Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 30
Next: Chapter 32

31

Just Albert turns the Bentley off Amiens Street and into Foley Street. O’Keefe checks his wristwatch. Twenty past one in the morning. The busiest time of day in Monto.

Foot traffic slows their progress, weaving gentlemen in half-mast neckties and open jackets, university students and labouring men in flat caps. A uniformed DMP constable, idly swinging his baton from a leather thong on his wrist. Doors to most of the houses on the street are open, light pouring out onto the paving stones from within. Lamps in front windows are draped with red kerchiefs or scarves. Working girls stand on the steps of the houses and shout at groups of passing men. Some of the groups stop and banter back at the girls before continuing on their way while others follow the girls into the houses. A fire burning in an oil drum on the corner of Foley Street. A queue stretching five people long from the door of Mossy Morrison’s shop to buy his famous pigs’ trotters and mushy peas. Horse-drawn hacks and the odd motor car, idling, girls climbing in and out of the cars, men stepping gingerly down from the hackneys. Children running barefoot in the night street, in and out of the gas light, carrying cigarettes and messages from house to house. Monto babies, keeping the same hours as their guardians. Children of the night. Like Just Albert had been but Nicholas had not. O’Keefe recalls the photograph in his pocket and the one on the wall in Ginny Dolan’s parlour of a fresh-faced school boy, well-rested, well-fed. Loved.

From the open car window, O’Keefe hears raised voices, gramophone music, shrieks of laughter. The echolalia of Monto. What kind of desperation brings men here? Men like his father? No, he can’t conceive of it. The debt to Ginny Dolan must be something different altogether. A debt, O’Keefe thinks, that will remain unpaid if the boy on the mortuary slab is her son.

‘Wait here,’ Just Albert says, pulling up in front of Ginny Dolan’s brothel.

O’Keefe assents in silence. Hers is the only house on the street with its door closed to the night, no light in its windows, no music or laughter in this house. Nor will there be, he imagines, for a long while to come, and feels a stab of pity for the madam.

Moments pass and the brothel door opens. Just Albert holds Ginny Dolan’s arm at the crook of her elbow, gently, tenderly as any loving son, escorting her limping figure down the steps to the car. O’Keefe is moved at the sight of them, feeling as if he is intruding upon an intimacy he was never meant to witness. He wonders then at his presence here. Why has Albert insisted he accompany them for the identification of the body? A grim awareness rises within O’Keefe as he gets out of the car and opens the rear door for the woman. His work for Ginny Dolan is far from finished.

‘Mrs Dolan,’ he says.

The woman eases herself into the car and stares at him without speaking and there is something so terrible in her face, in her eyes, that O’Keefe shudders. It appears that she has been weeping but has made a conscious effort to disguise it, her eyes lined with kohl and mascara, her face powdered. And under the grief O’Keefe senses rage as yet held in check. Her only natural son. And O’Keefe has failed to find him, has failed this woman, and now people will pay for his failure. There is something so savage beneath her sorrow that O’Keefe is frightened by the power of it. He closes the door and turns away. Just Albert shakes his head and sits behind the wheel while O’Keefe hand cranks the Bentley’s starter.

 

The Dublin Coroner’s Court and City Morgue is a redbrick building on Store Street with a green painted wooden gate at its side large enough for ambulance or horse and cart to pass through. The public entrance is located to the right of the gate and here O’Keefe, Just Albert and Ginny Dolan are met by a priest and a tall, gaunt man in a wool suit and dark tie. The man, in his late thirties, is a detective, O’Keefe decides, the Murder Man Albert had spoken of.

‘Mrs Dolan,’ the priest says. ‘This may be difficult, but with the love of Our Holy Father in heaven …’

Ginny Dolan shrugs free from Albert’s supporting hand and draws herself up to her full height. She is not tall but presents a formidable figure. Noble, O’Keefe cannot help but thinking. Fierce.

‘We will not be needing you tonight, Father. Or any other night, for that matter. Your lot had no time for my Nicky when he was alive, you’ll not roost over him or me now.’

The priest takes a breath as if to counter or reassure, but stops and retreats a step behind the other man. There is a flash of fear in the priest’s eyes. Instinctive, primal. O’Keefe pities him a little.

The detective says, ‘Mrs Dolan, I know how you must feel, but there’s no harm having …’

‘You’ve no idea how I must be feeling, Detective. Now take me to my son.’

‘This way, please,’ the detective says, leading Ginny Dolan down the hallway. O’Keefe and Just Albert follow and the detective stops. ‘These gentlemen, Mrs Dolan …’

‘These gentlemen work for me, Detective. They will accompany me through.’

The detective gives each of them a long, assessing look, pausing longest to lock eyes with Albert. It is a look O’Keefe recognises. He had used it himself as a copper—used it to gauge and weigh and intimidate, all at the same time. The detective shakes his head almost imperceptibly and turns, continuing on through a set of swinging doors.

Through a second set of doors to a third, these marked simply ‘Morgue.’ A wooden crucifix hangs above the door and O’Keefe wonders if it has always been there or is it a recent Free State addition.

The detective comes to a halt and clears his throat, looking more at the wall above her head than at Ginny Dolan herself. ‘This will be difficult, Mrs Dolan. I will have to ask you if the body I’m to show you is your son. It requires that you say “yes” or “no” aloud. Do you think …’—the detective looks at O’Keefe, appearing to study the scar on his face, as if only aware of it now—‘… will you be able for that, Mrs Dolan?’

There is an intense light in Ginny Dolan’s eyes and steel in her voice. ‘I am able, Detective. Let me in.’

Nodding once, the detective opens the door, stepping through and holding it open from inside. Just Albert guides Ginny Dolan, a hand on the small of her back, and O’Keefe follows behind, uneasy amidst the scents of mould and bleach, the faint tang of decay. I should not be here, he thinks. I should not see this.

One body lies covered with a sheet on a dissection table in the middle of the room and a second is sheeted on a gurney against the wall. Ginny Dolan stumps across the tiled floor, her breath billowing in the unnaturally cool air. She stops at the head of the nearest corpse. Just Albert stands beside her, his hand on her shoulder.

‘Is it this one?’ she asks, her voice neutral.

‘It is, ma’m.’ The speaker is an older man in a white coat. He rises from a desk in the near corner of the room, taking up a manila file and opening it in front of him. He removes a pen from behind his ear and dips it into the ink-well set into the desk, readying himself in a discreet, practised manner. The detective lets the doors swing shut behind him and approaches Ginny Dolan and Just Albert.

‘Lift the sheet, Albert,’ she says, and O’Keefe watches her swallow, her jaw flex and clench.

The detective reaches over Just Albert. ‘It’s all right, Mrs Dolan. I can …’

‘Lift the sheet, Albert. And do it now, when I tell you.’

Just Albert looks at the detective, and though O’Keefe cannot see his eyes he knows what is in them because the detective stops and backs away two steps from the table. Albert looks to his mistress and she nods. He lifts back the sheet down to the corpse’s shoulders.

Ginny Dolan leans over the boy’s body and stares at the face for a long, silent moment. She then leans down and kisses the corpse’s cheek. O’Keefe watches the detective nod to the man in the white coat, who scratches something into the file and then closes it.

The detective turns back to Ginny Dolan, who has risen and replaced the sheet over the dead boy’s face herself. ‘Mrs Dolan, is this your son? Nicholas Dolan?’

A hard knot rises in O’Keefe’s throat as he waits for the answer he knows is coming.

It is then that he sees Just Albert’s face, his eyes.

‘No,’ Ginny Dolan says. ‘This is not my son. Show me the other body.’

The detective’s eyes flare in disbelief. ‘Not your son? But his name … he was wearing a coat, a jacket with Nicholas Dolan written on the tag …’

Ginny ignores him and hobbles across the room to the corpse on the gurney, not waiting, lifting up the sheet. Albert follows and so now does O’Keefe and the detective. She pauses and considers the face, and this time kisses the dead boy on the forehead.

There is a slight catch in her voice as she begins to speak. ‘This … this is not my Nicholas either, Detective.’

The detective frowns. There is a trace of annoyance in his voice, as if he has been caught out at something. ‘But the jacket … and these bills posted around the city …’ He takes one of the posters from inside his coat and unfolds it. ‘He …’ Crossing back to the first body, the detective looks at the photo and then lifts the sheet and looks at the corpse’s face. ‘I could have sworn. We have the jacket …. He … this one, was wearing it when he was found …’

A simple enough mistake, O’Keefe thinks. He might have made it himself. The boy is missing—his face on posters all over the city—and then a boy’s body turns up dressed in a jacket with that same missing boy’s name stitched onto its label; a boy of the same age. Any investigator might have made it. O’Keefe looks over the shoulder of the detective and thinks that there is some resemblance to Nicholas in the swollen features of the dead boy. Close enough to convince a detective it was the same lad.

‘Please,’ the detective says. ‘In the office here I have the jacket. Could you tell me if it is your son’s?’ He is all motion now, taking the manila file from the morgue assistant and scratching something into its pages. He takes out his patrol diary and scribbles something else.

Ginny Dolan and Just Albert follow the detective through the swinging doors, leaving O’Keefe, for the moment, alone with the white-coated attendant and the bodies.

Without thinking, O’Keefe approaches the first body on the table. He gently lifts back the sheet and begins to examine the body. The attendant says, ‘Who are you then to be looking?’

‘I’m working for Mrs Dolan. Trying to find her son. I was a Peeler and I’ve investigated murders before. How did they die?’ He does not look up as he speaks, but delves into his pocket and comes out with a pound note. He holds the note up for the attendant to see, all the while letting his eyes take in the destruction of the body on the table. The attendant goes silent.

There is heavy bruising on the torso and face, angry black-and-blue mottling that stands out against the corpse’s death pallor. The bruises are there on the thighs as well. ‘Cause of death?’ he asks, moving now, stopping at the bottom of the table, his attention drawn to the soles of the dead boy’s feet.

The attendant is silent for a moment. ‘Shot. Two rounds, back of the skull. Same gun used on both bodies as far as we can tell. Same sized wounds it looks. The surgeon hasn’t been in yet for the autopsies.’

O’Keefe nods. He is staring at the soles of the feet, which are dirty and calloused, as if the boy was used to running city streets barefoot. His eyes move up the body, stopping at the boy’s midsection. There are the same angry, red, circular welts on the boy’s penis and scrotum as there are on the feet. ‘Cigar burns,’ he says aloud.

The attendant looks at the swing-doors, which remain closed. ‘Not the first we’ve seen. Tortured first, the poor youngfella. Other bodies have had them but they were older lads. Most of bodies are claimed by one side or the other and are taken to the barracks rather than here, but when they’re not claimed, they become sudden reportable deaths like any other. But not like any other at all, really.’ He looks to the door and then back at O’Keefe and lowers his voice. ‘Like these two, burns on the bottom of the feet and on the tackle. Soldiers some of them, rebels. Others, touts maybe. But …’

‘But what?’ O’Keefe says, drawing the sheet back over the body. He has seen enough.

The attendant pauses and looks to the doors again. O’Keefe adds another pound note to the one in his hand.

‘It seems to be the same marks every time. The cigar burns and the two bullets to the back of the head. The surgeon thinks …’

‘Thinks what?’

‘… Thinks it’s the same fella or fellas doing it to all of them.’

‘Any idea who it might be?’

The attendant shrugs. ‘Sure, most of the bodies brought here are Irregulars, which means the fellas killing them are officially “persons unknown”.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘You’ve heard there’s inquests into all deaths now, since the fighting on O’Connell Street? Any deaths not in proper combat, any like this, right?’

‘And?’

‘And nothing. The inquests are as bent as a nine-bob note. Dogs know that if you’re a dead Free Stater, your death is ruled “unlawful murder”; if you’re a dead anti-Treaty man, an Irregular, well, then you’ve officially had your ticket punched by “persons unknown”.’

O’Keefe considers this for a moment. ‘And these two youngfellas?’

‘Likely to remain persons unknown, killed by “persons unknown.” The same persons who’ve been battering and burning and plugging the others we’ve seen.’

The swing doors open and the detective enters. The attendant’s face flushes bright red. The detective stops and looks first at the morgue attendant and then at O’Keefe.

‘Find what you were looking for?’

‘Will you be able to find who killed these two lads?’ O’Keefe asks.

The detective shrugs. ‘I doubt it. They were executed for some reason or other. We’ll ask around but, sure, you know yourself. Don’t you?’

‘I do.’

‘I can see it in you. What happened?’

‘I demobbed from the Peelers and now …’

‘… Now you’re some kind of Pinkerton man?’

‘No, just helping the woman find her boy is all.’

The detective holds open the doors for him. ‘They’re waiting for you.’

‘Was it Nicky’s jacket he was wearing?’

‘It was. His mother confirmed it.’

‘How did this youngfella get it? He’s not had a pair of shoes in his life by the state of his feet.’

‘You mean you didn’t ask him?’ The detective cracks a grim smile as O’Keefe passes through the doors into the hallway, where he is met by another man—larger, dark-eyed, jowly and wearing a trilby. Thick eyebrows and a bruiser’s scowl. Another detective, O’Keefe realises. Behind him is a woman—small, poor, a black knitted shawl covering her hair and shoulders. Mrs Dolan has stopped her at the door. She has a hand on her forearm and is nodding and whispering to the woman. Just Albert stares at O’Keefe and the two detectives.

Castle men, O’Keefe reckons, using the name by which plain-clothes detectives are still known to most Dubliners. Their other collective name is G-men. The Dublin Metropolitan Police has been allowed by the Free State to continue to police the city and its detective squad, G Division, is based as it always had been, in Dublin Castle. Originally assigned to political crimes, Michael Collins’ gunmen had eliminated most of G Division during the Tan War. So these must be new lads, O’Keefe thinks. Recently promoted and in no hurry to stick their snouts into the business of civil war and its waging.

‘Who’s this?’ the new detective says to his partner.

‘He’s been hired by Mrs Dolan to find her son. He was with the Peelers.’

The larger detective talks over his partner as if the fact of O’Keefe’s former career is of no importance to him. ‘And we know for certain that’s not her son in there?’

‘It’s not him.’

O’Keefe can picture this detective in an interview room in a city barracks, his sleeves rolled up, looming over some poor bastard. Instinctively, O’Keefe’s eyes drop to the man’s knuckles, to the scarring he knows he will find there.

‘What’s your name? Have you any identification on you?’

‘No.’

‘So you’ve no way of proving who you are, so.’

‘I’m doing the woman a good turn. Nothing more.’

‘Not much of one so far. How much she paying you? More than I’m fucking paid no doubt.’

O’Keefe ignores the big man. Policemen in Ireland complain about their wages the way cocks crow the morning sun up. He’d been no different himself. ‘How long have those boys been dead?’ he asks.

The big man leans into O’Keefe and O’Keefe can smell onions and meat and stout on his breath. ‘And I ask you again. Who in the name of fuck are you to be asking questions? How do I know you weren’t the one who’s after scorching them boys’ mickeys and putting two in the back of their heads? How am I to know?’

The first detective intervenes. ‘Give it a rest, Pat. It’s not like we’re going to be asking anyone any questions ourselves, you know as well as I do.’ He holds out his hand to O’Keefe and O’Keefe takes it. ‘I’m Mulligan and this is Wynn.’

‘Seán O’Keefe.’

‘For fuck sake,’ Wynn says.

‘You were a Murder Man yourself weren’t you?’ Mulligan continues.

‘No, but I investigated my share of them.’

‘You’ve the cut of a Peeler. The way you examined the
body …’

‘You saw that then?’

‘I see what I want to see. What I’m allowed see, now’days.’

O’Keefe nods. ‘I was in Cork, during the Tan War. I know how that is. Still, I managed to lag the odd fella. War doesn’t give a man an excuse to do what was done to those boys.’

‘A lecture now. You’re not in the Peelers any more,’ Wynn says.

‘I’m only trying to find the boy for Mrs Dolan. Is that the mother of the other lad?’ O’Keefe asks, nodding at the figure down the hallway.

Mulligan shrugs. ‘She might be. She reported her boy missing a week ago. A gurrier, the youngfella is. Has a record for robberies, dipping bags and the like. For all I know, she’s mother to the one we thought was Nicholas.’

‘Was he known to be with the Irregulars? Or the youth wing … what are they called? The Fianna … Na Fianna?’ O’Keefe says.

‘The lad you’re looking for … he’s with them?’

O’Keefe nods. ‘And you’ve no idea who the other boy is?’

‘No, and we’ve no record in any of the Divisions of any other boys reported missing. Being in the Irregulars might explain that.’

‘It could,’ O’Keefe says. ‘You wouldn’t, by any chance, know where I might find Felim O’Hanley?’

Both detectives smile at this. ‘Jesus, I hope she’s paying you well if you’re looking for him.’

‘It’s not the money, believe me.’

‘Kind hearts are easily broken,’ Wynn says, shaking his head.

‘Happy hunting, gentlemen.’

‘To you too, Mr O’Keefe. Let us know if you find anything.’

Over his shoulder O’Keefe hears the big detective call to the woman he has brought. His voice is surprisingly gentle. ‘Mrs Fallon. It’s time now.’

The woman takes her arm from Mrs Dolan and passes O’Keefe on her way down the hallway.

O’Keefe, Ginny Dolan and Just Albert wait at the entrance while the woman goes through the first and second sets of swing-doors. O’Keefe moves to step outside, but Ginny Dolan stops him. ‘Wait.’

Moments later a keening cry rends the silence of the morgue, and Ginny Dolan nods and pushes through the entrance door to the outside.

Again, they wait, this time on the street—Ginny Dolan smoking a cigarette in a long holder—letting the cool night air wash over them, listening to the night sounds of the city. A goods train clattering through Amiens Street station nearby. Faint shouting and laughter from Monto.

Some minutes pass and the woman emerges from the Morgue, no sign of the detective with her this time. Tears streak down her cheeks and O’Keefe thinks of an expression his mother used. The tears cutting ditches in her face. Ginny Dolan once again takes the woman’s arm, and this time hugs her close.

‘I’m sorry for your troubles, Mrs Fallon,’ O’Keefe hears her say. ‘Take this.’ Ginny Dolan presses what O’Keefe assumes to be a roll of banknotes into the woman’s hand. ‘For the funeral.’

The woman says something and Ginny nods and says, ‘Of course. My men will find them. They’ll be taken care of.’

Finally, the woman pulls away, saying that she will not accept a lift and needs to walk, to think of her baby, Thomas. Her oldest boy. A good boy she says, but for that bastard Jeremiah Byrne. She’d always known it would be that Jerry who would be the death of her son ….

‘And do you know where this Jeremiah Byrne lives?’ Ginny Dolan asks.

‘Of course I do, sure isn’t it across the road from my own lodgings?’ And with this she begins to weep.

Thanking the woman and turning to O’Keefe, Ginny Dolan says to him, ‘Come in the back of the car with me, Mr O’Keefe.’

O’Keefe has known this was coming and feels powerless to avoid it. He wants to help the woman, more now than ever, but is afraid of what this will entail. This is no longer the simple search for a missing boy. He climbs into the back of the Bentley with the madam while Just Albert cranks the car’s starter.

The woman says nothing for a long moment. He senses the depth of her worry, her fear, and under these, the mass of her rage. At him perhaps, for not finding her boy. At the men her boy has left her to join in revolt. At the man or men who tortured and killed those two boys in the morgue. She had kissed those boys like they were her own. There was none of the joy O’Keefe had expected when she discovered that her Nicholas was not one of them. There had been only relief, and then with it, a new terror.

Finally: ‘How did those boys die, Mr O’Keefe?’

‘They were shot. Executed. Two bullets in the back of the head.’

‘Was that all?’

O’Keefe pauses. ‘Yes, that was all.’

‘You’re lying to me, Mr O’Keefe. I can smell it.’

He looks at her now. ‘They were …’

‘They were hurt before they died, weren’t they?’

O’Keefe nods, wondering how she knows this. As if reading his thoughts, she says, ‘I saw the bottom of that boy’s feet.’

‘We’ve no way of knowing if Nicholas even knows those lads, Mrs Dolan.’

‘That boy was wearing his jacket.’

‘Still.’

‘You’ll continue to look for my Nicky, Mr O’Keefe.’

It is not a question.

‘I will of course, Mrs Dolan. I’ll do what I can, but…’ He pauses.

‘Yes?’

O’Keefe does not speak for a moment. ‘I think the police need to be kept in this, Mrs Dolan. They can help us find Nicholas.’

Ginny Dolan laughs bitterly. ‘They’ve no notion nor means to look for Nicky, and you know it as well as I do. Nor have they any notion of finding who killed those two boys. They’ll write it off to the Irregulars or the Free Staters and be done with it. And even if they did find Nicholas, they’d have him up in front of a judge charged with treason or some such and hauled off to industrial school before you could say boo. They’d love to do that to a son of mine, the bastards, and I’ll not give them the pleasure. I hired you to find Nicholas, Mr O’Keefe. And now I want you to find who killed those two boys.’

O’Keefe has a strong urge to do just this, but knows what his chances are. ‘I’ll do my best, if it’s possible. But you must know, that things happen in war and sometimes, there’s no one brought to book.’

‘Torturing a young boy, two young boys, is an act of war, Mr O’Keefe? Is that what you’re telling me?’ There is a hard edge to her voice.

‘No, not at all. Not to you or me or any civilised soul. But there are men who do things in war and use war as an excuse for doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do. And there is something about this war, a civil war, that makes people more ashamed of what’s being done, I reckon. Of all of it. On both sides. I just don’t think …’

He feels he is talking in circles. Why can’t he come out and say it? He will try to find the killers because he does not think anyone else will. But there has been so much murder in Ireland in the past few years that the deaths of two boys could very likely pass unnoticed by a people, by institutions, inured to murder and wanting only peace. Free State or Republic, O’Keefe knows, the people of Ireland do not care one way or the other which one comes to pass once the shooting stops and they can go about raising their families again, making a wage. In a way, he thinks, this makes the people of Ireland more willing to tolerate outrages of violence in the name of achieving that peace. A whore’s son involved with the Irregulars would warrant little sympathy, even one as well-bred and educated as Nicholas, let alone the street robber on the table inside the morgue. As for the other boy, it wouldn’t matter. Normal rules have been suspended and all is fair in this civil war, once a peace is somehow achieved.

‘You sound like a civilised soul yourself, Mr O’Keefe, with all your fine ideas about war and peace. Your father had the same pretty way with words. A civilised man, your father, in his own manner. Are you such a man, Mr O’Keefe?’

He is stumped for the moment, and then catches the warning. His father owes a debt to this woman and it is O’Keefe’s to pay.

‘I try to be,’ he says.

‘Then you find my Nicky your own way. Find those killers if you can.’ Ginny Dolan’s eyes shine in the darkness. ‘But mind you, my Albert … he’s not so civilised as you claim to be.’

There is nothing he can say to this.

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Next: Chapter 32