This is Chapter 22 of GOMERY KIMBER‘s novel The Killing House, about a would-be hitman who finds he’s the one who’s in danger
Outline: American Troy has one ambition in life, to be an international hitman, so when he gets the chance to work for veteran assassin Rickardo Hanratty, he can hardly believe his luck. But Hanratty, also known as The Big Shilling, turns out to be the strangest of mentors. Tasked with killing a Russian oligarch on the island of Cyprus, American Troy innocently believes the hit will be like some uber-cool crime movie, but he quickly finds himself in a different kind of picture entirely – a horror movie – with his mentor, The Big Shilling, cast as the monster. If he’s going to escape Cyprus alive, Troy realises that he has to make himself indispensable. That’s when he remembers The Big Shilling’s weird mantra – ‘believing is seeing.’ As Shilling explains: if he wants to escape from the island, American Troy must imagine that he already has.
‘It’s tight,’ said American Troy. ‘It’s real tight, but I think I can do it.’
The Big Shilling, dressed in the old lady’s frock, ushered him out of the camper van and into the blazing sunshine of a Nicosia noon.
‘We’ll sit down first and have a drink,’ said the Big Shilling in the high-pitched Irish-accented voice he’d adopted since arriving at their rendezvous.
The Brits were still seated at the little metal table, under the arbour beside the lay-by kiosk, a couple of miles outside the Cypriot capital. The old fat guy, who sounded like Sir Michael Caine, American Troy now recognised. He was the dipstick who’d been conducting the singing at the birthday party in the restaurant, near the Russian exile’s house in the Akamas. His wife, terminally wrinkled and the colour of oiled mahogany, bared her false teeth in a grimace.
‘No luck?’ she asked, ironically.
‘It’s no problem at all, it’s not,’ said the Big Shilling, encouraging American Troy to sit. ‘Brian, be a love and get the lad a drink, will you?’
The Brit lumbered to his feet. ‘Whatcher ‘avin?’ he seemed to say.
‘He’ll have a beer is what he’ll have,’ said the Big Shilling. ‘A Keo.’
American Troy sat down under the arbour of grape vines. Here, in the middle of the island, away from the cooling sea breezes of the coast, it was infernally hot, and American Troy felt enervated, not just sapped physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. All he had left was his will power.
‘I can do it,’ he told the Big Shilling.
A cop car cruised by, but the pair of leos didn’t even glance their way.
The Big Shilling was searching through the contents of his handbag. American Troy heard the rattle of pill bottles and the crinkle of foil-wrapped plastic trays being extracted from stiff cardboard packs. Doctor Shilling had brought his dispensary with him.
‘Here y’are, son,’ said the cockney, passing American Troy a bottle of not quite cold enough beer, ‘get yer larfin’ gear round that then.’
‘Thanks,’ said American Troy wearily. He tasted the beer. It was gassy and tasteless, and reminded him of home. Hicksville, Illinois, how he wished he were there right now.
‘Drink it,’ ordered the Big Shilling, glaring at him playfully from under false eyelashes.
American Troy drank, and when the Big Shilling dropped four or five white pills into his cupped hand, American Troy didn’t bother to look at them, he just tossed them into his mouth and washed them down with pulls on the bottle.
‘God love him,’ said the Big Shilling, ‘wasn’t he always my best boy?’
The cockney’s wife tittered at this, and sucked orange juice through the straw from her plastic beaker. The cockney winked encouragement and toasted American Troy silently with a bottle of water. Only the Big Shilling was without a drink. Instead, he was fussing with the corner of a tissue and a compact mirror.
‘I’m running,’ he said. ‘It’s terrible warm.’
‘Take yer knickers off,’ advised the cockney’s wife before emitting a cackle of laughter.
‘There’d better not be vodka in that OJ, Bet,’ said the Big Shilling, smiling dangerously.
That shut the old lady up. She cleared her throat nervously and puckered her mouth.
American Troy was suddenly feeling very, very relaxed. He sipped his beer with newfound pleasure. He had to admit it, now it tasted pretty darn good. The sunshine dappling the tables was beautiful, and he was no longer troubled by the intense heat, or by the noise of the traffic that kicked up dust and irritated his eyes. In fact, the dust itself appeared to be . . . friendly. American Troy experienced a loving surge of emotion. The Big Shilling and the two Britons were infinitely appealing, why hadn’t he noticed that before? People, man, they were beautiful, and connected, to everyone else and to everything else.
‘Well?’ asked the Big Shilling. ‘All right now are you?’
‘More than all right,’ said American Troy, the words catching in his throat.
‘You’ll be feeling a bit emotional,’ the Big Shilling went on, ‘but it’ll pass in a few minutes, then you’ll be feeling relaxed, very, very relaxed indeed.’
‘Relaxed,’ said American Troy, and the word seemed to be imbued with special meanings which he had never before apprehended.
‘I’ll have what he’s having,’ said the trouble and strife, Betty Blee, ‘bless him.’
‘Time to make a move?’ asked her husband.
‘There’s no hurry,’ said the Big Shilling. ‘Finish your drinks.’
‘Take your time,’ American Troy heard himself say, ‘and don’t hurry up.’
They had to help him up the steps into the campervan.
‘It’ll be like being reborn,’ said the Big Shilling, holding his hand as American Troy stepped into the coffin, the smuggler’s compartment hidden beneath the bench seat. ‘It’ll be like being unified, having a soul.’
‘Awesome,’ said American Troy, and meant it.
It was awesome. The prospect of being reborn was awesome indeed. How had he ever doubted? How could it have been any other way? The Big Shilling was Odysseus, navigating the way home across the wine-dark sea.
‘Beautiful,’ said American Troy, ‘you’re beautiful.’
Again, the words caught in his throat and he thought he was going to cry.
The false bottom was laid on top of him, and he listened to the turn of the Allen keys as the screws were fixed into place. Next came the clothes and innocent odds and ends to fill the storage compartment, then the seats fitted on top of that, the sounds growing more muffled now. American Troy, lying on his side in the foetal position, closed his eyes, a big, beatific smile on his face, and drifted off to sleep.
When he awoke, he remembered the sound of the engine and the noise of the moving vehicle, of being pushed against one side of the coffin then the other as the campervan negotiated bends and corners and traffic. He discovered he couldn’t move. It wasn’t confinement, he really couldn’t move: he was paralysed. He heard creaking above him as someone sat on the bench seat. Then he heard the Big Shilling speaking in that high-pitched Irish accent, or at least he thought he did. He wasn’t sure if he was truly conscious, or dreaming. The fact that he was paralysed did not bother him in the slightest and that made him think he was dreaming, listening to the Big Shilling speak.
‘Even the outlaw, even the murderer,’ the voice was saying, softly, distantly, hypnotically, ‘even the basest creature ever to have walked the earth, if he was initiated into the Mysteries then he was assured of everlasting life in the hereafter. That is what the normal person cannot understand. It has nothing to do with morality, achieving immortality, with being a good person, with doing good deeds, nothing whatsoever. It has everything to do with secret knowledge, with actual experience of that secret knowledge. Finding it hard to breathe? Yes, you are finding it hard to breathe. It’s getting hotter. Of course it is getting hotter. You are nearing the infernal regions. You are nearing the other side, and you cannot breathe.’
American Troy could not breathe. There was no air in the coffin. He tried to drag air into his lungs but his lungs did not inflate. With every exhalation his lungs grew smaller, tighter, harder. There was a pain in his heart. He could not move. Sweat leaked out from every pore. He felt like he was broiling in his own broth. Panic rose in him. Surely he was dreaming. A red mist filmed his sightless eyes and strange creatures, baleful, inhuman, rose from the darkness, disturbed by his presence. He’d seen them before, in Amsterdam: therianthropes, half-animal, half-men. One of them came closer, a dog-headed monster that seemed to examine his very heart, and was gone.
Again he heard the Big Shilling speaking with an Irish accent, but he could no longer understand what he was saying. He could not breathe. Make a soul? He was burning up. You are many? He wanted to scream, to thrash about, but his vocal chords were as paralysed as his limbs. Was this death? Was he dying? Was this the end? This time his life was not relayed to him backwards.
Then he heard the Big Shilling’s Irish brogue, saying, ‘A gift of unity.’
A great black wave welled up and engulfed him, and he fainted. And when he came to, American Troy underwent the strangest experience of his life. He was on the other side, in the absolute elsewhere. It was as though he were dead but still conscious. It was indescribable. Ultimate freedom, infinite joy – but the words meant nothing compared to the actuality. It began to fade, as though he were being dragged backwards by a silver cord. No! He wanted to stay, but the pull of life was too strong. Back he went, back into the coffin, back to the island, Cyprus, the island from which it seemed impossible to escape.
He could hear again, and breathe, and no long panicky. It sounded like the police were searching the van. This everyday reality appeared massive, solid, utterly mundane. The van was stopped, and it rocked slightly as heavy feet plodded through the cabin. Outside, men with official voices were speaking Greek. Michael Caine was having a laugh and a joke. Cupboards were opened and closed, drawers searched, walls tapped. American Troy realised he could move, and that his breathing had returned to normal. It wasn’t even that warm anymore. He had the idea that the van was parked beneath a sun-shade. Then he heard the bench seat cushion being removed and the contents of the storage tray being moved about. A sliver of brightness as a flashlight was shone.
Then it was over. The bench seat cushion was roughly replaced, and the customs officers or cops or whoever they were, disembarked. Shortly thereafter, he heard three people get aboard, the engine started up, and the van rolled forward slowly in bottom gear.
American Troy felt sick. He wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take. Had the drugs worn off? They couldn’t have, not yet. But at least he could breathe. He concentrated on that thought, and on the inhalation and exhalation his body automatically made. Calm, he told himself, stay calm, but an insistent inner voice started whining – why me, why me? Then he slipped into sleep once more, and not even the distant sound of men speaking Turkish could disturb him.
The next time he awoke it was because he was about to be released. The bench seat cushion was removed, then the clothes and assorted items, finally the tray was unfastened, and blinding daylight poured in along with humid fresh air.
‘Will you look at the state of him?’ said the Big Shilling in his Irish voice. Then, in his more familiar white-colonial accent, he said, ‘Like a real sweat box, hey? Here, my boy, drink this.’
American Troy chugged gratefully on a bottle of cool water, glugging it down his parched, sore throat until the bottle was empty. He gasped for air, his chest heaving.
‘Are we through?’
‘We’re through,’ said the Big Shilling, amused by the ambiguity of the question.
To American Troy, reborn from the smuggler’s coffin, the Big Shilling’s colonial accent sounded as fake as his Irish one. The Big Shilling was whatever he wanted to be, he was the man with a thousand faces. It seemed to American Troy that he knew nothing at all about the Big Shilling, that everything he thought he knew about him was a lie, was a fabrication, an act, and that it did not matter. The only thing he knew for sure about the little man was that he possessed the kind of knowledge that normies never even dreamed of.
This surreal experience continued for the next few minutes until it dissipated and American Troy was left feeling weary and disquieted. He had the impression that he knew things he had no right knowing, that he had glimpsed not only the future but some kind of strange afterlife as well. And then the rational part of him was telling him that was just a bunch of bullshit, a drug-fiend’s dream. But . . .
‘He’s not going to pay,’ he now said, seated on the bench seat opposite the Big Shilling, who was still dressed incongruously, and patently falsely, as an old woman. ‘We won’t get our money, whatever we do.’
Another insight accompanied this certainty but it stayed tantalisingly out of reach, as though it could only be accessed from inside the coffin and from within a drugged consciousness. American Troy clenched his fists in frustration. He had an inkling that Ahmet Bey was acting too, but in what way he couldn’t quite grasp.
‘It was never about the money,’ said the Big Shilling, the twinkle in his eye contrasting sharply with his grim visage.
American Troy averted his gaze. The make-up on the Big Shilling’s face was smeared and runny, the lipstick licked off by that sharp tongue, the mascara smudged, false eyelashes coming unstuck. It was a clown’s face or a joker’s, the kind of clown or joker who’d entice children into the woods, or criminals into a try-out, the kind of face of a man who’d soak a billion dollars in gasoline and negligently toss a lit match.
‘What we need is a better kind of criminal,’ said American Troy.
‘You saw it then?’
‘I don’t know what I saw.’
‘But you saw it.’
‘Yeah, I saw it.’
‘Are we through?’
‘Not yet,’ said American Troy.
‘No,’ said the Big Shilling. ‘Not by a long chalk, not by a long chalk, eh?’
It was never about the money. No, it had never been about the money. It had always been about domination. The Big Shilling had a will to power, a will to dominate everyone around him, a will to dominate life itself. And that was the prize he was offering American Troy. Overcome yourself, rise above your weakness, and you too can dominate. And now he had gone further still. Not only could you dominate life but you could, in some still undefined way, overcome death as well. That was today’s lesson. Why be afraid of death when death wasn’t the end?
What was that he said, back in the apartment? Something about men who are not afraid of death being infinitely superior to the most powerful temporal power?
But American Troy still wasn’t sure. He wasn’t at the end, but he had been helped along the way, that much was certain.
‘Here we are,’ said the Big Shilling from the cab of the camper van.
He was seated between the Blees, Brian was driving and Betty Blee was reading directions from the sat nav. American Troy began to take notice of his surroundings once more. The van was turning into a dusty suburban street, and from nearby came the roar of a passenger plane taking off.
Half an hour later and the Blees had left in the van. American Troy and the Big Shilling were drinking beer in the living room of Mrs O’Gurley’s rented villa.
‘Man, I’m tired,’ said American Troy. ‘I need to sleep.’
‘Good,’ said Shilling. ‘You can go and have a nap in a minute, when I’ve finished instructing you, so pay attention, eh. Are you paying attention?’
‘It’s all about visualising, of visualising the outcome, remember? I want you to visualise the successful outcome of our escape from this island, I want you to visualise it as you fall asleep. The question you must ask yourself is: what would I see? What would I see, eh, when I succeed? What would I see? What would I say? How would I feel? And once you’ve answered those questions, you write the scene, eh, the scene of fulfilment. But you must convince yourself absolutely, convince yourself to the point of self-persuasion. You must convince yourself that we’ve already escaped.’
‘Can’t you do it?’
‘We’re both going to do it,’ said the Big Shilling, getting annoyed.
American Troy pulled himself together. ‘Yes, right, I’m going to do it.’
‘What is the scene of fulfilment?’
‘The two of us, a bottle of tequila and the finest Havana cigars, drinking a toast: we did it.’
‘We did it,’ chimed the Big Shilling. ‘We did it. I like it. But how about, we made it? Wouldn’t that be better?’
‘Yes,’ said American Troy eagerly. ‘We made it!’
The Big Shilling was beaming with pleasure. ‘That’s my boy,’ he said. ‘Now, you get off and have a nap. I’ll wake you in a couple of hours, because I want you to make a phone call for me, a phone call to Ahmet Bey.’
‘About how you’re going to betray me,’ said the Big Shilling, amiably, ‘about how you’re going to betray me, eh, in return for an obscene amount of cold hard cash.’