The day they blew up her home town was meant to have been the happiest day of Annie Hennessy’s life. This is how it started.
The impact of the explosion ripped through the hospital like an aural tsunami. Windows shattered inwards, showering staff and patients alike in a withering wave of glass shrapnel. Doctors and nurses were tossed to the ground and patients flung from their beds, bringing monitors crashing down on top of them. The fluorescent lighting on the ward flickered momentarily as if some unseen giant had casually inhaled and sucked the electricity from the building, before returning it to illuminate the chaos below.
For what seemed forever there was nothing before the first scream punctured the silence. It would be the first of many that day but for those who heard it, was a sound they would take to their graves. A throaty guttural groan which gradually rose in pitch and volume, soon to be joined by others, a prophetic choir already mourning what lay in the days and months and years ahead. As if on cue, staff began to clamber to their feet, their training kicking in and overriding any desire to curl into a ball until it was all over. Instructions were barked out and a siren outside announced the first ambulance was on its way.
On its way to the hell that awaited at the seat of the explosion, less than a mile away.
Secreted in a side room off the main ward, Annie gingerly unfurled from the foetal position she had adopted at the initial explosion. She peeked from beneath the bed covers as a young doctor flashed past the open door, his flapping white coat adorned with a bloody drizzle. Thankfully there were no windows in Annie’s room, but beyond the door she could see the floor of the ward adorned in a carpet of glistening glass, like fresh dew on a crisp spring morning.
Except this wasn’t spring and she wasn’t sitting in some idyllic meadow watching as the first rays of morning sunshine warmed the cold, damp earth. No, she was in Monksbridge Area Hospital, heavily pregnant and on the cusp of giving birth. Afraid and alone, nineteen years old and without the first clue how to be a mother to the new life waiting to emerge from within her. Annie watched as more staff flew past in either direction, fully expecting the kindly midwife who had been dealing with her up until now to appear and reassure her everything was just fine.
But everything wasn’t fine.
Nothing would ever be fine again.
Annie Hennessy was a forgotten spectator to the bedlam outside. The sirens were incessant now, wailing as emergency services roared towards what was left of the town centre. They would return later in waves, like angry wasps, conveying the dead and dying to a hospital hopelessly ill equipped to deal with the magnitude of such a tragedy.
It would become an epicentre of grief, around which dazed survivors and crazed relatives would gather, desperate for any crumb of comfort they could seize upon, hoping beyond hope their loved ones were alive. Through that dreadful first hour Annie lay on her back, elbows resting on sweat stained sheets, trying to process what was going on outside, while dealing with the incessant urges of her child to be born.
Teeth gritted and damp hair matted to tear stained cheeks she rode each contraction, emerging from the other side weaker but no less determined to embrace the next. For this child would be born, with or without a midwife in attendance. She had carried it inside her, a living, growing testimony to the shame she had brought upon her family. A child born out of wedlock, to a father even Annie wasn’t certain as to whose identity.
Monksbridge was a sleepy market town, where nothing ever really happened. The Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ had largely passed it by, so any nugget of gossip was gleefully seized upon and dissected, before being disseminated to the next straining set of ears. Everyone knew everyone’s business. It hadn’t taken long, therefore, for the rumours to circulate about the Hennessy girl, the black sheep of an otherwise pure as the driven snow family. Annie’s mother screamed and roared when she broke the news to her parents at the kitchen table. Mildred Hennessy hadn’t been to church since, a self imposed house arrest, too ashamed to face the sharp tongues and sly eyes of her fellow parishioners.
‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
‘You’re a disgrace Annie. Your father would be so ashamed of you.’
Possibly, had he still been alive. Yet Jack Hennessy possessed a kind heart, and Annie had always been the apple of his eye. He would have been disappointed, hurt, angry even but he would have forgiven Annie eventually, of that she was certain. Unlike her mother, who bore grudges to the grave, eaten up by spite and recrimination, hurling the first stone while others were still rooting around for potential missiles.
Had. For Jack Hennessy was dead. Ravaged by cancer he slipped away from Annie three years previously in the same hospital where she now lay, frantically trying to compose herself and focus as another contraction threatened to rip her apart. The baby was coming, irrespective of what was going on in the outside world. Annie succumbed to the pain, the anguish of the past eight months temporarily forgotten, and unleashed a scream which normally would have brought nurses and doctors hurtling to her bedside. Not today, though.
For her scream was but one of many in an avalanche of human agony descending upon the beleaguered hospital. Ambulances formed a snaking queue outside the A&E department , their blue lights clashing vividly with the grey, overcast skies above. Hospital staff desperately struggled to contend with the seemingly endless line of victims being rushed through the automatic doors by paramedics, bellowing vital stats, their voices cracked and on the verge of collapse.
Even those who were supposed to know what to do, didn’t know what to do.
Nobody came. Nobody heard Annie scream. Nobody was there to mop her brow and encourage her, cajole her through the trauma. She remembered what she could from the pre natal classes she had attended, focusing on breathing and trying to ignore the pandemonium on all sides. Breathe, focus, ride the pain. It’s a bomb, it must have been a bomb. No, you stupid cow, think of the baby, the baby, she’s all that matters.
It was there, in a cramped side room off a deserted ward that Ariana Hennessy entered the world, six pounds eleven ounces of mewling, bloody life. A life which Annie clutched to her chest, tears streaming down her cheeks, screaming for someone, anyone to come to her aid. Eventually they did, to find the newborn child with her mother, exhausted yet alive. Alive to tell the tale. Or, in the case of baby Ariana, to be the tale.
For the town of Monksbridge needed something, anything to cling to. Forty three people died that day, forty two of them innocent souls. Hundreds more injured, bearing seen and unseen scars they would carry for the rest of their days. A town, a nation in mourning for the day the clock stopped for so many. They needed a light, a symbol that all was not lost.
They found it in the baby girl born amidst the horror. They found it in the story of Annie Hennessy and her daughter. The press, who descended on the town like a pack of scavenging hyenas, latched onto the story and squeezed every last ounce of pathos from it. They had their villain, and no shortage of heroes for their screaming front pages. But they needed something more, the missing ingredient.
What they needed was an angel.
What they needed was an Ariana Hennessy.
So they created Bomb Girl.
Ariana Hennessy was not one for grand entrances, her birth had seen to that. She ghosted into the cavernous lecture theatre, head down,
focus entirely on finding an unoccupied seat and disappearing into the welcoming anonymity of the student body. This was her third week at the University of Ulster and she was just another disorganised fresher trying to make her way around the sprawling campus without getting lost. Nobody knew, and that suited her just fine.
She slid into an empty seat four rows back and began unpacking pens, pads and textbooks from her bag. The lecture was scheduled to be on the Boston Tea Party, her love of all things American having drawn her to select this module as part of her first year studies. Yes, three decent ‘A’ level grades and here she was, a Modern History student, finally free of the stifling prison that was Monksbridge. There she was a pariah to some, an oddity to others. Here she was just plain old Rebecca Hennessy. Her home town and the university were no more than sixty miles apart but, to Ariana, they could have been on opposite sides of the world.
Rebecca was her middle name after her Granny Hennessy, a more neutral, traditional Irish name. People didn’t bat an eyelid when you told them you were called Rebecca, although annoyingly some of her fellow students insisted on abbreviating it to Bex. She could live with that, though. Had she told them her real name, then brows would have furrowed and distant memories surfaced. For, despite the arrival of her namesake Grande on the music scene in recent years, to the best of her knowledge there was only one other Ariana in the country.
She had battled the stigma her entire life. To be associated with the largest terrorist attack in Northern Irish history hung around her neck like a rotting, stinking albatross. Every anniversary the press pack descended from the city, eager to pick at old scabs and draw fresh blood. What had become of the tiny baby, born at the very moment a car laden with explosives devastated the town. There was no point in correcting them that she arrived almost an hour after the explosion. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story, right?
‘Settle down, folks.’ The booming baritone of Dr. Lancaster, their American Studies lecturer, cut through Ariana’s thoughts and the surrounding babble of her fellow students. She risked a glance over her shoulder and saw the theatre was two thirds full. Not bad for first thing on a Wednesday morning, although this was the ‘big night out’ on the campus so many of her contemporaries had arrived early, planning to be in the Student Union bar by lunchtime.
She caught the eye of a distinctive short haired girl, who waved enthusiastically at her. Tess Cartwright, the one person she had confided her dark secret to since arriving, after a night of cheap cider at the Freshers Ball two weeks ago. Ariana had woke up the next morning with a horrific hangover, kicking herself at having allowed her toxic past to seep so easily into the new life she was hoping to build at college. She had pleaded with Tess not to breath a word of it to anyone and, to date, her newfound friend had kept to her word.
Dr. Lancaster began to speak, his deep, melodic tones allowing Ariana to blissfully slip away from the jagged memories to tales of valour and derring do as the plucky colonists rose up in arms against the might of the British Empire. She scribbled copious notes, keen to soak up as much knowledge as possible, not allowing a date or reference to pass her by. This degree course was a lifeline, a step away from the shackles of a life she no longer wanted to be a part of; good A level grades were a stepping stone to university, a better degree and….well the world was hers for the taking.
‘That’s it for today folks,’ concluded Dr. Lancaster. The hour had breezed past. ‘Remember, your first assignments aren’t due for another month, but now is the time to start preparing. You have your reading lists. Organisation is key, remember.’ With that, the stampede for the exit commenced. Ariana was caught up in the rush and carried through the double doors where the large majority of her peers swung left, towards the stairs leading to the coffee bar on the mezzanine floor above. Ariana started to turn and fight the flow, back towards a lesser stream of students heading for the library in the opposite direction. She fully intended to heed Dr. Lancaster’s advice and make serious inroads into the extensive reading list the lecturer had circulated at the same time as the assignment title.
‘And where do you think you’re going Becky Boo Boo?’ Ariana felt herself being spun around and led back into the human tide heading towards the mezzanine stairs. Tess Cartwright, all silver haired pixie cut and sparkling teeth, hooked her arm beneath Ariana’s and guided her away from her original path. ‘An hour of that drivel and I’m on the verge of lapsing into a comatose state. I need a cappuccino to return me to the land of the living….’
‘But Tess I….’ spluttered Ariana, vainly gesticulating with her free hand back towards the library.
‘But Tess nothing. I have a busy day planned for the two of us and it most certainly does not involve sitting in a musty old library reading boring books about dead men who wore wigs and tucked their trousers into their socks.’
‘I don’t think that’s strictly accurate,’ protested Ariana but she knew she was fighting a losing battle. She had only known Tess Cartwright a short time but already learnt one thing. Here was a young woman who was used to getting her own way and rarely took no for an answer. She was already carving out a reputation amongst the student population with her striking looks, vivacious personality and seemingly bottomless capacity for 2 for 1 drinks promotions at the Union bar.
‘Well I guess one coffee then,’ surrendered Ariana meekly. ‘But after that I really must study.’
‘Yeah, Yeah. We’ll see.’ Tess bounded up the steps to the mezzanine two at a time, her designer leather jacket flapping at her sides as Ariana struggled to keep up. Everything was designer where Tess was concerned as she carried the expensive student scruff look off to a tee. Ariana permanently felt the poor relation when they were together, and wondered what their peers thought of her dowdy appearance compared to her glamorous companion. Tess didn’t seem to mind though and for reasons unknown to Ariana had adopted her as university bestie. They had nothing in common but somehow it was working. So far….
Tess paid for two coffees, and a gigantic blueberry muffin, before commandeering a booth in a far corner of the bar. Floor to ceiling windows afforded them a view across a sleepy river to the halls of residence where they first met, during a hectic registration day. A concrete walkway connected the halls to the main campus, a campus Ariana hadn’t left since arriving. No weekend trips home for her like the majority of the other students, hungover, laden down with dirty laundry and desperate for a proper meal. Home was the last place Ariana wanted to be.
‘So here’s the plan,’ the forever chirpy Tess interrupting Ariana’s thoughts, her mouth crammed with muffin. ‘Finish these, back to the halls, make ourselves even more beautiful than we already are and then hit the Union. ‘What say you, Becky with the good hair?’ She smiled sweetly and fluttered her eyelashes before slyly adding, ‘Or should I say Becky Bomb Girl?’
‘Shut up,’ hissed Ariana, looking all around. ‘You call me that again and I’m never speaking to you again, Tess. You swore you wouldn’t tell anyone.’
‘Oh relax,’ sighed Tess, rolling her eyes and leaning back. ‘As I’m consigned to this hellhole for the next three years, I need a project. And I see no greater challenge than changing the most socially awkward girl alive into a reasonably functioning human being. Although I admit I may have bitten off more than I can chew, you enormous dork.’
‘Alright, alright.’ Ariana sipped her coffee, admitting defeat, an all too common feeling since she fell under the spell of Hurricane Tess. ‘But can I at least have a couple of hours this morning in the library. Then I promise I’ll head out with you.’ Tess clenched her fists and squealed with delight, attracting a few curious glances from adjacent booths. ‘It’s a deal. I’ll see you outside the Union at three. Do not be late. Organisation is key, Rebecca.’
With a final peal of laughter, Tess stuffed the remainder of the muffin into her mouth and bounced out of her seat, a flurry of long limbs and immaculate cheekbones. Ariana stared gloomily into her coffee. Was this a case of out of the frying pan, but into the fire? Yes, she was no longer Bomb Girl but buying the confidence of Tess was doing her plans of keeping her head down and studying hard no favours. Nor her modest bank balance.
She drained the last dregs of the coffee and, slinging her bag over a shoulder, made her way back to the mezzanine and down towards the library. Nobody looked at her twice. No whispering, no people going out of their way to avoid eye contact. Just another unremarkable eighteen year old, going about her business. Ariana blew out both cheeks and allowed herself a slight smile. She forced herself to relax. Tess was the friend she had been craving for years. Her new life didn’t have to be all books, books, books. She could balance that by occasionally letting her hair down. Couldn’t she?
Maybe then, this could work out after all.
At first, second and even thirty fifth glance, there was nothing remarkable about her. Just another fresher, full of good intentions, hitting the books. It wouldn’t last, of course, he was certain of that. The irritating blonde girl was already chipping away at her resolve, luring her astray at every possible opportunity. By the end of term, such diligence would be a rarity, as the student formerly known as Ariana Hennessy would be a long forgotten memory, overridden by the various temptations the student lifestyle had to offer.
He watched as she struggled through the security scanners at the library entrance, laden down with bags and books. She was a clumsy, little creature, always appearing as if she was on the verge of keeling over. She screamed vulnerability, it oozed from every pore of her pale, awkward frame. One of life’s victims, she stumbled from one calamity to the next, never more than a few steps ahead of the tragic past which had dogged every one of her eighteen years to date.
Their shared tragic past.
He maintained a discrete distance, as she made her way down the steps from the mezzanine onto the main concourse, where she was swiftly swallowed up by the student mass, scurrying this way and that towards the various arterial corridors which starburst outwards in all directions from the campus hub. He ducked and weaved through the crowd, always scanning ahead to maintain visual contact with her. Even if she had glanced back and caught his eye, it wasn’t an issue as she didn’t know him from Adam.
Adam O’Sullivan smirked. That saying always brought a wry smile to his lips. Adam, the first man, whose fall from grace in the garden had cursed mankind from the gates of Eden to the sorry mess it was in today. A world with no redeeming features, a toxic, stinking morass where nothing mattered and nobody cared. Nobody except him, that was, for he saw dear Mother Earth and her inhabitants for what they truly were; weak, vacuous fools leading pathetic, pointless existences. Obsessed with image and little else, drowning in their ever decreasing circles of self.
The girl pushed on, exiting the concourse onto a less populated corridor which led towards the halls of residence. He quickened his step, keen not to lose her, catching the shoulder of a burly male student headed in the opposite direction.
‘Here, watch it mate.’
He didn’t afford the male a second of his time, such was his focus on the task at hand. He’d been monitoring Ariana Hennessy ever since she set foot on campus less than a month ago. Little girl lost, trying to put her horrendous past behind her and strike out into the big bad world. All soulful brown eyes and shy, alluring smile. She was pretty, in her own pathetic way. Pretty, but utterly repulsive to him. Every second she drew breath was a painful reminder of his own shameful secret. Every day she remained on the planet, a testimony to his own inadequacies and failings.
But all that was about to change. For Adam O’Sullivan had changed, evolved, matured, call it what you will. The penny had dropped, the scales fallen from his eyes. He saw clearly now, 20/20 vision bathed in the blood he was going to spill before this week was over. The blood of innocents, the blood of the damned, he did not care, so long as it flowed freely through the lecture theatres and seminar rooms of this university. Cleansing, purifying, sweeping aside all who stood in its path.
It was his right, his destiny, for he had been birthed in the blood of his father, all those years ago. His faithful father, who had risen from his bed, leaving his heavily pregnant partner to go to work that infamous day. He had to work he told her, their child was on the way and so much was yet needed. Nappies, clothes, a cot, so many things. A caring, doting, expectant father, to the outside world at least.
But as he left the house that morning, the last thing on Cormac O’Sullivan’s mind was his partner and child. His mind was full of other people. Fallen comrades, their names forgotten by all but the faithful few. Brave men and woman who had given their lives for a glorious cause which was then dragged through the gutters by their former leaders who sold out and desecrated the memories of the valiant. More interested in column inches and fat cat political careers than ridding their land of the pestilence which had dogged their ancestors for centuries.
People got in the way, organisations diluted and filtered the fire which burned in the likes of Adam O’Sullivan. They spoke of restraint and diplomacy, two words which caught in his caw, beliefs and strategies they had attempted to ram down his throat all his young life. He had no time for that, it sickened him, just like their pandering to the system sickened the memory of men like his father. Men who sacrificed everything, who understood what needed to be done. Who knew the work was dirty and bloody, but embraced it, pushed through the quandary of conscience to see the greater good, the bigger picture.
His father would go down in the annals as the Monster of Monksbridge, the man who drove a car laden with explosives into the middle of the town, all those years ago. The man who walked away, yet was caught in the blast, the victim of an inept bomb maker whose knowledge of a timing switch could be written on the back of a postage stamp. Adam had leant so much from that day, not least the consequences of working with others, relying on people who inevitably let you down. His father had died a martyr’s death, but an unnecessary one. Sins of the father, maybe, but Adam would not make the same mistakes.
His planning was meticulous, excruciatingly detailed, every eventuality considered, no stone left unturned. Monksbridge had dominated the headlines for months, but it would be small fry compared to the dish he was about to serve up. They would villify him, demonise him, he did not care. This would be the crowning glory of his lifetimes work. It would tie up all the loose ends and be a fitting homage to the work of his father. He was taking it to the next level, a higher plane, a new horror marking a fresh dawn.
The day the bomb went off, his mother heard it on the news headlines and knew, just knew, Cormac wasn’t coming home, long before the police arrived and started to rip their home apart. Sending her into an early labour which took her life, but produced a son. A son who became a pariah for all that was wrong with the country, ferried from one foster home to the next. Vilified, despised while the girl born on the same day was feted and fawned over. ‘Bomb Girl’ they called her, yet she knew nothing of that day, the day his parents died. What did she lose, bar her privacy? Nothing.
He had bided his time. Taken the beatings and bullying, worked his way through the system and emerged scarred but unbowed on the other side. For Adam O’Sullivan was blessed, baptised by the blood of the Monksbridge dead. He knew it was from God, a gift justifying the work of his father, work he had been ordained to complete. He was an Angel or Death, reigning fresh fire down upon this troubled land.
He watched as Ariana entered the halls of residence, then followed as she shuffled into the shop in its main foyer. Watched as she stopped and contemplated which chocolate bar she would purchase as reward for her library exertions. He knew she would pick white chocolate, it had been her favourite for many a year. Adam smiled, he knew the bitch inside out and back to front. Slipping into the mind of Ariana Hennessy came as easily to him as putting one foot in front of the other.
‘Go for the dark chocolate, Ariana,’ he whispered as he watched her from across the aisle. ‘Just for me.’ He watched as, with a quizzical expression, her hand wavered over her original choice, before plumping for a bar of dark chocolate. Ariana stared at her selection dubiously before shrugging her shoulders and striding towards the checkout till.
Adam smiled. His gift. The gift of making people do exactly what he wanted them to, without them even realising it. It had served him well, he doubted he would have survived otherwise. And now that little ‘Bomb Girl’ was exactly where he needed her to be, it was a gift he would reveal to the world with devastating effect. It was time to revenge his father and how ironic it would be to utilise the object of his festering hatred to deliver the final coup de grace.
‘Monster of Monksbridge,’ he hissed as he exited the shop. ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’
Dark chocolate. Darker thoughts. Ariana chewed thoughtfully on a chunk of her bar as she stared across the river towards the main university building. Seated at her desk, she groaned and pushed away the opened text book which had proven utterly impenetrable to her for the past twenty minutes. Was it just her, or did her class mates struggle just as much with the reading list she had been valiantly battling through since the start of term? There was little point asking Tess, whose attention span barely allowed her to consume a Kardashian tweet, let alone a 450 page tome on post-war Europe and its fragile fledgling economy.
Her room was small and plain, but to Ariana it was freedom. Freedom from Monksbridge and the stigma which had hung over her like an obstinate rain cloud, these last eighteen years. She had a bed, desk, books and most of all it was all hers. No intrusions, no being checked on every five minutes, no curfew or 50,000 questions every time she opened the front door. She could go where she wanted, when she wanted and with whosoever she wanted. Not that her social diary was overflowing with engagements. Her conscious decision to fly under the radar was a constant source of irritation to the limelight hogging Tess.
‘Be careful how low you fly, my dear Ariana. We don’t want you clipping the ground and bursting into a ball of flame.’
Ariana winced, altogether unconvinced by her selection of chocolate. She reluctantly forced down the piece she was chewing on, before picking the remainder of the bar and lobbing it towards the overflowing metal bin in the corner of the room. It ricocheted off the rim, before settling on a crumpled mass of clothing where it balanced precariously next to a rolled up pair of unwashed socks. Another luxury of the student lifestyle.
‘For God’s sake, Ariana, your room is a pigsty. I want it cleaned, cleaned do you hear me. Or you know what’s coming.’
Ariana shuddered and shook her head, shutting the venomous voice our of her head. Most days it lay dormant but, occasionally like just now, it would squirm free and wriggle past her mental defences, whispering accusations and false truth into her ear. Stupid chocolate, she thought, what had possessed her to buy it. She hated dark chocolate, always had. Yes, student life was all about experimentation, but she knew what she liked and that was that. Plain Jane, under the radar, forever and ever, amen.
Plain Jane. Hallowed be thy name.
Ariana jumped, the squawk of her mobile phone dragging her back to the present from the introspective pity party. She peered at the screen although she already knew who it was from and what it was about. Tess.
‘I’m outside the Union. Where are u? U better not still be in that bloody library? 😡‘
Ariana smiled, before picking up her phone and tapping out a suitably pithy response.
‘And what if I was? You’d never find me as you don’t even know where the library is?’
Her finger hovered over the 😊 emoji button, before she thought better of it. Ariana didn’t do smiley emoji, in fact she didn’t really do smiling at all, despite the best efforts of the eternally effervescent Tess Cartwright.
‘Remind me we have to work on your sense of humour in addition to all ur many other social inaddequacues. Hurry up!!’
‘I’ll be there ASAP. And it’s inadequacies.’
‘Whatever swotty pants. Just hurry up. The cider calleth.’
Ariana tossed her phone onto the bed and frowned at the floor, where the majority of her wardrobe currently lay. She eventually settled on a regulation pair of black leggings and formless green woollen jumper she had picked up in a charity shop the week before last. She decided against taming her mop of dark curls, a losing battle if ever there was one. Besides, the earache she would receive from Tess for being any later than she already was just wasn’t worth the hassle.
‘Are you going out looking like that? Why can’t you wear a nice dress? You look like a boy, and a not particularly handsome boy at that. You could be so pretty, if you’d only make the effort.’
Twice in one day. Ariana froze, hand outstretched to grab her phone from the desk. She had finished her last prescription ten days ago and resolved she was going it alone this time. She was finished with pharmaceutical crutches, another Monksbridge hangover she no longer wanted dogging every step of her new life. A tablet a day keeps the voices anyway. Possibly, but the only way to find out for certain was to tough it out and go cold turkey. Seven years of counselling and pill popping didn’t unmake the story that was ‘Bomb Girl.’ The scars were there, just beneath the skin, waiting to be picked at, reopened.
Scabs are a natural part of the healing process. An ugly necessity before the beauty beneath can be revealed.
Ariana snorted. A counsellor had said that to her once. She hadn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She stuffed the phone into her battered leather satchel, before hauling it over her shoulder. The first few days off her medication had been plain smiling, despite a mild, yet persistent neck ache which refused to budge, no matter how often she cracked or massaged it. A small price to pay, though, and a bonus was her skin seemed less greasy and prone to spotty outbreaks.
Every cloud has a silver lining….
But now the ghosts of her past were starting to converge, rather one ghost in particular. Her not so beloved mother. Ariana flung open her room door and made her way out of the halls and along the concourse towards the Students Union at the rear of the main building. She ignored another beep from her bag. Honestly, Tess was so impatient but a godsend, nonetheless. That’s if God existed. A once irrefutable fact and standing fixture in her life which now looked increasingly shaky with every passing day.
‘An untested faith is a useless faith.’
‘Yeah about as useless as all those Christian cliches you shoved down my throat every day,’ she snarled under her breath, earning a curious glance from a male student headed in the opposite direction. Ariana smiled weakly, feeling her cheeks flush with embarrassment. She hurried on, determined to shove the ongoing argument with her dead mother to the far recesses of her mind. Where it rightly belonged. Up ahead, she caught sight of Tess, hopping from one foot to the other like an over excited toddler who needed to use the bathroom. Was she wearing…..a ballgown?
‘Well?? Do you like it?’ Tess spun around, an ocean of pink chiffon fanning out in all directions. ‘I picked it up dirt cheap. Less than £200. I’m going for the Lily Allen look.’
‘Lily Savage more like,’ sniggered Ariana, earning a petulant pout from her unimpressed friend.
‘Honestly, Ariana. For one with such a theatrical name, you can be an utter bore at times.’
‘One tries.’ Ariana smiled sweetly as Tess grabbed her forearm and proceeded to frogmarch her through the doors of the Union into an already packed bar. ‘Come on,’ she squealed, the jibe at her attire already forgotten. ‘There are cheap drinks to be necked and boys aplenty.’ She momentarily halted and, eyeing Ariana up and down, scrunched her nose in mild disdain.
‘You really should make more of an effort. You could be so pretty if you only tried.’
Tess froze, the crestfallen expression on her friend’s face confirming she had overstepped the mark. ‘Oh God, Ariana, I’m so sorry. You are fine just the way you are. Ignore me, shooting my big fat mouth off as usual without thinking. ‘Friends?’ She affected her most hangdog expression until Ariana could resist no longer, bursting into laughter.
‘Fine. It’s just someone else used to say that to me when I was younger and it brings back crappy memories. And stop calling me Ariana. It’s Rebecca, okay?’
‘But of course, your most excellent Rebeccaness.’ Tess dropped into an exaggerated curtsey, causing the doorman to eye her suspiciously before deciding all was well and allowing them to enter the Union complex.
‘You’re a clown, Cartwright, an utter clown.’
‘Yes. But I’m your clown.’ Tess fluttered her eyelashes and the two of them were soon subsumed by the scrum of bodies trying to catch the eyes of the besieged bar staff.
‘Two pints of cider,’ screamed Tess, gesticulating wildly with raised digits in the air, while elbowing her way through the throng. Ariana rolled her eyes and offered up apologies to those shoved aside and left in the wake of her friend.
‘Sorry,’ she shouted, struggling to be heard as a beating bass began to reverberate across the cramped dance floor, situated to the right of the bar. ‘She doesn’t get out much.’
Unknown to her, a lean, nondescript male watched from the other side of the dance floor. He raised his pint of Guinness and took a measured sip, savouring the sharp aftertaste. The mad one had turned up looking like a reject from Dancing With The Stars, but nothing surprised him where she was concerned. Adam O’Sullivan smirked for she was nothing more than an embarrassing sideshow which he could dispense with in an instance. He was far more interested in her dowdier companion.
The man began to stride across the dance floor, weaving through the smattering of early revellers submitting to the rhythm and throwing drunken, uncoordinated shapes in a pretence at dancing.
‘Time for you to meet the famous O’Sullivan charm, Ariana.’
Ariana shivered against the biting cold, bunching her hands into tight fists and burying them deeper into the pockets of her parka. Three pints of extra strong cider provided a degree of internal central heating but the coast was less than a mile away and a fierce Atlantic blast was rapidly dissolving the core of warmth she had kindled within the sweltering Union bar.
‘I don’t know why we bothered paying in if we’re going to stand out here half the night, freezing our backsides off.’
She stared pointedly at Tess until a cloud of smoke doubled her over hacking, as a dozen bemused students watched as they huddled in the roofed smoking area outside the Union’s main entrance.
‘Oh don’t be such a drama queen,’ scolded Tess, a lit Marlboro Light hanging from her bottom lip. ‘We’ve barely been out two minutes. Anyway, you can’t hear yourself think in there. Dance music is killing the art of conversation. It’s up to us smokers to preserve a dying art form.
‘Smokers?’ spat Ariana incredulously, now upright again. ‘Doesn’t smoking involve inhaling said smoke into one’s lungs? All you do is inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. It’s like watching a little steam engine huffing and puffing to its hearts content. Have you even smoked before tonight?’
‘Course I have,’ pouted Tess, self consciously lowering the cigarette and nervously checking if any of the nicotine addicts around them had overheard Ariana’s critique of her smoking technique. Content that her reputation was still intact she stubbed the butt out and grabbed her sarcastic sidekick by the forearm, dragging her back towards the Union. ‘Come on. Once more unto the breach, dear friend.’
‘Do we have to? I’d be quite happy grabbing a cheesy chip and calling it a night. I’ve a 10:00 o’clock seminar with Professor Ickringill in the morning.’
‘Ooooooooh. Professor Ickringill,’ squealed Tess, placing her hands to her cheeks in open mouthed mockery. ‘I wonder if he’ll be packing his pipe? Or wearing that sexy tweed jacket. You know, the one with the leather elbow patches.’ She giggled before a wicked smile traversed her face before pushing Ariana without warning against a wall.
‘Ow, what was that for?’ groaned Ariana, rubbing the small of her back. ‘Just because you’re allergic to hard work doesn’t mean the rest of us need to stoop to your level.’
‘Shhhhh,’ hissed Tess, before making frantic eye movements in the direction of the Union entrance.
‘Are you alright, Tess. It’s just you look as if you’re having a stroke. Smoking kills, remember.’ She looked over her friend’s shoulder to determine what the cause of the drama was. Standing at the entrance stood a young man, smiling shyly at them. He looked away quickly upon realising he had been spotted, suddenly engrossed with the contents of his mobile phone screen.
‘Did you twig tall, dark and exceedingly handsome guy at the door?,’ whispered Tess at something approaching several thousand decibels. ‘He is totally checking me out.’
Ariana sighed, reverting her gaze to the bouncing pink blancmange in front of her. ‘I hardly think so. He’s probably trying to process the sight of a deranged lunatic in a ballgown flouncing about in front of him.’ She looked over again towards the young man. This time he maintained both eye contact and the smile before turning and walking back into the Union past the door staff.
‘Come on,’ urged Tess, grabbing Ariana’s hand. ‘We’re going back in. I’m determined for tonight not to be an utter waste of time. Once the famous Cartwright charm is unleashed no man, or woman for that matter, can resist.’
‘You really are a catch, Tess. Is that all you’re interested in?’
‘Of course not,’ she replied, marching past the door staff with Ariana in tow. ‘There’s also the possibility of a free drink or three.’
‘Oh my Lord. Hark at the feminist of the year.’
The noise and heat of the crowded bar hit her like a sticky, sonic wall as Tess steered them through a mass of bodies, her sights honed on the back of the young man’s head. Ariana estimated he was at least 6’2’’, possibly taller as he towered above the majority of those around them. She really, really wanted nothing more than to be buried beneath the bed covers, nose poked in her latest Kindle Fire purchase. She avoided social events whenever possible and her relationship history extended to a handful of disastrous dates during final year at school with the President of the Chess Society.
Tess veered left without warning causing Ariana to cry out in protest as her wrist was almost wrenched from its socket. They burst onto the dancefloor where several dozen inebriated students threw a variety of uncoordinated shapes to a grinding drum and bass beat. Whatever happened to melodies, harmonies, tunes? Ariana often thought she was born several decades late. She was brought back to her senses as they crossed the floor before Tess deposited them in a booth where the young man sat, nursing a pint of Guinness.
‘Hi, I’m Tess, and this is Ari….Becky. Bex. Rebecca, yes, this is Rebecca.’ She blew her fringe back and puffed out both cheeks. ‘Gosh it’s hot in here,’ she sighed, fanning her face in such a theatrical and obvious manner that Ariana wanted the ground to open and swallow them both up, there and then. To be fair to him the young man merely smiled and held out a hand in greeting. ‘I’m Adam. Can I get you ladies a drink?’
‘That would be lovely thank you,’ babbled Tess. ‘Two vodka and Diet Cokes please. Large ones.’ She sat back, looking immensely pleased with herself as Adam rose returning a short time later with the drinks.
‘Thanks pet,’ gushed Tess. ‘So, Adam, What are you studying and what are your intentions once you leave uni?’
‘Is this a job interview?’ Adam winked and smiled at Ariana, who could only smile back. He was very handsome. She couldn’t quite place his accent due to the cacophony around them but there was a hint of a Southern lilt. Dublin?
‘If it is, you’re off to a fantastic start,’ gushed Tess, laying on the clumsy charm with a shovel. The next twenty minutes were a shouted exchange as Tess flirted outrageously above the din of the music. Adam fended off most of her more direct questions with ease, all the while rolling his eyes and smirking at Ariana whenever her friend wasn’t looking. Part of her fumed at the casual way he mocked her best friend but she silently sipped her drink, at the same time secretly thrilled at the attention he was affording her. Ariana Hennessy, social wallflower and forever in the shadow of the glorious Tess Cartwright.
The night meandered on. Tess dragged Adam onto the dancefloor but all the while his gaze returned to Ariana sitting awkwardly in the booth. At one point Tess badgered her reluctant friend into joining them but she hated every second as drunken louts careered into them from all angles, the dancefloor resembling a human pinball machine. Finally the lights came on and a mangled voice informed them over the tannoy to make their way towards the exit in an orderly fashion. Ariana checked her watch. It was well past the witching hour. She groaned internally, chastising herself at being lured out when she had such an early start the next morning.
Tess attached herself to Adam like a limpet, hooking arms with him as they edged towards the doors with the rest of the revellers. Ariana shuffled behind, zipping her parka in anticipation of the bracing night air. She wasn’t disappointed and shivered involuntarily despite the several layers she had on. If Tess didn’t end up with hypothermia it would be a minor miracle but she appeared oblivious to the cold as she hung on Adam’s every word. Emily Pankhurst would be turning in her grave, thought Ariana, as the cheesy chat from her best friend showed no sign of abating.
‘Sooooo, Adam, did you have a pleasant evening?’ she cooed, all wide blue eyes and parted lips.
‘I’ve had worse. You?’
‘Oh, I’ve had a wonderful time.’ She swayed unsteadily in front of him as an uneasy silence enveloped them. Finally Tess could contain herself no more. ‘This is the bit where we swap phone numbers.’ She smiled sweetly, before rolling her eyes at Ariana in faux dismay as Adam began to punch numbers into her phone which had been thrust into his hands.
‘There you go,’ he said handing her the phone back. ‘Another notch on your fantasy bed post. Now why don’t you run along now and I’ll walk your friend home.’ Suddenly the charm was gone, replaced by an unpleasant tone that immediately sobered Ariana up and set alarm bells ringing.
‘Er, that’s not how it works.’ Flirty Tess was gone, replaced by a cautious tone. Ariana looked around and realised it was just the three of them outside the Union, everyone else already half way to where they needed to be.
‘Look, I think we should go, Tess. We have that early start in the morning. Professor Ickringill, remember?’ She grabbed her friend’s hand but Tess resisted, refusing to be the first to look away in her staring duel with Adam.
‘I don’t know who you think you are but….’
‘Oh I know exactly who I am just as I know exactly who you and your little friend are. Isn’t that right, Ariana?’ He turned and leered at her, no longer disguising the contempt in his voice.
‘How did you know my….?’ Ariana’s stomach froze over and her legs threatened to give way beneath her.
‘Oh I know all about Bomb Girl. In fact, you could say you’ve been my specialised subject for a number of years now.’
‘Wait a minute you creep, you can’t speak….’
Adam turned and placed a hand on Tess’ bare shoulder. ‘Like I said, my dear, I strongly suggest you turn around and flutter off to where you came from, while I walk your lovely companion home. Now please don’t make me ask again. I’m a patient man but I have my limits. Please.’
He smiled, an icy, humourless smile, as Tess nodded slowly, a vacant expression settling on her formerly feisty features. She looked at Ariana as if it was the first time she had ever set eyes on her best friend. ‘Yeah. Maybe I should go. Early start and all that.’ Without another word she turned and walked away. Ariana froze, a half formed scream in her lungs as a large hand clamped over her mouth and dragged her backwards towards the darkness beyond the half glow of the Union’s security lighting.
‘Time we had a little chat, Bomb Girl.’ They were the last words Ariana heard before she drifted into unconsciousness.
The faint thread of noise grew steadily stronger and Ariana clung to it, hauling herself inch by inch back to the surface. The closer she got the more intense the pain became. Initially a dull ache centred above her left eyebrow, no more inconvenient than a buzzing bluebottle trapped in a jam jar. As she grew more aware of her surroundings, however, it intensified, growling and grating until it ripped through her forehead like a steel trap clamping down on its helpless prey. Other sensory clues solidified, and she became aware of a pungent, acrid odour polluting her nostrils. Chloroform? The recognition triggered a series of distorted memories which flooded her mind like a rushing tide roaring up a shingle beach.
The Union. Tess. Where was Tess? Ariana started to thrash about wildly, to only realise her arms and legs were tightly bound. She opened her mouth to scream but the gag put paid to that plan. Secreted in darkness she fought the growing urge to choke on the rag wedged between her teeth. Summoning every grain of self control she pushed down hard on the panicky jack in the box waiting to explode across her mind and scatter any semblance of rational thought to the four winds.
Breathe, Ariana, breathe. Forcing stale, oily air into her lungs she inhaled and exhaled through her nose for several moments until her galloping heart rate steadied to a canter. As her equilibrium returned, she became aware of motion, the undulations beneath throwing her upwards where her nose grazed metal. She was in a moving vehicle, the boot of a car? Further details swam within her grasp. That guy at the bar, the handsome one who Tess was fawning over. What was his name? Alan? No, wait it was Adam, definitely Adam, she had a cousin of the same name. He’d bought them vodkas, then outside afterwards Tess asked for his number and….
Her stomach lurched as the details accosted her, struggling to keep down the vodka purchased by her assailant. The thought of choking to death on her own vomit, alone in the boot of a car suddenly seemed a distinct possibility. Oh my God, Oh my God, I’m dead. He’s going to rape me, then torture me, then chop me up into a thousand pieces and….But Tess, Tess, why had she allowed it to happen? Why hadn’t she fought him? The memory of her friend’s blank face as Tess nodded and walked away from them outside the Union. It was as if she had been hypnotised….
The vehicle lurched violently to the left and she was thrown about the confines of the boot, suggesting the driver had exited the main road and was now driving along a rougher road surface, a track or laneway. Ariana winced as every jolt sent spasms of pain shooting down her spine. She continued the breathing exercise she had been taught once in a counselling session, one of the few useful tips she had picked up from years of enforced therapy, attempting to come to terms with who she was, who Ariana Hennessy wanted to be, needed to be.
Anything but the Bomb Girl.
The surface underneath changed again, this time the crunch of gravel as the vehicle turned in a tight circle before coming to a halt. Ariana realised she was holding in what little breath she had as the engine idled for an eternity. Tinny music seeped into her prison, a car radio. What was it? Some soulless dance tune, the thumping bass and moronic drumbeat setting a ridiculous soundtrack to what could well be the last moments of her life. A door opened, the music ceased, and the sound of boots crunching along the side of the vehicle sent her adrenaline levels soaring to new, unprecedented heights. Ariana tensed as the sound of jangling keys alerted her that whoever conveyed her here was standing directly at the back of the car no more than a few feet from her.
‘Are you in there, Ariana?’ The voice of a man, heavy with sarcasm. ‘Well, of course you are, where else would you be. Now, I’m going to open the boot and realise you’re all trussed up like a Christmas turkey but, all the same, no funny business, right? I’ve been very good to you so far, buying you drinks all night, listening to them feeble attempts of your friend to chat me up.’
Without further warning the boot swung open and Ariana found herself staring up into the angelic face of Adam O’Sullivan, his chiselled features bathed in a milky moonlight. Beyond him she could make out little else, bar the murky shadows of trees.
‘What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?’ Adam laughed, a deep, somewhat unhinged baritone bark. Arianna stared back wide eyed until he finished making merry at his own dubious humour, unable to utter a sound because of the gag. As if only becoming aware of this fact, Adam stopped abruptly and leaned down until his face was no more than inches from hers. She could smell the stale Guinness on his breath, count the flecks of stubble on his dimpled chin.
‘Sorry, that was in poor taste. Now, if I were to loosen the gag and allow you to talk, do you promise to be on your best behaviour and not cause a scene?’ His brow furrowed and he nodded for Ariana to respond. ‘One nod for yes, two for no, there’s a good girl.’
Ariana nodded slowly, earning a smile from Adam that, in any other setting, might have melted her heart. ‘Excellent,’ he exclaimed, standing tall again. ‘Now I’m a man of my word and I expect you to keep yours on this one. Otherwise I might have to hit you over the head with a shovel.’ He paused, as if weighing up his options, before shrugging. ‘Or maybe a hammer. Who knows, whatever’s to hand.’ He reached down and gently loosened the gag until it hung against Ariana’s throat.
‘There, isn’t that better?’
‘Who are you? Wh…what do you want?’ Ariana’s voice was little more than a tepid croak, her throat parched from fear and the fume soaked gag.
‘Patience, wee girl, patience. One question at a time. Name doesn’t ring a bell then….Adam….O’Sullivan?’
Ariana dredged her memory for a sliver of recollection but drew a resounding blank. ‘I’m sorry, no. Should it? Please let me go, this is a mistake. I swear to God I won’t tell anyone about this, on my….’
‘Mother’s grave?’ interrupted Adam. ‘Yes I heard about your ma. I guess mixed emotions on your part given the way she paraded you in front of the press every year. Bit of a one trick pony wasn’t she in the end, but I guess it paid a few bills.’
Ariana’s blood was turning to an icy slush. How did he know all this about her? This wasn’t mistaken identity after all, she was his intended target all along.
‘Well, I know all about graves,’ continued Adam, seemingly oblivious to the devastating impact his words were having on the young woman cowering helplessly before him. ‘Buried my own father at an early age. No worse feeling than walking behind the coffin of a loved one is there?’ He sneered, the charming mask slipping to reveal what lurked beneath. ‘Got a taste of your own medicine, eh, you wee bitch.’
O’Sullivan, O’Sullivan. Ariana eyes widened as the hitherto evasive answer slithered into view, a most unwanted visitor.
‘Diarmuid O’Sullivan. You’re Diarmuid O’Sullivan’s son.’ All previous efforts to rein in her heartbeat vanished in a puff of well intentioned smoke, as it careered out of control once more. The Monksbridge Massacre. It was his father who was the architect behind it.
‘Bingo,’ trilled Aidan, jumping back and flashing jazz hands in her direction. ‘In the flesh, for one night only. Your last night, little Ariana. But worry not, what a time you and I are going to have. I’ve got so many treats lined up for you, all sorts of treasures. You’re going to go out in style, young lady, I can guarantee that.’ He fixed her with a toothy grin. It was the final straw, tipping her over the edge. She opened her mouth, fully intent on screaming until her throat bled.
‘Ach, now there’s no need for that.’ Adam bent forward into the boot and clamped a callused hand over her mouth, securing the gag tighter than before. Ariana squirmed and twisted, desperately trying to find some purchase but it was a futile battle.
‘I must say I’m disappointed, Ariana. I’d been looking forward to getting caught up with you, but you obviously can’t be trusted. He toyed with a chunky sovereign ring on his right forefinger before holding it out towards her. ‘See this. That’s all was left of him after the explosion. Cheap Eastern European detonators. Left me walking behind an empty coffin, at least you got to say goodbye to your ma properly. I wonder what will be left of you after tomorrow? When you finally get to live up to that illustrious nickname.’
Ariana whimpered in horror as his clenched fist descended upon her. The last thing she saw was the golden glint of the ring, fringed by balmy moonlight. There followed a brief explosion of searing pain before Ariana slipped back beneath the still, black surface she had only recently emerged from.
Adam O’Sullivan slammed the boot shut. The night was young and there was still so much work to be done. Tomorrow was going to be the greatest day of his life.
And the worst of theirs.