Sunday, 23 June 2013

Chapter Fifteen


Chapter Fifteen

 
 

I hardly slept that night. Most of the time I was thinking about Penny and wondering why I’d been so dumb in letting her run away again so soon after I’d found her. Unbelievably stupid. And I had no idea where she’d gone to ground this time. The empty feeling wasn’t helped by the growing realisation that Penny now occupied a more important place in my life than my efforts to find out what had happened to Marie.

Constant thoughts of Marie were still there in the background, but they were taking on a different perspective. The will to carry on looking was becoming more a matter of intrigue than a personal crusade. Bitterness was being replaced by understanding and curiosity.

I was standing by the hotel bedroom window nursing a cup of coffee when the sun came up. Greyish clouds were still crawling across the city skyline, but they were thinning out. Traffic was just beginning to clutter up the streets. And all the while recurring images of Penny refused to erase themselves from my memory banks. Later that morning, feeling more than a little weary, I set out to track her down.

Where did I start looking? I wasn’t so tired as to miss the fact that she needed some way to support herself wherever she was holed up, and there was only one job she was well qualified to do. The Blue Taboo Club was shut down good and proper, so there was no point in returning to it, but there were other strip joints in Belfast. Just two streets away from the Blue Taboo, tucked in between an off-license and a pawnbroker, was another club called Pink Pyjamas. God knows where they dreamed up that name, but I knew that Penny had worked there before and the people there would remember her. They’d have to be brain dead not to remember a figure like that. I left the hire car in a nearby multi-story and walked round to the Pink Pyjamas to check it out. If Penny was looking for work, there was a chance someone, somewhere would know about it.

At first I didn’t fully register the sound of raised voices. It came from somewhere out of sight and it wasn’t until I turned into the next street that I saw the fracas. A group of people were struggling violently on the sidewalk outside the Pink Pyjamas Club. Three men were laying into one woman and the match was grossly uneven. Farther along the sidewalk, a couple of old housewives backed away in fear.

I raced towards the group, ready to give the poor woman a helping hand. I was half way to her before I realised it was Penny who was under attack and Pat Mulholland was one of the assailants. I had no idea who the other two men were.

My blood was boiling.

“Hey! Mulholland, you bastard!” I had no coherent thoughts in my mind, just a rash determination to knock the hell out of him.

He looked up and gritted his teeth when he saw me. Swinging on his heels, he shouted something at his mates and then took to his heels. The other two hoods took off after him. Fast as I was, they out-ran me and within seconds I had lost sight of them. All I could do was skid to a halt on the sidewalk and turn all my attention on Penny. She was flat out on the ground, blood pouring from a gash on her face. She made no move to get up and it was immediately obvious that the damage was more than superficial. I screamed at the two housewives to call an ambulance.

“Penny, can you move?” I knelt beside her.

She looked straight at me with no sign of having understood.

I wrapped my coat around her and gently held her hand. “Just keep still. There’ll be an ambulance coming soon. Just lie still.”

“Henry, are you there?” Her breathing was erratic, her words difficult to hear.

I bent closer to better decipher her slurred speech. “Sure, I’m here. I’m with you.”

She stared at the sky above us. “God, but I hurt all over.”

“Why? Why the hell did they do it, Penny?”

Her eyes rotated down until she was able to focus on me. Then some sort of normal recognition took over and she began to relax. “Thank God you’re here.”

“Why did they do it?”

“Someone told Pat Mulholland…” She stopped to take a breath and a trickle of blood ran from the corner of her mouth. “Someone told him it was me who was responsible for Marie’s death.”

“Oh, God! Why would he believe that?”

“Why shouldn’t he? I believed it myself. Remember?” Her breathing was becoming steadier now. Her eyes closed for a moment and then flicked open again. “Besides, he isn’t that well-endowed with grey cells. Beating up a Protestant girl is no big deal for the likes of him.”

About then, an ambulance raced up to the scene, lights blazing and siren screeching. A couple of paramedics jumped out and I figured the police wouldn’t be far behind. I kept a watchful eye on the street and backed off from the scene just as the police arrived. It was time to make myself scarce. Rourke wouldn’t be pleased if he found out I was still on the prowl.

I figured to allow a couple of hours for Penny to be admitted to the hospital and have her wounds tended, then I would go visiting. In the meantime, I would fill those hours at the Divis Flats.

Mulholland was as every bit dumb as I took him to be, and he’d gone straight home after the attack. I found him alone in the place and some fifteen minutes later there was one helluva change in the guy’s appearance. While he lay on the floor, spitting blood, I rounded off my visit by using his phone to make an anonymous call to the police with a handkerchief over the mouthpiece. I told them who beat up Penny Hamilton and where to find him.

Then I made my way to the hospital, feeling a whole lot better.

I quietly walked in the hospital front entrance, hoping Rourke’s men weren’t already on the lookout for me. I asked at the main reception desk. They told me Penny was out of A and E and directed me to a ward on the second floor. Up there, a staff nurse told me I could see her if I didn’t stay long.

It wasn’t formal visiting time so the sick tended to outnumber the fit, leaving me feeling somewhat out of place. Penny was in one of two beds at the far end of the ward. I didn’t recognise her easily because of the dressings covering much of her head. She looked like a turbaned Arab sheik with a face mask. She saw me approaching and her eyes followed me right up to the moment I stopped and looked enquiringly at her.

“Is this a private fancy dress party or can anyone join in?”

Her mouth was bruised and swollen and she had difficulty speaking. The words came out slowly and slurred as if she was half drunk. “What are you doing here, Henry??”

“I thought you might want some grapes.” I sat down beside the bed, but made no attempt to touch her. She looked too fragile beneath the bandages and dressings. Perspiration covered her brow.

“You brought me grapes?”

“No. I forgot to buy them. How do you feel?”

“Like hell. I hurt all over.”

“I’m not surprised. There were three of them laying into you. You didn’t stand a chance.”

She frowned at me. “You saw it?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I saw it. I was there, remember? But they were running away when I got to you. Must learn to run faster.”

“You were there?” She nodded in sudden recollection. “Oh, yes. So you were. My mind just doesn’t work properly right now. You were there? Suppose I needed someone like you to help me.”

“What damage did they do to you?”

“Mostly cuts and bruises. Couple of broken ribs. Nothing life threatening.” She grimaced and put a hand to her face. “Maybe some internal bleeding, they want to do some more X-rays.”

“It was Mulholland, you know that?”

She drew a tight breath. “Course I know. I was there as well, dammit!”

“The man’s a right bastard. Someone should do something about the likes of him.” I said nothing about my visit to the Divis. Nothing at all about the condition in which I left the guy. There was no point. I tried to change the subject. “I was looking for you, Penny. Hoping someone at the Pink Pyjamas would know where you were.”

“I thought it was all over between us,” she said somewhat sadly. “I didn’t expect to see you again.”

“All over? Or not yet started. Depends on how you look at it.” I leaned closer towards her. My hand gently rested on hers. For a minute or so I sat with her hand in mine, feeling warm and comfortable, trying to allow all the tension to drain out of myself. The moment quickly passed and then the tension returned.

“I’m glad you came,” she whispered.

“The offer still stands, you know.”

“God, you’re a persistent bastard, Henry Bodine.”

I tried to smile and then I warmed to the subject. “There are schools in the states where kids learn to grow up together. Black and white. Catholic and Protestant and Jew. There are places where no one gives a damn what religion you are. This is me begging, by the way. In case you hadn’t noticed.”

She tried to grin but pulled a face when a sharp pain hit her. Still her words came out slowly, rolling awkwardly from her bruised mouth. “Go away, you stupid man. I already gave you my answer.”

“People can change their minds, with a little persuasion. At least think about it. Will you promise me that you’ll think about it?”

She looked away from me. “Sure, I’ll think about it. I guess I’ll do nothing else but think about it while I’m lying here. Now, for God’s sake, bugger off will you.”

“No.”

“Well, at least do something useful. Pour me a drink of water.”

I did as she asked. As I handed the paper cup to her I allowed my fingers to close round hers, just briefly. And I caught the merest recall of that moment of union when our souls merged together. “I’m going back to LA soon. There’s a good job waiting for me out there. Flying jets. I’ll be buying my own place, most likely. It would be nice to have someone to share it with me.”

“For God’s sake, stop it. You’re at it again.”

“That’s right. I’m at it again.” I grinned, unable to help myself. “Why did you turn me down the first time?”

“I told you why.”

“No you didn’t. Not the real reason. You just gave me some cock and bull story about the way you were brought up. It didn’t convince me. So now tell me the real reason.”

She sounded suddenly weary. “The real reason? Who knows? I had a period coming on. I get like that when I have my periods. Awkward and damned difficult to live with. That’s another reason you’d be better off without me. I’m no good for the likes of you, Henry Bodine. No good.”

“Matter of opinion.”

Penny’s eyes fell closed for a few seconds and then sprang open suddenly as if she was in pain. She grimaced and shifted in the bed. “Look, I said I’ll think about it. Okay?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Don’t take too long. I’m flying out from Heathrow a week today.”

Her brow furrowed deeply. “Good. That gives me seven days thinking time. When does your flight leave?”

“Two thirty from terminal four. Seven days from now. I’ll buy you a ticket in case you turn up.”

“Okay, two thirty one week today,” she replied slowly but challengingly. “Now go away and leave me alone to think. There’s a lot to think about. One hell of a lot. God, what a mess my life is.”

I stood up. I wanted to hold her, kiss her, comfort her, but I knew I couldn’t. “I’ll come and see you again.”

Her eyes flashed. “No! Don’t come here again. You’ll only make me cry if I have to turn you down again. If I decide to run away with you I’ll be at Heathrow a week today. If I decide not to come, you’ll be flying home alone. Now, go away, will you.”

I shrugged. “Sounds dramatic.”

“We Irish are like that. Sure, an’ life is just one big long drama in Belfast. Haven’t you learned anything while you’ve been here?” She rolled herself in the bed until she was facing away from me. “One long drama, so it is. D’you see that girl over there? In the next bed?”

I looked across to where a fair-haired young girl was lying on her back in the adjacent bed, alone and staring at the ceiling. “Yes. I see her. What about her?”

“What do you think is wrong with her?”

I shrugged. “How would I know? Is it important?”

“She’s seventeen years old. She told me that just before you came in.” Penny half turned so that she could again look at me. “A punishment squad got hold of her about a week ago and did a Black and Decker job on her knees. Drilled right through the knee caps, nerves, blood vessels, the lot. Seventeen and she’ll probably never again walk properly. Scarred for life. Sad isn’t it?”

A tense feeling of anger ran up my back. “What did she do? To deserve that?”

“She was sleeping with a British soldier. A Catholic girl in bed with a Brit. In Republican circles that’s about as bad a crime as you can commit. Even worse than robbing a church.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“To help you understand, dummy!” The explosive force of her reply caused a pain to shoot through her head and she paused to allow it to subside. “If I don’t turn up at Heathrow a week today, you think about that girl over there and try to understand why I don’t want to see your life messed up with our troubles. For God’s sake, Henry, try to understand!”

I looked again at the girl. She had rounded cheeks and long fair hair spread out on her pillow and she looked for all the world like a child. At seventeen she was little more than a child anyway. But a punishment squad got her because she was screwing with a Brit. It was the same sort of mentality that made the Serbs kill the children in Sarajevo and Mostar. Innocent kids who’d committed the crime of being alive.

I turned away.

“Do you remember what it was like when we were in bed together?” I said.

“How could I ever forget?”

“You used to take me to such a height. It was something I’ve never experienced with any other girl. Ever. I used to feel our souls coming together and being as one. And I know now what it means. It means the only purpose I have in lifethe only really important purpose—is to be with you.”

She wiped at her eyes. “Stop it, damn you. For God’s sake, Henry, you’re tearing me apart. You think I didn’t feel it as well?”

I stood up slowly. “I’ll be in touch, Penny. I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone else in my life. You know that.”

“For God’s sake get out of here.”

I was on my way out when a couple of Rourke’s men stopped me at the ward entrance door and asked me to go with them. They had been standing there for some minutes, waiting for me. They showed little interest in Penny’s battered body, probably seen it all many times before. Almost certainly seen far worse. They made it clear their orders were to bring me in for questioning and they had no rules of engagement. So I went with them.

Rourke, languishing in his office, was in a pretty mean mood. Heavy swirling smoke trails hung in the air and the ash tray on his desk was filled to overflowing.

“What happened, Bodine?”

“Where? When?”

“Don’t mess me about.” He waved a piece of paper at me. I had no idea what it was. “What happened to Hamilton?”

I sniffed loudly. “She got herself beaten up.”

“Why did they do it?”

“Pick them up and ask them. Look for a guy called Pat Mulholland.”

“We already have him in custody. Someone got to him before us and took some sort of revenge on him. Know anything about that?”

“No.”

“That’s what I thought you’d say. Not to worry, he’ll talk, eventually. He’ll squeal about what happened and why he was beating up the girl. He might even tell us who worked him over.”

“So let me go. You don’t need me.”

He stared at me, erect in his seat, angry and formidable. “I need to talk to you.”

“Really? Now, let me guess. You’re just doing your job, huh?”

“Listen to me, Bodine, you’ve caused me more trouble than I’m prepared to tolerate.” Still that careful, formal way of stringing his words together. Even in extreme annoyance. Must’ve been force of habit.

“Really?” I wasn’t impressed.

“You know that Hamilton was caught up in your sister’s murder?”

“If that’s what you want me to think, I’ll humour you.” He was leading me astray and I was having none of it.

He seemed to sense that I wasn’t going to cave in so he changed tack. “What do you propose to do now that she’s been badly hurt?”

“You got any good ideas?”

He leaned forward and placed his fore arms flat across his desk. Like two swords of judgment pointing straight at me. “Yes, I have. I am asking you, politely, to leave Northern Ireland before you cause us any more trouble.”

Politely, is what he said. The trouble was, that’s not the way I took it. “You throwing me out, Rourke?”

“Not formally. If I wanted to be formally brutal with you, I could ask the American embassy to do something. I’m quite certain I could find a very good reason why they should force you to return to the States. After all, you’re not exactly their favourite child, are you? A dropout from the US Air Force, I’m told. I think I could get them to persuade you to leave. Is that what you want?”

“Hell, I just want to be left alone to do my own thing.”

“Your own thing, Bodine, is getting people hurt. Hamilton

Miss Hamilton was leading her own life. She went looking for a job at a strip joint and made the mistake of bumping into Mulholland and his gang. Seems like someone gave them a reason to work her over. Maybe someone told Mulholland that she was responsible for Marie’s murder, responsible for the Gidleys blowing up that taxi. What do you think, Chief Inspector? Is that what happened?”

“You’re guessing.”

“Am I? You got anything out of him yet?”

“Mulholland will tell us all we want to know in time.” He leaned back in his seat and steepled his hands in front of his face. “You’re not entirely innocent, are you? Someone made a mess of Mulholland’s face before we got to him. Any ideas on that one?”

“No. But if you want to arrest me, go ahead. Otherwise I’m leaving here right now.” I stood up slowly but deliberately. “And, for what it’s worth, I aim to leave Northern Ireland of my own free choice. I’ve business in London, if you want to know.”

He remained leaning back in his seat and an expression of relief began to creep into his pent-up features. “Well, thank God for that.”

“I wouldn’t start saying your prayers yet, Rourke. I aim to come back when I’m ready and you ain’t gonna stop me.”

“You come back, Bodine, and I’ll have you locked up the moment you step off the aeroplane!”

I grinned at him. I’d already decided I wasn’t going to fly back into Northern Ireland. There were other ways.

*

Rourke’s men were there at the airport to watch me leave Northern Ireland. They made no secret of the fact they were watching me and I made no secret of the fact I knew what they were up to. I was counting on them being satisfied that I was genuinely getting out of Ireland.

Once I was safely off their patch I hoped they wouldn’t have me followed.

I caught a seven-fifty-seven mid-day shuttle flight to Heathrow and by late afternoon I was settled into one of those big, nondescript hotels that sit close to the M4 motorway near the airport. I didn’t see anyone following my hire car from the airport and I reckoned the British police were less paranoid than the RUC and had better things to do than tail an innocent American.

The next day I set out to talk to Charles Whiteman. It wasn’t difficult to trace him from the information I’d got out of Mulholland and from a quick look in the local telephone directory. Whiteman wasn’t too clever about concealing his number and his address. Maybe he saw no need.

He lived in a mock Tudor house overlooking Wimbledon Common. In a street where every resident owned a large, imposing house, this was still an unusually big place, peppered with interesting add-on bits which served no other purpose that to make it look quaint, and far too big for one old couple. I made my way up the red-brick driveway, lined with a glowing assortment of bright plants and flowers, and knocked on the front door. I should have remembered that people like Whiteman still employ servants. I was half expecting to be met by Whiteman himself but, instead, a maid dressed in black and white starched uniform eased open the big wooden door and told me Mr Whiteman wasn’t at home but was expected back very soon. I said I had important business and asked to wait so she led me into a study off the main hallway. It was mostly leather and polished solid mahogany. Rows of floor-to-ceiling mahogany bookshelves were set off by a tall marble fire place. It spoke of money with a big M.

Moments later a grey-haired woman came into the room. Not very tall, but with an erect bearing and dark, probing eyes. She spoke with a cultured English accent, the sort of thing no amount of voice-training can ever recreate in Hollywood no matter how much effort their actors put into it just to appear in English films. It takes years of breeding to create the real thing and this woman sure had it in abundance.

“I’m sorry my husband is not here at the moment. Can I help you?” She looked at me like she was trying to size me up but not succeeding.

I offered her my hand. “Good morning, ma’am. I’m Henry Bodine. Sorry to trouble you but I need to see your husband on a very important business matter.”

“Oh. You’re American, aren’t you?”

“Yes ma’am.” I grinned at the way she patted my hand when she spoke.

“You must be the gentleman from Ohio.” An initial look of surprise was quickly replaced by one of self-assurance. “Let me see now. The Denver Hills Credit Bank, isn’t it? Charles told me about the merger plans, but I’m afraid the detail is really quite beyond me. I always allowed Charles to handle all our financial affairs, you know.”

I clutched at the straws she so kindly pushed my way. “It’s mighty clever of you to know what this is all about, ma’am. Is your husband gonna be long?”

“No, not long. You know how it is.”

I started to nod but before I could speak she went on in that calm quiet manner that the upper classes tend to use in England. “He had an appointment with our doctor. He has this heart condition, you see, and he needs regular check-ups. I do hope this banking merger won’t take too much out of him. I get so worried about him when he takes these sudden trips across the Atlantic. I know how it affects him so, even when he flies Concorde.”

“I’m sure my business won’t involve any sudden journeys, ma’am. Just a few loose ends to be tied up.”

“Oh, that is reassuring.” She suddenly raised a slim hand to her face as a thought struck her, went to the open door and called the maid. “We’ll have tea here in the study, please Jennifer. And do remember the ginger biscuits, dear.”

She came back to me with a relaxed smile. “Have you just flown in from the States, Mr Bodine?”

“No, ma’am. I had some other business in Northern Ireland. I flew back to England yesterday.”

“Oh, how interesting. Do take a seat, please.” She gestured to a deep leather armchair. “Our son has been serving in Northern Ireland, you know. He’s a captain with The Regiment, but I’m not so sure I should be telling you that. My dear, I do get so confused about what I’m allowed to tell people and what I have to keep hush-hush.”

I sat down on the edge of the chair, feeling more than a little out of place. But it was her words that made my whole body suddenly stiffen. I hoped she didn’t notice. “Don’t you worry, ma’am. I’m the soul of discretion. Your son’s over there now, is he?”

“Yes.” She nodded to a large framed photograph on the mantelpiece. “That’s James. Charles told me he was supposed to be in Belfast, but we had a picture postcard from him and it came from Killarney in County Kerry. That’s in the Irish Republic, you know. Such a lovely place. We went there on holiday many years ago but I’m sure it hasn’t changed.”

“Your son’s in the Irish Republic?”

“Yes. Charles said he thought James must be taking a short break to get away from the trouble in the north. Let me see now, where did I put that postcard.” Her eyes suddenly lit up. “Ah, yes. The bureau.” She rose majestically from her seat, moved off to an antique bureau sitting alongside the fireplace and carefully picked up something from a wooden rack on top. “Yes, here it is.”

The picture postcard showed a photograph of a modern hotel inset into a bigger picture of the Killarney Lakes. On the reverse side was a simple message in neat script. “All’s well. Taking a short break. No more problems in Belfast.”

Mrs Whiteman screwed up her aristocratic nose. “No more problems in Belfast. What an odd sort of message when they have so many problems to cope with. The trouble over there never seems to stop, do they? Maybe he was referring to the talk about a cease fire.”

I said nothing. I knew instantly what he really meant. Finally everything was beginning to fall neatly into place. Only a few remaining pieces were left to be slipped into the big jig-saw.

The tea and biscuits arrived about then. The tea was long on milk and short on sugar and the biscuits looked frail enough to fall apart at first touch. The sort of thing they would serve on the vicarage lawn in a Miss Marple story.

“How long has your son been in Northern Ireland, ma’am?” I asked, trying to keep my voice friendly.

“Only about a year. Maybe less.” Mrs Whiteman sipped at her tea and replaced the cup in the saucer with an air of precision. “He was due to go over there some months earlier but he had some sort of illness so they held him back.”

“Noting serious, I hope?”

“I wouldn’t know, I’m afraid. The Regiment doesn’t like us to know what’s going on, do they?” She smiled at nothing in particular.

“I wouldn’t know, ma’am. You get to see your son often?”

“Now and again, when he gets home on leave. We have some property in London, a flat in Kensington, and sometimes he stays there. It gives him more freedom, you see, to meet with his own friends.”

“That’s real nice.” I sipped the tea and my mind turned over a few possibilities.

The conversation became parochial after that and I learned nothing more of value about the Whiteman family. The questions which were welling up inside my mind could be saved for the owner of the house on his return.

Half an hour later Charles Whiteman arrived home while I was still taking tea with his wife. Bearing in mind he didn’t know me from the Sundance Kid, he didn’t seem the least put out until Mrs Whiteman introduced me as Mr Bodine from the Denver Gold Credit Bank. Then his face creased into one almighty frown.

He was in his late fifties and well-built. His perfectly tailored suit covered a broad barrel chest and wide shoulders. His face was oval shaped and only just beginning to sag in the jowls. His cheeks were pale, unhealthily white. The hair was grey and thinning but the eyes still blue and alert.

“Bodine?” He offered his hand cautiously. It was firm and wide and hung onto mine long enough to tell me I was under close scrutiny.

“That’s right, Mr Whiteman.” I searched for the best words to introduce myself and failed miserably. I heard myself babbling, “I’ve been telling your wife how I was in Ireland for a while. On business. And she was telling me all about your son being over there.”

“Really?” His frown turned onto his wife. “Mildred, I’ll be a little while with Mr Bodine. See that we’re not disturbed, will you?”

His stern look of rebuke didn’t go unnoticed. Mildred Whiteman crept away with down-turned lips and dilated eyes. The door closed behind her with a firm click. Once we were alone all pretences came down. Suddenly, like a falling shutter.

“All right. We’re alone now. So what’s all this about, Mr Bodine?”

“I just need to talk to you.”

“What about?”

I returned his powerful gaze, measure for measure. I suddenly raised the tone of my voice, hoping to catch him out. “It’s about my sister. I’m sure you remember my sister, Mr Whiteman. I’m sure you remember Marie Bodine?”

“What about her?”

“You knew her well.”

“Might have done.” He turned away from me and picked up a cigar. Made a big thing of lighting up. “How did you find me?”

“It wasn’t that easy. I had to follow quite a lengthy trail, in fact. That’s why I was in Ireland. You know that Marie’s dead, don’t you?”

“Is she?” He stiffened, his hands still on the cigar and lighter. But not one single sign of concern edged into his face. “No, as it happens, I didn’t know. I haven’t seen the girl in months, so why are you here pestering me?”

“She was killed in Belfast. Blown up by a bomb. Maybe you read about it.”

His fingers slipped on the cigar lighter and it snapped shut. “They have so many bombs over there. Very few get into the national press. No, I didn’t read about it.”

“I wasn’t talking about the press, Whiteman. Your son sent you a postcard from Killarney.” I paused for impact. “Your wife showed me. No more problems in Belfast.”

For a second his face turned pink. Then it became pale again, almost white. “Get to the point, will you.”

I knew I’d really got to him so I didn’t have to build myself up any longer. I made a point of taking a seat and crossing my legs. “You kept my sister in your apartment in Kensington. She was your mistress, wasn’t she?”

“Mistress? What an outmoded expression. Anyhow, it’s all in the past. Is this some sort of blackmail attempt?”

“No. Nothing like that.”

He frowned. “Well, what is it?”

“Mr Whiteman, you don’t seem the least bit put out that my sister is dead.”

“Should I be?” He turned away from me so that I was unable to see the expression on his face. But I noticed that his shoulders were sagging, his whole stance lacking in confidence.

“I figure so. You slept with her. You kept her in a private apartment. Didn’t you feel anything for her? Didn’t you have any love for her?”

He drew on the cigar, blew out a cloud of smoke and went to the window. He spoke with his back to me. “Seems to me, Bodine, that I need to put you straight about your sister.”

“Fire away.”

“What passed between Marie and me was nothing more than a business arrangement.” He turned round at that point, some small degree of self-assurance creeping back into his stance. “The flat was convenient because I owned it and it was empty at the time. I visited her three times a week, paid her a fair sum and let her stay there free of charge. She agreed not to take any other clients there. You see, I wasn’t in love with the girl. I used her just as she used me. It was a business arrangement and nothing more.”

“A business arrangement?”

“I paid for her services. She was no better than a prostitute.”

The room seemed to echo with an ethereal silence. I wanted to jump up and hit the old man, but I couldn’t because I knew that he was speaking the truth. For the first time I began to wish I had left the whole damned business well alone.

A whole minute of pregnant silence passed between us.

“What happened when she left you?” When I spoke, my throat suddenly felt dry and raw. “Why did she leave?”

“There was an unfortunate incident. My son was home on leave and he took to seeing Marie without my knowledge. Purely business, again. She charged him for her services. But she was still using the flat and we had this agreement between us that no other customers were to be taken there.”

“Even your own son?”

“Even him. So I told her she had to leave. She didn’t take it very well, threw a tantrum and shouted a few obscenities at me. The last I heard she was living in a squat with some drug-addicted drop-out.”

“I see.” I caught a sudden image of Marie losing her temper. Yes, she was capable of doing that. “And how did your son take it?”

He rubbed a hand across his eyes. “Badly. She left him with a nasty dose of syphilis.”

Once again I got that urge to hit the old man. Self-control was getting very difficult. “Really? Sounds like neither of you have anything good to say about my sister.”

He rounded on me then, eyes flaming. “You asked and I’m telling you the truth! Truth hits hard sometimes! Don’t you know that?”

“Okay! Cool it, will you.” I pointed a finger at him and watched as he calmed down again. “How did you meet Marie?”

“It was business. There are people who arrange these things. A good business manager will usually ensure the girls are attractive and accommodating. And clean. This one seems to have got through the net.”

“Maybe your son should have been more careful about using rubbers. Maybe your business manager should have warned him.” I threw a sneer at him. “Back home we call them pimps.”

“What’s in a name?” He moved closer to the door, trying to end the whole discussion. But I stayed sat in that seat and stared at him.

“Depends on the name,” I told him.

“Look, is that all? Have you found out all you came here to find out?”

I stood my ground. “No. What’s your son doing down in the Irish Republic?”

“Taking a holiday, and that is nothing to do with you, Bodine.”

“Depends on why he needs to take a vacation right now.”

“Leave him alone.”

Leave him alone? It sounded like a protective father warning off the school bully. I was damned if I was going to leave him alone. Whiteman came closer and stood over me, menacingly.

I just sat there on my butt and fumed. “I suppose you’d have been a bit embarrassed if Marie were to let slip that you paid her for sex. You being an English gentleman.”

He drew deeply on his cigar. “I let her go and she didn’t cause me any more bother after that.”

“But she might have done. She left England and went to live in Belfast. In Northern Ireland she wasn’t under anyone’s control. And your son was over there.”

“What are you getting at?”

“Just trying to figure out if you and your son had a good motive for murder.”

Whiteman’s teeth gripped his cigar hard. His voice was thick with menace. “Get out of my house, Bodine. Get out and don’t even think of contacting me again.”

At that point I got to my feet and walked out of the room. Mrs Whiteman was in the hallway and I nodded to her politely as I left. I knew damned well that I was leaving behind me one whole lot of trouble between Whiteman and his wife.

No comments:

Post a comment