At more or less the same time that I had spotted the smoke rising from the area where I’d left Loopy’s body, about four thousand miles away an RUC Land Rover drove steadily down the Falls Road in Belfast, turned into the street where the O’Brien family resided and pulled up outside their house. The police officers were accompanied by two other vehicles, a Humber Pig and another Land Rover containing a British Army patrol. The soldiers parked further down the road and remained with their vehicles. One of them produced a packet of Embassy King Size, cracked it open and silently passed them around, not wishing to provoke the locals while the constables went nervously about their business. There was a brief pause while a heated discussion took place before two of the officers, the two who had obviously drawn the short straws, disembarked from their car and walked purposefully to the O’brien’s front door.
They knocked hard on the door, assertiveness always paramount when dealing with the public. Curtains began twitching on the opposite side of the street. Several people left their homes and hurried away suspiciously while others grouped together and approached the O’Brien’s house to see what was going on. It was early afternoon and none of the O’Brien men were home so Nora received the news of her daughter’s death alone, standing at the open front door having refused to invite the officers to cross the threshold.
Beyond the first few months after Kathleen’s disappearance the family had been able to put thoughts of what she might have done and where she might have gone behind them to a certain extent, but the shame and embarrassment had continued to simmer just below the surface. Every now and again the story got agitated by awkward questions from well meaning acquaintances. Neighbours gossiped and murmured in hushed tones through tight lips. Theories were discussed and debated loudly in local bars. Just about everyone who visited Phelan’s shop had something to say on the subject although none of this was ever carried out within earshot of any member of the O’Brien family. Róisín Murphy’s exaggerated stories about a mystery lover had fuelled the worst of the rumours but nobody really knew where Kathleen had gone. After a while the gossip had become more sporadic as the non-stop procession of violent incidents of the times ebbed and flowed and piqued people’s interest, but the mystery and speculation about Kathleen’s disappearance had never stopped entirely.
So despite not having heard from her daughter or even knowing of her whereabouts in a long time, over three years in fact, the news of her death came as a terrible shock to Nora. She slumped against the door jamb, crying out pitifully. Her wailing attracted the attention of the O’Brien’s immediate neighbours and pretty soon Nora found herself sitting on her couch being fussed over and plied with strong whisky. A young lad from up the road was sent scurrying off to the pub to get word to the rest of the family. Upon his arrival he paused on the pavement outside, taking a deep breath and puffing out his chest with the importance of the task he’d been given. Then he burst in, pushing his way across the busy bar room, scanning for a familiar face. Unable to see clearly through the thick fog of pipe smoke which swirled and hovered beneath the low, nicotine stained ceiling, the young lad shouted over the loud hum of drunken conversation with as much urgency as he could muster.
“Conall O’Brien! The filthy black bastard Peelers are at your house!”
The effect was immediate. The bar fell silent and all faces turned to the young lad who repeated his message.
“The peelers are at your door and there’s Brits with ’em too so there are.”
An instant later almost every chair in the room scraped violently on the spit and sawdust covered floor as men stood and hurriedly swilled the last dregs of their beer from heavy pint jugs, slamming the glasses back down on the tables. There then followed a stampede of heavy boots as the bar emptied. The barman stood silently behind the counter, jaws clenched, a half polished pint jug in his hand. What had been building up to be a lucrative afternoon’s business had vanished in an instant, leaving him with only the company of the scruffy little urchin who’d been responsible for ruining his day. The boy was helping himself to the longest dog ends still smouldering in the abandoned ashtrays, snuffing them out between finger and thumb and stuffing them into an old tobacco tin for later. The barman cuffed the boy’s ear repeatedly and sent him scurrying back onto the street before closing up the pub and following him up the road.
Soon afterwards Callum, Finn and Conall turned the corner onto their street, marching purposefully along the pavement to the house. A noisy throng of their drunken cronies followed in their wake, some having to break into a staggering semblance of a trot in order to keep up, all looking for trouble and reeking of booze. The disorderly crowd confronted the Peelers who were still standing on the street and demanded to know what the hell was going on. Everybody was shouting at once.
Fearing that the situation was escalating out of control the officers singled out the old man and handed him a typed report containing all of the details they’d been given, muttering something about Mrs. O’Brien having already been informed. They backed off as soon as they felt it was feasible to do so safely, got back into their vehicle and motored off at high speed with the soldiers following closely behind.
Conall and his sons stormed into the house, turfed out the overattentive neighbours who were still fussing over Nora, then kicked the front door shut which slammed hard in the faces of those who had followed from the pub. Some of the mob had hoped to go into the O’Brien residence and get the facts first hand but instead they milled around in the street outside, speculating and gossiping before drifting back along the pavement with the hope of continuing their afternoon’s boozing. Meanwhile Conall studied the papers and absorbed every word but he was only really interested in certain details. Crumpling the sheaf into a ball and throwing it onto the table in disgust he slumped into a chair, holding his head in his hands with eyes screwed shut. It was obviously as bad as he had feared it would be. There would be stories in the newspapers and maybe on TV. It was a massive threat to his reputation but at least now he knew what his daughter had done and the name of the bastard she’d initially run off with. Conall shook with anger and disgust.
“Married! To a filthy Brit squaddie. Then running off to America with a Kraut and a different Brit, another squaddie no less!” he said to nobody in particular.
As far as he was concerned his daughter deserved all that had befallen her. If he’d caught her in time he would have throttled the life out of her himself but it was too late for that. Now, to save face and preserve any sort of dignity Conall knew what his next mission had to be. He wouldn’t be able to let this rest. Not until he had administered his own lethal brand of justice.
He picked up the ball of crumpled paper that the police had given him, flattened it out and re-read it. Woolf. Corporal Frank Woolf. The name burned into the old man’s thoughts and ignited a murderous rage.