Just Albert follows the priest into his oak-panelled office.
‘Sit, please, Mr Albert,’ Father O’Dea says, crossing the room to a crystal set of whiskey decanters and glasses. ‘Can I offer you a sup of something, sir?’
‘No, thanks, Padre. I’ve a question to ask is all and then I’m on me way.’
Father O’Dea sits behind his desk and gestures again at the chair in front of it. Just Albert remains standing.
‘Mr O’Keefe is not with you today, Mr Albert?’
‘No, he’s … detained.’
‘In good health, I pray?’
‘Your guess is as good as mine, Father, as I’ve not laid eyes on him these past three days.’
The headmaster nods, and his brow furls in concern. ‘And are you still searching for Nicholas Dolan? Yourself and Seán?’
‘And are you any closer to finding him?’
Just Albert smiles, a hard, shark’s grin that barely reaches his eyes. ‘That depends, Father, on whether you’re able to help us.’
The priest leans forward and rests his hands on his desk, Francis Xavier and Ignatius Loyola gazing down at Just Albert over his shoulders. ‘Of course, Mr Albert, what can I do for you?’
‘You remember how you said you’ve contacts in the Irregulars? Past pupils, the like?’
‘I do remember. And I do have some. Not as many as I would in the Free State forces, but some.’
‘I need you to get word to them for me. And this word needs get to Felim O’Hanley.’
‘And if I can, what is the word you’d like me to give them, sir?’
‘Tell them to let O’Hanley know I’ve got his money. And that O’Hanley will get it back if he delivers up Nicholas and bars him from the Irregulars. Persona not grata, wha’? Here, will you write it out for me in finer words? And don’t say “money” in your message, Father. I can’t be having half the Irregulars looking for a cut. Just say, “what you lost in Burton’s Hotel.” He’ll get the meaning well enough.’
Father O’Dea nods then dips his pen in the ink pot on his desk and begins scratching words onto a page. After a long moment, he lifts the page, blows it dry and hands it to Just Albert.
The doorman hands it back. ‘You’ll have to read it to me. I can read numbers but I’m no scholar with the letters, I’m not.’
The priest reads what he has written, and Albert nods in approval. ‘That’s grand, Father, much obliged. Now if you can deliver it, there’s a nice, lovely big donation for your fine school here. Or for the black babies in the wilds of Africa. Or a touch for yourself, whatever ye’d like, Padre.’
‘We Jesuits take a vow of poverty, Mr Albert.’ The priest smiles as he speaks.
‘Like meself, Father. You’ll be able get it into the right hands?’
The smile fades from Father O’Dea’s eyes. ‘I can deliver your message, I’m sure, but there’s nothing I can do to stop O’Hanley or any of his men from coming to you directly to get it. You’re a well-known fellow, working for a rather well-known establishment. I’d be concerned for your safety, Mr Albert, and Mrs Dolan’s as well.’
‘You just tell them that if so much as a hair on Mrs Dolan’s head is touched, they’ll not see a red shekel. Me, Father, I can look after meself.’
‘You’re a confident man, Mr Albert.’
‘You’d be confident as well, Father, if you were me and you had your paws on the amount of money I have.’
Word comes to O’Hanley of Just Albert’s offer from Commandant Desmond Manning, chief engineer in the Dublin Irregulars, and one of the few men who know how to contact O’Hanley. A good man, Manning, O’Hanley thinks, unfolding the message on his desk, and one of the last real republican bomb makers not interned or dead. Trustworthy and true to the cause, and as angry as O’Hanley is himself at this sham of a Free State and the whores who serve it. Manning has told O’Hanley that if he can get enough gelignite or TNT, he’ll blow a crater in the country so big you could fit the whole of the six Crown colonies of Ulster in it, just to spite the Free State bastards and the sheep’s herd of Irish people who support them.
And it is just the procuring of such explosives to which the message alludes. The message is about the money. O’Hanley’s eyes widen as he reads, and instinctively he blesses himself.
… what you had taken from you in Burton’s Hotel will be returned to you in full ….
All that is wanted in exchange is one Nicholas Dolan.
O’Hanley’s face burns with shame as he thinks of the boy. Proof, the letter demands, that the boy is with you. He picks up the ‘Missing’ poster from his desk and gazes at it for a long minute, his finger tracing the lineaments of the boy’s features on the page, his mind sifting through options, considering force and guile and any means there might be to take back the money while holding on to the boy. Any way at all, before deciding
that fourteen thousand pounds is worth more than any one soldier, even a special favourite like Nicholas. And the boy’s feelings for him are hardly likely to be reciprocal, a small,
vicious voice in the back of his head tells him. What good such a boy?
O’Hanley decides that he will, indeed, exchange the boy for the money. The future of the sovereign nation of Ireland demands it.
And if it is proof the collaborating whore-madam wants that her son is alive, then it is proof she shall get, he thinks, by fuck. The rare curse is a sweet, hot comfort whispered to himself.
‘My … finger?’ Nicholas Dolan’s voice is high and boyish and he raises his hand as if to consider the fact of his fingers for the first time, staring for a second at them under the weak glow of a paraffin oil lamp that rebels against the musty gloom of the Dempsey woman’s wine cellar. ‘But why?’
‘Because orders is why, youngfella. Because the bossman says it is why. Look at me, I’ve two of mine blown off me fuckin’ hand and I’m tickety-bleedin’-boo about it,’ Stephen Gilhooley says, his hand in fact throbbing with pain, the whiskey he has been drinking to stave off the horror of it making his words slur and making him feel sorry for young Nicholas. How O’Hanley comes up with his ideas Gilhooley will never know, but if it means getting his money back—Gilhooley has begun to think of it as his money, and has begun again to imagine the life he could make with it away from this horrible kip of a country—and getting a go at the bastard who half shot his own finger and thumb off in Burton’s Hotel, well, then it will just have to be and hard luck to the poor lad.
‘And it’s only the little one anyway. The one you hardly ever use,’ he says, watching the tears well in the boy’s eyes. ‘And I’ll cut it clean. Sure, amn’t I fuckin’ butcher and all?’
‘But why me, Stephen, why’d he pick me?’
Gilhooley is tiring of this and lifts the heavy knife from the table. ‘Because he thinks you’re worth fourteen fuckin’ grand is why. Now put your bleedin’ hand down here now or I’m taking the arm with it.’
Nicholas Dolan’s little finger arrives in the morning post two days after Just Albert had asked Father O’Dea to get word to O’Hanley, and now it sits on the cherrywood table, tucked in its bedding of newspaper in the small box in which it had come. Ginny Dolan wipes away the tears that only Albert has been allowed to see.
‘It’s all go, Mrs Dolan. I’ve been told to expect instructions on where to hand over the money in exchange for Nicky. Don’t be worrying. They want their bundle back more than they want to hurt Nicholas. He’ll be grand.’
Just Albert stands over the table, unable to take his eyes from the severed little finger. It is most definitely Nicky’s. There is no doubt about this in his mind. He is surprised by this instant recognition, and has an urge to examine his own hands, his own fingers. Would anybody recognise his, he wonders, the way both he and Mrs Dolan had instantly known that the finger in the box—though the flesh is waxy and a nub of bone extrudes from under the furl of neatly sliced skin just below the knuckle—belonged to their beloved Nicholas?
‘These men …’ Ginny begins, and tears again well up in her eyes. ‘He was fighting for these men? He trusted these men, and they’re willing to trade him for money and … take off his finger like a pork rib on a plate.’ Her voice chokes with a sob and she clears her throat. ‘You’ll take care of everything, Albert, won’t you?’
‘Of course I will, Mrs Dolan.’
She is silent for a long moment, staring up at the man she has known since she raised him up from the grit and grime of the street where she had found him. ‘You’re a good boy, Albert. You’ve always been so good to me …’
‘Not half as good as you deserve, Mrs Dolan.’
She smiles warmly at him. ‘And when you’re finished, when you’ve Nicky back, the men, who did this …’
‘I’ll tend to it, Mrs Dolan, you know that.’
O’Keefe’s door opens no more than six inches, and an unfamiliar face peers out, causing Just Albert to question for a moment whether he has somehow knocked on the wrong door.
‘Mr O’Keefe. Is he in?’
Wary eyes weigh him. Bloodshot and only recently wakened in a pale, sickly face. Hard eyes, but eyes that have seen a thing or two and aren’t afraid of Just Albert, who fingers the chequered grip of the Colt in the deep pocket of his trenchcoat. He will shoot through the pocket, if needs must, and the man who has answered the door appears to sense this.
‘No, mate, ’e’s out. Who’s calling?’
‘Where is he? This is the third time I’ve called these past two days. He’s not in there having a kip? Sleeping off a skite, is he?’
The pale-faced man opens the door wide with one hand, exposing to Albert that he is dressed only in a long nightshirt. ‘Take a butcher’s for yourself if you like, my friend, but ’e ain’t ’ere.’ The offer comes as more of a threat than a kindness.
Just Albert does not step into the room, but makes a show of peering past the man into the basement flat. There is something familiar about the man but he cannot place it. ‘You can put away that shooter you’re holding behind your back now.’
The man at the door smiles with his mouth but not his eyes. ‘And you can stow the one you’re fingering in your Lucy, there, chum.’
‘London boy, wha’?’
‘Shoreditch born and bred. I didn’t get your name, mate. So’s I can tell the Sergeant you’ve been ’ere.’
‘A friend of Mr O’Keefe’s, are you?’
‘Who wants to know, then?’
‘Albert is who.’
‘Just Albert’s grand.’
‘Look, mate, I’ve been laid up these past three, four days. He’s been back—the lady of the ’ouse has told me that much, but I don’t know when or for how long. You’re no old bill, I can see that, so who are you?’
‘Mr O’Keefe is doing a job for my boss, he is, and I need to find him. The job’s not done.’
Finch appears to consider this. ‘Why don’t you step inside and I’ll make us a brew. But I can tell you right now, mate, Sergeant O’Keefe will be doing no work for no man for a while, says the Jew sawbones we had in to see him.’
The man in the nightshirt steps aside and allows Just Albert into the flat. He sets the Webley revolver he has been holding behind his back on the desk beside the bed.
Just Albert looks down at the sleeping O’Keefe, his face a swollen mass of blue and dark grey bruising.
Finch joins Just Albert at the bedside. ‘A taxi brought him yesterday. And ’e could barely make it down the steps, barely standing when I opened the door. You any notion who done him like this?’
Just Albert nods. ‘A fair notion.’ He turns to look at Finch, studying him for the first time. ‘You don’t look well yourself, Mr …’
‘Finch, Jack Finch. And don’t you fret about me. Fighting fit I am.’
Albert smiles. ‘So you say.’
‘So I am. Right, you sit down there and I’ll put the billy on the ring for tea. Then you can tell me who done the sergeant like this. Right?’
‘He’ll live then, Mr O’Keefe?’
‘Should, the doc says. Nothing broke up too bad on the inside,’ Finch says.
Just Albert studies O’Keefe for a long moment then turns to Finch. ‘And how do you know Mr O’Keefe, if you don’t mind my asking?’
‘Don’t mind at all. We was coppers together, down in Cork,’ Finch says, with some small pride in the words.
‘You were a copper?’
Finch smiles at this. ‘Of a sorts.’
‘A Black and Tan?’
‘Right you are, my china.’
‘And that makes you a veteran soldier from the war?’
‘Four years of mud and blood.’
Just Albert studies him for another long moment, and Finch says, ‘You’d want to paint a picture or ask me to dance, Albert my friend, or fuck off with the eyeballs.’
‘You’ve been in the shop. That’s where I know you from. With the other English lads. Flashing it, spreading the coin round.’
‘What shop you on about, mate?’ Finch’s eyes darken and go to the Webley on the desk and back to Albert.
‘Ginny Dolan’s gaff, in Monto.’
‘Ginny what’s gaff?’
‘Dolan’s. Corner of Foley Street. The sweetshop, pal. The knocking-shop.’
Finch appears to think this over and then relaxes. ‘Look, if there’s a knocking-shop in the ’ole of the country I ain’t been in, you’ll ’ave to show me it some time, so I’ll take your word for it. But you’d want to keep buttoned up about where you know a man from and who ’is mates are, all right?’
‘Schtum is me second name.’
‘I don’t give a fuck what you call yourself. But you can be right sure they’ll be no more splashing the silver about for old Finchy. Stony broke as the day after demob, I am.’
Again, Just Albert studies Finch. ‘You fit enough for a bit of a stunt, then, Jack Finch? There’s a few quid in it for you and a chance to give your mate, Mr O’Keefe here, a hand in his time of need.’
‘Fit as a corn-fed pigeon, me, mate. And I could use the bees and honey.’ Finch smiles.
‘I’ll take that cup of tea, Mr Finch,’ Just Albert says, taking out his box of short cigars and offering one to the Londoner, ‘and we’ll sort something out between us.’