The Death of an Irish Tradition

BOOK: The Death of an Irish Tradition
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Bartholomew Gill
The Death of an Irish Tradition

A Peter McGarr Mystery
(Originally Published as McGarr at the Dublin Horse Show)

Contents

1.

    

Surfaces, Sheens, A China Doll, And a Jade Figurine

2.

    

A Role and a Length of Tape, Be Yourself, Tea with Lemon, Bait

3.

    

Artistry, Caution, A Falsehood Hung, Mother and Daughter—Anonymity Undone

4.

    

Strokes, Voices, A Squelch and a Laugh. Priest, Parishioner, A Sot and an Ass

5.

    

On Shots in the Night And Worry, A Spin, a Death, Sin And Fury

6.

    

Love and a Bottle, A Kip, Jibes, Death, the Tribe And Coddle

7.

    

A Nasty Smile And a Golden Shoe, Slings, Elevations, Grace And Views

8.

    

Mother and Daughter, A Clear Round and Savvy, Chaos, Weakness, a Pug And a Navvy

9.

    

Snaps, Litters, Salvage and Truth, The Connection—Fogarty And Ruth

10.

    

Fitting a Green Isle, Where It All Comes Down—Thin and Brash—To a Smile

MCGARR EASED OPEN
a casement window at the back of a house in Ballsbridge, a select area south of Dublin.

The gloaming of a long summer evening had cast a pall, funereal and still, over the neat rows of flowers, the clipped shrubs, and the spiked iron fences that formed an alley in the distance.

Below him he could hear two women talking.

“…and it’s little wonder the police have arrived—her letting the daughter go around all tarted up who knows where with who knows who. And the string of them. A week, ten days—some of them take her out only once.” There was a significant pause. “And what she must spend. Just one of those see-through blouses—why, twenty pounds easily. And how old would you say she is?”

“Who?”

“The old one, the mother. Of course, the mother.
If
she’s the mother. But the other one too, the daughter. She can’t be more than…fifteen or sixteen, if she’s that.”

“She’s eighteen.”

“Is that a fact?”

“It is, missus. It is.”

“How they manage it! And the car over in the garage, the—what is it again?”

“A Daimler, I think.”

“A Daimler, no less. Think of it—never touched. Not once to my knowledge.”

“I don’t think she drives.”

“Then why the car? And why the clothes and the deliveries and the way Finlay’s is always running upstairs with baskets,
baskets
of groceries. Specialty items all, I can assure you. Nothing but the best.” There was quiet for a while. “I ask you where it must come from?”

“I’m sure I wouldn’t know.”

“Then I’ll tell you, missus—from no good, that’s where. And how they manage it—her an old…” McGarr couldn’t catch what was then said and, nudging up the brim of his panama, he stepped closer to the window.

McGarr was a short man. His long face and clear gray eyes made it seem as though nothing could surprise him. In his late forties now, his light red hair was balding and he had taken to wearing hats.

But the woman’s voice soon resumed the firm, indignant tone. “And it’s not the first time today that the police have arrived, I’m led to believe.”

“Really now, missus?” The second woman was older, but her hair was tinted and permed and her figure not spoiled from childbearing, like that of the first woman, whose children McGarr could hear playing in the house. Pastel colors from a television spilled through sliding glass doors and speckled the flagstones of the patio, muting as the picture changed.

In all—McGarr thought, as he strained to hear what was about to be revealed, doubtless in a low voice—a pleasant and an unusual setting for a murder.

“No, missus—” the younger woman said, “—I’ve been told a policeman was here in the afternoon as well.”

Yet another pause, while the other woman reflected. This was news to McGarr, since the condition of the body suggested that death had occurred during the afternoon, although he couldn’t be sure as yet.

“A policeman?”

“I have it on the very best of advice.”

“Did you get a look at him?” It was McGarr’s question exactly.

“No, no—not me myself, mind you.” She glanced up at the windows. “But I’ve been assured he was a policeman. I mean, who else could it have been, seeing they’re here again and all?”

McGarr tried to ease the window shut, but the hinges squeaked and both women looked up.

Another voice came to him as he passed through the darkened kitchen and hall toward the sitting room.

“Through this holy unction, and of His most tender mercy, may the Lord pardon thee whatsoever sins thou hast committed by sight.” The priest was down on one knee, dipping his thumb in holy oils and making the form of the cross over each eye of the old woman, who was slumped in the chair.

The daughter had found her there, and, thinking her asleep, had gone into another room to change into evening clothes while her escort had waited below in the car. There had been, she had intimated, some animosity between the young man and the mother, and he had rarely entered the house. Only when she had been leaving and had tried to wake the mother had she realized something was wrong.

Having no phone in the apartment, she had sent her boyfriend for help, and the ambulance attendants had called the police. The woman had been strangled in front of the chair and then eased or allowed to fall back into it. McGarr had examined the nap of the rug. He had found swirls near where her feet had come to rest.

There was nothing missing from the house, or so the daughter thought.

“Through this holy unction, and of His most tender mercy, may the Lord pardon thee whatsoever sins thou has committed by thy footsteps.

“Amen.” The priest stood and, crossing himself, moved away.

McGarr bent his head and touched a hand to his brow. He was not a religious man, or at least not formally so, but death demanded some obeisance, and McGarr was willing to go along with what people of all religions deemed meet.

What he now noticed was the chair itself. It was an old Morris copy and out of place in the chic apartment. The arms were worn from years of use, and the ring on her right hand had most probably carved the groove in the arm on that side. As well, the upholstery of the cushions—some garish floral pattern that was now faded—was worn beneath a lace doily. Her head, canted at an odd angle to the side, had moved the lacework off the patch, through which stuffing now tufted.

She had been sixty-five if she was a day, McGarr imagined—a short, plump woman with a button nose and the sort of dark features that he had always thought of as Spanish-Irish. Her cheekbones were wide and devolved to a round chin. Her hair was kinky and lustrous and so dark it was almost black. And like the chair in which she was sitting, the impression she gave—the clean but worn gray dress, the sturdy limbs, the hands which, earlier, McGarr had felt and were calloused—placed her more as a servant in the apartment than as its mistress.

The room was furnished with antiques from many periods and tall, tropical house plants in coppered tubs. A grand piano occupied a space near the windows, its long back sweeping into the room. In the little light that remained and against the black, polished wood, the gold-leafed lettering, BECHSTEIN, seemed almost illuminated from within.

As though he had read McGarr’s thoughts, McKeon left off writing in his notebook and ran his hands up the keys. He then hit similar notes in different octaves, again and again, and looked up at McGarr. The piano was in tune.

McGarr moved toward the piano and glanced back at the woman. “Larynx broken?”

“Crushed, I’d say. Whoever did it had a grip, so he did.”

“What would you hear, maestro,” McKeon added in an undertone so the priest, who was saying a prayer, wouldn’t hear. “Brahms. Beethoven, or boogie-woogie? Or how about something—” he followed McGarr’s line of sight to the woman, “—Spanish?” He had come to the same conclusion as McGarr.

McKeon was McGarr’s inside man and usually handled all the administrative details of their many investigations. Like McGarr, he was short and stocky, but he had a thick shock of blond hair that he combed over to one side. His eyes were small and dark and mischievous, especially for the past several days that he’d spent away from his desk at Dublin Castle, filling in for Sinclaire, who was on holiday.

McGarr turned his head and considered the many photographs that had been placed on a table near the piano, the frames made of metal and expensive, the glass polished to mirror sheens. Two dozen or so, they pictured all the rituals of the family—weddings, births, christenings, Christmas gatherings, Easter, picnics at the beach, the men near a new car or standing with their horses, the women holding the hands of their daughters, who were wearing lacy white dresses and caps on First Communion day.

In one photo a little boy was shown with scapulars around his neck, white shirt freshly starched, his palms pressed together, his hair brushed; and then in a suit in front of the same church, after having been confirmed; then in a graduation gown, an army uniform, and a tuxedo with a bride on his arm. And years after and—McGarr guessed—with her gone, he looked suddenly aged and a bit sad, some toddlers around him and a baby in his arms.

Yes—McGarr decided, trying but failing to pick out the dead woman among the older pictures of several dark, curly-haired girls—she had had roots, in spite of having lived in the large apartment with only her daughter, whom he could now hear sobbing gently in another room.

And the settings—the many rock walls in the backgrounds; the treeless and hilly landscapes with mountain vistas and a lake beyond—placed the photographs not in Dublin but to the west. Galway, McGarr guessed. Joyce’s country, although he couldn’t be sure.

Once again he considered her—soft and sturdy and, he supposed, a comforting person to have lived with. She had kept the house spic and span, had made fresh bread, the dough of which had risen over the pans in the kitchen and spilled onto the marble-top table and gone flat. And the way she had kept all the surfaces—not just the window and door panes, the glass on the photographs, the ivory and ebony of the piano, but the parquet floors, the tiles in the kitchen and bath, the banister on the way up—attested to her care. Details.

But they would be ignored now, or at least not attended to with as much or the same kind of care. That was what, to McGarr, had always so marked the finality of death: not the fact of the corpse but that the places and things that a person had—he searched for a term—“energized” were suddenly, peremptorily and irrevocably abandoned. She would not bake the bread, meet the grocer, take the bus, or write the letter. And that the natural course of her life, a facet of the history of the family whom McGarr could see on the table, had been adumbrated at the whim of some intruder was an outrage.

He reached out and picked up a photograph that had attracted him earlier. The man who was pictured in the faded, brown-tone photo was dressed in leathers and was standing next to a motorcycle. He was small and thin and dark, which only made his wide smile, which moved off to one side of his face and wrinkled the skin around his eyes, seem genuine, candid and winning, but he could not be young anymore. Still, McGarr had seen that face and smile, he was sure of it, and in the recent past. And it had had something to do with an investigation. But which one of the many? He didn’t know, couldn’t remember. It was late and he was tired.

 

Off the surface of the glass that covered the photo McGarr caught the reflection of Garda Superintendent O’Shaughnessy, standing in the doorway to the dining room, his tall frame looming over the girl who was seated at the table. Hughie Ward, another, younger policeman, was asking her questions, writing in a notebook no different from McKeon’s.

Beyond them, down a long expanse of table, sat the boyfriend. He had turned his body away from the others and had his elbows on his knees, staring down at the patterning in the carpet as though he didn’t want to be there. McGarr could hardly blame him. He started when McGarr switched on the current, although the crystal chandelier diffused the light, made it soft and colorful, the pendants turning slowly from the movement in the room.

“But can you remember anything extraordinary,” Ward was saying, “anybody who ever had words with her or threatened her, or…or even would have had, in your estimation, some grievance with her?” Ward glanced up, locking his eyes with hers. Both pairs were dark, but hers were swollen and red from crying. She only shook her head and blotted first one eye and then the other, closing each slowly in a way that made her long, dark lashes obvious.

“I haven’t a clue. She…we have no
enemies
. She was a quiet person. Solitary. She wouldn’t harm a soul.” Unlike the mother, the daughter was tall and thin and had the sort of delicate facial beauty—a long nose and a slightly protrusive upper lip—that would age well. But her hair too was dark, and she kept it swept back along the sides of her temples and bound in a clasp at her neck. It looked full and very soft and so fine McGarr was moved to reach out and touch it. Tears again were streaming from the corner of her eyes, down cheeks which were creamy and smooth in a way that made McGarr think of a China doll, the sort dressed in a kimono with hands clasped before her and a sculptured, rosebud mouth painted bright.

He felt somebody brush against him, and he turned to find the priest easing himself past O’Shaughnessy and into the room.

“Friend of the family,” the man said. “Thought I’d stay a bit. She has nobody now, here in Dublin.”

McGarr held out his hand. “Father?”

“John Francis—Menahan, Mr. McGarr.” He was short and quite stout and had dark, curly hair. His closely shaven beard made his face seem blue.

McGarr turned back to the daughter.

She was wearing a light blue dress that was summery and open at the neck and made of some gauzy, wispy material, all fluffs and fringes that further added to the overall impression of lightness and…grace that she imparted. And the dress—McGarr remembered the conversation earlier between the two women who lived below—almost seemed to be transparent. In the shadows of the table McGarr kept thinking he could see dark areas, rounded and taut, of the aureoles and nipples of her breasts.

McGarr leaned back to the priest. “What’s the name again?” he asked in an undertone.

“Mine?”

“No—the young lady’s, the family’s.”

“Caughey. Mairead Kehlen, the daughter. Margaret Kathleen,” the priest paused, “the poor mother, God rest her soul.”

“That’s enough for now,” Ward said. “Perhaps you’d like to rest.”

Did McGarr see Ward’s hand move forward, as though he would reach for hers? He had, he was sure of it, and he noted how much the young inspector resembled Mairead Kehlen Caughey, except that his hair was more like the mother’s, curly rather than straight and thick rather than fine. And Ward’s skin was sallow, not light.

It was then that McGarr noticed an area, like a collar or shadow, of darkish skin around the girl’s long, slender neck, as though recently she had been out in the sun, not all at once but now and again over an extended period of time.

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