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Authors: Anthony Quinn

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BOOK: Blind Arrows
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‘What sort of attachment?'

‘A very personal one.' His voice grew excited. ‘What I would call my private little war with Mick Collins. I've searched the room
below. The sanctum sanctorum. That Cork gallivant was running a very unusual operation in there. One that gave him a secret door to Dublin Castle's intelligence archives. A door he could enter and leave at will.'

‘Blackmail and kidnap are dangerous games for a rebel leader.'

‘Bloody dangerous games, I would say. Games the IRA never played until Collins took over the intelligence department
.'

‘You'd better tell me who you are.'

‘My name is Cathal Brugha, Minister of Defence for the Irish Republican Army.'

‘Then Collins is your comrade,' said
Kant. He had heard of Brugha, or rather Charles Burgess, as he was called before joining Sinn Fein.

‘His comrade? I very much doubt that.' Brugha's mouth twisted into a bloodless smile. ‘I would say I am his most dangerous enemy
, since I know the rascal better than anyone else. You see, I have made him my special field of study.' He tightened his grip on the suitcase. ‘I know what makes him tick, his secret foibles and flaws. In fact, I'm the major obstacle in his path. The one person who has worked out what he is really up to.'

‘Which is what?'

Brugha hesitated. ‘I'm an amateur, Mr Kant. Not a professional reporter like you. For now, I am collecting routine observations, impressions, throwaway notes, bookies' debts, bar and clothing expenses, while Mick is busy protecting his official history, getting rid of loose-ends, tidying up his financial accounts, eliminating anyone who knows too much. Which is why I find it suspicious that this woman has gone missing
. Of course, a corpse would be more inconvenient for Mick, if he's trying to cover up something discreditable.'

What exactly was he talking about, wondered Kant.

‘A crumpled up receipt or a torn letter are only pieces of litter,'
said Brugha, ‘until someone wants them. Then they're intelligence.' There was something smug and dangerously delusional about the light in his eyes.

‘I'm trying to find a missing woman,' said Kant,
‘not ruin the political career of Mick Collins or change the course of Irish history. I want to find out if Collins has murdered this woman. If you're agreeable, I'd like to take a look in your briefcase, and see what sort of intelligence you've gathered.
'

The leather handle of the briefcase creaked as Brugha tightened his grip. ‘My notes are completely disorganised. I've yet to type and annotate them.' A grumbling tone entered his voice. ‘I don't have Mick's resources, the team of secretaries with typewriters and reams of paper.'

‘If you're trying to stop Collins, typing them is the least of your worries.'

Brugha backed away towards the door. ‘I'm keeping this collection for a higher authority, an international commission that will be set up after the IRA has won this war. Mick will have to account for every penny spent and all his bloodthirsty acts.'

He
held out a pale hand and Kant shook it.

‘I wish you luck in your search for your missing secretary,' said Brugha. ‘I hope you uncover the full extent of Mick's culpability in her disappearance, and that we will find some mutually acceptable way to work together in the future. For her sake, I pray that your search does not end with a corpse.'

He slipped down the stairs and disappeared into
the street, where the snow was now falling heavily, like arrows taking aim at an ever-moving target.

FIVE

The boarding house where Merrin had been lodging was just three tram stops from Dublin Castle. The building looked shabby, but still held relics of its former glory, fanlights above the front door, wrought iron in the staircase, leaded glass in the windows. The landlady poked a thin, beakish nose at
Kant's reporter's card, reading it carefully. Her eyes lit up with calculation when he mentioned Merrin's name.

She took in his slight stoop, the fact he was leaning on his cane and slightly out of breath. Melting snow pooled around his boots. ‘This must be bad news,' she said. ‘
You've come to tell me she's dead.'

‘No, not at all.' He didn't flinch under her searching gaze. ‘I'm gathering information for a report in the
Daily Mirror
on her disappearance.'

‘What kind of information?' She seemed determined not to give anything away without getting something in return.

‘Just routine stuff. The type of woman she was. What visitors she had. Any contact with her family. That sort of thing.'

She looked at him shrewdly. ‘I don't bother prying into my tenants' lives. Not during troubled times like these. Stick your nose in other people's affairs and God knows what they might stick in you. Besides, you're a reporter. What details I give you will be turned into a front-page scandal.'

‘I want to lay rumours to rest. Not encourage conjecture.'

As was his habit, he stood on the doorstep to convey the impression that he wasn't going anywhere.

‘This time of day I'm normally on my way
to mass.'

He saw her hesitate. ‘I won't take much of your time.'

‘I never saw much of her,' she said. ‘
I really can't tell you how she'd been or what sort of woman she was.'

‘Then let me have a quick check of her room.'

Fortunately, for Kant, her curiosity was stronger than her piety.
More in an effort to convince herself, she remarked, ‘I don't see why not. You're not the first visitor to tramp through her room these past few days.'

She led him up the stairs where a smell of ashes mingled with lavender. Kant's senses sharpened.

‘Lily was a very quiet girl,
' said the landlady. ‘Kept herself to herself. Never had any gentleman visitors. Unlike some of the other girls.'

He could barely keep the anticipation from showing in his face when she
took out a brass key and slid it into a door on the first floor. After some jerking, the door creaked open. The curtains had been pulled in the room within, and the smell of ashes grew stronger. His emotions were stirred by the thin line of winter light that crept under the curtains, a response anchored in his memory of the hushed hansom cab, and for an aching moment, he imagined the darkness might contain her presence.
Something soft and light brushed against his hands, the gauzy material of a nightgown, he thought, but then it disintegrated at his touch.

The landlady opened the curtains, revealing a
ransacked room filled with falling ashes. The draught from the door had disturbed them from an overflowing fire-grate. She opened a window to let in fresh air. A cold wind billowed through the curtains lifting another cloud of ashes from the grate. A muffled hush descended. They stood like grey trespassers, listening to Merrin's absence, the sound of ashes settling back to a floor
covered with clothing and her personal belongings. There was only one thought going through Kant's head: Dublin Castle and I are not the only ones on her trail.

‘Who else has visited the room
?' he asked, trying to keep the tension from showing in his face and voice.

‘Some men from the Dublin Life Assurance Company called a few days ago. They said she had worked for them and still had files in her keep.'

‘Did they take anything with them
?'

‘I didn't search them, if that's what you mean.'

‘But later, after they had left, did you notice anything missing?'

She stared at him in suspicious silence. ‘How would I know what was missing or not? What sort of landlady do you take me for?'

‘I meant no offence. Under the circumstance, it would have been quite normal, if you though
t Mrs Merrin wasn't going to return…'

She shrugged. ‘They left empty-handed. As far as I could tell. Anything they didn't remove went up in smoke.'

‘What do you mean?'

‘They burned a pile of papers in the grate. Left a
shes everywhere. On the carpet. Even under the bed. It's a miracle they didn't set light to the chimney and turn us all to cinders.'

He bent over the fireplace and sifted through the remnants of the fire with his cane. Loose layers of scorched paper disintegrated at his touch. He picked out a few scrawled letters and numbers
written in a precise, light hand. He leaned closer, feeling on the brink of a revelation, trying to trace the pattern of this slender thread of ink but unfortunately, he could make out nothing intelligible. The cold ash rose in his face, another veil hiding Merrin and her secrets. He remembered her hungry kiss and caress, the lure that had brought him to this rummaged through room
. He tried to fix them in his memory, worried that they too might slip away, but his thoughts were as clumsy as his touch. He felt conscious only of her absence.

‘Did she ever mention her son? An eight-year-old boy called Isa
ac.'

‘She had a child? Now there's a surprise. I never even knew she was married. But then she didn't speak about her private life. Was told nothing so I know nothing.'

When the landlady left, he sat very quietly in the seat by the dressing table and tried to let Lily speak through the disarrayed objects of her room, the upended drawers, the smell of lavender soap mingled with soot
, the nest of blankets, the glint of a blackened jewellery box full of paste necklaces, and in the wardrobe enough personal belongings to pack in a single suitcase. No evidence at all of family life, or that she had been someone's mother. It was like staring into a badly cracked mirror. All he saw were fragments, jarring insights into the life of a woman he knew only by her lips and blind fingers
, and the messy handwriting of her son. He became aware of a clock in the landing ticking.

At least, he knew why General Stapleton was so interested in her disappearance. It had seemed a trifling matter searching for a missing secretary when the rest of Dublin Castle was chasing a rebel leader and his squad of murderers. Looking around the anonymous room, he had the feeling that its contents were decoys, and that Lily Merrin had been her own secret. Any clues to her family life had disappeared along with her.

Kant knew that some of the IRA's boldest operations were carried out by women like Lily who went to work every morning dressed in their ordinary work clothes. Spies who did not need cover stories, women in secret roles not even the leaders of the Republican movement were fully aware of, at least not their real names and the positions they held.

He stepped down the dark stairs, hearing the shuffle of the landlady's feet approaching from a room below.

At the front door, she shouted after him.

‘Any chance of her coming back? Rent's due on Monday.'

‘I doubt if you'll ever see her again,' said Kant.

He was beginning to understand that
Lily's trick was like Collins'. To disappear from view, you had to make your life as transparent as the air you breathed.

Back in his boarding house room, Kant waited until the other lodgers had retired to bed. He locked the shutters of the windows and made sure the key was turned in his door. He sat on the edge of his bed and stared at the locked door, preoccupied with the tantalising daydream of Merrin's accidental kiss. He tried not to think about that afternoon and pushed the memory away, but his thoughts kept returning to
the softness of her touch.

His brow furrowed with the burden of remembering what had happened after the kiss, Merrin's recoil when she realised he was a stranger, the fear knotting her face, the sound of a gun-shot and the rattle of the carriage pulling off at speed. He tried to remember the rest of their journey but his mind floated into emptiness.

If Kant had been asked to explain how important this
gap in his memory was, to express it in terms of time, or recall what exactly had transpired that afternoon, he would have been at a loss to answer. He suspected that even the most gruelling of interrogations in Dublin Castle would not have drawn from him the precise
thread of events. The most difficult thing to work out was whether the cab journey had been a dream or not. His body had felt paralysed, his senses numbed, but his eyes must have been wide open, his mind alert and conscious. He was sure of that. He remembered the horses straining at the reins, Merrin scrabbling at the door handle, he leaning back to give her more room, the carriage shaking, the glare of winter light through the window. Had she tried to open the window and climb out? What had she shouted at the driver? He could not remember exactly. It was
as if her kiss had blinded him. And he had accepted the darkness like a gift. He did not want to give up the intimacy of that hushed cab, the softness of her lips, the touch of her fingers. He tried to pull his mind away from their first moments together, but his thoughts resisted his best efforts.

He saw the rest of that afternoon in snapshot pictures, snatches of disconnected conversation, jarring
sensations; the way people who haven't slept for a long time remember an event, unable to force their thoughts to coalesce into a coherent whole. ‘Who sent you?' He remembered her asking. He didn't know if he had murmured the truth or only thought it. His lips had moved and he had been unable to resist her interrogation. His hands had wanted to move too, but thankfully,
he had been able to stop them, controlling them by tightly gripping his walking-cane. She had asked him about people he did not know. She believed he knew a lot more than he really did. He had tried to reassure her.

‘I know nothing about who it is you are running from, that I swear,' he said.

‘But if you did know something, you wouldn't tell.
'

‘I promise you with my life.'

He remembered her leaning back against the door and removing a leather-bound file from her coat. She clutched it to her chest.

He had wanted to tell her more, but was worried how she might react. He had been
afraid to move or stir in any way. The carriage felt as though it was gaining in speed. Was the driver picking up the pace because they were being chased through the streets?

‘I've spent too long carrying these secrets,' she'd said. ‘Do you know why I stole the file?'

‘Not at all.'

‘Then you must hold onto it for me.'

These were the last words, the final image he could recall of her. He
forced himself to remember more. He ransacked his mind but failed to summon anything further. His eyes were wide open in the cab and the file was in his hands, but she was no longer there.

He leaned back on his bed and closed his eyes. He was
tired. His breath tightened and he felt the return of the familiar chest pain. He would have welcomed the dark immersion of sleep but his mind was too active, the ache in his chest too stubborn. He rose from his bed. Using a chair, he opened a trapdoor in the ceiling and slid from the darkness Merrin's leather bound file. The damp air of the attic had swollen its size. He untied the cover and carefully lifted out the pages. He laid them on his bed and studied the rows of numbers and dates. He tried to work out what Dublin Castle had found interesting about them, and why Mick Collins was so eager to have them back. He was able to track some of the figures, sums of money paid to an Italian furniture maker, a further amount for shipping the goods, payments to harbour men that might
have been bribes, the entire operation looking very like a gun-smuggling operation.

Money and war, he thought. The rebels and the banks shaping a new Ireland. Trade and power, a world far removed from the hushed hansom cab and the harried woman who had given him the file in the first place. Where was she now? He fervently hoped that she had not become another victim of this country's painful history.

BOOK: Blind Arrows
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