Darkness. The waves roared and crashed against the pebble beach. It was the loudest sound James Sinclair had ever heard and it filled his whole body as if poured into him.
He couldn’t remember waking up and walking across the lawn and down to the pier. A cold wind brushed his face and something hot and dry started to spread through his lungs. He panicked and tried to wake up; instead he tasted blood and heard himself cry out: the bed he lay on, the blindfold, the wire around his neck and hands. He thought of his children, he thought of his wife.
On a good night you can smell the sea from way up on University Hill. Alice Madison rolled down her window a couple of inches and sniffed the air. The night was cold and December mist hung low and damp between the houses and the naked trees. Christmas was two weeks away and the students who could afford to live on that side of the hill had already left for the holidays, gone back to homes all over Washington State.
The clock on the dashboard said 4.15 a.m. Detective Sergeant Brown, a dark shape sitting next to her, had put the seal on the evening hours before.
‘After all the coffee has been drunk and all the talk has been talked, stake-outs are just long stretches of time with little to do, for people who would like to be doing something else, somewhere else, in somebody else’s company.’
It was a pretty fair description of their partnership, she thought.
Her breath was vapor on the pane. It was a choice between being cold and being reminded of other men’s hours of boredom and sweat. She’d rather be cold.
Brown turned around to look at the other end of the street and she caught a whiff of aftershave, cool and not unpleasant. Madison knew that they had been sent out there with next to zero chances; Brown was not a happy man.
Gary Stevens – white male, 23, no priors – was hot favorite for the murder of a 19-year-old student from the campus. Handcuffed to a radiator, Janice Hiller was sitting up with her back to the wall when the police found her, dead from a single blow to the head. A half-drunk cup of coffee was neatly placed next to her right hand.
The day she had joined Seattle Homicide, four weeks earlier, Alice Madison visited her grandparents’ grave in a cemetery near Burien. She put a bunch of white roses by the stone and stood there alone. In their heart they would know, wherever they were, that she was who she was because of them, and their love was a blessing she carried like gold, on her skin and out of sight. That night Madison went home, fixed herself dinner – nothing frozen, nothing canned – and slept for ten hours straight.
Brown had since been neither cold nor unhelpful, just detached. He was as good a cop as they come, better than most. They would never be friends, that much she knew, yet she would trust him with her own life any day. Maybe that was enough.
Brown and Madison had not discussed the nature of evil when they saw the ring of seared flesh around Janice Hiller’s wrist, the radiator heating up the metal of the handcuff at regular intervals; they just got busy trying to save the next victim, working steady and fast to get the innocent out of the path of the hurricane.
At the other end of the street two men in a dark Ford Sedan were trying to keep each other awake, long out of coffee and dirty jokes. Madison would much rather have spent the evening in their company: detectives Spencer and Dunne had been partners for three years, knew each other from the Academy and worked well together. They were an odd couple. Spencer was second-generation Japanese, married with three kids and a degree in Criminology from night school. Dunne, on the other hand, was Irish red, put himself through college with a football scholarship and dated women whose short skirts were part of the mythology of the precinct. They knew each other’s thoughts and could anticipate each other’s actions.
Alice Madison sat and waited; she hoped that she wouldn’t need that much from Brown, or anybody else. Still, this was where she was and the rest mattered little when all she wanted to do was stare into the darkness ahead.
Brown had been right about the essential nature of stake-outs and yet Madison suspected that a part of her actually looked forward to the quiet waiting before the target appeared, when everything in the world stilled and there was nothing but the trap and the chase.
The Police Academy had taught her much, except what it feels like to run full tilt after a human being who means you harm – that she had to learn on the street. Detective Alice Madison settled into the worn leather seat. Spencer and Dunne might have been better company, but tonight she was exactly where she wanted to be.
The wind was blowing hard now; only a few blocks away the sea rose and fell, spraying the deserted piers, shaping puddles of black seawater. Stevens would not come home tonight; he would never come home again. He had probably already left the state, changed his name and started all over in some other campus. Madison did not dwell on that thought – she was still at a stage where she could remember every single red name on the Homicide board, and those gone from red to black, the all-important clearance rate.
‘Good morning, Seattle, it’s a balmy 30 degrees outside. And the time is . . .’ Dunne’s voice croaked from the walkie-talkie.
Brown picked it up from in between their seats.
‘I make it about 4.15 a.m.’
‘Same here. How long do you want us to stick around?’
‘It’s late enough.’ Brown sighed. ‘That’s it, gentlemen – let’s hit the road.’
Madison felt a twinge of disappointment. Even if they had gone out with no expectations, turning away wasn’t any sweeter.
‘I don’t mind hanging around a little longer,’ she said.
‘There’ll be other nights.’
‘Not for Stevens.’
‘Stevens has gone,’ Brown said.
‘He might not stay gone.’
‘Us waiting here, it’ll make him come back?’
‘It makes me feel better,’ she said.
Brown turned to Madison. In the half light her eyes moved over the shadows in the street as if to conjure up their man.
‘That and five bucks will get me a cup of coffee, I know,’ she said.
‘There’ll be other nights.’
Dunne’s voice came back. ‘There’s a twenty-four-hours place two streets away. We can meet up there.’
‘Alright. We’ll follow you.’ Brown put the engine into gear and the car moved softly away. The street was left just as it had been found hours earlier.
A couple in their late twenties were wandering down the aisles of the Night & Day, picking up small boxes of MicrowaveWorld. They looked like they had been partying somewhere – they were a little giggly but not really drunk. They couldn’t have been that much younger than she was.
Dunne had headed directly for coffee and donuts, Spencer for mineral water and Brown for a Diet Coke. They didn’t say a word to each other; the hours in the car had become real as they had stepped into the convenience store. Dunne stretched and yawned.
Madison picked up a carton of milk and drifted by the video rental shelf. It was mostly action and horror pictures with a few Disneys thrown in for the family. She had been on a diet of Billy Wilder for the last few weeks. Coming home after the graveyard shift, she had fallen asleep on the living room sofa listening to Josephine and Daphne. It took her mind off things because sometimes her mind was not a pleasant place to be. She paid and went to wait outside.
Madison leant against the car and drank the milk. It was still misty; maybe the morning light would get rid of it. The breeze from the sea was much stronger now, and brought the lone call of a fog siren. She hugged her heavy mountain jacket and thought about all the things that she wanted to cram into the next 24 hours, and that was when the girl came out of the mist.
Madison noticed her because she looked so young and out of place with her denim jacket and lightweight trousers. She must be freezing. Madison kept looking – the kid might need help. Her hair was baby blond and cut short. She looked 14, just about right for a runaway, small backpack included. She wore pink lipstick and heavy eyeliner, her cheeks flushed with the cold.
Leaning against the car with her coat and baseball cap on, Madison didn’t look the obvious cop, which was good – she didn’t want to spook the kid. Now she could see the dark shadows under her eyes.
Her voice broke the girl’s step; she turned toward her and nodded slightly. Madison gave her a half smile so that she wouldn’t think she was some kind of creep, at once realizing that was exactly what she looked like. Experience told her that she was probably sleeping rough, eating not nearly enough, and possibly nursing the beginning of some infection of the respiratory system.
The girl paused, hands deep in her pockets, and with two strides was up the stairs and into the store. She was traveling light, Madison had noticed; the small bag on her shoulders couldn’t hold much, and then there was the thing in the right-hand side of her jacket, the thing her hand had been clutching under the thin white fabric, and she had seen it as the kid was turning away. It had been a cold, sad waste of a night and it was getting worse: what Madison had seen looked like the tip of the butt of a gun. She was up the steps and behind the girl.
The kid was ten feet in front of her, looking at row after row of candy bars, her head swaying very slowly from side to side.
Brown was standing by the cashier and about to pay, four maybe five feet to her right; Spencer and Dunne were at the back of the store. The young couple had piled up their basket with boxes and cartons and were coming toward the cashier. Their chatter had died out and the only sound was the hum from the neon lights and the fridge.
In one movement Madison opened her jacket and unhooked the small leather strip that secured her gun to the holster on her right hip. It wasn’t a good time to remember that the majority of Homicide detectives never even have to draw the damn thing. She took one step toward Brown and touched him on the shoulder, her eyes never leaving the girl. She nodded toward the kid and made a gun with her fingers. Brown raised his eyebrows and unhooked the strip on his holster.
In the pocket of the jacket the hand was clammy and the kid didn’t like it, but she didn’t want to take it out and wipe it against the side of her trousers – that would have been much worse. She hated the feel of the weight of the metal; it dragged her pocket down on that side. The hand clenched and unclenched around the butt of the gun, her eyes swept over Hershey bars, Mars bars, Reece’s. Too many names.
The couple put their basket on the desk and an underpaid and overworked clerk started to ring up the items. Madison went up behind them, her voice so soft she could hardly hear it herself.
‘Police. Leave the store.’
‘What—’ The young man opened his mouth and closed it when he saw the flash of the badge on the inside of her jacket.
‘Now. Do not look around. Go.’
Mercifully, they did as they were told, but not without shooting a glance over their shoulders.
The clerk wasn’t as accommodating.
‘What is this—?’
The girl turned around, gun held with both hands at eye level.
‘Nobody move.’ Her voice was shaky but clear and the clerk dove under the bar.
The girl was facing Brown and Madison, the gun moving in jerks between one and the other. Spencer and Dunne had disappeared behind the racks. Madison knew as if she could see them that they both had their pieces out and were figuring out a way to get to the kid without getting either of them shot.
‘You have our attention. What next?’ Brown was calm and in control. Some part of Madison could actually appreciate the man at work.
‘Do as I say. Lie on the ground. Do it.’ The girl’s voice went up and cracked.
Madison could see her breathing getting more labored; they needed to calm her down pretty quick or she’d give herself a heart attack.
‘Do it!’ She was losing it fast.
‘It’s not worth it,’ Brown said. ‘There’s less than fifty bucks in the till. And you’re pointing your piece at two cops.’ He nodded toward his partner.
The girl’s eyes went into ‘Oh shit’ for a fraction of a second. It was long enough.
‘Put the gun on the ground and run like hell.’
The girl’s mouth was hanging open and she was thinking very hard. The four detectives knew all too well that anybody can be a tough guy with a gun in his hand, but some lucky ones could still hang on to their brains.
Madison struggled to keep vision, to still the hum and clear her mind. There was the girl’s hand, pointing the revolver at Brown’s head, and the girl’s arm and the girl’s heart. She knew she could clear leather and shoot and fell the kid in less than three seconds. She saw the muzzle tremble in line with Brown’s eyes and the man not flinch and look straight back and still talk kindly. The girl wore glitter nail polish and her ears were pierced, twice on the left side, once on the right. There was worn sheepskin lining on the inside of her denim jacket and under the neon light her pale skin was translucent.
‘Stop talking to me!’ the girl screamed, and Madison did not see her anymore but only the gun, and steadied herself to move. In the space between heartbeats Madison felt everything that was good and true drain from her.
‘It ain’t worth it,’ Brown said, Madison didn’t know to whom.
‘Alright. Alright.’ The girl was nodding. ‘I’m going to grab some things. You stay where you are.’
The moment had passed.
‘Nobody’s moving.’ Brown smiled. ‘We’re just three people talking.’
She reached behind her with her left hand and found the candy bars, grabbed a couple and stuffed them in her jacket, grabbed another couple and put them in the back pocket of her trousers.
‘I’m going to leave now. I’ll leave the gun on the steps. Nobody follows me.’
‘Wait a minute. Put the gun on the floor now. I give you my word me and my partner here won’t move for three minutes after you leave.’
‘My word.’ Brown didn’t want her out on the street with a piece in her hand.
‘Do as he says. Nobody wants trouble. Put the gun down and get the hell out of here.’
‘What if I don’t?’
Brown looked her straight in the eye. ‘Juvenile Court is closed for the weekend and you’ll have to spend twenty-four hours in a cell with drunks and all kinds of violent offenders.’ The girl blinked twice. ‘I don’t think you want that.’
The kid swallowed hard; it had been a bad night all round.
She moved a couple of steps in the direction of the door, her eyes on the two cops in front of her. She bent down and put the gun on the ground, eyes still on them, poised to flee.
Spencer’s arm got her around the neck and Dunne snapped his cuffs on the thin pale wrists. It was over in seconds. The girl yelped. She tried to fight them off, without energy or hope, tears already streaming down her cheeks. Spencer let go of her. Madison knew he had a boy her age. She breathed in deeply and fastened the leather strip back in its place on her holster, heart still drumming.
‘It’s not loaded.’ Dunne said, shaking his head in disbelief. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’ The clerk popped his head up from behind the bar, evaluated the situation and put in his two cents’ worth.
‘Who’s paying for the candy?’
Brown went over to the till and put a bill on the counter.
They walked the girl down the steps; she would ride with Brown and Madison, with Spencer to baby-sit her in the back; Dunne would drive the other car.
‘Are you taking me to jail?’ she asked nobody in particular.
‘You’re coming to the precinct, so we can talk about how you ended up in possession of this.’ Spencer pointed at the gun.
The girl sort of flopped, as if all her energy had left her, and she hadn’t had much to start with. Spencer and Madison held her up, not to restrain her but to make sure she would not collapse and split her head on the concrete.
The wind had brought some light rain, shaking the trees for all they were worth and washing over the street a thin layer of damp leaves. It was still pitch black all around them except for the few lamp posts glowing orange and the neon lights of the ‘Night & Day’. As they were helping her inside the car, the girl looked up.
‘Do you have like a newspaper or something?’
Her voice was less than a whisper.
Madison saw the dark patch on her trousers.
‘I’ll get a paper in the store.’ She started up the steps. ‘Would you like a hot drink?’
The kid thought about it for a second.
The car heater made the sharp smell of urine almost unbearable and they rode with the windows down. The kid sat between two detectives, holding the cup with the tips of her fingers and drinking in small sips. They just couldn’t shut her up. It was not an uncommon reaction: her name was Rose, no second name, 13 years old, no permanent address. She had seen a guy dropping a heavy brown paper bag in a bin in Pike Place Market, she had hoped for leftovers. The piece had been wrapped in a tea towel.
‘You pointed an unloaded gun at two cops,’ Spencer said. ‘That’s a full ten in the Dumb scale.’
‘You knew it was unloaded,’ Madison said.
‘What do you think?’ There was a one-second delay in the answer.
‘Maybe and maybe not.’ Brown drove quickly, with the odd glance in the rearview mirror. ‘Either way we got ourselves a problem. We’re Homicides. We can’t keep you in our precinct since you didn’t kill anybody.’ He paused. ‘You didn’t kill anybody, did you?’
‘That’s good. But we can’t let you go either, ’cause you just waved your piece in my face and that put you right in my jurisdiction.’
If Brown had wanted to put the fear of God into the girl, he was doing it well. Madison gave her between two and four weeks since she had left wherever she was coming from.
‘What we’ll have to do is call somebody from Social Services to come pick you up,’ Brown continued in a steady monotone. ‘And they’re going to be pissed off because it’s five a.m. Sunday and they have already had a weekful of this crap. And one of us is going to have to stay on with you, call your family, write a report on how you got the gun and what happened. And wait for somebody to get you off our hands. You understand? You could be dead now, kid.’
‘And your word is jackshit on a cracker,’ the girl said to herself.
Forty-five minutes later Madison sat at her desk in the squad room, typing. The others had gone home with mumbled thanks as she had volunteered to stay on. The girl was wearing a pair of clean tracksuit bottoms Madison had in her locker and eating a chicken sandwich rescued from the fridge next door. Madison hoped the ‘best before’ date was merely a suggestion – it smelled okay.
A few phone calls had been made and Shawna Williams was on her way from Social Services.
Madison pulled the sheet of paper out of the printer and put it on the side of her desk. She stood up and stretched; the midnightto-eight tour was all out and they were alone.
It was a grim room: desks, lamps, chairs, and a few filing cabinets, all in a charming shade of gunmetal gray. Brown’s desk was opposite hers; he kept a paperback copy of Moby-Dick in the drawer as a sign of hope. One day, he had told her, people might stop killing each other long enough for him to read it. It hadn’t happened so far.
Rose was oblivious to the room; she was concentrating on a donut and a mug of hot chocolate. A detective had brought the mug from home; on the side it read I’ve walked Mt. Rainier.
Exhausted as the girl was, Madison could see the food had done her good. A smart kid can travel a long way, but not in winter: if the street doesn’t kill you, the cold and the rain will.
‘Are you sure there’s nobody you’d like to call? You can call long-distance, or I can find out the number for you if you have a name.’
The girl shook her head. Madison knew what she was seeing: an adult wearing good warm clothes, three meals a day and the keys to an apartment – maybe even a house. She didn’t want to explain herself to her. Madison understood that better than she would ever know.
‘I remember the first time I was in a police station,’ Madison said as she picked up an apple from her desk and took a bite.
The girl was too tired to even pretend that she was interested.
‘I was twelve years old. Ran away from home. County police picked me up near the Canada border, north of Anacortes. I was gone for one week before they found me.’
‘Nope. One week. It was August and very hot, not like now.’ Madison was matter-of-fact. ‘We were living on an island; one day I just took the ferry.’
‘This is just something you are making up. I bet you tell this story to all the kids you pick up.’
The girl seemed very small just then and closed up like an angry little fist.
‘What do you think?’ Madison said.
‘Morning, detective.’ Shawna Williams walked into the room, an African-American woman in her early forties. They had met for the first time when Madison was still in uniform. She looked down at the blond girl.
‘Who’s this then? Can I borrow your interview room?’
‘Be my guest. Help yourself to coffee.’
‘Who made it?’
‘You make coffee like it’s the last cup you’ll ever drink.’
‘You say it like it’s a bad thing.’
‘Only if you want to live past forty.’
‘I’ll bear that in mind.’
‘You do that,’ she said and she poured herself a cup. ‘Let’s go.’
Madison and the girl nodded a sort of goodbye to each other; she extended her hand toward Rose.
‘You find another gun . . .’
The girl put the card in her pocket and went off down the dimly lit corridor. Shawna’s warm tones bounced off the walls but Madison could not hear the words anymore. Somebody somewhere would have to investigate how she had got the gun and whether it had been used for anything less than legal, but not till tomorrow.
Six a.m., Madison slips her jacket on, straightens the papers on her desk, turns off her lamp and leaves. Howard Jenner, the desk sergeant, waves with the receiver cradled on his shoulder. Two detectives walk up the steps with a drunken man in handcuffs; he looks at Madison as she walks past.
‘Sweet dreams, honey.’ His voice is like a broken bottle.
The rain has stopped and the sky is wide above them.
Alki Beach was deserted at this time of day. Madison parked in her usual spot and climbed into the backseat. She peeled off her trousers and pulled on sweatpants and a faded Sonics T-shirt. She had never liked the idea of leaving her weapon in the car, in case some bright spark decided her four-year-old Honda was worth stealing. She adjusted the holster under her sweatshirt and rolled her head from side to side. The muscles above her shoulder blades began to tighten; it was cold and damp and she would need to warm up pretty quickly. She leant on the car with one hand, grabbed one foot and pulled it up high behind her, then did the same with the other.
She started toward the water’s edge with a gentle jog and after a couple of minutes she put some speed into it and really dug into the ground. In a while the world would just be the water lapping and her feet hitting the sand.
In the near-complete darkness of the Hoh River trail, a three-hour drive from Seattle, a man races through the woods. He’s a blur through the trees. It is the thirty-seventh time he has run that stretch, the twentieth in darkness. Fast enough to keep him alive for the time he will need, slow enough for his ultimate purpose. He reaches the bottom of the bank and checks his watch. Twenty-three minutes. He lifts his face to the open sky, shivering in the sudden breeze, and his colorless eyes find a smattering of stars.
How long does it take to be good?
Excerpted from The Gift of Darkness by V. M. Giambanco. Copyright © 2013 by Valentina Giambanco.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block
London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.