Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 20
Next: Chapter 22

21

Inside the wire, O’Keefe and Just Albert walk a worn dirt path that is, no doubt, a slick track of mud when it rains. Flimsy wooden huts are arrayed in rows on either side of the path, the smell of salt in the air from the sea a few hundred yards beyond the easternmost stretch of wire. O’Keefe can hear the shushing of waves over the murmur and chat of men gathered outside the huts in loose groups. Some are perched on wooden pallets that serve as steps up to the huts, others sprawled on the dry grass; some read books and look up as the two men pass. Another group sits in a circle in the warm sun reciting phrases in Irish, while in front of a different hut the men play cards, but without the usual banter one might expect of soldiers passing time. There is bitterness in the men’s faces, their voices, and O’Keefe finds himself avoiding their eyes, as if one look might incite violence. He knows that he should stop at one of these huts close to the front gate to ask where he might find Séamus Brennan, but instead he finds himself moving deeper into the camp, furtively searching for a man or group of men who appear approachable. Behind him, Just Albert follows, hands in his pockets, coins clinking loudly over the hushed mumble of the interned, sounding out of place on this windswept wasteland of beach and prison. O’Keefe gathers his courage and turns off the path.

Smoke rises lazily from the tin chimney of the hut, and the men loitering in front of it go silent at their approach. O’Keefe gets the smell of boiled cabbage and bacon coming from the open door of the dwelling, and his stomach, independent of his fear, growls with hunger.

‘Lads,’ he says, unable to think of a more apt greeting. Something tells him that commenting on the weather will not be taken kindly by these men. They are tough-looking, variously sized, but lean and angry, skin roughened brown by wind and sun. They are much like the men O’Keefe remembers from his time in the army, lacking only the kit and uniform, but there is a silent rage that he can sense among them, smouldering just beneath their silence. None of them responds to his greeting.

‘We’re looking to speak with Séamus Brennan, if we could,’ he tries, as their menace thickens in the humid sea air. The sound of waves and Albert’s jingling coins. O’Keefe turns back to the doorman and stares until he ceases bothering the copper in his pockets. When he brings his gaze back to the men, Just Albert resumes it again, a smirk on his face that O’Keefe can feel but not see.

O’Keefe controls the bite of ire he feels towards Ginny’s man, and this anger is replaced by a dawning fear. He wonders suddenly if he has arrested any of these men in the past. Shot at them? Had he, God forbid, killed one of their brothers or friends? It is not beyond the possible.

He swallows, his mouth dry. ‘We’re not police or Free State intelligence or any of the other things you’re probably thinking. I’ve met Mr Brennan before and helped him once and I’m hoping he can help me now with a matter that’s nothing to do with your being in here or with the war outside.’

‘Everything has to do with the war going on outside if you’ve come to see a man who’s inside,’ one of the men says. He is in his twenties, with light green eyes and blond hair worn oiled and combed back off his forehead. He wears woollen army uniform trousers and braces over a cotton undershirt.

O’Keefe considers the man’s words before speaking. Then: ‘Fair enough. Maybe it does have to do with the war. It probably does. But I’ve no truck with your enemies, if that’s a better way of putting it. If you could point me to Séamus Brennan’s hut, I can explain it to him.’

‘Why don’t you explain it to us first,’ the same man says.

‘Because he just fuckin’ told yis he’d rather explain it to the man himself is why,’ Just Albert says from behind O’Keefe.

The words are spoken without rancour, but O’Keefe cringes inwardly. What had started as oblique negotiation, Ginny Dolan’s man has given a shove towards confrontation. A confrontation they will not win.

‘Look,’ O’Keefe says, ‘can one of you give him a message that Seán O’Keefe, out of Ballycarleton once, is here to see him? And then let him make up his own mind to see me or not. If he says to take the road out, we’ll take it. That’s all I’m asking.’

One of the group steps forward, big, his shirt sleeves rolled over thick forearms. ‘I’ll show ye the fucking road, I will,’ he says.

The green-eyed man intervenes. ‘Leave off. I’ll take them to Brennan and see what he says. Follow me,’ he says to O’Keefe and Albert, stepping past them. O’Keefe turns to follow, and after a long moment staring at the men, so does Just Albert. As they trail their guide between the maze of huts, deeper into the camp, O’Keefe wonders how close they had just come to a serious beating or worse.

After a few minutes they come to a hut in what O’Keefe takes to be the centre of the camp. It appears to be the farthest away from any of the guard towers and has purpose-built steps of scrap wood leading up to its doorway. Green-eyes disappears inside, leaving O’Keefe and Albert waiting in stilted silence and subject to wary, menacing interest from prisoners loitering in front of a neighbouring hut.

‘Sergeant O’Keefe,’ Séamus Brennan says, looking down from the doorway, and O’Keefe thanks a God he has ceased to believe in that it is the man he had hoped for.

Séamus Brennan had been the OIC of Brigade Intelligence of the West Cork Thirds, IRA, during the Tan War. O’Keefe had heard, or read in a file sometime before his demobilisation from the RIC, that Brennan had been promoted to OIC of Intelligence for the Southern Division, IRA, and had held that post until he’d sided with de Valera and the anti-Treaty Irregulars. O’Keefe had met him while investigating the murder of a young woman whose body had been left on a hillside outside of Drumdoolin in West Cork. He had found Brennan to be a ruthless, though personable, professional officer who had seemed to respect O’Keefe’s detective work and had tried to recruit O’Keefe into the ranks of the IRA. O’Keefe had declined his offer, his loyalty having always been to his comrades in the RIC, but he had respected Brennan in return.

‘Just plain Seán, now, Mr Brennan. General Brennan? It’s been some time since I’ve held rank in any service at all.’

Brennan smiles. ‘Haven’t joined the Civic Guard then? I understand they’re looking for men like yerself, boy. Men with policing experience.’

‘I’ve done enough policing to last a man a lifetime, General. I’m doing a favour for … for a friend, is all. Could I speak with you privately, sir?’

There is a quiet, cunning charisma about Brennan that had impressed O’Keefe the first time they met, and it is still there now, though it is dimmed somewhat—by age, O’Keefe imagines, and by disillusionment. By captivity. Older than the average IRA man even then, Brennan has aged harshly in the three years since O’Keefe had seen him last. The intelligence man’s hair has gone white and his face is drawn—sharp, haggard lines grid his eyes and mouth, and his hand appears clenched in a painful, awkward way. Brennan notices O’Keefe’s attention to his hand and holds it up.

‘Courtesy of our friends in the Auxiliaries, who kindly held it down and stamped on it until it became useless altogether. My claw of war.’ Brennan laughs quietly. ‘I’ve fresher wounds, sure, courtesy of former friends now working for the Free State. Some of them I trained in myself, boy. Imagine.’

‘Nothing’s too difficult to imagine these days, sir,’ O’Keefe says.

‘Sure, you said it before, the time I met you. War makes strange bedfellows. Strange enemies too.’ There is a sadness in Brennnan’s voice, but little of the rage O’Keefe senses in the younger men in the camp. ‘Come inside, so, and I’ll see if I can help ye. And then I’ll try again to convince you to join us in our struggle.’

O’Keefe returns his smile. ‘Thanks again for the offer, sir, but I’ve done my share of fighting. I don’t think I’ll take it up again.’

They follow him inside, where Brennan sits down at a table of sanded boards. He indicates two stools across from him at the table, and pours out tea from a pot heating on an army field stove. ‘I was just having some myself lads, I hope you’ll join me. I’d offer you a cigarette but we’ve not had a package in a week. The boys are convinced the guards are smoking their fags and spreading their mothers’ jams on their Free State toast back in barracks, though it’s likely our own boys have cut the rail lines or burned out a post office here and there, delaying deliveries.’

O’Keefe’s face flushes with embarrassment. He should have brought an offering of some sort to the camp. When, he thinks, did a man ever visit a prison without bringing something in as a gift for the prisoner? Albert seems to read his thoughts—not for the first time, O’Keefe realises—and reaches into his pocket, coming out with a packet of the thin cigars he smokes. He hands them across to Brennan who takes them, laughing with surprise.

‘That’s kind of you, sir,’ he says to Albert, who nods and lights one of his own. ‘Now, boys, what can I help you with?’

O’Keefe explains it to him while Brennan relishes his cigar and sips tea, nodding occasionally.

When O’Keefe has finished, Brennan pinches out his quarter-smoked cigar and sets it on the table. ‘The Mahons. Well, boy, it’d want to be a fairly close friend you’re doing this favour for, to meet up with that mob for your troubles.’

‘It is,’ Just Albert says, and Brennan looks at him and then back to O’Keefe.

‘I’ve heard stories about them,’ O’Keefe says.

Brennan claps O’Keefe on the shoulder with his good hand. ‘Wait til ye meet them, then. Sure, the stories haven’t a patch on the real thing …’

 

To O’Keefe’s surprise, Just Albert has managed to ply their green-eyed escort with one of his cigars while O’Keefe had been saying his goodbyes to Brennan, and now they chat as they walk, the three men. They learn that his name is Eamonn Dunne, a Kerryman who had been captured after his column had been ambushed by Free State troops while sleeping in what they had thought to be a safe house. Dunne’s brother, he tells them, had been shot down in his stockinged feet in the raid and is in Mountjoy Jail now, having only just survived his wounds. Dunne tells them that he is more concerned about getting a transfer to Mountjoy himself so that he might tend to his brother than he is in escaping and continuing the fight for the freedom of Ireland.

‘Sure, fuck, lads,’ he says, as they follow him between the huts towards the eastern, beach side of the camp, ‘this whole lark’ll be done with soon enough, and between yourselves and meself and the four walls—the wire, anyway,’ he smiles, ‘there’s no way we’ll win it. The Free State bastards know every hidey hole, every safe house in the country and every fucking trick in the book, I tell you. There’s only so many ways you can fight a war like ours, and sure didn’t the Free State fellas help write the bloody book.’

‘The sooner it’s done the better, I say,’ Albert says. ‘Too many fellas thinking they’re top dogs, just because they’re carrying a pistol and wearing a funny hat.’

‘I’m telling you, it’ll be over before you know it,’ Dunne says, ‘but not before it gets a whole shagging lot bloodier. There’s boys in here so angry they’d rip the throat from your neck for talking like I’m talking now, and the Free Staters have got fierce savage since Mick Collins was shot. Before, sure, it could be like they were windy about shooting fellas they’d fought the Tans with, but not any more; not after they put the Big Fella in the ground. No, this war won’t be won by us … or by them, really, when you think about it. But that never stopped lads from keeping on shooting each other just for spite.’

O’Keefe finds himself agreeing. He had fought in just such a futile, needless war. He had lost his own brother in it. For what? For fuck all. He tells this to Dunne, and also tells him that he is better off locked up and out of it.

‘If I can get the brother back to his health, please God, then I’ll be better off altogether and damn the rest. I’m sick of the whole thing, I am.’

‘You and the rest of the bleedin’ country,’ Just Albert says.

‘The rest of the country don’t matter a shite to most of the boys in this camp once they’ve a chance to plug some fucker who’s called them traitors.’ They come to a stop in front of a relatively isolated hut. ‘Here you are, and I’ll leave you to it. And thanks for the cigar, friend. Sure, I knew I’d come upon a kind-hearted Jackeen one day, I did.’ He smiles at the men and leaves them.

The hut is in the farthest, northeast corner of the camp, close to the inner perimeter fence. Through the two sets of wire and just beyond the tracks of the Dublin–Belfast railway line, O’Keefe can view the sea. The beach before it is long with low tide, the wet sand reflecting sunlight as if it had been varnished. Nature has been rough with the dwelling and sea wind has sandblasted the outer walls, scouring paint from the door.

Two men sit on a sea trunk that serves as a bench to the left of the pallet steps. One of them is smoking a needle-thin cigarette rolled in newsprint. They are smaller, thinner than most of the men they have seen in the camp. Dublin men, O’Keefe thinks, remembering the whippet-like lads he had served with in the army, many of them tenement-reared, and weighing little more than the kit and rifle they were made to carry, but carried nonetheless.

The IRA had been for many years the preserve of middle-class men and rural farm labourers; of intellectuals and the sons of generations of dispossessed and evicted subsistence farmers. But the civil war had widened the pool of fighting men on both sides of the Treaty and this, inevitably, included men like the ones seated on the sea trunk.

O’Keefe does not bother with formalities. ‘Is the bossman in?’

The man on the left—in his twenties, his flat cap pulled low over his eyes, black razor-shadow on his angled features—takes a pull on his roll-up.

‘Who wants to know?’

Before O’Keefe can answer, Just Albert steps in front of O’Keefe and leans down until he is at eye level with the man. He says something in a low voice that O’Keefe cannot hear and then stands back, allowing the man to stand and enter the hut. The second man watches but says nothing, avoiding Just Albert’s eyes.

The man in the cap returns to the doorway. ‘He’s inside.’

Just Albert indicates for O’Keefe to lead the way, and O’Keefe nods his thanks for having their passage smoothed. He is growing weary of the jousting this day has required. He had forgotten how difficult investigating anything in Ireland could be; forgotten just how guarded and suspicious of intent eight hundred years of foreign rule could make a people. And the recent years of war had made things worse. When he had been in uniform, there had been people in any town who would discreetly aid an investigation, if it were thought to be morally right. There were also those who were happy to put the finger on another man so long as their names were left out of any testimony, thus, at very least, providing the intelligence that any investigating police require. But there were few who would willingly volunteer anything to a common man in a suit. Ireland had never had great success with plain-clothes police detectives since they were thought to be little more than informants or spies when out of uniform. So O’Keefe expects little from the Mahons. A common man in a common suit is what I am now and nothing more, O’Keefe thinks, and he feels a great distance between his life now and his past life as an RIC man.

He enters the hut, Just Albert behind him, and slowly his eyes adjust to the dim interior light. Three men are seated at a table in the centre of the room, and through an open doorway behind them O’Keefe can see a room housing bunks, all of them neatly made with turned-down sheets that would not have been out of place in a police or army barracks. Or a prison, he thinks, noticing how everything in the room in which he stands is tidied or hung away on hooks or displayed on purpose-built shelves. The military discipline of the men in the other huts could hardly be more rigorous than the penal tidiness these men had embraced during various spells in Dublin’s jails.

‘Gentlemen,’ O’Keefe says. ‘I was hoping to speak with Dominic Mahon if I could.’ As he speaks, he realises there are two other men in the room besides those at the table. They are young and big and one of them has a flat, smashed nose like a boxer’s. They move now and take up a place on either side of the entry door behind O’Keefe and Just Albert.

‘If you could, who would you be?’ one of the men at the table says. O’Keefe judges the speaker to be Mahon himself because the other two look at him when he speaks, as if to take their lead.

‘My name is Seán O’Keefe. I’ve been hired by …’

‘What’d you call yourself?’ a second man asks. He has oiled, black hair, a pencil-thin moustache and a pile of newsprint roll-ups on the table in front of him.

‘Seán O’Keefe …’

The third man speaks to his mates at the table. He is stocky and fit, shoulders and biceps straining his shirt fabric. Built like Just Albert, O’Keefe briefly thinks, only from slinging crates off ships rather than dumbbells. ‘It looks the same, it does.’

It? O’Keefe frowns.

‘Couldn’t be …’ The black-haired man squints with concentration, focusing on O’Keefe’s face.

‘He’s the cut of him, I’m fuckin’ tellin’ yeh,’ the stocky man says now. ‘Why don’t yeh ask him?’

‘Ask him what?’ Just Albert says, and O’Keefe can hear the smirk in his voice.

‘You’re no relation to Daniel O’Keefe are you? Big, strapping G-Division copper?’ the first man says, the one O’Keefe assumes to be Dominic Mahon.

‘I … well, I am.’

‘Holy jaysus, the chances of it …’ the stocky man says, smiling in a way O’Keefe does not like.

O’Keefe sees Dominic Mahon nod. Sensing movement behind him, he turns, into the arms of one of the men behind him, who links his hands together in front of O’Keefe, squeezing him tightly in a bear hug and lifting him off his feet.

‘What in the name of Jesus…?’ O’Keefe says, before his breath is viced from his lungs. He writhes against the man’s grip and sees Just Albert move now, skipping for the doorway, towards the big man still stationed there. For a moment, O’Keefe thinks Albert is fleeing the hut, and the man at the door thinks the same, taking two steps forward as if to cut off his escape.

‘Albert!’ O’Keefe manages, but Just Albert ignores him, his hand going inside his suit coat and coming out with a stunted club the length of his forearm, stepping inside the big man’s lunge and using his wrist to swing the club in a short arc. Lightning quick, the sound of the club on skull is like cracking wood, and the man’s stunned momentum takes him forward past the grappling O’Keefe and face down onto the table where the three men sit, its legs collapsing, the three men shoving back and standing to enter the fray.

The stocky docker is closest to the captive O’Keefe, and he moves forward and throws a telegraphed, windmill right. O’Keefe sees it, his arms still pinned at his sides, and lowers his head into the punch, the fist slamming into his forehead. An explosion of white stars erupts in O’Keefe’s eyes, and he hears bones snap in the man’s hand, but the man brings his fist back to swing again. As he does, Just Albert feints a headshot with the club, and instead swings it low and up into the man’s groin with a sickening thud. The man doubles as if hinged, his punch dying in the air, and vomits in a cascade that splatters O’Keefe’s legs and boots.

Stars clearing in his eyes now, O’Keefe senses that the man holding him has turned his head to follow Albert’s progress, tracking Ginny’s man as he moves with his club to the black-haired man with the moustache. This man has a knife but Just Albert advances, as if oblivious, with a relentless, practiced aggression.

As if unconscious, O’Keefe lolls his head forward and then hurls it back with all the force he can bring to bear. The back of his skull connects with the right side of his captor’s face and O’Keefe can feel the the big man’s cheek shatter and collapse. Yellow bolts of pain shoot through O’Keefe’s head and neck and he nearly faints as the man releases him, vertigo claiming him, falling, falling.

O’Keefe hits the duckboard floor hard on his hands and knees, the hut spinning around him. Holding his face, the big man lifts a leg to swing a kick at O’Keefe, who sees it but cannot move. The boot is halfway to his ribs when Albert’s spit-shined brogues dance past on the floor under O’Keefe’s pain-blurred gaze and there is a resounding crack and the sound of a heavy body dropping.

From O’Keefe’s vantage point on the floor, Ginny Dolan’s man is a whir of fluid, violent motion, feinting again with the club as the black-haired man swings his knife, allowing Albert inside the arc of the blade to jab his club into the man’s throat, stopping the knifeman’s breath on its way out, a sucking gawp in place of the breath as the assailant drops to his knees. The knife clanks to the floor and the man’s hands scrabble at his neck, face going bright red and then just as quickly, death-pale grey. Just Albert kicks the blade away to a corner of the room and swings the club into the man’s face, obliterating his nose in a mist of blood.

O’Keefe raises himself to his knees, nausea welling in his own throat. As he rises, his eyes catch movement in the doorway and register the two men from outside entering. He stumbles forward and lifts an upturned chair from the floor. On his knees, he swings the chair, splintering it across the chest and shoulders of the first of the two to enter the hut. Without pause, he brings the remains of the chair to bear on the second man, swinging wildly and catching him in the stomach. He brings it back over his head to swing again when it is taken from his hands from behind. Instinctively, he covers his head, but the blow he is expecting does not come.

‘A hand up, Mr O’Keefe?’

Just Albert stands over him with his hand extended, his face glowing with the healthy flush of moderate exercise, as if he had just returned from a country walk. The club is nowhere to be seen and O’Keefe assumes he has returned it to its place inside his jacket. He takes Albert’s hand and allows himself to be pulled to his feet.

Surveying the scene, O’Keefe sees the man who had held him sitting with his back to the wall of the hut, his hands pressed to his shattered cheek-bone. Three other men lay on the hut’s duckboards, the short, stocky man rolling from side to side, clutching his hands between his legs, a high-pitched moan, like a wounded dog’s, emanating from deep in his throat. The two others lie on the floor unmoving, and O’Keefe says a silent prayer that Ginny Dolan’s man has not killed them. The two men they had encountered outside stand with their palms held out, looking across the room to their boss for guidance. To O’Keefe they appear as if they are pleading for mercy. O’Keefe follows their eyes to where Dominic Mahon has sat down and watches him light one of the needle-thin fags.

Exhaling, Dominic Mahon tells the two to move the wounded men. ‘They need see the sawbones. Take Jimmy first …’ Mahon prods his unmoving comrade with his boot, ‘… and then come back for the others, but don’t disturb us here. We’ve things to discuss it seems, wha?’ He smiles now at O’Keefe, and indicates the one remaining chair.

O’Keefe rights the chair and sits down, the pain in his head beginning to throb as adrenaline surges and ebbs in his veins. Just Albert takes up a place behind his chair, standing like a sentinel over his shoulder.

‘You’re Dominic Mahon, aren’t you?’ O’Keefe says, suddenly worrying that the man they had come to see might be among the unconscious. And then, the words emerging unbidden: ‘And if you say “who wants to know?” I’ll kick your teeth in.’

‘No doubting you were a Peeler, so, and your father’s son,’ Dominic Mahon says.

O’Keefe leans forward in his chair. ‘What do you mean by that?’

‘If you don’t know, then I’m hardly the one to tell you.’

His fists balling instinctively, O’Keefe repeats his question. ‘Are you Dominic Mahon?’

‘Of course I fuckin’ am. Who’d you think I was? You only need ask your gorilla, Albert there. He’s known me for how long, Al?’

‘Too long,’ Just Albert says.

‘Now, now, no way to speak to an auld buddy who sends every sea captain, every dirty deckhand and ship’s passenger the way of Mrs Dolan’s shop for nothing but kindness’s sake.’

‘And ten pound a year at Christmas.’

‘One good turn deserves another, me auld flower.’

O’Keefe cuts in. ‘This needn’t have happened. Look, all we need is to ask you a few questions. Nothing to incriminate you. We’re looking for a boy is all …’

‘Sure, Ginny Dolan can find you one of them any time you’ve the fancy …’

‘Keep it up, to fuck,’ Just Albert says, ‘and you’ll be sipping your dinner, Dominic.’

‘And always so cordial, we were, in the past, Albert.’

‘Past is past,’ Just Albert says. ‘We’re looking for Mrs Dolan’s Nicky. You’ve to tell us what we need to know.’ Albert reaches down and drags one of the supine men to the door of the hut by his collar and drops him outside. He does the same with the second, each unconscious body dropping like a sack of spuds onto the hard ground. Then he closes the hut door. ‘Or I will hurt you like you’ve never been hurt, Dominic. So stop taking the piss and listen to what the man says.’

Dominic Mahon locks eyes with Just Albert for a long moment. He does not appear frightened. Finally, he turns to O’Keefe and smiles. ‘Cigarette, gentlemen?’

O’Keefe reaches across, accepts one and takes a light. He is not as big as O’Keefe had imagined, Dominic Mahon. Mid-forties, he reckons, with cold blue eyes and red hair oiled back off his freckled forehead. An expensive white shirt and collar with cufflinks in the shape of anchors at his wrists. It has been a long time, O’Keefe thinks, since this man has slung a gaff.

‘Now, first off, why didn’t yis tell me yis were working for Ginny Dolan? We needn’t have cracked any heads at all.’ He smiles again. ‘Sure, I’ve known Ginny for years, so yis can save your hard talk, Albert, for your Saturday sweetheart. Any problem of Ginny’s, I’m happy to help with.’

O’Keefe turns to look at Just Albert, gauging his response. He is relieved when Ginny’s man laughs. ‘You just answer Mr O’Keefe’s questions here and there’ll be no more hard talk.’

‘Grand so.’

‘Grand,’ Albert says, taking out one of his cigars and lighting it.

Turning back to Mahon, O’Keefe slips the recent photograph of Nicholas Dolan from his jacket and hands it to the docker. ‘Mrs Dolan’s son,’ he says. ‘You knew him, I take it. He’s missing now. Fifteen years old, looks young for his age. You supplied him with a gun some months ago. I need the name of his contact in the Irregulars.’

Dominic Mahon exhales smoke and laughs. ‘You don’t want much, do yeh?’

‘It will never come back to you, Mr Mahon. You have my word on that.’

Mahon shakes his head. ‘I couldn’t give a tinker’s bollix if it does. Them poxy Irregular …’ Mahon says the word with a disdain O’Keefe recognises from his time in the police; the same way some men once called him Peeler, ‘… bastards cut me and the lads loose as quick as did their mates in the Free State army. After all the blasters and barkers we got them in the Tan War. Ungrateful bla’guards. That boy was the end of it for us Mahons on the docks, as far as guns went. I was stupid to use him. I could get hold of nobody and I thought maybe he could tempt his bosses into paying out for a few crates of Webleys and Lee–Enfields we’d liberated from an English boat. The shipment meant for the Free Staters and all, but that lad …’

O’Keefe senses Just Albert tense behind him, and so does Dominic Mahon, who changes his tone mid-sentence.

‘He was a grand youngfella. That’s why I used him. You say he looks young for his age, but he was older than his years in more ways than one.’

‘Is,’ Just Albert says.

‘Wha’?’

Is older than his years. Not was.’

Exasperation sharpens his words. The docker king is not used to being so freely contradicted. ‘For fuck sake, Al. I didn’t mean nothing by it. Jesus, since when did you become such a sore prick? You used to be a good auld skin, good for a giggle, Albert.’

‘Since Nicky went missing and I found out you had something to do with it.’

‘Now, look here. I had nothin’ to do with his going where-in-fuckin’-ever he’s bunked off to. I told you. I shouldn’t have given him the gun, fair enough; shouldn’t have used him as a runner neither, but I gave him the gun and that was the last I seen of him. I’d never want any harm come to him, for jaysus sake. Ginny and I have been pals for years, so we have.’

O’Keefe attempts to bring Mahon back to his story. He knows how easy it is to accidentally slip into the past tense when speaking of missing persons. He has done it himself. ‘It’s all right, Albert.’ He turns back to Dominic. ‘And did Nicky get the gun to his bosses in the Irregulars then, Mr Mahon? Did you hear from them about the shipment?’

‘I did not. Sure, didn’t the youngfella take it into school with him?’

‘He did.’

Mahon smiles ruefully. ‘And he gave my name to the priest, didn’t he?’

‘He did. How did you find out?’

‘You just told me. But not to worry. There’s no way I would have harmed a hair on that boy’s head, even if I had known. You’d never have time for anything else anyway, if you spent all your time plugging touts in Dublin. They’re thick as fleas in a knacker’s horse blanket these days, young O’Keefe. And he only a boy like any of me own.’ Mahon nods in a sentimental manner.

‘Lucky for you, you didn’t,’ Just Albert says.

‘Give it a rest, Al. I’m heartscalded with all your threats. I know you’re in a tither about Ginny’s boy, but you know as well as I do you won’t touch a hair of me head …’

‘You sure of that?’ Albert says.

‘… for fear of what I could do, even from here, to Ginny’s business, so leave out the rough talk, I’m telling you. I’m weary of it. And yes I’m fuckin’ sure of it, so leave it out. Even dead, I’m dangerous to you and Ginny.’

O’Keefe says, ‘There’s no possibility of any of your people having done something to the boy?’

‘Jaysus, do yeh listen or not? I told you I didn’t know for certain he shopped us up to the padre—who no doubt then gave us up to the Free Staters—til you just told me. I did suspect, mind. But I’m a fair man and I’d never have hurt a man—a boy—on the basis of a sniff only. And none of my people would. Sure, they’d be dead men themselves if they done something like that on a mere notion. I’ll say it again: I never hurt nobody on a rumour or a feeling in me gut. Not often, anyway. And no young boy, surely.’

‘Why did you suspect that he’d told Father O’Dea?’ O’Keefe asks.

‘Look, everybody knows how cozy that padre does be with the Free Staters, and weren’t we raided by Free State intelligence not long after I’d heard about Nicholas bringing the gun to school? Just put two and two together. They chucked us off the docks first and in here shortly after. Sure, the Free State boys think they don’t need the likes of us any more on the docks. Think they’ve gone legitimate all of a sudden, when two year ago there was nothing those pompous gits now sitting in the government wouldn’t buy off us Mahons. They call us criminals when the only difference between ourselves and the gun merchants they do be dealing with now instead of us is volume.’

‘Who did you want Nicky to give the gun to, Mr Mahon?’

Dominic Mahon speaks as if he has stopped caring. He looks old suddenly to O’Keefe. Things, O’Keefe suspects, have not gone the way they were supposed to for Dominic.

From his father and grandfather Mahon had inherited an empire of easy profit and power that extended far beyond the docks. An empire that had thrived on the bureaucratic labyrinth of port customs and an ancient resentment of a foreign power ruling Ireland. It was a corruption justified by British rule and enforced by thuggery and graft. O’Keefe suspects that Dominic Mahon had not counted on the idealists in either camp, Free State or Irregular, and that he couldn’t imagine anyone doing anything if it wasn’t for personal profit. Idealists were dangerous to Mahon because he could not predict what they might do. His high times on the docks are done, O’Keefe thinks, and he appears to know this.

Mahon says, ‘O’Hanley. Good auld Felim O’Hanley, the last of the rebel schoolmaster gunmen, thank fuck. The rest are mostly banged up in here or in the Joy. But yis’ll never find him. The Free Staters have been looking for ages and haven’t had a nibble. He might be out of the country for all I know.’

‘Not when there’s a war on, surely,’ O’Keefe says. He has heard about O’Hanley. A grainy photograph of the rebel’s face had graced the cork notice-board in O’Keefe’s RIC barracks for most of the Tan War, O’Hanley having been wanted for the killings of several men in the army and police, all the time continuing to teach in various schools around Dublin, including Xavier for a time. A lethal operator, but one apparently cultured and intelligent. Now O’Hanley was gaining a reputation for being even more elusive than Michael Collins, and O’Keefe imagines that this does not sit well with the likes of Free State army intelligence. He cannot imagine a gunman as ideologically motivated, as highly skilled and widely feared as O’Hanley, sitting out the war in Boston or Glasgow.

‘Ah, who knows?’ Mahon says. ‘Sure, O’Hanley was already courting the big gunrunners before all this with Nicky anyway. Try asking one of them. There’s a fella works out of Burton’s Hotel, used to work for the British Army Disposal Board selling on the surplus from the war in Europe. He ran some of his guns through us on the docks, but then cut us out as well when Collins and the lads told him to. Now there’s soldiers unloading ships my family’s unloaded for years. I know for a fact that Nicky used to run messages for O’Hanley to that fucker.’

‘This man, this gun dealer. He’s in Dublin now?’ O’Keefe says.

‘Far as I know. He’s meant to be organising something big for the Irregulars, though fuck knows where O’Hanley’ll get the shekels. But then I’ve heard this fella’s supplying the Free Staters as well, so don’t listen to me. Playing both sides against the middle of his purse. Like something I’d have done meself once.’ Mahon smiles and drops another tiny cigarette end onto the floor.

‘And have you a name for him?’ O’Keefe asks.

‘Happy to give it. Murphy. No one knows his first name, and everyone thinks it’s gas that this proper English squire is called Murphy, but that’s what he goes by. It might even be his real name, who knows, but?’

‘Who knows …’? O’Keefe says, standing, feeling suddenly light-headed and weak. ‘Thank you for your help, Mr Mahon.’

‘Not a bother, young O’Keefe. But I’ll say this and say no more. Them fellas Albert put down with his club? Them fellas aren’t half as forgiving as I am. I’d mind they don’t get released out of here any time soon…’ Dominic Mahon looks at Just Albert now, ‘… and if they do I’d not want to be round town to meet them. No telling what they might do.’ He turns his attention back to O’Keefe. ‘And you, Mr O’Keefe. You’re not as hard a man as your father, so take care where you stick your boot in. Albert’s not your shadow. He mightn’t be around every time you’ve need of him …’

O’Keefe chooses to ignore Mahon, thinking he is trying to salvage some residual dignity from the sad shambles of his day. A king, his army routed, forced to bow to two spear-throwers.

‘Mind we don’t wet ourselves,’ Just Albert says, turning and leaving the hut.

They make their way in the general direction of the inner camp gate through the maze of huts, O’Keefe’s head throbbing, Albert jingling coins in his pockets and drawing hard stares from the men outside the huts. The doorman seems to enjoy this and smiles, throwing out the odd wink to any man whose face shows particular menace. As if he owns the place, O’Keefe thinks, wondering if such an attitude of invincibility comes from confidence or complete disregard for one’s life and health.

But O’Keefe does not have the energy to be annoyed with him. He feels hollow and deflated, unlike how he would have felt in his past life as a constable when he received information that might further an investigation. It is another sign, he thinks, of how distant is his life now from that life. Like another man had lived it altogether.

‘Thanks, anyway, Albert,’ he says, as much to stop himself thinking as anything. ‘For stepping in, back there. I never saw it coming.’

‘I could’ve told you we’d be scrapping all right. Could have told you yesterday.’

‘And why didn’t you then?’

‘Would you have listened?’

O’Keefe shrugs. ‘Probably not. How did you know?’

Just Albert smiles. ‘You’re the cut off your auldfella is how I knew. I reckoned they’d clock it soon enough and there’d be bother then.’

‘Clock what?’

‘That you’re your father’s son.’

‘And why would that matter to the Mahons?’ O’Keefe stops as they reach the inner gates of the camp.

‘’Cause your auldfella couldn’t abide them Mahons one bit. He …’ Albert pauses as if considering what to say.

‘What?’

‘Look, there’s a load we don’t know about our fathers and more we don’t want to. Your father’s a decent auld skin, for a copper, and let’s leave it at that. If it’s anything to you, Mr O’Keefe, I don’t even know who my father was …’

 

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Next: Chapter 22