The man at the bar kept staring at Conor McColl. Actually, he was barely a man. Skinny, pasty-faced with curly red hair, he looked like he was barely out of his teens.
Conor was used to watching for followers. He knew when someone was interested in him. The bar was crowded. It was a Thursday night in Galway. Outside the wind blew continuously through the cobbled city streets but in here it was warm and inviting.
A local group of musicians were playing traditional songs in the front of the bar while a peat fire warmed the back section where Conor sat, his back to the wall. His second pint of Guinness sat in front of him, half-drained. He was enjoying himself.
Or had been enjoying himself. Until he saw the pimply-faced kid staring. The band kicked up a reel and the bar patrons began stomping their feet and clapping. Everyone was having fun. Except Conor.
Maybe he had allowed himself to get too complacent. After all, he knew there were people in Ireland who would want him dead. But they were all in Belfast, a city he had left more than twenty years ago. No one knew him here. He thought he would be safe in Galway, far away from the sectarian violence that still reared its ugly head in the north from time to time.
Without looking at the man directly, he scanned the bar section near him. He seemed to be alone. Quickly he stole a direct glance at him and realized in surprise that the man wasn’t staring at him but the young man sitting next to him. Because the bar was very crowded, tables had been pushed together and people were sitting close to each other.
Conor took a look at the man next to him. He was staring down at the table, lost in thought, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. He was also young, maybe twenty or so. Longish, dark hair and still smooth skin. Conor leaned over to him.
“Good band,” he shouted above the din. The young man’s face jerked up. There was fear in his eyes. He nodded absently.
“Yeah. Not bad.”
Conor knew that whatever was going on was none of his business. Getting involved wasn’t a good idea. He was traveling under the Michael Lawson identity he had been given by Julia Forster at MI6 last month. He was sure the identity was good but he never wanted to draw attention to himself. Still, there was something about the youth that made him pause.
He had come to Ireland to get away from the memory of the deaths that had occurred over the last few months. Fiona Black. Marina Saar. Chas Callender. And finally, Pasha. The assassin he had been chasing for over a year. Ever since he had killed Conor’s lover, Katrina Madsen.
Conor had watched as Pasha stepped off a seven-story building into the courtyard below after a vicious gun battle in Belgrade.
All of these deaths still echoed in Conor’s memory. He had come to Ireland to put them behind him.
And then there was Harry. Harry Miller. An LAPD cop who had gotten him out of a mess in Los Angeles. And became one of the first friends he had ever had. Harry had gotten shot in London while trying to stop Pasha with him. Now he was back in LA, hopefully fully recuperated.
Conor felt the urge every now and then to reach out to Harry but he knew it was a mistake. People close to him got hurt. Or dead. He couldn’t do that to Harry. Again.
So, he told himself, just sit here. Enjoy your Guinness. Enjoy the music. Don’t get involved.
And that’s what he fully intended to do until he saw the young man next to him bolt up from the table and run towards the rear toilets. In a flash, the red-haired man at the bar sprung up and shoved his way through the crowd to follow him.
Conor stood but before he could follow them into the back, the red-haired man ran back into the main room and pushed his way through the crowd towards the front door. Conor quickly drained the rest of his pint and set it back down on the table. No one paid any attention to him as he jostled his way towards the entrance.
Out on the street, it was chilly. Autumn in Galway was wet and windy, a fierce wind blowing continuously off the Atlantic Ocean. The River Corrib was to his left, rushing in raging white caps to the sea.
The street was virtually empty. He was near the Wolfe Tone bridge and could hear the roar of the river. He walked down the street to the left and saw nothing. He turned back and walked past the bar where he could both hear and see the musicians in the window of the pub he had just left.
Part of him was scolding himself. Go back inside. Have another pint. Relax. But another part kept walking.
As he passed the alley next to the pub, he heard faint cries and then a loud shriek. Conor went into the alley. It was dark. After fifty feet or so, it turned to the right. At the end of the corridor, a stark overhead light revealed three men standing over a body on the pavement, one of them kicking it with vehemence. Conor recognized the man on the ground as the one who had been sitting next him. His face was contorted with pain and fear.
Conor stepped closer to them. “Hey.”
At his voice, all three of the men turned towards him. The red-haired one was closest to him. Behind him was a large fellow, tending to fat, with brown curly hair. The one who had been kicking the man on the ground was taller with blond, lanky hair. He spoke now.
“Ginger. Take care of grand da.”
Conor was nonplussed. He wasn’t that old. But being probably twenty years older than these guys made him look like a geezer.
“Step away from him unless you want to go to hospital.”
The blond-haired man laughed harshly. “You sound like my grand da too. Full of shite.”
Ginger stepped towards him, his eyes cold. He suddenly looked much older. He had seen violence before. His hand flicked and a knife gleamed in the dim light of the alley.
Conor had his Beretta 9mm in his lower back holster, as usual, but he didn’t want to use it unless it was necessary.
Conor looked hard at him. “You don’t want to do that. You can just walk away.” Conor noticed the second man, the curly headed-one, was now moving towards him also. He had something in his hands. Something large. It looked like a hurling stick.
Conor would have preferred to keep trying to talk them out of this but it was clear that in a moment he would have to deal with two assailants at once unless he moved now.
His hand wrapped around the collapsible steel baton he had in his pocket and he extracted it. In one swift jerk, the baton extended to its full length of twenty-four inches.
Ginger didn’t see it until it was too late. He had already lunged forward with his knife. Conor pivoted sideways, stepped towards him and smashed the baton across Ginger’s knee.
Normally, Conor would have attacked his mid-section. A few broken ribs usually stops an attacker. But because of the cold weather, they were all wearing padded leather jackets and Conor didn’t want to waste time.
The sound of Ginger’s cracking knee pierced the alley. Ginger howled loudly and dropped to the ground, his eyes wet with pain.
The curly-headed man hesitated a moment when he saw Ginger go down. That was a mistake. Conor turned to him and sliced the baton across his thigh. The man screamed in rage as he rushed Conor, the stick held high over his head.
Unfortunately, that left his entire body open. Conor swiftly smashed the baton into his stomach which slowed him down. Before he could recover, Conor laid the steel rod across his forehead. The curly-headed man dropped to the ground as if he had hit an invisible wall.
Conor hit him hard enough to knock him down for a while but not hard enough to kill him. He hoped. It wasn’t always easy to know the difference. Now he stepped over the curly-headed man and faced the blond-haired one.
“Get ready to go to the hospital.” Conor blocked any escape the man could take. He looked at the prostrate bodies of his two friends and then back to Conor.
“Feck you, old man.”
Conor knew it was coming. Blondie pulled a gun from the waistband of his jeans.
“Drop the stick.”
Conor didn’t really have much choice. He blamed himself. He should have just shot all three of them. Instead he tried to deal with them in a non-lethal manner. Well, this is what happens when you get complacent, he mused.
“You’re a right bastard, aren’t you? Took out Ginger and Sonny with your bat. Looking like the Terminator. But you didn’t count on this, did you?” He waved the gun at Conor. He stepped forward, menacingly. “A bullet will put you down. You’ll learn not to mess with us.”
Conor couldn’t help but think of Tuco in ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.’ ‘If you’re going to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.’
I’m going to…” He had moved too close to Conor. The gun was only a few feet away when Conor made his move.
Conor figured that the kid was inexperienced. He should never have gotten that close to Conor. He assumed the gun made him invincible. Big mistake.
Conor’s arm shot out and grabbed Blondie’s gun arm, pushing it up. The gun roared but it was pointed to the sky. The sound was deafening and echoed around the alley walls.
Conor had to move fast now. Everyone inside the pub had to have heard the gunshot. Police would be called. People would be coming with their mobile phones to take pictures. He had to finish this fast.
He pummeled his fist into Blondie’s stomach and saw all of the air rush out of his lungs as he struggled to breathe. Conor kicked him hard in the crotch and saw his eyes roll back into his head. Blondie slumped to the ground, groaning.
Conor turned to go. He needed to get out of here.
“Help. Help me.” The voice was weak. It was the man on the ground. Conor turned back to see the face contorted with pain. “They’ll kill me. I can’t go to hospital. They’ll find me. Help. Please.” He struggled to pull himself up.
Conor was in a dilemma. He should never have gotten involved in the first place. Now he was in danger of being caught here. There would be a lot of explaining to do.
He sighed and grabbed the young man by his arm, helping him to his feet. Together, they staggered down the alleyway over the bodies of the moaning attackers.
In the street, they saw groups of people milling around, chatting anxiously. Some of them saw them but no one said anything or came near. In the distance Conor heard the sirens of approaching Gardaí.
Conor led the young man further into the darkness and away from the street scene.
“Where do you want me to take you?”
The young man’s head tilted down and he muttered something. Conor couldn’t hear him. “What?”
“Home. Take me home.”