It was like being struck in the face by a handful of razor blades.
Sean Doyle stood motionless beside the dark blue Datsun for a moment, eyes narrowed against the biting wind. He zipped up his leather jacket, the wind whipping his shoulder-length brown hair around his face.
He brushed it away and glanced up at the sky.
Fuck. Not even light yet.
Great swollen banks of grey cloud were scudding across the blackened heavens, propelled by the powerful gusts of wind.
Doyle felt a spot of rain against his cheek and brushed it away. He wondered how long it would be until the threatened downpour arrived.
Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a packet of cigarettes and jammed one between his lips.
The raging wind made it almost impossible to light the Marlboro, the flame of the lighter sputtering even when Doyle cupped a hand around it. He sucked hard when the cigarette ignited, the tip glowing.
Doyle spat out a small piece of tobacco and drew deeply on the Marlboro, allowing the smoke to fill his lungs.
Christ, it was cold.
He leaned on the roof of the Datsun and glanced around.
The houses in London Road were unremarkable and relatively uniform in appearance. A number had been converted into flats, as had many like them in this area of Brent.
From where he stood, Doyle could see the twin towers of Wembley Stadium less than a mile away, barely visible in the early morning gloom.
Half a mile behind him lay Wembley Central station. He could hear the intermittent rumble of trains passing through, the sound carried on the icy wind.
Early morning commuters travelling to work.
Some of the occupants of these dwellings in London Road would be joining that mass exodus to the centre of the capital soon. Some already had passed him, glancing around curiously at the cars parked in the road.
Some glanced across it.
Doyle continued to draw on his cigarette, his dark grey eyes scanning the street, the houses.
Lights were on in some windows as the neighbourhood readied itself for the daily routine. A routine that remained the same for the duration of these people's working lives.
Get up, go to work, come home, go to bed.
There was a reassuring, if soul-crushing, regularity to the whole thing; a little bit of security in the midst of the insanity that was day-to-day living.
Doyle hated routine. Always had. He hated the regimentation work brought with it, the discipline that was constantly expected. The realisation that he was merely a cog in a different type of wheel did little to lighten his mood.
He watched a young woman scurrying down the road towards a bus stop, waiting patiently with her coat pulled tightly around her.
A car passed by, the driver yawning, rubbing his eyes with one hand.
He cast Doyle a cursory glance, wondering perhaps who this long-haired, leather-jacketed individual was.
For his own part, Doyle watched as the car disappeared around a comer, brake lights flaring briefly in the gloom.
He took one last drag on his cigarette then dropped it, grinding it out beneath the sole of his boot.
Behind him another train rumbled past. It moved slowly, seeming to reflect the lethargy of its passengers, as if their indifference was somehow seeping into its metal innards.
Doyle felt more rain against his cheek and brushed it away, his fingers tracing the long scar that ran from the corner of his left eye down to the point of his jaw.
There were many more scars not immediately visible.
Both physical and emotional.
The one constant in his life. The one ever reliable, ever present fucking companion.
So much pain.
Doyle glanced at his watch and clambered back inside the Datsun.
As he did, the Beretta 92F burst-fire automatic in a holster beneath his left arm bumped against his side.
Dromoland Castle, County Clare, The Republic of Ireland
They were the last three in the dining room.
The waiter watched as the trio of men, all immaculately dressed, ages ranging from thirty to forty, sat around a table close to the window of the oak-panelled room.
The curtains were open, offering a view of the man-made lake and part of the golf course beyond.
The sun was setting, reflecting on the still surface of the water like fire on glass.
In these winter months the darkness came early but the death of daylight was no less spectacular.
Apart from the three men there had been only two other tables to serve that evening. The hotel was quiet. The tourists wouldn't begin to descend for another month or two. For now the natural serenity of the ancient building was intensified by the lack of guests frequenting its magnificently appointed corridors and halls. All too soon the swarms of Americans would arrive, all of whom were convinced they had Irish ancestors in this or some part of the country.
The waiter smiled to himself as he tidied one of the other recently vacated tables.
A couple in their late twenties had sat there and the waiter had been particularly struck by how good looking the young woman was. He'd cast an envious eye in the direction of her companion as they'd left the dining room.
Now he glanced across to the three men and noticed that they had finished their desserts. He wandered over to collect the plates.
'Did you enjoy your meals, gentlemen?' he asked.
'Superb,' said Patrick Macarthy, wiping some crumbs from his beard.
His companions echoed his sentiments.
'Could you bring us three brandies, please?' Macarthy asked as the waiter gathered the plates.
'What's this, Patrick?' Liam Black said, smiling. A celebration?'
Macarthy sat back in his seat, glancing up as the waiter propped the last of the plates on his arm and retreated from view.
'I think we've every cause for celebration,' he said, clasping his fingers together before him on the table. 'We've won. This peace is on our terms and I'm glad it's over.'
Macarthy had been a member of Sinn Fein for the last eight years and, prior to that, he'd spent six years in