Eamonn Dillon of Sinn Fein was the first to die, and he died because he planned to stop for a pint of lager at the Celtic Bar before heading up the Falls Road to a meeting in Andersontown. Twenty minutes before Dillon’s death, a short distance to the east, his killer hurried along the pavements of Belfast city center through a cold rain. He wore a dark green oilskin coat with a brown corduroy collar. His code name was Black Sheep.
The air smelled of the sea and faintly of the rusting shipyards of Belfast Lough. It was just after 4 p.m. but already dark. Night falls early on a winter’s night in Belfast; morning dawns slowly. The city center was bathed in yellow sodium light, but Black Sheep knew that West Belfast, his destination, would feel like the wartime blackout.
He continued north up Great Victoria Street, past the curious fusion of old and new that makes up the face of central Belfast—the constant reminders that these few blocks have been bombed and rebuilt countless times. He passed the shining façade of the Europa, infamous for being the most bombed hotel on the planet. He passed the new opera house and wondered why anyone in Belfast would want to listen to the music of someone else’s tragedy. He passed a hideous American doughnut shop filled with laughing Protestant schoolchildren in crested blazers. I do this for you, he told himself. I do this so you won’t have to live in an Ulster dominated by the fucking Catholics.
The larger buildings of the city center receded, and the pavements slowly emptied of other pedestrians until he was quite alone. He walked for about a quarter mile and crossed over theM1 motorway near the towering Divis Flats. The overpass was scrawled with graffiti: vote sinn fein; british troops out of northern ireland; release all pows. Even if Black Sheep had known nothing of the city’s complex sectarian geography, which was certainly not the case, the signs were impossible to miss. He had just crossed the frontier into enemy territory—Catholic West Belfast.
The Falls spreads west like a fan, narrow at its mouth near the city center, broad to the west, beneath the shadow of Black Mountain. The Falls Road—simply “the road” in the lexicon of Catholic West Belfast—cuts through the neighborhood like a river, with tributaries leading into the thickets of terraced houses where British soldiers and Roman Catholics have engaged in urban guerrilla warfare for three decades. The commercial center of the Falls is the intersection of the Springfield Road and the Grosvenor Road. There are markets, clothing shops, hardware stores, and pubs. Taxis filled with passengers shuttle up and down the street. It looks much like any other working-class neighborhood in a British city, except the doorways are encased in black steel cages and the taxis never stray from the Falls Road because of Protestant killer squads. The dilapidated white terraces of the Ballymurphy housing estate dominate the western edge of the Falls. Ballymurphy is the ideological heartland of West Belfast, and over the years it has supplied a steady stream of recruits to the IRA. Bellicose murals stare over the Whiterock Road toward the rolling green hills of the city cemetery, where many of Ballymurphy’s men are buried beneath simple headstones. To the north, across the Springfield Road, a giant army barracks and police station stands like a besieged fortress in enemy territory, which indeed it is.
Strangers aren’t welcome in the Murph, even Catholic strangers. British soldiers don’t set foot there without their giant armored personnel carriers called saracens—”pigs” to the people of Ballymurphy.
Black Sheep had no intention of going anywhere near Ballymurphy. His destination was farther to the east—the headquarters of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, located at No. 51-55 Falls Road. As he moved deeper into the Falls, the spires of St. Peter’s Cathedral rose to his left. A trio of British soldiers drifted across the ugly asphalt square in front of the cathedral, now pausing to peer through the infrared sights of their rifles, now spinning on their heels to see if anyone was following them. Don’t speak to them, his handlers had told him. Don’t even look at them. If you look at them, they’ll know you’re an outsider. Black Sheep kept his hands in his pockets and his gaze on the pavement in front of him.
He turned into Dunville Park and sat down on a bench. Despite the rain, schoolboys played football in the weak light of the streetlamps. A group of women—mothers and older sisters, by the look of them—watched carefully from the imaginary sidelines. A pair of British soldiers strode through the middle of the game, but the boys played around them as though they were invisible. Black Sheep reached in his coat pocket and withdrew his cigarettes, a ten-pack of Benson & Hedges, perfect for the perpetually tight budgets of working-class West Belfast. He lit one and returned the cigarettes to his pocket. His hand brushed against the butt of a Walther automatic.
From his vantage point on the bench the man could see the Falls Road perfectly: Sinn Fein headquarters, where the target worked each day; the Celtic Bar, where he drank in the late afternoon.
Dillon’s speaking to a community meeting in Andersontown at five o’clock, Black Sheep’s handlers had told him. That means he’s on a tight schedule. He’ll leave headquarters at four-thirty and walk over to the Celtic for a quick one.
The door of Sinn Fein headquarters swung open. For an instant the interior lights spilled onto the rainy pavement. Black Sheep spotted his target, Eamonn Dillon, the third-ranking officer of Sinn Fein, behind only Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and a member of the negotiating team for the peace talks. And a dedicated family man as well, with a wife and two sons, Black Sheep thought. He pushed the image from his mind. No time for that now. One bodyguard accompanied Dillon. The door closed again, and the two men moved west along the Falls Road.
Black Sheep tossed his cigarette onto the ground and walked across the park. He climbed a short set of steps and stood at the intersection of the Falls Road and the Grosvenor Road. He pressed the button for the crossing and calmly waited for the light to turn from red to green. Dillon and his bodyguard were still about a hundred yards from the Celtic. The light changed. There were no British soldiers on the Falls Road, just the pair standing near the football match down in the park. When he reached the other side of the road Black Sheep turned and walked east, placing himself on a collision course with Dillon and the bodyguard.
He moved quickly now, head down, right hand wrapped around the butt of the Walther. He glanced up, checked Dillon’s position, and looked down again. Thirty yards, thirty-five at most. He released the safety on the Walther. He thought of the Protestant children eating doughnuts in Great Victoria Street.
I do this for you. I do this for God and Ulster.
He withdrew the Walther and aimed it at the bodyguard, pulling the trigger twice before the man could release his own weapon from a shoulder holster beneath his raincoat. The shots struck him in the upper chest, and he collapsed onto the wet pavement.
Black Sheep swung his arm and pointed the gun at Eamonn Dillon’s face. He hesitated, just for an instant. He couldn’t do it, not in the face. He lowered the gun and pulled the trigger twice.
The shots pierced Dillon’s heart.
He fell backward onto the pavement, one arm strewn across the bloody chest of his bodyguard. Black Sheep pressed the barrel of his Walther against the side of Dillon’s head and fired one last shot.
The second act was unfolding at precisely the same moment, one hundred miles to the south, in Dublin, where a small man limped along a footpath in St. Stephen’s Green through a steady rain. His code name was Master. He might have been mistaken for a student at nearby Trinity College, which was his intention. He wore a tweed jacket, collar up, and corduroy trousers shiny with wear. He had the dark eyes and the unkempt beard of a devout Muslim, which he was not. In his right hand he carried a boxy briefcase, so old it smelled of damp rather than leather.
He entered Kildare Street and passed the entrance of the Shelbourne Hotel, adorned with statues of Nubian princesses and their slaves. He lowered his head as he slipped through a knot of tourists heading to tea in the Lord Mayor’s Lounge.
By the time he reached Molesworth Street it was nearly impossible to pretend the briefcase hanging from his right arm was not abnormally heavy. The muscles of his shoulder burned, and he could feel dampness beneath his arms. The National Library loomed before him. He hurried inside and crossed the front entrance hall, passing a display of George Bernard Shaw’s manuscripts. He switched the briefcase from his right hand to his left and approached the attendant.
“I’d like a pass for the reading room,” he said, carefully replacing his hard-edged West Belfast accent with the softer lilt of the south. The attendant handed him a pass without looking up.
Master took the stairs to the third floor, entered the famous reading room, and found an empty spot next to a fussy-looking man who smelled of mothballs and linseed oil. He opened a side flap on the briefcase, withdrew a thin volume of Gaelic poetry, and placed it softly on the leather-topped desk. He turned on the green-shaded lamp. The fussy-looking man glanced up, pulled a frown, and returned to his own work.
For several minutes Master pretended to be engrossed in his poetry, yet all the while his instructions buzzed through his mind like annoying recorded announcements in a rail terminal. The timer is set for five minutes, his handler had said during the final briefing. Enough time for you to get clear of the library, not enough time for security to do anything if the briefcase is discovered.
He kept his head down, gaze fastened on the text. Every few minutes he would lift his hand and scribble a few notes in a small spiral-bound notebook. He heard soft footfalls around him, pages turning, pencils scratching, discreet sniffles and coughs, by-products of the eternal damp of the Dublin winter. He resisted the impulse to look at them. He wanted them to remain anonymous, faceless. He had no quarrel with the Irish people, only the Irish government. He took no pleasure at the thought of shedding innocent blood.
He glanced at his wristwatch—4:45 p.m. He reached down beneath his legs on the pretense of withdrawing a second volume of poetry, but once his hand was inside the musty old briefcase it lingered for a second or two longer, searching for the small plastic trigger that would arm the detonator. He gently threw the switch, holding it carefully between his thumb and forefinger to dampen the click. He removed his hand and placed the second volume, unopened, next to the first. He glanced at his watch, a stainless steel analog model with a sweep-second hand, and carefully noted the time he had set the detonator.
He turned and looked at the fussy man at the next desk, who was glaring back at him as though he had been doing calisthenics. “Can you tell me where the toilet is?” Master whispered.
“What?” the fussy-looking man said, bending his crimson ear with the end of a gnawed yellow pencil.
“The toilet,” the man repeated, slightly louder this time, though still whispering.
The man removed the pencil from his ear, frowned again, and pointed the tip toward the doorway at the far end of the room.
Master glanced at his watch as he walked across the room. Forty seconds gone. He quickened his pace, making for the doorway, but five seconds later he heard an ear-shattering sound, like a thunderclap, and felt a hot blast of air lift him from his feet and hurtle him across the great room like a dead leaf caught in an autumn gale.In London, a tall woman wearing blue jeans, hiking boots, and a black leather jacket was picking her way through the crowded pavements along the Brompton Road. Behind her she pulled a rolling suitcase of black nylon with a retractable handle. Her code name was Dame.
The rains over Belfast and Scotland had yet to reach the south, and the late-afternoon sky was clear and blustery: pink and orange in the west toward Notting Hill and Kensington, blue-black to the east over the City. The air was unseasonably warm and heavy. Dame walked quickly past the glittering windows of Harrods and waited with a cluster of other pedestrians at Hans Crescent.
She crossed the small street when the light changed, slicing her way through a horde of Japanese tourists bound for Harrods, and came to the Knightsbridge entrance of the Underground. She hesitated for an instant, peering down the short flight of tiled steps leading to the ticket hall. She started down the steps, pulling the bag behind her until it rolled off the first step and crashed down to the next with a heavy thud.
She had negotiated two more steps in this manner when a young man with thinning blond hair approached. He smiled flirtatiously and said, “Please, let me help you with that.”
The accent was middle European or Scandinavian: German or Dutch, or maybe Danish. She hesitated. Should she accept help from a stranger? Would it be more suspicious to refuse?
“Thanks a lot,” she said finally. The accent was American, flat and toneless. She had lived in New York many months and could shed her Ulster accent at will. “That would be great.”
He grasped the bag by the grip and lifted it.
“My God, what have you got in here, rocks?”
“Stolen gold bars, actually,” she said, and they both laughed.
He carried the bag down the steps and placed it on the ground. She took the bag by the pull handle, said, “Thanks again,” and turned and started walking. She could feel his presence just behind her. She increased her pace, conspicuously glancing at her wristwatch, to signal she was running late. She reached the ticket lobby and found an empty automatic dispenser. She fed ú3.30 into the slot and pressed the corresponding button. Her European helper appeared alongside and slipped a few coins into his machine without looking at her. He purchased a ticket for ú1.10, which meant he was making a short journey, probably somewhere within central London. He collected his ticket and melted into the rush-hour crowd.
She passed through the turnstiles and took the long escalator down to the platform. A moment later she felt a breath of wind and heard the rush of the approaching train. Miraculously, there were a few empty seats. She left the bag next to the door and sat down. By the time the train reached Earl’s Court, the carriage had filled with passengers, and Dame had lost sight of the bag. The train surfaced and sped through London’s western suburbs. Tired commuters trickled from the train onto the windswept platforms of Boston Manor, Osterley, and Hounslow East.
As the train approached the first stop at Heathrow—the platform serving Terminal Four—Dame looked at the passengers seated around her. A pair of young English businessmen who stank of prosperity, a knot of sullen German tourists, a foursome of Americans loudly debating whether London’s production of Miss Saigon was superior to Broadway’s. Dame looked away.
The plan was simple. She had been instructed to get off at Terminal Four and leave the bag behind. Before stepping from the train she would press the button on a small transmitter hidden in her coat pocket. The transmitter, disguised as a keyless remote for a Japanese luxury car, would arm the detonator. If the train continued on schedule, the bomb would explode a few seconds after it reached the platform serving terminals One, Two, and Three. The resulting damage would inconvenience travelers for months and cost hundreds of millions of pounds to repair.
The train slowed as it approached the stop for Terminal Four. The woman stood and moved to the doors as the black of the tunnel gave way to the severe light of the platform. When the doors opened she pressed the button on the transmitter, arming the bomb. She stepped onto the platform, and the doors closed behind her. She began walking quickly toward the way out. It was then that she heard pounding on the window of the train. She turned and saw one of the young English businessmen beating his fist against the glass. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, but she could read his lips. Your bag! he was shouting. You left your bag!
Dame made no movement. The expression on the Englishman’s face abruptly turned from mild concern to complete terror as he realized the woman had left the bag intentionally. He lunged toward the doors and tried to pry them open with his hands. Even if the man had managed to arouse attention and stop the train, nothing could be done in one minute and fifteen seconds to prevent the bomb from exploding.
Dame watched as the train slipped forward. She was turning away when, a few seconds later, the tunnel shook with an enormous blast. The train lifted from the tracks, and a wave of searing air rushed over her. Dame instinctively raised her hands to her face. Above her, the ceiling began to crumble. The concussion of the blast lifted her from her feet. She saw it all terribly clearly for an instant—the fire, the crumbling cement, the human beings, like her, caught in the fiery maelstrom of the explosion.
It ended very quickly. She was not certain how she came to rest; she had lost all sense of up and down, rather like a diver too long beneath the surface. All she knew was that she was entombed in debris, and she could not breathe or feel any part of her body. She tried to speak but could utter no sound. Her mouth began filling with her own blood.
Her thoughts remained clear. She wondered how the bomb makers could have made such a mistake, and then, in the final moments before her death, she wondered whether it was really a mistake at all.