BATEMAN WAS SITTING at a typical, circular café-style table in the shade of a white-and-pink-striped umbrella. A black executive briefcase lay flat on the table. Helm assumed that it contained a portable telephone. His call and the secret warning had been a complete waste of time if Bateman was a prisoner of the Makronotis organization too.
The window moved. Helm pulled his weight back quickly. A dozen foot-square panes were set in an iron frame. The frame seemed in no immediate danger of dropping onto the terrace but it did shift another fraction of an inch when he pushed against it. Helm remembered that he was in earthquake country.
The senior partner of Lancer & Stowe had been in Athens in the winter of 1981. Douglas Lancer had returned on the first available flight, full of horror stories of a shaking felt all round the Gulf of Corinth.
There had been three main earthquakes, which had been followed by thousands of aftershocks. About twenty people had been killed and several hundred injured. Four million people had fled from Athens. The government had experienced great difficulty in persuading them to go back to work when the danger was over.
Douglas Lancer had lost everything his personal luggage, his files of correspondence and his comprehensive sales kit for the trip. His hotel had collapsed inconveniently but, luckily, while he had been out of the city on a field trip. He no longer travelled to Greece, Crete, Yugoslavia or Italy.
Belgium had joined his personal list of no-go areas about two years later. Incredibly, Lancer had been in Liege when an earthquake at two in the morning had caused extensive damage to the area around the main station.
A few pieces of ornamental stonework had fallen off his hotel, and a chandelier had made a mess of the lobby carpet, but the building had survived a strong shaking in good condition. Even so, Lancer had been off down the E40 to Ostend as soon as he had found a way out of the city.
Helm had always envied the senior partner's ability to dine out on two earthquake stories. He assumed that his sister had a whole bunch of them now, if Steph was working in Yokohama. Nothing terribly exciting had ever happened to him until the medical profession had got him into its clutches and he had put that advertisement in the newspapers.
Douglas Lancer had become a mine of information on earthquakes. If anyone ever started an Earthquake Book Club, he would be the first member. Helm remembered one of Lancer's pieces of advice for those unfortunate enough to have to visit earthquake country: 'If you have to go to Greece, choose the end of the week. It's probably just a statistical quirk, but most major Greek earthquakes have occurred on a Tuesday.'
Helm pressed the button to display the day and date on his digital watch. Red characters told him TUE:31:AUG. He was in so much trouble now, he told himself, that an earthquake would be just a superfluous act of sadism by a vindictive Supreme Being.
If an earthquake shook his window out and let him slide down to the terrace, he would still have to dive thirty-odd feet into the sea to escape. Helm wasn't much of a swimmer and he didn't fancy having to dodge boulders shaken loose from the cliff.
He settled down on the couch and turned to his Greek phrasebook for amusement. The author had failed to include a section for readers who were being held prisoner in a dungeon by a dangerous billionaire.
Such phrases as Please tell your servant to stop killing me! or Being buried alive is against my religion! seemed useful to know in the circumstances.
Helm was sitting at the window, listening to the one o'clock news on the BBC World Service, when someone entered his cell. He heard a tray land on the table with a rattle of crockery. He was ready for some lunch. Despite being at the mercy of a man, who could treat the local police force as his own private army, Helm had not lost his appetite.
"Long time no see," said a familiar voice.
"Enter the Chinese Mafia," said Helm. "Are you going to tell me one false move and you'll shoot me?"
"No gun now." Tsai displayed empty hands. Her plain blue T-shirt and matching jeans were both tight enough to leave no hiding place for a pistol.
"You got out of the car okay? You're not hurt?"
"Bruises only. Throw T-shirt away. Too much blood."
"Half a pint of mine. Which I could do with having back. Those two blokes thought you were bloody well dead."
"I look bloody dead," said Tsai with a cheeky grin.
"But you did want me to leave you? And you got out of the car before the fire?"
"Not want to go with your friends. I break window with bullet hole. Then fire start under hood. I run like hell. Then big bang."
"Probably a spark from a loose wire hanging off the battery," Helm said knowledgeably.
Tsai gave him an uncomprehending smile and a shrug of indifference. "Bring lunch."
She had brought two of what Helm had come to call Greekburgers pieces of charcoal-grilled lamb garnished with oregano, onion and tomato and stuffed in a pocket in a flat, wholemeal bun, which seemed to have a lot more in common with a big, unsweetened rock cake than English bread.
Tsai had also brought a carafe of red wine and a vacuum jug of coffee. Helm attacked the food gratefully. He was not sure if it was a side-effect of his anaemia, but he could eat his fill at one meal, take no exercise and still be ravenous at the next mealtime.
"About those two blokes," Helm said when they had finished their Greekburgers, "did you recognize them?"
"Not work for Mr. Makronotis," said Tsai. "Hoodlums. Pay money, they throw dead mule at car. Want you only."
"So that's why you played dead?"
"When they go, I run to phone and get you back."
"Maybe I should have told them to take you as well. I could have been on a plane home by now."
"So why you help me, John?"
Helm remembered in time that his name was John Scott. "I guess I didn't trust someone who'd just chucked a dead donkey at me. Any more than I trusted someone who'd shoved a gun in my ribs. But you're better looking than them. So you work for Makronotis?"
"Special agent. Tsai Bond," she added with a smile.
"Do you know the bloke on the terrace? In the dark green cap. Don't lean on the window, it's loose."
"Green hat? Must be Roger Gladwin. One security advisor." Tsai knelt in the window recess and squinted down. "Yep. That him."
"Makronotis has got more than one? Security advisor?"
"Three: English, American, German. I work for Yank."
Helm poured more some coffee into the cups while he digested the latest information. He had been working for Phileros Makronotis all along. Security advisor Roger Gladwin had called himself Bateman in England while recruiting a 'dying' man for a desperate mission. He had been Mr. Lane on the phone in Greece. Robert Helm, whose impending extinction felt further off now, had given the Elousis Square radiomen something else to check for radio-controlled guns attached to advertising signs. All he had to work out now was why Gladwin-Bateman-Lane had played so hard to get when Helm had obtained clear evidence of his employer's vulnerability.
"Does he know you? Gladwin?" said Helm.
Tsai shook her head. "All security advisors independent. German work here. Gladwin come from Corinth for conference."
"So if you work for the Yank, you're here on a special assignment?"
"Work direct for Mr. Makronotis. Find bad guy. You."
"If you think I'm such a bad guy, how come you're having lunch with me?"
"You neutralized. No threat."
"What if I grabbed you and threatened to break your neck if they don't let me go?"
"You do that to me, John?" Tsai looked at him with shock tinged with amusement.
"Well, maybe not to you," Helm admitted. "What about old Makronotis? Ianos? He's got it coming."
"Guard shoot you. Bang! No question. You know kung fu, John?"
"Me? No chance."
"You grab me, John Scott, I break your arm."
"You'd do that to me?" Helm looked deeply offended.
"Maybe just throw you across room," laughed Tsai. "You finish lunch?"
"Guess so." Helm gulped down the last of his coffee, appalled that his petite companion could be so confident about breaking his bones and hurling him across the room.
"Now, you have conference."
Tsai took Helm back to the lift and up to the hall. She left him in an office, flashing a bright smile on her way out. Helm drifted over to the desk to glance at the papers on it. The embryo industrial spy was surprised to find everything written in Greek. He had not considered the possibility that anyone at the villa might conduct business in a language other than English, even though it happened every day at Lancer & Stowe, plc.
The view from the window was spoiled by a stone boundary wall. He could see some sea and Evvoia Island in the distance. A Doberman watched him with threatening, brown eyes from a patch of shadow at the wall. The dogs were as potent a threat as machine-gun towers.
Helm saw down in another black-leather chair and resisted the temptation to plant his heels on the mahogany desk top. He knew that it was solid wood, not just veneer stuck on something cheap. Phileros Makronotis didn't have to put up with substitutes for the real thing. Helm wondered idly how big a herd of cows had been exterminated to provide the villa with so many matching black-leather chairs.
Makronotis was in the habit of playing chess with his tripartite security staff either from straight paranoia or a genuine fear of assassination. The score in the current match seemed to be Germany nil, England one, at the moment. Quite how the American team fitted into the picture remained to be seen.
Helm assumed that some sort of review of the game was in progress. He was being kept hanging around to fill in any details that remained unclear. With any luck, Makronotis would put him on his personal and private jet to speed him home to spend his earnings before the day was out.
The billionaire breezed into the office as Helm was becoming bored with his own company. Makronotis held about three inches of a Churchillian cigar. He looked as if he had enjoyed a good lunch. He took a frosted can of Heineken from a fridge disguised as a bookcase and placed it on the desk in front of Helm. Helm picked it up quickly before it could make a ring and wiped the polished surface dry with his sleeve.
"You know now what you were doing, Mr. Scott?" Makronotis draped a fairly friendly smile across his heavy features.
"Playing musical spies with your security people," nodded Helm. "Just how serious was it?"
"They were playing for keeps, as the Americans say."
"You mean I could have been killed? For real?"
"That was why Mr. Gladwin paid you twenty-five thousand pounds. I quote, 'Man in terminal condition wishes to bet a shortened life against a lot of money.' Mr. Gladwin saw your advertisement in his newspaper and he suggested a training exercise. How close could a desperate man get to me? Naturally, all parties placed bets on the result. We Greeks have a reputation for gambling but I can assure you, the urge is equally strong in all parts of Europe."
"How did Tsai fit into all this?" said Helm.
"Miss Yuan-lin received the training exercise of learning the method of assassination, or bringing the assassin to me. She had trouble at first because she was looking for an English assassin, not someone like yourself with an Irish passport through his father. A failure of her briefing."
"Why was I kept hanging around for so long when I'd made the tape of you at your hotel?"
"When he reported your success, Mr. Gladwin had won his contest with Mr. Erlich. Miss Yuan-lin was given a further week to identify the alleged assassin in highly artificial circumstances, admittedly. A matter of searching for a common face at various rendezvous points. But she succeeded in the end."
"We could have been killed by that bomb yesterday," protested Helm.
"That was an uncalculated risk, but you were well paid for your services, Mr. Scott."
"What about Tsai sticking a gun in my ribs?"
"Miss Yuan-lin is fully trained in its use. As I told you, it was a training exercise under real conditions."
"What about the dead donkey Gladwin's men chucked at us? We could have been killed in that crash."
Makronotis frowned across his desk. "I fail to understand your attitude, Mr. Scott. You believe you may be dying, so you decided to risk your life to have a little enjoyment first. But I see you sitting before me with no more than superficial injuries. Certainly well enough to spend your earnings in any way that you wish. Had the risks been less, you would not have been paid as much."
"Maybe I didn't realize how real your real conditions would be," Helm admitted. "So I can go home now? No bullet in the back from your foster-father on the way out?"
"Old Ianos should have been in the movies," chuckled Makronotis. "He was wasted as a shepherd. He has a room full of gangster and spy movies on videocassette now. One thing more, Mr. Scott. I owe you congratulations for warning Mr. Gladwin that you had been exposed even as I listened to your conversation without suspicion. You used a code phrase?"
"Right," nodded Helm.
"That was another winning bet." Makronotis offered a chubby hand across the desk. Helm submitted to a mild crushing from an unexpectedly strong grip. "Goodbye, Mr. Scott. Your luggage is in the hall. My helicopter will take you to the airport. Your flight for London leaves at two o'clock. I wish you good fortune when your doctor tells you your test results."
Helm shrugged. "Back to earth with a bump, now."
One of the tall Imperial Guardsmen was waiting with Helm's luggage. His first ever helicopter ride lasted less than ten minutes and took him to the airport with half an hour to wait. He was rather relieved when the Dan Air flight climbed over Valaki, taking a horde of tanned holiday-makers home. He had been half-expecting the police to drag him out of his seat on Makronotis' orders to take part in another of the security staff's war games.
Helm telephoned his local health centre from Redhill station while waiting for a connection to Paddock Wood. The receptionist at the evening surgery sounded as if she had lost a bet that he would never, ever return to England. She gave him an appointment at ten-thirty the next morning.
When he got home, toward the end of the evening rush hour, Helm had to struggle to open his front door. A two-week accumulation of free newspapers and mail had created a formidable barrier. He dumped his luggage in the sitting room and went to the fridge.
The beer was all right but he realized that everything else would have to go. The vegetables in the rack and the fruit in the bowl in the sitting room were also candidates for the dustbin. He would be dining out on his first evening home.
Helm exchanged his leather jacket for a thick jumper. Southern England at the end of August was half as hot as Athens in degrees Centigrade. His house felt positively freezing to a man just back from the Mediterranean. Brandy seemed more appropriate than beer, but he pulled the ring anyway.
He switched on the central heating, turned the sitting room radiator full on and dropped onto a nearby chair to take stock of his position. He had a five-figure sum in his building society account. He had some new clothes, most of them in need of a wash, and some duty-free booze. He still had his Irish Republic passport, John Scott's driving licence, $350 in unused traveller's cheques and about 6,000 drachmas (worth about £25).
On the negative side, his body looked like a war zone with cuts and bruises from a terrorist bomb and an attempted assassination with a dead donkey. He was sure that he had a whole lot of grey hairs waiting to show through when the black ones dropped out. He had also acquired a taste for the Greek sun, which made grey old Maidstone look as welcoming as Siberia in mid-winter.
Suddenly, it was dark and warm, thanks to the central heating. Helm realized that he had dropped off to sleep with the can of beer in his hand fortunately, empty at that point. There was enough light filtering in from the street to allow him to see his watch. Midnight had gone to someone on Athens time, but the local chip show was still open for stomachs running on Maidstone time. He had chicken and chips with curry sauce for his supper, then he went to bed.
He was up at eight the next morning after a fairly sleepless night. The energy from his meal had revived him and he had lain awake in a darkened bedroom for at least two hours before his first period of sleep. Half a gale blowing over from the North Sea had wakened him at intervals through the night. Strangely, he knew that he would not have to make up for his lost sleep by going to bed early that Wednesday evening. He seemed to open a separate sleep account each night and never have to carry a deficit forward.
The corner shop next to the newsagent provided a loaf for toast, butter, eggs and a packet of bacon. His fortnight-old bread in the expanding plastic container had the consistency of pumice stone. After breakfast, he gave the fruit bowl and the interior of the empty fridge a good clean with sterilizing fluid as an antidote to mould-bloomed oranges and cheese. He was well into making up a shopping list when the doorbell rang. Helm saw the dark green cap first. He opened the door wider.
"Who are we today?" he remarked. "Mr. Bateman, Lane or Gladwin?"
The security advisor shrugged. "Take your pick."
"I suppose you've come for the passport and the driving licence?" Helm followed the visitor to the centrally heated warmth of the sitting room.
"No, I've come for you." Gladwin took off his leather gloves.
"I thought the job was over?"
"This is another job. Starting immediately."
"But I'm supposed to be seeing my doctor in an hour and a half."
"Just like that?"
Gladwin reached into his black raincoat and took out a manilla envelope. It flopped open when he slapped it onto the dining table. Helm could recognize £25,000 in fifties at a glance now.
"How long will this job take?"
"Two days max. Home tomorrow, or Friday at the latest."
Helm reached for the telephone. Morning surgery had just begun. He had to wait five minutes for the engaged tone to end.
"You want to cancel, Mr. Helm?" The receptionist sounded baffled. "But Dr. Bennett is very anxious to see you."
Helm glanced at Gladwin, who was standing close enough to hear both sides of the conversation. "I'm afraid I can't make it this morning after all. Did he say anything about my test results?"
"I understand your haemoglobin's no lower, and the first biopsy was clear. But the consultant wants to repeat the procedure at the hospital after she had another look at your X-rays with the computer."
Helm made a quick decision. The waxy lump was harmless, to his relief. Some smart-arse computer had found something else suspicious. The odds remained the same fifty:fifty. Either the new find was benign or it wasn't. Either way, it was better to have £50,000 than £25,000 and two days wasn't going to make any difference. Helm gave an unreliable promise to arrange another appointment before the end of the week.
Gladwin made himself a huge egg and bacon sandwich while Helm carried out some essential shopping and deposited his latest fee in the building society. He packed more new clothing for the trip back to Greece. Half an hour on successive motorways took Helm and Gladwin back to Gatwick. They landed at Athens airport in the middle of the afternoon, local time.
Gladwin knew very little about the new job. He had returned to Corinth in triumph on Tuesday evening. The telephone had roused him in the early hours of Wednesday morning. His orders were to fetch John Scott for an urgent job. Like a loyal, well-paid employee, Gladwin had got on with the job without wasting time asking questions.
The news from Greece in Helm's newspaper was a bomb story. He had read most of the article before he realized that it wasn't his bomb but another one, which had been planted the previous afternoon on a tourist bus. An alert American, a New York cop visiting relatives, had noticed a man of Arab appearance put a suitcase into the baggage compartment just ahead of his own luggage.
The cop had evacuated the bus on his own initiative half an hour later, when he had been unable to find the Arab among the passengers. There was an Identikit picture with the newspaper article. It showed a villainous character with a big, black moustache and long, dark hair certainly not the sort of person anyone would want to meet down a dark alley.
Helm was surprised to learn that the latest one was a fourth of a recent series of bombs. The first two had exploded during his stay in Greece but he had not heard about them. Athens is recognized as the main European entry point for a whole spectrum of Arab terrorists. The author of the article found it rather significant that no Greeks had been killed or injured by the bombs, just foreign tourists.
Suspicion was hardening against the Abu Nidal faction of the PLO, but Lebanese Shi'ites, inspired by Iran, were still the co-favourites. There had been a great many blood-curdling issued when the accidental shooting down of a civilian airliner had forced Iran into agreeing a cease-fire to end the Gulf War with Iraq. The reporter though that the threats were being put into belated effect now.
The Boeing 737 had touched down at Athens airport in the middle of yet another baking hot afternoon. The second helicopter ride of his life carried a sweating Robert Helm from the airport to the Makronotis villa on the opposite coast. Gladwin took him straight to the boss in his office. A long table packed with telephones and other communications equipment filled one side of the room. Phileros Makronotis was sitting at his desk, apparently undisturbed by the half dozen people buzzing at the table on his left.
"I have another job for your, Mr. Scott," he told Helm after crushing his hand again. "My granddaughter has been kidnapped by Arab terrorists. I want you to handle the ransom payment."
Helm dropped onto a chair and gaped at the billionaire. Sneaking around making a video of an allegedly publicity shy businessman was hardly training for dealing with terrorists. He had been just another face in the crowd on the first job. The second required him to deal face-to-face with people who would kill him without a second thought if they didn't like the look of him. He was way out of his depth.