My first novel, TITO’S DEAD was published last month. It is set in Dublin and Sarajevo and it’s a crime mystery novel. But it’s also a story about human relations and how we learn to live with each other.
No-one was surprised when we heard Tito was dead. For what we knew of him, he was dodgy. You wouldn’t trust him with your mother, one of his own pals once grumbled. There was little else to be said.
Or was there? Everything about him left you feeling uncomfortable. I didn’t know him that well but I felt he knew my secrets.
It’s been a year since the whole Tito thing and it lasted less than a month but the reverberations are still felt. It’s not as though he was mourned and missed. His disappearance barely raised a question. Maybe there was a joke or two because he was colourful and weird and that was a perfect combination for some speculative analysis from the committee of experts who reserved squatters’ rights in one corner of the bar.
Tito might be dead or sitting on the terrace of a house in Albania, sipping a cold beer and watching the sun set on the Adriatic. In the nature of these things, I’m prepared to believe either story.
The thing that bothered Tito was his invisibility. He knew, considering his legal status, he needed to be invisible but it was not in his nature. Tito raged against the anonymity.
There were other things he hated, like missing his family and particularly, his younger sister. In the days before he disappeared, he mentioned her to a few people. Himself and Deare, the journalist, were close. They often spoke together in a quiet huddle and occasionally you would hear Tito sob or roar. He couldn’t just cry.
I told him invisibility protects us but he couldn’t see it. “It is all very well for you to say this when you have people you can talk to, who know who you are and can bless you and curse you…” he lashed back at me and only for it was more words than he’d ever directed at me in one sentence, I might have had a profound and witty reply.
I didn’t though. He never let anyone close enough to understand his anger. So all we could do was resent him. When he refused to work, the work got done by someone else. Whether he left when he left, his days in the pub were numbered.
Anonymity is good for a bartender because all you have to do is sell drink. But that means standing in a confined space for eight hours pouring drinks for strangers while you listen to their stories and watch them get drunk. You’re anonymous because the customer doesn’t see you. Drinking is a performance art and you are the audience. Sometimes it’s about a celebration but more often than the celebrants will admit, it’s about contrition and regret and you are the priest confessor. Conspiracies and intrigues are hatched in drink and the players forget the stagehands are watching and listening.
I have seen unfaithful wives and philandering husbands spin webs of deceit for their companions or, on any night, their chosen and often complicit quarry and all this without a thought for who might be listening on the other side of the bar.
Most of the time, you couldn’t give a damn and mark it all down as part of life’s so-called rich tapestry, just another cliché to be stored away for future use. A good bartender, I’ve always said, should have as many of those in his or her head as cocktail recipes.
“You don’t know me,” was one of Tito’s favourite, dismissive phrases. “And you don’t fuckin’ know me,” I’d bark back at him. And though there was more meaning in what was left unsaid than the empty banter we exchanged, neither of us understood the other.
I wanted him to know you can never know someone who doesn’t know themselves; that everyone makes up their own story and there’s not a living person on this planet without a secret. I wanted him to know a thousand things I thought about trust and friendship but I couldn’t, because I didn’t know if I believed them myself or if I wanted to share them with him, either.
He may have felt the world had abandoned him and his kind and you could forgive him for forgetting there were other people hurting. I hope he knew when he was handed the postcard from the pigeon, that that was his recognition. At least, as far as anyone in the pub was concerned but if ignorance is bliss, it’s no excuse and certainly, no solace for its victims.
It was Peter Cahill’s idea and it was a good one. It surprised me at the time that Cahill, a high flyin’ Special Branch man, would even bother his arse. But right then it was the perfect antidote for Tito’s gloom. We didn’t know then it was his death warrant.
The way I think it went, is this: Tito thought he was a player but he was just someone else’s pawn. Beneath all his bravado beat a wounded heart. He craved recognition, not for any reasons of vanity but because he wanted to love and, I suppose, be loved and there was no-one who could acknowledge it.
He wasn’t unlike anyone else, whether their name was Tito, Mick or Mary. That’s why I’m breaking my own rule of anonymity although this is the last you’ll hear from me, because this is Tito’s story.
Peter Cahill wasn’t happy staying in Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn. He wasn’t too happy about being told what to do, either. Particularly when the orders come from a jumped up American spook without the manners to take his mirror shades off throughout their meeting.
It’s all very well for this creep to stand there shouting the odds, he thought, but I’ll be the one whose arse will be on the line if the whole thing goes pear shaped.
“Are you confident everything is in place?,” the eyeless Yank was asking, “and there’ll be no hitches?”
The Holiday Inn was a pig ugly, yellow building that became one of the best known landmarks in the city, only because it managed to stay standing when all about it was getting blown to bits. Smack dab on ‘Sniper Alley’, on the main route from the airport to the city, it was the headquarters for every foreign war correspondent during the bitter ethnic conflicts in the ‘90s.
War with fucking room service, he heard himself grumble. The brochures said ‘grand’ and ‘majestic’, he figured, because it was still standing. He didn’t like it because he felt exposed. He was an Irish policeman meeting an American spook in a Bosnian hotel.
The hotel was fine, he conceded, Holiday Inns were Holiday Inns, the Mickey D’s of hostelry. It was central but he wasn’t there to see the sights. He hardly left his room since checking in apart from a visit to a café on the corner for a cup of Turkish coffee. Even that put the fear of God in him.
The hotel was stuffed with tourists and carpetbaggers: the first, attracted by the cheap prices and the ghoulish thrill of walking in the shadows of ghosts; the second, the kind who thrive on the carrion of a fallen city.
There were too many Irish people in Sarajevo, in his estimation, as police, soldiers or civilians. If it had been his choice he would have done this somewhere else.
The U.S.’S ‘War on Terror’ knew no boundaries and America’s allies were swiftly finding out if you weren’t with them, you were against them, as far as they were concerned. ‘Get with the Plan” was no longer an invitation, it was an order.
He studied the face of the man who asked the question. He was square jawed, broad and black. His hair was cut in what Americans referred to as ‘crew’ style. It looked as though it had been chiselled and finished with a precision laser. The eyes (or, at least, the shades) were impenetrable.
Agent Powers wore the regulation, reflector style, aviator sunglasses they gave him when they broke him out of his mould. He didn’t like him but they weren’t there to get to know each other.
He concluded his operational briefing and answered, “we’ve already set the wheels in motion. Contact has been made with a young Kosovan woman. She has given information about our target’s associates, here and in Dublin. We have set in motion a series of events that should draw our man out of hiding to protect his investment and keep control of his operation.”
“Good. Are you confident of your intelligence in Dublin? Are you sure the target will be there?”
“Absolutely, he’ll be there, alright. He visits Dublin and keeps a house there. But he’s unpredictable but our plan should draw him out of cover.”
‘Does your man in Sarajevo know about these plans?”
“No. The operation is ‘need to know’ only and that clearance goes no further than this room. Everything will be completely deniable in the event of a cock up.”
He stared at his own reflection in Agent Powers’ sunglasses. Christ, he thought, I look really pissed off. Calm down, for fuck’s sake. Don’t give this wanker the satisfaction.
He knew he was far less confident than he sounded and he hoped Powers was convinced. The job was shaky from the word ‘go’. The target was ‘untouchable’, which was why, he guessed, the task had been handed to him.
Powers appeared to hold his gaze for longer than was needed in the tension filled pause that followed their exchange. He turned to the third person in the room and spoke to him for the first time.
“Are you clear about the details and satisfied with the plan?”
The third man hadn’t spoken since he’d arrived, half an hour before, even as they’d gone through the logistics of the operation in detail. He was dressed in a neat, beige, suit with an open necked blue shirt, exposing a deeply tanned body. His hair was a blue steel, gray but as thick as a teenager’s. He wore no shades but his eyes were a liquid blue and seemed to float about in his head. He considered Powers’ question for a time before answering. Cahill and the American waited. Old Blue Eyes was in no hurry.
The Irishman had already met him, unofficially. Blue Eyes introduced himself as ‘Abe’ when they met in the hotel foyer, earlier that day. It appeared to be a casual encounter as Abe stepped into the elevator with the Irishman right after he’d registered and collected his room key.
Abe came straight to the point. “I don’t trust Powers,’ he said. Cahill feigned ignorance but Abe said, “I know your name and I know why you’re here.” And before he could protest, he continued, “when they ask us to do something they’d think twice about doing themselves then you have a right to know how to protect yourself. We must do this job together and I like to know who I will share danger with.”
Cahill wasn’t sure how to react but he warmed to Abe’s direct approach. He couldn’t place his origin or accent and Abe never volunteered any information. He appeared Mediterranean in that lifelong tan and his ‘cool in the heat’ manner, but that was as close as he could call it.
Abe smiled and shook hands with him before he got out of the lift. He didn’t see him again until he turned up for the meeting. Now they were sitting in this hotel suite and they were hanging on this man’s answer. Abe’s silence had shifted the power base in the room.
Finally, shrugging and with pursed lips, Abe said, “it’s a crazy plan but what option do we have?”
Agent Powers wasn’t satisfied. “Have you picked a man to do the job?” he asked. Blue Eyes looked at him as though he was seeing him for the first time. “If he’s happy,” he said, nodding at the Irishman, “then I am happy. We have the perfect man for the job.”