I have always trusted my instincts. Call it what you like, gut feeling, sixth sense, whatever, but when the hair on the back of my neck stands to attention and that little red light starts to flash somewhere deep in my head, I’ve learned through experience that the best place to be is somewhere else.
I had gone to ground in one of Monarto’s sleazier districts with a suitcase full of money, which, strictly speaking, I was not legally entitled to. Admittedly I was pretty tired from the events of the past week, and the celebratory drinks of the previous night still dulled my senses, but the truth of it is that I was just too sure of myself. That is until the door of my room began to fly apart under the thunderous roar of automatic gunfire.
Do you know how highland Indonesians catch monkeys? They tie a hollowed-out coconut to a tree. Inside is a banana which the monkey can get only by putting his hand through the hole. He can only get his hand out again if he releases his grip on the banana. They catch more monkeys that way.
Well I ain’t no monkey but I sure do sympathise with their dilemma. For a second or more I swear I contemplated risking the rain of death coming through the splintered doorway, to cross the room and retrieve the suitcase from under the bed... the bed I had so recently vacated.
If you have ever been in a similar situation I’m sure you know what a heart-rending experience it is to have to leave something you love behind. But I’m big on self-preservation and what I lack in decisiveness I make up for in planning. I don’t simply wander in off the street into any hostelry and ask for a room. From this room, from this building, there were no less than four exits for a man in a hurry, and I was in the biggest kind of hurry. Unfortunately three of my preferred exits were beyond my fastdisintegrating door. I didn’t much like what the organism had to do to survive, but I did not argue with my instincts as I snatched up my needle gun from the top of the dresser and hurled myself from the tenth-storey window.
By the time I had acquired some dry clothing, after making good my escape into the harbour, and after a couple of shots of the hair of the dog at a tavern deep in the criminal sector of the docks area, I had made a little headway with the question which had been burning foremost in my mind, namely: Who the hell had tried to make mincemeat out of me? I worked on the problem this way.
To begin with, to know who, one should first ask, why? Was it the money? Okay, so maybe it was the money, but who knew I had that amount of cash, and why not simply sneak-go me at gunpoint instead of blowing the bejesus out of the place? Answer: it was not a robbery, not in a fit. Someone had tried to do me in!
I had been to Monarto on several prior occasions. It was one of several havens I frequented between projects; a hodgepodge city built and run by crime and corruption, a place where you can get whatever you want if you know the right people, which I did, and if you had plenty of cash money, which was my present problem, because I now only had the money I had crammed into my wallet that morning.
The big-nosed barman walked down to my end of the bar where I had perched myself on a stool next to a sick-looking potted palm.
“Nother one, mister?”
“No, thanks. You got a telephone?”
I phoned Jimmy. . . the kid. He ran an electronics shop on the west side. A good lad. I helped him out a couple of times, as a favour to his mother when he was fighting to break away from life on the streets. He was something of a whiz-kid when it came to things electronic, so I helped him by way of a grub- stake to get started in a small shop on Dunstan Drive. I had also bargained a favour with the local hoodlums to stay off his case, in return for which I promised I wouldn’t tear off their arms and beat them with the soggy ends. Unfortunately it’s the only language they understand.
The phone at the other end rang a couple of times before the receiver was lifted. A female voice answered: “Harris Electronics. Can I help you?”
“Yeah, is the kid there? Jimmy.”
“Who is this?”
“A friend,” I replied.
Her voice became suddenly frosty. “Jim is not here at the moment. He’s out on a service call.”
I had gotten off on the wrong foot. I suspected she was fond of Jimmy and wasn’t too keen on mysterious phone-callers asking after him.
“Wait a minute, miss, don’t hang up. Like I said, I’m a friend, and of his mother, Joyce. Alex Jaeger, he may have mentioned me?”
“Mr Jaeger, why didn’t you say so? Jim will be thrilled to hear from you. I’m Pat, Jim’s wife. Let me patch you through to his mobile.”
There was some clicking and some waiting, then: “Alex, is that really you?”
“Sure is, kid. Listen, Jimmy, I need your help. . . .”
I waited at a greasy spoon across the road from the hotel where I said I’d meet him. I paid two bucks for a bowl of chilli concarne which I wolfed down while watching from the street- front window for him to arrive. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Jimmy, but someone was out to get me and I wasn’t about to offer a static target to any would-be assassin, particularly after announcing myself on a line which, conceivably, was being listened in on.
He arrived half an hour and two coffees later. I wouldn’t have recognised him but for the fact that he drove a van with HARRIS ELECTRONICS painted across the side.
The kid wasn’t a kid any more. He had grown into a sturdylooking man, not unlike his father as I remembered him in the service. The black, curly hair and strong jaw were his main features. I made a mental note to stop calling him the kid.
I gave him a couple of minutes to make his way to the bar and order a drink, then dialled the number for the hotel and asked the barman to page Mr Harris. He came to the phone.
“It’s me. Sorry about the game of hide and seek, but I have to be careful. And it might not be a good idea for you to be seen with me right now,” I warned him.
“I understand, Alex, but if there’s anything I can do, just ask. I owe you.”
“Thanks for the offer, buddy. Where did you park the car?”
“It’s parked at the corner of Argyle and Opal, the post office carpark.
It’s a maroon Interceptor. The key is under the left rear.” “Nice. Thanks, Jim.” I hung up.
While I was on the phone I noticed a blue sedan pass by, twice, and the ugly brute behind the wheel seemed to take inordinate interest in Jim’s van before eventually pulling into an available parking space two cars behind. I waited until Jim came out onto the street before I made a move.
While he kept his eyes on Jim I moved with a knot of pedestrians along the opposite side of the street, my hand on the butt of my needle gun inside my coat pocket. When Jim climbed into the driver’s seat I darted across the road and approached the blue sedan from behind, and drawing level, I fired two shots into the rear tyre. It would be flat before he covered half a mile.
From a few yards back I watched Jim pull away from the curb, expecting the blue sedan to do the same, which, to my surprise it didn’t. Instead, half a minute elapsed before ape-features slid across the seat to open the passenger-side door for an elderly lady struggling with a load of shopping. I could see that a paper bag was about to burst open and I raced over to rescue it. I helped her open the door and load up the rear seat.
“Thank-you, young man. You’re very kind,” she said, and her son was equally as pleasant.
“Not at all,” I responded. Turning up my collar and thrusting my hands deep into my pockets, I left the scene of my latest outbreak of paranoia.
The car was where it was supposed to be, along with a few bits and pieces I had asked Jim to throw in. A carry-bag in the boot contained the necessary equipment to knock out most types of burglar alarms, while in the glove box and on the front seat he had left me a cellular phone, a phone book and a street directory, along with a couple of late edition newspapers. As I switched on the radio and searched for a news station I allowed myself a moment’s bitterness and cursed whoever was responsible for upsetting my holiday plans in such a despicable manner. Not to mention the loss of a considerable amount of cash. I should have been out wining and dining, romancing, squandering all that lovely loot. Someone was definitely going to pay.
I found a news station. The female broadcaster was prattling on about a pack of domestic dogs turned feral, roaming a southern suburb and menacing the local population. Interesting, but not what I was looking for.
I kept an ear cocked to the radio and began scanning the first newspaper for anything concerning open season on tourists in a harbourside hotel earlier in the day. Not that it warranted a mention with all the other bizarre stuff going on. There were the usual number of despots turning their armies against their angry and undernourished citizens; the odd man-made environmental disaster and terrorist actions; crazies causing all manner of mayhem, and the usual smattering of business frauds, government corruption, duplicity, greed, malpractice. Compared to this array of garbage I was more than happy to be a simple, benign outlaw.
My attention was suddenly seized by the present radio news item”. . .evidence of further violence between factions of organized crime with heavy gun-fire at the harbourside White Horse hotel today. A police spokesman said that although police arrived quickly on the scene, the perpetrators had already fled the premises. He described the scene as a gangland type shootout.”
So, there was strife in the old town, was there? But, so what? It had nothing to do with me, did it? But I had to concede it was the only tangible piece of information I had to work with, and my hunch was that the report wasn’t too far from the truth. I would have to go straight to the top to see if there was any connection. Or the bottom, depending on one’s perspective of these things. This meant a visit with Guido Spinoza, whom I had come to know from my very first encounter with this city.
Guido owned at least two pubs around town that I knew of, the Sword and Sandal and the Pink Pope, along with a string of pizza delivery outlets. These were mainly window- dressing. People in the know knew that his real business lay in futures, as in if you don’t cut me in on your racket, you got no future! He also owned a country mansion on twenty acres of land, which was where I was now headed.
The drive in the country gave me a chance to unwind a little. As soon as I left the city limits and began to climb into the surrounding hills I could feel the tension ebb from my body. Shifting down a couple of gears I pushed the pedal hard to the floor. The old girl responded nicely by squatting low on the road as the power surged all the way out to 10,000 rpm’s, at which point, with valves threatening mutiny and a trenchant bark emitted from the extractors, I shifted into top gear and floored it again. A glance at the speedometer indicated that I was travelling at over ninety miles per hour as I crested a small rise and passed a somewhat surprised policeman sitting with his speed-camera setup. I smiled serenely and offered a friendly wave, hoping that the picture would turn out nice for him. By the time I passed his buddy, who was leaning against the patrol car about a hundred metres further on, I was accelerating towards one hundred and ten miles per hour with still another gear to spare.
The guy had a sense of humour. He merely pouted his bottom lip and shook his head, once, to indicate he had no intention of playing the game. Commendable, but disappointing. I guess he figured having the photograph of the offending vehicle was enough, which was of no consequence to me. I had taken the precaution of borrowing a set of licence plates at the post office car-park.
Half an hour later I turned off the main road one mile out from a small town called Foster Vale. For a couple of kilometres I passed through a forest of pine trees. The air was cool here, and wonderfully fresh. I was sorely tempted to pull over and take a leisurely stroll in the country air, but I had business to attend to, although I did slow down and enjoy the scenery.
When I emerged from the pine forest, vineyards took over the landscape. Sauvignon on my left and Shiraz to my right, and amongst the vines the bright colours of hats and shirts worn by the pickers stood out amid the sea of green leaves. Those people were earning their money out there in the hot sun. I tooted the horn and waved. Other faces emerged from the vines as they straightened their backs for a moment to observe who the rubber-neck in the flash car was. I caught the eye of a pretty girl wearing faded blue jeans and a khaki shirt, and solicited a smile from her.
Guido’s place was hard to miss. It sat like a monolith amid acres of manicured lawn. The idyllic surroundings of the valley had been invaded by this self- bestowed monument to his overdeveloped ego and substantial wealth. Grotesque.
The grounds were surrounded by a twenty metre high wall on which a number of security cameras had been mounted.
I drove up to the main entrance where a pair of white lions sculptured in marble stood sentry at the heavy wrought iron gates. I immediately felt the cold gaze of a camera lens on me. Without moving its lips the nearest lion to me said: “Alex, my boy. How nice of you to come and visit.”
The curious thought of Guido being transformed into this limestone Leo as retribution for sins many and various came to mind. I reminded myself of the vulnerable position I had placed myself in by coming here.
“Hello, Guido. What’s new?”
Solenoid operated locks clicked and unseen mechanisms whirred as the gates swung inwards on their hinges. “Come in,” said the lion.
At the base of the steps at the front of the residence I was met by two besuited, bow-tied henchmen, both of whom must have measured twenty-four inches around the neck. One opened the car door for me while the other surveyed me suspiciously.
“Good afternoon, sir,” said the one doing the surveying. “Mr Spinoza asks if you would please deposit any weapons with us before entering the house.”
I complied with this request, but still had to submit to a thorough frisking before being permitted entry.
Once inside I was led down a long hallway, past a statue of Romulus and Remus and on to a large, well lit room where I was invited to make myself comfortable until Mr Spinoza could join me.
When the lackeys left me I amused myself by inspecting the room and its furnishings. Along one wall hung a fine collection of paintings, oils by Sydney Nolan, Peter Snelgar and Pro Hart, while on the opposite wall rows of shelves accommodated books of every description. A reading desk had been positioned at the far end of the room to make use of the sunlight coming in through the glass doors which opened out to a terrace overlooking the landscaped grounds at the rear of the house. I was gazing out through these doors when I heard the door behind me creak on its hinges. Turning, I found Guido entering the room.
Guido is a dwarf. He stood three and a half feet tall in his slippers and red silk dressing-gown as he closed the door behind himself, a glass of wine in one hand and a fat cigar in his mouth. He had aged somewhat since the last time I had seen him. In his mid forties now, I reckoned.
“How do you like my humble abode?” he asked, walking towards me with a wide grin clamped around the double corona.
“It’s very impressive.”
“The arms business can be quite rewarding, as you know, Alex. Always someone fighting a war somewhere, eh? It payed for all of this, but let’s sit out on the terrace and talk in the sunshine. Are you hungry? Or thirsty, perhaps?”
We seated ourselves at a round table beneath an umbrella printed with the Ferrari logo. Guido’s chair had been specially built to bring him up to a comfortable position at the table, which left his feet dangling some distance above the paving.
“It’s been a long time, Alex. How have you been occupying yourself? Lots of women?” he chuckled.
“No, Guido. I move around quite a lot. You know how I operate.”
“Yes. Yes I do. The loner. . . always outside the system. If you could do like me, eh? but of course if you stay too long in one place it is dangerous. But I keep asking you, Alex, why not come and work with me? You have talents I could use, and you could use a steady income. You know I can help with a new identity. I have the connections.”
“It wouldn’t work, Guido. We have different interests.” “Oh, that’s too bad. If you ever decide otherwise. . .”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” I lied.
The butler arrived with a plate of fresh lobster and two cold
beers, and left as unobtrusively as he had come.
“Eat, drink. You are my guest, Alex. It is my pleasure to give you hospitality.”
I chewed a piece of meat and washed it down. “So, what’s happening around town these days?” It was time to begin steering the conversation.
“There is much happening,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “The young people, you know, all on this new drug. Angel wings they call it. Some people bring it here from out of town. People in my city doing business without they ask me. I do what I can to stop them, but if the young people want it,” he said, shrugging. “How do I do this?”
“There have been shooting matches,” I said by way of statement rather than inquiry.
“These people are very bad,” he retorted querulously. “They hurt and kill anyone who opposes. And this drug, this angel drug. Sure I give to the people their cannabis, their hashish. Harmless, but this angel, it is very bad, Alex. They have to be stopped.”
I had struck a nerve. Guido was a strange kettle of fish, mostly piranha. His rise to power and millionaire status was a trail littered with corpses. He was totally ruthless. I knew the score but Guido would never admit it, not to me, not even to himself. In his own eyes he was an entrepreneur, a patron of the arts and even a champion of the people. In truth he was a dangerous pint-sized megalomaniac, capable of committing atrocious acts: debauchery, violence and terrorism. My thinking on it was that all this was all based in a deep- rooted inferiority complex, but then I’m no psychiatrist. In short, the man was insane. To threaten his warped self-image was a dangerous business, and I was beginning to wonder at my own sanity for coming here, to his own weird and private reality.
“They have to be stopped,” I said in absolute agreement, but it was time to get to the point of my visit. “Didyou hear about the disturbance at White Horse this morning?”
Guido was about to push a large piece of lobster into his mouth as I said this. I studied his face intently as the morsel lingered for a brief moment in mid conveyance before completing the journey.
It was hard to tell with Guido. His eyes and face went through all the right expressions to suggest that, yes, he was aware of the incident, but what was I implying?
He continued to chew for a while, washed it down with a sip of cold beer. The metaphoric penny appeared to drop as he looked up suddenly. You? It was you at the hotel?”
He started to laugh, a high-pitched emanation with a quality in it I found repugnant. I hoped that perhaps he might choke, but he managed to recover.
“I’m sorry, Alex,” he said, wiping the tears away from his eyes, “but it strikes me as funny. You’ll have to forgive me. You see, this morning I received a telephone call. . . from the boss-man of these hoodlums I’ve been telling you about. His name is Vincent --- Vincent Zendell. He said to me only this: we frighten your off man like a scared rabbit and we have the money. That’s what he say. Nothing more, and then he’s hanging up. Did you have some money?”
To me it seemed to add up. A supposed friend of Guido’s arrives surreptitiously on the scene in the midst of an ongoing conflict between the two of them. A weary or nervous adversary might well conclude that I had been brought in as a hired gun, which would certainly fit with Guido’s way of doing things. In response this Zendell character sends a couple of his goons over to do the job on me. They screw up, but they do come away with a suitcase --- my suitcase --- containing two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, in Zendell’s mind the fee for putting the hit on him. Hence the gloating phone call.
“Yes, I had some money,” I said distractedly, still working with this information, trying to make the pieces fit.
“You see, Alex, I have been wondering about this since before you come here. He must have thought-”
“That you hired me to kill him,” I said, completing the sentence for him.
After years of experience involved in clandestine operations with the service, before I had sickened of the whole crummy charade, I learned never to take anything on face value. Was I being confronted with the simple truth here, or, as my subconscious was screaming at me from way deep in my skull, was I overlooking something very simple? I worked on the problem as I drove back to the city.