Buried Angels – Patricia Gibney

Afterwards, the detective would say he had never seen anything like it in all his years on the force. ‘Stand back.’ He held out his hand, preventing the young garda from entering. ‘I’ll take a look first. You wait outside.’ ‘But—’ ‘But nothing. If you don’t want your breakfast mingling with the blood on the floor, you’ll do as you’re told. You hear me?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ Once he was free of his charge, the detective closed the door behind him. The coppery tang held the air hostage. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, inhaled a deep breath, pinched his nose between thumb and forefinger and walked through the kitchen, paying no heed to the orange Formica cupboards or the broken dishes on the floor. Pieces of crockery crunched beneath his boots. Out of the kitchen to the hallway. Small and compact. Coats draped on the banister; the cupboard door under the stairs hanging off its hinges; footprints in blood on the tiles.

With one gloved finger, he pushed at the door to his left and stepped inside. The couch on its side. A bare foot sticking out from behind it, shielded by a flat brown cushion. Gulping down a large swallow of acrid mucus, he moved cautiously around the furniture without touching anything. Involuntarily he slapped his hand against his mouth as he looked down at the woman on the floor. Blood had dried on her face and throat and pooled to a brown stain on the carpet. He reckoned she was at least twenty-four hours past the time when anything bordering on an attempt at resuscitation could be made. The fetid air clogged his nostrils and narrowed his throat, but still he tasted the decay on his tongue. Retreating from the room, he stood in the hall, the sound of his breathing breaking the silence. Staring upwards, he listened to the drip of a tap somewhere above his head.

The bottom stair creaked under his weight. When he reached the last step, it too creaked. He stood onto the small square landing. Four doors. All closed. His heart thumped so hard against his ribs he was sure it was trying to escape its bony enclosure. His mouth dried up and his nose became blocked, and he found it hard to breathe despite the thunder in his chest. The door was old. Brass knobs. Steel hinges.

Loose nails. He twisted the nearest handle to him and pushed the door inwards. The bathroom. Green tiles. Yellowed bath. White ceramic toilet bowl and sink. A mishmash of colour. A whiff of bleach, no blood. He exhaled slowly and backed out of the room. He sniffed at the stale air of the landing before twisting the handle of the next door.

It rattled. Then opened. The change in odour was seismic. Brutal copper assaulted his struggling airways. He closed his eyes, blinding himself to the scene before him. But it was useless. Forever more, when he laid his head on a pillow, the enduring image would be an abattoir of human blood. His dreams would become nightmares and he would never again sleep peacefully. Children. Pre-teenage babies, he thought.

How could someone do this? Two girls clothed in unmatched pink and yellow pyjamas. One of them had one bare foot, the other sheathed in a fleece sock, half on, half off; her leg outstretched as if she had been trying to flee. The second girl was over by the window, her hand similarly outstretched seeking escape, her mouth frozen in a silent scream. The curtains shielded the tightly shut sash window. He remained frozen in his footsteps. There was nothing to be gained by walking further inside. He did not want to disturb the crime scene. The killer had long since carried out this vicious attack and fled. Or else … The detective froze. Was the killer behind one of the other doors? He backed out of the room, turned to the third door and eased his hand towards his shoulder holster.

The thought of shooting dead the author of this devastation fuelled him with adrenaline. ‘I’m coming in,’ he warned, though he wasn’t sure he said it loudly enough to alert anyone who might be inside. The room was another bedroom. Indiscriminately coloured bedding and two pillows lay on the floor. The sheet on the bed had a pool of damp in the centre. He was certain it wasn’t blood. More than likely whoever had been sleeping here had wet the bed. One of the girls? Had they been awakened by the noise of the intruder? Was this the master bedroom? he wondered, as his whitefaced reflection stared at him from the mirror on the wardrobe door. The window hung open and a curtain fluttered back into the room from the breeze. He knew he shouldn’t venture in further, but he had to be sure.

Kneeling, he glanced under the bed. A dusty suitcase and a pair of suede slippers. He stood again and noticed a door to his right. An en suite? He crept over, unsure why he was fearful of making noise. He had declared his presence. He had a gun in his hand. What had he to fear? The door hung on two hinges; the third was busted. Behind it, a shower with an old-fashioned plastic curtain, and a small toilet. The room was empty. Three bodies.

Mother and two daughters? Was there a father, husband or partner? If so, where was he? Had he carried out this brutal attack on his family before escaping? He backed out of the room and glanced into the last room. A single bed. A free-standing wardrobe against one wall, a small cabinet with an unlit lamp beside the bed. A narrow window with lightweight flowered cotton curtains. Light streamed through the slit, casting a cone of dust motes through the centre of the tiny room. He hurried down the stairs and rushed outside. Bending over, hands on knees, he gulped in fresh air and attempted to keep his breakfast in his stomach. ‘What did you find?’ his uniformed colleague asked. ‘A mother and two kids. Girls.

Dead, all dead.’ He gasped for air, trying desperately to rid himself of the stench of death; of the images indelibly etched behind his eyes. ‘Two kids?’ ‘Yeah. I didn’t come across their father. Not yet. The bastard.’ ‘Did you say two kids?’ ‘For feck’s sake, are you bloody deaf? Why do you keep repeating it?’ ‘I’m not sure … I thought the report said …’ The garda fumbled in his jacket pocket for his notebook. Flipped over the pages. ‘There should be three kids.’ The detective stood up straight and wiped his brow with trembling fingers.

As he searched his pocket for cigarettes, he said, ‘So where the hell is the third one?’ * TWENTY YEARS LATER Removing the frozen goods required brute force and, of course, gloves. I found a pair in a box, beneath a conglomeration of garden equipment, refuse bags, slug repellent and weedkiller. I held a debate with myself over the possible use for the weedkiller, but eventually I threw it back in the box. In a toolbox I located a roll of duct tape. I left the shed and made my way to where my work would take place. The lock on the first of the three chest freezers snipped open with pliers. I felt the air heaving with anticipation. I raised the lid and got to work taking out the frozen meat. Two legs of lamb and a side of beef. This was the decoy if anyone came nosing around.

Once the false bottom was removed, the offending article lay there, frozen to the sides. Lifting it out took some effort. The plastic wrapping tore in places. When it was eventually fully excavated, some of the plastic remained in the freezer. Nothing could be done about that now. Without paying too much attention to the slab of meat (for want of a better description), I dumped it on the floor. I didn’t really want to look at it. I knew what it was. I’d seen it before it was frozen. The refuse bags came in useful.

I slit them and laid them out, and then rolled the slab onto them. The frozen flesh was visible through the torn wrapping, yellow and creased. When it was fully encased in the sacks, with duct tape wound around, I replaced the false bottom in the freezer, followed by the decoy meat. The job was almost complete. Now the cargo just had to be transported under cover of darkness and disposed of. It had been moved once before. This would be the last time. I had two more freezers to unload. I worked methodically. I had a lot to do before the sun rose.

ONE SUNDAY Slowly they lowered the coffin into the soft earth. A cry, more like a melancholic sigh, rose into the air. Lottie Parker glanced to her right. Grace Boyd, glassy-eyed, was facing straight ahead, her face smeared with tears. One hand was at her mouth as she chewed at her fingernails. A dribble from her nose rested on her upper lip, and Lottie longed to take a tissue and wipe it clean. But she remained stock still, rigid. Though it was the last week of May, the Atlantic Ocean blew a tornado of cold air in over the west coast, ripping through Lottie’s light summer jacket. The hilltop graveyard was open to the elements; its tall Celtic crosses stippled in green moss; one even had seashells embedded in its uppermost point. The sparse trees were bending in supplication to the wind.

The bushes of purple heather ruffled sharp fronds against the noses of the mountain goats nuzzling the bog cotton. It could be an idyllic scene if not for the sadness. The priest sprinkled holy water into the six-foot hole where the coffin now lay. He directed the chief mourners to do the same. For a moment Lottie was all alone as the others moved forward. With a small shovel they dug into the mound of earth and let the clay fall on the wooden box with its brass cross. Grace lingered, then picked a lily from the floral wreath and let it drop down, down into the depths of the gaping earth, its white petals bringing light to the darkness below. Another sharp breeze rolled up from the sea. Lottie shivered, memories of her husband Adam’s funeral laid bare and raw. The smell of lilies, so potent, clogged her nostrils and her hand flew to her mouth, covering her nose.

But she did not shed a tear. Enough tears had gushed from the depths of her being over the years, and she had no more left to share. ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit …’ The priest concluded the prayers and Lottie stepped back to allow the steady stream of locals to offer their condolences to the family. Standing at the thorny hedge of blackberries that marked the boundary on the cliff side, she let the ocean breeze whip her face, welcoming the touch of nature. She had no idea how long she stood there before she sensed approaching footsteps in the soft grass behind her. She didn’t turn around, her eyes fixed on the vastness of the water, with its hazy horizon in the distance. She wished for a moment that she could be carried silently on the crest of a whitecap wave to somewhere far away from where she now stood. When she felt the hand slip into hers and squeeze her fingers, she turned. With the other arm tightly around the shoulders of his sister, Boyd rested his head on her shoulder. ‘A fine send-off for Mam,’ he said.

‘It’s over now, Lottie.’ She feathered his forehead with a tender kiss. ‘No, Boyd, it’s only just begun.’ Grace Boyd sat huddled in the corner of the snug, a forlorn figure, unnaturally quiet, still biting her nails. ‘I don’t know what to do about Grace,’ Boyd whispered to Lottie when she appeared carrying two glasses of sparkling water. He took one from her before her elbow could be jostled by the swelling crowd in the pub. ‘Come outside,’ she said. Out in the sunshine, she inhaled the fresh sea air. ‘Leenane is beautiful. This is where they filmed The Field, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes.

Mam has … had Richard Harris’s photograph hanging on the living room wall.’ ‘I don’t know what to say, Boyd.’ Despite having suffered so much grief in her own life, Lottie found she had no idea how to react to someone else’s. ‘Tell me what to do about Grace.’ She pulled out a chair from a wooden table splattered with bird dirt and pointed for Boyd to sit. She leaned against the table as he brushed at the chair with his hand. ‘It’s a difficult one,’ she said. ‘Grace has lived all her life with your mother. Living alone will be a major change for her.’ ‘That’s the point.

’ He sipped his pint. ‘I don’t think she can live alone.’ Lottie eyed his drink. ‘Where did you get that?’ ‘It is a bar, Lottie.’ ‘You shouldn’t be drinking while on treatment.’ Boyd had been diagnosed with a mild form of leukaemia over six months previously, and though he was doing well and his treatment had been reduced, his health was a constant worry. His immune system was weak and he was susceptible to infection. She was worried that the stress of his mother’s death would harm his recovery. ‘My doctor said I can have the odd drink,’ he said petulantly. ‘Stop nagging.

’ He lowered his head. ‘Grace tries to be independent, but we know she can’t be left to her own devices. She needs someone to watch out for her.’ Lottie put out a hand and lifted his chin, looking into his sad hazel eyes. ‘Your mam was great, and she’ll be missed. It’s a shock for you all. Especially for Grace.’ Then she said the words she knew he wanted to hear. ‘Maybe you should bring her with you back to Ragmullin.’ ‘I’ll have to evict Kirby.

’ Boyd smiled wryly. ‘It’s high time he found his own place anyway, and if my half-brother Leo comes through with the money on Far

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