‘Secret? Well, just the roof cubby. But that wasn’t a secret.’
‘The roof cubby?’
‘Yes. It’s a little hidey-hole in the roof. Doug’s father made it for him when he was a boy.’
‘Ronnie didn’t by any chance go up there?’
She frowned. ‘To the roof cubby? Why would he do that?’
‘Well, I don’t know. I wasn’t here all the time, but—’
‘Could I have a look at it?’
She didn’t reply for a moment. Her eyes said she was now reasonably certain that I was deranged. Then she said, ‘Are you any good at climbing trees, Mr Irish?’
The entrance to the roof cubby was the ventilation louvre in the back gable of the house. It was about six metres from the ground, brushed by the thick, bare branches of an ancient walnut.
I considered calling for Cam. But pride is a terrible thing.
‘You wouldn’t have a ladder?’ I said.
Mrs Bishop shook her head. ‘That’s how you get up there. The tree.’
I took hold of the lowest branch of the tree. There was moss on it. I groaned.
It took five minutes to get up there. I almost fell out of the tree twice and a branch poked me in the groin before I got close enough to the small door to put out a hand and push it. It resisted. I put out a foot and pushed.
The door opened with a squeak, swinging inwards and pulling in a short length of nylon rope attached to a ringbolt in the bottom of the door. I puzzled over this for a moment before I realised that this was how you closed the door from the outside: you pulled the rope.
I clambered across from my branch, got my head and shoulders and one arm in and pulled myself across.
The floor of the hideaway was below the level of the doorway. I lowered myself tentatively into the gloom. About a metre down, my feet touched the floor. For a while I couldn’t see anything, then gradually I made out the corners of the room. Light came from the door, now a window, from gaps between the bargeboards and the roof. It was a little box, perhaps three metres square, with a pitched ceiling, boarded off from the rest of the ceiling of the house. The floor was covered with flower-patterned linoleum.
It was empty.
Not even cobwebs.
Nowhere to hide anything.
There was no sign that anyone had ever used the room, had ever had a secret life up here.
I groaned again. Going down would be even harder than coming up.
I squeezed my upper body through the entrance, reached out and got a grip on a branch above my head. I pulled myself up to it, getting a knee on the sill, then standing up. As I did so, the jagged end of a short dead branch almost took out my left eye.
I pulled my head back.
The tip of the branch was just inches away. It was bone white, except for odd grey marks, almost like fingerprints, on the underside.
I wanted to put a bandaid on the scratch on his cheek but he didn’t want me to.
That’s what Mrs Bishop had said when we first talked about Ronnie’s disappearance.
Ronnie had been
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