By Sarah Lotz
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Reclusive bookseller Shaun Ryan has always believed that his uncle Teddy died in a car accident twenty years ago. Then he learns the truth: Teddy fled his home in Catholic, deeply conservative County Wicklow, Ireland, for New York and hasn’t been heard from since. None of Shaun’s relatives will reveal why they lied about his uncle’s death or why they want Shaun to leave the whole affair alone.
But Shaun has a burning need to find out the truth. His search is unsuccessful until he’s contacted by Chris Guzman, a woman who runs a website dedicated to matching missing-persons cases with unidentified bodies. Chris and her team of cold-case obsessives suspect that Shaun is looking for the “Boy in the Dress,” one victim in a series of gay men murdered by the same killer.
But who are these internet fanatics really, and how do they know so much about a case that has stumped police for decades? Soon armchair sleuths and professional investigators are on a collision course with a sadistic serial killer who’s gotten away with his crimes for far too long – and now they’re in his sights.
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If he doesn’t approach me, I’ll leave him alone.
Pete had been watching the boy for an hour now. The kid was blond, slight, couldn’t be more than twenty, couldn’t be more out of place in this bar, with its leather-skinned career drinkers bundled up in work shirts and steel-capped boots. The boy had blown in out of the cold a while back–blue-lipped, shivering, hands cupped beneath his armpits, his jeans and pink denim jacket scant protection against the blizzard raging outside. But it hadn’t taken long for the boy to regain his mojo. Shaking off the chill, he’d made for the bar, slid onto a stool like he owned the place. Unselfconscious, unconcerned at the glances–not all friendly–that were shot his way. Pete’s neighbour, a racist asshole who’d been knocking back boilermakers, started droning on about the Million Man March. Pete nodded along, but his eye kept being drawn to the boy, a magnetic pull that he’d given up fighting. Something had woken up inside him. Something had uncoiled, flickered to life.
If he doesn’t approach me, I’ll leave him alone.
Every so often the boy slid off his bar stool and weaved over to one of the tables, where he tried to engage the patrons in conversation. All he’d gotten so far, apart from a cigarette and a good-natured grope from a female barfly, were shaken heads and rude gestures. It was unclear what he was saying to the folks he approached–the bartender was into Kenny Rogers and was blasting that shit out loud–but he couldn’t be soliciting sex. This part of town would be the last place you’d come for that, unless you were blind or stupid. Could be that he was asking for a ride; could be he was asking for a handout.
‘Fuckin’ queer,’ a guy pinballing his way to the men’s room mouthed as he passed the kid, but it was a half-hearted jibe. It was late and everyone had reached the maudlin stage of the evening. There was no sense of suppressed violence here, and the boy had picked up on this. This time when the fellow he’d been hassling waved him away, the boy flipped him the bird, then sauntered back to the bar.
The tables nearest the door emptied one by one, and the bartender started upending chairs, nodding along to ‘Just Dropped In’. Time was running out. The boy made for the payphone. He dug out a clutch of coins, dropped them in, dialled. He was gripping the handset too tightly. He hung up, rested his forehead against the wall, shrugged, and then returned to his seat. The kid may be in trouble, but he still had that thing, that inner self-assurance that no amount of hardship could fully extinguish. That thing she’d had. It was in every fluid movement. Pete’s neighbour belched, slapped a dirty dollar onto the counter, then stumbled out.
The boy looked over, downed his drink. Caught Pete’s eye. Smirked. Hesitated.
If he doesn’t approach me, I’ll leave him alone.
The boy approached.
Shaun learned the bizarre truth about his uncle in a cemetery on a damp October evening. Later, when he was back in the safety of his room, he’d think–with a certain amount of grim irony–that of all the places to hear that a relative had come back from the dead, a graveyard had to be the most apposite.
Up till then, the day had dragged. The bookshop may as well have had tumbleweeds blowing through it. The weather and recession had chased the tourists away, and after doing the returns, Shaun had spent the time playing spider solitaire and thumbing through the new releases–he was an expert at turning the pages without creasing a spine. The nights were drawing in, and he decided to lock up early. Máirín, his boss, would never know. She was thousands of miles away in Australia helping her daughter deal with the latest in a long line of personal crises, and had left him in charge. And besides, it was Thursday. He always left early on Thursdays to visit his mother. He cashed up, then went into the office at the back of the store to collect Daphne, who despite being safely ensconced in her basket, had somehow managed to shed all over the latest batch of Michael Connellys. She perked up as he shook her lead, then whined with impatience as he buttoned up his greatcoat.
As he was locking up, Terry, who ran the cafe next door, bustled out to waylay him. His heart sank. Terry’s tongue was hinged at both ends; he might never get away.
‘There was a man hanging around the shop earlier, Shaun. When you took the dog out at lunchtime. Asked after you.’
‘Couldn’t say. Didn’t like the look of him, but.’ Shaun wasn’t surprised. Terry didn’t like the look of anyone–Shaun included. He was always screwing his mouth into a disapproving cat’s arse whenever they ran into each other. Could it have been Brendan? Doubtful. Brendan was paranoid about anyone spotting them together and only communicated by text message. ‘There was something rough about him,’ Terry continued.
‘Stank of drink and you should have seen the hair on him. Looked like Elvis’s dead brother come back to life. You know someone like that? I haven’t seen him around the town before.’
‘God no. Did he say what he wanted?’
‘He didn’t. You don’t owe anyone money, do you?’
Shaun bristled at the question. ‘No.’ He was behind on one of Daphne’s vet bills, but they’d hardly send the bailiffs around for that. There was always the possibility that someone from his past, a spectre from the murky ‘lost months’, might appear. There was always that dread. Daphne was straining at her leash and Shaun let the dog drag him away. Terry and his intrusive questions could get stuffed.
He and the dog usually walked the two kilometres to Rathnew, but the cemetery closed early in October so today they took the bus. When they were safely through the gates, he let Daphne off the lead and headed for his mother’s plot at the end of the family row. It was a fair walk. An early death was part of the Ryan legacy, along with odd-shaped ears and a smoking habit, and his relatives had colonised the place like bindweed. Shaun dug out the moss between the stones. It was a soothing, mindless task and one he looked forward to. While Daphne did her business on the grass next to his grandparents’ dual plot, Shaun lit a Vogue, and leaned towards the headstone to exhale. Bringing his dead mother a nicotine fix had become a weekly ritual, daft as it was. Not only daft–costly. It had got him back on the cigarettes again, and the habit was eating into his escape fund. At least he hadn’t yet resorted to talking to her.
A cough, then: ‘Howya.’
Shaun started, looked up to see a man approaching. A shoe-polish black quiff and skin so white he could have just rolled off an embalmer’s table. Reddish stubble sparked his jaw and he was tugging on a roll-up like it was his sole source of oxygen. The hair was a dye-job and a poor one at that; there were black smudges around his ears. Must be the man who was hanging around the shop–Terry’s description was spot on. Had he followed him here? Shaun stood and weighed up the situation. There was no real aura of threat coming from the fellow, but Shaun’s radar for trouble jangled all the same. He whistled for the dog in case he had to make a hasty getaway. As usual, Daphne ignored him.
‘Were you at the book shop earlier?’
‘I was. Place was locked up, and some nosy arse kept eyeing me up so I left.’
‘Did you want to see me about something?’
The man jabbed his cigarette at the headstone. ‘That what killed her?’
‘The fags. That what killed her? Saw what you were doing. Good of you to do that. Eileen always liked a smoke.’
‘You knew my mother?’
‘I did. Couldn’t believe it when I heard she’d passed over. Must have been hard for you losing her so young.’ He sniffed and swatted a hand under his nose. There was a slur in his voice and he stood with his feet apart, weaving slightly. ‘Had a mouth on her, didn’t she? She was always back-chatting the teachers at school. Always gave as good as she got.’
‘There’s no way you were at school with her.’ Shaun had every right to be dubious. His mother was thirty-two when she died and judging by Elvis’s jowls and sunken eyes he wouldn’t see fifty again.
‘Nah, but I used to knock about with your uncle.’
‘Not that cunt. Teddy. You’re the spit of him, you know that?’
‘I’ve heard that before.’
‘Bet you have. Knew you had to be Eileen’s kid the second I saw you in the town. It was like going back in time.’ The man wiped a hand on his jeans and held it out. ‘John McKinnon. Johnny.’
Shaun didn’t recall his mother mentioning anyone called Johnny, but after a hesitation he reached out. Johnny’s palm was hot, and he was giving off the sour milk stink of the dedicated drinker. ‘Shaun.’
‘Good to meet you. Was it cancer that took her?’
‘That’s too bad. Sorry, son. Sorry.’ The breeze tickled Shaun’s fringe, but Johnny’s pompadour remained impervious. ‘She was full of life when I knew her, full of spark. Wish I could have made it to the wake, only I’ve been away.’
‘Is that why you wanted to see me? Because of my mother?’
‘Just wanted a word.’
‘About what?’ Shaun waited for the request for cash. Johnny looked the type to use any tenuous connection to hit someone up for a loan.
Daphne deigned to return and sniffed at Johnny’s shoes–two-tone winklepickers that poked like knives from the bottom of his turn-ups. Before Shaun could warn him, he stooped to pat her. She snapped at him, but he barely reacted.
Shaun clipped the lead onto her collar and yanked her to heel. ‘Sorry. She doesn’t like men.’
‘Well, who can blame her? What’s her name?’
A snort. ‘Daphne? No wonder she’s got one on her.’ Specks of ash fell from his fingers as he crushed the rollie. ‘Daphne an old girl is she? Got some grey on her muzzle there.’
‘Twelve. She was my mother’s dog.’
‘Ah right. Eileen was mad for animals. Always bringing in the strays. Daphne a stray?’
‘She was.’ Erin from Shaun’s old estate had found Daphne running loose in Rathnew, the dog’s ears a mess of cigarette burns, but couldn’t keep her as she clashed with Beyoncé, Erin’s German shepherd. To save Daphne from euthanasia, his mother had taken her on, and now she was Shaun’s–or Shaun was hers, depending on how you looked at it. Beyoncé was long gone, but Daphne had clung on, a small mutt who resembled a rusty wire brush on legs, her eyes now clouded with cataracts.
‘Eileen had a good heart, son. A good heart.’
Greedy as he always was to hear tales about his mother, Shaun was still picking up a dodgy vibe from Johnny that had nothing to do with the man’s dress sense. ‘I’d better get back. Got to feed the dog. Nice meeting you.’ He moved away.
‘Did Teddy come back for Eileen’s funeral?’ Johnny called after him.
‘Did he pitch up? For the wake, like.’
Was the man messing with him? The light was fading fast, and Shaun couldn’t read Johnny’s eyes. Maybe he didn’t know. ‘Teddy died twenty years ago.’
‘The family still sticking to that story, are they?’
‘The story, son. That your uncle died in an accident. Where was it again?’
‘That’s it. He didn’t die, son. They lied to you.’
‘Are you trying to be funny?’
‘Teddy didn’t die. He left. He’s in New York. Was last time I heard from him anyway. That would have been around ’95 or so. Could be anywhere now.’
‘You’re talking bollocks.’ Intent on another sniff at those shoes, Daphne fought Shaun’s attempts to drag her away. He gathered her into his arms; he’d deal with the dog hair later.
‘You seen his grave then, have you? Got a death certificate?’
‘I’m not listening to this shite.’ But all the same, a splinter of doubt niggled. Shaun ignored it and picked up the pace.
‘He’s not dead. I’m not messing with you. Ask your auntie Janice. Ask Donny. See if you can get the truth out of them. Teddy’s out there somewhere. You should track him down.’
Shaun broke into a jog, only risking a glance over his shoulder when he reached the cemetery gates. Johnny was a distant, unsteady silhouette. There was relief as he hit the pavement, then irritation that he’d ignored his instincts and engaged the man in conversation. Daphne sighed and tucked her head into the crook of his arm. She loved being carried, thought it was her due, and now he’d set the precedent she’d only drag her heels if he put her down. A soft rain began to fall, turning the oncoming car lights into golden blurs. Shaun slowed and let his mind pick at the mental splinter. He and his mother hadn’t been to see Teddy’s grave, but he was certain they’d planned to go when he was younger. Why hadn’t they gone in the end? Money issues, probably. They never went anywhere. And why was he giving credence to the words of a man who looked like he’d happily drink booze off a banshee’s bollocks?
A gush as a bus choked with condensation whooshed past. It would be twenty minutes till the next one. He’d have to walk it.
Arms aching from carrying Daphne, he made it back in double-quick time. As usual, the shop had the aura that it was holding its breath–books are not absolutely dead things–but he didn’t pause to drink it in. He hared up the stairs to his room, breathing in the comforting scents of dog and damp. The room was too small to air out properly. It wasn’t built for long-term habitation. Máirín had let him use it after he was ousted from his aunt Janice’s house, and it had become a home of sorts. Ablution-wise there was only a sink and an unpredictable lavatory down the hall, but he used the showers at the leisure centre or had an all-over body wash when he needed it.
He chucked Daphne’s ready-cooked chicken slices into her bowl, and dragged his mother’s suitcase out from beneath the bed. He’d been too messed up to save all of her belongings, but he’d managed to salvage the Ceil Chapman dress she’d found online and only wore on special occasions, and the blue cardigan she was wearing when she died. He dug out the photo album and flicked through it. Most of the photos were of him and his cousins, petering out after he was ten and everything went online. He paused at the faded image of his mother just after she gave birth, red-faced and shell-shocked–the moment she’d decided to keep him. She was honest about that and of all her stories that was his favourite. There was only one photograph of Teddy, sitting with his siblings on a corduroy couch. His mother aged around twelve with a corona of auburn hair, Janice with her pug face and button eyes already raging at the world, Donny, the eldest, who even back then had the look of a diminutive Christopher Lee, and sixteen-year-old Teddy perched on the edge of the sofa, a cigarette held nonchalantly in his fingers. Caught side-on, he was the only one laughing. Shaun removed the photo and went to the mirror. He and Teddy had the same ears, crooked mouth and a similar haircut: short back and sides and a long fringe. Brideshead Revisited hair. Shaun hadn’t looked at the photo for years; he must have unconsciously copied it. Uncle Teddy. Tragic Teddy. The black sheep of the family, ‘like us’, his mother used to say, although this label never seemed fair to Shaun. Janice’s husband Keith was prosecuted for defrauding the council and Donny was a borderline psycho. His mother’s stories about Teddy had dried up over the years, but he’d always put that down to grief. And hadn’t they started to trickle away just after the aborted trip to Galway? Was this the source of the niggle?
Alive. Couldn’t be. He’d have known. His mother would have told him. But still…
He sat on the bed and Googled Galway cemeteries. There were two Edward Ryans listed in Bohermore; one who’d died in the sixties, the other in the early 2000s. No Edward Shaun Ryan. Sensing his guard was down, Daphne flaunted the rules and jumped up next to him. Knowing it was stupid, he opened Facebook. He’d killed his profile after his mother died–her page was still linked to his and he couldn’t bear the facile ‘she was such a lovely girl’ comments–and searched for Edward Shaun Ryan, using New York as his starting point. Most had profile pics rather than avatars (although there were a slew of Darth Vaders for some reason), and he trawled through them searching for a glimmer of familiarity, a kink in an ear, that crooked grin. He tried Teddy Ryan, Eddie Ryan, Ed Ryan, Ted Ryan, Edward John Ryan, TJ Ryan, Irish Ted, every permutation of his uncle’s name he could come up with. He couldn’t settle, wished he could talk it out with someone–which wasn’t like him at all–but his only options were Máirín, who even if she wasn’t in a different time zone had enough on her plate, or Brendan, his on-again, off-again shag and a habit he’d been trying to break for both of their sakes.
‘It’s bollocks isn’t it, Daphne?’
She cracked her jaws and rolled onto her back.
The dog was his last tether to this place and when she died the plan was to escape to London. It was where he and his mother were supposed to go after he finished school. Where Teddy had lived for a while before he came back to Ireland and supposedly died. But perhaps now there was another option.
Giving into a nicotine lure, Shaun went to the window. He lit up and funnelled smoke into the rain. The town was winding down for the night. The estuary’s black mass undulated beyond the street, the hiss of traffic punctuated by the occasional bark of laughter. Tentatively, alive to the pitfalls of false hope, he allowed himself to dream, dredging up safely stereotypical images from The New York Trilogy, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Triburbia. Pictured himself in a loft apartment, sitting at a breakfast bar while an older version of Teddy cooked him an American breakfast–pancakes, maybe. There was a copy of the New Yorker on the counter, and they were arguing good-naturedly about which show to catch that evening. The place smelled of coffee beans and old books. As he closed the window, he caught his reflection in the glass. Shaun Edward Ryan; Teddy Shaun Ryan. Mirror images. ‘Mad.’
His uncle Keith answered the door, still dressed in his pyjamas although it was going on for midday. ‘Well, well. How’s Wicklow’s answer to James Joyce?’ It was the closest to wit the poor sod could manage, and Shaun responded with his usual weak laugh. Keith had aged since Shaun last encountered him: thread veins were turning his nose into a glowing light bulb. ‘The boys are at work, Shaun.’
‘It’s not them I’m here for. Need a word with Janice.’
‘Ah, right, right. She’s in the kitchen. I’ll leave you to it.’ He winked. ‘Good luck.’
Shaun breathed through his mouth as he went through to the kitchen. The room held the odour of countless bland meals that somehow managed to taste of the passive aggression that went into their production. Janice was bent over the sink, furiously peeling potatoes and muttering to herself. She started when she saw him. ‘Shaun? What’s happened? Why aren’t you at work?’
‘Took an early lunch.’ He’d locked up the shop and left the dog in the room, along with (hopefully) enough chew toys to keep her busy. She’d only howl herself stupid if he brought her along. She’d never forgiven him for the indignity of being relegated to a kennel in the yard when they stayed with Janice after he lost the house.
She looked him up and down. ‘And still in those old clothes, I see.’ Shaun didn’t bother commenting on this. ‘I suppose you’ll be wanting a sandwich.’
‘No, you’re alright.’
A snort that could be relief or censure. ‘Now what is it? I’ve got the tea to do for tonight.’ He’d never seen her still for more than a couple of seconds. ‘She’s like a great white,’ his mother used to say, ‘she’ll die if she doesn’t keep moving.’ On the counter sat a trio of onions and a slab of defrosting mince–the makings of one of her anaemic cottage pies.
‘When did Uncle Teddy die, Auntie Janice?’
‘Why are you asking that? You’re not going funny in the head again are you?’
‘Ran into a man while I was visiting Mam yesterday.’
‘Did you now.’
‘John McKinnon. Said he used to be friends with Teddy.’
The hand scraping the potatoes paused. Colour bloomed on the skin at the nape of her neck. ‘He’s back is he? Stay away from him. He’s nothing but trouble.’
‘He says Teddy isn’t dead. He says he’s in New York.’
‘Don’t believe a word that gobshite says.’
‘So Teddy is dead then.’
‘Of course he is.’
‘Where’s he buried?’
‘You know where. Galway.’
‘There’s no record of him. I checked. They’ve got a list online.’ Scrape, scrape, scrape.
‘He’s not there, Auntie Janice.’
‘Well… they made an error then.’
‘Is he dead or not?’ Something shifted inside him–he’d never seen her this cagey. ‘Did he die in an accident in Galway or not? I can check. I can apply for a death certificate. It’s easy to do.’
She pointed the peeler at him. There was calculation behind her eyes–and what could be fear. ‘Don’t you bloody dare.’
‘Why not?’ This came out as a whisper. ‘Did he die in Galway or not?’
She slammed the peeler onto the counter. ‘For the love of… No. No he bloody didn’t. Happy now?’
He couldn’t seem to swallow and there was a static buzz at the base of his skull; the shape of this, of what it could mean, was too huge to absorb. ‘But why say he did?’
‘There were reasons.’
‘Keep your voice down,’ she hissed. He hadn’t raised his voice; he rarely did. ‘You’ll upset Keith. You know how fragile he is.’
‘There are things about Teddy you don’t know.’
A moue of distaste. ‘Things.’
‘I know he was queer if that’s what you mean.’
‘Don’t use that word, Shaun.’ Janice plucked a knife out of the drawer and began attacking an onion as if it were an enemy’s head.
‘But what has that got to do with anything? Keith’s sister Nessa lives with a woman. And what about me?’
‘Nessa doesn’t flaunt it. You don’t flaunt it.’ She turned to look him up and down again. ‘Much.’
‘Oh don’t look at me like that. You know what I mean. It was a different time back then. You couldn’t go around showing off about it and not expect trouble.’
There were a couple of LGBTQ societies in the area now, and it had been a while since Shaun had dealt with outright taunts, but there were also lads like Brendan who would rather poke a potato peeler in their eye than come out. ‘It can’t have been that bad. It was the nineties, not the nineteen-fifties.’
‘People would turn a blind eye if you kept it quiet.’
‘And he didn’t.’
‘I blame that gobshite. He was the one who dragged Teddy off to London.’
‘John McKinnon went to London with Teddy? Mam never said.’
‘Well he did. Teddy was different when he came back. Came into the house and told us he was gay and we had to deal with it. Broke your granddad’s heart. He was always wild, but… not like that. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut about it. Got into fights, goaded people, told them to get out of the dark ages. Sending him away was the best thing for him. The safest thing. And he wanted to go.’
‘Why New York? We don’t have family there as far as I know.’ Unless that was another Ryan family secret. ‘He could’ve just gone back to London.’
‘He always wanted to go there. He was always talking about it. That was the deal.’
‘If the family paid for his ticket then he wasn’t to come back.’
Shaun took a moment to digest this, the questions crowding in on each other. ‘So he was targeted by the local Neanderthals and sent away to America. But why say he was dead?’
She swiped at her eyes, red from the onions. ‘So your mam wouldn’t go after him.’
‘She was always “Teddy this” and “Teddy that”. Idolised him. When he left for London she was beside herself, begged him to take her. Then there was the shame of it, you know. Your grandparents had just found out their sixteen-year-old daughter was pregnant with you, and after Teddy had all his… after that trouble he had, your granddad said Teddy was dead to him. I’m not saying it was the right thing to do, but it’s the way it is.’
Shaun could believe that of his grandparents. They’d died within six months of each other when he was ten, and right till the end treated him and Eileen as if they were pariahs. He remembered his mother whistling ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead’ after she returned from his grandmother’s wake.
‘And everyone believed he was dead?’
‘Why wouldn’t they?’
‘How could you have a funeral if there wasn’t a body?’
‘They said they had it down in Galway where your granddad’s sister lives. No one spoke to her.’
‘But if he came back then everyone would know you were lying.’
‘He wasn’t going to come back.’
‘Why? He could have come back after his parents died.’
‘Well he didn’t, did he?’
- On Sale
- Sep 3, 2019
- Page Count
- 480 pages
- Mulholland Books