I parked my TVR Daemon outside Noddy’s Diner on the Portobello Road, put my ‘Doctor on Call’ sign on the windshield, loped through the gray rain and pushed through the door. Chandler once described a woman as the kind who’d make a bishop kick holes in a stained glass window. This one would have had him burning down the Vatican with the Pope strapped to the roof of the Sistine Chapel. It wasn’t just that she was a drop-dead looker. She was. She had all her curves in the right places, bobbed black hair, crimson, Cupid’s-bow mouth and slow sea-green eyes. But more than that, she managed to look vulnerable and lethal at the same time in a way that stirred your primal urges till you had smoke billowing out of your sphygmomanometer. Yeah, look it up.
In my book, all women are bad news. They make you feel this thing called ‘love’, so you’ll let them chew you up, suck you dry then spit you out before they move on to their next victim. But even by those standards, I could see this lady was the kind of bad news they interrupt regular broadcasts for. Fortunately, I’m immune to bad news.
She and Noddy both saw me as I pushed in, but I noticed his eyes pleading in a way I had never seen before. I ignored him and eased onto a stool next to the vamp, pulled out a Camel and asked Noddy for a Martini, dry. He stared at me like he was astonished I wanted that drink instead of another and said, real urgent, “This is Caffrin, Liam. Caffrin ’oward. I told you abaht her.”
I nodded that I knew and he went to get the Martini. While he put it together, I flipped my Zippo and lit up. She watched me do it the way a cat watches a fly—cute and patient, and ready to eat it alive the minute it gets close enough. Finally, I blew smoke and said, “Noddy thinks I can help you. Want to tell me how?”
She made a slow, green blink. When she spoke, she had that absence of accent the English call cut glass, but husky with it.
“I’m being blackmailed, Mr. Murdoch. I’ve arranged to make a payment and collect the incriminating material, but I’m afraid that when I do, I may be murdered.”
I’m not easily fazed and this didn’t faze me, but I wasn’t expecting it. I took a moment to study the olive in my Martini. It floated, so I bobbed it up and down a few times. I took a sip and, as I put the glass down, I said, “So you want me to get murdered for you.”
She didn’t even have the decency to blush. Whether she said yes or no, it was going to be the wrong answer. So she said, “Not exactly, Mr. Murdoch. I’d like you to make the drop and collect the material. I shall pay you very well for that. Clearly, I don’t want you to get murdered.” Something like a smile played across her face. “That wouldn’t help anybody, would it?”
I nodded. “Especially me. You want to give me some background?”
She hesitated and pointed at my glass. “Can I have one of those?” While Noddy fell over himself in four different directions assembling a second Martini, she gestured at my cigarettes. I nodded and pushed them along the bar with the lighter. It’s hard for a woman to make a Zippo look graceful. In her hands it was triple-X-rated exquisite. She let the smoke drift out through red lips and read my face for a while. I put a blank page there. After a moment she said, “I used to work as a high-class prostitute. I had highly placed clients. I was expensive…”
I said, “Class usually is.”
She blinked sea-green at me and carried on. “I didn’t waste the money. I put myself through university. I read biology and did a master’s in business. Just over a year ago I bought myself into a biotechnology research and development company as a partner.” She sucked on the Camel, frowning at the ashtray. “There are films and photographs. They’re held by a man. We used to call him the Don. He used to be my…” Her look turned resentful, like it was the ashtray’s fault she’d once had a pimp. She tapped a little ash into its mouth and said, “Manager. I bought myself out a couple of months ago, but now he wants money for the films and the photographs. If I don’t pay, he’ll send copies to the board.”
I took a long drag on my cigarette and squinted at her through the smoke. “I’ve known a few pimps in my time, Miss Howard, and a few blackmailers too. Most of them weren’t smart enough to know a biology degree from an amoeba’s ass, but most of them weren’t dumb enough to kill a goose that laid golden eggs, either.”
She tilted her chin and smiled. Her voice was so husky it could have pulled a sled across Alaska. It was getting to me. She said, “You don’t believe me.”
“Me and Descartes, sugar. I believe I exist because I can hear myself think. Outside of that, I don’t believe shit. I’m not a hit man, Miss Howard. I’m not going to kill your blackmailer for you.”
Outside, the rain had turned torrential. A rumble of thunder shook the ceiling and the lights in the diner winked off, so we were sitting in shadow. She shook her head. “That isn’t what I’m looking for.”
“If everything you say is true, he can keep the squeeze on you for years. Why should he want you dead?”
She stubbed out her cigarette, smoke trailing from her nose. She sipped and licked her lips with a very pink tongue.
“It’s a little more complex than that.”
“So tell me the complex bit. I can recognize an amoeba’s ass.”
“How colorful…” She watched me a while in the half light. Then the lights came on and somewhere a fridge began to hum. “During the time the Don managed me, I accumulated a lot of information about him, his operations and his clients. I told you some of them were important men—and women. People in the public eye. If I should ever decide to write my memoirs, Mr. Murdoch, it would cause a lot of people a great deal of embarrassment. More than that, it could bring down important political careers and, with them, the Don’s power. I don’t think I need to paint you a picture. It’s in the Don’s best interest—and his clients’—to make me very dead.”
I nodded. “Have you anything more concrete than a general theory of his motives?”
“Yes, the way he’s set up the drop. He’s done it before to other people. I’ll be extremely vulnerable.” Her cheeks flushed incongruously and she smiled. “I’m between a rock and a hard place, Mr. Murdoch. I daren’t risk not going—not making the drop. But I know if I do, he’ll kill me. He has to.”
What she said made sense. A man like she described could not afford a loose cannon, especially one as smart as Catherine Howard. But even so, I knew she was lying. For one thing, if she were for real, she’d work for Russian Pete, not some anonymous Don. And Russian Pete would have introduced her to me by now. My gut told me that every word out of her mouth was a lie that concealed layers of deeper lies. But I also knew, as I sat looking into her level, green eyes, that I didn’t give a damn. I crushed out my cigarette and said, “So what do you want me to do?” And just so she didn’t think I was as soft as Noddy, “And how much does this caper pay?”
She took a swig of her Martini and said, “I just want you to go in my place.”
“What makes you think he won’t kill me?”
“Does that worry you?”
“Yeah. I don’t like getting killed. It gives me a headache.”
She didn’t smile. She shrugged. “Why should he? He has no interest in your death. In any case, he is expecting a weak woman, not”—she paused and gestured at me with a look that was both insulting and flattering—“someone like you. And even if he should try, you are forewarned and I’m sure you can take care of yourself. I’d advise you to be armed.” Now she smiled. “Have you got a weapon, Mr. Murdoch?”
The innuendo was obvious and vulgar and made me unreasonably mad. I grunted. “Yeah, I have a weapon. What if he won’t give me the material?”
“Again, you’re a big boy. I’m sure you can persuade him. In any case, I think he will. The money he’s asking for is considerable.”
“Okay. What makes you think I won’t take the money for myself and leave you in the lurch?”
She turned to Noddy. She went a little pale and her eyes were beseeching. She should have been in Hollywood. She deserved an Oscar. He looked deep into her oceanic green eyes, read a thousand impossible promises there, swallowed hard and turned to me, stabbing a big, ugly finger in my face. “’Cos if you do, Liam, I’ll kick you dahn the fahkin stairs, tear yer fahkin ’ed off and stuff it up yer fahkin backside, so you’ll be watchin telly fru yer fahkin arse for the rest of yer miserable fahkin life! Don’t mistreat the lady, awright?”
Noddy was from the East End of London, where they speak a language all their own. She smiled at me, telling me silently that she could make him do it. I gave Noddy a look that told him what I thought of him and his ‘fahkin telly’ then sighed. “Okay, how much does it pay?”
Something strange happened to her face then. I want to say that it went hard, but that doesn’t even begin to describe it. I had the feeling I was looking, not at a woman, but at an animal. If you’ve seen the dispassionate expression on a cat’s face when it goes for the kill or a lizard swallowing a live insect, you’ll know what I mean. She had the alien eyes of a goat in that moment and the stillness of a snake. She spoke with no feeling at all.
“If you fail—or are only partially successful—the job pays nothing. Partial success is of no use to me. You bring me all the material—original and any copies—and it pays twenty thousand pounds, sterling.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “Twenty grand?” That was thirty-five thousand bucks.
“Naturally, I will cover all your expenses.”
Outside, the rain had slowed to a wet tapping. “Expenses?” I frowned. “What expenses?”
She reached into her snakeskin handbag and pulled out a surprisingly large manila envelope. From that she extracted a Virgin Atlantic ticket and a smaller, white envelope that smelled like cash and was reassuringly fat. She handed me the ticket.
“That is a flight to New York. It departs tonight. I’d like you to be on it. You will be there for twelve hours and return with the material. I suggest you do your sleeping on the plane. All the instructions are here.” She pulled an A4 sheet of paper from the manila envelope and handed me that too, along with a locker key. I put the key in my pocket and slipped the A4 in with the ticket to look at later. She said, “Go to Left Luggage at Heathrow Airport. The key fits a locker. Collect the attaché case from there. It contains fifty thousand dollars. That’s the payoff.” She held up the white packet. “This is two-and-a-half thousand dollars in small and medium bills. It should more than cover your needs. If there is any over, consider it a tip.”
She knew—and so did I—that I was going to New York. I took the reassuringly fat envelope and peered in. By the rack of the eye it was two-and-a-half grand. I slipped it into my pocket.
“How can I contact you when I’m done?”
“You can’t. Noddy will arrange it.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. That was my line and he knew it, but he looked away, keeping busy washing glasses that were already clean. “All right, Catherine,” I said, “you have a deal.”
I left Noddy’s Diner with a sour feeling in my belly that my brain couldn’t identify. I was mad at Noddy for being stupid, but I couldn’t place my finger on exactly what he’d done that was stupid. I drove back slow through Notting Hill to Church Street, enjoying the drizzle and the squeak of the wipers on the windshield, watching hunched people under windswept umbrellas dodge each other blindly through wet crowds. I let my thoughts range free among them. They covered just about everything you could imagine except why I had a sour feeling in my belly and exactly how Noddy had been stupid. In the end I decided Catherine Howard was as fascinating as hell and twice as hot, but she was also twice as much trouble, and it made me mad that Noddy couldn’t see that. I could, but he couldn’t.
That was what I told myself.
I parked and went up to my apartment. I had a duplex on the fifth and sixth floors. Most people didn’t know about the fifth, which I used as a den for work and storage. I used the sixth to live in, and that was where people usually found me—if I wanted to be found. I went up there now to prepare an overnight bag. There was a light winking on my phone, telling me there was a message. I listened to it while I cracked a beer and scrambled some eggs. The message was from Russell.
Me and Russell went back a long way. I left LA when I was still in my teens because a film producer, his Italian wife and her Italian family were looking for me, and I wasn’t too keen they should find me. In fact, I decided I should move to the farthest place I could find on the planet where they spoke a language similar to my own. I couldn’t handle the eternal barbecues in Australia, so I wound up in London and badly in need of bread, as my last job had paid less than I’d hoped. So I’d done some work for some ‘gentlemen south of the river’—a cute English term for gangsters. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the job included taking the fall for one of those gentlemen. I did six months inside and six months’ community service.
That was how I met Russell. He was a mathematician by trade, but he was one of the good guys and did voluntary work on the Community Service Program. I could never understand it, but I guess he thought he saw potential in me, because he took me on as a special project and promised me he would get me on to the straight and narrow path.
I haven’t got to the straight and narrow path yet. There always seems to be too much interesting stuff happening on the wide and wending one. But we’d become friends, and I figured I owed him, if only for everything he’d taught me about correctly calculating the odds. His message said, “Liam, it’s Russell. I need your help. Well, not me really… It’s the nephew of a friend of mine. His uncle’s rather unexpectedly dead and…well, it’s all a little complicated. I told him you might be able to help him out. Perhaps you could give me a call.”
Everybody wanted Liam today. That’s the trouble with being useful. I made a mental note to call him when I got back. I ate my eggs, drank my beer, then packed a bag and headed out for Heathrow.