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Authors: Anthony Quinn

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THIRTEEN

They half-dragged, half-guided Kant towards the train station, the squad members barely exchanging a word, only staring straight in front, ignoring the reporter with his ruffled hair and flushed face as though he were some sort of drunken
flunkey in their midst. The air was freezing cold, and took away whatever breath he had left in his lungs. Murky shadows gathered in the sky, not a nocturnal darkness, but the gloom of an approaching storm. Rain fell at first and then turned into a wet, stinging snow. Vagrants had lit fires in the streets next to the slum tenements, the smoke adding to the murk, sediments of ash and snowflakes
colliding. It was hard to make out the blurred shapes of the squad members as they escorted him to the train station. To passers-by, they must have looked as sane and acceptable as everyone else hurrying under the trailing plumes of smoke and snow.

He had left without his overcoat or a hat, and he could feel a chill take hold. His legs ached and his mind felt like pulp. He tried to push his fear aside and concentrate on working out some sort of escape strategy. Every now and again, h
e thought he recognised a face in the crowd of pedestrians as they loomed out of the squall, but they were all strangers. If a man or a woman caught his gaze, they just stared blankly back, submerged in a gloom that made everything look grey and anonymous. Why should anyone care about his plight on a morning so full of impediments?

The platforms at the station were clogged with people waiting in queues. He thought of signalling one of the train guards but felt the cold jab of a gun in his side. The crowd rushed as one when a train entered the station and for a moment, he broke free from his captors. The push of people against him made him feel as though the battle was not yet lost. There was a blind safety in crowds, even one that concealed the movements of IRA assassins.
He allowed the throng to jostle him further from Collins and his henchmen. He thought he had lost sight of them until he felt someone grip his shoulders tightly, and force him in the opposite direction, and then onto a train that was just about to depart.

Collins and his squad filed down the corridor, with the reporter in the middle,
until they found an empty carriage. From where they made him sit, next to the carriage window, he could see the lever for the emergency stop but it was so far away that reaching it in one movement was out of the question. He turned to look outside as the train pulled away. All he could see were railway
tracks gleaming in the falling snow, curving in places, changing direction and transecting each other, like a page crowded with lines of writing, the words wandering and slanting into each other. He stared through the window at the figures of people frozen in the moment but he was beyond their help. He shifted uncomfortably. The point of the gun nestling in his ribs felt like a cold prophecy of what the day ahead held.

At the next station, a slim, professorial-looking man dressed in a trilby hat and a fawn coat entered the compartment. Collins introduced him to Kant as Richard Mulcahy, his Chief of Staff. The reporter recalled that Mulcahy was a long-term friend of Collins, and a veteran of the 1916 rising in which he had been credited with defeating a Royal Irish Constabulary column.

The two men began firing questions at Kant, which he tried his best
to parry. The morning's exertions had brought on a fever, and in his tired state, the regularity of the train's clacking on the tracks became a metaphor for the relentlessness of their questioning. The IRA men's voices and the shape of passing buildings came at him out of the darkness with a mechanical rhythm. Mulcahy had cold blue eyes, and his fingers traced invisible patterns in the air as he spoke, as though he was playing a game of noughts and crosses with himself. He spoke in a formal dry voice, while Collins adopted a jolly, kindlier tone.

‘What sort of spy are you, Mr
Kant?' asked Mulcahy.

For a moment, he felt as though he was back in his headmaster's study, confessing to a minor violation of some school rule that might lead to a reward of sorts. He was surprised by his own reply, the child-like truth of it.

‘A spy who wants to disappear.'

The train shook, clattering over points. He imagined a river of darkness rushing below his feet, a bottomless black into which he longed to fall.

‘Spying is a dangerous game,' replied Mulcahy, accenting his point with a circular stroke of his index finger.

‘
It's not a game. It's my life.'

Mulcahy pressed him with more questions, but Kant was unable to answer, distracted by the movement of the Chief of Staff's fingers, like a dumb animal following the whip of its expert trainer.

He closed his eyes and drifted into unconsciousness. ‘Leave me alone,' he mumbled.

Collins patted Mulcahy on his shoulder. ‘Look at him. He looks like he might die in an hour.'

‘Who's he trying to disappear from?'

‘From himself, perhaps?'

The voices revolved in his head, the words turning in upon themselves.

‘It's impossible to tell what some of these Englishmen are really up to in Dublin
,' said Collins. ‘I've met Bolsheviks, anarchists, pacifists, ruthless spies and hardened criminals. They fight in the strangest of ways. They seem more interested in throwing sand in each other's eyes, than landing a punch on the enemy's face.'

‘They are the madmen of our time. They've been waiting for a war like ours to come along.'

The couplings between the carriages strained as they gathered speed. Kant opened his eyes briefly and
watched the green signal lights flying past the window.

‘My contact in Dublin Castle says he knows him,' said Collins

‘Then he is a spy, and his story of a lust murderer is a set of lies.' Mulcahy's splayed fingers hung in the air.

‘I don't know. I think he's mostly truthful.'

‘He's confused. Delirious.'

‘He'll say anything to survive.'

‘You think these missing women were murdered?'

‘
I might be wrong.'

‘You seldom are.' Mulcahy rested his fingers against his lips.

‘I can be mistaken and duped like any other man.'

‘You don't sound mistaken. You must have reason to believe his story is correct.'

‘There is a connection between these women, one that Mr
Kant has not yet uncovered. I believe they were lured from Dublin Castle by an English spy.'

‘Then at least part of his story is true.' Mulcahy leaned closer to Kant, his fingers drawing a pattern over the reporter's ashen face, as though they might draw the truth from him.

‘I think Mr
Kant is entirely truthful, based on the sort of fellow he is,' said Collins.

‘What sort is that?'

‘A directionless Englishman, who no longer wishes to live an ordinary life
.'

‘You make him sound dangerous.'

‘That's undoubtedly true.'

‘Will you have him shot?'

The train released a high-pitched whistle and the carriage shuddered as it sped into the darkness of a long tunnel. Kant felt himself plunge forwards, shooting through the carriages as if they were mirages, until he was riding at the very front of the screaming train, and then he heard nothing more.

He jerked awake with a gasp. Mulcahy had disappeared, and an absolute silence had fallen upon the carriage. The faces of Collins and his men were grey and devoid of emotion. They leaned in upon the reporter, pressing him heavily against the window. He saw that the squad member next to the door had his gun drawn and half-concealed in his lap. It took Kant several moments to realise the reason for their tension –
the train had drawn to a complete stop.

Collins hunched forward and peered through the snow-covered window.

‘Do you think the train's stranded in a drift?' asked one of his men.

‘If it is
, we'll make the guards dig us out. At gunpoint.'

Time seemed to pass slowly. The thickness of the silence and the stares of the squad made the carriage feel even more oppressive. Kant looked through the window, his brain jamming blind in the white glare of the snow. He closed his eyes, rested his head against the glass, slipped in and out of sleep.

He awoke with the uncomfortable sensation of someone staring at him. He opened his eyes
a little and saw a British soldier peering into the carriage from the corridor. He stirred himself awake, rising rapidly through levels of consciousness to a heightened awareness. He breathed in sharply as a column of soldiers made their way along the corridor. He glanced outside. Another line of soldiers marched up and down the train tracks, their guns raised at the
carriage windows.

Collins and his men looked at each other in silence, their faces lean and hungry-looking. For the first time that morning, they looked uncertain of what to do next. Kant, on the other hand, felt as though he had been pulled back from a dangerous borderline. If only he could communicate a message to the soldiers or the train guards, he might still be saved.

A soldier opened the door and poked his head inside. Collins immediately chuckled and wished him a cheery good morning, his face changing in an instant, his features growing big and rounded, his expression genial and relaxed, as though he were now inhabiting the body of a country businessman on a trip to the city. Kant believed he had discovered Collins' special talent. The IRA leader could change his appearance and persona at will, throwing aside personalities like ballast. By contrast, his squad seemed to go inert, like sacks of flour.

The soldier asked Collins for his identification papers.
Collins flourished them from his wallet and waggled them at the soldier, still with a teasing smile playing on his lips. The soldier snapped the papers from his hand and examined them carefully. He looked at Collins, and using the butt of his rifle, lifted the fringe of hair hanging over the IRA man's forehead. Collins stared back at him, keeping the humour in his eyes. A look of recognition or contempt flashed in the soldier's eyes. He handed the papers back to Collins and left the carriage. Sharp voices sounded in the corridor, discussing something,
and then came the march of heavy boots approaching.

‘Hold your weapons until I give the order,' Collins warned his men, his features sharpening again. Kant had seen Mick Collins the forceful gunman sink almost out of sight, and then surface again. The train rocked slightly with the boarding of more soldiers, and the feeling of tension in the carriage intensified.
An inner force was working on Collins' face, pulling his lips into an open-mouthed half-grin. He stared at the door, waiting for the signal to start firing. His henchmen grew impatient as time ticked by. One of them leaned over to open a crack in the door.

‘Wait,' said Collins. They could hear soldiers' feet marching back down the corridor and then all went quiet. Someone ran by the window. Kant
peered through the glass, but the only thing he could see was a low winter sun angling out of the sky, glittering upon the freshly fallen drifts.

Eventually a small man, wearing wire-rimmed glasses, and dressed in the uniform of a train guard, entered the carriage with an embarrassed cough.

‘Mr Collins,
' he said, ‘the passenger in the next carriage would like you and Mr Kant to join him over a bottle of whiskey.'

‘I don't drink while on business,' replied
Collins with a growl, and then, ‘how do you know our names?'

The guard looked even more uncomfortable. ‘Pardon me, Mr Collins. The passenger said his name was General Jack Stapleton, Head of Department G in Dublin Castle. He said he has a spot of business to
discuss with you.'

FOURTEEN

The engine started up and the train rolled forward as the guard led Collins and Kant down the corridor. He tapped on the door
of the next carriage and a growl sounded from within, which they took to be an invitation to enter.

Kant recognised the upright bearing of the man seated at the table, his vigorous features and his raised chin; however, his gaze had changed. General Stapleton's eyes
were wasted-looking and watery as he looked up from his bottle of whiskey.

‘Forgive me, Mr Collins, for interrupting your journey,' said the general. He seemed anxious to show the IRA leader respect. ‘I thought we might have a glass of whiskey or two and work out how to save Ireland from this terrible war. I assume you like to discuss military strategy?'

If the invitation surprised Collins, he did not show it. He behaved as if this was what sworn enemies did from time to time.

‘I always like to discuss strategy. Day and night.' Collins returned the general's stare with a quizzical glare.

‘Fine, then let us drink together.' The general's voice grew warm-spirited, and his e
yes glittered. He seemed to be taking a special relish in the IRA leader's company.

‘I don't like drinking whiskey, though,' said Collins, untruthfully.

‘Come on Mr Collins, drink,'
said the general. ‘A man of war should drink like a fish.'

‘If a man of war drinks like a fish then he has packed in serious soldiery.'

‘I know why you are reluctant to drink; you think that I am here with this bottle of whiskey
to lure you into a trap.'

‘No,' said Collins, hesitating. ‘I think it highly unlikely that the British army has started using generals as bait.'
He sat down at the table, and Stapleton smiled.

‘You're quite correct. We let the lower ranks do our dirty work.' The general glanced at Kant
who had shuffled alongside Collins and now leaned back against the seat like a flagging boxer resting between rounds. The general poured the three of them a glass of whiskey. Collins inspected the amber liquid for a moment and then knocked it back. A little gas stove had been placed close to the general, and the air gradually grew warm and heavy.

‘War is strange is it not?' said the general.
‘How it gives men like you and I the illusion that we are irreconcilable strangers, but in reality it brings us closer together in all sorts of interesting ways.'

‘How has it done that?'

‘Through this file of missing women that our
Daily Mirror
reporter has compiled.'

‘What do you know about these crimes?' asked Collins.

‘Enough to suspect that someone in Dublin Castle is behind them.'

‘These are no ordinary acts of war. The girls were savagely murdered.'

‘I agree completely.
In the circumstances, I think it's vital that we talk about preventing further victims, in particular, Lily Merrin.'

‘Who do you mean by we?'

‘You and I. And Mr Kant, of course.'

‘I don't want to do any talking about Lily Merrin.'

‘I think I speak for all of us when I say her safety is paramount.'

The train was back at full speed, making a racket, the carriage rocking as it raced past snow-draped backstreets. Kant's sense of being a stranger crossing unfamiliar territory deepened. He wondered if Stapleton's invitation had increased the threat of danger or lessened it.

‘Tell me, why did you have the train stopped?'
asked Collins.

‘I could tell you that I was meant to board it first thing this morning. That there was a mix up in my diary and I was delayed. That my men stopped it so I could board
mid-transit, and that by chance, I picked the carriage next to yours. That's one version of the truth. The other is that my men have been following your every move since yesterday evening.'

Collins emptied his glass and rose. ‘I think Mr Kant and I shall leave now,' he said,
heaving the reporter to his feet.

The general eyed Kant with a measure of concern. ‘What do you plan to do with our
Daily Mirror
reporter?' he asked.

‘Mr Kant is anxious to help me with some enquiries I am making.' He pushed the reporter to the door and glanced back at Stapleton. ‘I understand your worry for your missing typist. For a man in your position it must seem uniquely unfair, in fact a torment to have a member of staff disappear like that. But so many people
go missing at a time of war. People a great deal more innocent than our Mr Kant. And each situation has its own brand of unfairness, but I am unable to assist you any further.' He saluted and made to leave the compartment.

‘Wait,' said the general. ‘A lunatic spy is on the loose, targeting Irish women, and you have no wish to stop him in his tracks?'

‘With all the murder and mayhem perpetrated by your soldiers I hadn't noticed,' said Collins, but he hesitated. His eyes glinted as he worked out the strategic advantages of the general's difficulty.

‘I wouldn't want to be the republican leader who passed by on the chance of apprehending this maniac,
' said the general. ‘Think of the harm he will do if he continues unchecked.'

‘I agree that this murderer should be stopped.'

‘What do you suggest we do?'
asked Stapleton.

‘Suggest?' replied Collins, a note of anger in his voice. ‘I suggest that we each take responsibility and discipline our own men. And if anyone steps out of line they should be court-martialled.'

‘How well do you know your recruits?'

‘As well as a father knows his sons.'

‘Then you should know that in every army there are monsters lurking in the shadows. Men who have no limits when it comes to evil. At times, I wish I could see in the souls of my men. I'd like a glimpse of what's there, but to be honest, I don't know if I'd care to peer too deeply.'

‘Is it any wonder such crimes are being committed against Irish women when you consider the filth that you are sending over?'

‘Filth?' said the general quietly.

‘I'm not talking about your soldiers, although you must admit there are more rogues than saints among their ranks. I'm talking about the droves of spies that are infiltrating the city. Dublin is like a wound crawling with maggots.
The boarding houses are full of cut-throats, touts, bullies, crooks, swindlers and rapists. All of them greedy for the enormous reward offered for my capture. All of them ably supported by your intelligence services.'

The general smiled. ‘Maggots are our friends. They might tickle and look unpleasant but they have a special talent at cleaning wounds. One just needs to turn a blind eye and let them burrow into the deepest corners.'

‘Your blind eye has allowed this murderer free rein.'

‘Which is why I am asking you to assist Mr Kant in hunting him down.
'

Collins' eyes were cold and calculating. ‘What can you offer me in exchange?'

‘Security and something more important. A political solution to this conflict.'

Collins chuckled quietly. ‘Not much has amused me lately, but your offer has. What sort of security can an English general offer me on my own soil?'

‘The bounty on your head has been raised to £10,000. Dublin Castle will keep raising it until you are caught.'

‘Right now, I can watch my own back, and half of Dublin Castle's, for that matter.'

The train roared into a tunnel, ghostly flecks of grey ash clinging to the windows. When it emerged into daylight, the two men were leaning closer together. Their voices grew lower, half drowned by the pounding and clatter of the train.

‘That is the problem with leaders like you and I,'
said the general, his voice almost vanishing under the sound of the glancing wheels. ‘We are too caught up in the fray. Too entangled in this bloody conflict to realise that it is war itself we should be fighting and not each other.'

‘Your argument has a pragmatic ring to it.' Collins' voice had also developed a strangely intimate tone.

‘That is because I'm arguing with a pragmatist.'

‘So what weapons should we be taking into battle?'

‘The art of compromise. Political negotiation. Lloyd George does not want to risk another terrible war, especially when so much international opinion is on the side of small nations like Ireland. Privately, he has instructed his generals to extract a constitutional settlement with the Republican Army.'

Collins gave a snort of frustration.

‘Mr Collins, you are a realist, a practical man surrounded by bloodthirsty rebels with clumsy aspirations. Look out the window. This is not a country ready for a violent revolution.'

Collins knocked back his whiskey and thought for a while. He smiled. ‘Strange how one can be more daring in planning military strategy with a bottle of whiskey and one's enemy for company.'

The general moistened his lips with his glass. ‘Some of the best decisions are made in the most unusual circumstances.' He watched Collins closely.
‘I am under few illusions in this war. The only two people who can stop it are the Prime Minister and you. The future of Ireland will depend on the compromises you will reach one day. For this reason, I am speaking quite openly with you, and I hope the position is mutual.'

Collins said nothing, his thick fringe hanging loosely over his forehead. The train clattered over points and his thickset torso jostled against Kant, as if he were drunk, or sleeping.

‘Let us raise a toast,' said the general, ey
eing Collins.

‘In whose name?'

‘In the name of Ireland. North and South.'

‘What did you say?'

‘
Two Irelands, not one. Two countries, full of free Irishmen, but not united. I'm sure, given time and careful thought, you will agree there is no other possible option for the land you hold dear.'

The general downed his drink and poured another.

Collins was about to protest, but a strange look fell over the general's face. The skin was drawn tight about his face, and not a muscle moved. Unexpectedly, tears began to well in his eyes.

‘There is something I have to tell you,' said the general in a firm voice, in spite of the wetness in his eyes
. ‘In every battle, military men like you and I hope for swift progress, to advance with only a handful of casualties. None of us expect or hope for carnage.' The general emptied his glass and replenished it. ‘But I have ordered lines of boys, barely 18 or 19, many of them Irish, into a hurricane of German gunfire. I'm talking about the Somme and Verdun. I'd seen a lot of violence in my life, and I'd grown hardened to mutilation, but in the spring of 1918 I watched young men die in quantities I had not dreamed possible. I prayed to God to let it all stop, that no more soldiers should die in vast waves like that
. But the regiments kept marching in their thousands to the front-line and I kept sending our boys over. Half of England, and Ireland, too.'

‘You should have ordered them to stop.'

‘You can order soldiers to die but you can't order them to stay alive by running from a Lewis gun. No military leader has ever issued an order like that.'

‘What makes you think my war of independence will end in carnage, too? The republican army has more than 10,000 men at its disposal. Our will to win is formidable. We are organised in a mighty wave of resistance. I have no doubt that our military success will deliver an independent Irish nation within months.'

‘These days a successful soldier must also be a politician.'

‘What do you mean?'

‘Ulster is your intractable problem. The major obstacle to a united Ireland. Loyalty to the King throbs in the lifeblood of its Protestant people. If I was leader I would rather surrender Ulster to the British and go against the concerns of diehard republicans than risk a long and bloody war.'

‘
Any political solution that does not include complete Irish independence shall be rejected by Sinn Fein's ruling council.'

‘What about the many ordinary Irishmen who believe that this bloody war cannot be settled except by political means?'

‘What are you talking about? Compromise? Capitulation to the Crown?'

‘I haven't mentioned either. Only negotiation.'

A gloomy look fell over Collins' face. ‘What you are suggesting is tantamount to treachery.'

‘What do you mean by treachery?'

‘Treachery in betraying the cause of Irish freedom.'

‘No, treachery in this particular situation is more terrible than that. Treachery is indifference to the suffering of Irish men and women. That is the truest form of betrayal.'

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