Belfast, Northern Ireland: A man left horrifically maimed by a car accident appears to have taken his own life. It should be an open-and-shut case, but something doesn’t feel right to DCI Serena Flanagan. Flanagan ignores advice to close the case, call it a suicide, and be done with it. As she picks at the threads of the dead man’s life, a disturbing picture emerges, and she realizes the man’s widow, Roberta Garrick, is not what she seems . . .
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Detective Chief Inspector Serena Flanagan focused on the box of tissues that sat on the coffee table between her and Dr. Brady. A leaf of soft paper bursting up and out, ready for her tears. Just like when she’d been diagnosed with cancer. A box like this one had sat close to hand on the desk. She didn’t need one then, and she didn’t need one now.
Dr. Brady had no interest in abnormal cells, growths, tumours. Flanagan’s mind was his concern. He sat cross-legged in the chair on the other side of the table, chewing the end of a biro. It clicked and scratched against his teeth, a persistent noise that triggered memories of exam halls and waiting rooms, and made Flanagan dig at her palms with her nails.
The counsellor pursed his lips and inhaled through his nose in a way that Flanagan found even more irritating than the click-scratch of the pen. Irritating because she knew it preceded another question that she had no desire to answer.
“Do you feel you owe anything to Colin Tandy’s family?” he asked.
“No,” Flanagan said. “Nothing.”
“You’re quite emphatic about that.”
“He made his choice,” she said. “He set out to kill me that morning. He failed. So I killed him.”
Dr. Brady paused, his gaze fixed on hers, a small smile on his lips that might have appeared kindly to anyone but Flanagan.
“But you didn’t kill him,” he said. “You killed the other one, the gunman. Colin Tandy rode away on the motorbike. You had nothing to do with him winding up under a bus.”
Flanagan saw herself outside the small terraced house on the outskirts of Lisburn where she’d taken a statement from an assault victim. She remembered the street, the graffiti painted white on red brick. She saw the bike, the two men, the semi-automatic pistol aimed at her, felt the Glock 17’s grip in her hand. Something hot splitting the air close to her ear. Then the pillion passenger’s helmet cracked open, the jammed pistol useless in his hand. She felt the empty cartridge, sent spinning from the chamber of the Glock, bounce off her cheek. In her mind she heard the brass hit the pavement, a sound like a Christmas bauble falling from the tree, but she knew she couldn’t possibly have heard it over the noise of the traffic and the screaming.
She saw the passenger—Peter Hanratty, she later learned—lean back on the motorcycle’s pillion seat. Then she put one in his chest. This time the cartridge spun into her hair before falling away, falling like the passenger—except he didn’t. His torso hung over the motorcycle’s back wheel, his arms suspended at his sides, feet caught on the rests.
Flanagan moved her aim to the rider, saw the fear in his eyes as she aligned the forward and rear sights of her pistol.
The thought pushed through the terrible stillness of her mind. She couldn’t shoot him. He wasn’t armed. But still she kept pressure on the trigger; a fraction more and the next round would discharge, sending the bullet through the visor of his helmet to pierce him somewhere between his left eye and the bridge of his nose.
They stayed there, both of them, frozen for a second that felt like a day. He knew he was going to die. She knew she was going to kill him.
But she couldn’t. He wasn’t armed.
Flanagan eased her finger from the trigger, released the pressure. He saw the movement of her knuckle, and the bike launched away, spilling the dead passenger to the ground.
She wouldn’t find out until later that bike and rider wound up under a bus only two streets away.
Tandy didn’t die. Not then. He lived on, if it could be called living, for another five years before what remained of him slipped away. Detective Superintendent Purdy had told her in the canteen at Lisburn station during lunch a few weeks ago. Perhaps he could have chosen a better time and place, but how was he to know? Flanagan herself wouldn’t have dreamed the news would tear her in two.
She broke down there in the canteen, in front of everybody—constables, sergeants, inspectors, detectives, cooks, cleaners. They all saw her collapse, levelled by a desperate grief for a man that deserved none from her.
Six sessions she’d had, now. At the end of the first, as Dr. Brady glanced once again at the clock on the wall behind Flanagan, he told her what she’d already figured out for herself: every possible emotion she had about that morning more than five years ago had been wrapped up, tied down, stowed away while Tandy lived the nonlife he had condemned himself to. Only when his body followed his brain into death did the memory rupture and every distorted feeling spill out where she could no longer deny it. Guilt at the men’s deaths, fear at almost meeting her own, elation at surviving, sorrow for their families. These things had grown there in the dark, swelling and bloating like the rogue cells in her breast, until the whole of it flooded her at once, drowning her, more emotion than she could hold within.
Flanagan didn’t remember much about the incident now, the initial breakdown, only how frightened DSI Purdy had looked, the shock on his face. Looking back now, weeks later, it seemed as if she had watched herself from across the room, seeing some other woman splinter into jagged pieces. And if she could, she would have told that woman to pull herself together, not to make a spectacle of herself.
A week of leave and three months of counselling had been prescribed. As if that would fix everything, as if this smug doctor could plaster over the fissures in Flanagan’s mind by simply talking about the incident.
She and Alistair used the unexpected break to book a last-minute holiday in Portstewart on the north coast. An apartment near the old golf course, overlooking the sea. It was a good week. Days spent at the Strand, the long sandy beach at the other end of the town, even if the weather didn’t justify it. They ate at the new restaurant between the dunes, a converted National Trust building, little more than a shack on the beach. Glorious breakfasts and lunches devoured before returning to the sand and the water.
Almost a week of peace, as near to happiness as they’d come in the last year.
One night, as sea spray whispered on the bedroom window, they talked about the proposed counselling. “What harm could it do?” Alistair asked.
More than you can imagine, Flanagan had thought. But she said, “All right, I’ll give it a go.”
And Alistair had put his arms around her and they had made love for the first time in months. He had no nightmares that night, had barely any during the week by the sea. But after, when they returned to their house outside Moira, the terrors came back. There had been little intimacy between Flanagan and her husband since.
“Time,” Dr. Brady said, smiling that fake smile of his.
Flanagan looked over her shoulder and saw that the session was done. She quietly thanked God and left the room with the most cursory farewell she could get away with.
Roberta Garrick walked him along the hall to the rear sitting room of her beautiful house. The room that had been converted to a hospital ward. Reverend Peter McKay followed her, feeling as if she dragged him by a piece of string. Conflicting desires battled within him: the desire for her body, the fear of the room beyond, the need to run. But he walked on regardless, as much by Roberta’s volition as by his own.
Mrs. Garrick. After all that had happened, he had only recently stopped thinking of her by that name. Even when he had bitten her neck at the force of his climax, her thighs tight around his waist, she had still been Mrs. Garrick to him. She was Roberta now, and the intimacy of using her first name frightened him.
She stopped at the door, snug in its frame, and took the handle in her palm. For the hundredth time, McKay noted the length of her fingers, the smooth near-perfection of her skin, the nails just long enough to scratch. She turned the handle and pushed the door.
Her husband, still Mr. Garrick to him in spite of all the hours McKay had spent at this bedside, lay where he’d left him last night. But dead now. Even from the doorway, from the other side of the room, it was obvious a corpse lay there. McKay imagined if he touched Mr. Garrick’s forearm the skin would be cold against his fingertips. Like a side of meat.
Bile lurched up into McKay’s throat at the thought, and he swallowed it. Now was not the time to be squeamish. He had been a rector for two decades, presided over more funerals than he could remember, seen hundreds of cadavers lying in a waxy illusion of sleep. This was no different.
Keep hold of yourself, he thought. Whatever happens, keep hold of yourself.
Roberta took slow, measured steps from the threshold to her husband’s side. McKay followed, keeping back from the bedside. What had once been a spacious sitting room was now cramped, with a wardrobe and a chest of drawers, a bedside locker, a television on the wall and, facing that, the electric care bed.
A care bed. Not a hospital bed. Mr. Garrick had been quite clear about the distinction, though McKay could see little difference between this and the beds that populated every hospital ward he’d ever visited. Cost thousands, Mr. Garrick had said. It lay positioned so that he could see through the patio doors, out onto the beautifully tended garden and the trees beyond. Now the curtains were drawn, and the sun would never shine on Henry Garrick again.
McKay put a hand on Roberta’s firm, still shoulder and felt the warmth of her through the fabric of her light dressing gown. Warm skin, not cold, like her husband’s would surely be. McKay swallowed bile once more. He squeezed gently, but if she felt the tightening of his fingers she did not let it show.
Her husband lay like a man in sound sleep, his mouth open, his eyes closed. A snore should have rattled out of him.
What devastation, McKay thought. How Mr. Garrick had lived this long was mystery enough. A little less than six months ago he had been driving his favourite car, an early seventies Aston Martin V8 Vantage, through the country lanes that surrounded the village. The investigators had estimated his speed at the time of the accident as approximately fifty-five miles per hour. Charging around the bend, he had managed to swerve past all but one of the cluster of cyclists he had come upon. One of them, a young father of two, had died within moments of being struck, his helmet doing him little good against the force of the impact with the Aston’s bonnet.
Mr. Garrick had not been so lucky. As the car swerved then spun, it swept through a hedgerow before barrel-rolling across a ditch and into a tree. The car’s front end buckled, forcing the engine back into the cabin, taking Mr. Garrick’s legs.
The fire had started soon after. The cyclists who had such a narrow escape did all they could, one of them suffering severe burns as he dragged what remained of Mr. Garrick from the wreck. Another was a nurse, well experienced in trauma surgery. They kept him alive, whether or not it was a merciful act.
Regardless, now he lay dead, drool crusting on his scarred chin. Pale pink yogurt clinging to the wispy strands of his moustache. The same yogurt his nightly sachet of morphine granules was mixed with. Ten empty sachets lay scattered on the table over his bed, behind the row of framed photographs. One of Mr. Garrick’s parents, long gone, one of him and Roberta on their wedding day, another of his wife, tanned and glowing, smiling up from a beach towel. Then finally a small oval picture of Erin, the child they had lost before her second birthday.
Reverend Peter McKay had presided over that funeral too. One of the hardest he’d ever done. Grief so raw it had charged the air in the church, made it thick and heavy. McKay had heard every sob trapped inside the walls, felt each one as if it had been torn from his own chest.
Roberta reached out to the picture of the smiling child, touched her fingertips to the face. McKay moved his hand from her shoulder, down her arm, until his fingers circled her slender wrist.
“It’s maybe best you don’t touch anything,” he said. “For when the police come.”
Then Roberta’s legs buckled and she collapsed to her knees beside the bed. She reached for her husband’s still hand, buried her face in the blanket, close to where his legs should have been. McKay watched as her shoulders juddered, listened as her keening was smothered by the bedclothes. The display of grief quietly horrified him, even though his rational mind knew hers was a natural and inevitable reaction. But his irrational mind, that wild part of him, clamoured, asking, what about me? What about me? What about us?
McKay kept his silence for a time before touching her shoulder once more and saying, “I’ll make the phone calls.”
He left her to her wailing and exited into the hall.
Such a grand place. Mr. Garrick had built it for his new wife when they first married seven years ago. Six bedrooms, half of them with bathrooms, three receptions, a large garage that held Mr. Garrick’s modest collection of classic cars. An acre of sweeping lawns and flower beds. Enough money to pay for a gardener and cleaner to look after it all.
They should have had a long and happy life together. But that was not God’s will, Mr. Garrick had once said after he and Reverend McKay had prayed together.
God had no part in it, McKay had almost said. But he held his tongue.
McKay seldom thought of God any more, unless he was writing a sermon or taking a service. Reverend Peter McKay had ceased to believe in God some months ago. Everything since had been play-acting, as much out of pity for the parishioners as a desire to keep his job.
No God. No sin. No heaven. No hell.
Reverend Peter McKay knew these things as certainly as he knew his own name.
He went to the telephone on the hall table, picked up the handset, and dialled.