Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 39
Next: Chapter 41

40

They take the Bentley, Just Albert driving. A short jaunt, four streets away to Burton’s Hotel.

‘These fellas are armed, Albert. You remember that.’

Just Albert looks at him.

‘They are professionals and they’re armed. We’re not.’

‘Fuck them,’ Just Albert says, stepping out of the car, leaving it parked at the curb in front of the hotel’s entrance. ‘Are you coming or not?’

O’Keefe gets out of the Bentley. ‘Let me do the talking, Albert. Will you let me do that at least?’

Just Albert cocks his head and squints in the lamplight. ‘If there’s any call for talking, you can do it.’

They enter the hotel and are greeted by a young man in his twenties at the reception desk. O’Keefe thinks of Nora Flynn, tucked up at home, a book on her lap, tea on a side table, her fags within easy reach. He wonders will this desk man remember their faces and will Nora learn that he has been back to her place of work. How long ago it seems since he kissed her, there on the footpath in front of her digs. He licks his lips, as if he can taste the memory of her, his tongue finding only the tinny essence of fear and flooding adrenaline.

‘Can I help you, gentlemen?’ The night man has a smattering of acne on his chin, bright, trusting eyes, sleeves rolled up over thin, pale arms in the heat of the hotel lobby.

‘Mr Murphy, the Englishman. What room number is he?’ O’Keefe says.

‘It’s quite late, gentlemen. Is he expecting you?’ As he speaks, the telephone in the small closet behind the desk begins to ring, small lights on the switchboard igniting to indicate calls coming in from several rooms simultaneously. The night man glances over his shoulder at the switchboard and frowns. ‘If you’ll excuse me for the moment while I …’

Just Albert ignores the night man, the squawking phone and switchboard with its blinking lights, and walks behind the desk and through to the small closet housing the switchboard. There he rips a fistful of connection plugs from the board, silencing the ringing and extinguishing the lights. As Ginny’s man wheels around, the ends of the cables in his hand lash out at the young night man’s legs, forcing him back against the reception counter, fear in his eyes now, hands out, palms raised.

‘Sir! Sir you can’t!’

‘The room number,’ Just Albert says. ‘Now.’ He does not raise his voice, moving in on the young man, leaning into him and crowding him against the reception desk.

‘Stop,’ O’Keefe says.

‘The room.’

The night man turns his head away from Just Albert, his back arched away and over the desk. ‘Thirty-four. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it’s thirty-four, for the love of …’

Just Albert grabs the night man by the shoulders and spins him around, pushing his head down on the desk. He takes up one of the loose phone cables and wrenches the young man’s wrists behind his back, looping the cable around them and jerking it tight. He kicks the legs out from underneath him and ties another cable around his ankles, then pulls the night man’s tie from his collar and over his head. Taking a handful of hotel stationery from a shelf under the desk, he crumples several sheets into a ball and says to the young desk man, ‘Open your mouth.’

‘Leave off, Albert,’ O’Keefe’s voice is hard as he leans across the reception and grabs Just Albert by the arm. ‘Leave off him.’

Just Albert shrugs free of O’Keefe’s grip and leans down to the night man, shoving the wad of paper into his open mouth and securing it there with his necktie. ‘Don’t you so much as move a finger for ten minutes. If you wiggle free before that and ring up and warn them, I’m coming back. You understand me, youngfella?

The night man, face down on the ground, nods, terror in his eyes.

O’Keefe circles behind the reception desk, takes out Ginny Dolan’s roll of cash, crouches down and stuffs a pound note into the young night man’s pocket. He is about to rise and follow Just Albert when he stops and takes out the photo of Nicholas Dolan, holding it front of the night man’s face.

‘Have you ever seen this lad? Delivering messages, anything? Looking to visit Mr Murphy?’

The night man shakes his head in the negative. O’Keefe is tempted to take the gag out of his mouth but does not, thinking that there is no gain in a small kindness if it results in dead men.

He follows now, taking the stairs two at a time, and he is halfway between the first and second floors, Just Albert one flight above, when the door leading to the second floor hallway slams open and a young couple hustles out into the stairwell. The woman’s hair is in disarray and the man’s head is bare, his tie and collar loose. Panic is alight in both their eyes, though the woman turns hers to the floor as soon as she sees O’Keefe below her on the stairs. O’Keefe’s heart is pistoning in his chest and his hand instinctively goes to his hip for a side-arm that is not there.

‘Did you hear the racket of the …’ the young man begins to say, but stops when he gets a closer look at O’Keefe. He puts a protective arm across the young woman’s stomach and presses her back against the wall of the stairwell, pressing himself in beside her to let O’Keefe pass. Terror blanches the man’s face, though whether at the sight of O’Keefe, or at whatever has driven them out of their room in such disarray, O’Keefe does not know. What racket? O’Keefe wonders and considers turning back to ask the man, but as soon as he passes the young couple begin to skip down the stairs as if in flight. He continues on up after Just Albert, stopping with him on the landing outside the door that opens onto the third floor hallway.

‘Thirty-four,’ Just Albert says.

‘Let’s not get ourselves killed this late in the game, Albert, is all I’m asking, all right?’

Ginny Dolan’s man turns and squints up at him. ‘I’ll not let anything happen you until you find our Nicky, Mr O’Keefe. Then you can die or shite for all I care.’

‘Thanks, Albert. You’re a gentleman.’

Just Albert opens the door onto the hallway. He begins to walk, his footsteps silent on the carpeted floor. Thirty-eight, thirty-six. Beside thirty-six there is an unmarked door before the numbering resumes again at the door they seek. Thirty-four. O’Keefe grapples Just Albert’s forearm and hauls him to a stop in front of thirty-four.

He whispers, ‘Do you smell that?’

Just Albert frowns and sniffs the air, the smell of it reaching him but elusive.

‘Cordite,’ O’Keefe says. ‘And that couple on the stairs … they were running from something.’

Ginny’s man goes into his jacket pocket and comes out with the Mauser he’d taken from the CID man in the doss-house baths.

‘Have you ever fired a handgun, Albert?’

‘I’ve done things you wouldn’t like to think on much, Mr O’Keefe.’ Just Albert steps closer to the door. He is about to grasp the door knob when O’Keefe stops him, one hand on his forearm, and points to the door jam. The door, Albert sees now, is not firmly shut. He turns to O’Keefe and shrugs.

‘Gently,’ O’Keefe says, and Albert eases the door part way open until it meets an obstacle and stops. Just Albert turns sideways, and leading with the Mauser, enters the room. O’Keefe waits for a moment and follows. An upended table lamp on one of the bedside tables casts the room in a harsh puzzle of shadow and light. He looks down behind the door in search of the obstruction and it takes his mind a moment to register the body of one of the gun dealer’s guards. The tall, blond one. The one with the smirk, dressed only in undershorts and a white vest saturated with fresh blood. He scans the room, spotting the other guard, a bloody mass in a tangle of bedsheets on the floor beside the bed, part of his skull missing and a spatter storm of brain and blood on the bullet-pocked wall behind the bed.

Just Albert steps farther into the room with the gun raised, the same vigilant calm about him that O’Keefe has come to expect. O’Keefe looks back to the body behind the door and sees the Colt 1914 automatic in the dead man’s hand. He crouches down to take it, smelling its barrel, noting that the gun has not been recently fired. He draws back the gun’s slide and finds, as he’d expected, a round in the breech. Releasing the clip he finds eight more rounds. He thinks to replace the gun, but a dark part of him holds on to it, feeling a certain comfort in its heft and weight. Out of habit more than anything, he places his fingers at the man’s neck and finds no pulse. Dead before he’d got off a shot. He considers the pock-marks on the wall and the grouping of wounds on the dead man’s chest. Grouped and ascending like bights of a chain. Like machine-gun fire. He rises with the Colt, noticing another door ajar beside the second dead man’s bed. Adjoining room, linking rooms thirty-four and thirty-six.

‘Albert …’ he whispers.

Just Albert turns to O’Keefe, and there is a flash of movement in the adjoining room. Albert senses it and swings the Mauser around, drawing a bead on a young man in the doorway, eyes wide with surprise, a leather satchel in one hand, a Thompson sub-machine-gun in the other, barrel pointed at the ceiling.

A distance of less than ten feet separates O’Keefe and Just Albert from the gunman, and for a long moment the three men stare in silence at each other. O’Keefe is about to speak when the gunman lowers the Thompson and Just Albert’s free hand flashes out to send O’Keefe sprawling over the dead man beside the bed.

Just Albert fires the Mauser as the Thompson gun erupts. Smoke and showering plaster and splintering wood. As O’Keefe stumbles to his feet, flicking off the safety on the Colt, Just Albert is still standing. The machine-gun dances in the lad’s one hand, too heavy and unwieldy as he struggles to bring it to bear. Just Albert’s shooting is no more accurate, the doorman squeezing off rounds, also in a single-handed grip, in the general direction of his enemy, gun hand jumping wildly with the recoil of the pistol.

O’Keefe looses off three rounds into the doorway, and there is a sharp scream and the lad is gone, darting back into the adjoining room. Just Albert begins to follow but O’Keefe grabs him by the collar and jerks him back as a final burst of machine-gun fire rips across the room, punching a pattern of holes through the far wall. Just Albert regains his balance and fires again, wildly, his final two rounds clipping the door-frame and ceiling. A ringing silence descends as O’Keefe makes his way to the wall beside the door, the Colt held up in a two-handed grip. Movement, and muffled sound from behind the wall at O’Keefe’s back. The clacking of hollow metal. O’Keefe spins into the room. The gunman is hunched in the corner by the door to the hallway, trying to ram the drum mag onto the Thompson with his forearm. O’Keefe takes this in, the blood on the young man’s hands and the leather bag at his feet and realises that he has shot the lad in the hand.

‘Put it down!’ he shouts, aiming the Colt at the Thompson gunner.

The gunman smiles, and O’Keefe hears the solid click of the drum slamming home, the Thompson’s bolt drawn back with a bloody thumb and the barrel rising, machine-gun rounds sweeping the room from floor to ceiling, shattering the overhead chandelier lights, throwing the room into darkness as O’Keefe dives behind the bed, his fall cushioned by the bloody body of Mr Murphy.

O’Keefe reaches up and over the mattress and squeezes off six rounds from the Colt, and abruptly the Thompson goes silent. O’Keefe rolls away from the arms merchant’s body, rises to a crouch. For a moment there is acrid silence in the room. Then bright, flaring light as the door to the hallway swings open and the Thompson gunner bolts from the room, the leather satchel in his functioning hand catching on the rebounding door as he exits and jerking from his grip. O’Keefe fires at the hand that comes back around the door-frame in an attempt to claim the bag and is then gone. He pulls the Colt’s trigger again and the gun’s slide pops back over an empty chamber. Gun smoke hangs in the shaft of light entering the room from the hallway. O’Keefe tosses the gun aside. ‘Albert? Are you all right?’

‘I’m grand, I am,’ Ginny’s man says, entering the room with another Colt in his hand, blood running from a wound to his forehead and into his eyes. ‘A bit of splinter from the door-frame caught me in the loaf as I was coming through the door behind you. Sure, Mrs Dolan’s girls have done me worse with their fingernails. Did you plug him?’

O’Keefe gets to his feet and feels around the second bedside table until he finds a lamp and switches it on. ‘No, he scarpered. I think I clipped him in the hand, which is why we’re both still breathing.’ He crosses to the doorway and edges a look out into the corridor. Finding it empty, he reaches down and lifts the leather bag dropped by the assassin. ‘Fella was fierce anxious not to let go of this anyway.’

Just Albert takes the bag and sets it on the bed, unfastens the buckles and looks inside. ‘You can see why.’

Peering over his shoulder, O’Keefe attempts to whistle but finds his lips too dry. ‘A knockoff do you think?’

Just Albert shrugs. ‘Them three dead fellas were hardly handing it over. But even now, young stroke artists are hardly robbing hotel guests with tommy-guns, even if the guest is the likes of Mr Murphy there,’ he nods down at the bloody, gape-eyed corpse of the arms dealer on the floor, ‘… and his pair of goons.’

‘That money is republican gun money, Albert. You know that don’t you? Murphy was meant to be dealing guns to the Irregulars. That money is payment for arms I’d imagine.’

‘Not any more it’s not,’ Just Albert says, and the phone jangles on the desk and O’Keefe jumps. Just Albert appears as untroubled as ever, O’Keefe notices, his hands not shaking, his speech level and his shoulders at ease.

‘We need to make a move, Mr O’Keefe. I’d wager there’s guards on the way, what with all the shooting. And more probably soldiers from both sides.’ At this, Just Albert smiles and closes the bag. ‘And if that happens, sure the plasterers and glazers will be busy tomorrow.’

O’Keefe nods and leads the way to the door. ‘We’ll need to talk about that money, Albert. There’s nothing but trouble in that bag and we’ve had our share of it lately. We won’t keep getting lucky.’

Just Albert follows O’Keefe out into the hall, holding the bag by the straps in one hand, the newly acquired Colt 1914 in the other.

‘Luck’s …’

‘Luck’s got nothing to do with it, I know, Albert, but there’s heavy men who’ll be wanting that money back and won’t stop til they get it.’

They reach the stairwell and begin to descend, jogging down the steps so that O’Keefe does not hear Just Albert say, ‘That’s exactly what I’m hoping for, that is …’

 

O’Hanley sits on his chair and tells Nicholas Dolan, who closes and locks the outer and secret door to the room, to sit on the bed.

‘Nicholas,’ O’Hanley says. ‘I thought we’d lost you.’

The boy smiles brightly, young pride and mischief in his eyes. ‘Sure, it was ropey enough, it was. Meself and Robert got jumped by two gougers outside the hotel after I gave the message to Murphy. And then didn’t ourselves and the gougers get hit up by a great shower of Free State spooks in fine hats and trenchcoats. Only for one of the lane boys stabbed one of the Free Staters did I get away.’

‘And what about Robert?’

‘What about him, so?’

‘Did he get away with you?’

Nicholas’ smile fades now. ‘I … I don’t know. I … I thought he did. He’s not here?’

‘No,’ O’Hanley says, but he is smiling still, as if not overly concerned.

‘Fuck it if I never asked the boys downstairs … I should have asked after him, but I thought he’d be back.’

‘Don’t curse, Nicholas, it’s vulgar. You are an educated young man. A soldier of the republic. It does not suit.’

‘Sorry.’

O’Hanley breathes heavily and lets silence descend. He holds the boy’s gaze until the boy looks away. O’Hanley reaches across the space between them and pats Nicholas on the thigh, squeezing the taut muscle beneath the tattered woollen trousers.

‘Don’t worry, Nicholas. You’re a fine boy. And a fine soldier.’

Nicholas smiles, and casually shifts his leg from under O’Hanley’s grip. ‘Here,’ he says, holding out a sheaf of papers in his hand. ‘I got up to some good while I was wandering the streets. I stripped these from wherever I saw one.’

He hands the papers to O’Hanley, who recognises his own face on them. They are ‘Wanted’ posters announcing his name and age, stating his crime as murder of Free State forces, offering a reward for information and warning the public against attempting to apprehend him. That he is armed and dangerous. It is, he realises, the same photograph that the British Army and the RIC had used in their ‘Wanted’ posters during the Tan War. More evidence of collaboration between the Free State and Crown spies.

He smiles ruefully, unable to be truly angry with anything brought to him by this boy. ‘I had heard about these. I must send the lads out tomorrow to pull as many down as they can.’

‘And here, look at this one.’ He hands O’Hanley another poster, and at first O’Hanley does not recognise the face in the photograph.

‘You and me, on every lamppost in Dublin!’ Nicholas says, laughing like the fourteen-year-old boy he is.

The photograph is of Nicholas, the poster offering a reward for information of his whereabouts.

‘But don’t worry. It’s only me mother who’s had them posted. She’s worried is all, but I never went near her, like you said.’

O’Hanley looks up. ‘You’re a grand boy, Nicky.’ Again he pats the boy on the thigh, and leaves his hand there.

The boy looks away. ‘I should be getting down. Mrs Dempsey is going to mend my trousers and run me a bath.’

‘Not at all, Nicholas. Stay with me here, for a time.’ O’Hanley is breathing heavily now, his pupils dilated in the candlelight, the musky smell of river and sweat and youth rich in the small room.

‘All right,’ Nicholas says, and sits back down on the bed. ‘Can I help you with anything? I don’t know … drafting plans or records or something? Shall I write up a report of my stunt in the laneway?’

‘Nicky, please. Stunt? We’re not common jump-over men. We are republicans,’ O’Hanley says, but he smiles as he says it. ‘But yes, of course,’ he continues, ‘a record of your operation. Here, sit at my desk.’

The boy smiles and seats himself, and O’Hanley opens his Ops Log to a fresh page. ‘Here, write it here.’ O’Hanley leans over Nicholas’s shoulder and points at the fresh, white page.

The boy dips the pen in the ink pot and begins to scratch out the date and time of the entry, his commanding officer standing over him, resting a hand on his shoulder. He begins his account of the action, writing several sentences before O’Hanley tells him to stop.

‘Nicholas, oh Nicky … How did you ever manage to stay in Francis Xavier’s with penmanship like that.’ For the moment, O’Hanley is back in the classroom, the place he thinks he was most happy. ‘Here, let me show you something.’ Leaning over Nicholas, his face entering the glow of the low-burning candle, O’Hanley takes the boy’s hand in his own and begins to guide it in the shape of the letter S. He does this several times, the musky scent of the boy’s hair like an intoxicant, inches away from his face.

Laughing, Nicholas looks over his shoulder at O’Hanley. ‘Jesus, Commandant, I know how to write my letters.’

The sound of the boy’s laughter is lilting, sweet to O’Hanley’s ears, and with his hand still on the hand holding the pen, the commandant leans in and kisses Nicholas on the cheek. His free hand goes to the boy’s back and slides under his shirt to the ribbed heat of his chest.

The boy pulls away and stands, knocking the chair over behind him. ‘No, sir, no … Jesus, I’m not …’ The boy backs into the corner of the small room, his eyes alight with fear, confusion.

‘I’m sorry, Nicky, I don’t know what …’ O’Hanley rights the fallen chair and steps over to the boy. He crosses to the inside door and throws it open, only to hear the frantic rapping at the outer false door.

‘Sir! Sir!’ the voice from outside the room is shouting. ‘Open the door, please. I’ve Stephen Gilhooley here and he’s hurt badly, sir. Sir?’

‘Let him in, Nicholas.’ O’Hanley busies himself removing the medical kit from under his bed.

‘And Nicholas …’ the commandant says, something bitter about the turn of his lips now, ‘… not a word of this to anyone, boy. I’d fear for your safety, if ever you were to speak of what you’ve done here.’

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Next: Chapter 41