THE COLOUR OF BLOOD
The last case I worked, I found a sixteen year-old girl for her father; when she told me what he had done to her, I let her stay lost. The case before that, I provided a husband with evidence of his wife's infidelity; that night, he beat her to death, then hanged himself in the marital bedroom. Now I was calling on a man who by nightfall would be the prime suspect in two murder cases. Maybe one of these days, I'd get a better class of client. Maybe some day. Maybe not today.
The late October sun hung low in the grey morning sky, a silver glare behind the mist that had blown in south of Seafield. At Bayview Harbour, I swung sharp right up a steep lane and parked by a double-fronted stone Victorian house with a brass plaque on the wall that read, "Shane HowardDental Surgeon." I opened the low gate and walked along a cobbled path bordered by glistening rowan trees, their berries flaring blood-orange through the mist. Crows on the roof beat their wings and made their low tubercular moan. At the heavy green front door, I looked back and breathed in air that was dank and clogged with salt and the musk of rotting leaves. It was the cleanest breath I'd draw until it was all over.
The hall was dimly lit by a dust-stained chandelier with only two working bulbs. Framed photographs of green-shirted Irish rugby players in action hung from the picture rail. The receptionist had snow blonde hair and high cheekbones and midnight blue eyes and an engagement ring with red stones the size of a crab claw. I gave her a card with my name and what I did for a living printed on it and her eyes widened with anxiety; she compressed her lips and nodded at me gravely and reached for the phone.
"It's all right, Anita, I'll deal with Mr Loy."
The speaker was a swollen man in his mid forties encased in a charcoal three-piece wool suit that bulged like a bull's pelt. He had a port glow to his full jowls, a plume of dark grey hair swept back from his oily brow and a complacent expression in which boredom and self-satisfaction vied for supremacy. He inclined his head to one side and flexed his protuberant eyes and fleshy mouth in a brisk rictus of acknowledgement. The gesture made him look fleetingly like a gigantic Oriental baby. I looked at the floor, and noticed his feet: like those of many fat, self-important men, they were very small.
"Dennis Finnegan, Mr. Loy. Mr Howard's solicitor. I wonder if I might have five minutes of your time." His voice was like the quiet oily purr of an expensive car.
"Mr Howard spoke to me himself," I said. "He didn't say anything about a solicitor."
Finnegan did the Oriental thing again with his face, this time with a lot of blinking and sighing, as if to deplore the free will with which his client had unaccountably been gifted.
I raised an upturned palm towards him and nodded; Finnegan turned on his heel and, beckoning with a nod of his huge head, began to climb the stairway halfway down the hall. Through a glass door, three patients sat around a large mahogany table, leafing through magazines. I followed Finnegan up the stairs and into a small dark sitting room off the first floor return. A bare yellow bulb hung from the cobwebbed ceiling; there were concertina files and drug company cartons piled against the ochre walls and a dusty three piece suite arranged around a low table. Finnegan sat on the couch; I took one of the creaking chairs; it was the kind of antique furniture you felt might break if you shifted in your seat.
"I assume my client has told you everything," Finnegan said, and waited for me to reply. I waited for him to continue. We sat for a while in the ensuing silence. Finnegan crossed an ankle over one knee. His socks were red silk, and his tiny polished brogues gleamed in the yellow light. He raised his eyebrows expectantly, as if it was only a matter of time before I told him what he wanted to know. I stood up and made for the door.
"Mr Loy, I understood we were going to talk," he said, his voice yelping a little.
"So did I. But you're not talking."
I opened the door. Finnegan stood up surprisingly quickly, and waved his hands at me. They were pudgy hands, and they matched his socks.
"Please sit down, Mr Loy," he said. "I won't take up too much of your time, I assure you."
I shut the door behind me, but stayed standing. Finnegan crossed the room, handed me a business card, then retreated to his seat and nodded briskly, ruefully, as if conceding his ill-judged choice of tactics.
"Mr Howard didn't ask me to, ah, intercede with you today."
"No kidding. I guess he hasn't told you why he wants my intercession either. Well, if he hasn't, I'm not going to."
Finnegan pursed his lips and raised his eyes, if not quite to heaven, at least to the dirty yellow bulb above his head, and steepled his index fingers together; after an interval of meditation, or silent prayer, he exhaled loudly through his nose and began to speak.
"My client's mother recently passed away. She leaves a substantial property on several acres adjacent to the Howard Medical Centre. That property, and the lands surrounding, are currently the cause of some contention between my client and his wife."
"And between your client's wife and your wife. You are married to Shane Howard's sister, Sandra, aren't you?"
Finnegan nodded slowly, thoughtfully, his eyes vanishing momentarily into the folds of his crimson jowls.
"You do your homework, Mr. Loy. "
"This is Dublin, Mr Finnegan. I just keep my eyes and ears open. "
"Yes, I am Mr Howard's brother in-law, but I have no interestno beneficial interestin his mother's estate: the property and lands were left solely to Mr Howard; his sister is not named in the will."
"So what do you want?"
"My client's wife, Jessica Howard, is, ahm, a highly spirited personality. If she were to discover that her husband had, for example, hired a private detective to spy on her, in the hope of gaining evidence that might be used against the lady now or at some future date, in proceedings intended to undermine her entitlement to what she is legally and morally entitled to consider her due..."
"She wouldn't see the funny side."
"She might pursue a litigious course which in the short to medium term would probably benefit no-one except my colleagues in the legal profession. And while strong collegiate impulses are not alien to me, the bonds of family are more tightly drawn; for my late mother-in-law's estate to dwindle while disputatious solicitors spar, Jarndyce and Jarndyce-like, would, for the family, be to find ourselves in a very bleak house indeed."
Finnegan unleashed a salvo of self-approving mews and yaps as a coda to his painfully forced literary reference, and his thick lips quivered with near-delight at his own facility, and for an instant I could see him back in the university debating chamber, basking in the braying regard of his peers, the legislators and judiciary of the future. He opened his great maw to continue, but I beat him to it. It was a little after nine in the morning, and I hadn't had breakfast, and another of those ornate sentences that showed how much his father had paid the Jesuits for his education and I was going to have the kind of headache only gin would cure, and it was too early for gin.
"It's about his daughter," I said.
"Emily?" Denis Finnegan said.
"That's right. She's gone missing."
"And he wants her found?"
"Or wants to talk about it, anyway. She's nineteen, so there's a limit to what I could do, if she'd prefer to stay lost. What I'd be prepared to do."
"I see. I see. I was under the impression... or rather, I made, in the circumstances, the understandable assumption..."
"You thought he was hiring me to dig some dirt on his wife."
"I certainly suspected he had something of that character in mind."
"Is there any dirt to dig?"
"Let's just say I believed it expedient to inquire a little further into the potential veracity and, so to speak, density of any such allegations before deeming it appropriate to conclude that an operative such as yourself might properly be charged with the task of investigating further."
I had the headache now. My left eyelid was flickering like a light bulb about to blow. I put my hand on the door and opened it, all the while keeping contact through my right eye with Dennis Finnegan, who had narrowed his eyes and bared his teeth in a grimace of farewell. With the bare bulb directly above his head, his great face suddenly resembled a skull swollen and distorted by water.
"We'll speak again, Mr Loy, I have no doubt," he oozed.
The words hung in the air like an emblem beneath a death's head. I stepped backwards through the door and pulled it shut and went downstairs.
A broad-shouldered sandy-haired man in a white linen tunic had his face bent close to Anita's pale head. His voice was working in a low rumble, then hers gushed forth in a flow of easy, throaty laughter. It was the kind of laughter that makes a man feel like his luck is in, the kind of laughter you hear in bars and on street corners late at night. When my leather-soled black wing tips hit the tiled hall floor, their heads sprang apart and the man raised himself to his full height and turned to face me. He was about six three, heavily built like the rugby forward he had been, with a scowl on his open face.
"Mr Howard," I said. "Ed Loy. We spoke on the phone."
Howard nodded slowly and looked at his watch.
"You're late," he said, his tanned brow frown-ridged, bushy eyebrows shading his eyes.
"Your solicitor thought he needed to speak to me," I said.
"Is Finnegan here again?" Howard said.
He glared at Anita, who flushed and nodded quickly. Howard flung a meaty hand in my direction.
"What did he want?" he said.
"I don't know," I lied. "I don't think he knew himself. To listen to the sound of his own voice, it felt like."
"That sounds like Dinny all right," Howard said, nodding. The huge planes of his face slowly began to shift into a smile. Then he laughed, an astonishingly loud crashing sound, like the engine of a tractor flaring into life. As suddenly as it had started, the laughter sputtered out and he stared down at the black and white tiles and cleared his throat. He lifted his head, leant across the reception counter and patted Anita's hand.
"I'll be in the study, Anita. I'm not to be disturbed," he said, nodded to me and unlocked a door across the hall from the waiting room. I followed. As I passed Anita, she was caressing her engagement ring between finger and thumb. In the faint light, the uncut stones had the dark glow of arterial blood.
"Nice ring," I said. "When's the big day?"
"It's not an engagement ring," she said. Her accent sounded Eastern European. Colour seeped across her pale cheeks like red ink on a blotter. "It's for protection. A talisman. "
"Protection against what?" I said.
"You know. Whatever. My sister gave it to me."
She tried to smile, but it didn't come out right. Her face drained of colour, and she looked down and fussed with some papers on her desk. As I opened the study door, she had pushed her left hand to her mouth and was gnawing on the ring like an anxious child with a pacifier.
* * *
Shane Howard sat behind a dark wood desk, lit by a green shaded lamp. The long room was otherwise in gloom: heavy velvet drapes hung over the windows. There were more rugby photographs hanging on the wallsHoward had been a second row international when I was at school, and one spectacular shot showed him bursting across the line through a shambling disarray of English forwards. Above the white marble mantelpiece hung a portrait of a handsome silver-haired man in tweeds and flannels with a stethoscope around his neck; a plaque at the base of the gilt frame identified him as Dr John Howard, 1915. All over was an airless fug of dust and old upholstery and cigar smoke; Howard's desk was strewn with papers and framed photographs, used cups and glasses, an almost empty bottle of Bushmill's and two overflowing ash trays. I sat across the desk from him, refused his offer of a cigar, and shook my head quickly when his hand strayed towards the whiskey. He nodded, cleared his throat, and then took an envelope from the desk, passed it to me and said, "My daughter."
Emily Howard was about nineteen, slim and petite, with a pale complexion and black eye shadow around her large brown eyes and full red lips and short spiky hair dyed candy apple red and piercings in her ears and nose and on her tongue. She also had a red rose tattoo high on one thigh and her nipples were pierced and her pubic hair had been shaved into a tiny heart and dyed red. I could see this because in the photographs, she was naked, and having sex with a boy and another girl, in most of the usual ways and a few that weren't so usual, except in photographs like this. The other girl wore a sequinned eye mask and her blonde hair was tied in a shiny scarf; the boy wore wrap-around shades and a black baseball cap; the only one you could get a clear look at was Emily. I looked up at her father. His bloodshot eyes were fixed on one of the framed photographs on his desk: a sandy-haired big-eyed girl of about six with no front teeth, biting into an apple.
I looked at the photographs again. When I worked in LA, at least once a month I was asked to find a girl who'd gone missing, and she'd almost always turn up having sex on camera in the San Fernando valley, and in the movies she did, she always had this smile that didn't reach her angry eyes, a smile that said fuck you to someone, usually her father, or her step-father, or her uncle; to some man who had taken everything from her before she was old enough to understand what it was. And she'd always say the same thing: that she was never going home again. And if letting a bunch of strangers ejaculate on your face is preferable to going home, then home must have really been something. So I'd go back and tell the clientthe father, or step-father, or unclethat she didn't want to see him, and usually I'd give him a tape, or a magazine, so he could understand for himself what he had done. But he rarely did; more often than not, he'd ask me if I could get her autograph.
"Will you find her?" Howard said.
I looked at him. He didn't look the type, if there was a type, which there wasn't, and this wasn't that kind of porn. Still, it was hard to tell from the photographs: in most of them, Emily Howard looked detached, ironic even, as if to indicate a distance from what she was doing; but in a few of the shots, there was a glint in her eyes that could have been anger.
"How did you get these?" I said.
"They were hand-delivered. I didn't see who by. And there was a message."
He passed me a sheet of white A4 with a note typed on it: Next stop the internet, where your daughter's ass will live foreverunless you cough up fifty grand by midday on Thursday. We'll tell you where and when.
"They don't say they're holding her against her will," I said.
"What are you suggestingthat she's in on it?" Howard said. "How dare you?"
"Could she be?"
"Get out of my house."
Howard's voice was loud, but it lacked conviction; he clutched the edges of the desk with his great hands.
"Has she new friends, or friends you don't know about? Has she become secretive about who she knows or where she goes?"
Howard's hands slapped down hard on the desk, sending papers flying and raising a cloud of ash. He stared to one side and to the other, opening and closing his mouth as if, in his rage, he didn't trust himself to speak, or he couldn't figure out who he was angriest at. Then he tried another laugh, but it didn't catch, and left him breathing hard and blinking back what looked like tears.
"Maybe you'd better tell me all about it from the beginning," I said. "When did it go wrong between you and Emily?"
Howard flung his head towards me as if I had accused him of something, chin thrust out, jaw set, eyes ablaze, ready for the fray; then as quickly the fire left him; he nodded eagerly, exhaled loudly, and in a low, deliberate voice that sounded as if it was only allowed out on special occasions, began to speak.
"That's just it," he said. "We had always been very close, all the while she was at schoolgreat pals. More. I suppose she was Daddy's little princess, you know? That's what her mother always said, anyway. But we were the best of friends. Always came with me to see Seafield play rugby, even the away games. Picking her up after dates and clubs and so on, like her own personal driver I was. Then she went to university, and all that stopped, overnight, it seemed. Didn't want to know me. First cheek and smart answers, then the silent treatment. We'd always kept her hair long, and one day she came home with it all cut off, spiked up and bleached blonde. Broke my heart. I mean, look at her."
Howard plucked one of the framed photographs off his desk and passed it to me.
"That's Emily the day she got her Leaving Cert results. A real lady she was growing into."
I looked at a pretty girl with long blonde hair and too much orange make-up and fussy designer clothes and intelligent eyes blurred with boredom and premature cynicism. There were fifty year-old women all over the city traipsing from beauty parlour to hairdresser to designer store trying to maintain that look. At least Emily'd had the spirit to tear it up.
"Once she did the hair, we didn't know what to expect next: a pierced nose, a tattoo, God knows. She dropped all the girls she'd been to school with, girls she'd known all her life, girls whose parents are our friends. Her boyfriend since 5th year, David Brady, had just made the Seafield first fifteen, smashing guy, one of the best full back prospects in the country, good career aheadand she dumps him for one of the club barmen, he's in her class at college, some scrawny clown who plays in a band. Broken up about it, poor David was. Then she started staying out, night after night, wouldn't tell us where."
"No. I don't know. Drink maybe. Hangovers. She spent enough time in that bed. But she's nineteen, half of them get sleeping sickness that age. Seems to go to all her pre-med lectures."
"She's doing medicine?"
Howard gestured to the portrait above the fireplace with a wry smile.
"She's going to make her grandfather proud. He didn't think dentists were top drawer. At last, a doctor in the family."
"How long has Emily been gone?"
"This is Tuesday. I haven't seen her since last Friday. The photographs arrived yesterday."
"And do you think she's in on this?"
"She's always had everything she wanted. No girl could have been better looked after."
"Maybe she's tired of being looked after. Maybe she's decided it's time she looked after herself."
Howard shook his head.
"No, I... she has seemed angry at us... but I don't believe she would do this. Not unless she was being forced in some way."
"Why was your daughter angry, Mr Howard?"
"I don't know. I don't know. She had no cause to be. No cause."
Howard shook his head, his damp brown eyes gaping, seemingly bewildered at the thought that his daughter might not be his best friend for life, or that at nineteen she might want her own life, rather than the one he had fashioned for her.
"Will you find her?"
"Mr Howard, why haven't you taken this to the Guards?" I said.
"Because I don't want any more people knowing about this than have to. In my experience, once the Guards know about something, so does everyone else. I can depend on you to be discreet, I assume."
I said nothing. My job was getting people to tell me their secrets, not swearing them to secrecy. Discretion rarely came with the territory.
"Anyway, if I send the Guards after her, I have little chance of winning her back."
"Maybe she's a bit old for her father to win her back," I said.
"Maybe," he agreed wistfully, staring again at the photograph of his daughter as a six year-old, as if that was the image of her that had taken permanent root in his mind. "But she's never going to be old enough to have her body splashed across the internet like a cheap whore."
I couldn't argue with that.
There was an knock on the door, and Anita appeared.
"Dr Howard, there are six in the waiting room. And Miss O'Kelly is... well, you know how she gets." A phenomenally loud over-elocuted female voice could be heard bellowing something about consumer choice and the need for a patients' charter.
"It's not her fault," Howard said. "I've kept them waiting. Thank you, Anita. Give me a minute." The receptionist shut the door behind her. Howard stood up.
"Mr Loy, I have patients to treat. If there's anything else"
"I'll need phone numbers for Emily's boyfriends and friends, past and present, I'll need to look at her room"
"I was about to say. My wife is waiting in the house. She'll fill you in on all that."
"I'll need to know immediately they call, and what they say. I'll need your mobile number to key into my phone, so I'll know when you call. And I'll need a cheque."
I told him how much I wanted, and he said I should invoice him, and I said preferred to get paid up front, and he asked would I settle for half, and I asked him if that's how he ran his own business, and he said that was completely different, and by this stage Miss O'Kelly's fluting cries were loud enough to be heard through the closed door, so Howard wrote the cheque, smiling, as if he found the little people's need for money quaint and amusing, and flung it at me, just so I'd remember how completely different we were. He went out to rescue his patients, and as I heard his loud mechanical laugh defuse Miss O'Kelly's ire and I got down on my knees to retrieve the cheque from under the desk where it had fallen, I wondered, not for the first time, why it was that the richer the people who hired me were, the more reluctant they seemed to pay me. Maybe it was an attempt on their part to recapture the control they felt they had lost by revealing so much about themselves. Or maybe it was just that they hadn't become that rich by parting easily with their money.