Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 42
Next: Chapter 44

43

Only hours after parting from O’Keefe, Nora stands on the sloping cement floor of the morgue and wills herself to lift the sheet. The body beneath it is small, and she realises that she does not need to lift the sheet to prove to herself what she already knows; to prove to herself that what O’Keefe had told her is true.

The mortuary man lingers behind the swing-doors as she has instructed him.

‘I’ll be forced to ring the guards if you don’t take yerself away out of here, Miss,’ he’d said to her as she pushed through the doors into the cool air of the morgue, demanding to see the bodies of the two boys. ‘I will call for the police, so help me God, miss.’

‘I am the police,’ she’d told the man, holding out her CID badge. ‘So help me God.’

I have to see for myself because, though I know it is true, know what Dillon and his men are capable of, I must see it with my own eyes. Because I saw the boy—she lifts the sheet—yes—confirming it—this boy, one of the two who had come to me at the desk of the hotel that night nearly a week ago. This is the boy who’d waited in the lobby while his friend had gone up to Murphy’s room to deliver his message.

And not as a boy then but a young soldier, a small cog in the wheel of war, was how she had seen him, kicking his heels while he waited, his face fixed in a surly scowl. His face now purple and grey and misshapen with the bruising that comes from a bullet to the back of the head.

You had a part in this, she thinks, and swallows down a wave of nausea. Like you had a part in the killing of those men in the butcher shop. You are the pointer. The pointer bitch directing Dillon and his hunters in the way of their prey. How many dead men had she marked for execution? And boys now. She notes the red welted burns visible on the soft underside of the dead boy’s arm and knows they are the marks of torture. Dillon’s work. And she had been part of it. Even before Seán had told her, she’d known something terrible had happened. And O’Keefe, she knows, will probably never find the boy he seeks alive.

Holy mother Mary forgive me, she prays, a reflex, as she struggles to arrange the sheet over the body. Like tucking in one of her younger brothers when they were little. The image rears unbidden, and sorrow knots in her throat, tears welling in her eyes. She lifts the sheet from the other body, forcing herself to look. This one younger. Thinner. Hollow around the cheek-bones, downy-skinned. Again the bruising on the face like someone has punched it from the inside. This boy is too young for a bullet. Tears run down her cheeks, the image of her brothers as young boys, snug in their bedsheets, a savage mockery of the memory of love and family and goodness that she feels is now gone from her life for ever. Shot out of it in a war she wants nothing more to do with.

 

‘Wake up, you fucker! Wake up, you Tan bastard!’

The words are bellowed only inches from his face, and O’Keefe registers them from the distance of sleep. He opens his eyes, and the light from a single hanging bulb assaults his senses and he slams them shut again and scrabbles for the solace of unconsciousness.

‘No more of that, you sly cunt. Wakey, wakey, Peeler.’ The words softer now and followed by a hard slap across O’Keefe’s face. His eyes wide open this time, and the man hunched above him mercifully blocks the harshness of the light.

With consciousness comes the pain, the back of his head a fusillade of agony that blinds O’Keefe and sends him turning to the wall, willing his hands out so that he may rise to his knees, but finding them bound behind his back. He rolls, straining against the pain in his head, half on his side, his legs doubled under him, to vomit—thin, yellow streams of bile and the last whiskey he’d drunk—against the whitewashed wall beside him.

Black stars wheel in his vision, and over the sound of his retching he can hear one man tell another that it won’t be himself mopping it up, and the other man telling the first that it won’t be himself either, seeing as it wasn’t he who’d clattered the Peeler so hard when they’d pinched him.

Peeler. To O’Keefe it seems a lifetime since he has been called this, and with such disdain. And with this comes the realisation of who these men are. He struggles to focus on them, slumping his back against the wall, shuffling his arse under him and away from the glutinous pool of his sick. He hacks and spits into the pool, a bloody streak of mucous, and takes in the men standing above him.

Two men in suits, one with a striped tie loose like a noose around his neck, the other with his tie a tightly knotted triangle as is the fashion, both of them hatless, hair slicked with pomade and combed back from the forehead with a roguish flip. Young men, younger than himself. Early twenties. They are both lean and tall, Dublin accents. One of them is strikingly handsome, with blue eyes and angular, almost Slavic features, and he takes off his jacket and hangs it neatly on a hook beside the door. He then begins to roll his sleeves up his forearms, and O’Keefe knows what is coming.

There is a single chair, bolted to the floor in the centre of the room.

And it is not a room but a cell, O’Keefe realises, taking in its dimensions and windowless, subterranean aspect. He has been in such rooms many times in his life, but never on the floor, never in the chair under the hanging bulb. What he cannot remember is how he has come to be here. He recalls dropping Nora back to her digs and stepping off his Trusty and then, nothing. He has an absurd pang of worry for his motorbike, as if it were an unminded child. If these men are who he thinks they are, he’s seen the last of his Trusty.

‘Get him up,’ the man in shirt sleeves says to his colleague, ‘into the chair.’

‘We’ll not wait for Charlie, so? He’s on his way from Wellington barracks.’

‘We will, but no harm in softening him up a bit, wha? This cunt battered Micka O’Shea half to death. He’s it coming anyway.’

‘What about the lads upstairs? They won’t mind, will they not? He’s their pull, their case …’

‘Charlie’s the bossman on this, sure. This fella bate shite out of O’Shea and plugged the gun merchant and his men full of holes. They’re happy to let us have a go at him.’

Awareness dawning, O’Keefe thinks back to the CID man Just Albert had beaten in the baths of the Achill doss-house. No name on the badge but only a number. Battered half to death. The CID man isn’t dead yet, he thinks, and that’s something at least. He blinks and tries to focus on the men. ‘Any chance of a cigarette, lads, before we start?’

The man in the shirtsleeves laughs. ‘Cheeky fucker, looking for a fag. Well, fair play to you, Peeler.’ He turns to his colleague. ‘Give the man a burner, Robert. It’ll be his last for some time I’d imagine.’

Dragged up and sat in the chair, O’Keefe takes the proffered Sweet Afton and accepts a light from the suited man. He takes a deep pull on the cigarette and begins to cough, the cigarette falling from his mouth onto the tail of his untucked shirt, smouldering there for a moment. The man takes it up and waits until O’Keefe’s coughing subsides before placing it back in his mouth. Then he lights his own and Shirtsleeves’ smokes and leans back against the wall. These men are prepared to wait, O’Keefe thinks. Their anger held in check by their respect for protocol. Or perhaps they hadn’t known, or liked, the man O’Shea well enough. Still, he had seen himself what men did to those who hurt or killed their colleagues. He’d seen it in the Peelers in Cork and it hadn’t been pretty. He has no illusions now.

There is silence as they smoke before O’Keefe says, the cigarette pinched in the corner of his lips, ‘If it means anything, I battered nobody. I’ve no idea who your man is, O’Shea. How did you even know to look for the likes of me?’

‘Big fella with a scar and a yardbrush moustache on his mug, the desk man at the Achill says. And the lad yis left tied up in Burton’s Hotel. That’s not you at all is it?’ Shirtsleeves says, smiling.

‘It sounds a match, but why me? What made you come for me when you got the description?’

‘I go where I’m told and I lift who I’m told lift and no one tells me why or wherefore, Peeler. Yours was the name and address I was given.’

O’Keefe shrugs and smokes, relishing the bite of the smoke in his throat, thinking how this could be his last fag, as the man had said. How had they known about me? he wonders, but not with any real vigour. Had someone recognised him? Or Just Albert? Had they lifted Just Albert? He cannot imagine Just Albert touting him to men such as these in return for a reprieve from the same torture that awaits him, but O’Keefe knows, as certain as night follows day, that every man will talk eventually, if the pain is applied properly and over a long enough time. Just Albert is unique but he’s human. He decides it doesn’t matter, but that he would have liked to have found Nicholas, if only for his father’s sake. His mind turns to his father and his mother. Another son, lost to war. And what a stupid fucking war to be lost to. One he could have avoided altogether.

He pulls again on the cigarette, and a finger of ash drops onto his shirt front, his jacket nowhere to be seen. The smoke is harsh and wonderful. Last pleasures. Like a man in front of a firing-squad. Nothing certain in this life, he thinks, and maybe they will not kill him, but he wouldn’t give odds on it. Not if they think—not if they know—he was in the Achill doss-house or Burton’s Hotel. Their very professionalism, in defence of a colleague, would demand it.

‘And you’re a fuckin Tan,’ the suited man adds, mildly, as if this explains everything O’Keefe has coming to him, ‘the Tans killed my brother in his bed. In front of his kids and his missus, two year ago.’

‘I was a Peeler but I was no Tan. And I never shot any man who wasn’t shooting at me first, and no man in his bed,’ O’Keefe says, but without conviction, knowing that what he had done or not done during the Tan War does not matter to men such as these so much as what side you fought on and what your side had done to their side. O’Keefe has no doubt the man is telling the truth about his brother, and that Tans or Auxies—or even Peelers like himself—had shot his brother in his bed in front of his family. And now he would pay for it.

‘You broke up O’Shea,’ Shirtsleeves says, ‘and that’s enough for me. Whatever about the Brit gun dealer and his men. Either one’s enough, and Charlie’s got the right hump over the gun seller. Crown spooks are demanding a head for him and it looks like yours fits the hat. You’ve finished that?’ He points with his cigarette before dropping it and crushing it under his brogue.

O’Keefe nods and savours a last drag. The suited man comes and takes the butt from his mouth, and O’Keefe has a flashing memory of Nora Flynn, her hands on his face, her face close to his. Sadness wells up in him at what he has lost. God knows, if they do let him live, what state he’ll be in when they’re finished. He allows himself a final memory of Nora and then shoves the memory away.

Shirtsleeves takes off his belt and wraps it carefully around his hand to protect his knuckles.

O’Keefe says, ‘Right so, lads, mind the face. I’ve a portrait scheduled for Thursday.’

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Next: Chapter 44