Authors: James Raven
hen we got to the top of the stairs, Tina was on the landing outside one of the bedrooms. She was still screaming and clearly distressed. Her hands were clenched into fists at her sides and the tendons in her neck looked as though they might burst through the skin. Michael was peering at her from another doorway, his pale face stricken with shock and bewilderment.
I rushed up to my daughter and grabbed her by the shoulders.
‘Calm down, sweetheart,’ I said. ‘What is it? What’s wrong?’
She raised an arm and pointed into the room.
‘A snake,’ she wailed. ‘There’s a friggin’ snake in the bed. I pulled back the duvet and there it was.’
I couldn’t see it from the landing so I let go of Tina and ventured into the room. I’ve never been scared of snakes but I don’t like them and they make me nervous. Back in Houston they’re pretty common in the hot summer months and I’d had a few unfortunate encounters on nature trails and in parks.
I approached the bed cautiously, my eyes flitting around the room, which had pink walls and pine furniture. It was a girl’s room. Cool and fresh and feminine.
The snake was curled up on the white sheet next to the pillow. It was a grey-brown colour with a vague, zig-zag pattern on its scaly skin and a distinctive ‘v’ mark on the back of its head. No wonder Tina had gone into hysterics. It was a chilling, incongruous sight. The stuff of nightmares.
‘It’s an adder,’ Nicole said from behind me. ‘They’re poisonous.’
‘That’s great,’ I retorted.
I was now standing over the bed and looking down on it. Still it hadn’t moved, so I guessed it must be sleeping. It was about two feet
long. I couldn’t see its eyes or its mouth. It was an ugly, scary creature.
‘We have to get it out of here,’ Nicole said, stating the obvious.
That was going to be easier said than done, I thought. The moment it woke up it would probably slither off the bed and lead us a merry dance around the house. Or crawl into a place where we couldn’t reach it. Then where would we be?
‘I need a bag or a sack to put it in,’ I said, but a tremor in my voice betrayed my effort to remain calm. ‘Someone go and empty my flight bag and bring it up to me. Quickly.’
Nicole relayed the instruction to a now sobbing Tina and I started looking around for something I could use to trap the snake. I spotted a large glass bowl on top of the pine dresser. It was half filled with pot pourri and it was close enough to reach without having to shift my position. I picked it up, emptied the contents onto the floor, and after a moment’s hesitation leaned across the bed and dropped it over the immobile snake. It was a perfect fit. I took a long, deep breath and felt a wave of relief surge through me. Emboldened now by the glass barrier between myself and the snake, I placed my hands on the bowl and moved it around in order to wake it up. But still it didn’t move, despite being shaken about so much that its long body began to uncurl.
‘I think it’s dead,’ Michael said.
I turned and saw him standing at the foot of the bed, the colour having returned to his cheeks.
‘Try prodding it,’ he added.
‘What with?’ I said.
It was Nicole who supplied the answer. She opened the wardrobe and took out a wire coat hanger, which she handed to me. I
slipped it under the rim of the upside-down bowl and poked the snake. Once, twice, three times. It didn’t stir, not even to flinch. I then lifted the bowl off completely, looped the hanger over the snake’s tail end and moved it half way along its body. Then, with surprisingly little effort, I raised the snake off the bed so that it was drooped over the long section of the hanger like a length of thick rope.
A loud gasp came from the landing. Tina had returned and was standing in the doorway clutching my flight bag to her chest as though for protection.
‘Relax, sweetheart,’ I said. ‘This snake is deceased.’
‘So what the hell was it doing in the bed?’ she yelled.
‘It probably crawled under the duvet to keep warm,’ I said. ‘It’s not uncommon for snakes to get into homes. It happens often enough in Texas, as you know.’
‘But this isn’t Texas,’ she said. ‘And besides, the door was closed. I opened it.’
‘Well it must have sneaked in before the house was locked up,’ I said.
She shook her head, unconvinced. And I didn’t blame her. It was a complete mystery to me how the slithery fucker had managed to not only get into the house, but also up the stairs and into bed.
‘Look, shall we have this conversation later?’ Nicole said. ‘I think we should get rid of that thing and check that there aren’t any more.’
I walked slowly down the stairs with the family in tow, then out the front door and across the driveway to the edge of the heath. I laboured through bracken for about twenty yards. Before dropping the snake on the ground I looked closely at it for any wounds. I couldn’t see any, which begged the question as to how it had died. Did snakes have heart attacks? I wondered.
I carried the hanger back to the house and dumped it in a wheelie bin around the side. Nicole and Michael then joined me in a careful and thorough search of the house. Tina stayed in the kitchen because she couldn’t bear the thought of getting another nasty surprise.
After half an hour we were certain there were no more unwanted tenants. We gathered in the kitchen and Nicole made some coffee. A rush of anger prompted me to phone Nathan Slade. I wanted to ask him how in God’s name such a thing could happen. But Slade didn’t answer so I left a voice message, telling him I needed to talk to him as a matter of urgency. The experience had left us all feeling raw and edgy, especially Tina who still had a bad case of the shakes.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said, rubbing her shoulders. ‘It was a one off, a fluke. It won’t happen again.’
Tina started sobbing again and I realized that she urgently needed something mundane to grip her mind and harness her imagination before it brought on another bout of hysterics.
‘Let’s go for a walk,’ I said. ‘Clear our heads and try to put this into
perspective. After all, we’re OK. That’s the important thing. We can unpack later.’
The suggestion was well received. I think everyone was keen to get out of the house for a spell, if only to flush the adrenaline out of our bodies. As I closed the front door behind us I felt an easing of the tension that had seized me. The air was fresh and the sun was still shining. I put my arm around Tina and noticed with relief that she had stopped shaking. Nicole smiled at me and those familiar dimples appeared in her cheeks. But it was a half-hearted smile that required a degree of effort. And that made me feel guilty. OK, it wasn’t my fault that the first day of our holiday had been ruined, but I couldn’t help feeling responsible. I just had to hope that once the shock wore off we would all feel better.
As we started walking down the track we’d driven up, Michael suddenly began shouting excitedly and pointing up at the sky. He’d spotted a low-flying helicopter roaring towards us across the valley. Within seconds it was soaring above our heads and it was so close we could clearly see the word
stencilled across the underside in large, black letters. It proved to be a welcome distraction because as it disappeared over a hill we were all left wondering if something awful had happened in another part of the forest.
And for a time we forgot about the snake.
CI Temple watched the police helicopter swerve in low over Cranes Moor. The crew would be looking for anything unusual, an abandoned car, perhaps, or maybe someone observing the scene from a distance through binoculars.
The roar of the rotor blades shattered the plaintive silence of the forest. Most of the forensic technicians and police searchers stopped what they were doing to follow its progress.
Temple returned his attention to the dead girl. The team were in the process of erecting a small white tent over her to prevent further contamination of the area around the body. This was the most crucial phase of any investigation. Get lucky now and you could save yourself an awful lot of time and effort later on. Most killers were careless, even the ones who thought they were forensically astute because they had watched every episode of
. But criminals always leave something behind, be it DNA, fibres or fingerprints. And thanks to the latest
it usually leads the police directly to them.
Despite the statistics, Temple was not confident that today’s search would bear much fruit. Crime scenes that are out in the open,
those on fields and in woodland, are notoriously unproductive. Weather, wildlife and body decomposition usually conspire to hinder the work of the forensic team. And today their job would be even more difficult. The girl hadn’t died here, according to Matherson. And it hadn’t rained lately so the ground was dry, which made it difficult to find useful tyre tracks and shoeprints. Nevertheless they would use their scientific wizardry to try to recreate the path that the killer took to reach this spot.
Temple already knew that the tattoo on the girl’s ankle was going to be their best and possibly only lead at this early stage.
Genna. Who was she? What could she possibly have done to deserve such a fate? Was the killer her boyfriend or husband or perhaps someone she had rejected? Most times there’s a connection between the victim and the offender. That’s one reason the murder detection rate is so impressive. Quite often it’s obvious who the
is. But Temple wasn’t convinced that this was going to be one of those cases that would be easily solved.
He had a bad feeling about it. He called it detective’s intuition, based on years of experience. And he was rarely wrong about such things. That was why he was so highly regarded by the Hampshire Constabulary’s top brass. He got results and he never complained about pay and pension and the lack of promotion. There were those on the force who thought he should have made chief superintendent by now, but whenever they raised the issue with him he would tell them the truth – he was content with his job and did not want to become a pen pusher.
Temple walked back to the road, which was now a noisy car park: the crackle of police radios, raised voices, doors slamming. It was busy but not chaotic. TV crews and press photographers had gathered on the other side of the cordon. Normally at this point in a case Temple would have ignored them, but he was anxious on this occasion to stage an impromptu press conference. He wanted that name out there as soon as possible.
When he was standing before the media scrum he straightened his tie, buttoned his suit jacket and palmed back his receding brown hair.
‘I’m only prepared to make a brief statement,’ he said when everyone was ready. ‘I’m not in a position to answer questions at this time. As you can appreciate we’re at an extremely early stage in the investigation.’
He paused, swallowed hard, and began to wish that he had stood with his back to the sun so that he didn’t have to squint.
‘This morning just after eight o’clock a man walking his dog on Cranes Moor stumbled upon the body of a young woman,’ he said. ‘She’d been wrapped in bin liners and buried in a shallow grave that had been partially uncovered. The cause of death would appear to be two stab wounds to the back so we’re treating this as a murder case and it will be investigated by Hampshire’s Major Crime Department
based in Southampton. We believe the girl’s body had been here for three days or more. And it’s likely she was brought here in a car or van that was parked on the nearby road.
‘We don’t yet know the victim’s identity, but the name Genna is tattooed on her right ankle. So I’m appealing to anyone who believes they might know who she is to come forward without delay. Time is of the essence.’
He held up his hand to indicate that the press conference was over. He ignored the questions that were fired at him and walked smartly away.
e walked and we talked and we tried to forget about the snake in the bedroom. And we succeeded to some degree because the landscape all around us was so beautiful. We all relished the different scents of the trees and plants. We drew each other’s attention to the ponies and wild flowers and the raucous sounds of the insects in the bracken.
It was still a bright day but some benign clouds had started to gather to the east. Tina remained subdued, which was understandable, but she made an effort to join in the conversation. I almost welcomed the fact that she wasn’t being her usual precocious self. Normally she became detached and disinterested whenever we went out together as a family.
Michael, on the other hand, was embracing the moment. To him the experience with the snake was tremendously exciting and he couldn’t see why the rest of us had made such a fuss. I could tell that Nicole had been unnerved by what had happened. During the walk she was quiet and pensive with a furrowed brow that didn’t suit her. But by the time we got back to the house after about an hour, she was more upbeat and animated.
She took the key from me and unlocked the front door, telling us that she would make some tea before embarking on the task of unpacking our cases. But as soon as she stepped into the house her back stiffened and her face dropped.
‘My God, what’s that smell?’ she yelped.
Tina and Michael responded with squeals of disgust that I would normally have considered completely over the top. But not this time. The heavy odour inside the house was truly awful. It hit us like a gust of putrid wind; thick and sickly and yet at the same time indefinable.
‘Jesus, it didn’t stink like this before we went out,’ Tina said in a voice that was muffled because she had covered her mouth and nose with her hand.
The others hurried into the kitchen. I was about to follow when something else struck me. I suddenly realized that the smell was not the only thing that was different about the house. A deep frown settled across my forehead and I felt a sudden tightness in my throat.
All the doors on the ground floor were open.
Nicole and the kids would not have noticed because I’d been the last to step outside – after closing all the doors behind us. It was a habit of mine, almost an obsession. I always felt compelled to close doors before going out. It had been with me since I was a small boy and to this day I have no idea what sparked it in the first place. But I did know with absolute certainty that the doors had been shut when we left for the walk over an hour ago. I decided not to mention it to Nicole and the others. They’d been spooked enough by the snake and now by that harsh smell. If I told them it looked like someone had been in the house while we were out then that would surely mean the vacation would be over before it had even got started.
Besides, there might well be a reasonable explanation. Perhaps Nathan Slade had dropped by to welcome us and had let himself in with a key. The front door had definitely been locked, after all. But wouldn’t he have left a note? And wouldn’t we have seen his car on the track?
The odious, clinging smell gave me an excuse to rush around the house to see if it was secure. I told everyone to leave it to me and checked every window and the back doors. There were no broken locks or smashed windows. The house had been sealed and apart from us it was empty.
Meanwhile, Nicole, Tina and Michael went looking for the source of the foul odour. But even before their search was complete it had
with a suddenness that surprised us all.
‘I don’t understand,’ Nicole said. ‘What the hell could have caused it?’
I didn’t know. Just like I didn’t know who had opened the doors in our absence. As I started to help Nicole make the tea I tried to play it down, even though an uneasy feeling settled in my abdomen.
‘Maybe there’s a sewage works nearby,’ I said. ‘If so the smell could get carried around by the wind.’
‘There is no wind today,’ she replied.
I shrugged. ‘Then it could have something to do with the plumbing. Some rotting food stuck in a wastepipe or something.’
In truth there were many things it could have been. Strange smells that come and go are a feature in most homes. And it’s not unusual for the cause never to be discovered. In fact, as bad as it was, it was not the smell that was troubling me. I was sure that would eventually be explained away, probably by the landlord. But the doors were another thing entirely. I just couldn’t figure out how and why they’d been open on our return. It was a mystery.
Just like the snake. And the telephone call. And the smell. Coincidence? Or was some kind of pattern emerging? It was a
notion, of course, and it smacked of paranoia. But the thought had suddenly taken root inside my head like an unwanted tumour.
We had some tea sitting around the kitchen table. I tried to steer the conversation away from the snake and the smell by talking about what we were going to do over the coming two weeks.
We planned to go on lots of walks and visit tourist attractions like the famous motor museum at Beaulieu and the castle at Highcliffe. We were also keen to see the shops in Burley that sold souvenirs and books related to witchcraft and magic. According to Nicole you could buy such things as toy witches, wands, tarot cards and other pagan paraphernalia.
But trying to get the others to focus on our plans was impossible. They were tired, downbeat and shell-shocked. So I suggested it was time we went upstairs and unpacked.
Nicole and I made for the master bedroom which was big and bright, with a king-size bed, a dresser, and two stand-alone wardrobes with full-length mirrored doors. The room overlooked the front of the house with a view of the moor. There was also an en-suite bath and shower room which was fully tiled and had two wash basins.
The kids managed to decide which of the remaining rooms they were going to have without arguing over it. Nicole had much more stuff than I did so when my case was empty I slid it under the bed and went to check on the kids. Michael was lying on his bed reading a
comic he’d brought with him. His room was already a mess with his belongings spread around like debris from a hurricane.
Tina was still putting her clothes away, neatly folded or on hangers. Jeans and blouses in the wardrobe; T-shirts and sweaters in the drawers. She took after her mother in that she liked things to be
. I was the exact opposite, even in the office, which frustrated and sometimes infuriated the other lawyers in the practice.
‘Are you feeling better?’ I asked her.
‘I’ve stopped shaking at least,’ she said with a smile that did not quite reach her eyes.
‘Well try to forget about what happened. I guarantee no more animals will be getting into this house. And that includes snakes.’
‘I’ll hold you to that, Pops.’
I put my arm around her. ‘I love you so much, sweetheart. And I really want you to have a good time here.’
‘I’ll try,’ she said. ‘But I still think we should have gone to Florida.’
Tina had clearly been rattled by what had happened but I hoped that she wouldn’t let it bother her for long. Although she was strong willed and assertive, she was also at that vulnerable age when
problems can be triggered by traumatic events.
I left Tina to it and strolled around upstairs getting acquainted with our temporary home. It seemed like a good, solid property with fresh paint on the walls along with a collection of impressive watercolour paintings depicting scenes from the forest. The house was also
clean – which was probably why I noticed the large stain on the beige carpet in what was now the spare bedroom. I hadn’t seen it before because I’d been otherwise engaged, but now I could see it clearly. It was circular in shape and about two feet across. It looked to me as though someone had spent a lot of time trying to get the stain out with carpet cleaner.
On closer inspection I saw that it had a reddish tint to it. So I wondered if perhaps a previous guest had spilled a drink or had even had some kind of accident which had resulted in him or her bleeding profusely onto the carpet. It was a shame because the carpet looked brand new along with the pine furniture in the room. It seemed that Mr Slade had gone to a lot of trouble to make the place comfortable and cosy.
After unpacking, Nicole suggested that we should all try to get some shut-eye so we could make the most of the evening. It sounded good to me because by this time my brain and body were aching from jet lag. Earlier I had intended to make mad, passionate love to my wife. But nothing could have been further from my mind when we finally slipped between the sheets. I could not stop thinking about the weird things that had happened to us today. The dead snake, the open doors and that awful, rancid smell. What a way to start a vacation.