Maureen had just killed a man.
She didn‘t mean to do it. She‘d barely need to prove that, she thought; no one would look at a fifty-nine-year-old slip of a whip like her and see a killer. When you saw them on the telly, the broken ones who tore asunder all around them, they always looked a bit off. Too much attention from handsy uncles, too few green vegetables. Faces like bags of triangles and eyes like buttons on sticks. Pass one on the street and you‘d be straight into the Gardaí, suggesting that they tail the lurching loon if they were looking for a promotion to bring home to the mammy in Ballygobackwards. Well, not Maureen. Her face had a habit of sliding into a scowl between intentional expressions, but looking like a string of piss wasn‘t enough to have Gardaí probing your perversions. There‘d have been no scandals in the Church at all, she thought, if the Gardaí had ever had minds honed so.
She looked at the man face-down on the tiles. There was blood under him. It gunged into the grout. It‘d need wire wool. Bicarbonate of soda. Bleach. Probably something stronger; she wasn‘t an expert. She didn‘t usually go around on cat feet surprising intruders with blunt force trauma. This was a first for her.
She was shit at cleaning, too. Homemaking skills were for good girls and it was forty years since anyone had told her she was one of them.
He was definitely dead, whoever he was. He wore a once-black jumper and a pair of shiny tracksuit bottoms. The back of his head was cracked and his hair matted, but it had been foxy before that. A tall man, a skinny rake, another string of piss, now departed. She hadn‘t gotten a look at his face before she flaked him with the Holy Stone and she couldn‘t bring herself to turn him over. It‘d be like turning a chop on a grill, the thought of which turned her stomach. She‘d hardly eat now. What if his eyes were still open?
There was no question of ringing for the guards. She did think—her face by now halfway to her ankles—that it might be jolly to ring for a priest, just to see how God and his bandits felt about it. Maybe they‘d try to clean the kitchen floor by blessing it, by the power vested in me. But she didn‘t think she‘d be able for inviting one of them fellas over the threshold. Two invasions in a day? She didn‘t have the bleach.
She turned from the dead man to pick up her phone.
Jimmy had drawn priests down upon her like seagulls to the bridge in bad weather. He was sin, poor thing, conceived in it and then the mark of it, growing like all bad secrets until he stretched her into a shape no one could shut their eyes to.
If she‘d been born a decade earlier, she reckoned giving birth out of wedlock would have landed her a life sentence scrubbing linens in a chemical haze, hard labour twice over to placate women of God and feather their nests. But there was enough space in the seventies to allow her room to turn on her heel and head for England, where she was, on and off, until the terrible deed she‘d named James tracked her down again with his own burden to show her.
Some women had illegitimate babies who grew up to be accountants, or teachers, or heirs to considerable acres of good ground in the midlands. Not Maureen.
She frowned at the blood on the floor and dialled. Jimmy would know what to do. This was exactly the kind of thing he was good at.
The man on the street, the scut in the back corner of the pub, and the burnt-out girl on the quay all said the same: it was better to run alongside Jimmy Phelan than have him run over you. In short pants he was king of the terrace; in an Iron Maiden T-shirt he was Merchant General of the catchment area. He‘d sold fags and dope and cans of lager, and then heroin and women and munitions. He‘d won over and killed cops and robbers both. He‘d been married. He‘d attended parent-teacher meetings. He‘d done deals and time and half the world twice over. There wasn‘t much left that Jimmy Phelan hadn‘t had a good go of and yet it was only very recently he‘d owned up to the notion that inside him was a void kept raw and weeping for want of a family tree. It turned out, though, that Jimmy Phelan‘s eyes were bigger than his belly, and that applied to anything he had a yearning for: imported flesh, Cognac, his long-lost mother.
The bint had only gone and killed someone. He supposed it was appropriate carry-on for the block he was chipped from, but it didn‘t make it any less of an arseache. Jimmy liked to leave himself room for manoeuvre in his diary, but ‘Clean up after your mother offs someone‘ was a much more significant task than he‘d ever have thought to factor in.
He had set aside an apartment by the river for Maureen‘s use. With his being such a captain of industry, it had never been the plan to have her living
with him, even if it hadn‘t turned out that she was crazier than a dustbin fox. It hadn‘t really been the plan to bring her home in the first place—all he‘d aimed for was to track her down and give her the lowdown on her grandchildren—but he‘d had to re-strategise when he‘d found her living amongst shuffling addicts and weird bachelors in a London tenement. He‘d heard enough nationalist rants to know that leaving an Irish person in poverty in England was leaving them behind enemy lines, and it had been well within his capacity to take her home. She‘d dug her heels in, but there was no one who could draw away from Jimmy Phelan‘s insistence, no matter how much pride or how many limbs they looked set to lose.
He‘d bought the building for a song because a bunch of Vietnamese had been using it as a grow house and the guards had left it with more holes in the walls than there were cunts down in Crosser. If there had been any Vietnamese left he might have sold it back to them, on the ‘lightning strikes‘ adage, but they‘d gathered their skirts and scurried down to Waterford, or so he‘d heard, so he‘d used it as a brothel for a while, and might do again once he found somewhere less draughty to store his mother. He‘d left her in the ground-floor flat, convalescing from her emigration, and had a few part-time part-tradesmen making structural improvements to the floors above, but he‘d thought it had been secure. Maybe susceptible to punters lost and roaming, but she‘d been under strict instructions not to open the door to anyone, and it had been a while since they‘d begun redirecting appointments to the newer venue.
So how Maureen had managed to kill an intruder was beyond him. How did the weasel get in? Had the Vietnamese forgotten him? Had the guards not noticed him tucked away in the attic? Was he a john whose longtime kink was climbing in through skylights?
Whoever he was, he was dead now, and it turned out he probably wouldn‘t have been an open casket job even if he‘d reached his natural expiration date. In fact, looking at him, he‘d clearly been in the process of hurrying that along.
‘What the fuck did you do to him?‘ Jimmy asked Maureen, as she sat at the kitchen table making faces at her cigarette. She was a dour little thing. Lacking height himself, he‘d resorted to growing outwards to achieve the bulk demanded by his vocation. Even now at forty he was mostly muscle, softened only very lately by a languid habit of eating out and drinking well. Maureen was whittled straight and had a glare just as pointed. They didn‘t look alike.
‘Belted him,‘ she said. ‘With the Holy Stone. I wasn‘t giving up the upper hand on the off-chance he was Santy Claus.‘
‘What Holy Stone?‘
She gestured towards the sink.
For every Renaissance masterpiece there were a million geegaws cobbled together from the scrapheap, and this was awful even by that standard. A flat rock, about a fistful, painted gold and mounted on polished wood, with a picture of the Virgin Mary holding Chubby Toddler Jesus printed on one side in bright Celtic colours, and the bloody essences of the dead man on the kitchen floor smeared and knotted on top.
‘Where the fuck did you get this?‘ If it wasn‘t for the fact it was mounted on that plinth, he‘d have assumed some opportunistic crackpot had painted it for a car boot sale. He turned it over in his hand. The Blessed Virgin stared guzz-eyed back at him.
‘I‘ve had that a long time.‘
‘I didn‘t take you for a Holy Josephine.‘
‘You wouldn‘t want to, because I‘m not.‘
‘You just collect bulky religious souvenirs to use as murder weapons, is it? No one ever suspects the heavy hand of the Lord. Repent, repent, or Jesus might take the head off yeh! How did you even swing this thing, Maureen? Did you take a run at him from the front door?‘
‘The Lord works in mysterious ways,‘ she said.
‘I know a few lords like that all right.‘ He ran the Holy Stone under the tap and looked back at the dead man. ‘You have no idea what he wanted?‘
‘Isn‘t it funny; I didn‘t think to ask.‘
The body was weedy, its clothes shabby, even before the chap‘s blood had glued them to his frame. He had nothing in his pockets but a balled-up tissue and two-fifty in coins.
‘Some junkie, maybe, looking for cash. I don‘t know the face. He looks Irish. Or maybe a Sasanach. Rooted down in West Cork with the rest of the chin-wobblers.‘
She sniffed. ‘Dirty tramp. Robbing all around them. I‘m just the type they target.‘
‘He‘s no one I know. And if he had any local knowledge at all he wouldn‘t have dared come near this house.‘
He tossed the Holy Stone from one hand to the other. ‘Dame Maureen, in the kitchen, with the rock o‘ Knock. We‘ll get rid of him for you.‘
‘The floor will need scrubbing.‘
‘And someone to clean the floor.‘
‘The grout will need replacing.‘
‘We‘ll get you a new floor, then.‘
‘You‘ll get me out of here. Who‘d want to stay in a place a man died?‘
‘Oh, you‘d want to watch out for vengeful spirits. He‘ll be in every mirror now, Maureen. He‘ll be coming up at you from the floor when you‘re trying to make the tay.‘
‘You can grin all you like, boy,‘ she said, ‘but it‘s not right to leave a woman alone in a house like this.‘
‘It‘s you who made it like this,‘ he said. ‘But point taken. I‘ll get you a cat.‘
She threw daggers.
‘First thing‘s first,‘ he said. ‘I‘ll hire some hands. After that we‘ll look at living arrangements. I have nowhere else for you at the moment. I‘ll figure something out, but it won‘t be tonight.‘
‘It will. I‘m not staying here.‘
‘You are until I find somewhere else for you.‘
‘I‘m not. I‘ll sit outside for the night.‘
‘And you‘ll freeze and then there‘ll be two corpses and I tell you what, girl, I‘ve only the patience for digging one grave.‘
‘You should have left me in London,‘ she said. ‘Poor interest you have in me, at the end of the day.‘
‘That‘s right, Maureen. Poor interest. That‘s why it‘s me standing here, being fucking munificent with my fingerprints, instead of the state pathologist and Anglesea Street‘s finest.‘
‘I‘m not staying here,‘ she said.
‘First thing‘s first, I said. Will you stay here till I get back? Will you at least do that much for me?‘
She tipped ash onto the tabletop. ‘I‘m not staying here with a corpse.‘
‘And whose fault is it that he‘s a corpse?‘
‘I don‘t know yet,‘ she said.
He met the challenge and it went right through him.
‘Fine,‘ he said. ‘Fine. Come on. Sure Deirdre‘ll be thrilled to see you.’
Maureen wasn‘t officially living in Jimmy Phelan‘s building. The building didn‘t officially belong to Jimmy Phelan. Even so, he didn‘t want to use his nearest and dearest men for this job. There was something off about the whole thing. He wasn‘t convinced that the foxy-haired intruder was just some gowl hunting desperately for spare change. Jimmy Phelan trusted his gut, and now he felt it howling.
The job had to be done. There was a body on his mother‘s kitchen floor, and it wasn‘t going to get up and leave of its own accord. Ordinarily he‘d have swiftly handpicked a few decent sorts—at the very least his right-hand man Dougan, whose brutish dexterity and wicked sense of humour would be just right for the occasion—but that would suggest that he had a designated clean-up crew, and he couldn‘t be sure how Maureen would take it.
Or how Dougan and the boys would take her. They knew scraps of the story: that he had tracked down his birth mother and brought her home. They didn‘t know she was such an odd fish as to be capable of impromptu executions. Their respect for him, and for his lineage, could well be mangled by news of her little rampage. He bristled at the thought of it. He was sore where he‘d grafted on this brand-new past.
Deirdre Allen was as stubborn as she was tough, which may have sounded like an admirable mix, but as far as Jimmy could tell it simply meant she was too stupid to know when she was wrong and too slow to notice the consequences. She was still dyeing her hair jet-black, still smoking twenty a day, still insisting that if he funded her expedition into real estate, he‘d get his money back and doubled again. Still thinking there was opportunity on the right side of the euro. Still believing the recession was a sag in Ireland‘s fabric, stretched as far as it could go and on the point of bouncing upwards.
That pig-headedness was what had taken her so long to leave him. She had sailed through nearly a decade of his debasing their marital vows before she‘d run aground. He hadn‘t made a habit of affairs; there were plenty of girls he could fuck without having to fork out for extras. Even so, there were so many all-nighters, so many week-long absences that any other woman would have read the warnings. By the time Deirdre noticed, it was much too late to draw boundaries. Jimmy gave her the house and wondered if one day she‘d chalk their collaborative fuck-up down to experience. For now, she still laid claim to the title of Jimmy Phelan‘s Wife. She didn‘t want him in her bed anymore, but she was too stubborn and too tough to give up what she thought were the perks of his infamy.
‘I want to get the kids a piano,‘ she said, dispatching a cup of tea in Maureen‘s general direction, wrinkling her nose. She hadn‘t asked how Maureen took her tea, but Deirdre had long assumed, incorrectly, that she had a knack for hostessing. ‘I‘ve always regretted not learning an instrument. I don‘t want them saying the same thing in ten years‘ time.‘
‘Are you having me on, girl? They‘d have no more interest in learning the piano than they did in anything else you demanded I foist on them. It‘s you who wants the piano. A front-room centrepiece. Something to rest a vase on.‘
‘You can be a very thick man, Jimmy.‘
‘Maybe it‘s because I never learned to tickle the ivories. There‘s no art in me.‘
‘You‘d deny your children the opportunity to learn a skill so? Just because there‘s a chance they might not stick with it? Is it depressed you are, or just plain mean?‘
Maureen took her mug and walked out onto the back decking.
‘Ah, she‘s thrilled you found her,‘ sneered Deirdre.
‘I‘m glad you know her so well, girl, because she‘s staying here with you tonight.‘
‘The flat‘s getting cleaned. Industrial shit. No way can I have her stay there overnight, and I have too much on to offer her my bed. Long and short of it: you‘re stuck with her till tomorrow.‘
‘I am in me shit, Jimmy,‘ she hissed. ‘You can‘t leave that loon here.‘
‘You‘ve got a spare room. And she‘s been wanting to spend more time with her grandchildren. At least until she starts knowing them from the next pair of spoiled brats.‘
‘The cheek of you, boy. That woman, wherever you found her, might have ties to you but she doesn‘t to my children.‘
‘That‘s a failure of the most basic concept of human biology, Deirdre.‘
‘You know what I mean, Jimmy. There‘s a lot more to family than …‘ She waved a hand and grimaced. ‘Fluids. Genetics. Whatever you want to call it.‘
Maureen wasn‘t moving but to bring cigarette to mouth. She stared out across the lawn, serene as a cud-chewing cow. Just the right demeanour for the city‘s newest reaper: taking the scythe in her stride. Jimmy hadn‘t met many new murderers who weren‘t bent double by the aftermath, who didn‘t puke on their shoes as an epilogue.
‘Well look, I‘ll tell you what I‘ll do,‘ he said to Deirdre. ‘I‘ll find you a piano and you can honky-tonk your musical regrets away to your heart‘s content. I won‘t even ask why Ellie and Conor‘s fingers are still pudgy as pigs‘ trotters in a year‘s time. And all you have to do is mind my mammy for the night.‘
‘Ah, in fairness, Jimmy …‘
‘You should try talking to her. She‘s got your children‘s history knotted up inside that wizened head of hers. She‘s got Ireland‘s history in there. She‘s a very interesting woman.‘
‘A bit too interesting. Don‘t you think I‘ve had it up to here with how interesting you can be?‘
‘A piano for sanctuary,‘ he said. ‘You‘d deny your children the opportunity to learn a skill just because there‘s a chance my dear mum will leave smudges on your furniture? Don‘t be plain mean, Deirdre. Aren‘t you better than me and my ancestry?‘
He went out onto the deck and closed the door behind him.
‘You‘re to stay with Deirdre tonight, Maureen. Say nothing about yer manno. We‘ll have him scooped up and out in no time. Who knows, you might even fall in love with the new floor.‘
‘I won‘t go back there,‘ she said. ‘It‘s not safe.‘
‘Yeah. Well. We‘ll talk about it after.‘
He took care of some chores after leaving Maureen in the reluctant hands of the daughter-in-law she‘d missed out on, but as day stretched into evening there was still a human sacrifice on his mother‘s kitchen floor, one with a dent in the back of its head made by Ireland‘s ignorance of fine art and penchant for cut-price religious iconography.
He wondered where Maureen had gotten the Holy Stone. Had someone pressed it on her when she was reeling from childbirth? Had they assumed that even that crude image of the world‘s ultimate single mother would provide solace in hard times? Were they just blind, deaf and dumb to style?
Jimmy Phelan was raised by his grandparents, not unwillingly, but awkwardly nevertheless. They brought him to Knock once and offered him up to the wall once favoured by apparitions as a living paradigm of their piety. He‘d been very bored, but afterwards they‘d taken a jaunt through the town and he remembered gift shop after gift shop, gift shops as far as an eight-year-old eye could see, stocked to the rafters with baubles. Rows of Virgin Mary barometers; her fuzzy cloak would change colour depending on the weather, which was very miraculous. Toy cameras with preloaded images of the shrine; you clicked through them, holding the flimsy yokey up to the light. And so many sticks of rock. You could have built a whole other shrine out of sticks of rock.
Maureen‘s Holy Stone wouldn‘t have looked far out of place.
Maybe his grandparents had purchased it. Maybe it was his speeding around this wonderland of faith-based kitsch, jacked up on neon-pink rock and too many bags of Taytos, that advised them of its relevance.
And so supposing the Holy Stone symbolised something to Maureen. Repentance. Humility. New beginnings. Supposing smashing it off the skull of an intruder set her back forty years. How much healing did a fallen woman require, if she had the whole of Ireland‘s fucked up psyche weighing her down to purgatory?
Evening was drawing in and there was a corpse drawing flies back in the flat, and no one yet nominated to move it.
He stopped at a Centra and bought himself a sausage sandwich and a coffee, and sat in his car to eat and think.
It felt wrong to be hiding from Dougan the source of a problem the man would have to fix. Jimmy wasn‘t used to this kind of isolation. His mother— the woman he tentatively thought of as his mother, as a rickety leg-up to understanding the blood that ran in his veins—had fucked up, and for once in his life, Jimmy felt a weak spot.
He was mulling this over when he spotted someone, ten feet away from his car. The figure was vaguely familiar. A dark, tousled head bent over an outstretched palm, opposite fingers picking through coins as one would for a parking meter. Thickset running thin, in a navy hoodie and blue jeans that had both been through the wash ten-too-many times. Jimmy balled up the sandwich wrapper, stuck it in his empty coffee cup, and stepped out of the car. Between the bin and his mark, he chanced, ‘Cusack?‘
The other looked up. It was him all right. More than a few years older, though Jimmy would have sworn it had been only months since they last spoke.
‘J.P., boy,‘ he said, still with his palm out.
‘Cusack. You‘re looking well.‘
It was a disingenuous greeting but the only alternative was the most brutal honesty. The absolute state a‘ yeh, Cusack! If there‘s a whore you‘ve been visiting, it might be worth sprinkling her with holy water and commanding her back to the fiery depths, because you look like someone‘s tapped you for fluids.
The desiccated accepted the salutation with a mournful nod.
‘It‘s been a while,‘ said Jimmy.
‘I suppose it has.‘ His voice was thick. Drunk? It looked more possible than anything else that had demanded his analysis today.
Back when Jimmy was in Iron Maiden T-shirts, Tony Cusack had been the useful kind of scamp, eager to prove he could hang around with the big boys by virtue of his keen eye and malleable morals. He‘d been Jimmy‘s messenger when he was small enough to be fleet, but as he got bigger they‘d drink together, or get stoned, and shoot the breeze about easy women and anarchy. When Jimmy was twenty-four, a coagulation of bad luck convinced him to head to London for a while, where he could carry on as before only with a shiny coat of anonymity, and, having fuck all else to do, Cusack had gone with him.
London had been good to Jimmy. It had given him cause to aim high. London had been good too to Tony, in its own way. He‘d met a beour, impregnated her and brought her home with him, instead of staying put where the sun was shining.
His path had seldom crossed Jimmy‘s since. Christmases, here and there, they‘d spotted each other in pubs. Jimmy had been known to send over a drink, but he‘d taken care not to be too inviting. The charming laziness that had once defined Tony Cusack had morphed into dusty apathy; as a thirtysomething he was clumsy and morose, taxidermy reanimated. It was no secret that Cusack had pissed away what good London had given him. Even while his wife—had he even married her?—had been around, he had been steadily eroding his liver and the goodwill of every vintner in the city.
There wasn‘t much Jimmy didn‘t know about the city‘s vintners. Or its moneylenders, or dealers, or bookies. Cusack didn‘t have a reputation, as such, for that would be assuming that people bothered thinking about him, but if his demeanour didn‘t warn off investors then there were plenty of people able to cure their myopia.
Jimmy Phelan had a reputation. Tony Cusack had more of a stench. Forlorn and forgotten, cast out…
Perversely, that made him a good man for secrets, for who‘d believe him if he talked? Who‘d even listen to him?
‘Are you busy? Jimmy asked, though he‘d already anticipated the answer, and had already settled on the bribe.
Cusack wasn‘t busy. He wasn‘t a man used to being busy, and took the detour as a short holiday from whatever freeform tedium was routine to him. Jimmy gave him the bones of the brief—frightened woman, dead burglar, no suitable hands to complete the deed—and Cusack flinched, and puffed out his cheeks as if he was considering bolting, but Jimmy was OK with that. Fear was a quality he looked for in part-timers, though it was strange to encourage that attribute in a man he might once have called his friend, back, way back, when Jimmy had neither mother nor need for one.
When they got to the flat Cusack needed a minute on his haunches with his back turned, but after the rebellion inside him had been quashed, he dutifully found a ratty carpet on one of the upper floors, pulled up as part of the redecoration project, and helped Jimmy roll the dead man like a cigar. The tradesmen had left behind some cleaning tools; Jimmy and Tony scrubbed up as best they could, given the length of time the stranger had had to tattoo the floor. Maureen was right; they‘d need to lay a new one. There was more to this job than the lick of a mop.
‘How are you with tiling?‘ Jimmy asked.
‘I did the bathroom of my own gaff,‘ said Tony. He‘d sobered up, of course. ‘Floor to ceiling. Put down tiles in the kitchen too, but that was a while ago.‘
‘Do a job here for me and I‘ll give you a few bob. I don‘t want to have to bring anyone else in on this now. What are you at tomorrow?‘
‘I‘d a feeling you‘d say that.‘
In the absence of another vehicle, Jimmy drove his Volvo around to the back gate, at one end of a weathered brick alley garlanded deliberately with creepers and weeds. They flattened the back seat and laid the carpet cigar on a diagonal line: what once had been a breathing, thinking head to the back of the passenger seat, what once had been trespassing feet to the opposite corner. They arranged empty paint cans and a ladder on one side, and on the other the double-bagged rags and brushes they‘d used to clean up the blood.
Jimmy handed Tony a set of keys and notes enough to buy tiles and bleach.
‘You‘ve a car?‘
‘I do,‘ said Tony.
‘Go with quarry tiles.‘ And then, because custom suggested, he said, ‘What have you been up to anyway, Cusack? You‘re not working?‘
‘Here and there. Best anyone can manage now, I think.‘
‘You‘re probably right, boy. Even this is a one-off; I have more than enough mouths to feed.‘
‘I know that.‘ Tony shifted his weight. ‘I know that, boy.‘
‘Speaking of mouths, how many little Cusacks are there?‘
There was a ghost of a smile; it set on and escaped Tony‘s mouth in a snap second. It was the first time in a long time Jimmy had noticed something approximating life in the old dog.
‘Six? You‘d want to tie a knot in it.‘
Six made leverage plenty.
They stood by the back of the car, still enough to let birds continue their evening rituals in the greenery around them, flitting in and out of bushes, darting shadows moving on walls the height-and-a-half of Jimmy.
‘There‘s one job I‘ll have coming up,‘ said Jimmy. ‘Nothing big and certainly nothing worth what I‘ll pay you, but you‘ve done me a turn today. I‘ll be getting my hands on a piano sooner or later. The ex is looking for one for the kids. If you‘re around you can help move it in.‘
‘What kind of piano?‘
‘Worried for your back, are you? Not one of them long ones, if that‘s what you mean.‘
‘No, I mean what kind are you looking for? I have one I‘m trying to get shot of.‘
‘You? Where‘d you get your grabbies on a piano, boy?‘
Tony clucked and shook his head. ‘Not like that,‘ he said. ‘I own one. It‘s a few years old but it was bought new. It‘s a beauty, but all it‘s doing in my gaff is taking up space.‘
‘Is that the kind of thing that has to go, Cusack, when a man‘s got six kids?‘
Tony shrugged. ‘I can‘t play,‘ he said, though it sounded petulant, a tone not right for business deals, even on a day when reason had made way for blood, ties and tide.
Before they locked up Jimmy retrieved the Holy Stone and laid it carefully on the rolled-up shape of his mother‘s second greatest mistake.