THE NEAREST EXIT (CHAPTER 1)
He felt that if he could put a name to it, he could control it. Transgressive association? That had the right sound, but it was too clinical to give him a handle on it. Perhaps the medical label didn't matter anyway. The only thing that mattered was the effect it had on him, and on his job.
The simplest things could trigger it--a bar of music, a face, some small Swiss dog crapping on the sidewalk, or the smell of automobile exhaust. Never children, though, which was strange even to him. Only the indirect fragments of his earlier life gave him that punch in the gut, and when he found himself in a freezing Zürich phone booth calling Brooklyn, he wasn't even sure what had triggered it. All he knew was that he had lucked out: No one answered. An early breakfast somewhere, perhaps. Then the machine picked up. Their two voices: a minor cacophony of female tones, laughing, asking him to please leave a message.
He hung up.
No matter the name, it was a dangerous impulse. On its own, it was nothing. An impulsive--maybe compulsive--call to a home that's no longer home, on a gray Sunday afternoon, is fine. When he peered through the booth's scratched glass at the idling white van on Bellerivestrasse, however, the danger became apparent. Three men waited inside that van, wondering why he'd asked them to stop here, when they were on their way to rob an art museum.
Some might not even think to ask the question, because when life moves so quickly looking back turns into a baffling roll call of moral decisions. Other answers, and you'd be somewhere else. In Brooklyn, perhaps, dealing with Sunday papers and advertising supplements, distractedly listening to your wife's summary of the arts pages and your daughter's critique of the morning's television programming. Yet the question returned as it had so many other times over the last three months: How did I end up here?
The first rule of Tourism is to not let it ruin you, because it can. Easily. The rootless existence, keeping simultaneous jobs straight in your head, showing no empathy when the job requires none, and especially that unstoppable forward movement.
Yet that bastard quality of Tourism, the movement, is also a virtue. It leaves no time for questions that do not directly relate to your survival. This moment was no exception. So he pushed his way out, jogged through the stinging cold, and climbed into the passenger seat. Giuseppe, the pimply, skinny Italian behind the wheel, was chewing a piece of Orbit, freshening the air they all breathed, while Radovan and Stefan, both big men, squatted in the empty rear on a makeshift wooden bench, staring at him.
With these men, the lingua franca was German, so he said, "Gehen."
Giuseppe drove on.
Each Tourist develops his own personal techniques to keep from drowning--verse recitation, breathing exercises, self-injury, mathematical problems, music. This Tourist had once carried an iPod religiously, but he'd given it to his wife as a reconciliation gift, and now he was left with only his musical memories. As they rolled past the bare, craggy winter trees and homes of Seefeld, the southern neighborhood stretching alongside Lake Zürich, he hummed a half-forgotten tune from his eighties childhood, wondering how other Tourists dealt with the anxiety of separation from their families. A stupid thought; he was the only Tourist with a family. Then they turned the next corner, and Radovan interrupted his anxiety with a single statement. "My mother has cancer."
Giuseppe continued driving in his safe way, and Stefan used a rag to wipe excess oil off of the Beretta he'd picked up in a Hamburg market last week. In the passenger seat, the man they knew as Mr. Winter--who toured under the name Sebastian Hall but was known to his distant family as Milo Weaver--glanced back at the broad Serb, whose thick, pale arms were crossed over his stomach, gloved fists kneading his ribs. "I'm sorry to hear that. We all are."
"I'm not trying to jinx anything," Radovan went on, his German muddied by a thick Belgrade accent. "I just had to say something before we did this. You know. In case I don't have a chance later."
"Sure. We get it."
Dutifully, Giuseppe and Stefan muttered their agreement.
"Is it treatable?" Milo Weaver asked.
Radovan looked confused, crammed in between Stefan and a pile of deflated burlap bags. "It's in the stomach. Spread too far. I'm going to have her checked out in Vienna, but the doctor seems to know what he's talking about."
"You never know," Giuseppe said as he turned onto another tree-lined street.
"Sure," Stefan agreed, then went back to his gun, lest he say something wrong.
"You're going to be with us on this?" Milo asked, because it was his responsibility to ask such things.
"Anger helps me focus."
Milo went through the details with them again. It was a simple enough plan, one that depended less on its mechanics than on the element of surprise. Each man knew his role, but Radovan--might he take out his personal troubles on some poor museum guard? He was, after all, the one with a gun. "Remember, there's no need for casualties."
They all knew this, if only because he had repeated it continually over the last week. It had quickly become a joke, that Mr. Winter was their Tante Winter, their old aunt keeping them out of trouble. The truth was that he had been through nearly three months of jobs they knew nothing about, none of which had claimed bystanders. He didn't want these recruits ruining his streak.
This was job number eight. It was still early enough in his return to Tourism that he could keep track, but late enough for him to wonder, and worry, about why all the jobs had been so damned easy.
Number four, December 2007. The whiny voice of Owen Mendel, acting director of Tourism, spoke through his Nokia: Please, go to Istanbul and withdraw fifteen thousand euros from the Interbank under the name Charles Little. You'll find the passport and account number at the hotel. Fly to London, and in the Chase Manhattan at 125 London Wall open an account with that money. Same name. Make sure customs doesn't find the cash. Think you can handle it?
You don't ask why because that's not a Tourist's prerogative. Simply believe that it's all for the best, that the whiny voice on the line is the Voice of God.
Job two, November 2007: There's a woman in Stockholm. Sigfreid Larsson. Two esses. She's at the Grand Hôtel on Blasieholmshammen. She's expecting you. Buy her and yourself a ticket to Moscow and make sure she gets to 12 Trubnaya ulica by the eighteenth. Got that?
Larsson, a sixty-year-old professor of international relations, was shocked but flattered by all the fuss made over her.
Jobs for children; jobs for third-rank embassy staff.
Number five, January 2008: Now this one is sensitive. Name's Lorenzo Peroni, high-scale arms dealer based in Rome. I'll text you the details. He's meeting with a South Korean buyer named Pak Jin Myung in Montenegro. I want you on top of him from when he leaves his apartment on the eighth until he returns on the fifteenth. No, don't worry about mikes, we've taken care of that. Just keep up the visual, hone your camera work.
As it turned out, Pak Jin Myung was no arms buyer but one of Peroni's many mistresses. The resulting photographs were more appropriate for English tabloids.
So it went. One more impotent surveillance in Vienna, the order to mail a sealed manila envelope from Berlin to a Theodor Wartmüller in Munich, a one-day Paris surveillance, and a single murder, at the beginning of the month. That order had been sent by text message:
L: George Whitehead. Consider dangerous. In Marseille for week starting Thurs.
George Whitehead, patriarch of a London crime family, looked about seventy, though he was in fact closer to eighty. No bullets were required, just a single push in the hotel steam room. His head cracked against the damp wall planks; the concussion knocked him out for life.
It hardly even felt like murder.
Others might have been pleased by the ease and inconsequence of these assignments. However, Milo Weaver--or Sebastian Hall or Mr. Winter--could not relax, because the ease and inconsequence meant only one thing: They were onto him. They knew, or they suspected, that his loyalties did not lie entirely with them.
Now this, another test. Get some money together. Ideally, twenty million, but if you can only get five or ten we'll understand.
Yes, dollars. You have a problem with that?
THE NEAREST EXIT. Copyright © 2010 by Third State, Inc.