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The next morning - or in reality later the same morning, slightly more presentable, courtesy of a breakfast in McDonalds, and the use of their washroom facilities, Roche was once again hot on the trail.

He was first in the office, closely followed by Bobby who was still sulking after his dismissal the night before. As was the norm, however, this was completely wasted since it was water off a duck’s back to Roche who had no idea that he was any different. Roche was not one to analyse his colleagues’ moods or behaviours. Potential villains and suspects, that was a completely different matter. He had an interest in giving them and their reactions and behaviours as much time as necessary, but he had absolutely no rhyme or reason to be concerned with the feelings of other ‘people’, whether he worked with them, or passed them in the street. It was not that he was cavalier about their feelings - he just was completely unaware of them.

When Sharon arrived, she looked horrendous - as though she had done several rounds with Mike Tyson. One side of her face was puffy and distorted. One eye was virtually closed, and looked merely like a slit in her now suet pudding face. Her nonblack eye, ironically, was the fully opened one, but this was bulbous and swollen - for all the world like the eye of a dead fish on a fishmonger’s slab. Her colleagues were, to put it mildly, shocked. Sharon was not one to play on her looks - and certainly never applied copious amounts of make-up, but in reality such paint would have merely been a travesty and a complete waste. Though she herself was disinterested in what she looked like, and was a dedicated and career-hungry professional, everybody else could not help but be affected, in some way. The men ogled, the women envied; the men lusted, the women distrusted. Sharon certainly could not be described as living up to her name ‘Pretty’. Pretty she certainly was not. Much less could she be described as ‘delicate’. She was only just above average height - five feet seven or so - with a trim, though curvaceous figure. She was just naturally beautiful. Her features were dark and strong - more tigress than fluffy kitten. Roche rarely noticed what people looked like - much less amongst his colleagues - it was a miracle if he registered their sex, let alone made any allowances or references to it. So he never even noticed Sharon’s beauty. Though he called her Sharon - in the same way as he called Robert, Bobby - they were DC Sharon Pretty, and DS Robert Shillington: his team, his back-up, no more no less; not woman or man, just detectives - his detectives. They had no personalities, genders or most of the time outside lives.

On the other hand, when Bobby was not feeling insecure and imagining - perhaps even realising - that Sharon represented a real threat to his career prospects, as a man he could not help but be attracted to her. It was a case of his head versus his loins. His loins were permanently in danger of winning the battle and he would certainly have pursued her, had Sharon not been a stickler for keeping her life compartmentalised. He knew that it was a lost cause, and more painfully, Louise, his long-suffering wife, would have his guts for garters! Perhaps his balls for earrings might be a better analogy - if Sharon told her, and he had every confidence that she would.

“What the blazes happened to you, girl” said Bobby “did you walk into a door or what!”

That at least made Roche look up and even he was aware of the fact that the woman had obviously had some kind of an accident or a fall.

“Jaisus, Sharon, what happened to you! ….. I hope the other fella looks worse!”

It was meant as a joke to lighten the mood, because both Roche and Bobby thought she had obviously had been involved in an accident; crashed her car, tripped over a pavement …. Something ‘damaging’ but ‘normal’!

Sharon looked at Roche and said “He said, this is for you …” She gestured towards her eye …. “You had better, he said, keep your nose out of other people’s business, or your friends are going to be the worse for it”. Sharon, philosophically raised an eyebrow - the one above her good eye - and said “He obviously doesn’t know you well enough - what friends, I’d like to know!”

That was when Roche began to take the matter seriously, and insisted on getting a blow by blow (literally as well as metaphorically) account of what had happened to Sharon.

She told him that she was on her way home, the night before, after she left him at the O’Dwyer house, and she parked her car to go into the 24-hour Tesco to get some milk. When she came out, there was a man standing by her car, but she did not think anything of it, and continued to walk towards it. As she reached the car, the man grabbed her, and punched her in the face, and threw her onto the ground and stamped on her carton of milk” .. It was then that Bobby made the fatal mistake of saying “Well there’s no good crying over spilt milk” …. Before Roche rounded on him and said “Do you think this is funny, eh?” Sharon gets set upon and you think it’s a joke! “It’s a pity it was not yourself that was carrying the feckin’ milk”!

Bobby then said, quite out of the blue, but he had been brooding about it for several hours “Well if you had not chosen her instead of me, then it might have been me, and I might have been able to handle the bloody bully - what chance does a five foot six skinny woman have against those kind of people. Women just don’t have the physique to handle it - it’s not a criticism - it’s not their fault - it’s just nature. They’re not made that way, and thank God for that, eh!”

Before Roche could react, Sharon had kneed Bobby in the genitals, and he doubled up and fell onto his knees. At that moment, Superintendent Cavendish walked in saying “I want a word ……” before stopping and looking in amazement at the scene before him.

“What the bloody hell is going on here …. We can’t have fisticuffs in the office”

Bobby got up, gingerly, but with great force of will and said, “No sir, Sharon was just demonstrating how she was able to fight off the assailant who gave her that nasty injury to her eye when she was coming out from Tesco last night - the cheeky bastard spilled all of her carton of milk.”

It was as much as both Sharon and Roche could do not to burst out laughing on the spot, but they both managed to keep it together at least long enough for the Superintendent to say .. “oh D.C ... ah ... Pretty…. That was most unfortunate, I hope you are not too badly injured. Do report it, won’t you, to the uniforms and they can keep a look out for him. Why was he trying to steal your milk? Was he a homeless man? They can be very aggressive you know. …… Well, I’ve got to go. Meeting with the Chief Constable ….

…. Late already! Take care of yourself. Look after her Roche.”

Roche, adding insult to injury called after him “Did you want to see me for something, Superintendent?” “No, no, it will keep. I have to go. Nothing important. Keep up the good work.”

Whatever had gone before, the three colleagues then collapsed in a heap, laughing over the desks and any antagonism that had been before was forgotten in the new sense of collusion and mischief that they shared.

But Sharon’s encounter still remained. Roche was confident that he knew most people who might be considered ‘the enforcers’ on all sides of the gangland spectrum in the city, but was a little bit confused about the purpose of the threat. He was too insular to be overly concerned about Sharon’s personal welfare. She said she was all right, so she must be all right. If she wanted to see somebody about the injury, she could go, or he would ask Bobby, or he would take her home, or to hospital, of wherever. She did not seem overly enthusiastic about medical intervention, and she was stronger than she looked and well able to ride the punches - well not literally, hence her eye, but she was not a simpering and crying woman, and would not be grateful for any kind of over-solicitous mollycoddling. At least that was how Roche saw it.

But …. He was bloody annoyed that it had happened. And he was equally annoyed that the message was more confusing that it was helpful. How was he supposed to interpret it! It could be any one of a number of ‘no go’ areas. How was he supposed to interpret the actual message - the threat!

Where they warning him to stop trying to find out who killed Bernie, i.e. was it the person who killed her, or who had at least instructed or paid her killer … a ‘business’ rival; somebody moving in, or trying to move into her territory; or, alternatively just some poor sod they had bested, or cheated or threatened? …… Or, were they warning him not to dig too deeply into her business, i.e. was it her own crowd, who were fearful of their sins finding them out?

His mind was whirling, and all thought had gone out of his head about Sharon and her injuries. She was a good girl; she was tough as old nails - onwards and upwards. What did they know?

So despite one of the team looking as though she was an extra on the set of Casualty, or an entry in a competition for special effects, Roche, Bobby and Sharon sat around mulling over where they were and what were the possibilities: best guesses and worst fears.

Following on from the visit to the O’Dwyer house there were new aspects to the case:

Had Gerard O’Dwyer done a runner because he was a killer?

Or, was he another victim, as yet undiscovered?

Had he merely legged it with another woman?

Was he an innocent man (well of this particular crime anyway) who had gone off on his holidays - perhaps with the daughter and grandchildren - since they seemed to be missing too.

And with this attack on Sharon, did that mean that they were

‘closer’ - perhaps the searching of the O’Dwyer’s house was the catalyst - and Ger O’Dwyer and his cronies were sending the scarers out - or was that a coincidence, absolutely unconnected, and destined to lead them down the wrong track?

So there were many imponderables. He was beginning to believe that some were emerging as less likely candidates in this particular instance. That did not mean that they were taking themselves off of his own particular radar as general lowlifes. They were, perhaps, eliminating themselves from this particular ‘enquiry’, though certainly not acquitted as general arch villains, villains and mere vermin.

On the wider picture, unless the Local Council had been taken over by a really dangerous bunch of thugs – and even with his warped and tainted view of the world that seemed an unlikely scenario - he had to ask himself would they go so far as to beat up Sharon as a warning to him?

He continued his musing: On the other hand, he had been perfectly willing to believe that certain elements of the Council - or in truth perhaps more accurately individual ruthless councillors whom he knew without a shadow of a doubt to be far from angelic - might have had a hand in an actual murder. How was beating up Sharon as a warning to him any more bizarre. But for some inexplicable reason, he just could not see it! Perhaps it was the fact that he was fairly sure that none of them would actually court his own very personal wrath and vengeance. The murder was not directly connected with him – he was merely the copper finding the answers – the Sharon attack was, apparently, a personal message to him, John Roche. He just could not see members of the Council – even the shady ones – setting off on that road. They knew they would be most definitely opening up a can of worms – no not worms, scorpions!

The team discussed the case, their own views, their suggested ways forward for another half hour or so, before preparing to start the day. Despite the earlier fisticuffs - or to be precise knee-icuffs - earlier, they were all now amicable and the whole incident had been forgotten.

After so much inactivity, Roche was feeling confined and decided that what he really needed to do was to rattle a few cages, throw his weight around a bit, and shake a few trees and see what detritus fell out.

Despite her earlier bravado, Roche decided Sharon was a bit useless as she was. She could hardly see to drive - how she had driven from home was a mystery - and it just advertised their vulnerability for her to be on the streets. She had reluctantly offered to remain in the office and do paperwork, or make phone calls - or anything other than go home - but Roche insisted that she would be of no real use, so he would drive her home, with Bobby following on in her car so that it was convenient for her when she was less myopic. Her husband was a lorry driver, who was away for weeks at a time, on long haul runs, and they had no family, nor were either of their extended families living anywhere near. Bobby tried to persuade her to stay with him and his family for a couple of days until she was feeling better, or until Raymond, her husband, got back home. Sharon was tempted, but felt obliged to decline. She got on well enough with Bobby’s wife Louise, but knew how she would feel if Raymond landed one of his lorry driving colleagues on her out of the blue. She also had a bit of a suspicion in her mind that Bobby was still feeling guilty following his earlier outburst.

In actual fact, she was quite wrong about this, and the invitation was genuinely offered, more especially because Louise, who was seven months pregnant with their first child, was missing being at work where she had female company. Indeed, she missed company of any kind! Any kind that did not come home grumpy, eat their dinner, plonk themselves in front of the television, promptly fall asleep, only to wake to go to bed, and then wake up to go to work. Bobby had heard her on the phone to her sister, who lived in Edinburgh, saying how lonely she was, and how she was quite scared about the impending birth, and its aftermath. He wished he could be more supportive, but he just did not feel able. He still loved her, he thought, and it was true that they had been planning to have this baby ever since they got married four years ago - in fact, ever since they started living together - over ten years ago - but now that it was reality, he was no longer so enthusiastic. Babies were a huge responsibility. They changed everything. Everybody said “Your lives will never be the same again”. Despite the fact that he was not over-enamoured with the life he had at the moment, he was not sure that replacing it with a dependent, vulnerable and all-consuming little creature was now the change he would have chosen. He envied John Roche with his carefree life with no responsibilities. He had nobody dependent upon him for anything; he was beholden to nobody; nobody had any expectations of him.

They delivered Sharon back home, with Roche promising that he would find the bastard who had attacked her and there was no fear of that. Roche and Bobby then set off in Roche’s car ostensibly back to the office. However, as they drove through the city, Roche decided that if he was going to shake a few trees, it might as well be now, so he made an unexpected detour in the direction of the St Margaret’s Church, which also housed the offices for EireAid.

Parking the car, the first person that Roche and Bobby bumped into was the Parish Priest, Fr. Fintan, who, naturally, said “Well, John, this is a surprise. Don’t often see you in the environs of a church - to what do we owe the pleasure?”

“No Fintan, (John Roche rarely gave the clergy the respect of a title - he neither recognised them not did he believe that most of them deserved them) - not here to see you, nor the church, but do want to have a word with whoever is about in EireAid today. Who has taken the reins from Bernie?”

“Oh, God, yes John. Heaven forgive me, I had completely forgotten about poor Bernadette! God rest her soul! Of course, you will be trying to find out who was responsible? Surely some crackhead don’t you think? That car park behind the Club is shocking badly lit at night - I’ve been on at them for ages to do something about it! It was an accident waiting to happen.”

“Ah well, Fintan. No divine insight there, I am afraid, because it was no mugger or ‘crack head’. I reckon they knew precisely who it was, and it was deliberate. They got their woman!”

“But …. I thought the money - the purse - was gone? That’s what I heard anyway?”

“Did you now? In confession was that? I suppose you wouldn’t even tell me if you knew, now would you, Fintan?”

Not interested in wasting any more time, Roche walked past Fr. Fintan without saying another word. Bobby hurried after him. In an effort to show some kind of polite reverence for the other man’s status, he nodded and said “Bye Father … have a nice day!” He did not know what else to say.

As Roche was crossing the currently almost deserted car park which serviced the church, mostly on a Sunday, and the visitors to EireAid during the rest of the week, he glanced across towards the side of the building where the afternoon shadows were the most pronounced. Despite the gloom, which in reality should have made it virtually impossible to see anything, given the time of year, the lateness of the day, and the natural shadows cast by the imposing buildings, he saw a figure standing watching him. Not just a figure. The figure. There she was, the girl from last night. Much to the astonishment of Bobby on his heels and Fr. Fintan Clancy who still stood, looking after them, sadly pondering on the angst that must lie within to make a body so full of anger all the time, Roche broke into a trot, then speeded up, crossing the wide expanse of concrete shouting “Wait, wait …. Don’t you dare run away again!” …. When he reached the spot where she should have been, she had gone AGAIN! For Pete’s sake, how did she escape him this time! “Bobby, where did she go? Which way did she go?”

Bobby was unable to answer he did not know which way she went. He did not know who ‘she’ was. He had seen nobody!

Roche lived in a concrete world. Not only had the streets around him increasingly over the years become a concrete jungle, but he himself had become hardened and stuck firmly in the reality of his tunnel vision. He had seen the sordid and the corrupt at close quarters for too long. When he had first escaped from the horrors of his earlier life in Ireland in 1984, he had been naive enough to think that it heralded a new dawn: a better dawn. It had certainly been a material improvement, since he was lucky enough to become ‘the project’ of a couple who had been holidaying in Ireland, and were on the boat returning home. They were very concerned that at 15 he was too young to be braving the streets of London on his own, with no contacts, precious little material goods, except those on his back, or contained in a 15 inch by 8 inch tiny attaché case, held together with string. He had just 15 Irish punts (the then equivalent of just over £11) in his pocket, as well as his train ticket from Holyhead to Euston Station. After that, he was prey to anyone or anything.

John himself, of course, had been oblivious of any dangers that lay ahead. The largest city he had ever visited - as opposed to actually living there - had a population of only about 130,000, and the places he had actually been forced to call ‘home’ were almost always sited outside towns in the countryside, or hidden away from people, so nobody had to be bothered by the presence of the orphan, the destitute, the wayward or the betrayed. The Watsons (Ruby and Arthur) had taken him in, organised schools, fed him, clothed him, cosseted him and treated him as though he was their own until 1988, when he gained a place at University and moved away, but was still very much ‘their pride and joy’. As much as was within his capabilities he loved them, but this was not obvious to those observing - though hopefully it might have been to the Watsons. He had never been taught or encouraged, to get close to anybody and certainly he had never known love, nor felt love. Such emotions were dangerous and were likely to be mistaken for weakness and would most definitely increase a person’s vulnerability. In his way, he would have done anything for them, but his way was very limited, very damaged.

In 1992, both Ruby and Arthur were killed outright by an IRA device which exploded at a railway station as they waited to board a train to visit John for his 21st birthday. That incident did two things: it cemented John Roche’s hatred for the place of his birth, and its people; and it inspired him to join the forces of law and order. He was not thought suitable to join the army - nobody ever said why, but if it was because of a flaw which emerged during psychological testing, then the same flaw could not have shown itself - or was simply ignored - in his application to join the police force.

Roche was single minded and not influenced in any way by the mystical, the airy fairy, or the spiritual. He only believed what he could see with his own eyes. He had seen the girl - with his own eyes - both times, last night, and again today! If they thought they would distract him from his search, then they did not know him very well! He had no idea who was putting her up to her old tricks, but he was determined not to be distracted by her. He wanted to catch her, because that would expose the farce once and for all. It would not only make the plan useless, but also expose whoever was behind the charade. The girl was little more than a child - she was just being manipulated. Once they put the fear of God into her and she realised just how serious the matter was, she would tell them who had put her up to it. It was clear, at the moment, she just thought it was a game. Things would be different when she realised she was in big trouble. John rejoined Bobby, who said nothing, and was told nothing. Roche acted as though nothing had happened but walked back again in the direction of the Priest. Ah Father, perhaps you can pass on a very important message to your flock? Tell Maurice Tiernan, or Micky Prendergast – or whoever is handing out ‘warnings’ on behalf of your Celtic Mafiosi friends, that I have not taken kindly to their means of sending a message to me. It is typical of their cowardly black hearts, and will have absolutely no effect on me whatsoever. As they know I am a cold-hearted bastard and care only for my own safety. Sod everybody else’s! I am John Roche, a morose, self-obsessed, evil bastard and I am completely incapable of feeling anything! So … don’t waste their time! If I see fit to look into EireAid affairs, and the rest of the dodgy cover stories, then I bloody well will. No stone will remain unturned in my search for the murderer of Bernadette O’Dwyer – regardless that I think she was perhaps one of the nastiest most corrupt creatures to work on this earth – bar none, so they can tell Ger - or more likely that slap-happy bastard Eugene Rafferty that if he lays one more finger on one of my people, I will deliver him into a cell, but only after breaking every bone in his body. Is that clear? Thank you, Father, if you could pass that message on, then I should be most obliged.

With that, he on continued on his way into the EireAid offices.

Fr. Fintan went back to his duties in deep thought. He had not been too affected by the ‘message’ that he had been asked to pass on. He had tried many times to get to the bottom of the feud that seemed to have been part of the Parish for years – Roche seemed to think there was some kind of racket going on? He had no proof himself – and nobody had ever ‘confessed’ anything that might make him uncomfortable – but Roche was no fool, and he was in an ideal position to know – or at least have a good idea – if something was amiss. He was very likely right then. He would pass on the message – carefully – and then he would pray for them all.

He was more intrigued by the behaviour of Roche! What had he seen? – He acted very strangely. Most curious! Somebody or something must have been over there, because John Roche of all people does not suffer flights of fancy, nor does he have a vivid imagination - as he constantly says, he only believes what he can see, and that does not just go for religion.

When Bobby caught up with John, he said “What was all that about Micky and Maurice? How do you know, it was them?”

“Ah well, Robert. On our way over here, when you were driving so gently – I got a text asking me if I got the message. Well naturally, the text had no ‘sender’ as such, but Micky is not the brightest of craters! He is as clever as he is gallant – sending the message via Sharon instead of delivering it in person to me, or even you of Stevo. But as I say, he is not bright, so the message had quite a big clue! I don’t know anybody else who might conceivably be interested in our investigation who calls me ‘Cockroach’ …. Such a silly billy! Or a thicky Micky!

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