Catríona intercepted me on my way to Nolan. Sergeant Catríona.
“The meeting’s at ten,” she said. “Éamonn’s office.”
She’d wait for a response. Not for long, however.
“I can show you around in the meantime.”
Ah don’t bother, I beamed out mentally. I’ll just stand here like a complete tool.
Next thing I knew, I was walking around after her. Amongst the coppers she introduced me to was Nolan’s driver from yesterday. ‘Mick’ was a Detective Mick Quinn. Was this ‘Mick’ less of a dickhead here? Judging by the phony smile, it appeared that he was not.
We were soon back by her pod. She waved at a spare chair. I preferred to stand. Macker had texted. One of his cryptic efforts: Seán D sub U, WTF? But I got it: Seán Devine was standing in – ‘subbing’ - for me. WYB. No need to translate: Watch Your Back.
Catríona took out a file folder and placed it on the desk, and nudged it in my direction.
“If you’re curious,” she said. Then she said she’d be back, and she moved off.
There were about a dozen pages of PULSE print-outs. Tony Cummins’ name was at the top of each. The most recent photo was two years back; it had him looking a bit shop-worn. No spring chicken to begin with, of course. I skipped through. A bit of a time capsule really, Cummins, a relic. His Dublin was history now, a Dublin where if you asked for espresso, they’d direct you to a post office. His debut had been with Twenty-Seven Kelly out of Walkinstown, a semi-legendary gouger long gone but remembered because of his response in court about how many times he’d been arrested. Whatever he did or didn’t learn from Kelly, it wasn’t enough to keep him out of prison. There was a long-ago arrest photo. You could read a lot of things into that face: defiance, amusement. Maybe that was how he hid his rage? He was married to Bernadette Cummins by then, née Rooney.
Then the drug trade. It was entirely possible that, like Kelly, Tony Cummins might have started out regarding the drug business as dirty. But after a stay in prison, and after looking around and sniffing the winds of change, he changed his tune. It looked like he parted company with the Kellys forthwith. (They weren’t to last much longer anyway.) Tony Cummins appeared to sail through probation. Soon he was a father (Darren), and he was a ‘house painter.’
It wasn’t paint jobs kept Tony busy for the next nine years or so. His name came up over and over again in criminal investigations. Security vans, post offices, banks. Linked to gun smuggling, vehicle theft, hijackings, chop shops. First-tier suspect in ordering several shootings and pipe bombings. Believed to have disappeared someone who’d been paid to shoot him. Widespread witness intimidation by Cummins or parties directed by him. Even surveillance on him and his cohorts never got up material that could put him behind bars. Strangely, nothing stuck.
There even came a day came when he decided he’d go after the Guards. Two Albanians had been found with identical injuries up by the canal, one of them dead already. One of the first places raided was the Cummins home. Darren came out of it with a dislocated shoulder and cuts, Tony with a black eye that he was only too happy to parade in front of each and every camera he could find. He sued the Guards. It ended in a stalemate. I half-remembered Ma showing me a picture of him in the paper. Tony Cummins on the steps of a courthouse, a big smile plastered to his face. Smiling, always smiling.
The van full of painting gear was always in the driveway: Anthony Cummins, family man, painter by trade. He didn’t take after others scobes with the mini-fortress mansion-type gaff out Kildare way. No Ferraris in Marbella, no blow-out weekends in London. Was this Bernie Cummins’ doing? A promise she dragged out of Tony, a fantasy that they were a normal family? She never once asked him stuff like, Tony, is it true what I’m after hearing, that you ordered a man kneecapped? Oh and pass the salt will you, love. Christ, I thought. Bernie, I know us human beings live on the banks of denial. That doesn’t mean we have to go swimming in it every single day.
What did for Tony Cummins in the end was a combination of things. We started making serious inroads with proceeds of crime and joint task force stuff. Cummins had always had competition, but it got so’s it wasn’t just sorting out the next crop of upstarts from Tallaght or Inchicore. Things had gone global. If you weren’t in contact with the big suppliers overseas, you were squeezed out. Not to mention the bad guys coming to our fair isle from all over. They wanted anything and everything– thieving, brothels, smuggling, fraud. When hired contract killers started surfacing here, ex military fellas from places like Lithuania and Serbia and God knows where else, fellas who didn’t bat an eyelid killing someone for five grand - that was a sign nobody in their right mind could miss.
And then of course there was the wee North. People hadn’t expected the Good Friday thing to last, but last it did. The ‘RA up there had their rackets for years already, but a bunch of them took a serious look South, and decided it was time. Time to set up shop in hard-done parts of Dublin and in towns down the country. In a couple of years, they had taken over a lot of it. Not all - they left several longtime Dublin gangsters alone. That was to keep them on edge and biddable. But some real savages had come to the fore in Dublin, fellas not one bit afraid of the ‘RA. Nobody wanted all-out gang war on the streets, so arrangements were made. Tony Cummins somehow got included in all this horse-trading. The talk was that he had connections; that he’d done one of the Nordie hardmen a favour years back. Unlikely, but who knew. Though Tony never admitted it, he was paying his passage like everyone else.
Yet, with so many highly temperamental heads in the mix, not to say out-and-out nutters, the wheels were liable to come off at any moment. It didn’t take long. The old loyalties had already gone out the window. First it was heroin that tore through every working class area of Dublin like a tornado, shredding everything in its path: lives, marriages, families. What that didn’t destroy, the cocaine and crystal meth, and now the whole insane supermarket of lab drugs, did. The mad feuding and the street shootings became part of the news every day. Everyone started taking mad excursions into Ramboland. Even the likes of Tony Cummins couldn’t be sure that he wouldn’t step out his hall door and right into the proverbial strung-out seventeen-year-old Grand Theft Auto maestro with a balaclava and a gun.
Yet he probably could’ve come through this. The Boom was still going strong; he had money, he had people working for him. He had connections - he could’ve worked new alliances, for a while at least. He could’ve bowed out even, or taken the Costa del Sol option. But that karma thing, it decided to pounce. Darren. It was known that Darren Cummins had a sadistic turn of mind; part of what gave him his kicks was him displaying same inclinations. Also, when he was off his face, he was liable to say and do mad stuff. All that ended the night he stepped out of a restaurant and into a shotgun blast.
Nothing in these pages so much as hinted at what effect that had had on Tony Cummins. Nor Bernie Cummins, for that matter. What finally got Tony Cummins off the streets came in a short summary. Destiny sent a head the name of Brian Gibbons to do the job, him and a sort-of-celebrity chef turned restaurant owner. Gibbons, who had been known to work for Tony Cummins, one day paid a visit to this restaurant. Being as Darren Cummins had been to the place that night, he told the owner, this fact surely played some part in Darren getting kilt. In other words, restaurant bloke must’ve tipped off the killers. Thus and therefore, he could only get out of this situation by ponying up serious money.
Bogus, of course. This was this Gibbons character looking to get runaway money. He was jumpy and he wanted out before – his words entered verbatim in the file summary - ‘before Tony turned on me.’ Cummins, he claimed, suspected that it was Gibbons who had given a tip-off to the killers.
This extortion effort spooked the restaurateur / chef bloke so much that he ran straight to the Guards. We steered him through it and along with wire recordings and what Gibbons was to spill later on, there was enough to get Tony Cummins into judge-only trial in the Special Criminal Court. He was hit good and hard too: a 12 to 15 -
- that ringing was coming from this extension there.
“We’re up,” Catríona said. “Éamonn’s office.”
Nolan waved us in but continued his phone conversation, just listening. Catríona had a notebook open and resting on her knee. While we waited for Nolan to wrap up his call I watched a screensaver, photos of somewhere that wasn’t Ireland. After Nolan finished his call, he took a few moments to eye something he had written on a pad. Then he looked from me to Cat and back.
“Anything jump out at you in that report Tommy?”
“Maybe not so much Tony Cummins himself. More his missus really.”
Nolan’s smile was a slight twisting of his mouth. The eyes stayed hard.
“Right,” he said. “As in she’s our key here? So we need to make things easy for her. What she wants she gets. So let’s what Tony thinks of matters. Time to go and chew the fat with him.”
“Is he expecting a visit?”
Nolan nodded and arranged his mobile square with the edge of a closed laptop.
“Just Cummins himself? Or will he have representation?”
“Just him,” said Nolan. “Mister Cummins and your good self. His preference.”
Along with select spectators behind the one-way glass no doubt, and audio recording at least.
“We’re there to help,” Nolan went on, “that’s our message. We’ll commit serious resources to finding his son. But Tony baby needs to buy in. It’s ‘Look Tony, finding this son of yours is a no-go if you’re not going to share your marbles with us.’ OK?”
Was Nolan waiting for a sign from me that I’d memorize these lines?
“It’s Bernie’s going to make or break this,” he added. “He can’t deny her.”
This item stayed hanging in the room. Something had begun burrowing around in my mind.
“Now,” Nolan went on, picking up a paper clip, “problem - we just do not have much of a picture of Tony Cummins’ mental state at the present time. You’re going to suss that out today.”
I rested a stare on him. He stared back for several moments before turning to Catríona.
“Missing Persons. How many again, Cat? Outstanding?”
“Seven hundred thirty something to date. Over two thousand when you include the long terms.”
‘Cat’ had facts like that at her fingertips? Nolan turned to me again.
“Feel free to mention those numbers. Remind Tony baby how we can’t perform miracles. Even ask him if he’s aware of the financial crisis? The cutbacks, the effect they’re having on us?”
That might’ve been as close as Nolan got to ‘funny.’ He placed his hand over his mobile, a signal that we were finished. I followed ‘Cat’ down a hallway and then out into a small, enclosed car park. She came to a standstill and poked her key into her palm.
“Anything you need? Before we hit the road?”
Yeah, I should have said. To know what the hell had happened that landed me in this. The car key that Catríona was toting around went with a newish, dusty-looking Octavia. She didn’t feel any need to share what route she’d take to get out to the M7. Didn’t feel any need to talk at all actually. Fair enough. Getting ordered to drop what she was doing, and partner up some loolah just parachuted in? Hardly in the humour of chit-chat then.
I guessed right anyway: we were out the Chapelizod gate and poking along the South Circ in no time. She put Kilmainham behind us right quick and the Inchicore Road too. We came a cropper with road works on a stretch of Tyrconnel Road but we still hit the bridge over the M50 in good order.
Soon, the signs were slipping by: Newcastle, Belgard, Kingswood. Catríona – who decided on ‘Cat’ for a nickname? – seemed to relax a bit. She was a culchie, I reasoned, so by definition she had a yen for fields and hills and cows etc. Or maybe not. Like, the company was spoiling things.
“Rathcoole,” she said as the sign drew nearer.
“Right. Rathcoole you have to watch.”
She looked over as though to air a grievance.
“I mean people there,” I said. “Some serious heavies there. That’s all.”
“There’s a Rathcoole in Sligo as well.”
We were actually having a conversation?
“You know Sligo? County Sligo?”
“No. I hear it’s nice though. Mountains, sea and stuff. Lakes? Right?”
The flicker around her mouth might’ve been that thing they call chagrin. Whatever loolah was driving the lorry ahead didn’t get the concept of lanes. As smooth as silk Catríona slid into fourth and the Octavia took off like the clappers. Hills - not clouds as I’d thought - slid across the window as she eased back into our lane. The Welcome to County Kildare sign flew by.
“Have you been to Portlaoise before? The prison?”
I told her I hadn’t. All I really knew was what anyone else knew. That it was high security, home to hard-core gangsters and IRA heads. We passed a longish line of cars, one with a comical-looking dog half-out the window, the face cartooned by the air rushing by. I noted that it had made her smile. A remark on dogs opened a careful-enough chat then. People and dogs, dogs and people, and so forth. I told her about an auld fella we knew growing up, Sailor Kelly. How he had a face like a scotch terrier and we’d bark at him sometimes. Talk of dogs moved us on to dog owners. It turned out that she and I knew people in common. Plate Glass Sheehy kept greyhounds? I never knew that - and I’d worked a good while with him in the Murder Squad. Typical Kerryman: in the revolving door behind you, out ahead of you. She knew Paddy Toner too, a Drugs Central veteran. Paddy, the only man left on the planet who listened to Bob Geldof’s old records. Paddy actually enjoyed the slagging he got for it.
Bit by bit, the conversation edged into the personal side. I offered a presentable version of Tommy Malone’s life and times to date. There was the apartment thing, of course, and how I was still of two minds about it. The ‘fiancée traveling in Asia’ item got by without comment. By the time we get the first sign for Portlaoise, I had learned that Catríona had a separation ongoing. The hub worked in one of the banks. Being as the banks were wrecked and laying off left right and centre, it was a dodgy situation. The stress had brought out issues, she said. Now he wanted out, out of Ireland. The problem was that she didn’t. Well, at least they didn’t have kids, she said.
We eased out of that before it got heavy. Holiday stuff: France was always nice (her contribution). Austria was gorgeous (Sonia’s description that I hijacked). Car insurance, the VHI. Restaurants that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Sports teams, salaries. She took a call at the exact moment we were Welcomed to County Laois. A conversation to do with food? It turned out to be dog food.
“My sister,” she said, after the call.
I went back to pretending to be interested in the passing hedges and fields and cows. Bits of our conversation drifted back into my mind. Catríona was working on human trafficking and prostitution, mostly to do with Waterford and Cork. The crash hadn’t made much difference. Kids were still smuggled here from anywhere and everywhere. Africa, China, even from Iraq. A posting where you’d routinely see the absolute worst of humanity, I thought; very probably worse even than Drugs. And her marriage had gone bad too. A connection there?
We flew by trailers plastered with ads, parked near the road. A cluster of unfinished, crap-looking houses, one of the famous/infamous ghost estates, flashed by. A Vegas style monstrosity appeared too, all arches and columns and interlock. Thousands of square feet; it looked empty.
“I was wondering,” I said to her then. “What exactly is Nolan’s plan of action here?”
“Well have you asked him?”
All right. So the icebergs were still there. She pretended the horizon required her keen scrutiny. The motorway swung away from us, and we slowed for a roundabout. Fields, the odd house, hedges, flowed by. Another ugly big house, with a Range Rover and an Audi. I thought of Macker. A long, straight road, patchy-wet from showers, led us into town proper. Killeshin Hotel - Great Weekend Deals! The road narrowed again. Now I was thinking of Bernie Cummins.
“Whatever it takes. Is that his style? Nolan?”
“Aren’t you being a bit dramatic there?”
“What I mean is, he knows Bernie Cummins is sick.”
“Yes, but who made the approach? Us or them?”
Her gaze didn’t budge from the road ahead. I had just been given the party line.
“This Quinn fella. Mick Quinn? What’s the story with him.”
“Him and the boss, they go back,” she said. “They’re pretty tight.”
We coasted by newish apartments, a car dealership, open fields behind a low stone wall. Older terraces, clues that we were close to the town centre, began to run along to the driver’s side. I tried to remember this stretch back when it was the main Dublin road. We came through here on an outing with the other altar boys, to a place near Galway, an amusement arcade and swim place. It could’ve been that trip when it started with Terry and Father – I had to tear my mind away from it.
“That’s part of the prison, that place?”
“The visitors’ centre,” she said.
Then I spotted them, the two old prison towers, rising above the hedges. The front of the prison had been cleared of the sheds and bungalow that I remember. It looked like a little park now, with grass and shrubs and pavers and what-have-you. The railings would be right at home around a posh house. They even managed to make the anti-ram bollards behind them look normal. The makeover had exposed old prison walls. They didn’t look that high any more. The old Lord of the Rings type door that I remembered between the towers was left as it was, though.
She made a U-turn back to the visitors’ centre. There were two cars at the gate ahead of us. I hadn’t even left the car yet and I was getting that clammy, claustrophobic feeling.
Catríona took out her card got out of the car, and walked to what looked like a video-link station by the gate. I tried to count the cameras. There was nary a Guard or prison officer to be seen. I knew the army was here somewhere. They patrolled on the roofs, if I remembered. The second car was let in. Cat said something to the camera, nodded and headed back to the car.
The gate swung open. I saw vans, a single Garda car, two paddy-wagons; plenty of parking spots. We climbed out, closing our doors at the same time. From a door-opening next to some kind of a guard house, a bloke in a prison guard uniform appeared. Owl-eyed, fortyish, sagging a bit, he held my card at face level to compare it with the real item. He looked from me to Cat and back.
“First time here?”
“We’ll release you in due course. As long as you behave yourself.”
This comedian then pointed us toward a door. I was all too aware of the eyes on us, of the mass of the buildings around us, of what went on here. The piercing stink of disinfectant brought me back. Terry spent a total of four and a half years in a place like this, the sum of his two episodes of imprisonment. OK, not as severe as here, but still I hated every single second of the visits. Hated Terry. Hated myself for hating Terry and for wanting to run away and hide too.
A mirrored one-way ran a section the length of the narrow room ahead. Not much more than a corridor really, it reminded me of the security checks at the airport. In here it was just me and a near-retirement-looking prison officer who was separating a plastic tray from a stack.
I switched off my phone, met his eye.
“Just so as you know? I’m a front-line Guard, so I’m carrying. Shoulder-holstered.”
It took a moment for him to get it. He looked over at the one-way. Prison Officer Friendly Enough was no more. Prison Officer Pissed-Off took over.
“Armed? Is that what you’re telling me? Jesus, man. OK now - jacket first.”
I treated the performance as though I was back doing my exit test for the gun card all over again. Fellas failed it because they took their eyes off the pistol for a second when they were disarming it. I made a fuss with the clip, sliding it slowly and precisely to the far corner of the tray.
“Your personal items will be secured until your departure.”
The arrival of someone in civvies at the other end of the room curtailed my useless effort to see anything through the one-way. New arrival was not friendly, and he wanted me to know that.
“John Mulhern,” he declared. “This way, I have a room booked.”
We stopped at the end of a passageway before a blind metal security door. Mulhern looked up at the camera. The pay-off was a loud, harsh buzz, and the motorized door swung open, stopping with a final-sounding, railway-shunting clank. Metal grilles, serious-looking locks, heavily painted cement: this was more like it. Another uniform needed to check us first, apparently.
“Your Garda card,” Mulhern said. He was already very correctly holding his own ID up. Then we were through yet another door. Every room we passed had numbers on them. Mulhern stopped by a ‘D14’ and pulled it open. I could exactly place the stale smell that wafted out: an empty biscuit tin. There was no one-way glass, just a table and cloth-covered chairs. We could be in an office, almost. Mulhern made his way to the far side of the table. He grasped the back of a chair and stared at me.
“Smiler, they call him here – Cummins. Have you been briefed on him?”
“He has his place the pecking order here. C Block. You know how the blocks are divided up here?”
“Sort of. You put the IRA crowd in E Block?”
“‘The subversives.’ That’s right, yes. That is part of what we do. Now, a reminder. Cummins, he’ll test you. You’ll need to be extra cautious with him. Extra wary.”
Mulhern paused then, waited for a question. I studied his receding hair line instead.
“He has a strong personality,” he went on, tonelessly. “Of course a lot of the inmates here do. They try to condition the staff, to make everything seem friendly. Then they see their opening. But Anthony Cummins, he could give the psychology people a run for their money.”
Mulhern’s eyes lost focus then. His forehead wrinkled, like he was dealing with trapped wind.
“I have to tell you,” he said next, “we were surprised that he agreed to this. Very surprised. He’s running a huge risk. If word were to get out?”
“Well do you think word will get out?”
I’d have taken it as a given that in his line of work, Mulhern would have taken the time to perfect the measured stare that was his response. He nodded toward a black bubble on the ceiling.
“Your encounter will be recorded.”
He released his grip on the chair and stood up straight, and waited. Maybe he wanted to get a last look at this copper down from Dublin, the gobshite about to stumble into a trap set by ‘Anthony’ Cummins. He scraped both corners of his gob, a delicate gesture that always reminded me of cats.
“All right so, Sergeant. He’s all yours.”