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The Death of an Irish Consul
McGarr glanced out the window of the lurching express train, then looked down at his hand. If my thumb sprouts a rose, he thought, I'll let my fingers become serpents. He placed the hand on his wife's thigh. She didn't stir from her sleep. They were in Italy.
Since Florence, a mauve line had been forming on the eastern horizon, silhouetting the cypress trees on the hilltops. All the farmhouses now had lights in upper windows. In the courtyard of one, a shawl-draped woman, surrounded by chickens, was strewing grain from a basket. Near the barn of another, a young boy was leading cows through a vineyard toward open fields. Even though McGarr could not as yet see the olive trees through the ground fog, he knew they were there, could feel their presence on the hillsides -- fecund, gray green, ancient witnesses to the evanescence of man.
Such as the vendors, who with vans loaded tall were driving toward Siena on this, the day of the Palio. The festival had begun as a horse race among the seventeen contrade, or sections, of the medieval city. Since then, however, it had become much more: a parade of bright costumes, a flag-throwing exhibition, a religious ceremony, a bacchanal, a highly profitable business week, and finally a mad, bareback scramble through a vortex of people in an exquisite Renaissance square -- brief, impassioned, tempestuous. Half the riders never finished. In the heat and excitement, women swooned, men cried, the church bells of the victorious contrada rang for a day. In short, McGarr believed the Palio to be a little bit of everything that was characteristicallyItalian. Pomp, beauty, family, passion, sport, and greed -- it was here in Siena twice yearly that Italians were most unabashedly themselves.
Separate but identical murders in a vacation house near Slea Head in southwestern Ireland had brought McGarr to Italy. McGarr believed an experienced killer -- a former agent of SIS -- had been a party to these executions and now planned to kill the man whose head was nodding in sleep across the compartment from the chief inspector. He was Sir Colin Cummings, who had recently been appointed British ambassador to Italy. His wife, the former Enna Ricasoli, was awaiting them in her family's palazzo on the Piazza del Campo in Siena. Nearly forty years before, one of her disappointed suitors had promised to kill the Englishman if he dared return to the city. All facts that McGarr had learned in his investigations of the Slea Head murders pointed to this same man, who was rich and powerful enough to fulfill his vow. Yet McGarr felt serene -- deeply content to be hurtling through the dark Tuscan countryside where, remembering his Petronius, he believed everything, even protecting a man's life among 125,000 revelers, was possible.
In the compartment behind him, McGarr had stationed Garda Superintendent Liam O'Shaughnessy. Because of his neutral Galway accent, he was pretending to be an American tourist. In the compartment in front of him, Inspector Hughie Ward was dressed in the cassock of a Jesuit priest studying at the Vatican. At the Excelsior Hotel in Siena, Sergeant of Detectives Bernie McKeon had already secured two suites of rooms. The balconies offered views of the Stadio and Siena's Duomo, and the Excelsior was only a ten minute walk to the Piazza del Campo where the Palio would be held. There Ward would be staying in the Palazzo Ricasoli with the Cummingses. McGarr could do no more for the ambassador.
McGarr looked out the window again. With the rising sun an azure tint had begun to suffuse a cloudless sky. The weather would be perfect for the Palio.
The events that brought them to Siena had begun nearly a week and a half before. McGarr remembered the day well, since after fourteen straight days and nights of rain the sun had suddenly broken through a lowering sky. Traffic rushing to Dublin that morning slowed; nobody tooted. When McGarr got to his office at Dublin Castle, his staff, their faces pasty and winterworn, had collected around Sergeant Bernie McKeon's desk. They were drinking tea and staring out an open window.
The sun catching in its chrome and black enamel, a limousine passed in a fiery blur. The tires hissed on the wet macadam. The wind off the Liffey was soft now, mild and welcome. McGarr walked into his dark cubicle to answer the ringing phone which everybody had ignored. Indoors, things seemed dusty and old.
It was Superintendent Terrence Scanlon, commandant of the Dingle Garda barracks. They had found a dead man in an outbuilding of a vacation home on Dingle Bay. His arms and legs had been trussed behind him, wrists to ankles, and he had been shot once in the back of the head.
"An execution," said McGarr. He was a short, thickset man with red hair gone bald on top. Off the cap of a wooden match he flicked his thumb. He held the flame to the tip of a Woodbine, then sat on the edge of his desk. He glanced over at his staff and the open window. Dingle would be glorious on a day such as this, he thought. "IRA?"
"Don't think so," said Scanlon. "That's why I called. The murderer either dropped or ignored the shell casing. The gun seems to have been a twenty-two, nothing an IRA gunman would choose."
"If the choice were his." An IRA gunman would use anything with a trigger, McGarr well knew.
"But this is different, sir. The man's name is Hitchcock with three initials. He has a London legal address. Rumor has it he's a retired civil servant -- Coal Board, I think -- but nobody, not even my brother, knows who he is." Scanlon's brother was the Kerry C.O. of the regular IRA ...The Death of an Irish Consul. Copyright © by Bartholomew Gill. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.