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Excerpt from Her Dark Path

CHAPTER ONE

Ontario Provincial Police headquarters, Orillia, Ontario (July 1, 2007)

Rebecca Bradley charged up the two flights of stairs. At the top, she slowed her pace, took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down. The next few minutes would be crucial for her career. Her meeting with Regional Superintendent Jonathan Cartwright was due in a few seconds, just enough time to run a hand over her tightly pinned hair and flick a speck of lint off her uniform.

She arrived at Cartwright’s office precisely on schedule and rapped on the imposing oak door. Strong and sturdy, like the man behind it — or so he liked to think. Rebecca swallowed.

Five seconds passed. She waited a while longer, and put her ear to the door. He must be in there. Only minutes ago she’d watched his Audi pull into its reserved parking spot. She straightened up and rapped again, more sharply. He could at least acknowledge her.

She glanced around the outer office, glad that no staff were on the second floor today, just a couple of duty officers on the floor below. It was Sunday, and better still, Canada Day. No one who mattered would be around to see her asking for a personal favour, and breaking protocol to do so.

She faced the door again and banged harder. Still no response. Now she was worried. Surely he hadn’t cancelled their meeting?

She called out. “It’s Rebecca, sir. Please let me in.” She held her breath and listened. Stone cold silence.

Finally she heard Cartwright’s gravelly voice, thinly, as if it came from far away. “Enter.”

Rebecca moved forward cautiously. She felt like a supplicant begging for an audience with the king. She almost tripped on the thick pile carpet — newly installed, smelling of chemicals, and royal blue, naturally. She conjured up an image of Cartwright with a bejewelled crown and sceptre, and stifled a nervous giggle.

He was standing at attention with his back to her, gaze directed out of the window towards the mid-afternoon sun. He had just returned from officiating at the celebrations in Orillia town centre. Dressed in his charcoal uniform, silhouetted against the bright sun, the kingly figure shrivelled to a burnt tree stump.

Rebecca waited for him to turn around. She knew he suffered from depression, and she wondered if he was having a difficult day. Maybe he’d forgotten to take his meds. She scanned the room, looking for pill bottles. Seeing none, she forged on. She was determined to get what she had come here for.

She came right out with it. “Let me have the McBride case, sir. I won’t let you down.” She knew she had no right to sneak in like this, asking for a favour – especially this one. It put them both at risk of censure, but she was counting on his devotion to her. Their relationship had broken up four years ago, ended by her. He still wanted to give things another try, had promised he would do anything for her. Now she was putting him to the test.

She knew she was being unfair, and she felt guilty. What kind of person was she turning into? Until today she had never imposed on anyone’s goodwill in this way, and she was horrified at herself. But she had to have the McBride case, so similar to her mother’s tragic murder sixteen years ago. Cartwright should know this. She’d told him about her mission in life, her vow to someday catch the perp. But she also feared that he might demand a price she wasn’t willing to pay.

The blackened tree stump came to life, and Cartwright turned and strode across the room, his deep-set eyes boring into hers. Since his promotion to head up central region, his manner with subordinates had become standoffish, almost pompous. Was he going to start treating her like that?

He addressed her formally. “I did a thorough job on McBride, Constable Bradley. Top-notch work. I didn’t solve the case, but I will.”

Rebecca felt uneasy, aware she was on shaky ground. But then he shouldn’t have said he would do anything for her. If he refused to give her the McBride case, he’d have to stop making that offer. She remained mute.

Cartwright snorted. “An infuriating investigation. Every line of inquiry was a dead end. I’ve never had a case so baffling. But I will solve it.” His hands balled into fists, and he lapsed into a moody silence.

Rebecca wondered what was going on inside him. What really lay behind his angry words? This wasn’t the first time she’d seen his disquiet over the case flare up. But today he seemed disoriented, almost unstable.

Waiting anxiously, Rebecca gazed at the impressive row of hardware pinned to his chest. His Medal for Police Bravery shone out in pride of place. Bestowed on him after he was wounded in a shootout, it gave him bragging rights, which he exercised too often. She raised her eyes to the pink scar that sliced across his left cheekbone, from a bullet that might have killed him. The upward angle of the scar puzzled her. Had the shot come from below? He bragged, but he was sensitive about the details.

Her thoughts shifted to Abigail McBride from Conroy, a small town about half an hour’s drive west of Orillia. Abigail was a thirty-two-year-old housewife who had disappeared without a trace thirteen months ago, whlle out on her usual walk. Sixteen days later she was found returned to her home, strangled and propped upright on a kitchen chair, with no fingerprints or other evidence of who did it found after a thorough search of the house. At the time, Cartwright was leading the Criminal Investigation Branch. He’d failed to solve the murder and now, after a year, it was deemed a cold case.

He cleared his throat. “Why not ask Detective Inspector Sykes? He heads the CIB.” Rebecca gaped in disbelief. Cartwright knew why.

He turned his head up to stare at the ceiling. “I suppose the case could use another look. Enough time may have passed to warrant it.” His eyes angled down at her, his voice turning hard. “But that’s a task for seasoned detectives. You’re not ready, Constable Bradley. You need more training, more experience. You’re too young.”

Rebecca’s back stiffened. He’d never spoken to her like this before. Moreover, he had joined the CIB at twenty-six, just two years older than she was now. He’d been the youngest homicide detective on the force. Five years later, at the age of thirty-one, he was heading up the branch. He clearly didn’t want anyone to better his precious record, especially a woman. Namely, her. His chauvinism was another strike against him, enough to once and for all rule him out of her private life.

“It’s a cold case, sir.” Her voice was steely. “More than a year has passed. I’ve taken all the core detective courses and several more besides, and I stood first in most of them. I’ve assisted on four homicide investigations, all of them while you headed the CIB. I am ready. But not alone, I agree. You could guide me, be my mentor. DI Sykes didn’t touch the case while you were on senior management training. Let me have it. Anyway, you’re still the lead investigator. You told me you held onto it, although I don’t know why. Surely you don’t have time to work on it now?”

Cartwright’s jaw muscles bunched. “I kept the case, Constable Bradley, because Sykes talked me into it. Said it would erase the blot on my career. And I will solve it. You know my record.”

Rebecca bit her lip. Despite his words, Abigail McBride stuck out like a flagpole on a sinking ship. Various top detectives had claimed DI Sykes could have solved the case in days, and Cartwright had heard these whispers. Rebecca wondered why Sykes hadn’t taken over the case when Cartwright was promoted. He might have solved it, with the bonus of humiliating his former boss. Everyone on the force knew that no love was lost between them.

Cartwright made a show of buffing his bravery medal. “In any goddamn event, forget the stupid case. There’s no need for me to erase anything. The investigation is under control. So the trail went cold? It happens, even to bloody Sykes.”

Rebecca repressed a sigh and said nothing. When he railed on about Sykes, it was best to let him vent.

His face twisted into a scowl. “What I don’t understand is why he was promoted to head up the CIB. On the very day I left. No consultation with me. Should’ve been my call.” His scar flushed scarlet. “I could dump McBride on the bastard now, though. Why not? I’ve got more important things to work on. Let him lead the follow-up. See if he can do any better.” His smile said he was already envisioning Sykes’s failure.

Rebecca’s knees went weak and impulsively she seized Cartwright’s hands. “Please don’t let Sykes have the case. You know how important it is to me. I will ask you just one more time. If you refuse, I won’t mention it again. But think carefully, Jonathan. Remember what you told me.” She looked into his eyes. “Give me McBride. Don’t let Sykes solve it and get the credit. We can do it, you and me. Then we’ll shove it in his smug face.”

Cartwright was silent for a minute. Then he emitted a leaden sigh. “All right, Rebecca. I keep my promises. The McBride case is yours. Commissioner Hardy will kick my ass, and Sykes will be furious. But to hell with them.”

Then his jaw softened, and his eyes beseeched her. “Please don’t give up on us.”

Suddenly Rebecca felt awful. He truly did love her. And now he’d made good on his do-anything offer. She moved closer to him and caressed his cheek.

“Thank you, Jonathan. This means everything to me.” She took in a shallow breath. “When can I start?”

The question seemed to catch him by surprise, and he stuttered. “I’ll . . . I’ll let you know tomorrow, Constable Bradley. Officially, homicides are a CIB matter. DI Sykes still has to approve it. But don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll agree.”

Rebecca’s chest constricted. He had to fix the start date now. If he asked Sykes for permission, she was lost. Sykes didn’t like her, and he avoided her whenever he could. He probably knew about her affair with Cartwright. Most likely the entire force did.

“You don’t owe anything to Sykes, Jonathan. McBride is your case. It’s your decision who works on it.” She watched as his pupils darted around the room. There was fear in them. Sykes exerted some kind of perverse influence over him that she didn’t understand. She had to do something dramatic to swing the situation back in her favour.

“You know Sykes set you up last year?” She moved even closer to him and peered up into his face. “Well, don’t you?”

That worked. His scar blazed crimson. He slammed a fist into his palm.

“Damn right it’s my decision. I head up the entire region, including the CIB. To hell with protocol. From this very moment, you’re on the case. You have one week to solve it. Send me updates, and call when you need help. I’ll guide you through it.” He cleared his throat and added, “One more thing. I want you to assess the Conroy office, and the local constable, Jack O’Reilly. Advise me if I should close it, and fire him.”

She agreed, without thinking twice about his addition, and then she almost hugged Cartwright, but quickly changed her mind. Instead, she backed off and thrust out her hand. Time to seal the deal and get out of there.

“Thank you, sir. I’ll come in tomorrow and clean up loose ends. First thing Tuesday, I’ll be in Conroy.”

He folded his large hand around hers for a moment, then he let it drop. He crossed the room to gaze out of the window again.

Silence returned to the office.

Then Rebecca heard him mutter, “Watch out for O’Reilly.”

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Ken Ogilvie - Her Dark Path