Thursday, 13 June 2013

Chapter Five


Chapter Five

  

I woke up suddenly in a cold sweat, the razor sharp image of a nightmare still pounding around inside my head. A nightmare about Bosnia. Graphic memories of indiscriminate carnage and killing, streets turned red with blood and gore. And then I found myself staring into the huge face of a hideous monster. It was the large, out-of-focus image of an alien being, and it was staring down at me. Its mouth was moving but no sound emanated from it. Sweat continued to drain down my face as I fought to control myself and focus my eyes. Seconds passed before I realised it was the benevolent face of Mr Spock.

The flight from Belfast to Heathrow had run late. As if that was not enough, I had to wait for a bus to take me from Terminal One in the Heathrow central area to Terminal Four which is located across the other side of the airfield. The check-in desk for the flight to LA had been about to close when I got there and they allocated me the last available seat on the 747, in the middle of the main cabin and right in front of the film screen.

Mr Spock moved back out of scene, making way for Captain Kirk. I figured it was time I did the same so I went back to the cabin services area and got myself a strong black coffee. My mind was still spinning with the nightmare images of Bosnia. Images of carnage that just wouldn’t lie down. Hell! As if I didn’t have enough horrors in my mind with thoughts of what happened to Marie in Belfast.

Why Bosnia? Why in heavens name had I been dreaming of Bosnia now? How many months was it since I had been there? Not many. The memories were recent enough to be still pin-sharp. Acid-sharp. I took a mouthful of coffee and wiped my free hand down my damp face, but nothing could wipe away what was inside my skull.

What was it about flying as a passenger that brought out such intense nightmares? I’d had one when I arrived in Northern Ireland and now I’d had another on leaving. The first was centred on the death of Marie. This one was all about the genocide of a nation. Was there some connection?

*

They sent me into Bosnia to work with George Quinlon. Not many people have heard of Quinlon, but he played an important role in the US involvement in Bosnia. He ran a medical aid project in Sarajevo and lived very close to the UN forward headquarters in the city.

Technically he was a civilian working for the International Rescue Committee but few things in Bosnia were as they seemed, and that included George Quinlon. A tall, shadowy figure working on the fringes of the UN presence, he had his finger on the pulse of most of the political and military activities. He had been a US Marine Corps officer and he knew what to look out for and who to talk to when things got tough. Unusually for a civilian working for an aid organisation, he had a reliable line of communication with Capitol Hill in Washington and that was a whole story in itself.

I was dragged into the story shortly after Madeleine Albright and General John Shalikashvili, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, were both left embarrassed on their arrival at Sarajevo Airport. It was one of those important liaison visits to Bosnia made from time to time by international leaders. Officials from the US State Department had flown in ahead of them to arrange the schedule, but they goofed. Transport was a foul-up, clearance to cross the line of conflict was a foul-up, even the meetings with the various players on the ground was badly organised. The State Department people had been badly briefed, they had poor intelligence information and they didn’t understand the situation on the ground so was it any wonder they made one whole mess of the arrangements. Fortunately the Brits stepped in and sorted it out, but not before the American presence had been severely and publicly embarrassed. Madeleine Albright wasn’t too impressed and General Shalikashvili was pretty chewed up about it, to put it mildly.

At about that time, I was just coming to the end of a pretty hectic tour on B52s and I was waiting to hear news of a posting to Europe. I guess it must have been my name at the top of the list for a posting that made them select me for Bosnia. Just a run-of-the-mill major, I was summoned to the Pentagon, given a hasty sketch of what was going on and then ushered into the office of a four star general.

General Linus Baltimore was in a foul mood that day and he sure didn’t mince his words. A look of prickly anger permanently painted across his face, he glared at me from behind his polished oak desk and snapped, “They told you what happened to the Secretary of State in Bosnia?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, son, we’ve been made fools of. And the President is kinda pissed off about it. He don’t take kindly to his people looking like fools. And we don’t aim for that sort of unholy foul-up to happen again. You hear me?”

“I hear you, General.” Unwisely, I added, “Sounds like we should hand over the organising to the Brits next time.”

“Hell, no!” He half rose from his seat, thought better of it and sat down again, heavily. “You think the State Department is gonna give the Limeys control over arrangements for a visit by an American ambassador? The State Department is handing it over to us, son. And no Limey’s gonna get the better of the US military.”

I gave him a moment to calm down before I replied. “I hear you, general.”

“You’d better, son. We aim to boost our intelligence out there. We’re putting a lot more into Bosnia but we gotta be careful how we go about it. We don’t have US military on the ground out there so we gotta go easy with this one.”

By now I was getting bad vibes about why I was being dragged into this. “How does that involve me, sir?”

He compressed his lips for a few seconds. “You heard of George Quinlon?”

“No, sir.”

“You will have by the time you leave this building. You go and get yourself fully briefed on Quinlon. Then get yourself some civilian clothes suitable for Europe at this time of the year. Warm clothes. Then get yourself out there to Sarajevo and make contact with Quinlon. He knows you’re coming. You’ll be there to help him beef up his network. We promised him all the support he needs.”

It didn’t sound like the sort of job I’d been expecting. I quashed a quiet shiver. “Anything specific you want from me, sir?”

“Yeah. We want intelligence and we want accurate intelligence.”

“Are you sure you got the right man, General? That sounds kinda CIA-ish to me.” I looked him in the eye, as confrontational as a mere major can with a general.

“We know all about you, son. You’re the man we want for this job.”

“And the CIA don’t mind?”

“Quinlon reports directly to the Secretary of State, not the CIA. He don’t want any of them spooks involved in his show. He aims to get to the real truth of what’s going on, not the CIA’s version of the truth.” General Baltimore leaned back in his seat and put the tips of his fingers together into a steeple formation. “Qinlon’s asked us for a pilot who’s… reliable.” I got the impression he meant expendable. If any doubts showed in my face he sure did stare me down. “You fly transports, Bodine?”

“No, sir.”

“You do now, son. You’ve done the political awareness update course?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ve done the covert activities program?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re due for a posting?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You just got it, son.”

So, just a few days later, I flew across to Europe and then on to Sarajevo as pilot of a civilian aircraft ferrying aid supplies. Like Quinlon, I was technically working as part of the international aid programme but, like I said, things weren’t all that they seemed out there.

By the time I arrived in Sarajevo, the city had been under siege for almost two years, and it looked like a place that was mortally wounded but hadn’t quite decided to lie down and die. Every day around twelve hundred shells fell on it, adding to the destruction of property that was already beyond repair and adding to a horrific death toll. And that was in addition to the callous snipers who picked out individual civilians at random for no other reason than that they were civilians.

In the previous two years around ten thousand civilians had died, about three thousand of them were children. For the ones who survived, life was harsh in the extreme. It was still winter when I got there and the night-time temperature would sometimes fall to minus thirty. In a city that had no electricity or running water, the added discomfort of severe cold would often bring people to the limits of endurance. All-in-all, it was a war in which civilians were the principal target and the destruction of humanity was a prime aim.

I hated it right from the start.

*

I went back to my seat in front of the film screen and saw that Mr Spock and Captain Kirk had got along just dandy without me. But then, life was so much easier for them. At the end of the film they could relax. My nightmares just carried on… and on.

*

On the day of Marie’s funeral it rained like someone up there sure knew what was going on and was aiming to make us suffer even more. We stood around the open grave, thoroughly drowned by the downpour, peering into a hole that was in danger of collapsing in on itself. In the end the priest cut short the service and we all ran for the cover of the church. Even at her last public moment, Marie didn’t have the respect of a dignified burial. Deep inside, I was paining like I’d rarely felt private emotional pain before.

The priest came to speak to me but he never did get the knack of saying the right thing at the right time. “Just like old times, Henry. You and your parents back in church together. Nice to see it. Good times again, eh?”

Good times? I pictured the mess that was Marie when I saw her in that Belfast morgue and I could have stuck one on him. Instead I replied, “We Bodines stick together, Father.”

“Sure, Henry. Sure. Nice to see a family that sticks together. Gives a kinda continuity to life, eh? How far do you Bodines go back in LA?”

“Long enough, Father. Long enough.” Then I walked away because I was in no mood to talk about the history of the Bodine family and in no mood to be friendly with a man who had snubbed God by refusing to experience the pure communion that comes when the right man meets the right woman.

Like me and Penny Hamilton.

The Bodines were another matter entirely. It was my grandmother who told me about Pierre Boudine, a Frenchman who had spent many years trapping fur in the Canadian Rocky Mountains up around the Bow River. That was before he travelled south into America in 1801. In 1802, Pierre met and married Mary O’Callaghan, the daughter of penniless Irish Catholic immigrants. They settled somewhere near Lake Michigan although I never found out exactly where. Except for their early origins, all I know about Pierre and Mary Boudine is that they raised a large family who, presumably, must have descendants still living in Michigan.

Grandmother told me that in 1858 their grandson Abel Boudine headed off to Colorado in search of gold. He found nothing of value, but somewhere along the way his name changed to Bodine. Alterations to names were pretty common in those times when little or nothing was written down about family histories. By the time Abel Bodine arrived in California in 1861, the civil war was just beginning. That was how we Bodines came to be here in LA. I never found out what part of Ireland Mary O’Callaghan came from and, up to then, I hadn’t really been interested. Now the thought began to intrigue me.

One day I would take the trouble to find out.

I decided to stay on with mom and dad at their house, more to help them than to help myself. They lived out of town, in a residential area where the desert was so close and the air so hot you’d swear the devil himself was a neighbour. I had an empty apartment closer in to the town and I could have gone back to it, but that would have left my parents alone with their misery. I couldn’t do that to them.

I didn’t tell them everything I’d learned in Belfast, they’d been hurt too much already. But I sure didn’t put the matter out of my mind.

The next day, when the formalities were mostly over, I went down to see Chief Hanson at the police department building, tucked in behind the local drug store. He was busy when I walked in off the street, a stack of files heaped on his desk. He looked up but couldn’t bring himself to meet my gaze.

Hanson was the epitome of a local small-town policeman, a guy who had turned down promotion in the big city in order to work out here in this quiet suburb. He was a stocky man with wide, muscular hands and projecting ears. Like the rest of his extremities, his nose was a touch too big which gave the impression he was sniffing the air when he started at you. His eyes were dark and deeply set and on most occasions they held an expression which could have been misinterpreted as tenderness. Maybe that was why Marie had been so fond of him.

“Howdy, Henry. What can I do for you?” As he spoke, one brawny arm scooped out a space on his desk and the other waved me into a seat. He sighed and then leaned both elbows on the desk top.

“You got time to talk, Chief?”

“No, but what the hell. Suppose you’re ready to tell me all about what happened over there in Ireland?”

“Sort of.” I rubbed my chin thoughtfully and changed the subject. “You still mad at me, Chief?”

“Course I am. You screwed up a damn good career, and for what? But you didn’t come here to talk about your adventures with the Air Force, did you?”

“Nope. That’s none o’ your business anyway.” Almost before the words were out I could have kicked myself. Hanson didn’t deserve that sort of rejection just because I was bound by the law to keep the truth to myself. I added, lamely, “Just don’t ask me to tell you about that business, Chief. Please.”

“So, why do you need to ask if I’m mad at you?”

“Figure I could do with a sympathetic ear. Not sure if you’re ready to offer it.”

“Christ, you should know me better’n that, Henry. What the hell have you come here for?”

“Chew over a few things, I guess. About Ireland. I reckon I need some sort of help and it was you that set things up for me with the RUC in Belfast. I figured you might be able to throw a bit of light in some dark corners.”

“Who did you see over there?”

“A guy called Rourke. Chief Inspector.” I decided I’d keep Penny Hamilton and Pat Mulholland out of the picture to start with.

“Oh yeah? I didn’t get any names, but they promised someone with influence.”

“Influence, maybe. But I have this hunch the bastard gave me some bum steers. Told me it was a straightforward terrorist killing. But I’m not totally stupid, Chief, you know that. I figure things different.”

“Oh, yeah. How come?” Chief Hanson let out a long breath and then leaned back and put his feet up on his old, battered desk. His unease was melting away. Hell, it was difficult to stay mad with this guy for long.

We’d known Chief Hanson since we moved to this part of LA. That was twenty years before, when I was just a kid and he was still a rookie cop. He’d been a sort of stabilising influence most of our lives, always there in the background while Marie and me were growing up in our small-town community. When I was a brash young tear-away at Junior High, he’d more than once caught me out swimming in the creek when I should’ve been at class. Each time, he’d marched me straight home to my folks with dire warnings of what he ought to do to me… but never did. Marie had a mild sort of crush on him at one time, but he never seemed to notice let alone take advantage of it, which got Marie kind of upset, I seem to recall. When I got my commission in the Air Force, Chief Hanson was the first to come round to the house to wish me well. When I was discharged he said nothing and kept away.

I decided to give him as much as I’d learned. Not the whole shooting match about Northern Ireland because even I didn’t know that, but enough to tackle his interest.

“It looked like the bomb was deliberately triggered to blow up that particular car; the one Marie was riding in. Now that just don’t make sense for a mindless terrorist killing. I mean, it takes some time and effort to set up that sort of killing. It’s not like picking up a rifle and taking a random pot-shot at whoever happens to be in the way. No, I figure that someone was out to get either Marie or the driver.”

“So what’ve you got on the driver?”

I shrugged. “Just a cabbie. Looked like he was taking Marie to work.”

“Uh-huh.” Hanson screwed up his nose thoughtfully. “What sort of explosive did they use?”

“Rourke told me they filled a trash can with Anfo.”

Hanson grimaced. “Amateurs. If they were professional terrorists, they’d have used Semtex or, failing that, a mixture the Brits call Co-op. Anfo is for the amateurs. Fertiliser and fuel oil. A high school kid could make it up.”

“It needed Semtex to initiate the explosion.”

“Just a small amount.”

“The whole damned thing was enough to blow Marie to Kingdom Come.”

“Yeah.” Hanson shook his head sadly. “You got any motive in mind?”

I shrugged once again. “Marie was a Catholic.”

“So she was a Catholic? They breed them over there, you know. Most American Catholics can take their history back to Ireland.”

“Cut the shit, Chief.” I could see I needed to turn on the heat a bit. “Religion is different over there. They kill each other just because they’re Protestants or Catholics and they don’t think twice about it. I mean, they get nothing else out of it except seeing a dead body lying in the street. Just like in…” I’d been about to equate Belfast with Sarajevo but caught myself in time. Hanson didn’t appear to notice.

“Pretty speech,” he grunted disapprovingly. “Sounds like something you heard on a television feature.”

“It’s true, Chief! God save us, don’t you read what they write in the newspapers?”

“Yeah. Read it, don’t always believe it. But let’s suppose that all you tell me is true. It still don’t sound like a plausible motive for what happened. Hot shit, Henry! Marie was a good kid, a real peach. Those terrorist gangs might kill each other’s murdering thugs, but surely they don’t deliberately kill innocent kids like her. Not without some damn good reason.”

“There’s no such thing as a good reason when it comes to killing people like Marie.” I paused to let the words sink in. “There’s another thing that bugs me. Marie was earning money dancing in this club.”

“So she was dancing? You know she always reckoned she’d make it as a dancer. She went over there just to make it as a dancer.”

“It wasn’t that sort of dancing.” I saw no reason to mention the striptease side of it so I hurried into the nub of the matter, “The thing is I discovered this club where she did her dancing is where fanatical loyalists get together. Well, I figure if someone there discovered she was a Catholic, they might have…”

“You’re just getting paranoid, Henry. Look, I know it’s hit you real hard but if you want my advice you’ll dump the whole thing.” He brought his feet back to the floor and made to pick up his pen—an un-subtle hint that he had a job to get on with. “Any other reason someone might want to do her in?”

“She had a boyfriend. I met him and he’s a user and he was living off her earnings.”

His face turned sour. “Ah shit. Now, that’s bad. That smells more like the sort of business that leads to folks getting killed.”

“Yeah…and Marie was pregnant.” There, I’d let him into something I wanted kept quiet.

“Jeez! That sure is a bummer.” His face dropped and he twiddled his pen frantically between his fingers.

“Mom and dad don’t know.”

“They won’t find out from me, Henry. Look, it ain’t really none of my business, but if Marie had a boyfriend who was into narcotics it could be she got mixed up in something real dirty. Let the local police work on it, don’t go treading on their toes.”

“That’s your best advice?”

He dropped the pen and leaned back, heavy faced. “Sure is. So, what you gonna do now?”

I thought for a moment. “I don’t know for sure. There’s too many loose ends. Too many things just don’t tie up. I figure I ought to go back over there.”

“Don’t.” He stared at me hard, his deep-set eyes unblinking. “You can’t do any good by it. You’ll only get your ass blown off.”

“Like Marie?”

“Just don’t do it, Henry,” he repeated.

“I could try to find out more about what happened. What really happened.”

“You’re a dumb idiot, you hear me? It ain’t your war. You just take care you don’t get your ass caught up in something unpleasant, Henry. Don’t want to see you brought home in a body bag.”

“Sure, Chief, I hear you.” Ironically, if I was going to be brought home in a body bag it would have happened before now. But I wasn’t going to raise that subject again. “I’m telling you, Chief, I aim to go back there and I ain’t coming home until I find out exactly what happened to Marie and who the hell killed her.”

That was it.

In that instant, my mind was made up and I knew that I was destined to go back to Belfast. With the decision made, all that remained was to break the news to mom and dad. They lived the pain of Marie’s death day after day and I didn’t want to add to that pain. Didn’t want to, but had to.

I went home to brood over things and was still agonising over it two days later when Hanson called me.

“I got to figuring what you were saying, Henry. Made a few enquiries of my own. You wanna come over and talk about it?”

“You found out something?”

“Could be.”

“On my way.” I put down the receiver and I was down there at the police department in minutes.

Hanson was slouched back behind his desk, eyes like ice and mouth set in a firm grim line. I slammed the door shut behind me so that no one would overhear us.

“What you got, Chief?”

He nodded towards a seat and reached for a desk drawer. “The thing is, I don’t like the idea of you shootin’ off on your own, trying to be some sort of Mike Hammer. Don’t want you gettin’ yourself mixed up in things you don’t understand. Now, I know I can’t exactly stop you, but I figured I could cut across some of the formalities. Dig up some of the dirt before you go makin’ a fool of yourself. So I’ve been making some enquiries. Got to figuring that it might have been the narcotics side of things that got Marie killed.”

“And you found out something?”

“Maybe.” He silently handed me a photograph across the desk. It was a large blow-up in full colour and it showed a rather fuzzy picture of a red-headed girl in what appeared to be an airport terminal. She wore blue denims and carried a large shoulder bag. It looked like the picture might have been taken covertly.

“Marie?” I asked.

“Dunno. Looks like her, don’t it?” He scratched his chin thoughtfully. “But they tell me it ain’t. They say this broad goes by the name of Christine Fisher.”

“Where did you get the picture?”

“Los Angeles Police Department. I was asking for anything they had on narcotics linked to Northern Ireland. It’s an international trade and the LAPD get to see intelligence from European sources. Anyhow, they got this picture from NYPD. The girl is a narcotics courier. Carries coke, crack, that sort o’ shit between the U.S. and Europe. They say they were going to pick her up on her next trip but they were warned off.”

“Warned off? By who?”

“They wouldn’t say.”

“Why didn’t they pick her up before now?”

“She’s small fish. They wanted her contacts far more than they wanted her. Leastways, that’s what they told me.”

“And you think this girl is something to do with Marie?”

“It sure looks a lot like her,” he said flatly. “Maybe someone got ’em mixed up. Killed the wrong girl.”

“Oh, come off it, Chief. This is the real world, not some television drama. Besides, this looks like a good many red-headed girls.” I dropped the photograph back on his desk.

Hanson picked up the photograph and studied it again. “Then again, maybe they’re wrong. Maybe this is Marie.”

“No!” I wasn’t going to listen to that sort of accusation, whoever it came from. “Marie wouldn’t do anything as stupid as carrying narcotics. This can’t be her.”

“You think I feel happy with the idea, Henry? You think I like the thought that Marie was into narcotics running? You know better than that. But if this is her it might explain why someone wanted to wipe her out.”

“It ain’t her, I tell you. There must be ten thousand red-headed girls out there who look like that.”

Hanson shook his head. “All involved with Northern Ireland? All living with a junkie?” He continued to study the picture like he was becoming convinced this was Marie. Half a minute passed before he threw it down again. “It was you who told me Marie was involved with a junkie, remember? That’s a dirty business, Henry. People get killed when they get mixed up in this sort of business.”

“I said it isn’t her! Hell, you should know Marie better’n that. By God, I’ll find out what really happened to her.”

“Maybe you will. Maybe not. Like I said, I made enquiries and this is what I come up with.” He lowered his voice. “You wanna learn more?”

“More?”

“I talked to NYPD. Told them about Marie. Told them what you told me, and they say they wanna talk to you.”

“Why?”

“They got their reasons. All to do with smuggling narcotics. So they say.”

I felt angry. I wanted to find answers, but not this sort of answer. Logic told me that the right answers might not taste so good, but I didn’t want logic. I wanted to find out a truth which wouldn’t tarnish Marie’s memory.

“You shouldn’t have told them about what Marie was doing. You had no business to do that, Chief.”

Hanson stood up suddenly. “Wise up, Henry! If you wanna learn what really happened to Marie you better start gettin’ your brains in gear. There’s a lieutenant in NYPD comin’ out here in a couple of days. Wants to talk to you. So, wise up and talk to him. You might learn somethin’. Eh?”

“He’s coming here to see me?”

“Don’t get ideas above your station. He’s comin’ out here to talk to bigger fish than some guy who throws up his Air Force career and won’t tell me why.”

“You bastard.”

“You’ll be second billing on his agenda, if that. Will you see him?”

I considered it. “I might.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

*

The NYPD lieutenant was called Bray. He was in his mid-fifties, bald and paunchy with dull, dark eyes. All round, he had one of those faces that gives away nothing but asks a hell of a lot of questions. You could sure tell he was a cop, though. The signs were there, inbred and developed to a point where any switched-on observer could spot them without too much trouble. A hood could see it a mile off but that was Bray’s problem, not mine.

He sat behind Hanson’s desk, leaned back and sipped from a paper coffee cup. “Tell me about your sister,” he said after the briefest of introductions. His voice was gruff, insistent.

I sniffed. Despite a growing sense of annoyance, I’d already decided to go along with it. After all, as Hanson told me, I might actually learn something. “What’s to tell? I reckon Chief Hanson filled you in on all you need to know already. Marie wasn’t into narcotics, that’s all there is to it.”

“You saw the photograph that’s supposed to be Christine Fisher. Does it look like your sister?”

“I saw it. It ain’t Marie.”

“How do you know? Hanson reckons it looks a lot like her. Could have been her.” He scratched at his chin, slowly and a mite too carefully to be spontaneous. “Maybe she and Fisher were one and the same person.”

“Bullshit. You don’t believe that.”

“Maybe I do. Maybe not.”

“Marie wouldn’t do anything as dumb as carry narcotics.”

Bray just shrugged, but that single gesture implied that he thought otherwise. “This girl, Fisher, disappeared about the same time your sister was killed. We had men watching her, but she just vanished off the face of the earth.”

“That don’t prove anything.”

“No. But it’s a lead.” He crushed the paper cup and tossed it into the waste paper basket. “If Fisher was your sister, you wanna find out for sure. If she wasn’t, you still wanna find out. So, help us. Tell us what you know.”

It cut against the grain to accept even the possibility that Marie was this missing girl, but it made sense to keep talking. I pondered over it for a second or two. “Marie had a boyfriend called Pat Mulholland. He was a junkie. My sister gave him money.”

“To buy narcotics?”

I nodded. “But that don’t prove anything.”

“How did she get the money? How did she earn it?”

“She was a dancer.”

“What sort of dancer.”

“Small time. Look, Lieutenant, I keep telling you, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Maybe Marie does look like this girl, but that’s just because they’re both red heads.” I warmed to the argument. “Maybe someone mistook Marie for Fisher and killed her by mistake.”

“Maybe. But unlikely.”

“Anything’s likely.”

He leaned forward in his seat and clasped his hands together. “Fisher was American and the Brits have been asking for intelligence on her. Funny thing is I get the impression they already know more than we do. That pisses me off, really pisses me off. And we can’t even find the broad! It leaves us looking damn stupid. I don’t like looking stupid in front of anyone. You want to know more?”

“Go on.”

“She was a dancer.” He leaned right across the desk and hissed at me. “A stripper.”

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