The Beginning Of The End
Alex pushed his hands deeper into the pockets of his fleece jacket shuffling from foot to foot in a vain attempt at keeping warm, the hot, humid weather at the beginning of the month had broken down with thunderstorms and been replaced with unseasonably cold weather. It was a bitterly cold September night with a persistent, raw north easterly wind pushing thin white clouds quickly across the crescent moon and softly moaning its sad wailing dirge like a depressed Pan piper around the streets and houses. He used the back of his hand to wipe away dewdrops that annoyingly ran from his nose, although sheltered in the alleyway that ran between the streets of the red bricked council estate, he’d been stood there for almost an hour and the chill was beginning to bite into his body.
He’d spent the time thinking about how and why he’d ended up here in such a desperate situation, an assassin hidden in the darkness waiting for his prey, he tried to recall the different events, the highs, the lows and the choices that had ultimately shaped this path. He remembered an article he’d read in a magazine about how something totally insignificant and unrelated could eventually cause a catastrophic event at a different place or time, it was called the butterfly effect. It theorised how a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan could create a tiny atmospheric disturbance that might eventually lead to a hurricane in the USA. At the time he’d laughed at such a ridiculous idea, but right now he thought there maybe was an element of truth in it, he wondered which of the flapping butterfly wings in his life had blown him here.
The years he’d served in the army, some of that time spent in the war zones of the Baltics and Iraq couldn’t prepare him for tonight. He knew full well that he had already been indirectly responsible for the deaths of three evil scumbags and felt no remorse whatsoever for that but this was different, this was a cold blooded killing, an execution. Alex told himself that his prey deserved it and the world would be a much better place without him, there was no doubt about that, but when the time came could he actually do it, that was another thing.
He tensed as he heard a noise he felt sure was approaching footsteps, reaching inside his jacket he slowly removed the cold, death black Colt M-1911 semi-automatic pistol and holding it outstretched in both hands, he clicked off the safety and carefully wrapped his finger around the trigger, he took a long, slow, deep breath and stepped out from the shadow of the alleyway into the dirty orange monotone of the neon lit street.
He blinked, not trusting his eyes at first, he looked again there was definitely no-one there, searching for the source of the noise he looked down in astonishment to see an empty discarded crisp packet being pushed and buffeted down the street by the wind, skipping and tumbling noisily like some living being it quickly passed him by continuing down the street to it’s unknown destination. Alex breathed slowly, in and out, in and out, desperately trying to regain his composure, he stood transfixed watching the crisp packet until it disappeared out of view and out of earshot, quickly returning to his senses, he realised his naked vulnerability and slipped back into the shadowy comfort of the alley. The chill wind couldn’t prevent the beads of sweat appearing on his forehead and neither was it responsible for the shivers that now coursed through his body.
His pounding heart that a few moments ago had threatened to vacate his chest slowly returned to something like normality, once again he concentrated on his breathing and gradually the shaking subsided, he felt light-headed and a little giddy, he was almost tempted to laugh out loud at the ridiculous irony of it all, what an absolutely terrifying killer he was, stood there gun in hand, scared to death by an empty packet of cheese and bloody onion.
As suddenly as the rush of adrenaline left his body it was replaced by a creeping fear, a nauseous bile that rose in his throat almost causing him to vomit, he wanted desperately to run away, throw away the gun, forget everything that had happened, go home lock and bolt the door and pretend things had never happened, but he told himself to get a grip, there was no going back now, it had to end here, tonight, he was past the watershed and in far, far too deep. He could almost feel the soft touch of a butterfly’s wing brush across his face.
Chapter 1 Two Years Earlier
It was a bright June day as Alex Roberts drove home through the small, quiet village of Kilby where he lived with his wife Elsa and young son Thomas. Kilby, situated about five miles from the eastern outskirts of Leeds was a small, unremarkable place, with its old stone church, single pub and a tiny village store cum post office. They had moved there over four years ago from their flat in the centre of Leeds when Elsa found she was pregnant with Thomas their now four year old son. They both loved the village, it was close enough to the big city hustle and bustle of Leeds and conveniently near to the motorway networks, yet was still a pleasant, private place to live.
Alex indicated left and steered into the drive of his house that was sat on the eastern edge of the village, he pulled the handbrake on and moved the automatic gearbox into neutral, switched off the ignition and removed the key. He got out of the car stood and stretched before reaching into the back to retrieve his jacket and laptop computer. He began walking towards the house where he saw Thomas waving at him from the lounge window, Alex looked at his smiling face and thought just how much he looked like Elsa.
He walked through the door and put down his jacket and laptop as Thomas came running towards him, Alex picked him up, kissed him and swung him around a few times before throwing him over his shoulders and giving him a fireman’s lift into the kitchen where Elsa was making lunch. He moved behind her putting his free arm around her waist and stroking the growing bump that was to be their second child in four months’ time, he nuzzled his face into her neck smelling the perfume of her hair, it tickled her, laughing she squirmed, and turning around kissed him, Alex looked at her and thought how beautiful she was and how lucky he was, just as he did every time he saw her. Perhaps her father had been right, maybe he didn’t deserve her, maybe nobody deserved her.
‘Tell mummy we love her Thomas.’
‘We love you mummy,’ said Thomas.
‘No, tell her in German,’ whispered Alex in his ear. ‘Auf Deutsch.’
‘Wir lieben sie mama,’ said Thomas slowly.
‘Clever boy,’ gushed Elsa. ‘Gescheiter junge,’ she kissed him on the forehead.
‘What’s for lunch then, I’m starving?’ said Alex.
‘I’ve made some pasta, it will be ready in a couple of minutes.’
Alex thought just how perfect Elsa’s English was, anyone who didn’t know her background would never have believed that she wasn’t born in England, if he listened closely Alex could just pick out the slightest hint of her native German accent, he liked it, he thought it was sexy.
‘Yummy yummy,’ said Alex lifting Thomas’s T-Shirt and blowing raspberries on his tummy, while Thomas giggled hysterically.
‘So another half day at work then, you’re getting lazy,’ said Elsa with mock disapproval, she was only joking, Alex would work long hours the rest of the week so he could take Friday afternoon off to play golf with his friends. ‘Shall we let him go play golf Thomas, what do you think?’
‘Please Thomas,’ said Alex pretending to cry and rub his eyes.
‘Ok daddy,’ said Thomas looking serious and nodding his head.
‘You’re far too soft with him Thomas,’ said Elsa laughing, ‘anyway we’re going to a party aren’t we Thomas?’
‘A party can I come?’ said Alex.
‘It’s not for daddies,’ said Thomas shaking his head and looking serious.
Joe O’Hara lay on his bunk on a barge that was heading towards the Humber Estuary and its destination the inland port of Goole, his eyes were closed but he wasn’t sleeping, the swell of the boat out in open sea gently rocked him, his mind drifted back to his childhood and the days that had changed his life for ever, events that made him the man he was, to a few, an ever dwindling few, a hero and a freedom fighter, to others a cruel heartless monster.
Joe thought about his father Sean O’Hara, he’d loved him dearly and even today still missed him, he was a larger than life character with a wicked sense of humour, he worked hard and played hard never refusing a drink or backing down from a fight. He could be tough and uncompromising when necessary but he usually had a smile on his face and a joke at the ready, Sean was a big man in every sense of the word, to Joe he was the perfect father, kind, loving and his best friend. Joe was just a boy when his father was killed and at the time of his death he never knew that much detail about his life, but growing up he learned a lot about him from his family and Sean’s friends, nothing he gleaned from any of them had changed his opinion of his father.
Although a Roman Catholic, Sean had no time for the deep-seated religious bigotry that split the six counties of Northern Ireland. Sean had left school aged fifteen and like the majority of Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland at that time, he immediately joined the ranks of the unemployed. Aged seventeen years old and with little prospect of any long term or meaningful employment he left the province and went to find work on the building sites in England. He had relatives living in Leeds, who gave him lodgings and helped find him work in the booming building trade of the early 1960’s and so he happily made the West Yorkshire city his base.
Sean was as bright as a button, a quick learner and a hard worker, by the age of twenty he’d progressed from labourer to an invaluable jack-of-all-trades who had no problem in finding work. Sean had always had a plan, his intention was to gain as much experience as possible and save as much money as he could so he might eventually return home to Northern Ireland and set up his own business. He worked long and hard putting in as many hours as he physically could, the bonus being he avoided both the temptation and the opportunity to gamble and drink away his hard earned cash like so many of his friends who got paid on Friday and had spent it all by Monday.
He did venture out now and again and it was on one of those rare weekend visits to the city centre pubs that he’d met Maureen McKenzie, a protestant girl from North Belfast. Stood in the crowded pub, Sean had immediately recognised the unmistakable accent of a fellow Northern Irelander and turned to face a pretty young redhead, they were soon talking and she explained how she was in England studying for a nursing qualification at Leeds Infirmary, although she didn’t say so at the time, the main reason she had come to study in England was to get away from the oppressively claustrophobic culture of her strictly protestant upbringing. There was an immediate attraction between them and being far away from their families and the inbred bigotry of Northern Ireland, their religious difference was of no importance to them, they were young and soon very much in love. At the time, the absence of consent from their parents was of little consequence to either of them and within eighteen months they were married at the Leeds registry office in front of a few close friends.
When Maureen had completed her course they decided to return home to Northern Ireland, she took a job at The Royal Belfast Hospital and the money they’d saved in England helped Sean set up his own building firm. His recipe of hard work and competitive pricing gave him an edge over the more laid-back competition in the province. A major contribution towards the company’s success was his policy of hiring both catholic and protestant workers, which led to him picking up work from both sides of the divided community. Life was good for Sean and Maureen and within five years of their return they owned a beautiful house in the suburbs of Belfast and within another couple of years young Joseph O’Hara was born.
Up to this point in time there had been an uneasy consent of the marriage from both their families, although Sean was not and never would be made welcome at Maureen’s family home. The reluctant acceptance lasted until a decision had to be made on baby Joe’s future. It was a black and white decision and unbeknown to the little baby Joe it was to be the most important decision in his life and he had no part in making it, the question was would Joe be baptised Roman Catholic like his father or christened Protestant like his mother?
Sean and Maureen had their first really serious argument over it and in hindsight it would have made far more sense not to baptise or christen Joe at all.
Maureen argued quite sensibly that Joe would have a better future if he were to live as a protestant in Northern Ireland, better schools, better employment prospects and as she pointed out Sean didn’t care a fig about religion anyway, she said she was only thinking about the child. Though it did make perfect sense it infuriated Sean, yes, he could see what she was saying was right, but why should anyone stand a better chance in life simply because of their religious persuasion, this aside Sean had a terrible vision of his own son grown up and marching through the streets of Belfast in a bowler hat and orange sash, because that is what Maureen’s family would ultimately want.
Sean dug his heels in and insisted that Joe would be baptized a Roman Catholic, eventually tired of the constant arguments Maureen accepted her husband’s decision but by then their marriage was irrevocably damaged and would never be the same again. Though nothing significant happened at the time it was a small festering sore that would slowly grow and poison their relationship.
Joe was eventually baptized and Maureen’s family made it quite plain that they strongly disapproved of the move and as far as they were concerned their grandson Joe simply no longer existed. Things came to a head when a reluctant Sean agreed to go along with Maureen and try and make the peace with her parents but they wouldn’t even let Sean through the door, her father told them in no uncertain terms that Sean and the bastard runt in his arms would never be welcome in their house, then one of her brothers Billy had slung the dregs of his teacup over them, it was very lucky for Billy McKenzie that Sean was holding baby Joe or he would have broken every bone in his body.
In the aftermath of Bloody Sunday the marriage went downhill fast, their neighbours, the majority of whom were professional people, accountants, lawyers and businessmen from the protestant community, began to shun the family. Maureen in turn was subjected to alienation from Sean’s family and their catholic friends, she was put under increasing pressure from her loyalist family to leave Sean and return to the family fold. The O’Hara building company began to lose contracts and his workers now faced abuse and attack from both sections of the community, within a year the company had run bankrupt. Sean was devastated, he took a variety of menial jobs to try to make ends meet and keep his family together, but the ensuing arguments over money, their social isolation and the final ignominy of their home being threatened with repossession put far too much strain on their deteriorating relationship.
One day while Sean was out at work Maureen packed her bags and called her brother Billy to pick her up, when Sean came home she had her coat on and told him she was going to the shops, she walked out of the house and around the corner to where Billy was waiting in his car containing all her belongings, they drove away and she never came back, Joe was just three years old at the time and would always hate and could never understand his mother for deserting them and would always blame her family and in fact all Protestants for what had happened.
When the bank finally repossessed their home Sean and Joe moved in with Sean’s older sister Kitty and her staunchly republican family who lived just off the Falls Road in Belfast, where they shared a small spare bedroom in the terrace house. Sean would take any job that would to help put food on the table until reluctantly, when Joe was five he went back over to England to find work. He sent money home regularly and came back to see his son as often as he could. Joe had started attending the local catholic school and although in the past his father and mother had always sheltered him from the troubles, he now experienced at first hand the stark reality and horror of the situation.
The Falls Road in 1976 was both a dangerous and exciting place for a young boy, Joe could almost taste the passionate atmosphere of violence and anarchy. Groups of teenagers would brazenly stone the passing police vans and army Land Rovers, blazing barricades were built across streets to deny access to the security forces and in the school playground, men became heroic legends overnight with tales of their bravery and courage spread, often wildly exaggerated, by young boys who dreamed of nothing else but joining the Provisional IRA.
The swell of the boat reminded Joe of where he was and he looked around him and was glad to see that his compatriots Frank and Pete were asleep as he didn’t want to show any sign of weakness in front of them, he was the ice man wasn’t he, an emotionless hard hearted killing machine, he put his hands to his face to stem the stinging tears that welled in his eyes as he remembered the night his father died.
It was a normal night for the now eight year old Joe, that is if anything could be considered normal living on the Falls Road at that time, his father was back from England and had taken a temporary job working nights at a local bakery. Sean had kissed Joe goodnight and carefully tucked him into bed before leaving for his night shift at Mahoney’s.
‘G’night son and don’t let the buggers wear you down’ he said softly, as he did every night. Joe remembered watching as his father walked through the doorway, his big frame silhouetted by the landing light, those were the last words he ever said to Joe, and Joe remembered how like every other night he’d jumped out of bed waving from the window as his father moved away down the road waving back at him.
Joe never saw his father again, instead a big, long, dark and highly polished wooden box appeared a couple of days later sat on a trestle table in the front parlour, the box in which they told him his father was going to heaven.
On the day of the funeral the coffin was borne proudly through the streets on the shoulders of his uncles and elder cousins, Joe didn’t really understand why so many people had lined the streets on the way to church, and why everyone wore black, Joe had never attended a funeral before. He recalled the cold feel of the church, even though it was swelled to the rafters, the four big candles that surrounded the coffin flickering and spluttering in the draught and the thurifer swinging altar boys spreading incense smoke like November mist around the building.
Even now lying on his bunk Joe could still smell and taste the pungent perfumed incense as if he was still there.
The priest dressed in black robes, half spoke, half sang his words in Latin, as he sprinkled holy water over the coffin and the congregation droned their responses. The service over, the coffin was carried back out onto the street and the procession followed down to the cemetery.
Up to the point of them lowering the box into the ground Joe still expected his father to appear, pluck him up from the crowd, place him on his broad shoulders and carry him off laughing and joking, almost forty years later, Joe the man, felt the same stinging tears welling in his eyes, the same hole in the stomach feeling of agony, loss and utter devastation as he did when his heart was ripped from his eight year old body, to be replaced with a void, an emptiness which could never be filled with any form of humanity, but with hatred and a constant craving for revenge that could never be satisfied.
He recalled how the family and friends went back to his aunts for the funeral repast and later in the afternoon when most of the guests had left, a group that included his uncle, his elder cousins and some other men who Joe had never seen before sat around the kitchen table drinking Whisky and talking. Joe sat in miserable silence on the bedroom steps unbeknown to the gathering when he overheard one mans voice above the rest.
‘You know we have a source within the RUC,’ the others nodded as he continued. ‘Well, she found out who it was that shot Sean.’
‘We fucking know that, it was the fucking police,’ interrupted Joe’s uncle impatiently ‘Tried to make out it was a big mistake, that they thought he was carrying a gun.’
‘A fucking gun,’ said one of his cousins incredulously. ‘Sean with a gun, the only thing Sean was carrying was his flask and sarney box.’
The man continued unperturbed by the interruption, ‘Yes but what’s been kept quiet is that it wasn’t just the RUC who shot him, but his own bastard brother-in-law Billy McKenzie.’
This time the man had them in his spell, there were no more interruptions.
‘We’ve all heard rumours about these death squads,’ the others nodded. ‘Well that bastard Billy McKenzie is known to be involved up to his dirty orange neck in this shoot to kill policy, or whatever they want to call it, but this was fuck all to do with the troubles, this was personal. So far they’ve only been hitting known Provo targets and we all know Sean’s view about the troubles, he’d never ever get involved.’ For effect the man stopped and took a large drink of his whiskey.
‘No the word is that Sean’s ex, Maureen is screwing a copper, a big mate of McKenzie’s and they were wanting to get wed, she’d asked Sean for a divorce, even offered to admit to adultery to speed things up, but Sean being the awkward bastard we knew and loved, told her to fuck right off because Catholics didn’t do divorce, she said her solicitors would sort him out so Sean said he would look forward to seeing her in court. It looks like Billy McKenzie cut out the cost of the lawyers.’
Young Joe sat on the stairs using the back of his hand to wipe the tears streaming down his face, it was hard to take in but he knew in his heart that his own mother and uncle were responsible for his father’s murder, he swore there and then that one day he would get his revenge.
And now a middle aged Joe O’Hara laid on a bunk in the middle of the North Sea, once again used the back of his hand to wipe away the stinging salty tears.
He clearly remembered the day when he was fourteen years old and first learned to fire a gun, his cousin Michael was by then an active volunteer with the Belfast PIRA brigade and had proudly shown Joe his first gun, he explained the basics of how to load the pistol, click of the safety, hold and aim it. Joe was still consumed by hate for his uncle and with thoughts of revenge never far from his mind, he was desperate to get hold of a gun, he asked Michael if he could borrow it and when could he have one of his own, his cousin had laughed and told him not for a few years yet.
However the brigade did have a use for young Joe and some of his friends and that was to smuggle weapons around the city. It was during one of these deliveries that Joe was presented with the opportunity he’d dreamed of for years. As arranged, one afternoon after school, he’d picked up a handgun and ammunition from a safe house, Joe put them in his rucksack alongside his homework books and games kit and cycled into the city centre where he was to meet his contact Kenny Maloney a Provo hit man. Unbeknown to Joe, Maloney had already been spotted and as a known ‘face’ had been picked up for questioning by the security forces.
Fate then took a big hand in proceedings, Joe waited around confused and wondering what to do, was he in the wrong place, had he got the time wrong, was he early or late? He’d been hanging around for nearly an hour to meet the contact but nobody had shown. He knew that if he stayed there any longer he would arouse suspicion and so he decided to head for home, as he pushed his bike along the pavement a car pulled up to the kerb in front of him and a man jumped out and ran into a newsagents, Joe immediately recognised the man from a picture in the evening newspaper that his uncle had recently shown him.
‘There Joe take a good look that’s your fucking uncle Billy,’ said his uncle spitting out the words with venom. ‘That’s the bastard who murdered your father, never forget him Joe, you remember that smug bastards face, so he’s been made a fucking detective inspector now has he, the murdering scumbag,’ Joe would never forget that face it was burned into his brain.
The man who had run into the shop was definitely his uncle Billy McKenzie. Without thinking Joe took the pistol out of his rucksack pushed in a clip of bullets and slipped the gun inside his jacket.
Billy McKenzie came out of the shop, newspaper in hand and moved back towards the car, Joe walked towards him and shouted. ‘Uncle Billy it’s me, Joe, your nephew, how’s my mammy?’
Billy McKenzie was always one to watch his back and so he‘d kept a wary eye on Sean O’Hara’s family over the last few years and he’d had regular surveillance carried out on them. He stared hard, mentally comparing the photographs of Joe O’Hara and the scrawny kid that stood in front of him, then laughing said under his breath. ‘Well well it is, it’s the runt, so it is.’
‘Hey George,’ he shouted above the street noise to the driver as he opened the passenger door. ‘Take a look, it’s your Maureen’s little bastard.’ He got back in the car closed the door and wound down the widow. ‘Hey kid, a piece of advice for you, you’ve got no fucking Ma, she wants fuck all to do with you, as far as she’s concerned you don’t even exist, now just fuck off back to your Fenian fucking sewer with the rest of the Fenian fucking rats,’ he turned away chuckling to himself.
Joe dropped his bike on the pavement and walked up to the car. ‘Uncle Billy, you bastard, you murdered my Dad,’ shouted Joe.
‘What the fuck did you say?’ said Billy angrily.
‘You bastard, you killed my Dad,’ Joe had now reached the car and shouted in through the window.
‘Now you’d better fuck off before I get annoyed,’ growled Billy and as he turned to face Joe he found himself looking straight down the barrel of the gun, he tried to speak but the bullet that hit him square in the forehead had already entered his brain killing him instantly before the words got out, Joe fired again at his head from point blank range he couldn’t miss. George in the drivers seat, already splashed with a mixture of Billy’s blood and brains, scrabbled desperately to open the drivers door but in his blind panic his lack of coordination slowed him down long enough for Joe to lean in through the open passenger window past the still figure of Billy McKenzie and fire again, the bullet hit him in the middle of the back ricocheting off his spine into his left lung leaving him paralysed with his face pressed against the window of the drivers door, Joe fired again and again till all the rounds were spent.
Joe stared inside the car, blood was splattered everywhere, he had no idea if both men were dead or not, they certainly weren’t moving and didn’t appear to be breathing, slowly and deliberately he took another clip of bullets from his rucksack and replacing the first clip fired again and again at the still bodies making sure they were definitely dead, he moved away from the car and looked around expecting hordes of onlookers and the police running towards him to shoot him down, but there was no-one even looking at him, the noise of the traffic on the busy road had drowned out the sound of the shots and in the hustle and bustle of the city centre no-one even noticed the teenage boy on his bike pedalling slowly away from the parked car.
Laid on his bunk in the middle of the North Sea, Joe smiled, still feeling a warm glow of satisfaction about what he had done that day, the real bonus was he found out later that the second man in the car was the bastard his mother had married, in one fell swoop Joe had killed his fathers murderer and the man who was the reason behind it.
From that moment on killing came far to easy for Joe, he was a natural, any inkling of humanity or goodness had been ripped from his heart with his fathers murder, he felt nothing for his victims no sympathy no remorse, killing was just something he did well and with every murder his heart became harder and colder. By the age of nineteen he had become a legend, a shadowy figure feared and despised by the loyalists and security forces and a folk hero among the provisional supporters. If the Provo high command wanted someone killed Joe was the man for the job, he had no fear and was prepared to take risks that others would shy away from, he would kill young men, old men, women it didn’t matter a fig to Joe, he just got better and better at it, more efficient and more ruthless.
Elsa kissed Alex and walked out to the car holding Thomas’ hand, she opened the back door and lifted him into the child seat snapping the belt shut.
‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’ said Alex.
‘Don’t be silly, you always play golf with your friends on Friday, it’s only a four year olds birthday party I’m sure I can handle it, I’ll see you about seven o clock,’ said Elsa.
‘I don’t mind going with you, honestly,’ said Alex inwardly praying that she didn’t say ok.
‘Liar,’ she laughed. ‘It’s ok, I haven’t seen Lisa for ages, and we need to catch up on a few things, Ich liebe dich.’
[I love you].
‘Love you too,’ he said kissing her lightly, he leant into the back of the car and said. ‘Hey Thomas, so you’re going to a party then, you must be a big boy now, so give daddy a big kiss.’
Alex looked at Elsa through the open car window, smiling he kissed her again and whispered. ‘Sie nehmen noch meinen atem weg,’ [you still take my breath away].
‘Dummer junge,’ [silly boy] said Elsa blushing. She smiled and waved as she drove away in her dark blue Audi Hatchback.
Alex waved back and walked back to the house thinking what a very lucky man he was.
He remembered how the first time he’d seen Elsa he’d fallen head over heels in love with her. At the time he was still in the army, stationed in Germany. A good friend called Graham Marks, who he’d played a lot of golf with as a teenager, had taken the golf professionals job at a mountainside golf course called Uberstad in the German Alps. The golf course closed between October and March as it would be covered in snow and the fairways were used as pistes, a part of what became a busy ski resort through winter.
When Alex had some leave, instead of heading back to England like most of his mates, he would go stay with Graham and either play golf with him in summer or ski in winter. During the winter months the golf clubhouse magically transformed into a chic Après Ski bar and restaurant, Graham would supplement his six months of summer golf professional’s income by managing the bar. Alex and Graham had an arrangement in place, that when he came skiing, Alex, who had played the guitar since he was a young boy, would bring it along with him and provide some entertainment for the customers in exchange for free lodgings, food and bar bill.
Alex was staying with Graham one weekend and had just finished playing a session when Graham took him over to a table near the window and introduced him to a beautiful brunette that he’d been seeing for a few months. She was with another girl who was sat with her back to them looking out of the window.
‘Alex this is Monika,’ said Graham.
‘Nice to meet you Monika, I can’t believe he never told me how beautiful you are.’
‘Hello Alex I’ve heard so much about you, Graham was right you are a smooth talker. This is my best friend Elsa.’
Elsa turned around and smiled. ‘Hi Alex how are you?’
Alex was stunned, he felt like his chest was caving in with his breath vacating his lungs as she turned to face him. Her hair was long and straight naturally platinum blond and her eyes were a mesmerising intense bright blue, she was slim, without being wafer thin like an anorexic model, Alex thought how beautiful she was. He found himself staring at her, he was almost speechless and had to force himself to reply. ‘I’m fine thanks and you?’
‘Yes I’m good thank you,’ said Elsa smiling.
‘Don’t worry Alex she has this effect on all the boys,’ said Monika laughing. ‘Please sit down.’
Graham went to the bar and brought some drinks over, they sat and chatted away, the night passed quickly, at the time Alex was learning to speak German and the girls had great fun teasing him by making up words and slipping them into the conversation. Alex was disappointed when they had to leave around midnight as they were skiing early in the morning.
The next evening Alex was sat on a stool on the small stage playing the guitar and singing when Elsa and Monika walked into the bar, he almost forgot his words as Elsa smiled and waved discreetly at him as they came through the door. She actually looked more beautiful than the previous night if that were possible. She was dressed casually, wearing dark blue jeans and a plain white top yet every head in the room turned to look at her as she walked across to an empty table.
Alex was by no means an inexperienced infatuated youth, he was reasonably good looking, twenty-five years old and had dated some very attractive girls, sat there on stage playing his guitar and singing he could probably take his pick of the unattached ladies in the room but it was different with Elsa, his stomach churned as he looked at her, he felt like a rabbit caught in a cars headlights.
He finished playing and sat down with Elsa, Monika and Graham, they had a great time laughing and talking about anything and everything. It was two am when a tired Graham insisted he had to close the bar and lock up. They were the last people in the room and Monika whispered something into Elsa’s ear and giggled. Elsa stood up and said she had a wonderful night but she had to go, Monika remained seated having obviously decided that she was spending the night with Graham.
Alex insisted he should walk Elsa home, it was late and she was glad of the company so she said ok. Her chalet was about a ten minute walk away the paths were slippy with ice so they linked arms and laughed and joked as they half walked half skated down the road. They were near the chalet when it started snowing heavily, Elsa felt she couldn’t let him walk back through the blizzard and so she asked him inside. They had a coffee and schnapps and then Alex nervously put his arms around her and they kissed, Alex felt awkward at first, like a teenager on a first date but it quickly turned from a nervous peck on the lips, into them both tearing off each others clothes and passionately making love.
Alex was in love, he’d known it from the moment he’d first seen her in the bar, he’d once before believed that he’d been in love but he realised now that it had just been infatuation, a teenage crush but this was the real thing, he couldn’t envisage his life without Elsa. Even now as she drove off and turned and smiled at him he felt his chest tighten and the breath leave his body, it was over ten years since he’d first met her and he still felt exactly the same as he did that first night.
Joe stirred as the man in the next bunk grunted out a snore and turned over, he put his hands behind his head and breathed deeply. When he thought about it, this was probably the only period of his life that he himself had planned and chosen, no orders from up the food chain, no fighting for the cause, no risking his life for someone else’s profit or self enhancement, what he was doing now was purely and simply for Joe O’Hara and nobody else. He almost laughed out loud when he thought about the politics that had shaped his life, nowadays it was just a joke.
The early 1990’s saw the politicisation of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness were instrumental in reversing PIRAs position of the Armalite over the ballot box and people like Joe, the actual fighters, became more and more marginalized. Once heroes, they were now seen as extremists, a threat to the political and financial ambitions of some within the movement. By the time of the first PIRA ceasefire in 1994 Joe realised that his days with the provisional army were numbered, he was courted by both the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA to join them, but he’d always thought they were a bunch of mental cases, apart from that Joe now realised the truth that it had never actually been the politics of a united Ireland that had driven him, no, for Joe it was just an outlet for his vengeance and something he was very good at and got well paid for.
He still hated the orange bastards who he held responsible for his fathers murder and he felt no remorse when called upon to kill them, but by the late 1990s he began to question what was happening within the movement itself, PIRA had become a multi million pound business conglomerate that controlled the supply of smuggled fuel, alcohol, cigarettes, pirate DVDs and CDs across the province and much of mainland Britain. They ran protection rackets, illegal gambling syndicates and operated the majority of the fruit machines in the pubs and bars within the catholic strongholds of Northern Ireland. All these operations generated millions of pounds of cash which in turn spawned its own industry of illicit financial services, they invested, often through intimidation, as silent partners in legitimate businesses and held share portfolios that City of London brokers would be jealous of. PIRA also owned vast swathes of property throughout the province and even had controlling interests in banks based in Eastern Europe and the third world. Though not directly involved in drug trafficking, in fact the official policy was to drive drugs off the street, they turned a blind eye to certain ‘friendly factions’ who were.
Joe found himself being ordered more and more to participate in hits, punishment beatings and kneecappings of young kids who had upset the PIRA fund raisers, rather than any political or sectarian targets. It all came to a head for Joe when the three man council that ran the PIRA Belfast brigades illegitimate operations sent for him.
The PIRA Belfast Brigade officially held their main monthly meetings at Connolly House the headquarters of Sinn Fein, while the three man army council, consisting of the OC or Officer Commanding, the Chief of Intelligence and the Quartermaster met weekly in the back room of a pub just off the Falls road. The business of the main meetings was open, transparent and mainly of a political nature, whereas the work of the army council was the secretive day to day running of the movements’ covertly darker side.
Joe was summoned to the pub and it was in the back room where they gave him orders to lead a group of men in the kneecapping of a young upstart drug dealer. It turned out, to Joe’s horror that the young lad in question was his own nephew. The army council either didn’t know, didn’t care or had simply not bothered to check that the boy was related to Joe and were visibly annoyed when Joe O’Hara of all people questioned their orders and asked why the boy was being punished. Just as Joe had suspected the answer was plainly and simply that his nephew had been drug dealing on their turf, without their consent and was pissing off the people who had bought the franchise from PIRA.
Joe exploded with rage and told them unequivocally that if one hair on his nephews’ head was harmed he would hold the three of them personally responsible. The brigade O.C. Thomas Kilcoyne told Joe to calm down and promised they wouldn’t hurt the lad just warn him off and that Joe should go home and cool off, they’d send for him again when they needed him.
Joe wasn’t stupid, he warned his nephew to keep his head down and get out of Belfast for a while. Unfortunately his nephew who was himself a heroin addict and desperate for the money his dealing brought him, totally ignored Joe’s warning and carried on pushing drugs.
It was two weeks later while Joe was watching the local news on television, that he heard how two men wearing black balaclavas had broken down the door of his nephews’ flat, dragged him from the bed he was sharing with his heavily pregnant girlfriend and forcing him onto his knees had shot him twice in the back of the head.
Joe knew that the murder was a both a message to other rogue drug dealers but perhaps more pertinent a warning to Joe himself not to disobey or threaten his superiors, he realised that in all probability he himself would now become a target of the men he’d threatened.
In Joe’s game you didn’t have many friends and even fewer people you could trust. There were in fact only two men left in Belfast that he trusted implicitly and could call on to help him out when needed, they were Francis Mahoney and Peter Flanagan. Both were like Joe, hardened veterans of the troubles, they were in their late thirties and had seen many years of active service with the Provisional IRA. For the last ten years Joe, Frank and Peter had been members of a five man cell that had migrated about through Europe, North Africa and mainland Britain. Peter was the cell’s explosives expert, Joe had nicknamed him Blue Peter, because, he’d joked that Peter could create a bomb out of an empty washing up bottle and some sticky back plastic. Frank was more of a foot soldier, he was big, tough and good with weapons but not all that bright, most importantly Joe knew he could trust both of them with his life.
Michael O’Hearn the fourth member of their cell was currently residing in Her Majesties Prison Belmarsh, having been arrested two years earlier for his involvement in an attempted bank robbery in Stewartstown. John Gilroy the fifth man had met and fallen in love with a local girl while they were laying low in the Netherlands, this was after an attempted bombing in London was abandoned after the plan had been compromised by an informer. John decided he’d had enough of Northern Ireland and its troubled history and settled down with the girl in Utrecht a town near Rotterdam. The others weren’t bothered, fair play and good luck to him, John had done more than his fair share for the cause and in reality, though they would never admit it to each other, they were all actually jealous of his happiness.
Joe arranged a meeting with Frank and Pete in a small bar in Newtonabbey a small town just outside of Belfast, it was a protestant stronghold where they would be far away from the prying eyes of PIRA. Both Frank and Peter shared Joes’ disaffection of what was happening within PIRA and were infuriated by Sinn Fein’s disarmament policy, they had sacrificed their youth and lost forever the early years of their manhood, they had killed and several times been nearly killed themselves and for what, certainly not victory, not the promise of a united Ireland, no, for capitulation, a surrender that was making some people very wealthy and fuelling the lofty, statesmanlike ambitions of the politicians that ran Sinn Fein
They bought beers and sat around a table near the window, it was in clear view of the bar so as not to afford suspicion but was far enough away for their conversation not to be overheard, it also afforded an excellent view of the street outside to make sure they weren’t being shadowed.
Joe quickly explained what had happened to his nephew and how he thought he himself would soon be on the hit list. The three man council of the Belfast brigade would report Joe’s threats and dissention to the PIRA General Army Council at the next meeting, and as a show of strength, they would be forced to sanction his removal.
‘I’ve fucking had enough of all this shit,’ said Joe. ‘I’m not sitting on my arse waiting for some bastard to walk behind me and blast a hole through my brains. The cunts running PIRA are fucking gangsters now not freedom fighters, you used to know your enemies, who you were fighting and why,’ Joe stopped and took a drink of beer. ‘You both know me well enough I’ve never made a secret of it, it’s never really been the politics with me, I couldn’t give a flying fuck about Sinn Fein and a united Ireland, I just hate those orange bastards. I would personally kill every last one of them without a qualm and now I even hear on the quiet that we’re in secret talks with them, discussing territories and who sells what and where, franchises they’re calling it, franchises I ask you, fuck me it’s getting more like fucking Starbucks than terrorism.’
Frank and Peter nodded in agreement. ‘But what can we do about it,’ said Peter shrugging his shoulders. ‘The three of us can’t take on the Unionists, the police, the British government and the Provos can we now?’
Joe stared at his beer thoughtfully. ‘No we can’t, but we can get rich and piss the bastards off big time.’
‘How’d we do that?’ said Frank curiously.
‘How, you may ask my friend,’ said Joe smiling. ‘Think about it, what’s going to hurt those army council bastards more than anything else, more than the peace process, more than disarmament, more than Gerry Adams shaking hands with Tony fucking Blair,’ he stopped and waited for them to catch up with his thinking.
Gradually he saw the realisation dawn in Franks eyes, Frank nodded and smiled. ‘Money,’ he said. ‘Fucking money, hit the cunts where it hurts, in their pockets.’
‘Exactly,’ said Joe smiling.
‘And just how do the three of us manage to do that without ending up being buried on a County Down beach under a sandcastle with a big fuck off hole in the back of our heads,’ said Peter.
Joe smiled. ‘Because my friend, we can.’
‘How do you mean we can?’ questioned Peter.
‘Because we know how and when the fuel, the baccy and the booze comes in, where it’s warehoused and when it’s distributed, we know where the money’s laundered and when it’s banked.’ Joe took another drink. ‘For fuck sakes when we were in North Africa and Europe we helped set up half the booze and baccy deals we even made the contacts for drug trafficking before Sinn Fein got all holier than thou about it.’
Joe spoke quietly again. ‘What we need to do is hijack a couple of shipments doesn’t matter whether it’s cigs, booze or diesel and what’s more we make it look like those orange bastards did it, piss ‘em off big style but that’s just a smoke screen for what we really want and that’s to hit the money laundering operation.’
Peter nodded slowly starting to see the picture Joe was painting. ‘It won’t be easy, they’re not complete idiots Joe, complete fucking wankers I’ll grant you, but not complete idiots.’
Joe shook his head slowly and explained. ‘As I said we stage a couple of hijacks, cigs, booze or diesel it doesn’t fucking matter, it’s just to piss them off and we make sure it looks like the LVF are responsible, the gears of no use to us if we try to sell it they’ll be straight on to us, no, we burn it, bury it, dump it at sea, whatever, as I said it’s only for effect. What we do want is the cash, think about it if we hit the Belfast safe house on a Monday at the beginning of the month, before the cash gets put through the system, there’ll be something like a quarter of a million pounds being processed. Then the boys come up from Dublin the same day to take back some of the sterling to exchange for Euros, best of all they bring back the Euros they converted the month before, it’s a double fucking whammy.’
‘If we do it right we can make sure it looks like the whole things got those orange bastards name written all over it and that way we can start a turf war between the LVF and PIRA, the police won’t know what’s hit them, PIRA think the LVF has fucked them up the arse so they’ll want revenge and raid their shipments, the LVF will raid back and on and on it goes, shootings, bombings the fucking lot.’ Joe realised he had being getting louder again, he looked around to see if anyone in the bar was looking at them, there wasn’t, he lowered his voice. ‘By the time anyone stops to think about it and realises what’s happened we’ll be long gone, we’ve got places in Europe where we know we can hide up safely and we’ve got a fair few contacts over there who can help us.’
‘The money won’t last forever Joe, what do we do when it runs out?’ said Peter.
‘Right, I’ve thought about that,’ said Joe. ‘We’ll be cash rich and we know the people and the places where we can get hold of drugs, heroin, coke, ecstasy, anything we want and we’ve got the know how to get the stuff onto the mainland where we can sell it on. We’ve been smuggling munitions onto the mainland for years so we can easily set up a supply chain for drugs.’
‘It’s not that simple Joe,’ said Peter shaking his head.