Some nights, if I’m sleeping on my own, I still dream about Whitethorn House. In the dream it’s always spring, cool fine light with a late-afternoon haze. I climb the worn stone steps and knock on the door – that great brass knocker, going black with age and heavy enough to startle you every time – and an old woman with an apron and a deft, uncompromising face lets me in. Then she hangs the big rusted key back on her belt and walks away down the drive, under the falling cherry blossom, and I close the door behind her.
The house is always empty. The bedrooms are bare and bright, only my footsteps echoing off the floorboards, circling up through the sun and the dust motes to the high ceilings. Smell of wild hyacinths, drifting through the wide-open windows, and of beeswax polish. Chips of white paint flaking off the window-sashes and a tendril of ivy swaying in over the sill. Wood-doves, lazy somewhere outside.
In the sitting room the piano is open, wood glowing chestnut and almost too bright to look at in the bars of sun, the breeze stirring the yellowed sheet music like a finger. The table is laid ready for us, five settings – the bone-china plates and the long-stemmed wine glasses, fresh-cut honeysuckle trailing from a crystal bowl – but the silverware has gone dim with tarnish and the heavy damask napkins are frilled with dust. Daniel’s cigarette case lies by his place at the head of the table, open and empty except for a burnt-down match.
Somewhere in the house, faint as a fingernail-flick at the edge of my hearing, there are sounds: a scuffle, whispers. It almost stops my heart. The others aren’t gone, I got it all wrong somehow. They’re only hiding; they’re still here, for ever and ever.
I follow the tiny noises through the house room by room, stopping at every step to listen, but I’m never quick enough: they slide away like mirages, always just behind that door or up those stairs. The tip of a giggle, instantly muffled; a creak of wood. I leave wardrobe doors swinging open, I take the steps three at a time, I swing round the newel post at the top and catch a flash of movement in the corner of my eye: the spotted old mirror at the end of the corridor, my face reflected in it, laughing.
This is Lexie Madison’s story, not mine. I’d love to tell you one without getting into the other, but it doesn’t work that way. I used to think I sewed us together at the edges with my own hands, pulled the stitches tight and I could unpick them any time I wanted. Now I think it always ran deeper than that and farther, underground; out of sight and way beyond my control.
This much is mine, though: everything I did. Frank puts it all down to the others, mainly to Daniel, while as far as I can tell Sam thinks that, in some obscure and slightly bizarro way, it was Lexie’s fault. When I say it wasn’t like that, they give me careful sideways looks and change the subject – I get the feeling Frank thinks I have some creepy variant of Stockholm syndrome. That does happen to undercovers sometimes, but not this time. I’m not trying to protect anyone; there’s no one left to protect. Lexie and the others will never know they’re taking the blame and wouldn’t care if they did. But give me more credit than that. Someone else may have dealt the hand, but I picked it up off the table, I played every card, and I had my reasons.
I drive an ancient, bockety Vespa, which is like totally uncool in a town where you are what you spend, but which has its uses. In city traffic it moves about four times as fast as your average SUV, I can actually park it, and it provides a handy social shortcut, in that anyone who gives it a snotty look is probably not going to be my new best friend. Once I got out of the city, it was perfect bike weather. It had rained during the night, furious sleety rain slapping at my window, but that had blown itself out by dawn and the day was sharp and blue, the first of almost-spring. Other years, on mornings like this one, I used to drive out into the countryside and sing at the top of my lungs into the wind at the edge of the speed limit.
Glenskehy is outside Dublin, tucked away in the Wicklow mountains near nothing very much. I’d lived half my life in Wicklow without getting any closer to it than the odd signpost. It turned out to be that kind of place: a scatter of houses getting old around a once-a-month church and a pub and a sell-everything shop, small and isolated enough to have been overlooked even by the desperate generation trawling the countryside for homes they can afford. Eight o’clock on a Thursday morning, and the main street --- to use both words loosely --- was postcard-perfect and empty, just one old woman pulling a shopping cart past a worn granite monument to something or other, little sugared-almond houses lined up crookedly behind her, and the hills rising green and brown and indifferent over it all. I could imagine someone getting killed there, but a farmer in a generations-old fight over a boundary fence, a woman whose man had turned savage with drink and cabin fever, a man sharing a house with his brother forty years too long: deep-rooted, familiar crimes old as Ireland, nothing to make a detective as experienced as Sam sound like that.
And that other voice on the phone was nagging at me. Sam is the only detective I know who doesn’t have a partner. He likes flying solo, working every case with a new team --- local uniforms who want a hand from an expert, pairs from the Murder squad who need a third man on a big case. Sam can get along with anyone, he’s the perfect backup man, and I wished I knew which of the people I used to work with he was backing up this time.
Outside the village the road narrowed, twisting upwards among bright gorse bushes, and the fields got smaller and rockier. There were two men standing on the crest of the hill. Sam, fair and sturdy and tense, feet planted apart and hands in his jacket pockets; and a few feet from him, someone else, head up, leaning back against the stiff wind. The sun was still low in the sky and their long shadows turned them giant and portentous, silhouetted almost too bright to look at against skimming clouds, like two messengers walking out of the sun and down the shimmering road. Behind them, crime-scene tape fluttered and whipped.
Sam raised his hand when I waved. The other guy cocked his head sideways, one fast tilt like a wink, and I knew who it was.
“Fuck me briefly,” I said, before I was even off the Vespa. “It’s Frankie. Where did you come from?”
Frank grabbed me off the ground in a one-armed hug. Four years hadn’t managed to change him one bit; I was pretty sure he was even wearing the same banged-up leather jacket. “Cassie Maddox,” he said. “World’s best fake student. How’ve you been? What’s all this about DV?”
“I’m saving the world. They gave me a lightsaber and all.” I caught Sam’s confused frown out of the corner of my eye --- I don’t talk much about undercover, I’m not sure he’d ever heard me mention Frank’s name --- but it was only when I turned to him that I realized he looked awful, white around the mouth and his eyes too wide. Something inside me clenched: a bad one.
“How’re you doing?” I asked him, pulling off my helmet.
“Grand,” Sam said. He tried to smile at me, but it came out lopsided.
“Oo,” Frank said, mock-camp, holding me at arm’s length and eyeballing me. “Check you out. Is this what the well-dressed detective is wearing these days?” The last time he had seen me, I’d been in combats and a top that said “Miss Kitty’s House of Fun Wants YOU.”
“Bite me, Frank,” I told him. “At least I’ve changed my gear once or twice in the last few years.”
“No, no, no, I’m impressed. Very executive.” He tried to spin me round; I batted his hand away. Just for the record, I was not dressed like Hillary Clinton here. I was wearing my work clothes --- black trouser suit, white shirt --- and I wasn’t that crazy about them myself, but when I switched to Domestic Violence my new superintendent kept going on at me about the importance of projecting an appropriate corporate image and building public confidence, which apparently cannot be done in jeans and a T-shirt, and I didn’t have the energy to resist. “Bring sunglasses and a hoodie or something?” Frank asked. “They’ll go great with this getup.”
“You brought me down here to discuss my fashion sense?” I inquired. I found an ancient red beret in my satchel and waved it at him.
“Nah, we’ll get back to that some other time. Here, have these.” Frank pulled sunglasses out of his pocket, repulsive mirrored things that belonged on Don Johnson in 1985, and passed them to me.
“If I’m going to go around looking like that much of a dork,” I said, eyeing them, “there had better be a damn good explanation.”
“We’ll get to that. If you don’t like those, you can always wear your helmet.” Frank waited till I shrugged and put on the dork gear. The buzz of seeing him had dissolved and my back was tensing up again. Sam looking sick, Frank on the case and not wanting me spotted at the scene: it read a lot like an undercover had got killed.
“Gorgeous as always,” Frank said. He held the crime-scene tape for me to duck under, and it was so familiar, I had made that quick easy movement so many times, that for a split second it felt like coming home. I automatically settled my gun at my belt and glanced over my shoulder for my partner, as if this was my own case I were coming to, before I remembered.
“Here’s the story,” Sam said. “At about quarter past six this morning, a local fella called Richard Doyle was walking his dog along this lane. He let it off the lead to have a run about in the fields. There’s a ruined house not far off the lane, and the dog went in and wouldn’t come out; in the end, Doyle had to go after it. He found the dog sniffing around the body of a woman. Doyle grabbed the dog, legged it out of there and rang the uniforms.”
I relaxed a little: I didn’t know any other women from Undercover. “And I’m here why?” I asked. “Not to mention you, sunshine. Did you transfer into Murder and no one told me?”
“You’ll see,” Frank said. I was following him down the lane and I could only see the back of his head. “Believe me, you’ll see.”
I glanced over my shoulder at Sam. “Nothing to worry about,” he said quietly. He was getting his color back, in bright uneven splotches. “You’ll be grand.”
The lane sloped upwards, too narrow for two people to walk abreast, just a muddy track with ragged hawthorn hedges spilling in on both sides. Where they broke, the hillside was crazy-quilted into green fields scattered with sheep --- a brand-new lamb was bleating somewhere, far off. The air was cold and rich enough to drink, and the sun sifted long and gold through the hawthorn; I considered just keeping on walking, over the brow of the hill and on, letting Sam and Frank deal with whatever seething dark blotch was waiting for us under the morning. “Here we go,” Frank said.
The hedge fell away to a broken-down stone wall bordering a field left to run wild. The house was thirty or forty yards off the lane: one of the Famine cottages that still litter Ireland, emptied in the nineteenth century by death or emigration and never reclaimed. One look added another layer to my feeling that I wanted to be very far away from whatever was going on here. The whole field should have been alive with focused, unhurried movement --- uniforms working their way across the grass with their heads bent, Technical Bureau guys unloading their stretcher. Instead there were two uniforms, shifting from foot to foot on either side of the cottage door and looking slightly out of their depth, and a pair of pissed-off robins bouncing around the eaves making outraged noises.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
I was talking to Sam, but Frank said, “Cooper’s been and gone” --- Cooper is the state pathologist. “I figured he needed to have a look at her as fast as possible, for time of death. The Bureau can wait; forensic evidence isn’t going anywhere.”
“Jesus,” I said. “It is if we walk on it. Sam, ever worked a double homicide before?”
Frank raised an eyebrow. “Got another body?”
“Yours, once the Bureau get here. Six people wandering all over a crime scene before they’ve cleared it? They’re gonna kill you.”
“Worth it,” Frank said cheerfully, swinging a leg over the wall. “I wanted to keep this under wraps for a little while, and that’s hard to do if you’ve got Bureau guys swarming all over the place. People tend to notice them.”
Something was badly wrong here. This was Sam’s case, not Frank’s; Sam should have been the one deciding how the evidence was handled and who got called in when. Whatever was in that cottage, it had shaken him up enough that he had let Frank sweep in, bulldoze him out of the way and instantly, efficiently start arranging this case to suit whatever agenda he had today. I tried to catch Sam’s eye, but he was pulling himself over the wall and not looking at either of us.
“Can you climb walls in that getup,” Frank inquired sweetly, “or would you like a hand?” I made a face at him and vaulted into the field, up to my ankles in long wet grass and dandelions.
The cottage had been two rooms, once, a long time ago. One of them still looked more or less intact --- it even had most of its roof --- but the other was just shards of wall and windows onto open air. Bindweed and moss and little trailing blue flowers had rooted in the cracks. Someone had spray-painted SHAZ beside the doorway, not very artistically, but the house was too inconvenient for a regular hangout: even prowling teenagers had mostly left it alone, to collapse on itself in its own slow time.
“Detective Cassie Maddox,” Frank said, “Sergeant Noel Byrne and Garda Joe Doherty, Rathowen station. Glenskehy’s on their patch.”
“For our sins,” said Byrne. He sounded like he meant it. He was somewhere in his fifties, with a slumped back and watery blue eyes, and he smelled of wet uniform and loser.
Doherty was a gangly kid with unfortunate ears, and when I held out my hand to him he did a double take straight out of a cartoon; I could practically hear the boing of his eyeballs snapping back into place. God only knew what he’d heard about me --- cops have a better rumor mill than any bingo club --- but I didn’t have time to worry about it right then. I gave him the smile-and-stare number, and he mumbled something and dropped my hand as if it had scorched him.
“We’d like Detective Maddox to take a look at our body,” Frank said.
“I’d say you would, all right,” said Byrne, eyeing me. I wasn’t sure he meant it the way it sounded; he didn’t look like he had the energy. Doherty snickered nervously.
“Ready?” Sam asked me quietly.
“The suspense is killing me,” I said. It came out a little snottier than I intended. Frank was already ducking into the cottage and pulling aside the long sprays of trailing bramble that curtained the doorway to the inner room.
“Ladies first,” he said, with a flourish. I hung the stud-muffin glasses off the front of my shirt by one earpiece, took a breath and went in.
It should have been a peaceful, sad little room. Long bands of sun slanting through holes in the roof and filtering past the net of branches over the windows, shivering like light on water; some family’s hearth, cold a hundred years, with piles of bird’s-nest fallen down the chimney and the rusty iron hook for the cooking pot still hanging ready. A wood dove murmuring contentedly, somewhere nearby.
But if you’ve seen a dead body, you know how they change the air: that huge silence, the absence strong as a black hole, time stopped and molecules frozen around the still thing that’s learned the final secret, the one he can never tell. Most dead people are the only thing in the room. Murder victims are different; they don’t come alone. The silence rises up to a deafening shout and the air is streaked and hand-printed, the body smokes with the brand of that other person grabbing you just as hard: the killer.
The first thing that hit me about this scene, though, was how slight a mark the killer had left. I had been bracing myself against things I didn’t want to imagine --- naked and spread-eagled, vicious dark wounds too thick to count, body parts scattered in corners --- but this girl looked as if she had arranged herself carefully on the floor and let out her last breath in a long even sigh, chosen her own time and place with no need for anyone’s help along the way. She was lying on her back among the shadows in front of the fireplace, neatly, with her feet together and her arms at her sides. She was wearing a navy peacoat, falling open; under it were indigo jeans --- pulled up and zipped --- runners and a blue top with a dark star tie-dyed across the front. The only thing out of the ordinary was her hands, clenched into tight fists. Frank and Sam had moved in beside me, and I shot Frank a puzzled look --- And the big deal is? --- but he just watched me, his face giving away nothing.
She was medium height, built like me, compact and boyish. Her head was turned away from us, towards the far wall, and all I could see in the dim light was short black curls and a slice of white: high round curve of a cheekbone, the point of a small chin. “Here,” Frank said. He flicked on a tiny, powerful torch and caught her face in a sharp little halo.
For a second I was confused --- Sam lied? --- because I knew her from somewhere, I’d seen that face a million times before. Then I took a step forwards, so I could get a proper look and the whole world went silent, frozen, darkness roaring in from the edges and only the girl’s face blazing white at the center; because it was me. The tilt of the nose, the wide sweep of the eyebrows, every tiniest curve and angle clear as ice: it was me, blue-lipped and still, with shadows like dark bruises under my eyes. I couldn’t feel my hands, my feet, couldn’t feel myself breathing. For a second I thought I was floating, sliced off myself and wind currents carrying me away.
“Know her?” Frank asked, somewhere. “Any relation?”
It was like going blind; my eyes couldn’t take her in. She was impossible: a high-fever hallucination, a screaming crack straight across all the laws of nature. I realized I was braced rigid on the balls of my feet, one hand halfway to my gun, every muscle ready to fight this dead girl to the death. “No,” I said. My voice sounded wrong, somewhere outside me. “Never seen her.”
Sam whipped his head around, startled, but the bluntness was good, it helped like a pinch. “No,” I said. For an awful, rocking instant I actually wondered. But I’ve seen photos, my mother tired and smiling in a hospital bed, brand-new me at her breast. No.
“Which side do you look like?”
“What?” It took me a second. I couldn’t look away from the girl; I had to force myself to blink. No wonder Doherty and his ears had done a double take. “No. My mother’s side. It’s not that my father was running around, and this is... No.”
Frank shrugged. “Worth a shot.”
“They say everyone’s got a double, somewhere,” Sam said quietly, beside me. He was too close; it took me a second to realize that he was ready to catch me, just in case.
I am not the fainting type. I bit down, hard and fast, on the inside of my lip; the jolt of pain cleared my head. “Doesn’t she have ID?”
I knew, from the tiny pause before either of them answered, that something was up. Shit, I thought, with a new thump in my stomach: identity theft. I wasn’t too clear on how it worked exactly, but one glimpse of me and a creative streak and presumably this girl could have been sharing my passport and buying BMWs on my credit.
“She had a student card on her,” Frank said. “Key ring in the left-hand pocket of her coat, Maglite in the right, wallet in the front right pocket of her jeans. Twelve quid and change, an ATM card, a couple of old receipts and this.” He fished a clear plastic evidence bag out of a pile by the door and slapped it into my hand.
It was a Trinity College ID, slick and digitized, not like the laminated bits of colored paper we used to have. The girl in the photo looked ten years younger than the white, sunken face in the corner. She was smiling my own smile up at me and wearing a striped baker-boy cap turned sideways, and for a second my mind flailed wildly: But I never had a striped one of those, did I, when did I --- I pretended to tilt the card to the light, reading the small print, so I could turn my shoulder to the others. Madison, Alexandra J.
For a whirling instant, I understood completely: Frank and I had done this. We made Lexie Madison bone by bone and fiber by fiber, we baptized her and for a few months we gave her a face and a body, and when we threw her away she wanted more. She spent four years spinning herself back, out of dark earth and night winds, and then she called us here to see what we had done.
“What the hell,” I said, when I could breathe.
“When the uniforms called it in and ran her name through the computer,” Frank said, taking back the bag, “she came up flagged: anything happens to this girl, call me ASAP. I never bothered taking her out of the system; I figured we might need her again, sooner or later. You never know.”
“Yeah,” I said. “No kidding.” I stared hard at the body and got a grip: this was no golem, this was a real live dead girl, oxymoron and all. “Sam,” I said. “What’ve we got?”
Sam shot me a quick, searching glance; when he realized I wasn’t about to swoon or scream or whatever he’d had in mind, he nodded. He was starting to look a little more like himself. “White female,” he said, “mid-twenties to early thirties, single stab wound to the chest. Cooper says she died sometime around midnight, give or take an hour. He can’t be more specific: shock, ambient temperature variations, whether there was physical activity around the time of death, all the rest of it.”
Unlike most people, I get on well with Cooper, but I was glad I’d missed him. The tiny cottage felt too full, full of clumping feet and people shifting and eyes on me. “Stabbed here?” I asked.
Sam shook his head. “Hard to tell. We’ll wait and see what the Bureau says, but all that rain last night got rid of a lot --- we won’t be finding footprints in the lane, a blood trail, nothing like that. For what it’s worth, though, I’d say this isn’t our primary crime scene. She was on her feet for at least a while after she got stabbed. See there? Blood’s dripped straight down the leg of her jeans.” Frank shifted the torch beam, obligingly. “And there’s mud on both knees and a rip in one, like she was running and she fell.”
“Looking for cover,” I said. The image surged up at me like something from every forgotten nightmare: the lane twisting into the dark and her running, feet slipping helplessly on pebbles and her breath wild in her ears. I could feel Frank carefully standing back, saying nothing; watching.
“Could be,” Sam said. “Maybe the killer was coming after her, or she thought he was. She could’ve left a trail straight from his front door, for all we’ll ever know; it’s long gone.”
I wanted to do something with my hands, rub them through my hair, over my mouth, something. I shoved them in my pockets to keep them still. “So she got into shelter and collapsed.”
“Not exactly. I’m thinking she died over there.” Sam pulled back the brambles and nodded at a corner of the outer room. “We’ve got what looks like a fair-sized pool of blood. No way to be sure exactly how much --- we’ll see if the Bureau can help there --- but if there’s still plenty left after a night like this, I’d say there was a load of it to start with. She was probably sitting up against that wall --- most of the blood is on the front of her top and on the lap and seat of her jeans. If she’d been lying down, it’d have seeped down her sides. See this?”
He pointed to the girl’s top, and the penny dropped with a bang: not tie-dye. “She twisted up the top and pressed it against the wound, trying to stop the bleeding.”
Huddled deep in that corner; rush of rain, blood seeping warm between her fingers. “So how’d she get over here?” I asked.
“Our boy caught up with her in the end,” Frank said. “Or someone did, anyway.”
He leaned over, lifted one of the girl’s feet by the shoelace --- it sent a fast twitch down the back of my neck, him touching her --- and tilted his torch at the heel of her runner: scuffed and brown, grained deep with dirt. “She was dragged. After death, because there’s no pooling under the body: by the time she got over here, she wasn’t bleeding any more. The guy who found her swears he didn’t touch, and I believe him. He looked like he was about to puke his guts up; no way he got closer than he had to. Anyway, she was moved not too long after she died. Cooper says rigor hadn’t set in yet, and there’s no secondary lividity --- and she didn’t spend much time out in that rain. She’s barely damp. If she’d been in the open all night, she’d be drenched.”
Slowly, as if my eyes were only just adjusting to the dim light, I realized that all the dark patches and stipples that I had taken for shadows and rainwater were actually blood. It was everywhere: streaked across the floor, soaking the girl’s jeans, crusting her hands wrist-deep. I didn’t want to look at her face, at anyone’s face. I kept my eyes on her top and unfocused them so that the dark star swam and blurred. “Got footprints?”
“Zip,” Frank said. “Not even hers. You’d think, with all this dirt; but, like Sam here said, the rain. All we’ve got in the other room is a shitload of mud, with prints matching the guy who called it in and his dog --- that’s one reason I wasn’t too worried about walking you through there. Same thing out in the lane. And in here...” He moved the torch beam around the edges of the floor, nosed it into corners: wide, blank sweeps of dirt, way too smooth. “That’s what it all looked like, when we got here. Those prints you’re seeing around the body, those are us and Cooper and the uniforms. Whoever moved her stuck around to tidy up after himself. There’s a broken branch of gorse in the middle of the field, probably came off that big bush by the door; I’m guessing he used it to sweep the floor clean as he left. We’ll see if the Bureau pulls blood or prints off it. And to go with no footprints...”
He handed me another evidence bag. “See anything wrong?”
It was a wallet, white fake leather, sewn with a butterfly in silver thread and swiped with faint traces of blood. “It’s too clean,” I said. “You said this was in her front jeans pocket, and she bled out all over her lap. This should be covered with blood.”
“Bingo. The pocket’s stiff with it, soaked through, but somehow this barely gets stained? The torch and keys are the same: not a drop of blood, just a few smudges. Looks like our boy went through her pockets and then wiped her stuff clean before he put it back. We’ll have the Bureau fingerprint everything that’ll stay still long enough, but I wouldn’t bet on getting anything useful. Someone was being very, very careful.”
“Any sign of sexual assault?” I asked. Sam flinched. I was way past that.
“Cooper won’t say for sure till the post-mortem, but nothing on the preliminary points that way. We might get lucky and find some foreign blood on her” --- a lot of stabbers cut themselves---”but, basically, I’m not holding my breath for DNA.”
My first impression --- the invisible killer, leaving no trace --- hadn’t been far off. After a few months in Murder, you can tell One of Those Cases a mile away. With the last clear corner of my mind I reminded myself that, no matter what it looked like, this one was not my problem. “Great,” I said. “What do you have? Anything on her, other than she’s in Trinity and she’s running around wearing a fake name?”
“Sergeant Byrne says she’s local,” Sam said. “Lives at Whitethorn House, maybe half a mile away, with a bunch of other students. That’s all he knows about her. I haven’t talked to the housemates yet, because...” He gestured at Frank.
“Because I begged him to hold off,” Frank said smoothly. “I have this little idea I wanted to run by you two, before the investigation gets into full gear.” He arched an eyebrow towards the door and the uniforms. “Maybe we should go for a wander.”
“Why not,” I said. The girl’s body was doing something funny to the air in there, fizzing it, like the needle-thin whine the TV makes on mute; it was hard to think straight. “If we stay in the same room for too long, the universe might turn into antimatter.” I gave Frank his evidence bag back and wiped my hand on the side of my trousers.
In the moment before I passed through the doorway I turned my head and looked at her, over my shoulder. Frank had switched off his torch, but pulling back the brambles let in a flood of spring sun and for the split second before my shadow blocked it again she rose up blazing out of the darkness, tilted chin and a clenched fist and the wild arch of her throat, bright and bloodied and relentless as my own wrecked ghost.
That was the last time I saw her. It didn’t occur to me at the time --- I had other stuff on my mind --- and it seems impossible now, but those ten minutes, sharp as a crease pressed straight across my life: that was the only time we were ever together.
The uniforms were slumped where we had left them, like beanbags. Byrne was staring off into the middle distance in some kind of catatonic state; Doherty was examining one finger in a way that made me think he had been picking his nose.
“Right,” Byrne said, once he surfaced from his trance and registered that we were back. “We’ll be off, so. She’s all yours.”
Sometimes the local uniforms are pure diamond --- reeling off details about everyone for miles around, listing half a dozen possible motives, handing you a prime suspect on a plate. Other times, all they want is to pass the hassle to you and get back to their game of Go Fish. This was obviously going to be other times.
“We’ll need you to hang on for a while,” Sam said, which I took as a good sign --- the extent to which Frank had been running this show was making me edgy. “The Technical Bureau might want you to help with the search, and I’ll be asking you to give me all the local info you can.”
“She’s not local, sure,” Doherty said, wiping his finger on the side of his trousers. He was staring at me again. “Them up at Whitethorn House, they’re blow-ins. They’ve nothing to do with Glenskehy.”
“Lucky bastards,” Byrne mumbled, to his chest.
“She lived local, though,” Sam said patiently, “and she died local. That means we’ll be needing to canvass the area. You should probably give us a hand, seeing as ye know your way around.”
Byrne’s head sank farther into his shoulders. “They’re all mentallers, round here,” he said morosely. “Stone mentallers. That’s all you need to know.”
“Some of my best friends are mentallers,” Frank said cheerfully. “Think of it as a challenge.” He gave them a wave and headed off up the field, feet swishing wetly through the grass.
Sam and I followed him. Even without looking I could feel the worried little line between Sam’s eyebrows, but I didn’t have the energy to reassure him. Now I was out of that cottage, all I could feel was outrage, pure and simple. My face and my old name: it was like coming home one day and finding another girl coolly making dinner in your kitchen, wearing your comfiest jeans and singing along to your favorite CD. I was so furious I could barely breathe. I thought of that photo and I wanted to punch my smile straight off her face.
“Well,” I said, when we caught up with Frank at the top of the field, “that was fun. Can I go to work now?”
“DV must be a lot more entertaining than I thought,” Frank said, doing impressed, “if you’re in this much of a hurry. Sunglasses.”
I left the glasses where they were. “Unless this girl was a victim of domestic violence, and I’m not seeing anything that points that way, she’s got sweet fuck-all to do with me. So you dragged me out here why, exactly?”
“Hey, I’ve missed you, babe. Any excuse.” Frank grinned at me; I gave him a hairy look. “And you seriously figure she’s fuck-all to do with you? Let’s see you say that when we’re trying to ID her, and everyone you’ve ever known is freaking out and ringing up to give us your name.”
All the anger deflated out of me, leaving a nasty hollow at the bottom of my stomach. Frank, the little bollocks, was right. As soon as this girl’s face went into the papers alongside an appeal for her real name, there would be a tidal wave of people who had known me as Lexie, her as Lexie, me as me, all of them wanting to know who was dead and who both of us had been if we weren’t in fact Lexie Madison, and general hall-of-mirrors overload. Believe it or not, that was the first time it hit me: there was no way in the world for this to be as easy as Don’t know her, don’t want to know her, thanks for wasting my morning, see you around.
“Sam,” I said. “Is there any way you could hold off on putting her picture out for a day or two? Just till I can warn people.” I had no idea how I was going to word this one. See, Aunt Louisa, we found this dead girl and...
“Interestingly,” Frank said, “now that you mention it, that fits right in with my little idea.” There was a jumble of moss-covered boulders piled in the corner of the field; he pulled himself backwards onto them and sat there, one leg swinging.
I’d seen that gleam in his eyes before. It always meant he was about to come out, spectacularly casually, with something totally outrageous. “What, Frank,” I said.
“Well,” Frank began, getting comfortable against the rocks and folding his arms behind his head, “we’ve got a unique opportunity here, haven’t we? Shame to waste it.”
“We do?” Sam said.
“We do?” I said.
“Oh, yeah. Jesus, yeah.” That risky grin was starting at the corners of Frank’s mouth. “We’ve got the chance,” he said, taking his time, “we’ve got the chance to investigate a murder case from the inside. We’ve got the chance to place an experienced undercover officer smack in the middle of a murder victim’s life.”
We both stared at him.
“When have you ever seen anything like that before? It’s beautiful, Cass. It’s a work of art.”
“Work of arse, more like,” I said. “What the hell are you on about, Frankie?”
Frank spread his arms like it was obvious. “Look. You’ve been Lexie Madison before, right? You can be her again. You can --- no, hang on, hear me out --- if she’s not dead, just wounded, right? You can walk straight back into her life and pick up where she left off.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “This is why no Bureau and no morgue guys? This is why you made me dress like a dork? So nobody notices you have a spare?” I pulled my hat off and stuffed it back in my bag. Even for Frank, this had taken some fast thinking. Within seconds of arriving at the scene, he must have had this in his head.
“You can get hold of info no cop would ever learn, you can get close to everyone she was close to, you can identify suspects---”
“You want to use her as bait,” Sam said, too levelly.
“I want to use her as a detective, mate,” Frank said. “Which is what she is, last time I checked.”
“You want to put her in there so this fella will come back to finish the job. That’s bait.”
“So? Undercovers are bait all the time. I’m not asking her to do anything I wouldn’t do myself in a heartbeat, if---”
“No,” Sam said. “No way.”
Frank raised an eyebrow. “What are you, her ma?”
“I’m the lead investigator on this case, and I’m saying no way.”
“You might want to think about it for more than ten seconds, pal, before you---”
I might as well not have been there. “Hello?” I said.
They turned and stared at me. “Sorry,” Sam said, somewhere between sheepish and defiant.
“Hi,” Frank said, grinning at me.
“Frank,” I said, “this is officially the looniest idea I’ve ever heard in my life. You are off your bloody trolley. You are up the wall and tickling the bricks. You are---”
“What’s loony about it?” Frank demanded, injured.
“Jesus,” I said. I ran my hands through my hair and turned full circle, trying to figure out where to start. Hills, fields, spaced-out uniforms, cottage with dead girl: this wasn’t some messed-up dream. “OK, just for starters, it’s impossible. I’ve never even heard of anything like this before.”
“But that’s the beauty of it,” Frank explained.
“If you go under as someone who actually exists, it’s for like half an hour, Frank, and it’s to do something specific. It’s to do a drop-off or a pickup or something, from a stranger. You’re talking about me jumping right into the middle of this girl’s life, just because I look a bit like her---”
“Do you even know what color her eyes are? What if they’re blue, or---”
“Give me some credit, babe. They’re brown.”
“Or what if she programs computers, or plays tennis? What if she’s left-handed? It can’t be done. I’d be burned inside an hour.”
Frank pulled a squashed pack of smokes out of his jacket pocket and fished out a cigarette. He had that glint in his eye again; he loves a challenge. “I have every faith in you. Want a smoke?”
“No,” I said, even though I did. I couldn’t stop moving, up and down and around the patch of long grass between us. I don’t even like her, I wanted to say, which made no sense at all.
Frank shrugged and lit up. “Let me worry about whether it’s possible. It might not be, I’ll grant you that, but I’ll figure that out as we go along. What’s next?”
Sam was looking away, his hands shoved deep in his pockets, leaving me to it. “Next,” I said, “it’s somewhere out on the other side of unethical. This girl must have family, friends. You’re going to tell them she’s alive and well and just needs a few stitches, while she’s lying on a table in the morgue with Cooper slicing her open? Jesus, Frank.”
“She’s living under a fake name, Cass,” Frank said, reasonably. “You really think she’s in touch with her family? By the time we track them down, this will all be over. They’ll never know the difference.”
“So what about her mates? The uniforms said she lives with a bunch of others. What if she’s got a boyfriend?”
“The people who care about her,” Frank said, “will want us to catch the guy who did this to her. Whatever it takes. That’s what I’d want.” He blew smoke up at the sky.
Sam’s shoulders shifted. He thought Frank was just being smart-arsed. But Sam’s never done undercover, he had no way of knowing: undercovers are different. There is nothing they won’t do, to themselves or anyone else, to take their guy down. There was no point in arguing with Frank on this one, because he meant what he had said: if his kid were killed, and someone kept that from him in order to get the guy, he would take it without a murmur. It’s one of the most powerful lures of undercover, the ruthlessness, no borderlines; strong stuff, strong enough to take your breath away. It’s one of the reasons I left.
“And then what?” I said. “When it’s over. You tell them, ‘Oops, by the way, we forgot to mention, that’s a ringer; your mate died three weeks ago?’ Or do I keep being Lexie Madison till I can die of old age?”
Frank squinted into the sun, considering this. “Your wound can get infected,” he said, brightening. “You’ll go into the ICU and the doctors will try everything modern medicine can offer, but no go.”
“Jesus Christ on a bike,” I said. I felt like this was all I had said, all morning long. “What on earth is making this seem like a good idea to you?”
“What’s next?” Frank asked. “Come on, hit me.”
“Next,” Sam said, still looking away down the lane, “it’s bloody dangerous.”
Frank raised one eyebrow and tilted his head at Sam, giving me a wicked private grin. For an off-balance second I had to stop myself grinning back.
“Next,” I said, “it’s too late anyway. Byrne and Doherty and Whatsisname with the dog all know there’s a dead woman in there. You’re telling me you can get all three of them to keep their mouths shut, just because it suits you? Whatsisname’s probably told half of Wicklow already.”
“Whatsisname is Richard Doyle, and I’m not planning on getting him to keep his mouth shut. As soon as we’re done here, I’m going to go congratulate him on saving this young woman’s life. If he hadn’t shown great presence of mind by calling us immediately, the outcome could have been tragic. He’s a hero, and he can tell as many people as he likes. And you saw Byrne, babe. That’s not a happy little member of our glorious brotherhood. If I hint that there might be a transfer in it for him, not only will he keep his mouth shut, he’ll keep Doherty’s shut too. Next?”
“Next,” I said, “it’s pointless. Sam’s worked dozens of murders, Frank, and he’s solved most of them, without needing to pull any wack-job stunts. This thing you’re talking about would take weeks to set up---”
“Days, anyway,” Frank amended.
“---and by that time he’ll have someone. At least, he will if you don’t fuck up his investigation by getting everyone to pretend there’s no murder to begin with. All this will do is waste your time and mine and everyone else’s.”
“Would it fuck up your investigation?” Frank asked Sam. “Just hypothetically speaking. If you told the public --- just for, say, a couple days --- that this was an assault, not a murder. Would it?”
Eventually Sam sighed. “No,” he said. “Not really, no. There’s not that much difference in investigating attempted murder and actual murder. And, like Cassie said, we’ll have to keep this pretty quiet for a few days anyway, till we find out who the victim is, so things don’t get too confused. But that’s not the point.”
“OK,” Frank said. “Then here’s what I suggest. Mostly you guys have a suspect within seventy-two hours, right?”
Sam said nothing.
“Right,” Sam said. “And there’s no reason why this should be different.”
“No reason at all,” Frank agreed, pleasantly. “Today’s Thursday. Just through the weekend, we keep our options open. We don’t tell civilians it’s a murder. Cassie stays home, so there’s no chance of the killer getting a glimpse of her, and we’ve got our ace up the sleeve if we decide to use it. I find out everything I can about this girl, just in case --- that would need doing anyway, am I right? I won’t get in your way, you’ve got my word on that. Like you said, you’re bound to have someone in your sights by Sunday night. If you do, then I back off, Cassie goes back to DV, everything goes back to standard procedure, no harm done. If by any chance you don’t... well, we’ve still got all our options.”
Neither of us answered.
“I’m only asking for three days, guys,” Frank said. “No commitment to anything. What damage can that do?”
Sam looked marginally reassured by this, but I wasn’t, because I knew how Frank works: a series of little tiny steps, each one looking perfectly safe and innocuous until suddenly, bam, you’re smack in the middle of something you really did not want to deal with. “But why, Frank?” I asked. “Answer me that and yeah, fine, I’ll spend a gorgeous spring weekend sitting in my flat watching crap telly instead of going out with my boyfriend like a normal human being. You’re talking about throwing huge amounts of time and manpower at something that could well turn out to be completely pointless. Why?”
Frank whipped a hand up to shade his eyes so he could stare at me. “Why?” he repeated. “Jesus, Cassie! Because we can. Because nobody in the history of police work has ever had a chance like this. Because it would be bloody amazing. What, you’re not seeing that? What the fuck is wrong with you? Have you gone desk on me?”
I felt like he had hauled off and punched me in the stomach. I stopped pacing and turned away, looking out over the hillside, away from Frank and Sam and from the uniforms twisting their heads into the cottage to gawp at wet dead me.
After a moment Frank said behind me, softer, “Sorry, Cass. I just wasn’t expecting that. From the Murder gang, sure, but not from you, of all people. I didn’t think you meant... I thought you were just covering all the bases. I didn’t realize.”
He sounded genuinely stunned. I knew perfectly well he was working me and I could have listed every tool he was using, but it didn’t matter; because he was right. Five years earlier, one year earlier, I would have been leaping for this dazzling incomparable adventure right alongside him, I’d have been in there checking whether the dead girl’s ears were pierced and how she parted her hair. I looked out at the fields and thought, very distinctly and detachedly, What the fuck has happened to me?
“OK,” I said, finally. “What you tell the press isn’t my problem; you guys fight it out between you. I’ll stay out of the way for the weekend. But, Frank, I’m not promising you anything else. No matter who Sam finds or doesn’t find. This does not mean I’m doing it. Clear enough?”
“That’s my girl,” Frank said. I could hear the grin in his voice. “For a moment there I thought the aliens had planted a chip in your brain.”
“Fuck off, Frank,” I said, turning around. Sam didn’t look happy, but I couldn’t worry about that just then. I needed to get away on my own and think about this.
“I haven’t said yes yet,” Sam said.
“It’s your call, obviously,” Frank said. He didn’t seem too worried. I knew he might have more of a fight on his hands than he expected. Sam is an easygoing guy, but every now and then he puts his foot down, and then trying to change his mind is like trying to push a house out of your way. “Just call it fast. If we’re going with this, for now anyway, we’ll need to get an ambulance out here ASAP.”
“Let me know what you decide?” I told Sam. “I’m going home. See you tonight?” Frank’s eyebrows shot up. Undercovers have an impressive grapevine all their own, but they mostly stay away from the general gossip, in a slightly pointed way, and Sam and I had been keeping things fairly quiet. Frank gave me an amused look, tongue rolling in his cheek. I ignored him.
“I don’t know when I’ll finish up,” Sam said.
I shrugged. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“See you soon, babe,” Frank said happily, through another cigarette, and waved good-bye.
Sam walked me back down the field, close enough that his shoulder brushed mine protectively; I got the sense he didn’t want me to have to pass the body on my own. Actually, I badly wanted to have another look at it, preferably by myself and for a long silent time, but I could feel Frank’s eyes on my back, so I didn’t even turn my head as we passed the cottage.
“I wanted to warn you,” Sam said abruptly. “Mackey said no. He was pretty insistent about it, and I wasn’t thinking straight enough to... I should’ve. I’m sorry.”
Obviously Frank, like everyone else in my bloody universe, had heard the Operation Vestal rumors. “He wanted to see how I’d take it,” I said. “Checking my nerve. And he’s good at getting what he wants. It’s OK.”
“This Mackey. Is he a good cop?”
I didn’t know how to answer that. “Good cop” isn’t a phrase we take lightly. It means a vast complex constellation of things, and a different one for every officer. I wasn’t at all sure that Frank fit Sam’s definition, or even, come to think of it, mine. “He’s smart as hell,” I said, in the end, “and he gets his man. One way or another. Are you going to give him his three days?
Sam sighed. “If you’re all right with staying in this weekend, then yeah, I’d say I will. It’ll do no harm, actually, keeping this case under the radar till we’ve some idea what we’re dealing with --- an ID, a suspect, something. It’ll keep the confusion down. I’m not mad about giving her friends false hope, but sure, I suppose it could soften the blow --- having the few days to get used to the chance that she might not make it...”
It was shaping up to be a gorgeous day; the sun was drying the grass and it was so quiet I could hear tiny insects zigzagging in and out among the wildflowers. There was something about the green hillsides that made me edgy, something stubborn and secretive, like a turned back. It took me a second to figure out what it was: they were empty. Out of all Glenskehy, not one person had come to see what was going on.
Out in the lane, screened from the others by trees and hedges, Sam pulled me tight against him.
“I thought it was you,” he said into my hair. His voice was low and shaking. “I thought it was you.”
Excerpted from THE LIKENESS © Copyright 2011 by Tana French. Reprinted with permission by Penguin. All rights reserved.