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Cassie, In the Woods

I got to know Rob Ryan partly because it was raining. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere. I had been on the Murder Squad for a couple of weeks, and Ryan hadn’t made a huge impression on me so far, apart from the accent. I’m a pretty good judge of character — usually — and had managed to place most of the guys on the squad in their boxes during that first week. O’Neill — sweetheart. Quigley — moron. Ryan — the English one.

On that day in September the Vespa had broken down just outside work, and a bus picked that moment to floor it through a massive puddle, soaking me from head to foot. I was shouting ineffectually after the driver, promising to find him and arrest him for anything I could think of, when Ryan pulled out of the car park and slowed down in his flashy penis-mobile. ‘Need a hand?’ he called gallantly out of the window. He stopped short of calling me ‘Little lady’.

‘What makes you think that?’ I called back, then burst out laughing at the absurdity of the situation. I was well aware of how ridiculous I looked, wearing a red raincoat that was about three sizes too big for me (I’d got it on sale). My hair was wet under the oversized hood and I was thankful that I don’t wear mascara to work, or I would have resembled a panda dressed as Paddington Bear.

He got out of his car and walked over to look at the Vespa. ‘Ahh, I think I see what the problem is,’ he said knowledgeably as he began to fiddle with the controls. ‘What are you doing driving one of these things anyway?’ Patronising wanker. Never trust anyone with a first name for a last name.

‘I like the feeling of freedom,’ I told him. ‘What’s your car compensating for?’

He didn’t hear me over the rain. ‘What?’ he said, putting a hand to his ear.

‘Never mind.’ I watched him continue to play ineffectively with the engine. He was quite good-looking in an ordinary sort of way. Taller than average, although not as tall as O’Neill. Long, thin face with a few pockmarks that somehow worked for him. His hair was parted in a way that he probably thought looked cool — now dripping in the rain — and his eyes were a deep chocolate-brown.

‘Let me do it,’ I said at last, reaching for the Vespa. ‘You have to know how to twist the thingy.’

‘The thingy?’ he repeated mockingly. ‘Honestly, girls.’

It was the sort of sexist jibe I would have expected, but there was something about the way he said it, like he was trying to be funny. I realised in that moment that he was actually trying to impress me. It was strangely endearing.

‘Oh, I’ve always dreamed of a knight in shining armour coming to rescue little me!’ I said breathily, putting my hand on my heart. ‘Only in my dreams he was good-looking.’

For a moment Ryan looked startled, then his face cleared. He looked at my dripping red raincoat and said, ‘Oh my god, they’re about to kill Kenny. By the way, I have no idea what I’m doing here — shall I just give you a lift home?’

We loaded the Vespa into the back of his car and I directed him back to my place. By the time we got there the rain had stopped. We stepped inside my tiny studio flat, Rob casting a detective’s eye over the books on my shelves and the decor. I got us a couple of towels and we dried our hair off as I called a mechanic to fix the Vespa and whacked the central heating on. I cooked dinner for us both — it seemed the least I could do — pasta with tomato sauce and capers. Afterwards I made us coffee — Rob later insisted that it was hot whisky while reminiscing, but he always liked to romanticise — and we sat out on the roof of the extension below my flat and talked for hours. I told him my secret — one of them — lifting my top to reveal the scar from where I had been stabbed. His expression before he realised what I was showing him was priceless, like he thought I’d lured him back there to jump on him and couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or not.

He didn’t tell me his secret, not that night, not for a few months. Instead he told me several long-winded, obviously exaggerated-to-impress stories about his heroic exploits while working in Domestic Violence. There was no need, I had already decided that I liked him by then. It was past midnight by the time he left, and I crawled into bed with the warm, schoolgirlish glow of having made a friend.

Rob, The Likeness

It was nearly midnight and I was nowhere close to falling asleep yet. I was flipping absently through a book I’d read several times before — Tender is the Night — when my mobile phone rang at the side of my bed. I picked it up and saw the screen said Unknown Number. It could have been something to do with work, so I flipped the phone open.

‘Ryan,’ I said professionally. There was no reply. ‘Hello?’ I said, and was about to hang up when I thought I recognised the breathing on the other end of the line. ‘Cassie?’ I said urgently. I heard her half-gasp, half-sniff.

‘Cass...’ I was sitting upright now, my heart hammering. ‘Are you okay?’ It was too late, she had hung up. I got up and paced the room. I found Cassie’s number in my contacts and called her, but it went straight through to voicemail. I hung up and was about to throw the phone against the wall in frustration when it rang again. I answered immediately. ‘Cassie? Don’t hang up. Are you safe?’

‘I’m fine.’ Her voice was a croak. I slumped back on the bed in relief.

‘It’s so good to hear from you,’ I said, aware of how stiff and formal I sounded. Bloody boarding school. ‘I wanted to talk to you at the trial.’

‘I didn’t really give you a chance,’ she said. Then she added, ‘Listen Rob, I’m undercover. I’ve only got a few hours before they come looking for me.’

‘Who’s they?’ I asked.

‘It’s a long story.’ Her voice trailed off.

‘Do you want me to come and get you?’ I asked.

A silence, then a whispered, ‘Yes.’

I was already up and pulling trousers on over my boxer shorts. I looked around for a shirt. ‘I’m coming for you. Where are you?’

She gave me directions to the middle of nowhere and I let myself out of Heather’s flat and jumped in the car. With the help of sat nav, I managed to find her. She was standing by the side of the road, looking tiny and clutching her phone in her hand. She climbed into the car just as it was starting to rain.

‘Hi,’ she said, turning to me. She’d lost weight and her hair was different. She was wearing make-up as well, heavy eyeliner that I’d never seen her wear.

‘Interesting new look,’ I said, squinting at her in the darkness.

‘It’s not mine.’ She sat back in the passenger seat and reached for her seatbelt. ‘Where are we going? Your place?’

‘Yeah.’ I took the handbrake off and turned the car around. We didn’t say anything else for the rest of the journey.

By the time I got home the rain was hammering it down. We got out of the car and I jangled the keys unnecessarily as we walked towards the door.

‘Heather’s not here,’ I said as I let us into the flat. ‘She’s got a new boyfriend. They’re having loud sex over at his place for a change. Usually I get the full surround sound...’ I flicked a lamp on. Cassie slumped down onto the sofa.

‘Whisky?’ I offered. She nodded. I went to heat two mugs up in the microwave. I couldn’t believe she was actually here.

I came out of the kitchen and handed her one of the mugs. She wrapped her hands around it to warm them. ‘Thanks.’

I sat down so that I was next to her, but not too close. We were still tense around each other. I didn’t ask about her relationship with O’Neill and she didn’t ask about my boring new job outside of Murder, which I was grateful for.

’So... undercover work,’ I said. ‘Who are you supposed to be?’

’Lexie Madison.’

I recognised the name, but it took me a moment to place it. ‘Wasn’t that your old undercover name?’

’Yep. I made her up. A little too well, as it turns out.’ Cassie took a sip of the whisky.

’What do you mean?’

’There was a Jane Doe using my old identity. She looked exactly like me, Rob.’

I noted the past tense. ‘You mean... like a twin?’

‘Yeah, except no one knows who she was. She’s dead.’ I had guessed that. ‘She was murdered, probably by one of her housemates. I’ve been living with them, pretending to be Lexie. Only my cover’s blown. One of them knows.’

’So they’re pulling you out, right?’

She shook her head. ‘I spoke to Frank Mackey just before I rang you.’

’Mackey can’t leave you in there if your cover’s blown!’ I felt a surge of anger and protectiveness.

’Frank doesn’t know my cover’s blown. He wanted to pull me out anyway. I asked for another 72 hours.’

’But why?’

’I have to find out what happened to Lexie.’ Cassie’s chin rose, the old fire there. ‘I owe it to her.’

I thought of Peter and Jamie and I understood. I drank some of my whisky. ‘When will they start wondering where you are?’

‘They probably already are. Let them wonder. I need to rattle them.’

I reached out a tentative arm and pulled her against my chest. She settled against me and I breathed in the wonderful, familiar scent of her. There were a few streaks of silver amongst her jet-black hair now, like shooting stars in the night sky. I remembered kissing her the morning I woke up with her, the way she had smiled and opened her eyes and turned in my arms so she was facing me. I never thought I’d get to touch her hair again.

’I never told you how sorry I was for everything that happened,’ I whispered. ‘For accusing you...’ I couldn’t finish that sentence.

’I would never have told O’Kelly about you.’ She turned her watery green eyes to look at me.

’I know. I always knew that. I was going out of my mind. I fucked up everything, Cass, and Rosalind got away with it because of me.’ That woman’s name still felt like poison on my lips.

‘I heard Rosalind was saying that you two slept together.’

‘You know that’s not true.’ I looked at her quickly.

‘Of course I do.’ She closed her eyes. ‘You’re not that big of an eejit.’

There was so much more I wanted to say, about that night, about how much I had missed her, about how I fell in love with her the moment I saw her in that ridiculous oversized raincoat and never stopped falling. I couldn’t find the words, so I just kissed her hair and whispered, ‘You’re safe here.’ I didn’t know how long she could stay, but that didn’t matter for now. She was here, in my arms, and for this one moment in time I was truly happy.