They were across the border at last. No checkpoints, no patrols and best of all, no local bumpkins out dog-walking or shagging in their cars. The night was theirs.
Detective Chief Inspector Ryan Kelly pulled the car off the road and turned down a narrow bumpy track into Hanging Hill Wood. He rolled to stop by a fallen Larch tree and killed the engine.
‘You think they’ll come?’ said Queenan.
Kelly didn’t answer. He lifted the radio handset out of its black plastic cradle and pressed the comms button twice. Then once. Then three times more. He waited five minutes and then repeated the pattern.
Darkness gathered around them as the car clicked and cooled in the freezing night air. And with these shadows came his doubts – what was this, a professional gamble? A stroke of genius? His biggest mistake? An unblemished record, thirty years of service with a retirement and a pension all thrown into the pot for one man.
‘They’ll come,’ said Kelly eventually, to himself more than to Queenan. Self-assurance never came easily.
But they did come. He saw movement to the front of the car, about twenty feet away. Two men emerging from the thick undergrowth, moving slowly and carefully as if on patrol. Both of them armed, as he’d expected. As British Special Forces always were this far south. Both men raised their weapons when they saw the car.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said Queenan. Kelly felt his stomach twist. He’d never had a gun pointed at him before. Being a desk jockey, a chair moistener the worst you got was a bollocking phonecall from the Chief Inspector.
Kelly took a breath and opened the car door. Easy does it. He stepped out onto the trackway with his hands up.
‘Easy now boys,’ he said softly, ‘DCI Kelly. Ryan Kelly from Castlereagh CID.’
The two men remained completely still. Kelly noticed one of them had trained his rifle on the car, on poor Queenan, while the other kept his sights straight onto him.
It was then he saw movement to his left. Another two figures coming out of the scrub, one dressed the same as these boys in front, the other a civilian.
His man, the prize.
The soldier marched his prisoner to front and centre before kicking the back of his leg. He went down on his knees with a crack, sobbing behind a rough black hood that had been tied around his neck with rope. The poor bastard was ragged, like he’d been dragged for days through the Enniskillen countryside. Which he probably had. Poor bastard.
‘How do I know this is my man?’ Said Kelly, aware he was coming off ungrateful. Not good, especially when there were two big guns pointed at your head.
The hood was untied and removed. The third soldier producing a red-filtered flashlight that shone onto the face of Gary McKinney. McKinney all the way from Belfast. All the way from the IRA.
‘Proof enough?’ Said the soldier, ‘now the money.’
Kelly motioned to Queenan who stepped out of the car with the sports bag. He walked slowly to a spot in the middle of the track and laid it down.
Queenan bent down and unzipped the bag. Bundles of Euros held up to the faint red light.
‘It’s all there,’ said Kelly, ‘four hundred grand. Unmarked like you asked.’
The soldier stepped close to Kelly. His face was scarred with the grimy remains of camo paint, ‘I know where your office is. And your wife’s hairdresser on Porton Road.’
Kelly nodded and took hold of McKinney, pulling him back to the car. He could have done without that last bit. The three men gathered their cash and disappeared into the night.
McKinney was a mess but he would make it. Queenan forced some water into him and Kelly shuffled a cigarette from his pack. He lit it and rammed it into McKinney’s blood-thickened mouth.
‘Welcome back Gary boy. We missed you alright.’
Kelly smiled and started the car. They had pulled it off.
They were pulling out onto the main road when Queenan flicked the switch and from below, deep within the black forest, came the explosion.