Authors: Brian Freeman
It was cold inside. She went from the back porch into the kitchen, where the surfaces still showed the fine debris of fingerprint dust. Evidence markers remained in place. The first thing she noticed was that the forensic team had paid a lot of attention to the kitchen counter and particularly to a butcher block of white-handled knives.
One of the slots, the one for the largest knife, was empty.
Lisa continued into the living room. The furniture was modern, more Minneapolis than Thief River Falls, with a young woman’s eye for decor. She suspected it was a combination of Fiona’s taste and Denis’s credit cards. As she surveyed the room, she found her gaze drawn to the mantel over the fireplace. Fiona had kept framed photographs of her family there. Lisa plucked a tissue from a box on one of the end tables and used it to take each frame in her hand to look at the faces.
She recognized Fiona in a photo that had probably been taken in her college days. She had the family hair, sunny and blond, and blue eyes that were pretty but didn’t look happy. Life in the Farrell household wasn’t a recipe for contentment. Her big smile yearned for her father’s approval. She wore a white tennis outfit and held a racket in her hand, and Lisa noticed that a tennis trophy sat on the mantel next to the picture. Whatever tournament she’d been in, she’d won. That was the kind of performance that was expected of the Farrell children.
Next to that picture was another photograph of Fiona, years later. It must have been a recent shot, because she looked to be in her late twenties. There was no smile in this one. It was a professional portrait, obviously taken in a studio to look artsy, but it revealed more about
the subject than she might have intended. Her blue eyes looked lost, staring over the camera at something she couldn’t find. Her left hand had its index finger over her lips, as if begging for silence. Her shoulders were bare, making her look naked and vulnerable. The intervening years must have been hard ones.
And then there was Denis. The portrait on the mantel showed him with his wife, Gillian, both of them elegantly dressed. He was in a tuxedo; she was in a long navy-blue gown. It was probably a fund-raiser of some kind. Denis wasn’t a big man, only three or four inches taller than Lisa, but he exuded toughness in his appearance. Danny had always said that his father prided himself on making the difficult choices that others wouldn’t. He never let emotion get in the way of practicality. But the consequences of those decisions were written in the deep lines on his face and in the painful expression as he tried to stand up straight. He’d spent his life like a statue staring down the elements, but sooner or later, even the hardest stone began to wear away.
Gillian had paid the price, too. Her eyes had the glazed look of a woman who wasn’t entirely there. Her smile was hollow. There had been a time, almost a year after Danny died, when Gillian had asked to see Lisa. Her late son’s fiancée. They’d met for lunch, not in Thief River Falls but forty-five minutes away in Crookston, obviously in the hope that Denis would never find out. It had been an uncomfortable meal. Gillian had drunk way too much. After they went their separate ways, Gillian had never contacted her directly again.
Lisa felt a wave of anger, staring at the two of them. Then she turned over the silver frame and undid the clips that held the photograph in place. She had no business removing anything from the house, but she took the picture of Denis and Gillian Farrell and tucked it into her pocket anyway.
She backed away from the fireplace. There were no other pictures on the mantel and none on any of the walls or on the tables around the living room. What struck her as strange were the pictures she didn’t see.
Danny was invisible. He didn’t exist in Fiona’s house. There was nothing to suggest that Fiona remembered her brother at all. It was like the Farrells were somehow two entirely separate families, the one in Lisa’s memory, where Danny had lived and died, and the one in this other universe, where Fiona was an only child.
Someone else was missing, too.
Her left hand, so prominently displayed in the artsy photograph on the mantel, bore a simple gold band. She’d been married. And yet, like Danny, her husband was an invisible presence in the room. Every symbol of him and their married life had been erased. No pictures. No mementos of a wedding. No signs of a man in the house. A single woman lived here now.
A single woman who was dead.
Lisa looked around the room again, absorbing the details. Near a cherrywood end table, something small glistened on the lush carpet, like a diamond. When she went over there and bent down, she saw that it was a tiny shard of glass. There were a couple of other sparkling shards, too, buried in the pile immediately below the table. She noticed that the end table had a drawer, and using the tissue again, she opened the drawer.
There was another picture frame hidden inside. This one was shattered. Glass filled the drawer like sharp popcorn. An eight-by-ten photograph sat amid the glass. It was a classic wedding photo, Fiona in her white dress, her husband next to her in his black tux. He was a tall, muscular man, with very short black hair and a nose that looked as if it had weathered multiple fights. His lips were bent into a smile that didn’t come naturally to his face. He had a hawk’s eyes, piercing and observant. Lisa knew the type. A lot of women would find this man sexy and irresistible, the he-man, the boxer in the ring. For Lisa, he was the kind of man who would have sent her running for the hills.
Fiona had married him, but now he was a broken picture in her drawer. Lisa took the photograph, folded it up, and secreted it in her pocket along with the picture of the Farrells.
She knew she should leave before anyone discovered her. She’d hoped that the house might show her some kind of connection between Fiona’s murder and Purdue’s appearance in her life, but there was nothing to be found. It was time to go. But something kept her in this place, something she wanted to walk away from but couldn’t. There was an echo of horror in the house. Like a ghost was screaming at her.
She had never been here before, but it was almost as if she could see and hear what had happened in her head.
The stairs to the second floor were on the far side of the living room, and the echoes drew her there. Near the base of the stairs, she found more broken shards, not of glass but of ceramic. The pieces of a vase lay on the floor. Above her, on the fifth step, was an evidence marker. Whatever had been there had been taken away by the police, but she saw an image in her mind of a woman’s high-heel pump, sleek and black, lying forlornly between upstairs and downstairs. Lisa felt her heart beating faster.
She could picture the scene. In her imagination, she heard the thunder of running footsteps. A woman shouting. She heard the clatter of the vase tumbling to the floor; she saw Fiona escaping up the stairs and a man chasing her, grabbing her foot, coming away with a shoe.
Lisa went up the stairs slowly. She grimaced at the images flooding her brain.
At the top of the stairs, there was another evidence marker. She knew that was where the other heel had been stripped away in the chase. It pointed her toward a room at the end of the hall.
She saw a bedroom door, kicked in like the back door of the house, splinters of wood on the carpet. The doorway took her into the master bedroom, which was painted like a snow castle, all white, a king-size bed with a white comforter and white pillows, white curtains on the windows,
white carpet. It looked like a winter fairyland, which was what made the other color so shocking.
There was blood everywhere. Blood on the bed, spatter on the walls and curtains, a vast crimson sea of blood in the middle of the carpet. Even closing her eyes, she could still see it. She could still smell it. Nausea rose in her throat.
He’d caught up with her right here.
Lisa parked where she could see the building that housed the region’s weekly newspaper, the
Thief River Falls Times
. Light snow continued to fall from the gray sky, and as the temperature dropped, it was beginning to stick everywhere. She was glad to have it cover up the Camaro and keep it hidden. Every now and then she ran the wipers to clear a patch on the windshield where she could see. She checked her watch, which she’d already done a dozen times. It was nearly two in the afternoon. She hoped that Tom Doggett was still a creature of habit.
Tom had been the newspaper’s editor for fifteen years. He’d had opportunities to go elsewhere to join an urban daily, but he’d chosen to stay in his hometown. As a journalist, he was tough and good. Dogged Doggett was his nickname, and he’d pissed off most of the movers and shakers in the county on various stories during his time with the paper. That was one reason Lisa trusted him. She didn’t think he’d go running to the sheriff or the county attorney as soon as he saw her.
As long as she’d known Tom, he’d taken a smoke break every workday at exactly two in the afternoon. He smoked two cigarettes on the street, not caring about rain, snow, or cold, and then he was done with his vice for the day.
Nervously, Lisa checked her watch again. It was exactly two now. As if an alarm had gone off, the glass door at the
swung open, and Tom Doggett emerged into the snow with his pack of Marlboros in
his hand. He walked to the street corner with a shuffling gait. He was medium height and a little heavy. He wore a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, wrinkled khakis, and Hush Puppies. He was almost fifty years old, but he wore his wavy dark hair to his shoulders, as if he was still part of a protest movement. Lisa was never sure if he colored his hair or if he really hadn’t grayed yet.
Before the editor could light up his first Marlboro, Lisa fired off a text.
Camaro on 4th.
Seconds later, she watched Tom dig into the pocket of his khakis for his phone. When he read the text, his head swiveled curiously. It didn’t take him long, despite the snow, to spot the chassis of the sports car halfway down the cross street. She watched his eyes narrow as he studied the car, wondering who was behind the mystery message. He tapped his hand rhythmically on his thigh as he assessed the situation, but she knew his journalistic curiosity would win out.
Tom strolled across Main Avenue. A sheriff’s SUV passed behind him, and Lisa tensed, but the police car didn’t stop. The editor passed the gas-station-turned-church on the other side of the street and headed straight to the passenger door of the Camaro. He didn’t even knock. He simply opened the door and got in.
“Next time you want to see me, we need some better spy tradecraft. Like a chalk X on the light post alerting me to a secret meeting. I think we need code phrases to recognize each other, too. I’ll say, ‘Water is wet.’ You say, ‘Except on Mars.’ How does that sound?”
She smiled. “Sorry. I know this is a little cloak-and-dagger.”
“A little. Mind if I smoke?”
“Would you care if I did?”
“Hey, you know it’s two o’clock.”
Tom used the button to lower the side window about a foot. He extracted the cream-colored end of a Marlboro from the pack and lit the top, causing the white tip to smolder. He inhaled, closed his eyes, and then aimed the smoke from his mouth at the open window. Lisa didn’t smoke, but she found the sight of the white cigarette strangely hypnotizing.
“So what’s up?” Tom asked her. “Are you feeding me a story? It would be nice to have something a little juicier to work on than the soybean futures.”
“Actually, you already have the story,” Lisa said. “I’d like to find out what you know about it.”
“In return for?”
“My eternal gratitude,” Lisa replied.
“Uh-huh. I can tell you the futures price on that. What’s the story?”
Tom whistled. “Oh, yeah, I know all about that one. But why do you care about Fiona?”
“I’d rather not say right now. When I can tell you more, you’ll be the first to know. How’s that for a quid pro quo?”
“I assume it’s the best I’m going to do. I’m not sure what you want, though. Everything I know about the case has already been printed in the paper.”
“I’m behind on my reading. Sorry.”
Tom gave Lisa a cynical stare from behind his cigarette. “All right. Well, here’s the story. You know what Denis Farrell is like. He kept his daughter under his thumb the way he did when she was still a kid. Fiona was looking for a way out. She decided that the fastest way to get free of Daddy was a guy named Nick Loudon.”
“Buzzed black hair? Broken nose?”
“That’s him. Fiona met Nick at a bar in Bemidji during a summer festival a couple of years ago. He’s a good-looking guy if you like that
type, but nobody thought it was a good match. Least of all Denis. But you know how it goes. Girl gets emotional abuse from her father, then turns around and finds a man who makes it even worse. That was Nick Loudon.”
“But they got married?”
Tom nodded. “Yup. Last winter.”
“The good times didn’t last long. Nick was a mean SOB when he was drunk, which was most of the time. He and Fiona started having fights. Bad ones. Neighbors kept calling the cops; cops kept pulling Nick in. Denis wanted Fiona to kick him out, but she wouldn’t do that. So the next time Nick got arrested, Denis made sure he cooled his heels in jail for a couple of days. He thought that might wise him up.”
“I’m guessing it didn’t,” Lisa murmured.
“Oh, no. Nick got out, came home, and put Fiona in the emergency room.”
Lisa shook her head and swore under her breath. As a nurse, she’d seen that same movie play out over and over at the hospital. What was worse was seeing how many of the women went back to their abusers, because they had nowhere else to go. She pictured Fiona’s sweet face in her head from the photographs on her mantel, and she had no trouble imagining how that face had looked after Nick was done with her. She was angry on Fiona’s behalf, and for the first time in her life, she actually felt a little sorry for Denis Farrell.