I was still shaking when the same RUC girl drove me to the American Consulate General on Stranmillis Road. They kept me waiting before I got the chance to tell them why I was there. I reiterated what I’d said before I left the States: I didn’t want any help. My cynicism hadn’t waned one little bit. Diplomatic help would have meant a diplomatic cover-up and I’d had enough of that after Bosnia.
It was late afternoon when the young RUC woman dropped me off at a hotel near the city centre, leaving time enough for a shower to wash off the clinging nausea and then a short walk before dinner. I hadn’t eaten since a nondescript meal in the terminal building at Heathrow and hunger was making itself known to me.
The Belfast streets were strangely empty now, eerie like nothing I’d come across back home in the US: as if everyone had gone into hiding once darkness fell. What had brought Marie here when she could have been enjoying a fun-filled life as a dancer in LA or New York? She could even have been trying her luck on the stages in the West End of London. So why had she come to Belfast?
I had no answers.
With jet-lag numbing every part of me, I went to my room immediately after dinner in the hotel and selected a movie on the television, but I didn’t finish watching it. That night I dreamed about Marie. In my dream I saw again the picture of a strong-willed girl who had defied parental authority from the day she first knew what parental authority was. I recalled the day I caught her stretched out in the back seat of a Holden between two of her male school friends, her skirt hitched up to her waist. And then there was that other time when I saw her slipping a packet of rubbers into her school bag when she thought I wasn’t looking. We had such blazing rows about it, but she always won.
The following morning I awoke in a cold sweat.
I discovered you can’t get a decent ham and egg breakfast in the UK. And I was right about the coffee being bad. They offered me something called ‘a full Irish breakfast’ but they didn’t ask me how I wanted it. Take or leave seemed to be the only option.
I checked with the hotel reception desk for directions and then walked down Royal Avenue in the centre of the city. At the bottom of the street I took a sharp turn down a narrow alley leading towards the Smithfield Market area. A heavily-armed army foot patrol loitered nearby, just like I’d seen in other war zones. An armoured police patrol vehicle rumbled past, a confidential police telephone number emblazoned across the side. Tell on your mates, it begged, and we’ll protect you from retribution. The shoppers just carried on like it was something normal. I guess it was normal to them.
The Billy Gidley Agency worked from a couple of upper-floor rooms above a second rate Indian restaurant. A small sign was fastened to the wall at street level, alongside a door that gave access to a narrow and dirty staircase. A puddle of vomit stained the sidewalk nearby. Odd bits of trash lay on the stairs, cigarette packets and discarded newspapers. A stench of curry and urine followed me up the stairs. At the top landing I went in through a frosted-glass door.
The office was pitifully small and had only one tiny window. A youngish woman was seated behind a well-worn desk, slowly picking at the keys of a mechanical typewriter that looked old enough to have typed Magna Carta. She looked up as I entered and gave me a lop-sided enquiring look. In the corner behind her, a kettle hissed on a gas hob. It screamed at me as I closed the door. The woman leaned back to turn off the gas.
“Is this the Billy Gidley Agency?” I said to the back of her head.
She fiddled with the gas tap before turning to face me. “Yeah. Do you have an appointment?” It was a routine sort of response delivered without a hint of courtesy. She shifted a lump of gum from one cheek to the other. It only highlighted the disinterested look on her face while she pulled a cracked mug and a jar of instant coffee from a desk drawer.
I wedged myself into the small space in front of her desk. “Didn’t have time for that. Can I see Mr Gidley?”
The woman looked down at a diary on her desk. Her mouth flapped open obscenely while she chewed the gum. “Can you tell me what it’s for?”
“My name’s Henry Bodine. I’m told my sister worked for the agency.”
“Your sister?” She screwed up her face into a query and her features turned suddenly coarse. Her eyes highlighted her lack of interest as she spooned coffee into the mug and then stretched an arm back towards the kettle.
“And you’re Henry… what was it?”
“Henry Bodine. My sister was Marie Bodine.” I paused for effect. “The girl who was blown up.”
“Oh, you mean—!” The sudden realisation hit her hard and she dropped the kettle back on the gas ring, spilling hot water onto the floor. She jumped to her feet, jaw still hung open. “Oh, my God! Sure, but she was called Nancy Kelly round here, so she was. Her stage name, you see. I didn’t realise at first who you meant.”
“Really? So, do I get to see Mr Gidley?”
“No, but I’ll see what I can do for you.” She turned towards an inner door. “S’funny how people still call her Nancy Kelly. They called her that on the television news the night it happened. They didn’t give out her real name ’til later… well, you know what I mean. God, that was a real desperate business, so it was.” She tapped at the door before opening it, put her head inside and conducted a short whispered conversation before beckoning me forward.
“Mr Gidley is out, so he is, but Mrs Gidley will see you. She normally looks after the girls, so she does. Just go on in.”
“Thanks.” I edged round the desk to the door.
Mrs Gidley was a huge woman shrouded in a shapeless brown dress. Like an enormous Valkyrie from a Wagnerian opera, but without the charm and twice as menacing. She was sat behind a small desk with every appearance of being wedged in for life. Her mousy hair hung untidily loose around her shoulders and a cigarette dangled from her lower lip. Another old manual typewriter and a wad of papers took up most of the space on the desk top. In the corner of a small window beside her, a dead fly hung in a broken cobweb.
I was on my guard from the start. She looked like the sort of broad who could hit you between the eyes with one hell of a punch and walk away like she’d done no more than swat a mosquito.
“You’re the Bodine girl’s brother?” She offered me a flabby fat paw but made no effort to rise from her seat. “Great little performer, so she was. Don’t know how I’ll replace her.” I gritted my teeth. Marie was lying in the morgue, a lump of burned meat, and this leviathan could think only of her stage act.
“Your receptionist didn’t seem aware of Marie’s name.” I used a threatening tone, aiming to shift the balance of menace in my favour.
She wasn’t put off. Huge shoulders shrugged beneath the brown dress. “Don’t mind her, she’s only a temp. My usual girl is off sick. Got herself pregnant, the stupid cow.” She drew deeply on her cigarette. “Girls don’t use their real names in this sort of work.”
“Not even when they get killed?”
“The press got your sister’s real name from the police the next day.” Mrs Gidley sniffed loudly and glanced down at her watch. “Look, we’re very busy here, what do yous want?” The cigarette stayed magically glued to her lip.
“I thought you could tell me more about what happened.” I pointedly took a seat and eased back a touch on the menace.
“Oh yeah?” She took another quick glance at her watch and drew deeply on the cigarette. Marie was no longer on her books but I guess I had to be humoured for a few minutes. “You’ve seen the police?”
“So, what do yous know already?” Again, she drew deeply on the cigarette and then pulled it slowly away from her mouth. A curl of smoke drifted from her nostrils.
“They told me she was on her way to the Blue Taboo Club when she was killed. That’s about all.”
“They told yous she shouldn’t have been in the taxi?”
I sat bolt upright. “No.”
“That’s right, so it is. She wasn’t booked to dance at the Blue Taboo that night. God knows why she was in that cab.” Something snapped behind her mask, a brief flash of annoyance.
“Who was supposed to be in it?”
“Dunno.” It was such a blatant lie I didn’t know how she could keep a straight face.
I searched my mind for another pertinent question. “All right. Go on. Tell me the rest.”
She took another drag on the cigarette. “The rest? Like what?”
“Her work! Tell me about her work.”
“What’s to tell? Nancy Kelly was one of my best girls. I used her as often as I could and she had a regular twice-weekly spot at the Blue Taboo. The guys there loved her.” She pulled a shred of tobacco from her lip and flicked it onto the floor.
“What was her act?” I don’t know why I asked. Morbid curiosity, I guess.
“Her act? Well, she changed it every week. But her speciality was the schoolgirl stuff. Know what I mean?” When I gave her a blank look, she went on, “Come on, mister, you’re old enough to know the score. Don’t act so naive.” She was deliberately taunting me, trying to annoy me enough to make me leave, but I wasn’t playing her game.
“She didn’t have any legitimate dancing work?”
“Nah. Stripping’s our speciality, so it is. Your sister was the best little stripper on our books. She’d been doing it before she came to us, y’know.” She gave me a puzzled look and a flabby hand casually knocked more cigarette ash onto the floor.
“Doing it before?”
“Sure. She was a right little pro, so she was. Yous mean yous didn’t know that?”
“I guess,” I said, curbing the urge to smash a fist into her podgy face, “there’s a whole lot of things I didn’t know about my sister.”
I walked the streets for a few hours, drinking in the atmosphere, wondering what it was that made Belfast so unlike any other place I’d ever been. Except, maybe, Sarajevo and Mostar. I had a late lunch in a café looking out on an army checkpoint where women had their bags searched and their bodies frisked before being allowed into the shopping area. They seemed to take it as a normal part of daily life.
The afternoon was flooding away fast when I walked briskly back to the hotel. I should have been sorting out a requiem mass for Marie, but I figured I needed to give my brain an hour or so to contemplate what I had discovered so far.
Much of my grey matter was still numbed by jet lag and it needed some free time to regroup the synapses and neurones into some semblance of logical and coherent order. I grabbed a miniature Irish whiskey from the mini bar and stretched out on the bed. Rain suddenly splashed loudly against the window and I looked up to see dark, low clouds scudding across the sky like they were pretty anxious to be some place else.
Sarajevo had felt something like this, I reflected as the whiskey bit home. But why? And why did my mind slip back so easily to that other war zone? Was it the bombing, the killing, the hatred? Or was there some other common element that only my subconscious was able to latch onto? I had come to both places with an unwillingness to get involved in the politics of the country. Was that it? An unwillingness which was over-ruled by the reality of what I saw?
After an hour of useless reflection, I hoisted myself off the bed and went downstairs with the idea of getting a drink and a quick meal. Only one other customer sat in the bar, a young woman. Maybe I’d turned up a shade too early, but that didn’t put me off.
She sat upright on a high stool, cigarette wedged between two slender fingers and her back against the bar: a sleek little thing in her mid-twenties, shapely body, dark eyes and cropped ash-grey hair that must’ve come straight out of a bottle. Her short dress clung tightly to her contours as if it were glued in place, and I soon got the picture that she could be out of it in seconds if the right customer came along.
She eyed me cautiously as I approached the barman, ordered a Budweiser and asked what hot snacks they were doing at that time of the day. The barman tossed a menu casually in my direction and shot off a couple of mumbled words that meant nothing to anyone who didn’t understand the dialect.
“You staying here?” The grey-haired girl pulled deep on her cigarette. She leaned towards me provocatively and deliberately, so that I could see down into her low cut cleavage. The outline of a pair of well rounded breasts unhindered by any sign of a brassiere stared back at me.
“Guess so. For a day or two.” I sipped at the Bud and turned my attention back to the menu. I would have ordered chicken and French fries but the barman had wandered off and now had his back to me. Even from a distance, he looked content to leave me to my own resources. Maybe he didn’t like Yanks.
“On your own, are you?” The girl stared at me through a haze of tobacco smoke. She brought her upper arms deliberately tighter into her body so that her breasts bulged higher in the dress. Definitely no brassiere.
“Yeah. How do you order food in this place?”
She glanced away to where the empty whiskey glasses were getting their third stiff polish in as many minutes. “Hey! Billy! What d’you have to do to get some service round here? There’s a customer here wantin’ some food!”
It did the trick and I got to order my meal. The barman avoided eye contact, grunted and jotted my order on a stubby pad.
“You mustn’t mind him,” the girl said when he wandered off in the direction of the kitchens. “It’s your accent that bugs him.”
“Doesn’t like Yanks?”
She looked away for a second or two, probably composing her response. “His brother got shot by the Provos. They used an Armalite to blast his brains out. It’s an American gun, the Armalite. Probably paid for with American dollars.”
“And he thinks I pulled the trigger?” I wasn’t impressed and let it show.
“Association of ideas,” she replied with a mite more intelligent observation than I would have given her credit. “The Provos get most of their funding from the States. Don’t you know that? Say, are you gonna buy me a drink or something? Or is this conversation gonna be for free?”
“If my guess is right, you won’t come cheap?”
“You look like you could afford it.”
“Only if I want it.” I gave her a fixed look that said quite firmly that I wasn’t ready to start buying.
She shot back a sly response and then her face broke into a wry grin. “So, you’re not interested in a bit of social entertainment?”
I almost grinned back at her. It was the first time I’d heard it called social entertainment. “Thanks, but I’ll take a rain check on it for the moment.” I eased myself onto a stool beside her and looked round at the empty bar room. “Is this your usual patch? Looks like you won’t be getting’ much business tonight.”
She uncrossed a sleek pair of legs. A momentary hitch in the short dress showed me that what she spent on outer clothes she saved by not wearing underwear. She reached into her handbag for another cigarette. “Things’ll pick up in an hour or so. They work late in the offices round here. Business meetings all day long, sandwiches for lunch. They come in at the end of the day for a few drinks and a decent bite to eat and then they start to loosen up. That’s when they turn to me. I’ll have made enough by midnight to pay the rent.”
“The hotel people don’t mind?”
She sniffed. “They get their cut.”
“Well, that’s business, I guess.”
We chatted until the barman came back with my chicken and French fries, which he dropped onto the bar so heavily it was a wonder the plate didn’t crack.
“Easy there, Billy,” the girl scolded him. “The guy’s a visitor. You wanna learn some manners if you’re gonna carry on workin’ in a place like this.”
He said nothing, just wandered back to his pointless task of polishing the whiskey glasses.
I bit into a lukewarm and soggy French fry. “Are they all like that? Your nice friendly Irish barkeepers. Do they hate all Yanks?”
“Not as much as they hate the English.”
“So what is it about me that bugs this guy? Apart from the fact that his brother got topped by some gun-toting psycho.”
“Psycho? You’d better be careful who you call a psycho. It was one of Joe Felan’s mob. You heard of them?”
“No. Should I?”
“They don’t like their victims to die too quick. They like to see them suffer. Slowly and painfully.” She drew deeply on the cigarette and watched me try a mouthful of chicken. “You haven’t been here long, have you?”
“It shows, does it?”
She ran a hand down her dress to smooth out the hitches. Within seconds, it once again looked like it was painted on her. “You’d have heard of Joe Felan if you’d been here more than a day. Anyhow, how’d you feel if one of your family was killed by a Provo bullet?”
“Or bomb?” I added acidly. “It ain’t always bullets. Sometimes it’s bombs that kill people in the streets. I know that much already.”
She glanced around the empty room, as if searching for inspiration. “You sound like you know something else, Yank. I mean, you sound like you came here for a reason.”
I paused with a French fry halfway to my mouth. “Collecting the remains of someone who got blown up by a bomb. A bomb made in Ireland by Irish people.”
She didn’t reply to that but somehow the atmosphere had turned sour and I felt myself wanting to get back into the dank, wet street where the rain would wash off the stench of distaste. The food had no appeal either so I pushed the plate across the bar to the girl. “You wanna finish this?”
She shrugged, dropped her cigarette into an ash tray and reached for the cutlery. “Looks like it’s all I’m gonna get from you.”
“Looks like you guessed right.”