“Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.”
1913 September, Dublin, Ireland, Trinity University
Branna recognized the man at once. He sat where he should be, in the library’s current events alcove filled with daily, weekly and monthly publications. From a distance, Albert Lewis was his name, struck Branna as a human evolved from the Order Rodentia: furtive, ready to skitter into a dark recess off the highly polished stone floor. But he didn’t. He sat reading his notebook, looking up every few seconds to glance around. He was trying to recognize Branna but had no idea of her appearance.
Branna recognized him by the description provided by her superior, Chancellor Ian Fannin, head of Trinity University’s School of Irish History and Antiquities. Fannin had, on occasion, conducted business with Albert Lewis, acquiring odd pieces for the museum. Even the Chancellor’s tenure and reputation at the university would offer little protection if anyone ever proved the purchases of ancient relics were contracted knowing their origins were legally questionable.
Standing a few feet from the jittery man with the thin face and slightly bucked teeth peeking from beneath his bushy, unkempt mustache, Branna noticed the library lights. Normally almost too bright, they dimmed and flickered as angry clouds darkened the day and speared Dublin with bright bolts.
Branna, looking out the room’s tall windows, glimpsed a portion of roiling cloud and a nearby streak of lightning.
Branna stopped at the opposite side of the table occupied by Lewis.
“I am waiting for Professor Butler.” Albert Lewis said, placing his notebook on the table in front of him. His voice was of a man unnerved by his mission to the university.
Branna turned toward the window as if she did not hear Lewis’ remark. Branna suffered this assumptive insult when meeting people for the first time at the university. She had grown accustomed to it. She was only the second female to obtain a professorship at Trinity in its long history of exclusively educating boys.
Branna turned from the window and gazed at Albert Rodent who remained seated, looking at her with dark, glistening eyes. Lewis was extremely thin, enough to suspect ill health. He was also very hairy. Branna saw the curling black hairs on his hands as well as a few errant curls emerging from his buttoned collar. Lewis had shaved, but his skin was hardly clean. Dark shadows covered an otherwise pale face. He also had small tufts of hair growing from his ears.
“Yes, I am Professor Butler,” was all she said.
Lewis’ eyes grew large, and in a moment an expression of grave error crossed his face. He stood immediately, shooting his hand out too quickly.
Branna was not inclined to shake the extended paw-like hand.
Of course, Branna, a meticulous lady of civilized traditions, shook hands and asked, “How may I help you?”
“I hope you don’t take offense, Miss Butler, but I was hoping to meet with the chancellor himself. We share a long relationship and, I dare say, have almost become friends. It’s a bit disappointing I don’t get to see him,” Lewis said, his squinty black eyes peering into Branna’s own.
“It is Professor Butler, Mr. Lewis, but you may call me Branna. Everyone does.” Much as she already disliked having to deal with Mr. Lewis, she certainly did not want this nefarious-looking fellow contacting the chancellor. That is precisely reason the chancellor had sent her, to screen Mr. Lewis as on this occasion the layman seeking audience had nothing to sell, nothing physical anyway.
A better look at Mr. Lewis gave Branna the impression he was of the black Irish. Their heritage included dark eyes, black hair and olive complexions, generally rare in Ireland. There were those in the anthropology department who argued the black Irish lineage originated in eastern Europe as opposed to the more common belief they descended from an expeditionary group of Moors who shipwrecked and began homesteading. Either way, they were not generally well received among the general public who regarded them as untrustworthy, seedy and without common morals. Labeling them gypsies encompassed the feelings harbored by those who used the label. Albert Lewis fit the description to a T.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Lewis, the chancellor is quite busy. He sent his apologies and asked you tell me what it is you’ve discovered that might be of interest to the university.”
Branna indicated Mr. Lewis should reseat himself before taking the chair next to the one occupied by Lewis.
For a moment, Lewis did not look at Branna. He stared at the folder on the table. Suddenly his body language signaled he reached a decision. Opening the folder, he extracted two black and white photographs and offered them to Branna.
Branna studied each.
After a reasonable amount of time, she held the grainy images out for Lewis to reclaim. “I’m sorry, Mr. Lewis, I really can’t make anything out. Can you explain what it is I am supposed to see?”
“Yes, yes, I know, they are of poor quality. I am not even an amateur photographer, but please look at this one more closely.” Lewis held one of the photographs in a way they could both see it.
“What you are looking at, Professor Branna is the bottom terrace in a peat farm. It is very deep as peat digging goes. Now look more closely at the shape in the center of the image. Use the shadows in the photograph.”
Branna looked closely and still recognized nothing more than a hollow space in the exposed peat tier. Other than thinking it was the deepest peat terrace she’d ever seen, she saw an empty cavern that had been exposed using a peat, or humble spade for cutting bricks of peat. The digging rendered the once solid hillock of peat to foot-high tiers allowing workers to dig deeper. She refocused her eyes to see the whole image then saw, as Lewis had suggested, the shadows formed the shape of a buried human. Branna looked at Lewis as she thought through the possibilities of a human form found deep in the acid-loving, low-oxygen, decomposing plants of the wetlands, or bogs, of Ireland. More important than who or how, the intriguing question was when did it get there?
“How deep is this level?” Branna asked, interest growing.
“At least a dozen feet,” Lewis answered.
“It may just be nothing more than an oddly shaped large gas pocket, trapped in the bog. It has happened before,” Branna asserted.
“That’s what I thought at first,” Lewis returned, blinking his eyes as the lights returned to their normal brightness. Then added, “But there was something in it, more solid than condensed gas.”
Branna waited for the furtive man to continue. When Lewis failed to offer an explanation she asked impatiently, “Well then, what was it, and why would Chancellor Fannin be interested?”
Lewis opened his notebook, extracted the third photograph and handed it to Branna.
She looked at it, looked at Lewis, then back to the paper. “You can’t be serious,” she said.
Branna Butler sat on a too-thin and too-used red velvet cushion in a shared passenger car on the train to Achill Island. Two days before, Branna departed the eastern port of Dublin, bound for the most western piece of Ireland, a place of boulders, rolling hills, low bogs, crashing waves and people who, while good Catholics, never stopped believing in myths and creatures from Irish lore.
The first part of the journey went well. Branna had a well-appointed private compartment on the Midland Great Western Railway from Dublin to Claremorris. There, she changed trains and shared a compartment to Westport. Her sole companion was a chatty nun returning to the Mission Colony, where she served as head nurse in the clinic that tended after the small population of old fishermen, shepherds, peat diggers and their wives or widows, living their last days in the self-contained community of fifty, two-room cottages.
She introduced herself as Sister Francis O’Toole. When Branna offered her name, Sister Francis quickly asked, “Are you descended from the Butlers of Ormonde?”
“I don’t believe so,” Branna lied, avoiding the topic as she always did with strangers.
She was, in fact, directly related to the fabulously wealthy and important Butler family.
Theobald Walter commanded the Cavaliers in the 12th-century invasion of Ireland. King Henry II promoted his rank in the court to Butler of England and Butler of Ireland. Walter originated Branna’s branch of the Butler family. The butler’s official duty was tracking all shipments of spirits, wines, and ales. Failure to obtain the Butler’s stamp on a product allowed confiscation. The price of the Butler’s stamp was a small percentage of the value of the beverage based on what it might be worth.
The Butlers gained royal titles and lands along with great wealth. By the time Branna became a leaf bud on the family tree, the family had achieved the distinction of a dynasty having secured its future in banking, industry, and commodities throughout Europe.
Branna knew obtaining her position at Trinity University was because of her family and their donations. She knew this because both her mother and father reminded her of it every time they questioned her as to the reason she was so willing to throw away her future by not marrying while still young and scooting more baby Butlers into their world of indulgence and influence. Why couldn’t she write books or something that allowed her to stay at home, instead of pursuing studies of the dirty and broken bits of bones and tools?
In addition to avoiding acknowledging her connection to such enormous wealth, her second reason for anonymity was the Butlers were not original Irish. Though they lived there for more than eight hundred years, many people still considered them invaders, plundering the spoils of the Emerald Isle.
September 23, Keel, Achill Island, Ireland
She spent the night at the Amethyst Hotel at Keel on the south coast of the island. She dined alone. She enjoyed a lobster taken from the sea three hours before arriving on her table and several glasses of port. Two other hotel guests, young men, kept glancing at her as they ate but she kept her head down and retired for the night without incident.
The next morning, she waited inside the hotel’s small lobby. Mr. Lewis was to take her by carriage to meet the person who supposedly possessed the thing taken from the peat bank.
When he did not show up at nine, the scheduled time, Branna ordered another pot of tea and read a journal from the Royal Academy. At ten, she paced near the door, glancing up and down the dirt and gravel road, angry that Lewis could be so inconsiderate.
Hearing something like an enormous bumblebee and seeing a few people on the road turned toward the sound, Branna tried, but couldn’t see what caused the racket.
In a few seconds, a bicycle with a petrol engine stopped on the street exactly in front of the door. The rider, a broad-shouldered man wearing goggles that looked intended for swimming, a helmet-like leather cap, and gloves, dismounted, lowered the bicycle stand and came toward the hotel entrance.
He removed his gloves, goggles, and cap. His fingertips smoothed his mussed auburn hair. Instead of tipping a hat, he offered a polite smile as he passed Branna.
The goggles, though removed, had been worn tightly and the reddish imprints on his pale complexion prevented Branna from getting a fair look at his face. Branna turned back toward the door and continued to watch for Lewis.
“Missus Butler,” a young man said behind her.
“Yes,” she turned to see a bellboy facing her.
“Excuse me ma’am, but this man,” he indicated the bicycle rider who entered a moment before, “would like to speak with you if that is agreeable.”
The teenage bellman seemed a little nervous. The boy stuttered slightly while saying, “He’s the county sub-inspector from the Royal Irish Constabulary in Westport.”
Branna glanced at his face then back at the boy, who seemed awed by the presence of a county sub-inspector.
But in that glance, like many women, she saw a man, probably in his early thirties. His clean-shaven face was handsome, with a straight nose, ocean blue, almost violet eyes that held something appealing. Maybe his eyes showed honesty, Branna thought.
“Hello, Inspector, or should I call you sub.” Branna extended her hand. “I am Branna Butler, which I suspect you already know. It is a pleasure to meet you, but I cannot imagine what reason you have to seek me. I’ve just arrived yesterday and am fairly certain I’ve not had the time to break any laws.” Her eyes smiled at him as she spoke.
Gently taking her hand, he offered, “I am Michael Doyle. You may call me Inspector the ‘sub’ is a formality. I was here two days ago on a case, a quite serious case.”
“What sort of case? Surely, you are aware I arrived by train yesterday? What could this have to do with me?” Branna, more curious than concerned, spoke quickly.
Michael Doyle, trained to observe, noted the woman did not lose her composure or jump to any conclusions. He answered her, “Someone you might know, an Albert Lewis, is involved. Do you know him?”
“Yes, Inspector, I came here to meet him. We just met a little over a week ago, so I don’t know him well. What has he done?” she asked.
Doyle listened closely to her choice of words and inflection. He reasoned she would not wilt. He decided both he and Miss Butler would conclude this business more quickly if he just told her about Lewis and asked his questions. But then, he’d been on the bike for nearly twenty miles. He could use a break, so why not spend as much time as possible with this beautiful woman?
“I would prefer you to be seated,” the inspector said softly.
“Please, just tell me if Lewis will be here or not,” she queried.
“I’m not so worried about you, Miss Butler, I’m just wondering if you might sit with me at a table in the restaurant and have an early lunch.”
“Why, Inspector,” she said, hiding her delight, “Are you allowed this sort of flirtatious behavior while on duty?”
His face reddened, and his expression waxed serious again. He wondered what made him act so out of character. “I’m sorry, Miss Butler, it was forward of me. Please forgive me.”
“Quite all right, Inspector,” Branna said.
Michael Doyle straightened to attention and said just loud enough for Branna to hear, “I am sorry to inform you, Albert Lewis is dead.” He waited for her response.
Branna was shocked. She had not expected that to be the news. She thought perhaps he’d been caught with stolen antiquities. “Perhaps, I’d better sit down,” Branna said, slowly moving toward the restaurant.
Michael offered his arm as if to steady her.
She did not need it, but she took it.
As they ate sandwiches, Branna, watercress, and cucumber, Inspector Doyle, a plowman’s special, they spoke little, mostly uncomfortable chitchat as the news of Lewis’ death settled with Branna.
“How did he die?” Branna asked. “I am assuming his death did not occur from natural causes or you would not have come all this way.”
Michael thought before answering. Branna certainly seemed to be taking the death well, but then again, she hadn’t known him long. Michael looked into her face then said, “I’m afraid Mr. Lewis was murdered.
“I came all this way hoping you might shed some light on the reason Mr. Lewis decided to come here at this time,” Michael said. “We found Mr. Lewis’ journal at the scene. It contained an entry with your name, today’s date and this location where he was to meet you at nine AM. Lewis arranged to hire a coach for your journey. He retained the coach and driver, but Mr. Lewis had the bad luck to die before you arrived.”
Branna thought before she answered. She certainly did not want to implicate herself, the chancellor or the university in anything so sordid, but she knew better than to lie.
“I am a professor at Trinity University in Dublin. My specialty is Irish history and antiquities. Mr. Lewis previously worked with my department’s head. On this occasion, the chancellor asked me to meet and explore whatever it is Mr. Lewis discovered. Mr. Lewis insisted the discovery’s importance was self-evident,” Branna stated carefully.
“And what had Lewis discovered?” Michael asked.
“I don’t know,” Branna replied honestly.
“Well, why come all this way if you have no idea what he wanted to show you?” Michael asked.
“I said I didn’t know. I did not say I had no idea,” Branna said, correcting his inquiry. “He brought us poor photographs, and he may have found a mummified bogman.”
“Ah, yes. A corpse found in the peat. I understand bogmen are rare, but what about this specific relic would interest someone as expert and familiar with this sort of thing as yourself, Miss Butler?”
Branna reassessed the inspector’s intellect. His questions indicated a quick mind. She responded, “The photograph was of a peat tier displaying a hollow cavity shaped like a reclined, possibly buried, human figure. There was no bogman, as you call it, in the photo. A second photograph might have been a close-up of the back of the bogman’s head in a state of advanced decomposition. What is fascinating, and the reason I came, is the carved-out area of the human form was approximately twelve feet beneath the surface of the peat, and the close-up photograph appeared to show a portion of a metal band worn on the head.”
“Thank you, Branna. We found the photographs at the scene with Lewis’ other documents,” Michael stated.
Branna could see the wheels turning in the inspector’s mind.
“Being a lay person in your field, would it be wrong of me to assume the depth of the,” he paused looking for the proper word, “of the discovery indicates it is quite old, most likely ancient?”
“And now, you know why I am here,” Branna answered. “If the content were what we suspected, it would pre-date the pyramids of Egypt. It would pre-date our earliest estimation of human habitation of Ireland by at least a thousand years, probably more.”
Branna watched Michael’s face for a reaction. She continued, “The metal headband adds to the mystery because it indicates a level of civilization never before believed to exist that far back in our past.”
Michael sat back, looked up at the ceiling in thought, then decided to reveal a piece of information, “Normally I would never say this, but since you could not possibly have been involved in the murders, I would like to further discuss the case with you.”
“Murders, you said, not murder,” Branna replied, “How many victims are there?”
“A man named Paddy Healy,” Michael responded. “Interestingly enough, he is, or was, a turf farmer on the north side of Achill Island. The murders took place in one of his peat shelters.”
“Secondly, Sub-inspector,” Branna said in a teasing manner, “How do you know I could not possibly be involved in the murders? I might have played a part in a murder for hire scheme and arrived in my innocent appearance to claim the mysterious and valuable bogman.”
Michael grinned. “This sub-inspector thought of that early on in our discussions. He discounted it for two reasons. First, smuggling the corpse of a bogman back to Dublin is dirty, strenuous work. You would need to hire someone with a wagon, and that would alleviate the need for you to travel to the end of Ireland, to be here talking to me, a sub-inspector investigating the crime you committed. Second, Lewis, one of the victims, was scheduled to pick you up here today. So, in this sub-inspector’s logic, you are eliminated as a suspect. That is of course unless you would like to become one, or, even better, confess.” Michael grinned.
“Bravo, Inspector,” Branna said, “I think you might be a successful author of penny dreadful books.”
“Thank you,” he replied, “I wish I could say the same for you.”
“Oh my,” Branna said, “You must think me awful to laugh at such a serious subject.”
“Normally, these circumstances would not allow a display of humor, even if some existed, but, if I may be so forward, something about you brings out the devil in me, Miss Butler,” Michael said, “I hope you take no offense.”
“Likewise, Inspector Michael Doyle.” Branna smiled. “Now, how else do you think I can help you?”
“I will be back in touch with you later in the day,” Michael said before leaving.
Once the RIC Station in Westport replied to his telegram confirming the victims’ bodies were removed from Paddy Healy’s peat farm, Michael returned to the hotel and sent a note, via a bellman, asking Branna to speak with him in the lobby.
While waiting, he obtained a room at the Amethyst Hotel then brought in the saddlebag from the Triumph motorized bicycle parked outside. He scribbled notes in his case journal.
“Inspector,” Branna spoke as she approached the man writing in his notebook, “delighted to see you again.”
Michael stood to face her, wearing a smile that refused to professional suppression. “The delight is all mine, Ms. Butler.”
A slight pause ensued, and they spoke in unison, “Would you have tea…”
“Of course, I welcome the chance to learn more about this case. I am particularly interested in knowing the whereabouts of the item found buried in the peat,” Branna said, looking expectantly at Michael.
“I am afraid we don’t know its whereabouts,” Michael replied. “It may have been stolen and the motive for the murders. If that is the case, then we assume it is of great value to someone, and that person, or his agent, took possession of the bogman with the headband. Our problem, you see, is we must confirm what we are trying to find before we can effectively look for it.”
“I see,” Branna said as if the handsome detective had just said something profound.
“I am hoping you can help us determine if what Healy removed from the peat before Mr. Lewis contacted you is, in fact, an ancient relic and not some hoax,” Michael said.
“I am certainly game to try,” Branna replied, “Though I don’t want to get your hopes too high. It remains a possibility nothing ever filled the space in the peat bank, and it is part of an elaborate scheme to gain money from the university.”
“Yes, it is possible I suppose, but if nothing ever occupied the cavity, then what was the motive for the brutal murders of our victims?” Michael offered.
“Ah,” Branna said. “Now they are brutal murders. I must admit the dripping of information is an effective way to keep my attention.”
“Ma’am, I simply wish to avoid offending your sensibilities,” Michael replied.
“You sound like my father,” Branna quipped. “Why do you suppose my sensibilities are different than yours?”
“Miss Butler, you are a lady of station and breeding. I cannot imagine you have been exposed to the more gruesome aspects of crime, especially murder,” Michael Doyle offered, watching her face. “If I am wrong, I apologize and hope you will forgive me for wishing only to avoid exposing you to new types of ugliness.”
“Oh, now you sound like my mother,” Branna said, offering a smile and patting Michael’s hand. “I have no interest in viewing ‘new types of ugliness,’ as you so delicately named it, but I will assure you, many dead animals have felt my steady knife dissecting their carcasses. So, please tell me, how can I help you?”
“If you are agreeable to a day’s journey to the island’s north side, I will hire a carriage to take us to Dugort, the location of Paddy’s farm in the heart of the largest bog on the island.
“A day’s journey going means a day’s journey returning and probably a half-day investigating Paddy’s shed and the bog. The victims’ bodies have been removed from the scene and taken to the medical clinic and embalmer.
“The Slievemore Hotel was the first hotel on the island; I will make arrangements for the RIC to pay for your room and meals.” Michael paused, then asked, “So will you come? I think your knowledge will be enormously helpful in determining what, if anything, is missing from the hollow in the peat.”
“I will participate in your investigation on one condition,” Branna said.
“And that is?” Michael asked.
“The sub-inspector from the Westport region of the Royal Irish Constabulary join me for dinner this evening. They have lovely lobsters here,” Branna stated as if an official point of negotiation.
“Ms. Butler, I am sure the sub-inspector has no other plans for this evening and will be happy to enjoy your company. What time should he expect you?”
“I’ll be down at eight. Make sure he is prompt,” Branna said rising to leave.
Michael stood as well, “Until then. And thank you for agreeing to help.”
Michael watched her walk toward the stairs thinking what a remarkable woman she is. Making her way in the man’s world of academicians, quick-minded, clever and, most obvious, possessed of soft, radiant beauty. She would age well blossoming in the different stages of beauty.
Then the cloud of Victorian class-based society hovered above him. Branna was a daughter to one of Ireland’s wealthiest families. Beyond rich, titled in Ireland, Wales, and England, the mention of the Butler name was often enough to end disagreements. Branna had so far exhibited none of the superiority or sense of entitlement ever-present among the upper classes.
Though she seemed nearly unaffected by her station in society, it was impossible for her to be raised by so prominent a family and not feel the differences between herself and the lower classes.
Michael knew about the lower classes. He was from one. While Branna walked one step behind a princess, Michael walked forth behind a simple fisherman. The family’s two currachs, lightly framed boats covered with stretched canvas, were designed for fishing within sight of shorelines in the North Atlantic.
Though light, when fishing for the giant basking sharks that migrated past Achill Island in the spring and summer, they were used like whaling boats. Armed with harpoons and coils of rope, the craft, pulled by the forty-foot whale sharks, sped through the water until the exhausted fish came to the surface and succumbed to a volley of harpoons.
Towed back to the pier, the huge fish rendered edible flesh, animal meal, and tough fabric, but the main commercial use was the oil in their liver.
An average fish weighed roughly twenty-five thousand pounds of which their liver weighed three thousand. Once processed, the shark’s liver produced a ton of oil purchased for many uses including a lubricant for textile mills and factories, and widespread use as fuel for street lamps.
Michael Doyle’s father and brothers fished for these great fish. Michael did not.
The maximum number of useful crew in a currach was four. The father and three older brothers formed the crew. Michael, the youngest in the family, stayed ashore with his mother and sisters. He hated exclusion from the male Doyles, and his brothers went out of their way to tease him about doing women’s work while they fought with giant sea monsters to provide for the family.
Two days after Michael’s twelfth birthday, like so many of Irish families’ youngest sons, Michael was sent to live in a Catholic secondary school. The end goal was to be selected to attend a seminary and become a priest.
Michael succeeded in attending a Catholic university, St. Patrick’s. He fell far short of the priesthood.
The young sub-inspector decided, much as he wanted to get to know Branna personally, nothing good could come of it.