The nightmare came back to haunt me yet again the morning I arrived in the UK. That same old Technicolour film must have been loaded up and ready to roll inside my head. Sleep had evaded me on the overnight red-eye flight from Los Angeles to London, Heathrow. It caught up with me only minutes after taking off again on a domestic connection to Belfast. I fell asleep in my seat and the images began to run.
I was woken suddenly by a pair of warm hands sliding round my hips. The blurred image of a pink face appeared close in front of me. I was in a cold sweat and confused, my mind not yet fully attuned to where I was. Someone was leaning across me: a woman with her arms reaching out as if she was about to disarm me. I wasn’t carrying a gun, but I panicked. I shouted at her and lashed out with one hand. It caught her hard across her well-endowed chest.
She cried out and staggered off to one side.
The guy sitting next to me grabbed at my arm. “Hey! Easy there! She was only fastening your seat belt. She was trying not to waken you.”
That was when I realised the woman was a stewardess and we were still at thirty thousand feet. She was young, but with a hard face and a strong dose of attitude in her voice. She shouted at me to calm down and looked like she’d get rough if I didn’t.
“What the hell are you playing at?” The guy in the next seat wasn’t too sympathetic either. I jerked myself free of his grip, tried to rub the effects of jet lag from my eyes and apologised profusely. Said I’d been having a nightmare of a time, which was pretty damn true. One hell of a nightmare.
The stewardess threatened to have me cuffed if I didn’t behave and then stormed away down the Boeing’s aisle. I apologised again as she swept away. Maybe I should have broken my journey in London, but it was too late to change my plans now.
I tried to settle back into my seat as the airplane nosed down through thick clouds towards Belfast’s Aldergrove Airport. Doubts began to crowd in when we broke through the cloud base and I looked down on the city.
What on earth had induced my kid sister to come here? Our family had no connection with Northern Ireland, unless you counted the sad demise of my great-grandfather, Jacob Bodine. He had been aboard the Titanic when she sank: the ship that was built in a Belfast shipyard.
More cloud enveloped the airplane as we made an approach to land. It felt claustrophobic. I didn’t feel any easier on the ground. Armed soldiers prowled around the airport terminal building, seemingly ready for trouble. And most of the passengers looked anxious to be away from there as quick as they could get. There’d been talk of an IRA cease fire, although talk didn’t seem to go far these days, and few people back home in the States expected it to amount to anything permanent.
I grabbed my holdall from the baggage carousel and made to follow the general example of getting away from the airport as fast as possible.
“Major Bodine? Excuse me, sir, are you Major Bodine?” I was almost at the main exit when a sultry voice caught me from behind. Curious, I homed in on a tight-fitting, dark green RUC uniform and the sexiest pair of shiny blue eyes I’d seen in a long time. Her hair fell round her ears in a curtain of golden silk and her skin was so peachy cream you’d have sworn it would melt to the touch. For just one moment, she reminded me of Carrie-Ann and her long, golden hair.
I flinched and tried to force an element of calm into my head. “It’s Mister Bodine. I’m not a part of any man’s army.” Back home in LA, Police Chief Hanson had said he would set things up for me. I made the assumption he’d used my obsolete military rank. Sometimes he could be a real bastard like that.
“Sorry. Just using my eyes.” She shrugged and pointed to the canvas holdall with my name and outdated rank stencilled across the front. “Looks like you’re part of someone’s army.”
“Not any longer.”
The RUC girl frowned like she had been expecting something more civil, more polite. She was right and I was wrong, and it just wasn’t her day, I guess. Somewhat subdued, she drew back her shoulders and faced up to me. “I’ve been sent to collect you. I’ll drive you down to the city.” Then she relaxed and gave me a good imitation of a smile, which told me she was trying to make my visit just a shade easier. Did she understand how I felt? Had she come across people like me before? Relatives looking for logical answers where none existed.
“Just you?” I looked around, wondering about a young police woman alone in a place like this. I’d heard that life insurance for the RUC didn’t come cheap.
“Yeah, just me. Let me take that for you.” She bent forward to grab my holdall but I instinctively waved her off. I’d had people fetch and carry my kit in the Air Force and I didn’t need it now.
The police girl straightened up, dusted down her uniform jacket with an air of justified annoyance and led me outside to an unmarked police car stopped in a no-parking zone. I took the front passenger seat beside her in the certain realisation I was more tired than was good for me. A dull ache crept across my forehead and my limbs felt like I’d been on a twenty mile route march.
She hitched back her skirt to free up her legs, or was it to grab my attention? Either way, we took off in a hail of burning rubber. My body was forced back into the seat like I’d just lifted an F18 off a carrier deck. I’d seen the same sort of thing in Bosnia: people in constant fear of their lives and driving like shit out of hell.
“How was the flight?” she asked.
“Could have done without it.” I would have been less cynical if I hadn’t been so damn fatigued. Any damned fool should have seen she was only trying to help. I opened my mouth to say sorry, but she got in first.
“I’m sorry you’ve had a difficult journey.” Then she lapsed into silence and that was a pity because she had a one of those sensual voices that sends shivers down your spine. She reminded me of this husky-voiced German girl I met in Berlin when I was stationed over there. She had a perfect body underneath her Luftwaffe uniform and was eager to share it. I glanced sideways at the Irish cop and mentally kicked myself for my crass behaviour.
As we came down off the hills towards the city she chirped up again. I suppose she was still trying to make polite conversation to lift me out of my depressed state.
“Is this your first visit to Ireland, Major Bodine?”
“Yeah.” Major Bodine again, but I let it pass.
“It’ll be beautiful up here on the hills in couple of months. I love the feel of spring in the hills, don’t you? When people first come to Northern Ireland they’re often surprised that it’s not like they expected. There’s some really lovely places out in the countryside, but the newspapers never write about that, do they?”
“Seems like you people give them other things to write about,” I said. She didn’t reply so I sat in silence and cursed myself for allowing the situation to get at me again.
The girl remained quiet until we got to the police station, which was more like a well-armed fortress. The outside was prickling with barbed wire screens. She led me inside the building where I sensed an air of organised tension. On an upper floor we came to a tidy office where a grey-haired guy, smart in his dark green uniform, rose to meet me. The tab on the door said he was Chief Inspector Rourke.
“Ah, Major Bodine.” There it was again, the outdated rank, but I was dog tired so I let him get away with it.
He led me across the room to where two seats were set at right angles over the corner of a conference table. An open folder had spilled out a mess of papers across the mahogany surface. I caught the hand-written title ‘Marie Bodine’ at the top of an A4 sheet.
“Do take a seat.” He was about six foot two, at a rough guess, and a bit on the paunchy side if you looked closely. He spoke with the usual Northern Irish accent but was somewhat refined with it; artificially refined. Big on sound, but low on substance. Like a street trader who’s made his first million bucks and wants to play the part.
“Thanks.” I eyed him warily, gauging his likely approach.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“Not just now.” I knew already how bad British coffee tasted. Instant and almost undrinkable.
“How was your flight?” He waited until I was seated before placing himself in the right-angled seat. It was a well-rehearsed act.
“Long and tiring.”
“I’m sorry.” He lowered his gaze and cleared his throat. “I really am very sorry that you’ve come here in such tragic circumstances.” I got the hint that he had been through this act many times before, but it was good for a few more performances.
I closed my eyes and breathed deep. “Look, I’ve had a bad night without much sleep, so just cut out the preliminaries and give me the full story, will you.”
He looked at me askance. “Yes, of course. I can assure you that we’re doing all we can to investigate your sister’s death. But it will undoubtedly take some time to get to the bottom of it.” He was offering me banalities, and I was in no mood for it.
“What happened, Chief Inspector? What actually happened?”
“What happened? Well…” He coughed awkwardly and shuffled the jumble of papers on the table in front of him. “Your sister was a passenger in a taxi which was destroyed by a fair sized bomb. We estimate about one hundred pounds of Anfo…”
“The IRA calling card. A home-made concoction. Ammonium Nitrate and Fuel Oil…”
My patience snapped. “I know that! I’ve seen what it can do in other people’s wars. What I mean is, who the hell would want to use Anfo to kill an innocent girl like Marie? That stuff’s for blowing up buildings.”
He shook his head. “We don’t yet know who did it or why.” He coughed again, like he had something to be nervous about. “Miss Bodine was in a taxi travelling down the Crumlin Road when it caught the full blast. The explosive had been planted alongside the road in a dustbin and was triggered by remote control from a nearby doorway.”
“Did she suffer?” Painful question, but I had to know the truth.
He shook his head emphatically and I believed him. “Both your sister and the driver died instantly. She wouldn’t have suffered.”
“What was she doing in the car? I mean, where was she going?”
“As far as we can discover, she was on her way to work. She was a…” His face momentarily creased into lines of distaste, which he hastily brushed aside. “We understand that she was a dancer.”
“Yeah. I know that.” She’d wanted to be a dancer almost as long as I could remember. It was her passion in life. Before she left home, mom had kept on at her that there were plenty of opportunities for dancers at home in the States. But Marie had been determined to go where mom didn’t want her to go and no amount of arguing had been enough to stop her. There’d been a row about it the day she finally left the house and that had upset mom more than anything.
Marie sent us a picture postcard when she first arrived in London. A month later we had another from Brussels. Neither had much news to tell us, just a few words to say she was looking for a job. We didn’t hear much from her after that, just the odd letter to say she was working in Paris, Berlin and then London again. She stayed there a while this time until, right out of the blue, we got a card from Belfast. Why did she come here to Belfast, putting herself in harm’s way in someone else’s war?
We had no idea.
I picked up a pencil from the table and grasped it tight in both hands. “Where was she going? A theatre, was it?”
Rourke drew himself together and pursed his lips before replying. “As far as we can tell, she was on her way to the Blue Taboo Club, just off the Shankhill Road.”
He sniffed the air like he’d detected a bad smell. “The Blue Taboo. Not a very salubrious sort of establishment, but we understand she performed there.”
It didn’t sound like the sort of place I’d expect Marie to be working, but tiredness was numbing my brain to the point of mental exhaustion. I glossed over the detail for the moment. “So, she was just a passenger in this taxi? An innocent passenger?”
“That’s right. As far as we can tell.”
“And she was working as a dancer at this club? A night club of sorts?”
He avoided my eyes, as if he was picking up my uneasy concern. “It’s not exactly legitimate theatre, but maybe it was only part-time work. Miss Bodine was on the books of an agency that arranges this sort of thing. The man who died in the explosion was their regular taxi driver and he took the girls to the clubs where they performed.”
“Really?” Something about the way he spoke got up my nose. Words planted neatly together like they’d been written down and then rehearsed in front of a mirror.
“That’s as much as we can be sure about at the moment,” he said.
“Was that her only job? I mean, do you know if she had any other work?”
“Other work?” The Chief Inspector snorted loudly as if it was a damned stupid question. His act had a few raw cracks in it and they were beginning to show. He sat back in his seat, conflicting emotions rippling across his face. “All I can tell you is that she was a dancer and she was handled by an agency. They should be able to fill you in on her… her other work. If she had any.”
I was being led astray. I could smell it. “Tell me more about this club where she was working.”
“What can I say?” Again he lowered his eyes and juggled some papers on the polished mahogany table to hide his embarrassment. “The Blue Taboo is a typical club of its sort.”
“The Blue Taboo? Sounds more like a strip joint.”
He lowered his eyes. For a moment he sat there studying his own thoughts. Then he looked me in the face. “It is a strip club, Major Bodine.”
Maybe it was jet lag that was toppling my brain because a dark shutter seemed to block out comprehension for some seconds. Then, quite suddenly, the shutter lifted and the picture all fell into place. I cursed myself for being too fatigued to have seen it sooner.
“You… you’re telling me my sister was a stripper?”
“I’m sorry.” He pointedly averted his gaze again. But the curl of his lip told me what he really thought of Marie.
“Damn!” For some moments I couldn’t think of a response. What in hell’s name was I going to tell mom and dad? I slammed the pencil on the table and it rolled towards Rourke. “What are they called? The agency people she worked for?”
He ran his hand around the tabletop for a few seconds and then rummaged into the folder. He pulled out a business card and handed it across to me. His eyes followed my reaction.
The Billy Gidley Agency had an address in central Belfast. I studied the card for a few seconds and then slipped it into my pocket.
“You’re still hiding something, aren’t you?” I stared him out, and allowed some acid to creep into my voice. “Who did this? And why the hell did they kill an innocent girl like Marie?”
He picked up the pencil, which had come to a stop at his side of the table, and twisted it between his fingers. “I told you. At this moment we don’t know who did it or why. It was just another bomb—”
“Just another bomb? Good God, Chief Inspector! It was my sister who got killed out there on your Goddamn streets and I want to know who did it.” I paused to take breath and pulled back on the aggro. “You said the explosive was deliberately triggered. Sounds to me like they were aiming to kill someone in particular.”
He shrugged briefly, but perceptibly. “It seems unlikely anyone was out to settle a personal score with your sister. But the Provisional IRA have a history of using Anfo, and we’ve had quite a number of similar explosions in the past few weeks, you know.” He dropped the pencil suddenly and leaned towards me, face twisted with suppressed emotion. “It doesn’t stop. Whatever you might hear in the States about an impending cease-fire, it just doesn’t stop. Other people are killed and they have friends and relatives who get angry at what happened to their family, just like you’re angry about what happened to Miss Bodine. My officers have to face them and hear their expressions of grief, just as I’m now listening to you. And so it goes on.”
“You don’t get sick of it?”
“What do you think?” The answer was vivid in his eyes. “There was another explosion that same evening on the opposite side of the city. Another young woman was killed, just like your sister. I had to deal with it, watch them bring in the body and try to stay calm.” He shook his head sadly.
I took a deep breath and bit back on my anger. I felt a mite chastened. “You figure no one was out to get Marie? Nothing personal?”
“For what it’s worth, we’re reasonably sure your sister was just an innocent victim. We’re reasonably sure they were not after her.”
“Reasonably sure?” The words rang hollow.
“As far as it’s possible to be sure. So many innocent people get killed and we can’t be certain who triggered the bombs until—”
“Until someone owns up?”
“Until we get proof. I have a good team working on this case and as soon as we discover who did it, and why, we’ll let you know.”
I breathed deeply. “I’d sure like to meet them, the guys who killed Marie.”
He knew what I meant. I could see it in his face. He knew I wanted revenge. “I understand how bitter you must feel.”
“Bitter? It goes deeper than that. You’d understand that, if someone murdered your kid sister.” I began to wonder if I’d been wrong to leave my firearm in the States. I’d been warned about not taking arms into the UK, but there were misfits in this world who deserved to get their brains blown out and right then I could imagine myself doing it. Then I remembered mom and dad waiting at home for me to find out what this was all about. They didn’t need me going over the top.
Rourke must have seen how the wind was blowing because he tried to change the subject. “The American Embassy will be able to help you—”
“Already told them I don’t need their help.” I knew well enough how good the embassy staff would be at side-tracking me from anything that might harm UK-US relations. One of the hard lessons I learned in Bosnia was cynicism. The US government didn’t want me unearthing the truth behind any conflict where they had blood on their hands. It was the same thing with the Brits, I was certain. They were onto a loser in Northern Ireland, whatever they did, so they’d have good reason not to want me digging amongst the shit in their back yard. I drew a long, deep breath to ease my blood pressure. “When do I get to see the body?”
“It might be best if you left that until you’ve rested, Major Bodine. She was… pretty badly ripped apart.”
I stood up and leaned across his table. “I want to see her now. Please.”
That must have made some impression because he shook his head sadly. “Yes, of course. If you’re quite sure.”
“Sure, I’m sure.”
He rose to confirm that the discussion was ended and he sounded almost relieved. “We do need someone to carry out a formal identification of the body, but I must warn you again that she was badly mutilated by the explosion.”
Rourke was Goddamn right.
The RUC girl drove us to the mortuary but they weren’t ready for us, hadn’t been expecting us. They took us to a viewing room where we waited until the body was wheeled in on a trolley. The shock of seeing it hit me so badly I couldn’t recognise the face. They had cleaned up the remains, as much as they could, but it was a nauseating experience. When it came to the crunch, there wasn’t that much of Marie left to be identified and I was glad that mom and dad were not there to see it.
“Is this your sister, Major Bodine?”
I looked at what remained of her head and nodded. With red hair like that, it looked like it ought to be her. They’d already shown me Marie’s blood-stained personal effects, including her passport, and the viewing was no more than a clincher.
I was shaking badly when I left that place.