Read the first chapters of the novel Barely a Crime by Robert Ovies. If you like what you’re reading, visit the novel’s page to learn more or order!
Kieran Lynch was born in a pine bed in his parents’ lower flat in West Belfast, Ireland, on a night that was, for the middle of summer, unusually cold.
His mother, Maureen, cried and laughed out loud when she saw her new son wailing in the Widow Shea’s fat hands, free of his umbilical cord and his purple coloring, his hair already as black as pitch.
Kieran’s father, who was called Thomas rather than Tom and who had stayed downstairs in the kitchen with Kieran’s four-year-old sister, Colleen, let out a whoop at the sound of his firstborn son crying and his wife laughing. With little Colleen bouncing in his arms, he danced like the sailor he had been for more than ten of his forty-seven years, wheeling in tight little circles toward the stairs leading to the upstairs bedroom, where he knew that everything was surely better than fine.
A sharp knock at the back door interrupted his dance and his momentum; a knock at the back door meant friends or relatives, for sure.
Thomas hesitated, undecided about the moment’s highest priority.
A second knock sounded as the Widow Shea rushed red-faced and beaming down the stairs and fairly shouted to the proud new father, “Well, for heaven’s sake, you’d better come see your own handsome son, man!” She rushed to gather up Colleen as Thomas’ wife called his name from upstairs and laughed out loud again, bright as a bell.
But the knock sounded again, this time more insistent than before, so Thomas exclaimed, “God’s breath. This’d better be good!” and took four quick steps to open the door.
He recognized Brandy Shane instantly, although it had been nearly twelve years since he had seen him, and although he had heard that Brandy had died in prison, where he had been sentenced on the strength of Thomas’ testimony for what they both thought at the time would be the rest of Brandy’s natural life. The charge had been murder, after all, and the dead were Alice Faye Shanahan and her daughter, Faith. While Alice Faye was notorious and a criminal herself, as both Brandy and Thomas had been at the time, poor little Faith had barely turned five.
Thomas stopped smiling, but he did not move, even after Brandy’s first shot passed through his stomach. With the second shot he staggered backward, aware of the widow’s screaming in the background and even more desperately aware, in the flash of that single moment, that he had not yet held his only son.
He fell with the third shot, which passed through his heart.
Kieran Lynch had been less than four minutes old when his father died without holding him. Kieran spent much of his next twenty-two years trying to get those four minutes back.
It was one of the world’s great feelings: lips as full and soft as bath towels breathing warm whispers against Kieran’s ear.
Brenna Stack’s long arms were wrapped around his shoulders from behind his chair as she pressed her cheek to the side of his head and used the nickname that only she used, “I know we can’t forget what they say, Kiero, about things that sound too good to be true.”
He moved his fingers lazily through the easy, red curls spilling past his shoulder and onto his chest. He nodded, but just slightly, as though not wanting to brush her lips away. “Right,” he said. “They usually are.”
“Mmm hmmm,” Brenna murmured. Then, with a sudden smile brightening her voice, she added, “But the key word is ‘usually’. Which means, you see, sometimes they’re not.”
Kieran raised his eyebrows and turned his head.
Her green eyes were smiling too. She said, “So I’m thinking this is going to be one of those times that it’s not too good to be true. I can just feel it, honest to God.”
“It could be.”
“Wouldn’t that be a treat for a rainy day?”
“We’ll see,” Kieran said. “I’m sure gonna see.”
He was a lean and broad-shouldered twenty-two-year-old with deep black hair that he let Brenna cut short and then left largely untended. His eyebrows were set low on his brow, as if with a weight of their own, over darkly quiet eyes. He wore faded blue jeans, a gray T-shirt and black boots. Kieran Lynch was a young man who had stopped caring about clothes, and about a lot of other things, a long time ago.
He sat facing their kitchen window at the only table he and Brenna owned—a metal-legged card table with a permanently wrinkled green and white plastic tablecloth, which was pressed tightly to the wall of their small East Belfast upper flat, not far from Trident Port.
Softly, almost absentmindedly, he laid his left hand on Brenna’s arm as his attention focused again on the open letter that lay in the middle of the green and white checks of their tablecloth. Its top fold was raised and facing him, as though it was studying him in return.
He could read the day’s date and the words:
Mr. Lynch: I invite you to join me for what will be something less than one-quarter hour of light work fifteen nights from tonight, on March 18. I have also issued this invitation to your friend Mr. Crawl Connell. My guarantee to you both is that there will be no robbery, there will be no weapons involved, no one will be harmed in any way, your risk will be largely nonexistent.
He took another swig of his Guinness stout and opened the second fold with the little finger of his bottle hand.
The letter continued:
Your payment and your friend’s payment upon completion of this single, perfectly planned operation will be fifty thousand pounds, which I will pay each of you in either cash or as a deposit in the account of your choice anywhere in the world one hour prior to your undertaking the task at hand.
If you are interested, we will meet at Mrs. Dougherty’s Dining Room, with which you and Mr. Connell are both familiar, at nine o’clock tonight, Monday. You will both come alone, as will I. Mrs. Dougherty will leave as soon as I arrive, at five minutes to nine. She will stay away until ten o’clock in the evening, which gives me more than enough time to pay you handsomely for the time spent in our initial meeting, and for letting me detail my simple request.
Even the name was typed, not signed, by someone calling himself “Mr. Day”.
Kieran released the fold of the letter. His hand drifted from Brenna’s arm and his mind drifted again to the serious discomfort of being promised too much money for an unspecified job that would, regardless of promises about risk, weapons or safety, have him back in a place he had been working hard to avoid: the breaking of the law. Worse, the proposal had been hand delivered by a messenger he hadn’t seen and so had no chance of questioning. And it had been delivered late in the day, practically too late for any clear thinking.
Brenna watched Kieran reread the letter, then kissed him lightly on the ear and eased upright. She stood five feet eight inches tall, four inches shorter than Kieran. Like him, she was athletically trim. Waves of scarlet hair hung over her faded yellow shirt, which was open to the third button. Her skin was milk white and her features sharp, although gently so. Her lips, deep red even without lipstick, offered a thoughtful smile. “Oh, that’s a lovely, fat pile of money,” she said, drifting into the chair on Kieran’s right.
Kieran nudged the fold of the letter one more time, as if testing to make sure it wasn’t alive. “It is if he’s not just a deranged grocer or something. Somebody who figures he knows how to steal the Queen’s jewels.”
“He doesn’t sound like a grocer,” Brenna said. She leaned forward and picked up the letter in her right hand. She snapped it once, hard, to hold it open. “Grocers write on shopping bags or order slips. This is expensive paper, Kiero. This is an intelligent man, who’s obviously put a lot of time and thought into something important to him.”
“Could be a trap, like Crawl says.”
“Crawl sees traps every day or two, from what I remember.” She didn’t take her eyes off the letter. “Very expensive person here,” she mused, “this Mr. Day or whoever he is.”
Kieran stared out the window on the opposite side of the table with narrowed eyes. He didn’t respond to Brenna. He didn’t move. He didn’t blink.
Brenna noticed and grew silent. Kieran wore that far-away look she had seen in him more often than she liked. After more than a minute passed, she glanced at her black Timex and said quietly, “Pretty soon now, you should go.”
She waited another fifteen seconds, then added, “When you come back, if it looks good, you can pick up something to party on. How’s that sound?”
“Yeah,” Kieran said softly. But he didn’t turn to face her. And he didn’t say anything more. He simply stared through a light-falling rain at the flat, four- and five-story buildings squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder on the opposite side of Glenreed Street.
All of them were old, with brightly colored trim and shutters; greens and reds and bright blues. All had struggling little shops or markets or pubs on the first floor and little flats for struggling people on the second, third and fourth floors. All had noise all day, every day, and well into every night. Most had their windows lighting up as the sun set behind Lagan Bridge by the docks and the evening clouds grew thick and aggressive.
A horn sounded in the street below and an angry man’s voice shouted what sounded like, but wasn’t, “The same sewing trailer you went!”
Kieran recognized the sadness that sometimes came back to him when it rained as it was raining then, especially when it was cold. It spread from the inside out and seemed to touch everything and everybody. He hated its coming, although he knew it would pass. It came without face or body or voice, yet he invariably found himself thinking of it as “the ghost.” It wasn’t just a feeling to him anymore; it was the ghost that rose up from places too deep to fathom, unidentified and unwanted, to cover his world like a shade. If he ever did see the ghost, he had long ago decided, it would have black hair matted down by a cold rain just like this one.
He flicked a glance at Brenna, winked without smiling, then looked out the window again. The wink had not been playful, more a gesture saying, bear with me, girl, but don’t talk to me right now. Just give me these last few minutes to think, then I’ll join you again and be just fine.
And so she did. But she was no longer smiling.
The flat they shared was rented on their combined hit-and-miss paychecks. It had just three rooms, the living and kitchen areas combined into one. The only art on the tan walls was an old movie poster taped above a gray couch: Odd Man Out, starring James Mason. The rug was an oriental imitation with no padding, four feet by five feet and worn badly. An eighteen-inch television set was the one costly thing they had purchased since they had moved into the hard streets of Belfast’s east side three months earlier, in December, just two days before Christmas.
In an upstairs window across the street, Kieran saw a light go on between green shutters and a fat man in a brown shirt raise his shade, squint out at the rain and gathered darkness, and lower it again.
He circled his left fist around his bottle of stout. “Here’s what happens,” he said quietly, reaching for Brenna’s arm with his right hand. “I go. And I listen to the man. Me and Crawl both. We listen is all.”
“That’s all you can do. Just listen.” Brenna reached for his hand. “And keep an open mind.”
“We listen,” Kieran said again. “Then I come back and we talk over what the deal is. You and me.”
“And we take it from there?”
“And we take it from there.”
“I’ll tell you the whole thing.”
“You know I don’t want you getting hurt or thrown in jail, for God’s sake,” she said. “I love you. But I just know how much it would mean to us, all that money.”
“And I do think this thing, whatever it is, is going to turn out to be golden. I just have that feeling.”
“But he’s not just going to ask me to poke through some old lady’s dressers for him.”
She grinned. “Maybe he is. Maybe she’s the one with the money.”
Kieran grinned lightly and rose from his chair. He started across the room toward his black leather jacket, which was thrown over the back of their couch, against the poster of Odd Man Out. “I’ll find out why he wants us, too, me and Crawl. He doesn’t know us.”
“You can’t know that.” Brenna rose and walked toward him. “How do you know that?”
“He’s going to pay us just to meet him, he says. Not just pay us, but pay us ‘handsomely’. How’s that for a word? Pay us ‘handsomely’. If he knew us, he’d know he didn’t have to pay us handsomely or any other way just to sit down and talk to us. Hell, he buys us a few stouts, we listen all night.”
“He’s heard good things about you. He knows about some things you’re able to do. From the Force, probably.”
“It’s not smart to waste money on us just for a meeting, though. If he’s not smart about that, maybe he’s not smart about other things.”
“He wants to make sure you come, is all. Maybe he has a plane to catch. See, you don’t think like rich people think. To him, that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Well, we’ll see, won’t we?”
Brenna gripped the lapels of his coat and eased him close. She kissed him lightly. Her smile was back. “I swear to God,” she said. Taking his cheeks in her hands, she lowered his face closer to her own and kissed him very softly, once on each eye. “If somebody put five gold bars in your pocket, you’d say, ‘Oh, now I never have to worry again.’ But then you’d do all that quiet thinking you do, and you’d say, ‘Oh, but now if I fall off a bridge, I’ll drown for sure.’ ”
Crawl Connell emptied his pint of Guinness, his third, and resumed his watch.
The noise in the Long Neck Pub was picking up, the music above all, a recording with a single fiddle under a man and a woman singing “The Baron of Brackley”. Monday’s crowd was not a big one, and his table was nestled against the front window with a clear view across Tanner Street to Mrs. Dougherty’s Dining Room, where the meeting the letter talked about would take place in exactly twenty minutes, at nine o’clock.
That is, if Mr. Day, or whatever his real name was, was going to be on time.
Crawl had come early to sit by the window where he would be able to see the man go into Mrs. Dougherty’s. See if he got dropped off and who was driving if he did. See if he was being followed by any friends. See how he dressed and carried himself and whether or not he looked over his shoulder. See if he looked like IRA or even old military, which was a slim chance, but possible. These were the possibilities on his mind when Kieran, the boyhood friend he still called his little brother, called him to ask if he had just gotten a letter dropped off by messenger, and then added, without waiting for an answer, “So what the hell you think is goin’ on?”
“It could be IRA history coming back to haunt us,” Crawl had said. “Could even be some ex-British military who joined them in the end. Settin’ us up for payback, for things still unsettled, by makin’ it sound too good for us to stay away.” When Kieran scoffed and asked why they would care after all this time, Crawl let go of the idea with, “Not likely, but it could happen.” Then he added, “Or maybe it’s just some fool proposin’ something that couldn’t happen in a million years. We’ll find out, but we’ll watch our backs.”
With fifty thousand pounds and promises too good to be true being tossed around, anything was possible.
He took another mouthful of warm stout and looked again at the light in Mrs. Dougherty’s door, where the closed sign hung and the glass ran with the evening’s light rain. He found himself remembering what it felt like to be trapped on a March night just like this one, trapped and afraid, hearing the terrible shouts of soldiers with his heart hammering in his chest and he just eleven years old, for God’s sake. Hiding and soaking wet. Crawling his way under parked trucks as fast as the law could chase him, which was how he got his nickname, Crawl. Clutching so hard to the underbelly of a sixteen-wheeler, his hands went numb. Grasping the drive train with his legs so that the beam from the soldiers’ torches skimmed under him back and forth. Hearing the soldiers cursing and yelling to one another, then shouting that the older members of the Ulster Volunteer Force had been taken, his father among them.
He blinked and took another long drink of his stout. Most memories, to Crawl, were hard things. But that one was the hardest of all, and it came back to him often.
“Nobody should have to die in prison,” he had cried to his mother after it had happened. He had even complained to God, the last time he tried that connection, but even God couldn’t fix it. His father was known to be a commander in the UVF, which had been formed in Belfast to take up arms against the IRA and other nationalists, and which continued across Northern Ireland as a vigilante group all the way into 2009, sixteen years after Crawl’s father was convicted of armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, sentenced and sent to Maze Prison.
Sixteen days into his sentence, Crawl’s father was stabbed and killed. The knife was twisted in his abdomen so that the blade would cut him badly; then the handle was broken off so that no one could pull out the blade. He died on the spot. Twenty days later, the man suspected of stabbing him was killed, his head nearly severed with piano wire.
The killings were reported in the press as “two minor incidents in the continuing shedding of Irish blood by Republican and loyalist militants”. But his father’s death was not a minor incident to Crawl, because he had been with him in the yard of the trucking company on the night when his father and the others had been caught and arrested, the night his father had enlisted Crawl’s help as the group’s lookout, even though he was just a boy.
Another drink from his pint, longer and deeper this time, nearly draining it.
Short-haired Molly Dolan slid a chair close to him and said with a smile and her hand on his arm, “Hey, Crawl, how about a kind word for Molly?”
He turned toward her with a light smile. “Later, darling,” he said in a voice that was naturally melodic, a gift he had put to good use in what he chose to call his “art of profitable persuasion.”
“I do like your sweater, though,” he said. “I like red in a sweater, and I like you in a sweater. Or not in a sweater. Maybe just painted red.”
“But,” he said, turning to the window again, “I haven’t time to enjoy the red life tonight, love. Some other time, now.”
Molly dropped her gaze to the letter on the table in front of Crawl. She tilted her head but couldn’t read it, so she shrugged, smiled again and said, “Right. Some other time.” Then she leaned to squeeze his arm one more time, slid out of her chair and walked away, turning her head to study him.
Crawl was five feet eleven and wiry. In fact, he looked as though he could crawl as quickly as a snake if he had to, although he could no longer run, at least not at full speed and not without effort. A nationalist bomb had cut short both his right leg and his service in the Force; his leg by nearly an inch. He was left with such a pronounced limp that people who didn’t know about his frantic escape from the trucking company wrongly assumed that the nickname “Crawl” had come about after his limp was delivered years later by the nationalist bomb.
His hair was dark brown and straight, nearly long enough to touch his shoulders. His nose was long and pointed, like his chin. Narrow, plotting eyes gave the impression, which was often accurate, that he was making plans no one else knew about. But his smile spread wide and showed itself easily and often. His reputation as a risk taker—first as a young volunteer in the Ulster Defence Association, where he began to learn about weaponry and the basics of military action, then as a member, with his father and brother, in the more violent Ulster Volunteer Force—had spread well into the neighborhoods. In the streets he now occupied, a dozen Molly Dolans in any three-block area would be quick on a rainy evening in March to approach the severe-looking twenty-seven-year-old at his place at the end of a bar, or in his chair pulled up to a window in the Long Neck Pub.
He had fatally shot only two men that he knew of, though, in all that time and with all that opportunity. Only the second bothered him in the least, and then, the bother was momentary. The man was a sad-eyed security guard uniform, who cried as he died. But everybody died, Crawl told himself. The crier only died sooner than he expected. Or sooner than his family expected. But the way time flew, what the hell difference did it make? If Crawl hadn’t shot him, he might have gone through five years of hell dying with cancer in his throat or brain or something.
He drained his stout and slid the glass to the side. He was a man who dearly loved to drink, but this third pint in a half hour would be all for him tonight. Any more and he might start to dull an edge without realizing it.
That would be his worst case scenario for the night: the mysterious “Mr. Day” would turn out to be with some renegade or old nationalist soldier out to take revenge for something he had done to one of their friends while he was in the Force. Or that they thought he had done, even if he hadn’t, he being out of the paramilitaries for so long now.
In fact, he had been largely, although not entirely, a law-abiding man since recovering from the bombing and leaving the UVF. He still broke-and-entered on a small scale, mostly alone in the few years since Kieran lost his taste for working with him, and always either in rich and vacant homes, petrol stations or little markets in far-out places. Nothing in or around Belfast. He thieved a little and conned a lot, had been pulled in and questioned by the law on four different occasions but never charged. Overall, he had worked legitimately for about five months of each year, taking odd jobs that involved talking fast and convincingly. He had been a car salesman, a door-to-door pest-control salesman and an insurance salesman, all with part-time rewards for part-time work. He had even worked as manager of a storefront salon offering a radio-frequency cure for arthritis, named Gonz-o-tron, which didn’t last long and didn’t make him much money because it didn’t work.
Talk about people with sad eyes. Old, bent ladies and fat, middle-aged men would come in, twisted up from arthritis in their hands or someplace else. Then they would sit for forty-five minutes in thin-padded, straight-backed chairs waiting for radio waves to make their pain go away. Them thinking, “Is this working?” Crawl thinking, “How stupid can you be after all the time you’ve been around?”
He looked out the window, checking one more time to make sure that Day wasn’t approaching their meeting place. Then he slid the letter closer, reviewing what he saw.
All type. Even his name on the envelope typed. Delivered by a kid who took off running before he could ask any questions, not mailed. Kid getting paid to do it that way. The man paid the kid, he paid for delivery, he paid for fancy paper. He sounded smart. The letter dated that same day, March 3. And he addressed Crawl as “Mr. Connell”, which got his attention more than anything else. Not because it was cordial, but because it let him know he was already being worked on, just as he had worked on so many people over the last six or eight years to get them to part with their time, money or what little virginity there was left in Belfast.
In fact, Crawl couldn’t remember anybody calling him Mister before. Not ever. Unless maybe phone-call salespeople trying to sell him crap he’d never be dumb enough to try to sell to anybody at all.
Jane Regan, the Jane they called Jellyroll, who had known Crawl for more than fifteen years, wandered up, smiling. She was red-nosed, red-faced, red-eyed, nearly fifty and nearly drunk.
“Mr. Crawl, my young hero,” she sighed, rubbing a fat hand over his long hair, from the top of his head to his shoulder. “You have a hunted and lonely look tonight. But I can help.”
She started to sit down, then stopped in mid-crouch to reach out suddenly and snatch away the letter with a fat hand. “Who is she?” she blurted out, laughing.
Crawl’s right hand shot out, grabbed her thick wrist and twisted it hard into the table.
“Ow, God!” she squealed. She swung at him with her free fist, but the blow was weak and bounced off his shoulder.
Crawl held her there as he rose to his feet.
The bartender shouted, “Play nice, children! We’ll have none o’ that, Crawl.”
Crawl slipped the letter from Jane’s hand and released her wrist. “You mustn’t ever do that, darlin’,” he said without expression. Jane sniffed and rubbed her wrist. “You mustn’t ever grab a man’s personal mail. It’s a highly dangerous thing to do.” His voice was still quiet, but his eyes were not. “So go the hell away from me, now. I mean it.”
Jane took a step backward. “You didn’t have to do that,” she whispered, glancing around to see how humiliated she had to feel.
Molly Dolan, the bartender and two men at the end of the bar were the only ones still bothering to watch. The rest of the sixteen patrons had gone back to their drinking and talking and humming along with the music, unconcerned in the dim light.
Jane waddled away to plead her case to a short man at the far end of the bar.
Crawl put the letter inside his jacket, in his shirt pocket, and leaned to the window, cupping his hand to block out the light.
The door of the restaurant was still shut. The shade was still drawn. The crooked, red-lettered closed sign still hung at eye-level by a string.
If it isn’t IRA or something like that, he thought, and the man really meant business, it would be some kind of corporate espionage. Someone wanting to draw on what he and Kieran had learned as paramilitaries, although Kieran hadn’t learned as much in his time with the Force as Crawl had. Kieran had a temper from hell, but deep down never liked violence; that was the way Crawl figured it. At least he didn’t like violence when it got to the point of bloodshed. Crawl didn’t mind because he understood Kieran. Others, like the older men in the Force, thought Kieran wasn’t at home with violence. But just the opposite was true. Kieran was so at home with it, Crawl thought, that it scared the hell out of him. Kieran had things inside of him that scared him. Maybe hurting somebody would uncork a bottle inside, and he would pay hell trying to get it corked again.
Crawl hadn’t seen Kieran much since the few times Kieran visited him after his leg got blown up. After Brenna moved in with Kieran, Crawl didn’t see him at all.
This job didn’t have any blood-letting, so Kieran would be fine with it, Crawl figured. From the way the letter sounded, all they would have to do is get in and take a few pictures of documents of some kind. That’s the only thing that would make sense if what the letter said about no robbery and no weapons could be believed. Nothing would actually be taken out, but something would be copied; had to be that. Press a key into a mold and disappear, something like that. Copy directions, plans, corporate secrets.
His thinking time was just about over. It was ten minutes to nine. The man wanting secrets to be stolen would be there soon. Crawl leaned toward the window and looked up and down the street again. He realized his heart was beating faster and wondered why.
He looked more closely. No one in sight yet. Not Kieran. Not Day.
Unless that was Day, the tall man in the dark raincoat, up the street to the north, walking fast and straight as a lamppost, even in the rain, with an attache case in his right hand. One arm barely swinging, the other, the one with the case, held tightly against his side.
He was still a full block away, but he was closing fast.
March 18, 2016 at 11:36 am
I “blurbed” this novel, but thought I’d give it a second recommendation here. It is imaginative and insightful. People have undoubtedly read such a sentence in many a review to the point their eyes glaze over at that sort of review-speak.
With this novel it’s just the most succinct expression of its essence. The novelty involving the science narrative is beyond clever. The manner in which author reveals the incremental nature of what makes us who we are makes for protagonists and antagonists who are well formed and compelling. Characters to whom you might wish to say, “Stop, think about what your are about to do!” but the momentum of increments have built to tidal surge proportions they probably cannot withstand.
From the Editors
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