TSAI LOOKED BEHIND the door. Her head turned toward the bed. When she saw that Helm was looking at her, she seemed to grow several inches. She had been sneaking around in a crouch. The intimidating black mouth of the self-loading pistol pointed steadily at his head. Helm lay perfectly still.
"Stay," said Tsai.
Helm stayed. He wasn't sure whether to be insulted by what sounded like a command to a dog. It had to be just part of Tsai's limited but effective English vocabulary. She searched his clothes very quickly not looking in the pockets, just squeezing them to see if they contained a large object.
"Out. Open curtains."
Helm got out of the bed, slowly and carefully, and drew the curtains, glad that he had brought a pair of pyjama trousers. Tsai crossed to the bed. Flicks of the pistol guided Helm away from the window and into a corner. Tsai tapped the top of her head with her left hand. Helm interlaced his fingers and put his hands on top of his head.
To his surprise, he was feeling quite calm and in control of himself. It had to be something to do, he decided, with the knowledge that being shot might deprive him of only a few months of life rather than forty years. A few months was no great loss and nothing to worry about.
Tsai stripped sheets and an under-blanket from the bed. She groped the single pillow, then examined the mattress, looking for large lumps and signs that the stitching had been cut and restored. Helm knew that she had searched the rest of the flat by then.
"Not here?" she said at last.
"Obviously not," said Helm, wondering whether to try to jump her. He had read that the impulse to self-destruction can be irresistible at times. His problem was figuring out whether the path to self-destruction lay in taking action or in doing nothing.
"Dress. We have breakfast," Tsai said eventually.
Helm felt too intimidated by the gun to be embarrassed about changing from pyjama trousers to street clothes in front of a strange woman. He felt wide awake, even though getting up at dawn was a never-in-a-million-years concept for him. In fact, he was finding getting to sleep increasingly difficult.
It took at least an hour for him to drop off most nights, and some nights were a cycle of short naps and long periods awake. Only memories of dreams told him that he had snatched any sleep. Getting up before eight o'clock, or nine-thirty at weekends, had become a major problem. He knew now that a gun could get him out of bed at ten past six with no bother at all!
Helm brewed coffee, toasted some bread and spread it with butter and honey. He and Tsai sat at opposite sides of the studio. Helm had slipped into a state of numbed compliance. This was the flip side of the £25,000. A job worth so much money for so little effort had to be dangerous.
He had allowed for a beating-up but not for a bullet. He had decided against trying to take away Tsai's gun, as that plan would give him the best chance of surviving to spend his twenty-five grand. He had no idea how trigger-happy she was, or how much firearms training she had received, but she had a certain air of confidence, as if she were following a thought-out plan.
After they had finished the meal, Helm washed up and Tsai sat watching him.
"Aren't you going to tell me who you are and what you want?" he asked when he had stacked the dishes neatly on the drainer.
"We go see someone now," said Tsai. "Be careful, please."
Helm assumed that the answer to both questions was no. He drew some comfort from the please. He guessed that Tsai's room at the Hotel Renga lay on the third floor, and that her employer's name began with M.
Tsai draped her blue Mao jacket across her right forearm to hide the pistol. Two or three of the locals were out and about at six-thirty. They waved a greeting to the English artist. Helm waved back between unlocking both front doors of the Fiat.
He was unable to decide whether Tsai would dare to shoot him if he ran for it instead of getting into the car but he had nowhere to run to, and no one would dare to help him while Tsai was waving a gun around. Taking the easy course, Helm started the engine. He turned automatically onto the Athens road at the edge of Valaki.
Tsai kept the pistol aimed across her body. She had no need to watch the prisoner. At that range, she had only to pull the trigger to cause serious if not immediately fatal damage. The country road went its own sweet way to the east at first, twisting round several low hills. It met the main road north to Athens about two and a half miles from the city.
Helm drove without haste, keeping a wary eye open for crazy motorists and suicidal donkeys. He knew now that his meeting with Tsai had been arranged. The identity of the person who had brought them together at the exploding café remained a mystery, however. Bateman had been making such a song and dance about the risk of being bugged that Helm had refused to believe that anyone had penetrated Bateman's precautions. Now, he was having doubts.
When he dialled his contact number, Helm always heard five sets of rings then a series of soft beeps. He had been told to wait as long as necessary for an answer. He assumed that he reached some sort of relay device first, which connected him with Mr. Lane's portable telephone.
Two of the calls had been answered promptly one with a car engine, the other with loud seagulls in the background. There had been a delay of up to five minutes on the other calls, presumably when Mr. Lane had been forced to sneak away from company.
Helm assumed that Bateman/Lane had told a third party about the meeting at the café. This third party had ratted to the Makronotis organization, either deliberately or inadvertently. If Tsai had any information on that subject, she was keeping it to herself.
Even though Tsai was pointing a gun at him, Helm still considered her an ally. Being blown up together had created a bond from his point of view, at least. He could pretend that the gun was empty, that he was being bluffed successfully. Tsai was just doing a job, even if she was doing it as efficiently as someone who really had it in for Robert Helm.
He wondered about negotiating with Tsai. A flash of movement atop a roadside rocky wall caught his eye. A brownish-grey lump with spindly legs flew at him. In an irrational split second, Helm wondered why someone was throwing a dead donkey at him. Then it was under his wheels.
The steering wheel spun in his hands. Tsai's gun went off, shattering the window beside him. Helm's foot jumped off the brake as he tried to throw himself backwards in his seat. The Fiat bounced off the road to roll down a shallow hill. Helm found himself lying on top of Tsai for the second time in two days. Water sloshed into the car.
A fist wrapped in cloth demolished the crazed windscreen, showering Helm and Tsai with chips of glass. A man and a woman looked in. Helm saw ancient, tanned faces and open mouths with gapped teeth. The question about the donkey had been answered. The locals were bandits, who used their expired livestock to make tourists crash so that they could be robbed.
Younger voices moved the ancient assassins away from the windscreen space. Tsai opened her eyes for a moment. She gave Helm a reassuring smile then closed her eyes again. She seemed to be playing dead.
"Hey, are you okay?" The voice spoke English with a Greek-American accent. Its owner was a man in his twenties with a blue-striped, designer sweatshirt.
"I'm thinking it over," said Helm.
"Let's get you out." The young man attacked the rubber seal of the windscreen with a flick-knife then removed the rest of the shattered glass.
Helm managed to wriggle out without treading too heavily on Tsai.
"What about the girl?"
"She looks in a bad way." Helm fumbled for a handkerchief and held it to his nose, which had been bleeding freely, which was a hell of a thing to happen to someone who was severely anaemic.
The young man looked into the car, then turned away holding his mouth. He staggered a few yards before vomiting vigorously. The power of suggestion made Helm feel some sympathetic queasiness but he managed to control himself. If he did puke, he vowed, he would do so profusely and in the ambushers' car.
Helm's Fiat had rolled into a stream. The sun-warmed water had soaked Tsai's T-shirt, smudging a dramatic stain of Helm's blood. She looked as if someone had blown her apart with a shotgun.
Another man, thirtyish with a soup-strainer black moustache, glanced into the wreck then took Helm's arm. Helm climbed the slope to the road to avoid the humiliation of being dragged.
He knew that nosokomeeo meant 'hospital', having been to one the day before. The man with the black moustache seemed to be telling the old couple that he was taking Helm to one. When they asked about the woman, he gave an expressive shrug. The next remark included the word tilefono.
The old couple climbed into a black-and-rust pick-up truck and chugged away in the general direction of Athens. The man with the moustache called impatiently to his younger companion. He decided that he had finished being sick and tried to wash out his mouth at the stream. He spat out petrol-flavoured water with an oath.
"Lucky we came along," said the man with the moustache. "These wild donkeys have no sense." He too had a Greek-American accent.
"It was only a matter of time before one didn't leave me room enough to stop." Helm was sure that someone had thrown the animal into his path, but he had no proof.
"I see she took a shot at you. The broken window."
"Yes, just missed me." Helm found that his nose had stopped dripping.
"Lane sent us to collect you. We're taking you to a secure phone. Then the airport when Lane makes contact."
"About bloody time," growled Helm.
Lane's agents had a white Range Rover. Helm lay down on some cushions in the back, grateful for the opportunity to sort out his thoughts. He eased into a position that placed the minimum of pressure on the bruises on his bruises. One half of him was demanding to know what the hell was going on, the other half was telling him to go with the flow.
Doing the easy thing, or not doing anything, won easily. A few minutes later, on the other side of the rocky hump from which the donkey had been dropped, he saw black smoke rolling up to the bright blue sky. It was the faithful Fiat's funeral pyre. He hoped that Tsai had got out in time.
Alex had the moustache. His weak-stomached partner was called Yani. Helm sorted the names out before they reached the familiar streets of Valaki again. Alex parked at the steps up to his flat, out of sight round the back of the building. Packing took just a few minutes. Everything went into his cabin bag and a carrier bag. Yani loaded them into the Range Rover. Alex collected Tsai's tackle bag and had a good paw through it before putting it with Helm's luggage.
"Who was the Chinese bird working for? Makronotis?" said Helm as they set off around the bay on the Piraeus road.
Alex shrugged as if he neither knew nor cared. "Not us."
"Where are we going now?"
"Where in Athens?"
"Would the address mean anything to you?"
"I guess not," Helm admitted. "When will Lane call?"
"When he can get to a safe phone."
"Sometime today, though?"
"He reckons so."
Helm abandoned the attempt to gain precise information. He had no idea who, but someone famous had once said that his native language lacked a word to convey the same desperate sense of urgency of the Spanish mañana. Helm was convinced now that the unknown philosopher had to be Greek.
Alex and Yani created the impression that they were being paid by the hour, that they were prepared to carry on with the job for however long it took, even if they had to sit around with Helm and the secure telephone for a week. Their planning showed a certain inspired crudity. Nobody was likely to carry out a post mortem on a donkey to find out its state of health before a car hit it, and such an animal was large enough to force a car to stop.
They weren't as pretty as gun-toting Tsai, but both parties had come within an inch of terminating John Scott within one single minute. Helm felt entitled to show no gratitude to Alex and Yani for being rescued from Tsai.
A policeman waved a line of cars to a halt as the Range Rover entered the port city of Piraeus. He walked down the line and tapped on Alex's window.
The drivers in front began to realize that they were innocent of unsuspected crimes and sneaked away. Another cop peered in at Helm through dark glasses, clutching across his chest a West German submachine gun of the sort displayed by British policemen at airports during terrorist alerts. Helm gave the cop a weak smile.
The policeman at the driver's door completed his questions. He moved round to the back to open the rear door of the Range Rover. "You are the English tourist in the car crash?" he said in excellent English.
"Well, yes," admitted Helm. Then he realized that he was supposed to be Irish. But there was no point in complicating things by being pedantic.
"These men are taking you to hospital?"
"You are injured?"
"Cuts and bruises." Helm's left cheek felt swollen. The crash had given him an all-round battering to go with the explosion's assault from the rear.
"We will take you to police headquarters. We have a doctor there."
Helm looked at Alex, who shrugged. They could hardly argue with the police.
"Looks like you'll have to drop in at my flat for the drink I promised you," Helm said, attempting to re-establish contact when the police had finished with him.
"Maybe this evening," said Alex.
Helm picked up his cabin bag. The policeman with the submachine gun brought Tsai's tackle bag and the carrier bag over to the police car. Helm said nothing. He was dreading the interview at the police headquarters.
He had no sensible answers to questions about why Tsai had been left behind in the wreck, what he was doing in Piraeus with all that luggage when he was supposed to be going to a hospital in Athens, why there was a gun in the crashed car and why the driver's window had a bullet hole in it. Somehow, pleading shock and confusion after the crash seemed rather too thin.
His mind was still full of questions, and empty of answers, when the police car circled the Hill of Ares and dived headlong into the city's traffic with siren blaring. Helm began to realize that he was heading out of Athens again when the road narrowed and rather tatty apartment buildings sprouted on both sides.
"Which police headquarters are we going to?" he asked the cop in the front passenger seat cautiously.
"New orders, sir." The spokesman gave him a confident smile. The cop with the submachine gun was driving.
Helm wondered how the cop had received his new orders. Then he recalled that telepathy comes from Greek roots. "Are we going far?"
"There in twenty minutes. Are your injuries troubling you?"
"No, not much." Helm wondered if he had been kidnapped by imposters. The two men were dressed like cops and armed like cops, but they behaved like well-trained servants. The driver seemed to think that he was taking part in the Monte Carlo Rally and somewhat behind his time schedule.
Helm braced himself in the back as the police car zoomed along the road to the east coast, making no concession to other motorists, pedestrians or wildlife. He hoped that the driver had applied the safety catch in case the submachine gun slid off his lap and jarred on the floor. When the car turned right, onto a minor road, Helm knew his destination.
A spur on the left from the coast road climbed to a walled villa. Heavy gates opened inward as the police car approached. It drew up at a columned porch. Two men in white jackets and dark blue trousers were waiting to meet it. Helm was six feet one, but his eyes were level with the mouth of the shorter member of the reception committee. The larger took charge of the luggage.
After a brief conversation in Greek Helm recognized four words, none of which was much help to him the English-speaking cop saluted him and said, "Good morning, sir." Then he got back into the police car, which rushed away with the same sense of urgency.
Helm entered the villa. He had no choice in the matter. He was rather outnumbered and a member of the Greek national heavyweight basketball team was holding his arm. In the hall, the luggage went one way and he descended a flight of steps to a cool, stone-lined chamber.
His escort marched him over to a blank stretch of wall. Helm was expecting to pass through a well disguised door into a secret passage. The ropes were around his wrists before he had a chance to react. The big man hauled him up until his toes were just touching the stone floor.
"Hoi!" Helm squawked inadequately.
The huge servant tied off the ropes and just walked away without a word. His feet pattered on stone steps. A heavy door closed with a hollow thud. When the light went out, Helm was left in still darkness.
Gradually, his eyes became accustomed to the gloom. He was in a room about fifteen feet square and at the opposite end to the staircase. A band of dusty light was filtering in under the door. There were dark shapes against the other walls of the cellar all too dim to have a distinguishable form.
Helm felt like something out of a cartoon. He thought at first that the servant was just larking about. He kept expecting him to come sneaking back, laughing his rotten socks off. Helm's arms were creaking before he was sure that it was no joke.
Lancer and Stowe had sent him on a management training course once. It was designed to acquaint subordinates with a manager's problems, to make them more co-operative if they were not destined to rise out of the ranks. The organizers had encouraged the students to look for positive aspects to every situation, no matter how desperate.
Helm realized that he had nothing better to do to pass the time. After a lot of thought, he found just one positive aspect to hanging by his wrists, arms ready to scream with pain, toes barely touching the ground. His gaoler had used thick ropes instead of steel manacles. He could feel every rough fibre, but there was a certain cushioning effect. Manacles would have dug into his flesh.
He had heard that the spine relaxes when the compressing force of gravity is removed from the discs. That piece of information had come from a TV quiz programme. If Phileros Makronotis' minions kept him hanging long enough, he ought, in theory, be able to get his toes more firmly on the ground to take some of the strain off his arm sockets which was another positive aspect of his position.
Then a negative intruded. He refused to wonder what would happen if he needed to pee and he could hold out no longer. Such practical problems are not covered by the cartoons. He turned his attention to a review of John Scott's career to take his mind off such unpleasant matters.
Scott had added an unexpected £24,500 to export consultant Robert Helm's building society account even if the recipient might have a tough time getting home to spend it. He would have been back in England for four days, with the adventure behind him, had he refused to let his client mess him about. He needed some training in assertiveness.
He had been so overwhelmed by such a large sum of money that he had been prepared to bend in any desired direction to keep it, which was a lesson for the future, if he had one. Bateman had exploited his insecurity. Bateman was a bastard. He was also a clever bastard if he wasn't tied up by the next set of ropes to John Scott's. But not that clever.
Despite Bateman's virtual paranoia about security, someone on Phileros Makronontis' staff had penetrated his scheme. Helm could think of no other reason for Tsai's appearance. She had been sent to look for the cassette at gunpoint, if necessary. The convenient accident of being blown up together had solved the problem of an introduction. She had slid easily past Helm's guard.
If Alex and Yani were representative of Bateman's hired help, a breach of security seemed inevitable. They had shown precious little concern for Helm's safety and none at all for Tsai's after the crash. Helm reminded himself that he owed no loyalty to someone who had kidnapped him at gunpoint, no matter how fanciable she might be.
He had to admit that dropping a dead donkey in front of a car was a pretty bloody effective way of making sure that it stopped - even if Tsai had damn near shot him by accident when they had hit the beast. They had crashed because Alex and Yani had overestimated the effectiveness of the Fiat's brakes.
On the other hand, the stupid donkey might just have fallen into his path. Hill-climbing donkeys lack the sure-footedness of goats and sheep. He could have been mistaken about seeing other moving shapes, which could have been human. The whole thing had happened too damn fast.
Alex and Yani might have been following him at a distance, stuck for a solution to the problem of a woman with a gun in Helm's ribs. It was possible that they had taken advantage of a genuine accident.
His analysis of the problem was far from penetrating but it was difficult to think clearly when strung up by the wrists in a billionaire's cellar. Even so, Helm realized that he could be certain only of a few pieces of the puzzle. Perhaps, if he hung about long enough, someone would turn up with a few explanations. And he would be expected to provide a few himself.
He was an Irishman called John Albert Scott and he had the passport to prove it. He knew nothing about Ireland because he had lived all of his life in England. How long his cover story would hold up when Makronotis' heavyweights started on him would be a matter of minutes rather than hours. There was nothing about heroics in his agreement with Bateman.
Bang! The café exploded again. Helm felt a rush of heat, light, pain and the angular shape of Tsai lying under him. There were four feet with shins attached standing nearby, still wearing sandals two small ones, a child's and the larger feet of her mother. Then he was awake.
Foggily, Helm realized that he had actually managed to doze off. The bang had been the cellar door hitting the wall. The light was electric an unshaded bulb about a yard away. Incredibly, he had slept despite the ache in his arms, which were parting company slowly with his body. He had not grown at all. His toes seemed no closer to the ground than their original, tenuous contact.
Then he began to grow. His legs buckled under him. He descended to an awkward sprawl on the cold, stone floor. Loops of rope were peeled out of imprints on his wrists. A new position brought a different set of aches.
Helm felt like hugging his arms to his body, rolling on the floor and screaming his head off. But that was no way for a seeker of hazardous work for highest pay to behave. On the other hand, there was nothing about being a tough guy in his contract of employment...
"You can walk?" A male voice with a Greek-American accent interrupted Helm's mental debate. The remark was more of a challenge than a question, implying that hanging around for a few hours was nothing serious.
Helm wondered about kicking the old man to pieces. Instead, he followed him up the stone steps and into the hall. He had a feeling that the trouble was about to start in earnest now. This was where John Scott became a nasty smear on a tiled floor if he failed to come up with the right answers.