HELM HAD BEEN FEELING hot in the thirty-degree temperature outside. A sudden chill made him clammy in the air-conditioned room. "What are the details?" he croaked. His throat had gone very dry, even though his skin felt soaking wet.
Gladwin poured him a glass of mineral water, then sat down himself to hear the reason for his own 3,000-mile round trip.
"We received an alarm from a car bringing my granddaughter here from Athens last night," said Makronotis. "A security team found the car off the road and the driver badly wounded. Bloodstains at the scene suggested that he shot two of the kidnappers before they shot him. My granddaughter and her companions had gone."
"Who was with her?"
"A maid, and Miss Yuan-lin, who happened to be coming here. We received a call from a public telephone two hours later. The ransom terms are very simple. One million dollars for three women today, two million for two women tomorrow or three million for the sole survivor on Friday. The ones to die will be picked at random and we will not be told who they are. Your task is to take the money to them this evening. When the prisoners have been released, you will hand it over."
"That sounds a rather stupid thing to do," said Helm. "Putting myself at the mercy of terrorists. And I don't have a stupid bone in my body." He recalled the tag line from an American cop show.
Makronotis handed a sheet of paper across the desk, his heavy features set in a stern expression. "This is the text of your advertisement, Mr. Scott? Man with terminal condition? Or did you receive good news from your doctor?"
"I'm still in as much doubt as ever," said Helm. "I had to cancel my appointment this morning."
"But the receptionist did say you're no better," Gladwin reminded him helpfully.
"I believe your terms are twenty-five thousand pounds plus expense?" said Makronotis. "And Mr. Gladwin has already paid the fee?"
"As a retainer. Which can be returned. And twenty-five grand is my minimum fee," Helm added, trying to buy thinking time.
"Would a further twenty-five thousand pounds help to persuade you? I take it dollars are acceptable?" Makronotis took a wad of dead presidents from a drawer of his desk.
Helm wondered how much was waiting in reserve. The odds remained the same evens that another head would turn up. He knew that the hypothetical coin would land tails eventually if he kept tossing it. He had to ask himself if his winning streak could continue and if he was being offered enough money to accept the risk of dying before he could spend it. He also had to ask himself how annoyed Makronotis would be if he refused the job.
Robert Helm was a non-person in Greece. Thanks to Roger Gladwin's machinations, Helm was a non-existent Irishman called John Scott. If a non-person disappeared, who would ask any questions? People could die when Makronotis' security staff played their war games. If the billionaire had no further use for John Scott, he might tell Gladwin to give the unco-operative Irishman a fatal car accident as a going-away present.
On the other hand, Makronotis' staff and his foster-father were skilled in games of intimidation. They might just get on with the job of finding another sucker if Helm phoned for a taxi and headed back to the airport. But if he survived his encounter with the terrorists, Helm would be able to go home on the next flight to spend £75,000. He would never have a better chance to make so much so quickly.
Makronotis pushed the wad of notes across his desk, having read the course of the decision from Helm's face.
Helm pushed it back. "Could you have the equivalent in sterling put in my building society account at home?"
"See to it," Makronotis told Gladwin.
The security advisor nodded and left the office. He had shed his black raincoat but he was still wearing his dark green cap. Helm wondered if he was bald on top and embarrassed about it.
"Mr. Erlich will give you your instructions, Mr. Scott," Phileros Makronotis swept the cash back into his drawer and forgot about Helm. He gave his attention instead to a backlog of messages from the long table.
Using his initiative, Helm returned to the hall. He met a fortyish, compact man with a blond crew-cut. Erlich looked like a boxer, who had retired after a long and undistinguished career. His nose had a kink to the right. His left eyebrow looked well flattened. Someone called Erlich could be either German or American. Helm waited for the accent.
"Okay, I've got a guy here to brief you." Erlich had an American accent. He led the way to yet another of the rooms that opened off the hall. This one had a carpeted floor and contained two big-screen television sets and shelves packed with films on cassette. Helm wondered if it was Ianos Makronotis' lair.
"Rinaldi, this is Scott. Do the business," said Erlich.
The door closed behind him as Helm crossed the room to the man in the armchair. Erlich, clearly, had little to say and a lot to do. Rinaldi was the equal of Helm's six feet one when he rose to his feet but his close-fitting clothes made him look slimmer. His hands had very long, slim fingers.
"Sit down, Mr. Scott." Rinaldi's fluent English had an Italian accent. "Before we begin, I must ask you to guarantee to keep this information confidential.
Helm shrugged. "Yeah, okay."
To his amazement, he found himself in the hands of a stage magician, who had been booked to give him a quick course in ways to beat a blindfold. Helm had always assumed that all illusionists use the same simple but highly effective trick when they drive a car blindfolded. Rinaldi knew half a dozen tricks for different circumstances.
The one that he thought would be of most use to Helm involved tensing his facial muscles into unnatural positions while the blindfold was being tied. In theory, he would create just enough slack to allow restricted vision when he relaxed again. The essence of the trick lay in concealing all such facial contortions from the person tying the blindfold.
After half an hour's practice, Helm's face ached but he had learned how to rest his head at apparently natural angles so that he could see a surprising amount below the bottom of the blindfold. There was no guarantee that he would be able to use the trick, but Erlich wanted him to have every chance to look at the kidnappers' faces, bodies, clothing and equipment. Helm drew some comfort from the session. If he was expected to make a report after the job was over, then Makronotis thought that he had some chance of surviving.
When Rinaldi had finished, Helm asked about his luggage. A huge Imperial Guardsman showed him to a bedroom on the villa's upper floor. His cabin bag and leather jacket lay on the bed. Helm looked up the number of the building society office in Maidstone in his diary and tried the telephone on the bedside table. Subtracting an hour and a half from the time on the bedside clock, he worked out that it was afternoon coffee-break-time in Kent. After endless pressing of keys, he got through to one of the staff then the manager, who confirmed that his account had received a second deposit of £25,000 in the last quarter of an hour.
Helm listened patiently to a sales pitch about the advantages of a higher-interest account he wasn't paying for the call then he rang off after promising to give the matter his urgent consideration. It was difficult to explain from a range of fifteen hundred miles that the vast sums now in his account were intended for jet-setting, that Robert Helm might be dead in a few hours' time if the terrorists turned nasty, or that he might expire from waxy lumps, or whatever was causing his anaemia, before the 90-day notice period for withdrawals expired.
The bedroom was air-conditioned to a comfortable living temperature rather than the frigid American standard. Helm spotted a small refrigerator by the window. It contained a dozen cans of Heineken in the body and two one-litre bottles of mineral water in the door. He opened a can of lager.
Erlich barged into his room without knocking. He had brought a black briefcase. He opened the lid to show a transparent plastic box, which filled the interior. "Okay, listen up," he said in a brisk tone. "The money will be in this. See these chains in the case? They limit how far you can open the lid. Wide enough to show the cash in the liner but not wide enough to get it out."
"They're pretty flimsy, the chains," said Helm. "A pair of pliers would make short work of them."
"They won't try anything like that when you warn them an incendiary will go off if you release the trigger on the handle. It also goes off if the case is subjected to sharp, mechanical vibrations, such as trying to break the plastic liner, which is polycarbonate and pretty well unbreakable anyway. Any rough stuff and the money burns up. And they get zip."
"And where will I be when the firebomb goes off?" said Helm. "Or do I get a personal fire extinguisher?"
"There's a twenty-second delay, and they won't dare try anything when you've told them about the incendiary."
"I suppose not. How much will the money weight?"
"About twenty pounds. Heavy, but not too heavy to carry comfortably."
"Right," said Helm sceptically. "How did they get hold of their prisoners? Was it something else the German guy cocked up? You'd think he'd give Makronotis' granddaughter a bullet-proof car, for God's sake!"
"I did." Erlich radiated expressionless hostility.
Helm frowned at him, too surprised to be embarrassed. "I thought you were the Yank?"
"That's Kaiser. And I didn't make a cock up. The maid panicked when some of the tear gas seeped through the filters after they ran the car off the road. She didn't just sit tight and wait, she tried to get out."
"I bet the first thing Makronotis does when he get her back is fire her."
"I reckon that's top of his list. So you're clear on the case? You have to keep up a light pressure on the switch in the handle. Let go, and blooie!"
"Got it," Helm said nervously. "I suppose the police have been kept out of this? And the Greek FBI? If they've got one."
"You think they'd let the boss hand a million bucks to a gang of A-rab terrorists?" scoffed Erlich.
"To be honest, yes. If they know what's good for them."
"This is a high-security operation, Scottie. Strictly on a need-to-know basis. So we don't need any cops charging around complicating things, okay? You're straight on the blindfold trick? Everything you see will help to track them down."
"Right," said Helm.
"Okay. You go in about two hours, at seven o'clock. You can eat in the dining room on the ground floor. Order what you want when you want it. And stay out of the way. And stay sober, okay?"
Thank you very much, Helm thought as the German left with the briefcase. He could scarcely believe that it would contain one million dollars the next time he saw it.
Helm finished his can, dropped it into the waste bin and went downstairs to see about some food. He had taken a very light lunch on the airliner because his body had told him that he had only just had his breakfast. He was starting to feel very tired suddenly.
He had no idea whether it was something associated with his anaemia, but he went into a very rapid slump at around six o'clock some evenings. He was over an hour fast in his new time zone but he knew that the solution would be the same. He yawned down the stairs in search of some reviving food.
To his surprise, he felt no particular anxiety about what was to come. He felt little of anything, really. He seemed insulated from his troubles. Phileros Makronotis wanted him to give a million dollars to murdering terrorists, who could afford to abandon him when he had delivered the ransom. They could hardly make their own position worse by killing him, however, and killing someone who had seen them could give them an illusion of greater security. Which was why he welcomed the bargaining power of the fire-bomb.
He was betting his life against £50,000 that he would survive to spend his grand total of £75,000. As always, the odds remained evens. He would return to England either alive or in a wooden box. If he was alive, he could spend the money. If he wasn't, the money didn't matter anyway.
In the meantime, all he could do was hope that the sense of numbness persisted after the tiredness passed. The last thing that he needed was a case of the nervous shakes or worse, nervous diarrhoea!
Helm met Roger Gladwin in the dining room. The Corinth-based security advisor was making sandwiches by hacking thick slices from a baked ham. He had found some real, supermarket, white bread. Helm took over the assault on the joint when Gladwin turned his attention to a gadget that took stones out of olives.
"Ready to go?" said Gladwin. "Erlich briefed you?"
"I dropped a real clanger there," Helm remarked. "I thought he was the Yank security advisor, not the German you used me to score off."
"He went to an American language school in Krautland. Then he went to the States for his master's degree in security studies. And he worked there for five years."
"I take it you don't get on with him?" Helm drew his conclusion from Gladwin's contemptuous tone.
"He picked up all a Yank's bad habits. Like going on about his degrees all the time and how much experience he's got. Much too flash for my tastes."
"You prefer to get on with the job without making a song and dance about it?"
"The first rule of security is don't draw attention to yourself. But the grub's bloody good here. And I'm usually a good forty miles from him."
"I don't like the sound of that incendiary in the case."
"It's a good story, isn't it?" chuckled Gladwin. "If you believed it, so will they."
"Right," said Helm with an idiot grin of relief. He had been wondering what would happen if he developed cramp in his case-carrying hand and tried to change hands. He filled a cup with coffee from one of the vacuum jugs and tackled his sandwich with more enthusiasm. One small risk had just dropped out of the survival equation.
An hour before sunset, Helm and his million dollars boarded a bullet-proof Mercedes executive saloon. An Imperial Guardsman joined him, manoeuvring his two-metre frame into the back of the vehicle without difficulty. Dieter Erlich took the wheel. He muttered a final report to Phileros Makronotis, then he left the grounds of the villa.
Erlich headed north on the coast road at first, then he cut inland. Helm knew from a brief examination of the Greek equivalent of an Ordnance Survey map that there is a whole lot of wilderness to the north of Athens, which made it good bandit territory.
The hiss of the wheels changed its note as they moved to a rougher surface.
"Hey, Scottie, don't even think of bailing out of the car with the million bucks and running for it," Erlich called over his shoulder when they were some distance from the main road. "You wouldn't get ten yards."
"I hadn't thought of that," Helm told him. "But thanks for giving me the idea. It sounds very tempting."
The Imperial Guardsman glanced at Helm before he carried on loading cartridges into a pump-action shotgun. For all his size, he had a certain grace and he looked like a suitable model for heroic statuary.
"How come this car's so quiet, anyway?" Helm added.
"It's hydrogen-powered," said Erlich. "The same performance but totally non-polluting. The boss is trying to sell the idea to the Greek government."
Erlich drifted along secondary roads. Helm was completely lost when the car stopped, out of sight of the sea, twenty minutes later. He assumed that they were still within five or ten miles of the villa, but he had no idea of its direction. Darkness was closing in around them as thick clouds rolled in from Turkey, ruling out navigation by the sun in the forty minutes before it set.
Erlich lit a cigarette. Helm noticed that he smoked Camels - which was another misleading piece of information to suggest that Erlich, not yet-to-be-met Kaiser, was Tsai's boss, the Yank.
Dieter Erlich was a bad choice for the chauffeur's job, Helm decided. Phileros Makronotis would never employ such a battered character. He would have put the man who had won his fights and remained unmarked behind the wheel of one of his cars.
The modified Mercedes had stopped in a shallow valley. Its occupants could see at least half a mile of road ahead and behind. Low hills approached to within a quarter of a mile on left and right. Erlich had checked a compact submachine gun, which was little bigger than a pistol. The Guardsman had his shotgun. Nobody had thought to ask the passenger if he would like a personal protection device, though.
Suddenly, there were figures on the road two male and three female. They had appeared out of nowhere, as far as Helm was concerned. Erlich behaved as if he had been watching them approach for some time. He reached for the switch to blink his headlights. The Guardsman had moved to the fold-down seat behind Erlich. He was scanning their rear for signs of people sneaking up behind them.
A dark figure waved an answering signal after inspecting the car through binoculars.
"Okay, Scottie, let's go," said Erlich. "Slow and easy. You know what to do?"
"Of course," Helm said with false calm.
His legs felt slightly rubbery as he set off along the dusty road. The others were about thirty yards away. He kept telling himself that the round trip was worth £50,000. One of the terrorists started to walk toward him. They met half-way. The masked man was wearing a camouflage jacket and dark jeans. He looked like one of the people who fire over the grave at an IRA funeral. He was holding his self-loading pistol in his left hand. He held out the right for the case.
"You speak English?" said Helm.
The masked man nodded.
"If I let go of this handle, a firebomb goes off and the money burns up," Helm told him with exaggerated clarity. "Do you understand that?"
The masked man nodded twice.
"I can open the case enough to show you the money, but if you try to cut the chains or break the plastic box inside, the money burns. Is that clear?"
The terrorist nodded again and moved to one side when Helm opened the catches, as if expecting a faceful of knockout gas. He peered into the case then shook his masked head. "No good. This could be paper. I must count it."
Helm looked back at the Mercedes uncertainly.
"No show money, no deal today. And two million tomorrow."
"He wants to count the money," Helm called to Erlich.
The Imperial Guardsman climbed out of the car. He brought a key to Helm, then he stood by with his shotgun at the ready. Helm turned the key in a hole at the hinge. He heard a loud, terrifying click. He reached cautiously into the case to unhook the chains. The plastic liner was two open-topped boxes, which fitted one inside the other.
The terrorist flicked through every bundle of notes, making sure that every note was a $100 bill. Helm handed the bundles to him one by one, and he replaced them in the top of the plastic liner. Helm wriggled the base of the liner into position, replaced it in the briefcase, attached the security chains and closed the briefcase. He gripped the handle tightly before turning the key clockwise. Then he handed the key to the guard, who backed to the Mercedes with his finger on the trigger of his shotgun.
Helm and the terrorist backed away from the road. Helm sat on a boulder and rested the case on his knees. It was growing heavier and having a gun pointed at him made his legs feel weak. The terrorist waved a signal with his free hand.
The three women began to walk along the road. Helm had assumed that they were members of the gang, not prisoners. Tsai was the one nearest the other kidnapper, the granddaughter was in the middle and... The third one, a teenager in a black dress, started to run for her life. She shot past Helm and dived into the bullet-proof protection of the car, sobbing loudly.
Helm raised his right hand in greeting as Tsai drew level. She waved back. The granddaughter, a slim girl with red hair pulled back into a pony tail, also waved. She looked about ten and she seemed to be enjoying her experience. When Tsai and the girl were safely inside the car, the Guardsman held up his left hand. He put the brass key on the road in front of the car, as agreed during earlier negotiations. Helm turned his watch to the stopwatch mode.
The kidnappers had agreed to give their former prisoners a start of fifteen minutes. Half a dozen masked men dashed out of the bushes as soon as the Mercedes was out of sight. One of them pointed a pocket-radio-size gadget at Helm. It began to emit rhythmic cheeps when he had twiddled the dial to the right setting. Helm sat still as the man moved behind him. Rough hands grabbed at the collar of his leather jacket. One of the terrorists slapped him across the face.
Frightened and angry, Helm raised the briefcase. "Do that again and I'll let go of the handle."
"What the hell's this?" The English-speaker held up a fat, button-like object, which he had detached from the inside of Helm's collar.
"Obviously, it's a bug. But I didn't put it there, okay?" Helm told him aggressively. "It must be so my people can find me when you lot have gone."
The hands continued to search him. The contents of his pockets ended up on the ground. One of the terrorists took a fancy to his book of traveller's cheques. Another grabbed his wallet. Removing his watch presented a serious problem. It had an expanding metal strap and he was holding the briefcase in his left hand.
"Tell his phucking idiot to leave my watch alone," said Helm. "It hasn't been off my wrist, so there can't be a bug in it. And I want my things back. Everything. Or I let go of this handle and you lose your million bucks."
Helm had heard that the only way to deal with terrorists is by ultimatum. Finding out if it was true was a fairly terrifying experience, even when he was angry.
The English-speaker snapped orders in remarkably fluent Greek for an Arab. He had to point his gun at one of the gang to force him to return a packet of mint imperials. The man seemed reluctant to believe that they were not some exotic British drug. Helm stuffed everything back into his pockets with his right hand. Another man gave the brass key to the English-speaker.
"The agreement was to wait five minutes," said Helm.
The English-speaker dropped the bug to the roadway and crushed it.
"They know you've found it now," said Helm. He held out his right hand for the key. It refused to turn in the safety lock.
The English-speaker pushed Helm's hand aside. He tried to turn the key both ways. Helm began to get a bad feeling about his £50,000 job.
If the firebomb was just a bluff, there was no reason to leave the wrong key. Helm began to think in terms of a charge of high explosive rather than just some sort of incendiary device. Phileros Makronotis could afford to blow a million dollars to bits to get his revenge on a bunch of Arab kidnappers.
"Let go of that handle and you're a dead man," grated the English-speaker.
"Tell me something I don't know," said Helm as one of the others pushed a shotgun into his face. He could smell burnt powder.
The weapon had a swivel below the muzzle for a carrying sling. The man reminded Helm more of one of the mob of brainless Sicilian country gangsters in the Godfather movies than of a Kalashnikov-toting Arab terrorist.
Helm sat on his boulder and hoped that the trigger finger wasn't itching. The others moved away to confer. All of them spoke what sounded like natural Greek. When they pulled off their masks without offering him a blindfold, Helm began to wave his £75,000 goodbye.
Every man had dark hair. Some wore a black moustache. The faces were pale, night-owl blobs in the fading daylight, which was too weak to show up features. Helm could hear a rumble of thunder behind the hills to his left. The Greek Gods were muttering about him.
All that was keeping him alive was the million dollars in his booby-trapped briefcase. If the terrorists got it away from him, or he let go of the handle, he was finished. Okay, so letting go of the handle would allow him to die a dollar millionaire, but that was a small consolation.