- Published: 18 August 2020
- ISBN: 9780241433577
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 352
- RRP: $32.99
The Sunday Times Crime Book of the Month
1. Spain, 1930
The two suspects sat on mismatched furniture in the white and almost featureless lounge, waiting for something to happen. Between them an archway led to a slim, windowless staircase: a dim recess that seemed to dominate the room, like a fireplace grown to unreasonable proportions. The staircase changed direction at its midpoint, hiding the upper floor from view and giving the impression that it led up to darkness and nothing else.
‘It’s hell, just waiting here.’ Megan was sitting to the right of the archway. ‘How long does a siesta normally take, anyway?’
She walked over to the window. Outside, the Spanish countryside was an indistinct orange colour. It looked uninhabitable in the heat.
‘An hour or two, but he’s been drinking.’ Henry was sitting sideways in his chair, with his legs hooked over the arm and a guitar resting on his lap. ‘Knowing Bunny, he’ll be asleep until dinner time.’
Megan moved to the drinks cabinet and examined the bottles, carefully turning each one until all the labels were facing outwards. Henry took the cigarette from his mouth and held it up in front of his right eye, pretending to watch her through it: a mock telescope. ‘You’re breathing through your shoes again.’
She’d been pacing back and forth for most of the afternoon. The lounge, with its white tiles and wipe-clean surfaces, reminded her of a doctor’s waiting room; they could have been in a red-brick hospital back home, rather than a strange Spanish villa at the top of a ragged, red hill. ‘If I’m breathing through my shoes,’ she muttered, ‘then you’re walking with your mouth.’
A few hours earlier they’d been having lunch at a small tavern in the nearest village, a thirty-minute walk through the woods from Bunny’s house. Bunny had stood up at the end of the meal and they’d both immediately noticed how drunk he was.
‘We need to have a conversation,’ he’d slurred. ‘You’ve probably been wondering why I asked you here. There’s something I’ve wanted to discuss for rather a long time.’ It was an ominous thing to say to his two guests, both entirely dependent on him in a country they’d never been to before. ‘When we’re at the villa, just the three of us.’
It had taken them almost an hour to walk back to the house, Bunny struggling up the hill like an old donkey, a grey suit against the red earth. It felt absurd now to think of the three of them in Oxford together, all those years ago; he’d aged seemingly ten years more than they had.
‘I need to rest,’ he’d drawled, after letting them into the house. ‘Give me some time to sleep, then we can talk.’ So while Bunny had gone upstairs to sleep away the heat of the afternoon, Megan and Henry had collapsed into armchairs on either side of the staircase. ‘A brief siesta.’
That was almost three hours ago.
Megan was looking out of the window. Henry leaned forward and counted the number of squares between them: she was standing diagonally across from him, a distance of seven white tiles. ‘This feels like a game of chess,’ he said. ‘Is that why you keep moving about? You’re putting your pieces in place for an attack?’
She turned to face him, her eyes narrowed. ‘Chess is a cheap metaphor. It’s what men use when they want to talk in a grandiose way about conflict.’
An argument had been building between them all afternoon, ever since Bunny had brought their lunch to a sudden end. The three of us need to have a conversation, away from Spanish eyes. Megan looked out of the window again and there it was, as inevitable as the weather: the impending argument, a black stain layered over the blue sky.
‘Chess is all about rules and symmetry,’ she continued, ‘but conflict is usually just cruel and dirty.’
Henry strummed the guitar as a way of changing the subject. ‘Do you know how to tune this thing?’ He’d found it hanging on the wall above his chair. ‘I could play this if it was tuned.’
‘No,’ she said, and left the room.
He watched her walk deeper into the house: successively smaller versions of her framed by further doorways along the corridor. Then he lit another cigarette.
‘When do you think he’ll wake up? I’d like to get some fresh air.’
She was back, the biggest version of her standing in the nearest doorway.
‘Who knows,’ said Henry. ‘Right now he’s sleeping the sleep of the just-had-lunch.’ She didn’t smile. ‘You can go ahead and leave. I think anything he has to say can wait.’
Megan paused, her face as pristine and unreadable as it was in her publicity photos. She was an actor, by profession. ‘Do you know what he’s going to say to us?’
Henry hesitated. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Fine. I’m going outside, then.’
He nodded and watched her leave. The corridor led away from the lounge in the direction he was facing and he saw her walk down it and through a door at the end; the stairs were to his left. He continued toying with the guitar strings until one of them snapped and the flailing metal cut the back of his hand.
At that moment the room darkened and he automatically turned to his right: Megan was at the window, looking in, the red hills behind giving her outline a demonic glow. She didn’t seem able to see him; maybe the day outside was too bright. But he felt like a creature in a zoo anyway, with the back of his hand held over his mouth as he sucked the slight cut, and his fingers hanging from his chin.
Megan took shelter on the shaded side of the house. Standing in a clump of wildflowers, she leaned back against the building and closed her eyes. From somewhere nearby came a soft, percussive sound: dip, dip, dip. It seemed to originate from behind her. She thought at first it was the carried sound of the guitar, coming through the walls, but it wasn’t melodic enough for that. It was very faint – almost not there at all – but she could still hear it, as unmistakable as a stone in her shoe.
Dip. Dip. Dip.
She turned around and looked up. Through a wrought-iron grille she could see a fly repeatedly hitting itself against the closed window of Bunny’s bedroom. The one next to hers, on the top floor of the house. It was just a tiny fly, trying to escape; then she saw that there were two of them. Three, in fact. Now four. A whole swarm of flies, trying to get out. The corner of the window was dark with them. She could picture the dead ones littering the windowsill. She found a small stone on the ground and threw it at the window; the black cloud scattered at the audible clunk, but no sound came from inside. She tried again, but couldn’t rouse her sleeping host.
She grew impatient and picked up a whole handful of stones, throwing them one by one until her hands were empty. She walked back around the outside of the house, in through the door and along the corridor to the foot of the stairs where Henry, surprised by her sudden appearance, dropped the guitar with a clatter on the cold, white floor.
‘I think we should wake Bunny.’
He saw that she was worried. ‘Do you think something’s wrong?’
In fact, she was angry. ‘I think we should check.’
She started up the stairs. He was following closely behind her when she saw something that made her stop and cry out. Instinctively, he put his arms around her. It was an attempt to keep her calm, but it was done clumsily and it left the two of them locked together, unable to move.
‘Let me go.’ She elbowed him off and ran forward, and then with her shoulders out of his way he saw what she had seen: a pointing finger of blood reaching from below Bunny’s door towards the top of the stairs, pointing straight at him.
Neither of them had ever seen so much blood. Bunny lay on the sheets, face down. A knife handle emerged from his back, with a twisted red trail leading up to it from the lowest end of the bed. The blade was almost entirely hidden; they could just see a thin line of silver between his body and the black handle, like a glimpse of moonlight coming through a crack in the curtains. ‘That’s where his heart is,’ said Megan. The handle itself could have been part of a sundial, the dead body unknowingly marking the passage of time.
She approached the bed, stepping around the puddles on the floor. When she was a foot away from the body, Henry stopped her. ‘Do you think we should?’
‘I have to check.’ Absurdly, she pressed two fingers into the side of his neck. There was no pulse. She shook her head. ‘This can’t be true.’
In a state of shock, Henry sat down on the edge of the mattress; his weight caused the bloodstains to spread towards him and he leapt up as if waking from a bad dream. He looked at the door, then turned back to Megan.
‘The murderer might still be here,’ he said in a whisper. ‘I’ll search the other rooms.’
‘Okay,’ Megan whispered back; and because she was an actor she whispered in a way that was as clear as speaking. It was almost sarcastic. ‘And check if all the windows are locked.’
‘You wait here.’ And he left.
She tried to take a deep breath but the air in the room was rotten already, and the few telltale flies were still tapping against the edge of the blisteringly hot day. They must have grown bored of the body. She walked over and lifted the window by a couple of inches. The flies shot straight out and dissolved into the blue sky, like grains of salt stirred into soup. As she stood there by the window, cold with shock, Megan could hear Henry searching through the nearby rooms, opening wardrobes and looking under beds.
He appeared in the doorway again, a disappointed look on his face. ‘There’s nobody up here.’
‘Were the windows all locked?’
‘Yes, I checked.’
‘I thought so,’ she said. ‘Bunny locked everything obsessively before we left for lunch. I watched him do it.’
‘What about those doors, are they locked?’ He indicated with his hand the two doors to the balcony behind her. She stepped over to them and pulled at the handles. They were bolted from the inside at the top, middle and bottom.
‘Yes,’ she said. She sat down on the edge of the bed, ignoring the spreading blood. ‘Henry, do you know what this means?’
He frowned. ‘It means they must have left by the staircase. I’ll lock all the doors and windows downstairs. Stay here, Megan.’
‘Wait,’ she began, but he had already vanished. She heard his bare feet thudding unmusically on the steps that were as white and hard as piano keys, heard him pause as he reached the turning in the staircase and slap one palm flat against the wall to steady himself, then heard the course of his movements around the floor below.
She opened a drawer in Bunny’s bedside cabinet: there was nothing inside but underwear and a gold watch. Another held a diary and his pyjamas. He’d fallen asleep in his clothes, of course. She took the diary out and flicked through the pages. The entries had stopped almost a year ago. She put it back. Then she looked at her watch.
How long would she have to wait here, indulging Henry’s makeshift display of taking control, before she could go down and confront him?
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.
It had taken seven minutes for the first of the fire engines to screech to a halt outside the offices of Morris & Wood, but even by then anyone could have seen it was too late.
Cindy Thomas was tuned in to her police scanner as she drove through the Friday-morning rush to her job at the San Francisco Chronicle.
She sleeps. A pale girl in a white room. Machines surround her. Mechanical guardians, they tether the sleeping girl to the land of the living, stopping her from drifting away on an eternal, dark tide.
Something clicked in the house and he froze, looking towards the closed door, his heart racing. Had it been the front door? Had someone come in?