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A NICE PLACE TO DIE
BY J. WOOLLCOTT
The body of a young woman is found by a river outside Belfast and Detective Sergeant Ryan McBride makes a heart-wrenching discovery at the scene, a discovery he chooses to hide even though it could cost him the investigation – and his career.
The victim was a loner but well-liked. Why would someone want to harm her? And is her murder connected to a rapist who’s stalking the local pubs? As Ryan untangles a web of deception and lies, his suspects die one by one, leading him to a dangerous family secret and a murderer who will stop at nothing to keep it.
And still he harbors his secret …
Sunday, October 23
They reminded him of mourners at a funeral.
Down where the body lay, officers searched the undergrowth, their hands clasped behind their backs and their heads bowed.
Detective Sergeant Ryan McBride pulled on his gloves. He should really grab a Tyvek suit, or booties at least, but he’d run out of patience, couldn’t be arsed to hang around any longer. Now that he was here, he wanted to get to the scene. The CSIs were clustered near the river and had locked the vans. God forbid, in the middle of an area crawling with police, they should leave the doors open. In Portglenone Forest’s windswept car park, that scent of an Irish autumn, damp leaves and woodsmoke, hung in the air, while crows, black and boisterous, flapped and cawed in the dark trees.
Ryan’s partner stood by one of the cars interviewing the man who had found the body. Tall and thin, DS Billy Lamont shivered in the cool air, his boyish face blotched red and his shoulders tight. The witness, a stocky man with a thatch of ginger hair, slumped sideways inside the vehicle’s open back door, his feet touching the wet grass. A little black terrier jumped and yapped incessantly at his heels, aware perhaps of its owner’s distress.
Ryan headed over to the burly constable manning the entrance and signed the crime log.
“Here,” the officer said and, reaching behind him, produced a pair of booties.
“Cheers,” Ryan nodded his thanks as he passed around the tape. The crime-scene photographer, carrying a large bag and a couple of cameras, huffed up toward him. He was a strapping, florid-faced lad. “I already took shots of everything, boss, but if there’s anything extra you want, let me know. I needed to shoot the video before the FMO sees her, he should be here any minute. I’m going to grab a coffee—freezing my tits off here.”
Ryan flailed a little on the way down and cursed under his breath. Too much of a hurry—too keen. He glanced around, remembering. He’d walked along the banks of the River Bann years ago with a girl called Maggie. He’d told her that the river had its source on Slieve Muck in the Mournes, and they’d had a good laugh at that—trust the Irish to name a mountain after muck.
But there was nothing to laugh at now.
An early mist drifted in fragments around a young woman’s body. With her face twisted to the right and hidden by a tumble of copper hair, she looked like a careless sunbather. She wore a thick, cream-coloured sweater over black trousers. One of her red shoes had toppled away and lay abandoned by a mossy rock. It caught his eye, shiny leather. A shock of crimson in the weeds.
He crouched on a protective metal grid the crime scene techs had set by the body. For the first time he hesitated. Caught something about her, what was it? The shade of her hair? He took out his pen and gently lifted a glossy, reddish-brown ringlet from her cheek. His heart skipped a beat.
He stood quickly and inhaled cold morning air. The sudden blood rush made him lightheaded.
He knew her.
Oh, Christ, he’d slept with her….
He glanced at the river—a pretty enough place, if a little gloomy when the sun went in. On the far bank, a willow tree’s bare branches skimmed the water’s surface like long pale fingers.
Further along to his left, two constables ran blue and white tape between the trees while scenes-of-crime officers searched the undergrowth. The little dog’s sharp barks echoed across the water as he exhaled, hunkered down again, and focused on her body.
He studied her, the skin as white and textured as eggshell. A few faint freckles dotted the side of her nose. Half open eyes. Thick brown eyelashes cast a soft shadow across her cheek. She had been pretty in life—beautiful. And more than that, he’d felt a connection to her, a vulnerability. The beginnings of a bruise crept around from the other side of her face. She hadn’t died right away, and that small detail bothered him. Someone had hit her hard, a brutal blow. Blood, viscous and matted, threaded her hair and had seeped into the ground at her head.
What was her name? Cathy? Catherine? It had been about six months ago. He’d had too much to drink, and as far as he remembered, she hadn’t told him much about herself. They had talked, connected right away. What should he do? Would they take him off the case? Because of a one-night stand? No way of knowing. They might. If they knew….
A tall, dense grove of trees, shuddering in a blustery wind, hid this section of the path. Alone there with her, in the damp early morning, with the smell of mud and stagnant water, the rustle of beaten grass above him and the cawing of the birds, he knew he couldn’t have this investigation go to anyone else. Didn’t even want to risk the possibility.
The river slid by, unmoved by tragedy, dark, smooth, and silent under its own rising fog. He paused for a moment and thought about the situation, the implication, felt his throat close with anger and coughed to clear it. Christ. That’s all he needed, Billy to see him choking up. Never hear the end of it. But, my God, she’d been lovely, and he’d thought about her a lot after that night. Even though things had turned out badly in the end. He wondered if she’d known she was dying. If she’d suffered. He hoped not. He remembered her laughing in the bar. She had small white teeth.
The sun came and went, clouds racing across a pale sky. The forecast for once promised a cool, dry day, although Belfast weather being famously capricious, they had a tarp and a tent ready.
“Heads up,” one of the constables shouted as the pathologist’s silver SUV pulled in. “It’s McAllister.”
Ryan made his way back up. No point in courting trouble. He wasn’t in the mood for a lecture now. That single, bitter coffee he’d drunk earlier churned in his gut.
At the top of the path, Ryan nodded to McAllister. Tall and silver-haired, he was the senior man and meticulous in everything he did. Some of the other detectives thought him fussy and he had earned a nickname, Alice, because of it. Ryan didn’t care about that. He liked him, liked his thoroughness. Not every pathologist came to the scene, but McAllister did, when he could.
He finished suiting up, snapped his gloves, and reached for his case. “You senior on this one, McBride?” He noted Ryan’s lack of Tyvek with a raised eyebrow.
“Yes, DS Lamont has the Crime Scene Log and DC Maura Dunn will accompany and take care of forms at the mortuary.”
“Good. Excellent. I appreciate procedure. Behave yourself down there?”
“Absolutely.” Ryan glanced back to the distant figure on the grass. Shook his head.
McAllister paused for a moment, catching Ryan’s hesitation perhaps, and followed his gaze down toward the river. Beside the water’s edge, eddies of yellow and red fallen leaves swirled. The morning sun chose this moment to reappear and a shaft of light slid theatrically over the body and surrounding scene.
The pathologist, normally a man of few words, cleared his throat. “Looks like a bad one.”
“Yes,” Ryan said. “It’s a bad one.”
Meet Author J. Woollcott…
Woollcott is a Canadian writer born in Northern Ireland. She is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers and BCAD, University of Ulster. Her first mystery, Abducted, was long-listed in the Canadian Arthur Ellis Awards in 2019. Her second book, A Nice Place to Die, won the RWA Unpublished Mystery/Suspense Daphne du Maurier Award in 2019 in New York. A Nice Place to Die was also long-listed in the Arthur Ellis Awards for 2020 and short-listed in the Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence in 2021. She is working on part two of the Ryan McBride Belfast Murder Series, Blood Relations, due out in August 2023.
She is a member of Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and the Suncoast Writer’s Guild.
Links to J.’s website, blog, books, etc.
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