K1 : New Business, New Recruit
Of course, having teased us, General Frosch had nothing more to say about his new business opportunity and there was nothing much that we could do to make him talk -- except threaten to withdraw our labour, which would have excluded us anyway.
When Frosch left, Iktar retired to her personal room to play with a new toy -- a waterproof global position indicator, which would allow us to map our underwater finds more accurately. I found myself wondering if I would recognize Persid the next time we met and what this afterlife would mean to a Catholic. I assumed that she would be at least a reflex Catholic if she was Brazilian.
I had been expecting nothing after death. Someone brought up in the Catholic church, I assumed, would be rather baffled to find herself still on Earth instead of getting the chance to knock on the pearly gates and ask to be let in. No expert on the Christian religion, I had vague memories of the concept of a limbo, an anteroom where the newly departed can be parked while their ultimate destination, good or terrible, is fixed.
In my own case, I remained rather thoroughly disoriented until I worked out that I was aware of my surroundings in a different way and probably dead. I didn't get round to wondering about heaven, hell and places in between for a long time afterwards. I had left religion far behind after the compulsory religious education phase of my schooldays.
Meeting Marivella had been the best possible thing that could have happened to Persid, I told myself. Mari came from Spain, a near neighbour of Portugal, and she was, presumably, a Catholic woman who had gone though the same experience of discovering that the hereafter didn't match all the pre-publicity. In fact, I had a vague memory of Mari telling me that she thought of herself as someone in the Catholic limbo. And as a woman, she was also best placed to let Persid know that she didn't have to look about ninety-nine years old and haggard.
I assumed that Persid had been ill for some time and that her illness had finished her off, which had a levelling effect on my 'known mortality' table. Borgan, the treasure hunter, had drowned, Frosch had been killed on a World War One battlefield aged nineteen and Iktar had been twenty-five when the Gestapo had put her up against a wall in early April of 1945.
Xanthe, who had been a secret agent in World War One, had died in 1954 at the age of sixty-five after a heart attack. Tolshivar had died of kidney failure in 1993, aged thirty-one. I had croaked, probably of some natural cause such as the rupture of an unsuspected aneurysm, or possibly because a plane had crashed onto my house, at the grand old age of forty-six in 1990.
Three of us had died before their time, three had died of natural causes, one fairly young and two oldish, and one had died in middle age of an unknown but probably natural cause. It wasn't much data on which to base a theory of why people survive to become post-dead. But that didn't stop an idle mind from going in that direction.
Iktar and I spent the rest of January treasure hunting for fun, sometimes with Borgan, and sneaking around Panama and then Colombia, on semi-official business, looking in bank vault deposit boxes and extracting bags of white powder and associated cash. Hawaii provided active volcanoes to receive the drugs and a change of scenery for the do-gooders.
And then Frosch was back with us. He had met an insurance company executive at a reception after a lot of manoeuvring on his part.
Ms Lucinda Gashe was looking for a personal holy grail -- a collection of stolen paintings which was worth upwards of £200 million. She had a list of 135 targets, which had been 172 names long when she had started an elimination process three years earlier.
"So it's going to take her twenty years to clear her list at the same rate of progress," Frosch told us as we sprawled in the comfy chairs on the veranda of our villa in the late afternoon of the first Tuesday in February, looking out at the sea and some dark clouds on the southern horizon when we weren't looking at one another.
"I can see into the future," said Iktar. "I know what he's going to say next."
"So I reckon, if we split the list four ways, and get a bit of a move on, we can clear our lists in four days? Five days tops. Assuming someone doesn't get lucky on the first day."
"What's our cut?" said Iktar. "Twenty per cent of the insured value?"
Frosch uttered a hollow laugh. "Sixty-forty, our way, of ten per cent. Maybe, maybe, seventy-thirty."
"If we're saving this woman's company the cost of up to twenty years' work, that's got to be worth ninety per cent of the ten per cent," said Iktar. "Nine per cent net. In fact, about fourteen per cent net would be much more reasonable."
"Maybe they'll see it our way if we can get some photos of the art in its new setting," said Frosch.
"Assuming your mate's list is any good," I mentioned.
"Yes, we should have a fall-back position," said Iktar. "Say, a grand an address if none of the ones on her list work out."
"I can see problems there," said Frosch. "We present a bill for a hundred and thirty-five grand and they say, 'And what proof can you offer, other than your word, that these places are clear?'"
"How do you prove a negative?" said Iktar. "Yes, it's a problem."
"If we come up with nothing, they might just think we're going to sell the info to someone else," Iktar added.
"Looks like it's an all or nothing deal," I said. "The only way we're going to get a pay day is to find the loot. And prove we've found it."
"So we have to ask ourselves if we're willing to invest anything up to twenty person-days, possibly for no reward," said Frosch.
"I suppose it all comes down to how much confidence you have in your insurance lady's list," I said.
"Yes, I suppose it does," said Frosch.
"Does she know you're an alien?" Iktar asked.
"Not yet," said Frosch. "I just told her we have access to 'sneak in anywhere', spy-type technology."
"So she's thinking what?" said Iktar. "Robot spiders with miniature TV systems?"
"She's not thinking aliens who can beam themselves in and out of places," said Frosch.
"We'll think about it," said Iktar.
"We'll all think about it," said Frosch.
Of course, we did the job. Frosch brought Tolshivar up to speed and we split the list and went on individual world tours. Iktar was the one who got lucky with item 121 on Ms Gashe's list of 135 possibles. Typically, it was a case of 'I'll just do one more before I knock off late on Friday night'.
During the early hours of Saturday morning, we all visited the underground complex at a ranch, which lay about a hundred miles to the west of Austin, Texas. The ranch belonged to one Gram Harthorn, who had made his huge pile of money out of the unlikely combination of oil and generating energy from renewable sources. The paintings were stored in racks in an air-conditioned room, which was normally kept dark to prevent fading of the pigments and discoloration of varnishes.
The storage room had an open area running its full length, into which the door opened, and the racks, on the left, could be driven along motorized tracks to create a viewing space of width about fifteen feet between any two of them. After temporarily neutralizing the security system, we had great fun driving the racks around while Iktar took photographs of the paintings with a digital camera.
Mr. Harthorn, the owner of the ranch, was also heavily into weaponry. He had guns of all sizes and types in a completely separate bunker system. This area had lights burning around the clock. Frosch and Tolshivar were able to identify some of the weapons, things like the MP-5 sub-machine guns which airport security police use, but the sheer diversity defeated them quite quickly.
Frosch, still playing the Earther with conventional espionage technology rather than an alien with all sorts of exotic gadgets, visited Ms Gashe's office and showed off a collection of photographs. She looked quite surprised when he identified the Texan ranch as the home of the stolen works of art. Ms. Gashe had not expected Mr. Harthorn to be interested in anything remotely cultural -- which raised the obvious question of what he was doing on her list. We never did find that out.
Iktar and I went back to treasure hunting for a week with Tolshivar looking on. We kept half an eye on the international news on a satellite channel but there was never any mention of the FBI busting a Texan billionnaire. When Frosch turned up in Jamaica again at the beginning of the next week, he told us that the insurance company was busy confirming our information by conventional means.
"Just as long as they're not planning to screw us out of our nine per cent of two hundred million quid," Iktar told him.
"We have their contract on file and on the record," said Frosch. "And hey, if they screw us, all we have to do is take the paintings from them and hold them to ransom."
"This man's a genius," said Iktar.
"So how's the treasure hunting going?" said Frosch.
"Workwise, it's a lot harder than finding stolen paintings," said Iktar.
"Your pal Captain Borgan, what do you reckon to him?" Frosch added.
"He's managed to combine great age with appropriate wisdom," I said. "Why?"
"I'm thinking of recruiting him," said Frosch. "You say he's talked about wanting a chance to do some real treasure hunting?"
"I think he's too moral to rob a few banks to raise all the cash he needs for an expedition," said Tolshivar.
"So if I offer him a penthouse with cable TV and any gadgets he wants, and tell him all he has to do is find some drug labs and collect cash?" said Frosch. "You reckon he'll go for that?"
"What, and tell him the even better news is any cash he collects is his to keep?" said Iktar.
"Right. And when he's saved up enough, he can use his cash to buy a mini-sub so he can go serious treasure hunting," said Frosch.
"You're making him your local agent?" I said.
"Right in one," Frosch said with a nod. "I can't see you lot sticking around here much longer. But Captain Borgan lives here."
"Why are you doing this?" said Iktar. "I thought your DEA guy had lost interest?"
Frosch shrugged. "The DEA is full of ambitious guys looking for big results. And I happen to have met another of them. So anyway, do you reckon Captain Borgan is up for it?"
"You can always invite him over and ask him," said Iktar.
"Right," said Frosch. "Where's your phone? And what's his number?"
Borgan arrived at our villa about five minutes later, which suggested that he had been doing nothing special on his Monday evening. He listened to Frosch's proposition with a thoughtful expression. At the end of the job description, he was looking very interested.
"And the only condition of the job is you have to learn how to be an alien," Frosch concluded.
"An alien?" laughed Borgan. "I thought I might have become a Voodoo loa, you know, a spirit, at first. But I never thought I could be an alien. Whoo!"
"You're not going to be an alien, you're just going to be you pretending to be an alien. Like the rest of us," Frosch said.
"That's you guys?" said Borgan. "All this talk of aliens all over the world is just you four?"
"There are four more of us on the team," said Frosch.
"We used to be eight at one time," said Tolshivar. "Until the Chinese killed Bethan."
"Yeah, I heard that," said Borgan. "One of the aliens had been killed. So that's one of your people in China, blowing up all their weapons plants?"
"Hathor's a law unto herself rather than one of anyone's people," said Iktar. "But yes, she was Bethan's friend and she's been showing the Chinese the error of their ways."
"So anyway," said Frosch, "do you want in?"
"I just have to find hidden drug factories, report back to this American Drug Enforcement Agency guy and I can keep the value of any cash I find in deposit boxes?" Borgan said with a note of disbelief. "As long as I destroy any drugs?"
"Right in one," said Frosch.
"And all I have to do first is learn to be an alien?"
"Right in two." Frosch gave a demonstration of beaming in and out in a sitting position.
Borgan shook his head in amazement. "I see it but I still don't believe it. But you can count me in."
"Good! The first thing to do is get up to speed on alien technology, like beaming in and out, and the hralchiv. Volunteers?" Frosch looked in turn at Iktar, Tolshivar and myself. We nodded. "Okay, I'll be back on Thursday, Borgan. If you can keep that day free for meeting people?
"Okay," said Borgan.
"Fine. See you in due course, people." Frosch beamed out and departed.
"Aliens, eh?" Borgan said, half to himself.
"It's something we think the pre-dead will find easier to accept than the truth," said Tolshivar. "The truth that we used to be alive like them and now we're still alive but in a totally different way."
"That sounds, ahm, reasonable," said Borgan.
"Although not all of them are swallowing the story," Tolshivar added. "Frosch was telling me the big question at the moment is, 'Are the visitors aliens or are they really Earther mutants playing games?' He reckons the question has arisen independently in most security agencies recently."
"I think they've been watching Mutant X on Sky One," said Iktar. "Have you ever seen it?"
"I think I've seen trailers for it but I don't think I've ever actually watched it," Tolshivar replied.
"I've only seen one episode myself," said Iktar, "but as far as I could gather, there was some experimenting with human DNA that produced mutants with specialized powers."
"Like being bullet-proof?" I asked.
"There's one guy who goes all red and black dappled and you can drive cars into him and they crumple," said Iktar. "And there was a guy with super hearing, a metamorph who could impersonate anyone she chose, an electrification man, who could chuck bolts of lightning at people, and like that."
"What about beaming in and out. Can they do that, too?" I said.
"I suppose a teleporting mutant could do it," said Iktar. "But there wasn't anyone like that in the episode I saw."
"Yes, but the light effect we use says technology not mutants," said Tolshivar. "Why would a teleporting mutant look like a beam-out? Unless we're talking mutants with technology."
"That's a point," I said.
"Applying Occam's Razor," said Iktar, "if it's mutants who use both in-built special powers and technology, or aliens who do everything by technology, the aliens is the simpler choice."
"If you're looking for simple," said Borgan, "why not the post-dead with no technology bluffing everyone?"
"Because the Earthers love a good story," Iktar told him with a smile.
K2 : New Business On Holdt
Our interlude in the tropics came to an end after about three months. We returned to London on the last day of February, a wet Thursday, expecting (illogically) to see the place changed out of recognition but finding everything completely the same.
Nowhere on Earth can escape from satellite TV news -- except by choosing not to watch it. Jamaica is connected electronically to the rest of the world but we spent very little of our time there sitting in front of a goggle box, which is why we'd failed to notice the growth of the 'alien industry'.
Half the planet seemed to be trying to convince the other half that they were undercover agents for an off-world civilization -- and yet another half seemed to be trying to debunk the aliens. The situation was pretty much how I imagine things were at the end of the 18th Century when the likes of Harry Houdini were exposing bogus Mediums and Spiritualists. Or perhaps I should just say Mediums and Spiritualists as talk of bogus suggests that non-bogus ones might exist, which I don't believe.
When we got back to London, Iktar and I spent the whole of Friday afternoon watching the news channels through their cycle to see what they had to say about aliens. We learned a whole lot of things that we didn't want to know and we heard a whole lot about human nature. The gullible were being ripped off to some tune by confidence tricksters.
As far as the 'genuine' aliens were concerned, few of them were interacting openly with the Earthers. Xanthe, Marivella and Persid were still in Switzerland and in contact with the government there. The lack of interesting news from China suggested that Hathor was resting -- or she had found something more interesting to do than blow up Chinese weapons factories.
Frosch was dealing only with secret intelligence-gathering agencies, which don't talk to the meeja -- well, hardly ever. So was Borgan. As for the rest of us -- Iktar, Tolshivar and myself -- we hadn't played aliens since our Christmas appearance at Cassidy's, the North Road Mob's club.
"Is anyone making serious money out of this alien racket or are globally rich people too cynical to believe anyone anymore?" Iktar put on a quizzical expression after zapping the TV with the remote control to shut the commercials up. "I suppose it all depends on the standard of proof they can offer."
"What, like beaming in and out of a sealed room?" I said.
"That and being bullet-proof. Or not showing up on an X-ray except as a vague blob."
"Or maybe other little tricks we haven't thought of? Like Uri Geller style metal-bending tricks?"
"It's just struck me," laughed Iktar. "We could beam in somewhere wearing our Goa'uld faces and speaking Frosch's alien language. And people would just look at us and think, 'Right, here's another bunch of bogus aliens trying to impress us.'"
"Well, if the alien thing is played out, we can always fall back on Plan B."
"What, do like Frosch did with his insurance company? Pretend to be ordinary Earthers with extraordinary technology? Always assuming we want to get involved in any more of Frosch's plans."
"You mean, with all the money we've made so far, not to mention one-quarter shares in nine per cent of two hundred million quid, we don't really need to lift a finger again?"
Iktar shrugged. "Maybe not. We may be better off than about ten average Lottery winners but I can't see us staying idle for long. We're not built that way."
"Yes, I think Sokar Frosch is probably counting very heavily on that," I told her with a laugh.
News of our return to London soon got around and we found ourselves playing host to visitors from Switzerland on Saturday. Tolshivar was also there to prevent me from feeling outnumbered among a gang of women. Xanthe, playing queen bee, had brought her full entourage.
It was about five weeks since I had last seen Persid. There was a raven-haired, thirtyish stranger with Xanthe and Marivella. She looked very little like the sixty- or seventy-year-old who had approached me in Panama City on a wet Wednesday. There was a slight family resemblance, however, as if the radiant younger woman was the tired old lady's daughter.
Tolshivar and I were impressed by Persid's command of English after just over a month. She kept running out of vocabulary but I'm sure her English was a whole lot better than my Portuguese would have been after the same period of study. It was difficult to tell whether Iktar was impressed. She was too busy doing her own 'beautiful person' act in response to the displays of the visitors.
Persid gave us a display of beaming in and out in passing to prove that she had been thoroughly integrated into our alien culture. She also took an almost child-like delight in putting on a Buffy, the Vampire Slayer 'fierce face' or the yellow-shining eyes and dual voice of the Goa'uld of Star Gate SG-1.
During the course of our social afternoon, I was quite surprised to see Iktar laughing and joking with Marivella. I concluded that she had decided to abandon her hatred and mistrust of the Spanish -- or to make an exception in Mari's blameless case. In fact, Iktar became our own 'queen bee' when we told the visitors about our treasure hunting activities in the Caribbean. We had a large collection of bits and pieces to show off and Iktar had a story to go with each of them.
Frosch turned up about an hour after the visitors had gone -- Persid was to get the evening tour of London's more interesting bits. When Iktar asked, casually, what was happening about the money from the insurance company, Frosch put on a face appropriate for someone who had organized a lavish garden party on what had turned out to be a wet weekend.
We had not been searching the news for reports of a Texan crook with a cellarful of stolen art being busted big-time but I had more or less assumed that Mr. Harthorn was busy trying to make a deal with the American justice system. And Ms Gashe's company was arguing with Frosch over the market value of the collection and the size of our finders' fee. Ms Gashe, however, seemed to be having problems. Her efforts to obtain conventional independent confirmation of our information, Frosch told us, had proved singularly unfruitful.
"This sounds like a wind-up," Iktar said at her sceptical best.
"What's up with the woman?" said Tolshivar. "She's got our collection of pictures showing what's there in the bunker along with our detailed plans of the security systems."
"What you should do," I suggested, "is tell Ms Gashe that if she doesn't extract her digit, you'll give copies of our pictures to the Texan bloke and warn him to bug out. And then tell him if we get our nine per cent of the value of his collection, we won't tell Ms Gashe where he's moved the pictures to."
"Hey, why didn't I think of that?" Frosch said at his sarcastic best.
"Hey, why didn't it work when you told her?" Iktar said with a mocking smile.
"Because Ms Lucinda Gashe, although she likes to think the universe revolves around her, is just a cog in the larger machine," Frosch said patiently. "And she's basically too scared to take a deal like that to her bosses."
"Figures," laughed Tolshivar.
"So what exactly would constitute confirmation for Ms Gashe?" I asked.
"Some clear chain of evidence which would let her company go to a judge or whatever in the US and extract a search warrant," said Frosch.
"All I want for Christmas is a clear chain of evidence," said Iktar.
"And in the meantime, she wants us to check up on Mr. Harthorn again," Frosch added. "That's why I'm here. I'm looking for volunteers."
"I think I'm doing something tonight," Iktar said at once. "I can't think what it is right at this moment but I'll come up with something."
"I really am doing something," said Tolshivar. "Sorry."
"Are we getting paid for this or is this a freebie as part of the same general deal?" I said, responding to Frosch's uncompromising stare.
"Separate job, separate contract," said Frosch. "Can we leave in about an hour and a half?"
I shrugged. "I guess so."
The job in Texas was unexciting and almost routine. We knew how to disable the security system and we could arrange to be in the bunker, taking photographs, when there was no one around and no one was likely to visit the bunker.
Back in London, Frosch loaded his collection of digital images into his computer and printed three sets of pictures -- one each for himself, me and Ms Lucinda Gashe. When he had done that, I went home. I arrived in the middle of the night and retired to my resting place for a while.
Iktar was flicking through the collection of pictures when I got up on Sunday morning. She had been out all night, having caught up with Xanthe and her entourage, and she was yawning freely. She got half way through the pictures before she gave up and went to get some rest. I was collecting up the postcard-size prints and squaring them into a neat stack when I made my discovery.