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Authors: Anthony Quinn

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BOOK: Blind Arrows
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EIGHTEEN

Collins had told Kant that the trick of a good spy was to hide in other people's secrets. It was a trick his survival now depended upon, he realised, when he awoke in a bed in a room with green print wallpaper. Without even stirring from his pillow, he sensed that he was being observed from the half-opened door. He was aware of the dim figure of Moya, and another shape joining her. At first, he thought it might be a doctor, summoned in the middle of the night to see him, but then he realised it was a woman, younger, dressed in a man's coat, her hair cropped and hidden under a broad-brimmed hat. She apologised for being late.

The figures of the two women hovered in the corridor. They talked and nodded together, snatches of their conversation drifting into his consciousness. His brain worked slowly with their words, trying to find the connections between the sentences.

‘You should have set the dogs on him,
' said the visitor. ‘Or one of Mick's gunmen.'

‘I had to let him in. It was a matter of courtesy.'

‘If he was a gentleman, he'd have sought an invitation.'

‘Make sure and barricade the door,' said Moya.

They stepped closer to his bed, whispering like conspirators. The presence of the other woman made him feel confused and suffocated. The gaslight dimmed. From the evidence of their shadows, he deduced they were conducting a thorough search of his clothes. Minutes passed, or perhaps much longer. He was not sure. A chill had supplanted his fever, making his teeth chatter, the infection burying itself deep in the roots of his lungs, making it painful to breathe.

‘What are we meant to do with him?'

‘It depends. Is he our patient or our prisoner?'

‘Whatever he is, he's certainly not a detective.'

‘I fear that he has managed to hit upon the truth.'

‘I've never kept a man prisoner before.'

The visitor moved towards him. Her hair was dark and cut short, her face pale and delicate. She eyed him with a cool disregard. Kant felt a different kind of heat, something in his chest opening to desire and loss. He recognised her face, even though it was no longer framed by long hair. It was Lily Merrin.

He felt as though the bottom had dropped out of his bed. What sort of conspiracy had he stumbled upon, which juxtaposed an upper-class English hostess with a blackmailed secretary? He tried to fix his eyes on Merrin, but his gaze drifted. He wanted to hold onto the image of her face, in case she disappeared again, but the weight of his illness oppressed him. He knew she was about to vanish and he might forget that he had seen her. He was forgetting her already as she hovered over him. He fastened his gaze upon her eyes to stop himself slipping back into the torrent of his fever-ridden sleep. Why couldn't he stay awake, now that he had found her at last? But his efforts were to no avail, he felt himself plunge into unconsciousness.

He awoke with a
hot, liquid headache. He tried to speak but every effort seemed countered by thick gravity. His lungs were not deep enough to summon up his next breath, and his eyes winced with the fever. He was relieved to find that the women were still there, whispering intently as if locked in an intimate dispute. They were studying a newspaper that was laid out on a table along with the contents of his wallet and the pension document.

‘Whatever else Kant is, he's the first reporter to mention the women who went missing from Dublin Castle,' said Moya. ‘All the rest peddle the same propaganda from the British authorities.'

‘Then let him keep looking
,' said Merrin. ‘Maybe he'll find something interesting. We still want to know who murdered Dilly and Agatha.'

‘He's not fit to look anywhere. Look how wasted he is.'

‘You're right. He'll not learn anything in this state. Not for several days at least.'

‘We'll have to put some meat on his bones.'

‘He's dangerously ill.'

‘When you don't worry about living you can see a lot more.'

He tried to hold back a coughing fit but it was like pressing one's fingers around a set grenade. When the fit came, it obliterated his thoughts completely.

‘One of us will have to nurse him.'

‘There is no end to these Englishmen.' Moya's voice sounded fainter, closer to the door.
‘Their evil desires are limitless. Why should we save this one?'

‘All men need a woman to chase. He's been following me since the afternoon we met in the hansom cab.'

‘Someone was following Dilly and Agatha on the night they were murdered.'

Merrin noticed that he was awake and conscious. She drew closer to him. He had never felt such attentive eyes.

‘What do you know about me, Mr Kant?'

‘Less than nothing,' he whispered.

‘You're not telling me the truth.'
She leaned closer. ‘Where is the file I gave you?'

‘I've kept it somewhere safe, like you said.'

‘You were supposed to tell no one about it.'

‘I kept my promise.'

‘Then where did this letter come from.'

‘A woman at Dublin Castle gave it to me.'

‘One of Mick's women?'

‘No. The unsuspecting wife of an informer.'

‘Why have you held onto it? What is your motive?'

‘
My motive?' he asked. He wanted to say you are the motive, but his voice trailed away. He thought how unfair it would be if he died now, so close to finding out the secret of Merrin's disappearance, but his illness worsened, shutting down his faculties one by one. The fever rose like a fiery angel from his chest, swelling and filling the room, consuming the figures of the two women, the walls and the bed, until there was nothing left. He held onto the angel's ascending ankle, afraid of falling into the darkness forever.

NINETEEN

Lily Merrin's face ruffled the light from the heavy curtains. His startled eyeball fixed on her. It was morning and she had returned, her face dark and taut as she folded a set of cold compresses next to his bed. She was wearing a loose-fitting shirt tied with a belt and labourer's corduroy trousers, but he could sense the slender lines of her body beneath the sagging material. Why was she trying to fit into such an unwomanly disguise? And why was her hair cropped so short. Her outfit was a way of life,
a uniform, he realised, nothing to do with convenience or her femininity; it announced a new vocation.

‘You're fit enough to talk,' she remarked.

He'd been sweating heavily and his pillow was damp. He raised his head and tried to think, but he had no plots to set in motion, nothing else to consider but the
look of wariness on her face, trying to read her, follow the flow of her thoughts.

‘Yes,' he replied.

‘Are you a detective sent by my mother-in-law?'

Her gaze was bleaker, her mouth harder than he remembered.
Her expression reminded him of a predator's tenacity locking onto its victim. He closed his eyes, like an animal letting itself be dragged. He realised she had been dragging him ever since that soundless afternoon in the hansom cab, her fingers touching his hair, her blind lips rushing towards his, finding their target, planting their seductive memories. She had dragged him the whole way across Dublin to this bed
room where the riddle of her disappearance now floated before him, coiling and shining, like a whip about to deliver its sting.

‘No,' he answered eventually. ‘How long have I been here?'

‘Two days. Do you work for the Irish Constabulary?'

‘No.'

‘I don't believe you. You act like a detective, sniffing out clues. Who sent you?'

‘General Stapleton. He was concerned for you. He wanted to find out why you had disappeared.'

‘And what have you discovered?'

He closed his eyes, breathing heavily, seeking the camouflage of his illness, but she was determined to ransack his hiding places. She repeated the question. He kept his eyes closed but he was aware of the heat of her breath,
the force of her presence.

‘You have been playing a game,' he said hoarsely.

‘Have you known my secret from the start?' She squinted at him, searching for a sign, but he hid it carefully and stared back at her with clouded eyes.

‘
No.'

‘Do you know it now?'

‘I have an inkling.'

A reporter needed special experience and insight to work out the true meaning of everything he had encountered since arriving in Ireland
. He recalled the dank cellars of the castle, and Merrin's boarding house bedroom, the room full of billowing ashes, sooty flakes falling through the suffocating air. Revelations and understandings came to him at a speed he found difficult to contend with, like listening to an orchestra playing much too quickly. She had sealed herself up with her grief, he realised. Her entire story, as he knew it, was the invention of a mother coping with the worst form of separation imaginable. For a moment, she looked ready to unburden herself of her secret, to reveal the domestic crisis that had entangled her family life in a dangerous war.

‘You know where I am hiding?'

‘
Not yet.'

‘Then I will wait for you to find me.'

He closed his eyes, drowsed, slipped into a dream, woke again.

She was sitting at the bottom of his bed, talking about her husband, who had died at the Somme when their son was only five
years old. She didn't seem to mind if he was awake or not.

‘When I got the letter from the Ministry of Defence my whole world fell apart. His life was over and so was mine. The war went on, and everyone expected me to keep going, look after my son, run the family home, but inside I couldn't. I ignored my little boy, deserted my role as a mother. I became a shadow, all I wanted to do was disappear. They judged me, told me I was being selfish, that I should gather myself up and keep going. When I didn't pick up, they offered to take Isaac on holiday, but it was a trap, a chance for them to take him away from me forever. Only then did I realise that my son was all I had left.'

She rose from his bedside and pulled across the curtains.

‘If I cease to be a mother, I cease to exist. They must know that.'

Light flooded the room, revealing her face in full detail, her skin, the movement of her lips.

‘I will not permit him to be placed in harm's way,' she said. ‘I am his mother and he is my son. I cannot abandon him now.
'

‘You reveal too much to me,' he said. ‘There are spies everywhere. You should go now and keep your secret safe.'

She blushed slightly, and left the room, locking the door behind her. He heard her footsteps trail down a set of stairs and then disappear. With an enormous effort, he lifted his head , and then sank back onto the clammy pillow, resigning himself to sleep.

TWENTY

Kant's fever lasted another two days. He was unconscious for most of it, but his compressed moments of lucidity were long enough for him to develop deeper feelings towards Lily Merrin, who seemed to have made his recovery her special charge. He did not understand how he had attracted this mysterious bedside attendant. He felt her looming presence permanently in his subconscious, simultaneously easing his symptoms and interrogating him. And then abruptly, she disappeared, like the fever itself.

He awoke one morning to an empty room and a chill sense of loss. His temperature had come down, and the pain in his chest had disappeared, to be replaced by something less tangible, an uneasiness. Physically, he had not been better in years, but he felt somehow impoverished by good health, with only a superficial sense of healing, his emotions frustrated and strained rather than soothed. He felt the end of something, the fleetingness of a relationship between a patient and a nurse. He had always believed that making love was the most intense form of intimacy between a man and a woman. Now he realised that wasn't even the beginning. Illness was the culmination of intimacy, being looked after by someone as you hovered between life and death.

For the rest of the next day, he barely moved from the bed. A maid came and brought him food at intervals, but of Lily Merrin and Moya, there was no sign. He drew a sense of comfort from the thought that he had battled his way through danger and illness to reach this temporary haven, a comfortable old bed in a room with a fire and a window with a view of manicured lawns leading down to the sea. However, it unsettled him to think that men like Collins and Isham were still going about their secret routines on the streets of Dublin.

He listened carefully to the noises of the house, the creaking of floorboards, the air wafting in currents and tides under the door, the fastening of doors and windows, the crumbs of soot falling into the fireplace in front of his bed. Sometimes, he thought he heard the sound of a boy playing in a distant room, testing the depth of silence with his laughter. He kept hoping for the footsteps of
the women on the stairs, anticipating the return of their tenderness and subterfuge, feeling less like a patient and more like a prisoner guarded by two wayward ghosts.

On the fifth day, he awoke feeling sharp and extraordinarily alert. His recovery had given him a breathless sense of urgency, his heart beating with a violent desire to live. He saw everything in clear fragments, the Dublin of alleyways and backstreet boarding houses, the empty rooms filling with ashes, the meetings and conspiracies moving from one secret location to another, the daily shootings and ambushes, all had been a place to hide from living. For the first time in weeks, he no longer felt pain every time he breathed deeply.

After breakfast, he decided to get up and dress himself. His clothes had been washed and laundered. He lit the fire with birch logs from a neatly piled stack, and watched the flames lick hungrily at the dry bark.
He poked through the wardrobe by his bed, ran his hand over the rack of clothing, the business suits belonging to a broad-shouldered man, dressing-gowns, double-cuffed shirts, a silver-tipped cane, expensive looking, and a pair of black leather gloves sitting on a shelf. He wondered who had been the last inhabitant of the room.

He listened to the comings and goings of servants. He stood in the centre of the room, breathing in the life that was stirring in the mansion, the tide of movement, the sense of order and hurry, footsteps going back and forth, but none with the light familiar tread of Lily Merrin.

Before lunch, he made his way down the stairs and through a hall lined with the horned heads of Irish deer and the smoky portraits of the mansion's former owners. He walked into a wide drawing room. He seemed to have the run of the place. He explored the other floors. The curtains were barely opened and the rooms were filled with a silky light, like the sheen of fresh snow. A spell seemed to have fallen upon everything, sheets of muslin covering the furniture, a great web claiming all the rooms while he had been sleeping.

An elderly servant dressed in black skirts
led him down to the dining room for lunch. She seemed starved of company, and it was easy to draw her into conversation. He learned that Moya had left suddenly to spend the rest of winter with her husband in London. Her nerves have given way, again, she explained. ‘She can't manage on her own,' she grumbled. ‘The lady is forever closing the place down and opening it again on a whim. More a hobby than a great house.' Her face turned toward him out of the gloom. In her grey eyes, he caught sight of an interesting blend of wisdom and spite.

‘I heard a boy playing while I lay in bed,' he said.

She scowled. ‘The little varmint. He's forbidden to come near the house, especially when there are visitors.
'

‘It must be difficult, keeping a child confined in such a way.'

‘You can never keep a child confined. Like troublesome little insects, they are.'

She scooped back the curtains, flooding the room with a blinding light.

‘If I catch sight of him, I'll drag him by the ear back to his room,' she said.

She went off and brought him back his lunch. Kant was glad to see that, although the lady of the house had departed, the place did not go short of luxuries. The servant placed a meal of fresh mackerel and baked breads before him. When she returned to collect the plates, he asked her where the boy was staying.

‘I'm not supposed to say,' she grumbled. ‘There's a rumour going round that he's Mick Collins' illegitimate son.'

However, that was all she would divulge to the reporter. He bunched up his napkin in annoyance and walked through the ground-floor rooms but all he saw was more furniture draped in muslin and dustsheets. He felt the deadweight of secrecy, the vagueness and apathy that descend when living things are hidden away, and even familiar objects become invisible to each other.

He strolled through the grounds of the estate, and tried to work out a plan of action.
He roamed across the manicured lawns. A black mood of impatience settled upon him. He was unsure of what Lily expected from him. Was he meant to wait silently for her next move or follow some trail of clues or secret signals? Unfortunately, he did not know where to begin his search. He explored the dark places of the estate, the conical tower of a folly, an abandoned church, a path through a dark plantation of firs, a block of stables and outhouses. Some of the doors opened, and frantic, twittering birds rushed towards him. Others were locked, and he strained to listen but could detect no signs of human life. He walked around the three-storeyed mansion, inspecting the ivy clambering around the casement windows, watching for a shadow at the glass or a movement. He trekked around a water-lilied lake, through banks of rhododendron and over wintering shrubs. An empty mansion and its privileged domain of lawns and specimen trees on a December afternoon. This was all he could see. Nothing less, nothing more.

Her appearance in the bedroom had filled him with conviction. She had come to his side, deliberately this time. She had singled him out and the realisation filled him with caution. She had given him a part to play in her mysterious disappearance, but it was beyond his power to divine its exact nature or alter it in any way. He walked through the mansion, scrutinising the veiled furniture, the silence of the abandoned rooms, waiting uneasily for a sign to reveal itself. He returned to the dining room, with its conservatory views of the pine forest and in the distance, a restless sea.

About an hour later, something woke him. He opened the French doors, telling himself to stay alert. It was late afternoon, and he had the sense that something about the estate had changed, a heavy hidden presence that had not been there before, the sense of something menacing sharpening the air.

He walked towards the block of outhouses. A dog began barking. He could hear voices, footfalls, the sound of wood splintering. He hurried through a wide-arched entryway into the stable courtyard. The noises were emanating from behind one of the locked doors.

He battered the door with his fist. ‘Lily, are you there?'

The noises stopped. He placed his eye against the rusted keyhole and peered into the dusty darkness. The door fell open, knocking him off balance. Before him stood the tall figure of Isham in a riding jacket, jangling a set of keys in his hand.

‘The keys, Kant. Before you conduct a search, always obtain the keys first.'

The reporter stumbled backwards.

‘You don't look too happy,' said Isham. ‘You should be relieved to see me. I've brought the cavalry to your aid.'

Behind him, a group of soldiers were upending the bric-a-brac, rusty farming implements, old rowing boats, horse's tack draped in scarves of dusty cobwebs. They drove their bayonets deep into piles of hay and straw, and sacks of old seed potatoes, sending up a pall of dust
and decay. A colony of dead mice fell from a split sack like a soft grey intestine. Through a dusty window, Kant caught sight of another lorry load of soldiers arriving.

Isham's face was cold and placid, his eyes empty.

‘Where is Merrin?' he demanded.

‘I don't know. I presume somewhere as far away from here as possible.'

Isham stared at Kant in silence. ‘I want more than that. I hope you will see sense and give me more than that.'

‘Sorry, I don't think I can.'

‘I received a tip-off from one of Collins' men that you were hot on Merrin's trail, and he sent you here. I hear that Collins doesn't quite know what to do with you, and I sympathise with his dilemma. Here you are, a prying reporter pretending to be a spy, a professional shadow, and a confidant to everyone, who won't give up his pursuit of a double-crossing secretary. I can't go on protecting you from yourself
and your weakness for this woman. It's time you allowed the professionals to take over.'

‘I was close to solving the riddle of her disappearance, but I fell ill. I've been confined to bed for the past four days. She came to my bedside and interrogated me. She wanted to know who sent me. I've recuperated enough to mount a search of the grounds this morning, but I can't find any trace of her at all.'

‘What did she confide in you?'

‘Practically nothing.'

‘
I don't believe you. Women talk. They always talk. They like to find a confidant. What did she tell you?'

‘I've already told you. Almost nothing.'

‘Who is Mick hiding her from?'

‘Dublin Castle and her mother-in-law.'

‘Who else is she hiding from?'

‘
I didn't get the feeling there was anyone else.'

‘She must have confided in you. Told you about her enemies.'

The use of the plural intrigued Kant.

‘Who has been posting her letters?'

‘Writing letters has been the last thing on her mind, I presume.'

‘What about postcards. Surely there was someone to deliver her messages?
'

‘I don't know. I wasn't fit to keep her under surveillance.'

‘Did she ask you to post anything for her?'

‘No.'

‘Your denials come very easily.'

‘
Because they're true.'

‘She must have told you about her enemies.'

The glint in his eyes opened up a new labyrinth for Kant. What enemies was he talking about? Who else had Lily been hiding from? He wondered had she a lover, someone else she might have betrayed.

Isham studied him carefully. ‘You seem as much in the dark as the rest of us.' He paused. ‘Very well, you are at liberty to continue your search for Merrin. I'll assign several of my men to help you.
'

‘I work better on my own.'

‘Have it your own way then.' He looked up at the empty mansion. ‘I fear she has already flown the nest.'

More of Isham's men invaded the stables, ransacking the place with diligence and vigour. Their soldierly sense of calm, as though this was all a training exercise, helped Kant
past the momentary panic. He detached himself from the search and made his way back to the house. A wave of desperation washed over him, the fear that he was never going to find Merrin, that the odds were stacked too heavily against him. Perhaps it was time to stop living within the memory of something that never really existed, a relationship with a mysterious woman based on little more than a coincidence and a single kiss. No matter how much he searched, he feared he would end up a lonely figure, condemned and lost, as he was now, wandering across an expanse of lawn where even the cold winter wind passed through him, looking for something else.

A shadow at the corner of his vision snagged his attention. The
fleeing figure of the elderly maid. She was carrying a small suitcase and hurrying with conviction into the dark plantation of fir trees. He was surprised how swiftly she was moving, her great black skirts flaring and flapping against the wind-tossed shimmer of the pine needles. Making sure that no one was following him, he set off in pursuit.

The wind was as noisy as the Atlantic in the plantation. He followed her along a tortuous path that led to the sea. Above them, the tips of the fir trees almost blotted out the sky
. The rough ground was hard with frost, and his ears rang with the cold, drowning out the roar of the trees. Eventually, a hole of blue opened ahead, and they came out at a hidden bay and a cottage fitting snugly into a corner of the rugged coastline. The tide was fully in, and the wind was whipping the watery light over the coastline, giving everything a wild stunned look, as
though a thunderstorm had unloaded its static from the sky.

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