elgrey: Artwork by Suzan Lovett (DM_DannyIcon)
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The light was fading as they jolted up the track to the cleared area in the woods where Ryan and Mary lived. The sun was going down somewhere beyond the snow and had turned the white sky pink. The house loomed up, unwelcomingly. It stood on an area of flat land that looked as if it had been physically blasted out of the surrounding rocky woodland, no room for much of a yard, just the farm and then a few outbuildings, including a rustic-looking barn and a garage. The house itself was fronted with dark timber, although the stone carcass was visible underneath in the chimneys and basement

“What do you know? It’s John Brown’s Farmhouse,” Martin muttered.

Danny suspected that driving up that track had taken more out of Martin than his partner was ever going to admit, but a sure way to get his head bitten off when Martin was in pain was to ask him if he was in pain, so he pretended not to notice the wincing as Martin eased himself out from under the steering wheel.

“Extra polite, right?” Danny observed.

Martin shrugged. “What is the polite way of asking a man if he thinks his wife could have been tricked into running off with a crack dealing ex-prostitute and her probably criminal boyfriend anyway?”

Acknowledging just how difficult this was going to be with a shrug, Danny was just reaching for the doorknocker when it was opened abruptly and a man with the broad shoulders of a Mr. Universe contestant loomed over him. Danny was usually the tallest man in any room, so it was a strange experience to have to look up to make eye contact. Ryan was certainly very handsome, with piercing blue eyes, and once-sandy hair turning iron gray and neatly cropped. He looked younger than his forty-seven years but his expression was not exactly welcoming.

“It’s about time.” His gaze passed over Danny dismissively and moved onto Martin before he rolled his eyes. “Malone didn’t have a grown up free to send?”

Danny gave Martin a warning look about snapping and realized he was getting one in return. Well, at least they were on the same page. “We’re sorry we’re so late getting here, sir.” He held out his ID. “I’m Agent Taylor and this is Agent Fitzgerald. Can we come in?”

Ryan shrugged and turned away. “Sure, knock yourselves out.”

The first thing Danny noticed as they walked into the long low kitchen was the whiskey bottle sitting on the table. It was half empty but Ryan hadn’t been slurring his words or appeared to be drunk, so perhaps he had only one had one glass. Even now, Danny could remember the miraculous kick of it that got him to the place where that ‘click’ in his head told him everything was now okay, he was who he really wanted to be, and all it needed to get there was the constant consumption of spirits. He saw Martin dart a concerned glance in his direction and then look at Ryan in irritation because clearly the main priority of a man whose wife and daughter had both been abducted should be to not put temptation in the path of any possible alcoholics who might walk through his front door. Sometimes Danny thought Martin was never more loveable than when he was completely unreasonable. He patted him gently on the shoulder to let him know he was really okay with the whiskey bottle being there and gave him a reassuring smile.

Ryan pulled out a kitchen chair for each of them, catching the tail end of the pat Danny had given Martin, and shook his head in disapproval before sitting down himself. “What news have you got for me about my wife’s disappearance?”

“Mr. Ryan, would you mind just confirming that your wife hasn’t called here since the local PD left?” Martin asked very politely.

“You don’t think I would have mentioned it if she had?” Ryan demanded.

Danny forced a smile. “So, she hasn’t called here?”

“No. I haven’t heard from my wife since I spoke to her on the phone when she called me from the hospital in Honesdale. So, how about you people tell me exactly how you’ve been earning the wages I pay for out of my taxes since my wife went missing?”

Danny kept smiling brightly. “We’d be happy to do that, sir. But, first can I ask you to just confirm that you haven’t been asked for a ransom?”

“No, I haven’t been asked for a ransom.”

Martin cleared his throat. “Thank you, sir. And can you confirm that you were never asked for a ransom after your daughter’s kidnapping either?”

Ryan’s gaze was steely. “No, I was never asked for a ransom for my daughter either. If I had been I would have paid it. If I’m asked for a ransom for my wife, I will pay that too. A good woman is above rubies.”

“One of the theories we’re currently exploring is that your wife may have been lured away by people who have or claimed to have knowledge of Margaret,” Martin explained. “Although we’re not excluding any possibilities at this time.”

“That a fancy way of telling me you don’t have a clue where my wife is or who took her?”

Danny forced out another smile although his face was starting to ache from the effort. He could see why Jack and this guy had clashed head on: talk about an irresistible force meeting an immoveable object. “Mr. Ryan, would you mind taking a look at this man and tell us if you recognize him?” He pushed across the picture from the second security video. Although still blurry and indistinct, there was a little more visible of the man with Mary than the muffled up purchaser of the cheeseburger of four years before or from the first grainy glimpse outside the hospital.

Ryan gazed intently at the photograph and Danny watched as the color drained from his face.

“Do you recognize him?” Martin asked.

Ryan glared at Martin as if he were personally responsible for all the ills he had ever suffered, his color had gone from white to red now, a slow tide of rage coming in. He looked…betrayed. “No.”

Martin said – still politely: “Excuse me, sir, but it looked as if you did.”

Ryan tossed the picture back. “I don’t know him.” He turned to Martin, holding his gaze before saying with blood-freezing clarity: “And if you even think about calling me a liar in my own home again, boy, I’ll break every bone in your body.”

There was a breathless pause in which Danny had to stifle his instinctive reaction to go all Federal on Ryan’s ass and explain to him exactly how dumb it was to think he could threaten an FBI agent with physical injury, not to mention calling one ‘boy’. But this was exactly what Jack had warned them about and time wasted butting heads with Ryan was time Mary may not have. Martin seemed to go through the same process as him, although, Danny suspected, he had also needed to mentally count to ten. With heroic self-restraint Martin said: “I apologize, sir. It would just be a huge break for us if this man were someone known to you. As yet we’ve been unable to identify him.”

“Well, what have you people been able to find out?”

Danny quietly began to explain what they knew so far. It was clear from Ryan’s second flush of angry color that his wife had not told him about the letter from the doctor’s surgery. Martin asked – still politely – if Ryan had any reason to think that his wife would have been upset to receive such news.

Ryan glowered at him. “What kind of a question is that? You’re talking about our son!”

“I appreciate that, sir,” Martin said carefully. “But given that you have already lost a daughter and had been told that the new baby was also a girl, we thought your wife might have had some difficulty adjusting.”

When Ryan continued to glower, Danny intervened: “Mr. Ryan, can you think of any reason why your wife wouldn’t have shared this information with you?”

“She knew I’d love any child of ours. What difference did it make?”

Danny made a show of referring to his notes. “Can you tell me what you know about Clare Hope?”

“Is she mixed up in my wife’s disappearance?” Ryan demanded.

“We’re not sure yet.” Martin put the phone records in front of Ryan. “But someone called the last known address of Clare Hope on this date. That wasn’t you?”

“Of course it wasn’t me.”

“Was there anyone else in the house at that time except you and your wife who could have had access to the phone?”

Ryan glanced impatiently at the date. “I wasn’t home that morning. I was at the market. I always go to the market on Mondays and Wednesdays. But, no, we’re not in the habit of letting people drop in and use our phone.”

“Well then, can you think of any reason why your wife would want to contact Clare Hope or any of her associates?”

Ryan said ominously: “Clare Hope was a drug-peddling whore, Agent Fitzgerald. Are you really asking me if that’s the kind of person my wife associates with?”

There was another awkward pause as Martin and Danny exchanged a look. Martin cleared his throat. “Mr. Ryan, sometimes we have to ask difficult questions but all we want to do is help you find Mary before any harm comes to her.”

“Then stop wasting my time insulting my wife and do some detecting.”

Danny picked up the baton quickly. “Can you go over what Mary said to you when she called you from the hospital?”

“She told me she’d panicked and asked the Boxes to take her to the hospital but there was nothing wrong with her and she’d be grateful if I could come and pick her up. I told her I’d be there as soon as I could but that I thought it was better if she stayed over at the hospital until they ran some more tests. I was going to talk to the doctor when I got there and tell him what I thought of him sending her home without a proper check up.”

“Did she sound normal to you, sir?” Martin asked.

“Yes.”

“Not stressed or frightened or excited?”

“Do you have a hearing problem? I just told you she sounded normal.”

Danny put a hand on Martin’s arm to let him know he was going to handle this next part. “We believe that before she called you, your wife called the number of a cell phone that was stolen by Clare Hope from a parked car in Albany.”

Ryan looked as if he were ready to pull both of their heads off just for mentioning the words ‘stolen’ and ‘your wife’ in the same sentence, and Danny added quickly: “Do you think it’s possible that Clare Hope could have persuaded your wife that she had some information about Margaret and lured her into town that way?”

“My wife and I have no secrets.”

“She may have wanted to protect you,” Martin added. “If it was a false lead, she may not have wanted you to get your hopes up about Margaret, only to have them dashed again.”

Ryan looked slightly mollified and Danny let out a ragged breath. “We have agents in Indemnity checking out all possible leads there. Can we ask you about a man called Harry Stapleton?”

For a moment, Ryan looked genuinely shocked. His gaze narrowed and there was a flicker of something in his eyes that came and went too fast for Danny to read it. “What about him?”

“We understand that your wife’s father killed his daughter in a drunk driving incident?”

“Yes, he did. The no good son-of-a-bitch killed that little girl and never even said he was sorry.”

“Do you think it’s possible that Harry Stapleton would have wanted to revenge himself on the daughter of Jake Gallagher by taking her daughter from her?” Danny suggested.

Ryan seemed genuinely astonished by the suggestion. “No. Never.”

“Mr. Ryan, the word from Indemnity is that Harry Stapleton has been in a decline for some years and never really recovered from the death of his daughter.”

“You ever lost a child?” Ryan looked between the two of them.

“No, sir, we haven’t,” Martin answered a little wearily.

“Well, when you have maybe then you can think about judging him. Harry Stapleton’s a good man. He’d never touch one hair on a child’s head. If that’s why you’re sniffing around in Indemnity, you’re wasting your time – and mine – again.”


As they tried to get a picture of how Mary had spent the last few days before her disappearance, asking if he could remember anything specific that she had said or done that might give some insight into her state of mind, Ryan become more and more irritated with them until he snapped out angrily: “Why are you asking me these questions when my wife is out there and you haven’t found her yet? Just like you haven’t found my daughter yet. What are you people doing to find her?”

Other people had said the same words to them, but usually in understandable frustration, with Ryan it felt like something else, a slow burn of rage that was making Danny uneasy. He decided that a time out was definitely in order and rose to his feet. “Could you excuse us a moment, Mr. Ryan?” he said politely. “We left something in the car.”

“Figures.” Ryan shook his head.

Nodding to Martin to follow him, Danny led the way outside to the car. Wet white flakes gusted around them as the sun sank to a narrow band of red far to the west, the sky stained behind its low cloudbank of snow, the trees black against the slow bleed. Smiling brightly for the benefit of any observers, he said: “Is it just me or do you really want to deck this guy too?”

Also smiling, Martin said: “Oh, man, a thousand times yes. No wonder he and Jack didn’t get along. I don’t even think this is the right way to handle this guy. He’s got us on the defensive. We’re apologizing to him for breathing. We’ve completely lost control of the exchange of information. It feels like we should be letting him know there’s only so much we’ll put up with and start nailing him down and getting him to tell us what he knows.”

Danny kept smiling as if their lives depended on it. “And I’d agree with you, except Jack tried jumping all over him and ended up having to arrest the guy and take him in for questioning, which, you may remember, wasted about eight hours.”

Martin made a show of checking the contents of the back seat, in case Ryan was looking out of the window, while murmuring rapidly: “So, how do you want to play it?”

“Well, Jack said he wanted us to suck it up, so I guess that’s what we do.”

“I bet Jack didn’t suck it up.”

“I bet he didn’t either, but he sent us and he told us how he wanted us to play it, so, I say we play it the way we’re told until we’re told differently.”

Martin sighed. “Okay. Your call, but I’m not crashing in that house all night. That guy creeps me out. I’m sleeping in the car.”

“You can’t. This snow isn’t stopping and it’s going to freeze tonight.”

Martin groaned and looked at his watch, visibly estimating the amount of hours before it would be light again and they could leave. “I never thought that invitation from Buster to share his cell would look so good.”

“Yeah, that promise not to punk us out unless he ran out of smokes – looking downright romantic to me right now.” Danny dialed Jack’s number and at his ‘Malone’ said: “Jack, tell me you have something I can give Ryan to get him off our backs?”

“You boys making more friends?” Danny could hear the smirk in Jack’s voice and decided that one day soon he needed to pay him back for enjoying this quite so much.

Danny turned into the car, opening the door as if looking for something and hissed rapidly: “Ryan is a nightmare, Jack.”

“I know and normally I’d tell you not to take any crap from the guy, but, under the circumstances, I think we need everything he can give us. He knows the people in Indemnity and he knows his wife. He’s probably our best source of information and we can’t afford to alienate him, especially if Mary Ryan has willingly put herself into the hands of dangerous kidnappers and her life is in danger, which is the theory I’m going with at the moment.”

“Maybe we need to spell that out to him? That the only way he gets his wife back is through cooperating with us”

“I tried that last time and it didn’t work. I think it would take more than any of us to intimidate him. I’ve broken mass murderers, and with Ryan I didn’t even make a dent so, no offence intended, but I don’t think you and Martin have a shot at strong-arming him. What’s Ryan done so far to get your hackles up?”

“Apart from treating us as if we’re twelve? He physically threatened Martin. That’s normally the point where we say ‘Game over, thanks for playing, now meet Mr. Handcuffs’. Martin let it go but I’m not sure how much slack we should cut him.”

Jack cursed under his breath. “Did Ryan touch Martin?”

“No, just threatened to like he meant it.”

“Did Martin provoke him?”

“Absolutely not.”

“That’s something. What have you got out of Ryan so far?”

“Ryan didn’t know about the baby being a boy. He looked as if he recognized the guy in the photo but he denied it when we asked him. He can’t think of any reason why his wife would be in contact with Clare Hope. He’s pretty adamant that the revenge theory is wrong. He’s insisting that Stapleton would never take or harm a child. So, if he’s right, Sam and Viv could be wasting their time in Indemnity.”

“Could be. I’ve got a positive ID for Clare Hope from a motel owner. Apparently she checked in the night before the day Mary disappeared. The motel receptionist thought there was someone else in the car with her and thought it was a guy but didn’t get a good look at him and didn’t notice the make of the car let alone the license plates. The locals are going through all the security cameras en route from the motel to the hospital. You try to work on Ryan on that photograph. Come at it from a different direction, though, don’t challenge him. Ask him about any boyfriends he remembers Clare Hope having and then ask if it could possibly be them in the photograph, okay?”

“Got it. What about the DNA results?”

“Not in yet. The lab told me to call back in twenty minutes. Just tell him we’re doing everything we can to get his wife back.”

“We already have but he’s not exactly convinced.”

There was a moment’s silence before Jack said quietly: “Well, we told him we were doing everything we could to get his daughter back, too. I know he’s a pain in the ass, Danny, but the guy has reason to be upset, so bear that in mind, okay?”

“Okay, but if he threatens either one of us again I think I’m going to have to come down hard on him.”

“Just do the best you can to stop it getting to that point. I’ll call Ryan as soon as I hear back from the lab and give him an update, see if I can get him to grasp that cooperating with you two is his best chance of seeing his wife again. I’ll lay it on as thick as I can without getting into a pissing contest but try to keep things as non-confrontational as you can. If Ryan hits either one of you, you’re going to have to arrest him and we’re going to waste more time than Mary Ryan may have.”

“Is Van Doren leaning on you?”

“Well, let’s just say she wasn’t exactly happy about me going after a pillar of the community last time and I doubt she’ll be any happier this time either. So, if you and Martin could avoid getting yourselves punched, I’d be grateful.”

“Okay. Bye, Jack.” Danny switched off the phone and held Martin’s gaze. “He wants us to suck it up.” As Martin sighed and closed his eyes, Danny added: “I don’t like this any more than you do but there’s a woman out there who’s eight and a half months pregnant and may be in danger and a guy in there who loves her who is our best source of information. Let’s keep our focus and not let him get to us.”

Martin blew on his hands then shoved them into his pockets to keep them warm. “Not to mention that – if we screw up – Jack’s got an offer on the table of a hundred and twenty-five bucks for the pair of us and Buster was willing to throw in a car stereo.”

They both took a moment to do some deep breathing and then exchanged a look of mutual understanding. Danny reached past Martin to pick up the laptop. They didn’t particularly need it but it made it look as if they had done more than come out here for a while to cool off. “Ready?”

Martin nodded. “It’s not like he’s the first obnoxious prick we’ve ever had to interview. And he’s a concerned husband not a rapist or a child molester. How bad can it be?”

Danny plastered a smile back onto his face as they went back into the house and said as brightly as he could: “Mr. Ryan, I was wondering if you remember any associates of Clare Hope that might fit that photograph we showed you earlier? Obviously, they would be ten years older than when you last saw them, but if you give us the names of anyone you remember her knowing in her days in Indemnity who might fit that general description it would save us a lot of time…?”

***

The house looked as if no one had loved it for a long time, weeds had cracked the driveway and paint peeled from wood that looked as if it had seen too many winters. Hanging from the solitary tree, its leafless limbs stark against the misty whiteness of the falling snow, there were still the knotted age-grayed ropes that had presumably once belonged to a swing, but the seat had long since rotted. Samantha saw Haley Stapleton in her mind’s eye, laughing as she swung there, asking her father to push her higher and higher. They spent so much of their time trying to get the relatives of the missing some closure, even if they couldn’t return their loved ones to them, alive and well, at least letting them have a body to bury; but there was nothing they could do about the grief that inevitably followed. A quarter of a century after Haley’s death, this house was still drenched in it.

She knocked gently on the screen door, covertly watching Viv continuing to assess this town without judgment, just noticing the ways in which it was different from New York. Jack, with his psychology degree, would have made the connections so effortlessly, Samantha wouldn’t have been forced to watch him joining the dots, would have just found herself known a little better by the end of the journey. Danny would have done something nice for her with no explanation, a Danish she hadn’t asked for, just because. With Martin, she was afraid she would have seen the lines being drawn. No, with Martin, she was afraid that she would have been so sure that he was judging her that she would have rushed to judgment on him and then had to watch him recoiling like a friendly puppy that had just been kicked by someone it trusted.

Viv reached past her and knocked again, a little more loudly. “I’m getting frostbite out here,” she explained.

But when the door was finally opened and the bleary bloodshot eyes turned upon them, Viv was the one who managed the genuinely warm smile. “Mr. Stapleton?” She held up her ID. “I’m Agent Johnson of the FBI, this is Agent Spade. We were wondering if we could come in and ask you a few questions?”

He gazed at them, not as if they were unexpected, but as if he wondered what had taken them so long, and, looking over at the rotting rope still swinging as the snow swirled around it, Samantha felt the fear chill her. She had seen that look in men’s eyes before, an old case with Jack where they had gone looking for a missing girl and in questioning a possible witness had found an old man waiting to confess to killing his wife of thirty years before. This man had a murder weighing on his soul and perhaps she had been right the first time, and she really hated it when she was.

But she followed Viv into the chilly house, avoiding the piles of newspaper and clanking bottles that were everywhere.

Stapleton cleared off the couch for them, and Viv didn’t bat an eyelash about the dust or the stickiness, or the half-empty bottle of whiskey, just sitting down and giving Stapleton another encouraging smile. A little less gracefully, Samantha followed her example.

“Would you like some…tea?” Stapleton asked awkwardly. “I have tea.”

“Thank you, Mr. Stapleton, but we’re fine. We wanted to ask you if you remembered anything about some people who used to live in this town? Mary Ryan has gone missing and we’re trying to find her.”

Stapleton averted his eyes. “I remember her. Haven’t seen her in…must be eleven…twelve years. She moved away.”

“That’s right. She and her husband moved to the Catskills. Did you know they had a little girl?”

“Not until I saw on the six o’clock news how she’d gone missing a few years back.” Stapleton shook his head. “Terrible thing to lose a child. Terrible.”

Viv nodded. “I can only imagine.”

“You don’t have any children?”

“I have a son.”

Stapleton gazed at her intently. “You be grateful for him every day, Agent Johnson. Every day.”

“I am, Mr. Stapleton. Truly.”

He nodded. “Doing the job you do, I guess you know better than most how lucky you are. Most people – they don’t know. The man who killed my little girl, he treated those kids of his worse than you’d treat a dog.”

“You mean Jake Gallagher?”

“That’s him.”

“He seems to have been a bad father and a worse husband.”

“He was. The times we were called out to poor Katie and her crying and bleeding and saying it was an accident and him drunk and not even sorry. Man like that – gets to keep his kids, but I don’t? You show me the meaning in that? I’ve asked the pastor so many times. Where’s the meaning in that because I don’t see it. The bruises on that boy’s body. You ain’t never seen anything like it. And welts… Just beat all the spirit out of him. A man like that – what use is he to anyone?”

Viv said gently: “Not much by the sound of things.”

Samantha leaned forward. “We think someone called Clare Hope may be mixed up in Mary Ryan’s disappearance. Do you remember her?”

“Sure I remember her. She was running wild from kindergarten, that girl. Found her in the bus shelter a few times, out of her head on something or other. Couldn’t even send her home knowing what was waiting for her there. We used to put her in the cells just so she’d get a bed for the night in the warm. Her father was a waste of space – vicious too. Drove her mother to drink and Clare into all kinds of trouble. She knew about sex before she should have done. Used to dress with her skirts up to here in all weathers. The nurse at the clinic said she’d had three abortions by the time she was fifteen and I don’t think more than one of those times was down to Nate Gallagher. My wife used to say there was more wrong in that house than anyone wanted to think about. She was always riding me to do something about it, but what can you do? You call in Social Services and the wife says she walked into a door, and the girl says there’s nothing going on. That’s how those men stay out of jail even if they’re the earth’s mortal scum.”

“Do you know a man called Davidson? He runs a halfway house up in…”

“Up near Appleton. I’ve heard of it. Wish he’d been around when Clare was a little girl and the Gallaghers were growing up. I’d have given their mothers his number.”

Samantha sat back in surprise. “That’s not how the sheriff feels.”

“The sheriff’s good man but he hasn’t seen all the things I’ve seen.”

Viv put her head on one side. “I would have thought you’d be the last man to want to see children taken away from their fathers when for all anyone knows the fathers haven’t done anything wrong.”

“I’d rather see a few innocent men lose their children than a few innocent children lose their lives or their innocence…. There are a lot of good people in this town, real good people, but there’s been evil done here, and done for years. The bones of all those boys that were killed – they’re still in the ground, we never found them all, and we never will. This is a place where men get away with murder. Maybe they don’t deserve to get to keep their children as well….”

Samantha could see that the whiskey was starting to kick in hard now as he rambled and she doubted they’d get much more out of Stapleton. She looked at her watch and checked the time. They were barely going to be able to make it see Eileen Walker before it was dark as things were.

Viv leaned forward and said very gently: “Jake Gallagher didn’t die in a car crash, did he, Mr. Stapleton?”

Samantha looked at her in shock only to turn and see the relief break over Stapleton’s face like sunshine after rain. “You know…?”

Viv said, still gently, and with nothing but encouragement in her voice: “Why don’t you tell us everything, Mr. Stapleton? I think you’d feel so much better if you did…”

***

Jack Malone checked his watch again. He remembered his own interaction with Ryan all too vividly, and while the man was apparently friendly and easy-going with equals and inferiors he would absolutely not accept any man’s authority over him. Storeowners, feed merchants, farm hands, all said what a great guy he was – strict on punctuality and efficiency but ready to give praise where it was due. As Chuck Harris, his feed supplier in Indemnity, had told Jack – how many men bothered to call you up to tell you how impressed they were with that last delivery of cow cake? Not that Ryan hadn’t been the first one to complain if an order wasn’t up to scratch, but he’d always been reasonable about it. He’d made it clear from the first day he placed his order that there was a quality he expected for his money.

“He said he wanted the quality of grain he was paying for – which was the best, he wanted it delivered when he’d asked for it to be delivered, and he wanted full measure. He said, if I gave him that, he’d sing my praises all over town. And he did. He brought me more business than I could handle. I never met a fairer man than Frank Ryan.”

Jack had discerned the bones of those ‘rules’ of Ryan’s through even that interaction. That seemed to be how Ryan ran everything. He was kind and loving to his daughter but he expected her to be respectful and obedient and do her homework when she was told to do it and go to bed when she was told to go and work hard at school. In return she was loved and fed and kept warm and clothed. Perhaps that was the covenant that all fathers had with their children, but with Ryan Jack had always felt that nothing was unconditional. He knew there was absolutely nothing that Hanna or Katie could do that would make him stop loving them. With Ryan he had never had quite the same sense. The man’s sense of his own significance in the world, the importance of his private rulebook, had seemed unshakeable, but everything else…Jack had always felt that with everything else it would depend upon the circumstances.

This was what had been troubling him all along about sending Danny and Martin up there. He and Ryan had just clashed head on. Viv had observed mildly on her way out after their first encounter: “Well, I’ve had my share of wildlife programs for the week. I certainly won’t need to watch any stags clashing antlers in the rutting season after that little display….”

In vain, Jack had pointed out that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred going in hard and brooking no nonsense was the right way to handle someone who was starting to get belligerent. But with Ryan it had been a disaster, and Viv had made it clear that she thought he could have handled it better. Privately, Jack had agreed with her. He knew himself well enough to know that whatever resolutions he made before he walked through that door about not getting irritated whatever the man said or did, his temper was going to reach critical mass within ten minutes and he and Ryan would be eyeballing one another in no time. He counted to ten, checked his watch again, and then called Ryan’s number.

“Ryan…” The brusqueness of the man’s tone suggested things were not going much better up there.

“It’s Jack Malone here, Mr. Ryan. I have some fresh information I thought you might like to know.”

“Have you found my wife?”

“Not as yet, no. But we think we’re getting closer.”

“Why am I not filled with excitement?”

Jack mentally counted to ten. “There have been a few developments. We have evidence that Clare Hope was definitely in the area just before your wife’s disappearance and we believe she was one of at least two people who persuaded your wife to leave with them. There was an as-yet unidentified male in the car as well. We have agents near at hand who are going to be visiting Clare Hope’s last known address to bring her in for questioning.”

“Do you have a theory what that junkie whore wanted with my wife?”

“We don’t know, although we’re guessing that she may have told your wife that she had some information related to Margaret and lured her into the car that way. We’re still hoping that there may be a ransom demand. What we don’t know is why your wife contacted Clare in the first place but we’re working on it. We also ordered a DNA test on the remains found in the car that Nathan Gallagher was driving at the time of his believed death and we can confirm that they are not his.”

“Not Nate’s remains?”

“No. We’re not sure who they belong to at the moment but we’re running a search for possible matches. But they’re certainly not those of your brother-in-law, which means that he may still be alive and still an associate of Clare Hope’s. Now, if that is the case, he could have contacted your wife. Can you tell me what their relationship was like?”

“What do you mean?”

“Were they on good terms? Were they close?”

“Yes, they were very close. Mary loved her brother. She would do anything for him.”

“So, you don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that if he contacted her, looking for help, perhaps, that she would do as he asked?”

“Mary and I have an understanding. We tell each other everything. A marriage has to be based on trust.”

“But if he told her he was desperate, say? Or if she was so surprised to learn that he was alive that she wasn’t thinking straight?”

Ryan sounded unwilling to concede even that much but he did so, albeit reluctantly. “Then I suppose she might go behind my back. It’s possible.”

“Mr. Ryan, at the time of his supposed ‘death’, Nathan Gallagher was living with you and your wife in Indemnity, is that correct?”

“It is. He worked with me on the farm. He’d turned his life around and we were both proud of what he’d accomplished.”

“Can you think of any reason why Nathan Gallagher would fake his own death?”

“No.”

“What about if he wanted to run off with Clare Hope?”

“He was forbidden to see her and he knew why. She was nothing but trouble to him and if he’d continued with that way of life he would have ended up whoring himself around every prison in the state and I told him that straight.”

“But by the time Nathan supposedly ‘died’, he was twenty-two years old, and Clare was twenty-one and starting to get herself cleaned up. Is it possible that he’d continued to have feelings for her for all that time?”

There was a long moment in which Jack could hear the sound of Ryan’s quick, angry breaths. He wondered why it was that a man with no criminal record of any kind, admired by all, and widely acknowledged to be a pillar of the community, always felt to him as if he were one wrong word away from doing something violent. Yet Ryan had never had an angry altercation with anyone in his life. And, according to his polygraph results, never laid a finger on his wife or daughter. All the same, he always made the hair on the back of Jack’s neck prickle in warning, as if he was in the presence of someone dangerous.

“Mr. Ryan…?” Jack pressed politely. “Is it possible…?”

“Anything’s possible. They were two dumb kids together the first time around doing things they had no business doing at that age. They did each other nothing but harm and they were better separated, but it’s possible that Nathan was stupid enough to forget everything his sister and I had done for him and to go running off with that girl once she got out of prison. Lord knows, young men can usually be relied on to be stupid and ungrateful and need more discipline than most men can supply. Perhaps I was too soft on him.”

“He was legally an adult and had been for four years. It would have been his decision and it’s not one I think you should blame yourself for. Everyone knows you worked quite the transformation with him. Do you think he could be any danger to Mary?”

“No.” An awkward pause. “I don’t know.”

“It’s important.”

“You think I don’t know that? The boy I knew loved his sister but he’s got his father’s genes in there somewhere. We are what our fathers make us. Maybe it was just going against nature trying to stop him turning out like Jake Gallagher but I tried. God help me, I tried.”

Jack had the file up on Jake Gallagher on the laptop in front of him. A flick of his fingers and he was looking at pictures of both father and son. Jake’s from when he had been arrested after killing Haley Stapleton, dark blue eyes bloodshot and bleary, his good looks ruined by drink and bad temper, but still just visible beneath the stubble and broken blood vessels. The only picture they had of Nathan Gallagher was from when he had been arrested at sixteen, a scrawny, sullen pretty boy with slate blue eyes, and dark hair that fell in a tangle across a face marred by bad skin and bruises. He didn’t exactly look like a model citizen or like someone who would have a problem with scamming even his own sister. Clare Hope looked equally sullen in her arrest photograph, hollow cheeked and with shadowed eyes, her hair showing dark roots and pale scurf in equal measures. They both looked in need of a bath and a hot meal and he wouldn’t have trusted a pregnant woman to either one of them. He felt a spasm of unwilling sympathy for Ryan and softened his tone accordingly:

“Our pictures of Nathan Gallagher are eighteen years out of date, Mr. Ryan, so I’d be grateful if you could take another look at the photographs that Agent Taylor and Agent Fitzgerald have with them and see if you think that the man with your wife could possibly be her brother?”

“Are those two allowed to stay up this late on a school night?”

Jack gritted his teeth, sympathy promptly evaporating, but said as cheerfully as he could: “Well, I would appreciate it if they were in bed by eleven, Mr. Ryan.”

“These are the best you could send me, Malone? My wife goes missing and a couple of college kids asking me joke questions is supposed to help find her?”

“They’re trained federal agents not ‘college kids’. They’re very good at what they do, and the more you cooperate with them the better the chances are of finding your wife alive.”

“Earn your pay and find my wife, Malone.” Ryan hung up and Jack cursed under his breath. He had done his best but he suspected that all he had done was give Ryan more evidence that his wife had left him willingly, which was going to do nothing for his temper. He decided to leave it an hour in which he would check in with Vivian and Samantha and bring them up to speed and then call Danny back and see how things were going.

“Just keep your cool, boys,” he murmured. “This guy may be an obnoxious blow-hard but he could still have information that can help us to find his wife….”

***

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