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I heard her speak softly, then heard her no more.

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One of the indisputable truths that Ronnie’s learned over the years is that there’s a reason for children to be afraid of the dark.

Every parent has to reassure their child that this isn’t the case, that there are no monsters in their closets or goblins waiting underneath their beds. That shadows are just harmless tricks of light, but the truth is just the opposite. Bad things do happen at night and in shadow because it’s easier to hide there. Every time a girl goes missing, every time he finds her body shoved inside some dumpster like trash, Ronnie thinks of the rare moments that he was there to tuck his daughters in at night, and he—like any other dad worth a salt—reassured them that they were safe, even in the dark. That there were no monsters.

Just one of several regrets—too many if he’s being honest.

“Looks like she was on her way home.” Matt’s finished up with the girl’s teacher, a doe-eyed Irish woman probably just out of university and optimistic enough to believe she can make a difference. Was optimistic. Death always puts a damper on can-do attitudes.

Ronnie nods, “Looks that way.”  But it probably isn’t that way; this is very likely a dump site and not the scene of the crime. Makes sussing out what happened a lot harder.

“There was a tutoring group with three other students. We’re getting their names and addresses now.” Matt looks down at the body, then back to his notepad, his frustration manifesting itself with excessive fidgeting and snappish comments that are unlike him. He’ll work the rest out in the gym most likely.

Ronnie looks at the body too, a little girl just creeping into her teens but still holding onto her girlish pink rucksack. A pink slide clings to the dark tip of a braid, the other one lost in struggle most likely. At least she put up a fight.

He looks up and says, “Broken streetlights.” 

Matt punches and kicks his way out of nights like this. Ronnie wants a drink, but he’ll probably watch tele instead, a comedy. Maybe he’ll call the girls.

 

 

His mum was a secretary for a while when he was a kid. Matt doesn’t remember much from that time, only that he was often hungry and fantasized about killing his dad during lessons. Math was a particularly fertile ground for homicidal scenarios. His life is full of those moments, when he was so busy hating his father that he failed to notice his mother for more than ten seconds at a time. He was a kid, but so what, that’s no excuse, not really. Two hours of paper work is doing his head in, he can’t imagine doing nothing else for an eight hour stretch.

“You got the parent’s statements?” Ronnie’s talking around a mouthful of crisps, so it takes a minute to decipher what was said. Matt hands the file over, one he’s gone through already, he’s read all of them at least twice in the past few days. He’s also studied photos, gone through phone records, criminal backgrounds, and read 56 pages of ten year old thoughts scribbled inside a blue and purple diary. Shelby had two friends, both girls, and no boys in her life to speak of. She liked to draw, nature mostly. Things he’d probably find outside her house.

“What about sex offenders in the area, did Rose ever get back to us on that?” This over the crunch of a foil bag being crumpled and tossed. Matt rubs his temples, a futile gesture to stave off an inevitable headache.

“Not yet.” He grabs his jacket and stands. “I’ll see what’s keeping her.”

“Don’t be a pest.” Ronnie shoves his glasses on his forehead. “They don’t like that much.”

Matt smiles, though it takes more effort than usual, “Never. Rose likes me.”  He walks from his desk the way a drowning man swims away from the incoming tide.

 

….

 

Ronnie’s outlasted an impressive number of partners before Mattie, something no one is more surprised by than him. He doesn’t reflect on this often, not because they weren’t all good coppers in their own right, they were. Bennie Fitzgerald was a particular star, the only woman in their department at the time and had dead on instincts. It was scary how accurate her hunches could be. Right, so it took a little adjusting on his part—the language changes a bit with ladies. An endless number of things he shouldn’t say or caused friction when he did—but she was definitely one of the best, better than him obviously.

But he doesn’t think of her much. Or Standish’s endless backlog of dirty jokes. Or Bennett’s uncanny eye for details, he was brilliant that one. They all were. But their memories are tied up in his own; Ronnie prefers to reflect on his past in the abstract, more like a cautionary tale that happened to someone else, instead of an endless ream of missed opportunities and personal failures.

He’s let Matt take the lead on this one, not officially or anything, more like a tacit agreement. It’s a rhythm they fall into easily, the way people that trust each other tend to do. The lad’s still a bit black and white, but that’s not such a bad thing. Ronnie’s spent too much time in the grey areas. It makes him miss things sometimes. That and getting older.

 

“Shelby didn’t have a mobile?” Matt’s lowballing the parents, tossing out easy questions they already know the answer to. The father’s tuned them out already; his voice is flat, on autopilot. Means he’s given up. The mother is twitchy, her voice erratic. She won’t meet their eyes.

“She wanted one but we—.” Wet green eyes flick toward her husband, then away again. She blames him.  “She isn’t old enough, in a few years maybe—.”

Ronnie hates this part, when the parents turn on each other. Human nature brings out the worst when people give into it.

“That’s fine.” Matt grins and the mother smiles back reflexively, powerless against that boyish charm. Someone that attractive can’t be all bad, can they?  Ronnie hangs back, not wanting to interrupt the moment.

“We’ll also need to know where you both were yesterday; there are a few hours uncounted for.”

The mother nods dreamily, this is all perfectly reasonable, but the dad snaps awake, as if he’s finally noticed the intruders in his home. Strike one against the father.  

“Why the hell does that matter?”

It didn’t before, not really, just routine. Matt glances at Ronnie with sharp eyes because they know how much it does now.  

Definitely one of his better partners. Maybe in the top three.

 

….

 

They have to have a meeting. Matt hates meetings and not just because he’s forced to stand here and talk instead of being out there, finding what they can’t seem to stop talking about. It’s also because he doesn’t care much for Steele’s office, with its dark walls and reams of stodgy books that only a select few can manage to decipher. He doesn’t care for Steele really, though he does respect him. James is brilliant and ruthless, gets the job done. But it’s the man who gives him pause, those moments when all that brilliance wavers and shifts a bit, becomes something colder and unforgiving. Alesha likes to think they’re similar, him and James, “You both want to right all the wrongs in the world,” but Matt’s not so sure, because sometimes it feels like Steele is less concerned about injustice than he is about being right.

“We’ve checked out the father, no criminal history beyond a drunk and disorderly in his early twenties.” Ronnie does most of the talking now. They respect him more. Even Alesha, though she’d never admit that. “The mother had a domestic, but looks unrelated—.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Steele shakes his head, already miles ahead of them. “I need every possibility explored before we bring in either one of them for questioning. No surprises.”

Matt doesn’t care for this part either, when Ronnie doesn’t say something that he normally would have because he’s in Steele’s office and, “There’s a certain amount of respect that comes with being on that side of the desk.” He’ll find some other, less abrasive way to make his point, which Matt understands, but disappoints him as well.

Alesha smoothes away tension with wry sarcasm, relaxing Ronnie and covering for James like the brilliant multi-tasker she’s always been, but looks a bit tired when Matt finally catches her eye. She’s been sleeping as well as he has most likely. There’s a smile for him though, a quick commiseration from one half of a partnership to the other. Loyalty isn’t the easiest quality to have at times.

“We’ll get it done James,” Matt says for her—to make her feel better about the situation. Steele is obviously unimpressed with this reassurance, despite the confident authority of the statement. Ronnie’s lips quirk as they head to the door, making him feel a bit foolish, like these men know things, groundbreaking, important things that he’s never quite ready to learn.

 

 

“You see Mr. Young, we’re having a bit of trouble working out why you would lie to us about where you were that afternoon.”

There’s no accusation in Ronnie’s voice, just tired confusion, as if the man’s actions were their fault, not his own. He’s well aware of what he looks like to most people, messy, unfocused. Surely there’s a spot of something on his shirt by now, mustard from that brilliant steak sandwich he had for lunch while Mattie grazed on leaves and carrots. “We’re trying to piece Shelby’s last days together, it’s the best way to find out things, you see, but we can’t do that if some our pieces don’t fit. Even the smallest ones can be of grave importance.”

Matt’s glaring at the poor bloke, taking the role of the heavy. Not his usual, but a no-brainer since the man’s wife took such a liking to him earlier. Jealousy throws people off. So does anger. And guilt of course.

“I don’t understand how you could think—I would never hurt my own—my…”

Matt sits back in his chair, lets out a low impatient breath. Ronnie eases forward and offers a sympathetic nod, “It’s not my favorite part of the job, but it’s a necessary one. You love your daughter.” Said as a statement, not a question, a question would just set him off. “Of course you do, I bet you were very close to her. Perhaps even more than your wife.”

“They’d grown apart a bit—you know, mother and daughters.” The man looks up guiltily, “It happens all the time, I’ve heard. Just one of those things.”

“I know what you mean.” Ronnie chances a small smile, but there’s no reaction. It could go either way. “Got a couple of girls myself. Grew a bit more popular once puberty set in.”  The lie is easy, unhitched. His girls have only recently decided not to hate him. Forgiveness is still a work in progress.

“Yeah.” The man nods, heavy, like his head weighs more than the table, more than the world. “Things were different—for everyone. And I didn’t—I should have done something maybe.”

“Where were you Mr. Young?” Matt cuts through the moment with hard precision, and Young blinks at him like an apparition, like a ghost sitting on the other side of the table and says, “at the school,” in a blurted jumble of words that make his face to go white. He stutters, “But not—I wasn’t with Shelby—not for long. I was at first, but then I was—with Jan. For a few hours, after the children left.”

Matt turns around and looks at the two-way, as if he can see Alesha standing behind the glass. Hell, he probably can, somewhere in his mind’s eye he knows the precise expression she has on her face. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you love someone. 

“Janice West. Shelby’s teacher?”

“Yeah, we—have—had a thing together, and I—she was with me when—” He coughs out a sob, hard enough to shake his shoulders. “When my little girl…..”

And grief. Grief can throw man off more than all those other things combined.

 

….

 

It happens like this.

He goes by the school on his way home from work though it’s too dark to actually see anything worthwhile. Matt’s thinking he should get a tree or wreath for his apartment because Alesha’s coming by this weekend, work related of course. But the last thing he needs are those pitying, blue Christmas looks. She’ll probably ask him over for dinner or something, not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just—well, he’d rather not be a bit of holiday charity, her reason for the season. The idea trashes his mood, though it wasn’t great to begin with, so he thinks of the case, the girl, the school, though perhaps not exactly in that order, and then he just sort of—goes there.

The building’s fairly new, but already shabby, made with cheap materials that have barely lasted a decade. Matt remembers his old school for a moment, how the teachers would insist that they respect the property, not even walk on the grass. Here there are dirt tracks leading from each door, dirty brown lines cutting through lawn. Matt follows them absently, imagines Shelby doing the same, everyday, again and again. Wouldn’t be difficult to fall into a pattern. It’s how the teachers keep the children in line; make sure they’ll be certain places at certain times. Except on this day, when the teacher took a piss for what—thirty—forty minutes and came back to find a little girl gone.

One of the trails leads back to a water fountain, beside a window. Janice West’s classroom window. Shelby wasn’t tall for her age, but even she could see into the room from here, see whatever her father and her teacher had gotten up to and then—then what?

Matt spins on his heels (I run away, but to where?). He blinks at the ground, (Not to my friends, not home.) at all those tracks, those small footprints in each one and walks along the closest trail, the one that heads to the woods. He mentally admonishes her as he follows, already knowing what he’s going to find and why, why would you think it was safe there of all places?

(I wasn’t thinking. I was twelve.)

Nothing bad happens when you’re twelve until it does.

 

 

Ronnie cleans up his flat a little before Matt arrives, not because he’s afraid of judgment. It’s just polite, not forcing the lad to knock over books and papers to find a decent place to sit. He didn’t expect to have to clean quite this soon, especially after that dead end with the father. But trust Mattie to pull lemonade out his arse just when they’ve started shitting out lemons.

“I almost missed it.” Matt downplays what happened because he went off on his own, something partners never do. They don’t break cases solo either. “There were leaves over most of the ground, but then I saw it.”

“Saw what?”

“Pink.”

Ronnie nods. The missing slide, bright like a beacon even in all that dark. Matt was probably looking a lot harder than anyone had that first night.

“So we have the actual crime scene.” Ronnie drinks his fizz and Matt does the same, once again refusing to bring something stronger for himself. “That should help things along a bit.”

“Right.” Matt rubs his forehead, as aware as Ronnie of all the time that’s been wasted, how much they’ve cocked up because of a stupid lie. “We’ll just start again.”

Ronnie gives what he hopes is another reassuring nod, the sweet taste of his drink turning sickly inside his mouth, “Just like yesterday. And the day before that one.”  

Just one of several regrets—too many if he’s being honest.