A white, unmarked van pulls into the Billam’s driveway. Several black-suited men decant and hasten inside.

“Here’s more of them,” June says, tugging the edge of the curtain so that it conceals all but the binoculars.

Her husband John grunts from his territory in front of the wide-screen.

June adjusts her rear on the back of the armchair. It’s gone to sleep. “Lights’ve gone on again,” she says. “Lots of shadows moving behind the drapes. What’re they doing in there?”

John’s eyes flick up from the football – “Dunno” – flick down.

She scans the driveway. The Billam’s house sits a long way back from the street (a lot further back than their house anyway, she thinks ruefully). Three white vans stand end-to-end on the gravel drive. The first of them arrived just over an hour earlier, as evening was settling. She’d heard the screeching and raced to the window in time to see it pulling up, and half a dozen suited men piling out. They’d marched up to the house; one of them had knocked precisely three times on the door. Dave Billam had answered and seemed a little alarmed when they’d all suddenly piled inside. Then the door had shut. She’d had the binoculars ready by the time the next van-load arrived, half an hour later. Same routine, but no sign of Dave this time. And this batch hadn’t even knocked.

Now, Van No.3.

“Must be something serious,” June says. “Maybe Dave’s been cooking the books, so to speak. What you think, John?”

“What do I think of what?”

“I mean, do you think Dave’s in some kind of trouble?”

John turns with reluctance, irritation. “I don’t know, June. The Billams are nice enough people. I doubt we’re talking dead bodies in the garden. Probably just having the house fumigated for ants, or something. Now, why don’t you come away from there, you nosy bloody cow?”

His eyes – and their full attention – drift back to the match, June’s return to the window.

That’s right, she thinks, they are a nice family. Dave, his wife Liz and their two little daughters, Maxine and Jenny. Dave runs a bookie’s in town, and Liz works at the hospital. In all the time she’s known the couple there’s been little opportunity to broker a friendship as they’re always jetting off somewhere exotic on holiday (and besides, John barely moves from the couch anymore. She can hardly see him leaping at the idea of inviting the neighbours round for a barbecue, let alone an evening of polite conversation), but she’s scrutinised their comings and goings the last few years, and established her own compendium of their lives: Affluent, fairly well educated, successful. Not your first pick for criminal activity, but why else all the white vans and suited men? And this late in the evening too.

Her fingers reach for the curtain.

A flash of light from the house. “John!”

A sigh. “What?”

“Something’s happening. There was a flash, a strobe or something, from the living-room.” Binoculars trembling with excitement, she leans closer, abandoning her hidden nook for the time-being. The blinds opposite remain drawn, but the ordinary yellow lighting she saw earlier has been replaced by a dull red glow. Figures are moving in that glow. Her ears become aware of a low purring throb, like electricity, coming from the house. The figures are mere silhouettes, but all at once there’s another flash and for a second the living-room is illuminated: A congregation of black-suited men have formed a circle around the room. Between them stands a strange contraption. It looks like a giant metal cross, except seething with wires and tubes. A man is stretched out upon the device, head thrown back. The window goes dark before further details can be revealed, but she knows it’s Dave.

Then, faintly, a woman’s scream.

 

END SAMPLE

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