The house was very impressive. Not the kind of place Lawford liked to associate with the darker side of humanity. This was another world from the small town he was used to, a world of wealth and quiet seclusion. As he slowly drove down the unmarked, gravelled drive he shivered. He vaguely hoped, not for the first time since the interview last night, that the boys had been wrong, that there was nothing dark and reeking hidden behind these beautiful, ivy-strewn walls. Yet Lawford could not shake off the edge he had heard in the younger boy’s voice as he had related his tale.
Lawford climbed silently from the car, Merton stepping out the other side, gazed in wonder at the beauty of the house. It was impressive, a symbol of prosperity, of secluded idyll, a contradiction to the fears Lawford held for what lay within. Lawford shivered, suddenly cold in the bright sunshine, at the obscene irony of it.
Merton followed as Lawford strode up to the porch, an immaculate white doorway set into the apex of the semi-circling wall. To Lawford the house had taken on a sinister feel and he glared at the unmarked door and raised the heavy iron knocker, banging it down to the metal plate beneath. He raised it and crashed it down again, the loud bang echoing through the hollow building and disturbing the peace of the bright summer’s morning. The two policemen waited by the door, listening as the echoes of the two knocks softly died away.
After an indeterminable silence there were footsteps. Soft, unhurried. The person coming was calm, the approach of a naïve innocent. Lawford imagined the occupant seeing the open window, shivering with fear as he saw his crime had been discovered, waiting with quailing heart and twitching the curtains at every imagined sound. Yet this imagined occupant Lawford’s did not correlate with this unhurried approach to the front door and neither did it parallel the man that opened it.
The footsteps had reached the door as the lock was turned. The white, unmarred door swung silently inwards and the occupant faced the two policemen with a serene questioning expression. Of medium height he stood up to Lawford’s chin and was dressed in fresh, plain clothes. His features were not much more than ordinary yet his eyes shone, dark blue filled with the simple joy of living. His face, plain though it may be, exuded vitality, an energy animating every muscle of his face.
“Good morning officers,” he greeted them. And where, Lawford wondered, was the surprise at being greeted first thing in the morning by two stern looking policemen. That surely raised suspicions; anyone confronted by such a sight at their home should have been trying desperately to remember which one of their misdemeanours may have come to light. Lawford was practiced at reading levels of guilt in a person’s face at fist introduction. Yet the man seemed more innocent than anyone could be. His face was completely, naturally guileless.
“Yes, I am Mark Camden. Can I help you, officers?” His voice was friendly yet strangely distant. He was talking yet seemed somehow to be outside this world of doorstep conversations, his eyes not quite focusing on Lawford’s face as he looked at him.
“Yes you can Sir.” Lawford answered, his quick black eyes studying the man. He was good at summing up a man in a few seconds but he couldn’t get a handle on this man, he didn’t know how to treat him; curtly, politely, with authority. Different people responded best to different treatment, some responded to cool politeness, some would lie outright as a matter of course unless anger was shown. Usually Lawford could tell at a glance, at what they wore or how they answered the door. Mark though remained a mystery, seemingly divorced from Lawford’s perceptions. Lawford spoke cautiously. “I expect you’ve noticed you were broken into last night.” It was half question, half statement. Mark smiled brightly.
“Yes, I heard a commotion last night and found one of my windows open. I didn’t notice anything missing, so I decided not to bother the police.”
“That’s our job.” Lawford decided to try out a stern tone. “We can’t do anything about criminals if people don’t report crimes.”
The man failed to recognise or react to the tone. “I am sorry officer. If there is a next time I will be sure to report it.” Lawford couldn’t have said for certain whether the man was lying or not. He wasn’t even sure whether a polygraph could have done so. Mr Camden still stood, his manner perfectly polite, seemingly friendly, but effectively blocking the door.
“We caught the lads who did it last night as they fled the scene.” Lawford tried. Still no reaction, no emotion at the news. He decided to be direct.
“We have reason to believe a crime has been committed in your property.” He raised the warrant he had gained just a few minutes ago. “This is a warrant to search your property Sir.”
“Is that really necessary officer? If you’ve caught the boys already…?”
For a moment Lawford didn’t register. Then he realised Mr Camden was under the impression the warrant was to search the house for evidence against the burglars. He stared at Mark, speechless at the man’s guileless innocence. Mark stared back pleasantly.
“Sir, this is about a crime committed by yourself, not the boys who entered your property.”
Mark’s eyebrow raised a fraction but that was the only reaction. “What crime would that be officer?”
Lawford cleared his throat, now it came to say it the whole thing seemed unbelievable, in this pleasant house in this secluded, wealthy suburb speaking to this pleasant man. But the boys had been so convincing, at the time, in the dark street so late at night. But the terror in their voices and the look in their eyes was a long time ago now and seemed a world away from this house, this man.
“We believe you are keeping a man captive against his will in this property.” He tried the simpler crime rather than the additions, the crime he understood. For all he knew the other details might be elaboration anyway. Mark stared at Lawford until he felt uncomfortable and then Mark shrugged softly.
“I suppose you’d better come in then officers. I assure you though there is no one here but me. He stepped to the side and allowed Lawford and Merton to follow him into the hallway.
The oak-panelled hallway was dark even in the early morning light that shone through the bay windows above the door. Everything was clean, no dust on the banisters, no fluff on the carpets. The windows were spotless yet the house, for all the activity taken to clean it, seemed unlived in, empty. Lawford gazed around for only a moment before motioning to the stairs.
He had a good idea of where the room was, the boys had described the window they had climbed through and though Lawford hadn’t been able to see it from the driveway he could picture its position. He allowed Mr Camden to lead the way however, part courtesy, part a test to see if he would hesitate or, better, lead him to a wrong room. Yet Mr Camden turned left as they reached the top of the stairs, going down the hallway to the left of the stairs, taking Lawford directly to the door at the end of the hall. He brought a key from his pocket and turned it in the lock. There was an audible grating sound as the old cogs worked over.
“I don’t often use this room and it remains locked most nights. Last night it was locked when I came to investigate the commotion; so the intruders evidently did not venture into the rest of the house,” the man proclaimed in a calm voice. Lawford nodded as the door opened and he allowed himself to be led into the room. It was empty but for a fireplace with an old candlestick on the mantle. Unlike downstairs it was dusty. The floor was bare wood. The far wall was bare but for an old wardrobe against the wall.
The left side of the room had a large bay window that looked out to the front of the house. Lawford strode over and looked out, staring down at his car resting on the driveway below. The sun glinted off the windscreen at him. This wasn’t the right room. His heart leapt. The boys had said they had entered from a window at the side of the house. This room did seem to be in the right position but there was no window looking out on the left side of the building, only a blank wall with that wardrobe.
“Are you sure this is the correct room?” He asked cautiously, studying the man’s face for any sign. There was no fear or outrage at being questioned. The man remained calm.
“This is the window that was open.” Lawford bent his head to look down the wall outside the window. Ivy grew thick there but did not look disturbed.
“Perhaps they came through another window as well. There were two boys.” Lawford did not believe it but he said it to give a reason to continue the search. His quick eyes studied the man’s face, still serenely distant, separate from the situation at hand. There was no stupidity behind those eyes, a calm intelligence definitely. But no calculation, no expectation or knowledge of any consequences. If the man had any idea of what the boys had said resided within these walls or any clue as to the consequences of having it discovered then he was the best actor Lawford had ever seen.
“Perhaps.” The man replied to Lawford’s reasoning.
“Could you show us the other rooms please?” Lawford returned his tone back to stern again. He could feel the tension inside himself as he noticed the exasperating lack of change in the man’s reactions.
“Of course. If you think it is necessary officer.” After studying the man Lawford wasn’t sure it was any more. Despite his surge of excitement as he had seen the room Mr Camden’s complete composure was making him less sure than he had been before he arrived. It now seemed pretty likely the two boys had been making it up. He didn’t know why they would have done so but he could figure that out once he was out of here, away from this man whose strangeness made him so uncomfortable. It had been a long night shift, even before they’d happened on the two boys. He thought of home, comfortable, his bed waiting him, his wife, welcoming. He was hungry and tired and the man’s eyes were discomforting. Yet he could not go, the policeman in him would not let go until the job was done. He had a duty to be thorough, despite his dwindling confidence in the result.
“Yes, I think it is necessary.” He replied. Mr Camden led them out, taking the next door in the hallway and, after unlocking it with a different key opening the door out to a room exactly the same as the one they had left minus the wardrobe and with the fireplace on the opposite side of the room, to the left this time. There was no bay window but a smaller window straight in front did look out to the side. Lawford’s heart leapt. But there was no bed in this room. Or any other stick of furniture. He still hurried to the window though. It was tight closed and even as he looked out to gaze down at a stretch of unbroken ivy on the wall outside his heart sank again.
This was not the room any more than the other one had been. He was starting to get annoyed. Those boys must be laughing themselves silly even now. His fists clenched unnoticed. He should leave right now, stop wasting time. Those boys… he remembered the fear in their voices. Could that be faked? He remembered their eyes.
“Next room.” He heard himself say.
Half an hour had passed. The rooms on the right hand side had only been given a cursory glance into from the hallway, just in case the boys had got their directions muddled in their panic. Memory could be surprisingly unreliable, especially after a shock. Yet after Lawford had looked into every room, Mr Camden remaining supremely unruffled, Merton trudging along behind like a puppy, he had managed to forget those boys’ eyes. He could only think of his bed now.
He stifled a yawn as a shard of bright sunlight caught at his eye through a stultifying haze of dust motes. He trudged back to the staircase, tired and confused. He hadn’t been certain but… those lads, they had sounded so genuine. He didn’t bother to stifle his next yawn. He could worry about the boys after a good sleep, the only important thing now was getting out of here with his dignity intact. He was so glad he hadn’t explained exactly what he had suspected lay in this house earlier on.
“Sorry for wasting your time Mr Camden.”
“That’s quite all right officer. I’m just glad to have been of help.” Damn it but this man was infuriatingly detached. Something still tugged at the back of Lawford’s mind though. And it wasn’t the expressions on those boys this time, it was something else. Something was wrong. He tried to ignore it, the whole situation was wrong, the house, the man, the boys. He had completely misread this one and he was now more concerned with what the guys would say to when he got back to the station fro his next shift. He wondered if he’d ever live down the jokes about this one. He’d have to tell everyone he never believed the boys in the first place, he just had to check it out as a matter of routine. He hoped Merton would back him up.
Lawford stopped, freezing at the top of the stairs. He turned his head to look across at that first room again, the one he had been so sure was the one until he had seen how empty it was, and that there was no window looking out to side of the house. The door to that room hadn’t been shut properly and now it hung open, offering a clear view of the room, empty but for the fireplace. And the wardrobe. The wardrobe, incongruous in such small room. Such a small room.
“Sir? Merton queried.
“Officer?” Mark echoed. He ignored Merton’s inquiry as he ignored Mr Camden’s calm echo. He glanced at the door next to the open one, opening into another room, the same room but for the wardrobe. And then he saw it, so obvious he had been a fool for missing it. The first room was smaller.
“Officer. Is there something wrong?” Was that a note of worry in the man’s voice? If so it was so small as to be almost imperceptible. Lawford then moved forward almost at a jog. He reached the door and stepped on into the smaller room. The far wall was closer than in the room next to it. There should be space beyond it, and a window. Lawford stepped up to the wall. The wardrobe. He looked on either side. It wasn’t quite flush against the wall. He gripped it.
“Officer, please, that’s extremely valuable. It shouldn’t be moved.” More worry? Lawford may have imagined it; but even thought he tone was placid the words were ones of desperation. Lawford grabbed the wardrobe in both hands, his shoulders strained as he heaved at it and with a scrape of wood against wood it shifted. He hauled at it again and it came away, sliding roughly away from the wall to reveal a door.
Lawford tried the handle. It turned but the door would not open. It was locked.
“Where’s the key.” Lawford snapped. He turned, small black eyes blazing like coals as he rounded on the unruffled man. He stood there still serene.
“I don’t have it, I lost it years ago. That’s why I put the wardrobe there, because I can’t get in.”
“Give me the key.” Lawford’s words could have cut glass. The boys’ eyes were in his mind now, the fear in their voices, their horror as they spoke of what they had seen in this room before him. It could not be true, not here, not in this wealthy house, in this small town. Not under the roof of this happy, calm and friendly man. It could not be true but if it was… Lawford’s eyes bored into the calm man’s eyes, a stare that would have made a snake flinch. And he saw no reaction.
“Then stand back!” he ordered. Merton stepped back to the doorway; the man stepped over to the fireplace. Lawford stepped back from the door. He gave a short run and charged, his shoulder slamming hard into the old wood, the dust spilling from the joins around the door. There was a small crack of wood as the lock splintered.
He stepped back again and charged. And again and a loud crack split the lock away from the doorframe. Ignoring the pain in his shoulder, ignoring Merton in the doorway, ignoring the man as he stepped up behind him he kicked hard at the door, the broken lock shearing away and the door flew open to a dim room with a single bed and a window.
He saw what lay on the bed and nearly retched. He could not believe such things could be. And as it moved he felt the bile rising. Then the smell hit him. And at the same time the heavy brass candlestick from the mantelpiece fell across the back of his skull.
There was a wet crack, like a pumpkin splitting.
Merton fled, in his mind he still heard the thud as the candlestick he had so stupidly not seen struck his friend’s skull. The blood spilling out on the bare wood, the wet flesh hanging loose, Mark Camden standing over him, still holding the candlestick and staring in confusion at the broken body that spilled wet, black liquid onto the floor.
But none of these memories obscured the room, dim and reeking, the thing on the bed, softly rasping in a broken parody of life. The smell of filth and rank acrid flesh. He made it to the driveway before spilling his breakfast onto the gravel. He hauled himself away from his own bile and pulled himself into his car, yelling into his radio as he called in his sergeant’s death, his gruesome discovery, the horror that lay within the quiet old house amid the ivy, the early morning sun, the freshly mowed lawn. He wept with biting tears and coughed involuntarily, choking burning phlegm up into his mouth.