"I think he was dead before I shot him."
"I beg your pardon?" said Roberts.
"I think he was dead," said Nestor. "Already. Before . . . you know."
Roberts looked down at the dead man.
"He was talking to me," Roberts said. "He was right in the middle of a fucking sentence."
"'Tell her I'll have it by . . .' if I recall it correctly."
"And now," said Roberts, "we'll never know what he was going to say. Tonight? Christmas? The light of the silvery moon? Holy Jesus, what a mess."
"But," said Nestor.
"Yes?" snapped Roberts.
"He went really pale, like, and he"--Nestor grabbed his left tit--"Well, he . . ."
"Clutched?" Roberts offered.
"Yeah," said Nestor. "He clutched his chest."
"He had a heart attack. Is that what you're telling me?"
"Yeah," said Nestor. "He looked terrible. His face. I've seen it before. I've a cousin."
"Who had a heart attack."
"And he looked just like that."
"And he's still alive."
"Oh good," said Roberts. "Maybe our friend here will stand up in a minute and shake himself. But hang on, though. You didn't shoot your cousin, sure you didn't?"
"And why would you have?" said Roberts. "Sure, he's your cousin."
". . . I," said Nestor.
And then Roberts hit him. Hard.
"What'll I do with you?" Roberts said.
And he hit him again, another almost friendly whack across the ear, harmless but for the car keys clasped between his fingers.
Nestor ducked away to a corner. He knocked over a pouffe and the mug of tea perched on it, placed there by the dead man four, five minutes before, just as Roberts had knocked on his door and walked in with Nestor.
"That'll stain," said Roberts.
The rug, the shaggy fleece of a synthetic sheep, was already soaking up the tea. Roberts took the centre pages from the Daily Mirror beside the pouffe and placed then gently over the stain. He patted the paper.
"So," he said.
Nestor was examining his ear. His right hand was still holding the gun. He drew back his head and nutted the wall. It clanged.
The dead man's home was made of tin. In a field near Courtown or Skerries it would have been a mobile home. Here, in the filthy backyard of a ruined cottage on the edge of the very edge of Dublin, it was a shack. Four tin walls; a tin roof that was snowing rust. The caravan was lopsided, up on assorted bricks and one flat wheel, surrounded, almost invaded by nettles and weeds that swayed and stank. Hardly a thing inside, only a few stacks of mouldy old newspapers, a grimy crumpled poster of James Joyce on the wall.
Roberts owned a house in Rathmines. With the help of his sister's husband, he'd converted it into thirteen bedsits. He looked around him now; a few bits of chipboard, a couple of extra beds and he could have squeezed in four students, even six, no problem--the dead body wouldn't have been noticed in the middle of their filth and parties. The place had potential. He'd find out who owned it.
He felt it wobble when he stood upright.
"So," he said.
Nestor had a handkerchief to his ear.
"She won't be happy," said Roberts. "She won't be happy at all at all." He was talking about Mrs. Bloom.
"She told us to worry him," said Roberts. "Does he look worried to you?"
"No," said Nestor.
"No," Roberts agreed. "I don't think I've ever seen a less worried-looking man."
"He had a heart attack," said Nestor.
"That would account for the hole in his chest," said Roberts.
"It was an accident."
"You really think I'm gonna go back and tell her that, do you?"
"He clutched his chest."
"I'll clutch your bollocks with pliers if you ever mention his chest or his heart again. Say after me: I shot him."
"But I didn't mean to."
"I shot him."
"Good. Fine. Now we're getting somewhere. You shot him. He had something she wanted. We were to worry him. A few slaps, a little glimpse at the gun there. A straightforward enough job of work. But you went and shot the poor chap. Didn't you?"
"It went off."
"Yes," said Roberts. "I noticed."
"It was the gloves."
"They're a bit . . ."
"Yeah," said Nestor.
"I know the way," said Roberts.
He toed the dead man's foot.
"It was the gloves did it, mister," he told the body. Then he looked at Nestor again.
"What am I going to say to her?"
Nestor said nothing.
"I don't know."
"And does that worry you at all?"
"Good," said Roberts. "Because it worries me too. It worries me a lot. And I need the company."
Mrs. Bloom wasn't exactly their boss. Neither of them was financially dependent on her. They both had day jobs, permanent and pensionable, well away from Mrs. Bloom. In addition Roberts had his bedsits, and two or three other pots on the Baby Belling. He had a share in a kissogram service. He owned the '87 Lancia that ferried the French maids and naughty nurses and television continuity announcers--a Roberts invention, and a hit--out and around the city, from sad to sadder bastard, seven days a week. He held the croissant and baguette franchise in a twenty-four-hour shop around the corner from his bedsits.
"If you gave shite a nice smell you'd find plenty of people willing to buy it at four in the morning," he told Dymphna (the nun, schoolgirl and continuity announcer).
"I know," said Dymphna, as she cleared the steam off the passenger window and looked out for the right address.
"Talk dirty to me," said Roberts.
"The Flood Tribunal."
He had a bit of set-aside near his brother's farm, down home. He had a team of twenty-three boys and girls on the road throughout the year, selling guaranteed Irish Christmas cards, made in the Philippines, for spina bifida, Bosnian hospitals and Roberts. And he had one or two other things going as well. This and that. He saw possibilities everywhere. He clicked awake at five every morning, ideas already pinging around him before he had his feet in his slippers. An entrepreneur. That was what Roberts was. "You have to be born one," a woman sitting beside him at a Department of Industry training seminar had once said. And Roberts had agreed with her. He had been born one.
"That bollocks still has his communion money," it was often said of Roberts. About most people that was never meant literally, but in Roberts's case it was true, literally. Roberts's communion money, all £3 13s. 8d. of it in shiny old coins he had lovingly polished, was in a tobacco tin one foot under the sod, five paces--adult paces; ten on his communion day--to the right of the hinged gate of the field that was now his set-aside. Now the EU paid him money for doing nothing with the field. He wasn't even allowed to walk into it; there was a satellite keeping an eye on all the empty fields in Ireland, making sure that they stayed empty. But one of these cloudy nights he was going to sneak into his field, dig up the tobacco tin--Condor--and bring the gleaming contents to a coin dealer on Aughrim Street, a member of the International Association of Professional Numismatists and a subscriber to a Latvian porn magazine that Roberts distributed by hand to thirteen Dublin addresses on the first Friday of the month, between half-five and seven in the morning, before going to work. He would do it just to find out how much the coins were worth. Then he'd bury them again. In a new place.
Entrepreneur. He loved the word.
"What's that French word that means businessman?" he'd once asked his wife as he sat up to the fire pretending to do the Independent crossword.
"Entrepreneur," said Patsy.
"What?" said Roberts.
"Spell it for me," said Roberts.
Nestor wasn't an entrepreneur. Along with leprosy and a ride against a train station wall, an idea was something that Nestor had never had. But still he made a reasonable living. He had the day job, of course, not that it brought in much. So four nights a week, in black bomber jacket and wired for sound, he stood at the entrance of Major Disaster's, a pub in the basement of Little Los Angeles, a carpark and total shopping experience at the top of Grafton Street, Europe's sexiest retail sewer. He let young couples and gangs of girls go past him but stopped lone men and British stag parties, if they were wearing either kilts or co-ordinated T-shirts.
"It's the national costume of Scawtland!"
"It's a dress," said Nestor's colleague, Rattigan.
Nestor rarely spoke. He was never violent, always polite; he went to the toilet only during his breaks. He never drank, didn't smoke, never pawed drunk women. He stood in front or stood aside and, when called upon to do so by the voice in his ear, went inside and escorted people out. Rattigan, who drank, smoked and often went to the toilet against the Telecom building across the street, hated him.
"You're perfect, aren't you?"
"No," said Nestor.
"You are, yeh cunt."
"I'm not," said Nestor.
"Look at you," said Rattigan. "Mister Perfect. This one coming up now. In the red. Would you ride her? Would you?"
Nestor didn't answer him.
"No, you wouldn't. You wouldn't even dream of it, sure you wouldn't? She's dripping for it, look at her. Look. Look. And the other one with her. The two of them together. The arse on the other one, lookit."
Nestor suffered in silence. He was, in fact, gay. He admitted the women of Rattigan's crumby dreams while his heart went quietly pitter-patter for the men they kept out, the stag lads and loners, the men in kilts and co-ordinated T-shirts.
Roberts kicked the dead man's foot again.
"You're a terrible man," he said to Nestor.
"Sorry," said Nestor. "Will I clean it up?"
"It?" said Roberts.
The gun was an Israeli Desert Eagle, a large and powerful pistol designed for long-range shooting. Nestor had fired it three feet away from the dead man's chest.
"It?" said Roberts. "Have you a week?"
The back wall was drenched with bloody globules of the dead man's interior.
"'Good boys, O yes,'" Roberts said. He was imitating Mrs. Bloom's voice now. "'You cleaned up after you, did you? Good boys.' I don't think we'll be hearing that when we go back to her, do you? So I don't think we'll fucking bother!"
He moved two careful steps to the left and pushed the dead man's Superser gas heater. As he'd expected, it refused to move. Roberts owned thirteen Supersers, one in each bedsit, and not one of them moved freely on its castors.
"Will this fit in the boot, d'you think?"
"No," said Nestor.
"On its side?"
"We might take it with us. Come here and help me."
This was the type of thing Roberts and Nestor often did for Mrs. Bloom, walking in on people they'd never met and pointing guns or fingers at them. Four times out of five when she summoned Roberts on the batphone, it was to give him a name and address and a brief instruction. "Worry him, O yes." Or "Hit him, yes, twice, and tell him I was asking for him." A simple message--sometimes a simple action--was usually all that was required. They never had to wait around for answers or merchandise. Someone else, Roberts supposed, came along later to do that; he didn't know and he didn't care. What he did know was that he was a small cog in Mrs. Bloom's machinery. A tiny, minor, insignificant cog that could be whipped out and replaced any time she felt the inclination. Just like that. In a flash. He knew it. The knowledge frightened him and made him love her even more.
"We better get out of here," said Roberts. "You'll have to take your top off."
"Why?" said Nestor.
He was wearing Manchester United's latest away jersey.
"It'll be remembered if we're seen leaving," said Roberts.
"Half the men and boys in Dublin wear Man United jerseys," said Nestor.
"Yes," said Roberts. "But not with their names on the back."
"Oh," said Nestor.
"Oh," said Roberts. "Is there a Batty Nestor playing at number 10 for Manchester United?"
"No," said Nestor sheepishly. "Teddy Sheringham."
"Good for Teddy."
"What'll I wear instead?"
"Something of his," said Roberts, nodding at the dead man.
"But . . . it's covered in blood," said Nestor.
"Not that particular shirt," said Roberts. "It's not your colour. Something else."
He nodded at the door behind the dead man's head.
Nestor planned a route around the shattered corpse.
"Chop chop," said Roberts.
Nestor pushed open the door and walked in. Roberts, alone now except for the dead man, really started to dread facing Mrs. Bloom.
She was an extraordinary woman. She lived in a small, terraced house on the northside.
"It's handy for the airport."
But she'd never travelled in a plane herself, had never been further from her home than Dollymount Strand. She didn't even have a passport. The first time Roberts saw her, after he'd been led through the house from the front door by Mrs. Blixen, she'd been sitting in the back garden, on a papal throne, with a copybook in her lap and a biro in her hand. As he'd walked across the little patio he'd heard the roar of a plane flying low over them, a noise that increased, then slowly receded and faded away to silence as he watched her. She took a strapless watch from the pocket of her mauve duffel-coat--it was a wild, cold day, a very odd day to be sitting out in the garden--and she looked at it. Then he heard her speak for the first time; to herself, or so he thought.
"EI 603 from Schiphol, O yes."
She opened the copybook and wrote something down. Roberts knew immediately: he was in the presence of a genius. She controlled a global empire from the back garden of a corporation house, bang in the middle of the Celtic Tiger's litter tray. She made a red mark beside a column of numbers, closed the copybook, put it away.
"You come to me recommended," she said, without looking at him.
"Can I ask by who?"
"That doesn't matter."
He looked at her profile. Her eyes were fixed on the back wall and the three scrawny rosebushes that lined it. But he could tell that her ears were still trained on the sky. And what ears. The lug he could see had the curve and almost the size of a baby's arse. The wind pushed great healthy folds of grey hair in front of her face. She hooked the hair back behind the arse. Still staring at the wall, she spoke again.
"You are greedy, O cruel and discreet. Is that right?"
"Yes," said Roberts.
"We'll see," said Mrs. Bloom. "O yes."
Copyright © 2001 by Joseph O'Connor, ed. Chapter one. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.