Interior, night. Delaney is sitting at the short end of an L-shaped bar, still wearing his jacket. He has been there for several hours and has outlasted most of the clientèle. The bartender is young, shining glasses unironically.
“Dimmer than a thirty-watt bulb at midnight,” he said. The colour of his eyes matched the drapes as he poured from the bottle. Lingering in the background a woman, swinging her arms from side to side across her torso. The faint aroma of some forgotten scent.
The slow-motion bartender drew up to my side and placed a glass tumbler two thirds full of whiskey—or perhaps whisky—at my left hand. “I’m right-handed,” I said. He stared at me for either a second or an hour. I couldn’t quite read his round clock face.
I faced the window, watching the rain slanting petulantly sideways. In the blur I could see my Packard, a stream of colour. Beside it was a white van, back doors open, being loaded with belongings. I saw—or simply imagined—clothes, supermarket bags containing books, duvets and knives, stuffed toys and even a guitar case being packed into the hollow can.
Putting down the tumbler alongside a handful of green and silver I aimed at the door, eventually making it to the convertible, its roof sagging against the rain. A broad-faced man muttering in broken English was tossing boxes into the back of the vehicle beside mine. He had thinning grey hair, plastered to his head now, and an off-white shirt. He looked like a creep and acted like an uncle as he put the finishing touches to a mountain of untamed cardboard, plastics and wooden hollows, leaving just the rear wheel arches visible inside the van.
I flipped my collar against the rain and approached him. My hat was already spotted with drops when I put it on.
He drew up beside me holding a blanket. He folded it over several times until the fabric was an inch or so thick, then settled it neatly in the back left-hand corner of the van, just behind the rear wheel bump.
“So, Ray,” he said, turning toward me and in the same movement pulling from beneath the blanket a snub-nosed pistol, its bulldog muzzle aimed somewhere between my upper thigh and my stomach. He tapped the blanket as though that somehow made everything all right, and I laughed mildly hysterically. I half-drunkenly hunkered down as he began to make wild hand gestures. “But don’t” he flicked fingers up at the side of his head. He grabbed my upper arm and skidded me into the back of the van, snapping handcuffs half onto the inside door handle, half onto my wrist.
Safely tethered, I crouched a little too much, hoping that bruising my tailbone and drenching my jacket in dirty rainwater would offset the chances of a bouncing brown fedora alerting someone of my presence.
Speed bumps. Uuppp, and down down downdowndown. As night-lit signs and street posts flickered around my field of vision, limited to the tops of buildings and road names I had never heard of, and as I glanced at the small, badly topographed hills of boxes and bags, I felt something of the foreignness of those packed into indefinite vehicles with indefinite people crossing indefinite borders.
The street names passed, my head hung, and the siren wails of an ambulance and fire truck lost their threatening edge as I sunk into the grooves of the road, leaning on the inside of the wheel arch. I guessed we would soon arrive, though there was no way to tell. I was stuck—for now—inside this tin box, rain drops coalescing on windows.
Interior, night. Delaney is bundled—wet, unsober and tired—into a plush room. The carpet and wallpaper are gilt-edged beige, the furniture genuinely antique. There is little light in the room. Delaney is thrown into a chair, and the Removal Man leaves.
My captor had freed me, but I was a tiger thrown into a different cage. I reached up to rub my eyes and my hand came away red—from the drive or from the driver I couldn’t tell.
I was staring at a bookcase and that was all I knew. I read a spine slowly, upside-down on the chair. It said: The private memoirs and confessions of a Justified Sinner. I didn’t know it, but I feared that the movie I currently seemed to be starring in was taking a wrong turn.
The soft scratch–click of a latch was accompanied by steps. I didn’t look up. I didn’t want to. “Mr Delaney, the only way we’re going to get through this is by avoiding certain topics.” I braced my arms against the chair back and lifted myself as close to upright as I could. “One such topic is your less-than-spectacular entrance. I do hope some mutual forgiveness can be arranged—after all Michael is not the most accommodating of my staff. Mr Butler is far better schooled in terms of client relations.”
“Am I to take it you’re Julian Hartnett?”
“Well I can how you got into your line of business, Mr Delaney,” he replied. He cleared some books from his desk and perched on the edge. “We need to discuss a few things about some papers which were taken from me by Ms Jenkins. Papers that are very important to me. Worth millions, potentially. I don’t suppose you’ve ever dealt with more than four figures in your life.”
“I’ve seen it come and go,” I said.
“Patents are where the money is. They are a big part of Biosciences’ income,” he continued. “We began this project several years ago, but only now has it begun its first stages of implementation. I won’t bore you with the details, but—”
“Please don’t,” I replied. “The Sprite project might be too complicated for a simple shamus such as myself to understand.”
Deciding to play the only good hand I had—Sadie’s letting slip the project name—I stood, grasping as little as possible at the furniture. I couldn’t read his reaction, but I figured I had nothing to lose. Stumbling back toward the door I had been thrown through, it opened and spewed Michael the removal man and Mr Butler back into Hartnett’s study. Michael smiled pleasantly.
Hartnett began again. “I have a proposal. For a suitable though non-negotiable fee, you are going to help me retrieve the Sprite papers.” He unperched himself and walked over to a cabinet disguised as a python. Extracting a thick, rough cigar he proffered it to me. “This might take some time. Have a seat…”
Exterior, night. The rain has stopped. Beside the white removal van is Delaney’s Packard and Butler’s Buick. A door opens and Delaney is escorted to the convertible by Michael and Mr Butler.