O’Keefe and Just Albert make little progress.
After dropping the photograph of Nicholas Dolan at the Fine Print shop on Camden Street and delivering Nora to the hotel, he’d collected Albert at Ginny Dolan’s house. The woman herself had been out, and O’Keefe had been glad not to have to report their lack of headway in person, though no doubt Just Albert had already done so.
They pass the rest of the morning and afternoon questioning newsboys who sell or hand out republican news sheets, learning only that it had been some months since Nicholas had done anything on the papers—selling or postering for the anti-Treaty side was punishable by imprisonment—and that rumour has it he had moved up to working for O’Hanley himself, since the wily brigade commandant had returned to Dublin. Nothing in it they don’t know already.
O’Keefe remarks to Just Albert just how much it would mean for a boy of Nicholas’s age to serve under a hero like O’Hanley.
Albert spits on the cobbles. ‘And I give a ha’penny fuck about the fella? This O’Hanley puts Nicky in harm’s way and he’ll be a hero floating face down in the Liffey.’
They move on down Talbot Street and receive hard looks from some men on the corner of Marlborough Street as they question another newsboy. One of the men approaches them, as the boy shakes his head and moves on, and demands to know what their business is. Just Albert tells him, and asks the man does he know anything about the missing boy, seeing as he is so alight with knowledge of what transpires on Talbot Street from his perch on the corner. The man huffs, offended, and asks the staring Just Albert who he thinks he is to be asking questions of people. He glances back at his friends, who avoid his eyes, and then says he knows nothing before skulking away. O’Keefe wonders does the bold cornerboy realise how lucky he is to depart a confrontation with Just Albert with only his pride wounded.
Albert stews in silence for the rest of the afternoon. O’Keefe can sense the raging thrum of tension in the man’s posture, in his movements. Nothing will satisfy him except finding the boy, but he will settle for a ruck.
Just Albert says, ‘Two fuckin’ streets away from Monto we are, standing here with our pricks in our hands and not a drop of piss to show for it. You’re the copper, Mr O’Keefe. What should we be doing next?’ He looks up at O’Keefe, squinting, head cocked.
In his face, O’Keefe now sees something more than just anger or frustration. He sees worry. Fear.
‘Former copper, Albert,’ he says evenly. ‘And even if I was still a copper, I’m not sure there’s anything the whole of the DMP or Civic Guard—or whatever they’re calling it now—could do to find the lad if he doesn’t want to be found. He’s in deep, obviously, if he’s running with O’Hanley. Sure, the whole Free State army and every one of its spooks is looking for the commandant and can’t find him. What does that say about our chances?’
The doorman lights a short cigar. ‘I don’t care a shite what it says. We need find Nicky.’
O’Keefe recalls the urgency, the worry, he had felt for the boy the previous evening when they had met the gun dealer, but he does not feel it now. He lights a Navy Cut, strange happiness simmering in his heart. It is the rare light of the October sun, perhaps, but more likely it is the prospect of meeting Nora Flynn again. A glowing anticipation as warm as the sun on his back, like he hasn’t felt in years. Dropping her at the hotel that morning, they had agreed that he’d call in that evening to deliver the copies of the photograph, and she’d hinted that she might like to go for another spin. Maybe, she had said, but she’d smiled when she said it.
Just Albert squints up at him as if trying to read his thoughts. ‘Did you hear me?’
‘Of course I heard you, Albert. I’m only thinking that maybe Mrs Dolan needn’t be so worried. There’s no one would harm a youngfella if they can help it, war be damned.’
But as he says this he knows it’s not true, and guilt snags on the lie—guilt that his own heart is lighter today than it has been in months while Albert’s and Ginny Dolan’s are heavy with concern. But such is the way of things. Around every corner, in every tenement and cottage, every hospital and battlefield, someone, somewhere is dying, some tragedy is being wrought, and yet the world goes on. Men and women meet. Babies are born and pints sunk and horses run; books read and children fed and socks darned. Men are killed and he himself has killed his share of them. His brother cut to ribbons. Boys are lost and boys are found. But the world carries on, O’Keefe thinks, and sometimes the sun shines and a woman smiles at you. Enjoy when you can, endure when you must. Where had he read that?
He takes a long pull on his Player’s. ‘You know I want to find him, and maybe we will. But we might have to accept as well … Mrs Dolan might have to accept … that the boy made a choice to go off with the Irregulars and that he’ll come back in his own time. When the fighting is finished or he’s pulled by the Free Staters.’
‘Or shot,’ Just Albert says, tossing down his cigar. ‘They’re shooting lads they find carrying weapons. Doing it on the sly at the moment but there’s talk of making it law. Nicky was carrying guns for them boys.’
‘He was carrying a gun because he’s a boy, Albert. That’s why. Because they’ll not shoot a youngfella for carrying. The people won’t stand for the likes of it.’
Just Albert lowers his head and stares at his boots. ‘You’ve been around Monto as long as I have, you learn there’s not a lot that people won’t stand for, once it doesn’t happen to them.’
Evening lowers, and before it closes O’Keefe and Just Albert collect the two hundred printed posters of the boy’s photograph. O’Keefe pays for them out of his own pocket, insistent that Ginny Dolan get every penny of her expense roll returned to her because, more than likely, he feels he will have little or nothing to show for it. The posters are of good quality, and O’Keefe’s address, as well as Ginny Dolan’s, is printed at the bottom of the page. A reward is offered for any information leading to the boy’s whereabouts. O’Keefe had debated the wisdom of doing this, knowing that the prospect of payment brings out the loonies, increasing the possibility of chasing ghost boys conjured by the crooked or greedy or mad. But Albert approves, thinking it better than nothing and telling O’Keefe that Ginny Dolan will pay more than he might imagine for Nicky’s return. They make their way on the Trusty back to Talbot Street and employ a dozen newsboys to poster the city.
Job done, Just Albert looks at the sky, then at O’Keefe. ‘We should be doing something else. Talking to people.’
‘We are doing something, Albert. Posting the photograph around town is a good thing. If anyone knows anything, the reward might tempt them to tell us.’
‘Fishing for touts.’
‘You could say that. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can drum up a contact in the Irregulars who might be able to get a message to the boy at least.’
‘Good luck with that. They’ll be eager to speak with a copper.’ There is bitterness in his voice.
‘Former copper, Albert. I was only thinking aloud.’ O’Keefe is silent for a moment before speaking again. ‘We could go to the DMP. They might …’
‘No police. Mrs Dolan was clear on that. We find him, not them.’
‘They might be better able …’
‘And then Nicky eats a bullet for a rat? Imagine they did find him and found other rebel lads along with him. He’d be shot by his mates in the Irregulars or live his life with the shame of fellas thinking him an informer. No police.’ Just Albert squints up at O’Keefe, his face set in a way that says there will be no more discussion of the matter.