Read the first chapter of Now and in the Hour of Our Death, the latest novel by Patrick Taylor, publishing on July 15th.
NORTHERN IRELAND. THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 1983
A small handgun, six hollow- point, .25 calibre cartridges, a plastic bag, and an open jar of Vaseline lay on top of the chipped enamel toilet tank. Erin O’Byrne disassembled the revolver, slipped its components and the bullets inside the bag, and tied a short length of white string round the neck. She shuddered as she scooped Vaseline from the jar and lubricated the package.
Someone hammered on the door.
Erin almost dropped the bag.
“Get a move on.” She heard the tension in her brother’s voice.
“Christ, Cal, you near scared me to death.”
“You’re going to be late.”
“Take your hurry in your hand.” She put one foot on the toilet seat and reached under her skirt. The plastic was cold against her. She spread herself with her left hand and worked at the slippery bag, feeling it slide into her. The stiff gun barrel could have been Eamon— she felt the familiar tingle—but the bag was cold and, God knew, Eamon was always so hot. Used to be—until the Brit bastards lifted him.
“Move it, Erin.”
She lowered her skirt, washed her hands, and opened the door.
“What the hell are you getting yourself worked up for? I’m the one that’s taking the risks. I’m the one going into the Kesh.”
Sited on a disused aerodrome outside Lisburn, ‘the Kesh’ had been called Long Kesh in 1974 when the Security Forces sent Davy McCutcheon down. They hadn’t thrown the book at him. They’d chucked the whole bloody Linen Hall Library. Fift een years for arms possession. Arms possession. Christ, he’d been the best bloody Provo bomb maker in Belfast. They’d given him another twenty- five for what they’d called the murder of the British soldier Davy’d shot while trying to escape from a farm house in Ravernet— not ten miles from where he lay in his cell.
Murder, my Aunt Fanny Jane, Davy thought. In his mind and in the opinion of the Provisional IRA, the Provos, the Brit squaddie had got his in a legitimate military operation. The Brits had been tipped off that the Provos were planning to mount an attack from the farm house. Soldiers had launched a raid and trapped Davy there. Davy hadn’t even known at the time that he’d killed a soldier.
While the man Davy’d thought he could trust— a man who called himself Mike Roberts— had been downstairs, greeting the attackers under his real name, Lieutenant Marcus Richardson, the bastard who’d given the fucking Brits the tip- off , one member of the British attack group had rushed up to the bedroom where Davy was hidden. He’d let go a blind burst of automatic fi re through the locked door. Heard the thump of a falling body. That was all. Davy’d been too busy trying, and failing, to blow up a bridge over the Ravernet River and, with it, the then British prime minister, Harold Wilson.
Today, Maggie Thatcher was prime minister, the Beatles were history, Bob Geldof was all the rage, the Troubles were into their fourteenth year—and Davy was nine years older.
Bloody good thing the Brits hadn’t tried to nail him for Richardson’s death, too. Someone had shot the young man, but Davy had to give the authorities their due. Their forensic experts had shown the bullet that killed him could not have been fi red by Davy’s weapon. They’d concluded Richardson must have stopped a random shot when the soldier Davy had killed loosed off a burst as he fell.
That had been nine years ago. Nine fucking years, and it wasn’t even half of his sentence. The twenty- five years they’d given him for murder were to be served in full without any chance for parole. He could earn remission time for the arms- possession charge, but by his reckoning the twenty- first century would have arrived before he was on the outside— unless the Brits declared an amnesty or the Provos won the bloody war. He was going to be in the Kesh for a long time.
When he’d first arrived, the prison was a collection of Nissen huts surrounded by barbed wire cages. Th e Brits had replaced the corrugated iron structures with eight pairs of single-storey concrete cell blocks, each pair joined by a central corridor— the H blocks. Each block housed 160 prisoners and was surrounded by its own thirty- foot, barbed- wire- topped fence.
The entire complex lay behind a twenty- foot- high, antiscale perimeter wall. Th e perimeter wall was anywhere from half to one mile from the H blocks. There’d be no “great escape” by tunnel.
The British changed the name from Long Kesh to the Maze. The Republicans still called the place the Kesh or the Lazy K, as if it were an American ranch. They were good at that kind of sarcastic naming. A huge housing development on the outskirts of Belfast might be called Turf Lodge by the city planners. To its Republican inhabitants, it was known as the Ponderosa after the Cartwrights’ spread in the TV series Bonanza.
Davy had lived— if you could call it living— in cell 16, D wing, H-block 7, through the weeks of the “blanket men,” Provisional IRA inmates who, demanding the right to be treated as political prisoners, not criminals, had refused to wear prison uniforms. They spent their days naked, draped only in blankets. Davy, although sympathetic, had ignored the suggestions from the Provos’ internal command that he should “go on the blanket.”
Even in here there was a strict hierarchy that had nothing to do with the Brits. Each cell block had its own commander, who in turn reported to an overall Provo officer commanding the Kesh. Inmates were meant to “obey all orders and regulations issued . . . by the Army authorities and . . . commanding officers.” That was part of the Óglaigh na hÉirann declaration he had made when he had joined the IRA as a boy.
He’d believed back then. God, he’d believed. Wouldn’t any sixteen-year-old whose father had fought against the British in the Black and Tan war in the ’20s, whose father ate, drank, and slept Irish independence— the Cause? But now? One of Davy’s bombs, one he had planted himself with an army patrol as its target, had accidentally killed a farmer and his family, and Davy had been forced to watch as a little girl was roasted alive in the furnace that had been their car. Aft er that, his faith in the Provos and their goal of Irish freedom was shattered.
Jesus, he thought, if I was a priest, the rest of the true believers would consider me an apostate. He didn’t give a shite what anyone thought.
Davy had told the self- important little git who thought he ran cell- block H to go fuck himself, and when the blanket men upped the ante with the Dirty Protest, Davy had not been one of the 341 Republican inmates who had stayed in their cells for three years, unwashed, unshaven, with their uneaten food and excreta daubed on the walls. The place was bad enough without having to live with the stink of your own shite.
By then, even the Provo Offi cer Commanding the Kesh had got the message. Davy McCutcheon wanted nothing to do with any of his 850 fellow prisoners, was putting in his time and that was that. When the hunger strikes started in 1981, no one had bothered to suggest to Davy that he, like Bobby Sands and eight other prisoners, should starve himself to death.
He lay on his cast- iron cot as the screws made their morning rounds, clattering their billy clubs on the doors of the cells. He stared at the walls. Christ, he knew every crack in the cement, reckoned he could call the spiders that infested the walls by name.
He watched as his cell mate rose. Eamon Maguire from County Tyrone was twenty- nine, another lifer caught aft er a shootout when two Royal Ulster Constabulary men had been killed. Eamon had been in for three years. The day Maguire’d arrived, Davy had recognized the man for what he was. Tough as an old boot, deeply committed to the Cause, but once in a while he let his friendly side show. In their first year together, Eamon had broken through Davy’s reticence, called the older man Father Davy, and asked Davy’s advice but didn’t always take it. Eamon had paid no heed when Davy had tried to warn him off getting mixed up in the circle of that really hard shite, Brendan McGuinness.
McGuinness. Davy shook his head. As Officer Commanding the 1st Battalion, Belfast Brigade, Provisional Irish Republican Army, McGuinness had been the man behind the raid that had cost Davy his freedom. He was a man Davy avoided. Detested. Served the hoor right that he’d been lifted at the same time as Davy. The pair of them had unfinished business— a lot of unfinished business— and it was a bloody good thing that McGuinness was in C wing, not in a cell near Davy.
McGuinness was a bitter man, a vengeful man who reveled in the violence of the Troubles. When they had been working together on the outside, Davy had seen through McGuinness’s protestations of love for Ireland. He was in the Provos because that gave legitimacy to his love of killing and maiming. And he had treated Davy like a has-been old idiot, someone who was expendable, had even told Davy on one of the rare occasions that they had come face- to- face in here that it served him right that he’d been captured. That he was a liability to the Provos anyway. It had taken three men to pull Davy off McGuinness. Bastard.
Davy threw back the blanket and swung his legs over the side of the cot. He rubbed his left thigh. The ache was always with him. His thighbone had snapped when Davy had jumped from that farm house window. Three hundred yards from the Ravernet Bridge, and one hundred yards from the motorbike that would have got him away. If his fucking leg hadn’t given way, he’d be in Canada now with Fiona.
No use crying over spilt milk, he told himself, and recognized the lie for what it was. Not a day went by that he didn’t think of her and what might have been.
“Time you were up, Father Davy.” Eamon, carrot- red haired with two front teeth missing, grinned and flicked a towel in Davy’s direction. “It’s not likely the screws’ll be bringing you breakfast in bed.”
“Away off and chase yourself, son.” It was good to have Eamon for a friend, the only friend Davy had in the whole bloody place— in the whole bloody world. His best mate from the old days, Jimmy Ferguson, lived in Canada. He did write, but it wasn’t the same as the pair of them sitting together over a pint, having a bit of craic, the banter so ingrained in the Irish character, Jimmy spouting the lines of his hero, William Butler Yeats:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
Aye, or with Davy McCutcheon in the fucking Kesh.
Eamon said something.
“I’ll shave fi rst. Erin’s coming today. I want to get my breakfast early.”
Davy half paid attention as Eamon brushed his teeth, filled the cracked enamel basin, lathered his face, and shaved with a safety razor. Cutthroats were not permitted. He heard the water run out and Eamon refilling the basin.
“There you are. Room service.”
“Piss off ,” Davy said, but limped to the basin. He had to stoop to look in the mirror. Whoever had hung it had not made any allowance for a man who stood six feet tall. He shaved carefully, peering at the face that looked back at him, blotched in the places where the silvering had peeled from the back of the glass. He saw a pair of deep blue eyes, crow’s-feet at the corners, and it wasn’t constant smiling that had put those lines there. His moustache, trimmed over fi rm lips, showed not a trace of its original black. All silver now like his thinning thatch. He still carried a scar over his left eyebrow, a reminder of the head- butt from a drunken youth in a Republican drinking club.
Eamon said, “Hand me that wee glass.”
Davy lift ed a water- filled tumbler from a shelf between the basin and the mirror and gave it to Eamon.
“Ta.” He removed a dental plate from the water, gave it a quick rinse,
popped it into his mouth, and grinned at Davy. “That’s better. Got to look my best for Erin.” As he left the cell, Davy heard Eamon say in a stage whisper, “She’s bringing me a wee present.”
Erin felt the string of her “wee present” rub against the inside of her thigh. Maybe she’d left the cord too long, but how else was she to get the package out? Eamon had told her that other women smuggled things— a miniature camera, messages stuffed in the top halves of ballpoint pens— and for all she knew others might be in the gunrunning business, but, Jesus, Mary, and Jo, why had she let Eamon talk her into this?
She squeezed the steering wheel until her knuckles whitened. The drive from Tyrone to the Kesh seemed to be taking forever. At least she was off the narrow winding roads of County Tyrone and on the M1 Motorway. She just wanted to get to the prison, get this over with, and get home.
She knew that she would be body searched. What would the female prison officer think when she saw that Erin was not wearing pan ties? She felt the blush start. The embarrassment would be desperate. Then Erin smiled. Typical Catholic girl. Here’s me taking the biggest risk of my life, and what I’m really worried about is that my mammy always told me that nice girls would never go out without their undies on.
When it worked out the way Eamon said it would, she’d soon be wearing a lot less than just no knickers. And there’d be something inside her a lot nicer than her wee bag and its cold contents.
Eamon wriggled in his chair in the visiting area. Erin was late. Christ, if the screws had found what she was bringing, it would fuck up two years of planning. And that didn’t bear thinking about. He’d been in on it almost from the start because of his expertise with fi rearms. The Provo Officer Commanding in the Kesh, Bic McFarlane, had approached Eamon last year. Without preamble, he’d asked, “Could you fi x one of those wee .25 pistols if it was busted?”
“Fix that.” McFarlane threw the components of a small revolver onto the table in Eamon’s cell.
“That’s a fucking . . .”
“I know what it is. Fix it.”
It had only taken a minute to reassemble the weapon.
“Keep your mouth shut about it.”
Eamon bristled. “Of course I fucking well will. What do you take me for?”
“A sound man, or I’d not be here.”
“One day a bunch of us are getting out, and you’ll be coming with us, but only a few of the lads know. So not a fucking word. Not to nobody. Right?” “Fair enough.” Out? Dead on. Eamon hugged the thought.
“Me or Bobby Storey’ll be in touch.” McFarlane put the revolver into his pocket.
Eamon, who was in no doubt about the need for security— he couldn’t even tell Davy— had been willing to wait, as he waited now, and wished to God Erin would get a move on.
The Provos weren’t the only security- conscious lot in this place, but Eamon knew that security’s only as good as those who try to make it work, and for two years the Provo inmates had been working at undermining the prison warders. He had gradually learned the intricacies of the planning. He thought back as he waited.
The first step had been to ensure that one H block, H-7, was rid of any Loyalist prisoners. The Provo leadership had deliberately provoked fights with the Protestant bastards. Not one was in H-7 now. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
Then Bic McFarlane and his mates had put pressure on the Northern Ireland Office to let the prisoners work, maybe get back some of the remission time that they’d lost during the blanket protest. For a year, many of the men of H-7 had worked as orderlies. This gave them access to each of the block’s eleven electronic gates. The screws had got used to them being there, and close to the guards. That was bloody important. If it were going to work, twenty- six guards would have to be captured before they could raise the alarm. Total surprise would be everything. Surprise, and five other small handguns all brought in the same way that Erin was bringing hers.
Eamon stood up and peered at the window in the entrance door. There she was. About bloody time.
The screw let her in. She sat opposite Eamon.
“What kept you?”
“Body search. The ould bitch noticed a piece of string hanging out of
“She didn’t . . . ?”
“Not at all. I told her I was on my monthlies.”
“Good lass. I’ll get it from you in a wee minute.” He turned to where another inmate sat several tables away, ignoring the woman opposite, staring at Eamon, who nodded.
The man turned to his visitor, smashed his fist on the tabletop, leapt to his feet, and yelled, “You fucking slut, you’ve been screwing Sean Molloy.”
“I’ll fuckin’ well kill you. I’ll kill you dead.” The man rose to his feet, spittle flecking his lips.
Two warders rushed to restrain him.
“Now,” Eamon hissed. “Now.”
Erin passed him the package under the table. It slid through his fingers, clunked on the fl oor and slithered into plain view. He froze like a rabbit in a car’s headlights. Erin slipped off her chair, scooped up the package and thrust it at him. Eamon dropped it down the front of his shirt and tried to control his breathing.
“Jesus, you done good, love.” He had to raise his voice to be heard over the yelling of the decoy.
“Aye,” she said, and ran her tongue over her upper lip. “And I hope you’ll do good for me soon.”
What was it about women? Eamon wondered. Was it fear that made Erin horny? “Soon, love.”
“Now would be good,” she said with a grin. “I’m not wearing no knickers.”
He laughed and felt the package slip down under his shirt, the gun hard against his belly. It wasn’t as hard as the bulge in his pants.
“I’ve to go now,” he said. “But it won’t be long. You just bide.”
“Right. And, Erin?”
“Don’t be wearing any panties that day either.” He smiled and blew her a kiss, rose, and walked over to the nearest screw.
“ ’Scuse me, sir. Permission to go to the lavatory?”
Eamon headed for the toilet. His smile faded. To get back to his cell, he’d have to pass a body search. He knew there was only one way to do that. Pushing the Vaseline- lubricated package into his own rectum was going to be a real pain in the arse.
Copyright © 2005 by Ballybucklebo Stories Corp.
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