N ightingale had breakfast in the hotel – egg, bacon, sausage, tomato, mushroom, white toast and coffee in the restaurant followed by three cigarettes sitting at a trestle table in the garden – before walking to the house where Connie Miller’s parents lived. It was a small brick cottage on the edge of the village, surrounded by tall conifers that swayed in the wind. The sky was grey and overcast and there were half a dozen seagulls hunched together on the roof.
Nightingale walked up to the front door. There was no bell but in the middle of the door there was a weathered iron knocker in the shape of an owl’s head with a ring held in its mouth. He knocked and then stood back, looking up at the cottage. The curtains were drawn in the upstairs windows. He knocked again. He heard a dog bark and turned around to see an elderly woman wrapped up in a duffle coat walking a cocker spaniel on a lead. He smiled and nodded as she walked by. He looked at his watch. It was nine o’clock in the morning. There was no car parked in front of the house so it was possible the Millers had already left the house. He knocked again, then took his mobile phone from his raincoat. The phone signal was patchy around the hotel but now he had a full signal. He phoned 118-118. The operator soon had a number for the Millers and Nightingale asked her to put him through. He heard a ringing tone and a second later a faint ringing from inside the house. The call went unanswered and Nightingale cut the connection. He walked over to the garage at the side of the house. The door opened upwards and it wasn’t locked. Inside was a dark blue VW Passat.
‘Terrific,’ muttered Nightingale. He knew he should walk away. He should go back to the hotel, get into his MGB, and drive back to London. He could phone from London and ask any questions he had then, and if no one answered the phone – well, so be it. He had the toothbrush head and the brush with its hairs and that was all he needed to confirm whether or not Connie Miller was his sister. He closed the garage door.
There was a wooden gate at the side of the garage. It opened silently on well-oiled hinges. Nightingale had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as he walked down the path, his mind racing. The car in the garage suggested that there was someone at home but, if there was, why wasn’t the phone being answered and why did no one react to the knocking? ‘Because they’re dead’ was the thought echoing through his mind. ‘They’re dead and you’re going to find their bodies and the shit is going to hit the fan again.’
Nightingale wanted a cigarette but he knew that it wasn’t the time for a smoke. The garden was a neat square of grass with a line of conifers marking a border with another cottage. There was a wooden bird table in one corner with a metal mesh container filled with peanuts. Two blue tits flew away as Nightingale walked over to the kitchen door. ‘If it’s locked I’m calling it quits,’ he whispered to himself. ‘I walk away and get the hell out of Dodge.’ He put a gloved hand on the knob and turned. The door opened and Nightingale’s heart began to pound.
He stepped into the kitchen and carefully closed the door behind him. ‘Mr Miller? Mrs Miller? Hello? Is anybody there?’
There was an electric kettle next to the sink and Nightingale touched it with the back of his gloved hand. Even through the leather he could feel that the kettle was hot. His mouth had gone so dry that it hurt when he swallowed. His heart was racing and he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He knew that he shouldn’t be in the house but he couldn’t walk away, not without knowing what, if anything, had happened to the Millers. He moved towards the hall, his Hush Puppies squeaking on the gleaming linoleum.
The hallway was carpeted, a red hexagonal pattern on a blue background, more suited to a pub than a home, and over a small teak table there was a framed painting of the Virgin Mary, whose eyes seemed to follow him as he crept towards the front door. He looked up the stairs, half expecting to see a body hanging there, but there was nothing. There was a door to the left that was ajar. Nightingale pushed it open. ‘Mr Miller? Mrs Miller?’
A fire was burning in the grate, which was flanked by two winged armchairs. There was a woman slumped in the armchair on the left. All he could see was the top of her head, light brown hair streaked with grey, and an arm resting on the side of the chair.
‘Mrs Miller?’ he said. There was no response.
A ginger and white cat was curled up on the sofa by the window and it lifted its head and stared at Nightingale with impassive green eyes. Nightingale wasn’t a cat person. He preferred dogs. A dog couldn’t hide its true feelings. If it was happy its tail wagged and its eyes sparkled. If it was scared its ears went back and its tail went between its legs. Cats didn’t show emotion, though; they just stared and kept their own counsel. Dogs were loyal, too, but cats cared only about their own comfort. When he was still a constable walking a beat Nightingale had been called to a house where an old lady hadn’t been seen for more than two weeks. He’d had to break in and he’d found the old woman sprawled across the rug in front of her television. What was left of her. The woman had four cats and they had done what was necessary to survive. They’d started with the soft tissue – her face and thighs – and there wasn’t much that was recognisably human by the time Nightingale got there. He’d never forgotten the way the cats had rubbed themselves up against his legs as he’d stared down at the body, mewing and arching their backs. Dogs never ate their owners, no matter how hungry they were. They sat and waited for help or barked to get attention, but that was all.
The cat mewed softly and its tail twitched, then it settled its head on its paws and continued to stare at Nightingale. As he walked towards the fireplace he saw that the woman was wearing purple slippers and one of them had slid off. There was a cup of tea, untouched, on a table at the side of the chair. If she was dead, there didn’t appear to have been a struggle.
Nightingale reached out and gently touched the woman’s shoulder. That was when she turned to stare up at him in terror and screamed as if she had just been stabbed in the chest.