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By Christian Moerk
Henry Holt and Co.Copyright © 2009 Christian Moerk
All rights reserved.
Chapter One Malahide, just north of Dublin. Not so long ago. Long after the house had been disinfected for new occupants and the bodies rested safely in the ground, people still didn't come near it. "Cursed," whispered the neighborhood gossips and nodded meaningfully. "Deadly, a haunted house!" cried the children, but they only ever mustered up the courage to take a step or two into the front yard before losing heart. Because what Desmond the mailman had been the first to see inside had been unnatural strange. Everybody liked Desmond, even if he might have been a little too nosy for his own good. He was also a slave to ritual, always noticing if anybody's grass needed tending or whether the paint on a flagpole had begun to chip. Taken together with his guilt of having seen details without understanding their true meaning, these otherwise sociable qualities cost him his sanity. On the last day of his life that gave him any joy, this most demanding connoisseur of his customers' coffee delivered the day's mail in the quiet neighborhood just down the street from the train station in Malahide as slowly as he decently could without being called a Peeping Tom. He started where the bars of New Street met the faux-Bavarian ugliness of the concrete marina and took a left, continuing out to Bissets Strand. As usual, old Des peered in the windows to see if anyone he knew might be waiting inside with a fresh cup, and he wasn't disappointed; he'd drunk two before reaching the end of the first block. Most residents had come to accept his lonely need for attention. Just "happening by" for a spot of the morning java made him feel, it was understood, as if he were part of someone else's life, just for a bit. He always said, "The bean smells lovely." He never outstayed his welcome. And he smiled when he saw you—that's what made everyone surrender to this strange little creature—flashed a grin as wide as you please. Before he found the corpses, Desmond was universally viewed as harmless. His life off the clock, such as it was, was spent at the safe remove of Gibney's, where he stole glances at the local wives when their husbands weren't looking and lost his meager paychecks at the bookmaker's next door each time there was a hurdles horse race on TV, which was often. He had trudged his black mailbag up and down the old beach town's cracked pavements for more than eighteen years, staring at the same ash-gray houses where the nearby sea had eaten away at the paint, and found the monotony comforting. Going in to the city, just half an hour away by train, would have required a desire for surprise and a worldliness he couldn't have imagined pursuing. Besides, it would have upset his carefully planned route, which netted at least four good cups before lunch. When he walked past on the footpath, people inside their kitchens could hear him hum. Nonsense tunes, really. He had lousy pitch but bobbed his head to the beat, which counted for more than talent. He was happy the way only children under the age of twelve usually are. Later, people took bets on whether that humming should have warned them. It was on either the 24th or the 25th of April, just after ten in the morning, as far as anybody could recall, that the town's tolerant opinion of Desmond changed forever. The sun didn't shine. God averted his eyes from number 1 Strand Street and, instead, sent rolling clouds draped in suicide gray in from the sea to obscure something imminent not meant for public consumption. A prophetic color choice, as it should turn out. And so Desmond Kean, waving in blissful ignorance to old Mrs. Dingle on the second floor of Howard's Corner and tipping his cap to that nice Mrs. Moriarty just opening up her hair salon, proceeded toward the end of his daily route. When he had handed out mail to the drab granny houses out on Bissets Strand, turned back, and again reached number 1, on the corner of Old Street and Gas Yard Lane, he hesitated all the same. The bag was nearly empty, and he only had to deliver two adverts from the local supermarket to Mrs. Hegarty inside. In the days to come, Desmond would go back and forth in his fevered mind, trying to remember how far back he should have noticed that something was wrong with how that house made him feel. It looked ordinary enough, its façade a faded cream with fake Swiss wood latticework above the doorway. But from the very beginning, something just out of reach whispered a warning about the house's occupant that he had been too polite to hear. Mrs. Hegarty, who let Desmond call her "Moira" only after a year of sporadic—and persistent—visits, had come to town nearly three years ago from nowhere she cared to talk much about. People said it was a small town way out in West Cork. She was still a handsome woman at forty-five, and her face had the lucky kind of defined bone structure that would wear well into old age. On the rare occasions when Desmond's clumsy jokes managed to coax a smile, she was beautiful. But she had also acquired a hardness to her that blossomed into open hostility whenever people tried to get too friendly. Invitations to tea from neighbors were first met with polite refusals. And when some tried bringing her cakes to drive the point home, she left them untouched on her front porch, where wild cats finally ate them. Among the many curious neighbors, only Desmond was ever invited into the house for coffee, probably because of his innocence or willful blindness to people's hidden side. Then, sometime last January, Mrs. Hegarty had abruptly stopped answering the door when he rang the bell. His subsequent attempts to reconnect with her whenever they happened on each other in the street were also rebuffed. Mrs. Hegarty, rarely seen outside her four walls as it was, would simply trail past him without a word in that old greatcoat, a scarf wrapped around her head like a mummy. She never again asked him inside. Desmond and everyone else simply assumed she'd had a tragedy befall her, didn't pry, and gave her the space she obviously craved. And yet. Now that Desmond stood outside Mrs. Hegarty's front door with the colorful adverts in his hand, he hesitated because of that feeling he'd had these last few weeks whenever he walked past. Recently, there had been sounds from inside that Desmond had written off as coming from a TV set, or maybe the radio. They had sounded like whimpers, even the cries of a young voice. Once there had been a loud thumping noise, and the drapes on the second floor had been yanked open briefly before being shut once again. But since Desmond was only curious, not investigative or even brave, he explained it away as the eccentricity of the lonely, a tribe to which he himself belonged. The closer he came to the mail slot, the more the little hairs on his hand stood to attention like a blond forest. He thought he smelled something. Like spoilt stew. He wasn't sure where it was coming from; could have been seaweed rotting on the beach nearby. Or someone's fridge where the power had gone out. But he knew it wasn't. Desmond finally ignored his imprecise feeling of foreboding, bent down, and pushed open the slot. He jammed one of the Tesco adverts inside. He noticed a pile of unopened mail on the floor. And then he stopped. Far inside, near where he knew Mrs. Hegarty's sitting room was, he saw what was probably a hand. It was blue-black, ballooned thick like a surgical glove, and stuck out from somewhere in the adjoining room. The arm connected to it was fat and sausagelike, too, as if filled with water. A watch lay next to it, its band snapped clean off the wrist from the swelling. Desmond craned his neck and could just glimpse some more of Mrs. Hegarty's remains, dark stains all over her Sunday best. He could have sworn that, despite all that, she was smiling. Des just avoided getting sick all over his shoes and ran down to tell the gardaí. And for the first and last time in his life, he left a piece of mail undelivered. AFTER THE REGULAR guards from up the street forced the lock open, they stepped aside and made room for the astronaut-looking forensics team from Garda headquarters in Phoenix Park. Two men silently entered, backed up by a canine unit. The dogs howled and whimpered as the crusted blood called out to them, and their handlers had to hold them back. One astronaut wearing a white full-body HazMat suit knelt by Moira's prostrate body and examined her skull. There were several depressions in it just above one eye, as if someone had struck her over and over with a blunt object, but not hard enough to kill instantly. Cause of death was later determined at the inquest to have been caused by a massive subdural hematoma. In other words, Moira Hegarty had suffered a stroke after being beaten and died only minutes afterward. The body had been lying there for at least three days. One detective superintendent initially thought it was a robbery-homicide. Once he learned the full story, however, he was later heard to remark under his breath that "that fucking bitch deserved every blow she got." Because her death, as far as the cops were interested, was the least of it. There were scuff marks on most of the walls, too, as if more than one person had tumbled around the ground floor, trying to gain control of the other. Shoe polish and brown leather skid marks had been smeared on the floor panels, and paintings of the Holy Land were askew. Those signs of struggle were replicated in every room downstairs, and it made the rookies nervous. One local garda opened the press under the sink and found rat poison in large quantities. Another discovered a necklace on Moira that was forged in iron and welded shut at the nape. A smaller ring with more than ten different keys was connected to it. Any one of them would have been impossible to pry off. "Must have jangled when she took a shower," another remarked, in a poor attempt at dispelling the unease they all felt. Once removed with bolt cutters, the keys were found to fit every lock in the house—from the outside. They found no other keys. And most of the doors were locked shut. Forensic analysis indicated that Mrs. Hegarty suffered the injuries upstairs, then managed to make it almost down to her couch, collapsing just inches away. A fine blood trail from upstairs pointed the way. The cops stopped laughing when they walked up to the second floor to verify this theory. It took two of Malahide's finest to shove the door open. One caught the nervous look of his partner when they put their shoulders into it. Because the smell from inside was stronger than it had been near Mrs. Hegarty. They weren't ashamed to have an armed officer accompany them as they revealed the truth of what Desmond saw and yet had missed so completely. The girl lay bunched up against the door, her hands folded around a rusty shovel as if in prayer. "Jesus!" exclaimed the youngest garda, and steadied himself on the doorjamb. Downstairs, the dogs howled, and their claws clicked around on the wooden floor. Her red hair had been turned nearly black by sweat and filth. The fingers, slender and elegant, had only two nails left on them, and her ribs showed through the thin film of what once had to have been a yellow summer dress. Poor thing had died hard, the Garda established, but they couldn't immediately determine whether it was the knife wounds in her abdomen or something internal that killed her first. The shovel had her fingerprints on it, however, and its head matched the marks on Mrs. Hegarty's forehead. It was concluded that she had followed the older woman halfway down the stairs before something had broken off that chase. A knife was recovered from behind a chair, and Mrs. Hegarty's prints made it clear that she had stabbed the young woman not twice but at least nineteen times. "Poor child bled out quick," a veteran cop remarked, blowing his nose. Forensics quickly reconstructed the scene. A desperate battle had taken place on the second floor, where Mrs. Hegarty had tried to beat back the weakened girl's surprise attack and ultimately succeeded. But the young woman hadn't surrendered without a fight. Almost as an afterthought, forensics realized that not only did Mrs. Hegarty's keys fit in all the locks, but no room in the house had a keyhole on the inside. Remains of raw potatoes and moldy bread were found under the bed, where the girl had clearly been forced to save her rationed, meager food. It was determined that she'd lived inside the house for at least three months. Leg irons and handcuffs were gaping open on the bed railing, and both looked well used. The smallest of the self-established prison warden's keys fit snugly in them. Poor divil had cuff burns where the metal had eaten into her skin. Two bent hairpins, caked brown by the girl's own blood on the floorboards, were determined to be her homemade handcuff keys. She had been a prisoner. For a long time. There was no other conclusion. And the warden, the kindly woman doling out coffee to Desmond, had never been found out until it was too late. "We had no idea," said the out-of-breath gentleman from Social Services, blinking in the camera lights right behind the cops, when confronted with the queasy notion that Mrs. Hegarty, the shut-in from somewhere out west, had evidently kept a live-in slave right under the noses of her neighbors. "We shall immediately make further enquiries." But as the man avoided the stares of angry onlookers and exited the house by the front steps, everyone knew that was so much bullshit. The woman who had lived quietly at the end of the street was an unmitigated monster. And nobody had cared enough to notice, least of all the government. Through all this, while the astronauts, the flatfoot cops from around the corner, and the dogs all dissected their part of the unfolding mystery, Desmond knew that to be true more than anybody else. From the time the first ambulance came to carry that poor girl away, he stood right across the street, clutching a railing for balance, staring at number 1's chocolate-colored front door. And when darkness came, he still hadn't moved. An unhappy, ghostly smile had replaced the genial one he usually wore. And slowly, the same people who had tolerated Desmond's fussy demeanor now began looking askance at the prematurely balding man trying to catch a glimpse of the young girl's battered corpse being loaded into the ambulance. Those furtive glances into their kitchens took on a completely new and unsettling meaning. And it felt so good, besides, to smear one's collective guilt onto the only available patsy. "Pervert!" a mother was heard to remark, cracked lipstick forming the words. "Sick bastard," added another. Both had served him coffee with a smile days earlier. But even if his untoward glances could have been taken for untimely curiosity, or even sexual titillation, they were wrong. Had they been able to look into Desmond's heart, they would have discovered nothing but the blackest, stickiest guilt and shame. Those thumping noises now made sense to him. The yelps coming from the top floor could have—no, definitely had—been cries for help mere days before a violent death. Desmond nodded meekly at the neighborhood women, who didn't meet his eyes but kept theirs fixed on the front door of number 1, as if staring at it long enough would make them better neighbors. NIGHT HAD FALLEN. The astronauts had finally folded their tents and carted the results back down to HQ. The throng of onlookers had thinned, but barely, when Desmond heard a sound from inside the house that fell somewhere between a shout and a yell. Someone had been surprised, and not by anything pleasant. Within seconds, the same young garda who had found the girl appeared in the doorway, his already ashen face pulled in directions that were all wrong. What ever he'd just seen exceeded his tolerance for human ugliness. "Sarge," he said, swallowing hard. "Something we missed before." One of the dogs had refused to move, but instead hugged the carpet and began to weep when it passed a bookcase on the second floor. Not to howl, like before, but to mourn what ever it sensed nearby. When the gardaí finally moved the bookcase and opened the blinded door hidden behind it, they found the second girl. "LOOKS YOUNGER THAN the first," said the coroner later in the week, after performing proper autopsies on all three women, and he snapped his rubber gloves off with a practiced gesture that gave him no joy at all. This last one had been tucked away inside a tiny crawl space that was really part of the outer wall. Reached only through a door tiny enough to have suited a doll house, a narrow air duct led from the first girl's room to her damp corner. Absent any ID, she was determined to have been in her early twenties, with black wiry hair that would have been beautiful when it was still clean enough to be brushed. Her skin, except for sores brought about by poor hygiene and lack of protein, was unblemished by blows. In contrast to the first girl, she had died of massive organ failure, brought about by gradual poisoning and malnourishment. Her arms were so thin no muscle tone remained. When they found her, she lay in a dirty blanket like a whipped dog. Like the first girl, she bore marks of having been routinely shackled. In fact, one of the officers gently unlocked a set of leg cuffs that had caused her ankles to bleed. What nobody had a satisfactory answer for was why both palms were ink-stained. A leaky ballpoint pen was eventually found, but no paper. If she had been writing to somebody in the darkness of her prison cell, what had she done with the message? A few days went by while the guards inventoried every stick of furniture found inside the house. Then, when one of Moira Hegarty's many keys was found to unlock a dresser drawer, the story grew worse. And even the foulest gossip in Malahide was momentarily silenced at the sheer calculated ugliness of what the law dogs found. The drawer first yielded two driver's licenses. One was made out to a red-haired, well-nourished Fiona Walsh, twenty-four, of Castletownbere, County Cork; clearly the first girl found on the top floor. The other belonged to twenty-two-year-old Róisín Walsh, whose black locks and pale skin in the photograph bore little resemblance to the skeletal creature now lying on the metal slab next to her sister. It was unclear how and when the girls had arrived at Moira Hegarty's house, but that's not what moved newspapers off racks that week. No, the salient detail that gave the Evening Herald and the Irish Daily Star golden days for far longer than the initial shock value of the news was something most had already guessed. Fiona and Róisín weren't just two sisters who had suffered a grim death. Moira—their jailer and killer—was their aunt. SLAVE SISTERS SLAIN BY KILLER AUNT, barked one headline. BEAUTIES AND THE BEAST BLARED another. And despite their lack of tact, both were right. The girls were found to have ingested small, steady amounts of the anticoagulant rat poison coumatetratyl over a period of at least seven weeks, probably mixed in with their water and what passed for food. "Put simply," the coroner said, "the girls' organs gradually fell apart, and any cuts they sustained wouldn't have healed. The youngest died of internal bleeding. And each would appear to have been chained to her bed at night. Their aunt really planned this one out." The newspapers, as well as Desmond's neighbors and former friends, just called it diabolical, which was true enough, too. But the dresser drawer still didn't offer up any clues as to why any of this had happened. Among the inventoried effects were several sealed plastic bags with clumps of black dirt inside. Upon further analysis, the bags were also found to contain a button, one damask napkin, a crumpled pack of Marlboro Lights, and a used 12-gauge shotgun shell. None of these items seemed connected, but for the fact that the dirt on them had the same pH value. Some stationery was found, too, of which exactly one envelope and a sheet of expensive writing paper had been used. But forensics couldn't determine for what purpose. Perhaps Róisín had used it but, if so, the questions went, for what? After a few days, the neighborhood grew restless and less enamored of the cops' authority. Kids dared one another to cross the white-and-blue Garda tape and grab a trophy from the wall, a stunt never repeated once the house had been shuttered and silenced and officially become inhabited by ghosts. One boy made off with a plastic Jesus figurine with a 40-watt bulb inside it to illuminate the halo. Another managed to get as far as the corner before a garda nabbed him and made him give back a gilt-edged portrait of the once-so-revered Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, the prime minister's long face seeming to disapprove of the dead woman who had hung him above her mantelpiece. The police were rapidly running out of clues and got ready to close the case. Then the house offered up one more secret all by itself. It came in the form of a previously overlooked scuff mark by the back door, which looked like someone had nearly ripped it off the hinges trying to get out. A fingerprint was found on the handle that didn't match any of the three dead women's, and theirs were the only ones otherwise discovered in the house. But a third soiled bed was found in the basement, and more of the same unknown prints were found on a sewage pipe. Whoever it was had managed to saw through the pipe with a primitive cutting tool and had very likely fled the house with handcuffs still attached to at least one wrist. The two girls hadn't been suffering alone. Someone else had been there with them, until very recently, a someone who was still out there, alive. And undiscovered. When the last floorboard had been unpeeled and every spoon in the kitchen itemized without turning up anything new, number 1 Strand Street was finally cleaned out, boarded up, and offered for sale by the city. And as tantalizing as the unknown fourth person in that house might have been, with no apparent clues or even a single living relative to suggest any compelling explanation for the carnage, the gardaí quietly shuttered the case after a few months. Even the press eventually moved on to fresher kills. Around the town's bars, the case was still being tried, however. "Moira was off her head," went one popular theory. "She had it in for the girls. Murdering their beauty for jealousy's sake." Another version had the girls plotting to murder their aunt for her money in an extortion scheme that had backfired on themselves, but no cash was found anywhere in the house. "What a waste," the neighbors said, and they were right, what ever the truth. "The mystery guest was Moira's lover, who killed them all and left before getting what was coming to him," went one particularly fanciful notion. But none of these theories lasted any longer than the time it took to utter them. "What happened here began somewhere else," a regular down at Gibney's finally ventured one night after a half pint of stout and a lot of listening to crap gossip from people with more alcohol in them than common sense. "This kind of bloodletting takes years of hatred to ripen properly." If the boys in blue down on the Mall could have heard him just then and put down their breakfast rolls, they might well have cracked the case. But they still wouldn't have understood the half of it. Because the story the women inside Moira's house nearly took to their graves did begin somewhere else, in a small town in West Cork where everyone was driven by something far stronger and more combustible than hate. It was love that put Moira and her two nieces into the quiet section of the tiny graveyard behind St. Andrew's Church. The kind of love that burns hotter than a blast furnace. AT THE SAD little funeral carried out and paid for by Social Services the following week, no relatives or friends came by to pay their last respects to the Walsh sisters and their murderous aunt. Fiona and Róisín were placed a few feet apart from Moira, which the funeral director insisted upon, "because I'll be damned if that awful woman should be able to reach out and touch those poor children." As if to mock the two young girls, God had turned the coke-colored weather cape inside out and now shone bright sunlight through a misty rain, creating a banal rainbow beautiful enough to make the only guest in attendance weep so loudly it bothered mourners at another funeral two graves over. Desmond appeared to have aged ten years inside of a month. From the day the two Walsh sisters and their aunt had been carted out to the meat wagon, he hadn't been seen in public. That's because the first thing he did when he came home to his freezing little flat was to take off his uniform and burn it. As days turned to weeks, the usual sounds of rare Jelly Roll Morton tunes seeping like golden pearls underneath the door from his old stereo went silent. Neighbors thought they heard quiet weeping. Children stuck their noses near his windowpane to catch a glimpse of the weirdo, and a few saw a flash of messy hair atop a pallid face. "Freak!" they whispered to one another, threw rocks at his front door, then ran home laughing. Parents knew, of course, but allowed that bit of exorcism. Better someone other than they take the blame for what had happened. What's more, it appeared to have worked. A nice unsuspecting Polish family would eventually move into number 1, which once again looked like just another house on the block. Desmond wore a shiny black suit with worn elbows and knees, like a waiter at a ferry cafeteria. He trembled as Father Donnelly said the requisite prayer. And he had to cover his mouth with both hands when the priest got to "Blessed art Thou amongst women." Below the church hill, the soot-colored rooftops were slick with rain. Desmond remained standing long after the graves had been properly padded and marked. He still stood there as it really began to pour. When he started back for his flat and nodded at a group of kids in the street, that's the last anyone ever saw of him. If it hadn't been for another postman, named Niall, whose curiosity likewise picked him out of his humdrum existence and catapulted the poor lad headlong into the biggest adventure of his short life, the whole story might have ended there. But the secret of the Walsh sisters was only just beginning to unfold. Anybody walking near the cemetery that night might have had enough imagination to see the girls' spirits rise from their cheap state-sponsored coffins and hover in the air near the ser vice window of the post office, tapping on the glass. For they had unfinished business inside. Desmond, poor soul, had been closer than he thought. And neither Fiona nor Róisín, even in death, would be denied. Excerpted from DARLING JIM by Christian Moerk
Copyright © 2007 byChristian Moerk
Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Excerpted from Darling Jim by Christian Moerk. Copyright © 2009 Christian Moerk. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Co..
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