Looking down at Harry’s body, a lifeless doll lying there loose and disjointed, rain slicking his hair, turning the dark welling blood to an anemic pink, it seemed incredible I had found this pitiful creature so intimidating a few short minutes ago. His eyes were open, staring sightlessly into the void. The same pale fishy grey eyes that moments earlier had gazed at me in sadistic pleasure, devoid of compassion as I begged and pleaded with him to make them stop. My chest was on fire from cigar burns and the broken fingers on my right hand made me light headed with pain. Trust Harry to break the right hand, the evil bastard knew just what a right hand of broken fingers meant to a technician. In a fit of rage I stuck my foot under his body and rolled it off the jetty. He hit the dark water with scarcely a splash and sank like a stone. Funny that, I always thought bodies floated. Harry’s didn’t, but then I think he had a pressing appointment in hell. The effort made me dizzy and I hung on to the rail for a while to catch my breath before tackling the two goons. The force of the bullets had blown one of them over the guard rail, leaving him hanging doubled over like a puppet with the strings cut, while the other lay face down, clutching what was left of his stomach. ‘Good, hope it bloody hurt,’ I muttered and kicked him over the edge to join Harry.
The effort brought back the dizziness and I leaned against the rail as rational thought processes began to return, bringing with them the question of who had saved me and why? Who had gunned down Harry and his goons? It had to be either an act of gangster revenge or because they had something the killers wanted. It didn’t take an Einstein to work out which and I felt a block of ice begin to form deep in my guts. No professional would hit three people in cold blood and let the fourth live to be a witness out of kindness. I was only alive because whoever they were thought I knew where the case was. Harry, whoever he was, had believed the same thing. I never knew his real name. ‘Call me Harry,’ he had said, thin lips twisting in parody of a smile. ‘That is while you can still talk,’ he had added before nodding to his thugs to break the first finger. The sadistic bastard had enjoyed it too. He must have known no sane man would face the agony of having his fingers snapped one after the other for the sake of a God damned suitcase. I would have denied my mother, betrayed my closest friends and bared the secrets of my soul to avoid pain like that. Not that it would have helped, I hadn’t a clue what it was all about, didn’t even know where the bloody thing was. But of course none of them believed me.
It all began earlier that afternoon; I had been taking some software discs and a repaired flatbed scanner across the city centre to a customer. I prided myself on fast service so despite the heat wave had decided to deliver the case personally. Partly because I find satisfied customers often become steady customers, but mainly because this particular man always paid cash on the nail and the way business had been going lately the prospect of cash more than outweighed the inconvenience. The traffic was snarled bumper to bumper as usual so cabs were out and I didn’t fancy riding sardine with a bunch of gasping commuters which ruled out the subway. The only alternative was to hoof it, taking it slow and easy with the odd pit stop for a refreshing cold beer along the way. Maybe the beer tasted too good or maybe I made one pit stop too many, I don’t know. But at some point striding down the street happy and at peace with the world, I suddenly realised I had left the God damned case in the last bar.
I wasn’t too bothered about losing the scanner, I had more than enough spare parts in the workshop to put another together and it wouldn’t cost much, but the loss of my software was something else. I had spent hours sweating blood over those programs, they gave me the ability to diagnose and correct virtually any fault in any customer’s computer. They also let me extract whatever information I thought might come in handy at the same time, though I didn’t exactly advertise that part of the service. I legged it back through treacle heat to the bar but the case was gone. Gasping for breath in front of the barman, I tried to communicate the problem in sign language. He watched me with quizzical amusement for a moment, then taking pity his smile broadened and he ducked down behind the bar.
‘This what you’re after?’ He surfaced and slapped my green case on the bar.
‘Thanks,’ I wheezed, ‘you’re a miracle worker. Please, have a drink of whatever on me. You’ve saved my life.’
‘A beer would go down nicely,’ he grinned and popped a can, ‘take a tip from me and stick a name tag on that case of yours in future. Someone else came in after you left with an identical one to yours. A real weirdo if you ask me, knocked back a couple of double Jack Daniels, then picked up your case by mistake. He was in such a state he refused to believe it wasn’t his until I made him take a look inside. Then he just grabbed the right one and ran out of the back door without a word of thanks as though the hounds of hell were after him. Some people!’ He shook his head and made my change.
‘Yeah, I hate people like that, makes you want to kick their ass or worse!’ I shrugged agreement, picked up my change and with a friendly wave shouldered my way back into the heat.
I was running late now, but at least the traffic was moving so I stood on the sidewalk waiting for a cab. One of those small moving vans with a sliding door on the side pulled up in front of me blocking my view. Looking back I remember thinking it odd at the time, there was nowhere to unload, the rest of the traffic was shifting easily enough and the lights were green. Then without warning the side door slid open and a huge man grabbed hold of me and started to pull me inside. I kicked out and yelled for help; but his pal, who must have climbed down from the passenger seat, shoved me hard from behind and I landed in a heap on the van floor. Someone pulled a sack over my head, the door slammed shut and the van lurched out into the traffic.
They took me to the old dock area with its rusting cranes and dilapidated warehouses. Then to make doubly sure no one would hear my screams, hauled me out to the end of a long jetty used by dockers from across the river in the old days. They had a point too, for after they opened my case and found the discs and scanner my screams would have woken the dead. Well, now they were dead and good bloody riddance. I turned my attention to the new threat, scanning the shoreline for any sign of movement. But wherever they were they were lying doggo, waiting for me to make the first move, presumably hoping I would lead them to the real case. By now my hand was double its normal size and growing, grinding my teeth against the pain I made a rough sling, looping the sleeves of my jacket round my neck, and started back down the jetty forcing myself to think straight. My only hope was to lose them the moment I hit the shore, then keep running until I found somewhere nobody knew me. Who these people were and what they wanted I didn’t know, but they were obviously ruthless professionals who for all I knew would be checking out my usual haunts by now if they hadn’t staked them out already. The big question was where to hide?
I took the first street I came across between the warehouses, sprinting to the main road at the top. For once my luck was in and a bus was just pulling in to pick up some fares. I scrambled on board and tried to look inconspicuous. A few people stared strangely at my arm, but the hand was hidden and thanks to the clumsy sling most of the shirt bloodstains and burns were covered. The stream of cars behind the bus made it impossible to see if I was being followed, so I sat back to wait for the city centre and the crowds that went with it.
When the bus stopped on Main Street I hit the ground running the moment the door hissed open, ducking and weaving through the crowd, sprinting for Joe’s Pool Hall on the corner as though the entire mob was after me. I knew Joe’s like the back of my hand, the entry sign opened on a passage, with a door halfway down on the right that opened onto the poolroom and bar. At the far end was a fire exit leading to the street at the rear of the building that Joe always left open in summer. But ignoring both I took the rickety stairs to the storeroom on the left. The staircase was a dirty brown and easy to miss if you didn’t know it was there, particularly coming in from the brightness of the street outside. I flattened against the first floor landing wall waiting for the pursuit. It didn’t take long, footsteps pounded up the passage to the fire exit, then hurried halfway back to pause while the owner checked out the poolroom before running back out of the main entrance. So far so good, I eased up the storeroom window, climbed out onto the flat roof and checked the window of the house next door. It was half open, Hallelujah, thank God for summer! I cat burgled inside and locked it behind me. The house was empty, so I helped myself to a handful of aspirin from the bathroom cupboard before letting myself out of the front door to meld with the crowd on the street.
I spent the next two hours shaking off imaginary pursuers, ducking in and out of main entrances, side entrances, goods entrances and staff entrances. I bought the largest summer shirt in stock from a store called The Bigger Man; it looked ridiculous but covered my arm. I crisscrossed the city by cab, bus and subway, even coming up with a safe place to hide while I was at it. My hand had doubled again in size and was throbbing so badly I was tempted to risk a hospital, but suspected they would have the casualty departments covered too. In desperation I considered the police, but what could I tell them? Some bad people I didn’t know had kidnapped me for a case that didn’t exist, bust up my hand and burned my chest. But now they were all dead, gunned down by another gang I didn’t know and left floating someplace in the river and now the other gang were after me and I needed protection. After the laughter had died down they would call an ambulance and tell the medics to fix my hand before taking me to the nearest booby hatch, and who would blame them. No, my only hope was to lie low in my bolthole until dark, then go somewhere very far away and never come back.
Arthur Filmer was to be my unknowing host till nightfall. His name had come to me in the shirt store. Arthur Filmer was a wealthy computer buff who liked to have his systems checked out regularly on a contract basis. I even had a key to carry out these duties when he was away and his housekeeper had been alerted to let me in to get on with my work and not to panic if I turned up with a suspicious looking bag. By now I was becoming light headed with pain. If I was going to make it to Filmer’s place I had to get going right away. I took a cab to the apartment block staring at my demented expression in the elevator mirror with horror as it whooshed me up to the pent house floor. I made an attempt at smoothing my hair with my left hand but it wasn’t a success. Still the housekeeper had been warned to expect a weird computer nerd, I only hoped she wouldn’t flip when she saw one. As I let myself in I could hear her clattering away with dishes or something in the kitchen, so I called out everything was OK and that I was the computer man and got a muffled response to go right ahead and she would be out shortly.
It was a beautiful room with large low-slung sofas and nice pictures on the walls. The French windows were open letting a welcome breeze blow in gently from the terrace. For a moment I looked longingly at the twin sofas but knew if I lay down on one I would never get up, so I made myself sit on the hard computer chair by the window instead. The aspirin was making me sleepy, while the throbbing of my hand had induced the same kind of hypnotic state that train wheels do clicking over sleepers. Far away I heard the peel of the apartment bell followed by a muffled shriek, then the door burst open and I jerked awake.
The housekeeper hung like a rag doll against the chest of the biggest black man I had ever seen, one huge hand covered her face, holding her off the floor while at the same time acting as a suffocating gag. Long ago someone had slashed his mouth with a razor, leaving him with a perpetual leering smile born of nightmares.
‘Well, you little shit, thought you’d give Ole Big Sam the slip did you?’ Drug crazed eyes locked on mine. ‘Thought to make him the run around a little eh? Jump through hoops like a dog for a sweetie, make him really work his ass off for to get his hands on that little old green case of yours.’
He wagged his head in parody of refuel understanding, but his eyes stayed locked on me like a turret gun on a moving tank. ‘Well I hopes you’ve got it boy, for your own sake. Hopes you’re goin to make Ole Big Sam feel a little more kindly towards you like. Because if you ain’t I’m goin to hurt you bad boy, so bad I swear that hand of yours will feel like an itsy bitsy little mosquito bite in comparison.’ He treated me to his leering smile and without taking his eyes off my face slit the housekeepers throat. He kept her dangling a moment then let her slip to the floor, where she flopped about like a headless chicken.
‘You got the door Jake?’ He called without turning his head.
‘I got the door,’ a hoarse hidden voice replied.
‘Good, because the boy here and me are goin to have ourselves a little chat, get to know each other real well you might say. But before we start I thinks we ought to get properly introduced, don’t you boy? Shake hands a little, press the flesh.’ He leered and moved slowly towards me cracking his giant knuckles as he came.
I looked into those unblinking eyes glittering with evil anticipation and knew I couldn’t go through with it. I had had more pain than I could stand already, and even if I let him go ahead and do whatever awful things he had in mind, I knew he meant to kill me in the end. Well, if nothing else I could cheat him of his fun. I smiled with relief at the door behind him, and for a fraction of a second his gaze followed mine. It was all I needed. Heaving back the chair I took four sprinting strides to the balcony and dived over the rail. He was quick, I’ll grant him that, I could feel a grip like a vice closing over the toe of my shoe, but only for a moment, then I was free.
It felt real peaceful drifting down through the soft cool evening air. I felt better than I had all day.