Jan 17 2012 12:00pm
Bloodland by Alan Glynn is a paranoid thriller of corporate and political intrigue (available January 31, 2012).
Susie Monaghan was on the cusp of stardom when her life was cut short by a tragic helicopter crash. After a full investigation, her death was ruled an accident: case closed. But a hungry young journalist named Jimmy Gilroy isn’t buying the official story. Before dying, Susie’s path had crossed with an unlikely gallery of powerful men: an ex-Prime minister with a carefully guarded secret; the businessman brother of a U.S. Senator angling for the Oval Office; and a billionaire investor with his eye on an extremely rare commodity. Might there also be a link between Susie’s death and a deranged security contractor operating in Congo? Piece by piece, Jimmy uncovers a bizarre nexus of coincidence among these disparate people and events, revealing a conspiracy of frightening reach and consequence—one that could cost him his life.
The way his heart is beating is unreal, the rate, the intensity – it’s like a jackhammer drilling into rock. He puts a hand up to his chest, and waits, gauges. This has to be close to some upper limit of what his or anyone else’s heart is capable of enduring, because it’s only an organ after all, a pump, a piece of meat, dark, red, wet – and incessant, naturally . . . but not imperishable, not indestructible.
You can push it, but only so far.
Weird thing is, however, he’s not actually doing anything right now – he’s not on a treadmill, or on top of some girl, he’s not running from anyone or engaged in direct combat. What he’s doing is sitting in the passenger seat of an SUV next to the most chilled-out motherfucker he’s ever met in his entire life. They’re both former servicemen, he and this other guy, and are virtual clones to look at – the buzz cuts, the pumped-up muscles, the armoured vests, the mirrored shades – but Ray Kroner is prepared to lay even money that whereas he is ramped up to the max, his dial straining at eleven, Tom Szymanski here is barely a notch or two above clinically dead.
OK, Ray has got 600 milligrams of Provigil in his system, but that’s not what this is. Big in the military, and even bigger now in the PMCs, Provigil will keep you awake for days on end, but it’s not speed, it’s not even coffee, it’s just like an off switch right next to the sleep option in your brain – press it and one thing you won’t have to worry about anymore is getting tired.
Ray looks out at the passing terrain.
This two-mile dirt track they’re on runs from the compound to the landing strip. The SUV he and Szymanski are in is the last in a convoy of three, with the ‘package’ just up ahead, and it’s a safe route, they do it all the time, no need for armoured personnel carriers or anything.
So that’s not what this is about either.
Could it be the heat then? Because man, it’s hot here, and not dry hot like Iraq, or even Phoenix, it’s humid, sweltering, you can’t breathe – four in the morning and you’re like a beached fucking whale. It’s unbearable. Pretty much like everything else in this shithole of a country.
Except of course that he can bear it, because he’s trained to, and he’s experienced – and if hot weather really was a problem for him, he wouldn’t be here in the first place, would he?
So what is his problem?
Why is his heart racing like this?
Is it the choices he’s made? Quitting work last spring? Walking out on Janice? Selling the car, the computer, even Pop’s old vinyls? Scraping enough money together to pay for the six-week training course? And all so he could do this again, hold a Bushmaster M4 in his hands? In his arms? Cradle it? Stroke it? The hard chrome, the matt black finish, the coated steel and aluminium?
Those choices were inevitable, pre-ordained. The six months he spent at home after his tour in Iraq were a disaster and when the momentum started building in his head after he read that magazine article about Gideon Global he just knew where it was leading and he went with it, didn’t resist, let it envelop him. Janice was pretty much an alien by this stage anyway, with all that delusional new-age self-help shit she’d been gorging on while he was away, not that he’s blaming her or anything, he just couldn’t listen to it, the gossamer-light optimism, the breezy promises . . . not after what he’d seen.
And wanted to see again.
He closes his eyes.
Wants to see again.
But strangely enough still hasn’t.
Because what’s ironic is that this country is ten times more of a catastrophe than Iraq ever was, or ever will be, with millions dead, literally, and the kind of barbarism going on every day that even a sick fuck like him would be hard-pressed to imagine.
On top of which, as a private contractor, he’s getting paid ten times more for being here.
He opens his eyes again, and looks around.
In Baghdad he often went on convoy runs like this one, from the Green Zone to the airport, but along what was essentially a six-mile shooting gallery of snipers and car-bombers, a flat, sunbaked road with endless blackened auto husks and rotting corpses strewn on either side of it.
Here on this route it’s just, well . . . countryside, scrubland, lush green hills, faraway mountain peaks, and one roadside village – up ahead a bit now – which is little more than a cluster of wooden huts with aluminium roofs and a single-storey concrete structure, dusty and shell-like, that has a faded Coca-Cola sign hanging off the front of it.
With never too much going on.
Which is the exact opposite of what it was like in Baghdad, where something was happening all the time – a guy pretending to repair his stalled car over here, a vehicle suddenly cutting across the median over there, and people just standing around, random pedestrians, old men, raggedy kids, spooky-looking women in black chadors, everyone gazing up at you with suspicion or even hatred in their eyes . . .
It meant you were permanently on edge, coiled tight, ready to respond at any second.
Which is something about here, actually, that he misses.
But then, curiously, in that very moment – and unlike his heartbeat – the convoy starts to slow down.
‘What the fuck,’ Szymanski says under his breath.
They’re approaching the edge of the village, where something seems to be happening.
They both crane forward, and sideways a bit, to try and get a better view.
Then the radio crackles into life.
‘Deep Six, stand by, some kind of bullshit here.’
Szymanski is Deep Six. His radio call sign. The guy up ahead, in the lead vehicle – Peter Lutz, their unit commander – is Tube.
Ray is Ashes. As in rising from. And Phoenix. His home-town.
After another few seconds, the convoy – flush now with a cluster of huts on the right and the concrete structure on the left – comes to a complete halt.
‘Man,’ Szymanski says, with a weary sigh, and leans forward over the steering wheel.
Ray stares out of the window.
The village, he thinks – half in wonder, half in disgust – the village. What is a fucking village anyway? Do they even have them anymore, outside of fairy tales, and Europe, and Vietnam, and godforsaken shitholes like this one?
Against all protocol, he suddenly turns, opens the door of the SUV and gets out.
‘The fuck, man,’ Szymanski says.
The door remains open.
‘Ashes, what are you doing?’ an alarmed Tube adds, over the radio.
Ignoring them both, and with a firm grip on his M4, Ray steps away from the convoy to get a proper view of what is going on.
‘Get back in, man. Jesus.’
In the second car, the package – some grey-suited fuck from New York or Washington – has his window down and is looking over at the wooden huts, clearly nervous.
Up ahead, Ray sees what is wrong – there’s a pile of vegetables or some shit spilled in the middle of the road, and two women are frantically loading whatever it is back into a large wicker basket.
Behind them, playing, are three small children.
Ray glances across at the wooden huts and thinks he detects something . . . inside one of them, movement . . . someone . . . moving. Then he turns in the other direction and looks towards the concrete structure, only a sliver of which he can actually see, due to the position of the two SUVs. But framed there in the space between them is a tall man leaning against the wall, staring right back at him.
The man’s face is long and drawn, his expression intense, his eyes bloodshot.
He seems restive, restless . . . shifty.
Ray hears the crackle of another radio communication from inside the car, but he can’t make out what is being said.
He looks around again, rapidly – at the huts, between the SUVs, up ahead – the only difference this time being that the two women have stopped doing what they were doing.
Perfectly still now, crouched on the ground, they too are staring directly at him.
And that’s when it dawns on Ray what’s going on, what this is – it’s not fear, not anxiety, not regret, it’s anticipation . . . a sickly, pounding realisation of what might happen here, of what he might do, of what he might be capable of doing, and while there’s no way he could have known in advance they were going to stop in this village, not consciously anyway, it’s as if his body knew, as if every nerve ending in his system knew, recognised the signals, picked up on them, so that now, as he raises his weapon a little higher, he feels the rhythm of his heartbeat falling into sync with the rhythm of this unfolding situation . . .
He directs the muzzle of the gun at the huts, then at the women and children.
‘Kroner, Jesus, are you fucking crazy?’
Ray glances back at the car, Deep Six more animated than he has ever seen him.
In the middle car, the package is still staring out of the window, a look of horror forming on his face. It’s as though the anticipation has spread, as though it’s a virus, or a stain, alive somehow, crimson and thirsty.
He’s thirsty himself, the feeling in his veins now inexorable, like a dark, slowly uncoiling sexual desire that senses imminent release.
He puts his finger on the trigger.
A few feet away, the door of the lead car opens slightly, just a crack.
This is shouted.
Ray exerts a tiny amount of pressure on the trigger.
‘Tube,’ he shouts back. ‘DON’T.’
The car door clicks shut again.
Ray refocuses, taking everything in.
But there’s no longer any movement he can detect from inside the huts. And the man at the concrete wall is inert now, frozen – like a splash of detail from some busy urban mural.
The women ahead are frozen too, and still staring at him – though the children in the background seem oblivious, unaware . . .
Licks of flames.
In the oppressive heat, Ray shivers.
He really doesn’t have any idea what he is doing, or why, but one thing he does know – there is nothing on earth, nothing on the vast continent of Africa, nothing in the even greater interior vastness of Congo itself, that can stop him now from doing it.
Jimmy puts his coffee down and reaches across the desk to answer it.
He glances at the display, vaguely recognises the number, can’t quite place it.
‘Well, well, young Mr Gilroy. Phil Sweeney.’
Jimmy’s pulse quickens. Of course. The voice is unmistakable. He straightens up. ‘Phil? God, it’s been a while. How are you doing?’
‘Not bad. Keeping busy. You?’
‘Pretty good, yeah.’
And after this, Jimmy thinking, maybe a little better.
‘So that was a shame there, all those cutbacks. Hard going, I imagine.’
‘Yeah.’ Jimmy nods. ‘It’s not exactly front page news anymore, though.’
‘No, no, of course not. But come here. Listen.’ Formalities out of the way, it seems. Very Phil. ‘Is it true what I hear?’
‘Er . . . I don’t know, Phil. What do you hear?’
‘That you’re writing an article or something . . . about Susie Monaghan?’
Jimmy looks at the block of text on the screen of his iMac. ‘Yeah,’ he says, after a pause. ‘But it’s not an article. It’s a book.’ Cagey now. ‘A biography.’
‘I’m no editor, but . . . Susie Monaghan? Give me a break. Tell me it’s not the prospect of the last chapter they’re drooling over.’
Jimmy is taken aback at this – celebrity drool, as he remembers it, always having been something of a Phil Sweeney speciality. Though he’s right in one respect. The paragraphs Jimmy currently has on the screen are from the last chapter, the longest and most detailed in the book and the one he’s tackling first.
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘But that’s not all they’re interested in. There’s plenty of other stuff. The boyfriends, the drugs, the tantrums.’
‘Which no one outside of the Daily Star demographic would give a shit about if it wasn’t for how she died.’
Jimmy shrugs. ‘Not necessarily. It’s an intriguing story, her death, the timing of it, what it exemplified.’ He pauses. ‘What it . . . meant.’ He shifts in his chair, picks up a pen, fiddles with it. There was a time when a call from Phil Sweeney was a good thing. It meant a lead, a tip- off, information.
This he’s not so sure about.
Jimmy’s old man and Phil Sweeney had been in business together in the late nineties. They were good friends. Then the old man died and Sweeney started taking an interest in Jimmy’s career. He kept an eye out for him, introduced him to people.
Fed him stories.
‘Oh come on, Jimmy.’
But those days, it would appear, are over.
‘I’m sorry, Phil, I’m not with you. What is this?’
There is a long sigh from the other end of the line.
Jimmy glances over at the door. He can hear voices. The students from across the hall. Are they arguing again? Fighting? He’s not sure, but it might come in handy as an excuse to get off the phone, if he needs one, if this conversation gets any weirder.
‘Look,’ he says, no longer attempting to hide his frustration. ‘I’m doing a bio of Susie Monaghan, OK? Sneer if you want to, but I’m taking it seriously.’ He hesitates, then adds, ‘Because you know what, Phil? It’s work, something I haven’t had a lot of recently.’
He tightens his grip on the phone.
‘Yeah, Jimmy, I know, I know, but –’
‘Well, I don’t think you do actually –’
‘I do, I get it, you need the assignment, and that’s fine, it’s just –’
‘Oh, what? I’m supposed to run all my proposals by you now, is that it?’
‘No, Jimmy, please, it’s just . . . all this focus on the crash –’
‘It’s where the story is, Phil, where the different elements converge. And yeah, to justify the advance, I’ve promised to pull out all the stops, sure, but . . .’ He pauses. ‘I mean, what the hell do you care?’
Sweeney doesn’t answer.
‘No, tell me,’ Jimmy goes on. ‘What’s it to you? Really, I don’t understand.’
Sweeney draws a breath. ‘OK, look,’ he says, ‘just slow down for a second, yeah? This advance you mentioned. How much is it? I’m sure we could come to some –’
Jimmy hangs up, stands up – backs away, stares at the phone appalled, as if it had unexpectedly come to slithering, slimy life in his hand.
When it starts ringing again, he doesn’t move. He lets it ring out, waits a bit and then checks to see if there’s a message.
‘Jimmy, Jesus, for fuck’s sake, I was only saying. Look, we can go over this again, but just be careful who you talk to. This isn’t about Susie Monaghan. And call me, yeah?’ He pauses. ‘Take care of yourself.’
Jimmy exhales, deflates. He flips the phone closed and puts it on the desk. He sits down again.
Be careful who you talk to.
This from Phil fucking Sweeney? PR guru, media advisor, strategist, fixer, bagman, God knows what else? Someone for whom talking to people was – and presumably still is – nothing less than the primary operating system of the universe? Be careful who he talks to? Jesus Christ. What about Maria Monaghan, Susie’s older sister? A woman he’s been pestering for the last two weeks. He’s meeting her this evening.
Does that count?
Jimmy gets up and wanders across the room. He stops at the window and gazes out.
This is all too weird. Not to mention awkward. Because he really does need the assignment. It’s his first decent opportunity in nearly two years.
The bay is cloudy, overcast. The tide is coming in.
Jimmy releases a weary sigh.
Two years ago he was still at the paper and doing really well, especially with that ministerial expenses story. He’d made connections and built up sources – assisted in no small way, it has to be said, by Phil Sweeney. Then these lay-offs were announced. Eighty-five jobs across the board, last in, first out. Among the thirty or so editorial staff affected Jimmy was in the middle somewhere and didn’t stand a chance. He eventually found a part-time job covering the Mulcahy Tribunal for City magazine, but after six months of that not only did the tribunal come to an end City magazine itself did as well, and the work more or less dried up. He did a few bits and pieces over the next year and a half for local papers and trade publications, as well as some online stuff, but nothing that paid much or was regular enough to count as a real job.
Then, about a month ago, this came up.
It was through an old contact at City who was running the Irish office of a London publisher and looking for someone, preferably a journalist, to slap together a book on Susie Monaghan in time for the Christmas market. Jimmy didn’t have to think about it for very long. The advance was modest, but it was still a lot more than anything he’d earned recently.
He turns away from the window.
But what is this bullshit now with Phil Sweeney? Did he even understand it correctly? Was Sweeney asking him not to do the book? To drop it? It seems incredible, but that’s what it sounded like.
Jimmy glances over at his desk.
The advance. How much is it? I’m sure we could come to some –
– to some what? Some arrangement?
On one level, Jimmy shouldn’t even be questioning this. Because it’s not as if he doesn’t owe Phil Sweeney, and owe him big. He does. Of course he does. But dropping a story? That’s different. Being paid to drop a story? That’s fucking outrageous.
He doesn’t understand. Is Phil representing someone? An interested party? A client? What’s going on?
Jimmy walks over to the desk.
All of the materials laid out here – transcripts of interviews, old Hellos and VIPs, Google-generated printouts, endless photos – relate directly to Susie.
He selects one of the photos and looks at it.
Susie in a nightclub, champagne flute held up, shoulder strap askew.
She looks tired – wrecked, in fact – like she’s been trying too hard and it’s not working anymore.
But Jesus, that face . . . those eyes.
It didn’t matter how tawdry the setting, how tacky or low-rent the gig, Susie’s eyes always had this extraordinary effect of making everything around her seem urgent and weighted and mysterious. As he replaces the photo, Jimmy wonders what the sister will be like. He’s spoken to her on the phone a few times and they’ve exchanged maybe a dozen e-mails – his focus always on getting her to say yes.
To talk to him.
The primary operating system of the universe.
Jimmy sits down and faces the computer. He looks at the words on the screen. Drums his fingers on the desk. Wonders how he got from investigating a ministerial expenses scandal, and doing it in a busy newsroom, to writing about a dead actress, and in a one-bedroom apartment he can barely afford the monthly repayments on.
But then something more pressing occurs to him.
How did Phil know what he was working on in the first place? Who did he hear it from? In what circumstances would Phil Sweeney be talking to someone – or would someone be talking to Phil Sweeney – where the subject might possibly come up?
Jimmy doesn’t like this one bit.
Nor is it the kind of thing he responds well to, being put under pressure, nudged in a certain direction, told what to do or what not to do. And OK, an unauthorised showbiz biography isn’t exactly Watergate, or uncovering My Lai, but still, he should be free to write whatever he wants to.
That’s how it’s supposed to work, isn’t it?
He stares for another while at the block of text on the screen.
But he’s no longer in the mood.
He checks his coffee. It has gone cold.
He looks back at the screen.
He reaches over to the keyboard, saves the document and puts the computer to sleep.
‘I watch a lot of TV.’ He just blurts it out.
It’s not how he’d answer the same question if it came from a journalist, but God, could he not dredge up something a little more interesting for Dave Conway? Travel maybe? Or a bit of consultancy? The Clinton Foundation? Bilderberg?
Standing at the window, phone cradled on his shoulder, Larry Bolger gazes out over the rooftops of Donnybrook.
Usually when a journalist asks him how he’s spending his time these days he’ll say he’s serving on various boards, which is true, and then add that he’s started writing his memoirs, which isn’t. But at least he gives the impression of being busy. And that’s important.
Or is it?
Serving as a corporate director, in any case, doesn’t take up that much time, and not writing your memoirs doesn’t take up any time at all . . . so, yeah, big deal, he does have a lot of time on his hands. But is it anyone’s business how he chooses to spend it? No, and if that means he watches six episodes of CSI in a row, or a whole season of Scrubs, or the Hermann Goering Week on the History Channel in its entirety, well then, so be it.
Because there’s no manual for this, no seven-step recovery programme, no Dr. Phil or Deepak-whatshisname bestseller. If you’re an ex-head of state, and you don’t have anything lined up on the jobs front, then that’s pretty much it, you’re on your own.
‘What,’ Conway asks, ‘like Primetime, Newsnight?’
‘Yeah, that kind of thing. Current affairs.’
‘Keeping ahead of the curve?’
Bolger throws his eyes up. He didn’t phone Dave Conway for this, for a chat.
‘So listen,’ he says, ‘this week some time, are you free?’
‘Er, I’m –’
‘I won’t keep you long.’
‘OK, Larry. Sure.’
They make an arrangement for the following morning. Here in the hotel.
After he hangs up Bolger trades the phone for the remote. He stands in the middle of the room and points it at the 42-inch plasma screen on the wall.
When he read that thing in the paper last week, he wasn’t sure what to make of it – though it certainly put the shits up him. What use talking to Dave Conway will be he doesn’t know either, probably none, but he needs to talk to someone. He needs reassurance. Besides, he hasn’t had much contact with any of the old crowd since leaving office over a year ago and he’s been feeling isolated.
He fiddles with the remote.
It’s amazing, he thinks, how quickly you get cut out of the loop.
He even swallowed his pride and tried phoning James Vaughan a couple of times, but the old fucker won’t return his calls. They haven’t spoken for about six months, not since that debacle over the IMF job Bolger had been up for and really wanted. Vaughan had championed his candidacy in Washington, or so it had seemed at the time, but then without any explanation he’d blocked it.
It was awful. Bolger had had everything mapped out, his trajectory over the next ten years – a solid stint at the IMF to hoover up connections and kudos, then a move to some post at the UN, in Trade and Development or one of the agencies or maybe even, if the timing was right, Secretary General. Why not? But if not, Trade, Human Rights, Aid, whatever. It was his dream, his 4 a.m. fantasy, and when Vaughan chose for whatever reason to snuff it out, Bolger was devastated. Because it wasn’t just that job, the first phase of the trajectory, it was the whole fucking trajectory. The thing is, you don’t survive getting passed over like that, it’s too public, too humiliating, so you may as well stuff your CV in a drawer and dig out your golf clubs.
That is, if you play golf.
The former Taoiseach, the prime minister, in any case, reckons that James Vaughan owes him at least a phone call.
But apparently not.
Bolger often thinks of that lunch in the Wilson Hotel, what was it, four, five years ago now?
How times change.
He goes into ‘My Recordings’ on the digital box, which is still clogged up with movies and documentaries he hasn’t got around to watching yet. He flicks down through everything on it now, but nothing catches his eye. He turns over to Sky News and watches that for a bit.
They appear to be having an off day.
The news is scrappy, unfocused, nothing with any real heat in it. They need a good natural disaster, or a high-profile sex scandal, or a child abduction.
Get their juices flowing.
He turns the TV off and throws the remote onto the sofa.
He looks around the room. Bolger likes living in a hotel, it’s convenient and private. You don’t have pain-in-the-arse neighbours to deal with. He and Mary have had an apartment here since they sold the house in Deansgrange, and with the girls in college now it suits them just fine.
He looks at his watch, and then over at the drinks cabinet.
Mary is out.
Bridge night. He could have gone with her, but he can’t stand the fucking chatter. All these people in their late fifties and early sixties sitting round playing cards. It’s too much like some sort of a retirement community for his taste. His excuse is that he’s absorbed in writing his memoirs and has little or no time for socialising, something he even has Mary believing – and to look at his desk in the study, with all the papers laid out on it, and the permanently open laptop, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was true. Which of course it should be. Because working on his memoirs would be good for him. It’d keep his mind occupied, keep him out of trouble.
But he has no idea how to write a book – how he should structure it or where he should even begin. He’s actually sorry now he signed the contract.
He looks over at the drinks cabinet again.
Ever since last week – Monday, Tuesday, whatever day it was – Bolger has been acutely aware of this piece of furniture in the corner of the room. Prior to that, it was just an object, albeit a beautiful one, with its art deco walnut veneer and sliding glass doors. It never bothered him in any way. He liked it. When required, he even served people drinks from it. But then he saw that report in the paper and something happened. It was almost as if the damn thing came to life, as if the bottles inside it, and the various clear and amber liquids inside them, lit up and started pulsating.
Gin, vodka, whiskey, brandy.
Fire water . . . water of life . . .
He has no intention of doing anything about this, of course. He won’t act on it. Not after all these years. But it isn’t easy.
He stares at the door leading to his study, and hesitates.
Then he goes over to the sofa again, sits down and picks up the remote control.
Dave Conway has a headache.
He’s had it for a couple of days now and it’s driving him up the wall.
He’s taken Solpadeine and Nurofen and been to the doctor. But apparently there’s nothing wrong with him.
It’s just tension – he’s exhausted and needs a rest.
And to be told this he has to pay sixty-five euro?
He pulls into the gravel driveway of his house and parks in his usual spot, next to the stables. The spot beside it is empty.
Which means Ruth isn’t home yet.
As he gets out of the car, Conway feels a dart of pain behind his eyes – the sudden convergence, he imagines, of half a dozen little pulses of anxiety: there’s the ongoing disaster that is Tara Meadows, the fact that his liabilities now exceed his assets, and the possibility that one of the banks he’s in hock to may seek to have a liquidator appointed in a bid to seize control of his company.
Conway approaches the house.
There’s also this gorgeous French au pair inside he has to look at now and talk to without weeping, without feeling drab and ashen and like some agèd minion of Death . . .
How many is that?
There’s his children, seven, five and two, disturbed, speculative visions of whose unknowable futures haunt his every waking hour, to say nothing of the sleeping ones.
He puts his key in the front door.
And then there’s just . . . dread. A general sense of it. Vague, insidious, nameless.
He opens the door.
Always there, always on.
As he steps into the hall, Molly is emerging at high speed from the playroom.
She’s clutching the Sheriff Woody doll.
‘It’s mine –’
‘I had it first –’
He watches as Molly heads in the direction of the kitchen and disappears.
A distraught Danny, outmanoeuvred once again by his kid sister, can be seen through the open door of the playroom, burying his face in the beanbag. Standing behind him, the baby – they still think of Jack as the baby – looks on, serene as usual, taking notes.
Corinne appears at the door, in hot pursuit of the dragon lady. For once, she looks flustered.
‘Oh Dave, sorry, I –’
Stepping forward, he holds up a hand to stop her.
‘It’s OK, don’t worry, she’s fine.’
‘I think there must be a full moon or something. They’re acting like crazy today.’
‘Didn’t you know? There’s always a full moon in this house.’
Dumb joke, but Corinne smiles.
Dave’s insides do a little flip.
They’re standing next to each other, almost framed in the doorway, and it’s a little overwhelming – Corinne’s scent, her perfect skin, her searching eyes that–
Oh enough, Conway thinks, and steps into the playroom.
He winks at Jack, and hunkers down in front of the beanbag. Danny turns around, tears welling in his eyes, and says, ‘Where’s Mommy?’
‘She’ll be home soon,’ Conway says.
‘I had it first.’
‘I know, I know. We’ll get it back in a minute. Come here.’
He reaches across, retrieves Danny from the bean-bag, hitches him over his shoulder and stands up.
This manoeuvre used to be so easy, so natural, but now that Danny is bigger and heavier it requires a lot more effort. He squeezes his son’s still-small frame in his arms, and then breathes him in, like a vampire, waiting for that familiar emotional rush.
‘I’ve just changed Jack,’ Corinne is saying. ‘It was quite loose. What’s that word you use . . . splatty?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Splatty. A splatty poo. Very nice.’
Or surreal. Or whatever.
Before Conway can say anything else, his phone rings. He lowers Danny to the floor and gets the phone out of his jacket pocket. He nods
at Corinne. She bends down to distract Danny.
‘Come on,’ she says. ‘Time for dinner.’
As Conway moves away, he raises the phone to his ear.
‘Dave? Phil Sweeney.’
‘Phil. How are you?’
‘Good. Listen, have you got a minute?’
‘Yeah.’ Conway heads for the door. ‘What’s up?’
‘Just something that’s come to my attention. Thought you should know about it.’
As Conway listens, he walks across the hall and into the front reception room.
Phil Sweeney is an occasional PR consultant. He does strategic communications, perception management, media analysis. He identifies and tracks, Echelon-style, issues that might have a bearing on his clients’ companies.
Like this one.
‘And the weird thing is,’ he’s saying, ‘I actually know the guy. His old man and I worked together, back in the early days of Marino.’
‘Right.’ Conway is confused, unsure if he’s getting this. ‘Susie Monaghan, you said?’
Conway lets out a deep, plaintive sigh here, as always happens whenever this comes up, each of the sighs like an instalment, a staged payment against the principal, itself a lump sum of a sigh so great that to release the whole thing in one go would be enough, he imagines, to kill him.
‘So what is this guy,’ he says, ‘a journalist?’
‘Yeah. Young, very smart. But he needs the work. That’s part of the problem. He got laid off back when all this meltdown shit started. So I suppose he sees it as an opportunity.’
‘But look, don’t worry. I’ll talk him out of it.’
‘OK,’ Conway says, nodding. ‘Or maybe, I don’t know . . .’ He pauses.
‘Maybe we could find something else for him to do.’ A signature Dave Conway technique. Misdirection. He’s been in business for over fifteen years and it always seems to work. If there’s a problem with staff, some kind of dispute or disagreement, redirect their attention. Get them thinking about something else.
He walks over to the bay window.
‘Yeah,’ Sweeney says, ‘I did offer to buy out his advance, but –’
‘No. Jesus.’ With his free hand Conway massages his left temple. ‘That’s not going to work.’ He looks out over the front lawn. ‘Not if he’s young. Not if he thinks he’s Bob fucking Woodward.’
‘Yeah, you’re probably right. But he does owe me. So we’ll get around it one way or another. I just wanted to let you know.’
‘I’ll keep you posted.’
After he hangs up, Conway stands for a while staring out of the window. Susie Monaghan.
But doesn’t he have other, more pressing shit to be concerned about?
Like Conway Holdings going down the tubes, for instance.
So why then does he have a knot in his stomach? Why is the pounding inside his skull so much more intense now than it was five minutes ago?
Jimmy Gilroy is sitting at the quiet end of the bar. Arranged in front of him on the dark wood surface is an untouched pint of Guinness, some loose change, his keys, his phone and that morning’s paper.
It’s like a still life, familiar and comforting.
Take away the phone, replace it with twenty Major and a box of matches and this could be any time over the last fifty years. In fact, Jimmy could easily be his old man sitting here – or even his old man.
He takes a sip from his pint.
Though you’d definitely need the cigarettes and matches. And he’d need to be wearing a suit.
And they wouldn’t be Major, they’d be Benson & Hedges. Senior Service in his grandfather’s case, as he remembers – and not matches, a gold Ronson lighter.
And the paper. The paper would be crumpled, having been read from cover to cover.
Sports pages, obituaries, letters to the editor, classifieds.
Leaning back on his stool, head tilted to one side, Jimmy looks at the scene again. But the argument for continuity seems even thinner this time, a little less authentic. And it’s not just the lack of smokes, or the mobile phone, or that USB memory stick attached to his key ring.
It’s the unread paper.
He bought it on the way here, in the SPAR on the corner, but the truth is he’d already read most of it online earlier in the day.
Jimmy takes another sip from his pint.
He worries for the health of the printed newspaper.
Unfortunately, his own direct experience of the business was cut short by an industry-wide epidemic of falling ad revenues. But even in the few years prior to that things had started feeling pretty thinned-out. Some of the senior reporters and specialist correspondents still had good sources and were out there on a regular basis gathering actual news, but as a recent hire Jimmy spent most of his days in front of a terminal recycling wire copy and PR material, a lot of it already second-hand and very little of it fact-checked. If it hadn’t been for Phil Sweeney, Jimmy mightn’t ever have had the chance to work on anything more exciting.
The barman passes, rubbing his cloth along the wooden surface of the bar as he goes.
Jimmy reaches for his glass again.
In those final months, Sweeney steered him in the direction of quite a few stories he was able to get his teeth into, and although most of his time was still spent chained to a desk, he put in the extra hours at his own expense and managed to score a couple of direct hits. He’d been building up considerable momentum – and was even due for a review – when the axe fell.
Which is why after six months at City and a further eighteen of intermittent and even lower-grade ‘churnalism’, Jimmy leapt at this chance of doing the Susie Monaghan book.
It may sound like a rationalisation, but he welcomed the change. OK, no more job security, but also no more multiple daily deadlines, no more shameless lifting of news-in-brief items from other sources, and no more frantic, soul- sapping last-minute reliance on Google and Wikipedia.
And while the Susie story might not exactly be news anymore, it still resonates.
Jimmy downs a good third of his pint in one go. He puts the glass back on the bar and stares at it.
Susie Monaghan was a tabloid celebrity, a bottom-feeding soap-star socialite from a few years ago who the entire country seemed fixated on for a while. Every aspect of her life was covered and analysed in excruciating detail, the outfits, the tans, the openings, the reality-show appearances, even the comings and goings of the character she played on that primetime soap.
But then her story took on a whole new dimension when she and five others died in a helicopter crash somewhere along the north Donegal coast. The outpouring of national grief that followed was phenomenal and curiosity about her lingered in the ether for months.
So while the book may be an attempt by Jimmy’s publisher to cash in on an early wave of nostalgia, Jimmy himself sees it as more than that – because as far as he’s concerned, whatever nostalgia there might be is not just for the dead girl, it’s for the dead boom as well, for the vanished good times she’d been the potent, scented, stockinged, lubricious poster-girl for . . .
In any case, the point is: it’s an angle. He has ideas. He’s excited. He’s getting paid.
And, in ten minutes’ time, he’s meeting the dead girl’s sister.
A first-hand source.
But then it hits him again, comes in another wave. Phil Sweeney wants to pay him to drop the story?
Tell me it’s not the prospect of the last chapter they’re drooling over.
For fuck’s sake.
The last chapter of the book, covering the twenty-four hours leading up to the crash, was always going to be the most interesting one – Susie still in crisis over the whole Celebrity Death Row controversy, Susie turning up uninvited at Drumcoolie Castle, Susie sending that weird series of texts, Susie’s last-minute decision to go along for the helicopter ride.
Jimmy shifts on the stool.
Susie’s unerring, compulsively watchable, creepily addictive little Totentanz . . .
He stares at a row of bottles behind the bar.
It’s so obvious now that Phil Sweeney is covering for someone, a friend or a client, some balding, paunchy fuck who was maybe having an affair with Susie at the time and doesn’t want the whole thing dredged up again now, doesn’t want his name associated with her, doesn’t want his reputation or his marriage put in jeopardy.
Jimmy lifts his glass.
But could it really be as banal as that, and as predictable? Unprepossessing rich bloke, gorgeous girl on a fast-ticking career clock? Then this grubby, undignified attempt a few years later to pretend it never happened?
He downs most of what’s left in the glass.
He thinks of all that research material laid out on his desk. He’s gone through it a hundred times, but maybe he needs to go through it again, with a fresh eye, a colder eye – in case he missed something: a detail in a photo maybe, a telling glance, a bit of furtive hand-holding.
Not that it’ll make any difference, because even if something does turn up, what’s he supposed to do? Not write the book just to save the blushes of some solicitor or banker friend of Phil Sweeney’s?
Jimmy drains his glass and puts it back on the bar.
This is only speculation, of course. But it means he’s going to have to phone Sweeney back. Find out what the story is.
Out of respect, if for no other reason.
And the sooner he does so the better.
He looks at his watch.
But not before this meeting with Maria Monaghan.
Jimmy gets off the stool and gathers up his stuff from the bar – keys, phone and change. They go in various pockets. The newspaper he takes in his hand. He looks at it for a moment, then leaves it on the stool.
He nods at the barman on his way out.
Conway moves away from the window, head still pounding. He walks over to the doorway, hears voices and follows them. In the kitchen Danny is drawing quietly at the table and Jack is playing on the floor. Corinne is cooking something in a wok. Molly is beside her, looking up, her nose wrinkled in distaste.
‘I don’t like that.’
‘But sweetheart, you don’t even know what it is.’
‘I don’t like it.’
Conway stands for a while by the fridge, observing the scene. He is about to make a comment when he hears a key in the front door.
Everyone turns around.
A few moments later, Ruth walks into the kitchen. Within seconds she is being harangued, pulled at, climbed on.
‘MOMMY, MOMMY, LOOK AT THIS! MOMMY!’
‘I’m looking,’ Ruth says. ‘I’m looking.’
‘She took my Woody,’ Danny says, ‘and hid him in the washing machine.’
‘I didn’t hide him there,’ Molly says, stopping short of adding your Honour, ‘I put him there.’
Conway starts massaging his temples.
Ruth catches his eye.
He nods yes, but it’s not very convincing.
Raising her arms over Danny in exasperation, Ruth says, ‘Please, chicken, quiet for a second, Mommy needs to talk to Daddy.’
Corinne intervenes. ‘OK, guys, dinner is ready. Time to wash hands.’
She herds them off.
In the sudden calm that follows, Ruth looks at Conway. ‘So, did you go to the doctor?’
He nods another unconvincing yes.
‘Nothing. He said it was tension.’
‘I could have told you that. I did tell you that.’ She takes a grape from a bowl on the counter. ‘You worry too much.’
He doesn’t say anything. It’s not an argument he can win without getting into areas he doesn’t want to get into.
He watches as she breaks another grape off and pops it in her mouth.
Ruth is a redhead, with green eyes and pale, freckled skin. After three kids, she’s heavier than she used to be – but then again, and without her perfectly reasonable excuse, so is he. She’s still good-looking though, gorgeous in fact, curvier than before and therefore, as far as Conway is concerned, sexier . . . a perception these days, it must be said, that is filtered through the alienating prism of extreme and permanent exhaustion.
‘Did you get to talk to Larry Bolger?’
‘Yeah, this afternoon. Finally. ’
They’d been playing phone tag for a couple of days.
‘What did he want?’
‘I’m not sure really. I’m meeting him tomorrow.’
‘He didn’t say?’
‘Strange.’ She reaches across the counter for a bottle of Evian. ‘I wonder what he’s up to these days. He probably just wants to talk. Rake over old times. Revisit old grievances.’ She opens the bottle of water and takes a sip from it. ‘Summon up old ghosts.’
Conway stares at her.
That’s precisely what the old bastard wants to do. He must have heard the same thing Phil Sweeney heard.
Old ghosts . . .
Ruth returns his stare. ‘What?’
‘Nothing.’ Conway shakes his head. ‘I’ve just . . . remembered something.’
The headache. He’s had it since the other night, since around the time he first heard Bolger had phoned looking for him. Which means it really is tension – but not because of the banks, or Tara Meadows, or his kids, or some stupid crush he might have on the au pair.
It’s because of . . .
‘Honey,’ Ruth says. ‘What’s wrong?’
. . . a very different convergence . . .
‘You’ve gone pale.’
. . . of very different pulses . . .
He shakes his head again.
. . . of anxiety.
‘No,’ he says, ‘I’m . . . I’m fine.’
Conway mightn’t have seen the dots straightaway, mightn’t have wanted to see them.
Ruth leans forward. ‘You sure?’
But he sees them now, sees where they connect.
‘Yeah,’ he says, and reaches up to open a cupboard. ‘I just . . . I need to take something for this damn headache.’
Jimmy spots her straightaway, and it’s the weirdest thing: she’s unmistakably Susie Monaghan’s sister – same posture, same shape, same bone structure even . . . but she . . .
What is it?
She didn’t get that extra little shuffle of the genetic deck that Susie obviously got. There’s nothing wrong with her. You just wouldn’t put her on the cover of a glossy magazine.
Is that unfair?
Jimmy doesn’t mean it to be.
No one would put him on the cover of a magazine, glossy or otherwise.
He moves away from the revolving doors and starts crossing the lobby. Maria is on the far side of it, standing by a large potted palm tree. She’s wearing a conservative business suit – navy jacket, skirt, flat shoes – conservative but also very stylish and expensive-looking. Her hair is dark and short. She’s glancing around, and doesn’t seem very comfortable.
Jimmy approaches her with his hand outstretched.
‘Maria? Jimmy Gilroy.’
She turns and looks at him. She shakes his hand. ‘Maria Monaghan.’
The next few minutes are awkward. They find a table in the lounge and as they are getting settled a bar girl appears.
Jimmy orders a coffee, Maria a glass of white wine.
The bar girl moves away.
‘So,’ Jimmy says. And waits.
Sitting on the edge of her chair, eyes down, Maria smoothes out a wrinkle in her navy skirt. ‘OK,’ she says eventually, eyes still down. ‘Let me make one thing clear. I’ve agreed to meet you, but I haven’t agreed to anything else. I haven’t agreed to co-operate, what ever that might involve, or to go on the record. I’m just meeting you because you’ve been so bloody persis tent.’
‘Yes. Sorry about that.’
She looks at him. ‘Sure you are.’
He holds up his hands. ‘How else would you have agreed to meet me?’
‘See? But that doesn’t have to mean I’m hustling you, does it? The thing is, if I do this book I want to do it right. I want to be fair.’
She leans forward slightly. ‘That’s easy to say, but what does it mean?’
‘It means I want to tell your sister’s story as truthfully as I possibly can.’
‘Right,’ she says, and nods. ‘So where the hell were you three years ago?’
Jimmy hesitates. He doesn’t have an answer. He sits back in his chair.
The media had a field day when it came to poor Susie. They were having one already before the accident, but afterwards it was extreme. In the previous few months, they’d crawled over every aspect of her life, like maggots, and now they had her actual corpse, twisted and torn, to gorge on.
Jimmy sits up. ‘We didn’t exactly cover ourselves in glory, did we?’
Maria snorts, but doesn’t say anything.
‘For what it’s worth,’ Jimmy goes on, ‘I was little more than a trainee at the time. I didn’t even –’
‘For what it’s worth, Jimmy,’ Maria interrupts, ‘little Susie Monaghan loved every minute of it. Right up to, and possibly including, the very end.’
What did she just say?
The bar girl arrives and as she’s transferring the coffee things and glass of wine from her tray to the table, Jimmy studies Maria closely. He remembers reading that she was two years older than Susie, which would make her twenty-eight now, or twenty-nine.
His age, give or take.
Though she seems older in a way, more serious.
Maria picks up her glass of wine and takes a sip from it. Jimmy pours milk into his coffee.
What was that, up to and including? He wants to ask her to explain this, but he needs to pace himself. He doesn’t want to scare her off. What he says instead is, ‘What do you do, Maria?’
‘I’m an administrator. At the Fairleigh Clinic. Not very glamorous, I suppose, but at least I’m still alive.’
Jimmy nods again. Doesn’t seem like she’s going to let him pace himself. He leans forward in his chair.
‘I’m sensing a little resentment here, Maria.’
‘Oh you are, are you?’
She looks as if she’s about to tear strips off him, but suddenly her eyes well up. She puts her glass down and stifles a sob. After a moment she produces a tissue from her pocket. She dabs her eyes with it and then blows her nose.
Jimmy shrugs. ‘For what?’
Maria holds up the tissue. ‘This,’ she says, and shrugs too. ‘I don’t know. But you’re right about one thing. I do feel resentment. A lot of resentment.’ She tucks the tissue into her sleeve. ‘When I was younger I resented Susie. I resented her looks and her success. Then I resented the way she squandered her success and didn’t seem to care, didn’t even seem to notice. I resented the media, and the cops, and her friends, anyone we had to deal with after the crash. I resented the fact that Mum and Dad had to suffer so much, and not just the grief, but the indignity, the intrusion. Now they’re both dead and for some reason I resent them, too. Don’t ask me why. And of course I resent you. But you’re easy. You want to revive the whole thing, drag me into it, get me talking. So what do you expect? In fact, if you’re not careful I might pile all my resentments into one big basket and slap your name on it.’
Looking at her now, listening to this, Jimmy already sees a different Maria from the one he spotted out in the lobby only a few minutes earlier, a different Maria from the one he pictured in his head through all those phone calls and e-mails. For one thing – and he can’t believe he’s only seeing this now – she’s actually very attractive. Not in the way Susie was, but in her own way. She’s tough, and she’s vulnerable, and there’s a light in her eyes, a spark of something, of spirit, of real intelligence.
‘I get that,’ he says. ‘I do. It makes sense. But you have to understand . . . a lot of people are interested in your sister, still interested. She struck a chord.’
‘Oh bullshit. She was a celebrity, and one of the best kind, too, the kind who dies.’
Jimmy raises an eyebrow at this.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Maria goes on. ‘I loved my sister. I just wish things had been different.’
‘In what way?’
‘Between us. For her. In every way.’
Jimmy has a sense that this isn’t going to be easy. As usual with a human-interest story you talk to someone, look them in the eye, and what happens? Things get knotty, ambivalence creeps in, black merges with white and you end up with an amorphous headachy grey.
‘Susie loved being famous,’ Maria says, reaching for her wine again. ‘She really wanted it, always did, but it gnawed at her soul that that was all what she wanted . . . because she knew on some level . . . she knew it was nothing.’ Maria takes a sip from her glass. ‘And that made her do reckless things, made her be reckless.’
Jimmy hesitates, then says, ‘That’s a whole narrative right there, Maria. It’s a perspective no one’s heard before. People will be interested in that.’
Maria looks alarmed. ‘Yeah, but they won’t be hearing it from me. I’m just shooting my mouth off. Being a little reckless myself.’ She takes another sip of wine. Then she furrows her brow. ‘Is this some technique you’re using here? Getting me to talk?’ She pauses. ‘You have a sympathetic face. Maybe that’s it.’ She pauses again. ‘But I suppose the real question is do you know you have a sympathetic face and use that fact, or is it just –’
She stops, looks away, shakes her head.
‘Jesus, listen to me. This is why I didn’t want to meet you, you know. I’m a talker. I talk. And what happened to my sister is something I haven’t talked about in a very long time, to anyone. And the thing is I want to. So you’re probably the last person I should be sitting in front of.’
She leans forward and puts her glass back onto the table.
Jimmy looks at his untouched coffee, which is probably lukewarm by now.
He should have ordered a drink.
‘Maria,’ he says, ‘all I can do is try to reassure you. I don’t work for a tabloid. I’m not out to trap you. This is a book, commissioned by a publisher. And yeah, there’s a sales and marketing aspect to it, of course there is, but I want to do a good job, and your insights can only help to round it out, give it substance.’
Maria looks at him, holds his gaze for what feels like a long time. She seems to be calculating something. Then she says, ‘You know what I’m afraid of? I’m afraid something will come out.’
Jimmy swallows. ‘Like what?’
‘I don’t know, but . . . the crash? There was never really any explanation for it, was there? There was no faulty or missing bit they could find, nothing mechanical, the weather wasn’t particularly bad. It was just a crash, a disaster. What was the verdict at the inquest? Accidental death? Then, case closed. Just like that.’
‘Well, I’ll be honest with you, Jimmy, I knew Susie better than anyone, and she was wild, she liked to make scenes and kick up a fuss for no apparent reason. So my darkest fear, what I’m afraid might come out, is that in some way . . .’ She stops for a moment and takes a deep breath. ‘Look, it was a helicopter, right, a small, confined space, six people, she was probably coked out of it, even at that time of the day, plus she’d been sending those weird texts, and clearly wasn’t in a stable frame of mind, so . . . who knows?’ Maria’s eyes well up again. ‘Maybe she made some kind of a scene, maybe she got hysterical about something, went crazy. Maybe the accident was her fault.’ Maria pulls the tissue out of her sleeve again. ‘There, I said it.’
Jimmy’s heart is racing. ‘This is just . . . speculation, right?’
‘Yes. Of course. But I can see it. I can visualise it. It’d be so typical, so . . . Susie.’
‘This idea has haunted me for three years, Jimmy. I still have nightmares about it.’ She pauses, wipes a tear from her cheek. ‘Though you could never write that I said that. I’d sue you if you did –’
She looks him in the eye again.
‘But then with that . . . that image in my head, how could I possibly co-operate on a book with you, how could –’
Jimmy doesn’t know what to say, blindsided himself by what she has conjured up.
‘Look,’ Maria goes on, ‘I know I’m probably not being very rational here, but –’
‘No, no, you are. Jesus. You’re fine. You’re allowed.’
She nods, then blows her nose again. As she does so, Jimmy looks down at the floor, gazes at a pattern in the carpet.
Some sort of commotion in the cockpit? Instigated by Susie? It’s a tantalising idea. But even if that’s what happened, who could prove it now?
Who would want to?
He would. That’s for sure. And Maria, if it ever came to it – the thing is – probably wouldn’t.
This is how it goes. You get talking to someone, you interact, and it all starts to fall apart.
Then something occurs to him.
‘Those texts,’ he says. ‘Did Susie send one to you?’
‘From the actual helicopter?’
She shakes her head.
‘It was before. From the hotel. From her room.’
Jimmy waits. He wants to ask her what was in the text, but he’s assuming that if she’s prepared to tell him she will. When she doesn’t, he says, ‘In all the documentation there is reference to four texts she sent that morning. Yours would make it five.’
Maria shrugs. ‘It was just a text. It was no smoking gun, believe me. Susie was a text head. She would have loved Twitter.’
‘She sounded kind of hysterical in the one she sent to her agent.’
‘Yeah.’ Maria pauses, and almost smiles. ‘Look at you. You’re all intrigued now, aren’t you? I’m sorry. This is precisely the opposite of what I wanted to happen.’
‘Intrigued by this or not, Maria, I still want to write the book. There’s enough there as it is. But it’d be great if you went on the record.’
She studies him for a moment.
‘You know,’ she says, ‘you do have a sympathetic face. But I actually don’t think you’re trying to hustle me.’
Jimmy remains silent.
She picks up her glass of wine again and takes a sip from it. ‘Nothing in life is easy, is it?’ she says.
Jimmy smiles. ‘No. So does that mean you’ll talk to me?’
Flanked by two senior civil servants, he emerges from Government Buildings and steps out onto the landscaped courtyard, where a car is waiting. But something isn’t right . . . it’s one of the civil servants . . . he turns to look . . .
The man is bleeding from his eyes . . .
Bolger grunts, shifts in the armchair.
The door clicks shut. He opens his eyes. The TV is still on, Frasier Crane, looking harried.
What time is it?
He turns. ‘Mary?’
‘Hi, were you asleep?’
She approaches, stands over him.
‘Christ,’ he says. ‘What time is it?’
‘Not late. Just after ten, I think.’
‘Why are you home so early?’
He has the feeling of being caught out. She wouldn’t normally be home before eleven, and by that time he’d have ensconced himself in the study with a cup of hot chocolate.
To make it seem like he’d been slaving away all evening.
‘I had a bit of a headache,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t in the mood.’
He feels guilty, slumped here in the armchair, watching television.
‘Will you have a cup of tea?’ she then asks, turning and unbuttoning her coat.
He rubs his eyes. How long was he asleep?
A civil servant bleeding from . . .
What is wrong with him? He stands up and walks around the room, trying to get his circulation going. Mary is in the kitchen now. He can see her through the door filling the kettle.
‘Did you get any work done?’ she asks over her shoulder.
‘A little, yeah.’
He throws his eyes up.
Chapter a hundred.
He has barely started is the truth. He doesn’t know where to start.
Chapter one. I grew up in the shadow of my older brother, and despite how things may have come to seem in later years – I never really got out from under it . . .
Yeah. Fuck off.
‘How are the crowd anyway?’ he says, deflecting a follow- up question.
‘They’re grand. Everyone asking for you.’
Mary comes out of the kitchen, smiling, grabs her coat from the back of the chair where she left it and heads into the bedroom.
Bolger stands in front of the fireplace, looking down at the carpet, listening as the dull hum of the kettle in the next room ascends to a muffled roar.
He is sick with anxiety, and that’s about the size of it.
Meeting Dave Conway tomorrow is supposed to make him feel like he’s taking some kind of action. But he won’t be really. All he’ll be doing is asking Dave if he saw that thing in the paper last week.
Saying, I saw it. Did you see it? I saw it.
And I haven’t been right since.
Reading the Irish Independent that morning, alone in the apartment, Bolger came as close as he has in nearly ten years to falling off the wagon.
He glances over once again at the corner of the room, at the drinks cabinet.
Takes a deep breath, holds it in.
Couple out walking their dog. In Wicklow. Remains of a body in a ditch – just bones really, and a set of clothes. Reckoned to have been there for at least two years. Unidentified, but no shortage of speculation.
He breathes out slowly.
Mary emerges from the bedroom in her at-homes and goes back into the kitchen.
Bolger stands there, not moving.
Couple out walking their dog.
Is this it? Is this beginning?
It’s nearly eleven thirty.
Too late to phone now, but then again maybe the perfect time to phone. Catch him off guard.
Jimmy is walking along by St Stephen’s Green.
He left Maria at the top of Grafton Street and while they didn’t make a specific arrangement to meet again, the understanding is that they’ll be in touch – once Maria has had a little time to think, and maybe consult a lawyer. Once he’s had time – not that this came up in conversation – to clear the decks with Phil Sweeney.
He gets his phone out and looks at it.
There’s no point in putting this off. Besides, things have changed. He’s on his own now, no longer a valuable asset working at a national newspaper . . .
He finds the number.
What has he got to lose?
He brings the phone up to his ear, and waits.
He glances over at the Shelbourne Hotel.
‘Phil. Hi. I hope I’m not calling too late.’
‘No, no, you’re grand. Thanks for getting back to me. I appreciate it. I wouldn’t want there to be a misunderstanding.’
‘Oh?’ Jimmy says, deciding to get straight into it. ‘Really? What’ll we call it then, an absence of understanding? Because you know what? I’m at a loss here. You call me up –’
‘I was just trying to help –’
‘How? By insulting me? And where did you hear about what I’m working on anyway?’
There’s probably no straight answer Sweeney can give to this, at least not one Jimmy will find acceptable.
‘The flow of information,’ he says. ‘I pay attention to it.’
‘Look, I often hear things I don’t necessarily ask about, things I maybe shouldn’t even be privy to. Whatever. It is what it is.’ He pauses. ‘So, did you have a think about what I said?’
‘Yeah, I did, and the thing is –’
‘No, Jimmy, there’s no thing. Just take it on board, OK? Please.’
Jimmy stops in his tracks. A group of American tourists walk past him, one of them talking loudly, a big guy with a beard saying something about ‘this giant Ponzi scheme’.
At the taxi rank to his left a young couple appear to be having an argument.
‘I told you, he’s from work.’
Beyond them are lights, colours, a kaleidoscope, traffic stopping and starting.
Jimmy turns, takes a few steps towards the railings of the Green.
‘For Christ’s sake, Phil,’ he says in a loud whisper, ‘you can’t just dangle something like this in my face, and not expect me to bite. I’m supposed to be a fucking journalist.’
Sweeney exhales loudly.
‘It’s not like that,’ he says. ‘There’s no story here. It’s not –’
‘Susie Monaghan? No story? Her name on a magazine cover, let alone her picture, and you still get a huge spike in circulation, even after all this time, so don’t tell me –’
‘It’s not about her. Believe me.’
Jimmy reaches out and takes a hold of one of the railings.
‘Then what is it about?’
Sweeney clicks his tongue. ‘I know this is tricky for you,’ he says, ‘professionally, being told, being asked, to stay away from something, a story, it goes against the grain, I get that, but . . . the thing is, I’m good friends with Freddie Walker. Yeah?’ He pauses. ‘Ted Walker’s brother? And . . . they’re still suffering. Every time the story comes up, every time Susie Monaghan’s name gets mentioned, it brings the whole thing back, the tragedy, everything, and the prospect of a book, with all the publicity, the photos, dredging through the details again, and having it all be about her, with only a cursory mention of Ted and the others who died, it’s . . . well, frankly it’d be fucking torture for them.’ He pauses again. ‘So I’m asking you, Jimmy. As a favour. Give it a miss.’ He clears his throat. ‘And I certainly didn’t mean to insult you.’
Jimmy squeezes the railings until his knuckles are white.
He didn’t see this coming.
Black, white, headachy grey.
‘Freddie Walker?’ he says.
This is a question, sort of, but they both know what the answer is. It’s a no-brainer. It’s Yeah, sonny Jim, back in your box now and shut the fuck up.
Jimmy releases his grip on the railing. Behind him is kinesis, light and noise, the streets. Ahead, through the bars, is stillness, a dark blanket of shadows, the Green at night.
‘Yeah,’ Sweeney says, ‘Freddie Walker, he’s a client, lovely guy, you’d really like him, and of course –’
‘No,’ Jimmy says. ‘Stop it, right? I’m not listening to any more of this.’ He turns around and walks towards the head of the taxi rank. ‘Good night, Phil. I’m sorry, I can’t help you out.’
He snaps the phone shut and puts it away.
Steps around the arguing couple.
‘Hey –’ And opens the back door of the waiting taxi –
‘That’s our –’
– anticipating a musty whiff, the residue of long hours, long years, of sweat, smoke and overheated opinion. ‘Take that one,’ Jimmy says, pointing at the next car along, and gets in the back of the Nissan. Maria will talk to him, he’s pretty sure of that, and it’ll add a whole new dimension to the story.
‘Sandymount,’ he says to the driver, ‘Strand Road.’
So Phil Sweeney can just . . .
‘That’s not a bad one.’
‘No,’ Jimmy says, as they cruise past the spot where he left Maria a few minutes earlier, ‘no, not a bad one at all.’
On his way down in the elevator of the BRX Building in Manhattan, Clark Rundle is about to flick through the latest issue of Vanity Fair to look for the article when he gets a call from Don Ribcoff.
‘Yeah, Don,’ he says, putting the magazine under his arm, ‘what’s up?’
‘Clark, I need five minutes. Are you around?’
Rundle looks at his watch. ‘It’s nearly seven o’clock, Don. I’m leaving the building. It’s been a long day.’ He’s also had this copy of Vanity Fair in his possession since lunchtime, and has managed to hold off opening it until now. He resents the intrusion.
‘Can’t it wait?’
‘Not really, Clark, no. Where are you headed? Let me meet you there.’
‘I’m going to the Orpheus Room. I’m meeting Jimmy Vaughan for a drink.’ He hesitates, then says, ‘Look, why don’t you join us?’
Rundle closes the phone. The elevator door hums open and he steps out into the lobby area.
Seems he’s not the only one leaving the building.
As he walks through the crowds, Rundle keeps the Vanity Fair under his arm, with the cover concealed. It’s absurd, but he feels a little self-conscious. He’s been interviewed before, many times, but usually under controlled conditions and not until multiple confidentiality clauses have been agreed to and signed.
None of which applied with Vanity Fair, of course.
Rundle didn’t mind, though. He was doing it for J.J., for this campaign he might be running. Plus, he finds there’s a certain cachet to being profiled in VF that even he isn’t immune to.
He’ll read the article in the car.
Out on Fifth it is warm. The air is still heavy and the evening sun is struggling to break through the haze.
He crosses the sidewalk. His driver holds open the door of the waiting limo and he gets in. As far as Rundle is concerned, the interior of a car like this, with its tinted windows and chilled hum, is a refuge, one of the modern world’s few remaining private spaces. Advances in telecommunications haven’t helped much in this regard, but he still tries his best. Phone-time is kept to a minimum, and e-mails are ignored.
Settling in now, he places the magazine in his lap and looks at the cover. It shows an actress he doesn’t recognise. She is pale and blonde, with icy blue eyes. She’s got blood-red lipstick on and is wearing a mantilla.
A Veronica Lake wannabe. A Veronica Lake-alike. She’s pretty cute, though.
Her name, apparently, is Brandi Klugmann and she’s in some new blockbuster franchise.
He scans the rest of the cover for article titles. He finds what he’s looking for at the bottom.
The Rundle Supremacy. How brothers Senator John Rundle and BRX chairman Clark Rundle are taking on the world . . . and winning.
He reads this over a couple of times and nods, as though in agreement with someone sitting in front of him. He then lifts the magazine and gives a preliminary riffle through its glossy, scented pages, catching a rush of images, ads mostly, promissory shards of the erotic and the streamlined.
Perfume, watches, banks, celebs, real estate porn.
He looks up and out of the window for a moment. Traffic is light and flowing easily. They’ll be at the Orpheus Room sooner than he expected.
He goes back to the magazine and quickly locates the article.
It opens with a two-page spread of photos, some colour, some black and white – he and J.J. at various stages in their lives, together and apart . . . grainy images, weird clothes and, of course, hair, from the seventies, suits thereafter, and less hair . . . J.J. with Karl Rove, J.J. on Meet the Press . . . Clark looking inscrutable at some charity ball, Clark in the cabin of his G-V.
He scans the text.
It actually is something of a puff piece – the Rundle brothers, John, 50, and Clark, 48, sons of the legendary Henry C. Rundle, each on a trajectory to stellar success, one in politics, setting his sights on the White House, and the other in business, steering long-held family concern, mining and engineering giant BRX, to global domination. The ‘narrative’ in the article is how close the brothers are, no sibling rivalry, just mutual support, the kind of bond you’d expect from identical twins sort of thing, with anecdotes emanating from the usual sources, how J.J. ceded control of his part of the company to Clark against all legal advice, and how Clark chose to withdraw his name for consideration as commerce secretary under Bush so as not to steal J.J.’s thunder.
He closes the magazine and puts it on the seat beside him.
It’s strange reading about yourself. The material usually feels diluted and one-dimensional. By the same token there’s nothing in the article here he needs to call his lawyers about. It’s accurate enough, he supposes, and will achieve what it was intended to achieve – at least as far as J.J.’s press office is concerned – and that is to help pave the way for this possible nomination.
Rundle wonders if J.J. has seen it yet. He’s on a foreign trip at the moment – doing Clark a favour, as it happens – so it’s unlikely.
But then again the article is probably available online.
In which case, knowing J.J., he’ll definitely have seen it.
And will be in touch about it the first chance he gets.
The limo pulls up outside the Orpheus Room on Fifty-fourth Street. Rundle waits for the driver to open the door and then gets out. As he straightens his jacket he glances at the passing traffic down a bit on Park and something occurs to him. It’s easy to forget this, but it’s true what was in the article. There is no rivalry between them, none, and they genuinely do root for each other. In taking BRX Mining & Engineering to new levels of success, Clark has remained largely anonymous, and that’s been fine. J.J. was always the attention-seeker anyway, the approval junkie. But if that’s what his brother wants, a shot at the presidency – which until now, being honest about it, Clark hasn’t really taken that seriously – then why not? And why shouldn’t Clark do everything in his considerable power to help make it happen?
Add ‘kingmaker’ to his list of achievements.
Stick it one more time to the old man.
He heads in under the sidewalk canopy.
Realigning his headspace.
Inside, Jimmy Vaughan is sitting at his regular table, nursing what looks like a fruit juice.
Rundle approaches the table with his hand outstretched. ‘Jimmy, how are you?’
Vaughan looks up. He shakes Rundle’s hand and indicates for him to sit down. ‘How am I? I’m eighty-two years old, Clark, what do you want me to tell you?’
Rundle laughs at this and sits down. ‘Well, if I could look half as good as you do, Jimmy, and I mean now, let alone when I’m eighty-two, I’d be a happy man.’
This is bullshit, of course, palaver, but on one level he actually means it. Vaughan is extraordinary for his age, his steely blue eyes displaying an undimmed and ferocious intelligence. As chairman of private equity firm the Oberon Capital Group – as well as sitting member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission – Vaughan is something of an éminence grise around these parts.
A waiter appears at Rundle’s side. ‘Your usual, sir?’
A gimlet. For his sins.
He looks at Vaughan. ‘How’s Meredith?’
Vaughan waves a hand over the table. ‘She’s . . . well.’
Meredith is Vaughan’s umpteenth wife. They got married about four years ago, and she’s at least forty-five years his junior. Which maybe explains a lot.
She’s even younger than Rundle’s own wife.
‘She’s good. She’s in England at the moment, Oxford. Checking up on Daisy.’
Wives, daughters, whatever.
‘Listen,’ he says, leaning forward, getting down to business, ‘this thing with the Chinese?’
‘It isn’t going to go away, Clark. I mean, let’s say our friend the colonel turns down their offer, yeah? Let’s say we pull that off. It just means they’ll come back with a bigger offer. That’s the kicker in all of this, it isn’t about money.’ Vaughan makes a puffing sound and throws his hands up. ‘It’s like we have to learn a whole new language.’
Rundle is all too aware of this, but hearing Vaughan articulate it, hearing him sound even vaguely defeatist – that’s a little unnerving.
‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘or maybe we have to relearn a language we once knew, but have forgotten.’
Vaughan looks at him for a moment. Then he reaches over and pats him on the arm. ‘Oh lord, Clark,’ he says. ‘That’s a bit subtle, even for me.’ He laughs. ‘Or . . . or what’s that other word . . . inscrutable?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t –’
They both look up.
It’s Don Ribcoff. He has arrived at the table in what seems like a frantic rush. He sits down, nods at Vaughan, but then faces Rundle.
‘Forgive me, Clark,’ he says, ‘I wouldn’t normally barge in on you like this, but I thought it’d be better not to talk over the phone.’
Rundle nods, wondering what this is about – the urgency, the not talking on the phone. Especially the not talking on the phone. But also thinking who’d be a better judge of something like that than the CEO of Gideon Global?
He turns to Vaughan. ‘I didn’t mention it to you, Jimmy, but I spoke to Don earlier and asked him to join us.’
‘Of course, of course,’ Vaughan says, and makes an inclusive gesture with his hand. ‘Don, what are you drinking?’
Ribcoff bites his lip. ‘Er, water, please.’
Vaughan raises a finger and a waiter seems to materialise out of thin air. Instructions are given, two chilled 330 ml bottles of Veen, one velvet, one effervescent. Almost immediately a second waiter appears with the gimlet and as the drink is being transferred from the tray to the table Rundle takes a moment to study Don Ribcoff.
He seems uncharacteristically ruffled. Still only in his mid-thirties, Ribcoff is a hugely capable young man, good-looking, fit, and incredibly focused when it comes to his business. He also provides an invaluable service to people like Rundle, Vaughan and many others. The privatisation of the security and intelligence industries has been nothing short of revolutionary and the Don Ribcoffs of this world, who have spearheaded that revolution, are men to be cherished and nurtured.
Which is why it’s disturbing to see him like this.
As soon as the waiter withdraws, Rundle reaches for his gimlet.
Gin and lime juice.
Who could ask for anything more?
He takes a sip.
And then it strikes him that the reason Ribcoff is agitated is because he wants to talk to him.
Vaughan and Ribcoff are looking in his direction.
Ribcoff clears his throat, shifts his weight in the chair and then says, ‘Look, er, this trip the Senator is on? It’s run into a little trouble. I’m afraid we might have to think things over.’
Rundle immediately says, ‘What things?’
And then adds, after a beat, ‘What trouble?’
As they cross the lobby, various people greet Larry Bolger by name. He’s been living in the hotel for over a year now, in one of the penthouse suites, but his presence down here, or in the bar, will still cause a stir.
How’s it going, Larry? they’ll say. Would you not fancy your old job back? The country needs you.
Stuff like that.
He only wishes Irish people weren’t so bloody informal. Bill still gets called Mister President wherever he goes, Bolger has seen it. Not that he wants that particularly, a title or anything, grovelling. Just a little respect.
Mister Bolger mightn’t be a bad place to start.
‘How are Mary and the girls?’ Dave Conway asks, keeping up the small talk until they get settled at a table.
‘They’re grand, thanks, yeah. Lisa’s just got her MBA.’
‘Another Bolger out of the traps, eh?’
‘I’m telling you, I don’t know where she got it from, her mother maybe, but she’s got it.’
They take a table at the back. It’s early and the dining room next door is crowded, breakfast in full swing, but there’s almost no one in here, in the Avondale Lounge. It’s eerily quiet, with at least half of the room – the half they’ve chosen to sit in – still in semi-darkness.
‘So,’ Bolger says, and shifts his weight in the chair. ‘How are things with you?’
Why is he so nervous?
‘Yeah, not too bad, Larry, I suppose. We’ve managed to avoid the worst of it. So far, anyway.’
Dave Conway is one of the canniest businessmen Bolger has ever met and for a while there he was a trusted member of the inner circle, of the kitchen cabinet. It was Dave, in fact, who persuaded Bolger to go to Drumcoolie Castle in the first place.
To that corporate ethics conference.
Bolger hadn’t wanted to go.
Of course. Story of his bloody life.
A waiter approaches the table, an older guy with a dickie-bow and a silver tray under one arm. Bolger squints at him for a second and scrolls through his mental database.
‘Sean,’ he then says, ‘how are you? A pot of coffee will do us fine here, thanks.’
The waiter nods in acknowledgement and retreats.
Bolger turns back.
‘So,’ Conway says, ‘how are the memoirs coming along?’
‘Oh God.’ Bolger groans. ‘Not very well, I’m afraid. What’s that old song? “I Can’t Get Started”?’
‘Really? I thought –’
‘Writing’s not my strong suit, Dave. I don’t know why I ever agreed to do the damn thing. I sit there for hours and nothing happens. It’s a total waste of time.’
‘Do you have a deadline?’
‘Yeah, but that’s become a bit of a moveable feast. It was supposed to be due two months ago.’ He shrugs. ‘Now . . . I don’t know.’
Conway nods, but doesn’t say anything.
Bolger thinks Dave looks a little peaky this morning, tired, not his usual self. Bolger has noticed this quite a bit recently. People he runs into from the old days aren’t as healthy-looking as they used to be.
‘Anyway,’ he says, after a long pause, ‘here we are.’
‘Yes,’ Conway responds, ‘here we are.’
Bolger hates this. He’s always been known for his direct, no-bullshit approach – it worked with the unions, with the employers, and even occasionally, on the international stage, with fellow heads of government – so what’s up with him now, why is he being so coy? It’s not as though Dave is any kind of a threat to him. If anything, it’s the other way around.
Two young men in suits come into the lounge and take a table near the entrance. One of them is talking on his phone, the other one is texting.
Bolger clears his throat.
‘OK,’ he says, straightening up in his chair. ‘Reason I asked you in here? That thing in the paper? About a week ago? Did you see it? In Wicklow? The fella they found in the woods?’
Conway furrows his brow. ‘No. I didn’t. I was away for most of last week.’ He pauses, then his eyes widen. ‘The woods?’
‘Yeah,’ Bolger says. He looks around the room, over at the two suits, back at Dave. ‘In Wicklow. A body.’
Conway stares at him, going pale.
Or was he pale already?
‘Shit,’ he says. ‘Has there been anything about it since?’
‘Not as far as I’ve seen, no. But still. I mean.’
‘Right.’ Conway nods, considering this.
Bolger glances around again, biting his lip.
Couple out walking their dog.
He looks back at Dave. ‘But if there is any more about it . . .’
‘I don’t know. We’d have to . . . do something, wouldn’t we?’
Conway looks puzzled. ‘I’m sorry, do something? Like what?’
‘Ah, come on, Dave, you know what I mean. For fuck’s sake.’
Bolger hears the incipient panic in his own voice and it irritates him. Before coming down here this morning, he’d decided he was going to remain calm, not lose his cool, tease this out . . . maybe draw on some of the old magic . . .
‘We’d have to have a word with someone,’ he says.
Conway leans forward at this. ‘A word? With who?’ He holds his hands up. ‘Jesus, Larry, would you cop on to yourself. I know you ran the country for, what was it, three years or something, but you’re not running it now.’
Bolger flinches. ‘I realise that.’
‘Because I mean . . . that’s not how things work anymore.’
‘OK, OK,’ Bolger whispers loudly. ‘Whatever. I get it.’
He sits back in his chair, and glances around, doing his best to absorb this.
He’s not an idiot.
He just thought . . .
In any case, what he’s now thinking is . . . three years? It wasn’t very long, was it? Not the five or even ten years Paddy Norton had dangled before him that night in his office. He led a heave and then, eventually, after a disastrous election campaign, got heaved himself. Ignominious, inglorious, call it what you will – but holy God, those three years in the middle there were brilliant, golden . . . nothing like them before or since.
Certainly not since.
And he doesn’t want them being tampered with now, or reinterpreted, or rewritten in any way, or decon-fucking-structed because of some stupid, bloody thing he had shag-all to do with in the first place. But that’s exactly what he’s afraid is going to happen.
It’s what has been eating him alive, from the inside out, for the last week and a half.
‘So,’ he says eventually, a slight tremor in his voice. ‘Where does that leave us?’
Conway shrugs. ‘I don’t know. You said it yourself, there hasn’t been any further mention of it in the papers. Maybe there’s no cause for concern.’
‘Yes, but it’s bound to resurface at some point, isn’t it? At an inquest or whatever. Details. Probing. Jesus Christ.’
Bolger can’t stand himself right now. If Dave is being aloof and somewhat enigmatic here, he’s being whiny and insecure.
But he can’t help it.
‘Listen,’ Conway is saying, leaning forward again, ‘do you want to know why we’ve got nothing to worry about? And this is totally apart from the fact that there’s probably, I don’t know, dozens of bodies buried up in the Wicklow hills.’ He pauses. ‘It’s because none of us had anything to do with it. With what happened. It’s that simple. So there’s no traceability. There can’t be.’ He pauses again. ‘Are you with me?’
Bolger nods along. ‘Yeah, I know, I get it,’ he says, ‘no traceability, and I like that, I do, but we’re not fucking rogue pig farmers here, Dave, are we? I mean are we? There’s always traceability, there’s always someone . . . some . . .’
He trails off, his fist clenched.
‘Jesus Christ,’ Conway says, looking around as well now, ‘take it easy.’ He draws back a little and screws his eyes up, as though to focus better. ‘Are you OK, Larry?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine.’
But he isn’t, and it’s in that very moment, as the waiter approaches – silver tray held aloft, aroma of coffee wafting through the air – that Bolger realises something. As soon as he can get rid of Dave Conway here he’s going to head straight back upstairs to the apartment. He’s going to shut the door behind him. He’s going to walk over to the drinks cabinet in the corner. He’s going to take out a bottle of whiskey. He’s going to pour himself a large measure. He’s going to fucking drink it.
The voices come, a dizzying swirl of them, hectoring and ceaseless . . . it’s the incomprehensible babble, he suspects, of Irishmen and China-men building the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad . . .
Rundle opens his eyes.
Yes, he –
The voices –
But where he is? For a moment he’s not sure.
Then . . . Manhattan. Of course. The Celestial.
He struggles up and looks at the clock on the bedside table.
He throws back the covers and climbs out of bed. He goes to the door and stands for a moment in the dense nighttime stillness.
With Daisy gone to college it didn’t take long for the place to start feeling lonely, but now with Eve gone, too – even if only for a couple of weeks – it’s positively desolate.
He should have called Nora, told her to come over, to drop whatever she was doing, whoever she was with.
That he was in a platinum-rates frame of mind.
She would have understood. Nora always understands.
He walks along the corridor and goes into the living room.
He didn’t get in until after midnight – stuck there at the Orpheus with Jimmy Vaughan and Don Ribcoff, trying to piece together what had happened, trying to come up with a strategy for dealing with it.
Frantic about consequences, about fallout.
Rundle especially frantic about J.J.
He wanders over to the window and stands there, gazing out – the city below, coruscating busily. It may never sleep, but he wishes to fuck he could, even occasionally – wishes he could get a decent night’s shut-eye, and one without these stupid, scrappy dreams he keeps having. The Union Pacific Railroad? Irishmen and Chinamen?
For Christ’s sake.
He turns around and checks the time on one of the room’s displays.
What’d that be in Paris? A quarter to eleven almost, morning-time in full swing, coffee and croissants.
Where’d he leave his phone?
He’s not going to wait any longer.
Because he should have heard from J.J. by now, even a quick reply to that text he sent last night.
He finds his cell phone next to his keys on a counter in the kitchen and tries J.J.’s number. It rings. There’s no answer. It goes into message.
Then he tries a number he has for Herb Felder, J.J.’s director of communications. It rings twice.
‘Herb. Clark Rundle.’
‘Oh. Mr Rundle. Hi.’
‘How is he?’
‘Er, he’s fine, he’s fine. A little shaken. He’s going to need some surgery on his hand, but all things considered he’s fine. He’s actually sleeping right now.’
Rundle nods. There’s nothing new in this, nothing different from what Don Ribcoff was able to tell him last night, but still, he’s relieved to have it confirmed first-hand.
‘You’re in the American Hospital?’
So, next stage.
‘Tell me, Herb, have you thought about how to handle this?’
‘Er . . . I’ve thought about it, sure, Mr Rundle, but I’m at something of a disadvantage here.’ He pauses. ‘In that I’m not exactly in possession of all the facts. The Senator goes AWOL for a couple of days and then turns up with a serious injury? No real explanation? I’ve been dealt better hands in my time.’
Rundle clicks his tongue.
‘Right.’ He turns around and leans back against the marble counter. ‘What have the doctors said? Is he going to need a plaster cast? A brace of some kind? How’s it going to look?’
Herb Felder sighs, probably frustrated at not having his concerns addressed. When he replies his tone is more clipped than before. ‘He’ll have a brace. There won’t be any way of hiding it.’
Now Rundle sighs.
‘OK,’ he says. ‘Here’s what we do. I’m going to talk to Don Ribcoff. He’s got people on the ground over there –’
‘But I thought Gideon –’
‘PR people, it’s an affiliate company. They do strategic communications. The Jordan Group.’
Oh? Rundle makes a face. What the fuck? The guy’s feelings are hurt? ‘Look,’ he says, ‘it’s better if they take care of this. Better if you stay out of it, in fact.’
‘In case it comes back and bites you in the ass, that’s why. The Jordan people will feed something into the news cycle and you just run with it. The less you know about how it got there the better.’
‘Mr Rundle, with respect, I know how this works.’
Rundle rolls his eyes. ‘Well then, I shouldn’t have to tell you how important maintaining distance and deniability is, should I?’
He pictures Herb Felder rolling his eyes.
‘No, Mr Rundle, I suppose not.’
Herb’s a smart guy and will probably go all the way with J.J., but he’s a wonk, his strong suit is policy, explaining it, packaging it.
This is a little different.
Some of the other aides around J.J. – the campaign veterans, the oppo men – would be more up to speed, more au fait with the techniques here, with the philosophy, but Herb’s the one he got through to.
‘So when the Senator wakes up, Herb, tell him we spoke, yeah?’
‘And tell him to call me.’
Rundle closes the phone and puts it back on the counter. He looks around.
What does he do now?
He can either put on some coffee and work for a bit – send a few e-mails, read the online editions of the morning papers – or he can go back to bed and just lie there tormenting himself with different shit until it’s time to get up.
He looks at the display on the cooker.
5:01. He knows what the old man would do. Or, at any rate, would have done. Taken advantage of the situation. Maximised it. Rundle reaches up to an overhead shelf and takes down the coffee grinder. Though no doubt old Henry C. would have been up at five in any case, so it’s a moot point.
He puts beans in the grinder and switches it on.
But to be fair – he thinks, holding the grinder down – fair to himself . . . hasn’t he always maximised his opportunities? Hasn’t he transformed BRX Mining & Engineering out of all recognition, way beyond anything the old man, if he were alive today, would even comprehend?
He releases the grinder. Its whirr slows gradually, then stops.
So does that mean he can go back to bed?
He actually considers it for a moment.
But what would be the point? It’d only lead to more dreams. More Irishmen and Chinamen.
He looks around for the coffee filters.
From the moment he wakes up Jimmy Gilroy is aware that things are different, that there’s been a fundamental shift – tectonic plates, paradigm, take your pick. Yesterday he was working his way in isolation through a mountain of research material. This morning – bloodied, in full view – he’s caught in the barbed wire of human contact.
He gets up and goes over to the bathroom. He didn’t sleep well and he’s tired. He looks in the mirror, holds his own gaze for a moment, sees the old man, then looks away. Everyone says it, and it’s true . . . after a certain age you’re never alone in front of a mirror.
Sitting on the toilet, he wonders what Phil Sweeney is up to. Is he really representing the family of one of the other victims? It’s not implausible and is certainly the sort of thing he might do for a client – though it could just as easily be a strategic move, a ruse.
But if so, what’s behind it?
He gets in the shower.
Then there’s Maria. If she decides to talk to him, to trust him, what will she say? And how much of what she does say will she allow him to put in the book?
After his shower Jimmy gets dressed, puts on coffee, checks his e-mails.
Sweeney pulling him one way, Maria the other.
Then he logs on to the Bank of Ireland website and checks his current account. He knows what he’s going to find here, but seeing it on the screen, the column of figures, is always a shock – and that’s just what he needs. Because whatever arguments there might be for not doing the book, there’s no arguing with this – no arguing with the fact that he has spent half of the advance and would have to return all of it if he abandoned the project.
And then have none of it.
He looks away from the screen, over at the window.
But Phil Sweeney buying out the advance is unthinkable, too. He’d rather pack it in, and starve. It’s a matter of . . . principle maybe, of self-respect – but also, to be honest, of what the old man might think.
If he were still here.
Jimmy leans back in the chair.
Phil Sweeney and Dec Gilroy were partners for a time, co-founders of Marino Communications, and good friends, but as basic types they were very different. The old man was a political junkie. He grew up on the Arms Trial and Watergate, on GUBU and Iran-Contra. He was interested in what made public figures tick, psychologically, which meant that the move from clinical work into PR and media training shouldn’t have been that much of a stretch for him. You would think. But it turned out that he was markedly better at analysis than he was at manipulation, and it wasn’t long before the new job started wearing him down.
Phil Sweeney, on the other hand, was a natural and in many ways a more skilled politician than a lot of the people they were dealing with. He’d studied in the US and worked there for years before coming back to set up Marino. The organisational brains behind the outfit, he was also the one with big plans, and this led to a certain amount of friction. In fact, by the time Jimmy’s old man got sick and had to start withdrawing from the business, the process of expanding it beyond all recognition had already begun.
Which maybe explains why Dec Gilroy was so happy when his teenage son first expressed an interest in journalism. He felt that here was a possible route back, a second chance almost. As a result, he pulled down his battered, dog-eared Penguins and Picadors and turned Jimmy on to Mencken, Woodstein, Hunter S. Thompson, Seymour Hersh, Jonathan Schell, others. More than just a crash course in journalism, however, in styles and approaches, this was a declaration of values, a sort of retro-active mission statement.
It’s something that Jimmy has never forgotten, and hopes he never will.
He gets up now, walks over to the window and gazes out. The bay is shrouded in mist.
But that’s not the only reason he won’t be taking Phil Sweeney up on his offer. There’s a second dynamic at work here, and it has to do with Maria.
The thing is, now that they’ve met, and talked, it’s not so much that the story has gone from uncomplicated black and white to ambivalent grey, it has gone from dreary monochrome to full-on colour, from one dimension to three, from glossy pixels to flesh and blood. Maria’s perspective in the mix, her intimate knowledge of Susie, always had the potential to take the project from a showbiz cut-and-paste job to something a bit more substantial – that’s why he wanted to meet her in the first place.
But this is something else.
The fact is he liked her. He enjoyed her company. And now he’s excited at the prospect of seeing her again. The only problem is, last night at the top of Grafton Street they sort of semi-agreed that next time she should be the one to make contact.
If, and when – that is – she felt ready.
Jimmy turns around.
But that mightn’t be for days, weeks even.
He looks over at the research material laid out on his desk, at the folders, notes, printouts – all of it generated from secondary sources, all of it useful . . . but all of it fairly limited. So his impulse is to pick up the phone right now and call her.
He could rationalise this in six different ways.
But it’d still be ridiculous.
She only agreed to meet him last night because he’d been so persistent. If he pushes it now, she mightn’t ever talk to him again.
He leans back against the window and surveys the room. The bookshelves to the left contain those Penguins and Picadors he inherited, along with hundreds more, and hundreds of his own. To the right is his cluttered workspace, desk, computer, printer, and then a music system of stacked stereo separates – another legacy of the old man’s and about as anachronistic-looking as a Bakelite telephone. Two leather sofas in the middle, and a coffee table. Kitchen at the back. Kitchenette. Adjoining bedroom and tiny bathroom.
Fourth floor. Small seafront apartment building.
Thirty-two years to go on the mortgage.
For that money he could have got a slightly bigger place somewhere else, but as far as Jimmy was concerned the living space wasn’t what mattered. His apartment could just as easily have been a tent, or a nice arrangement of cardboard boxes. What mattered was the view, the ability at any time of the day or night to look out of his window and behold – to open his window and breathe in – the sea.
To be beside the.
Jimmy then finds himself wondering where Maria lives, and if she is involved with anyone. Or married even. He didn’t notice if she was wearing a ring.
He slides down and sits on the windowsill.
At which point his phone rings.
He hesitates for a second, then gets up and goes over to the desk. He can see who it is before his hand has even reached the phone.
‘Jimmy, hi, it’s Maria.’
‘Hi. How are you?’
‘I’m fine. But listen.’ He’s listening. ‘You’ve started me thinking about this, and now I can’t stop. But I need to do more than think about it, I need to talk about it.’
‘So can we meet again?’ She pauses. ‘Today?’
‘How about for lunch?’
‘Sure.’ Leaning his free hand on the desk, he turns and slowly lowers himself into the chair. ‘Where did you have in mind?’
He acts like it’s the most natural thing in the world. He takes the bottle of Jameson from the cabinet and places it on the fold-out shelf. He takes a glass – Waterford cut crystal, one of a set, a gift from Paddy Norton – and drops four ice cubes into it. Then, as he opens the bottle, whiskey fumes hit his nostrils – molecules of it rising to his brain, like tracker scouts, seeking out receptive lobes and cortices. He tilts the bottle and pours, watching mesmerised as the golden liquid cascades over the ice cubes, one of which cracks loudly and splits. When the glass is nearly full he puts the bottle down and screws the cap back on, an act which feels measured, grown-up.
He looks over his shoulder.
He’s alone here, but you never know. Mary’s in town and the girls are off doing whatever they’re doing. They don’t even live here anymore, but they both have keys.
He doesn’t want to be disturbed.
He takes the glass in his hand, ice cubes clinking.
Oh Jesus, like music.
But has he overdone it? It’s a greedy-looking affair, practically full to the brim. He’d never serve a drink like this. On top of which it’s not even lunchtime. It’s not even mid-morning. But does that matter? The time of day it is? If it was half past seven in the evening and he was in a tuxedo holding a Manhattan in his hand he’d still be a fucking alcoholic.
Still be a degenerate lowlife.
Still be –
Oh just shut up and drink the bloody thing.
He raises the glass to his lips and slurps.
The taste of it, the feel of it going down.
He holds the glass in front of him, stares at it in disbelief. Raises it to his lips again. Takes a couple of genteel sips. Just for confirmation.
Then another slurp.
Puts the glass down. Turns around.
Already he can feel it, that burning sensation in his stomach, that hesitant acceleration in his brain chemistry, like a fluorescent tube-light clicking and stuttering into life. Already he can feel those familiar cravings, sudden and impatient . . .
For a cigarette, for company . . . for another sip . . .
He turns around and takes one.
Then goes over and switches on the radio. He picks up the remote and switches on the TV as well, tunes it to Sky. He presses the mute button and drops the remote onto the sofa.
He goes back to the corner and retrieves his drink.
He stands there, taking sips, looking into the glass, swirling its contents around.
The last time he did this was nearly ten years ago. He was a cabinet minister trying to stay on top of a very difficult portfolio. But he was gambling at the same time – and obsessively, any chance he could get, the races, card games, whether this or that bill would pass and by how many votes, whatever. Plus, to crown it all, he was having an affair with his bookie’s wife, Avril Byrne. It was the only time he ever cheated on Mary, but it was enough to last him a lifetime. Big and messy, it was all hotel corridors, hidden credit card bills, misplaced packets of condoms, blinding headaches, rows, shouting, lies, more lies and fucking endless rivers of booze. He doesn’t know how he survived it. A few of the lads – including Paddy Norton – took him aside one day and told him he was becoming a liability. They said that if he wanted his shot at the leadership – which had always been on the cards, sort of – then he’d have to get his shit together in pretty quick order.
And weirdly enough that’s just what he did. He stopped. From one day to the next.
The gambling was little more than a question of impulse control, which he’d let slip, so apart from a huge pile of unpaid debts there was no problem there. Avril was easy, too – he never liked her that much anyway, and besides, she seemed more relieved than he was.
No, it was the other part that was really hard, the not drinking part. That part took forever. The shakes, the sweats, the vivid dreams, my sweet Jesus. But it worked out in the end. He lost weight, got in shape, had the laser surgery on his eyes, smartened up.
Ironically, a few years later, it was the affair and the gambling that nearly scuppered his leadership chances. Some prick at party HQ loyal to the Taoiseach resurrected the whole thing and leaked it to the press in some sort of preemptive strike. But he weathered that one as well and took power soon afterwards.
In fact, the closest he came to taking a drink during all of that time was when Mark Griffin showed up, and when Paddy Norton –
Bolger clicks his tongue.
He’s not going there.
He takes another sip, and then two more.
The weather girl is on Sky – though not the one he fancies. There’s some choral thing on the radio.
He looks into his glass.
He’s fallen off the wagon now. It’s official. He can release a statement to the media. Ex-Taoiseach succumbs to demons, has a little drinkie, feels he deserves it . . .
But then, in the next moment –
Couple out walking their dog.
To which he says, fuck it, he’s not going there either.
He turns around and replenishes his drink.
But what does he do now? Trapped in the apartment like this, a caged beast, the clock ticking until Mary gets back.
He looks at his watch.
There’s plenty of time, though – hours in fact. He’ll be able to sleep it off, drink some coffee, say he’s feeling under the weather, say he even detects a cold coming on . . .
He grunts. Sniffs.
Jesus, what is he, twelve?
He takes another long slurp from the glass and wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his jacket.
Then he walks across the room, glass in hand, not sure where he’s going exactly. He almost loses his footing at one point, but somehow ends up in the study.
Standing over his desk.
He picks up a wad of pages, photocopies from a folder, and looks at them for a while.
What? Is he kidding? In these memoirs the publishers aren’t going to want him re-hashing some select committee report on quarterly budget estimates – if that’s what this is, he can’t quite focus on it properly – they’re going to want juicy anecdotes, an interesting angle on events, they’re going to want a book people can read.
He sits down and puts his drink on the desk.
What he should do is lay everything out straight, shoot from the hip, no pussyfooting around or lilding the gilly. Gilding the lily. He should write a warts-and-all account of what it’s like to hold down the top job – the in-fighting, the petty rivalries, the smoke-filled back rooms, all of that stuff, of which there was plenty, though without the smoke of course, because no one does that anymore.
He sees the whole thing in a flash – the hardcover edition, press quotes on the back.
Shocking. Brilliant. Urgent.
He takes a sip from his drink.
With blistering honesty and a prose style that wouldn’t be out of place on a Man Booker shortlist, Larry Bolger’s essay on the nature of power will be required reading for generations to come.
He hits a key on his laptop and the screen lights up. He opens Word.
He takes another sip from his drink, hesitates. Stares at the blank screen.
But there’s something he needs to do first.
He gets up and strides out of the room.
Where’s his phone?
He finds it on the table in the kitchen. Scrolls down through the list of names.
V for Vaughan.
It’s only when it’s ringing that he realises what time it is. That they’re five hours behind in New York. And probably all still asleep.
It goes into message. ‘You have reached . . .’
He waits for the beep.
‘Mr Vaughan? It’s Larry Bolger.’ He pauses. ‘How are you?’ His voice sounds strange, heavy, a bit slurred. It sounds drunk. He sounds drunk. He is drunk. ‘I called you a few months ago, left a message on your machine, but you never got back to me. Why didn’t you get back to me?’ Now he sounds like a fucking teenager. It’s how he feels, though – angry, frustrated, thwarted. ‘I don’t see . . . I don’t see why you couldn’t have got back to me. A simple phone call. Is it . . . is it because you’re so fucking high and mighty? Is that it? You’re so important?’ He pauses, possibly for a long time, before eventually saying, ‘Prick.’
Then he holds the phone out in front of him and looks at it, a little confused, as though someone has just called him a prick.
He puts the phone back to his ear and listens for a second. Nothing. He holds it out again and presses End Call.
Puts it on the table. Furrows his brow.
He goes back into the living room.
What was he doing?
Oh yeah. A drink. He looks over at the cabinet in the corner. He was going to have another drink.
As he comes off the roundabout and approaches the entrance to Tara Meadows, Dave Conway can’t believe what he’s seeing. It’s only been three weeks since he last came out here and already it’s as if a ravenous Mother Nature has reclaimed substantial sections of the development for her own.
He goes through the gates and drives on for a hundred yards or so before pulling up at the kerb. He takes a small torch from the glove compartment, puts it in his pocket and gets out.
He looks around.
The perimeter fences are entwined with prickly bushes and briars. Nettles are everywhere and weeds – thick, green, poisonous ones – are growing, it seems, at an alarming rate, rushing up in busy clusters overnight.
The rows of detached houses on the right and left – the only residential units to be completed so far – seem forlorn, as though abandoned after some environmental catastrophe. Windows have been smashed and walls have been daubed with slogans and graffiti. The other houses – the ones on the far side of the so-called town square – have been abandoned, too, but not by their occupiers. These have been abandoned midway through construction by the very people who were building them – the contractors, the bricklayers, the electricians. From what Conway can make out, most of these houses are roofless and surrounded by half-erected scaffolding. Diggers and cement mixers lie awkwardly on the roads in front of them, entrenched in gullies of dried mud, like dinosaur skeletons.
Conway walks along the left-hand pathway of what was to be called Tara Boulevard. At the end of it lies the town square. They hadn’t decided on an official name for this and had been toying with the idea of simply calling it the Piazza. Or the Plaza. Conway still thinks of it – from the early design and development days – as the Concourse, which is how the architect always referred to it.
It’s an impressive space – airy and adaptable, at least in theory. Surrounding it are the completed ‘civic buildings’, what were to be the heart of this new urban development – a town hall, a hotel, two apartment blocks and a shopping mall. It’s short on the ‘civic’ perhaps, but all of that stuff was grandiose brochure- speak in any case. The truth is that Tara Meadows was never intended to be much more than an upscale commuter-belt housing development (with an expected first phase of buyers feeding in from the nearby Paloma Electronics and Eiben-Chemcorp industrial plants).
He walks across the eerily deserted Concourse. It’s midday and this place should be buzzing. There should be cafés open, restaurants, a hairdresser’s, a multiplex.
There should be people.
Busily crisscrossing the square.
With money in their pockets.
Driving our economy forward.
Conway approaches the entrance to the as yet unnamed two-hundred-and-fifty-room hotel.
As yet unfurnished, unfitted, unwired.
He wanders across the lobby area, glancing in at the vast darkened ballroom over to the right.
As he enters the stairwell he takes the torch out of his pocket and uses it to light his way.
He goes up six flights of stairs and comes out onto a long dim corridor. There are no carpets or skirting boards. Cables hang from the ceilings. The air is simultaneously dank and dusty. A few doors are open and these let in enough light from the outside for him to put the torch away.
He walks along the corridor, slowly, and stops at the first open door he comes to. He looks inside.
It’s just an empty hotel room. Concrete floor. Plastered walls. Bare, fitted windows. Sliding glass door leading to a balcony. Nothing else.
He nudges the door fully open and goes inside. He crosses the room, opens the sliding door and steps out onto the balcony. He looks directly down onto the deserted Concourse, and then beyond it to the entire development.
Tara Meadows has imprinted itself on the landscape, no question about it. From this perspective the whole thing is stunning – so much more than just another soulless grid of housing units.
Which is why he comes up here every now and again. To see the big picture – quite literally. It gives him a degree of satisfaction, of reassurance.
He leans forward now, hands on the balcony rail.
But there’s nothing of that sort on offer today. How could there be? Conway Holdings borrowed a total of two hundred and twenty million euro for this project, with the promise of a further eighty million to keep the wheels turning. One of the banks he borrowed from, however, North Atlantic Commercial, is looking for its money back, and none of the other banks are lending anymore. The problem is, without the further eighty million there’s no way he can keep the wheels turning, and without the wheels turning there’s no way he can hope to pay back any of the original money.
Naturally, he’s trying to scare up alternative financing – he’s in negotiations at the moment with a team from Black Vine Partners, a private equity fund – but unless he’s prepared to go as far as collateralising the internal organs of his three children there may be no practical way out of this.
All of which should be enough – you would imagine – for any man to have to worry about.
But right now this isn’t even the issue for Dave. This is just background noise, like a headache you can’t shift when you’ve got something more important to think about – such as, for instance, that little chat he had earlier on with Larry Bolger. He’d been convinced that Larry had somehow heard the same thing he’d heard, about the Susie Monaghan book, and was rattled about that, needlessly as it would have turned out.
But that wasn’t it at all.
The fella they found in the woods.
What was it Ruth had said last night, about summoning up old ghosts?
But the weird thing is it’s not the body in the woods he’s worried about. Not only. There are degrees of separation there. It’s Bolger he’s worried about. The man was unhinged this morning. Maybe it’s that he’s bored or frustrated, or that retirement doesn’t suit him and he has too much time on his hands, but it almost seemed as if in some perverse way he was looking for trouble.
What the man needs is a job. To chair some committee or head up a review group or something.
Keep him busy, keep him distracted.
Because the last thing Conway himself needs, as he bargains for his financial survival with these Black Vine people, is to be linked, however tenuously, to the three-year-old disappearance of a security guard . . . who then turns up in a shallow grave in the Wicklow hills.
Unable to dwell on this, even for a second, Conway turns and goes back inside. He rushes across the room and out into the corridor. He switches his torch on again and makes his way back to the stairwell. On the way down, he focuses on taking the steps two at a time.
As he’s approaching the second floor, he hears a weird sound and stops. He remains still for a moment. There is silence. Then he hears the sound again.
It’s a dog barking.
He hears it a third time.
It’s close by.
He steps out into the second-floor corridor. It’s much darker down here, and the air is heavier, dustier. He stops and listens carefully.
The dog barks again, a yappy sound – it’s probably some sort of terrier.
Conway looks at an open door a little further along the corridor and thinks he detects movement inside. He quickly realises that it’s something flickering – a form of light, a flame perhaps, a candle.
Slowly, he moves towards it.
His heart jumps when the dog barks again.
He peers in through the door. The windows have been blacked out with plastic sacks. Protruding from a bottle on the floor is a red candle. In the middle of the room there is an empty shopping trolley and tied to the trolley with a dirty piece of rope is the dog, a scruffy little terrier.
The place reeks of piss.
The dog barks again.
Conway shines his torch over the room. In one corner he sees what at first appears to be a bundle of old clothes and newspapers. After a second he realises that the bundle is moving, that there’s someone lying there. A pair of eyes stare up at him, squinting, a hand raised to block out the light from the torch.
‘Ah fuck, pal.’ It’s a man. ‘What’s going on? What do you want?’
For a fleeting moment it is on the tip of Dave’s tongue to respond, ‘What do I want? What do you mean? This is my hotel.’
But he knows how absurd that would sound.
He goes on pointing the torch, and staring.
The man goes on squinting and holding up his hand but he doesn’t say anything else – all resistance spent, seemingly, in those first few words.
The dog, who has been quiet for a bit, starts yapping again. It tugs at the rope and causes the shopping trolley to move.
Conway is startled by this. He retreats, walks quickly back to the stairwell and down to the ground floor. He rushes across the lobby and out onto the Concourse, all the time wondering how many of the other rooms are . . . occupied? Is that the correct word? And how many of the houses? There’s no security here, there’s no surveillance. The money ran out, work stopped and the place was just abandoned.
With a sick feeling in his stomach Conway makes his way back along Tara Boulevard and gets into his car.
What is happening?
These bastards at Black Vine had better come through with the funding, otherwise this place will be devoured.
His life will be devoured.
And not just by overgrowth and weeds and graffiti and tramps and squatters.
He starts the car.
It will be devoured by lawyers and creditors and injunctions and journalists.
Appalling vista number two.
He does a three-point turn and heads for the exit.
But going back to the first appalling vista, the more immediate one, what does he do about Larry Bolger? There’s no way he can possibly allow this sad sack of a man – who also lives in a hotel, as it happens – to jeopardise everything Conway Holdings has built up.
He stops at the exit.
And then it hits him.
That other little pulse of anxiety, the one from yesterday afternoon . . .
He pulls out his mobile, finds the number and dials.
As he waits, he glances to the right and up at the peeling billboard for Tara Meadows. It shows an artist’s impression of the development – spectral, stick-insect people with shopping bags crisscross the Piazza. The strap reads: ‘First line of defence, last word in sophistication.’
‘Two days in a row? This must be a record.’
‘Yeah. How are you?’ He leans forward, over the steering wheel. ‘But listen, Phil, that thing we were talking about yesterday? I’ve just had an idea.’
It is reported in an afternoon edition of France-Soir that a middle-aged man, believed to be an American tourist, has been seriously injured at the scene of a motorcycle accident in central Paris. The incident took place at about 6 a.m., not far from the man’s hotel.
The story gets picked up straightaway and within an hour three different American news websites are speculating that the ‘tourist’ in question might be none other than US Senator John Rundle, who is currently in Paris as part of a trade delegation. The story is then confirmed a couple of hours later on another website. Sitting in his office now, Clark Rundle is going through this report line by line.
The Senator was apparently out jogging alone in the early hours when he witnessed a motorcyclist careering out of a laneway and colliding with a barricade. He ran to help, but in attempting to get the man out from underneath his bike, the senator slipped in some oil, lost his grip and fell. Part of the motorcycle, a 1500cc Kawasaki, then collapsed on the senator’s hand, crushing two fingers and breaking several bones. He remains in the American Hospital in Paris and a spokesperson says that although surgery will definitely be required the fifty-year-old pol is nevertheless in good spirits.
The motorcyclist himself received only minor injuries and has praised the senator for his quick reflexes and extraordinary courage.
Clark Rundle turns away from his computer terminal.
Slightly overcooked, he would have thought.
It’ll do the job, though.
He hasn’t heard from J.J. in person yet but understands that because he’s still on strong pain-relief medication he might need a little more time to clear his head.
Rundle will have to talk with him, however, and soon. Because J.J. is the only one who can fill him in on what the colonel is thinking – and not just in relation to the Chinese, but now in relation to this Buenke incident, as well.
Details of which conversation Rundle himself will then have to pass on to Jimmy Vaughan.
It’s a delicate set of circumstances, a delicate balance. You’ve got a PR nightmare on two fronts, each one potentially feeding into the other, which means if either one of them blows up they both do, and if that happens the whole fucking shebang blows up.
He rubs his stomach.
But even if they’re successful in extracting J.J. from the equation and in smoothing over Buenke, there’s still no guaranteeing the whole shebang won’t blow up anyway. No guaranteeing the colonel won’t side with the Chinese and take their infrastructure deal. No guaranteeing he won’t unravel years of hard work on BRX’s part and sign away the rights to . . . whatever it is . . .
They worked it out last night.
But what do they do?
Rundle rubs his stomach again. He presses it at different points. There’s something going on in there, ulcers or . . .
Or what? Go on, say it.
It’s what killed his mother. Came out of the blue, then bam, six weeks and she was gone.
He takes a deep breath.
But that was after six decades of corrosive boredom, of Pall Malls and dissatisfaction, of private education and public marriage, of being an heiress, a corporate wife, a matriarch.
A socialite and a churchgoer.
Rundle stands up.
This isn’t boredom, though. This is coiling, knotty anxiety. It’s fear. Fear of losing control, of not measuring up, of not having measured up in the past. It’s any number of unresolved issues.
He glances around the office, wondering which is more corrosive, boredom or fear, and if it has to be a competition.
Newly redesigned, the office is all ultra-thin tempered glass and different coloured metals.
All transparency and jagged edges.
It gets on his nerves.
What he needs is an hour or two with Nora. He’ll call her later. He might even call her this afternoon. Arrange to meet her at the Wilson.
He swallows, rubs his stomach one more time.
Maybe it’s indigestion. Unresolved dinner.
They were all pretty tense in there last night, in the Orpheus Room – talking over each other, mapping out different scenarios, calculating the potential loss in offtake, working their BlackBerrys like a trio of hopped-up beboppers. And Orpheus food is good, but it’s not that good. It wouldn’t ever be his first choice, and certainly not for dinner.
Rundle stands up suddenly, grabs the Times from his desk and rushes across the office to the door in the corner that leads to his private washroom.
Jimmy watches as Maria stirs three sugars into her double espresso, an energy fix he imagines she’ll need to make up for the energy she’s just expended in talking to him about her sister.
He takes his own espresso without sugar. Not that he even needs the caffeine. Listening to Maria for the last hour or so has energised him in a way he hasn’t experienced for ages, and had almost forgotten could happen.
They met here at Rastelli’s just after one o’clock, found a table and got straight into it. Maria said she’d been thinking about their conversation non-stop since last night and couldn’t see that she had a choice. Once Jimmy had put the idea out there – released the genie from the bottle, so to speak – there was no going back. They had to do this.
And for Susie.
Not that Maria imagined the book would turn out to be some kind of cheesy tribute or anything, a hagiography – more an honest account of how Susie had lived her life, but with no backing away from the ugly stuff either, the behaviour, the compulsions, the stuff that had made her sister who she was. Maria said she hated the word ‘closure’, didn’t even know what it meant, but felt that after three years here might be a chance to grab a little of it, see what everyone was talking about.
Jimmy nodded along to most of this, taken aback at the shift in mood and tone. Last night Maria had been subdued, circumspect, now she was . . . what? Ebullient? Irrationally exuberant? Off her meds? On her meds? He didn’t know. Maybe she was crazy. Though she didn’t seem to be. If he didn’t know any better – and actually he didn’t – he might have thought she was drunk.
But then again, at the same time, she seemed quite . . . centred.
Maybe she was just sold on the idea all of a sudden.
Maybe he’d done a better job last night than he was giving himself credit for.
Plus . . . it was as if she . . .
As if –
But he didn’t really have time to think here, or editorialise. She was talking too fast, covering too much ground, giving him in broad strokes what they would have to go back over later on, but in excruciating, forensic slo-mo – Susie the wild schoolgirl, for instance, in her white blouse and plaid skirt (replete with tell-tale residues, cigarette smoke, vodka, Red Bull, bubblegum, cum), Susie on the modelling circuit, alternating between blind ambition and almost existential despair, Susie’s first line of coke, first magazine cover, first potential husband, then that audition for Phoenix Road and how her personal input into the character of Sharon O’Dwyer transformed a bit part into a pivotal one, a whiny young drug-dealer’s girlfriend into a semi-tragic gangland widow . . . a pretty face on TV into nothing less than a national sweetheart, all of which was followed by an increasingly desperate need to escape the role and take her career to what everyone around her, agents, publicists, showbiz columnists, insisted on calling, maddeningly, ‘the next level’. Which would be what? A presenting gig on TV? A part in a movie? She didn’t know, but on the road to this chimerical future there always seemed to be one more opening to go to, one more reality show to take part in – the last of these being the ill-fated Celebrity Death Row, in which Susie and seven others were to court the public vote in order to be spared a mock execution in the series finale. But accusations of bad taste and a frenzied debate over declining standards led to the show being cancelled after only two episodes, and hot on the heels of that came a messy break-up with corporate executive, Gary Lynch, number five in Susie’s usual-suspects line-up of potential husbands. The last few weeks of Susie’s life, therefore – and this seemed to be emerging as Maria’s central thesis – were extremely difficult ones. OK, she was out of control, taking too many drugs, smoking too many cigarettes, operating on little more than seething resentment and the energy rush that comes from a suppressed appetite – but she was also suffering at a much deeper level . . . she was miserably, profoundly unhappy and didn’t have the first clue what to do about it . . .
Watching Maria as she tells him all of this, Jimmy is struck by how animated she is, but also by how beautiful – and not in that overly obvious, cosmetics-model way that Susie had, it’s something more natural than that, and more vivid. In fact, it’s as if Maria has come alive, as if all along, despite appearances, each sister had been playing the other one’s role, and now in the quickening light of an outsider’s attention these roles were reversing, reverting.
Susie no longer alive.
Maria no longer dead.
As he drains his espresso, Jimmy is acutely aware of how twisted and fucked-up it is of him to be thinking like this, how unprofessional – but that’s what can happen when you leave the second-hand stuff on your desk and engage directly with a source, the game sometimes changes.
You lose your bearings.
Maria drains her espresso now, too. Looking around her in silence, she seems a little dazed from all the talking.
Jimmy studies her face – the devouring eyes, the pale skin, the freckles around her nose.
Then she starts up again. ‘So. Told you I was a talker. It feels good, though, and I suppose it means I trust you, Jimmy. Or that I’ve decided to trust you. Or something.’
He smiles. ‘That’s great, Maria, because as far as I’m concerned the more you talk the better it’ll be. But more talk will also mean more work.’ He gives a little back-and-forth flick to his hand. ‘More meetings like this one. Because up to now I’ve been focusing on the last chapter.’ He pauses. ‘The idea was to kind of . . . to try and get that out of the way first, and then –’
‘I understand,’ Maria says. ‘But don’t . . .’ She hesitates. ‘Look, in a weird way the crash should be the focus of the story. It’s what it builds up to. And it’s almost like the perfect metaphor. I mean, we’ll never know exactly what happened, but everything in Susie’s life seemed to be . . . inclining towards that moment.’
Jimmy swallows, then nods in agreement.
He wants to remind her that the metaphor mightn’t quite work for the other victims, but he holds back. It’s a tricky enough point – and maybe on one level Phil Sweeney is right – but they’ll find a way around it.
He’ll find a way around it. It’s his job.
Maria picks up her phone and looks at it. ‘I have to get back to work.’
Outside on Dawson Street they chat for a bit and seem reluctant to separate. At least that’s how it feels to Jimmy. After they do say their goodbyes, and Jimmy is heading along Duke Street – in something, it has to be said, of a dreamy haze – his phone rings.
He pulls it out and looks at the display.
He hesitates, but then answers it. ‘Hi, Phil.’
‘Jimmy, how are you doing? Look, I’ve been feeling bad since yesterday. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot like that, I really didn’t, it was a terrible thing to do, and I’m sorry.’ Jimmy slows down, doesn’t say anything, waits. ‘So I thought of you today when something else came up, a job you might be interested in.’
‘I’m already working on a job, Phil.’
‘There are jobs, Jimmy, and there are jobs. This is a fucking job.’
‘Just listen to me for a minute, will you? The Susie Monaghan book, dress it up whatever way you like, it’s only fluff, it’ll cause a blip in the Christmas market if you’re lucky and then that’s it, no one’ll ever hear of it again. But what I’ve got –’
‘Jesus, Phil –’
‘No wait, and don’t hang up on me, Jimmy, please. What I’ve got – and this only came up today, I swear to you – is a substantial piece of work. It’s something your old man would have loved.’
‘It’s political. A political memoir. You’d get to shape something that’ll be read and mulled over and put in reference libraries.’ He lets that hang for a second, then goes on. ‘Larry Bolger, yeah? He’s supposed to be putting his memoirs together, but the man can’t write to save his life, he needs help, someone who can organise his notes, interview him, someone who can turn a decent phrase . . . a fucking writer.’
Jimmy stands there, outside the Bailey, with the phone up to his ear.
He doesn’t speak.
Sweeney goes on. ‘You get access to his private papers, details of his meetings with Bush, Putin, the Pope, everyone, plus all the domestic stuff, the heaves and backroom intrigues, all that shit you love.’ Another pause. ‘Plus. Plus. It hasn’t been worked out yet, hasn’t been finalised, but what might actually turn out to be the most substantial part in all of this is the fee. Larry’s got a big contract, so you’d do pretty well out of it. Might even get to pay off that mortgage of yours . . .’
He leaves it there.
Jimmy’s insides turn. He stares down at the pavement. People pass in both directions, but no one gives him a second glance. Nothing odd in that, not anymore – man standing alone in the street, hand up at the side of his head, staring into space.
‘Jimmy? You interested? There’s a clock running on this. He’s already missed one deadline.’
‘Jimmy? Jimmy? You there?’
After a long pause, Jimmy exhales loudly.
‘Yeah, Phil,’ he says, ‘take it easy.’ He closes his eyes. ‘I’m here.’
Alan Glynn is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, where he studied English Literature, and has worked in magazine publishing in New York and as an EFL teacher in Italy. His second novel, Winterland, was published to huge acclaim in 2009, while his first novel The Dark Fields was released as the film Limitless - starring Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro - in Spring 2011. Join him on Twitter and at Facebook.