And now for something slightly different, people. Kevin McCarthy is an Irish writer on the verge of a big breakthrough – he’s already had stories published with Thuglit and Plots With Guns – and has just completed his first novel, PEELER, ‘a murder mystery / lit crime novel set during in West Cork during the War of Independence’. We herewith and hencely bring you chapter the first of PEELER, with our commendations. To wit:
Word of the body had come from the wife of a shopkeeper in Ballycarleton. It was a rumour only, she had told the young RIC constable as he collected the barracks’ newspapers from the rear of her husband’s newsagents. But she hadn’t the heart not to hand it on. Imagine, she had said. Some poor soul lying alone in the gorse and the heather, in the wind and rain of late autumn. Unclaimed. A young woman, she had told the constable, her hand resting on his forearm, speaking quickly, in a breathless whisper, eyes darting left and right lest someone should see her speaking to a Peeler. Just a rumour, mind. Passed by the friend of a cousin who grazed sheep in the hills.
The same hills where they were now searching. Eleven cold, wet men in the open back of a Crossley tender. Acting Sergeant Seán O’Keefe of the Royal Irish Constabulary bumped shoulders with a private from his escort of eight Essex regiment soldiers out of Bandon. With him from the barracks were Constables Logan and Keane, O’Keefe only bringing the recently sworn in Keane because it was he who had taken the tip on the body from the newsagent’s wife.
The Crossley’s engine strained, gears grinding as it climbed a rutted boreen used by farmers and their livestock. O’Keefe scanned the landscape for any sign of the body. The squaddies scanned the sky for rain through the chicken wire mesh that shrouded the back of the Crossley. The chicken wire kept out grenades but not the weather.
The soldiers, O’Keefe knew, resented being there; dragged away from a warm fire to run escort for three Peelers searching for a body that probably didn’t exist. They smoked, cupping cigarettes in down turned hands, their Lee-Enfield rifles resting between their knees. O’Keefe considered ordering a pair of the men to stand watch to the front and rear of the lorry bed, arms at the ready, but didn’t have the heart. He wasn’t sure the soldiers would obey a Peeler’s order anyway.
Fifty-five policemen killed in the previous four months in Ireland. Forty-nine disarmed and countless others wounded, shot at and beaten. West Cork had been the worst affected in the country. The constabulary needed army escorts to move around the county and the Army relied on the constabulary for local intelligence, but neither was willing to cede authority until something went sour. Until someone was killed on patrol or a shop was looted and torched, when suddenly it was the other lot who had been in charge. O’Keefe remained silent.
Hills of deep green—mottled with rusty patches of dying bracken, clumps of spiny gorse and rock and studded with mountain-grazing sheep—rose gently on both sides of the boreen. Halfway up the hill to the west were the abandoned remains of a small cottage, most of the structure’s rotting thatched roof collapsed inwards.
‘There! Down from the cottage, there.’
O’Keefe saw it a second after Keane did. Rumour become truth, some two hundred yards up the hill to the west, to the left of the ruin. The sheer, fleshy whiteness of it. The black, rifling attention of feeding crows.
The soldiers followed Keane’s pointed finger, one or two taking up their rifles, assuming the young constable had spotted a sniper or party of ambushers. O’Keefe reached over into the cab, tapped the Crossley driver’s shoulder and the tender squeaked to a halt. The men jumped off the tailgate, leaping the low ditch at the edge of the narrow track, fanning out in rough, defensive positions.
O’Keefe followed them down from the lorry and paused behind it, studying the landscape. It was an odd place to dump a body, he thought, even if it was left as bait for an ambush. The only places an attack could come from were the ruined cottage or the hilltop, where there was a ruck of wind-worn boulders that could act as a firing position. He would be exposed while he did his examinations of the scene, but O’Keefe had seen far better ambush sites: bodies laid at bends in roads bordered by high blackthorn hedges and dry-stone walls; bodies left in front of derelict buildings, darkened windows nesting snipers. This felt different. He waved over the Essex lance corporal in charge of the escort. The man came slowly, ducking low in the ditch but in no hurry. He was a hard-looking man, a tracery of fine white scarring on one side of his face. O’Keefe guessed this wasn’t his first war.
‘The boulders there, and the ruins….’ O’Keefe pointed. ‘Can you send a few lads up to clear them? Maybe leave two in wide positions and a couple with the Lewis gun on the tender. Doesn’t feel like an ambush, but…’—he felt a fool saying it—‘better safe than sorry.’
The lance corporal looked as if he might disagree, then shrugged and bellowed four names. The men received their orders and began to trudge up the hill while the corporal set his remaining squad in positions facing north and south, up and down the boreen, with two men manning the Lewis machine gun on the Crossley’s bonnet.
A breeze cooled the damp wool of O’Keefe’s bottle green uniform. Gooseflesh dimpled his back. Constable Keane jogged over and squatted beside him, gently setting an oiled leather camera case on the grass at the ditch’s rim.
‘Will we head up, Sergeant?’
‘No,’ O’Keefe said. ‘Wait til those boys clear the area. The body’s not going anywhere.’
Keane nodded, rummaging in his trouser pocket for a tattered paper bag of sweets. He held it out to O’Keefe who shook his head.
‘Queer spot to leave it, all the same,’ the young constable said, palming sweets into his mouth and returning the bag to his pocket. ‘Have to lug the yoke a fair stretch to get it up there. And left in full view of the whole valley.’
‘No sense plugging someone if others can’t learn from it.’
O’Keefe watched as the Essex scouts disappeared into the derelict cottage halfway up the hill. Moments later they re-emerged, signalling an all clear and O’Keefe continued to track them as they climbed towards the boulders at the hilltop, the soldiers moving in a loose group of four instead of spreading out and working around from each side of the crest. They ambled, upright, Enfields held loosely at their hips. Like Sunday hillwalkers, O’Keefe thought. Too young to have fought in the war or they’d know better. ‘Where’s Logan?’ he said.
Keane nodded back towards the Crossley. Constable Logan was leaning up against the lorry’s bonnet, pipe stem wedged in his mouth under the cover of a thick, white moustache. O’Keefe didn’t need to see his mouth to know that he was yarning. It was what Logan did. The man could talk paint off walls.
O’Keefe could hardly believe the old constable hadn’t taken a bullet since the Troubles had started. Logan was from a different age of policing in Ireland. A time when a constable stopped for an auld natter with the people he served. For a hand or two of cards with the bachelor farmer, a short whisky on a cold night patrol, a mug of tea and a look-in at the dairyman’s newborn calf.
Now, O’Keefe reflected, we police travel in packs and kick in the dairymen’s doors, hunt down their sons while their sons are hunting us. Logan had taught O’Keefe a lot of what had been good about the job in the days before the killing had started. He decided to leave him where he was, hoping that Logan would hear the shooting, if there was any, over the sound of his own voice.
The four Essexes reappeared from behind the boulders and again signalled an all clear.
‘Right so, Constable.’ O’Keefe rose stiffly from the ditch.
Keane picked up the camera case and took long strides up the hill, boots pressing a wake in the damp grass for O’Keefe to follow. As they climbed, O’Keefe took note of the ascent and estimated the distance from the Crossley to the body. The grade of the hillside was enough to make a reasonably fit man break into a sweat. A fitter man than himself, he thought, the scar on his face tensing in spasm with the effort of the climb. He rubbed it with his palm. Like the lance corporal, O’Keefe had his own curio from the war; a dark, pink rope of knotted tissue, from under his right eye to his neck. It played up under physical or mental strain. He had covered enough of it as he could with a thick brown moustache.
‘Fair climb, Sergeant.’ Keane was only twenty-two years old, a Donegal lad six months in the police. He had sharp blue eyes, sandy blond hair under his peaked uniform cap and the wispy beginnings of his own de rigueur RIC moustache. He was an athletic, handsome, if shorter, version of the thousands of men who had clamoured to join the RIC for generations. When the IRA had begun shooting RIC men, recruitment to the constabulary had understandably dropped. Out of necessity, age-old standards for height, girth, reading, writing and arithmetic had been relaxed, allowing men under five foot nine, such as Keane, to enlist.
‘It is,’ O’Keefe answered. ‘You’d reckon more than one to do the job—to haul it up there.’
‘And a motor,’ Keane said, ‘or cart and ass to get the body up the boreen. Sure, the village there…,’ the constable turned back from his climbing and pointed south-eastwards, ‘must be a mile or more away.’
O’Keefe stopped and looked. The hamlet was clearly visible from where they stood on the hill. ‘Drumdoolin,’ he said. ‘Two of our lads were killed just outside it on cycle patrol last summer. O’Rourke and Cotton—good cons, God rest them.’ Con. RIC slang for constable. O’Keefe had heard that con was short for convict in America. He enjoyed the irony. ‘They boarded up Drumdoolin barracks shortly after. Divvied up the men between Bandon barracks and ourselves. IRA burned the shell of it last Easter.’
Keane shook his head but didn’t appear surprised. It was all in the run of things for new RIC men and the rabble of Black and Tans brought in from across the water. Barrack mates shot in the face from behind stone walls, their guns and ammunition taken while they lay twitching and bleeding out on the road. Barrack mates kidnapped from dance halls and executed by moonlight, their bodies dumped in bog holes or left on the wet cobbles of town squares as a warning to prospective recruits to the constabulary. Keane would never have known West Cork when it wasn’t a place hated and feared by policemen.
‘You think the body had anything to do with the village?’ Keane said, turning back and continuing to climb.
O’Keefe shrugged and followed. ‘If it did, we’ll probably never find out. Sure, murder’s as common as rain round here these days. And no one knows anything about it, even when they do.’
They reached the body and several crows flapped and rose from it, angry at the intrusion. Even then, O’Keefe thought one had refused to flee its roost at the body’s mid-section. Only as he moved closer could he see that it was no crow covering the young girl’s hips and thighs.
Keane blessed himself. ‘Jesus wept. Look at her…’ He swallowed. ‘Are those…feathers?’
The young constable turned then and vomited into a scrag of heather.
© Kevin McCarthy, 2007
Kevin McCarthy is represented by the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency. Enquiries to: Jonathan Williams Literary Agency, Rosney Mews, Upper Glenageary Road, Glenageary, County Dublin, Ireland.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.