The Far Side of the Road

The 1916 Easter Rising that kicked it all off

The 1916 Easter Rising that kicked it all off

It may come as something of a surprise to you, dear reader, but time travel was used extensively throughout the Irish war known as The Troubles.

Unfortunately, the outcomes were not always as planned — such as the time the Rev. Dr Ian Paisley was discovered preaching to no one but himself on a Gaelic Football field near Crossmaglen. Time travel, as a means to advancing the cause of either side in the conflict had, in all honesty, rather mixed results.

 

THE FAR SIDE OF THE ROAD.

per·fid·i·ous. adj. Of, relating to, or marked by perfidy; treacherous.

For 30 years, no one wanted the Brits out of Ireland more than the Brits themselves.

With the exception of one man.

First there was collusion.

Then he  found a way to change it all…

THE FAR SIDE OF THE ROAD is a darkly satirical work of comic fiction set in the near future but situated in South-Armagh in 1981.

When Micksey McVeigh, notorious full-time IRA mortar magician and part time alchemist and distiller of illegal spirits, accidentally discovers time travel, he inadvertently creates a portal for both sides to change the past.

It’s 2018 and Europe is a continent on the edge of war. Islamic State is terrorizing the West, particularly Britain who, with the Trump-led Americans, spearheaded the military invasion of Syria in late 2017.

But what if there could be a greater danger on the streets of Britain? A danger that was manageable?

The resurgence of the IRA terror threat was the brainchild of just one man — George Oliver Dibble, Head of SIS (Secret Intelligence Services), formerly Head of MI5, IJS (Irish Joint Section). His plan is simple: marginalize IS by promoting homegrown terrorism.

Better the devil you know.

And it’s not hard to kick it all off again. Ulster, in the second decade of the 21st century, is as full of psychopaths without a job as it was in the ‘60s.

Billy Farrell, the only Protestant to have joined the IRA in the recent conflict, witnessed his brother gunned down by the Security Forces in 1977, and spent a lifetime avenging his death as a double agent codenamed Fishknife.

Farrell wakes each day to unremitting dullness, the voices of the ghosts that he’s put into the Bogside cemetery outside his bedroom window, and of the promise of a call that he believes will never come — one final assignment to net him a promised pay-day of almost eight million pounds and give him a gilt-edged relocation package with a new identity and the slate wiped clean.

But at 8.55am, on the morning of Friday 18th September 2018 the phone rings. George Dibble, his former FRU handler, tells him exactly what he must do.

Back in January ‘81, a top-secret meeting had taken place between the most senior levels of government on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Charles Haughey, the Irish Taoiseach, had generously offered to donate a strip of land up to ten miles wide in places, so that the jagged, often random demarcation of the border between Ulster and the Republic — endorsed by the Boundaries Commission in 1925 — could be re-positioned along more logical lines.

The Taoiseach’s proposal would also create a ‘buffer zone’ — belonging to Britain — to prevent British soldiers, the RUC or their Intelligence officers from making illicit hot pursuit sorties into the Republic.

In return, he wanted Britain to cede West Belfast and the Derry Bogside to the Republic, creating Berlin-styled walled ghettos under Dublin administration.

But the British were vehemently opposed to the scheme on the grounds that, as far as they were concerned, their unstated aim was to get rid of Northern Ireland — the last thing they wanted to do was to add to it.

However, in September 2018 a huge cache of shale gas is discovered beneath a remote area of subsistence farmland near Crossmaglen — just inside the Republic, agonisingly close to the border with Northern Ireland.

This massive windfall would allow the Republic to clear its debts and acquire an economic status similar to that of the oil-drenched Gulf States.

And standing for the Presidency of this new Northern European super-state is Malcolm McGuinn, the former Chief-of-Staff of the IRA — also formerly a double agent.

Dibble reveals to Farrell that MI6 boffins possess a sufficient amount of McVeigh’s compound to send him back to ‘81 through ‘worm-hole’ linking the MI5 headquarters outside Belfast with South Armagh.

His mission is to broker a deal between Dublin and London that would see the shale field re-positioned in British sovereign territory.

But what Dibble doesn’t tell him is that both he and McGuinn stand to make billions from the shale find if land they purchased, vested by the Irish government, was to be re-located to the other side of the border.

Farrell is unwilling to risk everything until Dibble plays his trump card — he will also have the opportunity to prevent the death of Ellen, his childhood sweetheart, who died in a freak accident for which he has always blamed both Dibble and McGuinn.

This is a chance he can’t pass up. To see Ellen again is worth the risk. And to prevent her assassination would give him something to live for.

But the MI5 boffins believe that the time portal that will take Farrell back to ‘81 can only be relied on for 24 hours, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll return to the present.

To succeed, he has to persuade one former political leader to agree to accept the Taoiseach’s proposal.

And to stand a chance of this, he has to stop the hunger strike that Bobby Sands is about to begin.

The politician’s name is Maggie Thatcher.

He has 24 hours to make the lady turn.

 

HERE  ARE THE FIRST SIX CHAPTERS FROM THE FAR SIDE OF THE ROAD

ONE: A figure walks into the sunset

Tuesday12th July, 1978, 6.45pm

County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland

 

Mid-way between Enniskillen and Lisbellaw there is a straight piece of road over a mile long.

Both Beattie and Farrell had noticed something ahead and something behind them.

Sitting in the front of Beattie’s Morris Marina, neither spoke. Beattie, his cockerel’s mop of ginger hair still bobbing to the beat of Thin Lizzy on the eight-track, pressed the accelerator to the floor. The speedometer nudged above fifty as he shut the music off.

Half a mile ahead, two armoured Army Land Rovers were blocking the road. Four soldiers were setting up a checkpoint.

“Bloody UDR!” said Beattie, jaw contorting his lopsided face into a visceral snarl. “Fuckin’ part-time dross from the ‘B’ Specials, too old or too stupid to join the RUC,” he added.

Ashdown was slumped in the back of the Marina blissfully unaware of anything other than the tsunami of kaleidoscopic images that half a bottle of Teachers and a fistful of halucegenic drugs had created in his brain. He alternated swigs from his bottle of scotch with his own boisterous and unmelodious rendition of Whiskey in the Jar.

His condition had clearly deteriorated since the three sixth-formers had left the Celtic half an hour ago for Beattie’s party.

It was the vehicle behind them that concerned Beattie more.

“D’you think you could shut up a minute, Ash?”

Ashdown, couldn’t. The combination of Mandrax pills and alcohol had numbed the off switch in his brain.

“…As I was going’ over the Cork and Kerry mountains… I saw Captain Beattie and his… fuck all… was he countin’… “

“… Shut The Fuck UP Ash!” Beattie’s eyes were fixed on the rear view mirror. “Yis see that transit behind us? I’ll swear I’ve seen that van somewhere before.”

‘He first produced his tattoo, then I produced my… PENIS!’

Beattie had; he told them how the vehicle behind them — or one very similar — had been parked outside his house for two days before the Provos had retrieved it. The mercury tilt bomb in the loading area, intended for the dismemberment of his father had failed to detonate.

“I don’t fuckin’ like this… I’m pulling over.”

Beattie pulled the Marina into a lay-by and killed the engine. He reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a Ruger .357 handgun, borrowed from his father’s armory.

“Jesus… fucking shit! What the hell did ye do that for? They’ve seen it — get rid,” said Farrell, hurling himself into the footwell.”

The blue transit pulled into the lay-by and screeched to a halt twenty yards behind them. A man with an assault rifle dressed in khaki and wearing a balaclava dived out, dropped to one knee and took aim at the soldiers from behind the Marina.

With a flagrant but understandable disregard for the rules of engagement, the first shot came from the Stirling SLR of the UDR soldier kneeling on the far side of the roadblock.

The high velocity bullet penetrated the Marina’s windscreen, shattered Ashdown’s bottle of Teachers, and exited the rear window before embedding itself in something solid behind them. It turned out to be the skull of the man in the balaclava.

“…Whack for my daddy-o… Whack for my daddy-o… There’s whiskey in the jar-ohhh fuck…” Ashdown slumped across the back seat, soaked in urine and whiskey, and finally unconscious.

Two other armed men jumped from the van and took up positions behind the Marina. The firefight that followed was short and decisive.

The soldiers had the better position with the cover provided by their vehicles so one of the terrorists tried to out-flank them. Fire from an SLR tracked him and he was shot dead.

Two of the soldiers, fearful of a much larger attack, managed to scramble into the hindmost Land Rover and hot-foot it towards Lisbellaw, followed by a hail of bullets. They were only paid to inspect identification at checkpoints, not get the fuck shot out of them.

A volley from an Armalite hit the petrol tank of the second Land Rover leaving the remaining UDR men without cover. Dropping their weapons, they raised their arms and walked slowly towards the lay-by. The one uninjured terrorist fired twice, and the soldiers dropped to the road, motionless.

Silence descended.

The terrorist slowly approached the near side of the Marina. Beattie and Farrell were lying on the floor amid a sea of shattered glass. They were both shaking so violently that the Marina rocked as it might have done — were it not owned by Beattie — on a Saturday night. Smoke and the smell of cordite drifted into the shell that was once Beattie’s pride and joy. Ashdown lay unconscious in the back. A gun poked through the window.

“Which one of yis is Farrell?” asked the terrorist, his eyes fixed on Beattie. He leant through the shattered side window and picked up the Ruger from the passenger seat where Beattie had dropped it.

“Well, well, well… what have we here… chaps? That posh fuckin’ school of yis dishin’ these out wi’ yer boaters and stripy blazers?”

Farrell managed to squirm back onto the seat in time to hear the hammer cocked and feel the barrel at his temple.

“Now answer the fuckin’ question, lads.”

“I am… I’m Farrell,” he said waiting for the hammer to fall, wondering if claiming to be Ashdown might have been a better bet.

“Okay,” The terrorist scrutinised the others, apparently satisfied with the response. There was a strong smell of shit in the car, despite the shattered windows, as neither Beattie’s nerves nor his guts had experienced this level of fear before. Since he’d been big enough to hold a gun he’d lived for his chance to use one and now it was all going horrible wrong.

“Okay,” the terrorist repeated, nodding his head. “Someone wants te have a wee word with ya. Get out of the car.” Farrell obliged, his heart thumping like a Lambeg drum. The terrorist walked around the front of the shattered vehicle and prodded the gun into Beattie’s temple. “And as for ye … this is yer lucky day, big fella.” The hammer was replaced. “Now get the fuck outta here, and take that slabberin’ wanker with ye!”

Beattie started the engine and disappeared with as much speed as the shot-up Marina could muster.

Farrell watched as the terrorist examined the bodies of his mates. Perhaps they weren’t mates; maybe they were just in it for the money — or the glory. There was not much glory for them now. He’d only ever seen one dead body before and now there were four lying in front of him.

“You — over here,” he yelled. “Give me a hand with these two.”

Farrell obliged robotically, grabbing the feet of the man who had just died in the ditch while the terrorist grasped him roughly under his shoulders. They carried his body towards the Transit. Doing something, even shifting corpses, helped him calm down a little and focus.

The terrorist dropped his end like a sack of potatoes at the rear of the Transit. The balaclava did little to lesson the thud of the dead man’s skull against tarmac as he swung the back doors open. The terrorist moved in a methodical way, clearing a space in the back if the van. He didn’t appear to be concerned that the road could be crawling with the military or RUC any minute.

Farrell wondered what Beattie would do when he got home. He pictured him inspecting his soiled Y Fronts, considering whether there was sufficient shit in them to merit a change of underwear, or whether they’d do for the rest of the evening.

He studied the terrorist. The man was well built, in his mid twenties, a tad shorter than Farrell but well over six feet. Turning towards him, he theatrically removed his balaclava to reveal long, greasy black hair that came to an uneven halt well below his shoulders. A straggly moustache lay beneath a nose that had been periodically re-shaped and above a mouthful of crooked metal-capped teeth. He bore a striking resemblance to a skinny Rock and Roll version of ‘Jaws’ in the Bond films.

He shook his hair with a pride that Farrell thought it didn’t really merit, and turned towards the dead man at his feet.

“You’re Micksey McVeigh, aren’t ye?” The man opposite Farrell was certainly on the top ten list of Ireland’s most wanted and it wasn’t for his singing.

Farrell knew how lame the words sounded as they left his mouth. He’d once stood behind Pat Jennings as they waited to board a plane from Aldergrove and asked the same question. He’d felt a dick then too.

“Aye, that I am. Ye want me fuckin’ autograph?” It was a rhetorical question. “Right, come on, let’s get this fucker in the back.”

Farrell stood motionless, his eyes drawn to the scene of recent carnage when he noticed that one of the UDR men was slowly crawling towards an abandoned rifle.

“He’s still moving.”

This was his chance; an opportunity to prove to one of the most notorious IRA henchmen that he was deadly serious. Do this, and he would have a foot through the door. Anyone could plant a bomb, but to kill in what was literally cold blood? Taking a deep breath, he walked towards the wounded man and picked up both SLRs.

It was the first time he’d held one gun, let alone two. He swung one over his shoulder, and tucked the other, in what he hoped was a casual manner under his arm, staring at McVeigh with a confidence he didn’t feel.

“Please… please… help me.” The mortally wounded man’s voice was weak. Pathetic. No dignity, just a forlorn whimper resonating across the empty road on the last summer’s evening he would see. Farrell turned to look at him. His addled seventeen year-old brain told him this was all wrong, terribly wrong, but the memory of what happened to Owen justified it. The tables were turned now.

The lake of blood on the tarmac shone a deep crimson in the evening sun, oozing from the man in a curiously macabre way that gave Farrell a sense of detachment, like watching himself in a film. One thing he shared with his English teacher was a hatred of the word ‘surreal’, but if it ever had an application, this was it.

It was clear the man wasn’t going to live for much longer.

“Are you going to shoot him, or what?”

“Shoot him?” It was as if the idea hadn’t occurred to McVeigh. He studied the dying man and shook his greasy mane. “Nah… he’ll be dead in a minute.”

“Well… what if he’s not? What if he lives? He’s clocked you.” Farrell could not believe he was saying this. Ten minutes ago he’d been in Beattie’s car laughing and fucking about on the way to a party to celebrate the Glorious Twelfth and the start of the school summer holidays.

Now he’d just witnessed three men shot dead, and was suggesting that the man responsible for all this — who had also just abducted him — should shoot dead the man lying in the road.

He hated to admit it, but surreal just about nailed it.

“And for that matter,” he added, “He’s clocked me as well. When the peelers turn up in a couple of minutes, they’ll want to know what the fuck I’m doing here.”

McVeigh stood as if rooted to the spot. Farrell made the decision for him.

“Give me your gun.”

“What? No fuckin’ way!” He still didn’t move.

Farrell could see that the terrorist was paralysed by indecision. Despite his ultra hard man reputation, he could see that McVeigh was used to following orders, not thinking for himself.

“Give me yer gun.” Nothing. “Give me your gun now, or I’m fuckin’ off, and ye can explain that to whoever wants te see me.”

Farrell gambled that if he leapt over the fence and legged it across the fields McVeigh was unlikely to shoot him. He couldn’t decide whether to piss or shit, this guy. To return with two dead volunteers and the body of the man you’d been sent to bring in, leaving two dead UDR soldiers in the road was hardly likely to win him Terrorist of the Month Award.

Clearly the same thought had occurred to McVeigh. Pulling Beattie’s Ruger from his waistband, he released the safety and reluctantly handed it to Farrell.

The metal was warm from being close to McVeigh’s groin. It felt natural in his hand and for a moment Farrell considered turning the gun on McVeigh. He could demand that he drive him to where he wanted to go, arriving there like the White Knight in his Transit charger. How fucking cool would that be?

Bad plot.

It took Farrell’s overwrought brain three nano-seconds to work out that this wasn’t about being cool; this was about justice and revenge.

He walked steadily across to the soldier. The man was now convulsing and slipping in and out of consciousness. McVeigh was right; he would die soon.

Farrell thought he knew what to expect when he pulled the trigger. The first shot caused his shoulder to recoil and the bullet glanced off the soldier’s forehead and ricocheted from the road onto a rock with an almost comical Wild West twang. He braced himself for the second and this time the bullet entered the man’s skull in front of his ear formally putting an end to his life. There was no more blood to come out.

“That’s for Owen,” he said quietly. “And that’s just the fuckin’ start.”

He snapped on the safety, walked briskly back to the Transit and handed the gun back to McVeigh, his heart still going like a Ginger Baker solo.

Without speaking, they loaded the two dead paramilitaries, the soldiers’ SLRs and the Armalites into the cargo area and slammed the doors.

“Right,” said Farrell, “Now can we get the fuck outta here?”

 

TWO: Checkpoint Charlie and psychopaths without a job

The Bogside, Londonderry.

8.40am, Friday18th September 2018

Farrell woke with a head that hammered like a pneumatic drill.

Another day.

Another drab, Derry day.

Rain pounded the single glazed bedroom window that wasn’t up to the job of holding out the weather blowing in from the Donegal hills; even in late summer, the room was bloody freezing.

He groped for the packet of B&H on the bedside cabinet and lit one. Pulled the quilt closer against the wind that danced the curtains, and did a mental reckoning of how much he’d had to drink last night.

Enough.

Enough to put him to sleep, but not enough to bury him there.

It had woken him again, the dream; kept him awake until he’d managed to shake it off only for Mrs. Cassidy’s wee skitter of a dog to drag him back to reality.

Ya’know the worst thing about it? Not knowing when it would come.

Sometimes it would forget about him. Forget to torment him for nights; weeks even. Sometimes he was brave enough to try to sleep without getting wrecked.

He clicked the radio on. Q102 FM. Derry’s finest. The weather forecast, normal for Ireland: If it’s not raining where you were, it soon will be. Elvis Costello singing: ‘There was a checkpoint Charlie He didn’t crack a smile…’

Jeasus… this is all ya need to begin another inglorious day in this dump.

There were days when he felt sorry for himself and there were days when it was mere self-loathing that stopped him from taking the easy way out.

Or was it?

He pulled out the Ruger from the drawer in the bedside cabinet.

Why not?

Why fuckin’ not?

Held it.

Stroked it. Turned it round and round in his hand. Long time since he’d used it but he always knew he’d use it again. Thought about it, thought about the past. Thought about a promised resolution that he knew, deep down would never come; a perfidious promise he’d waited 16 years for. Thought about where he was right now: a very long way from anywhere.

Chambered a round.

Put it in his mouth.

He’d never got this far. Heart beat faster, sweat on his top lip. Sweat on his palms.

‘Only takes one itchy, trigger… One more widow, one less white nigger,’

It would be easy. So fuckin’ easy.

Click.

And it would be all over. No widow; one less…

Click.

He released the hammer, replaced the safety, and put the gun away. Hands shaking violently.

Christ Jesus. Jesus Fuckin’ Christ.

At least the headache had gone.

Stubbed out the cigarette, lit another. Shifted his 6’4” still raw-boned frame off the bed and sidled stiffly across the bare-boarded floor to the window. Stretched. Felt better.

The rain was in for the day all right. Blowing in from the Atlantic off the Derry hills with a vengeance that only Irish weather could muster. If you couldn’t see beyond the City cemetery by now you never would.

Out there lay Owen, decomposed and unremembered.

His were the only flowers on his grave. Twice a year: birthday and the anniversary of when it happened. They’d be fading now, the birthday ones, so he’d take a dander later and clear them away. Give him something to do before he hit McAlesse’s again. It would, of course, mean listening to the ghosts of all those other cunts he’d put into the ground, but that couldn’t be helped.

If Owen wasn’t there, none of this would have happened.

None of it.

 

****

 

Almost forty years ago, but the nightmares hadn’t stopped.

He still woke sweating on one of those nights; a night like the one just passed. Like a mosquito in the room — you knew it was there but you never knew when, or how intent it was on bothering you.

The face of the UDR corporal bending down towards him, motioning him to wind the car window down.

Torch in his face… grinning, laughing, turning away to talk to another soldier, swinging round. The rifle-butt smashing into his face. The blood, the pain and the sudden realisation that the world was a place that he didn’t understand any more.

… Stale-tobacco-rasping asthmatic breathing, quickened by the excitement of violence, of payback for a trivial comment. A manifestation of the bloody, sordid, disproportionate power the man held.

He remembered everything about that face, every detail. No danger he’d forget. He saw it every night.

Farrell turned away from the rain-spattered window. Lit another cigarette.

“Aye…” he repeated to himself softly, “… checkpoint Charlie… if Owen wasn’t there, none of this would have happened… none of it.”

Un-dug graves over-looking the Bogside. Dead men walking… signing on… bragging about how fuckin’ hard they were. Psychopaths without a job.

And what about him? Who would he be? A middle-aged man with a career; an engineer, beavering away, regenerating the 2013 City of fuckin’ Culture? ‘A game changing moment,’ as Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers had called it. Game changing, my arse, he thought.

A normal man with a normal past, a normal family… three, no four, perhaps four kids… decent house, maybe a Waterside Edwardian semi… a holiday place in Donegal… winding down to a normal retirement… a normal death and normal people saying nice things about how normal he was when he carped it.

But Owen was there, and he was here.

With former terrorist on your CV instead of Chemical Engineer the only interview you were ever likely to have was when you signed on.

It didn’t matter a fuck that he’d spent over twenty-five years cleaning up either sides’ messes.

And no one gave a toss whether the blood on his hands had accelerated the departure of the perfidious fucking Brits who wanted out of Ireland even more urgently than Ireland wanted them out.

No one cared that the Intelligence Services at the highest level had sanctioned most of it.

Or that all those layers of collusion, he knew were about to unravel, had worked towards ending this dirty war, this dirty Irish War, instead of prolonging it.

A war that he’d joined because of Owen.

And a war that he’d fought because he believed in it. The Brits could never be trusted to use the six counties for anything other than a buffer zone. Never. And for their own perfidious ‘game changing’ motives.

Just where the fuck had it got him?

Few years’ back, he’d fucked Alison, a pretty, cherub-faced girl who’d worked at Laneside for Dibble, his MI5 handler. It hadn’t taken much to persuade her to copy the summary sheet in his file. It was way above her security clearance but in ’96 Dibble gave less of a fuck about his keys than his promotion and a ticket out of Ulster.

He recalled exactly what it said: ‘Codename ‘Fishknife’. Born William Adam Moreland Farrell, 8th August 1960. Operationally inactive. 25 Fahan Street, Bogside. Derry, (rented). Believed to be the only Protestant to have belonged to the IRA in recent conflict. Assassinated two SAS soldiers, August 1978 while still a schoolboy. B.Sc. in Chemical Engineering, Manchester University 1982: military scholarship. Officer training at RM Sandhurst 1983, 2nd Lieutenant. Worked as deep undercover operative for FRU and MI5 joint-Irish branch 1983-96 but believed to have retained deep-seated republican sympathies. Directly or indirectly responsible for over 60 military deaths and the murder of 38 civilian personnel, mainly informers. Central to Nosterantus incident (refer to Davey Nesbitt… )

Enough.

Enough. It had been enough to tell him that he was little more than a scapegoat, an untraceable ghost buried and forgotten to limit MoD compensation.

If one single word of this got out, he’d hinted to Alison with a smile, his biog would hitherto refer to his responsibility for 39 civilian deaths. Nice arse, though, he’d thought.

Marking time.

That was where it had got him; wallowing in his loathing and self-pity, sixteen years and counting. Waiting for a call that would never come.

He realised his eyes were wet, wondered whether his tears were for his brother or for his own situation; lit another cigarette as he heard the metallic clack of the letterbox and robotically went downstairs.

Normally he’d have waited until the third brew of the morning had cleared his head to sort out the bills from the junk, but the thump of a package on the dog-eared carpet tiles drew him to the front door of the Fahan Street tenement he’d rented for the past 20 years, like a dog to last night’s leftovers.

On the floor lay a small brown Jiffy bag, addressed to him by hand. He examined it suspiciously, having sent a few packages like this in his time, set to detonate and remove the hand of the unfortunate bastard who opened it. The postmark said Belfast, and on the back was a return addressee: G.O. Dibble.

Farrell’s heart raced — this was what he’d been waiting all this time for. With fingers that trembled more than on any trigger he’d pulled or sticky bomb he’d placed beneath a car, he ripped the small package open and a mobile phone dropped onto the floor.

He picked up the small entry-level Nokia handset, and examined it carefully.

And then he turned it on.

 

THREE: Getting noticed — the road to Crossmaglen

Tuesday12th July, 1978, 9.45pm

South Armagh, Northern Ireland

It wasn’t until McVeigh realised that it was impossible to hold Farrell at gunpoint at the same time as tying his hands behind his back that he agreed to allow him to sit up front. As Farrell had surmised, thinking wasn’t Micksey’s long suit.

Farrell helped him reach the decision; he wasn’t going anywhere. As he pointed out, if he’d wanted to leg it, he would be long gone by now.

He agreed to the terrorist’s proviso to move into the back with his hands bound and a sack over his head for the last half hour of the journey.

The alternative, McVeigh told him, was to spend the entire trip in the loading area with two dead men.

Farrell didn’t get much more in the way of conversation from the driver than he would have done from the two corpses in the back. He didn’t care; he was on this way, the first part of his plan achieved.

After half an hour it became clear that no one was following them. McVeigh tapped agitatedly on the wheel, lit a cigarette, and turned the radio on. The news bulletin came and went. Another bomb in Belfast city centre, an Ulsterbus hijacked and set on fire in Ligonel, rioting practically everywhere from the Falls to the Newtownards Road following the Orange marches; all the usual shit that went with the Glorious Twelfth.

But no mention of two dead UDR men in Fermanagh.

Farrell heaved a sigh of relief. The last thing he wanted was be interrogated about the shootout. This would complicate, if not completely scupper his plan.

McVeigh didn’t appear to share his relief.

“Home free, kiddo,” the terrorist shot Farrell a sideways glance, a curious mix of satisfaction and disappointment embedded in his copper framed smile. “Job done. Still, it’d be nice to get a wee mention.” He threw a packet of Peter Stuyvesant to Farrell who took one and lit it, trying to stop his trembling hands betraying his emotions. He could feel bile in his throat as the adrenalin subsided and a cigarette might help.

“What I don’t get,” said the terrorist, exhaling deeply, “is how the fuck did a wee Proddie public school skitter get involved in this… this shite?”

Farrell smoked and said nothing. The nicotine hadn’t helped.

“Stop the van.”

“What the…?”

“… Stop the fuckin’ van now… I’m gonne…”

The penny dropped as McVeigh heard the unmistakable retching sound of Farrell’s guts. He slammed on the brakes just in time for Farrell to fling the door open and hurl the contents of his stomach into the ditch. He wiped his mouth, climbed back into the van and lit another of McVeigh’s cigarettes.

“Fuckin’ Stuyvesant… always make me hurl.”

“Aye… ‘the international passport te smokin’ pleasure.’ Not used te the high life kiddo?” McVeigh threw back his head and roared with laughter.

 

****

 

They drove through the quiet Ulster market towns of Lisnaskea and Newtonbutler then crossed the border at Clones and stuck to the winding back roads through the villages of Newbliss and Ballybay.

“You know what?” The terrorist tossed the butt out of the window, palmed his greasy mane. “You’ve got yerself in some fuckin’ deep water, kiddo… whoever the fuck ye are. Where I’m takin’ ya, yer way outta yer depth.”

Farrell knew he was fishing. Whoever was in charge would have primed him to gather background information about his captive. He thought about telling him about Owen — about why he was here — but sensed that talking to McVeigh would be about as much as waste of breath as talking to his parents. Neither would listen past the first sentence nor give a flying fuck.

“Really?” Farrell replied with more confidence than he felt. “Well, if ye can survive after losin’ two men to them incompetent wankers, I don’t think I’ve too much te worry me.”

Farrell reclined into the Transit’s rock-hard passenger bench seat, placed his head against the passenger window and pretending to dose off. He braced himself for a slap from McVeigh.

It never came.

As the miles slipped by, Farrell stared with unseeing eyes at the desolate and uninhabited countryside, more accustomed to winter rain than summer sunshine, thinking about the past with a curious sense of discontinuation. The moral code hammered into him since he could talk told him that what he had just done and what he was planning was wrong.

There was no going back now. This was the beginning of the promise he had made to Owen. He knew he should feel revulsion and guilt but all he felt was anticipation at what lay ahead at the end of the road.

The man who wanted to have a word with him had gone to a lot of trouble and needed him alive.

It was therefore unlikely — although in keeping with the insanity of the times — not impossible, that he would be killed. So however absurd it may have seemed, given his situation, he believed that his immediate destiny, unlike his past, was in his own hands.

As the transit bounced over the rutted country lanes, Farrell relaxed a little and allowed his mind to drift back to the past.

 

****

 

Will Adam Farrell had been nicknamed ‘Captain’ at Port Royal School — as were most boys with whom he shared the surname, for prosaic but ultimately prophetic reasons.

He was born to elderly Quaker parents on 8th August 1960. Farrell grew up in Sion Mills, a peaceful village close to Londonderry, quite untouched by the Troubles and where Protestants and Catholics didn’t throw explosives at each other.

At the age of seven Farrell was shipped off to boarding school in Fermanagh, a remote and rain swept corner of south-west Ulster. The physical and sexual abuse he experienced at Devonshire House was quite normal for the times. This, combined with an almost complete lack of parental interest in either his pastoral or academic progress, helped him to develop an emotional void; an independence which would serve him well in later life.

At thirteen he made the transition to Port Royal senior school in the nearby garrison town of Enniskillen where he became friends with Robert Ashdown.

Ashdown was into gratuitous violence, explosives, barbiturates and pretty much anything for which expulsion was virtually guaranteed; to which end his academic goals appeared clearly defined.

He found in Farrell a willing partner, and before long, Farrell had demonstrated an aptitude and ability for chemical pyrotechnics with a diligence that would have impressed the founding fathers of the 1944 Education Act.

By the time he was ready to sit his ‘O’ Levels, not only had his handiwork seen off the south-facing wall of the chemistry lab, he had also entirely obliterated the ancient cricket pavilion, almost dispatching Monty Amerslie, the venerable alcoholic cricket master.

Amerslie had been sleeping off several bottles of his homemade Chablis behind the score hut. Luckily the heavy roller saved him from the worst of the blast. If that was what homemade wine could do to one, he reflected from his hospital bed, he would have to bite the bullet and buy the overpriced French plonk that Blakes sold.

Naturally the Provos were blamed for these atrocities, which — at the time — as far as Farrell was concerned, was good news.

Being more intelligent and ambitious that Ashdown, Farrell saw explosives merely as a hobby, in much the same way as the 1st X1 worked — rather pointlessly, he considered, now that there was no pavilion — on their forward defensives in the cricket nets.

Unlike Ashdown, he had absolutely no intention of being expelled. He held every expectation that he would progress to university. From there, he would enter a profession that would provide him with a comfortable standard of living, and the means to continue his love of electronics and chemically induced explosions. He might even to able to combine the two.

But the Saturday before the Christmas of 1977 had changed all that, and in so doing, dramatically changed the entire course of his life.

Two months before his ‘abduction’, a further explosion, which had reduced the town’s Imperial Hotel to rubble, got the attention of the Enniskillen Brigade commander of the Provisional IRA, Noel O’Gallagher.

O’Gallagher was regarded by the Provo hierarchy as little more than a local thug incapable of blowing up anything more significant than an RUC breathalyser. And this, to the cost of his driving licence, he had done on two occasions.

But the explosions at Port Royal, a bastion of Loyalist supremacy, set high on a hill overlooking the largely Roman Catholic town of Enniskillen, and then the demolition of the town’s pre-eminent hotel, also raised the eyebrows of Malcolm McGuinn, the second-in-command of the Provisional IRA’s Northern Division

McGuinn, known colloquially as ‘The Mortician,’ decided to have a word with O’Gallagher.

On the one hand, hitting soft but high profile targets such as Port Royal and the Imperial was excellent publicity, especially as the only casualty was an inebriated, ancient, English cricket master.

But on the other, it had been unauthorised, and unauthorised actions spelt danger to McGuinn. Unauthorised actions were almost always the work of renegade or splinter groups, and splinter groups could not be tolerated for sound fiscal as well as ideological reasons. Splinter groups were almost always about protection or drug money, and that vital stream of income had to be strenuously protected. Also, there was the very real danger that they might assassinate a politically sensitive target, and that would create a significant backlash to republican support on both sides of the Atlantic.

Therefore the outcome of unauthorised actions for the perpetrator was generally a visit to HQ closely followed by an unscheduled but urgent visit to the knee surgeon.

The only thing that stopped McGuinn putting a bullet in O’Gallagher’s right knee was the utter conviction that he was incapable of any greater menace than shooting his mouth off in the public bar of the Celtic Tavern. Either that, or swearing at the part-time soldiers who waved through his fake driving licence at the UDR roadblocks, as he drove away.

“Well if ye didn’t do it, then who the fuck did?” demanded McGuinn, thumping the desk with his fist so hard that the angle-poise lamp fell to the floor, leaving the room in a body-odoured sickly fug of darkness. The quivering O’Gallagher had been dragged from his bed at 2am, bound gagged, blindfolded and bundled into the back of a Ford Transit. He was then driven for two hours to the Provos’ ‘Operations Centre’, a farm spanning both sides of the border, deep in the heart of South Armagh.

“I’m fucked if I know!”

“Yer fucked anyway, ya fat useless cunt!” The blindfolded O’Gallagher heard the mechanical click that he knew prefaced the shattering of his patella.

“Thing is… Jeasus… thing is… it’s only a rumour, mind… but, word is… one of the young toffs did it themselves.”

“What? You expect me te believe that some… some silly cunt wearing a stripy blazer and a fuckin’ straw boater blew up a chemistry lab… a fuckin’ pavilion and a hotel…” McGuinn paused both to anchor the question and to consider its grammatical precision. He had a keen sense that some day oratory would define his future. “… Or should that be an fuckin’ hotel? Fuck sake!”

The masked figure standing behind the chair to which O’Gallagher was tightly bound, slammed the butt of his rifle between his shoulders as if to emphasise the absurdity of the idea. “From what I’ve seen of them cunts, there’s none of them’s capable of lighting one of their own farts, let alone makin’ a fuckin’ bomb!”

The room fell silent, other than the stream of urine from O’Gallagher’s leg trickling onto the concrete floor, as McGuinn considered his options. Shooting O’Gallagher, however tempting, would serve little purpose, other than to rid Enniskillen of an objectionable lout whose existence was as pointless and irritating as the RUC station in Crossmaglen.

However, if what he claimed was true, and one of the ‘young toffs’ had carried out these explosions, perhaps he could be of some use. If he could be located, maybe he could be groomed for further more significant activities. Moreover, the fact that one of the targets had been the cricket pavilion — and cricket was about as English as the Royal Family — a good deal more English than some of them, then he may already be sympathetic towards the republican cause.

And the Imperial was where the well-suited Church of Ireland faithful congregated to consume over-priced coffee and lunches after contributing serious amounts of folding to St McCartin’s Cathedral’s silent Sunday morning collection. No loss.

McGuin drummed his fingers on the table and adjusted the angle poise so that it shone directly into O’Gallagher’s eyes, from which the blindfold had been removed.

At last he spoke.

“Right. This is what yer gonne do.”

O’Gallagher’s relief was palpable. Everyone smelt it.

“Yer gonne find this wee fucker.” He paused. “And then yer gonne ring this number.”       McDermott scribbled a number on a piece of paper, folding it carefully then motioned to the guard who stuffed it roughly into O’Gallagher’s top pocket. “Mind ye don’t fuckin’ lose it, not unless ye’ve lost all further interest in walking.”

He studied O’Gallagher’s lard-coated frame and wondered if this would actually be much of a deterrent, as he clearly had about as much interest in walking as the indigenous population of the Galapagos Islands.

“And how exactly am I supposed to find who did it?” O’Gallagher had recovered a little composure, if not dignity, now that it appeared that his knee was likely to remain intact; at least for now.

“Well, that’s yer fuckin’ problem. But if I were ye, I’d start off in yer own local, The Celtic. If I know anythin’ about those Port Royal wankers, it’s that they like to do two things: drink… and slabber.” He also knew that some of them had a penchant for fucking nice young Catholic girls, especially those employed to skivvy in the kitchens. “So if I was you, I’d buy them drink and get the fuckers talking.”

O’Gallagher was tempted to ask for appropriate expenses for his enquiries. McGuinn read his thoughts:

“And as yer so fuckin’ clueless, ye can pay for this yer-self.”

And with that, O’Gallagher was gagged, blindfolded again and bundled back into the Transit, and from thence, back to his bed.

 

****

 

In the event, finding the perpetrator of the explosions had proved rather easier than either McGuinn or O’Gallagher had anticipated.

The summer term ended at Port Royal on 12th July but neither Farrell nor Ashdown were planning to go home. Instead, they had been invited to a ‘Bottle of the Boyne’ party, hosted by Arnie Beattie. Beattie was a day pupil — or ‘Bogman’ — as they were un-affectionately but usually quite accurately referred to.

He lived in Lisbellaw, a village about ten miles to the east of Port Royal. Despite being in the same year as Farrell and Ashdown — the Lower Sixth — he was in fact some three years older, as he had yet to pass sufficient ‘O’ Levels to progress to the Upper Sixth or pass sufficient years on earth to attempt to sign his name and join the RUC.

In return for cigarettes and large sums of cash, Beattie, who had recently passed his driving test, would obtain some of the components necessary for their hobby, which were not readily available at school or through the CCF. Ashdown either looted the cash from his father’s supposedly secret extra-marital activities stash, or from the Cathedral collection each Sunday.

Already a well-known local character, Beattie was respected by his peers, and hated by the local Catholic adolescent population in equal measures. His massive, heavily muscled frame, flaming mop of red hair and apparent inability to feel pain made him a regular prop forward in the Irish Schools rugby team.

Each morning during term time, on his way to Port Royal, he drove past the St. Columb boys walking to the local Roman Catholic school. Nothing gave Beattie greater pleasure than to wind down the window of his Morris Marina and brandish his tattoo-ed forearm, bearing the legend ‘For God and Ulster’. He would generally accompany this middle-fingered gesticulation by yelling: “Fuck the Pope!” at the top of his voice.

The fact that his ‘Boyne’ party would interest absolutely no members of the opposite sex was neither here nor there to Beattie, nor the small but select and malleable gathering of young Loyalist nutters who would attend it. None had actually been invited.

What attracted Farrell and Ashdown to this dubious soiree, while most of the boys from their year were engaged in the more traditional pursuits of getting drunk and chasing skirt at the annual Collegiate School Prom, was that Beattie’s parents were on holiday.

Moreover, Beattie, whose father was a sergeant in the RUC, had promised to break into the weapons cabinet and showcase his father’s impressive collection of weaponry. He also promised to crack open his father’s drinks cabinet, and what with that and what the guests would supply in terms of strong drink and narcotics, it promised to be a memorable evening. The plan was to inspect the weapons, get drunk and stoned, loose off a few rounds to celebrate the great Loyalist victory some 300 years previous, get even drunker and then crash out.

There would be no need to worry about getting home as Beattie had sufficient floor space for his guests to bed down, provided they promised to cook him an Ulster fry and to clean up their own vomit the next morning.

Beattie collected them from the gates of Port Royal, as arranged at 6.30. It was at Ashdown’s insistence that they took a detour to the Celtic. This was for two reasons: firstly, he needed to score some dope from the local dealer, Robbie Culhearn, whose habitual place of business was the public bar. Secondly, he wanted a pint, and even though they were no longer under school jurisdiction, the Celtic, being a republican watering hole, was the last hostelry in town where they were likely to run into any of the staff.

The landlord of the Celtic was sufficiently financially orientated to put his hatred of all things Protestant behind his love of all things of all things pecuniary. He had even been known on one occasion to switch the ancient television which was balanced precariously above the dart board, from the horse racing on RTE to the BBC for the rugby when Ireland were playing England.

O’Gallagher looked up from his seat at the bar where he nursed a hangover, held at bay by a large Bells and a half pint of Tenants. He knew Beattie by reputation; the sleeve of his polo-necked jumper rode up his arm sufficient to reveal the lower portion of his motif as he slammed a huge fist containing several 50 pence pieces pirated from the cathedral collection on the counter. The other two youths were unknown to him but if this was Beattie — and the tattoo would seem to confirm that it was — then if anyone were likely to know anything about the Port Royal explosions, it would be him.

Beattie ordered three pints of Smithwicks.

“Here, let me get them for yis, lads,” offered O’Gallagher, slightly queasy at the prospect of buying Protestants a drink with his own money.

Beattie regarded him suspiciously. However, it was his round, and drink was drink.           Ashdown took himself off to the public bar to conduct his business with Culhearn. The other two retreated to a table facing the television. Beattie half-emptied his pint with a single gulp, lit a No6 and looked at the television screen. The News was on. The footage showed the devastation of another bomb in Belfast — a car packed with 500lbs of explosives had somehow gained access through the controlled area in Anne Street, near the city centre. The bomb had completely demolished the grandiose Victorian building, which had formerly housed the ancient department store, Robertson & Beaver.

“Cunts,” mouthed Beattie, finishing his pint with a second gulp and banging the tankard down on the table.

“Fuckin’ awesome,” muttered Farrell in his soft Derry accent, to no one in particular, overwhelmed by the efficiency of the device.

O’Gallagher’s ears pricked.

“A big one, eh?” Beattie incorrectly assumed that he referred to Betty, the barmaid, and nodded in agreement, pushing his empty pint pot hopefully towards the edge of the table. Farrell had hardly touched his drink.

“Top up?” O’Gallagher pulled a wad of pound notes from his back pocket as Ashdown re-joined the others.

“Don’t mind if I do,” replied Ashdown, who had completed his business. He drained his glass.

Three fresh pints arrived on the table, ferried by the buxom Betty.

“Yis all off to the dance tonight then?” O’Gallagher asked, in the hope of opening dialogue from which he could obtain the information he sought. It was more than obvious from what they were wearing that they weren’t.

“No way,” replied Ashdown, whose sudden animation and dilated pupils suggested he had already sampled some of his purchases. “School dances are for wankers. We’re doin’ somethin’ way more interesting.”

Beattie glowered at him.

“What would that be then…?”

“… Like mindin’ our own fuckin’ business, for starters,” replied Beattie, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. O’Gallagher may have been almost ten years his senior. But to Beattie, whose physical prowess was seldom questioned and very rarely upstaged, O’Gallagher was exactly what he appeared to be — a nosy Fenian bastard who asked too many questions. “Come on, yis two, we’re done here.”

O’Gallagher could feel the moment slipping away. Now was the time for a more direct approach.

“Been any more explosions up at Port Royal, lads… any test tubes going off accidentally?”

Ashdown took the bait.

“Pretty fucking cool that Imperial job, wasn’t it?

“Yis wouldn’t have had anything to do with it, would yis?

“No they fuckin’ well wouldn’t,” intervened Beattie, hitching his sleeves up, revealing ham-sized forearms and the full glory of his tattoo. “Come on yis two, we’re going.”

“And the chemistry lab,” offered Ashdown. “That one was fuckin’ way better! And the pavilion make the front page of the News Letter and the Irish News!”

“You wouldn’t happen to know who was responsible for it, then?”

“Course I do.” Ashdown laughed at his own self-importance, putting an arm around Farrell, pulling him closer. “Bonny & Clyde, Butch Cassidy & Sundance, Ashdown and Farrell: ‘The Demolition Twins!’” He laughed again, loudly. Conversation had stopped; the entire bar was listening, waiting for something to kick off. “Mind you, mainly Ashdown, if the truth be known, he’s the real brains behind it.” Farrell winced. “You don’t think any of the other thick wankers up there could do it, do you?”

Farrell saw his opportunity: feigning anger, he rose and grabbed Ashdown with both hands by the lapels of his leather jacket, pulling him from his seat to within an inch of his face.

“Yea, like ye’d anything te do with the Imperial, arsehole.” Farrell shoved Ashdown backwards with such force that he slammed into the table, knocking it over breaking two of the glasses. “You were too busy pilferin’ the fuckin’ collection money and finishin’ the communion wine.”

“What… the fuck…? Ashdown picked himself up straightened his jacket. “What’s this all about then?”

Beattie stood and advanced on O’Gallagher, still perched on his stool. The big schoolboy reached into his pocket and withdrew a five-pound note, which he slapped down on the bar. His broken nose was about an inch from the Catholic’s.

“That’s for the drink. Right, the two of yis, I’ve got things to get ready for tonight.” He glowered at the fat republican, held his gaze with unbridled hatred in his eyes, then turned and made for the door. Ashdown and Farrell followed.

As they left the bar, O’Gallagher lit a cigarette. With a contented grin, he pulled the strip of paper with the number he was to ring from his top pocket and headed for the public telephone in the corridor.

 

FOUR — The importance of shale and a united Ireland

The Bogside, Londonderry.

8.55am, Friday18th September 2018

 

Farrell stared at the phone, feeling his sense of anti-climax turning to anger at its inertia.

He removed the back, the battery and the SIM card in the hope that a number may be concealed somewhere. He carefully examined the packaging. Nothing.

Had it exploded in his face, at least that would have been something, he thought. Sixteen years he’d waited for Dibble to contact him and now the cunt was playing mind games with him.

“Fuck!” He yelled, managing to resist the urge to hurl the handset at the tiled fireplace. “Fuck!”

He sat down and lit a cigarette, his mind drifting back to their last meeting in ’97.

He’d sat in the passenger seat of Dibble’s Lexus. There was a suit in the back, of course, with a gun trained on him beneath his jacket. There was never any trust — no more now than there was back then, he thought. And why should there have been? It was every man for himself, and the only rule was that there were no rules. And to think all this was supposed to have been about religion?

“We’re closing the operation down,” Dibble had said. “Consider yourself retired… it’s over. There’s going to be another ceasefire — only this time — it will hold.”

Farrell had let this sink in.

“I see. What about McGuinn? Surely to fuck ye’re not gonne let him stand for public office? The cunt practically tripped over himself to become Chief of Staff.”

“That’s as maybe,” Dibble lit a cigar, blowing smoke through the half-open window. “All in the past now. We live in enlightened times, Billy boy, with a common respect for shared values and for diversity; at least that’s what it says on the tin. This country has got to get used to looking to the future instead of wallowing in the past.”

Having clocked the Rolex beneath his neatly cuff-linked designer shirt, Farrell thought that if anyone should know about wallowing, it was Dibble.

“Diversity my arse.” Farrell lit a cigarette, glowered out of the window. “But what about the evidence? He was responsible for atrocities on both sides. The cunt sold out to the highest bidder, for fuck sake! What about Ellen…? He fuckin’ killed her — we have proof… the wee Filipino would testify… so he would,” his voice tailed off with the realisation that Apollo’s enthusiastic but dubious record of events, combined with the passage of time, would be as much use as a cookery book to a hunger striker. In any case, he would have to find him first, and that would not be easy.

“That was an unfortunate accident,” Dibble replied. “Nothing more.”

“Accident?” Farrell laughed sardonically. “There’s been a lot of those, hasn’t there? Was it an accident that he tipped off MI5 about the Brighton bomb, and you cunts did nothing about it? Was it an accident that he told M16 that there’d be a parcel bomb sent to Terry fuckin’ Wogan?” Despite his annoyance, Farrell laughed. “Mind you, if they’d checked, they’d have seen that the fucker was away on holiday. And was it an accident that those three poor cunts were shot dead in Gibraltar without so much as a fuckin’ water pistol on them?”

He took a deep drag from his cigarette. Dibble remained impassive. “Ever wondered how 14 Intelligence came across that one? Cunts couldn’t find their pricks in a pair of Y Fronts.”

Diddle cleared his throat.

“He was…”

“…He was on your fuckin’ payroll… so he was. We’ve known that since we found the cunt snoopin’ into Ellen’s room with a fuckin’ gun in his hand. But we kept quiet all these years ‘cos you said he was more use alive than dead. Aye, and look at him now… in ten years’ time, I’ll bet the cunt’ll have met the Queen, won the Nobel Peace Prize… and have a fuckin’ knighthood!”

Dibble turned to look at Farrell, opening his door.

“Let’s walk.”

Reluctantly Farrell got out of the car, parked outside the newly refurbished Exchange Bar and Grill, and joined Dibble on the river walkway. The Exchange was one of the new trendy gastro-pubs that had sprung up in Derry in the wake of the pace accord. Farrell had eaten there a couple of times with women he’d been trying to bed and liked both the food and the atmosphere. The owner had a reputation for even-handedness and was well respected by both sides throughout the Troubles. This allied to copious amounts of protection money, was probably why he was unique as a publican in that none of his establishments had ever been bombed.

The weak November sun danced on the Foyle as yellow earthmovers pirouetted on the east bank of the river, picking at the bones of the old Ebrington Barracks. More fuckin’ symbolism, Farrell thought — dismantling the British army’s infrastructure to make way for affordable housing. And all for the marginalised fuckin’ Catholics who wouldn’t live on the Waterside even if the Virgin Mary herself moved in.

The suit followed ten metres behind.

“Let me ask you a question, Billy boy,” Dibble’s phone rang, but he ignored it. This must be bloody important, Farrell had thought. It was.

“Who do you think was responsible for the deaths of, oh let me see… let’s round it up to forty shall we? Forty innocent Catholics murdered to protect your identity?

“I can live with that.” But preferably without the nightmares, he’d thought. “Saved a lot of lives by preserving anonymity. Ye know that as well as I do.”

“And then there’s the death-list of loyalists, RUC officers, soldiers and innocent protestant civilians. Must run into three figures, I’d say.”

“Like you said, Dibble, all in the past now — we live in enlightened fuckin’ times, don’t we? Anyway, think of all those cunts standing in the dole queue today that would be pushin’ up daisies without…”

“… And that’s not to mention the indexed £100K a year that was paid into a numbered Swiss bank account with your name on it.”

“So? That was all part of the deal when I joined the FRU. At your invitation, if I remember rightly, Dibble.”

Dibble winced slightly as the suit’s radio crackled.

“Turn that fucking thing off,” his soft south Belfast accent exuded measured control.

“So…” he continued, inspecting his manicured fingernails, “… did it not ever occur to you, that we might check to see whether this arrangement was paying dividends?”

Farrell didn’t like where this was going.

“And to see whether there was anything remotely useful which you saw fit to pass on to us? Anything we hadn’t already got from McGuinn?”

He stopped and turned to face Farrell, really getting in his face. “You see Billy boy — McGuinn — for all his faults and his political ambitions, saved a lot of lives as well. He was, if you like, one of us. Unlike you, he could see which side his bread was buttered on.” Dibble paused. “Whereas you… well, you never lost your republican sympathies, did you? You can dress it up as loyalty or even cultural fucking diversity if you want to be politically correct. You took your responsibilities for silencing informers very seriously, didn’t you? Particularly those who were starting to ask awkward questions about you. But most of those lives lost protecting your identity… were protecting it… from whom, Billy Boy? From your Provo paymasters?”

“That’s bollocks.”

“Is it?” Dibble tossed the butt of his cigar into the river. “Is it bollocks, Billy boy?” He smiled at Farrell, moving even closer and put his hand on his shoulder as if they had been best buddies for years.

Dibble was slightly younger than Farrell, but looked older. The lines on his face evidenced thirty years of sourcing and nurturing unpredictable assets, often to be found abandoned on country lanes, shoeless, trousers round their ankles and a bullet in the back of their heads. His dark hair was thinning now, greying at little, and he wore it shorter these days. Fashions came and went but not Dibble’s siddies. The Jimmy Nesbitt dimpled cheeks and the smiling blue eyes hinting he was more fun to be with than he actually was. Belfast’s very own GQ Man-of-the-Year wannebe.

Dibble had been one of a new breed who went in at what was known as ‘board-room level’. No officer training required; no countless wasted hours of saluting, square-bashing and ironing.

“We knew exactly where your loyalties lay, Billy boy. But we also knew that someday…” he gently slapped Farrell’s face — a gesture to put him in his place “…someday, we’d have a use for you, and all this investment would be worthwhile.” He smiled, slightly disappointed at the lack of reaction from Farrell. “I love the sound of chickens coming home to roost, Billy boy, don’t you?”

They walked back to the car in silence.

“But as I said,” he started the engine of the Lexus, “That’s all water under the bridge now. You’re officially retired — although to pass Go and collect…oh let me guess, around £6.5 million by the time it’s all indexed up, I’m going to keep you on hold for one final job.”

“On hold? What do you want me to do?”

“Oh it won’t be for a while yet — maybe ten years before the dust settles on this one — maybe even longer. So I’d find something else to do in the meantime, if I were you, ‘cos your giro won’t get you very far.” He smiled at Farrell, a mischievous twinkle in his Fred Astaire eyes. “But the time will come, and when it does, I’ll be in touch.”

He stuck the car in Drive and pulled away very slowly, looking at Farrell. The perma-smile had faded and his face held a hint of menace. “You do what I say, Billy Boy — exactly to the letter — and you’ll have your gilt-edged pension, a new identity and the slate wiped clean. Fuck it up though, and you’ll never see a penny. And that’ll be the least of your worries.”

 

****

 

Farrell was jerked from his reverie by the cigarette that had burned, unsmoked down to his fingers.

He hastily stubbed it out and lit another, staring at the handset on the table.

He’d begun at give up hope, after all these years. At first it had been okay. He’d even gone back to college and got some qualifications. He set himself up as a ‘life coach,’ believing that some of the self-betterment he taught might rub off on himself.

But there wasn’t much call for his services in Derry, where anyone who tried to better himself — let alone tell anyone else how to do it — was instantly regarded as a pretentious wanker.

However, what started out with the grandiose but ultimately pointless — even he thought — aim of helping people work towards better lives, morphed into a sort of counseling service for former terrorists. His main precept, he freely admitted, was ‘look at my life, look at what I’ve done, then do the opposite.’

Over the years he’d grown bored and missed the adrenalin that the Troubles had pumped through his veins. Since he was seventeen, his life had been consumed by planning who he was going to shoot or blow up, and how he was going to do it. Either that, or lie in wait for whoever was next in line to try to kill him. There was hardly a week went by when some bunch of useless fuckers hadn’t put a price on his head.

And then, how to stay one step ahead of those who suspected him of colluding with the other side, and ultimately walk behind their hearse to the graveyard.

And then there was Ellen.

He’d never gotten over her. As time passed, his mind flitted back more frequently to the summer of ‘78, recalling every detail; every evening they’d spent together. It was the last time he’d felt genuinely happy. Fuck — that was forty years ago. He’d been seventeen. There’d been other women, of course, but none that he’d formed an attachment to.

McGuinn was to blame for this. If it hadn’t been for that cunt, he felt sure Ellen would still be alive. And who knows, they may even be living in some sort of domestic harmony, now that there was peace in the land?

Someday, the time would come, he knew, that he would get a chance to get even with McGuinn. Fuck knows he’d had enough opportunity when they’d fought together but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He could have shot him in the back on a hundred operations. But that wasn’t what he wanted. He yearned to tear the cunt down from his high office; to see the pain and recognition on his face at the pleasure he’d get from discrediting the bastard, and to push that shiny fuckin’ suit back into the bog where it came from.

That day would come; that was all that kept him going. The money would be a bonus.

 

****

 

At first he didn’t notice the handset vibrate.

It wasn’t until the screen lit up and displayed the words ‘No Caller ID” that he realised the phone was ringing.

He stared at the thing in disbelief before he picked up and answered it.

“Dibble?” There would be no need for code. This would be a secure line although there’d be plenty of FRU and perhaps even M15 cunts listening in.

“Mr Dibble to you, Billy.”

“Crap on. Moved onwards and upwards, have we?” Farrell added a noise that he hoped would sound like a derisive snort, but came out as more of a high-pitched sneeze. “Hope you weren’t in charge of that London Marathon fiasco? Made thirty years of our little squabble over here look like a fuckin’ scrap in a kids’ playground.”

He referred to the bomb at the finishing line of the London Marathon in April, claimed by ISIS, that had killed 56 and injured hundreds amongst them were 15 elite runners, ironically many of them North African Muslims.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, hours before the atrocity, a Bryanair passenger plane had been shot down over London by roof-top ground-to-air missiles in the mistaken belief had it had been hijacked. Over three hundred people had been killed in the air and on the ground. Again, Islamic State took the plaudits.

When it transpired that the alert had been raised by an elderly lady in seat 24b who had sat on her mobile phone, unintentionally making a 999 call while complaining to her neighbour that her hold luggage had cost her a bomb, the Home Secretary was naturally accused of something of an over-reaction. Like many, he held the view that Bryanair had such a dismal safety record that they were more than capable of crashing the things on their own without military intervention.

And the same day, almost unreported, a bomb had exploded in the Whitehall office of a junior cabinet minister charged with the handling of a sensitive inquiry concerning internal security in Northern Ireland.

No one had been injured as Special Branch had received a tip-off prefixed by a well-known IRA code and the building had been cleared in time. This information had been kept well away from the public domain. ISIS were blamed for the outrage.

“That was a fuck-up in a class all of it’s own.” Farrell lit another cigarette. “And that Whitehall bomb was nothing to do with ISIS, was it?”

Farrell paused for Dibble to react; he wasn’t surprised when he didn’t.

“For one thing,” he continued, “it wasn’t their SP, was it? No one died and nobody blew themselves up in the name of Allah, so far as they were concerned it would have been a total waste of explosives.”

Dibble ignored Farrell’s barely concealed implication that Dibble himself may have had something to do with it.

“This isn’t a social call, Billy boy.” His voice was tense; clearly he had touched a nerve. “It’s time.”

The line went quiet, Farrell thought he’d rung off but the handset told him he was still connected.

“From your knowledge of current affairs, I’d say that you have a television set in that hovel of yours?”

He ignored the taunt.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Turn it on. There’s a bulletin at nine I want you to see: BBC News channel.

Farrell found the remote by the arse crack on the settee where it settled when he passed out the night before. He flicked it on as Bill Turnbull shuffled his papers in Reginald Bosanquet style and cleared his throat.

A huge discovery of shale gas in the Republic of Ireland is set of re-boot the ailing Irish economy.

            Dublin-based Energi Oil claim that there may be up to 170 trillion cubic feet of gas in the areas it is licensed to explore, a 115-square kilometers site in North Monaghan, adjacent to the border with Northern Ireland.

            Shale gas has revolutionised the US energy market and our energy industry correspondent believes that this discovery could catapult the Republic of Ireland’s net worth to rival that of even the wealthiest of the Gulf States.

            We now cross to our Science Editor, David Shukman:

            David… how significant, is this find?

            Well Bill, I’m standing in a field to the north of the picturesque and busy market town of Carrickmacross in County Monaghan. As you can see, land here is so poor as to have little agricultural value, but joy at this newfound wealth is tempered by concerns raised about the process for removing the gas from the ground as well as quibbling over who the land actually belongs to.

            The gas will need to be extracted using a controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This, essentially, is pumping water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into rock to release gas.

            David… leaving aside those concerns for a moment… have you any idea as to the potential worth of the find, and who will be the beneficiaries of this windfall?

            Bill, I spoke to John Smithers, CEO of NRG Expert this morning and he believes that this field has the potential to generate as much as £800 trillion over the next few years. This, of course, comes at a particularly good time for the Irish economy, as oil prices have recovered to an all-time high of $155 a barrel, following the 2014 slump. Investors also have flocked to oil and other commodities this year as a hedge against inflation and a weak dollar. As to ownership, Bill, two private individuals acquired around twenty acres of the site thirty-five years ago, but the Irish government’s Ministry of Defence controversially vested the land by compulsory purchase shortly after this, compensating the landowners at a figure of around £200 per acre, the going rate for agricultural land at that time.

            Thank you David. Now… to other stories in the news this Friday morning, the 18th September…

“Am I missing something, Dibble?

“Ach, come on Billy. I thought you were a bright boy.”

“Well ye’ll have te enlighten me, Dibble. ‘Cos other than sendin’ his fuckin highness-president-almost-elect McDermott a congratulations card, I can’t see how it has anything te do wi’ me.”

“That’s close to your old stomping ground, Billy. I’d say, dead close isn’t it? So close you could almost see the gas as it comes out of the ground from good old Blighty. In fact, I’ll bet you’ll be able to sniff the scent of new money all the way down Crossmaglen High Street.”

“Aye, well that’s their good fortune. And bad luck on the two losers who had te sell. Anyway, as far as I was aware, Dibble, you can’t see gas.”

“Such a shame, Billy, isn’t it…. such a shame. Just ten miles further north… not even ten miles… two would do it… and all that money would pour right into the Chancellor’s coffers. Just think what Her Majesty’s government could do with that Billy? New schools, new hospitals, the best welfare in the world… even enough to fix most of the potholes in the North of England…and that’s without even thinking about a defence budget that would put us right back at the top of the heap.”

“Well, you’d better get used to seein’ a tricolour at the top of the heap, Dibble…”

“Not entirely sure I agree with that, Billy…”

“… ‘cos unless ye can get Mr McGuinn to re-route the border…”

“… Oh, he’d do that easy enough, Billy. He’d do away with it entirely and unite the 32 counties if it wasn’t for a wee bit of legislation called the Nineteenth Amendment. But there’s a much easier way of reversing this bit of good fortune. Much easier… and you’re going to do it.”

Farrell could sense Dibble’s smirk at the other end of the phone. “And do yourself a bit of good besides. It’s a wee bit unorthodox, mind… even I didn’t believe it myself until I saw it with my own two eyes.”

Farrell waited, sensing Dibble’s pleasure at holding the trump card.

“You can cancel your busy schedule for today, Billy. There’ll be a car outside in twenty minutes. Be ready.”

 

FIVE: No place for a Proddie-dog

Tuesday12th July, 1978, 9.45pm

South Armagh, Northern Ireland

McVeigh pulled the van to a halt after past the tiny settlement of Doohamlet.

Farrell spent the next half hour bound and gagged, bouncing around the back of the Transit, wedged between the two dead republicans. But a combination of wild driving and rough roads at least freed him from the corpses, and his heart raced at the uncertainty of the welcome that lay ahead of him.

At last the van stopped, he was bundled out and led firmly across an uneven area into a building smelling, he thought, in equal proportions of tobacco and cow shit.

He was pulled roughly up a short flight of stairs and shoved into a room at the end of a corridor. The blindfold was removed to reveal his captor and two other men in similar garb.

No one spoke.

The door was closed and he was left alone to survey his surroundings. The room was clean but sparsely furnished, with only a metal-framed bed, similar to his bed at Port Royal and a curiously painted uncomfortable looking wicker chair. There was a toilet on a plinth in one corner and next to it a wash hand basin with a cracked mirror hanging precariously from a rusted chain above it. He noticed a clean towel folded at the end of his bed and an unopened bar of Imperial Leather soap beside it.

There were no pictures on the walls. Opposite the bed was a dormer window with bars on the outside, from which he deduced that he was in some sort of chalet bungalow. Outside the window, the light was fading. He imagined that it must be around 10pm, and looked at his wrist only to find that his watch had gone.

In the foreground were an assortment of farm buildings and a collection of vehicles and machinery. Several of the vehicles appeared to be unmarked oil tankers and others were animal transporters.

Beyond the buildings were fields, mainly large fields populated by sheep; he had never seen so many sheep. The land was undulating, and the marsh grass suggested that not much else other than sheep could prosper on it. Beyond the fields were hills.

Putting it all together, Farrell guessed, quite correctly, that he was in the Ring of Gullion, South Armagh.

And this, for a Protestant, was the worst place to be on the planet.

But he was still alive and precisely where he wanted to be.

 

****

 

For three days, Farrell was left to his own devices in a weird kind of limbo, floating between the security of his comfortable past and insecurity of his uncertain future.

In the days before goal setting became schematic for any operation more complex than taking a shit, Farrell knew exactly what his objectives were and understood the consequences of screwing them up.

His isolation, he knew, was the melodramatic preamble to interrogation by one of the most powerful and dangerous men on the planet. When the time came — and it would come at any moment without warning — if he were to leave any trace of doubt in the mind of this man as to why he wanted to be the only Protestant to join the IRA, he could expect to be found in a country lane with a bullet in his head, trousers round his ankles and a booby-trapped bomb up his arse. His heart raced at the thought he’d tried to push back from his mind, but for an instant the warmth of tears pricked at his eyes, wiped away angrily as he chastened himself for the weakness.

His plan had been hatched six months ago, shortly after poor Owen had been lowered into the cold winter ground, when he had come to realise that there would never be any justice after the inquest judge had ruled that Owen’s death had been a lawful killing.

‘Lawful killing my fuckin’ arse,’ he’d mouthed at the judge. That had been the only outburst he’d allowed himself. Since then he had kept his own council; a powderkeg, self-programmed to explode and the fuse was nearly at the end now.

The irritation of the tears blurred his vision. This would not do, he thought. He’d shed all his tears for Owen. That was done and this was now the time for action. If he marked his card as emotionally unstable, he would be laughed at before he was shot. He had made a pledge that he would not flinch until this was over.

He walked to the wash hand basin, filled the sink with cold water and splashed his face before submersing his head as far as the sink would allow. He felt his heartbeat thump beneath the water and gradually slow to its normal level. Farrell took the towel and dried his shoulder-length black hair. The face had looked back at him from the mirror wore more than seventeen years. He blinked away the fuzziness of emotion and fought to get his head straight. Hazel brown eyes, slightly blood-shot, blinked back at him. He finger-combed his hair and breathed deeply. The door would burst open at any moment and he had to be ready for it.

He pulled off his T-shirt and washed his armpits, surveying his lean, broad-shouldered 6’4” frame in the mirror; the habitual confidence had drifted. At fifteen, he’d easily passed for eighteen and now the past six months had aged him so that he no longer resembled the youth with a final year of schooling ahead of him.

On impulse he stripped and washed his genitals and arse, soaping himself in the cold water that instantly turned grey with the grime of the last three days.

He didn’t want to smell of shite, he thought, before the interrogation. If he shat himself during it, well that was a different matter.

 

****

For three days, trays of food had been passed through a flap at the foot of the door. The food was edible, if obviously prepared by men for whom cooking was not a passion. It was in fact, he reflected, much better than the rubbish served up at Port Royal.

When he banged on the door, someone came. He asked if he could have a notebook and a pen. They arrived within minutes.

He’d asked if he might have a newspaper, and a copy of the Irish Independent was posted through the door flap. On the second day, he asked if there was any chance if he could have a radio and, for the first time, someone talked to him: he was told to go fuck himself.

There was a column in the newspaper devoted to the Lisbellaw shooting. Predictably, the two surviving UDR soldiers claimed that they came under mortar and heavy automatic fire from a large detachment of paramilitaries — at least ten — perhaps more.

Editorial comment was skeptical of this. Farrell found no mention of his abduction and he wondered if Beattie had got so drunk that he had forgotten about him. Ashdown had been so stoned that he wouldn’t have remembered had aliens abducted Farrell.

Or perhaps, he thought, Beattie had reported it, and, as often happened, the RUC had demanded a news blackout on the abduction until someone claimed it and demands had been announced. That way, there were fewer nutters to jump on the publicity bandwagon.

Farrell passed the time by observing the comings and goings outside his window, recording them in his notebook. There was quite a lot to observe.

Each morning, unmarked tankers would appear, and pipes leading to an outbuilding were attached to them. Then other tankers, bearing the logos of prominent Ulster oil merchants would park on the other side of the building. A chain-smoking midget with a limp, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, dressed in blue overalls and what appeared to be a Japanese kamikaze pilot’s helmet, attached pipes to the tankers and directed operations.

To believe the boredom, Farrell diligently recorded each tanker movement, its make, colour and registration in his notebook. On the second day, he logged eighteen visits by unmarked tankers, eight by tankers belonging to ‘Comber Fuels; and six belonging to ‘Ards Oils’.

The other movements that Farrell recorded were sheep. The day would begin with a transporter being reversed into the gateway of the field to the west of his window.   The limping midget would hobble across and supervise loading. Farrell noted that he looked foreign: Polynesian or Filipino perhaps. Although Farrell wasn’t sufficiently bored to count the sheep, he guessed that each transporter held around one hundred of the things.

Throughout the morning, four further transporters arrived and were loaded. He estimated that somewhere in the region of five hundred sheep were removed from the field.           Then, during the afternoon, transporters arrived and sheep were unloaded into the huge field to the east.

To his surprise, he discovered that the registration numbers of the transporters removing the sheep were identical to those who returned them. From this, Farrell deduced that the sheep that were unloaded in the afternoon were, in all probability, the same sheep that were collected that morning. This pattern was repeated the next day, leaving Farrell to ponder why on earth anyone would want to take sheep on a day trip.

Then on the third day, shortly after breakfast, he received a visit.

Two men, dressed in combat trousers and balaclavas entered the room and tied his hands behind his back.

“Where are you taking me?” He asked.

One of them put a pillowcase over his head and the other cuffed him across the shoulders.

“Never ye fuckin’ mind! Boss wants a word.”

He was shoved along the corridor, down the stairs and into a room on the ground floor. One of the guards pushed him roughly into a chair, and removed the pillowcase, which, as hadn’t been taken outside the building, he assumed was purely to add to the drama.

His eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room. He registered a solidly built man in his early forties with receding fair hair, sitting behind a desk. He had an unmistakable air of authority, undiminished by a lump of cotton wool on his chin where he had cut himself shaving.

Two other men flanked the leader, suggesting to Farrell that he was involved in some sort of bizarre interview, which in an odd sort of way, he knew he was.

The windows were shuttered sufficient to exclude most of the daylight, and the only artificial light came from an angle poise lamp on the desk, pointing in his direction. For what seemed like an eternity, no one spoke.

“Let me introduce ourselves,” said the man in the middle, lighting a cigarette and tossing the packet of unfiltered Gallaghers Blues to Farrell. “Smoke?” It was more of a command than a question.

Farrell took one of the unfiltered cigarettes, put it to his lips and one of the guards lit it for him. He coughed, as the heavy tobacco smoke hit the back of his throat. He tried to pull the cigarette from his mouth, but the paper stuck to his lips so that his fingers slid down the tube, burning them as they reached the tip.

Farrell yanked the cigarette from his mouth, spat out tobacco and stamped it out on the floor. Laughter followed in order of hierarchy; first the leader, then the men on either side of him, and finally the guards.

“Enough!” yelled the leader. The laughter faded. One of the guards picked up the discarded cigarette, broke off the end that had been in Farrell’s mouth and put it behind his ear.

The men behind the desk conferred. Farrell felt more anger at his humiliation than fear.

The leader spoke.

“My name’s Tom Brady. Folks round here call me ‘The Bull’. I’m Chief of Staff of Northern Command of the Provisional IRA. That’s the Provos”. Brady let this sink in, before continuing. He turned to the man on his right: “This here’s Malcolm McGuinn. He’s known as ‘The Mortician’ — ye might have heard of him.”

Farrell nodded. McGuinn’s repertoire was already well known to him. It included gunrunning, holding up banks and post offices and the blowing up of anything belonging to the army more or less as soon as it left the barracks. His handiwork was the reason that the army had now abandoned road transport in South Armagh and only travelled by helicopter.

“And this here,” Brady turned to the man on his left, “Is Micksey McVeigh, better known as ‘Metal Micksey’. Mind, ye’ve met him already. “Ye know why he’s called “Metal Micksey?”

Farrell nodded.

“He’s called ‘Metal Micksey’ ‘cos he’s got more metal in his fuckin’ legs than bone. Thanks to the Paras, he’s a fuckin’ bionic man. Mind ye, he’s put enough lead into yon cunts. Can’t go through Aldergrove airport without setting all the fuckin’ alarms off, not that he’d want to, ‘cept te blow it up.”

Brady allowed the muted, nervous laughter to interrupt him.

“He’s the only man te have escaped from Long Kesh. Know how he done it?” Farrell knew. “The lads managed te lower a fuckin’ industrial magnet from a cherry picker over the perimeter wall. Micksey was playing goalie for the Provos team on the outer compound. Magnet lifted him clean out… clean out, eh? Mind ye, he knocked his teeth out on the crossbar, ‘cos the magnet took that fucker too, so his mouth’s full of metal now as well.”     McVeigh grinned, exposing a mouth full of metal dentures. “Best fuckin’ goalie in the six counties… so he is. Glentoran was after him, ‘til they found out he was only any good when there was a big fuckin’ magnet in the ball.”

Farrell decided to test the water.

“What is it, exactly,” He cleared his throat nervously, “what is it… that ye actually want with me?”

“That should be obvious. I’d have said ye know fuckin’ well why yer here, wouldn’t ye now, Billy boy?”

It was the sort of thing his housemaster, Mr Robinson, would have said to him on a Sunday night after chapel, minus the swear words, of course. Farrell would then select, from a weekend’s worth of misdemeanour, which was the least likely to result in serious reprimand: usually smoking. Robinson would then accept this confession in good faith — irrespective of his suspicions or tip-offs from staff or prefects — of other wrongdoing. He would either cane or gate Farrell, and the slate would be clean for another week. That was the way the game was played.

But sitting here is a darkened room with men wearing balaclavas and holding assault rifles, Farrell was aware that this not the same game; this was not a game that would end in six of the best or minor curtailment of his freedom. This, he sensed was either a bullet in the head or the chance to bring closure to Owen.

He decided that the same rules most probably applied:

“Is this anything te do with the explosions at school?”

“Now we’re getting somewhere, Billy Boy! That’s your starter for ten. Yer bonus questions are how and why did ye do them? And why did ye put a bullet into that squaddie? And what is it ye want wi’ us? ‘Cos unless yer totally fuckin’ stupid, ye’ve gone te a lot of trouble te draw attention te yerself?”

“Can I have another cigarette?”

Brady threw him the packet. Farrell accepted a light, this time drying his lips before putting the cigarette to them. He inhaled deeply, and exhaled without coughing. Brady lit a cigarette himself, and Farrell’s eyes had grown accustomed to the light sufficient for him to observe that the terrorist’s smoke came from a different packet — one that bore the name ‘Consulate’.

“That’s better, Billy Boy. Now answer the fuckin’ questions, before I get impatient.”

And so Farrell told how he had made and placed the bomb that had demolished the chemistry lab. He told them how he had blown up the cricket pavilion, and the Imperial. He told him how he had intended to work alone, but Ashdown, an incompetent, doped-up, adrenalin seeking maniac, had stumbled upon the unused staff garage in which he prepared the bombs and had threatened to report him if he refused to include him. After all, Ashdown wasn’t there to dispute his version of events.

“Not very good at covering yer tracks, are ya, Billy boy? Still we can learn ya that.” Brady leant back in his chair. “Someone learned ya how te make a bomb and blow a target up without blowin’ yerself up, and that’s more than half the fuckin’ eejits that work for me can do.” He tilted his head backwards and launched a procession of perfect smoke rings towards the ceiling. “The thing I don’t get is… why the fuck did ya do it?”

Farrell thought for a moment. He knew this was the critical bit. Boldness had never been a part of the game he played with Mr Robinson. But it might work here.

“Why not? I don’t like the fuckin’ place any more than ye. I didn’t ask te be sent there. Besides, I’ve already got the skills to work for ya and anythin’ else I can learn. Just give me a chance te show what I can do.”

“But ye are there, and yer one of them.” Brady inhaled and mouthed more rings upwards. “You know who founded that school?” Farrell knew, but considered it prudent to listen to Brady’s history lesson. “King Fucking James the second. That cunt was about as fuckin’ Protestant as it’s possible te be. Just like ye. And why would I want a Proddie workin’ for me? ”

“I’m not a Protestant.”

“Yer not a fuckin’ Catholic either… looked in the mirror recently? Yer eyes are too far apart!”

Farrell hesitated, suddenly aware that he had strayed onto the quicksand of Irish religion. He decided the truth was the best course.

“I’m a Quaker. If I’m anything, that is. At least that’s that I was born,” he said, apologetically, aware that this lacked the gravitas of more traditional religions.

“A WHAT?” boomed Brady. “Quakers make fuckin’ porridge! I had some for me breakfast this morning.” The room filled with laughter. “Read it on the packet, I was that bored listening to these cunts slabberin’”. The laughter abruptly faded away.

“Well — are ye a Protestant Quaker or a Catholic Quaker?” There was an air of expectancy as most of those in the room, even if they had failed to follow the lesson on comparative religions, sensed that Farrell’s answer would be significant as to how events would play out.

But before Farrell could answer, the door burst open and a man in a balaclava entered the room, approached the desk and whispered something into Brady’s ear, placing a notebook in front of him. Farrell recognised it as the book he had been given.

Brady picked up the book, and, staring menacing at Farrell, tapped it steadily on the table, like the rhythm of a heartbeat.

“I think we’re doing ya a wee injustice”. The tapping stopped; there was silence in the room. “You’re more fuckin’ organised that I’d thought.” Brady stood up, walked around the table and stood directly in front of Farrell. He placed the notebook beneath the boy’s chin, tilting the youth’s head backwards. “Just what exactly, were ya planning to do with this information?”

“N…n…nothin’,” stammered Farrell, now, for the first time, genuinely fearful for his life. McVeigh had been right: his was deep water and the sharks scented blood. “I was bored, so I just made a few notes.”

“Well fuckin’ note this,” Brady removed the notebook from Farrell’s chin and squatted until their eyes were level. Farrell held his gaze. “If I even get a sniff that yer up to something dodgy, ye’ll be on the road back to King Fuckin’ James’ school with the biggest proxy bomb strapped to yer fuckin’ kitbag that ye can carry. And another beneath yer fuckin’ stripy boater! Understand? Brady ripped up notebook, dropping the torn paper on the floor.

Farrell took a huge breath, swallowed the bile that had reached its penultimate destination and nodded. His relief was premature.

Brady returned to his seat. Suddenly he pulled a Glock from his shoulder holster and cocked the trigger. Leant forward pointing it at Farrell.

“I just don’t buy this, Billy boy. Ye don’t get yerself brought here… and that’s what ye’ve done, just ‘cos ye’re bored wi’ yer privileged fuckin’ background. So, unless ye can come up wi’ somethin’ a whole lot more convincing…”

Brady let the threat hang. He lit a cigarette.

“It’s time te talk, Billy boy.”

 

SIX: Owen, the Point and a few just men

Farrell talked.

It had been Saturday before Christmas, ’77.

They’d been drinking in the Mourne Bar on Foyle Street, him and Owen, his big brother.

As they often did on a Saturday night, they’d decided to cross the border to Donegal and the Point Inn. Farrell had just turned seventeen but looked much older. He was secure, confident; even clothed in a cloak of arrogance not unusual for a privately educated middle-class Protestant in the mid ‘70s.

He’s never had trouble getting a drink; barmen didn’t give a shit back then. Too busy keeping an eye on anyone suspicious who might pull a gun and strafe the place to care about under-age drinkers.

The Point usually had a decent band; the bar stayed open until two, and it was only a twenty-minute drive from Derry.

There’d be a checkpoint near the border, but it was usually manned by UDR thickos and a flash of a driving license was enough to get you through. Occasionally, there’d be a gardaí checkpoint on the border, but they weren’t interesting in traffic from the North, unless they’d had a tip-off.

Owen was on good form.

He’d flown home for Christmas, although he would have stayed in Canterbury had his brother not begged him to come back.

He was in his second year at Kent University studying Electrical Engineering, and, although he was still only 19, he’d grown up a lot — or so Farrell thought. There were two years between them, but Farrell was taller and carried himself with more confidence so that he appeared the older of the pair.

Owen was a soft touch, happy to go with the flow. So when his kid brother wrote to him and told him how the Christmas holidays stretched ahead like a prison sentence, and how he wouldn’t be able to go anywhere, as he had yet to take his driving test, Owen had changed his plans and booked a flight home to Belfast.

It was a measure of his affection for his brother that he wouldn’t let him suffer three interminable weeks banged up alone with his aging parents who, for almost twenty years, had consistently managed to show zero interest in their offspring. They used to joke that it was a bloody miracle that two of them had been born.

Owen hadn’t told him, until they’d had a couple of pints, that he’d met a girl at University he was sweet on. To Farrell’s certain knowledge, this was the first time he’d shown any interest in the female sex.

Owen was slightly chubby with fair unkempt hair that perpetually appeared in need of a wash, a moustache that looked unplanned and uncared for, and a dress sense that suggested a total indifference to fashion. He was more interested in electronics, music and the odd bit of blow than chasing skirt.

His girl was called Debra Johnson and wasn’t actually at college. She lived in a village outside the town with her parents and worked in a pub called The Wool Sack. An Irish guy called Gerry McGough who was on Owen’s floor in halls, had introduced him to her.

Debra had invited him to stay with her and her parents for Christmas, but what are brothers about, Owen had said, if you don’t put a sibling in need ahead of girls? She’d also showed a real interest in his course, and was hell-bent on starting an electronics business herself. In fact, he’d helped her to make some switches for the prototype of a telephone-controlled burglar alarm system which she said would make them a fortune in the rapidly developing security market.

A relative of hers who lived in California had sent Debra a batch of ‘tone frequency selector switches’, unavailable on Britain, They were impervious to interference and impossible to jam the signal, she said. Even the most sophisticated housebreaker, Debra’d told him, wouldn’t be able to override them. Owen had made the necessary modification she asked for to transform them to match the burglar alarms.

Owen was more animated than his brother had ever seen, both about his personal and potential business relationship with Debra. But something had bothered Farrell; something not quite right. He didn’t want to let it spoil the evening, so they talked mostly about school, and the news that Farrell had been selected for the Provincial rugby team.

They’d borrowed their dad’s car. He knew that Owen would drive after a few drinks but he also knew that he was careful and that the chances of being caught for drink and driving were almost nil. Back then, you had to virtually walk into an RUC station and give yourself up to stand any chance of prosecution. If you could find one open.

Besides, the alternative was to have the pair of them moping around the house and playing loud music.

They were quite drunk when they left the Mourne. In fact they nearly didn’t bother with The Point. Farrell had got off with a pretty, leggy girl with short blonde hair and huge breasts called Mandy who he’d fancied for a while. Her halter-neck top served little other than to accentuate her best assets and Farrell was tempted to accept her invitation for a drink at her parents’ house, particularly when he learned that her parents were in London — but he wanted to spend time with Owen.

His brother suggested the traditional one for the road, which literally meant taking a couple of pints for the journey. Farrell held onto both glasses as his brother started the car.

“You got your license?” He asked Owen.

“Mais oui,” he replied, putting the car into drive. “Here, let’s have that wee pinty.” He pulled the family car, a nearly new Audi estate, out of the car park and onto the Donegal Road. “Now, what’s the betting the squaddie asks us for our ‘wee’ licence at the checkpoint?”

“Nah — 50p says he doesn’t. My money’s on him calling you ‘Sir’ in a condescending manner.”

“Ooooh! Good one! I see where this is going.” Owen threw his head back and laughed and it occurred to Farrell that he’d never seen his brother this pissed before. He wondered if he really should be driving. “You’re on, but only if he’s a fuckin’ Jock!”

Farrell lost the bet.

Nearing the border, they were slowed down at a checkpoint by a soldier slowly waving a powerful torch across the road. It was a UDR patrol, and Farrell could see two armour-plated green military Land Rovers pulled across the road, forming a chicane so that anyone tempted not to stop would either have to slow right down or plough through them. He also noticed two RUC Land Rovers, and what he guessed was a Special Branch unmarked car parked in a layby beyond the roadblock.

Owen slowed the Audi to a halt and wound down the window.

“Evenin’ Ossifer,” he slurred, pretending to be drunker than he was. He took a swig from his pint glass — playing on the fact that the UDA had no jurisdiction over drink driving —and bent down to grope for his license, spilling beer in the footwell. “Oh fuck, dad’s not goin’ to like that is he? Cleaning job for you tomorrow, Billy boy. Let’s hope there’s no puke to mix in with it later.”

“Had a good evening, have we mate?” asked the soldier. He had two stripes on his arm. “Can a have a look at your wee license, please?”

Farrell and Owen had exploded with laughter.

“Fifty pee… fifty pee… fifty pee…!” Owen chanted, “Aye… give us a wee minute… to find my wee license…” Owen groped around the car’s various cubbyholes. Farrell could see from his body language that the corporal didn’t share their amusement.

“Hurry up,” said Owen, “I’m desperate for a wee wee-wee.” The pair dissolved into hoots of laughter again.

“Oh, I think I must have put in in this wee glove compartment… oh here it is.” Owen held it up to the window. “Here’s me wee license… it is quite wee, isn’t it? That’s why I couldn’t find it in the wee glove compartment.” He laughed as the corporal took the document and examined it beneath his torch.

“Where are we heading, sir?”

Wee…’re heading to the Point Inn. I don’t know about you, Corporal. Home to your wee bed, I’d say.”

The corporal walked slowly around the car, checking the registration plates and the tax disc before tapping his rifle on Farrell’s window.

“Who are you?”

“Billy Farrell. His brother.”

“ID?”

Farrell produced his passport. The corporal checked it and handed it back.

“Well Billy Farrell. Be careful.” The corporal started at him. “We wouldn’t want you to have a wee accident, would we? Sir.” He smiled at him and held his gaze long enough for Farrell to be in no doubt how about the kicking that he would love to give him. He was a local, probably Limavady, to judge from the accent; a part-timer working the late shift to bolster his Christmas pay packet. But then, he could also be UDA or even a moonlighting RUC man.

The corporal walked slowly round the front of the car, deliberately shining the powerful beam through the windscreen, so that the brothers had to shield their eyes. He approached Owen’s window and handed him back his license. Owen appeared to have sobered up a good deal; the corporal’s arrogance had dissolved much of his bravado.

“Get out of the car.”

Owen obliged.

“Now open the tailgate. I want to take a look inside.”

There was nothing in the luggage area and the corporal could see that, but he kept them standing in cold for a good ten minutes while he examined it.

“Okay,” he said eventually. “Now get back in the car.” He bend down so that his face was very close to Owen’s and tapped the license on the open window before dropping it onto his lap. “Here’s yer wee license. We’ll see you on the way back.”

Owen selected drive and pulled away slowly, his heart beating fast. He carefully negotiated the narrow space between the Land Rovers, throwing his pint glass out of the window as he cleared the barricade.

“What the fuck was that all about?” He asked. “Don’t they know it’s Christmas, after all?” He laughed half-heartedly, “That’d make a good title for a Christmas song, wouldn’t it?”         But the carefree ambiance of the evening had dissipated.

Farrell looked in his wing-mirror. He had noticed the unmarked car that had been parked in the layby pull out behind them and was now following at a discreet distance.

 

****

 

The Point’s car park was packed.

If you couldn’t fill a place on the Saturday before Christmas you never would.

Farrell had lingered in the passenger seat of the Audi pretending to look for his wallet while Owen tried to get the key in the lock.

“Central locking, brov… fucking amazing… when you get the key in, that is. You know, I reckon this’ll soon be done remotely. In ten years time, you won’t need a key to open a car… won’t even need one to start it. Dead handy when you’re pissed.”

Farrell watched the car from the checkpoint slink into the car park. It parked in the only other space on the far side, triggering the security lighting. Two men dressed in jeans and black leather jackets got out and walked towards the pub. Farrell watched them carefully to see if they’d look across at the Audi. They didn’t. They were pros; they knew they were being watched, and even at seventeen he’d seen enough to know they were Special Branch.

The fact that they were across the border and out of their jurisdiction didn’t make him feel any easier.

But why the fuck were they following them? What the hell was Owen into?

The pub was rammed fuller than a rent boy’s anus when the navy was in town.

Farrell went to the bar and found himself in a throng that was at least three deep no matter which way he jostled.

And then he saw Mandy at the bar. She was with a mate called Maggie he knew vaguely. She smiled at him and motioned the offer of a drink. He nodded and mouthed: ‘two pints of Smithwicks’.

He hardly noticed the band so they can’t have been that bad he’d thought afterwards, on one of the thousands of occasions he’d re-played the evening in his mind. Big Jake and the Mainliners.

It was too loud to talk but they’d found a booth about as far away from the stage as you could get. Mandy had snuggled up to him, leg pressing against his, her intimacy intoxicating him more than the Smithwicks.

She was a couple of years older than Farrell and at the Manchester Poly School of Theatre. She told him she’d got a small part in a Soap — something called Emmerdale. He’d never heard of it.

He didn’t want to leave Owen out of the loop, but he seemed distracted and had hardly touched his drink. Farrell wasn’t particularly surprised that he’d made no effort to hit it off with Maggie. She soon got fed up and went to join another group.

Mandy placed her hand gently on the inside of Farrell’s thigh. As she cupped his ear to be heard above the music, he felt the first stirrings on an erection and began to relax and forget about the incident at the checkpoint. Her scent still out-weighed the fug of tobacco and other substances in the bar.

It wasn’t really an incident in any case. The UDR squaddie had been an irritating cunt. But if he were to be honest, they’d probably deserved to be taken down a peg or two. And there were a hundred reasons why plain-clothed peelers would drive behind them to The Point. Top of the list was to have a Christmas drink as everywhere else was shut.

He realised that Mandy had stopped trying to talk to him. Her hand still on his ear, but she had slipped her tongue into it provocatively, then nibbled his earlobe and ran her lips down his neck, making his skin tingle. It felt good. Her other hand firmly gripped his crotch.

She said something he couldn’t hear, and he asked her to repeat it. With this sort of noise, he’d usually have had a guess at what she was saying, but he figured this was important.

“Where’s Owen?” she shouted. “Why don’t you get his car keys and we’ll go outside?” She squeezed his balls. “You’ve got an estate car haven’t you?”

The words ‘where’s Owen’ sent his mind into turmoil. He looked up and saw his brother had gone. Okay, he’s probably gone for a slash, Farrell thought. But then he clocked the two peelers seated in the next booth, directly behind where Owen had been. They were staring at him. He couldn’t see if they’d nabbed Owen — he could be out of view in the seat opposite them, with his back to Farrell. He went to stand up then checked himself.

To get up, walk over and have a look would be tantamount to saying: ‘Hello have you grabbed my brother? I don’t know that the fuck he’s up to but if Special Branch want to know, he must be in some serious shit.’

The band had taken a break and the DJ was getting full use from his Christmas record collection. The only benefit of this was that he couldn’t match Big Jake for decibels so that Farrell was able to tell Mandy he was going to find Owen. He stood up and pushed through the crowd swaying on the dance floor to John Lennon’s War is Over — an interesting choice of music for Christmas in Ireland at the moment, he thought — and walked urgently towards the toilets, a growing sense of foreboding gnawing at his guts.

It was about to get worse.

Close to the toilets, he saw two other plain-clothed peelers loitered against the wall smoking and making very little attempt to conceal the fact that they hadn’t crossed the border just to have a drink and admire Big Jake.

Farrell burst through the double doors and found himself in a huge, neon-lit tiled room with a bank of urinals along one wall, three of which were jammed with cigarette butts, seeping piss onto the floor.

Next to them was a row of wash hand basins.

Big Jake, clearly a consummate musical professional, was vomiting noisily into one of them, but managed a cheery ‘hello’ to Farrell.

His cowboy boots were covered in puke but he’d managed to keep it off the acres of denim that clothed his huge frame.

On the other side of the room were half a dozen shitters, and Farrell could see that all but one were vacant.

Someone was singing War is Over behind the closed door. They were badly out of tune; even John Lennon couldn’t sing it that badly, he thought. It had to be Owen.

“Owen?” Yelled Farrell.

“Who wants him? He’s terribly busy. Have you got an appointment?” Manic laughter came from the cubicle.

“Stop fucking about.” Farrell shouldered the door. It didn’t budge.

Big Jake looked round, a bungee rope of snot and vomit dangling from his moustache.

“Open the fucking door, Owen. I need to talk to ye.”

Cautiously Owen slid the bolt back and opened the door. He was sitting on the toilet seat fully clothed and looked normal except for a stupid grin and eyes that appeared to be dancing to their own Christmas tune.

“Okay Owen… either you’ve forgotten to pull your pants down to take a shit, or you’ve fucking popped something. Which is it brov?” Owen sat there, the grin stretching from ear to ear. “You’d better pull yourself together ‘cos you’ve got some explaining to do as to why four Special Branch peelers are shadowing us.”

Farrell knew that Owen did the odd bit of blow, occasionally popped something stronger. Drugs was a hobby that he had no interest in but figured it was none of his business if his brother got off on them, as long as he did it at the right time and place.

And right now this was neither. Owen was pissed enough already without compounding his inebriation with chemicals. Fuck knows how he thought he was going to drive home. And that was without four peelers hanging around to pounce on them the moment they crossed the border.

At the very least Farrell was going to have to telephone their father and get him to pick them up in his mother’s Datsun. That would result in them both being grounded indefinitely with no more use of the family car. And God knows what the atmosphere would be like in the Farrell household for the rest of the holidays; it was bad enough at the best of times.

“What have you taken, Owen?” he asked.

Owen just grinned at him.

“War isss ooooover…” he swayed on the toilet seat, grinning inanely.

Farrell slapped Owen’s face, which had very little effect.

“Owen, listen to me. Why are the peelers following you?”

“Maybe they didn’t like the way I said: ‘wee wee-wee.’ Owen dissolved into hysterical laughter and started to sing. ‘… And so happy Christmas… For black and for white… For the taigs and the proddies… Oh this song is shite…’

“Ah Jesus… Owen, shut the fuck up, will you?” Farrell slapped him again, harder and this time and the grin faded.

Outside the cubicle, the room was beginning to fill up. Big Jake had cleaned himself up and re-gained something of his showbiz razzmatazz.

“Hey… you guys all right in there?”

“Yes… No — no, we’re not,” said Farrell. An idea suddenly hit him. A long shot, but it might be worth trying. He had to get Owen out of here, somehow get him home. Then they could start to sort this mess out.

If they walked out now, at the very least the peelers would follow them back across the border and throw the book at him for narcotics, let alone what they were interested in Owen for. All the windows in the toilets were barred on the outside, but there must be a back exit where the band had brought their equipment in.

“There’s a couple of guys outside after my brother. Two of them outside the toilets… and there’s a couple more on the far side of the bar.”

“That makes four, not a couple.” Big Jake had clearly sobered up for his second set, sufficient at least to showcase his mathematical ability.

“Aye, well… he hasn’t done anything to deserve it, but he’s goin’ to take a beating if I can’t get him out of here.”

Big Jake looked at Owen. This clearly wasn’t going to be a fair fight, and his plight appealed to his sense of fair play. With or without excessive alcohol and chemicals, Owen had an innocent face; the sort of face that women liked to mother — with the notable exception of his own mother. Whatever he’d done, he was in no state to defend himself.

Big Jake stood a good 6’8” even without his puke-stained cowboy boots, and was built like the proverbial brick shit-house. He looked at the pathetic teenager sitting on the toilet seat.

“What’s he done… tell me, like… honestly, man?”

“He said a couple of things…” Farrell shook his head dismissively. “Took the mickey out of this bloke’s accent… just something he said… nothin’ really”.

“Nothin’ really?” Big Jake pursed his lips, making a sort of inverted whistling sound as he weighed it up. “Takin’ the mick out of a bloke’s accent’s worse than fuckin’ his missus round here, son.”

He pushed his long, lank black hair behind his ears, walked over to the mirror and checked himself. Farrell noticed that his denim shirt had shoulder patches with flowers embroidered on them.

Nice.

The shirt was more faded than his Levi jeans, but overall Big Jake was reasonably comfortable with his rock god image. Not quite out of the Ian Gillan scrapbook, but it would certainly do for The Point Inn.

He ran a tap and rubbed his teeth with his fingers.

“Ya haven’t got any Wrigley’s have ya, kid?”

Farrell pretended to check his pockets, patting them down.

“Nah… must be out. Look. Are you going to help us or not? These cunts will be in here any minute. He’s… he’s taken something. Think he thought it would help, but it’s just made things worse.”

“Oh I can see that.” He looked at Owen, as a hospital consultant might look at a patient, appraising him from a safe distance. “I can see that all right. What have you taken, son?”

The slap seemed to have had some effect. The grin and the giggling had gone. Owen looked almost sorry for himself, as if he had finally realised that he was in the shit.

“Acid.”

“Acid?” Big Jake pursed his lips again, emitting a “Whiooooo” noise that Farrell now realised accompanied any reply requiring some sort of decisional balance. Farrell could imagine him asking Mrs Big Jake what was for tea. ‘Spaghetti hoops,’ she’d say, to which he’d reply: ‘Spaghetti hoops? Whiooooo!’

“Right,” he said, arriving at a decision. “This is what’ll we’ll do. We’ve been paid for the night anyway, and I’ve had enough of this fucking place, so I’ll create a bit of a diversion. Give it five minutes then get the fuck out of here. Turn right and follow the wall to the stage. Get onto it, and at the back you’ll see a door. That leads to what they call the dressing rooms. Follow that corridor and you’ll come to a fire door that opens to the car park. You get out there.” He looked at Owen, wondering if he had any hope of making it.

“Got any of that acid left, son?” He asked, hopefully.

Owen stood up and pulled a small silver-foil wrapped package from his underpants.

“No, but try this, mate.”

“What is it?”

“Moroccan skunk,” he replied enthusiastically.

Big Jake pursed his lips again.

“Moroccan skank? Whiooooo! Sounds erotic.”

“Exotic. And it’s skunk.”

“Look… ” If this was a diversion, Farrell thought, they’d still be arguing about erotic skunks when the cleaners arrived. “… I really appreciate your help… whatever it is you’re going to do, but can we just get on it? Please?”

Big Jake looked at him as if he’d forgotten what it was he had to get on with.

For a moment Farrell considered leaving them both there. Mandy’s kiss on his neck, hand on his groin and the prospect of losing his virginity suddenly seemed a whole lot more attractive than this pantomime in the men’s bogs.

Five minutes later, Farrell had managed to get Owen to his feet, splash his face with water until he could move under his own steam, and lead him out.

The word ‘diversion’ hadn’t quite prepared Farrell for the sight that greeted him outside the toilets.

The dance floor was a seething mass of people, mainly, but not exclusively men, fighting. The disco ball that rotated slowly from the ceiling slightly confused the scene, but virtually everyone in the room seemed to be on their feet punching, kicking, head-butting or smashing glasses over the person nearest to them.

It was the perfect orgy of pub violence.

He wondered if Mandy was okay but his priority was to follow the wall to the stage, dragging Owen behind him.

There was no sign of the peelers and he correctly assumed that they had become embroiled in the mêlée.

Later, Mandy, who had remained in her booth until a busload of guards arrived to calm the thing down with a baton charge, told him how it had started.

Apparently a huge bloke dressed in a Father Christmas costume had leapt off the stage, grabbed two of the bouncers, punched one and nutted the other. Those in close proximity who had been jostled joined in, and the brawl had spread outwards until it reached the periphery of the dance floor, consuming everyone in its path like a nuclear explosion.

Farrell had reached the stage and dragged his brother onto it. Thankfully Owen was regaining some measure of control over his limbs and Farrell began to entertain the hope that he may even be able to drive.

The Mainliners were bashing out a passable version of a Jackson Browne number without their leader as Farrell and Owen slipped unnoticed across the stage and found the door behind the curtain. As Big Jake had told them, it led to a corridor at the end of which was a fire door. Farrell slammed it open and suddenly they were outside. It was cold and raining heavily.

They stopped to get their breath back.

“I’m sorry bruv,” Owen slumped forward, hands on his knees and Farrell thought he was going to throw up. “Let’s go home.”

“Can you drive?”

“If you can open the car and get the key in the ignition, I’ll have a go.”

 

****

 

Farrell began to relax a little as they pulled out of the car park.

Owen appeared to have sobered up significantly, although he had to sit bolt upright and squint at the windscreen to see where he was going.

It helped a little when Farrell turned on the lights and the windscreen wipers.

Farrell kept glancing in the wing mirror. Nothing. It was late, gone one, and there was no traffic coming towards them either.

“That was some bloody punch-up,” said Owen. “What the fuck was that all about?”

“Search me. Just high spirits, I’d say. You know, people letting off steam before Christmas.” He made a mental note to get down to Moore’s record store on Monday and buy a copy of Big Jake’s album. It was the least he could do — he might even buy two — give one to his parents for Christmas; that should really piss them off.

They reached the border and slowed so that the guard could look up from his paper in the portacabin and wave them through.

About a mile later they came to the UDR checkpoint. A soldier waved a torch, slowing them down.

“Bit of luck and that cunt’ll have fucked off home,” said Farrell. “Right, no lip this time. Let’s just through this and home to bed. Got your license?”

Owen nodded and patted his breast pocket. He was concentrating so intently on the road that he didn’t see the soldier who was now standing in front of them. He stood on the brakes.

“Fuck’s sake, Owen! Run the cunt over and we’ll be here all night!”

Farrell’s heart sank and he recognised the corporal from earlier approach his window.

He motioned Farrell to wind his window down.

“Well, well, well… what have we here?”

Farrell produced his passport and pulled Owen’s license from his pocket, passing them to the corporal.

“I don’t need to see those again. Sir. We’ve seen yer wee passport an his wee license, so we know who yis are.”

The corporal stood there, rifle not quite pointed at them but in a position of obvious readiness. He wasn’t waving them through. The soldier Owen had nearly run over remained in front of the car blocking their way.

No one was going anywhere.

“Okay,” Farrell said, alarms bells suddenly ringing. “So… we’re okay to go? Only it’s kind of late. We’d like to get home to bed.”

“I’m sure we’d all like to get home te our wee beds sir, only there’s someone wants te have a wee word with ye.”

“Oh yea… well, where are they?” Farrell made a big show of looking round. “Don’t see anyone here.” Fuck this, He thought, this bastard was just getting his own back for earlier. The Special Branch guys would be fully occupied, and probably didn’t know that they’d slipped out anyway.

He went on the offensive.

“And on what grounds are you holding us here, corporal?” That sounded quite official, as if he knew his rights. About the right tone; he didn’t want to come over like some wanker from Amnesty International.

The corporal bent down so that his face was inches from Farrell’s and smiled at him. He smelt stale tobacco and heard the rasp of his asthmatic breathing. He stared at Farrell, holding the smile then turned away and yelled to one of his mates.

Laughter somewhere in the darkness.

The red glow of cigarettes.

He’d no idea how many of them there were or exactly where they were standing.

The corporal swung round slamming the butt of his rifle into Farrell’s face. He didn’t see it coming and had no time to react. He knew his nose was broken from the sound and the impact. Blood in his mouth, on his face, all over his shirt and the dashboard. He’d had his nose broken on the rugby field before, but a loose elbow didn’t do the damage a rifle butt did.

“I think ye’ll find these grounds are sufficient — Sir,” said the corporal, turning towards the invisible others and laughing. “Insolence, failing to stop when requested to, almost running over a member of the Security Forces… more insolence, and that’s just for fuckin’ starters… Sir. Now if you have a problem with that, yer welcome to get out of the car and we can discuss it further.”

Farrell didn’t. He sat still and said nothing, blood oozing from his nose. Adrenalin numbed the pain.

He felt one of his front teeth loose but for now it stayed put. Pushing at it with his tongue gave him something to do as they sat there… waiting. Owen looked at him questioningly. The effect of the drink and the drugs had completely worn off. Farrell tried to smile back but it hurt his face.

Lights of a car approaching at speed behind them. It slammed to a halt inches from their rear bumper, penning them in. Doors flew open. Two men leapt out. The corporal stood back in deference to superiors. They opened the Audi’s front doors and pulled Owen and Farrell roughly from the car. Farrell was thrown against the side of the Audi.

“Face the vehicle and spread ‘em… hands on the roof, nice and slowly where I can see them.” A south Belfast accent. “That goes for you too, Wonder Boy.” ‘Wonder boy?’ Farrell had heard Owen called many things but never ‘Wonder Boy’.

He opened his legs as far as they would go and put his arms on the roof of the car. He risked a glance at Owen across the vinyl as the rain spattered off it into his face. It was a pleasant sensation, but even in the torch-lit darkness he could see the blood mingle with the rain and wondered if it would stain it. That would be something else for his dad to complain about.

Experienced hands patted him down. This was no half-hearted body check you get at the airport. This was the one carried out by men who genuinely expected to find something and wanted to do it in a hurry. Thank fuck Owen had given Big Jake the skank.

Hands went between his legs. The man grabbed his balls. The last hands that had been in this sensitive area had been Mandy’s — that seemed a very long time ago.

“Fuck off — there’s no need for that!”

Something coshed him on the back of his head. He thought, for a moment, he was going to pass out.

“I’ll be the judge of what there’s a need for, son.” The hands stopped. The search was over. “Right, you two. Get into the car.”

A hand grabbed his arm, expertly pinning it half way up his back. The pain was excruciating; he thought the man was going to break his arm. He was marched to the car behind theirs and bundled in to the back seat next to one a man he had last seen loitering outside the toilets in The Point. Owen was shoved into the front, diagonally opposite. Another man he recognised sat behind the wheel. Both men had longer hair than RUC minions and regulation black moustaches.

The doors were slammed and there was silence apart from the windscreen wipers sloshing the rain away. It was raining so heavily now that it beat like a drum on the roof.

The driver lit two cigarettes, and passed one back to his partner in the back.

“Ghastly night,” he said.

No one spoke.

Farrell’s seventeen year-old brain was in turmoil. This can’t be happening, he thought. Surely to fuck we can’t be hit, held, shoved into a car… and for what?

“Mind telling us what this is about?” he asked. He was genuinely scared now. “Are you peelers or something? Don’t you have to caution us?”

No reply.

“Aren’t we allowed a phone call?”

The men smoked and stared at the rain. The driver chewed gum. There was an acrid smell in the car. The last person where he sat had probably shat himself.

At last the driver spoke.

“Caution you?” He laughed softly to himself. “We’re just havin’ a wee chat. As for a phone call, this isn’t Dixon of Dock fucking Green.” He threw a cloth into the back to Farrell. “Try not to bleed on the upholstery, son. Someone’s got to clean it up.”

He turned to face Owen.

“That was a clever stunt you pulled, son. Who’s idea was it, as a matter of interest? Almost got away with it… might even have, without the diligence of Corporal Kerr. The man’s a credit to his uniform… so he is.” Farrell thought he detected more than a hint of sarcasm.

The driver turned and looked at Farrell.

“I’m Detective Inspector Ian Jackson and this here’s Detective Constable John Dunn. Try not to upset him, or he’ll recite his fucking poetry at you.”

Jackson turned back towards Owen.

“Before we start, let’s be clear about one thing.” He pulled a warrant card from his jacket and shoved it in front of Owen. “We’re RUC Special Branch and we’re acting on information received from an undercover source. No one knows we’re here and no one knows you’re here… well apart from those lads outside, but their memories aren’t too good. So if you don’t co-operate, things could get a whole lot more messy.” He pulled a revolver from his shoulder holster, pointing it at Owen.

“Jesus… we haven’t done anything… what the fuck have we done?” Owen’s voice was quivering and the car smelt of shit.

“Fuck… which one of you cunts done that?”

Jackson wound down the window. “Jesus! You dirty fucker!” The smell lingered. “Right, Owen… none of us wants to sit here and smell that all night. So you can start by telling us what you know about switches.”

“Switches… What sort of switches? You mean… like light switches or something? They turn things on an off.”

“Oh very funny, Owen. Very fucking funny. I’d hoped to keep things nice and simple but I can see that’s not going to work.” Jackson lit another cigarette from the one he’d just smoked, throwing the butt out of the open window. “How about FX401 ‘tone frequency selector switches’, unavailable in the UK and very handy if you don’t want to have a signal jammed. Particularly when they’re set to a frequency that’s not used in this country. Not even used in Europe, come to that. Know anything about them?”

“Jesus Christ, Owen!” Farrell had listened to what his brother had told him earlier and remembered thinking there was something wrong about it. How would a pub barmaid come up with an idea for telephone-controlled burglar alarm systems? Let alone fancy Owen? It hadn’t sounded right.

Jackson continued.

“’Cos one of them was adapted and used to blow up a Ferret scout car in Crossmaglen last month. Killed a young Para. Nasty business. What age are you son?”

“Nineteen.”

“Funny that. ‘Cos that’s how old he was too. Want to know his name?”

“I… I didn’t do it. I don’t know anything about it. I don’t even live here…”

“… Oh we know all that. And we know about Debra Johnson and we know about Gerry McGough. Been watching them for some time, as it happens. John Millar, that was the kid’s name, by the way. The one your switch blew up.”

“I didn’t have anything to do with it. I fucking swear… I was just helping Debra…”

“Of course you were, Owen… course you were.” Jackson stopped. The sound of Owen’s hysterical sobbing drowned out the rain hammering on the roof. No one said anything.

“Would you take a look at this fucking weather? And it’s Christmas next week.” Jackson turned the wipers off. They sat in silence, as the rain pelted down even louder. “Santa’ll have to build a fucking ark.” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.    “And then last week, forensics found another one of your clever little switches. This time from what was left of a radio-controlled car bomb in Forkhill. Killed a Marine private on foot patrol. This lad was a bit older — 22, so that should make you feel a bit better. Not quite such a waste of a life, but he probably wouldn’t see it like that.”

“She only asked me to help her make something.” Owen’s voice was weak. Pathetic, with an air of resignation, almost acceptance that there was nothing he could do to make them believe them. “She had this idea for a telephone-controlled burglar alarm system. It didn’t have anything to do with bombs… I swear. She said it would make us a load of money. I don’t know anything about radio-controlled bombs… or any bombs. I fucking swear to God… I didn’t have anything to do with them!”

“Clever that, using the American Weather Alert Radio frequency — very clever. But then you are clever, Owen, aren’t you? Clever and fucking devious… like how you got that fight started, and how you like people to think that you’re just a fucking simple pothead.”

Jackson slowly pulled back the hammer of his handgun and pointed it at Owen.

“How about I just shoot you now, Owen, and save us all the fucking trouble of a trial, huh? Course…” he swept the gun round to point at Farrell. “…we wouldn’t want any witnesses, would we?”

“Jesus, man… you’re fuckin’ insane! Listen to him. He didn’t do it… he wouldn’t hurt a fuckin’ fly!” Farrell’s heart was thumping like a drum. His mouth was dry. He’d heard about what was called the ‘Special Branch cleanup rate’ but this was fucking madness. This was lynch mob justice: Special Branch as judge, jury and executioner.

“Son… let me tell you something. I’ve known men who’d spend half an hour rescuing a daddy-longlegs from a pub toilet,” the Special Branch man turned to face Farrell, the gun steady, inches from his face, “then walk into the bar and empty an AK47 into poor, luckless bastards guilty of nothing more than having no way out.”

Jackson testified later that he had absolutely no intention of shooting Owen; that the gun was just to scare the kid. All he wanted to do was get him to go back to Canterbury, keep an eye on Johnson and McGough, and find out where the switches were coming from. Hell, they’d even give him a few quid.

In fact, they’d even ‘lose’ the beer glass that Owen had chucked out of the window on the way to The Point.

The one they took a print off that tied him in to the two bombs and would get him two life sentences. And all that crap that Farrell alleged about saving the trouble of a trial and not wanting witnesses… well, that was just total ‘fantasy island’. There’s no way he’d have said that… no way… DC Dunn would confirm that.

The gun frightened Owen all right.

He’d never been so frightened in his life. So he did the only thing he could think of and opened the car door, sprinted the short distance to the Audi, jumped in and started the engine. The keys were still in the ignition, which was both a good thing and a bad thing.

Good, in that it gave him a head’s start before Corporal Kerr could release the safety of his SLR and place Owen squarely in his night-sight.

Bad, because if he’d had to fumble with the keys — even for a few seconds — the car would not have exploded and he would probably still be alive.

 

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