Half past three in the morning. They make their way across the city in silence, the Bentley’s smooth purr masking the drumming of O’Keefe’s heart, his adrenaline-sweat sour and sharp in the car, his hands shaking, the sound of Keegan’s screams still plaintive and shrill in his ears. The sight of the filthy bottoms of the man’s feet as they bucked over the window ledge. A shudder passes through him.
‘Albert,’ he says.
‘We’re here, so save your talk, Mr O’Keefe, for them that need it.’
Ginny Dolan’s man brakes the Bentley on Capel Street, pulling it up onto the footpath, and they make their way down a laneway to the Chancery Street fruit and vegetable market, where they pause to watch lorries and horse wagons being unloaded.
O’Keefe says, ‘The early house pubs aren’t even open for another few hours. There’s hardly likely to be any lads around we can question.’
They wait as a horse cart carrying heads of cabbage passes into the market and then move on, Just Albert leading them, over his shoulder saying, ‘There will be if you know where to look.’
‘And you know where to look, then?’
Just Albert turns to O’Keefe, cocking his head and squinting, but all trace of the rough smile is gone, rubbed out by what he had seen on the slab in the morgue.
‘There’s not much in this city I don’t know, and what there is is hardly worth knowing.’
O’Keefe thinks of telling him that there was more to the city than Monto and the darkened lanes and the sweating tenements but stops himself. No gain in it, he thinks. Things are in motion. He is riding the train that Albert engineers through the heart of a city, a country, at war with itself. He wonders where or when he could have got off and cannot think of a time or a place.
They enter a lane running behind the markets. One side of it is high, barb-wire fencing bordering the market and the other is backed by the broken-bottle topped walls of tenement gardens and several pubs.
A fire burns in a barrel halfway down the lane to the rear of a pub called Quinn’s, and around it stand a loose mob of boys. Five or six lads. More in the shadows beyond the firelight. They stare warily at the approaching men and one of the gang sets down a tall glass jar of clear liquid next to the barrel.
Methylated spirits, O’Keefe assumes, mixed with cordial or sugar syrup or nothing at all. Hands are jammed in pockets and sunken eyes peer up from under rough cut hair and tattered cloth caps. One of the boys suddenly turns and sprints away from the barrel into the darkness, his bare feet padding down the laneway until only the crackling flames in the barrel can be heard.
‘He late for an appointment, wha’?’ Just Albert says, getting sullen silence in response. He stands close to the fire, holding out his hands as if to warm them, and stares each of the boys in the eyes until they look away. ‘Business slow tonight, lads?’
‘Business is business, is wha’ it is,’ one of the boys says, a tall lad with skin stretched tight over high cheek-bones and missing teeth. He could be fourteen or twenty-four, O’Keefe thinks, wondering at the degradation mirrored in the faces of the lads huddled round the fire.
‘And we done nothin’,’ the boy continues, ‘and stole nothin’, so’s there nothin’ to pinch us for an’ anyway.’
‘Pinch yis? Do we look like coppers, do we?’ Just Albert says.
The boy tilts his head and considers the question. ‘He does,’ he says, pointing his chin at O’Keefe. ‘You look like …’ The jibe dies in his throat under the dark light in Albert’s eyes. ‘… You don’t look like one, but.’
Just Albert nods in acknowledgement of the boy’s implied respect. In Dublin, withholding a barb often counts as much. ‘Yis can relax then. We need ask yis a few questions is all.’ At this, he jingles the coins in his pockets for the first time this evening, but in a perfunctory way, none of the doorman’s usual blithe charity in the sound; the clinking coins merely signal that there is payment in the offing for questions answered.
‘We’re looking for a lad,’ O’Keefe says.
‘I bet you are,’ the tall boy says. ‘Sure, you wouldn’t be the first Peeler on the hoof looking to have his bottle washed by the likes of me.’
O’Keefe is taken aback by the boy’s boldness, the mocking smile on his face. ‘You’re joking.’
The boy winks in the firelight. ‘You’re the fuckin’ joke, me auld flower.’
‘Give it up, you,’ Just Albert says, and the boy turns back to him and touches his cap brim. There is no mockery in the gesture, the boy sensing the simmering violence in the doorman. All the boys appear to sense it now, averting their eyes and suppressing vacant, methylated smiles. Their awareness of danger, O’Keefe thinks, is sharpened by their lives on the street to the point where words hardly matter and airs and auras—of menace, weakness, need—is what they have learned to act upon. Still, O’Keefe is amazed by the respect the boys show Ginny Dolan’s man.
‘Sorry, Mister,’ the boy says.
‘Jeremiah Byrne,’ O’Keefe says. ‘Jerry Byrne. Blond lad. White blond hair, he has. Does he work with ye lads?’
The tall boy snorts out a laugh, and the laughter leads to a fit of deep consumptive coughing. Furtive smiles edge the lips of the other boys in the group. Finally: ‘Work with us? You are fuckin’ jokin’, Peeler. That lad wouldn’t set foot near us, once we was together in a mob, like. He only comes up on a fella when he’s on his tot, and then only to rob him of what he’s on him. Sure, to fuck, didn’t he reef the shoes off Damo there, only last night.’
‘Night before,’ a small boy says. ‘They was too big an’ I couldn’t fuckin’ leg it from him, I couldn’t.’
O’Keefe looks down at the boy. Hardly older than the children asleep on the tenement landing, he thinks. At least those children have somewhere half dry to bed down, despite their neglect and mistreatment. The small boy runs a filthy sleeve under his nose.
‘Whatever night it was,’ the leader says, ‘he put a broke bottle to Damo’s t’roat and whipped the brogues righ’ off him.’
Another boy pipes up, unable to meet O’Keefe’s or Albert’s eyes, but angry and wanting his speak. ‘And I never even got a shot of them.’ The boy stares down at his bare feet as if just now noticing their existence.
‘You share out the shoes?’ O’Keefe asks in disbelief.
‘Of course we bleedin’ do. What’d you think? That Damien’d land a brace of smashing leather boats for hisself and not gi’s a go in them? No fella goes short and no fella hungry if one of us has scratch or bread. Tha’s why Jerry Byrne’s a dead boy once we lay eyes on him. He waits on us til we’s on our own, we waits for him til we’re not and he is.’
‘And then we’ll get our brogues back,’ the small lad says.
O’Keefe smiles. The boy cannot be more than ten years old. His smile collapses around the knowledge of what this young boy must do to eat, let alone for a pair of shoes.
‘We’ll open his poxy loaf with a brick,’ another boy says, a dark smile on his face in the firelight.
Just Albert withdraws a handful of coins from his pocket. ‘Here,’ he says. ‘I don’t want a hair on his head touched until we’ve talked with him, right?’ He looks each boy in the eye until they nod assent. ‘Here’s something to keep you going now and there’s a pound in it for the lad who finds him and lets me or Mr O’Keefe know about it.’ He hands a few coppers to each of the boys. ‘Yis can leave word for us at Mrs Dolan’s gaff in Foley Street. Yis know it?’
Again the boys nod. ‘In Monto?’ the older boy says.
‘That’s the one.’
‘Or you can get me at twenty-four Leinster Road in Rathmines,’ O’Keefe says, hoping against hope that they might come to him first and he might be able to prevent the hell Jerry Byrne has coming if he’s had anything to do with harming Nicholas Dolan. He doubts that they will be able to remember the address.
‘Rathmines?’ one of the boys says. ‘Jaysus, tha’s like …’
Another boy finishes his sentence. ‘… Like another bleedin’ country, tha’ is.’
And it is, O’Keefe thinks. Only two miles away from the lanes in which these boys live, and most likely will die. Barely two miles and another world away.