Julia Thomas Excerpt: Penhale Wood

Penhale Wood by Julia Thomas follows a desperate mother who will stop at nothing to solve the year-old case of her daughter's murder (available July 8, 2017).

If it’s the last thing she ever does, Iris will find Sophie’s Killer and make her pay.

On a cold December night in Cornwall, nanny Karen Peterson disappeared with three-year-old Sophie Flynn. The next day, the child’s body was found on a riverbank in Penhale Wood.

A year later, Sophie’s mother, Iris Flynn, appears on the doorstep of investigating officer Rob McIntyre, determined to make him reopen her daughter’s case. McIntyre has his own personal demons, but Iris hijacks his life in order to find the woman she thinks is responsible for Sophie’s death. Following the slimmest of leads, they are soon confronting ghosts from the past and a chameleon-like killer who will do anything to stay hidden.

CHAPTER 1

Detective Chief Inspector Robert McIntyre stared out the foggy window as his train pulled into Paddington Station, trying to ignore the bustle of passengers around him.  It was a few days before Christmas, and he was looking forward to seeing his brother, although anything would have been a break after the brutal murder case he’d been working on for the past nine weeks.  An attractive, thirty-eight-year-old mother of two who ran a local estate agent’s had been found stabbed to death in her car in mid-October.  The woman’s ex-husband, who admitted to a bitter custody dispute involving their two children, had been the prime suspect due to lack of an alibi on the night in question.  No physical evidence was found, however, and the case stalled for lack of evidence.  Just a week earlier, however, McIntyre had gotten a break when an anonymous tip led him to a construction worker in Falmouth who had bragged to a mate that he had killed her because she hadn’t responded to his advances.  The man had followed her for some weeks trying to ask her out, and murdered her when she had threatened to call the police.  The case finally ended with the man’s confession and an arrest, causing the entire Truro Police force to heave a collective sigh of relief.  Murder in small communities could be devastating, particularly those that went unsolved, and McIntyre had seen his share of those.  But for now, he could relax and think about the holiday and put it all behind him.

It had been a long, tiring journey from Cornwall.  He sat up and rubbed his neck, which was stiff and sore after spending five hours in the same position.  He’d been trying to concentrate on a book – Alison’s book – though he had been unable to get past the first chapter.  She’d left him a year ago after she’d finished the novel, which was already short-listed for a major award.  In spite of the reviews, he found it inaccessible.  She’d had that side to her that was cold and even calculating.  She had to be, he supposed, in order to walk out on him without a word.  Hours earlier, he had stumbled onto it at a bookshop and purchased it on impulse, though most of the trip had been spent staring at her photograph on the inside back cover.  In it, she wore an Aran Isles sweater, her blonde hair brushing her shoulders.  The photo had been taken in Robin Hood’s Bay two summers ago, outside her favorite hotel.  He knew, because he’d taken it himself.  It had been a perfect week, walking along the sea and talking in pubs.  He’d bought her a heather-colored shawl and she hadn’t taken it off the entire time.  Even afterwards, she had worn it often, and when it wasn’t being worn, she draped it over an armchair in their bedroom.  He should have known the relationship was over when she put it away.  Two months after she moved out, he discovered the shawl in a bottom drawer.  For a while, he draped it over the chair again, but it didn’t feel right.  He folded it again and put it away, hoping one day she would reappear and claim it.

This was the first time in ten years he had spent a Christmas without her, and he missed her.  He missed being part of a couple, as well.  They had always looked forward to a week in London at the holidays, taking in a play and ice skating at Somerset House.  He was focused on his work the rest of the year, and left her alone too much.  Every few days, he unloaded his troubles with peers over a pint, and she amused herself decorating his house and setting up a study in which she could write.  She soon joined a poetry club, and was gone two nights a week, reading her verses aloud to small crowds.  Before long, she took to inviting fledgling poets to their house for long nights of drinking wine and discussing Eliot and Yeats.  He grew tired of the constant influx of visitors, not to mention the dent in his wine bill.  Eventually, she decided to write a novel.  He’d encouraged her in the beginning, but after a few months, he began to have his doubts.  It was a long and arduous process, and she withdrew from him more each passing day.  One evening, when he had come home after work, Alison was gone.  He never knew what had gone wrong, and she hadn’t return his calls.  A friend at the station located her a couple of weeks later at a rented house in Lincolnshire, but he didn’t try to contact her.  There was simply no point. 

The train shuddered to a stop.  McIntyre stood, anxious to stretch his limbs.  He put the book on the seat and proceeded to tug on his coat.  People jostled him as they moved forward to collect their belongings.

“Excuse me,” a young woman said behind him, tapping him on the shoulder.  She had long, wavy brown hair and her cheeks were scarlet, as if she had been standing outside in the cold, rather than suffering piped-in heat in a stuffy railway car.

He glanced back, certain that he had not cut in front of her.  “Yes?”

“Is that yours?”  She gestured toward his vacant seat at Alison’s book.

McIntyre hesitated for a moment.  “No.  No, it isn’t.”

“But it’s the Alison Kendall book.” 

“Someone must have left it,” he said, shrugging.

She reached down and retrieved it from the seat.  “I’ll take it, then.  I’ve been wanting to read it, myself.”

“By all means.”  He wouldn’t be able to get through Christmas if he read it now.  It was too depressing.  Perhaps he’d get another copy later, when the holidays were over. 

Somewhere behind them a man coughed, and McIntyre realized they were holding up the line.  He moved forward, ready to get his luggage and hoping to forget about Alison altogether.  After pulling down his bag, he made his way down to Platform One and then to the crowded taxi rank.  No one spoke.  Most of his fellow passengers were reading the paper or sending texts, the queue moving forward every few moments when the taxi marshals settled another passenger in a cab.  The cold air was bracing but welcome after the train, and McIntyre shuffled forward with the others, waiting his turn.

In previous years, they had arrived in London loaded with packages for his nieces and nephew.  That was one of the things he’d loved about her: she had adopted his brother’s family as her own.  David had recently mentioned that she hadn’t forgotten any of the children’s birthdays during the past year, sending cards from Lincolnshire with packets of treats.  He was glad about that.  She had always seemed to love them as much as he had.  Sighing, he allowed himself at last to be ushered into a cab. 

“Harrods, please,” he told the driver.  “Basil Street entrance.”

He hadn’t been able to bring himself to buy presents alone in Truro, but neither would he show up at the door without gifts for the children.  The driver plunged into the heavy afternoon traffic, going through Bayswater and then south on Kensington Church Road.  Normally, he enjoyed looking at London decorated for Christmas, but today, the city seemed monochromatic and dull.  The streets were wet from melted snow, which was still falling, only to dissolve under the tires of passing vehicles.  Corner shops were full of people buying curries and tea, trying to get home before dark.  The temperature had dropped below freezing, and he could almost see his breath inside the cab.

He suddenly longed for sunshine and warmth.  It had been too long since he’d had a proper holiday.  DS Dugan, who was not only a good colleague, but something of a friend, had put a guide to Greece on his desk the week before, and in spite of himself, he read in detail about Athens and the islands.  He had never thought about going to Greece, but now the warm climate was appealing.  He could listen to folk music and eat squid or octopus or whatever it was they ate.   It wasn’t perfect, but it might take his mind off Alison and murder. 

He paid the fare and then brushed shoulders with a man leaving Harrods who wanted his cab, righting his wheeled case on the pavement before opening the door to the entrance.  Inside, he checked his bag in the left luggage department and consulted the map.  The enormity of the store was dispiriting after the long trip.  He almost wished he had stopped for a Scotch before tackling the job.  After a few minutes of searching, he located the toy department on the fourth floor.  Instead of jostling amongst the crowd to get to the miniature railways and dolls, he went to a kiosk and picked up two bears, one dressed as a gardener, the other as a sailor.  Children loved bears, didn’t they?  Weren’t his nieces’ and nephew’s rooms littered with the things?

Suddenly, he felt someone watching him, and looked up.  It was a small girl with dark hair and brown eyes, wearing a navy blue coat and a red and white knit cap.  She looked familiar, though he wasn’t certain why.  His nieces and nephew were blond, almost Nordic looking, like their mother.  They were uncomplicated, happy looking children, unlike this witch-eyed girl. 

“What about these?” he asked, holding up the bears for her inspection.  “Would they make a good present?”

The girl neither answered nor moved.  A moment later, her mother took her by the shoulders, guiding her away.  She was right.  One couldn’t be too careful, these days.  Children were stolen from more innocent places than this.  Then it struck him why the girl looked so familiar.  She bore a strong likeness to the young child who had been murdered in Truro last December.  It came flooding back to him, the sight of three-year-old Sophie Flynn lodged between a rotting log and the shoreline of Penhale Wood, her arms and legs bent at unnatural angles.  Her dark, matted hair covered her face, an image that had nearly made him ill when he had seen it.  Her skin had a waxy, pallid cast after drifting in the Tresillian River for more than twelve hours, and there had been bruises along her neck where it had been broken.  He’d tried everything he could to forget it, although he knew it was impossible.  He would never forget that image as long as he lived. 

It had been a peculiar case.  No clear motive for the killing had been discovered, and the suspect had vanished.  He wondered what society was coming to.  It seemed that so many more children were being abducted than he remembered in the early years of his career.  Cases like that made him want to quit police work altogether.  Sometimes he reminded himself it wasn’t too late take up another profession, such as a cook or a postman, anything that had nothing to do with the rising crime in Britain. 

He looked down at the two bears in his hands, wondering if his nieces would like them.  The twins, Annabelle and Lisette, were five years old, and his nephew, Peter, was seven.  In the next year or two, they would be too old for things like stuffed bears, and then he would have to think of real presents.  As he stood there, exhausted, the little girl came back and stopped in front of him.  She was a beautiful child, and her solemn eyes immobilized him.  She pointed to the sailor bear, touching it with her finger.  Then, she turned and ran to find her mother.

“Thank you,” he called after her, staring as her mother escorted her away.

He bought a cashmere scarf for his brother and a box of chocolates for David’s wife, Susan.  Laden with packages, including three ridiculously large bears, he collected his suitcase and made his way out of the store.  In spite of the crowd, he managed to get a taxi right away.

“Holland Park,” he told the driver.

The traffic was fierce.  He sat back and pushed the packages onto the seat, staring at the buildings they passed, the prams with plastic covers zipped over them to protect the infants inside, the parents pushing them along the wet pavement.  People struggled with bags and umbrellas, darting in and out of shops.  Obviously, he wasn’t the only one to leave Christmas to the last minute. 

When the cab pulled up in front of his brother’s house, he saw that none of the lights were on.  With a sigh, he paid the driver, and collected his things.  Climbing the steps to the front door, he wondered why David hadn’t rung.  He stood there for a moment before remembering he had a key from last summer, when he had stayed there while his brother’s family were on holiday.  He unlocked the door and deposited everything on the floor, turning on a lamp.  Pulling his mobile phone from his pocket, he cursed as he found it was set to silent.  He must have turned off the ringer in the bookshop, trying to decide whether or not to buy Alison’s book.  He remembered thinking it must have been a dull day in Truro for Dugan to keep from pestering him all the way to London.  There were four new messages.  He shrugged out of his coat, hung it over the back of a chair, and walked into the kitchen to put on a kettle for tea.

“Rob, is your phone off?”  The first call was from David.  “I can’t believe it.  Give me a ring.”

He turned on the tap and filled the kettle, the fire from the stove giving the white, sterile room a sudden glow.

The next message was from Dugan.  “Hey, Boss.  Miller took down a ten man drug ring stationed in an old warehouse in Trennick Lane.  Can you hear the celebrating? 

We’re two for two.  Now it will be a happy Christmas.”

McIntyre rummaged in a cupboard for a mug as he listened to a protracted round of cheers from his team.  He was too tired to care that he had missed it.

The third call was David again.  “Rob, Susan’s mother has taken ill, so we’ve brought the kids to Gloucestershire to look after her for a couple of days.  Hope to be back by Christmas.  Stay out of the Laphroaig, old man.  We’ll party when I get back, all right?  Ring me.”

“Ah, Scotch,” McIntyre said aloud, turning off the kettle.  He held the phone to his ear as he went to examine the contents of his brother’s drinks table.

The phone beeped through a fourth message.  He stopped when he heard the sound of Alison’s voice.  “Hello, Rob.  I know it’s been a while since we’ve spoken, but I thought…  Well, never mind.  I’m off to London for a couple of days to take care of some business.  I’ll ring you when I get back.”

In other words, he thought: don’t ring.  Frowning, he broke the seal on his brother’s best bottle of Scotch and poured the drink.  Then he sat on the long sofa without turning on a lamp.  He would ring David later when he wasn’t so tired.  He was suddenly irritable.  He had no desire to do anything without Alison.  If he’d gotten the message while he had still been in Cornwall, he would have been able to go to work, but here, he was in no mood for solitary exploring.  It wasn’t worth it to make the five hour trip back only to return a day or two later.  No, it made sense to stay.  Gifts had been purchased, friends and family were busy with holiday plans, and even a drug bust had been managed without him.  He was left to sit here for a few days and wonder why Alison had rung.  Had the holidays made her sentimental, or had she realized that she had packed his favorite volume on steam engines among her books and just wanted to return it?  He took a drink and set the glass on a table, then kicked off his shoes and lay back on Susan’s perfect sofa.  He closed his eyes, wondering what Alison was thinking. 

Sometime later, he awoke with a start in the darkened room, realizing there had been a knock at the door.   Scratching the stubble on his chin, he looked at his watch.  It was almost eleven.  He stood, barking his shin on a table as he made his way to the door, muttering to himself while hoping David and Susan had changed their minds and come home.  He would welcome the chaos of children and family and friends coming and going.  It would keep him occupied and get him through the holiday.  Instead, he opened the door to find a woman on the other side, holding a large duffel bag in the dark.  She looked at him as though they knew one another.

“Inspector McIntyre, I need to speak to you.”

He stood, blinking, trying to remember where he had seen that face before.
 

CHAPTER 2

McIntyre stared at the woman standing outside in the dark.  She appeared to be at least thirty, from the lines in her face, yet she had a girlish appearance from her clothes and manner. She had striking looks: straight, dark hair, strong cheekbones, and dark, brooding eyes.  He’d seen that face before.  Even in the dim light, he could see her scuffed boots and an ancient GAP sweatshirt hanging loosely under her coat, like hand-me-downs she hadn’t quite grown into.

“I’m not sure if you remember me,” she said.  “I’m Iris Flynn.”

He suddenly remembered.  Her face, like her daughter’s, had haunted him for more than a year.  No one should have to lose a child like that, and he still itched to find the killer.  DCI Miller had talked with the Flynns the night before when she had gone missing, but McIntyre had been present early the following morning when the call had come in.  He and Dugan were among the first to view the crime scene, and had gone to the house to inform the Flynns that a body matching the description of their daughter had been discovered by the river.  He hated telling people that their loved ones had been found dead.  The look on their faces went from hope to fear to complete terror, in a matter of seconds.  Iris Flynn was no exception.

The suspect was known to the victim’s family.  In fact, she had been working as a nanny for them and living with them for a few weeks prior to the child’s death.  The woman had disappeared with the child the previous December and in spite of a vigorous police investigation, no trace of her had ever been found.  There were no photos to give to the local newspapers, no eyewitnesses to the crime, and no known motive in the case.  A jogger had chanced upon the child’s body the following morning and called the police.  Afterward, the station was flooded with crank calls and false leads for weeks, none of which had led to a single clue to the suspect’s whereabouts.  In fact, there was some thought that the young woman had herself been a victim, but no information had come in to confirm or deny that theory.  The only explanation they had, which had come from Iris Flynn’s five-year-old daughter who had been present when her sister was taken, seemed to repudiate it.  McIntyre’s gut feeling was that the suspect had killed the child and fled, but he had never been able to prove it.  After a few months, he’d closed the case and moved on.  Occasionally, the police failed to solve a crime.  It was unfortunate, but they couldn’t expect to have a perfect success rate.  It wasn’t possible.  He would have preferred to forget it, but here stood Iris Flynn on the doorstep of his brother’s house as a reminder that the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, and himself in particular, had let down two grieving parents and a murderer was going free.

“I remember, yes,” he said.  In spite of the fact that she was the last person he wanted to see, he realized he was leaving her standing in the cold night air.  “Come in.”

She walked through the doorway and he could see that she was shivering.  He glanced around, but no cab appeared to be nearby.  She must have walked some distance to reach him, although he could not imagine why.  Her hair was pulled back in a knot, and she wore no gloves on her raw, red hands.

“This way,” he said, leading her to the kitchen.  He glanced at the clock on the wall.  It was past eleven.  Ordinarily, it was too late for tea, but there was no doubt she needed to be warmed, or she would develop hypothermia.  He was sorry that David and Susan weren’t home.  He would have preferred to relinquish her into his sister-in-law’s care, and then later he could have tried to find out what was going on.  She put her bag on the floor next to the table and sat down in a chair. 

“How did you find me?” he asked.  “This isn’t my house.”

“Someone in your office gave me this address.”

“Who?” he asked, irritated.  Dugan wouldn’t give out personal information to a complete stranger, he knew.  It had to be someone else.

“Some woman,” she said, looking up at him.  Her gaze made him uncomfortable.  “I told them I was your sister.”

For once, he regretted being so private about his personal life.  No one would have known he only had a brother.

“Mrs. Flynn, there are official channels one must go through if you’re looking for information about the case,” he said.  “You would have been assisted by another qualified detective.”

“I don’t want another detective.”

“I don’t understand,” he said, narrowing his eyes.  “You were in Truro today?”

“No, I called from the airport when I arrived in London.”  She brushed her bangs back from her eyes.  “I’m sorry.  I’m exhausted.  It’s been a long trip.  I borrowed money from my sister and flew all the way from Sydney to speak to you.”

“What’s happened?” he asked.  “Do you have a lead on the case?”

“No,” she answered, pulling her coat about her.  “That’s why I’m here.  I’m going to help you find the woman who killed my daughter.”

McIntyre took down two mugs and measured the tea.  He gave her a sidelong glance and then opened a drawer for spoons.  “Where are you staying?”

“Nowhere, yet.”

“Do you have any family in London?”

“No.”

“Any friends?  Acquaintances?”

“No.”

Of course she didn’t.  She and her Australian husband were transients.  Nick Flynn had worked at various jobs, none of them for very long, and the previous year, the family had come from what he could only imagine was a rather unstable stay in the United States.  He’d been to their rented cottage once during the brief investigation, and had been staggered by the odd, camp-like appearance of the place.  None of the children had beds.  They had shared a cramped room where two hammocks hung from the ceiling for the three-year-old and five-year-old, and the baby slept on a stack of quilts in the corner.  There weren’t many personal things, apart from a few items of clothing which were strewn about the floor.  It was rustic, but she hadn’t been ashamed of it, as any other woman he had known would have been.  He had gone back once and found they had vacated the premises.  The door of the cottage stood open and almost nothing had been taken with them.  They were peculiar people. 

“Here,” McIntyre said, handing her a mug of tea.

He waited for her to say something, but she drank the tea in silence.  It seemed clear that her only plan had been to get to him.  Now that she was here, he wondered what she expected him to do.  He had a sudden fear that she would become weepy and maudlin.  

Although he was good at the technical part of his job, dealing with the public could be challenging, in spite of how well he understood their pain.  She didn’t move, her eyes half closed in exhaustion. 

“I don’t think we should talk anymore tonight,” he said. 

“We haven’t made a plan, yet.”

“We’ll talk about it tomorrow.  You need some sleep.”

McIntyre stood, trying to decide what to do.  Her eyes had closed and yet she was still holding the hot mug, too tired to even drink from it.  His choices were either take her to a hotel, or put her in a cab, neither of which was a good idea.  By the looks of her, she didn’t have the money for a decent hotel, and if he put her in a cab, she probably wouldn’t have any idea where she could find an affordable place to stay.  He would have to let her spend the night.  He couldn’t very well put her in David and Susan’s room, and he always stayed in the guest room, which left one of the children’s bedrooms.  He was too tall himself to fit into one of the children’s beds.  Lifting the mug out of her hands, he set it on the counter.

“You’d better stay here for the night.”

He led her up the flight of stairs to the twins’ domain, thinking it more comfortable than his nephew’s.  As soon as he opened the door, he realized his mistake.  The pink and lavender room, decorated with Hello, Kitty and shelves of dolls would only remind her of the daughter she had lost.  Iris paused in the doorway, but it was too late to do anything about it.  She looked around the room, the rucksack over her shoulder, her coat tucked under her arm.

“Get some rest,” he said.  “We’ll talk in the morning.”

She nodded.  Even in the doorway, she looked lost in the maze of books and toys.  She walked over to the nearest of the two beds and put her coat on the edge as he left the room.

McIntyre went to bed, but couldn’t sleep.  He tossed and turned for a couple of hours before he sat up and looked at the clock.  It was half past two.  He thought of Alison’s book, and almost wished he hadn’t left it behind.  In the last months, she had been secretive about the manuscript.  He decided to buy it again, wondering if he would be able to concentrate on the story or if he would scan the pages for clues to their relationship. 

He had driven her away.  Though he had read some of her writing, and even made the occasional encouraging remark, he hadn’t believed that she would finish a book, let alone get it published.  Or perhaps that had been his hope, for as long as she was struggling to write, she was dependent upon him.  Now, she had found a way to make a life on her own.  He shouldn’t have taken her for granted.  He should have gone after her, instead of letting her go without a fight.  The idea had never occurred to him before, and he wasn’t certain what he would have done if it had.

The Flynn case was just one more failure.  It was unsettling having the dead girl’s mother on the other side of the house.  Though he knew he should resist the impulse, he got out of bed and went to check on her.  He went down the dim but familiar hall to his nieces’ room.  The room was not as dark as the hallway, but it took a moment for his eyes to adjust and to find her.  She was not in either bed.  His heart skipped a beat, his professional side imagining all sorts of things, when suddenly he spotted her on the floor.  It took a second before he realized that she had lain there on purpose, avoiding beds which were finer than any she had owned herself, or in which her children slept.  He wondered if he should move her and then decided it would mortify them both.  Her coat was pulled over her body, and she was using the duffle as a pillow for her head.  He closed the door, more certain than ever that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get to sleep. 

At eight o’clock the following morning, he took out his mobile phone and called the station.  Someone had some explaining to do.

“Miller,” a rough, familiar voice answered.  Ed Miller’s office was next to his own, and although he didn’t consider him a friend, they talked through cases together from time to time. 

“It’s McIntyre.  I need a favor.”

“What sort of favor?” Miller asked.  At the moment, he was none too happy about manning the Detective Division during Christmas with a skeletal staff. 

“Do you remember the Flynn case?  The kidnapping last year?”
“Of course.”

“Well, the mother has tracked me down,” McIntyre said.  “She showed up here in the middle of the night and wants me to solve the case.”

“I don’t see what I can do.  You’ll have to get rid of her somehow.”

“Could you just find out if anything new has made its way into the file?”

“Like I have the time.”

“I need something to discourage her with when she wakes up.”

“She slept over?” Miller asked, laughing.  “Just get the information for me, would you?”

“I’ll look into it and ring you back.”

 McIntyre shoved his phone back in his pocket and waited.  Suddenly, his brother’s house felt stifling.  He might have managed if he’d been alone, listening to music, watching sport on the television, perhaps cooking a meal on his own.  He resented Iris Flynn ruining his holiday plans and making him think about a dead end case when there was nothing he could do about it.  He paced around the kitchen, and then grabbed his coat and went out to stand outside, lighting a cigarette as he waited.  He’d tried to quit a couple of times, but hadn’t managed to do it so far.  The air was cold, but there was no wind.  He tossed the half-smoked cigarette down onto the snowy step and crushed it with his boot before going back inside.

His mobile finally rang.  Instead of Miller, it was Dugan.

“Boss?” Alex said.  “Can’t believe you’re working on holiday.  I thought you were taking a few days off.”

“I’ve got the Flynn woman here.  She showed up at the door last night.”

“There in London?  I thought they left the country.”

“Just tell me there’s nothing new going on with the case,” McIntyre said, interrupting him.

Dugan hesitated for a moment.  “Well, you never spoke to the woman connected to the Jennings murder.  Remember that one, sir?  She phoned in a tip on the Flynn case three or four months ago.”

“You mean-”

“Yes, sir.  The psychic.”

“Bloody hell.”

“She helped crack the case.  And now she says she knows the location of the Peterson woman.”

“Knows the location, or thinks she knows the location?”

“Thinks she knows, I suppose.  She’s using her ESP or whatever, from what I understand.”

“Christ.”  He balled his fist and stuck it into his pocket.  “Is she local?”

“No.  She’s in Hampshire.”

McIntyre tried to collect himself.  “Is that it?”

“Yes, sir.  Do you want me to do anything?  About the psychic, I mean?”

“No.  I’ll be in touch later.”

He tossed his phone onto the counter.  A psychic was not a legitimate lead.  He’d dismissed it as soon as he’d heard about it.  He was skeptical about how helpful she had actually been in the Jennings case, anyway.  Trying to deal with her now would be a nuisance, and there was no way that she could shed any light on the situation after all this time. 

What did the Flynn woman want, anyway, he wondered?  Cases never got solved a year later, not in these sort of circumstances.  She was wasting his time.  As far as he was concerned, she should turn around and go straight back where she came from. 

He loaded his mug into the dishwasher and then went in to look at the news.  It was the same old, rehashed stories: the economy was sluggish and people weren’t spending as much on Christmas as usual; the rising price of petrol; the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square.

“Every year since 1947, a tree is donated to the people of London from Norway in gratitude for Britain’s support in World War II,” the presenter explained.  “The tree is typically a Norwegian spruce, fifty to sixty years old.  Carol singers come from every corner…”

McIntyre switched off the television, looking around the room.  If he’d been on his own, he would have headed to the nearest bookshop.  Instead, he wandered into his brother’s study and looked at the books before selecting one on German architecture.  Sinking into a deep armchair, he flipped the pages, unable to concentrate on the book in his hands. 

Sophie Flynn had been, by all accounts, a beautiful, happy child, too young to know that her parents were little more than gypsies.  She had gone willingly with a trusted adult and over the course of the next two hours, was brutally murdered and thrown into an icy river.  She deserved justice, of that he was certain.  He just didn’t know how to get it.  Iris Flynn was asking the impossible.

It was almost noon before she finally awoke.  She came downstairs with her dark hair pulled back, wearing the same clothes as she had the day before.  She wore no makeup on her pale face.  He resisted the impulse to ask how she had slept, offering her coffee instead.

“Would tea be all right?” she asked. 

“Of course.  I have hot water at the ready.”  McIntyre turned filled the teapot and then brought it back to the table and placed it in front of her.  He watched as she picked it up and poured herself a cup.

“I’ve wasted half the day,” Iris said.

“You were exhausted from the long flight.”  He watched as she lifted the cup to her lips.  “So, you’ve come all the way from Australia?  What about your husband?”

“He’s stayed behind to start a new job.”

“And your girls?”  If he remembered correctly, they would be two and six years old now, and both looked like the sister who had been killed.  He could still picture their terrified faces when he had arrived at their door.

“My sister in Sydney is keeping them while I sort this out.”

“I rang the station.  There are no major leads.”

“Something’s happened,” she argued.  “They just don’t know about it.”

“It’s hard to do this without my files, but the suspect’s name is Karen Peterson, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me again how you met her, where you were; any details you can remember.”  He took a pen and notepad from his pocket, flipping the page to a clean sheet.  He’d humor her for a few minutes.  It was the least he could do after she’d come all that way.

“I’ve told you already.”

“There’s always something more,” he insisted.  “Try to remember.   Was there anything unusual about her?  Did she have any odd habits?  Something you used to wonder about?”

Iris glanced up at him.  “I used to wonder where she went when she left the house.  We’d been neighbors in Oregon.  Nick had always wanted to go there.  He found a small house not far from the coast, where he could spend time on the water.  Karen lived next door.  She didn’t work.  She lived with her boyfriend, but she said he was abusing her.  Shouting at her, knocking her about.  She would come over and drink tea and play with the girls.  I was lonely, too, since Nick was gone a lot.  Apart from getting groceries, I never saw her leave her house.”

“What about after you came back here?”

“She started going out every day.  She liked to take walks.  I didn’t care.  I always thought she’d eventually go off on her own and meet somebody.”

“Did she have any odd quirks?  Tapping her fingers, or anything?”

“She was fussy.  The carton of milk always had to be on the right side of the fridge, not the left.  The cheeses were ordered by color: yellow to white.”  She looked at McIntyre.  “I know it’s strange, but honestly, it didn’t matter to me.  She was reliable and quiet.  That’s all we cared about.”

“It sounds as if she had some OCD tendencies.”  He made a few notations.  “Put us in her shoes for a minute.  She’s being bullied by a boyfriend in America.  Did she ask to come to England with you, or was it your idea?”

“Nick had gotten tired of Oregon, and I talked him into coming back to Cornwall to be near my brother,” she replied.  “I thought he could get Nick a job.  Karen kept saying, ‘I wish I could come with you.’  I finally said, ‘Why don’t you?’  She told me her boyfriend would never let her.  What did I know about her circumstances?  But on the day we left, she showed up with a suitcase and said ‘I’m coming with you.’  She agreed to help with the girls.  That’s all I know.”

“How long had you been in Oregon?”

“Around a year and a half, I think,” she said.

“And before that?”

“South Africa.”

“You get around.”

“It’s Nick.  The world is too small for him.”

McIntyre closed the notebook and walked over to the window.  The glass was covered in frost.

After a moment, she looked up at him and frowned.  “Wait.  You said there weren’t any major leads.”

“That’s correct.”

“What about minor leads?”

“Mrs. Flynn-”

“Inspector McIntyre, are there any minor leads?”

“There was something,” he admitted.  Mentally, he cursed Dugan for telling him about it.  “But it won’t come to anything.”

“What is it?”  She leaned forward as she spoke, and he knew it was wrong to encourage her.

“There was a psychic…” She met his gaze.  “A psychic.”

“That’s why I didn’t want to tell you.”

“And she thinks she knows where to find Karen?”

He sighed.  “She helped crack a big case last year, but we believe it was just coincidence.  Nevertheless, we’re still checking into her story.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“Well, I will check into when I get back.”

“We have to find Karen, Inspector.  And if it takes a psychic to do it, then fine.”  She stood.  “I’ll get my things.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Well, aren’t we going back to Truro?  I assume that’s where this woman is located.”

“As a matter of fact, she’s in Hampshire.”

“Then, we’d better go.”

“Look, you can’t just go barging into a case like this.  Things have to be handled a certain way.  I doubt she could tell us anything we can use, anyway.”

“It can’t hurt,” she argued.

“Let’s get lunch.  We’ll talk about it.”  McIntyre felt he owed her something for coming all that way, but he knew the case was as cold and dead as her three-year-old daughter.  As disturbed as he was about it, there was nothing he could do but to give her a proper meal and then send her on her way.

She grabbed her coat and pulled it on.  He couldn’t help noticing her neck, which was bare.  Reaching up to the hooks where his brother’s family hung their coats, he pulled down a woolen scarf as bright as the panicles of a flame tree.  He held it out to her, watching as she wound the bit of scarlet about her throat.  She reminded him of a house sparrow, finding her way back to London after a brutal winter.  It was painful to watch her suffering, and the sooner he could be shed of her, the better.

***

Copyright © 2017 Julia Thomas.

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Julia Thomas is the author of The English Boys and Penhale Wood, available in July 2017. She is married to mystery novelist Will Thomas, who writes the Barker and Llewelyn crime series set in Victorian London.

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