Hank's Blacker Than Black, by Harry Howell
The African dawn was breaking. These were the dangerous hours. The awakening sky was streaked with deep red slashes, the colour of blood that was about to be spilled.
The air seemed to have an ominous buzz, like a swarm of approaching bees. Animals slunk away, apprehensively. Birds switched to more inaccessible trees, away from dust-track roads and beaten trails.
The sun hadn’t yet appeared over the distant hills as the small convoy of vehicles entered the village of Manguja. Dogs began barking. The leading Range Rover came to a quiet halt. The driver leapt out and signalled for the following four open-top trucks to fan out on both sides of him.
As they came to a stop, men jumped down from the cabs. Each of them carried a machete. A few also carried Kalashnikov rifles, held together by rust. They crowded forward to where their leader stood.
He raised a hand that held a Glock 9 mm pistol, demanding total attention. Dark eyes glistened beneath the grubby red turban, his lips drawing back in a hideous snarl. ‘Rooh! Rooh!’
He fired a few rounds into the air. The followers dispersed in a blood-curdling frenzy, each knowing his precise role, eager to carry it out.
Within fifteen minutes a group of about forty young children, aged from twelve to sixteen, huddled in a shivering, frightened group in the village clearing. It became the hub of the frenetic rampage.
Fires were quickly spreading all around them as some of the invaders ran from hut to hut with flaming torches.
Shrieks of terror and fear rent the air as the remaining adults and small children were butchered by swirling, destructive machete blows in an orgy of death. The shock of the attack had been too sudden for anyone to escape. The ferociousness of the attackers was too terrible for even the strongest male villagers to resist. They had been the first to be struck down.
In the centre of the clearing, the sobbing children were being rapidly separated and herded into smaller groups of ten. Each group was tethered together and pushed roughly towards a waiting truck.
Within thirty minutes the sun was bursting over the top of the hills, flooding the burning village with white light. The convoy of invaders had already left. A village that had existed for aeons had been effectively obliterated.
Before the end of the day, the strewn corpses would have been picked over by the various scavengers that haunted the area – the White-headed and griffon vultures, wailing hyenas and black-backed jackals.
They would be followed by the millions of ants that would swarm into every orifice, carrying away the minute particles left behind.
Finally, the bacteria and fungi would move in and devour what even the ants found too small to deal with.
The bones would be left to bleach in the sun, eventually becoming powder.
The huts would soon become charred dust that would be quickly overgrown by sedge grass, cardoon, cat thyme, milk thistle and Athyrium ferns.
There would be no one left to care about the fate of the abducted children. No one to even know they’d existed.
Jack Beam had diced with death for the last twelve years.
In West Africa, he’d been raked by a lion, shot at innumerable times by guerrillas, survived a knife attack by a chang’aa-crazed relative of an Aids victim, and narrowly escaped the consequences of a land mine that killed his porter instead.
But the last two years of the civilisation they call London had seen the closest calls of all. The threats to his life there had been covert, masked, clandestine, wraithlike.
Which made them all the more intimidating and unnerving.
His hugely dilated pupils scanned the bar with the frightened intensity of a man whose mind was being devoured by his own nightmare.
He knew he was going to die tonight, could taste its inevitability. He would be killed by someone he didn’t know. Who didn’t know him.
He’d become too great a threat.
They could blow his head off with a shotgun, cave it in with a mallet, rip his guts out with a hunting knife, and almost no one would care a damn. No one except Sam.
Jack squinted as he looked once more round the pub for prying eyes or ears. For anything at all that could confirm his fears. Fears that swathed around his skin like darkness.
A typical London pub, warm, crowded, friendly but, as an American friend had once told him, ‘don't leave your change on the table when you go for a leak’.
A fusillade of sound battered his ears and the thick cloying air misted and stung his eyes. People pressed together, some sitting others standing. They inevitably talked about cricket, the weather, politics, sex, or drink-embellished stories of missed opportunities or misadventure. The usual pub gibberish, with a few rare nuggets thrown in.
Everyone seemed engrossed either in their own little world or the large-screen television that no one could comfortably see or hear.
Except for one man, standing at the far end of the bar, who seemed to be looking Beam’s way. As their eyes clashed, the man looked down, fumbled in his pocket, pulled out a paper tissue, blew his nose as if to expunge the offending air, then turned his back.
Beam was not a timid man but recent events were spiralling out of control, spilling over into all aspects of his life. So many spirits lived within him.
Every night he took a triple-dose of melatonin, ecstasy and crack and lay in bed, eyes closed, until he felt caustic trickles entering his brain — first a warm glow, spreading down through his body; soon followed by a pyrotechnical explosion that fragmented his brain into a million stars bursting for space.
Then oblivion. Until the morning, when the tensions and anxieties would begin all over again.
He looked at the man sitting across the table. They'd been friends since those early days in medical school, back in Los Angeles, fifteen years ago. For the last few years they'd gone in different directions, drifted apart. Now, it was sometimes difficult for Beam to tell a friend from an enemy.
Sam Bass was thirty-eight years old, his thick, wavy hair threaded with early grey. Marginally overweight, related to lifestyle. About six feet tall. Intelligent, maybe leaning towards being intellectual – which he denied vehemently as though it were a disease. Courage – an unknown quantity: he’d definitely had it in earlier, football-playing years. Loyalty – now that was Sam's strongest point, Jack decided. Yet he offered it grudgingly these days.
Beam was a person who could never sit still. It was something that irritated many of those who knew him. He sat tapping on the table with long, highly-sensitive fingers as he tried to judge the best moment to broach his anxieties. He feared death only because it would leave his work unfinished.
‘They're frightened of me,’ he muttered. ‘They're going to kill me out of fear.’ It came out like a whispered confession in church.
Sam Bass faltered in the act of raising his glass to his mouth. He heard the words clearly enough, despite the background hubbub. Typical bloody exaggeration, he thought. He rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes as if to help obscure their differences.
Beam scraped his teeth against his lips to contain the frisson of anger he was hiding. ‘Did you hear what I said?’
Bass took a deep draught of ale. ‘Yeah, I heard.’
‘Is that all you can say?’
‘Jack, I hear endless tales of woe in the surgery every day. I come here to escape from them.’
‘This isn't escape. Just look around you. Everyone’s trying to escape. But there is no escape. You still carry all your baggage in your head, wherever you go. We all do. You can’t escape from yourself.’
He made it sound like a smouldering resentment, suddenly re-ignited.
‘That's where you're wrong, Jack. Those two guys over there,’ he gestured with his head, ‘are both playwrights. That old man, sitting on his own, is one of the best-known artists in the country. If I weren't sitting with you I'd probably be with him. We get poets, writers, sculptors, musicians in here every night of the week. When I'm talking with them it's stimulation, not escapism. With all the hell that's going on around us, we still have interesting things to say to one another.’
‘Yes, but what can you do with it?’ Beam insisted. ‘You still have to appear in the surgery next morning and start all over again. It might be intellectually stimulating at the time but it's not achieving anything. Nearly everything is forgotten overnight. All the nuggets of gold disappear with the stale air. All you’re left with is another headache.’
‘Agh!’ Bass growled. He drained his glass irritably. This was one conversation he was not enjoying. If he hadn't arranged to meet Stephanie he would have left.
‘Listen Sam, will you do me a favour? I'm trying to tell you something really important. I don't have time for all this bullshit.’
His voice mellowed to allow the appeal in it to strike home. ‘Someone's following me everywhere I go.’
Bass gave a quick chortle. ‘I get followed all the time, Jack. Mostly they're too old or too fat.’ He stood up and grabbed his empty glass. ‘Or else they're too young to be interesting.’
‘Don't go,’ Beam said. ‘I know you think it's my thin-skinned imagination. Sit down. Please.’
Bass wavered. ‘I'll get a couple of beers first. I can't listen with an empty glass.’
* * *
The sleek black Jaguar parked close to the Warrington looked innocuous enough. The driver was smoking a cigarette, looking relaxed. The car windows were down and the sounds of Dixieland jazz were subdued.
But his eyes never left the door of the pub. Every person entering or leaving was scrutinised in the same way.
Heavy cloud scudded overhead, creating a humid, oppressive atmosphere. Rain was imminent, which could work in his favour. If it came it would keep people off the streets. When the right moment emerged there’d be fewer witnesses.
Two girls, late teens, wearing only skin-tight shorts and skimpy tops, giggled as they went in. Friday night was the busiest night of the week. The best time to pick up a new one-night-stand.
Dylan Kyle was too professional to be distracted – even by his own thoughts. He was there for a purpose. Nothing else was of any consequence.
He was getting increasingly uncomfortable. The humidity was killing him, even with all the windows open. He was thirsty – could murder a pint. He laughed aloud at the irony. The guy he was waiting to kill was sitting in there, probably drinking a pint.
Revenge will be sweet, he thought.
He needed a leak, badly. The more he thought about it ... He cast his eyes up and down the street. Nobody about – on foot, anyway. He climbed out of the car and stood against a hedge and pulled down his zipper.
Bass put the beers on the table. After settling back on his chair, he took a large swig of beer and gave Beam his attention.
‘So someone's following you. How do you know?’
‘Everywhere I go there's this large black car some distance behind me, just crawling along. Whichever street I walk down, it's always there. Same distance. Never gets close enough for me to see the driver.’
‘There could be other explanations.’
‘It's following me,’ Beam insisted.
‘Okay. If you're so convinced why don't you walk right up to it and ask the driver why he's following you?’
‘I've tried that. As soon as I turn towards him he speeds off. And within a couple of minutes he’s back again. Same car, same distance.’
‘So why would anyone follow you? Are you knocking off someone's wife?’
Beam's eyes narrowed angrily. ‘You really don't know what's going on, do you? You think because you listen to a few tales of woe, as you call them, that the rest of the world is at peace and you're the only one having a hard day.’
‘And you live in the real, cruel world where everyone's trying to kill everyone else – especially you,’ Bass retorted. ‘Now you know why I need a beer. I know you think my life is very parochial. Maybe it is. But that's the way I like it. I grapple my way through the day and to help me unwind I have my piano. The rest of the time I enjoy a drink and a cigar, when I can find somewhere to smoke it. And the occasional jazz club at night. Or a good play, or classical concert. You know my tastes.’
He placed a mollifying hand on Beam's arm. ‘And I enjoy seeing my old friends.’
Beam nodded, with the briefest of smiles. ‘I know. I'd like to be like that myself. But I actually do live in another world. Sometimes I think I live in a void. I thought when I came back from Africa with my vaccine for Aids, I’d be welcomed back.’
‘Like a hero?’
‘Who the hell wants to be a hero? All I want is to be listened to. The power of the pharmaceutical companies, the medical establishment ...’
‘We've been through all this before,’ Bass cut in. ‘I don’t want to sound deprecating, but even if someone is following you it doesn’t mean they’re intending to kill you.’
‘If I said it was intuition would you accept that?’
He studied Bass’s brown eyes, which were at the point of glazing over. ‘I thought not. It's because you don't come up against them that you don't understand how hopeless it can be. And lonely.’
‘That's the path you chose,’ Bass insisted. ‘You know these drug companies. All they're asking for is proof.’
‘Don't be so bloody patronising,’ Beam snapped back. ‘I've got an abundance of proof. It's not about proof, it's not about curing, it's about ...’
‘Money, yes you've told me at least a thousand times. So what's different now? You knew what it would be like. Or you should have known.’
* * *
Kyle was getting more agitated by the minute. He was surprised by his own impatience.
Christ, he’d spent many an hour doing surveillance when he’d been a cop. This was cushy by comparison. And much more remunerative. At least he was sitting on a comfortable seat. It must be the heat – especially the humidity. Sapped the strength.
What about Angola? he reminded himself. As a mercenary he’d sometimes had to lie in the dust of Precambrian basement sediments, or behind a mopane shrub, with its butterfly-shaped leaves, waiting in ambush, sharing the terrain with Ruben’s sand lizards, or worse, a skaapsteker – venomous snake – or spiders as large as his hand, whose bite could make you delirious for days ... There’d been extreme heat, much greater humidity, plus the mosquitoes, the flies ... unable to smoke – couldn’t even stand when he wanted to. If he needed a leak he’d have to roll onto his side, loosen his flies, and squirt. Sometimes it’d roll back on him and he’d be lying in it ... attracting even more flies.
Christ, he would be well paid for this. Shouldn’t complain. At least he knew what time the pub closed, even if his mark waited until the end.
He sat upright and flicked his cigarette butt out of the window onto the street. It was starting to drizzle. All the better. He had to hope the guy came out before then ... there’d be too many people lingering around at closing time.
‘You told me it was about medical egos. You'd found something all the professors had missed.’
‘That is a small part of it,’ Beam agreed. ‘It's about profits. I'm talking about print-your-own-money profits.’
‘That's the way the world runs,’ Bass said. ‘Not that I know much about big business.’
‘That's the superficiality of it. Beneath the surface is a grimy underworld as murky and dangerous as anything the Mafia spawns. Any new drug could represent millions or even billions of pounds to its manufacturer. They're not going to let someone take that away.’
‘This is all too much for me,’ Bass protested. ‘I'm just a simple GP who'd rather be a jazz pianist. I'm not a political animal, especially medical politics. I avoid it like the dengue fever.’
Stephanie’s arrival cut short Beam’s retort.
They both stood up in a synchronised display of in-bred courtesy. Bass gave her a kiss on the cheek and pulled out a chair for her. He threaded his way to the bar to get her a drink.
Stephanie shook her long red hair like a dog shakes the wet from its coat. She laughed as Beam pulled back from the light spray.
‘You two haven't been arguing, have you?’
‘No more than usual.’
She sat down, shrugging the light linen jacket off her shoulders onto the back of the chair. The disagreements between these two were legion and she inevitably finished up peacemaker.
Stephanie Ives was a tall Canadian fashion model. Her face started with her eyes, green with permanently enlarged pupils. She used them as a means of expression rather than manipulation. Her high-voltage lips, rich in natural colour and gloss, drew instant attention. Her smile, usually lurking there, never masked her emotions.
There was no trace of make-up on her face. She didn’t like it or need it. Photographers usually insisted. Her first job at end of session was to scrub it all off.
Her lissom body was kept that way by a disciplined regime. She divided her free time between a gym and swimming – about twelve hours a week. She also held a black sash in Kung Fu, which took up another hour every day in practice and development.
She’d once been likened to Abies magnifica, the Red Fir tree of North America: tall, natural, slender, beautiful ... but tough as they come.
She and Sam had lived together for about three years. Like many complete opposites, they complemented each other. Neither of them admitted their physical, carnal attraction to the other. Not publicly.
Beam leaned across the table so as not to be overheard.
‘Listen, Steph, you have to promise me something. I can't get through to Sam. He’s in one of his stubborn moods. If anything happens to me give him this.’
He pressed a key into her hand. It had a pink tag.
‘It's for a safety deposit box at Lacey's Security, Paddington. It contains all my research. Plus letters and documents that incriminate all kinds of people. It's a powder-keg. Better not mention it to Sam at the moment. Just between ourselves, okay?’
Stephanie looked down at the key with unwarranted guilt. ‘Isn’t this rather melodramatic? As well as embarrassing. I don't keep secrets from him, Jack. Anyway, he's coming back.’ She slipped the key into her purse.
Bass placed Stephanie's pint on the table. ‘Started raining?’
‘A little.’ She turned to Beam, uncomfortably. ‘Coming back for something to eat, Jack?’
Beam shook his head. ‘Still got work to do.’
Bass nodded. ‘Meet up here tomorrow? Same time?’ That was the closest he could get to conciliation.
Beam nodded. He drained his glass and stood up. Bending forward, he slipped Stephanie a kiss on the cheek. Bass just got another nod.
As Beam left the pub Stephanie glanced at Bass with a question in her eyes. ‘That work's going to kill him.’
Bass shrugged. ‘That's what he's been telling me.’ His voice sounded distant and tired, yet interfused with concern.
She was still mulling over Jack's puzzling words, If anything happens to me ... What had that meant? She knew that Jack could be a very explosive person, like he lived and worked inside a pressure cooker. But those words took things to another level – if they’d been meant seriously.
‘Shall we drink up and go eat? And you can tell me what kind of day you’ve had’
Stephanie laughed. ‘I'd like a chance to sit down and relax before we rush off again.’ She opened her bag to drop the purse inside.
The fire inside her had already been extinguished by the obvious tension between the two men. There was something going on that they hadn’t revealed to her. Jack forcing the key on her was uncharacteristic – ominous? she wondered with a rising sense of alarm.
Her face froze as a man flung open the bar door and shouted above the hullabaloo.
‘Is there a doctor here? There's been an accident outside.’ He looked across at the bar, desperation making his voice hoarse.
‘Better phone for an ambulance. And the police.’
Bass stood up quickly, a sickly feeling in the pit of his stomach as he saw the streaks of glistening blood on the man's shirt. The pub had gone awkwardly quiet. He hurried outside leaving Stephanie trailing behind.
Jack Beam lay in the gutter a few yards from the pub. His head rested grotesquely on the edge of the pavement. His staring eyes were lifeless. Bass felt for a carotid pulse with one hand, closing the eyelids with his other. He shook his head.
He staggered to his feet, resting his shoulders and head against a wall. He felt like he was walking the fine lines between sanity, rage and anguish. Stephanie placed a comforting hand on his arm.
‘I should have listened to him,’ he said, huskily. ‘If I hadn’t been so bloody ...’ The words trailed off in a semi-sob, and his head lolled against her shoulder.
‘You could hardly have prevented it,’ Stephanie consoled.
‘You don’t know the half of it.’
He stood erect, suddenly, spinning round, his thoughts taking over. A crowd had gathered. The sound of a wailing siren was getting closer. Bass’s eyes swept the road for a sign of a car that might have been involved in the accident. There was nothing obvious.
He spotted the man who had rushed into the pub. He hurried over to him. ‘Did you see what happened?’
‘Not exactly. I was about to come into the pub when I heard this thud. Then I saw a car speeding away and this bloke lying where he is now.’
‘The car didn’t stop?’
The man shook his head.
‘What kind of car was it? Can you describe it?’
‘It was a dark car, that’s all I can tell you. Maybe a Jag or Mercedes. BMW, perhaps. Hard to tell when it all happened so quickly.’
‘You didn’t see the driver?’
The head shook again.
‘What then? You’ve got quite a lot of blood on your jacket. You obviously touched him.’
‘I went over to see if he was still alive. Blood was coming from his mouth and he coughed like he was choking. I sort of cradled his head to stop the blood running back down his throat. Then he said something like, “He aimed the car straight at me and smiled.” His head went limp. That’s when I dashed into the pub for help.’
Bass studied the man’s face. ‘Just repeat what he said.’
‘He aimed the car at me and smiled.’
An ambulance arrived simultaneously with a police car. And officialdom took over.
* * *
Bass and Stephanie left the pub after the police had taken their statements. She slipped her hand into his. ‘There's something I haven't had a chance to tell you.’
‘What's that?’ Bass said, distantly. His mind was recounting the earlier conversation with Jack, sifting for clues.
‘Jack gave me a key for a security box at Lacey's. He said it contained everything he'd been working on. He wanted me to give it to you.’
Bass stopped, frowning deeply. He shook his head with dismay. Why had Jack given it to Stephanie and not to him? His stomach seemed to fill with acid and he wanted to retch.
‘Why didn't you tell me before? Where is it?’ Even in the shadowy night his eyes seemed to burn right through her.
‘I didn’t have much time to tell you anything.’ Stephanie opened her handbag and felt inside for her purse. ‘That's odd. I can't find my purse.’
‘Stand under the light,’ Bass told her.
She spent a couple of minutes looking. ‘It’s not here.’
‘Maybe you left it on the table.’
She looked at Bass, desperately trying to remember back. ‘I left my bag hanging on the back of the chair when we all rushed outside.’
Bass banged the heel of his palm against his forehead. ‘Why wouldn’t they steal the whole bag?’ His voice was hoarse, his eyelids beginning to droop.
‘Everything was hectic. Most people had gone outside. A purse is easier to steal than a large bag.’
‘We’ll go back to the pub. See if anyone has handed it in. They're all very honest in there.’
Nobody had handed it in. A search of the area around their table revealed nothing. They left the pub and stood outside. He needed to think things out.
His actions, or inactions, had brought his own personal world crashing down on him. He felt lost, bewildered, not knowing which way to turn.
He raised his head towards the skies, as he often did when seeking help. The cloudy skies, lightened by the reflections of city lights, had nothing to offer him tonight.
His mind, far from being dulled by drink, was addled by the cascade of events – as Jack had described them.
Help me – No!
Please help me – No!
Who do I turn to?
Who do I turn to?
Anyone but me!
He felt himself stagger, strong arms – Stephanie’s arms – supported him.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Of course I’m not okay,’ he snapped.
Don’t we all need someone to snap at? Why should I be any different? Everybody comes to me for help, but what about me! Who’s going to help me! I have needs. I have feelings, just like everyone else.
His legs felt weak. He staggered again. Stephanie’s hands saved him from falling. He half collapsed into her arms, eyes closed. She kissed his eyes lightly, as if to keep them sealed.
They stood there, swaying together, like a couple of drunks. Except it wasn’t the drink, it wasn’t the love, it wasn’t even the frustrations. It was the need to do something positive.
‘Open your eyes, hon,’ she told him, ‘and let’s get the fuck home.’
Her words, spoken with compassion, not with abrasiveness, seemed to awaken something in his brain. It was like something that was lying there, waiting to be recognised.
His eyes fastened onto something distant. He started walking quickly towards it, as if possessed by some unseen force. Stephanie struggled to keep up with him.
‘Where are you going?’
Bass didn't answer. He’d had an intuition and didn't stop until he reached a builder’s skip that stood by the side of the road.
He peered over the top, his eyes suddenly alert and piercing all the dark corners and crevices like radar beams. Black plastic bags, pieces of wood, broken chairs, burst plastic bags spilling out their rotting garbage, discarded junk-food containers, stinking rags, an odd shoe, buckled bicycle wheel without a tire, broken kiddies toys, et al. And something small and brown.
‘Is that your purse?’ he asked, as she caught up with him.
She peered into the skip.
‘How the hell did you know it was in here? How are you gonna get it out? There’s a metal rod. See if you can reach it.’
‘Thieves and pickpockets always try to get rid of wallets and purses as quickly as possible once they’ve emptied them,’ he told her, stretching both arms into the skip to grab the metal rod. ‘So they don’t get caught with any evidence.’
Slowly he coaxed the purse up the side of the skip until it could be reached.
‘How do you know so much about thieves and pickpockets?’
She grabbed it from him and looked inside. Her mouth dropped open.
‘My money's here but not the key.’
Stephanie emptied the purse contents onto her other hand. There were no keys, not even her house key.
‘All right,’ Bass said. ‘Let's think about it. Did you notice anyone watching you while we were sitting there?’
Stephanie shrugged. ‘Not especially. I’m used to people looking at me, but watching? No. There was a guy staring at Jack, on and off.’
‘Nobody you know? Or had seen before?’
She shook her head.
‘What did he look like?’
‘I didn't take that much notice.’
‘Well think, Steph. Was he young, old? Bald? Black-haired, blond, grey? Beard or moustache? Did he wear a tie? Dirty old jeans? A raincoat? You must have noticed something.’
‘I didn't,’ Stephanie insisted. ‘Sort of thirtyish. Brown hair. Wore a light jacket. That's all I can tell you.’
‘So you noticed more than you thought. Could you recognise him again?’
‘I don't know. Maybe. I think if we were all sitting round the table again I might.’
‘Well we're not all going to be sitting there again, are we?’ Bass snapped. ‘Let's go home. I've got a lot of thinking to do.’
‘What kind of thinking?’
‘How many kinds are there?’ he grunted, impatiently.
He strode out blindly, leaving her to follow in his wake. His head was reeling, like his jellied legs. Nothing was working properly. He was unaware of traffic or people ... not even of Stephanie.
Whoever stole the purse wasn’t after the money, obviously. What the hell did that mean? He cursed his own inadequacy. Why couldn’t he make a simple deduction like that?
He knew only one thing now.
He had to right a wrong. Jack’s pleas had been lost on him. Somehow he had to make things right. He didn’t know where it would lead or what the cost would be. Only that he had to do something.
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