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The Price of Blood

Three weeks before Christmas, Father Vincent Tyrrell asked Tommy Owens to fill in for George Costello, who had been the sacristan at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Bayview for thirty years until he was rushed into hospital with inoperable stomach cancer. A lot of Father Tyrrell's parishioners were outraged, to put it mildly, since Tommy was known as a dopehead and a malingerer and a small-time drug dealer, one of the diehard crew who still drank in Hennessy's bar, and not a retired Holy Joe shuffling about the church in desert boots and an acrylic zip-up cardigan like George Costello, God have mercy on him. And fair enough, the first time I saw Tommy on the altar in cassock and surplice it was a bit like something out of a Bunuel film.

But what a lot of his parishioners didn't know was that Tommy had been one of Father Tyrrell's most devout altar boys until he was eleven, when the sacrament of confirmation had the unintended reverse effect of enfeebling his faith entirely, or that since Tommy's mother had dropped dead of a stoke a month ago Tommy had been haunting the church, the only soul under seventy at ten mass every morning. Now he was standing by to clear the altar after 11.30 mass on the last Sunday in Advent as I stood and made the best fist I could of rejoicing with the rest of the congregation about Emmanuel's imminent arrival.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer_

Our spirits by Thine advent here; _

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, _

And death's dark shadows put to flight.

The altar cloths and hangings were purple; the tree was decorated and the great crib was installed in a side altar; the fourth candle on the wreath had been lit. Christmas hadn't meant much to me in a long while, never mind Emmanuel, but I had always liked Advent, the way the anticipation was so intense it could make you clean forget the inevitable letdown in store, just like a bottle, or a woman. Although when a priest sends for a private detective the day before Christmas Eve, the distinction between anticipation and letdown tends to blur; the only thing you can properly be prepared for is the worst.

The Dying Breed

Looking at Tommy, now he had stowed his vestments in the sacristy, I wondered if those greying parishioners streaming past me with their damp winter coats and their filmy eyes and their scent of lavender and pan-stick and dust had revised their opinion of him; certainly he was a far cry from the goateed, straggle-haired ne'er-do-well of just a few months ago. The haircut and beardless chin came from the Howard case he had worked with me (a case he was in no small way the cause of; a case in which, not incidentally, he saved my life) but the rest of it—the multi-coloured acrylic jumper that was not a zip-up cardigan but may as well have been, the relaxed-fit cords, the soft-soled shoes—was close enough to George Costello to reassure even the most doctrinaire old biddy of the strength of his devotion. And of course, Tommy dragging his ruined foot—the result of a stomping from George Halligan for stealing his brother Leo's bike back when we were kids—surely completed the picture of harmless piety. To my eyes, it looked like nothing but the antic shades of mourning, the haphazard motley of confusion and grief.

Tommy came down the aisle towards me; I stood out from the pew and genuflected; he turned and I trailed after him to the altar, where there was another genuflection from us both, old enough to have had it bred into our bones. For all the Godless years I worked in LA, people found it strange that I could never break the habit of crossing myself when I passed a hearse, or heard the tolling of a church bell. I still can't. I stepped up onto the altar to make for the sacristy, but Tommy turned left and exited through the side door. I followed out into the bright, cold morning and Tommy led me down a path to the rear of the church yard. We stopped at a low metal gate beneath a row of bare sycamore and horse chestnut trees glistening with frost and Tommy, still determinedly avoiding my eyes, pointed over it to a red brick Victorian villa fifty yards away.

"I know where the Presbytery is, Tommy," I said. "Sure didn't we once have thirty sacks of pony nuts and four dozen bales of hay sent there, for the crack?"

"And Father Tyrrell knew it was us," Tommy said. "Down to the school the next day with him."

"He knew it was you," I said. "You know why? Because you gave the delivery man your real name."

"I didn't," Tommy said. "I said Timmy Owens, not Tommy."

"Yeah. A mystery how he caught on to us, really."

"I never gave you up, Ed."

"You didn't need to, sure everyone knew we hunted as a pair. Jasus, the clatter he gave us."

"He went easy on you. They always did. They knew deep down you were a good boy. You were just easily led, that's all, by tramps the like of me."

I laughed at that, my breath pluming in the crisp air, and Tommy's face creased into something like a grin. It was the longest conversation we'd had since the funeral.

"How're you making out with this sacristan thing, Tommy?" I said, half-fearing he'd say something like, "'Tis a great comfort", or "Sure 'tis the will of God", in reply.

Tommy grimaced, looked over his shoulder at the last of the 'oul ones straggling out of the church, shrugged and lit a cigarette.

"It's not exactly me, is it?" he said. We both laughed at that, furtive, back-of-the-class laughter in the chill noon sunlight.

"But yeah, it's keeping me out of trouble. Out of the house. I can't face the whole, all her clothes, her paintings, the whole gaff just reminds me of her. Feels like it's haunted. You know what I mean, Ed."

I nodded. I had come back from LA to bury my mother, and stayed to find out what had happened to my father, who had disappeared twenty years earlier. Now I was living in the house I grew up in; living and partly living. There were days it seemed more like all I was doing was dying there: the souls of the dead hovered in the rooms like smoke, until I thought I might suffocate. I spent the time I wasn't working in one pub or another, stumbling home when I could be sure I would fall asleep straight away, and then leaving the house first thing the next morning and starting all over again. If I wasn't thirsty, I spent time in churches too: they were warm, and quiet, and no-one thought you were unwelcome there, or at least, no-one made you feel as if you were. I knew what Tommy meant all right.

"And Father Tyrrell's a bollocks, this we know, but he's on the level, he doesn't expect you to pray with him or pretend to be a Holy Joe or anything. And he has the inside on the ponies, of course. I'm making a mint on the tips he's giving me, and Leopardstown comin' up."

I had three beaten dockets in the pockets of my coat, and more on the floor of my car, and the opposite of a mint in the bank, but before I could ask Tommy to share a few of those tips, or to explain why a Catholic priest should 'of course' know so much about horse racing, the dark-clad figure of Father Vincent Tyrrell appeared in the doorway of the Presbytery, a cigarette in his hand, the smoke coiling in a wreath above his head. Tommy held a hand up to the priest and bowed his head and stood aside as if he was presenting me at court, and I thought I saw a flicker in his face and something cross his eyes: not fear, nor hatred; maybe just the lingering ghost of both. Whatever it was, he dispelled it with a wink in my direction and a grin that didn't reach his eyes and hauled himself back towards the church.

Father Vincent Tyrrell was in his sixties now but still straight-backed at five five, with a white crew cut above a flushed drinker's face whose protruding cheekbones looked like they'd been inserted artificially: they overshadowed his narrow sliver of a mouth and tiny chin; above them popped saucer eyes of the deepest blue, completing the impression of a vivid, cunning animal. He greeted me with a thin smile and showed me into a study paneled in dark wood. The mahogany table had worn dull in patches: half of it was covered with books and paperwork; the other half had three place settings, silver candle sticks and condiments, an overflowing ashtray and the remnants of three breakfast plates, one with two cigarette butts stubbed out in bacon rind. A murk of fried food, cigar smoke and aftershave clung to the air.

"My apologies for the mess. I have a lady who does—it's just, on Sunday, she doesn't," Tyrrell said. He tidied the dirty dishes together with the ashtray and took them away. I stood and looked around the room: the book shelves of philosophy, theology, poetry and art history, the wooden crucifix on one wall, the woven Bridget's cross above the door, the reproductions of Mantegna's Crucifixion and Poussin's Last Supper and Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ, the lost master that had shot to fame since its discovery on the disused parlour wall of a Jesuit retreat house in Dublin, where it had been living anonymously for years. I looked at the Caravaggio: the ever-approaching darkness, the soldiers clasping Jesus; the stricken face of the bearded Judas, already paid, and now paying, for his betrayal. When he hanged himself, having cast away the thirty silver pieces he was paid for his betrayal, the priests and elders wouldn't take back the coins, calling it the price of blood.

Tyrrell came back into the room with a bottle and two crystal goblets on a tray.

"Now Ed," he said, sitting down. "At a guess, I'd say you're not much of a sherry man. But most men who think they don't like sherry have a memory of some terrifyingly sweet liquid being forced on them by their granny. Many good reasons why they mightn't want to revisit such a traumatic primal scene. This is not cream sherry, it's manzanilla, a salty fino, very refreshing."

He poured the yellow liquid and offered me a glass. I sat down opposite him and took a drink of the bone dry wine, and the drink took me back to a dark haired girl I knew in Los Angeles, a girl with Spanish blood who knew her manzanilla from her palo cortado, and wanted to teach me the difference, until one day she stopped wanting to, although she didn't tell me that until it was too late. We had a child, a daughter with blonde curls and the wrong kind of blood, who died before she was two, and my Spanish girl and me couldn't get past that, and maybe didn't want to, didn't really try. Now she was married again to a man she had never stopped seeing while she was married to me, and they had their own child, a son, and she had rung me last night to wish me a happy Christmas, perhaps, or to tell me about how the kid was getting on, maybe, or to taunt me with her happy life and her happy home and with how she had never really been mine and now never would be, possibly; I don't know, I saw the number come up on the caller ID display and the answering machine wasn't on so I waited until the phone rang off the hook and then I waited until it did it twice more, and then I waited for another while, a long while, before I got to sleep. The Manzanilla was the first I'd tasted since my marriage, and it brought it all swirling back in a storm of memory and desire, of grief and regret and yearning. That's only the beginning of what a good drink can do. I took another swallow and lifted my eyes and said:

"Very good, Father Tyrrell. Nice bite."

"How are you, Ed? Are you all right?"

Was I all right? I'd received a lot of publicity on the Howard case: a journalist called Martha O'Connor co-operated with me in return for my story. She did her best to make me look good, but I could have done without the exposure: Dublin was a hard enough city to be a private citizen in, let alone a private investigator; people wanted their secrets kept, not sprayed all over the front pages. As a result, I was having trouble finding clients. I had fallen behind on repaying the mortgage my mother had taken out to fund the retirement she didn't live long enough to enjoy; I was cashing cheques I didn't have the money to back up in any pub that would let me; the bank had run out of patience and were getting ready to cut me loose. The local Guards were taking pleasure in my plight, happy at DI Fiona Reed's bidding to feed pet journalists embellished sagas about my misdeeds. I was drinking too much because I had no reason not to, or because I was stressed out over my debts, or at any rate, I was drinking too much, and I was betting on the horses with the money I didn't have because every day around drink four I became momentarily possessed by the evident delusion that my luck was in. I looked at Father Vincent Tyrrell and felt a sudden urge to confess, to throw myself on the mercy of a God in Whom I didn't believe, to be embraced by a church I had rejected long since. How was I?

"Very well, thank you," I said.

"Only I gather things haven't been going so well for you recently. In the detective business."

"Tommy been talking, has he? You should know better by now than to listen to half of what Tommy says."

"Tommy hasn't said a word. I just hear things. And read the papers. Of course, the fact that the O'Connor woman was involved didn't help."

Tyrrell twinkled beadily at me with the nice combination of sympathy and malice that had kept his parish on edge for over thirty years. Martha O'Connor was known above all for her investigative work on clerical sex abuse and medical malpractice in Catholic hospitals, and it would not have been atypical of Tyrrell's sense of humour to classify me with culpably incompetent doctors and paedophile priests. I wasn't going to rise to his bait, if that was what it amounted to, although it was probably nothing more than habit. I shrugged and finished my drink.

"What can I do for you, Father?" I said.

His lips vanished into his wet mouth as he thought about this, and I almost smiled. It was always the same, and worse if they were used to being in control, the moment when I asked them what they wanted. Because however much they wanted to conceal it from themselves, it wasn't want that drew them to me, but need: a need that family or friends, public officials, politicians or the police couldn't satisfy. Just like the need for a whore, and sometimes, I took little more than a whore's bitter pride in my work.

"It's about a boy," he said.

I waited a long time for him to say something else.

"Patrick Hutton was... is his name."

There was another long silence, during which Tyrrell finished his drink and stared into his glass. He wore an open-necked black shirt and a black jacket, classic priest's mufti; the clothes themselves were finely cut, the shirt silk, but then it had always been clear not only that Vincent Tyrrell came from money but that he still had some; the crucifix on his lapel was inlaid with tiny diamonds.

"I'm sorry, I appreciate this isn't very helpful, but I'm afraid I can't tell you much more," Tyrrell said finally, the blue eyes glinting again, as if almost amused by his reserve.

"Much more? You haven't told me anything, Father. You've given me a name. I'm not overburdened with modesty about my abilities, but there's not a lot I can do with a bare name. Look it up in the phone book. But sure you could do that."

Tyrrell produced an envelope, opened it to reveal a sheaf of bills and laid it on the table between us.

"Five thousand. Just to get you going."

I stared at the money. It would sort out my mortgage debts and pay my bills and go some way towards keeping my head above water and the bank off my back until the New Year. There was need on my side too, and the thin smile spreading across Tyrrell's face showed he recognized it. I shook my head and stood up.

"This is a waste of my time. Maybe Tommy Owens has you thinking I'm some kind of charity case—"

"I told you, Tommy hasn't said a word. Or more accurately, I haven't listened to a single word he says. Even in grief, he does like to prattle. And I assure you, if this were charity, you'd hardly be a deserving beneficiary. Patrick Hutton. He was a jockey. His last known address—known to me, at least—is in the envelope. That's all I can tell you."

"But you know more," I said, suddenly seeing where this was heading.

"Yes, I know more, much more. But what I know was told to me in confession, Ed. You remember the rules about that, don't you?"

I nodded and sat down again. The sanctity of the confessional: the promise that sins confessed to a priest during the sacrament of penance will not be divulged, because of course the priest is merely the channel through which God's reconciling grace flows to the penitent; it is up to God to tell what He has heard, no-one else. And God hasn't been talking much of late. Tyrrell stretched a hand towards me and patted the envelope of money on the table between us.

"Well, so do I. And even on the occasions when there are very good reasons to break them—and I fear this is such an occasion —the rules still apply. Maybe one day they won't, maybe one day the liberals' prayers will be answered, and the Church will transform itself as they believe Pope John the twenty-third intended, and all manner of change will occur: women and homosexuals will dance together on the altars, and teenagers will copulate in the aisle, and obese children will make their first holy communions with giant hosts made of cheese and tomato pizza. Maybe one day the Church, like everything else on this rock of ours, will dwindle to a mere machine devoted to making us feel good. But that day will come too late for me. Thanks be to God."

Tyrrell's hand shot out suddenly and seized mine.

"I'm dying, Ed. They said I should do chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, but I don't want any therapy. I don't want to be healed. It's my time. I want to die. But not without setting a few affairs in order. Chief among them Patrick Hutton."

His hand felt like a claw; the bones shone ivory through flesh mottled like stained parchment. I couldn't think of anything to say, so I sat still and stared at his hand until he released mine. He poured another two drinks and passed me one, and held his glass up in a toast to—I don't know, to death by cancer, or to ordering his affairs, or to Patrick Hutton and the secrets Tyrrell and God were keeping.

"You'll take the case?"

"Patrick Hutton was a jockey," I said. "Tommy says you've been tipping him winners. Says you have insider information. How's that?"

"I don't," Tyrrell said. "But people always think I do."

I waited for him to explain. He looked surprised that I needed him to.

"I suppose the time you spent away means there are gaps in your local knowledge, Ed. My brother is FX Tyrrell. We don't speak, haven't for many years. But people don't know that, or don't believe it."

Francis Xavier Tyrrell was the trainer of the winning horse I didn't back yesterday, and of most of the winners I hadn't backed in the days before that. He'd been doing it for a long time, and you didn't have to know very much about horse racing to have heard of him: he had been a national figure for decades, stretching back to his first Gold Cup triumphs at Cheltenham in the sixties.

"Must be in the blood then," I said.

"Francis had the true feel for it—I always said St Martin of Tours was watching over him—the horses liked him, they didn't know me—and I couldn't stand coming second. Pride has been my besetting sin. It'll see me broken on the wheel one day."

Tyrrell smiled at the prospect of this, and I had a flash of his instructing my class in the seven deadly sins, and what the appropriate punishment for each was: avarice would see us boiled in oil; gluttony and we'd be force-fed rats and snakes; pride would have us broken on a wheel. Father Vincent Tyrrell was quite the young firebrand in those days, his blue eyes bulging with cold fervour, his hands rapping an ominous tattoo on the blackboard as he talked us through the tortures of hell. We were nine years old.

Tyrrell was a fanatic and a bully and a snob, and my rational self despised all this, but part of me insisted on liking him, the part I had no control over, the part that drank whiskey in the morning and took the wrong woman home at night, liked him for his unflinching absorption in what used to be called the Four Last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Because increasingly, these were the objects of my own devotions. The difference being, I didn't believe in Heaven.

He raised his glass and we finished our drinks and I stood up and nodded at him.

"How do you know I won't just take the money and tell you I couldn't find him?" I said.

Tyrrell's face clouded momentarily, the muscles quivering as if he were having a slight stroke; he controlled them by what looked like the angry force of his will, and directed his cold, penetrating gaze at me.

"I doubt if your footfall upon the earth is especially heavy as it is, Edward Loy. You would never act like that, never betray the only calling you have. You wouldn't do it out of fear. Profane fear: of the harm that would be done to your reputation. And spiritual fear: that if you acted so out of character, you'd run the risk of disappearing entirely."

The bells began to ring for the next mass. He drew his thin lips into a smile, and I found I couldn't meet his piercing eyes; I nodded at the floor to seal the deal. At the Presbytery door he gave me a blessing I didn't ask for. Despite myself, I felt glad of it.


The Wrong Kind of Blood (2006)
The Colour of Blood (2007)
The Dying Breed (US: The Price of Blood) (2008)
All the Dead Voices (2009)
City of Lost Girls (2010)
All the Things You Are (2014)