If I Should Die
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Private investigator Billie Carlson is back in the next gripping instalment of this utterly addictive series. Perfect for fans of Martina Cole and Marnie Riches.
PI Billie Carlson is in Cleveland following a lead on the whereabouts of her son, Lucas. But when the trail goes cold, she is forced to return to Glasgow and a life of waiting and praying that one day she might see him again.
Back in the office and ready to throw herself into work, she picks up a call from Lars, an old friend from her teenage years in Sweden. He tells her some devastating news. His younger sister, Astrid, was found dead in the Highlands, frozen to death with traces of drugs and alcohol in her system.
The police are convinced that Astrid killed herself, but Lars knows his sister would never do such a thing. He begs Billie to investigate and to accompany Astrid's body back to Sweden. Billie quickly agrees and soon finds herself involved in a web of institutional corruption linked to the dark recesses of the criminal underworld. Can Billie find out what happened to Astrid, or will she be silenced by those desperate to keep her from finding out the truth?
Release date: February 2, 2023
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 304
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If I Should Die
I was in my office, three floors up, slap bang in the centre of Glasgow, where the sign on the half-frosted glass, half-wooden door, says Billie Carlson, Private Investigator. It’s not just a job, it’s my story, and it’s where people come as a last resort when every conventional way of getting to the truth has failed them. But the truth doesn’t always result in a happy ending for them, and I tell them that from the get-go. So we proceed with the betrayed spouses trying to trap their partner, the insurance jobs, the missing. This morning was my first day back after a harrowing three weeks on the other side of the world wading through my own personal hell. I was feeling jet-lagged, exhausted, wasted, and planning to take an early cut, when Millie, who you might call my front-of-house lady who fields my calls and helps me operate, stuck her head around the door.
‘There’s a guy called Lars Eriksson on for you. He says he’s an old friend from Sweden. It’s about his sister.’
I looked up at Millie, somewhat bewildered. Lars Eriksson. Jesus! There was a name from my past life. Millie slipped into my office and lowered her voice to a whisper.
‘Listen, this guy was on the phone yesterday, but you were travelling from the US. It’s about his sister. You won’t know, but while you were away, there was this Swedish student found dead up in Caithness. Her name was Astrid.’
‘What?’ I muttered as the words hit me. ‘Astrid? Dead?’
An image flashed up of the little sister with the mop of platinum-blonde hair, who used to follow Lars around like a puppy when he and I were teenagers in Sweden. I remember the day she was born and she was only a toddler by the time I left Sweden.
‘My God!’ I stood up, walked from behind my desk. ‘I can’t believe it. Where? How?’
‘It’s been in the papers,’ Millie said. ‘And on the television last week. Suspected suicide, they were saying. Or froze to death in the woods near Thurso.’
I looked at Millie, then at the handset on her desk where Lars Eriksson, my oldest childhood friend, the boy who was always there for me, the boy I lost touch with, was waiting to talk to me.
I took a long breath and let it out slowly.
‘Put him through, Millie,’ I said, and went back to my desk.
A second later I had the phone to my ear and I could hear his breathing.
‘Lars?’ I whispered. ‘Oh Lars! I . . . I’m so sorry.’
The long silence sent a shiver through me. Then he spoke.
‘Billie. Oh, Billie! I am so, so sad. My little Astrid.’ His gentle voice was as I remembered it, the way he’d always said my name – laced with clipped Scandinavian tones.
My desktop screen pinged and I could see it was a message from Millie which I clicked on to see a brief newspaper story. It said police had been investigating the death of a young Swedish student who was found in a snow-covered wood outside the Highland town of Thurso. She may have frozen to death. A post-mortem was being carried out.
‘Lars,’ I said, ‘I don’t know what to say. I’m so shocked and so sorry. I’ve been abroad and only got back yesterday, so I knew nothing of this. Millie just told me. I’m stunned. I didn’t even know Astrid was here in Scotland.’ I stopped, afraid I was beginning to babble, the way we do sometimes when we are lost for words after being given terrible news. I felt a pang of guilt for losing touch all those years ago.
‘It’s okay,’ Lars said, in the way he always did, exonerating people because he was bigger than anger, always beyond rage or resentment, always thinking of how other people felt. ‘We lost touch. I’m sorry about that too.’
A long, awkward silence followed as we both acknowledged that contact goes both ways. We were both guilty of abandoning each other, something that would have been unthinkable when we were twelve years old and inseparable. But life does that to you. Moves you on. Bombards you with new experiences, friends, relationships, life. You forget. And now we are two people on either end of the phone, faced with unimaginable sorrow.
‘Billie, I want to talk to you. Do you have time?’
‘Of course I have time. Of course,’ I said quickly.
‘I wanted to come to Scotland. To see what happened. But I can’t. You see I teach in the secondary school and I cannot get away because my parents are quite frail now and I cannot leave them alone as they are completely broken. I have to be here. But, they say that Astrid seems to have taken her own life.’ His voice trailed off, and there was silence, then a sniff. ‘Not Astrid, Billie. She would never do anything like that. She loved her life.’
I didn’t know what to say to that. Suicide was the thief that stole into the tormented soul, suffocating all hope. It snatched people away without explanation, and left those behind not just bereft, but broken, because for the rest of their lives they would wonder if they could have stopped it, whether they could have done more, and how they didn’t see it coming. I know this, because my father committed suicide when I was just twelve, and there had been no sign, no inkling that he was so unhappy with my mother and me that he had to leave us the way he did. It has scarred my whole life because there was always a time as a child when I wondered if it was my fault that he went away.
Lars’s voice brought me back. ‘I found out you were a private investigator, a detective.’
‘I am. I was a police officer before. Long story.’
‘I want to ask if you will investigate Astrid’s death for me. Will you do that? I mean as a case?’
‘Of course,’ I said, because I knew that’s what he wanted to hear. But I’ve done these kinds of investigations before and nobody wants to know the truth – that it was in fact suicide after all – and it’s never anything but painful when they have to face it.
‘I’ll pay you, obviously. Whatever your rates are.’
‘Please, Lars. Let’s not talk like that. It’s not important.’ I said and meant it. ‘Where is Astrid now? Are you talking to the police? What is the plan? Is there to be a funeral? Is she coming home?’
Too many questions, I knew. But I found myself shifting into private-eye mode very quickly because it was easier than the long, heavy silences of grief and I didn’t know what to say to him that would go anywhere close to helping him.
He stopped and I knew it was because he couldn’t bear to say ‘body’ or to accept that that was all Astrid was now – a body, cold and alone on a hospital slab so far from home. Then he went on.
‘She is being held in a mortuary. She was identified by a student friend, and there was a post-mortem. The police called me this morning with the results.’ I heard him swallow and take a breath.
I waited in the silence for him to continue. I know from experience how distressing post-mortem results can be for loved ones. Often there are details they don’t want to hear, details that may shock them. After a few beats Lars continued.
‘It appears she died from hypothermia. Her heart stopped. She had been dead for at least four hours by the time the dog walker found her in the woods.’ He stopped, choked on his words. ‘My Astrid. So alone like that, Billie. I cannot bear it.’
‘I know, Lars,’ was all I could say.
‘And, also,’ he continued, ‘there was alcohol and drugs in her system. Recent, they said, and the level of alcohol may have contributed to her going into the woods alone in the night, dressed the way she was, with no proper winter clothing on. They are more or less saying she took her own life by her actions, her recklessness.’
I was seeing Astrid suddenly having become some depressed teenager far from her family, alone, desperate, drinking and taking pills. How could it have come to that? Why had she not reached out?
‘And,’ Lars went on, ‘there was . . . Well. There was evidence that she’d had sex. There were traces of semen inside her.’ His voice trailed off.
That put my mind into overdrive. That Astrid had had sex some time before she died alone in a freezing wood was something that would make me want to look twice if I was a police detective. They should be testing the semen, not that they could automatically find out whose it was, but it occurred to me she may have been raped. Was there bruising on her body that would indicate rough or unwanted sex? It wasn’t something I even wanted to broach with Lars right now. What if this wasn’t suicide, or if it was, what if something unthinkable had happened to Astrid before she died?
‘Billie,’ Lars said when he composed himself, ‘I don’t think Astrid even had a boyfriend. We spoke every week or so and she never mentioned a boy. She was studying hard – for a degree in Equine Studies at the university in Thurso. She loved horses and planned a career working with them in Europe. She could have studied here in Sweden, but she wanted to go to Scotland, to the Highlands. You see she was always interested in the history of the Scandinavians – the Vikings – who sailed to that part of the country. She was a little introverted and bookish. I know she didn’t have a lot of friends. But I think she would have mentioned if there was a special boy in her life, don’t you? She wasn’t secretive like that. Not with me.’
‘Yes, I agree,’ I said, more to comfort him, because I had no idea what kind of teenager she’d become. ‘Have the police interviewed all of her friends and asked where she was in the night leading up to her death? I presume they have investigated.’
‘Yes. They say they have. She was in a bar in the town. She’d been drinking. Normal, student things. They said that she had some drinks. But everyone said they were drinking heavily on the night and they didn’t see her leaving. I’ve never known Astrid to take a lot of alcohol. She wasn’t like us in our crazy times back in the day, Billie. She was sensible. I can’t understand why she would be very drunk. Then the sex?’ He took a breath. ‘But the night she left the bar is not the night she died. It was the next night that she went into the woods alone. I just don’t get why she would do that.’
Part of the story was not unfamiliar to me as a detective having to relay to heartbroken parents the double life their teenage son or daughter was living when the post-mortem results threw up some unsavoury facts. But I was intrigued to know more. Mostly because this was Astrid, the sister of my friend, but also because it didn’t ring true. Had she left the bar alone, drunk? Who does that? Could she have been so drunk that she didn’t know where she was? How could that happen, and that she ended up alone? What kind of friends allowed their mate to stagger alone into the night? What happened after she left? And why did she disappear the next evening into the woods alone? So many unanswered questions.
‘I agree, Lars. There’s a lot to find out. Look, I just got back and I need to get my head around what has happened to Astrid, but I’ll investigate for you and I promise I will do everything I can to find out what happened.’ I paused. ‘But are you sure you want me to do this? Because sometimes, no matter the circumstances, the result of the post-mortem and the cause of death is the same, in that if she froze to death as a result of too much alcohol it might be deemed as inconclusive. Some would take that to mean she contributed to her own death by her recklessness. And we may never get all the answers. But I want to find out if she went out of that bar alone, and why the next night she went out again dressed like that and headed to a wood on a freezing snowy night. I will try my damnedest, Lars. You know I will.’
In the long silence I could hear him sniff and I knew he was struggling to talk. I waited. Eventually he spoke.
‘The police are releasing Astrid in the next two days and she will be flown home to Sweden. I can’t be there with her—’
‘I’ll be with her, Lars,’ I heard myself interrupting. ‘I’ll bring her home to you.’
I stayed in the office longer than I had intended, but by the time I left in the mid-afternoon I had read and reread every newspaper story about Astrid’s death. It had happened only twelve days ago, but I got the impression that the case was being wound down and suicide or death by misadventure would be the judgement. In the absence of any injuries or witnesses to the contrary, that wouldn’t be so surprising. When a young person dies suddenly in mysterious circumstances there is always a flurry of stories in the press as reporters try to build up a picture of the person and what could have happened prior to their death. And social media – where grieving often becomes public to the point of obsessive – becomes awash with the chatter of friends paying tribute. Then, unless there is a case for the police to investigate, the story fades, and the families are left to live with their heartbreak. I checked out Facebook and Instagram, but Astrid didn’t seem to have a profile, which surprised me. But if she was quiet and bookish, as Lars had said, perhaps she hadn’t felt compelled to post her private life all over social media, the way so many young people do these days, craving constant affirmation for every little thing they do. But for me, trying to get a handle on her friends, it was disappointing, as there was nobody to reach out to for information. I wouldn’t have been emailing them anyway, and would definitely attempt to see them when I headed north, but it would have been a good start to see how Astrid had interacted on social media.
I got to my house on Blythswood Square just as the darkness was beginning to fall and the rush-hour traffic was starting to build up on the motorway. When I got out of the car, I stood for a moment, just taking in the place, glad to be home. The elegant buildings that looked onto the gated, leafy gardens gave this side of the city a calmness that belied what went on after dark, when skinny, drug-addled prostitutes stood in doorways waiting for cruising punters who would give them the means for their next fix. I decided to take a stroll around the square because although I was beyond shattered, I wasn’t quite ready to go into my flat. Although it’s my home, it sometimes feels sad and empty, and I knew that tonight I would feel it more acutely. Also, I was still a little shocked by the news about Astrid. And suddenly being plunged into this huge tragedy was hard to get my head around, having just arrived back from the USA after a surreal three weeks that at times felt as though I was watching someone else’s life unfold before me. I walked around the square a couple of times, vaguely conscious by the second lap that a couple of cars were slowing down as they passed me and the drivers had that look about them that you just knew they were on the prowl. I’m pretty sure that in my walking boots, denim jeans and heavy padded jacket I didn’t look much like a hooker, but there’s a grim desperation about men who go on the hunt for women for sex that maybe they see anyone walking in this red light area as fair game. Eventually, I climbed the four stairs to my apartment building and turned the key in the huge oak front door. My flat is on the ground floor to the left, and from the big windows in my living room on any given evening I can see a myriad of life laid out in front of me like a cold buffet. I’ve seen enough tragic figures from this window to make me want to move to the country, or at least away from here. But this was the home I grew up in, where I lived with my parents until I was twelve, where every room was filled with the memories of our life, the cooking, the chatter, the music. I inherited it after they died, but I was only a child and was shipped off to Sweden when I became an orphan, so it had been kept in trust for me until I finally came back to Glasgow to study at university.
In the flat, I ate some pasta in the kitchen with the television on and the evening news in the background for company. If I was going to take on Astrid’s case for Lars I was going to need some help from my old friends in the police. People who knew my name and reputation might say that I left the force under a cloud after I shot dead a murdering paedophile. But that isn’t actually true. I was cleared by an extensive, exhaustive internal enquiry that accepted my plea of self-defence. But there was always the whiff that would hang over me and it eventually drove me out. By that time, my life was in meltdown, because the unthinkable had happened. My toddler son, my reason for living, was taken away, stolen from me by my American husband. He was just over two years old at the time. He will be turning four very soon. I look for him every day, I wait for news every hour, but it never comes. And each night I put my head on the pillow and pray for the morning light so that I can keep myself busy until I finally find him and bring him home to me.
My first call for help would have to be Danny Scanlon, my best friend who I trained with at police college and worked alongside during my time as a rookie uniformed cop, then as a detective. He has picked me up so many times from the depths of despair, and he was there for me every single time. I love him as much as I think I can love anybody, and while he is attractive and handsome, we’ve never pursued any thoughts we might have in that direction – though we did have one brief kiss recently after dinner, which keeps resurfacing in my mind. Probably would spoil a beautiful friendship, I’ve told myself, and that’s fine by me, because the last thing I’m looking for at the moment is a relationship. But I knew Danny would help me if he could. I took my mug of tea into the living room, sat on the sofa with my feet on the coffee table and punched in his number on my mobile.
‘Carlson! You’re back?’
Just hearing his voice immediately made me feel less lonely.
‘I am. Last night. Shattered. But I was in at the office today.’
Two beats passed before he spoke, and I knew he would be choosing his words carefully.
‘So,’ he said. ‘I’m almost afraid to ask. How did it go?’
I took a breath and puffed out. ‘Long story, Scanlon. Too long for the phone. We should meet and talk.’
‘Are you okay, though? I mean, with whatever happened?’
‘I’m okay. Thanks. I’ll keep going.’ I paused, not wanting to go into anything on the phone. ‘Listen, did you see in the press that story about the Swedish student girl who died up north, in Thurso?’
I could almost hear his brain tick over.
‘Ye-es. It rings a bell. It was nearly two weeks ago though.’ He paused. ‘It’s not someone you know, is it?’
‘Yeah. It is. Astrid Eriksson. I knew her brother really well. We grew up together and for a while he was my best friend. He called me today. Obviously I knew nothing about her death. They’re saying it’s a possible suicide, but he’s asked me to take her case.’
‘Jeez, Carlson! You know what these things are like. Suicides. People never want to accept it.’
‘I know. But there’s some stuff, some things I’m intrigued about.’
‘Okay. How about I’ll see what I can dig up tonight and meet you for a coffee tomorrow?’
I hesitated for a moment.
‘Well, actually I want to make an early start tomorrow and drive up to Thurso so I can get a full day chasing things.’
Scanlon didn’t answer straight away, and I knew he would want to tell me I should rest up for a day after my trip before I started digging. But he knew me too well.
‘Okay. If that’s what you want to do. I’ll see what I can find and email you or give you a call.’
‘Perfect. Thanks, Danny.’
I was about to hang up, but didn’t, because it was just good to know he was there at the other end of the phone for me.
‘I missed you, Carlson,’ he said.
It kind of took me by surprise, but I was touched by his words, and probably should have called him while I was away, because he really does care about me.
‘I would have called. But what can I tell you? Frantic doesn’t even cut it.’
‘I’ve got a lot to tell you when I see you. Hopefully before I go to Sweden.’
‘Yes. I promised Lars I would accompany Astrid’s body home.’
There was a silence and I sensed that Scanlon would be concerned that I was going from one heartache to another.
‘You sure that’s good for you to be doing that?’
I sighed. ‘I just think it’s something I have to do. Lars was my first and best friend when I was only twelve. He’s hurting. I want to do this for him. The police are not releasing the body for a couple of days, so I’ll be going up to Caithness briefly to make a start on my investigation and to touch base.’
‘Okay. We can talk tomorrow. Get some sleep and drive carefully.’
By the time I’d had a long, hot bath and gone to bed I was overtired. My eyes were stinging but I couldn’t shut my mind off. I knew sleep would eventually come, but for a while I would have to let my head roam wherever it wanted. And as I closed my eyes I drifted back to where I knew my heart would be until I found him . . .
When I’d arrived in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, three weeks ago, I was as mentally prepared as I could be to stay for as long as it took. I knew deep down I wouldn’t be able to sustain that financially, but somehow I’d convinced myself that this time I would be able to track down Lucas. The shock phone call that had made me jump on the first available plane had come from Dan Harris, the US private eye who had taken my case over a year ago, when all official avenues had come up with nothing. Over the past eighteen months he’d become something of a friend and we spoke in lengthy transatlantic phone calls or FaceTime chats where he’d inform me of every agency he’d involved, every line he’d chased. His last call had taken the feet from me. The day before, he’d phoned to say he had tracked who he believed to be my runaway husband Bob and my son to a trailer park somewhere in the south-west of Ohio state. But the next afternoon was the bombshell. By the time he’d flown down there from his office in Baltimore, there had been a fire in the trailer and Bob’s remains had been taken out by firefighters. I’d listened, shell-shocked, but never anywhere in my heart had I felt upset or sad that Bob was dead, because this man had stolen my child from me. It didn’t matter that he was his father. When Harris had got on the scene in the trailer park, there had been no sign of Lucas, and the police and fire service had said there were no traces of a boy. Whether he’d been there the night before I’ll probably never know. But all I knew was that he had been there at some stage in the days before, and now he was out there, somewhere, perhaps with someone, perhaps with no one.
I’d taken a flight out of Glasgow to Pittsburgh and a connecting flight to Cleveland, where Harris picked me up at the airport. On the way to a small hotel in the city he talked about what he’d found so far. I listened with a kind of strange, unreal sensation that this was someone else’s life he was talking about, not mine. He told me that the police and forensics were still at the scene and that the local television station had been interested as he’d spoken to a female reporter at the scene and given her the background. He as. . .
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