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Sheldon nodded. ‘Yes,’ was all he said. His jaw clenched when he got a good view of it.
The house was a large block of red brick that sprawled over two plots that had once been home to two bungalows. The house was double-fronted, with large pillars between them that supported a tiled porch, reached by the long stretch of the driveway.
Billy Privett had bought the house when his lottery numbers came in, and since then he had put his own mark on it, with games rooms and a bar, although Sheldon didn’t see them as any kind of improvement.
Tracey looked at the house as Sheldon pulled up at the kerb.
‘I was just thinking that he was a lucky bastard, but then I remembered that he is now in the mortuary,’ Tracey said.
Sheldon climbed out of the car. ‘He still had more luck than he deserved,’ he said, and then set off for the gate, Tracey catching up with him. He pressed the intercom. No one answered for a while, and Tracey eyed up the fence, as if seeing whether she could scale it. Sheldon touched her on the arm.
‘Privett has dogs,’ he said. ‘And they’ll be hungry by now.’
Tracey rolled her eyes. ‘I should have guessed that.’
Sheldon jabbed at the button, more impatient this time. He was about to turn back to his car when a voice came through the speaker.
‘Hello?’ It was a woman’s voice, timid and quiet.
‘It’s the police,’ he said. ‘We need to come in.’
There was a pause, and then, ‘Billy isn’t here.’
‘I know. That’s why we need to come in. Could you open the gates please.’
Another pause followed, and then there was a buzz as the gates began to creep open. They exchanged glances and then began the slow walk along the driveway, as the house loomed ahead of them.
‘Who was that, his sister?’ Tracey said.
‘He didn’t have one.’
‘But what about his family?’ Tracey said. ‘Shouldn’t we be speaking to them first?’
Sheldon shook his head. ‘His mother died ten years ago. His father fell out with him when Billy wouldn’t spend the money on him. The family liaison officer is trying to find him. We’ll leave the hand-holding to her.’
The door opened before they got there and a woman appeared, no older than twenty, with her hair light and short, swept behind her ears. Her arms were folded across her chest, although her tight blue shorts and a cropped vest top took away any pretence at modesty. Her breasts jutted out, her nipples visible through the cloth.
‘I’m Christina,’ she said. ‘I’m Billy’s housekeeper.’
Sheldon guessed that it wasn’t her skills with a duster that got her the job.
‘Is there anyone else here?’ Sheldon asked.
‘No, just me,’ she said. ‘There was supposed to be a party last night, but when Billy didn’t come home, everyone went.’
‘How long have you been working for Billy?’
She paused, as if she had to work it out, and then said, ‘Around a year now.’
Since just after Alice Kenyon died, Sheldon thought, although he was surprised he didn’t know this. He hadn’t seen her before, even though he had done surveillance on Billy Privett after Alice’s death.
‘I’m sorry,’ Sheldon said, his voice soft. ‘We need to come inside.’ Christina didn’t look much older than his own daughter, and he didn’t know what hardships had made her decide that cleaning up for Billy Privett was an improvement in her life. And he knew that she was about to become jobless.
‘Is it Billy? What’s he done? Is he okay?’
Sheldon looked at Tracey, and then sighed. ‘We do need to come in. Please.’
‘No, tell me now,’ she said. Tears had appeared in her eyes.
Sheldon wondered how much he could say. He was confident that it was Billy’s body in a mortuary drawer, but confirming that to some young housekeeper seemed a step too far.
‘We’re worried about Billy,’ Sheldon said.
‘How worried?’ Christina said. She gripped the edge of the door and glanced back into the house, as if she knew what she was about to lose.
‘I just want you to let us have a look around, and then come with us, to tell us where Billy went last night.’
Christina stepped aside, and Sheldon walked into the house.
There was a grand entrance hallway, dominated by curving stairs that swept upwards, the carpet lush and deep red, a chandelier dropping down from the ceiling. Corridors went either way, with light streaming across from the open doorways.
Christina sat on the stairs, her face filled with confusion. ‘So is Billy hurt, or worse?’
‘We’re trying to establish that,’ Sheldon said, not wanting to get drawn into disclosing anything. ‘Did Billy say where he was going last night?’
Christina didn’t answer at first, but then she looked up and shook her head. ‘He said he had to go out, that’s all. We thought that maybe he was getting something for the party.’
Christina shrugged, non-committal. ‘But then he didn’t come home, and so everyone went home. Even the girls.’
Christina snorted a laugh. ‘There are always girls. Money is better than good aftershave for drawing them in. They don’t like Billy, but they let him play because he buys them things.’
‘Did any of them have boyfriends?’ Sheldon said.
Christina nodded. ‘Some did. But the boyfriends didn’t mind, because Billy bought booze and took them on holidays. He even let them race his cars.’
‘And what about you?’
Christina shook her head, her lip curled. ‘No, never. That’s why he doesn’t sack me, because he hasn’t got bored of me. He gets tired of the girls he fucks, because there are always more. Me, I’m like a target for him, but I’m better than that.’
Sheldon smiled. He liked Christina, because she had been playing Billy, although the investigation was growing with every question. Jealous boyfriends, young women who gave too much of themselves for a taste of the high life. Maybe drugs too.
‘We’re going to look round the house now,’ Sheldon said. ‘Just wait here.’
‘Because we need to search everywhere.’ He moved away, but then something occurred to him. ‘No, you can help us,’ he said, turning back to Christina. ‘Try and remember who was here last night. I want a list when we come back.’
Christina frowned and sat down on the stairs. ‘Is Billy hurt?’ she said. ‘Why can’t you tell me?’
‘Just stay there,’ Sheldon said, and then he set off along one of the corridors. As he looked ahead, he felt the tingle of his nerves again, the tightness in his chest. He reached into his pocket for the diazepam, but stopped himself. He had to confront this.
Sheldon turned to head for the room at the end. As he walked, his mind flashed back to one year earlier, when he had walked along the same hallway, the first detective at Billy’s house. It didn’t look much different. Memories flickered and imposed themselves on the scene. The large window looming at one end, the once-white carpet covered in dirty footprints and spilled wine stains. There was a bar on one side, with lager pumps on the granite surface and optics for spirits pinned to the wall. The television seemed to dominate the room, and there were beanbags strewn around. This was the party room. Just like last time, except that it had acquired more grime. And like last time, once the party ended, when Alice was found, everyone left.
Sheldon closed his eyes for a moment as he saw the tell-tale blue shimmer on the wall. The door that led to the pool room.
He opened his eyes and walked slowly towards it. The memories of a year earlier came faster this time. As he approached the door, the light from the pool shining through the glass, he saw his hand reaching for the handle as if he was looking through a haze, his clothes different, the sleeve of his jacket navy blue, not the grey suit he was wearing. He had gripped the chrome handle sharply, really just expecting another room, but instead he had seen Alice.
She was in the water, close to the bottom, her arms out, flaccid, distorted as he looked down on her, her hair fanned out. She reminded him instantly of his own daughter. Her hair was the same colour, her build similar. His stomach rolled as he saw that it was someone just like Hannah. Except that Alice was naked.
He opened the door again. The pool was still there. It ran the length of a brick extension, with large windows all around. There was a large tiled area at one end, with a jacuzzi. The pool was tiled in bright white, except for the six numbers that were set out large in dark blue on the bottom. Billy’s winning numbers, his life defined by six balls that rolled out of a machine one Saturday evening. It didn’t look quite as clean though. The jacuzzi was empty and there were some broken tiles along one side of the pool.
The gentle shimmer of the water transfixed Sheldon as he thought once more about Alice.
Alice Kenyon had been a nineteen-year-old economics student, part of a group of young women with high prospects, but like most young people, they wanted to enjoy themselves. Billy Privett’s parties had become the talk of the area, with private security paid to keep out the uninvited. The guests were Billy’s friends, plus any hangers-on that Billy picked up during the evening, along with any pretty young woman who wanted to have free booze and drugs.
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