HELM RUSHED BACK TO ROOM 310. He had to wait until Makronotis had completed a radio conversation in Greek before he could speak.
"Secure communications with a scrambler system superior to NATO's," said the billionaire with relish. "One of my companies operates at the leading edge of technology."
"What's all this about Klara?" said Helm.
"She let you down very badly." Makronotis draped a severe expression across his jowls. "We have had no time to interrogate her properly but she was a major source of information for Gladwin. Everything she learned went straight to him."
"Where is she?"
"My uncle is looking after her at the villa. Until we decide what to do about the problem." Makronotis had the air of a well-fed hanging judge. "Unless you would care to handle it for me."
"How?" frowned Helm.
"I leave that to your discretion. What is your fee for such an assignment?"
"This one's on the house. I'll do it for nothing."
Makronotis heaved his bulk upright and cross the room to a wall safe. He was swaying slightly, suggesting that he had consumed the boss' share of the champagne. He took a pistol, a clip of ammunition and a white-leather holster, all enclosed in a self-sealing plastic bag, out of the safe and handled the package to Helm.
The dark and silent aide showed Helm how to sort out the straps of the holster. The bulge seemed to lose itself in the folds of his anorak. He felt off-balance and strange wearing a gun.
"The weapon is untraceable," said Makronotis.
"I'll need something from you," said Helm. "To show your uncle. A sort of carte blanche."
"Placing me in the roll of Cardinal Richelieu?" smiled Makronotis. "And Miss Amercott in the role of Lady de Winter. While you play the noble Athos. You have read The Three Musketeers, I trust?"
"I saw the series of films they made on TV recently."
"A very pale shadow of the novel." Makronotis penned three lines on a sheet of Hotel Renga notepaper. "Will that suffice?"
Helm glanced at the signature below the Greek text, then he folded the sheet of paper and tucked it into his inside pocket. "I think so." He had no idea what Makronotis had written. It could have been a death warrant for himself, for all he knew. "I'll need a car."
Makronotis spoke to an aide in Greek. "One will be waiting in the car park. I suggest you keep your jacket zipped while you are in the city."
Helm pushed the double-column magazine into the handle of the pistol, which was a Beretta Model 92S, like the one that he had given to Demosthenes Taxacaris, the sculptor and summer hermit. He put the pistol into the holster without loading a round into the chamber, even though he knew all about safety catches now. He zipped his anorak, following orders, and tried to ignore the strange lump under his arm.
A royal blue Mercedes was waiting in the car park. As he headed out of Athens on the dark, Rafina road, Helm refused to ask himself what he had got himself into. Makronotis believed him to be an efficient assassin, a man whose own life was threatened by internal forces beyond his control, someone capable of taking the lives of others for money so that his own final days could become an orgy of living.
Five men had died by his actions in the first eleven days of September. He had killed only one by deliberate intent. Two men had died in a taxi because he had released the handle of a briefcase. He was sure now that Gladwin had added an explosive bonus to the incineration charge and shortened the fuse. He also suspected now that the notes had been forgeries and Gladwin had hidden the genuine million dollars.
Helm had shot one of the kidnappers with the same feeling of duty as someone putting down a mad dog. Another had died because he had attacked Helm with a knife and Helm had dumped him out of the wrong window by mistake. Even Gladwin's death had been a mistake. He had heard a shot and he had fired at the only visible target. He could hardly have anticipated Eva von Arlberg's incidental rescue mission while she had been on the trail of loot worth around two million dollars.
Robert Helm was in the same position as a soldier on armistice day. His war with the kidnappers was over and he felt able to live with every detail of his part in it. He had been manipulated and betrayed from the word go. The truth had been distributed like precious gems and he had received coloured glass most of the time.
Tsai's apparent betrayals of his trust were his own fault. He had made unreasonable assumptions about her. At all times, she had remained loyal to her employer, no matter how much it inconvenienced Helm.
The most recent proof was the way she had got him to the Hotel Renga perhaps she had even sneaked his passport out of his room. At the same time, he was almost sure that she would help him if he landed in trouble as desperate as Klara's and as long as he posed no threat to her employer.
Graf Maximillian von Arlberg, his wife, Eva von Arlberg, the late Sigismund Morgenstern and Roger Gladwin had all used John Scott to further their own interests. The betrayals of everyone but Morgenstern had to be shrugged off as part of the game. As he approached the site of the shattered villa, Helm's thoughts turned back to Klara.
Sigismund Morgenstern, locked in his obsession, had played everything straight down the line with his instrument of salvation. Helm had assumed the same about Klara, who was supposed to be an ally of a fellow survivor of the earthquake and the hero of the robbery at the villa. She certainly had no reason to conspire against him with Roger Gladwin, of all people. There was a lot that didn't add up.
The alien lump between his left arm and his side reminded Helm at every contact how Phileros Makronotis expected him to respond to Klara's betrayal. As far as he could remember, a hooded executioner had chopped off Lady de Winter's head then tossed her body into a river. Makronotis seemed to be expecting the executioner's modern counterpart to use an untraceable Beretta pistol and the all-consuming sea.
Still with no clear intentions, Helm drove through the gap where the gates of the villa had been. Workmen had demolished most of the stone wall at the front so that it could be rebuild around the new villa. A man with a torch hurried out of a transportable shed. When he saw the µ logo on the windscreen sticker, he waved to the car and returned to his television set, trusting the visitor to get on with his business.
Helm investigated the dashboard. There was no torch. He noticed two suitcases on the back seat for the first time. There were two more locked cases in the boot. He found a long, four-battery torch in the toolkit.
The villa had been stabilized, which meant that everything that could fall had been pulled down. Salvaged items were grouped in the front courtyard. Most of them looked fit for the refuse tip or firewood. Helm walked cautiously down the side of the villa.
A great half-moon of cliff had dropped into the sea, along with the back of the villa. Someone had painted a white line across the broken flagstones three yards from the new cliff edge. Helm stayed well back from the warning line.
Metal scaffolding poles criss-crossed the central hall a foot above head height. The glass had been swept out and there were stars overhead. A water-proof emergency light glowed on a heap of stone blocks. Helm felt relatively happy about going down to the dungeon because it lay under the front part of the villa.
Ianos Makronotis and a uniformed chauffeur were playing cards and drinking wine near the steps. Klara, inevitably, was hanging on the wall, her toes the regulation half-inch from the stone floor. The two men finished the hand, slapping the cards onto their table with fierce competitiveness, before they looked at the visitor.
"You can go back to the hotel," said Helm. "I'm taking over here."
"Is that so, Mr. Helm?" the old man said in a challenging tone.
Helm tossed the carte blanche onto the card table and unzipped his anorak. He folded his arms with his right hand inside the jacket, gripping the butt of his pistol. One thing that he had learned was to say nothing and let other people make their own assumptions about his next move.
Ianos Makronotis read the note then shrugged. "Letting an outsider deal with the problem could be a better solution." He jerked his head toward the stairs and then drained his glass.
His driver gathered up the cards, put his peaked cap on and mounted the stairs, buttoning his jacket. Helm noticed that he was wearing riding boots, like a proper chauffeur. He went upstairs to watch the car leave, waved to the man in the hut, who had come to the door to find out what was happening, then he returned to the dungeon.
"Been here long?" he remarked as he paid rope through the pulley.
"Hours." Klara sagged onto a chair, which he had dragged over from the card table. "I didn't believe you when you said that old son of a bitch did this to you."
"You're a full member of his club now."
"So what happens now, John?"
"Everyone's been calling me Robert recently. Or Mr. Helm." He collected the carte blanche from the table, "Translate that for me."
"It is by my order and for the good of the company, that the bearer of this, John Scott or Robert Helm, has done what he has done. Makronotis.' Is this a quote from something? It sure reads like one."
"Like The Three Musketeers?"
"Yeah, of course. You could do anything with this, John."
"Yes, he said it made him feel like Cardinal Richelieu. And you're cast as Lady de Winter. Remember what happened to her?"
Klara's eyes opened wider in fear. Colour drained from her tanned face.
"Hey, relax." Helm brought the other chair, the bottle and two clean glasses from a box, then sat facing her. "Suppose you tell me just what the hell you've been up to?"
Klara stopped rubbing her wrists long enough to take a swallow of the mellow, red wine. She had an air of resignation. "Roger Gladwin told me you were going to try to steal the things you rescued from the villa. Of course, I didn't believe him until he told me you only have a short time to live and any sort of risk meant nothing to you. And there was your lunch with Eva von Arlberg. Gladwin said you were using her contacts to sell the things."
"Yeah, he was a pretty plausible guy."
"I didn't want to believe him, John." Klara leaned toward him to underline the urgency of her assurance. "I wanted to help you. But everything you told me last night at the hut backed up what Gladwin had said. And when I told him you saw him selling something that was in the van, he said that was just you trying to blur the responsibility for things that had gone missing."
"That must have been what sent him round to grab me out of Kaiser's trap. To shut up an inconvenient witness."
"He said you might have left something behind to incriminate him. And it might be safer if he joined in your deal with the Arlberg woman. Then he said I'd better come in too. He told me it would mean another half a million dollars for us, because he's make sure the Arlberg woman didn't cheat you. We'd have more than enough to stay ahead of Mr. Makronotis for however long you have left. And he said it was an ideal time to do it, while Mr. Makronotis was concentrating on the kidnappers."
"In effect, you were seduced by all that money?"
"I guess I went a little crazy," Klara admitted.
"There's no need to be embarrassed about it. I went a lot crazy when he paid me twenty-five thousand quid in cash for the first job. God knows what I'd have done if old Makronotis had offered me half a million."
"Gladwin also wanted to know if Kaiser suspected he was helping you. When he called me this afternoon, I told Gladwin I thought Tsai was looking for him."
"She found him, too." Helm sketched the events of the afternoon.
Klara dropped her glass onto the stone floor when she realized what could have happened to Helm and Tsai.
Helm shrugged. "It's okay. Everything's cool. Eva steamed in to save the day. So let me get this straight. You weren't in on the fun and games with the ransom payment? Just the plan to stroll off with the van and its contents?"
"That's about it," Klara admitted. "So what happens now, John? Over the cliff in the dark? Or are you going to use that gun you're wearing first?"
"You can tell I've got one? I thought shoulder holsters are supposed to be pretty undetectable."
"I've been around enough guys with guns to spot them. You didn't answer my question."
"I'm only wearing the gun because Makronotis gave it to me. It was easier to put it on than argue. And I'm not about to use it on you, no matter what. It must be transparently obvious I fancied you from the moment we met. I don't have a problem with what you've done. Okay, you were conned but by an expert. Who's been conning me every day of the week for the last month. And Makronotis, too. Your only problem, as far as I'm concerned, is how to get you out of this mess."
"Mr. Makronotis won't let you. He wants to make an example of me."
"He left that in my hands, though. Hence the carte blanche. Look, Klara, you're not scared of me, surely?"
"What do you think?"
"Okay, I see your point," Helm admitted. "It seems like I've known you for ages, but it's only been just over a week. For all you know, I could be as devious as, say, Gladwin. And for all I know, you could be the same. So I'm going to do the most dangerous thing you can ever do. I'm going to give this gun to someone who's scared of me."
Helm drew the Beretta pistol from his shoulder holster and made Klara take it. Then he raised his hands. "I did this with Tsai about three hours ago, only I made her give me the gun. You know how to put a round up the spout?"
"This is ridiculous," said Klara.
"Isn't it? But necessary if we're to get clear what's important. And that has to be sticking together and working together to make the most of what we have left in the way of a life. But if you don't agree, there's a car up there with the keys in it. And if you don't fancy shooting me, because it can be a bit noisy, you can always lock me in down here."
"John, put your hands down. And put this away." Klara returned the pistol.
Helm stuffed it back into his holster. "That's just what I did. Gave the gun back to Tsai as an expression of mutual confidence. To prove we're on the same side. Tell you what, I'd have looked a proper chump if you'd shot me and strolled off with the car."
"If I did, I'd faint from the sight of the blood and I'd never get away."
"I didn't think of that. Hey, I've just thought of somewhere to hide you. A studio flat in Valaki. It's so obvious, no one will think of looking there."
Klara was wearing a cream dress with a dark blue border. She was highly visible in the light streaming out of the watchman's hut. She took her shoes off, sprinted over to the car and crouched beside it. Helm walked openly across the courtyard and unlocked the doors. Klara crouched in front of the front passenger seat. The watchman came to the door of his hut when they closed their doors together on a count of three. Helm lifted a hand and called "Kalinikhta!" though the open window.
The watchman returned his good-night and went back to his television. Helm turned left onto the coast road. He could turn inland for Koropi after ten kilometres, and cross the peninsula to Valaki without going anywhere near Athens. Klara wriggled up onto her seat and began a contortionist act with a bare foot.
"What are you doing?" frowned Helm.
"I cut my foot."
Helm stopped the car and switched on the interior light. A quarter-inch gash in Klara's big toe was weeping freely. He offered a clean handkerchief.
"Those are mine!" Klara had noticed the suitcases on the back seat.
"Are they? There are two more like them in the boot."
"Looks like you were supposed to get rid of all traces of me," said Klara nervously.
"It just means we won't have to go shopping as soon as we get out of here. Look, my stuff's here too." Helm's cabin bag and his flight bag were on the floor between the seats. "You'd never guess it's been though an earthquake."
"So you can split when you've dealt with me."
"I'd have a job without a passport. But there's no link to Makronotis if I've got my stuff with me. But it does mean I can give you some antiseptic and a bandage from my medical kit."
Helm got out of the car and turned his back while Klara took her tights off. He was surprised to see the lights of another vehicle approaching. He had become used to solitude off the main roads at night. The other car stopped. The interior light showed him police uniforms.
Helm was wondering how to say 'My friend has cut her foot' in Greek when he realized that his friend could speak the language fluently. He was on the point of giving the cops a friendly 'Ya sue!" when one of them pointed an Italian-made submachine gun at him. Helm put his hands up quickly.
"John, they want your passport," said Klara. She raised her hands with a ball of bloodstained cotton wool in one of them.
"Tell them Makronotis has got it," said Helm.
The cops seemed mildly impressed by the magic name.
"Tell them I'm working for him. Tell them about my carte blanche."
One of the cops found the shoulder holster. He disarmed Helm with a grunt of deep satisfaction. He took the note from Phileros Makronotis over to his car. He held a radio conversation full of long pauses.
Suspicious scowls turned to friendly smiles. Helm and Klara put their hands down when the cops slung their submachine guns on their shoulders. Helm returned his carte blanche to his inside pocket. He was amazed when the cop returned his gun.
"Are we allowed to tip Greek cops?" he asked Klara.
"They'll take a present from Mr. Makronotis," she told him.
Helm handed over a 5,000 drachma note. The cop pocketed it and shook Helm's hand warmly. His colleague smiled in expectation. Helm parted with another 5,000 drachmas. The incident had cost him about £40.
The police car drove off. The encounter had been nerve-racking but useful. Some policemen still thought that John Scott was public enemy number one, but if they could be persuaded to check up before shooting, everything would be all right. As he stared out from the edge of the road at the dark sea and the lights of half a dozen boats, Helm felt that it was a big 'if'.
He tried to imagine what would have happened if he had been checked by British bobbies. There would have been no guns to point at him for a start. British coppers wouldn't have returned his gun, either. If they didn't arrest him on the spot, they'd tell him to collect it at the police station on production of a valid firearms licence. In either case, there'd be no reason to offer a tip.
Klara called him back to the car. She had changed into jeans and a long-sleeved, denim shirt, which seemed a good idea with a wind from the sea cooling the coast as midnight approached. Klara had found her handbag in one of the cases. She tackled a ragged nail with an emery board as Helm moved off.
Helm drove as fast as the dark, bumpy road would allow. It was a small surprise to realize that Klara hadn't fainted at the sight of blood. She'd just got on with repairing the damage. Perhaps she too had become toughened by her recent scary experiences, Helm told himself. There was a lot of it about.
The road improved beyond Koropi but there was the added hazard of Saturday night Kamikazes. He had to park the car some distance from the flat in Valaki. The people downstairs were having a wild party. He and Klara had to step over a couple welded together on the staircase. Klara sagged gratefully onto a chair in the studio.
"How's your foot?" said Helm.
"Throbs a bit when I walk on it," said Klara.
"There's some Greek brandy around somewhere. It's not too poisonous. Kills germs internally as well as externally." Helm poured a drink for his guest. "I thought you fainted at the sight of blood. You did okay with your foot."
"I guess I had too much else to think of," Klara realized.
Helm went out for more luggage. If someone strolled off with a highly desirable Mercedes, that was Phileros Makronotis' loss. The luggage wasn't so readily replaceable. Helm climbed over the couple on the stairs twice without interrupting them. He took a big drink of mineral water before sitting down with a glass of brandy.
"Your cases are going to cost a fortune in excess baggage when we fly out of here," he remarked. "Have you got any cash on you?"
"Not much. Less than you gave the cops," said Klara. "I've got plenty in the bank. If it hasn't been frozen. But there's a big problem. Mr. Makronotis still has my passport."
"I reckon he's collecting them. He's still got mine."
"Yes, you said. Have you got any money?"
"Tons in the bank. And maybe a couple of thousand bucks on me. All we have to do is lie low for one day, till the banks open on Monday."
"John, this is really dangerous for you. Like I told you, Mr. Makronotis wants to make an example of me. Getting me out of the country won't be enough."
"He left it to my discretion. I told you that."
"That's no reason why he can't send someone else to do a better job if he's not satisfied."
"All you're guilty of is faulty judgement. You trusted Gladwin. Something Makronotis has been doing for years. But no harm's been done. All he's lost is two grotty jade statues. Nothing much compared to what the earthquake did to his zillion-dollar villa. And everything's insured."
"The gang got away with another half-million dollars in antiques and things after you rescued me, John."
"Bloody hell!" gaped Helm. "How much stuff did he have there? Anyway, giving you the sack should be punishment enough. If any's necessary. That's all that happened to the maid who got his granddaughter kidnapped."
"John, I let you down, too. His one-man assassination squad. I know you only ever killed the kidnappers in self-defence but Mr. Makronotis won't believe that."
"Maybe it's just as well in the circumstance. I wonder if I can corrupt Tsai into burgling the boss' safe to get our passports back?"
"I doubt it, John."
"Me too." Helm stopped for a mighty yawn. "Look at me, worn out and it's only twenty past twelve on Saturday night."
"Look how much has happened to you today." Klara topped up her glass. Helm noticed that the level in the brandy bottle had gone down dramatically. "What about sleeping arrangements?"
"If we can get any with all that row going on downstairs," yawned Helm. "You have the bedroom. I'll put the hammock up in here just in case any of Makronotis' security advisors come strolling in to take me over from Gladwin. I reckon the first thing they learn is how to get past locked doors."
Helm rolled out of his hammock at half-past eight on Sunday morning, driven out of sleep eventually by the off-key clanking of what sounded like a cracked church bell. Klara was still there, and fast asleep, when he looked into the bedroom. Helm had toast and coffee for breakfast, with a double ration of iron capsules to make up some of the lost ground, then he settled down with one of his paperbacks. Despite the events of the previous day, and the loss of another life, no bad-dream demons had visited him in the night. He took that as further proof that a normal person can choose to survive at an aggressor's expense without becoming paralyzed by guilt.
Klara had a pretty good hangover. She appeared, half-awake and suffering, in the middle of the morning. Helm gave her some orange juice and aspirins, and told her to go back to sleep. Lunch for one at a café down the street involved the usual mixture of primitive Greek, apologetic smiles and pointing.
Klara was looking a little pale behind her tan when she joined Helm on the flat part of the roof during his afternoon coffee break. She was feeling well enough now, and she had painted her nails the customary defiant blood red. Helm retuned his radio to Radio Athens as an act of reflex paranoia. Now that his Greek translator was available, he could find out from the next news bulletin if he was wanted by the police for aiding and abetting a fugitive from the wrath of Phileros Makronotis.
Klara had a few aches, but none was deliberately self-inflicted. Her wrists were still sore, her foot throbbed when she walked but her headache had gone and she was able to polish off a snack of toast and coffee. Helm's larder had little else to offer apart from wine, brandy and mineral water.
There was no mention of John Scott on the radio news. There was no room for him on the early evening television news when the sound portion drifted over from their neighbour. The main item was the story of a group of terrorists, who had blown themselves up with their own bomb in a house half-way between Athens and Piraeus.
At least six bodies had been found in the wreckage. The police had determined their number by counting heads quite literally - and cross-checked with hands and feet. The bomb had done as much damage to the occupants as to the house itself, parts of which had been found 200 metres away.
"That should put old Makronotis in a good mood," Helm remarked when the newsreader moved on to another item and Klara finished her translation. "Maybe good enough to forget about you if Tsai can find the vanload of junk."
"Junk?" frowned Klara.
"I wouldn't want to hang on to any of the bits I've seen. I looked at some paintings in one of the boxes. They didn't look half as good as mine."
"Good is what people will pay a lot of money for, John. Not what you and I like."
"True enough. But even if I had fifty million dollars, I'd never pay fifty thousand for that statue Eva won. You know, I was going to ask Makronotis if he could give you some time off so you can show me a bit more of Greece."
"I'm likely to have all the time in the world if he's put me on his blacklist."
"You mean he would? I mean, you think he could enforce it if you went back to the States? Or came home with me?"
"Greeks are as bad as Italians for vendettas," Klara said gloomily.
"You mean, he'd buy a firm just for the pleasure of giving you the sack?"
"He did it to two guys who swindled him."
"You didn't swindle him." Helm stifled a yawn. He could feel one of his rapid, evening declines coming on.
"So how come he's looking for a van worth one point eight million buck?" Klara pointed out.
"Because he's no bloody good at vetting his security advisors. Still, you can always join a feminist legal firm and say the real reason he's got it in for you is you wouldn't let him get away with sexual harassment. You know what these Europeans are like, especially in a hot climate. Randy as hell."
"Present company included?" Klara gave Helm an arch smile.
"No woman who looks as good as you is safe around me," he agreed with a yawn. "Let's go for some dinner."
"You sound like you belong in bed. Are you okay?"
"Thanks for the offer but I've only run out of energy. I'll be okay after some grub. Then we can think what to do with you."
"I'm dangerous to have around, John. It might be safer for you to do what Mr. Makronotis wants."
"Sod him! And if you're worried about me sneaking up on you with anything other than carnal intent, the gun's handing up in the studio, behind one of my paintings."
"The school of Mondrian? You did them?"
"Brilliant, aren't they? Better than anything Makronotis had in his villa. That's an idea. If anyone asks who you are, I can tell them you're my model. The big advantage of being in Greece in September and temperatures in the eighties is your nude model doesn't get goose pimples."
"Are you really a painter?"
"The advantage of abstract art is anyone can do it, even if you gave up painting after primary school and you can't draw for toffee.'
"I'm not sure I'm flattered, being a model for abstract art."
"I can get my inspiration from looking at you in a tasteful pose."
"You reckon I've got the figure for it?" said Klara with a chaste smile.
"Definitely. You're still young and luscious."
"A friend of mine at college reckoned old age starts when your age catches up with your bust measurement."
"I heard it was your inside leg measurement. Anyway, you've still got a year or two to go yet before you're ancient."
"If I had a tape measure, I could find out how old you are."
"If you want to know, I'll tell you. If I haven't already."
"No, it's okay. I think couples should keep some things secret from each other. I wonder if that's why some film stars have them enlarged? Worried about getting old."
"Two surgical balloons and a little pump to use on your birthday?" laughed Klara.
"You'd have to carry lots of small change in your pockets when you get to a hundred, or you'd be drifting round the room like a double-barrelled Zeppelin. Come on," Helm yawned again, "let's go and do some serious eating before I flake out."
Helm and Klara had a leisurely meal at the café, then they moved out onto the terrace to watch the virtually tideless sea lap snowy, white sand. Then they retired to the roof of the studio flat. Helm was yawning again when the Moon collided with the lighthouse on Salamis at ten-thirty.
Their best escape plan involved buying a cabin cruiser, sailing across the Aegean to Turkey, and sinking the boat within an easy swim of the shore. If they could reach their respective embassies in Istanbul as distressed mariners, they would be able to obtain temporary travel documents. It was a variant of Helm's earlier escape plan via Rome.
A crash woke them while the night was still black. Helm sat up in the bed, heart racing. Someone was in the studio and he had left his gun hanging behind one of the pictures.