Authors: Donna Malane
|Diane Rowe |
Missing persons expert Diane Rowe is used to making sense of other
people's lives. It's just a pity she's not having much luck with her
own. The brutal murder of her little sister, Niki, and the break-up of
her marriage have tested her usual tough optimism. When Niki's killer
turns up dead, Diane is determined to nail the truth, despite the best
efforts of her policeman ex-husband to sideline her. But uncovering
Niki's seedy past reveals truths and dangers she never expected - or
wanted - to face. Diane is determined to make sense of it all - whatever
Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.
was scowling at my computer screen when something made me turn around. He was just standing there in the doorway of my office looking at me. There were signs that keeping his stomach flat actually took some work now — in fact, I’d be willing to bet he put on fluttery nylon shorts every morning and pounded his way around Oriental Bay. Definitely on the downward slide towards forty but I knew he wouldn’t take that lying down. I won’t claim that as instinct or clairvoyance. In fact, I have to put it down to experience. He was my ex-husband, my ‘husband-once-removed’ as he referred to himself recently in an uncharacteristic fit of pique. Once, I introduced Sean as ‘my ex’. I thought I was just being accurate but he took offence, thought I was being flippant, I guess, and months later repaid me with the ‘husband-once-removed’ number. Cops are like that — they never forget.
Accuracy is one of my strong points. I don’t have a lot of strong points so bear with me if I’m accurate to the point of pedantry. You see, I’m not being entirely accurate when I say Sean was in the doorway of my office. It was actually my laundry. I could call it my
ex-laundry since as with my ex-husband I’ve turned the taps off and pulled the plugs out, but I’ll stick with ‘office’ to avoid confusion. The room functions perfectly well as a workplace with my laptop on an old door that I nailed on to four four-by-twos, and the two un-Gibbed walls covered with cheap office files. After a while you don’t even notice the closed-off taps sticking out of the other wall. I use them to hang Wolf’s lead on. I was aware Wolf hadn’t barked at Sean’s arrival — in fact he had his nose shoved right up against the muscle behind Sean’s balls. It’s Wolf’s inimitable way of being affectionate. You’ll have to take my word for it that he didn’t learn it from me.
Sean eased himself into the one spare chair, jerking the knee of his trousers up. I’d already heard on the radio news that the body of a middle-aged Caucasian male had been found in upper Cuba Street, and that Detective Sean Callum was heading the investigation into ‘what appeared to be a homicide’. I didn’t suppose Sean had me down as a suspect but I was keeping an open mind about that. Divorce does funny things to the way people think about each other.
‘You heard about the body we found this morning?’ He made it sound like an everyday occurrence. Bodies had never bothered him before and I doubted he was going soft now, apart from around the hips, that is.
I swivelled my chair around to face him. ‘I heard you found
body. What’s so interesting about this one?’ Bodies hadn’t bothered me for some years either.
‘You knew this body, Diane, even if you weren’t exactly bosom buddies. It was James Patrick Wilson, aka Snow.’ Sean stood up, mumbling about coffee as he backed out of the doorway.
He was always good at leaving me alone. Maybe too good. He remembered to duck his head around that last shelf in the hall —
funny the things you remember. The traitorous Wolf followed him into the kitchen, his nails clicking optimistically on the wooden floor. Sean had always been a soft touch for something from the fridge.
For some now-forgotten reason I’d set my digital photo album as screensaver. I stared at the monitor, hypnotised by the images it randomly threw at me from my past. Snow dead was the end of something for me. A year ago my sister’s body had been found on the Island Bay golf course. Niki had a fatal ‘hole in one’ between the shoulder blades where, according to the pathologist’s report, a seven-inch smooth-bladed boning knife had been embedded. Her killer had never been found.
I’d spent the next nine months following every lead, every hint, every development, every dead-end of the police investigation into her killing. And I’d done a fair bit of investigating of my own. I’d looked at every known and suspected murderer, rapist and basic sicko whose criminal record I could get my hands on. Running a missing persons business gave me the skills, and the work I did for the cops linking missing persons to corpses allowed me access to police files — off-the-record access, of course. A degree in criminology gave me the bullshit respectability I needed, and being married to a cop, which I was until six months ago, did the rest.
Well, that was the theory. In reality, when it came to Niki’s case, none of it did me any good at all. I became convinced the cops had let the killer slip from their fingers. Snow had a record of petty but escalating violence against women, dating back to his first offence against his sister when he was fifteen. I’d badgered Sean and when that got me nowhere I went after the cops working Niki’s case, starting with the O/C Suspects and finally ending up in the office of the C/O Inspector Frank McFay, though I’m pretty sure it was McFay who called that meeting.
He told me to ‘Sit down, shut up and listen up,’ and then he lectured me on how tolerant he’d been of my ‘harassing’ his men about Niki’s case, but that it had to stop. I replied that I wouldn’t have had to if he’d done his job properly, or something along those lines. McFay reminded me that he had no obligation to tell me anything about the case but that, given the unusual relationship I had with the police (I wasn’t sure whether he was referring to Sean or my work), he was prepared to tell me that the crime team investigating Niki’s death had looked at Snow and ‘eliminated him from their enquiries’. He said Snow had admitted to a casual relationship with Niki and that’s why his prints were at her apartment and hers at his.
I buttoned my lips at that. I knew Niki’s taste in men and though they could never be described as ‘boys next door’ they didn’t run to Snow’s type. McFay said he’d checked Snow’s alibi for the night of Niki’s death and it was bulletproof. He went on to remind me that Snow had no motive to kill Niki and ‘furthermore’ they had absolutely no evidence Snow had anything to do with Niki’s death. As if that had ever stopped them.
McFay finished his little lecture by saying that they would continue to keep an open mind but at this stage Snow was not a suspect and he was not ‘authorising any further investigative resources in that area’. I was fluent enough in cop-speak to know that a rough translation would be, ‘We know the bastard did it but we can’t nail him for it.’
You don’t want to know what I said to McFay next, but I haven’t had any police jobs since. And so finally I stopped harassing the cops working Niki’s case. I left McFay alone. I gave up. That was three months ago.
On the screen was a photo of me squinting suspiciously into the camera. It was probably Sean who took the photo. He’d be the
invisible person behind the lens, the one looking. Yep, that would be Sean all right.
I heard the coffee being ground then knocked into the little Italian percolator I’d given Sean as a birthday present a couple of years ago. I hoped he wasn’t going to ask for it back. I tapped the keyboard to wake the laptop from sleep mode. The photo was replaced by the text I’d been working on — a written report on the job I’d just finished for a television company making a series about missing persons. I really must do something about that photo album screensaver. Having my laptop dreaming images of me in its sleep mode is downright unhealthy.
The coffee pot was on the gas ring and the mugs were on the table. The fact that Sean still felt at home in my kitchen caused me some less-than-lofty feelings, and he was fondling the intelligence bump in Wolf’s head in a way I definitely found unsettling. Not that Wolf was complaining. His one good eye had glazed over and now resembled the other. Sean used to joke that Wolf was the only police recruit ever thrown out of the force for being one-eyed. Wolf had lost his right eye in the line of duty and was going to be rewarded with a quick bullet to the temple unless some idiot actually wanted a one-eyed dog. Sean got him for me saying he thought we suited each other. He was right. Wolf and I suit each other just fine. I’ve always found Wolf easy to understand. When he wags his tail, he’s happy; when his ears flop low on his head like a beret, he’s sad. When he drools, he wants either food or sex. I was never able to read Sean that well.
I sat at the table so I could face Sean. I noted the signs of tiredness — the pinched skin around his eyes and mouth. Working on homicides did that. I had a fair bit of pinched skin myself.
‘Well, much as I fantasised about killing Snow, I’m afraid you’re wasting your time. It wasn’t me, Detective.’
Sean didn’t seem to think my joke was very funny. He turned the coffee pot off and frowned at it. For a moment I thought he was remembering it was his but then I started to get a strange feeling down my back. It was a bit like ice water being trickled down my spine. A bit like the feeling you get when your husband says, ‘We have to talk.’
‘Pleasant though this is, is that why you’ve come? To tell me Snow’s dead?’
Sean swivelled the coffee pot around three times. I counted.
‘It’s to do with Snow. And it’s about Niki’s case.’
Something was causing the hairs on my neck to stand on end. He was behaving like an odd mixture of the Sean I knew intimately and the more formal Detective Callum that I didn’t particularly want to know.
‘I thought Niki’s case was closed. Now that Snow’s dead, I guess it’s closed for me too,’ I said.
Sean poured the coffee. ‘McFay asked me to come and see you.’
I was fighting the desire for a smoke. I’d given up two months, three weeks and two days ago. Not that I was counting. As if reading my mind, Sean took out a packet of cigarettes and began tapping it against the table. I had to control a sudden desire to suck my thumb, giving weight to the theory that smoking is a response to oral deprivation in infancy. Thumb-sucking wasn’t uppermost in my mind however. If McFay had sent Sean to tell me something about Niki’s case, I wanted to know what it was. I sipped my coffee and gave Wolf, who was leaning affectionately against Sean’s thigh, the same squinty look I’d just seen in that photo Sean had taken of me. Overly sensitive, he crawled under the table and lay on my feet. Wolf, that is.
‘So, tell me about Niki’s case, Detective Callum,’ I said, keeping my voice casual.
Sean began pacing, tapping the cigarette packet against his leg. I sat on my hands to keep my thumb from my mouth.
‘Diane, this isn’t easy …’
He sat down again. I found myself concentrating on his hands. I wondered if he was going to take out one of those damn cigarettes or not. I hadn’t seen one close up for a while and I was wondering how I’d react to it.
Sean switched to police-speak. He did that when he was nervous.
‘Some months back now, new information came to light that suggested we should have another look at Snow as a suspect for Niki’s murder.’
‘Jesus H! What’d I tell you?’
‘Hear me out. It was a tip-off and Gemma reckoned it was a reliable source. She’s a good cop, as you know.’
‘She’s the best. Come on, Sean. For Christ’s sake, what happened?’
There was a metallic taste in the back of my throat. The sound of Wolf scratching was loud in the silence of the room. Sean was frowning into his coffee cup, concentrating on its emptiness. He picked up that damn cigarette packet again, flicking his thumb against the lid. He avoided looking at me, which I suppose I was meant to be grateful for.
‘McFay thought it was a waste of time and told Gemma to drop it. She couldn’t. She was convinced you’d been right and that Snow had killed Niki.’ Sean’s hand went up to stop me before I could even open my mouth. ‘We all thought he did it. You know that. We just couldn’t prove it.’
This was the first time Sean had ever said it outright. I waited.
‘Gemma was convinced she could get him to spill. More than convinced. There was no talking her out of it. She stopped thinking
about Snow as a suspect — to her he
the killer. We all do it, but it’s dangerous to think you know a suspect is guilty. You develop tunnel vision and can miss the real perp because you’re so busy trying to prove
killer is the one.’
My hand strayed to the comfort of Wolf’s head under the table. ‘Spare me the new recruit lecture, Sean. What happened?’
Sean let out a lungful of air. ‘Sorry. Okay. So Gemma set Snow up. She was wired of course. I um … I kept tabs on her from the car.’
I didn’t trust myself to speak so I just nodded.
‘She posed as this wealthy woman, husband beat her up all the time, she wanted him taken out — that sort of thing. She made it sound simple, said her husband went jogging on the outskirts of town each morning before dawn and that it’d be easy enough to make it look like a hit-and-run. It was the kind of scrotey job Snow would be tempted by.’
‘And he bought it?’
‘Well, no one ever said he was bright.’ He flashed a grin at me but I was in no mood for it and he quickly flicked back to serious mode. Sean’s better at reading me than I ever was with him. ‘Anyway, it paid off. Snow wanted in. Gemma had a wad of cash with her and baited him till he was drooling. When she had him hooked she said she wanted proof he could go through with it. She went all wide-eyed, said the rumour was he’d killed a prostitute, sorry, but you know, and well, he went for it and spilled over. He told her everything. He was still boasting about killing Niki when Gemma snapped the cuffs on him. We had it all on tape.’
‘How do you know he wasn’t bullshitting?’
Sean softened his voice. ‘Snow knew stuff, Diane. Things he couldn’t have known unless he’d done it.’
We looked at each other. Sean knew I wouldn’t let it go. He shrugged.
‘The way her body was left, what items of clothing had been removed, details we hadn’t given out to the press. He did it, Diane. You were right.’
I had a flash of the last time I saw Niki. I saw her body in the coffin, the life gone out of her, skin waxy and damp-looking. Gone, gone, gone.
Sean stood up and paced to the window. I stared at his back, saw his shoulders heave in resignation.
‘So what happened?’
‘He got himself a flash lawyer. The tape was deemed in admissible. He denied everything. Gemma got three months’ suspension for “behaviour unbefitting a police officer”. I got off with a censure, a rap over the knuckles.’