elgrey: Artwork by Suzan Lovett (DM_MartinIcon)
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Samantha still felt as if she were engaged in a jigsaw puzzle in which only half the pieces were present but, if this were a landscape, she now had a reasonable amount of sky and clouds, and even a smattering of treetops. She felt wired with too much caffeine and was missing having another agent to bounce ideas off. She had almost called Elena before she remembered how selfish that would be. The last thing anyone wanted when they were home with the flu and a temperature of a hundred and three and had a sick kid to look after was a work colleague ringing up at midnight to talk about a case.

But this one was getting to her, this white rabbit of a case, fleeting and fantastical, and likely to lead one astray. Usually when one started digging a few things were revealed, tantalizing fragments, some of it significant, some of it fools’ gold panned from the rich silt of irrelevant information, a glittering distraction that wasted hours or sometimes even days. But this one led on and on. Just not to Margaret. She was still a dead end.

One chilly February evening when the nights were dark even as the children were heading home from school, a car had pulled up by the bus stop and a man had asked for directions. Margaret, who was shy but obedient, had gone over when he asked her directly to help him read his map. Wiser, more cynical children had hung back. Margaret had pointed out something on the map to him, he had thanked her and possibly murmured something in a voice too low for anyone else to hear. Margaret had come back to the bus stop. The bus had pulled up and she had been the last in the line. No one had looked back to see if she had gotten on but the bus driver swore that every child waiting at the bus stop when he opened his doors had climbed on. Margaret had been behind Heather and Phoebe when they had seen the bus approaching; Phoebe remembered turning to say that here it was at last, and Margaret had been behind her then. In the jostling to climb aboard no one had looked back and certainly when the bus had reached her stop, Margaret had not been on it. None of the children had gotten a good look at the man in the car that had spoken to Margaret and all confirmed that he had driven off before the bus had arrived. He had never come forward despite repeated requests for him to do so. No one had seen his license plate. The girls hadn’t even agreed on the color of his car, or the make, although two of them thought it was a dark-colored sedan, one thought it was blue, and the other black. An hour later, fifty miles west of Honesdale, a gas station security camera had shown a man in an overcoat stopping to buy a cheeseburger which he had heated in the microwave and then carried out to the car. He had paid cash. Just visible, sitting in the passenger seat of the car was a girl who looked very like Margaret. Ryan had said that Margaret’s favorite food was a cheeseburger but she was only allowed one on special occasions at home. Neither she, the man in the overcoat, or the car had been spotted on any other security tapes or ever definitely sighted again.

A couple of the girls at Margaret’s school had said that on the day she went missing she had been excited and distracted, as if she had known something was going to happen, the teachers had said she had seemed exactly the same as usual. In the end no one had been able to draw any firm conclusions.

Sam had been over everything Jack and Viv had done in the case and as far as she could see they had left nothing undone. But if Margaret was a case so cold it gave the potential investigator frostbite, Mary was less than twenty-four hours missing and still someone they may be able to save. And Mary’s past was not the same as Margaret’s. She hadn’t been born in the Catskills and grown up in a beautiful if isolated house in the woods – she had been born in Wisconsin. She had grown up in a trailer with a mother who had struggled with an unhappy marriage, grinding poverty, and ill health, and then died, and a father who was an abusive, unemployable drunk, whose children only had a break from his cruelty when he was in prison doing time for vehicular manslaughter, and Mary hadn’t moved to the city or run away from that house, she had been Saved, not by Jesus, but by Marriage.

Five minutes of reading about Mary Ryan née Gallagher’s early life and Sam had felt the need to go and find a window that opened and drag into her lungs some gulps of wintry air. On some level, she suspected, Jack thought all fathers were inadequate bastards who would fail their children somehow, and on some level, she suspected she agreed with him. It was strange that Danny, whose father had been the worst bastard of all of them, didn’t think like that, even now. It was hard to know with Viv. Sam suspected her childhood hadn’t been easy but Viv had made sure that Reggie’s was. She had married a good man and brought up a good son, but she never made it look effortless, she let her friends know that it took work; let Jack know that it was the little decisions he made every day that would decide how his children turned out.

She knew they all carried their own baggage; on a bad day, Martin judged the poor as if they were exotic zoo animals he had never glimpsed in their natural habitat. There had been times in the past when he was so unconsciously complacent about the benefits life had handed him that she wanted to shake him until his perfectly capped teeth rattled in his too-handsome head; times when she had wanted to shout at him for being a walking WASP experiment in selective breeding; the product of a few generations of good old fashioned elitism practiced by Fitzgeralds past of only marrying attractive people with money and making sure their descendents did too. And then when life had got too close to him, and reality started swooping in on him like a bird of prey, she had found herself wanting to protect him from it, after all.

It flared up every time there was a case like this. Every time she found herself sitting in a clapperboard house looking around at the dusty décor that made teenage girls yearn to be anywhere but here; every time they knocked on the door of another trailer or tenement or found themselves sifting through the wreckage of some destitute life. Then she found herself almost resenting Martin just because it was all so alien to him and yet so painfully familiar to her. She looked at the apartments of missing girls sometimes and could all too easily envisage her own belongings nestling here, her photograph slipped inside the mirror frame, her make up on the dresser. She knew Martin was always going to see these lives as Other, and, when he looked around in such fascination, he probably didn’t even judge them the way she assumed he was doing, she was probably imposing an expression of distaste. On some level she suspected she had let a few thoughtless remarks overshadow what she knew in her gut, that he was a good man and a compassionate one, and a friend whom she would always love, and it was no more his fault that he’d been raised with a silver spoon in his mouth than it was hers that she had been raised without one.

But she couldn’t help wondering if Martin was sitting out in Unity right now thinking how lucky Mary Ryan had been to be rescued from her inevitable birthright of poverty and misery, and offered marriage by a handsome, wealthy, well-bred man.

As she read through the file again, she found the name of the town niggling at her. Indemnity, Wisconsin. She had heard that name before, read it in a newspaper when growing up, more than once, and yet, statistically, the town was tiny and utterly insignificant. She turned back to the computer and began another search, this time leaving out Mary Ryan and looking instead for ‘Indemnity, Wisconsin’. The hits piled up at once and for a moment she felt a spark of excitement: murder after unsolved murder in the area around Mary Ryan’s home town, the bodies turning up in shallow graves and ditches, and then the images began to come into focus and her excitement turned to revulsion and pity. She hated the way death robbed the missing of their dignity; people with all those hopes and aspirations being reduced to something that had to be identified through dental records; threads of stringy flesh barely adhering to bleached bone, or the ones whose clothing was permeated with earth or mud or water, pale as dead fish, dried blood crusted on them, victims remembered forever only by a single grainy photograph on a newspaper that would the next day be blowing in a gutter or wrapped around a down and out to keep out the winter chill.

She looked at the dates and realized that some of the murders had taken place years before Mary was born. It did explain why the town name was familiar to her; she would have read about the killings in her own local paper while growing up, but there seemed little likelihood of these old unsolved murders of young male drifters being connected to the kidnap of a thirty-six year old woman now.

Samantha turned back to Mary’s file. She had requested the file on Mary’s father, Jake Gallagher, but the bare details were here. He had been a handsome man, going by his photograph, although he looked sullen and ill-tempered in the photographs, but the dark hair and slate blue eyes were striking. He had died in an automobile accident – appropriate given that he had killed a girl while drunk driving. Samantha stilled and turned back through his file. Killed a ‘girl’, not a woman, not a man. She turned the pages and there it was. Haley Stapleton, seven years old. Killed by Jack Gallagher who, after an all night bender, had plowed into the bus stop where the children were waiting for the school bus. It had been a miracle that only one girl had been killed, a miracle for the other children, a tragedy for the parents of Haley Stapleton. Gallagher had done six years for vehicular manslaughter.

Mary Ryan’s father had killed a girl the exact same age that Margaret Ryan had been at the time of her abduction.

Samantha snatched up the phone with fingers that trembled a little, waiting impatiently for it to ring once, twice, three times. Jack said: “Sam, it’s three in the morning.”

“What if it wasn’t a sex crime or a kidnapping for a ransom, Jack? What if it was revenge?”

“What if you tell me what you’ve got?”

She couldn’t help noticing that he didn’t sound remotely bleary or confused. “You weren’t asleep either, were you?”

“I may have been following up a few leads.”

“What leads?”

“There was a partial print on the car the cell phone was stolen from, and it matches with a girl called Clare Hope, a native of Indemnity. She has a record. Not extortion or kidnapping, but soliciting and possession, so she could have moved up into the big league by now. And she has a connection to Mary Ryan.”

“Are you going to tell me about it or just sit there playing hard to get?”

She could hear the laughter in his voice. “Clare Hope used to date Mary’s younger brother, Nathan Gallagher.”

“The one who died in the car accident?”

“The car accident in which the body inside it was burned beyond recognition. Apparently, although the kid was a bit of a waste of space, he and Mary were close, and she was devastated. She had a near-breakdown after his death and was put on every kind of anti-depressant. Ryan thought she’d do better in different surroundings. The whole new life in the Catskills was supposed to be a way of helping her get over it. I don’t like the guy but I never doubted that he loved his wife.”

“But now you’re wondering if it was really Nathan Gallagher’s body in that car?”

“It was assumed the body they found in the wreckage belonged to him because it was his car, but it wasn’t proven. And if it wasn’t him, not only is he alive and out there somewhere, he found a body to burn in his place, which means he’s probably capable of murder.” She could imagine him shrugging. “Or maybe I’m tired and I read too many cheap thrillers when I was growing up but either way I’ve ordered an exhumation and DNA analysis on his remains, just to check that it’s really his remains in that coffin. We have Mary’s on file from when Margaret went missing, and Margaret’s as well, from her toothbrush, so we should be able to get a positive ID.”

She saw the digger in the graveyard, men wrapped up against the cold as snow fell and the earth came away in frozen chunks, roots like bones in falls of soil between metal teeth. “And he had a connection with Clare Hope, who now has a proven connection with Mary’s disappearance.”

“Exactly. If Nathan Gallagher wasn’t dead, I’d be wondering if he had a part to play in this, so, bearing that in mind, I’d like to make sure he’s really out of the picture. What’s your theory?”

“I want to interview the deputy whose daughter was killed by Mary’s father.”

“Harry Stapleton?”

“His daughter was the same age when she was hit by that car as Margaret was when she was taken.”

“And you’re thinking he may have come looking for revenge?”

“It might explain why there was never a ransom asked, and it’s too much of a coincidence for me that Margaret Ryan and Haley Stapleton were the same age. But, Jack, are we absolutely certain a ransom was never paid?”

“Ryan was a suspect, remember? I had him watched around the clock and he never went near the bank, never went near an ATM, didn’t wire any money or withdraw any more than you would need to buy groceries.”

“Then I think I need to talk to Harry Stapleton.”

“Okay, I’ll put it in motion and contact the Indemnity PD to let them know you’re coming.”

She hesitated. “Did you know there was a serial killer who was based around Indemnity?”

“Yeah, I remember the sheriff telling me that it doesn’t do a lot for the real estate prices when the only thing people know about your town is that there’s a psycho living there. It didn’t help that they never caught the guy. The first killings were back in the 1950s, so he’d be a senior citizen by now if he hasn’t died of old age. My money is on him having died a few years back because there hasn’t been a killing there in a long time. He was probably some pillar of the community that got a memorial service in the local church and a really nice headstone.”

“But they were all young men? Definitely not young girls or women of Mary’s age?”

“No, all young men. Mostly drifters that no one reported missing for years. The sheriff told me they didn’t even know what the final body count was; there could have been a lot more murdered than the ones they found. It’s a big state with a lot of wild country – lots of places to hide bodies. My guess is that it was another Spaulding, someone who seemed respectable and reasonable on the surface and didn’t ring any alarm bells, only instead of being into kids, he was into young men, and young men are a lot stupider than young women about accepting lifts from strangers.”

Sam looked at the newsprint on the screen. “Well, they never think they’re going to get abducted, beaten, raped, and murdered, do they? That’s just something that happens to women.”

“Personally, I’m all for it not happening to anyone. Earliest flight?”

Sam grimaced. “Earliest flight Viv can make too?”

“You want Viv as well?” There was a tense pause in which she hoped he wasn’t going to make her spell out exactly why she didn’t want to go back to small town Wisconsin by herself before Jack sighed. “Fine, you can have Viv. I’ll just hang out in Unity, by myself, getting snowed on.”

“You have Danny and Martin,” she pointed out.

“They’re going to be holding Ryan’s hand for me while practicing their best company manners.”

“One of those ‘don’t do what I do, do what I say’ lessons?”

“Very funny, and I hope it’s cold in Wisconsin.”

Samantha put down the phone before she said softly: “It always is.”

***

He was dreaming about pills. He’d been doing so well, too, not needing them, moving further away from them, as if they were a shore and he was on a sailing ship with a good wind behind him, blowing him further and further away from the temptation they represented…and then they were, somehow, just sitting there in his bathroom cabinet in a white plastic bottle with his name typed onto it neatly. He didn’t even think about whether or not he needed them or wanted them; he just opened the bottle and threw them into his mouth, the bitterness of them on his tongue as familiar as a lover’s kiss…

“Martin…?”

At the sound of his name being barked, Martin blinked into consciousness, heart hammering as he thought that he had to get to the bathroom now to throw up the pills he’d just swallowed before they got into his system, only to realize that there were no pills and that Jack Malone was sitting on the side of his bed, already fully dressed and gazing at him intently. “Wake up.”

Martin rubbed his eyes, still tasting the bitterness of the dream-Vicodin and desperate to rinse out his mouth. “What time is it?”

“It’s five a.m. We got lucky with another piece of security camera footage. Mac is trying to do what he can to clean it up but on a first glance the guy in the video could well be the same guy who took Margaret; that means the cases are connected and before you head up to see Ryan I want you and Danny to go and interview the girls again who were with Margaret the last day she was at school. Think you can handle that?”

Martin sat up, feeling grimy, stiff from too many hours sitting down the day before, and unshaven. “What…?”

“Are you conscious?” Jack demanded. “I need proof of life, Martin.”

“I’m getting there.” He privately thought it was no wonder that Jack was divorced, quite apart from his infidelity, as he was in no way a soothing person to wake up to in the morning. He ran a hand blearily through his hair and looked over at the other bed in the room. It was empty. “Where’s Danny?”

“In the shower. He said to tell you that if you’re good he’ll get you some junk food for breakfast. Just please don’t tell me the ways in which he expects you to be good in a motel bedroom at this time in the morning, okay?”

Danny strolled out of the bathroom, one towel carelessly tied low around his narrow hips, beads of water trickling down his torso, and with another towel in his hand with which he was rubbing his hair into a strangely stylish spiking on top of his head. The scar across the right side of Danny’s abdomen was displayed quite unselfconsciously even as the last droplets of water coursed down it at a slightly slower pace than they ran down his breastbone to his navel. There was a spring in his step that Martin considered completely inappropriate for this hour of the morning, especially given how late it had been when Jack had finally allowed everyone to go to bed. Danny smirked at Jack. “Doesn’t Martin look cute in the mornings?”

Jack smirked back. “Perfectly adorable.”

“I hate you both.” Martin unwillingly climbed out of the warm cocoon of his bed.

“A cup of coffee and you’ll be as good as new, trust me.” Jack nodded to Danny. “I want all the girls re-interviewed in case there’s anything they remember. I’ve finally tracked down that mailman and I’m going to interview him now. The locals are driving Vivian to the airport to meet up with Samantha, who is going to be flying to Wisconsin on the first available flight. Let me know what you find out at the school and tell me when you head up to see Ryan.”

Martin stumbled blearily into the bathroom, pulling his t-shirt over his head as he did so and stepping out of his boxers. Danny stuck his head around the door. “So, do you want another burger or cereal? Oh wait, you only eat breakfast cereal at lunchtime, right?”

“Do you mind?” Martin demanded, automatically putting a hand over the gunshot scar on his abdomen, and realizing as he did so that it had become the part of him he least wanted exposed to another’s gaze.

Danny refused to look even remotely abashed. “Well, from the point of view of your cholesterol I’d rather you had the cereal but whatever you want.”

“Get out,” Martin suggested, stepping firmly into the shower and closing the frosted door.

Danny called through to him: “Burger it is then.”

When the first blast of water ran horrifyingly cold, Martin felt that was probably Danny’s fault too. He twisted the dial savagely and the water ran far too hot, tiny needles of scalding shock on his skin, before achieving the perfect temperature. He had to fight the urge to stay in the shower for half an hour and just bask in the hot water flowing over him, each jet unknotting the tension in muscles still aching from all those hours of sitting in the car, but he reluctantly made do with a meager five minutes and some cheap lemon-scented shower gel that made him smell like a store-bought pie. As he shaved, his reflection gazed back at him, still a little blearily, and he wondered how Sam and Viv avoided the bloodshot look when they generally got as little sleep as the rest of them. It was clearly some secret female ability that they inherited with their mitochondria or else were unwilling to share.

He would have liked a run to blow away the last of the cobwebs and reconnect to his muscles but had to make do with toweling his hair dry and pulling on his clothes. He was buttoning his shirt as he was assailed by the scents of breakfast that a fully-dressed Danny waved tantalizingly under his nose. “Here you go, Martin, grease, fat, more grease and more fat. All your favorite food groups.”

“You know there’s nothing natural about being this cheerful at five in the morning.”

Danny produced a mug with a flourish. “Coffee, too. Don’t ever say I don’t take care of you on these little field trips.”

Martin sipped the coffee and felt some clarity return to his brain, the last of the cobwebs not cleared by the shower dissipating as the hot strong liquid hit home. “Did Jack sleep at all last night?”

“No, but this one was bound to get to him, under the circumstances. I don’t think Sam went to bed either. She’s got Viv flying out with her to Wisconsin to interview a suspect with a possible grudge. In other news they turned up a print on the car the cell phone was stolen from and it belongs to an ex-girlfriend of Mary’s dead brother. Jack’s getting his corpse exhumed for DNA testing. Oh, and there’s a bad storm on its way, so we’ll probably be driving through a blizzard to visit Ryan.”

Martin took another much-needed gulp of coffee. “And just when I thought the day couldn’t get any better. Still no ransom demand?”

“Nothing.” Danny slapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Come on, or we’ll miss the line for the school bus. Jack wants us to start with the stop where Margaret was waiting.” As Martin pulled on his coat, Danny solemnly handed him a muffler. “Viv said I was to make sure we both wrapped up warm, and – think about it – would you want to be flying to Wisconsin or liaising with the locals?”

“Not really – and you don’t actually expect me to wear that, do you?”

“I’ll tell Viv if you don’t.”

Sighing, Martin wrapped the absurd scarf around his neck. “So, you’re saying we got the long straw on this assignment?”

“Hey, any day when I’m not sifting through garbage, having to stake out a crack den in some freezing downtown alley, or going undercover in a maximum security prison where I have to pretend to be the bitch of a guy called ‘Bubba’ is all good to me.”

“You might want to start setting that bar a little higher.” Martin gulped down the last of his coffee, and bit into his cheeseburger as he followed Danny out of the door, almost annoyed to find that despite the inadequate amount of sleep he’d gotten, Jack was absolutely right, he did feel as good as new.

“I’m driving,” Danny told him firmly.

Martin shrugged and climbed into the passenger seat. He didn’t quite get the fascination Danny had with this big cumbersome vehicle anyway. “Fine, I’ll catch up on my sleep.”

“Oh, I almost forgot.” Danny dumped a pile of paper in his lap. “We got the Ryans’ phone records through for the last three months and the three months before Margaret’s abduction. Enjoy.”

Resisting the urge to groan and taking another ravenous bite of his now somewhat tepid burger, Martin plucked a pencil from his pocket and began to analyze who the Ryans had called, who had called them, what time of the day, and how often, while the snow blew in light powdery flakes and the windshield wipers rhythmically brushed them aside.

***

Jack wished he felt a little more like the spider in the center of the web of information and a little less like the fly tangled in too many sticky threads. He knew he should go back to the office and liaise from there but it was in Honesdale that Mary had last been seen and where the locals were still checking every security camera from every business that might conceivably have footage of her abduction; and for some reason he felt the need to stay in Unity for this one. At least until Danny and Martin came back from interviewing Ryan.

He drove to the mail depot through gusting flakes and ridges of darkening slush to talk to his next possible lead, aware of unfriendly glances fixed on him by everyone he passed. He and the Ryans’ mailman talked outside as the snow fell around them in spiteful gusts because the mailman, Dean Tulliver, wanted a cigarette. “I tried the patches,” he explained. “But they didn’t work for me.”

Tulliver had badly pockmarked skin from adolescent acne or childhood illness, vivid brown eyes, and long black hair tied back in a ponytail. He looked as if someone in his ancestry had probably been Native American but it was diluted in him. There was a silver cross around his neck, which glinted as the sun came up and turned it to red-gold. He sucked the nicotine into his lungs like it was the difference between life and death and then, seeing Jack’s expression, offered him the carton. “Want one?”

Jack wondered how long it was before one stopped being tempted, and was unexpectedly touched to find someone in this town who was prepared to give him a civil word. Everyone else in the mail office had treated him as if he were something they had just scraped off the bottom of their shoe. “No, but thanks.”

Tulliver politely waved the smoke away from him, inhaled deeply and then slowly let out a mouthful of smoke. “Okay, I’m good now. Fire away.”

“You know the Ryans?”

“As much as you know anyone when the only contact you have with them is handing them their mail and nodding to them in church on Sundays. He’s friendly enough, she’s not as chatty – kind of shy.”

“Before or after Margaret went missing?”

“Both. Except she used to cry more after she went missing.”

“She cried before?”

“Once. I came up and she was sitting outside the house crying. I asked her if she was okay and she said it was one of the bad anniversaries.”

“You don’t remember the date?”

“I do. It was my birthday. September 23rd.”

The date her father had died in that car accident – suggesting she had loved the man despite everything he had done to her, her mother, and her brother over the years.

“And you’ve seen her crying since?”

“A few times. She used to sit outside and look at the woods and cry. I guess it was about her daughter. I felt sorry for her. Who wouldn’t?”

“Did you try to talk to her?”

“Yeah, once, I said I thought God had a plan for everyone, you know? And we couldn’t know what it was; we just had to trust it was for the best. I thought it might make her feel better.”

“But it didn’t?” People had been less inclined to tell Jack that God had a plan for everyone after his mother’s death, that road tended to be closed to a son as a source of comfort when one’s parent had committed suicide. It was viewed by too many outsiders as a deliberate abandonment; not to mention that the Catholic observers believed her to be in purgatory; no one tended to have too many comforting platitudes to offer then. It had been left to Jack to remind himself that his mother had loved him, and it had been the inescapable misery of her bipolar mood swings that she had been escaping, not him.

Tulliver shook his head. “I don’t think so. She just said that didn’t help the mothers who were left behind. She said there must be so many people out there who were going to die never knowing what had happened to their children.

“I sat with her for a while and then I asked her if she wanted me to talk to the pastor – ask him to call? But she said that some of them would be dead by now, the mothers whose children had never come home and I realized she wasn’t just talking about her little girl. And I said I couldn’t imagine what that was like but that everyone in Unity was praying she’d get her daughter back safely.”

Jack thought of the sun shining through that thick covering of trees, glistening on the snow, icicles forming on the roof like frozen teardrops, and Mary crying alone where no one else would be troubled by her grief. “Did she say anything else?”

“She said, why did she deserve to get her child back when so many other women never had? I felt so sorry for her but I didn’t know what else to do. Then she apologized for taking up my time and thanked me for my kindness but said she was fine now.”

“What about Margaret Ryan? What was your impression of her?”

“She was a nice little girl. Kind of shy but always very polite, always used to say ‘thank you’ if I gave her the mail.”

“What about Ryan?”

“Nice guy. Not friendly but polite, you know. Good baritone voice – always sings out really well in church. He used to drive the little girl to the school bus stop each morning. Not like some houses where you go and they’re all rushing around, shouting at each other. He was always calm, always organized. Always used to kiss his wife goodbye and open the door for the little girl, make sure her seatbelt was done up right.”

Jack had a sudden uncomfortable memory of that piece of paper being thrust under his nose in that nightmare of a deposition, pointing out that he had only signed in his daughters on nine mornings in a year.

“Do they have a lot of mail?”

“Less than most. Bank statements for Ryan, a few catalogues, junk mail, the usual.”

“What about Mary?” he pressed. “Did she get any letters?”

“Not usually, but this last week she had two. One was about five days ago – Saturday, I think, and then, on the morning she went missing, there was a letter with a handwritten address. I noticed it because it looked like it was maybe written by someone who was young or didn’t know his letters too well. The ‘s’ was the wrong way round in the house-name.”

“Did you notice where it was posted from?”

“Sorry, no.”

“What about the first letter?”

“It wasn’t handwritten, it was from the doctor’s office here in Unity. Their stamp was on it.”

Jack was on his cell phone before he had reached the car. The snow blew around him, those deceptively light flakes that looked as if a breeze could blow them away to the next state, a ray of sunshine melt them harmlessly, and yet which quietly amassed drifts across every ditch and blanketed the land in white. “Viv. You did a lot of looking through Margaret’s schoolwork, right?”

“Yes, and talking to her teachers.”

“She wasn’t dyslexic, was she?”

“Definitely not.”

“No abnormalities in her writing style? ‘S’s the wrong way around, anything like that?”

“No, Jack.”

“You’re sure?”

“Positive.” He could hear the sound of the airport behind her; murmurs of conversation from people about to part, information being given out through the incomprehensible vibrato of a PA system, a child wailing about some perceived injustice; and Sam in the background asking: “Has he got something?”

“You’ve got a lead?” Viv asked.

“I don’t know. But while you’re in Indemnity – see if you can get a look at Clare Hope’s schoolwork.”

“We’re looking for wrong way round ‘s’s?”

“Or a learning disability. Anyone associated with Mary who may have sent her a letter on the day she disappeared. You two wearing your thermal underwear? The forecast for Wisconsin right now is snow, snow, and more snow. Although if it’s any consolation, it’s the same forecast for here.”

“No, Jack…” Sam evidently leaned across to tell him clearly: “That’s no consolation. Did I mention that I hate the cold?”

“I’ll try to ensure that the next missing person we investigate has family in Florida, just for you.”

“Would you? I’d appreciate that.”

For all the sarcasm, she sounded better than she had at three a.m. when he suspected she had been over-identifying with Mary. Vivian had a habit of making the people with her feel better, which was probably why her heart had almost given up the ghost so early, worn out from all the work it did helping others.

“Viv, Mary mentioned to the mailman something about other mothers not knowing what had happened to their children. As if she deserved to lose her daughter because other woman had lost their children. Do you remember her saying anything like that to us?”

“No.” They were calling for their flight in the background; he could hear it echoing through the clamor of the airport. “But I don’t remember her saying very much at all. Ryan did most of the talking.”

“It could be guilt about Haley Stapleton,” Sam put in. “She may have felt responsible for what her father did.”

“But Haley’s parents knew what happened to her. She was killed outright and they had a body to bury. This sounded more like other mothers of missing children. Can you just check while you’re there that there haven’t been any cases of girls going missing in Indemnity?”

Sam’s voice was gentle: “Jack, a lot of women lost their sons to that town, remember?”

“But why should she feel any sense of connection to that? It’s not as if she could have had anything to do with those killings. She wasn’t even born when some of them took place.”

“It’s got to get to you, though, growing up in a place where four times a year another body turns up in a ditch, and you never know if the guy who delivers your mail or who gives you change in the store is a serial killer. If I’d grown up there, I’d have serious trust issues where men are concerned.”

Jack snorted. “As opposed to the way you are now, you mean?”

He could imagine her glittering smile, still loving how sharp her edges were. “Exactly.”

Viv said: “Jack, we have to go.”

“Wish me luck at the Unity Clinic. They’re my next port of call.”

She laughed but he knew that her eyes were probably sympathetic all the same, remembering how many friends he had made last time. “Good luck.”

As he drove towards the clinic, he wondered again if anything they had learned so far was useful. That was the trouble with any investigation. One received so much information and some of it was irrelevant and some of it was vital; and it all came carrying the same weight until the pattern started to emerge that showed which piece of information was going to be the one that made the difference between finding a living person or burying a corpse.

If only Margaret had been a girl who reversed the letter ‘s’ in her schoolwork they would have just been handed a huge break. It could have meant the girl was alive, had managed to contact or been forced to contact her mother, and that Mary had probably been lured away by the promise of seeing her. Now, for all he knew, the letter was from Mary’s long lost Cousin Flo asking for the recipe to Grandma’s seed cake. Except he refused to believe that it carried no significance at all. Mary had known the number for that cell phone, so a message had reached her at some point between the phone being stolen and her calling it from the hospital pay phone. It was looking more and more likely that Viv’s gut instinct had been right on this and Mary had faked the early labor to get a lift into Honesdale while her husband was temporarily out of the picture. Jack suspected they had a lot of the pieces they needed already, they just didn’t have the ones that would connect them to the truth. At least, not yet.

Jack recognized the receptionist as he walked through the door of the clinic and realized he was in trouble already. The look she gave him showed that she remembered very well that he was the officious federal agent who had wasted his time hassling Frank Ryan; time which would have been better spent recovering his missing child.

Her icy: “I’ll tell Doctor Roberts that you’re here” was a study in chilly politeness.

Grimacing, Jack picked up a magazine and looked at it. Some girl paused between the cusp of childhood and womanhood with too much hair and too much make up and whom he absolutely didn’t recognize beamed back at him toothily. He wondered if this strange half-child-half-woman was someone his daughters liked, if she was an actress or a singer, and what it said about his disconnection from their lives that he didn’t know. He wondered if Hanna was ever going to forgive him for all the days when he hadn’t been there, and he wondered if she would ever get to a place where she understood how much harder it looked from a child’s eye view to be a parent. He doubted it somehow; even after he’d become a father himself, he’d never really forgiven his own father for his failures as a parent.

He was sternly beckoned. “Agent Malone, I’m sure you won’t take this the wrong way when I say how little pleasure it gives me to see you again.”

Jack resignedly followed the tall, silver-haired doctor into his examination room. He remembered from before that Roberts walked with a slight stoop, reminding him of a question mark slightly bowed by its own weight, but something had aged him out of all proportion and his face looked seamed with suffering. “I have a few routine questions…” he began.

Roberts glanced at him dismissively from over half-moon spectacles. “Really? Shouldn’t you be up at the homestead by now, asking Frank Ryan when he stopped beating his wife?”

“I think Mr. Ryan, like most anxious parents, came to understand that our main concern was for his daughter’s welfare and any questions we asked him which he may at the time have found distressing were necessary so that we could eliminate him as a suspect in our enquiries and move on.”

“Move on to what, Agent Malone?” Roberts demanded. “Four years later and Margaret Ryan is still missing.”

“And now Mary Ryan is also missing and I would appreciate any help you can give me in finding her. I understand she received a letter from this surgery a few days before her disappearance. Could you shed some light on that?”

“Why? Do you have some evidence to suggest that she left willingly?”

“I really need to know the contents of that letter.”

“Well, I’m really not happy about revealing confidential medical information without my patient’s permission, especially when it can have no possible bearing upon your investigation.”

Jack thought that he could hardly tell Danny and Martin to be polite despite all possible provocation and then not practice what he preached, but it was an effort. “I’m afraid you really are going to have to let me be the judge of that. We’re not the enemy here. We want to find Mary Ryan and we both know that the sooner we find her, the greater likelihood there is of finding her alive, now, we’re talking about a woman who left the house with no purse, no credit cards, no cell phone, no means of obtaining any money. She’s also heavily pregnant and extremely vulnerable. I’m sure that you want to do everything you can to help us find her.”

Roberts looked slightly abashed. “Of course.”

“You’ve seen her recently?”

“I haven’t as I’ve been away on extended medical leave but she was attended regularly by my locum. I’ve been looking at her records and she was in her about ten days ago for a routine check up.”

“And everything was fine? There was nothing to give him any cause for concern?”

“Nothing at all. She was in very good health and apart from feeling a little tired seemed to be coping with pregnancy very well.”

The snowflakes pattered softly on the window as if asking to be let in, the sound of the traffic muted by the double-glazing but still just audible whenever a car drove through the slush.

“Yet your surgery sent her a letter?”

“I’ve told you, it isn’t relevant to your case.”

Jack sensed there was more going on here than Roberts’ pre-existing dislike of him. “Is there an abnormality in the child?”

“Of course not, that could be relevant and I would have mentioned it.”

Jack picked up on the acerbic defensive note in the doctor’s tone and thought he understood. “There was some kind of mistake made…?”

The glare was icy but Roberts was yielding a little; defensive was better than offensive at least. “Both Frank and Mary had made it clear that the sex of the baby wasn’t important to them in itself, they just wanted to know so that they could prepare themselves either way. When a couple has already lost a child it’s a different experience for them having a child of the same gender or the opposite. As I have told you I was away on medical leave when the ultrasound was taken…”

Jack thought that if Viv had been with him she would surely have appreciated his – in his opinion – heroic self-restraint in not saying ‘Physician, heal thyself’.

“…person reading the ultrasound wasn’t as experienced as some of our other practitioners with the result that he...”

“Got it wrong?” Jack pressed.

Roberts glared at him. “Even at thirty-four weeks it isn’t as easy as is widely supposed to tell a labia from a penis.”

“I understand that difficulty can sometimes continue into adulthood, especially on Santa Monica Boulevard.”

“When I came back I looked at the ultrasound photograph in her file and saw at once that a mistake had been made. The letter informed Frank and Mary that we had now confirmed the sex of their baby to be male and stressed that reading an ultrasound was not an exact science and that we had told them that at the time of the reading.”

“You didn’t want to be sued for emotional distress by the Ryans when their baby was born and wasn’t the same sex as the child they’d already lost.”

“As you can see, there was nothing in that letter to precipitate an abduction.”

Jack couldn’t entirely stop that steely note creeping into his voice. “A woman who has lost her daughter thinks she’s going to have a little girl and is then told by letter that it’s a boy instead? And you don’t think this is relevant to our enquiry?”

“The news reports all said that she’d been abducted! What possible difference could the gender of her baby make – something that would be unknown to anyone except Frank and Mary Ryan and the staff at this medical facility – as to whether or not Mary was targeted for kidnap?”

“It goes to show state of mind, which may well have been seriously disturbed by such information delivered in such a fashion.”

Roberts put a hand up to his head. “I would not myself have suggested sending such information by letter but Doctor Keeley was not familiar with all aspects of the Ryans’ personal history and didn’t fully comprehend the significance…”

“Your surgery screwed up,” Jack told him shortly. “And you should have called in this information as soon as you knew Mary Ryan was missing.”


On his return to the motel room, he found the Honesdale PD had sent over the information from another three security tapes they had managed to scare up: a car with its license plates blacked out caught on the very edge of a security camera – an indeterminate dark-colored sedan; a shadowy glimpse of what could have been Mary in the passenger seat of the same car as it headed out of town; and a security camera from across the street from the hospital that had another view of what looked like Mary’s abduction, showing a partial face on her abductor and revealing him to be definitely male and around five feet nine or ten inches tall. Mary’s expression in the grainy security footage was a frozen blank. Even gazing at it for ten minutes straight, Jack couldn’t tell what she was feeling – fear, elation, it could have been either. Mary was someone whom he had never known to be anyone but a woman living without hope. For all he knew it hadn’t even been Margaret’s kidnapping that had made her that way; perhaps her abusive childhood had already done it; but he could never see a picture of her without thinking that he was looking at a spirit that had somehow been utterly crushed.

He started as the phone rang and looked at the caller ID. “Hey, Dannyboy. What do you have for me and why didn’t I get it three hours ago?”

“Jack, don’t start, I know we were supposed to be at Ryan’s by now but Phoebe Hinton, Margaret’s closest friend, was off sick and we had to drive all the way to her house, and another girl, Heather, was on a field trip and you don’t want to know how much driving I’ve done today especially as there are no road signs around here, I mean, none... But Phoebe’s a good witness. She didn’t really notice the guy but she was adamant that Margaret was excited on the day of her abduction and she said Margaret asked her what was a good present for a baby. Phoebe assumed at the time that her mom was pregnant again and Margaret was going to have a baby brother or sister but when she went missing she was so upset she forgot what Margaret had said. Another girl, Cathy Adcock, also said she thought Margaret was excited that day but thought maybe she’d been excited about meeting that guy who asked her for directions. The older girls at the bus stop are claiming to have seen a little more but they weren’t close with Margaret so I don’t know how much attention they were paying at the time and how influenced they were by wanting some attention now. One of them is ‘almost sure’ the car was a dark blue sedan, but she didn’t notice the license plate.”

“Any more on the guy? Did any of them get a good look at him?”

He could almost hear Danny smirking. “According to a girl called Celia Thorpe, who was nearly thirteen then and is sixteen now, he apparently looked a lot like Martin, but she’s not exactly what I’d call a reliable witness.”

“Why not?”

“Because she was way more interested in Martin than she was in remembering what that guy looked like and I think she only said she saw the guy so that she’d get Martin’s attention while she answered his questions.”

“Any chance this Celia girl could work with a sketch artist?”

“I’d say none at all. Her memory was hazy at best.”

“Did you show all the girls the photograph taken from the security video?”

“Yes, but the guy in that is so muffled up you can’t see much more than his eyes and frankly I wouldn’t have been able to recognize him even if he was Martin. Celia did say she couldn’t say it definitely wasn’t him, but that was much of a commitment as she was willing to give. So, I can bring Martin in for questioning, if you like, but I’ve got to tell you that Buster and I can both give him an alibi for the time of Mary’s abduction, so if you don’t advise that, I’m thinking this is a dead end. Celia didn’t remember the color of the car or the make of the car or what the driver was wearing, or if he was clean shaven or not, but she thinks he had blue eyes, so, it’s good to know she was concentrating on essentials.”

“Looked like Martin how exactly? Same coloring? Same height?”

“I don’t think she knows herself. I don’t know if she thought he looked like Martin before she saw Martin, or if seeing Martin when she was being asked about that guy made her think he looked like him. But if I had to make a guess I’d say he could possibly be about Martin’s height and build and age and coloring. I tried to nail her down a little but she just got vaguer. I don’t even know if she saw the guy, to be honest, and I think she was ready to say she saw Margaret abducted, an alien spaceship landing, and Elvis singing live at the Coco cabaña if it would get her Martin’s cell phone number.”

“What does Martin think?”

“He didn’t even notice the girl was hitting on him. He wrote everything down and gave her a nice smile while she twisted her finger in her hair and asked for his number in case she remembered anything else, like at night, when she was all aloooone.”

Jack’s mouth twitched despite himself as Danny drew out those vowels seductively.

“Supposing she did see the guy and supposing that – adolescent hormones aside – her recollection is accurate, what she’s saying is she saw is a guy in his early thirties, of medium height, medium build, and medium coloring whose only distinguishing feature is being possibly good looking enough to attract a second glance from a cold, bored, thirteen year old girl?”

“That’s pretty much it.”

“Well, it was a long shot at best.” If the description from the girl at the bus stop was hazy it did at least not contradict the evidence of the security camera footage either from four years before or the ones just sent over by the local PD.

He heard the clunk of the car door and the sound of Martin saying breathlessly: “Man, it’s cold out there. Next time, you can get the coffee and I’ll call Jack.”

“You don’t have time for coffee,” Jack told them. “Get up that damned mountain before it’s dark.”

A stifled yelp suggested that the volume of his suggestion had made at least one of them spill hot coffee on himself. “We can drink while we’re driving…” Martin called across and Jack heard the sound of a hastily turned ignition, the jeep roaring into confident life

He filled them in on the other developments as well as he could as Martin drove and Danny seemed to be sucking his thumb mournfully, presumably where he’d scalded it.

“And the local police have come back down to Unity so you’re going to have Ryan to yourselves. Apparently there’s a bad storm brewing and they don’t want to be caught in it so I gave them permission to leave. Which is why I’m ever so nicely suggesting you get up there as soon as possible before I have to send out Search and Rescue to find you huddled in a snowdrift somewhere.”

“You think that might be enough to push Mary over the edge?” Danny pressed. “Finding out what she thought was a baby girl was a baby boy?”

“If she was hoping for a replacement for Margaret, it may have been a crushing disappointment. It’s another of those pieces of the puzzle that doesn’t seem to fit with anything else but could be important.”

Glancing out of the window, he didn’t like the look of the snow building up. “I’ll let you know what Vivian and Samantha find out as soon as I hear from them. Anything from Ryan, pass it on right away.”

“Will do.” He could heard the sound of the engine and the swish of the wipers in the background and imagined Danny and Martin on the track to what felt like nowhere, the snow a white smear on their windshields, whoever was driving – he presumed that was Martin – peering through a fog of white.

“Don’t even think about driving back down that road at nighttime.” Jack heard that note in his voice that made Viv look at him with narrowed eyes and tried to correct: “Please. If Ryan won’t let you crash in his place, sleep in the car, but don’t try driving. That track wasn’t designed to be negotiated in darkness.”

“Yes, Dad,” Danny told him solemnly.

Jack heard a slight muffling from inside their car as Danny evidently put his hand over the phone and Martin said in the background: “Ask Jack if we get a helicopter to pick us up if we get snowed in.”

“You ask. I got us the last helicopter ride.”

“Just ask him.”

Danny came back to the phone. “Jack, if we get snowed in…”

“No,” Jack assured him. “You don’t get a helicopter ride even if you get snowed in. You just get to be cold and hungry, so make sure that you don’t get snowed in, okay? Keep in touch.” He switched off the phone and found his smile fading from his face. All this information and none of it leading towards anything. They had worked for a day and a night now, relentlessly focused on nothing but this case, and yet Mary Ryan was still missing and they seemed no closer to finding her.

***

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