Next morning I set out for the north. Crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic meant a wait at the customs and security post while they checked the car for explosives, weapons, that sort of thing. It was the usual sort of stuff that got traded across the Irish border on a daily basis and the khaki cannon fodder on the border post was supposed to try to stop it. They all knew it was a forlorn hope, but they stuck at it anyway.
I sat patiently at the wheel and kept cool about the whole thing, hoping no one would start asking awkward questions. No one did, so I eventually drove on with some assurance that Rourke was not going to spike my attempts to find out that last bit of the truth. I was too close now to the end game to let the thing slide for the want of one last bit of probing.
Driving on towards Enniskillen, I noticed a deceptive air of tranquillity about the place, like nothing bad ever happened here. In different circumstances I might have enjoyed the drive. There wasn’t much traffic, although the standard of driving was just as bad north of the border as south of it. Driving apart, the roads either side of the border were pretty good, nicely surfaced and easy to use. Those on one were side paid for by the British government and those on the other side were paid for by the European Community, which ultimately means the Brits put their hands deep in their pockets all over again. No wonder the Irish laugh a lot.
As I drove along the M1 motorway, heading east towards Belfast, I passed a heavily guarded complex of buildings on my left. A high wall, conspicuously fortified, blocked off a clear view of what was inside but it didn’t take much imagination to guess. This was the Maze Prison. Most Republicans still called it Long Kesh. It’s where they locked up all the brain-dead scum of Irish society: the kind who went around bombing and shooting with no regard for who got killed. The kind who killed Marie.
I had about eighty miles per hour showing on the speedo at the time so I eased off to take a closer look. But not too close.
I was getting closer to Belfast now and once again ran over my plan, such as it was. Not many people who I could question about Marie’s murder were now left loose on the streets. The Gidleys were under lock and key, as was Pat Mulholland. The Blue Taboo club had been closed down and Penny Hamilton was beyond my reach. But there was one place I reckoned I would learn something of interest from people with IRA connections and it was still open for business.
It was the Irish American Women’s Aid centre.
Once I reached the city outskirts, I headed straight there, parking just a street away in case anyone was on the lookout for my car. From the outside, the centre looked closed up. The IRA mural on the wall opposite seemed to be guarding an empty shell of a place. I walked down a side alley and came to a rough wooden door at the rear. With no other plan to fall back on, I tried the handle and it opened so I walked in. A dirty corridor ran straight back from the door and the shabby walls echoed loudly as I closed it and took a few tentative steps down towards the guts of the building. I stopped suddenly when I heard heavy boots echoing back from the far end of the corridor. Two figures came blundering round a corner into sight, one close behind the other. Both had intensive expressions on their faces and Armalite rifles in their hands. I raised my hands slowly to show I wasn’t armed.
“Hi, chaps. This is just a friendly call.”
Neither man spoke. One jabbed his Armalite into my ribs and the other motioned me to move on down the corridor. They were your average brain-dead dickheads, probably never had a coherent thought between them in their lives.
“You really don’t have to go to all this trouble, guys,” I told them. Brave words but lower down my bowels were beginning to work loose. “I’m sure I can find my own way.”
They nudged me round the corner at the end of the corridor and through a half open door. Then they both backed away. I lowered my hands and stared about the room, knowing instinctively who I’d see.
And there he was.
The room was just dirty walls and bare boards, covered windows, stairs off one corner and an old man busily poring over papers behind a wobbly table. He wore casual street clothes but I recognised him straight away.
I coughed and spoke. “Hi there.”
Father O’Hagan looked up and gave me a grim expression followed by an even grimmer tone of voice. “You know, I had this feeling all along that you’d be back sooner or later.”
“Didn’t want to disappoint you.”
“Son, d’you know any good reason why someone shouldn’t put a bullet between your eyes?”
“Nice to feel welcome. Always thought you Irish were a hospitable bunch.”
“That’s really funny, son. Really funny. At least, I assume you think it is. What the hell are you doing here?”
“Came to hear your confession, priest.” I walked close to the table and sat down right opposite him. Close enough to stare him out, eye to eye.
“Why don’t you get the hell out of here. Right now, Mr Bodine. While you’ve still got legs that work.”
“That ain’t very nice. Where’s your sense of brotherly love?” I gave him a sly grin designed to try to relieve that loose feeling in my pants.
He leaned across the table, not put out by my manner. “You were warned to stay out of this country!”
“That’s right.” I sat back, suddenly confused by his words. Then it all fell into place. Damn! Why hadn’t I seen it before? “I was warned by Chief Inspector Rourke. Did he tell you himself, or did he pass on the message through a British soldier called Whiteman?”
O’Hagan started, but caught himself again quickly. “You don’t know what you’re getting into, Mr Bodine. Just turn around and walk away before you lose your chance.”
I stepped up the bravado. I had little to lose now. “You know, it took me a while to figure out someone like you had to be at the heart of this. Someone with a foot in two camps—the USA and Belfast—and the appearance of innocence. I should have smelled some sort of rat when I realised Fisher was linked in with Marie’s murder.”
“Christine Fisher was a true friend of Ireland. Your sister was a common prostitute. Don’t mix them up.”
It was a taunt but I chose to hold back from physical violence. “You’re a lying bastard. You’re no innocent priest, are you? You’re another link in the chain, someone able to take over where Christine Fisher left off. That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it? Finishing Fisher’s work. You’re the new go-between linking the Provisional IRA and their financial backers in the States. With the co-operation of the Brits, in the form of Captain Whiteman.”
Tell-tale perspiration appeared across his forehead. “This business is bigger than you, Bodine.”
“Oh boy! That’s real big words. Sounds like the sort of thing John Wayne would say with a gun in his hand. This city’s not big enough for both of us. Well, you can back off priest. I don’t get frightened any more by the likes of you.” I stared him out, hoping he wouldn’t spot my growing signs of fear.
“You’re mad, son. You’re into something that could get you killed and you act like you don’t care.”
“Maybe I am. You know what? I really don’t care at all. The truth is that you’ve been duped. It’s staring you in the face and you can’t see it. You and your IRA killers were set up and duped by Whiteman.”
“Sounds like some sort of fairy tale.” His face remained impassive.
“There are no fairy stories here, priest. You were involved with Marie’s killing, and that’s no fairy story.”
He didn’t answer that, which was significant. Instead he growled at me like priests are not supposed to growl. “Your sister was a drug-peddling prostitute. You know that, don’t you?”
“Bullshit! And even if she was, she sure didn’t deserve to die because of it.”
“Matter of opinion, son.” His tone suddenly changed, became more conciliatory. I was too dumb to take heed of it. He leaned back in his seat and his voice went into full confidence mode. “Sure, an’ she was your sister, but she was up to no good. You should know that. She came here more than once, so she did. Got herself so well-known we didn’t cotton on to what she was doing for a long time. She could have ruined the whole peace process and the Brits knew it. And they knew they had to stop her somehow. That was why they told us what she was doing.”
“Whiteman told you that?”
He avoided my gaze, which was telling. “If that’s what you want to think.”
“What did he say was she doing?”
“Working with the UVF.” He paused to let his words sink in. “She was passing on information about this place to the Loyalists at the Blue Taboo club, so she was. They supplied her with drugs in return and she used them to feed her boyfriend’s habit. All along she was setting us up for a major bomb which would have killed a good many innocent women. The Provisionals had no option but to stop her.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. “She didn’t pass on anything to anyone, you stupid bastard!” I was rising to my feet now. “It was all a goddamn plot! You and your murdering IRA friends were set up to kill Marie because Whiteman wanted her dead. He needed her corpse.”
He remained composed but his eyes told me he was willing to hear more. “I’m a priest, son. I never killed anyone in my life.”
“That’s a matter of opinion. Your hands are soaked in blood sure as eggs is eggs. Did Whiteman tell you where the IRA gang would find her that night?”
“What the hell is this, son? A quiz show?” O’Hagan rose to his feet to meet me on level terms.
“And did you pass on the message to the killers?”
The priest shrugged but said nothing. And that told me everything.
“So that was how Whiteman got his second red-headed corpse.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about, son.”
“I don’t suppose you do.” I studied him carefully, noting the uneasy look in his eyes growing bigger by the minute. “I suppose Whiteman told you later that the hit squad murdered Christine Fisher by mistake. Was that what he told you? Did he tell you to hush the whole thing up because of an IRA foul-up?”
“You seem to know a lot about this.” A deep frown crossed his face.
“Yes. And I know the truth. Your thugs really did kill my sister. Just as Whiteman planned. What he told you later was a damned lie. It was the Gidley’s who killed Fisher. She was the girl in the car with Sammy Wilde, but the Brits couldn’t afford for your IRA friends to know she was killed by a pair of bone-headed Loyalists. So the bodies were swapped later.”
“You’re lying!” His eyebrows arched alarmingly.
“No, I’m not. It was all a very clever trick. Two staunch loyalists killed Fisher, and the IRA were duped into thinking they did it. And Whiteman got his revenge on my sister.”
“Why would he want revenge?”
“None of your business. Am I right about this?”
I didn’t hear the reply because there was none. Just a pistol barrel jammed hard in my back and an order to keep still. The voice behind me was cold and razor sharp. “No more questions.”
“Well, ain’t that great.” I half turned, as much as the pistol butt would allow. “You just had to be in on this didn’t you, Milligan?”
“No more answers either. Head towards the stairs.”
The pistol grew tight against me and I moved as he dictated. “Bedtime, is it?”
He tried to put on an air of melodrama. “No. Parachute lessons. And guess what. We just run out of parachutes.”
The priest raised his eyebrows but said nothing. With the pistol barrel in my back I did as Milligan wanted and walked towards a narrow staircase that led off one corner of the room. We went up the stairs in tandem, me in front and Milligan providing the persuasion with the occasional jab in the back.
In a small attic room, we stood in front of a grimy open window. Cars passed by on the road forty feet below. Somewhere in the distance a police siren was screaming. A normal day in Belfast.
The gun dug deeper into my back. “Open the window. Time for lesson number one. How to launch yourself into the air.” The melodrama was getting out of control by now and, in different circumstances, I would have been laughing my socks off.
“And lesson number two?” I asked.
“Cancelled. Your tab just ran out. Get up onto the window ledge.”
Not just my tab. I was running out of ideas fast.
I put one foot up onto the window ledge and tried to drag out the rest of the procedure. Hell, this was getting just too serious by half. I’ve always had this instinctive feeling that there are such things as guardian angels and I was desperately hoping mine was doing his job properly. Reckon he must have been because right about then the room door burst inwards.
A crashing noise was followed by the roar of a gunshot. Milligan pitched forward with a look of sheer surprise still spread across his face. He was dead before he hit the ground.
I breathed out, long and hard, put my feet firmly back on the floor and then looked at the man with the gun.
“What kept you?” I asked.
Whiteman glared at me. “I ought to shoot you as well. You stupid bastard!”
“One Bodine’s enough for your conscience, Whiteman.” I took a few seconds to restore my thoughts before heading back towards the stairs. “There’s a priest downstairs. Think we should get him up here to say a few words for the dead man?”
Whiteman looked down at the spread-eagled body. “Sod the bastard. Let him rot in hell.”
I glanced back at the body. “Reckon he probably will anyway. How’d you know I was here?”
“A bird told me.”
“He certainly does hate your guts, Bodine. What the hell do you think you’ve been playing at? You’re in big trouble, you know that?”
“Sounds like I’m gonna be thrown out of the country a second time.”
“You can count on it. Don’t bother to unpack.”
I suddenly noticed my hands were shaking. “I hope you brought some of your mates with you. They’re not very friendly round here.”
“I’m not stupid, Bodine. Unlike you, I don’t take chances.”
He was right. I was hustled out of that place fast by a small band of soldiers in black Balaclava helmets. Almost certainly SAS. They took me directly to Rourke’s police station and left me there under armed police guard. Before the day was ended I was taken to Aldergrove Airport and put on the next flight out of Ireland.
I never did get the chance to find Christine Fisher’s grave. Marie’s grave. By then I’d come to the conclusion Whiteman was right about one thing: it was better to let things lie.
I stayed in a hotel near Bayswater and spent the next few days pulling myself together. I had to accept that it was all over now. Whatever gaps remained in the story were best filled by intuitive guesswork. I had nothing more to gain by going back to Ireland.
After a few days exploring London, I packed my bags and made ready to go home. I arrived at Heathrow early and found myself a seat at the bar in the departure lounge. From there I could see all the other passengers as they came into the lounge. I ordered a coffee rather than a stiff drink because I wanted to be fully sober if Penny turned up. I’d had no word from her and neither had I been able to find out where she was staying. I’d phoned the hospital but they were none to co-operative. Probably warned off by the RUC. So I sat there and waited.
Either she would come or she wouldn’t.