elgrey: Artwork by Suzan Lovett (DannyMartin)
[personal profile] elgrey


Viv had been watching Samantha covertly as they disembarked from the plane and had noticed how the closer they got to this town the tenser she became. It was cold here, of course, even colder than New York, and at the first spit of snow-laden wind, Samantha seemed to turn a whole shade paler. Viv thought she looked brittle as a white birch frosted to its heartwood, as if she had no defense here against the elements or anything else. When a strand of her damp blond hair lashed against her cheek, Samantha shivered as if a corpse had just caressed her.

It was left to Viv to present their credentials to the local deputy who had been sent to pick them up and make small talk with him as he escorted them to his patrol car, while Sam gripped her luggage handle as if it were a lifeline and almost snapped at the guy when he offered to take it from her.

“Nervous flyer?” the young deputy murmured to Viv.

She smiled at him. “Something like that.”

In the back of a patrol car that smelt of sweat and vomit she rested a hand on Samantha’s arm and felt her jump before Samantha’s hand came up a little hesitantly to cover hers in return. Viv patted it gently but could feel her practically reverberating with tension. It was a relief when the call came through from Jack.

“So, how about an update?” he asked.

Viv smiled at his predictability, recognizing that he had ideas he wanted to bounce off them and was probably also bored and lonely in Unity by himself. “We just arrived and don’t know anything yet. We’re being driven to the local police station to talk to the sheriff. Samantha spoke to him on the phone before we flew out here and he says he remembers Ryan and Gallagher and is happy to give us any information we want. He’s also going to put us in touch with a schoolteacher who taught Clare and Mary and her brother. Did Danny and Martin arrive at Ryan’s okay?”

“They’re still on their way, they were a little sidetracked by snowstorms and schoolgirls. Let me tell you what I’ve got so far. Can Sam hear this?”

Viv held the phone between them. “She can now.”

They both listened as Jack related all he had so far. Samantha nodded intently. “So, you’re definitely thinking the second letter Mary received must have told her the number of the stolen cell phone that she needed to call?”

“Well, it’s the best theory I have at the moment. The timeline we’re looking at now is that Mary received a letter from the doctor’s surgery informing her that, contrary to what she had previously been told, her unborn child was a boy. According to the records at the surgery, that was sent out five days ago. No idea if it has any bearing on her disappearance or not, but it’s part of the timeline. Two days later the cell phone is stolen that Mary later calls from the hospital. On the day of her disappearance she receives a letter, written by someone who was either a child – but not Margaret, who could write well – or someone who is either dyslexic or educationally subnormal. Clare Hope’s background information has come through and she grew up in the same trailer park as the Gallaghers. She’s thirty-three and she has a record, all the usual convictions that go with being a crack addict – petty theft, soliciting, as well as the eighteen months she did for possession, but nothing for the past ten years so she may have cleaned herself up or just flown under the radar. I’m sending through her arrest photo and what we have from DMV so you can take a look when you get to the sheriff’s office.”

“From petty theft to kidnapping is quite a step up,” Viv put in.

“I know. But a successful kidnapping would pay for a lot of crack.”

“Jack, that theory doesn’t explain why there was never a ransom asked for Margaret.”

“I know. It’s bothering me too.”

Samantha leaned across to say: “We’re seeing a teacher who taught all three of them later, she should be able to tell us if Clare was dyslexic.”

“Well, Clare never finished high school.” Jack seemed to be checking the girl’s record as he relayed it to them. “So, she could have some kind of reading disorder or she could just have had an alcoholic mother, an abusive father, a bad start, and the odds stacked against her.”

“I can buy this girl maybe trying to extort money from Mary by sending her a letter in which she claims to have information about Margaret,” Viv said thoughtfully. “If she’s back on the drugs, she’s probably looking for easy money, and as someone who grew up in Indemnity she would be more likely to know about the kidnapping of Margaret even if she had no part in it. What I don’t get is why Mary would contact her.”

“That’s what you’re thinking?” Jack pressed.

Viv shrugged. “Well, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence, does it? Mary receives a letter from the doctor’s. Then two days later Clare steals a cell phone and sends Mary a letter with the number of the cell phone and presumably some kind of plan of action and Mary fakes false labor to get a lift to the hospital as soon as her husband is out of the way. I’m scenting a missing contact there between Mary and Clare. Who’s looking into the phone records?”

“Danny and Martin have them. Martin has already got the office working on some number that either Ryan or Mary called a few days before Mary disappeared.”

“But the person who met Mary at the hospital wasn’t Clare Hope,” Samantha put in. “It was presumably Clare’s accomplice, which – as he matches the description of the guy who took Margaret – suggests that Clare was involved in that crime as well. I think the letter from the doctor is irrelevant.”

“Maybe this is the same scam tried twice.” Viv could almost hear the wheels in Jack’s head going around. “Maybe they tried this with Margaret and something went wrong. They keep their heads down for a few years but then they decide to go back to the well.”

“Mary doesn’t have any way to access Ryan’s money,” Viv pointed out. “She would probably be the easiest touch but her wanting to pay up doesn’t help them much when she can’t get at the cash.”

“But Ryan would pay a ransom if it was asked, I’m sure of that.”

“Are we absolutely certain that Ryan never paid up last time?” Samantha was making rapid notes as she talked. “You said you thought he was certain his daughter was alive and it sounds as if he never had much patience with federal authority.”

“I had Martin go through his bank records again last night and he couldn’t find any big withdrawals. Not to mention the fact he was under twenty-four hour surveillance.”

“But it fits the guy you described psychologically.” Already Samantha looked less brittle and more animated. “He didn’t believe anyone could know better than him the right way to handle this. He could have borrowed it for all we know. Anyone who knew him would know he was good for it.”

“But there’s no evidence of that having happened. Only of Mary possibly having been contacted by Clare.”

Viv sighed. “And we still have no explanation for why Mary would contact Clare after she received that letter from the surgery – if that’s what she did.”

“I think that’s a jump we can’t make yet until Martin finishes going through those phone records. We know Mary was told her child was a boy but we don’t have any witness to tell us how she received that news. We’re assuming it would have upset her but for all we know she really didn’t mind. But I think it’s a fair assumption that Clare Hope stole the cell phone and then wrote to Mary giving her the number because Mary knew that number somehow, and as soon as she received that letter she put her plan into action.”

Viv shook her head. “The letter arrived on a day when Ryan wouldn’t see it because he had left early for market, Jack. That’s too much of a coincidence for me. Either whoever wrote to Mary knew the Ryans’ routine or Mary told Clare what day to write to her.”

“We’re missing something.” She could hear Jack tapping his pen against the table, a nervous rat-a-tat-tat of mental energy needing an outlet. “But your instincts were good on this, Sam. I think you’re where you need to be to get the answers. Dig into Clare Hope’s background and anyone else Mary was friends with in that town. Find out what kind of people they were. I’ll get Danny and Martin to ask Ryan about Clare as well, see what he remembers about her.”

“They didn’t get anything new from the school kids?”

Viv listened as Jack related to her what Danny and Martin had found out. She smirked a little and saw Sam do the same but Viv shook her head over his last conclusion. “No, Jack, a teenage girl saying that a guy ‘looks like Martin’ doesn’t mean she thinks he’s of average height and build, trust me on this.”

“Yeah, I get that he would also be good looking.” Jack sounded a little put out that they would think him too stolidly inhibited by his y-chromosomes to grasp that. “I’ve noticed people checking Martin out. I’ve noticed them checking Danny out, too, and how they don’t do that for me so much any more – except for the really weird ones – but I’m trying to bear up.”

Sam leaned across and said clearly: “They mean the guy was seriously cute, Jack.”

Viv nodded. “Exactly, although I’d probably go for ‘boyishly handsome’ myself.”

“I can’t put out an APB on a guy on the grounds that he’s ‘cute’. I need some kind of physical description apart from his rating as a hottie. But if you want to look through a few school year books in Indemnity and see if any of those high school boys Clare Hope may have dated look like likely prospects then be my guest. Keep me in the loop and remember I’m stuck here, eating take out and being looked at by everyone in town like I skin kittens for fun, so, be kind and call often.”

“Any luck on that DNA test?” Samantha asked.

“The lab is fast-tracking it but no answer as yet.”

“Tell Danny and Martin to drive safely,” she added.

Viv looked at her sideways as she hung up the phone. “You really want to be encouraging Jack in his paranoia?”

“I think it would have made more sense to send me to talk to Ryan, that’s all. I can be polite and charming and I can drive in bad weather a lot better than they can.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Martin grew up in Washington.”

“And what do you think the odds are that Martin – when he was growing up in Washington – used to regularly race his rusty pick-up against the cars of various no-good ex-boyfriends through blizzards in sub-zero temperatures?”

Viv considered the point for a very brief pause. “I’m thinking pretty slim.”

Samantha accepted her capitulation graciously. “I rest my case.”

***

As they drove past another aggressively timbered cabin in the middle of what looked suspiciously like nowhere, Martin looked around uneasily. “Did we just slip back in time a hundred years?”

“I tell you, I see a kid playing a banjo, we’re out of here,” Danny warned him.

The snow had fallen everywhere, glittering on fallen trees. The properties they passed were few and far between, and the woods were breathtakingly beautiful but also eerily silent. A cobweb glittered on a frosted fern and Martin could almost feel the earth hardening, turning to iron as the long winter chill set in. “Long way to the nearest store if you run out of milk.”

Danny shrugged. “I imagine they bulk buy.”

“I hope so, because if we get snowed in up there I don’t want things to go Donner Party. Can you try the office again? See if they’ve made any progress with that number?”

“What number?”

“When I checked all incoming and outgoing calls to Ryan’s house around the time of Margaret’s disappearance and this last month, there’s one Appleton number that shows up both times. I’m waiting for a call back on whose number it is but it wouldn’t do any harm to give them a little push.”

Danny obligingly did so, listened intently, and then straightened up. Martin could see at once that his partner had heard something more than unusually interesting, nodding as he encouraged whomever it was on the end of the phone to go on. Martin tried to concentrate on the road. For all the excellent grip of the tires and the four wheel drive, it was still hard work driving on this track; the snow was starting to freeze beneath the wheels, the snow slanting across the windshield and proving a constant battle for the overworked wipers. His shoulders were starting to feel locked in position and he forced himself to try to relax, wondering if he were up to this, as the wheels slid and then gripped again, kicking off from another jut of rock that made the whole vehicle jolt and dip.

Even a month before, it would have hurt like hell to attempt this rough a road; his guts would have turned to fire as each rut spiked through him like a sword; now it was just a faint twinge of reproach from muscles that were still learning to trust each other again, all the same he wished he’d been slightly less adamant that it was his turn to drive.

Danny’s brown eyes were shining as he ended the call. “Fitzie, my boy, you’ve got something. They were just about to call Jack with it, finally – something that connects Mary’s disappearance with Margaret’s kidnapping that isn’t a half-assed description or a grainy bit of videotape. Like you said, a week before Margaret went missing, Mary Ryan made a call to a number in Appleton, Wisconsin. The day she received the letter from the doctor’s surgery telling her about the sex of her baby, Mary called the same number. The place in question is run by a guy called Garret Davidson who runs a kind of semi-legitimate halfway house for ex-junkies, battered wives, and runaway kids. According to the records, Jack and Viv went up there and interviewed him last time. I’ll call Jack and get some background.”

Martin tried to concentrate on his driving while the snow blew onto the windshield. The snow was changing from spits of dry white powder to a barrage of thick wet flakes falling aslant across his line of sight. He looked to his left and saw the valley falling away from the track more and more steeply. If a deer jumped out of in front of them now, he didn’t think he was going to be able to keep the Humvee on the road. He darted a glance at Danny to check that he was wearing his seatbelt, saw that he was, and then, unable to help that spark of anxiety that spiraled up from his guts – from either the gunshot wound or the place where the pills had used to live – leaned across and tugged at the belt just to check that it was secure.

Danny slapped the back of his hand. “Do you mind? No, not you, Jack. It’s Martin, copping a feel. I don’t know. I guess he’s been out of the dating game too long.” He turned to Martin to say clearly: “Yes, my seatbelt is secure. Now, will you keep your eyes on the road?” He turned back to the phone. “I knew I shouldn’t have let him drive. What’s that about Davidson…?”

The track twisted around another blind bend, frosted trees looming close, and Martin tried not to think about what he was going to do if they met another vehicle. There had been no passing place for more than a mile and trying to back up along this track was going to be a nightmare. The jeep jolted violently over another axle-shaking rut and he flinched in anticipation of the pain spiking through his guts. It was difficult not to imagine the pills in his hand, their surface slightly tacky from the sweat on his palm, then the crunch of them on his tongue, bitter and necessary, that hit to his system that made everything feel so much better. He could have driven more efficiently with them in his system, the tension in his shoulders would have relaxed, his guts would not have been coiled in readiness for the next jolt of discomfort, he would have been more confident, accelerating into the bends to keep the traction instead of braking the way he was doing now, inhibited by the fear of how much it was going to hurt if the jeep went over, the horror of more hospitalization, more pain, being pushed back down to the base of the greasy pole of physiotherapy and pain-relief all over again. The spark of resentment rose up that Danny had stopped him self-medicating, only to be immediately followed by a cringe of self-loathing at that delusional voice of justification still whispering in his ear. He had hoped it was gone forever, but no doubt it never truly went away, just waiting for the next opportunity to demonstrate how weak he truly was.

His fingers were white on the steering wheel, tension making every stone under the wheels jolt up through his wrists to his elbows to his shoulders, each vibration shuddering through his muscles and tendons to stab down his spine.

“Martin…?” He risked a look at Danny and the man was gazing at him with those all-seeing brown eyes of his. Danny lowered his hand pointedly. “Relax,” he ordered.

Martin took a deep breath and rotated his shoulders as well as he could, slackening his death-grip on the wheel until his skeleton no longer felt locked into the vehicle’s suspension.

“No, Jack, it’s nothing. This track is just a joke. If I’d known it was this bad… No, he’s fine. No, we’re not going to end up in a ditch. I promise you you’re not going to have to get Search and Rescue out to look for us, okay? We’re good. Go on with what you were saying.”

Another bend and this time he made himself accelerate into it, feeling the tires bite hard, the engine push them around confidently, the wipers rhythmically battling the fall of soft white flakes. He reminded himself that this was the kind of terrain this vehicle was built for; that Ryan had been driving up and down this track three times a week for the past twelve years without a single accident. The mailman made this journey every other day and no one had died yet. He rotated his shoulders again, breathing deeply, in through the nose, out through the mouth, blinking hard to concentrate. The pills wouldn’t have made him drive better, they would have just taken him to a place where he would have felt immortal and untouchable, where he could almost have got Danny killed, again.

“You okay?”

He risked a look at Danny to find the man gazing at him without judgment, eyes kind. The phone was closed so he must have finished his conversation with Jack.

“Fine. Get anything from Jack about Davidson?”

“A whole bunch of stuff. You sure you don’t want me to drive the rest of the way?”

Martin shook his head. “I’m good. Tell me what Jack said?”

“Okay. Jack says Davidson sees a lot of the kids who get into trouble as having been let down by the state.”

“Doesn’t everyone?” Martin observed.

“He runs his own de-tox programs and employs some pretty tough methods.” Danny shot Martin a brief worried glance that Martin guessed he probably wasn’t supposed to see. “Sedates them while they go cold turkey and then keeps them more or less a prisoner until they’re clean again. Apparently he really lets them have it if they start using again.”

Martin thought about being cuffed to a bed in a doss-house somewhere, whimpering for a fix while a guy with the attitude of a marine sergeant major told him he was weak and pathetic for having succumbed to addiction and he could only get out when he was clean. He was glad he hadn’t had to go through that and grateful to Sam and Danny for intervening when they had.

Danny was still talking: “They have to give their consent first, but a few of them have described it as hell on earth. Others think the guy is a living saint. But he’s got no time for the police or for social services. He’s taken in kids who’ve run away from foster care and hidden them when social services come looking and he’s let mothers whose kids were about to be forcibly taken into care hide out in one of his safe houses until they’re clean so they can keep their kids. Women who have broken orders not to take their kids over state lines have hidden out there, and so have women in unproven spousal abuse cases. He’s not that well loved by the local law enforcement but he’s very popular with the people he’s helped.”

“Sounds like the kind of place Clare Hope might know all about.” Martin gazed out at the wintry woods, feeling a sudden unwelcome stab of identification with someone who had let her life spiral out of control. At least Clare had the excuse of an abusive childhood and an alcoholic mother. What was his excuse? ‘My father never hugged me?’

“She does. Davidson’s is the address she gives on her DMV registration.”

Martin absorbed that, feeling the familiar flicker of excitement when unconnected strands finally began to weave themselves into a pattern. “In the case of Margaret’s disappearance, did Mary Ryan give Jack and Viv an explanation for why she was calling a place like that?”

“Yeah, there’s a whole lot of follow up. I don’t think Jack and Viv missed anything, you know. They did everything right – they just couldn’t find the girl.”

“I know.” Martin had thought that, too, as he went through the old files. The only mistake he could see that Jack had made had been in concentrating so many of his resources on checking up on Ryan but it wasn’t as if he’d left other stones unturned or not explored other possibilities. As always, Jack had been thorough to the point of obsessive. What he and Viv had done should have been enough to pick up Margaret’s trail, and yet the girl was still out there, or – more likely – dead and her murderer never found. It was no wonder that Jack was still haunted by this case.

“Okay. Mary was questioned about the call and she said that she’d been left two messages by an old school friend who had been trying to get in touch with her. The messages had supposedly been left by a Grace Lynch – although Mary said she hadn’t spoken to the woman and she’d deleted the messages after writing down the number they said to call. A check of the phone records revealed that someone using the payphone at Davidson’s place had called twice and on both occasions must have left a message, as the calls were only a couple of minutes long. Mary missed the call both times but had listened to the messages and, after the second one, had tried to call back. She said that the messages had been in reference to this Grace Lynch trying to arrange a school reunion and calling around everyone who had graduated in her year.”

“Cause that’s what you do when you’re in rehab – arrange school reunions.” Martin braked as they hit another blind bend and the jeep slid a few inches before the tires bit into the rutted surface and he could correct. “Sounds more like the woman was trying to touch Mary for money.”

“Yes, except there was a Grace Lynch who’d been at school with Mary, but when Jack and Viv contacted Grace she said she hadn’t been in touch with Mary in years and certainly hadn’t called her from rehab. She was pretty prickly about it because apparently she’s a devout Christian and pillar of the local church, who does a lot of charity work; definitely not the sort to be trying to get money out of anyone unless it was by knocking on the door and asking for a donation for the church roof. And when the second call came through, it was a Sunday morning. Mary had stayed home from church because she didn’t feel well, but Grace was singing in the choir in her church and had a hundred witnesses that could place her there. At the time, of course, there was nothing to connect Mary to Clare Hope, and Jack and Viv believed what Mary told them. They also believed Grace Lynch, but figured someone had been taking her name in vain while trying to scam money out of Mary.”

“Man, this case is giving me a headache.” Martin had started reaching for the Tylenol before he realized what he was doing and grimaced.

“It’s okay to take an aspirin, Martin.” He wondered how Danny always knew him so well. “Aspirin isn’t an opiate and it isn’t addictive. It’s also good for your heart although, given the beating your small intestine has taken this year, I wouldn’t take more than two.”

“It’s okay.” Martin managed a wan smile and pinched the bridge of his nose, wondering how much reading Danny had done so he could be there to sponsor him with information and support during moments like this. “It’s just been a long couple of days. Get back to the phone call.”

“The call that Mary placed, supposedly trying to follow up on the messages left by the fake Grace Lynch, was twenty minutes long, but Mary explained that by saying that a child had answered the phone and then wandered off, supposedly to look for Grace, but then hadn’t come back, so she had waited and waited for someone to answer her and then given up. Which was plausible, given that Mary was kind of shy and the type to just sit there and wait, according to Viv, and Davidson’s place is totally chaotic and full of little kids running around who could just pick up the phone.”

Martin could feel the cogs in his brain going around while the headache from the snow stabbed between them, like light through the creaking sails of a windmill. “But now she’s called there on two occasions, both of which have coincided with an abduction.”

“Yes. Jack and Viv took a look at it because it was the only connection Mary and Ryan had to anyone who would remotely qualify as a low-life, but nothing about Mary suggested she was culpable in Margaret’s kidnapping.”

“Especially as Mary made no attempt to join Margaret after her disappearance and stayed with Ryan – apparently happily, as she is now carrying his child.”

“According to Jack, when he and Viv questioned Davidson four years ago he wasn’t exactly helpful. He said that he had people passing through all the time and whoever was nearest to the phone would answer it. He had no idea if Mary had called or who she was calling for and he wouldn’t have told them if he did.”

“Did someone mention impeding a federal investigation and what the penalties were?”

Danny shrugged. “He basically told them to sit on it and swivel. As far as he’s concerned we’re all part of the problem that turns girls and boys from low income homes into drug mules and crack whores, and in a perfect world we’d be the ones shooting up in an alley and serve us all right.”

“Nice guy.” Martin felt more than a little aggrieved. “The idea that we help people for a living hasn’t ever occurred to him?”

“Apparently the only people we ever get off our lazy fat federal asses to look for are rich white girls whose fathers have a seat in the senate.”

“Well, I wish someone had given me that memo because I seem to have spent an awful lot of time looking for people outside our official remit.”

“You and me both. But I think we’re getting somewhere. We need Viv and Sam to check out Davidson’s place as soon as they finish in Indemnity….”

Martin concentrated on driving while Danny called Vivian, his mind automatically wrestling with the case even as he fought against a cutting east wind and blinding flurries of snow. The timeline was getting filled in. Five days before her disappearance, Mary had been informed that her baby was not a girl but a boy. The same day she had placed a call to the halfway house run by Davidson to talk to person or persons unknown but whom he was assuming was probably Clare Hope. Two days later, Clare had stolen a cell phone and the day after that someone had posted a letter to Mary that she had received on the following morning, which Martin was going to assume contained the number for the cell phone that Mary had dialed from the hospital. Mary had opened the letter and then called a neighbor, asking her to take her to the hospital in Honesdale, a three-hour drive from where she knew her husband was going to be. She had then dialed the number of the cell phone and conversed with them for seventeen minutes, and despite the fact her husband could not be reaching her for hours, seemed to have gone outside of her own volition, presumably to meet with the person holding that cell phone. Seventeen minutes…

Martin touched Danny on the arm. “Danny, if she was talking to them for seventeen minutes, doesn’t that suggest that whoever she called – Clare Hope’s accomplice or whoever he was – was only seventeen minute’s journey from the hospital? Either sitting in a car or staying in a motel? We may not have a picture of the guy good enough to flash around but what about Clare Hope? We have her DMV picture and her mug shot. And maybe there was another person in the car? Maybe Mary was talking to her or him while the driver drove to the hospital to pick her up.”

Danny gave him one of those slightly pitying looks that always made Martin bristle like a cat near static – he always perceived those as the ‘poor little rich boy’ looks. Danny said: “Because kidnappers really care about violating the laws on talking on a cell phone while a vehicle is in motion?”

“Could you take five minutes off from being a smartass and admit it’s a possibility?”

Danny turned back to the phone. “Vivalina, I gotta go. I need to call Jack. Yeah, tell Sam very funny and I’ll tell him.” Danny ended one call and speed-dialed the next, adding conversationally: “Sam says she hopes you’re wearing your long johns.”

“Silk boxers.” Martin braked fifteen feet before the bend and then accelerated hard, pleased when he felt in control all the way around the snake-like turn.

“Me too.” Danny apparently became aware that Jack was listening in. “It’s not what it seems. No, Martin and I aren’t in the habit of… Look, it was Sam who brought up the underwear question…never mind. I’m calling because Martin thinks it’s worth showing Clare Hope’s picture around, see if she was in the area, too. And it would make sense that Mary would be more willing to get into a car if she thought there was another woman in it, whether she’s trying to get information about her daughter or up to something else entirely.”

As Danny switched on the speaker setting, Martin could hear Jack’s voice coming through: “I’ve already got the locals showing her picture to every motel and gas station in the area. If someone saw her we might get a better description of the guy she’s with. I’d lay odds he’s on record somewhere. I’d like to know if the guy is capable of murder.”

“No dirt on Clare Hope from Indemnity?” Martin asked.

“Not yet. But Sam and Viv are going to pay a visit to the schoolteacher who taught Clare after they speak to Stapleton. Let me know when you get to Ryan’s and drive safely, okay?”

Danny smirked in tolerant amusement and then switched off the phone, turning to Martin with a shrug. “Jack really needs to get some help for that paranoia.”

Another flurry of snow dashed itself across the windshield as the jeep lurched bouncily over a boulder, landing with a jolt that practically unseated their back teeth. Martin flinched more in anticipation of pain than actual discomfort but felt Danny’s searching gaze upon him in an instant. “You okay?”

“Yeah, it’s fine, it’s just this road is…not a road. I’m not sure it even qualifies as a track. Ryan has all that money and he’s happy to rip out his axle every few months?”

“It would put off most casual visitors, wouldn’t it?”

“Well, I’d think twice before I dropped round to borrow a cup of sugar.” The day was darkening around them, and Martin had to wrestle with another boulder jutting out of the ridges in the track. The slender end branches of a fallen tree had fanned across the track and the jeep jolted over them, the fir fingers rattling the underside of the vehicle beneath their feet, while to his left the woods fell away in a steep slope, a world misted with snow flurries through which the trees could be glimpsed as dark silhouettes. “Do you think Mary Ryan felt like a prisoner up here?”

Danny hung onto the side of the jeep as they bounced over more stones, wheels slipping on the slush and then biting hard on the frozen earth beneath. “Maybe she liked the quiet.”

“I like the quiet,” Martin pointed out. “I like hiking. I like solitude. I like the great outdoors, and this place is already creeping me out.”

As the snow dashed itself against the windshield again, Martin tightened his grip on the steering wheel, reminded himself that even this track eventually had to end, and that even still flinching in anticipation of pain every time a vehicle jolted on a rough road was a lot better than actually being in pain – and that almost anything was better than still being an addict spiraling into a pit of inevitable self-destruction….

***

In the organized clutter of the tiny sheriff’s office, Bradley Bennett, the sheriff of Indemnity himself, was helpful and articulate, and although his deputy, Gary, was slightly less articulate he was no less eager to be helpful. Bennett was wearing very well for a man of forty-four and could easily have passed for five years younger. He had fair hair only just starting to turn gray, and hazel eyes. He was wearing jeans, boots, and a thick sweater and looked comfortable in his body and in his job. He reminded Samantha a little painfully of various long-legged handsome no-goods she’d more than crushed on as a teenager. “You girls going to solve our unsolved murders for us?” he asked, as if he would have been grateful if they would.

“Not why we’re here,” Viv told him kindly.

“That’s what Malone said last time.” Bennett poured them both hot black coffee as if there could be no question that this was what was needed in this kind of weather. There was a hot air fan standing on a table that ruffled the clippings and leaflets on the notice board as it turned in a slow circle, favoring them equally with a blast of welcome warmth.

“Sorry.” Samantha took the coffee gratefully. “We’re looking for Mary Ryan.”

“Nice girl,” Bennett supplied at once. “So was her mother by all accounts. Walter Coredon – the sheriff before me – always said he never knew what Mary’s mother was thinking of – marrying a no-good waste of a human life like Jake Gallagher.”

“He looked like a handsome man,” Viv shrugged. “Sometimes that’s enough.”

“Well, you girls ought to start looking past the surface packaging to what’s underneath before it gets you all in trouble.”

Sam was getting ready to bristle about being called a ‘girl’ by a man younger than Jack, but Viv just gave him a tolerant smile and said: “I think a ‘girl’ can ask for both.”

“She can ask all she likes but she ain’t necessarily going to find both around here,” Gary the helpful deputy observed. His ears were a little on the wingy side and it took Sam a few looks at him before she realized that Danny’s were probably even wingier and she thought his were nothing other than attractive; they were just part of what made Danny…Danny.

Samantha gave him her best brittle smile. “You boys are selling yourselves too short.”

“You from around here?” Bennett asked at once. “I’m not picking up an accent but you’ve got the attitude.”

“Kenosha, and I worked hard to ditch that accent so…thank you.”

“You liking it better in New York then?”

“I’m liking that I can wear lingerie that isn’t tube socks and flannel pajamas all the year round.”

Viv snorted and Sam turned to her. “You think I’m kidding? Where I come from we define ‘summer’ as three months of bad sledding.”

Bennett beamed at her affectionately. “You are a local girl.”

“We’d be grateful for anything you can give us on the Ryans and the Gallaghers, and also a girl called Clare Hope.” Viv sat down in the chair the deputy pulled out for her chivalrously, giving him a smile of gratitude while he hurried to get her another cup of coffee.

“The Ryans are simple enough. No scandals there. Always been farmers, and always worked that area around their thousand acres since Jarvis Ryan started building it up back in eighteen something or other. All tall men, regular church goers, nothing much to say about them. But Jake Gallagher was born bad, if you ask me. Beat his wife, beat his kids, always drunk as a skunk, worked his wife into the ground – because those kids would have starved if she hadn’t worked every hour God gave her. The times the neighbors called old Walt out because Jake was smacking her around again.” He shook his head. “She would never press charges – deeply Christian woman, reckoned she had to stick with him whatever he did, because they were joined together in the eyes of God. She was a good woman and she deserved a better life than the one she had. Just hoping she got her reward in the next life cause she sure didn’t get it in this one.”

“Couldn’t Social Services do anything?” Samantha pressed.

Bennett shrugged. “The kids were trained to say they’d slipped or walked into a door or whatever. Reckon kids are like dogs sometimes, you kick them all you like, you show them one moment of kindness a week and they’re so grateful they still think they love you. He was the only pa they had, I guess they didn’t know they deserved better. Least when they were younger, when he got out of prison, I’m thinking things were different after that. They didn’t want much to do with him then.”

Viv checked her notes. “When Jake Gallagher killed Haley Stapleton, Mary would have been eleven?”

“And Nate was nine. Their poor mother died three years later when Mary was fourteen and Nate was twelve. They were put into foster homes, and, although Mary was a good girl, Nate was always getting in trouble. Some of the foster parents who had them showed the patience of saints but Nate was just too disruptive, and although they all said they would have kept Mary no problem at all, she wouldn’t be where her brother wasn’t, and he was already using and dealing drugs and stealing cars and generally being a punk. He got sent to juvenile hall for a year for stealing a car from his last foster father and driving it when high as a kite. He was sixteen then and I think the whole town had washed their hands of him. By that time everyone was just waiting for Nate to graduate to career criminal.”

Samantha frowned. “But, according to the records we have, Nathan Gallagher was clean after he came out of Juvenile Hall. What happened?”

“Frank Ryan happened.” Bennett topped up Samantha’s coffee for her. “Mary married him the day after her eighteenth birthday and they’d been married a year when Nate was due to come out. A lot of people thought Ryan wouldn’t want Mary having anything to do with her brother but he was waiting for Nate when he got out of Juvie, took him back to that farm, told him he wasn’t going to have him going the same way as his old man and to shape up, and, boy, did that kid shape up.”

“No more trouble with the law after that?”

“None. And his school grades turned right around. No one ever saw him in town any more either, Ryan told him he went to school, he came back home again, and the rest of the time he was needed to work on the farm. No arguments. You’ve met Ryan?”

“I have,” Viv put in. “He’s an impressive man.”

Bennett nodded. “Very. And he must have impressed the heck out of Nate Gallagher because that kid went from being a monumental pain in the ass to being no trouble to anyone.”

“Any idea how he did that?”

Gary leaned forward, eager to be included. “I figure the kid must have wanted someone to say ‘enough’s enough’. You’d be surprised how often boys just need someone to draw a line in the snow for them and tell them they don’t step over it. All his father ever did was smack him around when he had too much to drink. He’d never made him do his schoolwork or do his chores or think about what came out of his mouth, never mind going to church on Sunday.”

“Mary must have been grateful to her husband for taking so much trouble with her brother.” Samantha still felt a slight sense of unease at Nathan Gallagher’s miraculous turn around from troubled teen to model citizen. Either Ryan was a genius who should market his ten step program to parents of teenage boys everywhere or…something else.

“I would have been if I’d been her.” Bennett reached for a file groaning at the hinges with yellowed newspaper clippings. “Sure I can’t interest you in solving our old murder cases for us?”

Viv kindly opened the file and Samantha craned her head to look at the pictures under the headlines ‘Another body found’; ‘Remains of Drifter, 27, found in ditch’, ‘Damian Harrison, aged 24, who had been seeking work in the Indemnity area was found murdered today on farmland…’ Samantha winced as she looked at their faces again. She had seen them before when researching this town, but they looked so lost in these clippings.

Viv turned the page curiously. “I can see why you’d like it solved.”

“Well, the guy must be dead by now so it’s not as if the law can touch him. He got away with it. They didn’t have the forensics in the old days that we have now, and it’s so long since there’s been a killing here that it’s not exactly a priority with anyone, but I’d just like to know…you know?”

“I know.” Samantha turned the next page, more young men gazing out at her from grainy photographs. “We hate unanswered questions as well.”

Viv winced at the description of the last hours of one of the victims. “When was the first killing?”

“Nineteen forty-six. Farmhand, found dead in a ditch. Of course, no one knew it was a serial killer back then. The law thought he must have been having a secret life of some kind, even though he had a wife and kids, because young men don’t tend to turn up dead and naked without cause –” Seeing their expressions, Bennett hastily amended: “That’s how they thought back then. Of course, when there was three or four a year, they soon realized there was something else happening. But the forensics back then weren’t like they are now and most of the men killed were drifters passing through in search of work; most of them didn’t have families to report them missing, and they were never found with much on them to help identify them, and a lot of the time they were so rotted when they were found it was hard to even work out who they were.”

“And you’re sure it was one man?”

Bennett snorted. “We’re not sure of anything. Some of the autopsies said they’d been killed by one man, some said two. They’d all been beaten half to death before they were killed and not just one beating, different sessions. Lot of them had been kept chained up somewhere and tortured, most of them had been raped.”

“But they weren’t usually local men?” Viv pressed.

“No. Mostly people passing through. Farmhands in the fifties, then in the sixties there used to be these hippies thumbing lifts across the country – well, they were easy meat. Half the time their parents didn’t know where they were anyway so there was plenty of time to get rid of them before anyone started looking. They were all love and peace and trusting everyone who offered them a lift. Same thing in the seventies. The previous sheriff – Walt – he did a lot of work on it and he reckoned the killer used to drive along the main road and check out anyone who was hitchhiking then hit some of the truck stops – some of those drivers were young guys, not too bright, grateful to have someone offer them a place to stay overnight that wasn’t the front seat of their cabs.”

Samantha turned another page and saw another half a dozen faces. Some of the newspapers hadn’t shown much restraint when it came to recounting the more graphic details of how the victims had died. Other than that they were all white and all relatively attractive, they didn’t seem to have that much in common with one another. Some were single, some married, some well educated, some barely literate, and their ages ranged from nineteen to thirty-six. “When did the killings stop?”

Bennett looked across at the deputy. “When was it? Seventeen years ago?”

“Eighteen years,” Gary confirmed. “The last victim was a truck driver called James Simpson, died July eighty eight. He was the last of them.”

“Did you check out people who’d died in that year or been sent to prison?” Viv asked.

Bennett snorted. “About a hundred times. There was an old guy called Craig Vincent that no one in town ever liked much. He got sick around that time and died a few years later. He was a loner and he used to kick his dog, but you can’t convict a man of being a serial killer for that. He was the one the late Sheriff thought was the most likely prospect. But there was also a guy in the next town along who his wife said was always out late at night and coming home at all hours. He had a nasty temper, used to hit her and his kids. He was another possibility.”

“No one ever escaped? No one ever reported seeing someone from around here giving a lift to a young man who later disappeared? Or no young man ever reported a man giving him a lift and then becoming violent?”

“Only Jake Gallagher. When he was about twenty-four, and already a no-good skunk who was making his wife’s life a misery. Said he was drunk one night, crashed his car, got out of it, with blood running down his face, didn’t know where he was or what he was doing. A truck pulled up, he got into it, the driver started talking to him, asking him where he was from, he realized he recognized the voice and said who he was and how they was neighbors of a kind, the guy stops the truck, kicks him out, says he doesn’t give lifts to men who hit women.”

“Who was it who gave him the lift?” Viv asked.

“Frank Ryan’s father, Frank Senior. Jake was insisting that Frank Senior was planning on abducting him but everyone knew that was just him getting back at Ryan ‘cause he wouldn’t give him a job.”

“No one thought Frank Ryan Senior was a serious suspect?”

Bennett emphatically shook his head. “He was a good man. Gave a lot of money to the church and to help women and children in need. Always said a man should cut off his own hand before he laid it on a woman. And even if he had been a suspect, he died in ninety eighty five, and the killings just kept right on happening.”

Viv sighed. “I’m sorry, Sheriff, I don’t think we’re going to be solving your serial killer case for you.”

“Figured as much.”

“What can you tell us about Deputy Stapleton?” Samantha pressed.

Bennett grimaced. “Oh, that was a tragedy. Before my time as sheriff, of course, but I remember it. Haley was in the same class as my little sister. Gallagher had no business ever being behind the wheel of a car; he had no head for liquor and he couldn’t drive worth a damn even when he was sober.”

“Did Harry Stapleton go on working as Deputy after his daughter’s death?”

“He was broken up, as you’d expect. And things were never the same between his wife and him. He did his best but it was just eating away at him all the time. And then Gallagher got himself killed in that car accident – and that was justice if ever I saw it – and I think we all hoped that Harry might be able to put it behind him and move on at last, now that the guy who’d killed his little girl was dead, but it was as if that was the last straw. He was never the same after that. He took early retirement and now he’s just holed up in that house all the time, not much better than a shut-in.”

Samantha made some more notes. “Can we have his address? We need to interview him.”

“Sure. Gary…” Bennett turned in his chair. “Can you get Agent Spade Harry’s address and Eileen Walker’s, too?” He turned back to Sam. “That’s the teacher I fixed up for you to see. She taught Mary and Nate Gallagher, she taught Clare Hope. She probably knows them a lot better than I did. All I can tell you about Clare Hope is that her ma took to drink in a big way, which was no surprise as her pa and Jake Gallagher went to the same school of parenting, another no-good drunken bastard who smacked her and her mother around; did worse than that to her as well I’ve always suspected. She ran away from a lot of foster homes, did drugs and probably dealt them too. She got eighteen months for possession. I think she was Nate’s supplier for a while which was why Frank Ryan stopped him seeing her in case she dragged him back down again. She and Nate grew up together then were put in some group home where they were both regarded as unplaceables and thought themselves the Romeo and Juliet of Indemnity for a while.”

“Until Nate got a brother-in-law who made him stay home in the evenings and do chores?” Samantha barely suppressed a smile. “That’s a little anti-climactic compared with secret marriages and suicide pacts.”

Bennett grinned. “I always thought so. Clare ran off when Nate was killed in that car accident and we didn’t hear anything about her for several years. And then it turns out she’s been getting herself through rehab and is cleaned up and married with a kid or something. As far as I know Clare’s still up at that halfway house place that Davidson and his boyfriend runs. That place is a Waco waiting to happen if you ask me. One day some angry husband whose wife is hanging out there is going to turn up with a shotgun, and all hell’s going to break loose.”

Viv sighed. “It was pretty chaotic when Jack and I were up there but the kids all seemed happy enough and so did the women hiding out there. They had a school set up and they were growing their own crops. Had some animals that the children looked after.”

“Yeah, on the surface it looks okay, but you don’t want to know how many low-lifes pass through that place. And a lot of those kids aren’t supposed to be taken out of the state where their fathers are, others are runaways that you guys are probably busting your balls trying to find, and Davidson doesn’t give a crap about little things like the process of law. He’s all for helping the oppressed and if you’re not with him you’re against him and probably a fascist redneck. I’ve had a couple of run-ins with him and as far as he’s concerned I’ve got it in for him because he’s gay; the fact that I don’t give a shit that he’s gay but I do give a shit about him always helping people to break the law – that’s never going to compute.”

“Do you think he’d do something criminal? Like helping with a kidnapping?”

Bennett considered the point. “Only if he thought the kid was being abused and Social Services had dropped the ball.”

“But he wouldn’t be part of a conspiracy to extort a ransom?”

Bennett emphatically shook his head. “Not in a million years. I don’t like the guy but he’s got no interest in money or personal gain. He’s on a crusade to help the oppressed, not trying to line his own pockets.”

“So, he wouldn’t shelter Clare Hope if she turned up there with Margaret or with Mary?”

“Like I said, only if he thought they were being abused but the first conversation he had with either one of them where they said they were there against their will, the game would be up. If Clare has got Mary with her that’s the last place she’d take her.”

“Any ideas where she might take her? Does she have any relatives in the area she could call on?”

“Her mother’s still alive, although her liver’s shot, but I don’t think they really talk. I always got the impression Clare was pretty pissed with her mother for not doing something about her father.”

“Leaving him, you mean?” Samantha nodded.

Bennett grimaced. “I think more like killing him. I asked her once if Nate was hitting her – knowing what his pa was like it seemed a pretty good bet – and she said that Nate would never lay a finger on her but any guy that did we’d have to identify from dental records because there would be nothing else left of his face. She wasn’t kidding either. If she’s kept in touch with anyone around here it would be Eileen Walker, but I can give you her mother’s address.”

Samantha nodded her thanks, took the addresses from Gary the helpful deputy and headed for the door as Viv made the thanks. Samantha hesitated. “Grace Lynch? Anything on her?”

Bennett shook his handsome head, grinning broadly. “That woman is as close as one can get to a living saint. If someone was using her name for something shady it was because they’ve got a warped sense of humor.”

As she walked back to the car left ready for them outside, it occurred to Samantha that another reason for naming Grace Lynch as the person who had made that phone call at 10am on a Sunday morning, might be because anyone who knew her would know that she, unlike another name snatched for at random, would have an unbreakable alibi.

***

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