The place was like a hundred others I had tossed. Stale odors of an adult male, of sex, of Asian takeouts and pizza and cheap wine and beer, of socks and shirts and underpants left to molder. And traces of cocaine.
I found the cocaine taped to the back of a drawer in his nightstand. There wasn’t much. The fact that there was any argued against a planned disappearance.
Other things argued against it too.
I found a soft-covered notebook stuck to the underside of a low table. The table was some sort of modern monstrosity made out of recycled whiteware. The notebook had a magnetic strip stuck to its cover. Ingenious, but it was hardly going to fool even a halfway experienced searcher. The unnecessary cunning, coupled with a certain base level of stupidity, seemed typical of what I’d seen of this guy.
I flicked through the first few pages of the notebook. Names in some sort of half-assed code, phone numbers. I slipped it into my pocket.
The only other things he’d made any attempt to hide were the DVDs. The DVD covers were all mainstream commercial ones. They were all unlikely titles for a young male on his own. I squatted in front of the big screen and fed them in, one by one, only looking at them long enough to see what they were. I didn’t want to linger here any longer than I had to.
Standard commercial porn, most of them. Some of them I thought were probably his own work. I took those.
Then I tried the DVD I’d taken from the shop. And sighed. Clients always lie.
I hoped it meant nothing more than a reluctance to embarrass himself. Dave and Mrs D would both be disappointed if I couldn’t protect him.
I hit the streets again. As I walked, the tall narrow buildings melted into the tall trees of the Endowment Lands, that had soothed my soul through the turbulence of my awakening and still do today. We have always found comfort in the trees, although they are very different from the dense woods and wild infinite plains of our memory. But the woods are gone now, and the rolling, windswept plains. This is all we have.
Since I was sixteen, I have run nightly in the forest, sometimes with Paul, sometimes with my other brothers. I still do.
But the trees recede into the distance, pine-scent lingering on the night breeze, and I am running from a too-bright street onto a stony track enclosed in trees let to grow wild, down through Mrs D’s garden. We like that. Like the way the trees close in around us as we run silently through the dense shadow.
The cat is easy to find. Less easy to hold. Cats never like us. I hold it firmly at arms’ length and weave my way through the bushes edging Mrs D.’s place, then climb up through the undergrowth. As we pass beneath the house a rectangle of light splashes over us. I blink rapidly.
We walk around to the front and I knock on the door with my elbow, the cat limp in my grasp, waiting for my grip to loosen. It knows better than to struggle. I listen to the old woman’s slow movement through the house, using the sound to focus my attention away from this small mammal in my hands. The footsteps stop and the door opens without pause.
‘You should check first,’ I scold, handing over the cat. She smiles at me over the cat’s head. The cat settles against her, head turned toward me, glaring malevolently. I give a barely audible growl and its ears flatten. Then it wriggles out of Mrs D.’s arms and stalks into the house. The old woman looks after it with concern, then turns back and smiles again. An old woman’s face, blurred into anonymity with age, but the faded blue eyes are still bright, still sharp. We respect those eyes.
‘You’ll come in for some tea?’ Her usual request, but she isn’t as casual as she is trying to sound. I agree with a brief upward flick of my head and follow her through to the kitchen, where I fill the kettle as she fusses over her selection of herbal tea-bags.
When the drinks are made I carry them through into the small living room. The too-warm air is thick with the smells of her and the cat. Not unpleasant as such, but smothering, as if I am drowning in thick fog. I close my mouth and breathe shallowly through my nose as I put her mug down on the small table beside her usual chair and sit carefully on the edge of the ancient green sofa opposite. Mrs D. slowly folds her bony body into the marshmallow embrace of her armchair. When she is comfortable, she lays her hands on top of each other on her lap and looks at me thoughtfully. I wait, breathing in the smells of lemon and ginger and hibiscus flowers, focusing on each different scent in the room until I have accustomed myself.
Mrs D. widens her eyes. ‘Oh dear, I haven’t even thanked you for finding Diana.’ Her tone is flustered. She has the eyes and voice off pat. They aren’t what I pay attention to. I say nothing. She’ll get to it in due course.
Picking up her mug, she sips it carefully. ‘Such a nice boy, your brother.’ I grin at that, hearing the echo of Dave’s mimicry. ‘He’s so wonderful with Diana. Of course, his predecessor was a good vet, too, but Mr Jaeger has such a way with animals, doesn’t he?’
My grin widens. Private joke. ‘Yeah, he does.’
Her eyes watch me slyly. ‘The two of you aren’t very alike.’
‘No.’ I don’t let myself think about that. Talking about my brother is always dangerous in company. I keep my mind empty, focused on the smells, waiting for her words.
After a while she chuckles softly and nods at the light. ‘Turn it off, if it bothers you.’ I look at her sharply. She tilts her head, eyes quizzical. ‘You didn’t think I’d notice?’
I wonder what else she’s noticed, but idly, I do not believe I have anything to fear from this woman. Rising to my feet, I cross the room to the light switch, realizing only then that the curtains aren’t drawn. The half-moon glows through the wispy clouds. Had she been watching me in the garden? Walking back to the sofa, feeling my eyes relax and widen, I ask, ‘You often sit here in the dark?’
‘It’s peaceful in the dark.’
‘Yeah.’ I pick up the mug from the floor and drain it in two thirsty swallows. The old woman talks and my mind drifts. The old woman’s murmur is one with the images in my mind.
A dark night. A moon flickering in and out as fast-scudding clouds blow across the sky. A smell of death, the lingering echo of violence. I see the figures silhouetted against the clouds. The bright metallic taste of blood is on my tongue.
‘Would you kill to protect your brother, Michael?’
My attention snaps back into focus. ‘Yes.’ I am standing over her, no idea how I got there. ‘Does he need protecting?’
The menace in my voice doesn’t bother her. ‘Sit down, Michael. I’m no threat to your brother. No threat to anyone now.’ A deeply buried anger there. I squat beside her. ‘I have a grandson.’
‘He’s in trouble?’ I settle back on my haunches, relaxing.
‘Perhaps.’ The anger is stronger now, although it doesn’t show in her fragile voice or her crumpled face. ‘I’m not sure.’ She cocks her head and stares at me. ‘What would you do if you were too old to protect your family?’
‘I’d be dead.’
She keeps her eyes on me for a long moment, then sighs. ‘Perhaps that’s true. But not for me, Michael.’
‘Why do you think your grandson needs someone like me?’
Her eyes shifts. ‘Perhaps he doesn’t.’
We both listen to the silence.
‘What do you want me to do, Mrs D?’
‘I have money, you know. I’ll pay you. I’m not asking for a freebie.’
The colloquialism in the old woman’s cracked, formal voice, makes me smile. I nod. I would do it for nothing if she asked, but I respect the desire not to be beholden. We are not family.
She says, ‘I want you to talk to him, find out what’s wrong. Help him if you can.’
I nod again, and stand up. ‘You going to tell him to talk to me, or you want it to come from me?’
‘From you.’ Her voice has lost its crispness. She starts to climb to her feet. I hold up a hand.
‘What do you want?’
She nods at a side-table across the room. ‘There’s a card there. My grandson’s card. And some money. A down payment.’
I cross the room and pick up the card. ‘He’s a lawyer? You don’t think he can sort out his own troubles?’
‘You believe the law can solve everyone’s problems?’ Her voice is dry as sun-bleached bone.
I say, just as aridly, ‘I believe it can usually solve a lawyer’s problems.’
She gives a sharp crack of laughter. ‘We have a similar view of lawyers, I see. But no, Richard is too honest for that.’
I say nothing, but she gives another crack of laughter and says, ‘He’s young yet.’ Her eyes narrows. Her voice firms. ‘I value his honesty, Michael.’
‘You want me to protect his ethics?’ I keep my voice polite.
Her jaw hardens. For a moment I see the woman she was. ‘Perhaps.’ Her eyes holds mine.
I smile. Let the tension between us melt away. ‘Okay.’
Stepping out, the night closes around me. Warmly, comfortingly familiar. I taste the air, relieved to be out of the closed-in stuffiness of the house. Breathing in slowly, I savor the smells, rolling them on my tongue. Smell an echo in the breeze. Imagined? Real? A distinction that doesn’t exist for me. My mind drifts into dream.
We run through the familiar bush, weaving through trees no one else could see, hunting a man long dead.
The smell of death in our mouth.