Dark Road Home, страница 1
Dark Road Home
Dark Road Home
A Gin Sullivan Mystery
This is a work of fiction. All of the names, characters, organizations, places, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to real or actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crooked Lane Books, an imprint of The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC.
Crooked Lane Books and its logo are trademarks of The Quick Brown Fox & Company LLC.
Library of Congress Catalog-in-Publication data available upon request.
ISBN (hardcover): 978-1-62953-604-0
ISBN (paperback): 978-1-62953-636-1
ISBN (ePub): 978-1-62953-605-7
ISBN (Kindle): 978-1-62953-665-1
ISBN (ePDF): 978-1-62953-676-7
Cover design by Jennifer Canzone
Crooked Lane Books
2 Park Avenue, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10016
First Edition: July 2016
The trick was to get to the Forest Preserve late in the afternoon, after the mommy brigade had packed their strollers into their SUVs and headed home, and before everyone else got off work. When Gin Sullivan hit it just right, she could put in six miles without seeing more than a few other people. Later in the summer it would be impossible—the sweltering Chicago heat and humidity would drive even the most dedicated runners off the trails in the heat of the day—but so far, this June had been cool and pleasant.
Gin pulled into a spot vacated by a frazzled-looking woman in a Suburban and was on the trail by 4:30. The occasional early departure from the office was one of the perks of working as a medical examiner. After clearing the day’s case load, Gin had left with a clear conscience, knowing that new arrivals to the morgue would not mind waiting until tomorrow.
Patience, in Gin’s opinion, was a virtue of the dead.
Besides, she had been in the office before anyone else arrived, and she’d spend several hours working on a journal article tonight after a shower and a quick dinner. This time on the trail was the single indulgence she would allow herself today.
If “indulgence” was the right word for it. Gin kept up an easy, steady pace for the first mile, until the path came to a T, the right branch continuing along the picturesque Cal-Sag Channel.
Gin took the left branch. The terrain quickly became much more challenging, rising up into a rocky, mountainous mound. Thanks to the engineers who’d dug the channel almost one hundred years ago and dumped out the dirt next to it, the preserve provided some of the only decent trail running for hundreds of miles.
Gin headed up the trail, modulating her breathing and increasing her pace, aiming for the narrow space between exhilaration and exhaustion. In those moments, her thoughts splintered and faded and her mind emptied, and there was nothing but the slapping of her feet on dirt, the pain in her lungs, and the faint roar of the interstate in the distance.
She picked her way across a rocky quarter mile before the trail flattened out into a meadow with views of the skyline far in the distance. She paused at her customary turn-around spot, doubling over with her hands on her knees, breathing hard under a stand of aspen while a squirrel chattered angrily from an overhanging branch.
Gin drank in the cool, fresh air, free of the faintly unpleasant odors that filled her days at work: the chemical disinfectant, the ammonia-like formalin, the metallic-sweet-musty smell of decomposition. For these few precious moments, it was just her, the hill, and the weak yellow sunlight streaming through the trees, the past a blur that might have belonged to someone else entirely, the future open and unknowable.
She was stretching out her hamstrings in preparation for the steep descent when her phone rang. She dug the phone from the pocket of her running shorts, wishing she’d left the damn thing in the car.
An 814 number. Shit. Gin’s thumb hovered over the keypad. The 814 area code included Trumbull, and there wasn’t anyone in Trumbull she wanted to talk to. The number was unfamiliar, however. If it had been either of her parents, the choice would have been easy—let it go to voice mail, tackle it later when she’d had time to prepare herself—but Gin couldn’t think of anyone else in Trumbull who would want to talk to her.
As a forensic pathologist, Gin had developed an exquisite sense of the fragility of life. And while Richard and Madeleine Sullivan had been perfectly healthy during their last conversation several weeks ago, and though they were still fairly young and stubbornly fit, Gin couldn’t think of them without feeling the twin burdens of guilt and responsibility.
She sighed and leaned against the smooth bark of a tall white oak, wiping the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her arm before answering.
“Gin?” a man’s voice asked.
And in just that one syllable, everything that Gin had worked so hard to bury deep in the past came crashing back.
When Gin was in medical school, she had briefly worked as a graduate assistant for a professor who was doing research in speech perception. She learned that speech perception was based on an astonishingly detailed palette of information—not just pitch, gender, and dialect, but also speaking rate, emotional state, and a dozen other indexical properties.
So even though it had been almost two decades since Gin had heard Jake Crosby’s voice—he’d be thirty-six now, a few months older than her—it only took that one word for her to know that the voice belonged to the first and only boy she’d ever fallen hard for. But the emotion accompanying that realization was not love or affection or even nostalgia, but a roiling mix of dread and resentment.
“Yes, this is Virginia,” she said, to buy herself time. “How can I help you?”
“Gin, it’s Jake. Jake Crosby.”
“Oh.” She squeezed her eyes shut and grimaced. Play this easy, she ordered herself. He doesn’t mean anything to you. “Wow, Jake, I haven’t talked to you in ages. How are you?”
“I’m, well, I’m okay, I’m fine.” He hesitated, and Gin could picture the way he used to run his hand through his dark, unruly hair when he was flustered. “I’m afraid I’ve got some, uh, potentially upsetting news.”
Mom? Dad? Gin shook her head, clearing the ridiculous fears; there was no reason in the world Jake would have news of her parents. He had ceased to be a part of their lives many years ago.
“They found a body out in the woods west of town, by the old water to
Lily. Oh God . . .
The breath caught in Gin’s throat; the spring-green world around her lost focus. Oh, Lily.
She had to say something, but to speak now would betray her, would destroy the barriers she had built with such care.
“Gin, I’m so sorry,” Jake began, and she could hear in his tone that he had his own armor, his own walls. But he had had the time to prepare for this call, and she hadn’t. He had probably practiced it in his head a dozen times, the way he’d once practiced his AP English presentations, kicked back in that old beanbag chair in his father’s rec room with his hands behind his head while Gin sat at the clunky keyboard working on her college application essays.
Of all people to tell her, of all the gossamer threads that should have been cut long ago—why did it have to be him?
“Okay. I see.” Her voice tasted metallic and she knew she probably sounded cold. She’d heard it often enough in her performance reviews at work—her matter-of-fact delivery, a defense against the emotional intensity of her work, made her seem uncaring. “Thank you for letting me know.”
“I’ll make some calls.”
“Dad will be expecting to hear from you.”
Was he warning her, or giving her permission? She wouldn’t be surprised if Jake was breaking his father’s confidence; he probably shouldn’t be telling her anything at all. After all, he was a contractor, not a cop.
But Lawrence Crosby had blurred the lines long before Jake was old enough to do it himself. He always put people first, even if that meant bending the rules. As a small-town chief of police, Lawrence had always tried to do his best by everyone.
Not the best quality in a police officer—something Gin had had to move almost five hundred miles away, and spend years working with big-city cops, to understand.
Memories of Lawrence—his big, sunburned hands with square fingernails cut short; his voice, so gentle, when he had come to their door with his hat in his hands that rainy summer night, water dripping down his face.
“Jake, I . . . appreciate it. Who found it?” Not her. Gin wouldn’t let it be a her. A body, as she knew better than anyone, was only an awkward and often unlovely assemblage of muscle and fat, bones and teeth.
“Hikers.” Jake cleared his throat, perhaps attempting to disguise the faint quaver in his voice. A quaver that could be grief . . . or something else entirely. The old doubts crowded back into Gin’s mind along with all the other emotions Jake provoked. “Couple of kids from Duquesne University, hiking along Bear Creek. They had a dog with them. The dog, I guess it got to digging.”
“How deep?” Gin asked, surprised. A body buried close enough to the surface for a dog to scent it would have been discovered long before seventeen years had passed.
“I don’t know exactly.” She could hear him take a breath, all those miles away. “Not far, though, maybe a foot or two. Dad—Lawrence—said the dog was likely going after a bird carcass. But it got down a ways and hit the lid of a cooler. The boys pulled the dog off it but then they got curious themselves. Cleared the dirt off the lid and opened it up.”
“A cooler,” Gin said, a sick feeling creeping into her gut. “By the Bear Creek trail?”
“Yeah,” Jake said. “I know what you’re thinking. There’s a good chance it was ours.”
Gin inhaled deeply as she twisted the corkscrew, trying to focus on the wonderful, savory aromas issuing from the kitchen. Behind her, standing at the six-burner Wolf gas range in a Lincoln Park townhouse that cost three times as much as the largest house in Trumbull, Clay Toeffler was searing two tuna steaks. Clay had spent thirty dollars on the fish alone, the sort of extravagance that Gin was still getting used to almost eight months into their relationship.
“Perfect,” Clay announced, shutting off the gas. While he slid the steaks onto mounds of sautéed chard, Gin poured the wine, the two of them moving around the small kitchen in practiced harmony.
They were good together—as well-matched as the hand-painted tile backsplash was to the Brazilian granite countertop. Gin was one of the most respected pathologists on staff at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office, and Clay was one of the youngest partners at a leading Chicago law firm. Each had the respect of their colleagues, the admiration of their peers, and more disposable income than time to spend it. Clay was striking in a hard-planed Nordic way, with piercing blue eyes and blond hair, in contrast to Gin’s dark brown hair and green eyes, and he had a good five inches on her lean, toned, five-foot-eight frame. They both enjoyed the extensive collection at the Art Institute, and in the eight months they’d been dating, they’d attended the symphony, the opera, three Cubs games, and a handful of charity events that required Clay to put on a tux and Gin to spend her lunch hours shopping for gowns.
Despite being the daughter of a former debutante, and the great-granddaughter of a steel baron, Gin had grown up believing she was ordinary to a fault. Boring, even. She’d never imagined that she would end up with someone like Clay.
“Everything looks delicious,” she said as they sat down to dinner.
“You deserve to relax, after the day you had.” Clay raised his glass in a toast.
In addition to being articulate and ambitious, Clay was unfailingly considerate. He invited her to dinner at least once a week, knowing she kept almost nothing in the refrigerator in her apartment, which was in a considerably less swanky neighborhood in Hyde Park, ten miles to the south. She spent many more nights at Clay’s place than he did at hers. It wasn’t just nicer—it was also fully furnished, something that Gin had never managed to get around to since trading her studio apartment for a larger unit the year she finished her fellowship and the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office offered her a job.
Tonight, however, despite the beautiful meal and the good wine and Clay’s attempts to draw her out, she was having trouble keeping up her end of the conversation. She had fully intended to tell him about the phone call from Jake, but now she was having trouble finding the words. There was simply too much that she had never shared with him.
Clay set down his glass and gave her a quizzical look. “I was going to say, here’s to the weekend,” he said. “But you look like your mind’s still back at work.”
“I’m sorry,” Gin said, raising her own glass and taking a sip. She managed a smile. “Everything looks fantastic.”
“You know I enjoy cooking with you.”
She speared a bit of the fish and put it in her mouth, chewing mechanically. It was good—and yet it was all she could do to swallow and put down her fork.
“Tough case?” Clay said. “Want to talk about it?”
“Yes . . . actually, I might have to go in over the weekend.” Even as she silently scolded herself for her cowardice, Gin scrambled for an excuse, calling up one of her tougher cases from a few years back. “A newborn infant came in with burns over eighty percent of her body. They’ve arrested the mother.”
“Oh, wow, I’m sorry.”
Gin froze, her fork halfway to her lips, as it sunk in: had she just lied to Clay? It was the first time—and to her, a serious breech. Gin had been unfailingly honest since adolescence, and other than occasionally stretching the truth to ease social interactions, her few transgressions had been lies of omission.
“Yes,” she stammered, “I mean, I—”
Her phone buzzed again in her handbag. The ringtone was the one she’d assigned to her mother—the trilling first measures of a Mozart flute concerto. “I’d better get that,” Gin apologized, folding her napkin and setting it on the table next to her plate. She didn’t meet Clay’s gaze as she reached for her bag; she didn’t want to see the kindness and concern in his eyes.
“Hi, Mom,” she said as she walked down the hallway, her stocking feet silent on the
Clay’s office was located in the back of the townhouse’s ground floor. She let herself in and shut the door behind her, curling up in his leather desk chair. “All right, I’m here.”
“Virginia, I hate to have to tell you this, especially over the phone. Your sister’s body has been found.”
Lily. Seconds ticked by as images of her little sister, who would never be older than sixteen, crowded Gin’s mind. All that unruly, sun-streaked hair, the ragged hand-woven bracelets she wore on her wrists and ankles, the doodled “tattoos” she inked on the insides of her wrists at school when she was bored. Glitter shoelaces in her Converse sneakers; a pale scar on the inside of her calf from when she’d tried to shave her legs at the age of eight with their father’s razor.
Her smile. Oh, Lily’s dazzling smile, even when she was mad at Gin, even when they’d been arguing, even when she swore she’d never speak to her sister again. And her hugs—all arms and elbows, she somehow always managed to bump Gin’s chin or nose or poke her in the eye, but she put everything she had into those embraces. With Lily you always knew you were loved, a hundred and ten percent.
“Virginia? Are you there?”
“Mom . . . sorry, I—”
“I know it’s a shock.”
Gin realized that her mother didn’t know Jake had called already. But how would she? Jake was dead to them. Gin pinched the bridge of her nose, composing herself.
“Are you all right, Mom?”
“Yes, I’m fine, honey. In a way—I mean, we’ve only just found out, of course, and I suppose your father and I are still processing, but we’ve known for a long time that this day was coming.”
“Dad’s doing all right, too?”
A dry, humorless laugh. “Oh, you know your father. He’s in his garden. He’s handling it in his own way, but you don’t need to worry about him.”
“All right.” Gin realized she should be asking questions, perpetuating the fiction that she was only just hearing the news. “Where . . .”