The Missing Link
by Keith Wright
Copyright@ Keith Wright 1997,2019
First Published in the Short Story Anthology – ‘Perfectly Criminal’ Copyright@ Martin Edwards 1996
All characters included in this story are fictitious and are not intended to bear any resemblance to any individuals, alive or dead.
Contains realistic and graphic descriptions of death and includes issues which some readers may find upsetting or offensive. It is intended for adults only
This short story first appeared in the anthology ‘Perfectly Criminal’ edited by the lawyer and crime writer Martin Edwards and published by Severn House. Martin, like myself was short-listed for the John Creasey Award for the best first crime novel, his being in 1991. Mine being in 1997. Being invited to contribute to the Crime Writer’s Association Short Story Anthology was a great honour for me, appearing alongside such greats as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Peter Lovesey. The only brief we were given was that the theme should somehow relate to the ‘perfect crime’, or ‘the one that got away’. This short story is a ‘one-off’ for me as I wrote it in the first-person, although I like to think it works well, all my other work has been done in a narrative style, which, personally, I prefer. It’s a very short, short story – I hope you enjoy it.
‘It was all a long time ago, Bob.’
I caressed the stem of my glass, feeling somewhat self-conscious at having to raise my voice over the general hub-bub of noise in the smoky bar, particularly over such a sensitive subject.
I hadn’t seen Bob for a number of years and it was good of him to show his face on this special occasion. We had done the “how’s life” bit; I suspect neither of us had been overly interested in the replies, but we were polite enough to appear attentive. We suffered each other with a respect dimmed over the years by sparse contact. Our common bond being a shared failure; that one thorn in my side; the case that had haunted my entire police career and that had now returned to infiltrate our previously cosy chat.
Bob’s swarthy complexion, accentuated by his receding forehead, was glistening under the harsh lighting in the crowded room. He always smelled of garlic, or halitosis; I’ve never been quite certain which. He appeared keen to respond to what I had half-hoped was a dismissive counter to his recollection of a different era of crime investigation. ‘I know the date off by heart; 25th July 1979, I was. . .’
I cut him off hoping to draw the conversation to a close. ‘I know, you were a young Detective Sergeant, bright and eager to make your name. Let’s not dwell on the past, mate, it’s too bloody messy. Too many ghosts.’
He kept my gaze as he sipped at his glass of whisky. He wouldn’t let it lie. ‘By Christ, I was keen, too keen I suppose, too impulsive, but you calmed me down, boss, playing your ruminative Detective Inspector game. However did you manage to appear so calm?’
I smiled. Bob had been a good detective; cost him a marriage though. I had taken him under my wing a little, became good friends for a while. Our families shared a holiday one year I remember.
‘”Appear” being the operative word, Bob. I appeared calm, but didn’t feel so bloody calm when the press accused me of not giving a shit about the Randall case. That was totally unjustified, after everything I. . .’
‘Oh come off it, boss, they were right, weren’t they?’
Here we go again. ‘No, I. . .’
He raised a hand to cut me off. ‘Never mind “No I”. “No I” nothing. Francisco Randall was a fucking perverted sad, sorry child molesting bastard, so don’t tell me his murder bothered you one iota. You forget I worked on the case ‘til they pulled the plug on it.’
I was shaking my head as I spoke
‘I haven’t forgotten a thing, Bob, I am talking from a professional standpoint. My personal views were irrelevant. It was one murder case . . . one case out of, Christ, however many, a lot! And I couldn’t solve it. Of course I gave a shit about it.’
Bob place his hand on my shoulder and whispered into my ear, his speech just hinging on being slurred. He was, shall we say, relaxed, rather than pissed. ‘We couldn’t solve it, boss, “we” not just you, mate, we were a team, maybe there was one thing that was overlooked, something one of us could have done. I don’t know.’ There was an unnerving glint in his eye as he spoke.
Our reminiscing brought back some ugly memories. Bob no doubt shared the images that I had. He had been the first on the scene of the murder and had followed the enquiry through for many months until it was eventually wound down. The investigation into the life and death of Francisco Antonio Randall had uncovered many of his own victims, most of whom had never reported their defilement to the police. Young girls, not yet having reached puberty, violated by a man with a penchant for bondage, fellatio and amateur photography. The photos recovered from his seedy flat were the embodiment of evil itself. Occasionally he would smear his filth across the sexual spectrum and concentrate on little boys. Boys or girls, they all had one common bond, a look of fear, entwined with innocence. I found myself thinking aloud. ‘Deserved a medal I suppose.’
‘The bloke who battered Randall’s head to a pulp. How many more kids would he have got to before we caught him? I’d have liked to have nicked the killer, if nothing else, just to shake the guy’s hand.’
Bob restrained a wry smile. ‘And then give him a life sentence, eh?’
I felt a cold hand grab mine from behind. The young woman was beautiful. Her teeth flashed white, as she spoke, her blonde hair filtering the disco lights flashing behind her.
‘Come on, boring, don’t spend all night stood at the bar, these people have all come to see you. This is your special night.’
She diverted her attention to my drinking partner.
‘Stop hogging his attention, Bob.’ He was smiling. Her long fingers were tipped with scarlet nail varnish. She was so confident for a twenty-five year old, but I was playing hard to get.
‘I’ll be over in a minute, Emma.’ She squeezed my hand again. ‘Oh come on,’
I wrestled free. ‘I’m talking to Bob, swinging the lantern a bit, shan’t be long, only be a couple of mins. We’ve got all night.’
I leaned over and kissed her cheek. A roar of jeers emanated from the crowd of younger officers standing in a circle by the cigarette machine. She walked away, her face slightly reddened by our contact, although her hand lingered in mine as we parted company. The prospect of an enforced termination of my chat with Bob had triggered a thought in my mind. It was something that I had noticed as I cleared my desk out only the previous week. The discovery had disturbed me, worried me even, as I drifted back through the mists of time.
‘You know, Bob, I was looking at the scenes of crime photographs of the Randall murder. They were tab-eared and dusty, but they were still numbered at the index: 1 to 47 but when I counted the actual photographs, and don’t ask me why I did, there were only 46. One missing. I’d never noticed that before, had you?’
My colleague, for the first time would not meet my gaze, downing the remnants of his whiskey, head tilting back somewhat exaggeratedly. The burn seemingly wincing his features. His eventual response was not a reply to my question.
‘I won’t be staying for the speeches, boss.’ He offered his hand. ‘Have a long and happy retirement.’ My mouth was agape as I received his gnarled, sweaty hand, my confusion frozen in exasperation on my face. Before I could recover Bob turned and made off towards the door. I wanted to call out, shout him back, but I had been stunned into a cocktail of curiosity and suspicion.
The decision was made for me, as I watched him falter, turn and walk back towards me. He pressed a package into my hand. A hesitant smile flickered across his now tense lips.
I mumbled. ‘What’s going . . . ?’
‘You’ll be getting some sort of present with your speech. A whip round by the lads. I wasn’t going to give you my gift. It’s personal, but it might set your mind at ease. It’s your unofficial medal, boss. The scenes of crime photo and the negative have long since been burned.’ He slapped my shoulder, a little too hard.
‘Take care,’ he said, before hurriedly leaving, pushing aggressively through the crowd, attracting attention, heads turning towards him and then me. I turned self-consciously towards the bar and used my empty hand to fiddle with the peanuts for appearance’s sake.
When it was safe I unfurled my clenched fist, revealing the piece of paper folded neatly in a square. As I unwrapped it, I saw the contents glisten. In shock I dropped it to the floor, but quickly picked it up, afraid of losing it once more. It had been lost since 1979. On the day Francisco Randall drew his last, wheezing breath. I wasn’t clear in my mind if it had been the second or third powerful blow that had jarred the cuff-link clear from my sleeve as Randall attempted to parry. I cursed when I noticed, back at the house.
I too had burned a photograph. It had been a photograph of a little girl, no more than ten years old. A girl who needed her Daddy to be there when the foul deeds captured on film were being played out. But I hadn’t been there. Daddy wasn’t there, as I had always promised I would be. Despite her appearance of confidence, I still hear her sometimes at night, crying, often in her sleep. Crying out for me to be there, but of course I never can be. I have been since. I’ve been there a thousand times since, in my dreams, in the cruel nightmares, and each time I awake with sweat stinging my eyes, praying it was real. That I save her. Yet the dull ache in the pit of my belly heralds the realisation that it is not real, nor will it ever be so. What has been done, can never be truly undone. Part of me died the day that she disclosed her painful secret to me. About what the “nasty man” had done. She said she was sorry, bless her. I had seen it all before, of course, but not her, not my baby. I knew she would carry the foul stench of that bastard’s loins to her grave, and that any future happy times would be marred by a memory of hell. Her mother never got over it, and we lost her eighteen months later to a heart attack. So it has just been the two of us.
I was in a daze. I could again sense my heart racing and perspiration fusing my grey hair to my collar. She knows what I did. We have never spoken a word about it, but I’m sure she knows. Of anyone, she knows, my God does she ever know. And so did, Bob, it seems, and he has been protecting the secret all these years.
I felt the manicured hand of the belle of the ball take hold of mine again.
‘Come on, Dad, no excuses this time, they want to make a speech. You retire today, or had you forgotten?’
I took hold of Emma, hugging her tightly, not letting go.
‘Dad, stop it, what’s the matter with you, everybody’s looking.’
‘Let them look.’
I released my hold reluctantly, whilst restraining the tears welling up in my eyes. A crowd had gathered around me. Emma craned her neck.
‘Where’s Bob gone?’
‘He, er, couldn’t stay, he’s jagged off, would you believe.’
‘Huh. Some friend he is.’
I sighed. ‘Yeah. Some friend.’
The crowd had rallied. One voice quickly became a dozen and then fifty; ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow. . .’
And so say all of us.