My father once told me that the most important thing every man should know is what he would die for. If you don’t know that, he said, what are you worth? Nothing. You’re not a man at all. I was thirteen and he was three quarters of the way into a bottle of Gordon’s finest, but hey, good talk. As far as I recall, he was willing to die a) for Ireland, b) for his mother, who had been dead for ten years, and c) to get that bitch Maggie Thatcher.
All the same, at any moment of my life since that day, I could have told you straight off the bat exactly what I would die for. At first it was easy: my family, my girl, my home. Later, for a while, things got more complicated. These days they hold steady, and I like that; it feels like something a man can be proud of. I would die for, in no particular order, my city, my job, and my kid.
The kid is well behaved so far, the city is Dublin, and the job is on the Undercover Squad, so it may sound obvious which one I’m most likely to wind up dying for, but it’s been a while since work handed me anything scarier than a paperwork megaturd. The size of this country means a field agent’s shelf life is short; two ops, maybe four, and your risk of being spotted gets too high. I used up my nine lives a long time back. I stay behind the scenes, for now, and run operations of my own.
Here’s the real risk in Undercover, in the field and out: you create illusions for long enough, you start thinking you’re in control. It’s easy to slide into believing you’re the hypnotist here, the mirage master, the smart cookie who knows what’s real and how all the tricks are done. The fact is you’re still just another slack-jawed mark in the audience. No matter how good you are, this world is always going to be better at this game. It’s more cunning than you are, it’s faster and it’s a whole lot more ruthless. All you can do is try to keep up, know your weak spots and never stop expecting the sucker punch.
The second time my life geared up for the sucker punch, it was a Friday afternoon at the beginning of December. I had spent the day doing maintenance work on some of my current mirages—one of my boys, who would not be getting any cookies from Uncle Frank in his Christmas stocking, had got himself into a situation wherein, for complex reasons, he needed an elderly lady whom he could introduce to several low-level drug dealers as his granny—and I was heading over to my ex-wife’s place to pick up my kid for the weekend. Olivia and Holly live in a jaw-droppingly tasteful semi-d on a manicured cul-de-sac in Dalkey. Olivia’s daddy gave it to us for a wedding present. When we moved in, it had a name instead of a number. I got rid of that fast, but still, I should have copped right then that this marriage was never going to work. If my parents had known I was getting married, my ma would have gone deep into hock at the credit union, bought us a lovely floral living-room suite and been outraged if we took the plastic off the cushions.
Olivia kept herself bang in the middle of the doorway, in case I got ideas about coming in. “Holly’s almost ready,” she said.
Olivia, and I say this hand on heart with the proper balance of smugness and regret, is a stunner: tall, with a long elegant face, plenty of soft ashblond hair and the kind of discreet curves you don’t notice at first and then can’t stop noticing. That evening she was smoothed into an expensive black dress and delicate tights and her grandmother’s diamond necklace that only comes out on big occasions, and the Pope himself would have whipped off his skullcap to mop his brow. Me being a less classy guy than the Pope, I wolf whistled. “Big date?”
“We’re going for dinner.”
“Does ‘we’ involve Dermo again?”
Olivia is way too smart to let me yank her chain that easily. “His name’s Dermot, and yes, it does.”
I did impressed. “That’s four weekends running, am I right? Tell me something: is tonight the big night?”
Olivia called up the stairs, “Holly! Your father’s here!” While she had her back turned, I headed on past her into the hall. She was wearing Chanel No. 5, same as she has ever since we met.
Upstairs: “Daddy! I’m coming I’m coming I’m coming, I just have to . . .” and then a long intent stream of chatter, as Holly explained her complicated little head without caring whether anyone could hear her. I yelled, “You take your time, sweetheart!” on my way into the kitchen.
Olivia followed me. “Dermot will be here any minute,” she told me. I wasn’t clear on whether this was a threat or a plea.
I flipped open the fridge and had a look inside. “I don’t like the cut of that fella. He’s got no chin. I never trust a man with no chin.”
“Well, fortunately, your taste in men isn’t relevant here.”
“It is if you’re getting serious enough that he’ll be spending time around Holly. What’s his surname again?”
Once, back when we were heading for the split, Olivia slammed the fridge door on my head. I could tell she was thinking about doing it again. I stayed leaning over, to give her every opportunity, but she kept her cool. “Why do you want to know?”
“I’ll need to run him through the computer.” I pulled out a carton of orange juice and gave it a shake. “What’s this crap? When did you stop buying the good stuff?”
Olivia’s mouth—subtle nude lipstick—was starting to tighten. “You will not run Dermot through any computer, Frank.”
“Got no choice,” I told her cheerfully. “I have to make sure he’s not a kiddie-fiddler, haven’t I?”
“Sweet Lord, Frank! He is not—”
“Maybe not,” I acknowledged. “Probably not. But how can you be sure, Liv? Wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry?” I uncapped the juice and took a swig.
“Holly!” Olivia called, louder. “Hurry up!”
“I can’t find my horse!” A bunch of thumps, overhead.
I told Olivia, “They target single mammies with lovely little kids. And it’s amazing how many of them don’t have chins. Have you never noticed that?”
“No, Frank, I haven’t. And I won’t have you using your job to intimidate—”
“Take a good look next time there’s a pedo on the telly. White van and no chin, I guarantee you. What does Dermo drive?”
I had another big gulp of juice, wiped off the spout with my sleeve and stuck the carton back in the fridge. “That tastes like cat’s piss. If I up the child support, will you buy decent juice?”
“If you tripled it,” Olivia said sweetly and coldly, glancing at her watch, “not that you could, it might just about cover one carton a week.” Kitty has claws, if you keep pulling her tail for long enough.
At this point Holly saved both of us from ourselves by shooting out of her room calling, “Daddydaddydaddy!” at the top of her lungs. I made it to the bottom of the stairs in time for her to take a flying leap at me like a little spinning firework, all gold cobweb hair and pink sparkly things, wrapping her legs round my waist and whacking me in the back with her schoolbag and a fuzzy pony called Clara that had seen better days.
“Hello, spider monkey,” I said, kissing the top of her head. She was light as a fairy. “How was your week?”
“Very busy and I’m not a spider monkey,” she told me severely, nose to nose. “What’s a spider monkey?”
Holly is nine and the fine-boned, easy-bruised spit of her mother’s family—us Mackeys are sturdy and thick-skinned and thick-haired, built for hard work in Dublin weather—all except for her eyes. The first time I ever saw her she looked up at me with my own eyes, great wide bright-blue eyes that hit me like a Taser zap, and they still make my heart flip over every time. Olivia can scrape off my surname like an out-of-date address label, load up the fridge with juice I don’t like and invite Dermo the Pedo to fill my side of the bed, but there’s not a thing she can do about those eyes.
I told Holly, “It’s a magic fairy monkey that lives in an enchanted wood.” She gave me a look that was perfectly balanced between Wow and Nice try. “What has you so busy?”
She slid off me and landed on the floor with a thump. “Chloe and Sarah and me are going to have a band. I drew you a picture in school because we made up a dance and can I have white boots? And Sarah wrote a song and . . .” For a second there Olivia and I almost smiled at each other, across her head, before Olivia caught herself and checked her watch again.
In the drive we crossed paths with my friend Dermo, who—as I know for a fact, because I snagged his plate number the first time he and Olivia went out to dinner—is an impeccably law-abiding guy who has never even parked his Audi on a double yellow, and who can’t help looking like he lives life on the verge of a massive belch. “Evening,” he said, giving me an electrocuted nod. I think Dermo may be scared of me. “Holly.”
“What do you call him?” I asked Holly, when I had fastened her into her booster seat and Olivia, perfect as Grace Kelly, was kissing Dermo’s cheek in the doorway.
Holly rearranged Clara’s mane and shrugged. “Mum says to call him Uncle Dermot.”
“And do you?”
“No. Out loud I don’t call him anything. In my head I call him Squidface.” She checked in the rearview mirror, to see if I was going to give out about that. Her chin was all ready to turn stubborn.
I started to laugh. “Beautiful,” I told her. “That’s my girl,” and I did a handbrake turn to make Olivia and Squidface jump.
Since Olivia got sense and kicked me out, I live on the quays, in a massive apartment block built in the nineties by, apparently, David Lynch. The carpets are so deep that I’ve never heard a footstep, but even at four in the morning you can feel the hum of five hundred minds buzzing on every side of you: people dreaming, hoping, worrying, planning, thinking. I grew up in a tenement house, so you would think I’d be good with the factory-farm lifestyle, but this is different. I don’t know these people; I never even see these people. I have no idea how or when they get in and out of the place. For all I know they never leave, just stay barricaded in their apartments, thinking Even in my sleep I’ve got one ear tuned to that buzz, ready to leap out of bed and defend my territory if I need to.
The decor in my personal corner of Twin Peaks is divorcé chic, by which I mean that, four years on, it still looks like the moving van hasn’t arrived yet. The exception is Holly’s room, which is loaded with every fluffy pastel object known to man. The day we went looking for furniture together, I had finally managed to wrestle one weekend a month out of Olivia, and I wanted to buy Holly everything on three floors of the shopping center. A part of me had believed I’d never see her again.
“What are we doing tomorrow?” she wanted to know, as we headed up the padded corridor. She was trailing Clara on the carpet by one leg. Last I’d looked, she would have screamed bloody murder at the thought of that horse touching the floor. Blink and you miss something.
“Remember that kite I got you? Finish all your homework tonight, and if it’s not raining I’ll bring you to the Phoenix Park and teach you to fly it.”
“Can Sarah come?”
“We’ll ring her mum after dinner.” Holly’s mates’ parents love me. Nothing feels more responsible than having a detective take your kid to the park.
“Dinner! Can we get pizza?”
“Sure,” I said. Olivia lives an additive-free, organic, high-fiber life; if I don’t do a little counterbalancing, the kid will grow up twice as healthy as all her mates and feel left out. “Why not?” and then I unlocked the door and got my first hint that Holly and I weren’t getting any pizza tonight. The voice-mail light on my phone was going apeshit. Five missed calls. Work rings me on my mobile, field agents and confidential informants ring me on my other mobile, the lads know they’ll see me in the pub when they see me, and Olivia sends me text messages when she has to. That left family, which meant my kid sister Jackie, seeing as she was the only one I’d talked to in a couple of decades. Five calls probably meant one of our parents was dying.
I told Holly, “Here,” and held out my laptop. “You take that to your room and annoy your mates on IM. I’ll be in to you in a few minutes.”
Holly, who knows well that she isn’t allowed to go online in private till she’s twenty-one, gave me a skeptical look. “If you want a cigarette, Daddy,” she told me, very maturely, “you can just go out on the balcony. I know you smoke.”
I steered her towards her room with a hand on her back. “Oh, yeah? What makes you think that?” At any other time I would have been seriously curious. I’ve never smoked in front of Holly, and Olivia wouldn’t have told her. We made her mind, the two of us; the idea of it containing things we didn’t put there still blows me away.
“I just know,” Holly said, dumping Clara and her bag on her bed and looking lofty. The kid’ll make a detective yet. “And you shouldn’t. Sister Mary Therese says it turns all your insides black.”
“Sister Mary Therese is dead right. Smart woman.” I switched on the laptop and hooked up the broadband line. “There you go. I’ve to make a phone call. Don’t be buying any diamonds on eBay.”
Holly asked, “Are you going to ring your girlfriend?”
She looked tiny and way too wise, standing there in her white padded coat that came halfway down her skinny legs, wide eyes trying not to look scared. “No,” I said. “No, sweetheart. I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“I swear. I’m not planning on getting one anytime soon, either. In a few years maybe you can pick one out for me. How’s that?”
“I want Mum to be your girlfriend.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.” I put my hand on her head for a second; her hair felt like petals. Then I closed her door behind me and went back to the living room to find out who had died.
It was Jackie on the voice mail, all right, and she was going like an express train. Bad sign: Jackie brakes for good news (“You’ll never guess what happened. Go on, have guess”) and floors the pedal for bad. This was Formula 1 stuff . “Ah, Jaysus, Francis, would you ever pick up your bleeding phone, I need to talk to you, I’m not just ringing you for the laugh, do I ever? Now before you go getting a fright, it’s not Mammy, God forbid, she’s grand, a bit shook up but sure aren’t we all, she was having palpitations there at first but she had a sit-down and Carmel gave her a drink of brandy and she’s grand now, aren’t you, Mam? Thank God Carmel was there, she does call round most Fridays after the shopping, she rang me and Kevin to come down. Shay said not to be ringing you, what’s the point, he said, but I told him to feck off for himself, it’s only fair, so if you’re at home would you ever pick up this phone and talk to me? Francis! I swear to God—” The message space ran out with a beep.
Carmel and Kevin and Shay, oh my. It sounded very much like the entire family had descended on my parents’ place. My da; it had to be. “Daddy!” Holly yelled, from her room. “How many cigarettes do you smoke every day?”
The voice-mail lady told me to press buttons; I followed orders. “Who says I smoke?”
“I need to know! Twenty?”
For a start. “Maybe.”
Jackie again: “Bleeding machines, I wasn’t finished! Come here, I should’ve said right away, it’s not Da either, he’s the same as ever, no one’s dead or hurt or nothing, or anyway we’re all grand. Kevin’s a bit upset but I think that’s because he’s worried about how you’ll take it, he’s awful fond of you, you know, he still is. Now it might be nothing, Francis, I don’t want you losing the head, right, it could all be a joke, someone messing, that’s what we thought at first, although pretty shite joke if you ask me, excuse my language—”
“Daddy! How much exercise do you get?”
What the hell? “I’m a secret ballet dancer.”
“Noooo, seriously! How much?”
“—and sure, none of us have a clue what to be doing with it an’ anyway, so would you ever ring me as soon as you get this? Please, Francis. I’ll have my mobile in my hand, now.”
Click, beep, voice-mail babe. Looking back, I should have figured it out by that point, or at least I should have got the general idea. “Daddy? How much fruit and vegetables do you eat?”
“You do not!”
The next three messages were more of the same, at half-hour intervals. By the last one, Jackie had reached the point where only small dogs could hear her.
“Give me a sec, sweetie.”
I took my mobile out on the balcony, above the dark river and the greasy orange lights and the running snarl of the traffic jams, and phoned Jackie. She answered on the first ring. “Francis? Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I’ve been going mental! Where were you?”
She had slowed down to about eighty miles an hour. “Picking up Holly. What the hell, Jackie?”
Background noise. Even after all that time, I knew the quick bite of Shay’s voice straight away. One note of my ma caught me right in the throat.
“Ah, God, Francis . . . Would you sit down for me, now? Or get yourself a glass of brandy, something like that?”
“Jackie, if you don’t tell me what’s going on, I swear I’m going to come over there and strangle you.”
“Hang on, hold your horses . . .” A door closing. “Now,” Jackie said, into sudden quiet. “Right. D’you remember I was telling you a while back, some fella’s after buying up the three houses at the top of the Place? To turn into apartments?”
“He’s not doing the apartments after all, now everyone’s after getting all worried about property prices; he’s leaving the houses a while and see what happens. So he got the builders in to take out the fireplaces and the moldings and that, to sell—there’s people pay good money for those yokes, did you know that? mentallers—and they started today, on the one up on the corner. D’you remember, the derelict one?”
“That’s the one. They were taking out the fireplaces, and up behind one of them they found a suitcase.”
Dramatic pause. Drugs? Guns? Cash? Jimmy Hoff a? “Fuck’s sake, Jackie. What?”
“It’s Rosie Daly’s, Francis. It’s her case.”
All the layers of traffic noise vanished, snapped right off . That orange glow across the sky turned feral and hungry as forest fire, blinding, out of control.
“No,” I said, “it’s not. I don’t know where the hell you got that, but it’s a load of my arse.”
“Ah, now, Francis—”
Concern and sympathy were pouring off her voice. If she’d been there, I think I would have punched her lights out. “‘Ah, now, Francis,’ nothing. You and Ma have yourselves worked up into some hysterical frenzy over sweet fuck-all, and now you want me to play along—”
“Listen to me, I know you’re—”
“Unless this is all some stunt to get me over there. Is that it, Jackie? Are you aiming for some big family reconciliation? Because I’m warning you now, this isn’t the fucking Hallmark Channel and that kind of game isn’t going to end well.”
“You big gobshite, you,” Jackie snapped. “Get a hold of yourself. What do you think I am? There’s a shirt in that case, a purple paisley yoke, Carmel recognizes it—”
I’d seen it on Rosie a hundred times, knew what the buttons felt like under my fingers. “Yeah, from every girl in this town in the eighties. Carmel’d recognize Elvis walking down Grafton Street for a bit of gossip. I thought you had better sense, but apparently—”
“—and there’s a birth cert wrapped inside it. Rose Bernadette Daly.” Which more or less killed that line of conversation. I found my smokes, leaned my elbows on the railing and took the longest drag of my life.
“Sorry,” Jackie said, softer. “For biting your head off . Francis?”
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah. Listen to me, Jackie. Do the Dalys know?”
“They’re not in. Nora moved out to Blanchardstown, I think it was, a few years back; Mr. Daly and Mrs. Daly go over to her on Friday nights, to see the baba. Mammy thinks she has the number somewhere, but—”
“Have you called the Guards?”
“Only you, sure.”
“Who else knows about this?”
“The builders, only. A couple of Polish young fellas, they are. When they finished up for the day they went across to Number Fifteen, to ask was there anyone they could give the case back to, but Number Fifteen’s students now, so they sent the Polish fellas down to Ma and Da.”
“And Ma hasn’t told the whole road? Are you sure?”
“The Place isn’t the same as you remember it. Half of it’s students and yuppies, these days; we wouldn’t even know their names. The Cullens are still here, and the Nolans and some of the Hearnes, but Mammy didn’t want to say anything to them till she’d told the Dalys. It wouldn’t be right.”
“Good. Where’s the case now?”
“It’s in the front room. Should the builders not have moved it? They had to get on with their work—”
“It’s grand. Don’t touch it any more unless you have to. I’ll be over as fast as I can.”
A second of silence. Then: “Francis. I don’t want to be thinking anything terrible, God bless us, but does this not mean that Rosie . . .”
“We don’t know anything yet,” I said. “Just sit tight, don’t talk to anyone, and wait for me.”
I hung up and took a quick look into the apartment behind me. Holly’s door was still shut. I finished my smoke in one more marathon drag, tossed the butt over the railing, lit another and rang Olivia.
She didn’t even say hello. “No, Frank. Not this time. Not a chance.”
“I don’t have a choice, Liv.”
“You begged for every weekend. Begged. If you didn’t want them—”
“I do want them. This is an emergency.”
“It always is. The squad can survive without you for two days, Frank. No matter what you’d like to think, you’re not indispensable.”
To anyone more than a foot away, her voice would have sounded light and chatty, but she was furious. Tinkling cutlery, arch hoots of laughter; something that sounded like, God help us, a fountain. “It’s not work this time,” I said. “It’s family.”
“It is, of course. Would this have anything to do with the fact that I’m on my fourth date with Dermot?”
“Liv, I would happily do a lot to wreck your fourth date with Dermot, but I’d never give up time with Holly. You know me better than that.”
A short, suspicious pause. “What kind of family emergency?”
“I don’t know yet. Jackie rang me in hysterics, from my parents’ place; I can’t work out the details. I need to get over there fast.”
Another pause. Then Olivia said, on a long tired breath, “Right. We’re in the Coterie. Drop her down.”
The Coterie has a TV-based chef and gets hand-jobbed in a lot of weekend supplements. It badly needs firebombing. “Thanks, Olivia. Seriously I’ll pick her up later tonight, if I can, or tomorrow morning. I’ll ring you.”
“You do that,” Olivia said. “If you can, of course,” and she hung up. I threw my smoke away and went inside to finish pissing off the women in my life.
Holly was sitting cross-legged on her bed, with the computer on her lap and a worried look on her face. “Sweetheart,” I said, “we’ve got a problem.” She pointed at the laptop. “Daddy, look.”
The screen said, in big purple letters surrounded by an awful lot of flashing graphics, you will die at the age of 52. The kid looked really upset. I sat down on the bed behind her and pulled her and the computer onto my lap. “What’s all this?”
“Sarah found this quiz online and I did it for you and it said this. You’re forty-one.”
Oh, Jesus, not now. “Chickadee, it’s the internet. Anyone can put anything on there. That doesn’t make it real.”
“It says! They figured it all out!”
Olivia was going to love me if I gave Holly back in tears. “Let me show you something,” I said. I reached around her, got rid of my death sentence, opened up a Word document and typed in, you are a space alien. You are reading this on the planet bongo. “Now. Is that true?”
Holly managed a watery giggle. “Course not.”
I turned it purple and gave it a fancy font. “How about now?”
“How about if I got the computer to ask you a bunch of questions before it said that? Would it be true then?”
For a second I thought I’d got through, but then those narrow shoulders went rigid. “You said a problem.”
“Yeah. We’re going to have to change our plans just a little bit.”
“I have to go back to Mum’s,” Holly said, to the laptop. “Don’t I?”
“Yep, sweetie. I’m really, really sorry. I’ll come get you the second I can.”
“Does work need you again?”
That again felt worse than anything Olivia could dish out. “No,” I said, leaning sideways so I could see Holly’s face. “It’s nothing to do with work. Work can take a long walk off a short pier, am I right?” That got a faint smile. “You know your auntie Jackie? She’s got a big problem, and she needs me to sort it out for her right now.”
“Can’t I come with you?”
Both Jackie and Olivia have tried hinting, occasionally, that Holly should get to know her dad’s family. Sinister suitcases aside, over my dead body does Holly dip a toe in the bubbling cauldron of crazy that is the Mackeys at their finest. “Not this time. Once I’ve fixed everything, we’ll bring Auntie Jackie for an ice cream somewhere, will we? To cheer us all up?”
“Yeah,” Holly said, on a tired little breath exactly like Olivia’s. “That’d be fun,” and she disentangled herself from my lap and started putting her stuff back into her schoolbag.
In the car Holly kept up a running conversation with Clara, in a subdued little voice too quiet for me to hear. At every red light I looked at her in the rearview mirror and swore to myself that I’d make it up to her: get hold of the Dalys’ phone number, dump the damn suitcase on their doorstep and have Holly back at El Rancho Lyncho by bedtime. I already knew it wasn’t going to work out that way. That road and that suitcase had been waiting for me to come back for a long time. Now that they’d got their hooks in, what they had saved up for me was going to take a lot more than one evening.
The note had the bare minimum of teen-queen melodrama; she was always good that way, was Rosie. I know this is going to be a shock and I’m sorry but please don’t be feeling like I messed you around on purpose, I never wanted to do that. Only I’ve thought about it really hard, this is the only way I’ll ever have a decent chance at the kind of life I want. I just wish I could do it and not hurt you/upset you/disappoint you. It would be great if you could wish me luck in my new life in England!! but if you can’t I understand.
I swear I’ll come back someday. Till then, loads and loads and loads of love,
In between the moment when she left that note on the floor of Number 16, in the room where we had our first kiss, and the moment when she went to heave her suitcase over some wall and get the hell out of Dodge, something had happened.