‘This is an absolutely terrible idea,’ whispered Hugo.
‘It is,’ agreed the voice in his ear, ‘and if you can think up another one then I am all for that.’
That settled the matter.
It was dark. It was at least as dark as the night on which Nigel Larrix had been murdered in his bed by two armed people. Possibly darker: a thick layer of cloud cover had rolled in towards the evening. The weather forecast had predicted a slightly cooler night, which had yet to arise: instead, the clouds had trapped the heat like a thick blanket, and added some extra humidity.
Hugo was wearing a balaclava and gloves. His face was awash with sweat.
Julia had sold the balaclava as ‘smart’, with in-built communications and a filter over his eyes, rendering them monochrome to the observer. She’d looked smug about it, which Hugo noticed was a recurring pattern. However smart it was, Hugo thought, it was still cooking his face.
The scene of the heist was, of course, Chez Larrix. It was currently being guarded by two police, as well as, according to his smart balaclava, one around the back. The camera over Nigel’s mantelpiece couldn’t see anyone in the house, but Nigel had (Julia was, amazingly, irritated by this) refused to put other cameras throughout the rest of his home. For some reason.
Over the road from Nigel’s house, the other way from the Centipede, there was a stile into a field. Hugo was crouching behind this stile, waiting and barely breathing, face level with some underdeveloped blackberries.
‘Are you ready?’ asked Julia.
‘Here we go.’
The noise was ear-shattering. The balaclava seemed to muffle it somewhat, but it was ear-shattering nonetheless. It sounded like a combination of an explosion, a building collapsing, and Hell being ripped open to the glee of all its demons and hounds. It had at least come from the other side of the village.
The police officers in front of the house looked slowly at each other. Then, bellowing into their radios, they charged off down the road.
‘Did you have to?’ hissed Hugo.
‘Nobody’s lived there in decades. I checked. Are you moving?’
‘Yes,’ said Hugo.
He wasn’t. He took a deep breath, rose, and started to do so.
The balaclava was black; the gloves were black; everything else he wore was black. Julia had told him he’d feel like a ninja. He didn’t feel like a ninja. He felt like he looked massively suspicious.
He stopped moving again.
‘We may have a snag,’ said Julia’s voice. ‘The policewoman from the back has come around to the front.’
‘That’s not the only snag,’ said Hugo.
The ear-shattering noise had, as could have been predicted by anyone with a smattering of common sense, drawn families to their windows. Many had come out, and were standing on the porches. The street was a lot busier than it had been.
‘Human nature,’ said Julia. Hugo could hear the eye-roll. ‘Hang on. I have an emergency backup.’
He crouched back down again. People, in their dressing gowns, were starting to cluster. One gentleman had even engaged the policewoman in conversation.
Then the siren started.
It was slightly tinny-sounding and highly localised. Hugo took a moment to realise why.
‘This is the Midlands drone warning system,’ said the drone in a masculine growl. ‘Please remain in your homes, stay away from all windows, and await further instructions. This is the Midlands drone…’
For all of her misunderstandings of human nature, it had the desired effect. The streets drained of visitors faster than Hugo’s stomach that one misguided attempt to impress a crush by eating a vindaloo. Even the policewoman looked confused. She grabbed her radio and looked the other way.
Hugo jumped out from behind the stile, heart pounding in his balaclava, and half-ran half-tumbled across a dark zone in the street.
‘How’s it going?’ said his balaclava. ‘I can see the other two police from here.’
‘Can you, that’s nice.’
Somehow, miraculously, he managed to reach the small wooden door alongside the house without anybody shouting ‘Hey you!’ or other synonyms for, ‘You’ve fucked it lad.’ The door yielded to his push. Then it was down a narrow path between the houses, filled with more spider webs at face height than Julia’s dining room, and into Nigel’s back yard.
Hugo squinted into the darkness, but couldn’t make out any shadowy figures behind the wrapped garden furniture. That, of course, didn’t mean they weren’t there. He nodded his head to pay respects to the tomatoes as he jingled the keys.
‘They’re calling for back-up,’ said Julia.
‘Are you actually enjoying this?’
‘No. Maybe. A little. I haven’t destroyed anything in ages.’
‘Not true, you’ve destroyed the air in your room.’
The spare keys were Julia’s, naturally. Nigel had given them to her. Her, of all people. Hugo supposed she could have sent them to him by drone. He let himself in, expecting a burglar alarm to go off at any moment and foil the whole scheme.
‘You’re going to have to move fast. The alarm starts its countdown when somebody enters.’
‘You couldn’t have told me this earlier why!?’
‘I forgot. And don’t turn on any lights.’
Aware that he was still meant to be being sneaky, Hugo choked back some swear words and, following Julia’s directions, stumbled through the dark kitchen and hallway. He yanked open the cupboard containing the alarm, wincing as it creaked.
‘One seven four six.’
Couldn’t see the numbers in the dark, of course. One… seven… four…
‘Eight! I remembered it wrong! One seven four eight!’
…eight. The alarm beeped once, quietly, and went silent. Hugo called down all the most extreme curses he could think of on Julia’s head.
‘Now, into the lounge,’ said Julia, in a tone that lacked any appropriate grovelling. ‘It’s the door behind you on your right.’
‘Sure you don’t mean left?’
‘Cut the snark, there’ll be time for apologies later.’
He went through the doorway.
He was in a dead man’s living room. Recently dead, as well: it still smelled like somewhere that was lived in. There was still a sag on the sofa where a man’s weight might have fallen. Knick-knacks and pictures lined the walls, mostly china animals and rural landscapes respectively. Nigel Larrix had a sentimental side that, Hugo suspected, he’d kept to himself for the most part.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the large photograph over the mantelpiece. It was obviously of Nigel, and the woman entwined with him was presumably his wife. She was short, stocky, and looked like she was laughing hard enough to wake the dead.
This was what the camera, fixed to the roof opposite, had spotted. There were other pictures around the room, of a couple at various ages in various locales, but this was front and centre. Exactly the sort of picture you’d hide your secrets behind.
If you were an obvious person. Which Nigel wasn’t. And he knew he was being watched.
Hugo thought quickly. Julia nattering away in his ear made this more difficult.
‘…backup arrives they’ll presumably go back to guarding the house, so you need to be…’
‘It’s not in here.’
‘What do you mean, “It’s not in there”? Yes it is. You haven’t even checked.’
‘That’s not a thing. When has that ever been a thing?’
‘Where does he have other memorabilia of his wife?’
‘I don’t know, I didn’t go over to his house!’
‘You were friends!’ said Hugo, stepping back into the hall.
‘Yes, but… it’s his home! It’s weird, going inside somebody else’s home!’
The hall was mostly taken up by a winding staircase. Hugo climbed it. Reaching the top threw him into view of some windows. He quickly ducked away from these, and began trying rooms.
‘I’m staying inside your home,’ he whispered.
‘You’re not, you’re staying inside my house. My home consists of two rooms and a toilet. Occasionally I leave them to get food. I let you inside my home once, and I already regret it. Now will you go back downstairs and have a look behind that damn painting?’
Bathroom, spare room that looked unused, toilet. The master bedroom was a good shout…
…forensic tape, index cards, bloodstains on the carpet…
‘Right, back-up’s arrived. You’re running out of time which you are wasting. And I can’t see you up there.’
‘I’ve found it.’
‘You can’t have.’
He hadn’t. Not yet.
This had definitely been his wife’s room, however. The make-up cases by the mirror, the desk calendar with ecstatic-looking dogs on, the pink on the bed linen, the vase with dried lavender in it. It didn’t ooze Nigel Larrix, who for all his positive traits had probably not been too progressive about his colour choices. It did ooze…
‘What was Mrs. Larrix’s first name?’ he whispered.
‘No idea. Is it important right now?’
‘You never asked his wife’s name?’
‘No, I didn’t care! What have you found?’
What had he found? Time was short. Fortunately the curtains were drawn. Unfortunately that made it even harder to see anything in the dim light, inherited from the street lamps.
‘Dunno. Does this smart balaclava have night vision?’
‘That’s a planned feature for version two point oh. Now what have you found?’
Where would Nigel have put his secret documents? What would most remind him of his wife? Everything in here, presumably. There was no large overarching picture like there had been downstairs, just a couple of small ones of the happy couple. Could it have been in the living room all along? Had he gone too deep?
‘One of the officers is leaving the scene,’ crackled Julia. ‘Get out now.’
Shit. Think, Hugo! Think!
Reckon only me and my wife are in positions to help this place, and we’ve been trying for years…
He hadn’t. Had he?
He picked up the desk calendar, sitting untouched on the front cover. It was one of those ones that have a page for every day of the year that you peel off and discard, and if they’d managed to think of 365 unique dog puns then hats off to them.
365 pages meant, of course, lots of room in the middle ones to hide your thoughts. Thoughts that would be missed by anyone skimming through the front and back pages…
There wasn’t time to try out his hypothesis. He grabbed the calendar, left the room, and tried not to stomp too loudly around the bend in the stairs.
There was somebody else blocking the stairwell.