Extract: The Searcher by Tana French
The Searcher by Tana French is a masterful tale of suspense that asks how we decide what’s right and wrong in a world where neither is simple, and what we risk if we fail.
Cal Hooper thought a fixer-upper in a remote Irish village would be the perfect escape. After twenty-five years in the Chicago police force, and a bruising divorce, he just wants to build a new life in a pretty spot with a good pub where nothing much happens.
But then a local kid comes looking for his help. His brother has gone missing, and no one, least of all the police, seems to care. Cal wants nothing to do with any kind of investigation, but somehow he can’t make himself walk away.
Soon Cal will discover that even in the most idyllic small town, secrets lie hidden, people aren’t always what they seem, and trouble can come calling at his door.
Read on for the first chapter of The Searcher by Tana French!
When Cal comes out of the house, the rooks have got hold of something. Six of them are clustered on the back lawn, amid the long wet grass and the yellow-flowered weeds, jabbing and hopping. Whatever the thing is, it’s on the small side and still moving.
Cal sets down his garbage bag of wallpaper. He considers getting his knife and putting the creature out of its suffering, but the rooks have been here a lot longer than he has. It would be pretty impertinent of him to waltz in and start interfering with their ways. Instead he eases himself down to sit on the mossy step next to the trash bag.
He likes the rooks. He read somewhere that they’re smart as hell; they can get to know you, bring you presents even. For nearly three months now he’s been trying to butter them up with scraps left on the big stump towards the bottom of the garden. They watch him trudge up and down through the grass, from the ivy-loaded oak where they have their colony, and as soon as he’s a safe distance away they swoop down to squabble and comment raucously over the scraps; but they keep a cynical eye on Cal, and if he tries to move closer they’re gone, back into the oak to jeer down at him and drop twigs on his head. Yesterday afternoon he was in his living room, stripping away the mildewed wallpaper, and a sleek mid-sized rook landed on the sill of the open window, yelled what was obviously an insult, and then flapped off laughing.
The thing on the lawn twists wildly, shaking the long grass. A big daddy rook jumps closer, aims one neat ferocious stab of his beak, and the thing goes still.
Rabbit, maybe. Cal has seen them out there in the early mornings, nibbling and dashing in the dew. Their holes are somewhere in his back field, down by the broad copse of hazels and rowans. Once his firearm licence comes through, he’s planning to see if he remembers what his grandpa taught him about skinning game, and if the mule-tempered broadband will deign to find him a recipe for rabbit stew. The rooks crowd in, pecking hard and bracing their feet to jerk out bites of flesh, more of them zooming down from the tree to jostle in on the action.
Cal watches them for a while, stretching out his legs and rolling one shoulder in circles. Working on the house is using muscles he’d forgotten he had. He finds new aches every morning, although some of that is likely from sleeping on a cheap mattress on the floor. Cal is too old and too big for that, but there’s no point in bringing good furniture into the dust and damp and mould. He’ll buy that stuff once he has the house in shape, and once he figures out where you buy it – all that was Donna’s department. Meanwhile, he doesn’t mind the aches. They satisfy him; along with the blisters and thickening calluses, they’re solid, earned proof of what his life is now.
It’s headed into the long cool September stretch of evening, but cloudy enough that there’s no trace of a sunset. The sky, dappled in subtle gradations of grey, goes on forever; so do the fields, coded in shades of green by their different uses, divided up by sprawling hedges, dry stone walls and the odd narrow back road. Away to the north, a line of low mountains rolls along the horizon. Cal’s eyes are still getting used to looking this far, after all those years of city blocks. Landscape is one of the few things he knows of where the reality doesn’t let you down. The West of Ireland looked beautiful on the internet; from right smack in the middle of it, it looks even better. The air is rich as fruitcake, like you should do more with it than just breathe it; bite off a big mouthful, maybe, or rub handfuls of it over your face.
After a while the rooks slow down, getting towards the end of their meal. Cal stands up and picks up the trash bag again. The rooks cock smart, instant glances at him and, when he starts down the garden, heave themselves into the air and flap their full bellies back to their tree. He hauls the bag down to a corner beside the creeper-covered tumbledown stone shed, pausing along the way to check out the rooks’ dinner. Rabbit, all right, a young one, although barely recognisable now.
He leaves the trash bag with the rest and heads back to the house. He’s almost there when the rooks kick off, jostling leaves and yelling cuss words at something. Cal doesn’t turn around or break stride. He says very softly through his teeth, as he closes the back door behind him, ‘Motherfucker.’
For the last week and a half, someone has been watching Cal. Probably longer, but he had his mind on his own business and he took for granted, like anyone would have a right to do amid all this empty space, that he was alone. His mental alarm systems were switched off, the way he wanted them. Then one night he was cooking dinner – frying a hamburger on the rust-pocked stove’s one working burner, Steve Earle good and loud on the iPod speaker, Cal adding in the occasional crash of air drums – when the back of his neck flared.
The back of Cal’s neck got trained over twenty-five years in the Chicago PD. He takes it seriously. He ambled casually across the kitchen, nodding along to the music and examining the counters like he was missing something, and then made a sudden lunge to the window: no one outside. He turned off the burner and headed for the door fast, but the garden was empty. He walked the perimeter, under a million savage stars and a howler’s moon, fields laid out white all around him and owls yelping: nothing.
Some animal noise, Cal told himself, drowned out by the music so that only his subconscious picked it up. The dark is busy around here. He’s sat out on his step well past midnight, a few times, drinking a couple of beers and getting the hang of the nighttime. He’s seen hedgehogs bustling across the garden, a sleek fox stopping on its route to give him a challenge of a stare. One time a badger, bigger and more muscular than Cal would have expected, trundled along the hedge and disappeared into it; a minute later there was one high shriek, and then the rustle of the badger moving off. Anything could have been going about its business out there.
Before Cal went to bed that night, he stacked his two mugs and two plates on the bedroom windowsill and dragged an old desk up against the bedroom door. Then he called himself a dumbass and put them away.
A couple of mornings later he was stripping wallpaper, window open to let out the dust, when the rooks exploded up out of their tree, shouting at something underneath. The fast trail of rustles heading away behind the hedge was too big and noisy for a hedgehog or a fox, too big even for a badger. By the time Cal got out there, he was too late again.
Probably bored kids spying on the newcomer. Not much else to do around here, with the village no bigger than the little end of nothing, and the closest two-horse town fifteen miles away. Cal feels dumb for even considering anything else. Mart, his nearest neighbour up the road, doesn’t even lock his door except at night. When Cal raised an eyebrow at that, Mart’s high-boned face creased up and he laughed till he wheezed. ‘The state of that there,’ he said, pointing towards the house. ‘What would anyone rob off you? And who’d rob it? Am I going to sneak in some morning and go through your washing, looking for something to spruce up my fashion sense?’ And Cal laughed too and told him he could do with it, and Mart informed him that his own wardrobe would do him grand, seeing as he had no plans to go courting, and started explaining why not.
But there have been things. No big deal, just stuff that flicks at the edges of Cal’s cop sense. Engines revving, three a.m. down faraway back roads, deep-chested bubbling snarls. A huddle of guys in the back corner of the pub some nights, too young and dressed wrong, talking too loud and too fast in accents that don’t fit in; the snap of their heads towards the door when Cal walks in, the stares that last a second too long. He’s been careful not to tell anyone what he used to do, but just being a stranger could be plenty, depending.
Dumb, Cal tells himself, turning on the burner under his frying pan and looking out the kitchen window at the dimming green fields, Mart’s dog trotting beside the sheep as they plod peacefully towards their pen. Too many years on the beat in bad hoods, now farm hands look like gangbangers.
Bored kids, ten to one. All the same, Cal has started keeping his music down so he won’t miss anything, he’s thinking about getting an alarm system, and this pisses him off. Years of Donna lunging for the volume knob, Cal, that baby next door is trying to sleep! Cal, Mrs Scapanski just had surgery, you think she needs that blowing her eardrums? Cal, what are the neighbours gonna think, we’re savages? He wanted land partly so he could blast Steve Earle loud enough to knock squirrels out of the trees, and he wanted buttfuck nowhere partly so he wouldn’t have to set alarms any more. He feels like he can’t even, for example, adjust his balls without looking over his shoulder, which is something a man ought to be able to do in his own kitchen. Kids or not, he needs this put to bed.
At home he would have solved this with a couple of good, discreet cameras that uploaded straight to the cloud. Here, even if his Wi-Fi could handle that, which he doubts, the idea of taking his footage down to the nearest station doesn’t sit well. He doesn’t know what he might start: neighbour feud, or the watcher could be the officer’s cousin, or who knows what.
He’s considered tripwires. These are presumably illegal, but Cal is pretty sure this in itself wouldn’t be a big deal: Mart has already offered twice to sell him an unregistered shotgun that he’s got lying around, and everyone drives home from the pub. The problem is, again, that Cal is in the dark on what he might set in motion.
Or what he might have set in motion already. Listening to Mart, Cal has started to get an inkling of how tangled up things get, around here, and how carefully you have to watch where you put your feet. Noreen, who runs the shop in the brief double line of buildings that counts as Ardnakelty village, won’t order the cookies Mart likes because of a complicated saga that took place in the 1980s and involved her uncles, Mart’s father and grazing rights; Mart doesn’t speak to an unpronounceable farmer on the other side of the mountains because the guy bought a pup that was sired by Mart’s dog when it somehow shouldn’t have been. There are other stories like that, although Cal doesn’t have them all straight, because Mart talks in big sweeping loops and because Cal doesn’t fully have the hang of the local accent. He likes it – rich as the air, with a needle-fine point that makes him think of cold river water or mountain wind – but chunks of the conversation go right over his head, and he gets distracted listening to the rhythms and misses more. But he’s gathered enough to know that he could have sat on someone’s stool in the pub, or cut across the wrong piece of land on one of his walks, and that that could mean something.
When he arrived here, he was ready for closed ranks against the stranger. He was OK with that, as long as no one set his place on fire; he wasn’t looking for golf buddies and dinner parties. But it didn’t turn out that way. People were neighbourly. The day Cal arrived and started hauling stuff into and out of the house, Mart wandered down to lean on the gate and probe for information, and ended up bringing over an old mini-fridge and recommending a good building supplies store. Noreen explained who was what kind of cousin to who and how to get onto the group water scheme, and – later, once Cal had made her laugh a few times – started offering, only halfway joking, to set Cal up with her widowed sister. The old guys who apparently live in the pub have moved from nods to weather comments to passionate explanations of a sport called hurling, which to Cal looks like what you might get if you kept the speed, dexterity and ferocity of ice hockey but took away the ice and most of the protective equipment. Up until last week he felt that he had been, if not exactly welcomed with open arms, at least accepted as a mildly interesting natural phenomenon, like maybe a seal that had taken up residence in the river. Obviously he was always going to be an outsider, but he was getting the feeling that that wasn’t a big deal. He’s no longer so sure.
So, four days ago, Cal drove into town and bought a big bag of garden soil. He’s aware of the irony of buying more dirt, when he just spent most of his savings on ten acres of it, but his personal dirt is rough and chunky, shot through with grass roots and small sharp rocks. For this he needed fine, moist, even stuff. The next day he got up before dawn and spread a layer of it by the outside wall of his house, under each of the windows. He had to pull weeds and creepers and scrape back pebbles to get a decent surface. The air was cold right down to the bottom of his lungs. Slowly the fields lightened around him; the rooks woke up and started bickering. When the sky got bright and he heard Mart’s faint peremptory whistle to his sheepdog, Cal crumpled up the soil bag to stuff at the bottom of the trash, and went inside to make breakfast.
Next morning, nothing; morning after that, nothing. He must have got closer than he thought, the last time, must have given them a scare. He went about his business and kept his eyes off the windows and the hedges.
This morning, footprints, in the dirt under his living-room window. Sneakers, going by the fragments of tread, but the prints were too scuffed up and overlapped to tell how big or how many.
The frying pan is hot. Cal throws in four slices of bacon, meatier and tastier than what he’s used to, and once the fat sizzles cracks in two eggs. He saunters over to his iPod, which lives on the same left-behind wooden table where he eats his meals – the sum total of Cal’s current furniture is that table, a left-behind wooden desk with a busted side, two scrawny left-behind Formica chairs, and a fat green armchair that Mart’s cousin was throwing out – and puts on some Johnny Cash, not too loud.
If he’s done something that pissed someone off, the prime candidate has got to be buying this house. He picked it off a website, on the basis that it came with some land, there was good fishing nearby, the roof looked sound, and he wanted to check out the papers sticking out of that old desk. It had been a long time since Cal had got a wild hare like that and chased after it, which seemed like an extra reason for doing it. The estate agents were asking thirty-five K. Cal offered thirty, cash. They about bit his hand off.
It didn’t occur to him at the time that anyone else might want the place. It’s a low, grey, undistinguished house built sometime in the 1930s, five hundred and some square feet, slate-roofed and sash-windowed; only the big cornerstones and the broad stone fireplace give it a touch of grace. Going by the website photos, it had been abandoned for years, probably decades: paint peeling in big streaks and mottles, rooms strewn with upended dark-brown furniture and rotting flowered curtains, saplings springing up in front of the door and creepers trailing in at a broken window. But he’s learned enough since then to understand that someone else might in fact have wanted this place, even if the reasons aren’t immediately apparent, and that anyone who felt they had a claim on it was likely to take that seriously.
Cal scoops his food onto a couple of thick slices of bread, adds ketchup, gets a beer out of the mini-fridge and takes his meal to the table. Donna would give him shit about the way he’s been eating, which doesn’t include a whole lot of fibre and fresh vegetables, but the fact is that even living out of a frying pan and a microwave he’s dropped a few pounds, maybe more than a few. He can feel it, not just in his waistband but in his movements: everything he does has a surprising new lightness to it. That was unsettling at first, like he had come unhitched from gravity, but it’s growing on him.
The exercise is what’s doing it. Just about every day Cal goes walking for an hour or two, nowhere particular, just following his nose and getting the lie of his new land. A lot of days it rains on him, but this is OK: he has a big wax jacket and the rain is like nothing he’s felt before, a fine soft haze that seems to hang motionless in the air. Mostly he leaves his hood down just so he can feel that haze against his face. As well as seeing farther than he’s used to, he can hear farther: the occasional sheep’s bleat or cow’s bawl, or farmer’s shout, comes to him from what seems like miles away, thinned and gentled by the distance. Sometimes he sees one of the farmers, going about his business away across the fields, or chugging down a narrow lane in a tractor so that Cal has to press back into the unruly hedge as he goes past lifting a hand in greeting. He’s passed strong-built women hauling heavy things around cluttered farmyards, red-cheeked toddlers staring at him through gates and sucking on the bars while the rangy dogs bark up a storm at him. Sometimes a bird calls a wild high streak above his head, or a pheasant explodes out of the undergrowth as he comes close. He gets back to the house feeling like he made the right call, throwing everything up in the air and coming here.
In between walks, with nothing else to call on his attention, Cal pretty much works on the house from morning till night. The first thing he did when he arrived was sweep away the thick cocoon of cobwebs and dust and dead bugs and what-have-you that was patiently working to fill every inch of the place. Next he put new glass in the windows, and replaced the toilet and the bath – both of which had been smashed up pretty good by someone with a lump hammer and a deep-seated grudge against bathroom fixtures – so he could stop shitting in a hole in the ground and washing out of a bucket. Cal is no plumber, but he’s always been handy and he has YouTube how-to videos, when the internet doesn’t crap out on him; it worked out OK.
After that he spent a while going through the left-behind stuff that littered the rooms, taking his time, giving each piece his full attention. Whoever lived here last was serious about religion: they had pictures of Saint Bernadette, a disappointed-looking Virgin Mary, and someone called Padre Pio, all in thin cheap frames and all left to yellow in corners by less devout heirs. They liked condensed milk, of which there were five tins in the kitchen cupboard, all of them fifteen years out of date. They had pink-printed china cups, rusted-out saucepans, rolled-up oilcloth tablecloths, a figurine of a kid in a red robe and crown with the head glued back on, and a shoebox holding a pair of old-fashioned men’s dress shoes, worn to creases and polished to a shine that still shows. Cal was a little surprised to find no evidence of teenage occupation, no empty beer cans or cigarette butts or used condoms, no graffiti. He figured this place must be too remote for them. At the time, that seemed like a good thing. Now he’s less sure. The possibility of teenagers checking on their old hangout is something he’d prefer to have on the menu.
The papers in the desk turned out to be nothing much: articles torn out of newspapers and magazines, folded into neat rectangles. Cal tried to find some unifying thread among the articles, but failed: they involved, among other things, the history of the Boy Scouts, how to grow sweet peas, tin whistle tunes, the Irish peacekeeping forces in the Lebanon, and a recipe for something called Welsh rarebit. Cal kept them, seeing as they were in a way the thing that had brought him here. He tossed most of the other stuff, including the curtains, which now seems like a bad call. He’s considered digging them back out of the heap of trash bags that’s growing behind the shed, but some animal has probably either chewed them up or pissed on them by now.
He’s replaced gutters and downpipes, climbed up on his roof to evict a sturdy crop of yellow-flowered weeds from his chimney, sanded and polished the old oak floorboards, and these days he’s working on the walls. The last inhabitant had surprisingly unconventional tastes in decoration, that or a few buckets of cheap paint. Cal’s bedroom used to be a deep, rich indigo, till the damp mottled it with streaks of mould and pale patches of bare plaster. The smaller bedroom was a light minty green. The living-room part of the front room was rusty red-brown, slapped on top of layers of buckling wallpaper. It’s unclear what exactly was going on in the kitchen area, which looks like someone might have been aiming to tile it and then got sidetracked, and nobody made even that much effort with the bathroom: it’s a tiny tacked-on cube at the back of the house, with plaster walls and a remnant of green carpet more or less covering the raw floorboards, like it was made by aliens who had heard about this thing called a bathroom but weren’t exactly clear on the details. Cal, at six foot four, has to squeeze himself into the bath with his knees practically under his chin. Once he’s tiled the room he’ll put in a shower fixture, but that can wait. He wants to get the painting done while the weather is good enough that he can leave the windows open. Already there have been days, just one or two of them, with the sky a dense grey and the cold rising up from the ground and the wind riding straight across hundreds of miles and through his house like it’s not there, to warn him of what winter’s going to be. Nothing approaching the snowbanks and subzero of Chicago winters – he knows that from the internet – but something in its own right, something steely and intractable, with a tricky side.
Cal takes a look at his day’s work while he eats. The wallpaper melded into the wall in places over the years, which makes this slow going, but he’s got more than half the room stripped to bare plaster; the wall around the chunky stone arch of the fireplace is still a scuffed red-brown. An unexpected part of him likes the room this way. It implies things. Cal is no artist, but if he was, he’d be inclined to leave it like this for a while, paint a few pictures.
He’s halfway through his food and still considering this when the back of his neck flares again. This time he even hears the signal that triggered it: a small, clumsy scramble, almost instantly cut off, like someone started to trip into the undergrowth outside the window and then caught themselves.
Cal takes another big, leisurely mouthful of sandwich, washes it down with a long gulp of beer, and wipes foam off his tache. Then he grimaces and leans forward, with a belch, to put his plate on the table. He pulls himself out of the chair, cracks his neck and heads for the john, already fumbling at his belt buckle.
The bathroom window opens as smoothly and silently as if it’s been sprayed with WD-40, which it has. Cal has also practised the climb onto the toilet cistern and out the window, and he manages it a lot more deftly than anyone could expect of someone his size, but that doesn’t change the fact that one reason he quit being a beat cop was because he had had it with climbing unreasonable objects in pursuit of mopes doing gratuitous crap, and he had no plans to go back to that. He lands on the ground outside with his heart speeding in the old familiar hunting rhythm, his ass scraped up by the window frame, and a rising sense of aggravation.
The best he’s got is a piece of pipe, left over from the bathroom work and stashed in a bush. Even holding it, he feels empty-handed and too light, without his gun. He stands still for a minute, letting his eyes adjust and listening, but the night is speckled all over with small noises and he can’t pick out any one that seems more relevant than the others. It’s got dark; the moon is up, a sharp slice chased over by ragged clouds, casting only a faint unreliable light and too many shadows. Cal adjusts his grip on the pipe and moves, with the old practised compromise between speed and silence, towards the corner of the house.
Below the living-room window a huddle of denser darkness crouches, motionless, head just high enough to peer over the sill. Cal scans carefully, as best he can, but the grass all around is clear: looks like just the one. In the spill of light from the window he catches a buzz cut and a smudge of red.
Cal drops the pipe and charges. He’s going for a full tackle, planning on flattening the guy and figuring out the rest from there, but his foot turns on a rock. In the second while he’s flailing for his balance, the guy leaps up and away. Cal lunges into the near-darkness, grabs hold of an arm and hauls with all his might.
The guy flies towards him too easily, and the arm is small enough that his hand wraps right around it. It’s a kid. The realisation loosens Cal’s grip a notch. The kid twists like a bobcat, with a hiss of breath, and sinks his teeth into Cal’s hand.
Cal roars. The kid yanks free and takes off across the garden like a rocket, feet almost noiseless on the grass. Cal starts after him, but in seconds he’s disappeared into the scribble of shadow by the roadside hedge, and by the time Cal reaches it, he’s gone. Cal shoves his way through the hedge and looks up and down the road, narrowed to a faint ribbon by the moon-shadows of the hedges crowding in. Nothing. He tosses a couple of stones into the bushes in various directions, trying to flush the kid out: no.
He doubts the kid had reinforcements – he would have yelled out, either for help or to warn them – but he jogs a circle around the garden just in case. The rooks are asleep, undisturbed. New footprints in the soil below the living-room window, same tread as last time; nowhere else. Cal backs himself up in the heavy shadow of the shed and waits for a long time, trying to quiet his panting, but there’s no rustle in any hedge and no shadow sneaking away across any field. Just the one, and just a kid. And not coming back, at least not tonight.
Inside, he takes a look at his hand. The kid got him good: three teeth broke the skin, and one place is bleeding. Cal got bit once before, on the job, which led to a maelstrom of paperwork, interviews, blood tests, legal wrangling, pills and court appearances that went on for months, till Cal got fed up keeping track of what was for what and just handed over his arm or his signature on request. He finds his first aid kit and soaks his hand in disinfectant for a while, then sticks on a Band-Aid.
His food has gone cold. He nukes it up and takes it back to the table. Johnny Cash is still going, mourning his lost Rose and his lost boy, in a deep broken quaver like he’s already a ghost.
Cal isn’t feeling the way he would have expected. Kids spying on the new guy were the thing he was hoping to find, the best-case scenario. He figured he would shout vague threats after them while they zoomed away yelling and laughing and calling insults over their shoulders, and then he would shake his head and go back indoors bitching about kids nowadays like some old geezer, and that would be the end of that. Maybe they would come back for another round, every now and then, but Cal was basically OK with that. Meanwhile, he could return to doing his renovation and playing his music loud and adjusting his balls whenever he damn well pleased, with his police sense put back to bed where it belongs.
Except he doesn’t feel like that was the end of that, and his police sense isn’t going back to sleep. Kids screwing with the stranger for kicks should have come in a bunch, and they should have been rowdy, hopped up on their own daring like it was caffeine. He thinks of this kid’s stillness under the window, his silence when Cal grabbed him, the snake-strike ferocity of his bite. This kid wasn’t having fun. He was here for a purpose. He’ll be back.
Cal finishes his food and does the dishes. He nails up a drop sheet over the bathroom window and takes a fast bath. Then he lies on his mattress in the dark with his hands behind his head, looking out the window at the cloud-patched stars and listening to foxes fighting somewhere out across the fields.
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