Northern Spy

Flynn Berry

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Northern Spy, by Flynn Berry. A Belfast-based producer at the BBC, Tessa is shocked to see her own sister Marian captured on footage as being part of a violent IRA-related raid. She embarks on an inquiry to find out what has happened to her sister, and how on earth she could be involved, but lands in a more dangerous circumstance than she could have imagined.

I rush out of Broadcasting House and turn north toward the police station. If I were to run in the opposite direction, toward her flat, Marian might answer the door. She might stand there, under the yellow paper lantern in her front hall, and say,

Tessa, what are you doing here?

I sway on my feet, trying to make a decision. Her house isn’t far. Marian lives in south Belfast, on Adelaide Avenue, a quiet row of terraced houses between the railway line and the Lisburn Road. I could be there in twenty minutes. The pedestrian light flashes and I force myself to cross the road. Her flat will be empty, she’s meant to be on the north coast through Friday. She isn’t answering her phone. On my way out of the building, I rang mam and Marian’s best friends, but none of them have heard from her.

The police station stands behind a tall corrugated steel fence. I speak to the desk officer seated behind a bulletproof window. Distortions in the glass ripple over his face, and I can’t tell if he under‑ stands, if I’m making any sense. A woman outside his booth, in tears. The officer must be used to it, he doesn’t seem at all alarmed by my distress. He rests my license in a slot on his keyboard and slowly types in my name. He doesn’t hurry, even though someone might be watching from across the road. The IRA always seems to know when someone from the community has gone to the police. If anyone asks later, I’ll say I came here for work, for an interview. I dry my face with the back of my hand, then he points me toward an antechamber.

Two soldiers with automatic rifles order me to remove my shoes and bag. I hold my arms out at my sides, barefoot, in a linen summer dress. The soldiers’ faces are blank. It occurs to me that, in this moment, they might be more scared than I am. If I had a bomb strapped under my dress, they’d be the first in the station to die.

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“Hold out your hands,” says one, and wipes them for explosives residue. I have a sudden fear that I might have touched something, at some point in the day, that there will be flecks of gelignite or Semtex on my palms. The soldiers wait until the machine sounds, then unlock the antechamber door. A constable escorts me across the courtyard and up to an interview room in the serious crime suite. The room has a panoramic view over the city, the roofs and construction cranes, to the dark shape of Cave Hill in the distance. I’m watching clouds surge behind the hill when the detective arrives. He is in his fifties, in a crumpled suit, with an expressive, lined face. “DI Fenton,” he says, shaking my hand. “We’re glad you came in, Tessa.”

He opens a notepad, searches his pockets for a pen. The disorganization might be a tactic, I think, a way to put people at ease.

“I understand you’d like to talk about Marian Daly,” he says, and I frown. He says her name like she’s a known figure. “Can you state for the tape your relation to Marian?”

“She’s my sister.”

“Do you know where Marian is at the moment?” he asks.

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I want to say, Actually, we do know where she is, she’s on the coast near Ballycastle, she’s out hiking along the cliff path, she’s on her way to visit Dunseverick castle.

“She arrived at the service station in Templepatrick in a white Mercedes Sprinter van,” he says. “Have you ever seen that vehicle before?”

“No.” Marian drives a secondhand Polo, with an evil‑eye charm hanging from the rearview mirror. Nonsense, obviously, but you can’t blame her, her ambulance has been at the scene of enough road accidents, she has spent hours crouching on broken glass at the edge of a motorway.

“Are you certain?”

“Yes,” I say, my ears still ringing.

“When did your sister join the IRA?” he asks.

“She’s not in the IRA.”

The detective tips his head to the side. Past the window, thunderclouds ripple behind the council blocks. Slow traffic moves along the Westlink.

“She participated in an armed robbery this afternoon,” he says.

“The IRA has claimed it.”

“Marian’s not a member of the IRA.”

“It can come as a shock,” he says, “to learn that someone you love has joined. It can seem completely out of character.”

“I’m not in shock,” I say, aware of how unconvincing this sounds, aware that my face and throat are sticky with tears, that the collar of my dress is damp.

“Why was Marian with those men at the service station?”

“They must have forced her to go with them.” He doesn’t respond, and I say, “The IRA makes people do things for them all the time.”

“Marian was carrying a gun,” says the detective.

“If that were the case, why would they give her a gun?”

”You know that’s common. They force lads to carry out punishment shootings for them.”

“As part of their recruitment,” he says.

“Is Marian being recruited?”

“No, of course not. They must have threatened her.”

“She could have asked for help. She was surrounded by other people during the robbery.”

“There were two men with her and both of them had guns.

What do you make of her chances?”

The detective considers me in silence. Outside, one of the construction cranes starts to rotate against the heavy sky. “Are you saying your sister has been abducted? Do you want to file a missing persons report?”

“I’m saying she has been coerced.”

“Marian may have kept her decision to join to herself.”

“She tells me everything,” I say, and the detective looks sorry for me.

I think of Marian’s flat, of the cake of soap next to her sink, the food and boxes of herbal tea in her cupboards, the string of prayer flags at the window, the paramedic’s uniform hanging in her closet, the boots lined up by the door.

“Marian’s not a terrorist. If she’s playing along, it’s only so they won’t hurt her. She’s not one of them.”

The detective sighs, then says, “Do you want a tea?” I nod, and soon he returns with two small plastic cups.

“Thanks.” I tear open a packet of sugar, and the act seems uncanny, doing something so ordinary while my sister is missing. The detective wears a wedding ring. I wonder if he has children, or siblings.

“Where did you and your sister grow up?” he asks over the rim of his cup.


“That’s a fairly deprived area, isn’t it?”

“There are worse places.” My cousins from Ballymurphy teased us for being posh. The houses on our council estate were only about a foot wider than the ones on theirs, but still.

“High rates of alcoholism,” says the detective. “High unemployment.”

He doesn’t understand, he’s not from our community. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, everyone on our estate came outside, and we joined hands in a circle the length of the street and sang “Auld Lang Syne” together. After my father left, our neighbors gave us some money to hold us over. My mother still lives there, and she has done the same for them when they have their own lean stretches. No one has to ask.

“What religion is your family?” he asks.

“I’m agnostic,” I say.

“And the others?” he asks patiently.

“Catholic,” I say, which he already knew, of course, from our names, from where we grew up, in a republican stronghold. The police won’t enter Andersonstown without full riot gear.

“Are any of your family in the IRA?” he asks.


“No one at all?”

“Our great‑grandfather was a member.” He joined the IRA in West Cork, and fought in a flying column. Traveling across the island, sleeping under hedgerows, running ambushes on police stations. They were, he said, the happiest years of his life.

“Did Marian romanticize his past?” he asks.

“No,” I say, though when we were little, we both did. Our great‑ grandfather sleeping out on Caher moor under a Neolithic stone table, or piloting a boat around Mizen Head, or hiding from soldiers on an island in Bantry Bay.

“So you and Marian are from a republican family?” he asks. “Our parents aren’t political.”

My mother was always polite to the British soldiers, even though as teenagers, two of her brothers were beaten up by soldiers, spat on and kicked until they both had broken ribs. She never shouted at the soldiers, like some women on our road did, or threw rocks at their patrols. I understand now that she was trying to protect us.

“What about their parents?”

I shrug. My granny was unconcerned by the bomb scares during the Troubles. I remember her arguing once with a security guard trying to evacuate a shop, saying, “Hang on, I’m just getting my sausage rolls.”

The detective leans back in his chair. If he asks about my uncles, I’ll have to tell him the truth. My uncles go to Rebel Sunday at the Rock bar, they sing “Go Home British Soldiers,” “The Ballad of Joe McDonnell,” “Come Out Ye Black and Tans.” It never goes beyond that, though, beyond getting trolleyed and shouting rebel songs.

“Does Marian consider herself a British or Irish citizen?”


“How does she think a united Ireland will be achieved?”

“Democratically. She thinks there will be a border poll. But Marian’s not political,” I say. I had to remind her to vote last year.

When I mention the guests on our program, she rarely knows who they are.

Above the road, the neon sign for Elliott’s bar blinks red. People are standing outside, holding pints in the humid air before the storm breaks. I blow on my tea, not wanting to leave this room. Any news about Marian will come here first. I’d sleep here, if they’d let me.

“Why do you think people join the IRA?” asks the detective.

“Because they’re fanatics,” I say. “Or they’re bored. Or lonely.”

He rotates his pen on the table. “We want to bring your sister back,” he says. “She can explain what happened herself, she can tell us if she was coerced, but we need to find her first, right?”

I nod. I need to be polite to him. Marian and I have to work in unison now, without seeing what the other one is doing—her from the inside and me from out here, like we’re picking a lock from either side of the door.

He says, “We have Marian’s address as Eighty‑seven Adelaide Avenue, is that correct?”


“Any other residences?”

“No, but she wasn’t home this week, she’d rented a cottage on the north coast.”

I tell him the name of the rental agency. All I know about the location is that a waterfall is nearby. Marian said she’d hiked down to the end of the headland, below the cottage, and when she turned around, a waterfall was twisting over the top of the cliff. I want the detective to see this, Marian standing alone on a spit of land in hiking boots and a rainproof jacket, watching water pour into the sea.

“Did anyone go on the trip with her?”


“Have you spoken to her since she left?”

I open our messages and hand him my phone. He scrolls up, reading our texts, pausing at the picture she sent yesterday morning from Ursa Minor of two cream horns. I can’t bear to look at it, to think of her sitting in a bakery, working through her pastries, not realizing what was about to happen.

“Are you certain she went alone?” he asks.


“Who took this picture, then?” he asks, turning the phone toward me, at the photo of Marian laughing on the rope bridge.

“I don’t know. She must have asked another tourist.”

“Has Marian made any other trips recently?”


“Does she have travel documents in any other names?”

“Of course not.”

I remember how distressed she was after the Victoria Square attack in April, how pinched her face looked. Marian was off duty during the attack, but still ran to help. The IRA had planted an incendiary device, which went off prematurely, when the complex was full of shoppers. Hours later, when she appeared at my house, her jeans were stiff with blood from the knee to the ankle. She said, “When is it going to stop?”

I slowly lift my head to look at the detective. “Is she working for you? Is she an informer?”


“Would you know?”

“I’d know.”

Detective inspector. How many ranks are there above him? Fen‑ ton checks his watch. I look down at the traffic on the Westlink, where the cars have slowed almost to a standstill as the sky opens, releasing the downpour.

“Does Marian visit extremist websites?” he asks.


News broadcasts sometimes show IRA videos, though. She may have seen those. Men with ski masks over their faces, setting out their demands, or sitting at a table in silence, assembling a bomb.

The detective seems to think Marian has been groomed. That someone has been taking her away on trips, sending her extremist material to read. I know what they say, the recruiters. Come where you are needed. Come where you are loved.

“Does Marian have access to any industrial chemicals?”

“No. Look, this is absurd.”

“We only want to find her,” he says, which anyone from here would know isn’t true. The police don’t search for a terrorist the same way they search for a missing person. Let’s say they find a house and send in a special operations team. The team will have different instructions for a raid than an extraction, they will behave differently if someone inside the house needs to be protected.

“She’s pregnant,” I say.

The detective takes in a breath. I wait for a moment, like I’m silently checking Marian’s response. This was the first tug on the lock, this lie.

I can tell it was the right decision. Across the table, Fenton drags his hand down the side of his face. He’s already recalculating. He might be considering how to advise the officers who are out hunting for her. The government won’t want to be responsible for the death of a pregnant woman, even if she is a terror suspect. Or, especially if she’s a terror suspect. The situation is volatile enough already without the police accidentally turning a pregnant terrorist into a martyr.

“How far along is she?” he asks.

“Six weeks.” If this lie comes out, he could, in theory, charge me with obstructing an inquiry, but that’s less important.

“Who’s the father?” he asks.

“Her ex‑boyfriend,” I answer without pausing. “Jacob Cooke. He lives in London, they saw each other when he was back in April.”

Fenton considers me from across the table. Traffic inches along the motorway, the neon sign above the pub blinks. I twist the ring on my right hand. Marian gave me the ring, a meteorite stone, to mark Finn’s birth.

She wept the first time she held him. I remember her standing up, in the waiting room outside the maternity ward, her face shining and collapsing into tears when she saw him.

“She’s not a fanatic,” I say.

The detective leans his arms on the table. His expression has changed. I might have convinced him, finally.

He says, “But was she lonely?”


From Northern Spy by Flynn Berry. Used with the permission of the publisher, Viking. Copyright © 2020 by Flynn Berry.

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