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Authors: Anthony Quinn

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TWENTY-THREE

The car accelerated over cobblestones, taking the uneven road in easy style, its engine a silken purr. From his low seat, sheathed behind glass and insulating upholstery, Kant could not escape the feeling that he had crawled into a very sleek and expensive
trap. Black curtains were drawn, shielding him and O'Shea from the chauffeur.

‘I didn't know the IRA ran cars like this,' he said.

O'Shea shook his head. ‘Not the IRA, Mr Kant. The vehicle belongs to me.'

Kant was impressed. ‘The insurance business must be a good thing to have going.'

O'Shea smiled. He glanced at Kant's threadbare coat, his worn shoes. ‘You might say I'm the only one to have a good thing going in Dublin at the
moment.'

‘Then you should get out while you're ahead. From what I hear, Mick is planning an all-out war. There'll be destruction and chaos.'

O'Shea's eyes glinted. ‘Money is my obsession, not war, or freedom. How to get money and get it quickly. And right now I'm sitting on a sizeable fortune.'

‘
Wrong. You're sitting in the middle of a dangerous revolution.'

O'Shea's smile broadened. He began talking to Kant in the patronising way an adult talks to a child when something unpleasant is about to happen, regaling him with distracting details.

‘These days there's a handsome profit in helping freedom-fighters, don't you know? Revolutions are the next big thing. Without large sums of money they're
just a load of hot air, like that piece of theatrical buffoonery that was the Easter Rising. Underground movements need money just like a body needs blood. How else are they to organise meeting places, safe houses, propaganda and weapons, and train their fighters?'

Kant's head was still ringing from the cold, and it took all his concentration to comprehend what O'Shea was talking about.

‘I didn't know there was a profit in a guerrilla war.'

‘Not profit, Mr Kant, financial opportunity. When Mick recruited me to help raise finances, the volunteers were living on church collections. Practically begging on the street for money. I introduced a more systematic approach, and Mick put me in charge of fundraising. I began by squeezing money from fat-headed farmers and shopkeepers. Then we signed up the merchants and professional classes to shell out several times a year. We took advantage of their patriotic benevolence. Suddenly we had raised tens of thousands of pounds. But I didn't stop there.'

Kant nodded to keep up his side of the conversation.

‘I'm a money-spinner, you see, not a patriot. I built up the National Loan from a glorified street collection for prisoners to a sum worth several fortunes. I saw it as my right to access a littl
e of that money. I rerouted my cut to a little bank in London and invested the money. Made a fortune then lost it. Fortunately, for me, the revolution was providing a steady stream of revenue. As chief fundraiser, I began to employ more effective methods at finding new sources of money. It's surprising how easy it is to take money off people when they believe it's a worthy cause. We screwed several widows out of their legacies, swindled money from large companies in the US. Big money, I'm talking about. All it took was a few accounting tricks to siphon off the funds from beneath Collins' nose.
He and his comrades were always on the prowl for guns, throwing money around faster than gamblers dealing out hands of cards. The IRA's ruling council are revolutionaries, risk-takers, not the sort of men to hold on tightly to the purse strings. Especially the strings of a very large purse.'

‘Why aren't you on the run? Or at least keeping a low profile. Instead of driving around in a chauffeur driven car like this.'

‘A very pertinent question, Mr Kant. I've come to offer you help. Isham tells me you're going round in circles.'

‘I wouldn't believe anything he says.'

‘Quite right. You're not paying him to talk, and I am. Isham works for me. And no one else. Not the British Crown or Mick Collins. I selected him because he was ideally placed in Dublin Castle to make sure British Intelligence didn't get a whiff of my money-making enterprise.
'

‘Why are you telling me this?'

‘Because it is in our mutual interest to stop Isham.'

‘And why is that?'

‘Lily Merrin.'

‘What about her?
'

‘Isham murdered Susan O'Brien after she was arrested and brought to Dublin Castle, and he'll murder Lily Merrin in the exact same way, unless he's stopped. I dread to think how many other bodies he has hidden away.'

‘What was your interest in Susan O'Brien
?'

‘Like everything else, it began as a matter of finance. She had willed her house, her entire fortune to the National Loan. All her silver, her paintings, even her jewellery. Unfortunately, her loyalty did not stop there. She got herself arrested for helping the IRA. Do you know what being found guilty of treason would have meant for her legacy?'

‘No.'

‘Everything would have been confiscated and auctioned by His Majesty. Knowing this, the only prudent course of action
was to organise her escape before the charges could be brought against her.'

‘And then her murder.' A shudder ran through Kant.

O'Shea's brows lowered over his eyes. ‘I didn't pay Isham to kill her. That was his own solution to the problem.'

‘What did he have to gain from murdering her?
'

‘Nothing. Greed is a very overrated motive for murder. The secrets of the human heart are much more powerful, in my experience.'

‘And what are the secrets of Isham's heart?'

‘Envy and lust. Isham was profoundly jealous of Collins and the unswerving loyalty of his female counterparts.'

‘Collins and Isham are love rivals?
' Kant raised his eyebrows.

‘Surprised?'

‘Not really. Crimes of passion happen all the time.' If Kant was surprised it was more because of the incriminating nature of the secrets O'Shea was confiding.

‘Susan O'Brien's loyalty to Collins humiliated Isham. It was stronger than her wish to live. Can you imagine devotion like that?' A thin smile spread on O'Shea's lips.
‘In Isham's eyes, she deserved to be punished. Just like the other female volunteers. Their weakness was their overriding belief that Collins could rescue them from any trap. That he could be bothered to spring them from a cell in the heart of Dublin Castle. As if he were their knight in shining armour. That was their only flaw. Loving him without question. They walked right out of Dublin Castle, expecting Collins to be waiting with open arms.'

‘And instead they got Isham?
'

‘Correct.' O'Shea's grin tightened.

The car picked up speed, swooping through the empty streets. He caught its reflection in shop windows, gleaming like a royal carriage.

‘I want you to be open with me as I have been with you.' O'Shea poked Kant in the ribs to get a response.

‘Of course.
'

‘You found Merrin first. You talked to her before Isham arrested her. Did she tell you where she'd hidden the file she smuggled from Dublin Castle?'

Kant took a moment to absorb this new direction in their conversation. Now he began to understand why O'Shea was so keen to share his secrets with him. It was a bid to gain his trust and find out exactly what he knew about something that was much more important than Isham or the safety of Merrin.

‘No,' he replied.

‘Did she talk about what the file contained? Bank transactions, dates, signatures, anything like that?' Tension clouded his eyes.

‘
No. Why is the file so important to you?'

‘It includes Mick's missing accounts, but the only person they'll incriminate is me. The list of numbers, they're bank transactions. They include orders to send IRA funds to my secret London accounts. When I heard Brugha was investigating all of the accounts, I knew it was only a matter of time before he discovered my little swindle. So I organised for Mick's offices to be raided by Dublin Castle and the incriminating accounts locked away in the British intelligence archive. Isham was meant to destroy the file in a fire at Dublin Castle.'

‘But Merrin took it first.'

‘My first and only piece of bad luck.' O'Shea's voice grew agitated. ‘The missing file threatened to unravel everything. The fictitious banks, the fraudulent accounts. All my little games with numbers.'

‘But you weren't unlucky. You were dishonest. You're a corrupt and greedy man, who's prepared to gamble a nation's legacy. You risked the downfall of better men, a country fighting for independence.'

‘On the contrary, I think in hindsight people will realise I saved Ireland from a more bloody war. Without my financial tricks, the IRA would have bought a lot more guns and bombs. Look at Collins, his panic over the missing money almost propelled him into peace talks with the British. Future generations will be glad that I swindled him out of so much money. In fact you could almost say it was my patriotic duty.'

The car slowed smoothly to a stop. Its broad nose pointed at the dark fortress of Dublin Castle.

O'Shea had quelled his agitation. A half-smile reappeared on his lips.
‘We're here, Mr Kant. Your lady friend is locked somewhere in the castle's dank cellars. Find her quickly before Isham does. Before he has her released and murdered.' He seemed anxious to be off, as though he had another piece of business to take care of, and didn't want Kant interfering with it.

After the car had driven away the entire city fell silent. Sleet fell in columns, pressing in
upon the towers and battlements of Dublin Castle. Kant crossed the empty square, a shawl of melting flakes clinging to his head and shoulders. The silence added urgency to his fears for Merrin.

A single gaslight fluttered within the prison entrance. The place smelt like a decaying mausoleum and had a similar air of darkness and grief. He produced his security pass and made himself known to the guard on dut
y.

‘Where's Lily Merrin?'

‘Corporal Isham interrogated her earlier. She's back in her cell. Number 26. General Stapleton is still in his office upstairs. Do you wish to speak to him?'

‘I'd rather not involve him right now,' he explained.

The guard conferred with his superior in a back office, then he pulled back the iron security doors and ushered Kant through.

A shadowy arch led into what felt more like a damp crevice running under tons of rock. The prison corridors seemed dark and convoluted but they carried their own reasoning. Death had been woven into the architecture of the castle; the more constricted the space, the closer one was to mortality. He descended a steep spiral staircase and found cell number 26. The door lay slightly ajar. He called out
Lily's name, but there was no reply. The cell lay empty apart from a pool of shadows. He almost felt the floor open beneath him, so strong was the sinking sense of dread in his chest.

TWENTY-FOUR

It was snowing more heavily outside the castle walls. Kant kept walking, putting the dark fortress behind him, and all its secret
relationships and conspiracies. He followed the snow as if hypnotised, all the way down its straight white line. His mind had reached a purer state, driven on by the cruelty of Isham's plot.

The temperature plummeted and the snow fell with greater intensity. He leaned into the cold, his mind searching through all the dead-ends, the false leads and reversals. Thanks to O'Shea's explanations, he could see the plan behind the murdered women, and the burning of Collins' meticulously documented accounts. He saw how the plan had been executed, how the events he had lived through over the past fortnight were all related, nothing stray or unconnected, like the snow itself, falling with concentrated steadiness, emanating from a single point of distant coldness. The human heart could be colder than any winter, he realised. One man in particular had spawned an overwhelming current of coldness, which he was following now, back to the source.

The flakes had stopped falling by the time he reached the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains.
Isham's mansion glittered in the moonlight, beckoning him closer, like a palace built of ice. A groom was saddling up the corporal's grey horse; the clink of a bridle broke the muffled silence. Kant knew that Isham was roaming somewhere in the depths of the house. Everything stopped here, he realised. He had found the core of the labyrinth.

A footman opened the door for Kant and led him into a hall. Presently, Isham's tall figure appeared, faultlessly dressed in full riding gear, a whip in his hands, and an Irish red setter accompanying him. His face had a frozen quality, betraying neither surprise nor warmth at Kant's arrival.

‘What do you want?' he asked.

‘I'm looking for Lily Merrin.'

‘Still?' Isham sounded exasperated.

‘I suspect she might have come here.'

‘That woman is a traitor. She operated outside the normal rules of society. She betrayed her country and orchestrated the abduction of a child.'

‘Her child.'

‘No matter. She deserves the death penalty.'

‘I'm not leaving until I know she's safe.'

‘Did you bring anyone with you?
'

‘No.'

‘Who's helping you?' A thread of tension crept into his voice. The question was an important one.

‘I work alone.'

Isham walked to the front door and stared out at the grounds of the estate.
Apparently satisfied with Kant's response, he made an effort at courtesy. ‘I marvel at where you get your persistence from.' The muscles of his face relaxed slightly. ‘You'd better come and join me. I would like you to be my guest tonight on a midnight hunt
. Just do your best not to get in the way when the hounds strike off.'

He led Kant into the hall and up a flight of stairs. The reporter feigned strength and good health, but he could not suppress his racking cough, and his shoulders stooped. Isham waited for him at the top of the stairs.

‘I'm beginning to think you're not a man at all, Kant,' said Isham. ‘More an illness. A spasm from the dank earth.'

They entered a si
tting room on the first floor, where a fire was blazing merrily in the cavernous hearth. From the heat in the room, Kant deduced that the fire had been burning for some time. An untidy stack of papers and manuscripts sat beside the fire, like the pages of a massively sprawling book, some of which had been ripped out and thrown onto the fire. Isham lifted a wad of the papers, perused them briefly and flung them onto the fire.

‘What sort of hunt takes place in the middle of the night?'
asked Kant. He was nervous as to what Isham was planning, but his desire to ensure Merrin's safety was stronger than his fear.

‘A hunt for wild creatures, vermin. I'm sick of sweeping the streets of rebels.'

‘What kind of vermin?'

‘A creature called the Irish woodkerne. Ever heard of it?'
Isham's face gleamed in the firelight. ‘The first Englishmen came across them in the 1600s.'

‘What trouble have they been causing?'

‘They have been a greater pest than usual this winter, which is why I have been going hard with the hounds. They come out of the darkness, without warning, leaping, venomous. I'll get the groom to saddle you up a horse.'

‘I'm not here to chase animals. I'm hunting a murderer.'

Isham did not appear to have heard him. He marched off and barked some orders in the hallway below. He returned and rubbed his hands over the fire, the buckles of his riding jacket and boots shining. He lifted another bunch of the papers and let
them drop one by one onto the fire, watching them burn and flap upwards in tatters of ash. The energy of the fire seemed to draught through him, feeding his eyes with a dangerous glow.

‘Do you plan to burn all those papers?' asked Kant.

Isham lifted his face from the fire and looked round. ‘Why, are you interested in reading them?' A sly look darkened his face. ‘Come with me on my hunt, and afterwards I'll let you read what's left.'

‘
I've a better idea. You go on the hunt, and I'll stay and read.'

Isham laughed, the tension relaxing its hold on him, if only temporarily.

‘You should read a little less, Mr Kant, and do some living.'

The hounds began to stir in the stables, and the tension returned to Isham.

He began walking back and forth to the window, flicking his whip against his thigh. He behaved like a wild creature himself, more aware of its own savage appetites than the presence of Kant. He lost interest completely in the stack of papers by the fire.

Kant joined Isham at
the bay window. Below them, the moonlit yard, the grey horse, the motionless groom looked like an engraving in ice.

‘We must rest awhile, Mr Kant. We have exertions ahead of us.'

Over the next hour, Isham's agitation increased. The fire burned brightly, throwing his restless shadow onto the high ceiling. He passed back and forth in front of the fireplace, flicking his whip in a series of masterful but sullen movements. Every now and again, he went over to one of the windows and peered into the darkness. Kant remained in the shadows beyond the firelight
, anxious to keep the corporal under his surveillance.

Shortly after midnight, the setter scrambled to the door and began barking. The hounds in the stables answered with their sharp yelps. A look of relief fell across Isham's face.

‘Follow me,' he said gruffly. ‘The groom will have your mare ready. Riding a horse in the middle of the night is the most free you will ever feel.'

They descended a set of back stairs and walked out into the yard.
Isham grabbed the reins and mounted his grey stallion. He spun his horse in tight circles as Kant climbed onto his mare.

‘I promise you a spectacle, Mr Kant. A hunt you have dreamed of only in your darkest nightmares. Woodkerne are such rare and exciting quarry, a single specimen, ripe with fear, affords more pleasure than a dozen foxes.'

The groom opened the doors of the kennels, and the hounds poured out in a hungry frenzy, squirming and leaping around the horses.

‘Look at them, the beauties,' cried Isham. ‘They have been kept on such meagre rations they are starving. Grip with your knees and don't roll off, else my hounds will chop you with their fangs. I swear they'll tear you from your bones, to the very last mouthful.
'

The pack of hounds struck off, reeling across the frozen grass like a squall. They veered one way and then another, before rippling into a dark plantation of fir trees. Isham was gone already, his horse hooked into their wake. Kant nudged his mount with his heels, and the mare surged after them. The snow grew deeper, the horse lunging through a spray of ice crystals. He could hear Isham's stallion pounding the ground, but could only catch a glimpse of his ghostly figure disintegrating in a cloud of churned up snow. Isham was right. For a moment, Kant felt a joyous sense of freedom and wanted to laugh. The air filled his lungs like pure oxygen. He had to remind himself of Isham's warning, that this was a prelude to a nightmare, not a fairy-tale ride through an enchanted forest.

Isham was waiting for him at the brow of a low hill.
He looked exhilarated and his hair was disarrayed. His horse swayed slightly, ready to strike off again, at the merest signal from Isham.

‘I wanted to ask you something, Kant. You're not obliged to answer me, of course.' He hesitated while he restrained his horse. ‘Do you believe you are capable of love?
'

‘What do you mean?'

‘Do you believe you are made to find happiness in the normal human terms – through a sexual relationship with a woman?' His voice was courteous but cold.

Kant's horse shied at something in the trees, its stumbling hooves pounding perfect crescents in the snow. Kant gripped the reins and hauled the horse's twisting neck into line. Isham's horse stood stock still, its head held to the wind.

‘Do you know what that was?' asked Isham.

‘I didn't hear a thing.'

‘That was the woodkerne. The horses sense its fear.'

Both their mounts remained standing for a moment, then Isham led his stallion on.

‘What matters to me is satisfaction,' continued Isham. ‘And I can only find it in the opposite of love.
' His voice grew hoarse. He seemed on the verge of confessing a shameful secret. ‘We're alike, you and I, Kant. Neither of us can understand what it means to submit to peace. England is a foreign land to men like us. How do our comrades go back there and lead a normal life?'

‘You'll never lead a normal life because you have submitted yourself to cruelty, your lust for power over women.'

‘It's true. I am cruel and violent, at least in human terms. But, you should know that coming to terms with one's cruelty is one of the most magnificent experiments a man can conduct in his life. Most men never get to plumb the depths of their animal instincts, never satisfy their lust for violence. I've won that right. Awakening my instincts has become my overriding ambition. I want nothing more than the tumult and fury of the chase.'

The moon dipped behind the trees, and the night seemed to contract, enclosing Kant in a dense cell of shadows. His horse shook its head, and he steadied it with his reins. Ahead of them, he could hear the hunger of the hounds, an out-of-control pack, zigzagging through the trees.

The horses drew to a halt, again. Isham strained to listen, and the horses lengthened their necks, flicking their ears. Isham sidled his horse along a thicket of thorn trees and pointed to a set of crystal prints in the freshly fallen snow.

‘Is it the woodkerne?' asked Kant.

‘Correct. This one has cunning and resilience, which makes for good sport.'

Kant examined the prints. They looked like the blurred hoof marks of a pony.

‘You haven't told me what sort of creature it is.'

‘Woodkerne were people once. Before they became outlaws, fugitives from justice.'

The wintry twigs trembled under the weight of snow.

People? Was that what Isham had said? The stream of freezing air pummelled his thoughts. It took all his concentration to keep his reluctant horse moving. With his free hand, Isham bent a branch out of the way, and they pressed deeper into the forest.

‘Do you know why I enjoy hunting by the moon?' Isham slowed his pace to accommodate Kant.

‘It forces the human quarry to grope about in the undergrowth like animals. It makes them see like animals, run like animals, cry like animals. Beneath the snow, their bones litter the forest floor.'

The true horror of Isham's hunting parties had dawned on Kant. His tension was communicated unconsciously to his horse, which took off skittishly and had to be reined in tightly. Isham kept talking as naturally as if they were two riding companions distracting each other with entertaining stories. His finger-ends twitched all the time on the reins.

‘The hounds and wild animals dispose of the bodies with great efficiency.'

Kant did not feel inclined to press him for further clarification but Isham was eager to talk.

‘The first chase I was much too cautious. I made her run on foot with only a few minutes' head start, and the hounds caught her too quickly. I was left with too much mess to clear up before dawn and not enough time to enjoy the justice of her death.'

‘Justice?'

‘Yes. The sense of retribution. The hounds ensured their deaths were just as gruesome as I envisaged them.' The memory of a secret delight glittered in his eyes. ‘I was much more pleased with the hunts that followed. I decided to give the kerne a sporting chance. I even supplied them with ponies to test their riding skills.'

‘How did you lure them into the forest?'

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