Authors: Chris Carter
Tags: #Thriller, #Mystery
The Mitchells took the sofa and Hunter one of the two armchairs facing it.
‘At the moment we’re trying to identify someone who shares several physical characteristics with your daughter,’ Hunter explained. ‘Laura’s name is one of four which have come up as a possible match.’
‘As a possible match to a homicide victim?’ Roy asked, placing a hand on his wife’s knee.
Denise started crying.
Roy took a deep breath. ‘I gave the other detective a very recent picture of Laura, do you have it?’
‘And still you can’t be sure if this victim of yours is Laura?’ Denise asked, her mascara starting to run down her face. ‘How come?’
Roy clamped his eyes shut for an instant and a single tear rolled to the tip of his nose. Hunter could see he’d already picked up on the possibility of the victim being unrecognizable. ‘So you’re here to ask us for a blood sample for a DNA test?’ he said.
It was obvious that Roy Mitchell was a lot more clued up on police procedures than most people. Since the introduction of DNA testing, in a situation such as the one Hunter was facing, it was a lot more practical for the police to collect samples and match them to the victim first. That way they could later approach only the identified family, instead of putting several innocent ones through the panic and the traumatic experience of looking at a photograph of a gruesomely disfigured victim.
Hunter shook his head. ‘Sadly, a DNA test won’t help us.’
For a moment it was as if there wasn’t enough air in the room for all three of them. ‘Do you have a picture of the victim?’ Roy finally asked.
Hunter nodded and flipped through several sheets of paper inside the folder he’d brought with him. ‘Mrs. Mitchell,’ he said, catching Denise’s eyes, ‘this woman might not be your daughter. There’s no reason for you to look at this picture right now.’
Denise stared at Hunter with glassy eyes. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
‘Honey, please.’ Roy tried again.
She didn’t even look at him.
Hunter waited, but the determination in her eyes was almost palpable. He placed the close-up of the victim on the coffee table in front of them.
It took Denise Mitchell just a fraction of a second to recognize her. ‘Oh my God!’ Her shivering hands shot to her mouth. ‘What have they done to my baby?’
All of a sudden the room they were in looked different – darker, smaller, the air denser. Hunter sat in silence for several minutes while Roy Mitchell tried to console his wife. Her tears weren’t hysterical; they were simply full of pain – and rage. In different circumstances Hunter would have left, giving the Mitchells some time to grieve before coming back the next morning with a list of questions, but this wasn’t like any other case, this killer wasn’t like any other killer. Right now Hunter didn’t have a choice. Laura’s parents were his best, and at the moment, only source of information on Laura. And he needed information like he needed air.
Denise Mitchell grabbed a tissue from the box on the side table and wiped her tears away before finally standing up. She approached a small desk next to the window where several photo frames were arranged, most of them containing pictures of Laura at different stages of her life.
Roy didn’t follow, instead slumping himself deeper into the sofa, as if he could somehow escape the moment. He made no attempt to wipe away his tears.
Denise turned to face Hunter, and she looked like a complete different woman from the one who’d greeted him at the door minutes earlier. Her eyes were horribly sad.
‘How much did my daughter suffer, Detective?’ Her voice was low and hoarse, her words coated in pain.
Their eyes locked for a long moment and Hunter saw a mixture of grief and anger burning deep inside her.
‘The truth is that we don’t know,’ he finally replied.
With a trembling hand Denise brushed a strand of loose hair behind her right ear. ‘Do you know why, Detective? Why would someone do something like that to anyone? Why would someone do it to my Laura? She was the sweetest girl you could ever meet.’
Hunter held her gaze firmly. ‘I’m not gonna pretend I understand what sort of pain both of you are going through, Mrs. Mitchell. I’m also not gonna pretend this is easy. We’re after the answers to those same questions and at the moment I can’t tell you much because we don’t have much. I’m here because I need your help to catch who did this. You knew Laura better than anyone.’
Denise’s eyes never left Hunter’s face, and he knew what her next question would be even before the words left her lips.
‘Was she . . .’ her voice croaked as she fought the tears catching in her throat yet again, ‘. . . raped?’
Roy Mitchell finally looked up. His stare went from his wife to Hunter.
There were very few things in life Hunter hated more than having to hide the truth from grieving parents, but without an autopsy on Laura’s body, the best he could do was tell Denise and Roy that again he didn’t know. As a psychologist, he knew that the uncertainty of never knowing the answer to such a question would torture them for the rest of their lives, putting their marriage, even their sanity, in jeopardy.
‘No, Laura wasn’t raped,’ Hunter said with unflinching eyes and without an ounce of hesitation. Certain lies were worth telling.
The uncomfortable moment stretched until Denise broke eye contact with Hunter, returning her stare to the photographs on the desk. She picked up a small silver frame.
‘Laura was always talented, you know? Always very artistic.’ She walked over and handed Hunter the frame. The photograph showed a little girl of about eight surrounded by crayons and tiny pots of watercolor paint. She looked so happy and her smile was so contagious, Hunter couldn’t help but smile back, for a second forgetting that that little girl was gone and in the most horrifying manner possible.
‘In school, every year without fail, she was awarded an honors certificate in arts,’ Denise said proudly.
A sad grin threatened to part Denise’s lips but she held it back. ‘She only started painting professionally late on, but she’d always loved it. It was her refuge from all things bad. Every time she got hurt, she went back to the brushes. It was what cured her when she was a child.’
‘Cured her?’ Hunter’s expression tightened and his gaze bounced between Denise and Roy.
‘One day when Laura was eight, for no apparent reason, she had some sort of seizure,’ Denise explained. ‘She couldn’t move or breathe properly, her eyes disappeared into her head and she almost choked to death. It petrified us.’
Roy nodded and then took over. ‘We took her to four different doctors. Experts, they said.’ He shook his head as if irritated. ‘But none of them could diagnose what had happened. In fact, they didn’t have a clue.’
‘Did it happen again?’
‘Yes, a few more times.’ Denise again. ‘She went through every possible examination, including CAT scans. They found nothing. No one knew what was wrong. No one could tell us what was triggering her seizures. About a week after her last episode, Laura picked up a brush for the first time. And that was it. The seizures never came back.’ Denise touched the edge of her right eye with the tip of her fingers, trying to stop the new tear that had just formed from rolling down her cheek. ‘No matter what anyone says, I know her painting is what made them stop. It’s what made her well again.’
‘You said her seizures made her choke?’
Denise nodded. ‘It terrified us every time. She couldn’t breathe. Her skin changed color.’ She paused and looked away. ‘She could’ve died so many times.’
‘And the seizures simply stopped all together?’
‘Yes,’ Roy continued. ‘Right after she started painting.’
Hunter got up and handed the frame back to Denise. ‘Was Laura in a relationship?’
Denise let out a deep sigh. ‘Laura didn’t really get deeply involved with anyone. Another of her self-defense mechanisms.’ She walked over to the bar by the large bookcase. ‘If you read any of the articles about her and how she got her career started, you’ll read about her pain of being cheated on by her fiancé. She found him in bed with another woman. It destroyed her inside.’ Denise poured herself a double dose of whiskey from a decanter and dropped two ice cubes in it. ‘Would you like one?’ She raised her glass.
Hunter’s biggest passion was single malt Scotch whiskey, but unlike most, he knew how to appreciate its flavor and quality instead of simply getting drunk on it.
‘No, thank you.’
‘Roy?’ She faced her husband.
He shook his head.
Denise shrugged, took a small sip and closed her eyes as the liquid traveled down her throat.
‘To drown her pain, Laura went straight back to painting. Something that she hadn’t done for several years. By chance, a gallery curator saw one of her canvases, and that was how her new career started. But not before she suffered a great deal.’
‘From a broken heart?’ Hunter said.
Denise nodded and looked away. ‘Patrick was the one who insisted they moved in together after only four months,’ she continued. ‘He told Laura he couldn’t stand being away from her, that he loved her more than anything. He was one of those who had a way with words. A charmer who usually got what he wanted. I’m sure you know the type. And Laura believed him. She fell desperately in love with him and his seductive charm.’
‘You said his name is Patrick?’
Denise nodded. ‘Patrick Barlett.’
Hunter wrote the name down in his notebook.
‘Laura used to work in a bank. Patrick was a big investor. That’s how they met. She found out about his affair because that day she felt unwell just after lunch,’ Denise recalled. ‘Something she’d eaten. Her boss told her to take the rest of the day off and she went home. Patrick was in their bed with his slut secretary or PA or something.’ She shook her head. ‘For someone who was supposed to be intelligent, you’d thought that he would’ve at least gone to a motel.’ She chuckled nervously. ‘So much for loving Laura more than anything, huh? That was only three months after they’d moved in together. Since then, relationships became a thing of the past for Laura. She had flings, affairs, but nothing serious.’
‘Any recent ones?’
‘No one Laura thought was worth mentioning.’
‘So after Laura split from Patrick, was that it between them?’
‘For her, yes.’
‘And for him?’
‘Ha!’ Denise said with contempt. ‘He never let go. He tried apologizing with flowers and gifts and phone calls and whatever else he could think of, but Laura didn’t wanna know any more.’
‘How long did he carry on all that for?’
‘He never stopped.’
Hunter’s eyebrows arched in surprise.
‘He visited her exhibition last month and begged her to have him back yet again. She obviously told him where to go.’
‘So he’s been after her, asking for forgiveness and trying to get her back for . . . ?’
‘Four years,’ Roy confirmed. ‘Patrick is not the sort of man who takes no for an answer. He’s the sort of man who gets what he wants, no matter the price.’
flashed at the back of Hunter’s mind. Four years was more than enough time for most people to take the hint and move on. Denise told him how possessive and jealous Patrick used to be of Laura, and though during the time they were together he’d never been violent towards her, he did have a problem with his temper.
‘Do you know if anyone other than you had an extra set of keys to Laura’s apartment?’
Denise had another sip of her drink and thought about it for a minute before looking at Roy.
‘Not that we know of,’ he said.
‘Laura never mentioned if she’d given the keys to anyone else?’
A firm shake of the head from Denise. ‘Laura never allowed anyone to go into her apartment or her studio. Her work was very private to her. Even though she was successful, she never did it for the money. She painted for herself. It was a way of expressing what was going on inside her. She didn’t even like exhibiting that much, and that’s what most artists live for. As far as I know, she never took any dates back to her apartment. And she never, never got emotionally involved.’
‘How about any close friends?’
‘I was her closest friend.’ A slight quiver came into her voice.
‘Anyone other than family?’
‘Painters are very lonely people, Detective. They spend most of their time by themselves, working on a piece. She had acquaintances, but no one she could really call a close friend.’
‘She didn’t keep in touch with any of her old school, university or work friends?’
Denise shrugged. ‘Maybe, by phone or the odd drink, but I couldn’t tell you who.’ She paused. ‘The only other person I can think of is Calvin Lange, the curator of the Daniel Rossdale Art Gallery. The person who kick-started her career. He was very fond of her, and she of him. They talked on the phone and met quite frequently.’