I Hear The Sirens In The Street
Marty McFly: Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that you built a time machine. . . out of a DeLorean?
Dr. Emmett Brown: The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?
Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale, Back to the Future (1985)
Now I lay me down to sleep, I hear the sirens in the street,
All the dreams are made of chrome, I have no way to get back home.
All the dreams are made of chrome, I have no way to get back home.
Tom Waits, A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun (1978)
Chapter 1 A Town Called Malice
The abandoned factory was a movie trailer from an entropic future when all the world would look like this. From a time without the means to repair corrugation or combustion engines or vacuum tubes. From a planet of rust and candle power. Guano coated the walls. Mildewed garbage lay in heaps. Strange machinery littered a floor which, with its layer of leaves, oil and broken glass was reminiscent of the dark understory of a rainforest. The melody in my head was a descending ten-on-one ostinato, a pastiche of the second of Chopin's études; I couldn’t place it but I knew that it was famous and that once the shooting stopped it would come to me in an instant.
The shotgun blast had sent the birds into a frenzy and as we ran for cover behind a half disassembled steam turbine we watched the rock doves careen off the ceiling, sending a fine shower of white asbestos particles down towards us like the snow of a nuclear winter.
The shotgun reported again and a window smashed twenty feet to our left. The security guard’s aim was no better than his common sense.
We made it to safety behind the turbine’s thick stainless steel fan and watched the pigeons loop in decreasing circles above our heads. A superstitious man would have divined ill omened auguries in their melancholy flight but fortunately my partner, Detective Constable McCrabban, was made of sterner stuff.
“Would you stop shooting, you bloody eejit! We are the police!” he yelled before I even had the chance to catch my breath.
There was an impressive dissonance as the last of the shotgun’s echo died away, and then an even more impressive silence.
Asbestos was coating my leather jacket and I pulled my black polo neck sweater over my mouth.
The pigeons began to settle.
Wind made the girders creek.
A distant bell was ringing.
It was like being in a symphony by Arvo Pärt. But he wasn’t the composer of the melody still playing between my ears. Who was that now? Somebody French.
Another shotgun blast.
The security guard had taken the time to reload and was determined to have more fun.
“Stop shooting!” McCrabban demanded again.
“Get out of here!” a voice replied. “I’ve had enough of you hoodlums!”
It was a venerable voice, from another Ireland, from the 30's or even earlier, but age gave it no weight or assurance - only a frail, impatient, dangerous doubt.
This, every copper knew, was how it would end, not fighting the good fight but in a random bombing or a police chase gone wrong or shot by a half senile security guard in a derelict factory in north Belfast. It was April 1st. Not a good day to die.
“We’re the police!” McCrabban insisted.
“I’ll call the police!”
“We are the police!”
I lit a cigarette, sat down and leaned against the outer shell of the big turbine.
This room in fact was one enormous turbine hall. A huge space built for the generation of electricity because the engineers who’d constructed the textile factory had decided that autarky was the best policy when dealing with Northern Ireland’s inadequate and dodgy power supplies. I would like to have to seen this place in its heyday, when light was pouring in through the clear windows and the cathedral of turbines was humming at maximum rev. This whole factory must have been some scene with its cooling towers and its chemical presses and its white coated alchemist employees who knew the secret of turning petroleum into clothes.
But not anymore. No textiles, no workers, no product. And it would never come back. Heavy manufacturing in Ireland had always been tentative at best and had fled the island just as rapidly as it had arrived.
“If you’re the police how come you’re not in uniform?” the security guard demanded.
“We’re detectives! Plain clothes detectives. And listen mate, you’re in a lot of trouble. You better put down that bloody gun,” I yelled.
“Who’s going to make me?” the security guard asked.
“We are!” McCrabban shouted.
“Oh, aye?” he yelled back. “You and whose army?”
“The bloody British Army!” McCrabban and I yelled together.
A minute of parley and the security guard agreed that perhaps he had been a bit hasty. Crabbie, who’d recently become a father of twin boys, was seething and I could tell he was for throwing the book at him but the guard was an old geezer with watery eyes in a blue polyester uniform that perhaps presaged our own post peeler careers. “Let’s cut him a break,” I said. “It will only mean paperwork.”
“If you say so,” Crabbie reluctantly agreed.
The security guard introduced himself as Martin Barry and we told him that we had come here to investigate a blood trail that had been discovered by the night watchman.
“Oh, that? I saw that on my walk around. I didn’t think too much about it,” Mr Barry said. He looked as if he hadn’t thought too much about anything over the last thirty years.
“Where is it?” McCrabban asked him.
“It’s out near the bins, I wonder Malcolm didn’t leave a wee note for me that he had already called that in,” Mr Barry said.
“If it was blood, why didn’t you call it in?” Crabbie asked.
“Some rascal breaks in here and cuts himself and I’m supposed to call the peelers about it? I thought you gentlemen had better things to do with your days.”
That did not bode well for it being something worth our trouble.
“Can you show us what you’re talking about?” I asked.
“Well, it’s outside,” Mr Barry said reluctantly.
He was still waving his antique twelve gauge around and Crabbie took the shotgun out of his hands, broke it open, removed the shells and gave it back again.
“How did you get in here, anyway?” Mr Barry asked.
“The gate was open,” Crabbie said.
“Aye the hoodlums broke the lock, they’re always coming in here to nick stuff.”
“What stuff?” McCrabban asked looking at the mess all around us.
“They’re going to ship the rest of that turbine to Korea some day. It’s very valuable,” Mr Barry explained.
I finished my cigarette and threw the stub into a puddle. “Shall we go see this alleged blood trail?” I asked.
“All right then, aye.”
We went outside.
It was snowing now.
Real snow not an asbestos simulacrum.
There was a quarter of an inch of the stuff on the ground which meant that the trains would grind to a halt, the motorway would be closed and the rush hour commute would become chaotic. Crabbie looked at the sky and sniffed. “The old woman is certainly plucking the goose today,” he said stentoriously.
“You should put those in a book,” I said, grinning at him.
“There’s only one book I need,” Crabbie replied dourly tapping the Bible in his breast pocket.
“Aye, me too,” Mr Barry agreed and the two obvious Presbyterians gave each other a knowing glance.
This kind of talk drove me mental. “What about the phone book? What if you need to look up somebody’s phone number. You won’t find that in your King James,” I muttered.
“You’d be surprised,” Mr Barry said but before he could explain further his method of divining unknown telephone numbers using the kabbala I raised a finger and walked to a dozen large, rusting skips filled with rubbish.
“Is this where you’re talking about?”
“Aye, over there’s where the wee bastards climb over,” he said pointing to a spot where the fence had been pulled down so that it was only a few feet high.
“Not very secure, is it?” McCrabban said, turning up the collar on his rain coat.
“That’s why I have this!” Mr Barry exclaimed, patting his shotgun like a favoured reptile.
“Just show us the blood, please,” I said.
“Over here, if it is blood. If it is human blood,” Mr Barry said with such an ominous twinge in his voice that it almost cracked me up.
He showed us a dried, thin reddish brown trail that led from the fence to the bins.
“What do you make of that?” I asked Crabbie.
“I’ll tell you what I make of it! The kids were rummaging in the skip, one of them wee beggars cuts hisself, heaven be praised, and then they run to the fence, jump over and go home crying to their mamas,” Mr Barry said.
Crabbie and I shook our heads. Neither of us could agree with that interpretation.
“I’ll explain what happened to Mr Barry while you start looking in the skip,” I said.
“I’ll explain it while you start looking in the skip,” Crabbie countered.
“Explain what?” Mr Barry asked.
“The blood trail gets thinner and narrower the further away from the fence you get.”
“Which means?” Mr Barry asked.
“Which means that unless we have a Jackson Pollock fan among our local vandal population then something or someone has been dragged to one of those Dumpsters and tossed in.”
I looked at McCrabban. “Go on then, get in there, mate,” I said.
He shook his head.
I pointed at the imaginary pips on my shoulder which would have signified the rank of inspector if I hadn’t been in plain clothes.
It cut no ice with him. “I’m not going in there. No way. These trousers are nearly new. The missus would skin me alive.”
“I’ll flip you for it. Heads or tails?”
“You pick. It’s a little too much like gambling for my taste.”
Of course we all knew what the outcome would be.
I climbed into the skip nearest to where the blood trail appeared to end but naturally that would have been too easy for our criminal masterminds and I found nothing.
I waded through assorted factory debris: wet cardboard, wet cork, slate, broken glass and lead pipes while Mr Barry and Crabbie waxed philosophic: “Jobs for the boys isn’t it? It’s all thieves and coppers these days isn’t it?”
“Somebody has to give out the unemployment checks too, mate,” Crabbie replied, which was very true. Thief, copper, prison officer, dole officer: such were the jobs on offer in Northern Ireland—the worst kakistocracy in Europe.
I climbed back out of the skip.
“Well?” Crabbie asked.
“Nothing organic, save for some new lifeforms unknown to science that will probably mutate into a species annihilating virus,” I said.
“I think I saw that film,” Crabbie replied.
I took out the fifty pence piece. “All right, couple more bins to go, do you want to flip again?” I asked.
“Not necessary, Sean, that first coin toss was the toss for all the skips,” Crabbie replied.
“You’re telling me that I have to sort through all of them?” I said.
“That’s why they pay you the big bucks, boss,” he said making his beady, expressionless eyes even more beady and expressionless.
“I lost fair and square but I’ll remember this when you’re looking for help on your bloody Sergeant’s Exam,” I said.
This had its desired effect. He shook his head and sniffed. “All right. We split them up. I’ll take these two. You the other two. And we should probably get a move on before we all freeze to death,” he muttered.
McCrabban found the suitcase in the third bin along from the fence.
Blood was oozing through the red plastic.
“Over here!” he yelled.
We put on latex gloves and I helped him carry it out.
It was heavy.
“You best stand back,” I said to Mr Barry.
It had a simple brass zip. We unzipped it and flipped it open.
Inside was a man’s headless naked torso cut off at the knees and shoulders. Crabbie and I had some initial observations while behind us Mr Barry began with the dry heaves.
“His genitals are still there,” Crabbie said.
“And no sign of bruising,” I added. “Which probably rules out a paramilitary hit.”
If he was an informer or a double agent or a kidnapped member of the other side they’d certainly have tortured him first.
“No obvious tattoos.”
“So he hasn’t done prison time.”
I pinched his skin. It was ice cold. Rigid. He was dead at least a day.
He was tanned and he’d kept himself in shape. It was hard to tell his age, but he looked about fifty or maybe even sixty. He had grey and white chest hairs and perhaps, just perhaps, some blonde ones that had been bleached white by the sun.
“His natural skin colour is quite pale isn’t it?” Crabbie said looking at the area where his shorts had been.
“It is,” I agreed. “That is certainly some tan on him. Where would he get a tan like that around these parts, do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll bet he’s a swimmer and that’s the tan line for a pair of Speedos. That’s probably how he kept himself in shape too. Swimming in an outdoor pool.”
Northern Ireland of course had few swimming baths and no outdoor pools, and not much sunshine, which led, of course, to Crabbie’s next question:
“You’re thinking he’s not local, aren’t you?” Crabbie said.
“I am,” I agreed.
“That won’t be good will it?” Crabbie muttered.
“No, my friend, it will not.”
I stamped my feet and rubbed my hands together. The snow was coming down harder now and the grim north Belfast suburbs were turning the colour of old lace. A cold wind was blowing up from the lough and that music in my head was still playing on an endless loop. I closed my eyes and tripped on it for a few bars: a violin, a viola, a cello, two pianos, a flute and a glass harmonica. The flute played the melody on top of glissando-like runs from the pianos - the first piano playing that Chopinesque descending ten-on-one ostinato while the second played a more sedate six-on-one.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky. Let’s see if we can find any papers in the case,” Crabbie said interrupting my reverie.
We looked but found nothing and then went back to the Land Rover to call it in. Matty, our forensics officer, and a couple of Reservists showed up in boiler suits and began photographing the crime scene and taking fingerprints and blood samples.
Army helicopters flew low over the lough, sirens wailed in County Down, a distant thump-thump was the sound of mortars or explosions. The city was under a shroud of chimney smoke and the cinematographer, as always, was shooting it in 8mm black and white. This was Belfast in the fourteenth year of the low level civil war euphemistically known as The Troubles.
The day wore on. The grey snow clouds turned perse and black. The yellow clay-like sea waited torpidly, dreaming of wreck and carnage. “Can I go?” Crabbie asked. “If I miss the start of Dallas I’ll never get caught up. The missus gets the Ewings and Barneses confused.”
I watched the forensic boys work and stood around smoking until an ambulance came to take the John Doe to the morgue at Carrickfergus Hospital.
I drove back to Carrick police station and reported my findings to my boss, Chief Inspector Brennan: a large, shambolic man with a Willy Lomanesque tendency to shout his lines.
“What are your initial thoughts, Duffy?” he asked.
“It was freezing out there, sir. Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, we had to eat the horses, we’re lucky to be alive.”
“Your thoughts about the victim?”
“I have a feeling it’s a foreigner. Possibly a tourist.”
“That’s bad news.”
“Yeah, I don’t think he’ll be giving the old place an ‘A’ rating in those customer satisfaction surveys they pass out at the airport.”
“Cause of death?”
“We can probably rule out suicide,” I said.
“How did he die?”
“I don’t know yet, I suppose having your head chopped off doesn’t help much though does it? Rest assured that our crack team is on it, sir.”
“Where is DC McCrabban?” Brennan asked.
“And he told me he was afraid to fly, the lying bastard.”
Chief Inspector Brennan sighed and tapped the desk with his forefinger, unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) spelling out “ass” in Morse.
“If it is a foreigner, you appreciate that this is going to be a whole thing, don’t you?” he muttered.
“I foresee paperwork and more paperwork and a pow wow from the Big Chiefs and you possibly getting superseded by some goon from Belfast.”
“Not for some dead tourist, surely, sir?”
“We’ll see. You’ll not throw a fit if you do get passed over will you? You’ve grown up now haven’t you, Sean?”
Neither of us could quickly forget the fool I’d made of myself the last time a murder case had been taken away from me. . .
“I’m a changed man, sir. Team player. Kenny Dalglish not Kevin Keegan. If the case gets pushed upstairs I will give them every assistance and obey every order. I’ll stick with you right to the bunker, sir.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
He leaned back in the chair and picked up his newspaper. “All right, Inspector, you’re dismissed.”
“And remember its Carol’s birthday on Wednesday and it’s your turn on the rota. Cake, hats, you know the drill. You know I like buttercream icing.”
“I put the order in at McCaffrey’s yesterday. I’ll check with Henrietta on the way home.”
“Very well. Get thee to a bunnery.”
“You’ve been saving that one up haven’t you, sir?”
“I have,” he said with a smile.
I turned on my heel. “Wait!” Brennan demanded.
“‘Naples in Naples’, three down, six letters.”
“In Naples, Naples is Napoli.”
“Oh I get it, all right, bugger off.”
On the way back to Coronation Road I stopped in at McCaffrey’s, examined the cake, which was a typical Irish birthday cake layered with sponge, cream, rum, jam and sugar. I explained the Chief Inspector’s preferences and Annie said that that wouldn’t be a problem: she’d make the icing half an inch thick if we wanted. I told her that that would be great and made a mental note to have the defib kit on hand.
I drove on through Carrickfergus’s blighted shopping precincts, past boarded up shops and cafes, vandalised parks and playgrounds. Bored ragamuffin children of the type you often saw in Pulitzer Prize winning books of photography were sitting glumly on the wall over the railway lines waiting to drop objects down onto the Belfast train.
I stopped at the heavily armoured Mace Supermarket which was covered with sectarian and paramilitary graffiti and a fading and unlikely claim that “Jesus Loves The Bay City Rollers!”
I waded through the car park’s usual foliage of chip papers, plastic bags and crisp packets.
Half way through my shop the piece of music that had been playing in my head began over the speakers. I must have heard it last week when I’d been in here. I got cornflakes, a bottle of tequila and Heinz tomato soup and went to the checkout.
“What is this music? It’s been in my head all day,” I asked the fifteen year old girl operating the till.
“I have no idea, love. It’s bloody horrible isn’t it?”
I paid and went to the booth, startling Trevor, the assistant manager who was reading Outlaw of Gor with a wistful look on his Basset hound face. He didn’t know what the music was either.
“I don’t pick the tapes, I just do what I’m told,” he said defensively.
I asked him if I could check out his play box. He didn’t mind. I rummaged through the tapes and found the cassette currently on the go. “Light Classical Hits IV”. I looked down through the list of tracks and found the one it had to be: “The Aquarium” from Carnival of the Animals by Saint Saens.
It was an odd piece, popular among audiences but not among musicians. The melody was carried by a glass harmonica, a really weird instrument that reputedly made its practitioners go mad. I nodded and put the cassette box down.
“I won’t play it again, if you don’t like it, Inspector, you’re not the first to complain,” Trevor said.
“No, actually, I’m a fan of Saint Saens,” I was going to say but Trev was already changing the tape to “Contemporary Hits Now!”
When I came out of the Mace smoke from a large incendiary bomb was drifting across the lough from Bangor and you could hear fire engines and ambulances on the grey, oddly pitching air.
From the external supermarket speakers Paul Weller’s reedy baritone begin singing the first few bars of “A Town Called Malice” and I had to admit that the choice of song was depressingly appropriate.
Chapter 2 The Dying Earth
We stood there looking at north Belfast three miles away over the water. The sky a kind of septic brown, the buildings rain smudged rectangles on the grim horizon. Belfast was not beautiful. It had been built on mudflats and without rock foundations nothing soared. Its architecture had been Victorian red brick utilitarian and sixties brutalism before both of those tropes had crashed headlong into the Troubles. A thousand car bombs later and what was left was surrounded by concrete walls, barbed wire and a steel security fence to keep the bombers out.
Here in the north Belfast suburbs we only got sporadic terrorist attacks, but economic degradation and war had frozen the architecture in out moded utilitarian schools whose chief purpose seemed to be the disheartening of the human soul. Optimistic colonial officials were always planting trees and sponsoring graffiti clearance schemes but the trees never lasted long and it was the brave man who dared clean paramilitary graffiti off his own house never mind in communal areas of the town.
I lit a second cigarette. I was thinking about architecture because I was trying not to think about Laura.
I hadn’t seen her in nearly a week.
“Should we go in?” Crabbie asked.
“Steady on, mate. I just lit me fag. Let me finish this first.”
“Your head. She won’t be happy to be kept waiting,” Crabbie prophesied.
A stray dog.
A man called McCawley wearing his dead wife’s clothes pushing her empty wheelchair along the pavement. He saw us waiting by the Land Rover. “Bloody peelers, they should crucify the lot of you,” he said as he picked up our discarded cigarette butts.
“Sean, come on, this is serious. It’s an appointment with the patho,” Crabbie insisted.
He didn’t know that Laura and I had been avoiding one another.
I didn’t know that we had been avoiding one another.
A fortnight ago she’d gone to Edinburgh to do a presentation for a couple of days and after she’d returned she said that she was swamped with catch up work.
That was the official party line. In fact I knew that something was up. Something that had been in the wind for months.
Maybe something that had been in the wind since we had met.
This was her third trip to Edinburgh this year. Had she met someone else? My instincts said no, but even a detective could be blindsided. Perhaps detectives in particular could be blindsided.
For some time now I’d had the feeling that I had trapped her. By putting us in a life and death situation, by getting myself shot. How could she do anything but stay with me through the process of my recovery. She couldn’t possibly leave a man who had fallen into a coma and awoken to find that he had been awarded the Queen’s Police Medal.
She had protected herself to some extent. She had refused to move in with me on Coronation Road, because, she said, the Protestant women gave her dirty looks.
She had bought herself a house in Straid. There had been no talk of marriage. Neither of us had said ‘I love you’.
Before the recent absences we had seen each other two or three times a week.
What were we? Boyfriend and girlfriend? It hardly seemed so much.
But what then?
I had no idea.
Crabbie looked at me with those half closed, irritated brown eyes, and tapped his watch.
“It’s nine fifteen,” he said in that voice of moral authority which came less from being a copper and more from his status as a sixth generation elder in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. “The message, Sean, was to come at nine. We’re late.”
“All right, all right, keep your wig on. Let’s go in,” I said.
Cut to the hospital: Scrubbed surfaces. Lowered voices. A chemical odour of bleach and carpet cleaner. Django Reinhardt’s “Tears” seeping through an ancient Tannoy system.
The new nurse at Reception looked at us sceptically. She was a classic specimen of the brisk, Irish, pretty, no nonsense nursey type.
“There’s no smoking in here, gentlemen,” she said.
I stubbed the fag in the ashtray. “We’re here to see Dr Cathcart,” I said.
“And who are you?”
“Detective Inspector Duffy, Carrick RUC and this is my spiritual coach DC McCrabban.”
“You can go through.”
We stopped outside the swing doors of the Autopsy Room and knocked on the door.
“Who is it?” she asked.
“DI Duffy, DC McCrabban,” I said.
Familiar smells. Bright overhead lights. Stainless steel bowls filled with intestines and internal organs. Glittering precision instruments laid out in neat rows. And the star of the show: our old friend from yesterday lying on gurney.
Laura’s face was behind a mask, which I couldn’t help thinking was wonderfully metaphoric.
“Good morning gentlemen,” she said.
“Good morning Dr. Cathcart,” Crabbie uttered automatically.
“Hi,” I replied cheerfully.
Our eyes met.
She held my look for a couple of seconds and then smiled under the mask.
It was hard to tell but it didn’t seem to be the look of a woman who was leaving you for another man.
“So, what can you tell us about our victim, Dr. Cathcart?” I asked
She picked up her clip board. “He was a white male, about sixty, with grey, canescent hair. He was tall, six four or maybe six five. He had a healed scar on his left buttock consistent with a severe trauma, possibly a car accident, or given his age, a shrapnel wound. There was a tattoo on his back ‘No Sacrifice Too Grea’ which I take to be some kind of motto or Biblical verse. The ‘t’ was missing from ‘Great’ where his skin had adhered to the freezer compartment.”
“The body was frozen for some unspecified period of time. When the body was removed and placed in the suitcase a piece of skin stuck to the freezer, hence the missing ‘t’ in great. I’ve taken photographs of this and they should be developed later today.”
“What did you say the tattoo said?” Crabbie asked, flipping open his notebook.
She shrugged. “A Biblical verse perhaps? ‘No Sacrifice Too Great’.”
I looked at Crabbie. He shook his head. He had no idea either.
“Go on doctor,” I said.
“The victim’s head, arms and legs were removed post mortem. He had also been circumcised, but this had been done at birth.”
She paused and stared at me again.
“Cause of death?” I asked.
“That, Detective Inspector, is where we get into the really interesting stuff.”
“It’s been interesting already,” Crabbie said.
“Please continue, Dr. Cathcart.”
“It was a homicide or perhaps a suicide, either way, it was death by misadventure. The victim was poisoned.”
“Poisoned?” Crabbie and I said together.
“Are you sure?” Crabbie said.
“Quite sure. It was an extremely rare and deadly poison known as Abrin.”
“Never heard of it,” I said.
“Nevertheless that’s what it was. I found Abrin particles in his larynx and oesophagus, and the haemorrhaging of his lungs leaves little doubt,” Laura continued.
“Is it a type of rat poison or something?” I asked.
“No, much rarer than that. Abrin is a natural toxin found in the rosary pea. Of course it would need to be refined and milled. The advantage over rat poison would be in its complete lack of taste. Like I say it is very unusual but I’m quite certain of my findings. . .I did the toxicology myself.”
“Sorry to be dense but what’s a rosary pea?” I asked.
“The common name for the jequirty plant endemic to Trinidad and Tobago but I think it’s originally from south east Asia. Extremely rare in these parts, I had to look it up.”
“Poisoned. . .Jesus,” I said.
“Shall I continue?” she asked.
“The Abrin was taken orally. Possibly with water. Possibly mixed into food. There would have been no taste. Within minutes it would have dissolved in the victim’s stomach and passed into his blood. It would then have penetrated his cells and very quickly protein synthesis would have been inhibited. Without these proteins, cells cannot survive.”
“What would have happened next?”
“Haemorrhaging of the lungs, kidney failure, heart failure, death.”
“Yes, but at least it would have been fairly rapid.”
“How rapid? Seconds, minutes?”
“Minutes. This particular strain of Abrin was home cooked. It was crude. It was not manufactured by a government germ warfare lab.”
“Crude but effective.”
I nodded. “When was all this?”
“That’s another part of the puzzle.”
“It’s impossible to say how long the body was frozen.”
“Are you sure about that freezing thing? There are plenty of ways a bit of skin can come off somebody’s back,” McCrabban said.
“I’m certain, Detective. The cell damage caused by freezing is consistent throughout what’s left of his body.”
“And so you have no idea when all this happened?” I asked.
She shook her head. “It is beyond my capabilities to state how long he was frozen for.”
“So you’re not able to determine a time of death?”
“I am afraid that I am not able to determine a time or date of death. Although I will continue to work on the problem.”
“Poisoned, frozen, chopped up, dumped,” McCrabban said sadly, writing it down in his notebook.
“Yes,” Laura said, yawning. I gave her a smile. Was she already bored by death? Is that what happened to all pathos in the end? Or was she just bored by us? By me?
“The rosary pea. That is interesting,” McCrabban said, still writing in his book. “Our killer is not stupid,” Laura said. “He’s got a little bit of education.”
“Which more or less rules out the local paramilitaries,” McCrabban muttered.
“They’re not that bright?” Laura asked.
“Poison is far too elaborate for them. Too elaborate for everybody really around here. I mean what’s the point? You can get guns anywhere in Northern Ireland,” I said.
McCrabban nodded. “The last poisoning I remember was in 1977,” he said.
“What happened then?” Laura asked.
“Wife poisoned her husband with weedkiller in his tea. Open and shut case,” McCrabban said.
“So what do you think we’re looking at here then? A loner, someone unaffiliated with the paramilitaries?” I asked him.
“Could be,” McCrabban agreed.
“Do us a favour mate, call up a few garden centres and ask about rosary pea and get cracking on ‘No Sacrifice Too Great,’ will ya?”
Crabbie wasn’t dense. He could read between the lines. He could see that I wanted to talk to Laura in private.
“You’ll walk back to the station, will you, Sean?” he asked.
“Aye, I’ll walk, I could do with the exercise.”
“Fair enough,” he said and turned to Laura. “Nice to see you again, Doctor Cathcart.”
“You too, Detective McCrabban,” Laura said.
When he’d gone I walked to her and took off her mask.
“What?” Laura asked.
“Tell me,” I said.
“Tell you what?”
“Tell me what’s going on,” I said.
She shook her head. “Ugh, Sean, I don’t have time for this, today.”
“Time for what exactly?”
“The games. The drama,” she said.
“There’s no drama. I just want to know what’s going on?”
“What are you talking about?”
“What’s going on with us?”
“Nothing’s going on,” she said.
But her voice quavered.
Outside I could hear Crabbie start up the Land Rover.
I waited for a beat or two.
“All right, let’s go to my office,” she said.
We walked the corridor and went into her office. It was the same dull beige with the same Irish watercolours on the wall. She sat in her leather chair and let down her reddish hair. She looked pale, fragile, beautiful.
The seconds crawled.
“It’s not a big deal,” she began.
I closed my eyes and leaned back in the patient chair. Oh shit, I thought, that means it’s going to be a really big deal.
“I’ve been offered a temporary teaching position at the University of Edinburgh,” she said, her voice sounding like it was coming from the bottom of a coal mine.
“Congratulations,” I replied automatically.
“Don’t be unpleasant, Sean.”
“It’s in the medical school. First year class on basic anatomy with a cadaver. To be honest, I need the break, from, from-”
“From all this. . .”
It didn’t have to be about me. Anybody with any brains was getting out. The destination wasn’t important. England, Scotland, Canada, America, Australia. . .the great thing was to go.
She explained why it was an exciting challenge and why it didn’t necessarily mean the end of us.
I nodded, smiled and was happy for her.
I completely understood. She would leave Northern Ireland and she would never come back. I mean who tries to get back on board on the Titanic?
Furthermore her sisters were out of high school and her parents were in the process of moving abroad. The only thing keeping Laura here were her ties to this shitty job and to me and both of those were severable.
“When are thinking of heading?” I asked.
“I signed a lease on an apartment. I need to get furniture.”
“What about your house in Straid?”
“My mum will look after it.”
“What about the hospital? Who’s covering for you here?”
“The other doctors can pick up the slack in the clinic and I’ve asked one of my old teachers to do my autopsy work in the interim. Dr Hagan. He’s coming out of retirement to do me this favour. Very experienced. He worked for Scotland Yard for years and he taught at the Royal Free. He says he’ll be happy to cover me for a few months. He’ll be much better at this kind of work than me.”
“I doubt that.”
And then there was silence. I could hear a kid crying all the way back at Reception.
“Will you have dinner with me this weekend?”
“I’ll be very busy. Packing and all that.”
So that’s the way it was. Well, I wasn’t going to beg. “If you change your mind give me a call.”
I got up. I blinked and looked at her. Her gaze was steady. Resolved. Even relaxed. “Bye, Laura.”
“Bye, Sean. It’s only for a term. Ten weeks,” she said. She wanted to add something else, but her mouth trembled for a moment and then closed.
I nodded and to avoid a scene left it there. I gave her a little nod as I left the office and half slammed her door. “Heart of Glass” by Blondie was my exit music from the hospital Reception.
I went out into the car park and said “Shite! Shite! Shite!” before lighting a fag. I tried to think of a curse but Irish articulacy had clearly declined since the days of Wilde and Yeats, Synge and Shaw. Three ‘shites’ and a ciggie, that was what we could come up with in these diminished times.
I walked over the railway bridge.
A stiff sea breeze was sending foam over the cars on the Belfast Road and there were white caps from here to Scotland. On the Scotch Quarter, outside the Gospel Hall, a wild haired American evangelist with a walking stick was entertaining a crowd of pensioners with the promise that the end was nigh and the dying earth was in its final days. I listened for a while and found him pretty convincing. Before I could be “saved”, however, a freak wave drenched me and another late arrival and the old folks laughed at his perverse joke of Providence.
The Royal Oak was just opening for the day and was already full of sturdy alcoholics and peelers eager to make good on the police discount.
Alex, the barkeep, was dressed in a tie dye shirt, furry boots and a full length velvet cape. Clearly he had discovered a time portal to 1972 or he was off to see Elton John. Neither interested me that much.
I said hello and ordered a stiff Scotch.
“Women or work?” Alex asked.
“Is it always one or the other?” I asked.
“Aye, it is,” he said thoughtfully.
“Women then,” I said.
“In that case, mate, I’ll make it a double on the house,” he said compassionately.
Chapter 3 The Big Red One
I was tempted to order another double whisky and a Guinness and make this a proper session but it was a Friday which meant that the lunch special was deep fried pizza and that stuff reeked of the cardiac ward.
I said hello to Sergeant Burke on the desk, complimented him on his throwback zapata moustache, and went straight upstairs to the incident room.
“Jesus! Where did you come from?” Matty said, caught throwing darts at the dartboard.
“At the nineteenth level of Zen Buddhism you learn how to teleport now put them darts away, we’ve work to do,” I said irritably.
Matty threw the final dart and sat at his desk.
He was getting on my nerves, Matty. He had let his hair grow and because of his natural Mick frizz it had gotten wide. He had a pinky ring and he’d taken to wearing white jackets over white T shirts. I’m not sure what this look was supposed to be exactly but I didn’t like it, even ironically.
He and McCrabban were staring at me with gormless expressions on their faces.
“Missing persons reports?” I asked.
“None so far, Sean.”
“Any luck on that motto?”
“Not yet,” McCrabban replied mournfully.
“Keep at it! Remember what Winston Churchill said, ‘there’ll be plenty of time for wanking when the boats are back from Dunkirk,’ right?”
“I don’t think Churchill ever said any such—”
“And, you Matty, my lad, get on the blower to garden centres and ask about rosary pea.”
We phone called for an hour.
Not a single garden centre in Northern Ireland stocked the rosary pea. I phoned the Northern Ireland Horticultural Society but that too drew a blank. No one they knew had ever shown or grown it. But you’d definitely need a greenhouse they said.
“The killer probably has a greenhouse. Write that on the white board,” I said.
Crabbie added that to our list of boxes and arrows on the incident room white board.
“Keep the calls going. I’m off to the library,” I said.
I walked back along the Scotch Quarter. A Tinker was selling a dangerous looking goat from the back of his Ford Transit. “Goat For Sale. Temper. All Offers Considered,” his sign said.
“No thanks mate,” I said and as it began to hail I hustled into Carrickfergus Library and said good afternoon to Mrs Clemens.
“They say it’ll be a lovely day later,” I added conversationally.
“Who said this?” she demanded suspiciously.
I liked Mrs Clemens very much. She was going on 75. She had lost an eye to cancer and wore an eye patch instead of a glass bead. I dug that - it gave her a piratical air. She was dyspeptic and knew the library backwards and hated anybody borrowing anything.
“Plants, horticulture, botany?” I asked.
“581,” she said. “There are some good encyclopaedias at the beginning of the section.”
I went to 581 and looked up the Rosary Pea:
Abrus precatorius, known commonly as Jequirity, Crab's Eye, Rosary Pea, John Crow Bead, Precatory Bean, Indian Liquorice, Akar Saga, Giddee Giddee or Jumbie Bead in Trinidad & Tobago is a slender, perennial climber that twines around trees, shrubs, and hedges. It is a legume with long, pinnate-leafleted leaves. The plant is native to Indonesia and grows in tropical and subtropical areas of the world where it has been introduced. It has a tendency to become weedy and invasive. In India the seeds of the Rosary Pea are often used in percussion instruments.
“Interesting,” I said to myself. I photocopied the page and, with Mrs Clemens’s help, found a book on poisons. The listing I needed was under Jequirty Seed:
The Jequirty seed contains the highly toxic poison Abrin, a close relative to the well known poison, Ricin. It is a dimer consisting of two protein sub units, termed A and B. The B chain facilitates Abrin's entry into a cell by bonding to certain transport proteins on cell membranes, which then transport the toxin inside the cell. Once inside the cell membrane, the A chain prevents protein synthesis by inactivating the 26S sub unit of the ribosome. One molecule of Abrin will inactivate up to 1,500 ribosomes per second. Symptoms are identical to those of Ricin, save that Abrin is more toxic by several orders of magnitude. Weaponised high toxicity Abrin will cause liver failure, pulmonary edema and death shortly after ingestion. There is no known antidote for Abrin poisoning.
I photocopied that page too and jogged back to the station through the hail. The place was deserted apart from a tubby, annoying new reservist called McDowell who had come up to me on his first day and asked me point blank if “it was true that I was really a fenian” and it was a lucky break for me that it had been raining just then because I was able to dramatically take off my wool cap and ask him to look for horns. The place had erupted in laughter and Inspector McCallister was gagging so hard he nearly threw a hernia. McDowell had avoided me ever since.
I found everyone in a haze of cigarette smoke up in the second floor conference room where Chief Inspector Brennan was giving a briefing on the current terrorist situation – a briefing he had just been given at a station chiefs and divisional commanders meeting in Belfast. “Glad you could join us, Inspector Duffy, do have a seat, this concerns you too!”
“Yes, sir,” I said and took a chair at the back of the room next to Sergeants Burke and Quinn.
I listened but I wasn’t paying much attention. Brennan told us that we were in what the boys in Special Branch called a “regrouping and reconnaissance period”. The IRA’s problem was very much an embarrassment of riches. IRA recruitment had soared because of the Hunger Strikes last year and especially after the martyrdom of Bobby Sands. Volunteers were having to be turned away and money was flowing into the organisation through protection rackets, narcotics, and pub collection boxes in Irish bars in Boston and New York. The Libyans had supplied the IRA with Semtex explosive, rockets and Armalite rifles. The IRA leadership was currently having difficulty figuring out what to do with all its men and guns but the lull wouldn’t last and we were all to be on our guard for what could be an epic struggle ahead.
Brennan’s method was only to give us the facts and he didn’t bother with a pep talk or encouraging words. We were all too jaded for that and he knew it. He didn’t even break out his stash of good whisky which wasn’t really on at all.
“Are you paying attention to this, Duffy?” he asked.
“Aye, sir, ce n’est pas un revolte, it’s a friggin revolution, isn’t it?”
“Aye it is. And don’t talk foreign. All right everyone, you’re dismissed,” he said brusquely.
I corralled Matty and McCrabban back into the incident room where our white board gleamed with a big red “1” drawn above the list of known facts about our John Doe.
“What’s that for?” I asked Crabbie.
He grinned and got me a sheet of paper from his desk which turned out to be his notes on the First Infantry Division of the United States Army.
“Our boy is a Yank. ‘No Mission Too Difficult, No Sacrifice Too Great,’ is the motto of the United States Army’s First Infantry Division. I did some digging. If our John Doe was World War 2 age, his unit was in the worst of it: Sicily, Normandy, The Hurtgen Forest. That’s maybe where he got the shrapnel wounds too.”
“Excellent work, Crabbie!” I said, really pleased. “This is great! It gives us a lot to go on. An American! Boy oh boy.”
“I helped!” Matty protested a little petulantly.
“I’m sure you did, mate,” I reassured him.
“An American ex G.I. comes to Northern Ireland for his holidays or to visit his old haunts and the poor bugger somehow ends up poisoned,” Crabbie said reflectively.
“Aye,” I said and rubbed my chin. “Have you been on the phone to Customs and Immigration?”
“We have. They’re on it now. We’ve got them compiling a list of names of all American visitors to Northern Ireland in the last three months,” Matty said.
“Why three months?”
“If his body was frozen it could have been any time at all, but any earlier than three months and we surely would have had a missing persons report,” Matty said a little oversensitively.
“Call them up and ask them to go back a full year,” I said.
“Jesus, Sean, that could be hundreds of names, maybe thousands,” Matty said.
“We’ll go back five years if we have to. We’re looking for a result here. You heard what the Chief said. We’ve got the luxury of one case right now. We could be looking at murders a plenty in the next couple of months.”
Matty nodded and got on the phone and I shared what I had found about the nature of the poison with McCrabban.
“That’s a rare old bird indeed,” he said.
“We’ve got to see who could grow a plant like that, or where you could get the seeds.”
“Back on the bloody blower?” he asked.
“Back on the bloody blower, mate.”
I went to the crapper and read The Sun, a copy of which was always in there. I’ll say this for Rupert Murdoch he made a good paper to read on the bog.
When I came out Matty was looking triumphant.
“What did customs say about the names?” I asked.
“Well there was a lot of complaining. They’re harder to call than the Calor Gas Complaints department.”
“Did you lean on them?”
“Those bastards hate to do any work, but I applied the thumbscrews and they said they’ll have them for us by the end of the week.”
“Good. In civil service speak that means the end of the year.”
“Aye, so what do you want me to work on now?”
“Is that suitcase still around?”
“Of course. It’s in the evidence room.”
“See if you can find out where it came from, how many were sold in Northern Ireland, that kind of thing.”
“What good will that do?” he said with an attitude.
“Matty in the words of William Shakespeare: just fucking do it, ya wee shite.”
“Will do, boss,” he replied and went to the evidence room to unwrap the suitcase from its plastic covering.
We called garden centres all over Ireland for the rest of the afternoon. We got nothing. Few had heard of rosary pea and no one had a record of anyone growing it or requesting seeds.
I phoned the General Post Office in Belfast and asked if they had any records of seeds being seized or coming through the mail. They said that they had no idea and would call me back.
McCrabban called UK customs to ask them the same question and after going through a couple of flunkies a “police liaison officer” told him that importing such seeds was not illegal or subject to duty so customs would have no interest in them.
The post office phoned back with the same story.
I called Dick Savage in Special Branch. Dick had taken chemistry at Queens University about the same time as me. He wasn’t a high flyer but he’d written several surprisingly acute internal memos on methods of suicide and how to distinguish a true suicide from a murder disguised to look like one.
Dick had heard of Abrin but had never heard of it being used in a poisoning anywhere in the British Isles. He told me he’d look into it.
I went into see Chief Inspector Brennan and broke the bad news that our John Doe was definitely American but that we had a good chance of finding out who he was through the immigration records.
“When we’ve got his name we should inform the US Consulate. And we’ll probably need the Consulate’s help cross referencing our list of names against veterans of the First Infantry Division.”
Brennan nodded. “I suppose you want me to call them.”
“Better coming from you, sir. You’re the head of station. More official, all that jazz.”
“You just don’t want to do it.”
“Could be a difficult phone call.”
“I’m feeling a bit fragile today, sir. I may just have been dumped by my girlfriend.”
“That doctor bint you were seeing?”
“I could see that coming. She was out of your league, son.”
“Will you make the call, sir?”
“It’ll be the start of a shitstorm. . .a dead American as if we don’t have enough problems.”
I stood there and let weary resignation over come over his weathered face like melted lard over a cast iron skillet. He sighed dramatically. “All right. I suppose I’ll do it for you, like I do everything around here. You’re sure he’s a Yank?”
I told him about the tattoo.
“All right, good. Scram. And get Carol’s cake, ready. She’s in in half an hour.”
When Carol came in at three we had her party.
Tea, cake, party hats, both types of lemonade.
Carol had been on planet Earth for sixty years. She ate the cake, drank the tea, smiled and said how wonderful it all was. Brennan gave her a toast and it was Brennan not Carol who told us the story of her first week on the job in 1941 when a Luftwaffe Heinkel 111 dropped a stick of 250 kilograms bombs on the station. We’d all heard the tale before but it was a reteller. The only person who’d been hurt that day was a prisoner in the cells who broke an arm. Course up in Belfast where the rest of the Heinkel squadron had gone, people were less fortunate.
The sun came out and the day brightened to such an extent that a few us spilled out onto the fire escape and started slipping rum into the Coke. A pretty female reservist with a tiny waist and a weird Geordieland accent asked me if it was true that “I had killed three men with my bare hands.”
She was creeping me out so I made myself scarce, gave Carol a kiss, said goodnight to the lads, locked up the office and headed home.
Coronation Road in Victoria Housing Estate was in one of its rare moments of serenity: stray dogs sleeping in the middle of the street, feral moggies walking on slate roofs, women with rollers in their hair hanging washing on plastic lines, men with flat caps and pipes digging in their gardens. Children from three streets were playing an elaborate game of hide and seek called 123 Kick A Tin. Children who were adorable and shoeless and dressed like extras from a 50’s movie.
I parked the BMW outside my house, nodded a hello to the neighbours and went inside.
I made a vodka gimlet in a pint glass, stuck on a random tin of soup and with infinitely more care picked out a selection of records that would get me through the evening: “Unknown Pleasures” by Joy Division, “Bryter Layter” by Nick Drake and Neil Young’s “After The Goldrush”. Yeah, I was in that kind of mood.
I lay on the leather sofa and watched the clock. The children’s game ended. The lights come on all over Belfast. The army helicopters took to the skies.
The phone rang.
“Is this Duffy?”
“Who wants to know?”
“I was looking for you at work, Duffy, but apparently you’d left already. Lucky for some, eh?”
It was the weasly Kenny Dalziel from clerical.
“What’s the matter, Kenny?”
“The situation is a disaster. A total disaster. I’ve been pulling my hair out. You don’t happen to know who started all this, do you?”
“What’s this about, Kenny?”
“It’s yet another problem with your department, Inspector Duffy. Specifically Detective Constable Matty McBride’s claim for overtime in the last pay period. It’s tantamount to fraud.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.”
“Constable McBride cannot claim for time and a half danger money while also claiming overtime! That would be triple time and believe me, Duffy, nobody, and I mean nobody, is getting triple time on my watch. . .”
I stopped paying attention. When the conversation reached a natural conclusion I told him that I understood his concern and hung up the phone. I switched on the box. A preacher on side. Thought for the day on the other. This country was Bible mad.
Half an hour later Dick Savage called me with info about Abrin. It was an extremely rare poison that he said had never been used in any murder case anywhere in the British Isles. He thought that maybe it had been used in a couple of incidents in America and I might want to look into that.
I thanked him and called Laura, but she didn’t pick up the phone.
I made myself another vodka gimlet, drank it, turned off the soup, and put “Bryter Layter” on album repeat and then changed my mind. Nick Drake like heroin or Marmite was best in small doses.
As was typical of Ulster’s spring weather systems, a hard horizontal rain was lashing the kitchen windows now so I switched the record player to its ‘78 mode and after some rummaging I found “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall” by The Ink Spots with Ella Fitzgerald.
I tolerated the Ink Spot guy singing the first verse but when Ella came on I just about lost it.
The phone startled me.
“You know the way you’re always saying that I’m a lazy bastard and that I don’t take this job seriously?”
It was Matty.
“I don’t believe that I’ve ever said any such thing, Matty. In fact I was just defending your honour to that hatchet faced goblin, Dalziel, in clerical,” I said.
“That sounds like a bold faced lie.”
“You’re paranoid, mate.” I told him.
“Well, while all you lot were copping off with female reservists and buggering away home I’ve been burning the midnight whale blubber.”
“I’ve only gone and made a breakthrough, so I have.”
“What’s that racket in the background?”
“That ‘racket’ is Ella Fitzgerald.”
“Never heard of him.”
“What’s going on, mate? Have you really found something out?”
“I’ve only gone and cracked the bloody case, so I have,” he said.
“Our John Doe in the suitcase?”
“Go on then, you’re killing me.”
“Well, I was on the late shift anyway to cover the station, so I thought instead of breaking out the old stash of Penthouses and having a wank I’d do something useful and get back on that suitcase. . .”
“Yes. . ?”
“No forensics at all. No liftable prints. Blood belongs to our boy. But you know the wee plastic window where people write their addresses?”
“McCrabban already checked that window there was no address card in there. No one would be that much of an eejit.”
“That’s what I thought too but I cut it open and I noticed a wee sliver of card scrunched up in the bottom of the window. You couldn’t possibly have seen it unless you cut open the plastic and shone a torch down into the gap.”
“Shite is right, mate.”
“It was an old address card?”
“I got a pair of tweezers, pulled it out, unscrunched it and lo and behold I’ve only gone and got the name and address of the person who owned the suitcase!”
“Who was it?”
“Somebody local. A bloke called Martin McAlpine, Red Hall Cottage, The Mill Bay Road, Ballyharry, Islandmagee. What do you think about that?”
“So it wasn’t the dead American’s suitcase then?”
“Doesn’t look like it, does it? It’s like you always say, Sean, the concept of the master criminal is a myth. Most crooks are bloody eejits.”
“You’re a star, Matty, my lad.”
“An underappreciated star. What’s our next move, boss?”
“I think, Matty, that you and me will be paying Mr McAlpine a wee visit first thing in the morning.”
“Tomorrow? It’s a Saturday.”
“Nothing. Sounds like a plan.”
“See you at the barracks. Seven sharp.”
“Can’t we go later?”
“Can’t go later, mate. I’m having me portrait done by Lucian Freud and then I’m off to Anfield, playing centre back for Liverpool on account of Alan Hansen’s injury.”
“Come on, Sean, I like to sleep in on a Saturday.”
“Nah, mate, We’ll go early, get the drop on him. It’ll be fun.”
“And well done again pal. You did good.”
I hung up the phone. Funny how things turned out. Just like that, very quickly indeed, this potentially tricky investigation was breaking wide open.
Chapter 4 Machine Gun Silhouette
The alarm was set to Sports Talk on Downtown Radio which was a nice non threatening way to start the day. The conversation this morning was about Northern Ireland’s chances in the 1982 World Cup. The topic, as usual, had gotten round to George Best and whether the 35 year old had any game left in him. The last I had heard of Best was his notorious stint playing with Hibernian when he was more famous for out drinking the entire French rugby team and seducing the reigning Misses World and Universe in the same weekend.
I turned off the radio, made coffee, dressed in a black polo neck sweater, jeans and DM shoes, went outside. I checked under the BMW for any mercury tilt explosives but didn’t find any. Right about now seven thousand RUC men and women were all doing the same thing. One or two of them would find a bomb and after shitting their pants they’d be on the phone to the bomb squad, thanking their lucky stars that they’d kept to their morning routine.
I stuck on the radio and listened to Brian Eno on the short drive to the barracks. Wasn’t a big fan of Eno but it was either that or the news and I couldn’t listen to the news. Who could, apart from those longing for the end times.
I thought about Laura. I didn’t know what to do. Was I in love with her? What did that feel like? If she went away it would hurt, it would ache. Was that love? How come I was 32 and I didn’t know. Was that bloody normal? “Jesus,” I said to myself. Thirty two years old and I had the emotional depth of a teenager.
Maybe it was the situation, maybe Northern Ireland kept you paralysed, infantilized, backward. . .Aye blame that.
I nodded to Ray at the guard house and pulled into the police station.
As usual Matty was late and before we could get rolling Sergeant Burke told me that Newtownabbey RUC needed urgent assistance dealing with a riot in Rathcoole. It was completely the wrong direction, I was a detective not a riot cop, and I outranked Burke, but you couldn’t really turn down brother officers in need, could you?
With Matty grumbling things like “this isn’t what I signed on for,” and “I could be fishing right now,” we burned up the A2 to that delightful concrete circle of hell known as the Rathcoole Estate.
“Good Friday night?” I asked Matty when his moaning was over.
“Oh it was a classic, mate. Since I wasn’t allowed out, it was a fish supper, a six pack of Special Brew and a wank to Sapphire and Steel on the video.”
“David McCallum or Joanna Lumley?”
Matty rolled his eyes.
We arrived at Rathcoole to find that it was only a half hearted sort of riot that had been running since the night before. About thirty hoods on the ground throwing stones and Molotovs from behind a burnt out bus, maybe another two dozen comrades offering them assistance by tossing petrol filled milk bottles from the high rise tower blocks nearby. The cops under a Chief Superintendent Anderson were keeping well back and letting the ruffians exhaust themselves. I reported to Anderson while Matty stayed in the Rover reading The Cramps’ fanzine: Legion of the Cramped. Anderson thanked me for coming but said that we weren’t needed.
He asked if I wanted a coffee and poured me one from a flask. We got to talking about the nature of riots, Anderson venturing the opinion that social deprivation was at the root cause of it and I suggested that ennui was the disease of late twentieth century man. Things were going swimmingly until Anderson began banging on about “it all being part of God’s plan” and I decided to make myself scarce.
“If we’re not needed, we’ll move out, sir, if that’s ok with you?” I said and he said that that was fine.
It was when we were safely back in the Rover and heading out of the Estate that we were hit by a jerry can petrol bomb thrown from a low rise. It exploded with a violent whoosh across the windscreen and it was followed a second or two later by a burst of heavy machine gun fire that dinged violently off the Land Rover’s armoured hull.
“Jesus Christ!” Matty screamed while I put my foot on the accelerator to get us away from the trouble. More machine gun fire tore up the road behind us and rattled off the rear doors.
“They’re shooting at us!” Matty yelled.
I hammered down the clutch, switched back into third gear and accelerated round a bend in the road. I got us a hundred yards from the corner and then I hand-break turned the Land Rover in a dramatic, tire squealing 180. Fire was melting the Land Rover’s window wipers and licking its way down towards the engine block. If it reached the petrol tank. . .I grabbed my service revolver and the fire extinguisher.
“You’re not going out there without a bullet proof vest are you?” Matty said, horrified.
“Call the incident in, ask Anderson to send down help and tell them to be careful,” I barked and opened the side door.
“Don’t go out there, Sean! That’s what they want! It’s an ambush.”
“Not with half the police force just up the road. They’ve long gone. Two quick bursts on a machine gun and they’ll be heroes in the pub tonight.”
“Call it in!”
I got out of the Land Rover, pointed my service revolver at the surrounding low rises but no one was around. Keeping the revolver in one hand and the fire extinguisher in the other I sprayed foam over the windscreen and easily dowsed the flame.
I climbed inside the Rover to wait for back up. We sat there for twenty five minutes but Anderson’s lads never came so I told Matty that we’d write up the incident ourselves later since we had actual work to do this morning.
“Unless that is this offends your forensic officer sensibilities and you feel compelled to go back to the scene of the shooting and gather shell cases, pieces of jerry can and other assorted evidence?”
“Bollocks to that!” Matty said and we took the A2 north again. Unfortunately the petrol bomb had burned the rubber off one of the tires and we limped back to Carrickfergus RUC to get a replacement Rover.
This day was destined never to get going. Brennan was in his office now with a nasty look on his once handsome face. I tried to avoid him by sneaking to the incident room while Matty was signing out a new Rover, but the bugger saw and summoned me.
“Hello sir, what are you doing in on a Saturday morning?” I said.
“My duty, Duffy, my duty. What progress have you made on your murder victim?” he muttered putting his feet up on his desk. He was wearing slippers and some kind of dressing gown and he hadn’t shaved. Had he been secretly here all night? Was there trouble on the home front? Should I offer him my big empty house on Coronation Road? Before even the possibility of an Oscar & Felix scenario formed in my brain, I reconsidered: he was a Presbyterian and no doubt he’d take my offer as some kind insult to his pride.
“A couple of promising leads, sir. We have Customs and Immigration getting us a list of names of Americans who entered Northern Ireland in the last year and we’ll cross reference that with any who are the right demographic and have served with the First Infantry Division. I’m optimistic that we should be able to ID our victim pretty soon.”
“Good,” he said with a yawn. “What else?”
“We found a name in that suitcase our victim was locked up in. Matty found the name I should say - good police work from him. It was an old address label and we’re going to follow up on that this morning.”
“If you don’t mind me saying, sir, if you’re looking for a place to stay I’ve got a big empty house on Coronation Road,” I blurted out despite myself.
Brennan looked at his slippers, took his feet off the memo pad and hid them under his desk. He was pissed off that I’d accurately deduced his home situation. He had presence, did Brennan, like a fallen actor once famous for his Old Vic Claudius now doing Harp lager commercials on UTV.
“You know what you could do for me, Duffy?”
“You could build a fucking time machine, go back forty five seconds and shut the fuck up after I say the word ‘excellent’ ok?”
“And you look bloody terrible. What’s the matter with you? The flu?”
“No, sir, Matty and I were out in a Rover and someone threw a petrol bomb. I had to go out and extinguish it.”
“Someone threw a petrol bomb at ya? Did you write it up?”
“No, sir, not yet.”
“See that you do.”
“Have you read the papers this morning, Sean?” he said in a less abrasive voice.
“Listened to the news?”
“You have to stay abreast of current events, inspector!”
“Yes, sir. Anything interesting happening?”
“General Galtieri has decided that his personal manifesto, like all the very best manifestos, needs to be unleashed on the world in a rainy windswept bog, filled with sheep shit.”
“General who? What?”
“Argentina has invaded the Falkland Islands.”
“The Falkland Islands?”
“The Falkland Islands.”
“I’m not really any the wiser, sir.”
“They’re in the South Atlantic. According to the Mail they’ve got 10,000 troops on there by now.”
“You know what that means for us, don’t you? Thatcher’s going to have to take them back. It’s either that or resign. She’ll be sending out an invasion fleet. They’ll be getting troops from everywhere. I imagine we’ll lose half a dozen regiments from here.”
“That’s going to stretch us thin.”
About half of the anti-terrorist and border patrols in Northern Ireland were conducted by the British Army, we, the police, could not easily pick up the slack.
Brennan rubbed his face. “It’s bad timing. The IRA’s gearing up for a campaign and we’re going to be losing soldiers just when they’re surging. We could be in for an even trickier few months than we thought.”
“And spare a thought for what will happen if it’s a debacle. If Thatcher doesn’t get the islands back.”
“She resigns, the government collapses and there’s a general election. If Labour wins and they will, that’s it mate, the ball game is fucking over.”
The Labour Party under Michael Foot had a policy of unilateral withdrawal from Ireland, which meant that they would withdraw all British soldiers and civil servants. Ireland would be united at last under Dublin rule which was all fine and dandy except that the Irish Army had only a few battalions and it was a laughable idea that they would be able to keep the peace. What it would mean would be full scale civil war with a million well armed geographically tightly-knit Protestants against the rest of the island’s four million Catholics. There would be a nice little bloodbath until the US Marines arrived.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” I said.
“Best not to.”
He picked up his copy of The Daily Mail.
The headline was one word and screamed “Invasion!”
I noticed that the date on the paper was April 3rd.
“Are you sure this isn’t all some kind of belated April Fool’s joke?”
“It’s no joke, Duffy, the BBC are carrying it, all the papers, everybody.”
“We won’t get our knickers in a twist. We’ll take all this one day at a time.”
“Back to work. Get out there and wrap up this murder investigation of yours.”
I pushed back the chair and stood.
“One more thing, Duffy. ‘A chaperone for a conquistador perhaps’?” he said tapping his crossword puzzle with his pencil and then thoughtfully chewing the end of it.
It was easy enough. “I think its an anagram, sir,” I said.
“An anagram of what, Duffy?”
“Cortes,” I said trying to lead him to the solution but he still didn’t get it and he knew that I knew the answer.
“Just tell me, Duffy!” he said.
“What? Oh, yes, of course. . .now piss off.”
As I was leaving the office I saw Matty struggling to get a long knitted scarf out of his locker.
“No scarves. Accept it. The Tom Baker era is over, mate,” I told him.
Hard rain along the A2.
Matty driving the Land Rover.
Me riding shotgun, literally: a Winchester M12 pump action across my lap in case we got ambushed on one of the back roads.
I put a New Order cassette in the player. They’d gone all disco but it wasn’t as bad as you would have thought.
“Did you hear the news, Matty?”
“You have to stay up with current events, constable. The Falklands have been invaded.”
“Argentina has invaded the Falkland Islands.”
“Jesus, when was this?”
“First the Germans and now the bloody Argentinians.”
“You’re thinking of the Channel Islands, mate.”
“Where’s the Falklands then?”
“Uhm, somewhere sort of South, I think.”
“I suppose that’s Spurs fucked now isn’t it?”
“Half their team’s from bloody Argentina. They’ll be well off their game.”
“The Chief Inspector wants us to think about the geo-political consequences.”
“Aye, geo-politics is one thing, but football’s football isn’t it?” Matty said, putting things into a proper perspective.
Chapter 5 The Widow McAlpine
We drove through the town of Whitehead and hugged the shore of Larne Lough until we were on Islandmagee. Islandmagee was an odd place. A peninsula about six miles north east of Carrickfergus with Larne Lough on one side and the Irish Sea on the other. It was near the major metropolitan centre and ferry port of Larne, yet it was a world away. When you drove onto Islandmagee it was like going back to an Ireland of 100 or even 200 years before. The people were country people, suspicious of strangers and for me their accent and dialect were at times difficult to understand. I got it when they used the occasional word in Irish but often I found them speaking a form of lowland Scots straight out of Robert Burns. They almost sounded like Americans from the high country of Kentucky or Tennessee.
I’d been there several times. Always in my civvies as I’d heard that they didn’t like peelers snooping around. As Matty drove I unfolded the ordnance survey map and found Ballyharry. It was half way up the lough shore, opposite the old cement works in Magheramorne. On the map it was a small settlement, a dozen houses at the most.
We turned off the Shore Road onto the Ballyharry Road. A bump chewed the New Order tape so I flipped through the radio stations. All the English ones were talking about the Falklands but Irish radio wasn’t interested in Britain’s colonial wars and instead were interviewing a woman who had seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary who had told her that the sale of contraceptive devices in Dublin would bring a terrible vengeance from God and his host of Angels.
The Ballyharry Road led to the Mill Bay Road: small farms, whitewashed cottages, stone walls, sheep, rain. I looked for Red Hall but didn’t see it.
Finally there was a small private single laned track that led into the hills that had a gate and a sign nailed to an old beech tree which said “Red Hall Manor, Private, No Trespassing,” and underneath that another sign which said “No Coursing or Shooting Without Express Permission.”
“You think this is place?” I asked looking up the road.
Matty examined the map and shrugged. “We might as well give it a go.”
We drove past a small wood and into a broad valley.
There were farms dotted about the landscape, some little more than ruins.
A sign by one of them said Red Hall Cottage and Matty slammed on the brakes. It was a small farm surrounded by flooded, boggy fields and a couple of dozen miserable sheep. The building itself was a whitewashed single storey house with a few cement and breeze block buildings in the rear. It looked a right mess. Most of the outbuildings had holes in the exterior walls and the farmhouse could have done with a coat of paint. The roof was thatched and covered with rusting wire. The car out front was a Land Rover Defender circa 1957.
“Well, I don’t think we’re dealing with an international hitman, that’s for sure,” I said.
“Unless he’s got all his money overseas in a Swiss Bank.”
“Maybe you should go in first boss and I’ll stay here by the radio in case there’s any shooting.”
“All right,” he said with resignation.
We parked the Rover and walked along the muddy farm yard to the house.
“My shoes are getting ruined,” Matty said treading gingerly around the muck and pot holes. He was wearing expensive Nike gutties and unflared white jeans. Is that what the kids were sporting these days?
An Alsatian snarled at us, struggling desperately at the edge of a long piece of rope.
“Yon bugger wants to rip our throats out,” Matty said.
The chickens pecking all around us seemed unconcerned by the dog but he did look like a nasty brute.
We reached the whitewashed cottage, the postcardy effect somewhat spoiled by a huge rusting oil tank for the central heating plonked right outside. There was no bell or knocker so we rapped on the wooden front door. After a second knock, we heard a radio being turned off and a female voice asked:
“Who is it?”
“It’s the police,” I said. “Carrickfergus RUC.”
“What do you want?” the voice asked.
“We want to talk to Martin McAlpine.”
“Hold on a sec!”
We waited a couple of minutes and a young woman answered the door. She had a towel wrapped round her head and she was wearing an ugly green dressing gown. She’d clearly only just stepped out of the bath or the shower. She was about 22, with grey-blue eyes, red eyebrows, freckles. She was pretty in an unnerving, dreamy, “She Moved Through The Fair”, kind of way.
“Good morning ma’am. Detective Inspector Duffy, Detective Constable McBride from Carrickfergus RUC. We’re looking for a Martin McAlpine. We believe that this is his address,” I said.
She smiled at me and her eyebrows arched in a well calibrated display of annoyance and contempt.
“This is why this country is going down the drain,” she muttered.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“I said this is why this country is going down the drain. Nobody cares. Nobody is remotely competent at their jobs.”
Her voice had a distinct Islandmagee country accent tinge to it, but there was something else there too. She spoke well, with a middle class diction and without hesitation. She’d had a decent education it seemed or a year or two at Uni.
The dog kept barking and two fields over a door opened in another thatched farm house and a man smoking a pipe came out to gawk at us. The woman waved to him and he waved back.
I looked at Matty to see if he knew what she was talking about it but he was in the dark too. I took out my warrant card and showed it to her.
“Carrickfergus RUC,” I said again.
“Heard you the first time,” she said.
“Is this Martin McAlpine’s address?” Matty asked.
“What’s this about?” she demanded.
“It’s a murder investigation,” I told her.
“Well Martin didn’t do it, that’s for sure,” she said, reaching into the dressing gown pocket and pulling out a packet of cigarettes. She put one in her mouth but she didn’t have a lighter. I got my Zippo, flipped it and lit it for her.
“Ta,” she muttered.
“So can we speak to Mr. McAlpine?”
“If you’re a medium.”
“My husband’s dead. He was shot not fifty feet from here last December.”
“Oh shit,” Matty said sotto voce.
She took a puff on the cigarette and shook her head. “Why don’t the pair of youse come in out of the rain. I’ll make you a cup of tea before you have to drive back to Carrick.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The farm house was small, with thick stone walls and cubby windows. It smelled of peat from the fire. We sat down on a brown bean bag sofa. There were spaces on the mantle and empty frames where photographs had once been. Even Matty could have figured out what the frames had once contained.
She came back with three mugs of strong sweet tea and sat opposite us in an uncomfortable looking rocking chair.
“So what’s this all about?”
“I’m very sorry about your husband,” I said. “We had no idea. He was shot by terrorists?”
“The IRA killed him because he was in the UDR. He was only a part timer. He was going up the hills to check on the sheep. They must have been waiting behind the gate out there. They shot him in the chest. He never knew a thing about it, or so they say.”
Yes, we had really ballsed this one up and no mistake.
“I’m very sorry. We should have checked the name before we came out here,” I said pathetically.
The Ulster Defence Regiment was a locally recruited regiment of the British Army. They conducted foot patrols and joint patrols with the police and as such they were a vital part of the British government’s anti terrorist strategy. There were about five thousand UDR men and women in Northern Ireland. The IRA assassinated between 50 - 100 of them every year, most in attacks like the one that had killed Mrs McAlpine’s husband: mercury tilt switch bombs under cars, rural ambushes and the like.
As coppers though we looked down on UDR men. We saw ourselves as elite professionals and them as well. . .fucking wasters for the most part. Sure they were brave and put their lives on the line, but who didn’t in this day and age?
There was also the fact that many of the hated disbanded B Specials had joined the UDR and that occasionally guns from their depots would find their way into the hands of the paramilitaries. I mean, I’m sure ninety five percent of the UDR soldiers were decent, hardworking people, but there were definitely more bad apples in the regiment than in the RUC.
Not that any of that mattered now. We should have known about the death of a security forces comrade and we didn’t.
“Hold on there, that tea’s too wet. I’ll get some biscuits,” Mrs McAlpine said.
When she had gone Matty put up his hands defensively.
“Don’t blame me, this was your responsibility, boss,” he said. “You just asked for an address. You didn’t tell me to check the births and deaths. . .”
“I know, I know. It can’t be helped.”
“We’ve made right arses of ourselves. In front of a good looking woman, too,” Matty said.
“I’m surprised the name didn’t ring a bell.”
“December of last year was a bad time, the IRA were killing someone every day, we can’t remember all of them,” Matty protested.
It was true. Last November/December there’d been a lot of IRA murders including the notorious assassination of a fairly moderate Unionist MP, the Reverend Robert Bradford, which had absorbed most of the headlines; for one reason and another the IRA tended not to target local politicians but when they did it got the ink pots flowing.
The widow McAlpine came back in with a tray of biscuits.
She was still wearing the dressing gown but she’d taken the towel off her head. Her hair was chestnut red, curly, long. Somehow it made her look much older. Late twenties, maybe thirty. And she would age fast out here in the boglands on a scrabble sheep farm with no husband and no help.
“This is lovely, thanks,” Matty said helping himself to a chocolate digestive.
“So what’s this all about?” she asked.
I told her about the body in the suitcase and the name tag that we’d found inside the case.
“I gave that suitcase away just before Christmas with all of Martin’s stuff. I couldn’t bear to have any of his gear around me anymore and I thought that somebody might have the use of it.”
“Can you tell us where you left it?” I asked.
“Yes. The Carrickfergus Salvation Army.”
“And this was just before Christmas?”
“About a week before.”
“Ok, we’ll check it out.”
We finished our tea and stared at the peat logs crackling in the fireplace. Matty, the cheeky skitter, finished the entire plate of chocolate digestives.
“Well we should be heading on,” I said, stood and pulled Matty up before he scoffed the poor woman out of house and home.
“We’re really sorry to have bothered you, Mrs McAlpine.”
“Not at all. It chills the blood thinking that someone used Martin’s old suitcase to get rid of a body.”
“Aye, it does indeed.”
She walked us to the front door.
“Well thanks again,” I said and offered her my hand.
She shook it and didn’t let go when I tried to disengage.
“It was just out there where your Land Rover was parked. They must have been hiding behind the stone wall. Two of them, they said. Gave him both barrels of a shotgun and sped off on a motorbike. Point blank range. Doctor McCreery said that he wouldn’t have known a thing about it.”
“I’m sure that’s the case,” I said and tried let go, but still she held on.
“He only joined for the money. This place doesn’t pay anything. We’ve forty sheep on twelve acres of bog.”
She pulled me closer.
“Aye, they say he didn’t know anything but he was still breathing when I got to him, trying to breathe anyway. His mouth was full of blood, he was drowning in it. Drowning on dry land in his own blood.”
Matty was staring at the woman, his eyes wide with horror and I was pretty spooked too. The widow McAlpine had us both, but me literally, in her grip.
“I’ll go start the Land Rover,” Matty said.
I made a grab at his sleeve as he walked away.
“He was a Captain. He wasn’t just a grunt. He was a God fearing man. An intelligent man. He was going places. And he was snuffed out just like that.”
She looked me square the in face and her expression was accusatory - as if I was somehow responsible for all of this.
Her rage had turned her cheeks as red as her bap.
“He was going to work?” I muttered for something to say.
“Aye, he was just heading up to the fields to bring the yearlings in, him and Cora. I doubt we would have had a dozen of them.”
“I’m really very sorry,” I said.
She blinked twice and suddenly seemed to notice that I was standing there in front of her.
“Oh,” she said.
She let go of my hand. “Excuse me,” she mumbled.
“It’s ok,” I said and took a step backwards. “Have a good morning.”
I walked back across the yard towards the Land Rover.
The rain was heavier now.
The Alsatian started snarling and barking at me again.
“That’s enough, Cora!” Mrs McAlpine yelled.
The dog stopped barking but didn’t cease straining at its rope leash.
“That is one mean crattur,” Matty said as I got into the front seat of the Land Rover.
“The dog or the woman?”
“The dog. Hardly the temperament for a sheep dog.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sheep dogs are supposed to like people.”
I looked back at the farm house and Mrs McAlpine was still standing there.
“Jesus she’s still bloody staring at us, get this thing going Matty.”
He turned on the Land Rover and manoeuvred it in a full circle in the farm yard. The sodden chickens flew and hopped away from us.
We drove out of the gate and began going down the lane.
The man with the pipe across the valley was still there in front of his house looking at us and another man on a tractor one field over on a little hill had stopped his vehicle to get a good gander at us too.
We were the local entertainment for the day.
“Where to now, boss?” Matty asked.
“I don’t know. Carrick Salvation Army to see if they remember who they sold that suitcase to?”
“And then back to the station to see if customs have that list of names yet.”
Matty put the heavy, armoured Land Rover in first gear and began driving down the lane keeping it well over on the ridge so that we wouldn’t get stuck in the mud.
He stuck on the radio and looked to see if I would mind Adam and the Ants on Radio One.
I didn’t mind.
I wasn’t really listening.
Something was bothering me.
It was something Matty had said.
It was a mean animal. An Alsatian, yes, but trained to be a mean. I’d bet a week’s pay that it was primarily a guard dog. As Matty pointed out, on a sheep farm you’d want a Border Collie, but Martin McAlpine’s herd was so small he didn’t need that much help with the round up and so he’d got himself a good watch dog instead.
“Stop the car,” I said to Matty.
“Stop the bloody car!”
He put in the clutch and brake and we squelched to a halt.
“Turn us around, drive us back to the McAlpines.”
“Just do it.”
He put the Rover in first gear and drove us back down the lane. When we reached the stone wall, Matty killed the engine and we got out of the Rover and walked across the muddy farmyard again.
I knocked on her door and she opened it promptly.
She had changed into jeans and a mustard coloured jumper. She had tied her hair back into a pony tail.
“Sorry to bother you again, Mrs McAlpine,” I said.
“No bother, Inspector. What else was I going to do today? Wash the windows a second time?”
“I wanted to ask you a question about Cora? Is that the name of your dog?”
“And you say your husband was going up to bring the yearlings in is that right?”
“And did he normally take Cora with him?”
“So she wasn’t tied up?”
“Hmmm,” I said and rubbed my chin.
“What are you getting at?” she asked.
“Was Cora always this bad tempered or is this just since your husband was shot?”
“She’s never liked strangers.”
“And you say the gunmen were waiting just behind the stone wall, right out there beyond the farmyard?”
“They must have been because Martin didn’t see them until it was too late.”
“You say they shot him in the chest?”
“Chest and neck.”
“Did you hear the shot?”
“Oh yes. I knew what it was immediately. A shotgun. I’ve heard plenty of them in my time.”
“One shot?” Matty asked.
“Both barrels at the same time.”
“And when you came out your husband was down on the ground and the gunmen were riding off on a motorbike?”
“That they were.”
“And you couldn’t ID them?”
“It was a blue motorbike that’s all I saw. Why all the questions, detective?”
“Who investigated your husband’s murder?”
“And they didn’t find anything out of the ordinary?”
“And the IRA claimed responsibility?”
“That very night. What’s in your mind, Inspector Duffy?
“Your husband was armed?” I asked.
“He always carried his side arm with him, but he didn’t even get a chance to get it out his pocket.”
“And you ran out and found him where?”
“In the yard.”
“Whereabouts? Can you show me?”
“There, where the rooster is,” she said pointing about half the way across the farm yard, about twenty yards from the house and twenty from the stone wall. Not an impossible shot with a shotgun by any means, but then again surely you’d want to get a lot closer than twenty yards and if you got closer, wouldn’t that have given Captain McAlpine plenty of time to get his own gun out of his pocket?
“Mrs McAlpine if you’ll bear with me for just another moment. . .Let me get this clear in my mind. Your husband’s walking out to the fields, with Cora beside him and two guys come out from behind the stone wall and shoot him down from twenty yards away. Cora who was for taking my head off, doesn’t run at the men and he can’t get his gun out in time?”
Her eyes were looking at me with a sort of hostility now.
“I’m only telling you what the police told me. I didn’t get there until it was all over.”
“But Cora was definitely loose?”
“Yes, she was.”
“Why didn’t the IRA men shoot her? She must have been all over them.”
“I don’t know. . .Maybe she was frightened.”
“She doesn’t seem like a dog easily cowed to me.”
Mrs McAlpine shrugged and said nothing.
“And why didn’t your husband pull his gun? They come out from behind the wall with shotguns. He must have seen them.”
“I don’t know, Inspector, I just don’t know,” Mrs McAlpine said in a tired monotone.
“Not if his back was turned,” Matty added.
“But Cora would have smelt them, no? She would have been going bonkers. They’re going to see a slavering Alsatian running at them. Wouldn’t that have given him a second or two to go for his gun?”
“Evidently not,” she said.
She reached into her jeans took out a battered packet of Silk Cut and lit one
She was pale and wan. Not just tired, something else. . .weary. Aye, that was it.
“They killed him. What difference does it make how they bloody did it?” she said at last.
I nodded. “Yes, of course. I’m sure it’s nothing,” I said. “Nothing important. . . Anyway, I’ve taken up more than enough of your time.”
“Oh don’t worry about that. These days all I’ve got is time,” she said looking searchingly into my face, but I was the master of the blank expression - training from all those years of interrogation.
She puffed lightly on her fag.
“Maybe we should be heading, boss, before the rain bogs us down,” Matty said.
“One final question if you don’t mind, Mrs McAlpine. I noticed some of the farm buildings back there, but I didn’t see a greenhouse. You wouldn’t have one at all would you?”
“A greenhouse. For plants, fruits, you know.”
She blew out a line of smoke. “Aye, we have a greenhouse.”
“You wouldn’t mind if I took a wee look.”
“I’m afraid I can’t say, but it will only take a minute.”
“If its drugs you’re after, you won’t find any.”
“Can I take a look?”
She shrugged. “Be my guest.”
She walked me through the house to the muddy farm yard out the back. A smell of slurry and chicken feed. A few more harassed looking hens sitting on a rusting Massey Ferguson tractor.
“Over there,” she said, pointing to a squalid little greenhouse near a barn.
I squelched through the mud to the greenhouse and went inside. Several panes had fallen in and rain and cold had turned a neat series of plum bushes into a blighted mess. There was mould on the floor and mushrooms were growing in an otherwise empty trough of black soil. There were no exotic plants or indeed any other plants apart from the withered plums.
I rummaged in the trough where the wild mushrooms now thrived, looking for the roots of a plant that might once have been there, but I came up empty - if Martin had been growing anything interesting here all traces of it had been removed.
I nodded and walked back across the farmyard, cleaned my shoes on the mud rack.
“Did you find what you were after?” she asked.
“Did you ever hear of a plant called rosary pea?”
“A plant called the rosary pea? Did you ever hear of it?”
She shook her head.
“It’s also called Crab’s Eye, Indian Liquorice, Jumbie Bead?”
“Never heard of it in my life.”
I nodded. “Sorry to have taken up so much of your time, thank you very much, Mrs McAlpine. Good morning,” I said and walked to the Rover.
“What was that all about?” Matty asked as we climbed back inside.
“This thing stinks.”
“What stinks? This? It’s a dead end, surely?”
I stared out at the boggy farm and through the rearview mirror I watched her go back inside the house.
“Let’s get out of here. Let’s see if we can’t dig a little deeper into the late Mr McAlpine’s murder.”
“What the hell for?”
“Just get us going, will ya?”
We got about a hundred yards down the lane but a farmer was blocking the road with his tractor. It had stalled on the edge of the sheugh. He climbed down out of the cab to apologise. He had brown eyes under his flat cap. He was about forty five. He had a pipe. So far so ordinary, but there was something about him I didn’t like. An unblinking quality to those brown eyes that most people didn’t have towards cops.
“Sorry lads, won’t be a moment,” he said. “I was turning this baste of a thing and I misjudged the size of the road.”
A road he’s driven down and turned his tractor around on a thousand times, I was thinking to myself.
“Oh that’s ok, we’re in no hurry,” Matty said.
I said nothing. It began to rain.
“Just got to get the front wheel out of the ditch,” the man said climbing back into the cab and turning the thing on.
The wheel came out easily and the man pulled the tractor over to let us pass.
Matty started the Rover and waved.
“What do you think that was all about?” I asked as I looked at the tractor in the side mirror.
“The man with the tractor.”
“What about it?”
“Him fucking with us like that.”
Matty stared at me and when I didn’t elaborate he looked back down the road.
“So where to, boss?” he asked.
“Larne RUC,” I insisted.
Chapter 6 Someone Else’s Problem
We took the shore road to Larne past Magheramorne quarry, where the slag heaps ran next to the road and where the fields were a strange John Deere green.
Radio 1 decided to torture us by heavily rotating “Making Your Mind Up” to commemorate Bucks Fizz’s triumph in the previous year’s Eurovision Song Contest. Even Matty couldn’t take it and after hunting in vain for another station we rummaged in the Land Rover’s cassette stash and found Joan Armatrading’s “Walk Under Ladders”.
“You didn’t really think she’d be growing rosary pea in that greenhouse did you?” Matty asked.
“You never know, mate, you have to follow up everything.”
“I could have told you it was a waste of time. . .Sort of like this little journey.”
“You’re quite the lippy wee character aren’t you, Matthew?”
“I’m on an emotional rollercoaster, mate, someone fired a machine gun at me this morning, not to mention being harassed by a vicious dog.”
“Tell Kenny Dalziel you’re putting in for emotional hardship money. That’ll make the bastard’s head explode.”
Larne RUC station was a massive concrete bunker near the harbour. It was known to be one of the safest cop postings in all of Northern Ireland because the town was small with a population that was over ninety percent Protestant. The IRA would have few, if any, safe houses in the community and an IRA cell from Belfast could not easily make an escape to a nearby haven. In general the worst the Larne peelers had to deal with was drunkenness on Friday and Saturday nights and the occasional fracas between rival gangs of football supporters heading over or back from the ferry to Scotland. As a result of all this, Larne was known as a place where they dumped lazy, old and problem officers who could cause real difficulties elsewhere.
The McAlpine murder had been investigated by an Inspector Dougherty, a red nosed, white haired old stager with a tremble in his left hand that to the uneducated eye could be Parkinson’s disease or MS or some other malady but which was actually the 11 o’clock shakes. At lunch time he’d slip out to the nearest pub and after a couple of triple vodkas he’d be right as rain again.
We met him in a large book lined office overlooking the harbour and ferry terminal. The books were mostly thrillers and detective fiction which I found encouraging, but they were all from the 60's and early 70's which wasn’t such a good sign. At some juncture in the last decade he’d lost interest in reading - had lost interest in everything probably. There was no wedding ring on his left hand, but many Presbyterians didn’t wear a ring because they considered it a Papist affectation. Even so the room stank of divorce, failure and alcoholism - the standard troika for many a career RUC officer.
We were both the same rank, Detective Inspector, but he’d been on the force twenty years longer than me, which made me wonder what the hell he had been doing all that time, and whether I was destined to go the same route.
The rain was still pelting the windows and Scotland was a blue smudge to the east.
“Gentlemen, have a seat,” he said. “Cup of tea or coffee?”
“Thanks but no, we’re all teaed out this morning,” I replied with as decent an apologetic smile as I could muster.
Dougherty folded his hands across his ample belly. He was wearing a white shirt and a brown suit that he’d obviously had for quite a few years, which, as he sat down, bunched at the sleeves and gave him an unfortunate comic air. A peeler could be a lot of things: a drunk, a thug, an idiot, a sociopath but as long as you looked the part it was usually fine. Even in Larne Dougherty would have a hard time currying respect.
“So what brings you gentlemen down from Carrick?” he asked.
“I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about the McAlpine murder,” I said, all business.
“Martin McAlpine. He was a part time UDR Captain who was shot at his farm on Islandmagee last December.”
“Ah, yes, I remember. What’s this pertaining to?”
I explained about the suitcase and the John Doe and how we had traced the suitcase back to Martin McAlpine.
“And what did his wife say happened to his suitcase?” Dougherty asked.
“She says she left it in at the Carrickfergus Salvation Army before Christmas,” Matty said.
Dougherty looked puzzled.
“She left it at the Salvation Army before Christmas?” he asked.
“Yup,” Matty said.
“So, what’s his murder got to do with anything? The murderer of your John Doe obviously just bought the suitcase for a pound from the Sally Army and used it to dump a body, right?”
“Almost certainly,” I agreed.
“So, why bother dredging up the McAlpine case? Your killer could have grabbed any random suitcase couldn’t he?”
“And the timeline. . .She leaves the suitcase in just before Christmas. McAlpine is murdered back in early December. Your body is discovered this week? In April?”
I shook my head. “The body had been frozen for an indeterminate amount of time, but aye, I’m with you, Dougherty, I agree, it’s weak beer; but you see it’s not us, it’s our Chief; he’s going to want us to have pursued every lead out there and as soon as he finds out that the suitcase belonged to a UDR Captain who was assassinated by the IRA, he’s going to be firing a million questions at me.”
Dougherty breathed a sigh of relief. I was not an internal affairs spook come to investigate his work, I was just another working stiff dealing with an arsehole boss.
“I’ll get the file,” he said.
He opened a metal cabinet and flipped out a thin - very thin - cardboard file.
He spread it on the desk between us and very slowly he sat down again with one hand on the desk and one hand to balance him. Jesus, how far gone was this eejit?
“Ok, let me see. . .Ah yes, Martin McAlpine shot in the chest with a shotgun, at approximately 9.20 in the morning of December 1st. He died instantly, assailants fled on a blue motorcycle which has not been recovered. IRA claimed responsibility with a recognised code word that evening with a call to the Belfast Telegraph. . .We didn’t find the murder weapon, or the bike and we’ve had no tips.”
He put the file down.
That’s it? I was thinking. A man gets blown away and that’s bloody it?
“Can I take a look?”
He passed the file across. His report was one paragraph and they had tossed all the crime scene photographs except for one which showed Martin McAlpine face up on the ground. The shotgun pellets had ripped apart his chest and throat and a couple had buried themselves in his temple. His dead face seemed to register surprise more than fear or panic but that didn’t mean anything. The interesting thing about the picture was the tightness of the grouping on his torso. There was no way this had been done at twenty yards. Twenty feet perhaps, but not twenty yards. The assailants had definitely gotten a lot closer to McAlpine than the wall. How had they done this carrying shotguns without alerting Cora or giving McAlpine a chance to draw his sidearm?
I passed the photograph to Matty.
“Did you take photographs of the bootprints near the body?” I asked.
Dougherty shook his head. “What do you mean?”
“It was December, it must have muddy, you could have gotten casts of the killers’ shoes.”
Dougherty raised an eyebrow at me. “No, you’re not getting it, Inspector Duffy. They shot him from behind the wall. They didn’t come into the farmyard. They were in the field. There were no bootprints.”
“It seems to me that they must have been a good bit closer than that.”
“They shot him at the wall.”
“Is that where you recovered the shotgun shells? The wall?”
“We didn’t recover any shells.”
“They shot him and then they stopped to take the shotgun shells before running off to their motorbike?”
“Apparently they did,” Dougherty said, bristling a little. He was now sitting on his left hand to stop the D.T.’s from becoming obvious.
Matty looked at me and raised his eyebrows a fraction but I didn’t mind Dougherty. He was close to retirement and when he’d joined up the RUC must have seemed like an easy life. He couldn’t have predicted that come the 70's and 80's it would be the most stressful police job in Europe. Nah, I didn’t mind him, but boy he was an indolent fuck, like all them old characters.
“What was the murder weapon? Did your forensic boys get a bead?”
“Twelve bore, over/under, single trigger, double barrel, what?” I asked.
He shrugged again.
“Pigeon shot, buck shot, deer shot?”
He shrugged a third time.
And this time it made me angry.
They hadn’t even spent time doing a basic ballistic inquest?
He could see it in my eyes. He went defensive. “The IRA killed him with a stolen or an unregistered shotgun, what difference does it make what type it was?”
I said nothing.
Silence did my talking for me.
It worked him some more.
“. . .Look, if you’re really interested I’m sure we kept some of the fucking pellets in the evidence room just in case we ever recovered the gun. If you go down there Sergeant Dalway will let you see.”
I nodded and wrote “Dalway” in my notebook.
“Were there any other witnesses apart from the wife?” I asked.
“No, and she wasn’t really a witness. She heard the shooting but when she ran out McAlpine was dead and the gunmen were already making a break for it on the motorbike.”
“And you say you never recovered the gun?”
“Did you not find that strange at all?”
“Two guys on a motorbike carry a murder weapon with them all the way back to Belfast?”
“Don’t be fucking silly! They probably threw it in a sheugh or the Lough. We did look for it but we didn’t find it,” Dougherty said.
“Why do you think he didn’t pull his sidearm on them? He was walking out to the fields and if they were at the wall they were a good twenty yards from him,” I asked.
“They had the element of surprise. They jumped up and shot him. Poor devil didn’t have a chance.”
“And why do you think Cora didn’t go for them?” I asked.
“The dog, a really nasty Alsatian,” Matty said. “The dog that didn’t bark in the daytime. It’s a classic.”
“Oh aye, the dog, I don’t know. The gunshots probably scared the shite out of it,” he muttered.
“Did you find any motorcycle tracks? Were you able to identify the tire or make of the bike?” I asked.
“No you didn’t I.D. the bike or no you didn’t find any tracks?”
“I don’t like your tone, Inspector Duffy,” he said.
There hadn’t been any tone. I’d been careful about that. He was just getting ticked off at the holes I was poking in the case.
“Please, I didn’t mean to imply-” I said.
“We didn’t find any motorcycle tracks, Inspector, because they drove off on the road. It’s tarmac it’s not going to leave any fucking tracks, is it?”
“If they’re behind the wall surely they’re going to start the bike there, not push it to the road and kick start it there?” Matty said. “There should be tracks.”
“Well we didn’t find any.”
I frowned. “Look, Inspector, I’m going to ask a question and please don’t take it the wrong way. . .”
“Go on,” he said, steam practically coming out of his ears.
“Did you look for the tracks or were they just not there?”
His fist clenched and unclenched, but then he closed his eyes for a moment and when he opened them he smiled at us.
“I’m not going to bullshit you Duffy, I honestly don’t remember. Hold on a minute and I’ll get my notes.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that,” I said.
He opened a drawer and flicked through a green jotter. He slid it across to me but I couldn’t decipher the hand writing. I did notice that under “McAlpine” there was less than half a page of text. All in pencil. With a few doodles on the side. When I conducted a murder investigation, sometimes I filled two or even three ring bound reporters notebooks.
I passed the notebook to Matty, who had been sufficiently pedagogically indoctrinated by me to frown and shake his head. He skimmed the notebook back across the table. Dougherty took it and smiled a little smile of satisfaction as if he was saying - see I’m not a fuck up, I even kept my notes.
“No tracks. But I can’t tell if we looked behind the wall or not,” he admitted.
I turned to Matty. “Do me a favour, go down to the evidence room and see if you can bag me one of the shotgun pellets. We’ll see what they can find out up at the lab in Belfast? If that’s ok with you, Inspector Dougherty?”
“I don’t see what this has to do with your investigation?”
“Do you object?”
“No. If you want to go around wasting everyone’s time, go ahead, be my guest.”
Matty got up and left the office.
Dougherty looked at me. “I take it you’re not happy with the wife’s story then, is that it?” he asked.
So he wasn’t a complete fool. At least he saw my angle.
I shook my head. “I don’t know about that. She seemed fairly credible to me. I just want to eliminate all the other possible contingencies.”
“She came from a good family. Islandmagee locals. Her father was a Justice of Peace and of course she married into the McAlpines.”
“What’s special about the McAlpines?”
“Harry, the elder brother, is a big wheel. His grandfather did something for the Empire. They gave him a gong for it.”
The clock on the wall reached twelve and with that he breathed an audible sigh of relief and reached in his desk drawer for a bottle of Johnnie Walker.
“A wee one before lunch?” he asked.
“Don’t mind if I do,” I replied.
He produced two mugs and poured us each a healthy measure.
When he had drunk and topped up his own mug he grinned.
“You like the wife for it?” he asked. “How do you explain the IRA codeword? And I still don’t see what’s this got to do with your suitcase?”
“I’m not saying it was her. But the grouping on that wound is so tight it looks point blank to me. And if a couple of terrorists were marching up to him so close as to do that kind of point blank damage surely the dog would have been on them and he would have had his side arm out,” I said.
“Aye,” Dougherty said thoughtfully.
“And besides the IRA don’t use shotguns anymore. Not since the early 70's. Not since our Boston friends and Colonel Gadaffi started sending boatloads of proper ordnance. They’ve got M16 rifles and Uzis and Glock pistols now,” I said.
“I suppose,” he said refilling his mug.
“And then there’s the lack of witnesses. And no trace of a gun, no shells, no motorbike,” I continued.
“But what about the code word?” Dougherty asked.
“Jesus, those things leak like a sieve. Her own husband might have told her the IRA responsibility codeword for late last year.”
“Why would she do it? There was no insurance policy. We checked that. And the army pension is pathetic.”
“A domestic maybe? I don’t know,” I said
“And your fucking suitcase?”
“Probably unrelated, but you never know, do you?”
He nodded, poured himself a third generous measure of Scotch.
“I’ve heard of you, Duffy. You were the hot shot in Carrickfergus who got himself the Queens Police Medal. Are you looking to make a big fucking splash in Larne too?”
He was getting punchy now.
It was time to leave.
“No. I’m not. This isn’t my case. I’m done and unless Mrs McAlpine is involved in my murder somehow you probably won’t be hearing from me again.”
“Aye, pal, don’t forget this is my manor, not yours.”
“I won’t forget.”
I got to my feet and offered him my hand and he reluctantly shook it.
I saw myself out.
I waited for Matty by the desk sergeant’s desk.
He came back from the evidence room empty handed.
“What happened, they wouldn’t let you in?”
“They let me in all right but the locker’s empty boss. Nothing there at all.”
“They’ve moved it?”
“Lost it. A few weeks ago they moved the McAlpine evidence to the Cold Case Storage Room but when I went there the box was empty. The duty sergeant looked through the log and has no idea where the stuff went. He told me shite like this happens all the time.”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph. All right, I better go myself.”
We went to the evidence room and searched high and low for half an hour but it was gone. Either lost in a spring cleaning or deliberately thrown out. Incompetence or cover up - both were equally likely. I liked the former better because asking who was covering up for whom raised all sorts of difficult questions.
It was drizzling when we got back outside.
Matty lit me one of his Benson and Hedges and we smoked under the overhang and watched the potholes fill up with water for a couple of minutes.
“I’m not saying that these lads are the worst cops in Ireland. . .” Matty began and then hesitated, unsure if I was going to countenance this level of perfidy.
“If there’s a shittier station than this lot I hope to God I’m never posted there,” he concluded.
“Oh there’s worse. I was at a station in Fermanagh where they dressed up as witches for Halloween. Big beefy sergeant called McCrae dolled up as Elizabeth Montgomery was the stuff of nightmares. . . Larne would be ok, you’d be the superstar of the department if you got the bloody days of the week right.”
We nailed another couple of smokes and got back in the Land Rover. Matty drove us out of the car park and the Constables at the gate gave us the thumbs up as they raised the barrier to let us out.
Matty drove through Larne past a massive UVF mural of two terrorists riding dragons and carrying AK 47s.
We turned up onto the A2 coast road.
“Where to now, Sean?”
“Carrickfergus Salvation Army,” I said. “It’s a longshot but maybe they’ll remember what happened to that suitcase, if she really did bring it in there.”
“Why would she lie about that?”
“Why does anybody lie about anything?”
Matty nodded and accelerated up onto the dual carriageway. The Land Rover was heavily armour plated and bullet proofed, but the juiced engine still did zero to sixty in about 8 seconds.
We put on Irish radio again. It was the same programme as before this time the interviewee, a man called O’Cannagh, from the County Mayo was talking about the mysterious behaviour of his cattle which baffled the local vets but which he felt was something to do with flying saucers. The man was explaining this fascinating hypothesis in Irish, a language Matty didn’t speak so I had to turn it off. Neither of us could stand the constant jabber about the Falklands on news radio so we went for Ms Armatrading again.
Matty drummed his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. “I know what you’re thinking, Sean, you’re thinking we should stick our noses in here, aren’t you?”
“Listen Sean, what if she’s telling the truth about the suitcase but she was, for whatever reason, lying about her husband’s murder?”
“What about it?”
“Then it’s not our case, mate, is it?” he said.
“And if she killed the poor bastard?”
“If she killed the poor bastard, it becomes in the coinage of Douglas Adams, an SEP.”
“Who’s Douglas Adams? And what’s an SEP?” I asked.
“If you were down with the kids, Sean, you’d know that Douglas Adams has written this very popular radio series called The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. I listen to it when I’m fishing.”
“I’m not down with the kids though, am I? And you still haven’t answered my question. What’s an SEP?”
“Someone else’s problem, Sean,” Matty said with a heavy and significant sigh.
I nodded ruefully. Ruefully for it was the sorry day indeed when my junior colleague felt the need to remind me that in Ireland you swam near the shore and you kept your mouth shut and you never made waves if you knew what was good for you.
“SEP. I like it. I’ll bear it in mind,” I said.
Chapter 7 She’s Got A Ticket To Ride (And She Don’t Care)
The Salvation Army was a bust. The lady there, Mrs Wilson, said that they sold dozens of suitcases every month, especially now that everyone was trying to emigrate. They didn’t keep records of who bought what and she did not recall a red plastic suitcase or a Mrs McAlpine.
“Have a wee think. You might remember her, she was a recent widow. She brought in her husband’s entire wardrobe.”
“You’d be surprised how many of those we get a month. Always widows. Never widowers. Cancer, heart attack and terrorism - those are the three biggies.”
“Well thank you for your time,” I said.
When we got back to the station Crabbie’s dour face told me that Customs and Immigration had not yet given us the list of names of all the Americans entering Northern Ireland in the last year.
“What’s their excuse?” I asked him.
“They’re transferring everything from the card file to the new computer.”
“Jesus, I hope to God they’ve haven’t lost them. We’ve had enough of that today.”
“Nah, there was no note of panic in their voices, just bored stupidity.”
“Par for the course then,” I said under my breath, staring at the other policemen and women in here who seemed to have jobs to do but God alone knew what the hell they were. Crabbie, Matty and myself were detectives, we investigated actual crimes, what these jokers did (especially the reservists and the part time reservists) was a fucking mystery.
“No luck on the Abrin either. I called the Northern Ireland horticultural society, the Irish Horticultural Society, the British Horticultural Society and no one had any records of anyone growing Rosary Pea or one of its varieties. It is certainly not a competition or show plant. I phoned UK Customs HQ in London and asked if they had ever impounded any seeds and of course they had no idea what I was talking about. And, you’ll like this, I called up Interpol to see—”
“I do like it. Go on.”
“I called up Interpol to ask them to fax me any cases of Abrin poisoning that they had on file in any of their databases.”
“Three homicide cases: all from America: 1974, 1968, 1945. Half a dozen suicides and another two dozen accidentals.”
“That’s very good work mate,” I said and told him about our interesting day.
I treated the lads to a pub lunch. Steak and kidney pie and a pint of the black stuff and after lunch I retreated to my office, stuck on the late Benny Britten’s “Curlew River” and read the Interpol files on the Abrin murders:
1974: Husband in Bangor, Maine, who was a chemist, poisoned his wife.
1968: Husband who was a banker in San Francisco who grew tropical plants, poisoned his wife.
1945: Young woman, originally from Jamaica poisoned her parents in New York.
I read the suicides and the accidentals but there was nothing significant or interesting about them. There were no Irish connections or intriguing links to the First Infantry Division.
I called up Belfast Customs and Immigration and politely harangued them about their abilities and their propensity for sticking their heads up their own arses.
They said that they were working on it but the new computer system was a nightmare and did I know that it was a Saturday and there were only two people in the office, one of whom was Mrs McCameron?
I said that I knew the former but not the latter and asked them to do their best. I avoided the obvious Mrs McCameron lure, which sounded like a standard civil service crimson clupea. There probably was no Mrs McCameron.
At around three o’clock someone put on the football but I grew bored and found myself at another table listening to a reserve constable called Wilkes who was also in the Royal Navy Reserve and who’d just gotten a phone call telling him that he was on his way to the South Atlantic as a fire control officer on HMS Illustrious.
“That’s going to be the fucking Admiral’s ship!” he said with obvious excitement.
“Aye and the best target in the fleet for the Argie submarines. Classic frying pan/fire situation for you my lad. This time next month you’ll be some penguin’s breakfast,” Sergeant Burke muttered. I gave him a cynical grin and went to get a coffee.
The lads plied Wilkes with questions and when the clock finally got its bum round to five we hit the bricks.
Since it was indeed a Saturday I got a Chinese takeaway and ate it with a bottle of Guinness back in Coronation Road. It was the dinner of sad single men across Ireland. To really trip on the mood I scrounged up some fuzzy Moroccan black and dug out the copy of the TLS I’d lifted from the doc’s. I flipped through the pages until I found what I was after which was a poem by Philip Larkin called Aubade. I read it twice and decided that it was the greatest poem of the decade. I wanted to share this information with someone but here at 113 Coronation Road, Carrickfergus there was no one to share it with. My parents wouldn’t be interested and Laura had no time for poetry. And my friends, such as they were, would think I was taking the piss.
I finished my spliff and called my parents anyway but they weren’t home.
I looked at the phone and the rain leaking in the hall window.
I made myself a vodka gimlet in a pint glass and called Laura.
Her mother answered.
“Oh hello, Sean,” she said cheerfully.
“Hi, Irene, is Laura there at all?” I asked.
“No. No, I’m afraid not. Her father drove her to the airport.”
This took several seconds to sink in.
“She’s leaving tonight?”
“Yes. Didn’t she tell you?”
“She said it was next week.”
“We had to change the plans. She’s been trying to call you all day. We’re going to take the ferry over with her car on Tuesday and she’s going by plane tonight to get everything sorted.”
“She tried to call me?”
“Yes where were you this afternoon?”
“On a Saturday?”
“Aye on a Saturday. The crooks don’t take the weekends off.”
“I’m sure she’ll try you again at the airport. The plane doesn’t leave until seven.”
“Ok, I better get off the line then,” I said.
I hung up and childishly punched the wall.
“Fucking lying bitch!” I yelled which wouldn’t be the last time such edifying dialogue would be heard in Victoria Estate on a wet Saturday night.
I made myself another pint of vodka and lime juice, walked out the back to the garden shed, open an old can marked “Screws” and found the stash of high grade Turkish hashish I’d liberated from the evidence locker before they’d torched it and a couple of bags of brown tar heroin in a ceremony for the Carrickfergus Advertiser.
I got a Rizzla King Size, made myself a joint and smoked it as I walked back to the house.
The phone was ringing and I almost slipped and broke my neck as I sprinted for the bastard.
“Sean! At last!” she said.
Laura. She was calling from Aldergrove Airport. Her plane left in five minutes.
I don’t remember any of the rest of it.
It was a story. A fairy story.
And promises neither of us would keep.
It didn’t last two.
Her words were frozen birds fallen from the telegraph wires.
I responded with a vacuum of lies and banality , sick of my own material.
She finally took mercy on us and said goodbye and hung up the phone.
I sat in the living room and relit my joint. The Turkish was the shit and it wasn’t ten minutes before I was as high as a fucking weather balloon floating over Roswell, New Mexico.
I expectorated in the back yard and watched The Great Bear’s snout bend down and touch the lough. Spacing, I was. “Bear mother, watch over us,” I said. “Like you watched the old ones. . .”
There was a good quarter inch left but I tossed the joint, went back inside, put on Hunky Dory. Hunky Dory became Joan Armatrading became Dusty In Memphis.
At eleven o’clock there was a knock at the door.
I got my revolver from the hall table and said “who is it?”
“Deirdre,” I think she said.
“From next door.”
I opened the door. It was Mrs Bridewell. She was holding a pie. It had got wet in the rain. She was wet. Mrs Bridewell with her cheekbones and bobbed black hair and husband over the water looking for work. . .
“Oh hello,” I said. “Come in.”
“No. I wont stop over. I’ve left Thomas with the weans and a bigger eejit never stuck his arm through a coat.”
“Come in out of the rain, woman.”
She took a cautious step into the house. She looked at my picture of Our Lady of Knock and suppressed a skewer of polemic against the Papists.
“I only wanted to leave this off. I made it for the church bake sale tomorrow but it’s been cancelled because of the war.”
“Argentina’s invaded the Falkland Islands!”
“Oh, that war.”
“None of my lot can eat a rhubarb tart. But I know you like it.”
I turned on the hall light. She’d put on lipstick for this little sally next door and she was beautiful standing there with her wet fringe and puzzled green eyes, tubercular pallor, dark eyelids and thin, anxious red lips.
“Mister Duffy?” she said
There was no one in the street. Her kids would be abed. The air was electric. Dangerous. It was fifty fifty whether we’d roo like rabbits right here on the welcome mat. She could feel it too.
“Sean?” she whispered.
Christ almighty. I took a literal step back and breathed out.
“Yes. . .Yes, a rhubarb tart. Love them.”
She swallowed hard.
“M-make sure you eat it with cream,” she said and left it on the hall table and scurried back to her house.
I left the pie where it was and broke out the bottle of Jura instead. At midnight I put on the news to see if there had been any plane crashes but all the telly wanted to talk about was Argentina and I had to sit through several angles on that story before it became obvious that there hadn’t been any airline disasters and that Laura was completely safe.
Chapter 8 Veterans of Foreign Wars
On Sunday an Atlantic storm parked itself over Ireland and it was raining so hard it could have been the Twelfth of July or one of those other holidays when God poured out his wrath on the Orangemen marching through the streets in bowler hats and sashes. I didn’t leave the house the whole day. I was so bored I almost went to the Gospel Hall on Victoria Road where, allegedly, they spoke in tongues, danced with snakes and afterwards you got a free slice of Dundee cake. Instead I listened to music and read One Hundred Years of Solitude which had come from the book club. It was a good novel but as the man said maybe seventy five years of solitude would have been enough.
Dozens of different birds had stopped in my back garden to take shelter from the weather. I was no expert but I was my father’s son and with half a brain noted starlings, sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes, swifts, magpies, rock doves, robins, gulls of every kind.
On Monday the birds were still there and Mrs Campbell from the other side of the terrace was in her back garden in a plastic mac throwing bread to them. You could see her jabbers through the mac, which me and Mr Connor in the house opposite were both appreciating through our kitchen windows. The Campbells were a mysterious people and although I shared an entire wall with them I never really knew what was going over there, if her husband was working or at home, or how many kids and relatives’ kids she was looking after. She was an attractive woman, no doubt, but the stress and the smokes would get to her like they got to everyone else.
And speaking of ciggies, I lit myself a Marlboro, put the Undertones on the record player, showered, ate a bowl of cornflakes and hot milk, dressed in a shirt and jeans and headed out for the day. I checked under the BMW for mercury tilt bombs and drove to the station.
When the list of American citizens who had entered Northern Ireland in the previous year finally came in at 11.00 on Monday morning it was longer than we’d been expecting. Six hundred names. Five hundred of whom were men. Northern Ireland during the Troubles was not a popular tourist destination but the Hunger Strikes had sucked in scores of American journos, protesters, politicians and rubberneckers.
“How are we going to tackle this?” McCrabban asked dourly. His default method of asking anything.
“We’ll break the list into three and we’ll start making phone calls. We’ll begin with the over 40's first,” I said.
Fortunately each visitor to Northern Ireland had to fill out a full information card giving his or her home address, phone number, emergency contact, etc.
There were three hundred and twenty American men over forty who had entered the Province in the previous twelve months.
“All these calls to America are going to cost us a fortune,” Matty said. “The Chief won’t like it.”
“He’s going to have to lump it,” I told him. “And let’s hope that our boy hasn’t been frozen for years.”
“Wait,” McCrabban said. “I’ve thought of another problem.”
“What?” I said, somewhat irritated because I was keen to get started.
“We can’t make any phone calls before one o’clock. They’re five hours behind, remember?”
“Shite,” I said, slapping my forehead. He was right. It wasn’t decent to call people up first thing in the morning.
“So what are we going to do in the meantime?” Matty asked.
“Do what everyone else does around here. Pretend to work,” I said.
Matty opened up some files, spread them on his desk but read The Daily Mail. The Mail and every other paper was all Falklands all the time. The country was mad for the war. Thirty years since the last good one, not counting what had been going on in our little land.
McCrabban took out his note books and started studying for his sergeant’s exam.
I looked through a couple of theft cases to see if anything would leap out at me. Nothing did. Theft cases rarely got solved.
On a hunch I called up every life insurance company in the book to see if there had been any payouts on anyone called McAlpine in the last four months.
At eleven the phone rang.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hello, is this Inspector Duffy?” a voice asked.
The voice was Scottish, older. I immediately thought that something had happened to Laura in Edinburgh and she’d put me down as her emergency contact.
“Is this about Laura?” I asked breathlessly.
“Well, yes and no,” the voice said.
“I’m Dr. Hagan, Laura, er, Dr. Cathcart’s replacement at Carrickfergus Clinic. I was reading over Dr. Cathcart’s report on the torso in morgue #2.”
“The John Doe torso.”
How many torsos did he think we got in a week?
“Well something occurred to me that I thought I should share with you.”
“Go on, Dr. Hagan.”
“Well Laura has written down in her notes ‘victim frozen, time and date of death unknown.’”
“But, she’s also written down that the victim’s last meal was a Chicken Tikka Pot Noodle.”
“So I read.”
“In case you don’t know Sergeant Duffy that was a really quite extraordinary bit of forensic medicine. She must have analysed the stomach contents and then compared them with a list of ingredients for every Pot Noodle that Golden Wonder make.”
I wasn’t really in the mood to hear Laura praised to the skies.
“Ok, so she was extremely diligent at her job, how does this help me, Dr. Hagan?”
“It helps you because it considerably narrows down the window in which the victim died. Since I retired from full time practise I’ve been fishing a lot more and on occasion I’ve taken a Pot Noodle and a thermos of hot water with me. . .”
I was getting excited now. The old git was on to something.
“I know for a fact that the Chicken Tikka Pot Noodle was only introduced in November of 1981. I’d seen the advertisements for it and I made a point to try it when it came out as I spent quite a few years in Malaya and thought it might be a nice blend of Indian and Chinese cuisines. Unfortunately it wasn’t that tasty. . .but this is me running off on a tangent, do you get my drift Sergeant Duffy?”
“The victim couldn’t possibly have been killed before November of last year,” I said.
I thanked Dr. Hagan and shared the news with the boys.
We called Golden Wonder to confirm the release date of the Chicken Tikka Pot Noodle and they told us that it had been shipped to shops and supermarkets on November 12. It helped a little. Yes the victim had been alive in November, but he still could have entered Northern Ireland anytime in the last year. Tourists overstayed their 90 day visas all the time, as did journalists and businessmen. But still, assuming he was a law abiding citizen, we could cut off the list of names at, say, June 30th 1981 for our initial series of phone calls.
That winnowed the list down to a measly two hundred and fifty over 40 American males who had entered Northern Ireland between June 30th 1981 and March 30th 1982. I drafted in a reserve constable with the unlikely name of John Smith so that we could divide the effort in four. Sixty names each didn’t seem that onerous.
Matty wondered if any Canadians or Brits abroad had joined or been seconded into the First Infantry Division and it was a damn fine point but we couldn’t afford to get sidetracked this early. We took it as a useful fiction that they had not.
We started making phone calls at 1 p.m. which was 8 a.m. on the East Cast.
For once we caught a break and by only 3.45 we had a first class lead on our hands.
Matty did the call. A man called Bill O’Rourke had put the number of his Veterans of Foreign Wars Lodge as his emergency contact. VFW Post 7608 in a place called Newburyport, Massachusetts, which we discovered was a hop, a skip and jump north of Boston.
A guy called Mike Lipstein was happy to fill Matty in on his buddy Bill who no one had heard from since before Christmas 1981.
Bill was a former IRS inspector who had indeed served in The Big Red One, in North Africa, Sicily, France and Germany. He was an enlisted man who had risen to the rank of First Sergeant by the end of hostilities.
He was also a widower who had retired from the IRS in Boston to take care of his wife Heather who was dying of terminal breast cancer. She had died in September of 1980. It had hit him hard and everyone had told him that he had to get away somewhere. He had taken a trip to Ireland just before Halloween to visit the old country and retrace his roots. He’d gone for a few weeks, loved it and said he was going back to do some more exploring. This second trip was just before Thanksgiving and no one had heard from him since.
“Did he say why he was going to Northern Ireland?” Matty had asked.
His paternal grandparents had come from County Tyrone, Matty had been told.
“Did he keep himself fit by swimming at all?” Matty had wondered and had been informed that Bill was a keen swimmer and further that he had a condo in Fort Lauderdale, Florida where he usually spent the winters. . .
“I think I have the bastard!” Matty yelled.
Crabbie and I put down our phones.
“Matty my lad, you have the moves son,” Crabbie said.
He laughed. “I am sweet to the beat, boys!” and told us all about Mr. O’Rourke.
To be on the safe side we worked out our way through the other names on our list but not a single one of them had served in the First Infantry Division.
Now it was action stations. We called the Newburyport Police Department and talked to a Sergeant Peter Finnegan. We explained the situation and Sergeant Finnegan gave us his Bill’s dates and social security number and promised to fax us a copy of his driver’s license from the DMV. Sergeant Finnegan didn’t know about kids or next of kin but said that he would look into it for us.
I also put it in a call to the FBI and after half a dozen suspicious flunkies I got someone who said that he would let me know if Bill had a criminal record. This information had only been forthcoming after a threat to go through the State Department “or the President himself” which had Matty and Crabbie cracking up in the aisles.
I went in to tell the Chief.
“We may have our John Doe, sir.”
“Who is it?”
“A retired IRS inspector called Bill O’Rourke from Massachusetts.”
“A retired IRS inspector called Bill O’Rourke from Massachusetts.”
“What’s the IRS?”
“Internal Revenue Service. He was a taxman.”
“A taxman. Jesus. There’s your motive.”
“A retired taxman. Born 1919. Apparently he had come here to trace his roots. He’s the right age, he’s a veteran of the right regiment and no one’s heard from the bugger in months.”
“1919, eh? Lucky baby to have survived the influenza.”
“Not so lucky now, of course.”
Brennan nodded. “Who are you following up with?”
“I’ve asked the Yank cops to fax me a copy of his driver’s license and after a lot of pushing and shoving I even got the FBI to come on board and send me any files they have on him.”
“Why bother the FBI?”
“It’s an unusual case. I just want to be sure he wasn’t mixed up anything he shouldn’t have been mixed up in.”
Brennan grinned and slapped his hand into his fist. “You’re dotting the i’s, crossing the t’s. It’s an American after all. I’ll confirm the bad news with the Consulate. They’ll want to know one of their own has definitely met with a sticky end. And the press too, they’ll want a piece of this. The Irish press, the English press, the American press,” Brennan said starting to see other angles in this case. PR angles. Promotion angles.
“Hold your horses, Chief, if we go to the media everybody’s going to be looking over our shoulder and we’re not completely sure that he’s our stiff,” I complained.
“The newspapers will want this, Duffy. A dead American’s worth a hundred dead Paddies any day of the week,” Brennan said.
Brennan opened his desk drawer and took out the Tallisker single malt. I sat down and was persuaded into a glass.
“Speak now or forever hold your peace,” he said.
“Maybe we should wait a day or two before turning on the spotlights,” I said trying to erase his overconfident grin.
“O’Rourke’s our lad! I can smell it.”
“What does this magic nose of yours tell you about who killed him?”
“Don’t mock your elders! My intuition comes from years of experience. I had a premonition about Elvis’s death two weeks before he passed on, God rest his soul. I told Peggy and she said I should call Graceland. I didn’t of course. Shame. . .Lost my train of. . .What were we. . .Oh yes, if it makes you happy, we’ll say that he’s a ‘possible suspect’ in a ‘possible homicide,’ will that satisfy you?” he asked.
“I suppose so, sir.”
I drank another round of Tallisker and Brennan opened a packet of Rothmans, fired one across to me and lit one for himself. I noticed a sleeping bag bundled up in the corner of the office. I decided not to comment on it.
“Any leads on the poison angle?” Brennan asked.
“None at all, sir, I am sorry to say. Abrin is an extremely rare substance. I don’t know who the hell would have taken the trouble to refine and process it or why they would have used it as a murder weapon on an island filled to the brim with guns.”
He nodded and blew smoke at the brown stain on the ceiling that uncannily resembled Margaret Thatcher hairdo. “I’m sure it’s going to take you into some interesting areas, but do me a favour, don’t let it get too complicated will you, Sean?” Brennan muttered. He shifted his weight from his left to his right side. He grunted and rubbed his eyelids. “Do you hear me, son?
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “I’ll keep it simple, you know me.”
“I do know you, pal, that’s the bloody trouble.”
I nodded, drank the rest of the whisky and got to my feet.
“That Elvis story is just between us,” Brennan said.
“Of course, sir,” I replied and exited the office.