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Authors: Russel D. McLean

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BOOK: 04-Mothers of the Disappeared
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But we were here, and the drinks were down.

‘You know about the Young case?’

‘Young? Oh, you mean the perv?’

‘That’s the one.’

The case had been open for months. Aaron Young had been making perverted calls to women around the city. I knew the copper who brought him in. Name of Parker. We’d worked together a few times. I didn’t have strong feelings about him as a copper. He did the job, said the right things to the right people, didn’t make waves. Thing was, I knew the call that Parker charged Young with was not one that Young had made.

And Parker knew that, too.

But what do you do?

Dob in a fellow officer? People joke about the thin blue line, but those who walk along it understand how sometimes there can be temptations to bend the rules.

Ernie wasn’t a squealer. Wasn’t going to run to internal affairs. While the blue line maybe isn’t as thick as some would like you to believe, it still exists. Where we can, we still try protect our own.

So I told him.

Keeping names out of it.

Just in case.

‘I’m not reporting anyone,’ Ernie said. ‘But I’ve considered it myself more than once. It’s the best solution to a bad problem. You fit someone up not because they did it but because they might as well have done it, or because they’re the easy solution to your problem.’

‘We did it because we knew about the other—’

‘Are you going to justify this to me?’

‘No.’

He nodded. ‘It’s a choice you have to make yourself. But I’ve often thought about what would be the worst thing that could happen to me as a copper. I came to the conclusion that it would be making sure a jury sent the wrong guy away. And knowing that I’d done it.’

‘And what if the wrong guy was still a scumbag?’

‘Doesn’t matter. He’s innocent of that one crime, then he doesn’t deserve to pay for it. Get him for what he did do.’

I thought it over. Sipped my pint slowly.

I trusted Ernie. Believed what he told me. He was a good copper. The model I aspired to.

And even years later, given all that I learned about his past and his relationship with David Burns, and all the questions that hung in the air over his death, I still lived by the advice he had given me.

If he’s innocent, he doesn’t deserve to pay for it.

If there was any doubt in my mind about Alex Moorehead’s guilt or innocence, I had to confirm whether that doubt was justified. Because even if he’d done bad things in his life, the idea that he had served a sentence for something he hadn’t done was never going to sit easy with me.

And it wouldn’t sit well with Ernie, either.

SEVENTEEN

T
hree days.

No sign of Moorehead senior. Like he’d vanished.

The Great Houdini.

Last time anyone saw him was as he left the prison. He didn’t say anything, just walked to his car, started the engine and drove away.

I was out of the loop, officially speaking. Wemyss had called me in just to show me how badly I’d fucked up the case. Now he was pursuing his own lines of inquiry.

I knew what he was thinking: the father had something to hide. Something that his son had said or that he had said to his son. Something none of us ever got to hear. Something you couldn’t even try and lip-read. The angle was wrong, and the picture too grainy to make out the finer details.

All the same, it seemed obvious. If we were stuck in some cheap thriller, the dad would be the bad guy and soon enough the hero cop would track him down and get him to confess. That’s how these things worked. That’s how we expected them to work.

Nothing to say that wasn’t going to happen. But I figured there was more going on than that.

Because what I’ve found is that in real life there is usually no such thing as the simple explanation. The further back you go trying to explain something, the more tied up in knots the narrative becomes. You can’t untangle motivation and action into a neat and explicable line. There are always loose ends, doubts and unanswered questions. Events rarely turn out the way you expect them to.

And you don’t always see them tied up and delivered with a bow. Sometimes gaffer tape, perhaps, but never a bow.

Mrs Farnham’s deposits came through as she told me they would, along with an email thanking me for all I had done.

Question was, had I really done anything? Was she merely fulfilling her obligation as a client? Or merely happy for any kind of closure? After all, with Alex Moorehead dead, she could tell herself anything she liked. And it had to be true because no one else could tell her different.

Now all I had left was waiting for the other shoe to drop regarding my suspension from the Association and the charges that Sandy Griggs had threatened me with.

DI Kellen hadn’t made her move yet.

Made me wonder what she was waiting for. Permission? Or the kind of evidence that would damn me no matter what I said?

I distracted myself with paperwork. Found that I kept thinking about Alex Moorehead. About the reasons why he would kill himself.

If it was guilt, and if he felt that guilt so deeply that he took his own life, then why did he wait so long to do it?

What changed?

Elizabeth Farnham lived just north of Camperdown, on the edge of the city. Isolated enough, and perhaps a reminder of her days when she lived with her husband and son in the country. Before her son was taken from her. Before her husband left to deal with their loss in his own way. Before her world was destroyed.

As I pulled up outside the modest bungalow, I noticed a number of cars parked on the street outside. I had to pull in maybe fifteen, twenty metres away and walk back down. The air was cool, but not unpleasant, and the wind ruffled, caressing me.

I thought about Susan. But only for a moment.

As I got to the front door, I saw into the living room through the large windows at the front. There were people gathered in there. All of them sitting around, talking. Like a book group or a community meeting, perhaps.

I wanted to turn and go. But someone had already seen me.

Elizabeth Farnham was on her feet, looking out at me.

We met at the front door, where she kept her distance from me.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t know …’

‘Why are you here?’

‘I wanted to apologize. I just … what you asked me to do … I know that it wasn’t …’

‘You did everything you could.’

‘I didn’t do anything.’

She didn’t reply.

I said, ‘I should go.’ Wondering what impulse had made me come out here in the first place.

‘No,’ she said. Looking at me oddly, a hesitance and an uncertainty about her that I’d seen before, when she first asked for my help. ‘Come in,’ she said, finally. ‘I think you should meet the rest of us.’

It was a room full of ghosts.

When I walked in, everyone’s eyes fell on me. I was an intruder in their space. Their gaze was expectant; as though they expected me to bring answers they had been seeking all their life.

And these women were seeking answers.

The same answers Mrs Farnham wanted.

As I looked around the room, I knew every face there. Had seen all of them in the past few days, staring from the walls of a police incident room. But in that room, they had been lifeless; frozen in a moment, rendered unreal by the magic of photography.

Now they were in front of me, brought to life, and the sadness I felt looking at them only increased with their newfound reality.

I wanted to tell them how sorry I was for what had happened, how I wished I could tell them the truth, finally let them come to terms with the deaths of their sons.

But I couldn’t.

All I could do was stand there.

One of the women finally spoke out. I recognized her. Older than the image I had seen, but still with the same eyes and pointed chin that made her face seem severe up until the moment she smiled. Her name was Mary Warrington, and her son’s name had been Kyle. ‘You spoke to him. Alex Moorehead. Elizabeth says you were the last person to speak to him before …’

‘I wish he had told me something.’

Another woman spoke. More hesitant, her words coming out in bursts, like she had to breathe between each syllable. She was older than the rest, had allowed her hair to grey and her skin to sag, accepting the inevitability of her years. No longer a mother, she could have been a grandmother. It took me a moment to place her face on the wall, to know her name. ‘You looked into his eyes. Tell me, did he do it? Did he kill our sons?’

The question demanded an answer. A definitive one.

I had avoided giving one up until now, even to myself.

‘I think …’ I hesitated. They were watching me, all of them. None of them moving. As frozen as their photographs. ‘I don’t know. But I want to find the answers.’

I felt a ripple run through them. Like a crowd of lions who’d just realized how hungry they were.

The woman whose voice had cracked spoke up again, stronger this time. ‘We’ve heard empty promises before, Mr McNee.’

Someone else said, ‘You were the one who made them. You and your detective inspector.’

‘I’m not making promises,’ I said. ‘I’m not asking for money. But you deserve answers, and I think that Alex Moorehead’s death has opened up lines of inquiry that may have been hidden before.’

‘But you will want money?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No money. This is for you. For your sons. Maybe too little, too late. But it’s something.’

‘If you want to help us,’ Mrs Farnham said, ‘then maybe you should stay. Just for a little while.’ She gestured for me to take a seat.

I hesitated.

But then stepped forward, sat down.

And listened.

EIGHTEEN

I
could not bring back their sons.

Their boys were gone for ever.

But I could offer them closure.

It’s one thing to realize that you can’t save everybody, that you can’t solve every problem. It’s another thing to quit trying.

Old habits. Hard to quit.

This one was harder than smoking.

I used to use it as an excuse to escape from myself. Lose myself in other people’s problems to try and deflect the reality of my own life. Two years earlier, I’d doggedly pursued a missing teenager not because anyone asked me to but because it stopped me from thinking about how much of a mess my own life was in at the time.

I’d wound up making things worse, of course.

Because I wasn’t focused.

Because I was escaping something else.

He was waiting for me. Sitting out in reception and chatting to Dot. Smiled when I came in, and I thought of a wolf from some Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale.

The Sandy Griggs I remembered was a decent guy. Hell of a temper, sure, but one of the good ones. Now it was like something else had slipped into that man’s skin. It leered out at me from beneath the exterior of the placid policeman.

I felt like Little Red Riding Hood seeing her grandma on that blood-soaked morning.

‘I don’t have the time,’ I told him. He didn’t get the message.

In my office, the door closed, I said, ‘Make your charges or get the hell out of my life.’ The waiting made it worse. A fact he was more than aware of. Something, I’m sure, he was counting on.

He pulled an envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket and passed it to me. I took it reluctantly and looked inside.

‘Recognize her?’

The image was fifteen or twenty years earlier, but just three hours ago I’d sat in a room with this woman and listened to her tell me about the pain her son’s disappearance had caused her, how they’d never found the body, how she’d known, the second she saw Alex Moorehead’s face on the television when he was arrested, that this was the man who had killed her son.

‘The women you spoke to earlier,’ he said. ‘You know there’s nothing you can do?’

‘Why show me this?’

‘Look at the others.’

I did.

Shivered when I saw the photos of her with an older gentleman and her son, the three of them walking together along Broughty Ferry Beach, holding ice-cream cones, the son smiling and the old man looking more content than I’d ever known him to be. Back in the days when he had a full head of hair.

‘Face it,’ Griggs said. ‘No matter where you go in this city, you can’t escape him.’

‘This is a joke,’ I said. ‘Photoshop, some shite like that? I didn’t think you’d take it so far as trying to fuck with my head.’

Griggs smiled. ‘They were neighbours, nothing more. The old man probably never made the connection between Alex Moorehead and the young lad’s disappearance. He’d have heard third-hand. But when they lived next door to each other, Burns used to take an interest. A neighbourly interest. She was a single mother, after all, and her boy was boisterous. I’m not saying there was anything sexual.’

There wouldn’t have been. David Burns took his self-proclaimed role as a family man seriously. He had never betrayed his wife. Not beyond lying to her about how he made his money. And even then, it was a lie in which she willingly participated.

‘Why are you showing me this?’

‘I’m showing you that you have another way in, McNee. That maybe there are different ways to gain his trust. Sometimes a shared cause can—’

‘Why are you so desperate? You’ve had more than enough opportunities to put people in with Burns before. What makes me so special?’

‘Three years ago, you’d have killed yourself to put him away. I’ve read your file. Probably know you better than you know yourself.’

‘Don’t give me that shite,’ I said.

People told me that constantly, that they knew me, that they understood who I was. Sometimes, I think, they meant it. Looking at myself in a mirror, sometimes I tried to understand what that meant. What they told me they understood was often something I never saw in myself.

Which meant what, precisely? That I was deluding myself? That they were more perceptive than I could ever hope to be?

Or that somehow I was a human mirror? That when people looked at me, they didn’t really see the person I was, but whatever they were looking for in the first place: themselves.

BOOK: 04-Mothers of the Disappeared
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