Vanished, p.32

Vanished, page 32

 

Vanished
 



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  It’s suicide going in blind.

  But then I suddenly thought of Liz, of everything she’d said to me the day before. This is who you are. This is what you do. I get it. But remember something: this is my life now too. She was right. She’d always been right. If I was a different man, if I was a little better, perhaps I would have listened. Perhaps I would have been able to stop myself.

  But I wasn’t that man.

  And Sam Wren was the only thing that mattered.

  Water poured down my face, through my hair and ran off my jacket as I stepped up to the door. I didn’t ring the bell. I didn’t knock either. As much as possible, I wanted to avoid letting him know I was here. But when I grabbed the door handle, it bumped away from the frame, opening on to a small, tidy hallway. I immediately felt a prickle of unease. Why would he leave his front door open? I stopped, halfway in, halfway out, wondering if this was the right thing, after all. But I had no choice. I’d rung the police and they’d failed to act.

  The hallway was carpeted in an old-fashioned maroon, but the walls were cream, hung with pictures of meadows and black-and-white photographs of old steam trains. On the left was a staircase, on the right a door into a living room. Same maroon carpet, same cream walls. A TV, two sofas, more paintings, more photos of trains. As I stepped further in, the carpet like a sponge beneath my wet boots, I saw brass-framed pictures of a young Smart looking drawn and emotionless: one in front of a Tube roundel, another outside the entrance of a station, the picture scorched by bright summer sun. Next to that was a picture of his father in the uniform of the London Underground, a ten- or eleven-year-old Smart at his leg. The photos were lined up on the coffee table, one after the other, all of them black and white, all of them the same theme, except the last one, which was in colour.

  This one was on its own.

  It sat away from the others, on the edge of the table, and in front of it was a wooden bowl, placed there like an offering. It was full of hair. I took another step closer. In the photo, Smart was sitting on a chair beside a hospital bed, his father – mask over his face, mobile oxygen tank at his feet – beside him. The old man, stick-thin and shaven-headed, looked like he had hours left. But it wasn’t that that drew my attention. It was what his father was wearing: a red T-shirt, with checked sleeves.

  The shirt had belonged to him.

  That’s why it had been so important to Smart, why he’d had it with him today. And it must have been why he’d worn it the day he took Sam. Not only because it was red and he would merge with the other protesters, although that would have been in his thinking, but because it was another part of his routine, like the shaved head. A connection to his father. And the hair in the bowl – presumably Smart’s hair – was the other. He hadn’t been shaved at the station earlier, so this was fresh. The second part of the routine. The way he remembered his father – became like him, channelled him – on the anniversary of his death.

  Behind me the front door was still open, rain slapping against the driveway and running off the porch roof. I left it like that, realizing the sound would disguise my movement inside the house, even if it immediately let him know I was here. I moved up the stairs. At the top was a small landing area with three doors: two bedrooms, one bathroom. Everything was neat and tidy, but old-fashioned – like a time capsule – and I wondered whether this had been his father’s place.

  I paused. Listened.

  All I could hear was the rain hammering against the glass at the upstairs windows and hitting the steps at the front of the house. But as I moved around, checking hiding places, making sure he wasn’t upstairs, I heard a voice.

  I stopped in the centre of Smart’s bedroom and felt the silence settle around me. Beyond the rain there was nothing now: the faint sound of a car somewhere, a beep of a horn. I must have heard one of his neighbours. Except, as I moved back downstairs, the house creaking around me, as if shifting and changing shape, I started to feel a nagging sense that it wasn’t one of his neighbours I’d heard, but someone much closer.

  Pausing in the hallway, I looked back out through the front door at the deserted street, then into the living room, then on to the kitchen ahead of me. I primed myself, feeling my muscles tense, and edged forward. The kitchen was empty. I looked to the front door again, and turned back to the kitchen. A small, pokey L-shaped unit, wood painted white, with pale green worktops like beds in a hospital ward. A toaster. A pot of utensils. Some spices in metal jars. Where the hell is he? Directly to my left, two steps led down to a sunken office, empty except for a cheap-looking computer desk, a PC connected to a modem and a blue chair with four wheels.

  Beyond that, on the far side, was the back door.

  I took in the kitchen again. Over the sink was a window, looking out over a small garden. I moved across to it, the wet soles of my boots making a faint squeak on the lino. The garden was narrow but long. At the other end were a row of high trees, thick growth – weeds and long grass – clawing at their trunks. On the other side of the trees, partially visible through holes in the canopy, was the old line at Fell Wood. As rain and wind passed through, branches moved and opened up spaces in the leaves, and – on the other side – I saw a tall, cream-coloured structure I recognized.

  The ventilation shaft on top of the Tube station.

  I stepped away and, as I did, a smell drifted towards me, a mix of metal and old dishcloths. The kitchen seemed pretty clean, the worktops wiped down, no food out, no crumbs even, but the longer I stood there, the stronger the odour got. I started opening up the kitchen cupboards one by one, trying to locate the smell, but despite all the things Smart was, all the terrible suffering he’d wrought, he’d managed to build a convincing lie. Everything spoke of normality. In the corner was the fridge, humming gently. And then my eyes happened to fall on the slim gap between the fridge and the wall.

  There was a key, taped to the wall.

  I reached in and ripped it off. It was a small brass Yale key, marked with a single red dot. I flipped it over, hoping to find some clue as to what it was for, when the smell came again. Less metal, more rot: maybe not wet dishcloths. Or maybe not only that.

  Pocketing the key, I headed down into the office and across to the back door. I tried the key, but it didn’t fit. Then I realized it didn’t matter anyway: like the front door, the back was unlocked. My nerves were immediately put on edge. I swivelled, facing back across the office, but no one was there. No sound from the house. And as the wind rushed past me, drawn along the hallway from one door to the next, I noticed a tiny stain on the carpet, an irregular drip pattern running from the steps, across towards the back door. Not much of it, but enough.

  Dried blood.

  He’d tried to wash it out of the carpet, but had either given up or failed to see it all. I looked out through the door, seeing if there was any more, but if it had once carried on, out to the patio and across the lawn, it had been washed away by the rain. Yet the blood on the carpet seemed to be leading out of the empty house.

  In the direction of the station.

  73

  There was a small gap in the trees, leading from Smart’s garden to the line. As I emerged on to the path, about forty yards from the overground platform and the Tube station adjacent to it, the sound seemed to drop away. The patter of rain against leaves. A faint wind, whispering past me. Nothing else. As I stood there, a strange feeling of loneliness formed in me, as if I was miles from anywhere safe.

  Moving to the platform, I reached up and dragged a piece of glass towards me. It was jagged but sharpened to a point, its surface creamy and coated with dirt. Removing a tissue from my pocket, I wrapped it around the end to avoid cutting myself, and headed for the path to the Tube station entrance.

  At the top of the concrete steps, I paused.

  I was drenched, water running off my face, soaking into my clothes, but I could hardly even see it on myself the light was fading so fast. I reached into my pocket and activated the torch function on my phone – the
n used it to illuminate the path down.

  I could feel dirt and masonry crunch beneath my boots as I took the steps two at a time, light dancing off the walls, rain fading behind me as I entered the building. Once I was inside, the relentlessness of the dark made me pause, almost surprised me, even though I’d walked this same route two days before. I stepped further in and as I did it was as if something woke. A sound, like a voice, seemed to pass from one side of the ticket hall to the other, and all that remained was a chill; a coolness which sent goosebumps scattering up my arms and across my body. I swung the phone around the room, letting it settle on the space next to the ticket office.

  The stairs down to the staffroom.

  I shifted the shard of glass in my hand, holding it like a blade, realizing that I’d allowed myself to be drawn into this situation too quickly. I should have gone through Smart’s knife drawer, not grabbed some makeshift piece of window. But it was too late now. I was here. I’d been quiet on my approach, had made hardly any sound at all, but if Smart was clever enough to avoid detection for a year and a half, he was clever enough to take advantage of any uncertainty. When I got to the door, I wrapped my fingers around the old, wrought-iron handle and stopped, just for a second, to prepare myself.

  Then I opened it.

  The smell was worse than I remembered, a deep, awful stench of decay that came up the stairs towards me and forced me back. I put a hand to my mouth and looked down into the dark, and it took everything I had not to turn around and walk out. Except you can’t leave. You can’t leave before bringing them back into the light. I felt air pass me at ankle level, icy cold, and as my mind started turning over, and I started to imagine what might be waiting, I realized it wasn’t completely silent: there was a soft noise, like a buzz. It sounded vaguely like electricity being pumped through the walls of the station.

  Except it wasn’t electricity.

  It was flies.

  I started the descent. Halfway down, short of the curve in the stairwell, I felt an insect bump against my face, dozy in the airless room below. Another passed across the light of the phone, drifting in and out of its blue glow, and – as I got to the turn in the stairs – I could see more on the walls and ceiling. The smell was unbearable now, even with my hands at my face; a thick, tangy stink. And as the stairs came to an end and I stepped down on to the floor of the room, I saw why.

  As I swung the torch around to my left, to where the counter had once stood, there was a slumped figure beneath it.

  He was facing me, sitting up, his back against the wall, his head – though angled to one side – almost touching the counter. His feet were straight out in front of him. Above his mouth, in the space where his nose and one of his eyes should have been, was what remained. Mostly it was just a mess of blood and skin, the shotgun that had done the damage wedged between his thighs, one of his hands half caught in the trigger. The other side of his face was intact: an ear, a cheek, half a jaw, some of his freshly shaved head. On the floor next to him were a series of photographs: a Tube train pulling into an overground station; a boy eating on a platform; the same boy, much younger than before, with an ice cream; and an old man, his father, captured in black and white. Then, finally, clutched in his other hand, his fingers balled around it, was the red T-shirt with checked sleeves.

  Edwin Smart.

  74

  I crouched down and glanced at Smart; at what was left of his head. It was featureless, the skin that was left like wallpaper falling away, the rest just a mess of blood and brain. Spatter fanned out in a semicircle above him, suggesting he’d put both barrels against the roof of his mouth. Stepping away, I moved to the stairs. In front of me, without the light from the phone, there was nothing but dark. I turned the display in my hand and started moving up. As I entered the ticket hall, I could see a square of light on the far side – the entrance – but either side of it, all around it, there was nothing but black.

  A brief feeling passed through me, a strange, cognizant shiver, as if some part of me was sending out a warning, and I swung the light, left to right. When I did it a second time, I realized something: as I looked across to my right where the lift remained padlocked, the metal grate pulled across it, I saw a mark – a red dot – on the padlock, facing out towards me. I felt around in my pockets for the key I’d taken from Smart’s kitchen.

  A matching red dot.

  Is the lift shaft where he dumped the bodies?

  I thought for a minute about opening up, because if this was where he’d put them, somehow it felt wrong to leave the bodies there, in the darkness, for any longer – but then I realized it probably dropped eighty feet, and if it was dark in the ticket hall, it was going to be even darker in the well of the lift. The police needed to handle it.

  So I headed out.

  Halfway up the concrete steps, I stopped again.

  Footprints.

  Mine were in the middle, right through the centre of the steps. These were off to the side, in a rough diagonal, from left to right. I hadn’t noticed them on the way down, but, when I got to the top of the stairs, I could see them clearly: wet prints, size eleven or twelve, a mix of mud from the line, and dust from inside the station. They were fresh. I could see a route in, and – just adjacent to that – I could see the person’s route out. I quickly moved through the undergrowth and on to the line.

  No more footprints.

  Heading back to the house, through the treeline, and into Smart’s garden, I saw the back door was still open, swinging gently in the breeze. Inside I stopped, edging across the office and looking in through the kitchen. Even without seeing it, I could hear that the front door was still open, wind passing through the house. I headed along the hallway. There was nothing out of place, no sign anyone had been inside, so I pushed the front door shut, softly bedding it in its frame, then returned to the rear of the house and did the same to the back door. The noise of rain faded instantly, restricted only to the windows, where it swirled in against the glass.

  Suddenly the silence shattered as my phone started ringing.

  I killed it instantly.

  Waited.

  I backed up against the kitchen counter, trying to give myself the best view of both the office and the hallway, and then a text came through. I looked down at the display. I didn’t recognize the number, but I knew instantly who it was from. Craw. Got your message. On our way. DON’T do anything stupid.

  I dropped the phone back into my pocket. Too late for that. I padded through to the stairs, taking them two at a time all the way up. Paused on the landing. The rooms were empty, but I double-checked to be sure, then headed back down into the kitchen. Smart was dead. Sam and the others were probably at the bottom of a lift shaft. Which meant there was only one person unaccounted for.

  Duncan Pell.

  Then it came again. That same smell as earlier.

  What is that?

  I dropped to my haunches and started going through the cupboards again, seeing if there was anything collecting mould, any spilt liquids or rotting food. But Smart had kept his home in decent condition. I couldn’t put a finger on the odour, couldn’t quite define it in my head, but the closest I could get was the same as before: old dishcloths. That smell you got when they were screwed up into a ball and left, still stained with food and soaked with water, never quite drying, the odour just getting stronger. It wasn’t unbearable, just unpleasant.

  I closed the door beneath the sink, got up and walked around the kitchen, running a hand along the edge of the worktop as I moved from one side to the other.

  And then I felt something beneath my boot.

  I looked down. A slight indentation in the floor, the size of a beer mat, about two feet in from the skirting boards. I prodded it with the toe of my boot. There was something in the middle of it: a bump. I leaned down, running a hand across it, and then – in my peripheral vision – noticed something else: the lino in the corner of the room hadn’t been set properly. It was curling up, as if it h
adn’t been stuck down.

  Or it had been placed back in a hurry.

  I went through Smart’s knife drawer and picked out an old-fashioned potato peeler. Using the V-shaped end, I forced it down into the corner of the room, where the lino met the skirting board, and prised the lino away. It came out easily. I grabbed a handful of it and then pulled it back with me, edging across the kitchen. It unfurled like a layer of skin, peeling slowly away, revealing wooden floorboards underneath. The smell was stronger now, and I realized why: the floorboards had been wiped down, cleaned of whatever had spilled across them, but when the lino had been placed back on top, the floorboards hadn’t been dry. Despite that, despite the swipes left on their surface by the cloth, they were still in immaculate condition, oak panels laid perfectly from one side of the room to the other. Except for one square the size of a beer mat.

  In that space was a flip-up handle.

  Under the lino was a trapdoor.

  75

  The only thing that gave the game away was the handle itself, cut into a space about two inches deep, and then a thin line running in a square – about two feet across by the same long – which marked out the edges of the trapdoor. The trapdoor was finished in the same oak boards as the rest of the room. I dropped down, gripping the handle as tightly as I could, and opened it.

  The door locked at ninety degrees, on a hinge. Inside I could see a concrete staircase dropping down into the dark. Once the shadows sucked up the uneven steps and the crumbling stone walls, there was nothing else.

  Just black.

  I got up and looked around the kitchen for a torch, figuring he’d need one if this was where he’d been keeping them, and – after some searching – found one right at the back of the cupboard under the sink. It was black and rubberized, its casing marked with dust. I flicked it on and directed it down into the darkness. Further down, I could see part of the wall at the bottom of the stairs. It was covered in what looked like black egg cartons.

 

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