Authors: Ross Thomas
The Mordida Man
Open Road Integrated Media ebook
It was an almost perfect disguise. To begin with, he had lost all that weight, at least twenty-five pounds, and the cleverly concealed lifts in the heels of his stodgy plain-toed black shoes had raised his height by nearly two inches and subtly altered his walk. The beard helped, too, of course; probably because it was so neatly trimmed.
Not long before, no more than three months back, he had been more or less clean-shaven and of medium height and rather dumpy, if not quite fat. Now he was a bit under six feet and trim, indeed almost slender. His clothes were different, too. Gone were the jeans and the Army surplus field jacket and the black turtleneckâan outfit that once had been virtually his trademark. Now he wore a blue pinstripeânot too old, but not too new eitherâand a crisp white shirt and even a neat bow tie that he had learned to knot himself. In his left hand he carried a worn leather briefcase that seemed to be an old and shabby friendâanother nicely calculated touch of respectability that also helped.
The only thing that even hinted at concealment were the glasses. Their lensesâplain, but tinted a deep amberâmade it difficult to see his eyes with their strange rain-gray giveaway color. But the glasses' carefully selected frames were of a clear unadorned plastic that suggested practicability and necessity rather than concealment.
Much thought had also gone into his dark hair, which once had been a long, oily mess. Now it was short and neatly trimmed, both back and sides. Like his beard, it was sprinkled with gray. The gray was natural. It was also new and had crept into both his hair and beard during the past three months.
When he came out of the Maida Vale tube station and turned right up Elgin Avenue, the woman in the taxi across the street clutched the large purse tightly to her chest, sucked in some air, coughed once, and said, “That's he. That's Felix.”
The man sitting next to her said, “You're sure?”
“That is he,” the woman insisted and wrapped her thin arms even more tightly around the purse, which was made of black leather with a silver clasp.
“It sure as hell doesn't look like him,” the man said. He had an American accent of some kind.
“It is he, you fool.”
The American nodded dubiously, lowered the taxi window, and tossed a crumpled red pack of Pall Mall cigarettes onto the pavement. Across the street, a smallish middle-aged man who wore a brown three-piece suit and an old child's mischievous face noted the pack's fall, turned quickly away from the newsstand, and fell in behind the man identified as Felix. The smallish man walked with short mincing steps and carried a tightly furled black umbrella that he swung up and rested lightly on his right shoulder.
In the taxi, the American leaned over, opened the door nearest the curb, and said, “Out.”
The woman had to cough first. They were deep, hacking explosions, four or five of them, which racked her body and pink-ened her face. The American ignored them, just as he ignored her when she stumbled across his long legs as she dragged herself out of the taxi, still coughing. Once outside, she squeezed the purse even more tightly to her chest. It seemed to ease the coughingâpossibly because it contained a comforting balm in the form of twenty thousand dollars in twenty- and fifty-dollar bills, which is what the American had paid her to lead him to Felix. The woman, her lips now tightly compressed, as if determined to cough no more ever, hurried away from the taxi without looking back.
The smallish man with the umbrella was now only five or six steps behind Felix. He picked up the pace with a neat little skip and closed the distance between them to no more than three feet. He swung the umbrella down in an arc that ended when its tip was less than an inch from Felix's backâhigh up and dead centered between the shoulder blades.
The smallish man pressed the button in the umbrella's handle. The button released the steel spring that shot the chromium-tipped plastic dart containing a hundred milligrams of a stepped-up fast-acting tranquilizer called Doxxeram through Felix's coat and shirt and deep into his back. Doxxeram had been used only once on humans during a controlled experiment in a hospital for the criminally insane in upper Michigan. Although remarkably fast-acting when injected intramuscularly, its side effects had been labeled “unwarranted,” the experiment had been stamped “inconclusive,” and the drug had been withdrawn.
When the Doxxeram went into Felix, he stopped abruptly. His left hand went behind him and up, clawing for the dart. His hand found part of it, the plastic partâempty nowâthat had contained the drug. He wrenched it loose, stared at it briefly, dropped it, and smashed it with the heel of his shoe. The chromium tip, slightly barbed, remained in place. Felix quickly shifted the old briefcase to his left hand, clapped his right hand up and around his neck, and tried to reach the chromium tip over his left shoulder. But his arm wasn't long enough for that. Almost no one's is.
Felix turned then, spinning really, and fumbled at the clasp of his old briefcase. By now the smallish man, his umbrella back on his shoulder, was already well past him and heading for the corner with his quick-step sissy's walk. A middle-aged woman stared at Felix curiously for a brief moment, but then looked away and hurried on.
Felix groped around inside the briefcase until his hand closed over the butt of the short-barreled .38 Smith & Wesson revolver. While groping for the pistol, he tried to identify his assailantâthe one he would have to shoot. He decided that there were four possible candidates, all of them extremely improbable.
Two of them were a couple of fortyish women shoppers with string bagsâpossibly sisters. The third was the jockey-sized news vendor who was now engrossed in counting his change. The fourth was an elderly man of more than seventy who stood leaning on his cane as he stared thoughtfully into the butcher's window at a row of fat capons. The old man seemed to be debating whether he could really afford one.
Felix felt the first slight effect of the drug just after the smallish man with the umbrella turned the corner and disappeared. Felix's shoulders sagged involuntarily, and his knees began to trembleâalthough both may have been caused by the relief that flooded through him when he realized that the drug wasn't a poison.
Tranquilizer, he thought. Somebody's shot you full of tranquilizer. Yet the drug didn't seem very strong, and he wondered if they had used enough. Perhaps they had made a mistake and he wouldn't need the pistol after all. He removed his hand from inside the briefcase and crossed, not quite dreamily, over to the door of the greengrocer, where he turned, yawned, and started rubbing the spot between his shoulder blades against the door-jamb. He only succeeded in driving the barbed chromium tip in even more deeply as he rubbed away unhurriedly, almost languorously, as though trying to rid himself of some old familiar itch.
It would still take minutes for the drug to work, and across the street the American waited patiently in the taxi, his eyes flicking from his watch to Felix and back again. In the greengrocer's doorway, Felix kept rubbing away and trying to decide whether to head for the underground entrance. But perhaps that's where they wanted him to go. A fast train. A quick shove. Felix decided to think about it some more.
At last, the American looked up from his watch, leaned forward, and said to the driver, “Let's do it.”
The taxi made a U-turn and pulled up at the curb less than three yards from where Felix stood yawning and rubbing the dart into his back. When Felix saw the taxi pull up, he knew why it was there and that he should do something about itâproviding it didn't require too much effort. He thought almost idly of the pistol again, but then he noticed that his vision was beginning to blur. Reality seemed to be edging away. He decided it would probably be better if he simply started walking. Not too fast, of course. No need to attract attention. Just up to the corner, slowly, very slowly, because he was tired, and then right.
He took a step away from the greengrocer's doorway and then another. But he could no longer control his legs. They began to wobble and his feet were beginning to refuse all commands. Still he managed another step, then yet another, but after that he sank slowly to his knees.
The American got out of the taxi and approached him cautiously. A few people turned to stare. With his eyes fixed on the American, Felix again started groping around inside his briefcase. The American reached down and took it away from him. Felix watched indifferently as the American tucked the briefcase away under an arm.
They stared at each other for several moments, and Felix found himself wondering about the American's increasingly wav-ery outline. Perhaps it was the lightâthe dusk. But there could be no dusk at noon. Reality took another few quick steps away from Felix. Then, from what seemed to be a long way off, he heard the American say in awful border Spanish, “Vamos, amigo.”
Felix closed his eyes, licked his lips, and thought about asking where; but it was simply too much effort. At least it wouldn't be Israel. At least it wouldn't be the Jews. He wondered vaguely how the Americans had got onto the informerâand how much she had been paid. But all that could be sorted out later after he had rested. Perhaps even a nap. It would be so pleasant to curl up right there on the walk. He had almost decided to do exactly that when the smallish man in the three-piece brown suit reappeared. The smallish man no longer carried his umbrella.
“May I give you a hand with your friend?” the smallish man said in a sweet British voice that matched his mincing walk.
The American nodded. “I'd be much obliged.”
Together they each got an arm around Felix and lifted him to his feet.
“Likes his nip now and then, does he, poor dear?” the smallish man said.
“Now and then.”
The smallish man opened the taxi's rear door and they tumbled Felix into the back seat.
“Thanks a million,” the American said as he climbed into the taxi.
“Don't mention it,” the smallish man said. He watched the taxi pull away, and when it was gone he turned toward the butcher shop. He had almost decided on a plump capon for his supper; but if the lamb chops looked particularly good, he might even treat himself to a pair of those.
There were four of them in the dank cellar of the old boarded-up house in the short street in Hammersmith. Two men and two women. The houses on either side were also boarded up and vacant, waiting for the wrecker who was now three weeks past due. The cellar smelled of dead cat.
One of the women had been stripped almost naked and bound with yellow insulation wire to a heavy dining-room chair. Her name was Maria Luisa de la Cova, and she was a thirty-four-year-old Venezuelan. She was also the coughing woman who had sold the man called Felix to the American for twenty thousand dollars in twenty- and fifty-dollar bills.
The money was now stacked neatly on a water-ringed oak dining-room table that matched the chair. The table had only three legs. A substitute fourth leg had been fashioned out of two Cutty Sark whisky crates. Next to the stacked money was the large black leather purse with the silver clasp. The purse had been turned inside out and its lining ripped away. There was no electricity. Light came from six pink candles stuck into beer bottles.
One of the men, a pallid, almost lashless blond with a slab body and a flat solemn face, lit a cigarette with a disposable lighter. He was called Frank by the others, although his real name was Bernt Diringshoffen and he had been born thirty-two years ago in Hamburg. After lighting the cigarette, he puffed on it inexpertly, not inhaling, obviously a non-smoker.
The de la Cova woman watched him. Her eyes were pink and her face was tear-streaked, but she was no longer crying. There were angry red burns on the left side of her neck and on her small breasts. Four burns in all.
“Tell us,” Diringshoffen said and blew on the coal of the cigarette.
“I've already told you,” the de la Cova woman said and began to cough harshly. Diringshoffen waited patiently until the coughing at last had ended. “Tell us again,” he said pleasantly.
She began speaking in a rapid monotone so low and indistinct that the others had to bend forward to hear.
“He said his name was Arnold. I don't know if that was his real name or not. I don't even know if it was his surname or his given name. I don't care. I just called him Arnold, if I ever called him anything. We met several times, maybe four, maybe five. Twice in Soho, at least twice there, and again in Islington in a cafe he knew. Maybe three times there. In Islington. Maybe just two. I can't remember.”
“Did he say he was CIA?” the other woman asked. The other woman also spoke English, but with an almost crippling French accent. Her name was FranÃ§hise Leget, and she had been born twenty-nine years ago in Algiers. She had large black eyes that she blinked rapidly and a thin stylish body, and many thought her to be quite pretty.