THE ROBERT HELM OF four days earlier would have stood no chance against a man with six inches of sharp, polished steel in his fist. Rooted to the spot, he would have stared in disbelief, and remained staring after the blade had emerged from his vitals, its deadly work accomplished. In those four eventful days, Helm had survived two car crashes and two explosions. He had been threatened with a gun three times and he had been shot at by someone trying to kill him rather than intimidate him. He had learned the importance of getting stuck in without delay.
He grabbed the man's wrist and heaved. Helm threw himself backwards to add momentum to the tug. The knifeman shot forward into the room. Helm's feet crashed into the door, slamming it shut. The knifeman turned a somersault, landed on the bed and bounced off it at the other side.
He crashed onto the writing table, demolishing it, and ended up on the floor with the remains of Helm's lunch. As he struggled to his feet, he trod on a styrofoam burger-container that was lubricated with ketchup. His foot shot out from under him. His head met a corner of the bedside cabinet with a dull crunch.
Helm dived at the bed and rolled across it. He landed with both feet on the knifeman's stomach, driving the wind out of him. The knife was nowhere to be seen. Someone started to pound on his door. Helm grabbed his attacker by the collar of his sweatshirt and the belt of his trousers, dragged him to the window and dumped him over the sill onto the fire escape.
He had no clear idea what he was going to do next, but getting out of the hotel with a prisoner to show to Erlich or Gladwin seemed a good idea. The pounding on his door continued as he crammed his few possessions into the flight bag. Then the door flew open. A middle-aged man charged in on a tide of excited Greek.
Helm ignored him when he saw that the intruder was unarmed. He felt annoyed, and frustrated because he didn't know enough Greek to tell the man to sod off. The intruder rushed to a window to see what all the shouting below was about. Then he turned round and grabbed at Helm's flight bag.
Helm swung a round-house right, which smacked with satisfying force against the intruder's face. He spun away, bounced off a wall and dived, yelling blue murder, into the corridor. A deeper voice joined the uproar. Helm peeped round his door. The intruder had run full tilt into a policeman. They were sprawled on the floor in a tangle of limbs.
The policeman kept a firm grip on his assailant as he struggled to his feet. Protesting loudly, the middle-aged man was marched away with his right arm twisted up his back in a hammer-lock.
Helm waited until they were on the staircase, then slung he his flight bag on his shoulder and walked briskly to the lift. A woman in bright green underwear looked round a door on the right of the corridor. She called a question to him. Helm just shrugged expressively, telling her without admitting his deep ignorance of the Greek language that he had no idea what all the racket was about.
The lift was descending. He pressed the call button and got in with a young blonde, who eyed him in a manner that was more professional than friendly. Helm returned an innocent's smile and stood back from the door to let her get out first at the ground floor.
The lobby was full of people, who had crowded in from the street. The policeman and his prisoner were just on their way out. An old woman in black belted the prisoner with her shopping bag as he passed. Helm found himself wondering how she had found the room to take a decent swing.
The receptionist, who had found Helm's Greek accent so amusing, was shouting and waving his arms. Helm bent his head forward and sagged at the knees to lower himself from six feet one to the general height of the mob. Getting out of the lobby was a simple matter of allowing himself to be pushed out onto the street with the mob by the four cops on crowd-control duty.
He realized his mistake when he paused on the other side of the street to adjust his sunglasses. His attacker had fallen thirty feet to cause serious damage to the roof of a car parked in front of the hotel. The fire escape lay outside the room's other window. John Scott had claimed his fourth victim in less than twenty-four hours.
Helm tried to freeze a mental image of a face seen for no more than two seconds. He tried to fit it to one of the pale blobs from the night before. The man with the knife had to be one of the terrorists, he decided. He hadn't been in the country long enough to get on the wrong side of anyone else.
As he walked, Helm tried to work out how the terrorists had picked up his trail. They might have followed Roger Gladwin, unlikely as that seemed, or they had spotted Erlich. They might even have known about a Makronotis organization hideout.
The more he thought about it, the more certain he became that the terrorists couldn't have known he was in Athens. They had been supplied with inside information. Someone had told them where to find him either the general area or his precise location down to the name of the hotel and the room number.
'Don't go out,' Gladwin had told him, 'it's not safe.'
It could hardly be more dangerous than staying indoors, Helm told himself as he counted up his Greek money. Erlich had given him 3,000 drachmas, which sounded a hell of a lot but amounted to about twelve quid in real money.
He paid a thousand drachmas for a cheap, duck-billed cap of dark blue fabric, which had USS ENTERPRISE embroidered on it in yellow. Finding out if he was supposed to be a crewman of the aircraft carrier or the starship was beyond his limited Greek.
Wearing dark glasses and a hat wasn't a disguise, it just made him part of the crowd. Helm kept moving on the shaded side of streets, trying to think what to do. A form of internal guidance brought him to familiar territory. He was actually walking around Elousis Square before he realized where he was.
He crossed to the café in the garden centre and ordered a bottle of Heineken with reckless disregard for his supply of Greek money. He had so little that it wasn't worth trying to spin it out. As his beer arrived, he spotted one of the Makronotis radiomen. It was just after four-thirty on a boiling hot afternoon.
Five minutes later, a black, hydrogen-powered Mercedes drew up at the Hotel Renga. Phileros Makronotis strolled across the pavement as if he owned it which he probably did, Helm realized and disappeared into the air-conditioned building at the end of his day at the stock exchange.
The Mercedes drove away. Helm watched the radiomen winding down, watching for suspicious characters who left as soon as the show was over. Then he saw a radiowoman. She looked about the same size and shape as Tsai but she was some distance away and dark glasses dominated her face.
When he finished his beer, Helm turned his back on the hotel. He wanted a quiet corner nearby with a telephone. He found a suitable café two streets away. Fortunately, the receptionist at the Hotel Renga spoke some English. Helm gave his telephone number in Greek to avoid confusion and asked for it to be passed on to Thespinis Yuan-lin without delay. He said that he was calling in connection with Monday night's party instead of leaving his name.
Helm was reluctant to throw John Scott's name about while the police were looking for him. Having been blown up on Monday afternoon, just four days earlier, Tsai had to remember who had given her meat balls and red wine in the evening. Helm found her very attractive, the more so because she was the only woman whom he knew in Greece, but he was under no illusion of reciprocation. Even so, Tsai owed him a social obligation of help, even if he was just another security problem.
She had attached herself to him and accepted his hospitality on Monday, and then she had pointed a gun at him without a qualm on Tuesday. She had a perfect corporate conscience, and the boss of the corporation was her father. John Scott had ended up in trouble on the corporation's business and he had information of interest to the boss. He was too valuable to be left hanging.
Tsai was the only member of the Makronotis organization who hadn't lied to him directly. She had deceived him with silence, allowing him to jump to false conclusions, but that was his own fault. Gladwin/Bateman/Lane had told him anything that would make Helm jump in the right direction.
Erlich had lied about the length of the fuse on the bomb in the briefcase. And he was the chief suspect in a possible million-dollar swindle. Tsai was the only one likely to help Helm out of his mess.
Tsai had shared real danger with him twice. She had to be susceptible to emotional blackmail if applied ruthlessly enough, and if he avoided making any threats against her father, Helm told himself. He knew that trusting her basic decency was a risk, but there wasn't much else he could do.
He took a £10 note from his wallet and negotiated for food and change with the café's owner. He beat an initial offer of a straight 2,000 drachmas up to 2,150, which represented a piratical rate of exchange. To a man on the run, it was the best offer available. He bought a Greekburger, a cup of American Coffee and a glass of Metaxas brandy to cheer himself up. He took his meal to a table near the telephone.
He finished his first cup of coffee with the burger and bought more coffee to drink with his brandy. A local tour company had sprinkled the café with leaflets. Helm began to read one to pass the time. The English section was disappointingly free of the comical blunders expected of foreigners.
Something hard prodded him between the shoulder blades.
"Freeze!" reached him in a menacing whisper.
Helm dropped his brandy glass, which broke with a crash loud enough to create a moment's silence.
The pressure between his shoulder blades eased.
Tsai dropped onto a chair, wiggled her index finger at him and grinned broadly. "Hello, John. Jumpy?"
"Don't do things like that!" Helm transferred pieces of broken glass to an ashtray, taking great care to avoid cutting himself.
"You okay? Face look beat up."
"No bones broken," said Helm bravely.
The owner's wife marched up with a dustpan and brush and a belligerent expression. Tsai said something to her, which made everything all right. The lady seemed rather surprised that Helm had bothered to pick up the larger pieces of his glass. She wasn't used to house-trained customers, especially English-speaking ones.
"I suppose a phone number's as good as an address to your lot," Helm remarked.
"You want to come in from cold, John?" Tsai ignored such an obvious conclusion.
Helm returned a hollow laugh. Tsai's choice of phrase seem ridiculously inappropriate for the thirty-degree heat of an Athenian afternoon. "I want to get away from guys with guns and knives. And the cops, of course. Preferably as far as out of the country."
"Mr. Makronotis want to talk to you."
"Great! I've got a few things to say to him myself."
"Good!" Tsai's bright smile suggested that she expected co-operation rather than complaints. "Wait here. Back soon."
Helm returned his attention to the leaflet, wondering how much of an act Tsai was putting on. Playing the ignorant foreigner with a winning smile, and understanding as much as suited her, were excellent ways of controlling another foreigner, who had got himself into more trouble than he could handle. But just sitting and waiting to be rescued seemed a sensible thing to try for the moment.
Tsai returned in twenty minutes. Helm finished his third cup of coffee. Remembering that drinking spirits in a hot climate is a bad idea, he had decided against more brandy. Tsai wanted him to follow her at a distance. They made their way along crowded streets to a department store. Tsai led him to the menswear department, and paused at one of the changing rooms.
Helm brushed past the curtain. A blue overall was hanging up inside. There was an empty box on the chair. Helm put his Olympic Airways flight bag into the box, then climbed into the overalls. He kept his cap and the sunglasses on. The change of image was dramatic. A hot, sweating tourist had become a hot, sweating workman from the USS Enterprise. The overalls were stained artistically and one of the pockets was ripped wide open. Helm told himself to think humble.
Tsai was looking at a rail of jackets. She drifted to the nearest exit with the workman on an invisible tow-line. The cardboard box was too big to go under his arm and an awkward shape to hold comfortably. It reminded Helm that the Makronotis security staff were merely good, not perfect.
Five minutes after leaving the department store, they entered the Hotel Renga by the staff entrance. They had walked past two uniformed cops on the way. Both had taken a good look at Tsai. Neither had noticed the workman.
The lift stopped at the third floor. Tsai had to wipe a plastic card through a reader to open the doors. The man on duty in the corridor barely glanced at them. Helm assumed that they had been inspected closely by the television camera in the lift.
Tsai led him to room 322. The door was unlocked and there was no key inside. There wasn't even a bolt on the door. Helm dumped his carton on a chair. Tsai gave him a bright smile and abandoned him. Helm found himself alone in a spacious room with a single bed, a television, a writing desk, a coffee machine and plenty of wardrobe space. He occupied two of the hangers with his anorak and the overalls. Then he went to wallow in the bath for a while. Anyone who wanted to talk to John Scott would have to wait until it was convenient for him to speak.
He switched on the radio in the bathroom. There was a programme in French on the BBC World Service. He found an American station playing pop music to servicemen on medium wave. Someone knocked on his outer door after about ten minutes. The door opened. There was another knock on the bathroom door. "Yes?" called Helm.
"Your luggage has arrived, sir." The male voice had a Greek-American accent.
"Right, thanks," called Helm.
"The tailor will be here in five minutes, sir."
"Thank you." Helm took the easy way out by acknowledging the message rather than asking questions through a closed door. He had no idea what the tailor wanted but he could live with his curiosity for five minutes. Being reunited with his cabin bag allowed him to change his underwear. As he dropped the used set into a basket marked 'Laundry' in eight languages, he wonder if he would ever see it again. He had joined the disposable society of the very wealthy he was a 'use it, then lose it' man now.
The tailor was a fussy man with a German name and a French accent. Helm assumed that he was Swiss. Herr Liebelt shuddered at the oversize turn-ups on Helm's jeans, then he got busy with a tape measure. He went away for ten minutes and returned with a white linen suit and half a dozen shirts. The shirts were mainly white with narrow vertical stripes of individual pastel colours. Helm assumed that everything was off the peg but the fit satisfied him.
Herr Liebelt took his jacket away for minor alterations, and insisted on having the jeans too so that he could do something with the dreadful turn-ups.
Tsai turned up again as Helm was arranging a pale blue cravat with a crimson unicorn-motif. She looked him up and down then smiled. "Looking good, John."
"You're looking pretty tasty yourself," said Helm.
"Got to look good for boss." Tsai had changed into a bottle-green outfit of blouse and trousers. It looked almost like a uniform. "We go now?"
"If we must."
Tsai took Helm along the corridor to room 310, which was furnished as a small conference room. Phileros Makronotis dominated the room from the head of a polished table, facing his foster-father/uncle. Erlich sat next to Gladwin on the other long side of the table. Despite the disgrace of the kidnapping, the German had not been fired yet. Tsai and Helm took the vacant black-leather chairs. Everyone else had a computer keyboard and a monitor. Helm had to share Tsai's monitor. Erlich was making a report.
"Our original plan was to keep Scott in the field." He glanced at Helm as he completed his summing up. "But things didn't go entirely to plan."
"Too high a profile on writing off that bloke at the hotel," Gladwin added with a sly grin at Helm.
"Am I getting paid for this morning's suicide mission?" Helm said frostily. "Or was it on the house?"
"You were well covered at all times," said Erlich, offering no apology. "You were supposed to go with the opposition's representative and lead us to his colleagues. Your reaction was outside your profile."
"Well, excuse me!" said Helm with heavy sarcasm. "Maybe you should have told me about this famous profile. The way you told me about the bloody H-bomb in that briefcase."
"We believe the fire must have touched off a device they were carrying in their vehicle." Erlich froze his boxer's face in a dangerous expression.
Helm just looked straight at him, his expression saying that he knew a lie when heard one. He glanced at Gladwin, a sideways flick of his eyes. Gladwin rolled his eyes up for a moment. The Englishman told Helm lies more often than the truth but he never wriggled when he was found out.
"This is getting us nowhere," said Phileros Makronotis. "Mr. Scott, we are reviewing what we know about the kidnapping incident and afterwards. Your contribution is an essential part of the overall picture."
"We know from Scott's debriefing that eight men were at the scene of the exchange," said Erlich, as if a word from the boss had settled all scores. "Two leaders and six subordinates. Miss Yuan-lin and the others never saw more than five masked men at any one time. Scott has accounted for half the known part of the gang already."
Helm realized that he was being treated as a top gun of the Makronotis assassination squad purely by accident. His first impulse was to offer an immediate resignation from an unwanted career move. He had no desire to become a target for the rest of the gang of terrorists.
"We now believe no Arab terrorists were involved," added Erlich. "No identifications were possible on the men burned in the taxi, but the man who attacked Scott this morning has a police record. We haven't found the man you killed last evening. Do you remember where the body is?"
"I suppose so." Helm felt rather appalled by the way the German was talking about him killing people. The bomb in the briefcase, Erlich's bomb, had killed the two men in the taxi, not Robert Helm. As for the defenestration at the Hotel Batiris, it was hardly his fault if he had dumped a prisoner through the wrong window in the heat of battle.
He had killed only one man in the sense of with deliberate intent the thug with the shotgun, who was on the missing list. And he had made such a hash of shooting the thug that he had nearly got killed himself. He felt comfortable with the deed but not with its execution.
"Mr. Scott?" said Phileros Makronotis indignantly, giving the impression that he had said something and he resented being ignored. "You do remember where the body is?"
"I was just thinking about it," lied Helm. "I might be able to find the spot if I go out there."
"Mr. Gladwin will take you out there in a helicopter," said Makronotis. "When you have seen the artist to give us pictures of the two in the taxi."
"If there were no Arabs," said Helm, "what about all the bombs? Like the one that blew us up on Monday?" He glanced at Tsai.
"Camouflage," said Erlich. "A report from an army bomb expert says the materials were the same as some explosives stolen from a construction site at the beginning of last month. The bombs involved just gelignite, an electrical detonator, a battery and a cheap clock used as a timer.
"They put one connection on the striker and the other on the bell. When the alarm rang, boom! The bombing campaign was designed to make us think we were dealing with more dangerous and ruthless people than local criminals when they carried out the kidnapping."
"The police think it significant that no Greek nationals were injured," said Ianos Makronotis. "Only foreigners."
"I reckon that's more through luck than judgement," scoffed Helm. "The way the kidnapping came off. What I don't get is how they found me at the hotel this morning."
"I spotted a tail," said Erlich. "So I went straight to the hotel and stuck my head out of your window to let them know which room I was in."
"Thanks a bunch!" said Helm indignantly.
"What's the problem?" said Erlich.
"I fail to see why you are so angry, Mr. Scott," added Phileros Makronotis with a forbidding frown. "Your advertisement says you are in the business of taking risks. And you have been well paid."
"Point number one." Helm tapped himself on the chest. "I decide if I take a job. Point number two: the negotiated price is paid in advance."
"The last job was rushed, but due to pressure of time," said Makronotis. "And you acquitted yourself magnificently. You must agree, you have been asked to do nothing beyond your capabilities. The oversight of payment can be corrected immediately. Would a deposit of twenty-five thousand pounds to your account be satisfactory?"
"I suppose so." Helm coughed into his fist to clear a throat that had dried out. He could scarcely believe that he had earned £100,000 in a fortnight.
"In that case," said Makronotis, "if you will collect your belongings, Mr. Gladwin will take you to the artist, then to the helicopter. We have decided to take you to the villa until we can organize another trap for the animals who kidnapped my granddaughter."
Gladwin left the table to open the door to the corridor. Helm walked back to his room in a daze. It was all very well to pretend that he had a choice about taking a job, but Phileros Makronotis intended to use him as bait to exterminate four more kidnappers. Even if he refused to co-operate, they could always drug him and sit him somewhere, like a goat in a tiger trap.
He had done three jobs for the Greek billionaire. Each time, the coin had come down heads for the man with the terminal condition. The odds stayed the same for the next job fifty:fifty, either he survived or he didn't. But the long term was catching up with him.
A tail was bound to come up before the last of the kidnappers was dead, and all that lovely money would go to waste, as far as Robert Helm was concerned. There was no point in having vast amounts of money if he couldn't break out of the cycle of danger to spend it, and his pessimism had nothing to do with the laws of chance. Helm knew that it was just the way the world works.
Abroad was his sister's natural habitat. Since she had started travelling, Steph was always full of the joys of spring, no matter what the season, and looking forward to her next lap of the globe. Abroad was an occasional treat for brother Bob. He always had one eye on the meter as his holiday allocation ran down too fast. He was going several better than his younger sister now.
Steph had always had a well-paid job as part of her 'abroad', which meant that an employer had a call on all of her time during the day. Big brother Bob was right off the rails in his part of 'abroad' no rules, no limit on his potential earnings and no obvious way home.
Robert Helm would probably end up leaving his bones on a foreign shore. It was a depressing thought to take to the luxury of the Makronotis villa.