Ballybeg, County Cork
SERGEANT SEÁN MACKEY weighed the weapon of mass destruction in one gloved hand and surveyed the scene of the crime. “Let me get this straight. Armed with an air rifle and a bottle of Jameson, you shot a bird through your closed living room window? While naked?”
Seán’s Uncle John-Joe, aka the Swimming Elvis, hiccupped, swayed, and groped for the mantelpiece. He was clad in tight swimming trunks and a grubby wifebeater, his graying Elvis quiff limp and screaming for shampoo. John-Joe was none too clean, none too sober, and none too cooperative. At least he was no longer in his birthday suit. “Bit of a mess, eh?” he said after another hiccup.
“Bit of a mess” was an understatement. On the other side of the broken window, feathers, pellets, and broken glass lay strewn across the patio of the Fitzgeralds’ tiny garden. Some joker had drawn an outline of a robin redbreast in the snow, CSI-style.
Seán rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. Jaysus. He needed a Dublin transfer pronto, preferably to vice. He’d take prostitutes and drug dealers over outlaw relatives any day. “How did you get your paws on a high-end air rifle?” he asked in the tone he usually reserved for recalcitrant rookies and crooks. “I didn’t have you pegged as a small-game hunter.”
The older man’s tongue darted between his lips, reptilelike. His beady eyes swiveled toward his wife.
Aunt Nora was kneeling on the living room carpet, surrounded by broken glass and pulverized porcelain. Firing the air rifle at close range against the hard, flat surface of the window had caused glass to shatter and pellets to ricochet. All but one of her beloved knickknacks had been blown to smithereens—the statuette of the Virgin Mary remained intact, her expression serene amidst the chaos. Seán’s mouth twitched at the incongruity.
“My Dalmatians,” she moaned, clutching a severed porcelain head to her fluffy peach bathrobe. Although her impossibly black hair was still in curlers, Nora wore full war paint. When they were kids, he and his brother, Dex, had speculated their aunt must either reapply her makeup before going to bed or wake up at an ungodly hour to ensure she looked her best.
Instinct drove Seán to touch her shoulder. Experience made him recoil. For a millisecond, he was hurtled back twenty-five years to happier times. The nostalgic taste of his aunt’s apple tart, the sugary smell of his tenth birthday party, and the sweet sight of his mother’s smile. His mother… A dull ache of grief settled between his shoulder blades, erasing the happy memories in an instant. He flexed his spine, shrugging off the past. He had no time for sentimentality. “Nora, where did John-Joe get the gun?”
His aunt placed the broken china dog on the carpet and pushed herself to her feet. “From that fool, Buck MacCarthy,” she said through pursed scarlet lips.
Seán knew Buck. He was a fisherman with more hair than sense. Which, in Buck’s case, wasn’t saying much. “Why does Buck need an air rifle?”
John-Joe shrugged, his tongue poking a bulge in one cheek. “How should I know?”
“What did the bird do to warrant you firing several shots at it and turning your living room into a disaster zone?”
“It was plaguing me. Kept banging against the window and causing a racket.”
“So you decided to shoot it?” Seán’s eyebrow arched north. “Bit extreme, don’t you think?”
His uncle’s scowl created a unibrow. “Not right away. Not till it flew inside and shat all over my costume.” He pointed toward the rhinestoned monstrosity slung over the sofa.
Seán squinted. Like its owner, the costume had seen better decades. It was white—or had been in a previous life—with fraying cuffs and a velvet trim. Its appeal was not enhanced by bird excrement.
“Times are hard.” The older man’s shoulders sagged the slump of defeat. “ I had a gig, see. First one in months.”
“The Elvis impersonation business slow in West Cork?” Seán asked, deadpan. A nation in the depths of recession was unlikely to have much call for professional performers at private parties, let alone a sexagenarian gyrating in Speedos.
His uncle’s mouth formed a petulant pout. “No money to pay the mortgage ain’t no joking matter. I got a wife to support.”
“You wouldn’t be financing the mortgage by taking on a few side jobs of, shall we say, dubious legality?”
“Eh?” John-Joe danced a nervous jig on the thread-worn carpet, like a toddler fighting the urge to pee. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Someone has been shooting out tires at the Travellers’ caravan site,” he said with icy casualness. “With an air rifle.” He took a step closer to his uncle. “Don’t suppose you know anything about that?”
John-Joe appeared to shrink inside his swimming trunks. “I don’t have anything to do with the Tinkers.”
“Travellers,” Seán corrected, “or Pavee. Gypsies, if you must.”
The man’s nose wrinkled. “I don’t go in for politically correct shite. They’re Tinkers to me.”
He took another step closer to the man who’d once been his favorite uncle. “Has your un-PC self been taking potshots at their caravan tires?”
John-Joe’s head gave an uncertain shake.
“In that case, I’ll be having a word with Buck.”
The man’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “So… we done here?”
He gave him a tight smile. “No, we are not done. I’m charging you with possessing a firearm without a license, discharging said firearm in a residential area, and for generally being a blight on society.”
John-Joe’s jaw slackened. “You can’t do that!”
“Not the last part,” Seán said with regret, “but the rest I can.”
“Air rifles are legal. Have been since… since… they changed the law.”
“Since 2006, air rifles with a muzzle energy less than one joule don’t require a license.” He placed the bagged-and-tagged weapon by the sofa. “This air rifle exceeds the limit. Even if it didn’t, you’re only allowed to fire them in designated areas. Newsflash, John-Joe: that excludes your living room.”
“How was I supposed to know?” John-Joe’s voice rose in a panicked whine. “Buck said he bought it off the Internet.”
“I’ll be asking Buck about that when I invite him to join you at Ballybeg Garda Station for a lecture on the Firearms Act.”
John-Joe’s feet stopped their nervous shuffle. “Down the station? Do I have to?”
“Yes, you do.” His voice held a note of steel. When he’d been disgraced, demoted, and sent to rusticate in a country police station, Seán had been determined to keep his distance from his estranged family. Within days of moving back to Ballybeg, his uncle’s propensity for petty crime had scuttled that plan. “I’ll need a statement from you, too, Nora,” he said in a gentler tone.
His aunt glared at her husband, cheeks quivering. “You blaggard. Because of your tomfoolery, I’ll be hauled off in handcuffs.”
“Don’t be daft,” Seán said with a touch of impatience. “All I need is a statement. You’re not being charged with anything.”
“Handcuffs!” Nora screeched as if she hadn’t heard a word he’d said. “What will the neighbors say? I’ll never live this down.”
John-Joe was clearly at the end of his hungover tether. “Ah, would you ever quit your moaning, woman? Only peace I get is when you’re at mass.”
Nora’s hands fluttered to her forehead, and then to her chest, in a subconscious sign of the cross. Her gaze flickered toward the swimming trophies on the mantelpiece, souvenirs of John-Joe’s days as a champion swimmer.
Seán regarded the trophies with a pang of regret. Hard to believe his uncle had once been the town hero, before his drunken antics and Swimming Elvis act had turned him into the town joke. “Stop arguing. Let’s go and get this over with. If John-Joe cooperates, you’ll both be home by noon.”
If Seán’s hunch was right—and they usually were—he finally had a lead on their mystery shooter. He gave a mental fist pump. This was the part of the job he loved. If he solved the case quickly, his Dublin transfer was in the bag, but he hoped to goodness the culprit didn’t turn out to be someone close to his uncle. John-Joe had neither the patience nor the brains to carry out a stealthy operation over a period of months, but one of his regular partners in crime might.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted movement. Before he could react, Nora grabbed a swimming trophy from the mantelpiece and chucked it at her husband, hitting him square in the beer belly.
“Ow,” Joe-Joe roared. “Have you lost your mind, woman?”
“Yes,” she screamed, tears of anger running down her face in mascara-tinged rivulets. “I lost it the day I was stupid enough to marry you.”
Ouch. Seán placed a steadying hand on his aunt’s arm, but she wrenched it free, hysterical by this point, cursing and flapping and whacking John-Joe with whatever missile came to hand.
“For crying out loud, Nora.”
She ignored him, moving down the row of trophies with impressive speed.
Patience had never been Seán’s strong suit, and the little he possessed had run dry. “That’s it,” he snapped. “I’m cuffing the pair of you.”
After a short struggle, during which John-Joe’s undershirt developed another rip, he managed to slap handcuffs on his aunt’s and uncle’s wrists. “You have no one to blame but yourself, Nora. I told you I only wanted a signed statement from you.”
He dragged one air rifle and two protesting relatives down the hallway and out the front door. On the way, he grabbed a Mack for John-Joe and chucked it over his shoulders. The combination of tight swim trunks, wifebeater, and raincoat made the man look like a flasher. Sweat beaded on Seán’s forehead. Jaysus. What a start to my day.
A crowd had gathered by the gate of the Fitzgeralds’ two-up two-down terraced house. Several pairs of eyes unpeeled Seán’s layers as though he were an onion. Heat burned a path from his scalp to his toes. Too many people in Ballybeg knew his family history. What he wouldn’t trade for blissful anonymity…
Seán pictured the baton in his utility belt. He missed his SIG. He missed Dublin. He missed a lot of things. With a bit of luck, Frank—his former partner—would have news of a place on the vice squad. Their lads’ weekend couldn’t begin soon enough.
A second squad car pulled up behind Seán’s. Garda Brian Glenn climbed out of the vehicle, a beam of delight spread across his freckled face. “Quite a turnout. I haven’t seen a crowd this big since Ben Driscoll held up the post office with a banana.”
“This sort of caper always brings out the curtain-twitchers.” Seán wrestled John-Joe and Nora into the backseat of his squad car.
Before he closed the door, Nora put a hand on his arm. It was warm, solid, familiar. “You don’t have to arrest us,” she said in a beseeching tone. “Please, Johnny.” Her breath floated in ghostlike wisps through the crisp February morning.
He dragged cold air into his lungs, past affection warring with everything that had happened since. Had the maternal look she was giving him not reminded him of what he’d lost, he might have caved. “I ceased to be Johnny twenty-five years ago, Nora.”
He slammed the door. If only shutting out the past was as easy as shutting a car door. Cutting short the question hovering on Brian’s tongue, Seán added, “If that pair of eejits represent domestic bliss, I’m staying single.”
The younger policeman rolled with the deflection and turned his attention to the air rifle. “I’ll lock the gun in my car. There are five registered firearms in Ballybeg, and this isn’t one of them.”
“John-Joe got it from Buck MacCarthy. I’ll haul him in for questioning later. Hopefully, it’s a viable lead on the Travellers case.”
Brian’s grin faded. “Speaking of the Travellers, there’s been a development.”
Seán was instantly on the alert. “Another incident?”
“One of the caravans had its tires blown out with the occupants sitting inside. As you can imagine, they’re none too pleased.”
“That brings the tally to four attacks this month.” Seán frowned. “Hell on wheels, no pun intended. When was this latest attack?”
“Twenty minutes ago.”
He exhaled in a hiss. That put John-Joe in the clear. Was that a disappointment or a relief? He jerked a thumb at his car. “I’ll drive by the Travellers’ site once I’ve dealt with the miscreants.”
“It’s all happening today,” Brian said, waggling his red eyebrows in an exaggerated fashion. “While you’re dealing with drunken Elvises and mystery shooters, I’m on my way to meet our local celebrity with Superintendent O’Riordan.”
He tilted his head. “Local celebrity? I didn’t know we had one.”
“Indeed we do. It’s that ultra-conservative talk show host who used to write a silly advice column for The Tribune.”
Seán’s heart rate kicked up a notch. No, he thought. Please, no. “Not Helen Havelin?” The words came out in a croak.
“Yeah, that’s the one.” Brian rolled back on the balls of his feet and grinned, seemingly oblivious to his partner’s inner turmoil. “She’s the new owner of Clonmore House.”
Seán’s world tilted on its axis. The acrid sting of bile rose in his throat.
Helen Havelin. The woman who’d helped destroy his childhood was living in Ballybeg.
From Love and Shamrocks by Zara Keane, Copyright 2015