Book: Black River (2016)

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On the last day of his life, Brian Hardy slept late. It had rained through the night and all through the early morning, hard and heavy, the showers assaulting the narrow pedestrianized street beneath his window like millions of tiny battering rams, a merciless, furious attack. He had dreamed, between the booze and the cancer and the psychological collapse, he had dreamed intensely. Like the visions of shamans, his sleep paralysis had seemed to impart some great and profound secret, some wondrous truth, unknowable to the waking human mind—it had been ineffable, uncontainable, fleeting. Before his eyes opened in the dim musk of his bedroom the epiphany had faded, lost to the deepest reaches of the infinite human subconscious. It was still bright. Still day. Hardy was surprised.

Most days now he stayed in bed upon waking. The energy wasn’t there to rise and there was usually a bottle at least half-full within reach. With the drink came energy or the illusion of it at least, enough to venture out in search of wares to restock the armoury. But today, he did not drink. Today there was energy, though little of it—a preciously limited resource, like a holographic orchid, delicate and ephemeral. With silent wonder, he cherished its appearance.

He hadn’t eaten since… when? Days at least. There was no appetite, the alcohol fed calories enough. But today, though there was still no hunger, he felt that he could eat, could even enjoy it. Without thought to the dregs of whiskey in the bottle by the lamp, Hardy heaved himself up and pulled a dressing gown around his emaciated frame, tying the cord tighter than he had ever imagined possible. With his sallow skin, bearded face and oozing sores he was like a hunger striker, rebelling against some cruel oppression that could not be bested any other way.

The cupboards were empty and this was no surprise. Hardy showered. He dressed. He stepped out onto the rain-washed street in the hours of the early afternoon and felt the sun on his face. Whatever deluge had come the night before had seemed to purify the very air itself. Faint voices of the busier streets carried to him on the breeze. Hardy made his way towards the coffee shops of Shop Street. It was quiet for a Tuesday and he seated himself easily. He ate light, though he managed to eat it all—a tuna salad sandwich with crisps and a cup of tea. He did not expect to hear from Downey, he had signed in at the office the night before and the editor might expect him to sign in tonight again. Maybe he would be waiting for him. Hardy did not expect to see him again. He would never be back to the office.

On the way home he stopped into a shop on Quay Street, pointing out a bottle of Jameson to the elderly woman at the counter.

“Isn’t it fresh today?” she smiled and she was kind enough to overlook the debauchery of his purchase in the state he was in.

“Yes, it is,” Hardy said and he smiled.

At home he uncorked the whiskey and sat at the kitchen table. The table was bare but for the bottle and glass and a small ragged notepad and pen. Hardy raised a glass and then he picked up the pen.

He wrote: “To whom it may concern…”

He stopped and stared at the paper, before crossing out those lines.

“Friends. I know I haven’t…”

Hardy poured another glass, held it in his hand for minutes, watching the amber depths, his eyes bloodshot and sunken in his weathered face. Finally he drank, drank it all down in one, and then sighed, long and deep and cathartic.

He turned the page on the pad and wrote again.

“Brian Hardy,

“I’m sorry I wasted it. I’m sorry I didn’t fight back. Sorry I didn’t want to fight back. Maybe somebody else would have. I didn’t want to. I’m sorry we only got one shot. Through it all I tried to do the right thing, the best I could, in whatever way I thought at the time. I see now that I was often wrong. I know it’s too late now but I’m sorry.”

He stood up from the table, took the bottle but not the glass and went back to his room.

When a heavy drinker drinks he doesn’t get drunk, not like others do, tipsy after three or four pints and mercurially jolly from there. A hard drinker drinks for his balance, for normalcy, for his stability. He drinks and stays the same, one drink after the next, until that fateful sip that flips it all upside down and sends him raving and mad, slurring and dribbling, into the blackout comatose chaos of deep intoxication. Hardy hadn’t been there for a long time, though it was not for the want of trying. Now halfway through this latest bottle of whiskey, the sunlight outside rapidly fading for darkness, he was as sober as he had been upon waking, perhaps even more so. He scoured the bottles scattered around him with a deep and anxious foreboding. The one by the bed still had a bite or two, a few others could be put together. It was looking likely that he would have to make a choice before the off-licenses closed at ten. He might have to go sooner while his strength was still up. Why, he wondered, couldn’t it just come? Why couldn’t it end while he still had whiskey to spare?

Finally, around seven pm, he put on his coat and went to restock. He was still alive when he returned home, a bottle of Jameson under each arm. That should do him for a while, keep him well, on his way to perdition. He returned to his bed and drank some more, staring for hours at the wall beyond the foot of his bed, that great black shadow of mould rising higher and wider behind him.

He was still relatively sober when the phone rang and this time the number was public. He eyed the screen for a second before answering, considering whether he knew it or not. It was a mobile, though not any he recognized.

“Hardy,” he said, clicking the receiver.

The voice at the other end was flat and nasal-toned, slightly upbeat and yet somehow void of any genuine human emotion—like the uncanny cadence of a talking clock. “Is this the reporter? With the Galway Times?”

“Speaking,” Hardy said.

“I have some information for you. Information about the missing girl.”

Hardy sat forward on the bed. “What missing girl would that be?” he said.

There was a pause, Hardy wide-eyed as he waited.

“The girl. The one that got lost … Emily.”

Hardy grabbed his notepad from the bedside table, knocking over the bottle that waited there, sending the whiskey spilling out of its neck and soaking into the carpet below.

“Who am I talking to?” Hardy said.

“I… I have a friend who works at the phone store. In Kennedy Shopping Centre? I saw the card you gave him.”

Hardy scribbled frantically on the pad, holding the phone with one hand to his ear. “And who am I speaking to now?”

“I’d rather not say,” the voice answered, “but my friend. He’s funny. Different. I think he knows.”

Hardy grimaced with fevered frustration. “Knows what?”

“Knows about the girl. Where she’s waiting.”

Hardy’s eyes widened still. “Are you saying she’s alive?”

“ … Yes. Yes, but I can’t talk for long. Can you meet me somewhere? It’s not safe for me now. I can meet you at Bar Infinity on Shona Road. Can you come?”

“What time?” Hardy asked, looking at the alarm clock by his lamp.

“Soon. Midnight, say. Midnight would be comfortable. I can get away then.”

“Ok,” Hardy said, “how will I know you?”

There was a pause, a pause that gave Hardy the unsettling sense of a muffled smile on the other end of the line.

“You’ll know me. And I know you, I’ve seen you in the paper. If you don’t recognize me then I’ll come to you.”

The phone went dead and Hardy leaned back against the headboard, eyes bleary and mouth open in wonder.

Holding the phone still in hand, his thoughts now cleared entirely of death or whiskey, Hardy dialled in the number of the direct line to the Garda Station at Mill Street. He waited frantically, impatiently, his chest heaving to and fro, as he listened to the tone. Finally a voice answered.

“Garda Síochána, what is the nature of your call?”

Hardy’s words caught in his throat, such was the ferocity of his intention to speak. “I… It’s about Emily Whelan,” he said, “this is Brian Hardy from the Galway Times, I just received a call from an anonymous—”

“I’m sorry sir, you’ll have to slow down. What did you say your name was again?”

“Brian Hardy, with the Galway Times.”

There was silence at the other end of the line. Finally the voice spoke. “And what was the nature of your call?”

“It’s about Emily Whelan. Is Ward there? Let me speak to Ward, he knows me.”

The voice strained with the intimation of patience. “Ward, sir?”

“Sergeant Michael Ward, let me speak to him.”

“Sergeant Ward is not available Mr. Hardy. What is the nature of your call?”

Hardy rubbed his forehead furiously, fingernails scraping the flesh. “Listen to me,” he said, “listen very carefully. I just received a call from an anonymous tipster. He says he has information about the missing girl.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes,” Hardy said, “That’s right and he wants to meet at Bar Infinity at midnight. Can you send someone over at that time—plainclothes maybe, so as not to spook him?”

Silence once more. This time he was certain of the smile when the Garda spoke again. “I’m sorry Mr. Hardy all our units are busy tonight. I’ve registered your call and I’ll make sure Sergeant Ward gets word in the morning.”

“Jesus fucking Christ!” Hardy growled, “this could be our man!”

“Sir, please calm down. I already told you we have no units tonight. Perhaps you could re-schedule your meeting?”

“Oh fuck you to hell! Tell Ward the same!”

Hardy hung up the phone. He sat in silence. It was a quarter past eleven now. Silently he cursed the fates and then he drank some, just enough to give him his bearings.

He dressed, he splashed water on his face, he drank another bite and then spiked the next one in a cup of coffee. He called Downey’s personal mobile but there was no answer. It went straight to voicemail and Hardy, wracking his brains, pacing to and fro around his kitchen as the hour approached, mustered some hurried words.

“Hey,” he said, “it’s Hardy here. Listen, I’m about to go out and meet a source on Emily Whelan. Guy says she’s still alive. Wants to meet at Bar Infinity at midnight. I notified the Guards but they blew me off. Listen Eanan, I’m going to meet him, I’m going alone. If you don’t hear from me within the hour then something’s gone wrong. Let the cops know. Eanan, I’m sorry how things turned out with Ward. It was the right thing to do. We did the right thing.”

He hung up the phone and put on his coat.

Between the adrenaline and the meal of the morning, Hardy managed a brisk walk as he made his way towards the bar. He was there with minutes to spare.

 

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