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Authors: Robert Gott

Tags: #FIC050000, #FIC014000

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BOOK: The Serpent's Sting
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‘I do understand, Morecombe, that the United States army has bigger fish to fry than the uncouth behaviour of a couple of moralistic fanatics.'

He made no comment on this characterisation of the MPs. He simply indicated that I was free to go. He walked me to the gate and offered his hand, which I shook.

‘It's been a pleasure to meet you, Mr Power. I can't wait to tell the wife. You know, we get a few movie stars who get flown in for the Americans. It doesn't get reported. The Yanks don't want the Australians demanding appearances outside Camp Pell and Camp Murphy. Gary Cooper was here, and Tyrone Power.'

‘Tyrone Power?'

‘Yes, indeed. I met him. Got his autograph for the wife. He's in uniform, of course. Nice bloke. Lit one cigarette off another. Never seen someone smoke so much.'

He smiled conclusively, and it wasn't until I'd crossed the street that I realised he hadn't bothered to ask for my autograph. And my resemblance to Tyrone Power, who he'd seen in the flesh, seemed to have escaped his notice.

I took a moment to regain my composure. Given that I now knew that MPs patrolled the nearby streets in an attempt to protect their boys from syphilis, I was nervous about searching out any ladies who might still be loitering, and who might have spoken to Brian. The last thing I wanted was to run into those apes again.

‘Hello, ducky,' said a woman in awful imitation of an East End scrubber she must have seen in a movie. I'd passed her without seeing her, despite my eyes having adjusted to the darkness. I couldn't make out her features, but I could tell from the pendulous breast she'd exposed to the night air that she wasn't in the first, second, third, or fourth flush of youth.

‘I'm looking for a man dressed as a woman,' I said.

‘Oh, fuck off then.' She put her breast back inside her blouse, and walked away from me. My statement had been, I suppose, liable to misinterpretation. I wandered around for a good half-hour, and didn't encounter any other women, and there was no sign of Brian. I had no alternative but to return to Mother's house and hope that he'd abandoned our plan. Surely he wouldn't have been such a nong as to attempt to capture Taylor on his own?

I ran most of the way back to the house, and almost fell through the front door. I was bent double, panting and sweating, and it took a moment to register that there were no lights on. I straightened up and strained to hear if there were any noises in the house. I wasn't sure what time it was, so I was reluctant to call out, just in case Mother had come home and was asleep in her room. There was something amiss. It wasn't a sound that alerted me to this. It was a smell. I could smell cigarette smoke, and behind it another, sweeter odour which I recognised as marijuana. My heart began to race. Neither Brian nor Mother smoked cigarettes, let alone marijuana.

The smell was drifting from the front room, the door to which was ajar. I'd made enough noise entering the house to alert whoever was in the front room to my presence. Whoever it was, he was waiting brazenly for me to push open the door and go into the room. He would be sitting in the dark, and he had the advantage, because doubtless he was facing the doorway through which I had to pass. I took the few steps to reach it, pressed myself against the wall nearest its hinges, and, using the flat of my hand, pushed the door inwards. I half-expected to hear the deafening report of a pistol being fired. There was silence, and only the now thick stink of cigarette and marijuana to confirm that the room was occupied. I reached for the spanner I'd been carrying. It was gone. Those bastard MPs had taken it. I'm not proud to admit that I was tempted to run, to leave the house through the back door, and report an intruder to the police. Perhaps this would have been sensible, but it would also have been cowardly. What if Brian were being held in that room, his life dependent on what I did next?

I was conscious that I was breathing hard, so hard that it must have been audible inside the front room. I held my breath until I began to feel giddy. I let it out slowly, and spoke.

‘I'm not carrying a weapon.'


‘Are you armed?'

‘I have a gun.' It was a man's voice, and familiar, although I couldn't quite place it. ‘But it's not aimed at you, Will Power.'

I stepped into the room and snapped on the overhead light. The tableau before me took a moment to coalesce. The light was dim, but it still caused me to squint against it. An American soldier was leaning against the mantelpiece, smoking what I believe is known as a reefer. He was holding a gun. It was pointed at Cloris Gilbert, who was kneeling beside Mother, seated in her favourite chair. Cloris seemed almost catatonic. Mother had a gag in her mouth, and dangling from a vein in her arm was a syringe. Cloris had her fingers closed around it. Its barrel was filled with liquid, and I could see a ribbon of blood running through it. It had been primed. Geraldine Buchanan stood behind Mother's chair. She was rather garishly dressed, in a floral-print outfit that didn't really suit her. She was smoking a cigarette.

‘I didn't know you smoked,' I said.

‘Oh, very suave,' said the American, although his accent was Australian. ‘I thought I'd give Private Harlen Quist one more run. Just for fun. I called on Miss Gilbert here, and persuaded her and your mother to pop round here with us. We had a little trouble with the old bloke, didn't we, Cloris? That's an odd name — Cloris. I'm not sure I like it.'

‘What kind of trouble?' I asked. I was weirdly calm, as if the scene before me were just part of a rehearsal for a very modern play.

‘Oh, you know the sort of thing. Hero of the last war,
Get your filthy hands off my daughter
— and at that stage, Will, I didn't have my filthy hands on his daughter. Anyway, he threw the first punch, so in a way, it's self-defence. He might be dead — I'm not sure. I hit him pretty hard, I have to say. I wonder if he knows that his awful son hurried his precious wife into the grave. He told Gerald here all about it, didn't he?'

Geraldine produced an obscene little chortle, and I wondered as I turned to her what I'd ever seen in her. The overhead light threw her eyes into deep shadow, and she resembled a skull.

‘He was weepy about it,' she said. ‘He told me he'd put her out of her misery. I think a part of him resented using his heroin on her. I told him he'd done the right thing. She was old and sick, and she believed in heaven and angels and all that crap, even though her merciful god had sent cancer into her to eat her away, bit by agonising bit. People like that don't mind dying, do they? That's what I told him. Then the fool, in a fit of remorse, I suppose, topped himself. In my room, too. Right in front of me. I'd watched him shoot the stuff into his veins a dozen times, but this time he'd doubled or tripled the dose. It was a shame. I thought he was a complete bore, but he was one of our best customers. We made a good bit of money out of him, and there he was, dead and drooling at the end of my bed. And on Christmas Eve. Addicts are thoughtless people.'

Cloris was looking up at Geraldine in a kind of wonder. Mother was staring at me, her eyes wide with either fear or expectation.

‘You and Private Dervian dumped him in the cemetery on the way to lunch, as if he was a sack of laundry.'

‘Well,' Taylor said, ‘given that he was dead, in some ways he was more laundry than man. I must say, Will, that was an interesting, if risky, social experiment. Dervian and I carried him between us, as if he were dead drunk, instead of, well, dead. We lugged him all the way from Fitzgibbon Street to the cemetery, in broad daylight, and no one stopped us, or offered any assistance. Not that there were many people about on Christmas Day. Still, it's disheartening, don't you think?''

‘What do the two of you want?'

The marijuana made Taylor sound slow, almost languid, but it didn't seem to have dulled his mind.

‘That's a reasonable question, Will, given what you see before you — and just to bring this little
tableau vivant
into focus', he produced
tableau vivant
with an ostentatiously correct accent, ‘I should explain that there is pure heroin in the barrel of that syringe. What we don't want to happen is that we force Cloris here to push the plunger and give your mother a wild ride into that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns. Hamlet is
in almost any situation, don't you think, Will?'

‘Will loves his Shakespeare,' Geraldine said, with an icy disdain I'd never heard in her voice before.

‘What do you want?' I repeated, and avoided looking at Mother.

‘Well, Gerald and I want different things, don't we, darling?'

‘Yes, we do, Bert. Indeed, we do.'

‘Like most things, Will, in the end it comes down to money. I don't like to think of myself as a greedy man, but I am a needy man, and I don't want to work for a living. Gerald and I have discovered that there are easier ways to earn a living than working for somebody else. I'm not good at taking instructions, because I know that I'm much smarter than the person giving me those instructions. Having to obey a fool is a galling experience. I admire you, Will — I really do. You've come quite a long way on what is, let's face it, a modest talent.'

Geraldine laughed to signal her agreement, and Taylor's face assumed an unsightly smirk in appreciation of his own remark.

‘How much do you want?' I asked.

‘More than you can afford, Will, although you could probably meet Gerald's demands, which are on a more, shall we say, domestic scale.'

My face must have told them that I wasn't sure what this meant.

‘Bert isn't interested in you, Will. I, on the other hand, have a bone to pick with you. The way I see it, you owe me for lost earnings in the theatre. I discovered that I'm quite a good actress, and that I like being an actress. It was all going nicely until you came along. To be fair, it wasn't as though you interrupted a long and distinguished career. That was actually my first acting job, but I liked it.'

‘Your first job?'

She waved her hand dismissively.

‘I suppose my special gift is blackmail, which is how I got the job in the first place. Percy Wavel was an easy touch. He's terrified of his wife. Maybe he should have thought of that before he fucked me.'

Mother, even in the midst of what must have been incredible distress, managed to shoot me a look which conveyed her belief that I'd demonstrated, yet again, appalling taste in women.

‘I found the cast disappointingly unwilling to try anything stronger than marijuana. There were a couple of stagehands who had a go, and that disgusting Jim Stokes. It wasn't what killed him, though. At least, I hope it wasn't. I'd prefer to think that he died in agony and misery. Then you turned up and said you were a private-inquiry agent — which made sense, because you weren't much of an actor — and you spooked me. Now I'll never get work as an actress again, and I figure that's your fault. I think £1000 will cover lost earnings.'

With admirable equanimity I said, ‘One thousand pounds seems a bit steep, don't you think?'

‘Your problem is, Will, that you're not in a position to negotiate. One thousand pounds is my part of the price for your mother's life. Is she worth £1000?'

I saw Mother's eyes narrow.

‘While you're thinking about that, Will,' said Taylor, ‘let me explain my financial needs. For Gerald, it's just a kind of retributive justice, although I'm sure you don't see it that way. For me, it's a little bit more complicated. I'm not after compensation. I need an income, and I need it to be sufficient to purchase comfortable obscurity for Gerald and me, and I need it to be very much off the books. I'm holding some good cards, and your mother.'

‘Is Mother the ace up your sleeve?'

‘Oh, no. My ace hasn't arrived yet. She's just a bit of extra insurance.'

Mother wouldn't have heard that without experiencing a stab of pique.

‘You really fell for my American soldier, didn't you?'

‘Yes, I did,' I said evenly. ‘You obviously have a good ear for accents.'

‘A better ear than yours.'

Was he trying to needle me into making a move so that he could shoot me?

‘Yes, Bert, a better ear than mine.'

He smiled, took the forage cap off his head, and dropped it onto the chair beside him.

‘I'm in the dark here,' I said. ‘You want an income? Are you expecting me to turn my income over to you?'

‘However handsome your income, Will, it won't come close to meeting my needs. I am not without ambition.'

He let that hang in the air, as if it must mean something.

‘And there's one person who can help me realise that ambition.'

Again, he left a pause. The drama of the moment was lost on me, because I had no idea how to flood the pause with meaning. Unable to provide an answer, I asked a question.

‘And who might that person be?'

‘Oh, come on, Will. Your mother has a fucking needle jacked into her arm. The time for games has passed.'

BOOK: The Serpent's Sting
4.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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