The Eloquence of the Dead: New Excerpt

The Eloquence of the Dead by Conor Brady is the second novel featuring Sergeant Joe Swallow in this fast-paced, Irish crime thriller (Available March 15, 2016).

“Bodies can tell you a lot. There can be an eloquence about the dead. But you have to be able to interpret what they are telling you… ”

When a Dublin Pawnbroker is found murdered and the lead suspect goes missing, Sergeant Joe Swallow is handed the poisoned chalice of the investigation. On the way he uncovers deep-rooted corruption, discovers the power of new, scientific detection techniques and encounters a ruthless adversary. With authorities pressing for a quick resolution, the public living in fear of attack and the newspapers happy to point to the police's every mistake, Swallow must use every trick in his arsenal to crack the case. 

THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 29TH, 1887

ONE

News of the murder of Ambrose Pollock at his pawn shop on Lamb Alley travelled swiftly through the Liberties.

His killing especially alarmed the shopkeepers and dealers. But there was nobody in Dublin of whom it could be said that they mourned him. And if ever he had a friend or anyone to speak warmly of him, nobody could remember who that might have been.

It was the brutal and mysterious circumstances in which he died that impacted mostly on the public consciousness, causing fear and anxiety to spread abroad in the city over the dry, shortening days of late September.

The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir David Harrel, did not attempt to deny that the murder of the pawnbroker and furniture dealer should have come to light sooner.

When the Assistant Under-Secretary for Security at the Castle, Howard Smith Berry, sought an explanation for the delay, the head of the detective office at Exchange Court, John Mallon, insisted that there had been nothing in the intelligence reports to suggest the imminence of any unusual criminal activity.

But Smith Berry’s personal security advisor, Major Nigel Kelly, was not persuaded. The word around the Castle was that the irascible ex-soldier from Belfast had given warnings about the laxity of the police in general, and the detective branch in particular.

Earlier, when the city Medical Examiner, Dr Harry Lafeyre, was called up to examine the body, its state of decomposition told him that the man had been dead for many days.

That the crime of murder could remain so long undetected on the flank of the Liberties, a stone’s throw from gates of Dublin Castle itself, was a serious failure of policing at a time when the administration desperately needed to show that it had the upper hand against crime and disorder.

The significance of various recent occurrences at Pollock’s only became apparent after Sergeant Stephen Doolan from Kevin Street police station had forced the back door of the shop earlier that morning.

The pawn shop and furniture dealer’s frontage faced across Cornmarket to the two churches, located side by side, both named in honour of St Audoen.

Dubliners were untroubled by this oddity of double nomenclature. One was Roman Catholic. The other, the older, was Church of Ireland. It was only fair, citizens argued reasonably, for both religious traditions to keep a partial claim on the peripatetic little Norman saint who had protected the city’s walls since the reign of King John.

Neighbours and customers reckoned that Ambrose Pollock was probably 60. His sister Phoebe with whom he operated the business was younger, perhaps 40. One side of the premises was occupied by a warehouse in which were stored the furniture that Ambrose bought and sold. In the trade, it was said that anything good that came into Pollock’s was sold on to the more lucrative London markets.

Brother and sister lived on two floors above the pawn shop. The greater volume of Pollock’s pawn business was drawn from the maze of poor streets, courts and alleys that stretched away towards The Coombe and the great, sprawling workhouse known as the South Dublin Union. But with the reputation of never refusing to make an offer on goods, however little that offer might be, it drew trade from across most of the poor, miserable areas of the city.

Phoebe dealt with customers in the pawn shop from behind a brass grille, while Ambrose monitored transactions though a half-frosted window from the back office. If he thought that she required direction on the price of any item brought in for pawn, he would rap sharply on the glass, then she would leave the counter and retreat to the back office to have his decision. It was Ambrose who determined charges, values and prices.

A grimy window with three pawnbroker’s spheres suspended overhead advertised Pollock’s to those with business on the main thoroughfare. But the entrance to the shop was around the corner on Lamb Alley.

Thus, while the pawn shop had a high visibility on the bustling commercial street, the entrance on the laneway enabled customers to come and go discreetly.

This was supposed to place a particular obligation upon patrolling constables of the A-Division. Officers walking the beats that touched on Cornmarket or High Street were to proceed through Lamb Alley to satisfy themselves that the premises of the pawnbrokers was secure. They were to note any unusual persons that might be encountered in the vicinity and to record anything that was irregular.

It was to emerge in the aftermath of Ambrose Pollock’s murder that these requirements had been allowed to fall into desuetude. Careless beat men no longer diverted into the alley, preferring to shorten their tour by continuing directly through Cornmarket. In reality, the premises were rarely checked. No intelligence was gathered on persons coming to it or going from it. Had it been otherwise, it is likely that the pawnbroker’s brutal murder would have been discovered more quickly.

A few days earlier, a young constable had just ascended the Forty Steps from the Liffey embankment to the curtilage wall of the older St Audoen’s. As he reached the street, he saw a closed car turning into Lamb Alley. It bore the trade livery of Findlater’s, Dublin’s most select grocers and wine merchants.

The policeman’s curiosity was aroused. None of the residents of Lamb Alley or its environs would be in the way of ordering their provisions from Findlater’s.

He crossed High Street, and turned into the alley. The deliveryman had drawn his vehicle to a halt outside the pawn shop entrance. The constable saw the driver’s helper open the doors of the car and drag an open basket to the tailboard. He balanced it briefly to adjust his grip and then hauled it through Pollock’s door.

The constable stepped across the alley and grinned up at the driver.

‘Things must be bad when the gentry are poppin’ their groceries into the pawn shop.’

The man laughed.

‘Ah, you’ve the wrong end of it. It’s an order from the woman of the house. Mind you, she must be plannin’ a good dinner and a fair sup of refreshment too.’

He winked, and raised his hand to his mouth, mimicking a drinking gesture.

The helper exited the shop and resumed his seat on the car. The deliveryman flicked the reins and moved off.

The policeman knew that Phoebe Pollock was not a woman who would send for expensive food and drink to be delivered to her door. Perhaps it was stolen property. Perhaps he had let the Findlater’s car depart too quickly. He pushed Pollock’s door and stepped into the shop.

Phoebe sat behind the counter as usual.

‘Is everythin’ all right, Ma’am?’

Phoebe Pollock smiled. The constable thought that when she smiled he could see the remnants of a once attractive woman. Behind her, in the back office, he could see her brother’s head and shoulders outlined through the frosted glass.

‘Why wouldn’t it be, Constable?’

‘I saw some unusual deliveries just comin’ in the door. You were expectin’ them?’

‘That was just some groceries I needed.’ She gestured airily at the shelves and display cabinets around her. ‘Everything here is grand, as you can see for yourself.’

The policeman returned to his beat. Why should he worry if people decided to spend their money in shops that charged double the prices they might pay in their own neighbourhood?

Later, at the station canteen, he joked about the incident. But he did not report it in the occurrence book. It was a negligence that was to cost him a reprimand and a deduction from pay.

On the following Wednesday, just before midnight, another more experienced beat officer had an unusual encounter a short distance from the pawn shop.

Some policemen disliked the beat section past the gates of old St Audeon’s. It was said that the place was haunted by a long-dead vicar whose malevolent ghost disliked human company. It was also a favourite dumping spot for nightsoil from the nearby tenements, where a dry privy might be shared by up to 100 people. The shit stank in the summer, and oozed across the pavement in the wet of winter.

So the constable had crossed High Street to take up an observation point in a shop door.

A slight, respectably dressed woman was crossing the street, picking her way over the cobbles. Even allowing for the uneven surface, her step seemed unsteady.

When she reached the pavement, he recognised Phoebe Pollock. She seemed to sway slightly on her feet as he approached.

‘Good night, Miss Pollock.’

In the street light, he could see that she was focusing with difficulty. She made a little shuffling step and put one hand out to the lamppost for support. The constable realised that Phoebe Pollock was drunk.

‘The footpath there is terrible broken and uneven,’ he said tactfully. ‘You’ll be makin’ for home, Miss. Sure, I’ll walk down that way with you.’

She reeked of alcohol, but she produced a key from her bag and after some fumbling managed to find the keyhole. She muttered a thank you and made her way inside. The policeman retreated to the corner of Lamb Alley, and watched the house until he saw a faint glow illuminate one of the upper rooms.

Later, he entered the incident in the occurrence book, noting Phoebe Pollock’s name and address and the time of their encounter.

Sergeant Stephen Doolan saw the entry the following morning when he went through the night patrol reports in the sergeants’ office. He crossed the corridor to the day room, where the morning shift of constables was preparing to parade.

‘Who’s on the first beat through High Street and Cornmarket?’

‘That’s me, Skipper,’ a constable put his hand up. ‘What’s on your mind?’

‘Get along up to Pollock’s. As soon as they open the door, go in and have a word to make sure everything is all right. One of the lads on the night shift found Phoebe Pollock the worse for wear out on the street at midnight.’

Every policeman knew the Pollock’s reputation as eccentrics who kept to themselves, but some older people in the district recalled when Phoebe was a pretty young woman, full of life, with many friends in the neighbouring houses and streets of Dublin’s Liberties.

There were chuckles and hoots across the parade room.

‘Jesus, she must have robbed the shop to be out spendin’ money on drink.’

‘Ould Ambrose wouldn’t approve. That fella has his first communion money – if he ever made a first communion.’

‘Sure them two is as tight as a frog’s hole. And that’s watertight.’

Later, the constable positioned himself at the junction of Lamb Alley and Cornmarket. Ordinarily, he knew, the shop would open between 9 o’clock and 9.30. But the hour came and went. At 10 o’clock, when the officer tried the door, he found it still locked. He walked back to peer through the window facing Cornmarket, but he could see no movement inside. At 10.30, when there was still no sign of life, he decided it was time to report to Kevin Street.

Twenty minutes later, Doolan took two men in from their beats and borrowed a ladder and a crowbar from the hardware shop on High Street. One of the beat men leaned the ladder against the back wall of Pollock’s. With an agility that belied his bulk, the bearded sergeant climbed over and dropped down into the small yard. The constable followed.

When the back door resisted the impact of their combined weight, Doolan jemmied the crowbar between the lock and the receiver, then he pulled hard on the metal bar. The wood splintered above and below the lock. They shouldered their way through.

They were hit by the unmistakable, cloying smell of death. Doolan drew a handkerchief from his pocket and clamped it across his mouth and nose.

It was only a few paces to the shop floor. There was no sign of Phoebe Pollock, but Doolan noticed that the high stool on which she was usually perched was now lying sideways on the floor.

His square of flannel did nothing to alleviate the smell. As he crossed to the counter with its brass railing, he could see Ambrose Pollock’s outline through the half-frosted glass window, seated as usual in the back office. The pawnbroker was in his customary chair with his back to the door, his head inclined at a slight angle towards the desk with its ledgers and account books.

But Ambrose Pollock was not at work. The back of his head was a dark mess. Shards of broken skull protruded through matted grey hair. When Doolan walked around the desk, he saw that the face and hands were a mottled black. A pool of crusted bodily fluid, agitated by the wriggling and heaving of white maggots, gathered where the dead man’s feet rested on the boards.

Doolan retreated across the shop to where the door exited to Lamb Alley and flung it open. He half-gagged, drawing the clean, fresh air from the street deep into his lungs.

The startled constable waiting in the alley placed a concerned hand on the senior man’s heaving shoulder.

‘Are y’all right, Sergeant? What’s after happenin’?’

‘Go down to Exchange Court and tell them to have the G-men up here fast. And get them to send for Doctor Lafeyre. There’s been murder done.’

 

Copyright © 2016 Conor Brady.

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Conor Brady is the former editor of The Irish Times. The Eloquence of the Dead is his second novel featuring Joe Swallow. He lives in Dublin.

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