By the time Samantha Stockard arrived in Meadow Lane the market was deserted, the traders gone, the stalls packed away, the road strewn with rubbish. She parked her car in front of the cafe.
She walked up to the window and looked inside. A man in a white apron was mopping down the floor. Behind him, a young woman sat alone in a plastic booth. She seemed to match the description supplied by Marcia Anson: late teens or early twenties, long yellow hair twisted into dreadlocks, jeans ripped at both knees, oversized jumper looking more than a little frayed, a rhinestone stud glinting in the flesh between her mouth and chin. A cracked mug sat on the table in front of her; she stared down at it without expression, oblivious to Samantha's presence on the other side of the glass.
Samantha stared at the other woman, transfixed. She'd seen her before, she was certain of it. But where? Perhaps it would come to her later, once they'd had a chance to speak.
She walked around to the entrance. It was locked. She knocked on the glass. The man in the apron waved her away. She knocked again, gesturing for him to come to the door.
He finally put down his mop and opened the door a crack. "Sorry, love. We're closed."
"I don't want to order anything; I just want to talk to that woman," she said, nodding towards the booth. "It'll only take a minute."
The man narrowed his eyes, taking in Samantha's neatly groomed bob and office-style clothing. "In some kind of trouble, is she?"
"Not at all," she assured him. "I just want to talk to her."
"All right." He stepped aside to let her pass, then touched her on the arm, lowering his voice to a whisper. "You mind yourself, love. Anna's a bit..." He tapped the side of his head with one finger. "Know what I mean?"
On the one hand, she was relieved to hear the other woman referred to as Anna; that meant she'd definitely found the right person. On the other, she didn't like the way the man kept pointing at his head. "I'm sorry?"
"She's got something wrong upstairs, love. I let her sit in the cafe sometimes, so long as she don't bother me customers, 'cause she's only young and I feel sorry for her, but I wouldn't credit anything she says if I were you. And I wouldn't turn my back on her," he added darkly.
She looked over at Anna and watched her set the cracked mug upside down on the table, then lean forward to sniff the base. "I'll keep that in mind."
She walked over to the booth and introduced herself. "I understand you knew a woman named Eleanor Burdon."
Anna glanced up at Samantha then quickly looked away. "You're surrounded by flickering shadows of forgotten ghosts, shrouded by the clinging remains of the person you were and the place you came from. You don't belong here."
"Eleanor Burdon," Anna muttered, gazing down at the table. "Poor old dearie. Only met her the once, you know. She was just like you. Lost and confused and frightened. Gives me a headache to look at you, you know that? You're so blurred around the edges, you keep shimmering in and out of focus like a reflection in a rippled pool."
A stream of brown liquid was dripping off the edge of the table; Anna's upside down mug hadn't been completely empty. Samantha turned to leave; this was a waste of time.
"You don't belong here," Anna called after her. "You know that, don't you? Deep down inside, you know it. Or at least you suspect. You've started to suspect, haven't you? That's why you're here, isn't it?"
Samantha stopped and turned around. Anna was right: that was exactly why she was there. Maybe it didn't matter that the girl was obviously off her rocker; Eleanor Burdon had worried that she might be going mad, and now it was just possible that Samantha was losing her mind, too. Maybe it took someone crazy to understand what was going on; maybe that's why Eleanor had said that Anna had believed her and understood. Samantha had to take a chance; she had to tell her. "I think something terrible happened to me this morning, but I can't remember what it was."
Samantha had tried to hide her nervousness as she followed her new boss, Janet Hale, down the dimly-lit tenth-floor corridor of the north London tower block where Eleanor Burdon had lived. The old woman's flat was all the way down at the end, then around a corner. Samantha had followed Janet's example and stepped into her hooded white coveralls in the hallway outside the flat. They had each put on rubber gloves, and then Janet had opened the door.
"Oh my God!" Samantha reeled backwards, raising a hand to her mouth.
"You're not going to throw up, are you?" Janet asked her.
Samantha shook her head.
"Just try and hold your breath a minute," Janet said, "while I get some air into the place." She disappeared into the flat.
Samantha pulled her hood up, covering her chin length hair, then reached into her bag for a surgical mask.
She found Janet in the living room, opening every window.
Walking into the dead woman's lounge was like walking into an oven. Samantha moved around the room slowly, sweating in the street clothes beneath her coveralls and trying not to breathe too deeply; despite the open windows, the pungent odour of rotted meat was overpowering.
Yellow foam erupted through the worn upholstery of the dark green settee. A bowl on the floor held several clumps of furry green cereal. A mug sat on top of the television, sprouting something that looked like asparagus and smelled like vomit. A folding metal table was buried under a mountain of yellowing paper: old newspapers, letters, God knew what. More paper overflowed from the half-open drawers of a small wooden cabinet. The threadbare carpet was littered with balls of hair and dust and foam from the sofa.
Janet shook her head and tsk'd, pursing her lips and deepening the furrows between her eyebrows. "Look at this place." She glanced at her younger companion. "All right, Sammy?"
Samantha gritted her teeth; no one had called her "Sammy" since she was ten years old. And she'd felt ill from the moment they'd picked up the key from the caretaker. Janet had introduced him as Hughie, adding that they'd known each other more than thirty years. He looked about Janet's age - mid to late fifties - with a shiny bald pate and thick tufts of reddish hair growing from his ears.
Hughie had insisted they have a cup of tea before going upstairs. Samantha had sipped her tea in silence, trying not to stare at the caretaker's ears... until he'd started regaling them with the story of how he'd come to discover the body, which he did in graphic detail. After that, she couldn't even drink her tea. And she still couldn't stop thinking about some of the things he'd said, like how he could have sworn the old woman was moving until he realized it was only the maggots wriggling.
"I'm fine," she lied.
Janet looked dubious. "You sure? You're awfully pale."
"I'm fine." This was Samantha's first case; she didn't dare admit to feeling sick for fear she'd end up back in the housing department where she'd spent the last three years as a typist.
"If you say so." Janet opened the door to another room and vanished inside. Samantha stayed where she was, not certain if she was expected to wait for Janet's instructions or impress her with her initiative. She was twenty-three years old, with an expensive haircut, a car and a mortgage, but Janet seemed to think she was some kind of naive child. She decided to impress her with her initiative. She crossed over to the table to look through some of the dead woman's papers.
"Sammy, come here," Janet called from the other room.
Samantha sighed. So much for initiative.
She walked up to the open door and saw that Janet was in the kitchen. "I want you to see this," Janet said, opening each and every cupboard. Apart from a jar of tea bags and a couple of glasses and plates, the shelves were empty. She opened the refrigerator. It, too, was empty, except for one carton of something solid that used to be milk. "No food," she said, shaking her head. "Not a crumb. You often find that." She lifted the flap to the ice-making compartment and stuck her hand inside.
"What are you doing?"
"Sometimes they hide things in there."
Janet shrugged. "Money, jewellery, whatever." She reached behind the fridge and unplugged it, then walked past Samantha to open another door, this time to the bathroom. Nothing there but a tub and a sink and an old fashioned gas water heater. A towel had been draped across the medicine cabinet. Janet lifted a corner of the towel, revealing the cabinet's mirrored front, and chuckled to herself.
"What's funny?" Samantha asked her.
"Hughie's covered all the mirrors again. He does it every time."
Janet left the room before Samantha could ask why. She shrugged and followed her back into the lounge. There was only one door left. As they approached it, Samantha thought she heard something: the whine of a distant motor, perhaps. Janet took a deep breath and reached for the handle. "This'll be it, then," she said.
"Bloody hell," she said a moment later.
The noise Samantha had heard was the buzzing of insects; the windows were covered with bluebottle flies. The moment the door opened, they swirled into the air, becoming a whirring black cloud heading straight for the two women. Samantha screamed, batting her hands wildly in front of her face. Janet calmly crossed the room to open the windows, shooing as many of them as she could outside. "Why don't you start on those papers in the lounge?" she asked, sounding tired.
Samantha didn't bother telling her that was what she'd been trying to do when Janet had called her into the kitchen. She was just grateful to get away from the flies and the sickening stench of death; the smell was even worse in the bedroom where the old woman had lain undiscovered for two weeks in the middle of a summer heatwave. She was beginning to have second thoughts about this job; maybe secretarial work wasn't so bad after all.
Janet followed her into the living room. "You know what to look for?"
The older woman pulled a chair up to the table and gestured for Samantha to sit down. "Insurance policy documents, a will, anything with an address... even just a name."
They'd been through this back at the office. "I know."
"Okay," Janet said, heading back into the bedroom. "Shout if you need me."
Samantha pulled off her gloves and started organizing the chaos in front of her into tidy stacks. There were dozens of unopened envelopes, some addressed to Mrs E Burdon, others addressed to Occupier. Some said things like: You may already be a lucky winner. Others had the words: Final Demand printed across the top. She put them to one side, to look at later, then picked up a spiral bound notebook. She flicked through several pages. Nothing useful, just a lot of twee little rhymes written in a precise - if slightly shaky - hand, each ending with the words: by Eleanor Burdon.
She could hear Janet through the wall. Rummaging through the old woman's wardrobe and chest of drawers, looking for anything of value that might be passed on to a relative — if they could find any — or sold at auction to pay for the funeral. Then she heard Janet call her name.
She put down the notebook and looked into the bedroom. The remaining flies had settled into a huddle around a light fixture in the ceiling.
Janet was on her hands and knees beside the bed. "Help me with this."
Samantha knelt down beside her and saw a large trunk pushed up against the wall. She got hold of one end while Janet grabbed the other. They pulled it out only to find it wouldn't open. "You any good at picking locks?" Janet asked.
"I've never tried," Samantha said carefully, not certain if that was meant to be a joke or not.
"Then I guess we'll have to find the key." Janet stood and walked over to an old fashioned dressing table to look through the dead woman's jewellery box. The dressing table mirror had been covered with a sheet.
Further along the wall behind the dresser, a floor-length black curtain hung across a narrow doorway. Samantha wondered what was behind it. Then she looked down. "Oh God," she said, leaping to her feet.
Janet turned around. "What's the matter?"
Samantha pointed to the discoloured patch of floor that marked the spot where the old woman had lain as clearly as if her body had been traced in chalk. And she'd just been kneeling on it.