Authors: Kathy Reichs
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General
“The fuckstick’s already on my back.”
“Meaning I’m topping his speed dial.”
“Perhaps he has something useful to tell you.”
“He’s trying to slime into my case.”
Sensing further discussion of Tinker would be unproductive, I changed tack. “What’s your take on Rodas?”
“Lose the cap. It ain’t bear season.”
“Actually, it is. In some counties.”
“Guy seems okay.”
“His first name is Umpie.”
“I may have to rethink my view. Look, while I’m tied up with Leal, what say you go back over Nance. See if anything jumps out at you.”
“Sure.” I closed my eyes for a moment. Rebunched the tissue. “You think you’ll find her alive?”
“I gotta get back on the street.”
Three beeps, then dead air.
Birdie was in the kitchen staring at his dish. I filled it.
No appetite, but I forced myself to eat. Tuna on toast. Gourmet.
When I was finished, I took the Nance file to the dining room and spread the folders on the table. I started with the case review I’d glanced at earlier.
The cold meds were still jamming my wiring. And the morning’s retelling of the horror had me on edge. Instead of Lizzie Nance, I kept seeing the old house on rue de Sébastopol. The dank cellar where Pomerleau and Catts had caged their victims.
The case had started quietly enough. Many do. A pizza-by-theslice joint. Leaky pipes. A long forgotten staircase.
Who knew why the plumber ventured into the basement. How he spotted the human femur sticking out of the dirt.
The proprietor called the cops. The cops called me.
I excavated three partial skeletons, one in a box, two buried naked in shallow graves. I brought them to my lab for analysis. Young girls.
Foul play? No one thought so at first. The bones were probably ancient, like the rat-infested building under which they lay.
Radioactive isotopes proved that theory wrong.
Ryan worked the case also. And a city cop named Luc Claudel.
In the end we learned the names of the dead. The names of their killers.
But questions remained.
The bones provided no clue as to cause of death. Did the girls die of starvation? Abuse? Loss of will to live another day in hell?
We learned of one captive from a journal entry. Never found her remains. Kimberly Harris. Hamilton. Hawking. Where was this young woman whose name I couldn’t remember? Did she lie somewhere in an unmarked grave? Did others?
One victim had survived, and I’d thought of her from time to time ever since. Asked myself: Is recovery possible after years of torture and isolation? After a childhood stolen by madness?
Andrew Ryan also invaded my thoughts. More fragmented images.
Ryan’s features gouged from darkness by the soft yellow of my porch light.
Ryan’s tears as he talked of Lily’s death. His embarrassment at having shed them.
Ryan’s back receding into the night.
Ryan didn’t inform his superiors, didn’t take leave. He told no one his destination or when he’d return.
That no one included me.
I’d numbed the pain by blocking Ryan from my thoughts.
Now, as I tried to focus, it all crashed back.
Murdered children in Montreal. Murdered children in Vermont, possibly Charlotte. The unthinkable. The horrific possibility that Anique Pomerleau was active again.
Pressure to locate a man I’d forced myself to forget. To persuade him to reenter a world he’d abandoned.
And waves of fever rolling over me.
At nine I gave up.
After a hot, steamy shower, I downed two more tabs and dropped back into bed.
I’d been there only moments when the landline rang.
The voice blindsided my overwrought, overmedicated brain.
I LOVE THE
Carolina mountains. Love driving the narrow two lanes that worm like twisty black ribbons through the humpty-back giants.
That morning the beauty was wasted on me. I hadn’t the time. Or the mindset for a Blue Ridge outing.
The dashboard clock said 7:44
. I’d been up two hours, on the road ninety minutes. Surprisingly, I felt good. Or at least better. God bless chemistry.
Just before Marion, I turned east off Highway 226. The sun floated above the horizon, a yellow-orange ball winking on and off as I rounded curve after curve. Long slanted rays sparked mist still lingering in low spots between the ridges.
I passed a field with a chocolate mare grazing side by side with her colt. Both raised their heads and ears, mildly curious, then resumed eating.
Within minutes a sign peeked from the foliage on my right. Wrought-iron script announced the entrance to Heatherhill Farm. Discreetly. If you don’t know we’re here, just keep on motoring.
I turned onto an unmarked strip of asphalt arrowing through enormous azaleas and rhododendron. When I cracked the window, a post-dawn mix scented the car’s interior. Pine, wet leaves, damp earth.
Soon I passed buildings, some small, some large, each looking like a set straight out of
Christmas in Connecticut.
Ivy-covered chimneys, long porches, white siding, black shutters.
I knew Heatherhill’s forty acres contained multiple structures. A chronic-pain center. A gym. A library. A computer lab. Amenities for the well heeled with issues.
Knew only too well.
Beyond the four-story main hospital, I split off onto a tributary road, passed a low-rise building housing business and admissions offices, and made another left. The tiny lane ended fifty yards later in a rectangle of gravel enclosed by a white picket fence.
I parked, grabbed my jacket and purse, and got out.
Through a gate in the fence, a flagstone path led to a small bungalow. Above its door, a sign said
One calming breath, then I started toward it.
On the inside, River House could have been anyone’s mountain cottage. Anyone with a predilection for antique reproductions and a whole lot of bucks.
The floors were wide plank and covered with Oushaks and Sarouks that cost more than my house. The upholstery involved shades a decorator probably called mushroom and moss. The wooden pieces were stained and distressed to look old.
I wound through the living room, past gas-fed flames dancing in a stacked stone fireplace, and exited double glass doors at the back of the house. The deck held a teak table and matching chairs, several tubs planted with pansies and marigolds, and four chaise lounges with bright melon cushions.
The farthest chaise had been displaced several feet and angled away from the others. On it was a woman with white hair cut pixie-short. Before her, on the porch rail, sat a thick ceramic mug. The woman wore khaki slacks and an Irish sweater that hung to the middle of her thighs. On her feet were ballet flats, two-tone, the leather on the toes a perfect match for the pants.
I watched a moment. The woman sat motionless, hands clasped, eyes fixed on a forest thick with morning shadows.
I approached, my bootfalls loud in the stillness.
The woman didn’t turn.
“Sorry I couldn’t make it last night.” Cheerful as Mickey’s Marching Band.
I dragged a chaise close and positioned it parallel. Sat sideways, oriented toward the woman. “I like your new haircut.”
“The drive was good. I made it in under two hours.”
Still no acknowledgment of my presence.
“You sounded upset last night. Are you feeling better?”
A bird landed on the rail. A nuthatch, maybe a waxwing.
“Are you angry with me?”
The bird cocked its head and regarded me with one shiny black eye. The woman crossed her ankles. The bird startled and took flight.
“I was planning to come for Thanksgiving.” Still speaking to her profile. “That’s next Thursday.”
“I’m aware of the date. I’m not an idiot.”
“Of course you’re not.”
A fly dropped onto the rim of the mug. I watched it test its way around the perimeter, feelers and front legs working the substrate. Tentative. Unsure what to expect. I felt total empathy.
“Did you know that Carrauntoohil is Ireland’s highest mountain?” The woman unclasped her hands and laid them on the armrests. The skin was liver-spotted, the nails perfect ovals painted dusty rose.
“It’s in County Kerry. Rises thirty-four hundred feet above sea level. Not much of a mountain, if you ask me.”
I reached out and placed my hand on hers. The bones felt fragile beneath my palm. “How are you?” I asked.
One cable-knit shoulder lifted ever so slightly.
“You said you have something you want to share.”
The woman’s free hand floated up, held, as though unsure of its purpose in rising. Dropped.
“Are you unwell?”
Again the shoulder.
Deep gusty sigh.
They say a daughter becomes some variation of her mother. A different reading of an old script. A new interpretation of an existing character.
I studied the face so vigilantly preserved by creams and lifts and injections. By wide-brimmed hats in summer and long cashmere scarves in winter. The flesh was looser, the wrinkles deeper, the lids a bit droopy. Otherwise, it was the mirrored reflection I’d seen at the CMPD. The green eyes, the set jaw.
The air of tension. Of guardedness.
I knew I resembled my mother physically. But I’d always believed the similarity ended there. That I was an exception. A contradiction to the rule.
I was not my mother. I never would be.
Physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists. So many diagnoses. Bipolar. Schizoaffective. Schizobipolar. Disorder of the moment. Choose your favorite.
Lithium. Carbamazepine. Lamotrigine. Diazepam. Lorazepam.
No medication ever worked for long. No treatment ever stuck. For weeks my mother would be the warm, vibrant person I loved, a woman who brought sunshine into every room she entered. Happy, funny, clever. Then the demons would claim her again.
Bottom line: my mother is as loony as a bag of squirrels.
Throughout my childhood, each time the blackness descended, Mama would pack her Louis Vuittons; kiss my sister, Harry, and me; and disappear in the old Buick with Daddy at the wheel. Later Gran.
But there were no public hospitals for Daisy Brennan, née Katherine Daessee Lee. Over the years Mama visited dozens of private facilities, each with a name that promised healing in the bosom of nature. Silver Birch. Whispering Oaks. Sunny Valley.
Mama never made an encore appearance. Always something was lacking. The food. The room. The attentiveness of the staff.
Until Heatherhill. Here the menu suited, and she had her own room and bath. And after so many visits, she was now welcome to stay as long as she liked. As long as the Lee family trust ponied up.
Mama spoke without meeting my eyes, voice low and honeyed as Charleston in August. “ ‘In that other room I shall be able to see.’ ”
The quote sent cold rippling across my chest. “Helen Keller.” Mama loved Keller’s story, retold it often when Harry and I were kids.
“She was speaking of death.”
“I’m old, darlin’. It happens to all of us.”
Was this a ruse? A new ploy to gain my attention? A delusion?
“Look at me, Mama.” More stern than I’d intended.
For the first time she rotated to face me. Her expression was serene, her gaze clear and composed. The sunshine Mama.
When I was younger, I’d have tried to force an explanation. I knew better now. “I’ll speak to Dr. Finch.”
“That’s an excellent idea.” The manicured hand slipped free of mine and patted my knee. “No sense spoiling the little time we have together.”
Behind us, the glass door opened. Closed again.
“How about you, darlin’? What’s on your plate these days?”
“Nothing extraordinary.” Murdered children. A depraved killer I’d hoped to never encounter again.
“Are you still seeing your young man?”
That threw me. “What young man?”
“Your French-Canadian detective. Are you two still an item?”
The million-dollar question. But how did Mama know?
“Did Harry tell you I was dating?” Really? Dating? Did that term even apply to the complex rituals of those over forty?
“ ’Course she did. Your sister and I have no secrets.”
“Harry could use a bit of discretion.”
“Harry is fine.”
If four husbands, obsessive overindulgence, and an insatiable need for male attention classifies as fine.
Mama leaned close and did something with her eyebrows meant to encourage shared intimacy.
There was no point denying her. “I haven’t seen him recently.”
“Oh, dear. Did he dump you?”
“His daughter died. He needs to be alone for a while.”
“Died?” The perfectly plucked brows arched up.
“She was ill.” True enough.
“Oh, how very, very sad.”
“Do you still hear from— What’s this gentleman’s name?”
“That’s a lovely name. Have you communicated with him since his child’s passing?”
“One visit and one email.”
“My, my. That’s hardly devotion.”
“Did he tell you where he was going?”
“He told no one.” Defensive.
“Others are looking for him?”
There’s no slipping anything past Mama. “Some detectives would like his help on a case.”
“Is it something just too wretched for words?”
Mama had always shown keen interest in my work. In my “poor lost souls,” as she called the unnamed dead.
Seeing no harm, I described the cold case investigations involving Vermont and Charlotte. Anique Pomerleau and Montreal. I said nothing about Shelly Leal.
Mama asked her usual questions: who, when, where. Then she settled back on the chaise and recrossed her ankles. I waited. After a full minute she said, “These other detectives think your Andrew Ryan can catch this dreadful woman?”