The Return of the Emancipator

It’s midnight by the Heineken clock and I’m eating a McDonald’s at the base of the O’Connell monument when I hear somebody cursing and muttering above me, and who do I see climbing down from the top of the monument but Daniel O’Connell himself. He’s made it most of the way but he’s hesitating about jumping the last few feet.

“Just do it, Dan. It’s not far,” says I. “Make sure you bend your knees when you land.”

He makes the sign of the cross and he jumps, his cloak flying out behind him like your oul fella dressed up as Batman. Two paving slabs crack noisily under his feet like they’ve been struck by twin bronze sledgehammers, which I guess they kind of have been. Out of nowhere, an image flashes through my mind of stone tablets, smashed to pieces by some old man at the foot of a mountain. Charlton Heston, I think.

“Jaysus,” says he. “Did yiz have to put me so high?”

I crane my neck to look up at the empty pedestal. He uses the distraction to rob a few chips from my McDonald’s and he shoves them in his mouth with a grunt of satisfaction.

“These’re good,” says he, chewing. “I suppose the famine’s over, is it?”

“The potato famine? Yeah, a while ago, now.” I hand him the bag of chips.

“That’s good,” says he. “Glad to hear it.”

He turns three hundred and sixty degrees to get a good look at the place while I finish my Chicken Royale. He picks another chip out of the bag and waves it in the general direction of Starbucks, Burger King, Eddie Rockets, McDonald’s, and the other Starbucks.

“Am I still on Sackville Street?” says he. “It looks a bit different.”

“Same street,” says I. “But it’s O’Connell Street now.”

“O’Connell Street?” I notice a bit of a smile. He nods at the huge metal spire in the distance. “And what’s that? The O’Connell Spike? Daniel O’Connell’s Needle, something like that?”

“The Millenium Spire.”

“The Millenium? You mean, built in the year 2000?” He raises his eyebrows.

“Well, 2003. It was a bit delayed.”

He mulls this over for a bit and then he asks “And where’s Nelson? Yiz moved him somewhere?”

“Um, yeah, he was moved alright.”

“Proper order,” says he, frowning. “Didn’t like him looking down on me. One-handed gobshite. Could feel his beady eye on….” At this, he puts his hand on the back of his neck and wrinkles his nose, disgusted, like, and says “What the..?”

“Here,” says I, and gave him a wad of napkins.

He wipes the bird s**t from his head and neck and then he scrunches up the McDonald’s bag and uses it to finish the job.

“Seagulls,” he mutters. “They’ve lost the run of themselves.”

It’s late and I’m too cold and too drunk for conversation, so I stand. I only came down this end of the street to get away from that big English bollox, Jim Larkin. “Listen, Dan, I won’t keep you, gotta be making tracks.”

“Yeah.” He lets out a sigh and glances up at his pedestal. “No worries.”

He stretches his arms to get ready for the climb but then he grimaces and looks closely at his left elbow. He angles it for better light. The grimace turns into a frown. He sticks his index finger into a small round hole in his bicep and into another hole in his forearm.

“What’s the meaning of this?” says he. “Bullet holes? What have you muppets been up to?”

I back away. “Yeah, about that, Dan. I’d love to stay and chat, but…”



Lionel watched discreetly in the edges of his vision as a bald man in an orange gown walked across the crowded waiting area and knocked on the examination-room door. The door opened and a female head emerged, inquiringly. The man produced a folded letter from his sleeve and offered it. A hand emerged from the doorway and received the letter, and then hand and head withdrew and the door closed with a soft click. The man, a chemo patient, perhaps, turned towards the seats where Lionel sat, his sandals squeaking on the green vinyl floor.

A ringing sound, like an alarm clock, somewhere close by. Lionel took his mobile from his jacket pocket. No, not his. He thumbed the screen and opened the news app. The stories were slow to load. No signal. Mobile data is always terrible in hospitals. Just as well. No news is good news. He put the phone away and stared at the sandals and shins of the man facing him. Not knowing where else to look, he switched his gaze to the wall over the man’s bald head, and then he closed his eyes.

His head dropped towards his chest, and he dozed. The voices of the other patients slipped loose from all meaning and seeped into his fragile flickering dreams and took on new meanings. He jerked awake, hurting his neck, and dozed again, and woke again, until he wished that they would call his turn so that he could go home and sleep.

A cough caught his attention. For the first time, he looked directly at the man who sat opposite. Was this the same man he had watched earlier? He wore the orange robes of a Buddhist monk, not a dressing gown. And he wasn’t exactly bald, either, because a dense dark stubble covered his head. Not a chemo patient. He was Chinese, possibly. Asian, anyway. Crinkled eyes behind black-framed spectacles, cheeks brown and healthy.

The fingers of the monk’s right hand danced a complicated pattern against his left. He doesn’t talk? A vow of silence? From his facial expression, it seemed he was asking a friendly question. Lionel shrugged his shoulders and down-twitched his lips and flashed his palms to show that he didn’t know any sign language. The monk nodded and smiled in understanding, and sat back in his chair.


The morning was nearly over by the time Lionel stepped into the examination room. A nurse sat on the high stool beside the scanning machine, a pair of large headphones resting around her neck. She patted the fake leather of the padded bench.

“Take off your jacket and shirt, and pop up here for me please.”

Pop up. Always that phrase. They must learn it in medical school.He did as he was told. She attached three electrical leads to his torso.

“Have you had one of these before?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe. It all tends to blur.”

She squeezed some gel from a tube onto his solar plexus. Cold. A faint familiar smell that he couldn’t quite identify. She put the headphones over her ears and held a microphone to his chest and used it to smear the gel in circular motions while her other hand turned dials on the scanner. Sounds leaked from the headphones, harsh hisses and whistles, like a radio receiver that was badly tuned, and she grimaced and decreased the volume. Lionel peered at the jumble of shadows on the scanner screen, but it was indecipherable, so he fixed his eyes instead on a peeling patch of ceiling paint. It triggered a deja-vu memory, just out of reach, of an island that he had seen somewhere, sometime, and wanted to visit, or maybe just imagined.

The smell of the gel… he remembered now, it reminded him of the stuff that condoms are coated in. There was another room with peeling paint, and another woman. They had met in a bar. Eye-contact, a shared drink, and somehow they were back in her apartment. Curtains in her bedroom that didn’t block the light properly, so that he hovered on the brink of wakefulness, dreaming, and knowing he was dreaming, of the woman who lay in the bed beside him. Dreaming of her thighs, her green eyes, her breasts, and the lotus flower tattoo on her left hip. Their hangover headaches taking hold as they gave up on sleep and rose and showered and dressed. He saw that she had no tattoo after all, and her eyes were brown, not green.

“All done,” said the nurse. Because of the headphones, she spoke loudly, apparently without realising. She handed him a large sheet of rough paper and he used it to wipe the gel from his chest, his stomach, his flank.


The doctor’s chair squeaked as he swiveled. He studied the results of the scan, turning the pages one at a time, shielding them from view in the brown folder. Lionel’s attention wandered to the framed diplomas on the wall. Latin. Unreadable. He thought of his own parchment in its cardboard cylinder, abandoned in the dust on top of his bookcase.

“How are you feeling, by the way?”

“OK, I guess, apart from the insomnia.”

The doctor extracted one of the pages from the folder and laid it on the desk between them. He set the folder to one side.

“I don’t want to worry you, but there’s something here that we should address.” He tapped the page with a chewed plastic pen.

Lionel looked where the doctor indicated. It was a Rorschach mess of blacks and greys. “What is it?”

“A sadness, most likely.”

“A sadness?” Lionel raised a hand to his chest. “But… how did that happen?”

“It’s hard to say. Some people are prone to them. Something gets misaligned. Out of whack. Is there any family history?”

Lionel shook his head. “No. Maybe. I don’t know. We didn’t…” He gestured with one hand to show that he couldn’t finish.

“Hmm. I’m going to recommend a placebo.”

Lionel wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. “A placebo? Will that help?”

The doctor scrawled illegibly on a prescription pad, tore off the sheet, and presented it to Lionel with a flourish and a smile. “It’s quite a strong one. It will help if you believe it will. That’s what a placebo does.”


The pills didn’t help. Lionel took them anyway, for ten days, and then he lost patience and poured them into his tea. As a sweetener, they were more effective.

His insomnia got worse. Without quite remembering how, he found himself walking through the city at night. There were few cars, and even the drinkers and the taxi drivers were home in their beds. He went east, with no destination in mind, only a direction. Whenever he was unsure of his course, he glanced at the roofs of the houses to see what way the rusted satellite dishes were facing, and this reassured him. They always faced south, like the moss that grows on trees. Or did moss grow on the north side of trees? His certainty faded.

At the edge of the city, he came across an all-night shop, spilling light onto the footpath. Just beyond the pool of light, on the cold ground, two people were cocooned in sleeping bags, invisible. He envied them. A mid-sized dog stood beside them and watched him approach, but didn’t bark. Inside the shop, a tired-looking Indian student was unbundling the early editions of the newspapers and hefting them onto the shelves. It was later than Lionel had realised. He bought a bottle of water for the walk home. The exchange was silent, each man knowing his part in the ritual.

Outside again, and the dog had left the sleepers and was sitting upright in the middle of the empty car park. It stretched its neck and scratched itself vigorously with a hind paw, both eyes closed in slits of pleasure. It stood then, ears twitching and alert. Not a dog. A fox, orange-brown with black paws. He could never have mistaken it for a dog, and yet somehow he had. It trotted away, and he followed to the edge of the car park. He was tempted to follow it a bit further and see where it went. He might be able to see the stars more clearly if he was away from the lights of the city. Just a mile or two, and then he could go home.


The fox moved at a fast pace, its head low and the tip of its tail trailing the ground in its wake, and Lionel hurried after. There was no street lighting, so they walked in moonlight. The road sloped gently upwards and zig-zagged as they entered the foothills, so that they came to a place where the lights of the city were stretched out on the plain below them. To the east, above the road, was a field of grass as tall as Lionel’s waist.

The fox had stopped and was looking directly at him. Glow-eyed, it held his gaze for a long moment, and then it turned and padded through a gap in a hedge and into the long grass. Lionel walked to the gap, and looked back at the city, and at the brightening sky, and hesitated. It would be dawn soon, and the stars were fading. He looked at the narrow trail that the fox had taken. If nothing else, he could follow it to higher ground where he could watch the sunrise, and then he could go home. He had never seen a sunrise before.

Turning sideways, he squeezed through the gap and up the dirt path. At intervals he glimpsed the fox slipping between the swaying grass or cresting over a hillock, or he saw a paw-print where it had squeezed under a fence. They crossed several fields in this way, Lionel climbing over the fences and being careful not to slip as he jumped down onto the dewy ground. Gradually, the spaces between sightings grew longer, and he realised that he had lost the animal and that he himself was lost. Looking back the way he had come, the path through the fields was no longer obvious. The lights of the city were hidden by the rise and fall of the land. There were no sounds of traffic or civilisation and no satellite dishes to guide his way. He walked to the nearest line of trees and pushed his way through the branches, hoping there would be a road on the other side.

Beyond the trees was a large manicured lawn. It sloped down to a brown brick building that curved around three sides of a cobblestone yard. A private school, maybe, or an old house converted to some modern use. Beyond the roof slates, dawn had already arrived in the clouded sky, discreetly, and without drama. He stood in the shelter of the trees, reluctant to trespass, suddenly tired.

At that moment, a deep chime sounded from within the building, as if from a great bell, and birdsong burst up from the branches behind him. The tone billowed and ebbed, impossibly pure, and he could feel the breeze wax and wane in harmony with it, and the whole waking world being tuned and aligned to the deep clear note, and something shifted a little inside his chest. As the last echo faded, a door swung open on one side of the courtyard. An orange-robed monk stepped out. He held the door with one hand and covered a yawn with the other, and a procession of monks emerged single-file into the chill morning, their black sandals pattering on the cobbles, their arms folded inside wide sleeves, their heads lowered.

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Checkout Girl

Snow had been cleared from the footpath and the street and formed into a knee-high mountain range in the gutter. It was dirty and embedded with scraps of litter. I walked alongside the peaks and valleys, my backpack heavy with cans of beer, and I thought about what you’d said. You had spoken the same words to thousands of customers, I’m sure, and each of those customers had given the same answers. That’s how the ritual works. But they didn’t hear your true message. That revelation was mine alone.

I returned the next night, hoping to speak with you again. I filled my basket with cheap beer and placed it before you. You asked me if I wanted to pay by cash or by card. I was transfixed. Beneath the surface of your words, there was a depth of meaning that was unmistakable. Then I looked at the ceiling and saw the cyclops watching with its diode-blinking eye. Eavesdropper, thief-stopper. Did I say that out loud? A flush rose in my cheeks. I paid with fistfuls of coins, my hands trembling, and I left the shop.

I hunched in the shadows of a doorway and thought about your magnificent voice and my muttered responses. You must think me an idiot. How many customers do you speak to each day? Hundreds? What could you see in me? I’m not special. You were just relieving your boredom. Like a fool, I had gone to you two nights in a row thinking that I was chosen by you, that only I could understand you. My eyes watered as headlights from the passing traffic washed over me and dazzled my vision. The swishing of tyres in the slush and the rise and fall of the engines was a tuneless primal music. I groped in my backpack for a can of beer and cracked it open, hoping that the booze and the light and the noise would obliterate you.

I told Dignam about you. He was sceptical about the hidden messages in your words and I struggled to explain it to him. It’s like those 3D magic-eye pictures, I said, when the secret picture reveals itself, only it’s much more than that. It’s an epiphany. He nodded sympathetically, but he said I was imagining things that weren’t there. Slipping back into old habits. It’s the time of year, he said, and the darkness. It plays tricks on the mind. He upped the dosage of my meds and advised me to switch to a different supermarket.

I needed to forget you, so I took Dignam’s pills and I took his advice. I started using one of the German outlets for all of my shopping. I thought about you less and less. Each evening was a little brighter than the one before. The clocks went forward. Summer arrived, with blue days and golden evenings and purple nights. An autumn of greens and red-golden browns.

Then, a change. The trees were skeletal, their leaves dead and useless on the cracked dirty concrete and piled in drifts against the chain-link fences. Darkness was a slow-rolling shutter, inching downwards each day, as the window of light grew smaller. Winter was waiting, and so were you. I walked past the entrance of a supermarket one night and the automatic doors whisked open, startling me. A warm blast of air broke over me like a sea wave and brought your voice to my ears.

Thirst gripped me but I turned away from you. I walked to another supermarket on another street and tried to remember the mindfulness stuff that Dignam had talked about. I couldn’t. In the booze aisle, I filled my basket mindlessly. I joined the line of supplicants at the front and we shuffled in lockstep, unwise men bearing gifts.

You were there too, silent and patient. It’s hopeless, I thought. You’re everywhere now. Omnipresent. I lifted the bottles from my basket and placed them before you one at a time. You spoke, loudly enough that an old woman in the queue turned her head. I heard your voice then as it had always been, cold and distant and omniscient as the dark vaulted heavens.

“Unidentified item in the bagging area.”


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I hammer on the front door with my fist and press the doorbell three times. Somebody is coming down the stairs. A dark male shape behind the nineteen-eighties frosted glass. A muttered curse and a key turning in the lock. The man who opens the door is tall, slim, and little more than a kid.

He looks at me and I know what he sees, and that’s fine. He sees what I want him to see. He sees the cauliflower ear and the long-ago broken nose, and he thinks I’ve been in a few scraps. Correct, son. Well spotted. I could have gotten the nose fixed years ago, but it serves a purpose. It tells people something about me and saves me the hassle of proving it the hard way. So, when I say, “I’m here for Michelle,” he doesn’t speak the arguments and questions that occur to him. Without opening the door any wider or taking his eyes off mine, he turns his head slightly and calls out to her. She comes down the stairs, barefoot, nervous, curious, and when she sees me in the porch she sighs and turns back.

To me, she says “I need a minute.”

To him, she says “It’s alright, he works for my dad.”

He gives me another once-over and steps back and opens the door but I have no interest in going inside. That might lead to conversation, and we’re in a hurry. Two minutes later, Michelle comes down the stairs again and kisses him goodbye, making a big production out of it, and whispers something to him that doesn’t do anything to ease the scowl on his face, and then we walk to my car and get in.

“Something wrong with your phone?” I ask.

She ignores the question. “Who told you where I was?”

“Who do you think?”

“Rachel,” she says, and when I don’t respond, she tries another guess. “Susan?”

I pull out from the kerb and file the names away for future reference. If I have to chase her down again, I’ll start with Rachel and Susan. In fact, nobody told me where to find her. I saw her at her dad’s house yesterday evening. She was dressed to go out, and I knew there was a boyfriend in the picture from the cagey way she answered Red’s questions. It took me two hours this morning to find out who the boyfriend is and where he lives. Finding people is my talent and it’s what Red employs me for. Often they don’t want to be found, so it’s difficult. They’ve borrowed from Red, or they’ve bought from him, or they’ve stolen from him. The last group are the ones that really don’t want to be found, because if Red gives the word, they might never be found again. With civilians like Michelle, it’s easy. Their social media is like a trail of breadcrumbs.

So, we’re driving, and we’re not talking much, which is good, because I can concentrate on not being followed. I’ve seen her being flirty with Red’s other guys, Gerry in particular, but with me it’s different. Probably another advantage of my boxer’s mug. She’s not a kid anymore, and I don’t want Red getting the wrong idea. He’s a protective father. That’s why I’m not going to tell him about the lanky student she spent the night with. I’d be expected to go back and express Red’s disapproval to him. I’d have to express it on his fingers, his ribs, his legs, and I can do without that. After a while, she looks up from her phone and stares out the window.

“Are you not taking me home?” she asks.

“No. The Hilton. Your ma and your and sister are already there.”

“What’s after happening?”

I say nothing. She thinks for a second and then starts typing something into her phone, her thumbs a blur.

“Don’t text anyone,” I say, a little more abruptly than I intended.

“I’m not.”

I glance over and see that she’s scrolling through a news app. She finds the story that I knew would be there. A sensational headline. A photo. Fragments of a windscreen scattered on a street like bloody teeth. A man dead, his name withheld from the story, just his age disclosed, enclosed in two brackets, and now he’s not going to get any older. The getaway vehicle burned out and abandoned somewhere nearby. A comment from a local who says that everybody’s in shock and that it’s a good area and that nothing like this ever happened around here before. 

“Who was it?” she asks.

I assume she means the victim, not the shooters. “Someone your dad knows. A business acquaintance.”

She has known about Red’s business since she was fourteen, so I expect her to scoff at the euphemism, but she just bites a fingernail. Probably relieved it’s not Red who got shot. Probably.

“What’s going to happen now?” she asks. “They’re going to keep coming after us?”

Us. Them and us. She’s been rebelling against Red for as long as I’ve known her, but now it’s ‘them and us’.

“No, your dad’s going to take care of it. He told me to get you to safety first.”

A few minutes later, we drive into the underground carpark of the hotel. Gerry is pacing in the shadows near the lift. I can tell it’s him from his walk. He always moves like he’s listening to a song that nobody else can hear. James Brown, maybe. Something funky. I tap the horn once to get his attention. He stoops to peer at us, one hand shielding his eyes from my headlights and the other deep in the pocket of his coat. I drive to him, slowly, so as not to spook him, and lower my window.

“Any word?” he asks.

“Nothing. You hear anything?”

He shakes his head. I turn to Michelle, but she’s already out of the car and slamming the door behind her. She has Red’s temperament. I watch in the rearview as she clomps around the back of the car in last night’s high-heels. Thanks for the lift, I mutter under my breath. You’re welcome, Michelle, don’t mention it.

Gerry says “I’ll text Red and tell him you’re on the way, yeah?”

“Yeah.” As I drive away, he hotsteps it over to the lift where Michelle is waiting.

It takes me fifteen minutes to get to the garage that Red is using as a staging post. There’s a tracksuited youngfella near the gate, pretending to be waiting for a bus, but really he’s watching for the cops, and watching for the opposition, a mobile phone in one hand.

Inside, there is just Red and the Brady brothers. I don’t know the brothers too well. Red only uses them for a particular type of job. They’re his rapid-reaction force. His emergency response unit. The younger one is holding a funnel in the mouth of a two-liter plastic milk bottle, and the older one, Frank, is pouring petrol into it from a can. They’re both wearing hi-vis jackets and builders’ boots, but there’s an automatic pistol on the workbench so I know they’re not about to build somebody a new kitchen. Red is kneeling in front of an Audi I haven’t seen before, changing the licence plate. He does a double-take when I walk in.

“You found her?” he asks.

“Yeah, I left her at the hotel.”

“When?” He fishes his mobile out of his pocket and checks the time. “She wasn’t there three minutes ago.” He thumbs the screen and turns away, raising the phone to his ear. I pull out my mobile and I call Gerry’s number. Voicemail. I hang up and dial again. Answer, you bastard.

Red is talking to somebody. “Yer sure? Alright, call y’back.”

He walks over to me. He’s still holding the screwdriver that he was using to fix the licence plate. The Brady boys are standing up and taking an interest, the petrol can forgotten for now.

Red says “That was her ma. Michelle’s not there.”

“I left…”

He talks over me. “Tony’s there. He hasn’t seen her either.”

“I left her with Gerry. In the hotel carpark.”

“With Gerry?” Red’s voice is shaking now, and so is the screwdriver in his fist. “What’s Gerry got to do with it?” he shouts. “I told you to find her, and bring her to her ma, and her sister, in the hotel.” He grabs my jacket with one hand and twists it. A fleck of spittle lands on my chin. “Now where the fuck is she?”

I reach back to steady myself against the workbench, and my fingers brush against the cold metal of the gun.


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