Jesse woke all at once, as though someone had tossed a bucket of cold water over the bed. For a moment he was unable to move, his first conscious thought of Sarah. He shifted his gaze from the elongated rhomboid of moonlight which fell across the floor through the half-drawn curtains and soon could make out Sarah’s shape, her deep-sleep breathing. His eyes searched every corner of the room. Other than the gooseflesh which puckered his skin, all seemed normal. He pushed aside the duvet, careful not to jostle Sarah, and padded to have a look from the window. The garden was still, the night showed no sign of imbalance. But his skin continued to tell him something was wrong. He pulled a jumper over his head and carried a pair of jeans out with him into the passage, shutting the door quietly behind him.
In the kitchen he fed Nubi a handful of dog biscuits and let him out into the garden. He’d found nothing amiss in the house. Meg and Finn were sleeping soundly, there was no sign of an intruder. Jesse opened the fridge and took out a bottle of milk, then poured himself a generous amount and drank it down. After stowing the glass in the dishwasher, he held out his hand. It was steady, and the icy prickling feeling, as if it were sleeting under his skin, had disappeared. Perhaps just a bad dream, after all.
He went to the open doorway and peered out. ‘Come, Nubi,’ he called softly. He heard the dog snuffling from the direction of the shed. He called again, louder. How long did Nubi need to piddle anyway? He whistled once, then listened. It sounded as though Nubi had found something to eat. Another mouse? Damn that dog! He’d chomp anything he could fit his jaws around.
Jesse was about to step out into the garden when the phone in the kitchen rang. He whirled and stared at the handset. It rang again. Not the private signal. His eyes shifted to the clock. Three-twenty. Who the hell was calling at this time? Or a wrong number? The display gave nothing away: anonymous call.
Don’t pick it up. All his instincts were screaming at him now. It continued to ring. Finn or Meg would hear if the caller persisted. Before Jesse could stop himself, he had the phone in his hand, then against his ear.
The sensation along his skin was back, only this time the sleet had turned to needles of driving snow, and the wind was gusting.
‘Jesse?’ The voice repeated – cold, disembodied, unfamiliar.
He cleared his throat. Suddenly he realised that in the brightly lit kitchen he could be seen through the window and open door.
‘Who is this?’ he asked.
A laugh. An ugly knowing laugh. A laugh that made him shut his eyes and hold his breath, to keep from melting the phone on the spot.
‘Fireboy, listen real good. Nobody messes with my hands – with me. Hear that, cunt. Nobody.’
Again that laugh. And then Jesse was left listening to the wind howling across the shattered and jagged edges of the night.
Jesse swam upwards towards the light, the water rippling above his head.
He broke the surface and opened his eyes, blinked. His eyelids were gummy. Early morning sunlight flowed into the room, warm and golden.
Finn was standing just over the threshold, door ajar. He put his finger to his lips and beckoned. Memory flooded into Jesse’s mind, and with a quick glance at Sarah, he slid out of bed and followed Finn into the passage. Jesse leaned back against the closed door in his boxers and T-shirt, first rubbing the sleep from his eyes, then combing his fingers through his hair.
‘Come downstairs,’ Finn whispered grimly.
On the floor near the fridge, Nubi lay in a pool of vomit, foam flecking his nostrils and muzzle. There were several other puddles scattered throughout the kitchen – dark urine, undigested chunks of meat floating in more vomit, malodorous diarrhoea. When Jesse crouched at the dog’s side, he knew it was too late. Nubi’s jaws were drawn back in a rictus of death, his eyes wide and staring, his body rigid from the spasms.
‘Poison,’ Finn said, then held Jesse as he shuddered and wept.