Blackest of Lies

By Bill Aitken

Historical fiction

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8 mins


Saturday 20 May 1916 0255 hours, Barham, Kent

   The parched road wandered up the hill and vanished behind a line of ancient trees. But the quiet beauty of the rolling Kent landscape was lost on Gallagher – he was just too angry as he stumped along, head down. It was bad enough that he had missed his way several times that night, despite a brilliant moon, but – worst of all – this lout Riordan had been foisted on him by Brigade with no explanations and no reasons. "He goes along, Sean." Gallagher was a loner and preferred it that way. Riordan was a distraction he could well do without – tonight of all nights.

   He glanced across at him: a huge brute, dressed like Gallagher as a farm labourer. Riordan’s idea of ‘blending in’ usually ended in explosive violence. There was no disguising what he was – a thug – the sort of would-be hard man whose only real value was extorting money from drunks for "The Cause" and doling out the odd punishment beating. Gallagher felt demeaned by the order to bring him along and he wondered, not for the first time, whether Brigade had a private agenda in mind. Perhaps Riordan was along as a minder to see that things were done by the book. He mulled that one over for a minute or two – nasty undercurrents were moving around back home like bad cess. No doubt he'd come in for a knock or two if he didn't watch his tail. He snorted in the darkness and shook the thought out of his head – Riordan would keep.

   Beyond the summit, the road trickled down the gentle reverse slope for a hundred yards or so and then snapped to the right, enclosing two sides of the flat, green-covered graveyard of a church. Straight ahead, some farm buildings clung to the edge of the narrow valley.

   A clump of stunted bushes nearby lent much-needed support to an ancient stile. Gallagher stopped for a moment under the dark pool of shadow it cast over the grass verge and looked slowly around, sniffing the air. It was warm and still, carrying even the sound of a dog barking somewhere over on the other side of the valley. Satisfied that no-one was watching the church, they trotted across the road, their boots sparking a flinty rhythm, and passed through the little gate in the low, drystone wall. A narrow path led them through the gravestones.

   Just ahead, they could see the more imposing thatch of the main entrance and its shorter route to the porch, out of sight on the other side of the building. Their own path called at a small side door and, from there, it continued around the building to join with the broader thoroughfare. Gallagher tried the handle, only to find it locked.

   Riordan chuckled. "What now, Sean?”

   Gallagher stood quite still. “Shut up,” he said. “I've told you twice already to mind your tongue, son. You're here on sufferance. Don't you forget it or they'll find you floatin' back to Dublin.” He paused and looked up at the taller man. "Are we clear on that?"

   The moonlight cast deep shadows below the younger man's eyes, but there was little mistaking the expression. Gallagher felt rather than saw the nod.

   They walked in silence around the corner and stopped at a curt flight of narrow steps to the right leading down to a door two or three feet below ground level. Gallagher looked cautiously around and then turned to Riordan. “Now, for your information, it was a toss-up whether we could get in by the other door. This one here leads into the vestry. If the first one's shut, this one's usually open.”

   “How d'you know?”

   Gallagher sighed in exasperation. “Because we have a man in the house, you clown. It's arranged. What did you think – we’d kick Special Branch in the arse without a plan and half a dozen backups?” He paused and considered his next words. “Has all of this penetrated that thick skull of yours? This is meant to be payback, in spades, for Easter Monday but – get it into your head – the Specials have got this place sewn up tighter than a bloody drum. No surprises – that’s the only way we’re going to get out of this alive. Christ, that's why we were down in his gardens this afternoon, checking out the lie of the land. If all this stuff turns to worms, we'll be needin' another way out. I never leave things to chance and that, son, includes you. So just shut up and do what I say.”

   The door opened with only a token creak and they slipped into the claustrophobic room beyond. The smell of old stone, wood and polish enveloped them, pulling Gallagher back to his childhood in Donegal and the old priest in Buncrana castigating him yet again for missing confession.

   “Ah, you're a bad sort, Sean,” he would say, “and you'll come to a bad end.” He would limp away, shaking his head and leaving the ten year old boy standing barefoot by the side of Lough Swilly, fishing rod in hand, trying to catch something – anything – to put food into the mouths of his mother and sisters after their miserable crops had failed yet again.

   Riordan closed the door while Gallagher, turning to his left, walked through the archway leading into the main body of the church. He struck a match and moved round to the far wall. In the dim light, he could see the inside face of the locked side door they had tried earlier and, to its right, a large marble monument.

   “Right. You see that big marble thing? Well, there's a two foot gap between the back of it and the wall. That's where we're going.”

   They moved to the rear of the polished stone and Gallagher braced his back against the church wall, pushing his feet against the monument. “Give me a hand for Christ sake,” he said to the other man. With a high-pitched screech, the huge block inched forward on rails, uncovering a short set of steps, just visible in the guttering light of the match. “This is the start of the tunnel. It goes all the way to the Hall.”

   “Christ Almighty!” said Riordan in a reverent whisper. “Who made it, anyway?”

   Gallagher shook the match to death and struck another. “He did – or else he fixed it up. He's mad for them. Our lad at the Hall says that he's even built one from his flint cottage to the stables so that he doesn't get himself wet walking over to the horses. The whole estate's riddled with them. Some of them were there even before he bought the place. Probably smugglers' tunnels or something like that but this one here was built for the lord of the manor to get to church on rainy days. It didn’t have this lump on top of it at first. It’s supposed to have been a just a wee trapdoor in plain view but the Specials made the vicar have it covered over by this thing so that bad people, like you and me, wouldn't be able to use it. If you ask me, anyone can see it stands out like a dog's balls. It wasn't made to go here.”

   The match flickered out, burning his fingers. Cursing, he turned to Riordan and handed him the box and a dark lantern. “Here. Light this and follow me down.”

   The tunnel, as he had expected, was dank and dripping but it had sufficient proportions to allow a normal sized man to walk along without touching the brick-lined walls. Gallagher waited for Riordan to arrive behind him, took charge of the lantern and led the way into the gloom ahead. The weak flame reflected off greasy walls and highlighted the inverted forest of delicate stalactites, suspended from the corbelled roof. The floor was slimed in a thin treacherous film of algae and chalky mud fed by the water dripping in the darkness ahead.

   The tunnel snaked its way in sympathy with the contours of the land between the church and Broome Hall so, by the time they reached its abrupt end, they were filthy and wet through, courtesy of several falls in the slippery mud. Some steep steps, a little broader than the corresponding ones back in the church, led up to what could only be the underside of a large flagstone. Gallagher swore quietly to himself. He had been hoping for a trapdoor or something easy like that. This would be heavy and bloody noisy. He covered the lantern.

   “Here, you. Make yourself useful. Get up in front of me and put your shoulder to this stone.”

   Riordan had positioned himself to lever the stone up when he felt Gallagher's breath at his right ear.

   “But make a sound with it and, so help me, I'll gut you where you stand and leave you here to rot in the mud.”

   He smiled to himself as he felt the younger man tremble in the oppressive darkness. Gallagher’s complete indifference to his own life, never mind anyone else's, was notorious. It was a useful reputation to have in stressful times.

   “Gimme a break, Sean, I won't.”

   To their surprise, the stone slid upwards without a sound, stopping just beyond the vertical. It turned out to be hinged at one end and fitted into a wooden frame, sunken out of sight below the level of the flagged floor.

   Gallagher nudged the other man. “Leave your boots on the top step. When we leave, I don't want these bastards knowing how we got in. We might want to use the tunnel again. And that means watching what we brush up against in the house, as well. We'll be pretty manky after having landed on our arses half a dozen times in that muck.”

   Cautiously, he climbed up and looked around to get his bearings. The moon glared through large windows, throwing brilliant highlights on polished copperware and carving deep shadows beyond stocky furniture. Below, still kneeling on the steps, Riordan heard the snap of Gallagher's fingers, to say that it was safe to join him.

   They had come up at the rear of the kitchen, between the large chopping table in the middle of the floor and the enormous enamel sink ranged against the back wall.

   Gallagher drew his gun, a large-calibre Mauser, fitted its silencer and turned to Riordan. “Ready?” Seeing him nod, he padded around the table towards the large oak door and stood with his hand on the handle, waiting for the other man to join him.

   “OK, now, we go through here and then along the main hall for a bit, turn right and up the main staircase. That brings us to a corridor. About halfway along it, there'll be a short flight of steps goin' up to the left. That takes us to the door of his bedroom. There's a lot of buildin' works being done to the house right now, so you make damn sure you don't trip over any buckets or such like. But there should be no risk of bumpin’ into anyone else in the place. He won't stand for any Specials in the house so that means you only need to watch where you put your big feet.”

   Seeing that Gallagher was about to go through the door, Riordan plucked at his sleeve. “Wait a minute, wait a minute! I thought you said he was livin' in the flint cottage and using his tunnel to the stables and all that.”

   Gallagher checked his frustration with Riordan. “That's right, he usually does. But he's just come down from London and seein’ that the bedroom's been finished he's decided to stay the night in the house itself. It’s goin’ to be his first and his last.”

   Inch by inch, Gallagher opened the door and entered the short corridor leading to the main hall which was long with a high ceiling supported by heavy beams. On the left were the large windows and the main door that gave the building its characteristic look from the main sweep. On the right, no less than two enormous stone fireplaces dominated the wall. Gallagher snorted at the extravagance of the man, remembering the miserable cottage of his own childhood with its ever-smoking peat fire. The smell of it was in his nostrils still.

   He pulled at Riordan's jacket and they glided along the hall to a door leading to the staircase corridor. They began to climb the first flight of broad, carpeted steps. On top of each upright of the massive, carved wooden balustrade, unicorns and other mythical animals reared rampant behind wooden shields. Glancing around to check that they were still alone, Gallagher peered at the carvings in the blue moonlight, discovering an erect penis behind each shield.

   “Jesus, would you look at that, now.”

   “What is it, Sean?”

   “Never you mind. You're too young anyhow. Keep moving.” He pushed Riordan ahead of him up the steps to the first landing were they both stopped. This part of the building was in thick, deep blackness.

   Gallagher whispered into Riordan’s ear. “Right, so. At the top of this flight, we go into the last corridor. Straight ahead and we get to his bedroom steps in about ten yards. We do this with no fanfare - no talkin' and no tippin' over in the dark. You just follow me. Don't get involved and don't say anything. You're just here as a witness.”

   “Right you are, Sean.”

   Gallagher plucked at him once again and they moved, as one, up the stairs and into the corridor. Here, the going was a little better. A nightlight was burning at the far end. It cast a dim, sepulchral yellow glow along the walls and sketched faint highlights on the painted columns flanking the bedroom stairs ahead.

   Five seconds saw them at the bedroom door, a few feet above the level of the corridor. With care, Gallagher tried the handle and, finding it unlocked, opened the door. It turned on its well-oiled hinges, raising only the gentlest whisper from the deep carpet. As they entered, moonlight drenched them through large bay windows overlooking the rear lawn. The room boasted several slender pillars, similar to the ones at the bottom of the stairs, giving it a rather odd, cluttered look. Gallagher turned to his right, around the open door, where he had been told he’d find the bed. Its head was touching the wall through which they had entered.

   They walked round to the foot and looked back at the man, deep in his slumbers. He had kicked the covers down to his waist in the warmth of this, his last, early summer.

   Gallagher raised the gun and pointed it at his target. Once upon a time, he might have woken his victim – he still knew one or two like that – to amuse himself with the simple pleasures of telling his target why he was about to die. He despised Riordan for his crowding desire to see this one beg for his life but he was now too much a master of his art to squander time on pointless theatrics. He pulled the trigger and the gun gave a metallic thud, startling in the confines of the bedroom. His victim arched in a spasm and gasped several times as three more bullets followed. Gallagher retrieved the casings from their smouldering burn holes in the carpet and pulled Riordan towards the door.

   "It's done. Back down to the kitchen and through the tunnel again." Riordan remained frozen in fascination, staring at the body. "Move right now or, so help me, I'll put the next four in your ear."

   Riordan turned with a start and followed him to the door. Gallagher took one glance back to make sure that nothing had been left behind and then removed the key from the bedroom side, locking the door behind him. That would give them a little more time in the morning while the staff dithered about forcing it or not.

   Behind them in the bedroom, motes of dust and feathers from the pillows glinted in the moonlight as they settled on the face and body of Horatio, Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, Secretary of State for War.



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