Sometimes, the psychological pain of facing up to the death of a loved one can be almost beyond endurance. It’s not a sign of personal weakness, just an indication of the amount of humanity we all have inside us. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself. I sometimes wondered which was worse, the murder of my little sister, someone I had grown up with, or the cruel killing of those poor little kids in Bosnia; kids who were no more than strangers. Or was I so badly affected because of that film that used to run inside my head, the image of Carrie-Ann just before the crash that killed her?
I often lay awake at night, mind awash with guilt, as I came to the conclusion that the suffering of those little Bosnian kids hit me even harder than the death of my kid sister. Harder than the death of Carrie-Ann.
The worst occasion was when I went to that bombed-out orphanage with Joe Bickford, our hearts and minds full of wanting to help rescue the children.
The nurse in charge of the place had escaped with little injury, though God knows how anyone managed to survive those direct hits from heavy mortars. She stood apart from the rescue workers and she eyed me angrily as I took in the scene of devastation.
I shook my head and responded almost without thinking. “Gee, this sure is a terrible thing to happen.” They were useless words, but all I could drum up in the tension of the moment. It didn’t occur to me at the time to hide my accent.
“Americans! Pah!” She spat on the ground directly in front of me. A broad-shouldered woman who might once have been fat but was now reduced to near skin and bone by months of starvation diet, she wrung her hands and burst into uncontrollable sobbing.
One of the rescue workers detached himself from the task of scrabbling in the rubble and gently led her away from the desolation that surrounded us. The last I heard of her was the rise and fall of her continued weeping.
I looked around at the small group of men and women digging into the rubble that was once the orphanage. No one else was directly accusing me; they all had more on their minds. Nevertheless, I felt a need to protest. “But it wasn’t Americans who did this.”
“They know that.” A British Red Cross doctor rested on his haunches long enough to reply. “But they grow weary of hating each other and it’s fashionable to blame other people for all the world’s troubles. What are you doing here anyway?”
I pointed to where Joe was pulling at some loose rubble with his camera still slung round his neck. “I’m with him.”
“Really? I hope your friends back home in the USA enjoy reading about this over their breakfast tables.” He turned back to his efforts to help pull a child’s body from beneath the rubble. Violent death was written all over the infant’s face: wide, staring eyes and gaping mouth. I felt the bile rising in my throat as a woman cradled the small dead body in her arms and then carried it away. A pale look was drawn across the doctor’s face, a look which couldn’t be entirely blamed on the lack of food within the city. Ashamed, for no clear reason I could identify, I knelt down beside him and began to tear at the broken bricks and stones.
“How can they blame us?” I persisted. “We didn’t do this! We didn’t kill these children!”
“No, you didn’t. Neither did your government do much to stop it. Not one single US marine to show the flag for these poor people.” He sniffed loudly as if he too thought that the American government was at fault. “But that’s not the real reason. The truth is that people remember only too easily what happened in other wars. American troops in Vietnam did worse things than this.”
I prickled badly. “That’s unfair! Besides, I’m not a soldier and I wasn’t there in Vietnam.”
“It’s always the same answer, isn’t it? Don’t blame me because I wasn’t there.” He paused long enough to look me in the eye. His shoulders sagged. “I’m sorry. You’re right. What I said was wrong and unfair. You’re not to blame for this any more than I’m to blame for what various British armies did in Ireland long ago. I’m sorry.”
His apology wasn’t enough to appease my sense of guilt. The horror of the scene was too much to be explained away with one short apology. Somehow I needed to cleanse my mind of all this, and so I found myself babbling at him. “I’m not a soldier. I told you that. I’m not a soldier.”
“And if you were a soldier? If your own government sent you out to kill people? Would you go? And if innocent people got killed, would you tell the world that you were only obeying orders? Or that it was just a terrible mistake. Like the British troops in Londonderry who made a mistake on Bloody Sunday? A truly terrible mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. The other side, the terrorists, killed with hatred in their minds, but it was that terrible mistake that most sticks in the minds of Irish people.”
He was getting too emotional by far, but I understood the reason better than he thought. He looked away, wiped a dusty hand across his face and then suddenly pointed towards a small trapped figure. A little girl with deathly white skin stared back at us. Her legs were trapped beneath one large concrete beam. Another big beam creaked unsteadily about six feet above her. It looked like it was going to fall at any moment.
“Let’s get her out quick, before the rest of the wreckage falls on top of her.” The Brit moved forward, dragging his medical bag with him.
The child’s face, probably angelic in normal surroundings, was almost rigid with shock. At least she was alive and she mumbled to us in a language I couldn’t understand. A straggle of fair hair played about her bloodied forehead, curling in the slight breeze while her deep blue eyes continued to stare straight at us.
“Shit! That upper beam is going to go any moment!” The doctor eased himself closer to where the child lay. “We’ve got to get her out quickly.”
I followed him and muttered, “God help whoever did this.” The words choked in my throat. Why hadn’t someone seen to the poor mite before now? I marvelled that the child made no attempt to cry out.
“Her legs.” The British doctor pointed and shook his head. “Damn! We’ll never shift the concrete that’s trapping her legs.” He looked again at the upper beam. It creaked and shifted a few inches. A dusting of loose cement fell onto the child.
I looked askance at the Brit, hiding the fact that my mind was wracked with psychological pain for the suffering of all these children, especially that child. Probably because she looked so innocent. The deeper truth was that they all needed far more help than I could ever hope to supply.
They told me back at base that I was being sent to Sarajevo to find out what was really happening on the ground, but they hadn’t prepared me for this sort of inhuman reality. How could I explain to the US people who made all the big decisions that someone had to do something positive to stop this happening? How could I make them understand?
“It’s gonna go!” I held up a free hand as the beam moved again. “Let’s get her out now!”
A couple of other rescuers heard my cry and they moved in to help us by trying to shore up the upper concrete beam, but we could see well enough it wouldn’t stay in place much longer.
I knelt down to grab the child’s outstretched hand. “Soon have you out of there, honey,” I cooed. “Just you take it easy.”
The Brit was on his knees, pulling tools from his bag. “There’s nothing else for it. I’ll have to take her legs off. I want you to hold on to her and get her away as soon as I finish.”
“Jeez!” I said, and tried to hold back the urge to vomit.
That upper beam was moving again and the Brit worked fast. He sedated the kid and then he sawed off her legs at the knees. I felt my flesh creep as I looked down at her innocent, angelic face while he worked on her. When she was free I dragged her out and carried her away from the wreckage in my arms. The beam fell seconds later, right on top of that doctor as he was packing away his tools. The thunderous sound of the collapse ran through me as I got clear.
Then I heard a scream. It was another child: the long hideous, piercing scream of a little girl in pain as some of the rubble fell on her. Even now, I can still hear that scream when I think about it.
There is no way to explain the pain I felt afterwards but most of that was in the past and deserved to remain there. Even the pain of Marie’s death was beginning to dull to some small degree.
The most intense pain I felt now was for someone else.
For Penny Hamilton.
I was taken to the same RUC place in a police Land Rover. When we got there some junior officers began by interrogating me like I was the one who had started the fire in Penny’s apartment. It was only when I mentioned Rourke’s name that they eased off. The guy in charge of the interrogation went away and came back some minutes later to tell me Chief Inspector Rourke wanted to see me. Then they dragged me away to another part of the building.
I sat for a good ten minutes in an outside office waiting for Rourke to invite me in. I didn’t particularly want to see him because I guessed he would tell me nothing I didn’t already know and he would do nothing to help me find out what happened to Penny. Right then I wanted to be out in the streets, searching in case she was out there, still alive.
Eventually I was ushered into Rourke’s office where he sat hunched over his desk, eyes focused on a heavy wad of papers. No “Hello, Mr Bodine” or “Sorry about the fire, Mr Bodine.” No, he just sat there studying his papers.
Something snapped inside.
“Okay, Chief Inspector, let’s get this over with quick.” Suddenly I was in no mood for a formal interview and even less inclined to take any hint of rudeness from anyone. I leaned across his desk and faced him eyeball to eyeball.
Rourke looked up slowly and there it was again: the expression that suggested I was some miscreant school kid and he was a long-suffering head teacher. “Get what over with, Mr Bodine?”
“The grilling. The questioning. Whatever it is you’ve pulled me in for.”
“You think I’m going to give you the first degree?” He leaned back and clasped his hands on the desk in front of him. “This isn’t nineteen thirties Chicago, you know. I’m not Elliot Ness.”
“You might just as well be. I’ve already had enough of this. You know what I think, Chief Inspector, I think in some ways Capone was a damn sight more civilised than some of those terrorist bird-brains you got loose here in Belfast. And I think Ness was a better cop than anything you’ve got here!”
“Mr Bodine, let’s not get into fanciful recriminations” He calmly waved me into a seat. “You’re not under arrest. You’re not even here for formal questioning. We simply want to talk to you because you may be able to help us.”
“Help? With what?” I sat down slowly, not convinced. Hell, I’d already been vigorously questioned by his goons.
He inclined his head to the side and pursed his lips. “What do you know about the fire at the flat and Hamilton’s disappearance?”
“You haven’t found her body?”
“No. The flat was empty.”
I breathed out a deep sigh. “Thank God for that.”
“So, what can you tell us?”
“Goddammit! I already told your men everything I know. I wasn’t there when the fire started and I don’t know where Penny is now.”
The only gleam of hope on the horizon was Penny’s total disappearance. They had found no bodies inside the apartment, so I clung to the likelihood that she was still alive somewhere. Intuition said that it had been no accidental fire and Penny was likely to be the real target. I had no evidence to support the idea, just a deep rooted feeling. If I was right, she might, even now, be hiding somewhere out of sight, waiting for me to find her. Then again, she might be lying in some dark back street just as dead and cold as Marie.
Rourke stared at me across his desk, brain in gear but closed up for silent running. Mulling over things I had yet to learn.
Eventually he asked, “How well do you know Hamilton?”
“Well enough. Why do you ask?”
He ignored my counter question. “How did your sister first get to meet her?”
“How should I know? Through the Gidley Agency, I guess. Look, what’s this all about?”
“What it’s all about, Mr Bodine, is what we’re trying to find out.” He spoke slowly, insistently. “You were living with Hamilton?”
“You know damned well I was. It’s no crime over here, is it?”
“No. But it might have been unwise.”
“Really? I’m a big boy now, Chief Inspector. I don’t need anyone to tell me who I can play with.” I was getting too angry by far and it must have shown.
Rourke didn’t bat an eyelid. “Even big boys get hurt, Mr Bodine.”
I leaned back and gritted my teeth. I’d had enough of this. “If you can’t help me, I sure as hell can’t help you. So, can I go now?”
He spread his hands, open and innocent like. “I can’t stop you from leaving. But you could help us before you go.”
“I can’t tell you anything more.”
He stared down at his desk, spent about ten seconds in deep thought and then looked up at me. His face was a total mask as he spoke. “What did you find at the Irish American Woman’s Aid Centre?”
I took a mental step back. “How’d you know I was there?”
His face remained calm, still the impregnable mask. “Information received. Who did you speak to?”
“I’m surprised you don’t know already.” I tried to think of a parrying reply but failed. “It was some guy called Milligan.”
Rourke’s eyebrows raised suddenly, a faint crack in the mask. “Really? What did he tell you?”
“Pretty much nuthin’. Wasn’t very pleased to see me.”
“I doubt if he was, Mr Bodine. Milligan is a Provisional IRA brigade leader. You really should be more careful who you associate with.”
I tried to hide my sudden shiver. “I can look after myself. Why ain’t you picked him up if he’s what you say he is?”
“Don’t be so naive. Where do you think he is right now?”
“Haven’t a clue.”
His tone was dry. “Of course you haven’t. Neither have we.”
“You should try looking.”
“No point. As Provo thugs go, he’s small fry. There are bigger fish to worry about.”
“Well, if you want to talk to Milligan you go out and look for him. Right now I want to be out there looking for Penny Hamilton.”
“You won’t find her easily,” he said firmly. His eyes, it seemed to me, were suddenly concentrating on my face as if he was trying to read every hidden response. “The chances are she’s either in deep trouble or she’s in hiding.”
“Deep trouble? Why? What do you know that you’re not telling me?”
He clicked his tongue thoughtfully. After a short pause he decided to let slip some more information. “Hamilton has been seen and heard out on the street making enquiries about a man called Felan. A very nasty and dangerous character. Hamilton should have known that. Anyway, she started asking questions that were likely to get her into trouble.”
“What do you mean?”
“It got back to Felan that Hamilton was asking for him, and the word on the street this morning is that Felan isn’t at all happy. He thinks your lady friend was trying to put the finger on him. He thinks there’s something going on between Hamilton and ourselves.”
“No.” He shook his head vigorously. “Quite emphatically, no. But Felan thinks different.”
“He’s suspicious of everyone, is Felan. Especially if he knows we’ve been talking to people who try to contact him. He knows we called at Hamilton’s flat.”
“How do you know about all this? How do you know so much about Felan?” I leaned towards him. “How do you know what Penny was doing?”
He gave me an uncertain look, which showed me he was still undecided where, exactly, I stood in all of this. “We have our sources. Very reliable sources.”
“People we trust.”
I nodded. The Brits were doing no more nor less in Belfast than our own government did in other trouble spots. And Rourke wasn’t going to tell me anything more about that. I tried another tack. “You think Felan might have done something nasty to Penny?”
He must have seen the concern in my face because he suddenly changed his line of attack and off-loaded more valuable information. “We think it’s possible that Felan’s men were responsible for the fire at Hamilton’s flat. If that’s the case, it was either a very forceful warning or—” He picked up a pencil and twirled it between his fingers. “Or, possibly, a deliberate attempt at murder.”
“You’re trying to put the frighteners on me, aren’t you?” I decided to buy some time while I worked out what it all meant. Penny had been asking about Felan because of me and that gave me one hell of a guilty feeling.
Rourke didn’t answer me directly. “You know what puzzles me right now, Mr Bodine? It’s the fact that you haven’t asked me who Felan really is. Most people in your shoes would, you know. It seems to me you know already who he is and what Hamilton was doing trying to arrange a meeting with him. I think you’re hiding something.”
“Maybe you’re right.” I quickly realised my mistake and turned onto the attack to cover my confusion. “But that sort of thing works two ways, Chief Inspector. Most people in my shoes would find it hard to believe it was nothing more than some sort of a co-incidence when two American girls were killed the same night. Both American, both redheads and both strippers. You expect me to believe there’s no connection? I think you’re hiding something!”
“For heaven’s sake, wise up,” he said firmly. “I told you right at the start, your sister was the innocent victim of a terrorist attack.”
“Bullshit!” I rose to my feet. “It was nothing of the sort! When you’re ready to come clean with me, give me a call. Then we’ll pool our information.”
Rourke just sat there and stared at me like I’d told him the world was round and he didn’t know how to deny it.
When the police were done with me I checked into a hotel, the same one I had used when I first came to Belfast. Then I went out to buy myself some new clothes because I had nothing left but what I stood up in. I went down to the city centre which could be quite a decent sort of place if it wasn’t for all the security precautions intended to stop the bombers getting to the shops. All the time my mind was working overtime, trying to figure out just what it was Rourke was hiding from me. I was still convinced he was playing me along like a fool.
Two American girls killed the same evening. Both the victims of a terrorist attack, both redheads, both strippers. It sure as hell was no co-incidence.
It was late afternoon, coming on evening, when I came back from the shops. The girl at the hotel reception desk called across to me as soon as I walked in. “Oh, Mr Bodine. There’s a letter here for you. It was delivered by hand a few minutes ago.” She was pretty-looking thing with a wide smile.
I took the letter up to my room along with my purchases. When I had dropped all the parcels on the bed I ripped open the envelope and pulled out a note, hand-written on a sheet of white paper. It read:
Your sister was first and the Hamilton girl is going to be next. The girl will die if you don’t get the hell out of Belfast. We did it before and we’ll do it again. Get out and she’ll be released when you get back to the States.
I tore up the page before I realised what I had done. It was valuable evidence and Rourke’s forensic people might have made something important out of it. As an after-thought I put the torn pieces of paper back in the envelope.
Penny was still alive, I was now reasonably sure of that. But what could I do to help her? I sat on the bed for some time then paced about the room turning over a mass of options none of which had much appeal. Eventually I put the note and its own envelope inside a new hotel-stamped envelope, addressed it to Rourke at the police station and added a short memo written on the hotel’s free writing paper.
See what you can make of this, will you?
Satisfied I could do no more on that score, I put on my new clothes—casual enough to get by in most circumstances—and made my way downstairs. I drove to the police station where I handed in the envelope at the desk. Before any awkward questions could be asked, I left and went directly to the Blue Taboo Club.
At that early time of the evening the Club was relatively quiet. The security gate was manned by only one dozy-looking bruiser and, fortunately, he recognised me from last time.
“Just collecting one of the strippers,” I told him, and brushed on past.
“Uh-huh.” He grunted and even that grunt had a harsh Belfast accent to it.
No more than half a dozen perverts were sitting in the auditorium, eyes glued to the stage act like they were hypnotised. Surprisingly for a quiet time of the day, a buxom twosome was performing, busily removing their clothes to the raucous sound of a Madonna record. As I came into the room one girl was stepping out of her panties. She threw them aside and waved her brassiere around her head like she was drunk, or high on dope. The second girl was rubbing her breasts with one hand and feeling around inside her panties with the other. Neither of them was smiling and neither had a face you’d give a second look to. It was all too damned sordid and made Penny’s act look like a wholesome home town square dance. I didn’t recognise the two girls, but then I wasn’t really interested in them.
“Whiskey and soda. On the rocks.” I slumped down at the bar as I ordered my drink. Brennan, the barman, jumped when he saw me. I should have registered his nervousness immediately but my brain was working on other things. Instead, I bought him a drink because it’s a fair ploy for loosening tongues in any bar. If he was a police informant—just a possibility I was considering—I wanted to be on his side. If he wasn’t, he might let slip something interesting.
“Is Penny here?” I asked, sipping at the malt whiskey.
“Penny? You mean Tammy Truelove?” He kept his eyes lowered and reached for a dirty towel which he used to rub the bar surface vigorously.
I put on a surprised look which I hoped would pass for real. “She must be here. She told me to collect her at—” I looked at my watch, “At six o’clock. And it’s just on that now.”
“Forget it, pal.”
Brennan moved away to wipe the used glasses with the same dirty towel, eyes looking around for someone unseen. His unease was getting to me now but I persisted. I followed him along the bar.
“Penny definitely said I had to collect her at the Blue Taboo at six o’clock. Then I have to take her on to the Pickled Herring Club. She was most insistent on the time because she starts her act at the Pickled Herring at six fifteen.”
Brennan leaned towards me, glanced sideways at the door, and then hissed, “Look, pal, I thought you’d know better than this. Just take it from me that she ain’t here. Okay?”
“If you say so.”
“That’s right. I say so.” He looked about nervously once more then leaned across the bar again, and lowered his voice. “For Chrissake, Yank, get the hell out of here while you still got kneecaps that work.”
“Hey, Brennan, it’s me. Remember? Penny’s driver.”
“Sure, and I’m her Dutch uncle. Did the boss see you coming in here?”
“I guess not.”
“Then do like I tell you. Get the hell out of here now.”
Without any warning he dropped the towel, moved round from behind the bar and headed off into the gloom at the far end of the room.
As soon as he was out of sight I dropped a paper bill on the bar to pay for the drinks and then I slipped round to the door where the girls went to get changed. The Madonna record was still blaring as I went through the door and closed it firmly behind me. I figured I had time to spare before the two buxom strippers came back here to dress.
It was a small, untidy room with a strong smell of cosmetics and body sweat. A blonde girl sat smoking in front of a dressing table set against the far wall. She wore a G-string and nothing else and her eyes were glazed like she was taking dope. I’d heard that narcotics were a major problem in Ireland. I suppose it was one way to deal with the stress of living there. Probably the only effective one.
“This place ain’t for the public, mister.” The blonde eyed me in the reflection of a big wall mirror.
“I’m not the public, sweetheart. Come to collect one of the girls.”
“Will I do?” Her eyes remained glazed but her lips formed into a pout.
“Some other time.”
The room had no other furniture except a couple of hard chairs. Right opposite me was another door, wide open and leading into darkness. I went straight for it, pulling that second door tight behind me.
In here I was in total darkness. I couldn’t find a light switch so I felt my way along. The walls were cold and damp, a pretty good indication that I was in a basement passage. My footsteps rang out hollow. About ten yards along, I stubbed my foot and stifled a curse. I’d come up against a set of stone steps apparently leading upwards. I figured that these went up into another building, adjacent to the club, and a faint light glowed upstairs. I went slowly up to what I judged was ground level although it was impossible to be sure because the windows were blacked out and the light up here was really no more than an eerie semi-darkness. At least my eyes were getting used to it so I didn’t bump into anything else.
If my instincts were correct I was now at the back of the building, facing away from the main street. It smelled dank and musty, as if the place was rarely used. By now I could make out that the semi-light was seeping in from outside the building through a tiny, murky glass fanlight over an outside door. Something had been placed over the fanlight but it had slipped enough to allow in that small amount of illumination. Once I was sure I wouldn’t be seen, I pulled out my torch and lit up. Like I guessed, it was pretty mucky in there. Stuff was stacked on all sides. I gazed round at large cardboard boxes, marked with the names of electronics companies, and heavy wooden crates. I ignored them and headed towards another set of stairs going up to another floor.
On the next floor, I came to a long, bare passage and doors off either side. I made my way along it, trying each door as I went. Most of the rooms were empty, bare floors and more boxes. I stopped outside one door which was locked and rattled the handle. At first I thought I heard a muffled voice inside the room, but maybe it was just an echo. Then I heard more distinct voices coming from the next floor up and the thump of heavy footsteps tramping across the floor directly above me.
What to do next? I’d been seen by Brennan and that blonde in the girl’s changing room. Would the barman be smart enough to guess that I was up here, prying about? Probably not, he had too much to lose if it was known that he hadn’t reported my presence to his boss, but the naked blonde would soon spill the beans if anyone asked. I couldn’t take too many chances and it was time to back off. I hurried back down the passage and sailed down the stairs, two at a time.
It would have been damn stupid to go back to the bar. I had no good excuse for being where I’d been, so I searched round for another way out. I swung my torch about, listening as footsteps rumbled across the floor above. The door with the fanlight was locked but the key was left in the lock. Relieved, I opened it and let myself out into a small, high-walled back yard. The evening air felt strangely reviving.