Hugo didn’t know whether to be surprised or not. On the one hand, a room filled wall-to-wall with computer units and monitors, the only light coming from the glowing screens, wasn’t one he would have expected to see anywhere in Pierstree. On the other hand, if he’d expected to see it anywhere, it would have been in one of the rooms in Julia’s house he hadn’t been allowed to enter.
‘Sorry about the mess,’ said Julia, but more in the tone of something she was expected to say than that of a genuine apology.
It should have been the latter. Around the swivel chair that formed the room’s centrepiece were empty noodle pots, crisp and sweet packets, and soft drink bottles of a brand Hugo didn’t recognise. Their ‘delicate’ ‘aromas’ combined with the stink of what was presumably Julia, concentrated into frequencies could have been weaponised, were it not for the fact that the Geneva Convention would have had a fit.
Hugo recoiled, then recovered. ‘It is a bit grubby, but nothing opening the window wouldn’t fix…’
‘Nobody outside can see what’s in this room.’
Hugo thought about commenting that it seemed a little unrealistic to think that some shadowy figures would try and sneak a camera into the room. Then he thought how unrealistic it was that, in a peaceful village in the Midlands, Nigel Larrix had been murdered in his own home and Hugo Gubbins had been mistaken for someone who needed knifing in a cemetery.
Julia sat down in the chair. In doing so, she seemed to become part of it. Over God knew how many years, she must have precisely calibrated the settings to fit her body shape; then, through sitting in it, left an imprint of that same shape. Hugo wondered how she had managed to maintain that shape while subsisting off Monster Munch and muffins.
‘Close the door,’ she said, wheeling the chair over to a desk.
‘Ah now come on…’
‘You heard what I said.’
‘If I close the door I will pass out. Julia, you’re used to this room’s… how to put it…’
‘Not quite the word I was aiming for, but… Anyway, I’m not. If I have to close the door to be shown this room, I return to Plan A, which is getting the hell out of dodge.’
Julia glared at him for a few seconds. Then she rotated away reluctantly.
‘I suppose I can get Surya to guard it.’
Her fingers found the keyboard. Windows flashed past on one of the centre-most screens at a speed bewildering to Hugo, who couldn’t change programmes without a mouse. The windows mostly looked the same in any case, black backgrounds with white text and angel brackets up the wazoo.
There was a whirring noise above his head. Then something dropped.
Hugo jumped. He jumped sideways, into a computer unit. It wobbled horribly. He grasped at it and managed to prevent unwanted toppling.
Meanwhile, Surya hovered down from its cage, and in front of the doorway. The drone’s beady green ‘eye’ had a glare every bit as malevolent as its owner.
‘That costs the entirety of your student loan if you break it,’ said Julia without turning from the screens.
Hugo let go of the unit hurriedly. Negotiating around Surya, he stood behind Julia’s chair and looked at the screens.
‘Pierstree,’ said Julia. ‘As seen through cameras. Apart from that one, that one’s Midwick. I can move that one.’
‘How many cameras are there around Pierstree?’
‘Since a few years ago? Quite a few. One of the few good things about the pub turf war is that everybody wants to keep an eye on their other-pub-frequenting friends.’
‘They’re allowed other-pub-frequenting friends?’ said Hugo.
Julia nodded to concede the point. ‘Acquaintances. Former acquaintances. Anyway, Nigel “did a deal with a local company”…’
‘…to get CCTV cameras installed almost everywhere in the village by drones…’
‘Controlled by you.’
‘…do you want to stop interrupting, Hugo Gubbins, and hear something interesting?’
A remark about the woman who watched everyone being paranoid about people seeing this room was on the tip of Hugo’s tongue. He managed to keep it there.
‘This,’ said Julia, pointing to a screen on the top left, ‘is the Tree of Life’s front door, two days ago in the afternoon.’
Hugo saw what were unmistakably the three pillars, weirdly glossy even through the grainy camera feed. People were passing, cars were trundling through, and two nondescript figures were staring up at the pillars. At one point a tabby wandered across the screen.
‘What am I looking at?’ said Hugo.
‘I just told you, the view from the Tree of Life’s front door.’
‘No, I meant…’
‘Now,’ said Julia, indicating the screen to the right of that one, ‘this is the church, later the same evening.’
It was indeed, apparently from across the road from the church’s old wooden door. The sun was setting, washing the scene in pink light. Fewer people were passing, very occasional cars were trundling through, and two nondescript figures were entering the churchyard.
‘Still not getting what I’m meant to be seeing…’
‘Those two then don’t appear again until the evening of the next day. I’ve checked. They just don’t appear. It’s like they vanish for the next twenty-six hours.’ She swivelled around to face him. ‘Guess where they next show up.’
Hugo engaged his storyteller’s brain. It didn’t take long to come up with the most unreasonably dramatic answer.
‘Not outside Nigel’s house?’
Julia swivelled back, and pointed at the third screen in a row. It was night, the duckpond was visible, and on the far right you could just about see a recently replaced window. The timestamp read 2 a.m.
‘I’m going to switch to his back yard camera now,’ said Julia.
‘Why does he have a back yard camera?’
‘Because I asked him to.’
The back yard looked unassuming, apart from being pitch black. Nigel had been growing some tomatoes in pots. In a rush of confused emotion, Hugo suddenly felt sorry for the orphaned tomatoes. Other than that, all you could really see was garden furniture under plastic covers.
‘No,’ said Hugo, not wanting to say he’d seen and felt sorry for some tomatoes.
‘Nor did I. I had to run some image recognition technology first.’
She finally deigned to use a mouse. The cursor leapt over five different screens, before dragging a box over something behind the garden furniture. Red outlines flashed on and off.
‘It’s too dark to see if it’s the same people,’ said Julia, ‘but…’
‘…but two strange people appear in the village and sign themselves onto the cricket team’ (a leap of logic that he was comfortable making) ‘and then Nigel Larrix just happens to be murdered with two strange people in his garden?’
Julia span back around to him and smiled. It was a self-satisfied smile, bordering on smug.
‘But why would anyone want to murder Nigel?’ said Hugo. ‘He’s just about the only person that everybody in the village gets on with. Including you, apparently.’
The smug smile became a dirty look.
‘How would I know? As an introvert and shut-in I obviously don’t have the writer’s acute perception of human nature.’
‘I only meant…’
‘Don’t care.’ She turned back to her keyboards. ‘Why were you in the cemetery anyway?’
‘His wife,’ Hugo said, poking Surya.
‘What did I say about breaking that? What about his wife?’
‘He was talking to me about her like she was alive. Saying he used her as an excuse to sign up to the cricket, and how she and him were the only ones who could unite Pierstree…’
Julia stopped typing. She half-looked over her shoulder.
‘Repeat that for me?’
‘Er, okay, he used her as an excuse to…’
‘Not that bit, his wife loved the cricket when she was alive, he kept playing it in her legacy, everybody around here knows that. She and him…’
‘…were the only ones who could unite Pierstree.’
Julia looked at her hands, folded in her lap. She blinked slowly.
‘But I don’t see how, given…’
She helped up a hand. Hugo stopped.
For a while the room was silent, apart from their breathing, and Surya, and at least twenty cooling fans. Julia continued to looked at her hands, as her long, disproportionately muscular fingers climbed over each other.
‘Nigel knew,’ she said slowly.
‘He knew what?’
‘That someone was watching him.’
‘He knew he was going to be killed?’ I hope you will, Hugo Gubbins…
‘More like feared.’
‘He didn’t think to tell me!?’
‘You’d known him for less than two days!’
Ah yes. He’d forgotten that. Time did funny things in Pierstree.
‘He told me, however. And…’ She scrutinised him, like he was a particularly interesting glitch. ‘…he suggested that I might tell you. I presume out of lack of other options.
‘You’re right. I don’t have a particularly good grasp of human nature. Nigel did. So I’m trusting you. Am I going to regret this?’
Hugo got a grip on his gawping. ‘Er. Er. Er, er, no! No, of course not! Apart from anything else, you have my deposit.’
Julia stared at him for a moment. Surya’s rotors seemed to hum louder.
Then she smiled. It vanished very quickly, as if she was afraid someone would notice.
‘It is my belief,’ she stated, ‘that if Nigel made cryptic comments to you about his wife helping to reunite the village, he was giving you a clue. I don’t know why he didn’t give me the clue… but there you are. Only the someone who was watching overheard him, and came to the conclusion…’
‘…that he must have been referring to his wife’s grave!’
Now it was Hugo’s turn to feel smug. A second later, Julia’s expression out-smugged it comfortably.
‘That’s where they think the secret to reuniting the village lies, certainly. Here’s the thing, though…’
She turned back to the monitors and accessed another camera. It took Hugo a while to register what he was looking at.