Again O’Keefe awakes on the floor. His nose is swollen closed and his mouth is clogged and metallic with coagulating blood. Gingerly he tests his teeth with his tongue and finds them loose but miraculously intact. He takes shallow breaths to hold off the pain in his ribs. If they are broken, he knows, breathing too deeply may puncture a lung. He straightens his legs, slowly, and gathers the blood in his mouth to spit. The breath he takes to eject the blood and sputum does not hurt as badly as he thought it might and he risks sitting up.
He is alone in the cell, the single bulb still burning brightly, and he has no idea of how long he has been unconscious. Only now does he notice the blood splatter on the whitewashed walls and floor, some of it fresh and no doubt his own. Other stains are older and dried, and some are smeared in arcs of dark wash, as if someone had attempted to clean them with a rag or sleeve, but they are unmistakeably blood. O’Keefe remembers hearing that Jurys hotel in College Green had been forced to strip and redecorate many of its rooms after British Army intelligence had finally returned the hotel to its owners after using it for a headquarters and interrogation centre. And now the Free State has its own torture house. The cellar of Oriel Street, CID headquarters.
The beating had lasted ten or fifteen minutes, he thinks, and he is perversely proud for having stayed in the chair, conscious, for as long as he had. In situations such as these, fists are preferable to feet, and it pays to remain upright. Administering a beating is hard work. Men tire of hefting a man over and over again into a chair and will happily resort to booting a prisoner around the floor to spare the effort of lifting him.
Having manoeuvred himself to an upright position against the wall, O’Keefe listens to the footsteps on the floor above him. Shirtsleeves and his mate hadn’t asked him any questions. ‘Softening him up’ is what they’d called it. But the questions would come and he would answer them truthfully and try his best to leave Just Albert out of it, if Ginny Dolan’s man hasn’t been pulled already. And his answers would be the truth. He had not beaten the CID man O’Shea and he had most certainly not killed Murphy and his men. He is trying to decide whether or not to admit being in the hotel and coming across their killer, when the sound of footsteps descending the stairs becomes louder, and shortly the latch on the outside of the cell door is slotted back, the door opening outward.
‘Get up, you, now, in the fucking chair,’ the man entering says, in a grey suit, his hat tipped back on his head, suit jacket open. The two men from earlier follow this man into the cell. ‘Get him up.’
Shirtsleeves comes to O’Keefe and hoists him into the chair, O’Keefe wincing at the pain in his ribs and abdomen. He cannot feel his hands behind his back for the tightness of his bonds. ‘He’s well ripened up, Charlie.’
Without waiting for Shirtsleeves to finish his sentence, the man called Charlie steps across the cell and drives his fist into O’Keefe’s face, shattering his nose. The blow is so hard that O’Keefe falls from the chair and the boots come next. O’Keefe tucks his knees to his chest and his head down to meet them, using his feet to try to slide back across the floor to the wall. The kicks come hard and fast, and this time O’Keefe hears the ribs crack, a dull, muffled snapping in his chest. And this man called Charlie is grunting and cursing as he swings the boots in, O’Keefe conscious of only some of the words. You fucker, you cunt, whore madam, threaten me? I’ll break every fucking bone in your murdering body, Peeler ….
He is conscious of one of the young men speaking. Charlie? Charlie go easy, man, you’ll kill him before he can sign the confessions. Charlie, for fuck sake. A lucky kick connects under O’Keefe’s jaw and slams his teeth together with a sickening clack. Blood fills his mouth again and O’Keefe swallows and chokes on it and splutters, half-spits, half-vomits the blood and a tooth from his mouth. This Charlie’s voice rising above the others: Leave off? I’ll fucking kill him I will. Go away from me! O’Keefe senses more than sees one of the younger men bundling Dillon away, his arms in a bear hug around the man’s chest, his booted feet flailing.
The blows stop, and one of the men has lifted him back into the chair. He realises he is still conscious and wishes he wasn’t. Minutes, maybe hours pass. The cell door opens, voices outside the cell, closes and opens again. O’Keefe is out of time now, existing only in a long, jagged, moment of hurt.
‘Stop this, now, Charlie. He’s done nothing,’ Nora Flynn says, standing outside the cell with Dillon. ‘Nothing at all.’
Charlie Dillon laughs. ‘And you’re the one ordering the likes of me about now, are you, girl?’
‘You’ve gone far enough.’
‘I’ve not gone half as far as enough, Detective. Now, you’d want to fuck off upstairs to your typewriter and keep your snout out of things that don’t concern you.’ The smile is gone from Dillon’s face and his voice is low and mean.
‘It does concern me, Captain.’
‘How is that?’
‘I was shadowing him.’
‘Fine fucking job of it.’
‘I know he didn’t kill Murphy and his men.’
‘How? How do you know that?’
‘Because he was with me the whole time, last night,’ she lies, without thinking.
‘Was he now? I’ve heard about what happens to lads who spend the night with you, girl.’ The smile is back, but it is vicious, and instead of frightening Nora, it enrages her.
‘I saw the bodies of those two young boys you tortured. Murdered!’
The smiles goes from Dillon’s face. ‘What boys?’
‘The cigar burns on their arms and feet and …’ She reaches out, without thinking, and grabs the cigar box from Dillon’s shirt pocket. ‘Was it these cigars you used on those boys? What, fourteen years of age, were they?’
‘You’d want to watch your mouth, Detective Officer Flynn. It’s leading you to places you’ve no mind to be.’
‘What are you going to do? Shoot me, Charlie? Torture me?’
‘You’d be so lucky.’ And Dillon steps nearer to Nora, bringing his face close to hers.
‘You stop hurting him right now and I won’t go to Carty with what I know about those boys.’
‘While you’re there, why don’t you tell him about how you and that fat dah, Jimmy Boyle, shot up them lads in the butcher’s shop? Cut them down in cold blood. He’d like to hear that wouldn’t he?’ His warm breath on her face is like an illness.
Nora takes a step back. ‘I might tell him, Charlie, because I don’t care any more. I don’t give a passing damn for any of this. I’ll swing for those men in that shop if it means seeing you done for those two poor boys.’
‘Go on then, tell him. He hasn’t the pull he once had when Mick Collins was alive. I’ve nothing to fear from him at all.’
‘We’ll see about that.’
Dillon turns back to the cell door. ‘Go on then, you silly cunt, let’s see …’
‘Give me the papers,’ Charlie Dillon says to one of the men as he re-enters the cell, and through swollen eyes O’Keefe watches as the young man takes a sheaf of folded papers from inside his jacket.
‘We never questioned him, Charlie.’
‘We don’t need to, he done it and he’s confessed.’ Dillon walks over to the coat hooks on the wall and takes hold of one of the hooks. He tugs down on it and then, oddly, grabs it with both hands and uses the hook to support his whole weight, his feet coming off the floor for a second. ‘Give us your tie, Robert.’
‘Your tie. The tie round your neck, for the sake of Christ.’
‘What’re you doing with it, Charlie?’ Shirtsleeves loosens his tie, lifts it over his head and holds it out, but Dillon ignores it.
O’Keefe watches all of this and knows the end is coming soon. He is aware of a distant anger that his death will appear a suicide, but then he does not imagine his body will be released to his family anyway, so they will never know. Sadness wells within him to douse the anger, but it is not a great one. More than anything, he feels tired and wants the pain to stop. He thinks of his mother, the rest of her days to be spent tending her husband’s dying mind, and wonders will she even get the solace of a funeral, a body to bury, or will her second son end up in a common grave or a tout’s hole in the Wicklow mountains. One son in the rocky soil of Turkey and another in a boggy ditch. And he thinks of Nora Flynn and her lovely face; the deep green of her eyes and the full, soft heft of her breasts. He thinks then of his brother Peter and wonders will he see him in heaven and decides that he won’t.