Read an Excerpt
It was the mailman who reported it, calling 911 half an hour before Delaney’s shift was supposed to end.
The missing man’s pickup was sitting in the driveway and there were lights on in the house, so the mailman thought someone must be home. But no one answered when he knocked, and the mailbox was filled to overflowing. So maybe, he figured, maybe Mr. Terio had suffered a heart attack.
Delaney shook his head and swore at the mailman’s timing. Brent had a play-off game at six, and it was five after five already. Helen would kill him. (You’ve got to be there for him, Jack! Show a little support! What’s more important–your own son or your buddies at the station?) Well, actually . . . the truth was, he liked to go to his son’s games. Brent was a good player–better than he had ever been–and it was fun to bask in the kid’s reflected glory. When things were going well, Brent didn’t really need him there. But when the kid screwed up–well, his son was one intense little guy. Took his own failure way too hard. And Helen didn’t have a clue how to help the kid handle it. (Will you stop that crying! It’s just a game.) So Delaney liked to be there–especially for a big game. But his chances of making it were fading. He and Poliakoff were all the way to hell and gone, way out by the county line where civilization turned to kudzu.
Sitting behind the wheel, Poliakoff gave Delaney a sidelong glance and chuckled. “Don’t sweat it. You want to use the siren?” Delaney shook his head.
“The guy’s probably on vacation,” Poliakoff insisted. “We’ll take a look around–I’ll write it up. No problem.”
Delaney gazed out the window. The air was heavy and still, thick with gloom, the way it gets before a thunderstorm. “Maybe it’ll rain,” he muttered.
Poliakoff nodded. “That’s the spirit,” he told him. “Think positive.”
The cruiser turned onto Barracks Road and, suddenly, though they were barely a mile past a subdivision of bright new town houses, there was nothing in sight but vine-strangled woods and farmland. The occasional rotting barn.
“You ever been out this way?” Poliakoff asked.
Delaney shrugged. “That’s it, over there,” he said, nodding at a metal sign stippled with bullet holes. preacherman lane. “You gotta turn.”
They found themselves on a narrow dirt road, flanked by weeds and at the edge of a dense wood. “Jesus,” Poliakoff muttered as the cruiser crested a rise, then bottomed out with a thud be- fore he could brake. “Since when does Fairfax County have dirt roads?”
“We still got a couple,” Delaney replied, thinking the roads wouldn’t be around much longer. The Washington suburbs were metastasizing in every direction and had been for twenty years. In a year or two, the farmhouse up ahead–a yellow farmhouse, suddenly visible on the left–would be gone, drowned by a rising tide of town houses, Wal-Marts, and Targets.
The mailbox was at the end of the driveway, a battered aluminum cylinder with a faded red flag nailed to the top of a four-by-four T set in concrete. A name was stenciled on the side: c. terio.
Next to the mailbox, three or four newspapers were jammed into a white plastic tube that bore the words the washington post. A dozen other editions lay on the ground in a neatish pile, some already turning yellow.
When the mailman had reached out to 911, he’d suggested, “You should go in, take a look around the house, see what you can see.”
But of course, they couldn’t exactly do that. Under the circumstances, the most they could do was knock on the door, walk around the property, talk to the neighbors–not that there were any, far as Delaney could tell.
Climbing out of the cruiser, the deputies stood for a moment, watching and listening. Thunder rumbled in the south, and they could hear the distant hum of the Beltway. With a grin, Poliakoff sang in his cracking baritone, “H-e-e-ere we come to save the da-a-yyyy–”
“Let’s get this over with,” Delaney grumbled, setting off toward the house.
They passed an aging Toyota Tacoma at the end of the driveway, its rear end backed toward the house as if its owner had been loading or unloading something. Together the two policemen crossed the overgrown lawn to the front door.
The knocker was a fancy one–hand-hammered iron in the shape of a dragonfly. Poliakoff put his fist around it, drew back, and rapped loudly. “Hullo?”
“Hel-lo?” Poliakoff cocked his head and listened hard. When no reply came, he tried the door and, finding it locked, gave a little shrug. “Let’s go around back.” Together the deputies made their way around the side of the house, pausing every so often to peer through the windows.
“He left enough lights on,” Delaney observed.
At the rear of the house, they passed a little garden–tomatoes and peppers, zucchini and pole beans–that might have been tidy once but was now abandoned to weeds. Nearby, a screen door led into the kitchen. Poliakoff rapped on its wooden frame four or five times. “Anyone home? Mr. Terio! You in there?”
Or almost nothing. The air trembled with the on-again, off-again rasp of cicadas and, in the distance, the insectoid murmur of traffic. And there was something else, something . . . Delaney cocked his head and listened hard. He could hear . . . laughter. Or not laughter, actually, but . . . a laugh track. After a moment, he said, “The television’s on.”
Delaney sighed. No way he was going to get to Brent’s baseball game. He could feel it.
Even so, there was nothing they could do, really. The doors were locked and they didn’t have a warrant. There was no real evidence of a medical emergency, much less of foul play. But it was suspicious, and since they were already out here, they might as well take a look around. Be thorough about it.
Poliakoff walked back to where the newspapers were lying, squatted, and sorted through them. The oldest was dated July 19–more than two weeks ago.
A few feet away, Delaney checked out the truck in the driveway. On the front seat he found a faded and sun-curled receipt for a cash purchase at Home Depot. It, too, was dated July 19 and listed ten bags of Sakrete, 130 cinder blocks, a mortaring tool, and a plastic tub.
“A real do-it-yourselfer,” he remarked, showing the receipt to Poliakoff, then reaching into the cruiser to retrieve his notebook.
“I’ll check around the other side of the house,” Poliakoff told him.
Delaney nodded and leaned back against the cruiser, going through the motions of making notes. Not that there was much to put down.
August 3 C. Terio 2602 Preacherman Lane Oldest paper–July 19 Home Depot receipt, same date
He looked at his watch and noted the time: 5:29. The whole thing was a waste of time, no matter how you looked at it. Delaney had responded to a couple of hundred calls like this during his ten years with the department, and nine times out of ten the missing person was senile or off on a bender. Once in a while, they turned up dead, sprawled on the bathroom floor or sitting in the BarcaLounger. This kind of thing wasn’t really police work. It was more like a janitorial service.
Delaney looked up. Poliakoff was calling to him from the other side of the house. Tossing the notebook onto the front seat of the cruiser, he glanced at the sky–there was a curtain of rain off to the south, which gave him more hope that Brent’s game would be rained out–and headed off in the direction of his partner.
As it happened, there was an outside entrance to the basement–a set of angled metal doors that opened directly onto a short flight of concrete steps, leading down. Poliakoff was standing on the steps, the doors at attention on either side of him, like rusted wings. “Whaddya think? We take a look?”
Delaney frowned and inclined his head toward one of the doors. “That the way you found them?”
Poliakoff nodded. “Yeah. Wide open.”
Delaney shrugged. “Could be a burglary, I guess–but let’s make it quick.” He was thinking, Dear God, don’t let there be a stiff down there, or we’ll be here all night.
Poliakoff ducked his head, calling out Terio’s name as he descended the steps, Delaney right behind him.
The basement was utilitarian–a long rectangular room with a seven-foot ceiling, cinder-block walls, and a cement floor. A single fluorescent light buzzed and flickered over a dusty tool bench in a corner of the room. A moth beat its wings against the fixture.
Delaney glanced around. Nervously. He didn’t like basements. He’d been afraid of them ever since he’d been a kid, though nothing had ever really happened to him in one. They just creeped him out. And this place, with its cheap shelves crowded with cans of paint, boxes of nails and screws, and tools, it was like every basement he’d ever seen: ordinary and evil, all at once.
Poliakoff wrinkled his nose.
“You smell something?” Delaney asked, his eyes searching the cellar.
“Yeah, I think so,” his partner said. “Sort of.”
On a shelf beneath the tool bench Delaney noticed a red plastic container marked: mower fuel. “It’s probably gas,” he told his partner.
Poliakoff shook his head. “Unh-unh.”
Delaney shrugged. “Whatever,” he said, “there’s no one here.” Turning to leave, he started for the steps but stopped when he realized that Poliakoff wasn’t following him. “Whatcha got?” he asked, looking back to his partner, who was holding a Maglite at shoulder height, its powerful beam funneling into the farthest corner of the room.
“I’m not sure,” Poliakoff muttered, crossing the basement to where the flashlight’s beam splashed against the far wall. “It’s weird.”
Delaney looked at the wall and realized Poliakoff was right: it was weird. At the north end of the basement, a corner was partitioned off by what looked like a pair of hastily built cinder-block walls. At right angles to each other, the walls were each about four feet across and went floor-to-ceiling, creating a sort of concrete closet, a closet without a door. “What is that?” Delaney asked.
Poliakoff shook his head and moved closer.
The closet–or whatever it was–was amateurishly made. Blobs of mortar bulged between the cinder blocks, which were stacked in a half-assed way that wasn’t quite plumb. The deputies stared at the construction. Finally, Poliakoff said, “It’s like . . . it’s like a little jackleg room!”
Delaney nodded, then ran a hand through his thick brown hair. “It’s probably what he did with the Home Depot stuff. He must have–”
“You smell it now?” Poliakoff asked.
Delaney sniffed. Even though he’d been a smoker most of his life, there was no mistaking the stink in the air. He’d spent two years in a Graves Registration unit at Dover Air Force Base and, if nothing else, he knew what death smelled like.
“Could be a rat,” Poliakoff suggested. “They get in the walls. . . .”
Delaney shook his head. His heart was beating harder now, the adrenaline coursing through his chest. He took a deep breath and examined the construction more closely.
The sloppiest part was closest to the ceiling–where the top row of cinder blocks lay crookedly upon the lower course, mortar dripping from the joints. Delaney picked off a piece and crushed it between his thumb and forefinger.
“You don’t think this guy . . . ?” Poliakoff let the sentence trail away as Delaney crossed the basement to the workbench and came back with a hammer and a screwdriver. “Maybe we’d better call this in.”
From the Hardcover edition.