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"You don't remember me at all, do you?"
"Wide asleep, fast awake. Lost yer bandana, ave you? I et one of them once; was yeller, not grey."
"Ah-hah." The man smiled at her. (She saw, now. She'd thought he'd seemed familiar. The woman was inside the man. That That was a bit tupsy-torvy!) "So," the man-woman said. "Are you all right now?" was a bit tupsy-torvy!) "So," the man-woman said. "Are you all right now?"
"We apologise for any convenience caused."
"Listen, Seven, Bisquitine; I'm going to have to go soon. Is there anything I can do for you before that?"
"Yo, you cookin wit gas, now, hep cat. Cool. Hot properly."
"Why don't you come down this way? We'll find a cafe, sit down, maybe have something to eat. What do you say?"
"Shiver me timbres, matey-boy. About flipping time, me old teapot!"
"I'm going to take your hand, is that all right?"
"Better men than you have tried, Thruckley. Leave me here. I'll only slow you down. That's an order, mister. Let's get outa here. Pesky kids."
"It's okay. There. Come on. We'll sit down. You'll be okay. I'll get somebody to come for you."
"Lummy. There'll be no going back, mind. Not on my escapement."
"They'll be my people, not the others. You'll be okay. I swear."
"This isn't about you, it's me."
"Let's get that gown closed, okay? There you go."
"I take full responsibility."
"Funny old life, sport."
This is how it ends: he comes into my room. He is dressed in black and is wearing gloves. It is dark in here, just a night light on, but he can identify me, lying on the hospital bed, propped up at a slight angle, one or two remaining tubes and wires attaching me to various pieces of medical equipment. He ignores these; the nurse who would hear any alarm is lying trussed and taped down the hall, the monitor in front of him switched off. The man shuts the door, darkening the room still further. He walks quietly to my bedside, though I am unlikely to wake as I am sedated, lightly drugged to aid a good night's sleep. He looks at my bed. Even in the dim light he can see that it is tightly made; I am constricted within this envelope of sheets and blanket. Rea.s.sured by this confinement, he takes the spare pillow from the side of my head and places it gently at first over my face, then quickly bears down on me, forcing his hands down on either side of my head, pinning my arms under the covers with his elbows, placing most of his weight on his arms and his chest, his feet rising from the floor until only the tips of his shoes are still in contact with it.
I don't even struggle at first. When I do he simply smiles. My feeble attempts to bring my hands up and to use my legs to kick myself free come to nothing. Wound amongst these sheets, even a fit man would have stood little chance of fighting his way from beneath such suffocating weight. Finally, in one last hopeless convulsion, I try to arch my back. He rides this throe easily and in a moment or two I fall back, and all movement ceases.
He is no fool; he has antic.i.p.ated that I might merely be playing dead.
So he lies quite calmly on me for a while, as unmoving as me, checking his watch now and again as the minutes tick by, to make sure I am gone.
... But there has been no intensifying beeping noise from the machine that monitors my heart, its signal quickening as I expire. No alarm has sounded at all. He was expecting that one would, so this troubles him a little. I expect he glances at his wrist.w.a.tch. From this he would see that he has been lying on me for over two minutes since my last movement. He frowns (I imagine). He presses down ever harder, feet rising entirely off the polished vinyl floor with a squeak. He has the same grasp of physiological limits as I do and so he knows that after four minutes brain death must be complete. He waits until that time is up.
He relaxes his grip, then tentatively releases me from the pillow's embrace. He pulls the pillow entirely away and stands there, looking down at me, glancing with a curious, concerned, but not especially worried expression at the monitoring machines on the far side of the bed. He looks back at me, a tiny frown on his face.
Perhaps his eyes have adjusted a little better to the gloom now, or perhaps he is looking for something to explain the lack of an alarm. At last he notices the tiny, transparent, and in this light near-invisible tube that leads from the oxygen cylinder standing amongst the other equipment to my nose. (I see this; my eyes are even better adjusted to the darkness than his and are cracked open just enough to see his eyes suddenly widen.) My right arm slides free of the bedclothes. I had felt for the paring knife hidden behind my bedside cabinet as soon as I'd heard the unusual noise in the corridor outside. I'd switched the heart monitor off too. I bring the hand with the knife sweeping out and round and up, catching the pillow as he tries to parry the blow. I feel the knife connect with something hard, jarring my hand. The pillow rips apart in a flurry of tiny pieces of white foam; they billow and scatter and start to fall as he stumbles to the door, holding one hand with the other. I am falling, already exhausted, to the floor, trailing bedclothes, legs still half trapped by the constricting sheets. My lunge has snapped or disconnected leads and cables and so finally produces some alarm noises from the nearby machines.
If he was thinking straight, and was not injured and shocked by what has just happened, my a.s.sailant might stay and finish the job, taking advantage of my weakness, but he stumbles crashing against the door, whirls it open and runs out, still holding his hand. Blood, dark as ink, spots on the floor as, finally, I slide out of the bed's torque of sheets, released from its confinement as though being birthed. I lie gasping on the blood-slicked floor, surrounded by tiny soft particles of foam, still falling like snow.
n.o.body comes, and eventually it is I who have to stagger along the corridor and cut the duty nurse free from his chair so he can call the police.
I sit back, exhausted, on the floor.
They find my attacker in his crashed car, dead, early the following morning. The car is wrapped around a tree on a quiet road a few kilometres away from the clinic. His hand wound was not life-threatening, but it bled copiously and he did not stop to staunch the bleeding properly. The police think that probably some animal deer or fox, most likely made him swerve, and his hand, blood-slicked, slipped on the wheel. It didn't help that he hadn't put his seat belt on.
I recover gradually over the next two months and leave without ceremony nearly a year and a half after first arriving at the clinic.
And? And I accept that all that happened happened, and I accept my part in it. I accept, too, that it is over, and that still the most rational explanation is that none of it happened, that I made it all up; I was never a man called Temudjin Oh.
Of course, that still leaves open the question of why somebody entered the hospital, tied up the nurse and tried to smother me in my bed, but no matter how I look at all this and try to explain it there is always at least one loose end, and looking at it this way, with that particular explanation resulting in that particular loose end, produces the most comprehensive of the former and the least troubling of the latter.
Whatever; I am resigned to living a quiet and normal life henceforth and will be content with that. I shall find a place to live and some honest, constructive work to do, if I can. I shall put my dreams of the Concern, Mrs Mulverhill and Madame d'Ortolan and of having been Mr Oh behind me.
We'll see. I suppose I could be wrong about any of this, including the sensible stuff.
I have much to think about, I think.
When Mr Kleist wakes up he is in some pain. His head hurts a lot. He feels drunk or hungover or both. He has a raging thirst. He can't breathe very well. This is because he is gagged, with tape. Starting to panic, he looks round. He is in a cellar that he remembers from long ago. He is tied tightly to a central-heating unit.
A youthful figure in a woollen ski mask comes carefully down the stairs, holding a steaming kettle.
Mr Kleist starts trying to scream.
Madame d'Ortolan forcibly removed, much reduced, quite marooned on her way to watch the eclipse in Lhasa, on what she is sure will turn out to be another complete waste of time, looks out of the window to watch the crumpled grey, brown and green lands of Tibet slide by. She misses Mr Kleist. Though there was never anything s.e.xual between them, still she misses him.
Her current a.s.sistant and bodyguard is asleep on the seat across from her, snoring. He is extremely well built and fit, but quite without an original thought or even observation in his pretty, thick-necked head.
She misses Christophe, the chauffeur, from the other Paris. That was entirely s.e.xual. She breathes deeply, sucking oxygen from the little mask attached to the train's supply.
She is still thinking of Christophe when the door suddenly flies open. The man is in the compartment and swinging round to face them arms triangled out, fists closed round a long handgun before her eyes have had time to fully widen or her mouth can fully open.
The sleeping bodyguard never even wakes up. The closest he gets is that his snoring stops. The last expression on his face is a mild frown. Then his brains are blown across his burly shoulder and onto the carriage window in a grey-red fan, the impact of his head breaking the internal pane of the double-glazed window, spreading cracks like shattered ice.
Madame d'Ortolan flinches back, horrified, screaming, as some of the blood and brains spatters over her. The gunman kicks the door shut, glances round the compartment.
Madame d'Ortolan cuts the scream off, turns to face him. She holds up one hand.
"Now just wait wait! Temudjin, if that's you, I still have considerable resources, much to offer. I-"
He doesn't say anything. He was only waiting for her to confirm who she was, and she's done that now.
In the last second before she dies, Madame d'Ortolan realises what is about to happen and stops saying what she was starting to say, instead carefully p.r.o.nouncing just the one word: "Traitor."
"Only to you, Theodora," the gunman murmurs to herself, between the first and second head shots.
The Pitcher Mike Esteros is sitting at the bar of the Commodore Hotel, Venice Beach, after yet another unsuccessful pitch. Technically he doesn't know it's unsuccessful yet, but he's developing a nose for these things and he'd put money on another rejection. It's starting to get him down. He still believes in the idea and he's still sure it'll get made one day, plus he knows that att.i.tude is everything in this business, he must remain positive if he doesn't believe in himself, why should anybody else? but, well, all the same.
The bar is quiet. He wouldn't normally drink at this time of day. Maybe he needs to adjust the plot, make it more family-oriented. Focus on the boy, on the father son thing. Cute it up a little. A dusting of schmaltz. Never did any harm. Well, no real harm. Maybe he's been believing too much in the basic idea, a.s.suming that because it's so obvious to him what a beautiful, elegant thing it is, it'll be obvious to everybody else and they'll be falling over themselves to green-light it and give him lots of money.
And don't forget Goldman's Law: n.o.body knows anything. n.o.body knows what will work. That's why they make so many remakes and Part Twos; what looks like lack of imagination is really down to too much, as paranoid execs visualise all the things that could go wrong with a brand new, untested idea. Going with something containing elements that definitely worked in the past removes some of the terrifying uncertainty.
What he's got here is a radical, left-field idea. The central concept is almost too original for its own good. That's why it needs a generous helping of conventionality slathered over it. He'll rework it, again. It's not a prospect that fills him with joy, frankly, but he guesses it has to be done and he has to struggle on. It's worth it. He still believes in it. It's just a dream, but it's a dream that could be made real and this is the place where that happens. Your dreams, of your idea and your future self, your fortunes, get turned into reality here. He still loves this place, still believes in it, too.
A woman comes in and sits two seats away. She's rangy and dark, dressed in jeans and shirt. She sees him looking and he says Hi, asks if he can buy her a drink. She thinks about it, looks at him in a frankly evaluatory way and says okay. A beer. He asks to join her and she says yes to that as well. She's cute and friendly and smart, nice laugh. Just his type. A lawyer, on a day off, just relaxing. Connie. They get to talking, have another beer each then decide they're wasting the sunny day and go for a walk along the boardwalk beneath the tall palms, watching the rollers rolling in, the skaters skating, the bladers blading, the cyclists cycling, the walkers walking and the surfers, way in the distance, surfing. They sit in a little cafe still within sight of the beach, then go for dinner in a little Vietnamese place a short walk away. He gives her the pitch because she's genuinely interested. She thinks it's a great idea. It actually seems to make her thoughtful.
Later they walk on the beach in the light of a half-moon, then sit, and there's some kissing and a modest amount of fooling around, though she's already told him she doesn't go any further on a first date. Him too, he tells her, though strictly speaking that's nonsense of course and he guesses that she guesses this but doesn't seem to care.
She takes his hands in hers and says, "Michael, what if I said I had access to a lot of money. Money that I think you could use. Money I'd like you to use."
He laughs. "I'd... think this was too good to be true. You come into a bar, we leave it together, then here we are kissing in the moonlight and now you're telling me you're rich?" He shakes his head. "I wouldn't write this. I wouldn't dare. You serious?"
"The money would not be for making your script into a film, however."
"Oh? Well, I'm crushed. What, then?"
"It would be so that you could become a shadow chaser. It would be so that you can travel the world going to particular places on the tracks of eclipses and looking for people who seem a little overdressed, for RVs with dark windows, for rented villas where the locals haven't seen the residents, for yachts where n.o.body appears on deck."
He stares at her for a while. "h.e.l.l, girl. You serious about that that?"
"Also, you will need a new ident.i.ty. There are people who would like to make you disappear. One of them was going to try to do this today. We pa.s.sed her on the boardwalk earlier."
He looks around. "Is this a joke? Where's the camera?"
"No joke, Michael." She puts her hands round his wrists, encircling them as near as she can. "Now, I am going to bring you back, but let me show how they would make you disappear."
... "Holy s.h.i.t."
Adrian Adrian is left disoriented and slightly paranoid by it all. He gets back to dear old Blighty and, thoroughly rattled, begins to sell everything up. Handily, he manages to offload almost all he owns just days before Lehman Brothers collapses and the entirety of international finance falls flailing off the first of several cliffs. He immediately decides this is a sign of his invincible superiority and flawless luck. He also decides to live where his money is with the Forth International Bank so buys a villa on Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands, south of Cuba.
The Cayman Islands are a proper tropical paradise with aquamarine crystal waters and palm trees and golden beaches and everything, but they are very p.r.o.ne to hurricanes. In the summer of 2009 Adrian hears there's a big one on the way. Most of the rich just jet off to somewhere more congenial for a few days but he decides he'd like to experience a proper hurricane, because he is invincible, after all.
Just as well; he discovers that the villa was flooded in the last Category 5 and so, after some problems finding anybody still around and doing the jobs they're f.u.c.king being paid to do, he hires an ancient walk-through delivery van from a friend and loads all the stuff he can carry from the villa into it: televisions, computers, hi-fis, scuba gear, rugs, pieces of designer furniture, some Benin bronzes, a couple of full-size replica terracotta warriors, various paintings and so on. It's exhausting, but he's sure it'll be worth it. He parks up on higher ground, behind a st.u.r.dy-looking water tower just outside George Town, and sits there through the night, the winds shrieking around him and the truck, laden though it is, shaking and bouncing on its shot, overloaded springs.
The face of one of the terracotta warriors, standing right behind his seat, looks inscrutably over his shoulder throughout the night, either angel of death or guardian angel Adrian can't decide which. The disturbing thing is that the company making the replicas let you specify what you wanted their faces to look like, and Adrian chose his own face for both, so there's basically a stony-faced version of himself standing right behind his seat the whole time.
The water tower makes some terrible groaning noises during the night and scares him half to death, but it doesn't fall down and survives intact.
In the afternoon of the next day, when the hurricane has pa.s.sed, he drives the beaten-up van back along the leaf- and wreckage-strewn road to discover the villa is intact and unflooded; almost undamaged. His luck has held yet again and he is still invincible. He grins, reaches behind him and pats the cheek of the terracotta warrior: guardian angel, then. But on the way down to the villa, whooping and hollering, he loses control of the truck and it slams into a ditch.
All his possessions in the back come sliding forward and crush him to death.
Bisquitine Bisquitine remains Empress of all she surveys, just as she always has been.
The Transitionary All right, I lied about the quiet and normal life bit. So I'm unreliable. And there was no deer, or fox, or any other form of wildlife involved. What there was, was me; briefly inside his head as he drove away. Long enough to unfasten the b.a.s.t.a.r.d's seat belt and tug hard on the steering wheel before dancing back out of his head again an instant before the crash.
It was as long as I could have stayed in there anyway, and it hurt, plus it wore me out for days.
But it's a start.
Also by Iain M. Banks
The Player Of Games