Authors: Bartholomew Gill
A Peter McGarr Mystery
(Originally published as McGarr on the Cliffs of Moher)
“I WAS AFTER
having a bit of a gargle, sir. Truth is, I was under the gaff. I thought I’d pull the car in off the road and put the public out of danger. I tried to get in close to the wall. I guess I was worse off than I thought.” He pointed to the left side of the new Jaguar sedan. The paint was torn down the length, showing bright sheet metal below the cream-colored lacquer. The rear fender was crushed.
“Then I felt a need.”
McGarr glanced at the man. The euphemism seemed odd coming from him. He was a Dublin dance hall owner, but McGarr knew better. Barry Hanly was a type—he’d trade in anything that promised a fast profit. He had said he was forty-two. To McGarr, Hanly looked fifty-two. He was fat and pasty. The only chins that he had were unnecessary. Even the expensive three-piece blue suit and cashmere chesterfield coat couldn’t hide the collapse of his upper body. McGarr had grown up with and, later, had had to arrest
dozens of men like Hanly. They had spent so much energy trying to avoid real work they were used up before their time. And Hanly was nervous now, puffing a little as he tried to explain to McGarr how he had come to stumble across the body of a young woman out here in a pasture near the Cliffs of Moher.
She was propped against the other side of the wall, dressed in a stylish full-length leather coat. Her legs were crossed casually. Through her violet-tinted glasses her eyes seemed to be focused on a point distant in the Atlantic. She had four punctures where somebody had jabbed a pitchfork through her upper chest.
“I don’t know what it was,” Hanly continued. “Either me being ‘locked,’ like I told youse, or just being a city boy or what…” He glanced up at Garda Superintendent O’Shaughnessy. The tall Galwayman’s face was impassive, his eyes seemingly disinterested in anything Hanly might say. “Ach—what’s the use? You’d never believe it anyhow. I must have fell over the wall, hit me head on a rock. When I woke up, I was sprawled on her lap.” The right side of his forehead was a large blue bruise with a pink center that was scabbing. “And she as dead as a post.” Hanly turned away from McGarr and O’Shaughnessy and kicked a stone. His feet bulged from loafers made of glove leather. They were Italian, and McGarr had seen them in a Grafton Street shop for thirty-five pounds a pair. “Well—would I have flagged down a car and told the driver to get the Garda if I had killed her?” he implored. “Cripes, I haven’t touched a thing. I know you boys’ll get me out of this one.”
“Here’s what Bernie could dig up on him.” Hughie Ward handed McGarr the facts that had been relayed over the police radio in the Rover. It was parked back on the road to avoid marring the tire impressions in the
soft ground. “All old stuff. One case of aggravated assault, though.”
“In 1957, for God’s sake!” Hanly said. He turned to McGarr. “And it was dismissed. Just some little gouger I had to chuck out of the dance hall. He kept coming back in. I had to settle him.” Hanly’s face, once handsome in a rough way—nose upturned and thick, beard black and heavy, hair wavy—was livid, and he seemed to have a slight case of the shakes.
McGarr knew what it was. Hanly was indeed hung over.
“Take it easy, Barry. May I call you that?” asked McGarr. He took Hanly by the arm and walked him away from O’Shaughnessy.
After several paces, McGarr stopped and removed a small flask of whiskey from the liner pocket of his raincoat. He took a nip himself and handed the bottle to Hanly. “The situation calls for courage, my friend.”
“Ah, thanks, Super. You’re a right man.” Even the sight of the flask cheered Hanly. “I thought I was drowning in a sea of thirst, so I did.”
He took a long pull on the flask, nearly finishing it. When he could speak again, he said, “Remember, now—I owe you one.” The whites of his eyeballs were laced with red veins. His nose was running. “Which reminds me.” He turned from McGarr and peeked over the wall. He had still not handed McGarr back the flask. His pinky finger protruded daintily. On it was a fat gold ring with a red stone. “I could have sworn I had a bottle of Canadian Club in me jacket. I brought it along for companionship, just in case I got lost on the way to the jakes.” He winked.
McGarr motioned to the stile and followed Hanly over it. “What can you tell me about her?” he asked.
“Nothing. Never saw her before, and that’s the God’s honest truth, I swear it, Superintendent.” Hanly then finished the flask as though he believed he wouldn’t get another chance now that the questions had begun anew. “You can check for yourself down in the town.” He meant Lahinch, about five miles away. “If you can trace me movements.” Again he winked at McGarr. The whiskey had hit him fast. McGarr imagined booze generated much of whatever trouble Barry Hanly currently experienced.
In front of them for several hundred yards lay pastures which walls of narrow stones divided. Then, suddenly, the land stopped. It was as though whatever force was responsible for Ireland had become contrary and quit its work of island making peremptorily. The cliffs of black basalt fell six hundred feet into the sea.
As usual, the wind that swept in from the Atlantic seemed to collect below the cliffs and, with a blast that could stagger a man, raged over the bluff and across Ireland. But today the breeze was warm, even hot almost. The ocean was white and glary and shrouded in mist.
McGarr nudged the brim of his straw hat so it would shade his eyes. He turned toward the land. Below him and stretching for miles into the hinterland was a sloping expanse of green meadow tinged yellow now in late July. It had been the hottest and driest summer on record. For the past two weeks it had rained but once, and for an hour only. The tourist industry was ecstatic, the farmers complaining. McGarr could see some of them about a half mile distant. Using pitchforks taller than two men, they were piling sweet dry hay into a large cart. This two draft horses pulled. The field was too rocky for a tractor.
Turning to Hanly, he said, “She looks like a city girl, doesn’t she?”
Hanly cocked his head. “That she does.” He studied the empty flask for a moment, then handed it back to McGarr. “But not Dublin. More like London, by the look of her. She’s too…” He couldn’t find the right word. He looked away.
But McGarr had understood what he meant. She was a bit too totally stylish for an Irish girl. Her platform shoe was just slightly too tall and impractical for walking. One was missing. Her glasses were immense and ludicrous. The lenses alone were the size of McGarr’s palms.
McGarr reached down and removed them. They were heavy, too. Prescription lenses, the sort that shaded in direct sunlight, the frames made in Italy.
McGarr guessed she was thirty or thereabouts. She wasn’t exactly a beauty—her face seemed drawn and not just in death—but her build was ample, legs well shaped. Her hair was black and worn in a windswept fashion that seemed redundant here. Her mouth was just slightly open, as though she was expecting somebody out there in the ocean where her gaze was directed. McGarr could see that her front teeth had been capped. In all, she moved McGarr to pity her—to have tried to be so chic, only to have died in the crotch of a country wall in the West of Ireland by means of an instrument as rude as a pitchfork.
McGarr tried to remove her right hand from the coat pocket. He had to use both hands.
Hanly bent to help him but jumped back when her hand jerked free with an automatic pistol locked in it.
It was a Mauser, a small but powerful gun. This, McGarr could see, was an old one, an antique of sorts. It
went with her other things. McGarr removed it from her grasp and smelled the barrel. It had been fired since its last cleaning, and recently, too. He checked the clip. One bullet was missing. He scanned the area for the shell casing but couldn’t see it.
“Radical chic,” said Ward, who was now standing in back of McGarr waiting to give his boss a hand.
In her other pocket McGarr found a leather case. It contained two passports—Irish and American—a driver’s license issued by the state of New York, and $27,000 in American currency. The bills were large—five $5,000 and two $1,000 notes—but so new and thin they fit into a back pocket of the case. McGarr found them only after having rummaged through everything else.
When Hanly realized what they were, he staggered a bit.
“You certainly picked a pillow for your head, Mr. Hanly,” Ward said.
McGarr handed him the driver’s license. It read May Quirk, 638 West 71st Street, New York, N.Y. The American passport gave a different Manhattan address, and the Irish passport said she was born and still lived as of December 29, 1967, in Lahinch.
McGarr turned and motioned to Dan O’Malley, the Lahinch Garda superintendent. An older man, O’Malley carefully negotiated the stile. McGarr showed him the Irish passport. “Do you know the family?”
At first O’Malley didn’t say a word, only squinted into the dim photograph of a considerably younger person, no more than a girl. He held it at different distances from his eyes, turning it until he got the page in focus. He then read the name aloud. “Quirk. Quirk.” His eyes suddenly cleared and his mouth dropped
open. “Oh—God, no. It can’t be.” He glanced down at the dead woman. “But it is. It’s John and Aggie Quirk’s only child. May, she was. Went to the States about ten years ago and only just returned for a visit. They hired a cab, too, you know, to fetch her from Shannon. They’d been living alone since she left.” He looked down at the passport again and then back at May Quirk. He closed the little green book and handed it to McGarr. He looked beyond the pastures, toward the sea, as though following her gaze. “I think I’ll retire. They give you the option now, you know.”
McGarr well knew. It had been he who had convinced the commissioner of police that the early retirement of senior-most Garda officers would free up many of the higher-paying posts to younger men whom police work still regaled.
“I’ve seen too much—” O’Malley’s voice broke. “—tragedy in my time. And now this. I grew up with her father and mother. We went to school together. They weren’t married until late, you know. He had to wait for the farm. I went to their wedding. And her—” He pointed to the dead woman. “—christening. And even to the party they threw before she left for the States. They didn’t want her to emigrate, you see. Thought something might happen to her over there in the concrete jungle. And then to have this happen to her here, after she went and became a lovely worldly woman and all.” He shook his head. “I’m sick of it. How can I tell her folks.” In no way did his face, which was shaved so close it shone, betray the emotion he was expressing. His eyes were very blue and clear. His Garda uniform fit him snug, but McGarr noticed, as O’Malley turned and walked back toward the stile, he had the step of a tired man.
McGarr called to his back, “Don’t worry about that, Superintendent. I’ll tell them, if you prefer.”
O’Malley shook his head. “That’s my job, thanking you just the same, Peter.” He paused at the top of the wall. “And then tomorrow, I’ll be after sending you my badge and so forth, if you don’t mind.”
“Why don’t you take some time and think about it first, Danny,” said McGarr.
“Cripes, I’ve had fifty years to think about it. Enough is enough.”
O’Shaughnessy offered the old superintendent his hand and helped him down the other side of the wall.
O’Malley said, “It’s high time I left the job to a younger man. New blood and all that.”
McGarr turned to Hanly. “You know, Barry, I’m half tempted to believe your story, wild as it is. You can’t fake a hangover the way you’re doing now, but how in the name of hell you managed to pass out in a dead woman’s lap with a ten-thousand-quid pillow for your head is something that requires a definite explanation.
“Now then, did you meet her in Lahinch, and did she then agree to accompany you up here?”
“No. At least I don’t think so, Super. Like I told youse before.” He turned to O’Shaughnessy and Ward as though pleading with them. “I was under the gaff. Jarred, I was. And I don’t rightly remember much of anything. And that’s the long and short of it, I swear.” He passed a hand over his face, which was greasy. He needed more whiskey. “That happens to me sometimes. Once I woke up in Belfast, another time in a motel outside Manchester. I guess I’ve got the failing,
I do remember most of last night—I think!—and I can tell you I never saw this girl before this morning. Hon
est. I’ll swear to it.” His bloated face was running with sweat now.
“But how did your head come to rest on her lap?” Ward asked.
Hanly just looked at him and blinked. His eyes were bulging and McGarr could almost feel the pain throbbing behind them.
The wind off the cliffs had increased now and wailed through the chinks in the pasture walls, sounding to McGarr like the keening of women at wakes.
Finally Hanly said, “I remember Lahinch. I stopped in two—no, three bars. All of them right there in the middle of town. In the last I bought the C. C.”
“Why C. C.?” O’Shaughnessy asked. It wasn’t something a person with Hanly’s background would usually order.
“I don’t know. A whim, I suspect. Maybe I was just putting on the dog for all the locals. You know—big car, the expensive clothes. I get to playing the fool when—” He broke off and passed his tongue over his upper lip, which was parched. He then pulled off the heavy coat. The light, tan cashmere was soiled and matted where he had slept on it.
“What do you usually drink?” asked Ward.
“Anything with a punch in it, but I think I might have ordered Scotch first. Just by way of getting a rise out of the barman, you know.”
In his mind’s eye McGarr could see the drunken Hanly bashing the wall with the Jaguar, then getting out to relieve himself. The wall proved too much for him, though, and he conked his sconce. He staggered up and, seeing May Quirk sitting against the wall, went to her for solace or companionship or whatever. The
moment he got his head on her lap, he passed out. All this hinged upon Hanly’s having told them the truth, that is, and May Quirk’s being dead at the time. Where, then, was Hanly’s bottle of whiskey? For a man of Hanly’s preoccupations, that would be the one thing he’d remember. He probably hit his head while protecting the bottle as he fell.