Starter Villain - pracovní

“Burned to the ground,” Andy Baxter said to me, over the phone.
“Yes.” I was sitting on the Gundersons’ curb, although this time it wasn’t just me and the cats; the whole neighborhood had come out to watch the spectacle of my house turning into ash. There was a full complement of fire and police services to boot. It was a regular hootenanny here on Cook Street. “Well. Exploded first. Then burned to the ground. With a dead body inside.”
“Whose dead body?”
“That’s a really good question,” I said. “I don’t know, and neither do the police or the fire department. The money is on burglar or arsonist. Considering that the fire went through the house much faster than it would have without help, ‘arsonist’ has the lead at the moment.”
“That’s not great.”
“It’s worse for the arsonist. He didn’t get clear of his own handiwork.”
“But you’re fine,” Andy said.
“I wouldn’t say that,” I said. “I’m physically fine. I wasn’t in the house when it happened.”
“Where were you?”
“At a memorial service for my uncle.”
There was a pause here. “Jake. Your mom’s brother.”
“That’s the one.”
“He died?”
“There was debate about it with the mourners, but yes.”
“I didn’t know you were close to him.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “Neither did I.”
As I was talking to Andy, I was once more taking in the scene on the street, and the smoking hole in the neighborhood where my house used to be. The explosion had wrecked the house and made it easier for the fire to catch hold. But other than strewn glass and some cracked windows at the next-door houses, there was no major damage to any other house on the block. The fire department was on the scene in minutes, and the threat of fire spreading was contained. That was a small mercy. After the day I’d had, I didn’t want anyone else’s misfortune on my conscience.
I had given my report to the cops, and the firefighters were now finishing up their work, and an ambulance had come for the poor, crispy probably-arsonist and had carted him away. Everything that was going to happen had happened, and the neighbors were now heading back to their homes, because they still had them. A couple of them nodded to me on the curb in sympathy. I nodded back, but I was glad to be on the phone because I didn’t really want to have a conversation with any of them right now.
“I’m glad you’re physically fine,” Andy said. “What about the rest of it?”
“Well, my house and all my possessions have burned up, I have no place to live and nowhere to go, and in the immediate future me and the cats will be living in dad’s Maxima,” I said. “So I could be better.”
“You need a place to stay.”
“I agree. Are you offering?”
“I’ll call the insurance company,” Andy said. “They can probably set you up with a hotel for a few days at least. They’ll need the police and fire reports, and they’ll probably send their own investigators, seeing that there’s a dead body and the possibility of arson.”
“Charlie…” There was a definite tone to Andy’s voice here.
“Oh, here we go,” I said, and looked to the heavens. Hera, perhaps sensing I was about to get irritated, gave me a reassuring headbutt. I reached down to pet her.
“It sounds like you know what I’m about to say, but I’m going to say it anyway,” Andy said. “You gotta know the police and fire department are going to be looking at you for this.”
“Come on, Andy. I’m not going to burn down my childhood home.”
“I’m not saying you did or would. I’m saying that they’re going to eventually figure out that you don’t own the place outright and your residency is hanging by a financial thread. Was hanging. They’re going to figure out that your siblings wanted you out of the house, and that you don’t have the best relationship with them. They’re going to figure out that you need money. Two of the biggest reasons for arson are revenge and insurance fraud. You’re going to fit that profile.”
“Is this conversation covered by attorney-client privilege?” I asked, because that seemed suddenly relevant.
“That’s a good question,” Andy replied.
“If they’re going to look at me for that, they need to look at Sarah and Bobby and Todd, too,” I said, continuing despite the rather-shaky privilege of our communication. “If they burn the place down, they get to split the insurance money and they don’t have to deal with me ever again. The house is our last thread of mutual obligation.”
“I’m sure they will look at your siblings,” Andy said. “But they’ll look at you first and most. And if they think you hired someone to burn your house down, you’re maybe on the hook for what happened to him, too.”
I stopped petting Hera and put a hand to my head. “Are you trying to make my day worse, Andy?”
“What I’m saying is you might look into getting a criminal lawyer. Did you talk to the police or fire department people?”
“Of course,” I said. They asked me what happened (I didn’t know), whether I rented or owned (it was complicated), where I had been (Uncle Jake’s service), who the person in the house might be (no idea) and where my shoes were (in the street, left there when I fell back on my ass after the explosion). They were the ones who surmised the person inside the house might be a burglar or arsonist. I told them I had no idea why either would target my house. They took my report and I gave them my cell phone number. They promised to be in touch.”
“Okay, so don’t talk to them anymore without a lawyer,” Andy said.
“You’re a lawyer.”
“I’m not that kind of lawyer.”
“How the hell am I going to afford a lawyer?” I asked, exasperated. “I don’t have any money. Everything I have literally just went up in smoke.”
“When I talk to the insurance company I’ll see if I can get them to give you a little something in advance.”
“That will be a fun conversation,” I said. “‘Hey, do you mind giving the person the police think burned down his house some money so he can hire a lawyer to beat the rap?’”
“I won’t phrase it like that when I ask.”
“I mean, please don’t.”
“Let me get on this,” Andy said. “I’ll be in touch soon.”
“Sorry, Charlie. I know this is a mess.”
“Thanks, Andy.” I hung up and looked at my cats. “Well, that was a delightful conversation,” I said to them. Hera gave me a slow blink in sympathy. Persephone padded over and meowed to be picked up. I complied with the request.
“Excuse me,” someone said, behind me. It was Kayleigh Gunderson, the across-the-street neighbor’s teenage kid, on whose curb I was currently sitting. She was holding a small serving bowl.
“Hey,” I said.
“Here,” Kayleigh said, thrusting the bowl at me. “It’s cat food. You know, uh, for the cats.”
I took the bowl, which had a plastic top on it to keep the kibble from escaping, with the hand not currently occupied by a kitten. “Thank you. That’s very kind of you.”
“I’m really sorry about your house,” Kayleigh said.
“Thanks,” I said. “So am I.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
I smiled at this. “I guess we’re going to find out,” I said, and lifted the bowl of cat food. “This will help. My cats say thanks.”
Kayleigh smiled at this and went back into her house.
My well-trained eye identified the kibble as Meow Mix, and I wondered if the Gundersons already had it in the house, or if they’d sent Kayleigh out to get some. I don’t remember the Gundersons having their own cats. But then I’d never been to their house, despite them having lived across from me for years now. That was on me, I suppose. I could have made an effort to be more neighborly.
By this time the cats had figured out there was food about, so I cracked open the bowl, and set it down on the grass by the curb. Hera started nibbling, and Persephone hopped down from my hand, straining to get her fluffy little head over the lip of the bowl.
“Well, at least you won’t starve,” I said to them. “Not yet, anyway.” I looked back to the shell of my house.
I’m not going to lie, here: I was screwed. The house was a ruin, everything in it was a ruin, if not from fire then from water damage from the firefighters. As of this moment, my entire set of assets were me, the cats, my suit, my awful shoes, my phone, and my wallet, which contained twenty-three dollars in cash, an ATM card that would allow me to access a similar amount in my checking account, and a maxed-out Visa.
Oh, and dad’s Maxima, as well as a lawn mower and whatever other gardening tools were stored in his house’s detached garage, which did not burn down with the rest of the house. I wasn’t lying to Andy; if the insurance company didn’t put me up in a hotel, I’d be sleeping in the garage, in the car, and eating from the rotating hot dog cooker at the Circle K. At least, until the money ran out.
Which it would, because here’s the other thing: My “reward” for standing up for Uncle Jake at the funeral, the ownership of my house, had literally just gone up in flames. I’d get nothing for my efforts there, because there was nothing to sell, save the land the burned house was on. Even if Jake’s company bought that and gave it to me, I couldn’t afford to build a new house on the property, even with what his people were going to give me at closing, if they were even going to do that now, because there was no house to hand over.
There was nothing. I had less than a hundred dollars to my name, in cash and credit.
A hundred dollars, an old suit and uncomfortable shoes.
I turned to the cats. “I’m going to need you to hunt for me,” I said. “Good bet I’ll starve otherwise.” The cats, still busy eating, said nothing.
Pretty sure this was the actual low point of my entire existence to that moment.
My phone buzzed.
Heard about the house, Mathilda Morrison had texted. Sucks.
Thanks for the sympathy, I texted back. It will comfort me when I sleep in the back seat of my car.
I think we can do better than that, Morrison texted.
I’m listening, I replied.
The phone rang. It was Morrison. I picked up.
“I’m still listening,” I said.
“Great,” she said. “Follow your cats.”
“Follow your cats,” Morrison repeated.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“What part of ‘follow your cats’ is hard to understand?” Morrison asked.
“All of it, honestly,” I said.
“Look, don’t overthink it, Charlie,” Morrison said. “Tell Hera I told you to follow her. She’ll take it from there. I’ll see you later tonight. We have things to discuss.” She hung up.
I stared at my phone for a minute, and then looked over to Hera, who had apparently just finished eating, and who was now looking at me expectantly. Persephone was still scarfing away.
“I feel really stupid for even saying this out loud,” I said to Hera, “but Morrison said I should follow you.”
Hera fucking meowed at me after I said this, and then turned and chirruped at Persephone. The kitten took one last bite of kibble and then stepped away from the bowl. Then the two of them started walking north on Cook Street. I watched them for a few seconds, absolutely dumbfounded. Then Hera stopped, turned her head back to me and meowed loudly, as if to say, Well, are you following me or not?
I put the lid back on the bowl, picked it up, and followed my cats.
Hera and Persephone walked up Cook to Russell, and then made a right, heading east. They walked unhurriedly, tails up, Hera clearly knowing where she intended to go and Persephone happy to follow.
When Hera walked us to Grove Avenue, she looked both ways before crossing the street and then headed down the far side of the road.
At 611 South Grove, there was a smallish, well-maintained white Cape Cod, set in a plain but well-manicured yard. Hera walked up to the porch, to a door that had a cat entrance set into it. She looked back at me, meowed again, and went in. Persephone followed.
“What the hell?” I said. I knew of cats who time-shared owners, but it didn’t make sense that Hera would be doing that. She was home every night, even if she snuck out during the day.
And yet, Hera walked into 611 South Grove like she owned the place, and Persephone had no problem following her. And here I was, standing in the walkway, gawking like a fool.
I walked up onto the porch and stood at the door. Honestly, I had not the first clue what I was going to do next. Whoever was in there clearly thought they owned Hera, and possibly Persephone, and from their perspective I was probably a catnapper.
That doesn’t explain why Morrison told you to follow your cats, or how your cats actually took you here, my brain said to me.
You’re not wrong, brain, I thought. Whoever was on the other side of this door would have some explaining to do about how they trained their cats to understand that phrase “I should follow you,” and to know it meant leading me to this particular door.
I looked down at the side of the door and saw a doorbell there.
“Oh, what the hell,” I said, and pressed the thing.
There was a flat tone, followed a couple of seconds later by a buzzing that I remembered from apartment living. I was being buzzed in.
I turned the doorknob, pushed, and entered the house.
The inside was dim from shaded windows and the lack of artificial lighting. The furniture was sparse, and the walls were festooned with cat stairs and cubbyholes. Whoever lived here was clearly much more involved with their cats than I ever was. Maybe a little too involved.
“Hello?” I said.
From around a doorway, Hera popped her head out and meowed at me, then disappeared. I went where she had gone.
I imagine the house floorplan would have told me I was in the living room. In here, there were more cat beds and trees, a couch, and a desk of odd dimensions, on which rested a large monitor and a sprawling keyboard of a sort I’d never seen before. The more I looked at it, the more it reminded me of a mutant, overgrown stenography machine—those things that were used in court to record the proceedings.
What I didn’t see were the people who had let me in.
“Hello?” I said, again.
This is the part of the movie where people get ax-murdered, my brain said, unhelpfully.
“Shut up, brain,” I said out loud.
Hera came out from behind the desk, meowed at me, and then hopped up onto the desk. As I watched she pressed a button on the keyboard, which turned on the monitor and woke up the backlighting on the rest of the keyboard. Hera hopped onto it, and used all four of her feet to chord the buttons there.
Words popped up on the lit screen.
Mathilda Morrison’s S-Class drove up to my cat’s house and stopped at the curb just long enough for Morrison to get out of it, then drove off again. It occurred to me that I had not actually seen the driver of the car. At this particular point, I was not entirely sure there was a driver. I wasn’t feeling sure about a lot of things.
I watched as she walked up the small path to the porch, on which I was sitting.
“Let me guess,” she said, stopping in front of me. “Sentient cats a bit overwhelming.”
I stared up at her, not speaking. She took that as an affirmative, which it of course was. “If it makes you feel better, I felt the same way the first time I met one,” she said.
“My cat types and has her own house,” I said.
“And you knew.”
“And you were going to tell me my cat owns a house when?”
“Actually the house is owned by one of your uncle’s real estate corporations. Technically it’s an Airbnb. Good cover for what appears to be a mostly vacant house in an upscale neighborhood.”
“But she is actually typing,” I said.
“Oh, yes. That’s definitely her.”
“The short answer is ‘genetic engineering.’ The long answer requires a PhD.”
“And why?”
“Because sentient cats are useful to your uncle’s business interests.”
“He owned parking garages.”
“He did,” Morrison agreed. “But I think you’ve probably already guessed by now that’s not the whole story.”
I opened my mouth to say something else when an entirely different S-Class Mercedes Benz rolled up to the curb and a man stepped out of the passenger door. I recognized him immediately.
“It’s the stabber,” I said to Morrison.
She looked at me, confused, as he walked up to us.
“He tried to stab Uncle Jake’s corpse,” I explained. “I stopped him.”
“Why did you do that? Tobias could have killed you.”
“You know him?” I gaped.
The newly named Tobias grinned from the footpath.
“Stay behind me,” Morrison said. She turned and put herself between me and Tobias the Stabber.
He stopped and nodded at Morrison. “Hello, Til,” he said. “Nice of you to put your boy up in an Airbnb. Considering what happened to his house.” He stepped to get past her to me.
“Don’t you even,” Morrison said. She shifted her weight in a way that I realized meant she was getting ready for a fight.
Tobias appeared to recognize it too. He took a step back. “Relax. If your boy was supposed to be dead, I’d have knifed him at the funeral home. That’s better than others can say.” He looked past Morrison to me. “Condolences on your house, Fitzer. And your uncle. Seeing that he is actually dead and all.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Don’t talk to him,” Morrison said to me.
“You should get used to her telling you what to do,” Tobias said to me, then looked back to Morrison. “Bit of a family tradition, that.”
“Are you here for a reason?” Morrison said, ignoring the provocation.
“You mean, if I’m not here to end your friend right on the lawn?” Tobias smiled. “I come with an invitation.”
“For whom?”
“Well, if it were from me, it might depend, wouldn’t it?” Tobias said. “But since I’m just the messenger, it’s for your new friend here. I’m going to reach into my coat now.”
“Do it slow,” Morrison said.
“Of course. I remember that’s how you like it, Til.” He reached into his coat—slowly—and extracted an envelope from a coat pocket. The envelope looked bespoke—made from heavy, handmade paper—and was sealed with wax and a cord. “See? Just an envelope.” He reached out to hand it to me.
“Don’t take that,” Morrison said to me.
“I already told you I wasn’t here to kill him,” Tobias said to Morrison.
“It’s not you I’m worried about,” she said. She nodded to him. “You open it.”
“You think it’s going to explode?”
“If it does, I want it to be your fingers on the yard.”
“I don’t remember you being this paranoid before your employer kicked off,” Tobias said.
“Less talk. More fingers,” Morrison said.
Tobias shrugged, got a better grip on the envelope, and yanked at the cord. It bisected the wax seal, and the flap of the envelope popped open. I flinched despite myself. Tobias noticed and gave me a wry smile. “You’re going to need more of a spine than that, Fitzer,” he said.
“Take the invite out,” Morrison said to Tobias.
He did, showing elegant writing written with what was undoubtedly a very expensive fountain pen.
“Lick it,” Morrison said.
Tobias lost his smile. “The fuck you say.”
“Lick it,” she repeated, “both sides.”
“You have plain lost your mind,” Tobias said.
“And you’re wearing gloves,” Morrison said. Which stunned me. I had been looking at Tobias this whole time and simply had not noticed. But he was: If they weren’t literal kid gloves, then they were still of some sort of tremendously expensive leather, dyed to a color matching his skin tone.
Tobias, acknowledging Morrison’s observation, held up the invite in front of his face. “Only for you,” he said to her, stuck out his tongue and ran it across the card, first one side and then the other. “Not dead yet,” he said, when he was done.
“I’m willing to wait,” Morrison replied.
“That’s nice,” Tobias said. “I’m not. I have other places I need to be.” He put the card and the envelope into one hand and thrust them at her. “Take these.”
“Fine. Then how about I hold it up, and you take a picture of the damn invitation with your phone. Then I can say I delivered the invite, and we can all go on with our lives. Deal?”
Morrison considered it. “Charlie, take a picture of the invite with your phone,” she said, never taking her eyes off Tobias.
“You’re not going to do it yourself?” Tobias asked Morrison.
“I want to keep my hands free,” she said.
“Now you’re just putting on a show for your boy,” Tobias said. Morrison didn’t answer this.
I got out my phone and zoomed in to the invite before taking the photo. “What is this for, anyway?” I asked, as I was putting my phone away.
“Let’s just say it’s a confab for the industry you’re joining,” Tobias said, to me, then turned his attention back to Morrison. “Which you really need to catch him up on.”
“I don’t need your advice.”
“You’ve made that clear enough. So, no advice, just a reminder. Now that he’s got the invite, you know he has to show up for it. If he doesn’t, it’s not going to end well for him. Or for you.”
“I thought you had other places to be,” Morrison said.
“I’m going,” Tobias agreed. He looked over at me. “Good luck, Fitzer. You’re going to need it.”
“Leave,” Morrison said.
“Good to see you too, Til.” Tobias nodded to me as he walked back to his Mercedes, invite still in his gloved hand.
“What did he mean, that I have to accept the invitation?” I asked, after he was driven away.
“I’ll explain it to you later,” Morrison said.
“He called you Til,” I observed.
“That seems … friendly,” I said.
“We dated briefly.”
“You dated a stabber?”
“Do you really want to get into failed relationships with me right now?” Morrison snapped.
“No,” I said, taken aback. “I suppose not.”
“Good,” Morrison said.
We were silent for a couple of seconds. Then I asked her, “Did you really think there was poison on that invite?”
“Then why did you make him lick it?”
Morrison looked at me. “It would have been nice to be wrong.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t know how to feel about you right now.”
Morrison nodded at this. “I get that a lot.” She motioned with her hand. “Let’s go inside, Charlie. We have lots to talk about. We shouldn’t say it in the open air.”

Hera was at her desk when we came inside. Morrison went to her and greeted her with a scritching. Persephone the kitten was also on the desk, next to Hera.
“How long have you two known each other?” I asked. I maneuvered myself over to the couch.
“This is only the second time we’ve met,” Morrison said, giving Persephone a scritch as well. The kitten arched her tiny back for it. “The first time was the other day at your house, but I couldn’t say anything then.”
Hera went to her keyboard. WE EMAIL A LOT, she typed, to me.
“How is he doing?” Morrison asked Hera, about me.
“Fair,” Morrison said. She noticed where I was and made a motion with her hand. “Sit, Charlie. We have a lot to cover.”
“Can we start with the cat?” I asked, sitting.
Persephone looked at me and mewed.
“Paid internship, I hope,” I joked.
I paused. “Do you get actually get paid?” I asked my cat.
“How much?”
“I suppose I deserved that for asking,” I said. I turned to Morrison. “You said sentient cats are useful to my uncle’s business.”
“I did,” Morrison said.
“Intelligence gathering,” Morrison said. “Human and electronic intelligence gathering are difficult. No one suspects a cat.”
I eyed Hera, who, to be fair, looked like an ordinary cat, except for the fact she was sitting at a keyboard ergonomically designed specifically for her species. “And this matters in the parking garage game,” I said to Morrison.
“More than you might think,” Morrison said. “But as I mentioned outside, there’s more to your uncle’s business than parking garages.”
“But I’m not part of any of it,” I said. “Jake wasted a cat.” I turned to Hera. “No offense.”
Morrison shook his head. “Not a waste,” she said. “Charlie, after your mother died your father told Jake to keep away from his family, so Jake kept away. Still, Jake always kept an eye on you. Not always with cats. But also, with cats.”
“You’re your mother’s son, and he wanted to know you were okay for that reason alone. You’re his family, Charlie. His only real family. And also, to keep you safe.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that in your uncle’s line of work, there’s an unwritten rule that family not directly involved in the business are not to be targeted,” Morrison said. “Turns out, not every one of your uncle’s competitors was what you would call ethical.”
“This explains my house blowing up,” I said.
“What?” I looked at Morrison. “You didn’t tell me that.”
Morrison made a half-shrug. “Sorry.”
“Sorry? They blew up my house! With themselves in it.”
“Show it to him,” Morrison said, before I could ask my cat how she had video. Hera typed, and a window popped up on the monitor showing the interior of my house from the point of view of several cameras that I was not aware had been in my house.
On one of the cameras, two men had entered the house through the back. The men were dressed as plumbers or electricians, carrying work bags. Hera and Persephone came up to them, curious. The men ignored the cats and made their way through the house, first wandering about spraying something and then heading to my bedroom, where among other things my laptop was, and doing something by the door to my room. “Setting a bomb,” Morrison said. “It’ll arm when someone enters the room, go off when they try to leave. They were probably spraying accelerant earlier.”
Hera fast-forwarded the video for a while as the two men exited, and then slowed down again a while later when a new person entered the house, also by the back door. This new person also looked around the house before heading up to my bedroom.
It was at this point the cats left the house.
The new person, in my bedroom, spied my laptop, fiddled with it for a moment, and then caught me looking up at them from the street and decided to leave, taking the laptop with them. As they passed the threshold of my doorway, the bomb planted by the others went off, flinging the new interloper down the stairs and visibly breaking their neck as the fire raced around my home. The video cut off.
“Who are these people?” I asked, shaken.
I blinked at this. “Excuse me? A CIA agent died in my house?”
MAYBE FBI, Hera amended.
My phone rang. It was Andy Baxter.
“Should I answer that?” I asked Morrison. She shrugged again.
I answered. “Hi, Andy,” I said.
“Charlie, I have okay news and I have less-than-okay news,” Andy said. “Tell me what you want first.”
I rubbed my forehead. “Give me the okay news and work your way down.”
“The okay news is the insurance company is going to cover a hotel for a week. They have you at the Bainbridge Express Inn. You know it?”
“I know it.” The last time I had been at the Bainbridge Express Inn was on the night of my junior prom, when I had rented a room in the hopes that Vicki Harrington and I might have a personal afterparty. But then Vicki ditched me shortly after we arrived at the hotel to have drama with her only-sort-of-ex-boyfriend, and all I got out of the Bainbridge was a case of bedbugs. All things considered I’d be better off in my dad’s Maxima. “What’s the less-than-great news?”
“The FBI just dropped by my house asking about you.”
“The FBI.” I looked over to Morrison, who arched her eyebrows, but said nothing.
“They wanted to know when I last spoke to you and where you were right now.”
“What did you say?”
“I told them the truth. I talked to you a couple of hours ago, and I had no idea where you were. Where are you?”
“At a friend’s,” I said, eliding the fact that my friend was a cat who could type. “Still in Barrington. Don’t worry, they’ll probably find me at the Bainbridge, if they haven’t already got a warrant for my phone and are triangulating where I am from this phone call.”
“Allow me to again suggest you get a criminal lawyer,” Andy said. “This is not a personal assessment of your character, Charlie. You’re a good kid. But it’s the FBI.”
“I’m going to get right on that,” I promised.
“Can I do anything for you? In my capacity as your noncriminal lawyer?”
“Thank you, Andy,” I said. “I’m all right. Thank you. For everything.”
“Take care of yourself, Charlie.”
“I will.” I hung up and looked over to Morrison.
“Wanted by the FBI, are we?” she said.
“Apparently when a federal agent burns up in your house, they have questions,” I said. I held up my phone. “I expect they know where I am by now.”
Morrison nodded. “So what do you want to do?” she asked.
“I have options?” I said. “I’m broke, homeless and the feds are looking for me. My house burned down, so I’m guessing the deal we had went up with it. Unless you have a better idea I’m planning to sit on the curb until the FBI roll up and then see who the Federal Public Defender Office can roll out for me.”
“We can do better than that,” Morrison said. She turned to Hera. “Where’s Charlie’s go bag?”
DESK DRAWER, Hera typed. Morrison looked over to me and motioned for me to check the drawer. I opened it up and found a toiletry bag inside. I unzipped it and looked in.
Inside was two thousand dollars in assorted bills, debit and credit cards, a driver’s license and a passport. I took out the passport and opened it.
“Desmondo Jose Ruiz?” I said, looking over at Hera.
YOU GO BY DES, Hera typed.
“Absolutely no one is going to buy that.”
“Sure they will,” Morrison said. “It’s not a fake passport. It’s real. Des Ruiz has been in the system almost as long as you have. Des and his family emigrated to the United States when he was two, and he became a citizen when he was fifteen. Mother Cecelia was a homemaker, father Juan was a private investment counselor, and Des followed him into the trade. Des has done very well and pays his taxes every year. He has excellent credit and a large bank account. He’s got a condo in Schaumburg and a vacation home in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He’s as real as it gets, as far as the United States government is concerned, and you’re him.”
“This doesn’t make any sense,” I said.
“It makes perfect sense if you believe that your uncle has been watching out for you.”
“For what?”
“To have an escape route if you needed one,” Morrison said. “Which now you very much do.”
“But that doesn’t explain why he cared,” I pressed.
“He cared because you’re family,” Morrison said. “And because, if Hera and I decided you were up to it, he had a job for you, and he needed you alive for that.”
“Excuse me?”
“There was a reason he wanted to have you stand up for him at the funeral, Charlie. He knew what sort of person would be there and what they would try to do. He wanted to know what you would do. What you did was stand up for him.”
“You had cameras at the funeral home too, I suppose,” I said.
“You stood up for him when you didn’t have to and when you had all sorts of reasons to do only the bare minimum of what was asked of you,” Morrison continued. “And that’s what we wanted to see.”
“And you wanted to see that, why, exactly?”
“Parking garages,” I said, stupidly, all things considered, but things were moving fast at this point.
Morrison smiled. “Yes. Parking garages, Charlie. But I was thinking more about his actual business.”
“Your uncle is in parking garages because they fund his more important work,” Morrison said. “Which is to seek out, fund and create the sort of technologies and services that bring disruptive change to existing industrial and social paradigms, and offer them, on a confidential basis, to interested businesses and governments.”
“That’s a great mission statement,” I said. “But it doesn’t say what he actually did.”
HE WAS A VILLAIN, Hera typed.
I stared at what she had written and looked back at Morrison.
“We don’t use that word in public, and also, yes,” she said.
“And this meeting that the stabber had that invite for?” I asked.
“Villain conference,” Morrison said. “Think of Davos, except they don’t pretend they’re helping people.”
“And I’d be going there.”
“Yes. After we visit the volcano lair. We have some business there first.”
“Volcano lair,” I repeated.
“There’s a good reason why we have one. It’s not just for show.”
I looked back at Hera. She slow-blinked at me.
“So,” Morrison said. “You want in, Desmondo?”

The volcanic island of Saint Genevieve lay in the southern Caribbean, roughly five miles north of the island of Grenada and five miles west of Ronde Island. It’s small—about two thousand acres—but used to be twice as large, until 1784, when a massive volcanic eruption destroyed about half the island, killing three hundred souls. The volcano subsequently remained active, both above the waves and below it, and caused the British government to declare it, and the seas immediately surrounding it, off-limits to the locals. For the next 150 years it remained officially uninhabited and unvisited, save for the occasional pirate, rumrunner or ambitious naturalist.
In September of 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the Royal Navy to occupy the island and to create an outpost where the United Kingdom could work on scientific and military innovations critical to the war effort, far from prying eyes and spies and the threat of German bombing or invasion. Within a year “Marlborough Park” was up and running, the scientists and military and British intelligence staff taking advantage of the abundant geothermal energy provided by an active volcano to make the outpost entirely self-sustaining.
In August 1942 the British were joined at Marlborough by members of the newly formed United States Office of Strategic Services. The Americans and their staff vastly expanded the size and scope of the base, adding a vast subterranean network of rooms and tunnels as well as establishing a service port that could accommodate a Gato-class US submarine. By the end of the Pacific stage of World War II Marlborough had created, or assisted with the creation of, dozens of “spy toys” and clandestine military weapons.
After the war, the United States intelligence services took over Marlborough entirely, leasing it from the British and renaming it Donovan Station. From Donovan, the CIA carried on research and development of spy technology and kept tabs on the southern Caribbean for nearly fifty years, finally vacating the base in 1992 with the dissolution of the USSR and the end of the Cold War.
In 1993 the entire island, including the infrastructure of Donovan Station, was bought by a group of real estate and entertainment investors, the Genevieve Development Partners, who had the idea of turning Saint Genevieve Island into a themed tourist destination and Donovan Station (now renamed Jenny’s Bay) into a high-end hotel, casino and amusement park with moorage for cruise ships and yachts. The partners approached Universal Pictures with the intent of licensing their famous animated characters for the amusement park, showing off plans for a Woody Woodpecker rollercoaster (made of wood, obviously) and a Chilly Willy toboggan ride.
Within a couple of years the plans for a tourist destination devolved into chaos, riven by competing visions, out-of-control development costs and graft. By the turn of the century the various investors of the Genevieve Development Partners sold their interests, sometimes for pennies on the dollar, to one of the smallest initial investors, Allegheny Hospitality, LLC. As the new millennium dawned, Allegheny Hospitality was the sole owner of the property and development rights for the entire island of Saint Genevieve, and had become so for roughly the same amount of money as you’d have to pay for an Upper West Side penthouse in Manhattan, or a hillside compound in Malibu.
Rather than continue to develop Saint Genevieve as a tourist destination, however, Allegheny Hospitality took the island back to research and development, refurbishing the former intelligence base with new equipment and power systems, and inviting science and technology companies to enjoy the advantages of clean energy, relative solitude and a certain regulatory laxity to give them a jump on competitors. Within a year, several companies had relocated some or all of their R&D departments to Saint Genevieve, working on fields as disparate as biotech, security software and hardware, satellite development and alternative power.
All of these companies were privately owned, as was their landlord, Allegheny Hospitality. And all of them were owned, directly or through intermediary companies, by the same company: Baldwin Holdings, LLC.
Which was owned by one man: Jake Baldwin.
My uncle.
Who, in his wisdom, decided to put me in charge of all of it.

“Good news,” Morrison said to me. “You may have burned up in a fire.”
The two of us, and the cats, were standing on the deck of the Jennifer Lawrence, a utility boat that ferried passengers and cargo between Saint Genevieve and Grenada, or, rather less frequently, between Saint Genevieve and the island of Saint Vincent. The Lawrence was one of three utility boats operated by Allegheny Hospitality for the use of Saint Genevieve’s tenants, all of them named after actresses; there was also the Jennifer Tilly and the Jennifer Lopez. The Lawrence was now making its way into Jenny’s Bay; we would soon be disembarking.
The trip to Saint Genevieve had been almost suspiciously incident-free. From Barrington we (me, Morrison and the cats) were driven to Schaumburg Regional Airport, where we boarded a corporate jet owned by Baldwin Holdings, my uncle’s umbrella corporation. Its presence was not coincidental; Uncle Jake’s body had arrived in it, to be transported to the Chesterfield funeral home. Morrison had accompanied the body on the way out; arrangements had been made for his ashes to be sent later. My driver’s license was checked by the pilot as a matter of course; nothing was said about it. Inside the plane was a change of clothes and new shoes for me. I gratefully got out of my suit before takeoff and put it into a trash bag provided me by the flight staff, who threw the suit to waiting ground staff from the door. Good riddance.
From Schaumburg Regional Airport we were flown to Mobile International, where a private charter took us to the Caymans. On the plane I was asked for my passport. I gave it and got it back, no questions asked. Des Ruiz was a real boy now. By this time it was well past my bedtime. I slept on the plane, Persephone purring in my lap.
We landed in the Caymans in the early morning for a refuel and then flew straight on to Grenada, where a car and driver were waiting for us right off the runway. A short time later we were on the water and steaming toward Saint Genevieve. It was still morning, in the low eighties (high twenties, I corrected myself; we were in a metric part of the world now), and there was a lovely breeze flowing across the deck. My uncle’s island, whatever else it might be, looked like a tropical paradise from what I could see of it so far.
I don’t know how other people got on being a fugitive from the FBI, but for me it was going pretty great.
“May have burned up,” I said to Morrison, returning to the subject of my possible death. “Why the uncertainty?”
“You might need to be alive later,” she said.
“So the FBI can add evading them to my potential charges?”
“We’ll get that cleared up before then.”
“Really,” I said. “How?”
“Don’t worry about that right now,” Morrison said. “Just know you have excellent representation, alive or dead, in the form of your uncle’s personal lawyers, who are now your lawyers.”
“Where did I burn up?”
“The Bainbridge Express Inn.”
“You burned up an entire hotel?”
“Not the entire hotel. Just a wing.”
“I never checked in.”
“Sure you did. Wearing that suit of yours, too.”
“And if they check with the hotel staff? Or a surveillance video?”
“You were wearing a mask when you checked in. People still do that.”
“Not really.”
“You were coughing at the time.”
“What’s the excuse for the fire?”
“Faulty wiring. Which the Bainbridge absolutely has—they’ve been cited and fined for it.”
I thought about this for a moment. “There’s a body?”
“It was a pretty intense fire.”
“I’m sorry, I was unclear in my line of questioning,” I said. “Did you put, or cause to have delivered, a body, either living or dead, into the room in order to give the impression I burned up in it?”
“Do you think I would do that?” Morrison asked.
“You worked for a villain and dated a stabber,” I said. “I absolutely believe you would do that.”
Morrison smiled at this. “No. No bodies, living or dead, were in the room when it went up. Your suit was, however. And to answer the next question you will have, no, no one else who was staying at the hotel went up with it. Everyone survived the conflagration. Except you. Maybe.”
“You have experience with this sort of thing,” I said.
“There’s a reason everyone at your uncle’s funeral was trying to make sure he was really dead,” Morrison replied.
“None of Uncle Jake’s so-called business associates think I’m dead, do they?”
“Absolutely not. And even if you were, they’d still have your corpse attend the meeting.”
“It’s that important?”
“It’s that important to them, yes.” There was a thrumming; the Lawrence, which had been slowly maneuvering itself toward a dock, was now settled in and being secured.
“Is it important to us?” I asked.
“Not as important as what you’re doing here,” Morrison said.
“And what is that, exactly?”
“Your uncle was sick for a while. For most of the companies he owns, this didn’t matter. They all have their own C-suites and staff, and he left them alone to do their thing.” Morrison motioned in the direction of land. “This place was what he cared about. Where he did his real work.”
“Being a villain,” I said.
“I told you, we don’t use that word in public.”
“I don’t see why not. It’s a perfectly good word.”
“For public use it’s reductive,” Morrison said. “Privately it offers some advantages. Which you will be finding out soon. But you won’t be doing much overt villainy anyway. You’re needed for something else entirely.”
I nodded. “Useful idiot.”
“I was going to say ‘administration.’”
I chuckled at this. “You know the last time I was in charge of anything I was the editor of my high school newspaper,” I said. “I ended up getting suspended.”
“No one’s going to suspend you now.”
“No, they just might kill me instead.”
Morrison nodded in the direction of the shore. “Harder to do here.”
“I would have preferred if you had said ‘impossible.’”
It was Morrison’s turn to chuckle. “Occasionally someone would make an attempt on your uncle. They would rarely make it past the dolphins.”
“The dolphins,” I said.
Morrison waved out into the water. “They patrol the waters around the island. Not much gets past them.”
“So we have smart dolphins.”
“I mean, the dolphins were always smart. They just work with us now.” Morrison looked at me. “You’ve met typing cats, Charlie. Don’t act like smart dolphins are such a leap.”
“What are they like?”
“The dolphins?” Morrison asked. I nodded. “I’m going to let you find that one out for yourself. I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.” She looked down the jetty to where a man, and a cat, were walking toward the Lawrence. “Come on,” she said, tapping me on the arm. “Our welcoming party is here.”
Five minutes later we were off the Lawrence and heading toward the man and the cat. Hera and Persephone walked ahead and greeted the approaching cat, a black-and-white shorthair. Hera and the new cat did a brief head tap, and then the three of them headed back toward land. I was about to call out to Hera when Morrison shook her head.
“Let them go,” she said, and nodded toward their retreating forms. “That’s the head of the Feline Intelligence Division. Hera and Persephone have to be debriefed.”
“You understand how weird this is for me,” I said. “Still.”
“You’ve had a whole day,” Morrison said. “Deal with it.”
“Tough love, I see. Very effective.”
“You’ll have more to freak out about soon,” she promised. Then she smiled, yelled, and held out her arms toward the man coming toward us. He reciprocated the smile, raised his own arms, and the two of them fell into a hug.
“Charlie, this is Joseph Williams,” Morrison said to me, after they stopped hugging. “And aside from being the best dancer on Saint Genevieve, he’s also the general manager for Allegheny Hospitality here. That means he runs the place.”
“Well, now,” Williams said. “We both know that’s not true. I don’t run the place. I’m just responsible for all of it.”
“He runs the place,” Morrison assured me. “Don’t let him tell you otherwise. Joe, this is Charlie.”
“Mr. Fitzer,” Williams said. “Welcome to Jenny’s Bay and Saint Genevieve. And allow me to offer you condolences on the passing of your uncle Jake.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Although it should be the other way around. You knew him. I didn’t.”
“I did know him,” Williams agreed. “We all did. And we are all looking forward to working with you, Mr. Fitzer.”
“Please call me Charlie,” I said. “Being called Mr. Fitzer reminds me too much of being a substitute teacher.”
Williams laughed at that. “We can’t have that.” He held out his hand. “Charlie. Welcome.”
I shook it.
“I just told Charlie about the dolphins,” Morrison said.
Williams cocked his head. “Did you now? Have you told him of our woes?”
“There are woes with the dolphins now?” I asked.
“I didn’t go into detail,” Morrison said. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“Ah,” Williams said, and then looked back at me. “Surprise, Charlie.”
“What woes?” I repeated.
“They’re thinking about going on strike,” Williams said.
“Like a labor strike,” I said. “Like a ‘let’s haul out Scabby the Rat on to the sidewalk’ strike.”
Williams nodded. “Again.”
“Again,” I echoed, stupidly.
“Maybe we should give Charlie an overview first,” Morrison suggested. “Let him know what he’s gotten himself into before he has to deal with the dolphins.”
“No, no,” I said, holding up my hand. “You’re trying to put me in a bunch of meetings, I can feel it. Before I have to sit in a room with PowerPoint presentations, I think I want to see the striking dolphins first.”
“Are you sure?” Williams said. “You’re diving into the deep end, here.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” I said.
Williams turned to Morrison. “I like him. He’s brave.”
“Sure,” Morrison said. “Not very smart, but brave.”
“Aren’t I your boss now?” I said to her.
“You want me to be obsequious all of a sudden?” she asked.
“Good luck with that, boss,” she said.
I ignored this and turned back to Williams. “Just to be clear, the ‘diving into the deep end’ phrasing of yours was metaphorical, right? I will not actually be in with the dolphins when we talk.”
Williams shook his head. “Oh, no, Charlie. Don’t swim with the dolphins during a labor dispute. No matter how much they try to convince you otherwise.”

I didn’t see the knife until the dude was just about to stab it into my uncle’s corpse.

More accurately, I did see it. But my brain didn’t register it as an actual, no-bullshit, holy-shit-that’s-actually-a-knife knife until the dude, who had produced it from an overcoat pocket, cocked back his arm in a windup to drive the frankly rather substantial blade into my uncle’s already cold and lifeless heart.

In fairness, it had already been an extremely odd service.

Forty minutes back in the timeline, Chesterfield and his associates had funneled the mourners into the main seating area, and announced that they would open up the viewing area soon. The mourners were exclusively male, in their late thirties to early forties. They all stood in a manner that suggested that at some point in their lives they had spent a lot of their time at parade rest.

The men arrived mostly in pairs or trios, and kept to their own groups, with little to no cross-conversation. What conversation was being had was kept low and murmuring. Every once in a while one or two of the men would glance briefly at me and then look at something else. I was being noted and registered.

None of the men went out of their way to offer me condolences, or to speak to me about my uncle, or the service, or, well, anything.

They were all just … waiting.

“Well, this is weird as hell,” I muttered to Chesterfield, after half an hour of this. The duos and trios of men were still clumped and mostly silent, and all of them were conspicuously not sitting.

“Your uncle kept interesting company,” Chesterfield said, equally quietly, back to me.

“This is your tact thing again, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“I like it. Keep it up.”

“What would you like us to do now, Mr. Fitzer?”

I looked back at the door to the funeral home. No one new had entered in the last few minutes. This was as good as it was going to get for attendance. “Let’s go ahead and start the viewing.”

“All right,” Chesterfield said. “Would you like to say anything before we start the viewing? Or would you prefer to wait until afterward?”

“I’m supposed to say something?” I asked. Morrison hadn’t informed me that this was something I was meant to do.

“Family members often speak a few words.”

I glanced at the assembled men. “I don’t think anyone here is waiting on a speech from me,” I said.

“You may be right,” Chesterfield allowed. “In which case, I’ll announce that we’ll be opening up the visitation room in five minutes. Why don’t you go ahead and position yourself to accept condolences. That’ll also give you a little time to say your own goodbyes.”

“Thanks,” I said. I left the seating room to go down the hall to the visitation room. A funeral home assistant was there, guarding the entrance. She recognized me from earlier, when they were stripping the floral arrangements, and let me in.

The floral arrangements, denuded of their asshole sentiments, now surrounded Uncle Jake’s casket, complemented by the funeral home’s own arrangements and sprays. The casket itself was simple, and made entirely of wood and natural fibers so that it could be placed into Chesterfield’s on-site crematorium directly after the viewing. The casket was open, and Uncle Jake, presumably, was in it, resting.

I walked up to Uncle Jake and, finally, took an up-close look at him for the first time in almost three decades.

It took a minute, but eventually my brain synced up the man in the casket to the man I had vaguely remembered as a five-year-old, who I had last seen in person, as it happens, here at this very funeral home. In my memory of him, my dad had pulled him into a hallway right before the ceremony and was speaking to him quietly but emphatically. I remember looking up at them from the visiting room hallway, not hearing what was being said but knowing it wasn’t good. At one point Jake turned his head, and looked at me head-on. The older version of that face was in the casket now.

Jake had been four or five years older than my mom, his sister. In death, Jake looked his age, but in a wealthy way, if you know what I mean. He had the sort of look you get to have when you’ve had access to the top doctors, the top aestheticians and the top trainers all looking after your health, your weight, your diet and your overall being. Jake looked like he’d been in glowing shape right until the moment he dropped.

And he probably had. I mean, why lie, Jake looked better right now, dead, than I did, alive. Certainly less stressed. I imagined that if I checked behind those stoppered lips of his, Jake’s teeth were perfect. I didn’t actually try to check, however. I wasn’t that curious.

Jake’s face reminded me of my mom’s, both in my memory and in the photographs that Dad kept around the house. They had the same nose, same cheekbones, same ridges. It didn’t arouse any great emotion in me to note it. Mom died when I was young, and all the grief I had about that was worked through long ago. Jake looking like Mom reminded me that I ended up looking more like Dad, which I think made Dad wistful. Dad would have been happy to have seen more of the woman he loved in their only child.

“You look great, Uncle Jake,” I assured his corpse. Uncle Jake said nothing, which, mind you, was only in keeping with what he did when he was alive.

The folding partition opened, and the presumed mourners began to come through. I stationed myself at the far end of Uncle Jake’s casket. The idea was that mourners could come up, pay their respects, and then offer condolences to me, if they had any. I figured it would be more efficient than asking them to pay their respects before they got to the casket, and would eliminate any awkward pauses if someone lingered by the body before moving on.

After a minute, the mourners began to queue. The first two mourners to the body were stocky, bald men who hadn’t bothered to rid themselves of their overcoats, which, as I looked around the room, seemed to be a recurring theme. They glanced over at me briefly, then returned their gaze to Jake’s body. They muttered to each other in something that sounded vaguely Slavic to me, and then one of them reached into the casket, to Jake’s neck, as if to take a pulse.

“Excuse me?” I said to the pulse-taker. “Are you serious?”

He looked up at me but said nothing, then closed his eyes, as if to focus. The other got out a phone, opened up the camera, and started taking pictures.

After a few seconds of this, the first of the men opened his eyes and looked directly to me. “Sorry for your loss,” he said, Slavically.

“Thank you,” I said, dumbfounded, and then looked at the man taking photos. “Please don’t take selfies.”

The photographer chuckled at that, and took a couple more shots. He said something to the palpator, who grunted out a chuckle, then turned and took a picture of me. They both removed themselves from the condolence line before I could ask him why they’d done what they did. I turned back to my uncle, which is when the stabber had come up to do his party trick.

I yelled and launched myself at the stabber. Almost immediately, and yet too late, I realized that was a not-at-all-smart thing to do. The stabber was taller and more muscular than I was, and had the sort of close-cropped hair and almost-fashionable stubble that made me think of some of the more active yet less legitimate secret services out in the world. I pushed this man, and as I did I had the terrible sense that the man was deciding whether or not to allow himself to be pushed, or to deflect me and drive me into the carpet.

That infinitesimal moment lasted forever. Then the stabber chose to let himself be pushed. He stepped back, insultingly casually, from the casket, his knife still at the ready for additional stabbing.

“What the actual hell are you doing?” I yelled. I decided that the man might gut me like a fish, but until then, there was no upside to backing away now.

“I was about to stab your uncle,” the man replied, calmly. “I may still.”

“Why the fuck would you do that?”

“Because your uncle has faked his death before,” the man said. “I was told to confirm it had taken this time around.”




I stared at the man uncomprehendingly, and then looked around the room.

The room was now filled with men all staring back, waiting to see what was going to happen next, all of them looking not unlike the man in front of me. I realized now that if I had pushed any one of them, they too would have had to decide whether to take the push or slam me to the floor.

It was not clear to me whether all of them would have made the same choice the stabber had.

I collected myself and tried to pretend I wasn’t about to wet myself in the visitation room. “Let me guess,” I said to the stabber. “You’re the asshole who sent the floral arrangement with the ‘Dead? Lol okay’ message on it.”

“That’s not me,” the stabber said. “It might have been my boss.”


“My boss,” the stabber repeated.

“You don’t know my uncle, then.”

“Not personally. I’ve seen him before from a distance. I know him by reputation.”

“So you’re not here to pay your respects.”

“No,” the man said. “I’m here to stab him.”

“To make sure he’s dead.”

“That’s right. So, if you would be so kind,” the stabber said, hefting the knife again.

“No!” I held up my hand, and then looked around the room, at the room full of probably-assassins. “Do any of you know my uncle personally?”

No one responded.

“How many of you are here to make sure he’s dead?”

All the hands went up.

“And you were all going to stab him?”

“I was going to inject him,” one man said.

“With what?”

“Nothing. Just air. Into his carotid. If he wasn’t dead, he’d be then.”

Another man held up a swab in a plastic wrap. “I’m just here to get DNA. To make sure it’s him.”

The syringe man snorted. “Can be faked.”

“At least I’m not murdering anyone with three dozen witnesses, air boy,” swab man replied.

“Everybody shut up,” I said. The two men quieted. “I want to be sure I’m getting this right. None of you know my uncle. All of you are here just to make sure he’s dead. And you’ve all been sent by someone else. Do I have that right?”

There were general nods around the room.

“What the fuck is wrong with all of you?” I asked.

“It’s not personal, Fitzer,” the stabber said.

“Clearly it’s not personal,” I shot back. “None of you actually give a crap about Uncle Jake. But why do your bosses care?”

“We don’t care why our bosses care,” syringe man said. “We were told to be here. We were told to make sure he’s dead. That’s it.”

I looked over to Michael Chesterfield, who was standing by the partition between the rooms. He seemed amazed at current events, which, fair. “Will you please give your professional verdict on my uncle’s current state?” I asked him.

“I personally drained his body of its fluids and replaced them with embalming solution,” Chesterfield said, clearly, to the room. “If he wasn’t dead before I did that, he was dead after. You don’t come back from formaldehyde and methanol.”

“Thank you,” I said. I turned to the stabber. “Stabbing is not required.”

“Sorry,” the stabber said. “Your friend here could be lying. I have to make sure.”


The stabber considered me for a moment. “Why do you care, Fitzer?” he asked me. “You never knew your uncle. He means nothing to you, and you sure as hell meant nothing to him. In life, he never went one inch out of his way to help you. What do you care if I stab him, or George here pumps air into his vein, or Kyle swabs the inside of his cheek? If he’s dead, it won’t matter. And if he’s not dead, then he’s played you for a fool. Either way, there’s no reason to stand in our way.” He stepped forward to the casket again.

I got in his way. “I said no.”

“You can’t actually stop me,” the stabber said, mildly.

Which I knew was true, but on the other hand, fuck this dude. “You’ll have to go through me,” I said.

The stabber smiled. “You know, I wouldn’t mind.”

“Enough,” said one of the Slavic men, the one who had palpated Jake’s neck. “He’s dead.”

The stabber didn’t break eye contact with me, but addressed the Slav. “And you know this how?”

“I was medic in Chechnya,” the Slav said. “I know dead.”

“And I have thermographic camera,” said the other Slav. He pulled out his phone and showed a multicolored photo. “Corpse is corpse temperature. You see Andrei’s hand for contrast.”

“He’s dead,” the Slav named Andrei repeated. “If it’s good enough for us, it’s good enough for our boss, and it’s good enough for you.”

“And who is your boss?” syringe man asked.

“Dobrev,” said Andrei. This got a mutter in the room.

Stabber, who had never once broken eye contact with me, smiled in a deeply unnerving manner. “You should have led with that, Andrei,” he said. “Saved us all some time.” He backed away from me. “We’re done here,” he said, and put away his knife.

“We’re done,” I agreed. “Everyone out. All of you.”

They all began to depart. I caught the eye of Andrei the Slav, who I suppose might have been Russian or Ukrainian. “Thank you,” I said.

“Don’t thank me,” Andrei said. “My boss sent ‘Suck it, motherfucker’ vase.” He left, the man with the thermographic camera directly behind him.

In two minutes the funeral home was empty except for me, Chesterfield and his assistants.

“Holy shit,” I said, when the last of the men was gone. I turned to Chesterfield. “I have to tell you I almost wet myself on your carpet.”

“One of the more memorable visitations I can recall,” Chesterfield replied.

“Still with the tact.”

“It comes with the job,” Chesterfield said. “Now, Mr. Fitzer. Your uncle paid for the option of you being a witness to the cremation if you like. But after the events of today, I think you might be ready to go home.”

“You would be right,” I said. All the adrenaline of the last several minutes was dissolving away, and all I had left was being shaky and tired.

Chesterfield nodded. “In that case, let us handle everything from here. I’ll call you tomorrow to arrange the pickup of your uncle’s ashes.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Honestly. For everything.”

“Of course, Mr. Fitzer,” Chesterfield said. “This is what we do. For the dead. And for the living.”


I was carrying my torture shoes and stepping up barefoot to the curb for the southwest corner of Cook and Russell when I heard meowing that sounded like Hera. I glanced down the sidewalk but didn’t see her, then looked down the rest of the street. Hera and Persephone were both sitting in the driveway of the Gunderson house, right across the street from mine.

I crossed the street and came up to them. “Okay, what are you doing?” I asked Hera, as I crossed the street to them. I didn’t actually expect an answer. Hera was a cat. I tried to keep her inside most of the time, for her safety and so I could have a conscience clear of bird murders.

That said, I knew that she could get out somehow; I’d caught her in the backyard when I hadn’t let her out. I suspected a loose window in the basement but had never bothered to check. But it was still rare when she was out that she would deliberately let me see her. “Why did you think it was okay to leave the house?”

Hera looked up at me, meowed loudly, and then looked, quite deliberately, at our house across the way. I followed her gaze.

There was someone visible in one of the upstairs windows, the one for my bedroom.

“What the actual hell?” I reached into my pocket for my phone, to call 911.

The person in my room turned, looked out the window, and saw me. They disappeared from the window.

“Shit,” I said.

I was in the act of crossing the street when my house went and exploded itself all over it.


She hung up. I checked my bank balance. With Frost’s deposit there was enough to draw out five grand and still continue to eat for a few days and meet the next mortgage payment. I wouldn’t need three hours to draw the money and get to Paddington, but I’d need plenty of time to look the place over thoroughly and watch for comings and goings. The police had checked the .38 after I’d reported Bobby’s death and returned it to me reluctantly. I took it with me but left it in the car - you don’t walk into a bank carrying a gun.
No problem with the bank. You can draw out, deposit or transfer any amount up to ten thousand without questions being asked. But it left me with an uncomfortable feeling. Peanuts to some people, not to me. In hundreds, five grand is a fair-sized wad. Carrying it justified the pistol, even if going to meet an unnamed prostitute with multiple and complex problems didn’t.
The mid-afternoon traffic was manageable. I was in Paddington with the better part of two hours to spare. I parked in a side street two blocks from Little Seldon and worked my way back. The only approach was along Oxford Street and then a few twists and turns down narrow streets. There was a mixture of big and medium-size houses, some terraces, some freestanding, mostly old, some new. There were several blocks of mid-size flats and the area was honeycombed with lanes.
Little Seldon Street was short and so narrow the footpaths were only wide enough for one person. No trees. From a lane on the opposite side of the street I had a clear view of the house. It was an old workman’s cottage, one of a pair, and couldn’t have been more than three metres wide. At a guess, two up and two down. The balcony overhung the street. The door had been recently painted; the rest of it could have done with a new coat. It was a ‘residents’ only’ parking set-up and most of the residents must have been off earning the mortgage repayments. Although all the houses were small they wouldn’t have come cheap. The handful of cars in the street were unremarkable.
I scouted the block. A lane ran beside number 12A and down behind the houses. Hard place to keep watch on. At four o’clock I used the door knocker - no response. I tried again with the same result. A curtain fluttered at the open full-length glass door leading to the balcony. I knocked again, stepped out onto the street and called. Nothing.
I went down the lane to the back fence of 12A. It had a gate that was standing open. The door at the back of the house was also open. I took out the .38, crossed a tiny bricked courtyard and went into the house. The kitchen wasn’t much more than a couple of cupboards and shelves and a sink. There was a toaster and a microwave. Then there was a small dining room and sitting room combined. The room was a shambles. The furniture, table, coffee table, TV and DVD set-up were almost miniature in size but they’d been smashed and the pieces distributed around the room. An aluminium rack that had held a set of pornographic magazines had been crushed underfoot and the magazines ripped to shreds. The DVDs were pornographic - huge-breasted women and men with giant penises on the covers. A lot of the discs were lying about, scratched and broken.
A photograph had been torn from its frame and torn to pieces so that it was impossible to tell what it had been. Someone had urinated on the pieces. Along with the smell of piss I could detect cigarette smoke, perfume and something else. I knew what it was.
The staircase was virtually a ladder - very narrow, very steep. I went up. The back room held a moveable clothes rack and a chest of drawers. Clothes were hanging out of the drawers and askew on the rack. A large suitcase lay open on the floor with clothes and shoes spilling from it.
She was in the front room on the queen-size bed that took up most of the space. She was naked under a white silk dressing gown, untied. Her skin was a deep brown and her tightly braided hair was black. The kind of scarf Muslim women wear was ripped and lying beside her. A dark stain spread from under her head across the white satin cover on the bed. Her head was turned and her dark eyes stared blindly at me.
I couldn’t afford to be the discoverer of a murdered person a second time in a matter of days. The police would tie me up in knots and the publicity would be disastrous. I gave myself five minutes to search the house for the identity of the dead woman. No sign of a handbag or a purse. I opened drawers using a tissue and probed using a ballpoint pen. No letters, no cards, no post-its, no mobile phone. Some of the clothes on the rack were professional - silk, satin and lace items - but the ones she’d been packing were practical.
I noticed something sticking a millimetre or so out of a pocket of the suitcase cover. I gently pulled out a postcard-sized photograph. It showed three young women standing together in a linked, provocative pose wearing the appropriate clothing. One of them was the dead woman wearing a head scarf; one I didn’t recognise and the other was Mary Oberon. I took the photograph.
I left the way I’d come in except that I stayed in the network of back lanes until I emerged a few blocks from Little Seldon Street. I walked to my car and sat there for a couple of minutes. The dead woman looked to be in her twenties; she was beautiful with a fine body. From her hair and features I guessed she was African. From her voice she was educated, and she’d sounded rational and intelligent. I felt her loss, not just because of the information I’d never get from her, but because she was much too young to die and she’d died a long way from home.
I drove until I found a public phone. I rang the police number and said where to find a dead woman.
‘Sir, please give me your name and address.’
That ‘Sir’ at the start of the sentence. They pick it up from American television. It annoys me. I hung up.
Driving around with five thousand dollars in your pocket isn’t the most comfortable feeling, particularly when you’re heading where I was. The House of Ruby is a massage parlour and relaxation centre in Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross. While being a hard-headed businesswoman, Ruby, the proprietor, is also something of a mother figure and mentor to Sydney sex workers. I’d done some work for her in the past, bodyguarding a couple of her employees and getting a threatening rival off her back. We’re friends.

Marcia, her well-constructed and immaculately groomed receptionist, raised an eyebrow as she buzzed me in.
‘Cliff Hardy, I heard you’d retired.’ Marcia had the voice all brothel receptionists have - smooth, reassuring, comforting, designed to put her clients at their ease.
‘I’m making a comeback. Is Ruby available?’
‘Upstairs, just follow your nose if that’s the only thing sticking out.’
The décor at Ruby’s is muted plush. The stairs are carpeted, the handrail is polished and the mirror at the first landing is set at a flattering angle. I went down a corridor to Ruby’s office. Music was playing inside - classical, which is as far as I could get to identifying it. I knocked and went in.
Ruby retired from active service years ago, but she has maintained her face and figure with a certain amount of surgical help. She was working at a computer and swung around on her chair.
‘Cliff, darling. It’s been a long time.’
She got up and came towards me, moving well, and elegant in a loose satin shirt and tight pants. In her heels she was almost as tall as me. She hugged me and stepped back.
‘Older,’ she said. ‘And wiser?’
‘Don’t know about that.’
She groped me gently. ‘Hornier? I live in hope.’
‘Couldn’t spoil a beautiful friendship.’
She sighed theatrically. ‘Business, as always. Have a seat.’ She turned a knob on the portable CD player beside the computer and the music subsided to a whisper. ‘Haydn,’ she said. ‘You look a bit grim, Cliff. At a guess you’ve just come away from something unpleasant. Drink?’
I nodded. She opened a bar fridge and made two gins and tonic.
‘Lime or lemon?’
‘You choose.’
She chose lime. We clinked glasses. I handed her the photograph. ‘D’you know the girl in the middle, Ruby?’
‘I know one of them. First I have to know what trouble they’re in.’
‘The girl on the right’s not in any trouble as far as I know. The one on the left is dead. The one in the middle is my concern. Mary Oberon. She’s done some iffy things but nothing too serious, I don’t think. She’s involved in something I’m working on and she’s been threatened. I want to know who by because that might tell me who put her up to the things she’s done that have brought her to my attention. I don’t mean her any harm.’
‘You never do, but it goes along with the work you do, right?’
I didn’t respond. She had it exactly.
Ruby worked on her drink, still studying the photograph. ‘I’ve got it now. She’s involved in that Bobby Forrest thing that’s been all over the tabloids. So are you. You don’t think she killed him?’
‘She didn’t.’
‘But she knows who did?’
‘I think so. The African-looking girl said she knew. She implied Mary Oberon had told her. I went to see her and found her dead.’
Ruby raised her glass in a sort of salute. ‘I didn’t know her. The other one goes by the name of Isabella. She’s from the islands somewhere.’
‘Mary Oberon is a Fijian-Indian, I think.’
‘Yeah, partly anyway. You can’t find her?’
I took a good pull on the drink and shook my head. ‘I traced her to where some guy threatened her and that was it. Any idea where she might have gone?’
‘No. Back home?’
‘The African girl said she was illegally here. If Mary Oberon’s the same it’d be tricky to leave. The cops are looking for her, too. What about Isabella? She might be in danger as well if she knows what the African girl knew. Any ideas about her?’
Ruby finished her drink. She used a long fingernail to spike the slice of lime and ate it. ‘You wouldn’t turn them into Immigration would you, Cliff?’
‘I might threaten to, but I wouldn’t do it.’
She laughed. ‘You’re an honest man, Cliff Hardy. Don’t meet many, especially in this game. All I can tell you is where Isabella works and probably these other girls as well. Place called Black Girls. It’s in Double Bay.’
‘Nice place?’
‘Not very, from what I hear.’
‘What else d’you hear?’
‘That it’s got high-level protection.’
‘Who from?’
She shrugged. ‘Hard to say, but you’d better be careful.’
I thanked her for the information and the drink and left. I heard the music surge up as I walked towards the stairs.
Black Girls had a website. It emphasised the exotic nature of its ‘ladies’ and promised luxurious and unusual settings as well as an outcall service. I waited until 9 pm before I called.
‘Black Girls, good evening.’
‘Is Miranda available tonight?’
‘I’m afraid Miranda is no longer with us, sir.’
‘How about Isabella?’
‘I’m afraid Isabella has commitments tonight, but I’m sure we...’
I hung up. I drove to Double Bay and located the place a block from New South Head Road. I circled the block. Black Girls occupied a freestanding house, which apparently used to be a part of a terrace. It had undergone a lot of renovation - high cement wall with a security gate, new-looking tiled roof, side and back balconies with views of the water. Whatever had stood next to it in the terrace had gone and the space had become a private parking area with a boom gate. Space for several cars, two in position.
I parked on the opposite side of the street three houses away under a spreading plane tree. There was a street light and I had a good view of the establishment. Over the next few hours the operational pattern became clear. Cars pulled out of the parking area with a woman sitting in the back seat. I followed one trip. The driver dropped off a tall, slender black woman at an address in Point Piper. He waited for a little over an hour and drove her back to Double Bay. Back at the brothel, I followed the next car to leave. It took its passenger, a woman with a more than passing resemblance to Naomi Campbell, to a house in Randwick. The driver settled himself behind the wheel and opened a magazine.
I waited until he seemed immersed. I approached, opened the front passenger door and sat with the .38 held low, pointing up at him. He yelped and dropped the magazine. It fell open in his lap showing a double-page picture of a naked woman with enormous breasts.
‘Hands on the wheel,’ I said. ‘Stay very still and very quiet and you won’t get hurt. Do anything else and you get hurt, so does the girl and I take her money and this car. Understand?’
He nodded.
‘You take the girls back to their places sometimes, right?’
‘S... sometimes, yeah.’
‘Where do you keep the addresses?’
He gulped. ‘Glove box.’
One of his hands moved and I brought the barrel of the pistol down hard on the knuckles. Keeping the gun very steady I opened the glove box with my left hand, felt inside and took out a slim notebook.
‘This it?’
‘What’s the name of the woman you just dropped off?’
Figures. Where does Naomi live?’
‘I dunno.’ He nodded at the book. ‘I’d have to look it up in there.’
‘Okay. You’ve been smart so far. Let’s see if you can stay smart. I’m going. You sit still and look at the tits pictures. You can wank away if you want to. Don’t say anything about this to anyone. You get the addresses from one of the other drivers and no one needs to know what happened here. Right?’
It was taking too long and I was talking too much. He made a sudden grab at the gun but he wasn’t quick enough. I bent my arm to take the gun out of his reach, then whipped it back and hit his windpipe hard with my elbow. He let out a scream and clutched his throat frantically as he tried to suck in air. I got out, walked back to my car and drove off.

I drove to a wine bar I knew in Double Bay and ordered a glass of red. It came with a glass of water and a bowl of nuts. I couldn’t remember when I’d last eaten so I ate all the nuts. I drank the water, sipped the wine and opened the notebook. The handwriting was large and round, easy to read. Miranda was there at Baxter Street, Bondi; Simisola was there at Little Seldon Street, Paddington. Isabella’s address was a flat at 29 View Street, Coogee. I drank the wine slowly and drove to Coogee. The block of flats was small and new with sophisticated security. There was no way to tell when Isabella would discharge her commitments. I was tired. I drove home.
I turned on the late news. There was a shot of the Little Seldon Street house and a brief report. A woman had been found dead with evidence of foul play. The police called on the person who’d reported finding the body to come forward and help with their inquiries. No name was given. No details were given of her age or appearance. A Muslim prostitute was super-sensitive territory in the current climate. I wondered whether the police would continue to suppress the information. Probably.
I locked the gun away and put the money in its envelope under my pillow. I was sleeping deeply but dreaming a lot. My dreams were all of women - some white, some black, some beautiful, some not. Some of them made sexual advances to me and I responded but they faded away before anything could happen. Jane Devereaux came to me with a letter she said would tell me who killed Bobby but it was in mirror writing and I couldn’t read it.
Prostitutes tend not to be drivers. They get driven a lot and many of them have drugs in their possession or in their system, making it not worth the risk of being pulled over. They also tend to get up late after a hard night’s work, but I was outside the View Street flats at 8.30 am just in case.
Isabella ran true to form. No car and she didn’t show until well after ten o’clock. Visually, she was worth waiting for: her brown skin seemed to glow in the early sunlight and her dark hair had the sort of sheen you see in television commercials. She wore a short, leopard-print jacket and loose black trousers, high heels. She walked with a dancer’s grace and the only men who didn’t stare at her were those looking the other way. She strode off towards the main road, smoking, with a bag matching her jacket slung over her shoulder. I followed her.
The morning was mild with a light wind and the tang of the sea in the air. The early rush had subsided and there weren’t many people about - a few joggers, a few pram pushers, a few oldsters sitting under cover in the park. Isabella was at an outside café table. She butted the cigarette she was smoking and immediately lit another. She gave her order and sat back looking at the water. She was the only person in the café’s outside area. She took a mobile phone from her bag and made a call. She laughed, showing gleaming white teeth. I moved up quietly and sat across the table from her. I put the photograph on the table beside her bag.
‘Don’t be alarmed. I don’t mean you any harm. I have to talk to you. It’s about your friend Miranda, and this woman.’
She was older than she’d looked at a distance and from the way she moved. She was handsome rather than beautiful, but striking. She looked at the photo and blew some smoke, unperturbed at being accosted.
‘Simisola,’ she said in a New Zealand accent. ‘I suppose you’re a cop.’
‘No.’ I gave her my card. She glanced at it.
‘Even worse. What do you want?’
Her coffee arrived. Black. She tore the top off three packets of sweetener and poured them into the cup. Her long nails were painted silver.
‘You haven’t heard the news this morning, have you? Or seen the paper?’
‘Baby, I don’t watch the news or read the paper. It’s all bad stuff.’
‘Simisola’s dead.’
She stirred her coffee. ‘Silly bitch. I suppose one of her crazy brothers got her.’
‘I don’t know. She rang me yesterday. She said she had information for sale. But you’re right, she mentioned honour killing.’
She drank some coffee and finished her cigarette in two long draws. She snuffed it out and gave me a megawatt smile. ‘I have three to start the day and that’s it. What information?’
‘Something about Miranda.’
‘What were you looking for - a three-way plus one? No, you’re on about something serious. Bound to be pain.’
I gave her a severely edited version of my interest in Miranda. She drank her coffee and listened without expression.
‘They’re both silly bitches, Miranda and Simisola. Miranda’s always looking for something extra, like an angle, a big score. Simisola was on a real good thing with that Muslim bit.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘She used to wear the head rag for the clients.’
‘Muslim men?’
‘And others. You’d be surprised at what turns blokes on.’ She gave me the smile again. ‘Or maybe you wouldn’t. So she didn’t sell you the information?’
‘What was it?’
‘I don’t know. I hoped it was how to find Miranda.’
She felt in her bag for her cigarettes.
‘I thought you said you only had three,’ I said.
‘I need to think. Order some more coffee.’
A few other people had taken their places at the tables and the waitress was in and out of the café. I ordered two more long blacks. Isabella lit up and waited for the coffee. It came and she did the thing with the sweetener.
‘How much trouble is Miranda in?’
Much the same question Ruby asked. Solidarity. I shrugged. ‘Nothing at all from me, a bit from the police, some from people she’s got involved with. All I want is answers to a few questions.’
‘And you’ll pay for the answers?’ She glanced at the card. ‘Cliff?’
I drank some coffee but I’d let it cool too much. I pushed the cup away. ‘Yes.’
‘Will you pay me to tell you where Miranda is, or where she might be?’
I nodded.
‘How much?’
‘Five hundred.’
‘A grand.’
Split the difference - seven fifty.’
‘I can get that for one trick.’
I looked closely at her. There was a suggestion of a double chin and the lines around her eyes were spreading. ‘Not anymore,’ I said.
She dropped her butt in the dregs of the coffee. ‘You’re right, but you’re a shit to say so. Okay, seven fifty. Let’s see it first.’
I took the notes from my wallet. Seven hundreds, one fifty. She hesitated.
‘Her name’s not really Miranda.’
‘I know, it’s Mary Oberon.’
‘Fuck, I was hoping for the other two fifty. In fact it’s Oberoi. She figured Oberon was classier. She’s got a brother named Ramesh. He runs a restaurant up on the central coast. She used to talk about working there. How she liked it. I mean working in the restaurant.’
‘Indian restaurant?’
‘What do you reckon?’
‘Where on the central coast?’
‘Fucking stupid name for a place - Woy Woy.’
I handed her the money.
Say hello for me,’ she said.

Ross Hunter’s Friday morning started with the hangover he had promised himself he would not have. Just like he had promised the same thing last week, and the week before. And the one before that. It had been the same every Friday morning since he had joined the Argus, as a junior news reporter, eighteen months ago. But he had no inkling of quite how different today was going to be.
Coming up to his twenty-third birthday, Ross was tall and fit, with close-cropped dark hair and a good-looking but serious face, as if he was forever analysing everything, which most of the time he was. Except now. Feeling like he had an axe stuck in his skull, he could barely think straight. He climbed blearily out of bed, yawned and headed into the bathroom in search of paracetamol, cursing that he had done this to himself yet again.
Every Thursday evening he agreed to have just one quick drink with his colleagues, to be sociable. Every Thursday night he ended up staggering home, late, from the Coach House pub in central Brighton. Part of the reason was one particular young crime reporter on the paper, Imogen Carter. He fancied her like crazy but she seemed a lot more interested in one of the subs. And she was able to hold her drink better than all the rest of them. But he did feel that, little by little, she was starting to take more notice of him and flirt just a bit more each time. Thanks for another great hangover, Imo, and for letting me watch you wobble off towards the taxi rank arm-in-arm with sodding Kevin Fletcher.
Recently graduated from the School of Journalism at Goldsmiths and highly ambitious, Ross looked forward every morning to getting to work in the newsroom, where as a junior reporter he could be sent to cover just about anything. A traffic accident, a cot death, a fire, a court hearing, a charity presentation or something as dull to write about as a school open day. All grist for the mill, learning his trade, cutting his teeth on this good, respected local paper. Hopefully a workout in the gym, then a long, uphill cycle ride to work would clear his head.
He listened to the local Radio Sussex news on the clock radio as he wriggled into his tracksuit and pulled the laces tight on his trainers, hoping for a big breaking story, the kind of story where one day in the future he might make his name and fulfil his dream of a national paper front-page splash and byline.
Gulping down the capsules with some water, he went into the kitchenette of his draughty second-floor flat off Portland Road, the faint smells of last night’s cooking from the Indian takeaway two floors below not helping the nausea that accompanied his splitting headache. A couple of mouthfuls of banana at the breakfast table made him feel a little better; washing them down with some apple juice, he stared at the Post-it note stuck to the surface with the reminder he had written: Dad’s birthday card. He’d pick one up somewhere, later.
He went downstairs, walked past his padlocked bike in the hall and let himself out into the darkness and falling drizzle. After a brisk, ten-minute jog he arrived at the gym shortly after 7 a.m. Several people were already there, working out in the mirrored room with its faint smells of sweat and polish. Most were alone on the treadmills, cross trainers and spinners or doing weights and crunches, and a few were having personal trainer sessions.
The pounding beat of Queen was too loud for Ross’s head as he stepped onto a cross trainer to do a twenty-minute workout programme and cranked its display into life. As he built up his pace, watching his heart rate rising – 110 . . . 120 . . . 130 – he was startled to suddenly hear his brother, Ricky, scream out his name. So loud, so close, it felt like he was standing right beside him. Except that wasn’t possible. Ricky lived in Manchester, 260 miles away, where he worked as a trainee hotel manager. They rarely spoke on the phone but Ricky had emailed him only yesterday afternoon to discuss what present to buy for their dad’s sixtieth birthday next week.
An instant later it felt like electricity was shooting from the swinging handles of the cross trainer into his arms. He was unable to move. His feet stopped in the treads. His brain began to spin, like it was hurtling down a fairground helter-skelter. In a flash of panic he wondered if he was passing out from lack of sugar. Or was he having a heart attack? The room swayed, a sea of grey machines that were now blurs. He was being sucked into a long, dark tunnel. His whole body was spinning wildly now and he clung desperately to the handles of the machine. Ahead, in the distance, he saw a light, growing brighter and more intense by the second. Images flashed past. An embryo. A baby. His mother’s face. His father’s face. A ball being thrown. A whiteboard with a teacher holding a marker pen and shouting at him. His life, he realized. He was seeing his life flash by. I’m dying. Seconds later, the bright light at the end of the tunnel enveloped him. It was warm, dazzling, and he was floating on a lilo on a flat ocean. He saw his brother’s face float right above his. ‘It’s OK, Ross, yep? We’re cool?’
Ricky, whom he had loathed for as long as he could remember. He disliked the way Ricky looked, the way he spoke, the way he laughed, the way he ate. And he knew the reason why: Ricky was his identical twin. It was like looking into a mirror every time he saw him. There was meant to be love between twins. A special, inseparable bond. But he’d felt none of that over the years. Instead, just intense dislike. It was mainly because his parents had always favoured Ricky, yet Ricky couldn’t ever see that. As soon as he was old enough to leave home, he’d escaped, got as far away from Ricky as he could. A different college, in a different city. He had even, at one point, been tempted to change his name.
Now his brother was drifting away, steadily being absorbed into the white light, and turned towards him, arms outstretched, as if desperately trying to reach his hands, to grasp him. But he was moving away too fast for Ricky, like a swimmer being sucked backwards in a rip current. Ricky called out, with almost desperation in his voice. ‘We’re cool, Ross? Yes?’ ‘We’re cool,’ he replied. The light swallowed his brother. Then momentarily dazzled him.
Faces were peering down at him. The light had changed. He smelled sweat, carpet, unwashed hair. Could hear pounding music. His heart was thudding. Someone was kneeling over him. ‘You OK?’ Ross stared around, bewildered. With a stab of panic he wondered, had he died? Helping hands picked him up, steered him over to a weights bench and propped him up while he sat down. A muscular man, one of the gym’s personal trainers, stood over him, holding a plastic beaker of water.
‘Drink this.’ He shook his head, trying to clear it.
‘Maybe you overdid it on the machine?’ a voice said.
‘No – no, I . . .’ He fell silent. Confused.
‘Shall I call a doctor?’ someone else asked. He shook his head again.
‘No, I’m fine – honestly. I’m fine. Maybe I need some sugar or something.’
‘Stay sitting here for a few more minutes, until you’re sure you’re OK.’
Someone held out a spoonful of honey and he put it in his mouth.
‘Are you diabetic?’ a voice asked – one of the staff, staring at him with concern.
‘No, no, I’m not.’
It was ten minutes before he felt able to stand without holding on to anything. A short while later, after persuading them he was OK, he left the gym and walked home in a daze, oblivious to the rain, the cold, to everything. He let himself in through the front door and climbed the stairs, feeling exhausted. It felt like climbing a mountain. He’d said he was fine to the people at the gym, but he didn’t feel fine at all. He felt terrible. As he let himself into his flat he heard his phone ring and felt it vibrating in his pocket. He pulled it out and looked at the number on the display, which he didn’t recognize.
‘Hello?’ he answered. He heard a tearful woman’s voice.
‘Ross? Oh God, Ross?’ It was Sindy, Ricky’s girlfriend.
‘Hi,’ he said, still very shaken. ‘Sindy? What’s – what’s up?’
She burst into tears. He listened to her sobs for several seconds before she composed herself.
‘The police just came round. Ricky was out for his morning run, in the park. A tree fell on him. Half an hour ago. A tree. Crushed him. Oh God, Ross, oh God, he’s dead!’

I spent the next two days at the computer, on the telephone and in pubs, offices and cafés, teasing out all the information I could about Frost’s three names. It felt like old times and brought back to me why I enjoyed the work so much—the movement, the variety in the characters and situations and the way in which one piece of information led to another, or didn’t. I felt alive.
Charlie Long of the Allied Trades Union didn’t shape up as a likely candidate. He’d had run-ins with various people in the construction game, including Frost, but for some years he’d been keeping his nose clean. He was on track for an Upper House parliamentary seat and a likely ministry and was being scrupulously careful of his associates and his image.
Ben Costello, the merchant banker, had refused Frost a loan he’d badly needed a few years back and had financed one of Frost’s competitors. Frost had struck back by buying a company Costello was in negotiation with on a financing deal that would have netted him a massive commission. Costello had a reputation as a vicious and vindictive operator who’d been mentioned in several ICAC inquiries although no action had ever been taken against him.
The shares in Costello’s holding company had suddenly gone down, I was told by Tony Hunt, a blogger who specialised in inside information on the big players. That information cost Ray Frost some of his money.
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Silly question,’ Tony said.
‘Doesn’t there have to be a reason?’
‘Not really. The whole thing is a pack of cards house built on sand, to mix metaphors. A fantasy. That’s what makes it so enjoyable to watch.’
‘Could it be that ICAC is closing in on him?’
You’re no fun, Hardy. I like to think of it all as beyond reason and rationality.’
‘That’s not what you say when it comes down to paying you for information.’
‘Sad, but true. You want me to find out what’s scaring the market about Ben? It’ll cost you.’
‘Do it. Please.’
It sounded promising but it fizzled.
‘Sorry,’ Tony said when he rang back two days later.
‘About what?’
‘That I couldn’t bleed you for more money. The cat’s out of the bag.’
‘I don’t like paying for metaphors.’
‘Like I said, you’re no fun. Ben’s got leukemia and is on the way out. It was supposed to be a secret while he shifted the money around but it leaked out. Would you mind telling me why you’re interested, Hardy? Information is a two-way street, you know.’
I declined.

I met Dominic O’Grady at the Botte D’oro restaurant in Leichhardt. O’Grady was a former private inquiry agent who’d turned to journalism. He’d worked for Sterling Security Inc and now wrote for the online investigative newsletter The Sentinel, run by my old friend Harry Tickener. O’Grady was a gourmand who’d undoubtedly order a massive and expensive lunch. I put in a long workout session at the gym in preparation for the meal and the wine that were bound to tempt me.
O’Grady was there before me, sitting massively in his chair by the window. He’d taken his jacket off and rolled up his sleeves, preparing for some serious eating. His belly kept him back from the table a fair way, but he was a big man with long arms. He was working his way through a bowl of olives and one of nuts. There was a bottle of white wine in the ice bucket and his glass was half full. The table napkin was tucked into his shirt below the first button and spread down towards, but not quite reaching, his pot belly. He looked up from the menu he was studying with the intensity of a stamp collector inspecting a penny black.
‘Hardy, you bastard,’ he rumbled. ‘Good to see you. You did say you were paying, didn’t you?’
Gidday, Dom. My client is.’

We shook hands and I sat. He poured me a glass. I almost winced when I saw the bottle—French, of course.
‘Ah,those were the days. Expense accountlunches.’
‘You don’t look as though you’re wasting away.’
He patted his stomach affectionately.
‘Now, why I wanted to see you—’
‘No, no, you philistine. First things first.’ He smiled at the waitress who approached with another menu. She was dark and attractive, spike heels, tight skirt, lacy top. O’Grady emptied his glass. The waitress filled it and the bottle was empty.
‘Antipasto, large,’ O’Grady said. ‘I think then the swordfish. And I’ll decide on the dessert later.’
‘Chips and salad or vegetables, Dominic?’
The former and another bottle of course. Hardy?’
‘Swordfish good here, is it?’
‘Everything is good, but the swordfish is superb.’
I ordered the swordfish with vegetables. The wine was cold, dry and fresh tasting—about as much appraisal as I can give the stuff.
‘I understood Bobby Forrest was your client, but I hardly think he’s paying for our lunch.’
‘Another client.’
‘Just back in business and two well-off clients already. I’d offer congratulations, but… Ah. Here we are.’
The waitress put a large platter of antipasto on the table in front of O’Grady. She showed him the wine bottle and opened it expertly on his nod. She produced a fresh glass; he tasted the wine and nodded again. He scooped up the few remaining nuts and olives and ate them before using a small fork to spear pieces of meat and cheese which he gobbled. He dived in again.
‘Won’t you spoil your appetite?’
Just let me savour this for a few minutes before getting down to the no doubt distasteful business you have in mind. Do you want to share?’
I shook my head.
‘Can we get started?’
‘Always in a hurry, that’s you, Hardy. Wait until I’ve had my first bite of fish. Have some more of this fine wine. Relax a little.’
With someone like O’Grady there’s nothing else to do. It was late in the week, a popular time for lunching, and the restaurant was filling up. We were at a table for two with no other table really close. Ideal for a private talk. O’Grady was an old hand. I drank some wine and ate some bread. The fish came.
Cracked pepper, Mr Hardy?’
I looked at her in surprise. I hadn’t been in the place for years and had never seen her before. O’Grady chuckled.
‘Fame, Cliff, fame. She saw you on television. It’s the only thing that matters these days, unfortunately.’
I accepted cracked pepper and ate fish. It was good. O’Grady took some time with the dressing on his salad. He started on his fish.
‘Phil Tyson,’ I said. ‘What can you tell me about him?’
‘Nothing good. A thug. You know he sacked me.’
I nodded. ‘But I want you to be objective.’
‘Hard to be objective about Phil.’ He ate a couple of large mouthfuls of the fish followed by a considerable number of chips and some salad in rapid succession. He chewed slowly and bowed his head reverently. ‘Beautiful food, don’t you agree?’
‘It’s fine. Thuggish how?’
‘In every way—the people he hires, the pressure he exerts, especially on his clients.’
I stopped eating. ‘On his clients?’
‘I assume you’re working for one of them. Not surprising. You should never tell your secrets to Phil. He’ll handle your problem all right, but then he owns you and you have to dance to his tune.’
‘You could say that.’
‘Do you happen to know whether he did any work for a bloke named Ray Frost?’
O’Grady ate and drank in his measured, appreciative way. He dabbed at his mouth with the napkin. ‘I believe he did, yes.’
‘Do you know what it was?’
He poured more wine and inspected the level in the bottle. ‘Another, d’you think?’
‘No. Tyson and Frost?’
‘Sounds like a comedy team but I doubt there was anything funny about it. I don’t know the details; it was after my time, but I imagine Phil straightened out Frost’s problem in his usual direct manner and then just as ruthlessly collected his reward.
He compiled a forkful of food.
‘Direct manner?’
‘Phil has a bunch of heavies and they run about in a fleet of cars. I once saw the entire executive fleet turn up at the one place at the same time. Very intimidating. You’re not eating.’
The fish was succulent and the vegetables were crisp but I was losing interest in the food. Something about O’Grady’s rapid consumption and absolute enjoyment put me off. I toyed with what was on my plate for a while before putting my knife and fork down and taking a decent swig of wine.
‘Disgusting,’ O’Grady said. ‘Sip it, man, sip it.’
‘Why did you leave Sterling Security, Dom?’
‘I blew the whistle on Tyson in 2003. I’ve got a flexible conscience but enough was enough. I thought everyone knew that. You disappoint me.’
I’d been a mess for some time after my partner Lily Truscott had been killed, and then I’d gone overseas for a year or so. I’d missed a lot.
‘And were there reprisals?’
‘Oh, yes. Physical at first, now more or less just harassment. Unsettling. Tiresome.’
His plate was clean and he poured the last of the wine into his own glass.
‘Doesn’t put you off your food.’
‘It did for a time, I can assure you. But I’ve got a comfortable spot now. Will there be anything for me in this matter you’re pursuing?’
‘Absolutely not.’
‘Thought so. Oh well, better make the most of this. Now I wonder what’s best for dessert.’
I thought over what he’d told me as a way of fixing the information in my memory—thug . . . heavies . . . pressure . . . fleet of cars . . .
‘How many cars in the executive fleet?’
‘What kind of cars, Dom?’
‘White Commodores. Phil never uses anything else. Crème caramel, I think.’

Sterling Security Inc’s website listed six senior associates: five men and one woman. No photographs. I thought it unlikely a woman would drive around disguised as a bearded man. I faced the prospect of getting a look at the five men to see if one was bearded. Not a strong line of investigation, beards come and go, but it was the best I could come up with.
I was back in the office. Frost’s money had been deposited so that the balance in my account that took a heavy hit from the cost of the restaurant lunch was nicely topped up. I wrote down the five names and did the routine checks to find out more about them, particularly their addresses. No luck with the telephone directory; they were just the kind to have silent landline numbers if they had landlines at all. Mobile phone types for sure. But there are other ways. I’d lost my valuable Roads and Traffic Authority contact, which isn’t much use for checking on people driving leased company cars anyway, but I still had one in a big credit checking outfit. The information was costly but reliable.
A phone call got me addresses for three of the names: Arthur Pollock, Blacktown; Stephen Charles, Randwick; and Louis Salter, Clovelly. Anton Beaumont and Ralph Cochrane were proving more elusive. But persistence paid off. Beaumont turned up in a newspaper report on a traffic accident in which he was involved and his address was given as Alexandria. He’d been taken to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for observation. I was pretty sure Hank could be persuaded to hack into the hospital records.

They say that there’s nowhere to hide these days, but Ralph Cochrane was doing a pretty good job of it. He didn’t appear on any of the databases I had access to and some discreet inquiries among people I thought might know yielded nothing. I could give him some thought. The procedure was going to mean a lot of driving around and trying not to be seen by people who presumably were good at not being snooped on.
There are people who do the easy stuff first. I understand the impulse but I’m the reverse. Get the hard stuff out of the way first. I’d always been like that—at school, in the army and in the profession I’d followed for so long. In the army it passed for keenness and efficiency. My reports spoke of ‘diligence’ and ‘initiative’. It wasn’t really, it was more a matter of doing the hard stuff while my energy level was high. I was easily bored and could get sloppy when I lost interest. As a detective the habit sometimes had benefits and sometimes not. Sometimes hard turned out to be easy and hard. You could never tell.
I wasn’t sleeping well. A matter of loneliness and a feeling that I wasn’t accomplishing as much as I should. So I was happy about making an early start. They say everyone is working longer hours these days and I assumed it applied to people in the security business, especially senior people if they wanted to stay senior. And why not me as well? I drove to Blacktown, setting off at 5 am, picking up the Great Western Highway and cruising through light traffic to arrive at the address a bit before 6 am.
Pollock’s place was on the fringes in a street with large houses on big blocks with some bushes and yellow grass. It was a short street and every house had a driveway but there were three cars in some places that looked to have two-car garages and a couple had a car in the driveway and another out on the street. Kids still living at home. One extra car wouldn’t stand out too much. I parked on the opposite side of the street and about fifty metres away so that I’d get a clear view of Pollock as he backed out and turn around to face me before driving off.
The house was a two-storey job with white pillars, liver-coloured bricks and no eaves. Freezing in winter and stinking hot in summer, but presumably air-conditioned with a heavy carbon footprint. At 6.30 a roller door slid up and a white Commodore backed out. The driver obliged me by stopping before he reached the street, getting out and collecting the newspaper from the cylindrical holder beside the letterbox. He was small to medium sized with fair, thinning hair. Nothing prominent about the jaw, no beard. He tossed the paper onto the passenger seat, got in and drove off without looking at me.
One down and four to go. I drove into the Blacktown CBD, found an early opening café and treated myself to a decent breakfast. I washed down my morning heart medications with some very passable coffee. Blacktown woke up around me. It appeared to be a busy, bustling kind of place with something of the feel of a country town as well as the big city.
The weekend interrupted the work. People follow different schedules, sleep in, go away and, anyway, a stakeout can look obvious. Monday was the day of Bobby Forrest’s funeral. As Frost had anticipated, it was a big event attended by a lot of people from the entertainment industry, friends and the media. The ceremony was secular, at the Rookwood chapel. I’d been there too many times over the years and too recently.
The modern style is to ‘celebrate the life’ rather than ‘lament the passing’, but it’s hard to do with someone so young. Frost did his best. He was impressive in his dark clothes.
‘My son Robert was the best thing in my life. He’s gone but all my memories of him are good. He never once disappointed me or let me down and I tried not to ever let him down. That’s what I mean by him being the best thing. He made me better than I really am and I’m grateful to him for that. I’ll always be grateful for that.’
Pretty good. He echoed the words Bobby had used in explaining his relationship with Jane Devereaux. I suppose Bobby had said the same to him and he’d picked up on it. It was appropriate, and I thought Jane Devereaux would probably appreciate it.
A few others, including Sophie Marjoram and people from the entertainment business, spoke briefly. Bobby had been an organ donor and what was left of him was cremated. Among those attending there was a clutch of young people—goths and emos and the like—who stood apart. At one point I thought I could sense someone looking at me. I glanced at the young group and saw a woman in semi-goth clothes fixing me with a malevolent stare.
There was a wake, which they called a wrap party, at a restaurant in Surry Hills. I stayed long enough for a drink and to recognise a couple of the stars and semi-stars, some looking better than on screen and some not so good. I didn’t get a chance to talk to Frost.
Over the next few days I went through the same surveillance procedure with Charles in Randwick and Salter in Clovelly with the same negative result. Neither man fitted the physical description of the one who’d followed Bobby and threatened Mary Oberon, though both were more impressive physically than Pollock. Hank was out of town on a job, which stymied me on Beaumont so I turned my attention to Ralph Cochrane. With no address available, the simplest way to get a look at him was to make an appointment to see him so that’s what I did. It was a strategy I could use only once without raising questions and now seemed like the right time. Wouldn’t hurt to get a close look at the Sterling set-up anyway.
Cochrane was described on the website as the ‘Personnel and Training’ manager. The obvious ploy was to inquire about the possibility of employment. The big security firms were swallowing the small ones continually and there was every reason for a senior personnel guy at Sterling to believe I was looking for a lifeline. I’d been head-hunted a few times in the past and had declined offers. That would have been known in the appropiate circles.
Sterling’s HQ was in Rosebery, fairly close to the airport. Handy enough for the eastern suburbs dwellers, long drive from Blacktown. The building was an example of 1950s brutalism—a three-storey red cube set on a major road with no landscaping or trimmings—just a large asphalt parking area, a high fence and a manned security gate.
I drove up to the gate and told the guard my business. He consulted a sheet of paper on a clipboard, presented me with a visitor’s pass on a lanyard and directed me to a parking slot. I parked, put the lanyard round my neck and followed white arrows painted on the floor to a set of double glass doors. The doors slid open, admitting me to a foyer. A woman sat behind a desk working at a computer. She was young and good-looking. Her long nails clattered on the keys.
She looked up. ‘Mr Hardy?’
‘Right,’ I said, ‘to see Ralph Cochrane.’
She pointed to an elevator. ‘Second floor, room twelve.’
I thanked her and waited for the lift. The décor was functional—a few generic posters, a couple of citations for Sterling’s creditable performance as an employer, a scale model of a projected new HQ. I rode the lift to the second floor and followed a corridor to room twelve. I could hear activity behind the closed doors—telephones ringing, machines humming. There were noticeboards along the wall bristling with pinned paper. Cochrane’s name was on the door. I knocked.
I’ve never liked that response. Bad start and it got worse.

There were three men in the room—one sitting behind a desk and two flanking it. As I entered one of the men moved behind me, closed the door and stayed there. The other standing man sat in the only other chair in the room apart from the one behind the desk. Not a friendly reception. The man sitting was Arthur Pollock of Blacktown, the smallish guy with the wispy hair. I didn’t think I’d have too much trouble with him. I turned and looked at the man at the door. Much bigger, much younger. It’s hard to judge the size of a man behind a desk but this one didn’t look puny. He was in his thirties, dark and tanned. Maybe just back from his holidays, maybe a spray job. None of the men was bearded.
‘I’m Ralph Cochrane, Hardy,’ the man behind the desk said. He pronounced it ‘Rafe’. ‘This is Arthur Pollock and Louis Salter you know.’
‘Do I?’
‘Well, not exactly, but you saw him when you staked him out in Clovelly a few days ago. More to the point, he’s seen you. Arthur seems to think there might have been a crappy blue Falcon like the one you drive outside his house, too.’
‘Arthur’s right,’ I said. ‘I didn’t think he’d noticed.’
Pollock smiled. ‘Subliminally,’ he said.
‘So you’ve shown a very great interest in us and we’re wondering if we should be flattered or worried.’
‘Flattered,’ I said. ‘I was considering trying to join your organisation and I was just checking a few of you senior people out before making an approach. That’s why I made this appointment. I have to say I’m having second thoughts.’
I heard a movement behind me but I was too slow. A punch hit me hard in the kidneys, drove the wind out of me and buckled my knees. I had to grab at the desk to keep my feet. Salter looked pleased with his result as he should have. The punch was expert, placed in just the right spot and with just the right force. Deep bruise but no rupture, probably. I fought for breath and almost gagged at the foul taste filling my mouth. ‘Let the man sit down, Arthur,’ Cochrane said. ‘He needs the chair more than you do.’
Pollock stood and I collapsed into the chair and concentrated on sucking in air. It felt thin and insubstantial and as if it wasn’t going to last.
‘You’ve got a reputation as a tough guy, Hardy,’ Salter said. ‘I thought you’d be able to take it a bit better than that.’
My voice was a thin wheeze. ‘We’ll see how it goes next time, when we’re face to face.’
‘I’m off,’ Pollock said. ‘You can handle it from here. Let me know what he tells you.’
Cochrane nodded. Pollock took a step and I stuck out my foot. He stumbled and fell flat on his face. Pretty pathetic taking on the little guy but I had to do something. Salter stepped forward but Cochrane stopped him.
Cool it, Louis. You okay, Arthur?’
Pollock got up, straightened his clothes and gave me a look meant to be venomous but it’s hard to be venomous when your tie’s crooked and your comb-over’s been disturbed. He pushed past Salter and left the room.
‘Let’s start over again. Why’re you so interested in us?’
I’d recovered my breath and straightened myself up in the chair. My kidneys had the ache that suggests blood in the urine. I’d been there before in my boxing days. My brain was working well enough though.
‘I’ve got a question first,’ I said. ‘Your reaction is way over the top for spotting a little surveillance. What’s got you so upset, Ralph?’
Cochrane and Salter exchanged glances and Cochrane nodded.
‘You were seen having lunch with that fat arsehole O’Grady the other day,’ Salter said. ‘Someone passing by your table caught the name Sterling. You weren’t discussing the fucking swordfish and O’Grady wouldn’t be advising you to join this firm.’
‘You’re right there,’ I said. ‘He told me not to have anything to do with you but I decided to go ahead and see for myself. And I’ve seen all I want to see.’
‘And what have you seen?’ Cochrane said.
Something interesting that I’ll keep to myself, I thought. I said, ‘I’ve seen a couple of stupid guys worried about a fat man.’
‘He’s a journalist and he’s never forgiven Phil for sacking him. You’re snooping on his behalf.’
I tried to force a laugh but the action hurt too much. ‘You’re wrong. He says he never had it so good. He’s enjoying what he does now. He reckons he owes Phil.’
They exchanged glances again.
‘I suppose we could be wrong,’ Cochrane said slowly.
I levered myself out of the chair suppressing a groan. ‘Is that an apology?’
‘Fuck you,’ Salter said.
‘I wonder if Phil knows how you’re handling this?’
Salter looked worried; Cochrane didn’t. He said, ‘Phil’s much too busy to worry about a nobody like you.’
Cochrane stood and put his hands on the desk. He leaned forward, so close I could smell his aftershave. ‘You’ve wasted some of our valuable time, Hardy. You’re a loser from way back and now you’re scratching around trying to make a living. Well, don’t scratch around here. Now piss off!’
He pressed a buzzer on his desk and an answering knock came on the door within seconds.
‘Come,’ I said.
Cochrane growled. The door opened and a woman stood there with an inquiring look on her face.
‘Show Mr Hardy out,’ Cochrane said.
I followed the woman down the corridor, into the lift and we went down to the foyer without a word being spoken. The glass doors slid open.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
She pointed to my chest. ‘The pass, please.’
‘I’ll hang on to it as a keepsake.’
I glanced back at the building as I opened the car door. I thought I could see a figure standing at a window on the second floor about where room twelve would have been. I put the pass in my pocket and drove to the gate. The guard stopped me.
‘Where’s the pass?’
‘I gave it to a woman inside.’
‘No you didn’t. She just called me.’
I nodded. ‘Good security.’
I tossed him the pass and drove out.
I stopped at the first set of shops I came to and bought some painkillers. My back was aching and sending shooting pains up to my shoulders. I took three pills and sat on a bus stop seat drinking a takeaway coffee waiting for them to work. I stamped the image of Louis Salter on my brain—about my height and a bit heavier, maybe fifteen years younger. He had ginger hair and a long chin. The expertise of his punch suggested some kind of combat training, maybe military.
There was a reasonable chance of meeting up with him again. For one thing I still hadn’t sighted Anton Beaumont, but there had been something distinctly conspiratorial about the behaviour of the three senior associates. I had no idea what it was about but they were overanxious about something. Salter had reacted oddly when I mentioned Phil Tyson. I wondered whether Phil knew how his minions handled apparently minor matters.

How am I supposed to remember all those rules and regulations?

Do you have liability insurance?



Jak si mám pamatovat všechna ta pravidla a předpisy?
How am I supposed to remember all those rules and regulations?

Společnost s ručením omezeným.
Liability limited company

Máte sjednané pojištění odpovědnosti za škody?
Do you have liability insurance?

Kdyby, když a až neboli podmínkové a časové věty

Jak si možná ještě vzpomenete ze základy, vedlejší věty podmínkově a časové vyjadřují za jaké podmínky anebo kdy se děj věty hlavní stane. Méně spolehlivým, ale jednodušším a většinou postačujícím vodítkem je přítomnost spojek kdyby, když a až. Podmínkových a časových spojek je samozřejmě víc, ale až se skamarádíte s těmi základními, ty ostatní už přijdou samy.


Naučit se budete muset 3 typy:


V české větě indikovaný spojkou „když“ spojenou s budoucím časem.

Když budu mít dost peněz, tak si koupím dům.

V češtině je budoucí čas jak ve sdělení věty hlavní („koupím si dům“), tak i v samotné podmínce věty vedlejší („když budu mít dost peněz“). Angličtina zde oproti tomu podmínku vyjadřuje časem přítomným:  If I have enough money, I will buy a house.


Obdobně to funguje i ve větách, kde se s podmínkou pojí rozkaz (Když ho uvidíš, tak mu řekni.)  I v tomto případě je anglická podmínka v čase přítomném: If you see him, tell him. (rozkaz věty hlavní samozřejmě zůstává rozkazem, stejně jako v češtině)


Vedlejší věty časové, kdy je děj věty hlavní vázán nikoli na splnění podmínky ale na nějaký čas se řídí stejnými pravidly.

Zavolám ti, jakmile přijedu.              I will call you as soon as I arrive.

Až ho uvidíš, tak mu řekni.                               When you see him, tell him.


Poznámka k interpunkci:

Jedno z mála spolehlivých a jednoduchých pravidel anglické interpunkce je, že u tohoto typu vět se narozdíl od češtiny nepíše čárka vždy, ale pouze před větou hlavní (nikoli tedy před větou vedlejší a spojkou „if“).

If it is nice tomorrow, we will go swimming.              We will go swimming if it is nice tomorrow.


  1. typ

Zatímco prvnímu typu se v některých gramatikách říká podmínky reálné, druhý typ je označován jako podmínky nereálné. Jejich uvozující spojkou je v češtině „kdyby“ a vztahují se k přítomnosti nebo budoucnosti.

Kdybych měl peníze, koupil bych si dům.                     If I had money, I would buy a house.


U slovesa „to be“ se zde často používá i v 1. a 3. osobě jednotného čísla „were“, zvlášť v psaných projevech. Tento tvar bývá často považován za správnější, zatímco tvar „was“ je v podmínkových větách považován za hovorový. V některých spojeních je „were“ běžnější i v hovorovém jazyce:

If I were you, I wouldn´t do it.



Třetí typ, podmínky nereálné minulé, se týkají hypotetických situací v minulosti. Pro Čechy jsou obtížné hlavně proto, že používají podmiňovací způsob minulý, bez kterého se současná, zvláště hovorová, čeština obejde.

Kdybych to byl věděl, tak bych sem byl nechodil        If I had known it, I wouldn´t have come here.


Navíc tvary, které se k jejímu tvoření používají, tj. podmiňovací způsob minulý a předminulý čas, patří k těm složitějším a často se chybuje i ve formě těchto vět.


(přítomný) infinitiv

minulý infinitiv
(u pravidlených sloves stejné jako tvar používaný pro tvorbu minulého času, u nepravidelných tvar úvaděný jako třetí)

podmiňovací způsob minulý
(stejný ve všech osobách)

předminulý čas
(stejný ve všech osobách)

have worked
have had
have done
have seen
have taken
would have worked
would have had
would have done
would have seen
would have taken
I had worked
she had had
they had done
John had seen
you had taken



If we had had money, we would have bought a house.          Kdybychom (byli) měli peníze, tak bychom si (byli/bývali)

koupili dům.


V češtině je v těchto případech forma přijatelná i forma odkazující k přítomnosti (Kdybychom měli peníze..., podle kontextu teď či tenkrát, tak bychom si koupili dům, rovněž podle kontextu teď či tenkrát). V angličtině naopak musíme dávat pozor, zda se jedná o možnost sice hypotetickou, ale stále trvající (ještě se k těm penězům a tedy i domu můžeme dostat) anebo o možnost, která sice hypoteticky existovala v minulosti, ale teď už je tak jako tak neodvolatelně pryč.



čeština angličtina

Kdybych tě požádal, dal bys mi to?
dnes, tedy 2.typ:  If I asked you, would you give it to me?
  v minulosti, tedy 3.typ: If I had asked you, would you have given it to me?



If you had studied harder, you would have passed the exam.

If Columbus had known he had not reached India, he wouldn´t have called the people Indians.


Pozor  – v češtině není k vyjádření podmínky vždycky třeba spojky „kdyby“:

Mít čas, tak taky jedu na dovolenou. (jenže já ho nemám nebo jsem ho neměl – podle kontextu dvě možnosti překladu: teď - If I had time, I would go on holiday, too. Tenkrát -  If I had had time, I would have gone on holiday, too.)

Tohle vědět, tak jsem ti to nedal. (jenže já jsem to nevěděl – jediný možný překlad:  If I had known it, I wouldn´t have given it to you.)


Předmětné věty

To, že je ve větě spojka „if“, ještě nemusí nutně znamenat, že se jedná o podmínkovou větu a že se tedy řídí podle pravidel podmínkových vět. Touto výjimkou jsou vedlejší věty předmětné.

I have no idea if he will come or not.

Ask him if he will do that.


V těchto větách se místo „if“ velmi často vyskytuje spojka whether

Our client hasn´t said yet whether they will want to go ahead with it or not.

It should be made clear whether we will support them or not.



Nechci, aby se něco takového stalo, zatímco jsem za to zodpovědný já.

I don't want anything like that to happen on my watch.

Johne, můžeš na chviličku / slovíčko?

John, can I have a word?

Kdy jindy mám příležitost poslouchat muziku na plné koule?

When else do I get to listen to music at full volume?

Táta se pořád bojí, že otěhotním dřív, než dodělám školu.

Dad keeps worrying I will get pregnant / about me getting pregnant before I graduate.

Přišel jsem o hodinu dřív, abych si to všechno stačil připravit.

I came an hour early, so that I could get everything ready.

Hodně si ho vážím. Vy ne?

I respect him a lot. Don't you?

Už dávno nepočítám (ztratil jsem přehled) jeho bouračky, ale tentokrát úplně zrušil tři auta. Zázrak, že se nikdo nezabil.

I lost count of his crashes long ago, but this time he totalled three cars. It's a miracle no one got killed.

Bylo to pěkný, ale už to skončilo, tak se s tím srovnej!

It was nice, but it's over now so get over it / deal with it.

Škoda / Mrzí mě, že nemůžu jít s váma.

I wish I could go with you.

Promiň, úplně mi to vypadlo z hlavy.

I'm sorry, it's completely slipped my mind.

Táta se pořád bojí, že otěhotním dřív, než dodělám školu.

Dad keeps worrying I will get pregnant / about me getting pregnant before I graduate.

Přišel jsem o hodinu dřív, abych si to všechno stačil připravit.

I came an hour early, so that I could get everything ready.

Hodně si ho vážím. Vy ne?

I respect him a lot. Don't you?

Už dávno nepočítám (ztratil jsem přehled) jeho bouračky, ale tentokrát úplně zrušil tři auta. Zázrak, že se nikdo nezabil.

I lost count of his crashes long ago, but this time he totalled three cars. It's a miracle no one got killed.

Bylo to pěkný, ale už to skončilo, tak se s tím srovnej!

It was nice, but it's over now so get over it / deal with it.

Škoda / Mrzí mě, že nemůžu jít s váma.

I wish I could go with you.

Promiň, úplně mi to vypadlo z hlavy.

I'm sorry, it's completely slipped my mind.