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Authors: Graham Masterton

Taken for Dead (Kate Maguire)

BOOK: Taken for Dead (Kate Maguire)
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www.headofzeus.com

For all the children of Dom Dziecka orphanage
in Górzec, Poland with affection and
best wishes for the future.

‘Is i ding diféin a scoileann an dair’
‘The oak is split by a wedge from its own wood’

1

‘Congratulations and God’s blessings on you both,’ said Father Michael, coming up to Connor and Niamh and taking hold of their hands. ‘What a wonderful, wonderful wedding! You’ll be remembering this day for the rest of your lives!’

‘It’s all been perfect, father,’ said Niamh, her cheeks flushed red. ‘I loved what you said about Connor and me never forgetting to laugh, no matter how hard things might sometimes turn out.’

‘Well, that’s the secret of a lasting marriage,’ said Father Michael. ‘If there’s one thing the devil can’t bear, it’s mockery.’

Niamh was so happy that her eyes were sparkling with tears, and her mascara was blotched. ‘And I couldn’t
be
li
eve
it – when Connor put the ring on my finger – the way the sun came shining all of a sudden through the stained-glass windows. It was like God Himself was pleased we were getting married.’

‘I’m sure that He is, Niamh.’

‘And none of the babies cried, did they, even when the organ played?’

‘My mother cried, though,’ put in Connor. ‘She was honking like a seal.’

‘Well, you know what they say,’ smiled Father Michael. ‘When a man gets married, a mother loses a son, but when a woman gets married, a father gains a feller to go fishing with!’

At that moment, Niamh’s father came over, his rough cheeks even redder than Niamh’s and his grey comb-over flying awry. ‘It’s time for the cutting of the cake, sweetheart! Everybody’s ready!’

Connor took hold of Niamh’s hand and they made their way through the guests gathered in the main function room. More than two hundred of them had been invited to the wedding ceilidh, and they could have invited more, because Connor’s father was a popular city councillor, as well as owning O’Malley’s Outfitters on Patrick Street, and Niamh’s father was a partner in the Greenleaf Garden Centre up in Ballyvolane.

At the far end of the room, the Brendan Collins Boys had been playing ‘The Coalminer’s Reel’ but now they stopped and the guests all applauded. Connor and Niamh had been blessed by the weather, even though it was October and chilly outside. The hotel stood on a high, steep hill overlooking the city, and down below the sun was gleaming on the River Lee so that its reflected light was flickering on the ceiling.

‘Look,’ said Niamh, pointing upwards. ‘Even the angels are dancing.’

The wedding cake was composed of three large tiers, one on top of the other, frosted white, with sugar swags piped all the way around them. Miniature figures of the bride and groom stood on top. Niamh’s father handed Connor and Niamh a large silver knife and said, ‘Well done, the both of you. But you make sure you leave the biggest slice for me.’

Holding the knife together, Connor and Niamh started with the topmost cake, while cameras and iPhones flashed and everybody clapped and whistled. They easily cut through the first two cakes, because they were only sponge and vanilla cream, but they had only just started to cut down into the third and largest cake, at the bottom, when they stopped abruptly. They slowly withdrew the knife, frowning at each other.

‘What the
feck
is that?’ mouthed Connor. He prodded the point of the knife cautiously back into the side of the cake, but it wouldn’t penetrate more than three inches.

‘What’s the matter, Conn?’ called out one of his friends.

‘There’s something inside there,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what it is, but it’s pretty big, and it’s
hard
.’

Connor’s father came up, putting down his glass of champagne. He was a bulky, broad-shouldered man, with a high plume of white hair. He looked as if he would burst out of his tight grey morning suit at any moment. ‘What do you mean, Conn,
hard
?’

‘There is – there’s something hard in there,’ said Niamh. ‘I felt it myself.’

‘There can’t be anything
hard
in there, girl! That’s a sponge cake. Nothing but sponge. I ordered it myself from Crounan’s.’

Connor’s father took the knife and jabbed it into the cake. Like Connor, though, he could only manage to insert the blade two or three inches. He jabbed again, and then again, rotating the cake stand so that he could attack it all the way around, from every possible angle.

The guests were standing around with drinks in their hands, watching and chattering.

‘Whatcha doing there, John?’ called out one slurred voice, from the back. ‘Trying to make sure it’s dead?

A few of the guests laughed, but when Connor’s father looked up, most of them could see from his expression that something was badly wrong, and they fell silent. Connor and Niamh were now standing well back, by the windows that overlooked the city, and Niamh was biting her thumbnail.

Niamh’s father and mother came up and said, ‘What’s wrong, John? What’s going on?’

‘There’s something inside this cake, Barry. Something hard. I don’t have any idea what, but we’ll have to cut it apart and take a sconce at it.’

‘What do you mean
something hard
?’

‘I just told you, Barry. I haven’t a clue.’

‘What did I say?’ snapped Niamh’s mother. ‘I said we should have ordered the cake ourselves! This had better not spoil things, John. This is Niamh’s big day, and I’ll not have it ruined because the two of you were too stingy to buy a proper cake from Bracken’s.’

‘I’ll need a hand here, Connor,’ said his father. ‘I’m going to slice off the top two cakes so that we can find out just what the hell it is in the bottom one. It is big, you’re right, and it is hard.’

‘I can’t believe this,’ said Niamh’s mother. ‘“Oh, we’ll get the cake for free,” you said, and now look. Too mean to part with a hundred euros, and there’s poor Niamh almost in tears.’

As patiently as he could, Connor’s father said, ‘Anna – I admit Micky Crounan supplied me with this cake buckshee, as a favour, because I helped him to put through his planning application. But Crounan’s is a first-class baker’s and you know it.’

‘So that’s why you’re cutting open my daughter’s wedding cake to make sure it doesn’t have a brick in it, or something? I’ve done that so often myself, like – accidentally dropped a brick in my cake mixture. Or a shoe. Or a cookery book. It’s so easy done.’

‘Anna,’ said Niamh’s father, and shook his head to indicate that she should keep her sarcasm to herself, at least for now.

Very carefully, Connor’s father sliced off the top cake, which Connor set down on a plate; then the second cake. He was left with the bottom cake, with a circle of icing around the outside, and a sponge circle in the middle. By now the guests were clustering close to the table to see what he was doing.

‘What’s the story, John?’ asked one of them.

‘They told him there was euros baked into it,’ said another. ‘He couldn’t bear the thought of anybody else getting a single one of them.’

Connor’s father ignored this banter and picked up a dessert spoon. He started to scrape away at the sponge, little by little, his forehead furrowed in concentration, like an archaeologist scraping away the soil covering a Roman statue.

A small black lump appeared. It was soft and rubbery, and in colour and texture it resembled a blackcurrant pastille. He continued to scrape all around it and gradually two triangular holes appeared below it. To his horror, he realized that the blackcurrant pastille wasn’t a blackcurrant pastille at all, but the bulbous tip of somebody’s nose. It was black because it had started to decompose.

At the same time, he became aware that a smell much stronger than vanilla was rising from the cake. It was sweet and it was fetid and his cousin had been an undertaker so he knew at once what it was. He retched, and then he stood up straight and flapped his hand at the guests gathered around him.

‘Get back,’ he managed to say, before he retched again. He pressed his knuckles to his lips for a moment to regain his composure, and then said, ‘Please, folks, get right back. Somebody call the guards for me. Please. Tell them it’s urgent.’

‘In the name of Jesus, what
is
that?’ asked Niamh’s mother.

‘Please … get back,’ Connor’s father told her.

‘John? What’s the matter?’ asked Father Michael, making his way around the table and laying his hand on Connor’s father’s shoulder.

He peered short-sightedly down at the spooned-out remains of the wedding cake and said, ‘What in God’s name is
that
you’ve found in it? And what is that
smell
?’ He took out his wire-rimmed spectacles and inspected the cake more closely.

‘Holy Mary, Mother of God,’ he said almost immediately, and crossed himself.

Connor’s father turned around to Connor and said, ‘Take Niamh off with you, Connor! Take her well away!’

‘What is it, Dad? Tell me!’

‘Just take Niamh away. Get yourselves changed for your honeymoon. I’m sorry, but the ceilidh’s over.’

Niamh’s mother elbowed her way past Father Michael. ‘It’s no good you telling me to get back, John, and not telling me the reason! This is my daughter’s wedding ceilidh and we’ve paid thousands for it!’

The guests were milling around in confusion. The hotel’s deputy manager was pushing his way through the crowd to find out what was wrong. The Brendan Collins band had set down their bodhrán and their flutes and their double bass and were looking bewildered.

Connor’s father said, ‘I’m not going to dig into it any further, but that’s a man’s nose there in the middle of that cake. I think there’s somebody’s head baked into it.’

2

Michael Gerrety came down the courthouse steps, surrounded by an entourage that included his solicitor, James Moody, his wife, Carole, and three hard-looking men with shaven heads and black nylon windcheaters.

BOOK: Taken for Dead (Kate Maguire)
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