The road that led south out of the city was overlooked by a few attractive houses. They stood in large plots and were surrounded by well-kept gardens. Penny once told me that some of them were occupied by people who’d made a financial killing out of the troubles. She said the IRA Mafia bosses lived as comfortably as the UVF Mafia bosses, but people didn’t talk about it openly. The people who lived in the grim back streets of West Belfast put up with it for the most simple of reasons: fear of their lives.
The Gidleys had a large, neat house about three miles south of Belfast. It was built of good quality brick and maintenance-free plastic, the sort of place that smelled of better-than-average income and expensive tastes. Modern but with a passing nod at neo-Georgian architecture. It was set in an acre of rolling ground just off the Downpatrick Road with nothing but rich farmland surrounding the site. If this was all you saw of it, you’d never have guessed that Ireland was the poor man of Europe.
My hire car crunched to a halt in the Gidley’s gravel driveway. The house seemed strangely quiet when I walked towards it. The garage door was half open but there was no sign of a car. No one answered the front door bell and at first I thought no one was at home. Then I saw the drapes move at an upstairs window, and two faces peering out from the shadows within. It seemed like I’d caught someone busy in the bedroom.
A minute or so later the front door opened just a few inches, enough for someone to see out, but not enough for me to get a good look inside. The face of the girl who peered round the edge of the door looked too young to be a maid so she had to be the Gidley’s daughter, Joanna. Penny had told me about her. A right little bitch, she said. If that was true, Joanna Gidley more than made up for it with the looks of a princess. I made out a smooth rounded face, jet black hair and deep, beautiful eyes. A smile like a dream spread out across her glowing cheeks.
The smile vanished suddenly for no apparent reason. “Who is it? Waddaya want?” Her harsh Belfast accent broke the spell and the princess became a frog.
I tried to give her my best approximation of a casual grin. “Hi. I’m Henry Bodine. I called to see Mr Gidley.”
“He’s not here. He’ll be at the office, so he will. What did you want to see him about anyway?”
“It’s about my sister.”
“Your sister?” A deep frown crossed her face.
I wasn’t put off. “My sister was called Marie Bodine. She worked for the Billy Gidley agency. She was killed—”
“Oh, her? The one what got herself killed?” The face suddenly withdrew back into the house and I heard one end of a whispered conversation behind the door. Footsteps rumbled up the stairs and then the front door opened fully and Joanna Gidley ungraciously invited me inside.
“S’pose you’d better come and wait for me daddy to come back. Actually he’s just gone into town to put some money into the bank, but he doesn’t like me to tell people where he really is. He won’t be long.”
She had a silk robe tightly wrapped about her and nothing else. You could tell that by the fall of her breasts and the way her ass was smoothly outlined beneath the robe with no panty ridges. Her bare legs pumped out from the folds as she showed me into a well-furnished lounge at the rear of the house.
“I hope I haven’t come at an inconvenient time,” I said, knowing full well that I had.
The girl sniggered. She had a naturally cheerful face and a well-rounded body. Penny had said she was about fourteen, but the more I sized her up, the older she looked. Heavy footsteps plodded about in the room above and it didn’t take too much imagination to guess that they would belong to a lusty young male. Neither did it take much grey matter to work out just what sort of activity I had interrupted. But that was none of my business.
“You’d better take a seat while I go and get dressed,” she told me. I could have sworn she winked at me before disappearing in a swirl of silk robe. Or maybe it was just a poorly composed sneer.
Despite the invitation, I stood for a while, sizing up the lounge and the clues it gave as to the nature of the people who lived here. The room had no character. It was expensively decorated and it was tidy, but the decor was straight out of the box. It hadn’t been ingrained with the day-to-day living of real people. Maybe these Gidleys weren’t real people at all.
Eventually I took a seat.
I sat there for no more than a couple of minutes, still sizing up the Gidleys’ style and their expensive tastes when the front door opened and a voice called out, “Joanna, I’m back.”
It had to be Billy Gidley, so I got up to meet him as he came into the room. Six foot six inches of broad shoulders and hard muscle came lurching towards me. Everything about him was dark; black hair and dull, black eyes circled with black rings. And he wore a black look to match. Henry Tyson would have thought twice about mixing it with this guy. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me, his heavy eyes suddenly switching to the ‘on’ position, their dullness replaced by a dark, gleaming sheen.
“Hi, I’m Henry Bodine, your daughter let me in.”
“Yes, my sister was Marie Bodine… Nancy Kelly.”
His tensed up muscles relaxed. “Oh, yeah. Tessie told me yew’d been to see her, so she did. Yew’re a Catholic, ain’t yew?” The words were spat out rather than uttered.
“Lapsed these many years. I’ve no religious axe to grind, Mr Gidley. I just wanted to ask you about Marie.”
“What about her?” The eyes still stabbed aggression straight back at me, but at least I had his attention. It was time to pour on a small dash of sweetener.
“They say the Gidley Agency is one of the best at taking care of its girls. So I wondered, how did the killers get past a man like yourself? What exactly went wrong, Mr Gidley?”
“Wrong?” He slumped down in a seat and I followed suit, uninvited this time. The ‘on’ switch slipped back a notch and his eyes turned back to a dull glazed shade of dark grey. He scratched his chin as he spoke. “Yew ask onny-one hereabouts, they’ll tell yew that I keep a close eye on our girls, so I do. Wouldn’t want to see onny of them come to onny harm. They’ll tell yew Billy Gidley looks on them girls like they’re his own daughters.”
“Yes, I was told that.” Upstairs, the footsteps had gone silent. His own daughter was being discrete, but I wouldn’t have given much for her chances if her father caught her in the act, so to speak.
“It had to be them bloody Provos what did it,” he snarled, teeth grinding between wet lips. “I’ll swear it was them bloody Provo boys. They do that, yew know, kill their own kind at the drop of a hat. Women and children too. Bloody murdering bastards!”
“Why did they do it?”
“God alone knows. Maybe they found out she was a Catholic and she was droppin’ her knickers in front of loyalists. She should’ve kept to her own kind.”
“Seems a tenuous reason for killing someone,” I suggested.
“Tenuous?” He looked me straight in the face, a puzzled expression telling me he hadn’t a clue what the word meant. “Shows how little yew know about what goes on here in Belfast.”
“Maybe,” I conceded. “What about Sammy Wilde? Could the bomb have been targeted against him?”
“What for?” He snapped out the two words in a machine-gun staccato that told me a lot. His face turned harder still. I’d trodden on an unprotected nerve.
“I don’t know. I thought maybe you—”
“It was just another bloody Provo killing, so it was.” He stabbed a finger at me. “Yew take it from me.” Strange how his words seemed to echo those of Chief Inspector Rourke.
Behind Billy’s bulky frame, out in the lobby, I saw Joanna creeping down the stairs with a spiky-haired punk in tow. They paused, whispered in a huddle and then straightened their clothes before approaching the lounge.
“Daddy, Andy and me is going out now, so we are.”
Billy Gidley suddenly swung round in his seat. The ornate wooden legs scraped on the carpet. “What’s he doing here?”
“He just came to call for me, so he did.”
“Were yew two upstairs together?”
“Andy was at the bathroom, daddy. That’s all.”
“It had better be all or by God yew’ll feel the weight of me hand. Both of yew!”
“Oh daddy!” Joanna backed off and dragged the spiky-haired punk with her. They slammed the front door behind them.
Billy Gidley sneered and shook his head. “Bloody kids!”
“Your wife told me that Marie shouldn’t have been in Sammy Wilde’s cab that night.” By now, I was anxious to get the subject back on line.
“Oh yeah?” He sniffed and compressed his lips. “Well, we’ll never know about that, will we?”
“What do you mean.”
“Sometimes the girls filled in for one another at short notice. Sickness and that sort o’ thing. Know what I mean? Time o’ the month, yew get me meaning?”
I chewed my lip thoughtfully. “I guess so. You mean that Marie could have been filling in for someone else? But who?”
Billy Gidley spread his hands and shrugged his shoulders. Whatever he knew, he wasn’t telling and I decided to back off from asking again. I didn’t fancy my chances if he turned real ugly. There had to be records of what was really going on that night and I was confident that I’d find out the truth sooner or later, one way or another.
I talked with Billy Gidley another fifteen minutes but learned nothing more than I already knew. It was surprising the conversation lasted that long.
When I figured I’d got all that I was going to get from him, I left the house and drove on south for a few miles, just to see what rural Ireland was all about. I passed through a mixture of real nice country views and dirty villages marred by endless trash blowing about the roads and fields. I got to notice after a while that each village had a pattern to it, one long street with two sets of houses glowering at each other across the road. After a while I turned and headed back to Belfast with a feeling of depression deep inside of me.
When I got to the apartment, Penny was preparing lunch. The warm aroma of cooking hit me as soon as I came through the door, the smell of battered cod with French fries which they called fish and chips. They had flats instead of apartments, lifts instead of elevators and chips instead of French fries. And yet they still manage to produce some great writers with a real command of English! I never figured out how they did it.
I kissed Penny on the cheek and squeezed her bottom.
“You saw Billy Gidley?”
“Sure thing.” I reached out and grabbed a French fry from the plate. It burned my fingers.
“No.” I blew on my fingers and danced up and down. “But I’m certain he’s holding back on me. Just like Chief Inspector Rourke. You wouldn’t do that would you, Penny? You’d tell me all you know?”
I stopped moving and watched her carefully. “But you didn’t tell me about Pat Mulholland being on drugs.”
“Pat… but he’s just a heavy boozer…”
“Don’t lie to me, Penny. I saw him, remember? He was doped up to the eyeballs when I met him at his mother’s place.”
Penny turned away from the cooker and wrapped her arms in front of her like she was defending her honour. “You’re calling me a liar?”
“I’m sure you thought it was for the best.”
“She lowered her gaze and screwed up her mouth before she replied. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Henry. I should have told you, but I just couldn’t. How do you tell a guy that his sister was stripping to keep a junkie supplied with cocaine?”
“Is that why she came back to Belfast with him? To keep him supplied with coke?”
“It was more than that. She loved him.”
In the back of my mind was the biased thought that only a real degenerate could actually fall in love with a creep like Mulholland. Not Marie. But then I turned over the facts and worked on something more substantial than biased opinion. I had met the guy and I knew that he had a charm about him which would have worked on someone like Marie. She probably had loved him. Or thought she had.
Although the truth was staring me in the face, I couldn’t prevent myself snapping at Penny. “Marie loved a creep like that?”
She shrugged. “It was her choice.”
“Damn!” I slapped myself on the cheeks. Hard. “I thought Marie had more sense than that! Was she…”
“No! She never touched it, I swear she didn’t!” Penny kept her eyes lowered.
“I hope to God you’re right. Who was supplying the stuff? Who was the pusher? Christine Fisher?”
“I don’t know.”
“You really don’t know?” For just a second I allowed my voice to develop into an expression of disbelief. “Even though you were living here with them?”
Her eyes suddenly blazed. “Henry, I said I don’t know!”
“Okay. Time for me to cool it, eh?”
In the silence that followed Penny put two plates of food out on the kitchen table and we both sat down. I felt sick with anger and chased the food around the plate.
“What are you going to do now?” she asked, an element of annoyance still echoing in her voice.
I watched her putting away her own food while mine sat untouched. “Dunno. What are you doing the rest of the day?”
“Resting. I’m working tonight at the Blue Taboo and the Pickled Herring Clubs. Two bookings in one night. I should be able to afford a few loaves of bread on the strength of it.” She looked straight at me and I saw a tremble flutter round her lips. I had upset her.
I conjured up a mental image of Penny stripping on stage and suddenly it bothered me. Not the fact of Penny without her clothes, it was the thought of all those assholes watching her. I was getting too involved and I knew it.
Maybe I was in danger of falling in love with the wrong person. Like Marie. Hell, why should Penny be the wrong person? And what was wrong with falling in love with her anyway? Strange how unbridled possessiveness can grab you by the guts just when you don’t expect it. I tried to look unconcerned but it didn’t work. Deep down, I saw only one way to tackle the problem. Go with it.
“I’m coming with you.” I bit hard into a French fry and it burned the roof of my mouth. I cried out and took a drink of water.
“You can’t come with me.”
“You bet your sweet little ass I can! I’ll be your driver for tonight.” My mind was made up and there was no stopping me now. If Chief Hanson couldn’t put the stoppers on me, what chance did Penny Hamilton have?
She sucked the end of a limp French fry and eyed me warily. “I’ve got a driver all fixed up.”
“Cancel him. I’ll drive you. If I’m to find out what happened to Marie I’ll need to get inside the Blue Taboo Club and take a look around. This is my best chance.”
“Sounds like you’re using me.”
“Only as long as you want me to. Call the driver and tell him you’re making your own way there.” I tried to sound insistent.
“It could be dangerous.”
“My ass, kiddo.” I bit hard on another French fry. “My ass.”
The Blue Taboo Club was the sort of place that made Alcatraz look like an upmarket holiday camp. The entrance was protected by a metal security gate that would have stood up to most determined attacks. Two thick-necked jerks stood guard on the door, the sort who could have put the fear of God into Hulk Hogan himself. Were they there to stop unwanted intruders getting in, or to stop the inmates breaking out?
The club was sandwiched between a fire-damaged pub and a run-down corner grocery store. Even the grocery store had iron bars on all the windows. From the outside I’ve seen better looking places on an ill-advised drive through the streets of Harlem. I left the car some way down the road under a street light and then followed Penny. She marched brazenly up to the door where the two guys smiled at her like she was a kid sister. I guess I felt kind of jealous about that too.
“Henry’s my new driver,” she told them and they waved me through the security gate without so much as telling me to check my sidewinders at the bar. Obviously used to seeing minders arriving with the strippers.
Our footsteps echoed down a set of narrow, dingy stairs leading to a large basement room which smelled like a million sweaty armpits. One end was dominated by a full-width bar and the other by a wooden stage. Forty or fifty men sat on metal and plastic stacking chairs in the space between. Some were smoking, some were drinking, and some had their hands jabbed deep inside the raincoat pockets. All had their eyes on the small illuminated stage. The room lights were dimmed, but the stage lights showed up a short, dumpy girl who was removing her clothes to the sound of a James Last disco number. Coloured lights rippled across her breasts which bounced up and down like they had a mind of their own.
Penny nudged me. “I have to get ready. You can stay here and wait for me.”
She nodded to the barman, a rat-faced guy with big teeth, and then went through a door behind the bar. I bought a drink, took over one of the few empty seats and watched the show. It was nothing special, but I had little better to do until I found an opening to set me on the trail of what happened to Marie.
The beer tasted watered-down, lousy even for a limey drink. I said nothing because I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself. Not yet. The barman eyed me suspiciously; probably not used to hearing a North American accent in there. After a while his anxiety got the worst of him and he nodded to a grey-suited mobster standing near the door. I should have seen this one when I came in, but I hadn’t. He was the prototype model for Cagney at his worst, or seemed to think he was. Hard face, bad teeth and eyes that drilled right through you.
“You’re new here, ain’t you?” Grey-suit sidled up beside me, all greasy hair and foul breath. He shrugged his shoulders and the back of his collar crawled half way up his nineteen sixties haircut. I was tempted to laugh out loud but held myself in check.
“Minder for the next act,” I explained. “The last guy got blown up. Been told to keep a close eye on this girl.”
“Yeah. I kinda figured that one out myself. But thanks for the reminder.”
“Don’t get funny with me, Yank.” He hunched his shoulders aggressively and his collar rose up again. “I get nervous with funny men. Know what I mean?”
“The stand-up comic must love you.”
“Cut the shite.”
“Sure, you’re the boss. Let me buy you a drink.”
“Are you pullin’ my tool?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I wiped a hand down my coat front, meaningfully, and shook it over the empty floor. “Just trying to be friendly. Whiskey?”
That calmed him somewhat. I went to the bar, bought him a Scotch and he downed it in one. Looked like it didn’t touch the sides.
He’d made the opening move so I figured it was time for me to start probing. Cautiously and with half a smile on my face. “Say, you worked here long?”
“I hear tell you get some really good strippers in here. Is that right?”
“Only the best.” He sniffed and turned to go back to the door. “We don’t hire any trash.”
“What about Nancy Kelly? The guys say she was good, the best. What happened to her?” I threw the question straight at his back.
He swung round to face me again, his eyes hard, like ice. “Why d’you wanna know?”
“Well, you better stop bein’ curious, if you know what’s good for you. Just mind your own business, Yank!”
“Sure. No offence meant, buddy.”
He growled and sidled away. Left alone, I turned back to the stage. The dumpy girl was down to her G-string, naked breasts still merrily bouncing up and down like balloons. It did nothing for me, but I guess it turned on some of the audience. Even from the back you could see hands diving deeper into raincoat pockets. The music ended abruptly, too abruptly for the girl who only remembered to stumble out of her G-string in the awkward silence that followed.
She stood, arms outstretched, to a ripple of mild applause and then the audience quickly lost interest in her. There were no drapes up front but the stage lights dimmed. The girl gathered up her clothes and ambled, still naked, down the side of the room towards the door behind the bar.
“She’s a nice little dancer,” the barman observed. He had moved closer to me, elbows on the counter. “A bit plump for some, but I like ’em that way.”
“Plenty to get hold of?” I gave him my attention.
“And then some.” He sniffed and winked at the same time. It gave his face a hideous look. “Heard you askin’ about Nancy Kelly. She was a lovely mover on stage. Bit thin in some ways, but a lovely mover.”
“You don’t say.”
He nodded. I sensed that this was one guy who might tell me something useful. If he wanted to talk maybe it was time to start probing once again.
Penny was now taking the stage dressed in a seductive little nurse’s uniform, frilly panties peeping out beneath a mini skirt. The stage lights came on, music broke out across the room and she began to move herself seductively across the stage. After the last act, this one had class.
The barman kept his gaze fixed on her while he spoke. “This girl’s not bad. Tammy Truelove, she calls herself. Not her real name, but you’ll know that, I suppose.”
Penny looked sharp and alert as she played games with the audience, sliding easily out of her outer clothes and teasing the audience with what was underneath. I detected something ballet-like about her movements and made a mental note to ask her where she learned to dance. It was artistic rather than smutty.
I turned back to the barman. “You knew Nancy Kelly?”
“Better than most.” The barman winked at me again and suddenly I got this wild urge to knock his stupid face into orbit. I suppressed the urge by grabbing at my drink and throwing it back in one gulp.
“What do you know about her?”
“Enough. She was a Yank, like you. What d’you want to know?”
“What the hell did they kill her for?”
His gaze suddenly fell onto the bar counter and he hurriedly picked up his towel. The question had spiked him. “You’d need to ask the Gidleys. I don’t know nuthin’.”
“Okay. But you said you knew her better than most, so tell me more about her.”
“Why? What d’you wanna know for?”
Right then the door behind the bar opened and the dumpy girl appeared, fully dressed in denim skirt and chunky sweater. She helped herself to a drink at the bar while the barman gave her a knowing wink. Maybe he thought she would pay for that drink later, one way or another. Maybe they were two of a kind.
“Fellow here asking about Nancy Kelly.” The barman nodded in my direction.
“Oh, yes?” The dumpy girl mounted a stool beside me. Close up she looked like the sort of girl you’d think twice about asking for a dance. Aggression oozed from every pore. She gave me a fierce look and hissed, “You’d better keep out of trouble round here, Yank.”
“How did you know I’m a Yank?”
“You look like one.” She bit her lip. Knew she’d made a wrong move.
“You’re very perceptive. So tell me about Nancy Kelly.”
“Why’re you hanging round here asking about that little bitch?”
“No reason. Heard she was the best.”
“She liked to think so. Stuck up little cat.” The Dumpy One swallowed her drink and slammed her glass on the bar. Behind her I could see Grey-suit approaching. The girl half turned. When she spotted him she went suddenly stiff.
The barman gave her a bemused look. “Hey, what’s this bitch nonsense? I thought you two girls was pals? What you got against Nancy Kelly?”
“Enough. You keep your big ears shut, Tommy Brennan. One day you might hear more than’s good for you!”
“Come off it, Molly. What you got on Nancy Kelly? Just because she had a nice little figure you was jealous of. Just because she was slimmer than you.”
“She was a bitch!”
“She had a nicer figure than you.”
“You’re a bastard, Brennan. She was skinny as a rake, so she was!”
“Lovely tits she had on her. That’s what it is, ain’t it? You’re jealous of her tits.”
“Oh no it isn’t!” Dumpy Molly grasped her glass so tight I thought it would crack. Grey suit was right behind her now and she was obviously unnerved by his presence. Tension rippled through her body.
“Trouble, Molly?” Grey-suit gave me a suspicious look.
“Nah. Piss off, will you. Can’t a girl drink in peace round here?”
Grey-suit gave her a thunderous look and then turned away. Molly kept her eyes staring straight ahead as he retreated. Down the far end of the bar a punter was looking for a drink, waving a note and pointing to the beer taps. Brennan went off to serve him.
When we were relatively alone, Molly leaned sideways towards me, her eyes staring across the bar. She waited until the music rose to a swell before she spoke. “For God’s sake get out of this place and don’t come back here again.”
“Because if you keep poking your nose into this business you’re likely to end up in the same mess as your sister!” With that she got down from her seat and stormed off through the door behind the bar. I felt too numb to follow her.