Brion Frisch had taken a calculated gamble in borrowing money from a friend with a somewhat doubtful reputation; a gamble which had failed. Alfie had been arrested over a rather stupid burglary because someone else had ‘dropped him in it’, to quote from his semi-apologetic explanation for why he had delivered Frisch into the clutches of a well-known local loan shark.
Alfie had needed cash in a hurry, and selling on Frisch’s IOU had been one of his ways of raising enough cash for a decent solicitor instead one of the ‘clockwork clowns’ who serve as duty solicitors in police stations.
Frisch had tried to reason with Sym Arrogan. The response had been a dose of casual violence from one of Arrogan’s staff. He had then tried to service the mounting debt, and he had repaid a lot more than the original amount borrowed, but Sym Arrogan was a man with a reputation to maintain. He could not let some random punter get away with messing him about. Let one do it and others would see his failure to take violent exception as a general licence to take liberties.
Frisch had been dropped even deeper into his mire by his employer at a time when he had exhausted his resources. A late salary payment had meant that Frisch had failed to attend a payment meeting with one of the ‘staff’; usually an ape-man type with just about enough intelligence to count banknotes and know whether to deliver a thumping if the total was insufficient.
Frisch endured three quiet days. The usual faces ignored him and his phone remained free of harassment calls. Somewhat unnerved, Frisch drew the conclusion that partial repayment was now no longer an option for him. Arrogan, he felt, had decided to make an example of him and he was just softening him up with a period of anticipation, letting Frisch’s imagination work against him.
What he needed, Frisch decided, was a Plan; some device which would spare him the inevitable – a serious beating then looking for a couple of weeks like a man who had been standing next to an Islamic suicide bomber. What he really needed, he concluded after further thought, was a Plan A and a back-up Plan B.
When it came, the kidnapping operation was alarming at one level and something of a relief at another. Frisch was in the university car park when he suddenly found himself in the dark. The dull, spring afternoon was blotted out by an impenetrable black sack, which was over his head and trapping his arms before he realized what was happening to him.
Someone tapped his ankle with what felt like a steel-toed boot and warned him not to struggle. Frisch had already decided that resistance would be futile.
The black sack came off in what looked like a cold, wet cellar. Frisch, now seated on a hard chair, was prepared to blink in protest at an influx of bright light, but there was just one dim bulb in a distant corner of the gloomy room. The stone-flagged floor had a recently washed gloss, which showed no signs of drying and fading.
Expecting to see the thin, smiling face of Race Benjo, the chief enforcer of the loan sharking operation, Frisch was surprised to find the boss looking at him; and not smiling. The ‘staff’, who had brought him to the dungeon were behind Frisch and out of his field of view.
“Sorry about the unhealthy surroundings, but you won’t be in them long enough for them to have an adverse effect on your health.” Sym Arrogan put on an even grimmer expression to underline the hints in his tone of horrors to come in the near future. “We’ve not heard from you for a few days.”
“I’ve been busy when I’ve not been trying to scrape together money to drop down your black hole,” Frisch returned.
“Doing what?” Arrogan’s tone said that he was just making conversation; he was not really interested in what Frisch had been doing when he had not been trying to raise liquid money.
“We’ve developed a rather virulent strain of a panteric virus at the university,” Frisch said. “I’ve been working with that.”
“You mean, my taxes are paying for germ warfare research?” Arrogan said indignantly.
“It’s more research designed to counter existing biological warfare agents and possible developments from them.”
“Someone doing a job like that should be able to pay his debts on time.”
“Except, when the computer system in the accounts department screws up making payments, they won’t admit anything’s gone wrong and I end up with no cash. You know this has happened before. I’ve still got the bruises to show for it.”
“My heart bleeds for you, sonny,” laughed Arrogan, who in his mid-fifties and Frisch’s senior by no more than a decade.
“That’s something this virus does,” said Frisch. “Makes the heart and other internal organs bleed inside the victim. It’s transmitted via contact with an infected person; touching unprotected skin to their skin; and also via aerosols in the carrier’s breath. It’s so contagious that just being in the
same room with a carrier is a death sentence.”
“Charming!” said Arrogan, resuming his neutral expression.
“Oh, it gets better,” said Frisch. “A good way to spread the virus is by using a human carrier. Someone who’s been immunized, like I have, can remain infectious for anything from a few hours to up to three weeks after re-exposure.”
“Yeah? Pull the other one, pal.” Arrogan directed a glare past Frisch at his staff. All three of them were looking nervous.
Frisch looked at his watch; he was just sitting on the chair, not tied to it. “And I gave myself an injection of the viral agent about ninety minutes ago.”
“Bollocks!” scoffed Arrogan.
“Let’s see if you’re as cocky in six to eight hours,” said Frisch. “When the symptoms start and there’s no one willing to give you the antidote because the existence of the virus is top secret.”
“Bollocks!” repeated Arrogan.
“I should think the incubation period will be just about long enough for you to sort out your personal affairs. You’ll have three to five hours left to live when the symptoms start. You can tell when that happens because you’ll get a sore throat. Then it gets much worse.”
“This bastard had better be joking,” a gruff voice said behind Frisch.
“Stop panicking, you lot,” Arrogan ordered. “The tosser’s bluffing. He knows what’s going to happen to him and he’s just trying to buy himself some time.”
“Well, all you have to do is wait a few hours at the most,” said Frisch. “And when you start
dying, you’ll know I was telling the truth. But I suppose I won’t be around to tell you where to
find the antidote by then. But I’ll be taking five of you with me. Not a bad trade.”
Frisch had been expecting to be roughed up. When Sym Arrogan told his staff to get on with softening him up, there was something oddly tentative about the blows that landed on Frisch’s body. The staff seemed reluctant to shed any blood in case they exposed themselves to an AIDS-like contamination, even though Frisch had told them that just being in the same room with him had doomed them.
“There has to be an antidote,” Arrogan said when he became tired of the collective feeble assault which his staff had made on the prisoner.
“Well, obviously, if I’m not going to die of the virus,” said Frisch.
Arrogan took something out of his pocket and whirled it. Suddenly, there was a knife with a shiny blade in his right hand. “This is my favourite butterfly knife and it’s incredibly sharp,” he remarked. “And it’s great for slicing body parts off. I can start with your ears and nose, and then move on to the trouser department. You wouldn’t enjoy watching us die very much if you’re in pieces yourself.”
Arrogan’s staff laughed without enthusiasm. They were worried about surviving what they had expected to be just a routine chastisement of a slow payer.
“I have some in my fridge at home,” Frisch admitted quickly when one of the staff grabbed his left ear.
“Okay, let’s go.” Arrogan whirled the knife, making the blade disappear into the handle, and returned it to his pocket.
The staff kept Frisch under close observation as they marched him to a car and a van. To his surprise, Frisch ended up in the boot of the car. He had acquired a few new bruises by the time the convoy reached his home. He was extracted from the boot of the car so slickly that he
doubted that anyone nearby, if there was anyone nearby, realized that he was a prisoner.
“I hope none of you are afraid of needles,” Frisch remarked as one of the staff opened the front door with his keys.
“We’re not afraid of nothing,” another of the staff remarked.
“Just get on with it,” Arrogan said in a warning tone.
“I’m just letting you know what will happen,” said Frisch. “You’ll all need a course of three injections six hours apart to kill the virus and give you immunity. I have enough syringes for the first round but you’ll have to scare up the rest yourselves.”
“Might as well have a beer while we’re waiting,” one of the staff remarked with false bravado.
“Good idea,” said Arrogan. “Got some chilling in your fridge with the antidote, have you?”
“I suppose so,” Frisch said in a tone of resignation.
“What’s the stuff look like? The antidote?”
“Ampoules of colourless liquid in a block of red plastic,” said Frisch.
“Maybe we should give him a shot to make sure it’s not poison,” said one of the staff.
“Good idea,” said Arrogan. “I’d better check the fridge to make sure he’s not stashed a gun in it.”
The group arrived in the kitchen with the boss in the lead. Frisch ended up at the back of the party and the queue for beer. He was almost ready for the rush of sound and heat. But not quite.
Detective Chief Inspector Dan McHorse reached the end of a wad of papers in a beige folder and put on an expression of contentment. Detective Inspector Askia Reeves relaxed in her chair and prepared to accept a glass of whisky, knowing that she had presented her boss with what he always wanted; a nicely wrapped-up case with no loose ends.
“Looks like our friend Mr. Frisch was bloody lucky,” said McHorse. “He survived because the others took the full force of the explosion.”
“They reckon he’ll always be a bit deaf,” Reeves said with a nod. “And he’ll be off work for a month or two, recovering.”
“That would be nice, a couple of months off.” McHorse pulled open the file drawer of his desk and extracted a whisky bottle and two glasses. “He probably needs it to recover from what he’s been through, does Mr. Frisch.”
“Having his debt sold to a violent loan shark then being blown up by animal rights loonies?” Reeves said with a laugh. “He probably needs all the time off he can get. Cheers!”
“Cheers, Sassy! We’re happy Frisch has no connection with animal rights?”
“None at all. No evidence in his house; the bits that weren’t blown up; no gossip, no intelligence that we know of, nothing.” Reeves sat back in her chair and prepared to devote a little time to drinking whisky and letting her boss convince himself that they had tied everything up. “He’s just an equipment technician in the university’s Department of Psychology and Behavioural Studies. Which happens to be next door to the labs occupied by a biology professor with a licence to perform animal experiments.”
“Which he’s not doing any of at the moment.”
“Yes, he’s actually working on alternatives to using animals.”
“So the lunatics were right off target?”
“Way off. It’s probably just like you said, boss. The two sets of labs share common areas for printing documents, brewing up, bringing visitors and so on. So whoever decided Frisch was involved in animal experiments must have seen him with the biology professor’s people and assumed he was one of them.
“And somewhat easier to get at?”
Reeves shrugged. “That’s what the security report said. He’s the only one living on his own in a low security area.”
“No access to explosives that we know of?”
“Frisch studied physics and electronics, not chemistry. And there’s no sign he’s been looking up anything to do with bombs on the Internet.”
“And there’s nothing doubtful in his story about how he ended up as one of Sym Arrogan’s customers?”
Reeves shrugged again. “His friend Alfie is in gaol, and he confirms he sold the IOU on. The data we got from what survived of Arrogan’s books confirms the details we got from Frisch. Everyone we talked to at the university confirmed their accounts computer system is a load of crap and it’s always making late payments.”
“Which the university still won’t admit?” McHorse said with a grin.
“Even though it’s been on telly and in the papers, boss.”
“So the final score is that we’ve got Arrogan and two of his staff dead at the scene of the explosion. Another managed to get to the van but he croaked two streets away. And Frisch doesn’t remember much after he was kidnapped? And certainly not being taken back to his place?”
“That’s about the size of it, boss.”
“And we get to hand four unsolved murders over to the National Major Crime Squad, as they have animal rights connections, and the Nemcis deals with all deaths connected with animal rights activists. Sweet.”
“And Frisch gets to have his house done up courtesy of the university’s insurance company as what happened to it was work-related. Which should put a smile on his face eventually because the neighbours all said it was a bit of a dump before the kitchen was blown up.”
“So we’ve had four career villains removed from our patch and everyone’s happy?” DCI McHorse said as he topped up the glasses. “Except the Nemcis gang, of course.”
“Except that two other loan sharks have already divided up Arrogan’s patch,” DI Reeves pointed out.
“Which provides us with continuity of employment, Sassy. Cheers!”
DCI McHorse kept his smile at a relentless level as he poured whisky through it. He was a great believer in taking advantage of opportunities to be cheerful whenever they arose. The life of a working copper could seem very grim and grey otherwise. ■