Friday, 14 June 2013

Chapter Six


Chapter Six


 

I toyed with the idea of calling Penny in Belfast. At odd moments, images of her kept crawling back into my mind and I began to realise that she’d made a bigger impression on me than was good for either of us. But she was in Belfast and I was in LA and that was no basis for any sort of personal relationship. Neither was it fair to build up her expectations of something serious. In the end, I avoided making the call. That didn’t stop me thinking about her though, and remembering that night she gave me the best sex of my life.

Chief Hanson called me at home one evening a couple of days after the interview with Bray. He sounded a bit far away; tired, like he didn’t really have any guts left in him, which wasn’t like Hanson at all.

“You seen the paper, Henry?”

“Which paper?”

The LA Courier, dummy, which d’you think? Take a look at the jobs vacant page. There’s a company called American Interstate Airlines lookin’ for pilots.”

“There is?” A mild surge of interest quickly gave way to a deeper feeling of frustration. Most established airlines wanted pilots with a clean driving licence, not an Air Force drop-out. One positive thing I got out of flying in Bosnia was a civil pilot’s license. It wasn’t totally legitimate, it was issued with a load of other kit when they sent me out there. But they never revoked it and I’d been toying with the idea of finding some sort of charter work where a guy’s personal background didn’t count too highly as long as he could fly. There were such jobs if you dug deep enough.

Hanson must have sensed my misgivings and his tone mellowed briefly. “You should’ve seen it already, Henry. You need a job, y’know.”

“Guess so. I’ll take a look, anyway. Thanks, Chief.”

Now, Henry.” Insistence suddenly crept back into his voice. “Take a look now. And don’t go bumming up on this one. You ain’t that much of a catch for any airline, you know.”

“Thanks. And I think you’re great too.”

“That ain’t all, boy. They’re based out at LAX Airport so I gave them a call to see what gives. Told them I knew a stupid, brain-dead transport pilot who wanted a job flying. Now, get this. They say they’ll see you, though God knows why, so you just get on the phone now. And I mean now. Talk to a gal called Terri McDolan. She’s their Personnel Manager.”

“Sounds like you’ve been working hard on my behalf, Chief.”

“Must be goin’ dumb in the head myself. Now just you get onto it quick before I change my mind about givin’ you a personal reference.”

He gave me a number and I rang the company straight away. I told them who I was and they put me through to the woman called Terri McDolan. She spoke with a soft Southern Irish accent, quite different to the harsh voice of the North. Far more sensual for a start. I told her a bit more about myself, hoping Hanson hadn’t queered my pitch too deep. She invited me over there for an interview that same day.

I got the impression that Hanson may have been working harder on my behalf than I had first imagined because most companies don’t act that quickly. Terri McDolan said she had a whole load of guys to interview that afternoon so the faster I got there the better. It sounded a bit like a hard sell, but I let her off with it. As the chief had said, I needed the job. On top of that, I liked the way this company operated, fast and efficient, even if I did smell the Chief’s hand behind it.

And there was something else, but I couldn’t figure out what.

American Interstate was a pretty successful company, as far as airlines go. They started out in the seventies as a relatively small domestic carrier and now they were expanding and opening up into the Transpacific and Transatlantic routes. They already had two 747-400s in their long-haul fleet and three more to be delivered, along with a couple of 767s which could be used on the North Atlantic under the ETOPS rules. I’d flown B52s with eight engines so multi-jets were nothing new to me. In that short spell in the Balkans I ran up a few hours flying civil Boeing jets loaded with aid, and I just knew this was the job for me. I briefly wondered if that was why I was able to jump the queue.

I was wrong, of course. Hopelessly wrong.

With some glimmer of hope, I headed straight out to the airport, arrived at Terri McDolan’s office shortly before mid-day and introduced myself to her secretary. Within two minutes, I was hustled into Miss McDolan’s office. No hassle of hanging around, just straight in. That should have rung some sort of warning bell, but it didn’t. The office was one of those antiseptic boxes decorated so that it still managed to keep a soft feminine touch about it. Not exactly my kettle of fish, but what the hell.

I don’t recall exactly what I expected Miss McDolan to be like, but I was impressed with what I saw; around mid-thirties, petite and good-looking without being garish. A cross between Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer with just the vaguest hint of Madonna to make things interesting. One previous careful owner, if my guess was right, and she was run-in to perfection.

She wore a brown and cream suit that was both sedate and, at the same time, enticing because of the trim figure hidden beneath it. There are some women you can tell, right from the start, are cut out to go far because they’re good at their jobs and this was one such woman. Within just a few seconds, all the body language signs just shouted at me that this was one hell of a professional lady.

She rose from behind a tidy desk and shook my hand firmly but not aggressively.

“Thank you for coming over so quickly, Mr Bodine.” The greeting was formal but without any hint of coldness. Warm, but letting me know that she was firmly in control.

“My pleasure.”

She made a few chit-chat comments designed to set me at ease and she eyed me though wide, dark green eyes. After a minute or so she waved me into a leather seat. “You brought your full CV and the other documents I mentioned?”

I placed them on her tidy desk, making it instantly untidy. Of course my CV was a sanitised version which said nothing about my being kicked out of the US Air Force, but I long ago figured that all CVs are apt to include exaggerated forms of the truth anyway. It was part of the game. Either you play it that way or you don’t bother to enter the game.

She lowered herself back into her big swivel seat, crossed her legs with the sort of decorum you’d expect of a royal princess and placed her fingertips together in a pensive gesture. It was the church steeple stance, the one that says, “I’m evaluating you critically so you’d better be good.”

She waited till I was comfortable before she spoke again. “I’ll go through the paperwork later. For the moment, tell me a bit about yourself.”

The more I saw, the more I liked her. And I figured that if I liked her, I would like American Interstate. Not that a job offer was anything of a foregone conclusion, of course. There would be hundreds of jet-hungry pilots after this post so I tried to impress her with something of the history of my flying experience, occasionally exaggerating a small point for effect and totally omitting all those things I didn’t want her to know about. She listened intently, eyes never missing a move. After a while she asked me what I had been doing since I left the Air Force and, amongst other things, I told her about my trip to Belfast.

At that point her eyebrows raised just enough to indicate she was interested. “Chief Hanson said something about your sister. She died in Belfast, I believe.”

“The chief told you that, huh?”

“Killed by a bomb?”

“It happens over there.” There was no point in procrastinating, so I went on and told her a bit more about Marie. Hanson must have figured I would do that anyway.

If I’d just stopped to think before opening my mouth, none of it would have come out and things might have taken a different path from there on. If I had kept quiet about the whole Belfast business, I might never have… Well, things might have worked out a shade safer for me. But I did tell her and she listened intently. In the event I told her most of the story. Maybe I was simply reacting to the way she led me on. She was clever like that, drawing out more and more of the story.

When I’d finished she compressed her lips and shook her head. “That’s really terrible, Mr Bodine. I know people who’ve lost relatives in the North so I can guess how you must feel. A friend of mine, a priest, goes over there quite often to help people involved in the troubles and he tells me about all the suffering people like yourself go through. Honestly, some of the stories he comes back with would make you weep. I just hope it didn’t turn you against Ireland.” It was, of course, pure platitude, but it was said with just enough of an air of sincerity on the surface to make it acceptable.

“Did this friend of yours, the priest, did he tell you what it’s really like over there?”

“It seemed real enough to me.”

I grabbed at a chance opening. “I take it he knows quite a bit about what’s happening on the ground?”

“It’s part of his job.” She shifted in her seat, awkwardly, as if the conversation needed to change direction. “What did you think of Ireland? The country itself, that is.”

“Actually I didn’t see too much of the country,” I confessed. “Too many other things on my mind. Maybe next time.”

She smiled and her teeth were positively glistening. “I understand. It can’t have been easy for you.”

I suddenly realised that for some minutes I had been mentally weighing her up against Penny Hamilton. In most respects it was an uneven match. Penny scored high as the sort of girl I could feel at ease with and grow to trust, even though there seemed little chance of us ever getting things together. But Terri McDolan was the clear winner when it came to the higher league tables. She was the sort of woman who probably spent her days being admired by the lower orders while saving herself for someone at the top of the ladder of success. She exuded class and, for me, that made her more an object of distant admiration. Look, admire, but don’t touch unless you’ve got a lot to offer in return.

The interview went on another half hour before she glanced at her watch. “That’s as much as I have to ask you for the moment, Mr Bodine. Are there any more questions you’d like to ask me?”

“Yes.” I hadn’t planned on taking a personal line with her but, on a sudden whim, I grabbed at the opportunity with hardly a thought for what it would do for my job application. “I know it’s probably an imposition, but would you mind telling me more about what you learned from your friend, the priest who works in Ireland?”

She frowned. “This is a job interview, Mr Bodine.”

“I know, but it would mean a lot to me.”

Her eyes focussed on mine and I felt obliged to glance away. “Why, exactly, do you want to know these things?” Her suspicious look was too blatant to be ignored.

I shrugged self-consciously. “I want to know more about what actually happened to my sister. You said earlier on that you’ve some knowledge of what’s happening over there; things your friend told you. I thought maybe you might share some of it.”

She frowned again, more deeply this time. She looked like she was taken off guard by the question, but she quickly recomposed herself and gave me a half smile. On cue with the smile, her silky brown hair twitched round the sides of her face. “I’ve no personal experience of the troubles. I only know what I’ve been told. No, I’m sorry, I am rather busy and it really isn’t the time or place…”

“It’s very important to me,” I insisted. “Very important. Otherwise I wouldn’t ask.”

“I’m sorry, Mr Bodine. There are other people…”

“Perhaps we could talk over lunch?”

She shook her head, lips compressed. Then she said firmly, “That wouldn’t be right. It could be seen as bribery, you understand. There are others after this job.”

“This is nothing to do with the job application. Look, if it worries you, we could go Dutch. I only want to talk to you.” I paused and put on a solemn expression before adding, “The fact is, Miss McDolan, the police in Northern Ireland won’t tell me everything, and in a way I can understand that, but it just doesn’t go down to well with someone like me. I have to find out what happened and why. You obviously know more about the troubles than most people over here and I need your help. Well, I need someone’s help, that’s for sure.”

The look I gave her must have done the trick because she nodded a shade more positively. “Chief Hanson did warn me that you were likely to over-stretch the mark.”

“What else did he tell you?”

She gave me a wry look and said, “Oddly enough, he told me I’d be doing him a favour if I played along with you. I told him no deal.”

“What did he say to that?”

“He reminded me that I owe him a favour. But I suppose you knew that.”

“No.” But it didn’t surprise me.

“A misunderstanding over my driving licence. He told me this would wipe the slate clean.”

“Sounds like his idea of a joke. So, will you give me an hour of your time?”

“All right.” It was said with an air of resignation, almost regret. “But only on condition I pay for my own meal. No hint of bribery or corruption.”

I had to wait an hour in the secretary’s office while Terri McDolan interviewed a couple more candidates. I watched them go in and out and mentally assessed them against my own pitch for the job. The result was inconclusive. Eventually, she came out and announced that she was free for the next hour.

She insisted on taking her own car—a rather impressive blue Merc—just in case she was seen with me. We drove in our separate vehicles to a small restaurant. It was about two or three miles from the airport and busy enough to avoid any embarrassment. We found a table where we could be seen clearly from all directions, no hint of anything underhand.

We ordered and then got down to business.

“Okay, Mr Bodine, I expect this is going to turn out to be rather unwise of me, but we’re no longer in an interview situation. This is nothing to do with the company or the job. And you can tell Chief Hanson, when you see him, that it wipes the slate absolutely clean. I owe him no more favours. So what did you want to know?”

“Can’t you call me Henry?”

“No.” Her dark green eyes softened just a mite. No more than that. “We might decide to employ you and that would mean a strictly formal relationship between us. Let’s keep things that way just in case, shall we?”

I backed off. “Okay. If you say so. You’re from the south of Ireland?”

“Dublin. I left there about four years ago and came over here to work for Aer Lingus at their New York office. Then this job came up last year and I struck lucky.”

“You know Belfast?”

She nodded. “Somewhat. I’ve family there.”

“Tell me about it.”

She went quiet for a few seconds. Then she began to talk in a soft lilt of a voice that put me in the mind of the country that didn’t anyway match with the reality I’d seen over there. She talked about Ireland as it had been before the troubles, she talked about Dublin and she talked about the hills and mountains of the west. But no time did she talk about what I really wanted to hear, the things that motivated the people of the north to engage in mindless killing.

She was fantasising.

“You make it sound like a very attractive place.”

Instantly, her face turned sour. She knew she hadn’t struck the right tone with me. “It is an attractive place, at least that’s how I see it. You’ll see things different but it’s still my home country we’re talking about.”

“North and south?”

“It’s all one island.”

“So’s the British mainland, but there’s three different races living on it. And they don’t kill one another in the name of nationalism. Not yet, anyway.”

The main course arrived about now which was probably lucky because I’d been on the verge of opening my mouth too wide too soon. Maybe I already had. Anyhow, we went silent while it was served. I tried not to be too obvious, but I couldn’t help using those seconds to drink more deeply from Terri McDolan’s visual image. She had only a hint of make-up on her skin yet it exuded the sort of softness that made me want to reach out and touch it. This girl was in a class of her own and she knew it. She was a top executive’s woman and then some. And yet I couldn’t help wondering what she would be like beneath that neat-cut suit.

Eventually, the waiter left and we carried on the conversation.

“You said you want to know why your sister died, Mr Bodine.”

“That’s right. My sister was just an innocent American girl and she was blown to pieces in the street. It could have done nothing to further the cause of peace in Ireland, nothing to further peace anywhere. So, tell me, why does this sort of thing happen? Why did Marie die?”

“I suppose the short answer is, I don’t know why. Only the people who planted the bomb know that.”

“But you must know what motivates these people. I don’t understand the reasoning behind any of it.”

“You just don’t understand the Irish problem.”

“No. Do you?”

“Certainly not.” She grimaced. “No one really does. They pretend they do, but they don’t. That’s why it’s a problem.”

I didn’t like that remark: too flippant by far. If she was going to get sarcastic on me she’d soon learn where to get off. Better people than her had learned to avoid throwing flippancy in my direction. Some of the media guys in Sarajevo were past masters at it, but they soon learned how far they could go with Henry Bodine.

She seemed to pick up my unease before she continued. “Some people turn against the Irish because of what’s happening over there. Do you have any hate in your heart, Mr Bodine?”

“Only for the guys who killed Marie.”

“I suppose that makes me feel a whole lot better. You know, Irish people can be just like any others when you get to know them. They’re not all a bunch of murdering psychopaths.”

“Yeah, I heard that somewhere.” Then I shut my mouth for a moment and once again regretted opening it without thinking first. “Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t have said that. Over-reacting. I really am sorry. This whole darned business is getting at me and I sometimes say the wrong thing.”

She looked up from her plate. “Something or someone must have really got at you. What sort of people did you meet over there in Belfast?”

“You really want to know?”

“Surprise me.”

“I met a policeman called Rourke, a rather attractive stripper called Penny Hamilton and a woman called Tessie Gidley who hires out girls to take their clothes off in public. Oh, and a junkie called Pat Mulholland living in the Divis area. That’s about it. That’s as much as I know about Irish people.”

I could see she was laughing inside but she managed to keep a pretty straight face. She hesitated for a moment before saying, “That’s not a good advertisement for the Irish race.”

“It’s all they had on offer.”

“A pity. What are you doing tomorrow night, Mr Bodine?”

“You asking me for a date?”

“No, I am not!” For a moment I thought she was about to lose her cool and walk out on me. “You should be so lucky. Any more talk like that and I’ll leave without paying my share.”

“That was my opening gambit. Remember?”

She ignored that remark. “The point is, there’s an Irish ceilidh at a church hall in LA tomorrow night, and I know many of the people who’re going to be there. Do you want to come along and meet some real Irish people?”

“Irish from Ireland?”

“Mostly Irish American.”

“Not the same thing.”

“Close enough.”

I didn’t agree but I held my tongue. “Your friend, the priest?”

“He’ll be there.”

That clinched it, but I didn’t let on immediately. “And you’re inviting me?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Go on your own if you choose.”

“But if I go with you, you’ll introduce me to these people? Including the priest?”

“If it helps. When you get to know them, you’ll find they can be as likeable as any other race in America.”

I pretended to think about it for a moment. “Are you making this offer to appease Chief Hanson?”

“It’s an attempt at healing the wounds in international relationships. You never know, you might even enjoy it.”

Only if you’re there, Miss McDolan, I told myself. “You’re on. But you didn’t answer the question. Did Hanson put you up to this? Inviting me to this ceilidh?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Just a thought.”

She never did give me a straight answer, and that said a lot.

*

I was prepared to get a cab but, in the event, Terri drove over to pick me up which was kind of awkward as I hadn’t told mom and dad about her. This girl was too close to home and I never gave my parents the chance to meet girls close to home. They could so easily get the wrong idea. They gave me some funny looks when I dived out the door before they could think up some telling questions.

I wondered what had happened to the reserve Terri showed in insisting we drive separately to the restaurant the previous day. Was she relaxing her stance because she was off-duty?

She was wearing a casual, light green sweater and neatly plaited, dark green skirt, but she looked just as desirable as she had in her formal suit. If anything, even more so because I knew instinctively that this girl didn’t give her favours easily. I wondered wildly what it took to get her turned on and that one brief thought made me feel guilty. Deep down, I still held on to the distant images of Penny Hamilton.

We took off in a cloud of dust and with what felt like full reheat kicking me hard in the ass. She knew how to use a big engine to full effect.

“What was your sister like?” she asked when we were out on the freeway and powered down to a steady cruise. “That’s if you don’t mind talking about her.”

I gave myself a moment to reflect. “She was a bit strong-willed. No, that’s not true. She was very strong-willed. That’s why she went off to Europe to do her own thing. I suppose that’s ultimately why she came to grief.”

“Was she mixed up in anything over there?”

“I don’t know. Depends what you mean by mixed up.” I played this one rather cagey to start with. Then I loosened up a bit. “She had a boyfriend and… and she was pregnant.”

Terri snapped a quick sideways glance. “Was it an unwanted pregnancy?”

“Probably. Does it make a difference?”

“For a Catholic girl, it could. It’s not like it is over here. You should know that by now. That’s why there’s so many organisations in Ireland to help Catholic girls in trouble.”

“Only Catholic girls?”

“The problem tends to be worse for them. The Catholic Church holds more power in Ireland than any other country in Europe. The girls get no proper help with contraception and no abortion options. Unless they run away to England.”

“And if they stay?” I queried.

“They get locked up in institutions they call Magdalene Laundries.” Her voice turned distinctly cold. “As good as imprisonment, but without the need for any trial. They’re guilty simply by being pregnant and unmarried.”

“Sounds like you know quite a bit about it. And you don’t like it, do you?”

She gave me a black look. “Don’t go getting the wrong idea, Bodine. I’m a devout Catholic in most respects. But we all have one or two areas in which we disagree with the clergy. Did you know that in Italy, including Rome, they have the lowest birth rate in Europe and they achieve it because they make up their own minds over contraception? In Ireland, it’s a different story. Catholics still live in fear of the church. Absolute fear.”

“You sound critical.”

“Maybe I am. That’s my prerogative. Did your sister go looking for help?”

“I don’t know. Who might she have turned to?”

“There’s an organisation in Belfast called the Irish American Woman’s Aid Centre. Irish because that’s the girls who get into trouble and American because that’s where the money comes from. They help girls like your sister. Have you heard of them?”

I shook my head.

“Not surprising, really. Anyway, the priest I told you about has spent some time over there working for the Centre.”

“Really?” My hopes began to rise. “When was he last over there?”

“Earlier this year, some time or other.”

“You think he might know something useful?”

“Depends on what you want to find out.” At that moment she turned and smiled at me and, just for a moment I got that stupid idea she might have been giving me a come-on. “Just what are you after, Mr Bodine? What’s in your mind right now?”

I chose not to tell her. “Can you call me Henry just for this evening?”

“It wouldn’t be wise. I told you that before.”

“Well, just try to ease back on the Mr Bodine, will you?”

We pulled in behind a church hall and she used the brakes like she was touching down a very hot jet on a very short runway. The parking lot was already overloaded with cars and a couple of youngsters were ferrying the excess down the road. Terri allowed them to take her Merc, which showed far more trust than I thought wise. Dozens of people were milling around the hall and they all seemed to know Terri well enough by sight. She introduced me to one or two, but the names fleeted through my mind too fast to stick.

Inside, the hall was filled with an air of jollity. Irish flags were draped from the roof beams and a band played an Irish jig. The smell of tobacco smoke and alcohol punched its way up into my nostrils and a general haze hung across the room like low cloud. It seemed as realistic as a kid’s cartoon. Not like the Ireland I’d seen.

Terri moved about confidently, homing in on one friend after another while I followed in her wake, not sure if I was a guest or an attendant. A few people were dancing, but most were seated at tables round the fringes, talking and drinking. Eventually we emerged from the throng directly in front of the band and headed towards one of the tables. Somewhere along the way we gathered a couple of drinks.

“We’ll join this group,” she shouted above the noise of the band. As she sat down she nodded me towards an empty chair. I was half way to being seated when I noticed the man next to me was a priest. His ruddy face had been obscured behind a pint of Guinness.

Terri leaned across and introduced us. “Father O’Hagan, this is Mr Bodine. He’s recently been in Ireland.”

Mr Bodine?” The priest wrinkled his nose.

“All right, Henry Bodine,” she conceded.

“Friend of yours?”

“Business acquaintance.”

“If you say so. Welcome to our ceilidh, Henry.” He spoke with a thick brogue which sounded real enough. When I looked closer, I saw that he was in his early fifties, well-built with thick greying hair. His cheeks were ruddy and streaked with prominent veins.

“Pleased to meet you Father.” I offered my hand and it was pumped harshly if not warmly.

“He wants to learn more about Ireland,” Terri cut in. “I told him you were in Belfast earlier this year and you’d be the man to tell him all he wants to know.”

The priest eyed me cautiously. “You’re not Irish, yourself?”

“No.” This wasn’t the time to mention Mary O’Callaghan. That was a lever to hold in reserve for later.

He briefly glanced back at Terri and then he gave me an inquisitive look that could have meant anything. “Let me just get a wee drink down me throat, Henry, to ease the voice a mite and then I’ll be with you.”

The black alcohol sank from view like water down a storm drain. I studied his eyes while he was drinking and knew instinctively that his mind was in overdrive. He slapped down the jar and wiped his lips. “Now. Ask away, my friend, what can I tell you?”

I saw no reason to ease into this gently. “My sister was killed by a bomb in Belfast. I went over there to find out what happened and no one seems able or willing to tell me all the answers. I need to find out more, find out what really happened and why.”

I watched the priest’s face. His eyes were grey and thoughtful, a mirror of the way his mind was working. Once, he shifted them to give me a brief appraising glance before suddenly growing more concerned with Terri. I hoped she wasn’t putting her neck on the line for me.

Eventually he said, “You don’t expect me to tell you what happened to your sister?”

Caution had now evaporated completely into the hazy grey smoke above us. “No. But if I’m ever going to find out what happened, what really happened, I have to get myself clued-up on the Irish problem. And I’m pragmatic enough to know that I don’t really understand it. Does that make sense to you, Father?”

“Hmmm.” He surveyed his Guinness jar.

“I want to know what the hell it’s all about over there. I mean, I’ve heard all the crap they spout on the television about freedom from British rule, but that’s just for public consumption. Marie didn’t die because of that, I’m sure of it. I want to know what it’s really all about. The real reason behind it all. That’s the only way I’m going to understand what happened to my sister.”

The priest slowly licked his lips. “Don’t make a fool of me, Henry. You can learn all about Irish politics from reading books. What is it you really want to know?”

That caught me off guard. I thought I’d come across with more conviction than was clearly the case. He’d suddenly left me with no alternative but to play my main card. “You’ve been over there. Give me some names. People in Belfast I can talk to. There’s something fishy about what happened and I aim to find out what it is, but I need some contacts before I go back there.”

“You’re babbling, son. What names?”

I shrugged my shoulders, thinking fast. “I don’t know. My sister was pregnant. Terri says there’s a Centre that helps kids in trouble. She says you worked with them. Can you give me a contact inside the Centre? It’d be a start.”

This time O’Hagan’s expression towards Terri was less than endearing. Maybe I’d been wrong to jump in too quick. Wrong to start probing so deep so soon.

He sighed, showing his teeth. “You mean the Irish American Woman’s Aid Centre. What the hell do you want to now about that for? Besides, you could look them up for yourself in a telephone book. You don’t need me for that. I’ll come clean with you, son, I get the impression you’re searching for trouble. I won’t help you get mixed up in any sort of trouble.”

I was losing the advantage and I knew it. Desperation punched in. “What about drugs? You worked at this Centre. Do they help girls mixed up with drugs?”

He looked down at his empty glass and balled his fist. “Yes, of course the Centre helps girls who use drugs.”

“Tell me about it.”

“What was your sister using?”

“She wasn’t, I’d swear to it. But she was mixed up with it in some way. Her boyfriend was a user.” A lengthy pause was broken only by the sound of the band and the laughter that surrounded us.

Eventually the priest shook his head. “Henry, my boy…” He sat up slowly and put his heavy hand on my arm. “You’re babbling and you’re delving into something you don’t really understand. For God’s sake, son, keep out of it. I’m sorry your sister died, but maybe it’s best you put the whole thing into the past and let it rest.” With that he stood up and turned away from us. Before I could think of a response, the crowd had swallowed him whole.

“I think I mishandled that, big time.” I turned towards Terri and the look on her face told me she agreed. The atmosphere between us suddenly turned cold.

She pushed her empty glass towards me and nodded to one side. “The bar’s over that way. Do something useful.”

I took the hint and slouched off to replenish the drinks. Not surprisingly, the only whisky they had was Irish. I took the chance to down an extra one while I was at it. When I got back to Terri she was talking to a red-faced man in his fifties, enormous stomach hanging over his belt. I could see right away he was a juggernaut with an attitude problem.

He’d taken my seat.

I set Terri’s Martini in front of her. She barely looked up and I quietly found myself another seat at the opposite side of the table. The juggernaut was already fully oiled. Slurred speech and glazed eyes were well evident. His hulking frame leaned back in the seat and suddenly he looked enormous. When he took a pause for breath and looked across at me I had this feeling of being appraised as a potential meal. More like a small snack.

“Friend o’ yours?” the juggernaut asked and Terri nodded. No introductions were offered so I butted in. “Henry Bodine. Glad to meet you.”

The juggernaut ignored my hand and turned his attention back to Terri. “Are you sure you’re not comin’ to the meetin’? Jeez, it’s important with all this talk of a cease fire. We can’t let it happen, you know. We can’t let them bastards stop us now. Sure, and that guy Adams just don’t know what he’s doing. We gotta keep on at them bastards.”

“It might lead to peace,” Terri responded.

“Peace be damned! We send Adams and his boyos money to keep the IRA fightin’, not to sue for peace! They should be killin’ the bastards, not talkin’ to them!”

“What bastards?” I fired off the question too quickly, before prudence could step in to shut my mouth.

Juggernaut turned his brutish head in my direction. The glazed eyes turned suddenly black. “What bastards? I’ll tell you what bastards! The bastards who occupy Ireland. That’s what bastards!”

“You support the IRA?”

Juggernaut looked at me like I was a dishy young stripper just arrived to entertain the Iranian government. His eyes screwed up tight and his teeth glistened as he breathed, “Is that a problem for you?”

Terri’s face registered sudden alarm and she rose to leave, beckoning me to do the same. There are some things you don’t discuss with drunks and she had the sense to see it, but Juggernaut levered himself off his seat before we could move away. He was unsteady on his feet: more drunk than was necessary to lose his balance, and more belligerent than was good for him. I noticed for the first time a bottle of Irish whisky in his hand.

I was halfway to my feet when he breathed deeply and lurched towards me. “Who the hell are you?”

“Just a friend.”

“You’re not Irish. You shouldn’t be here.” He hiccupped and his eyes began to glaze over. I was losing his attention fast.

I ploughed on anyway. “I’ve just come back from Belfast. Just a short visit, to bring back a mutilated body.”

“Jaysus.” Juggernaut fell back into his chair, cradling his bottle. His mind had suddenly switched off. I looked at Terri and paused. Maybe I was tackling this wrongly.

I leaned towards the juggernaut. “You know Belfast, do you?”

His eyes flickered as if he had only just noticed me. “Belfast… Jaysus… I know enough about it… all that matters.”

“You know any of the clubs over there? Drinking clubs and the like?”

“Hah! I know it in…” He thumped his chest. “In me heart.”

“You mean you’ve never set foot on Irish soil in your life.” I felt angry, cheated. And anger tends to rob me of common sense. It’s a personal failing I can’t shake off. I stabbed a finger at him. “I know your sort. People like you sit back and watch Native Americans trampled underfoot in their own land and you do nothing about it. Then you bleat about what’s happening in a country you’ve never even seen!”

A dark figure suddenly came up behind me and planted itself between me and the juggernaut. It was Father O’Hagan. “Henry, you’re causing trouble. We don’t like people causing trouble at our gatherings.”

“Perhaps you’re right.” I turned away, deflated and embarrassed. I was, after all, a guest in the hall. “I apologise.”

Terri moved in beside me and propelled me away towards the bar. My own annoyance was beginning to subside, but I could feel anger still boiling up inside her, tightening the muscles in her small hand. “You don’t act like a gentleman, do you, Mr Bodine. You’re my guest here, remember?”

“I remembered it. Too late though.”

“Well, I’m sorry I brought you here. When you see your friend Chief Hanson, tell him not to ask any more favours of me.”

“Don’t be sorry on my account.” We came up against the bar and I tried to catch the barman’s attention. I needed another drink. Somehow I couldn’t seem to grab his eye and I got the impression I wasn’t meant to. I shook my head at Terri. “I figure I’m not exactly flavour of the month round here. Perhaps I’d better leave.”

“Yes, perhaps you had.” Her voice was devoid of all emotion. No anger and no sympathy. Just a bland acceptance that I was a mistake, a big mistake.

“You given up on me, have you?”

“Don’t be so conceited! What makes you think I had any thoughts towards you in the first place? I brought you here as a favour to Chief Hanson. Nothing more!”

“A favour or a way of buying yourself out of trouble?”

“Whatever it was, it wasn’t worth it.”

“Really? Thanks a bunch. You sure know how to give a guy a good time, Miss McDolan.”

She moderated her voice, but her eyes remained hostile. “You’ve let me down, Mr Bodine. I brought you here as a guest and you picked an argument. Started trouble.”

“The trouble was there before I arrived.”

“You made things worse.”

She was right, of course. It was time for me to go.

I left her at the door of the church hall, called a cab and told the driver to head for a bar I knew, well away from the Irish ceilidh. I felt annoyed with myself. I had, most certainly, just blown the prospect of a damn good job. Blown it to hell.

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