The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep Page 11

“I’ll leave the house.”

“And go where? In Limerick City they say that more are coming over from Dublin, and detectives from Cork as well. Go to your room and stay quiet. They’ll be on us in five minutes, but if you’re in your room they’ll never find you.”

I grabbed up my letters and snatched up the sweater I had been wearing. I opened the panel, scurried up the rope ladder, and drew it up after me. Tom raised the panel and locked it from below.

Perhaps it was only five minutes that I crouched in the darkness by the side of the trapdoor. It seemed far longer. I heard the car drive up and then the knocking at the door. I caught snatches of conversation as the two policemen searched the little cottage. Then they were on the stairs, and I could hear the conversation more clearly. Nora was insisting that they were hiding no one, no one at all.

“You bloody I.R.A.,” one of the police said. “Don’t you know the war’s over?”

“It’s not yet begun,” Tom said recklessly.

The other garda was tapping at the ceiling. “I stayed in a house just like this one,” he was saying. “Oh, it was years ago, when I was on the run myself. Stayed in half the houses in County Limerick and a third in County Clare. What’s the name here? Dolan?”

“It is.”

“Why, this is one I stayed in,” the garda said. “A hiding place in the ceiling, if I remember it. What’s this? Do you hear how hollow it sounds? He’s up there, I swear it.”

“And that’s your gratitude,” Nora said. “That Dolan’s house saved your life once-and may we be forgiven for it-only so that you can betray the house, yourself.”

The garda was evidently working the catch to the panel. I had secured the hook on the inside, and although he opened it, the panel would not drop loose.

“That was years ago,” I heard him say.

“Gratitude has a short memory, does it?”

“Years and years ago. And why keep old hatreds alive?” He’d loosened the panel slightly, enough so that his fingers could almost get a purchase on it. He tugged at it, and I felt the hook straining. It was old wood. I didn’t know if it would hold.

“We’re a republic now,” the other garda said. “Free and independent.”

“A free and independent republic under the bloody heel of the bloody English Parliament.” This last from Tom.

“Oh, say it at a meeting. At a parade.”

The garda had a better grip on the panel now. The hook-and-eye attachment couldn’t take the strain. It was starting to pull loose.

“You’re wasting your time,” Nora said desperately.

“Oh, are we?”

“He was here, I’ll not deny it, but he left this morning.”

“And contrived to fasten the hook up there after himself, did he? I hope you don’t expect an honest Irish policeman to be taken in by a snare like that, child.”

“And did I ever meet one?”

“Meet what?”

“An honest Irish policeman-”

At that unfortunate moment the hook pulled out from the wood, and the panel swung open all the way, the garda following it and falling to the floor with the sudden momentum. The other reached upward, caught hold of an end of the rope ladder and pulled it free. I was in darkness at the side of the opening. I could see down, but they apparently did not see me.

The policeman who had forced the panel was getting unsteadily to his feet. The other turned to him and drew a revolver from his holster. “Wait here,” he said. “I’ll go in there after him.”

“Take care, Liam. He’s a cool one.”

“No worry.”

I thought suddenly of the men’s toilet at Shannon Airport. I watched, silent, frozen, as the garda climbed purposefully up the rope ladder. He used one hand to steady himself and held the gun in the other. His eyes evidently didn’t accustom themselves to the dark very quickly, for he looked straight at me without seeing me. A Vitamin A deficiency, perhaps.

I glanced downward. The other garda stood at the bottom of the ladder, gazing upward blindly. Tom was on his left, Nora a few feet away on the right, her jaw slack and her hands clutched together in despair. I glanced again at the climbing garda. He had reached the top now. He straightened up in the low-ceilinged room, and he roared as his head struck the beam overhead.

I took him by the shoulders and shoved. He bounced across the room, and I threw myself through the opening in the floor, like a paratrooper leaping from a plane. Between my feet, as I fell, I saw the upraised uncomprehending face of the other garda.

“Up the Republic!” someone was shouting. It was days later when I realized that it was my voice I had heard.

Chapter 8

It was neither as easy nor as glorious as the assault upon Mustafa, but it had its points. The garda dodged to one side at the last possible moment. Otherwise my feet would have landed on his shoulders, and he would have fallen like a felled steer. Instead, I hit him going away, caromed into the side of him, and he and I went sprawling in opposite directions. I scrambled to my feet and rushed at him. He was clawing at his revolver, but he had buttoned the holster and couldn’t open it. He had white hair and child-blue eyes. I swung at him and missed. He lunged toward me, and Tom kicked him in the stomach just as Nora brought her shoe down on the base of his skull. That did it; he went down and out.

I barely remembered the trapdoor in time. I rushed to it, threw the rope ladder upward and saw the end of it strike the upstairs garda hard enough to put him off stride. I swung the panel back into place. He got his balance and lunged for it, and his fingers got in the way. He roared as the panel snapped on them. I opened it, and he drew out his fingers, howling like a gelded camel, and I closed the panel again and held it while Tom fastened the catch in place.

“It won’t hold him,” Nora said.

“I know.”

“If he jumps on it-”

“I know.”

But he wasn’t jumping on it. Not yet. The prostrate policeman was starting to stir, and the one in the attic room was kicking at the panel. Sooner or later he would leap on it with both feet and come through on top of us. I raced down the stairs and out the door. Their car, a gray Vauxhall sedan with a siren mounted on the front fender, was in front of the cottage. They had left the keys in the ignition, reasoning, perhaps, that no one would be such a damned fool as to steal a police car.

I wrenched open the door, hopped behind where the wheel should have been. It was the wrong side, of course. I got behind the wheel and turned the ignition key, and the car coughed and stalled. I tried again, and the motor caught. I fumbled for the hand brake, released it, shifted into first, and pulled away from the curb.

There’s no spare tire, I thought idiotically. They had that damned flat, so there’s no spare tire, and this is dangerous-

It was definitely dangerous. I heard a gunshot and saw the white-haired cop firing at me from the second-floor window. Evidently he had recovered. Evidently he had remembered how to unbutton his holster and get at his gun. And the other one had jumped through the trap-door after all, because he was coming out the doorway toward me.

I put the accelerator pedal on the floor and went away.

The car was even worse than the bicycle had been. It had been months since I’d driven any sort of car, and I’d never driven one with right-hand drive. The Vauxhall kept drifting over to the wrong side of the road, moving into the lane of oncoming traffic as if with a will of its own. The road curved incessantly, and I continually found myself coming around a curve to encounter a Volkswagen or Triumph approaching me on the right, at which point I automatically pulled to the right and charged the little car, making for it like a bull for a muleta. I generally swung back to the left in time, but once I forced a VW off the road and no doubt scared the driver half to death.

To make matters worse, I had no particular idea where I was going until a road sign indicated I was headed for a town called Rath Luirc. I had never heard of it and didn’t know whether it lay north, south, east, or west of Croom. When I reached the town and passed through it I found that the same road went on to Mallow and ultimately to Cork. This was better than returning to Limerick, but it wouldn’t get me to Dublin, or to London, or to Balikesir. I was driving a stolen police car in hazardous fashion with no real destination in mind, and somehow this struck me as a distinctly imperfect way to proceed.

A few miles past Mallow I took a dirt road to the right, drove for a mile or so, and pulled off to the side of the road. The dirt road saved me the need of keeping the car on the left side, as the entire road was only a car’s width wide. If I’d met anyone headed in the opposite direction, things might have become difficult, but this didn’t happen. The road looked as though it didn’t get much use.

I got out of the car. A trio of black-faced sheep, their sides daubed with blue paint, wandered over to the heaped-stone fence and regarded me with interest. I walked around the car and got back inside. There was a road map of Ireland in the glove compartment. I opened it and found out approximately where I was. I was approximately lost.

I put the map aside and sorted through the remaining treasures in the glove box. Three sweepstake tickets, a flashlight, a 4d. postage stamp with the head of Daniel O’Connell, a small chrome-plated flask of whiskey, a pair of handcuffs sans key, a St. Christopher medal on a gold-plated chain, and half of a ham sandwich neatly wrapped in wax paper. I ate the sandwich, drunk a bit of the whiskey, put the flashlight in one pocket and the flask in the other, and fastened the St. Christopher medal around my neck; I was one traveler who would need all the help he could get.

The rest I left in the car. I would have liked to take the handcuffs, feeling that I might be likely to have a use for them sooner or later, but they couldn’t be used without a key. I checked the Vauxhall’s trunk before I left and found only a flat tire, a bumper jack, tire iron, and a lug wrench. I could not foresee a use for any of these and left them all behind. I rolled down the windows and left the key in the ignition, a procedure which, in New York, would have guaranteed the imminent disappearance of the car. But I couldn’t be sure this would happen in rural Ireland. One could not count on turning up juvenile delinquents on unpaved one-lane roads. At the least, I could hope that no one took the road for a few hours so that the car would remain undiscovered that long.

I walked back to the main road. My silk road had also been headed toward Cork, with a branch cutting off toward Killarney and points west. Thus, whoever found the car might conclude that I was headed in that direction, had car trouble, and continued toward either Cork or Killarney on foot. I didn’t know how well this would throw them off the trail or for how long, but it was something. For my part, I started walking toward Mallow. I’d gone less than a mile when a car stopped, and a youngish priest gave me a lift the rest of the way.

All he wanted to talk about was the American spy. He hadn’t heard about my escape in Croom, but he’d heard a strong rumor that I was in Dublin plotting to dynamite de Valera’s mansion. I passed myself off as a Scot from Edinburgh spending a few months learning the Gaelic tongue in County Mayo and now touring the Irish countryside. He wasn’t sufficiently interested in me to pursue the matter far enough to find the holes in my story.

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