There is a strange sensation you get when you know someone has entered your room but you haven’t yet seen or heard him. You just feel him there. I got that feeling in my bedroom late one night. It was very late and very dark.
I had had the same chill before on a thousand different occasions, in a thousand different circumstances; a car breaking its grip on a wet road, an aeroplane dropping 5,000 feet in an air pocket, a shadow coming from a dark alley.
There was definitely someone in the room. He wasn’t a friend. Friends don’t drop by into my bedroom at 2.30 in the morning – not on the thirty-second floor of a building where the elevator has been switched off, and the key is in my jacket pocket, hanging on a chair near the bed, where there are 3 Ingersoll ten-lever deadlocks, 2 Chubb two-bolt upright mortices, a Yale No. 1, and a double safety chain, not to mention a 24-hour armed door surveillance, making entry to this building harder than the exit from most jails. He was no friend. I didn’t move. He didn’t move. I had an advantage over him: he thought I was asleep. He had a better advantage over me: he’d probably been in the dark for a long time and his eyes would be well accustomed to it. He had one bigger advantage still: he wasn’t sprawled, stark naked, dripping in baby oil, with one foot manacled to the bedstead, and he didn’t have a quietly sleeping naked bird occupying the 5 feet 11½ inches that separated an extremely greasy hand from an uncocked Beretta.
I spent the next several tenths of a second debating what to do. My visitor obviously wasn’t going to hang about for the rest of the evening – he’d have to have been a very dedicated voyeur to go to such lengths. He certainly wasn’t any kind of cat burglar out to steal anything – the place didn’t have any valuables, neither the Fort Knox nor the National Gallery variety; there was nothing in it that a colour-blind midget with an IQ of 24 couldn’t have bought from a Bloomingdale’s sale in half an hour flat for a couple of thousand dollars – and in fact probably had. What there was could best be described as embryonic Jewish Renaissance, and constituted the equivalent amount of personal effects you are likely to encounter walking into a room of a half-built Holiday Inn.
My visitor didn’t seem like he wanted to chat. If he did, he’d probably have opened the dialogue by now. No, the most likely reason for his visit, I concluded in the two-tenths of a second it took me to weigh up the alternatives, was to do some killing.
On account of lack of choice the most likely victims seemed to be either Sumpy or me. Sumpy is a variation of ‘sump’ – a nickname I gave her for her fascination with Johnson’s Baby Oil – at the procreation end, which is what she seemed to think it was for, rather than at the end product of same for which it was originally intended. If the visitor was for her it could only have been some jilted lover; since Houdini had died before she was born I ruled out the possibility of the caller being for her.
All of a sudden I felt lonely. Our house guest must have just about figured out who was who by now; a 9-millimetre silenced parabellum slug for me and a razor for her so she wouldn’t be waking the neighbours with any hollering.
There was no way I could make it to my gun in time.
There was no way I could swing my right foot high into the air and bring that bedstead crashing down on his head prior to having to retrieve my brains and most of my skull from my neighbour’s apartment. It was equally unlikely that if I remained still he might go away.
The bang came. Not a quiet, silenced plug sound but a great, hefty, high-velocity, 200-grain magnum .44 explosion, and death descended on me. It was a hot, dark thump; a huge, great weight that crushed my bone and shot the wind out of me, shot all the wind out of me. It was damp and bloody and hurt like hell. It was the son-of-a-bitch visitor himself.
He lay there, sprawled over the top of me, revolver sticking in his mouth and most of the back of his skull deposited out onto Park Avenue.
I sat up, managed to get the lights on. There were shouts. There were yells and footsteps and bells and sirens and pounding sounds, and Sumpy woke up without even opening her eyes and asked if I had gone mad and went back to sleep again.
I disentangled my foot and staggered to the kitchen to put the kettle on – it didn’t look as if I was going to get much more sleep that night. I cracked my head on a cupboard door because I was confused. Reckon I had a right to be. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to commit suicide.
What a hell of a night it had been. I wanted to spend the morning forgetting it for a few hours. It was a glorious, cold, November Sunday morning and Manhattan looked just great. Only a few factories and few exhaust pipes were chucking their excrement into the sky. The World Trade Centre and the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building and all the rest of Manhattan’s fantastic skyline stood crisp and clear against and into the sky, just as all its creators had ever envisioned it should.
Sumpy and I stood wrapped in our coats on the open deck of the Staten Island ferry with the water of the Hudson river churning past us. I took a large bite from the still-warm potato knish I had been carrying in a paper bag in my pocket, and hoped it would mop up some of the pints and pints of coffee that swilled in my insides and take the taste of the Marlboros and Winstons and Salems and Tareyton Lights and Camel Lights and Cools and Mores and Chesterfields and all the other cigarettes I had been able to scrounge during the night, out of my mouth and throat and lungs and everywhere else.
That knish tasted good. It came from Yonah Schimmel’s. The Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery is one of the great eating establishments of the world; if the Michelin gastronomic guide extended to the US it would surely mention it as ‘worthy of a detour’. Anybody who hasn’t been there has to go. It is spectacularly insignificant in appearance; it sits in one of the dirtiest, dreariest, grungiest places on God’s earth, deep in the heart of Manhattan, on the forlorn border between the East Village and Lower East Side, a bottle cap’s flick from the Bowery; a solitary five-storey brownstone with a yellow facia board that stands next to the yard of Blevitzky Bros Monuments, where two elderly vans sit, sagging on their suspension, behind collapsing wire-fencing. The street in front is a dismal dual carriageway with odd bits of barren shrubbery; there are morose and grubby people wandering around, and bits of garbage rolling along in the wind. It could pass with no difficulty as a suburb of any of a hundred American cities.
The inside isn’t much of an improvement. A sign behind a high counter invites the clientele to ‘Try our new cherry cheesecake knish!’ and looks at least 10 years old. Behind the counter stands a short elderly man in a white apron with the burden of the world on his shoulders. The restaurant is empty except for two men in battered leather jackets deep in discussion but he still doesn’t have much time to spare to take orders. He marches over to a dumb waiter, a real one with a rope pull, and barks down the shaft, then stands on guard beside it with the hapless look of a sentry on a winter’s night.
What comes up from that dumb waiter, however, is pure gold; busting with every conceivable filling – large, heavy, lovingly misshapen, immensely fattening and doubtlessly knee-deep in cholesterol.
Early on that Sunday morning, paradise was a warm Yonah Schimmel potato knish, eaten with the salted breeze of the Hudson and the warm perfume of Sumpy.
I’d kept the truth from her so far. What she thought was simply that we’d had an intruder and I had shot him. I decided that for the time being, and probably for ever, it was best to leave it that way. She thought I’d done something brave and heroic in saving both our lives. I’d no desire to take false credit, but on the other hand she was a bright girl and I didn’t want to set her thinking too much in case she came to the realisation that there might be more to my job in the plastic box manufacturing business than met the ordinary long, short or squint-sighted naked eye. And that wouldn’t be any good at all.
So Mr Big Hero took another bite of his potato knish and stared out at the badlands and goodlands of sleepytime Staten Island, where 328,000 Americans were waking to a bright, sunny, all-American Sunday morning, to the New York Sunday Times crossword, and waffles, syrup and bacon, and a gentle screw, and toothpaste, and coffee, and no clatter of the garbage trucks today.
‘It’s cold,’ she said, and she was right; it was cold, damn cold and it felt good, for in the warm a soft slunky feeling would have crept straight up my body and put me in the land of nod, and there wasn’t going to be any nod for a long time yet, because when we got back to Manhattan I was going to have to go into the police station at West 54th and spend most of this beautiful day inside its dismal grey walls, answering questions and filling out forms and watching the dregs and misfits and victims of humanity be dragged interminably in and out, for speeding, murder, pickpocketing, mugging, knifing, raping, and reporting lost tabby cats and black widow spiders.
There was no shortage of forms, and carbon copies to go under the forms, and columns to be filled in on the forms. I could have done it all myself in about ten minutes flat, with the aid of a couple of IBM computers and three dozen secretaries; unfortunately the only equipment that the city of New York could offer me was a battered, old, manual Olivetti, with a lower-case ‘t’ that had broken off, and a pair of index fingers attached to 18 stone of fatted flesh in a uniform grubby enough to give anorexia to a clothes moth. His dexterity at extricating his breakfast from his teeth with one finger, picking his nose with another, his ear with a third and typing at the same time was remarkable; but it was the typing that suffered the most.
Relays of coffee arrived in receptacles that made British Rail’s plastic beakers seem like Crown Derby. There were no knishes and doughnuts weren’t available on this block on a Sunday; none others were worth eating, the resident doughnut expert informed me, but there was a Puerto Rican topless go-go dancer who did blow jobs in the men’s room of a coke den up in Harlem Sunday lunchtime, if I was interested in taking a ride. But it didn’t particularly appeal.
The keys clacked intermittently, punctuated by the odd curse as he filled in the lower-case ‘t’s by hand, and I began, gratefully, to drift into a few minutes of sleep. When I woke, Supertypist had an added burden to his bogeys and his breakfast and his Olivetti: some idiot had given him a carton of honey-barbecued spare ribs.
Several hours later the last rib hit the waste bin and the last sheet of the forms was wrenched out of the machine. I read through it and put my signature on it, and he read through it and put his ‘X’ on it and smudged it. My hand was shaken and my back patted. I had been a good boy. I had grappled fearlessly with an intruder, seized his weapon, shot him, and then had the good sense to call the police and fill out their forms for them, and there would be no need for me to attend the inquest, and if I would care to step outside it would be nothing short of a pleasure for the City of New York to provide me with a freebie ride home in a patrol car.
I was tired – dog, dog tired – and wanted out of that police station and into bed. I went outside and breathed the chill air, and watched the steam pouring out of a subway vent in the road, and listened to the distant hum of cars and far-off sirens. Peace. It was growing dark; some streetlamps were on, the rest were flickering to get on. Sumpy would be at her apartment by now, back from lunch with her brother and sister-in-law and their three kids in their house by the sea down in Mamaroneck; just the normal routine of a normal life.
The car pulled up for me, four great burly cops inside. They all looked reasonably alert – it’s strange how you can tell something like that just from shadows or silhouettes, but you can. One in the back stepped out to hold the door for me and then climbed in after me; I sat in the middle of the back seat, snugly wedged between two uniformed hulks. They were big, comfortingly big. I lounged back into the greasy vinyl and inhaled the smell of plastic and stale cigarettes that most American cars smell of, and listened to the tramp, tramp noise of the tyres that all American cars make. I felt relaxed and was about to start up some friendly chatter when I felt a hard thin object slide in between my thighs and come firmly to rest against my right ball.
‘Don troi nuttin.’
I don’t know what the hell they expected me to try. Even if they were all unconscious the only way I could have got out of that car would have been to have drilled a hole in the roof. All of a sudden I felt very awake again. I felt very awake, but I knew I was tired, overtired, dangerously overtired, and that’s not good.
One half of me was sorely tempted not to bother to find out who they were, or where they were taking me, or what they planned to do, but just to crash out, let them take me wherever they planned and let the chips fall where they might.
The other half of me that had kept me out of the long wooden box for over three decades wasn’t going to have any of it. Secretly I was glad about that.
‘Know thine enemy,’ says the Good Book. On my 18 months’ intensive training in the Highlands six years back I’d been told much the same. I studied them, listening to their chatter: not a great deal to listen to – scrambled eggs for brains in their dialogue department; the highlight of their conversation was whether it would be better to take the first, second or third left to get to the Henry Hudson Parkway. They could count to three.
They were goons, four big rented goons, and I had an ominous feeling that they hadn’t got the wrong man; I could almost hear a cement-mixer grinding away in the trunk, making the quick-drying concrete for a pair of snug-fitting size 9½ boots.
I stared through the hairs in the goon on my right’s nostrils at the far-away lights of the Bronx as we cruised up the west bank of the Hudson, along the scenic Palisades Parkway past the neatly mown grass and the neatly trimmed hedges and the neatly painted signs to the neatly laid-out beauty spots – all carefully done to show how wealthy and prosperous the State of New Jersey was compared to its shabby neighbour on the other side of that deep, deep river. And tonight it looked deeper than ever.
There was an acute pain in my backside. What had felt like a small lump at the beginning of the ride was hurting more and more at each bump we went over. It was something I was sitting on. The pain, combined with the jabs from the shooter in my private parts every time we jolted, was beginning to make me feel irritable.
The two-way radio suddenly crackled into life. ‘Bravo Delta, are you on time for the wedding?’
One of the goons in the front replied, ‘Bravo Delta picked up the groom.’
There was a pause while the usual squawks and screeches came through the speaker, then, ‘Roger, Bravo Delta, we’re on our way to collect the bride. See you at the church.’
‘You got it,’ said the goon.
It didn’t tax my brain a great deal to work out who the bride might be, but just to help me out the goon in the front passenger seat, whose teeth looked like they had suffered a bad attack from termites, and whose breath smelt like he’d been drinking from a rain-tub full of dead bats, turned the ghastly assembly of scars, dents, spots and boils, perched above his neck and below his hat, that passed as his head. ‘Means your broad, sweetheart.’
If nothing else, this gem of English syntax annihilated the remainder of my fears about them having the wrong man. However, it didn’t make the pain in my backside any better, and it didn’t make me feel any happier. Nor did it give me any better clue as to who they were or what they wanted: a corpse, or a source of information – at the end of it all, probably both. I wasn’t overly inclined towards letting them have either; however, in light of the current situation, unless I did something pretty smart, and pretty quickly, it didn’t seem that my opinion was going to amount to a hill of beans.
We turned off the Parkway onto 9 West, curving round and underneath the Parkway onto a thickly wooded two-lane road. It was starting to rain; it was light rain, but it hit the car with a distinct slashing sound – a sound I had heard before when it rained in temperatures as cold as it was today: freezing rain – one of the most lethal of all driving hazards. To the driver it looks like ordinary rain, and it is, except that the moment it touches the surface it turns to ice; within moments of freezing rain starting, the road turns into an ice rink. It is not an uncommon phenomenon in the north eastern seaboard states during the winter. It is very difficult and very frightening to drive on. Muttered curses from the front seat, and the motion of the speed of the car easing slightly, indicated that the driver had recognised the hazard; whilst this rain lasted, and it wouldn’t last for long, I didn’t have to worry about the driver.
I tried in the gloom to study as best I could the shooter that was wedged between my legs; it was either a Smith and Wesson .44 revolver or a cheap copy cranked out by some back-street supplier. Either way it would be about the nearest thing to a hand-held Howitzer, well capable of carrying my crown jewels down through the seat and out through the bottom of the car. If it was a copy then I needed to worry about the trigger mechanism since it probably would be unreliable and more than a little sensitive to the slightest movement – ideal for the type of gorilla holding it, since his breed were not the type to discriminate too much about when or where their shooters went off just as long as they went off long enough and often enough to keep them on someone’s payroll.
The goon on my right was gazing out the window, off guard. The one in the passenger seat in front was wiping condensation off the windshield. Through the windshield, a long way ahead, was a green traffic light. Between us and the traffic light was the battery of tail lights of a large truck, probably a tractor-trailer. We were travelling downhill, and too quickly for the surface.
The goon in the front passenger seat switched on the ordinary radio; a commercial jingle blared out. The music stopped and a jolly voice told us all what rotten, lousy, stinking husbands we’d all be if we didn’t rush out instantly and make arrangements to have Whamtrash drainage systems installed in our homes and make life for our wives one whole lot easier. From the silence of the goons I could only think they were contemplating the advantages of a Whamtrash system.
‘One of your friends came into my apartment last night and shot the wrong guy,’ I announced.
The goon with the halitosis swivelled his head around.
‘Shaddup.’ He turned his head back to watch the road.
The traffic light was turning red. The radio told us of amazing bargains to be had at a local Pontiac dealer. All we had to do was go there and ask for Elmer Hyams. Elmer Hyams would do us real good. We would do our family unit a lot of good by buying a brand new Pontiac. We couldn’t buy a brand new Pontiac anywhere else in the United States of America cheaper than by dropping in and saying ‘Hi!’ to Elmer Hyams.
I rammed my left thumb down hard, real hard, into the trigger mechanism of the goon’s 44 and felt the hammer hit my thumb, hit it hard; my right hand smashed down on the reflex nerve of his gun hand, the gun jerked up and I jerked my thumb out; the hammer carried on down to the shell, hit the shell good and hard; the bullet blew out and took a chunk out of the roof; another bullet blew out and took another chunk out of the roof; another bullet blew out and took off most of the roof of the goon on my right’s head; another bullet blew out and went in between the goon in the front seat’s shoulder blades, and came out of his chest carrying most of his heart with it, and took most of his heart out through the windshield and into the New Jersey countryside.
I now had the gun. The driver had both hands on the wheel and was trying to see what was going on in the back. He forgot for a moment about the red light and the truck that had stopped, then remembered. He stamped on the anchors on the iced-up road and was turning the wheel this way and that. I thumped the goon on my left’s balls so hard he jumped up in the air. I had the door handle down and shoved him hard before he came back down in his seat, shoved him out into the road, and I was rolling out there with him. Another bullet blew out and went through his Adam’s apple. I thumped into the grass verge and rolled over. I saw the big black car do one complete circle and then slide, nose first, straight under the long, long tailgate of that big, big truck, and that tailgate swallowed up the big black car as it went further and further under, slicing through the windshield, and through the steering wheel, and clean through the necks of the driver and his passenger, depositing their heads in the lap of the goon in the rear seat; it carried right on, slicing through the neck of the goon in the rear seat and depositing what was left of his head out through the rear windshield, so it rolled down the trunk of the car, bounced off the rear fender, and came to a rest a little way up the road.
The stabbing pain in my ass was still there. I gingerly felt my behind and found a big lump, a big, sharp lump. I pulled, and it came away from my trousers, and I held it up in the gloom: it was a set of false teeth.
I sat down, took some gulps of air and carbon monoxide.
The highway had gone very quiet. Away up, I could hear the sounds of the truck driver retching. It was the only sound and it went on for a long time.
I was working in New York for the Intercontinental Plastics Corporation. The company occupied seven of the thirtytwo floors of the modern high-rise office block at 355 Park Avenue. Six of the floors were lumped together, the fourteenth to the nineteenth; the seventh was the penthouse floor, containing two private apartments for visiting clients or executives. No doubt in order to spare the expense of renting me lodgings during my lengthy stay over here. I was billeted in one of these apartments.
The company looked smart and successful. Its offices were plush, the receptionist and secretaries were pretty, and the facade of the building, with its brown steel and smoked glass, oozed the aura of money.
Intercontinental Plastics Corporation started life under a less grand name: the Idaho Wooden Box Company. It was founded by an out-of-work chicken sexer midway through the Depression. His name was Leo Zlimvaier. A Russian by birth, his father had emigrated with his family to the United States early in the twentieth century.
It was a familiar story. Leo was one of nine children who found themselves uprooted from their home, herded under the decks of an overcrowded boat and thrown around the ocean for weeks on end, amid sweat and vomit and a hundred other discomforts. Eventually young Leo and his family were disgorged into the full glory of the USA, and found themselves at the focal point of Western civilisation: in New York Central Station.
There was a choice open to them of five different railroad tickets. Leo Zlimvaier’s father picked the one that, unknown to him at the time, assured him and his family of the bleakest of the five futures on offer. Two and a half days later they emerged, blinking and stupefied, into the bowels of God’s country: Boise, Idaho. The first blinding realisation to hit Zlimvaier Senior as he stepped down onto the soil was this: they were in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
Zlimvaier struggled hard, and managed to feed and clothe his family. One by one, as soon as the children became old enough, he gave them as many dollars as he could spare and sent them off into the world to fend for themselves.
Leo’s turn came as the Depression was starting. He was armed only with a few dollars and a working knowledge of his father’s own profession: chicken sexing. Handicapped by poverty, but no idiot, he came to the rapid conclusion that nobody in the spring of 1930 in Boise, Idaho, or its environs, stood much chance of getting rich out of chicken sexing.
There was, he was soon to discover, an acute shortage of fruit boxes since, owing to the general shortage of jobs, much of the populace had taken to selling apples and other fruit in the streets. Wood, he found out, came cheap, in the form of millions upon millions of trees that no one seemed to be interested in.
Leo Zlimvaier set to work, with the simplest of tools and sheer sweat, turning trees into fruit boxes. There was no shortage of customers for his boxes and he rapidly discovered that with money in his pocket it was easy to find others willing to make the fruit boxes for him. Within 12 months he had built a very large shed and had 75 people working in it. Although he wasn’t as yet fully aware of it he was on his way to ranking alongside Charles Darrow, the inventor of Monopoly, and Leo Burnett, founder of the massive advertising agency, and many others who founded vast fortunes during the Depression years.
As the profits piled up, Zlimvaier started investing in machinery that could make fruit boxes very much quicker than the out-of-work engineers and stockbrokers and taxi drivers and insurance salesmen and such like, that were his workforce. Soon his shed was 3 times its original size, contained only 30 men, and churned out 100 times as many fruit boxes as before. At the very height of the Depression Zlimvaier bought his first Cadillac.
He married and produced a son, Dwight, but neither wife nor child really interested him. He was obsessed by boxes. Daily, people were writing to him, asking if he could produce other types of boxes. He started producing boxes for companies instead of farmers. He found the companies would pay higher prices and not quibble, so long as they got their deliveries.
A second factory was started, and the name of the company was changed to the National Business Box Company. Soon Zlimvaier was manufacturing everything from medicine chests to filing cabinets to safes. When the Second World War arrived Zlimvaier changed the name of the company again, this time to the National Munitions Box Corporation. One in every three packing cases and one in every three boxes containing ammunition used by the United States forces during the entire war was made by Leo Zlimvaier’s factories.
After the war he started experimenting with plastics. Soon he was producing plastic drink-dispensers, plastic filing cabinets, plastic golf-bags: he produced, in plastic, anything into which something else could be put. He changed the name yet again, now to the National Plastic Box Corporation.
Computers started to appear in general usage in business. At that time they were unsightly piles of spaghetti wiring, searing valves, sheets of raw welded metal, whirring tapes, sprawling over a considerable acreage of floor space in what had once been neat and efficient-looking offices. The National Plastic Box Corporation managed to produce smart cabinets for them so that all became concealed behind grey or blue boxes with a few impressive rows of switches and blinking lights.
Leo Zlimvaier went international and opened his first factory abroad, on an industrial estate between Slough and London’s Heathrow Airport. He once again changed the name of the company. It became the Intercontinental Plastics Corporation. Six months later Zlimvaier keeled over with a massive heart attack and died. His widow inherited the lot. She had no idea the business had ever expanded from the one original shed, which still churned out fruit boxes. She made their 19-year-old son chairman and chief executive. It was the second biggest mistake of her life; her first was marrying Zlimvaier.
As far as the Intercontinental Plastics Corporation was concerned, Dwight Zlimvaier was not his father’s son by any stretch of the imagination. He was not interested in plastic and he was not interested in business. His sole consuming passion in life was collecting butterflies. It was only with the greatest reluctance that he dragged himself away from the slaughter, framing and cataloguing of these creatures to sign cheques and approve major decisions. Within four years of his father’s death the profits of Intercontinental had slumped to an all-time low. Five factories were closing down through lack of work. The company was easy prey for the take-over brigade.
In an extremely complex and carefully planned succession of transactions the Intercontinental Plastics Corporation was bought by a consortium in England. This consortium needed a legitimate front under which to operate in the United States. Only a handful of Englishmen knew the true identity of this consortium: it was M15.
Excerpted from Dead Letter Drop by Peter James. Copyright © 1981 by Peter James.
First published 1981 by W. H. Allen. This edition published 2014 by Pan Books, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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