Gun Street Girl
Now the rain’s like gravel on an old tin roof,
And the Burlington Northern’s pulling out of the world,
A head full of bourbon and a dream in the straw,
And a Gun Street girl was the cause of it all…
Tom Waits, ‘Gun Street Girl’, 1985
I do not yet know what your gift is to me, but mine to you is an awesome one: you may keep your days and nights.
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Blue Tigers’, 1983
1: A Scanner Darkly
‘I can’t get it, sir.’
Midnight and all the agents are asleep, and on the beach there are only disaffected, cold policemen silently sharing smokes and gazing through binoculars at the black Atlantic, hoping to catch the first glimpse of the running lights on what has become known to the ironists in Special Branch as the Ship of Death.
Oscillating waves of sound. A fragment of Dutch. A DJ from RFI informing the world with breathless excitement that ‘EuroDisney sera construit à Paris’.
We’re on a beach near Derry on the wild north coast of Ireland. It’s November 1985. Reagan’s the President, Thatcher’s the PM, Gorbachev has recently taken the reins of the USSR. The number-one album in the country is Sade’s Promise and Jennifer Rush’s torch song ‘The Power Of Love’ is still at the top of the charts where it has remained for a dispiritingly long time…
Sssssssss and then finally the young constable in charge of the shortwave scanner finds the radio frequency of the Our Lady of Knock.
‘I’ve got them! They’re coming in, sir!’ he says.
Yes, this is what we were waiting for. The weather is perfect, the moon is up and the tide is on the ebb. ‘Aye, we have the bastards now!’ one of the Special Branch men says.
I say nothing. I have been brought in purely as a courtesy because one of my sources contributed a tip to this complicated international operation. It is not my place to speak or offer advice. Instead I pat my revolver and flip back through my notebook to the place where I have taped a postcard of Guido Reni’s Michael Tramples Satan. I discreetly make the sign of the cross and, in a whisper, ask for the continuing protection of St Michael, the Archangel, the patron saint of policemen. I am not sure I believe in the existence of St Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of peelers, but I am a member of the RUC, which is the police force with the highest mortality rate in the Western world, so every little bit of talismanic assistance helps. I close the notebook and light a cigarette for some evil-eyed goon who says he’s from Interpol but who looks like a spook from 140 Gower Street, come to keep an eye on the Paddies and make sure they don’t make a hash of the whole thing.
He mutters a thank-you and passes over a flask which turns out to contain high-quality gin.
‘Cheers,’ I say, take a swig, and pass it back.
‘Chin, chin,’ he says. Yeah...MI5.
A breeze moves the clouds from the face of the moon. Somewhere in the car park a dog barks.
The policemen wait. The spooks wait. The men on the boat wait. All of us tumbling into the future together.
We watch the waves and the chilly, black infinity where sky and sea merge somewhere off Malin Head. Finally at 12.30 someone shouts ‘There! I see her!’ and we are ordered off the beach. Most of us retreat behind the dunes and a few of the wiser officers slink all the way back to the Land Rovers to warm up over spirit stoves and hot whiskies. I find myself behind a sandbar with two women in raincoats who appear to be Special Branch Intel.
‘This is so exciting, isn’t it?’ the brunette says.
‘Who are you?’ her friend asks me in a funny Cork accent that sounds like a donkey falling down a well.
I tell her but as soon as the word ‘Inspector’ has passed my lips I can see that she has lost interest. There are assistant chief constables and chief superintendents floating about tonight and I’m way down the food chain.
‘About time!’ someone says and we watch the Our Lady of Knock navigate its way into the channel and towards the surf. It’s an odd-looking vessel. A small converted cargo boat, perhaps, or a trawler with the pulleys and chains removed. It doesn’t really look seaworthy but somehow it’s made it all the way across three thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean.
About two hundred metres from the shore it drops anchor and after some unprofessional dithering a Zodiac is lowered into the water. Five men climb aboard the speedboat and it zooms eagerly towards the beach. As soon as they touch dry land the case will come under the jurisdiction of the RUC, even though all five gunrunners are American citizens and the ship has come from Boston.
Skip, skip, skip goes the little Zodiac, oblivious of rocks or hidden reefs of which there are many along this stretch of coast. It miraculously avoids them all and zips up the surf on to the beach. The men get out and start looking around them for errant dog walkers or lovers or other witnesses. Spotting no one, they shout ‘Yes!’ and ‘Booyah!’ One man gets on his knees and, emulating the Holy Father, kisses the sand. He has dedication, this lad – the tarmac at Dublin Airport is one thing but this gravelly, greasy beach downwind from one of Derry’s main sewage plants is quite another matter.
They open a bottle and begin passing it around. One of them is wearing a John Lennon sweatshirt. These young American men who have come across the sea to bring us death in the form of mortars and machine guns.
‘Yanks, eh? They think they can do what they like, don’t they?’ one of the Special Branch officers says.
I resist the temptation to pile on. Although these Irish American gunrunners are undoubtedly naive and ignorant I understand where they’re coming from. Patriotism is a hard disease to eradicate and ennui stamps us all...
The men on the beach begin to look at their watches and wonder what to do next. They are expecting a lorry driver called Nick McCready and his son Joe, both of whom are already in custody.
One of them lights a flare and begins waving it above his head.
‘What are they going to do next? Set off fireworks?’ someone grumbles behind me.
‘What are we going to do next?’ I say back, loud enough for the Assistant Chief Constable to hear. I mean, how much longer are we going to have to wait here? If there are guns on the boat, we have them, and if there are no guns on the boat we don’t have them, but either way the time to arrest them is now.
‘Quiet in the ranks!’ someone says.
If I was in charge I’d announce our presence with a loudspeaker and spotlights and patiently explain the situation: You are surrounded, your vessel cannot escape the lough, please put your hands up and come quietly…
But I’m not in charge and that is not what happens. This being an RUC-Gardai-FBI-MI5-Interpol operation we are headed for debacle… A high-ranking uniformed policeman begins marching towards the men on the beach like Alec Guinness at the beginning of Bridge on the River Kwai.
‘What the hell is he doing?’ I mutter to myself.
The gunrunners don’t see him yet and the one with a flare is making it do figures of eight in the air to the delight of the others.
The uniformed officer reaches the top of a dune. ‘All right, chaps, the game’s up!’ he announces in a loud Dixon of Dock Green voice.
All right, chaps, the game’s up?
The Americans immediately draw their weapons and run for the Zodiac. One of them takes a potshot at the uniformed peeler, making him hit the deck. I say, chaps, that’s a little unsporting, he’s probably thinking.
‘Put your hands up!’ another copper belatedly yells through a megaphone.
The Americans fire blindly into the darkness with an impressive arsenal that includes shotguns and assault rifles. Some of the policemen begin to shoot back. The night is lit up by white flares and red muzzle bursts and arcs of orange tracer.
Yes, now we have well and truly crossed the border into the realm of international screw-up.
‘Lay down your arms!’ the copper with the megaphone shouts with an air of desperation.
A police marksman brings down one of the Yanks with a bullet in the shoulder, but the gunrunners still don’t give up. They’re confused, seasick, exhausted. They have no idea who is shooting at them or why. Two of them begin pushing the Zodiac back towards the surf. They don’t realise that they’re outnumbered ten to one and that if by some miracle they do make it back to the Our Lady of Knock, they’re just going to get boarded by the Special Boat Service.
The surf tosses the Zodiac upside down.
‘This is the police, you are surrounded, cease firing at once!’ the men are ordered through the megaphone. But blood has been spilled and they respond with a fusillade of machine-gun fire. I light another ciggie, touch St Michael and make my way to the car park.
I walk past the rows of Land Rovers and get in my car. I turn the key in the ignition and the engine growls into life. Radio 3 is playing Berlioz. I flip to Radio 1 and it’s a Feargal Sharkey ballad - Feargal Sharkey’s successful solo career telling you everything you needed to know about the contemporary music scene. I kill the radio and turn on the lights.
A box of ammo explodes with a deafening blast and an enormous fireball that I can see from here. I lean my head against the steering wheel and take a deep breath.
A very young constable in charge of car park security taps on the driver’s-side window. ‘Oi, where do you think you’re going?’
I wind the window down. ‘Home,’ I tell him.
‘Who said you could go?’
‘No one said I had to stay, so I’m leaving.’
‘You can’t just leave!’
‘Move out of the way, son.’
‘But don’t you want to see how everything turns out?’ he asks breathlessly.
‘Farce isn’t my cup of tea,’ I tell him, wind the window up, and pull out of the car park. The me in the rear-view mirror shakes his head. That was a silly remark. For out here, on the edge of the dying British Empire, farce is the only mode of narrative discourse that makes any sense at all.
Chapter 2 A Problem With Mr Dwyer
Fireworks behind. Darkness ahead. And if that’s not a metaphor for the Irish Question I don’t know what is.
Once I was off the slip road I drove insanely fast on the A6 until the carriageway ran out at Glengormley. From Glengormley it was just a short hop up the A2 to Carrickfergus. It was a cold, wet, foggy night which discouraged both terrorists and the British Army’s random roadblocks, so the run was relatively easy and fortunately I didn’t kill myself doing 110 mph on the stretches of motorway.
I got back to Coronation Road in Carrick’s Victoria Estate at just after 1.20.
In the middle-class streets after midnight all was quiet but out here in the estates there could be craic at any hour. The craic now was two doors down, where a bunch of lads were drinking Harp lager, eating fish and chips and playing what sounded like Dinah Washington from a portable record player on a long lead outside Bobby Cameron’s house. Bobby had clearly hijacked the owner/operator of a mobile chip van and forced him to provide food for him and his mates. Bobby was the local paramilitary commander who also ran a two-bit protection racket and dealt unexcised cigarettes and drugs. His stock had been low for years around here but lately had risen because, with the assistance of the Glasgow Orange Order, he had kidnapped back and deprogrammed a Carrickfergus girl from a branch of the Unification Church in Scotland. The Moonie temple had been burned to the ground in the incident and half a dozen Moonie guards had been shot in the kneecaps. ‘Stay out of Scotland and Northern Ireland!’ was the message the crippled security personnel had carried all the way back to Korea. It was a big win for Bobby and now you sometimes heard people muttering that if ‘you want something done, don’t go to the police, go see Bobby Cameron’, which was exactly the sort of thing that the paramilitaries loved to hear.
Our eyes met. Bobby looked a bit like Brian Clough, but Brian Clough after a three nil home defeat to Notts County.
‘You’re a wanted man, Duffy,’ Bobby said.
‘Didn’t you have your police radio on?’
‘We’ve been listening to the scanner. They’ve been looking for you, Duffy. Miss Marple’s not available so why not the intrepid Inspector Duffy, eh?’
‘Thanks for the tip,’ I said and locked the car.
‘You want a fish supper?’ Bobby asked. ‘I’m paying.’
I walked over to the chip van and looked at the driver, an older man with an abstract sadness about him. ‘I’m a police officer. Are you being held against your will or coerced to be here tonight?’
‘Oh no, not at all,’ he said quickly. ‘I’m just doing Bobby a favour.’
I didn’t know whether I believed him, but he didn’t look afraid for his life, which was something. ‘In that case I’ll take a sausage supper.’
The other diners moved aside to let me get to the chip van window. It was quite the collection of crooks and ne’er-do-wells, and when my life becomes a BBC drama the casting director will love this little scene as an opportunity for showcasing his ugliest and weirdest extras.
The hijacked chipman gave me a sausage supper wrapped in newspaper and I thanked him and offered him a quid.
‘On the house,’ he said, and gestured towards Bobby.
I ate a chip or two. ‘How was Scotland?’ I asked Bobby.
‘You heard about that?’
‘Interesting fact. The Reverend Moon was raised as a Presbyterian. The Moonies are basically radical Korean Presbyterians.’
Bobby shook his head. ‘I won’t debate theology with you at two in the morning, Duffy, not when you’ve got a busy night ahead of you, but I will say that the problem with you Catholics is that you don’t understand the Protestant religion.’
‘Unlike your Church which is a top-down faith – Pope, cardinal, bishop, priest, congregant – ours is a democracy. Our ministers, our moderator, our elders and our congregants are all equal. That’s why the Reverend Moon, as you call him, could never be considered a Presbyterian, cos he sets himself above his flock.’
The Jesuits had beaten the Counter-Reformation dialectic into me to such an extent that even at this unholy hour I could have martialled half a dozen arguments against Luther, Calvin and the other heretics, but I was just too weary for any of that now. ‘Maybe you’re right. See ya,’ I said, and went inside my house.
I turned on my pager and carried the phone into the living room. If they really were looking for me they’d keep trying until they got me.
I got some ice and poured myself a pint glass of vodka gimlet and put on the best album of 1985 so far: the much-delayed release of Sam Cooke’s Live At The Harlem Square Club.
I drank half the pint and cranked the volume on ‘Bring It On Home’, which built to the vibe of an old church revival. When I was sufficiently solaced I dialled the station. ‘Duffy,’ I told Linda at the incident desk.
‘Thank God, Inspector! Chief Inspector McArthur has been looking for you.’
‘I’m not supposed to be on tonight. Sergeant McCrabban is duty detective.’
‘Chief Inspector McArthur specifically asked for you. He’s been very insistent. Where have you been?’
‘I was up in Derry, I just got in. I’m shattered. I really need to go to bed, Linda, love.’
‘I’m sorry, Sean, but the Chief Inspector has been pulling his hair out. He’s got a real situation on his hands. He’s asked for you specifically.’
‘Where is he?’
‘Uhm, the, uh, the Eagle’s Nest Inn on the Knockagh Road…’ she said with more than a trace of embarrassment.
‘McArthur is there right now?’
‘That’s what I’ve been led to believe.’
‘And he’s got himself into some kind of trouble?’
‘I’m not, er, privy to the details, Sean.’
‘All right, if he calls again, tell him I’m on my way.’
‘Do you know where it is?’
‘Uh, yes, I’ve been there before… in a professional capacity.’
I scarfed another couple of chips, pulled a leather jacket over my jeans and sweater and went back outside. Bobby and his cronies were playing petanque with scrunched-up beer cans and Mickey Burke was walking his aged toothless lioness on a leash at the other end of the street, something he promised me he would stop doing.
‘Ah, they found you, Duffy!’ Bobby said triumphantly.
I held up a finger to tell Bobby I’d deal with him in a minute.
‘Mickey, what have I told you!’
‘Just getting her some air, Inspector Duffy,’ Mickey said apologetically.
‘Get her back inside! We’ve discussed this!’
‘She’s got no teeth, she harmless and—’
‘Get her inside!’
Mickey hustled the full-grown lioness back indoors.
‘There should be a law against keeping lions in a council house,’ Bobby said. his face now like Brian Clough after he’d found a dead bluebottle in his Monster Munch.
‘There should be,’ I agreed, and looked under the BMW for mercury tilt bombs.
‘There’s no point doing that, Duffy. We’ve been standing here the whole time. No one put a bomb under your car.’
‘How do I know you didn’t put a bomb under my car?’ I replied, and kept checking under the chassis.
‘You’re my pet copper, Duffy, I wouldn’t kill you.’
I ignored him, finished the search and opened the car door.
‘And besides, if I wanted to kill you you’d already be dead, mate,’ Bobby added.
‘Shortly followed by you, pal, I’ve seen to that,’ I told him with a wink.
I drove out of Victoria Estate and along the Greenisland Road to the Eagle’s Nest Inn, which was halfway up Knockagh Mountain.
The B road became a private road that wound its way through light woodland and then a broad piece of manicured parkland before it arrived at a seventeenth-century Scottish baronial house overlooking Belfast Lough. The house was converted in the seventies into first a hotel, then a spa, and was now a high-class brothel. It was all completely illegal, of course, but the owners paid off at a level so elevated that you’d need a Sherpa to get close to them. A criminal investigation out here would suck you into some really heavy shit: Internal Affairs, Special Branch, the local MP, government inquiries…
I parked the Beemer next to two Mercedes Benzes and a Roller.
I was met at the entrance by a bright young man in a three-piece suit with a name tag that said Patrick on it, which was a likely story.
‘Are you Inspector Duffy, by any chance?’ he asked in an English butler accent which also sounded bogus.
‘If you’ll come with me, please,’ he said.
He led me through the building in a manner that can only be described as a kind of fastidious, subdued panic.
I followed him up a wide oak staircase to the second floor. There were pictures of horses on the wall, hunting scenes and the like, all originals or pastiches of Stubbs and John Frederick Herring. Chandeliers illuminated the corridor and light classical music was playing from discreet speakers. It was a chilly, unerotic environment, but they probably thought that was what the well-heeled punters wanted. Hell, maybe it is what they wanted. Maybe the madam had handed out questionnaires.
There were several male bouncer types waiting for us at the top of the stairs. They pointed at an open door and we went inside Room 202, to quite the little diorama.
A half-naked young man was sitting on the floor with blood oozing from a wound on his scalp. He was crying and being attended to by a bald man in a bathrobe and another much younger man in jeans and a sweatshirt. A girl wearing a basque and black stockings was sitting in a chair by a writing desk. An older woman in a harsh red wig was sitting next to her. A glum-looking Chief Inspector McArthur was sitting on the edge of the bed. Behind them all there was an open French window that led to a balcony, an elaborate fountain and a manicured lawn.
Peter McArthur was my new boss, new being the operative word here as he’d been the station commander at Carrickfergus RUC only for about six weeks. On paper he was very much the high flyer: Cambridge University, Hendon Police College, a Chief Inspector at the age of only thirty-one, but in person he was less impressive. Long nosed, weak chinned and a dreamy, soft vagueness to his girlish brown eyes. He was Scottish but the fey New Town Edinburgh type rather than Glasgow roughneck.
‘Thank heavens, Duffy, where in the name of God were you?’
‘Derry. Special Branch op.’
‘I can’t have you gallivanting off to Derry. Can’t you see we’re in big trouble here?’
‘There are plenty of constables at the station.’
‘Uh, loose lips sink ships. This is, uh, a rather delicate matter, don’t you think?’
‘I can’t tell what the matter is yet, sir.’
The man in the sweatshirt got up and looked at me. ‘And who is this?’ he asked in a pleasing American accent.
‘Inspector Sean Duffy. He’s the head of our CID unit. You can trust him.’
The man looked dubious.
I raised my eyebrows at the Chief Inspector. What the hell is going on here, Chief?
McArthur lowered his voice as a stab at some kind of intimacy. ‘Look, Duffy, you’ve been around longer than I have, what are we going to do? I don’t want to pass it up the chain. Not yet. It doesn’t have to become a big issue, does it?’
He was sweating and looking anxious in his sharp brown suit and crimson tie. McArthur was only about three calendar years younger than me, but he avoided the smokes, the sun and the booze so he looked about twenty. And if he was already out of his depth here I’d hate to see the eejit in a real emergency.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. ‘Perhaps you could apprise me of the situation, sir?’
‘Ach, I’ll tell ya, so I will,’ the girl said in a chainsaw West Belfast argot.
‘All right. What happened, love?’ I asked her.
‘The gentleman and I were about to get down to business. And he said I should have some... rocket fuel, he called it. I said no. He said come on and try it, it would make us go all night. I said no. He gets all eggy and starts screaming and yelling and I says right I’m calling security. He goes bonkers and tries to bloody choke me and I pick up the lampshade and clock him with it.’
‘Good for you,’ I replied.
‘And I immediately called Carrickfergus RUC, I’ll have no nonsense like this in my establishment,’ the woman in the red wig said. Obviously the lady of the house. A Mrs Dunwoody if I recalled correctly.
‘Where is this rocket fuel?’ I asked.
Chief Inspector McArthur handed me a large bag of white powder. Enough to power an army. I tasted it. High-quality coke cut with nothing. Probably pharma cocaine manufactured in Germany, worth a bloody fortune. I sealed up the bag and put it in my jacket pocket.
‘Have you weighed the cocaine?’ I asked the Chief Inspector.
Excellent. ‘I’ll do it at the station and enter it into evidence.’
‘Is it cocaine?’
‘Oh yes. Very high-quality gear too. And there’s a lot of it. We could get him on intent to deal if we wanted. Not that we’ll need too. Possession alone of this much is at least six months.’
Chief Inspector McArthur shook his head. ‘I’m not sure you’re seeing the big picture, here, Duffy... Do you recognise who this is?’
‘He’s an actor. Famous. American.’
I looked at the half-naked guy. He seemed vaguely familiar. Strong jawed, bright eyed. I might have seen him in something. Now his tears took on another dimension. Fake. The Chief Inspector gave me the do-you-catch-my-drift nod. Aye, I do. Celebrity was the coin of the realm even in far-flung places like Northern Ireland. We wouldn’t be prosecuting this character. We won’t be bringing the wrath of the higher-ups and the long beaks of the media into our little parish. But on the other hand Mrs Dunwoody, or her employer, was clearly protected, and she wanted justice…
‘Actor? Were you in The Swarm?’ Mrs Dunwoody asked.
‘No,’ he said.
‘Are you sure? You look awful familiar.’
‘I wasn’t in The Swarm!’
‘What is your name?’ I asked the actor.
‘David Dwyer,’ he said. And yeah, I recognised it. He’d been in the tabs for assaulting a photographer and beating up an ex-wife, but in Tinsel Town that counted for nothing next to his million-dollar acting chops.
‘What are you doing in Ireland, Mr Dwyer?’
‘I was researching a movie,’ he said, slurring his words slightly. But I could see that he wasn’t that drunk. I wondered for a moment whether he ever stopped performing. When he was alone in his room, perhaps, with no audience but himself.
‘Well, Mr Dwyer, I suppose you realise that you’re going to be charged with possession of cocaine and with common assault.’
‘I never saw those drugs in my life!’
‘Now, now, Mr Dwyer, we know that’s not true, don’t we?’ I told him, the policeman’s we throwing me fully into my character.
‘And what about that bitch? She attacked me first!’ he squealed, looking at me and then the Chief Inspector in a relentless shot/counter-shot scheme.
‘She attacked you and someone planted that cocaine, is that your tragic tale, sir? It’s a good job my sergeant isn’t here, he’s a weeper, that one would have him bawling his eyes out.’
‘It’s true!’ he insisted.
‘The young lady was acting in self-defence, sir, and take it from me any Irish jury you care to find is going to see it that way.’
The bald man in the bathrobe got to his feet and addressed the Chief Inspector. ‘I’m done here, OK? No internals, the bleeding’s stopped and he’ll need a couple of stitches. Be right as rain in the morning.’
‘Thank you, Doctor…?’ McArthur asked.
‘I’d rather my name didn’t come into this, if you don’t mind.’
‘You probably should get back to your friend, Doctor. They charge by the hour,’ I said.
‘No! This one’s on the house, be sure and tell Samantha,’ the madam insisted.
The doctor smiled meekly and exited the scene…
‘I don’t know what kind of an operation you guys are running here, but you do not want to piss me off, believe me. I could buy and sell you people ten times over!’ Dwyer snarled, getting to his feet. He was quite short but there was a tremendous physicality to him. I didn’t know whether he’d ever done stage work, but if he had he must have commanded the room. He poked a finger into my jacket. ‘When Ireland is finally free you fuckers will be first up against the wall, you know that, don’t you?’
I took the finger and bent it backwards. He winced and his knees buckled. I forced him back down on to the ground more aggressively than I needed to just to make transparent the true power dynamic in the room.
The Chief Inspector looked at me with alarm. I shook my head so that he didn’t open that gob of his. ‘You’re quite the dangerous hombre, Mr Dwyer, but me and the Chief Inspector are your only friends here. We’re the only obstacles between you and several years in a Northern Irish jail,’ I explained before letting his finger go. He gasped and fell into the foetal position.
The man in the sweatshirt helped Dwyer to a more comfortable sitting posture and then stood and smiled apologetically.
‘I’m Thomas, Mr Dwyer’s assistant, and I can assure you we didn’t mean to cause any offence. Please tell us what we should do to facilitate this inquiry and help resolve this situation as quickly and as amicably as possible,’ he said.
I looked at the Chief Inspector, who shrugged. The ball was in my court.
I lit a Marlboro.
‘The young lady has received quite a shock and will no doubt want to take a vacation to get over her distress. I would say that a personal cheque to her for, say, two thousand—’
‘Five thousand!’ she interrupted.
‘Five thousand pounds will cover her expenses. And the lady of the house will have to replace the damaged—’
‘Antique,’ she said.
‘Antique lamp and I expect that two thousand pounds would cover the cost of that?’
Mrs Dunwoody nodded. Two grand would be quite sufficient.
‘We will expect you to leave the jurisdiction immediately and we must stress that it is in your best interests that you do not return.’
Thomas was smiling deferentially, pleased that his boss had got off so lightly. ‘Thank you very much, Officers, Mr Dwyer is very appreciative of all your trouble,’ he said.
‘I want him to thank us for our trouble. And I want him to apologise to the young lady for scaring her.’
‘Like hell I will!’ Dwyer muttered.
I pulled the little shit to his feet by the scruff of the neck.
‘You’ll do it, sunshine! The last wee bastard that gave me your attitude pisses blood through a catheter to this very day. Do you get me?’
‘I get you. I get you. Relax, buddy. I get you.’
Thomas wrote cheques.
The lady of the house and the girl thanked me.
The Chief Inspector walked me back to the lobby and wondered whether perhaps I went a bit overboard with the celeb. I ignored him. He asked me if the thing with the catheter was true. I said it wasn’t. He seemed relieved so I didn’t tell him that in fact the last guy who gave me attitude like that I ended up shooting and leaving for dead in a village north of Brighton, just before I got blown up with half the Tory Cabinet in the bombing of the Grand Hotel…
‘Any time you’re feeling lonely and you want a friend, you know where to come. It’ll be on the house. We’ve got girls to suit every taste,’ Mrs Dunwoody said.
‘That’s OK, I—’
‘Or maybe in your case, Inspector, you’d prefer boys, young men I mean, attractive young men.’
I looked her in the eye. How did she know about that weird out-of-character one-time experience all those years ago? How did madams always know your innermost secrets?
‘Uhh, no thanks,’ I said.
She put her arm in mine and walked me outside.
‘All sorts in here,’ she mused.
‘Had one gentleman last week wanted Veronica to throw darts at his bare arse.’
‘But I wouldn’t let her. She’s left handed. They’d go all over the place, wouldn’t they? Into me nice pictures.’
I opened the BMW’s door and got inside.
‘Have you heard this one, Inspector? A man goes to a taxi driver in North Belfast and he says “Ladas Drive” and the taxi driver says “No way! You’ll have to sit in the back like everybody else.”’
I’d heard it before but I laughed dutifully.
Mrs Dunwoody smiled. ‘Come back if you’re lonely, even if you just want to chat, we’ve got some very good listeners,’ she insisted.
I nodded, closed the door and drove home along the water into Carrickfergus.
The big Norman castle spoke of English power as it had been doing very effectively for the last eight hundred years. I angled the Beemer into the castle car park. No prying eyes. A coal boat from Latvia at one pier and the pilot boat tied up on the other. I took out an evidence bag, removed the bag of pharma coke from my pocket and poured out about half of it, sealed it and put it in the glove compartment.
I drove the half-mile from the castle to the police station.
Empty but for Sergeant Dalglish, who was huddled by the electric fire and reading a book.
‘Who’s there?’ he asked.
‘Well it’s not the Ghost of Christmas Future if that’s what you’re worried about.’
‘Ah, Duffy. The Chief Inspector was looking for you.’
‘He found me.’
‘Wee bit lonely here, Duffy, do you want stay and chat? I’m working my way through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, it’s fascinating stuff. Pull up a chair.’
‘Uh, no thanks, pal, I think I’d rather fucking shoot myself. I’m away. And do please remember that DS McCrabban is duty detective tonight, not me, OK?’
‘After I type this report up, I don’t expect to be bothered again until tomorrow.’
‘Relax, Duffy, no one’ll bother you. Go on home and get your beauty sleep, looks like you need it.’
I typed up a quick incident report for the Chief Inspector to sign. Under ‘Officer Action’ I wrote that Mr Dwyer had been let off with a caution. I went to the evidence room, weighed the coke, marked 3.1 ounces on the bag and put it in the night locker.
Back outside. Beemer. Ninety mph on the two-minute journey to Coronation Road. Parked the car, grabbed my half of the coke, got out. Timex said 3.55 a.m. Light drizzle. No cars. No pedestrians.
Inside 113 Coronation Road. I grabbed a torch, went out to the shed and hid the coke in a nail box next to a slab of engine grease so ancient and rancid that even the best sniffer dogs wouldn’t go near it.
Inside again. I undressed quickly in the hall and walked naked up the stairs.
I lit the paraffin heater. Light off.
I tossed and turned for an hour and finally gave up.
Downstairs again. Vodka gimlet. Sam Cooke on the stereo. Sam The Man Cooke whose raw masculine power was so intense that he seemed to bring to a climax half the audience during the medley of ‘It’s All Right/For Sentimental Reasons’.
When the record was done I let the silence wash over me. I put the chilled pint glass against my forehead. I lay there on the sofa in the pallid starlight, in that light of other days…
And the house was quiet.
And the street was quiet.
And my eyelids were heavy.
And the rain was falling.
And the phone was ringing.
Chapter 3 Murder Was The Case That They Gave Me
I picked up the phone. ‘This better be good.’
‘Sean, is that you?’ Detective Sergeant McCrabban asked.
‘Anyone else would have told you to fuck off by now. Course it’s me. Do you know what time it is, Crabbie?’
‘Uhm, about six o’clock?’
‘Aye, six o’clock, and I haven’t even been to bed yet.’
‘I’m really sorry, Sean, but we’ve got a situation.’
‘What sort of situation?’
‘It’s a double murder in Whitehead.’
‘Ecoutez, my esteemed colleague. Isn’t that why they promoted you from humble flatfoot to detective sergeant? So that you could handle double murders in Whitehead without involving me on my so-called night off.’
‘The murder isn’t the problem, Sean.’
‘OK, I’ll play along, what is the problem?’
‘It’s a jurisdictional dispute.’
‘That’s a new one. Go on.’
‘Larne RUC are saying that this is their case because the road the house is on is technically in their patch. But the house itself is over the line in Carrick RUC’s turf. It’s our case, Sean.’
‘Jesus, Crabbie, if they want it so badly let them have it!’
‘Husband and wife shot in the head, the husband is a bloke called Ray Kelly, he’s got a lot of money.’
I sighed. ‘So you don’t want Larne to have it because it’s a dead rich guy?’
‘Well, Sean, first of all, it is our case, Larne have no right to be here at all. Secondly it’s an interesting one: a dead millionaire and his wife in a whopping big mansion in Whitehead, you know?’
‘And what has all this got to do with me?’
‘I need you, Sean, I’m a detective sergeant, you’re an inspector, I can’t hold Larne RUC off by myself. I’ll owe you one, mate.’
I groaned into the receiver. ‘All right, Crabbie, I’ll come down, I wasn’t sleeping anyway.’
‘You might want to wear something respectable. There’s a full-of-himself Chief Inspector Mulvenna from Larne RUC here.’
‘What’s the address?’
‘64 New Island Road, Whitehead, just beyond the lighthouse. Do you want me to send a constable for you?’
‘I’ll find it.’
‘May I ask how your trip to Derry went last night?’
‘As fine an example of RUC-Garda-Interpol cooperation as I’ve ever seen.’
‘Oh dear. That bad?’
‘That bad. See you in fifteen, Crabbie. Hold the fort, don’t let those Larne cultchies tramp their dirty boots all over our crime scene.’
Crabbie hung up and I put the kettle on and pushed the preselect on the stereo for Radio 1. I rummaged in the cupboard above the sink for the RUC map of East Antrim, found it and unfolded it on the kitchen table. The kettle clicked off and I made myself a cup of tea. I grabbed a couple of McVities chocolate digestives and examined the map.
I noticed that the boundary line between Carrick RUC and Larne RUC districts skirted through Whitehead town itself but 64 New Island Road, on the Blackhead cliff, was just over the line in our manor. I might have to do some yelling and screaming but Crabbie was right; for better or worse, if we wanted it, this was our case.
Radio 1 began playing ‘Ever Fallen In Love With Someone’ by the Buzzcocks. I poured a dash of Lagavulin into the tea and lit a Marlboro.
Tea, ciggies, McVities chocolate digestives, Lagavulin: the breakfast of bloody champions.
‘All right, Duffy, time to get serious,’ a croaky voice that sounded a bit like mine said aloud. I found a sweater and a pair of jeans that didn’t look too minging. I laced up my Doc Martens, grabbed my revolver and a black raincoat and went out on to Coronation Road.
I looked under the BMW for bombs and got inside.
I turned on Radio 1 and The Cure’s ‘Close To Me’ began its jaunty but cunningly irritating melody. I drove up Coronation Road, turned right on Victoria Road and drove to the bottom of the hill where the Antrim Plateau met the sea. There was no traffic at this hour and I paused at the junction; to my right Carrickfergus Castle was lit up by spotlights and behind the castle Belfast was a wet film of light and shade under the Black Mountain.
I turned left and as there were no other cars on the road I let the Beemer’s big M30 straight-six engine stretch itself.
The speedometer was registering a ton and change as I zoomed past the abandoned factories in Kilroot and before Robert Smith had even got to ‘Wish I’d stayed asleep today’, we were deep in the Irish countryside.
I made it to Whitehead in less than four minutes, coming suddenly on that great cliff bend in the A2 known as the Bla Hole, where for a dazzling second you could see all of the North Channel and a good chunk of Western Scotland.
The road curved to the left and on the passenger’s side there were fields filled with sheep and on my side a hint of sun now in the eastern horizon…
‘Close To Me’ ended and because no one was listening at this hour anyway the DJ put on the twelve-inch of ‘Blue Monday’, which would comfortably take me all the way to my destination.
I turned right on Cable Road.
Whitehead, County Antrim.
Imagine Vernazza in the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. No, wait, don’t imagine that. It’s nothing like that, this is Northern Ireland we’re talking about here. OK, but maybe imagine it a little. A town under the cliff, a town with brightly painted houses on the seashore.
I took out the map and found New Island Road.
The crime scene was not difficult to locate.
Sergeant McCrabban had brought down two Land Rovers from Carrick RUC, Larne RUC had shown up with a couple of Land Rovers of their own, and there were two Land Rovers from the forensic unit in Belfast. Add to that a couple of cars from local media, a dozen lookie-loos from surrounding streets and the outside broadcast van from BBC Radio Ulster.
The house itself was a kind of folly, a scaled-down copy of Dunluce Castle, which famously had fallen into the sea a few miles up the coast. There was a central ‘keep’ in thick grey stone, with turrets and flying buttresses, high arched windows and a flat walled roof. There were several outbuildings and a guest cottage and all around the property a thick nine-foot-high stone wall.
The hundred-foot cliff protected the property to the east, south and north, so if an intruder was going to get in he’d have to come over the wall to the west or through massive iron front gates.
I parked the BMW behind the BBC radio car and walked up to those huge wrought-iron gates where Crabbie was waiting for me.
‘Morning, Sergeant McCrabban,’ I said cheerfully.
‘Jesus, this is some pile,’ I said. ‘These people must indeed be loaded.’
‘You can see why Larne RUC want it, can’t you? It’s the sort of case that newspapers like, the sort of case that builds careers.’
‘Or sinks them,’ I said with a significant drop in cadence.
‘Aye, but most of us don’t have your luck, Sean,’ Crabbie pointed out.
‘What did you say this guy did? He was a bookie?’
‘He runs a chain of bookies.’
‘Who reported the killing?’
‘Mrs McCawly, the housekeeper.’
‘How did she get in?’
‘She has a code for the front gate.’
‘When did she get here?’
‘Five on the dot.’
‘Bit early for a cleaner, no?’
‘She worked from five until eight every day. Mrs Kelly liked to have the place spick and span first thing in the morning.’
‘Doesn’t the Hoover wake them up?’
‘Well, not today it doesn’t.’
‘So Mrs McCawly gets here at five and finds Mr and Mrs Kelly shot dead?’
‘Were these gates open when she got here?’
‘How did the killer get in? You’d need a siege tower to get over that wall.’
‘Or a ladder.’
‘Yeah, true, but what self-respecting hitman drives around with a ten-foot ladder?’
‘A well-prepared one?’ Crabbie said with Jeevesian sangfroid.
‘So you’re thinking an outside job?’
‘No, quite the opposite in fact.’
Crabbie was getting on my nerves. ‘Let’s see this crime scene, eh?’
He led me through the gates, along a gravel drive, into a wood-panelled entrance hall and finally into a large open-plan living room that overlooked the North Channel. The place was full of coppers and other hangers-on, some of whom turned to look at me the moment I stepped into the room. I ignored them.
The sun was up now and Scotland was so close that you could see chimney smoke from the villages on the other side of the sea. The living room itself was hung with tasteful, presumably original, artwork. Furniture: big stylish sofas, comfy chairs, a nice mahogany dining-room table on to which a whole bunch of police forensic equipment had been placed. Floor: hardwood with massive, expensive-looking Persian rugs on top. The TV was on but at this time of the day the only thing showing was the BBC test card: the little girl and the creepy clown playing noughts and crosses forever in a nursery hell.
Of course the focal point of the mise-en-crime were the two bodies sitting facing one another on two armchairs either side of the TV set.
The man was wearing tracksuit bottoms and a Ralph Lauren lime-green polo shirt. He was in his fifties. Chubby. Grey curly hair, a goatee, a signet ring and a wedding ring. The bullet had make a tiny impression on his left temple and a presumably larger exit wound on his right temple. His mouth was half open. He was facing the television, not the assassin. The killer had shot him first.
His wife had been shot next. Twice. Once in the heart. Once in the forehead. She was a deeply tanned, dark-haired, trim woman in a white bathrobe over blue pyjamas. She was about forty-five years old. You wouldn’t say attractive but perhaps once she had been. She had attempted to get out of the chair after her husband had been shot but the killer had immediately plugged her in the chest to gentle her condition and before she could get going with the screaming, he had crossed the room, got real close and single-tapped her in the forehead, blowing the top fifth of her head off. He’d been so efficient that there wasn’t even a defensive wound on either one of her hands. (Normally when you know your number’s up, instinct brings your hands up to cover your head but this guy had been quick.)
‘What’s your take, Crabbie?’
‘The killer shot him first and her a few moments later.’
‘Did you notice that she has no defensive wounds?’
‘Either there were two shooters or the guy was fast.’
‘I’d bet one shooter but forensics will tell us for sure.’
I examined the bodies. Nasty exit wounds. Death would have been instantaneous. The undertaker would have a real job with both of them if the family wanted to go open casket.
‘Kids, relatives?’ I asked McCrabban.
‘One son, Michael, who is missing.’
‘His car’s gone from the garage,’ McCrabban said significantly.
‘It’s normally in the garage?’
‘Yes it is.’
‘How old is this kid?’
‘Quite the difficult age for a young man.’
‘And he was living here with his mum and dad?’
‘He was living here and now he’s vanished in his car?’
‘His Mercedes Benz.’
‘Everything quiet and peaceful chez the Kellys?’
‘Mrs McCawly didn’t think so.’
‘Did she not?’
‘No she didn’t. There were arguments. Especially arguments between father and son.’
‘Ah, now you’re talking.’
‘Heated arguments, she says.’
‘Pushing and shoving?’
‘No, but yelling matches.’
‘The boy’s future. The boy’s friends. Late nights, the usual thing.’
‘What does this kid do for a living?’
I nodded. ‘OK, so that’s one track. But leaving that to one side for the moment, what about signs of forced entry?’
‘On an initial inspection, none.’
‘Firearms in the house?’
‘Shotgun for rabbits, nine-millimetre handgun for personal protection.’
‘Whose personal protection?’
‘On the licence Mr Kelly said that he feared that he would be subject to kidnap because of his wealth.’
‘Where is this nine-millimetre now?’
‘It’s not in the drawer where Mrs McCawly says he kept it.’
‘Do you think these victims were shot by a nine-millimetre?’
‘Again forensics will tell us for sure, but if you ask me the wounds are consistent with a pistol of that calibre.’
‘Yeah. Almost certainly.’
‘But you’re not happy?’ he said, reading my expression accurately.
I shook my head. ‘I don’t know, Crabbie, I can see where you’re pointing me, but this thing has a professional killing vibe about it, don’t you think?’
‘It’s certainly very clean and those head shots are impressive.’
‘But you still like the son for it, do you?’
‘I’m not jumping to any conclusions just yet, Sean.’
‘You have alerted our stout comrades in Traffic Branch about this kid and his car?’
‘Of course. Would you like to talk to Mrs McCawly?’
Before I could answer that a big vacant-eyed arsehole with a black tache got in my face. ‘Are you Duffy?’ he asked, looking at me with slow-boiling fury.
‘That’s what they call me. Sometimes The Space Cowboy or the Pompatus of Love,’ I said, winking and offering him my hand. He let the hand dangle.
‘I’m CI Kennedy, Larne RUC. Listen to me, Duffy, your fucking sergeant won’t let my men get started because he says this is your case. This isn’t your case. The cleaner, Mrs McCawly, called Larne RUC. We were the first responders, and if you look at the map you’ll see that this is…’
I let him drift out. His tache, his big red face, his trousers too short for his ankles and his ankles swollen by too-tight shoes or the early signs of congestive heart failure. Chief Inspector Kennedy was that most common and dangerous thing, the old man in a hurry. Passed over for promotion and keen to retire with a rank and commensurate pension that would allow him to pay his golf club dues and get his missus her winter bronzing holidays in Tenerife.
The Cure’s ‘Close To Me’ started replaying in my head. It would really be a much better song if they cut the saxophone. Most pop songs would be better without the saxophone. Bruce Springsteen’s works the prima facie case for this and perhaps Live At The Harlem Square Club a rare counter-example.
Kennedy had ceased his initial rant. He was staring at me in a way that could get a civilian sectioned under the Mental Health Act. In fact the whole room had fixed their peepers on me. Half a dozen bleary-eyed coppers. A photographer. Men in boiler suits from the new forensic unit in Belfast waiting to get started. Classic zugzwang situation. As long as I stood here nobody would do anything and everything would be fine, but any move I made was going to piss someone off. If I let Kennedy have the case, Crabbie would resent me for months and Kennedy looked like he’d throw an atomic eggy if I tried to poach this juicy murder from under him.
‘Wait one second, please,’ I said to Kennedy.
I took McCrabban out on to the living-room balcony which overlooked the Gobbins cliffs and the bottle-green Irish Sea beyond.
I clapped him on the shoulder, partly just to see the uptight eejit shudder at the touch of a fellow human.
‘Let’s let them have it, eh, mate? That Larne copper’s clearly demented. If we insist on the strict letter of the law he’ll likely pop a blood vessel in his brain and add to the carnage in there,’ I said.
Crabbie thought about this and then shook his head. ‘No, Sean. It’s not fair. It’s not their case. They’ve got no right to be here. It’s a question of justice.’
‘You know there’s no such thing as justice.’
I shrugged and looked the big Calvinist ganch in the eye. He was unflinching.
‘You feel strongly about this?’ I asked.
‘I do. And besides, they’ve been very high handed to our men. They want taking down a peg or two.’
I sighed and the sigh became a yawn. I was exhausted. Not just from the long night but from ten years of this shit.
Ten years with no end in sight.
‘You’ll have to be lead, OK? You’re the duty detective.’
McCrabban grinned at me. I was saying all the right things today.
‘I can pick your brain on it, though?’ he asked.
‘Of course. But not now and I’m not interviewing this Mrs McCawly woman or anyone else for that matter. If you want the case, fine, but I’m going home to my bed.’
McCrabban nodded. ‘Fair enough,’ he said.
We walked back to Chief Inspector Kennedy.
‘Well?’ he said. ‘Can we finally get fucking going?’
‘If by going, you mean get going back to that ruinous cesspit of incompetence and inadequacy known as Larne RUC, then yes, you can get going, Kennedy, and if you want I’ll come down and give you boys a seminar on how to read a fucking map because clearly you fucking morons didn’t twig that this property is a good two hundred yards on our side of the jurisdiction line.’
‘If by going, you mean get going back to that ruinous cesspit of incompetence and inadequacy known as Larne RUC, then yes, you can get going, Kennedy, and if you want I’ll come down and give you boys a seminar on how to read a fucking map because clearly you fucking morons didn’t twig that this property is a good two hundred yards on our side of the jurisdiction line.’
Kennedy’s blimpish purple face began to swell up like Violet Beauregarde’s.
‘I’ve got something to say you to, Inspector…’ he sputtered.
‘Well, go ahead and say it, then, you big dozy cunt,’ I told him.
He’s going to explode, everyone in the room was thinking…
And yes, he did explode, but I’ll spare you the details because the scene itself was not exactly Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw swapping barbs at the Albemarle Club - unless Oscar was a lot more sweary than history has led us to believe. Kennedy started yelling. One of his underlings started yelling. And when they had exhausted their rather limited capacity for invective Kennedy started in with the threats: ‘I play golf with the Assistant Chief Constable!’ ‘I can get you posted to the border,’ etc.
Me and the Crabman said little, which only infuriated them more, and rather than observe the veins throbbing in Kennedy’s forehead I watched the big red and white car ferry chug out from Larne Harbour in the direction of Stranraer across the Irish Sea. Kennedy and his sidekick burned themselves out, like a failing double act at the Glasgow Empire, like colonels spluttering over their toast at the latest outrage in the Daily Mail…
When the rant was done they stormed out.
It was a bad example for the younger officers.
‘That’s a bad example for the younger officers,’ I said to Crabbie.
‘Yes,’ he agreed.
We set the photographer to work and turned the Belfast forensics officers loose on the crime scene.
‘And while we’re on the subject, where is the new blood?’ I asked McCrabban.
‘Oh, they’d just get in the way, wouldn’t they? I’ll brief them later.’
‘You wake me up and I’m not even on duty but you let the new detectives lie in bed?’
‘They’re kids, Sean, they need their sleep.’
‘I need my sleep. If I had any feelings left they would likely be resentful ones. And that resentment would be directed at you and them. But fortunately with age I have acquired wisdom and patience.’
We had two new officers, one of them a slip of a girl, the other a likely lad, but neither of them an adequate replacement for our late lamented colleague Matty McBride, who’d been killed last year in a small, random mortar attack on our police station. There would never be closure over Matty’s death because his killer had never been caught and, in fact, never would be caught.
‘Wisdom and patience,’ I reiterated. ‘Like the prophet Elijah. He’s the one that made the bears eat the kids who were laughing at him, right?’
‘I believe that was the prophet Elisha, Sean.’
‘You gotta give me points for only missing it by a letter.’
‘Bloody Larne RUC. They couldn’t organise a bum rape in a barracks,’ one of the forensics officers muttered as he got to work.
‘That’s not what I heard,’ McCrabban said in a very rare moment of levity.
I gave him the once-over. There wasn’t even a smirk at the edge of his long, dour, ashy Presbyterian face.
‘You’re in fine fettle today, aren’t you?’ I said.
He nodded, took me to one side, lowered his voice even lower than the normal Ballymena burr. ‘Just between us, Sean, and I don’t want to tempt fate or anything, but, God willing, it looks like the clan McCrabban might be increasing. Only two months along. You’re supposed to wait until three, but, well I know I could tell you.’
‘Well done, mate!’
Crabbie put a finger in his shirt collar and looked at his Marks and Spencer shoes. He had something more to say, the big eejit. ‘Sean, I’ve talked it over with Helen and you wouldn’t… you wouldn’t…’ he muttered and couldn’t finish the sentence.
‘You wouldn’t be interested in becoming the bairn’s godfather at all, would you?’
I was touched. I was positively moved. A fierce Free Presbyterian farm boy like McCrabban asking me, a Fenian left-footer, to be the godfather of his baby? Tears. No joke. Tears welling up.
‘I’m thrilled, mate. Really. Of course I’ll do it. It would be an honour.’
There was no chance of a hug from the big ganch but we shook hands and I patted him on the back.
‘What do the twins think?’
‘John’s enthusiastic. Thomas is furious.’
‘He’ll come round.’
We chewed the fat some more, but Crabbie could see that I was fading.
‘I’ll walk you back to your car,’ he said.
I nodded, coughed, yawned again.
‘So what do you want me to do regarding the case?’ he asked when we made it to the Beemer.
‘It’s your case, mate.’
‘What would you do if you were me?’
‘You know what to do. Get the dirt from Mrs McCawly on family arguments, disharmony, that kind of thing. The boy’s twenty-two and he’s still living at home? Why? Full forensics on the victims, look for signs of intruders, canvass the neighbours, financial specs on Mr Kelly’s company, any recent threats, did he have any enemies, etc. All the standard stuff.’
‘I’d also alert border security and make sure the kid doesn’t leave the country. Find who his friends are and what he does with himself. Tracking him down has to be priority one.’
‘Already took care of that. Airport watch and watch at the ferry terminals in Larne and Belfast.’
I yawned. ‘Good. Good. You know the ropes, mate. And don’t forget a preliminary report to our new boss, Chief Inspector McArthur. Typed. In a binder. Let’s dazzle him with the efficiency of our department, eh?’
A final handshake and I got in the Beemer, reversed it out of its spot and tried hard not to kill a reporter who was standing in the middle of the road attempting to intimidate me into an interview.
‘BBC Radio… what can you tell us about the incident?’ he asked.
‘No comment,’ I told him. ‘I am not the investigating officer. If you want a quote for the press you’ll have to wait for Sergeant McCrabban.’
‘Is it worth staying for? Can you at least tell me that?’
‘I imagine that you and your comrades in the fourth estate are going to be spilling some ink over this one, yes,’ I said, and drove home along the Raw Brae Road.
It was time for the Radio 1 Breakfast Show now. Mike Read read Mystic Meg’s astrology predictions from the Sun and introduced a new Duran Duran single with his own prophetic avowal that ‘it would be a sure-fire hit from the Beatles of the 80s’. I turned it off after the tenth bar.
When I got back to Coronation Road I was barely thinking about the Kelly murders. It was McCrabban’s case, not mine, and with the locked house gates and no sign of forced entry and the 9mm wounds and the troubled kid fleeing the scene it seemed straightforward. I didn’t foresee problems and maybe even Mystic Meg couldn’t have predicted the epic shitstorm that was heading our way across the cold grey waters of the Irish Sea.
Chapter 4 The New Blood
I slept for a solid six on the living-room sofa and woke to the sound of knocking. Mrs Campbell from next door was standing on the porch with a Black Forest gateau she’d made, presumably as a thank-you for getting her off a speeding ticket.
I opened the door and said hello. She was wearing a little black PVC miniskirt and a white blouse with the top two buttons undone. Her red hair had been cut short and spiked in a style that was reminiscent of mid-period Sheena Easton. Despite that she looked fantastic. She was talking about the cake, about how no one in her house liked cherries, but she knew that I had ‘more adventurous tastes’.
You don’t know the half of it, sister.
I thanked her and gave her a little kiss on the cheek which she would pass off as some Catholic thing rather than a perv move.
I made a cup of tea and had a slice of the Black Forest. I remembered about the pharma coke, went outside and nailed a line so pure it was like getting yelled at by God. Yorkshire tea, Mrs Campbell’s Black Forest, Bayer cocaine – the lunch of champions.
The BBC Afternoon News: a story that I tuned out at the time but in retrospect should maybe have paid more attention to:
‘…A spokesman for Shorts could not confirm whether the missile systems had been lost as part of a shipment overseas or whether they had been stolen from the factory itself pre-shipment: “At this stage we just don’t know how many missiles, if any, have gone missing. We are conducting an internal inquiry the results of which will be made known to the police and the DPP.” And that concludes the news. Now Sam with the weather…’
I went outside, looked under the Beemer for bombs and drove along Coronation Road, navigating the ragamuffin children playing 123 Kick A Tin and football. I turned right on Victoria Road, right on the Marine Highway and drove down to the station. There were columns of black smoke coming from several locations in Belfast that could mean anything. I parked the car in the marked ‘DI Duffy’ and went inside the barracks.
The talk was of last night’s fiasco with the gunrunners. Apparently it had made the front page of all the local papers. One of the Americans was dead, the rest were wounded and no less than eight policemen had contrived to get themselves injured. The RUC were presenting it as a triumph. The Northern Ireland Secretary had been flown to the scene and posed for photographs against the beached ship.
‘And Prince Potemkin smiles in his far-off grave,’ I muttered to myself.
‘I heard you were there, Inspector?’ Constable Iain Sinclair asked me.
‘Me, there? Nah, I was supposed to go, but I couldn’t be bothered in the end. I’m sure you all know more about it than I do,’ I told him, to kill that and any other potentially tedious Q&As about the debacle.
CID had recently been moved back to the window offices overlooking the lough and that’s where I found Sergeant McCrabban setting up an incident room and schooling our two new DCs in proper protocol.
I hadn’t really paid close attention to the new officers yet. Both of them were young and I’d been somewhat neglectful of my responsibilities by having Crabbie break them into the ways of the station. The female officer, Helen Fletcher, was, perhaps, the slightly more interesting of the two. This was only her second posting after an obligatory tour on the border. She was a brunette, reasonably pretty, with green eyes and very pale skin. Her personnel file said she was twenty-two, but she looked younger. She hadn’t gone to college, but had done OK in her A-levels before joining the cops. She didn’t smoke or drink but McCrabban told me that this was for ‘health reasons’ rather than some kind of religious thing – which, of course, was much weirder: if you were that worried about your health why would you join the RUC? On her first day at the office I witnessed her get completely stumped by the coffee machine, which didn’t herald brilliance, but on the other hand WPC Strange told me that Fletcher’s hair was always done up in a fiendishly complicated plait that she said implied hidden skills on the part of the plaitee. The male detective constable was a handsome, blond-haired kid, with an easy charm, good humour and obvious intelligence. Four As in his A-levels: Maths, History, French and Further Maths (whatever that was). His name was Alexander Lawson and he really was a kid, with pimples and everything. Everyone else in the station seemed to like him already but I couldn’t help feel a little bit irritated by his slickness and I could see that Crabbie felt the same. Lawson had gone to some posh Belfast school and joined the cops straight after. He hadn’t said three sentences to me since he had arrived on the same day as our new chief inspector but we could sense that we were not destined to become fast friends. Both new arrivals were Protestants, of course, and with the transfer of Constable O’Reilly to Ballycastle RUC I was again the only Catholic police officer in the building. I didn’t mind. Everyone knew better than to fuck with me. I was the second-highest-ranking copper in the place and my boss, Chief Inspector McArthur, now owed me a favour.
I sat down at the conference table and lit a smoke while Crabbie went on with his spiel: ‘…the victims, Mr and Mrs Kelly, have been shot at close range with a nine-millimetre semi-automatic pistol. Both from the same gun. The cleaning lady, Mrs McCawly, has observed a nine-millimetre semi-automatic in the desk drawer next to Mr Kelly’s bed. This gun is now missing. Also missing is Michael Kelly, Mr and Mrs Kelly’s son. The boy is twenty-two years old and has been living at home now for the last year after dropping out of Oxford University. Mrs McCawly has been witness to several arguments between father and son. The nature of these arguments seems to be over Michael’s failures to take responsibility for his future, as well as more general complaints from Mr Kelly about Michael’s demeanour, friends and attitude. On several occasions these arguments have, quote, “almost come to blows”, unquote, with Mrs Kelly intervening between the two of them.’
Constable Lawson was writing furiously in his notebook and, copying his example, Fletcher was doing the same thing, but with less obvious enthusiasm.
‘There were no signs of a forced entry at the Kelly home and Michael Kelly has been missing from the house since the incident. We have, of course, alerted: traffic, customs, border patrol and the army,’ Crabbie continued.
He passed around photocopies of what turned out to be Michael Kelly’s RUC file. ‘Teenage convictions for joyriding, and embezzlement,’ Crabbie said.
The joyriding wasn’t terribly interesting but the embezzlement was a sophisticated little scheme to steal money from his school ski trip fund, only rumbled because Michael Kelly’s co-conspirator had blabbed. Charges dropped, of course, after Mr Kelly had contributed money for the school’s new gym…
Constable Lawson, adorably, put his hand up in the air.
‘Yes?’ Crabbie asked him.
‘How many bullets did the killer or killers fire?’
‘According to a preliminary forensic report three nine-millimetre rounds. All now recovered and entered into evidence. We can’t, of course, tell if it was Mr Kelly’s gun because we haven’t yet recovered the weapon. On an initial examination we think that the father was shot first, followed seconds later by the mother.’
‘Why do you think that?’ Lawson asked.
Crabbie passed over the crime scene photographs. ‘Take a look, he’s still watching the TV. Hasn’t moved a muscle. She has partially turned to look at the shooter.’
Now Constable Fletcher put her hand in the air.
‘Yes?’ Crabbie asked.
‘So, it looks like Michael Kelly did it?’ she asked uncertainly.
‘We can’t make that assumption at this stage.’
‘But if there’s no forced entry, it’s his father’s gun and he’s gone missing…’ Constable Fletcher continued.
‘Yes, Michael Kelly would seem to be the obvious suspect. We’ll need to find out if he has a girlfriend or other close friends that he may be hiding with. Guest houses and hotels have also been alerted.’
‘How long a head start would he have if he did the killing?’ Lawson asked.
‘Patho estimates time of death at just before midnight, so he could have five hours on us before the alerts went out.’
‘Plenty of time to get a ferry over to Scotland,’ I said.
‘Why not just go to the airport?’ Fletcher asked.
‘For a flight you need ID, to cross the border into the Irish Republic you need ID,’ Crabbie explained. ‘But to get the ferry to Scotland you just pay your money and hop on.’
Fletcher still didn’t quite grasp it. ‘But he still could have flown somewhere. No one knew to stop him until this morning.’
‘They keep records on computer. We’ve told them his name. If he’d crossed the border or taken a flight we would know about it by now,’ Lawson explained.
‘I get it. So he either took the ferry or he’s still in Northern Ireland,’ she said.
‘Exactly. There were four ferries he could have taken last night before the alarm went out. A one a.m. to Stranraer, a two thirty a.m. to Cairnryan, a four a.m. to Stranraer and a five thirty a.m. to Cairnryan.’
‘So he could be anywhere in the middle of Scotland by now,’ Fletcher said.
‘He could be anywhere in the middle of Britain,’ Crabbie said. ‘But the alert’s gone out for him and his car. So maybe we’ll get lucky.’
‘Lawson, you look troubled,’ I said.
‘I don’t know… it, er, doesn’t feel quite right,’ Lawson said.
‘What doesn’t feel right?’ I asked.
Lawson’s cheeks reddened. ‘Well, if you’re going to shoot your dad after months of provocation you’re going to have it out with him first, aren’t you? You’re going to yell at the bastard and tell him what you think of him and then shoot him.’
‘So?’ I said.
‘So the mother isn’t just going to be sitting in the chair watching TV during all this, is she? She’s going to be between the two of them, or, you know, at least out of her chair.’
‘Hmmm. Inspector Duffy, perhaps you should share with our new officers the concerns you had this morning, too,’ Crabbie said.
I lit another ciggie and offered the pack around. Neither of the newbies wanted one. Non-smoking was the fashion. It wouldn’t last too long after their first gun battle or riot duty.
‘Concerns? Well, minor concerns. I’d say the chances are that the boy did it.’
‘Didn’t you have an issue with the wounds on the victims?’ Crabbie insisted.
I took a puff of my Marlboro Red and cleared my throat. ‘Well, in a similar vein to Constable Lawson, my observation of the scene was that it didn’t look much like a “rage killing” to me. Nice clean shots to the temple and the heart. An angry man doesn’t shoot that accurately. Professional killers do, but college dropout layabout sons who crack up because of constant nagging from the old man don’t.’
Lawson nodded vigorously. ‘Don’t rage killers tend to “overkill” too? Multiple stab wounds, multiple gunshots. He’d probably fire the whole clip at the old man, wouldn’t he?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I agreed.
‘And maybe he’d spare the mother. I mean, it’s the father who’s giving him grief and it’s the mum who’s sticking up for him, right?’ Fletcher said.
Crabbie skimmed the statement from Mrs McCawly and slid it over the desk towards me. ‘It was the dad who was hassling him,’ he said.
‘Once he’s shot the father, it’s in for a penny, in for a pound, isn’t it?’ I said.
‘What’s your alternative theory, Constable Lawson?’ McCrabban asked.
‘If Mr Kelly had a firearm for personal protection he must have had enemies?’ Lawson suggested.
‘That’s one of the things we are certainly going to find out,’ Crabbie insisted.
I got to my feet.
‘Well, folks, I can see you have this well in hand. I should go.’
‘Any parting words of wisdom, Inspector Duffy?’ Crabbie asked.
‘This professional killing angle is certainly interesting, but if I were you, Sergeant McCrabban, I would stress to our new arrivals that in your bog-standard criminal case in the greater Belfast area they’ll find that Occam’s razor is especially sharp; the simplest and most obvious explanation is almost always the correct one.’
‘Aye, but until we find the son and have a wee chat with him we’ll keep our options open,’ McCrabban added.
I walked to the incident room door and gave Crabbie a little nod to let him know again that this really was his responsibility and I was not going to grab it from him. At least not for the moment. My own caseload wasn’t half so interesting but he had wanted this and if he solved it and somehow wangled a promotion out of it good luck to him. Crabbie’s undertakerish nod back was an equivalent of high five from him.
I went to the personnel department and looked up the files on our two new detectives just to see if I’d missed anything. I hadn’t, except for one thing; Lawson was Jewish rather than Protestant, which was a bit of a surprise. There were only a couple of hundred Jews left in Belfast. The community had been much larger before the Troubles but now even Israel during the Intifada was a better bet than Northern Ireland.
I stuck the files back in the cabinet.
I read the Sun in the bog.
Coffee machine/office/feet on desk. Looking out the window, pretending to be interested in a series of unsolved muggings at Carrick train station.
Eventually the clock got its sorry arse round to five o’clock.
The office door was open, Chief Inspector McArthur was standing there all uniformed up and rosy cheeked. He was wearing a Tyrol hat with a feather in it and in case you didn’t get the message the hat had been placed at a jaunty thirty-degree angle on his head. He’d worn this hat before and you could see that he wanted desperately to be asked about it, which is why all the senior officers had made a silent pact never to bring up.
‘You want a quick one?’
‘Well, I was on my way out.’
‘Have a seat. I’m buying.’
We retreated to his office, which he had painted a sort of citrusy yellow. He’d moved in several palms and potted plants and there were arty black and white photographs of boats on beaches and kids at country fares and so forth.
‘Your photos?’ I asked, pointing at the pictures.
‘I dabble,’ he said.
It was my place to be encouraging. ‘They’re really good,’ I said, and in truth they were good. Good enough to make into a calendar for American tourists, not like Diane Arbus good or anything.
He gave me a glass of whisky. I sat.
‘What are you working on at the moment, Sean?’
‘Me, nothing much. Crabbie’s got himself a double murder. I’ll be assisting him on that one no doubt in due course.’
‘I want to thank you for last night, you were very helpful under the circumstances.’
‘Last night? Oh, that? Yeah.’
McArthur took a gulp of his whisky and I did the same. Twelve-year-old Islay. Good stuff if you liked peat, smoke, earth, rain, despair and the Atlantic Ocean, and who doesn’t like that?
McArthur smiled. ‘You’ve had quite a wee career, haven’t you, Sean?’
‘Oh yes. You certainly have.’
His eyes were twinkling. There was something he wasn’t telling me. He looked at me significantly. ‘What are you not telling me, er, sir?’
‘I’m just off the phone talking about you,’ he said.
‘You were talking to someone on the phone about me?’
‘What did you say?’
He poured us each another healthy measure.
‘What were you saying about me?’ I persisted.
He laughed. ‘Oh, don’t worry, it was all good stuff. I told them I’ve hardly had a chance to know you but even in my limited experience I saw that you were a first-class officer.’
‘Am I getting a promotion or something?’
‘Better than that, I think.’
‘Better than a promotion?’
‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you any more, Sean. My lips are sealed.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you any more, Sean. My lips are sealed.’
‘You can’t do that to me, sir,’ I said.
He shook his head. ‘Nope, sorry, I can’t breathe a word.’
‘Come on, sir,’ I protested.
‘Vulpes, vulpes, Duffy,’ he said with a wink.
‘The common fox?’
‘Actually, the not so common fox,’ he insisted.
I’d been neutral on McArthur before, but last night’s shenanigans and now this confirmed in my mind that I actively disliked the wee shite. I knew I wasn’t going to get any more out of him so I pushed the chair back, stood, gave him a nod.
‘I have to get on, sir,’ I said.
‘OK. Go if you must.’
I had a slash and went to see Crabbie, who was typing up his case notes in the incident room. He was smoking his pipe and the blue tobacco smoke and a mug of bergamot tea on his desk gave the room a very pleasant odour.
He looked up at me. ‘Sean?’
‘Crabbie, has anyone been asking about me?’ I wondered.
‘Not to me. Why, what’s going on?’
‘I don’t know. A couple of oblique references from the new Chief Inspector.’
‘You’re not in trouble with the anti-corruption unit, are you?’
I gave him a hard look. ‘No, why would I be?’
I leaned closer. ‘You’d tell me, wouldn’t you, Crabbie?’
‘Of course. But you’re not in trouble.’
‘Aye,’ I said dubiously.
‘Sean, come on, you’re untouchable with your record.’
‘OK, mate. Look, I can see I’m keeping you from your work, I’ll let you get back to it,’ I said, and didn’t move.
A half-smile crept on to his face. ‘You’re bored, aren’t you? That’s what it is.’
‘You want a piece of this Kelly case, don’t you?’
‘I am not going to interfere.’
‘Look, nothing’s going to break until someone pulls in the son. And since they haven’t, it probably means that he’s already slipped across the water—’
‘Have you alerted—’
‘Yes, yes, but that’s not what I was driving at. I have to type this up so if you want to do me a favour you could take Lawson and Fletcher down to the crime scene.’
‘You think they’ll be able to help find something?’
‘So why bring them?’
‘It’s our, er, pedagogical duty if nothing else. And you never know, you might come up with something.’
‘You’re taking pity on me, aren’t you?’
He grinned. ‘A little.’
‘I appreciate the thought, but I can’t do it, mate, I have a thing at six o’clock. I have to go home and shower.’
‘A personal thing.’
He gave me a slant-eyed suspicious look.
Anybody else would have said, ‘What? You? A date with a real live woman?’ but not the Crabman.
‘All right, see you tomorrow,’ he said.
‘Ok… and listen, mate, if anyone starts asking questions about me, you lemme know, OK?’
‘I wouldn’t worry about it, Sean, everybody knows you’re a company man now through and through.’
Chapter 5 A Supposedly Fun Thing That I’ll Never Do Again
Home. The music on the turntable was classic Zep and I let the plagiarising bastards take me through a shower and a shave. I tied my tie, brushed my hair. More grey now on the ears and one or two little strands in the middle too. Yeah, in contrast to our fair-faced, behatted Chief Inspector, the smokes and the stress made me look every inch of thirty-five, but still, I was a reasonably presentable wee mucker who had a steady job and owned his house and his car, which presumably counted for something, right?
I put on a wool raincoat and then rummaged in the cloakroom for the fedora my parents had got me for Christmas. I checked my reflection in the hall mirror.
I looked ridiculous. I lost the hat. I still didn’t look like me but that was probably a good thing.
I went outside. A filthy-looking cloud hanging over Belfast like an evil djinn. The first raindrops.
I checked under the BMW for bombs and got inside.
I drove down Coronation Road past a gaggle of sodden children and an emaciated horse being ridden by Dominic Mulvenna, the malevolent demon child from the last house on the street.
The rain had become a biblical scourge.
On Kennedy Drive the surface was liquid and I slowed to a crawl. Frogs and even small fishes were spilling out from the Mill Stream on to the road. The wipers on the BMW were going max but I could still hardly see anything at all.
I turned left on the North Road, swerving slowly around a band of tinkers going through a skip at the railway bridge and a goat – which may have been with them, or not - happily eating what appeared to be a box of candles.
Five glum backpackers were standing under the overhang at Carrick train station, no doubt wondering why Lonely Planet had told them to get off the train at this benighted destination.
I parked the Beemer outside the church hall and sat in the vehicle for a few minutes. The rain pounded off the roof and made a film on the windscreen. It was 6.15 and I was running late.
‘Fuck it,’ I said, opened the door and ran for the entrance.
Mrs Beggs was, apparently, delighted to see me. ‘So glad you could make it, Mr Duffy, here’s your badge.’
She took my coat and hat and gave me a stick-on badge which declared: ‘Hello, my name is Sean!’
I put it on the lapel of my jacket. I could hear music coming from inside the hall and it sounded disconcertingly like Glenn Miller.
‘The crowd’s not all over forty, is it?’
Mrs Beggs shook her head. ‘No, no. Have no fear, there are plenty of women your age, Mr Duffy, and…’ she lowered her voice ‘there are even a few Catholics.’
‘That’s not important, as long as there—’
‘You didn’t come to chit-chat with me. Get in there, Mr Duffy,’ she said, taking me by the arm and leading me into the hall.
‘I think I left my cigarette lighter in the car, I have to go—’
‘No you don’t,’ she said, opening the door and frogmarching me into the room.
The church hall had been cleared of chairs and the lights dimmed to suggest intrigue. A table had been set up at one end of the room for soft drinks and at the other end, a rather elderly DJ was spinning records on a twin deck. The music was indeed Glenn Miller but I could foresee Acker Bilk and Benny Goodman in the immediate future.
The crowd was pretty substantial for a wet weeknight. About sixty all together with women representing a hefty majority. It was true that it skewed to an older demographic but there were at least a dozen women my age or younger. Some people were dancing in a grim Northern Irish way and off the dance floor there were several intense one-on-one conversations taking place. A large mixed-gender group had gathered at the drinks table and a party of forlorn single men was pressed against the west wall, huddling in the shadows for their own protection.
‘How does this work?’ I hissed at Mrs Beggs.
‘Everyone has a name and everyone’s here for the same reason. You just go and introduce yourself.’
‘I really need to get my lighter, I—’
‘Say hello to Orla O’Neill. She’d love you. Thirty. Red hair. Divorced. Gorgeous. Worth a fortune. That’s her in the green miniskirt.’
‘What? Where? Which one is—’
She gave me another little shove and closed the door behind me.
‘In The Mood’ ended and ‘Moonlight Serenade’ began in waltz time. The men and women began pairing off.
Before I had the opportunity to register the full measure of my panic a tall, brightly dressed woman offered me her hand. Her fingers were powerful, with nails like those of an itinerate sheet metal worker. Her hair was red and her dress had a greenish tinge. Surely this couldn’t be Ms O’Neill?
‘Aren’t you going to ask me to dance?’ she said.
‘I don’t really know how to dance. Not as such. Not formal—’
‘A gentleman should know how to dance,’ she replied indignantly.
‘I never really got around to it.’
‘What do you do for a living, Sean?’ she asked, reading my name badge.
‘I’m a policeman.’
She pursed her lips. ‘Ah, well, please excuse me, Sean, I really must find a partner.’
‘Christ,’ I muttered under my breath, and got a fag lit with my emergency matches.
Unfriendly eyeballs. Strange homoeopathic smells. The vast indeterminate space dominated by an ancient swaying chandelier that seemed to have homicidal intent.
A generously hipped woman with a reindeer-motifed cardigan made a beeline for me. I inhaled the wrong way and prompted by my coughing fit she slapped me heartily on the back. She turned out to be a widow who ran a dairy farm.
‘And you?’ she asked.
‘I’m in the police,’ I told her.
She nodded, looked into the middle distance, made an excuse and went to meet someone/anyone else.
I fought a strong urge to flee and introduced myself to a girl called Sandra who looked a bit like Janice from The Muppet Show band. She was an estate agent who sold houses all over East Antrim.
‘We’ve got something in common. I’m a peeler,’ I said.
‘What do we have in common?’
‘Well, uh, both of us are at home to a certain amount of moral ambiguity in our work.’
No hesitant buyer ever got up Sandra’s nose the way I instantly did and she told me coldly that she had to mingle. Later I saw her dancing with a very tall man whose face was like a Landsat image of the Mojave.
I retreated to the west wall, joining the group of terrified blokes there who were avoiding all eye contact and presumably wondering why they had agreed to come here in the first place.
‘I don’t think you’re allowed to smoke,’ a jealous fellow victim hissed at me as I lit another. I ignored him and inhaled deep.
Occasionally a bold woman or a pair of bold women would make a foray into these wallflowers and sometimes our herd would be reduced by one. The quarry dragged off to the dance floor or the drinks table.
‘That was the late great Glenn Miller and now for your entertainment the swinging tunes of Mr Acker Bilk,’ the DJ said.
A man with a comb-over who appeared to be in the midst of a nervous breakdown begged me for a cigarette. I lit him one.
‘You’re the peeler, right?’ he asked me.
‘You wouldn’t consider lending me your revolver for a minute, would you?’ he said, miming putting the gun in his mouth.
A very pretty brown-haired woman with huge, radiant blue eyes began making her way through the wallflowers like an assassin in a Bruce Lee flick.
When she got to me she asked whether Jesus Christ was my personal saviour in a Derry accent that sounded like a cement mixer with gearbox issues.
I told her that he wasn’t.
She asked me whether I had heard of the Church of the Nazarene.
I told her that I had. A dozen of the massive American evangelical churches had sprung up in the greater Belfast area in the last year, their complicated blueprints and speedy construction bamboozling many a local planning officer into abject submission.
She asked me what I thought of the Church of the Nazarene.
I told her that I thought that it was an easily won trench religion, completely to be expected in a country with unending civil war and sky-high unemployment.
She said that I sounded interesting. I told her that she was the most beautiful woman I had talked to this evening, which was a dodgy thing to say but her mind-set was seventeenth-century colonial America and she lapped up the compliment.
She asked me if I would be willing to let Christ into my heart.
“Anything’s possible,” I said and told her that she had a gorgeous smile.
She asked what I did for a living.
I told her I was in the RUC.
She said that she had to go.
‘I have to go.’
The word went round and none of the other women came close. I didn’t blame them. If you were a single lady, getting on in years, or worse, a widower, the last thing you wanted to do was marry a policeman who could be killed next week. It certainly didn’t help that I was a Catholic. A Catholic in Carrickfergus was bad enough, but a Catholic policeman? My life expectancy could be measured in dog years.
Someone handed me a programme and I saw that after the dancing the orchestrated jollity was to include musical chairs. Must get out before musical chairs, I told myself.
‘I’m Sigourney,’ a bubbly green-eyed, dark-haired girl with round glasses said to my left.
‘I’m Sean,’ I said and offered her my hand.
We shook nervously. She was pretty and not pretty-for-a-wet-Tuesday-in-greater-Belfast kind of way, but objectively good looking.
‘I don’t think you’re allowed to smoke in here,’ she whispered.
‘So they tell me. I’m sorry, I, uh—’
‘Oh, I don’t mind at all, but if Mrs Callaghan catches you she’ll sling your hook.’
‘I’d better find this Mrs Callaghan, then. I need to get out of here.’
She laughed. ‘It’s not that bad, is it?’
I nodded. ‘It is.’
‘Why’d you come?’
‘Desperation. How do you meet members of the opposite sex in Ireland? The human race is somehow propagating in this island, isn’t it? How are all these people getting together?’
‘I can’t do discos, I’m too cynical about the music.’
‘The music’s not important. It’s about the bopping!’
‘I expect you’re right. Hey, anyway, nice meeting you, I gotta go.’
‘Stay. Have some punch at least. They’ve put enough cheap gin in there to stun an elephant.’
‘I thought it was all soft drinks. Where is this punch of which you speak?’
She led me to the punch, which indeed had been cut with something the Russian soldiers in Afghanistan might have distilled from anti-freeze. ‘Jesus. That is nasty,’ I said, putting down my plastic cup.
‘The base is grapefruit juice but you can barely taste it. I emptied my flask of Bacardi in there to give it some body, but the hooch is so strong that it just swallowed it up.’
‘You brought a flask of rum to a church singles event?’ I said with admiration.
‘Can you think of better place to bring a flask of rum to?’
She had me there. She looked me over and smiled. ‘So you’re the cop.’
‘Who told you that?’
‘A couple of people.’
‘Have I been the subject of gossip?’
‘No, just a few “Watch out for him. He’s a policeman” sort of things.’
I nodded. ‘Downtown Carrick is not the place to tease out really quality gossip, is it?’
‘No. Although you see that guy with the hairpiece that looks like porridge?’
‘Wife left him for another woman. You don’t get that much round these parts.’
‘And you see that old geezer with the moustache over there? Divorced twice but still loaded. Owns half the land between here and Ballycarry,’ she said pointing at a doppelganger of the gloomy General Sternwood from The Big Sleep.
‘So, Sean, why does no one want to date a policeman?’
‘There’s the whole death thing. People get touchy about that.’
‘I don’t see why. Isn’t there a big compensation package if you get killed? And a nice widow’s pension on top of that too? And then there’s the black. I look fabulous in black. Brings out my eyes.’
‘Who are you?’ I said with a laugh.
She pointed at her badge. ‘Sigourney,’ I read again.
She shook her head. ‘Actually…’
‘Actually I wrote a fake name,’ she said in a whisper.
‘Why would you do that?’
‘I didn’t want these creeps to know my real name. Have you looked at the quality of the men in this room. Yikes.’
‘I was sort of focusing on the women.’
‘Oh, the quality of the women is quite high considering. And in terms of quantity women win out too. Have you met that alleged millionairess yet?’
‘No, not yet.’
‘A bit of a fraud if you ask me. But the men! What a joke. Half of them are obvious alcoholics and the other half are born again Christians who probably found Jesus at the bottom of a whisky bottle. I don’t mind if a man drinks. It’s the hypocrisy I can’t stand.’
‘You’re living on the wrong island, then, love.’
‘Indeed,’ she agreed.
‘I was talking to that tall, good looking, slightly geeky guy over there but I think that he could sense that I was faking my interest in his alien abduction stories.
‘Sounds fascinating to me.’
‘You talk to him, then.’
‘What do you do for a living?’ I asked.
‘I’m one of your natural enemies.’
‘You make car bombs?’
‘Worse. I’m a reporter.’
‘The Belfast Telegraph.’
‘Ooh, fancy, like,’ I said in my Vera Duckworth.
She took the cigarette packet out of my jacket pocket and lit herself one.
‘So are you at Carrick police station?’ she asked.
‘It has its moments.’
‘What do you do there?’
‘I’m a detective.’
‘A detective?’ she said, almost sounding impressed. ‘Solving murder cases and missing diamonds and all that stuff?’
‘Yup… Well, not so many missing diamonds.’
‘That’s Nancy Drew’s influence.’
‘What sort of things do you write about?’
She groaned. ‘I’m on the Wednesday Woman’s Page. It’s all “Are You Wearing the Right Bra Size for You”, “Are Stockings and Suspenders Making a Comeback” kind of thing.’
My head was suddenly packed with lascivious images that I had to expunge before I could reply. ‘Not fun?’ I managed.
‘No, not fun. Our crack staff of two spend the week ripping off hot issues from women’s mags and making them palatable for the Bel Tel.’
‘That sounds all right, reading magazines all week.’
‘Nah, it does your head in.’
My beeper started going like the clappers. ‘Sorry about that,’ I said, and turned it off.
‘Shouldn’t you get to a phone or something?’ she asked.
‘It’s probably nothing.’
We stood there in silence for an awkward ten seconds.
‘You want to get to a phone, don’t you?’
‘This way, I saw one as I came in through the vestry.’
She grabbed her coat from a chair and I followed her to the vestry. She turned the light on and out of the dimly lit hall I could see that she was indeed very attractive. No trouble finding men, I would have thought. Her coat was a wool duffel she’d clearly had since schoolday,s which weren’t that long ago. She was maybe twenty-four or twenty-five?
I called the station. ‘Duffy.’
‘Hold for Sergeant McCrabban.’
‘Sean, is that you?’
‘I’m sorry to call you when you’re off but I thought you’d want to know that we found the son.’
‘The sun at last! So the blight of perpetual rain has finally been lifted from this cursèd island, then, has it?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘What are you talking about?’
The penny dropped.
‘The murder case. The boy who offed his parents,’ McCrabban said.
‘Yeah, I get it. He’s confessed, has he?’
‘In a manner of speaking.’
‘He left a suicide note in his car and, apparently, jumped off the cliff at Blackhead.’
‘Are you there now?’
‘And you want me to come down?’
‘If you want to.’
I looked at ‘Sigourney’ and smiled. ‘In fact, Crabbie, I’m sort of talking to a charming young lady at the moment. I mean, mate, it’s your case, the training wheels are off, you know?’
Crabbie sighed. Clearly he was still a bit nervous about running a high-profile investigation like this. But you had get stuck in sooner or later. ‘All right, Sean, I just thought you might want to know. I’ll fill you in tomorrow.’
‘Cheers, mate. See ya.’
I hung up.
‘What was that all about?’ ‘Sigourney’ asked, putting on her coat.
‘A double murder. A kid killed his parents last night and felt bad about it and did a Wiley Coyote off Blackhead cliff.’
‘A double murder?’
‘And they want you to investigate it?’
‘No, my colleague, Detective Sergeant McCrabban, is investigating it. He just wanted my input… but it’s a pretty straightforward one.’
‘And not a terrorist-related thing?’
‘Doesn’t look like it.’
‘I couldn’t, uh—’ she began and her voice trailed off.
‘I couldn’t possibly beg you to go and take me with you, could I?’
‘A scoop’s a scoop, isn’t it? One day assistant editor on the women’s page. Next day front-page leader writer.’
‘Steady on, Lady Macbeth, what do I get out of this arrangement?’
‘I’ll tell you my real name.’
‘I already know your real name.’
‘What is it?’
‘Sara,’ I said. ‘Sara Prentice.’
‘How did you do that?’ she asked, astonished.
‘Maybe I read the Belfast Telegraph and because of my brilliant photographic memory I recalled your byline.’
‘Is that what you did?’ she asked, her almond-green eyes still wide with amazement.
‘No. It’s written on the inside of your duffel coat.’
‘Ah. Yes. Embarrassing.’
‘Well, you know, still using the same coat you got in sixth form. Not cool for a fashion-conscious women’s page reporter.’
‘I’m wearing an old trenchcoat.’
‘That is cool.’
‘Yeah. So I can come with you?’
‘Uhm, OK, if you want to.’
‘How about I cook you dinner or something?’
‘I already said yes.’
We went outside and ran through the rain to the Beemer. She put on her seat belt and smiled at me. ‘This is exciting.’
‘Ah, speaking of exciting… hold on a minute.’
I got out of the car and looked underneath it for mercury tilt bombs.
I got back inside.
‘What was that all about?’ she asked naively.
‘Nothing. Can you really cook? I mean, this is in return for a scoop on a murder-suicide,’ I said to distract her from the fact that there had been a possibility – slim, yes, but still a possibility – that we could have been blown up if I’d driven off without checking.
‘You won’t regret it. I did domestic science to O-level.’
‘So did I and I can’t open a tin of beans.’
‘Well, I can.’
I turned on the engine and my newly installed police radio.
I called the station.
‘This is Detective Inspector Duffy, can you tell Detective Sergeant McCrabban that I’ll meet him at the crime scene?’ I said.
‘Will do, Inspector,’ one of the constables said back at the barracks.
I turned off the radio and slipped in the clutch.
‘A detective inspector,’ Sara said, sounding impressed. ‘Do you have a gun and everything?’
‘Yup,’ I said as I turned right on to the Albert Road.
‘Ever kill anyone?’
‘On purpose, you mean? Who can keep track?’
‘How do you know I’m not one of those IRA honey traps I’m always seeing ads for on late-night TV?’ she asked with a charming little smile.
I had seen those ads too. An off-duty policeman or soldier meets a girl and goes off with her only to be kidnapped, interrogated, tortured and shot by a terrorist group. The honey-trap girl in the ads was always a glamorous blonde, not a mousy little thing with brown hair.
‘A honey-trap girl wouldn’t actually bring up those honey-trap ads, would she?’
‘It could be a clever double bluff.’
‘I’ll have to keep my eye on you, then, won’t I?’
‘Always a good policy in this day and age.’
At the bottom of the Albert Road I turned left at the four-way junction. We drove out past the rain-slicked lights of the Marine Highway. Herring buses were chugging away from the little stone harbour and behind us in the rear-view mirror the castle lurked grey and black in the gathering dark. And ahead of us? Who knew what lay ahead of us, waiting at the bottom of a cliff up the Antrim coast.