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Authors: Anthony Quinn

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BOOK: Blind Arrows
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The train rattled on, and for a long time neither man spoke. The general and Collins kept drinking, and the more they knocked away, the more Kant could feel Collins' body leaning into his. The proximity of
the IRA leader and the watchful stare of the general gave him an odd feeling of being included and accepted, that he was indispensable to this meeting of military leaders. He sat without moving, listening to the steady breathing of Collins' chest, the pauses in between. The rasp in his own chest quietened and he felt a sense of well-being flood his veins that may also have had a lot to do with the general's whiskey.

The general interrupted the silence. ‘To assist the British government in any negotiations with Sinn Fein, I need a direct link to you. A path of communication that will remain hidden to the prying eyes of Dublin Castle, and the rest of Sinn Fein.' The general
slowly swung his attention to Kant. ‘I propose an additional role for our
Daily Mirror
reporter while he is searching for Lily Merrin. We should use him as our liaison channel, in advance of peace negotiations. Our go-between to communicate important messages.'

Kant shifted in his seat,
suddenly feeling very much out of his depth. He waited for more, but both the general and Collins remained silent.

‘You have been very quiet, Mr Kant,' said the general. ‘What is your opinion on this matter?'

‘
Don't be coy,' added Collins. ‘You opened this can of worms. In my book that means you should close it.'

‘Just to be clear, general, who do I take my orders from? You or Mr Collins.'

‘You should follow Mr Collins' advice to the letter. Just get this business settled and find Lily Merrin. I don't want a complicated, drawn-out investigation. I want it closed as quickly and effectively as possible.'

‘Do you mean closed or resolved?' asked Kant.

‘Mr Collins will tell you precisely what I mean.'

The general stared at Collins waiting for his response.

‘Two weeks, Mr Kant.' Collins squeezed Kant
affectionately on the shoulder. ‘I will lend you and the general two weeks to find Lily Merrin. I will ensure your safety and assist your search. After that time, you must be gone. Any extra expenditure will cost you your life.'

Kant thought of the reports he had compiled, feeling as though he had fallen into a trap of his own devising. ‘I'm honoured to
be given this assignment,' he said. However, his tone expressed much less than wholehearted enthusiasm for the task that lay ahead.

When they left the carriage, Collins' face took on its hungry edge again. He slapped Kant forcefully on the back.

‘
You're a fully-fledged spy now, Mr Kant. Your wish has finally been granted.'

Kant could feel the train shaking, the tracks rumbling below. Collins broke into laughter, the sound welling up like a black pool about to engulf him. Th
e IRA leader leaned towards him, his eyes glittering with amusement.

‘Remember this, Mr Kant, you do not become a spy to find your identity, but to lose it.' He spoke in an easy drawl. The train began to slow to a stop, lurching them closer together.
‘You must make yourself a void, my dear reporter, one that lurks in other people's secrets. You must become silence. And don't forget, silence is very hard to live with, especially silence in the middle of a teeming city like Dublin.' The stilling of the wheels made his voice suddenly very loud and clear.
‘Real silence is death, and this is every man's worst fear. It will be very hard for you as a spy with so many of your bloodthirsty countrymen around you. You must become more silent than the silent spies in the deepest shadows. You must wait until you can hear silence itself speak.'

The train doors opened and Collins stepped out into the white gusting light. He was still smiling when he disappeared from view, letting the crowd of disembarking passengers carry his broad-shouldered frame into their midst, as though the mass of bodies was his movement, his flock, his following.

It was night by the time Kant returned to his ransacked bedroom. From the darkness
of the landing, he heard the creak of a briefcase handle. A bony hand dangling out of a worn coat squeezed the faded leather tightly. From the shadows rose the thin figure of Brugha, like a dry husk sucked up by a breeze.

‘What are you doing here?' asked Kant.

‘I've been following you. Watching you on the streets, and in the pubs. I've been waiting to see what sort of knave you are.'

‘And what have you found?'

‘You are careful and watchful, and have a talent for embroiling yourself in conspiracy. Ordinarily, people whose lives are under threat, they try to run away, but not you.'

‘I have a job to do. Working as a reporter takes me into dark corners.
'

‘They say you are also a British spy, which makes you somewhat unreliable, but in the circumstances you suit me fine. I think I can trust you with my secret. I've read your little report in the
Daily Mirror
about the missing women. I can furnish you with a much more interesting story that might be your paper's scoop of the year.'

‘Which is what?'

‘Collins the bastard has been trying to sideline me because I suspect he has been gambling away the IRA finances. But some day soon his turn will come. A double-crosser like that will not survive forever.
' His bitterness seemed concentrated in his thin red lips.

‘How do you plan to stop him?'

‘With the correct pieces of information, a single bureaucrat can bring down an entire army.' His knuckles tightened their hold on the briefcase. He kept it close to his body, as though it were a child that needed singing to and rocked. What would it take to make him surrender its contents, wondered Kant.

‘Mick is obsessed with paper. Everything is filed and recorded, every meeting, every contact. He knows that whoever keeps the record, has the power, the advantage. It's not a war he's running, it's an army of typewriters battering away in cramped offices all over the city, churning out a 10,000 word fiction, the deepest lie ever told. Mick Collins. Ireland's greatest rebel.' Brugha gave a dispirited smile. ‘Mick the super spy confounding British intelligence, Mick the gun-runner ordering Tommy guns from the production line, Mick the financial wizard bankrolling the rebellion from 1,000 secret accounts, Mick the commander-in-chief and minister of everything, an enormous discrepancy that grows bigger by the day.'

He paused,
stared at Kant, and blinked back a look of gloating delight.

‘To keep a fiction like that going requires a lot of editing,' he continued. ‘Mick has been quietly deleting any evidence that might tarnish his reputation. However, my little briefcase has a special appetite for his burnt pieces of paper, all the
discarded scraps of writing, the half-destroyed notes. It can home in on them from miles away.' Brugha's hands locked tight on the briefcase's handle. His eyes widened with excitement. ‘They are my secret cargo, my antidote to Mick's meticulous notebooks, a counterforce to his propaganda and politics. They carry a truth someone wants to extinguish, which is why I am keen to gather them up.'

Kant felt chilled to the bone and tired from the day's exertions. His breath rattled in his chest. All he wanted to do was drop into his bed and sleep.

‘To tell you the truth, I don't know what to think of Collins. I don't know what is going on with him and the republican army, nor do I know what Dublin Castle are up to. How do you think I can help you?'

Was it pity he saw in Brugha's eyes or just tiredness?

‘I want you to look out for pieces of paper with Mick's signature. Hold onto them for me before he destroys them. They will help us uncover the truth.'

He tipped his hat at Kant and fled down the stairs into the night
, clutching the briefcase close to his chest. It was not so much a matter of him being able to let go of the briefcase, realised Kant. In the half-light, it looked like a swollen parasite that would not release its grip on him, searching for a way into his thin body.

FIFTEEN

It was the hour of dawn and Kant stood across the empty
square from Dublin Castle, the nerve centre of British intelligence in Ireland, its inviolable fortress of secrets. The square echoed with the sound of women banging on the castle gates and shouting. They were the
grieving relatives of the murdered women, and had been there all night, chanting prayers, singing hymns and waving placards, with a hungry, agitated edge to their grief, like that of mothers who had hung around too long at the side of a battlefield.

Kant had spent the last three days in bed, recovering from the fever he had caught on his early morning train journey with Collins. He knew that he had been lucky. The IRA men had intended he catch something much more permanent. For short periods during the day, he was able to rise and work at his typewriter, writing pieces for the press in London, pouring out what he considered twaddle, details of British reprisals for IRA attacks that came straight from Dublin Castle, sanitised of any of the violent excesses of British soldiers. The reports were just enough to satisfy his bosses in London and help him keep his job.

In the cold air and dazzle of the early morning sun, he found it uncomfortable standing still
, his legs were tired and his eyes blinked in the golden light. All he could see were the needle-like shadows of the protesting women, jabbing against the sun-burnished bars.

When the gates opened to let in the civilian staff, he
struck off gingerly, using his cane for support, pushing his way through the shawled women. They swelled around him with their dark, menacing faces, and looked ready to pounce on him until a Scottish sentry intervened, shout
ing and waving his rifle in the air.

‘Bloody Catholic mothers,' said the Scot to the reporter as the throng piled against the gates. ‘They dare to bless themselves in public and pray for their
rebel daughters. Right in front of our noses, too.' He looked aghast.

As if on signal, the women began a loud recitation of the rosary, a flurry of Hail Marys erupting into the air.

The sentry growled again. ‘Praying all over the place. They didn't warn me they were sending me to a Papist zoo.'

On the other side of the gates, Kant found even less tranquillity
. The stomping of marching boots, and the rattling of spurs and weapons reigned supreme. A regiment paraded in full field dress, practising their drills in rows of four. Kant waited as the soldiers swung past, followed by a horseman riding the largest grey mare he had ever seen. The horse, picking its way through the soldiers, seemed to take fright at something and reared backwards. The rider pressed in his heels and shook the reins, but the animal became more agitated, swinging its large head back and forth, frothing at the bit, its eyes brimming with fear. The column of marching men broke rank and parted like a frightened herd, but the rider kept holding the horse back. At one point, he turned in Kant's direction, revealing a
proud, chiselled face that looked simultaneously bored and amused. The rider waved at Kant in recognition. It was Corporal Isham. With a lazy looking shake of the reins, he spun the horse round, and drove it towards the castle stables.

Kant walked through a stone archway and into the main hall of the British war office. Exalted ceilings rose above a long room full of earnest young men pounding the marble floors, gabbling to each other, exchanging files from boxes and briefcases. From a room at the end of a corridor came the jabbing sounds of about a dozen intent typists.
Kant queued at the main desk from where he hoped to gain access to the intelligence archives.

In front of him, an elderly woman with discoloured grey hair spoke in long hysterical sobs, while waving a handful of crumpled papers at the harassed looking clerk at the desk.

She turned and wailed at the rest of the queue. ‘God save me, they've forgotten my dead husband already.'

From what Kant could make out, her husband had been an employee at the castle, leaving her entitled to a monthly pension. However, the previous payment had been reduced to a fraction of the usual sum, without any explanation
whatsoever. The clerk had examined the papers and kept claiming Dublin Castle had not issued the pension in the first place.

‘This has nothing to do with us,' he insisted, shrugging his shoulders. ‘You've come to the wrong place. You
must go to the banks that issued the payments. There are several ones mentioned in your letters.'

‘I've been to every bank in Dublin, and they've all turned me away. The last manager told me to take the file here.'

The clerk was unwilling to help her any further, and turned to the next person in the line, but the woman waved the papers i
n his face and pleaded with him. Eventually he gave way to her clamouring insistence and fetched a colleague from a side-room. For a few minutes, the woman appeared gratified and relaxed her protestations.

‘What imbecile has sent you to Dublin Castle?' The second clerk erupted into a vile temper after he had studied the file
. ‘There is nothing we can do for you.' He tried to take her roughly by the arm and lead her out of the building but she burst into tears and sank to her knees, shaking the papers at anyone who cared to look. Eventually, the exasperated clerk found a chair for her, and went off in search of his superior.

The manager gazed at her with unblinking eyes. ‘Why have you come here?' he asked.

‘
Because you are the authorities.'

‘But we don't pay your husband's pension,' he explained. ‘Consequently, we are powerless to correct this mistake.'

‘If you do nothing I shall make a complaint.'

It seemed pointless. The old woman was impenetrable to logic and indifferent to their scorn and frustration. The manager threw his hands in the air and sighed. ‘Sit down and one of the secretaries will bring you a cup of tea.'

She hefted her bag of papers to one side, and eventually Kant reached the front of the queue. He presented his identification to the manager, who dug out a typed letter from a drawer.

‘Martin
Kant. British Intelligence, Section C. Temporary transfer regarding…'

The manager hesitated and looked perplexed. ‘Strange. They haven't filled in the rest of the sheet.'

With a doubtful look, he stamped Kant's identity card.

‘The information in the intelligence archive is operational. Everything
in it is watched very closely.'

The gas lit cellars stocking the archive were long and winding like a labyrinth and lined with six-foot-high metal shelving. Kant's footsteps echoed as though someone else were walking to meet him from a far off corridor. He found a pale clerk, who looked as though he had not left the underworld of the castle in a decade. He asked for the intelligence files on Collins. The clerk disappeared and returned with
a series of large volumes.

‘Mr Collins has become so notorious, we hold more information on him than the Vatican keeps of the devil,' he said.

Kant opened the most recent volume. The only thing of note in the reports was the fact that they were riddled with contradictions and discrepancies.
The IRA leader's eyes were blue in a description from November 1918. By January, they were dark brown. In June, they were green and by September, they were blue again. Alternate reports described him as a young man of fair complexion, clean-shaven, wearing a slight moustache, cold, harsh, cruel-faced, short in stature, tall and wiry, broad and heavy in build, greatly out of condition, youthful, looking about forty, fat but virile, dressed like a clerk, a publican, a stockbroker, or something in the city. One agent warned, ‘he can present a perfectly blank appearance and cannot be picked out of a crowd unless you know him'. His hair was alternatively described as a soft brown mop, or as a jet-black mass.

Kant handed the clerk the reference code for the file Merrin had given him on the day she disappeared, and asked for directions to where it had been shelved. He hoped the neighbouring files might shed light on its mysterious list
of numbers and dates.

The clerk frowned and looked disconcerted.

‘Where did you get the code?'

‘From a contact.'

‘Did the contact have the actual file?'

‘No.'

‘I was hoping that perhaps it might have been rescued…' He left the sentence hanging in the air, as if unsure of how to finish it.

‘What do you mean rescued?'

The clerk gave him directions to where the file had been stored. ‘You'll find out what I mean when we get there.'

He escorted the reporter down a damp corridor and left him at an alcove filled with a different, earthier odour to the rest of the archives. The gas lamp above the recess threw enough light to reveal what at first Kant thought were the signs of neglect and decay, but then realised were the remnants of a fire, the metal filing cabinets scorched black, a fine layer of ashes coating the shelves. The section containing the other files relating to Merrin's stolen dossier appeared to have been at the centre of the blaze. He ran his hands along the ashes and was reminded of the fire in Merrin's boarding house bedroom.

The sound of approaching footsteps interrupted him from his reverie.

Spectral in the gaslight, a figure appeared in the corridor.

‘Hello, Kant.' It was Isham. ‘Fancy finding you grubbing about here. I thought you fellows preferred to be out at large and not stuck in a crypt like this.'

‘Just following orders.'

‘Whose?' Isham's eyes were blank.

‘General Stapleton's.'

Again an empty gaze.

‘I have to say, you'll not make much progress in here.'
Isham flicked through a row of files in the opposite alcove to hide his irritation. ‘You know this is not really an intelligence archive in the strictest sense of the word. You'll not find names or dates or identifying traits that will lead you to the enemy. What you see here is nothing more than
the popular Irish wish of getting one up on one's neighbours.' He turned deeper into the murky shadows between the shelves. It was so gloomy Kant could barely see him at all. ‘If you listen closely, you can hear the endless whispering, the malicious gossip, the petty complaints in a hundred different bog and mountain accents, the layers of parish rivalries that go back generations. It is unfortunate, but
our intelligence system has allowed all this bitterness to rise to the surface.'

‘You're depressing me.'

‘Take it as advice from one professional to another. You're wasting your time burrowing away in a place like this. The enemy is out there.'

‘Where?'

‘Everywhere. Strolling through the streets, drinking in the pubs, betting on the races, praying in the churches…
'

‘Thank you, corporal. I've been warned. By the way, what happened to the files in this section?'

‘Oh those, they were burned to cinders.'

‘Why?'

‘Why do fires usually start? Because of stupidity, carelessness. One of the clerks was dim-witted enough to leave a candle burning. By the time the idiot raised the alarm, the whole alcove was ablaze. General Stapleton should really close the entire place down to everyone but the intelligence chiefs. The whole place could go up like tinder.'

He joined
Kant in the alcove, sniffing at the stench of damp ashes.

‘Between you and me, Kant, the general is driving us all mad. He wants to turn our spies into peace envoys. Every day he rants about pulling back and not provoking Collins.'

‘The general is very dedicated to his goals of a political settlement.'

Isham eyed the reporter closely. ‘I hear a rumour he's appointed you as
an intermediary with Sinn Fein.'

‘I'm sure I'm not the first spy from Dublin Castle asked to make secret contact with the IRA.' He watched Isham for a reaction, but there was none.

‘My dear Mr
Kant,' said the corporal in a tone that was somewhere between polite distaste and ironic respect, ‘have you ever stopped to consider what the general has really planned for you? Why he dropped you in this difficult role at such short notice?'

‘
I don't have an answer to that. I'm not sure what exactly he wants me to do, or why he even asked me in the first place.'

‘Let me give you a hint. Stapleton is a career general, and a cunning one at that. He wants to seal his reputation with one final historic victory before he retires. Right now, he's filing a report outlining how he has brought Collins to the brink of a political compromise. Keep digging around the disappearance of Merrin and you risk alienating Collins and messing up Stapleton's plans for a grand success. Think about it carefully.'

‘What if there is a madman out there murdering women for the thrill of it? What if he's one of ours, working under the protection of Dublin Castle?'

The clock tower in the castle began to chime the hour. It had a grave bass note.
Afterwards there was an uncomfortable silence during which Isham kept glaring at the reporter.

BOOK: Blind Arrows
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