Gardener hated this part of the job. The part where you ended up kneeling in a dark cupboard under the stairs in some affluent uptown residence. The part where you had to bite down with chipped teeth on the hilt of your police issue torch, while fumbling with yet another overly complex loom of wires – the chance of finding the access port for your laptop a distant unlikelihood. He hated the eerie glow the computer screen eventually cast across the cramped space and the fact the door had to remain closed to allow forensics passage into the rest of the house. What he hated most, though, was the smell of the dead woman’s shoes. Shoes smell. It’s a fact. You don’t usually get close enough to them to pick up on an individual odor. But down here, in the dark with the wires, there was no escaping the aroma of a curtailed lifetime of sweat. Not overpowering or pungent, not the stench of a well used trainer, but still the personalized scent of the deceased. The smell of dead and forgotten leather.

         Gardener shivered and guided a trail of perspiration away from his deep set eyes with a boney finger. Beneath his unruly mass of black curls, his scalp itched feverishly, but he somehow managed to resist the urge to antagonize it through scratching.

         He’d been called in the instant they’d found a trace of blood on the window blinds of this fully automated home. His job, as a new inspector of the burgeoning tech crime division, was to ascertain exactly how it ended up there.

         Only five years ago, house automaton had been something of a novelty, the aspirational reserve of the trade show home. Now it was everywhere – with the exception of his own apartment. He loathed all this crap, all this added clutter to modern life that he felt impinged upon his sense of self. He’d always had a natural affinity for computers ever since he was a kid. To Gardener, though, they were meant to be a way to improve the flow of information, not drone-like labor-savers that opened your curtains, flushed your toilet, filled your fridges, locked your doors, switched on your lights….

         He emerged, mole like, from the cupboard, sagged into the corridor of the sun bright apartment and unconsciously began stroking his tidy goatee in thought. He scanned the corridor. He’d need somewhere with a table to review the data he’d just downloaded. An open space at the end of the passageway suggested some kind of kitchen, so he headed towards it.

         He’d hardly taken a pace before a masked and hooded head popped from a door to the right. It said, “Gardener. We need you to take a look at this.”

         It was one of the forensic boys. He held a pair of elasticated overshoes in one hand and the doorframe in the other. Gardener squinted up at the exposed eyes and said, “Bovis?”

         “Yeah, it’s me. We’ve just got one of those cleaning units worrying the body and wanted to know if it’s okay to empty it out.”

         Gardener sighed and took the overshoes from the white clad Bovis. He needed to see the corpse anyway, but had hoped to have time to prepare, to at least look at the house data first. He folded his laptop close and propped it against a wall before attempting the balance / pull / wobble / stamp mechanics of donning the disposable foot-ware. With them on he felt like a child playing in his dad’s slippers – albeit a child about to have his innocence snatched from him thanks to an untimely encounter with inescapable mortality.

         There was a sickly sweet smell to the main living area – a product, Bovis assured him, of any kind of incineration. It smelled like a barbecue that had been extinguished with washing up liquid. There was a chemical tinge to the edges of the porkish aroma. Bovis shrugged. Possibly her hair care products, only analysis would tell. He was one of the most taciturn members of forensics. Gardener could have easily pulled rank and made him give a full report on the spot, but that simply wasn’t his style. Instead, he took in the well furnished room. The quality of light here was slightly muted by a set of fashionably bold bodies – forensics had already repacked their halogens – and it took him a moment to locate were the body was situated.

         He hadn’t really encountered this kind of thing in his line of work before. Embezzlers, account hackers, the occasional software pirate at best. But the dead… Once, twice previously and both the products of gangland disputes that had occurred while he’d been on surveillance. Here though was death. Plain, unadorned and not mediated through the medium of micro circuit TV.

         He looked at the body as it lay face down on the hearth and was reminded of a picture he’d seen of a supposed case of spontaneous human combustion. From the neck down the form was natural; rumpled slacks, one flip-flop on, one off, the bright yellow T-shirt tidy and obviously freshly washed. Only the wrinkles collected at the elbows gave any real indication of age – late thirties, early forties at the outside. From the shoulder’s up, however, it was all horror show of B movie proportions. The blackened orb of the skull appeared too small for the mass of the body, its hollow rictus seeming to denote a scream of anguish.

         “Do you think she was in pain?” Gardener directed the question at the corpse but it was the baggy shape of Bovis that answered.

         “Too early to tell. Her neck’s broken, though, so there’s a chance it was the fall rather than the fire that was the cause of death.”

         Down by the woman’s fractionally exposed waist, the domed shape of an autovac hovered. It was rocking back and forth on hidden legs, gently nudging the corpse as if to wake it up. The truth was, the angle that the woman had fallen at was too acute for the avoidance AI to cope with and it had stranded itself. Gardener crouched, pulled a fountain pen from his inside pocket and gently tapped the device’s idle switch.

         “Is it okay to take it away now?” Asked Bovis.

         “Sure. Not a problem.”

         “Mind if I check the room?”

         “No, we’re almost done here. Just the body to go, so steer clear of it will you. Oh, and prints are up next so you’d better grab some gloves from the box on the windowsill.” Bovis carefully walked around the body and picked the autovac up, exposing an array of stalk-like appendages that poked beneath the rim of the stylish black housing. He plodded out of the room leaving Gardener alone with the hollow space and the deceased.

         He followed the line of the woman’s body back to the nearest easy chair. She and her husband – currently being recalled from a foreign business trip – had been well off, but not overly so. The house automation was partial and, of the two chairs in the room, only this one showed any technical enhancements.

         Gardener’s eyes were drawn to the smear of red that was daubed across the top of the cream leather headrest. Not enough to be life threatening in itself, but it was obvious that the woman had been bleeding as she sat down. The chair had moved itself recently as well, with telltale groves from the under runners sitting deep in the medium pile carpet. They would have probably been erased had the autovac not wedged itself in next to the body, but here they were tracing a path back towards the window. Gardener knelt down, an audible pop coming from each knee, to examine one of the indentations and considered its depth. Deeper than was expected, as if the woman had been sitting in the seat as it moved across the room. It was well within the technical specifications of the piece to relocate while carrying weight, but the speed of this model usually meant people called out a reposition and then went off and did something else.

         Everyone moves furniture. The family arrive, you fancy a change, something falls down the back of a sofa… Here the impression was of someone who had been cold and had moved the chair closer to the fire. Gardener made a mental note to check the room’s temperature as soon as he began to sift through the house’s download.

         He stood up and wandered over to the window, careful not to flatten the groves left by the chair’s runners. About a meter from the ledge, were four dish shaped indentations that indicated where they had rested previously. Weirdly, the groves bisected each and every one, as if the chair had first rolled back towards the window before making the return leg in towards the fire. Gardener, puzzled, rubbed his nose and noticed that he hadn’t kept his promise to Bovis. Did he really need the gloves? He wasn’t sure, but immediately felt drawn to the yellow, tissue-styled box that sat on the corner of the well glossed windowsill. As he reached for a pair of the stinking latex gloves, he noticed the reason why he’d been brought in on the case. There, trapped at the bottom of the overly engineered blinds, lay a second smear of blood. It was smaller than the first and already congealed to the color of wet brick. A few long hairs spiraled away from the pool, as if trying to escape the cloying matter that held their roots. Pulling his digital camera from his jacket pocket, Gardener began the methodical process of photographing everything in the room. The windowsill, the grooves in the carpet, the body… Forensics had no doubt already done this, but Gardener felt the need for some kind of immediate reference he could easily upload. Something he could flick through, browse and wonder about when he reached his desk back at the station. He looked through the doorway at his discarded laptop, and wondered if he was ever going to get a chance to sit quietly and review the data. As if in reply, the amorphous shape of Bovis stepped between himself and his discarded computer.

         “Chief inspector just called. Said he wants you to tag along with the recruit for the interviews. He’s out front now. The recruit that is, not the chief inspector. Last time he interviewed anyone it was probably his secretary…” The bobbing mask made Bovis’ face look like a foraging animal’s snout.

         Gardener whispered a groan and then moved closer to the window so he could peer down at the street below. Between the heavy, but well dusted, slats he watched the waiting cop. Smart, alert, holding himself with all the self-possessed nonchalance that only the young can effortlessly master… He was the complete antithesis to the older detective’s gaunt and care-worn figure. As such, Gardener instantly disliked him.

*****

         She, the good neighbour – as opposed to the chubby, uninformative and generally slovenly one called Lofters – was a knot of nervous energy. It was almost like a physical force that emanated from her, and Gardener half expected to receive a shock as he shook her short fingered hand. He was aware, as he did so, that his own still retained the stench of latex, but she seemed oblivious to this. She was, quite simply, not used to people. As they talked her brow would regularly shoot up into a bank of winkles and then, almost as quickly, dive-bomb into a frown of deep, deep concentration. No amount of beauty products was ever going to rectify that level of dermatological abuse. The lines were already etched deep and the emotional challenge of the interview was doing nothing to help matters.

         “So you say that you can’t remember anything out of the ordinary that day?” This was Wimhurst’s, or Wamhist’s, or whatever his name was, third attempt at the question. He’d altered his tone every time, first sounding concerned, then placatory and now slightly irked. Gardener had let him run ragged with the previous interviewee, but felt that now was the right time to take charge.

         “Did you notice anyone visiting the apartment yesterday Miss…” He quickly scanned a pile of utility bills neatly stacked on a hall radiator, “… Easterbrook?”

         “Yesterday?” The forehead plummeted in an attempt to distract from her eye flicking level of introspection. “No, no… No one, as your colleague says, ‘out of the ordinary.’ Just the florist. But she’s always coming and going. He’s very good you know. Her husband. Always getting her flowers when he’s away… Something pretty to brighten up the house on his return. Very good… It’s terrible, isn’t it?”

         “What is, Miss. Easterbrook?”

         Wemhust – dear God, what was his name? – began to move his square jaw in reply but Gardener cut him off.

         “Can you remember the exact time the florist called?”

         “Not the exact time, no. But their rounds are pretty regular as far as I can recall. Especially where Mrs., erm, Harrow is concerned. Sorry, ‘was’ concerned… Oh dear…”

         “Don’t trouble yourself Miss. Easterbrook. People say all kinds of things when someone dies. Incredulity, despair, sometimes even elation. We tend to see it all in this line of work.” Gardener felt awkward with the lie about his ease in the presence of death, but also felt the need to somehow reassure this idiosyncratic little woman. He shot Wumhorst a look that said, “interview’s over” and then stepped back away from the woman’s doorstep. He looked again at the stack of official correspondence, the meticulously clean carpet, the unripped cardboard box tucked neatly under a hall table, the word ‘Thermatech’ just visible on one side, and did his best not to stereotype her. He failed. Somewhere deep inside Gardener’s mind a rubber stamp reading ‘lonely retentive kook’ banged down upon his mental image of her.

         “We might need to talk to you again Miss Easterbrook, so all we ask is that you stay in town for the next few days.” She gave him a crooked smile of acknowledgement and one twitchy blink before slipping back behind the safety of her front door.

*****

It wasn’t until that evening, when he sat at the bulky coffee table of his fully unautomated apartment, that Gardener had a proper chance to review the ‘accidental’ death of Mrs. Harrow.

         Between the half drunk glass of red wine and the ripped bag of nuts – that was serving as dinner and supper all rolled into one – sat his laptop. On the central window ran a list of time codes that recorded every house controlled activity from the day in question. Gardener reached out a heavy hand and rubbed a finger down the keyboard’s pressure pad until, there – between the oven switching itself onto pre-warm and the door opening to admit the police – were the events surrounding the victim’s death. The list made compelling reading.

11:09:45 – Doorbell rings and automated response, “The Harrow’s are in. Please wait,” instantly triggered.
11:10:57 – Chair repositioning command called. Seat moves back towards the window and rotates to face it.
11:11:04 – Shutter’s are called to close.
11:12:33 – Second chair repositioning called. Seat rotates from window and moves over to fire.
11:15:46 – Fire commanded to light. Temperature set to maximum.
11:16:02 – Third chair repositioning called. Seat positions itself to its fully reclined position and then, almost instantly, reset itself.

         Reading it again made him shudder involuntarily. He quickly checked the average ambient temperature of the house and came up with a comfortable 16 degrees centigrade. No need for that fire then. Perplexed, Gardener slumped back into his sofa.

         Bovis had called about an hour earlier and had informed him that the mechanisms of both the shutters and the chair had failed simultaneously. Had they been tampered with? It was hard to tell. There were no engineer or warranty seals on either device – the Harrow’s weren’t as rich as they made out – and there were no obvious signs of sabotage. Bolts could have been loosened, safety buffers unscrewed… If there had been any kind of human intervention, the perpetrator’s knowledge of these appliances was matched only by the manufacturers or those that repaired them.

         “So, what sequence of events have you got then?” Was what Bovis had eventually worked his way round to asking.

         “Ladies first.”

         “Yeah, har-de-har. You’re a real stand-up Gardener. Okay, what I see without the autopsy results is someone who was hit on the head by a set of defective blinds. She then sat down in her defective chair and, in a concussed state, called for it to be moved and the fire ignited. The chair then threw her head-first into the hearth, probably breaking her neck in the process.”

         “And how does all that sound to you?”

         “Suspicious as hell. But freak accidents are usually called that for a reason.”

         “How do you mean?”

         “Well, there are enough things happening in the world to raise the probability of incredible occurrences. Just look at the tabloid press. Follow it for long enough and you’ll eventually see something like an air crash where one guy ends up sitting in a tree unharmed.”

         “You’re thinking this is some kind of weird blip in the natural order of things rather than a murder case?”

         “Dunno. I really don’t. We’re trying to trace the guys who built these things. Perhaps they’ll be able to shed some light on the failures. If it was murder, then I’m guessing there’d have to be some kind of software trace as well, right?”

         “Possibly. I’ll let you know Bovis. Thanks for the insight.” And with that Gardener had hung up.

         Now as he moved away from the sequencing screens and began to examine the code records of the program, he found himself returning again to the one key variable that kept spiking up above the collective noise of events. No-one, if they were intending to kill Mrs. Harrow, could have predict the precise point she would be at to look out of her window. Everything else could have been planned, margins of error in the way she fell back wouldn’t have been an issue if she’d only ended up concussed – a nasty domestic accident, nothing more. But the only way the exact sequence of events could have been triggered was if someone had actually been watching, waiting for the moment that she put herself in that vulnerable position… Revelation popped like a firecracker inside his mind. The doorbell. There was the spark here. A tiny twinkling light triggered by the arrival of… Who was it? Ah yes, the florist.

         Paths of probability began to flash through Gardener’s mind, each discarded like prospector’s silt the instant they didn’t mesh perfectly with the small brass cogs of fact. At least the speculation kept a part of his mind interested while he labored through screens of machine code. The result, a dull and extended search for some kind of intrusion or revision. It was only as the night clicked the one sole second that separated it from the day, he finally realized that he wasn’t going to find what he was looking for. As far as the software was concerned, there had been no reprogramming. Which meant one of two things. Either the death of Mrs. Harrow was a bizarre accident, or one of the most premeditated suicides anyone had ever dreamed up.

         Gardener pushed himself back from the laptop’s screen and began to click close all the currently open windows. At least, if nothing else, he had the connection with the florist to go on.

*****

         Elenore Dylan was fit. The kind of windswept, suntanned fit that spoke of an active life lived al fresco. There was more of the nature reserve than florist about her and, against the urbanisation of the city, she looked like a piece of green belt manifest into human form. Gardener was immediately attracted to her despite the fact that he couldn’t help but imagine some equally robust suitor carrying her off beyond the city limits on horseback.

         He looked about himself for some kind of fortitude to help in the coming encounter. The shop window proved too bright to give an accurate indication of his current looks. Was he lovable or leavable? He didn’t know. Perhaps a high-sided truck would rumble past and give him the dark backdrop he required. He waited, pretending to look at a bucket full of blooms near the door, but only low cars trundled past outside.

         In his mind’s eye he quickly ran through the pluses and minuses of his physical appearance. He got as far as a brief taxonomical dispute between ‘tall’ and ‘gangly’ before giving up and distracting himself with a closer observation of the space around him.

         The shop Dylan inhabited was a small but redolent affair. A crowded tumble of blooms whose scent intermixed with that of cut wet foliage and chemical growth agents. Somewhere behind the long, chipped counter, propagation lamps created an otherworldly glow around the edges of an ill fitting door. The overall impression was one of an untamed and verdant sprig pushing through a uniform expanse of concrete.

         Gardener had never found an excuse to enter such an establishment before. Now he was here, his head groggy with a group hug of aromas, he vowed he’d concoct some reason to search these oases out and occasionally pass beyond their threshold.

         “Looking for anything in particular?” Dylan’s voice matched her appearance exactly, a husky cascade of lightly tanned sounds. Gardener quickly played a series of clever openers through his mind and despaired. In the end he simply pulled out his badge and held it up like a bus pass.

         “Oh,” was all she said before returning her attention to the bunch currently being expertly gathered in her hands.

         He recovered slightly and began, “Sorry. I’m calling about…”

         “Yes, I know. Mrs. Harrow. I delivered a bunch of daffodils to her on the day she died.”

         Gardener, welcoming her no nonsense directness, canned the pleasantries and pushed on, “Do you know who ordered them?”

         “Her husband. It’s something he does whenever he’s away on business. Calls us up and orders a delivery of her favourite flowers. So what happened to her in the end,” she dipped forward, her blue ringed eyes squinting at the still extended badge, “inspector Gardener?”

         “How do you mean?”

         “I mean, how’d she die? You being here’s obviously no coincidence, is it? I’ve made enough wreaths to realize the police don’t get overly involved in any death unless something’s up.”

         “She was killed by her furniture. Or at least, that’s how it seems.”

         “Furniture eh? Figures. You ever seen any of those old sci-fi films where the robots run amuck and enslave humanity? I reckon we’re on the verge of that happening right here, right now.”

         Thrown by her openness, Gardener found himself resorting to the standard police lines, “So, did you see anything suspicious or out of the ordinary on your last delivery day to the Harrow’s?”

         “It wasn’t my last, probably won’t be for a few weeks yet. Less weddings, same number of funerals…” She smiled encouragingly at Gardener but he was too nonplused to respond. “I’m not a suspect am I inspector? Surely you don’t think I killed her to increase my turnover?” At this she laughed, a warm crescendo of mirth.

         “Imagine the headlines. ‘Crazed florist kills for cash’… I’m sorry.” She looked down at her hands and did her best to compose herself. “No. I’m truly sorry that Mrs. Harrow is dead, but I really knew nothing about her… Except that she liked daffodils.”

         “Sorry, but you didn’t answer the question. All I want to know is if you saw anything strange that day?” This wasn’t going his way at all. She was smart, articulate and hadn’t even been mildly fazed by his badge display.

         “Only that no one opened the door, even though the blinds dropped. You get used to that kind of thing in this job. People are even weirder on home territory than they are out on the street.”

         “And what did you do when the door failed to open?”

         “Went next door, then found a shady spot.”

         “I’m sorry?”

         There’s always a small reservoir of water held in silica gel at the bottom of any delivered bunch. If there aren’t any neighbors in we usually just tuck the bouquet away somewhere shady and then pop a card through the door.”

         “You’re in the shop today.”

         “Obviously.”

         “But you were delivering on the day in question?”

         “It depends on who is and isn’t in on the staff rota. Both Marcus and Poly are in today, therefore I’m in the shop.”

         Gardener fixed her with what he hoped was a long and thoughtful stare while Dylan waited patiently for his next question. He had to admit, he simply wasn’t used to interviewing suspects, especially when they were as confident and as alluring as this.

         “Do you keep records of all your orders?”

         “Two months worth and then we usually ditch ‘em to free up disc space.” She indicated an antique display screen surrounded by a dense population of green, hairy leafed plants.

         “Mind if I look?”

         “Not at all. Go for it.” She grabbed the untidy floral bunch she was working on and slid it, and the accompanying paraphernalia, down the counter. Gardener felt a small thrill as he moved towards the computer console, closing the distance between himself and Dylan with every step. He quickly familiarized himself with the ancient interface and called up all the records of orders placed by Mr. Harrow. The majority had international dialing codes, but a few looked as if they’d been made locally.

         “You said that you didn’t know anything about Mrs Harrow, but there are at least eight orders here for this year alone. Didn’t you ever run into her?”

         “No. As I said, when Marcus and Poly are doing the rounds, I usually tend the shop. I’m sure they’d be up for giving a statement about their last meetings with either of the Harrows, if that’s what you were after.”

         “How was your relationship with Mr. Harrow?”

         “What relationship? Look, inspector Gardener, do you really think I was being serious about increasing my turnover? I do alright here, you know. Not brilliantly, but alright.” Gardener shot her an awkward sideways glance and then looked back at the monitor.

         “Mind if I print these records out?” If there was a reply, he didn’t hear it. He sent the spreadsheet anyway and then set about locating the equally archaic printer by the horrific racket it made. Once he had the still warm document in his hands he began the arduous task of moving himself away from her and back towards the door. By the time he’d reached for the handle and acknowledged that, yes, she was actually scowling at him, he was convinced that on a one to ten scale of first impressions, he was probably talking decimals.

         “Sorry to have troubled you Miss. Dylan…” Shit, shit, shit, was she a Miss? Had he just consigned his chances to a negative value? He tried valiantly to identify a ring amid the gathered stems and leaves, smiled apologetically in face of her chilly silence and slipped back onto the crowded pavement.

         It was only after he’d crossed three or four side streets, and worked his way back into the main shopping sprawl, that he admitted to himself his interview technique needed some serious work.

*****

         It was about an hour into the interview with Mr. Harrow that Gardener’s second revelation kicked in.

         He stared at the man sitting across from him, marveling at what time, travel and stress could do to a face. Harrow’s eyes were grey pools of anguish and confusion surround by a puffy, dark moss that had once resembled skin. His face looked as if it were trying to implode into its historic creases, effectively limiting its range of expression to despair and incomprehension. His suit looked as if it had been screwed up and left in a trouser press over night along with his hair. He was, on every conceivable level, a mess.

         Gardener watched, distractedly, while his companion took the lead in questioning. His mind wasn’t actually tuned in to the words being spoken by Harrow as he recounted, for the sixth time, the events of the day of his departure. Instead, Gardener had parked his attention in neutral, listening to the emotive impressions that were being transmitted by the bereaved.

         Harrow’s mouth flapped, the words spilling out in a confused babble of hesitant revisions and non-sequiturs, his recollections interspersed with sudden upwellings of badly restrained emotion. As he talked Gardener drifted away, his mind picking up on a marginal sense that there was something hidden, not just here but throughout the case as a whole. He gave up, stopped trying to push and fell into a freeform reverie of vague association.

         The revelation, when it came, arrived in the form of a flick book interconnection of disparate elements cheaply wrapped in the thin veil of daydream. Somehow, while straying to think of Eleanor Dylan yet again, Gardener’s mind simultaneously picked through the detritus of all that he had witnessed surrounding the death of Mrs. Harrow. He picked and pawed and sub consciously sifted until…

         “I think Mr. Harrow could do with a break.” The words left his mouth and halted the other two occupants of the interrogation room in their tracks. Harrow closed his half parted lips and turned to look at Gardener.

         “Coffee?” Gardener offered rising from his seat. The drive to get up, to get out, to test his hypothesis was such that he didn’t even wait to hear their requests.

         Outside the wire meshed corridors folded in front of him as peoples’ faces became unrecognized blobs sporting smiles or frowns. And then there, after a run of more familiar landmarks, was the clutter of his desk.

         It took all of a minute to check the Net and verify his initial suspicions. After that, another five to request that Harrow be retained for further questioning and a following 15 to locate Wemhurst and secure a car. Things were moving fast, which was fine by Gardener. He’d had enough of staring at screens, skulking around the peripheries and talking to people. His mind was alight with renewed purpose. So much so that he even questioned Wemhurst about the necessity of headlights when they eventually pulled out into the sparse, early evening traffic.

         “The inner streets are pretty bright these days sir, but headlights are still mandatory. Although, there is an unwritten code of practice that says lights can be killed on approach to a suspect residence.”

         Gardener hid his incredulity by concentrating on the motion blur slipping past the side window. Gradually the screen animated sprawl of the city center began to fade into the relative dim of the suburbs. It was a transition that made his eyes feel like they’d watched too much TV.

         Finally, the street where the Harrow’s lived rounded into view, and Wemhurst dutifully extinguished the lights and pulled the car to a halt outside. Even here, in the shadowy seclusion of evening, the yellow police incident tape and dead windows marked the house out as noteworthy.

         As Gardener got out of the car he recalled an old film in which a shambling peasant painted black crosses on the doors of an ancient village. Behind him, stacked high in his rickety cart, was a mound of dirty bodies. Different times. Here the plague was rampant consumerism and the legacy of a totally disposable modernity.

         Gardener rubbed his eyelids, crossed the street and found himself welcoming the company of Wemhurst as their combined hands made light work of removing the tape from the front door. As soon as they opened it, lights dimmed into life throughout the apartment and a resonant voice intoned a gravelly “Welcome home.” The greeting sent a shiver down Gardener’s spine.

         He quickly made his way to the cupboard where the house’s processor was located and, with no explanation offered to a baffled Wemhurst, climbed inside.

         Pulling the door to behind him he shouted, “I’m going to turn the lights out. You okay with that?” Gardener waited for a muffled acknowledgement from the other side of the door before calling, “House. All lights off.” Everything went black.

         The muscles behind Gardener’s eyes ached as his mind shifted into that momentary level of heightened perception which only comes when faced with the darkness. Then, as he’d suspected, a glow began to register itself. A bright, concentrated glow down by the floor on the wall opposite the door. He dropped his hand toward the source and a brilliant white spot played across his knuckles. Gardener held his breath and bent his head as near to the floor as he dared. He looked at the hole and wondered at the length of drill bit needed to get through two walls and a cavity filled with insulation. The intensity of the beam was such that it was impossible to see anything of the room beyond, but the hole hadn’t been made with voyeurism in mind. No one, even in their sickest fantasies, would want to look at a pile of discarded shoes. Would they?

         Gardener eased himself back into a crouch and ran through the probable sequence of events. Then he stretched himself up into a half hunch and pushed the door open.

         “House. All lights on.” Wemhurst stood blinking in front of him, his tongue thoughtfully pressed into the side of his once acned cheek.

         “Did you download what you were after?”

         Gardener looked up at the tall recruit, “I could have spent a month sifting through the data on this system and have found no trace of the crime.”

         Wemhurst’s eyes widened, “Crime? You think a crime’s been committed here?”

         “Don’t you?”

         “I know that things don’t add up, but I’m not sure how or why.”

         “Ever heard of a company called Thermatech?” Wemhurst shook his head, “No neither had I. I’d assumed that it was some form of automated household appliance. Turned out I was wrong. Thermatech specializes in miniaturized thermal imaging devices that, when calibrated correctly, allow the operator to effectively see through walls. That’s why I couldn’t find anything within the operation code. She’d orchestrated everything on the fly, tapped into the central processor and tele-operated the whole murder.”

         “Who had?”

         “Harrow’s mistress, of course. She must have got hold of a key somehow – probably on the pretense of watering the plants while they were away on holiday, or something. Once inside she must have drilled the hole, plugged the cable in and pushed the remainder through to her house. She probably took the same opportunity to tamper with both the chair and the blinds.”

         “You’re talking about the Easterbrook woman.”

         “Of course I’m talking about Easterbrook. You see whenever Harrow made a local flower order it was from her phone rather than his own. The reason I didn’t pick up on it straight away was that the area code’s identical. He must have told his wife he was away on business, and in reality he was only next door.”

         “Do you think he was in on it?”

         “Not sure. If he was, that feigned distress earlier was pretty convincing. Anyway, that’s for the courts to decide.”

         Wemhurst nodded then shook his head in disbelief. He was obviously having trouble taking all of this in. “So what do we do now?”

         Gardener gave a crooked, half resigned smile, “I think it’s about time we arrested Miss. Easterbrook, don’t you?”

*****

         The confrontation, when it came, was an anticlimax. Gardener was hoping for some kind of demonic transformation in Easterbrook – a head tossing, “So I killed her. So what?” display of bravado. Instead she came across like the confused, frustrated and yet obviously intelligent woman she really was.

         The tour of the house was equally subdued with only the odd sobbed enquiry about “Dear Derrick” breaking the muted atmosphere. Gardener asked where the hole came through into her house and Easterbrook dutifully pulled away a delicate side table to reveal the defaced skirting board. From here, they moved into the lounge where she carefully unpacked the thermal imaging equipment from its box. Gardener looked at the cold, hard combination of metal and plastic and imagined Easterbrook sat, rigid for hours, waiting for an idea on how to take her rival down. Harrow’s habit of always checking the window whenever the doorbell rang, plus her stylistic choice of automated heavy blinds, served to fire the murderer’s imagination.

         Gardener looked up from the device and examined the anxiety creased face of its owner. He reckoned that if he asked she’d also produce service manuals for all the automated furniture that she’d tampered with, but his heart simply wasn’t in it any more. Part of him had privately hoped that it had been a mechanical fault, that the first recorded death by furniture might stem the current consumer madness. Sadly not. Just those ancient hearse drivers, passion and jealously present here.

         “Do you want to drive?” Wemhurst asked as he guided Easterbrook’s head past the patrol car’s doorframe.

         “No. It’s getting late and we’re going to have a whole new round of interviews tomorrow. I think I’ll walk.”

         “Walk? Are you sure, sir? The nearest station’s about eight K away.”

         “Do me good. Besides I’ve spent too long indoors on this one. See you in the morning.” And with that Gardener set off towards what looked like the glow of a potential high street.

         As he walked he did his best to let the case drain from him, to feel all the jumbled images of Mrs. Harrow’s final dance of death fall through his feet with each heavy step. He realized, as he did so that he’d been replaying that specific sequence of events far too many times to be healthy. He needed to distance himself, and seek out some sense of closure.

         The scent of a passing honeysuckle sent lancing probes deep into Gardener’s brain. He slowed, turned and stared at the white blooms bobbing to the beat of a light evening breeze. Their transience, their fragility all instantly intermingled with unshakable images from Mrs. Harrow’s untimely death. The blossom of blood on the chair, the trunk of her slim torso pressed into the carpet, the reed like growths of the cleaning drone’s legs…

         He should go to her funeral, utilize the ritual to provide those all-important crossed ‘t’s and dotted ‘i’s. He’d need a wreath, or at least a bouquet. An excuse, if nothing else, to call again on the verdant retreat of Eleanor Dylan. The thought of her made him smile involuntarily as he took and held a second lung full of the scent. And, for a moment, for one passing eternity all the machines in his head fell tangled beneath the undergrowth.

— THE END —

(Copyright © 2004 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights Reserved.)