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Authors: Anthony Quinn

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BOOK: Blind Arrows
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‘Driver, stop!' she shouted.

On the street behind them, a
military-sounding voice roared a set of orders, and then a gunshot rang in the air, sending the horses into an out-of-control gallop. The shouting grew louder and then faded away. She turned to the door handle, pulling at it desperately, but it was locked. She lowered
the window and thought of clambering out. The cobbled street rushed by at dizzying speed. She looked back at her fellow passenger; saw the outline of his body, its slowness, the vigour in his hands as he reached towards her, the features of his face changing, as hers had done, shifting through different emotions, different roles. A breeze blew against her face. She felt like she was falling endlessly through empty space.

THREE

It was just before eight o'clock on the evening of the Fea
st of the Annunciation, and Martin Kant, a
Daily Mirror
reporter, had battled the entire way from Dublin Castle through falling snow and throngs of mass-goers hurrying beneath the drifting flakes, their faces hungry but spirited looking after a day of prayer and religious fasting. A mood of fearful fanaticism had gripped the people of Dublin since the start of the war, and that evening church bells were pealing from every street corner – even the deepest stones in the castle's prison cells reverberated to their call.

It had not been cold enough for a frost and the big flakes of snow melted on the coats and faces of the faithful, and beneath their boots on the dark cobblestones of Merrion Square. From the belfry of St Teresa's Church came the soft chiming bells that signalled the prelude to eight o'clock m
ass. The snow fell thicker, coming in flurries, soaking and dissolving into the press of jostling bodies. In Kant's tired imagination, the crowd threatening to engulf him resembled a dark begging mouth feeding on the ghostly wafers of snow.

The mood reminded Kant of the first months of the Great War, when he had been a reporter behind enemy lines in northern France. Back then, he had established his reputation as a journalistic outlaw, a civilian in a grey coat secretly moving in and out of ransacked towns, amid the swarms of displaced people spilling from the train stations, collecting every type of rumour and news for the London press. The
French churches had felt like safe havens, the one element of the evacuees' lives that remained permanent. The crowds in Merrion Square reminded him of the silent men and women gathering at church doors, mobilised by the rapture of their fear.

He realised he was late and
pushed through the crowd with his silver-tipped walking cane. Amidst their incessant movement and the whirling flakes, he sensed something sinister, an impression of a black figure hastening behind him, agitated by something other than religious fervour. After the crowds had filed through the doors of St Teresa's Church and the streets emptied, the figure remained on the periphery of his vision, seemingly reluctant to draw closer. At the corner of Grafton Street, Kant dipped into the entrance of an alleyway and waited. The shadow hung back. He watched the snowflakes slowly melting into silence, a black bottomless silence that seemed to well up from the heart of the city.

The sight of a young woman in a fur hat and wrap hurrying towards his hiding place made him take a deep breath. In the glow of a streetlight, she faltered for a moment, unsure of where she was going. She ran past the entrance to the alleyway, the fleeting pressure of her feet barely disturbing the melting layer of snowflakes.

For a
moment, he thought the woman might have been Lily Merrin, but a glimpse of her scarlet hair told him otherwise. It had been almost a week since she had accidentally kissed him in the darkness of the hansom cab, and he could still recall the press of her body, its forceful certainty, the sense of intrigue beyond his understanding. He could feel the tingling sensation of her lips as she sought his mouth in the darkness, the taste of a hunted creature drunk on fear, and then her head pulling back, stung by the realisation that he was someone else. He remembered how the winter light had come flooding through the cab's curtains, revealing her anxious face, her mouth drawing in air, and then
her grabbing at the door handle.

He hadn't talked about his encounter to anyone, not even his colleagues at Dublin Castle. At least, not yet. The entire events of that afternoon were like a dream he had had, and who ever confessed to kissing
a strange woman in a dream? He thought of the meeting ahead and hoped he possessed the willpower not to speak to anyone about the incident. All he had to do was fill that gap in time with the details of another plot, another pursuit.

Once he was sure that the red-haired woman was not following him, he doubled-back and slipped into the Gresham Hotel on O'Connell Street. The lounge bar was almost full, but upstairs, in the guest bar
, the only occupants were huddled at a table in front of a large bay window. A few of the men raised their eyebrows and muttered greetings as he pulled up a seat. He was the only reporter invited to these clandestine meetings, and he instinctively felt the group draw closer together as if to shepherd away the secrets they had been discussing.

The man dressed in a civilian suit at the top of the table gave Kant the most lacklustre welcome. General Jack Stapleton seemed at best indifferent to the reporter's arrival, if not perturbed by it. The head of British Intelligence at Dublin Castle, he needed neither uniform
nor medals to announce the fact that he was a military leader. His face was lined with colonial wrinkles, his greying hair combed back from his forehead in two smooth bands, his chest upright, his moustache clipped, and his grey eyes sharp and straight. He stared hard at the reporter as if he was a stranger,
his automatic recoil barely disguised. Eventually, some form of recognition must have dawned upon him, for he gave the reporter a barely perceptible nod, and went back to addressing the table.

Seated opposite the general was Corporal Derek Isham, head of Special Branch at Dublin C
astle. The corporal smiled at Kant. It wasn't a charming smile. Kant saw arrogance and scorn curl the corners of his mouth, and in his eyes, something else, something thwarted and dark.

The other faces at the table belonged to the hush-hush men, common spies,
watchful suspicious faces. Ex-convicts, former soldiers, adventurers and mercenaries, some of whom were missing fingers or carried scars. They eyed each other in the way a grotesque man glances at himself in a mirror, searching for a less gruesome reflection, a more accommodating angle.

These
irregular meetings in the Gresham Hotel were known as the Crow Club, although none of the men were bird-lovers. The name sprang from a joke at the general's expense – his orders made plenty of noise, but quite often little sense, and the shadowy group of spies he had assembled to prowl the streets of Dublin had cheerfully adopted it. The general had originally thought it a shrewd move to recruit a reporter like Kant to the club, encouraging him to bring details of the stories his colleagues were working on, and
in return the general fed the
Daily Mirror
reporter pieces of propaganda to disseminate through the newspaper offices of the big London titles.

It went entirely against the point of good journalism, but then the Irish War of Independence was a tangled conflict, and Kant, jaded from salvaging truth and colour from the battle fronts
in western and eastern Europe, had craved a taste of adventure himself, a desire sharpened by the fact that his doctor had recently decided he was suffering from consumption. The diagnosis did not worry him unduly; his older brother had lived with the disease for more than ten years. What concerned him was the dread that he was suffering from something else, an inner restlessness more destabilising than tuberculosis. Before taking the Dublin post, he had briefly thought of fleeing to a monastery or becoming a missionary. He had
even considered joining a revolutionary movement such as the Bolsheviks. The truth was that sometime during 1919, he had grown tired of the ordinary reporter's life he had returned to in London. He wanted to remain a journalistic outlaw, an in-between, not quite committed to the daily routine of work and family life. He wanted to come and go as he pleased in a mood of subterfuge, adopt a new name, a fictitious past, a cover story to avoid being discovered by hidden enemies, and what better place to do it than in the Dublin of 1919, a city that had become the settling pond for the dregs of the Great War.

There was nothing new in the Crow Club's discussion that night.
The same rumours and suspicions about the IRA and the whereabouts of its leader Michael Collins that had been floating in the air since winter began. Evidence of the search for Collins, whom the British had branded the most wanted man in Europe, was everywhere in Dublin, the reward posters flapping at every train station, the news of his latest exploits shouted by newspaper vendors and filling column after column of leaded type, sweeping to the back pages news of war and famine, Russian revolutions and presidential elections. Collins' details had been circulated among the country's entire population of policemen and soldiers
. It should have been impossible to escape the scouring attention of so many loyal and armed men.

‘I've been studying your reports,' the general gruffly told the Crow Club. ‘As a result of your tip-offs in the last month, m
y men have raided 27 boarding houses, and arrested 18 individuals suspected of belonging to the IRA. I've counted them all up. Not one of them has brought us any closer to catching Collins.'

‘We've turned Dublin's hotels and boarding houses into bus
y hives of spies and informers,' explained Isham, ‘but as soon as we find any trace of Collins, he vanishes.'

‘Then does it upset you
, corporal, that a Cork gombeen has made your mission a regular farce?' asked the general.

Isham caught Stapleton's grey eyes. ‘What do you think?
' His voice grew taut. ‘Collins has made his life an enigma and fools of us all.'

For the Crow Club, finding the IRA leader was proving more difficult than trapping the invisible particles of air. He appeared to be made from an element that was undetectable to the eyes of Isham and his fellow Englishmen. He was the mystery they could not fathom; the plot they could no
t penetrate. He might even be among the clientele in the bar below; however, they did not know the secret signs that would reveal his whereabouts.

‘What else can we do?' asked Isham. ‘My men have pulled in all the suspicious looking fellows from the street. We've combed the boarding houses, cleared out the slum tenements,
raided the bars and watering holes.' The dark rings beneath his eyes were evident in the dim light. ‘We have been carrying out our duties to the best of our abilities in spite of the severe constraints.'

For the next half an hour, they discussed the hunt for Collins. Kant could not find a way into the conversation. He was lost for something to say. Instead, he found himself transfixed by the sight of the snowflakes falling against the window, their lengthening streaks against the darkness. He felt a cold draught penetrate the air, and it seemed to him that the flakes were seeping through the glass, drifting towards him. A familiar pain rose in his chest. Suppressing a coughing fit, he sank back into his seat, seeking
comfort in the memory of the mysterious woman who had kissed him with such desperation in the hansom cab. Slowly, the coarseness and anger of the Crow Club began to dissolve, and a warm darkness folded itself around him, full of her breathless presence, her fingers and lips seeking him out, her body leaning across the heavy belt of his greatcoat, her touch warming the nape of his neck.

He sighed to himself. Her appearance in the cab had been so sudden, her intimacy so agile and disconcerting, she had rendered him defenceless. He was a war correspondent, and had survived months as an outlaw at the front lines, sending back uncensored reports while shells exploded around him and soldiers' smoking bodies disintegrated into the French mud. He should have been immune to her touch, not dazzled like a lovesick
16-year-old.

A prolonged silence among the members of the Crow Club wrenched him from his reverie. He had only been daydreaming a moment or two, and was unsure of when the atmosphere in the group had changed. Somehow, he had missed the glance or word that had stopped the discussion.

The general broke the silence with a hoarse voice: ‘While you are still spies in the pay of the British Crown you must obey the rules of the intelligence game.'

‘And what are those rules?' asked Isham.

‘Whatever I damn well please.'

The men of the Crow Club looked at each other gloomily. Their eyes shifted in the glare of Stapleton's anger.

‘Your
job as agents of the Crown is to collect information and bring it to Dublin Castle. There your commanders will analyse it and make the correct political decisions.'

‘A good agent should make his own decisions,' snapped Isham. ‘He should carry out his own plans. We operate at the centre of extremely dangerous events.'

‘None of you is entitled to influence the future of this country to that degree. Your actions are subordinate to a political course that has been chartered in advance.
'

‘Then the danger is Dublin Castle will be overwhelmed with an abundance of information,' said Isham. ‘An intelligence agent should be allowed to find the most expedient solution when a problem or opportunity presents itself.' He lifted his empty glass and waved it
at a waitress.

The general looked at him with a wary expression.

‘What do you mean?'

By now, the spies had turned their attention to Isham, their cautious, ingratiating faces
like cats around a saucer. Thornton, a Cockney ex-soldier, leaned forward.

‘We should be given permission to kill Collins,' he hissed.

The general
squinted at him. ‘I've already made it clear that Collins should be arrested, preferably without injury to his person. Certainly not killed.'

BOOK: Blind Arrows
3.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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