Ned was in his bedroom playing a video game with his best friend Harry when his mother poked her head round the door.
“Ned, you know old Mrs Wilson’s moving?”
Ned was a psychopath slashing up Harry’s characters and seemed oblivious to the interruption.
“What?” grunted an irritated Ned.
With his friend momentarily distracted, Harry managed to get his characters to the weapon store and tooled up with knives of their own.
“Now look what you’ve done, mum!” Ned whined.
“Ned Taylor! If you don’t stop that game right now, I’ll . . . !”
Ned saw a way out of impending defeat.
“Sorry, Harry. Game over.”
Ned dropped his handset and jumped up.
“Go on, mum. I’m all ears.”
“I said,” continued Ned’s mother, “that Mrs Wilson’s moving. She’s asked if you’ll go over and help her clear her attic, and I said you would.”
“Oh, thanks a bundle, mum! Can’t she get the removal men in?”
“They’re coming later for all the heavy stuff. But she needs someone sensible to go through the things in the attic.”
Harry burst out laughing.
“And you can take Harry along.”
Harry’s face dropped.
“Thank you for coming, boys. Very kind of you.” Mrs Wilson ushered the friends in and closed the front door.
Ned and Harry stood in the hallway, looking sorry for themselves.
“Now, if you find anything you think is valuable, or might be of sentimental value to me, put it to one side. If it looks like rubbish, I’ve put some bin bags just inside the trapdoor.”
As they climbed the stairs to the first floor they passed photos of Mr and Mrs Wilson that the old lady hadn’t taken down yet: happier, smiling times, before the illness that would take her husband.
“So here it is.” Mrs Wilson pointed to the square gap in the ceiling, a heavy charm bracelet jangling on her raised arm. “Be careful up there, though. We don’t want the ceiling falling in!”
Mrs Wilson laughed — a scratchy, wheezing sound. Ned and Harry looked at each other and rolled their eyes.
“I really am very grateful for this, boys. So if you find anything up there that you like, apart from the family jewels of course! . . .” That laugh again. “. . . you can keep it.”
They clambered up the steps and emerged into the dusty attic, the only light coming through a grimy window set in the gable. Junk draped in cobwebs was piled against the angled sides of the dim space.
“What do you reckon?” said Ned. “Where shall we start?”
“Them?” suggested Harry.
He picked up the bin bags and they moved to a pile of dog-eared magazines under the window. Ned took the top one and blew the dust off.
On the cover was a photo of a young schoolgirl in a short skirt, bending over a desk and being caned by her teacher.
Harry picked up the next. On this cover, three girls in school uniform were kneeling in front of a man, pulling at his trousers. The rest had similar scenes on the covers.
“That dirty dog!” whispered Ned.
The boys spent a number of minutes leafing through the magazines amid gasps, giggles and nudges.
“Come on,” said Harry after a while. He picked up a bin bag and held it open while Ned filled it up.
“Let’s do them now.” Ned pointed to a corner where a number of round boxes were stacked. He went over near the trap door and tugged on the light cord. Nothing happened.
“That helps,” he said.
Harry pulled his sleeve over his fist and rubbed at the window, making a circle in the grime and letting a little more light in.
“Hey, look at that!”
Ned joined him at the window.
“Isn’t that the back of Zoe Meehan’s place?” asked Harry.
“It is. Poor Zoe. No one deserves to go like . . .” Ned stopped and turned away, thinking.
“Remember how they found her?” said Harry, lagging behind Ned’s train of thought. “In her school uniform. Head cut off. They never did find that. And they never found the . . .” Now his thinking caught up with Ned’s.
“Murderer?” Ned ventured.
Involuntarily, the boys wiped their hands, still dusty from the magazines, on their trousers.
“You don’t really think . . .” Harry looked into Ned’s face for reassurance.
“Why not?” Ned sat on the floor and crossed his legs. “He had a view of her backyard, maybe even her bedroom. And we know he liked young girls.” He nodded at the bin bag.
“But you can’t just put two and two together like that.” Harry joined his friend on the floor. “I mean . . . old Mrs Wilson. She’d have got wind of it, surely. And she wouldn’t have let that go.”
Ned considered this, and while he did, his eye wandered to the boxes. The round boxes.
“What do you reckon’s in them?”
Harry glanced over.
“Don’t know. Hats? . . . No!”
The two boys scrambled to their feet and hurried across the floor.
Ned picked up one of the boxes and opened it. A bowler hat. Harry opened another. A woman’s hat with artificial flowers and feathers. Ned went to pick up a third but it was heavy. He yelped and stepped back in horror.
The boys stood there, gazing at the box, needing to see what was in it but afraid to. Ned moved closer. He pulled at the box.
It toppled off the stack and crashed to the floor, its contents spilling out and rolling several feet.
The boys burst into hysterical laughter. Ned bent down and used his fingers to pick up the bowling ball.
“Too many video games.” Harry grinned.
“Too right,” said Ned, his voice betraying a surge of relief.
From below the trapdoor, Mrs Wilson’s voice wafted up.
“Are you boys all right? I heard a bump.”
“Fine, Mrs Wilson,” Ned called down.
“Well, come and get some cake and lemonade,” she said. “You must be thirsty with all that dust.”
The boys climbed down from the attic and went to join Mrs Wilson in the kitchen.
“How are you getting on?” she asked. “Found anything you’d like to keep?”
“Well there’s a bowling ball,” Ned winked at Harry. “Can I have that?”
“That was my husband’s,” said Mrs Wilson with a sad smile. “But of course you can.”
She handed the boys a plate each with a delicious-looking piece of chocolate cake, her bracelet jangling as she did.
If the boys had been more observant, had not been focussing on the cake, had not been tingling still from their recent fright, they might have noticed something about the bracelet, a small something dangling from it among the hearts and horseshoes: glittering with imitation jewels, a letter.
The letter “Z.”