? Declan Burke
First Kindle Original Edition, 2011
First published by Lilliput Press, 2003
? Declan Burke
The doorbell rings at five in the morning, it’s bad news, someone’s dead or dying. Which waswhy Imelda got downstairs so quick, still in her nightdress, padding across the cold tiles ofthe porch. Flustered, thinking someone might be dying.
Which allowed the blademan to get in close, inside the elbows, driving the shank up hard underthe chin. Blowing the artery, spattering the porch. Blood, glass, chrome – Christ, youcould’ve hung it in a gallery.
These things happen, although not usually in shiny new towns on the Atlantic seaboard, andrarely to the middle-aged wife of an independent politician that’s keeping the government inclover. But they happen. It’s a crying shame, yeah, so have a cry, feel ashamed and get overit. The rest of the week is coming on hard and its brakes are shot to hell.
My job was to find out who and why, at twelve cent per word for the right facts in the rightorder. Enough facts, a decent hook, they might even add up to a front-page clipping for thedusty folder under my bed. Imelda Sheridan was dead, which was tough cookies on Imelda, butthen every silver lining has its cloud.
Which was how it all started out, anyway.
It was early Monday, three days to Christmas, the morning not trying anything it couldn’thandle itself. I stuck a pillow behind my back, rolled a one-skin, lacing it light, just totake the edge off. Sand in my eyes, a jellyfish in my gut, skull humming like a taut rope. Theroom stinking of stale breath, bored sex, cold cigarettes.
I sparked the jay, watched Denise sleep. Hadn’t watched her sleep in a while, hadn’t had thechance, on a second bite of the cherry and still trying to remember if I liked the taste ofcherries. Asleep, relaxed, she looked her age, sneaking up slow on the right side of thirty.Dark hairs at the corners of her mouth, a nose that might have been too big if her ears wereany smaller. The lips full, salmon pale, the hair chestnut with auburn streaks, shoulder-length. When they were open, the eyes were round and brown. She thought she could have losthalf a stone around the hips but I liked the curves, liked that there was more of her ratherthan less.
She smelled the dope and her eyes flickered, focusing slow. She knuckled one eye, yawning.Then, sounding resigned, she muttered: “Out.”
“No way, I saw chalk-dust.”
Buzzing on the jay, kidding her on.
“Out, Harry. Go home.”
“You know what time it is?”
“No, but I’d say it’s about half past fuck off.” She smiled me a tired one that was halfregret and half something I’d never seen before. “C’mon, Harry. You know you have to go.”
I stubbed the jay, scrabbled for my tee shirt, shivering, sleet spattering the window.
“Want to join me in the shower?”
“No shower, Harry. There’s no hot water.”
“Fuck’s sakes, Dee.”
Officially, we were on a break. Officially, I was sleeping in the back room of my office overin the Old Quarter, the constant verbals costing a fortune in replacing Ben’s toys.
Off the record, Denise was trying to work out if anyone would take her on with another man’skid in tow.
I pretended not to notice, the truth is a scab you don’t want to pick at too often. Last nightwe’d been in the same place at the same time with the same amount of booze on board. That wasall and that’s never enough.
She sat up, draped a thin white cotton dressing gown around her shoulders. Said, her voice thinand tired: “Just get dressed and go, Harry. Please?”
Then left, showing me how.
I got dressed, went downstairs. She was still standing in the hall, looking at the phone likeit was primed, ticking. Ben lying on the living room floor, cartoons blaring from the TV,wearing dinosaur slippers, Action Man goggles around his neck. I was rapping about building asnowman if the snow stuck, how we could put mum’s coat on it, Ben not paying attention, whenshe called me into the kitchen. She put the kettle on and didn’t turn around.
“Gonzo left a message. Said he’d be home for Christmas.”
Sounding calm, like Gonzo rang every week, not excited and nauseous, like we hadn’t heard fromhim in nearly four years.
“He say what Christmas?”
She turned, pulling the dressing gown tight. Her face was pale, her eyes huge, dark panda eyes.
“He is your brother, Harry.”
“Not my fault, Dee. No one’s pinning that one on me.”
She shook her head, disappointed at herself for not knowing better.
“You’d better go.”
She pushed me down the hallway and stood in the doorway, shivering, not looking at me, armsfolded. I stood two steps below, hanging in, postponing the moment when I’d have to admit Ileft the car in town.
“Ben should be dressed. He’ll be late for school.”
“Christmas holidays, Harry. Kids get holidays at Christmas. Not like adults, who get holidaysat Fuckallmas. It’s Christmas, by the way.”
“I know it’s Christmas. Jesus.” I scuffed at the doorstep, the hangover thick and dull, thedope not helping. The wind gusting sleet. She tucked a rat’s tail tidy behind an ear, said:“Harry –”
“Don’t think that what happened –”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“No need,” she taunted, stung. “Not after all you said last night.”
I fumbled for a comeback but she was already closing the door, not slamming it. I faced intothe sleet and decided to shave at the office, dug out the smoke box and realised I was all outof skins. That was the shape of my week and it was only Monday morning, nine-thirty.
They reckoned the population around ninety thousand, and even if you discount all the Shinnerswho voted twice that’s still a fair sized burg. Which was the plan. They took a town, justsitting there minding its own business, there not being too much of it to mind, and ripped outits guts. Relocated the locals to breeze-block suburbs that sprawled out both sides of theriver, south behind the lake, halfway up the mountains, and they’d have poldered the bay ifthey’d thought anyone was dumb enough to enjoy wet sand between their toes. Threw up a newinner town, a high-rise jungle of credit finance depots, international call-centres, multi-storey shopping malls, a software research plant masquerading as a university, most of whichwas financed by American corporates, most of which was offset by indigenous grants, lo-interestloans, repatriated profits. Midtown was all wide streets, tree-lined, Norman Rockwell’s wetdream parachuted in to the Atlantic seaboard. It all took about five years to finish and no onelaughed, not once.
My office was over in the Old Quarter, where Midtown bled into the docks, north of the riverheading west. Five or six bustling blocks bisected by railway lines, pot-holed streets andalleyways that always seemed to wind back to the quays. Too noisy to be residential, thepassing trade too random to make it worthwhile for shopping centre malls, the Quarter got tokeep all its crumbling buildings, cracked pavements and old sewers.
The Quarter drew a volatile crew. Crusties laughed at the skate-kids, who went by sniggering.Winos, bums and buskers worked the crowds for the same chump change. College kids slumming itgot a thrill rubbing shoulders with fairies, dips and wide-boys on the make.
I’d been sleeping on a couch in the back room of the office for a couple of months by then,getting used to the idea, starting to fit in with the faces on the streets. Mostly I likedthem, respected their lack of ambition, their social inhibition. The kind that lived around theQuarter, they needed to know there was a pawnshop in the vicinity, an Army Surplus Store, atattoo parlour. The bars had tinted windows, the porn shop didn’t and the greasy spoon cafésshould have at least thought about it. There were antique shops, a joint that sold organic Thaifood and way too many second-hand bookstores. Out in the back lots that sloped down to theriver, a couple of auto repair outfits kept things black and oily. The bars played jazz, tradand drum ‘n’ bass, and in the summer the air hummed with the thick smell of patchouli oil andmelting tar. At night you could get stoned just driving around with the window down.
The Quarter was a good place to live, a good place to work, if your girlfriend was blind andyour clients were even more desperate than you. Denise wasn’t blind but that was only part ofthe problem. Denise and me, we had issues. I had only one, but Denise, she liked to share.
I made the office around ten, not breaking any records. Picked up the phone to order coffeefrom downstairs, got Herbie on voicemail. Sounding unusually vital at that early hour, as a
rule Herbie was either stoned or asleep and Herbie toked himself into a stupor at least once aday.
“Harry – Harry? Fuck – Harry, get your arse up to Tony Sheridan’s, up at the lake, back ofthe racecourse. The wife’s spark out, throat slashed. The Dibble are trying to keep it quietabout the coke. Looks good, the shots are in the bag. Ring if you need directions.”
I didn’t need. Everyone knew where Tony Sheridan lived, except maybe Tony on the nights hethought he lived with the brunette who ran Bojangles, an underage dive down near the river,although not so near it might get a proper flushing if the river ever flooded its banks.
I picked up a dictaphone and notepad. Thought about it, sucked air through my lower teeth,shook my head, thought it over some more – Gonzo home and a gory death all in the one morning,it might be a fluke and maybe not. I unlocked the bottom filing-cabinet drawer, pushed asidethe false floor, pulled out the snub-nosed .38. Tucked it inside my belt, snug in the small ofmy back.
I cut down through the alley across from the coffee shop, crossed the footbridge into the carpark. Wasted five minutes trying to remember where I might have left the car. Then I crossedthe footbridge again, cut a right down towards the quays to the taxi rank.
The fat flushed cabbie didn’t say a word, flicking glances in the rear-view mirror, chewinghis bristly moustache, a smirk curling across his chops. I let it fly, no one had to tell me Ilooked for shit. The black two-piece was rumpled and creased because it was the only suit Iowned and I wore it Monday through Friday, rotating the shirts until both went grey. The thinblack tie came free with the suit and I unknotted it every New Year’s Eve, for luck. The shoeswere Italian and suede because women look at your eyes first, shoes second, and I had eyes thatmade women take a lingering look at my shoes.
In the business you need to look like shit. I work off people who like labels, who talk louderand not always on purpose when there’s a shabby suit two barstools along, or in the boothbehind the dusty plastic plants in the quiet corner of the restaurant. If a punter wasdesperate enough to come sidling through my door he had enough problems without worrying aboutwhy my threads were better than his. He wanted to see a suit and tie that matched. That wasenough and not too much.
And they all sidled. Once in a while someone walked through the door, shoulders back and chinup, nothing to hide. They were the ones who wanted a missing dog tracked down.
Mostly, though, I looked like shit because I didn’t care how I looked, couldn’t afford tocare. Down in the Old Quarter, two times out of three you flip a double-headed coin, it comesdown on its edge.
Last time, it doesn’t come down at all.
Herbie was slouched on his battered moped, elbows draped across the handlebars, the out-of-datetax disc. Bleary-eyed, shivering. A black woollen hat pulled low over his ears, a mop of redcurls framing a face the colour of sour milk, chin and forehead a rash of angry pimples.
“What the fuck took you?”
“Your mother wouldn’t give me my shoes back.”
“Better you than me.” He nodded up at the split-level villa. Three pillars supported theupper storey, the front of which was all glass, with a two-door garage below. He said, casual:“They reckon she topped herself.”
“Cut her own throat?” I whistled. “Brave girl.”
“Another theory runs like this. She opens the door and he gores her. Drags her to the livingroom, heels first, she’s still kicking. So he works her own steak knife in the hole, over andback, sawing.”
“Who’s telling you this?”
“Regan. Anyway, he puts the knife in her hand, lets the arm drop natural. Wants it to looklike suicide. Chops some lines out on the coffee table, leaves it messy, rubs some into hergums, drops the wrap.”
“Millions, and you watch too many movies. So – Regan says he takes his time after, grinds aboot into the wedding photo, giving it motive. Sparks a smoke, leaves a butt in the ashtray,stays around to make sure everything’s kosher. Doesn’t touch her up. Maybe he’s a pro, Regansays, or maybe her pants are already piss and shit. Or maybe he gets his jollies clockingcorpses draining out.”
“Always nice to have options. How long is she there?”
“No idea. They found her about two hours ago.”
“Who’s on now? Regan?”
“Wanting his name in the paper?”
“He fucking better.”
Kilfeather waited, watching as I waved a card at the uniformed garda standing by the gatepillars, waiting until I ducked under the yellow tape and started up the tarmacadam incline.Then he waved me back. I ignored him, it was what he expected and I hate to disappoint. Hewatched me come, a sour twist at the corner of his mouth, saying, tasting the word: “Rigby.”
“In all his tarnished glory. Who found her, Tom?”
Kilfeather catching fresh air was almost news on its own, especially if I could nail down thebrand of dynamite they’d used to get him out from behind his desk. He leered down at me, six-two of obtuse duty, ruddy cheeks and no neck.
“No chance, Rigby.”
“Did he find her?”
“Tony he. Come on, Tom.”
He put his huge hands up, palms showing, miming a push.
“Back behind the line, Rigby. You know the drill.”
“You can’t tell me who found her?”
“It’s an ongoing investigation. I can’t tell you anything.”
“Not like you to be shy, Tom.”
He didn’t bite. I tried again.
“So what kind of investigation is it?”
“The strictly routine kind. And until it’s over, I can’t tell you anything.”
“You don’t tell me what’s going on, Tom, I’m going to assume the worst. With myimagination, you don’t want to take that risk.”
His voice was flinty.
“I told you, it’s routine.”
I kissed the dice.
“Because it’s not suicide?”
“Who says it’s not suicide?”
“No one. It’s suicide?”
The ruddy cheeks flamed to life.
“Don’t fuck with me, Rigby. Get to fuck out of my sight.”
I shook my head, patient.
“You want me here, Tom, where you can keep an eye on me, keep an ear on what I’m saying. Makelike it’s just the two of us, candles and wine, gypsies playing violins.”
He muttered something that didn’t have any vowels. I kept my tone reasonable.
“It’s only a job, Tom. You’re doing yours, I’m doing mine. All I need’s a couple ofanswers and I’m off, job done.”
He didn’t answer, staring off across the racecourse to the far side of the lake, to somewhereabove where the snow line might have been if it ever got around to snowing. I didn’t blamehim. When the sun shone, the view added an extra twenty grand that the house needed like asecond swimming pool.
“How about this, Tom? I’ll tell you what you already know and if I leave anything out you putme straight.”
“Why would I do that?”
“I hear things. I might know something you don’t.”
“That’s dangerous, Rigby. I could have you up for withholding information, obstructing thecourse of justice.”
“Perverting, Tom, the way I do it.”
He shot a glance over his shoulder, at the unmarked blue Mondeo parked to one side of thehouse, rasped: “So what do I know?”
“She was found – by who we don’t yet know – a couple of hours ago. Throat slit ear to ear,the wound so deep the spinal cord was almost severed. Her underwear was still intact. Coke onthe coffee table, which may or may not be significant. Only fingerprints on the knife – steakknife, serrated edge – are hers. How’m I doing?”
He was back sucking lemons again.
“You forgot the toaster and cuddly toy.”
“No one commits suicide up at the racecourse, Tom. People go home from the racecourse andcommit suicide, maybe. And who nearly severs their spinal cord cutting their throat?”
“Bollocks. Who’s the prime suspect?”
“You, now you know so much.”
“Me and half the town, Tom. Word gets around. How’s the husband?”
He didn’t like the implication.
“You’re a sick man, Rigby.”
“It’s terminal, too. Has he been questioned?”
“Why would we question him?”
“For spite. Overtime. He’s a humpy cunt. Take your pick.”
“Say we did question him. What would we ask?”
“Where he was when it happened. Or would that be too personal?”
“Suicide isn’t a spectator sport, Rigby.”
“You know the stats, Tom. Men top themselves, young men. She’s what – early fifties? She hasthe big house, tennis courts out the back. Trotting around blinding us all with Prada and LouisVuitton. Husband’s best buddies with the chief whip, and if he fucks that up he can alwaysfall back on the ambulance-chasing. If she’s not in the social pages it means the NUJ’s outon strike and the kids are reared, one an intern, the daughter away saving the rain forests,bless her cotton socks.” I cut to the chase. “Why would Imelda Sheridan commit suicide?”
“Money isn’t everything. She might have been depressed.”
I didn’t like it, Kilfeather being so reasonable. It meant I was on the wrong track.
“And maybe she thought Santa wouldn’t come. Who found her, Tom?”
“No can do, Rigby.”
“Jesus, Tom –”
The voice came from over my shoulder, gruff, a cement mixer learning German.
He didn’t look down at me. I looked up to where a wide face was crowned with thin blonde hair.The suit was a size too small but a Big Top would have been a size too small. He had aDesperate Dan chin and you could have landed a helicopter on his chest in a gale. The smell ofstale whiskey wafted across, harsh as petrol. I hoped, for his sake, he was drunk when hebought the camelhair overcoat.
Kilfeather smartened up.
“That’s right, yeah. Brady, isn’t it?”
“When I’m off-duty. Right now it’s Detective Brady. Who’s this fucker?”
“He’s a local hack. Rigby they call him.”
“What’s he doing here?”
“No shit, Holmes. How come he’s here?”
Kilfeather shrugged, squared his shoulders, letting Brady know, he didn’t appreciate the thirddegree.
“How come any of us are here? He heard about it, thought there might be something worthseeing.”
“He get it downtown?”
“Who the fuck knows?”
“Find the fuck out or I’ll cite you in the report. What’d you tell him?”
Kilfeather seethed, cheeks flaming. Dug the word out, rough. “Nothing.”
“You took a while doing it.”
“He thinks she didn’t top herself. I put him straight.”
“Straight – what’s straight?”
“That it’s an ongoing investigation but the signs point to suicide. That much he hadalready.”
Brady spat, pulled up his belt up.
“Next time, send him to me. No – next time, bang him up.”
“Yessir. What charge?”
He looked at me for the first time, top to bottom in a sideways glance.
“Cheap shoes,” he sneered. “And hey, Kilfeather?”
“Get snotty again and I’ll wipe your fucking nose.”
He went back to the Mondeo, lit a cigarette, caught Kilfeather throwing some juju eyeball.Rubbed his nose, slow and deliberate, so Kilfeather glared at me instead. I took the hint andleft.
“How about proof?”
“What’re you talking about, proof?” He waggled his camera bag. “The shots’re ready toroll, beauts too, hole in her neck you could roll the black ball into. Only words these babiesneed are someone’s name on a cheque.”
“What about some kind of idea of why? A detail or two?” I was stalling, watching the maroonCivic pulling up, the bodywork too fresh for it to be anything but a rental. “It needs to bedone right, Herb. We do it right or we don’t do it at all.”
He heard the Civic, turned and looked. Shrugged, the anger evaporating too quick to be healthy.
“It’ll be done alright, but not by us. Here’s the fucking cavalry now.”
She was petite, five-two at most, the kind of late twenties that takes years of practice. Thehair a tangerine peek-a-boo bob, the lipstick apricot. The smile friendly, chasing frecklesacross the bridge of a snub nose. The eyes deep enough to give me vertigo, wide enough to makeme want to jump.
“Gentlemen.” Her accent had the faintest of northern drawls.
“Around here that’s libel,” I said. I nodded towards the house. “And I’d say thepedicure’s been cancelled.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
She ducked under the yellow tape, flashed a card at the garda, clicked away up the tarmacadam.
Herbie fired up the moped, the engine clattering, rattling, until the exhaust belched a tinyblack cloud.
“Want a lift?”
“No, cheers. I’m in a hurry.”
He half-grinned, fiddling with his helmet strap.
“Anything I can be doing?”
“You could be running a check on Tony Sheridan. Background material, whatever we’ll need topuff out the story.”
“Yeah, go the tragic route. All that cash and his wife slashed open. The punters love thatshit.”
“Alright. I’ll buzz you later.”
I was halfway to town, down around the cemetery and cursing myself for not bumming more skinsfrom Herbie, when I finally remembered where I’d left the car. Which was when the Civic purredby, indicated left and pulled up on the gravel verge. She leaned across, unlocked the passengerdoor and pushed it open. She didn’t speak, so I didn’t spoil the moment.
She was a good driver. Her movements were easy, assured, and she didn’t look at me as shedrove. Up close I could see that the cream two-piece was raw silk. The tiny burn scar justabove her left knee whitened every time she changed gear.
She got straight into it.
“What’d you get?”
“Nothing. But that’s off the record.”
“Put your dick away, this is business.”