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OneCopyright© 2002 by John Case
It was the mailman who reported it, calling 911 half an hour before Delaneyâ€™s shift was supposed to end.
The missing manâ€™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 mailmanâ€™s timing. Brent had a play-off game at six, and it was five after five already. Helen would kill him. (Youâ€™ve got to be there for him, Jack! Show a little support! Whatâ€™s more importantâ€”your own son or your buddies at the station?) Well, actually . . . the truth was, he liked to go to his sonâ€™s games. Brent was a good playerâ€”better than he had ever beenâ€”and it was fun to bask in the kidâ€™s reflected glory. When things were going well, Brent didnâ€™t really need him there. But when the kid screwed upâ€”well, his son was one intense little guy. Took his own failure way too hard. And Helen didnâ€™t have a clue how to help the kid handle it. (Will you stop that crying! Itâ€™s just a game.) So Delaney liked to be thereâ€”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 sidelongglance and chuckled. â€œDonâ€™t sweat it. You want to use the siren?â€? Delaney shook his head.
â€œThe guyâ€™s probably on vacation,â€? Poliakoff insisted. â€œWeâ€™ll take a look aroundâ€”Iâ€™ll write it up. No problem.â€?
Delaney gazed out the window. The air was heavy and still, thick with gloom, the way it gets before a thunderstorm. â€œMaybe itâ€™ll rain,â€? he muttered.
Poliakoff nodded. â€œThatâ€™s the spirit,â€? he told him. â€œThink positive.â€?
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.
â€œYou ever been out this way?â€? Poliakoff asked.
Delaney shrugged. â€œThatâ€™s it, over there,â€? he said, nodding at a metal sign stippled with bullet holes. preacherman lane. â€œYou gotta turn.â€?
They found themselves on a narrow dirt road, flanked by weeds and at the edge of a dense wood. â€œJesus,â€? Poliakoff muttered as the cruiser crested a rise, then bottomed out with a thud be- fore he could brake. â€œSince when does Fairfax County have dirt roads?â€?
â€œWe still got a couple,â€? Delaney replied, thinking the roads wouldnâ€™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 aheadâ€”a yellow farmhouse, suddenly visible on the leftâ€”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, heâ€™d suggested, â€œYou should go in, take a look around the house, see what you can see.â€?
But of course, they couldnâ€™t exactly do that. Under the circumstances, the most they could do was knock on the door, walk around the property, talk to the neighborsâ€”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, â€œH-e-e-ere we come to save the da-a-yyyyâ€”â€?
â€œLetâ€™s get this over with,â€? 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 oneâ€”hand-hammered iron in the shape of a dragonfly. Poliakoff put his fist around it, drew back, and rapped loudly. â€œHullo?â€?
â€œHel-lo?â€? Poliakoff cocked his head and listened hard. When no reply came, he tried the door and, finding it locked, gave a little shrug. â€œLetâ€™s go around back.â€? Together the deputies made their way around the side of the house, pausing every so often to peer through the windows.
â€œHe left enough lights on,â€? Delaney observed.
At the rear of the house, they passed a little gardenâ€”tomatoes and peppers, zucchini and pole beansâ€”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. â€œAnyone home? Mr. Terio! You in there?â€?
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, â€œThe televisionâ€™s on.â€?
Delaney sighed. No way he was going to get to Brentâ€™s baseball game. He could feel it.
Even so, there was nothing they could do, really. The doors were locked and they didnâ€™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 19â€”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.
â€œA real do-it-yourselfer,â€? he remarked, showing the receipt to Poliakoff, then reaching into the cruiser to retrieve his notebook.
â€œIâ€™ll check around the other side of the house,â€? 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 paperâ€”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 wasnâ€™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 skyâ€”there was a curtain of rain off to the south, which gave him more hope that Brentâ€™s game would be rained outâ€”and headed off in the direction of his partner.
As it happened, there was an outside entrance to the basementâ€”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. â€œWhaddya think? We take a look?â€?
Delaney frowned and inclined his head toward one of the doors. â€œThat the way you found them?â€?
Poliakoff nodded. â€œYeah. Wide open.â€?
Delaney shrugged. â€œCould be a burglary, I guessâ€”but letâ€™s make it quick.â€? He was thinking, Dear God, donâ€™t let there be a stiff down there, or weâ€™ll be here all night.
Poliakoff ducked his head, calling out Terioâ€™s name as he descended the steps, Delaney right behind him.
The basement was utilitarianâ€”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 didnâ€™t like basements. Heâ€™d been afraid of them ever since heâ€™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 heâ€™d ever seen: ordinary and evil, all at once.
Poliakoff wrinkled his nose.
â€œYou smell something?â€? Delaney asked, his eyes searching the cellar.
â€œYeah, I think so,â€? his partner said. â€œSort of.â€?
On a shelf beneath the tool bench Delaney noticed a red plastic container marked: mower fuel. â€œItâ€™s probably gas,â€? he told his partner.
Poliakoff shook his head. â€œUnh-unh.â€?
Delaney shrugged. â€œWhatever,â€? he said, â€œthereâ€™s no one here.â€? Turning to leave, he started for the steps but stopped when he realized that Poliakoff wasnâ€™t following him. â€œWhatcha got?â€? 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.
â€œIâ€™m not sure,â€? Poliakoff muttered, crossing the basement to where the flashlightâ€™s beam splashed against the far wall. â€œItâ€™s weird.â€?
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. â€œWhat is that?â€? Delaney asked.
Poliakoff shook his head and moved closer.
The closetâ€”or whatever it wasâ€”was amateurishly made. Blobs of mortar bulged between the cinder blocks, which were stacked in a half-assed way that wasnâ€™t quite plumb. The deputies stared at the construction. Finally, Poliakoff said, â€œItâ€™s like . . . itâ€™s like a little jackleg room!â€?
Delaney nodded, then ran a hand through his thick brown hair. â€œItâ€™s probably what he did with the Home Depot stuff. He must haveâ€”â€?
â€œYou smell it now?â€? Poliakoff asked.
Delaney sniffed. Even though heâ€™d been a smoker most of his life, there was no mistaking the stink in the air. Heâ€™d spent two years in a Graves Registration unit at Dover Air Force Base and, if nothing else, he knew what death smelled like.
â€œCould be a rat,â€? Poliakoff suggested. â€œThey get in the walls. . . .â€?
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 ceilingâ€”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.
â€œYou donâ€™t think this guy . . . ?â€? Poliakoff let the sentence trail away as Delaney crossed the basement to the workbench and came back with a hammer and a screwdriver. â€œMaybe weâ€™d better call this in.â€?
From the Hardcover edition.