The semidetached house has a single bay window on the lower floor and a small square of soggy front garden surrounded on three sides by a heavily pruned knee-high hedge. Two vehicles are parked nose to tail in the driveway—one a black cab and the other a new-model Lexus with a darker-than-legal tint on the front windows.
A police constable is waiting outside, stamping her feet against the cold. Lenny presses a doorbell. Dougal Sheehan answers and looks past us, as though hoping we might have brought his daughter home.
“I’m Detective Chief Inspector Lenore Parvel,” says Lenny. “I wanted to speak to you and your wife.”
Wordlessly, he turns and leads us into an overfurnished sitting room with a lumpy sofa and two worn armchairs. A TV is showing football with the sound turned down.
Maggie Sheehan is standing in the arched doorway to the kitchen. Everything about her is crumpled and diminished. The forward cant of her shoulders. The dark rings beneath her eyes. A string of polished wooden rosary beads are clenched in her fist.
Beyond her I see a couple sitting at the kitchen. The man looks like family. He’s dressed in dark trousers and a white shirt, buttoned to his neck. The woman is physically the same size and clearly the most resolute of the four, ready to prop up the others.
“Mrs. Sheehan,” begins Lenny.
“Please call me Maggie,” she replies mechanically, before introducing her brother, Bryan, and his wife, Felicity, who are sitting at the kitchen table. The Whitakers are Tasmin’s parents, come to offer support.
Lenny is standing in the center of the room with her legs braced apart and hands clasped like she’s on a parade ground. Some people own every space they inhabit, but Lenny seems to conquer the room quietly, taking it inch by inch with the force of her personality, until everyone is concentrating on her.
Maggie takes a seat on the sofa. The skin above her collarbone is mottled and there are cracks in the makeup around her eyes. Dougal is next to her. She reaches for his hand. He takes it reluctantly, as though unwilling to show any frailty.
The Whitakers are side by side in the arched doorway, their faces filled with dreadful knowing.
Lenny begins. “It is my sad duty to inform you that the body of a teenage girl has been found beside Silverdale Walk. She matches the description of your daughter, Jodie.”
Maggie blinks and glances at Dougal, as though waiting for a translation. His eyes are closed, but a tear squeezes from one corner and he wipes it away with the back of his hand.
“How did she die?” he whispers.
“We believe her death to be suspicious.”
Dougal gets to his feet and sways unsteadily, gripping the back of the sofa for support. He’s a big man who looks like a builder or a butcher. Big arms. Big hands.
Some people own every space they inhabit, but Lenny seems to conquer the room quietly, taking it inch by inch with the force of her personality, until everyone is concentrating on her.
“We will need one of you to formally identify Jodie,” says Lenny. “It doesn’t have to be today. I can send a car in the morning.”
“Where is she now?” asks Maggie.
“She’s been taken to the Queen’s Medical Centre. There will need to be a postmortem.”
“You’re going to cut our baby up,” says Dougal.
“We’re investigating a homicide.”
Maggie Sheehan’s fingers have found her rosary beads. She clutches the tiny crucifix in her fist, squeezing it so tightly it leaves an imprint when she opens her palm. She must have prayed all day, daring to hope, but nobody has answered her.
Bryan and Felicity hug each other in the doorway. She seems to be holding him up.
“We need to establish Jodie’s movements,” says Lenny. “When did you last see her?”
“At the fireworks,” whispers Maggie.
“We go to Bonfire Night every year,” echoes Felicity. “We used to call it Guy Fawkes Night, but people don’t do that anymore. Maybe it’s not politically correct. Didn’t Guy Fawkes try to blow up the Houses of Parliament? The Gunpowder Plot and all that.”
She’s a tall, striking woman, with a plume of silver flowing through her thick dark hair from the left side of her temple to the collar of her blouse.
“Who was Jodie with at the fireworks?” interrupts Lenny.
“Tasmin. Our daughter.”
Maggie looks lost for words. “Schoolmates. Friends. Neighbors.”
“Everyone was there,” explains Felicity. “It was like a big street party. I took a bottle of champagne and glasses.”
Maggie takes a cotton handkerchief from the sleeve of her cardigan and blows her nose.
“I shouldn’t have let her stay out. I should have made her come home. She would have been safe.”
“Nonsense. This is not your fault,” scolds Felicity in a tender voice.
Dougal doesn’t react, but I can already sense the tension between husband and wife. The recriminations are just beginning. Guilt has to fall somewhere when logic fails.
“What time did you last see her?” I ask.
“She found me at eight o’clock,” says Maggie. “She asked if she could sleep over at Tasmin’s house. I told her she had to be up early for training.”
“The nationals are coming up,” explains Bryan Whitaker, sounding apologetic. “We’re on the ice by six thirty, six mornings a week.”
“You’re Jodie’s coach,” I say.
“I taught her to skate.”
“Almost before she could walk,” echoes Maggie.
Brother and sister have similar eyes and the same-shaped noses. Maggie is rounder and softer while Bryan has slim hips and slender hands. He looks like a dancer in the way he stands with a straight back, square shoulders, and raised chin.
Attention shifts to the TV, where the football has been replaced by a news bulletin. Drone footage shows the pale outline of a forensic tent, almost hidden from view by overhanging branches. The next pictures are of police searching the uncut meadow, walking in a long straight line through knee-high grass. One of them pauses, crouches, and picks up a discarded soft-drink can, which he places in a plastic evidence bag. The picture changes again. This time Jodie’s body is being carried up the embankment.
“Turn it off!” begs Maggie. Dougal reaches for the TV remote. Fumbles. Curses. The screen goes black.
“Why would anyone hurt our baby?” whispers Maggie. Her shoulders heave, as though shifting weight from one to the other.
Lenny glances at me, but I have no words to make this right. I know what awaits them. In the days to come, Jodie’s life will be picked apart by the media, who will feast on this story: the young “golden girl” of skating, who dreamed of Olympic glory but died in a cold, muddy clearing less than a mile from her home.
As a forensic psychologist, I have met killers and psychopaths and sociopaths, but I refuse to define people as being good or evil. Wrongdoing is an absence of something good rather than something fated or written in our DNA or forced upon us by shitty parents or careless teachers or cruel friendships. Evil is not a state; it is a “property,” and when a person is in possession of enough “property,” it sometimes begins to define them.
Evil is not a state; it is a “property,” and when a person is in possession of enough “property,” it sometimes begins to define them.
Would it benefit the Sheehans if I told them this? No. It won’t bring them comfort when they lie beside each other tonight, staring at the ceiling, wondering what they might have done differently. People who lose children have their hearts warped into weird shapes. Losing a child is beyond comprehension. It defies biology. It contradicts the natural order of history and genealogy. It derails common sense. It violates time. It creates a huge, black, bottomless hole that swallows hope.
Dougal is pouring himself a drink at a bar cabinet. Most of the bottles have duty-free stickers still attached. Maggie seems more relaxed when he’s not focused on her. She talks more freely. Remembers.
“When Jodie learned to ride a bike, I wouldn’t let her leave the cul-de-sac because I didn’t want her riding out of sight. People said I was overprotective, but I know how these things happen. Later, when she started school, I let her walk to Tasmin’s house, but never in the dark—not on that footpath. We used to call it the Black Path because it had no lights. Even when the council finally put them in, we still called it the Black Path.”
“Why did Jodie and Tasmin split up last night?” I ask.
“Jodie went to get fish and chips,” says Felicity.
“Does she have a boyfriend?” I ask.
“Not a proper one,” says Felicity. “Sometimes she hangs out with Toby Leith.”
“The rich kid?” Dougal says, in a mocking tone.
“He’s not that rich,” says Bryan. “His father has a car dealership.”
“How old is Toby?” I ask.
“Too old,” says Dougal.
“He’s eighteen,” explains Felicity, who doesn’t like correcting her brother-in-law. “They only hang out.”
Dougal reacts angrily. “What does that even mean? Jodie was supposed to be in training, not running around with some redneck in a flash car.”
Maggie flinches and looks even more miserable.
“When did you realize that Jodie was missing?” I ask, wanting to change the subject.
“She was supposed to come back to ours,” explains Felicity. “Tasmin waited up until eleven and then fell asleep.”
“Did Jodie have a key?”
“Tasmin left the patio door unlocked.”
“She was out there all night,” says Dougal, his voice breaking.
Felicity sits on the edge of his armchair and brushes his cheek with her hand. It’s an intimate gesture, like watching Androcles pulling a thorn from the lion’s paw. These people are close, I think. They have raised their children together, celebrating birthdays, christenings, anniversaries, and milestones. The highs and the lows.
“When did you realize Jodie was missing?” asks Lenny.
“I went to wake Jodie for training, but she wasn’t in Tasmin’s room,” says Bryan. “I figured she must have gone home last night, so I drove by here to pick her up. That’s when we realized that she’d been missing all night.”
“And you phoned the police,” says Lenny.
The couples look at each other, waiting for someone else to answer.
“We looked for her first,” says Bryan. “I went to the ice rink. Tasmin began phoning her friends.”
Lenny studies Dougal. “What about you?”
He motions to the window and the black cab outside. “I was working last night. I got home around seven and went straight out again, looking for Jodie.”
“I walked along the footpath.”
“What made you immediately think of Silverdale Walk?”
“It’s the way home,” he replies, as though it should be obvious. His voice catches. “I must have walked right past her.”
Maggie is staring at the wall, as though looking into the past.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“Someone had to stay here in case Jodie called or came home,” explains Felicity.
Lenny seems to be quietly plotting the timeline of events. It made no difference when the police were called. Jodie had been dead for hours.
“Is there anyone who might have wanted to harm your daughter?” Lenny asks.
Maggie looks lost. “What do you mean?”
“Did she talk about anyone following her? Someone who might have looked out of place or made her feel uncomfortable or unsafe?”
“Is there anyone who might want to hurt your family?” Dougal makes a scoffing sound. “I drive a cab. Maggie works in the school canteen. We’re not low-life crims or scumbags.”
Lenny doesn’t react. Perhaps she should be talking to the parents separately to gauge their different responses. Dougal has the stronger personality and Maggie defers to him, never questioning his answers or interrupting. She’s not subservient, but neither is she an equal in the relationship.
I try to picture Jodie here but have too little information to breathe life into her pale corpse.
I walk to the sliding doors and peer into the darkness of the garden. An outside light reveals a deck with a hot tub, covered for the winter. I try to picture Jodie here but have too little information to breathe life into her pale corpse. I need to discover who she was before if I’m to understand what happened to her. Was she friendly and approachable? Would she say hello to a stranger who passed her on the footpath late at night? Would she nod and smile or drop her head, avoiding eye contact? Would she run if attacked? Would she fight back? Would she submit?
“Can I see Jodie’s room?” I ask, directing the question at Dougal. He hesitates for a moment before showing me up the stairs. Jodie’s room is nearest the shared bathroom. Dougal won’t come inside. He hovers in the doorway, as though waiting for permission to enter from a daughter who will never be able to grant it.
The pillow on Jodie’s bed has a small indentation where her head last rested. Next to it is a floppy rag doll with yellow yarn curls and button eyes. It is a typical teenager’s room. Messy. Cluttered. Characterful. Dirty clothes are strewn near a wicker basket and a lone shoe has been thrown towards the wardrobe. I have to stop myself wanting to bend down and put it in place. A damp towel from yesterday is lying on the floor.
Studying the room, I imagine Jodie sitting cross-legged on the bed, a little girl playing with dolls and cutting and pasting pictures. She grew up and graduated from crayons to eyeliner, from Barbies to boy bands. Every detail resonates; the book on her bedside table, doodles on a piece of foolscap paper, a collection of lanyards hanging from the doorknob.
Her shelves are lined with ice-skating trophies and medals. The wall above her bed is covered in photographs and posters of skaters, some of whom I recognize but can’t name. Katarina Witt is among them, as well as Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. The camera has captured many of them in midair, seemingly defying gravity, while others glide across the ice with the grace of ballet dancers.
Polaroids are pinned to a corkboard above Jodie’s desk. Most of them show Jodie and Tasmin together. They are sitting on each other’s laps in a photo booth, pulling faces at the camera. Jodie is the prettier of the two. Tasmin is more self-conscious about her looks, tilting her face to hide the weight she carries around her neck. Jodie is smaller, with a skater’s body, slim and muscled. She’s more at ease with her body, showing it off in miniskirts and tight tops.
I notice a barrel bolt lock on the door, which has been affixed crookedly.
“That was Jodie’s doing,” explains Dougal. “She wanted her privacy.”
“Who was she trying to keep out?”
“Her brother mainly. Felix can push her buttons.”
I remember the youth I saw at the community center, urging Dougal to go home.
“Does Felix live here?” I ask.
“He comes and goes.”
There are more trophies on a shelf above Jodie’s bed. Some have come from junior competitions in Moscow, Berlin, and Hungary.
“You must have been very proud,” I say.
“Every time I watched her skate.”
Dougal inhales, holds his breath. Exhales.
“Most people take figure skating for granted. They don’t realize what goes into it—the courage and skill it takes to glide across the ice and spring into the air and spin three or four times before landing on a single blade as sharp as a knife. I’m a boneheaded man. I don’t read books or recite poetry or understand paintings, but Jodie was beautiful on the ice . . . truly breathtaking.”
Lenny calls up the stairs. She’s ready to go.
We offer our condolences and leave the two devastated families to their grief. Outside, as I reach the police car, I pause and turn back towards the house. A figure is standing motionless in an upstairs window, gazing steadily in our direction. Felix Sheehan is shirtless, or perhaps naked, his lower half shielded. He flicks at a cigarette lighter, triggering a flame and dousing it, while looking directly at us with a hatred that sustains rather than corrodes him.
What does he want to burn, I wonder, and why does he want to burn it?