Connery (Part 21)
A Speculative Novel
The night after the funeral I had met the man who had been in the tourist party in front of the church. He gave me the memory card. From this I printed out A4 matt photographs of Jennifer, Oliver Arrow, Alan Paulson and sundry others. Their security had been far too relaxed and even those who were paying attention could hardly wade into a crowd of holiday makers and started snatching phones and cameras off of them. There was supposed to be a sort of truce anyway with this sort of thing. Funerals and what not. State actors could make this kind of deal, but I was not a state. San Gimignano had been perfect for my purposes. In Venice private islands can be strictly controlled. England was not neutral territory, but everyone had been thrown by San Gimignano. They were all on their back feet. Once I had the photographs, I slipped them into my envelopes with the appropriate green slips. I altered my appearance once more and started using a passport I had bought privately which came with a driving license and a bank account. I was a Frenchman now called Pierre Avalon. I spoke nothing but French. My hair dyed and cut short, revealing its incipient thinning: my beard shaved, leaving only my moustache, my clothes from now on would be suits. Always suits. Tailored suits and silk shirts. I was wealthy. I formed a company called Avalon Security, sunk some money into it, rented premises in the town of Cannes on the Cote d’Azur, hired a secretary and accountant and then began to recruit ex-servicemen, foreign legionnaires and bruisers of semi-criminal reputations. Then I started to bid for security jobs, parties, private functions and events, personal security, corporate, the whole range. I hired a bilingual manager to deal with international clients and another manager who had run a similar firm, doubling his salary and he helped shepherd over to our company a whole swath of his former employers’ clientele. By October, we were beginning to get steady work. Occasionally, I travelled to various parts of the world to deliver an errand. I would go to England or Japan: I even returned to the United States of America. I never stayed anywhere more than 24 hours and usually much less. I would land, take a taxi to an address that I had found in Tom Arrow’s notebook, ring the bell or knock on the knocker. And I would do what had been done to me on many occasions. It was the same recognition, a little spark – as quick and as bright and as over – of excitement, followed by an almost instantaneous blankness. They weren’t recognizing me. No one knew who I was any longer. They were recognizing the white envelope I had in my hand. They would take it. Nod. There were no words; no further instructions. The taxi might even be waiting for me on the corner and if not, I would hail another one and go straight back to the airport and catch the next flight to wherever. I would work my way back to Europe and then get the high velocity train down to Cannes or fly in to Nice.
The money would be transferred to their bank accounts at some point in the future. Dates and times and amounts were not specified. There was no date given, no imperative. The looseness had suited Tom and it suited me to. Especially because the fees were huge, and I was working from ample but finite resources. But one by one all the people who had known me, all the people who had something, some leverage, some power over me would be gone. I would become nothing more than a name on a file. Perhaps a name on a watch list. A light that would blink on. A small icon that would appear at the corner of a screen. But I wasn’t using my name anymore and so what did that matter?
Alan Parlson was sprayed with a radioactive isotope which poisoned his blood and he was admitted into hospital on a Friday and was dead before the weekend was over, his skin turned magenta. His case became fodder for a million conspiracy theories which all worked in my favour. The hyperrational pouring over details and background became embarrassing to the CIA and they did their best to cover up the more suspicious elements of the death. There was also the risk of that this could escalate. The fingerprints for this kind of assassination were of course the Russians and the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or the FSB. With the ongoing problems in Afghanistan and Iraq, the last thing the Americans wanted to do was open up another front and so although back channels buzzed and sanctions were applied, there was also an attempt to deescalate tensions, made all the more difficult by the Russians obstinacy in claiming that they had not been involved even though the isotope used could be traced back to a Russian weapons facility. They had locked the mission down to such an extent that even informers high up in Putin’s circle had had no wind and the theory was quickly circulating in the CIA that maybe there was someone in the FSB who had gone rogue and were working to sow discord between the US and Russia for their own purposes. It wasn’t a bad theory and the narrative had its own lulling logic.
My days at Avalon Security were full of meetings and organization. The people we employed were apt to their own misbehaviour and being generally men of violence – although we did hire some women as well (also of violence) – than they always needed to be handled carefully. We also began to gather a little bit of intelligence for blackmail purposes. This blackmail didn’t need to be too overt. A lot of bad things happened at the events and parties and clients would give bonuses to make sure that evidence went away, NDAs were signed by the people who had been in some way abused and local law enforcement officials were finessed. Although based in Cannes, we were soon working all along the south coast of France and into Italy and Switzerland. Our rivals were also tough people and even sent a small team to have me beaten up, but I was tipped off and the team were ambushed, thoroughly beaten, stripped naked and left high up in the Pyrenees. No one died but it being December there was some pneumonia and some lost toes or fingers or some other exposed digit and I wasn’t directly attacked again.
Many tried to find out what my background really was, who I really was. Everyone assumed that I was using a fake name, but no one managed to get very far. Fortunately, in the private security business, this kind of anonymous shadiness is actually a recommendation. If you can protect yourself so well then you must be able to protect me, ran the logic. It also meant that there were stories I was from the French Foreign Legion or some other elite fighting force perhaps I had worked for French intelligence or was a hitman for the Corsican mafia. It was fun to allow these ideas to come and go and I was always in the process of changing my appearance subtly. I had taken to using a tanning machine, so that my skin was now very dark compared to what it had been. I had changed my posture and the way I walked. I had acquired little gestures I had seen that I had never used myself. I steepled my fingers for instance while thinking, like Dr. Mike. Sometimes I would point at people repeatedly as I was talking to them. Again, this was a foreign gesture. It helped of course that I was immersed in the French language. Allowing my accent to glide between Parisian and somewhere a little further north. No one ever took me for anything other than a mother tongue speaker. Any strangeness was put down to extensive foreign travel, perhaps service overseas. There’s a bit in Highlander where a New York Cop says to Christophe Lambert: ‘Where you from Nash? You talk funny.’ And he replies: ‘Lots of different places.’ That was where I was from too. ‘Lots of different places.’ Except Lambert who spoke no English and had learned his lines phonetically says: ‘Laats of deferent plaaces.’
Ollie died of liver failure. As one of his friends said at his funeral, ‘It was a shock, but not a surprise.’ From the point of view of MI5, it didn’t really register. His career had been on the slide. The drinking had become more than problematic. There’s an age – I think it’s about twenty-nine – when a heavy drinker stops being a bon vivant life and soul of the party type and becomes more recognizably a derelict mistaking a bank machine for a urinal embarrassment type. And once his father had died earlier that year, a lot of the good will that had umbrellaed him from the pouring rain of his own self-hosed scandal fell in tatters about him. Reprimands and tribunals were to follow. Garden leave and suggestions of early retirement and perhaps working on that novel you keep boring us about. Etc. etc. etc. So when his liver failed quite catastrophically no one spent much time investigating or calling for second opinions. The guy he had gone out drinking with on the last bender had disappeared into the London dawn like many another temporary drinking companion and no one would discover a small puncture wound in the small of his back. Jennifer visited him in hospital but at the stage he had already gone into a coma and within the week he was dead. The funeral was well attended because he was a popular man and Jennifer tried to contact me, but I had apparently disappeared she was told. This must have worried her a little bit because she wrote me a brief series of emails, expressing her concern and wishing to meet up again. They were dry and funny, the way she always was, though in the last one she dropped her defences and irony to tell me that she was pregnant and although she hadn’t had sex with her husband for six months, she was minded to keep the baby despite the chaos it would wrought on her own domestic tranquillity. I was going to be a dad.
‘I might be getting soppy in my old age,’ she wrote, ‘but I am fond of you, Samuel, my boy. I don’t know how that happened and I’m positive it isn’t mutual. But all the same the idea of getting something, some issue, out of our tristing is not without a certain appeal.’
Her husband had not taken the news well and they were already getting lawyers involved to negotiate the custody of the children when she was hit by a lorry while out cycling and instantly killed. I was assured by the reports that her death was most likely painless, or at least very quickly over with. I didn’t like thinking of her arched on the tarmac, bones jutting from torn flesh, bleeding and frightened. So, I didn’t.
It’s something strange about pain. It’s easy to believe that because your death will be so catastrophic an event for everything you are and your very place in the universe that it must also be the most painful thing you will ever feel. You can’t even imagine the agony that dying must be. But having been present when a fair number of people have died, I am forced to observe that their deaths can be relatively painless and, towards the end especially, quite dreamy. As the blood leaks out and the brain is no longer receiving what it needs to light up the pain and the alarm boards that it uses to keep us in check. A trip to the dentist or a nasty fall, burning your hand, stubbing your toe or trapping your finger in a door. All of these things can be much more painful than your actual passing. And violent death is particularly overrated from a pain point of view, as compared to something like a good bout of stomach cancer, or some dreadful drawn out flu-like expiration.
Arnie Cohen for instance didn’t feel anything when he died. I know for a fact that he was probably the happiest he’s ever been. He felt as far as I can imagine a feeling of elation. There would have been a feeling not dissimilar to going over the top of the highest peak of a rollercoaster, feeling like this was impossible and then the moment of stillness at the top, the breeze in your hair, looking down at the people like ants and then the bottom falls out of the universe and you plummet with terminal speed towards a candy floss forever. The reason I know this is because Connery was chosen for a Midnight Screening ‘Out of Competition’ slot for the Cannes film festival. However, it was no longer called Connery but was instead called Shatner, and William Shatner played himself, or at least a version of himself and that choice alone in my opinion made the film more kitsch and sillier. Sean Connery had a gravitas and seriousness and he looked more or less how he’s looked for years. He was already old when he was doing James Bond and when he left Bond for the final time in Never Say Never Again in 1983, he was obviously way too old. He’d already started playing his old men mentors. Instead Shatner went from Star Trek to TJ Hooker and then back to the Star Trek movies and had never really grown old gracefully. He was no one’s idea of a mentor. So, for me it didn’t fit the role. I got a ticket to the screening through my contacts and we had been hired to do a number of the parties especially the French and Spanish ones. Sitting and watching the movie felt strange. I had become so disassociated from the story that it no longer felt like my story at all. This had already begun when we had been working through the script, so I didn’t go in expecting that the film would be some sort of direct retelling of the life I had lived. The ages of the murder victims had been changed and the film positioned the main character, played by Keanu Reeves, as an anti-hero, someone who, despite being a serial killer, was also a nice guy. Loveable. You rooted for him. I suppose that had also been the original intention but seeing it up on screen dressed in movie star glamour felt wrong somehow. I had imagined this moment as a moment of triumph and the film seemed to go down well, though I’m told that the reaction at these screenings – we were in the Lumiere theatre which is enormous – can be deceptive because the filmmakers are in the room and unless the film is truly awful everyone applauds and makes the people in the room feel good. But I left as the ovation was into its second minute and didn’t look like wavering. I walked through the town back to my apartment, the upper story of a town house on the Rue de Grasse close to the police headquarters and railway station. I woke early one morning to the rumble of the nightly TGV coming from Paris or heading there. The reviews were only okay. Three stars mostly. Some fours; some twos. Criticisms of the casting of Keanu Reeves, not really fitting the role. A lot of confusion about whether it was a comedy or not. Too violent and gory to be properly light-hearted fun, and yet not serious enough to be considered horror. Critics asked: what was it for? Who was it for? My name was occasionally mentioned, or at least my nom de plume but as a first-time writer no one had much to say about me except that I wrote the script. Though I noticed that the director and Arnie had both added their names. I also got a ‘story by’ credit, but not as an executive producer. When I checked my email account much later on, as well as Jennifer’s messages I would also find urgent emails from Arnie and his people asking about the credit, notifying me of changes, giving me news about the Cannes premiere and the various festivals the film would tour before a general release in the US in November.
‘In time for the Oscars!’ Arnie wrote, hopeful/ironic.
The film wasn’t in line for any awards at Cannes because it had played – as I already said – out of competition. This meant that Arnie had no real reason to stick around, but Cannes was a good place to schmooze and with a high end product at his back, he had booked the week at the hotel, charged it to the studio that had already picked up distribution of the film internationally and spent the day in meetings with various producers and writers, trying to get other prospects off the ground and secure financing for some films that he already had ready to go. At night, he was invited to most of the good parties and so he made his way in that direction also. This is when he scored some amazing cocaine from one of the Algerian security guys and took it back to his room with a couple of young actors and their hangers on. The sun was almost coming up and he was already wondering whether it would make more sense to pack, do some more blow and then head to the airport. Or try and crash. Or even try and change his flight. Flying in this state could be okay, maybe he’d fall asleep and wake up feeling much better in Los Angeles. Or maybe he’d freak out on the plane and not have anywhere to go. And he couldn’t even remember where his connecting flight was. London? Or New York? The youngster at this stage had drifted off, realizing that Arnie, though he told some good stories, was just another producer in a hotel room and not the Wizard of Oz; and they had also picked up that in his hardness, there were going to be no easy favours given and – it being the end of the night – no largesse distributed. One more line of this exquisite blow and then a shower he reckoned. He was neat with his blow, paranoid about leaving a tell-tale mess. He did it on a normal-sized table that stood in the corner by the windows which he had opened to the breeze coming of the brightening green and blue of the Mediterranean and the gold of the rising sun.
‘Oh, Jeez, Sammy! he said, when he saw me and clutched his heart melodramatically. ‘Wooo. Hey man. You missed the party, the premiere. Or did you? I mean, did you see the film? You want to do a line. Or a drink. You don’t drink, but a line maybe? No, not a line either. Look, I tried to get in touch with you. You need to check your emails more carefully. Like look in the span folder as well. Things can get in there and you know… You look really good. I mean wow. Different. I almost didn’t recognise you. Listen if this about the casting, I did try and consult you. Connery is retired. He isn’t doing anything. Nothing at all. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was just a complete shit show and he doesn’t need it so he doesn’t want and it isn’t even about money. There was no money that would have made him do any film. And this film in particular. People wouldn’t even pass the script onto him. But you know…’
I nodded. ‘Finish your line.’
‘What?’ he said, confused. Then looked down at the cocaine in front of him as if someone else had put it there. ‘Oh, yeah. Right. You want some?’
‘No thanks, Arnie.’ It felt so odd speaking English again. What were all these consonants doing in my mouth?
After he’d done the line, he stood up and shook his head.
‘That was good,’ he said. ‘I wanted to ask you, as well, Sammy. Have you got anything else you’re working on? I mean the idea that you had was great but people are saying it was open ended. We’ll have to see what the numbers are like come December, but the studio is certainly interested in a sequel and if we can lock in Keanu and Bill, we could think about getting some seed money and having a script ready so that if they say yes we have something to go with.’
For some reason, Arnie had begun to shadow box around me. He was bouncing up and down on his feet.
‘Come here,’ he said. ‘Give me a hug.’
I folded him in a hug and he felt the prick under his armpit and let out a ‘yow!’ but the coke and the coke he had taken earlier in the night and now the other drug that was rushing in his bloodstream was giving him the feeling of euphoric invincibility. So, he waved away the prick. It didn’t matter.
‘I mean you and me,’ he said, clawing at his lips with his hands and dancing. ‘You and me, who knows what we could do? I mean kings of the world!? Maybe? Yeah! Or… or… or…’
His hands were now digging into the flesh around his heart and I manoeuvred him over to the sofa where he sat down with a soft thump, his jaw locked open and his breath coming out of his mouth at a high pitched wheeze as if he were a kettle that there was not enough water in as it was coming to the boil. His eyes bulged and his tendons came out on his neck, but he didn’t look unhappy. His arms and legs did starfish movements. His nose was bleeding like blood was water. He knew he was dying. He nodded at me and his eyes flickered with recognition. This was it. He looked excited.
Like this was going to be fun.