So what did I know? Turns out I didn’t have a guardian Angel - just a guardian mercenary.
I rounded the last corner to see a familiar Jag sitting at the kerb, shining under the streetlights. Word of yesterday’s entertainment must have travelled fast, as nobody came within fifty feet of the car now. As I approached, the door opened and English stepped out. I just caught the faintest ‘Take care, Ralph.’ from Joanna as he pushed the door closed and blipped the alarm.
“You made it back in one piece then?” he said, following me up the stairs.
“Yeah.” I muttered, trooping on.
“Hang on!” I stopped and looked at him as I opened the office door. “How the hell do you know what’s been going on?”
“Where do you think those webcam feeds go?” he said. “I thought that if someone was trying to... ‘rub you out’, is that what you call it? Then there was a good chance that they’d try again. I kept an eye on the stream, saw your gentleman callers and took appropriate action.”
I was about to mutter some not-very-sincere thanks when I stopped.
“No, wait a minute!” I said. “So you saw them haul me out of here. How did you know about the warehouse? You didn’t have time to get over here and follow them!”
“No need. The application of a little forethought and technology negates the need to go chasing around the city like a headless chicken. I stuck a geotag on your coat.”
I boggled at him, half amazed, half furious.
“Once it looked like your signal had stopped for more than a few minutes, it seemed obvious that you had reached your destination. Or they’d killed you.” He shrugged. “Either way, a simple phone call to the police would seem to have been enough to clear matters up.”
I strode over to my coat on the peg and started feeling the lining. After a few moments I found the tiny transmitter under the collar.
“What the hell do you think you were doing?” I yelled. You were supposed to upgrade security on the office, not turn into some goshdarn stalker! What in blazes was this all about?”
English walked over to the desk and patted my new machine - I noted he was still wearing plastic gloves.
“Dead men pay no bills.”
“You owe me a considerable sum, for the machine, the cameras... clearly you have made enemies that mean you harm, and if you die, I don’t get paid. It is in my interests to keep you alive.”
He cocked his head and thought for a moment.
“Well. At least until you’ve settled up, anyway.”
I considered matters, and grudgingly came up with what might just about pass for thanks.
“This, however,” I waved the geotag at him, “you can have right back.”
“Keep it.” he said, grinning. “I’ve already billed you for it.”
o o o o o
A couple of glasses of whisky later - for medicinal purposes only - it finally occured to me to ask English why he was here.
“Men in black, driving a black sedan. I was curious.” he replied. “Do remember reporting any unidentified flying objects to the authorities lately?”
Oh God. The conspiracy theories again. UFO’s and Men in Black was a particular favourite of his.
“It’s just a fraud job.” I said. “Somebody’s trying to cut somebody else out of a will. No little green men, no flying saucers. I’m pretty sure I’d remember something like that.”
I ladled the sarcasm on extra-thick, but still it seemed to bypass him.
“You wouldn’t remember it though. They have mind altering technology. They would have replaced the memories of the encounter with something that fitted in with your expectations, i.e. petty criminals.” He looked at me and creased his brow. “Have you found it uncomfortable to sit down recently?”
I stared at him, and then suddenly, realisation dawned.
“I have not been probed by anybody or anything! And they’re not mind-altering Men In Black.” I replied, frustrated. “They’re just ordinary men in black, with guns, without the capital letters, and without the whizzy brain frying stuff, which, for your information, DOES NOT EXIST!”
“So much you don’t know...” he muttered. “Anyway. After today’s little adventure, have you decided to reconsider some more... active defenses in the office?”
I looked at him over the rim of the shot glass.
“ (a) I doubt whether I could afford it, and (b) I’d probably end up killing half my clients. I think we’ll leave things they way they are for now.”
“It’s your funeral.” he said, heading for the door. “But just make sure that if it is your funeral in the next couple of days, your executors know about my fees.”
With that, he left.
I glanced at my watch. It was getting late and - I gave an involuntary shudder - I’d got another early start in the morning if I was going to make my flight. I packed a bag, dug my old netbook out to charge up, and hit the hay.
o o o o o
Next morning, at a time I will make it illegal to be awake at as soon as I’m President, I was on the train out to the airport. I got to the concourse, picked up a paper from a newsagent's stand and found myself a seat against the wall. I didn’t want anyone sneaking up behind me. I also didn’t want anyone knowing which flight I was on, so I was going to leave check-in until the last possible minute. I did the old trick of poking a small hole in the paper and slumping right down in my seat. That way I could scan the hall without being seen. It sounds corny, but trust me, it works. Everybody at airports is in a hurry. Nobody stops to see whether your paper is intact. Plus, it means that anybody who ain’t in a hurry tends to stick out like a sore thumb. And that’s who I was looking for. I was fairly sure that Smith, and more to the point, his employer, wasn’t going to take the fact that I’d got away scot free - and Lloyd (or Floyd) was now in the hospital - lying down.
I doubted they’d worry about tubby spilling the beans. Chances are all he knew was that a guy call ‘Smith’ gave him orders and gave him cash. Criminal masterminds don’t tend to tell the hired help what the grand scheme is. But they’d probably be hacked off so I figured, if they’re going to come after me again, why give ‘em an easy time?
Time ticked on. With less than ten minutes until the gate closed, I folded up my paper and walked over to check-in. Getting on the end of the queue I took a casual look around. After a couple of minutes, I was the next to be checked in. At that point I picked up my bag and moved two queues to the left to my actual queue. If anybody had been tailing me, they’d find it pretty difficult to get on my flight without drawing a lot of attention now.
The girl on the desk muttered something about people leaving it to the last minute, rushed me through, issued my ticket and barked a gate number at me. I hustled through the security checks and within a few minutes I was squeezing down the aisle of the plane, past business travellers, holiday makers with screaming kids and assorted other passengers.
I’d got lucky and ended up with a window seat about half way back in cattle class. I rescued my netbook, saved the newspaper and stuffed my bag in the overhead locker. Then I sat down, got as low in the seat as I could and shut my eyes.
Ten minutes later we were through the safety announcements and thundering down the runway. My stomach did that crazy lurch when it feels like you’ve got to the top on a rollercoaster, and then instead of going back down again, keep going up. After that, everything settled down. As soon as the cabin crew came round, I got a bourbon, flipped the netbook open and dug the datastick out of my coat pocket.
I loaded up the data on the daughters. Compared to my new machine, the old netbook was pretty darn slow, but I wasn’t going anywhere for four hours or so.
I settled down to read.
Lily was twenty nine. A tall, skinny blonde, it would probably be fair to say that looks-wise, on a scale of one to ten, she was a definite five. Six if the lights were down. She’d done ok at school, had a couple of boyfriends but had spent most of her teens and early twenties travelling the world and spending the family’s money on having a good time. She seemed to have settled down after the Mother died, and since getting the job with the Senator’s office she’d become almost sensible. That figured. Hayden traded on his clean-living image, and plenty of his supporters would having been looking to place their X someplace else if they thought he was shacking up with some wild floozy.
So it was just as well he wasn’t engaged to Jezebel. A couple of years younger than her sister, she’d got her fair share of looks, and all the looks her sister had missed out on too. A brunette with a thing for scarlet lipstick and nails, she lived up to her name and looked like the classic vamp. She’d flunked out of college and taken to the party lifestyle like a duck to water. Countless boyfriends, flings and one night stands. Rumours of drink and drug problems. She’d disappeared in Paris on a European holiday sparking a family panic, only to resurface seven weeks later in Turkey claiming ‘she was just having a good time’. A spell in a fancy clinic (read ‘rehab’) and a good line in falling out of nightclubs while not wearing very much, it looked like she’d single handedly kept about fifty gossip magazine journalists in business. And unlike her sister, she showed no sign of slowing down. When Norm had insisted that the girls get jobs or face a big reduction in their allowance, she’d just shrugged, stayed with friends and lived a bohemian lifestyle.
However. Since her father’s illness and demise, she’d been back at the family home, and apparently got pretty tight with her sister again. Various magazine articles had hinted at rows between Haden and Lily over her sister’s behaviour, but the family appeared to be hushing everything up while the funeral arrangements had been carried out. It didn’t appear to have stopped the girls sounding off to Chastity at the funeral last week though.
While I stared atthe screen, my eyes started getting heavy. Clearly early morning’s didn’t agree with me. I shut the netbook down, pulled my coat over me like a blanket and dozed off.
A couple of hours later, the tannoy announcement woke me.
Twenty minutes after that, we touched down in L.A.