Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Chapter Eleven


Chapter Eleven

 
 

Penny was very quiet next morning and I put that down to my offer to take her back to the States. Likely, she still felt uncomfortable with the idea, even if I had little or no doubt left in my mind. I wanted her.

Funny how I felt more sure of things now. More certain about her. Just being with her convinced me that what I felt for her was real, and we had all it took to make a go of things together. After breakfast I left her in a contemplative mood while I drove into the city.

The centre of Belfast was relatively quiet but people were gathering in the Shankhill Road area. Troops in full battle gear were sealing off side roads and marshalling the crowds into containable sections. It looked like a march of some sort was about to take place so I joined the crowds.

The main marching season is in August. That’s when the various Orange Order Lodges dress up in suits, bowler hats and brightly coloured sashes and parade through the streets of cities throughout Northern Ireland. It was well past the regular marching season, but some sort of parade was planned to pass through the city on this particular day. I can’t recall what it was for.

Eventually the sound of a Lambeg drum boomed down the length of the street and then a pipe band began to play. I stretched on my toes to see over the heads of other observers as the parade made its way towards us. It came with lots of noise from the band at the front, but what followed was as near as one could get in Northern Ireland to a dignified procession. Nevertheless, I wanted none of it. I hurried away afraid to admit to myself that I just didn’t understand it. I wasn’t geared up for all this.

Trash was blowing about in the street when I made my way to Rourke’s police station. A cold wind was blowing in from the east, lifting litter and dust and blowing it about like tumbleweeds in a Western movie. No one seemed bothered by it.

The guy at the security desk stared me in the eyes and asked what I wanted.

“I’m with Reuters. I need a line on that march in the city. I figured

He cut me short. “Show me your press card.”

“Ain’t got it with me.”

“You expect me to believe that? How long you been here in Ulster?”

Only the Protestants called it Ulster. Otherwise they call it Northern Ireland. The Republicans called it the North of Ireland. Subtle difference. Sometimes they call it the Six Counties. It’s all a silly game, of course. They’ll get over it one day.

“Ain’t been here long.” I was in no mood for answering asinine questions.

“How long?”

“A few days.”

“Have you been here before?”

“Where?”

“Here. This police station?”

“Why?”

“Just answer the question, will you?”

“Yes.”

He wrote something in his open log book and then frowned. “Why d’you wanna see Chief Inspector Rourke?”

“Tell him Henry Bodine wants a word in his ear. He’ll understand.”

In fact Rourke probably didn’t understand. The main reason I wanted to talk to him was because he had bugged me and I aimed to return the compliment. Nothing more than that.

The cop at the security post wasn’t to know my true motives, but he dragged himself off to an adjacent room where I saw him pick up a phone. A few minutes later he came back. “The Chief Inspector will see you. You got any weapons on you?”

“No.” It was an honest answer, but he frisked me anyway. Then another guy led me upstairs to Rourke’s office.

Rourke looked different from the way he had when I first went into that office. That time he’d been putting on some sort of act for my benefit, this time he wasn’t. He was looking more relaxed with his coat was off and his sleeves rolled up. And a smell of stale cigarette smoke hung around the room.

“Take a seat, Bodine. What’s the problem this time?” He sounded like a head teacher interviewing a disruptive schoolboy.

I sat down slowly and rubbed my chin, making him wait for an answer. Eventually, I said, “I reckon it’s time you stopped messing me around. Why don’t you come clean and tell me all you know about my sister’s death.”

“You just don’t give up, do you?”

“Must be something in the air.”

He smirked for a long minute while he casually lit a cigarette, probably believing he had the edge on me. He had one leg crossed over the other and he was leaning back in his chair. He just stared at me like I was the dumbest sort of jerk he’d come across in a place where dumb jerks grew on trees. That full minute passed in silence and then he leaned towards me and pointed at me with a crooked finger.

“I warned you to keep out of our enquiries.”

“Guess I wasn’t listening too well.”

“Pity. It could get you killed.” He leaned back again in his seat and drew deep on his cigarette. “You really don’t understand what you’re getting yourself mixed up with. You really don’t understand what it’s like over here in Northern Ireland. You’re an innocent abroad, Mr Bodine.”

I didn’t like that remark. I’d seen more blood and guts on the streets of Sarajevo than he’d seen on the streets of Belfast. Probably much more. And I didn’t need a lecture from the likes of him. Besides, I’d heard that term ‘innocent abroad’ before. I heard it from the four-star general who had me court-martialled.

“Cut the crap.” I kept my tone cool but insistent. “Just tell me about the other bombing.”

“What other bombing?” His eyebrows creased together. He went tense.

“That second bombing, the one in which the other girl was killed. The same night Marie was murdered. What sort of vehicle was it that got blown up?”

He averted his gaze and fiddled with a pen on his desk. “A taxi.”

“What happened to the driver?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Curiosity.”

“It’s none of your business.”

I added a threatening tone to my voice, trying to wind him up. “I could find out some other way. You want me to start poking my nose in a few other doors? Might even get the press interested in what happened. You want that, Chief Inspector?”

He kept his composure; I’ll say that for him. “You’re too persistent, Mr Bodine. That’s not a good thing in this country. I’ve already warned you about interfering in police matters.”

“So cut the crap and tell me. What happened to that other taxi?”

He breathed deeply, glanced at a clock on the wall behind me and then made up his mind to answer. “The driver was let off. The cab was stopped by a gang of hooded men and the driver was told to get out. The girl must’ve thought she’d escaped when they marched him away and left her alone inside the cab. Then the vehicle exploded.”

“What sort of explosive?”

“Semtex.”

“Trade mark of the Provisional IRA?”

He nodded.

I persisted, knowing I had him on the roll. “What was the girl’s name? I could find out some other way if you won’t tell me.” But I had already guessed the answer. I needed only his confirmation.

He considered his reply for a mere moment. “Christine Fisher.”

I shot him a sour look. “The girl you knew nothing about!”

He was wrong-footed and he knew it. In the short silence that followed, I stared him in the face and made him suffer. He tried to cover up his mistake anyway. “The name didn’t mean anything to me last time you asked. We get so many killings, you understand.”

I understood only too well. “You’re telling me Christine Fisher is dead?”

“Yes.”

Christine Fisher was dead and Marie was dead. Killed the same night. That didn’t help me prove conclusively that they were not one and the same person. I might have to go looking for bodies to prove it to the cops back home.

“You’ve told the FBI?” I snapped.

“The FBI?” He screwed up his face. “What the hell! Why should we tell them? It’s none of their concern.”

“Fisher was American.”

“There are proper channels, Mr Bodine. Diplomatic channels. We used them. Miss Fisher was just an innocent American tourist and we made sure that the American authorities were properly informed.”

He really must’ve thought I was the dumbest sort of idiot ever to sit in his office. The driver was let off and the girl was blown up. And he wanted me to believe she was just an innocent tourist?

I rose to leave. I’d bugged him enough to pay back his visit at Penny’s apartment and I felt satisfied. I’d also learned something of real value. “Any more you want to tell me?”

“No.”

“Thanks for your time, anyway.”

“Stay out of our business, Bodine.” He shot the warning across my bows as I turned away.

“I’ll stick to what concerns me.”

“Be sure you do!” Rourke called after me, but he didn’t rise from his desk when I walked out. He didn’t even say goodbye.

I went back to the city centre and found a coffee shop where I spent half an hour mulling over what I’d heard from Rourke. I’d learned a lot but the bastard still knew far more than he was telling and that made me pretty mad at him. One way or another, I’d get to the bottom of it. I bought a second coffee and a newspaper and read about what atrocities were being committed in other countries. The front page had a piece about the killings in Bosnia and that brought back further bleak memories. It was turning into quite a day and not yet lunchtime.

When I felt a bit more relaxed I drove on through Belfast towards the place where Marie was killed. Driving up the Crumlin Road, I soon found the spot where the repair gang were still working at the bomb crater. They acted like it was casual, everyday labour, which it probably was.

I parked nearby and stood in the middle of the sidewalk, imagining what had happened here. It wasn’t too difficult to picture the scene: a dark street, a vehicle approaching. Someone pulling up to the kerb and off-loading a trash can full of Anfo. You don’t carry a load like that in your hands so there had to be a vehicle involved. The murderers wouldn’t have taken any chances about being caught so they would have arrived only minutes before Sammy Wilde’s cab was due to come down that road.

Once the trash can was in place, one of them would have driven off and the other would have hidden in a doorway to trigger the bomb. So there had to be two of them, one to drive the vehicle away from the bomb and another to stay with the trigger.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, another girl was deliberately blown up. Two terror attacks and two victims. What was the connection? Which of the three victims was the key to the whole thing? Sammy Wilde, Protestant taxi driver, small time crook, bit of a ladies man? Christine Fisher, stripper and narcotics dealer? Or Marie Bodine, dancer turned stripper living with a Catholic drug addict? Who were the bombers really after? And why?

I looked around, studying the anonymous faces in the street. Footsteps stopped behind me and I swung round without thinking. A short little woman, aged and wrinkled stood watching me. She had on a well-worn grey coat that fell almost to the side walk and a black shawl over her head. A plastic supermarket bag dangled loosely from one thin wrinkled hand.

“You’ve been here before, so you have. I saw you.” She had a high pitched, quavering voice. “Standin’ just there and watchin’ us, so your were.”

“You’re very observant.”

She studied me suspiciously. “Round here you have to be, so you do. What with them terrible bombs, and all. You have to keep an eye on anyone new around here. Are you a newspaper reporter or somethin’?”

“No. Just a visitor.” I hesitated. “Someone I knew was killed here.”

“In that explosion?” She nodded towards the work going on nearby.

“Yes.”

“Ah, them two.” She nodded sagely. “That taxi man and the dirty little whore with him. He was a crook, so he was. And they do say she was a prostitute, you know.”

“Really,” I replied testily. I noticed for the first time that the woman smelled. Made it easier for me to hate her guts.

“Aye. And I saw it happen, so I did.”

I jumped. “You saw it?”

“Sure, an’ I did.” She pointed to a first floor window some way down the street. “That’s where I live. I was at me window. Well, I do so like to watch what’s going on, what with being on me own. And you have to be so careful about strangers around here. That’s how I noticed you before, do you see?”

“Sure, I see.” I urged her on. “Tell me about it.”

She nodded towards the crater. “You knew about those two?”

“Sort of. What happened?”

“Well, I saw them two men pull up and leave the dustbin in the street. It’s not the sort of thing you expect now, is it?”

“You saw them? You saw what they looked like?”

“It was dark but my eyes aren’t as bad as people make out. Not when I’ve got me glasses on. Me best glasses, they were. Broken now, of course.”

“You told the police about this?”

“Of course. I’m a good, honest Loyalist, so I am.” Her chin jutted defiantly. “Besides, I was terrible shook up, so I was. Me windows was smashed and me glasses and they had to take me to the hospital for some sedation. And me just a poor widow! Them terrible Catholics should all be put behind bars. Better still, they should be hanged.”

“What were they like, the two men?”

She shrugged. “Just two men. One was a fat man and the other was a big man like the Reverend Ian, God bless him. ’Twas the big one who stayed in the doorway over there to set off the bomb.”

“Did the police ask you to identify them?”

“Sure they asked. Made me look at some photos, but I couldn’t pick out who they were. It was night, you see, and I couldn’t see the faces too clearly. You are a reporter, aren’t you? I can tell these things.”

“Yes, I’m a reporter,” I conceded. It seemed the easiest way.

“You’ll not say that I spoke to you. T’would mark me out for them murderous bastards. They’d think nothing o’ killin’ me in me bed.”

“I promise I’ll say nothing to anyone.”

“You knew them, did you? The ones what got killed?”

“I’ve come across one of them.”

“Take my word for it, they were no good. Both of ’em. You say that when you write about it in your newspaper. One was a crook and the other was a filthy little slut of a prostitute.”

“I’ll remember what you say.” I resisted the urge to wrap my hands about her throat.

Seemingly satisfied, she shuffled on down the street.

It was just coming up to eleven o’clock and I had more time to use up before I went back to the apartment for lunch with Penny. Maybe this was a good moment to confront Pat Mulholland once more.

I made my way back to the apartment at the Divis, left the car parked nearby and hoped it would still be in one piece when I got back to it. The local drop-outs were hanging about, just as before, and they gave me the same sort of visual going-over, but I bluffed it out. With some misgivings, I walked straight past them without giving them a second look.

I didn’t pick up the sound of screaming kids inside the apartment when I approached. Mulholland was alone and that suited me well. He looked at me suspiciously through the half opened front door, skin pale like parchment and eyes still dulled from years of drug abuse. He hadn’t shaved for days.

“I want to talk to you, Mulholland.”

“Piss off.”

Before he could close the door I had my full weight on it and crashed into the apartment with Mulholland squashed up against the wall of the hallway. I went on in and slammed the door shut behind me.

He just stood there, silent and trembling.

“I said I wanted to talk to you, runt!” I grabbed the front of his filthy sweatshirt and brought my fist up under his chin. “You want to do this the easy way or the hard way? Me, I’m happy to do it the hard way.”

“What do you want?” His eyes were dilated. Bloodshot. All the charm that had misled Marie into following him to Ireland was hidden behind the after-effects of a fix which had gone bad.

I eased off my grip. “Information about Marie.”

“I told you all I know.”

“No, you didn’t. But you will.”

“So what do you want now?”

“What were you and Marie doing in London? Where did you live?”

He breathed deep before he replied. “In a squat. Somewhere around Earls Court. God knows where, exactly. We were moving about a bit, so we were.”

“Is that where you met her?”

He slumped back against the wall, his hands shaking. “She was down on her luck and someone brought her into the squat. You wouldn’t know what it was like, Yank. Your bloody sister was living rough when they brought her into the squat.”

The information hurt, but I needed to find out more. “Where did Marie live before that? What was the last real home she had over there?”

“Dunno.”

I tightened my grip on him again. “Yes you do. So tell me!”

“All right, all right. She said she lived in various places. What the hell is this? Am I supposed to know what she was up to in London?”

“You know some of it, Mulholland.” I paused to calm my thumping heart. No point in risking a heart attack over the louse. I moderated my voice. “Last time I spoke to you, you said Marie had been living with someone over there. It was before you met her, you said. I want to know who he was.”

“Why? She died over here, not in London.”

“It could be useful. I want to know what she was doing over there.” The truth about Marie went deeper than just the tragedy here in Belfast, I was certain of it now. I had no proof, just intuition. What happened here was an end game, not the full story. I needed to talk to whoever she was living with in London to find out exactly what went wrong with her life.

Mulholland tried to shrug his shoulders. He was beginning to come round so I further relaxed my grasp on his shirt. He slumped against the filthy wall and breathed deep. “What’s it all to you? You can’t help your precious sister now.”

“I want to know who she was living with.”

“Why?”

“Don’t argue with me, Mulholland. I need to know and it might be important. Look, are you gonna tell me or am I gonna have to beat it out of you?”

“You’re nuts. Besides, there’s nothing much to tell, is there? She lived with some stuck-up English bastard for a while. I know that much.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know. Someone told me he’d got this big place out near Wimbledon Common.”

“Keep talking.”

“Aw, shit. He lived with his snobby English wife in his snobby big house, but he kept Marie in a poky little flat in Kensington. She was his hide-away tart. His mistress. She slept with the bastard to keep herself in bread.”

I brushed aside the pain of this new revelation. “Marie told you this?”

“Like hell she did. She wouldn’t talk about it, would she? Someone else told me after me and Marie got together. Every time I asked her, she wouldn’t talk about it. She was like that, you know. Hell, you should know. She was your sister.”

“What was he called? The man she lived with?”

“Whiteman.”

“Whiteman? That’s all you can tell me?”

“What else is there?” He leaned towards me, lips drawn back to expose his rotting teeth. “Except that she whored for the bastard.”

“Watch your tongue, punk. Just watch was you say about Marie.”

“You gonna make me, Yank?”

“Yeah. I might enjoy pushing your nose down on top of your tonsils.”

“Go on.” He gestured with his hands, taunting me to attack him. “Go on. Make your day. It won’t change anything, you know. God, if I hadn’t gone over there to England, none of this would have happened to me.”

“So why did you go over there?”

“To get a job, what do you think? Only there weren’t no jobs to be had. At least, not for the likes of me.”

“And you came back here expecting to get a job?”

“I came back, Yank, because London was a God awful place to live.” His face twisted into an expression of disgust. “They’re not friendly over there, not like us.”

Through the hall window I could make out the tribal graffiti on the walls of the apartment block opposite. “This is a friendly place?”

“Irish people are the best.”

“And Marie came with you?”

“She didn’t have to. She should have stayed over there. She could have whored for some other rich bastard.”

My fist suddenly tightened about the neck of this sweatshirt. “I told you to watch what you say about my sister!”

“You gonna make me? Gonna beat the shit out of me are you? Go on, show us what you Yanks are made of!”

Somehow, it just wasn’t worth it. I let go the runt and stood back. “I thought you had some feelings for Marie.”

“I did once.”

“Seems to me you’d lost interest in her when she died.”

“Lost interest? What the hell do you mean?”

“You weren’t in love with her.”

“I could take it or leave it.” He reached into his pocket for a smoke. His hand was shaking. I resisted the urge to beat him to hell right there and then.

“You said you’d threatened to leave her.”

“So what? It was only a threat to get her to stop the strippin’ lark. I wouldn’t have done it, not with her bein’ pregnant. In the end she was the one who wanted us to split up.”

“Because of your drug addiction?”

He drew deep on his reefer and slowly began to calm down. “Nah. She could take that. She knew all about the drugs scene. The trouble was she threatened to have an abortion. I told her I wouldn’t allow it.”

I looked about at the squalor of the Mulholland apartment. “She couldn’t face bringing up a kid in a dump like this, eh? So what did she do about it? Who did she go to for help? The Irish American Woman’s Aid Centre?”

“Yeah, she went to them. For all the good it did her.”

“Who did she see there? Give me a name.”

“I can’t remember any names.”

I moved close in and hissed at him through gritted teeth. “Give me a name.”

“All right, all right. Look, I heard there’s a guy called Milligan mixed up with those people. Maybe Marie saw him.”

“Where did you hear that name?”

“On the streets. He’s pretty well known around here. But don’t say I told you. Look, it’s a name, isn’t it? Maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe Marie saw a priest or someone like that. Why don’t you go and ask them yourself?”

“I might just do that. And then again, I might come back here and ask more questions until you tell me all you know.”

“Piss off! If you think you can come in here and take it out on me, you’d better think again. At least we don’t have any abortions in our family! There’s some things we don’t sink to!”

He was getting belligerent again so I decided to try to play it cool. But I didn’t give myself enough time to think before I went on, “Okay, buddy. Let’s get back to what actually happened to Marie. Just now you said you could take her or leave her. Did you hate her enough to kill her?”

“You bastard! I’d kill the man who killed Marie, if I knew who it was. Kill him with me own hands, so I would!”

“Good. If I ever find out who did it, I’ll let you know. Give you the chance to prove yourself.”

“Get out of here, Yank!”

“Yeah, I’ll do that. And I’ll call you when I know who killed Marie.”

I left him shaking in the hallway, struggling to light another reefer. Outside it was grey and overcast, but even the depressing atmosphere of the city felt clean after the Mulholland place. At least I now had two more names to work on. An Englishman called Whiteman and an Irishman called Milligan. I stored the information away for future use.

A bunch of scruffy kids was gathered around the car when I got back to it. A couple of them were sitting on the hood, feet up and smoking. The others stood around: silent, sullen and bleary-eyed. They must’ve been about thirteen or fourteen years old and should’ve been in school, but sitting on my hire car seemed to interest them more. No one made any effort to move until I started the engine and then the two jerks slowly slid off the hood, defying me to move away before they were back on the side walk. Someone gave me two fingers as I pulled away from the kerb.

I made my way back into the city and left the hire car in a regular parking lot. It was close on mid-day and I’d said I’d be back at the apartment around two. That left me with time for some more poking around. Car theft anywhere in Ireland is a bad problem and the depressed areas of Belfast take more than their share of it. Penny had warned me that the Falls Road is no place to park any car and expect it be around when you went back for it, so I took a taxi to the Irish American Woman’s Aid Centre. If Father O’Hagan was in Belfast this was the only place I knew where I might find him. And I had a need to ask him a few pointed questions. But, first, I would try to find this guy, Milligan.

The Centre had once been a small shop, probably a local grocery store. Now, the display window was boarded up and the signboard overhead was faded away to almost bare wood. A printed notice pinned to the door said: Woman’s Aid Centre. Below that, a handwritten notice read: Closed.

I stood outside on the sidewalk for a few minutes, sizing up the atmosphere. A persistent drizzle was now washing the roads and leaving them glistening with a deceptive shine. As if washing was the same as cleansing. I pulled my coat collar tight about my neck and shivered. You didn’t have to be clued up on the Irish problem to see that this place was bad news. The usual IRA tribal graffiti decorated the walls; obscene in the fact that people round here took it seriously. A gable-end mural stared down at me, IRA uniforms and Irish tricolours mixed up like they belonged together. The street was dirty and the few pedestrians nearby had a strange, weary look about them.

Ignoring the sign, I tried the door. It opened with a long creaking noise that would have sounded good in a horror film. I took a deep breath and went inside.

The main door led into a small hallway, off of which was a dimly lit room. It was empty, just bare floorboards and a few empty boxes lying in the corner. Another door, directly opposite, was standing ajar and I walked slowly towards it. The floorboards creaked as I came closer and saw that the door led into another, smaller room. A man in military fatigues was sitting at a small desk.

I frowned. What the hell was going on here? Women in need of help shouldn’t be turning to the local paramilitary hoodlums. The man he had his back to me, but he spun round when the floor creaked under my feet. He dropped one hand down to an Armalite on the floor beside him.

I stiffened, put up one hand and stood rock still. “Hold it, buddy. I ain’t here to cause no trouble.”

At first he looked real scared, as if he thought I was there to assassinate him. He rose to his feet and I saw then that he was no more than five foot three or four tall, but paunchy with it, the bulging effect of late middle age. He had a swarthy look about him and hadn’t shaved for some days. Dull grey eyes were ringed with dark circles and thin grey hair sat uneasily on top his skull.

“What do you want? Who are you?” The Armalite hovered in my general direction and my flesh went icy cold.

“Name’s Bodine. Looking for Mr Milligan.”

“Why? What do you want?” His voice had an air of real animal fear. His fingers clutched the gun so that the knuckles turned white.

I kept my voice as calm as I could muster. “Trying to find out something about a girl who may have come here for help. Name of Marie Bodine, or she might have called herself Nancy Kelly.”

“What’s she to you?”

“She was my sister. My name’s Henry Bodine.”

His eyes moved about shiftily. He thought for a moment and then said, “Never heard of her.”

“What about Mr Milligan. I’d like to speak to him. He might know something.”

“I’m Milligan.” His voice wavered. “And I never heard of your sister.”

“Is there someone else

“No. Now get out of here.”

I saw no point in arguing with the open end of a gun so I backed away. I had intruded on something the public wasn’t meant to see but, then, paramilitary uniforms weren’t exactly scarce on the streets of Belfast. Milligan’s eyes followed me all the way across the empty room to the door which I carefully closed behind me.

Once outside the building I stopped and breathed deep. This was getting too serious by half and I suddenly remembered Chief Hanson’s warning. Perhaps he’d been right all along.

I had nothing much else to do that could brighten up what was proving to be a dark and depressing day so I went back to see Tessie Gidley. This time I didn’t even bother to wait for an introduction, just swept past the broad in the outer office and let myself into the inner sanctum. Mrs Gidley was none too pleased but then I didn’t expect her to be.

“What do you want now, Mr Bodine. Ain’t you got the manners to knock before you come barging in here?” She half rose to her feet, face flushed with sudden anger.

I decided not to beat about the bush. “You employed Christine Fisher. You did, didn’t you?”

“Who told you about her?”

“Never mind. I want information about her. Like; when and why you employed her.”

Her face flushed red with anger. “If my Billy was here

“But he ain’t. So tell me about Fisher.”

She sank back into her seat and bared her teeth at me from behind the desk. “She don’t work for us. Not any longer, she don’t.”

Hardly likely if the girl was dead. I snapped, “Why not?”

“We got rid of her as soon as we knew” Her voice tailed off. She was lying, I could feel it in my bones.

“As soon as you knew what?”

“That she was up to no good.”

“What sort of no good?”

Tessie Gidley waved her arms in the air, obviously agitated by the questioning. “She was into drugs. Ask the police, they know all about it.”

“That’s as maybe. Did Fisher ever fill in for your girls at the Blue Taboo?”

“No, she did not. Now, bugger off, will you. And don’t go poking your nose in here again.” Once again I got that intuitive feeling that the woman was lying. For an actress, she had a poor command of her own body language.

“All right, I’ll go. But just one last question, Mrs Gidley. Who was Sammy Wilde booked to carry that night in his taxi?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Yes, you do. Who was it?”

A black look preceded her response. “He wasn’t supposed to be carrying anybody. He was supposed to be on his way to collect a girl. There wasn’t supposed to be anybody in the cab with him.”

“Who was he collecting?”

“What the hell does it matter?”

“Who? Christine Fisher?”

She looked down at her desk and snarled. After half a minute she grunted. “Uh-huh.”

“Is that a yes?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Funny. That’s what I figured you’d say. Christine Fisher: the girl you no longer employed!”

“We was going to get rid of her.”

“I’m sure you were. Do the police know she should have been in that taxi later that night?”

“Yeah, they know.”

“Well, now. Surprise, surprise.”

I felt at last I was getting somewhere, but it was all so confusing I might just as well have been getting nowhere. I left Tessie Gidley to continue with her own business and I took myself off to the city centre where I had myself a cup of bad-tasting instant coffee at a hamburger bar. After that I recovered the hire car from the parking lot and headed back to Penny’s apartment. That afternoon she had a matinee show on the opposite side of town at the Pickled Herring Club and I had insisted on driving her.

The first signs of commotion appeared before I got near the apartment: racing fire vehicles and the distant wail of a police siren. People in the street were stopped and pointing. A pillar of smoke bubbled up over the tops of the houses.

Another bomb, I guessed, and drove on. But, the closer I got to the apartment the more the streets were blocked. Eventually I left the car down a side alley and walked the rest of the way.

I turned the corner into Penny’s street and stopped dead in my tracks. The fire was in the building where she lived. Three bright red fire appliances were pulled up in the road, water hose lines snaking along the tarmac, ending at intense groups of firemen. People were running about in all directions. The noise was suddenly overwhelming. Ugly yellow flames licked out of the windows of Penny’s apartment and black smoke billowed up into the overcast sky.

Oh God! I began to run towards the building.

“Hey! You! Get back!” A fireman detached himself from a group in front of the building, ran towards me and held me back.

“You can’t go in there!”

I stood staring at the building and pointed up to Penny’s apartment. “There was a woman inside. Is she safe?”

“A woman in there you say? You’re sure of that?”

“Of course I’m sure.”

“Stay here and I’ll check. You’ll stay here, won’t you?”

“Yes, yes! Find out about the woman!”

He rushed across to a group of firemen in front of the building and came back moments later. “No one came out of there. Do you know this place?”

“I was staying here.”

“Sorry, pal. If you know there was someone inside, the police will want to talk to you.”

I felt a wave of nausea wash over me.

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