Police at the Station and They Don't Look Friendly by Adrian McKinty is the 6th Detective Sean Duffy novel (available March 7, 2017).
Belfast 1988: A man is found dead, killed with a bolt from a crossbow in front of his house. This is no hunting accident. But uncovering who is responsible for the murder will take Detective Sean Duffy down his most dangerous road yet, a road that leads to a lonely clearing on a high bog where three masked gunmen will force Duffy to dig his own grave.
Hunted by forces unknown, threatened by Internal Affairs, and with his relationship on the rocks, Duffy will need all his wits to get out of this investigation in one piece.
PROLOGUE: YOU CAN’T TRUST A SPECIAL LIKE THE OLD-TIME COPPERS
Blue dark, red dark, yellow dark.
Snow glinting in the hollows. The Great Bear and the Pole Star visible between zoetroping tree limbs.
The wood is an ancient one, a relic of the vast Holocene forest that once covered all of Ireland but which now has almost completely gone. Huge oaks half a millennium old; tangled, many-limbed hawthorns; red-barked horse chestnuts.
“I don’t like it,” the man behind the man with the gun says.
“Just put up with it. My feet are getting wet, too,” the man with the gun replies.
“It’s not just that. It’s these bloody trees. I can hardly see anything. I don’t like it. It’s spooky, so it is.”
“Ach, ya great girl ya, pull yourself together.”
But it is indeed spooky out here, in the hulking shadows of these venerable oaks, four hours after midnight, in the middle of nowhere, while Ireland sleeps, while Ireland dreams . . .
The little rise is a deceptively steep incline that takes my breath away, and I can see that I am going to need my new inhaler if it keeps up. The inhaler, of course, is back in the glove compartment of the car because I haven’t yet acquired the habit of taking it with me everywhere. Not that it will make any difference in a few minutes anyway. A bullet in the head will fix an incipient asthma attack every time.
“Hurry up there,” the man with the gun growls and for emphasis pokes the ugly snub nose of the revolver hard into my back.
I say nothing and continue to trudge at the same pace through the nettle banks and ferns and over huge, lichen-covered yew roots.
We walk in silence for the next few minutes. Victim. Gunman. Gunman’s assistants. It is a cliché. This exact scene has played out at least a thousand times since 1968 all over rural Ulster. I myself have been the responding officer on half a dozen bodies found face down in a sheugh, buried in a shallow grave, or dumped in a slurry pit on the high bog. The victims always show ligature marks on the wrists where they have been cuffed or tied, and the bullet is always a headshot behind the left or right ear, usually from less than a meter away and almost always from above.
Trudge, trudge, trudge we go up the hill, following a narrow forest trail.
If I was so inclined I could believe in the inherent malevolence of this place: moonlight distorting the winter branches into scarecrows, the smell of rotting bog timber, and just beyond the path, in the leaf litter on the forest floor, those high-pitched unsettling sounds that must be the life-and-death skirmishes of small nocturnal animals. But the pathetic fallacy has never been my cup of tea, and I’m no romantic either. Neither God, nor nature, nor St. Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of policemen, is coming to save me. I have to save me. These men are going to kill me unless I can talk or fight my way out of it.
A firebreak in the forest.
Is the blue a little lighter in the east? Maybe it’s later than I thought. The interrogation didn’t seem to go on too long, but you lose track of time when you’re tied to a chair with a hood on your head. Could it be five in the morning? Five thirty? They’ve taken my watch so I can’t know for sure, but wasps and bluebottles are beginning to stir, and if you listen you can hear the first hints of the morning chorus: blackbirds, robins, wood pigeons. Too early in the year for cuckoos, of course.
Who is going to teach Emma about the birds and their calls when they shoot me? Will Beth still drive out to Donegal so Emma can spend time with her grandparents? Probably not. Probably Beth will move to England after this.
Maybe that would be for the best anyway.
There’s no future in this country.
The future belongs to the men behind me with the guns. They’re welcome to it. Over these last fifteen years I’ve done my best to fight entropy and carve out a little local order in a sea of chaos. I have failed. And now I’m going to pay the price of that failure.
“Come on Duffy, no slacking now,” the man with the gun says.
We cross the firebreak and enter the wood again.
Just ahead of us on the trail a large old crow flaps from a hawthorn branch and alerts all the other crows that we are blundering toward them. Caw, caw, caw!
Always liked crows. They’re smart. As smart as the cleverest dog breeds. Crows can recall human faces for decades. They know the good humans and the bad humans. When these thugs forget what they’ve done to me this morning, the crows will remember.
Comforting that. My father taught me the calls and the collective nouns of birds before I even knew my numbers. Murder of crows, unkindness of ravens, kit of wood pigeons, quarrel of—
“Don’t dillydally, get a move on there, Duffy! I see what you’re about! Keep bloody walking,” the man with the gun says.
“It’s the slope,” I tell him and look back into his balaclava-covered face.
“Don’t turn your head, keep walking,” he says and pokes me in the back with the revolver again. If my hands weren’t cuffed I could use one of those pokes to disarm him the way that Jock army sergeant taught us in self-defense class back in 1980. When you feel the gun in your back you suddenly twist your whole body perpendicular to the gunman, presenting only air as your hands whip around and grab his weapon hand. After that it’s up to you—break the wrist and grab the gun or kick him in the nuts and grab the gun. The Jock sergeant said that you’ve got about a seventy-five percent chance of successfully disarming your opponent if you’re fast enough. Lightning turn, speedy grab, no hesitation. We all knew that the sergeant had pulled those statistics right out of his arse, but even if it was only one chance in ten it was better than being shot like a dog.
Moot point this morning, though. My hands are behind my back in police handcuffs. Even if I do spin round fast enough I can’t grab the gun, and if I suddenly make a break for it I am sure to fall over or get shot in the back.
No, my best chance will be if I can talk to them, try to persuade them; or, if that doesn’t work (and it almost certainly won’t), then I’ll have to try something when they uncuff me and give me the shovel to dig my own grave. I will certainly be going into a grave. If they just wanted to kill a copper, they would have shot me at the safe house and dumped my body on a B road and called the BBC. But not me, me they have been told to disappear. Hence this walks in the woods, hence the man behind the man with the gun carrying a shovel. The question is why? Why does Duffy have to disappear when killing a peeler would be a perfect morale boost for the cause at this time?
There can only be one reason why. Because if my body actually shows up it’ll bring heat on Harry Selden, and Harry Selden, despite his professions of innocence, does not want heat.
The gradient increases and I try to calm my breathing.
Easy does it now, Sean, easy does it.
I walk around a huge fallen oak lying there like a dead god.
The earth around the oak is soft, and I slip on a big patch of lichen and nearly go down.
“Cut that out!” the man with the gun growls as if I’ve done it on purpose.
I right myself somehow and keep walking.
Don’t dillydally, he said earlier.
You don’t hear that expression much anymore. He must be an older man. Older than he sounds. I might be able to talk to a man like that . . .
Out of nowhere a song comes back to me, played 4/4 time by my grandfather on the concertina:
My old man said “Foller the van, and don’t dilly dally on the way.” Off went the van wiv me ’ome packed in it, I followed on wiv me old cock linnet.
But I dillied and dallied. Dallied and dillied,
Now you can’t trust a special like the old-time coppers,
When you’re lost and broke and on your uppers . . .
The concertina playing is note perfect but the singing . . . my grandfather, who was from a very well-to-do street in Foxrock, Dublin, couldn’t do a Cockney accent to save his life.
Isn’t that strange, though? The whole song, lurking there in my memory these twenty-five years.
Oh yes, concertinas look fiendishly complicated, Sean, but they’re easy when you get the hang of them.
Sure. Have a go, let me show you how to—
“Jesus will you hurry up, you peeler scum!” the man with the gun says. “You think you have nothing to lose? We don’t have to make this quick, you know. We don’t have to be easy on you.”
“This is you going easy?”
“We’ve let you keep your bollocks, haven’t we?”
“I’m going as fast as I can. You try walking through this lot with your hands cuffed behind your back. Maybe if you undid these handcuffs, which you’ve put on far too tight anyway.”
“Shut up! No one told you to speak. Shut up and keep bloody moving.” “OK. OK.”
Trudge, trudge, trudge up the hill.
The slope increases again and the forest is thinning out. At the edge of it I can see sheep fields and hills, and perhaps to the north that dark smudge is the Atlantic Ocean. We are only a forty-five minute drive from Belfast, but we are in another world completely, far from planes and machines, far from the visible face of the war. Another Ireland, another age. And yes, the stars are definitely less clear now, the constellations fading into the eggshell sky. Dawn is coming, but dawn won’t save me. I’ll be dead before sun-up if they are even half-way competent, which I think they are.
“What is the matter with them?” the man with the gun mutters to himself. “Hurry up you two!” he yells to the others.
I’ve been told not to look back, but this confirms what I’ve suspected. Of the five men who lifted me, one is waiting back at the car, one is waiting at the bottom of the trail to be a look-out, and the other three are going to do the deed itself.
“All right, no one told you to stop, keep going, Duffy!” the man with the gun says.
I shake my head. “I need to catch my breath. I’m asthmatic,” I reply. “I’m having trouble breathing.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you!”
“I’m asthmatic. They diagnosed it at my physical.”
“My police physical. I thought it was just too much smoking, but the doctor said I had developed asthma. I’ve got an inhaler.” “Rubbish!”
“Did you bring your inhaler?”
“Nope. It’s back in the glove compartment of my car.”
“What’s going on? Are we going to top him here?” one of the two others asks, catching up. The one complaining about the spooky trees. The one with the shovel.
“He claims he’s got asthma. He says he can’t breathe,” the man with the gun says.
“Aye, cold morning like that will give it to you. Our Jack has asthma,” this second man says. Younger than the man with the gun, he’s wearing a denim jacket, tight bleached jeans, and white sneakers. The shovel is an old model: heavy wooden handle, cast-iron blade, low center of gravity . . .
“I don’t believe in asthma. Asthma’s a modern invention. Fresh air is all you need,” the man with the gun says.
“Well you can talk to our Jack’s mum, she’s been to the best doctors on the Waterside, so she has.”
The third man reaches us. He’s smaller than the others. He’s wearing a brown balaclava and a flying jacket.
No, not he. It’s a woman. She didn’t speak during the car ride, but
if I’d been smarter I would have twigged that that smell in the back was her perfume. Thought it was the car’s air freshener. She also is carrying a gun. An old .45. Look at that gun. US Army issue. 1930s’ model ACP. That’s been in somebody’s shoebox since the GIs were here in WWII. There wouldn’t be any suffering with a weapon like that. Wouldn’t even hear the shot. An instantaneous obliteration of consciousness. Wouldn’t feel anything. Sentience into darkness just like that. And then, if Father McGuigan is correct, an imperceptible passage of time followed by the resurrection of the body at the End of Days . . .
“Is this it? Is this the spot?” she asks.
“No, we’ve a wee bit to go yet,” the man with the revolver says. “Can we just do it here? We’re miles from everybody,” shovel man wonders.
“We do it where we’re told to do it,” the leader insists. “It’s not far now, anyway. Here, let me show you.”
He unfolds a homemade map on thick, coarse paper. It’s like no cartography I have ever seen, filled with esoteric symbols and pictograms and mysterious crisscrossing paths and lines. The guy’s an eccentric who makes his own maps. In other circumstances entirely we’d probably get on like a house on fire.
“What is this? Some new thing from the Ordnance Survey?” the woman asks.
“No! God no. ‘Ordnance Survey,’ she says.”
“What is it?”
“Each one of us should make a surveyor’s map of his lost fields and meadows. Our own map. With our own scale and legend,” the man with the gun says.
“What do you mean ‘our lost fields’?” the woman says irritably. “He’s quoting Gaston Bachelard,” I say.
“Who asked you? Shut up!” the man with the gun snaps.
“Gaston who?” the man with the shovel wonders.
“Look him up. There’s more to life than the pub, the bookies, and the dole office, you know. Asthma my arse! There is no asthma. Have you noticed that none of us have fallen? Have you noticed how quickly
our feet have become accustomed to the ground?” the man with the gun says.
“Not really,” the woman replies.
“For the last half hour our eyes have been secreting rhodopsin. We’re adapting to the dark. That’s why you have to get outside, away from artificial illumination. Good for the eyes, good for the soul.”
“Rhodopsin?” the woman asks.
“It’s a protein receptor in the retina. It’s the chemical that rods use
to absorb photons and perceive light. The key to night vision.”
“What on earth are you talking about, Tommy?” the woman says. “No names!”
“Ach, what does it matter if we use our names? Sure he’s going to be dead soon, anyway,” the man with the shovel says.
“Doesn’t matter if he’s going to be dead or not. It’s the protocol! No names. Did youse ever listen during the briefings? Bloody kids!” Tommy mutters and folds away his map in a huff.
“Is it much further?” the woman asks.
“Come on, let’s get moving,” Tommy shouts, pointing the gun at me again.
Trudge, trudge, trudge up the hill, but it must be said that I have learned much in this little interaction. The man with the gun is about forty-five or fifty. A school biology teacher? All that stuff about protein receptors . . . No, he probably read all that in New Scientist magazine and remembered it. Not biology. Doesn’t seem like the type who was smart enough to get a pure science degree. Geography, maybe. Bit of a hippy, probably a lefty radical, and that was definitely a Derry accent. We almost certainly went to the same rallies in the early seventies. Definitely a Catholic too, which would mean he’s probably a teacher at St. Columb’s, St. Joseph’s, or St. Malachy’s. That’s a lot to work with. And he’s the leader, a couple of decades older than the other two. If I can turn him, the rest will snap into line.
A big if.
“Rhodopsin my foot. I fell,” shovel man says, passing the woman the water bottle. “Twice. And it’s going to be worse going downhill. Mark my words. We’ll all be going arse over tit. You’ll see.”
The woods are thinning out a bit now and in the far west I can see headlights on a road. Ten miles away, though, and going in the other direction. No help from there.
A gust of clear, elemental wind blows down from the hilltop. I’m only wearing jeans and a T-shirt and my DMs. At least it’s my lucky Che Guevara T-shirt, hand-printed and signed by Jim Fitzpatrick himself. If a dog walker or random hiker finds my body a few years hence, and the T-shirt hasn’t decayed, maybe they’ll be able to identify me from that.
“Careful on this bit!” Tommy says. “It’s mucky as anything. There’s a bog hole over there. Dead ewe in it. But once we’re through that, we’re there.”
We wade through a slew of black tree roots and damp earth and finally arrive at a dell in the wood that must be the designated execution spot.
It’s a good place to kill someone. The ring of trees will muffle the gunshots, and the overhanging branches will protect the killers from potential spying eyes in helicopters and satellites.
“We’re here,” Tommy says, looking at his map again.
“There must have been a better way to come than this,” shovel man says, exhausted. “Look at my trainers. These were brand new gutties! Nikes. They are soaked through to the socks.”
“That’s all you can say? Look at my gutties! Complain, complain, complain. Do you have no sense of decorum? This is a serious business. Do you realize we’re taking a man’s life this morning?” Tommy says.
“I realize it. But why we have to do it in the middle of nowhere halfway up a bloody mountain I have no idea.”
“And here’s me thinking you’d appreciate the gravity of the task, or even a wee bit of nature. Do you even know what these are?” Tommy asks, pointing at the branches overhead.
“Elm trees! For all we know maybe the last elm trees in Ireland.” “Elm trees my arse.”
“Aye, as if you know trees. You’re from West Belfast,” Tommy snarls. “There are trees in Belfast. Trees all over the shop! You don’t have
to live in a forest to know what a bloody tree is. You know who lives in
the woods? Escaped mental patients. Place is full of them. And cultists.
Ever see The Wicker Man? And big cats. Panthers. The Sunday World
has a photograph of—”
“Gentlemen, please,” the woman says, reaching us. “Are we finally
here, or what?”
“We’re here,” Tommy mutters.
“Well let’s get this over with then,” she says.
“Uncuff him and give him the spade,” Tommy says.
Shovel man uncuffs me and leaves the shovel on the ground next to
me. All three of them stand way back to give me room.
“You know what to do, Duffy,” Tommy says.
“You’re making a big mistake,” I say to him, looking into his brown
eyes behind the balaclava. “You don’t realize what you’re doing. You’re
being used. You’re—”
Tommy points the revolver at my crotch.
“I’ll shoot you in the bollocks if you say one more word. I’ll make
you dig with no nuts. Now, shut up and get to work.”
I rub my wrists for a moment, pick up the shovel and start to
dig. The ground is damp and soft and forgiving. It won’t take me ten
minutes to dig a shallow grave through this stuff.
Everyone is staying well out of shovel-swinging range. They may be
new at this, but they’re not stupid.
“I’ll be glad when this is over,” the woman whispers to the younger
man. “I’m dying for a cup a tea.”
“And I could do with a ciggie. Can’t believe I left them back at the
farm,” he replies.
“Tea and cigarettes is all they can think about when we’re taking a
man’s life,” Tommy growls to himself.
“It’s easy for you, you don’t smoke. I . . .”
I turn down the volume so they’re nothing more than background
I think of Beth and Emma as I dig through a surprising line of
chalk in all this peat. Chalk.
Emma’s smile, Beth’s green eyes.
Let that be the last thing in my consciousness. Not the babel of
these misguided fools.
Always knew that death was a strong possibility in my line of work,
but it was absurd that that banal case of the dead drug dealer in Car-
rickfergus could have led to this. As standard a homicide as you’re ever
likely to see in Ulster. Ridiculous.
Gasping for . . .
Having trouble breathing again.
They think I’m faking it.
I have taxed their patience.
Someone pushes me and I go down.
Spread-eagled on my back in the black peat.
“Let’s just top him now,” a voice says from a thousand miles away.
“Yeah, all right.”
Above me treetops, crows, sky.
And the yellow dark, the red dark, and the deep blue dark . . .
Copyright © 2017 Adrian McKinty.
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Adrian McKinty is the author of eighteen novels, including the Detective Sean Duffy novels The Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, In the Morning I'll Be Gone, Gun Street Girl, and Rain Dogs and the standalone historical The Sun Is God. Born and raised in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, McKinty was called “the best of the new generation of Irish crime novelists” in the Glasgow Herald.