Book: Black River (2016)






Shards of sunlight like daggers invaded the cracks in the curtains and sliced through the musty gloom that permeated Hardy’s bedroom. Motes and dust danced in their beams like pixies affronted by the inertia and decay that surrounded them. The whole room stunk of death.

Under his blankets Hardy deteriorated. Empty bottles, wine or whiskey, scattered the floor between crumpled clothes, tugged or torn off in various states of drunkenness and dying over the past number of days that had passed since his diagnosis like fog in a dark night’s wind. It was a Monday—Easter Monday, eight days before he would die—and despite his best intentions Hardy hadn’t made it into the office since the Wednesday before.

Cadaverous, his hulking body covered by a sheet and his eyes open and unblinking beneath their crack, Hardy watched the dust in the invading sunlight. Following the beam to the window led to a pillar of brightness and energy, blue and white of the world beyond. Somewhere out there, as if miles from the prison of his disease, a beautiful day was unfolding.

The cancer was rampant inside him, he could feel it now, recognize its life-force separate from his own as it drained the energy and nutrients from his body. It was personal, it was alive, eating him and indulging itself as it romped through the autumn meadows of his flesh, apparently untethered even by the restraints of its symbiotic dependence on its host. There were supposed to have been more tests, he was supposed to have come back to the clinic to determine if and by how much the disease had spread but Hardy hadn’t bothered. He didn’t need a machine to tell him it was everywhere.

The drink was Catch Twenty-two. It was obviously bad for him, speeding up the process, gnawing at whatever the cancer hadn’t taken yet, and he could feel that and knew it. But for his mind it was needed, or at the very least that was what he believed. He wasn’t eating and was only ingesting the medication prescribed to him when he felt like it, sporadically and as if as an afterthought, but the booze could still make his eyes shine like it always had. For a while at least. Then the pain and the exhaustion would take over and he would collapse again beneath the sheets into a world of surreal and portentous nightmares and visions. He knew he was dying and was too tired now to resist. When it came he intended to submit without question. This was how it would end, here in this bachelor’s tomb of a musty bedroom.

He had reason to get up that day though he wasn’t sure he had the strength. He was to talk to the Garda Ward at Mill Street, find out if there were any leads on the girl, but he knew that it was pointless. The sole motivation was the oath he had made to Mary Whelan to stay on the case and even that was scarcely enough to pierce through the agony of his condition. If she was alive sooner or later they would find her. If she wasn’t then they wouldn’t, surely that was all. What role was there left for him to play? He was broken, dying—obsolete.

When the motivation to rise finally came it was in a phone call from the editor, Downey demanding to know why Hardy thought he could get away with not even popping his head around the door for a full week—Juvesence or no Juvesence—and what he had for when the office opened again the following morning. Hardy fell back on the Ward meeting and promised an update on the Emily story, even managing to derive enjoyment from Downey’s outrage that he was still chasing that angle when there were other more important leads to follow up on, like the local businesses’ award, or the city council’s new litter collection initiative. And so in the end it was simply contrarianism and Hardy’s long-held and complicated antipathy for authority figures that finally brought him to his feet and set him once more on his final course of destiny. He threw back the sheets, rose naked from his bed and lifted a whiskey bottle from the floor, drinking its last fiery mouthfuls like a gladiator going into battle, rising just one day later than the Lord himself.

It was indeed a beautiful day and Hardy’s flesh tingled at this first exposure to sunlight after so long in the shadows. The gentle warmth on his unshaven cheeks was like a great thirst being quenched, though still direly insufficient as a cure for what ailed him. It was not a long stroll from his apartment to the Garda Station which was good because he was not fit for much more and even then had to pause several times, bowed over and coughing while other pedestrians looked on with mixed horror and contempt, mistaking him perhaps for a common street drinker in the throes of delirium tremens. Hardy was in too much pain to notice and if he had he wouldn’t have cared.

Ward kept him waiting long enough for the thirst to set in, the few drops of whiskey had warmed his blood but now the sensation was passing and the shakes were on their way. When a young Garda finally came to bring him to the Sergeant’s office Hardy’s mood was foul. He walked the narrow corridors in tow behind the Guard, smiling at the scant graffiti that had been scratched brazenly and surely frantically into the walls along the way.

“Mr. Hardy?”

Ward didn’t get up from his desk. He was Garda through and through, tall and built but with a sizeable gut, bald dome of his head circled with downy grey and his face cold and hard. No doubt he’d beaten his fair share of drunken youths in his time before setting them back out on the street in the morning with no official charge and the implicit understanding that justice had been served. He was old school.

“Yeah,” Hardy said, “we spoke on the phone.”

Ward’s cold expression broke as he took a closer look at his visitor, his grey eyes softening with concern. Hardy was surprised to see it.

“Are you feeling alright today Mr. Hardy?” Ward asked.

Hardy’s face was sallow and gaunt, dark and puffy rings glistened under his bloodshot eyes and his skin had the look of a man who had lost too much weight too fast and not from the spoils of exercise or healthy eating.

“Touch of the flu,” Hardy said, pulling out the seat and sitting down. “I’m here about Emily Whelan.”

“I know,” said Ward, “I’m sorry I couldn’t see you earlier. This isn’t my only case, heavy workload and all that, you know how it is. An Easter break around here is purely mythology.” Ward raised an eyebrow as he looked Hardy over. “Are you sure I can’t get you something? A glass of water maybe?”

Hardy shook his head. “No,” he said, “thanks. So I saw Mary Whelan recently, she told me about Brendan.”

Ward’s gaze darkened and he leaned back in his chair, spine military straight and his face equally stern. “You can’t mention that in the paper,” he said.

“Of course not,” Hardy said, “we’re talking off the record here.”

“On or off the record I can’t speak about any leads in an ongoing investigation, you know that.”

Hardy shrugged. “Mary Whelan seems pretty certain the kid’s innocent,” he said.

“Mary Whelan’s been through hell,” Ward snapped. “Of course she doesn’t want to think the boy was capable of hurting her daughter, not after inviting him into her home, feeding him, letting him stay over nights. But we have good reason to suspect him. He put a man in the hospital for Christ’s sake, over nothing but a lifted pint.”

Hardy nodded but did not speak. Right now he felt like he could do worse for a drink himself.

“Did they have much animosity between them?” he asked, “Emily and the kid—from what I gathered it seems like they split on relatively good terms.”

Ward studied Hardy’s face, the Sergeant’s own expression a mixture of distaste and weary resignation. “Listen,” he said, “I don’t know what your special interest is in this—from the look of you, you look like you should be in a hospital bed instead of butting your nose in here—but we’re ninety per cent certain that Brendan Herron is the boy. He was in and out of the country like a ghost that weekend and all our attempts to reach him in Australia have fallen on deaf ears. The force over there are looking to catch up with him for something else, another violent assault Mr. Hardy, alcohol related again, and they too have no leads. We know he’s our man.”

Hardy rubbed his temple, sullenly, and sighed. “Maybe,” he said. “You know what, I think I’ll take that glass of water after all.”

Ward buzzed for reception to bring it in and then directed his attention back to Hardy. “If you print any word of what I just told you we’ll come down on you hard, you and your whole paper. See how you handle a wall of silence from our office after that.”

Hardy smiled. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I know.”

A constable came in with the water and Hardy drank greedily, surprised at how much he needed it. When she left again he turned back to the Sergeant. “Did he have any contact with Emily the day she went missing?” he asked, “Do you know what she was doing?”

“She spent most of the day with friends,” Ward answered, “spent the afternoon shopping for clothes and a new phone in the Kennedy Shopping Centre and then they went out on the town together. My guess is the Herron boy must have crossed her path by chance later that night when she was leaving the club and followed her, maybe there was an altercation and it got out of hand. We already know he gets violent on the drink.”

“It makes sense,” Hardy said, “I’ll give you that much.”

Ward nodded, himself already clearly convinced. “Go home Mr. Hardy,” he said, “get some rest. Leave the detective work to the men who know what they’re doing.”

Hardy smiled, tight-lipped, and then put out his hand. “Thank you for your time,” he said, then he got up and left.

Leaving the station, the woman constable at the desk stood up reflexively at the sight of him and put out her hands as if to help, her expression one of simple, automatic concern.

“I’m fine,” Hardy smiled, “just a touch of the flu.”

Outside by the railings, he had to stop and steady himself to gather his strength. He stood bowed over, watching the gravel, one arm clutching the cold iron and his breath shallow, sharp and painful. Ward had failed to convince him. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was Mary Whelan’s certainty, or maybe it was something else, something about a young man, lost and raging, taking the blame for all the darkness in the world once again, lashing out against it all the only way he knew how. Had the Herron boy heard about Emily? Surely he had friends to tell him, perhaps that would explain whatever altercation had taken place overseas. Maybe Mary Whelan could reach him, some friend of a friend might know how. Otherwise Ward and the force would disdain all other investigations until they had him in their cell. Hardy knew how they were.

When he was fit to, as fit as he’d ever be, maybe more fit than he’d ever be again, Hardy straightened himself up and shuffled out onto the pavement and on towards his apartment. Mary Whelan would want an update, she deserved it, and tracking down the boy would give her something to focus on, something to keep her mind off the despair. It would be good for her, good for the boy too, Hardy would call her as soon as he got home.

What else was there then? Emily had been shopping with friends, new clothes and a new phone, would it be intrusive for Hardy to speak to them? Perhaps they had something more to tell, something Ward had overlooked. If he had the strength in the coming days, maybe he himself would play detective, track her final movements, see if anything appeared. It would give him also something to do, something to keep his own focus away from death’s looming horizon.