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The House Sitter
By Peter Lovesey
SOHO Copyright © 2003 Peter Lovesey
All right reserved.
Chapter One If you were planning a murder and wanted a place to carry it out, a beach would do nicely.
Think about it. People lie about on towels with no more protection than a coating of sunscreen. For weapons, there are stones of all weights and sizes, pieces of driftwood, rope and cable. When it comes to disposing of the body, you're laughing. If a hole in the sand doesn't suit, then with a bit more effort you can cover the victim with stones. After the deed is done, the tide comes in and washes everything clean. Your footprints, fingerprints, traces of DNA, all disappear. Scenes of crime officers, eat your hearts out.
Every half-decent weekend in summer, the shoreline at Wightview Sands on the Sussex coast is lined with glistening (and breathing) bodies. This stretch of beach is estate-owned and spared from the usual seaside line-up of amusement arcades and food outlets. The sand is clean and there is plenty of it, in sections tidily divided by wooden groynes. Lifeguards keep watch from a raised platform. There are no cliffs, no hidden rocks, no sharks.
This Sunday morning in June, the Smith family, Mike, Olga and their five-year-old daughter, Haley, arrived shortly before eleven after an uncomfortable drive from Crawley, paid their dues at the gate, and got a first sight of the hundreds of parked cars on either side of the narrow road that runs beside the beach.
"Should have started earlier," Mike said. The heat had really got to him.
"We'll have plenty of time to enjoy ourselves," Olga said.
"If we can park this thing."
They cruised around for a bit before slotting into a space on the left, sixty yards past the beach café. Outside the car, the breeze off the sea helped revive them. They took their towels and beachbags from the boot. Mike suggested a coffee, but young Haley wanted to get on the beach right away and Olga agreed. "Let's pick our spot first."
Picking the spot was important. They didn't want to sit too close to the lads with shaven heads and tattoos who had several six-packs of lager lined up beside them. Or the howling baby. Or the couple enjoying what looked like a bout of foreplay. They found a space between three teenage girls on sunloungers and a bronzed family of five who were speaking French. Mike unfolded the chairs while Olga helped Haley out of her clothes. The child wanted to run down to the sea with her bucket and spade. The tide was well out.
"Remember where we are," Olga told her. "Just to the right of the lifeguards. Look for the flags."
"You're fussing," Mike said.
"Stay where we can see you. Don't go in the water without us."
"Lighten up, Olg," Mike said. "This is a day out. We're supposed to relax."
Haley ran off.
"If I don't get my fix of coffee soon, I'll die." Mike went in the other direction.
Olga sat forward in her chair and watched every step Haley took. Whatever Mike said, she didn't fuss for fussing's sake. She knew how easily things could go wrong because she'd worked as a nurse in an A & E department before she got married. The beach was new territory. Until the child had been to the water and found her way back at least once, it was impossible to relax.
Briefly Olga's line of sight was blocked by a woman doing exactly what Olga and Mike were doing a few minutes before, choosing the best place to sit down. She was hesitating, taking a good look around her. Olga couldn't see past her. The woman took a few steps down the beach, spread a large blue towel on the sand, unfurled a windbreak and pushed the posts into the sand to screen herself on three sides. To Olga's relief, she could now pick out the tiny figure of Haley again, jumping in the shallows.
The woman took time to get settled. She took off her headband and shook her hair loose. It was copper-coloured and looked natural too, right for the pale, freckled skin. She was some years older than the giggly girls on sun loungers. Around thirty, Olga reckoned, watching her delve in her beachbag and take out a tube of sunscreen and a pair of sunglasses. Finally she sank out of sight behind the windbreak.
Sunscreen was indispensable today unless you wanted to suffer later. The light was so clear you could see the green fields of the Isle of Wight ten miles across the Solent.
Mike returned with his hands full. "Where's the kid? I got her an ice cream."
Olga pointed Haley out. "You'd better take it down to her."
"My coffee's going to get cold."
She laughed. "Should have thought of that when you bought the ice. All right. Give it to me." Her own coffee was just as certain as his to lose its heat, and she was not one of those submissive women, but she didn't want another argument to ruin the day, so she took the ice cream down the beach, threading a route through the sunbathers, feeling cool drips on her hand and trying not to sprinkle them on other people's warm, exposed flesh. Grateful to reach the damp sand where no one was lying, she kicked off her flip-flops and enjoyed the sensation of the firm surface against the soles of her feet. She felt like a child again.
Haley had found two other girls about her own age and was helping them dig a canal. She didn't want the ice cream, or, more likely, didn't want to eat it in front of her new-found friends.
"Shall I eat it for you?" Olga offered.
"You remember where we are? Near the lifeguards. The flags. Remember?"
Olga turned and made her way back more slowly, licking the sides of the icecream. The beach looked entirely different from this direction. The people, too, when you saw them feet first. She was surprised at where she'd left the flip-flops, much further to the right than she thought. She set a course for the flags above the lifeguard post, beginning to doubt if Haley would have the sense to do the same. Before spotting Mike, she passed the woman with the copper hair, now down to a white two-piece and spreading sunscreen on her middle. Their eyes met briefly. She had a nice smile.
"She all right?" Mike asked, propping himself on an elbow.
"She's with some other girls, digging in the sand. Can you see?"
"What's she wearing?"
Typical Mike, she thought. "Navy and white."
"Right. I can see." He lay back on the sand and closed his eyes.
Olga lifted the lid off her less-than-hot coffee, still watching her child. Bits of conversation were going on all around. A beach may be restful, but it's not quiet.
"I didn't fancy him," one of the teenagers was saying. "He's scary."
"What do you mean-'scary'? Just 'cos he didn't have nothing to say to you. That's not scary."
"His eyes are. The way he looked at me, like he was stripping off my clothes."
The giggles broke out again.
Just ahead, a man in a black T-shirt crossed Olga's line of vision. She could see his top half above the windbreak. He was talking to the copper-haired woman. From the tone of the conversation, they knew each other and he was laying on the charm and not getting the response he was trying for. To Olga's eye, he wasn't an out-and-out no-no. In fact, he was rather good-looking, broad-shouldered, with black, curly hair and the cast of face she thought of as rugged-that is to say strong-featured, with a confident personality defined by the creases a man in his thirties begins to acquire. He was saying something about coincidence. His voice was more audible than hers. "How does it go? Of all the gin-joints in all the towns in all the world.... For that read 'beaches'. What are you doing here?" She made some reply (probably "What does it look as if I'm doing?") and he said, "OK, that was pretty dumb. It's a nice surprise, that's all. Can I get you an ice cream or something? Cold drink?" Obviously not, because he then said, "Later, then? You don't mind if I join you for a bit?" Then: "Fair enough. Suit yourself. If that's how you feel, I'll leave you to it. I just thought-oh, what the fuck!" And he moved off, the smile gone, and didn't look back.
Olga glanced towards Mike to see if he'd been listening. His eyes were still closed.
In another twenty minutes the tide was going out amazingly fast across the flats, transforming the scene. Haley hadn't moved, but she was no longer at the place where the waves broke. She was at the edge of a broad, shallow pool of still water. A bar of sand had surfaced further out, and the waves were lapping at the far side. A child could easily become disorientated. The other girls were no longer with her.
"I think I'll go and talk to her," Olga said.
Mike murmured something about fussing.
She made the journey down the beach again, marvelling at the huge expanse now opened up. Men on skateboards were skimming along the wet sand, powered by kites as big as mattresses. A game of beach cricket was under way.
Haley looked up this time and waved.
After admiring the excavations in the sand, Olga asked if she was ready for some lunch. Hand in hand they started back. "I like it here," Haley said.
"Isn't it great? But it's lunchtime. Now let's see if we can find our way back to Daddy."
"There." The child pointed in precisely the right direction. Kids have more sense than adults think.
"Race you, then." Enjoying the sight of her loose-limbed, agile child, she let Haley dash ahead and then jogged after her to make it seem like pursuit, until the risk of tripping over a sunbather forced her to slow to a walk. Already Haley had reached Mike and given him a shock by throwing herself on his back. Laughing, Olga picked her way through the maze of legs, towels and beachbags. The copper-haired woman, comfortable behind her windbreak, looked over her sunglasses, smiled again and spoke. "You're a poor second."
"Pathetic is a better word."
"Wish I had her energy."
Olga flopped down beside Mike and reached for the lunch bag.
Mike revived with some food inside him and actually began a conversation. "Amazing, really, all this free entertainment. Years ago, people would queue up and buy tickets to see a tattooed man. One walked by just now with hardly a patch of plain skin left on him. No one paid him any attention."
"I wouldn't call that entertainment."
"Then there are the topless girls."
"I haven't noticed any," Olga said.
"Over there, on the inflatable sunbeds."
She took a quick glance. "Girls? They look middle-aged to me. Trust you to spot them."
"I was talking about the way things have changed. Your dad and mine would have paid good money to watch a strip show."
"Don't you believe it. He was no saint, your old man. I could tell you things he said to me after a few beers. "
Olga said, "Let's talk about something else. When are we going for a swim?"
"Not now, for Christ's sake. It's miles out." Unexpectedly, Haley asked, "Can I bury you, Daddy?"
"I want to bury you in the sand."
"Please. The girls I was playing with buried their daddy and it was really funny. All you could see was his head."
"You can bury me, then."
"I'm not going to bury anyone."
Haley sighed and went down the beach to look for her new friends. Olga, reassured that the child wouldn't get lost, opened a paperback. Mike lit a cigarette and took a leisurely look around him to see if there was more entertainment on view.
The afternoon passed agreeably, more agreeably for Olga when the topless women turned on their fronts.
"A bit creepy, I thought, the kid wanting to bury me," Mike said after a long silence.
"There's nothing creepy about it. It's something children like to do. It's comical, seeing someone's head above the sand and nothing else, specially if it's their own dad."
"If you say so."
"Well, you've got to have a sense of humour."
"There's enough death on a beach without having your own child wanting to bury you."
"I don't know what you're on about."
"You only have to take a walk along the shoreline. You'll see fish half-eaten by gulls, bits of crabs, smashed shells. Nothing is growing. It's a desert, just stones and sand."
Olga may have slept for a while after that. She felt a prod in her back and seemed to snap out of a dream of some sort. The paperback lay closed beside her.
"Time to face it," Mike said. "The tide's turned."
Olga heaved herself onto her elbows and saw what he meant. That big expanse of sand had disappeared. "Oh, my God. Where's-"
"She's OK. Over to the right."
Haley and the others were playing with a Frisbee.
"We must tell her if we go for a swim. I don't want her coming back and finding us gone."
"We'll do it, then."
On the way down, Olga interrupted the Frisbee-throwing to tell Haley they wouldn't be long. The child was so involved in the game that the words hardly registered.
The conditions were ideal. The waves had reached the stretch of beach that shelved, so getting in was a quick process, and the water coming in over the warm sand wasn't so cold as she expected. After the first plunge, the two of them held hands and jumped the waves and it was by far the best part of the day. Once when a large wave swept them inwards, Mike lifted her and carried her back to the deeper water. There, they embraced and kissed. The tensions rolled off them like the beads of water.
They stayed in longer than they realised. The people closest to the incoming tide were gathering their belongings and moving higher up.
Mike didn't answer. He took a few quick steps higher up and looked around.
"Mike, can you see her?"
He said with his irritating, offhand manner, "She'll be somewhere around."
"I can't see the girls she was with. Oh, God. Mike, where is she?"
"She won't be far away."
"We've got to find her."
"You told her we were going for a swim. She saw us."
"But she isn't here."
He began to take it seriously. "If she's lost, someone will have taken her up to the lifeguards. I'll check with them. You ask the people who were sitting near us."
She dashed back to their spot. No sign of Haley. The woman with copper hair was lying on her side as if she'd been asleep for hours, so Olga spoke to the teenagers.
"No, I'd have noticed," one of them said. "She hasn't been back since you ate your sandwiches. Pretty little kid with dark hair in bunches, isn't she?"
"You're sure you haven't seen her?"
"We've been here all the time. She went the wrong way, I expect. Not surprising, is it, with all these people?"
Olga asked the French family. They seemed to understand what she was saying and let her know with shrugs and shakes of the head that they hadn't seen Haley either.
Excerpted from The House Sitter by Peter Lovesey Copyright © 2003 by Peter Lovesey
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.