Harpur raced down the stairs from Boyd’s Office, taking the steps two at a time. The Inspector followed close behind but took more care. A scene of chaos greeted them in waiting area of the Police Office.
The front door of the Belfast Police Office opened into a large, high-ceilinged reception room where members of the public could come in to make complaints, report crimes or wait for the release of arrested friends or relatives. The inner side of the room was crossed from one wall to the other by a high wooden counter, behind which the desk sergeant normally sat. The other wall was filled by a tall, multi-paned sash window that stretched almost from the floor to the ceiling.
The window had been the source of the noise. Its smashed glass lay all over the wooden floor in a million smithereens. The brick that had caused the damage lay in the middle of the room. The desk sergeant was out from behind the counter and was struggling with what looked like an old woman who he had wrapped his arms around from behind. The woman wore the ragged dirty shawl that was the uniform of the Belfast poor. Her face and arms were filthy, her lank, greasy hair tossed wildly around. Her mouth, toothless save for one, rotten, brown incisor, howled and spat obscenities as she kicked, punched and jumped up and down in an effort to break the grasp of the sergeant.
“Get off me ya blue bulkie bastard!” the woman screamed. “Let me go! What have yous done with him, eh? What have yous done with my Paddy?”
“What’s going on here?” Inspector Boyd thundered.
“It’s Mary McNally, sir,” the sergeant said, with some difficulty. “She’s drunk, sir. Plastered. She threw that brick through the window then ran in, effing and blinding.”
Harpur ran to help the sergeant and they grabbed an arm each. As he did so the stench of cheap gin from the woman’s breath washed over him, strong enough to make him wince. With a start he realised that the ‘old’ woman he had thought was in her fifties was actually, at most, thirty years old. Alcohol and life in the appalling poverty of the slums had taken a ravaging toll on her.
The woman struggled against the two policemen for a couple more seconds, her body arching and bucking, then realising her fight was useless she sagged down to the floor with an agonised wail.
“Get a hold of yourself madam,” Inspector Boyd shouted. “What is the meaning of this outrageous behaviour?”
“What have yous done with him?” the woman moaned. As her drink-fuelled rage dissipated it left nothing behind but a weak despair. She hung between the two policemen who found themselves supporting all her weight between them. Her head lolled and her eyes were closed. “You told me he was dead but I saw him.” The woman shook her head. “I saw him last night. What have you bastards done with him? Where is he?”
“What is she on about?” Boyd turned to the desk sergeant.
“This is Paddy McNally’s widow, sir,” the sergeant said. “Her husband was hung a couple of weeks ago for murder and other felonies.”
Boyd’s face fell. “Oh,” was the best he could muster.
“That broken window’s criminal damage, Mary,” the sergeant said in the woman’s ear. “You’ll do time for this.”
Boyd shook his head. “Wait,” he said. “She’s had a hard time. Clearly the drink has got the better of her. Put her in the cells until she sobers up, then let her go. Caution her not to break the peace again.”
“What about the damage, Sir?” the sergeant gestured at the broken glass with his free hand.
“Have some compassion, sergeant,” Boyd said, a tone of reprimand in his voice. “Her husband was a villain who has paid for his crimes. We should not extend her misery.”
“What do you mean you saw Paddy, Mary?” Harpur said to the drunk woman.
She raised her haggard face and fixed Harpur with a bleary glare. “My sister-in-law told me first,” she said, her voice slurring and a dribble of spit running from one corner of her mouth. “She said she saw my Paddy near the New Burying Ground last week. I never believed her. She’s a wicked oul’ bitch who just wants to make me feel bad. Then I saw him with my own eyes last night! Running down High Street he was. I came out of Laughlan’s Bar and saw him running like the devil himself was after him. But he was all wrong. My Paddy could run like the wind but last night he was stumbling along like he had two left feet. I called out to him…” the woman’s gaze left Harpur’s and her head dipped. “He looked at me like he never knew me. Just kept on running. Disappeared into the fog.”
Harpur could see tears dripping down from the woman’s eyes.
“You bastards hung him,” she moaned, “told me he was dead and he isn’t. He’s running around the town at night all broken up and he doesn’t even know me any more.”
The woman dissolved into great heaving sobs. The three policemen all exchanged awkward glances.
“Take her to the cells,” Boyd said as he turned on his heels and headed back up the stairs towards his office.
The alcohol finally overcame Mary McNally and she collapsed into a stupor. Harpur threw her over his shoulder and carried her behind the counter to one of the holding cells. Her thin, bony body wrapped in her filthy shawl felt to Harpur like he was carrying a bundle of sticks.
As he turned the heavy iron key to lock the cell door, the desk sergeant shook his head, a sad expression on his face. “Drink is a terrible thing. It’s awful the nonsense that it makes people think. Paddy’s been dead this past month. I was in the prison detail that took him to the gallows.”
Harpur nodded but a vague feeling of unease was growing in his chest. “True, but she’s the second person I’ve talked to in the last twenty four hours who says they’ve seen Paddy McNally walking the streets at night.”