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Authors: Anthony Quinn

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BOOK: Blind Arrows
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‘Let us embark in combat with Collins, sir,' pleaded Thornton.
‘We are at the end of our tethers, collecting snippets of information and feeding them back to Dublin Castle. By the time your department organises a raid or search party Collins and his men have long flown the nest.'

‘I echo his complaint,' said Isham. ‘My
men are itching to shoot the IRA leader on sight. And every one of his murderous accomplices. Give us the go-ahead, otherwise, prepare for us to stay here forever, and send us a bottle of whiskey each for the duration.'

Isham grinned and the table of spies added their guffaws. It was hard to tell whether it was the suggestion of free alcohol or Collins' murder that had induced their good humour.

Thornton's throat grew thick with spittle. ‘I'd like to slip into Collins' bedroom at night with a knife between my teeth
and stick him like a pig.'

‘I'd kill him with a bomb,' said a hollow-faced Scot called Riley. ‘Like Alexander the Russian king.' A rush of exhilaration animated his pale face.

‘That's a
clumsy and savage means of assassination,' said Isham. ‘But even the world's greatest escapologist would have trouble crawling out of a crater filled with rubble.' He turned to the bar. Shaking his empty glass
, he shouted, ‘Can a gentleman not get a drink?'

‘What kind of man slays his enemy with a bomb?' The general's eyes flashed at the table of spies.
‘Can you imagine the political scandal if the explosion harmed women or children? God in heaven, what would the foreign press make of it?' He glanced uneasily at Kant. More calmly, he added, ‘No, we must eliminate the threat posed by Collins in a more efficient manner.
'

‘Poison,' suggested Riley cheerfully. ‘Or shall we just smash in his brain box?'

Another voice spoke from the middle of the table. ‘I propose we take him from his bed, and carry him blindfolded to Dublin Castle where we'll hang him from the gallows ourselves.
'

Outside the snow kept on falling, colliding with the darkness, hordes of flakes thickening against the glass. The idea of Collins' murder was now firmly entrenched in the spies' imaginations.

‘Listen to me carefully,' ordered the general
. ‘Collins is only 26 years old and yet he's achieved things that many generals never manage in an entire military career.' His voice quietened, and he gave a slight smile. ‘Success changes a soldier; it makes
him vulnerable.'

‘How?'

‘Men with gilded reputations like Collins' come down in flames very quickly. Do you know why?'

The spies listened intently.

‘Because people like to see them fail
,' said the general. ‘Not only their enemies but also their comrades, the ones they call their closest friends. I imagine there are plenty of people on the sidelines of the IRA who would like to see Collins a broken man.'

‘What do you propose we do?'

‘I want you to subject Collins' closest associates to the most thorough observation. It is a fact of human nature that at least one of them will be prepared to betray or undermine him in order to advance his own position. It is the same as any political game.'

‘We are men of action,' said Isham. ‘Not political intriguers or gossip-mongers.'

‘
I insist we shall have no unnecessary killing. Men of your generation have seen too many deaths. Instead, my dear fellows, I want you to settle into Dublin life, frequent the bars and hotels. Strike up acquaintance with Republicans instead of killing them. Communicate with their secret cells. Pry into their private lives. I want to know what cigarettes they smoke, their favourite tipples,
their habits and dress size, what debts they owe, their domestic situations, any history of alcoholism or insanity in their families.'

The spies hung over the table, their eyes expressing doubt at the general's directive.

‘It sounds to me that it's a sketch artist you want,' replied Isham.

The men laughed again and turned their attention to the waitress, who was busy replenishing their glasses.

Kant watched Stapleton staring grimly at the uninhibited committee of spies and informers.
The general appeared at a loss to control them. He ran his fingers over the white linen of the tablecloth as though searching for an escape in familiar luxuries. He caught Kant's stare and scrutinised him for several moments.

It struck Kant that, if there was a network of English spies in Dublin, it existed not as a functioning organisation but as a law unto itself, and the general had little control over its actions and their timing
. In spite of his sympathy for the general, he could understand the Crow Club's frustration and impatience. Michael Collins was a void and they were a horde of spies falling without a place to land. If they had been soldiers in the trenches, they could have fought their foe face to face. But where was the enemy they must eventually fight it out with? A faceless figure pushing a bicycle into the twilight mist; an office clerk hiding behind a labyrinth of files; a gunman slipping into the bewildering sea of faces filling Dublin's busy streets. There was no longer a battlefield, an arena to engage the enemy, just this sense of endlessly drifting downward into darkness, like blind arrows, like snowflakes descending from
the night sky.

‘What are you doing here, Kant?' The general's sharp voice interrupted his thoughts.

The reporter cleared his throat. ‘
You asked me, sir, to bring you any reports of missing or murdered women. You said there was something important you wanted to discuss.' He removed a folder from his jacket and passed it across the beer-stained table.

‘Of course, I remember,' said the general. He gathered up the reports and began reading them.

At one point, the general's puzzled gaze hovered over Kant, and then he returned to the papers. He looked back through them as if searching for something he might have missed. He rubbed his forehead and said nothing. The furrows of his brow deepened.

After a long pause, Kant asked, ‘Sir?'

Stapleton turned his tired eyes to the reporter. He took a long mouthful of gin.

‘Something distracts me,' he explained.

The general's discomfort ignited Isham's interest. ‘Perhaps Mr Kant would care to share his little list with the rest of us,' he said.

Kant
began to describe the gist of his findings, including the dead body he had viewed that evening in the hospital morgue. He spared no details, and for the first time the entire table directed his attention at him. Isham watched him, smug and amused, while the other spies listened with an air of bestial expectation.

‘The dead woman, 24-year-old Susan O'Brien
, had been a prisoner at Dublin Castle but was reported to have escaped on Sunday evening. Less than 24 hours later, her body was found lying face up in a forest south of Dublin. The police know very little about what happened to her. Her clothes were torn and her body badly mutilated. The unusual thing was that her eyes had been attacked in a very brutal way and her eyeballs removed. The police have no clues as to
who murdered her, or why. At the minute, they are simply trying to figure out how. They've found no evidence of footprints or wheel marks in the snow around the body. Just the victim's footprints and the paw marks of what might have been dogs or foxes. It is no exaggeration to say that the entire occurrence of her death is a complete mystery to them.
'

Kant went on to describe how the body of another woman had been found in similar circumstances the week before. ‘Police believe the unidentified victim had been led to the forest clearing by a lust murderer. But, yet again, the perpetrator left no evidence of his presence. Her eyeballs had also been gruesomely removed.'

‘What colour was her hair?
' asked the general.

‘Red and long,' replied Kant.

‘The full Celtic mane,' remarked Isham with a little smile.

Stapleton stared hard at his corporal.

‘I've also included in the file a series of newspaper clippings describing a number of missing women,' Kant continued. ‘Several of whom
had been suspected of helping the IRA.' He ran through the names. ‘Aileen Keogh, a nurse at Mount St Benedict School, arrested for possession of an incendiary device. Rosaleen O'Neill, an artist's model, captured driving a car load of IRA members. 16-year-old Mary Bowles who had been sentenced for trying to hide an IRA machine gun from Crown Forces. Madeline Mullan, arrested for keeping a military patrol under surveillance. All of the women vanished while being held in custody at Dublin Castle.'

‘You mean they escaped and went on the run,' said Isham. ‘They didn't just disappear like rabbits down a hole in their cells.'

‘According to the prison guards and the police there were no clues as to how they escaped from custody,'
said Kant. ‘No evidence of a conspiracy to free them. Their families have mounted a prayer vigil at the prison gates, demanding news of their whereabouts.'

There was a long silence. Kant snatched a glance at the general, who had closed his eyes and was breathing heavily. He eyed him closely, and wondered had th
e general consumed too much drink? In fact, everyone at the table looked as though they had drunk too much. He took in the emptiness of their glaring eyes, the snow swirling in the darkness of the bay windows behind them.

The general roused himself with a growl and ordered more gin. ‘
I want you to investigate what happened to these women, Mr Kant. Use your journalistic contacts and dig deep. Find out how they disappeared from prison.'

Isham leaned towards the general with a sardonic grin. ‘There'
s more to this. You haven't dragged Mr Kant here out of concern for a few fugitive IRA women.'

The general cleared his throat. ‘Of course, there's more.' He raised his glass to his mouth
and a little gin accidentally sloshed over the rim. ‘There's another name I must add to the list.' He hesitated. ‘A young woman called Lily Merrin. She was one of my secretaries at Dublin Castle. She went missing a week ago
during her lunch break. And hasn't been spotted since.'

‘Have you reported this to the police?' asked Isham.

Again, the general's brow appeared to tremble
. ‘The local constabulary is not equipped to carry out such a sensitive investigation. They're Irish and stupid and riddled with informers.' He sighed. ‘Their main talents appear to be
collecting gossip and burning down houses.' He turned to Kant. ‘I want you to find out what is happening to these missing women, and in particular Merrin. Quietly. Without drawing too much attention.'

Kant's neck and cheeks
were itching. ‘Anything could have happened to these women, sir,' he suggested. ‘They may have emigrated to America,
or eloped with someone. Perhaps they had a domestic or family problem.'

‘I still want to know.'

‘Merrin had access to intelligence files in Dublin Castle,' said Thornton. ‘
Perhaps she's another IRA spy on the run.'

The general's face coloured with anger. ‘I order you to keep a decent tongue in your mouth when speaking about this woman. Her loyalty is beyond doubt; she is from the very best
Anglo-Irish stock. Her father was a general in the British Army, and her husband died at the Somme.'

Kant felt another urge to scratch his neck.

Isham grinned and winked at the others. ‘Army men always worry more about their mistresses than their wives. If you only knew the number of times I've wondered what my Poppy is up to.'

The alcohol began to do its work, and the conversation
strayed onto the subject of Irish girls. Kant stared at the circle of faces boasting of the women they had enjoyed. His head ached and the smell of gin and whiskey crawled up his nose. He was struck by the flushed ugliness of his drinking companions, the coarseness of their conversation, their spurious tales of lust and conquest. Their gloating eyes alienated him. God damn them for their boasting and lying, he thought. They made Dublin sound like the most whorish city in the world where the laws of supply and demand governed every encounter with its female inhabitants.

His chief problem was how to tell the general
that he had shared a hansom cab with his missing secretary on the day she had disappeared, that he had seen her inconsolable with fear. He looked at his hands, one gripping his glass, the other the hat on his knee. His tale would go against him very badly, he realised, since he could offer no innocent explanation as to why he had been trailing her that afternoon.

The part of the day he preferred to recall was that moment of unexpected intimacy in the darkened cab. It had a dramatic quality that foreshadowed the rest of the afternoon, the two of them safe and enclosed in the silence with just a crack of winter light creeping under the curtained windows, his neck and scalp tingling where she had just touched him, and then the lingering precision of her lips on his cheek, her breath sweet and clean. He tried to seal the moment up in that hushed chamber, keep it intact forever. He felt a strange happiness flood through him. Their encounter had been something to treasure, a jewel in the casket of the cab, and he felt an urgent need to reveal it to the general, but his caution held him back. He knew he ought to have warned Merrin, revealed who he was and why he was following her, but he had been unable to say a word. He passed his hand over his face, still feeling the astonishment at being kissed by a frightened, dangerous woman. He might have bartered everything to be the man she thought he was, cast his subterfuge to one side, risked his safety, warned
her that Dublin Castle reacted with ruthless justice to betrayal, especially when the traitor was one of their own.

BOOK: Blind Arrows
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