Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 22
Next: Chapter 24

23

O’Keefe and Just Albert enter Burton’s Hotel just after six that evening, stopping at the reception desk where an attractive, red-haired woman smiles and asks if she can help them.

O’Keefe smiles back. He cannot help himself and it does not feel forced. ‘We’re looking to speak with Mr Murphy, please. He’s staying here, we believe. If you could give us his room number …’

At the mention of Murphy’s name, the woman brightens. ‘Oh, of course, Mr Murphy is a guest here. And who can I say is asking for him?’

‘If you could give us his room number, we could make our own way up.’ O’Keefe notices a hotel porter loitering by the lift, listening in on the exchange at the desk.

‘Of course,’ the woman says, still smiling, ‘let me get your names and then I’ll send Michael up with a message.’

‘We wouldn’t want to be any trouble to yourself or your porter, Miss,’ O’Keefe says, unable to stop himself from casting a quick glance down at the woman’s ring finger. It is bare and O’Keefe is oddly pleased by this, though he should be annoyed with her for impeding their progress. It hardly matters anyway, he thinks. A woman as pretty as this receptionist surely has a fella somewhere—some earnest bank clerk or student with fine prospects to take her to dances. She is beautiful, though not in a conventional way, he muses, possessing a certain maturity. Poise? O’Keefe cannot come up with a word for it. Depth, perhaps, and he leaves it at that.

‘It’s no trouble at all, if you’d just give your names here …’

‘Or you could just give us the room number.’

‘Well,’ she says, ‘actually, he’s just gone into the dining-room for his evening meal. If you’d give me your name, I could ask …’

‘We’ll find him there then.’ Just Albert cuts across the woman, startling her for a second, her rich green eyes widening, the smile freezing on her face and then settling on Albert as if assessing him. Her eyes go to the porter who is standing by the lift, and the porter turns nervously away.

O’Keefe feels the heat rise to his face, realising what a pair they must make—the muscled, dandified Monto thug and himself—constabulary-tall with the knotted ridge of bayonet scar running down the side of his face and the thick moustache he wears in a vain effort to distract from the injury. In uniform he’d never worried about what physical impression he made upon people, his bottle-green tunic and peaked cap, baton and side-arm serving as a form of disguise and armour, lending a comforting anonymity to all his interactions. But here he is now, a battered nothing of a man in a road-dusty trenchcoat and trilby, conning for a room number with a whore madam’s headbreaker behind him.

‘It’s just that he’s having his tea …’

‘That’s grand, Miss,’ O’Keefe says. ‘We’ll find him ourselves. It’s grand …’

He turns and follows Just Albert into the hotel dining-room, noting the white tablecloths, the heavy silver cutlery and crystal goblets. Burton’s is known throughout Ireland for putting on a fine feed for a reasonable price. It is the kind of hotel used by wealthy cattle dealers, bank officials, creamery owners up from the country. The IRA had used it for years as safe haven and staging point in their fight against the Crown in Dublin as much for the food, O’Keefe imagines, as for its sympathetic, republican-minded owner. It had suffered some damage during the battle for O’Connell Street at the start of the civil war, but of this damage there is no sign now.

‘There,’ Just Albert says.

There are few diners and, at first, O’Keefe does not think that the gun merchant is among them, though he is uncertain what a British gun dealer might look like. Piratical, a docker type like the Mahons? He lets his eyes scan the room—an older couple, several pairs of women in Georgette dresses and fur-trimmed suit jackets; a group of what appear to be country businessmen—and not seeing any single male diners, he turns to Albert.

‘Where?’ he says.

‘In the far corner by the kitchen. The small fella tucked nicely in between the two lads.’

‘I see them now.’

‘You’d want smaller dinner guests,’ Just Albert says. ‘Them two’d cost you in grub, wha’?’

‘Those boys are no guests, Albert.’

‘You’re joking.’

‘I’m …’ O’Keefe catches the sarcasm and begins to move through the tables towards the small man and his two companions, neither of whom are eating.

They have chosen the table for its clear view of the whole room, and for its access to a quick exit through the kitchen. Like he would have done himself, O’Keefe thinks.

‘Mr Murphy?’

The man is short and slight, with pale skin and average features, thinning brown hair combed back from his forehead like potato drills in a sloping field. He is dressed in a conservative, blue pinstriped suit with a tie that matches the wine on the table in front of him.

‘Yes,’ the man says, looking up without smiling, but without rancour either. ‘What may I help you with?’ His voice, pleasant, Home Counties.

O’Keefe relaxes a little and thinks that, for once, this could be simple. ‘A quiet word is all. In private, if possible.’

The big man to Murphy’s left, O’Keefe notices—blond, clean-shaven—is staring at him while his colleague focuses on Just Albert. Neither has his hands inside his jacket, but both wear their jackets open and loose. Professionals. Ex-army or police.

Murphy spoons soup into his mouth, and then butters a slice of bread, setting the bread back onto the plate and cutting it into four equal squares. He takes one square up and eats it, chewing methodically, taking his time before responding.

‘Roger and Arnold are trustworthy men, Mr …?’

‘O’Keefe,’ he says, ‘Seán O’Keefe. And this is Mr Albert.’

The arms dealer smiles politely. ‘Trustworthy and necessary men, Mr O’Keefe, in my line of business. Any words you have with me, you’ll have with them. We haven’t met before, have we?’

‘No, sir, we haven’t,’ O’Keefe says, accepting that Roger and Arnold are to be party to their chat. ‘May I sit down?’

Indicating the empty place at the table, Murphy says, ‘Of course, please. You’ll excuse me, I shall continue to dine.’

With Just Albert remaining standing behind him, O’Keefe takes the proffered chair and reaches into his trenchcoat for the photograph of Nicholas Dolan. As he does, Roger and Arnold mimic his action, hands sliding into their own coats in readiness. O’Keefe smiles. ‘A picture, lads. I’m taking out a photograph is all,’ he says, and one of the big men returns his smile but his hand remains inside his jacket until O’Keefe produces the photo.

As O’Keefe attempts to hand the picture to Murphy, the arms trader raises a finger to stop him before taking up another small square of bread and beginning again his regimented mastication, appearing to silently count out an even number of chews before swallowing. When he has done this he takes two careful spoonfuls of soup, then wipes his lips on the corner of a linen napkin.

‘Now,’ he says, ‘what might you be in the market for, Mr O’Keefe?’

‘Information. Nothing more. I’m employed by a local woman to find her son, Nicholas.’ He places the boy’s picture on the table in front of Murphy. ‘He’s been missing for over a week and his mother’s frantic with worry about him.’

O’Keefe watches as Murphy picks up the photo and examines it. He waits for some response from the man before he continues, hoping the gun merchant might show a sign of recognition. But Murphy’s face remains neutral, betraying nothing.

‘I’ve been told that the boy runs errands, messages for men you might be doing business with …’

‘And what business might that be, Mr O’Keefe?’ The arms merchant smiles, and O’Keefe notes how small and even are his teeth, as if ground down to a bureaucratic standard.

‘Your business is no concern of mine, Mr Murphy. I’m looking for the boy, nothing more.’

Again the gun dealer interrupts. ‘Who exactly are you working for, Mr O’Keefe? Out of curiosity. Professional curiosity, let’s say.’

‘I told you. I’ve been employed by a woman to find her son.’

Murphy raises the soup spoon to his mouth twice, and then another square of buttered bread. He holds his eyes on O’Keefe as he takes his time chewing.

Anger stirs in O’Keefe’s gut. Either this man knows something about the boy or he doesn’t, but O’Keefe senses that he will not say either way. And his heavies, sitting on either side of him like rough centurions—bored with being confined by their work to this staid hotel—appear easily amused by mugs asking after lost boys, no doubt hoping for the chance to leaven the boredom with their fists.

O’Keefe swallows down his anger as it rises to his throat, realising just how weary he has become of hard men. Thugs who hire out their violence to the likes of Murphy—a soft man making his living from the instruments of death. Irony compounded by vicious, bloody irony. He is weary of men like the Mahons and the soldiers on either side of the civil war raging around them. Gunmen and bullies making up the laws of Ireland as they go along, making them up to suit themselves. How had this happened? Ireland had been a peaceful place when he was growing up. Subjugated, conquered, but peaceful for a child, for a family, to live in. Or had it been? Perhaps it had only been that way for him and his family, his father a copper—one of the subjugators. There had always been a bad, red streak of violence running in the blood of Ireland’s men. It is in himself, he knows, and his mind begins to reel a little and the anger shunts again into his throat. Irony of ironies. Bone tired of violent men, he is on the edge of violence himself. He clenches his fists in his lap and breathes out through his nose.

Murphy finishes chewing and swallows. ‘So I take it you are neither employed by Free State nor Irregular. Correct?’

‘Yes, I …’

‘And the woman’s name who employs you? You can’t be too careful, you know, in my line.’ Murphy’s bland smile has returned to his lips but there is a trace of mockery in his voice.

O’Keefe reins in his urge to upturn the table and hopes that Albert might have missed the man’s tone. Whatever his own urge to mayhem, there would be no reining in Albert’s. ‘Her name is Mrs Dolan. Ginny Dolan. She’s a local merchant woman here.’

The larger of the guards turns to his employer, smiling. ‘Local merchant? Fucking fanny merchant what she is. Runs a stew in Monto, not ten minutes’ walk from here. Arnold and me have been. Local merchant, my arse! My prick’s still stinging for that old doll’s merchandise.’

Just Albert moves for the man and O’Keefe stands, knocking his chair over behind him, holding out an arm to obstruct Albert’s lunge. Two Colt automatic pistols are slipped silently from jackets, barrels levelled, one at O’Keefe, one at Albert.

O’Keefe turns back to Murphy. ‘Mr Murphy, have you or your men had any contact with the boy or not?’

Murphy holds his gaze for a long moment, his smile perfectly bland, his teeth small and neat. ‘Not,’ he says finally. He puts the last square of buttered bread into his mouth and begins to chew.

O’Keefe takes up the photograph from the table and turns to leave, hoping Just Albert will follow.

 

In the hotel lobby, O’Keefe tips his hat to the receptionist at the desk and slips Nicholas’ photo into his jacket pocket. He tries to think of something to say to the woman, wondering if she has seen what transpired in the dining-room. He hopes she hasn’t, and then thinks how little it would matter if she had. On impulse, he turns and goes over to the desk, taking out the photo again.

‘Miss, if you’d be so kind. Would you mind looking at this picture? We’re looking for this boy, and were told he’d been to see a man in this hotel …’

‘Mr Murphy?’ the woman says, taking the picture, concern in her eyes now.

‘Yes, Mr Murphy.’

‘Nothing untoward, I hope. Here at Burton’s …’

O’Keefe smiles. ‘No. Nothing like that I don’t think. The young lad’s missing. We’ve been asked by his mother to find him. You didn’t see him by chance?’

Slowly, the woman shakes her head. ‘His mother …’ she says, looking up at O’Keefe. There is concern in her eyes. He smiles, wanting to reassure her somehow.

‘I’m sure he’s grand,’ O’Keefe says. ‘You know youngfellas.’

She smiles and nods. ‘I’ve four brothers.’

O’Keefe smiles back, and wonders is there something in the look she gives him, her eyes holding his, briefly, before going back to the photo. After a long moment, she hands it back to him.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says, not meeting his eyes this time. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen him. We do have a good few boys, in and out with messages. I can ask some of the other staff if you’ve a copy of the photograph to leave us …?’

O’Keefe feels foolish suddenly, realising he should have had copies made of the photograph so that he could leave them with people. It is a basic error, but then he’d hardly thought that finding the lad would be so difficult. Or perhaps he’d thought it wouldn’t be possible to find him at all. Either way, he had not taken the job as seriously as he should have. And as he thinks this, a thread of fear for Ginny Dolan’s boy unspools in his blood. And he is a boy, he thinks, running in a world of wolves like the Mahon men in Gormanston, or those in the dining-room he has just left.

‘I’d be much obliged if you would. I can come back with copies and you could show them around.’

‘Yes, please do. I’ll be working tomorrow from nine. You can drop them by any time, Mr …?’

‘O’Keefe. Seán O’Keefe,’ he says, suddenly glad that he has told her. Glad that she will register his name at the very least and is now aware, however slightly, of his existence in the world. ‘That’d be grand, Miss. Thank you.’

‘Not a bother, Mr O’Keefe. I only hope you find him.’ She smiles again and O’Keefe’s heart feels light, weightless for a passing moment.

‘And who should I ask for, then, when I drop off the
pictures?’

‘You can ask for me. Nora Flynn.’

‘Lovely to meet you, Miss Flynn.’

‘And you, Mr O’Keefe. And have you an address or a telephone where you can be reached? If I hear anything?’

‘Of course,’ he says, taking the proffered pen and jotting his name and address on to a page of hotel stationery.

‘Grand so, Mr O’Keefe.’

O’Keefe leaves the lobby smiling.

On the footpath outside the hotel, Just Albert lights one of his cigars. The Indian summer’s warmth is fleeing the concrete at their feet, chill descending from above.

Just Albert says, ‘You think now’s a good time for mottin’, Mr O’Keefe?’

O’Keefe frowns. ‘What are you blathering about, Albert?’

‘Your one. The foxy-haired girleen at the desk. I’ve eyes, Mr O’Keefe, and you’ve a job to do. You worry about the bints when the job’s done.’

Rage ignites in O’Keefe, like a smashed paraffin lamp on bedding hay, scorching the small joy he’d felt on meeting the woman. He takes a step towards Albert. ‘You mind what you say to me, Albert, I’m telling you.’

‘Or what?’ Just Albert gives him the same dismissive smile he gives to all men.

‘Or … Fuck it, Albert. You’d try the patience of a saint.’ O’Keefe turns away, exhaustion claiming his anger, an oily slick of despondency settling over him.

Albert appears to sense this and shuts down his smirk. ‘Nicholas is only a boy, Mr O’Keefe. We need find him before he comes to harm.’

‘I know that, Albert, and I’m trying to help you and Mrs Dolan find Nicky. I want to find him, by God I do. But you have to let me do it the way I know how.’

Just Albert’s face darkens. ‘Them cunts inside know something.’

‘They might, but we’ll never hear it now after you going for your man in there.’

‘He shouldn’t have run his mouth about Mrs Dolan.’

O’Keefe sighs. It was like talking to a child, sometimes, explaining things to Just Albert.

‘I know he shouldn’t have, Albert. But he was sending up a balloon … a test. Like was done in the war. He was trying to see how far he could push us. Probably because he was bored, fecked off with listening to rubbish all day. Who knows? And didn’t you give him the response he wanted? Brightened up his bleedin’ day and got us nothing. Look … sometimes, when you’re working a case, interviewing a fella, you have to eat things you normally wouldn’t. It’s the way the world works, Albert.’

Just Albert ponders this for a moment. ‘Not my world.’

‘We’re not in your world at the moment. Neither is Nicholas, and we’re not going to find him if we don’t ask the right questions in the right way. That girl in there might be a grand help to us if one of the other staff at the hotel has seen Nicholas. That’s how investigations work … how they break open. The offhand comment. The odd sighting. The last person you expect to know something, knows something.’

Ginny Dolan’s man drops his cigar to the ground and crushes it under his boot. ‘I’ll get what we need to know out of them fuckers in there.’

‘You’ll get killed, Albert, and Mrs Dolan doesn’t need that, does she?’

‘Them? Kill me?’

‘Yes, Albert. Those two are more than just docker muscle or drunken punters. They know how to hurt people and have done it before.’

Just Albert shakes his head and smiles his smile, squinting up at O’Keefe under his hat brim. ‘And here I thought you were getting to know me better, Mr O’Keefe.’

‘You’re a hard man to know, Albert.’

‘Hard men are good to know in this town, Mr O’Keefe.’

‘You’re right about that, and that’s what’s wrong with the place.’

‘You’re hurting me feelings.’

‘Jesus, give us peace,’ O’Keefe says, smiling again despite himself. He needs food, cigarettes. A drink, sleep. ‘Don’t go near them again until I think over what to do. Nine tomorrow I’ll call for you.’

‘Don’t be late, Mr O’Keefe.’

‘God forbid.’

‘It’s not God you need worry about.’

O’Keefe smiles wearily. For the love of all that’s holy. Dublin. You could lose sleep trying to get the last word in.

 

Nora Flynn watches the two men on the footpath in front of the hotel from behind a curtained window in the lobby. The shorter man is smiling and shaking his head, and the taller man, Mr O’Keefe, removes his hat and rubs the back of his head as if he is exasperated or tired.

An urge to go out to this Seán O’Keefe comes to her, rising up in her chest on a swell of something like guilt; redeem her lies by confessing to him that she has seen the boy, Nicholas Dolan. The man is working for the boy’s mother. Stop, now, Nora. It does no soldier any good at all, thinking on the mothers who have been left at home. The urge to confess passes and the cruel, handsome face of Charlie Dillon comes into her mind. She pushes it away. Do your work, Nora. The boy’s a soldier. A runner for O’Hanley. Old enough to know better, she thinks, but she is not convinced.

She watches as O’Keefe turns and mounts a motorbike. Without waiting for him to ride off or stopping to think of the consequences, she moves quickly to the hotel switchboard and rings the men on duty in the Flowing Tide pub, different ones this time but assigned the same duties.

As she sets the receiver back in its cradle, she hopes that these duties will extend only as far as shadowing this Mr Seán O’Keefe. There is something about him that interests her—a warmth in his tired eyes. A certain strength tempered by kindness. Don’t be daft, Nora, you’ve hardly spoken hardly two words to him. But she had seen, watching from the doorway to the dining-room, how he had handled the scene with Mr Murphy and his men. He had not been afraid of them or what they represent. Perhaps in this he is a fool. You should be afraid, Mr O’Keefe, if you’ve any sense at all.

Nora says a small prayer for the man’s safety and that he will find the boy he seeks—and blesses herself before she returns to the reception desk, hoping no one has seen her in the act.

Silly superstition, she thinks, knowing in her heart that such prayers are rarely answered by a God who seems to have stopped listening.

 

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Next: Chapter 24