Unholy Ground imm-2, page 1part #2 of Inspector Matt Minogue Series
( Inspector Matt Minogue - 2 )
Whoever had held the nylon rope around Combs' neck, whoever had shoved a knee between Combs' shoulder-blades as the life was choked out of him, needn't have been a Hercules. Combs was seventy-three, a decrepit seventy-three. He had thrashed briefly and died. His swollen face and bulging, yellowed eyes greeted Mrs Hartigan, his housekeeper, on Sunday as she was on her way home from evening Mass.
She had walked up to the open door, halloing as she went. Would Mr Combs be wanting dinners during the week or…? No, he wouldn't, she saw then. The kitchen was frosted. She closed her eyes then unbelieving. Mrs Hartigan stood in the doorway, feeling the weight of her own body press gently on her hips, her feet rooted to the floor. Her back ached familiarly, almost a comfort to her now. She wanted to sit down. Birds chortled and fussed in the hedge by the window. The tap dripped slowly, a dull, irregular pat on enamel. The frost was spread over a floor littered with broken crockery, tins and shattered jars, utensils and packages from the cupboards. Through a confusing blend of smells, the kitchen still held that stale bachelor smell she recognised. It was now mixed with the stench of the old man's indignity in death.
The hand resting on the doorhandle was her own, she realised after some time, and this brought her back. She looked out the doorway at the fields beyond. A flock of starlings clouded overhead. The birds landed together under a hedge. Within seconds they were in the air again, swarming. Mrs Hartigan asked herself if this could really be happening. The kitchen like a room unopened for centuries, the dust… but more like snow… white, angel, Christmas, dead… her thoughts ran again: it's like a tomb, for all the world…
Something terrible had happened. She backed away from the door, only then feeling the ice grasp her heart. Is there a murderer here still maybe? Her heart fluttered. She thought of the phone in the hall, beyond the kitchen. Couldn't go in, no. Spots formed and burst slowly in her vision as she dithered by the door. A lark sang high, unseen, at the end of the day. Mrs Hartigan whispered a prayer, asking God to get her down to the end of the lane alive.
That same Sunday evening, Minogue's gaze was drifting down a row of trees lining a narrow country lane. His eyes wandered over the trees to the Dublin Mountains beyond. One straggly, mustard cloud remained over Two Rock Mountain. To the east, over Killiney Bay, the sky had already darkened. The air was very still, waiting for the first stars. Minogue looked for a moon but found none. A necklace of lights blinked under Killiney Hill. Eight miles out into Dublin Bay, the Kish lighthouse beamed foolishly.
The air was full and moist. Scoutch grass bushed out onto the road. Next to a stile built into the wall opposite, nettles and dock plants reached up to the brambles swelling out from the wall. He gazed at the ruins of the church which lay fifty feet beyond his car, the Romanesque arch there, the gravestones choked with grass. Minogue was spending an hour of his Sunday evening sitting at the base of a cross in Tully, County Dublin. The cross, eleven centuries old, was anchored in a massive granite block itself mounted seven feet up off the road on a bulwark of limestone rocks. The stone, warmed from the day, had no sharp edges to it. When Minogue ran his palm across the warm granite, his thoughts let go at last and he found himself ten minutes later, still stroking the stone but wondering why he couldn't see so clearly now.
Before he climbed down, Minogue stood by the cross and stretched. He turned to look at the ring of mountains. The circulation eased in his legs and he turned to back down the steep steps. Descending, he inadvertently laid his hand on dried bird droppings. He thought he heard a bird chortle in the gloom of the brambles to his right. Wasn't that what they called pathetic fallacy? Down now, he wiped his hand on the back of his weekend trousers.
He smiled when he thought of Jimmy Kilmartin, an Inspector in the Gardai and a pal, and how Kilmartin might envy the birds' ways. Starting Monday, Minogue was to stand in for Kilmartin. Jimmy had finally had to have an operation on his bowel; otherwise, as he confided sheepishly to Minogue, he'd be properly banjacksed for the rest of his days. Minogue had resisted telling him that it might be wise to have the operation now rather than be caught between two stools in later years.
For devilment, Minogue drove back toward Cabinteely and the Bray Road. He drove with only his sidelights on. The road from Tully was now a dark green tunnel, wide enough for but one car. There were very few houses on the road. Minogue slowed to look at a horse which surprised him on a bend. The horse stood motionless in a gap made by the gate in the gloom with the western sky behind. Not for the first time in his life, Minogue felt that there could be no better animal than a horse.
Minogue sighed as he turned onto Brennanstown Road. A half-mile from Cabinteely, it was lined with the houses of the fat-bellied country boys who were retiring behind the burglar alarms and the Tudor mansions here, now that they had gutted Dublin with their office blocks and ghettos. Minogue had heard moaning from Gardai in Cabinteely station about needing more staff to handle the telephone calls. The grandees up on the Brennanstown Road were seeing intruders everywhere. They were worried about their houses being violated while they were holidaying in Miami or Nice. Grubby hands fingering the locks on their gates, pawing their Jags, maybe even looking in the window as they watched television. Couldn't the Gardai mount extra patrols in the area? Minogue had retained enough of the folk memory of the Famine from his native County Clare-where families, farming fields of rock, yielded up life and even merriment-to believe these intruders could be ghosts of their dark fathers.
The traffic-lights in Cabinteely were red. As often happened to him in his waking life, Minogue was reluctantly coming out from a minor road onto a busy one. He was obliged to yield, to wait and watch a stream of cars speeding along the highway. He slouched in his seat, wondering. Of an evening at Tully Cross, he had imagined druids with their followers looking out on the present from the darkness gathering under the trees. And what of the O'Tooles and the O'Byrnes who later raided from the hills, snapping at the edges of the English Pale? What would they make of the place now?
Minogue's light turned green and he pulled away from the white line. Tires howled on the road nearby. A crowd of young lads in a BMW deciding at the last minute not to crash a red light. Minogue pulled around them slowly. Three of them, laughing; dressed and coiffed to the nines, rich snots on the way into Dublin, by the cut of them. A cigarette flicked out the window bounced on the roadway, sparking the gloom. Minogue steered his arthritic Fiat onto the new Bray Road. Before he let go of his acid thoughts, he resolved to side with the raiding O'Tooles and the vanquished druids. The gombeen sons could have their BMWs: he would have his pagan stones.
Detective Garda Seamus Hoey telephoned Minogue's home at six fifteen Sunday evening.
"C-O-M-B-S, like you'd comb your hair?" Minogue asked.
"Yes, sir," Hoey replied.
Minogue asked if the scenes-of-the-crime technicians from the Garda Technical Bureau had started the first sweep of the murder-site. Hoey said that they had. The victim's body had already been removed to Loughlinstown Hospital, pending autopsy in James' Hospital. Minogue's eyes followed the pendulum on the heirloom clock hanging in the hall while he listened to Hoey.
During a pause while he heard Hoey turning a page, Minogue said, "Strangled only? Nothing before or after?"
"No, sir. A quick job. No other injuries apparent. Yet."
Minogue waited for Hoey to say more. He heard another page rustle.
"Anything jump out at you, Shea?"
Hoey hesitated before replying. He had been on the Murder Squad for nearly four years, Minogue remembered, but still he
"No," Hoey said at last. "It's early days yet. The house is a real mess. Soon as we sort out a bit of the stuff scattered around, we might get a move on…"
"Robbery in progress?" Minogue tried.
"Has all the signs."
"Weapon on the site, is there?"
"Not yet located, sir."
"Have you a suspect at hand, Shea?"
"'Fraid not, sir. I'm thinking it has to be local, though. If it's a robbery, like. To know the place was worth doing."
"Give me directions so." Minogue fumbled for a pencil.
Minogue wondered how he had missed any signs of Combs being strangled on that Sunday evening. That wondering was a conceit, he allowed, because Combs' house was near Kilternan. It was close as a crow flies to where Minogue had kept company with his stones, but Kilternan was below the high ground around Tully. Being a daylight rationalist, Minogue knew that he couldn't have expected divinations of what was happening over the hill from where he himself had put the July Saturday away. No stars over Combs' house, no banshee wails, no ghostly luminance.
It was a quarter to eight before Minogue found the house. The floodlights had raised a halo around it against the dark mass of the hills behind. He had driven through Dundrum to Sandyford and followed the signs for the Scalp. The road could now be called the Enniskerry Road. It corkscrewed its way through Stepaside and widened again before it reached Kilternan. The Scalp, a cleft in the hills which marked the border between Counties Dublin and Wicklow, was still three miles from where Minogue finally stopped.
Hoey had told him to take the turn up to Glencullen but to stop off to the right where he'd meet the first bad bend in the road. Combs' house was up the lane there. The hills above Kilternan were forested with spruce and pine, Minogue remembered, and high up over Glencullen, some miles into the mountains, the mountainsides were bog, carpeted with heather and ferns.
He parked between an unmarked police van and a Toyota Corolla squad-car. Twenty yards further up the road was another car, a Renault, illuminated by stalk lamps which Minogue recognised as forensic site equipment. A generator puttered in the near distance. He stopped by the Toyota. Smoke issued from the open window of the squad-car. The yellow interior light showed two Gardai pushed back in their seats.
"Minogue," he said to the two figures in the Toyota. "Off the Murder Squad. Are ye the first shift looking after the site until morning, is it?"
The driver, a young Garda with a puffy face patterned by acne scars, nodded.
"That's us, sir. We're due a relief about eleven."
Minogue stared up at the faintly milky sky behind the mountains before walking slowly toward the Renault. A scenes-of-the-crime technician squatted on the ditch side of the car. His tongue moved slowly across his bottom lip, his eyebrows silver in the lamp's glare. Minogue had forgotten the technician's name.
"Victim's," said the technician without looking up from the plastic bags he was sealing. He paused then and squinted up at Minogue, blinking. Widow's peak, bird eyes, Minogue thought: Rogers? McMahon? An old hand anyway.
"Have I safe passage up the lane here, er…?"
"Jim Rogers. Stay to the left of the tape there. Can you see it?"
Minogue drew out a penlight from his jacket pocket. The battery was dead. Rogers turned the lamp toward the laneway. Minogue's eyes followed the taut yellow tape running to the house.
"We've done the lane once. We'll do it proper in the morning. The conditions are bad. Tire treads is all so far. It's all stones around here. Peeping up through the grass even."
Minogue started up the lane. He smelled the heather from the hills. He passed a gap in the hedge, stone posts anchoring a gate. A horse shook its head over the gate at him. Minogue started. The horse moved off. the limit of a rope tethered to the gate.
"Don't be trying to frighten me like that, mister," he muttered after the horse. He stopped and looked back down the lane, his heart still pounding from the fright. The night was heavy and still around him. He wondered if the deadness in the air was here all the time.
Hoey was wearing a polo shirt under his jacket. He raised his eyebrows in greeting. Hoey's face was too long-mark of the Irish-the eyes too gentle, set in ruddy features: farmer's boy, a face peering over stone-walled Galway fields. The stakes and plastic ribbons had been erected all around the house. Minogue heard another generator grumbling out of sight. One of the lamps lit up the whole gable end of the house like a film set. Hoey stood behind Minogue in the doorway, both looking over the whitened destruction of the kitchen.
"Did that stuff help us at all, Shea?"
"The flour, with footprints? No. Some settled on the body. So the killer went on wrecking the place after killing the old man. The bag of flour burst over there against the wall."
"Well. Who's here?"
"There's myself, of course. Pat Keating's inside. Two scenes-of-the-crime lads still upstairs," Hoey replied. "The local station is Stepaside. We have two of their district detectives helping us. They're out on interviews right this very minute."
Minogue nodded and stepped back from the doorway.
"Jimmy Kilmartin says how-do, by the way."
"And how's he doing, then?" Hoey asked.
"He's good, Shea. Up and about in a few days. I might go and see him tonight if I have the time later."
"Great. Great," said Hoey. The enthusiasm was fulsome enough for Minogue to glance over. Keating came around behind them. Minogue looked at the Polaroid dangling from his neck.
"Have the photo men been through already, Pat?" Minogue asked.
"Yes, sir. I've run off about thirty myself. Prior to removal. I got close-ups of the neck marks as well."
"Any tracks or traces close to the house here yet?" Minogue asked.
"Not yet," said Hoey.
"Hmm. How did the killer gain entry?" Minogue asked.
"Your man usually left the back door unlocked, says the housekeeper," Keating answered.
Great. Minogue almost voiced his cynicism aloud. He looked to the outside wall. The house was stone-built, plastered and painted off-white. The windows looked new, and the gutters and the sills were in good condition.
"A few things strike me, though," Hoey began in a meditative tone.
"Fire away, Shea."
"Burglary gone wrong, that's easy enough to think. The old man is out, comes back to the house and interrupts a robbery. The killer might even have put the squeeze on him before killing him, to tell him where any money and so on might be hid. Odd thing is the destruction that carried on after the man was killed. The flour and bits of plates on the body tells us that easy enough. Cool one, the killer. Went around pulling out kitchen cupboards full of stuff."
"Disgusted maybe," Keating interjected. "The old man has no stash, but the killer either doesn't believe him or kills him to cover himself. Maybe a local all right, known by sight to the victim. Real animal work."
"There's fellas out there will go that far, I can tell you," he said. "Remember that juvenile, Rice, the lad who took a neighbor's housekeeping money and cut her throat to cover himself?"
Minogue remembered, all right. It was just before Keating's time on the Squad. Kilmartin had cursed psychiatrists and social workers for weeks after the diminished capacity ruling. Fintan Rice was a heroin addict at fifteen, a murderer at sixteen, an inmate in a prison psychiatric ward at seventeen. Dublin's Fair City…
"Fit of rage," said Hoey. "Like a ritual thing if the killer is a nutcase entirely."
"Defilement," Minogue muttered.
"Like in a church?" asked Keating.
"Wholesale wrecking of the place after the act. There's the other good an
Minogue thought it unlikely. In an explosive rage, nothing so neat as strangling with a rope would have occurred, especially without signs of resistance. His mind skipped erratically. Sex? Bachelor, old bachelor… maybe of the "other" persuasion? Need background. Money? How much was the old man worth? If known to the victim, the killer could have surprised him handily enough… back turned for a moment, the killer has his opportunity. Resources? Rope.
"The string or rope, Shea. That the kind of thing you'd find lying around handy in this man's house?"
"Good one," Hoey allowed. "That's where I go off a bit on tangents. A premeditated murder, a killer with the instrument ready in his pocket or whatever. The victim doesn't look to have been a handyman at all. His housekeeper says he never did repair stuff about the house but had tradesmen do it. We better dig up a solid motive for premeditated, more than a robbery trick…"
"How long did you get with her?" asked Minogue.
"Mrs Hartigan? Three-quarters of an hour, sir. She's a bit out of it."
Keating edged up to the doorway and looked at the carnage in the kitchen again.
"Lunatic," he said.
"Money," Minogue echoed. "Tip-off from someone who knew or thought the old man kept money in the house… Expected to find money and didn't. I wonder about that. Or came with the intentions to kill… You told the Stepaside lads doing the local interviews to look for psychiatric cases around here?"
"Didn't have to. They copped on straightaway. They're on deliverymen, postmen, too. Any repairmen fixing the house. You know, Combs must have been out," Hoey said. "The smashing and breaking would have raised an awful racket. Like I say, there was some stuff under the body, so the job was underway when he came home. Even if it was a solo job, he'd have seen the car lights and known to get out cause the victim was coming home."
"Drove, I suppose," said Minogue. "Hardly out for a walk in the dark. And if the robber saw the old man's car, he wouldn't have started his job at all. Okay, so. Would he have seen the car lights at the end of the lane, where the victim's car was found?"
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