There wasn't much left of the Hedge House. The ruins were still smouldering. The roof, all the interior walls and most of the floor was gone. Pieces of furniture, charred beyond recognition, leaned drunkenly against each other, and occasionally made ominous popping noises. The garden was littered with the corpses of trees. Everything gave off an aura of heat. The atmosphere was thick with the fumes of burning plastic. Flynn spent a few minutes treading gingerly through the mess, but it was clear that there was nothing of value left. He'd seen the effects of fires before, and it was relatively obvious that this one had not been an accident. No natural flames could have destroyed so quickly and so completely.
Wheezing a little as one of the remaining tendrils of smoke caught the back of his throat, Flynn picked his way back to the comparative safety of the street. There was no time for sentiment, and no space in his head for it in any case. His brain was already active on Plan B.
There were always a hundred small signs that a house was unoccupied. Post piling up. Curtains undrawn, or unopened. Dry lawns. But since Flynn didn't have time for extensive reconnaissance, he had to trust less to science and more to instinct. He chose a prosperous looking street (rich folks are more likely to have a vacation, not to mention useful belongings), and walked up and down it three times. The first time, he jogged purposefully. The second time, he strolled along, slouched and picking his teeth. The third time, he walked with an air of brisk confidence. All three times his ears and eyes were operating overtime. Four houses were eliminated immediately – there were obvious signs of canine occupancy. A further five houses showed lights in some upper room, or on the porch. Of the six houses remaining in the street, one had a bicycle lying on its front lawn and another had a car pulled up in the driveway. Flynn glimpsed a jungle gym in the back garden of another. This left three. On his last trip, he paused to glance at an imaginary cell phone by the postbox of number three. Empty. Near the postbox of number two, he had to tie a shoelace. Bingo. It was stuffed full of post, not only circulars, but “real” mail as well. He glanced around, and jiggled a handful of it out. Dates ranged from the previous week up until today. Excellent.
No time to bypass the alarm system. He had a vague idea that rural homes were less likely to be alarmed, but since his whole professional life had been spent in District Central and surrounds he had no real information on the matter. Mentally preparing his escape route should his multiple guesses be wrong – out the back door, over the back wall, across the road behind this one and into the bushes on the empty plot he had spotted as he arrived in town – he stepped confidently into the front garden.