A foreign-looking woman appeared to be running the show here. Her murmured conversation slowed while she eyed me heading down between the tables.
In front of Bernie Cummins was a flat white; it looked untouched. There was something odd about her face. Her greeting, if I could’ve call it that, was a flutter of the lips and a raising and lowering of eyebrows. I drew in a chair.
“Ah Tommy, thanks very much. Long time and all that. How are you?”
“Not too bad thanks, Mrs. Cummins.”
I stole a quick close-up as she shifted on her chair. She definitely looked shook. Her skin was a strange colour, as though it has been bleached, or stretched or something. If it was make-up doing that, it belonged in Madame Tussaud’s. And if she spent money on that strange-looking hair, that was money wasted too.
“Yes,” she said, pausing to swallow, “thanks very much for coming. You’re great.”
I swiveled another look Lug-face’s way. The flat eyes looked painted on, dummy eyes with nothing coming through from behind. A bit of a cliché in my line of work, but not to be underestimated all the same.
“Mrs. Cummins. This fella here. He’s with you, is he?”
“Well yes. Tony likes him to, you know, help out.”
I turned to Lug-face.
“Go and be helpful, will you. Somewhere out of earshot.”
His eyes skipped between Bernie Cummins and me and then he looked away. Orders came from Tony, no doubt. She shifted in her seat again.
“I don’t mean to be rude now,” she said. “But Gerry takes his responsibilities to heart. He’s very protective. To a fault, like.”
‘Gerry.’ I considered telling Bernie Cummins to pull the other one. To wit, that I’d bet a week’s pay that her Gerry here was currently in possession of a firearm. Thus and therefore he’d get five to ten for that. More to the point, she’d be up the creek as well.
“Mrs. Cummins? Any talk is between you and me. This bloke here is a spoiler.”
She rubbed at the tip of her nose. Gerry slid his eyes back toward her. Discovery Channel, I thought. The eyes of some deep-sea creature gliding over the sea-bed.
“It’s okay Gerry,” she said then. “Really. We know one another. I’ll be grand.”
His parting message was a long slow blink. I noted the twitchy hand as he walked away. In case I missed that, he issued a reminder on his way to the door - a half-hearted kick at one of the stools. The woman on the phone looked from me to Bernadette Cummins and back.
“She’s so proud of you, your Ma.” This observation she directed at her cup. She was trying to smile, and failing. “So proud.”
The manager-woman was preparing to head over. She was biting her lip and holding her breath. I waved her off.
“Listen, Mrs. Cummins. I’m not applying for a job here.”
She flexed her eyebrows and eyed her unwanted coffee. Through the window I saw that Gerry had found his spot on the footpath outside. He had a belly on him, but he’d still be bad news if he got in close. I teased up the sleeve of my jacket to check my watch.
“I appreciate your situation,” she said then. “This is about Gary.”
“Gary, your son.”
“It’s too much for us, what’s going on. It’s too much.”
I’ll never be in the running for a Nobel Peace Prize, but at this point I possibly earned one. The proof was in what I did not say to Bernie Cummins there and then. Bernie baby? Son number one was a violent, sadistic criminal. Son number two is a wash-out, a criminal. Not even a successful one, if I remember right. And now you come crying to the Guards because Son Number Two maybe got what the universe wants him to get?
“Darren,” she says, drawing a breath, “what happened, that was bad. Very bad. It couldn’t be worse, I used to think. Not a word of a lie, it nearly killed us, what happened.”
What happened. The words thudded in my head. ‘Happened’? Did this woman go around with a box on her head? Things just ‘happened’ in her world? I noted a tremor in her face as she hoisted her gaze from the cup.
“But it is,” she whispered. “It’s worse.”
My brain stuttered trying to recall how long ago Darren Cummins had met his maker.
“It’s hitting us very, very hard,” she added. “Tony, my husband, as much as me.”
And now I thought: my God, this woman, she played my Ma like a Stradivarius. Just then, as though she had a side line in mind rearing too, she looked up.
“I need to tell you something first,” she said. Her gaze sharpened. “Tony knows we’re having this little chat. He said to make sure that I told you that early on. So’s you’d know.”
I half-closed my eyes to try to hide any show of interest. A thought dropped back into my mind: OK then, here we go. We have hit part b) of the set-up – the bait.
She was waiting for a response.
“You’re telling me that he’s OK with us talking here.”
“That’s right,” she said. “And Tony wants you to know something else too. That he never, ever had anything to do with what happened to your brother, to Terry. Never.”
Her ‘never, ever’ clanged in my mind like saucepans falling down concrete steps.
“Really? Once upon a time, there was a little Duck and his name was Donald.”
“Really,” she said. “On my word.”
“And Donald’s best friend was called Goofy.”
“Tony is totally for this chat,” she said, her voice firming. “Totally. We need help, is what I’m saying. Me and Tony. We need help.”
I turned away and gave the café a long, slow, and sour survey. It wasn’t such a bad place at all really. I should just get over this nag I had for the whole coffee thing. The waitress / owner / manager was back on her phone, but she was watching us too.
“For Gary,” Bernie Cummins said. “For finding Gary, I mean.”
“Phone the Guards, Mrs. Cummins. The Garda Help Line.”
“But we need the kind of help that’ll get results.”
“You could try Crime Call too. Put up posters and so forth?”
Her eyes lost the little spark they had had.
“I think you know what I mean,” she said.
A bus took its time going by. Something about the resigned looks on peoples’ faces there reminded me that I needed to cop on here. Because I now had a fight on my hands. Here before me, meek and washed-out looking, sat my Ma’s childhood friend. Her lifelong friend. And yes, another Ma who had lost her son. And Ma, she never asked for much.
But I couldn’t just give in.
“Listen, Mrs. Cummins -”
“- Bernie, please. Call me Bernie.”
“Mrs. Cummins. Listen to me. I am the exact wrong person for you. You mightn’t know this, but some of the people I work with, they imagine things. To do with my background.”
“Oh they look at you twice because you’re Crumlin-reared.” The faint smile only made her look more wrecked. “But I’m not asking you personally, Tommy. No, no.”
“I don’t get it. Why am I here then?”
“I’m only – we’re only, I should say - asking you to see what can be done to find Gary, and to let them know that we’re so worried and all that, and...”
She ran out of harmless-sounding words that don’t say death, or kill, or murder.
“You’re asking me to make sure that Missing Persons is doing its job?”
She looked out the window as though to reassure Lug-face aka Gerry that she wasn’t in danger.
“We want Gary back,” she said. “We need him back. That’s all that matters to us.”
Maybe she thought I was thick, because she didn’t wait long to follow up.
“And I’m telling you, Tony’s on board. You know what that means, I’m sure.”
‘On board.’ I looked her in the eye but she looked by me.
A couple came in the door of the café. The way Gerry was staring through the glass at them it was a wonder that their backs weren’t on fire. Watching them dithering about where to sit gave me time to think, though. I had a bad feeling about this. It was a cod, a well-rehearsed, well-thought-out cod. It was coming from a smart, shrewd woman who’d stayed married to a gangster. A Bernie Cummins that my Ma, God help her, could probably never guess at.
“Approaching the Guards is his idea. That’s what you’re telling me?”
A bit of life came back into her eyes.
“Not ‘the Guards’ - you. He says, if you want to chat with him, that’s OK. You only, mind.”
Her matter-of-fact tone only made it weirder. All I could muster was a blank look.
“You know where Tony is, I’m sure. He’s not one to bellyache now, but there’s always pressure. Pressure from different quarters.” She turned a hazy look on me. “People at odds with him, people who’d be looking for an opening. And it happens, doesn’t it? The wrong people get put together at the wrong time. The ‘scheduling errors?’”
I saw her fail to hide a grimace then. A sharp intake of breath followed. She sat very still. When she spoke again, each word came slowly and carefully, as though squeezed under a door.
“People think strange things. Stuff about my husband, I mean. Stories get put out, all kinds of yarns, about so-and-so talking to someone else. The trouble is, all those rumours going around, nobody cares if they’re rubbish or not. Right?”
“It sounds to me like you know a lot about the inside of a prison.”
Unkind, yes. But it didn’t seem to register with her.
“So here we are,” she said. “And we’d appreciate your help.”
My anger had been coming to a slow boil. First the set-up, now the sting. Did they actually take me for such a gobshite?
“Tell me something, Mrs. Cummins. The wire - is it hard to fit? Is it itchy?”
Her eyes narrowed in confusion.
“But maybe it’s not your first time. With a wire, I mean.”
“You know that I’m reporting this. This approach.”
“As an attempted bribery of a Garda officer.”
I even knew the proper name of the charge to tell her, if she asked – Prevention of Corruption Act. It had come up in the Sergeants’ test.
She sat upright and frowned at me. For the first time, she appeared shocked.
“Here’s the thing, Mrs. Cummins. I’ve been telling you things. All right? Now, you appeared to be listening, but I don’t know if you actually heard me. So I’ll tell you again. I’m not Tommy somebody, whose Ma is an old pal of yours. I’m Detective Sergeant Malone.”
“But it’s not that,” she said. “It’s not that at all, no.”
“It’s not what?”
“No, no,” she said again, and she raised her hand in protest. “It’s not for you, not personally, no. This can be for everyone’s benefit. Everyone, yes.”
Something gave way then. I just laughed. It was a real laugh too, the kind I hadn’t had for a long, long time. The couple just arrived began eyeing us big-time. The one behind the counter muttered into the phone like she was a ventriloquist, but her eyes remained locked on me.
Oddly, Bernie Cummins didn’t seem put out.
“All right,” I told her then. “Let me make a guess. Criminal Assets are parked in your kitchen. They’re putting the heavy word on you. So you know you’re bunched. That’s why we’re having our chat here. Right?”
“I don’t know anything about criminal assets.”
I wanted to laugh at this one too, but I couldn’t.
“Look,” she said. Her frown cut deeper. “That’s what I’m saying to you. I – we, we’re not trying to give you anything personally like. It’s just that Tony says anything has to come through you, anything he might have to say. Nobody else, just you.”
“You told me that already, him going along with your idea, to get in touch with my Ma.”
“Well not exactly.”
“‘Not exactly’ means what?”
“It was Tony’s idea in the first place. He remembered you. You see?”
It felt like everything had suddenly been hoovered out of the space between us.
“We want Gary back. Even if he has to go to jail. We can’t take this, we just can’t.”
Her words hung in the air a while.
“So Tony’s ready,” she added then. “All you have to do is ask.”
My full-bore stare wasn’t enough to stop her gaze veering away. She looked very shook now. Now I understood why her face looked odd earlier. It wasn’t just the pallor. Where her eyebrows were supposed to be, there was just skin.
As hard as Lug-face was staring in at me, I felt he was looking through me too. That look was familiar. I used to think it was hatred plain and simple, but after meeting enough specimens like Gerry here, I began to believe that there was it held a specific message. If it comes to the crunch, it says, it wouldn’t matter a good goddamn to him whether I was a copper or not.
Bernie Cummins had settled a stare on the table top. Our meeting, our ‘chat,’ was over.
She got up slowly, pausing a few moments before straightening up. Lug-Face Gerry’s marine creature stare stayed clamped on me while he held open the door for her. I noted how carefully she walked through the doorway. In my mind I played out the little speech that I could’ve, possibly should’ve, recited. Listen here to me now, Mrs. Cummins. A word to the wise. If what you told me here turns out to be real, and it’s not a stitch-up or a scam, you won’t be dictating how this goes. And that incarcerated husband of yours, Mr. Tony bleeding Cummins, won’t be either.