It was not the dead that seemed to Quirke uncanny but the living. When he
walked into the morgue long after midnight and saw Malachy Griffin there he felt
a shiver along his spine that was to prove prophetic, a tremor of troubles to
come. Mal was in Quirkes office, sitting at the desk. Quirke stopped in the
unlit body room, among the shrouded forms on their trolleys, and watched him
through the open doorway. He was seated with his back to the door, leaning
forward intently in his steel-framed spectacles, the desk lamp lighting the left
side of his face and making an angry pink glow through the shell of his ear. He
had a file open on the desk before him and was writing in it with peculiar
awkwardness. This would have struck Quirke as stranger than it did if he had not
been drunk. The scene sparked a memory in him from their school days together,
startlingly clear, of Mal, intent like this, sitting at a desk among fifty other
earnest students in a big hushed hall, as he laboriously composed an examination
essay, with a beam of sunlight falling slantways on him from a window somewhere
high above. A quarter of a century later he still had that smooth seals head of
oiled black hair, scrupulously combed and parted.
Sensing a presence behind him, Mal turned his face and peered into the shadowy dark of the body room. Quirke waited a moment and then stepped forward, with some unsteadiness, into the light in the doorway.
Quirke, Mal said, recognizing him with relief and giving an exasperated sigh. For Gods sake.
Mal was in evening clothes but uncharacteristically unbuttoned, his bow tie undone and the collar of his white dress shirt open. Quirke, groping in his pockets for his cigarettes, contemplated him, noting the way he put his forearm quickly over the file to hide it, and was reminded again of school.
Working late? Quirke said, and grinned crookedly, the alcohol allowing him to think it a telling piece of wit.
What are you doing here? Mal said, too loudly, ignoring the question. He pushed the spectacles up the damp bridge of his nose with a tap of a fingertip. He was nervous.
Quirke pointed to the ceiling. Party, he said. Upstairs.
Mal assumed his consultants face, frowning imperiously. Party? What party?
Brenda Ruttledge, Quirke said. One of the nurses. Her going-away.
Mals frown deepened. Ruttledge?
Quirke was suddenly bored. He asked if Mal had a cigarette, for he seemed to have none of his own, but Mal ignored this question too. He stood up, deftly sweeping the file with him, still trying to hide it under his arm. Quirke, though he had to squint, saw the name scrawled in large handwritten letters on the cover of it: Christine Falls. Mals fountain pen was on the desk, a Parker, fat and black and shiny, with a gold nib, no doubt, twenty-two karat, or more if it was possible; Mal had a taste for rich things, it was one of his few weaknesses.
How is Sarah? Quirke asked. He let himself droop sideways heavily until his shoulder found the support of the doorjamb. He felt dizzy, and everything was keeping up a flickering, leftward lurch. He was at the rueful stage of having drunk too much and knowing that there was nothing to be done but wait until the effects wore off. Mal had his back to him, putting the file into a drawer of the tall gray filing cabinet.
Shes well, Mal said. We were at a Knights dinner. I sent her home in a taxi.
Knights? Quirke said, widening his eyes blearily.
Mal turned to him a blank, expressionless look, the lenses of his glasses flashing. Of St. Patrick. As if you didnt know.
Copyright © 2006 by Benjamin Black. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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