HELM ENJOYED BEING mysterious when he telephoned the English Mr. Lane. Explanations were not in his contract. Why he happened to want a radio-controlled model aircraft was none of Lane's business. Helm collected a large parcel at the garage in Piraeus two and a half hours later, which said a lot for his back-up's efficiency. He had bought a hand-drill, some bits for it and a packet of nuts and bolts at a do-it-yourself shop in the suburbs of Athens. Pointing at things and a little Greek had proved an effective way of shopping.
He spent the rest of the afternoon getting his idea to work. Helm was mechanically handy and good at figuring out how things function. He had learned that a five-minute job usually takes half an hour to do properly, but he could afford to take his time now.
He had two full days of his week left and he saw no reason why he shouldn't demand more time if he needed it. If the job really was as important as Bateman made out, then all of the conditions had to be negotiable.
In fact, Helm was able to tape a full set of Makronotis' comings and goings at the Hotel Renga the next day. When he rang his contact number in the evening, however, Bateman/Lane told him to call back in two days' time, on Friday.
Helm added Thursday's trips across the pavement, to and from the Mercedes, for good measure, giving his client over a minute of live action. He returned his equipment to the garage in Piraeus and posted his experimental videorecording of Valaki and surroundings to his home as a souvenir.
Bateman arranged a lunchtime meeting when Helm called the contact number on Friday morning. Helm spent over an hour enjoying a good lunch at a restaurant on Eolou Street with the second videocassette in his pocket. Bateman failed to show up.
Helm took a ferry over to Salamis on Saturday morning. There was no sign of Bateman on the boat going or coming back, or at the rendezvous specified in the island's main town. Helm spent another hour wandering around part of Zappion Park on Sunday.
On Monday, he sealed the cassette in two plastic bags, one inside the other, using a lot of parcel tape. He buried the package under a distinctive rock beside the road into Athens. He offered to tell the elusive Mr. Lane where he had put it in his next call to the contact number. Bateman wanted to receive the information in person, not over the telephone.
Feeling fed up and put upon, Helm told him that he was flying back to England on Tuesday morning. If Mr. Lane didn't fancy a round trip of three thousand miles to collect the information, then he had better show up at that afternoon's rendezvous.
Helm cut short Bateman's ramblings about how he wanted to be absolutely sure that no one followed him to the meeting or listened in on their phone conversation. Helm took advantage of a pause for breath to order Bateman to tell him about it at the café, where they were supposed to meet. Then he rang off - which, he told himself, was his privilege if he was paying for the call.
He had had enough of Greece for the moment. The job was over. He wanted to go home, where he could speak and read the language and he didn't have to remind himself to use bottled water when he brushed his teeth in case the liquid poison that came out of the taps gave him an even more terminal condition.
He had a tan of sorts, which made him look less vampire-drained, even if his lips were still pale and bluish, and a whole lot of money to spend. The problem of how to get the job done had been churning around in his mind from waking to sleeping for seven days, leaving him little time to think about anything else. Once he had cracked his problem, he had had nothing better to do for the next five days than think of ways to spend his fee.
Helm took the battered blue Fiat into Athens for the last time - he hoped. He was becoming expert on eating out in the city. There were franchized hamburger and pizza joints looking very much like the ones at home, but the adventurous tourist who liked olive oil, lemon juice and wild oregano had many delights to explore.
The bread was available of all shapes and sizes, with and without sesame seeds. Fish and lamb kebabs, delicious red mullet and exotic swordfish steaks all vied for his attention. Helm had resisted the temptations of octopus, but he had tried many sticky-sweet puddings, drowned in tooth-rotting sugar syrup, which were served with a glass of ice-cold water to unclog the throat after consumption.
Helm parked the car nearby and walked to the café chosen by Mr. Lane as the rendezvous point. He found it without too much trouble and made himself comfortable on a shaded seat in the garden section. He soon found that he had a view of a very attractive Chinese woman at the next table. She was in her mid-twenties.
Her features were more European than flat and Oriental. She had a slim but obviously feminine figure. He hair was short, glossy and jet black. Her outfit was a T-shirt, jeans and blue canvas beach shoes. A dark blue Mao jacket was draped along an olive-green tackle bag.
His neighbour would not have looked out of place in Shanghai, Saigon, Singapore or San Francisco. Or parts of London, Manchester or Liverpool, even. Helm decided that she might be able to pass for Greek when she wore her dark sunglasses. He had a very good look at her while struggling with the menu and his phrasebook, half hoping that she would join him to offer him the benefit of an expert command of Greek. At the same time, he knew that Bateman would turn up just when he was on the point of cracking it with the tempting stranger.
Suddenly, they were together. Helm found himself sprawled across the Chinese woman, hoping that the warm fluid soaking his trouser leg was someone's American Coffee. He could still feel the hot, violent breath and the sonic impact of an explosion.
Glass, furniture and human debris were still falling. Helm struggled to his feet, ears ringing, lumps of glass falling off his back. He pulled the Chinese woman to her feet. The top of her head came up to his chin, which made her about five feet three. Thinking about her took his mind off the horrors around him.
The pair of them staggered away from screams and curses in many languages, deafened, clinging together for mutual support. A policeman deflected them into the back of a police car. Siren blaring, the police car carved a path through the traffic to guide an ambulance to a hospital.
Helm and the Chinese woman followed three stretcher cases into a casualty department. A nurse with a pair of scissors homed in on his blood-spattered trousers. Helm managed to get them off in the nick of time. Most of the blood was on the outside and all of that belonged to others. He was irrationally glad to be wearing underpants fresh on that day from a Marks & Sparks pack in celebration of his imminent departure.
The Chinese woman translated when a doctor told Helm that his injuries were superficial. Her English was very basic. Helm got the impression that her Greek was much the same. It was she who cleaned him up and applied dressings to his back and the backs of his legs, allowing the hospital staff to concentrate on the badly injured patients. Miraculously, the Chinese woman was completely untouched, having been sitting in the explosion-shadow of a human shield called Robert Helm.
Helm wrote out a joint statement in English for a plain-clothes policeman. They could say little more than that the explosion had been behind Helm and that they had not seen who had planted the bomb. Helm added John Scott's name and his address in Valaki.
The Chinese woman borrowed his ballpoint to add her details, then she handed the sheet of lined notepaper to the bulky detective, who had the sick expression of someone who has seen enough blood and gore and guts to last a lifetime and more.
Helm learned, from a spot of fast reading, that his companion was called Tsai Yuan-lin and that she was staying at the hotel where Phileros Makronotis lived, which impressed the detective no end. He missed the room number.
Tsai helped him to find his car. She had retained her tackle bag and Mao jacket through all the excitement. Helm drove out of Athens with the sun visors down, taking more than his usual care. Greek motorists and animals, especially donkeys, seemed to have an irresistible urge to hurl themselves into the path of on-coming visitors. The last thing that Helm wanted, in his severely shaken condition, was to have to deal with the owner of a suicidal donkey or a xenophobic cop.
Valaki, a small town on a promontory at the southern end of Piraeus Bay, lies four miles from Athens city centre in a straight line, but a good six miles by road. The city's airport, three and a half miles further on, was the reason why Helm had been able to rent his first-floor flat so cheaply it lay directly under the flight path.
His front door opened into a large studio with a kitchen alcove containing a gas cooker, a small fridge and a washing machine of similar size. Two doors at the other end of the studio led to a tiled bathroom with a shower and a bedroom with a double bed. A previous tenant had left several nondescript seascapes hanging on the picture rails around the studio.
Helm had painted over them with white undercoat, and found time to dash off several masterpieces of the Mondrian School - black grids with areas filled with oblongs of primary colours to establish credentials as a visitor with artistic leanings.
Helm realized that he had been adopted when Tsai tested the hammock in the studio, then hung her tackle bag on an adjacent hook. He was feeling too bruised and shell-shocked to ask why she had not gone back to her hotel.
There was a sort of sense in two survivors of an assault by a Greek wing of the IRA sticking together because they had lived through a shattering experience together. Helm felt saturated with images of broken bodies and wreckage. He had come to terms with running away from one possible death sentence, only to run slap bang into another.
Helm had not believed in Oriental Stoicism since a showing of Seven Samurai on Channel Four had put wall-to-wall blubbing Japs on his television. Tsai's hands shook as much as his own as she matched him drink for drink through a third of a bottle of Metaxas brandy.
Later, they had a meal of reheated meatballs and pasta, washed down with extremely palatable Bacchus red wine. They took their coffee and more brandy up to the flat area of the roof behind the raised wedge of the skylight.
Helm's radio was tuned to the BBC World Service. He switched on and waited for the news. Information had to travel to him via London before it became comprehensible. He had made the acquaintance of most of the Greek alphabet in maths and physics classes at school.
He could spell out street names and signs with difficulty, remembering that 'H' is a Greek 'E', not a Russian 'N', and the Greeks, like the French, shove in a lot more letters than those that they pronounce. He knew numbers and how to tell the time. The rest of his vocabulary was travel- and restaurant-Greek and sufficient only for the business in hand. Routine small talk with casual acquaintances was out of the question.
Nothing of any importance had happened elsewhere in the world on that final Monday in August. A bomb in a café in Athens was a godsend to the news services. Two French women, mother and daughter, had lost their legs below the knees, which explained where most of the blood had come from.
Helm knew from personal experience that human body can lose large quantities of its vital ingredients without suffering too apparent ill effects. The hospital expected the women to survive to endure the phantom pains of amputation and the inconvenience of artificial limbs. It was one hell of a fine way to end a holiday.
Helm wondered what he would put on a renewed passport if he had been sitting next to a shopping-bag bomb. Would he be able to leave his height at six feet one? Or would he have to knock off about eighteen inches? Arab terrorists were thought to have planted the bomb.
Equal favourites were the Abu Nidal faction of the PLO, seeking to splash blood on the international reputation of Yasser Arafat's official faction, and the Lebanese Hesbollah. If the so-called 'Party Of God' went around blowing the legs off tourists in foreign countries, Helm felt proud to be an atheist.
Going into Athens had been a mistake. His fee had been paid in advance to Helm's amazement and he had completed the job. All that he wanted to do was make the delivery and get on with spending his earnings. There was no reason to meet Bateman/Lane face to face. A simple call between two public telephones would do the job. The bomb had ended all obligations. Robert Helm was off home in the morning, and if Mr. Lane wanted his videocassette, he would bloody well have to come to Mr. Scott.
The early afternoon temperature had been in the low thirties Centigrade or the low nineties in familiar Fahrenheit. Helm felt that he had adapted well to the fierce heat of Greece at the end of August, but he was grateful for the cooling breeze from the bay in the evening.
At first, he had ended the day on his roof, studying maps and making plans. After his brilliant idea had come along and he had earned his ú25,000, he had dropped into the habit of giving his attention to a thick paperback book. He could have bought himself a portable television set, but the TV fare was a dead loss for a non-Greek-speaker if he didn't really care for American imports either dubbed or with sub-titles in Greek. While he read, Tsai seemed happy enough with the view out over the bay and a French station on the radio.
As long as Helm sat still in his canvas chair, his bruises and the cuts on his back remained dormant. He was high enough on the promontory to see the whole of Salamis down to the island's rocky coastline when there was no fog. He could watch ferries heading south for Piraeus, to Crete, to the islands in the east and on the other side of the Peleponese Peninsula, and west to a four-mile journey through the Corinth Canal. He would also watch fishing boats and pleasure craft ranging from sailing dinghies to luxury yachts as an alternative to reading.
Tsai seemed fascinated by the view until Helm noticed that her head had slipped sideways and her breathing had slowed to the rhythm of sleep. Greek evenings could be very soporific when there was nothing to do and drunken tourists, the locals and airliners passing overhead weren't kicking up a din.
Helm dropped bottled-water ice into a glass of mineral water. He was not sure how lethal the stuff that came out of the taps was, but it would be terribly ironic if he caught something serious from it. Eating only well-cooked food and drinking only liquids from bottles had become automatic.
The evening darkened rapidly. The town of Valaki made little effort to resist the approaching night. When he looked over his shoulder, Helm could see splashes of yellowish light at the windows of houses further down the coast road. The street lights were all out. There was something wrong with the public electricity supply for the second time of a week.
Helm became aware of a faint throb of private generators. It was a signal to wrap the thermal space-blanket around the small fridge and hope that it remained cold inside until the power came on again. Candles and oil lamps were always close at hand in Valaki.
Tsai woke as Helm was heaving himself to his feet, feeling stiff, sore and sorry for himself.
"I'm going to bed," he said with a yawn. "Don't open the fridge while the power's off."
"Greek power no good," Tsai agreed with a matching yawn. "I sleep too." She conveyed the impression that she had reduced the English language to an essential minimum deliberately, that any missing verbs and articles had been discarded by her choice.
Helm rather fancied his Chinese companion but he had been a little worried in case she thought that he expected her to go to bed with him. The day had taken rather too much out of someone with tired blood. He was relieved to see that she was just as ready to sleep, but also disappointed at the way life had treated them.
He felt moderately plastered as he weaved his way to bed after wrapping the fridge in its silvery blanket, taking care to leave the radiator system exposed for when the power came on. One advantage of severe anaemia, he had found, is that it makes getting drunk a whole lot cheaper.
Helm had no intention of going all the way into oblivion, but he could get a good buzz from a couple of drinks now. They had the same effect as four or five quick pints on his normal self. He had drunk much more than that since arriving at the flat but shock and the after-effects of the explosion had created a buffer zone between himself and alcohol.
As he slumped onto his bed, lying face down to favour his cuts and bruises, he found himself unable to stop thinking about the bomb. He had more or less come to terms with the possibility of his own body killing him or of being done in by the job. He had never considered alternative threats such as a terrorist bomb. With his sort of luck, he told himself, he would be fortunate to get home without being wiped out in a plane crash!
Robert Helm had sunk into a comfortable rut through his twenties. He lived half a mile from Maidstone and he worked in a town-centre office. He shuffled papers to help UK clients sell to clients abroad. Lancer & Stowe, plc, made its profits out of threading a path through minefields of regulations and past the bureaucratic delays created to shield inefficient or illegally protected home markets from predatory foreigners in the UK. His firm did battle regularly with other members of the proclaimed single market in Common Europe.
Helm was single, presentable and he had no grossly disgusting bad habits. He would own his Vauxhall Cavalier in time to trade it in for a new model, and he would own his mid-range, semi-detached house by fifty. He had expected to marry eventually, but he was in no hurry. His business life had taught him to think in terms of long campaigns rather than impulses.
His team at Lancer & Stowe were all about thirty. Ben and Carol were a couple of long standing but they showed no signs of making it official as a prelude to having children. Jeanette's husband seemed to spend half of his working life on airliners, flying to various parts of Europe and auditioning hotels for the long weekends that they preferred to longer holidays.
A constant disappointment to Helm was the lack of jet-setting in his life. Depending on inflation, he expected to earn one to two million pounds during his working life. Most of it would disappear on routine expenses. The only time when he would lay his hands on a substantial amount of cash would be when he received his retirement lump sum. Unfortunately, he knew that he would be too old for serious jet-setting by then.
He had considered saving several thousand pounds and then blowing the lot in a fortnight of insanity. A broad streak of conservatism prevented him from unloading a huge chunk of his own money and ending up with nothing tangible to show for it. He knew that his fiscal timidity wouldn't apply to someone else's cash but, equally unfortunately, he knew no one daft enough to shower him with jet-setting capital.
Three weeks short of his thirty-third birthday, his dull but safe future began to become anything but certain. His workmate Carol was a woman with a social conscience, which she used as a weapon to bludgeon the other three occupants of the open-plan office. She talked the group into going to a lunchtime blood-donor session on the day in question. Helm failed the initial screening test. His blood floated in both the green and the blue liquid instead of sinking like a stone.
While the others scoffed and gushed gore into plastic transfusion packs, Helm had to suffer the indignity of allowing a doctor to stick a hypodermic syringe into his arm to take a small sample for a haemoglobin check. The doctor mentioned that the screening test set a high level for the iron content of his blood. Failing the test probably meant only that giving a litre of blood would make him a little anaemic.
Ten days later Helm received a letter from the blood transfusion service. It asked, ominously, for the name and address of his doctor. Helm had been registered with someone at the local health centre for years but he had never met the doctor in question. His last medical consultation had been with an earlier doctor, from whom the present one had inherited him. Helm had been suffering from some childhood ailment and he had gone to the doctor's home in the bad old days, long before the health centre had been built.
Helm knew where his former doctor had lived he passed the house most days and it had reverted to a full-time private dwelling but he had no idea where to find the health centre. He had to look in his files for a circular giving the name of his current doctor and the address of the health centre. Then, out of idle curiosity, he had a look at a street map to find out where the health centre had been built as he had never come across that street name before.
Another cheerful letter arrived from the blood transfusion service a week later to advise him to discuss his anaemia with his doctor. The transfusion service had passed on the results of his test to the doctor, but Helm still had no idea what they were. Helm showed his letters to Edward Stowe, the firm's junior partner and his immediate superior, when he asked for permission to come in late the following Monday morning.
Stowe warned him that the doctor would prescribe iron tablets, which would make him horribly constipated. Stowe knew that because his wife had received the same treatment. Helm resolved, as he had done many times in the past, that he was going to deliver a firm 'No!' the next time Carol sprang one of her ideas on him.
Dr. Bennett's receptionist knew the regulars by sight. Robert Helm had to give his name when he turned up for his appointment. The doctor turned out to be a man in his middle forties. He was nearly as tall as the patient, who topped six feet, and he had a firm handshake. His lop-sided grin made him look a little tipsy and less intimidating. His news gave Helm a severe shock. His haemoglobin level was a good forty per cent below normal.
Helm answered questions mechanically and submitted to some routine poking and prodding. He refused to believe that he could be seriously ill without feeling symptoms of some sort, such as tiredness or shortness of breath. The doctor remarked on his pallor. Helm thought that he had the natural complexion of an indoor man.
He had his sleeve rolled up still after the check on his blood pressure. He felt rather uneasy about supplying another sample of blood but he found that he could watch without queasiness as the needle entered a major vein at the inside of his elbow. Dark blood filled a large syringe, making him even more anaemic. Dr. Bennet explained that the blood tests were carried out in steps. He needed to know the results from the first series before he knew whether he needed to go on for the next set of tests.
Helm left the surgery with two birthday presents from the NHS - a small bottle for a urine sample and a letter to the hospital in town asking them to X-ray his chest. He had the X-ray on the way to work. The nurse at the reception desk gave him a beaming smile. Helm felt guilty afterwards about not returning it, but he wasn't really feeling like smiling. All that he could think about was how he had failed to notice his haemoglobin level dropping to below that of an average victim of a chainsaw accident.
His workmates wanted to know if he was well enough to go the pub for a birthday lunch. Helm could tell them only that he felt all right. Nothing specific would be known about his condition until the test results arrived and perhaps not even then. Dr. Bennett had told him not to worry, which he had not been doing anyway. Edward Stowe was surprised to hear that Helm had not been prescribed a bottle of iron tablets. Helm was grateful to be spared the constipation.
Keeping his mind on his work was difficult through the afternoon. He kept thinking about his astonishingly low haemoglobin level. Dr. Bennett had asked if he had felt tired recently in view of his seriously impaired oxygen-transport capability. Helm realized that he had been taking things fairly easily for the last few months and not really testing himself.
His work was mental rather than physical it had not been affected. He had drifted out of an eighteen-month relationship with a teacher called Susan when he had taken a separate summer holiday the previous June. She had wanted more commitment. He had been reluctant to take the step of living together. He had yet to meet someone to take her place.
His holiday money had gone on replacing several rotting windows. The necessary campaign of patching and decorating, and some exterior painting to get the house into shape to survive another winter, had devoured his free time through July. His social life had been reduced to very occasional trips to the pub.
The decorating work had not been particularly strenuous, but he had to admit that mowing his few square yards of lawn could leave him feeling quite worn out, and he had experienced trouble with forcing himself out of bed some mornings but he had never, ever been good at getting up in the morning. What he was stuck with, he decided, was the problem of sorting genuine symptoms from reflex hypochondria.
In the evening, his parents telephoned birthday greetings from their latest home in Carlisle. Helm kept quiet about his trip to the doctor to spare them unnecessary worry in the event of a false alarm. He was still feeling relatively immortal, despite his reflex pessimism, and the physical distance between himself and his parents, and not talking face-to-face, helped to keep his tone casual and the secret preserved.
The Helm family was drifting apart on three winds. They had started moving apart from the middle of England. His parents were still heading toward Scotland. Robert had bounced at the Isle of Wight. He was heading north now. He had expected to meet his parents bouncing back from John O' Groats at about Glasgow in the next century. Stephanie, his younger sister, was going west: New York, San Francisco, and now Yokohama. Robert expected Steph to crash in from the east for the great Helm family reunion cum collision. With any luck, his haemoglobin problem would be buried deep in the dustbin of memory by then.
Helm left work early a week later. It was Result Day. Dr. Bennett was very reassuring in a terrifying sort of way. He was still waiting for the blood test results but the urine sample had been normal. Then he switched on a viewing screen to show Helm a fuzzy, white blob on his X-ray. It would be a good idea, the doctor told him, if someone had 'a little look inside' with a fibre-optic probe and whipped out a sample of the blob for laboratory analysis. Dr. Bennett was quite cheery. He still thought that there was no cause for alarm.
It was all very well for him, Helm thought as he began the five-minute walk home from the health centre. He didn't have blobs in his lungs, nobody proposed messing about inside him and he didn't have a haemoglobin level that suggested that Count Dracula had given him a good seeing-to.
Helm realized that he should have replied with a firm 'No!' when asked if he would like to see a specialist. 'Like' was entirely the wrong word. After all, nobody wants his condition to be serious enough to merit a specialist's time. Robert Helm wanted his problems to go away as mysteriously as they had developed. Thirty-three was too young for his body to start dropping to pieces or wearing out.
His concentration went to pieces. At work the next day, he found himself reading documents three and four times, and still failing to grasp their content. Ever alert for ripples in the smooth flow of work, Edward Stowe called him in to his office on Wednesday morning. Helm had resisted the urge to shock Ben, Carol and Jeanette with the prospect of his exchanging a desk for a wooden overcoat. He admitted to Edward Stowe that there might be a tiny chance that he would not need one of the firm's calendars for the next year. His accompanying silly grin was one of macabre pleasure behind the relief of telling someone.
His work was suffering, he explained, because he had no idea if he was healthy-ish, curable after a short or long period of treatment, or plain doomed. A white blob on an X-ray suggested lung cancer immediately. Helm was a non-smoker but he had been a passive smoker for all of his drinking and working life - if significant damage could be done by the age of thirty-three.
Edward Stowe reacted with the false jollity of someone with a bubonic plague carrier in his office. Helm could see tombstones in his boss's eyes. Stowe was in his late forties, over a stone overweight and he smoked small cigars and did his fair share of business entertaining. Robert Helm provided an awful warning of what could happen to him if he carried on as he was.
The outcome of the meeting was a month's sick leave, with immediate effect, which Helm could cut short if he received good news. He composed the advertisement as soon as he got home. It was a diversion, an insurance against bad news. It was an absurd over-reaction, totally irrational, born of panic, frustration, desperation and ignorance of how bad things really were but he was hardly 100% okay, not if he was walking around with less haemoglobin inside him than most people who receive a blood transfusion.
If anyone replied to the advertisement, Helm told himself, he would have an even chance of doing some jet-setting for a short time. The ad was a mad gesture by a methodical man. To his surprise, the newspapers accepted it as just another routine insertion in their personal columns. One of the ads read:
MAN WITH terminal condition,
not incapacitated as yet, seeks
hazardous work for highest pay.
Apply BOX 315.
When it appeared in print, Helm decided that his advertisement was as truthful as any of the others. Everyone has at least one terminal condition. Pointless mysticism aside, all life has the same conclusion. Helm's problem was not knowing whether his body was trying to assassinate him before he had received what he considered to be a fair ration of life. What he had achieved with the advertisement, possibly, was to recapture the initiative.
When he had skimmed through the rest of the pages in the newspapers that had received his custom, he went back to moping around the house, cleaning without enthusiasm and wondering what the specialist would find inside him in five days' time and how much a solicitor charges to draw up a will.
Eventually, he got round to wondering what sort of jobs people would offer him and where to draw the line of acceptability. What if he was asked to kill someone, for instance? The immediate answer to that was, 'Why not, if he could get away with it?' Nobody has an automatic right to life. Several thousand people find that out every year on Britain's roads.
Helm started off his mental debate not sure whether he was capable of killing. He soon realized that world wars are possible only because governments can put a gun into just about anybody's hand and turn that person into a killer. Then he realized that he was back to worrying about things before he had the information to assess their relevance.
He was still surprised when someone sent a London telephone number to Box 315. It reached Helm after a joyless weekend, during which he had finished off the painting, which had to be done whether or not he would be around to gain any benefit from his labours. He spent an hour asking himself if the number came from a genuine client or a joker. Then he made the call.
A man with an ordinary, non-jokerish voice answered. He wanted a meeting at the Tower of London the next morning, Tuesday. Helm explained that he had a hospital appointment that day a fortunate coincidence, which highlighted his terminal condition. A meeting on Wednesday morning was equally acceptable.
Helm had his nerves almost under control when he reported to the hospital on Tuesday morning. The exploratory procedure was carried out under local anaesthetic. He lay on his right side with his left arm behind his back, out of the way, and allowed the consultant and a nurse to mess about with the numb portion of his chest. He watched a colour television monitor as the fibre-optic probe explored what looked like viscous, pink froth. He felt quite dismayed when jaws reached out of the probe to bite a piece from a waxy lump, which looked as big as a boulder. He had seen the enemy and he had not enjoyed the experience.
Then the consultant decided that the lump was so readily accessible that she might as well whip the lot out. Without further ado, she enlarged the pilot hole to a slot and dived inside to do battle. Helm averted his gaze from the monitor. The surgeon was a rather thin, Asian woman in her forties. She radiated an intimidating competence and she spoke with an upper-class drawl. Helm felt sure that every one of his nervous remarks to her had sounded pathetic and that she considered him an inarticulate moron with no sense of humour.
He realized later that he was doing her an injustice. He had failed to laugh at her jokes because he had not realized that humour is possible in an operating room. Someone of her seniority would know that patients aren't at their best in strange and stressful surroundings, and she would never form unreasonable assumptions based on faulty information.
His side was a little sore when the anaesthetic wore off. Most of the pain had gone by the following morning, when he drove into London, where he met Bateman, who gave him lots of money and sent him to Athens, where he completed an impossible assignment before getting blown up in a café.
Helm had been planning to check with the airlines for a flight home after he had told Bateman where to look for the videocassette. All that he had done since the explosion had been to bleed a little, which was not a very good idea for someone in his condition, wash blood off his jeans and get quite drunk with a complete stranger called Tsai.
Letting a strange woman stay the night was something that cautious Robert Helm would never do. Sleeping in separate rooms proved that John Scott was a little outrageous, but not much more liberated.
Another Tuesday's dawn arrived just before Helm woke up. The curtains on his right had blown open slightly at the top. There was a bright spot of sunlight high on the wall opposite when he opened his eyes. He became aware of noises someone was moving around in the studio. He thought about burglars. Then he remembered Tsai.
As if on cue, the bedroom door opened and she sneaked in. Helm began to think again of romantic encounters in a foreign country. The awful warnings of the AIDS Age didn't apply to a man with a more lethal condition if he had one. His speculations scattered when he saw what Tsai was holding in her small hand. It was made of dark metal. It had what looked like a nine-millimetre hole in the end.
Suddenly, the terminal condition was no joke any more.