Sunday, 23 June 2013

Chapter Sixteen


Chapter Sixteen

 

 

Captain James Whiteman was somehow caught up in Marie’s murder. Call it intuition or whatever. I was sure of it.

I had a pretty good idea about most of what had happened that night Marie died, but I had no proof that my suspicions were right. Nevertheless, the vague wider picture was, at last, beginning to crystallize into some sort of detail. For the rest of the detail I needed to see James Whiteman. To do that, I had to return to Ireland. Killarney. I went straight back to my hotel and got the receptionist to make the necessary flight bookings for me.

I had nothing else to occupy myself that afternoon so I took a trip into the West End of London and wandered around the streets. One niggling matter still bubbled around inside my brain and I allowed it to direct me to the gaggle of streets near the Soho area where the strip joints are concentrated together. Feeling somewhat uneasy, I ambled slowly through the sleazy jungle wondering which of these joints had hired Marie. She had been here, I could feel it. There was little doubt in my mind that Marie had danced here, slipping out of her clothes night after night in front of all the perverts and dirty old men that London had to offer. Dancing naked in front of strangers so she could make enough money to feed herself and that creep Mulholland.

Most of the clubs had colourful display boards outside the entrance with photographs of the girls. The pictures were all much the same, pouting faces, protruding breasts and modesty banners spread across the girls’ pubic areas. No different, really, from anything I’d seen in so many other cities around the world. But one photograph at one particular joint caught my eye.

The strip club was half way down a seedy street with too many Chinese restaurants and too many second hand electrical shops to make it a popular tourist spot. Glaring signs and posters led me to a place called Benny’s Night Girls. I stood outside for some minutes, staring at the nude photographs. It was early afternoon but the place was open so I figured Benny’s girls must have day work here as well. Continuous performances, it advertised, dozens of girls, all nude shows. I paid at the door and went inside.

Walking in, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped inside the Blue Taboo Club in Belfast. Or the Pink Pyjamas. Or any one of a dozen other seedy places in either city. The same atmosphere, the same ‘feel’ about it, the same sort of show. Neither were the punters that different. I took a glance around looking for someone who’d be in charge here and eyeballed a hood in a gaudy green jacket that looked like it was dyed in day-glow paint.

“Hi there.” I went towards him, hands firmly in my pockets.

“Yeah?”

“You’ve got some photographs outside the door.” I nodded towards the entrance.

“What of it?”

“You willing to sell any of them?”

He gave me a suspicious look. “Why?”

“Personal matter.” I took my hands from my pockets and reached for my wallet. He noticed, but his expression didn’t alter. “I knew one of the girls.”

“So do lots of our customers. What’s this all about?”

“I just want one of your photos. The girl was called Marie Bodine. Sometimes used the name Marie Kelly. You remember her?”

His brow creased into a furrow and then cleared again as his memory came up with the goods. “Yeah. I remember her. Ain’t seen her for months, or longer. What’s she doing now?”

“She died. She was in Belfast and she was caught in a bomb blast.”

“Shit! Nasty.” Sounded like he was commenting on something he’d seen on the television. A bad business, but not really his concern. “And you knew her well, did you?”

“Yeah, that’s why I’d like to buy the photograph from you.” I gave him another look at my wallet. “I’d pay whatever you ask.”

“How’d you come to know her? This girl, Bodine.”

“She was my sister.”

At first he looked like he was going to come back with a sarcastic remark. Then he took in the serious expression on my face and changed his mind. “No kidding?”

“No kidding, chum. My kid sister. Ain’t seen her in some time.”

“Poor kid. Blown up, eh?” He shook his head. “Look, I’ll give you the picture, but I don’t want any money for it. Got lots of other pictures to put in the window.”

I left the West End with the photograph safely in my pocket. Mom and dad would never see it, but neither would any other sexual pervert who roamed the streets of London. I felt that Marie’s image was, in one very small way, cleaned up.

Just a tiny bit.

The next day I checked out from the hotel, took a flight from Luton Airport to Cork, hired a car and drove on west towards Killarney. It was the first time I’d been in the Irish republic but I wasn’t that surprised by the way it looked. Most Americans have seen films shot in Ireland. The real Ireland.

I found the hotel on the Cork Road just outside Killarney. It looked exactly like the picture on Whiteman’s postcard: a modern two-storey building with concrete wings spreading out across the countryside with no regard for tradition. Comfortable, but not in keeping with the panoramic view of the majestic mountains behind it. Most of the cars parked outside had Southern Irish registrations. Three were from the North and one was British.

I checked in at reception but made no enquiries about Whiteman. No point in spooking him too soon. It had been a long journey from London and I hadn’t stopped on the way so I had a shower, went early into dinner and took my time over it. Time to gather my breath and time to study the other guests when they arrived. It was outside the school holiday season, so most were either elderly couples or businessmen. Easy to spot which were which.

Whiteman was neither, so he stood out in the crowd.

He came in about half an hour after me and I recognised him instantly from the photograph his mother showed me: tall, blond hair, blue eyes and a deep cleft chin. Smartly but casually dressed in a way that put him a class above most of the other guests. It was easy to see why Marie had fallen for the bastard. At least, I liked to think she’d fallen for him. Inwardly, I damn well knew that it could have been—probably was—just another business deal.

He sat two tables away from me, side on so that I could watch his every expression. Trouble was, he kept his face implacably neutral. Nevertheless, for once I felt in charge of the situation. I finished my leisurely meal, lingered over the coffee and all the time I watched Whiteman as he ate his lonely dinner. Never once did he look my way. When he stood up to leave, I took the last sip of my coffee, now almost cold, and casually followed him. He stopped at the reception desk and I came up close beside him to politely ask a pretty little dark-haired girl in a green suit if I could see a brochure of the local sights and activities. It was all so easy. Smile at the pretty little girl while she talked me through the brochure and all the while keep a close ear on Whiteman as he talked to the main receptionist. He let slip that he had booked himself onto a coach tour around the Ring of Kerry, leaving the hotel the following morning. When he had moved on, sufficient to be out of hearing, I asked the pretty little girl to book me on the same tour. This guy was making things just too easy for me.

Bright sunshine woke me early next morning and when I looked out the window I could see the hills starkly outlined on the near horizon. Just the sort of day I needed to put me in a good mood. After a leisurely bath, I went downstairs and lingered over breakfast but saw no sign of Whiteman. In fact, I saw nothing of him until I came to board the tour coach outside the hotel. There, he stood out like a pimple on a priest’s nose, once again smartly dressed in tweed jacket and white shirt, all tastefully set off by a red cravat. Too English by far. I boarded the coach after him and sat two seats behind. Close enough to watch him without arousing interest.

The tour took us anti-clockwise around the Ring of Kerry. All the tour buses followed the anti-clockwise route to avoid having to pass one another on the narrow, twisting roads. Some roads in Ireland had been improved with the aid of money from European development funds, but not that one. At times it clung to the sides of the hills like only the prayers of the locals kept it from sliding into the sea.

Once we got going, I settled back and enjoyed the spectacular views, knowing Whiteman wasn’t going anywhere without me. Besides, the sunshine remained bright all day and I figured I was about due some sort of relaxing break. We stopped for lunch at a small town near the western limit of the peninsula. Whiteman seemed quite unperturbed by anything, almost like he’d switched off for the day. He took a few photographs, admired the views and gave the appearance of being quite relaxed. Maybe he was.

The road back along the south side of the peninsula was even more spectacular but I gave it less attention. By now I was finalising my plans for getting at Whiteman. The last stop on the tour was Muckross House on the shore of Killarney’s Middle Lake. That, I decided, was the place to make my move.

I followed him in amongst the throng of the coach party as far as the House and there, where the majority of the party turned into the courtyard, I saw Whiteman break away and head off towards the lake. That was the first point at which he gave any indication of having seen me. Just a glance, but it was enough. I knew then that I couldn’t afford to put things off any longer.

I moved in closer.

We were only a yard apart when we came to the water’s edge. The lake was still and calm, a silent witness to the moment of truth. When I spoke, my voice seemed to echo off the water. “James Whiteman?”

He barely moved but his eyes darted furtively from side to side. Whether or not I’d spooked him, he sure wasn’t too easily ruffled.

He made no reply, so I said, “Captain James Whiteman.”

He stared at the lake, hands jammed into his jacket pockets. “You took your time. Playing me along, were you?”

“You knew?”

“I’ve been waiting.”

“How long

“Spotted you at dinner last night.” His voice was totally unemotional. “Made a point of letting you know my plans for today, just to see what you would do. Been trying to work out who the hell you are. Yank, aren’t you?”

“You must figure you’re some sort of clever bastard.”

He gave me a deep, withering look. “Of course I am. It keeps me alive. Who the hell are you?”

I didn’t immediately tell him, decided to string him along. Give him a moment or two of worry. “I spoke to your father in England last week. He told me that if I came across you, I was to give you his regards.” It wasn’t true but it sounded good. And it gave me more time to marshal my thoughts.

He kept his nerve, I’ll say that for him. “Told you where to find me, eh?

“Not exactly. Your mother let slip you were on holiday out here. It wasn’t that difficult tracking you down.”

“Why?”

“Need to ask you a few questions. About this girl.” I closed the small gap between us and slipped him the photograph from the strip joint. “Her name’s Marie.”

He took one brief look and then handed back the photograph. “Marie who?”

That made me angry, and not just because of the words. His voice turned cold, devoid of any emotion. I stuck the photograph close up against his face where he couldn’t avoid looking at it. “Don’t play games with me, buddy! Marie Bodine, your father’s mistress. The one he kept in the apartment in London. And your mistress, before she went off with that drop-out, Mulholland.”

Still, he kept his cool and replied with a low, measured tone. “What’s all this got to do with you?”

“Name’s Henry Bodine. Marie was my sister.”

He compressed his lips and nodded slowly, as if the big picture was now forming in his brain. “Really? Sorry about what happened to her.”

“So you should be, Captain Whiteman.” I glanced around. The rest of the group had moved on out of sight and we were left standing quite alone beside the lake. “When was the last time you saw her?”

“Sounds like an ominous question. Why did you come here, Bodine?” He pushed the photograph aside, the deft movement of a man in control.

“I told you that. To talk to you. When was the last time you saw my sister?”

He shrugged. “Long time ago. In England.”

“Where?”

“At the flat my father provided for her.”

I leaned close and gritted my teeth. “Liar. You saw her the night she died, you bastard.”

“What the” That shook him some. The iron nerve cracked enough to revive my own confidence. Told me I was going to win this one.

I pushed my face close to his and hissed at him. “And even if you didn’t see her alive, you sure as hell saw her dead body.”

“You’re speculating. Back off.”

No way was I going to back off, but I pulled back enough to give him breathing space. “Speculating that you were there when she was killed? No. I’d call it an inspired hunch.” The rest was made up of words I’d run over in my mind many times these past few days. It came out quite easy, like it was well rehearsed. “Let me tell you how I see things, Whiteman, and then you tell me whether it’s speculation.”

“If you must.” He allowed his body posture to relax just a fraction. Just enough to warn me he had some excuse or argument up his sleeve.

“You set up a switch that night. It was a girl called Christine Fisher who was killed in the taxi on the Crumlin Road. The Gidleys blew up the taxi to kill Sammy Wilde because he was messing with their daughter. They thought they were killing one person, but they actually killed two: Wilde and Christine Fisher.” I stared at him, expecting a response, but he remained impassively silent. So I went on. “Trouble was, Fisher was a crucial link in the planned cease fire. She was a go-between, tying up loose ends between the Provisional IRA and their financial backers in the States. Probably with the full support of the British security forces. If the financial backers didn’t go along with the cease fire, it wouldn’t happen, so you people had good reason for letting her get on with what she was doing. You depended on her, and when she was killed you had one hell of a problem on your hands. But what made things worsefar worsewas the fact that she was killed by a couple of ardent Loyalists.”

I must have paused for breath there because he cut in, “Lots of Catholics have been killed by Loyalists.”

“Right, but this was really sensitive stuff. You couldn’t afford to have it known that Loyalists had killed the crucial Republican go-between in those negotiations. That would have totally wrecked the whole damn game, killed off any prospect of a Provisional IRA cease fire. Imagine what the Nationalist press would have made of it: “Loyalist bombers kill Provo peace envoy!” It would have stopped the whole peace process stone cold dead, so you covered it up. You staged another bomb later that same night. Put it out that Fisher was killed in that second explosion. And you made it look like the work of a mistake by an IRA gang. A damned foul-up is what I believe Father O’Hagan called it. It gave the Republican movement good reason to keep the story under wraps.”

Whiteman gave me a sour look. “You’ve met O’Hagan?”

“You’d better believe it. A damned foul-up in which a Provo gang killed their own secret agent by mistake: that was what he believed. Why would he believe that, Captain?”

“This is all just wild guesswork,” he said. “That second explosion really was the work of a Republican gang.”

“Of course it was. But it was done with your connivance, wasn’t it? You set it up because you wanted a dead red-head to put in the cab the Gidley’s blew up. When the bodies were taken to the police mortuary, you did a switch. You did, didn’t you? Made it look like my sister was the one killed in the taxi with Sammy Wilde. But she wasn’t. She was killed in the second explosion, the one you engineered.”

Whiteman pulled out a packet of cigarettes. “Interesting speculation.” He kept his eyes lowered as he lit up. A deathly stillness hung over the silent lake.

“Yes, very interesting. Now let’s think about how my sister got caught up in this.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“You knew Marie was in Belfast, didn’t you? You also hated her guts because she went off with that drop-out Mulholland and because she left you with a nasty disease. You hated her, and you needed a red-headed girl to take Fisher’s place.”

“You’re off your rocker,” he snapped. He didn’t sound so cool now and that just about confirmed the whole thing for me.

“Am I? Marie was killed just hours after Fisher was killed by the Gidleys. I reckon a couple of hours is all it took you to set the thing up. Didn’t give you much time for examining you conscience though, did it?”

“You got any proof that this fairy story might be true?”

“None.”

He visibly relaxed and that was the very last bit of proof I needed. He drew a deep breath and said, “Go home, Bodine, and forget all that you’ve seen here in Ireland. It can’t do you any good.”

“Convince me.” I stood beside him quietly for some minutes, waiting for him to say more.

He must have sensed my expectations. “You ever been in any sort of a war?”

“You’d better believe it. Seen the killing and seen the bodies. So don’t mess about with me, Whiteman.”

“I wasn’t going to.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets and stared out across the lake. “Look out there, Mr Bodine. It’s a beautiful country, isn’t it? Something worth preserving after all those long years of violence that make up Irish history.”

“What are you getting at?”

“One hundred and fifty years ago, there were around nine million people in Ireland. It was a thriving country by the standards of the day. Then came the famine and over a million of them of them died, and the British government sat back and let them die. A sad business. They still hate us for it, you know, hate our guts.”

“Maybe someone should tell them that the world has moved on since then.”

He compressed his lips and began to edge away from me. “You don’t tell Irish people things like that. Anything we British can do to bring peace to this island is worth the effort, Bodine. Anything we can do to get these people to live normal peaceful lives, has got to be worthwhile. Even if… even if the odd innocent victim gets killed in the process.”

“Killed by people like you.”

“Killed by people like us, Bodine.” He had his back to me now and began walking away. His last words to me were called back over his shoulder. “Forget all about it, my friend. Go home and forget you ever came here. You can prove nothing, and you can achieve nothing worthwhile by staying here.”

“Let’s put proof aside for the moment. Let’s talk human decency. What did you switch? The bodies, or the reports on their death?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“I took a body back to LA. My parents saw it buried. Whose body was it?”

He stared at me, unflinching. “Messing around with official reports can be damned difficult. Too much risk of other people getting involved.”

“Easier to swap the name tags on two bodies in the same mortuary, the same night?”

He nodded his head barely perceptibly. “Does it matter whose body you buried? You gave someone a decent burial. Don’t upset your parents, Bodine. Let it be.”

Then he walked away and I let him go.

I remained there in front of the lake for some time, thinking over what had passed between us and trying to marry my angry thoughts with what I now knew for certain. Whiteman had been responsible for Marie’s death. Whiteman had engineered the swapping of the bodies. What was I going to do about it? Mete out some sort of justice? No. It would be retribution, not justice. Revenge. And what would it achieve? Probably nothing.

Eventually I went back to the tour coach and kept well away from James Whiteman.

My heart ached over Marie’s death and my thoughts drifted.

Some years ago I was at a meeting with a group of European military advisors in Luxembourg. One evening I was walking through the city with this Luftwaffe pilot. We passed a memorial with a burning flame and I asked him what it was all about.

“That,” he told me, “is a memorial to all the people of Luxembourg who were killed in the last world war by the Germans. It is something that should make all German people stop and think.”

“What about?” I asked.

“About war. You see, the people who did that killing were not, for the large part, mindless killers. Most of them were just ordinary people like you and me. People who were misled by their government. But ordinary people for all that.”

That evening, sitting over a beer in the Killarney hotel bar, I had cause to think back to those words. There was one hell of a lot of murder, hatred and killing going on in Ireland and it was hard to imagine that all the people who supported the killers were themselves mindless murderers. Hard to imagine that every Republican or Loyalist who implicitly supported Sinn Fein or the UVF was, by definition, a murdering thug. More likely they were ordinary people who had been misled by their leaders. Misled by their political leaders, misled by their religious leaders and misled by their own parents who indoctrinated them into extremist beliefs. And then there were people like Whiteman doing what they thought was their bit for peace, but getting innocent people killed. Was Whiteman just another ordinary guy like me, or was there real reason for me to hate his guts?

I had no answers.

I had the hire car for a week so I decided next morning to drive up to Belfast. Despite Rourke’s warning. There were still gaps in the story of what happened to Marie, gaps which Whiteman was not going to voluntarily fill in. I had to go back to find someone else who knew exactly what had happened that night. Someone who knew for sure how they managed to get Marie into that second cab, someone who knew how a Provo gang was persuaded to kill her. A hunch told me I might find the answer at the Irish American Woman’s Aid Centre.

Rourke wouldn’t like it if he found out, but Rourke didn’t have to know. I figured I was so close now to the truth that a few more enquiries was all it would take. Then I could be back across the border before Rourke and his men cottoned on.

Like an omen, thick cloud rolled over shortly after day break and then it started to rain. I studied a road map, wondering which route to take, setting weather against scenic promise. In the end I told myself, ‘to hell with the rain.’ I had seen little enough of rural Ireland so I drove up the western side of the island, through Tralee, famous for the Rose of Tralee and the Dingle Peninsula steam railway, through Limerick, famous for the ribald rhymes, and then on through Galway, famous for the Catholic Bishop and his illegitimate son. Funny how places gain fame for such different reasons.

Most of the place names came at me like something familiar, and yet quite unknown. Names once read in a book, but never associated with something tangible. At first the countryside looked clean and fresh, like the County Kerry landscape I’d seen the previous day. Houses colourfully painted and roadside verges neatly trimmed. But, the farther north I went, the dirtier it all became. Oddly enough, the open fields still had more than their share of new, expensive houses. I never did figure out how come such a poor country had such a large proportion of luxury homes.

By the time I reached Sligo I was driving through the next best thing to an open trash tip. The filthy gipsy caravans at the sides of the road seemed to blend in well with the general air of depression, leaving me feeling quite out of place. I was still in the Irish Republic and yet it all reminded me of Northern Ireland.

I stopped the night at a small guest house between Sligo and Eniskillen. Inside the Republic and only a short hop to the border. It seemed prudent to keep to a minimum the time I spent in the north. That night I went to bed early and planned on what I was going to do next.

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