Book: Black River (2016)

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It was one of those days he felt like drinking the rent. Could probably make it last for three nights or more if he paced himself. Two good ones anyway, the kind of nights where you drink until you’re full of delight and the charm rolls out from your lips like sparks of Hermes and straight into the willing ears of whichever one of Aphrodite’s daughters doesn’t mind overlooking the flaws that night. Staggering down the wide open street from one bar to the next, one joyous arm around her waist (whoever she may be), he would feel like flinging his throat upward to the sky and extolling: “what a time to be alive!”

And then later, after the bars closed and the bedroom beckoned he would have his absolution, warm loving arms and alcohol breath and, Jesus, doesn’t it just feel good to have somebody to hold, even if only for a night?

What a time to be alive.

No, he couldn’t do that, not this time. Not again. That surly fuck hadn’t been joking when he promised Hardy that one more week behind spelled eviction time. Murphy would take whatever other arrears there already were out of the security deposit and keep the rest as collateral for breaking the contract of the lease. As Hardy’s long suffering landlord, this was all but guaranteed.

There was no way out of it. Hell, even at work now he was on shaky ground. Even if he’d had the bills to spare, he couldn’t bunk off. They wanted his head on a stick here almost as much as the bollix Murphy did. Some days he almost felt like giving it to them.

Hardy picked up the phone before it had finished its first bleat. He was raw today and it showed in his reflexes.

“Brian, get in here. We need to touch base.”

“You got it boss,” Hardy said and slid the receiver back down into its cradle.

He stepped out of his office and walked across the buzzing newsroom towards Downey’s office. When he reached the door, the single brass bar proclaiming “Editor” to the bees outside, he didn’t bother to knock before pulling the handle and stepping inside.

“Yo,” he said, “what’s the story?”

“You tell me,” Downey said, peering up over his spectacles from behind his desk. Hardy could tell that it irked him when he entered without knocking like this and it pleased him maybe more than it should have.

“There’s a lot of angles to cover,” Hardy said, “a lot of loose threads. As yet no answers. I’ve arranged to speak to the family later in the week, God help ‘em. A Sergeant Detective Michael Ward is heading up the investigation. So far they’re not treating it as suspicious, or at least that’s as much as he’s willing to tell me anyway. Wasn’t keen on talking face to face but if the girl doesn’t turn up soon I think I can bring him around.”

“Terrible thing,” Downey said.

“Damn right.”

“Well listen, what can you get me for press-time tomorrow? Anything worth a front page?”

“ ‘Search for Missing Girl Underway’,” Hardy said, “then a write up of her last known whereabouts, a word from the Sergeant and a word from the family, an update on the community effort and then a list of contact details for anybody with information that might be of help.”

“Good,” Downey said, “get on it.”

“Sure thing,” Hardy said. He paused with his fingers on the door handle before leaving again. “Who knows?” he said, “she might still turn up alive and well.”

“Maybe.”

Back in his office Hardy pulled out the coffee-stained folder from under his desk, with the single word “Emily” scratched in black biro on its surface. He cleared his throat, coughed—a deep harsh phlegmatic rasp—and then dropped the folder on the desk. He got up and went to the single window facing out over the grey and green and muddy expanse of Eyre Square below. He opened it and then lit a cigarette, smoking with his arms folded, exhaling each stream of smoke out through the window, one eye on the smoke detector above.

Emily Whelan. She was a cute kid, from a good family and smart by the looks of it too. Enrolled at university in the city, apparently because she wanted to stay close to home, close to her family. She didn’t seem like a runaway, but who could tell? Everybody has a part of themselves they keep hidden from the rest of the world, for whatever reason.

He didn’t have to ask the Sergeant if they were searching the water for a body. Of course they were. That was where they usually turned up, all of the missing. They went out one night with friends, just like Emily had, somewhere along the way they ended up alone and in the end the only real mystery was just how exactly it happened that they went over the edge. The girl could be out there somewhere now, bobbing to and fro beneath the stark Atlantic rolling grey.

But no, Hardy didn’t think the river had taken this one, she didn’t seem like the type. And besides, when the Corrib was hungry it usually feasted on males. Hell, some nights Hardy had even heard its call for himself. Black siren, singing its bubbling, garbled seduction from underneath the turbid dark. Climb up on the railings, swing one leg out over the chasm, just close your eyes. Let go of the bridge. But Emily wasn’t the type.

One thing about the river though, was that they never got to anybody in time once they went over. Sure, when the tide was low it was more than possible, but somehow nobody seemed to have that particular accident when the tide was low. It was a funny coincidence. It only happened when the river charged so fast that there could be no chance of reneging the deal.

Maybe that was why he’d never heeded the call himself. He would have wanted to have the chance to back out right up until the last minute, right up until that wet blackness filled his lungs and then his sight and then finally his mind. Who could know what misgivings one might have at that last moment, what renewed sense of vitality might come rushing in seconds before it all went black?

Or maybe he just wanted to live. Maybe behind all the ennui and despair, he really did want to live. Yes, that was probably it. So he would go on then, at least for now, keep hitting the keyboard and meeting each deadline at the last possible second, continue paying Murphy off week after week just enough to keep him at bay and still have enough left over for the barman and Hardy to have their turn. Keep doing that for however long it took. He didn’t know it then, but it wouldn’t take long. Within three weeks the cold cloak of death would take him too.

 

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