Authors: Peter Temple
Tags: #FIC019000, #FIC000000, #FIC050000
Someone inside the hotel had opened the fire-escape door to let someone else in.
More than one?
He looked at his watch. 1.15 a.m.
If they’re coming for me about the tape, he thought, there’ll be a big one to break open the door, then they’ll want to be finished in seconds, down the fire escape inside a minute.
He pulled the bed covers straight, they’d look there, that might give him a second, they were hardly rumpled by his few hours of sleep. He looked around for anything useful—the chair, a flimsy thing, better than nothing.
Stand behind the door? His instinct said: No, see what I’m up against, don’t get slammed against the wall by a door shoulder-charged by a gorilla.
He stepped across the worn carpet and stood to the left of the door, back against the wall, holding the chair by a leg in his left hand.
Waiting in the dark room, wall icy against his shoulderblades, listening, all the city sounds amplified now. Calm, he said to himself, breathe deeply, icy calm.
No sound came to his ears from the passage.
Wrong. He was wrong. Too jumpy, the fire-escape latch just an invention of a mind looking to explain something, something in a dream probably. They couldn’t have found him. How could they find him, they didn’t even have a name? He dropped his head, felt tension leave his neck and shoulders.
The door came off its hinges.
A huge man, shaven-headed, came with it, went three steps across the room with the door on his right shoulder, his back to Niemand.
Close behind him was a tall, slim man with a silenced pistol in both hands, arms outstretched, combat style. He saw Niemand out of the corner of his eye, started to swing his arms and his body.
Niemand hit him in the head and chest with the chair before he had half swung, broke the chair back to pieces, hit him again with the back of the seat, more solid, caught him under the nose, knocked his head back.
The man stepped two paces back, his knees bending, one hand coming off the pistol.
The big man had turned, stood frozen, hands up, hands the size of tennis racquets.
Niemand threw the remains of the chair at him, stepped over, grabbed the gunman’s right hand as he sank to the floor, blood running down his face, got the pistol, pulled it away, pointed it at the big man.
‘Fuck, no,’ said the big man, he didn’t want to die.
Maori, maybe, thought Niemand, Samoan. He shot him in each thigh, no more sound than two claps with cupped hands.
‘Fuck,’ said the man. He didn’t fall down, just looked down at his legs in the black tracksuit pants. Then he sat on the bed, slowly, sat awkwardly, he was fat around the middle. ‘Fuck,’ he said again. ‘Didn’t have to do that.’
The gunman was on his knees, lower face black with blood. He had long hair and it had fallen forward, hung over his eyes, strands came down to his lips. Niemand walked around him, pushed him to the carpet with his bare foot. There was no resistance. He knelt on the base of the man’s spine, put the fat silencer muzzle into the nape of his neck.
‘Don’t even twitch,’ Niemand said. He found a wallet, a slim nylon thing, in the right side pocket of the leather jacket. Took the mobile phone too. In the left pocket were car keys and a full magazine, fifteen rounds. That’s excessive for taking out one man, Niemand thought. He stood up.
‘Scare, mate,’ the gunman said. ‘That’s all, mate, scare.’
It was hard to pick the accent through the blood and the carpet but Niemand thought it was Australian. An all-Pacific team.
‘How’d you find me?’
The man turned his head. He had a strong profile. ‘Just the messenger here, mate. Bloke gave me the room number.’
‘What’s your car?’
Niemand ran the pistol over the man’s scalp. ‘Car. Where?’
‘Impreza, the Subaru, at the lane.’
Niemand went to the doorway, now a hole in the wall, looked down the dim corridor. Nothing, no sounds. The room next door was empty, he’d seen the whiteboard in the reception office.
He went back. ‘Unlucky room number,’ he said to the man on the floor and, from close range, shot him in the backs of his knees. Clap, clap.
While the man keened, thin sounds, demanding, Niemand dressed, stuffed his things in his bag. The big man was lying back on the bed now, feet on the ground, making small grunting noises. If he wanted to, Niemand thought, he could have a go at me, just flesh wounds, like cutting your finger with a kitchen knife. But he doesn’t want to, why should he? He’s just the battering ram, the paid muscle.
Like me, all I’ve ever been, just the paid muscle. And always stupid enough to have a go.
‘Give me your mobile,’ he said to the big man.
The man shook his head. ‘No mobile.’
Niemand went down the fire escape, not hurrying, walked down the alley, saw the car, pressed the button to unlock the driver’s door. He drove to Notting Hill, light traffic, rain misting the windscreen, feeling the nausea, the tiredness, not too bad this time. He’d never driven in London but he knew the inner city from his runs, from the map. Near the Notting Hill Gate underground, he parked illegally, left the car unlocked with the keys in it, Three youths were nearby, laughing, one pissing against a car, he saw the joint change hands. With luck, they’d steal the Subaru.
On the underground platform, just him, two drunks and a woman who was probably a transvestite, he took out the gunman’s mobile, flipped it open, pressed the numbers.
‘Not a complete success to report,’ Niemand said. ‘Those boys you sent, one’s too fat, one’s too slow. I had to punish them. And I’m going to have to punish you too, Mr Hollis.’
‘Hold on,’ said Hollis. ‘There’s some…’ ‘Goodbye.’
Niemand put the mobile away. One of the drunks was approaching, silly slack-jawed smile.
‘Smoke, mate?’ he said.
Glasgow. Niemand knew what people from Glasgow sounded like, he’d spent time with men from Glasgow. He turned side-on to the man, moved his shoulders. ‘Fuckoff, throw you under the fucking train,’ he said in his Scottish accent.
The man put up his hands placatingly, walked backwards for several steps, turned and went back to his companion.
‘WHAT’S SERRANO’S business in Hamburg?’ said Anselm. He was uneasy, his scalp itched. The other people in the restaurant seemed too close, he felt that they were looking at him.
They were in Blankenese, finishing lunch at a table in the window. Below them flowed the Elbe, wide, grey, unhealthy. Two container ships attended by screeching flocks of gulls were passing each other. The huge vessels—clumsy, charmless things bleeding rust at the rivets and oozing yellowish liquids from their pores—sent small waves to the banks.
‘Moving money, papers,’ said O’Malley. ‘He shifts stuff all the time. Can’t keep any computer records. No paperless office for Mr Serrano.’
‘The pages any use?’
‘The ones we can understand don’t help us. We sold them to a firm in Dublin, so we’ll get a bit of our money back. In due course. We don’t demand cash on delivery. Unlike some.’
‘Cash flow problems. The boss’s been away on honeymoon.’
‘Why does he have to marry them?’
‘Some Lutheran thing. What’s Serrano want with Kael?’
‘We’d like to know.’
‘You came over to tell me that?’
‘No. I’ve got other business here. Mention this matter to Baader?’
‘Yes. He says Kael’s a man of parts.’ Every time Anselm looked around, he thought he caught people staring at him.
O’Malley looked pensive, chewing the last of his
. He was big and pale, a long patrician nose between sharp cheekbones. He looked like an academic, a teacher of literature or history. But then you looked into his bleached blue eyes, and you knew he was something very different.
In the disordered and looted album of Anselm’s memories, Manila was untouched. Manila, in the Taproom at the Manila Hotel. The group came in laughing, O’Malley with a short, bald Filipino man, two elated young women who looked like Rotary exchange students from Minnesota, and dark and brooding Paul Kaskis. O’Malley was wearing a
, the Filipino shirt worn over trousers. The Filipino was in a lightweight cream suit, and Kaskis was in chinos and a rumpled white shirt.
The Filipino ordered margaritas. Anselm heard him say to the blondes that he’d started drinking them at college in California. At Stanford. They shrieked. They shrieked at the men’s every utterance. It struck Anselm that if they were on an exchange, it was an arrangement between Rotary cathouses, an international exchange of Rotary harlots.
There was a moment when the shrieking women had gone to the powder room and the Filipino was talking softly to Kaskis and O’Malley was standing next to Anselm, paying for cigars.
‘I think I know you,’ said O’Malley. ‘You’re a journalist.’ He was Australian.
‘No and yes,’ said Anselm.
‘Don’t tell me, you’re with…’ ‘I’m a freelance, not with anyone in particular.’
O’Malley’s washed-out blue eyes, remarkable in his sallow face, flicked around the room. Then he smiled, a smile full of rue. ‘Not CIA then?’
‘No. I don’t think they’d have me.’
‘Fuck it,’ O’Malley said. ‘Met two today, I was hoping for a trifecta. Well, have a drink with us anyway.’
Anselm ended up having dinner with them. At one point, shrieking Carol, the taller and bigger of the American women, put an accomplished hand on him under the table, seemed to look to O’Malley for guidance.
Now O’Malley asked for guidance. ‘What’s Baader say about him?’
‘Arms, drugs, possibly slaves, human organs. Untouchable. He has friends.’
‘Just another Hamburg businessman then.’
‘I suppose,’ said Anselm. He had a cautious look at their fellow-lunchers, members of Hamburg’s haute bourgeoisie, serious people noted for being cold, tight-lipped and very careful with a mark. Most of them were in middle age and beyond, the men sleek-haired and hard-eyed, just on the plump side, the women lightly tanned and harder eyed but carrying no excess weight, taut surgically contoured faces many of them, bowstring tendons in the neck.
‘Baader says Kael doesn’t talk directly to his own clients,’ said Anselm, ‘so he may be a client of Serrano’s. Kael’s money’s all dirty and Serrano may be helping him with it.’
‘This meeting tomorrow,’ said O’Malley. ‘Can that be covered?’
‘Outdoors, it’s a put-and-pluck on Serrano,’ Anselm said. ‘With possibilities of disaster. Want to wear that?’
‘I’ll have to.’ O’Malley ran a hand over his tightly curled greying black hair, touched the collar of his lightweight tweed suit, the knot of the red silk tie. ‘The world used to be a much simpler place, didn’t it? There were things you could do, things you couldn’t. Now you can do anything if you can pay for it.’
‘Nostalgia,’ Anselm said. ‘I was thinking the other night. I’ve never asked. What happened to Angelica?’
‘She doesn’t work anymore. She paints. She married an Englishman and now there’s an American.’
‘People you know?’
‘The Pom, yes. I liked him. Eton and kicked out of the Guards. Rooting the CO’s batman probably, much worse than rooting the CO’s wife, he doesn’t fuck his wife. The American’s rich, inherited. I had dinner with them in Paris, in their apartment, the Marais can you believe? They have a cook, a chef. But there’s hope, she’s really distant with the hubby. Not surprising, he’s an Egyptologist, the place’s like a tomb and he could bore Mormons stiff.’
O’Malley drank the last of his wine. ‘Still interested?’
‘I could bring you together. Accidental meeting.’
‘We only actually kissed once. While very drunk.’
‘I remember. The Angel didn’t kiss casually, though. Not a serial kisser.’
‘I may be too late for accidental meetings. I may have had my ration of accidental meetings.’
‘No, there’s always one left.’
A youth in white had appeared to take away the plates. Close behind him came another young man, dark, Italianate, long-fingered. He fawned over O’Malley, suggesting the dessert trolley or something from the kitchen, anything, any whim. O’Malley ordered cognacs. He had the accent identified with Cologne, somehow frivolous in the intonation. North Germans found it annoying.
The waiter gone, O’Malley sighed. ‘Well, a business lunch. What’s a put-and-pluck cost?’
‘As an estimate, plenty.’
O’Malley was looking away, watching three sailors on a Japanese container ship taking photographs of the shore. He said nothing for a while, drank some riesling, nodded in answer to some inner question. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I thought it would be in that vicinity.’
They sat in silence until the cognacs came, more fawning. O’Malley rotated his fat-bellied glass and sniffed the small collar. ‘If angels peed,’ he said, and sipped.
Anselm felt the unease returning, wanted to be out of the place, away from people. He saw O’Malley’s mouth rolling the liquid, his upward gaze, the calibrating.