The room by itself was a problem. Just a square little box, not an inch of which you couldn’t take in the second you stepped across the threshold. The door of the john was even made out of glass, which was weird—the rippled kind, of course, presumably as a small concession to modesty, but the light inside worked off the main switch, so you’d be like a goldfish in a bowl. Not much point in trying to hide in there. Not much point in trying to hide anywhere. Guinness decided he wouldn’t bother.
In the end he settled for simply removing all the bulbs from the overhead fixtures, even the one in the bathroom. What the hell, Harry Bateman wasn’t exactly Public Enemy Number One; he wasn’t the sort to duck and roll just because nothing happened when he walked in and flipped on the light switch. His mind probably wasn’t much used to concerning itself with the basic tactics of survival, which was just going to be tough on him. And anyway, if the last few nights had been any indication, he’d probably be half swacked in the bargain.
God, what a bore. Guinness wondered how in the world he’d sinned that they sent him after runaway file clerks. For three days he’d followed this clown around, in the afternoons through room after room of pink, fleshy Rubens nudes in the Alte Pinakothek, and from six o’clock on through every strip joint and brothel in Munich, with only a break for dinner and a nice big bottle of Ürziger Schwarzlay. Friend Bateman certainly was having himself a razzle on his ill gotten gains.
It was nine thirty, and the dining room downstairs would be closed after eleven. Allowing, say, an hour to take care of this business, he could still make it if Bateman would hurry up and show. Christ, he hadn’t had anything to eat since noon—it wasn’t the sort of job you much wanted to do on a full stomach.
Thank heaven for small mercies, though. Our little file clerk seemed to be a chap of regular habits—sitting down to his schnitzel and brown dumplings every evening at a quarter after eight, and then back upstairs to preen himself for the whores. He’d be along directly.
And alone, unless Guinness had rather seriously misread the man. No little friends up for a quiet night of room service and heavy breathing; he seemed to prefer them in their natural habitat. Or perhaps he was just afraid of the house detective.
Did they still even have house detectives these days? Did hotels still worry about the state of your morals—at all? No, he didn’t think so. But Bateman, after all, had until a few weeks ago been leading a sheltered existence in rural Nebraska with a wife and two perfectly obnoxious daughters, so he might still entertain all sorts of quaint notions about the guardianship of the public virtue.
Anyway, the odds were he wouldn’t show up with any easy ladies on his arm. At least, he hadn’t yet. That sort of thing was for later, after he’d brushed the powdered sugar out of his moustache and reapplied his Mennen Speedstik and was ready once again to face the bright world.
Come on and hurry it up, Harry. My guts are growling and it’s time you paid your score. You won’t make it any nicer by putting it off.
Guinness sat in an armchair in front of the only window, the drapes to which he had drawn closed twenty minutes ago, after he had first picked the lock on the inside door and let himself in. The Luger in his hand was threaded with a silencer, which he kept unscrewing a quarter of a turn and then tightening back on as he tried to make up his mind whether or not to bother with the stupid thing at all. He didn’t like silencers; they struck him as faintly melodramatic and they always threw your shot off a little—although across the width of a hotel room that would hardly matter very much. Still, somehow it made you feel silly to kill someone with a gun that didn’t make any more noise than a champagne cork. Bateman would probably prefer to go out with a bang.
Nonetheless, there were things like instructions to be considered. It would be nice if he spilled his guts before he died, but Harry Bateman had to die. Nobody wanted him arrested and brought back to the States for trial; nobody was interested in that kind of publicity. No slipups, nothing fancy—just kill him where he stands. The fix was in, so for the record it was going to be death by misadventure—a heart attack, a fall in the bathtub, something like that—and it wouldn’t matter how many bullet holes. If there were going to be bullet holes, however, Guinness would rather make them without waking up the whole hotel, and it was one of the myths of television that you could always count on downing a man with the first shot.
But perhaps it wouldn’t come to that. Perhaps Bateman would turn out to be the reasonable type and could be persuaded to leave a nice presentable cadaver that wouldn’t constitute too much of a trauma for the chambermaid. One could hope.
The room was perfectly dark. Even the lamps were disconnected, all except the one on the table next to Guinness’s chair. He took another look at his watch, a digital job he had bought for himself as a fortieth birthday present; you pressed the stem for a reading and the numbers would pulse on like a heartbeat, counting off the seconds. It was nine thirty-four. Presumably Bateman was lingering over the last of his wine. It wouldn’t be the first time.
What would he do when he came in? There were two doors, an arrangement you only seemed to find in Europe, with only a few inches of space between them. The first opened out into the corridor and the second into the room, and only the second had a lock on it. So Bateman would take out his key for that and stand with his back to the outside door, which was equipped with a heavy spring at the top hinge, to keep it from closing. Would he try turning on the overhead before locking himself in? Yes, probably. He would stay between the doors and see whether he could find the switch in the narrow little patch of dull light from the corridor, and when he discovered it wasn’t working he would step across the threshold—it would be a reflex; he wouldn’t even think about it—to get close enough to the dresser to pull the little cord on the lamp, and the outside door would then slam shut on its own. And by then our man would be well inside the trap.
The poor little slob. Of course, he wasn’t thinking in terms of traps; in his mind he still lived in that nice, safe world where you didn’t have to think. Doubtless all Bateman’s anxieties were about policemen, about being dragged back to Nebraska in chains to face a jury of his peers. He probably didn’t realize that he had left all that behind him, that the interests he had offended by running off with a briefcase full of other people’s secrets hardly ever troubled themselves about due process. The verdict was already in, and there was only the sentence left to be carried out.
But Bateman didn’t know that. He had a fake passport and lots of money and probably felt pretty safe. Why should he imagine that there might be somebody waiting for him in his room? Why should he suspect that anything was wrong when the overhead light didn’t go on? Probably it just meant that the bulb was blown. Sure it did.
It was nine forty-six when Guinness finally heard a key in the lock.
Bateman was humming to himself, if that was the right word for the erratic little honking sounds that became audible as the inside door swung open, a kind of private jumble of noise in which could be detected, almost as if by accident, some approximation of a Strauss waltz—you heard them all over town, all whipped cream and Gemütlichkeit, through the open doors of restaurants and cafes and over the canned music systems in department stores. And Bateman was humming one as he tried to negotiate the entrance to his hotel room. He was feeling just fine, it seemed—he didn’t have a care in the world. Not one.
He stood between the inner and outer doors, perfectly visible in the yellow light from the corridor, and then he pulled the outer door closed behind him and disappeared again into the darkness of the room. He was still humming; the tune would break off every once in a while as he breathed in thickly through his nose.
The inside door wheezed shut. Guinness waited for the click of the light switch, but it didn’t come right away. Instead, there was a heavy scratching sound as Bateman made a number of painstaking attempts to fit his key back into the lock. What the hell did Bateman care? He wasn’t afraid of the dark.
Finally he made it, and the lock turned closed with a rattle. And then the light switch—click, click. Nothing. Bateman paused for a few seconds—the waltz tune got lost in a concentrated, ponderously thoughtful exhalation—and then he tried it again. Click, click, click. And then the flat sound of his hand, feeling around on the dresser top for the base of the lamp.
Enough was enough. Guinness reached up with his right hand and pulled the cord on the lamp beside him, the only one that was about to go on for anybody.
The room was flooded with light, or at least that was what it felt like after all this time sitting in the dark. For Bateman, too, the suddenness of it seemed a shock—it seemed to catch him like a hammer blow, just at the base of the spine. He pitched around, bracing his elbows against the dresser as if he expected to fall down.
“Good evening.” Guinness’s voice was marvelously even, considering. He tried not to blink as he brought his Luger up so that it was pointing at a spot just under the left side of Bateman’s ribcage. “If you move before I give you permission, I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you anyway, but I’ll do it right now instead of waiting. Do you understand that? Just nod your head.”
Poor Bateman—it would have been possible to feel sorry for him if he hadn’t looked so damned ridiculous, with his knees locked and his back pushed up against the dresser to keep himself from clattering to the floor as if somebody had severed his spine at the top joint. His mouth kept opening and closing, seemingly without any reference to the will, like a machine somebody had forgotten to turn off. Finally all this up and down motion managed to translate itself into a stiff nod. Well, good; the message had filtered through at last.
He wasn’t any older than his late thirties—a few years younger than Guinness, who was hardly ready to class himself as an antique—but at that moment, as his pale blue eyes glistened in his thin, suddenly rather withered face, he might have been the mummy of Ramesses, come back to life to die all over again. Even his little soup strainer of a moustache looked comically too large for his shrunken mouth.
It happened that way sometimes, when you were, say, two and a half sheets to the wind and all at once you had to sober up much too fast. It seemed to squeeze something out of you.
Bateman looked half dead already, his bony hands dangling at his sides as if he didn’t quite know what to do with them. The poor little bastard—he just wasn’t ready for these kinds of games. And he wasn’t going to have much more of a chance to get ready.
“Now I want you to sit down on the floor, with your feet straight out in front of you. Just there.” Guinness gestured with the muzzle of his Luger to a spot just to one side of the center of the carpet, well clear of any furniture, where Bateman presumably would be less subject to bright ideas.
“And it might be well if you remember that for all I know, you’re in deadly weapons up to your eyebrows, and you’re not likely to persuade me into thinking otherwise. So if you reach into your pocket, or if either of your hands disappears from sight, even for a second, you get your ticket canceled on the spot.” Guinness pulled back his lips to let his teeth show in a parody of a smile. “And don’t imagine I’ll be sorry if what I pry loose from your cold, dead fingers is a wad of kleenex—I’m not the compassionate type.”
He pointed to the spot again, with a movement that suggested a certain impatience, and Bateman began his awkward descent. It was painful to watch him as he slid slowly down to the floor; his joints seemed to be stiff with age, and he gave the impression of a man crawling backward into a hole. But he kept his hands in plain view, and when finally he was still again, sitting with his back bent forward in what looked like exhaustion, he kept them flat on his thighs, the fingers widely spread.
Neither man spoke. For a long time they were like that, one of them sitting in a chair, the other on the floor, as they studied each other in the pale, pitiless light from the one lamp. Bateman didn’t seem afraid anymore—but perhaps he had never been afraid. Perhaps it had only been the surprise. After all, Guinness didn’t feel under any obligation to think badly of the man.
“What were you going to do?” he asked finally. “I mean, when the money ran out. What was supposed to happen then?”
Bateman didn’t say anything, but after a moment he smiled thinly and shrugged his shoulders. And then the smile died and he was still again.
“Don’t you know? Didn’t you think about it?”
It was only a question—or, rather, two questions. There wasn’t any tone of outrage or incredulity in Guinness’s voice; he was just curious. More curious, apparently, than Bateman, who only smiled again and shook his head.
“I guess not. I guess that means I didn’t care.” He looked around the room for a few seconds, the way a man might trace the vagrant journey of a housefly, and then he looked down at his hands again, and then he looked into Guinness’s face, squinting, as if he were having trouble pulling him into focus. There was a pair of glasses in the breast pocket of his jacket, but he made no attempt to reach for them. “Can I have a cigarette?”
“Where are they?”
“In the pocket of my shirt. I’ve got the matches there too.”
“Then draw the lapel of your coat back with the tips of your fingers. Don’t do anything except very, very slowly.”
You might almost have thought he wasn’t moving at all. It probably took him forty-five seconds to open his coat, to extract the pack of cigarettes from his pocket and set them down on his thigh, and then to shake one out and light it. When he had the thing going, he blew out the match with his first puff of smoke and then casually dropped it on the carpet beside him. The same with the ashes; as the cigarette burned its way down to the end, he would flick them off onto the floor. What the hell, he wasn’t the one who was going to have to clean up.
“The money—how much of it have you got left?”
“About thirty-five hundred.” Bateman seemed to consider that fact for a moment, terminating his reverie with a syllable of voiceless, ironic laughter. “I was going to pack off to Spain in a couple of days, in search of a better exchange rate.”
Guinness only nodded. Thirty-five hundred left—that sounded about right. Bateman’s wife had reported him missing a little under four weeks ago, and the way he had been living—reckoning in the women—would probably account for about two hundred fifty dollars a day. Figuring another few thousand for transportation and counterfeit papers, that would bring it up to about fifteen thousand dollars. Fifteen thousand was probably pretty close to current market value for the kind of intermediate level classified material to which someone like Bateman would have had access—allowing, of course, for a substantial markup further along the line.
Bateman, after all, was just a wholesaler; the real money was all made by that handful of merchant princes, the entrepreneurs of the snatch and grab business who could put all the little pieces together into coherent wholes worth hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of dollars. You couldn’t begrudge them their profits. It couldn’t be an easy thing to do, probably like reconstructing a wedding cake out of the crumbs stolen by field mice.
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance you and I could cut a deal?”
Bateman looked embarrassed, but he needn’t have been. Guinness wasn’t offended by the suggestion. Hell, why should he be offended? If a man has thirty-five hundred dollars, what should stop him from trying to buy his life with it? But he frowned anyway, shaking his head. He was sorry for Bateman, but that was the way things were.
“Then they’d be after two of us. You wouldn’t last another week, and I’m not going to spend the rest of my life hiding from everybody, not for that kind of money. It just wouldn’t be worth it. Sorry.”
And that seemed to be that. It was astonishing how little Bateman seemed to mind; you might almost have thought he was relieved.
His cigarette was nearly finished now. He hadn’t really paid much attention to it, just taking a shallow puff now and then and, for the rest, shaking the ashes off with an absentminded spasm of his hand; but now it was almost down to the filter, and he pinched off the mouthpiece between first finger and thumb and started casting around with his eyes for something to do with it.
There was a small triangular ashtray made of white porcelain on the table at Guinness’s elbow—a light little thing, thin as a sea shell and perfectly harmless—that he picked up and tossed onto Bateman’s lap. Bateman nodded thanks, ground out the smoldering filter, set the ashtray down on the floor beside his right knee, and lit another cigarette. This time he took a deep drag, filling his lungs and then blowing smoke up at the ceiling. He laughed as he watched the white plumes curling in upon themselves as they rose through the stale, still, hotel room air.
“At least this way I won’t live to regret it,” he said, and laughed all over again. He seemed to think the whole thing was exquisitely funny.
Guinness, however, didn’t laugh. He had seen all this business too many times before to think it was funny. The joke had worn thin for him.
Because, of course, Bateman wasn’t really such an isolated case. The poor little slob at the end of his tether, schooled to resignation by a life lived in a tract house with an overweight wife suffering from varicose veins. The job that meant nothing, that seemed, over the years, to be gradually replacing the marrow in your bones with compressed air; the loud, hostile, sneering children, partaking of your substance but living a life as alien and incomprehensible as anything you could imagine on the planet Mars. The present and the future, a blind wall stretching into infinity.
And so Bateman had taken his chance, had jumped at it, seizing it in both hands. A month of pleasure and freedom, and what came after didn’t matter worth a tinker’s damn. Prison, poverty, exile, death—anything but going back. And now we sit on the floor and crack jokes with our murderer, becoming almost his accomplice, in a crime almost without a victim. We are washed in the blood of the lamb, oh Lord. Our sins are many, and we hope for nothing. Prison, poverty, exile, death. It’s all the same.
“I can offer you one kind of a deal,” Guinness murmured, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “Not your life, but perhaps something else.”
He didn’t like this sort of thing. There was something distasteful and—yes—slightly vulgar about dickering with a man over the terms on which you would send him to the embalmers. If the boys back in Washington just wanted somebody snuffed, then fine; Guinness was their man for it. It was the work he had been doing for, it seemed, as long as he could remember, and he didn’t mind it at all. He was good at it, maybe the best in the business; he even took a kind of pleasure in it. But all the qualified instructions that went with a job like this one—they just weren’t his cup of tea.
“Find out who he tumbled for,” Ernie had said. “We’d have more than a passing interest in knowing who corrupts our poor, innocent little file clerks with visions of pink champagne and friendly ladies in black lace underwear—the word is Bateman’s having himself quite a time over there. See about that, would you? And we won’t mind if there are a few bruises on the body.” He had smiled that ratty little smile of his, the smile of the ex-field man suffering through an attack of nostalgia. “You see to it that the little runt comes clean before you tuck him in.”
Ernie wasn’t such a bad guy by the standards of the profession, but Guinness just thought that maybe next time he wanted all these kinds of embellishments he could damn well crawl out of his windowless office on G Street and see to them himself.
Guinness looked at the specimen in front of him, wondering about his probable tolerance for pain. Because that was what Ernie had had in mind, unimaginative clod that he was, what the Trade called “knuckle dusting.”
Not that you were likely to get anywhere just tying somebody down to his chair and slapping him around some—that sort of thing only worked in Shirley Temple movies. You never get anything out of anybody that way, especially when he knows that the minute you stop hammering at him you’re going to scatter the contents of his head all over the room. Torture, to be effective, has to be made to seem worse than death. If possible, much worse.
The mind, and not simply the nerve endings, is what you have to work on, and with the general run of humanity it wasn’t too difficult to get the results you wanted, even when you had only a little time and were stuck in a hotel room with cardboard walls, where any amount of screaming would probably wake up the whole corridor. A couple of pieces of tape over the mouth and the eyes—they’re able to concentrate so much better when they don’t have as many distractions—and then you start crushing the joints of their fingers, one at a time, with a pair of pliers, telling them all about it while it’s going on, keeping them reminded that we’re not likely to run out of finger joints any time soon.
Usually, by the time you’ve started to work on the second finger, they’re ready to tell you whatever you want to know. Their brains have turned to jelly, and all they want in the world is for you to stop. On the average, it’s about that simple.
Bateman, however, could just turn out to be a special case. Oh, he’d talk all right—Guinness didn’t have any anxieties about that. He probably wasn’t any more the high principled, heroic type than the rest of us, and that was fine. Guinness didn’t have much use for heroes.
So you might get him to talk—so what? There wasn’t any guarantee that what he would have to say would be the truth.
You break a man down, really break him down, and he won’t lie to you. You become God for him, the only god there is. The only one that counts. You have eyes that can see into the soul, and if he lies you’ll know and there will be no release. So he won’t lie—he won’t dare.
But Bateman might dare. He might just remember that a pair of pliers doesn’t make anybody God, and it might give him a kick to have that final little laugh on you just before you send him off to hell. Just for spite, the son of a bitch, he’d probably cook up some whopper that would cause no end of grief. What should stop him? He knew he was cold meat.
And knowing that, and that Guinness was only another fellow mortal, the same flesh as himself, he only smiled, flicking another ash to the carpet with that careless little twitch of his hand.
“You want me to play kiss and tell, I’ll bet,” he said, with the quiet voice of one who is in on the gag. “You’re going to tell me how they set me up, those bad men who lured me away from the paths of virtue, how they knew it would come to this, how they’re the ones who made all the real money while I took all the chances, how they’re laughing their asses off at what a chump I was. You don’t want me to let them get away with it; am I right?”
He took another slow, steady drag on his cigarette and watched the smoke drift upward. When it was gone he made a little flourish in the air with his hand, dismissing all such final vanities.
“You want me to die knowing that I’ll be avenged. Was that the way it was going to go?”
Guinness refrained from congratulating himself on his shrewd insight into human nature. It could be that he liked Bateman that much better for not being the sort who would fall for all that guff, but liking Bateman wasn’t going to make anything any easier.
“Something like that.” Guinness spoke almost in a whisper, looking straight into the face of this man he was shortly going to have to kill. He wanted to be believed, so he was telling the truth. He wanted them to trust each other; it was necessary that they trust each other. And the only way they could do that was for Guinness to offer such terms as he was prepared to keep. “And perhaps there were one or two other things, but I don’t suppose you’d be interested.”
He leaned forward in his chair until his elbows rested on his knees. The gun in his hand pointed at the wall, at nothing that mattered. It wasn’t a time for making threats.
“Tell me, Bateman—isn’t there anything now that you’ve lived long enough to regret?”
“I’d do it again.” His voice was a trifle louder than it needed to be, and it wasn’t really that Guinness didn’t believe him. It was just that the flicker in his eyes gave him away.
“Come on, Bateman. That isn’t precisely the same thing.”
Bateman didn’t answer—he didn’t have to. It was written all over him, in the way he held his hands together, in his very silence. He was a man like other men, of the same flesh. And Guinness, who had a daughter and a pair of wives in his own past, understood perfectly.
“If you make it come down that way, tomorrow morning, when they find you, the weapon will be in your own hand.”
Guinness leaned back into the padded chair. “Suicide. Nothing more reasonable than for a man in your position to blow his brains out—a man on the run, a man with no money left and nowhere to go.
“And think how pleased everyone will be. My employers will be satisfied because you’ll be dead. And the police—well, it’s always so much less trouble for them when there’s nothing left to investigate. So it’ll be written off as suicide, and that’ll make the insurance companies happy because they don’t have to pay off. By the time your family finishes shelling out to have you put underground they won’t have two cents to rub together, and won’t they be just tickled about that. Won’t they just love your putrefying guts, and won’t they be right.”
He let it rest at that for the moment. You can overplay these things, and he wanted Bateman to have time to think. He wanted him to imagine how his dead body would look lying on the carpet in a pool of curdled blood, with his eyes still open and a hole in the side of his head the size of your foot. He wanted Bateman to think about the wife and the teenage children back in Nebraska, whom he had wronged.
“On the other hand, if we could manage a nice heart attack. . .”
The ash on Bateman’s cigarette was nearly an inch long. He seemed to have forgotten all about it, although he appeared to be looking right at it as he studied both his hands very carefully as they lay in his lap. You could hear his breathing, fast and shallow, and suddenly he swallowed painfully hard. There wasn’t any mystery about it; he was suffering through that purely physical fear of death that doesn’t give a damn about how there isn’t anything left to live for, that just wants to live.
Then he looked up again, straight into Guinness’s face, and the inner struggle seemed to be largely over.
“You can arrange that?” It almost wasn’t a question at all. It was almost nothing more than a statement of fact, something to be borne with whatever limited stores of nerve a man might have left.
Guinness nodded, hating himself—hating Bateman for having brought it all down to this. “I have something right here in my pocket. It leaves no trace, and I’m told it doesn’t even hurt. Fifteen, twenty seconds, and it’s all over.
“But it’s going to cost you.”
. . . . .
When the thing was finished, Guinness stepped out into the empty corridor and closed the hotel room door quietly behind himself. No one would see him leave; no one would know what had happened. The whole thing would be nothing more than another shadow cast across the screen of memory, and, eventually, not even that.
“I can’t tell you his name,” Bateman had said. “I never heard it. I only met him the one time, but I don’t imagine I’ll forget him.” He flicked the long ash from his cigarette, smiling at the absurdity of what, without really thinking, he had seemed to imply. As if he would have time now to forget anything.
“He was tall. Six two, six three, something like that. About my age, but he gave the impression that he took care of himself, and he looked a lot younger. Very thin, very tan—you know the type. A snazzy dresser. Short hair, almost white.
“It’s not much, but it’s all there is.” Bateman lifted his palms from his thighs and turned them over, as if to show that they were empty. “I hope it’s enough. Do you know who he is?”
Guinness’s eyes narrowed as he remembered a man he had seen once in the lobby of a hotel in South Carolina. A tall, thin man with hair the color of bone. He remembered the photograph of a little girl, with a pattern like the cross hairs of a rifle sight traced around her head. He thought about the men he had had to kill to keep that little girl alive, about how one of them had looked with the back of his head shot away. He already had reasons enough of his own for wanting to close the file on this particular skinny, white haired bastard, and now Bateman, who was shortly to join the other ghosts who haunted whatever little scraps of free time Guinness could spare for the consideration of his sins, now Bateman had given him one more.
“I don’t know his name either,” he almost whispered. Somehow he couldn’t seem to bring himself to look Bateman in the face, so he looked at the carpet instead. “I’m not even sure he’s got a regular name, but in his file they call him ‘Flycatcher’.”
And so it was done. Bateman was dead, having settled his bill in the only way remaining to him, and Guinness left him behind in his room and took the stairs down to the main lobby. As he walked along he touched an envelope in the breast pocket of his coat; it was thick with hundred dollar bills. Tomorrow he would wrap them in a couple of sheets of stationery, so that larcenous postal clerks wouldn’t be able to tell what the envelope contained, and drop it in the mail.
Within the week thirty-five hundred dollars, along with a little note of apology Bateman had somehow felt called upon to write, would arrive in Nebraska. That had been part of the deal, and Guinness was disposed to keep his word.
He checked his watch. The dining room was still open, but the appetite was gone. He thought perhaps he would simply go back to his own hotel and go to bed.