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Authors: Anthony Quinn

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‘Let me make one thing clear,' said Isham at last, as if he'd been considering if that one thing was worth explaining to the reporter. His voice was his own now, no longer convivial, but cold and a
rrogant. ‘No one in Dublin Castle is interested in how these women were murdered. Their deaths are regarded as stray events, part of the arbitrary nature of things during war. But we are interested in the bigger picture. And it is important that you should be discreet in your investigations.' The shadows of his face grew deeper. ‘Think about this, if Collins becomes hell bent on war and rejects the general's peace overtures, Stapleton will be able to blame you and your meddling. He might even accuse you of being an agent provocateur and have you arrested. Who knows? I might even shop you in myself.' He flashed a sardonic grin.

Kant shrugged. ‘Right now I'm more interested in finding out what happened to Lily Merrin. And so should you and the rest of Dublin Castle.'

‘Before you get carried away with your little investigation, let me tell you something of what I've learned about Collins. He's a black-hearted, thorough-going spawn of the bog women-hater
.' Isham's eyes did not blink once as he stared at the reporter. ‘But he's also a clever bastard. He has recruited a circle of devoted IRA women, who regard him as their hero, their great liberator, because he sets them tasks straight from the pages of a fantasy spy novel. He has given them faith in their powers as individuals, and in return, they show him undying loyalty. If anyone is behind the disappearance of Merrin it is Collins. He has made these female recruits his unquestioning slaves. He has turned secretaries into spies, typists into terrorists, nuns into assassins, expectant mothers into gun smugglers.
And whenever they have served their useful purpose, they become expendable.'

‘Sounds like you know him quite well.'

‘I've been busy with my sources. Much better than sniffing in the dirt of this place.'

‘What can you tell me about Collins and the IRA's finances?' Now it
was Kant's turn to watch Isham closely.

Isham shrugged. ‘He's been fiddling around with substantial amounts of money. What makes you so interested in his spending habits?'

‘Just following a line of enquiry, that's all.'

‘Who suggested the enquiry?'

‘A member of Sinn Fein's ruling council. A man called Cathal Brugha.'

Isham relaxed a little, as though the conversation had been pulled back from a dangerous brink. He stared at Kant, expecting further detail, but at that moment, Kant leaned against the shelves, and broke into a coughing fit. His chest sounded more alarming with its rattling
echoing back from the dank cellar walls.

‘It's none of my business,' said Isham, ‘but I don't think Dublin is doing you any good. It's too full of smoke and too near the sea. Damp all year round. Why don't you go back to England, or Scotland even? Get a post up in the hills, away from these clouds of charcoal and ash.'

‘Dublin isn't good for any of us. But I have a mission here. A sense of direction and purpose that gives me satisfaction.'

‘Not for much longer, I'm afraid. You'll soon see that you're here like the rest of us. By accident. The only sense of direction we have is the one carrying us blindly towards death.'

Neither spoke for a while.

‘It'll be Christmas, soon,' said Isham, turning to leave. ‘Make sure you don't work yourself into an early grave.'

When Kant
returned to the front hall of the war office, he saw that the old woman was still there. By now, she had set off a black panic of vexation among the clerks and their manager. The more annoyed they became, the more emboldened were her pleas.

The manager was trying to control the exasperation in his voice. ‘I keep telling you, the pension is paid through separate bank accounts, not Dublin Castle,' he explained.

‘Why would the banks pay me a pension when my husband never worked for them? He worked here. At Dublin Castle. It's you who have made the mistake, not me.
'

The manager threw his arms in the air as if the old woman's insistence was a criminal provocation. He marched away, his face plunged into desperation, leaving the old woman on her own, muttering to herself. Kant went over to her and offered his assistance. She stepped forward, as if about to faint, and he grabbed her. He ignored what she was gabbling about and concentrated on reading the bundle of papers that the clerks had scorned. He saw a death certificate, letters from the British War Office, and details of a pension paid through a company registered on Leeson Street
.

There were dozens of signatures in the documents, which alerted Kant's curiosity. They suggested a complex financial machinery. Several times, he spotted the address of the Dublin Life Assurance Company, and in a jumble of signatures, he made out in blotched, barely legible handwriting, the name of a man that burned him with the white-hot iron of a dangerous secret. The name was Michael Collins, and next to it was the signature of Moya Llewelyn Davies, the aristocratic owner of Furry Park, and a well-known republican sympathiser. He was at pains not to show his surprise. The clerks and their
manager had obviously not bothered to scrutinise the finer details of the pension. Now that he had spotted the names, they were unignorable, hovering above the flat figures and account details, perfect and complete-looking in spite of their hurried scrawl. He tracked them through the documents. The payments into the woman's bank had been made from a number of ordinary deposit accounts from obscure banks, sometimes in the name of the Dublin Life Assurance Company, and sometimes in others.

‘Who asked you to fill in the
pension application form?' he asked her.

‘A man came to the door one night after my husband died.'

‘Which department was he from?'

‘He didn't say.
' She gripped his arm. A coldness passed through her fingers. She had seen the look of uneasiness on his face.

‘Is there any reason why the Republican Army might be paying your husband's pension?'

A look of fear fluttered across her gaunt features. She mouthed a prayer in silence. ‘Sweet Jesus, why would those murdering bastards
be paying a pension for my poor Oliver?'

SIXTEEN

With his wheezing cough and English accent, Kant felt ill-suited to the company as he made his way through the packed bar in Vaughn's Hotel. Collins had
marched into his bedroom that evening, and ordered him to get dressed. Without saying a further word, he had walked out, leaving the door open. It took a moment for the reporter to realise the IRA leader was inviting him on an expedition. He had followed Collins' broad shoulders onto the street and through a labyrinth of back alleyways, eventually descending a dank set of steps, into the cellars and then up another flight and through the front door of the offices next to the hotel.

He passed a gruesome gallery of drunken IRA types, who looked as though they had gathered for a night's entertainment and debauchery. He felt the crowd swarm around him, closing in tightly, people shouting and joyfully yelling, laughing heartily and embracing each other, while above their heads, borne aloft by waiters' hard-working hands, floated frothy pints of stout.

Collins guided Kant
by placing a hand on his shoulder and squeezing it tightly. He was wearing a soft grey business suit, and twirled a hat with an elegantly dented crown in his hand. He reminded Kant of a man who had just come from a wedding or a day at the races.

The IRA leader's eyes were eager and hard.

‘I've an important message for your general. I want you to tell him that the old battles between Ireland and England are no more.
'

‘What do you mean?'

‘I'm talking about battles like the Boyne or Aughrim, the orderly advance of regimented troops, the bugle-call for the charge. These days, Irish patriots hide in the shadows. Improvisation and chaos are our military strategies.' He pulled out two bar stools. ‘The general wants me to steer the IRA towards peace and compromise, but he might as well ask
a man to seize a racing engine wheel with his bare hands. Sit here a while and you'll soon understand what I'm talking about.'

Collins left behind his jacket and hat, and joined a stag party that had turned rowdy in a corner of the bar. He instantly assumed the role of master of revels. The men stood closely together, ringing round Collins' broad-backed form, surrounding him with alcohol-filled bravado, as he scribbled plots and diagrams on scraps of paper, and then crumpled them into little balls and flung them into the turf fire.

A group of musicians struck up a reel, and Collins began to dance through the crowd. With the men he jumped about, ducking and jabbing, feinting and bobbing. He half-wrestled one young man to the floor and roared with laughter, while with the women, he grabbed their waists
playfully and twirled them in time with the music.

Kant trailed Collins as he moved randomly through the bar, surrounded by his bodyguards and a host of admirers and hangers-on. The IRA leader began questioning a police officer sympathetic to the republican cause, and at the same time, a reporter from the US newspaper, the
World's Pictorial News
, attempted to interview him for an upcoming article. In the lobby, another crowd was waiting for him, messengers with loan funds, intelligence officers with reports, officers from the country seeking arms or ammunition.
Kant listened with his reporter's ear, as Collins went through them one by one, flinging out plans and proposals that made the bravest of his men shudder with dread at their impromptu recklessness. He had a mystifying gift for putting strangers at their ease and then, with a few words whispered in their ears, making their faces turn white with dread.

Collins disentangled himself from the crowd and raised his eyebrows at Kant.

‘What do you see now?' His face was shining with sweat, receptive suddenly.

‘Do you understand what you didn't understand before?'

He grinned at Kant as though the answer was crystal clear. When the truth finally dawned on Kant, he gave a short laugh and then he was off again, with a toss of his heavy fringe, and a flash of something like mirth in his eyes, as he plunged into the crowd of plotting IRA men. Kant realised that Collins had shown him the secret heart of his war, and revealed the innermost workings of his organisation, the key to the IRA's success – that there was no organisation at all, that a central republican command did not exist in the truest sense of the word, that targets were chosen by Collins and his men at a drunken flip of the coin, plots hatched out of jest and bravado, bombing raids conducted on a whim. All his notebooks, his countless meetings in every quadrant of the city, were just tricks to preserve the illusion that he was a mastermind at work.

Barging from one dangerous conversation to another was Collins' natural model for social contact, but Kant could see that this shambling association of spies, assassins and bodyguards was a fragile raft, perpetually on the tip of a whirlpool. With all his plots, counterplots, betrayals and secret alliances, one moment of inattention could plunge Collins' war into disorder and violence.

Kant took advantage of a pause in Collins' hectic socialising and handed him the letter from the widow.

‘I rescued this from Dublin Castle', he said.

Collins read it, his eyes lighting up with recognition.

‘This is the price of terminating a contract. Her husband was one of our informers in Dublin Castle, murdered by an English spy. When he died,
I couldn't let his wife and his children starve. It's all part of the business of running a war.'

‘Is that how you look after the relatives of all your informers, all your operatives in Dublin Castle?'

‘It's only right that the IRA should look after its own.'

‘What about Lily Merrin and her son?'

‘Let's say her contract is a little more complicated. One that's very difficult to negotiate a termination.'
Collins handed him back the letter.

‘Why do I get the strange feeling I'm the only who wishes to find her?'

‘What makes you say that?'

‘Both you and Dublin Castle appear more interested in distracting me from my search.'

Collins grinned, turning his face into a round, inscrutable mask.

‘Just tell me the truth; do you know if she is alive or dead?
'

‘Alive.'

‘Do you want me to find her?'

‘No,' he admitted. ‘Lily was one of our best intelligence agents. She supplied information about upcoming raids, Sinn Fein members on the wanted list, and most importantly of all the names of paid informers. She was smarter than all the others put together.'

‘
She worked for you because you kidnapped her son and used a mother's love to blackmail her. She was not spying out of personal choice.'

Collins gave a simple shrug of his shoulders. ‘I like to think that we rescued her from her venal job at Dublin Castle. A place like that can be worse than prison, a counterforce to all that is good and noble in life. Her story goes deeper than anything I can tell you right now. Lily Merrin was destined to disappear right from the start, long before my men took her boy. It's a complicated story and perhaps it's best not to ask too many questions. Understand?'

‘How more complicated can kidnapping and blackmail be?'

‘Perhaps you'll find out the answer to that question when you work out why she went missing in the first place. I suggest you take your search back to Dublin Castle, rather than meddling in the financial matters of the Republican Army.'

‘You've got my every move worked out.'

‘This is a game of chess we're playing, Mr Kant.'

He was aware of Collins manipulating him, but the feeling did not cause him any anxiety or anger. After all, Collins was a magician, an escape artist. It was almost a form of entertainment.

Kant would have left at that moment but for the entrance of a man dressed in a threadbare
coat and carrying a bulging briefcase. With the collar of his coat turned up against his hollow cheeks, the new arrival surveyed the crowd, his eyes adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing, seizing upon every detail in the packed bar that might be of use for his secret collection. He caught sight of Collins at the bar, and his eyes lit up as though he had located a surprise windfall.

‘Dear Jesus,' said Collins, scowling, ‘What's Brugha doing here? Lugging round that bloody briefcase as though it were a suckling pig. Every time I see it, it's gained a few pounds. Look at him, its wearing him into tatters.'

Brugha's briefcase had indeed gained weight, swinging against his thin body, looking as though it was about to break open and spill its hoard of paper scraps. A tall, severe looking man joined Brugha, an
d they began talking. Brugha's head and shoulders were bent forward, as though bowed down by the weight of his briefcase.

‘Christ, he's brought Mulcahy with him', said Collins.

Mulcahy appeared a little sad, his well-dressed frame hulking over Brugha's.
When he caught sight of Collins, he waved and pointed to a door at the back of the bar.

Collins put on his jacket and hat, and dived through the crowd after them.

A hand patted Kant's arm, almost consolingly, and he turned to see the wire-rimmed glasses of O'Shea, the manager of the life assurance company. A frown criss-crossed his brow and he jerked his head sharply back, indicating that Kant should follow him to the back room. They slipped unnoticed from the bar, and into a tiny hallway, the door creaki
ng shut upon the bawling crowd.

O'Shea gave the reporter a whispered explanation of what was happening, before they entered the back room.

‘Mick is a master at hiding his worries,' he said.

A clock on the wall was showing the wrong time. It was as round and blank as Collins' face, giving nothing away. He and the smartly dressed Mulcahy looked as though they were meeting as part of a business arrangement, while Brugha looked twitchy and unsure. Kant leaned back, made himself oblivious in the smoke and shadows.

In sharp contrast to Collins and Mulcahy, there was no trace of comfort in Brugha's clothing and appearance. His jacket was frayed at the edges, his shirt collar patched and worn out. His prominent eyes added to his scarecrow aspect. It struck Kant
that Brugha's outfit had been as carefully chosen as Collins' soft grey business suit, the French shoes and the hat with its elegantly dented crown. Brugha intended to set an example of a revolutionary leader beyond reproach, one capable of financial discipline, even when luxuries were easily within reach.

Collins wore a generous smile to show that he had nothing to fear from their company. By contrast, Mulcahy looked sad and dutiful, as if at pains to show he was taking no pleasure in the meeting. He made no objection when Collins sent for a bottle of whiskey from the bar.

The IRA leader looked up at Mulcahy and said a few words in Irish in a tone of reproach.

‘How are the new shoes, Mick?' replied
Mulcahy. He had caught sight of Collins' expensive-looking footwear.

‘They're pinching a little. Let's have a drink together Richard.'

‘You've been avoiding us, Mick.' He began to draw patterns in the air with his fingers, but the movements were constricted and agitated, as though his hands were writhing against invisible chains.

‘Dublin Castle has been hot on my heels. Where's your glass?'

‘I'm off the hard stuff.'
Mulcahy's fingers strained for greater freedom. ‘These days it's better to keep a clear head.'

Collins shouted over his shoulder, ‘Where's that bottle of whiskey?'

Brugha stepped forward. ‘I've discovered some suspicious discrepancies in how you've been managing the IRA funds.'

Mulcahy watched the two men closely, his fingers moving faster, like delicate counting instruments.

Collins hit the table with the palm of his hand. ‘A bottle of whiskey,' he shouted again. ‘What's that Cathal?'

‘I've found suspicious discrepancies in your accounts.'

‘Suspicious? Don't we all know you're the most suspicious man in Ireland
, Cathal. If your own mother walked through that door you'd think the British sent her.'

‘I'm talking about expenses that can't be accounted for in the normal running of a war.' Brugha sat down without removing his crumpled coat.

‘What are you running now, an accountancy firm?' asked Collins. He glanced at Mulcahy with a grin.

A waiter swung a bottle of whiskey onto the table. Collins was at pains to show his ease, with his left arm dangling over the back of his seat, and his right stretched out holding the bottle.

‘Where's your bloody glass, Cathal?', he growled.

Mulcahy intervened. ‘The leaders of Sinn Fein want to be reassured about the finances, Mick. The revolution is entering a whole new phase. We're preparing for self-government, to run the country. The high-spending days are over. We can't keep running around like footloose business-men throwing out favours at every turn.'

Collins stared at Mulcahy's moving hands, a bewildered frown erupting on his face, as though he had suddenly realised the power their owner possessed. ‘I thought we were fighting a war, not squabbling about petty cash.'

BOOK: Blind Arrows
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