“A dying man, if he is any kind of man, will live beyond the law.” The elderly German, Karl Uxkull, was senile or desperate for attention. Why else would he concoct a tale of Nazi atrocity on the remote island of Delphi, off the coast of Donegal? And why now, 60 years after the event, just when Irish-American billionaire Shay Govern has tendered for a prospecting licence for gold in Lough Swilly?
Journalist Tom Noone doesn’t want to know. With his young daughter Emily to provide for, and a ghost-writing commission on Shay Govern’s autobiography to deliver, the timing is all wrong. Besides, can it be mere coincidence that Karl Uxkull’s tale bears a strong resemblance to the first thriller published by legendary spy novelist Sebastian Devereaux, the reclusive English author who has spent the past 50 years holed up on Delphi?
But when a body is discovered drowned, Tom and Emily find themselves running for their lives, in pursuit of the truth that is their only hope of survival.
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The Lost and the Blind
By Declan Burke
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2014 Declan Burke
All rights reserved.
Shay Govern strolled into the lobby of the Shelbourne Hotel looking like he'd just bought the place, or sold it. There was something easy and coiled about the way he moved. A bounce in his stride at eighty-one years old that put me in mind of dancers pre-show, stretching it out but not too far, not yet.
He spotted me beside the fireplace and waved a hand to tell me to stay put, he'd come to me. Not a tall man but compact, square through the shoulders. Up close the suit was black pinstripes on a coal-black two-piece, narrow through the hips and legs, a thin black tie and crisp white shirt. The wingtips were shiny black patent leather. He could've been prowling the Sands with Frank and Sammy, still working a look he could have fun with but be serious if he needed to. That first time he was all business.
'Tom Noone?' he said in a flat Boston accent that was half drawl, half snarl.
I'd been wondering how it might feel to shake hands with ninety million dollars, give or take, on paper at least. It was a firm, dry squeeze. Nothing you might remember.
'Sit down, Mr Noone. Or would you rather I called you Tom?'
'Tom will do grand.'
'Glad to hear it.' A waiter was already hovering. 'What'll you have – coffee? Is it too early for the hard stuff?'
He ordered a pot of coffee and sat back into the leather armchair with both hands planted on the armrests. His face looked like someone had chipped it out with a fine-bladed chisel, the deep wrinkles around the hooded eyes and thin mouth carved one careful tap at a time. Pale blue eyes over a hawkish nose, the snow-white hair clipped close.
'You want to wait for the coffee,' he said, 'or will we get straight to it?'
'Let's get to it.'
'Great. So I'll start off, then you ask anything you need to know. Then we make a deal or we don't, no hard feelings. OK?'
'Right. So, Tom Noone, you're a journalist, freelance, mostly movies and books, some music reviews, interviews with writers and so forth. Also a writer, with four thrillers published, two non-fiction, a couple of awards nominations, a citation or honourable mention, I forget where. No, don't tell me, it'll come. You're married with one daughter but separated and I'm sorry to hear that, it's never good when there's kids involved. You still seeing her?'
'Most weekends, yeah.'
'Good. So what've I missed?'
I was still wrong-footed by how well prepared he was. 'Not a lot, actually.'
'No? What about the two books you ghost-wrote? Is that the right way to say it – ghost-wrote?'
'I've worked as a ghost-writer, yeah. Close enough.'
'Close enough is a mile wide. You ashamed of those books?'
'Not at all.'
'So how come they're not on your website with all the rest?'
'Because they're not my own work, not the way the others are.'
'And you don't want to take credit where it isn't due.'
'That's about the height of it.'
'Fair enough. You enjoy it, the ghost-writing?'
'It wouldn't be my first choice for work, no.'
'Pays the bills though.'
'It has done.'
'So what would you say to forty thousand euro to ghost-write my story?'
Back then forty grand was roughly my annual income. Which, I guessed, Shay Govern already knew.
'I'd say it was a generous offer,' I said, 'and that it'd probably be a lot more interesting than the others I've done.'
'Cute answer but no cigar.' He smiled for the first time. 'Anyway, it's not me.'
'It's Sebastian Devereaux.'
The coffee arrived. Shay Govern tipped the waiter a ten-spot and told him he'd pour it himself. As he sat forward, hunched in, he said, 'You write thrillers, right?'
'They're more detective stories. Thrilling in spots.'
'OK, sure. The point I'm making is you've never heard of Sebastian Devereaux.'
'Can't say the name rings a bell.'
'Don't beat yourself up. First I heard of him was four months ago, when I was on Delphi.'
Delphi Island, a couple of miles south of Buncrana on Lough Swilly in northern Donegal.
'Fascinating guy,' Govern said. 'English originally, an archaeologist who came to Delphi in his twenties and ended up staying for the rest of his life. As in, he never stepped off the island again. A recluse, apparently. Wrote these thrillers back in the day, the sixties and seventies, they did pretty well. Then he just stopped.'
'I really should've heard of this guy.'
'Which is why someone needs to write this book.'
'That could be one reason, sure. Mostly, though, the reason people get books written about them is they're famous.'
'I'm familiar with how the publishing business works, Tom. The broad strokes, at least, mainly because it's a business. But listen, I should tell you a little bit about myself before we go on. Maybe it'll make a bit more sense then.'
I'd done a little research on Shay Govern myself and what he told me more or less chimed with what I'd been able to find in the week or so since I'd received his email requesting a meeting. Not that there was a lot of information available. According to his profile on the Govern Industries website, he'd been born in Donegal in 1925 but now very clearly defined himself as Irish-American. His background was in mining, although the Govern Industries portfolio incorporated offshore drilling, high-risk prospecting and property development on a vast scale. He, or the various incarnations of Govern Industries, had interests in Boston, Florida, Alaska, the Bahamas and South Africa. He was widowed, with three grown children, all of whom were non-executive directors on the board and all of whom kept themselves busy heading up an array of trusts, endowments and charitable institutions.
'So I'm retired now, as you probably know, but sitting around the country club doesn't really appeal. What I'm hoping to do is set up some programmes here in Ireland, along the lines of what we have going back home in the States.'
He'd come over the previous September for what he called a jaunt around the old place. The first time he'd ever been back.
'I'm not an emotional man, Tom. You'll learn that about me if you haven't already picked it up. But yeah, that was an interesting trip.'
He'd fetched up on Delphi after hearing, in Derry, about an interesting project being run on a tiny island in Lough Swilly.
'Seems like the island was an old shooting estate belonging to some English gentry, this is going back hundreds of years, all the way to the Plantation. Anyway, some time in the late sixties the islanders bought it out, started running the place like a cooperative. I'm thinking, OK, how's that work? So over I go, take the ferry, and I meet with this amazing lady, Carol Devereaux. She actually has the old title, so officially she's Lady McConnell. She tells me how she's the daughter of this writer, Sebastian Devereaux, she used his money to buy out the title, ploughing it all back into the island. I'm like you, I've never heard of any Sebastian Devereaux, not that I'm so well read. But Carol fills me in, and we get to talking about what I've just mentioned. Carol says she has plans for an artists' retreat on Delphi, it's ideal for it, the island's so quiet and peaceful. Maybe even a boutique publishing house if they discover any new talent coming through the programme. Naturally she's going to name the programme for her father. So I say, OK, why don't you write a book about him, launch the retreat that way. She says what you're saying, that he's forgotten, why would anyone want to read a book about a writer when his books have been out of print for twenty years? So I say, who owns the rights? I mean, I don't know much about publishing, but business is business, am I right?'
The contracts were already drawn up. Shay Govern was funding an endowment to establish the Sebastian Devereaux Centre for Contemplative Arts ('I don't need to tell you it wasn't me picked the name, right?') and commissioning a biography of the great man himself. Carol Devereaux was planning to republish her father's books to coincide with the opening of the centre and the publication of the biography.
'All going well, the programme's self-funding within five years.' He shrugged. 'Worst-case scenario, a forgotten man gets his due. Anything else you need to know?'
What I was wondering was if Sebastian Devereaux's voluntary exile in a foreign land had touched a chord with Shay Govern. What I said was, 'Why me?'
'You think you're not up to it?'
'It's not that. But you've done your research. You knew before we sat down I'm no expert on Sebastian Devereaux.'
'I've looked around, Tom. No one is. At least, no one with your publishing record. You came highly recommended. Plus you write thrillers yourself, you'll have what they call a real empathy for your subject.'
'Like I said before, I write detective stories. Private-eye stuff.'
'What's the difference?'
'Thrillers sell better, for one.'
'Listen, don't sweat it. Spies, detectives, cops, it's all the same thing when you shake it out.'
'I'd love to do it, Mr Govern. But—'
'OK, Shay. So yeah, I'd love to do it. But I don't want to take it on under false pretences.'
'I get that. And I appreciate you pointing it out. But look, don't worry so much about not knowing Sebastian Devereaux at this point. You'll be working closely with Carol and she has all the information you'll need. Manuscripts, diaries, first-hand testimony of the man, the works. What I suggest is, you come with me to Delphi this weekend, we'll sit down with Carol and see if you can work together. If she's happy and you're happy, we're good to go. If not, I'll pay your expenses and we say so long, no harm done.'
'Sounds more than fair.'
'You have an agent, right? Good. So we'll get him to look over the contract while you're away, although Carol tells me it's standard stuff. You get paid a flat fee of forty grand, like I said. Ten on signature, ten on delivery, the final twenty on publication. And the standard royalty fees apply. Good so far?'
'Great, yeah. What's the catch?'
'Heh.' He smiled again. 'There's two catches, actually. The first is that I need you to devote yourself exclusively to the project. We're talking about a publication deadline of six months, and you'll need to be onsite on Delphi to work with Carol. Is that doable?'
'It's possible, sure. But it'd depend on how quickly we work and what kind of book Carol has in mind. Lots of factors.'
'Sure. But you'd be available, right?'
It would mean parking a couple of regular freelance gigs, taking a sabbatical and hoping they were still there when I came back. But there was other work I could do just as well while I was based on Delphi, just to keep the freelance side of things ticking over.
'It'll take a few favours,' I said, 'but yeah, it's do-able. What else?'
'You'll understand, Tom, that this is a very personal project for Carol. She's very protective of her father's reputation. So the book will be published under Carol's name. You'll be ghost-writing, like we discussed. I mean, if you want, we can put your name on the cover too. But it'll go out as Carol's book. Is that a deal-breaker?'
The short answer was not really. The longer answer involved a forty-grand fee plus royalties and bills that, as Bruce put it, no honest man could pay.
'I'll have to run it by my agent,' I said, 'just to be on the safe side. But in theory, yeah, it shouldn't be a problem.'
'Terrific. I'm heading for Delphi on Saturday morning, driving up, leaving here around noon. You want to travel with me or make your own way?'
'Whatever suits you best.'
'We'll go together, yeah? Kill the journey.'
'Sounds good. Just one last thing.'
'You said I came highly recommended. Who was it?'
'Father Ignatius Patton.'
'Yeah. He said if he was the one looking for someone who'd give a dead man his due, you'd be first on his list.'CHAPTER 2
Rachel and I had this routine where she never picked up when I rang, this on the basis that it was usually bad news and she'd need time to calm down before dealing with the fall-out. So I left a message as I strolled down Dawson Street, saying I wouldn't be able to take Emily this weekend and apologizing for the short notice. I'd call again later to speak to Emily herself, and explain why.
It was almost 11.30 a.m. by then, a sunny, breezy Friday in central Dublin. I rang Jenny, one of the few commissioning editors still taking my calls, to see if she was available for a quick coffee. She said she wasn't, but that if I asked nicely she'd let me buy her lunch. So I asked nicely.
I nipped into the coffee shop on the corner of Anne Street and picked up a couple of lattes. Iggy Patton did good work with homeless kids and addicts, running a soup kitchen out the back of the boxing club he'd put together in a basement off Molesworth Street. All very noble but the coffee budget didn't extend to anything better than powdered instant and there's only so many sacrifices a man can make in one day.
Iggy Patton was a priest and a boxer, and not always in that order. What he'd do was he'd wait until you found out he was a priest who boxed, or used to, then he'd tell you he couldn't decide which vocation had sucker-punched him hardest.
The idea being, presumably, that you'd imagine a bruised heart, a punch-drunk soul.
When he'd tried it on me, I said, 'Iggy, man, if God knocked you around any more than whoever it was busted in your face, you should skip pope and go straight to saint.'
He had eyes the colour of prunes which were prone to melancholy. He was somewhere in his late forties now, the sandy-blond hair getting thin, the face battered to a dull shine and not entirely unlike the old leather punch-bag in the corner of his office oozing horse-hair stuffing from a split seam. I'd interviewed him a couple of years before, working on a book about a Magdalene survivor, Rose and the Thorns. He'd played it straight and I'd done him the same favour. We got on just fine.
His office was the club's storeroom. There was a scarred plywood desk wedged in against the far wall under a window that was opaque with grime, reinforced with wire and mossy on the outside. Iggy offered me his seat behind the desk but I took a pew on the punch-bag in the corner, its cracked leather pickled from booze-soaked sweat he'd pounded out in pre-mass dawn sessions.
He sucked down about half of his latte in one go, closing his eyes to privately savour the bitter sin of its extravagance, then unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk and topped us both up with a couple of Jameson bracers.
'The sun's over the yardarm somewhere,' he said.
He had himself a sip and situated the cardboard beaker just so on the desk and said, without looking at me, 'A book about who?'
'Sebastian Devereaux. Used to write thrillers back in the day. I never heard of him either.'
It was odd. Iggy had been expecting me – it had been obvious from his expression when he'd opened his door. But I could tell that he'd been expecting something else entirely. 'What is it, Iggy?'
'He came to me for confession, Tom. Sorry.'
'Shay Govern, you mean.'
'Aye.' He had another sip on his Jameson latte.
'When was this?'
'Late last week. Thursday, I think.'
'So what can you tell me?'
'But you recommended me, right? Thanks for that, by the way.' I toasted him with the latte. 'Much appreciated.'
'So what was it you were recommending me for?'
'I got the impression,' he said after a minute or so spent staring at the cardboard beaker on the desk, 'that he wanted his own story told. That was my sense of it.'
'This story he told you in confession.'
'But that story had nothing to do with Sebastian Devereaux.'
'This is the first I'm hearing that name.'
'Doesn't make sense, does it?'
'Well, it obviously does to Shay Govern.'
'Should I be worried?'
'I honestly don't know, Tom. I mean, he's bona fide when it comes to the money side of things, if that's what you're asking. He cut me a cheque for this place after we talked. Liked what we were doing for the kids. It wasn't a fortune, exactly, but it didn't bounce.'
'Good to know,' I said, 'but I'm not asking about the money. Govern said you recommended me because I'd give a dead man his due.'
'Did you tell him about my father?'
'Don't be daft, Tom. All I meant was, you're conscientious to a fault.'
Excerpted from The Lost and the Blind by Declan Burke. Copyright © 2014 Declan Burke. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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