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Authors: Russel D. McLean

04-Mothers of the Disappeared (19 page)

BOOK: 04-Mothers of the Disappeared
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Where was Alex’s father?

What happened to him after he talked to his son?

There was taking some time to get your head around something and then there was simply vanishing off the face of the earth.

Hardly the stuff that High Court cases are built from. But then I wasn’t a police officer any more. I was a private citizen. There were things I could do that I would have never even considered as a policeman.

I just hoped I didn’t have to find out what they were.

Jason Taylor’s house, ten minutes outside Ayr, was an anachronistically modern monstrosity that only a small fortune could build. It stood on a gentle hill, overlooking the town on one side and the water on the other. In the summer it might have been oddly beautiful, but with autumn fast ending the building – glass and steel and angles – looked cold and impersonal. Hardly where you’d seek warmth in the winter months.

When Taylor met me at the front door, he shook my hand. ‘I got lucky. An aunt I never knew I had passed away.’

‘This was built in her memory?’

I didn’t mention his mother. Keeping that for the sucker punch.

He smiled, his lips pressing together, and his eyes as cold and impersonal as his house. He said, ‘Come in, please. Don’t take it personally, but I hope you don’t become a regular visitor.’

I didn’t say anything, followed him inside.

The house was a property developer’s wet dream. Built before the recession, I had to guess, it was all open plan and white space. The high windows stretched from ceiling to floor. There was no sign of it actually being lived in. No sneaky stains waiting to be cleaned. No clothes tossed on chairs or books discarded. It was a show house. The word
mausoleum
crept into my brain and bounced around.

He led me to what I assumed was the living area, designated more by the furniture than walls or doors. The flat-screen TV was placed at an odd angle, the real focus on those windows that looked out towards the water.

‘It has to cost you in window-cleaning bills,’ I said.

‘Self-cleaning,’ he replied. His tone implied that it should have been obvious.

‘I usually just let the rain do the job for me,’ I said.

Again that tight-lipped expression that might have passed for a smile.

We sat on white-leather sofas, facing each other. A coffee table separated us. The table was low, with a pine frame and glass top. I wondered if it was self-cleaning like the double glazing. I wondered just how much the aunt had left him.

‘How long have you been here?’

‘Five years, give or take.’

‘A change from your student days,’ I said. ‘Sharing grubby little flats with Alex.’

‘I can’t be held responsible for his actions.’ He thought this over for a moment. ‘If that’s what you’re implying.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I don’t mean to treat you like the enemy. Guess it was all those years being a policeman. You sit down to have a chat with someone, you start treating them like a suspect.’

‘Even when they’re not accused of anything? Even when they’re the ones who helped you break the case?’

I shrugged. ‘Even then.’

‘You want a drink?’ He stood up. The leather of his sofa creaked gently. ‘Coffee, perhaps?’

‘Nothing stronger,’ I said. ‘I’m driving, after all.’

He nodded and walked away. I couldn’t see the kitchen, despite the open plan. He disappeared behind a jutting wall somewhere. Of course, I had yet to work out where he slept or even worked. I looked around, and saw one of the walls had a bookcase embedded. There were very few books. In fact, there were none. Just some ornaments and a few DVDs and Blu-Rays. Mostly blockbusters. Big-budget studio fare that didn’t demand much in the way of thought; the kind of movies sold on star names rather than compelling drama. Looking back at the TV, I noticed that while it didn’t dominate, it was still an impressive size.

I heard footsteps, looked round and saw Taylor come back carrying two white mugs. I said, ‘Not a reader?’

‘I have books.’

‘Just not here.’

‘In my study,’ he said. ‘Mostly for work, you know. Maybe I should read, but there’s just so much else to distract us these days.’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Like flashy websites and sparkling social-media feeds.’

‘You’re not a man who likes the modern world.’

‘It’s fine by me,’ I said. ‘I just think some people need to look beyond the immediate gratification offered by modern technology.’

‘I’ve heard it can be addictive.’

‘Once you realize you can find anything you need online,’ I said, ‘who has time for books?’


Reductio ad absurdum
,’ he said. ‘About the only Latin I know. I think you’re mocking me, Mr McNee. Not a good start to our new friendship.’

‘I’m sorry.’ I reached out and took the coffee from him. I lifted it to my face. The heat made me think of when I was a boy and my mother got rid of colds by placing my head under a wet towel and over a bowl of steaming hot water.

We sat down again.

‘What do you want to talk about, Mr McNee?’

‘The past.’

He shook his head. ‘Everything you could want to know is in the files, surely.’

‘Not everything.’

‘Right.’

‘Tell me about DCI Wood.’

‘Who?’

‘The man who brought you on board, Jason. The detective who called you in because he believed you could do what the techies couldn’t.’

‘Aye, right. Him.’ Jason laughed. It wasn’t natural. ‘Aye, I remember him, all right. Friend of a friend, you know?’

‘No.’

‘His daughter. We went to college together.’

‘He knew about the Moorehead connection?’

‘Alex didn’t know her so well. I mean, she’d know the name, I guess. Me and Alex being friends like we were. But Alex was a homebody, liked to spend his time indoors, know what I mean? Most of the time other people … he didn’t like them.’

‘And you did?’

‘Wasn’t a party animal, like. But—’

I nodded. It was enough to cut him off.

‘Alex was odd. Always. And, Mr McNee, don’t think I don’t know what you’re implying …’

‘What am I implying?’

‘That the recently deceased Deputy Chief Constable Wood was somehow responsible for what happened to Alex. And that I was complicit.’

It wasn’t like I was being overly subtle, I suppose. ‘Well?’

‘Sorry to disappoint.’ He smiled. Unpleasant and unnatural. ‘There’s no conspiracy. He brought me in because he knew who I was. Before that, we had no contact. After that, I never talked to him again. Frankly, I thought he was a bit of a wanker.’

‘That right?’

‘Aye.’

The same way you develop instincts for detecting lies, you also get the feeling when someone’s telling you the truth. Jason Taylor may have been lying about his feelings for his old friend Alex, but I got the impression he was telling the truth about Wood. The moment we started talking about the corrupt old fucker, Taylor’s body language had relaxed considerably. I had lost the scent of his deception, and he knew it.

So if I was wrong about Wood, was I wrong about anything else?

I said, ‘So if you weren’t coerced, tell me why you turned on your friend?’

‘He was a pervert.’

‘You didn’t know that before you found those images.’ I had to wonder what kind of friend would deliberately seek out evidence to implicate his buddy in any crime. Surely he would have been looking to prove Moorehead’s innocence?

All the poise and suave he liked to project vanished for just a moment, revealing what I’d seen before; a man trying to hide his own secrets.

‘Tell me how you knew. Because when you were brought on board, no one knew about the images. All they knew was that a child was dead.’

‘I … it was … the situation. That was … I mean, your boss said it, right? That DI?’

‘Bright. His name was Ernie Bright.’

‘Sure. Right. That’s the one. He said it. He said that the way Alex found the body was … too easy. Too much of a coincidence. I agreed with him. And there were other things, too. Just set off warning bells.’

‘OK,’ I said. ‘Then tell me about Alex.’

‘What about him?’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘How about everything?’

THIRTY-ONE

A
lex Moorehead was a genius.

He was also introverted, uncertain, prone to panic attacks and convinced that he would be proved wrong in spectacular fashion. About everything.

This, at least, according to Jason Taylor.

‘He had this fear that one day he would just forget everything he knew about computers. The one thing he believed made him special would just vanish. Or worse, people would realize it had never been there in the first place.’

They met on the second day of term. They stayed at the same halls, and were often, at half-past two in the morning, the only two people left in the computing lab working on something most of their classmates wouldn’t understand even by graduation.

They were bona-fide geeks.

‘I’m not sure Alex even had a proper girlfriend at school,’ Taylor said in a way I wasn’t sure was meant to be a joke.

Taylor didn’t have half the smarts of his new friend. He understood that even then. But Taylor was the one with the business sense, the one with the ambition. ‘You meet a genius,’ he told me, ‘and if the first thing you think isn’t, how can I make money off this guy, then you’re an idiot.’

But their friendship wasn’t simple utilitarianism. Taylor grew to like the shy, introverted geek. Over the course of the next few months, they spent more and more time together. They shared a love of kung-fu flicks on dodgy VHS import and the kind of hair rock that must have seemed at odds with their button-down appearance.

‘Sounds odd,’ he told me, ‘but it’s true.’

They started planning for the future. Designed programs riffing off their favourite games. ‘We had this idea for a Doom rip-off,’ he said. ‘It was pretty good, but you know how things are at that age. We had all these half-finished projects that never really went anywhere.’

The big one, though, was anti-virus software. ‘Security’s big in computing,’ Taylor told me. ‘Always has been, always will be. Data is commerce online, and you can never be too careful about what you do with that data, whether it’s your own or a client’s. The system we designed was supposed to be this dynamic, self-propagating security system that dealt intelligently with threats, constantly encrypted secure data and generally did what your standard AV does with the added bonus that it really learned how to protect itself.’

Sounded good to me. But apparently there were issues with the cost of the software and upkeep that stopped the project from becoming a real business proposition.

In the end Taylor went down south, worked for a few game-development companies and finally started Redboot. But Alex, so Taylor said, never seemed too worried about going beyond the border. He worked for several Scottish start-ups before drifting into IT repair.

‘All that genius going to waste,’ Taylor said. He seemed genuinely to regret what happened. ‘Bloody shame, really. He could have done anything, but he never had the confidence.’

All of this tallied with what he said the first time around. I had read his statements. Hearing the way he told the story, however, it came across as too smooth. Thought through. Practised.

How had it sounded the first time? Not written down and captured on the page, but witnessed in an interview room by two senior coppers.

‘So what about all those plans you had together? What about using him to earn yourself some serious cash?’

‘The other problem with geniuses,’ he said, ‘is that they’re not as focused as you think they’d be. Try getting him to do anything he didn’t want to do? Like coaxing a five-year-old to eat their greens.’ He smiled, then. Something bashful in the smile that I didn’t really understand. ‘He wanted to do his own thing, and every time I had a sound idea, he’d laugh it off.’

But they remained friends. Good friends. They’d meet up every few months, drink a bit too much, maybe break out some hair records and talk TV and comics. ‘We were geeks,’ he said. ‘I know we were. The kind of guys who never really grow up.’ He was silent for a second, and seemed to consider something. ‘I wonder … I mean, if that had something to do with what he did. The fact that he never really grew up …’

I shook my head. ‘The geeks are the geeks,’ I said. ‘They tend not to be violent or psychopathic.’

‘Despite what the
Daily Mail
says about computer games players?’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Despite that.’

But something was rattling inside my head: the kind of guys who never really grow up.

I was thinking about his mother. His apparent devotion to her so many years after her death. The fact he talked about her as though she was still alive.

Taylor told me how he started to worry about Alex. How every time they saw each other, it became clear that Alex was becoming more removed from the world around him. ‘He was never really a guy for making friends, but that became more and more pronounced. At least at work. He always seemed to get on well with his neighbours,’ Taylor said.

He hesitated, then. As though realizing what he’d just said.

I was getting Oscar-nomination vibes from Taylor. Like I’d suspected before, this was an act. He was trying to lead me somewhere.

Same trick he’d pulled all those years ago?

It should have been my first major investigation. Ernie had been in charge, sure, but he’d involved me as much as possible. He’d run every theory past me, made sure I sat in on the interviews. I was as responsible as Ernie for any mistakes that had been made.

And then, at the critical moment, I had been invalided out. The car crash that sent my whole life off course also impacted the investigation. The loss of an investigating officer and the substitution of a man who was clearly looking to clear the case as quickly as possible so he could return to the politicking that was taking him to the top had meant that the investigation lost its focus. Although it appeared to regain it, I had to wonder if perhaps someone had been able to push it in a direction that suited their own needs.

Ernie and Wood had overlooked Taylor. Not just because of Wood’s personal connection to the IT geek, but because he gently nudged them towards Moorehead using what I now knew to be planted evidence, and the smooth story that he recounted about how awkward their suspect was, how there was always something a little different about Alex Moorehead.

BOOK: 04-Mothers of the Disappeared
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