The bus dropped Lewis off at the bottom of the hill, and it was a long walk up with the late afternoon sun beating on his back and the day’s stored heat radiating off the tarmac. By the time he reached number sixty-four, it was a relief to be able to slip under the cool green shade of those overgrown trees. Jasper could have a beautiful garden if he cleared the place up a bit.
As to how much of a challenge awaited them inside… Well, that remained to be seen. Lewis rubbed his hands together and knocked on the door.
No one came. Lewis checked his watch. Yep, he was on time. Just how long could it take Jasper to negotiate the junk in his house? He rapped on the door harder this time. He even tried stepping back to call to the upstairs windows, but one look at them made him realise the futility of Jasper hearing anything that way. Both sets of curtains were pressed back against the glass with the weight of whatever lay behind them. Mildew had stained the linings, and more of the green algae that coated everything in the garden grew up the glass.
This could end up being one of his toughest challenges yet. Perhaps an insurmountable one, if Jasper was too nervous to show for the appointments.
Unless he just couldn’t get to the door. What if he was trapped under a pile of fallen paper? It happened. Hoarders died that way every year. Admittedly, it was mostly the elderly who didn’t have the strength to dig themselves out again, but even a young and healthy man like Jasper could be in serious trouble if enough heavy stuff went over.
Paper was heavy stuff.
Keeping the panic at bay with decisive action, Lewis forced open the letter box and called for Jasper. He held his ear to the gap but couldn’t hear any response from within. He was just wrestling his phone out of his pocket to try the man’s mobile, when a voice from behind him made him jump.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. There were road works in town and a huge traffic jam, and I got stuck outside Cabot Circus for twenty minutes. I should have rung, I know, but I don’t like to use my phone in the car. I mean, I know everyone else does, but the law is the law, even when you’re not moving. I hope you didn’t get put off by what you can see through the letterbox. It’s better in the kitchen, I promise.” As he babbled, Jasper shuffled closer, his keys held out in front of him almost like a weapon he was afraid to use. Lewis realised what his pose must have looked like.
“I wasn’t looking; I was listening. I thought maybe you might…” His face heated as he continued. It sounded silly, with Jasper standing in front of him, all vibrant eyes and nervous twitches. “Sometimes people get trapped in their houses when things fall over. I wanted to make sure you weren’t in there, needing help.”
For a moment, he thought Jasper might bristle, might feel patronised, but instead a smile broke slowly across his face, tilting the corners of his eyes in a way that made Lewis’s heart flip. “Oh. Thanks.” The sincere way he said it suggested maybe he wasn’t used to having people look out for him, and once again, Lewis found himself wondering just how many friends the man really had.
“Not a problem,” he said gruffly, still a little embarrassed at having been caught out. “It’s just one of my recurring dreams. Being buried under an avalanche of stuff.”
“You have nightmares too?”
“Don’t we all?”
“I don’t know. I thought you seemed so…together. Not like me.” Jasper took a step closer, and Lewis could smell him then. A hint of soap mingled with a larger dose of sweat. But fresh sweat, so not unpleasant. Not by a long stretch.
Lewis’s eyes drifted closed for a moment to better concentrate on Jasper’s scent. Lulled by the drowsy heat and the distant buzz of traffic, he drifted for a moment, almost content.
Then his eyes sprang open. Jasper was closer now, staring down at him with a quizzical tilt to his left eyebrow. For a breathless moment, he held eye contact, and Lewis could make out the flecks of amber in his dark eyes. They were like a glass of dark rum held up to the sunlight, rich colours swirling within.
“Are you okay?” Jasper asked.
“Fine, fine. Sorry. I was up late last night. Probably should have got more sleep.” Now why did he say that? He didn’t want Jasper thinking he was some kind of party animal. “I mean, I was up playing Trivial Pursuit with my folks; then the heat stopped me sleeping.” What a wild life he led.
“Oh yes, I know. Sometimes I have to sleep in the hammock. Can’t open any of the windows in the house,” Jasper added, his eyes darting away again in their habitual dance.
The house. “Are you ready to show me the inside now?”
Jasper folded his arms around himself, and for a moment, Lewis expected a negative. But when it came, although quietly voiced, the “yes” sounded firm and sure.
It was only when Jasper stepped around him to unlock the front door that Lewis noticed the triangle of sweat turning the back of his faded shirt a darker shade of green. Nerves, or simply a result of the heat?
The lock seemed to give Jasper some trouble, but after a few muttered curses, it opened a foot or so, and Jasper slipped through the narrow gap. “Come on in,” he called from inside.
It was a good thing Lewis was slim. As it was, he had to brush against the table piled high with junk mail sitting just inside the door. A pile of envelopes slid to the floor. A floor that was carpeted with more of them. As Lewis raised his gaze, he commanded his face to stay expressionless. After the number of cluttered homes he’d seen in his eight years working with Carroll, very little still shocked him, but he’d learned to be careful.
He was glad he had.