The Terminal Man
by Philip Turner
Chapter 16

AN UNKNOWN TIME LATER, the cement mixer stopped churning. Helm lay in a daze, unable to collect his thoughts. His legs hurt. Something soft and warm pinned them down. There was so much dust in the air that he had to keep his mouth shut and hope that his nose didn't become completely blocked. He was in profound darkness. His first clear thought was that it was Thursday – not Tuesday, the proper day for a Greek earthquake.
   Helm felt around with his hands. There was a hard, smooth surface on the left, padded cloth on the right and a yielding, female body ahead. Klara's gasp suggested that his hand had found an embarrassing area, but it proved that she was alive, awake and not in any great pain. Helm's automatic apology degenerated into throat-tearing coughs.
   There was nothing overhead. Then his waving hand met a rough, timber beam. The beam shifted. Dust sifted down, adding to the raw, grittiness of his eyes. Something slithered then broke with a crash. Helm withdrew his hand at once. His watch showed twenty-five past midnight when he remembered to press the back-light button.
   "John?" Klara began to cough wretchedly as soon as she spoke
   Not being able to communicate was frustrating. Helm tried to speak but his throat was too clogged. He gave a reassuring pat to what he hoped was a non-embarrassing area while he tried to think of something to do.
   His surroundings began to make sense. He was lying on his back on a hard floor with a wall on his left. The couch had gone over on its back. Everything in the room above had dropped into his room. The timber beam resting on the upturned couch had to be a ceiling joist. Klara was pinning his legs down but his left foot was also trapped, turned outwards at right angles.
   The floor shuddered under him. Wreckage shifted, crashing down and down. More dust billowed into the air. Helm's left foot came free suddenly. Klara gasped with pain as his knee drove into her body. Helm put his hand behind his head to grab something that was butting him, rolling away and butting him again with each slight tremor.
   The cold, metallic object had a ring pull. An agitated can of lager exploded foam into his face, washing some of the grit out of his eyes. He was able to settle the dust in his throat then tell Klara of his find. After some groping, her hand found his and she was able to take a much-needed drink.
   "If this is just a deep tremor, I'd hate to be caught in a full bloody earthquake." Helm realized that he was whispering for no good reason.
   "Are we going to die, John?" Klara cut straight to an important issue.
   "Not today," Helm said with false confidence. "Are you hurt?"
   "Nothing broken, but my eyes are full of dust. You?"
   "The same. I'm in the embarrassing position of hoping the wet patch on my leg is only blood. It reminds me of when I got blown up with Tsai."
   "It's wine," Helm said quickly, remembering Klara's profound aversion to spilled blood. "I was topping up the glasses when the roof came down, remember? I got the bloody lot in my lap."
   "This place is supposed to be earthquake-proof."
   "Makronotis wants to get his money back. Still, he's got a chance to spend some of his zillions on improving the original design."
   "What can we do, John?"
   "See if we can get out, or wait to be dug out. I think we'd better try and get out if the place is going to keep shaking."
   "See if you can move to your left, up against the wall."
   The pressure moved off Helm's legs. There was no way out at his head. Unstable wreckage had piled up there, sealing their shelter. Helm picked his way beyond the couch the other way, struggling over sharp lumps in a wedge-shaped tunnel formed by a wall, the floor and a collapsed ceiling. He came to another impenetrable barrier within a couple of feet, touching it gingerly in case it collapsed in on top of him. Feeling his way back along the wall, he found a door.
   He used his feet to push rubble away. Nothing happened when he turned the handle and pulled gently. A lump of plaster dropped onto his shoulder when he pulled harder. The frame creaked ominously. The door opened about two inches, then jammed. He managed to slide a two-foot length of timber out of the wreckage to use as a lever.
   Klara helped him to force the door open about a foot, gasping in the rain of bits. There was just enough room to slide into the hall like a vertical limbo dancer. The villa was an octagonal structure of two storeys. The hall had a shallow, glass dome over the large, central space. That dome lay in pieces on the marble-mosaic floor. Most of the dust had settled and there was enough starlight for Helm and Klara to pick their way to the front door.
   "Don't touch it," warned Helm when Klara reached for the latch. "That door might be all that's holding the wall up. We'll break the rest of the glass out and go through that window beside it."
   "Listen!" said Klara. "Is that a car?"
   "Hello! Anyone hear me?" shouted Helm.
   "What are you doing?" said Klara.
   "The servants. We've not heard from any of them. Do you know where they were?"
   "Not really."
   "Let's get out and see what they've brought in the way of rescue gear." Helm found himself playing the man of action as if born to the role.
   Apart from the broken windows, the villa looked more or less intact from the front. Part of the boundary wall on the left had collapsed but the gate looked as solid as ever. Headlights approached at speed. There were two vehicles, a van and a taxi. Helm and Klara waved to them from the gap in the wall.
   Half a dozen men trotted over from the vehicles with torches and electric lanterns. Klara began to talk to them in Greek, gesturing toward the villa. The rescue party surrounded them in what seemed like an entirely natural way. Then one grabbed Klara's arms from behind. Another placed the muzzle of a pistol to Helm's left temple.
   He watched in amazement as a third man uncapped a loaded hypodermic syringe and drove the contents into Klara's arm. She screamed. The man slapped her face. She started to struggle but sagged slowly. Two of the gang carried her through the gap in the wall.
   The man with the syringe returned it to a box and took out another loaded syringe. Another man grabbed Helm's arms and twisted them behind his back before the pressure of the gun against his head relaxed. He tried to twist out of the way as the needle stabbed through his shirt. A biting pain made him gasp.
   Grinning, the man with the syringe dropped it, empty, into his box. The man behind him released Helm's arms and pushed him forward onto his face on the rough grass. The rest of the gang grabbed an arm or a leg apiece and lugged him back through the gap in the wall, face down.
   To his surprise, Helm remained conscious. Pain continued to stab his left arm, and also his right leg, as if in sympathy. The gang carried him through the open front door of the villa, crunching through the glass in the hall to the first room on the left. They dropped him on the floor. Then they began to pile pieces of wreckage onto him. He could see one of Klara's feet projecting from another untidy heap.
   The gang moved into other parts of the villa. One voice directed the others in tones accustomed to obedience. Helm had heard that voice before. It had a gruff, lisping quality and it belonged to an English-speaking Greek crook, the surviving leader of the gang of bogus Arab terrorists, who had kidnapped Sophia Makronotis ten days earlier. Helm was almost sure that he had also seen the character with the syringes then – a long-nosed, hollow-cheeked, malevolent creature with all the charm of a vampire bat.
   Hammering started, steel on steel. Boots crunched constantly through the glass in the hall. Helm lay still when a man with a lantern entered his room. The man left with two paintings. The scheme became clear to Helm.
   About an hour had gone by since the main destructive shock of the earthquake. Allowing twenty-five minutes to sprint across the peninsula from the Athens area, the leader had taken about half an hour to pick himself up, gather his gang and make plans to plunder the Makronotis villa or any other unprotected retreat. If the police or Dieter Erlich's security force turned up in the meantime, they had conveniently unconscious victims to rescue.
   The idea seemed too well worked out to be hatched on the spur of the moment. Helm realized that the local criminals had devised a plan for taking advantage of an earthquake while the so-called academic experts had been dismissing the series of minor shocks as just harmless deep tremors. It was a clear case of academics, nil – bad guys, one.
   Helm started to move lengths of wood and slabs of plaster-board off himself. Crashes from elsewhere in the villa, and the steel-on-steel hammering of what sounded like an assault on a safe, covered any noise that he made. Klara was limp and deeply unconscious. Helm managed to open a window and drape her across the sill.
   He climbed out of the room. After a little experimentation, he managed to sling Klara on his shoulders in a fireman's lift. Two men with loot trotted to the gap in the wall, following puddles of torchlight. Helm's watch slithered from 00:54 to 01:06 before they made the next trip. He was nerving himself for a sprint across the courtyard at 01:09 when the men made another trip to and from their van.
   Helm waited three minutes, then he decided to chance his luck. Klara was becoming quite heavy. He was breathless from a combination of tired blood and sheer tension when he reached the treacherous rubble at the gap in the wall. He put Klara down beside the taxi and tried the door. Light exploded inside. The interior lighting was blinding. It showed him that there was no key in the ignition.
   He closed the door quickly when light splashed out through the gap in the wall. More loot clattered into the back of the van. Helm sneaked over to look for the ignition key. He sagged with relief when he spotted it. With reckless speed, he loaded Klara into the back, closed the doors and dived behind the wheel.
   The engine started immediately with a healthy roar. Helm raced through the gears, trying for a drag-racer's start. He was still on a straight stretch of road when lights reached the shattered wall. He could see flashes in his mirror. Bullets slashed across the back of the van. Helm ducked instinctively – and almost ran off the road. Then he was charging into a left turn with his tyres screaming on the long 'S' that leads round a hill to the port of Rafina.
   He had to stop sharply at a T-junction. A solid line of traffic was rushing toward Athens along the middle of the road. He looked to his right and wondered why he couldn't see Rafina. He was starting to think that the town had been destroyed utterly when he realized that the broken patchwork of fixed and moving lights was Rafina. The electricity supply had failed. He could see moving vehicles and fixed lights at the premises of anyone far-sighted enough to have bought a generator.
   His original plan had been to head for Rafina but he realized that finding someone inclined to speak a foreign tongue in the middle of a disaster area would be a tall order, and his Greek translator was flopping about limply in the back of his stolen van. Guiltily Helm resolved to drive more carefully to spare Klara's bruises.
   When he spotted a slight gap, Helm bullied his way into the westward stream, blowing his horn furiously and pretending that he was an Italian taxi driver. Going to Athens seemed the best idea if everyone else was heading in that direction. His fellow motorists seemed too shocked to go in for aggressive driving. Helm found that he could weave faster than the general speed of the refugees and overtook to right or left, wherever the wider gap lay.
   He was out of the zone of darkness suddenly. Every house in a small village was showing lights. The traffic thinned. People were heading off down side roads, as if on their way to pre-selected stable areas, or getting away from buildings or anything else that could fall on them. Helm recognized the turn-off to Koropi in the south. He was eleven and a half kilometres from the centre of Athens now.
   He missed not being able to switch on the radio to hear what was going on, to get information on areas to avoid and how bad the earthquake had been. Major damage seemed to be confined to the east coast of the peninsula but a dark night could hide any amount of devastation.
   Flashing lights, policemen and soldiers were all over the place on the edge of Athens. A ratty apartment building had folded itself across the main road. The diversion took Helm onto an unfamiliar road. He had an idea of the approximate direction to take, however. Another diversion around a burst water main threw him off track completely.
   Eventually, he found himself driving past the stock exchange building. He was able to set a direct course for Elousis Square then. The attendant jumped into his path when he tried to drive down the side of the Hotel Renga to the car park.
   Helm said, "Kirios Makronotis?" and pointed to the hotel building. He pointed to himself then back to the hotel.
   After a torrent of Greek from the attendant, and much pointing, Helm established that Mr. Makronotis was no longer at the hotel. He also realized that the car park attendant came from that part of the country where an upward nod of the head means 'no'.
   Helm asked for Kirios Erlich. He was out too. The attendant just shrugged when he asked for Thespinis Yuan-lin. In desperation, Helm asked for Kirios Gladwin. The attendant pointed to the hotel to indicate that Gladwin was there. Helm mimed making a telephone call and produced a 1,000-drachma note as a bribe worth about 4.
   Gladwin sounded unusually cheerful on the phone. He approached the van unsteadily, and he had to lean against it to stand without swaying, but he soon got things moving when Helm had told his tale. Klara was whisked up to the third floor in a wheelchair. Someone went to drag the doctor out of bed. One of the security staff took the vanload of loot into protective custody.
   Helm left Gladwin sending a rescue party to the villa. He was sure the thieves were long gone, perhaps even with the contents of the safe that they had been trying to crack, but there were the servants to find. In the absence of orders to the contrary, he made his way up to room 322, which was still unlocked.
   Helm got the shock of his life when he saw himself in a full-length mirror in the bathroom. He looked like a ghost. White plaster dust was stuck to all exposed flesh. His clothes looked bleached. His hair was stiff with what looked like terminal dandruff. He ponged like a wino. He pulled his clothes off and stepped into the shower.
   He had been wondering if the crooks had injected him with saline solution by mistake. He found two angry, red marks on his upper arm and he could see two small bloodstains on his shirt. His wriggling had caused the needle to strike his arm at an angle instead of head-on. The needle had gone through a fold of flesh and the drug had squirted harmlessly onto his shirt. He had solved a mystery but his arm still hurt like hell. So did his right leg, which had a two-inch gash in the calf.
   The doctor thought that Klara would wake up in a few hours and feel no ill effects. As a precaution, he took Helm's dusty shirt to a laboratory to see if he could find out which drug had been used. The power of the Makronotis billion could persuade a technician to work in the early hours of a Friday morning, even on an earthquake day.
   Gladwin told Helm that the boss had moved his party to his yacht in Piraeus. Gladwin and a ladyfriend, a journalist based in Periyiali, had been enjoying their own private party in his room. The earthquake shocks had rattled light fittings in strongly built structures in Athens, but no one had been concerned and everyone knew that the villa was earthquake-proof.
   Gladwin had not believed Helm's wild story until he had seen Helm's scruffy condition in a good light. His journalist friend had disappeared in search of an exclusive at the villa.
   Helm found himself yawning and moving slower and slower. It was two o'clock in the morning and he had been through a long and traumatic day. His tired blood was packing up on him because it had had more than enough to do.
   Feeling clean all over after his shower, and not liable to start gushing sweat in his air-conditioned room, he change from a dressing gown into a pair of blue silk pyjamas, which he found in the chest of drawers in his room, and crawled into bed at the end of a busy day. The state of his health was still anybody's guess a month after the shock of his first X-ray. He had been zapped with microwaves, he had lost and recovered 100,000, he had travelled about 1,700 miles, a villa had fallen on him and he had cheated death to outsmart a gang of dangerous crooks.
   John Scott had crammed more drama into a single day than Robert Helm would have expected in a lifetime. He felt utterly worn out. He was asleep in less than an hour.

A man with a kinked nose and a blond crewcut woke Helm the next morning. Of course, he had to shake Helm' left arm, reviving the pain of the botched injection. Helm took a swipe at him and fired off some highly personal observations. Dieter Erlich, the local security advisor, ignored Helm's bad temper and told him to get up.
   Helm yawned, rubbed crusted eyes and groped for his watch on the bedside unit. It was seven-thirty. The strap gleamed at him. Someone had cleaned and polished the stainless steel watch and matching strap during the night. There was a complete set of clothes draped on a bedside chair. The tailor had found him another white suit.
   Erlich showed up again as Helm was admiring his new suit in a full-length mirror. Helm asked about Klara and the servants at the villa. Klara was still asleep and the servants were safe. Erlich took him down the corridor to room 310, the small conference room. No breakfast was on offer and his iron capsules were still in the wreck of the villa. Helm was told to remove his jacket, roll up his shirt sleeve and pay attention.
   "This is Dr. Karmaniola, the hotel doctor," said Erlich. "He'll give you an injection, then Professor Archard will take over."
   "What the hell for?" said Helm rebelliously.
   "An experiment in hypnotic regression," said Professor Archard, a short, untidy man with wild, grey hair and half-moon spectacles. He had a west-coast American accent, which made Helm start thinking California quack right away. "The doctor will give you an injection to relax you but you will remain conscious at all times. We hope to obtain drawings from you of the men you saw at the villa last night."
   "But I can't draw for toffee," Helm protested.
   "Can we just get on with this?" said Erlich. "You can bitch about it afterwards, okay?"
   Helm thought about resistance, but he knew that he was outnumbered and surrounded, and that he would loose the argument. He took his jacket off and rolled up his right shirt sleeve, hoping that the doctor knew his business.
   Dr. Karmaniola was in his thirties, about Helm's age, dark and plump, and he looked as if he had done well out of treating minor diseases of the rich. He wiped Helm's arm with antiseptic and popped in an entirely painless injection high on his upper arm. Helm gave him a nod of approval.
   The last thing that he was sure about was hearing Professor Archard telling him to relax for the umpteenth time. The doctor had gone and two hours had slipped by before he became aware of his surroundings again. He was holding a 6B pencil. There was a sketch pad on the conference table before him.
   Erlich made him look through the sketches, which Helm himself had made, apparently while hypnotized. He recognized three of the faces. He had seen two of the men carrying loot to the van. The third had the thin face and vicious grin of the maniac with the box of hypodermics. Helm turned to Professor Archard for an explanation.
   "In theory, hypnotic regression is supposed to take the subject way back beyond birth to previous lives, which seem to be accessible somehow in deep memory," said the professor, striding up and down beyond the conference table, gripping his right lapel and making appropriate gestures with his left hand while he delivered the lecture.
   "In practice, nobody is entirely sure what happens. What we do know is the drawings you made at first, as your own self under my direction, were terrible. The regression technique uncovered a young, educated man of about your present age living in England in the 1860s. I understand your parents are from Southern Ireland, Mr. Scott? Do you have any relatives called Elm living in Southern England?"
   Helm shrugged, preserving security. "I couldn't say."
   "The personality was called Peter Elm. He worked as a clerk and he had an interest in natural history. He was by no means a great artist, but becoming a competent draughtsman was a social grace in those days for a certain class of person."
   "How could a hypothetical, eighteenth-century personality draw men I saw last night?" challenged Helm.
   The professor shrugged. "Research into the phenomenon is still at the evidence-gathering stage. It's too early to draw any firm conclusions. But you can hardly deny the quality of the drawings you produced."
   Someone tapped on the door. One of the staff entered, pushing a trolley.
   "Your breakfast," said the professor. "I'll leave you to enjoy it in peace."
   There was a neatly folded copy of that morning's Times on the tray. Helm studied the front page and ate scrambled eggs on toast with grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, confident that the Hotel Renga didn't serve its third-floor guests with eggs laced with salmonella. He made the coffee last through the interesting parts of the paper.
   He met a maid with an armful of towels on the way back to room 322. He asked for Thespinis Amercott with an inquiring look. The maid directed him to room 320. Helm picked up what sounded like eepnos in her reply. It started him thinking about hypnotism and had to mean 'sleep'.
   His dusty garments of the night before had disappeared but he found the contents of his pockets on the bedside cabinet in his room. The cleaning operation had included the inside of his wallet. There was not a scrap of dust or fluff inside. Even the gunk in the transparent credit-card pockets had been cleaned out. And all the money had been ironed nice and flat.
   Nobody attempted to stop him when he left the hotel. The plan of the cryostore with Eva von Arlberg's incriminating hand-written comments, posted in Zürich on Tuesday, was waiting for him at the main post office. He added it to his deposit box in the bank near the stock exchange.
   Klara was up and about when he got back to the hotel. She was reading a Greek newspaper in a sitting room and finishing her breakfast coffee. Helm enjoyed a hero's welcome, which blew away any remnants of Gladwin's slander. Klara was definitely one hundred per cent hetero, he was pleased to confirm. And she definitely fancied him. Over more coffee, he filled in details of their adventure the previous night. Then it was Klara's turn to provide the translator's edition of what the papers had to say for themselves.
   The earthquake's epicentre lay in the sea, just off Petalioi Island. The quake had knocked down a dozen or so buildings in Rafina, but most of the damage had been caused by a seismic sea wave, which had rushed ashore as a thirty-foot wall of water, flooding every cellar and basement and short-circuiting the power and telephone systems.
   Phileros Makronotis had had his earthquake-proof villa built on a section of cliff, which had turned out to contain an internal structural flaw. The terrace at dungeon level was now under water, along with the rear part of the court-yard and the back wall of the villa. Two of the servants had been found in a front cellar room, playing cards by candle-light and three-quarters drunk.
   One of the security guards had been taking a coffee break. He had managed to dive under a substantial kitchen table just before the ceiling fell in on him. Apart from a cornea scratched by grit, he was undamaged. Part of the boundary wall had fallen on the other security guard, giving him bruised ribs and a broken ankle. He had managed to drag himself into a vehicle and go for help, but he had ended up lodged in a traffic jam on the outskirts of Rafina. Gladwin's rescue party had arrived at the villa before the security guard had been able to contact the police.
   There was nothing about the explosion at the Gletscher Klinik in the recent Greek newspapers. A major event in a small corner of Baden-Württemberg had not travelled well. Klara had to order back issues of West German papers to follow that story.
   Wednesday's paper, printed not long after the explosion, just mentioned that one man had been killed in an explosion. Thursday's stories included interviews with firemen and bomb-disposal experts, and speculation about who had blown up the cryostore. Friday's papers had arrived by air while Helm had been back in the nineteenth century. The populars, especially Bild Zeitung had made a meal of the alleged Nazi connection.
   Phileros Makronotis breezed into their sitting room as Helm was finishing off the story of arson and demolition in West Germany that the earthquake had interrupted. Makronotis threw his large frame into a chair with reckless disregard for its survival and beamed at Helm.
   "Excellent work, Mr. Scott. We identified four of your six sketches from police files. Some are known associates of the men accounted for after they kidnapped my granddaughter. Mr. Erlich's staff are now looking for them. As a second line of attack, he has suggested a trap.
   "The insured value of the items in their van, which you took from them in such a dramatic fashion, is one point eight million dollars. An irresistible temptation to a man less scrupulous than yourself, and the basis of the trap. When the details have been finalized, we shall release the news that you have disappeared with the van. Then the gang will learn where to find the van. Your final job for me, Mr. Scott, will be as bait in the trap."
   "Great," said Helm in a neutral tone, which offered neither enthusiasm nor sarcasm. It was as ambiguous as the word 'final' - which could mean either the last job before he was allowed to go home to spend his money, or the last job that he would ever do.

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NOVELS PAGECreated for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10/12 SK6 4EG, Romiley, GB.
This Edition published in 2006 by Farrago & Farrago. © 1989, Philip Turner.