruple unlocks the front door with a bunch of keys on an extendable chain.
‘Better safe than sorry’ he simpers.
It’s like stepping into a pet shop. There are vivariums, fish tanks, scratching posts and bird cages in every corner of the place.
‘My weakness’ he says. ‘Just call me Saint Francis. Aren’t I, Charlotte? Hey? Now then! Who’s got a delicious mousie-wowsie for Schnucka-Lucka?’
He picks up a silvery packet of something and goes over to a red-lit glass tank with a curving branch of wood and a large, plastic skull. Coiling out of the skull’s eye sockets is a long, dusty-coloured snake, who lifts its head and tastes the air as the man walks over with the packet. ‘Din-dins’ says the man, tearing the packet open. A tail flops out of the top as he puts the strip on the table. ‘Daddy’s got you something fur-licious.’
The man grips the tail and pulls out a dead, white mouse.
‘Would you like to see how Charlotte eats?’ he says, the mouse swinging between his pinched fingers as he puts the empty packet on the table along with the strip.
We line up on the other side of the table and watch as the man reaches into the vivarium and carefully places the mouse upside down between a V in the branch.
‘Charlotte’s such a clever little thing’ he breathes. ‘She has to take the mouse head first, and I can’t resist teasing her a little. Watch how she moves.’
At first the snake is slow to get going – so slow I’m tempted to ask whatever questions we need to ask and clear off. But I’m fascinated to watch the snake eat the mouse, and probably more than that, to watch the man watch the snake eat the mouse.
He leans forward as the snake finally gets going, sliding forwards without any discernible effort, its sinuous body flexing and pulsing, instinctively making exactly the required level of accommodation to negotiate the wood and the gravel, the water dish and the foliage, sliding closer and closer to the mouse. Without any hesitation it cuts underneath the branch.
‘See? Now watch!’ says the man.
The snake has decided to approach from above, the tail end. I can’t understand how this is a good idea. Surely it would’ve been better to take it from underneath? But the snake is up on the limb of the branch now, its head angled down to take in the full prospect of the mouse beneath it. After a few, delicate flickerings of its tongue – flickerings that the man himself seems to copy – and in one clean and easy movement, it grips the mouse by a paw, swivels it around, and then unhinging its jaw with a convulsive jerk, begins to thread itself over the mouse, the V of the branch acting as a kind of brace.
‘There!’ he says. ‘Isn’t that the best? She won’t need to eat again for ten days.’
We ask the man about the overdose. He tells us there’s a long history. ‘For attention. It’s pathetic really.’
‘Is he here now?’
‘No. God knows where he’ll be. Your guess is as good as mine. Up to no good, though, you can count on that.’
‘Would you do us a favour and just check upstairs?’ says Rae. ‘Maybe he came back while you were out.’
‘Okay. But I know he’s not in.’
We stay in the kitchen whilst the man goes upstairs.
The snake has fully engulfed the mouse by the time he comes back down. Just a fat lump, back of the head.
‘No. Just as I thought. There’s nobody in.’
We thank the man and then turn to go.
Suddenly there’s a crash from upstairs.
The man smiles at us. Doesn’t even blink.
‘The cat’ he says.