The War Party – extract

‘Hypnos’, Wilhelm von Gloeden
This is Chapter Thirteen of GOMERY KIMBER‘s novel, The War Party, the second book of the Big Shilling trilogy. ‘Verity Clissold wants the whistle-blower terminated. But he’s taken refuge in a London embassy and not even the CIA can reach him. There is only one solution. Call in the most accomplished assassin in the world, the Big Shilling.’

After his shower, the Big Shilling lay on the bed and closed his eyes for five minutes. He’d opened the upstairs windows, and, along with the banal cacophony of the city – emergency sirens, incessant traffic, airliners sailing overhead – there came the sound of a party in one of the back gardens. Raucous Australians were preparing a barbie.

As he drifted in his natural element, that state of consciousness on the borderland between waking and sleep, BS could smell burning charcoal, and sensed anger. He ignored it, and concentrated instead on imagining the future, on imagining the best.

Fidel, eh? You shouldn’t have crossed me, you shouldn’t have crossed me, Fidel. You’ll get what for, you’ll get what for. You don’t suffer from hives, eh? You don’t, Del? Are you sure, my boy? Are you sure?

A few minutes later, raised voices disturbed his tranquil state. There was some kind of altercation underway outback. No longer drowsy, BS threw on some clothes and went to investigate.

From the window of the back bedroom he saw that the garden next door was thronged with people, not only Australians, but Poles as well. There were two barbecues pluming grey smoke, but food didn’t appear to be the main attraction for these young men and women: no, they had gathered to get slaughtered. A black plastic dustbin was brimming with ice and cans of beer, and the Poles were doing vodka shots. There was an amusing drinking game in progress as well: with the aid of a funnel and a tube, an Aussie girl in cut-off jeans and a bikini top was able to consume half a litre of lager in two seconds flat. The Big Shilling watched as the girl gripped the handle of an upright garden hoe and attempted to circle the implement as quickly as possible. To hysterical laughter, she spun out of control, and ended up on top of a heap of half-naked men.

It gave the Big Shilling an idea. Seeing that girl and the hoe, and the smoking charcoal and the booze, it gave him an idea.

‘Soma,’ he said, delighted, ‘polar. The goddess naked, surrounded by flames, her hair loose, wearing a necklace of skulls, and dancing on the still body of Shiva.’

The secret ritual. Why not attempt it? Why not indeed? The powers would come to him. He would have powers. Now, that would be something to put his biography, wouldn’t it, eh? Powers? Yes, it would.

‘This is not fair,’ the Big Shilling heard someone call plaintively from above. ‘This is not right, or fair.’

From the garden there were a variety of replies:

‘Stop your whingeing, mate.’

‘It’s the Owl Man, woo-woo!’

‘Come and have a beer, mate.’

‘Let your bloody hair down for once and have a laugh.’

The Owl Man, thought the Big Shilling leaving the bedroom, how interesting. He went up the narrow stairs to the second floor. The door to the balcony was ajar, and he could see the painter of owls leaning over the parapet, appealing to the good nature of the pissed partygoers below.

‘Peace and quiet, that’s all I want, a little bit of peace and quiet,’ said the young man. ‘You said there would be no more noisy parties. But all right, if you are to have a party at least let it not go on till the early hours – please?’

‘All right, mate,’ said the biggest of the Aussies, ‘no worries. We’ll call it a night before eleven.’

‘Thank you, Brandon,’ said the Owl Man, as though he actually believed what the rugger-bugger had said. ‘I’m going to go out now, so you can make as much noise as you want.’

‘Yeah, see you later, mate,’ said Brandon, sarcastically. ‘Remember to stand well back from the platform edge, won’t you? Don’t want you throwing yourself under a train.’

‘Brandon,’ chided a couple of the girls, but their voices were submerged in the general laughter.

The painter of owls turned away, brushing his unkempt chestnut hair out of his eyes, eyes which spoke of pain and confusion and angst. ‘Swine,’ he muttered, ‘why can’t they leave me alone?’ Then he saw the Big Shilling, who had been observing him from the shadows, and started. Amused, Shilling raised a hand in apology, but the boy was gone, scurrying inside like a rabbit down a hole.

After observing the party further, particularly the girl with the hoe, the Big Shilling went downstairs and finished getting dressed. He was planning a night out as well, and as he dressed, he sang himself some Sinatra, some Frankie, even going so far as to perform a few dance moves. But the noise from the garden put him off his stroke.

‘Better not keep me awake tonight, Brandon,’ he murmured. ‘That wouldn’t be a good idea, Brandon. Eh?’

When he was done, he collected the bag with the painting, and went downstairs. He was locking the front door when he noticed the Owl Man coming down the steps next door.

‘Evening,’ said the Big Shilling, not too loudly. ‘Sorry if I startled you.’

The Owl Man again looked startled, and it was obvious that he really didn’t want to be forced to converse.

‘It’s all right,’ he mumbled, before lowering his head and setting off down Sundheim Street, shoulders hunched, his hands in the pockets of baggy, paint-stained brown cords.

The Big Shilling took his time following, not wanting to spook the young man further. But it soon became apparent that their destination was the same: Notting Hill Gate tube station. The Owl Man went through the turnstile, while Shilling went to the window to buy a Lobster card from a West Indian. He paid in cash, two twenty-pound notes, and admired the artistry of the black lady’s nail technician which earned him a shy smile.

Once on the eastbound platform, which was practically deserted, he encountered the Owl Man again. They stood well apart in the tunnelled heat, Mr Shilling relaxed and smiling, the Owl Man fidgeting in a threadbare tweed jacket, pacing up and down aimlessly, never calm, never still. Three minutes later, they boarded the same Central Line train. And both got off, eight minutes after that, at Oxford Circus. On the busy escalator, with its faint breeze of lukewarm air, Shilling stood behind him. The Owl Man glanced back, nervously.

‘Are you going to see Aunt Mimi?’ Shilling asked him.

The Owl Man nodded gravely.

‘Me too. She owns both houses, does she?’

The Owl Man nodded again. The Big Shilling climbed up the escalator until he was two steps in front of him. Since the Owl Man was stooping, they were at about eye level. Shilling pointed a finger at him.

‘You’re a painter,’ he said.

‘Not a very good one.’

The answer was immediate, and, Shilling decided, characteristic.

‘I’ve got a painting you might like to see, in my bag.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘It’s by probably the greatest British painter of the twentieth century.’

The Owl Man’s interest was piqued. ‘Bacon?’

The Big Shilling smiled. ‘The one and only Francis,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’


‘Well, Geoffrey, I’m very pleased to meet you, eh, very pleased indeed.’

They reached the top of the escalator and proceeded, side by side, to the exit.

‘Have you really got a painting by Bacon in there?’ asked Geoffrey, boyishly.

‘As God is my witness,’ said the Big Shilling with solemnity.

Geoffrey’s eyes goggled.

‘Lead the way or lead astray,’ said Shilling. ‘I’ve never been to Mimi’s club before.’

‘Haven’t you? I think you’ll like it. It can get quite busy on a Saturday night. Auntie is always there. It’s hot, isn’t it? I’m rather thirsty.’

‘Are you going to speak to her about Brandon?’

Like a child, Geoffrey’s emotions immediately revealed themselves in his facial expression. Now he was anxious again.

‘Not sure there’s much point,’ he said. ‘I’ve mentioned the parties to her before, and she talks to them, she does, and it’s a bit quieter for a day, or even two, but then it goes back to the same way it was before.’

‘Well, maybe I’ll have a word as well. I’ve just moved in, you see, and I don’t want to listen to a racket from next door.’

‘Would you?’ said Geoffrey, hopefully.

‘In fact,’ said the Big Shilling, ‘I’ll probably be having a word with Brandon myself, hey?’

‘Oh, I see. He’s a nice chap really, just likes to let off steam. They all work jolly hard, you know, twelve hour shifts six days a week. At least I don’t have to. I mean I can’t, really.’

By now they had exited the station and were heading into Soho. The hot streets of the megalopolis were packed and rammed, and Geoffrey kept getting in other people’s way, and had to dart and skip to keep up with the Big Shilling who ploughed through the throng in his usual energetic manner, letting others get out of his way.

‘Are you a painter?’ Geoffrey said suddenly. ‘I mean if you don’t mind my asking.’

‘No, I’m not. You could say I’m a psycho-therapist.’

‘Oh,’ said Geoffrey, ‘are you? I see. That must be really fascinating.’

The Big Shilling guessed that young Geoffrey had had more than his fair share of dealings with the psychiatric and psychological professions, and really didn’t want to be reminded of it.

‘You know, I think I’ve changed my mind. I might just go and get a coffee somewhere, or go for a walk, or something. Or . . .’

But the Big Shilling didn’t stop moving, and the indecisive Geoffrey was forced to keep moving as well.

‘And miss out on the chance of seeing a Bacon that has been out of the public eye for over thirty years?’ Shilling said, smiling amicably. ‘Come on, Geoffrey, I’m new in town. Everyone needs a friend.’

‘I suppose they do. Are you American, by any chance? I mean, your accent, sorry, can’t quite place it.’

‘No, I’m a cosmopolitan, Geoffrey my boy. I’m a citizen of the world.’

Geoffrey smiled shyly.

‘Oh, all right then, you’ve convinced me,’ he said, and pointed up the street. ‘It’s not very far now, up there on the left. Glasp Mews, it’s called. Oliver Glasp was a painter. A bit like Van Gogh, in fact. Do you know him? It’s busy on a Saturday. That’s why I only come on Sundays, or Mondays sometimes. Aunt Mimi doesn’t like it if I keep myself to myself. She says it’s not good for me to spend so much time alone.’

Geoffrey was right. The New Colony Club was busy. In fact, it was standing room only, but at least there was air-con, as advertised on the torched flyer. At the top of the stairs, after by-passing the bouncers and negotiating the foul-mouthed greeter, Geoffrey held open the door, looking inside in what was almost despair. The Big Shilling ignored him, running an amused eye over the signs instead: No vaping. It is against the law to smoke in these premises. This is a gay-friendly space – respect it. We are a member of Soho Door Watch. Anybody found using or dealing illegal drugs will be banned for life and the police informed. On and on they went, the rules and regulations. Yep, the New Colony Club might have been as busy as the old place Shilling remembered, but it could not have been more different.

‘Come on, Geoffrey. Piss, or get off the pot,’ he said, encouragingly, and pushed the young man through the door.

‘Are you a member?’ Geoffrey asked him, looking surprised. ‘If not, I can sign you in as my guest. It’s cheap to join, just a pound for life membership.’

The Big Shilling laughed. ‘Anyone can join, eh?’ he said. ‘No distinctions anymore. The inclusive economy, eh? Well, Mimi invited me in. I don’t need to be a member.’

But Geoffrey couldn’t hear what he said because a noisy group of Tamils or Sri Lankans was politely pressing around them, ferrying drinks from the bar. The Big Shilling walked through them, tugging Geoffrey along by the hem of his disgraceful tweed jacket. Have to take him to my tailor. Have to, eh?

‘Sorry,’ said Geoffrey, ‘so sorry. I do beg your pardon.’

Eventually, the crowd grew too thick to penetrate. After a moment, Geoffrey tapped the Big Shilling faintly on the shoulder.

‘Sorry, Mimi’s over there.’

‘Lead the way, Geoffrey, or lead astray. I can’t see a thing from down here.’

So Geoffrey led the way, inching between people, apologising, over and over again.

‘The Owl Man cometh,’ the Big Shilling heard Mimi say, and not in a friendly fashion.

‘Hullo, Auntie!’ Geoffrey cried. ‘I’ve brought a friend.’

Mimi was perched on a stool at the end of the bar, drinking gin. She did not deign to look at the puppyish young man, so her face was in profile and the Big Shilling was reminded of the famous optical illusion of the pretty young maid and the old hag. In profile, like the tips of a crescent moon, Mimi’s nose and chin arced to meet each other. It was only when she turned her head that she looked younger, and much more attractive. Now she saw him and, as though a switch had been thrown, her expression changed from frosty to delight.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘so this is your friend, Geoff! Why didn’t you say?’

‘Yes, er,’ said Geoffrey. He didn’t know the Big Shilling’s name and was too shy to ask.

‘Hello, Mimi,’ said Shilling.

‘How lovely to see you! And you’ve met the wonderful Geoffrey. So nice to be neighbourly, isn’t it?’

‘Er,’ began Geoffrey, ‘Mimi?’

‘What is it, dear?’


‘Silly, it’s not your housemates been bothering you again?’

‘Geoffrey?’ said the Big Shilling. ‘Mimi? If I may, I think I can take care of this, eh. I’ll just have a little word with Brandon and sort it all out.’

‘Would you?’ said Mimi. ‘I’d be so grateful. You see, I have, in the past, but I think Brandon would respond better if . . .’

‘Say no more, Mimi,’ said the Big Shilling, sick of the sound of duplicity. The woman punched taxi drivers in the head, she could certainly cow a cretin like Brandon. ‘Allow me. Now, on the way over here I promised young Geoffrey a look at a painting.’

The Big Shilling pushed empty glasses out of the way with a forearm and laid his bag on the bar.

‘It’s by Francis Bacon,’ explained Geoffrey.

‘What!’ said Mimi.

‘Oh dear, sorry. Did I spoil the surprise?’

‘You’ve spoilt nothing,’ Shilling assured him. ‘First the photographs, eh? As you know, Francis didn’t like to paint from memory, let alone from life. He preferred to work from photos. These were taken by Carl Castering. You both know Castering, don’t you, the infamous thief and drunkard? Have a look, Geoffrey. Go on, open the envelope, it won’t bite.’

The young man opened the envelope with some reverence. The Big Shilling awaited his reaction.

‘No,’ he said. ‘This is you. Isn’t it? It’s you, when you were younger. I mean, is it? Yes, it is. Good Lord.’

‘What’s going on?’ asked Misha Bent, appearing from a mirrored door.

‘Bacon,’ said Mimi, excitedly taking the photos from the Owl Man. ‘Bacon.’

‘Uh?’ said Misha.

‘You’re a philistine,’ said Mimi, scathingly. ‘He’s a philistine, ignore him. Look at these, they’ve been retouched.’

‘By the master himself,’ said Shilling.

‘Oooh,’ said Mimi, ‘don’t keep us in suspense, I can hardly stand it.’

‘All right,’ said the Big Shilling, bringing out the painting, ‘feast your eyes, lady and gentlemen.’

He held up the master’s work for them to examine. It was Misha Bent who spoke first.

‘Hey,’ he said, ‘Bacon. Now I know who you mean. It’s the guy who did them screaming popes.’

‘Maybe he’s not so stupid,’ said Mimi, in passing. ‘Oh my God, is it real? Tell me it is.’

‘It is,’ said Geoffrey, reverently. ‘No one else could paint like this. The photos are obviously Castering.’

‘You know your art, my boy,’ said the Big Shilling.

‘I should hope so,’ Mimi interjected.

‘Big, contrasting blow-ups,’ said Geoffrey, ‘showing every pore and blemish.’

Overjoyed, the kid’s face gleamed with excitement.

‘That’s right, Geoffrey,’ said Shilling. ‘Hey, I’m proud of you, eh? You come alive, eh, you come alive when you’re in the presence of genius.’

Geoffrey blushed and briefly hung his head, a big smile on his boyish face.

‘Is there any label or a gallery mark on the back?’ asked Mimi, rubbing her hands together.

‘There’s a label,’ said Shilling, ‘but it was never exhibited. Francis gave it to me. He told a lot of people he painted that he’d give them the painting, but he never did. With me, he was different.’

He turned the painting round so that Mimi could read the label: ‘Study for a portrait of R.H. 1971.’

‘1971,’ Misha repeated, taking out his phone.

‘Why was he different?’ asked Geoffrey, solemnly. ‘With you, I mean? Sorry.’

‘Well, Geoffrey, I was a different man myself back then. I was a tough kid who only knew how to talk with his fists. As you know, Francis was a masochist, liked to be beaten up. Well, back then I liked to hurt people. Don’t look so worried, my boy, that was then, this is now. Now I like to help people. And Francis, well, let’s say he decided it was best if he handed over the painting. Shortly after, I went away, so to speak, and we stopped seeing each other.’

Geoffrey was goggle-eyed at this. He leaned back, away from the Big Shilling, as though in awe of him, and regarded him from a greater distance. Someone else was goggle-eyed as well: Misha Bent.

‘Well, whadda you know? The little guy wasn’t snowing us,’ he said, showing the screen of his phone to Mimi.

Mimi raised her voice, because the unveiling of the painting and the photographs had earned them something of a crowd, saying, ‘It’s genuine, everybody, it’s genuine! A real-life Francis Bacon, here in the New Colony Club! Never before been exhibited.’

There was a clamour of excitement.

‘Drinks on the house, Mimi?’ called a wag.

‘Any more talk like that and I’ll bar you for fucking life,’ said Mimi, to a gale of laughter.

‘Here,’ said the Big Shilling, preening himself, delighted to be the centre of attention. ‘Take it. Put it behind the bar.’

‘Really?’ said Mimi. ‘I can hardly speak.’

Misha, however, was looking at the Big Shilling like he was the biggest dumb ass he’d ever met.

‘You can display it for a few weeks,’ the Big Shilling went on, ‘while I’m in town.’

Mimi took the painting. ‘If you’re sure, dearie.’

‘Sure I’m sure.’

‘You know how much the portraits of George Dyer made, don’t you?’ she said, eagerly. ‘There were three of them, but they made something like twenty-five mill at auction. This must be worth six or seven at least.’

The Big Shilling reached across the bar and gripped the painting by the frame. ‘Maybe I’ll change my mind, Mimi, if you keep crowing about how much it’s worth. Maybe I’ll change my mind, hey?’

‘Oh no,’ said Mimi, quickly. ‘I didn’t mean anything by it.’

The Big Shilling was looking into her eyes as she spoke and he could see she was furious at being criticised, and in her own club as well, in front of a crowd of sycophants she doubtless called her friends.

‘Here, Misha,’ said the Big Shilling, ‘hang it.’

‘You sure?’ asked Misha, his voice surly. ‘You better change your mind now, because once I hang something, it stays hanged.’

Shilling grinned at him. ‘Go get your toolbox, Misha.’

Misha grinned back at him, humourlessly, and took the painting from him.

‘Geoffrey, I want you to have the photos.’

‘Oh no, really?’

‘To remember me by, my boy. You know, Castering said Francis Bacon could be tender, generous, and cruel? Well, me, I’m just tender and generous, these days anyway. Mimi, give this young man a drink. Can’t you see he’s dying of thirst here? Give him a drink with plenty of ice. His face is all red, he needs to cool down.’

‘Your money’s no good here tonight,’ said Mimi with a sniff.

The Big Shilling winked at her and, unnoticed, slid a twenty into Geoffrey’s top pocket.

And with that, the Big Shilling slipped away. He slipped away through the gossiping crowd because the idiotPhones had come out and people were asking if he’d pose with his portrait, and what was his name again? Also, he had spied his quarry, the Latina diplomat, unlucky Loretta. He’d spied her in the mirrors behind the bar, drawn to the Bacon portrait like a moth to the flame.

At the door he turned and looked back through the throng. Loretta was speaking to Geoffrey the Owl Man who had a cold glass in his nervous hand. Loretta was asking if she could look at the photographs, and in his eagerness to accommodate her, Geoffrey spilled them on the floor. Quickly, he gathered them up and the girl examined them, clearly fascinated.

‘I am the power,’ said the Big Shilling to himself. ‘I cause it to happen. I imagine the best, and I create the future. My imagination is a godlike power, oh yes.’

The Killing House – extract

Faun, 1898, by Wilhelm von Gloeden
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.

Chapter 22

‘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.’

‘What about?’

‘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.’