Book 1: Darkoom
The stairs creaked with a comforting familiarity as he descended toward the hallway and picked up the mail from the floor.
He shuffled through it quickly, throwing most of it into the bin and the rest onto the counter as he reached for the kettle.
The east-facing kitchen greeted the sun with open arms, and he basked in its early-morning warmth. With his tea in hand and toast waiting to pop, he sat at the table and opened the first letter.
It was an unusually warm morning for May, but he welcomed the summer and allowed his thoughts to wander until the metal clank of the toaster popped them.
He ate quickly and finished his tea, swirling the cup under the tap when he was done, leaving it upside down on the draining board.
He brushed his hands through his hair and finally walked across the kitchen to the dining room door.
The dining room was darker than the kitchen, with the heavy blinds pulled down and the curtains half-drawn. All the furniture had been removed the night before and was arranged in the backyard.
Except for one chair that sat in the center of the room.
She was half sitting on the chair, half hanging off it. Her hand, tied at the back, supported her limp body as it slumped left, her head lolling at an awkward angle.
She was naked except for panties that had once been pink but were now gray with grime and stinking of piss.
Her hair covered her face, hanging down in greasy tendrils like tassels over her closed eyes.
He walked closer, carefully lifting her chin with one finger, then pushing her head over the tall back of the chair. He grabbed her shoulder and made her sit up, eliciting only a soft moan from her.
Tenderly, he brushed her hair away from her face, curling it around her ears, then stepped back to see if it looked right.
Family pictures adorned the walls behind her on faded peach wallpaper. As he looked through the lens of his camera, he could almost see the dinners that had been held in this room.
When he secured the tripod in place and checked the lighting for the picture, she moved her head, letting it loll back to the left and hiding her face again.
He finished setting up the camera before sitting her up again, propping her head against the back of the chair to make it stay in place.
Then, as he checked the camera one last time, he pulled the knife out of his belt and walked over behind her.
The red flashing light on the front of the camera warned him of the set timer lapsing, so he hurriedly braced her head against his chest, holding her forehead with one hand while the other pressed the knife against her throat.
The camera flash lit the room up with a bright flare, that second, one-thousandth of a second, captured as the knife was dragged across the center of her throat.
After the flash, the room plunged back into a darkness that seemed darker now as her breath gurgled out of her throat through the blood flow.
He went back to the camera and unclipped it from the tripod, then took the rest of the pictures he needed.
Detective Jack Sullivan rolled over onto his side and reached for the buzzing alarm.
In the darkness of his bedroom, his hand slapped the nightstand blindly until he found the right button, only for the buzzing to continue.
“Christ,” he muttered, pulling himself up into a sitting position to reach the light. His sleep-warmed eyes watered in the sudden glare, and he blinked the sting away.
On the nightstand, his phone buzzed incessantly for attention.
“Jack, it’s Fiona.”
“What is it?” he asked, suddenly wide awake at the sound of his partner’s voice. Already he was off the bed and crossing the room to the chair where he had draped his clothes only a few hours earlier.
“Fifty-three Claremont Avenue. One female victim.”
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
Jack dashed through the bathroom long enough for a cursory wash and was still dressing as he sat into his car a mere four minutes after waking.
One hand steered the car out of his apartment complex while the other slipped the flashing blue strobe onto the roof, then smashed the siren button with his palm.
At twenty past five on a Sunday morning, the traffic through Dublin was light, so Jack made the crosstown journey in record time. The radio in the car was tuned to his favorite station, but he barely heard any of it.
“…even for a Sunday, but of course, Phibs will take the brunt of the traffic… Meath versus Dublin at 3 p.m… Diversion on Cloniffe road for roadwork, as well as match day restrictions…”
Blue flashing lights were already visible from outside the address, and it made the task of finding the house a whole lot easier. He could see the sun rising behind him through his rearview mirror and cursed again.
The building wasn’t one of the more affluent ones in Dublin, but it also wasn’t littered with burned remains of cars and impromptu bonfires any night of the week.
Rows upon rows of duplexes curved and turned in a maze of dead ends, so again Jack silently gave thanks to the Garda who had left on his cross beams on his patrol car.
He parked haphazardly in the middle of the road, not bothering to turn off his lights. He knew he would only be here for a few minutes before having to convene back at the station for a dawn briefing.
Taking the unlit cigarette from his mouth, he slipped it back into the nearly full pack and tossed it onto the dashboard. Then, taking a deep breath, he stepped out into the cool morning air.
He spotted his partner’s car across the road, parked neatly between two squad cars, and smiled.
They had only been working together for a couple of months, but already he was aware of her precision when it came to parking: always straight, always between the lines, and never with the wheels at a kink.
A patrol officer stood at the gate, not quite at attention but straight enough to give the impression that he was more awake than Jack felt.
Jack nodded a silent greeting as he passed and made his way to the partially open front door.
By the front step was a small box that was full of shoe coverings and latex gloves, so he leaned against the pebbledash wall to slip them on, hearing voices slip out from the hallway.
“You got Croker on match day?”
“Match day? I got it for the Leinster final!”
“You’re a lucky bastard. Every year you get Croker on Leinster final.”
Jack stepped into the room and both Gardaí looked at him, nodding solemnly, but neither of them said a word.
He didn’t need directions to where he could find the body, as the flash photography was enough to lead him toward the kitchen.
It was an average-sized kitchen, with a large oak table in the center holding four chairs. The counter was marble with a few kitchen accessories on it. His partner leaned against it with her head hanging low.
Jack shivered with the cold and closed the kitchen door behind him, thinking the open front door was letting in a wicked breeze.
“Morning, Jack.” Fiona Crawford looked up at him with an almost apologetic smile, as if it was her fault he was called out for this after pulling the night shift.
She was sipping coffee from a large paper cup that was branded with a logo from the gas station at the top of the road. In her other hand was another cup that he hoped was for him.
“Coffee?” Fiona held it out as she spoke, and Jack took it with a small smile.
“Thanks.” He looked around the room and saw the two forensic officers through an arch that led into a dining room. A third was out of sight taking photos of the crime scene.
“Man, it’s cold in here.” He pushed his hand against the door again to make sure it was closed, then glanced at the windows to see them closed as well.
“It’s coming from there.” Fiona cocked her head toward the dining room. “Patio doors are off and letting in the cold.”
“Did you see the report?” he asked, stamping his feet a little and flexing his fingers around the warm cup of coffee.
“Yeah.” Her head was shaking now, a slow movement from side to side, and he realized this was her first murder.
She had made detective shortly after him, but they had both been involved in different cases: smuggling, drugs and weapons, and missing persons.
He watched as she dug into her coat and pulled out a few folded A4 pages to hold out to him.
“Female,” she said before he had a chance to read it off the page. “No sexual assault evident, but of course Dr. Kelly will let us know for sure.”
“Stabbed five times?” Jack looked up at Fiona for confirmation as if he couldn’t believe the preliminary report made by the initial officer called to the scene.
He saw her gazing out the window. He knew her well enough to recognize that she was taking these last moments to prepare herself for the scene that was about to greet her.
He left her to her musings and returned his attention to the report.
“Okay, we’re all done now. It’s all yours.”
Jack turned to see Dr. Frank Williams stepping out through the arch, closing a cap over his camera lens.
His face was pale and drawn, and Jack guessed Frank’s summons to the crime scene had been a lot earlier than his own.
The other two forensic officers, wearing baggy white overalls, turned away from the arch and looked over at Jack.
Then, as if in silent agreement, they both shook their heads in unison and left, lugging the equipment on slumped shoulders.
“Ah, Jack.” Frank crossed the small room and shook hands with him. “Glad to see you are on this.”
Jack remembered the last case he had worked that had also involved the young forensic scientist, a body some kids had found at Arthurstown Landfill.
It had been almost four months since that case was closed amid a national sensational media storm, but it still felt like yesterday.
Even now he remembered his surprise at seeing a man as young as Frank knee-deep in household rubbish when he got to the scene. Frank had been all too eager to prove his worth and had volunteered to go through the scene.
He seemed older now, though, Jack thought as he looked over the tired features and slumped shoulders.
“Hello, Frank. How’s Sylvia?”
“Angry. I had to leave her in Kildare this morning.”
“Kildare? Have you jumped ship outside the pale?”
“No, no.” Frank laughed, and it sounded so foreign in the stilted kitchen. “We were down there for a niece’s wedding.”
“I bet you had a head on you last night.”
“No, I took it handy, as I always do,” he said, rubbing his flat stomach. They both chuckled and walked toward the archway.
“See anything we can use, Frank?” Jack asked as he stepped through with a deep breath, a final preparation for the gruesome sight he knew he was about to receive.
“No prints, if that’s what you mean.”
Frank walked in behind him and crossed the room toward the patio. The two large doors leading outside had been removed from the frame and were lying flat in the back lawn.
All the furniture had been taken out of the dining room and was laid there perfectly, as if some careful owner was preparing to decorate the room.
All except for one chair where the victim was seated. That was sitting in the precise center of the room, directly beneath the large ornate chandelier.
Jack closed his eyes for a second, then swiftly clicked into investigator mode.
All thoughts of the radio giving traffic tips to match goers gone, all thoughts of his comfy warm bed waiting for him gone. His mind was now only entertaining thoughts of this young woman.
It was a high-backed chair with a Celtic design etched into the wooden back.
The victim’s legs had been tied at the ankles to different legs of the chair to separate them, and her hands were tied to the back legs of the chair, making her slump.
Around her shoulders were strips of duct tape that were meant to hold her upright, but their grip had slackened and she was leaning forward slightly.
She wore only underwear, and Jack noticed how it seemed childlike for her. A sports bra with a strange cartoon character on the front he didn’t recognize and matching panties.
The blood from her stab wounds had gushed over her torso, pooling on her lap between her thighs and dripping awkward lines down the front of her legs to her feet.
Her chin rested on her chest and Jack had to crouch low to see her face.
“Where are the rest of her clothes?” It wasn’t a real question, just an observation that Jack muttered under his breath, not expecting an answer.
“Not in the house. But there is this.”
Jack crossed the room to where Frank was crouching beside the archway.
He could hear Fiona walking in from the kitchen, her assured steps on the tile knocking out a false bravado before they were muffled by the carpet in the dining room.
“What?” she asked, immediately locking into the conversation.
“See these?” Frank pointed out three small circular dips in the carpet.
Jack guessed them to be almost two inches in diameter with a thirty-inch spread between them making a triangle.
“I checked all the furniture outside to see if they fit, but none of it matches.”
“What could make that?” Jack mumbled to himself as he touched the dips, pressing them as if they would release more information.
“I can only think of one thing…” Frank hesitated. “A tripod. I had one set up at home a couple of weeks ago for my telescope to watch a meteor shower.
“It was set up overnight, and when I took it down it left marks kinda like these.” He ran his fingers along the edge of the circular marks. “The wife gave me hell for them,” he added with a smile.
“A camera. He was taking photos.” Fiona’s detachment was wavering as the possibility sickened her.
“Or video.” Frank shrugged again. It was a disturbingly mundane gesture for a scene so morbidly gruesome. “There is something else.”
Frank stood up and walked out to the garden where the furniture had been laid out as if it were still inside, an eerie setting of the couch facing the TV, the coffee table complete with magazines strewn between them.
He took the arm of one of the chairs from the three-piece suite and lifted it up enough to roll it over onto its side.
“Last night the temperatures reached just below freezing on ground level.”
Beneath the seat, the grass was flattened out in the shape of the chair and it stood out in a dark comparison against the white crusted grass around it.
“This furniture was out overnight, before the frost.”
“He was waiting for her.” Jack spoke resolutely. “There is no sign of blood or any sign of a struggle in the other rooms.”
“Maybe he even arrived with her. There is no sign of forced entry,” Fiona added as she circled the makeshift living room in the garden.
“Possibly,” Frank said, nodding his head as they walked back into the house.
“What about the murder weapon?” Jack stood again in front of the victim and brushed her hair aside with gloved hands.
“It was a knife, a small one, too. The wounds aren’t deep, but they were fatal,” Frank replied.
“They are about an inch-and-a-quarter wide and arched in a left to right slope, suggesting that he was standing behind her when he stabbed her.”
“She isn’t a resident of this house,” Fiona said after a moment’s silence.
“What?” Jacked looked up from his crouched position and saw a confused look on Frank’s face that he knew matched his own.
“She didn’t live here.” Fiona walked through another archway that led into a sitting room and large floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that adorned one wall completely.
“This is the only room in the house with photos. There are portraits of two people that seem to date from back to the late fifties up to modern ones.”
She pointed out the various pictures as she spoke, while Jack walked into the room to follow her train of thought.
“It’s a couple, the same couple without kids or family, if there are any.”
Fiona turned to face Jack and brushed the sides of her coat aside as she rested her hands on her hips. “She isn’t in any of them,” she added, nodding toward the victim.
“Who is she?” Frank said, speaking aloud the thought that now rang through all their heads. But no one had a reply, so his question was met with only silence.
“When will Dr. Kelly be ready for her?” Jack asked, already finding it hard to think of her as a victim. She had a name, and he had to find out what it was.
“She’s on her way.” Frank looked at his watch and made a mental calculation. “She should be here any minute.”
“So if she doesn’t live here, who—” Jack began, but Fiona cut him off.
“Dr. Lewis Carroll.” She looked up from the bookshelf she had been examining and smiled at Jack for the first time since they came face to face with the victim.
“I’m not kidding.” She handed him an envelope that was addressed to Dr. Lewis Carroll at this home.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Jack muttered.
“Let’s go find them and ask if they know why there is a teenage girl stabbed to death in their dining room.”
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