Book: Irregulars

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Next: Chapter 3


So you’re saying Detective Officer Kenny was dead before you got him to Jervis Street Infirmary in the taxi …?’

‘Yes, he was,’ the woman from the front desk of Burton’s Hotel says.

Her interrogator looks up from the file he is reading. His gaze is unnerving because one of his eyes is made of glass, replacing the one that had been gouged out by Auxiliaries who’d captured and questioned him more than a year ago in a different and far simpler conflict. This man, she thinks, knows more than any man should about interrogation. As if reading her thoughts, he dons a pair of round spectacles under which the glass eye is less noticeable.

The woman, Nora Flynn, shakes her head and gazes out the second-floor window at the offices across the busy Westland Row thoroughfare. She can see men in shirtsleeves and ties, women at typewriters. The bustling business of a life assurance company, clacking and scribbling away in search of profit as if there was no way on earth men could be killing each other just a street or two away. Bustling, she thinks, liking the word, the innocent industry it implies.

These offices too are busy. There are men in shirtsleeves and women at typewriters, but over the shirtsleeves the men wear leather shoulder-holsters stuffed with pistols and in the typists’ desk drawers, Nora knows, there are loaded Colt revolvers and files bearing the names of dead men and men marked for death. Bustling is not a word one would use, she decides, bringing her eyes back to the man with the file.

Nervous under the weight of her interrogator’s silence, she continues. ‘Sure, didn’t they have a car? The Ford they were using. Why didn’t they use it to take him to the hospital?’

Nora remembers running down Abbey Street, trailing a member of the surveillance squad whose name she does not know, an agent who moments earlier had burst through the hotel doors bellowing for Nora to help, that they had a man down injured. In her mind she sees the man pile through the open door of the Ford Tourer and the car leaving, roaring off in the direction of the Custom House, no instructions given to her other than to get the fallen man to a hospital. And she remembers the quiet that descended as the car’s motor faded in the distance. She can almost feel the heft of Kenny’s head in her lap and the warm blood on her hand as she pressed it to the wound, the knife handle still there, lodged between his ribs.

Her interrogator stares at her for a long moment, and Nora wonders if it would have been better to remain silent. She has worked with this man, and men like him, for the better part of two years, indirectly at first, but directly for the past nine months. This is, she thinks, her second war, and yet she feels little different, at times, than when she was a summer typist in her father’s accountancy office.

‘And all this happened at what time?’

She makes an effort to remember. ‘It couldn’t have been more than ten past midnight. You have my operations report. The boy passed by me and exited the hotel at … what did I write? Eleven fifty-six? Forty-six? And Detective Officer Kenny followed him.’ She is growing angry, a flush of blood in her cheeks, her palms still sweating, but there is steel in her voice as she speaks. She has done her job. In no way is she to blame for the death of a man who should have known better.

Kenny, the man with the newspaper. An unlikely detective, she thinks, with his pinched, wan face, his thin body and quick-bitten fingernails. A man who, in reality, had looked every inch the Active Service Unit gunman he had been in the fight against the Crown. But they have called each other ‘detective officers’—it is their rank and they are paid as such—ever since transforming from Michael Collins’ handpicked squad of shooters to the Criminal Investigation Department in Oriel House. Detecting was not what men like Kenny had joined up for, Nora knows, though some of the newer members of CID, and some who had come to the unit from the Irish Republican Police or from IRA units in distant counties, are under the illusion that they are, in fact, detectives.

‘And you’ve no idea who stabbed Kenny?’ her interrogator asks, lighting a cigarette.

‘No, no idea. You’ll have to ask them when … when they come in,’ she says, filling the silence as much as answering the question. Behind her low-burn anger, fear continues to smoulder. ‘It’s all in my report,’ she adds. ‘Did Dillon or O’Shea file theirs?’

Her interrogator watches her for a long moment. Then he closes the manila file on his desk and leans forward, holding out his packet of Sweet Aftons.

Finally: ‘No. They’ve not come in yet, and when I rang Wellington barracks I was told they hadn’t checked in there yet either.’

‘So that leaves us where?’ she asks, not sure if she should.

‘It leaves us wanting to speak to them and catch whoever stabbed Detective Kenny. Finding O’Hanley seems secondary now, in a way, though we mustn’t stop searching for him, or laying bait.’

Felim O’Hanley is the target of the hotel operation. Slippery as Collins—God rest him—had been to the British, and now running the Dublin Brigade for the anti-Treaty Irregulars. After another long silence, Nora meets her interrogator’s eyes.

He says, ‘There was nothing you could have done, Nora. You’ve been doing good work and you did what you were called on to do.’

She leans across the desk and takes a cigarette. Detective Superintendent Terence Carty, like Detective Officer Kenny, was a member of the Big Fella’s special squad, one of his twelve apostles during the Tan War, but smarter, more nuanced than most of them. From fearing Carty to remembering now how he’d always respected the work she had done for the cause during that war; how he had personally recruited her into the Free State Army Intelligence Department and then into CID. He treated her as an agent, rather than just a mocked-up typist, like many of the others did. It was he who had suggested she man the desk at Burton’s for this operation and had made sure she was included in the briefings pertaining to it.

It’s as if Carty sees beyond the notion that women were suited only to the paperwork of war. Sophisticated, Nora thinks, but frightening in his own way. In his eyeglasses and shirtsleeves he might have appeared more at home in the assurance offices across the road, auditing claims for fire and theft. But Carty, Nora knows, had taken many lives as a gunman for Collins. He goes nowhere unarmed, wearing even now at his desk a Mauser C96 in a shoulder-holster instead of the standard issue Colt .45 revolver most of the men in the department carry. She wonders had he shot any of the men she had fingered during her time in the Castle with that same gun. How many men had he killed? More men than she herself had marked for death with a pen and carbon file copy? She pushes the line of thought from her mind. Silly questions. War possesses a mathematics all of its own.

‘What do we do now?’ she asks. Two minutes earlier she would not have dared.

Carty exhales a stream of smoke, stubs out his cigarette and removes his glasses to wipe them on his necktie. Maybe not so sophisticated, Nora thinks.

‘We have to wait for Charlie and the rest of the boys to come in. Find out from them what happened. Find out if we’ll be able to proceed with things or if the whole operation is scuppered. Charlie has his own way of doing things. He’ll be back when he’s ready.’

Carty speaks of Captain Charles Dillon as if of an eccentric uncle rather than a veteran gunman.

Nora is confused. ‘But surely … I mean, Mr Murphy is blown. He can’t be used. Not when the messengers failed to return to O’Hanley. At least we know from Murphy that it was O’Hanley who sent the boys.’

If they failed to return,’ Carty says.

‘Something happened in that laneway, something involving the messenger boys. They weren’t two minutes out the door when your man burst back into the hotel shouting they’d a man down stabbed. For all we know, Dillon could have the two messenger boys in custody at Wellington barracks, if not O’Hanley himself.’

Nora knows she is treading dangerously, making accusations she cannot substantiate, but she feels aggrieved. So what if Charlie Dillon has his own way of doing things? A man was dead, and an operation of many weeks’ planning likely damaged beyond repair.

‘If they’d plugged or pulled O’Hanley, we’d have heard about it by now,’ Carty says, a vague smile at his lips.

‘But what about Murphy? Is he not blown?’

‘No, I think we’ll keep him in his rooms for the time being. Until we see what happens. You’ll continue to work the front desk, in shifts along with Detective Officers Malloy and Ring?’

‘Of course.’

‘And if our Mr Murphy is, in fact, blown,’ Carty says, the smile blossoming now to a real one, ‘our pals in the Crown can always lend us another one.’

‘Their generosity knows no bounds.’

‘You mean our pals in British Army intelligence aren’t helping us for the good of an independent Ireland?’

Nora smiles for the first time in what feels like days. ‘I rather doubt it, don’t you?’

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Next: Chapter 3