Joe shifted down to a safer gear for the rough dirt track. But still, the car bounced and lurched along in a cloud of brown dust and a screech of protesting shock-absorbers.
"Ow! Shit!" He grimaced and wondered if his spine was going to survive the journey. He was getting too old for this.
What the fucking fuck, he wondered, was he doing here. This was crazy. This was ancient history, best forgotten.
But the 'delicate' conversation he had had with Reavy yesterday in the middle of a field of giant bloody hermit crabs had nudged a dim memory.
The track, winding its way between sparse stands of scrub trees and vicious gorse bushes, looked very different in daylight.
Landmarks only ever before seen by moonlight or in the glare of his high-beams looked unfamiliar in the friendlier light of the sun.
The car slewed around a last copse of yet more scrubby trees, and the house finally revealed itself. Joe slowed the car and pulled up at the front porch.
But the porch was the only thing he recognised. Joe got out of the car and reluctantly climbed the four wooden steps.
The rest of the house had pretty much burned to the ground. Only a chimney stack remained.
An incongruous fireplace halfway up the cracked and charred bricks was the only clue that the house had once had two floors.
Now all that remained of the clapboard walls were a few burned uprights, a lot of black charcoaled wood and the pervasive smell of a long-dead fire. Joe looked around at the desolation.
She had done a good job, that was for sure.
Joe made his way carefully across the wet, slippery hills of charcoal and plaster towards where the kitchen used to be.
Once or twice he nearly lost his footing and was grateful for the few remaining charred beams of what had been the skeleton of the house.
Cursing under his breath, Joe wondered again why he was doing this. It wasn't strictly part of the job; he wasn't going to get paid any more for it. Hell, Reavy might not even want it.
He was on the verge of turning around and making his way back to the safety of the relatively untouched wooden porch when he spotted something that placed him at his destination in
no uncertain terms. Laying on its side was the blackened frame of a small medical trolley.
Once all shining stainless steel and polished glass, now, its glass shelves had been shattered in the heat of the fire; it was only recognisable now because Joe knew that it would be here.
After a few moments, Joe was able to tear his eyes away from the fire-cleansed ghost of the past and reluctantly lifted his gaze to what had been one corner of the kitchen.
There, under a great pile of the same crap he had just climbed over, would be the big trapdoor. A silence seemed to fall around Joe and the burned-out house.
With the silence, an oppressive damp heat settled on his shoulders and Joe's senses were overwhelmed by all the bad feelings that now lived in this cremated ruin.
Loneliness, desolation, rot, burning and, cementing all these into something so tangible he could taste it at the back of his throat... death.
The small hairs on the back of Joe's neck climbed to attention. It wasn't bravery that stopped Joe from bolting at that moment. It wasn't even the anticipation of profit.
The thing that kept him here was a sad mixture of curiosity and guilt. Joe took a breath, the birdsong returned and the sun warmed his face once more.
He looked again at the mound of debris and groaned. He was going to need a spade.
Joe cursed under his breath. A flashlight yes but he hadn't reckoned on having to dig the trapdoor out from under half a ton of assorted rubble.
"Well," Joe said, looking out beyond the burnt-down wall and towards the old tree at the far side a small garden meadow. "That's just my bleedin' luck ain't it now.
" He climbed and slid over the blackened remains until he, at last, jumped down onto the sun-parched grass and set off across the meadow towards the tree.
The 'thrp thrp' of the long grass hitting his duster as he walked became part of the memory he was still fighting to ignore.
He had insisted they should be bagged up in sacks by the time he got there. And for once, his wishes had been acceded to.
When he came at night to clear away the latest mess,
whatever he had come for was always neatly tied up in thick burlap sacking and waited recriminatingly for him in the middle of the red-tiled floor of the kitchen.
Sometimes the 'package' was very large. Maybe a small bear, Joe had mused. Or perhaps a deer? Yes, a deer sounded about right.
Joe would drag the bloody sack with both hands and all his strength across the meadow, the long grass 'thrp thrping' against his duster with every step.
He would dig a hole in the soft, loamy soil near the tree and then inter the whole bloody thing without looking too closely.
Moonlight often played tricks with the eyes, and you could imagine all sorts of things.
Sometimes the sacks were smaller. Maybe a large dog and 'dog' was as far as Joe would allow himself to think. Being smaller though, these ones were easier to drag.
He could have thrown some of these over his shoulder and carried them, but that would have got blood on his duster.
Of course, the holes were quicker to dig too which was good because, if you put a bit of effort into it,
you could dig them really fast and then be away and back to the car where the whiskey bottle waited.
Not very often, but sometimes, he would open the kitchen door, and the sack that waited for him was very small indeed... surely a cat.
Joe carried these across the meadow with un-Joe-like gentleness and Joe would likely as not be absent from New Flagstaff society for a few days after one of these.