Please Note: This is an extract from Angels Cut, part of The Angels’ Share series. It contains realistic violence.
It Begins … Spring 1997 … assassination
This is what we’re talking about. The video includes a description of realistic violence. The excerpt follows.
It begins …
A bright spring Saturday morning in a small Armagh town, and a great day for a killing. O’Reilly stepped from the car. He slammed the door shut with a backward push. A message arrived in his pager. The condemned man was enjoying his final meal. Good for him. Won’t meet his maker on an empty stomach. He smiled to himself. The spotter knew his job.
* * *
The sun gave pleasant warmth, the shade a refreshing cool. Choirs of birds sang from fresh green trees. Car tyres rumbled like distant thunder.
The target finished a satisfying Ulster Fry at Flannery’s café, exchanged cheery banter with a rosy-cheeked waitress, paid and left.
Unaware of his stalker, he strolled down the road past busy shops.
Bakers, butchers, newsagents, baby-wear, fashions, pubs, coffee shops, the place bustled. People walked, talked and stood, passing the time of day. A child squealed with energetic happiness. A dog barked. The watcher communicated.
* * *
Steeped in ‘the Cause’ from early childhood, O’Reilly didn’t question the rationale for murder. Today would be his fifth street killing. He trailed the man with caution, studying shop windows, reading postcard advertisements, blending in. Cloud shadows dashed up the road.
His quarry crossed the thoroughfare, the photo a good likeness. An enticing scent of coffee and baking bread wafted from a nearby tearoom. Inside convivial people sat round busy tables, the air buzzing with conversation.
In a brown stone Post Office the target bought a birthday card, watched all the while by the killer.
* * *
Back on the pavement a frisson of uneasiness seeped into the mark’s stomach. Battle-hardened experience taught him to trust his intuition. He cast a professional eye over the bustling people. Nothing.
A bird flew into a window. Bang. He flinched, gathered pace abruptly, and veered across the road into a public toilet. [more after cover]
* * *
Nearby, the executioner waited, patient and ready. He couldn’t kill the soldier in the pisser, not with publicity one of the goals. Tension-fuelled humour rippled in his gut.
* * *
In a lavatory stall, air cut by a sharp scent of bleach, the target pulled out a Browning Hi Power. He jacked a round into the chamber and eased the safety-catch off.
He stepped from the cubicle, ready. Empty space. He made a quizzical face at the mirror, eased the gun back into his holster and headed for the door. The urinals hissed to chase him away. No evidence, no clues, only inkling. Probably nothing, but he trusted his inner voice.
* * *
Across the way, the assassin appeared to scratch his back, touching the grip of a concealed pistol. He didn’t care about the impact of his action on bystanders. Nightmares and trauma lay beyond his concern and taking someone out in public made for an exciting mission.
He visualised the kill: up behind the victim, barrel close to the bump at the base of the skull, the shot, the drop of the body, the coup de grâce … and a swift exit.
Imagining the escape, and excited camaraderie with the driver, gave the killer a fantastic rush. Tension became tense elation as the final trigger-pull neared. Another notch on the gun.
He looked forward to the pub, in a few hours. A quiet meeting of recognition with the commander. Glowing eyes and handshakes. The powerful affirmation, adulation and whispered congratulations. Knowing glances and nods.
He dissociated murder from the rest of his life, without doubt, a loving family man.
The target reappeared, walking among the shoppers. His wide-shouldered, lean frame, casual dress – jeans, a country shirt, tweed jacket and Chelsea boots – blended in. Easy movement suggested strength and lithe athleticism. Curling dark brown hair blew about, ruffled by fingers of breeze. The sun brightened the world for a few seconds, only to hide once more behind surging clouds.
* * *
O’Reilly left a shop window and followed walking briskly behind his quarry. Twenty metres, fifteen, ten … The adrenaline flowed, yet his breathing stayed measured and movements precise. A car door slammed. Bus brakes squealed and hissed. Neither diverted his focus as he closed behind his victim.
He raised his pistol. The sun came out. His toe stubbed on an uneven pavement slab deflecting his aim and affecting his balance. Worse, his silhouette betrayed him as it strode abreast of the mark.
At an instinctive, professional level the prey understood the silhouette’s hand movement. The target faced the inevitable. Honed instincts and training meant reaction, no thought required. He wheeled clockwise, flowing into a balanced crouch. His forearms crossed, left hand dragging the jacket away from his body, right drawing the gun. Pure reflex.
The assassin grunted, recovering from the stumble. The brief disruption of his killing move meant nothing, but for his shadow walking beside an alert, responsive victim.
The end-game began.
* * *
The target completed his turn, gun raised, and, less than a metre away fired twice into his attacker’s chest. He flinched at a near-simultaneous report from the falling assassin’s weapon as the round passed his shoulder, on a downwards trajectory.
The bullet punched into the thigh of a nearby shopper. Her leg jerked away from the strike like a slapped face. Twisting from the impact, she let out a sharp scream and collapsed, like a rag doll, on to her shopping bags. Her chin crunched on the slabbed surface. Blood sprayed from her injury.
The would-be killer crumpled backwards in a slow motion of shock, and flopped on concrete hardness. The back of his head cracked like a pool ball as it hit a paving slab. The woman moaned, a deep guttural sound.
Silence reigned as a collective in-breath froze the world. Screams exploded from a multitude of lungs in wordless howls of terror. People recoiled and rushed from the event in a human starburst of panic, faces distorted by fear.
The hardened street warrior of moments ago gurgled and mouthed words in splutters of gore. He tried to lift his gun. The target stood on his wrist, disarmed him and tucked the weapon into his left armpit. Nearby, the wounded woman, white with shock, made a final breathless moan and lost consciousness.
Vigilant next to the assassin, the survivor completed a three-sixty observation, high and low. He saw the get-away car drive off, a yellow Ford Escort.
He gazed into his prospective killer’s eyes and shook his head. The man spoke. His intended victim, crouched and watchful, listened to a liquid voice, wet with blood.
‘Did it for the Cause … you Brit bastard … nearly had you.’ Thick tones of Belfast. The target continued his surveillance, watchful and cool. In the distance, sirens wailed and came closer.
He turned to the people tending the woman. ‘How is she?’
A man kneeling beside her spoke, his pale calm masking distress. ‘She needs an ambulance and fast. It’s an arterial wound. I’ve slowed the bleedin’. She’s well gone with shock.’
Someone approached. The Brit bastard’s Browning came up.
* * *
A hard-faced citizen stopped, open hands out from his sides like “The Angel of the North”. His RUC warrant card in plain sight, identified him as Peter J. Molloy.
‘I’ll cover you.’
‘You’re a lucky man. I spotted the move. Too far away. Couldn’t do a thing. I thought you were dead. You’re quick.’
The target took a deep breath, now shaking slightly with reaction. He studied the fading man. ‘He wants to talk.’
‘Got you.’ Molloy pulled out his sidearm and kept watch, his eyes dancing through their own observation routine.
* * *
To the right, a military vehicle drew to an abrupt, controlled halt. Young paratroopers jumped out, weapons ready, movements brisk. They covered the survivor who, with great care, raised his hands to shoulder height, pistol hanging from a finger. O’Reilly’s gun remained under his arm. Molloy mirrored his manoeuvre.
One soldier dashed over to tend to the downed civilian, first-aid kit in hand. His mates covered him. With the possibility of a sniper ever-present, the paramedic risked his life. Police cars, security vehicles and ambulance sirens squalled ever closer, echoing like seagulls near a cliff.
A young trooper came over, quick and watchful.
The target said, ‘I’m military.’ The soldier took his automatic and requested identification. He dragged his ID from a zipped inside pocket with exaggerated slowness. At his feet the wounded man groaned. Sam pointed at O’Reilly’s handgun in his armpit. ‘This weapon is evidence and needs to be bagged. I touched it when I disarmed him.’
‘Thank you, sir.’ The solider returned his Browning before taking Molloy’s pistol, examining his ID and returning both.
‘Good shooting.’ He smiled. ‘I’ll get a bag.’
He returned to his comrades and spoke. They glanced over and nodded acknowledgement, still vigilant, always alert.
Other vehicles arrived. Nearby, two squads of troopers followed a coordinated pattern of intricate moves, devised by military choreographers. They progressed along the street with sharp focus. Weapons pointed, tracked, covered, as the unit performed an active surveillance quickstep.
The soldier returned and collected O’Reilly’s weapon. He handled the pistol with a gloved hand, put it in the bag with great care and went back to the vehicle.
* * *
Sam Duncan knelt watching an ice-cold assassin metamorphose into terrified young man, the aggressive alter-ego now gone for ever. O’Reilly held out a wavering hand to his killer. The victor held the bloody fingers and watched a dying man’s face crumple as tears welled.
‘My lads. My wee boys … aw Christ, I love …’ He inhaled a weak, jerking breath, ‘I love …’ he retched and shuddered. ‘Tell ’em an’ their mother I loved ’em …’
Duncan nodded his assent to a frothing rasp. ‘I’ll do that.’
With a faint ‘ta,’ the hitman’s eyes stilled and lost focus. His mouth stayed open – white uneven teeth spattered with bloody stains. Splashes of blood clustered and congealed round his nose and down his cheeks. Blood and urine oozed towards the gutter. The stench of voided bowels seeped into the sunny air.
* * *
Sam watched the young priest rush over, wide-eyed. He fell to his knees by the gurgling man, and launched into the last rites. O’Reilly didn’t acknowledge his spiritual helper, shaking and twitching, heels drumming a final jig to a soundless tune as his soul departed.
The pastor bellowed at the killer kneeling beside him. ‘You killed him! You shot him!’
Duncan contemplated him, nothing to say. He rose to move away.
The priest jumped up and lunged. ‘Look at me!’ He grabbed the woollen lapels of Sam’s jacket.
With a metallic rustle, attentive assault rifles pointed in the general direction of an enraged cleric. ‘You bloody murderer.’ The words spat out in a spray of angry spittle.
He broke the cleric’s grip with expert, almost gentle, ease. ‘Calm down, Father,’ Sam said. The pastor still glared at him. ‘It’s awful,’ the clear Scottish brogue almost a whisper. ‘I’m sad. His kids’ll miss him.’ Sam’s face twitched with emotion. The priest’s demeanour softened.
A police car arrived. A brief conversation between officers and soldiers ended when a trooper pointed at Sam. A gigantic uniformed RUC sergeant came over, both reassuring and fearsome. He said there’d be a forensic analysis of O’Reilly’s bagged weapon and he expected it to be untraceable. ‘But,’ he shrugged, ‘you never know. The good news is there’s one more of those murderous fuckers off the street. Well done you.’
Sam Duncan half-smiled and nodded, not a time for moralising. He gazed at the priest: black coat, black suit, black shirt and white dog collar, skinny as a rag doll, and vibrating with nervous energy. His weapon still hung from his hand. He sighed and holstered it.
A closing siren bawled out the arrival of an ambulance for the injured woman.
O’Reilly’s body stiffened, ignored for the moment.
* * *
‘Did you hear what the sergeant said, Father?’
‘Yes. He took a pistol for forensic analysis.’
‘Right, Father, the gun that shot the shopper. He missed me and hit her.’ The priest assumed a sadder, circumspect posture. ‘You’d rather have given me the last rites, wouldn’t you?’ He managed to swallow intemperate words. ‘What would you say to him if it was me lying there?’
The pastor glanced down, unsure. His posture became conciliatory. ‘Sorry. My name’s Haughey, Brendan Haughey. You?’
‘Sam, we’ve both seen a horror today,’ he gestured at O’Reilly’s corpse, ‘I’ve buried a few of these.’ His eyes closed. He sighed and shook his head, ‘I’ve never heard the shots before, nor the screaming of terrified people, nor shriven a man dying from gunfire. Poor woman, imagine: one moment shopping, the next near death. As God’s my judge, I’m shocked.’ A pale face regarded Duncan, ‘It’s the situation, not you. I apologize for what I said.’ His soft Southern Irish voice a faint whisper.
* * *
The crime-scene officers asked Sam and Father Haughey to move away and started their routine forensic work: photography, measurement and the erection of a tent to preserve evidence. The body remained for examination and later removal. By the end of the afternoon the street would be pristine.
Molloy, Sam’s erstwhile guardian, nodded and moved away.
* * *
‘Come on, Father … Brendan. Best get cleaned up.’ The cleric gawked at his hands, aware of the congealing and dried blood on them for the first time. He turned ashen, his mouth opened and he bent forward, tendrils of saliva emerged in liquid strands over his lips.
Sam leapt to the side as the padre vomited and, once empty, retched several times with a hollow echo. Sam walked over to two paratroopers standing alert-eyed nearby. ‘Are you hanging around for a bit?’
‘Yes, sir, covering the Fuzz as they tidy up and talk to the locals.’
Sam inclined his head towards the priest. ‘I’m going to buy his holiness a drink and settle him down. He needs to clean up. Please don’t leave without giving me a shout.’
‘No problem, sir.’
‘Anything left?’ Sam said.
‘Don’t think so.’ Fr Haughey swallowed with a slight shudder.
‘Come on. Let’s nip into the pub.’ Sam took the priest’s elbow and led him to a bar not twenty paces away. Following the toilet-block aroma they found the gents at the back. A thin slice of cracked medicated soap foamed up as the priest scrubbed his hands. He finished by rinsing his face in icy water. There were rough paper towels to dry with.
Clean-up completed they returned to the bar walking past old wood and etched glass, bright displays of shelved glasses and gantried bottles. A single shiny brass tap offered a dribble of cold water.
‘Two large Blackbush, please.’
‘You do the shootin’?’ the landlord said, a ruddy-faced man with a white shirt, grey pullover and dark trousers straining to contain a significant belly. A foxtail of greying red hair balanced in a precarious crescent on his bald head.
‘Nice one. Another terrorist animal gone. A good day’s work.’ His tone offered respect to Sam. He turned and glared at the priest, and continued with a snarl. ‘You don’t belong here.’
‘He does today.’ Sam spoke at first in quiet anger and, emotions catching up with him, erupted with rage. ‘Get the whiskeys up NOW. NOW! Or I’m going to come round there AND SERVE MY BLOODY SELF!’
‘I don’t have to serve anyone I don’t want to.’ The objection ended as Sam grabbed the barman’s sweater dragged him halfway over the bar, feet off the floor. A lemonade bottle wobbled and fell, to smash foaming on the stone flags, jagged shards protruding like sharks teeth. Sam’s and the landlord’s faces grimaced less than six inches apart.
‘Hold on there, easy, EASY.’ The bartender held up shaking hands in placation, ‘I didn’t say I wouldn’t serve him.’ His face reddened to match his hair, now dislodged and slipping forwards into a parody of a smile a couple of inches above his eyebrows.
The door burst open. A para stepped in while another faced outwards scanning the street. ‘Trouble sir?’
‘Trouble barman?’ Sam released the publican.
‘No trouble.’ He pulled his clothes straight. ‘Two large coming up.’ He managed a twitching rictus of a grin and lifted two glasses with trembling hands. ‘These’ll be on the house gentlemen.’ He spoke to the wall with a nervous tremor as he poured the whiskey. ‘On the house.’
‘Thanks.’ Sam turned to the soldiers. ‘No trouble.’ The paratrooper gave the barman a hard stare and left.
Sam took the drinks to the table. ‘Let’s drink these quickly. There may be some nutters about,’ he nodded towards the bar and rolled his eyes, ‘if our friend here is anything to go by. Cheers.’ He drank about half the glass. ‘What are you doing in the area?’
‘I have friends nearby. A Protestant minister, would you believe? I was up the street and heard the shots.’
Sam replayed the shooting in his mind. ‘I promised to tell his kids and wife he loved them Father. Will you help me?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘You asked me a question: how do I feel? Whatever it is, I don’t feel guilt. He came for me and lost. Far as I’m concerned, it’s good to be alive. Idiots like mine-host bother me.’ He bobbed his head sideways towards the bar. ‘It’s people like him, and their stupid, blind prejudices, who’re responsible for a lot of this horror. I’ve seen much more of it than I care to remember.’
Five minutes later, they left the pub, exchanged contact information, shook hands, and moved on.
The CO, Ben Charlton, glared. ‘What nonsense is this, Sam?’
‘Promise to a dead man, sir.’
‘It’ll close it for me, sir,’ his head shook gently, he sighed. They made strong eye contact.
‘I can’t approve it …’ The silence deepened. A big sigh, ‘I see no ships.’
‘For what? Major, this conversation never happened.’ Sam nodded and walked out.
* * *
‘Mrs O’Reilly?’ They stood on the doorstep.
‘Father Haughey.’ The woman’s voice, quiet and withdrawn, yet rich in the tones and inflections of Belfast. She looked beyond him, reddened eyes gazing at her husband’s killer. She swallowed. ‘You’d best come in.’
‘Thank you.’ Sam said.
They passed a small statue of the Madonna, heart glowing with hands open to embrace humanity, the first door on the left was the lounge. An older woman sat, stiff, in an upright beige armchair. Opposite her, three young boys squirmed, restless, squeezed into a two seater settee.
‘Can I offer you some tea?’ The priest shook his head.
‘No thank you, Mrs O’Reilly.’ Sam stood with respect as she sat on an upright chair beside her sons. The boys gazed at the floor. ‘I’ll stand if you don’t mind. Forgive me for this intrusion into your grief.’
‘You promised him.’ Her eyes flitted between him and the Father. The mother’s face set in stone.
A swift nod of the head, ‘I did.’
‘He spoke to you?’
‘Yes.’ Sam nodded again. He saw the blood, heard the racking coughs of the dying man and, nearby, the stark shock of a woman sprawled on her shopping. ‘His last thoughts were for you and the boys.’
The widow started to sob, joined by the two youngest sons who rushed to her and hugged hard. The eldest boy glared at him. Her own mother stared, both angry and bemused. The silence settled like a blanket of icy dew on a misty morning.
‘I think, Major, you might want to keep your promise, and then we’ll be on our way.’ Three of the five people studied him.
‘Right, Father.’ He caught their eyes, each in turn. ‘He wanted me to tell you he loved you and how much he’d miss you.’
While Mrs O’Reilly groaned and sobbed her eldest boy spoke out. ‘Why did you kill him, why?’
‘You murdered him. Just another Fenian to you.’
‘Padraig!’ His mother hissed. Sam stood for a moment.
‘Uncle Charlie told me.’ The nine year old’s voice quivered as he gave Sam an icy stare. ‘You’ll pay.’
‘I’m sorry your dad is dead. I didn’t even know he was there until he tried to kill me.’
‘He did it for the Cause.’
‘The Cause?’ Sam’s eyes connected with a bright stare and generations of propaganda. ‘I won’t argue with you Padraig.’ He halted for a moment and stroked his upper lip. ‘He came to kill me. I should be dead.’
‘You murdered him.’
‘No, I defended myself.’ The priest made to speak. Sam raised a hand. ‘There’s only one difference today. It’s you and your family weeping, instead of mine. But I am sad.’
The boy broke eye contact, sobbed and went to his mother wiping his eyes on his sleeve.
‘We’re done here.’ Father Haughey nodded towards the exit.
‘I’m truly sorry. Mrs O’Reilly.’ A bob to the widow, ‘Ma’am.’ A bob to her mother. He followed the priest. On the way to the door Sam released a long, slow sigh.
The door opened and they faced three men in black balaclavas, two of whom held weapons.
‘Didn’t think ye’d come down here and walk away, now, did ye?’ Cocky bastard.
The priest stayed in front of Sam. ‘He did the honourable thing lads.’
‘You won’t be harmed, Father. Please stand aside.’
‘I won’t. You can’t murder him in front of the family.’
‘We’ll take him away.’
‘And you’ll murder him. He’ll be as dead as Orin O’Reilly.’
‘This is war, not murder, Father. Now stand aside.’
‘No. I can’t. I promised him safe passage.’
‘More fool you, if you don’t mind me sayin’ Father.’
The speaker gestured to one of his men. ‘Take the Father away.’
* * *
Sam raised his hands. ‘I’m covered, boys.’
‘No, you were covered, sunshine. They’re gone. Other pressing work, you understand.’
‘No, now pay attention. I’m covered. And we don’t want more blood on the streets, do we?’ One of the men in a balaclava chopped the man beside him below the ear with his pistol. He dropped like a sack of potatoes. ‘He’ll live. Now the question is, do you want to?’
‘No idea. Drop your weapon,’ Sam said, the IRA warrior tensed. ‘Drop the gun, or else—’ Sam shrugged. The man started to raise his pistol. The fighter, who had clobbered his mate, moved with fluid speed. He gripped the gunman’s wrist, levering and twisting with economy, power and precision. The popping of tendons and bone echoed, audible on the street. The would-be killer shrieked and continued moaning with a cable tie tight above his elbows. Next, they secured the unconscious man.
‘Will you arrest them?’ The priest said.
‘No. There’s been enough trouble already.’
‘I’ll attend to them.’ The priest said.
‘You do that. I’ve got to go.’ Sam turned and gazed straight into Padraig O’Reilly’s scowling young face. Angry eyes, hard as stone, held his for a moment. He walked away. His colleague in the balaclava went with him. A blue Ford Sierra pulled up. Sam entered the front, and his minder, the rear. They left at a gentle pace and rounded the corner.
After half a mile, the balaclava came off.
Sam half-turned. ‘Nice one, Tonka.’
‘Told you I’d have you covered.’ The West Midland accent as always: calm, quiet, and unhurried. No smile, all business.
‘—and me thinking it’d be more of a wham-bam.’
‘If your poncy English pal, here, had listened to me there’d have been a couple less of these fuckin’ bastards in the wild.’ Fuss Cathel shared a broad Glasgow reaction.
‘Thanks for driving, Fuss.’ Sam said. Fuss grunted and glowered his attention at the road.
Tonka tapped his shoulder. ‘Someone pulled the cover team.’
‘Dunno. Usual incompetence. Some idiot brass hat somewhere.’
‘You including me?’ Sam chuckled.
‘The fuckin’ cap fits.’ Fuss couldn’t keep the smile out of his voice. ‘You fuckin’ Ruperts are a’ the same. Goin’ to visit a grievin’ terrorist family … What’re you like?’
‘Safe with Tonks here, and you at the wheel, sweet-cheeks.’
‘I thought we’d seen the last of each other, Mr Molloy,’ Sam said. Their meeting room well inside the barracks.
‘Some routine questions to assist with our enquiries into the O’Reilly killing.’ Peter Molloy shared a weary face.
‘I think you saw more of it than me,’ Sam said.
Sam smiled, ‘Pete.’ Molloy stayed serious.
‘You know Sean James and Brendan Docherty?’
‘Of course, I’ve been working with them.’
‘On corruption and bank robberies.’
‘You’re well informed, Pete.’
‘This is our wash-up, you’re out of here, I need information.’ Pete’s eyes probed. ‘Is there any reason you can think of why O’Reilly would be tasked to kill you?’
‘We’re getting warm with our investigation. Some patterns and timeline stuff, you know.’ Sam said. ‘Sean and Bren can update you.’
‘Of course they can, but what do you think?’
‘I would say we’ll know much more in the next couple of weeks. I’m sad I won’t be here.’
‘We have to stay.’ Molloy said.
‘Given a choice I’d stay and bottom the investigation. Those two are great investigators, I’ve learned lots. We had an encouraging debrief this morning. There’s no foreknowledge of O’Reilly, although he seems to have been something of a killer.’
‘Yes always suspected, never indicted.’
‘You sound cynical, Pete.’
Molloy shared a lopsided smile. ‘Corruption and criminality lubricate forgetfulness.’
‘Sorry I can’t help more.’ Sam’s soft Scottish brogue fitted well with his next words. ‘Fancy a dram?’
Molloy sighed and stretched. ‘Why not.’
Sam walked over to his kit and pulled out a bottle of Talisker malt whisky. He picked up two plastic cups from a tray, added two fingers from the Isle of Skye’s finest to each, handing one over. ‘Wrap your laughing gear round that.’ Molloy smiled and saluted with his flimsy container.
They sipped for a moment in silence. ‘I’ve an uncomfortable feeling about this, Sam. You should be dead.’
‘I’m glad to be alive.’
‘I don’t mean that. What if O’Reilly dropped a ball, and it’s still bouncing?’ He held Sam’s eyes. ‘What happens next?’
‘I’m out of here in a little over an hour, reassigned for my own safety.’
‘You know. A place where they only want to kill me, but without the extreme personal prejudice.’
‘You know where?’
‘A week off and then they’ll tell me.’ Two weeks later Sam Duncan arrived in Bosnia.
© Mac Logan – Angels Cut