17 CHURCH ROW
Father attempted to murder me once.
A bold statement, I know, but one based on fact. When he swung that axe there was no question of it being an accident. He was aware of his actions – and the consequences of those actions. No court in the land could fail to convict him on the available evidence. The story itself is tiresome. I have gone over the events so many times the finer threads are starting to lose their integrity and unravel. That said, it is important you understand, so we will talk more of this later. Before we go any further, though, we should get some things straight.
Firstly, the operative word in my initial statement is ‘attempted’. Had his attack on me succeeded I would not be here talking to you today. Because let us make no mistake, I am very much alive. Secondly, I am not looking for pity. Mawkish feelings are irrelevant.
I have not taken the decision to kill Father lightly. Believe me when I tell you that this is something that I have agonised over. However, after weighing all the available evidence, the only conclusion I can draw is that this is the only way forward.
Father must die for what he has done.
The heavy steel gate retracted slowly, revealing the house in all its glory. It was brand new and looked as though it had been beamed in from the future. The angles were sharp, every pane of glass was gleaming, and the white walls reflected the sunlight like a Spanish villa. There was something beautiful about the stark simplicity of the building, something quietly comforting. The question Nikki was asking herself was whether she could imagine the three of them living here? ‘Maybe’ was as much as she was willing to concede for now. The gate finished opening and Ethan pressed the accelerator, bringing the Tesla’s motor back to life. He drove into the courtyard and stopped in front of the garage. A convertible BMW was already parked here, the top down even though it was only March.
‘You’re very quiet over there. I don’t think you’ve said a word the whole way.’ Ethan was smiling at her from the driving seat, trying to keep the mood light. It was a good smile, one the cameras loved. She wasn’t fooled. You didn’t spend a decade with another person without learning to read them. This mattered to him. She had known that when he first showed her the details on his laptop. They had looked at houses before, but this one had got him fired up in a way the others hadn’t. How much he’d been fired up became apparent the next day. Up until then they had looked at houses in a vague, speculative way; with this one he had taken the next step and arranged a viewing.
When she didn’t reply, he added, ‘Look, Nik, I know this isn’t the sort of house you’d usually go for, but all I ask is that you keep an open mind.’
‘I am keeping an open mind. In fact, I was just thinking that I kind of like it. I like the location too.’
Ethan caught her eye again, surprised. ‘You’re not just saying that?’
Nikki shook her head. ‘I’m not. You know one of the things I hate about our current house is that it’s like living in a goldfish bowl. Bedford Street is too busy. There are just too many people around. This street is the complete opposite of that.’
And that was the truth. Church Row was a quiet Kensington cul-de-sac that seemed to sit apart from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city. The pavements were narrow, the road just about wide enough for two cars to pass. Tall brick walls bordered the properties, high trees blocked the view of the houses, and every gate had a camera pointing at it. Number Seventeen sat at the far end of the street. The wall surrounding it was a couple of feet higher than the neighbouring properties and the driveway was hidden behind a heavy black steel gate. Like all cities, London had its secret places. That was what this felt like. A secret place. Driving along Church Row, Nikki could imagine feeling safe living here. That was another tick for the plus column. She could also imagine Bella being safe here, too, which was an even bigger plus.
Ethan turned his smile on Bella, who was sitting quietly in the back. She was staring at the house, keeping her thoughts to herself. Everyone said that Bella looked like her, but all Nikki could see was Ethan. Father and daughter shared the same perfectly proportioned nose, the same bright smile, the same shimmering, contradictory blue eyes, a blue that made Nikki think simultaneously of icicles and tropical seas. They both had thick black hair – Bella’s was shoulder-length, while Ethan’s was cut short. Bella had her father well and truly wrapped around her little finger. Sometimes Nikki would look at the two of them conspiring together and experience a pang of irrational jealousy. In those secret moments, she found it hard to believe this was the same child she had carried in her belly for nine months.
‘What about you Bella Boo?’ Ethan said. ‘What do you think?’
Bella reached for her tablet and started tapping the screen. ‘It’s okay.’
The voice coming out of the tablet sounded like a six-year-old, but without any of the emotions you would usually associate with a child – no excitement, no laughter, no attitude, nothing. The voice reminded Nikki of the old telephone speaking clock. The information you’d asked for was being delivered, but it in a cold, robotic manner.
‘Just okay?’ Ethan said.
Bella responded with a shrug that could have meant anything.
Ethan jumped from the car without waiting for an answer, as eager as a kid on Christmas morning. Nikki got out in time to see him bounce up to the back door and open it with a dramatic flourish. Bella stepped out, frowning at him like she just wanted him to go away, but not quite able to hide her smile. Before Nikki could say anything, Ethan had taken hold of their hands and was leading them towards the front door. All they could do was follow in his wake, pulled along on the wave of his excitement.
The first thing Nikki noticed when they got there was that there was no handle. It was one of those details that cried out to be noticed. Certain things you took for granted: the sun would rise in the east each morning and doors had handles. The second thing she noticed was that there were none of the other things you might expect to see either: no doorbell, no letter box, no house number. It was just a blank expanse of black-painted wood, as if the door had come straight from the factory and had yet to have any of the extras fitted. She stopped in front of it. Ethan’s puzzled look mirrored her own.
‘So what do we do?’ she said. ‘Knock?’
Before Ethan could respond, the door swung silently open and a voice said, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr and Mrs Rhodes. Please come in.’
Nikki peered through the open doorway but couldn’t see anyone. Ethan was peering too, his puzzled expression turning to one of bemusement.
‘I guess we do what the lady says,’ he said as he walked inside.
Nikki hesitated for a second, then took Bella’s hand and followed. No sooner had she stepped into the foyer when she heard a faint noise behind her. She glanced back in time to see the door slowly closing behind them.
‘Ms Fisher is waiting for you in the kitchen. She said you should follow the smell of coffee.’
The voice was warm and mellifluous and seemed to be coming from right beside them. Except there was no one there. Ethan was grinning now, clearly tickled by this. Nikki didn’t share the emotion. She didn’t like surprises. They played havoc with her anxiety.
‘Perhaps I should introduce myself,’ the voice continued. ‘My name is Alice and I am here for your comfort and convenience.’’
‘Here for our comfort and convenience,’ Ethan echoed. ‘You know, guys, I think I like the sound of that.’
The smell of coffee got stronger as they moved into the spacious reception area. Like the outside of the building, the walls were painted white. A touch of colour was provided by the strategically placed rubber plants and a large wall screen displaying a colourful Picasso that was heavy on the oranges and red. The area was brightly lit by dozens of small halogens embedded in the ceiling. The reception area narrowed into a corridor that went on for ten metres or so before opening into a large open kitchen that was dominated by a granite-topped work island. Everything in here was sleek and elegant and smelled brand new.
Catriona Fisher was sitting on a stool at the work island. She stood when she saw them and walked over to do the introductions. The way she moved it was as though she had complete conviction that the universe was going to step aside to accommodate her. She was in her fifties and four or five inches shorter than Nikki, so somewhere around five foot three. Her hairstyle was her most striking feature, a sleek raven-black bob that was shot through with a vibrant turquoise streak. The black baggy shirt and black cargo pants contrasted with all the surrounding white. Bella was jerking Nikki’s hand and holding up her tablet. Edna Mode was written on the screen, causing Nikki to bite back a laugh. Edna Mode was a character from The Incredibles, a fast-talking fashion guru who designed superhero costumes. The film was one of Bella’s current favourites. Looking at Catriona, Nikki had to admit that Bella had a point. There was more than a passing resemblance. In attitude as well as appearance.
‘So who wants coffee?’ Catriona asked.
‘I’m fine,’ Nikki said.
‘I’m fine too,’ Ethan echoed.
‘What about you, young lady?’ Catriona asked, aiming the question at Bella. ‘Mind you, I suppose you’re a bit too young.’
Bella moved closer to Nikki and took a tight hold of her leg.
‘Last chance. But you should know that Alice makes a spectacular cup of coffee.’ Catriona gave them less than a second to answer, then called out. ‘Alice, another coffee, please. And make this one a little cooler and not so sweet as last time.’
‘Of course, Ms Fisher.’
The coffee machine was hissing and gurgling on the work surface that stretched along the far wall. By the time Catriona got there, her drink was ready, hot steam swirling up from the cup. She picked it up and took a sip. ‘Perfect. You know, there are so many things that excite me about this house, but Alice is right up there at the top of the list. What do you think of her, by the way? Pretty amazing, huh?’
‘I guess so,’ Nikki replied, although the truth was that she wasn’t particularly impressed. Granted, Alice had opened the front door for them and made coffee, but as far as Nikki could see, Alice was just Alexa dressed up with a different name.
Catriona smiled, making sure to include both Nikki and Ethan. ‘Okay, I’ve made my decision: you can have the house.’
‘Excuse me,’ Nikki said. ‘We haven’t decided if we want it yet.’
‘What’s to decide? Who wouldn’t want to live here?’
Nikki turned to Ethan. ‘Why do I feel like I’m being hijacked?’
Ethan put his hands in the air, his surprise a hundred per cent genuine. ‘I’ve got no idea what she’s talking about.’
‘Here’s the thing,’ Nikki said to Catriona. ‘Last time I looked, the way this works is that we get shown the house, then we go away and talk about it. Then and only then do we come to a decision as to whether or not we want to buy it.’
‘And if you were viewing an ordinary house, that’s certainly the process you would follow. But this is no ordinary house. Give it another ten or twenty years and it may well be, but for now, trust me when I tell you that this house is unique. A total one-off. Also, if this was a normal house viewing you’d be getting shown around by an estate agent who’d be doing everything possible to persuade you to buy it. But you’re not being shown around by an estate agent, you’re being interviewed by the architect. Didn’t that strike you as odd?’
It had, but Ethan had told her that was because the house wasn’t on the market yet. He’d heard about it through a friend of a friend and thought it sounded perfect. By meeting directly with Catriona he was hoping they could get in with an offer first, if Nikki agreed to it. ‘What do you mean, you’re interviewing us? So far all you’ve done is ask us if we like the virtual assistant and whether we want a coffee.’
Catriona laughed. ‘Alice is so much more than a virtual assistant. With your standard VA you ask for something and the VA will try to oblige as best it can, usually with varying degrees of success. Alice has been designed to anticipate your needs before you even realise you have them.’
‘With all due respect, it sounds as though you’re feeding us a line there.’
Catriona shook her head. ‘Alice is the next generation in AI. The best way to think about her is that she’s every servant you’ll ever need.’
‘And that sounds like another line.’
‘I tell you what, let’s have this conversation after you’ve been living here for a couple of weeks. Actually, make that a couple of days. I guarantee you’ll be convinced by then.’
‘We still haven’t said that we’re going to buy the house.’
‘You will. Okay come with me, there’s something I’d like you to see.’ She turned her attention on Bella. ‘Actually it’s something I think you’d like to see.’
Without another word. Catriona put her coffee down on the work island and strode across the kitchen. She paused at the entrance and smiled back at them. ‘Well, what are you waiting for?’
Nikki shared a look with Ethan then took Bella’s hand and followed Catriona into the corridor. As they moved through the house, Catriona kept up a running commentary, delivering her pitch at a hundred words a minute. She led them to a room at the far end of the house. The door slid silently open as she approached it. She stepped through and motioned for them to follow. The room they walked into was about eight metres by eight, with patio doors on the far side that looked out over a small Zen Garden. There were no furnishings and the smell of fresh paint lingered in the air,
‘I think this bedroom would be perfect for your daughter,’ Catriona announced.
Nikki wasn’t so sure. She didn’t like the fact that it was at the far end of the house, away from all the other bedrooms. She would rather have Bella in the room next to theirs – that was the setup at their current house, and it worked just fine. Bella, however, didn’t seem to share her reservations. She had let go of her hand and was walking through the room as if it already belonged to her, heading towards the patio doors. Before she got there, the doors opened and she stepped out into the cold sunshine. Nikki watched her go, a bloom of panic welling up inside her.
‘It looks like the garden’s enclosed,’ Ethan said quietly at her shoulder. ‘There’s no way for her to get out onto the street.’
‘That’s correct,’ Catriona put in. ‘The big advantage with this room is that your daughter can go outside whenever she wants. It’s important for children to get fresh air, right? That was one of my considerations when I was designing this part of the house. I wanted to create a space that integrated both the outer and inner worlds. My thinking was that if you can’t drag them away from their electronic devices, then why not create an environment where the outside world comes to them. All you’ve got to do is ask Alice to open the doors and you’ve got your very own miniature Garden of Eden.’
Nikki walked across to the patio doors, still unconvinced. What she saw when she got there did nothing to change her mind. Bella was crouched down beside the pond, fascinated by the large coloured koi carp that were turning lazy loops through the water. It wouldn’t take much for her to lose balance and topple in. A strong breeze would probably do it. Catriona Fisher clearly didn’t have children. If she had she wouldn’t have considered putting a pond out here. It might look pretty, but as far as Nikki was concerned it was an accident waiting to happen.
‘It’s all right,’ Ethan said, reading her thoughts again. ‘We can get something to cover it with. Some sort of mesh. We’ll be able to make it safe.’
He walked past her, out into the garden. ‘So what do you think of the room, sweetheart?’
Bella turned and smiled at him and started jabbing frantically at her tablet screen.
‘Cool,’ she said in that blank voice. ‘Can I look after the fish?’
‘Of course you can. But you’d need to feed them every day.’
‘And you’ll need to learn how to look after them properly. This type of fish requires a lot of looking after. Assuming, of course, we end up buying the house.’
They both turned to look at Nikki. Their smiles were identical. As was the childlike excitement in their eyes. Looking back later, this was the moment when she knew that they would be moving here.