“So they found it at last Skipper. The er…. You know?”
Macker had moved on to his gormless smile. I couldn’t read anything into it though.
“That snapshot? You with the brassers? Drinking the bubbly off their knockers?”
I pretended to study a small man with very thick glasses and a small, hyper dog, walking by.
“Come on Skip. Facebook? Instagram? It’s just a matter of time. No hiding nowadays.”
Why would you keep a dog like that, I thought. ‘Senior officer,’ Delaney had said. He hadn’t said who or from where. Serious Crimes? Gangs? But Delaney’s sparing words were like morse code – the gaps were the story. Which meant, probably, that meeting with Bernie Cummins before clearing it first had landed me in such a pile of shite that Delaney almost pitied me.
“You’re going to have to hold the fort on your own for a bit. I have a meeting.”
Macker nodded, pretended to consider this. Two buses arrived in a row, empty. A Skoda went by with two serious-looking heads in it. No antennae though. I checked the time again. ‘Happens to be in your area,’ Delaney had said. Really?
But it was true. With a well-timed U-turn, a new-looking green Avensis swept suddenly alongside. This stunt driver flexed an eyebrow and gave Macker a cheeky look.
“Holy God.” Macker’s sly tone had evaporated. “Is that who I fecking think it is?”
It was. Inspector Éamonn Nolan was on his mobile. The Avensis moved on ahead to a bus stop. Stepping out on the footpath, I at least had the fleeting pleasure of slamming shut my door on some question from Macker. The speed of things was doing a number on my head, though. One minute I was moping around the apartment with Sonia on my mind, or steeling myself for the ritual at the graveyard. Then, not two hours ago, I ended up sitting in a café across the table from the wife of one of Ireland’s biggest gangsters …of recent times, anyway. And now I just got a go-go order from Delaney to drop everything and meet this Nolan?
Pulling open the door of the Avensis whooshed out a whiff of leather jacket and tired-smelling aftershave. There was no handshake on offer. Nolan was still on a call. He was a Dub, I knew, but he had none of the stabby-eyed gurrier look to him. He looked almost international. Still, I was hearing enough of the accent to remind me that he was one of the Chosen. That’s what we used to call Dubs who joined the Guards. That was all changed. We had Polish Guards now, even a Chinese one.
Nolan thumbed his Mute and looked up with a conspirator-type smile.
“So how’s it going there.”
“It’s going so-so.”
“Only so-so?” He slid a print-out from a folder and held it up. “Know who belongs to this face?”
A later-model Gary Cummins. He was running to fat. The hazy, withdrawn eyes looked glassy; too stoned maybe to beam out the hatred. Hair was all over the place. I doubted it was a cat scrawbing that gave him that fair-sized scratch over his eyebrow. Maybe a well-deserved clip on the ear from one of ours. I saw not one feature to tell me that Bernadette Cummins was this man’s mother.
“That was eighteen months ago,” Nolan said. “He’s only gone downhill since. Seen him lately?”
“No. Actually I wouldn’t be sure if that was Gary or Darren.”
Something about the way Nolan tugged at his nose announced to me that the bloke I was now conversing with had a serious temper. Nolan shrugged off some notion and put the page down. He muttered something to the driver, hit Mute again and turned away. The nearest he came to giving away anything in his phone conversation was: ‘Santry, for Christ’s sakes? Again?’
We pulled quickly back into traffic. We were soon flaking away down Parnell Street, off in the direction of – well, I had no clue. Shite City, I suspected. Nolan ended his call, eased back against the door and rested a pseudo-friendly stare on me.
“So. Is Bernie Cummins on the level?”
“I have no idea one way or the other.”
The timed delay told me he was not thrilled with that answer.
“And when did you plan to report this approach from Bernie Cummins?”
“When I got back to HQ. I wasn’t going to do it over the phone.”
Nolan turned around to look at something.
“See that, Mick?” he said. “Outside the pub?”
The driver nodded like he’d finally gotten his head around Quantum Theory. ‘Mick,’ huh. His practice of eyeing me in the mirror with massive disdain had gotten my goat. Nolan’s mobile went off again. I faked an interest in the street. More data began to trickle in from the old memory banks. I was in the presence of the legendary Liam Nolan. Super-cop, the man who lived and breathed the whole war-on-crime stuff. The word fast-track had been invented for him. He hit Inspector grade by thirty, with FBI and Europol courses under his belt to boot. It didn’t hurt that he had ace timing either. He got the nod back when those three fellas had gotten shot to bits in Clondalkin in the space of forty-eight hours. Everyone was jumping up and down, screaming about gangs running wild and what in the name of God were we going to do et cetera.
That was when the Commissioner went Rambo and let the Organized Crime Unit off the leash. Get in their faces, said he. Get in their faces and take them down, said he. Those were his exact words, in an interview. There was cheering in the stations and patrol cars that day. No more rounding up shitehawks and calling it proper police work. No, this’d be hell for leather, with bells on. Whatever the OCU wanted, the OCU got: coppers cherry-picked from Dublin stations and Special Detective Units. Pursuit Range Rovers, use-of-force cars. Uzis, H and Ks. Dockets cleared for the Special Criminal Courts. The whole fandango.
Nolan got his Oscar moment soon after. It came one night up in Monaghan when a bust on a diesel washing outfit turned into a free-for-all gunfight. Nolan, along with anyone in their right mind, knew full well the IRA was behind the operation, and he and his task force were good and ready for them. It ended with a hell of a bang: a getaway car turned into a colander by Garda Uzis, two hard chaws stone dead, and a surviving hard chaw with no less than seven rounds in him. This episode sprung Nolan into 2-I-C of the Organized Crime Unit. His photo showed up on the cover of Garda Review a week after, a marathoner’s ribbon or something around his neck. Hardman copper numero uno. Deadly.
We turned into Ship Street, one of the few real old cobblestone streets that ran along the wall of Dublin Castle. Nolan waved driver Mick to pull over. We waited out a few ‘ahas’ from him and then, just like that, he dumped the call. He stared up at the interior light for a few moments.
“Where were we? Oh, I forgot: congrats on your promotion.”
I didn’t get a clear hint of sarcasm. But Nolan was a Dub: he’d be past master.
“Remind me,” he went on, “how long ago did they fold the Murder Squad?”
“Coming up for four years in October.”
“You picked up plenty there, I’ll bet you. Oh God, yes.”
Was he talking about a virus, I thought of asking.
Like he didn’t already know enough. He’d also know I had dirtied my bib somewhat. That I wasn’t one of the 99% of Guards who, er, never discharged his firearm in the course of duty. More to the point, that I had shot a total of two persons, one of them dead. Nolan’d be up on my latest woes too i.e. the brazen murder in Dalkey of a copper who was supposed to be me.
“A bit hard to get to, are ya Tommy?” There it was, the Dublin drone. Sharp as a rusty blade. The put-on heartiness didn’t impress me. “Hell’s bells,” he went on. “Doesn’t play well with others, is that the story?”
“It depends on the game.”
“Come on now, that’s no answer. Aren’t we all on the same side?”
Driver Mick was enjoying this. I stared back for a count of three.
“Look,” I said then, “if I’m in some kind of shite, just say so.”
“Oh, were you are expecting bad news?”
“These days, it’s all we’re getting.”
“The state of the nation? Is that what’s keeping you up at night?”
“Do you have a lot of those jokes?”
The lips moved around like he was enjoying the last of a decent pint.
“All right then, Tommy. Let’s hear it so. What did Mrs. Cummins want?”
I hated air-quotes, but for this situation they were perfect.
“Ah, help. I see. Now, is it because she knows you’re a compassionate person?”
“My Ma knows her. They’re pals since they were young ones.”
“Right, right, right. Clogher Road, yes.”
It was like he was announcing the half-time score in a fourth division football game. I tried not to give anything away, and probably failed.
“So what did you make of Bernie today? Her condition, like.”
“She was upset. Distressed would be a good word. And she’s not well.”
“Is she a much different person than she was years ago?”
“I have no idea.”
“You knew the Cumminses though. Growing up, like?”
“I knew of the Cumminses. Just like half of Dublin did.”
“Yes but you were around these people, is my point.”
‘These people.’ Now there was a phrase I never liked the sound of.
Driver Mick was finally banjaxed by a lorry reversing out. This pleased me. I turned to Nolan.
“I’ll tell you something. You have got some peculiar notions.”
“Really? How so.”
“For starters, I don’t hold with people cocking their snoot at where someone’s from.”
“Told you Mick, didn’t I?” Nolan was smiling, sort of, but the cold eyes never left mine. “De real bleedin’ Crumlin style. Ya know whar am sane, ruyh.”
“Where’d you learn to talk like that.”
“Donnycarney. You heard of the place?”
“‘If the dogs knew about it, they’d go there to piss.’ That Donnycarney?”
“I must remember that one. Back to the Cumminses. There’s Gary and there’s Darren. Right?”
“Darren who’s dead. And Jennifer, who’s not.”
“‘The one that got away.’ Isn’t that what they call her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well what do you know about her?”
“I see. All right then. Tony Cummins’ missus asks for your ... help. ‘Help?’”
“The kind of ‘help’ that’d, oh I don’t know, maybe get a fella a nice time of it in Spain?”
I counted to five in my mind. It didn’t help much.
“No little brown envelope? Seriously?”
“Go and fuck off with yourself. Far off.”
“Fuck off with yourself Inspector Nolan you mean, surely.”
I grabbed hold of the door release.
“So maybe not Spain,” I heard then. “China, maybe. Have you been?”
His expression said calm, even relaxed.
“That’s where all the big labs are, right?” Nolan went on. “Very talented people them Chinese, I do believe. Go-getters. Of course there’s the history and all….”
I didn’t know how long Nolan would keep up this façade of a polite by-the-way conversation. Long enough to goad me into losing it, probably. He knew damned well I’d pick up the other channel: a Sergeant in the Drug Squad, and the only woman you found willing to tie the knot with, she just happens to have been born over there? And currently happens to be back there for a suspiciously long stay?
Nolan finished flicking through menus on his mobile. He turned to me then as though laying eyes on me for the first time.
“Fair enough then, Sergeant Malone. I do believe that you might be our man.”
The merry eyes stayed on mine, but I kept my vow of silence.
“Think he’ll do, Mick?”
“Well I don’t know,” I heard the driver say. “Some mouth he’s got on him.”
Nolan nodded a few times. His eyes snapped back to laser grade.
“One thing, Tommy. You only get one fuck-off with me. Just the one.”
I could manage a blank stare for quite a while myself.
“So Mick? Let’s go and deliver Sergeant Malone back to the front lines of policing. We shall discuss matters en route.”
The tires yowled a fair few times on our way back to Dorset St. We snipped a red light at Thomas Street. Traffic going down the quays was easy. Two or three seconds off an amber light ahead, Driver Mick yanked the wheel and launched us down a lane that I thought only the likes of me knew about. Did this pair drive around town like madmen all day, I wondered.
“Your C.O.’s onside,” said Nolan. “Delaney, right? Can’t say he’s happy though. Naturally enough he prefers to hold onto his good cards. You know what he said to me? ‘If anybody can, Tommy can.’ Isn’t that nice to hear? Don’t you wish every C.O. was like that?”
Compliments have always made me suspicious.
“This operation you’re on,” he continued. “You’re Sergeant. Why’re you on surveillance?”
“Why not. Times is tough. We all do our bit to even things out.”
“Your shift’s ’til seven, I believe?”
“Unless something breaks.”
“How likely would that be, do you think?”
“If I knew that, I’d be telling fortunes below in Moore St.”
“So you’ll find your way over then. Half-past seven, quarter to eight, say?”
“HQ. We’re in the Park. Give me a bell when you’re heading over.”
The lack of a response soon had him turning in his seat again.
“Tony Cummins needs us,” he said. “And Tony knows you have to give to get.”
“It was Bernie Cummins doing the asking. Not her husband.”
“What’s your point?”
“Talk to him, not her. She’s in a bad place. It’s called cancer.”
“Put away the Mother Teresa outfit. This has the makings of a very big deal.”
“I’m Drugs Central. And there’s no find-Gary-Cummins on our to-do list.”
“All to the good. We want it to look like you’re on your own. Like, you’re doing a personal favour for Bernie Cummins. On the QT, low-key.”
I turned my attention to Driver Mick’s fingers impatiently tap-tapping on the wheel.
“It’s you she wants.” The quasi-pally tone had returned. “You the man. You build the relationship, establish rapport. Chat, listen, whatever. Get the ball rolling. Bit by bit, we get to where we need to be. It’s a win-win. Mrs. Cummins gets what she wants, and so do we.”
That sliding feeling came to me then, the feeling that slowly but surely things were giving way under me. I found my voice at last.
“It’s Gary she wants. To know he’s safe, or alive, at least.”
“But of course she does - she’s his mammy. And we’re going to help her.”
Not once had Nolan even hinted at the obvious.
“You have a question,” he said. “Fire away.”
“What if Gary Cummins isn’t just lying low?”
“You mean he’s maybe six feet low? Nah. If he was done, it’d be out there by now.”
What made Nolan so sure, I wondered.
“Look,” he went on. “Once we get Tony talking, there’s no going back. Seriously now. What are his options? Zip. He’ll be sixty-eight years old when he gets out – sixty-eight. If he gets out, that is.”
He dipped his forehead like he wanted the spar to get serious.
“Criminal Assets are all over him. Money’s gone, or it’s locked. His place in Spain? Seized. But what Tony does have is something he doesn’t need – his so-called friends. You know the story, I’m sure? In Tony’s world, friends become enemies fierce quick. The wolves are always circling, aren’t they. And the minute you’re down, you’re a goner. If anyone knows that, it’s Tony Cummins.”
Nolan moved his grip from his thumb to his index finger.
“What’s he got in his favour? His sons – oh, wait: he doesn’t. Well he has Gary. More’s the pity, is all you can say about that really, sad to say. I mean, what is Gary? Maybe he’s not the out-and-out psycho that his brother was. But really?”
And he’s likely dead and buried somewhere, I almost said. That word dropped images from my old life on the Squad splat into my mind. A body floating to the surface of a quarry. Another one, limbs tied at impossible angles by barbed wire. Mushy corpses, but their faces still contorted with agony and fear. Few of them had been done quickly, or mercifully. I wasn’t buying Nolan’s line that we’d have known about it by now if Gary’d been murdered, or he had OD-ed. Nolan was playing to the gallery here. Was it only to cover what he was scheming to do here? To cover his arse by leaving a statement trail, in case he’d get hauled over the coals when nothing came of it? He could well be holding something back as well. Maybe even that Gary Cummins had been a snitch?
“Look. Gary’s a loser, and an addict. Rack and ruin. Did she level with you about that?”
He was talking about Bernie Cummins, I realized.
“It didn’t come up.”
“Well here’s the deal,” Nolan said. “There was a time when Tony could stonewall us ’til the cows come home. Not any more. No way is he going to deny his wife now. Cancer, right?”
This echoed silently for a while. I had met a few Nolans in my career already. There was an aura about them. Some of them, they’d have the hair standing up on the back of your neck.
We were on Dorset Street already. Not only that, but we were pulling in behind Macker. Before I could tug at the release Nolan’s hand was on my arm. I took in the thin, bogus smile, the cop-eyes flicking around my face.
“See you later on Tommy. Looking forward, all right?
Then I was standing on the curb and swinging the door shut. The Avensis catapulted away and dove through the sparse traffic. Nolan, the big mover and shaker, was already back on his mobile. I looked up and down the street, and scanned the upper story windows. That sliding feeling came to me again then, the feeling that slowly but surely things were giving way under me.
Something bulldozed all this away in an instant: I was absolutely gumming for a drink. Not just a pint either. I wanted Vitamin J, in quantity, and fast-acting.