After calling Ireland home for six months, Boston expat Maura Donovan still has a lot to learn about Irish ways—and Sullivan’s Pub is her classroom. Maura didn’t only inherit a business, she inherited a tight-knit community. And when a tragedy strikes, it’s the talk of the pub. A local farmer, out for a stroll on the beach with his young son, has mysteriously disappeared. Did he drown? Kill himself? The child can say only that he saw a boat.
Everyone from the local gardai to the Coast Guard is scouring the Cork coast, but when a body is finally brought ashore, it’s the wrong man. An accidental drowning or something more sinister? Trusting the words of the boy and listening to the suspicions of her employee Mick that the missing farmer might have run afoul of smugglers, Maura decides to investigate the deserted coves and isolated inlets for herself. But this time she may be getting in over her head...
About the Author
Sheila Connolly is the New York Times bestselling author and Agatha Award-nominated writer of the Museum Mysteries, the Orchard Mysteries, and the County Cork Mysteries. She has taught art history, structured and marketed municipal bonds for major cities, worked as a staff member on two statewide political campaigns, and served as a fundraiser for several nonprofit organizations. She also managed her own consulting company, providing genealogical research services. In addition to genealogy, Sheila loves restoring old houses, visiting cemeteries, and traveling. Now a full-time writer, she thinks writing mysteries is a lot more fun than any of her previous occupations. She is married and has one daughter and three cats.
Read an Excerpt
Praise for the New York Times bestselling County Cork Mysteries
Berkley Prime Crime titles by Sheila Connolly
“John Tully’s gone missing.”
Maura Donovan looked up from behind the bar at the man who had burst into Sullivan’s, sending the door slamming into the wall. She didn’t recognize him, but then, she was still sorting out who was who around Leap, even after seven months in the village. The few customers in the pub, local men and regulars, didn’t seem to know what the latest arrival was talking about.
“What’re yeh sayin’?” one of them asked.
“John Tully,” the newcomer said, still out of breath. “Went out this mornin’ with his boy to take a walk on the shore, he told his wife. He hasn’t come back. No one’s seen him since. His brother went out to look fer him, found the boy wanderin’ on the beach. His wife’s beside herself with worry.”
“That’s bad,” another man said. “After that other thing and all.”
Maura was falling more and more behind in this conversation. If she’d got it right, not only had this Tully man disappeared, leaving a young child alone on the beach, but it had happened before? To Tully or to someone else? Nearby or somewhere else? She hadn’t heard anything about that, but for all she knew the first disappearance had happened a century earlier. She had learned that memories were long in this part of Ireland. “Is he from around here?” she ventured.
The first man turned to her. “Over toward Dromadoon. Sorry, we’ve not met. I’m Richard McCarthy, and you’d be Maura Donovan? Used to be I’d stop by now and then when Old Mick ran the place, but not lately.”
“I am,” Maura said, “and welcome back to Sullivan’s. So what’s happened?”
“John Tully, a good man, told his wife, Nuala, he wanted some air before the evenin’ milkin’. She told him to bring along the youngest child, Eoin, because she was takin’ the older ones to something or other. He did so. Nuala came back a few hours later, and there was no sign of man. It was gettin’ cold and she was worried about the little one, so she sent the brother Conor out to collect him. Conor comes back with the child, but not John. It isn’t like John to go missin’ like that. So she waited fer a bit, then went over to where John liked to walk. He had what he called a ‘thinking rock’ by the water, and she knew where to look. No sign of him there. She had the other kids with her, and Conor as well, so they all searched and they found nothing. Then she called the gardaí, and they’re searching now.” The man settled himself on a stool at the bar, and a couple of the other men took adjoining seats. “I could do with a pint, if you please.”
“Sure. Rose?” Maura nodded toward Rose Sweeney, who worked in the pub part of the time, as did her father, Jimmy, who’d been listening to the tale.
“Right away,” Rose said. “Anyone else?” Rose glanced around the room.
One of the other men at the bar nodded, and Rose started two pints.
Maura turned back to the men at the bar. “You said this has happened before? I mean, someone just disappearing?”
Richard McCarthy nodded, his expression somber. “Terrible thing, that was. Before your time, I’m guessin’, a year or two back. Older man, a farmer, married a young American who was visiting here, and they had a child, a little girl it was. Light of his life, he said. But the wife was talking about moving back to the States and takin’ the child with her. So the man went out with the girl while the wife was visitin’ a friend, and drowned the little one and then himself.”
“How awful!” Maura said. “Do you think John Tully . . .” Maura wasn’t sure how to finish her question. She didn’t know the man, but she couldn’t believe he would have taken his young child along if he planned to drown himself.
“God willing, I hope not. Nor is there any reason to suspect it. John’s a good man, and he and his wife get on well. He’d have no reason to do himself harm. And he loves the boy—the first son, after three girls.”
Rose slid the pints across the bar to the waiting men. “So who’s looking fer him now?”
“The neighbors and the gardaí. The wife’s waitin’ back home with the kids—she had the milkin’ to do. The gardaí haven’t called the coast guard yet, seein’ as there’s no reason to think he was out on the water. John has no boat and wasn’t much of a man fer the boatin’, him raisin’ cows and all. But he liked the walk—said it was good for his thinkin’. Ta.” He raised his glass to Maura. She realized she probably was expected not to charge him for it since he was the bearer of news, even if the news was bad. Another thing she was getting used to: the odd rules about who paid and when at the pub.
“Will they be needin’ help?” one of the other men asked.
“Might do. It’ll be gettin’ dark soon. No doubt the gardaí will get the word out if it’s wanted. And some of you must be volunteers for the coast guard, eh?” McCarthy had finished his pint quickly, draining the last of it. “I’m off to tell the folk at Sheahan’s across the street. Pray fer the man, will yeh?”
After McCarthy had left, the remaining men lapsed into glum silence. Maura checked the time: only a couple of hours until dusk, now that it was late October. Would that be enough time to search? She could understand how a man could walk out of his home and just keep going, but to take a small child along and then abandon him? That made no sense.
“Rose, I’m going to talk with Billy for a bit, okay?” Maura said.
“No worries. I think I can handle the crowd here,” Rose replied, dimpling. By Maura’s count there were five customers in the room, including Old Billy, who lived in a couple of rooms at the far end of the building that Maura now owned and who spent most of his waking time holding court in the pub, seated by the fire. She guessed he was well past eighty, but she wasn’t sure even he knew his age. He had known Maura’s predecessor Old Mick well, and luckily Billy Sheahan had stayed around to see Maura through the first few rocky months. And since he had lived in the area all of his eighty-plus years, he knew the history of most people and places in West Cork.
Maura walked over to the corner by the fire, where Billy occupied his favorite armchair—which no one else who knew the place dared to sit in—and sat down in the adjoining chair. “Are you ready for another pint, Billy?”
“Not yet, thanks fer askin’. McCarthy’s news has put me right off my drink.”
“It doesn’t sound good. Do you know the Tully family?” Maura asked.
“I knew John’s grandfather, years ago. They’ve a nice little piece of land over west of here, and they keep cows. The make a fair living at it, from what I hear.”
Maura thought a moment. “So you’re saying John Tully would have no reason to, well, do himself harm?”
“Not likely. And he and his wife are well suited, and they grew up together. And then there’s the child. The man was over the moon about havin’ a son at last, after the three girls.”
“That’s what I was thinking—he wouldn’t have just gone off and left the kid. So if John didn’t have any problems, where is he?”
“That I cannot say,” Billy replied somberly.
“What’s the coast guard like around here? I haven’t heard much about them. Well, except when a fishing boat goes missing or starts to sink.”
Billy smiled. “I’ll give yeh the short course, shall I? The Irish Coast Guard is a national organization that rescues people from danger at sea or on land, and that includes the cliffs and the beaches. There are three rescue centers, and the closest is on Valentia Island, over to Kerry. The Volunteer Coastal Units can do search and rescue—the nearest ones are at Glandore, and no doubt you’ve been past that one, and Toe Head. They’d be the ones would be called in fer this. They’re volunteers, local men and women alike, who have to live within ten minutes of the station—which clearly we here in Leap do—and they’re always on call.”
“I never knew any of that, Billy,” Maura said. “How come you know so much about it?”
“One of me nephews has been a volunteer fer years. But he’s seldom called in. Still, there are always those daft tourists who think climbing a cliff is a fine idea, until they get into trouble and they have to be rescued.”
“Richard McCarthy didn’t think they’d been called yet.”
“I knew the beach Tully likes, years ago, and I doubt it’s changed much. If the man isn’t found there, the rescue teams will be called in soon enough.”
“Was the coast guard part of that other story?”
“Where the little girl was drowned? They were, as were the gardaí and the local firemen. But neither father nor daughter was found until the next day. The man left a note behind, although it took them a bit to find it.”
“And no one saw them go into the water?” Maura asked.
Billy looked at her. “You’ve not spent much time along the beaches here, have you, now? There’s few people near enough to see anything, if they’re not lookin’ fer it.”
“I haven’t had the time, I guess, and I don’t much like just going for walks. Down along the harbor here now and then, but that’s about it.”
“Did you not grow up near the sea?”
“Well, yes and no. Boston’s got a harbor, and there’s plenty of coastline nearby, but I never had the time to go off and look at the water and play in the sand. I was usually working at one job or another, when I wasn’t in school.” There had always been a job, because she and her gran had never had enough money.
“Do yeh know how to swim?” Billy asked.
“Enough to stay afloat, Billy. My high school got some kind of special grant to give the kids swimming lessons. That’s about it. Doesn’t mean I like it.”
“There’s many a fisherman hereabouts who can’t swim, so yer ahead of the game there.” The front door opened, and Billy nodded toward the newcomers. “You’ve business to tend to. Maybe there’s someone who’s had some good news.”
“Let’s hope so, Billy.” Maura went back to her usual place behind the bar and started helping Rose pull pints for the newcomers. It didn’t surprise her that the crowd grew throughout the evening, everyone hoping to hear that John Tully had been found. Most of the people who came in knew him, or had bought cows or milk from him, or were related to his mother’s cousin over near Clonakilty, and so on. Maura had given up trying to sort out all the invisible connections that existed in this part of Ireland, or maybe throughout the entire country—she hadn’t had time to check out more than this small corner.
Mick Nolan, the final member of Maura’s staff, had arrived around five and kept busy since. Maura hadn’t had time to ask if he had come out of concern for John Tully or because he had heard the news and guessed that it would be a busy night at the pub. As the night wore on, Maura noticed a current of anxiety running through the crowd. No one was drinking much, and Maura hadn’t the heart to insist that they keep buying pints. Mostly the people there wanted to be together, either to wait for whatever news came or to share the outcome, good or bad.
It was past ten when garda Sean Murphy walked in. Conversation in the pub came to a halt, and all eyes turned toward Sean. He came straight to the point.
“No sign of the man. They’ve called off the search until first light.”
The mood in the room ratcheted down a notch, and people started draining their glasses and heading for the door: there would be no more news this night. Sean made his way to the bar.
“A pint or coffee?” Maura asked.
Sean rubbed his face. He looked tired, despite the fact that he was younger than Maura’s twenty-five years. “I’d love a pint, but it’ll be an early day tomorrow. Coffee, if you will.”
“Coming up,” Maura said.
“I’ll do it,” Rose volunteered. Maura hadn’t even noticed she was still there, they’d been so busy. Rose usually left early in the evening, except weekends, but most likely she had been as anxious as the rest of the people to hear what was going on.
Maura leaned on the counter to ask Sean, “What can you tell me?”
Sean shook his head. “Too little. Everyone’s been out hunting half the day, since we heard. The mother’s been hovering at the scene, with some of her family around her. The children are staying with the rest of ’em.”
“Where’d you find the boy? You must have gone over that beach with a fine-tooth comb. Did you find anything useful?” Maura asked, although she wasn’t sure what that might be.
Sean glanced around, but no one was near enough to overhear their quiet conversation. “We found some footprints where Conor told us to look—large and small, together. But they were soon trampled by well-meaning people lookin’ fer the man.”
“I heard it was John’s brother who found the boy and took him home,” Maura said. “Is he old enough to tell you anything?”
Sean shrugged. “Hard to say. He’s only just turned three, and his mother’s barely let him get a word out since he’s come home. What he’ll remember in the morning is anyone’s guess. The best we got was that he kept talkin’ about a boat. No surprise, seein’ as how he was on the beach.”
“Did he seem upset? Did he mention his dad?” If the boy had seen a fight, what would he have made of it?
Sean almost smiled. “Maura, have I not just told you we don’t know the details yet? We’ll sort it out in the morning. The poor lad was exhausted, as was his mother. We’ll all have fresher eyes tomorrow.” He drained his cup quickly. “I’d better be on my way so I can get an early start. I only wanted to make sure you knew the story so far, and the others here, so they could spread the word.”
“Thank you, Sean. I appreciate it,” Maura said softly. Maura wasn’t quite sure whether he had been thinking of her concern or only wanted to get the word out as quickly as possible—and what better way than to tell a pub full of worried people? “Safe home.”
“And to you,” Sean said, then gathered himself up and went out the door.
The crowd cleared quickly after that, and by midnight only Maura and Mick remained, clearing up the last of the glasses scattered around the room.
“Mick, are you planning to stop by your grandmother’s tomorrow?” Maura asked, washing the final glasses.
“I might do,” he said. “Why?”
“Could you stop by my house? I’ve got a small problem and I’m not sure what to do.” She hated to ask anyone for help, much less someone she worked with, but there were things she was clueless about, and how to manage an old stone cottage in this part of the world was one of them. She needed someone who knew how things worked, and she knew Mick was often down the lane visiting his grandmother Bridget.
“Glad to. I’ll look in before I see me gran.”
“Thanks, Mick. See you in the morning, then. And we should probably be here early, because people will want to hear the news about John Tully.”
“Troubling, that,” Mick commented. “Something’s not right. John would never have left his son like that.”
So what had happened? Maura asked herself. Tomorrow would tell. She hoped.
Maura woke early the next morning but delayed getting out of bed. The room was cold. Heck, the whole house was cold. That was why she had reluctantly asked Mick to come by. She had grown up mainly in triple-deckers in South Boston, where somebody else was responsible for providing heat. Even when some crummy landlord failed to do that, it was still out of the tenants’ hands to fix. But here? Even if she had known what to do back in Boston, an old cottage in Ireland was another story altogether. She’d inherited it from Mick Sullivan, who had been related somehow to her grandmother, and he’d also left her the pub, free and clear. But nobody had left instructions for either. She’d moved in back in March, and between blankets and sweaters she’d managed to stay warm enough then until the weather had warmed up—as much as it ever did. She thought she’d toughened up, but now that the days were short and whatever heat had built up in the old stone and stucco walls had gone away, it was cold inside. And it would get colder.
She finally threw off the bedcovers and pulled on socks and two layers of shirts, with a sweatshirt over, then plunged down the stairs to boil water for tea or coffee—she ought to offer Mick something. He’d seen her house back when Old Mick had lived here, but had he been inside since she had taken over? She couldn’t remember. Not that she’d changed much. Mick had lived simply. She’d kept the large scarred and scrubbed table in the middle of the big kitchen room, and the chairs around it, but apart from that there was little in the way of furniture. Old Mick Sullivan had spent his last days in a ratty bed in the adjoining parlor, and she’d gotten rid of that, but otherwise there were only a couple of tired-looking upholstered chairs in that room. Apparently Old Mick hadn’t done too much entertaining—maybe like her he’d spent most of his waking hours at the pub. She’d bought herself a new bed for one of the bedrooms upstairs, but that was about the full extent of her redecorating. She hadn’t even bothered with curtains, since none of the neighbors was close enough to see into her windows.
The water had barely boiled when someone rapped at her front door, and she opened it to find Mick Nolan standing outside. “Come in,” she said, then shut the door quickly behind him. “You want tea? Coffee?”
“I’m sure tea will do fer me. What was it you wanted to ask?”
“It’s freezing in here,” Maura said, trying not to sound whiny.
“That it is,” Mick agreed. “So?”
“I don’t know how to heat this place. What do I do?”
Mick stared at her for a moment, then laughed. “Sure and there’s no fancy thermostat to turn on, is there?”
“I didn’t expect that,” she said tartly. “But there’s got to be something, right?”
“Well, fer a start, you’ve the two fireplaces.”
“Yeah, I can see that. The one in this room here scares me—I could roast an ox in it, not that I’ve ever wanted to roast an ox. Still, it’s huge. The other one’s not much use because I keep that room closed most of the time, and the fireplace is smaller anyway—wouldn’t heat the whole downstairs, would it? But how am I supposed to know if the chimney or whatever for the big one doesn’t have a family of birds nesting in it, or worse? Is there some kind of flue I’m supposed to open?”
“That’s easy enough to check,” Mick said.
Easy for you to say. “Sure, if you know what you’re looking for. And if it’s clear, what the heck do I burn in it?”
Mick appeared to be enjoying himself, Maura noted. “In the old days,” he began, “which were not that long ago, you’d have a piece of bog land, where you’d cut your own turf.”
“Yeah, right. Like I’m going to start doing that, even if I do have that piece of land. And isn’t peat kind of wet? How the heck do you make it burn?”
“Not many do, anymore, although there’s power plants that run off turf, sort of a combination of the old and the new. And yer right—you have to harvest the turf well ahead of time and stack it to dry, before you can hope to use it.”
“Little late to hear that, isn’t it? I’m going to make a cup of something hot, because I’m getting colder by the minute standing here and listening to you give me the history of heating in Ireland.” Maura stalked over to the stove—which she had managed to make work—and poured the water she had boiled into a metal teapot (inherited from Old Mick, along with the mismatched plates and cups) and threw in a couple of tea bags.
“Fair enough. You’ve the fireplace, and you can buy fuel at most petrol stations around here. You have yer choice of wood, coal, or turf. Or some mix of them.”
“Okay, that’s progress. Is one better than another?”
“Turf doesn’t give off much heat. Wood and coal are better. But you’ve another option as well.”
“Which is?” Maura stuck a spoon in the teapot, swirled the tea bags around, then poured one mug for Mick, then one for herself, to which she added sugar. She handed Mick his, then clutched her own with both hands.
Mick nodded toward the stove. “There’s yer heat.”
“Huh?” Maura knew that in the poorer areas of Boston, people had been known to turn on the oven and leave the door open, assuming the gas and power were still connected, but she didn’t think that applied here.
“Did you not wonder what those other dials were for?”
“Uh, no. I don’t do much cooking. I’ve figured out how to turn on the burners and the oven, but that’s about it.”
“The other side’s the heat. At least fer this room, and if you leave the door between open, the other down here. Mick never thought it was important to heat the upstairs rooms beyond whatever heat made its way up there. He had few overnight guests, as you might guess.”
“Okay,” Maura said dubiously, looking at the hulking stove in the corner next to the immense fireplace. “So why isn’t it warm?”
“Fer a start, you’ve not turned it on. And probably the oil tank’s dry. Mick only bought as much as he thought he needed.”
“I have an oil tank?” Maura asked.
“You do, out back.”
Great. Now she felt doubly stupid. “And how do I fill that?”
“I can give you the number of an oil service. You can talk to them about how much you might need fer the winter—they know this type of building well.”
“Is that what Bridget’s using?”
“Much the same. I see that her tank’s topped up. But I don’t fill it—there are those who are down and out who think nothing of siphoning off a bit, even from an old woman.”
“That’s a shame. Does my tank have a lock?”
“It might do—I haven’t looked at it lately. But odds are anyone who was set on getting into it could do it easily enough. Was there anything else you needed to know? Plumbing? Wiring?”
“Well, so far I’ve got light and hot water, and I’ve been billed for the power. The lawyer who helped me out with Mick’s will set that much up for me.”
“And you’ve a well for water, so no water rates. It’s really a simple system, you know.”
Maura sighed. “I figured it was, but I’m not mechanical. And as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I don’t spend a lot of time here, particularly by daylight, so I usually don’t think about it. Thanks for explaining things.”
“No problem. I’ll go pop in on Bridget now.”
“Does she know about John Tully?”
“I’d guess her friends have told her by now. She won’t admit it to me, but she spends a fair amount of time on the phone chatting with them.”
“Does she know the Tully family? Or is she related to them in any way? Because most of the people around here seem to be connected somehow.”
“Not that I recall. She’ll be rememberin’ that last time, though.”
“That was really sad. I can’t understand any man killing his own child—that’s not right.” Was there something about the isolation of the Irish countryside and the endless hard work of running a farm that caused depression severe enough to lead to something like that? She hoped not. The man had had a wife, and from what Maura had seen, people looked out for each other around here.
“It was that. But by all accounts, this is different. John’s a steady man, and he loved that boy—well, all the children, and the wife as well. The farm was doing well. Maybe the child will shed some light on it.”
“The kid’s three!” Maura protested. “What could he know?”
“Have you no memories from that time of your life?”
“Only patchy ones. I wish I had known my parents, but my father died not long after I was born, and my mother dumped me on my grandmother and disappeared. My grandmother assumed from the start that my mother, Helen, was not cut out for motherhood. Or working.”
“You’ve never tried to find her?” Mick asked.
“What for? She made her choice. And until Gran died, she knew where to find us, if she wanted to, because we never moved. Anyway, you can’t miss what you’ve never known. She’s never been real to me.”
“I’m sorry,” Mick said quietly. “It must have been a hard life fer yeh.”
She shrugged. How had the conversation drifted from heating the building to her parents? “I guess I’m not a good example for a happy family. But if the boy saw something upsetting, wouldn’t it make an impression on him?”
“Maybe, but you can’t have the gardaí and the rescue folk swoop down on the poor boy and throw questions at him. I only hope that his mother’s not so hysterical that she doesn’t listen to what he might say.”
Maura found herself wondering if Sean could connect with him. Sean was relatively young and, more important, he had a kind of unselfconscious innocence that might be less threatening to a child.
As if reading her mind, Mick said, “Yer man Sean might be a good man to talk to him.”
Maura bristled. “He’s not ‘mine.’”
“I’m thinkin’ he might like to be.”
Suddenly the room seemed smaller to Maura, and she realized how rarely she was alone with Mick. And there had been that one kiss, not so long before . . .
“He’s a friend. That’s all.” Maura tried hard not to sound defensive. She didn’t owe Mick Nolan any explanations.
Mick gave her a long look, but his only response was, “I’d best be getting over to me gran’s. Want me to open at the pub?”
“You take your time with Bridget. I might as well go in early—it’s usually warmer there. Maybe there’ll be some word about John Tully.”
“God willing. See you later, then.”
Maura shut the door behind him. So her stove was also her heat source? She’d never heard of such an arrangement, but it made sense. Too bad she couldn’t have figured that out for herself, without involving Mick. At least now he could give her the name of someone to call to get a supply of oil, and he could walk her through what to do. As for burning turf or coal or wood—that sounded so old-fashioned! Even though she recalled seeing bags of each of them stacked up outside the gas station on the road to Skibbereen. Maybe for tourists, who thought a peat fire would be charming, even if it didn’t provide much heat?
And why don’t you want to involve Mick? an annoying voice in her head demanded. Because she didn’t want to be involved with anyone right now, she told the voice. Herself. Sure, she knew that Sean was interested, and she liked him. They’d been out a couple of times. He was a good guy with a steady job. But she had too much going on in her life to consider getting involved with an Irishman.
Right, Maura, and that was your excuse months ago. How long will it take you to sort out your life, huh? As long as it takes, Maura thought. If only Mick hadn’t planted that kiss on her and then hadn’t followed up at all. What was she supposed to think? What the heck were the dating rules for Ireland? Mick was old enough to know them. If he wanted to make a move on her, what was he waiting for?
Why did you think that your life would be simple? the voice added. “Oh, shut up,” Maura muttered, and went to take a shower. At least the water would be hot.
Maura drove the few miles into Leap and let herself in the front door of the pub, not long after nine. Too early to open for business—or was it? Running a pub was about more than selling alcoholic drinks to people; it also involved serving as a kind of Information Central, especially when there was an event such as John Tully’s disappearance and people wanted news updates. Drinking hours were set by the government, but she could offer coffee and tea—and sympathy.
Still, she relished a little time alone in “her” pub. She was still surprised that the place belonged to her now, even after more than six months. She was more surprised that she’d managed to keep the place running and stayed solvent that long, thanks in no small part to the revival of a music tradition that Old Mick had let lapse and that she—with help from a diverse group of people—had recently revived. It seemed to be a success: there were bookings scheduled through the end of the year, with room for events that just popped up unexpectedly—which she had heard happened quite often in Leap and the surrounding area, although nobody had approached her about one yet. There was nothing scheduled for the coming weekend, but she made a quick tour of the back room, just to make sure everything was in good shape. It was. While she had three people working for her—Rose, Jimmy, and Mick—she had made sure that Rose didn’t end up doing all the cleanup. Jimmy and Mick, however they chose to split the duties, were surprisingly good at making the place presentable, and even washing up the glasses. All good.
The place was certainly oddly laid out for a pub, but that was probably due to the narrow plot of land, squeezed between a main road that had no doubt been there for centuries and the steep rock face behind. There were two main rooms, one behind the other, running parallel to the road. The main bar was in front, but there was a second, smaller one in the back room. A kitchen lay off to the rear, but it hadn’t been used for a while, and at the opposite end were the loos. Maura had taken a quick glance at the rooms on the second floor, shuddered, and refused to return since. Old Billy took up the last of the space in the building, occupying two small rooms at the far end, one up, one down.
She had just returned to the front room when she saw a stranger at the door. Maura debated briefly about telling him the pub wasn’t open yet, but decided that she might as well let him in. He might know something about John Tully. She unlocked the door, and the man stepped inside, smiling broadly. In his forties, maybe fifty, casually dressed, carrying a binder with papers sticking out unevenly.
“I’m looking for Maura Donovan?” he said. Not a local accent. Maybe someone from the media, looking for a human-interest story about John Tully’s disappearance? But if that was the case, why would he know her name?
“I’m Maura. What can I do for you?”
“The name’s Brendan Quinn. I’m your liquor distributor.”
She couldn’t have named the distributor if someone had paid her, and she couldn’t recall seeing this man in the pub in the time she’d been there. “Mick Nolan usually handles ordering. He’ll be in later.”
“But you’re the new owner, are you not?” The man’s charming smile stayed in place.
“I am. But I can’t tell you much. If you know who I am, you know I’ve been running this place less than a year. Even so, from what I’ve noticed most of what people want here is Guinness, not hard liquor. Isn’t that handled separately?”
“It is. And I know that most come in for a pint, not the hard stuff, but I like to get to know my customers, and of course I’m hoping to persuade you to try a few new things.”
Good luck with that, Maura thought. “I’m happy to listen to whatever you have to say, but no promises.”
“I understand,” the man said. “May we sit?”
“Why not?” Maura led him to a table and gestured toward the chair. “Is Leap part of your regular circuit? Do you cover Cork only, or more of the country?”
“I go where the business takes me, Maura. You’ve already mentioned the black stuff, but what else do the folk here ask for?”
“A second pint. As you can see, I’ve got a few whiskeys on the shelves there, but you can tell they’re kind of dusty. It’s mainly the tourists who ask for it, like they think it’s part of the Irish experience—you know, come to Ireland and drink Irish whiskey, once at least. And tourist season is over for now.”
“I understand. Tell me, which whiskey do you prefer?”
Maura had to give the man points for trying, but he wasn’t going to get much satisfaction from her. “Uh, none of them? I’m not much of a drinker myself.”
“That’s probably wise, with you running a pub and all. But how can you recommend a whiskey to your customers?”
“Like I said, I don’t get asked much, and those who do ask for whiskey usually know what they want.”
“A story I’ve heard before, Maura.” Brendan settled comfortably in his seat, and Maura wondered how long he planned to stay. “Tell me, what do you know about Irish whiskey, in general?”
“Not a lot. I know it’s not as snobby as Scotch whisky, but nobody comes here looking for that. I assume you’re going to educate me?”
“Only if you have the time. I try not to be a pushy salesman, as you Americans would say. But I’ll be up-front with you—whiskey drinking is on the decline in this country. The excise rates are killing the distillers, up more than forty percent in the last couple of years. Do you know, an American tourist can buy the stuff cheaper back home than in a shop here? But odd as it may seem, at the same time there’s a lot of new distillers coming online and investing in their product. We want to keep that growth coming, for it brings jobs with it, not to mention a bit of pride in our own product. I’m just trying to do my part to help the economy—and to keep my job, of course.” He flashed a grin at her, and Maura found herself smiling back. “And,” Brendan added, “you’ve got one of those new distillers in your own backyard here. Surely you want to support them and see them prosper?”
“This is the first I’ve heard of them. Listen, I do know Ireland needs jobs—every country does these days. But isn’t there a lot of heavy drinking in the country too?”
“I won’t lie to you—there is. I can quote you statistics if you care to hear them.” Brendan went on without waiting for Maura to answer. “Far more than a million people—that’s nearly a quarter of the population of the Irish republic—drink to excess, and maybe ten percent of those are what you’d have to call alcoholics, addicted to the stuff. Most of the alcohol here is consumed during binge-drinking sessions, and much of that amongst young people.”
“You know, you’re not doing yourself any favors, telling me that most people in this country drink too much. In any case, my target audience is not made up of alcoholics and kids,” Maura pointed out.
“Of course not. But more than half of all drinking takes place in a pub or club or hotel or restaurant—that is, outside the home. Now, tell me, Maura Donovan, how do you find yourself running a pub that serves alcohol in the face of those numbers?”
She’d never really thought about it, Maura realized. She’d just fallen into owning the pub and kept on doing what had always been done at Sullivan’s—serving drinks. Did she have a moral issue with that? No, she decided. “For a start, I inherited it, and I needed the job. But that’s not what you’re asking, right? Okay, I’m still here because a good pub is about more than drinking alcohol and getting blind drunk. It’s about relaxing with friends or sharing information about the community with other people.” Like now—and where were all the busybodies who knew what was going on with the Tully search? Shouldn’t someone have come by with an update by now? “For a lot of people, a glass or two of something helps loosen them up. Just because I don’t drink, doesn’t mean I don’t understand why people do it, and as long as they keep it under control, I’m good with it. I happen to know that liquor makes me stupid and then it puts me to sleep, but I’ve spent enough time around bars to see that it makes other people happier. And I don’t let things get out of hand at Sullivan’s.” And I’ve got a garda friend to call if things really got scary. Which they hadn’t yet.
“Well said. And might I add to that, drinking a fine whiskey is more about savoring the drink, not pouring it down your throat as fast as possible. It can be a pleasure in its own right. All I’m saying to you now is that you ought to know what the stuff tastes like, so you can make an informed recommendation to anyone who asks.”
Maura eyed Brendan warily. “And of course you want me to buy one bottle of everything you’ve got, just so I can taste them all?”
“I wouldn’t say no if you’re offering, but that wasn’t what I had in mind. Seeing this place, I’m guessing that might squeeze your purse dry, right? My thought was, might we do a tasting? For you and whatever of your staff might care to take part?”
“And when could we do that?” Maura protested. “We work every day.”
“One morning, maybe?”
Maura snorted. “Yeah, you want us all to get drunk before lunch.”
Brendan looked sorrowful. “Ah, Maura, can’t you set aside the word ‘drunk’? Sure and you’d not be drinking enough of anything to become drunk. Or any of the other colorful terms we Irish favor.”
“Such as?” Maura asked, in spite of herself.
“Fluthered, bollixed, blethered, banjaxed, scuttered, poleaxed or ossified. Those are the creative ones. I’m sure you’re more familiar with some of the other more ordinary terms, like tanked or soused or wasted,” Brendan said, grinning at her.
Maura had to laugh. “Well, any of yours is prettier than just saying ‘drunk,’ but the result’s the same, isn’t it?”
“It is that. But I’m asking only that you try a few things. That’s why it’s called a tasting.”
“Let me think about it.” No way was she going to commit right now. After all, Brendan was a salesman, even if he was a charming and funny one. Maura looked around: it wasn’t ten o’clock yet, and nobody apart from this Brendan guy had come pounding on the door. “Since I seem to have time to talk at the moment, what do I need to know about Irish whiskey?”
Brendan rubbed his hands together eagerly. “I was hoping you’d ask. There are several forms of it: grain whiskey, used most often in blended whiskey, pot still made either entirely from malted barley or from a mixture of malted and unmalted barley, single malt, and single grain. All these must be distilled and aged in Ireland to be called Irish whiskey . . .”
Once started, Brendan showed no signs of slowing, and Maura began listening with only half an ear while she fretted over what was happening with the search for John Tully and whether his son had been able to contribute anything useful. How did Irish police interrogate a three-year-old? Poor child. But if his daddy came home all right, he might remember the whole thing as a big adventure, rather than the day Daddy disappeared forever. Like hers had.
Brendan was still talking as Mick came in, and he finally broke off to greet Mick. “Ah, Mick Nolan, good to see you again.”
“Brendan,” Mick said, less warmly. “You haven’t been by fer a while. Business slow?”
“I’d tell you I missed your handsome face or that I wanted to meet this lovely lady here, but you’re closer to the truth than I’d like. Still, you’ve badly neglected Maura’s education when it comes to whiskey, so I’ve been filling her in.”
“We’ve little call for it here,” Mick told him.
“So she said, but she can’t help me change that if she doesn’t know the stuff.”
Maura interrupted him. “Anything new on the search, Mick?” Although she wasn’t sure why she expected him to know anything.
He surprised her. “No sign of the man yet, but he’s not come floating ashore.”
It took Maura a moment to realize he was saying that the searchers hadn’t found a body—yet. “Wait—how did you hear?”
“A friend called me gran and gave her the story.”
Of course, Maura thought. The Irish network at work. “How’s the boy?”
“He’s sayin’ that he and his da saw a big white boat with some men on it. Of course, ‘big’ is kind of vague when yer a small child.”
“So how’d he end up on the beach, without his father?”
“He told his ma that the men stopped and talked to John, and then his da told him to wait there until he came back for him. Only he didn’t come back.”
“So John was alive, with some other men, right? But no sign of him since?”
“Nor of a big white boat of any description anywhere nearby, although it could be anywhere. Or the child has a busy imagination.”
Which would she prefer? Maura wondered. That someone really had sailed off with John Tully on board, leaving the child behind, or that the child was trying to make up a pretty story rather than accepting his father had gone off and left him? She shivered. Something like that should not happen to a child.
“Did the gardaí ask the child to draw a picture of the boat?” Brendan, silent until now, suddenly asked.
“Why would they do that?”
Excerpted from "A Turn for the Bad"
Copyright © 2016 Sheila Connolly.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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