Friday, February 16, 2007

Chapter 9

She was already there when I entered the bistro. I saw her wave to me as I walked down the steps and into the bar. Facially she was the image of her mother. Only in her colouring did she take after Tom. Chestnut hair and dark green eyes. Her skin was almost olive, making her look more Latin than Celt. She was a complete contrast to her twin sister who was blonde haired and fair skinned with eyes the colour of pale sapphire.

Breege was always the quieter of the two sisters. The more serious, thoughtful one. The teenager I had first met always struck me as older in her years than her sister. And unlike her sister, she rarely if ever drew attention to herself. She never sought applause or approval and always seemed content with people's acceptance of her presence. I wondered if that made her a good doctor.

She stood up as I approached the table and we hugged with sincere affection. Her hair smelt vaguely of coconut shampoo. She wore a black two piece suit with a dark grey silk blouse buttoned to the neck. On the seat beside her lay a camel coloured raincoat with a tartan lining. We sat facing each other. There was a half drunk cup of tea, a packet of Silk Cut and an ashtray containing three butts on the table between us.

'I'm sorry about your da.'

The words felt routine and empty, a hollow incantation. She must have heard them many times in the two days since his death. Her skin had a pallor to it born of grief and long hours indoors.

'I know you must be. You were as close to him as anyone. He missed you, you know.'

'I missed him.'

‘You never said so.’

'Neither did he.' I felt the full intensity of her dark green eyes on me. I felt like one of her patients awaiting an unwelcome diagnosis.

'Would you like anything?' I said, breaking her gaze. She shook her head.

She reached down to the table and picked up the fag packet. She took one out and tapped its end in a rapid staccato on the side of the packet. I rose from the table, walked to the counter and ordered a coffee. I returned to the table, sat down and spooned some sugar from the bowl into the cup. As I stirred it slowly, she inhaled on her cigarette and began again.

'U, I'm going to get to the point.'

'You were always the blunt one.' She smiled sadly.

'There's something funny about what happened to dad.'

'Working in a hospital must have done something to your sense of humour.' She smiled again, wryly this time and went on.

'I've spent the last six months working in a casualty department. I've seen a lot of RTA deaths in that time. Dad didn't look like anything I've ever seen.' Her sentences, like her tone, were clipped. It seemed she was speaking to a fellow professional rather than fellow mourner.

You were on duty when he was brought in?'

'No, thank God. But I read the admitting officer's report and I've seen the PM notes. The cause of death was the impalement. The branch entered his back amongst the thorassic vertebrae, severed his aorta and punctured the left lung. It emerged just to the left of his breast bone.'

I could sense the control that delivering this terse description of her father's death was requiring. Her eyes did not leave mine as she spoke. For me the intensity of the image was not dissipated by her use of clinical language. I wondered how she must be feeling.

'Couldn't that happen if he was hit by a car?'

'It could. But the other injuries aren't consistent with the kind of impact that would be needed to drive him onto the branch.'

'How do you mean?'

'Apart from the damage done by the branch, Dad was hardly injured at all. He had bruising to the upper body and head and a couple of broken ribs, and that's it. You think he'd fallen down a flight of stairs or been in a bit of a scrap. Not knocked over by a speeding vehicle. Have you ever seen a pedestrian hit by a car travelling at speed?' I shook my head.

'I have and those kinds of injuries don't look like Dad's. There was almost no internal injury except that caused by the tree. If he'd been hit head on, there would be fractures all over, as well as cuts and abrasions. The soft organs would have been traumatised. He'd have been a mess inside and outside. He wasn't.'

'What do you think happened then?' As she shook her head I decided to keep Hatter's gossip to myself.

'I wish I knew. And I try not to think.' I could see the effort her self-control was requiring. Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at me but she did not cry. I put my hand on her shoulder. A professional reflex clicked in and she regained her composure.

'So what do the police say?'

'They're not saying anything at the moment. The attending officer put it down as a hit and run. The guy who found him didn't see anything but heard brakes and a vehicle accelerate away. There'll have to be an inquest of course, but I expect they'll go with that. You know how they work. They always look for the most straightforward.'

'And you don't think it was?'

'I don't. It's more than just a feeling. Look.'

She reached down beneath the table and pulled a large padded envelope from a brown leather shoulder bag. After clearing a space on the table she tipped the contents of the envelope onto it.

'I called you from the hospital after I picked up dad's PEs'


'His bits and pieces -personal effects. Sorry. Jobspeak.'

She leaned back against the wall as I scanned the items scattered on the table. I could read nothing but expectancy in her face. It was like that children's game. Any moment now she would cover Tom's stuff with a cloth and I would have to list what was there. As I looked across them, I began to feel sad. These few objects were so much the man.

A folding pigskin wallet frayed at the seams and shined with friction from being carried in a back pocket. A souvenir of the Greek island that he and Bernadette visited for the same two weeks every September. I knew it contained a photograph of himself, Bernadette and the two girls taken at their graduation. I knew without opening it that there would be a single credit card and about forty pounds in cash.

An old fashioned metal spectacle case. Tom was long-sighted but vain and he needed them for reading. He wore them a little as possible and when he had to he always made a big show of finding them, patting himself with both hands. They were always in the same place. Inside left jacket pocket.

A small dental plate. He'd lost his upper front teeth arresting a middleweight contender called Malone in a pub on the Dock Road. Tom had lost the first round and as Malone circled in for another, Tom had picked up a pint bottle of Guinness from the nearest table and slammed it down on the boxer's skull to win by a technical knockout. He didn't get up after a count of nine and went to the Bridewell via casualty.

The local punters, who had relished the thought of a hard jack getting his come-uppance over a couple of rounds with Malone, had reported him for police brutality. He'd gone before the disciplinary board with a wired jaw, a black eye and a nose in splints. He was reprimanded and suspended for a week without pay. Malone himself had refused to lay charges. Tom described it as the most expensive pint of Guinness he'd never drunk.

A chrome-plated Swiss wristwatch with a white face and a simple black leather strap, a wedding present from Bernadette. The bezel was marked with a small scratch at three o'clock and the radium on the fingers and numerals had long since lost its luminosity. I could see small flecks of dried blood encrusted in the external rim of the face where crystal met chrome. The watch kept terrible time, but he wouldn't change it for the new ones she bought him every other birthday. It was inscribed on the back with their intertwined initials and their date of their wedding. Bernadette joked that he only kept it so he wouldn't forget their anniversary.

A small plastic bag of loose change, perhaps two or three pound coins and some silver, completed the items from the envelope. All in all it wasn't much to have with you at your end.

I scanned across them again and realised what wasn't there. His notebook. Breege must have felt like Sherlock Holmes to my Watson. The missing notebook was the dog that didn't bark. Even as a private detective he had maintained his policeman's habit of recording everything in a small black notebook which he carried with him everywhere. One drawer in his office desk was full of them dating back over the ten years since he had retired.

'What do you think happened to it?' I asked. I knew she knew what I was talking about and she breathed a visible sigh of relief.

'You noticed then. Thank God for small mercies. I was beginning to think I was paranoid. His keys were gone too but I didn't twig to that. It was the notebook that set me off.'

'No. It's missing and that's odd. Could it have fallen out in the accident?'

'It wasn't an accident. And no, I don't think so. Apart from the keys, everything else is there, why should his notebook go astray?'

'Do you know what he was working on?'

'No. That's why I phoned you. I thought you could help me find out'.

As she said this she reached into a side pocket in her tailored jacket, pulled out a bunch of keys and dropped them on the table. They were a spare set that I had used. The key fob advertised Bushmill's whiskey.

'You knew the way he worked, better than anyone. I thought you could have a look around the office and see what you can see.'

'Did he not take anyone on after I left?' She shook her head.

'He thought you'd be back with your tail between your legs once you saw sense. I suppose he didn't know you as well as he thought.'

'I think he did. He just had more patience than you give him credit for.'

'Would you have come back?'

'I don't know. If he had asked me, probably yes. But he didn't so I didn't.' I picked up the keys and put them in my jacket pocket.

'Do you want to go now?' She shook her head.

'I don't think I could face it now. Anyway, I have to get back to mum and give Cait a break.'

'Ok. I'll take a walk down there later and have a look in. Will I call you if I find anything?'

'No. I'll call you tonight. I don't want mum bothered if there is anything funny going on. It's best if you and I handle it.'

'Fine. I'll speak to you later.'

She removed the items from the table and carefully returned them one by one to the envelope which she then put back into her bag. We stood up together and I helped her on with her overcoat. She turned and kissed me with sisterly affection on my right cheek. Then her eyes fixed on mine.

'U, I don't know what dad was working on, but if his death wasn't an accident, you could be bringing trouble on yourself by getting involved.' I smiled, made snake-eyes and went into an execrable Bogart routine.

'You know us private dicks, lady, trouble is our business.' She returned my smile and then her face went serious again. She looked at her fingernails, as if embarrassed.

'It's not a joke, U. I don't want you to end up like dad, that's all.'

'It's all right, a rĂșn. I promise I'll run and hide if I bump into anyone who looks like Sidney Greenstreet.' She relaxed and smiled.

'Ok, just be careful. Please.'

'I'll try.'

I gave her the gunman's salute and she turned and walked away across the bar. I followed her with my eyes until she disappeared up the stairs and then I sat back down at the table. I felt for the keys in my pocket, pulled them out and put them before me on the table. I ran my index finger across them touching each one in turn. They were arranged on the key ring in order of size. Ground floor front, second floor front, inner office, safe, desk, filing cabinets, and petty cash box. Looking at the keys brought back the memory of my last meeting with Tom.

The last time I had had them in my possession, I had been growing more frustrated and he more obdurate in his resistance to change. While he was great in the role of immovable object, I was less efficient playing irresistible force. The decision to quit had come quite suddenly. I just woke up one morning in March, still recovering from a St Patrick's Day tear that had lasted the best part of a week and decided enough was enough. I had no plans and very few options open to me. I just knew things couldn't go on the way they had since Linda had left.

That morning, as always, Tom was already behind his desk when I arrived at the office. He had grunted a good afternoon. No matter what the time of day, unless I arrived before him, that was always his greeting. I said nothing in reply. I walked to my desk, opened the top right hand drawer and began sorting through its contents looking for anything personal that might be there. There were a couple of postcards from Linda, a personal stereo and some cassettes. I took them out and placed them on the desk. I bent to open the next drawer down.

He leaned across from his own desk which stood at a right angle to mine facing the door and dropped a buff coloured folder in front of me.

'Would you ever take a look at that, U?' It wasn't a request. I didn't look up from my search or acknowledge the presence of the folder on my desk. If we spoke I knew I'd not leave the office that day or any other.

'Have you lost the use of your ears as well as your tongue this morning, me laddo?'

I ignored him. There was nothing I wanted from the second drawer and I knew the rest of the desk just held business stationery and small equipment. I picked up the few items, put them in my coat pocket and walked around to the front of the desk. Facing Tom I took the office keys from another pocket and placed them on his desk.

'I won't be needing these anymore. I'm jacking it in.'

He looked at me but remained silent. I could feel him scanning my face with his bizzy eyes, looking for weakness and calculating the appropriate response. I kept my eyes on his. Finally, he reached across the desk, picked up the keys, and in one continuous movement turned his revolving chair ninety degrees to the left, opened the top drawer of his desk, dropped them in, and closed it carefully.

'Fair enough, lad.' he said. He made no other comment and his face remained impassionate as he looked at me. I turned and walked towards the door.

'I'll see you then, so.' I said as I opened the office door and half looked back.

'Aye, lad. If I don't see you first.'

As I looked back I saw that his eyes had returned to the file in front of him. Those were the last words I heard him speak. I gently closed the door behind me, walked through the waiting room and down the stairs onto the street. It was a cold spring day and summer still seemed a long way off.

A week later I received a recorded delivery letter containing a month's wages in lieu of notice, three weeks holiday pay, and my P45. There was no other message.

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