THE SKY HAD BEEN RED IN THE MORNING BUT BY NIGHT IT TURNED black and a storm churned up the mountain called Long Woman’s Grave from Carlingford Lough, lashing the small, whitewashed cottage and littering the yard with leaves and small cones from the trees standing around the cottage on three sides. The air had cooled now, although a soft rain still fell bringing with it a tangy smell of pine needles. Inside the cottage, Fallon had placed a new block of peat on the smoored fire and used the billows to pump the fire into life. Now he sat contented, reading by the fire, enjoying sips from the cup of tea at his elbow and the warmth of the fire and the sound of the rain dripping from the eaves. The room was cozy, a bachelor’s room lined with bookcases overflowing with books. When he raised his eyes to their titles, his mind read them in the dim light: Rousseau’s Confessions, Larkin’s Red Branch Cycle, Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, The Fox, the sets of Dickens and Balzac, Yeats, some in collectors’ first editions, a rare copy of Joyce’s Ulysses rescued from a farmhouse attic near Armagh. Music rolled softly from a tape player on a small corner table while Miss Sheba lay in his lap, purring contentedly, eyes half-closed. The Victorian lamp gave off a soft glow through the roses delicately entwined on its globe. A faint scent of toasted cheese reminded him of his light supper.
Haunting notes from a tin whistle nearly hid their approach across gravel in front of the house, but Miss Sheba heard them, a low growl emanating from her throat as she leaped lithely from Fallon’s lap to the mantel, her black fur gleaming in the light from the peat fire. Fallon placed a leather bookmark between the pages of Arthur Rimbaud’s Une saison en enfer, carefully placed it beside the mug of tea on the small table near his elbow, then rose and slipped the Baby Browning from the hidden shelf beneath the mantle, stepping to the left of the door. He checked the pistol, slipping the safety off.
They moved quickly, throwing the door open while simultaneously sliding into the room, ducking to miss the low beam and fanning out to each side, crouched, pistols trained on the empty chair. Miss Sheba snarled, drawing their attention as Fallon slipped behind them.
“Good evening. Don’t,” he murmured warningly as they started to turn toward the sound of his voice. They froze. The tall one straightened, shaking his head in disgust. The tin whistle died and Phil Coulter slid into “The Rose of Mooncoin,” the notes from his piano falling like silver leaves into the room.
“Do it, Johnny,” the taller one said after glancing over his shoulder. “The bugger’s got us.” He tossed his pistol onto the chair.
“Ned,” Johnny said.
“You won’t make it,” Fallon said softly. Johnny hesitated, then tossed his pistol after his partner’s.
“How’d yuh know? Yuh owe us that,” he said, the Ulster vowels long and harsh in his words. He started to turn, dropping his hands, then stopped as Fallon raised the Browning.
“Do you take me for a fool, now?” Fallon said.
“Sure, sure, now. Be careful with that,” Ned said nervously, stepping back and raising his hands.
“On the floor. Hands straight in front of you.”
“We was only having a bit of fun,” Johnny protested. “ ’Twas himself sent us. MacCauley.”
“He said how good yuh were,” Ned explained.
“And now you know,” Fallon said calmly. “The floor.”
Johnny swore, dropping to his knees, gingerly lowering himself to the floor. Ned hesitated, glanced into Fallon’s eyes, then followed his partner. Fallon stepped between their legs and quickly searched them. Johnny had a flick-knife in his pocket. Fallon tossed it into a corner. Ned had a small Beretta in an ankle holster. Fallon took it and slid it into the back pocket of his trousers and moved away from them.
“You may sit up, now,” he said. “But keep your hands in your laps where I can see them.”
“Bleedin’ bastard,” Johnny muttered. He rolled to a sitting position and glared at Fallon standing over him.
“You’re alive,” Fallon said. “You don’t have to be.” Ned slid backward across the floor until his back could rest against the bookshelves.
“What does he want?”
“MacCauley? I dunno. He just said to bring you.”
“Where?” Fallon asked.
“Yuh have to be blindfolded,” Johnny said sullenly. Fallon stared at him; a tiny flush crept up Johnny’s cheeks. Ned shook his head disgustedly.
“Don’t mind him. Leaves his good senses in the jakes when he shats. Will yuh come?” Ned asked.
“I’m finished. MacCauley knows that,” Fallon said.
Ned regretfully shook his head. “Now, then, yuh know how it is. Yuh were part of us for a long time. Once in, always in. If yuh don’t come with us now, he’ll only send others. More next time. Yuh’ve had a good time of it, now, ain’t yuh? What? Two, three years?”
“Forty-two months,” Fallon automatically answered.
“There, now. Yuh see? Yuh see what I mean? Don’t yuh? It’s a good rest yuh been havin’. And sure, haven’t yuh been deserving, now? I was sayin’ that to me mate here while we were comin’ out. ‘Johnny,’ I says, ‘yuh know that Tomas Fallon has been restin’ a good while now, while others have been dyin’ in the North. Yuh canna be tellin’ me that a man like that isna tired of all that peace and quiet.’ ”
“That’s what you were saying, is it?” Fallon said. Ned vigorously nodded.
“Aye. An’ may God strike me where I’m sittin’ if it ain’t so.”
“So you came in with guns. Not very friendly.”
“Ah, well.” He smiled sheepishly, rubbing his nose with the flat of his hand. “That were a mistake, yuh see.” Johnny cleared his throat. Ned gave him a warning look, and he slumped back against the wall, staring at the floor between the toes of his engineer boots.
“Will yuh come wit’ us, now?” he asked.
“I won’t have to wear a blindfold?”
Ned laughed, nodding at the pistol in his hand. “I think we can forget the blindfold, don’t yuh, Johnny?”
“MacCauley will have our balls,” he answered dourly.
“Better than being dead,” Fallon said. “Dead’s a long time.” He backed to a hook beside the door and removed a jacket, shrugging into it while keeping the Browning trained on them. “Shall we go?”
Johnny glanced at their pistols in the chair. “Our guns?” Fallon smiled and shook his head. “No, I didn’t think so,” he said resignedly. He walked to the door, opened it, and stepped out into the night. Ned followed, pausing at the door. He turned.
“Yuh’re a hard man, Tomas Fallon,” he said.
“You’re alive,” Fallon said, lifting the pistol. “For now.”
Ned nodded thoughtfully and turned to follow his partner. Fallon closed the door behind them.