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Better than no justice at all

PROLOGUE

Twenty years ago

Gene Rivers pressed his back tight against the tree trunk, felt the roughness of the bark through the thin cotton of his shirt. He held his breath, heart sprinting in his chest, the insistent whine of a mosquito in his ear. He slapped at it, felt small wings and legs and his own blood smear on his skin, the irritating noise no more.
It would take more than that to quiet the unrelenting buzz that churned his stomach and left his mouth dry, an urgent mix of sexual anticipation and something else far less wholesome, a primeval hunger with its roots in a time when man was no better than the animals that lived in the same woods, when sexual conquest went hand in hand with displays of physical superiority.
Ten feet away on the other side of the tree, footsteps crashed blindly through the undergrowth. The sound of panic and fear. And a young woman’s voice, trying hard not to break, cutting through the darkness.
‘This isn’t funny, Gene.’
He breathed deeply, chest expanding, sucking down the cool night air. Lightheaded with excitement, the chemicals coursing through his blood heightening every sense.
Gene! Stop being a jerk.’ The voice tinged with hysteria now.
Trouble was, he was male and eighteen. Being a jerk was in his blood, his DNA. Then he heard a different sound, one that cut him like a knife. A strangled sob. He’d gone too far. He hadn’t meant to scare her too badly. A little frisson of fear, that’s all, make her more anxious to fall into his arms. Or maybe a playful slap, a tussle on the carpet of soft pine needles and then . . .
He couldn’t wait any longer.
He stepped soundlessly out from behind the tree. Her back was towards him. Standing, frozen to the spot. Head snapping from side to side at the sounds of the night all around them.
‘It’s okay. I’m over here.’
Spoken softly so as not to startle her. Feeling guilty for having gone too far, upsetting her too badly.
He was a jerk. He’d make it up to her. That set the buzz in his stomach surging again, the hunger crawling in his blood.
She whirled to face him, her face a mix of fear and now some anger too. The anger rapidly building strength as the fear receded now that he’d put an end to the childish game. He held up his hands, palms towards her.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.’
Stupid thing to say.
It was as if she hadn’t heard his apology. Or if she had, it fell way short of the mark. He’d expected a playful swipe at him, his arm or shoulder. Instead her arm was winding back, now her open palm coming at his face like all she’d ever wanted from him was to feel his teeth break and his lips burst against her hand.
‘You bastard!’
Screamed into the night air between them, the words riding out on a stream of spittle, face twisted beyond recognition with hate and fury and the explosive release of fear, screamed like she’d seen all the world’s dead climb out of their graves and walk towards her.
He got his arm up in time. Just. Caught the blow on the underside of his forearm, a resounding slap that silenced the forest, stopped the night creatures dead, mid-prowl and mid-swoop.
‘Ow!’
Pretend it hurts more than it does. Better that way.
He readied himself for a flurry of blows, the power in them gradually diminishing. Instead she turned her back on him, the tension in her shoulders pulsing in the night. Head down, a small sniff.
This was better.
He reached out his hand tentatively towards her. It was as if she was expecting it.
‘Don’t touch me, you bastard.’
Not so good.
So much venom in the bastard. Her voice flat and hard as a stove lid, so much worse than screamed wetly in his face. Perhaps she’d always been scared of the dark. He should have remembered about her parents. Maybe if she’d told him when he asked . . . But this wasn’t the time or the place. He swallowed hard, tried again.
‘I’m sorry. It was really stupid.’
A softening of the shoulders.
Take it easy. Don’t rush her.
She started to turn. He got the look on his face just right. Penitent, but with a hint of it was just a bit of fun boyish mischief behind it. He prepared himself for her face. Still angry, softening fast. She’s got hormones too.
Facing him now, lips parted, a hint of moistness in her eyes.
Oh boy, that did something to him.
He went to touch her face. Halfway there and it changed. A look of horror dragged her mouth open, eyes wide with terror, pale skin now translucent in the dappled moonlight.
‘Hey. It’s not that bad.’
Then two sounds at once. One in front, one behind. A scream climbing up her throat, erupting from the black hole where her mouth used to be. And a twig snapping behind him, sharp as a gunshot in the still of the forest.
He felt a rush of warm air on the back of his neck, the smell of something foul in his nose. As if the jaws of a huge nocturnal predator were stretched wide open, poised just inches above his skin, hot drool dripping from its gums, savoring the anticipation before it sank its teeth into his flesh.
An adrenal spike of fear ripped through him. He jerked around. Too fast. The toxic mix of alcohol and drugs in his bloodstream collided with the adrenaline surge, made him sway, eyes in and out of focus in the pale shifting light. Legs crumbling, arm out against the tree to steady himself. Behind him the sound of feet running blindly through the undergrowth, stumbling and picking herself up, the unholy scream now a terrified whimper. Then nothing but a deep silence settling on him, the desperate sounds swallowed up by the night. In front of him, a vague shapeless mass dissolving into the shifting darkness, becoming a part of the fabric of the night itself until he was unable to say whether it had ever been there at all.
He pushed himself off the tree, turned away, blood pounding in his ears. Crazy irrational hope swelled inside him, eyes straining for the sight of her picking her way carefully through the undergrowth towards him, head down and hair covering her eyes to hide her embarrassment at behaving like a hysterical child.
You can hope all you like, but it doesn’t make it true.
He would see her one more time in his lifetime.
That would be more than enough.

CHAPTER 1

Present day

‘Detective Guillory.’ The voice on the other end of the line made her skin crawl. ‘How nice to hear from you again.’
She didn’t say she felt the same way. She didn’t. There’s only so much insincerity needed in one telephone conversation. Instead, she put his business card down carefully on her desk, placed her hand over it. A spasm of irritation distorted her features momentarily at the slight shake in her hand, the dampness of her palm. She hoped she didn’t end up regretting making the call.
‘Are you calling to take me up on my offer?’ the man she knew only as Smith said. He sounded as if he’d been trying to get her to agree to go to dinner with him for the past month.
She swallowed, her mouth dry, furious with herself for feeling like she was fifteen years old and the best-looking boy in school had just asked her out. Time to put an end to that. She cleared her throat.
‘It wasn’t to enquire after your health.’
There was a short pause. It had come out sharper than she intended, not that she gave a damn. He soon recovered.
‘Of course not. And—’
‘Just me.’ Said a little too quickly.
‘I think that’s best. There’s no need to subject Mr Buckley to any unnecessary . . .’ Again, he paused, this time looking for the appropriate insincere word.
‘Anguish? Distress?’
‘Exactly. I can see you’re good with words.’
It was a good thing he was on the other end of the phone line and not within arm’s reach. Otherwise she’d have shown him how good she was with a rigid middle finger in the eye. His tone brought to mind a funeral home director agreeing what an excellent choice the cheapest casket was, all the while thinking we’re only going to burn it anyway.
Because he couldn’t have been less interested in Evan’s anguish or distress without some sort of surgical cerebral disconnect. If increasing it served his purposes better, it would be increased without a second thought.
As it was, Evan knew nothing about it. She hadn’t told him what she was doing, didn’t know how he’d react if she did. That was a bridge to be crossed—or not—at a later date.
Although the unctuous tone of the man on the other end of the line made her want to give him a good slap, she couldn’t deny that he was sharp. They’d only met twice but he had the measure of her nonetheless.
‘I’m assuming that you haven’t mentioned what you’re doing to Mr Buckley.’
‘Not yet, no.’
In the brief silence that followed she pictured the smug condescension on his face, the disdainful twitch at the corner of his mouth.
‘So, this is for your own purposes,’ he said. Then paused to better make his point. ‘Not his.’
She couldn’t tell what lay behind the remark. A mildly insulting, suggestion that her own self-interest outweighed Evan’s need for the truth? Or was he trying to determine how much shit might hit the fan as a result of her enquiries? She felt outmaneuvered, that she’d already revealed too much.
Still, she was committed, couldn’t back down now. Let him draw whatever conclusions he liked. Even though it was petty, she didn’t want to end the conversation feeling like it had all gone his way.
‘One more thing.’
‘Yes?’ Mr Oh-so-amenable said.
‘Can we drop all this Smith bullshit? I get the impression that if I turn up at your office asking for Smith, every head in the place is going to turn.’
He laughed then, the first genuine sound to come out of his mouth.
‘Of course. The name is Newcomb. New and comb as in combing your hair.’
Now the remnants of his laughter coming down the line annoyed the hell out of her. She wished she hadn’t asked. Because in the gentle chuckle that was every bit as measured as everything else that came out of his mouth, she heard the underlying message loud and clear.
Look me up all you like, see how much you find.
The only thing that made her feel better was that she hadn’t yet asked the question that was going to wipe every last trace of the smugness off his face.

***

They collected her from her apartment, didn’t need to ask where she lived. One more demonstration that they knew everything about her. Into the back of a van with no windows, then down into an underground parking lot and from there straight into an elevator. Whisked silently up into a small, windowless room painted in a depressing institutional non-color that she assumed scrubbed up well if there were any unfortunate bloodstains to be removed. A metal table bolted to the floor and a wooden chair were the only furniture.
Newcomb delivered the report himself.
Feeling that she was trailing badly after their phone conversation, she went on the offensive the minute he stepped into the room.
‘Is this the room you held Evan in?’
If he was surprised, he didn’t show it. For a brief moment she thought he was going to wag his finger at her, you cheeky thing, you.
‘No. But it’s very similar. We’ve got lots of them.’
I’ll bet, she thought to herself.
A while back Evan had taken her out to dinner. They’d had a great time even if he hadn’t combed his hair. Until he’d been tasered outside the restaurant and then abducted by the man now smiling pleasantly at her. That episode led directly to the events that resulted in him finally finding out what had happened to his wife Sarah.
Or, more accurately, finding out what the man still smiling at her had said happened. Two very different things. Perhaps. Which was why she was here today. Because Newcomb had told them that Sarah committed suicide while incarcerated in a state psychiatric facility. Standing in the rain at the desolate graveside, Evan had spat words into Newcomb’s face. I don’t believe you. Then Newcomb, ever accommodating, had offered to let him—or her—read the autopsy report.
He held it towards her now. Kept hold of it as she took it, words of advice on the way.
‘Make notes, take photos on your phone if you like. Get a second opinion. We’ve got nothing to hide.’
She heard something very different.
You won’t find what we’re hiding.
Then he let go of the file, left her to it.
Holding it, just looking at the front cover, she already felt that they were toying with her. Every little thing was designed to reinforce the point that they could do whatever they liked—and there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.
The name on the front cover set the ball rolling.
Sarah Killinger.
Then the name Killinger carefully struck through, the name Buckley written above it.
Killinger had been the name on the marker when they were shown the grave where Sarah was supposedly buried. Before being institutionalized she’d lost her memory and all her ID, living for a short time with a man called Jay Killinger. So that was the name they gave her. At the graveside Newcomb had promised to have it changed.
A sharp bark of laughter squeezed through her lips, left a sour taste in her mouth. Had they done the same thing on the grave marker? Employed a stonemason to chisel away the Killinger. Or maybe filled it with epoxy resin, never know the difference.
She dropped the file on the table and pulled up the chair. Sat staring at the file, Newcomb’s words in her mind.
This is for your own purposes. Not his.
Why was she doing this? What good would come of it?
She pushed the thoughts to the back of her mind and opened the file. Flipped through the report, not reading it. She knew what it would say—an open and shut suicide verdict. It was the photographs she was interested in. If interested didn’t make her sound too much like a ghoul.
She looked at the naked body of the woman on the slab and felt dirty. As if she were abusing her position to assess a rival. She ran her eyes over the firm breasts, the smooth flat stomach—she paid a lot of attention to her stomach—the well-toned buttocks and shapely legs. A young woman in her prime. She couldn’t stop herself from imagining Evan’s hands caressing every part of that body.
Would he be able to say definitively whether it was Sarah or not? She sure as hell couldn’t. She pulled out her phone, opened the photo gallery. Scrolled through to the picture she’d taken of the photograph in the original missing person file. She held it next to the image from the autopsy report, eyes flicking back and forth between the two.
She was going through the motions. As soon as she held them side by side, she knew she couldn’t say for sure whether it was the same person. She looked a while longer anyway. In case somebody was watching her, making sure she took a proper look. In this place, somebody probably was. Newcomb most likely.
There was only one person who had a chance of making a positive identification. Evan. She laid the autopsy photograph on the table, took a couple of full-body shots. Those would be for her own purposes. It made her feel like a pervert who’d gotten lucky browsing the darker places on the web. Made her want to take a wire brush to her skin. Then she placed one of the sheets of the report face-down on top of the photograph. Adjusted it carefully to get the best view of the woman’s face while still covering the red weal around her neck. Then she took a number of head shots.
She wasn’t sure there’d ever be a right time to tell him what she’d done. If that day ever came, at least doing it this way would spare him some of the brutal clinical detail, the dispassionate reduction of a loved one to a piece of meat carved up like a holiday turkey.
After she’d finished with the photographs, she read through the autopsy report itself. She photographed each page as she did so, then closed the file, sat with her hand resting on top of it a while.
She hadn’t found what she was looking for.

***

‘Find what you were looking for?’ Newcomb said. His tone suggested he knew damn well she was no further forward than when he left her.
Irritation got the better of her.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
He smiled good-naturedly, just trying to get under your skin.
‘You should have put a new front cover on the file,’ she added and then wished she hadn’t.
‘Ah. I can tell you didn’t get the answers you were after.’ He nodded towards her bag. ‘At least you’ve got that photograph to show to Mr Buckley. If you decide to. Nice touch with the sheet of paper, by the way. Doesn’t have to look at all that . . .’ He pointed to his neck, stuck out his chin, straining, eyes bulging as if he was being throttled.
She ignored him. Didn’t acknowledge the admission of spying on her either.
‘Hope you’ve found yourself a new coroner,’ she said instead.
A hint of uncertainty clouded his face. She pointed to the autopsy report in his hand.
‘You’ve got to admit that’s sloppy work.’
‘I’m not with you.’ He also wasn’t as confident as he’d been a moment ago. ‘Are you saying there’s a problem with this?’ He waved the report at her.
‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘As you saw from watching me, I’m not a hundred percent on the ID. But it’s clearly suicide. It’s what isn’t in the report that’s sloppy.’
‘And what’s that?’
Said with a small patronizing smile. She got a lot of pleasure wiping it off his face.
‘It doesn’t say anything about her having recently given birth before committing suicide.’
The words had the effect she’d been hoping for. She hadn’t expected him to go slack-jawed, he was far too good for that. But he couldn’t keep the momentary flash of surprise off his face completely. And she’d spent a lot of years sitting across an interview table from liars every bit as good as him.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘No?’
‘No.’
‘Standing by the grave where you say she’s buried, you referred to her condition.’
‘So? She was suffering from a complete loss of memory. What would you call that? Her . . . I can’t think of another word. Condition doesn’t automatically mean pregnant. You’re reading too much into it.’
And you’re talking too much, she thought to herself. As all liars do.
She worked a confused look onto her face, mixed it with a bit of chagrin, stupid woman. Except the way he was looking at her told her he didn’t think she was stupid at all, not by a long stretch.
She wondered as she left whether the price of the information she’d gleaned might end up being higher than she’d anticipated. She felt a sharp stab of guilt at the knowledge that she wouldn’t be the one paying it.

***

‘Jesus Christ, Newcomb! You might as well have shown her a picture of the little bastard bouncing on your knee.’
Arthur Godwin-Browne, Newcomb’s boss, was not happy.
‘She goes on a fishing expedition, throws out that wild line about giving birth and your chin as good as hits the bloody floor. I felt it all the way from here. Then you start babbling and arguing the toss which only confirms it for her. I heard the penny drop from here.’
Newcomb listened in silence, thinking not for the first time that if Godwin-Browne was so bloody clever that he could feel and hear things from all the way over here, why didn’t he bloody well piss off back to England, see if he could do it from over bloody there.
He didn’t say any of that, of course.
‘I don’t think she’s going to say anything to Buckley about it,’ he said instead.
‘Why not?’
Newcomb shrugged, just a feeling.
‘She hasn’t told him what she’s doing. And she told me she couldn’t ID her a hundred percent.’
‘Who? The Killinger woman?’
‘Her name is Buckley.’
Godwin-Browne made a loud harrumph in his throat, picking up on the weary tone in Newcomb’s voice.
‘Bloody woman’s name was Killinger for six years and now we’re all supposed to remember it’s Buckingham.’
‘Very confusing, sir, yes. I was saying, I don’t think she’ll tell him—’
‘Who won’t tell who?’
Newcomb explained it again in as much detail as was possible without the help of four little wooden figures, each painted a different color. Godwin-Browne’s eyes had glazed over by the time he finished although Newcomb reckoned that was as much to do with the inter-departmental lunch that Godwin-Browne had attended.
‘What do you think we should do about it?’ Godwin-Browne said.
‘We agreed that we would monitor the situation to begin with. To see if they dropped it.’
‘Which they clearly haven’t.’
‘No.’
Both men were silent for a long moment. Newcomb knew what was coming—one of the sweeping, broad-brush responses that his boss was known for. Which everybody else then spent a long time afterwards picking up the pieces. Because Godwin-Browne quickly tired of the detail, found it all too much effort to think about. He was a root-of-the-problem man. Deal with that and everything else falls into place. Or over. No matter.
‘We need to deal with that interfering gobshite of a husband of hers.’
Newcomb nodded, something of a scorched-earth man himself, made a mental note to google gobshite.
‘I’ll get right on it.’
Godwin-Browne waved that off.
‘No, no, no. Leave that to me. After that snafu with Guillory I’m not having you cock this up.’

CHAPTER 2

Gene Rivers had been expecting something to happen ever since he’d received the email. He just didn’t know what, beyond the fact that it wouldn’t be good. The past rarely is, despite all that crap about the good old days. He’d been on edge ever since. He looked up as soon as the door to the diner opened, knew immediately that the two men who entered were cops. Something else he knew—they hadn’t come in for eggs and bacon and maybe some link sausages.
They were looking for him.
From his table in the window he’d watched them coming down the sidewalk, known they were cops even then. He hadn’t thought anything of it other than some poor schmuck was about to have a shitty morning. Turns out it was him. The older one’s gaze swept the room and came to rest on his face, conveniently looking up. The two of them made their way towards him.
‘Gene Rivers,’ the older one said. A statement, not a question.
Gene cleared his throat, nodded. They already knew anyway.
‘Detective Mike Berry. And this is Detective Roy Gruber.’
Sounding like what he meant was, this is something that got stuck on the sole of my shoe on the way over.
The younger man gave a half-hearted nod. He was more interested in the remnants of Gene’s breakfast than Gene himself. They both sat down uninvited. Berry kicked it off.
‘Could you tell us where you were last night, please?’
Gene could, didn’t see why he should have to, knew it wasn’t the way to go.
‘I had a few beers in Tom’s Tap Room. Watched the football game. Why?’
‘On your own?’ Berry said, ignoring the question.
‘Yeah. Apart from about a hundred other guys watching the game.’
Berry’s expression suggested that he was thinking of wiping what was stuck on his sole—Gruber—on Gene’s face.
‘I meant did you go there on your own, leave on your own?’
Gene nodded, the first flutter of apprehension starting up in the chill void of his stomach. The two cops looked at each other. As if to say, well that was easy, we can take the rest of the day off.
‘Do you know a woman called Lori Huston?’ Berry said.
‘No.’
Gruber broke off from staring at the remains of Gene’s breakfast. He sat up in his seat, chin jutting towards Gene.
‘You want to think about that for maybe a second?’
‘I don’t need to. I don’t know anybody called Lori Huston. Why the hell should I?’
It came out sharper than he meant it to. He wouldn’t normally get aggressive with a cop. It wasn’t just Gruber’s attitude. Something was coming awake in the background, the nameless anxiety he’d felt since the email arrived taking shape, making him nervous and irritable.
‘Because she knows you.’
Delivered with a tight smile, the implication clear—that means you’re lying.
‘Good for her. I still—’
‘Actually, not so good.’
Then Berry stepped in again, uncomfortable with the way Gruber’s tone was taking things.
‘A woman called Lori Huston was murdered last night.’
‘And you think I did it?’ The words an incredulous whisper, his splayed fingers on his chest.
Berry had his hands raised now, not at all. Except that didn’t fit with the look they’d exchanged when Gene said he left the bar alone.
‘No. But we think you might be able to help.’
Gene shook his head, not in disagreement but in confusion. He didn’t like the implications of help either. Generally, if you were helping them, you weren’t helping yourself.
‘I don’t understand. And how do you even know she knows me?’
Gruber took the opportunity to butt into the conversation again.
‘She had your number in her phone to start with. And—’
Berry put his hand on his partner’s arm.
‘We’ll get into that later.’
Gene looked from one to the other, wondered what the hell had just happened, what it was that Berry didn’t want Gruber saying. Berry glanced around the diner, lowered his voice.
‘This isn’t the best place to have this discussion. It would be much easier if you came with us—’
‘Instead of being obstructive, making us think you’ve got something to hide.’
Again, Berry held Gruber back with a touch on the arm. Like he was bringing a well-trained attack dog to heel, a young one that was overly excitable.
‘We think you might be able to help identify the body.’
‘I thought you said her name was Lori Huston?’
‘That’s what her driver’s license says. We don’t think it’s her real name. And her prints aren’t in the system.’
If the dead woman had been alive and sitting there with them, she could have told them—that’s the whole point, dummy.
Reluctantly, Gene got to his feet. He tucked ten bucks under his plate and followed them outside. It wasn’t only that he knew they weren’t about to give up and leave him be. With the mention of fake identification, a feeling was building strength inside him that they were right, that he was going to be able to help them.
And if he was right about that, there would be no avoiding what was coming.

***

They put him in the back of an unmarked car for the short ride to the medical examiner’s office. Gruber held the door open for him, a supercilious smirk on his face.
‘Something you want to say, Detective?’ Gene said.
Gruber smirked a bit more, who me? Then he couldn’t help himself.
‘Not really. Just wondering if you’ve ever been in the back of one of these before, that’s all.’
With those few words he told Gene more about what was going on than either of them had so far. Because he had been in the back of a police vehicle before, a long time ago. They knew it. And they wanted him to know that they knew.
The realization brought the words in the email he’d received to the forefront of his mind, pulsing back behind his eyes, demanding his attention.
Is that you, Gene?
No name, the email address a meaningless Gmail account.
Now a dead woman called Lori Huston with his number in her phone. It couldn’t be a coincidence. He looked up, caught Berry staring at him in the rearview mirror. They held each other’s eyes for a couple of beats before he looked away, out the window, anywhere. It was long enough to read what was on the cop’s perennially suspicious mind.
Starting to remember now?
The journey passed in silence. No attempt was made to defuse the tension inside the car with further details or mindless small talk. Once there, he walked between them down an overly-bright corridor, feeling like a man taking the last walk from his cell on death row, a dead man walking. It was a bizarre feeling. Because if he was right, his life wasn’t about to be abruptly terminated by lethal injection or a jolt from Old Sparky when they reached their destination.
It was about to be rewound twenty years.
He knew what to expect. There would be no cold, tile and stainless-steel morgue, no pulling the body out of a freezer by a surly, gum-snapping morgue attendant wearing a Metallica T-shirt under his stained lab coat, no toe-tag swinging from a big toe. Instead he was led into a comfortable sitting room with soft elevator music playing in the background. A clipboard lay face-down on the low table. If he’d been the next-of-kin, there’d have been a sad-eyed grief counselor on hand to dispense kleenex and meaningless words of comfort.
He was aware of the two cops watching him intensely as he reached for the clipboard.
‘There’s nothing I need to prepare myself for?’ he said.
Berry gave him a small smile that did nothing to reassure him.
‘We wouldn’t do that to you. We’re not monsters. If there were any facial injuries or mutilations we’d say so, let you prepare yourself. There’s a bit of bruising, that’s all.’
The word mutilations hit Gene like an unexpected slap around the face. Was that simply everyday cop parlance? Or were there mutilations, just not facial?
‘How was she killed?’
For a moment he thought that Berry wasn’t going to tell him, that the flow of information here was an exclusively one-way street. But he was only searching for the right words.
‘She was eviscerated.’
‘You know what that means?’ Gruber chipped in, touched his lower stomach. Then added a remark that stopped Gene dead.
Berry silenced him with a look. His expression suggested that when he wanted everything reduced to its coarsest level, he’d be sure to let Gruber know. Nonetheless, Gene reckoned Gruber had let something slip that he shouldn’t have—and that was what Berry was unhappy about.
Berry cleared his throat politely. Gene flipped the clipboard over quickly, equally keen to get this over with.
A stranger stared back at him.
‘Sorry. I’ve never seen her before.’
He went to hand the clipboard to Berry.
‘Are you sure? Why not take another look? People can change a lot in twenty years.’
That made him look. But not at the dead woman’s photograph. He stared at Berry, the growing apprehension in his gut lending an edge as hard as the blade of a shovel to his voice.
‘What the hell’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Just take another look.’ His voice weary, like it was hard enough having to drag Gruber around everywhere with him. ‘Take your time.’
He wanted to push him. It was pointless. He looked again, took his time. Shook his head.
‘Sorry.’
Berry took the clipboard from him and shrugged, worth a try.
‘Why did you think I would know her?’ Gene said.
‘We told you. She had your number in her phone.’
‘What, only my number? Nobody else? Or have you already worked your way through them?’
Berry shook his head.
‘What else? Mr Personality here’—he flicked his hand dismissively towards Gruber—‘was about to say something earlier before you stopped him.’
Gruber scowled at him but didn’t say anything. Berry stuck out his hand towards him. Gruber handed him a manila folder that Gene hadn’t seen him pick up. It must have been in the car. Berry opened it, pulled out a faded newspaper cutting.
‘We found this and a bunch of others like it in the room she was renting.’
Gene took the cutting from him, didn’t look at it. He didn’t need to. He knew exactly what it was about, could’ve told you the date if you were interested. It was all coming back. The past was on its way. Or was it here already? He took the clipboard back from Berry—or did Berry give it to him?—either way he was holding it again, staring at the dead woman’s face. He closed his eyes. Still it didn’t work, the ravages of time and what was more than minor bruising working against him.
It had been for such a short time, so long ago.
‘Are there any distinguishing marks?’
Berry nodded.
‘A tattoo.’
His tone of voice said it all. She might have had it done last week.
‘No birthmarks?’
‘Uh-uh. Just the one tattoo. There’s a picture of it in there.’ He pointed to the clipboard.
Gruber stifled a snicker.
‘Enjoy.’
Berry gave him a withering look. It spoke volumes about the sad state of the police force that they would offer a man as relentlessly vulgar as Gruber a job.
‘It’s on the inside of her thigh. Right at the top.’
Gene’s heart stopped. Then surged, his breath snagging in his throat. And it wasn’t at the prospect of catching a sly glimpse of a dead woman’s private parts. Which, if he was right, he’d seen at their best.
He found the photograph. The tattoo was of a flower. He bet it had hurt like hell on the soft sensitive flesh. He couldn’t have told you what it was. A flower was a flower. Didn’t know what the circular part in the middle was called either. But he did know they’re not usually brown. This one was. Because it wasn’t part of the tattoo, it was a mole, the unsightly blemish in such a delicate location artfully disguised by a pretty tattoo drawn around it.
He’d never known a girl with a tattoo on the inside of her thigh. But he’d known a girl with an ugly mole there.
The past had arrived with a vengeance.

END OF EXCERPT

© JAMES HARPER