The night air filled with the smell of fear as a sharp scream pierced its silence. The woman woke up frightened, shivering and panting as if from a nightmare.
She turned on the light and discovered John, her lazy and chubby husband, lying beside her, with eyes wide open and horror engraved on his face. His pale knuckles clenched on the blanket wrapped over his chest.
Neither of them said or did anything as if that shout had paralyzed their minds and bodies. They only looked at each other, unable to imagine what had happened.
After several long moments of painful silence, John spoke in a low murmur, as if he had been afraid that he would awaken ghosts lurking in the dark.
"What the heck was that? Did you hear it, Doris?"
"Of course, I heard it, stupid," she spat, finally feeling safe to speak. "Why do you think I'm staring at the walls in the middle of the night? You must go out and see what's going on," she added quickly.
Her usual determination screeched in the man's ears, who looked at her in shock. He couldn't believe his ears. The daft woman actually wanted him to go out there.
Her words stirred a torrent of anger in him. Years of frustration had already painfully piled up in his chest, and the dam broke.
"You've thought about that a lot, haven't you?" he snapped at her with bitterness in his voice. "Do you think I dare to go out there, in the night, after something like that?" he shouted, waving his hand in the air. "You must be daft, woman."
She didn't say anything for a while, but the look on her face did the talking for her. After forty years of marriage, her opinions weren't a secret anymore. Not that her husband cared to know. He was aware of the shift in her feelings for him. The woman didn't harbour any warmth or delight for him in her bones.
"Oh, Lord, you're so pathetic! You're such a wimp!" she exclaimed bitingly, thinking she might make him move. She knew what buttons to push so he would do her bidding.
"This time around, you can say whatever you want, my dear… It won't work," John dragged his words. "I don't give a fig about any of that. I won't go out just to please you… you… harpy!" he stuttered. "It sounded like it had come directly from hell, and hell and I have nothing in common save for you," he repeated one of his favourite quips.
"I know, don't remind me," she snapped back, annoyed.
By now, she would know his lines by heart. They had been living together for far too long, and there wasn't anything left unsaid between them.
"But maybe someone needs help. And look at us: we're just lying here. We're wasting our time talking nonsense," the woman whined.
"Well, if you're so brave, my dove, then, maybe, you should go out there," he challenged her, more than a bit of sarcasm colouring his voice. "But I don't advise you to do that. You're crazy, old bat! I tell you."
"I don't think so," she replied grumpily. "I hear hurried steps outside, John... I think Mr Thompson's woken up… I'm sure I hear others as well… Well, what are you saying now?" she eagerly provoked him, sure that his pride would suffer if he didn't go out then.
Men were like that. They would take a dare at the snap of a finger, always willing to show that they were better, stronger, and braver than any other man in the room.
"All right, back off!" the man snapped, throwing the cover away. "If he's out there, I'll go, too. Now, shut up, back off, and let me get dressed," John bellowed, cornered by his nagging wife.
He got out of bed, still springy for his age, and went to the bathroom for his bathrobe. His abrupt gestures betrayed his irritation. He tied his bathrobe and headed downstairs, all the way down, muttering a few choice words under his breath about his nosy wife.
Doris had remained in bed, content to stay there and wait for news from him. Of course, she didn't have enough courage to go and look out the window, like she usually did. Yet, she would push him out in the middle of the night just on a whim.
John opened the front door to bright lights. All the windows on the little street were lit, and that uncharacteristic illumination unsettled him. Not even at Christmas did their street display so many lights. They were Scots, and they minded their pockets after all.
John noticed three men heading with long strides towards his front lawn, talking to one another and pointing to one spot on his property. He glanced there, and his blood ran cold when his eyes fell on what they were staring at.
The moon had come out of the clouds, and a body lay sprawled in the moon's light. John needed only an instant to notice the blonde hair and the white dress, torn and stained with blood and the green of the grass. The body's right hand lay in full sight, and the crooked fingers gave the illusion that they intended to cling on to something in the air.
Then, the smell hit him — somewhat sweet and sour at the same time. John knew that the scent would linger there for days or maybe more. The lawn didn't belong to him anymore.
Overwhelmed, John suddenly felt dizzy. His body seemed to have left the material space. The relief was short-lived, though. A ruthless punch in his stomach, nausea hit him, knocking the air out of his lungs.
John bent in an awkward position and remained hunched, unable to move. His muscles screamed for oxygen as the man tried to pull air into his lungs. Yet he couldn't, and his head span faster and faster.
He saw everything as if through a dense fog. Mr Thompson had stepped on his lawn and now leaned over the body on the grass. He said something, motioning to Mr Reid, the man who lived in the third house across the street, and that one replied something back. John thought it was strange that he couldn't make any sense of the men's words.
Then, John caught a glimpse of a shadow in the dark by the corner of the house, and the man felt threatened. However, he still had enough wits to understand it was just foolish thinking. Nothing wrong could happen to him with so many people around.
John had never been a courageous man, more evident now, in his old age when he lacked the advantage of youth's stupidity.
Crushed, the man fell on the veranda like a log. Everything went black and downright silent around him. Only that iron fist of pain, squeezing his chest tightly, remained present for another second. Then, the peace he had longed for surrounded him. It was a safe and easy way out, even though John had never thought he would feel that way when his time would come.
From upstairs in her bed, Doris, his wife, heard Mr Reid call to the others.
"Oh, I think Mr Dobbs fainted. We should call a doctor or something, I suppose."
Doris's fingers and legs started shaking while dark thoughts piled up in her mind. She wanted to get out of bed, but her legs shook severely and didn't help her much. The woman finally threw her legs over the edge of the bed, but she couldn't find her slippers, although they were just there, right where she would always leave them, under the bed. She couldn't pull herself together.
The woman knew John. He might have been a little lazy and sometimes too stubborn for his own good, but he wasn't the coward she had accused him of being. He had never fainted before, regardless of how bad the situation had been.
Guilt weighed on Doris. She knew that her husband wouldn't have gone outside if it had not been for her. John wasn't a curious person, and no one would have cared less about what happened in the street or in their neighbours' houses.
On her way down the stairs, Doris tried to keep her balance, leaning against the wall. She was shaking all the worse the closer she got to the hallway. Then, Doris controlled her wild panic, and the truth dawned on her — things would never be the same for her again.
That thought made her move faster down the stairs. When she reached the hallway, the front door started opening. Stunned, the woman watched the slow movement of the door, holding her breath.
A few seconds later, heavy steps sounded on the wooden floor. The woman's gaze fell on two men, but Doris didn't recognize them at first. Still, they carried John in their arms.
The woman stared at John intently, willing him to move or say something, and then she glanced at the men again. Now, she recognized her neighbours, Mr Thompson and Reid.
Thompson said, "Don't be afraid, Mrs Dobbs. I think Mr Dobbs has just fainted, that's all. He'll be back to his usual self in no time, you'll see. I do hope he doesn't have a weak heart, though," he continued, shaking his head. "That scene out there isn't for the faint of heart. Where should we put him, Mrs Dobbs? The doctor is on his way already. He'll be here in a minute. Mrs Dobbs?"
The younger man kept talking and talking, his lips moving, forming words, yet Doris couldn't perceive a sound. The woman needed a few seconds to realize that the two men were staring at her. She shook her head to clear her mind.
Understanding that the woman was in shock, Thompson repeated slowly, "Mrs Dobbs, are you feeling well? Where should we put poor Mr Dobbs?"
Doris struggled with herself. She finally pulled herself together just enough to reply softly, "On the sofa, I think." After a few seconds, she repeated in a stronger voice, almost regaining her old composure, "Aye, on the sofa. I think it's the best place for him now. Thank you, Mr Thompson. You said the doctor was coming?"
"Aye, Mrs Dobbs, right now. I've asked Mr Brown to call him. We've called the police too. They're on their way."
"What happened, Mr Thompson?" Doris asked, somewhat reluctantly, which was peculiar.
Doris Dobbs was always the first on their street to find out what was going on. She made it her business to know if a neighbour had had a row with his wife or another neighbour. She had been the first to find out that the Porters' little Patsy had eloped with that good-looking young man, working for the Browns, or when the Davidsons had decided to divorce.
"It's best you didn't know, Mrs Dobbs. I don't think it would do you any good to know now. Here's the doctor," Thompson added after throwing a glance out the window. The doctor's car had just stopped in front of the house, and Thompson went out to greet him.
Doris sat down on an armchair near the sofa and studied her husband. John's face looked unnatural in the soft light of the living room. All colour had left his cheeks. His left hand still clenched his bathrobe stiffly, and the other hung on one side of the sofa, lifeless.
Doris didn't hear him breathing, and she knew. The doctor needn't come anymore… At least not for John. He was gone.
The woman didn't move but merely stared at the man. Only one thought repeatedly sounded in her mind like a mantra, drowning out the sounds from the street, her heartbeat, everything. 'He's dead. Oh, God, he's dead.' Nothing bothered her anymore. Even her pain had hidden inside her mind.
The people living on the street had gathered in front of the Dobbs' house and noticed the doctor's arrival. A rumour passed around, whispering that poor Mr Dobbs had had a heart attack and, probably, had already passed away before the doctor got there. People couldn't understand why his wife hadn't come out yet, and why no one had heard a peep from her.
Sirens announced the police cars, and the people fell silent, watching the cars drive up Nightingale Street. Unconsciously, they stepped farther away from the Dobbs' yard. They wanted to distance themselves and show that they were not involved in the mess on that lawn.
The police cars pulled up to the Dobbs residence, and men came out of them, some wearing police uniforms. Others wore dark coveralls, somewhat resembling the uniformed officers' clothing, and carried black cases.
A tall man in his late thirties or early forties glimpsed at the crowd in the street and then shouted to a younger policeman, "James, get their names and addresses, and send them home. We'll talk to them later in the morning. Right now, I want more room here and no on-lookers in front of the house. Too many have already trampled through this yard, probably destroying all the evidence."
"Aye, sir," said the young man, immediately heading towards the people, taking a little black book out of his pocket. The man asked for their names and addresses, and he inquired whether they had seen anything before the murder happened.
His last question remained unanswered because no one had seen anything. Everyone said the same thing: an inhuman scream woke them up. They had noticed that body on the lawn and nothing else when they came out of their houses. Neither of them had got closer to the young woman, at Mr Thompson's request not to touch anything until the police arrived.
The people even told James of the rumours about poor Mr Dobbs, who had fainted on his own porch, and then they started back home as they had nothing left to say or spread stories about. However, they seemed somewhat reluctant to abandon the ghastly sight without getting any answers.
James returned to his colleagues to report to his boss everything he had learnt. The DCI listened to him carefully and nodded. "All right, James. Good job. Now go and see what's with that man, Mr Dobbs. I think I just saw two men go into his house. I want to talk to the three of them, too."
James nodded and walked to the Dobbs' front door, which he found ajar, so he didn't bother to knock. He just pushed it open and went inside. Whispers came from somewhere on the right, so the young man followed the voices.
Getting to the living room, his eyes fell on a man, probably the doctor, taking the pulse of a woman of uncertain age. The extreme pallor in her cheeks and the apparent toll the evening had taken on her made it difficult to tell precisely how old she was.
James's eyes scanned the room, analysing the five people. Afterwards, he knocked on the door and interrupted them. "Good evening, everyone. I'm very sorry to disturb you at such a time. I'm DS James, and I need to speak to Mr Dobbs."
His words seemed to be the signal she had been waiting for because the woman burst into tears at that precise moment. The men froze in place, surprised for one moment.
Then, the man James thought the doctor studied the old woman. "Finally, she's crying. That's good. She was bound to do it sooner or later. It's always better if the grieving starts soon," he commented with a satisfied yet sympathetic nod. Then, the man turned to James. "I'm sorry, Detective Sergeant, but I'm afraid Mr Dobbs died earlier tonight because of a massive heart attack. There was nothing I could do for him, unfortunately. Probably the shock was too much for him."
"I see," James nodded, even though he wondered why the shock had been so devastating for the old man. Yet, he continued, "All right, then. I'll leave you now to Mrs Dobbs. But sir, when you've finished here, we must talk to you. And to you, too," he said, turning to Mr Thompson. "Who are you, sir?"
"I'm Thompson. I'm Daniel Thompson," the man answered, stepping forward to shake James's hand.
"Oh, I see. I'm told you're the one who made sure the others didn't disturb the body."
"Indeed, sir," Thompson nodded. "I was in the Navy in the past. I know something about such things. There are also the movies, you know… I'll be with you shortly. I just need to finish talking to good Doctor Connolly. Is that all right?"
"No rush, sir. We still have plenty to do outside. We'll be here for a while. Come and see us before you leave," James said, going back outside.
There, his eyes found his boss, DCI McNamara, talking to one of the investigators. James stopped a few steps behind the DCI, going through his notes until the chief had finished discussing the scene with the detective. Then, the DS approached McNamara.
"I'm sorry, sir, but Mr Dobbs passed away. He had a massive heart attack. His wife is in shock right now, and I don't think we'll get much out of her. She'll probably need some time to recover. However, Mr Thompson will come out with the doctor soon, and we can talk to them."
"Oh, damn it!" McNamara swore, furious because they were too late. "Rotten bad luck! He must have seen something if he died so suddenly. We'll see," he said in a hushed voice. Then he repeated, "We'll see." His thoughts still on the Dobbs situation and the significant piece of the puzzle they might have lost, he turned to the older man next to him and inquired, "So, doc, what do you think?"
"Well, not very much now… But, as you can see, the young woman had her throat slit – brutally too, from one side to the other. She was stabbed several times before that. You see those stab wounds there?" he showed the detective several marks with significant traces of blood.
McNamara nodded briefly, impatient to have the rest of the story.
"I can tell you she didn't go quietly," the coroner continued with a shake of his head. "Look at her hands. Scratches and broken nails. This girl fought hard to survive. I know you understand that I can't make a positive statement right now. Still, I'm almost positive the time of death is somewhere between only several minutes ago and an hour," he waved his hand.
McNamara looked at the coroner, expecting something more. Stewart sighed.
"We'll know more later. Anyway, the girl was severely beaten over several days before being killed. Notice here," he pointed to the body. "The bruises on her body are at different stages. Their colour isn't the same. These marks here are older, maybe three or four days old. They've already changed colour. As you can see, her face is beyond recognition, I'm afraid. Aye, lad, we'll have to find another way to identify her," he concluded, then looked across the lawn to the Dobbs house. He shook his head in regret again before he glanced back to the detective, "Well, I'll tell you more later. I'll have to do the post-mortem first."
"All right, David. Anyway, I think we may safely presume that she died a little over 30 minutes ago. That's when dispatch got the call, and people said they had heard the scream just minutes before the call came through," McNamara concluded.
The DCI looked around and said, "James, go see if there's an ID in her purse. They found a purse on the ground there." McNamara pointed somewhere towards the middle of the grass, several feet away from the body. "It must have been hers," he added. "I doubt there could have been more than one on this specific lawn."
James followed the path marked with numbered, yellow cards on the grass until he reached the investigator taking inventory of the personal effects found in the victim's purse. The DS asked him for the sealed evidence bag, which, at first glance, contained several cosmetic items — lip-gloss, mascara, a compact. A closer look at the investigator's notes revealed that they had found a card inside.
James felt a surge of pride looking at their first significant lead that evening. He signed on the bag, opened the seal, and carefully moved the other items inside the bag with his pen until he found the ID. After locating the name and address on the card, he resealed the bag and signed it. Then, the DS returned to McNamara and spoke to him in a low voice, so no one else heard him.
"It's an ID for a Patsy Porter, sir. She lived right here on this street. Oh," he stopped, noticing he had missed one bit of information. "She was quite young, sir, only sixteen," he continued with dismay.
"It's good we found it, James. We'll go and see her family in the morning. They'll have to come to the coroner's office and identify the body at the morgue sometime tomorrow," DCI McNamara added and sighed. He knew how unsettling those formalities were for the families involved.
Then, McNamara signalled the two men waiting by a stretcher. One of them was leaning on the stretcher by the van, a plastic bag hanging off his hand carelessly. He passed his boredom away with a game on his phone, and the DCI scowled. He understood their job demanded they become harder and not allow the violence they witnessed to affect them. Yet, he didn't like the complete desensitised lack of emotion either.
"You may take her now," McNamara said in a harsh tone of voice, and that snapped the two technicians out of their boredom instantly.
The men placed the body inside the black plastic bag and took it off the lawn. They carried it to the coroner's truck and left the area accessible for the forensic team. The forensic experts had already been searching the place minutely and collected what little usable evidence they found.
They didn't find the murder weapon, but, after all, they didn't hope to see it, either. It would have been too good to be true, to have the knife, and if possible, the killer's prints on it...
Once the police left, peace fell over the little suburb street again. However, this time, silence didn't comfort the residents. People didn't feel safe there anymore. They weren't uninformed. They read the papers and followed the news and knew such things happened in other places all the time. Yet, nothing similar had ever occurred so close to home.
Still, Doris remained there, in the middle of things. She kept looking out the window in the night, intent on finding out what had led to her husband's death.
She didn't feel any curiosity about what was going on in the street. But she thought it was her duty to find out why her husband had died. The woman felt guilty because she had pushed him out of the house. At the same time, she felt lonely, hollow, and deserted.
She hadn't been in love with her husband anymore. That was true. Too much time had passed, and life had been somewhat dull for the two of them for years now. Yet, she had cared for him.
Doris knew John was at the morgue now. She shivered at the thought that he was lying on a cold slab. The woman hadn't been aware his heart was weak to make things worse. Self-centred, she hadn't paid attention to any of his complaints about his health but just pushed them aside, as if they hadn't mattered.
The woman kept looking outside into the night and noticed someone crossing the lawn, looking for something on the ground, a small flashlight in their hand. She didn't see who it was, but she didn't care. Doris merely presumed the police were still looking for evidence on the ground. Yet, the person moving in the shadows of the cloud-covered moon saw her looking out the window.
It was almost ten o'clock in the morning when McNamara, together with James, returned to Nightingale Street to question their witnesses about the murder. First, they went to the Porters and knocked on their door.
Waiting seemed such a significant part of their lives that they didn't even bother to notice it anymore. Hurried steps on the stairs, and a woman's voice shouted, "One moment, please. I'm coming."
A few seconds later, the door opened. The woman at the door looked at them, questioning their possible reason for being there.
Mrs Porter was short and a little on the plump side. She looked old, anywhere between fifty and sixty, but the detectives knew she was much younger than that. Still, her face wore signs of exhaustion.
"Oh, yes… And who are you, please?" Mrs Porter asked when she found her voice again, surprised to see two unknown people instead of the friend she expected.
"We're with the police, ma'am. Here are our badges," the tall man said. "DCI McNamara and DS James. May we come in?"
The woman hesitated for a moment, unsure that she could offer any insight into the previous night's events. In the end, she stepped aside and waved them inside. Although she didn't have any information, she couldn't just tell them to leave and slam the door in their face. Not only because they were the police, but the anxiety had been bothering her since the night's violence occurred.
Mrs Porter never went out after hearing that scream because she was alone and afraid. When she finally found the courage to glance out the window, she saw her neighbours huddled up in front of the Dobbs' house.
She had been trying to forget the rumour about a girl lying dead in the Dobbs' yard, but it still haunted her. The woman had spent most of the night lying awake in bed, frightened by her imagination.
Mrs Porter led the detectives into a living room that had seen better days. Her dark thoughts had nearly paralysed her upon the detectives' arrival, and she couldn't find her voice to invite them to take a seat. With a shaky hand, she merely showed them the sofa.
The policemen took their time sitting down. They looked over the living room, glancing at family pictures or small curiosities, willing to delay the discussion with the woman.
McNamara was still looking for a way to tell her that, probably, her daughter was at the morgue. He had been thinking about that the entire morning but couldn't decide what to say.
The detective knew there was no perfect way to break such news and make it less painful. Still, he had always felt unprepared despite his many years with the police. Besides, Mrs Porter looked highly fragile, which made him hesitate more than usual. He tried to steal some more time and delay the awful moment with routine questions.
"Where's Mr Porter, please?" The DCI thought it would be easier for her if she had someone there to comfort her after their leaving. He had hardly asked the question when tears welled up in the woman's eyes. For a few long seconds, he feared she would start crying. When she finally answered, she spoke slowly and sheepishly as if she had confessed a terrible and humiliating sin.
"What boy, ma'am? Do you know his name?" McNamara asked and shifted closer to the edge of the sofa, impatient to have finally found a lead to follow. So far, he hadn't had any idea why his victim was targeted, and his only connection to the body they found was that little street.
"Oh, aye. He was such a good-looking boy. And he was such a smooth talker… but he was a good boy. He used to work at Mr Brown's pub at the other end of the street… He left at the same time. I mean, when Patsy left home to go, God knows where. But I don't know where they are now. I haven't heard a peep from my Patsy ever since."
"But do you know his name, ma'am?" McNamara asked her again patiently, although he felt like shaking her so that she would get to the point. He hated people's blabbering, but he knew better than to interrupt.
The woman thought for a few seconds. Then, she shook her head and said, "I think… It was Peter, but I'm not sure..."
Mrs Porter tilted her head on the side and seemed thinking hard. The detectives watched her patiently.
"In the beginning, I didn't ask Patsy because I didn't know she was going out with him. I found out when she left that dreadful message and went away, but that was the name she wrote on the note. That she was leaving with Peter from the pub on the corner… And then… I was too ashamed to go to the Browns and ask them… But … what's the matter? Has something happened to my husband or Patsy?" Her voice almost broke, and she glanced from one detective to the other as if begging them not to confirm her fears.
As dark as the shadow cast by his stubby beard, McNamara's eyes had already given her the dreadful news. McNamara cursed himself silently. He feared that neither he nor James could offer proper emotional support. Jo would have been the logical choice to send to Mrs Porter. She would have known how to comfort the woman.
The DCI searched for the right words to tell the woman that the girl found dead in the Dobbs' yard was probably her daughter because of the ID and general description. Yet, no words came to him. He was staring at her, almost without blinking, deciding what to do. The silence was dire: it scratched their skin and deafened their ears.
Finally, when she couldn’t bear the silence anymore, Mrs Porter whispered, “It is bad, isn’t it? Which one of them, please? I only hope it isn’t Patsy. That I wouldn’t bear.”
Suddenly, the painful thought that her daughter was the girl from the Dobbs’ yard last night penetrated the fog in her mind. She looked straight into McNamara’s eyes again, and then, she knew. It was Patsy.
She thought her heart had stopped beating for a second, but she was wrong. Only her mind had stopped working. Stunned, she joined her hands in her lap, and a horrified grimace appeared in the corner of her mouth.
McNamara knew she understood. He stood up, intending to put his hand on her shoulder and comfort her. Surprised by that unusual idea, the DCI admonished himself. He had always remained cold and detached from everything. He wasn’t a psychologist but a policeman, so he sat down again. Only finding answers and convicting killers counted.
To his horror, the next moment, something broke inside the woman. First, she groaned loudly, then she burst into tears. Sobs followed. The dam broke.
Hoping for help, McNamara glanced at James but gave up, noticing the young man’s expression. So, the DCI finally decided to go on with what he had to do.
“I’m sorry, Mrs Porter, but I must ask you to come down to the morgue and identify the body, just to be sure. We need someone to ID the young girl, and we only have a document that says it was Patsy,” he said apologetically.
A glimpse of hope nestled in the woman’s heart but died almost instantly. She knew it was wishful thinking to hope the police had made a mistake. She had already felt that her Patsy was gone. That thought had been hunting her for a few days already.
As if awakened from a trance, she said with difficulty, “When do you want me to come?”
“When you feel able to, but the sooner, the better… Do you want me to send a car to drive you to the coroner’s office this afternoon?” McNamara offered.
“No, thank you, that’s kind of you but… I’ll come by myself… Maybe I’ll ask my friend, Mary, Mary Brown, to accompany me. I don’t think she’d mind….” She realised she was rambling and shut up.
“All right, Mrs Porter, we’ll see you there in the afternoon. Now, I think we’d better leave you alone,” McNamara stood up again. He couldn’t wait to move on to the next item on his to-do list.
Mrs Porter nodded but didn’t reply. She stood up with difficulty like an old woman and showed the two policemen out. The woman opened the door mechanically and nodded to them as an afterthought.
After they left, she eased the door closed. She leaned against the wall for a few seconds. Then she slid down to the floor, where she remained motionless for a while, completely numb. After a few long minutes, she burst into tears again and sobbed her heart out. Her child was gone.
"Come on, James. Let's go to Mrs Dobbs and see how she is. Maybe last night's shock has eased a little, and she might have something to tell us now," McNamara said.
"Aye, sir, that's an excellent idea." James agreed, following him down the street.
They strode over to Mrs Dobbs' house and knocked. They waited, but no answer came from inside. They shot each other a questioning look, then pounded on the door again… harder this time. Still no answer.
James stepped back and looked up at the windows on the first floor. "Sir, I think something isn't right here. It's ten o'clock, and the light's still on upstairs."
McNamara initially dismissed his concern but thought better and said, "Who knows why? We'd better try the back door, as well. She might be there. James, stay here and keep knocking. Maybe she'll hear you. I'm going to see at the back," McNamara continued. "I'll call you if there's something."
McNamara headed with long strides to the back of the house, glancing thoughtfully at the window James had noticed earlier. Perhaps the woman had fallen asleep with the light on. That was one possible explanation. It was also possible she hadn't woken up yet. After all, the previous night must have exhausted her. McNamara knew he shouldn't make assumptions or think of the worst.
He arrived at the back of the house in no time. He raised his hand to knock when he noticed the door was ajar. He pushed it open and called, "Mrs Dobbs, are you at home? We're with the police."
No answer came from inside. Only the DCI's voice bounced off the walls. He didn't like it. He waited a few more moments then called to James, "James, come here."
James rushed from the front door, following the sound of McNamara’s voice to the back of the house. There, he found McNamara cautiously advancing through the kitchen. McNamara pointed his index to James, his thumb to himself, and then to the inside of the house. James nodded, and both entered the house slowly, ready to fight back if anybody would have attacked.
Their eyes swept all over the kitchen. The area was clean with no recent use — no plates anywhere in sight, not even a teacup. They continued outside the kitchen, along the corridor, moving silently to surprise any intruder.
The DCI opened the door on the left only to reveal a well-stocked pantry. McNamara shook his head and closed the door.
The policemen walked on, always catlike, until they reached the hallway. Another small corridor stretched before them, and on the left, stairs led to the upper floor. There was a door on each side of the staircase, and they chose to check those rooms separately.
James tiptoed into the room on the left and discovered a small but cosy drawing room with a beige loveseat and two big armchairs in the same neutral colour.
McNamara opened the door on the right of the stairs to discover the dining room, dominated by heavy sculptured furniture in fashion decades earlier.
They quietly walked along the corridor towards another room on the left. That was the living room, which James had already seen the night before. A trace of blood beckoned to them from behind the door, but not before the strong smell of spilt blood hit them.
McNamara glanced behind the door and waved to James to look as well. Reluctantly, James did look, and as always, nausea rose in his throat. That happened to him no matter how many bodies he had seen. He had already resigned himself to suffer through it if he wanted to do the job.
Mrs Dobbs lay face down behind the door, a pool of blood almost completely coagulated under her.
The detectives looked around. The small stand that used to be near the wall had been knocked over. Last night, a vase with flowers stood there, but now, it was shattered on the wet floor, the water flirting with the edges of the pool of blood. The flowers had fallen a little further, reminding James of the flowers thrown over coffins at funerals, making him feel worse.
“I think she heard some kind of noise, and she came to the door… I can see she tried to defend herself when she was grabbed… I think she fought, but she didn’t stand a chance,” McNamara said, analysing the body, his hands buried deep in his pockets. “Probably, because the attacker was stronger… We can’t dismiss that she was surprised,” he added, glancing at James, who nodded his assent.
“I’ll call the headquarters, boss. We need them to send in the coroner and the forensics,” James said, digging out his phone from his front pocket.
“All right, James, you do that. Until they come, let’s wait in the hallway. I don’t think you want to stay around this too much, and neither do I.”
Mrs Thompson noticed the cars crowded in front of the Dobbs’ house. After what happened the night before, she was more than curious. So, the woman went outside with a determination that she didn’t usually feel and headed directly to DS James. He was speaking to a man dressed in a brown jacket. She had already seen James the night before when he talked to them, and she felt confident approaching him.
"Do you mind, sir? What's happened now?" she asked him.
"You'd better go inside, ma'am," James replied and turned her towards her own house. "We'll stop by your house later, and we'll explain everything then."
Alice Thompson didn't want to leave, but she couldn't find an excuse or something witty to say so she could stay there and find out what was going on. She obeyed because she didn't know to refuse a direct order, even though James made it sound like a mere request. Lost in her thoughts, she returned to her house with small steps. Someone called her name.
"Alice, what's going on?" asked a woman in a summer outfit, entirely inadequate for the morning's chilly weather. The temperature wasn't as high as it used to be, and that flimsy outfit didn't offer any protection against the chill. The summer was flirting with its last days. However, autumn was already in the air and in the colour of the leaves.
The strange woman, Mary Reid, Alice's neighbour, had also heard the sirens of the police cars. As a woman who shared the imagination of two people at least, and especially after witnessing the night's events, she imagined the worst. Out of the ordinary was that she wasn't far from the truth this time.
Mary was a woman a little over thirty, but not the typical thirty-year-old. She was slightly plump, swarthy-faced, and green-eyed. Her temper was in total contradiction with the type of woman she was portraying.
Alice guessed that Mary had married one or two years before. The Reid family had moved into the area only half a year before after buying the house from Mr MacDonald's grandsons, who had been trying to push that house off the market for quite some time. Poor Mr MacDonald had died one year earlier, almost to the day.
Alice and Mary made some sort of friends, some said, but only because they stayed at home in the morning while their husbands went to town for work. They weren't very close, even though there wasn't a gap in age between them. Yet, they had completely different interests and weren't fit to be friends. Alice was the typical and obedient housewife, who had only her house and husband on her mind all day long. Mary was nothing of the kind. She was a modern and independent woman. Understandably, Mary Reid didn't seem to need or heed her husband's opinions. She would do whatever she wanted regardless of what that poor guy would say.
Consequently, the quarrels from their house were legendary and even quite entertaining sometimes. Some neighbours craved them. After all, it was a free show and made them forget about their pesky little rows.
"I don't know, Mary," Alice finally answered. "I'm afraid, you know. I think something bad happened at the Dobbs' again. Something happened to Mrs Dobbs. That young policeman over there didn't want to tell me anything… He sent me packing quite fast. He said they were going to talk to us later," Alice shared what she knew and headed to her house, failing to see the disappointed grimace on Mary's face, who was put out by the lack of news.
Suddenly, Alice turned back and asked, "What do you think, Mary, would you come for tea? Oh, sorry, I'd better invite you to coffee. I know you don't like tea, although I don't understand why," Alice said apologetically but not feeling any remorse. She had intentionally had that 'slip' of the tongue. In reality, she didn't like Mary, but she had to pass her time somehow. Mary was as good as any.
"I don't know, Alice," Mary said pensively without paying attention to the woman's reproach. She appeared to sink deeply into her thoughts, and Alice felt like slapping her.
Mary would always think of something! She would never react like an average person and accept an invitation without pondering it.
"All right, I'll come," Mary replied. "I can't work now anyway. There's too much noise across the street, so I would think of what happened there and make speculations… All right, I'll come. At least, if I spend some time with you, I'll relax a little. Then, I'll be able to work more and even better," Mary concluded, cheerfully following Alice.
Hearing about her work, which she loathed, Alice turned up her nose, but Mary failed to see. She had learnt to ignore Alice’s disapproval. Alice didn’t think Mary’s work was a dignified occupation for a married woman. In her opinion, Mary should have taken more care of her household instead of wasting her time with such absurd things. Obviously, she had expressed her views loudly, and not only once. But then, Mary only laughed at her and didn’t care for her ideas.
Alice opened the door and invited Mary into the house, leading the way into the kitchen, where Mary sat down at the kitchen table. Her face showed she would have liked to say something, and she was trying hard to keep her mouth shut but started making coffee for Mary and tea for herself.
Mary silently observed her. Alice’s efforts amused her, and her eyes shone with glee. The young woman knew Alice well enough. She was aware her neighbour wanted to say something, probably some wife-to-wife reproach, as she usually did. However, this time, she didn’t seem to have the courage to start.
Mary had had a very dull morning and needed some entertainment, so she decided to nudge Alice a little. It wasn’t like she cared about what Alice had to say anyway. Mary had never paid attention to her words, but, now and then, the young woman liked to play the game. It was probably petty of her, but she enjoyed seeing Alice all worked up, only to run out of steam at the end.
“All right, Alice, say it. If you have something to say, just say it. You shouldn’t hold back. You know I couldn’t even get mad at you,” Mary said, adding in her mind, ‘You’re a stupid cow, and you don’t have a backbone, so why the hell would I get upset with you?’
Alice thought for a few seconds, trying to choose the most appropriate words. “You know Mary, I heard your husband yelling at you yesterday evening. Again… You know, far from me to advise you how to run your marriage… far from me, of course... You know me. I think everyone should do whatever they want,” she said, thinking precisely the opposite. “But,” she continued coyly, “maybe… if you took more care of him and your household chores… A wife should always put her husband first… everything else should come second.”
“I know that’s what you think, Alice. But I don’t,” Mary replied in a determined voice. She enjoyed egging Alice. She didn’t consider herself a mean person, but she liked throwing Alice’s opinions back in her face.
“A husband may be here today, Alice. Tomorrow, he might be with another woman. Believe me, my dear, nothing will stop that… if it’s meant to be. Even if you cook the perfect dinner and your house is spotless, Alice. But, you see, if Michael leaves me, I won’t have to ask for money from him or wait for alimony every month. I won’t be afraid he might want to punish me or not give me two pennies. I won’t wonder whether he sends me the money on time so that I can pay rent or food or whatever. I’ll have my work and make my own money. It’s something I can rely on. He can stay, or he can go…”
Mary stopped for a few seconds, watching Alice through her lashes. “Anyway, I won’t spend my entire day cooking his favourite dishes. I’d die in less than a week. He knows that. And he also knows he isn’t everything in my life. He’s not sure about me now, so he might think twice before shopping around for a new woman... And, if he does — which I don’t think it’s impossible, I won’t join the line of those deserted women, left with nothing to their name.”
“I can’t believe what you’re saying. I can’t, you hear me,” Alice exclaimed heatedly. “A husband always appreciates when his wife takes care of the small things. He appreciates her if she’s there for him. When he knows he is the first and most important thing in her life, a husband appreciates and loves his wife more, and he won’t desert her. I saw that with Mr Thompson. I know what I’m saying,” she nodded knowingly.
‘You know nothing, damn it!’ Mary said to herself. She knew what the ‘wonderful’ Mr Thompson did, and most people living in their neighbourhood knew too. Yet, she couldn’t let her friend know. That would have been spiteful. And anyway, it wouldn’t do any good. Alice wouldn’t believe her. She would even accuse her of being envious.
So, instead, she said, "Maybe, Alice. Maybe you're right," she repeated for good measure. "But you see, I saw my mother. She was exactly like you — the caring and hardworking little housewife who didn't think of anything but her husband and his whims. When he took off, he left her behind, alone, with three children to bring up by herself because, of course, he didn't care about any of us. She didn't have money in her pockets, and she'd been left without a friend. All their friends were his, not hers. They turned their backs on her as soon as he moved out of the house. So, she had to start all over again. If you think about it, she had no training, nothing. It was a tough time for her… I'm sure you can't even imagine. The only thing she knew was to clean people's houses… So, Alice, I'm sorry, but I prefer being exactly the way I am. If Michael leaves me one day, I won't be left with no job, money, or friends. And, by the way, so you know, I prefer having my own friends, if you understand me, not his."
Alice couldn't say anything for a few moments, and then, she decided to keep her counsel, even though she still thought that Mary had it all wrong.
Maybe her mother wasn't good enough to keep her marriage strong. And after all, like mothers, like daughters. Considering Mary's aversion to household chores or heeding her husband's wishes…. Well, that said something about her mother, as well.
Alice was convinced that if she kept doing her best, her husband wouldn't desert her, unlike Mary's, who would do it in the blink of an eye.
Mary was far too lazy and didn't do anything for her spouse. She hardly cooked and preferred to buy everything already prepared from the grocer's. What man wouldn't like a nice homemade meal now and then? A man worked hard to provide for his wife, so he had the right to demand it.
Mr Reid's shirts weren't always ironed, and sometimes, even his trousers looked a little wrinkled. Alice had heard Mary telling him to start cleaning if he wanted a neat house and ironing his clothes if he wished to have unwrinkled clothes. Mary didn't care if he was tired when he returned home from work but would ask him to mow the lawn or do other things in the house, which was unacceptable.
Mary considered Alice a simpleton, even if she was a few years older. Alice lived in her own world, disconnected from reality. Like everyone else, Mary knew that Mr Thompson was seeing Ann, the young typist residing on the same street. He wasn't as faithful as his wife believed.
Of course, having a mistress took its toll, so he was always tired when he returned home at night. Rumours said that he might have had other women stashed in town.
However, as Alice never asked him to do anything in the house, the man was living the high life, a king in his own castle.
He had Alice for cleaning, cooking, and taking care of his clothes and other boring details of his life, but, on the side, the man also had Ann for his soul and for fun. God knew how many others to entertain him in town.
Still, Mary couldn't tell that to Alice. That would have crushed the little wife, so proud of her marriage and husband. However, Mary had a moment of uncertainty. Maybe Alice wasn't as satisfied as she pretended to be. Alice's marriage was not as vocal as hers, so no one really knew what happened behind the flowery curtains carefully drawn over all the windows of their house.
Alice drank her tea in silence, lost in thought and bitter. Daniel stopped being as loving as he had been during the first months of their life together. However, the woman consoled herself. Everything was for the best because she couldn't deal with his passion, even though she sometimes longed for something different, but she couldn't say what. Alice didn't want to think of that anymore, so, with an imperceptible shudder, she turned her eyes to Mary.
"What are you writing these days?"
Alice didn't have any genuine interest in Mary's writing. She didn't read anything else but some magazines and the newspapers Daniel brought home in the evening. Nevertheless, she needed a distraction to make her forget about her restlessness.
"Oh, that. Just a little story with ghosts," Mary cheered up and laughed merrily, happy to talk about her work. There, she felt safe because she knew what she was doing. "The ghost of a man falls in love with a living woman and pursues her everywhere. It's something romantic with some comic scenes here and there. All sorts of funny things happen."
"I wouldn't like to read it," Alice exclaimed. In her way, she was a pragmatic woman, and she had no taste for things like that.
The disdain and repulsion in Alice's eyes upset Mary. "Don't worry," she snapped. "There are many other people who like to read such things. My editor told me I could make good money with it, and that's also important, don't you think? I want to visit Egypt one day, and who knows, maybe this little novella might help me see my dream come true," said Mary, winking, just to annoy Alice because she knew Alice didn't like it.
"All right, I hope you can do it," Alice grumbled. "Do you want some more coffee, Mary?" she asked, suddenly sick of Mary. She wanted her out of her house.
"No, thank you," Mary replied, aware of Alice's feelings. "I think I should go. I have a lot to write – deadlines, you know. So, I'd better go now. See you soon. Maybe we'll see each other later," she threw over her shoulder on her way out.
Alice merely nodded and closed the door behind her neighbour. Then, she washed the cups, placing them back in the cupboard in the exact spot she had chosen for them. Alice didn't like changes. She loathed seeing a thing in a different place than the one she had decided upon since the beginning.
Unwillingly, she started thinking of Mary's weird marriage with Michael Reid and their terrible fights. Even though she lived two houses away from them, their shouting matches reached her ears. The entire street heard them. Famous around there, the Reid family represented one of the entertainment outlets of the minor road where usually nothing happened. Well, at least until last night.
Alice shook her head sadly. She was convinced the Reid marriage wouldn't last, and, in a way, that was a pity.
However, Michael would definitely have enough of all that drama one day and leave her with her stupid stories. Alice would have liked to see what Mary would say then. Indeed, she would lose some of her self-confidence and some of her identity.
'A husband offers identity to a woman,' Alice decided. She thought of Daniel with fondness. The poor man came home tired to the bones in the evening because he worked hard to provide her with a better life.
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