A meeting between Damien Jackson, suspect in the Amber Bailey case, and his solicitor Niamh McMahon. It takes place in a spartan room in a garda station.
Jackson is the dog-walker who spoke to Amber on the day her father brought her and her brother to the beach to fly a kite. He has been arrested on suspicion of withholding information relating to a missing person.
Sergeant Karen Mulcahy traced him through a chat room, after he posted remarks online about Amber to another teenage girl – indicating knowledge about her movements on the day she disappeared.
"Mr Jackson, the guards are concerned that you can't account satisfactorily for your whereabouts on the day in question. However, I don't believe they have adequate grounds to continue detaining you. I'm going to ask for your release," says the solicitor.
He doesn't react. Instead, he is fretful about his dog. "Buster's due a walk around now, he'll get desperately upset if he isn't let out. And what about his food? I'd no time to leave anything out for him. Who's going to feed him?"
"I'll check with the arresting officer" – she consults her notes – "Sergeant Mulcahy, and find out what arrangements have been made.
"Generally, if there's no one to take responsibility for an animal, it's brought to a kennels. But I really don't see that the guards have sufficient grounds to hold you."
"Buster won't like that. I only put him in kennels once. When I collected him, he had fleas."
He winces, leaning an elbow on the table to shade his eyes with a hand. When he drops it, his gaze latches on to hers for the first time since their meeting began. Something about it unsettles her. Unconsciously, she leans back in her chair, putting distance between them.
"Ms McMahon, may I ask a rather personal question. Do you ever use chat rooms?"
"No, I don't."
"I expect not. A lovely young lady like yourself, you probably have lots of friends. But I find them company, in the evening. That's where we first met, Amber and I. In a chat room. Her avatar was Mermaid Girl. Mine's Man's Best Friend, because I'm a dog-lover. She said that's what drew her to me – she was fond of dogs, too. Except she wasn't allowed to have a puppy. It's against the rules in her apartment block.
"We chatted online for a few months before we met. Her parents were separated, and she was lonely. She said sometimes she felt as if she was invisible – they were totally caught up in their own selfish worlds. They wouldn't notice if, one day, she simply walked right out of their lives. It's sad, to hear that, from a lovely young lady, don't you think? Lovely young ladies should be pampered, and given everything they want. Everything."
The solicitor picks up her pen and starts making notes.
He continues speaking. "I get lonely, as well. Even with Buster. It wasn't so bad when I was still working. But now I'm retired, I can go from one week to the next without speaking to another human being. I used to see her with her family on the beach. They looked the picture of contentment. Of course, I knew better. I understood just how neglected my Mermaid Girl felt.
"Her parents never appreciated how talented she was – they didn't have eyes to see what was in front of them. She wanted to be a famous artist one day. She was always drawing pictures of mermaids. She felt an affinity with them because they didn't belong in our world. And neither did she.
"I knew she was special. Right off, I knew it, when her first message popped up on my computer screen. 'Does anyone else out there feel nobody understands them or cares about them?' she asked.
"It was like my soulmate reaching out to me. All my life, I've waited for her. That's why we grew close so quickly. She liked it when I said her name would be up in lights one day – no- one ever spoke to her like that.
'That's when she agreed to meet me. I'd been asking for a while, but she always said no. I didn't want to force it, in case I pushed her away. But I kept asking. I had to. I longed to sit down with her and have a proper conversation. Face to face. Just me and Mermaid Girl. Screen chats weren't enough.
"She told me she was 16, nearly 17. I believed her, why wouldn't I? Young ladies look so grown up these days. They're confident and articulate. Developed, too, if you'll pardon my mentioning it. I got quite a shock when I read in the newspaper she was only 14.
"We used a secret sign. She'd tell me when she was due to be on the beach, and I'd make sure to walk Buster at the same time. Sometimes I could only look at her. But if it was safe for us to talk, she'd draw a mermaid in the sand with a stick.
"That day, we had a quick chat, and she promised to visit me in the afternoon. She'd never been to my house before. But I'd bought paint for her. She was meant to be staying with her grandmother, and promised to get out of it. 'Dad's easy to manage,' she said.
"I explained where I lived, near the Luas stop. All she had to do was walk down the lane in front of the station, and keep going til she reached the yellow house on the right. She was tickled by the idea of a secret assignation.
"She wanted to help me bath Buster, and afterwards she was going to use the paint to get started on a mermaid mural in my hallway. We had a wonderful afternoon planned." He shudders to a halt.
Niamh McMahon's voice cracks, as though from long disuse, when she asks, "Mr Jackson, what happened?"
"It all went horribly wrong!" he whispers.
"Mr Jackson, do you want me to inform the police that you wish to make a full confession? Obviously, as your solicitor, I must point out the implications arising from such a course of action. Do you understand?"
He nods, abstracted. "I knew I couldn't keep my Mermaid Girl forever. Still, I'll always have her right here. Locked in my heart."