Home > The Searcher(3)

The Searcher(3)
Author: Tana French

   Cal scoops his food onto a couple of thick slices of bread, adds ketchup, gets a beer out of the mini-fridge and takes his meal to the table. Donna would give him shit about the way he’s been eating, which doesn’t include a whole lot of fiber and fresh vegetables, but the fact is that even living out of a frying pan and a microwave he’s dropped a few pounds, maybe more than a few. He can feel it, not just in his waistband but in his movements: everything he does has a surprising new lightness to it. That was unsettling at first, like he had come unhitched from gravity, but it’s growing on him.

   The exercise is what’s doing it. Just about every day Cal goes walking for an hour or two, nowhere particular, just following his nose and getting the lay of his new land. A lot of days it rains on him, but this is OK: he has a big wax jacket and the rain is like nothing he’s felt before, a fine soft haze that seems to hang motionless in the air. Mostly he leaves his hood down just so he can feel that haze against his face. As well as seeing farther than he’s used to, he can hear farther: the occasional sheep’s bleat or cow’s bawl, or farmer’s shout, comes to him from what seems like miles away, thinned and gentled by the distance. Sometimes he sees one of the farmers, going about his business away across the fields, or chugging down a narrow lane in a tractor so that Cal has to press back into the unruly hedge as he goes past lifting a hand in greeting. He’s passed strong-built women hauling heavy things around cluttered farmyards, red-cheeked toddlers staring at him through gates and sucking on the bars while the rangy dogs bark up a storm at him. Sometimes a bird calls a wild high streak above his head, or a pheasant explodes out of the undergrowth as he comes close. He gets back to the house feeling like he made the right call, throwing everything up in the air and coming here.

   In between walks, with nothing else to call on his attention, Cal pretty much works on the house from morning till night. The first thing he did when he arrived was sweep away the thick cocoon of cobwebs and dust and dead bugs and what-have-you that was patiently working to fill every inch of the place. Next he put new glass in the windows, and replaced the toilet and the bath—both of which had been smashed up pretty good by someone with a lump hammer and a deep-seated grudge against bathroom fixtures—so he could stop shitting in a hole in the ground and washing out of a bucket. Cal is no plumber, but he’s always been handy and he has YouTube how-to videos, when the internet doesn’t crap out on him; it worked out OK.

   After that he spent a while going through the left-behind stuff that littered the rooms, taking his time, giving each piece his full attention. Whoever lived here last was serious about religion: they had pictures of Saint Bernadette, a disappointed-looking Virgin Mary, and someone called Padre Pio, all in thin cheap frames and all left to yellow in corners by less devout heirs. They liked condensed milk, of which there were five cans in the kitchen cupboard, all of them fifteen years out of date. They had pink-printed china cups, rusted-out saucepans, rolled-up oilcloth tablecloths, a figurine of a kid in a red robe and crown with the head glued back on, and a shoebox holding a pair of old-fashioned men’s dress shoes, worn to creases and polished to a shine that still showed. Cal was a little surprised to find no evidence of teenage occupation, no empty beer cans or cigarette butts or used condoms, no graffiti. He figured this place must be too remote for them. At the time, that seemed like a good thing. Now he’s less sure. The possibility of teenagers checking on their old hangout is something he’d prefer to have on the menu.

   The papers in the desk turned out to be nothing much: articles torn out of newspapers and magazines, folded into neat rectangles. Cal tried to find some unifying thread among the articles, but failed: they involved, among other things, the history of the Boy Scouts, how to grow sweet peas, tin whistle tunes, the Irish peacekeeping forces in Lebanon, and a recipe for something called Welsh rarebit. Cal kept them, seeing as they were in a way the thing that had brought him here. He tossed most of the other stuff, including the curtains, which now seems like a bad call. He’s considered digging them back out of the heap of trash bags that’s growing behind the shed, but some animal has probably either chewed them up or pissed on them by now.

   He’s replaced gutters and downpipes, climbed up on his roof to evict a sturdy crop of yellow-flowered weeds from his chimney, sanded and polished the old oak floorboards, and these days he’s working on the walls. The last inhabitant had surprisingly unconventional tastes in decoration, that or a few buckets of cheap paint. Cal’s bedroom used to be a deep, rich indigo, till the damp mottled it with streaks of mold and pale patches of bare plaster. The smaller bedroom was a light minty green. The living-room part of the front room was rusty red-brown, slapped on top of layers of buckling wallpaper. It’s unclear what exactly was going on in the kitchen area, which looks like someone might have been aiming to tile it and then got sidetracked, and nobody made even that much effort with the bathroom: it’s a tiny tacked-on cube at the back of the house, with plaster walls and a remnant of green carpet more or less covering the raw floorboards, like it was made by aliens who had heard about this thing called a bathroom but weren’t exactly clear on the details. Cal, at six foot four, has to squeeze himself into the bath with his knees practically under his chin. Once he’s tiled the room he’ll put in a shower fixture, but that can wait. He wants to get the painting done while the weather is good enough that he can leave the windows open. Already there have been days, just one or two of them, with the sky a dense gray and the cold rising up from the ground and the wind riding straight across hundreds of miles and through his house like it’s not there, to warn him of what winter’s going to be. Nothing approaching the snowbanks and subzero of Chicago winters—he knows that from the internet—but something in its own right, something steely and intractable, with a tricky side.

   Cal takes a look at his day’s work while he eats. The wallpaper melded into the wall in places over the years, which makes this slow going, but he’s got more than half the room stripped to bare plaster; the wall around the chunky stone arch of the fireplace is still a scuffed red-brown. An unexpected part of him likes the room this way. It implies things. Cal is no artist, but if he was, he’d be inclined to leave it like this for a while, paint a few pictures.

   He’s halfway through his food and still considering this when the back of his neck flares again. This time he even hears the signal that triggered it: a small, clumsy scramble, almost instantly cut off, like someone started to trip into the undergrowth outside the window and then caught themselves.

   Cal takes another big, leisurely mouthful of sandwich, washes it down with a long gulp of beer, and wipes foam off his tache. Then he grimaces and leans forwards, with a belch, to put his plate on the table. He pulls himself out of the chair, cracks his neck and heads for the john, already fumbling at his belt buckle.

   The bathroom window opens as smoothly and silently as if it’s been sprayed with WD-40, which it has. Cal has also practiced the climb onto the toilet cistern and out the window, and he manages it a lot more deftly than anyone could expect of someone his size, but that doesn’t change the fact that one reason he quit being a beat cop was because he had had it with climbing unreasonable objects in pursuit of mopes doing gratuitous crap, and he had no plans to go back to that. He lands on the ground outside with his heart speeding in the old familiar hunting rhythm, his ass scraped up by the window frame, and a rising sense of aggravation.

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