Seven time zones west of Belfast the murdered girl was alive yet and well. She was confident, popular, young and clever -- this last virtue was going to be the death of her.
That and a slug from a .22.
She lay snug in the groove of the futon mattress. Over her: a cotton sheet and a fleece blanket. The fan on for noise. The humidifier for moisture. The heat in the middle of the thermostat. She was comfortable, as comfortable as one could be in this bed, in this room, in this building, in this town.
I know all this because I read the police report.
Perhaps the humidifier cast off a little light that illuminated her face. An interesting face. Imperious, marked, beautiful. Of good background, of good stock. Actually -- and although she said it was unimportant -- of good caste. She had dark eyes and dark hair. An aristocrat, you might have said, or someone who could play the archetypal rich girl who disdains and then ultimately falls for the poor but handsome boy in the silliest of Hindi films.
Victoria Patawasti was clever but even the cleverest can't be experts at all things. The encryption software for her computer diary had said that the FBI's Cray supercomputers would take years of processing time to break her password; all that she wrote would be safe, certainly from office gossips or other ne'er-do-wells. Of course, the encryption software meant nothing if the password wasn't secure. But who would ever think of a long word like Carrickfergus -- the small town where she'd grown up, in Ireland.
She had confided everything to her computer diary: her thoughts, her ideas, her suspicions. Suspicions. What a big word. Probably nothing she should worry about. Klimmer had been right. Not the sort of thing that should keep her up at night.
Not the sort of thing that would get her killed.
She lived in Denver, where the mountains met the plains in the middle of the continent and where seemingly all climatic conditions were possible within one twenty-four-hour period. She hailed from a place where the moderating currents of the Gulf Stream turned every day into a hazy rain, warm and temperate, even in winter. A place of fog and sea spray and men with flat caps; cows, sheep, stone walls, muck, slurry, more rain. The weather as predictable as bad news.
Even where her grandparents lived, in Allahabad, India, on the rolling brown plain along the Ganges, it wasn't hard to guess what the day would be like. Hot and dry nine months a year, hot and wet three. No mystery. Here, though, things were different. The mountains brought down snow and the deserts kicked up sand and the wide expanse of prairie could conjure up just about anything. They'd had drought for years, drought punctuated by big storms. Drive a few hours east and apparently a tornado could transport you to the wonderful land of Oz. Yes, here weather was weather, and thunderstorms and ball lightning and rains of frogs all seemed as likely to occur as anything else.
Perhaps she woke for a time. She told her mother she woke five or six times a night, having never really adapted to the wooden futon bed or the altitude or the aridity. Tonight it would actually be good that she was awake, she had only had about thirty minutes of consciousness left. Better to make the most of it.
She could have read the book next to her bed. Kerouac. Or she could have pulled on the toggle on the furry musical sheep that Hans Klimmer had given her. It played "Beautiful Dreamer" over and over and as it slowed and stopped perhaps she yawned and threw it on the floor.
Or maybe she looked out the window. She'd be surprised. A blizzard. She couldn't have been expecting that in June.
Monday, June 5, 1995, two-thirty Mountain Time...
At precisely the same moment, it was raining in Belfast, and the man who would eventually find Victoria's killer was not yet up.
I was half awake in a boat I'd broken into at Carrickfergus Marina, a girl with me whom I'd met in Dolan's the night before.
I was twenty-four, underweight, bearded, pale and sickly, with black curly hair that badly needed a cut. The girl: pretty, redheaded, skinny, and (unknown to me) only seventeen, at Carrickfergus Grammar School, a prefect, a member of the choir and scripture union but rebelling and well on her way to dropping out, failing her A levels, moving to Dublin and becoming a singer/model/prostitute/junkie. Breaking and entering and plying her with stolen gin would do nothing to alter the course of this trajectory.
And yet it was not such an illogical leap that, two weeks later, I'd be on my way west to the United States to investigate a murder that confused the local police. No, it wasn't so strange because in fact I'd been a detective for the Royal Ulster Constabulary -- Northern Ireland's police force. A copper for six years, a detective for three of those and a DC/DS for my last six months on the force. Those last six months the key to my current geographical, moral, physical, and spiritual condition.
Detective Constable/Drug Squad.
The girl rolled over sleepily in the bunk, went back to sleep. I stroked my beard and lit the remains of her joint. I never smoked pot, never, it made you stupid. My drug of choice...
But that's another story. Well, part of this one, but we'll get to that.
Still raining. Cold. Pissing down.
The boat stank. Why a boat? I couldn't go home -- my father, retired from teaching math, always bloody there. And her house was out of the question. The marina had an emergency turnstile locked with a Yale standard. Easy. You break in and you find a boat that looks expensive. The bunks were narrow, though, and there was no way to get warm unless you turned on the power on the dock but that would set off a light in the marina office. Suffer for your sin.
I had things to do but the rain had hypnotized me into apathy. I slid out of the bunk and went along the passage to the head. For it to work properly, you had to turn a cistern on, piss, pump it out, and turn it off again. A lot of effort. I went down there in my boxers, T-shirt, jacket. Trailing a duvet. Shivering. Smoking. A notice on the wall: "Trust in God and keep your bowels clean -- Cromwell." I regarded it for some time. Was it supposed to be funny? My brain felt addled.
I looked out through the thick glass. Pissing was right. The sort of gray, heavy downpour chief constables pray for during riot season. Not that I cared about it, not anymore. Nope, all over, done with. I was no longer part of the solution but had migrated to become part of the problem. I smiled.
I tugged the blanket around me. I smoked and rested my head against the bog wall. Something troubled me still. Something I didn't want to forget. I searched my memory and then the jacket pocket, but neither place revealed its mystery.
Sleep on it, I told myself.
I got up and walked to the chart table. I found the gin bottle and a square of Cadbury's chocolate from the night before. I threw the square in my mouth. Stale. I reached down again, found some fags, and lit one. Climbed in the bunk next to the girl.
Filthy habit, smoking in bed, for God's sake. I took a few puffs, coughed for half a minute, and added the cigarette to what I hoped was an ashtray lying down there.
I pulled the covers up over my head and kicked away a hot water bottle, icy and rubbery as a dead seal pup. I folded the duvet tighter. All now quiet -- only the easing rain on the window ledge and a drip, drip, drip coming from off the mainmast and down the hatch. The girl woke, whimpered. I slept....
And as the sky above eastern Ulster started to clear, on another continent, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and a thousand miles into the Great Plains, a wide, suffocating blanket of snow had closed down the railways, the highways, and every other road to all but the hardiest of souls. Cops, night shift workers, emergency personnel, stranded drivers, or the horde of high-altitude insomniacs staring through their windows.
And, of course, Victoria Patawasti's murderer.
Few vehicles moving, fewer people around, everywhere an eerie quiet.
Denver smothered in low clouds reflecting back the street and building lights, turning them sickly orange and neon red. Snow falling slantwise and hard but then diminishing as the pressure systems rotated around themselves in enormous anticlockwise ellipses. And in those moments of relative tranquillity, from high apartment windows came the peculiar sight of the snow falling upward, bobbing on heat thermals and heading into some icy purgatory in those awful clouds.
A truly impressive storm system that stretched from Canada all the way down into the Sangre de Cristos. Great swirls of low pressure that bounced off the Rockies and sucked up moisture from as far away as Puget Sound and the Gulf of California. The overnight man on the Weather Channel was dizzy with excitement. After a winter of drought, this was the biggest snowfall of the year. In fact, this was the biggest June storm since 1924, snow in six states, sixteen inches in Aspen, power outages in Utah, fourteen airports closed, all the east-west highways, America effectively cut in two, families trapped in cars, trucks overturned, El Niño, La Niña, Global Warming, Instability, the End Times, the Second Coming....
Not that it bothered Victoria's killer.
No, you didn't care, did you?
You had already murdered Alan Houghton up on Lookout Mountain.
And now it was three in the morning. Perfect. They say that that's when the body is at its weakest. The storm had come out of the blue. But it wouldn't matter. It would erase your footprints like a shaken Etch-A-Sketch. You probably liked the darkness, the low clouds, the fresh snow. The deciduous trees like scarecrows, the pine and spruce drenched in white. Trails on the path from people walking their dogs. Here and there a glimpse of the mountains. How long did you stand outside Victoria's apartment building?
You must have come in by the fire exit next to the garage. The only entrance that did not have a security camera. What would you have done if some old lady had spotted you down there?
You're going in late? Don't I know you? You're the --
You wouldn't hesitate. Jump down, rush her, kick the dog, take out the knife, slit her throat, knee drop on the dog, break its neck. That's the sort of thing you didn't want. Messy. Ugly. A whole night's adventures and you wouldn't even be in the building yet. And besides, you'd had quite the night already.
Absolutely no turning back now. Alan Houghton already dead. His body probably dumped in a quarry or under the extension of Interstate 70. What an effort that must have been for you, lifting his dead weight into the plastic sheeting in the trunk, driving through the snow, finding the trench you'd picked out yesterday. Necessary.
As was this.
Houghton had no proof of Charles's involvement in the murder but once the smear got out there it wouldn't go away. The bleeding had to stop. It had literally been millions of dollars over decades. If Charles was going to go anywhere, Houghton had to be silenced. And now with the first step taken, the job had to be finished. Oh, the surprise on his face. I'm sure he'd been expecting an envelope stuffed with benjamins....
The fire exit. You took out a magnet and greased it over the pass sensor. The light went green, the lock clicked. Easy as pie.
The door. A blast of heat. You rode the lift to the thirteenth floor.
Unlucky for some.
The apartment. You produced the copy of Victoria's key that you'd had ample time to make. You turned the lock. You applied the bolt cutters of the Leatherman multitool to the security chain. The chain snapped. You listened for a sound. Nothing. You opened the door.
You went into the apartment.
It wasn't your first time here.
It would be your last.
You closed the door behind you.
Smooth. Very smooth. You took out the revolver -- hopefully that wouldn't be necessary. You'd shot Alan far from anyone on Lookout Mountain. You'd probably met him there once before so that he wouldn't be suspicious. But even a .22 would make noise. Still, if you had to use it again you would. A superb gun. Handmade by Beretta in Italy, "from CM to AM with love" engraved in gold on the butt. Incriminating, to say the least. They'd never find Houghton, but even if you didn't have to use it on Victoria it would be safer to get rid of it.
You reached in your pocket and found Hector Martinez's driver's license. You dropped it near the door.
You took out the knife. Adjusted to the darkness.
The lights were off, but through the living room window you could see the storm had started up again. You walked across the living room. Opened the bedroom door. The humidifier glowed in the corner. The fan whirred. Victoria slept. So beautiful. Peaceful.
The knife glinted.
Her golden neck exposed to the ambient light. Victoria's carotid artery pulsing slightly. You gripped the knife tighter. A slash rather than a stab.
Closer. But something happened. A loud noise. Maybe you stood on something, a stuffed animal that moaned and played a bar of "Beautiful Dreamer."
Victoria sat up, opened her mouth to scream. But didn't scream. Instead maybe she smiled and said in a half question:
The .22 flashed. A single bullet wiped out that pretty face forever.
· · ·
I shivered. Suddenly woke. Looked around. The last of the rain drizzling down the portholes, weaving patterns and rivulets. The boat moving up and down against the dock. The halyards gently clanking against the metal mast.
"I'm going to be late for school," the girl said.
"School or college?" I said.
"I told ya last night," she said.
"How old are you?" I asked.
"I could go to prison," I groaned.
"Also for possession of cannabis resin, peddling controlled substances to a minor, criminal trespass, breaking and entering, theft, and a couple of other things," the girl said, getting up and lowering herself onto the floor.
She had red hair, curly, long, pale skin with freckles, and she looked a lot younger in the cold light, et cetera.
"How old are you?" she asked.
"Twenty-four, almost twenty-five."
"You look older."
"Thanks. So do you."
"Yeah, but you really look older."
"Aye, well, I'm a bad lad, hard living," I said, and fumbled for the smokes.
"Yeah right," she said, putting on her blouse. "Here, you want some coffee?"
"Sure. What time is it?"
"Just after ten. I've study until eleven, so no one will miss me," she said.
"Said I was staying at Jane's before I left."
"So you went out looking for trouble?"
She didn't reply. She went to the range and hit the gas. Struck a match on a ring, found some distilled water, put it in a pot. I got up on my elbow, swung my legs out.
"How do you know all the law stuff?" I asked.
"Read a book, Introduction to English Law. I was thinking of doing law at uni, either that or journalism."
"Bored with A levels, school, load of rubbish, going to become a singer," she said, finding a biscuit tin and opening it.
"I went to Queens," I said. "And coincidentally I was a law student. Best time of my life, seriously, you should suck it up, do your A levels, get to college. It's fun, you can party, good advice."
The water boiled and she added some coffee to a cup. She brought me the coffee and a couple of digestive biscuits.
"Thanks," I said. I took a sip and a tiny bite of biscuit.
She sat on the chart table, brushing her hair, looking at me.
"So your advice is don't do drugs and stay in school," she said with mild irony.
"Uh, yeah," I said.
"And through this I, too, can reach the high plateau of your success as a man who breaks into other people's boats?"
I took the joint out of her hand and stubbed it out.
"Too young for that," I said.
"Ok, dad," she said laughing.
"Seriously, not good for you," I said.
"Your friend John gave it to me," she said.
"Yeah, well, he's not very responsible."
"He said he was a policeman."
"He said I should go with him. He said you were a bit of a druggie," she said quietly.
I did not reply. The girl looked at me. Her young face twisted by concern.
"John said you used to be a cop too. What happened to ya? The police lay off the old men first. Were you fired? Did you get shot?"
"I resigned," I said, and offered nothing more. I was infected with caution, even this early.
"You resigned? Why?"
"You answer one question, million others behind it," I said with mock exhaustion.
"No. But I am saying go to uni. Seriously, don't bugger up your life. Do yourself a favor, finish school."
"What did you get in the A levels?" she asked.
"Four As, shit, are you a genius or something?"
"Or something," I said, shivered again.
"You look way older with that beard. It doesn't suit you at all, you grew it because you got too thin and you think the beard hides it but it doesn't. You can tell that you were handsome, you know, the green eyes, the dark eyebrows, the cute nose, but you seem ill, to tell you the truth. All tall and stooped over. You should look after yourself better."
"Jesus. If I look so rough, how on earth did I manage to persuade such a doyenne of fashion to -- "
"Slumming it," she said, interrupting me. "Besides, your friend John insisted on telling me in excruciating detail how he was going to fix his motorcycle."
"Not a very exciting topic," I agreed, and sighed. And she was right. This silly seventeen-year-old was right about everything. Ridiculous. My skin was starting to crawl. Nearly time, but this wasn't the place and not with a child around.
"We should hit the road," she said, anticipating my thoughts. "But I'm going to shower first."
"Are you sure there's a shower?"
"Checked already, there is," she explained, and made her way to the back of the boat.
I leaned back in the bunk. Smart girl. Screwing up her life, none of my business. Her stuff on the chart table, hair clip, brush, purse. I opened her purse, stole a ten-pound note, put it in my pocket, changed my mind, put it back in the purse, changed my mind again, put it back in my pocket.
I heard the shower come on. Eventually the girl appeared in a towel.
"Good shower," she said.
"You're tougher than me," I said.
"I can't handle a cold shower, I like my creature comforts."
"It wasn't cold."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I put the water heater on," she said, matter-of-factly.
"But the boat's not plugged in," I said, a tear of panic starting to go through me.
"I plugged it in, out there, on the dock, I've been on a boat before, my uncle F -- "
"Jesus. A light goes on in the marina office to let them know what boats are powered up," I said, and ran to the back of the cockpit. I looked up and across the three rows of boats to the office. Sure enough, the security guard was coming over to check why no one had signed in for the boat but its power was on.
"Jesus Christ, get your shit together, bloody hell."
I grabbed her by the arm as she desperately tried to get her trousers and T-shirt on at the same time. I fumbled into my jacket, scrambled on deck. The guard probably thought it was routine. Just starting down the ramp, not exactly racing, eating crisps, but regardless we were screwed because there was only one way in and out of the marina -- past him. We would have to hide in another boat, or swim to the jetty wall, or walk by him and brazen it out.
"Look respectable," I said, helping her on with her sweater.
"Ha, coming from you -- "
"Shut it, he hasn't seen us, come on."
We climbed over the safety rail and stepped onto the wooden dock. The guard two aisles over, munching his crisps, lost in thought. We began walking casually.
"Talk to me," I said.
"So Mother and I decided to go to the same psychiatrist but he said -- "
"Talk sensible," I interrupted.
"In English I have to write an essay on a personal hell. We're reading No Exit, the Sartre play. You know -- hell is other people," she said.
"Other French people, certainly," I said.
"Well, yes, so, what's your personal hell?" she asked.
"I don't know. Um, being trapped in a lift with Robin Williams?"
We turned the curve on the dock, past the guard. He gave us a look, but one of relative unconcern. We hastened our pace and walked fast to the exit. We were nearly at the turnstile when the guard yelled at us to stop. Or at least our translation of a strangled "Hey, youse, get back harble garble, trabba dap."
We ducked through the turnstile.
"This is where we split," I said.
"Sex, drugs, a brush with the law -- you certainly know how to show a girl a good time. How can I get in contact with -- "
"You don't until you turn eighteen," I said.
"What's your name at least?" she began to say but I was already jogging across the park.
"Wanker," she called after me.
I didn't reply.
I realized what I'd forgotten. I reached into the inside pocket of my jacket. I had left one of my baggies of ketch on the boat. It had gotten wet in last night's downpour and I'd left it somewhere on that bloody chart table to dry. Now I had only one small bag left. Damn it. And I had been trying to avoid Spider. Just enough now for a couple of days: I'd have to go crawling to him. Have to get some money somehow. Have to show up at that pub quiz and of course Spider would be there too.
Bugger. I cursed myself for five minutes. Finally calmed down.
Take care of the day at hand, Alex, I told myself. First things first. I had to get my free supply of needles, using John's dad's diabetic prescription. A different drugstore every week just to erase suspicion.
Today: Smith's Chemist. Ok, do that. I went in with my prescription, browsed the newspapers while they took their sweet time filling it.
"Hello, Alex, how's your dad?" a voice behind me said. Mr. Patawasti.
"Oh, he's fine, how are you?"
"I'm fine, the knees, you know, but still have to get out. I'm just getting the papers, The Times for me, Guardian for the wife. Poison and antidote, I like to call them. Though I never let on which is which," Mr. Patawasti said in that upper-class Indian accent of his.
I laughed but before I could reply the clerk said that my prescription was ready.
"See you another time, Mr. P.," I said.
"Another time, Alex," Mr. Patawasti said.
I walked out of the drugstore, satisfied that at least I had needles for another week. I suppose I should have asked Mr. Patawasti about Victoria. The last I'd heard, she had some new job in America. Still, it would keep. I'd see him around.
I walked home. I had things to do. Plans for the coming day or days. But no further than that. I couldn't live further than that. A sensible policy, for I didn't know that it was done now. Done. Events set in motion that would carry me away from this depressing little scene, to Belfast Airport, Heathrow Airport, the brand-new Denver International Airport, to Boulder, to Denver, to a gun battle in Fort Morgan, to a bloody mess in a ballroom, another flight, the Old Continent, the Hidden River....
Aye, it was done.
The .22 was being walked to the frothing waters of Cherry Creek, where it would be cast in and would remain for years before being nudged along to the South Platte River. From there it would make its sliding way to the Platte, from the Platte to the Missouri to the Mississippi and finally the Gulf of Mexico. From there to some deep trench in the Atlantic. The seawater would break down the steel into its component molecules, the molecules would break down into their component atoms, the sun would expand, the oceans would boil off, the Earth would fry, all the stars would go out, the last remnants of intelligence in the universe would cobble together light from somewhere, but the second law of thermodynamics always wins and eventually blackness would reign in perpetuity, all remaining atomic nuclei disintegrating, electrons losing their spin and dissolving and the whole of creation a void of nothingness, a few faceless neutrinos separated by oceans of night.
Copyright © 2004 by Adrian McKinty
Hard on the heels of Dead I Well May Be -- which Booklist named "one of the top ten crime fiction debuts of the year," and which established Adrian McKinty as the perfect new find for fans of Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly -- McKinty's tightly paced Hidden River displays his unerring gift for crafting powerhouse literary thrillers.
Alexander Lawson is a former detective for Northern Ireland's police force and a rising star at cracking difficult cases. After he is assigned to the force's dangerous, corruption-ridden drug squad, he becomes addicted to heroin -- under unusual circumstances. Forced to resign in disgrace, Alex is twenty-four and still entrapped by the needle when he learns that his high school love, beautiful Victoria Patawasti, has been murdered in drought-scorched Denver, Colorado.
Victoria's family begs Alex to investigate the case, and he seizes the opportunity to fly to America for a chance at redemption.
Soon the bodies begin to pile up, and Alex is forced to go on the run after the only credible lead to Victoria's murderer is accidentally killed. Wanted by both the Colorado cops and the British police, who believe he has information about a corruption scandal, and with the murderer closing in all the time, Alex will have to fight just to stay alive, never mind solving the terrifying case.
Critics have called Adrian McKinty's work "explosive," "violent yet virtuous," and "always enthralling." Hidden River is a riveting novel of characters, including a sadistic English cop who puts out cigarettes on other people's eyebrows, a billionaire's son with political aspirations, and a sexy Ethiopian girl living illegally in a squat. All manner of sinners converge on Denver's notoriously seedy Colfax Avenue against the breathtaking backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.
Gritty, with spot-on dialogue and black humor, Hidden River is a dynamic thriller from a storyteller who writes "in prose that is a kind of poetry" (The Washington Post), and confirms his reputation as a dazzling literary voice in crime fiction.