Des Ekin

Des Ekin is a journalist and the author of four books. Born in County Down, Northern Ireland, he began his career as a reporter. After spending several years covering the Ulster Troubles, he rose to become Deputy Editor of the Belfast Sunday News before moving to his current home in Dublin. He worked as a journalist, columnist, Assistant Editor and finally Political Correspondent for The Sunday World until 2012. His book The Stolen Village (2006) was shortlisted for the Argosy Irish Nonfiction Book of the Year and for Book of the Decade in the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards 2010. He is married with a son and two daughters

  • Stone Heart
  • The story so far

    Journalist Tara Ross has moved back to the peaceful village of Claremoon to establish her own Internet newspaper, leaving behind a failed relationship and the pressure and cut-throat competition of her job as an investigative journalist on a national newspaper in Dublin.

    Enter Fergal Kennedy, a handsome, charming local recently returned from Canada. Although her friend Melanie, sometime shrink and fulltime wise-ass, has her doubts about Fergal, and Tara isn't really ready for another bruising encounter with the male sex, she begins to see Fergal regularly, and finally they become lovers.

    Then the body of Ann Kennedy is found hacked to death in her gore-spattered kitchen and the police announce that her son Fergal is their only suspect. Claremoon is suddenly teeming with detectives and newshounds and every rumour immediately becomes distorted to fact. Tara is convinced of Fergal's innocence, she can even give him an alibi. But the local police, normally so cooperative in providing her with copy, have closed ranks. The once friendly village turns on Tara and Fergal.

    Desperate to prove Fergal's innocence, Tara sets out on the job that the police should be doing -- finding the real killer. Oddly, the one person who seems to be willing to help her is Estonian war-correspondent Andres Talimann, currently in Claremoon on a quest of his own.

    The first person on Tara's list is Fergal's brother, Manus, a strange young man with a history of mental illness. She discovers that he has been discharged from the psychiatric hospital and follows his trail to the notorious Ballymahon flats in Dublin’s Northside, where only the timely intervention of Andres saves her from death at the hands of a drug-crazed junkie.

    Andres suggests a new line of enquiry and Tara flies with him to Paris to confront internationally-renowned artist Michael de Blaca, whose sudden and unexplained appearance at Ann Kennedy's funeral raises a lot of questions. The old man’s explosive revelations send them back to Ireland, to discover that Melanie, mistaken for Tara, has been attacked and has identified her attacker -- Manus Kennedy.

    With the focus of their investigations shifted from Fergal, the police launch a nationwide hunt for Manus. Reports come in that he has been spotted living rough in Galway. Tara and Melanie are under 24-hour police protection, but being confined to her house is driving Tara crazy. Giving her minder the slip, she heads out on a run into the nearby forest. Time to clear her head and sort out her feelings. Startled by an encounter with an armed man, she is relieved to discover that he is part of a group of hunters searching for a stag wounded in a deer cull, and continues her run.

    Then another of the hunters blocks her path...

    FOR A long time they just stared at each other, Tara Ross and Manus Kennedy.

    He was smaller than she remembered him, but brawny and sturdily-built. His hair had grown longer and hung down over his eyes in greasy, matted hanks. His heavily pockmarked face was disguised by mud and several days’ growth of beard, but his blue eyes still burned and glowed like those of some Old Testament prophet as he glared at her, measuring her, assessing her.

    'What exactly do you want from me, Manus?.

    Tara was surprised at how steady her voice sounded. Inside, she felt petrified, sick with terror. Every cell in her body screamed at her to panic, cut loose, run. But she knew she wouldn’t get far. Instead, she willed herself to remain calm. Her only chance was to stall, bluff, engage, wait for an opportunity that might never come.

    She leaned casually up against a tree, trying to look as though she had all the time in the world to stay and chat. But the main purpose was to stop herself shaking.

    To her relief, Manus did not move any closer. He stood stock-still, watching her with slow, wary eyes. There was a long, long silence.

    Tara bit her cheek inside her mouth until it hurt. She must not break the silence. If she did so, she would sound panicky and afraid. She had asked a question. It was his turn to speak.

    Finally, he replied. If you could call it a reply.

    'You're to be next to die,' he said.

    His voice chilled her. It was the quiet, soft, unhurried voice of a rational man. But its pitch was unnervingly high and the tone was shattered and unnatural. It was the same sort of voice she had heard dozens of times, from the people who would drift in to the front office of her newspaper in Dublin on cold winter nights, claiming they had an important story to reveal. The sort of people who looked like your kind uncle or your friendly neighbour and sounded fine until they suddenly started shouting about the Stone of Destiny or Satan's Children and began overturning chairs and grabbing you by the throat.

    She had learned to spot such people in advance by looking into their eyes. And listening carefully to their voices.

    Voices just like this.

    The sweat of the run was cooling rapidly on her skin, and suddenly Tara felt very cold. She tried to stop the crawling of her flesh turning into a shiver which would be obvious to the man in front of her. What she had to do now was put on an act. She had to deliver the performance of her life. But which act would keep her alive longer? Fear and submission? Anger? Indifference?

    As his relentless eyes continued to bore into hers, she forced herself to wait for a few long seconds before she spoke. And when she did, it was with a careless shrug.

    'What do you mean, I'm going to die, Manus.' She kept her voice light and matter-of-fact, the voice of a nurse tucking in the bed sheets and reassuring a patient on the morning after a nightmare. 'Sure didn't I go to school with you? We’re both only young pups. Neither of us is going to die for a long time, I hope.

    That's right. Keep it light. Keep it easy. Two friends having a bit of a chat.

    'It makes sense when you think about it,' he said, and he could have been discussing the weather or the economy instead of her imminent death. 'First the beasts of the field, then the mother, then the lover. That’s how the devil thinks. That’s how he works.'

    'The devil?'

    'That’s how he thinks, that’s how he does things.'

    'What did you mean about the beasts? What beasts?' She was desperately stalling.

    'The beasts of the field. The cattle. The ones who died.'

    Suddenly she knew what he meant.

    'Manus, are you talking about the time those cattle died on your farm? The time the cowshed burned down?' He looked at her slyly. 'You know about that? Yes, the devil did it. Everyone thought it was my fault, but the devil was the one who really did it.'

    He fell silent, as if everything had been made clear. The afternoon air hung heavy with thunder. Nearby, a huge bluebottle buzzed angrily around the decomposing carcass of some tiny forest creature. Far away, from down below in the village, voices drifted up in the hot summer air. A child's excited cry of pleasure. A man's spontaneous laughter. Here, time had frozen into one endless, terrifying moment. But elsewhere, life just went on as usual. In the middle of this long, lingering dance of death, this slow motion horror, life still went on as usual.

    'That must have been terrible for you,' said Tara, realising too late that her sympathy sounded forced and false. All the time her mind was in freefall. What way would it happen when it happened? When he finally attacked, would it be with a razor-sharp knife clutched in his dirty, pudgy hand? Or with a crude stone snatched from the forest floor and raised and lowered, again and again? Or would his fingers lock around her throat and keep squeezing until her thrashing body became limp and still?

    She forced herself to stop the pointless speculation and concentrate. Keep him talking. The longer he talks, the longer you stay alive. Simple as that. But he had picked up on the tone of her voice.

    'What would you know about it? You have no idea what it was like!' For the first time, his voice registered emotion. Bad move, Tara. Talk him down.

    'You're right, of course,' she agreed, taking time to think about it. 'Yes, how could I know? Nobody could possibly know unless they were there.' Get ready, Tara. Ready for whatever it takes. But not ready to die. Not yet. Please God, not yet.

    'You don't understand, you don't understand at all. First the beasts, then the mother, then the lover. That’s how it’s going to be. First the animals, then the mother, then the lover,' he repeated as though reciting a verse from scripture. Tara tried to keep up her rational-nurse act. But inside, she was a frightened child longing to scream with terror and run away.

    'It doesn't have to be that way, Manus,' she said. 'Nothing ever has to be. We can change anything we want.'

    'No, no, no.' He shook his head in vehement denial. 'The devil doesn’t change. He killed those animals in the cowshed. He killed my mother. And he will kill you, too.'

    'It doesn’t have to happen, Manus.'

    'You didn’t see those cattle die,' he said. 'You didn't look into their eyes as they clambered over each other to try to get away from the flames. I’ll never forget it, not ever, not as long as I live. It gives me...awful nightmares, awful dreams. I couldn't stand it and they put me away and gave me medicine and it stopped for a while and the devil went away. But then they let me out again and the nightmares started. Every time I went to sleep, I could see them...their eyes...staring at me. And the devil came back to me again, and my mother died too.'

    He stared at her as though everything had been made clear and a logical point had been proven.

    Tara shrugged with exaggerated carelessness. She said: 'You've been through a rough patch, I know, Manus, and so have I. But to tell you the truth, I'm starting to get cold. You know my father's cottage? It's just down below. Why don't we go down there and we'll talk it all out over a nice hot bowl of soup and home-made bread. Maybe some rashers and eggs?' It was worth a try. For a brief moment she saw his eyes flicker with indecision as the hunger gnawing at his stomach almost overcame his willpower. But it lasted only for a split second. He looked at her with sly cunning, as though she had almost succeeded in putting one over on him. 'Oh, no,' he said. 'That wouldn't do. That wouldn't do at all.'

    'Please yourself.' Tara affected superficial annoyance. 'But I'm off.'

    'Don’t go YET!'

    The last word was a strangled scream. With surprising speed, he was on his feet, by her side, holding her arm in a grip like an iron clamp.

    'Manus! Let go!' Tara could hardly control her panic. She had mentally rehearsed half a dozen moves to stop him doing exactly this. But she hadn’t had time to do any of them.

    'Manus! Let go!' Tara could harly control her panic. She had mentally rehearsed half a dozen moves to stop him doing exactly this. but she hadn't time to do any of them.

    He shook his head, growing more and more excited. 'I can’t. You have to understand why I can't. The devil wants you. The devil.' Far, far away, more faint voices. Nearer at hand, much nearer, the sound of something rustling through the undergrowth. 'No, you don't understand,' she said, trying hard to keep authority in her voice. 'There are men with guns all round here. They're looking for me.'

    He paused, as though unsure whether to believe her. 'It's not true. You're lying. Just like all the others. Everybody lies to Manus Kennedy.'

    'Listen!' Her voice was a command. The rustling and crunching of undergrowth sounded again, this time nearer at hand. His eyes flickered to the right and he appeared almost to sniff the air like some creature of the forest. 'You're lying,' he repeated. 'That's not a man. That's an animal. Squirrel or a rat ... no, not a squirrel. Bigger. A dog, maybe.'

    The ferocity of his grip brought tears to her eyes. She couldn’t play any more roles.

    'Please let me go, Manus. I've done you no harm.' 'No, you’ve done me no harm, and you've done the devil no harm but the devil wants you dead anyway.'

    'But why? Why does the devil want me dead?' 'I don't know. He doesn't tell me, does he? Maybe he doesn't know himself. But it's going to happen, and it’s going to happen very soon. You have to come with me.'

    The rustling had ceased and the forest had become eerily quiet once again.

    Then Tara's eyes opened wide with astonishment and disbelief. Behind Manus's shoulder, at the edge of the little clearing, she caught sight of movement. Painful movement, dragging movement, movement with excruciating slowness.

    'The animals that died in the fire,' she said, a desperate plan forming out of despair.

    'Those animals, Manus. You can still see their eyes in your dreams?

    He stopped suddenly in the act of dragging her away. 'How do you know about my dreams?' he demanded. He began breathing fast, heavily, regularly, as though building up a head of steam of uncontrollable emotion. 'The eyes are the worst part. I can always see their eyes.'

    She leaned towards him so that her voice became a whisper in his ear. 'Look behind you, Manus. The eyes are still watching.'

    Still holding her firmly, he spun around.

    The first thing he saw was a pair of large, brown eyes, staring into his with suffering and a dumb incomprehension that could almost have passed for pleading. There, half dead with pain and exhaustion, lay the wounded deer, collapsed in an untidy heap after its last few desperate steps. Bluebottles buzzed furiously around the dried blood on its injured, torn haunch. Its broken leg, trailing uselessly behind, seemed to have collected half the debris of the forest in its wake. Now the deer was lying down to die, and its eyes mirrored its anguish and despair. The eyes of Manus Kennedy met the eyes of the beast, and his dark nightmares came to life.

    He screamed, a long drawn-out, animal scream of unendurable dread. And he released Tara’s arm.

    A temporary reprieve for Tara Ross...but has she really solved the riddle of Ann Kennedy's murder?