As usual, José drove faster than was necessary. Oscar wasn´t prepared to talk about it anymore, but there was a note of exasperation in his voice as he told José to park at the foot of the small hill that led up to the house. He wanted time to get the feel of the place before they went in.
By the time they had walked up the steep road as far as the iron gates, the big man was wheezing heavily. He was strong, but he needed to lose some weight: Oscar had told him often enough.
There was an intercom system at the gate. It seemed to be working, from the buzzing, but no-one answered. It turned out the gate was not locked. They passed through and started up the gravel drive.
– I wouldn´t mind owning a house like this someday, José commented.
– You´ll wait a long time, on a policeman´s pay, Oscar told him.
The house stood at an angle to the path, the better to catch the sunlight. There was an expanse of lawn in front, sloping down to the road, with sprinklers buried at regular intervals. At the sides and back, the house was ringed closely by the trees of a small wood that extended away up the hill as far as they could see.
They rang the doorbell, but again no answer. Seeing that the shutters were not lowered, Oscar peered through the windows of the front ground floor elevation. He noted that the rooms were as immaculate as the house itself: polished wooden floors, expensive pieces of furniture, a clock in a tall cabinet. But no people.
– That´s strange, José told him. The door isn´t locked.
He pushed it gently open with his huge paw of a hand. They exchanged glances and stepped inside cautiously.
The owner was waiting for them in a drawing room on the ground floor, in the cooler part of the house that was partly shaded by the trees. She was standing perfectly still in front of a full length window, looking away from them; watching the rays of sunlight that gave the leaves of the trees a dappled effect that constantly shifted as the breeze moved them. Sunbeams shone through the glass, lighting up specks of dust that floated sparkling in the gloomy interior. When the lady turned to face them, she was framed in sunlight.
José apologized for their walking in unannounced and explained who they were. Oscar observed a woman in late middle age: quite elegant. She might have been beautiful when she was younger: thin, erect, medium height, dressed well. Her eyes seemed older than the rest of her and the skin of her face was quite grey, as if she´d always used too much make-up or never been outside enough. She wore her hair longer than was usual for her age, but it was still thick and straight, though strands of white and grey suggested that she´d given up dyeing it recently. Her mouth was quite small and the lips were too thin. Oscar, who frequently accused himself of having too much imagination, would have said that it was a mouth that was not cruel, but had experienced suffering.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the woman was that she had not seemed in any way shocked or surprised to see them. She asked them to sit down, but herself remained standing by the window.
– It´s about your husband, señora, José explained. He hasn´t been seen at his office for a few days and they haven´t heard from him. He´s been reported missing.
– These days my husband doesn´t need to take much interest in his business, she told them. It practically runs itself.
– His secretary told us that he always calls in by phone, even when he´s away.
– Why don´t you ask that bitch where he is? the lady snapped. She should know better than me.
José shrugged. He was sitting perched on the edge of an upholstered chair that had carved wooden arms which squeezed in his fat sides. The effect was comical.
– That´s none of our business, señora, he explained. We only want to check his whereabouts.
– I´m sorry. That was rude and uncalled for. The fact is, I haven´t seen my husband for days. He´s often away. When he is here he spends the time in his observatory, looking at the stars. We hardly speak to each other.
– He has an observatory? Oscar asked.
– That´s what he calls it. It´s in the ruin of the windmill, behind the house. Maybe you didn´t see it from the path. But anyway there´s no-one there now.
– Even so, said Oscar, I should like to see it. Would you mind? My colleague will stay here and have a look round, if that´s alright. Nothing obtrusive. We won´t touch anything. Just so that we can say we have made the official visit, you understand.
– Oh dear, I suppose I don´t have any choice.
The señora led him to the back door of the house, where she took a key that was hanging on a hook on the wall by an old frayed string. The back door wasn´t locked. Oscar followed her along a path that wound through the dense trees until they came to a little space, where rising above them he saw the round tower of a genuine old-fashioned windmill. The vanes and mechanism were gone, but the rough old stone looked sound.
– He might as well live here, the lady told Oscar.
She fitted the key into the lock of a heavy wooden door that was studded with iron nails. Oscar stepped forward to help her open it.
Inside it was almost dark. They were standing at the foot of a stone staircase that had been set into the circular walls. There was a wooden floor some metres below them, with no obvious way down to it. In the half-light from the narrow slit windows high above, the wood looked rotted and there was a smell of damp. Looking up, the stairs wound upward to an upper floor of fresh boards laid on heavy timbers.
– There´s another door at the top, she told him, but it´s never locked. My husband is always saying he´ll get it fixed up down here. It´s disgusting and not even any electric light. The truth is, as soon as he had everything to his liking up there, he lost interest in the rest. That´s the kind of man he is. Maybe he wanted to leave it like this to put off unwanted visitors.
– Can we go upstairs?
– Follow me. Be careful. Remember there´s no rail.
The lady began to climb the staircase in quick confident steps, like she´d done it many times. There was just enough light to see by. Oscar supposed that they used lanterns in the night times. Looking down, he noticed a dark gap in the floor below where something heavy had crashed through it. The wood was certainly rotten below, though above it looked fine. Now he could see that the stairs ended at a wooden platform, which had been hidden in shadow. There was a door there that separated this part of the building from the observatory.
He was looking at that when he suddenly realized that he had put down the weight of his foot into empty air. One of the steps was missing. Oscar went sprawling down and the momentum of his stride made him roll sideways, over the edge of the narrow staircase. His fingers clawed at something to hold onto and for a moment he tottered, feeling that most of his body was hanging in the void. When he found balance again, he saw that he was clutching at the stone with one hand, while the other maintained a fingertip grip on the heavy duty power cable that was bolted to the wall along the line of the staircase.
The lady stood above him, watching calmly.
– I warned you to be careful, she said.
Behind the door was a bachelor´s den. There was a large telescope with a confusing array of attachments, mounted on a substantial tripod and pointing upward at a large window that was set high above the floor and seemed to be fitted with electric motors for opening and closing. There was electric lighting and a music system, but no television. Just now the room was flooded with natural sunlight.
The place was furnished with a pair of worn but comfortable-looking armchairs, a well stocked drinks cabinet with glasses (no empty or half-filled glasses on the oak coffee table) and a tall bookcase filled with hard backed and battered paperback editions of varying shapes and sizes. The only book on the table was a translation of the second volume of Burton´s Anatomy of Melancholy: it had a scrap of newspaper marking a page about one third of the way through. Oscar sniffed at the binding then replaced the book on the table.
– Nothing here, as you can see, she told him.
– You´ll have to leave this place, you know, Oscar said gently. You won´t be able to stay here.
– You understand then.
– I wasn´t ready to leave this place. It´s been my home for so long.
– The house is very beautiful.
– Won´t you try some scotch? My husband has always insisted on the finest quality.
– Thank you, but not while I´m on duty.
– I suppose not.
She walked across to the big window. It was just low enough so that you could look out and see the house if you were standing close. She spoke to him without taking her eyes off it.
– It was bad enough that he did what he did, but then he was planning to get rid of me. I heard him talking aloud to himself. “Dispose of the old woman” was what he said. But I couldn´t go. He couldn´t make me.
– It must have been hard for you.
– He drank too much sometimes when he was up here you know. He never was a drinker before and it made him unsteady.
– Those steps could be dangerous if you´re startled by something.
The lady still hadn´t taken her gaze off the house.
– I suppose your man is conducting a thorough search?
– He´s discreet, Oscar told her. I know he looks clumsy, but he won´t make a mess or break anything.
– When did you know? she asked him.
– About you? From the first moment. But then on the stairs you confirmed it for me. A second before I almost fell, I watched you climb a step, only when I put my foot on it, the same step wasn´t there.
Finally, she turned to face him.
– And that smell downstairs, he said. It´s not just damp, is it?
Oscar went back to the house alone. José was waiting for him.
– Where´s the lady, he asked.
– She´s gone.
José didn´t reply. He knew better than to ask what his boss meant. When Oscar said something that sounded impossible, you had to wait until he was ready to explain it to you.
– I think she´s crazy, José said. Everything in the fridge is rotten. No wonder she didn´t offer us a drink or anything. The house is neat, but too neat, like no-one´s living here, or it´s the home of an obsessive. If you ask me, we should be looking for a body.
– I already found it, Oscar told him; up at the windmill, in the basement. But it´s not one body, it´s two, and they´ve been there for a while. You´d better warn forensics it´s not going to be a pleasant job.