***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Dervla McTiernan
Cormac leaned forward to peer through the windscreen, then nearly cracked his head on the steering wheel as the car bounced through another pothole. Shite. There was no sign of the house, and he'd been searching for over an hour. He could barely read house names or numbers in the settling gloom. Maybe the whole thing was some kind of first-week hazing ritual. If it had been Dwyer who'd sent him he would have been sure of it. Dwyer was the sort of bastard who was forever telling jokes, jokes with an edge to them and usually a target. But it had been Marcus Tully who'd called him in off traffic duty, barely looking up from his newspaper as he handed Cormac the post-it note that was now stuck to his dashboard.
Dower House, Monagaraun Road, Kilmore. Maude Blake. Tully's handwriting, unlike the man himself, was tidy and perfectly legible. His muttered instruction had given Cormac the impression that the call was for some sort of minor domestic. Cormac hadn't asked any questions; he'd been concentrating too hard on trying to look like he knew what he was doing. It turned out that Kilmore was a blink-and-you-miss it kind of village, with a church, a mart, a tiny primary school, and two pubs. The Monagaraun Road was forty miles long, and pocked with a bare scattering of farmhouses and bungalows, none of which bore any resemblance to a dower house.
Cormac pulled in at the next gap in the hedgerow, and sat for a moment. He was sweating. The heater was broken - the only settings were off and furnace - and given the temperature outside, he'd chosen furnace. Christ. The car was a nightmare, with a clutch that made threatening sounds every time he changed gear, and a faint but persistent smell of vomit from the back seat. Even the radio was in bits, its wires hanging loose, waiting for a fix.
It could be a piss-take. The whole thing, giving him a phantom address, a squad car that was falling apart. In which case he should give up now. Drive back. Pretend that he'd known all along and had spent the last couple of hours eating his lunch. On the other hand, what if this was a real call and he arrived back without even having found the house? No. He had to find the damn place, or be absolutely sure it didn't exist. His best option might be to try one of the village pubs - there was a fifty-fifty chance he would get real directions that wouldn't send him into the nearest bog. Cormac released the hand-brake and started a slow drive back towards the village. He was about a kilometre out when he spotted two crumbling stone gateposts, almost hidden behind a thick layer of ivy. The gate they'd once supported was long gone. Cormac pulled into the gateway. His headlights illuminated a drive that was little more than mud and weeds. It was lined with mature sycamore trees, overgrown now, their bare branches meshing overhead.
Deep ruts had been dug through the soil by the recent passage of a tractor. He'd seen the drive before, on a previous pass, had taken it to be an access track for farmland and dismissed it. But those sycamores and the gateposts suggested something else. Hundred-year-old trees, planted to offer an elegant entrance to the parkland of some grand estate. An estate meant a dower house, or at least the chance of one.
Cormac moved the car forward another few metres and peered through the windscreen. He couldn't see a house, but the tractor marks petered out halfway down the visible drive. Was there a farm gate there in a break in the trees? Maybe. Beyond that the driveway continued, and curved, and the tree line blocked whatever it might lead to. Cormac put the car into gear and started down the drive. He drove at a steady pace, aiming to keep his tyres out of ruts where he could, and he made it without getting bogged down, following the drive until it swung abruptly to the right and opened out to form a parking area in front of an old Georgian house.
At first glance the house seemed to be in complete darkness, and it was obvious the place was in disrepair. A broken gutter was spewing dirty rainwater down one side of the facade. Paint was peeling and stained and all but one of the windows of the first floor were boarded up. The ground floor windows were in better shape, and Cormac thought he could see a dim glow coming from a room to the left of the front door. He felt only relief that he'd found the bloody place, that he wouldn't have to go back to the station hat-in-hand, looking as clueless as he felt. He got out of the car and walked through the rain to the front door. It opened before he reached it, and was held ajar just enough for him to see that the person behind it was a girl. She was a teenager, fourteen or maybe fifteen. Dark hair. Slight.
'Why are you by yourself?' she asked, before he had a chance to speak.
'I thought you always come out in pairs. You know, with a partner.'
'Not always,' was all he could think of to say. He couldn't very well tell her that Marcus Tully would rather sit on his fat arse eating chips and reading the Daily Star than get into a squad car and drive out in this weather for a domestic. He took his ID from his pocket and showed it to her. 'I'm Garda Cormac Reilly,' he said.
She looked at his ID, then back at his face. 'You're very young,' she said doubtfully.
'I suppose I am.' He swallowed his smile. Fifteen, and she spoke like his mother.
'Come in out of the rain,' she said after a further pause, during which the water that had pooled on top of his hat started to drip down the back of his neck.
The hall was huge, the pitch pine-panelled ceilings at least four metres high. The other end of the hall held an ornate returning staircase. It must have been grand and beautiful once but what struck Cormac was the smell. Damp hung in the air, there was an underlying hint of something nastier, and the place was bloody freezing. The girl was waiting for him, her face grave.
'Are your mum or dad home?' he asked.
'My little brother is in the drawing room,' she said, gesturing to an open door leading off the hall. Looking past her, Cormac could see that there was a fire lit in the grate, and the small figure of a very young boy sitting on bare wooden floor in front of it, turning the pages of a book.
'Your mum?' he asked again.
'In her room,' she said, and pointed towards the stairs. She turned and took a step towards the drawing room, then spoke to the little boy. 'Jack, stay here. I'm going upstairs with the garda for a minute, but I'll be back really quickly, okay?' The little boy raised his head at her voice, but said nothing. She shut the door and turned and walked up the stairs, leaving Cormac to follow.
As they climbed the smell of damp became stronger. Wallpaper peeled away from the walls in long strips. The upstairs landing was in almost complete darkness, and as they took the last step Cormac reached automatically for the light switch. Nothing happened.
The girl kept walking. 'There's no power,' she said. 'Don't worry. There are candles in Mother's room.'
She led him along the dark corridor to a room where a glimmer of light leaked under the door. She opened the door without knocking and held it for him. He stepped past her. The room was sparsely furnished, with little more than a double bed and an antique wardrobe. The floorboards were bare. The fireplace was black and empty and the room was very cold, but the woman on the bed had no need of the blankets that were pulled up past her bare feet. She was dead. Very obviously dead, her eyes open and staring at the ceiling.
'Jesus.' Cormac took a stumbling step into the room. He looked back at the girl, then at the woman on the bed. 'Jesus,' he said again. Despite knowing she was dead, he found himself walking to her and checking her neck for a pulse. Her skin was cold to the touch, and he wiped his hand reflexively on his pants, then realised what he was doing and hoped the girl hadn't seen him. 'This is your mum?' he asked.
She was inside the room now, but she stared fixedly away from the tableau on the bed, and nodded stiffly in response to his question.
Cormac looked down at the corpse. Her arms and legs were skeletal, her hair lank and greasy. The top sheet was grubby and thin and through it he could see the outline of her body. There was a dark stain at the apex of her legs where death had caused her bowels to open. The smell of sour body odour and faeces was thick despite the frigid air. Cause of death seemed obvious. An empty vodka bottle stood beside a guttering candle on the bedside table. A shoelace was tied around the woman's left arm, and on the floor lay an empty syringe. There were deep scratches on her arms. Track marks? He'd never seen them before. In the crook of her exposed left elbow was a single pin-prick mark and a smear of dried blood.
Cormac turned from the body and walked in three quick steps to the girl. He took her by the arm. 'Come on,' he said. He pulled the door closed behind them and walked her to the top of the stairs.
'That woman's your mum?'
She nodded again. She had very dark eyes. They dominated her pale, frightened face as she looked up at him.
'There's no one else, no one to take care of you? Who called the police?'
'I did. From the village, this morning. When I brought Jack to school.'
'This morning? You've been here all day?'
She said nothing. He stood, paralysed by indecision, until he noticed that she was shivering. Shock. Or maybe just the cold. She was dressed for it, in jeans, boots and what looked like layers of jumpers, but it was bloody freezing in the house, as cold inside as out.
'Come on downstairs,' he said, and this time she followed him as he led the way down the stairs and back to the drawing room. The little boy climbed carefully to his feet as they entered. When the girl chose a seat he settled himself into her lap, and they turned matching pairs of dark eyes in Cormac's direction. He took a seat himself, and leaned forward to talk to them, trying to look as reassuring as possible.
'What's your name?' he asked. He felt like a fool, felt like the worst possible person to be here in this moment. How were you supposed to handle traumatised children? Two years in Templemore had not equipped him for this.
'I'm Maude, and this is Jack.'
The boy struck him as very young, although he must be five at least if he'd started school. He was sandy haired and solemn faced; Cormac could see the smudge of an old bruise on his cheek. Both children seemed thin, the girl in particular.
'Maude,' Cormac said quietly. 'Do you know how your mum died?'
She dropped her gaze to the floor.
'Okay,' he said. 'That's okay.'
Maude drew the little boy closer and he softened against her, his eyelids drooping a little.
'I'll need to call some people, you understand? People who will come and take care of your mum's body. People who will take care of you and Jack.'
Her face tightened with anxiety and she glanced towards the dark windows. 'But you won't leave us here? It's getting late. I think you should just bring us with you now, you can bring us to the hospital if you like. To Castlebar.'
She nodded, her face pinched. 'A doctor should examine Jack.'
The little boy was falling asleep on Maude's lap, his head resting against her shoulder.
'He's sick?' Cormac asked.
'Okay. Okay Maude. I can bring you to a doctor, of course, but I'll need to call a social worker. Do you have a family doctor? Maybe in Kilmore?'
But she was shaking her head violently now, disturbing her little brother. 'Jack needs to see a real doctor, okay? Like in a hospital.' She must have read the doubt in his face. 'You won't get the social in Kilmore at this time. There's no social worker on at night. No one 'til the morning. And then what'll you do with us? If you bring us to Castlebar you'll get them no problem. And Jack can be properly looked after.'
Cormac hesitated. She was afraid, that was obvious. She was only a child, and her mother was dead upstairs. Was that all it was? More than enough for most kids. What was he supposed to do now? He couldn't just pack two children into the back of his squad car, a car that still smelled of vomit due to a half-arsed clean out from a Saturday night arrest. On the other hand, she was probably right that there'd be no social workers in Kilmore at this stage of the evening.
'I'll radio the station,' he said in the end. 'See what my sergeant thinks.'
Maude just stared back at him, real worry in her eyes, and in the same moment Cormac remembered the broken radio. Shite. She was looking at him as if all her hopes were pinned to his response and she expected the worst. God she was thin. And very young. She had pulled the sleeves of her jumper so that they were halfway down her hands, and the fingers of her right hand were worrying at a loose strand of wool. He could hardly leave them here.
'Castlebar it is so,' he said.
She didn't smile, didn't say or do anything, but he could see the relief in her eyes, and he felt a little more confident.
'Do you have some things you'd like to bring with you? Have you pyjamas, or maybe a favourite toy for Jack?'
Maude pointed behind him and he turned, noticing for the first time two small schoolbags leaning against the wall beside the door.
'I packed our stuff already,' she said. 'We don't need anything else.'
Jesus. Cormac swallowed hard against a wave of emotion. There was something so utterly pathetic about the two little bags.
'Right so,' he said, rising. 'Can I take the little lad for you?'
She shook her head, then stood and cradled the boy so that his legs were either side of her waist. She was stronger than she looked; she carried him easily. Cormac took an old blanket from the back of his chair, picked up the two bags from their places by the door, then led the way out of the house. He laid the blanket over the smelly back seat, and Maude put Jack down, letting him lie flat before settling in beside him and putting one hand protectively on his back. Cormac drove them carefully down the drive, conscious now of every bump and jolt and afraid that Jack would be hurt by the rough progress.
They didn't speak again for what felt like a long time.
'How is Jack hurt, Maude?'
She had kept her hand against the little boy's back, to prevent him from falling off the back seat in his sleep. Now she stroked his sandy hair back from his face. 'He has some bruises,' she said, after a pause.
'Did someone hurt him? Did someone hurt you?'
'I'm fine. I can take care of myself.'
She didn't say anything more. Should he push her? No. He might fuck it up, say the wrong thing. Scare her or traumatise her. But how the hell had this happened? How had two children been left to rot in a freezing, empty house with someone as far gone as their mother must have been? He looked at Maude in the rear-view mirror.
'Jack doesn't have a dad,' she said, looking very tired as she spoke. 'There's no name on his birth certificate. Can you please tell them? If they know he's an orphan, then he can be adopted. He should have a proper family.'
'I'm sure you'll be kept together,' Cormac said, then cursed himself inwardly. A five-year-old like Jack would have no trouble finding a home. A fifteen-year-old girl was a different prospect. Placing them together? That would take a miracle.
In the rear-view mirror he saw Maude give a slight smile, but the smile was a sad one and she said nothing. She didn't speak again on the long drive to Castlebar. When he pulled into the emergency area she woke Jack, quieting his protests and coaxing him from the car. She picked him up again when he started to cry, and walked with him towards the sliding doors.
The waiting room held the usual mix of the genuinely ill, the drunk, and the stupid. Seats were taken by a trio of teenage boys who looked like they would fit at least two of the three categories. The heaters were on too high, and the muggy warmth was unpleasant. The triage nurse was absorbed in paperwork as Cormac shepherded the children towards her, but a flash of his ID and an edited explanation saw them brought through the A&E double doors and into the assessment area.
Maude followed the nurse to a curtained off bed and gently sat Jack down on it. He clutched at her hand.
'Is there a loo?' Maude asked the nurse.
'Just down the corridor there. First left and it's on your right.'
Jack started crying again as Maude untangled her hand and walked away.
'Now be a good brave boy,' the nurse said. 'Your sister will be back in a minute.' But Jack lowered his head and wept, his tears horribly silent, his small body limp. Cormac took a little hand in his and gave it a gentle squeeze. He tried to distract the boy. Told him stories and talked hurling and superheroes as the nurse took off Jack's clothes and put him in a hospital gown. Tried not to show his horror at the black and blue bruising that ran up Jack's spine, at the swollen contusion above his left hip. Then the doctor came and Cormac had to step back as he examined the little boy. Cormac stood there, his arms folded and his eyes bleak. And all the time, Jack cried his silent tears and ignored them.
It was a long time before Cormac realised that Maude had not come back. And some time later before he thought to check for her. A full two hours passed before an agitated Tully arrived and they did a proper search of the ground floor bathrooms, the café and the public wards, and realised that she probably wasn't in the hospital. In the end, that was the only search that was ever carried out for fifteen-year- old Maude Blake. She was labelled a runaway, and with no family to notice or care that she was gone, the system forgot her. Eventually, Cormac Reilly forgot her too.