Read an exclusive extract of Take Your Breath Away, the electrifying new crime thriller from Sunday Times bestseller Linwood Barclay.
“We can simply kill them, but there are alternatives you might want to consider.”
“If we even have any,” Brie Mason said. “Maybe it’s just one.”
“Oh,” said the man with the name “Charlie” stitched to the front of his gray overalls, “you never have just one.”
Brie felt her heart sink. “You’re joking.”
Charlie was on his knees in front of the kitchen sink, the lower cupboard doors open, waving a flashlight around in there.
“Well, mice aren’t exactly loners, if you know what I mean. They’re social little creatures and they like hanging out with other little mousies.” Charlie squinted. “I’m seeing what could be a couple turds back there under the trap.”
“I haven’t put out any traps,” Brie said.
“Not that kind of trap,” Charlie said. “The drain, under the sink.”
“Oh, of course,” Brie said, thinking she should know better, what with her husband being a contractor and all. She leaned back on the kitchen island, arms folded across her chest, in a mock supervisory pose. “So, by turds, you mean droppings.”
“Looks like it,” he said. “You had mice before?”
“Not that I know of. We haven’t been here all that long. Can you, I mean, can you tell how old those droppings might be?”
Charlie chuckled. “Well, I don’t exactly know how to do carbon dating on them or anything. If you’re not sure you have them, what prompted you to call?”
“I thought I heard something last night,” she said. “Some rustling. I was sitting here in the kitchen and it was very quiet. My husband’s away and — ”
She stopped herself. Brie hadn’t meant to say that. You don’t let on that your husband is away when you have a strange man in the house. Not that Charlie was strange. He was a state-licensed exterminator, wasn’t he? Although, she had to admit, he was a bit of an oddball. Huge, graying handlebar moustache with waxed, upturned peaks like he’d just come off the set of some Wild West flick. Put a top hat on him and he’d look like the guy who ties the girl to the tracks. Before he’d come into the house he’d stood on the front step finishing a cigarette right down to the filter, drawing in hard on those last couple of puffs as if he needed them to sustain him through whatever was to come.
Once he entered the house, Brie nearly passed out from the smell of tobacco, which seemed to waft off his entire body. Those coveralls, she figured, hadn’t seen a dry cleaners since Will Smith had a sitcom.
Aroma aside, he seemed professional enough, but still, you didn’t blurt out that you were on your own. She blamed her carelessness on the fact that she was already on edge. Bigger things on her mind than a few mice finding their way into the house.
“Out of town on business, is he?” Charlie asked, turning off the flashlight, putting one hand on the counter’s edge to help pull himself up. “Knees not what they used to be,” he said.
“I expect him back any time now,” Brie said, nervously twisting the silver choker necklace at the base of her throat. The truth was, Andrew wasn’t due home from their place on the lake until sometime tomorrow, probably late Sunday afternoon. Of course, that could change, if things went the way Brie thought they might. His friend and business partner, Greg Raymus, was up there with him, at his own lake house, a stone’s throw away. They’d both gone up Friday, and Brie had a feeling their guys’ weekend might not go as smoothly as planned.
“What sort of work does he do?” Charlie asked.
“A contractor,” Brie said. “Small to medium-size projects. Strip malls, townhouses, fast-food joints, that kind of thing.”
Charlie made a face, his eyes darting about the kitchen for half a second, as though making a judgment. “Okay,” he said.
Brie laughed nervously. “Let me guess. You’re thinking, this isn’t much of a house for a contractor.”
“Didn’t say that.”
“What you see here is the before picture. The place needs a lot of work. We’re at that point where we have to decide whether the place can be renovated, then maybe flip it, or whether it makes more sense to tear the entire house down and rebuild. We’re one of the oldest houses on Mulberry.” She shrugged.“In the meantime, I’d rather not be sharing the place with little furry rodents.”
He smiled, showing off two rows of brown, tobacco-stained teeth. “Well, I don’t blame you there. There’s a couple things I can do.” He sniffed, ran his index finger across the bottom of his nose, careful not to disrupt the perfect symmetry of his moustache. “I can put some traps around, like glue traps and the conventional spring-loaded ones, bait ’em with peanut butter. Put them in the cupboard here, under the stove, out in the garage. Or, I can put some poison around in all the same places. Strong stuff. You got pets?”
“That’s good. You wouldn’t want them nibbling away on that stuff and getting sick. Downside of the poison is they’ll crawl away somewhere inside your walls and die and stink for a few days until they dry out pretty much to dust. You ever start opening up the walls you might find some tiny, furry little mouse skeletons.”
That gave Brie a shiver.
Charlie paused, appeared thoughtful, and then said, “And there is one other way you could go.”
Brie waited while Charlie opened up a large toolkit that looked like something her husband took with him when he went fishing, to hold everything from lures to a first-aid kit. But Charlie’s box was bigger. He took out a gray, plastic, rectangular container, no more than five inches long, about the same shape and size as a stick of butter.
“You see there’s a little door at the end,” he said. “You put some bait inside, leave the door open, and when the mouse goes in it triggers the door to close.”
“So when you see the door has dropped, you know you’ve got him. Then you can take him outside, open the door, and set him free.”
“Oh,” Brie said. “A humane trap.” Charlie nodded.
“But won’t he come back inside again?” she asked.
“So, you go around the house and look for ways he and his friends might be coming in. Fill in the cracks, plug holes. Check dryer and stove vents, in case they’re not getting in that way. I know it’s not as effective as killin’ them dead but it’s something to consider.”
Charlie’s expression turned solemn. “What people forget it is, animals have souls, too. Whether it’s us, a dog, a cat, even some lowly mouse, we’re all God’s creatures, you know.”
Brie said, “That’s … an interesting philosophy from someone in your line of work.”
He shrugged. “You know, sometimes, I’ll find something in someone’s house and remove it, but I won’t kill it. And I won’t set it free, either, in the woods or whatever. I’ll keep it and take care of it.”
“What, in a cage?”
Charlie nodded. “I got lots of little critters I look after. Feed ’em, nurture them.”
“Well,” Brie said, not sure what to make of that.
“Anyway, back to business. I don’t know for sure whether you’ve got an infestation or not so, let me ask you this: do you bake?”
“Muffins? Cupcakes? You make those?”
“Um, not that much. I’m not exactly the world’s greatest chef. Andrew, he cooks some.” She grinner. “We do a lot of takeout.”
Charlie looked disappointed. “Do you have any flour?” “Flour? Like, for cooking?”
She went over to one of the cupboards, opened it, and pointed to a tin on the first shelf. She brought it down and pried off the lid.
“Before you go to bed tonight,” Charlie said, “sprinkle that on the floor in front of the sink here. You got mice, you’ll see their tiny little footprints in the morning. You don’t see anything, chances are you don’t have them.”
Brie nodded, impressed. “And just vacuum it up after.” “There you go.” He put two of the humane traps atop the counter. “Why don’t I leave you these, and I’ll pop by tomorrow, see if you spotted any tracks, and you can decide how you want to handle this.”
She asked what she owed him, and he said they could settle up the following day, once they determined whether she actually had any mice. At that point she could decide on more humane traps, the glue ones, or poisoned bait.
She followed him out to his van and realized she’d stopped noticing the tobacco stench coming off of him. Your nose could get used to just about anything, she concluded.
As he was backing out onto the street, Brie spotted a familiar vehicle parked on the other side of the street, about three houses down from hers. A blue Chrysler minivan. There was a man sitting behind the wheel, looking her way.
God, she thought. What the hell is Norman doing there?
If and when he came to the door, she would politely tell him to leave, that he had made his apologies and that she had accepted them, and that he should go home.
* * *
Sitting in the kitchen that evening, eating dinner alone, she listened for any rustling from under the cupboards or under the walls. Nothing.
Shortly before ten, she picked up her cell, brought up her husband’s number from her contact list and tapped on FaceTime. Seconds later, her husband’s face appeared. He smiled warmly.
“Hey,” Andrew said cheerily. “How’s it going?”
He looks happy, she thought. “Okay. I interrupt anything?”
“No. Greg’s already gone back to his place. Early night. We were out on the water for the better part of four hours. Got a lot of sun. Kind of drained the life out of us.”
“You look beat. Catch anything?”
“Other than a burn on the back of my neck, no.”
“How’s his leg?”
“Limping a little, but pretty much healed. Stumbled once getting in the boat. Idiot. Thinking he could jump down that far. Twenty years ago, maybe, but he’s too old for that kind of shit. We both are.”
“So, what’d you guys talk about, all that time?”
“I dunno. Usual.” Andrew shrugged.
“Some. But mostly, just reminiscing, reliving our glory years. Not exactly happy to talk about work, way things have been going.” He paused. “And I told him I was done putting you through one renovation after another. If you like where you are now, we’re staying. If you want to find your dream home, that’s what we’ll do.”
Brie smiled, as though he might actually mean it this time. “I had someone here today, a pest control guy, checking for mice. Thought I heard something in the walls. He was a bit of an oddball. Doesn’t like to kill them if he doesn’t have to. A humane exterminator.”
“Not surprising we’d have mice. Old house, they’ve probably got a hundred ways to get inside.”
She briefly angled the phone so he could see the floor. “Can you see that?”
“You spill something?”
“It’s flour. Exterminator’s idea. If I see footprints in the morning, I know I’ve got company.”
“Hey,” Andrew said, touching his neck. “Nice to see you wearing that.”
She touched the necklace and smiled. “I love it. I’m never taking it off.”
“Anything else going on?”
Should she tell him about Norman coming to the door? No, not a good idea.
“Nothing,” Brie said. “Listen, I’ll let you go. What time you getting back? Should I have a lunch ready?”
“Don’t worry about me. Probably mid-afternoon sometime.”
“Love you,” he said.
“Bye,” Brie said, and ended the call.
She turned off the kitchen lights and headed upstairs. When Andrew was away, whether for work or pleasure, she couldn’t drop off to sleep right away. She’d read, or watch Kimmel or Colbert, or bring a laptop to bed and watch some rom-com flick Andrew would never sit through.
It was Saturday, so there was no Kimmel or Colbert or Fallon.
She picked up the book on her bedside table. It was the latest James Lee Burke, and as was often the case, Robicheaux was having a hard time trying to stop his friend Cletus from ripping someone’s head off. Shortly after midnight, having read only two pages, she felt her eyelids slamming shut.
She hit the light and went to sleep.
Brie woke shortly before five and couldn’t get back to sleep, wondering whether there were any tiny footprints in the flour in front of the sink. Her curiosity won out over her desire to go back to sleep, so she got out of bed, turned on some lights, as it was still dark outside, and descended the stairs.
As she reached the first floor, she felt a tingle of excitement mixed with dread. There was an atmosphere of suspense in the moments leading up to finding out whether there had been any creatures in the kitchen, but at the same time, she was worried about the consequences. Once any infestation was confirmed, she knew she’d go into a cleaning frenzy, emptying the cupboards and drawers of every pot, pan, knife, fork and spatula a mouse might have touched and running them all through the dishwasher.
Brie held her breath as she entered the kitchen, flicked on the light, and gazed down at the floor.
There were definitely footprints. But they weren’t from mice.
Not unless mice wore size twelve boots.
At that moment, she thought she heard something behind her.
She whirled around.
There wasn’t even time to scream.
Take Your Breath Away is available here.