ather? Who will look after them?
If thats the way it is, so be it.
It doesnt have to be like that.
What other choice do I have?
A pair of eyes appeared through the web of thorns and raindrops. A pair of eyes that gave nothing away. The rest of the mans face was camouflaged in shadow.
Youre freezing, he said.
Daniel nodded, and an upright military-looking man stepped out of the undergrowth. Removing his leather gloves, the man took a cigarette from a packet in his pocket. He handed it to Daniel, stilling his shaking hand so that he might light it.
The young mans mind slowly recovered from the cold, the deep drowsiness of the river. He took several drags.
Listen to me, said the man. This country of ours is all about gangs. Everyone belongs to one. Some join gangs that do bad things. Steal cars, smuggle weapons, plant bombs, terrify the wits out of innocent people. But some of us manage to drag ourselves up to the light and join a different sort of gang. His voice altered. I want to make you, Daniel Hegarty, a member of the most effective, well-resourced gang this fucked-up country has ever seen.
Daniel felt as though he had been plunged into a more suffocating pool, immersed in the mans warmth and charm, his aura of power, the sweetness of the tobacco smoke. He clasped his hand as it held the cigarette to his chest, trying to stop his arm from shaking. He felt the intensity of a pinpoint gaze, the mans eyes adjusting to all his little movements, steady as the magnetic needle of a compass, centring in on the flaw, the tic he had managed to conceal from his riverside interrogators.
Im not for sale. He raised the cigarette to his lips, fingers clenched tight. All I need is this smoke.
The voice sighed.
Everyone has a price, Daniel. Thats a fundamental truth.
Water collected on the tips of thorns, glinting like tiny claws. The wind picked up and the thorns swiped at it.
Why are you interested in me?
Weve nobody on the ground in border country. We want you to work for us. Youll be operating alongside people just like you. People who have lost family members. People who feel compelled to action, who want to stop terrorism in all its forms, all these senseless murders.
Stop terrorism in all its forms. Is that your way of convincing me I wont be a traitor? However, something tight swelled in Daniels throat not fear, but a dark hope, the thought that he might have his revenge for his brothers murder after all.
Well pay you well, look after your parents. You wont have to worry about their security.
The mention of money sparked his interest further. He knew he couldnt go on living the way he had been, sleepless, jobless, practically penniless, relying on the small income his parents made from their farm. A twilight existence, dominated by fear and humiliation.
I sense youre interested in my offer.
Ill think about it.
Thats good, Daniel. We all have to do our bit. Get this country back to law and order.
Some law and order. Your policemen almost drowned me.
They took the wrong approach entirely. I can see that now.
No more fucking around with water, then?
You have my word.
And will you leave me alone?
I cant promise you that. The major smiled. Go home and think about what I have said. I promise you that our training is first-class. Weve been running this unit for decades in far more dangerous parts of the world. Well train you in man-to-man surveillance techniques and how to shake off paramilitary scrutiny of your movements. Remember, our war is directed at Loyalists as well as Republicans.
He handed Daniel the rest of the packet of cigarettes.
A boom is on its way, Daniel. A boom in killing. Tons of illegal weapons are coming into the country. From South Africa, Libya, the Lebanon. The intelligence services are predicting a surge in violence.
Daniel nodded. It was the solemn truth. He flicked open the packet of cigarettes. Inside was a calling card with a number and a contact name and next to it a wad of ten-pound notes. He looked up, but the major had gone.
He scrambled back to the road feeling tired and cold. His car was parked next to where the police officers had set up their checkpoint. He turned on the heater and the windscreen wipers. The empty road seemed more unreal than the thicket of thorns and the fast-flowing river. He started up the engine, and drove his usual route home. That was the thing about living in border country, he told himself, you had to acclimatize yourself to intimidation, develop a regular routine, get used to the uncertainty of living each day suspended between fear and suspicion, life and death, somehow surviving these impromptu checkpoints and interrogations.
He drove on, delving deeper into the maze of introverted little lanes that criss-crossed the border. He wasnt ready to go home, not yet. The roads had the dull, soothing quality of loneliness, their broken white lines glimmering in the rain. Dripping trees slashed backward and forwards. He listened to the hiss of water sliding along the wipers, coiling from the tyres. He drove as if still caught in a whirling current, trees flickering by, the windscreen a river of ghostly reflections, the twisting lines of the border roads luring him deeper into their darkness.
He already felt like an outcast in this country. A condemned man. The landscape and weather hated him. The freezing rivers, the blinding rain, the tattered hole of the sky through which the sun infrequently shone, the roads that threatened to empty him every time he pressed his foot to the accelerator pedal. No wonder his neighbours and friends were leaving in their droves, those who werent dead or in prison, emigrating to England and America, never to return. They left in silence, without uttering a word or fighting with anyone. Many of them had been in the middle of building new homes, like his brother. Their half-finished houses dotted the countryside, building sites overgrown with briars and nettles, wastes of muddy puddles. He did not want to go to England or America but he did not want to be left behind either, amid their abandoned dreams.
He knew with certainty that in the weeks ahead, there would be more interrogations at checkpoints, more smiling men like Major Hannon, more pestering, more harassment and insinuation, more whispering about failure and revenge, and the dire consequences of his inaction. He began to think there must be some other way to leave behind these hills and their sprawling thickets of thorns, this warren of roads disappearing into tunnels in the dark.
The rain intensified. He switched off the wipers. It was cosy in the drivers seat as he moved up through the gears. He peered through the web of raindrops densely crowding the windscreen. He came quickly upon a blind corner and pressed the accelerator pedal as hard as he could. The car skidded as he took the bend. He had the impression of blurred branches sailing close to the car, a few seconds of flight, and then the crunch of gravel as the wheels bit into the verge, and the car corrected itself.
He drove off again, foot pressed flat against the accelerator. He took the next corner at even greater speed. Again, the car teetered. The engine whined and the wheels locked into a spin. He was no longer in control, the speed of the car dragging him on. He shut his eyes, waiting for the brute force of the impact, but instead of noise, everything went silent. He felt the darkness beyond the thin shield of the windscreen erupt in upon him, and then an overwhelming force lifted him out of his seat. For a moment, fragments of broken glass and thorns rose with him. He felt so pure and free that he grinned with delight. He forgot about the cold business of the river and its trees dripping darkness and betrayal. He willed himself up towards the tranquillity of the night sky, up and up, but then he butted against the stubbornness of his flesh and blood. He felt himself dragged back to the crashed car and the lonely black mass of anger that was his heart.
When he came to, he lay slumped over the steering wheel. The car had slid down a gully and crashed into a tree. He gaped at the hole where a branch had smashed through the windscreen. Inside he felt disappointed. It was not as easy as he thought to escape border country. A few lights flashed on the dashboard but his head felt too light to understand their instructions. Perhaps they were warning signals. He swung open the door and staggered out. His thoughts felt mangled. He climbed back up the slope and sat hunched by the roadside, trying to quell his giddiness.
He set off, head bowed, unsure of which direction he was going, until a passing car slowed down. In the twilight, he could just make out the car registration AIB 726. He recognized the young woman behind the wheel, a neighbour who had recently lost her brother in an IRA attack. Her name was Dorothy Agnew. He looked at her, wondering if she would recognize him. She smiled at him and instinctively he waved back. She held her chin up bravely, but her eyes were downcast, her smile still carrying the shadow of her grief. To his surprise, she stopped and gave him a lift home.
After she had dropped him off at his gate, he felt confused. He had been close to ending his life, but somehow her smile and act of kindness had filled his mind with new confidence, new conviction. In the course of their short conversation, he had told her about his brothers murder at the hands of Loyalists and she had responded with sympathy and curiosity. They were both survivors from different sides of the community, they realized, falling through border country with their anger and grief. Why should either of them shoulder this darkness alone? His mind began to burn with the new plan he was formulating. The business with the major seemed more urgent now. He would give Hannon a phone call and outline his requirements. He was going to cross invisible boundaries into a new mental landscape, one where he would roam with killers and psychopaths. His thoughts grew luminous, purposeful, contemplating the dark path that lay ahead.