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Authors: Anthony Quinn

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SIX

The pine
forest lay before the horseman and his companion, impenetrably dark against the whiteness. It had just stopped snowing and the laden trees were brimming with an icy stillness. The horse, a grey mare, swung too close to the branches, setting off ripple-effect cascades of falling snow, which the man walking had to skip sideways to avoid. The rider steered the horse deeper into the trees, making his companion curse. It was getting darker and the only habitation for miles was the nearby mansion Park House, from which they could hear the frenzied
baying of hounds.

‘Why meet here?' complained Thornton, who was on foot. ‘You're not planning a picnic in the snow?'

‘I enjoy the twilight,' replied Isham. ‘The way the light lingers through the winter trees. It almost makes me sentimental.' He ducked his head to avoid the overhanging branches.

‘Those bloody hounds. They're giving me the creeps.'

‘I've ordered the groom not to feed them at the weekend. Keeps their appetites sharp for the hunt.'

Thornton trudged unhappily alongside
the corporal, slipping deeper and deeper in the fresh snow.

‘I need new boots,' he complained. ‘This is a terrible
winter. I need something with a lining to keep out the cold.'

Isham knew Thornton's type well. A veteran of the Great War but at heart a rough-and-tumble street thug, an opportunist always looking for a hand-out. After being demobbed in 1918, Thornton might have easily joined the shadowy swarms of pickpockets and petty swindlers on the streets of London, but like hundreds of others, had b
oarded the first boat to Dublin. There was a hierarchy in spying, as in everything, and Thornton belonged to the lowest levels. Isham could see it in his constant uneasiness, the mix of fear and dependency that ran through all his relationships, even with the enemy.

They followed the path through the forest with its twists and turns, skirting the heavier branches, which constantly threatened to inundate Thornton with fresh snow.

‘What progress have you made searching for Collins?' asked Isham.
‘You've been dropping hints that you have good news for me.'

Thornton's eyes shone in the dim light.

‘Progress, yes. I've discovered he's operating under the alias of a business man called Jack McAleer.'

‘What sort of business man?'

‘One with numerous bank accounts and offices dotted about the city. His headquarters are on Leeson Street. A secret office that can only be accessed through a hidden door in the
Dublin Life Assurance building.'

‘Forgive me for being sceptical.'

‘About the existence of McAleer?'

‘I'm highly sceptical about McAleer,' said Isham dryly,
‘but at this stage I'm even more sceptical about the existence of Collins.'

Thornton's voice grew insistent. ‘I broke into the Dublin Life building last night. I've checked out all the rooms. There was a secret passageway leading to the office.'

‘You're sure it's Collins' lair?'

‘I'm convinced. I've watched his bodyguards come and go during the day. And women carrying parcels.'

‘Who are the women?
'

‘I don't know. They could be anything. His spies, his secretaries, his lovers.'

‘What did you find in the office? Any guns or ammunition?'

‘Just paper. Reams and reams of it. That's all he keeps there. Files of pages detailing the IRA's funds, the buying of weapons, payments to volunteers and their families, investments, travel and living expenses, even details of their secret bank accounts, all signed in his name.'

‘What about his current whereabouts?'

Thornton grinned. ‘We're in luck. I found a diary, detailing his meetings and appointments. He's due to visit the office tomorrow evening at 5 o'clock.'

Isham moved his horse on in silence, thinking carefully.

‘Have you passed these details to anyone else?'

‘No, sir.'

‘Good man, Thornton. You will be rewarded for your discretion
.'

In the distance, Isham heard the baying of the hounds grow louder. The groom was under strict instructions to keep them on a tight leash until he gave the signal. His throat grew dry with that special kind of anticipation that preceded a hunt. It was the
expectation of a pleasure like no other.

‘Stay close to me,' he murmured to Thornton.

He turned his mare back to Park House, and nudged the animal into a brisk walk. Thornton had to hurry to keep up. The increasing cold and darkness made the spy garrulous. He
began talking at random about the freezing weather, Collins' fondness for wearing business suits, his girlfriend's illness and that distant time when he fought in the bloodiest trenches at Passchendaele.

‘If war broke out again, I'd like to go back to the trenches, sir,' he confided.

‘What about the danger and the squalor?'
Isham pulled up his horse. ‘Don't you remember the agony of death? Why would one want to go back?'

‘For the glory, sir.' There was a hungry, agitated look in the spy's eyes.

A flicker of annoyance ran through Isham. What did men like Thornton know about glory, apart from their selfish pursuit of ambition and notoriety? Glory was about military grandeur and that concept had been tarnished forever.

The spy
gripped Isham's riding boot. His teeth were chattering. ‘Tomorrow evening when we raid the Dublin Life building, I want your permission to shoot Collins.'

Isham urged his horse on, but Thornton held tight. The corporal felt something inside him recoil violently, as though the spy's
hands were a dirty set of claws raking his innards.

‘I'd like to be the man who rids England of her greatest enemy.' Thornton's voice was thick with spittle. ‘I don't care about the bounty. All I want is a taste of the glory.'

‘You know I can't grant you that.'

‘Then I must act alone. This is my information, and I want the glory for it myself.'

Isham saw that he no longer had any choice in the matter. He stared at the spy's pinkish raw face, the Cockney eyes shining with a determined, dangerous light, the mouth that was almost drooling over his words.
Isham lifted his whip in the air. The cold, rigid feeling in his body needed some form of expression.

‘I'm sorry, Thornton, but I can't allow you to add your ugly little flourish to history.' He drove the whip across the spy's face. It was a practised, precise blow, lacerating Thornton's
dark little eyes. The spy gave a surprised gulp as blood spattered over his face. The next strike dislodged his right eyeball, and left it dangling like a useless string of flesh. Isham kept raining down the blows upon Thornton's eyes
, his expression blank, his breathing free and calm, as though he were well used to enacting such pitiless spasms of violence.

‘The Great War is over, Thornton, but you're still stuck in the trenches. It's where men like you
belong. Down there in the bottomless darkness with the rest of the cannon fodder.'

The blinded spy backed away, fingers groping over the red rags of his face, the heels of his hands pushing against the bloody mess. He tried to say somet
hing but all that came out was an animal-like howl. In panic, he veered into the trees. An aimless flight into deeper darkness.

‘Where do you think you're going?' shouted Isham scornfully. He was no longer bored or cold inside. He raised a bugle to his lips and summoned
the pack of hounds. The chase was about to begin.

A displacement of shadows at the top of the path announced the pack's arrival. They bounded in a long curve towards Isham, filling the forest air with their unruly baying. The corporal felt a stir of excitement in his loins as his horse reared up and faced the snarling, jumping hounds. His feet almost foundered in the stirrups, but he kept his balance, and drove his horse on, leading the pack towards their quarry. He caught glimpses of Thornton, his arms flailing as if he were swimming in the undergrowth, giving the hunt a delicious flavour of abandonment, like a Sunday jaunt
at the beach. He wove his horse through the trees, fighting against the low branches, eager to keep up with the pack. He wanted to steep himself in the spy's terror, to ride deep into his blinkered panic. Thornton had spent most of his life peering suspiciously into the dark, now Isham was taking him beyond the limits of
his normal vision, into his worst fears imaginable.

Even as the hounds leapt onto Thornton's torso, his hands were still clutching and scrabbling for survival, tearing themselves against thorn branches and the dogs' sharp teeth, fighting against the blindness that outraged his will to live. He fell into a thicket of
elder, his face and heart and stomach opening to the seething hounds.

Isham waited awhile, circling his horse around the bloody scene. The sound of the rooks roosting helped drown out the spy's final screams. He felt no sense of wrong in organising Thornton's death in such a brutal way. That had been the spy's function. To accommodate whatever purpose his superiors required. And there was no purer purpose than sacrificing one's life for the schemes of one's betters.

SEVEN

The Dublin Life Assurance offices were situated in a nondescript building on Leeson Street, its solid façade of sooty brownstone fortified by stacked bags of sand and earth, an admission that sound financial planning was no proof against exploding bombs and trigger-happy troops.

Shortly before nine o'clock, Kant introduced himself at reception and was led by a secretary through a maze of filing cabinets to the account manager's office, a plate-glassed room occupied by a middle-aged man wearing rimless glasses called
Dermot O'Shea.

‘I came here early so as not to disturb your work, Mr O'Shea,' said Kant. ‘I have an inquiry about one of your ex-employees. A woman called Lily Merrin.'

O'Shea looked up quickly from behind a stack of yellowing paper. ‘What kind of inquiry?'

‘I think you might be able to help me find out what happened to her.'

‘Who sent you here? Dublin Castle?' His voice took on a weary tone. ‘
Is there no end to their snooping?'

Kant removed the reports of the missing women from his coat pocket and placed the sheaf in front of O'Shea. The manager read a few of the pages. A look of apprehension darkened his features.

‘Why do you think an insurance firm might be able to help you?'
he asked.

‘Some men from this office visited Merrin's boarding house room a few days ago. I don't believe they were there by accident.'

O'Shea sighed and leaned back in his seat, letting the sheaf fall onto his untidy desk. ‘This is a sensitive case, Mr Kant. We run a business here, but that doesn't stop us from using our own investigative services to protect our clients' interests. The woman you are looking for worked for the company a while back. She was in charge of some important financial documents, which have since gone missing. Understandably our clients have been breathing heavily on our necks, demanding their return.'

‘Then you're not the only one anxious to find her.'

O'Shea's features grew lively with interest; his nostrils flared slightly. ‘Do you know her whereabouts?' He glanced at the sheaf on his desk. ‘We thought she might
have ended up in hospital or prison.'

‘She went missing a week ago. There's been no sign of her at work or at her boarding house. Dublin Castle suspects she was abducted.'

‘What are they suggesting?'

‘The file on your desk contains information on a number of missing women. In the past month, two of them have turned up dead in forests, their bodies
naked and badly mutilated. I believe that Dublin Castle is trying to suppress the fact there's a lust murderer on the loose.'

O'Shea got up from his desk and stood at the window. He glanced back at Kant.

‘None of us would know anything about
violent death, Mr Kant, if it happened only once during our lifetimes.' His shoulders drooped slightly and his eyes looked tired. ‘In my capacity as manager of this life assurance firm, I think I have seen more brutal deaths than the general population of this city. Therefore, I must congratulate you, an outsider, for finding me here. You have come to the centre of things, the point where
this city's inhumanity is at its darkest.' He waved a hand towards the distant view of Dublin's smoky terraces and slum tenements. ‘I don't know if you can sense the fear and loathing out there. The ordinary citizens of Dublin
don't know how the British soldiers will act from one moment to the next, and this puts them on constant edge.' His voice lowered to almost a murmur. ‘It is the arbitrary nature of the violence that is most damaging. Checkpoints, reprisals, the scattershot rage that has soldiers burning entire terraces of housing. Then there is the violence against women. It appears to be the fetish of the hour. The physical assaults, the rapes, the drunken attacks with batons and whips.'

It was true, thought Kant. He had read
the heavily censored reports about the behaviour of British soldiers. Sexual crime was undergoing a renaissance in Dublin city.

O'Shea stared at the file and looked thoughtful. ‘This story about abducted women will carry weight. It will have an impact on the decent people of England if published in your paper. Are you determined to bring it to their attention, in spite of the
danger?'

‘Of course. That is my job. To report on what is there.'

‘Ireland will have need of sympathetic journalists in the days to come.' O'Shea paused. He glanced at
Kant anxiously. ‘Perhaps I have talked more than I should.'

To Kant's ears, however, something more important was being withheld.

‘My loyalty is t
o the company and our clients,' said O'Shea, returning to his desk. He reassumed his professional air. ‘Their details should not be compromised. However, I feel that I can trust you, and our company owes some small debt to you for bringing this information. At the very least, we should tell you what we know about Lily Merrin. That responsibility lies with my boss, Mr McAleer. He will see you here at 5 o'clock this evening. He has some meetings to at
tend but he will have time to see you first.'

He shook hands with Kant.

‘Be sure you come punctually,' he said, as the reporter left the room. ‘Mr McAleer thinks it a sign of terrible manners to be late.'

Afterwards, Kant
caught a tram back to the city centre. He walked up and down the streets, stared at posters advertising the latest plays in the local theatres, walked by the gates to Dublin Castle several times, but could not bring himself to enter its gloomy entrance tunnel. He waited for a long time on a bridge overlooking the Liffey. The river was rust-coloured and full of menacing potential, not like water, but something slower-moving, like blood, welling up thick with silted mud. He dragged himself away from the bridge and caught the stream of workers leaving their offices. He kept seeing Lily Merrin's stricken face dissolving into the unending stream of passers-by, into the shadows thrown up by packed trams rattling along the cobbled streets, into the mysterious light cast by boarding house rooms
onto wintry streets.

For the past month, his daily existence had been like this. A complicated game of waiting, afternoon journeys on trams, days made up of pauses and blank spaces, all the time trying to come up with the connections, the people and the places that would bring him closer to achieving his mission. Over the past few days, he felt as though he were growing bodiless, like a ghost, haunted by this feeling of emptiness, his will to go on existing
only within the memory of a single accidental kiss.

When it grew closer to his meeting with McAleer, he made his way back to Leeson Street. He walked along the shop fronts looking for somewhere warm to wait. He ordered a pot of tea and sat at the back of an empty cafe. He thought of his earlier conversation with O'Shea, the sense that he had hinted at something darker occurring at the life assurance offices.
‘I must congratulate you, an outsider, for finding me here. You have come to the centre of things…
'
He had the uncomfortable suspicion that he might be falling into some sort of trap. He stared through the café window at the pre-dusk sky, waiting, as his cup grew cold in his hands.

Two small ragged boys from the tenements stopped and peered through the glass. They
had thick, dirty hair and wide eyes that seemed beyond fear or pain. They pointed at Kant as though he were some sort of aimless spirit, an object of pity. He buried his head in a newspaper, searching for headlines about other parts of the world, anything that might remove him momentarily from the watchful streets of Dublin.

When he looked up at the window,
the boys had disappeared. A group of schoolchildren with a teacher entered the teashop, surrounding him with excited voices and the scraping back of chairs. He relaxed a little as the teacher, a young woman, ordered ice creams. He went back to reading his newspaper.

A dra
ught of air carried a sweet, sophisticated scent to his nostrils. The smell of cologne. He looked up. Two men had entered, removed their hats, and taken up the table by the door. The one with his back to Kant turned to speak to the waitress in a sharp English accent. He was surprised to recognise Isham's clean-shaven profile, his hair neatly parted, suit pressed stiff. He turned his attention to the corporal's tall, broad-shouldered companion.
If anything, he was better dressed and more business-like in a city suit with a white shirt and smart cuffs that looked as though they could slice butter. He was talking to Isham with the self-important air of a man conducting business, a thick wave of brown hair falling over his forehead. Kant
failed to place where he had seen his face before.

He was about to hail Isham when he remembered that no agent was permitted to acknowledge another while in the field.
‘Show no sign of recognition that might jeopardise a secret mission'
was the instruction he had drilled into him. Instead, he listened through the noise of the children, making out snippets of their conversation. Isham's voice
was almost unrecognisable. Flattered sounding and at the same time confiding. Through the gang of children, the reporter had an intermittent view of their table and the window beyond. Women rode by on bicycles with brown parcels in their bags. A terrier ran after them. The corporal pulled his seat closer to the table and poured his companion some tea
. Kant had the feeling that Isham was playing a role, enjoying a situation over which he had complete control. He studied the other man's reactions. He noted that, although the big man's lips were grinning, his dark eyes were not. They glinted with intense wariness.

‘Dublin Castle
is watching the money,' he heard Isham say. ‘They're chasing the money. They won't rest until they have blown your finances to kingdom come.'

‘What can they do?' said his companion, shifting his shoulders slightly.
He had a country brogue, soft and rising.

‘Shut down your accounts for one thing. Then they'll go after the banks holding your money. They'll arrest the bank managers and close down their branches.'

‘Then we'll just keep moving the money. Besides, a lot of it has already been converted into gold and hidden away.'

‘No matter how many times you move it, British intelligence will follow every twist in its journey, every secret account.
'

The big man moved uneasily in his seat. He opened a packet of cigarettes and lit one.

‘When they find out how you've spent some of the money, they'll trumpet the news in all the newspapers,' said Isham. ‘The rest of the world might stop feeling sorry for Ireland.
'

The man examined the tip of his cigarette as if trying to divine guidance from the thin curl of smoke.

‘My people at the life assurance office have become experts at moving and hiding money,' he said, his eyes glinting a little more fiercely.
‘We've financed a shadow government, a prisoner's aid scheme and a guerrilla war with this complex network of cash. Do you think your bunch of civil servant snoopers is going to undo all this?'

The big man caught Kant's gaze. The reporter's eyes slid away and he picked up the newspaper again.
He glanced back at the table to find the man staring straight at him, flashing a charming grin with just a hint of slyness. Something about his confident eyes, the easy smile and the lilting accent set off a memory like a flashbulb that almost jolted Kant out of his seat. The man bore an uncanny resemblance to Dublin Castle's smudged photographs of Mick Collins. Recognition must have shown in the reporter's face because the big man began to inspect him more closely. He buried his face in the newspaper, but he
could tell that the man's head did not move, and that his eyes remained steadfast. The table grew silent. Kant felt the burning radiance of his interest prickle his scalp.

After a while, Kant glanced up and was relieved to see the two men had returned to their hushed conversation. He found it difficult to banish the reward posters for Collins' arrest and his photograph from his mind, the heavy fringe of brown
hair, the sly, confident eyes, and Dublin Castle's assertion that he was the most wanted man in Europe. He tried to reassure himself that if the man were Collins, Isham must be playing some sort of covert role in the IRA's set-up. Another thought flashed through his mind. They had mentioned an assurance office. Did they mean the Dublin Life building? With all the mental concentration he bent to marshalling words for his newspaper reports, he tried to keep his thoughts clear, to swim through his rising anxiety.
‘You have come to the centre of things…'
O'Shea's voice rang like a warning bell.

The door of the café opened. The two were leaving now, the big man laughing jovially with his hand on Isham's shoulder. They did not look behind at the reporter. Kant spent a while counting out the change in his pocket, then he paid his receipt and walked out. The
sun was almost setting on the empty street; neither the English corporal nor the broad-shouldered Irishman were anywhere to be seen.

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