As all three regular readers will be aware, last week I posted the first chapter in my work-in-progress, DANNY BOY, inviting comments and criticism. It was a hugely useful exercise, I have to say, and a heartfelt thanks to everyone who participated.
Below I’ve posted Chapter One again, which was rewritten in the last week to incorporate most, if not all, of the critiques. I’ve also posted Chapter Two, in the hope that people will be as generous with their time and comments as they were last week. If you have better things to do, I perfectly understand.
The first chapter, incidentally, takes place in Loutro, on the south coast of Crete; for those of you interested, the specific setting of the fictional house patrolled by Dan Noone is the very top-right corner of the picture above, the copyright of which belongs to K. Mavrakis.
And now, Dear Reader, over to you …
A dying man, she said, if he’s any kind of man, will live beyond the law. Gripping my hand in her papery claw as she pulled me close enough to hear her last choking whispers.
A fierce woman, my mother, and never fiercer than the night she died. A hawk like so many women before her, gentled by her times and generation to live as a dove, but we whom she loved knew she hovered above us, sharp-eyed and unblinking, alert to any threat to her precious brood and poised on an instant to wheel, fold her wings and plunge.
Her talons gouged my palm. ‘Do you have me?’ she whispered, and it was nearly a screech.
‘I have,’ I said.
I am my mother’s only son.
Tonight I learn if I’m any kind of man.
They’ll come before dawn, slipping down out of the hills like the andartes of old. In that cold hour there’ll be no goats to spook, no stones kicked loose, no moon to glint dull on the blackened barrels of their guns. Brave men, these Sphakians, and tough as heartwood, but crafty with it. Born to survive at any cost but dishonour. The old laws, and only the old laws, endure on this coast: hospitality, physics, vendetta. All else is choice and personal taste.
Eight hours, then, give or take. The light already thickening, dusk sifting in. The moon full and low over the eastern bluff. Too early yet for stars.
‘Night falls so fast here,’ Berte tells the tourists, ‘you can almost hear the bump.’
They laugh at the whimsy because Berte has a shaved head, an elephant seal nose and the eyes of an ex-bouncer who got bounced so hard by a crew of neo-Nazi Angels that he kept on bouncing, a stone skipped from Utrecht to the southernmost point of the continent until he touched down here, a village so remote it’s accessible only to those who hike or sail in. Seven years now he’s been telling that joke. Except night doesn’t fall here. It rises, drifting up out of the earth to settle like good stout. Down below the village curves out around the bay, the murk blurring its white cubes to that of a pearl necklace loosely strung. Yet the peaks above still glimmer gold along the ridge and a zinc horizon slices sky from sea. The Libyan Sea, the nameless sky.
Here I stand, I can do no other …
Loutro is the perfect place to die.
It will be warm until long after midnight. The air hangs trapped in the bowl of the bay, hemmed in by the faint offshore breeze. Just pacing the balcony, a cigarette cupped in one hand, the solid comfort of Berte’s Colt in the other, is enough to raise a sweat, set my back a-prickle. From the village murmurs carry across the water, beach in a swush of surf, wash on up the hill. The early diners gathering. Chairs scrape, a cork pops. Then a trill of laughter, the chink of knife on plate, the hiss and spit of grilling fish. A whiff of kalamari wafts up on the breeze, roasting lamb speckled with oregano, the sharp bite of lemon. My mouth waters and I swallow hard. Hunger has its own logic, but there will be no last meal for the condemned man. We are long past the pieties.
For relief I bring up the gun and sniff for the trace of cordite that still lingers and by the miracle of chemistry his face appears behind my eyes. That singular arrangement of features, unique as a fingerprint, that had haunted me day and night until earlier this afternoon, high in the hills under the burning sun, when they hung suspended above the blunt sight of the Colt. The sharp point to his chin, the hollow cheeks, the curving beak of the nose. The terror in the hooded eyes for that moment when he believed I would pull the trigger, the flash of relief that soured to sneering triumph as I lowered the gun.
But it wasn’t his terror I’d come for. It was the storm that boiled up in his eyes, of helpless rage and fear, but especially fear, when I said, ‘We have Courtney.’
At last he understood. The rest was ceremony. The plan being that he’d die long and hard, tortured in mind and body and soul.
I spark another smoke and rub my thumb on the crosshatched grip of the Colt. Trying to imagine his agony as he dragged himself down the slopes under that merciless sun, across rock and scree, through the coarse maquis, a dying animal with only one thought in mind.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he’d made it. A tough nut, Whelan, and besides, the more adventurous hikers stray from the trails every day, flirting with rock-slides and heatstroke and the imagined romance of finding themselves lost on a lunar landscape. It’s not impossible that some Good Samaritan schooled in First Aid might have heard him screaming, or happened across him slumped in the lee of a boulder, or spotted the fresh trail of blood and tracked him down.
I wonder, if he did make it, if they’ll send him up the slope from the village when the time comes, crawling along the moon-silvered path as staked goat and sacrificial lamb. This to judge how rash I am, how good a shot, how lethal my intentions. By now they know that I’m capable of leaving a man to die but perhaps they are wondering if I can actually kill. A quantum leap in moral terms, perhaps, but a difference that could well shape their entire strategy.
I spark another smoke to kill the hunger pangs and somewhere between the clink-flick and the flaring flame the Boop appears. She has this trick where she sneaks up from behind and ducks in between my legs, forcing her head through, her pudgy arms gripping my thighs. A tiny Samson about to haul on her pillars. This time, when she twists her head to look up, her wide blue eyes are solemn. ‘Smoking nasty, Dada,’ she says.
Nothing like disappointing his child to flay a man’s heart.
‘It is, love,’ I say. ‘Tell Momma I’m finally giving up.’
She forces herself all the way through my legs, then turns to stands before me with one hand on her hip. A two-foot tyrant. She wags a finger. ‘I put you,’ she says, ‘on the thinking chair.’
I flip the cigarette away and reach to ruffle her blonde hair but she ducks away, pouting.
‘Won’t be long now, Bumbles,’ I say.
All at once her face brightens, the chubby cheeks flushing, a gleam of milk-teeth in the dusk. ‘Dada come in a liddle bit?’
‘Another liddle bit, Boop. Tell Momma that Dada is coming.’
She flinches. The blue eyes cloud. ‘I not find Momma.’ Her lower lip trembles. ‘I missed her.’
Lost her, she means. ‘I know, love, but we’ll find her together. Dada will help.’
The eyes widen again. She quivers with repressed hope. ‘Find Momma?’
‘Exactamundo, Boop. Can you say exactamundo?’
‘Good girl. Kiss for Dada?’ I hunker down as she flattens her pink lips, stifling her giggles, arms thrown wide as she launches herself at my chest. For a split second I even allow myself to believe she is real but as always she dissolves at the last moment and passes through and is gone, and I’m left as cold as an empty church and she the last echo of a whispered prayer. One shudder is all it takes to leave me drained, exhausted, and it occurs to me to put the barrel of the Colt in my mouth, be done with it, but then a raucous burst of laughter explodes from the hushed murmurings below, a high-pitched screech of denial, and I remember that there are promises to be made good before this night is done.
Inside, and despite the white-tiled floor, the whitewashed walls, the room is dim as a cave. A brief yellow glow when I open the fridge to take out the plastic bottle of orange juice, a tub of yoghurt with a pair laughing strawberries on the label. I bring them across to the bed where she lies cruciform, ankles and wrists lashed to the bed’s legs. There’s no denying she’s a pretty girl. Brown eyes that are almost almond in shape, the irises flecked hazel. In direct sunlight, when she smiles her crooked smile, the flecks are green.
No flecks in the subterranean gloom. No smile tonight. Her nostrils flare as I perch on the bed, place the yoghurt and juice on the locker. When I take the balled sock from her mouth she spits dry, works a sandpaper tongue across her lips. Eleven years old, perhaps a little older. These days it can be hard to tell.
The juice first, tilting the bottle to her lips. She drinks greedily, sucking it down. While she gasps I dab the run-off from her chin with a corner of the sheet, then open the yoghurt, spoon it home. She’s ravenous.
‘There’s fruit,’ I say. ‘A banana, if you want it. Or an apple?’
I fetch the banana, peel it back. She devours it in four bites. Then the rest of the juice. When I try to replace the gag she ducks her chin, then tosses her head from side to side. I wait for her to run out of steam.
‘Listen to me, Courtney. Courtney?’
‘Please, Danny,’ she says. The cold defiance begins to melt, her eyes watering now. ‘Please.’
‘I’m not …’ She swallows the words like so much poison. ‘Please, don’t.’
Eleven years old, but old enough to have heard the stories of what happens to young girls who find themselves strapped to strange beds. Nothing I could say would calm her. As gently as I can I grip her cheeks with thumb and finger, squeeze her mouth open. Poke the balled sock in. She chokes, tries to say something, then gags way back in her throat.
‘He’ll come for you, Courtney. Don’t doubt that. He’s on his way.’
Tears leak from the corners of her eyes, although there’s no telling if they’re tears of rage or fear or self-pity. All three, probably.
I put the banana skin and yoghurt carton in the bin, the empty juice. Her eyes never leave me. I sit on the other bed and roll the last of the cigarettes. Soon enough, as hard as she fights it, the red-limned eyelids start to droop. Hardly surprising. She’s had as tough a day as she’s ever likely to have. Besides, the orange juice was laced with two crushed Dalmanes.
‘It’s okay to sleep, Courtney. He’s coming for you. Do you believe he’s coming?’
She nods. Her head jerks, then slips sideways, her chin resting on her shoulder.
I wait, rolling cigarettes, until she drifts off.
Out on the balcony it’s fully dark. The moon sailing high and perfectly round, God’s mouth pursed in a disapproving moue. By now the village is a blaze of light, the bay burnished gold, the moored boats so many steeplechasers clearing low hurdles as they rise and fall with the swell. From somewhere further up the hill comes the zizz-zizz of a lone cicada.
I set the straight-backed chair in the corner of the balcony tucked tight against the parapet so that when I sit the wall comes to just below my shoulder. From here I can watch the village, the bay, the eastern headland. I try to eat an apple, but hungry or not, I have no appetite. No will to refuel a machine bent on obliteration. No taste in my mouth but the thick furring of smoke on my tongue, the metallic tang of adrenaline. Below me sounds the flat tinkle-tankle bell of a stray and anxious goat. By now the village is a babble of voices, a strange opera underpinned by the music from Berte’s bar. An outboard motor rumbles, the diesel misfiring twice before it catches, and a runabout noses out onto the water to slalom slowly between the moored boats, angling across the bay. Picking up speed now, the nose rising, its wake shattering the gold leaf into shards as it arcs out towards the eastern headland.
They’ll beach near Hora Sfakion to cut off my retreat, come west along the trail, spread out across the hills. A two-hour hike at a steady march, four to five hours for a cautious advance, one leapfrogging the other, all the while half-expecting a bullet from the dark.
During the war, what Kosta calls the German War, the Sphakians wondered what all the fuss was about when everyone else turned andarte and took to the hills. Living like bandits was what the Sphakians did, Kosta reckons. What they are and will always be.
When the motorboat disappears around the point I go back to watching the village again. A pointless exercise, the blaze of light leaves the western headland, the hills beyond, black as pitch. If I had infra-red glasses I might see them drift away in ones and twos, out past the dock towards the ruined fortress, creeping up out of the alleyways into the gullies and ravines like so many cats on the prowl. The night’s hunt begun. Possessed of the stealthy patience of those who know that time and night are their allies, who know that any help I have called for will arrive too late, if it ever comes.
This will be their one mistake.
As crafty as they are, they presume I think as they do. That above all else any man holds sacred, the survival instinct reigns supreme.
Were they Persians advancing on the Hot Gates, they could not be more wrong.
The Boop, bored, wanders out from the room with her hands behind her back, scuffs a toe against some cracked concrete.
‘You come in a liddle bit, Dada.’
‘A liddle bit, Bumbles. Just another liddle bit now.’
Seven hours now, give or take.
Down below in the village, Berte cranks up the music. Johnny Cash. First the Hammond organ, wheezing like it’s been peppered by a blast of buckshot. Then the voice, that yearning growl that trembles with the sure knowledge of death, a voice that calls not from beyond the grave, but rumbles up from under the impossible weight of six feet of packed earth.
“O Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling …”
If you’re going to post a man a bullet, take the trouble of scratching his name into it, the least you can do, it’s common decency, is get the spelling right.
‘Fucking illiterates,’ JP said. He sat hunched in, arms crossed on the table. Tilting his head this way and that to examine the cartridge from every angle. ‘Nine millimetre Parabellum,’ he said. ‘Ugly bastard, isn’t it?’
It was all that, and especially the blunt nose. For some reason I’d always thought bullets were pointed but that blunt nose was a battering ram.
‘Si vis pacem, para bellum,’ JP said. ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’
‘Fuck the Latin lesson, JP. What do I do with it?’
We were sitting outside Poppies at a rickety aluminium table. A fresh spring morning, the pines rising behind the Powerscourt Arms midnight green against a pale blue sky. Pigeons perched on the cupola atop the campanile, their cooing an irregular rhythm to the traffic’s ebb and flow. Across the way The Kingfisher’s terrace was packed with yummy mummies soaking up sunshine and gossip, and the couple of tables outside Kennedy’s beside the doctor’s surgery were both taken. A busload of tourists en route to Powerscourt wandered around snapping the quaint Telefon sign on the old phone-box, the gothic curio that had once been the village school. A marmalade tabby snoozing on the low wall at the foot of the campanile woke to the sound of feathering clicks. It stretched and yawned, glanced around in disdain, then stalked off across the road.
JP had ordered a double espresso and a homemade blueberry muffin. I’d asked for a latte but it was going cold in the glass. Even the thought of it swilling down on my greasy guts made me want to puke.
Enniskerry doesn’t get a lot of traffic, but every car with a passenger was a potential drive-by. Any one of the tourists in their shades and baseball caps could have been a stone-cold killer.
The hangover was cruel but the paranoia was worse. The combination had my hands shaking and a cold sweat plastering my shirt to my back.
JP refused point-blank to sit inside. For one, he liked a smoke with his coffee. For two, he wasn’t the kind to spook easy.
The ring box lay on the table, hidden from casual glances by the salt and pepper shakers, the plastic container with its sugar sachets and condiments.
‘See this here,’ JP said, using the tip of his pinky finger to point at the cross gouged into the blunt tip. ‘That makes it what they call a dum-dum. So it flattens on impact instead of punching through. Cop that little lot in the face, it’ll take your head clean off.’ He tut-tutted, sipped some coffee. ‘Banned by the Geneva Convention, that is.’
He looked up. ‘What?’
‘I just got a bullet in the post.’
‘I know, yeah.’
‘Shouldn’t you be asking me how it arrived, how it was delivered, all this?’
He sipped some coffee and let his gaze drift away. ‘You know I can’t get involved, Dan. We’ve been over this. If you’ve anything to say, Brady’s your man.’
‘Make a statement, you mean.’
‘Yeah. Make the fucking statement.’
‘What’s the point?’
‘Don’t give me that bullshit.’
‘This fucking bullshit.’ He threw up his hands. ‘You slopping around looking like something that crawled out of a hole. Like something that’s had its back broke. Wallowing in fucking misery, getting pissed every night …’ He made a point of sniffing the air. ‘Fuck’s sake, Dan, I can smell it from here. When’s the last time you took a shower?’
‘Because that’s what matters right now. Personal hygiene.’
‘What matters,’ JP said, lowering his voice and hunching in again, ‘is you’re letting these bastards win.’
‘Alright,’ I said. ‘You tell me now, guarantee me, that if I make a statement the DPP will take the case to court. I’m not even talking about winning the case, just that it’ll make it to court.’ I dug out my mobile phone, placed it on the table. ‘You tell me that and I’ll ring Brady right this fucking second.’
He sat back, folded his arms. A big, tough and blocky man, square across the shoulders, solid through the jaw. A little too Plod for an undercover cop, maybe, in this day and age of tech wizards and forensic specialists, which was maybe why he’d been moved upstairs, to play chess master rather than do the dirty work himself.
I like my cops old-fashioned, though. To look like they can take a good punch.
‘This isn’t about the case, Dan. It’s about you letting yourself get ground down, crawling back under that stone. And being happy about it,’ he raised a stubby forefinger to stall my protest, ‘because it’s easier that way. Because that way you don’t have to deal with how shitty the road back is going to be.’ He shook his head. ‘You think the statement has anything to do with the case? Or that the case is about, what, justice?’ He snorted. A flash of something fiery in the cold blue eyes. ‘It’s about you, Dan. You taking back who you are from the bastards who took it all away.’
Psychobabble bullshit. I’d had it from the doctor, the shrink. Cora too. Even my mother, in her inimitable way, had had a try.
The last person I expected it from was JP.
‘What I want,’ I said, ‘is Rachel and Emily back. Me I can do without, just Rachel and Emily will do it. They want to meet me halfway, do a deal, I’ll take Emily.’ He flinched at that. ‘Sorry, but that’s how it is.’
JP wasn’t just any cop. He had a stake. I’d lost my wife and baby girl. He’d lost his sister and only niece, his godchild.
You’d assume my stake was bigger, but Rachel and JP had always been close. When they were kids people mistook them for twins all the time. Only eleven months between them. Even as adults, if you got in past the bone structure and focused on his eyes, it could have been Rachel staring back.
Lately I hadn’t been meeting JP’s eyes much. Lately I hadn’t been meeting anyone’s eyes much.
That morning had started the same as any other. I’d slept late, just as I had every morning for the past four months, having cultivated the habit of spending the wee small hours staring down the smooth bores of a double-barrelled malt. An expensive game of Russian roulette, given that my father and both of his brothers should have been buried in a pickle jar rather than a coffin, but those hard little shots of Black Bush blew my brains out every night, allowing me to forget, for those few sainted hours, that I didn’t have the balls to take it all the way.
I crawled from my pit and brewed some coffee, spent half-an-hour shuffling around feeding the hangover with juices and effervescent potions. I can’t even remember if I heard the slap of the post landing on the mat in the hall.
The doorbell rang. Then again, and again. In the empty house the cheery ding-dong sounded coarse, profane.
‘Christ’s sake, Frankie,’ I muttered. ‘Just leave it in the box.’
I got a lot of parcels and packages, books mainly, but CDs and DVDs too, most of them too bulky to fit through the letterbox. Hence the toolbox I’d left beside the doorstep, so Frankie wouldn’t have to roust me away from the desk every morning.
The bell rang again.
I was in a pretty foul mood when I flung open the door on an unseasonably mild day.
‘Ah, there you are,’ Frankie said, glancing up from scribbling a note. He’s a chirpy sod at the best of times, which was another reason I’d been trying to avoid him lately, especially first thing, but that morning he was revelling in the warm weather like only a postman can. He crumpled the note and handed over the package. ‘You never know,’ he beamed, ‘it might even be worth something.’
I signed for it with shaking hands while Frankie warned that April, when it comes in like a lamb, goes out like a lion.
‘I think that’s March, actually. Take care, Frankie.’
Back inside I tossed the post and parcel on the kitchen table, popped the kettle on. Dropped a brace of Nurofen. There being nothing else to do while the kettle boiled, and presuming from its tasteful black wrapping and gilt bow that it was the latest funky marketing ploy, I opened the parcel.
It was a small cube, a ring box. Inside the box, plush red velvet. Embedded in the velvet was the bullet, polished to a gleaming finish.
At first I thought it was one of those stupid cufflinks.
When I realised what it was, my first thought was how innocent it looked. A little poignant, even. A bullet is what it is, sure. But it doesn’t have much say in what it does or where it goes.
Like a new-born infant, blind and swaddled in its red velvet.
I’d picked it up before it occurred to me to think about fingerprints. Maybe I already knew there wouldn’t be any prints. Not after all the trouble they’d taken, the macabre artifice of it. Sending it by registered post. The gilt bow, the plush velvet. Carving my name.
There was more.
A note, folded carefully into squares so that it fit snug under the velvet.
I am so, so sorry. Please forgive me. But no one else can understand how this feels. How pointless. I love you all. x DanI refolded the note, put it back under the velvet. Replaced the bullet. Got up and made myself a coffee and found my phone and came back to the table and sat there looking at my name, etched black into silver.
I sat at the kitchen table looking at that bullet for a long, long time. Sunshine lancing down through the blinds. The coffee went cold. I don’t know how many cigarettes I smoked.
I should have been scared. Even if the booze had burned off every last cell, some instinct should have kicked in.
But all I could think was that they’d be doing me a favour.
Eventually, and because I didn’t know what to do with the bullet - Put it away with the cutlery? An ornament for the top of the TV? - I’d rung JP.
‘Do I get protection?’ I said.
‘What d’you mean, for what? They’ve sent me a bullet.’
‘Sure. As a warning, what’ll happen if you make a statement. But you’re not making one, so you’ve nothing worry about.’
‘Except they don’t know I’m not making one.’
‘They don’t, no. But if you don’t make the statement, they’ve no reason to follow through. Like the bullet says, if you want peace …’
‘You think these fuckers know Latin?’
‘They know bullets.’ He sipped some espresso. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘You think there’s a message in there?’
‘Dan None. As in, “And then there were none.”’
‘Forget about my name, JP. Focus on the fucking bullet.’
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘If you want I can make some calls, see if I can get a squad car to drive by the house once in a while. But if you think they’re going to blow the overtime budget stationing a guy at your front door …’
‘You’re saying I’m not worth it.’
‘I’m saying it’s about priorities.’
‘So if I want protection, I need to put myself in danger first.’
‘That’s one way of looking at it. You’re meeting them halfway.’
‘What’s the other way?’
He drained his espresso, met my eye. ‘If you want the cold truth, Dan, they think you’re a waste of space. Holing up under a rock, drinking yourself stupid …’ He shrugged. ‘It’s like the man says, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. And you’re the guy can make this case work. All you need to do is put Anto Whelan at the scene and it all clicks. Maybe the case won’t stick, I don’t know. But they’re looking at you, this guy who’s lost his wife and child, and they just don’t understand why you’re not working with them. And now you’re looking for protection?’ He shook his head. ‘The way Brady’s thinking, he should be slapping restraining orders on you, maybe keep you under house arrest for your own good in case you do something stupid like wander off looking for Anto Whelan on your tod.
‘I’ll tell you something else,’ he said. He folded his arms and leaned in again. Staring down at the table, like he was the bearer of news no one should ever have to hear. ‘I know how these scumbags think,’ he said. ‘And there’s every chance that this,’ he nudged the ring box with a knuckle, ‘isn’t meant as a threat.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’d say they’re already pretty sure you’re too chickenshit to testify if it ever goes to court, because if you were going to make a statement you’d have made it already.’
‘So what is it?’
‘Ever seen that movie, The Four Feathers?’
© Declan Burke, 2010