ADVENTURE THE 48TH: IN THE BLEAK, BLEAK WINTER
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Therefore, if you scroll down or visit the archives in future months, you will be able to read this continuing drama in the manner and order it was intended to be read. For this reason and purpose each subsequent adventure in the ‘Eddie Mars’ serial will be marked by a number. If you follow these numbers marked at the top of each chapter in their numeric order - eg ‘Adventure the 1st’ - you will be able to follow this continuing saga.
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ADVENTURE THE 48th:
In The Bleak, Bleak Winter
No one would ever guess it now, but I was a sickly child; pneumonia at eight and a bout of rheumatic fever just before I hit my teens. I was a pasty little lad with about as much curb appeal as road kill. I remember those years only faintly now, perhaps in truth, because I’d rather forget childhood all together and move on to that moment just past puberty when my whole world started coming apart.
Mom bought the farm at thirteen and dad took to the bottle. He was a great guy when he wasn’t pissed out of his mind and blaming me, grandpa, the milkman…anybody and everybody except himself for his own predicament. But when I was fifteen I suddenly sprang up like a weed – a big one – and with enough pent up frustration brought on by puberty to really start something, one way or the other. It wasn’t so easy to take a pot shot at me anymore, no matter the quantity of cheap spirits consumed.
I’m not big on all the psychological mumbo-jumbo parents put their kids through on the road to adulthood. I suppose it helps if you have parents who have grown up first before they start spitting out offspring like the Von Trapp family commune. Oh, well; we take what we have and make the best of it, I suppose. But all that damn nonsense about life giving you lemons and what you’re supposed to do with ‘em once you know you’re never getting the hell out of hell is a lot of hooey!
If you’re in for the citrus crop there’s neither the time, inclination nor know how to do anything but suck on the lemon you’ve been force fed until you’re puckered on a sour stain of eternal regret. That’s just how it is. One in a hundred million will turn their compromised existence into something worth remembering. Maybe one in a million will learn how to erase or at least fabricate a successful façade. But these unfortunates haven’t overcome anything. They’re just the newest social frauds. They know everything about them is a lie, but figure that it doesn’t matter so long as the rest of us believe their myth.
Women are better at making up their past than men. They’re born liars. I observe this carefully as Maryilla and I take a noon day train from London to Derbyshire. I know Sergei’s on board, only he’s disappeared somewhere after the tickets were punched; the invisible man. It suits him.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Maryilla tells me.
“Not awfully,” I say, “Besides, what’s there to say? The friends in my pocket’ll do all the talking once we get there.”
I tap my coat pockets to reassure myself that the switchblade and pistol I’ve managed to smuggle aboard are still with me. A lesser fool would have ditched the knife or just shot himself in the leg with his firearm to get the whole damn mess over with. Guess I’m a masochist. I keep both close to that spot where my heart ought to be but know better than to let rashness overtake in the baggage car.
My answer hasn’t impressed her. In fact, I detect a distinct note of disgust as Maryilla leans back in her seat.
“Why are you so guarded?”
“I find I live longer when others don’t know what I’m thinking,” I confide.
It’s true. That is the reason.
“You’re not alive,” Maryilla mutters, her gaze turned out the window at the flashes of speeding scenery. Then, the clincher - “Neither am I.”
“I’m glad you included yourself among the missing,” I tell her, “I was beginning to get lonely.”
A thin smile materializes from beneath Maryilla’s tight upper lip.
“Life hasn’t been kind,” she suggests in a tone that’s supposed to get me to reveal more than I will.
I don’t fall into her sand trap, but can feel her tiny granules of curiosity swirling around my hips like a dizzying hula hoop full of prodding intrigue.
“Suppose you leave snap analysis at your own back door,” I suggest, “I’m not up for a couch session, doctor. Not unless you’ve managed a fine merlot and some soft canned music to set the mood.”
Maryilla closes her eyes, her long hair falling fresh and abundant across her cheeks as she buries the back of her head in the seat cushion headrest.
“Even then, I’m not sure that you would bite,” she teases.
“Oh, yes I would,” I tell her, without believing it entirely myself, “I’d leave teeth marks to. You’d know it.”
She laughs, her bright pink tongue darting playfully between perfect white teeth.
“Blood sucker,” she whispers, jokingly.
I let her have it – both barrels.
“I thought that was your department.”
. . .
Let it never be said that I can’t kill the mood. Playtime is one thing, but with the company I’ve been keeping playtime is reserved for the chisel and screwdriver set.
Without warning Sergei materializes; his brow, narrow; his scowl deeper than I remember. He’s a block of soulless granite, alright; chiseled from the pillar of hard knocks – the ones that attempted to crush him at an early age, but failed. Sergei hates the world. I can’t say I’m much for it, but in general I don’t wish it ill. I just want it to leave me alone. But Sergei – he truly despises anything that’s had the hand of man on it and that includes Maryilla.
I don’t know why or how, but these two are a curious alliance. I get the vibe that Sergei’d like to push his mistress off a tall mountain or weigh her heavy with a pair of cement Manola Blahniks only he doesn’t dare. It isn’t loyalty or even fear that keeps him in check. The aphrodisiac that keeps this animal on his chain? Don’t know - yet. I only know that Maryilla’s charm escapes me. It always has.
We get off together at Westerfelt Station in the North Country; an impossibly tiny hamlet that probably hasn’t seen any action since the blitz of ’42. The station is at a crossroads that quickly opens to rolling countryside on all four sides. As far as I can make out there’s only a petrol station, a pub and an abattoir to recommend the place. Eat here and get gas doesn’t begin to describe my thoughts.
“What now?” I ask.
“Now we get someone to drive us out to the Montague estate,” reasons Maryilla, “I hope you’ve had time to digest our plan of action.”
In point of fact, I have. I was saving the surprise for our arrival at Jeffrey’s, but I don’t really see the point in not letting this sterile cat out of the bag right now.
“You’re going to kill him,” I inform Maryilla.
I expected her to be thoroughly amused by my suggestion. She isn’t.
“The plan was…” Maryilla begins.
“Plans have changed,” I add, “Besides I’m not going to kill someone I’ve never met. I need at least a first visit to build up that much animosity for my fellow man.”
At this point, Sergei looks as though he might be willing to get a tad frisky with me, so I show them both that I mean what I say by cocking my loaded gat under my coat and slowly shaking my head.
“You’ve already decided on a corpse,” I reason, “But I’m not that particular. Any ‘body’ will do.”
Maryilla and Sergei exchange passing glances. There’s a brief moment of tension between us before she agrees to my terms – or, at least, agrees to placate them until such time as she can stick my knife in me for desertion.
“Then, why have you come all this way?” Maryilla says.
She’s entitled to that much. No, let me rephrase that. She’s not even deserving of that much, but I’m big enough to provide her with the information.
“Curiosity,” I admit.
“You know what they say,” Maryilla replies quickly, “I mean…what it did to the cat?”
I smile, a most pithy retort dripping from my lips.
“Well, maybe they just didn’t have the right pussy on tap.”
. . .
So, I layout the plan as I see it. Since I’ve never met Jeffrey Lynn-Montague, a.k.a. Das Englander, I’ll go along for the ride and use myself as the pass key to get everyone inside the estate. Once in, they’re on their own. If Jeff’s an average shot, then I take the train back to London with Slick and Ugly in tow, collect the Don and hightail it to some higher ground where local law enforcement isn’t so particular about hoodlums living right under their precinct. If, on the other hand, ol’ Jeff is a class ‘A’ marksman and flattens the competition, I’m not above learning a few tips and maybe getting a pass on walking away the winner by default. It’s that simple. Winner takes all.
. . .
We make a pretty out of place trio, piled into the back of a flat open surrey that’s punted through the countryside by a horse at least two years overdue for the glue factory. Our driver rates the same introduction; forty-ish and nattering on about the time Princess Diana asked if the baubles he had hanging off of ‘Ol’ Nellie’ were, in fact, genuine gold.
“Then I says to her Royal Highness…”
And so it goes; on and on and with no perceivable end in sight. The guy’s so one dimensional, paper cutouts have more depth. Still, he was easy to find and didn’t take to accepting too large a payment for this lift on account of he was lugging a few gallons of fresh milk to the Montague estate.
It’s cold. There’s a carpet of fresh fallen snow across most of the landscape that makes for a clean slate pasted against the backdrop of a flat gray sky. Every once in a while the surrey pulls to the left as its front wheels lock in the slush and are dragged crookedly toward the mud, only to jump back in line when they hook into the rough edge of the paved road.
Fifty-two minutes later, and we’re rounding the corner of a high rising hill that gradually gives way to a sprawling country estate.
“Nice work if you can get it,” I mutter at a moment’s lull in our driver’s monologue.
“You thinks so, sir?” our driver replies, “M’ybe. But I says to the Misses just last night that them what has the price of a packet of tea know on whose backside they spread their tissue. And them what has more than a few sheds to hang that tissue in probably know under which ones all them dead bodies is buried.”
I’m inclined to agree with him, particularly as he brings Old Nellie to a stop in front of the gargantuan front façade of an estate, marked VimView. The grounds are a frightful mess of entangled wild bramble and thistle half buried in swollen crests of new fallen snow. Only the house looks as though it’s had some repairs done to maintain it as best the new rich can.
We disembark the surrey. Sergei tips the cabbie. Funny, I thought he’d rather cut the ol’ boy’s head off once we arrived. Oh well, I internally reason, the day’s full of surprises.
I realize the brevity of that afterthought as the front door to VimView opens and an all too familiar face materializes from the home’s blackened interior. It’s Karl Talenburg; immaculately dressed and with more than an ounce of curious twinkle suddenly firing up behind the eye.
I’m no mind reader, but Karl looks particularly pleased with himself, like a fat house cat whose just put his mitts in the catnip and found the bonus of a dead budgie to snack on.
“Tell me,” he asks with that thin grimace stretching to the peripheries of his cheek bones, “What was your first thought…I mean, at that particular moment?”
“Writing a book on near death experience,” I quip.
My smug reply seems to please him. Stands to reason. We’re in the preliminary stages of our cute meet. The love affair’s still on.
“Is there no end to your talents?”
“There is,” I assure him.
“But I’m curious…”
“So was the cat. Remember what happened to him?”
Karl gives out with a polished chuckle. I’m about to take him down memory lane for a nightmare or two.
“I don’t worry about death, Mr. Mars,” Karl admits.
“No, I suppose not,” I agree, “Say, why not Eddie? We’ve known each other long enough.”
I don’t expect the rather large Lugar Karl whips out from his velvet robe and apparently neither do Sergei or Maryilla. My mistake. I’ve made quite a few on this adventure and this may be my last.
“We meet again, Das Englander,” Maryilla says.
So that’s Das Englander. Karl, Jeffrey Lynn- Montague Talenburg…etcetera and so on. He’s the chameleon, which probably makes Maryilla his angel of death. Just what any of this makes me is wide open to interpretation. If looks could kill, old Karl would already be compost for the spring garden.
“My dear, Maryilla,” Karl reasons, “You are a luxury no man can afford.”
“Though I’m sure more than a handful has tried,” I reason, attempting in vane to break the tension, “What about friendship?”
I hear the click of another gun being cocked behind our backs. Sure enough, the old pudge-pot surrey driver has been workin’ the other side of the rainbow, taking notes from we three Munchkins in the back of his sleigh. I thought it was too easy getting him to commit to this trip in the frigid country for only a few quid and not much pro quo.
“You’re a genuine ripper, mate,” the cabbie tells me.
“And you’ve read too many Daphne Du Maurier novels,” I spit back, “Give it a rest and put your pea shooter where it’ll do the least damage – between your ears.”
“Keep your hands where I can see them,” Karl commands, “All of you. Inside.”
How can such a gracious invitation be refused?
We’re corralled like three head of dim-witted cattle into a great hall with limitless possibilities for the next Halloween spook fest…if any of us lives that long. At one end the gaping mouth of a roaring fire yawns like the gates to hell. I suddenly have this vision of my head bubbling on the spit. It’s not a glamorous afterthought, I’ll grant you, but I’m too afraid to consider how close it might be to my future.
“By all accounts we ought’a be sharing daisies at Greenlawn instead of barbs across a gun,” I suggest to Karl, attempting to trade on my limited past intrigues as his confident, “Seems someone’s been exaggerating the truth.”
“Is that how it seems to you?”
“Who do you suspect as the liar?”
“You,” I openly admit, giving him a moment to get nervous before finishing my thought, “Me. Our mutual acquaintance standing here at the threshold of the ‘dearly departed’ club and maybe, just maybe…the man in the moon.”
“Why?” Maryilla interrupts.
I want to tell her shut up. I want to badly. Only I’m not sure I should be turn-coating on her just yet. Instead I just give her one of those looks my father used to give me after coming in late – it’s a look you have to master. Apparently, I haven’t yet.
“My dear,” Karl tells her, his clear cut annunciation hardly taking the edge off, “You are not in a position to question my motives.”
“Maybe not,” I reason, “But I’ll bet she’s been in that position before.”
I’ve hit a chord or a nerve or maybe just hammered home the rose-colored truth of the matter – that, at some point, Maryilla and Karl had been lovers.
“You amuse me, Mr. Mars.”
“Then my purpose hasn’t been wasted. You know, I’m nobody’s idea of purity, but on a good day I am forty proof.”
“What are you after?” Karl prods.
I think maybe I’ve struck a blow to counterbalance what only moments before must have appeared as my utter lack of sincerity – bringing an old flame and future assassin to his front door.
“The truth,” I admit, “Oh, theories are alright for suckers. In some cases, down right satisfying. Connect the dots. Fit pieces into a puzzle. Analyze the contents of a Petri dish. Only, roll the dice once too often and you wind up in a rich man’s boudoir starring down the barrel of a not so friendly and pondering secret lists, dead hookers and what you think will happen after the big man upstairs calls you home for his game of cribbage. House rules.”
I’ve softened the mood somewhat.
“I’ll not ask you if you’re afraid of death,” Karl reasons, “I believe I know the answer.”
“Maybe,” I continue, “But to answer your question, ‘not particularly’. Just how my remains will look splashed across the front tabloids may leave me sleepless and haunting this place though.” Then, nodding in the direction of Maryilla and Sergei, “Especially when I’m in with such good company.”
The cabbie laughs out loud. He’s not very good at concealing his feelings – just a fool who thinks a gat in the hand is worth more than a levy of impeccably timed logic. I don’t despise men like him. After all, they’re on the short list of the expendable.
“You’re no fool, Mr. Mars,” Karl tells me.
“Oh, thank you.”
“If you were, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. I’m listening. Where do we go from here?”
Somehow I’ve managed to win chits from a man who doesn’t usually regard others as part of the same crap game. It’s strange. I don’t know whether I should be flattered or disgusted by the compliment.
“I’ve got half a list that says this whole thing’s been the original goose that gave chase,” I begin, “Only, I manage a slow waddle a lot longer then any of us hoped for. You used me as a fail safe to keep your competition busy. This whole thing started with a man named Hemmingway; a busy guy – buying up half the port side of Louisiana and most of lower Manhattan and doing a whole lot of nothing with both…at least on the surface.”
“You found something?” Maryilla whispers.
“No,” I confess, “I knocked on a lot of front doors…only I didn’t check out too many backrooms. But Sergeant Malory of the 36th District Precinct did. Hemmingway was setting up dummy fronts for the distribution of Red China narcotics. Just like you.”
There’s a moment of deadening silence that I quietly reason could go either way. I’m secretly glad when my margin of error works in my favor and no magic bullets start bouncing off the vaulted ceilings of this mausoleum. There’s no going back now. This is an all or nothing deal and my hand’s yet to be played.
“Hemmingway wasn’t your competition,” I reason to Karl, “He was your contact. But he was out of control. He started skimming off the top. You couldn’t have that. Not when what you wanted was right under his nose.”
“Be careful, Mr. Mars,” Karl warns, lazily redirecting my attentions to his gun, “You’re dangerously close to not being able to see past the tip of your own.”
“Do it,” I call his bluff, “It’d be a favor, letting the whole lot of you in for a heap of grief.”
“Sergeant Malory again. He knows what I know. He’s agreed to let me figure things out for myself and that’s bought us both some time. How much sand’s in the hour glass all depends on if I turn up with a couple of holes that God didn’t put there at birth.”
Karl reconsiders his options. I can tell he’s intrigued, only I don’t think he’s buying any of my ‘missing link’ scenario. So I resolve to tie up my loose ends before I become one.
“You fueled the bloodlust between Hemmingway and Don Alverez to get even by planting a small time operator in his midst and then treating the poor dumb bastard as a double agent,” I explain.
“What operator?” Maryilla suddenly interrupts.
“Muzzle it, angel,” I reason with firm conviction, “I wouldn’t like to, but I’ll deck you one in the chops if you crowd me.”
“I suppose you know the name of this ‘operator’?” Karl reasons.
“We both do,” I confess for the benefit of those not up to speed yet, “Frank Brody. I haven’t quite figured out whether it was a double cross or just an out and out swindle. But Brody died just the same. Hemmingway had his body paved under six feet of asphalt on that stretch of dead end where the late Carolyn Trent was supposed to unload me too. One problem; your angel of death became my angel of mercy. She couldn’t bring herself into the killing zone. She didn’t have it in her. But I did. And that left yet another loose end.”
“You’re not making sense,” Maryilla interrupts again.
“That’s twice, angel,” I say, lowering my voice and brow at the same time to connect with that ledge of fear rather than curiosity dangling before her eyes, “Mark me. There won’t be a number three.”
Sergei’s lost. So’s the cabbie. They’re not in our league. If this were Trivia Pursuit, I’d collect their pie pieces and ask them to leave with some cheapo parting gifts and a voucher for the all night buffet at Denny’s. But Karl’s begun to sweat – not profusely, but those thin cultured beads slowly forming at the fringe of his tired widow’s peak.
“You should have been more careful about Frank,” I tell him, “While you were using Tony Menendez as a buffer, dear ol’ Ton’ was getting ready to cut out on you with Hemmingway’s woman. He was also partnered up with Brody. Should’a checked Brody’s pockets more carefully. While you were trying to get the goods on them they already had plenty on you.”
Karl can’t contain his smug superiority any longer. It spreads like a thick fungus, moss-covered grin from ear to ear.
“You haven’t learned much in all these months, have you?” he muses.
“I didn’t realize there’d be a pop quiz at the end of it all,” I reason.
Only I’m the one who’s likely to get popped. Frank Brody was no fool. Arguably, he was an even lesser a dupe than yours truly. And Karl didn’t get rid of an inept accomplice when he had Brody killed. But he did murder his own double agent – the only guy with all the answers to questions it’s taken him this long to figure out on his own. Brody was using that notorious list as bait to nail the whole lot of thieves to a cross. Happy Easter, Karl. Only his eggs weren’t all in one basket.
“The thing I don’t figure is the Don,” I interrupt, “You and he going at it for a prize you already had in your possession seems like an awful waste of your time, and on the night you came to my rescue off the coast of Morocco you tossed caution and evidence to the wind…or waters, as it were. Any way, why kill him, or at least try to, at Heathrow? It can’t be just for looks…that is, how it’ll deflect from the bigger crime for the authorities?”
“You still think this is just about drugs?” Karl reasons, shaking his head with an authoritative disdain for my limited imagination, “This is about power. As for the Don…once we were like brothers.”
“You still are,” I remind him, “Cain and Abel.”
“You fools!” Maryilla hisses from behind.
She’s a game girl with hidden talents, I’ll give her that. While Karl and I have been comparing egos and Johnsons by candlelit, she’s managed to bring out a weapon of her own; a smart looking revolver pointed straight at Karl’s head.
“Drop it, luv!” the surrey driver whispers from behind.
“Go ahead,” Maryilla seethes, her eyes never leaving the delicate indentation mark between Karl’s eyes – the spot she’s taken dead aim at, “Shoot. Sergei!”
Another gun comes out, this one from Sergei’s pocket and casually aimed at the surrey driver’s head.
“Kill me,” Maryilla tempts the surrey driver, “You’ll be killing yourself.”
“Suppose we just forget the roulette and move on to a straight game of spin the bottle,” I quip in a slightly nervous attempt to defuse the situation, “Sober man wins. Drunkard goes home happy but empty handed nonetheless.”
“Define drunk,” Karl replies.
I’ve amused him yet again. It’s true. The cheese does stand alone. I’m the jester here and it’s a part I’m willing to play to walk away from this showdown. I’m not sure I can even spell ‘drunk’ at this point. My mind’s elsewhere – mainly on self preservation.
“How good’s your imagination?” I tease, forcing a reluctant half smile to my cheeks.
“Better than my bourbon,” he admits.
“Drugs are just a sideline,” Maryilla explains, “The real focus is on weapons.”
“I’ll bite,” I reason, my hand slowly sneaking down into my coat pocket, not for my gun but for the switchblade I brought along just in case, “What weapons?”
“In Iraq,” Maryilla hypothesizes, but in a tone that leads me to believe she’s been doing some extracurricular home schooling just for the occasion.
My suspicions get confirmed a moment later as Karl explains.
His consortium had been sneaking biological agents into an underground nuclear facility at the border between Iran and Iraq for nearly a decade. There ought to have been enough toxins amassed by now to decimate a few major cities in the U.S. and Europe, only a few of Osama’s boys became greedy and impatient in the meantime. A botched plan to kill millions in a more traditional way and the whole plan to hold the world hostage with the threat of making at least three quarters of it uninhabitable, while wiping out mass tracks of its population, and everything else officially went to hell. Just where the toxins ended up after troops started marching in remains a mystery to this day.
“Impressive, my dear,” Karl admits.
“My father did not raise fools,” Maryilla tells him, “You used the list as blackmail. Invested the monies from payments made into the Asian drug trade; then liquidated the overhead to build your arsenal in the Middle East.”
“A pity you know so much,” Karl suggests, his brow narrowing as he cocks his trigger, “Because it’s going to cost you.”
Maryilla lets out with a devil-may-care grin of utter satisfaction.
“I’m dead already. I have been for years.”
Maybe she is among the walking dead, I reason to myself as the first shots ring out, only I wasn’t planning on an English funeral.
Out comes my switchblade, quick and slipped into the palm of my hand, taking fair aim and letting Karl have it in his shoulder blade. His grip loosens on the gun but not before he manages to hit Maryilla in the jaw. I catch the back spray from the gaping hole in her cheek. The surrey driver gets it next, from Sergei this time, but not before he pops off a couple of rounds at random. I feel a pinch, but don’t immediately realize I’ve been hit. Reeling in place, I see Karl regain the grip on his piece with his good hand, pointing directly and firing into my chest.
The rest is in slo mo. I feel loose, hot and sweaty. Dizzy, but not so out of it that I can’t find my hand suddenly on the gun in my pocket and out before you can blink an eye. I’m not sure what I’m thinking, but my hand seems to have a life and will of its own. It’s like I’m watching it defend me.
I fire into Karl, hitting him in the throat, before pumping at least four slugs into Sergei – chest wounds mostly, though as I buckle and fold at the knee like a deflated squeeze box I think I catch myself unloading a round or two into the surrey driver’s unconscious body.
It’s only then that I realize I’m starting to cough up blood. I glance downward at myself and notice I’ve a fairly large patch of blood covering my chest. Tearing at the buttons on my shirt, I come across the sight of two puncture wounds just below my breast bone; feel hotter and sweatier than I ought to, as the last gasps of consciousness seep from my body.
…not quite, though Eddie Mars will remain on hiatus until April 1, 2009.
Thanks to all for keeping up with this series.
@Nick Zegarac 2009 (all rights reserved).