Monday, 10 June 2013

Chapter Three


Chapter Three

 
 

Like most Air Force pilots, I’ve gotten a few kicks out of seeing girls drop their panties on stage. Even an ex-pilot is human. I once met a girl in Atlanta who got a real sexual high every time she stripped off in public, but she was an oddball. Most strippers, she told me, did it for the money and nothing else.

Was that Marie’s problem? Shortage of cash?

I kept getting these disturbing mental images of her when she lived at home: Marie defying authority and fighting against good sense. One particular image got stuck in the groove so that it replayed again and again.

It was her sixteenth birthday and we had ourselves a party with family and friends coming from miles around. Marie was wearing a bright blue party dress and white ankle socks. She looked about as clean-cut as any all-American girl could look. A touch of lipstick, maybe, and a hint of eye shadow but not so’s you’d notice straight away. And, of course, her cheeks were just naturally rosy. Her eyes were shining bright, like they’d been glazed with fluorescent paint. And she smiled and kissed every guest as they arrived with the sort of enthusiasm that just couldn’t be faked.

Mom and dad were running a barbecue at the back of the garden and most of the visitors were either chatting or dancing to country music on the stereo. Some of Marie’s school chums were invited; three or four girls and a couple of boys from her class. At first they looked just like any other neighbourhood sixteen-year-old school kids, but looks can deceive.

I was standing near the two boys when I heard one of them burst into raucous laughter. His pal was smirking quietly, as if he’d just said something outrageous. So I refocused my ears in their direction and picked up some conversation about how innocent Marie was looking. That made me frown. Then one of them let slip that he’d been skinny-dipping in the creek with her just a week before and she didn’t look too innocent then.

“Tits that feel as good as they look,” he added, with a grin so wide I could have rammed my fist into it with my eyes shut. “You should see what she’s got inside her panties. And she don’t aim to keep it all to herself, either.”

“You’re kiddin’.”

“You’d better believe it.”

My hands were bundled into tight fists and I knew I was on the edge of losing my cool. I wanted to make sure that kid never went near any young girl again, but that would have upset mom and dad. Wouldn’t have pleased the kid much either. So, instead, I walked away fast, afraid of what else I might hear.

Later, when we were alone in her room, I confronted Marie and asked her what the hell she had been playing at. I didn’t mince my words because I was still on the edge of reason and it wasn’t the first time we’d had that sort of row.

She giggled at me like I was a moron. “At your age, you should know what game I was playing at, Henry. Or do you want me to draw you a picture?”

“You’re too damn young!” I bellowed at her.

She just laughed. “Get real! What are you? Some sort of moral freak?”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“Long enough! You jealous or something?”

I stomped out of that room and said no more about it for fear I would lose my cool with her. I couldn’t run the risk of lashing out at her in temper.

*

It was raining again the next morning when I left the hotel and made my way back into the centre of Belfast City. Black clouds floated low overhead and the street gutters ran with water and trash in equal amounts. If I was shivering, it was more likely because of the cold atmosphere than because of what I had discovered.

I spent an hour with one of the priests at St. Patrick’s church, arranging a requiem mass. Mom and dad would appreciate it, even though Marie had strayed from the straight and narrow rules of Catholic morality. Next, I put all the difficult travel arrangements in the hands of a funeral director, a rather sombre-faced man who operated from a smart little parlour not far from the church and was recommended by the priest.

He diligently took all the details, rubbed his hands together while he assured me of his sadness at my loss. I told him the coroner had issued an interim certificate pending an inquest, so Marie could be flown home. Seemed like there was nothing more to be learned from the lumps of burned meat lying in the mortuary. The funeral man took all the details and did things as tastefully as I could expect. I asked him to ring me at the hotel when he’d made all the necessary flight bookings. In the meantime there were some other pressing matters I wanted to clear up.

Marie had been living with another Billy Gidley Agency girl in an apartment not far from the Dublin Road and Mrs Gidley had given me directions on how to get to there. That was after I accidentally dropped a ten pound note on her desk. She tucked it into her vast cleavage where it would probably take a road map to find it again.

Pulling my coat collar around my ears, I left the funeral parlour, stepped out into the rain and quickly picked up a black taxi cab. Two other passengers were already in the vehicle, which surprised me. We were each charged the full fare and pointedly invited to give a tip. It was a rip-off, but I’d been warned not to argue. It was what those cab drivers did in Belfast.

Within ten minutes, I was set down in a dingy back street, vaguely reminiscent of a pre-war New York slum. All it lacked was the skyscraper skyline. Trash was driven along the street by troublesome eddies of wind that seemed to funnel down between the houses in hiccupping gusts. The rain bounced off the ground quite heavily now and added to the already gloomy atmosphere. Looking about, I had the feeling it was a pity this particular street had managed to survive the ravages of the bombing campaign.

The cabbie dropped me off right opposite the place I was looking for, a tenement building with crumbling red brick walls and rotten window casements. The outside door was open and I went up more narrow, dirty stairs to the upper-floor landing. The walls were filthy and daubed with anti-papist graffiti designed to outrage Catholics, which was rather pointless in a Loyalist area that was generally shunned by Catholics for fear of their lives. Marie must have been pretty adept at hiding her religious background.

Two men came down the stairs from the floor above, all pot-belly and dirty stubble. They stared at me hard as they went past, like I was a juicy herring swimming round inside a shark tank. Even more reason for wondering why the hell Marie had lived here.

I found the apartment, but it took three long stabs at the bell before a voice shouted out abrasively from behind the locked door. “Who the hell is it?”

I didn’t give a name. Just called back that I wanted to see Penny Hamilton, using the excuse that I’d been sent by Mrs Gidley.

“Why? What d’you want?” Whoever was inside, she didn’t sound too keen to open up.

“I need to talk to you about Marie.”

“Who?” The girl’s voice suddenly turned sharp; edgy enough to tell me she was the one I was looking for.

“Some called her Nancy Kelly. I call her Marie.”

“Why? Who are you?” She was definitely on the defensive now. The voice was raw with unspoken fear.

“Look, stop messing me around and open up.”

I stood back and waited long enough for the girl to make a value judgement about opening the door to a stranger. I could have been intent on robbing her or, worse still, collecting ‘donations’ for the local terror gang. The sound of chains rattling and two bolts being pulled back told me I’d passed the first test. But she as hell wasn’t one to take chances.

The girl who opened the door looked half asleep. She wore a threadbare bathrobe, half-tied at the front and barely concealing her naked body beneath it.

Given ten minutes under a shower and a cup of black coffee, she would have been quite presentable but, right then, she looked like she’d been working a long night shift with little sleep to follow. She sported about five foot four of pale pink body from her bare feet to the roots of her jet black hair. She had intensely dark eyes, almost as black as her hair, and her face was nicely rounded with smooth skin beneath the remains of her make-up. At first impression, she was around twenty five or six with a youthful firmness still showing in the way her breasts poked out from beneath the robe. As strippers went, she looked like she would have made the upper grade.

Her voice was hesitant, wary. “Yeah? What do you want? You’re not the police, are you?” She folded her arms and blinked as she fixed her eyes in my direction. Her loose hair flopped down in front of her face and she casually flicked it aside.

“Do I sound like a Belfast cop?”

“’S’pose not. You’re not from round here, are you?” She gave me a cautious, sidelong look, still appraising me. Enlightenment grew slowly in her eyes. “You’re American. I can tell.”

“Sure. John Wayne sent me.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. I just want to talk to you.”

“Why?”

“You’re Penny Hamilton?”

“So you know my name? Bully for you.” She shrugged and unfolded her arms.

“Look, can I come inside and talk with you?” I eased off a little, afraid of frightening her. She looked like she might be easily spooked if I kept up the direct approach. “I’m not toting any bombs, bullets or semtex. I don’t mean you any harm. Like you said, I’m not from round here.”

“Don’t get clever with me.”

“I wasn’t aiming to. Clever ain’t my style.”

The look of tiredness was still there as she rubbed a hand across her eyes and yawned. Her body began to slope towards the doorframe. “Just what the hell is this all about? What did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t. I’m Henry Bodine.” I paused for effect. “Marie Bodine was my sister.”

That sure took the sleep out of her voice. Her eyes popped open like someone had stuck an Armalite up her cute little ass.

“Aw shite! You’d better come inside, so you had.” She jerked herself back upright, pulled the bathrobe tight across her chest and stood aside to let me in. Embarrassment filled the air, along with a short silence while she followed me into a particularly scruffy living room.

Standing in the middle of an unholy mess, I decided to cut straight to the point. “I’m over here to collect Marie’s body and take her home. And I want to know what happened to her. The truth, not the platitudes the police push out. Or the shit I got from Mrs Gidley. That’s why I want to talk to you.”

“You think I know more than the police?”

“Maybe not. But you might be more willing to talk about it.”

She opened her mouth, then hesitated like she’d intended to say something, but thought better of it. “T’was a right terrible business, so it was, Mr Bodine. I still can’t believe anyone would want to kill a poor wee soul like Marie.” She forced a smile into her eyes, but it didn’t fool me. The rest of her face remained immobile, as if it were cast in fibreglass.

I studied her closely for a couple of seconds. “It happened. I saw the remains of her body.”

“Must’ve been terrible for you.”

“You can say that again.” I looked about the room and wasn’t impressed. Pink, lacy pantyhose was strewn across the coffee table. More scattered clothes took over the seats. Video tapes with no boxes lay on the carpet. “Looks like I came at the wrong time. Can we talk now or do you want me to come back later?”

She grabbed the pantyhose and stuffed it in a drawer. “Sure, we can talk now. But what the hell do you want to know? I mean, what can I tell you that you can’t find out by reading a newspaper?”

I decided on an easy tack to get things started. “Are there any of her personal belongings left here? Anything of Marie’s that I can take back home to our parents.”

Penny looked flustered and scanned about the room. “Yeah. But, look here, the place is a bit untidy. I work late most nights and I usually sleep late.”

“Sorry I disturbed you.”

“Don’t apologise.” She regarded me coolly for a second and then gestured towards a half-open door off the living room. “You just go on into Marie’s bedroom. I’d better put some clothes on.” She backed away, while I edged forward, unsure what I might find.

I could have told at a glance that this was where Marie slept. It had all the hallmarks of everything I remembered about my kid sister. For a start it was tidy, a complete contrast to the rest of the apartment. A photograph of mom and dad stood on the bedside cabinet, the same photograph she had kept by her bed at home. And a folded pink nightie sat on her pillow, neatly placed alongside her toy panda. Mom had bought her that bear as a Christmas present when she was about six or seven.

I started to browse around, careful not to disturb the place. It didn’t look like a shrine, but it felt like it. Within a minute I came across an unframed photograph pinned to the wall beside her bed. I hadn’t seen it before. It was a pretty amateurish shot of Marie and some guy embracing on a beach and smiling into the camera. She was in a swimsuit while he was wearing jeans and a tee shirt which didn’t look too clean. I couldn’t place the location but it could have been anywhere with a sandy beach and a wide expanse of blue sea.

I leaned closer to better focus on Marie. She hadn’t changed much, flame red hair outlining her heart-shaped face. I could almost see her back at high school, being dated by every guy who knew a good thing when he saw it. What the hell had gone wrong to bring her to a place like this?

With no one watching, I removed the photograph and slipped it into my wallet. I would need to talk to the guy in the picture, if and when I found him.

“They told you how it happened, did they?”

I swung round to see Penny in the doorway, now looking somewhat more respectable in jeans and sweater and not unattractive with it. She was in the act of pinning back her ebony hair with a Kirby grip. It was the sort of domestic, girl-next-door image that makes any girl look human. For a brief second, I could have been turned on by it, but the moment passed quickly enough. I had more important things to do than admire a stripper in her daytime gear.

“The police gave me the bare outline,” I said, registering the Freudian slip too late. “I figured you might be able to tell me more of the details.”

“What details? I still don’t know exactly what you’re looking for.” She spoke softly, as if we were in the middle of a prayer service, and I strained to pick out her words.

“Anything you can tell me. Like, why was she here? Why did she come to Belfast in the first place?”

Penny glanced at the wall behind me and compressed her lips thoughtfully. “You found the photograph, did you? The one of Marie and Pat Mulholland. She was nuts about him, you know.”

“Who’s Pat Mulholland?”

“The one in the photo. They met in London in a squat when they were both out of work. When Pat came back across the water Marie decided to come with him.”

That was a start, a useful start, but didn’t explain everything I wanted to know. I spread my hands to encourage more information. “Were they…?”

“Did they sleep together? Course they did. Shagged like rabbits. So what? It’s not a crime.” She responded easily, her confidence growing with each minute we stood there, hacking into my embarrassment. “They were what we like to call ‘an item’. It was Marie’s choice. She…” Penny stopped abruptly, leaving something else unsaid, but I couldn’t pick up any clues as to what it might have been.

I decided to change the subject. “Why did she have to work as a… you know…”

“As a stripper?” She shrugged. “Who said she had to?”

“All right. Why did she choose to work as a stripper?”

“Why not? Hell, it’s a job, isn’t it?” Her voice rose an octave.

“It’s degrading.”

She glared back at me, put her hands into her jeans’ pockets and stood, rocking on her heels. Half a minute passed while she considered her reply. “What are you? A religious nut or something? A dancer takes whatever work she can get. Marie tried to get legitimate theatre work, but the jobs just weren’t there for the having.”

“So she took to stripping?” I couldn’t help injecting an unguarded bitter tone.

Her eyes grew suddenly angry, creasing into lowered brows. I should have seen it coming. She gritted her teeth. “Don’t play the moral creep here, Mr Bodine. This is my place, not yours.”

Moral creep? Wasn’t that what Marie had said about me, back home in LA? Something like it. And maybe the both of them were right, maybe I was making too much of it. Whatever the truth of my sister’s lifestyle, I couldn’t do anything about it now, so I backed off.

“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause offence. I guess it’s not easy to accept the idea of your kid sister taking her clothes off in a strip joint.”

“Most girls are some guy’s sister. Or some doting father’s innocent daughter.”

“Okay, okay. I already said I’m sorry. I’ve come here to find out what happened to Marie and all I hear about her is bad news. It bugs me. You know what I’m saying?”

“No, I bloody well don’t see what you’re getting at.” Penny shook her head so quickly the Kirby grip fell off and her hair flowed out like black waves. “You’re just like Pat Mulholland. As long as your mother and your sister keep their knickers on, all’s well with the world.”

That was a clue I hadn’t expected, and I latched onto it. “You mean he didn’t like it? This Pat Mulholland guy: he didn’t like Marie stripping?”

She sniffed pointedly. “He wanted Marie to give it up, go and live with his mother over in the Divis. He couldn’t bear to think of all them men out there paying to watch his girl drop her knickers. Couldn’t come to terms with what she was doing’. He didn’t like it any more than you would. He’s a creep, just like you.”

I put my hands to my face and felt a flush of anger rise up through my cheeks. A couple of deep breaths helped to keep it under control, but only just. “If Marie could have gone to stay with this guy’s mother, why didn’t she?”

“Stupid question. You obviously don’t know the Divis.” Her face darkened visibly.

“Guess I don’t at that.” I turned away and picked up the bedside photograph and the toy panda, feeling more than a mite self-conscious. Mom and dad would want to keep them as mementos.

After a minute, Penny went silently back into the living room and I followed. She nodded me in the direction of the settee but kept her distance, as if I represented something menacingly uncertain. I sank down deep into the settee’s broken middle while she perched herself on a hard chair opposite. She sat well forward, on the edge of the seat, with her knees pressed together like a polite, apprehensive schoolgirl. It would have been a convincing image if I didn’t know better.

“So, Pat Mulholland wanted her to give up stripping?” I was reluctant to close the subject and hoping she had calmed down. “But what did Marie want?”

Penny shook her head, not so savagely this time. Her hair rippled and her voice was softer now, as if she too regretted the earlier harsh words. “Don’t get the wrong idea about Marie. She told me more than once she was ready to give it all up, that’s for sure, but she had to go on with it. They needed the money. Pat had no job, barely a penny to his name, and he was a heavy boozer. Besides, they had to get some money together for when Marie” She stopped suddenly.

“Yes?”

“For when she had the baby.”

I stood up suddenly. “She was pregnant? She was Goddam pregnant? Shit!”

“I suppose you had to find out sooner or later.” Penny looked away as she spoke.

“Shit!” I repeated as I sat down again, leaned back heavily and drew a hand across my brow which suddenly felt hot and sweaty. The skeletons were pouring out of Marie’s closet thick and fast and I was none too sure that I wanted to risk hearing any more.

“She was only two months gone.” Penny looked up at me with anxiety deep in her eyes. She toned down her voice into a new softness, as if she was afraid of what I might do next. “There was plenty of time for her to get some money together before it got noticeable.”

My heart was thumping real bad now. I struggled to speak. “So, whoever killed Marie also killed the baby.” I cursed Rourke for not telling me that. He must have known. Maybe he thought I’d do something stupid if I knew the truth. Maybe he was right. What else did the bastard hide from me?

Penny’s lips trembled. “Pretty sickening stuff, eh? Even by Belfast standards.”

“A life is worthless in this place, even before it starts.”

“It bugs me too. So don’t go shifting any blame onto me.” She clasped her hands tight together and wrung them like she was washing.

“Wasn’t aiming to.” I closed my eyes for a few second while calming my heartbeat. “This guy, Pat Mulholland, he knew she was pregnant?”

“Course he did. He slept with her.”

“He was the father?”

“Must have been.” She shrugged. “There was no one else in Belfast she slept with. None that I knew of.”

“What’s he like?”

“Depends who you ask. Ask me and I’d say he was a shite-bag. A dickhead. Tries to act suave, but underneath he’s just one big deadbeat. Ask Marie and she’d say he’s a man in need of a good woman. God knows what she saw in him, but she was taken in by the act. He was a perpetual boozer, like I said. That’s where most of the money went.”

“I guess he should’ve been more careful how he spent his money. In the States even Catholics spend their dollars on rubbers as well as booze.” I knew it was a pretty callous statement, and I regretted it as soon as the words were out. Before she could reply, I went on, “Where does he live?”

“He stayed here with Marie for a while. Then he moved back with his mother. He couldn’t afford to chip in with the rent, you see.”

I frowned. “Marie sent him packing?”

She looked at me fixedly. “No. I did. This is my flat and I decide who shares it. Hell, it was bad enough him lounging around here without paying a penny. On top of that, this is a loyalist area and Mulholland is a Catholic. I didn’t want any bombs chucked through my front door.”

“Marie was a Catholic,” I pointed out.

“Yeah. I knew that, but no one else round here did. She was able to keep it pretty much to herself. Mulholland was different, he stood out as a papist like a sore thumb.”

I grunted. “While he was herebefore you sent the guy packingI guess Marie was keeping him?”

Again, she fixed me with a powerful stare. “You could put it like that. I suppose she didn’t see it that way. She thought they shared everything. In reality she chipped in with the cash and he chipped in with his lazy arse lying around here all day.”

This was painful stuff, so I tried to change the tone of things. I cut back on the pressure and gave her a weak sort of smile. “Have you got Pat Mulholland’s address, Penny?”

The ploy seemed to work. “Most likely. I’ll see if I can find it for you.” She rose and crossed the room to a battered sideboard.

While she was searching through the drawers, I sat brooding and the tension inside began to wind itself into a tight spring.

Penny swung round with a scrap of paper in one hand. “Here it is. You won’t like him any more than I did. He’s just a drunken drop-out. Why don’t you just

“Go home and forget all about it?” The words spilled out with a cynical tone before I could stopper them.

Fortunately, she kept her cool. She walked slowly back towards me, staring at me with a coyness that caught me off guard. “Something like that. Friendly advice, that’s all. You’ll only get hurt if you stay here asking more questions.”

“You don’t say.” I took the paper from her. “How did you get on with Marie?”

“Pretty good. Me and her was mates and we got on really well, so we did. Marie wasn’t like some of those other cats the Gidleys have on her books. I don’t reckon there was anyone didn’t get on with Marie.”

“But the other girls only knew her as Nancy Kelly. Not Marie Bodine.”

“Most strippers don’t give away their real names. Would you want the Bodine name bandied about in strip joints?”

“No.” God, what would mom and dad think? “But you knew her real name.”

She shrugged and combed the splayed fingers of one hand through her hair, drawing it back from her face. “We shared the flat. You don’t live this close without finding out things. The rest of them got on with her well enough without knowing who she really was.”

“Well, someone sure didn’t get on with her,” I reflected. “Otherwise she’d be alive now.”

Her voice went strangely hushed, as if she had something to be sorry about. “I wish to God she was.”

I passed over the comment and stood up to leave. “Just one more thing. Mrs Gidley said that Marie wasn’t meant to be working that night. She shouldn’t have been in that taxi with the guy who was killed.”

Penny hung her head so that I couldn’t see her expression. “I don’t know anything about that. Most times Marie minded her own business and I minded mine.”

She was lying—the lack of eye contact told me that—but I decided not to press it. Not yet.

I left the apartment about one o’clock, had a quick bite at McDonalds, and then took a taxi to the Crumlin Road where the killing had happened. This time I drew lucky and got a cab to myself so I made the cabbie wait while I inspected the area. Part of the road was barricaded off and a group of workmen was repairing the damage. I got as close as I could while staring at the hole in the road, the boarded up windows in the adjacent shops and sensing the general air of futility in this part of Belfast. What was it about this place that bugged me so much?

I called to mind what it was like in Bosnia when I was out there. Not in any official capacity, of course, because the US didn’t officially have any troops on the ground in Bosnia at that time. But someone up on Capitol Hill wanted first-hand knowledge of what was happening. So they sent me to find out.

I flew out to Sarajevo in civilian uniform, as pilot-in-command of a commercial transport, and took some time to observe the peace-keeping process. Peacekeeping? That was an expression they used for public consumption. You don’t keep the peace when people hate each other that much. You sit back and let them knock ten shades of shit out of each other until they eventually work out for themselves what the hell they’re doing wrong. Or maybe they don’t.

In Bosnia, they had lots of innocent victims. And they had a US pilot who got so uptight about the whole damned thing he cut loose and went maverick. They called it cowardice, but it wasn’t. Nevertheless, they found some trumped-up charge to have me court-martialled and thrown out of the air force without publicly admitting I’d ever been in Bosnia.

“You’ve got a choice,” they told me when I eventually got back to the US. “We can lock you up and throw away the keys, or we can give you your discharge papers.”

“Surprise me,” I said. “Tell me the conditions for getting my discharge.”

“You keep your damn mouth shut. One word of this to the press and we pull you back inside and we make your life hell.”

“That’s a choice?” I asked them. But I went along with it, even though it left a nasty taste in the back of my throat, and one hell of an attitude problem. Maybe Chief Hanson was right to avoid me for a while when I got back home. Anyway, that’s why I’ve never spoken about it until now. The truth is out now without any help from me.

However, that didn’t help me here in Belfast.

Eventually, I approached one of the workmen, a burly guy with leathery skin and black eyebrows that stretched in one line from ear to ear. “This where the bomb went off?” I asked him.

“One of ’em.”

“What can you tell me about it?”

“Not much. Who the hell are you anyway? What do you want here?”

“Nothing important I guess.”

As I turned away, I saw an elderly woman hanging out from an upstairs window opposite, watching. Her eyes were firmly fixed on me, that was for sure, and she was taking an unhealthy interest in my investigations. I was attracting attention and that’s not wise if you aim to stay alive in a civil battle-ground. The cabbie still had his meter ticking over so I didn’t stay any longer. I got him to drop me back outside the Billy Gidley Agency.

The receptionist recognised me straight away this time and she ushered me in to the office where Mrs Gidley was busy composing something or other on her old manual typewriter. Her podgy hands rested on the keys and another cigarette hung loosely from her lower lip. She looked up as I entered and I could tell at once that she was none too keen to see me return. Nevertheless, she plastered a forced smile across her face and waved me into a seat.

“Mrs Gidley, I just wanted to tell you that I’ve seen Penny Hamilton and we had a chat.”

“That’s nice.” A puzzled look said she hadn’t yet figured out why I had come back.

I coughed. “Look, I thought maybe you could tell me something about the guy who was killed with my sister.”

She went cagey then and I knew instantly she was holding back on something. “Are you trying to investigate this killing all by yourself?”

I thought quickly. “No. But I want to be able to tell Marie’s parents all about what happened to her. They’ll figure they’ve got a right to know. They’ll ask me about the poor man killed in the car and I figure I’ll need to tell them something.”

“I suppose so.” She eyed me suspiciously and sub-consciously pulled a tobacco shred from her teeth. “Sammy Wilde. He was our regular driver.”

“Regular? You mean he always drove the girls to the clubs?”

She drew deeply on her cigarette. “That’s what I said. He worked for us exclusively in the evenings. There was always some girl or other needing taken somewhere. He was just a city taxi driver the rest of the time.”

“Did you know him long?”

“He’d been with us for years and we all liked Sammy even if he was a bit…” She looked away and made a pretence of adjusting her chair. She’d been about to say too much.

“A bit what?”

She gave me the sort of blank look women give when they don’t really want to talk. Then she thought better of it. “He was… well, a bit of a ladies man. Oh, not with our agency girls. He wouldn’t dare touch any of our girls. But off duty he liked to sow his wild oats.”

“Not married?”

“Married? Him? Never, not Sammy. He was approaching fifty, you know, but he didn’t look a day over thirty. Used to boast about his looks to the girls.”

I chose my next words carefully. “Why wouldn’t he dare touch any of your girls, Mrs Gidley?”

“Because he knew my Billy would’ve given him hell if he did. My Billy wouldn’t let any harm come to our girls, whoever tried it on.”

“Protective, is he? Your Billy.”

“You can be sure of that. Protected them girls like he protects our own daughter.” She sniffed loudly at me and I figured I’d played my luck for as much as I could get. It doesn’t do to overrun on a mildly winning streak. It was time to leave while I still had some goodwill left.

I stood up slowly. “Pity he didn’t keep a sharper eye on Marie, Mrs Gidley.” I let that sink in before adding, “Oh, by the way, there’s to be a requiem mass for her at St. Patrick’s church tomorrow morning. Ten o’clock.”

A look of thunder swept up from the floorboards and silently gathered in her flabby face. She stared at me. “A mass?” She spat out the words like they tasted of shit. “You mean…! Are you telling me she was a Papist?”

“Sure. There’s something wrong with that?”

Mrs Gidley’s eyebrows bulged and yet, somehow, I got this feeling it wasn’t for real. It was just that tinge too melodramatic. “God save us! If I’d known that! To think we’ve been harbouring a left-hander on our books!”

“You didn’t know?”

“Of course I didn’t know. Hell! She lied to me. Told me she was a good solid protestant.” There it was again, that inflection in her voice that just didn’t ring true. What was it with this place that made it so full of lies and deceit?

I kept my voice as calm as I could manage. “Does it really matter?”

“Matter? Of course it matters! Mr Bodine, we send girls along to the sort of places where a Papist could be skinned alive. If anyone had found out, I can tell you there would have been hell to pay!”

“You mean your bookings were only for Loyalist clubs?”

“Where else? Just take it from me that if anyone had found out she was a Papist they would have had her guts strung up between the lamp-posts.”

I frowned. “Is that possibly what happened? Could someone have found out she was a Catholic? Maybe someone at the Blue Taboo Club?”

“I don’t know.” She shook her head, jaw jutting out like she was about to grind her teeth. “God help us, if they’d found out they were fantasising over a naked papist, her life wouldn’t have been worth insuring!”

“That, Mrs Gidley, sounds rather like a possible motive for murder.”

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