Three of Joe's mates were sitting around in the kitchen-living room of the apartment they had rented for the weekend. Their faces were grey and they had the general demeanour of men experiencing the pain that follows a night of excessive drinking.
"Oh Jesus, I feel like shite", said one. Neither of the others felt that the comment warranted a reply.
A door opened and another young man in blue jeans and monochrome t-shirt came into the room, his face suggesting that he was suffering to an even greater extent than his fellows.
The attempt at humour made the others laugh. Their hangovers made them wish they had not.
"How did you get on with that bird you were chatting up last night, Cueball?" asked the fellow who had just been talking about his own vomitory experiences.
The young man who had somehow acquired the Cueball nickname went slightly red and then attempted a nonchalant tone as he replied "A gentleman does not dwell on such matters". There was no way that the quick hand shandy he had received while pressed up against the pub's fire escape could be dressed up as some kind of great erotic adventure. Best, he thought, to leave the details as oblique as possible and have the others imagine a considerably more exciting amorous adventure.
"Ah you dirty dog", said the newcomer. The others chuckled. "When did Macker get in?"
"He's still not back", said another of the young men, known to his friends as Lamper for reasons that were no longer readily apparent. "Must have got somewhere with one of those birds he was talking to".
"Or both of them!" said Cueball, in his best "wahey!" voice.
"Well he'll be back when they've worn him out".
"Squeezed him dry!" said Lamper, as though this was some kind of humorous remark. Which it was to his friends, who fell around laughing.
"Jesus Christ, I feel like shite", said the one who had already said that he felt like shite. "And we've another two nights of this".
"Fucking gaywad", said Lamper. "Can't hold your drink? Come on, let's go out for a fry up, that'll sort you out".
Out they went, which amounted to little more than leaving the complex in which their apartment was situated and heading to the pub they had been drinking in the night before, which was now coining it in selling greasy fried pig breakfasts to the stag and hen parties of the night before. There they ran into some of the other members of their stag party, including the soon-to-be-married man himself. As they were shovelling food into themselves Cueball noticed something and nudged Lamper in the ribs.
"Hey look, there's those two birds Macker was chatting up - but no sign of Macker".
"What of it, he probably went off for breakfast on his own or something. Or they've worn him out and left him tied up in their bedroom waiting for more".
"Lucky bastard", said Cueball, somewhat overemphatically.
"Hey lads, look who it is!" said the fellow who not long before had been talking of vomiting so much he almost turned inside out. The others started sniggering, with the exception of Cueball, as they noticed Cueball's lady friend of the night before arrive and join her hen party for breakfast. In the cold light of day she looked like something other than the sylph-like apparition Cueball had perceived the night before. Seeing her again he was now terrified to make eye contact for fear she would want to renew their acquaintance and progress it to a level of greater physical intimacy.
"Holy Christ", said Cueball, trying to bury himself in his seat and hide behind the food he was stuffing into his mouth. The rest of the lads laughed at his discomfiture.
After breakfast the lads went off on a pre-arranged boat trip and then went in the woods to play paint ball, which was mainly an opportunity to cover the stag in pellet wounds from head to toe. After that they found themselves back in the pub. Cueball was now somewhat concerned at the non-reappearance of their vanished friend, though Lamper was rather less concerned. "He'll show up in his own good time", he said, trying to imply that their vanished pal had far better things to be doing than join them for more drinks.
But Cueball could not escape the sense that there was something untoward about his continued absence. When they were out in the pub that evening he spotted the two women Macker, had been chatting up the night before, on their own and with no obvious sign of their vanished friend. Deciding to take the bull by the horns, he approached the two women.
"How are you, girls? Listen, I was wondering if you knew what happened to me mate… Joe?" Cueball had to pause for a second while he remembered Macker's actual name. "He was, eh, talking to you last night".
The woman looked blankly at him.
"He's about my height, dark hair, was wearing a Playboy t-shirt", Cueball said, helpfully.
"That prick", said one of the women, with surprising venom.
"He was talking away to us", said the other. "And then he nipped off to the 'bank machine' " (she mimed the air quotes) "and never came back".
"Arsehole," said the first. "If he didn't like us he could have just gone back to his mates without leaving us looking like spas".
"So you've no idea where he is?" said Cueball.
"Course we've no fucking idea where he is. He could be dead in a ditch for all we care".
Cueball apologised for wasting the ladies' time and went back to the lads. He was worried now. Where was Macker?
Later that night Cueball realised that he was running out of money, so he nipped out to the ATM. Some instinct that is inexplicable to science impelled him to take a short cut back through the laneway Joe had walked up the night before. And there he saw something that made him realise that Joe was not away somewhere getting his end away. For on the ground of the laneway he saw a single runner boot, of the very type that Joe had been wearing on the previous evening.
When Cueball brought his find to the others they were agreed - something untoward had clearly happened to Joe and it was necessary to involve the authorities. They disconsolately left their pints and went back to the apartment complex to ask the receptionist where the nearest Garda Station was.
"There's no Garda Station here in Killduff," he replied. "There used to be. But you know, cut backs".
"Well where is the nearest one now?" asked Cueball.
"That would be over in Carrick. I'll ring them for you".
He rang the number and told someone who answered that he had some lads here who were missing one of their friends, making it sound like this was something of an everyday occurrence. Then Cueball was put on the line to talk to a Garda Sergeant whose questions sounded like he was not really grasping the gravity of the situation. When the single runner boot was mentioned, the Garda asked was the other back in the apartment, rather than seeing this as an obvious sign that something sinister had occurred. After taking a very general description of the missing person the Garda asked Cueball for his phone number and said that someone might be over for him the next day.
That left the lads with nothing better to do than return to the pub, where they rejoined their stag party friends but were unable to throw themselves into the festivities with the appropriate gusto. Though they did all drink heavily, probably more so than the others, there was a pall hanging over them that had the others muttering what bad craic they were. One or two voices were heard muttering that they would be better pissing off back to their apartment so that they wouldn't wreck everyone else's buzz. The opinion was also expressed that Macker was probably off having the ride of his life with some bird they had not seen him pick up the night before. This, it was felt, would be typical of Macker.
The next day the Cueball, Lamper and the others came down for breakfast but declined to join the others on a fishing trip down along the riverbank. Instead they sat morosely round their apartment. They cracked open a few beers and sipped away at them, but their heart was not it in it. So it was almost a relief when Cueball's phone rang in the afternoon. A voice identified itself as that of a Garda sergeant in Carrick and asked Cueball to give his name and location. The Guard then told Cueball to stay there until he arrived, refusing to answer any further questions.
Half an hour later the Guard arrived at the apartment. "The news isn't good, lads. I need you to come with me to the hospital. There's been a body found in the river".
It was decided that they did not all need to go with the Guard, so Cueball and Lamper left the others behind and set off on the miserable journey to the county hospital outside Carrick. "They keep all the bodies in the morgue there", said the sergeant in a matter of fact way.
"Where was he found?" asked Lamper.
"A local fella was out walking his dog by the river's edge and noticed the dog getting a bit excited about something. He had a look and it was… well we think it was your pal".
Neither of the lads replied to this so the Guard went on in his matter of fact manner: "This kind of thing is always happening in Ballykillduff. Young lads up for stag parties are always having too much to drink and then falling into the river. Sometimes it's the girls too. People should be more careful".
"But we found our friend's shoe", said Cueball. "It was a good bit away from the river. Peope don't just take off their shoe and then go messing about by the water. Something happened to him, he didn't just fall in".
"You say that now", said the Guard. "In the cold light of day when you're sober there's no reason why someone would lose their shoe and then go and fall in the river. But when you've a feed of drink in you things get a bit different. Anyway, here we are now".
He parked in the hospital carpark and led them into the building, bringing them to the morgue. Cueball noticed that the hospital employees were not making eye contact - they must know the grim business they were here for. The morgue itself was staffed by a surprisingly attractive young woman. In other circumstances Cueball would have asked her out on a date. Instead she greeted them quietly and led them into a cold storage area, sliding out a covered body from a recess. The Guard pulled the sheet off the face.
"I have to formally ask you, do you know this fella?" he said.
There was no mistaking the face.
"Yes", said Lamper in a quiet voice.
"And what is his name?" said the Guard.
"Joe. Joseph McMahon", answered Cueball. He was talking quietly too. And he was chilled to the bone, not just from the cold environment they were in and not just from the miserable duty he was having to perform, but from the unmistakeable look of abject terror on the dead man's face.