“You ok mate? You look a bit down. Everything alright? What’s up? What’s happening? Nothing. It’s ok. I’m ok. Honest. It’s just, well, I didn’t want to put all my problems onto you. It’s not fair. You’ve your own problems to deal with. You don’t need mine too. Come on mate. Don’t be like that. We’re mates. How long have we been mates? We tell each other everything. Everything. What’s up? Come on mate. Tell us. Tell me. Just tell someone…”
That’s a flavour of the last conversation I ever had with Elsie Hope.
We were always there for each other, Elsie and me. We were good friends, great friends. The best of friends. ‘Good muckers,’ we used to say. You couldn’t separate us. “Like two peas in a pod,” we said. Elsie was a wee star. Then, one day, they took her from me.
Elsie Hope was a pioneer. She pushed the boundaries. She never gave up. Never knew how to give up. Never wanted to give up. Just kept pushing and pushing. Like all the great pioneers who never know when to quit. You see, Elsie was an investigative journalist. The Amelia Earhart of reportage. Lots of people read her stories. She drew a small army of several thousand followers on Twitter. Her image adorned glossy magazines. Feature writers tipped her for a bright future. Elsie was excitable at the best of times but after being invited to give a Ted Talk, she garnered more and more attention. It was great to see. To be there and to enjoy the adulation she received. Finally, after all the years of hard work, she was well on her way to stardom. Then, one blustery spring evening, she was snatched away from the world in a car accident. A “freak accident,” they said. One of those things that “just happens.” It’s hard when you hear something like that. It’s all so casual. So abrupt. So sad.
Elsie was fond of talking about her hero Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone journalist who wrapped himself around a tree outside Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles a few years ago. Hastings suffered from depression. Like all good writers, he lived and breathed his vocation. “If I can’t write, I suffocate,” he used to say. Then one day, out of the blue, he couldn’t breathe. He plunged head-long into a manic episode. He hit the booze and then took to the streets in his Mercedes-Benz C250 Coupé. Next thing you know, Michael Hastings is on every news station in North America. Seems he drove straight into the only tree on a wide boulevard. His car burst into flames, killing him instantly.
A few months earlier Hastings had broken one of the biggest stories of his life. The exclusive was called ‘The Runaway General’. The fall-out from the story was huge. The Runaway General was summoned by President Obama to account for his criticism of the White House. The Runaway General did the honourable thing and resigned. He was a bright man though he surrounded himself with too many loose cannons. They boasted loudly of how their “major league army had defeated a minor league opposition.” It was a national scandal and Hastings broke the story.
Three years to the day after breaking the story of his career, Hastings was dead. It was a tragedy. Some believed it was a consequence of foul play. Engineered by shadowy elements within the American Deep State who had taken exception to him for researching a new story about a classified spy satellite. Hastings asked questions that some people didn’t want answered. The story promised to catapult Hastings into the big league, they said. His star was ascending. The story would establish him as a journalistic force to be reckoned with.
There were echoes of Hastings’ mysterious death in what happened to my friend, Elsie Hope.
Elsie was covering a major exclusive when she was killed. It was about the murder of a prominent politician in the 1980s. Rumours emerged that he had been set up by the British Deep State. The origins of the story lie in a cold, dark morning in Belfast where the politician met with some of his constituents. Suddenly, gunmen burst into his surgery and shot him dead. Much of the case didn’t make sense. The gunmen never wore masks. They made no attempt to hide their faces. They also moved with tight choreography, like they knew exactly what they were doing. The gunmen who shot the politician were thought to be British secret agents, issued with a licence to kill. Oddly, despite the crime scene having been crammed with witnesses, the police never interviewed any of them. They never conducted a proper investigation. They thought that people would soon forget about the incident. That it would fade from their memories like so many others. Sure enough, the assassinated politician became just another statistic. Not to Elsie. She never forgot what happened to him.
Years later Elsie revisited the specifics of the case as she sat in a central Belfast café enjoying breakfast with another close friend, Harry the Hack. Harry was a legendary tabloid journalist. They talked for hours about the case. About the poor police investigation, about how such a case would never have been allowed to go cold nowadays. And then Elsie hit on a theory. Perhaps the politician had been murdered because of something he had seen or heard. She believed British agents were responsible. That cold, damp morning in Belfast, as rain lashed the windows of the tiny café, she resolved to find out more. To dedicate her life to uncovering the truth.
A year later Elsie was dead. On a dark and blustery evening, high above the shimmering lights of Belfast, by a lonely fork in the road near Divis Mountain, she met her maker.
Elsie was ‘on the job’ when it happened. She died doing what she loved. Chasing a lead. Heading from one hastily arranged meeting to another. In a terrible hurry. Always on the phone. Frantically pressing buttons. Always hunched up, far too close to the steering wheel, pushing the boundaries. Pushing the speed limit.
“I have to mate. It’s a big story. I need to get there,” she told me by way of hands-free. “I’ve another meeting. This one’s the big one!”
Elsie tended to inhabit two worlds – the real one and the virtual one. Always pressing buttons, glued to the screen of her smart phone. I remember telling her off when we went for a drink months before her death. She was on the softs and I was on the hards. She slipped the phone into her pocket, managing a phone-free conversation for ten minutes before it came out again.
“If you can’t beat them, join them,” I said jokingly.
Elsie’s death was a tragedy. Her life cruelly cut short. She was in her prime. She’d just met a new girlfriend. They planned to move in together. It cuts me up every time I think of how she was denied the happiness she so richly deserved.
A few conspiracy theories circulated that she had been deliberately killed. I was dismissive at first. This wasn’t the States. This wasn’t like the Hastings case. Things like this didn’t happen here. Then I remembered. The last time I saw her, Elsie told me she was getting some online abuse. Twitter is a sewer at the best of times. People can’t be succinct in less than 280 characters unless they’re being toxic. Such base instinct doesn’t require so many words to carry its weighty meaning. It requires action, or at least the threat of action. It’s all about impact. It’s inherently negative. Threats are like that – they’re written with malign intent in mind.
“I don’t know why they’re bullying me,” Elsie said.
She looked shaken and upset. The people who hated her would never have shown their claws in public. They’d do their bullying indirectly.
“They’re cowards,” I told Elsie. “They aren’t worth worrying about.”
She wasn’t convinced.
“I haven’t done anything to anyone. You know me Conor. When you wrote that piece in the local paper and I told you you needed to speak to Phil, to tell him there was no malice in it. You can’t write with malice, with spite. You need to double-check the facts to avoid giving offence. It matters,” she told me.
Elsie was always the voice of reason. She was patient, always looking for the best in people, even when they never reciprocated such sentiment. People had an evil side, especially in the small pond of provincial journalism.
The last time I saw Elsie, she was distraught. She’d not been sleeping. I knew to look at her. Her brain ticked over like a well wound up clock. She worked late. Too late. I’d often do the same so I couldn’t complain. “Thou doft protest too much,” she would tell me. I never mentioned being over-worked again.
We had so many conversations that ran and ran into the wee small hours. She was a night owl. She preferred to burn the midnight oil but, like all owls, she was wise too.
We were kindred spirits, her and I. We were both trying to make our way in the world. We were both writers of sorts. She an investigative journalist freelancing for international magazines, I, a reporter for a local newspaper. Mine was a backwater gig in comparison, though she always encouraged me to make my writing my vocation. She was good like that. She mixed with all kinds of people. She never allowed anyone to put themselves down. She suffered from depression; we all do at one time or another. The black dog is a frequent visitor. It comes in and lies down, ever watchful, waiting to sink its teeth into you when you least expect it. It can deflate you. Elsie was often deflated. I never really knew why until that last day I saw her when she confided in me.
“I don’t know what their problem is with me mate,” she said.
I shrugged. I’d a habit of lifting my shoulders and dropping them as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Elsie didn’t look impressed. I could see she was visibly shaken.
“Don’t let them grind you down. What do they know? Ignore them.”
She was always worrying but that day was different. She looked like she’d seen a ghost. Something frightened her. I’ve only ever seen fear like that once. If you’re attuned to it, you can spot it in the eyes. When people say, “you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” it could be true.
The first time I saw it was in the eyes of a local man who had raised thousands of pounds for charity. He had terminal cancer but was determined not to die before he contributed to the greater good. I used to visit him regularly, especially after his health deteriorated. I went to visit him in the hospice a few days before he died. He was coughing up phlegm. I’d seen it before as I watched my grandparents die. I’d been there when they passed on. My grandparents died peacefully. They knew their time was up and they just slipped away. They’d seen death so many times before and they were simply accepting the reality of their own demise. In old Eric’s case, it was different. There was genuine fear in his eyes as he stared mortality in the face. He was an old soldier who was haunted by something he had done in wartime. A day before he died, I sat with him. His eyes glazed over. They looked grey. Desolate. Dark. Troubled. Like a star in the sky that suddenly fades without warning. I’d imagined old Eric had been visited by the ghost of a German soldier he’d killed in battle in the 1940s. Perhaps the dead soldier had come to reclaim the soul Eric had stolen from him all those years ago. Then old Eric whispered something in my ear.
“I took the lives of many men who did not deserve to die. Now, I must face my maker and atoll for my sins. Live a good life, Conor son. And keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
A few hours after old Eric’s death, I filed a piece in the local paper about ‘A War Hero’s Dying Wish’. The story said Eric James threw himself into charity work in his final days. It made no mention of the advice he passed onto me. I’ve never forgotten it though. After my last meeting with Elsie – and now that I reflect on her life and work – I’d cause to remember those words. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” That last day I saw Elsie, she too looked like death had paid her a visit.
In the days after Elsie’s death, I spoke to the policeman who tried to save her life. I was in the station interviewing an officer about a campaign to stamp out drink driving. Sergeant Fitzsimmons dropped down to see me because he’d read an interview with me about Elsie. Fitzy, as he was known to his colleagues, told me how the young man they’d arrested when they responded to the RTA was five times over the limit. The court proceedings subsequently revealed he’d been drinking with older men who assured him he’d be ok. He could easily handle another drink and still drive. One more drink led to two, and three, and, before he knew it, he’d no way of getting back home without climbing into his vehicle. He’d left the social club “feeling fine,” he told the court. He felt emboldened by the advice of the older men. Intoxicated by their stories of having done the same in their day. They’d all been there, done that and got the t-shirt, they assured him. Besides, he was with the lads and there wasn’t a “bastard of a cop” about the place. Not in this area. Never in this area. He’d be fine. Just fine.
“Me and the boys did all we could,” said Fitzy. “She was in a bad way. Her car was rammed off the road. It was broken, like a wee toy. All snapped in two.”
The policeman assured me that they took great care putting Elsie’s tiny lifeless body into the police vehicle, before driving to the hospital at speed, blue lights flashing, horns honking and cars parting for them like the Bible story of Moses and the Red Sea.
The policeman told me that he’d been further down the road at a farmhouse dealing with a burglary when he received a call on his radio from the control centre. A passing motorist saw Elsie’s little Volkswagen crumbled against a tree. The airbags had deployed but the force of the shunt had broken almost every bone in her body. The lady who reported the accident said she saw a young woman slumped over the wheel. She could see she was still moving. Later the lady was interviewed on television by a broadcast journalist. Giving her name only as Lisa, she said the scene was one of utter carnage. “Thon wee girl let out a scream that will haunt me till the day I die.” Fitzy said that all evidence at the crime scene pointed towards a “tragic RTA.”
I thanked the cop for telling me the full story of what happened to Elsie. I walked away from the station that afternoon thinking about what the witness had told reporters on television. “Thon wee girl let out a scream that will haunt me till the day I die.”
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I heard a rumour suggesting that there was more to Elsie’s death than met the eye.
Elsie’s scream, I thought, would become a clarion call for justice.
Harry the Hack was a mutual friend of mine and Elsie’s. He’d cut his teeth in the mean streets of Edinburgh as a crime reporter before coming over to Belfast in the 1980s. We met for a coffee two weeks after Elsie’s funeral. We embraced like brothers.
“Conor son, how’s it going? Are you okay?” he inquired.
“I’m grand Harry,” I said. I was lying. I hadn’t slept in days and I looked and felt awful.
“You don’t look okay. You look tired pal.”
“I’m fine,” I said.
“So, listen,” Harry said as he leant over to me. “I’ve a wee bit of news for you. You know that Elsie was getting a hard time from a few people?”
“I did, yes.”
“Well, some of those people were posting eulogies on their social media accounts about her. Doesn’t seem right, does it?”
“Bunch of hypocritical assholes Harry. Seventy percent of the people who went to her funeral never knew her. None of them were there for her when she was being bullied and harassed.”
“I agree. They’re all hypocrites. Anyway, that’s not why I’m here to talk to you. One of my pals in the police has suggested that there is something a bit unusual about the scene where Elsie died.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Oh,” I said. “Do tell me more.”
“Well, it’s to do with the tyre marks on the road. They indicate that the drunk driver who hit her did so deliberately, ramming her off the road. There’s also been a suggestion that Elsie’s car may have been tampered with.”
“Bloody hell, Harry!”
“I know. Anyway, the police officer I know has been speaking to his boss, Superintendent Jimmy Cairns, and they think they’ve enough to launch a fresh investigation into her death. The only problem is they’re getting a little political pressure from up high. It seems that the great and the good who attended Elsie’s funeral think the announcement of a murder investigation might heighten political tensions.”
“No way, Harry. Are you serious?”
“Yeah, it’s happened before. You remember that scientist who was found dead in Oxfordshire? His family said he didn’t seem depressed or stressed at the time. Then one day he just up and left his home after a cuppa with his wife. Slit his wrists in a forest not far from his home. They said it was suicide. It remains shrouded in mystery.”
“I remember that case, yeah.”
“Well, it would seem that certain elements who adjudicated in that affair would prefer Elsie’s death was covered up too. I don’t think we should let that happen. We’ve a duty to stop it. The public – and Elsie’s family and friends – need to know the truth.”
“I agree,” I said nodding. “What do you need from me?”
“My hands are tied with my editor. I have my suspicions he’s in line for a gong of some sort. He’s been compliant enough for the government over the years. He says I can’t touch this with a barge poll. I need to think about my pension, so I was wondering…”
“If a local reporter would break the story?”
“Exactly! It could be the making of you. You’ve been wanting to break out of The Ballyclare Times for a few years now, haven’t you? Seems like a good opportunity.”
“But what about Elsie? I can’t use her death to make my name?”
“It hasn’t stopped any of those other clowns! They all start the same cliched stories with, “I didn’t know Elsie but…” You knew her. She was your friend. You need to break the story about her death and the attempts to cover it up.”
“Ok. I’ll look into it. I have my suspicions too. About the story she was covering before she died. There seems to be some suggestion she may have been killed to stop her getting to the truth.”
“You don’t say?”
“I do say. There’s definitely something worth exploring. Follow up my lead first and let’s see where we get to.”
Another damp and depressing day in Belfast.
Rain lashed the windows of the small café where I’d agreed to meet Harry’s contact. He was bringing somebody else with him. There was no sign of him yet. After twenty minutes, I was about to leave when two older men came in. One of them spotted me and waved. He’d obviously seen my picture online.
“Conor. I’m Eddie,” he announced. His handshake was firm. He had a grip like a wrestler. “This is Ken. He’s come along with me to meet you. Let’s sit down.”
I sat back down on the cushioned chair. They sat opposite.
“You’ve been led to believe your friend Elsie was killed in a car accident. The truth is she died because she was about to reveal a secret some people would prefer to remain buried. The Troubles are over. This story doesn’t need to come out. We think…”
“We? Who is this we?”
“You’re a bright boy, Conor. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
Spies, I thought. They must be spies. This guy was Northern Irish. James Bond was an Englishman. Who’d ever heard of a Belfast James Bond?
“We’ve agreed to meet you because of your friend, Harry. He says you’re reliable. You don’t do conspiracy theories. We don’t do conspiracy theories either.”
“But you’re the government,” I said jokingly. I’d deliberately lowered my voice, even though there was only an old lady settling down to a cup of tea, a scone and the latest Maeve Binchy. What is it about Maeve Binchy? People spend their lives engrossed in safe stories involving one-dimensional characters. Where’s the fun in that? Eddie and Ken sat stone-faced.
“We believe that your friend Elsie was murdered by a gang of thugs. You may have been told of some grand conspiracy involving the security services. We’re here to tell you that’s a rumour, started by the same people who murdered your friend.”
I grinned. I was unconvinced. They knew it and I knew it. I took hold of my coffee with both hands and drew it towards me, taking a sip while eyeballing the two government agents. I felt the warmth of the cup in my hands. The rain outside was now horizontal. I could see people pushing through it, all dressed in raincoats. A few looked seriously harassed. One woman’s umbrella blew inside out. She threw her hands up in protest, as if Mother Nature could hear her plea for a break in the storm.
I brought my attention back to the conversation. I could see Ken was busy observing me. He was watching my body language closely. I wondered if he might be some kind of profiler. I’d heard of these people. Some reports said the intelligence services had behavioural scientists working for them, like the FBI. Both men were clean cut. They were well-groomed. Ken could have been an old soldier. Like old Eric, he had that look in his eyes. Like he’d killed people. This ‘Eddie’ character sat in front of me, if that was even his real name. He’d the same determined look in his eye. Neither fear nor anxiety troubled his soul. Perhaps that’s the kind of people the government is keen to recruit, I thought. These silent warriors exhibited little emotion, like highly functioning psychopaths. They were always in control of themselves and they desperately wanted to be in control of other people.
Ken leaned forward, beating Eddie to the next sentence.
“Think of it like this Conor. We believe that Elsie was indeed killed by the young man who was jailed for her death. But… we think he deliberately targeted her. He’d been put up to it by older men. They’re against the peace process. All they want to do is kill innocent people. It’s sick.”
“They haven’t gone away, you know,” I quipped.
“Quite,” said Eddie.
Ken spoke again. “We believe Elsie was getting close to a scoop that would have embarrassed some of the men sat around that table in the drinking club in West Belfast. The police tell us they’re following a lead that puts one of them in the frame for ordering Elsie’s murder.”
And there it was. The tell I was looking for. “The police tell us…” I suddenly realised that I was in a very dangerous position. I was way out of my depth. And then came the next sentence.
“We would strongly suggest that you stick to the police line of inquiry. Your friend, Elsie, was murdered by her own. By republicans unhappy with the peace process. And they killed her because of it.”
I recalled old Eric’s saying. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Right then I knew what he meant. You have to pick a side. I wanted to be on the side of good. I was no longer representing some pokey little newspaper nobody had heard of beyond its 5,000 readers. I was a representative of the Fourth Estate and it was my duty to report the facts as I saw them, unbiased and objectively. I knew which side I was on.
Just as I was about to say something, an older woman with a stern look walked over from behind the counter. “Any of you fellas want a refill,” she asked.
“I’m ok thanks,” I said.
“And for you gents?” the woman asked Eddie and Ken.
“We’re ok thanks,” they said flatly.
“Suit yourself, love. Just let me know if you do.”
“Thanks,” said Eddie, without looking at the woman.
“So, Conor. What do you think?”
“I’ll think about it. It’s a lot to take in.”
Ken raised an eyebrow. Then he said. “Well, don’t take too long. This story is building. Don’t worry too much about the details. Just as long as you stay in your lane. We’re all friends here after all.”
I stood up and edged my way around the table. Eddie stretched out his hand. I looked at him blankly.
“Just stay in your lane,” he said.
I headed for the door. The two men I’d only just met a short time earlier followed me out. I went left and they went right.
Later that week I was back in front of Harry the Hack. He was pleased with himself. “Did you meet Eddie then?”
“He told me to stay in my lane. I don’t think they want this story coming out about the real reasons why Elsie was killed.”
“So, they told you to stick closely to the fresh line of inquiry in the police investigation?”
“They did. They said republicans conspired to murder Elsie. They didn’t say why, other than the story she was working on would have embarrassed some older men.”
“In what way?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe that’s the question I need to ask next.”
“Perhaps you should give it a wide berth?”
“Is that you telling me, or them?” I asked quizzically.
“I’m your friend Conor. How long have we known each other now? Ten years?”
“It was Elsie who introduced us, wasn’t it, Harry?”
“It was. Well, what would she want us to do?”
“To keep pushing on, regardless of the consequences.”
“I’ve nothing to lose.”
“You might think you don’t.” Harry said as he leaned over. “It’s not you who has anything to lose. It’s other people who have everything to lose. They are more powerful than you or I. Even if Elsie was murdered by the state, she died doing what she enjoyed most in life.”
“You should listen to the advice and follow the fresh line of inquiry. If you don’t, I’m getting off-side.”
“You do that Harry,” I said, feeling a little deflated.
Later that evening, I thought about what Eddie and Ken had told me. I was angry and frustrated. Who were the government to dictate what I wrote? I could write whatever I liked, especially if it was an exclusive about the murder of my friend. I wasn’t going to back down. I ruminated over why Harry had given me the lead in the first place. Then I thought about him getting off-side. Perhaps he really did have a go at it himself and had failed. Maybe he thought I could get some traction. As I saw it, I’d two choices. Either I could follow the new line of inquiry, get all the access I needed to the investigation – and as much official comment – as I wanted from the Superintendent Cairns and his team. I knew if I followed that path, it would be the one of least resistance. I could establish myself as a proper writer, like Michael Hastings or like Elsie. I could do Elsie’s memory real justice. I would be at the heart of the investigation. I could profile the suspects in a big splash for a national newspaper. I’d be in the know and follow the case from arrest to conviction. I could take my place in the public gallery alongside established court reporters and those covering the big news story of the day. Or, I could probe Elsie’s death myself, chase the lead that connected the threads between her death and the murder of the politician murdered all those years ago. That too might establish me as a journalistic force to be reckoned with. It would also bring dangers, some of which I’d already been warned about in my secret liaison with Ken and Eddie. It seemed to me I had a choice to make.
Just as I was about to settle on an option, my phone rang. It was my editor Jack Robertson.
“I’m sorry to have to break this news to you,” he said with a quiver in his voice.
For a moment I thought he was about to fire me.
“Harry Henderson is dead. They found him swinging from a rope in his garage. They say it’s a suicide.”
At that moment I knew what option I had to take.
Aaron Edwards is an author and academic from Belfast now living in Southampton, England. His non-fiction writing has appeared in The Irish Times, The Dublin Review of Books and Fortnight Magazine and his short fiction has also been published by The Honest Ulsterman and The Ash Tales. Aaron is currently in receipt of Arts Council of Northern Ireland National Lottery Funding to complete his first novel.
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