by Karen Skinner
In my experience, those who beg for mercy seldom deserve it. In fact, it’s really an admission of guilt. They’re saying, “Yes, I did it, but I didn’t want to get caught. How do I get out of this?”
The answer is up to you. I personally found this shift in power hugely satisfying. You now have the option to choose. Do you let them go, or do you give them what you know they deserve?
I’d never held a ceremonial sword before. It was a lot heavier than I expected, but I managed to balance it by letting it rest against the hollow at the base of his throat. As he lay there on his back with anxious eyes pleading, I couldn’t help thinking that he looked like a desperate starfish; caught out of water with his arms and legs askew. I chuckled at the image in my mind and he started to beg again.
When my colleague, Danny came into my office that morning and dropped that buff coloured file onto my desk, like he had hundreds of others, I only glanced at it and pretended not to be excited. “It’s another missing girl, Liz,” he said with all the pent up adrenaline of a small boy looking forward to a promised treat.
“Uh hu.” I carried on typing.
“That makes four.”
Danny sat on the edge of my desk and creased the edges of my unfiled reports. I gave him a stern but typical‐of‐you look and he obligingly lifted a buttock to let me retrieve them.
“Aww, c’mon Liz,” he cajoled. “Don’t tell me this isn’t getting you going. I know you too well. You always get steamed over a new mystery. I know I do.”
I squinted at the computer screen and deleted a line of text.
“Well, go shake hands with yourself in the loos, then. I’m busy.”
Danny sighed and slid of the desk. I couldn’t help but watch him go as he made his way to the outer office. God, he was hot. Too bad he had a philanderer’s reputation. He’d flirt with the office pot plant if he thought he’d get a reaction. I knew that within ten minutes he’d be on the internet, looking up the other cases and trying to make a connection. That was what I liked about Danny, apart from the dark hair and grey green eyes, of course. Under that flirtatious, ego protective shell was a determined and intelligent personality, capable of making quick connections. If he ever met with any resistance, he just flirted you into submission, and I’d noticed, his charm worked just as well with men.
I was always very particular about writing my reports correctly. If the police did want to cut us any slack, they might discover that we could be useful and proper reports would go a long way in presenting a professional image. I rubbed my hands over my face and tried to remember when I last took a break. The file winked at me just at the peripheral edge of my vision and beckoned me like a forbidden chocolate bar.
It had always been my golden rule to finish one job before moving on to another, but that was now more of a bronze hue; I’d broken that rule more times than I could remember. A brief flick through couldn’t hurt.
The police looked at private detectives like us as if we were a joke. I don’t mean that they looked at us with contempt, although some of them did. I mean they thought we were funny; silly kids playing at being grownups. But when they had exhausted all the leads they had and frantic relatives were one phone call away from a psychic hotline that was usually when our phone would ring.
It looked like the older sister had made the call this time. Danny had printed out the photograph that she had kindly emailed over and I identified the missing girl, Jenny, almost immediately. She stood in the middle, between two friends, with her arms around their shoulders, at what looked like a nightclub bar. She had been missing for three weeks. She was a pretty, dark haired girl, quite young looking, who, just like the other three, had failed to return home after a night out. We hadn’t had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with the files of the other girls, so similarities could only be guessed at, but Danny had helpfully included relevant newspaper clippings.
I skimmed through Danny’s procedural form and as it turned out, all previous boyfriends had been contacted and excluded from enquires. All her friends had been questioned too, but this was where we usually dug a little deeper. We didn’t just question friends; we talked to anyone, enemies and toxic friends; those who were too scared to say too much for fear of suspicion.
There was a toxic friend in the photograph, I noticed; older, sexier and worldlier than Jenny and too cool to smile for the camera. Toxic friends usually hung out with their mates because the good friend had something that the bad friend wanted; a lover, intelligence, sometimes money.
I studied the photograph again. This toxic friendship was about love. Jenny was loved. She and her good friend smiled openly to the camera, excited to be there. Her toxic friend had obviously been to that venue too many times before to be excited. She leaned in towards Jenny slightly but didn’t show any particular emotion.
A quick call to the sister confirmed that she had taken the photograph herself at a local nightclub where Jenny had celebrated her nineteenth birthday. I was surprised to find out she wasn’t younger. Tickets had been made available by her friend, Emma, who worked there.
I rang Emma’s doorbell at a quarter to twelve. I half expected to be waking her. If she worked at the local nightclub, then I assumed she’d be sleeping.
An unshaven young man in his twenties opened the door in a tee shirt and boxers.
“Hi, I’m Liz Phillips; I’ve come to see Emma.”
He looked confused for a moment, and then opened the door. He said nothing as I followed him in to a cramped and untidy front room.
“’ad fren’s over,” he said, by way of explanation. He beckoned to a settee and walked out into the hallway to yell up the stairs. I pushed yesterday’s clothes out of the way and sat as close to the edge as I could without falling off.
“Bird down ‘ere for ya.”
It had been a few years since I’d been referred to as a bird. I tried not to smile as I heard him blow off as he padded into the kitchen.
Emma walked into the living room the way most beautiful women walked into an office. She was wearing a neat blouse and tailored trousers, and all her makeup was immaculately applied. She dropped herself elegantly into a nearby chair.
“This’ll have to be quick,” she said, removing an invisible hair. “Got stock taking to do this lunchtime. Cuppa tea?” she offered.
“Thanks, but no,” I smiled politely. If this was her living room, I didn’t want to know what her kitchen looked like. Clearly her looks were her first priority.
“You want to talk about Jenny,” she stated getting straight to the point.
“Um, yes,” I said unable to hide my surprise.
“Your shoes,” she said pointing to my sensible flats. “Dead giveaway.”
“So, how long…”
“Since senior school,” she cut in, pre‐empting again. “Best mates forever. No, I don’t know where she might be, or what other mates she has. We didn’t have a row the last time I saw her and no, I don’t know of anyone who hated her enough to bump her off.”
Her boyfriend came in just then and sat on top of the abandoned clothes next to me and released the ring pull on a can of beer. Emma gave him a look that could have frozen molten lava.
“Hair of the dog, innit?” he said indignantly.
“You could at least have put some clothes on,” scolded Emma.
I raised an eyebrow at the boyfriend and he obligingly filled in the details. I’ve found that if you give people enough space, the need to explain will overpower the need to conceal.
“My dad owns the nightclub and I help out. Met her there.” He nodded toward Emma. “Dad owns this place and we get cheap rent.”
“Did Jenny ever come here?” I asked.
Suddenly the boyfriend was lost for words, he was surprised, perhaps not so much by the question, but that it was directed at him.
“Don’t ‘fink so,” he replied, a little too quickly. He stared back at me with wide eyes, but didn’t look at Emma. I returned his gaze. “You slept with her, didn’t you?” I said in my head.
“No,” said Emma, answering the initial question. “I only moved in with Ben just a week before Jen disappeared. We hadn’t had time to send out house warming invites.”
“Daft idea,” sniffed Ben taking a gulp of beer. “Been ‘ere ages.”
I looked at Emma as she spoke. Her voice remained calm, but her eyes were cold. She knew he’d been unfaithful, but perhaps not with whom.
“Is there a security camera covering the outside gate of the nightclub?” I asked, getting an idea.
“You mean where the car park joins the road?” asked Ben. “No need. Cameras are all over the inside and over every door, plus a few in the car park. Once they’re on the road, they’re polices’ problem. Why?”
“Well, if we can review the security images we might be able to find out who Jenny partied with, but now might not get to see who she left with.”
“Police took ‘em all away a couple of weeks ago.”
I pulled Danny’s photograph from my bag.
“Who is the other girl here with you?” I asked Emma.
“That’s Maria, a friend of Jens sister.” Emma sniffed disapprovingly. She must have suspected her of being the girl Ben slept with.
I showed the picture to Ben. He looked a little sad when he saw it, but shrugged and shook his head when I pointed to Maria. He didn’t know her.
“Her dad is the local mayor, isn’t he?” pondered Emma, trying to remember. “She dated a bloke a little while back, but they split up soon after Jen went missing.
I could hear an alarm bell ring quietly in the back of my head. “Do you know where I can find her?” I asked as casually as I could.
“There’s a do on at the town hall tonight. She’ll be there.” The tone of Emma’s voice suggested that she wouldn’t go.
Danny wasn’t in the office when I returned but had left me a message saying he was going to talk to the sister again. He suspected that she had been having an affair with an ex boyfriend of Jenny’s.
That was an avenue to explore, but my senses were leading me in another direction and so I left him a message on his mobile to dress to impress this evening. We had an event to attend.
I arrived late as usual and a glance at my watch told me that it was far too late to be fashionable.
I wasn’t used to wearing high heeled shoes and a proper dress, and judging by the looks I got from the well‐to‐do ladies already present, it showed.
The local great and good were gathered together in elegant surroundings to be congratulated for giving away what they wouldn’t miss to the more popular charities.
The mayor was centre stage thanking everyone for being as wonderful as him and I immediately tuned out to scan the crowd.
Maria was standing towards the front of the crowd and gazing at her father as if he was a hero. She was wearing a pretty pale blue dress and looked as if she’d had her hair done for the occasion. I took a closer look at the people around her and it appeared that she was unescorted.
I made my way over to her and waited for her father to finish his speech and absorb the applause before I introduced myself to her.
Her polite smile faded a little as she shook my hand and I noticed her lips tremble slightly when I mentioned Jenny’s name. She led me to a side room and closed the door quietly.
We were surrounded by the ornaments of official office. The table pushed against the far wall was stacked with all the regalia removed to make room in the main hall.
A couple of plaques of coats of arms fought for space with banners and what looked like spears adorned with red ropes.
“Look,” she began, “It’s only going to be a few minutes before people notice I’m not there.”
“This will be really brief,” I promised. “I only have few questions and I know that they’re going to sound strange, but I’d really appreciate it if you could be honest with me, ok?”
“First of all, can you tell me how old you are?”
Maria looked a little surprised, but I’d rumbled her. There was no need to pretend.
“I’m fifteen,” she admitted.
I nodded, now understanding. An excellent education and an intelligent mind made peers her own age seem immature, but partying at the places her friends went to made a little subversion necessary. The right clothes and makeup, and a mature attitude would make her appear older than her years. At a nightclub she’d be more likely to meet an older, more appealing man, one she’d be reluctant to invite to an evening like this where her father would meet him.
“What was it that Jenny didn’t like about your ex boyfriend?”
Again Maria raised her eyebrows, but answered the question.
“She said he was a user. He only wanted to get me into bed and wouldn’t be able to stay faithful.”
“Did she say why she thought so?”
“It’s not Ben, is it?” I asked, needing confirmation.
Maria wrinkled her nose.
“God, no; I don’t know what Emma sees in him.”
With his own place and a rich daddy, it wasn’t too hard for me to see what Emma saw in him.
“Do you know what’s happened to Jenny?” she asked tentatively.
I nodded slowly.
“Yes, I think I do. I think that the guy you dated, dated her first and she thought that she should warn you. Did you ever stop to think about how alike the two of you looked; both pretty, petit and dark haired?”
Maria shook her head sadly.
“No, I never thought about it.”
“I think that her boyfriend was attracted to you when he found out who your father was. The other girls in the newspapers were pretty and dark haired, too. And, I think that Jenny got in the way when she told him to back off and leave you alone.”
Maria looked like she was going to cry and put a hand over her mouth to stifle a sob.
“Did your ex ever know your real age?”
She shook her head again.
“I never told him.”
This told me all I needed to know and I thanked her as I opened the door for her. I waited in the room a little longer. If my suspicions were correct, the ex boyfriend would have come here tonight not wanting to miss the opportunity to talk to her father. If he had seen her enter this room with me he would want to know what we had talked about. I leant against the table with my arms folded and waited for my visitor. Soon, the door opened slightly and a handsome, cheerful face peeked round to look at me.
“Hi,” he said. “Have you had a glass of champagne yet? You’d better be quick; the vultures are eating and drinking everything.”
“I can wait,” I said casually. “Come on in. We need to talk.”
He strolled into the middle of the room and let the door close behind him. He stood with his hands in his pockets and shrugged.
“So, what were you two girls gossiping about?” he asked jovially. “Which one of the men out there is the best looking?”
“We were talking about Jenny Pierce,” I said calmly, “and who dated her before Maria.”
His face paled slightly.
“I’ve heard that Maria has a jealous streak and a mean temper. You should talk to her friends if you think she dated the same man as Jenny.”
I couldn’t believe he was trying to slander an innocent girl. I raised a waggling finger as I pointed out the telling detail.
“Well, now it’s interesting that you just said ‘man’. You see, we’ve always referred to Jenny and her friends as girls, but Jenny wasn’t the youngest.”
“No. Maria is fifteen. So if he dated both girls,” I separated my hands and turned them towards the ceiling in an open shrug, “with Maria, he’d have been a bit of a bad boy now, wouldn’t he?”
I saw him swallow.
“And that would explain why Jenny intervened.”
“Well, if she was so concerned about her friend,” he responded, digging franticly, “why would she bring her to a nightclub where everyone is supposed to be over eighteen?”
I waggled my finger again.
“There you are with another interesting word,” I said. “Supposed; not everyone who goes to a nightclub is over the age eighteen. Just check out the young faces on the dance floor who look too nervous to approach the bar.”
I looked up into his face and met his eyes. He had the gall to stare straight back.
“Is that where you met the other girls, Danny; in the nightclubs? Because that seems to be the kind you go for; pretty, petit, dark haired and young. You’d have a dance with them, invite them out for a nightcap and meet later in the car park, where the security cameras can’t see.”
Danny simply smiled.
“All you have is a suspicion, a hunch.”
“Not if Maria tells us you slept with her.”
“A misdemeanour,” he said dismissively. “She never told me her real age and I believed she was over the age of consent.”
“Not if you slept with Jenny, too. That’s a direct connection. You see, if a man is smart enough to use a condom, he tends to stick with the brand he likes. Once we find Jenny,”
I immediately corrected myself, “when we find Jenny, we’ll be able to test for traces of spermicide to tell what that was, and compare with what Maria knows.”
I didn’t even know if such a test was possible. I was bluffing, but would it be enough?
Danny suddenly lunged forward and gripped both his hands around my throat. I squealed with shock, but couldn’t scream as he squeezed even tighter.
I fumbled behind me and lashed out, smashing a plaque over the top of his head.
The plaque flew across the room and Danny staggered backwards onto the floor. Without stopping to think, I reached behind for another weapon and didn’t realise I had hold of a ceremonial sword until I heard the blade chink on the floor as it bounced.
I staggered myself and had to use both hands to hold it up as I pointed the tip of the blade at Danny’s throat. He gave a nervous little laugh as he tried to shuffle backwards.
“Where is she, Danny?” I took a step forward and balanced the tip at the hollow of his throat.
“Where is Jenny?”
I was standing almost right over him now.
“Please, for God’s sake, Liz. Please don’t do this.”
“Tell me where she is.”
“Liz, please don’t. Please Liz.”
I tilted my right hand so that my wrist was pointing towards the ceiling and gently pressed the heel of my left hand against the butt of the decorative handle. I couldn’t help admiring how beautiful it was.
“You have until I count to five to tell me what you did with Jenny Pierce. One…”
“Oh dear God,”
“Liz, I swear to God, I’ll tell you everything you want to know. Please put down the sword, please Liz.”
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. It was Maria.
“Liz, are you alright in there?” she called.