Harpur realised he was at a loss as to what to do next. He was a beat copper, not a detective and had not the first idea how to go about investigating a case. Not that many would, he consoled himself. Detectives were a recent innovation in police work. The French had come up with the idea and more and more police forces were catching on to their efficacy. From what Harpur had read, however, a lot of this new breed of detective joining the bigger forces seemed to owe much of their success in solving crimes to their close association with the criminals who committed them.
He needed to think. For Harpur, that meant he could also do with a drink.
The Academical Institution was on College Square, one of the most fashionable areas in the town. He doubted that the respectable Presbyterian and Church of Ireland citizens who inhabited the smart, four storied townhouses that lined the edges of the square had a local pub, but then again this was Belfast. No matter where you were in the town you were never less than a stone’s throw from a bar of some description.
Where the corner of the square met Wellington Place stood the prestigious Donegal Arms Hotel. One of the best in the town and used to welcoming rich industrialists and visiting aristocracy. It was not the sort of place that Harpur would normally frequent, something which the doorman who stood sentinel before the mahogany and glass front doors spotted straight away.
“Can I help you sir?” he said with a slight cough, as he eyed the shabby blue frock-coat of Harpur’s police uniform with a suspicious eye. In contrast, the doorman stood fore-square before the entranceway, resplendent in full military dress uniform, buttons polished, boots gleaming. Harpur could tell that like most hotel doormen this one was very probably a former non-commissioned officer in the army, the type of man whose former career made him perfect for a job which involved being pleasant to his superiors and commanding or just downright rough with anyone from the lower orders who got out of line. Keeping policemen from annoying the exclusive clientele of the Donegal Arms would be part of his duties.
“Is that a 86th Regiment of Foot uniform?” Harpur asked, pointing to the red, long tailed jacket the man wore with it’s bright white tasselled epaulets and cross belts.
The doorman’s chest visibly swelled and his shoulders pushed back an extra few inches. “It is indeed,” he replied, his face losing some of its initial hostility. “I served ten years. Are you a military man yourself?”
Harpur nodded. “I was in the 83rd.”
“See any action?”
“I was at the capture of Rangoon,” Harpur said. “Also Ceylon and the Falklands invasion.”
The doorman’s eyebrows raised. His previous attitude softened a little. “The Falklands? What was that like? It must have been bloody freezing down there.”
“Aye it was brass monkey weather,” Harpur said. “The fighting wasn’t bad though. Most of the Argentine forces turned out to be British mercenaries who refused to fight us. We just walked in. Rangoon was a different matter.”
“I’m sure it was,” the doorman said, his expression showing the new respect he nnow had for the shabby policeman standing before him.
“Any chance I can come in to the bar?” Harpur asked. “I’m just looking for a quick drink.”
A Belfast policeman drinking on duty was not an unusual prospect and the doorman was not that surprised by the question. Now that he knew that Harpur was a fellow veteran, his former confrontational demeanour was replaced with camaraderie. It was a Thursday, after lunch and the hotel bar would most probably be empty.
“Aye alright, mate,” he said with a wink. “The public bar is on the right. Do me a favour though? Don’t look too conspicuous and if anyone important comes in make yourself scarce. Try not to bother anyone either. They’re all pretty busy this morning.”
“No problem,” Harpur replied, though inside he was furious that a gobshite like the doorman would have the cheek to look down on him.
Harpur entered the comfortable gloom of the hotel, noting as he did so the plushness of the surroundings. The walls were wood panelled and decorated here and there with large paintings of fox hunting scenes. The policeman’s boots sunk into the deep carpet beneath his feet as he took a right turn off the hotel foyer into the public bar. A roaring fire crackled in a big iron dog grate and high backed leather armchairs and comfortable bench sofas provided plenty of places to sit. There was no other patrons.
Harpur approached the bar where a barman with waxed and twirled moustaches was polishing glasses with a linen cloth.
"A glass of Cowans," Harpur asked, mentioning his usual tipple. It was a cheap whiskey but nevertheless it was still a step up from some of the vicious brews the urban poor of Belfast used to drown out their miserable existences. "Badger" for instance was so named because it was as rough as one, while "Velvet" whiskey was so named not because of its exceedingly smooth taste, but due to the ridged, raw condition that drinking it habitually tended to leave the roof of your mouth in.
The barman shook his head. "I'm sorry constable," he said. "This is a respectable hotel. We don't sell cheap drinks like that here. Our usual clientele don't tend to order them."
The barman said the word ‘usual’ with such a pointed, condescending tone that Harpur briefly considered reaching across the bar and grabbing the cheeky get by the throat, but a vision of Inspector Boyd came to his mind and stopped him. "Well what whiskey do you have?" he sighed.
"I could give you a Bushmills," the barman suggested. "Much superior to that Cowans muck. Or how about a Kirwins?"
“Kirwins?” Harpur said. He was unfamiliar with the more expensive brands of drink available.
“It’s made up at the north coast,” the barman said. “In a family distillery owned by Doctor Kirwin. I’m sure you’ve heard of him? Living saint he is.”
“I’ve heard of him, yes,” Harpur said. “I didn’t know he had a whiskey business too. How much is one of those?"
The barman told him and Harpur's jaw dropped slightly open. It was hard for him to believe that people in this town would pay that sort of money for one drink. He had come this far however and could hardly turn round and leave the place without having got what he came for, so reluctantly Harpur counted out the coins until there was enough. Somewhat crestfallen, he watched the barman scoop up a good proportion of his weekend social budget and exchange it for a couple of inches of bright amber liquid in a cut-crystal tumbler.
“The doorman said it was busy in here,” Harpur commented, nodding his head at the empty bar. “I don’t see much evidence of that.”
“He means the rest of the staff,” the barman nodded as he resumed his glass polishing. “They’re doing an extra special clean up. There’s a famous guest due to arrive.”
“Really?” Harpur raised his eyebrows.
The barman nodded, clearly pleased to get the chance to discuss it. “Robert Emerson is booked to stay here. He be arriving either tonight or tomorrow.”
“The explorer?” Harpur said. He was not normally impressed by celebrities but Emerson was different. The man had grown up near Belfast but went on to explore several continents. He had gone to places no white man had ever been to before and returned alive to tell the tale. Those tales, related by Emerson in his many books and lecture tours had made him a very rich man.
“Aye. He’s bringing one of those Egyptian Mummys with him that he got in Africa,” the barman said. “He’s going to donate it to the Belfast Museum.”
“Good for him,” Harpur said. “At least he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.”
With a sigh he turned and wandered through the empty bar, cradling his expensive whiskey in two hands as he looked for somewhere to sit down. The drink had cost so much he intended to savour every last drop of it while he pondered his next move. He passed the fire and went over to the great bay window at the far end of the room. There he settled himself in a winged armchair, the polished leather squeaking as he sat on it. As he took his first contemplative sip of the burning whiskey he watched the horses, carts, hackney carriages and other traffic that passed by outside the window and he tried to think about what he should do.
His contemplation did not last long. As he raised his glass to his lips for a second time, his attention was drawn to one of the passer-by outside. At first it was simply the incongruity of his dress that drew the suspicious gaze of Harpur’s policeman’s eye. He wore a tattered old, grey, heavy wool overcoat with the collar turned up. A threadbare scarf dangled around his neck and a flat cap was pulled down around his ears. He was too shabbily dressed to be a servant in one of the fancy four-storey townhouses of the square, even a servant on his day off. However, as the man looked around left and right, clearly checking if he was being followed, the sight of his face had the policeman back on his feet immediately.
“McDougal you bugger!” Harpur exclaimed.
With a brief hesitation, Harpur tutted with regret then tossed off the rest of his expensive whiskey in one gulp. Setting the glass down on the table he hurried out of the hotel.