‘Just go and see them, Tony. Make them feel like we’re doing everything we can to find their daughter.’
Detective Inspector Anthony McLean considered the words of his superintendent as he sat on the soft leather couch in the immaculately tidy front room of a small suburban house in Corstorphine. Outside the winter grey sky flattened the view south over Edinburgh towards the Pentland Hills, threatening icy rain, maybe even snow. Inside the heat was oppressive, radiators going at full blast, the mock-gas stove turned up high in a vain attempt to replace the emotional warmth so obviously lacking from the home. Across from him, on the opposite side of a low table bearing a tray with cosied teapot, china cups and a plate of stale biscuits, sat John and Pat Sanders. The gulf between their individual armchairs spoke eloquently of a marriage under stress.
‘Perhaps I could see Jenny’s bedroom.’ McLean placed his teacup down on the coaster Mrs Sanders had provided for him. Mr Sanders stiffened.
‘What do you want to do that for? Shouldn’t you be out there looking for her?’
‘Mr Sanders.’ McLean tried to keep his tone level. ‘Every beat policeman in Scotland has Jenny’s face committed to memory. We’ve contacted all the local hospitals and emergency services. Superintendent McIntyre has authorised a team of twenty-five constables to search the local estate and we’re currently interviewing all of Jenny’s known friends and associates. Now, I could go out and help them, maybe get the job done ten minutes quicker. Or I could have a look in her room for any clues that might explain why she’s gone.’
‘Someone’s taken her. It’s obvious isn’t it? Jenny would never run away.’ Mrs Sanders wrung her pale, bony hands together constantly in her lap. Worry lines creased what otherwise might have been a pretty face, eyes rimmed red where she’d been crying. She was the reason he was here, doing what should have been a uniform sergeant’s job. Apparently Jayne McIntyre and Pat Buchan had been quite the pair at school. One had joined the police and the other married a soldier. Looking at the obsessive tidiness of the living room, McLean couldn’t help thinking that his superintendent had made the better career choice.
‘We have to consider every possibility, Mrs Sanders. If Jenny has been abducted then it may well be by someone she knew. Does she have a computer in her room? Access to the internet?’
Jenny Sanders’ bedroom was, if anything, more soulless than the living room downstairs. There were no posters of pop stars on the walls, no collection of furry animals on the bed. A simple IKEA desk held a laptop and some school books, basic toiletries lined up on the top of a chest of drawers in front of the window. McLean opened a hanging cupboard to find a row of neatly pressed clothes, all hung in individual plastic wrappers as if they had only just come back from the dry cleaners.
‘A police woman came and had a look around yesterday, when we reported her missing.’ Pat Sanders didn’t enter her daughter’s room; hovered in the doorway as if unable to commit.
‘That’s standard procedure. You’d be surprised how many kids leave a note that the parents just don’t find.’ McLean looked around the room, searching desperately for something personal, something that might give him some idea just who Jenny Sanders was. ‘Is anything missing?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You know, toothbrush, toothpaste, favourite clothes.’ He pointed at the neatly-made bed, its coverlets pulled tight over the pillows. ‘Teddy bear? If she’s just taken off to stay with a friend for a few days, then she’d have had to pack a bag.’
Mrs Sanders shook her head vigorously, perhaps too quick to answer. ‘No, no. Nothing’s gone. She’s a good girl, inspector. She’d never run away.’
McLean wasn’t so sure. He looked once more around the anonymous bedroom, feeling the stifling pressure of conformity. Jenny Sanders was fifteen years old; how could she be expected to live like this?
‘What do we know then, Bob?’ McLean drove the pool car back through traffic-choked streets towards the station. Beside him Detective Sergeant ‘Grumpy’ Bob Laird consulted a notebook thick with illegible scrawl.
‘Not a lot really. The girl should’ve come home from school yesterday at four. When she hadn’t turned up by six the parents called us in. They’d already phoned around all her friends by then. She was last seen walking along Corstorphine High Street at half past three.’
‘What about the parents?’
‘John Sanders is ex-military, works as a mechanic now. Pat’s a housewife, and quite obviously bored if the state of their home’s anything to go by.’
‘Don’t be too harsh on her, Bob. Her only child’s gone missing. I think I might get a bit obsessive if that happened to me.’
The smell of a house fire always put McLean’s stomach on edge. The acrid tang of scorched plastic mixed with the chemical stench of burnt paint and charred wood, all made worse by the warm dampness. Like some rotting old flea-bitten dog, not quite dead yet.
It had been a decent sized detached house, pre-war and in a commanding position looking out over the west end of the city. Someone was going to get a nice building plot out of this tragedy. Inside, in what would most likely have been the living room, a couple of firemen stood by a pile of charred beams, slates and plaster, staring downwards as he entered. One of them turned to see him.
He followed the narrow path cleared around the edge of the room until he could see properly what they had found. The smell was enough of a clue.
‘It’s no’ easy when they’re burnt this bad,’ the fireman said. ‘But I think it was a child. Probably broke in here looking for shelter, place’s been empty a while. Lit a fire for warmth. It got out of control.’
McLean looked down at the charcoaled remains of a person. Whoever they were, they had curled up in a ball, hands clutched to their face and knees drawn up to their chest. A heavy piece of roof beam had crushed their head into the floor. It was three days now since Jenny Sanders had gone missing. He hoped to god he hadn’t just found her.
‘There’s just too much damage. I can’t reconstruct a face from smashed bone and burnt flesh.’
City pathologist Angus Cadwallader leant over the examination table, where the fire victim was undergoing a post mortem. Away from the tangle of rubble that had buried it before, the body looked even smaller and childlike. McLean had a photograph of Jenny Sanders in his pocket, but he knew it was going to be no help here.
‘What can you tell then, Angus?’
‘A little patience, please Tony. Burnt bodies are always the most tricky. They have a nasty habit of falling apart on you.’
McLean stood silently, watching as the pathologist went about his gruesome work. He was glad of the camphor smeared under his nose, glad too that it was winter and some months before he was likely to be invited to a barbecue. The smell of cooked meat sent conflicting signals to his stomach and brain.
‘Well, I can tell you we’re looking at a female here,’ Cadwallader said after a few minutes. ‘Young, too, though I’ll have to get a better look at her pelvis to be more accurate.’
‘Fifteen, maybe?’ McLean didn’t want it to be so.
‘It’s possible. You think you know who she might be?’
‘A fifteen year old girl went missing a few days ago. She lived not far from the scene of the fire. I’d not be at all surprised if she’d run away from home.’
‘And holed up in a place she knew was empty.’ Cadwallader finished the thought. ‘Well, you’ll just have to get me some of her DNA. A hairbrush should do.’
‘I’ll try. But her mother’s got a thing about cleanliness. We might have a hard time finding anything.’
‘Then get me a cheek swab from one of the parents. I’ll work it from there.’
‘I want to see her.’
‘That’s not possible, Mr Sanders. The body was at the centre of a house fire. The remains are… not easy to identify.’ McLean stood in the reception area at the front of the police station, trying to placate a highly agitated John Sanders. With hindsight it would probably have been better if he’d just gone round to the man’s house unannounced, rather than phoning first. As soon as he’d mentioned DNA, Sanders had put two and two together and made five.
‘I fought in the Gulf, inspector. Operation Desert Storm. I’ve seen things that would give you nightmares for the rest of your life.’
‘So you’ll know that there’s no way you can identify this body by sight. And we’ve no idea who she is. She might not be your daughter at all.’
John Sanders was obviously not a man given to much self-doubt. McLean could see in his face that the uncertainty didn’t sit well. He’d seen the type too many times before, knew that soon he would start to get violent.
‘Look, Mr Sanders. Let’s just take a DNA sample from you and compare it with what we’ve got. It won’t take long. Go home. I’ll call you the moment I know anything more.’
‘You’re still looking for her, right? This isn’t going to change things?’
‘We’re doing everything we can to find Jenny, and we won’t stop until we succeed. My gut instinct is this girl’s too small, too young to be your daughter, but we have to eliminate her as a possibility.’
Sanders shrunk in on himself; the anger and frustration dissolved under the weight of his hopelessness. McLean put a hand on his shoulder, and for a moment thought the old soldier was going to burst into tears.
‘Let’s go see someone about that sample, eh?’
‘It’s not a match. Our poor little burnt girl’s not his daughter.’
Phone clamped to his ear, McLean felt an odd mix of relief and trepidation. He was pleased that their unidentified body was not Jenny Sanders, though that meant they still had to find out who had died in the house fire. But he was anxious too, that Jenny was still missing. Six days was a long time to be gone. He looked at his watch, then out through the car window at the passing cityscape. They were near enough to Corstorphine to deliver the news in person.
‘Take the next left, Bob.’ McLean closed down his phone and put it back in his pocket. ‘Let’s go pay the Sanders a visit.’
There was a marked difference to the house from the first time. It was still tidier than McLean’s Newington flat would ever be, but the immaculate front garden looked neglected, fallen leaves strewn across the path and lawn. In the hallway, a pile of unopened letters sat on the floor by the mat. Lights blazed from the overly ornate chandelier that hung from the high ceiling by a stout chain. Those lights would be on all day and all night, a hopeless beacon to the lost daughter, guiding her back home. Through in the living room, Mrs Sanders brought them tea in mugs, and she didn’t put any coasters on the low table. Neither did she look like she’d slept since last they’d been there.
‘John’s not back from work yet.’ She perched herself on the edge of the armchair, her nervousness evident in every move.
‘Did he tell you why I called yesterday?’ McLean asked.
‘About the dead girl found in that house fire, aye? It wasn’t my Jenny, was it inspector?’
McLean could see the mad hope in her eyes. ‘No, Mrs Sanders, it wasn’t Jenny. We still don’t know who it was, poor soul, but the DNA sample your husband gave us was conclusive. She wasn’t his daughter.’
Silence filled the room. McLean watched the nervous woman as she slid down into her seat, expecting some measure of relief to show in her face. If anything she seemed more agitated still. He tried to catch her eyes, though her gaze darted from place to place as if dwelling on any one thing for too long was painful. Finally she looked straight at him, afraid.
‘It could still be her.’ The faintest of whispers. McLean held her gaze, said nothing, trusting Grumpy Bob to do the same.
‘It could still be her,’ Mrs Sanders said, slightly louder this time. ‘It’s possible that John isn’t her father.’
‘It’s possible John isn’t Jenny’s father.’ Mrs Sanders sniffed, her eyes filling with tears. ‘There was an… an incident. Not long after we were married.’ She sobbed, then fell silent.
‘Mrs Sanders. Pat.’ McLean leant forward, trying his best to sound sympathetic. ‘Jayne asked me to lead this investigation as a favour to her. She wouldn’t have done that if she didn’t think I could be trusted. We’ll find Jenny, I give you my word on that. But I need to know as much about her as possible to do that. And if it doesn’t need to go beyond this room, it won’t.’
Mrs Sanders clutched her hands to her knees, rocking slightly, trying to steel up the courage to speak. McLean gave her the time.
‘John was in the army,’ she said eventually. ‘He was posted overseas not long after we were married. The Gulf War, you know, first time around. I was staying with my mum at the time. Her brother lived nearby, Uncle Keir. He used to come round a lot. I thought he was just trying to keep me happy, take my mind off the news on the telly every day. But it was more than that. D’you know what Rohypnol is inspector?’
McLean nodded, but still didn’t speak.
‘He took me out to dinner a week before John was due back home. Spiked my drink. Christ, the whole evening’s a blur, but I know he raped me.’
‘And you think he might be Jenny’s father.’
‘I pray every day that he’s not, but she looks more like him than John. When John came back, I was just so happy to see him. Then Jenny came along nine months later.’
‘Why didn’t you confront your uncle? Why didn’t you tell your husband? Or go to the police?’
‘It was hopeless. I’d no proof. Just his word against mine. And if I told John, he’d kill him.’
McLean looked at the frail woman perched in her armchair, hugging her knees to herself now, and sniffing back her tears. Sixteen years she’d kept her secret, letting it gnaw away at her and her marriage. No wonder the house was so tidy.
‘Your uncle, he still lives in Edinburgh?’ A nod of agreement. ‘And do you see him?’ Violent shake. ‘What about Jenny? She ever get in touch with him?’ Another shake, but more uncertain this time. ‘What about her gran? You mother?’
‘Mum died eight years ago. And as far as I’m concerned, her brother died eight years before that.’
‘It’s never easy, is it Bob.’
They were driving away from the house in Corstorphine, back to the city centre. Sitting in the passenger seat, McLean held the slip of notepaper onto which Mrs Sanders had scribbled her uncle’s name and address. In his pocket he had a swab taken from her mouth for DNA comparison with the burnt body.
‘You reckon the girl found out, and ran away from home?’
‘I don’t know. I think she’s run away, but whether she knows her mother’s secret. Well, that’s another thing entirely.’
‘So what do you want to do now?’
‘First off, let’s get this sample to the lab. The sooner we can eliminate our dead body from the equation the better. Then we can go and visit the uncle.’
Keir Allen must have been in his early sixties. He peered at the world through myopic, rheumy eyes; a few thin wisps of his straggly ginger hair tried to hide the shine of his bald head without much success. When he opened the front door to McLean and Grumpy Bob he was wearing a long brown dressing gown over stained trousers and bathies with holes in them. His face had a natural sneer to it.
‘Mr Allen? I wonder if we could have a word.’ McLean held up his warrant card for id. Allen shrugged, turned and shuffled away, leaving the front door open for them to follow.
Inside, the contrast from Mrs Sanders’ Corstorphine home could not have been more pronounced. The whole place smelled of stale tobacco, damp and grease. The hall carpet was stained and dirty. Piles of junk lay strewn around everywhere, mostly ripped cardboard boxes spilling their broken contents onto the floor. Allen shuffled into a cluttered living room and dropped himself down into a tired old armchair. McLean took one look at the sofa and decided to stand.
‘I’ll get straight to the point, Mr Allen. When was the last time you saw your niece, Pat Sanders?’
Allen stiffened slightly at the mention of the name. His eyes narrowed and a scowl spread across his lips.
‘I don’t know anyone of that name.’
‘Oh really? Your sister’s daughter? The little girl you watched grow up into a woman? The woman you couldn’t have but took anyway? You know her daughter’s gone missing.’
‘Get out! Get out of my house now.’ Allen leapt to his feet with surprising alacrity, his face flushed red, beads of sweat shining his scalp. McLean stood his ground, staring at the old man who quivered with rage in front of him. He held that gaze until Allen broke, turning away.
‘Just get out, OK. I don’t know her. I don’t know any of them. They cut me off sixteen years ago.’
McLean fetched out a business card and placed it on the only clear bit of table.
‘You call me if you hear anything from Jenny, OK? She doesn’t want to talk to her parents, that’s fine. But I’ll see in you prison if you so much as touch her.’ He turned his back on the horrible old man and lead Grumpy Bob back out into the cold, sweet, winter air.
‘I think we might have an ID on the burnt body, sir.’
McLean looked up from his desk and the inexhaustible supply of paperwork requiring his immediate attention to see the chubby, smiling face of Detective Constable Stuart MacBride peering round the open door.
‘Yes sir. We tracked down the owners of the house. Seems it belonged to an old lady who died a few months back. It’s been empty since then while her children bicker over the inheritance. But she had a home help before she died, a Lithuanian woman with a young daughter. The daughter’s been missing for over a week now.’
‘But she didn’t have the superintendent as an old school friend, so we only hear about it now.’ McLean rubbed at his tired eyes. ‘Did we get the results from Mrs Sanders’ DNA swab yet?’
‘Just came through, they’re negative. Doctor Cadwallader also said he found some dental evidence that might tie in with the Lithuanian girl. Seems she had some fillings made of stuff they only use in the old Soviet Union states.’
‘Did she have a name, Stuart?’
‘This Lithuanian girl. What was she called?’
‘Oh, sorry. Magda, sir. Magda Tiensen.’
‘OK, Stuart. You go see the mother and get a sample from her for identification. I’ll go and tell Pat Sanders that we’ve still not found her daughter.’
The street was quiet as McLean parked the pool car in front of the house. No curtains twitched and the only movement was the rubbish bowled along the pavement by the brisk westerly wind. As he stepped through the swinging iron gate into the front garden and looked up the leaf-strewn path, he felt a shiver that was only partly down to the cold. The front door stood slightly ajar.
‘Mrs Sanders? Are you there?’ McLean tapped lightly on the door and it moved inwards with the force of his knock. Inside, the hallway was in disarray, the telephone stand lying across the carpet, mail trodden into the doormat. A couple of the lower bulbs on the chandelier were dead, but the rest blazed as brightly as ever. He stepped carefully over the mess, listening out for any sound that might pinpoint an intruder. The only noise was the wind outside, and a gentle sobbing from the living room.
He found her huddled on the floor beside the sofa, head in hands. Kneeling, he reached forward and gently touched her arm. She flinched at the contact, then slowly looked up. Her face was swollen and bruised, caked blood covering her cheek and dribbling down her chin. One eye was puffed shut, the other well on its way to doing the same.
‘What happened? Who did this to you?’ McLean pulled his phone out of his pocket and started to dial the station. Mrs Sanders reached up to stop him.
‘Please, don’t. It was John. He found out about my uncle. You’ve got to stop him, inspector. He’s going to kill him.’
McLean lifted Mrs Sanders up onto the sofa, noticing how she winced as her ribs moved. The bruises weren’t only confined to her face.
‘Look, you need medical help, Mrs Sanders. Let me call an ambulance.’
‘It’s all right. I’ll do it myself. Please, just stop John before he does something really stupid.’
McLean wanted to say that it was a bit late for that, but he’d promised the superintendent he would keep the whole investigation as low key as possible, and he had told Mrs Sanders her secret was safe with him. If he could get to Keir Allen’s flat before it was too late, he might be able to talk John Sanders out of his rage. If not, well all promises were void.
‘I’ll come back as soon as I can,’ he said. ‘I’d be happier if I found the door locked and a note saying you’d gone to hospital.’
Mrs Sanders managed a weak smile. ‘Don’t worry about me.’
Driving as fast as he dared across town, McLean kept looking at his phone, sitting on the passenger seat. He should really call for backup, get a beat cop who was nearby to head over. But then he’d have to explain why, and the whole sorry mess would come out. It was almost inevitable the press would get a hold of it, and then the Sanders family would have to sort out their problems under the glare of the media spotlight. They deserved better than that.
John Sanders’ car was not so much parked as abandoned in the street outside Mr Allen’s home. McLean left the pool car behind it and ran to the house. The door was locked, but he could hear the sounds of a fight from inside, a man’s voice shouting incoherent words. Stiffening his body, McLean slammed into the door, breaking the lock as he burst through into the mangy hallway. He leaped over the mess of smashed cardboard boxes and broken rubbish in his haste to reach the living room and the source of the noise.
Inside, John Sanders stood over the prone form of Keir Allen. The old man lay sprawled in his chair, arms spread wide in a parody of crucifixion. He wasn’t moving, except for the regular spasms as Sanders smashed his fist into Allen’s bloodied and battered face.
‘You bastard! You bastard! You bastard!’ he shouted over and over.
‘Corporal Sanders. Stand down.’ McLean pitched his voice loud like a parade-ground sergeant. Something in his tone must have struck the right note, as Sanders stopped his beating and let Allen’s body drop back into the chair. The old man didn’t move, nor could McLean see any sign of breathing.
‘Oh Christ. What have I done?’ Sanders looked at McLean, then down at his blood-smeared hands. Then, finally, at the body in front of him. ‘He… he… Pat… and Jenny…’
‘I know, John.’ McLean pulled out his phone, wishing he’d done so the moment he’d left the house in Corstorphine. As he hit the speed dial for the station, John Sanders sank to his knees on the dusty, blood-stained carpet.
‘Nothing we could do for him, I’m afraid. Looks like his neck snapped.’
McLean watched the paramedics carry the gurney with Keir Allen’s dead remains on it out of the house. A Scene of Crime officer was busy taking photographs, but there wasn’t much of a need to collect evidence. The crime was straightforward, and John Sanders wasn’t going to try and wriggle out of it. He’d hung his head and wept as the rage fell from him, as the realisation of what he had done hit home. Now he sat in the back of a squad car, hands in cuffs, staring at nothing.
‘You all right sir?’
McLean started, turning to see Grumpy Bob come in through the front door.
‘I’m fine, Bob. He didn’t lay a finger on me.’ But he wasn’t fine. He’d made a mistake and that had cost Keir Allen his life. Worse, he’d hammered the final nail into the coffin of a failing marriage. He thought of Mrs Sanders, sitting in her over-warm living room, her face a mess of bruises, her ribs creaking with every breath. Somehow he knew that she wouldn’t have gone to the hospital. He took one last look around the messy room, then headed back out into the winter afternoon.
‘Come on then, let’s go and break the bad news.’
The rush hour traffic was in full gridlock as they inched their way across town. McLean drove, not wanting the inactivity of being the passenger, not wanting the time to dwell on what had happened.
‘The lad radioed in just as I was leaving,’ Grumpy Bob said. ‘He got a positive match for our burnt girl.’
‘Magda, Bob. Her name was Magda.’
‘Right. Well, her mum worked for the old lady who owned the house. Seems they stayed in a little apartment in the basement. Got moved to Trinity when the old girl died and our… Magda, didn’t much like it there. Can’t blame her really. She ran away about two weeks ago. Must’ve gone back to the place she thought of as home.’
Home, McLean thought, as he finally turned into the street where the Sanders’ house stood. It was as quiet as before, almost ominous as they walked the short distance up the garden path to the front door. This time it was closed, but he could see no note pinned to it. McLean pressed the doorbell, hearing the chimes from within. No answer. He stepped off the path, peering through the window into the front room. Empty. Maybe she had gone to the hospital after all.
McLean looked back. Grumpy Bob crouched down, peering through the letterbox. He stood up, took a step back and threw himself at the door. By the time McLean reached him, the sergeant had tried again, but the stout wood resisted. McLean grabbed a stone from the rockery in the front garden and used it to smash the frosted glass frame that surrounded the door. Reaching in, he groped for the latch, turning it from inside. The door clicked open and Grumpy Bob rushed in.
The lights still blazed their beacon of welcome, but Pat Sanders hung by a short length of rope from the central chandelier in the hallway. Her bruised face was even more puffy and swollen than before, her arms hanging limply at her sides. Beneath her feet, a kitchen chair lay on its side. Grumpy Bob ran to her, taking the weight of her body off the rope, calling for him to help cut her down, but McLean could see that it was already too late.
There were worse things, he supposed, than being cold-shouldered by his superintendent. McLean stared out the window of his tiny office, across wet roofs to the anonymous tenements beyond. Two weeks on, and still no sign of Jenny Sanders. Not that there would be much for her to come back to. Mother dead, father in custody awaiting trial for murder, and the small matter of her real parentage out there in the public domain. A child of rape, and incestuous rape at that. McLean couldn’t help wondering whether perhaps Jenny had known. Perhaps that was what had finally driven her away.
More likely, given the luck that the Sanders family seemed to enjoy, she’d been abducted, used and then thrown out like trash. They might find her body some day, washed up on the banks of the Firth of Forth or buried in a shallow, unmarked grave, but chances were she was destined to be no more than a thin file in the missing persons archive, another black mark on the annual statistics. Sighing, McLean reached for the next set of overtime sheets and started the mindless task of ratifying them with his budget for the month.
The telephone ringing was a welcome distraction. He snatched up the handset. ‘McLean.’
‘Detective Inspector McLean? Lothian and Borders Police?’ It was a woman’s voice on the other end of the line. Glaswegian accent made heavier with a cold.
‘Yes, how can I help?’
‘Oh, hello. My name’s Doreen Sheil, I’m with Strathclyde social services.’
‘What can I do for you Ms Sheil?’
‘Well, I’ve a young girl here with me. Picked up off the street in Kelvingrove last night. She looks like she’s been living rough a few weeks, but I think she’s from your patch. Say’s her name’s Jenny.’
Bio: James’ first attempt at crime fiction, Natural Causes, was published in the 2006 Fall edition of Spinetingler. A novel length version of the same story was shortlisted for the 2007 CWA Debut Dagger Award, and its sequel, The Book of Souls was shortlisted in 2008. Currently living in Mid-Wales, James will be moving back to Scotland in 2011 to take over the family farm. Hopefully this will leave some time for writing.