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By Graham Masterton
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2015 Graham Masterton
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'Did you hear that?' said Cliodhna.
'What?' said Brian. He was turning around and around in circles, trying to see where their Irish wolfhound Christy had gone. They were high on the cliffs near Nohaval Cove. A strong blustery breeze was blowing and granite-grey clouds were tumbling in towards them from the south-west, trailing sheets of rain beneath them.
'I'm sure I can hear someone screaming,' said Cliodhna. She pushed back the hood of her red waterproof jacket so that her blonde hair flew up. 'It sounds like it's coming from down there, on the beach.'
Brian stopped circling and listened. 'Nah,' he said, after a while. 'I don't hear nothing.'
'I could have sworn it was someone screaming.'
'Christy!' Brian shouted. 'Where the feck are you, you stupid gobdaw!'
'You shouldn't talk to him like that, Brian,' Cliodhna protested.
'Why? He's not going to start talking like that himself, is he?'
'No, but it's disrespectful. He's one of God's creations, just like us.'
Brian was just about to shout 'Christy!' again when the wind dropped for a moment and he heard a hoarse, high-pitched shriek from somewhere below them. It reminded him of the appalling cry that a fellow bus driver had made when he had been crushed against the wall of Capwell Bus Depot by a reversing 214. It was a cry of agony and spiritual hopelessness, the cry of somebody who knows they are so severely injured that they are inevitably going to die.
'Mother of God,' he said. He ventured to the edge of the cliff, as near to the edge as he dared, with the long grass lashing against his legs. There was a small beach below, but the cliff overhung it so much that it was out of sight. All he could see were the jagged black rocks and the sea foaming between them as the tide came in. The sea itself was a dark, poisonous green.
'That's never Christy, is it?' said Cliodhna. 'Don't tell me he fell off the cliff.'
Brian came away from the edge, shaking his head. 'No. No, I wouldn't say so. It doesn't sound like Christy at all. More like a man, I'd say. I'd better go down and take a look.'
'Maybe we should call for an ambulance. I mean it sounds like he's hurt, doesn't it?'
'Well, just let me take a sconce first. I doubt you'll be getting a signal out here, anyway.'
Brian made his way back until he reached a narrow gully between two massive serrated rocks. It had been a few years since he had climbed down there himself, but it looked as if people were still using the same steep path to reach the beach. There was even an empty Sanor bottle wedged in a cleft in one of the rocks.
As he started to slither downwards, clinging on to gorse bushes and clumps of grass to stop himself from losing his footing, he heard the scream again – harsh and throaty and filled with despair. He turned and looked back at Cliodhna. She had her hand pressed over her mouth, as if she wanted to call him back but knew that he had to go on.
The clouds had rolled over now and blotted out the sun, and the first few spots of rain began to fall. Brian edged his way around an overhanging rock, but then the path dropped so steeply that he was forced to face the cliff and climb down backwards, as if he were going down a ladder.
When the path levelled out more, he was able to turn around, and for the first time he could see the beach. It was a V-shaped cove, no more than sixty or seventy metres across. Its sharply pointed rocks looked as if they had been deliberately embedded in the sand to repel invaders.
Now, however, only the tips of the rocks were visible, because the whole beach was heaped with the bodies of dead horses. Brian couldn't even count how many. Most of them were brown and bloated, though others had rotted until they were no more than sacks of hairy skin with bones protruding from them. He could see hooves and manes and tangled tails. There was surprisingly little smell, but then it was winter and the cold sea must have washed over them with every tide.
He didn't climb down any further, but took his iPhone out of the pocket of his windcheater and took six or seven pictures.
'Brian!' called Cliodhna. 'Brian, are you all right? Christy's not down there, is he?'
'No. No, he's not. I'm coming back up!'
Brian had just started to climb back up to the top of the cliff when there was yet another scream, so loud and so close that he jerked back in shock, his boots scrabbling on the rock as he tried to stop himself from sliding all the way down to the beach.
He turned around again and saw that one of the horses had lifted its head, and was staring at him with one bloodshot eye. It let out a low squeal like deflating bagpipes, and then its head dropped back down again. Jesus, thought Brian. The poor creature's still alive. What in the name of all that's holy am I going to do now?
He struggled his way back up. By the time he reached the top of the cliff it was raining hard. Cliodhna was standing with her hood up and her shoulders hunched.
'What's wrong?' she said, when she saw the look on Brian's face. 'What's down there?'
'Horses,' he told her. He took out his iPhone again to see if there was a signal, but he knew it was hopeless. They would have to drive to the nearest house and phone the emergency services from there.
'Horses?' said Cliodhna. 'What do you mean, horses?'
'Horses. A whole hape of horses. All of them dead, of course, except the one that's screaming like that.'
'What are you going to do?'
'Call for a vet, of course. They'll have to put it down, won't they? I can't give a fecking horse the kiss of life.'
He looked around, one hand raised to shield his eyes from the rain. 'Where's that Christy? I could take a stick to that fecking dog sometimes!'
'I'll stay here if you want to go and make a phone call,' said Cliodhna, and as if to emphasize the urgency of their situation the horse screamed yet again. Perhaps it was the echo from the cliffs, but it sounded the same as when Brian had first heard it, like a man screaming.
'Okay,' he said. 'But stay here, all right, and don't go too close to the edge there. You won't be able to see anything and I don't want you ending up with all of them horses.'
He started walking towards the corner of the brown ploughed fields where he had left his Volvo estate. As he came closer to it, he saw that Christy was sitting next to it, grey and bedraggled and soaking wet, with his tongue hanging out. When he saw Brian, he stood up and shook himself, but stayed where he was, as if he all he wanted to do was get into the car and go home.
Brian stopped and stuck two fingers in his mouth to give Cliodhna a piercing whistle, and beckoned her to come and join him.
He turned back to Christy, who made a strange, creaking noise in the back of his throat. Brian thought, You don't like this place, do you, boy? You know that something fierce terrible has happened here. Seems like you're not at all the gobdaw I thought you were.CHAPTER 2
When Katie came out of the small toilet at the side of her office she found Detective Inspector O'Rourke standing beside her desk, holding a blue manila folder.
'Oh, Francis,' she said. 'I'm sorry if I've kept you waiting.'
'Not a bother, ma'am,' said Detective Inspector O'Rourke. Then, 'Are you all right, ma'am? You're looking a little shook, if you don't mind my saying so.'
Katie did her best to tidy her hair with her fingers and tug her jacket straight. 'I'm grand altogether, Francis, thanks. We went for a curry last night and I think I must have eaten a bad prawn.'
'Look, I won't tell you about the last time I had a curry,' smiled Detective Inspector O'Rourke. 'My friends and family didn't have sight of me for a day or three, that's all I can say.'
Katie sat down and said, 'What do you have there?'
'These? Oh, these are the figures you asked for on immigrant convictions. Sorry they took so long. But we've just had a call in from the Mount Hill Nursing Home in Montenotte. One of their residents has been found deceased and the doctor who examined her says there could be suspicious circumstances.'
Katie felt her stomach tighten again. She closed her eyes and pressed her hand over her mouth and wondered if she needed to go back to the toilet, but after a few moments the nausea subsided, although she felt both chilly and sweaty.
'You're sure you're okay, ma'am?' said Detective Inspector O'Rourke, cocking his head sympathetically to one side.
'Yes, I'm fine. I'll get over it. Who's the deceased?'
'Female, aged eighty-three. Found in her bed this morning by nursing staff. They assumed at first it was natural causes. Well, it's a retirement home, like, so of course their residents are deceasing on a pretty regular basis.'
'So what led the doctor to think her death might be suspicious?'
'Well, he was called to certify that she had passed away. But when he gave her a brief examination he discovered that a foreign object had been inserted into her.'
'A foreign object? What kind of a foreign object?'
Detective Inspector O'Rourke ran his finger around his shirt collar, as if he were finding this difficult to say.
'It was a figurine, like,' said Detective Inspector O'Rourke. 'The Blessed Virgin, as a matter of fact. The doctor extricated it, out of respect, but apart from that he hasn't touched the victim in any way at all.'
'She had a figurine of the Virgin Mary inside her?'
'Somewhat sacrilegious, like, but yes. Detective Sergeant Ni Nuallán and Detective O'Donovan will be on their way up there to talk to the manager and the nursing staff, and I've advised the Technical Bureau, too. Sergeant Ni Nuallán has notified the coroner's office, of course.'
'Do we know who she was, the deceased?' asked Katie.
'She hasn't been formally identified yet, but apparently she was Sister Bridget Healy, late of the Bon Sauveur Convent at Saint Luke's Cross.'
'That name rings a bell,' said Katie. 'Why does that name ring a bell?'
'I have no idea at all, ma'am,' said Detective Inspector O'Rourke. 'I don't generally have much to do with nuns.'
Katie stood up. 'I think I'll go up there myself, just to get a sense of this. Why don't you come with me?'
'Of course,' said Detective Inspector O'Rourke. Then, 'There's something about this that's making your nostrils twitch, isn't there, ma'am?'
'Whenever I hear "suspicious death" and "convent" in the same sentence, Francis, I always catch the reek of something rotten. Maybe I'm wrong in this case, but I'd like to go up there and have a sniff around.'
'Whatever you say, ma'am. Here.' Detective Inspector O'Rourke handed her the folder that he had brought in. He had been appointed here to Anglesea Street Garda station only seven weeks ago, and Katie was beginning to trust him and rely on him. He was short and stocky, with chestnut hair that was shaved short at the sides, so that his crimson ears stuck out, but wavy on top. His face was round, with a blob of a nose, and he had very pale-green eyes, with eyebrows that appeared to be permanently raised, as if he were pleasantly surprised at something that he had just found out. He looked more like somebody's good-natured uncle than a Garda inspector, but Katie had soon come to realize that he was astute, and a good judge of character, and extremely tough-minded.
She had met his wife, Maeve, too, and she seemed to be equally tough-minded. Katie would have found it difficult to pick the odds between them if it came to a domestic fight.
He tapped the folder with his finger. 'Eight per cent less immigrants were successfully prosecuted over the last six months,' he told her. 'Thirteen per cent less illegal immigrants were deported. Just thought you'd like to have confirmation that we're fighting a losing battle.'
'Don't I know it,' said Katie. 'Anyway, we're having a meeting with Nasc tomorrow afternoon about immigrant crime and we can discuss it then. There's still too many saintly do-gooders who think that expelling an immigrant for rape or robbery is the same as transportation to Australia back in the famine days. 'The Fields of Athenry' and all that.'
Detective Inspector O'Rourke pulled a face. 'Myself, I can't see much of a parallel between Michael stealing Trevelyan's corn to feed his starving children and Bootaan stabbing a pregnant woman in broad daylight because she wouldn't hand over her moby.'
Katie went over to the coat stand and took down her dark-maroon duffel coat. She wondered for a moment if she ought to go back to the toilet, but her stomach seemed to have settled now. She had been taking vitamin B6 capsules and drinking ginger tea, and she certainly wasn't suffering as much sickness as she had with Seamus, God rest his tiny soul.
* * *
Montenotte was on the steep north side of the city and on clear days the Mount Hill Nursing Home enjoyed a panoramic view of the River Lee below and the city centre and the hazy green hills beyond it. This morning was foggy and cold as a graveyard, but the fog was gilded with sunlight and Katie expected that it would soon evaporate.
The nursing home had been converted from a convent built in the 1880s for the care of the poor and the elderly. Its grey-painted frontage was over eighty metres long and three storeys high, with dormer windows in its dark slate roof. Two Garda patrol cars were parked outside, as well as a white van from the Technical Bureau and an ambulance.
As they turned into the car park from the Middle Glanmire Road, Katie was relieved to see no TV vans and no reporters' vehicles that she recognized. She wasn't in the mood for fielding questions about the suspicious death of an elderly sister from the Bon Sauveur.
Detective Sergeant Ni Nuallán was waiting for Katie and Detective Inspector O'Rourke on the front steps. She had grown her blonde hair longer and pinned it up into a pleat, and she was wearing a short-belted navy-blue cashmere overcoat. She was puffy-eyed and wearing no make-up, but she still looked pretty.
'There's not much to see here, ma'am,' she said. 'Just an old dead woman and a whole lot of other old folks who'll soon be going upstairs after her.'
'Your coat's only massive, Kyna,' said Katie, laying a hand on her shoulder. 'I could do with a coat like that myself.'
'Oh, thanks. It's only Marks and Spencer's but they were knocking off thirty-five euros and how could I say no to that, like?'
'Have you talked to the staff yet?'
Detective Sergeant Ni Nuallán took out her notebook. 'I've had a word with the manager, Noel Pardoe, and Nevina Cormack, who's the director of nursing. Also Dr McNally, who was first called when Sister Bridget was found, but he's had to leave to see a patient. He's given me his mobile number, though, in case.'
She pushed open the heavy, varnished oak doors that led into the care home's vestibule and Katie and Detective Inspector O'Rourke followed her inside. A flustered-looking man in a sagging brown tweed jacket was standing by the reception desk, talking to the iron-haired receptionist. He was bulky and untidy, with his tie crooked and his white shirt gaping to show his belly. His hair was the colour and texture of Shredded Wheat and his skin was still faintly orange from a summer holiday suntan.
'Mr Pardoe, this is Detective Superintendent Maguire and this is Detective Inspector O'Rourke,' said Kyna.
Noel Pardoe held out a pudgy hand with a gold signet ring. 'Well, well. Detective Superintendent, is it? I wouldn't have thought that Sister Bridget's passing was sufficiently mysterious to bring out the top brass.'
Katie ignored his hand and gave him the briefest of smiles. 'Every suspicious death merits my attention, Mr Pardoe, even if I don't always show up in person.'
'Of course. I didn't mean to suggest that you wouldn't be giving this matter your fullest attention. I'm quite sure you will. But in spite of the one unusual aspect of Sister Bridget's demise ...'
'You mean the figurine?'
'Well, yes, the figurine,' said Noel Pardoe, licking his lips as if the word "figurine" actually tasted unpleasant. 'Regardless of that, you have to understand that our nursing staff give our guests the most meticulous care and attention, and it would surprise me hugely to discover that Sister Bridget passed away from anything other than natural causes. She had a weak heart, and liver problems, as I explained to your sergeant here, and none of us expected her to be with us on this Earth for very much longer, God bless her.'
Katie said, 'Let's leave the cause of death to the coroner, shall we? I'd like to see her now, if I may.'
'Of course. Not a problem. Your technical people are up there now.'
'I'd also like a word with your director of nursing after.'
'Yes, of course. I'll tell Nevina that you're here.'
Excerpted from Blood Sisters by Graham Masterton. Copyright © 2015 Graham Masterton. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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