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Blood hot on her hands. Red. The brightest red Galya had ever seen. Her mind tilted, her vision disappearing down a black tunnel.
No, don’t faint.
She gasped, pulled air in, and with it a copper smell that went to her stomach and grabbed it like a fist. Bile rose to her throat. She swallowed.
The man’s legs shook as she tried to withdraw the shard of glass, a strip of bed sheet wrapped around one end to form a grip for the improvised knife. She jerked. His eyes gaped. She twisted, feeling the glass grind against a hardness deep inside his neck until something snapped. The blade slipped free of the new mouth it had opened beneath his chin. Red bubbled from it and spread across his Lithuania football shirt, swamping the bright yellow.
Galya stepped back as the blood advanced across the linoleum flooring toward her bare feet. It licked at her toes, warm kisses from the dying man who slid down the wall as his eyes dimmed.
A scream rushed up from her belly, but she clamped her free hand over mouth, trapped it behind her teeth. The hand was slick on her lips, and then she tasted it.
Galya’s gut flexed, and vomit streamed between her fingers. Her legs dissolved. The floor came at her like a train. She sprawled in the wetness and the heat, tried to scramble away from it, but it was too slippery against her bare skin.
The scream came again, and this time she could not hold it back. Even though she knew it would kill her, Galya let it burst free, a terrified bird escaping from the cage of her chest.
The howl dragged every last swallow of air from her lungs. She inhaled, coughed, breathed in again, brought her mind back under control.
Galya listened through the rushing in her ears.
Silence, save for the choked bubbling from the man’s throat. Then a knock on the bedroom door. Tears came to her eyes, frightened little girl tears, but she blinked them away. She was not a little girl, hadn’t been since Papa died almost a decade ago.
Think, think, think.
The glass blade still rested in her bloodied fingers, the tip missing, the rag grip soaked through. Maybe she could keep them back. They would see their dead friend and know she could do the same to them.
Another knock, louder. The door handle rattled.
Fear cut through her. No, she could not keep them back with this piece of glass. Again, the urge to weep. She pushed it away once more.
“Tomas?” The voice slurred out some more words. She knew a little Lithuanian, but not enough to understand the drunken questions coming from the other side of the door.
“You all right in there?” Another voice, the English spoken with the hard twang of this strange, cold place. “Don’t be leaving any marks on that girl.”
How many were there? Galya had listened to the voices as they arrived. Two spoke Lithuanian. One of whom now lay beside her on the floor. The other English with an accent strong enough for her to hear he was Irish. One of the two brothers, she thought. After a week of listening to their conversations through the locked door, she had learned one was named Mark, the other Sam. Only one of them was here tonight.
“Tomas?” A fist hammered the wood. “Listen, stop fucking about in there. I’m going to kick this door in if you don’t come and open it.”
Galya got to her knees, then up on her feet, the air chilling the wetness on her stomach and thighs. The plain gray sweatshirt and pair of jogging bottoms they’d given her lay on the dressing table. She grabbed them, juggled the glass from hand to hand as she pulled them on, feeling the fabric stick to the blood. Foolish, perhaps, but she felt safer clothed.
The door rattled with each thump. The other Lithuanian cursed beyond it.
“Fuck’s sake,” the Irishman said.
Galya blinked as the door jerked in its frame, the noise booming in the bedroom. She backed toward the corner, gripping the glass knife in front of her. Another boom, and the light bulb swayed on its cord above her head. She wedged herself into the angle where the two walls met. The glass quivered in front of her eyes.
She prayed to her grandmother, the woman who had always protected her and her brother, ever since they had been orphaned. The old woman had been Mama to them for as long as Galya could remember. Now Mama lay in the ground hundreds of miles away where she could no longer give protection. Galya prayed to Mama’s departed soul, even though she did not believe in such things. She prayed that Mama would look down on her granddaughter and take pity, Oh please Mama, come down and take me away please Mama oh pl—
The door burst inward, slammed against the wall and bounced back. The Lithuanian blocked it with his shoulder as he entered. The Irishman followed. They stopped when they saw the dead man.
The Lithuanian made the sign of the cross.
The Irishman said, “Fuck me.”
Galya shrank into the corner, made herself as small as she could, as if they wouldn’t see her cowering there.
The Lithuanian cursed and shook his head, his eyes watering. He rubbed his big hand across his lips.
“Jesus, Darius,” the Irishman asked, “is he dead?”
“Look like yes,” Darius said.
“What do we do?”
Darius shook his head. “Don’t know.”
Sam, she was sure this was Sam, said, “Fuck me.”
“We all dead,” Darius said.
“Arturas,” the Lithuanian said. “He kill us both. You brother also.”
Sam said, “But we didn’t—”
“No matter. We all dead.” He pointed a thick finger to the corner. “’Cause of her.”
Sam turned to look at Galya. She raised the glass blade, cut the air in front of her.
“Why you do this thing?” Darius asked, his face slack with despair.
She hissed, the glass sweeping in an arc at his eye level.
“Don’t waste your breath,” Sam said. “She doesn’t speak English.”
Galya understood every word. She choked back a giggle at the deception, felt her mind flutter like a flag in the wind, ready to tear itself free. For a moment she thought she might let it go, let insanity carry her away, but Mama had not raised her to give in so easily. She bared her teeth and showed them the blade again.
“What are we going to do?” Sam asked.
“Get rid him,” the Lithuanian said.
Sam’s eyes brightened. “What, dump him?”
“We say Arturas, you brother come here, take her out of this place, no come back. Arturas ask where go, we say we know nothing.”
“Will he believe us?” Sam asked.
The Lithuanian shrugged. “We say real thing, we dead. Arturas don’t believe, we dead also. What different?”
Sam nodded to the corner. “What about her?”
“What you think?” the Lithuanian said.
Sam blinked and stared at him.
“Go.” The Lithuanian stepped aside. “Take stiklas from her.”
“Take what off her?” Sam asked.
“Stiklas, stiklas.” The Lithuanian searched for the word. “Glass. Take from her.”
Sam approached, hands up. “Easy, love. Take it easy.”
Galya slashed at him, almost caught his forearm.
“Shite!” Sam retreated.
Darius pushed him back. “Take from her.”
“Away and shite, you get it off her.”
The Lithuanian cursed and bulled his way past. Galya swiped the glass blade through the air in front of him, but he caught her wrist in one easy movement. He twisted once, hard, and the blade dropped to the floor. His thick arm snaked around her throat, and she smelled leather and cheap aftershave with her last breath before everything fell away into darkness.
She dreamed of Mama’s coarse hands, and warm bread, and a time when she only knew Belfast as that wretched place they sometimes talked about on the radio.
Screams woke Detective Inspector Jack Lennon. He shot upright on the couch. How long ago had he dozed off? Not that long. The film still played on the television.
Another scream and he was on his feet. It had been a week or more since Ellen had last erupted from her sleep, howling at the nightmares that dwelled there.
His daughter had witnessed more suffering than any human ever should. Lennon was constantly surprised that she could function at all, that she had the inner strength to go on. Maybe it was the stubborn streak she had inherited from the mother who died beside her. He had left Marie McKenna’s body to the flames when he carried Ellen unconscious out of that house near Drogheda. She never spoke of what happened there. Perhaps she didn’t remember, or simply didn’t want to recount the events. Either way, Lennon was relieved. He wasn’t sure he could bear to hear it from her lips.
Alert now, Lennon went to her bedroom, opened the door, and flicked on the light. Ellen stared at him from under her twisted duvet, no hint of recognition on her face. She screamed again.
Lennon knelt beside the bed, placed a hand on her small cheek. He had learned not to take the child in his arms when she awoke pursued by night terrors, the shock of it too much for her.
“It’s me,” he said. “Daddy’s here. You’re all right.”
Ellen blinked at him, her face softening. He’d almost forgotten how old she looked when she emerged from her nightmares, a girl of seven carrying centuries of pain behind her eyes.
“You were only dreaming,” Lennon said. “You’re safe.”
Her fingers went to her throat, brushed the skin as if it were tender.
“What did you dream about?” he asked.
Ellen frowned and burrowed into her pillow, pulling the duvet up so he could only see the crown of her head.
“You can tell me,” Lennon said. “Might make you feel better.”
She peeked out. “I was all cold and wet, then I couldn’t breathe. I was choking.”
“Uh-uh. Like something around my neck. Then there was this old lady. She wanted to talk to me, but I ran away.”
“Was she scary?”
“Then why did you run away?”
“Don’t know,” Ellen said.
“You think you can get back to sleep?”
“Can you try?”
Lennon stroked her hair. “Good girl,” he said.
He watched her in silence as her eyelids drooped and her breathing steadied. The ring of the telephone in the living room caused her to stir for a moment. He held his breath until she settled, exhaled when it seemed the phone had not woken her, and went to answer it.
“It’s Bernie McKenna here,” she said, her voice hard.
They had spoken on the phone and in person more times than he could count over the last few months, but still she introduced herself with that stiff formality.
“How are you?” Lennon asked. His only interest in her well-being was to gauge how the conversation might flow. Their discussions rarely went well.
“I’m fine,” she said. She did not enquire after Lennon’s health. “What about Ellen?” she asked instead.
“What about her?” Lennon regretted the hostility that edged into his voice as soon as he’d spoken.
“No need for that tone,” Bernie said, the words delivered in a staccato rhythm, as if squeezed through tight lips. “She’s my grandniece. I’ve every right to ask after her, more right than you—”
“You didn’t want to know her for six years,” Lennon said. He winced.
“Neither did you,” she said.
Lennon swallowed his anger. “Well, she’s fine. She’s in bed.”
“Any more dreams?”
Bernie clucked. “Her eyes were hanging on her last time I saw the cratur.”
“Some nights are better than others,” Lennon said.
“Did you call Dr. Moran for her?”
“My GP has her on the waiting list for the child psych—”
“But she’ll be waiting for months. Dr. Moran can see her straight away.”
Lennon saw the rest of the conversation spreading out in front of him. He closed his eyes. “I can’t afford to go private,” he said.
“I can,” Bernie said. “Michael saw us right. I can spare whatever she needs.”
Lennon had heard rumors of the substantial estate Michael McKenna’s kin had inherited when he got his brains blown out last year. He didn’t doubt Bernie could afford to pass on a few shekels, but the idea of it burned him.
“I don’t want Michael McKenna’s money,” Lennon said.
“And what’s wrong with my brother’s money?”
“I know where it came from.”
He listened to her hard breathing for a few seconds before she said, “I don’t have to take that from the likes of you.”
“Then don’t,” Lennon said. “I’ve things to do, so if—”
“Hold your horses,” Bernie said. “I haven’t even got asking what I called you for.”
He sighed loud enough for her to hear. “All right. What?”
“We talked about this already. Ellen’s spending the day with—”
“But her granny wants to see her. That poor woman’s been through hell. Ellen’s all she’s got left of her own daughter. What’s the sense in making the child spend the day all alone in that flat of yours?”
“She won’t be alone. She’ll be with me.”
“She should be with her family,” Bernie said. “Her grandmother, her cousins, all of our ones will be here. Let her have a nice day. A happy day. Just because you’re miserable, don’t make her miserable too.”
“I’m taking her to see her grandmother—my mother—then she’s spending the day with me. We’re having dinner with Susan from upstairs, her and her wee girl, Lucy. They’re best friends. She’ll be happy here.”
“You’re taking her to your mother? Sure, what’s the point of that? Your mother hasn’t the wit to know her own children when they’re in front of her, let alone—”
“That’s enough,” Lennon said, his throat tightening. “I have to go.”
“But what about Chr—”
He hung up and placed the handset back on the coffee table, fighting the urge to throw it against the wall. How many times would he have to argue this out with Bernie McKenna? Ever since Marie died, her family had been circling, waiting for him to slip up so they could claim his daughter for their own.
True, he hadn’t been a father to the girl for the first six years of her life, but they had been no more a family to her. Marie’s people had cut her off when she took up with him, a cop, long before Republicans changed the stance they’d held for decades and acknowledged the legitimacy of the police service. Until then, any young Catholic who joined the police immediately became a target for assassination, and anyone who associated with them risked being ostracised from their community. Marie had done just that, and he had repaid her sacrifice by abandoning her when she fell pregnant. These arguments only served to remind him that they had all failed Ellen, and they always left him wishing he had some moral high ground he could take. But there was none. His was the worst betrayal of all, and Bernie McKenna would always hold that over him. Anger bubbled in him after every call, and only force of will would quell it.
Before he could fully calm himself, the phone rang again. He snatched it from the coffee table, ranting before he hit the answer button. “For Christ’s sake, you’re going to wake her up. I am not discussing this anymore, so for the last time, you can—”
“—shove Christmas up your—”
Lennon paused. “Who’s this?”
“Chief Inspector Uprichard.”
Lennon sat down on the couch, covered his eyes with his free hand. “No,” he said.
“I need you in, Jack,” Uprichard said.
“No,” Lennon said. “Not again. I told you, didn’t I? We agreed on this. I’m not doing nights over Christmas. I can’t.”
“DI Shilliday’s taken ill,” Uprichard said. “I’ve no one else to cover for him.”
“No,” Lennon said.
“It’ll be an easy night. It’s quiet out. You can sleep in your office. Just so I have someone on site, that’s all.”
“No,” Lennon said, but there was no conviction behind it.
“I’m not really asking you, Jack,” Uprichard said, his voice hardening. “Don’t make me order you.”
“Fuck,” Lennon said.
“Now, there’s no call for that.”
“Yes there bloody is,” Lennon said as he stood. “That’s the fourth time this month.”
He almost said he knew where it was coming from, that DCI Dan Hewitt of C3 Intelligence Branch was pulling strings to make his life difficult, but he thought better of it.
“I’m sorry,” Uprichard said. “That’s just the way it is. I want you here in an hour.”
Susan opened the door wearing a dressing gown pulled tight around her. In the few minutes between Lennon phoning her and knocking her door, she had tidied her hair and applied as much makeup as she could manage. Either that or she went to bed wearing lip gloss.
Ellen huffed and mewled in Lennon’s arms, her bare feet kicking at his sides.
“You’re a diamond,” he said to Susan. “I can’t thank you enough.”
Susan gave him a smile that was at once warm and weary. “It’s all right. I hadn’t gotten to sleep yet.”
Lennon knew a lie when he heard one, but still he was glad of it. “I’ll be back before you get up in the morning.”
Susan reached for Ellen. “C’mere, pet, I’ve got you.”
Ellen whimpered and rubbed her eyes.
Susan kissed her hair. “You can sleep in with Lucy, all right?”
Ellen buried her head beneath Susan’s chin. She had been ferried here while she slept many times before.
Lennon touched Susan’s forearm. “Thank you,” he said.
She smiled again. “When you come back, why don’t you come in for breakfast?”
“The neighbors might talk,” Lennon said.
“Let them,” she said.
From the Hardcover edition.