Fin had asked the family for a photo. Unable to choose between them, they’d brought twenty. He’d kept the latest, the same one used by the police. It was the typical school type pose — Rebecca’s body facing off to the side, her face towards the camera, hair impeccable, smile keen, and young. So bloody young. That had been three days ago.
Fin hesitated with the phone in his hand. He didn’t want to make the call, but he needed it confirmed.
Detective Constable Matthews answered on the third ring.
‘My name’s Stuart Finlay. I’m an investigator working on behalf of the Harding family. I believe you’re expecting my call.’
‘Yes, Mr Finlay.’ Perhaps Fin was imagining the tone of distaste on the other end of the line, but it wasn’t like in the movies. There was no special relationship between private investigators and the police force.
‘I heard Rebecca has been found,’ Fin said.
‘You understand I’m only willing to give information based on the family’s approval.’
Meaning Matthews wouldn’t be speaking to Fin under any other circumstances. Yeah, Fin got that.
‘Ms Harding’s body was found yesterday. Preliminary reports estimate she’s been dead for four days.’
Fin stopped in the street and gripped his phone tighter. She’d been missing for fourteen. The question invaded his mind before he could stop it. Still, he didn’t put it into words.
‘Where was she found?’
‘Back of Lake Street.’
Less than a mile from her home. Had she known? Did she die knowing how close she was to her parents? Or was she murdered elsewhere and dumped later?
Again, the question came to him. This time, he didn’t hold back. The world was turning to shit, and he wanted reassurance that Rebecca hadn’t suffered as much as he suspected.
‘Was she raped?’ His voice caught on the last word. Unwilling to repeat the question, he hoped Matthews had heard.
There was a pause and some background noise, as though Matthews were shifting in his chair. ‘Repeatedly.’
‘Thank you.’ Fin had to force the words from his throat. They seemed obscene in the light of that damning word: repeatedly. Fin hung up, gently pressing the button to disconnect, and placing the phone back into his jeans pocket with a forced calmness. He didn’t feel very fucking calm. The girl was dead before the family had even hired him. There was nothing Fin could have done to save her, but that knowledge didn’t help. She’d come from a protective family and a loving home. By all accounts, she’d been a nice girl. He’d known this one wouldn’t end well. A girl like that, with a family like that, didn’t just run away.
Fourteen years old. That was just sick.
Fin took a deep breath. It wasn’t refreshing — the traffic saw to that — but it should have been calming at least. It wasn’t.
He fingered the pack of cigarettes in his jacket. There were only two left, and they’d been with him for a while now. They were crumpled but not yet falling apart. He should throw them away, but they’d become his wall. Providing he didn’t light them up, he was doing well. Of course, he still thought about it from time to time. He pulled his hands from his pockets and clenched them into fists.
Nope, not calm yet.
The wind buffeted him from behind, almost urging him along the road. He continued walking. The bitter taste in his mouth didn’t dissipate. His job was taking its toll. Repossession, debt writs, cheating spouses, and insurance fraud cases, all meant he rarely saw the best humanity had to offer. He needed to see some good in the world again. An image of Gail came to mind before he dismissed it. Untouched by the world he worked in, Gail was warm and soft and good. She gave him hope for the rest of humanity. But this thing they had… it wasn’t that easy.
Hunched against the fierce wind, Fin knocked on the pub door and waited for George to unlock it. Pub hours didn’t start at half-eight in the morning, but this wasn’t a social visit. George had summoned him. Whatever it was, had better be quick. For November, the weather wasn’t that frosty, but it was cold and blustery, and Fin had been up all night. He needed sleep, food, and a shower. He didn’t care in what order he got them.
‘Morning.’ Fin aimed for bright and breezy. Judging by the look on George’s face, he failed spectacularly.
George didn’t re-lock the door behind him. This would be a brief visit. Good. Fin followed him over to the bar. The Blackberry Inn was the sort of place where the music was never so loud you had to scream over it to be heard, and not so soft you couldn’t appreciate it. George had pulled up the natty carpet, and Fin had helped him restore the original floorboards. Fin’s shoes never stuck to the floor, and his hands could rest on the bar without wondering what they were resting in.
‘How’s the wee lass?’ In contrast with the Scot’s large presence, George’s voice was quieter than normal, his brogue softening the words yet further. He kept his eyes on Fin as he spoke, his bushy eyebrows low. He’d rolled up his sleeves, revealing a couple of questionable tattoos obscured by thick arm hair. Big and bushy kind of summed George up.
‘Fine when I left her.’ Sophie Adams was Nate’s personal protection assignment. Like Fin, Nathan Collins worked independently — all the private investigators Fin knew did. But when they had a job like that, they shared the shifts around. Everyone in the group was ex-military, able to handle themselves and willing to do so, and all with a similar attitude to wife-beating bastards. Fin’s weapon of choice was a rounders bat. Easier to conceal than the full length of a baseball bat, it wasn’t illegal to carry, and could do more than enough damage.
Fin had pulled the midnight to eight shift.
‘Did he show?’
Fin shook his head. The night had passed quietly. At one point, he’d heard Sophie sobbing. He’d pushed open her door, but she was alone in the bed. She didn’t react to his presence, probably hadn’t noticed him, and he didn’t feel that having a strange man standing over her would help, so he’d left her alone.
‘Talk to Nate. Tell him you want a night off.’ It wasn’t a suggestion. George didn’t make suggestions. Idle chit-chat wasn’t his thing either.
‘The other lads have family.’ He didn’t. None that counted anyway. A certain longing stirred with that thought and, for the second time that morning, Gail’s image fought its way to the front of his sleep-deprived mind. If he were honest, it wasn’t only the second time.
‘You look like shit.’ George, always the smooth talker.
Working nights wasn’t easy. Fin wouldn’t want to manage it with kids running around the house during the day. That’s why he’d offered to take the shift. And that’s why none of the lads volunteered to take it off his hands.
‘I’m fine.’ As George hadn’t appreciated his breezy greeting, Fin put little effort into sounding convincing.
George was right, he could do with some time off. Sun, sand, sea, and Gail. He took a moment to drink in the image, only to have it quashed as the cold November rain splattered the pub’s windows with a sudden gust. It had been dry but overcast a moment ago. Now the outside world was getting dark, and the inside one positively gloomy, but George wouldn’t put on the lights when he shouldn’t even be open.
‘I’m fine.’ He’d made a commitment to Nate.
George grumbled something intentionally unintelligible. Fin got the gist.
‘It’s nice to chat, but you’re keeping me from my bed.’ Fin leant on the bar. ‘What’s up?’
George nodded across to the window. ‘Someone’s here for you.’
The hairs on the back of Fin’s neck prickled as he glanced across to the booth George indicated. A man sat there watching him, his gaze steady, intense, and not entirely patient. George’s bar was a mixture of a pub and restaurant. The booths ran the length of the walls and windows, and had high-backed chairs offering an enclosed, private feeling. Small, round tables dotted the distance between the booths and the bar. The bar itself ran along the wall on the left-hand side. Restaurant or no, George was not open for breakfast. This man shouldn’t be here. And Fin hadn’t even been aware he was. The knowledge of that slip made him uncomfortable. He was tired, yes, but hadn’t thought himself tired to the point of uselessness. It wasn’t a happy feeling.
As if reading his mind, George said: ‘You need a break, man.’
As always, the Scot wasn’t wrong.
‘He said he has an appointment,’ George said.
Doubtful at this time of the morning. With no office and only a small flat, Fin made his appointments during George’s opening hours.
‘Want a drink?’ George asked.
‘Thanks. Did you offer him one?’ There was no glass in front of the man but whether he’d accepted, or even drunk it already this early in the morning, was interesting to Fin.
Which told him something about George — nothing Fin didn’t already know, though. ‘How long has he been waiting?’
‘Ten minutes, no’ longer. I would have sent him away if I hadn’t got in touch with you.’ George could always get in touch with him.
George handed him a Coke. Fin was teetotal, and the caffeine might keep him awake long enough for him to reach his bed. He took a large gulp and then carried the half-empty glass over to the booth. He didn’t feel particularly bad about the man not having a glass of his own.
‘Stanton, my name’s Stanton.’
‘Mr Stanton, I don’t remember agreeing to meet with you this morning.’
‘My daughter, Sarah, is missing.’
Fin stopped still. Rebecca’s body may be cold, but his frustration at the outcome of that job was still painfully fresh.
Stanton pulled some photos from his pocket. Fin sat. He’d hear the man out, but he wasn’t sure he wanted another missing person’s job so soon.
‘When did you last see her?’
‘It’s been a year.’
Oh, man. ‘How old is she?’
Another kid. ‘Mr Stanton, my advice would be to trust the police with this. Their resources outmatch mine in every way possible.’ Almost word for word what he’d said to the Harding family. Almost word for word what he said to every family with a missing child. They never listened. Grief like that, the pain of not knowing what had happened to their child, tears at them, ripping them apart, and leaving a vacuum for doubt and blame to pour right into the heart of the family. Fin had seen it before.
‘The police have given up. They’ve moved on. I’ve spent the last year chasing sightings and rumours myself, but…’ The words were all there, but the desperation wasn’t. This man kept it all locked inside. Or he felt nothing at all.
Fin looked at the pictures spread out on the table. He didn’t pick them up. There was one of Stanton, a woman, presumably his wife, and the girl, Sarah. The girl looked a lot like the woman — mother and child, Fin guessed. The second photo was of Stanton with the girl. And then one photo of the girl by herself. Another school photo, same pose as Rebecca, same beaming smile, and perfect hair. She was pretty, blue eyes with long brown hair, and young. Painfully young.
‘Your wife?’ Fin asked, indicating the woman.
Stanton nodded. ‘Sarah’s mother.’
‘Could I see Sarah’s room?’
‘Our house burned down a year ago, the night Sarah left.’
There was no delicate way to ask this or if there was, Fin couldn’t think of it. ‘Do you think she did it?’
‘I want her back. I’m willing to pay.’
Interesting response. ‘I would need to speak with her friends.’
Stanton was shaking his head. ‘Sarah was in the sixth form. Her friends are now scattered across the country, some even abroad. I don’t remember where.’
‘It’s possible she’s with one of them.’
‘She isn’t. I checked.’
‘I don’t care about the fire or the house. I just want her home.’
‘I will pay three times your usual rate.’
Fin took a moment. His brain was sluggish, but he liked the idea of getting this one right, of finding the girl and getting her back home. To see a family reunited like that always gave him a strange goosebump-filled feeling that took his breath away. That feeling was why he did this job. It helped make up for the crushing emptiness he felt when he failed. The same emptiness he felt right now.
‘If you don’t take this job, someone else will.’
At three times the going rate, Stanton was right about that, and if Fin were honest, he could do with that money. He was saving up to ask Gail to move in with him. Fin was fast getting to the point where he could no longer imagine his life without her. But she had a one-bedroom flat, and his was even smaller. They would need a bigger place.
‘Without access to her room or friends, all I can do is send out flyers and follow up leads,’ Fin said.
‘The chances of finding her—’
‘I don’t care about the chances.’
‘I’ve got to be honest here, Mr Stanton, I don’t feel as though you’d be getting your money’s worth.’
‘I’m not just paying for your time.’
Fin clasped his hands together and leaned forward.
‘I want your discretion as well.’
Fin waited for more.
‘There was a fire, and my daughter ran. Maybe she thinks she’s responsible. Maybe she was. Maybe she thinks she’s in trouble, I don’t know. So, if you find her, you don’t speak to her. No direct contact. I can’t risk you scaring her off. You find her, and you report back to me. She needs to hear from me that it’s OK, that we want her back home.’
The determination was there. The desperation perhaps not, but that could have worn away. It was an exhausting emotion, and a year was a long time. Maybe this was all Stanton had left.
Fin looked through the photos again, this time picking them up. A year. A lot could have happened to her in that time. Living on the streets, a lot would have happened to her. She might not resemble the girl in these photos anymore. She might need to know she’s forgiven, and that she can come home.
‘I’ll give it a few weeks. I’ll send out flyers nationwide. Please remember, a year is a long time to be out there, and she might have travelled. I’ll ask around locally, but it’s possible I won’t find her, you understand.’ Most hostels and shelters are good about circulating notices like that. And if Sarah were living on the streets, the chances were good she’d needed a space in them from time to time.
‘I’ll need to keep this photo,’ Fin said, picking up the school picture.
Stanton nodded and handed over an envelope. ‘I want that photo back when you’re done with it.’
‘Of course.’ Fin opened the envelope. There was a newspaper article, which covered the fire, and cash. Lots of cash.
Stanton left while Fin read the clipping. He was on the third paragraph when his blood ran cold. He swivelled in his seat, but Stanton was already gone.
‘Oh, man.’ Fin wiped his hand with his mouth. The money made more sense now. A photo of Sarah dominated the article with an inset photo of the ruined building. The fire had raged through the house until nothing remained. The police were hoping the girl could help them with their inquiries. The article didn’t say outright that they considered her to be a suspect. But it did mention an unidentified body found in the house, burned beyond recognition.