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Authors: Anthony Quinn

Blind Arrows (19 page)

BOOK: Blind Arrows
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‘I released them from prison and told them Collins wanted to meet them here at Park House. I made them take
a vow of secrecy.'

Kant looked away. The branches of the fir trees swayed in the wind. He thought of Lily Merrin, making her way through the shadows, alone, waiting for a signal from Collins.

The moon rode clear of the trees and clouds, draining the parkland of its shadows, like a pale magnet of death. The hounds eddied across an open field, then climbed a hill towards a thicket of thorn trees. The horses followed at a canter. Kant focused on guiding his mount through the snow, but every now and again, he swivelled his head in horrified fascination to take in the rider alongside him, his face floating like a cold mask, a bird of prey with features perfectly still. How many women had he murdered?

Kant's horse grew more fretful and spooked. It shied at invisible objects, the subtlest shadows, while Isham's moved at ease, as if it knew the lie of the land with its eyes closed. Kant buried his heels into the flanks of his mount. He grew absorbed by the concentrated effort of riding, the freezing air sharp in his lungs. Gradually their horses took them to higher ground.

Now that he had revealed his secret, Isham showed a greater sense of ease. He turned his horse in an circle, the expression of his face serious and proud. Moonlight and shadow flickered across his features. With an exaggerated sense of ceremony, he removed a bugle from his belt and blew a series of long, piercing notes, and then he leaned out of his saddle and listened to the commotion of the hounds pouring back from the edge of the night.

‘I am grateful you accepted my invitation tonight, Kant,
' he said, his mouth quivering with pleasure. ‘For weeks, I have felt like an artist who has carefully perfected a masterpiece and is overwhelmed by the need to show it to someone.'

The scrabbling pack broke through the trees and surrounded them. Isham urged them in the direction of a fresh set of hooves, which led into the thicket of thorns.

‘Don't feel too sorry for Collins' female spies. They have an impulse towards death. How else could they resist my little midnight hunts?' He swung his horse so close to Kant, the reporter could smell the stallion's sweat. ‘Collins didn't just choose these women because they were wonderfully adept secretaries. He picked them for their desperation and neediness. Just like the lust-murderers of Whitechapel who pick on the desperation of whores. Collins relied on a different form of desperation, that of young women made free by education and employment. He craved their secrets. The possession of their hearts. But when they were no longer useful to him, or imprisoned, he was content to let them rot in darkness.'

‘What about Merrin?'

‘She was the perfect prize. The widow of a British soldier. A member of the Protestant Ascendancy. Collins must have found the darkness of her secret as alluring as her beauty and breeding. It gave him a degree of intimacy with the enemy that would have been impossible in the normal rules of war. Merrin threatened to be his undoing.'

Kant pulled back his horse.

‘You have grown reckless in satisfying your lust for cruelty. It is out of control and will destroy you.'

‘True. The more I satisfy my lust for punishment, the worse it gnaws at me. I cannot satisfy it, no matter what I destroy in the act. However, you make the mistake that violence, the will to cruelty, is an instinct to be controlled. I've come to believe that it exists as an enormous, overarching life-force.
'

The yelping of the hounds jolted them back to the moonlit tableau of thorns and banks of snow. They followed the dogs past trees lit up by the moon, in haloes of horror.

The hounds were intent on one particular thicket of thorns. They began to howl. The night changed its mood; the dome of the moon rising above the trees, lifted it seemed by the baying of the hounds. The pack grew more excited, circling and wheeling around the edge of the thicket. Isham rode into the pack, horse and man weaving back and forth amid their bristling bodies. He steadied his horse and made it stand absolutely still for several moments. The hounds began to whine and then grew quiet, too, their noses quivering, their breath smoking the air, their tongues lolling over their teeth. Kant coughed in the jagged air. From somewhere deep in the thicket, a branch cracked.

A rider on a pony bounded out of the thorns in front of them, took a plunging leap and cleared a row of bushes into a forest of pines. Even the hounds were stunned for a moment. Isham laughed, kicked his horse, and took off after the pony, following
its path through the trees, leaning his horse one way and then another, gaining all the time on the galloping pony.

Kant caught a glimpse of Merrin's face as she rode the pony deep into the forest. He saw her painful, haunted eyes as she glanced behind to check the closeness of her pursuers.

They rode hard towards the edge of the forest. In the distance, Kant could see a view of Dublin city, a fantasy of gaslights and freezing mists, huddling tenements and military bases, churches and alleyways and empty streets woven into a maze of shadows.

The perspective must have distracted Merrin's pony for it missed a hollow in the forest floor and buckled into the snow, sending Merrin flying out of her saddle. She was up and running instantly, but in the wrong direction. She slipped through the trees before Isham could turn his galloping horse, and ran towards Kant and the approaching hounds.

He reached a hand towards her bolting shape.

‘It's me, Kant
,' he shouted.

Fear made her eyes roll. She flung out her arm and he grabbed it. The lift was a continuation of her momentum, and he required less effort than he expected to swing her onto the saddle behind him. The movement of his horse knocked her face against his shoulder and neck. Her skin felt as cold as marble. He rode back the way they came through the pack of hounds, without thinking, his heels digging hard into the horse's sweating flanks. Sometimes it was better to let the body take over. All the time, he could sense the pounding of the grey s
tallion's hooves and the baying of the hounds drawing closer.

He heard the mechanics of a weapon being drawn, felt the nuzzle of a gun pressed against his ribs. He glanced behind at Merrin. Her eyes had lost their fear. His knees jarred against the horse as he tried to extend the gallop.

‘It's me,' he shouted again.

‘I know who you are.'

The gun pressed harder into his side. ‘It's time you made an end to this pursuit of me.'

‘
Isham plans to kill you. He lured you here so his hounds could tear you apart.' He felt the hand holding the gun tremble.

‘You keep following me like a shadow. I don't know where it's going to end.' She sighed with resignation, as though coerced into being saved.

She dug the weapon harder into his side, steadied herself, then swung the gun round at Isham's gaining figure. Her hand shook with the motion of the horse, but somehow she managed to carefully ease the hammer and shoot.

In spite of her careful aim, the bullet struck the overhanging branch of a tree. The shot reverberated through the forest, followed by a moment's silence and then came the crack of bark splitting, the snow-laden branch straining, and tumbling through the air.
Kant glanced behind and saw it swipe the nose of Isham's horse before hitting the ground. The stallion, startled, crashed sideways through several more branches, knocking Isham to the side of the animal's neck. He clung on for several galloping strides and then slid further. In spite of his horsemanship, Isham lost his seat completely and fell to the ground, one foot still hooked in a stirrup. He still held the reins but his efforts just made the horse wheel around him. A wild rage took hold of him as he struggled to control the animal, but it was dragging him now. He fell to hopping alongside the flanks of the stallion, like a child in the throes of a desperate game of hop-scotch. His standing leg grew weak, faltered. He pulled harder on the reins but the horse, hearing the approaching yelping of the hounds, spun round in tighter circles of panic.

The pack caught up with them quickly, lobbing themselves over the stricken horse, seeking their quarry. Their loose bellies made them look almost weightless in the moonlight. Most of the pack seemed to recognise that Isham was their master, and pressed on, but one or two of the younger dogs attacked him in the frenzy. Isham seemed to cough each time the hounds struck him. The rest of the pack turned at the smell of blood, their hunger overcoming any bonds of loyalty. Isham's face looked astonished, furious, as the impact of their piling bodies knock
ed him to the ground. The lead hound pulled him by the throat. He grappled with it, his face fixed in a snarl. The spittle in his mouth turned red, began to froth and bubble, and his arms released their hold of the hound, swaying in the air like a drowning man waving for help.

Kant felt a tremor of terror run through Merrin's body. He backed his horse away. All the fight had gone from Isham. He dwindled under the hounds, a sack of flesh pulled to pieces, his blood lust finally consummated in his own death.

The moon rode alongside them as they galloped back to the mansion, swelling and then shrinking, vanishing behind clouds and trees, and then reborn in a clear sky, lighting up a crystal path for them through the snow. He heard a sigh from Merrin.

‘Are you cold?' he asked.

‘No,
' she replied. ‘It's the moon and the snow…' She allowed the rest of her explanation to slip away.

They rode on in silence. He wanted nothing now but this shared sense of escape, the two of them leaning into the onrushing face of the night, nothing but this lucid and excited flight from death. He knew he was not made for love or ordinary family life, but that neither would he submit to the dark and terrible forces Isham had served.

His mind returned to that bewildering moment in the darkened carriage when her body went limp against his. Not daring to breathe, wondering what would happen next. It must have been the pressure of her body behind him, the darkness and the smell of the horse that made him think of that afternoon again. It all came flooding back. The thin crack of daylight, the shaking of the horses' harness, her blurred face drawing closer, the lips offering his mouth a kiss that seemed like a secret message he could not interpret.

His astonishment and curiosity as to whom she had mistaken him for had set him loose on a journey of sudden turns and unexpected conspiracies. All the events of the past fortnight crystallised around that single kiss. He recalled the sense of strangeness as she pressed upon his mouth, her lips freezing and then the sudden recoil at his reserve, the curtain pulled back and the look of shock in her face. He knew he was not made for such a kiss. It had not been his to receive. It had left him wandering the streets of Dublin, hungry in every sense, the memory of their encounter the only light flickering in the darkness.

They kept riding through the night. He looked up at the black sky, and a pattern of snowflakes came soaring out of the darkness, planting themselves on his tingling face, like blind arrows, like misdirected kisses.

They dismounted in the stable yard and hurried into the warmth of the mansion.
Upstairs the fire had dwindled to smouldering embers. Beside it, the pile of papers lay intact.

‘That afternoon in the hansom cab, you thought I was Mick Collins,' he said.

She made a vague gesture with her hands. ‘
I was beginning to think the world had forgotten me, until you turned up with your silver cane. I had confided everything in Collins, you see. For the first time, that afternoon I wanted to truly lean on him. I wanted to kiss him because I was sick with fear and loneliness. It was a coincidence that I found you instead.'

Kant wanted to say that there were no coincidences in life.

‘You ensured that the file wouldn't fall into the wrong hands,' he said. ‘Perhaps we were meant to meet. Some force unbeknownst to us brought us together.'

‘The same forces that almost killed us', she replied. ‘Money and greed.'

She knelt at the bundle of papers, Mick's great work of describing and cataloguing a revolution.

‘I thought you'd be sick of those files by now,' remarked Kant.
‘Isham was trying to send them all to heaven where nothing more would ever be seen of them.'

‘I want to read them one more time, and touch their secrets.'

Kant joined her by the fire and began flicking through the documents. The wind gusted and blew a cloud of smoke down the chimney. He retreated, coughing harshly, and a horde of soot flakes swirled into the room, falling around the figure of Lily, who was busy untying the remaining bundles.

He watched as she went through the papers. From time to time, she rubbed her brow to help focus her concentration. He was afraid to say anything or move in case it would distract her. She opened a bundle of documents, seemingly at random, and scanned through the pages. She took another, and then another, scrutinising the pages hurriedly until she had examined most of the stack. By her side, she had gathered a small pile of pages.

She looked up at him in surprise and pointed to a series of scribbles that had been added to the documents.

BOOK: Blind Arrows
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