They park the Bentley on George’s Dock and walk the warren of lanes that lead away from the river. Just Albert appears to know them well.
‘You lads, come here, you,’ Just Albert says. He waits as a ruck of boys, lounging with youthful menace on crumbling tenement steps, rises and makes its way over. There is an autumn evening chill in the air, bolstered by the seep of fog from the river.
‘Which building does Jeremiah Byrne live in?’ O’Keefe asks as Just Albert moves off into the shadows of the laneway.
‘Who wants to know?’ one of the boys says.
‘Never you mind. Which building?’
‘I was only sayin’, mister, don’t be gettin’ the hump on yeh.’
Just Albert returns and stares hard at the lad before handing him a shilling. The boys smiles and pockets the coin.
‘Third on yis’r right, first floor, the one with no windies in it. And by all means, tell the cunt I sent yis. Me brother’s gonna have the bastard for his tea when he finds him.’
As they approach the building, curious children in the lane gather and follow them at a safe distance, holding out their hands before moving away, seeing something in Just Albert’s eyes that frightens them. The coins are silent in his pockets as he walks, his fists clenched and held at his sides as he mounts the steps of the tenement.
‘First floor the youngfella said.’
‘I heard him.’
A man sitting halfway up the steps and clutching a bottle of cheap sherry looks up at them and then looks away. Albert notices and stops.
‘You’ve something to say, have you?’ he says to the man.
O’Keefe stops with him and takes the girder of his arm in his hand. ‘He said nothing, Albert, leave it. Sure, we know where the boy lives.’
‘He wants to tell us something, he does. Don’t you, pal?’ It is not a question. Light from one of the few unbroken lamps on the street is reflected in the man’s eyes, bloodshot and afraid. ‘Don’t you?’ Just Albert says again and his voice is nearer the growl of an animal than the speech of a man.
The man nods slowly and O’Keefe wonders if he understands. Then: ‘Only that yis are not the first come looking here for young Jerry Byrne.’
‘And how do you know we’re looking for him?’
‘Sure, ye’re wearing suits aren’t ye? And in my experience …’—the man burps and winces, something hot and painful in his throat—‘… anyone wearing a suit round here is looking for that young lad lately, for good or bad.’
Just Albert hands the man a coin, and the man takes it without thanks. ‘See?’ Albert says to O’Keefe. He looks down at O’Keefe’s hand on his arm and O’Keefe releases it.
‘It could be those detectives, the ones from the morgue. The Fallon boy’s mother told them the same she told us, no doubt. That this Jeremiah Byrne is involved … somehow. But we can’t assume he’s guilty of something, Albert.’
Ginny Dolan’s man ignores him for a moment, standing on the top step in the open door of the tenement building. He looks up and down the row of tenements and then back up at the dimly lit windows. There is no electricity in the flats, and rarely on the landings or hallways either, so the residents use tallow candles or oil-lamps when there is money enough, living in stygian darkness or going to bed early when there is none. The doorman says, ‘This Byrne lad would want to be praying no harm’s come to Nicky.’
‘More flies with honey, Albert,’ O’Keefe says, and feels a fool saying it.
‘Where’d you learn that, Mr O’Keefe, in the Peelers was it?’ They enter the building.
The entrance hallway is a sea of warped floorboards, the original tiles long stripped and sold or reused, and O’Keefe’s senses are struck by the smells of boiled cabbage, paraffin oil, scorched dripping; of black mould and crumbling brick and sweat and cheap tobacco. The walls and landing sing with the sounds of a baby’s crying and a man’s deep, hacking cough; the stuttering burst of a woman’s laughter; footsteps on the rotting floorboards above. The building is like a living thing, sweating, bleeding, heaving and dying a little every day. Like all of us, O’Keefe thinks, following Just Albert as he mounts the patchwork staircase, their way dimly lit by second-hand light from the few remaining gas lamps on the lane. Halfway up, they are forced to step over a sleeping child, wrapped in what appears to O’Keefe to be a burlap sack. The child shivers and flinches in its sleep.
As they reach the first-floor landing where they have been told the Byrnes keep their room, more children lie asleep, a huddled bunch of bodies on the floorboards outside a one-room flat with a torn sheet for a doorway. There is barely enough space to pass them by on the landing. One of the children, a girl O’Keefe reckons to be five or six years old, opens her eyes and looks up at them.
‘Are yis here for Jerry?’ she asks, as if expecting them.
Just Albert appears to soften at the sight of the children. He smiles at the girl in the half-dark. ‘We are, pet. Is he here?’
‘No. He’s gone ages, since the other men gave him a chase after he brought us some spuds and veg for our tea. Uncle John Keegan ate the bacon so we’s didn’t have any of that, so we didn’t.’
O’Keefe wonders who Uncle John Keegan is and whether or not he will meet him. He hopes, vaguely, that he will.
‘What other men?’ Just Albert says.
‘The other men Mam said was like Peelers but wasn’t Peelers. Men in smart clothes like yis’rs. Are yis Peelers?’ There is an innocence to her voice that cuts through the gloom and sour, stale smells of the landing.
‘No,’ Just Albert says, looking up and smiling without humour at O’Keefe. ‘We’re not Peelers, darling.’
‘And when was it these men gave the chase to Jerry, pet?’ O’Keefe asks.
The girl thinks for a moment. ‘Some days ago, at tea time. Do you have any grub, Mister?’
Sadness chucks against O’Keefe’s ribs. ‘I’ve no grub,’ he says, reaching into his pocket, ‘but here …’ he comes out with a fistful of coins, ‘take this and get some ray and chips and peas for you and the rest of the kids.’
The girl eyes the coins but makes no move to take them. ‘And do you want to touch my fanny for the scratch, Mister?’
‘Ah, jaysus fuck,’ Just Albert says. He turns for the curtained doorway to the Byrne flat.
It takes a moment for the words to register with O’Keefe, and when they do, he recoils. He has to force himself to lean back down and press the coins into the girl’s hand. ‘No, Jesus, no, pet. And don’t be … doing things like that, right? It’s not good for a young girl …’ He hears how lame and frail his words sound. Like pissing on a tenement fire, he thinks, and then regrets that his mind has summoned the common saying. There is no humour in it here, standing in this crumbling hallway filled with sleeping, hungry children.
O’Keefe tells the girl to go for food, and as he turns to follow Albert into the flat a scream shears the air, followed a second later by the dull impact of fist on flesh and bone. He yanks aside the curtain in the doorway.
In the weak, flickering light from a paraffin lamp, O’Keefe sees Just Albert standing over a naked man entangled in soiled bed clothes. The man’s mouth gawps open in a desperate search for air as he tries to rise from a mattress resting on pallets. A woman, naked as well but for a tattered shawl thrown round her shoulders, stands behind Just Albert, and she screams again and moves, lifting the room’s single wooden chair and swinging it at Albert before O’Keefe can reach her.
Just Albert steps inside the arc of the swinging chair and it bounces harmlessly against the wall, sending chunks of damp plaster cascading across the room. He grabs the woman by the hair as she stumbles past him and shoves her head first into the wall. There is a sickening thump and her skull leaves a deep, bowl-shaped dent in the soggy render. She slumps to the floor.
‘Jesus, Albert, that’s a woman,’ O’Keefe says, moving across the room before Just Albert can do any further damage.
The doorman’s eyes flare with threat. ‘And I give a fuck?’
O’Keefe stops and swallows back the words that rise to his mouth. You should give a fuck. Only an animal wouldn’t. But there is nothing he can say to him now, this woman likely not the first Just Albert has manhandled. Not in his line of work.
Just Albert crouches down to the man who is gathering the bedclothes around him to cover his nakedness. ‘Where’s young Jerry?’
The man shakes his head but still cannot find the wind to speak. Just Albert stands up and kicks him in the ribs. ‘Where is young Jeremiah Byrne?’ He kicks him again and O’Keefe hears something crack. The man yelps in pain.
‘Tell him, for the sake of Christ, John, tell him,’ the woman says, dragging herself away from the wall, tears shining in her eyes, pulling the shawl over her ghost-pale nakedness.
O’Keefe says, ‘What’s his name, Missus? Your fella here?’
The woman stands and darts towards the doorway, quicker than O’Keefe thinks possible. He catches her by the arm and tosses her as gently as he can down onto the mattress.
She rears up to sitting and spits at O’Keefe. ‘You fucker, you fuckin’ cunt!’
‘Now, there’s no need for that,’ O’Keefe says, wiping the spittle away from his jacket, hoping the woman does not have consumption or jail fever. ‘Just tell us his name. Is he Jerry’s father? Is he father to the kids in the hallway?’
The woman’s eyes fill with defiance now, sensing in O’Keefe someone who will not harm her. ‘You should know his fuckin’ name, yeh thick piece of Peeler shite. Yis lag him every fuckin’ week for something, leavin’ the likes of us with nothing on our plates at all.’
O’Keefe remembers the girl in the hallway. He pushes past Just Albert and grabs the naked man by the hair, lifting him to his feet and shoving him roughly against the wall. The man is larger than he’d thought, heavily muscled around his shoulders and thighs, a soft paunch around his middle that tells of beer and meals of bacon the children in this house never see.
He had meant to intervene, to keep Albert from doing such damage to this man that he unable to answer their questions. But something inside him has shifted. The thought of the girl in the hallway—of all the children in the hallway—going hungry because of this thing in front of him. He shields his mind, for the moment, from what else this man may have done.
‘Are you John Keegan?’ O’Keefe asks.
The man looks into O’Keefe’s eyes and looks away and nods. O’Keefe can feel Just Albert’s breath hot on his shoulder behind him.
‘Uncle John Keegan?’ Just Albert says.
Again the man nods.
‘Where’s Jerry? Are you his father?’ O’Keefe asks.
‘No, I’m not his fuckin’ da, I’m his fuckin’ uncle. That cunt’s his mother, but.’
‘So you’re not Jerry’s da and you’re riding his ma. Where is he?’ Just Albert says.
Petulance slips across the man’s face and into his voice. ‘How in fuck am I s’posed to know? The little git only comes round here lookin’ for grub and bringin’ grief on his poor mother. I’d love tell yis where he is but he’s not fuckin’ here.’
There is something about this man that reminds O’Keefe of so many he had lagged as an RIC man. It is the voice, perhaps, or the cast of face that so readily warps from tyrant to victim.
‘When was he here last?’ Just Albert says.
‘Day before yesterday, I think … when your mates were here. And then he legged it when he saw them, not leaving a penny in the pot for us at all or anything for the childer.’
O’Keefe leans in and puts his forehead against John Keegan’s forehead, pressing him back into the plaster. The man’s breath is rancid with beer and dead teeth. ‘He brought potatoes and veg for the kids, didn’t he, Uncle John?’
Something shows in O’Keefe’s eyes, and Uncle John Keegan cannot bring his own to meet them. ‘How should I know?’
Without taking away his forehead, O’Keefe reaches down and knocks the man’s hands away from where they are shielding his genitals. He grips the man’s testicles in his fist and squeezes, not hard but hard enough to give this man an idea of the pain that is coming if he does not answer his questions.
‘I heard you ate all the bacon, John. Did you eat all the bacon yesterday and not give any to the nippers sleeping in the hallway? Did you do that, John?’
‘What are you on about?’
‘Did you eat all the bacon and not give the nippers any?’
‘No, I …’
‘Did you?’ O’Keefe’s voice is a strangled grunt that sounds rough and foreign to his own ears. He squeezes the man’s balls harder.
‘Yes! Jaysus fuck! What’s that to do with anything?’
It is the voice that triggers something in O’Keefe. The whinging, pitiable victim in it. ‘And did you fiddle with that little girl out in the hallway?’
O’Keefe squeezes harder and tugs down on the man’s scrotum.
‘All right! Jaysus fuck, all right! Only when her mother’s not able is all. Jaysus, she likes it!’
Something red floods O’Keefe’s vision and he cocks his head back and drives his forehead into Uncle John Keegan’s face, the man’s nose shattering under the blow, blood spraying over his chin stubble and onto his chest in a fanlight splatter.
The woman screams. ‘You’re after killing him!’ She makes to stand and Just Albert turns to her.
‘Get out in the hallway and mind your babbies for once in your life,’ the doorman says.
The woman’s mouth opens to speak but closes again. She pulls the ragged blanket from the bed and wraps it around her as she exits the room. O’Keefe moves back a step, rubbing blood from his forehead with a handkerchief.
Just Albert says, ‘You tell me where we can find young Jerry. D’you hear me, bigfella?’
Still clutching his face, blood streaming through his fingers and pattering onto the floor, he nods. His voice is high and muzzled when it comes. ‘He works down the laneways by the fruit and veg markets, gaming punters, the quare youngfella. Tha’s all I know. I swear on the eyes of my …’
‘Don’t say children or I’ll kill you myself,’ O’Keefe says.
Uncle John Keegan goes silent. He looks away from O’Keefe back to Just Albert and sees something in the doorman’s eyes that starts him pleading. ‘Yis can lag me, for fuck sake. Lag me, take me in. I’ll leave here and not come back if yis lag me.’
A brief, brutal smile flashes across Just Albert’s lips. ‘Lag you?’
‘Look … please … there’s no need to bate me more. I already told all this to your mates who came yesterday. Just fuckin’ ask them.’
‘Oh we will, bigfella. Uncle John,’ Just Albert says, and there is a bite in his voice that makes O’Keefe uneasy.
Just Albert gently pushes O’Keefe aside and grabs John Keegan by the scruff of the neck, his vice-like hand half lifting, half guiding the man across the room to stop in front of the tall sash window, empty of glass.
The doorman leans in close to the man and O’Keefe can only just make out the words he speaks. ‘You’re never to touch one of them kids again, Big John, right? Do you get me?’
Uncle John Keegan nods, eager to convince. ‘Never again. No word of a lie, will I ever touch them, I swear to fuck.’
‘Can I believe you, but? Can I trust you, Uncle John?’
‘You can, I swear it. You …’
Just Albert smiles and grips the man by the neck and under his arm and lifts him easily into the air.
O’Keefe blinks as if awaking from a dream, a nightmare, and takes a lunging step towards the two men.
Before O’Keefe can reach them, Uncle John Keegan is airborne, Just Albert releasing his hold with a grunt, the man’s feet clipping the ledge as Albert propels him out of the window. A short scream is snapped silent by the broken thudding of meat and bone onto the cobbles some twenty feet below.
‘Jesus …’ O’Keefe says, and Just Albert turns to him.
‘You’d have done it yourself if you weren’t so fuckin’ … civilised,’ the doorman says, passing out of the room and onto the landing.
O’Keefe follows him out and waits while he gives the girl more coins, her siblings stirring now and waking as Uncle John Keegan begins to howl in pain on the street outside. There is no sign of the woman, and O’Keefe does not know if he should be glad of this.
‘Here, and go get more bacon with that, in the morning, pet. Your uncle won’t be taking it on you now, he won’t.’
The girl smiles up at them. ‘Is he dead? Did yis kill him?’
‘No, pet. We didn’t kill him,’ O’Keefe says.
The girl is silent for a moment, listening to her uncle’s cries. ‘Well why didn’t yis not?’ she says, her small, bony fist clenched tight around the coins in her palm. ‘Now yis’ve only gone and made him cross.’