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Authors: Russel D. McLean

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BOOK: 04-Mothers of the Disappeared
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The tease. It’s all about the tease. Like a good stripper, gossip-masters know that the build-up is as important as the reveal. Expectation is everything.

The bartender was going to talk. He just needed the right incentive. The proper sense of drama.

He finally snapped as I mopped up the gravy with the last of his rustic-cut chips, leaning over the bar with a nervous expression and asking, ‘Why’re you interested, anyway? Thought there was nothing more to say on the matter. His boy’s never going to talk to anyone, right? Taking those poor little buggers to the grave with him, so I hear.’

I chewed slowly. Swallowed. Took a swig of my Coke and then looked up at him. I smiled softly, conspiratorially. ‘Thought you didn’t want my type round here asking questions?’

‘You seem different, mate.’

‘Yeah?’ I looked around. Conspiratorial. In his mind, I was Bob Woodward, and he was Deep Throat.

The bar was still quiet. The old duffer in the corner was lost in his own world, still reading that newspaper, intent on each and every word in each and every article.

The barman was free to talk.

‘Yeah.’ He stood back again. ‘Call it a gut instinct.’

‘I’m working under client confidentiality. I can’t possibly comment.’

‘You can trust me …’

I hesitated. ‘They think he’s close to talking,’ I said. ‘The son.’

‘Really?’

‘There are conditions, of course. Things that he wants. That he’s asked for.’

The bartender’s cheeks flushed under those sideburns. He was hitting middle age, would soon start to resemble Mr Bumble from
Oliver Twist
if he wasn’t careful. He licked his lips. ‘Things?’

‘I can’t talk about it. But that’s why I’m here. Need to talk to the father. Unofficially, of course. You know how it is.’

He nodded. I don’t think he really did know what I meant, but he was desperate to be part of something grander and more exciting than the everyday grind.

‘Thing is,’ I said. ‘His old man won’t talk to me. And who can blame him? I’m just trying to find a way to get him to open up.’

‘Don’t think there’s much chance of that,’ said the bartender. ‘I mean everyone knows who he is, but it’s an open secret. We just call him Mr Abbott when we see him. No one’s got the balls to actually say what they know.’

‘You all just recognized him?’

‘In a place like this, word travels fast. Heard it on the grapevine, know what I mean?’ He leaned forward again. All I had to do now was look interested, guide him occasionally, and I’d get what I needed. Which was context. Background. A sense that my visit here wasn’t entirely wasted. ‘It was the Mrs noticed first. She loves the true-crime stuff. Has this whole bookshelf of books about unsolved cases, famous killers, all the rest of it. Not sick stuff, mind. But she reckons she should have been a cop rather than a chef.’

‘I think she’s better off being a chef. Copper’s life isn’t what it is on telly.’

‘That’s what she says,’ he replied, and laughed. We were still mates, here. My new-found friend was looking relaxed, convinced I wasn’t some sicko in town to make trouble. ‘But, yeah, she recognized him. And then pretty much everyone did. But he can’t help it, you know? His son’s a psycho. Got to be tough. He just wants to be left alone, know what I mean?’

‘Yeah, I understand.’

‘No one’s ever really brought it up, face to face, I mean. Why would you? Long as he keeps his house in step with everyone else, everyone around here figures he can keep as much to himself as he likes.’

‘That’s the important thing round here? Keeping your house in good nick?’

‘We’ve won Best Kept Village three years out of six.’

‘I see.’

‘Matter of pride.’

‘So’s your steak and ale pie.’

‘I’ll tell Mo that,’ he said. ‘But yeah, he doesn’t really get out much into village life. Aside from occasionally popping into a coffee morning.’

‘He drink in here?’

‘He came in once or twice when he first arrived. Think he was trying to fit in, like, but maybe he knew that we knew who he was. Pleasant enough, though. Liked the steak and ale, too.’

‘Man of taste. Maybe I’ll open with that. Give us some common ground.’

‘That’s what I’d do, but I’m no detective.’

‘He doesn’t socialize with anyone, then?’

‘No, not really. Well, Mrs Hutton. She runs the newsagent’s, like. He has a standing order there for his papers and magazines. Does crosswords and the like.’ I thought about his bookshelves, the battered puzzle books I’d seen. ‘Everyone’s got to have a hobby, I guess. And aside from that and his garden, I don’t know what else he does with his time.’

I downed the last of the Coke. Stood up. ‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘You’ve been a big help.’

‘Right,’ he said. ‘You ever write a book about this, be sure and send one for Mo. She’d love it, you know?’

‘I’ll remember that.’

ELEVEN

L
eaving the pub, I felt at a loss.

What the hell was I doing here? Reopening an old man’s wounds because of a hunch?

Or worse, was I distracting myself from real problems? Such as Griggs’s attempts to manipulate me?

I took a walk down to the river, walked the footpath like any other tourist. It was late in the day. I’d wound up hanging around longer than anticipated. Talking to Moorehead’s father had left me feeling restless, uncertain. The drive back seemed long and daunting. Four hours could be an eternity in the wrong frame of mind. What I needed was to unwind. To digest everything I had heard. I thought about the call of a pint at the Coleman Arms. The appeal of a freshly laundered hotel bed.

Maybe it would be a good idea. Give me time to rest and reassess.

More important, give me a chance to have that pint. Some things in life can always be eased by a good beer.

Walking the river, the chirping of crickets erupted from somewhere nearby, along with the call of birds somewhere among the trees. The sounds were unfamiliar to me. Dundee is hardly a metropolis, but its sounds are those of industry and the modern age: the rush of cars, the hum of generators, the beat of music from clubs and pubs. Those were the noises that welcomed my nights. To hear the sounds of animals and the rush of water was unsettling. And, at the same time, relaxing. I closed my eyes as I stood at the edge of the river and just let it wash over me.

My phone vibrated gently.

I took a deep breath. Even out here, in a place that promised isolation and calm, there was always something to remind you that society wasn’t ready to let you go. There is always a reminder; a message, an alert, a vibration that recalls you to your duties in the twenty-four-hour, never-sleep culture that we have slowly established since the industrial revolution. You could never really escape. Tied by invisible cords to the rest of your life, no matter where you ran to.

I checked the display that glowed unnaturally in the dim light of early evening. Unknown number. Clicked to the message content.

Any thoughts? Offer won’t last forever. S.

I nearly tossed the phone. Just wanted rid of it. And the rest of my life. Had this urge to run into the trees across the other side of the water. Return to nature completely. Forget about the world, about all the expectations that civilization brought with it.

But I didn’t.

What I did was, I pocketed my phone, turned and walked back to the village.

I woke at 3 a.m., swallowed, still tasting the whisky I’d taken as a nightcap at the bar. The bartender had brought through Mo, his wife, so they could talk to me about what it meant to be a real private detective. They were hospitable and attentive, but all I really wanted was to get to my room and get my head together. By the time I was on my third Talisker, I persuaded them that I needed to do some paperwork before retiring.

Truth be told, though, I could feel myself getting drunk, reaching the point of no return. And I wanted my head clear in the morning.

The room they gave me was small, tucked away on the second floor, at the rear of the building. There were wooden struts built into the whitewashed walls. It was the kind of room Sherlock Holmes might have taken when a case required a country visit. The bed welcomed me with a comforting but firm embrace, and I was gone the moment my head hit the pillow. No time to undress or get under the sheets.

But then, at 3 a.m., I woke.

My eyes adjusted to the gloom. Something tickled at the back of my mind, maybe the remnants of a dream, or some idea that had been struggling to form while I slept. I tried to let it come through, take on some shape I could recognize, but nothing happened.

Eventually I gave in and tried to close my eyes.

But I couldn’t relax.

I swung my legs off the bed. Finally, I took off my shoes and let my bare feet sink into the thick carpet. Stood up, walked to the window, looked out across the car park and to the countryside beyond. I understood why Jonathan Moorehead would choose a place like this. There was nowhere he could hide without the risk of someone like Mo recognizing his face, making the connection to the man he was trying to hide from. But at least in a place like this, he could pretend that the rest of the world no longer existed. Lose himself in the illusion of isolation. City workers escaped the reality of their working life by retreating to the countryside. A man like Jonathan Moorehead could attempt the same thing.

I wondered if it worked. Had my visit brought back unpleasant memories he had laid to rest? Or did he still live with them every day, unable to escape no matter how hard he tried?

7.30 found me awake once more. I had spent maybe half an hour feeling like I’d never sleep again, before it took me without warning. But when I opened my eyes, that itch was still at the back of my brain; an idea I couldn’t quite express, that insisted upon itself but had no idea how to achieve comprehensibility.

I showered, got dressed in the clothes I’d worn the day before. Not much I could do about that, considering I hadn’t planned on staying overnight. I didn’t think it was too noticeable, however. When I figured I was presentable, I slipped downstairs where the bartender and his wife had assured me there would be a full breakfast laid on.

At nine, I walked to the newsagent’s. The village was waking up, but I couldn’t see any difference from the evening before, when I first arrived. A few more people on the streets perhaps, none of them paying attention to me, probably used to tourists and visitors in the area.

The bell jangled above my head as I entered the tiny shop. How much of this, I had to wonder, was for show? The village seemed like an actor who never left his role, who was always in character.

There were only three of us in the store. Myself, the woman behind the till, and Jonathan Moorehead. He had his back to me, paying for his paper. I pretended to examine the racks until he turned around.

‘I thought you were gone,’ he said.

‘Please, just hear me out.’

We walked down to the water’s edge. The sun hid behind the clouds, and the air was a little frosty. ‘Always starts cold, even in summer,’ Mr Moorehead said. ‘Warms up by eleven, usually.’

We didn’t say much more for a while.

I let him set the pace.

‘Why are you here?’

‘You never talked to your son,’ I said. ‘Even when we asked for your assistance.’

‘What was I supposed to say?’

‘He might have listened to you. You’re his father.’

‘Would you still listen to your dad?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘We all would. Our parents …’ I hesitated. ‘They have power over us, whether we admit it or not.’

‘I don’t have power over him. If I did, then he wouldn’t be where he is now. Nothing’s changed since you last tried to talk me round to this.’

‘He wasn’t ready to talk before,’ I said. ‘He might be, now. With the right persuasion.’

‘What good would it do?’

‘If he could tell us about the other bodies,’ I said, ‘it would lay a lot of ghosts to rest.’

Mr Moorehead seemed to consider this for a moment. He picked up a stone from the bank, skimmed it across the water to the other side. ‘When he was a boy, he loved to skim stones. We’d go walking, find a river or a small pond, bounce those pebbles as far as we could. Even better, when we went to the beach.’

‘I know it’s a lot to ask,’ I said. ‘But it would help my client lay her own ghosts to rest. Maybe others, too.’

He considered this. Then said, ‘I’ll need some time. To think it over.’

TWELVE

I
was back in Dundee that afternoon. Sorted some paperwork before calling Mrs Farnham.

Displacement activity? She had asked that I update her every two to three days, even if there was nothing much to say. And I felt there was nothing much to say right now. She just wanted to know that I was working the case.

I’ve never been comfortable with clients who want close contact. Always feels like they don’t quite trust you.

They probably don’t.

‘Nothing’s changed for his father,’ I said. ‘Same as it was. He doesn’t want anything to do with his son. Doesn’t want to face the possibility that he was in some way responsible for what happened.’

‘Every parent feels responsible for their child’s behaviour.’ She paused for a moment. ‘I remember when I’d get the call from the school, you know, if Justin misbehaved. I’d wonder what I’d done as a parent to make him act like that. The guilt …’ I could hear a small smile in her voice, laughing at herself and her own foolishness as if she couldn’t quite connect the memories to the very real tragedy that was to follow them. ‘… the guilt was overwhelming to me. Second-guessing the values I taught him, the way I treated him. I can only imagine how Mr Moorehead feels …’

Her thoughts trailed off. I had nothing to fill the empty air between us.

Finally, she said, ‘I’d like to meet him.’

‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’

She was silent. Had I insulted her? ‘I just want him to take this slowly. In many ways he’s tried to distance himself from what happened. If anything were to push him away again, even accidentally.’

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I understand.’

But there was a disappointment in her voice. She didn’t really understand. Even though she knew it was a bad idea, she thought I wasn’t pushing sufficiently.

BOOK: 04-Mothers of the Disappeared
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