PROLOGUE: YOU CAN’T TRUST A SPECIAL LIKE THE OLD-TIME COPPERS
Blue dark, red dark, yellow dark.
Snow glinting in the hollows. The Great Bear and the Pole Star visible between zoetroping tree limbs.
The wood is an ancient one, a relic of the vast Holocene forest that once covered all of Ireland but which now has almost completely gone. Huge oaks half a millennium old; tangled, many-limbed hawthorns; red-barked horse chestnuts.
“I don’t like it,” the man behind the man with the gun says.
“Just put up with it, my feet are getting wet too,” the man with the gun replies.
“It’s not just that. It’s these bloody trees. I can hardly see anything. I don’t like it. It’s spooky, so it is.”
“Ach, ya great girl ya, pull yourself together.”
But it is indeed spooky out here, in the hulking shadows of these venerable oaks, four hours after midnight, in the middle of nowhere, while Ireland sleeps, while Ireland dreams …
The little rise is a deceptively steep incline that takes my breath away and I can see that I am going to need my new inhaler if it keeps up. The inhaler, of course, is back in the glove compartment of the car because I haven’t yet acquired the habit of taking it with me everywhere. Not that it will make any difference in a few minutes anyway. A bullet in the head will fix an incipient asthma attack every time.
“Hurry up there,” the man with the gun growls and for emphasis pokes the ugly snub nose of the revolver hard into my back.
I say nothing and continue to trudge at the same pace through the nettle banks and ferns and over huge, lichen-covered yew roots.
We walk in silence for the next few minutes. Victim. Gunman. Gunman’s assistants. It is a cliché. This exact scene has played out at least a thousand times since 1968 all over rural Ulster. I myself have been the responding officer on half a dozen bodies found face down in a sheugh, buried in a shallow grave or dumped in a slurry pit on the high bog. The victims always show ligature marks on the wrists where they have been cuffed or tied and the bullet is always a headshot behind the left or right ear usually from less than a metre away and almost always from above.
Trudge, trudge, trudge we go up the hill, following a narrow forest trail.
If I was so inclined I could believe in the inherent malevolence of this place: moonlight distorting the winter branches into scarecrows, the smell of rotting bog timber, and just beyond the path, in the leaf litter on the forest floor, those high-pitched unsettling sounds that must be the life-and-death skirmishes of small nocturnal animals. But the pathetic fallacy has never been my cup of tea and I’m no romantic either. Neither God, nor nature, nor St Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of policemen, is coming to save me. I have to save me. These men are going to kill me unless I can talk or fight my way out of it.
A fire-break in the forest.
Is the blue a little lighter in the east? Maybe it’s later than I thought. The interrogation didn’t seem to go on too long but you lose track of time when you’re tied to a chair with a hood on your head. Could it be five in the morning? Five thirty? They’ve taken my watch so I can’t know for sure but wasps and bluebottles are beginning to stir and if you listen you can hear the first hints of the morning chorus: blackbirds, robins, wood pigeon. Too early in the year for cuckoos, of course.
Who is going to teach Emma about the birds and their calls when they shoot me? Will Beth still drive out to Donegal so Emma can spend time with her grandparents? Probably not. Probably Beth will move to England after this.
Maybe that would be for the best anyway.
There’s no future in this country.
The future belongs to the men behind me with the guns. They’re welcome to it. Over these last fifteen years I’ve done my best to fight entropy and carve out a little local order in a sea of chaos. I have failed. And now I’m going to pay the price of that failure.
“Come on, Duffy, no slacking now,” the man with the gun says.
We cross the fire-break and enter the wood again.
Just ahead of us on the trail a large old crow flaps from a hawthorn branch and alerts all the other crows that we are blundering towards them.
Caw, caw, caw!
Always liked crows. They’re smart. As smart as the cleverest dog breeds. Crows can recall human faces for decades. They know the good humans and the bad humans. When these thugs forget what they’ve done to me this morning the crows will remember.
Comforting that. My father taught me the calls and the collective nouns of birds before I even knew my numbers. Murder of crows, unkindness of ravens, kit of wood pigeon, quarrel of— “Don’t dilly-dally, get a move on there, Duffy! I see what you’re about! Keep bloody walking,” the man with the gun says.