Sixty-four

Skinner had expected to find Mario McGuire’s head swathed in bandages, but the only dressing was a plaster covering a cut on his forehead. In fact, the detective superintendent looked remarkably normal as he sat up in bed in the small hospital room. ‘Hello, boss,’ he said. He sounded in good shape too.

McGuire looked at the tall figure, at the two boys who flanked him, and at the little girl he carried in the crook of his right arm. The older of the boys was slim, with a serious expression, while the younger was sturdy, a strikingly handsome child with clear blue eyes and tousled blond hair that was starting to darken. The girl, although only a toddler, was on course to be a stunner, with auburn hair and a friendly smile. ‘I didn’t expect to see you today,’ he went on, ‘especially not mob-handed. Mind you, I don’t remember a great deal about seeing you yesterday.’

‘We’re on a trip across the river,’ Skinner explained ‘How’s the head?’ He directed his question towards Paula Viareggio. ‘I’m asking you, because I want the official version.’

‘He’ll live, this time at least,’ she replied, with obvious relief in her voice. ‘They did another scan and an ECG this morning, and they were both absolutely clear. There’s no fracture either; this man has a seriously hard head. We were having an argument just before you arrived about whether he goes home today or stays for another night under observation.’

‘Would it help if I ordered him to stay… or tried to?’

‘It’s okay,’ McGuire told him. ‘You don’t have to. I’ve given up arguing with Paulie, about the non-business things at least.’

‘That’s good, because I want you rested and fresh tomorrow. If they let you out, and assuming you feel fit enough to come in, I was hoping you’d be able to join me when I have my conversation with Mr Jay.’

‘I’d join you for that, boss, supposing I was in a wheel-chair.’

‘Two thirty p.m., then; in my office.’

‘Excellent. I’ll be dancing by that time.’ His eyes left Skinner and moved to the door. ‘Christ,’ he laughed, ‘it’s getting crowded in here.’ The DCC turned to see Maggie Rose and Stevie Steele come into the room. He glanced at Paula, looking for signs of tension between the two women, but found none. Maggie smiled at each of the boys, and made a fuss over Seonaid, amusing her father, who had never seen his former assistant in this light before.

‘I’ll relieve the crush in that case,’ he said. ‘Come on, boys and girl: we’re off to the aquarium.’

The quartet watched them leave, James Andrew closing the door carefully behind them. ‘You’re looking unscathed,’ Maggie told Mario.

‘I’ve been worse.’ He grinned.

‘I know,’ she said. ‘I was there.’

He glanced around the room. ‘The accommodation’s better this time.’ He nodded to Steele. ‘Hi, Stevie. Is this social or professional?’

‘Both. I’m running the investigation so I need a description, if you can give me one.’

McGuire winced. ‘He was dressed in white gear, he wore a woolly hat and wrap-round goggles. I took him for your average punter who watches Ski Sunday and thinks that’s how you have to look. Height? Hard to tell with the boots on, but as tall as me, I’d guess. I’m sorry, pal, but that’s the best I can do.’

‘I appreciate that. Spencer told me much the same thing, and he was with the man for a while. The person who supplied him with the ski equipment couldn’t help us either: he just picked it out and handed over the money. No conversation, no eye contact; clean shaven, and not a youngster, that was all the kid could tell us. But there are other things you might have picked up that could help me, like a better feeling for his age, for one thing.’

‘He has to be a fit bloke, Stevie. He was able to control Spence, which is not as easy as it sounds, even if he is only ten. He was able to keep ahead of me on the way up that hill, and I know what I can do. Plus, he was able to get the drop on me and knock me spark out with whatever it was he hit me with.’

‘A sock.’

‘A sock?’

‘With a bloody great lump of rock in it.’

‘Ouch! You’re bringing my headache back.’

‘Sorry, but all that helps, Mario. We’re talking about a mature man with a pretty high level of fitness, somebody maybe in his thirties.’

‘Did Spence hear him speak?’

‘Not at all: he didn’t say a word.’

McGuire’s face grew grim as he relived the scene. ‘Jesus!’ he whispered. ‘You know, Stevie, if Lauren hadn’t come up after me…’ He shuddered at the thought. ‘Did they find any trace of the guy afterwards?’

‘They think he made it down the side of the hill, and they think they know where he parked his car, but that’s it. There’s no physical evidence to take us forward. It’s as well we’ve got the link.’

‘What’s that?’

‘The thread that ties Dan Pringle, George Regan and Neil McIlhenney together: the Patsy Aikenhead investigation.’

McGuire gave a long whistle. ‘Oh, my,’ he murmured. ‘That’s what it’s looking like, is it? It’ll hit Neil hard, that will. Even though he didn’t do anything wrong, that case has always preyed on his conscience. It was Dan Pringle who ordered George and him to have that witness brought in, rather than interview her on-site where they might have seen the clock for themselves. It was his mistake, but the guys covered up for him. That’s the real reason for the famous coolness between Neil and him, whatever else might have happened since.’

‘It’s all history,’ said a voice from the door. Mario, Paula, Maggie and Stevie all turned to see McIlhenney standing there. ‘As will be the guy who took Spence when we find him: a bad memory locked up for good.’

He looked at the trio standing by the bedside. ‘Would you please excuse me for a moment?’ he asked. ‘I’d like a private word with my friend.’

‘Of course,’ Maggie answered, for them all.

The two men looked at each other, hearing rather than seeing the door close.

‘I’m sorry, man,’ Mario said, hoarsely, on the verge of tears.

‘Don’t be daft,’ Neil told him gruffly. ‘I’m here to thank you, not thump you. My kids could never come to any harm while they’re with you: I’ve always known that.’ He sat on the bed. ‘Sunshine, do you believe in things beyond our ken?’

‘No. I have to see reality to accept it.’

‘Well, I do. I’ve seen the paranormal, I’ve experienced it, and I accept it.’ He told his friend the story of his recurring dream. ‘I thought it was me, and that it was a warning of impending death. But now I know different. It was you, and it wasn’t Olive driving you on, but Lauren, her double. Wherever it came from, it was a message that, although something bad was going to happen, in the end it would be all right.’

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