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Authors: Anthony Quinn

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Thornton elbowed him. ‘What's bothering you, Kant? You look out of sorts.'

He smiled and tried to keep a prudent control of his tongue.

‘I haven't seen you at the boarding house for day
s. The landlady thought you'd returned to London.'

Riley chipped in. ‘He must have a woman hidden away in a hotel room somewhere. I recognise that look in his eyes.'

‘You know very well that I couldn't afford to keep any woman in a hotel room,'
replied Kant.

‘Then it's a girl locked up in a back-street boarding house.'

‘What we all need is a big house like Corporal Isham's,'
whispered Thornton. ‘One that has no prying landladies, only subservient Irish maids and lots of empty rooms.'

They looked at Isham's bored-looking face, colder and calmer than the general's but somehow less civilised. Kant had heard reports of how the corporal had requisitioned Park House, a seventeenth-century
mansion with private grounds in the Wicklow Mountains. Every weekend, he organised hunts and parties for Dublin's ruling classes and its military commanders so that they could wallow in the luxury and glory of the Protestant Ascendancy, shooting pheasants and deer, while IRA guerrillas ambushed their foot soldiers in the city's back streets.

‘Mr Kant is uncomfortable with all this talk of women,' said Riley. ‘He must be married with a little wife in suburban London who knows nothing of his secret life in Dublin.'

The reporter shuddered at their line of questioning
.

‘My relationship with women changed during the Great War,' he said. A spasm twitching his lips. Still that memory of Lily Merrin's kiss, a
furtive little pleasure.

‘What do you mean?'

‘I can no longer ignore the fact that I am an ill man. And that instinctive love is beyond my reach.
'

‘Are you saying all you feel is lust?'

‘I am not an animal.'

‘Neither am I, but I would like to be an animal. Just for tonight. To revert to nature, to prowl through these bars and take what I want.'

Perhaps we are all animals, thought
Kant, we survivors of the Great War, damaged creatures with the minds of monsters, without any hope of refuge from our base instincts.

‘We are here because of work,' Thornton reminded them. ‘Let's not mix it with pleasure.'

‘I've had enough of work,' replied Riley, with vehemence. ‘When do we enjoy the pleasure?'

Kant broke into a racking coughing fit. When he had finished, he looked across and saw the general's drunken eyes staring at him.

‘You
work for the
Daily Mirror
, is that correct?'

He cleared his throat. ‘Their war correspondent, yes.'

‘War.' Stapleton pronounced the word without irony or sadness. He lifted his chin, as though the last glass of gin had revived him. ‘Did you enjoy reporting on the carnage
at Ypres?' he asked.

‘It was my job.'

‘Your
Daily Mirror
sketches were very popular with readers. People tend to be drawn to accounts of suffering. Especially when perused from the safety of their own homes. Your reports fascinated and repelled them.
' Stapleton took another sip of gin and his eyes moistened. He gave a sour laugh. ‘We tried to censor reporters like you, but somehow the truth trickled out, like water from a poisoned well.'

From the bar below, a drunken woman gave a ludicrous high-pitched laugh.

When Stapleton began to speak again, he did so with the exaggerated speech of a drunken
man disguising his slur.

‘They tell me that you are one of the most tenacious reporters in England, Mr Kant. If there is a lust murderer on the loose, I want you to bring me a sketch of the beast.'

Kant nodded
. It was past midnight and Dublin's dimensions were changing under the falling snow, swelling and leaning closer to the bay windows, like a familiar face in a suffocating dream.

Isham turned to him. ‘Mr Kant is one of those reporters who hide
themselves very well. I believe he might just be the very man we need.'

‘What do you mean?' asked Kant.

‘You're
easily overlooked. Like a shadow that blends into the greyness.'

‘It's something I've learned to use to my advantage.'

Isham waited until the general returned to his gin.
He leaned closer with a more serious expression on his face.

‘You must meet me tomorrow morning at 6 Victoria Way,' he whispered. ‘I've some important information that
will assist your search. I can reveal a secret the general doesn't know about his treacherous little secretary.'

Kant felt a strong desire to confess that he knew the significance of the house number, that he had seen Merrin hurry from it on the day she disappeared. It was unwise, but he had a passion to unburden himself to someone
, to disclose that he knew Merrin, and that he had spent a very private moment with her, but at the last moment, something in Isham's eyes discouraged him.

Kant grabbed his hat and stood up. Rather than saluting, he nodded with professional courtesy at the two military men and took his leave from the Crow Club. Gripping his cane for assistance, he left the hotel and set off into streets paved in white, lengthening into the night. The impulse that drove him into the dark heart of the city wasn't patriotic duty: it was desire leading him
on, the hope of recovering the warm memory of Merrin's touch and kiss, the hunger in her searching fingers and lips, the sensation of a strange and frightened woman seeking his protection, a refuge that was not his to give.

FOUR

Corporal Isham's face usually wore a sardonic expression, but the next morning his eyes were glistening with excitement. ‘
I enjoy chasing women myself, but only for sport, you understand,' he told Kant. ‘However, I don't think I've ever pursued a woman quite as intriguing as the general's Lily
Merrin.'

Dressed in a short coat and black riding boots, he opened the door at Number 6, Victoria Way. He drew Kant up the unlit stairs to a room that was empty apart from a desk, a typewriter, a chair and a notice board covered in faded newspaper clippings and letters.

‘
Do you ever watch women, Kant? I mean steadily watch them day and night. There are many things you can learn from watching women go about their secret business.'

Kant felt uneasy, but stood still, wary of Isham and the little room beckoning before him. He closed his eyes for a moment. There was no sound, no smell, nothing that might bring him back to the hushed hansom cab and his memory of Merrin's caress, just a sense of danger radiating from the direction of the desk and the black typewriter.

‘A month ago, we began to suspect the IRA might have a mole in Dublin Castle,' explained Isham. ‘So we began to follow the movements of all the staff who had access to intelligence information.'

Kant opened his eyes and watched the corporal glide across the floor, quick and fluid as a shadow.

‘We discovered that Stapleton's secretary was spending her lunchtimes grabbing as many secret documents as she could from Dublin Castle's intelligence files. Then she'd dash up to this room where she typed out copies, sealed them in an envelope and left them for the IRA to collect.' Isham hovered over the desk.

‘What sort of material did she give them?'

‘Enough to break our network of spies
and send good men to their deaths. From now on we're restricting security clearance and placing the most sensitive documents in crypto-code.'

Isham bent over the typewriter, blew on the dusty keys, and used his handkerchief to lift a long dark hair. ‘We've interrogated the landlady. Her instructions were to lock the door once Merrin began typing. Then, ten minutes before two, unlock it. Her lunchtime caller
was her only guest. All the rooms were kept empty of lodgers.'

He waved Kant over to the desk. The reporter almost crept towards it, feeling the presence of Merrin. The typewriter floated before him, a metal nest with its litter of keys, not just a machine to print
correspondence but an instrument of treachery and death.

Isham laughed in a cold way. ‘The general's little secretary was the IRA's most motivated spy. Devoted to betrayal. I imagine she would have filled this entire room with pages of freshly typed intelligence until they spilled down the stairs and out the front door. A house full of secrets. Enough to destroy Dublin Castle for good.' He struck a key of the typewriter and its prong snapped upon the empty roller.

‘
What makes you say that?' It wasn't that Kant hadn't suspected the full truth about Merrin, but part of him was still propped in a corner of the hansom cab, cramped and fumbling, weak to her caress and kiss. He needed Isham to fill in the spaces in his understanding, clear away the discrepancies.

Isham stared straight at him. ‘Very few people are suited to the life of a secret agent. Most recruits turn out to be little more than foolish amateurs, or cowards and scatterbrains who think spying is like playing a game of cards or reading a suspense novel. In reality, it is a form of death. An entire life led in the shadows. The most successful agents like Merrin are those who develop an inner sense of purpose, whose souls are nourished by their spymasters.'

‘And what was Merrin's nourishment?'

Isham pointed to the notice board. ‘Newspaper clippings describing the IRA's
abduction of her son. Letters in the boy's handwriting describing how his captors were looking after him. The only sustenance a desperate mother required.'

For the first time, Kant took in the contents of the board. The press reports told the story of how an eight-year-old boy called Isaac Merrin had gone
missing whilst visiting his grandparents in England. Kant read about the initial police investigation, the sighting of two men with strong Irish accents in the vicinity of the grandparents' home, the growing fear that he had been murdered, detectives assigned to the case, and possible sightings along the length and breadth of Britain. He scanned the blue-coloured pages of the letters, a few smudged sentences in childish longhand describing the boy's captivity in a damp cottage somewhere by the sea. The wretched spelling moved him. Merrin's betrayal took on a responsibility, a moral force, which quickened his breath and made the blood in his head pound. A vulnerable child was involved, the victim of a kidnap plot. The IRA had used the most compelling motivation possible to turn Merrin into a spy. They had
emotionally blackmailed her with her son's letters, this mess of words scrawled across blue writing paper.

‘The board was positioned so that the typist was forced to look directly at the letters,' continued Isham. ‘Those IRA bastards kept the story of
her boy's kidnap inches away from her nose. For an hour every day, they sealed her up with her grief. It must have been worse than physical torture.'

Kant saw that Collins did not need guns or bombs. He did not need ammunition to win his war. His was a silent struggle fought by spies like Lily Merrin. Women who carried a quiet desperation and determination in their daily lives, women typing their secrets in anonymous boarding house rooms, locked into a process, an underground intelligence system. The question was how long could Merrin's soul have survive
d on such meagre nourishment? How long before her maternal drive was whittled away by the constant betrayal and subterfuge? She was just one woman, surrounded by people who might expose her secret life at any moment, her nerve constantly tested.

‘What would the IRA have done if she refused to give away intelligence?' asked Kant.

‘Knowing Collins and his men, her son's letters would immediately stop. Instead she'd get a cut-off toe or finger.'

The door tugged open slightly, letting in a draught, and then slid shut again. They both listened to the house creaking back into silence.

‘Then we cannot judge her by normal standards of right or wrong,' said Kant. ‘A mother's longing for her son can sweep aside everything else, loyalty, the proud history of a family, even one's duty to the King
. Whatever she did, it was done out of desperation. She wasn't a traitor. Just a mother in the wrong place at the wrong time.'

‘At least she's no longer a threat we have to worry about.' Isham seemed unconcerned about her current whereabouts or safety.

Kant stared at the typewriter. He thought of
Merrin hunched over the machine, fingers striking the keys, the prongs rising and falling, spelling out a life and death terrain of secrets, her fingers driving deeper into the keyboard, the prongs hammering quicker and quicker. He saw that the typewriter had been her only source of protection, a place to hide from her grief and anxiety, but one letter out of place and she might slip into the void forever.

‘The puzzle for you, Mr Kant
, is working out what happened to her that afternoon.'

‘Perhaps instead of returning to Dublin Castle she thought it better to disappear. Before she could betray any more of her people.'

Isham shook his head. ‘I believe someone at Dublin Castle let slip we were watching her. I had my men positioned that day to arrest her
when she left the boarding house, but at the last moment, an accomplice turned up in a hansom cab and whisked her to safety. The general doesn't know this, but I've launched an internal investigation to uncover the suspected infiltrator.'

Kant now understood the dramatic events that had brought Merrin and him together. He remembered the sharp English voice shouting ‘halt',
followed by the retort of the gun that had spooked the horses into a breakneck gallop. He wondered should he tell Isham what had happened afterwards inside the hansom cab. It was a secret, but not one he wished to become a burden. Unfortunately, he had kept it to himself for too long, and in the circumstances, he knew the delay would arouse the prejudiced suspicions of Dublin Castle.

He avoided Isham's hard eyes. He turned and perused the notice board one more time, the blueprint of Merrin's betrayal.

‘The last letter from the boy was sent more than three weeks ago,'
he remarked. ‘Up to that point she'd been getting one every week.' It was the only evidence he could find of what might have prompted the crucial turn her career as a reluctant spy had taken.

‘Do you think the boy is still alive?' he asked.

The corporal gave a barely perceptible shrug. ‘Keeping hostages alive can be quite a bother for terrorists. Especially a child. They have to be moved all the time, fed and looked after, at least in the basic ways.'

He gave Kant a penetrating stare. ‘You are moved by her predicament?'

‘Of course I am.
'

‘As a reporter searching for a scoop, or as a human being?'

‘As a human being.'

‘Then I must warn you to be more professional,' he said
, his face blank and cold. ‘This woman might end up ruining the career of General Stapleton. Even now, the old fool still believes she could do no wrong. I've watched him playing around with pretty young secretaries
before. The devotion he shows them has earned him nothing but contempt from his fellow staff. Merrin was one of those girls who knew how to handle men's weaknesses. The last thing we need is a
Daily Mirror
reporter
also in her thrall.'

He walked out of the room and Kant followed. The reporter closed the door slowly, as if afraid of waking the typewriter, but its keys were waiting for someone else, and they slept on, safe and still in their metal casket.

Isham
had a military car waiting outside the house. He wished Kant good luck in his search, and asked him to visit his office the next time he was in Dublin Castle. Kant waited, watching the car lurch off down the street, before he doubled back and slipped into the boarding house doorway. He
hung in the shadows. It began to snow lightly and the street cleared of traffic and pedestrians. He had the odd sensation of the snow constantly sniffing him out, finding him in gloomy corners and doorways. A few flakes planted themselves on his boots, marking their target, more swarmed over his coat, clinging to his hair. He looked up at the pattern of snowflakes rushing towards him, like the stricken face of a woman wanting to be saved, but melting away at the last minute.

The door tugged open behind him, letting in a flurry of flakes, and then slid shut again.
He grew aware of the silence inside the house. Earlier, the thought had occurred to him that there might have been someone else inside, monitoring their movements, listening to their conversation. The sudden draught increased his suspicions. Gently, he slipped through the door into the hallway, catching a whiff of fresh candle-wax. The rickety staircase was dark but he was convinced its shadows hid the presence of an eavesdropper
. After a few moments, a silhouette appeared at the head of the stairs. Kant waited, watched it extend itself into the shape of a thin man carrying a briefcase. For a moment, it remained motionless. Kant leaned forward and the wooden floor creaked. The shadow slipped back into the darkness above.

‘Who's there?' he shouted.

A small sound echoed from above, that might have been a door handle clicking or a revolver setting. Kant climbed the stairs slowly. He explored
the rooms on the landing above, each of them dusty and identically furnished. In the fourth room the curtains were drawn. Kant made out an extra shape in the darkness that shifted slightly when the floorboards took his weight.

‘I know you're there,' he said. ‘Identify yourself.'

‘
I beg your pardon.' A figure walked out of the darkness.

The stranger's politeness did not appease Kant, who felt a cold prickling sensation running down his spine.

‘I did not mean to alarm you.'

‘Then why are you creeping around like an intruder?'

A pale rumpled-looking man emerged fully from the shadows, carrying a thin briefcase. All the sinews of his body seemed to be holding onto the case as though it contained his entire life, which could not have amounted to very much. At first, Kant thought he was some sort of beggar. Empty boarding houses
attracted all sorts of tramps and runaways, petty thieves and chronic drunkards, and this seemed to be the season for bumping into social misfits.

‘I've been waiting for a visitor
like you,' said the man in a whisper. ‘Tell me, what happened to Lily? Why did she stop making her lunchtime appointments?'

‘What do you know about her?'

‘Practically nothing, I'm afraid.' He sucked his teeth in disappointment.
‘You see, she was Mick Collins' girl. None of my business at all, but I had an attachment to the papers she'd been typing downstairs. I wanted them for my little collection. I've been working hard to fill this briefcase.' He squeezed his case, nursing it, the slender contents the sum total of his labours, and it, in turn, looked as though it were
drawing all the life from him.

BOOK: Blind Arrows
11.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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