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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.
This is the main thing you need to know about Alexandra Madison: she never existed. Frank Mackey and I invented her, a long time ago, on a bright summer afternoon in his dusty office on Harcourt Street. He wanted people to infiltrate a drug ring in University College Dublin. I wanted the job, maybe more than I had ever wanted anything in my life.
He was a legend: Frank Mackey, still in his thirties and already running undercover operations; the best Undercover agent Ireland’s ever had, people said, reckless and fearless, a tightrope artist with no net, ever. He walked into IRA cells and criminal gangs like he was walking into his local pub. Everyone had told me the story: when the Snake—a career gangster and five-star wacko, who once left one of his own men quadriplegic for not buying his round—got suspicious and threatened to use a nail gun on Frank’s hands, Frank looked him in the eye without breaking a sweat and bluffed him down till the Snake slapped him on the back and gave him a fake Rolex by way of apology. Frank still wears it.
I was a shiny green rookie, only a year out of Templemore Training College. A couple of days earlier, when Frank had sent out the call for cops who had a college education and could pass for early twenties, I had been wearing a neon yellow vest that was too big for me and patrolling a small town in Sligo where most of the locals looked disturbingly alike. I should have been nervous of him, but I wasn’t, not at all. I wanted the assignment too badly to have room for anything else.
His office door was open and he was sitting on the edge of his desk, wearing jeans and a faded blue T-shirt, flipping through my file. The office was small and had a disheveled look, like he used it mainly for storage. The desk was empty, not even a family photo; on the shelves, paperwork was mixed in with blues CDs, tabloids, a poker set and a woman’s pink cardigan with the tags still on. I decided I liked this guy.
“Cassandra Maddox,” he said, glancing up.
“Yes, sir,” I said. He was average height, stocky but fit, with good shoulders and close-cut brown hair. I’d been expecting someone so nondescript he was practically invisible, maybe the Cancer Man from The X Files, but this guy had rough, blunt features and wide blue eyes, and the kind of presence that leaves heat streaks on the air where he’s been. He wasn’t my type, but I was pretty sure he got a lot of female attention.
“Frank. ‘Sir’ is for desk jockeys.” His accent was old inner-city Dublin, subtle but deliberate, like a challenge. He slid off the desk and held out his hand.
“Cassie,” I said, shaking it.
He pointed at a chair and went back to his perch on the desk. “Says here,” he said, tapping my file, “you’re good under pressure.”
It took me a second to figure out what he was talking about. Back when I was a trainee posted to a scuzzy part of Cork city, I had talked down a panicked teenage schizophrenic who was threatening to cut his own throat with his grandfather’s straight razor. I had almost forgotten about that. It hadn’t occurred to me, till then, that this was probably why I was up for this job.
“I hope so,” I said.
The light through the window was on my face and he gave me a long, considering look. “You can do twenty-one, no problem. Says here you’ve three years of college. Where?”
His eyebrows shot up, mock-impressed. “Ah, a professional. Why didn’t you finish?”
“I developed an unknown-to-science allergy to Anglo-Irish accents,” I told him.
He liked that. “UCD going to bring you out in a rash?”
“I’ll take my antihistamines.”
Frank hopped off his desk and went to the window, motioning me to follow. “OK,” he said. “See that couple down there?”
A guy and a girl, walking up the street, talking. She found keys and let them into a depressing apartment block. “Tell me about them,” Frank said. He leaned back against the window and hooked his thumbs in his belt, watching me.
“They’re students,” I said. “Book bags. They’d been food shopping—the carrier bags from Dunne’s. She’s better off than he is; her jacket was expensive, but he had a patch on his jeans, and not in a trendy way.”
“They a couple? Friends? Flatmates?”
“A couple. They walked closer than friends, tilted their heads closer.”
“They going out long?”
I liked this, the new way my mind was working. “A while, yeah,” I said. Frank cocked an eyebrow like a question, and for a moment I wasn’t sure how I knew; then it clicked. “They didn’t look at each other when they were talking. New couples look at each other all the time; established ones don’t need to check in as often.”
“No, or he’d have automatically gone for his keys as well. That’s her place. She has at least one flatmate, though. They both looked up at a window: checking to see if the curtains were open.”
“How’s their relationship?”
“Good. She made him laugh—guys mostly don’t laugh at a girl’s jokes unless they’re still at the chat-up stage. He was carrying both the Dunne’s bags, and she held the door open for him before she went in: they look after each other.”
Frank gave me a nod. “Nicely done. Undercover’s half intuition—and I don’t mean psychic shite. I mean noticing things and analyzing them, before you even know you’re doing it. The rest is speed and balls. If you’re going to say something or do something, you do it fast and you do it with total conviction. If you stop to second-guess yourself, you’re fucked, possibly dead. You’ll be out of touch a lot, the next year or two. Got family?”
“An aunt and uncle,” I said.
“You’ll be able to contact them, but they won’t be able to contact you. They going to be OK with that?”
“They’ll have to be,” I said.
He was still slouching easily against the window frame, but I caught the sharp glint of blue: he was watching me hard. “This isn’t some Colombian cartel we’re talking about, and you’ll be dealing mostly with the lowest ranks— at first, anyway—but you’ve got to know this job isn’t safe. Half these people are binned out of their heads most of the time, and the other half are very serious about what they do, which means none of them would have any problem with the idea of killing you. That make you nervous?”
“No,” I said, and I meant it. “Not at all.”
“Lovely,” said Frank. “Let’s get coffee and get to work.”
It took me a minute to realize that that was it: I was in. I’d been expecting a three-hour interview and a stack of weird tests with inkblots and questions about my mother, but Frank doesn’t work like that. I still don’t know where, along the way, he made the decision. For a long time, I waited for the right moment to ask him. Now I’m not sure, any more, whether I want to know what he saw in me; what it was that told him I would be good at this.
We got burnt-tasting coffee and a packet of chocolate biscuits from the canteen, and spent the rest of the day coming up with Alexandra Madison. I picked the name—“You’ll remember it better that way,” Frank said. Madison, because it sounds enough like my own surname to make me turn around, and Lexie because when I was a kid that was the name of my imaginary sister. Frank found a big sheet of paper and drew a timeline of her life for me. “You were born in Holles Street Hospital on the first of March 1979. Father, Sean Madison, a minor diplomat, posted in Canada—that’s so we can pull you out fast if we need to: give you a family emergency, and off you go. It also means you can spend your childhood traveling, to explain why nobody knows you.” Ireland is small; everyone’s cousin’s girlfriend went to school with you. “We could make you foreign, but I don’t want you fucking about with an accent. Mother, Caroline Kelly Madison. She got a job?”
“She’s a nurse.”
“Careful. Think faster; keep an eye out for implications. Nurses need a new license for every country. She trained, but she quit working when you were seven and your family left Ireland.
Want brothers and sisters?”
“Sure, why not,” I said. “I’ll have a brother.” There was something intoxicating about this. I kept wanting to laugh, just at the lavish giddy freedom of it: relatives and countries and possibilities spread out in front of me and I could pick whatever I wanted, I could grow up in a palace in Bhutan with seventeen brothers and sisters and a personal chauffeur if I felt like it. I shoved another biscuit into my mouth before Frank could see me smiling and think I wasn’t taking this seriously.
“Whatever your heart desires. He’s six years younger, so he’s in Canada with your parents. What’s his name?”
“Stephen.” Imaginary brother; I had an active fantasy life as a kid.
“Do you get on with him? What’s he like? Faster,” Frank said, when I took a breath.
“He’s a little smart-arse. Football-mad. He fights with our parents all the time, because he’s fifteen, but he still talks to me . . .”
Sun slanting across the scarred wood of the desk. Frank smelled clean, like soap and leather. He was a good teacher, a wonderful teacher; his black Biro scribbled in dates and places and events, and Lexie Madison developed out of nothing like a Polaroid, she curled off the page and hung in the air like incense smoke, a girl with my face and a life from a half-forgotten dream. When did you have your first boyfriend? Where were you living? What was his name? Who dumped who? Why? Frank found an ashtray, flipped a Player’s out of his packet for me. When the sun bars slid off the desk and the sky started to dim outside the window, he spun his chair around, took a bottle of whiskey off a shelf and spiked our coffees: “We’ve earned it,” he said. “Cheers.”
We made her a restless one, Lexie: bright and educated, a good girl all her life, but brought up without the habit of settling and never learned the knack. A little naïve maybe, a little unguarded, too ready to tell you anything you asked without thinking twice. “She’s bait,” Frank said bluntly, “and she has to be the right bait to make the dealers rise. We need her innocent enough that they won’t consider her a threat, respectable enough to be useful to them, and rebellious enough that they won’t wonder why she wants to play.”
By the time we finished, it was dark. “Nice work,” Frank said, folding up the timeline and passing it to me. “There’s a detective training course starting in ten days; I’ll get you into that. Then you’ll come back here and I’ll work with you for a while. When UCD starts back in October, you’ll go in.”
He hooked a leather jacket off the corner of the shelves, switched off the light and shut the door on the dark little office. I walked back to the bus station dazzled, wrapped in magic, floating in the middle of a secret and a brand-new world, with the timeline making little crackling sounds in the pocket of my uniform jacket. It was that quick, and it felt that simple.
I’m not going to get into the long, snarled chain of events that took me from Undercover to Domestic Violence. The abridged version: UCD’s premier speed freak got paranoid and stabbed me, wounded-in-the-line-of-duty got me a place on the Murder squad, the Murder squad got to be a head-wrecker, I got out. It had been years since I’d thought about Lexie and her short shadowy life. I’m not the type to look back over my shoulder, or at least I try hard not to be. Gone is gone; pretending anything else is a waste of time. But now I think I always knew there would be consequences to Lexie Madison. You can’t make a person, a human being with a first kiss and a sense of humor and a favorite sandwich, and then expect her to dissolve back into scribbled notes and whiskeyed coffee when she no longer suits your purposes. I think I always knew she would come back to find me, someday.
It took her four years. She picked her moment carefully. When she came knocking, it was an early morning in April, a few months after the end of my time in Murder, and I was at the firing range.
The range we use is underground in the city center, deep under half the cars in Dublin and a thick layer of smog. I didn’t need to be there—I’ve always been a good shot, and my next qualifying test wasn’t for months—but for the last while I had been waking up way too early for work and way too restless for anything else, and target practice was the only thing I had found that worked the jitters out of me. I took my time adjusting the earmuffs and checking my gun, waited till everyone else was concentrating on their own targets, so they wouldn’t see me galvanizing like an electrocuted cartoon character on the first few shots. Being easily freaked out comes with its own special skill set: you develop subtle tricks to work around it, make sure people don’t notice. Pretty soon, if you’re a fast learner, you can get through the day looking almost exactly like a normal human being.
I never used to be like that. I always figured nerves were for Jane Austen characters and helium-voiced girls who never buy their round; I would no more have turned shaky in a crisis than I would have carried smelling salts around in my reticule. Getting stabbed by the Drug Demon of UCD barely even fazed me. The department shrink spent weeks trying to convince me I was deeply traumatized, but eventually he had to give up, admit I was fine (sort of regretfully; he doesn’t get a lot of stabbed cops to play with, I think he was hoping I would have some kind of fancy complex) and let me go back to work.
Embarrassingly, the one that got me wasn’t a spectacular mass murder or a hostage crisis gone bad or a nice quiet guy with human organs in his Tupperware. My last case in Murder was such a simple one, so much like dozens of others, nothing to warn us: just a little girl dead on a summer morning, and my partner and me goofing off in the squad room when the call came in. From outside, it even went well. Officially, we got a solve in barely a month, society was saved from the evildoer, it looked all pretty in the media and in the end-of...
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