The street lights of Belfast glittered on the dark pavements, where even now, with the troubles officially over, few people cared to walk alone at night. John Branagh drove slowly, carefully, through the icy streets.
In the distance, he could see the lights of the Magnifico Hotel, a bright contrasting centre of noise, warmth and colour.
He felt again the excitement of the news he’d heard today.
Hey, he’d actually made the grade at last — full-time reporter for BBC TV, right there on the local news programme, not just a trainee, any longer. Unbelievable.
The back end shifted a little as he turned a corner. He gripped the wheel tighter and slowed down even more. There was black ice on the roads tonight. Gotta be careful.
So, he needed to work hard, show them he was keen. This interview, now, in this hotel? This guy Speers? If it turned out good enough, maybe he could go back to Fat Barney and twist his arm, get him to commission it for local TV, the Hearts and Minds programme, maybe? Or even — he let his ambition soar — go national? Or how’s about one of those specials everybody seemed to be into right now?
There were other thoughts in his mind, but as usual he pushed them down out of sight. Sheila Doherty would be somewhere in the hotel tonight. But he had plenty of other stuff to think about, to steer his attention away from past unhappiness. No need to focus on anything right now but his career and its hopeful prospects.
Montgomery Speers, better get the name right. New Member of the Legislative Assembly, wanted to give his personal views on the peace process and how it was working out. Yeah. Wanted some publicity, more like. Anti, of course, or who’d care? But that was just how people were.
John curled his lip. He had to follow it up. It could give his career the kick start it needed.
But he didn’t have to like it.
Inside the Magnifico Hotel, in the centre of newly regenerated Belfast, all was bustle and chatter, especially in the crowded space behind the catwalk. The familiar fashion show smell, a mixture of cosmetics and hair dryers, was overwhelming.
Sheila Doherty sat before her mirror, and felt a cold wave of unhappiness surge over her. How ironic it was, that title the papers gave her, today’s most super supermodel. She closed her eyes and put her hands to her ears, trying to shut everything out for just one snatched moment of peace and silence.
Every now and then, it came again. The pain. The despair. A face hovered before her mind’s eye, the white, angry face of John Branagh, dark hair falling forward over his furious grey eyes. She deliberately blocked the thought, opening her eyes again. She needed to slip on the mask, get ready to continue on the surface of things. Where her life was perfect.
"Comb that curl over more to the side, will you, Chrissie?" she asked. "So it shows in front of my ear. Yeah, that’s right — if you just spray it there thanks, pet."
The hairdresser obediently fixed the curl in place. Sheila's long red-gold hair gleamed in the reflection of three mirrors, positioned to show every angle. Everything had to be perfect — as perfect as her life was supposed to be. The occasion was too important to allow for mistakes.
Her fine-boned face, with its clear translucent skin like ivory, crowned with the startling contrast of her hair, looked back at her from the mirror, green eyes shining between thick black lashes black only because of the mascara.
She examined herself critically, considering her appearance as if it were an artefact which had to be without flaw to pass a test.
She stood up.
"Brilliant, pet," she said. "Now the dress."
The woman held out the dress for Sheila to step into, then carefully pulled the ivory satin shape up around the slim body and zipped it at the back. The dress flowed round her, taking and emphasising her long, fluid lines, her body slight and fragile as a daydream. She walked over to the door, ready to emerge onto the catwalk. She was very aware that this was the most important moment of one of the major fashion shows of her year.
The lights in the body of the hall were dimmed, those focussed on the catwalk went up, and music cut loudly through the sudden silence. Francis Delmara stepped forward and began to introduce his new spring line.
For Sheila, ready now for some minutes and waiting just out of sight, the tension revealed itself as a creeping feeling along her spine. She felt suddenly cold, and her stomach fluttered.
It was time, and dead on cue she stepped lightly out onto the catwalk and stood, holding the pose, for a long five seconds, as instructed, before swirling forward to allow possible buyers a fuller view.
She was greeted by gasps of admiration, then a burst of applause. Ignoring the reaction, she kept her head held high, her face calm and remote, as far above human passion as some elusive, intangible figure of Celtic myth, a Sidhe, a dweller in the hollow hills, distant beyond man’s possessing — just as Delmara had taught her. This was her own individual style, the style which had earned her the nickname ‘Ice Maiden’ from the American journalist Harrigan. She moved forward along the catwalk, turned this way and that, and, finally, swept a low curtsey to the audience before standing there, poised and motionless.
Delmara was silent at first, to allow the sight of Sheila, in one of his most beautiful creations, its maximum impact. Then he began to draw attention to the various details of the dress.
It was time for Sheila to withdraw. Once out of sight, she began a swift, organised change to her next outfit, while Delmara‚Äôs other models were in front.
No time yet for her to relax, but the show seemed set for success.
MLA, Montgomery Speers, sitting in the first row of seats, the celebrity seats, with his latest blonde girlfriend by his side, allowed himself to feel relieved.
Francis Delmara had persuaded him to put money into Delmara Fashions, and particularly into financing Delmara’s supermodel, Sheila Doherty, and he was present tonight in order to see for himself if his investment was safe. He thought, even so early in the show, that it was.
He was a broad shouldered man in his early forties, medium height, medium build, red-cheeked, and running slightly to fat. There was nothing particularly striking about his appearance except for the piercing dark eyes set beneath heavy, jutting eyebrows. His impressive presence stemmed from his personality, from the aura of power and aggression which surrounded him.
A businessman first and foremost, he had flirted with political involvement for several years. He stood successfully for election to the local council, feeling the water cautiously with one toe while he made up his mind. Would he take the plunge and throw himself whole-heartedly into politics?
The new Assembly gave him his opportunity, if he wanted to take it. More than one of the constituencies offered him the chance to stand for a seat. He was a financial power in several different towns, where his computer hardware companies provided much needed jobs. He was elected to the seat of his choice with no trouble. The next move was to build up his profile, grab an important post once things got going, and progress up the hierarchy.
In an hour or so, when the Fashion Show was over, he would meet this young TV reporter, for some preliminary discussion of a possible interview, or appearance on a discussion panel. He was slightly annoyed that someone so junior had been lined up to talk to him. John Branagh, that was the name, wasn’t it? Never heard of him. Should have been someone better known, at least. Still, this was only the preliminary. They would roll out the big guns for him, soon enough, when he was more firmly established. Meanwhile, his thoughts lingered on the beautiful Sheila Doherty.
If he wanted her, he could buy her, he was sure. And more and more, as he watched her, he knew that, yes, he wanted her.
A fifteen minute break, while the audience drank the free wine and ate the free canapés. Behind the scenes again, Sheila checked hair and makeup. A small mascara smear needed to be removed, a touch more blusher applied. In a few minutes, she was ready. But something held her back.
She stared at herself in the mirror, and saw a cool, beautiful woman, the epitome of poise and grace. She knew that famous, rich, important men over two continents would give all their wealth and status to possess her, or so they said. She was an icon, according to the papers. That meant, surely, something unreal. Something artificial, painted or made of stone.
And what was the good? There was only one man she wanted. John Branagh. And he’d pushed her away. He believed she was a whore — a tart — someone not worth touching. What did she do to deserve that?
It wasn’t fair! she told herself passionately. He went by rules that were medieval. No-one nowadays thought the odd kiss mattered that much. Oh, she was wrong. She’d hurt him, she knew she had. But if he’d given her half a chance, she’d have apologised — told him how sorry she was. Instead of that, he’d called her such names — how could she still love him after that? But she knew she did.
How did she get to this place, she wondered? The dream of romantic fiction, the dream of so many girls? A place she hated, now? Where men thought of her, more and more, as a thing, an object to be desired, not a person. When did her life go so badly wrong? She thought back to her childhood, to the skinny, ginger-haired girl she once was. Okay, she’d hated how she looked. But otherwise, surely, she was happy? Or was that only a false memory?
"Sheila — where are you?"
The hairdresser poked her head round the door and saw Sheila with every sign of relief.
"Thank goodness! Come on, love, only got a couple of minutes! Delmara says I’ve to check your hair. Wants it tied back for this one."
The evening was almost at its climax. The show began with evening dress, and now it was to end with evening dress — but this time, with Delmara's most beautiful and exotic lines. Sheila stood up and shook out her frock, a cloud of short ice-blue chiffon, sewn with glittering silver beads and feathers. She and Chrissie between them swept up her hair, allowing a few loose curls to hang down her back and one side of her face, fixed it swiftly into place with two combs, and clipped on more silver feathers. She fastened on long white earrings with a pearly sheen, and slipped her feet into the stiletto heeled silver shoes left ready and waiting. She moved over to the doorway for her cue. There was no time to think, or to feel the usual butterflies. Chloe came off, and she counted to three and went on.
There was an immediate burst of applause.
To the loud music of Snow Patrol, Sheila half floated, half danced along the catwalk, her arms raised ballerina fashion. When she had given sufficient time to allow the audience their fill of gasps and appreciation, she moved back and April and Chloe appeared, in frocks with a similar effect of chiffon and feathers, but with differences in style and colour. It was Delmara’s spring look for evening wear, and she could tell at once that the audience loved it.
The three girls danced and circled each other, striking dramatic poses as the music died down sufficiently to allow Delmara to comment on the different features of the frocks.
With one part of her mind, Sheila was aware of the audience, warm and relaxed now, full of good food and drink, their minds absorbed in beauty and fashion, ready to spend a lot of money. Dimly in the background she heard the sounds of voices shouting and feet running.
The door to the ballroom burst open.
People began to scream.
It was something Sheila had heard about for years now, the subject of local black humour, but had never before seen.
Three figures, black tights pulled over flattened faces as masks, uniformly terrifying in black leather jackets and jeans, surged into the room.
The three sub-machine guns cradled in their arms sent deafening bursts of gunfire upwards. Falling plaster dust and stifling clouds of gun smoke filled the air.
For one long second they stood just inside the entrance way, crouched over their weapons, looking round. One of them stepped forward and grabbed Montgomery Speers by the arm.
"Move it, mister!" he said. He dragged Speers forcefully to one side, the weapon poking him hard in the chest.
A second man gestured roughly with his gun in the general direction of Sheila.
"You!" he said harshly. "Yes, you with the red hair! Get over here!"