GOD'S LONELY MAN
The wind rocked the car and spray broke across the traffic-lanes and misted the seaward window. Falcon kept the black limousine in view through the swish of his own wipers. He glanced at the ruined West Pier, buffeted by the unusually high sea. He wondered if this was the day it finally sank beneath the waves.
The limousine pulled off the promenade onto the narrow drive in front of the Grand Hotel. The doorman hurried to open the rear door with one hand, unfurling with a sweep of his arm the umbrella in his other. Falcon’s target took a moment to exit the car then climbed the steps into the hotel.
Falcon picked up the book from the passenger seat and climbed from his car, his stiff left leg caught up in his clothing. He cursed as spray spumed over the promenade railing and slapped him in the face. He hated Brighton.
Wiping the stinging saltwater from his eyes he hobbled across the road, anger rising as he saw the doorman give him a look that mixed amusement, contempt and pity.
“Don’t I get your umbrella?” Falcon snapped as he drew level.
“Bit late for that,” the doorman said, gesturing to Falcon’s wet hair plastered to his head.
Falcon fought down the urge to drive his fist into this man’s stupid, smirking face.
“Four thirty,” the doorman said, the smirk replaced by fear as he saw something in Falcon’s eyes. “His driver is parking.”
Falcon hauled his leg up the steps, limped across the extravagant foyer and stood aside as the lift doors opened, disgorging a boisterous trio of women. They walked to the bar, arms casually draped about each other’s shoulders, glancing back at him and giggling.
Falcon had never known that kind of camaraderie with men and certainly not with women. He’d never known intimacy with a woman except as a transaction. Instead of love he’d only known loss.
He entered the lift, praying for the doors to close before anyone else joined him. As they were closing, a long-fingered hand thrust between them. Falcon’s face contorted for a moment. He had expected God to abandon him, given his line of work. What he hadn’t expected was that God would keep spitting in his face.
A petite blonde wearing a slash of red lipstick, a short skirt and an apologetic smile stepped into the lift. She looked Falcon up and down. Falcon looked straight ahead. The woman stood too close, her perfume engulfing him. Falcon watched her reflection in the polished brass, his emotions shifting between longing and loathing.
The lift stopped at four. He brushed past her the moment the doors opened and set off down the corridor. The corridor was thickly carpeted but at four twenty two he realised there were soft footfalls behind him. He paused, fiddling with the book in his hand.
Her perfume preceding her, the woman walked past him, hips swaying. When she’d gone a few yards ahead he followed more slowly. He passed four hundred and twenty four, four hundred and twenty six. She continued along the corridor.
He stopped at four hundred and thirty. The woman had slowed, looking at a piece of paper in her hand. Falcon hesitated, his fist half-raised to knock on the door. She came back down the corridor and stopped beside him. She laughed throatily.
“This should be interesting,” she said as she reached over to rap on the door. She pointed at the Bible in his hand then touched her breasts. “Which do you think he’s going to go for, Father - The Good Book or the Bad Girl?”
Falcon gave her a tight smile and stepped to one side, his cassock swishing against his legs. He gestured for her to move directly in front of the fish-eye glass set in the door.
“I’m sure he’d rather see you than me,” he said.
He heard the chain being removed on the inside of the door. The woman glanced at him then moistened her lips.
Falcon took the gun from the Bible’s hollowed out pages and let the book fall to the floor. He barged the opening door with his shoulder and shot the man through the right eye.
The man slumped to the floor as Falcon turned the gun on the woman. She was terrified, he could see, but she didn’t make any sound. She held his eye as she reached for the door and pulled it shut.
He should kill her. He gestured to the lift as he stooped to pick up the Bible. She walked ahead of him. She watched him as he pressed the button. He examined her face. Longing or loathing. Love or loss. He had four floors to decide.
ONE DAY IN CARACAS
The wind rocked the car, and spray broke across the traffic-lanes and misted the seaward window. On the landward side, pink, blue and yellow shanty houses clung to the steep sides of the Cordillera de la Costa, the coastal mountain range that separated Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, from the Caribbean Sea.
I was in Venezuela to visit two of the world’s wonders: Angel Falls and the table-top tepui, Mount Roraima, which helped inspire Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World of dinosaurs, pterodactyls and ape men. Both are on most lists of things to see before you die. The paradox was that visiting Venezuela increased my chances of dying before I could see either.
For Caracas is the murder capital of the world. All the official and unofficial advice I received when planning my trip to this Caribbean city could be reduced to one statement: don’t go.
I was in the taxi from the airport. It was slow progress because in Venezuela a tank of petrol was cheaper than a bottle of water so everybody drove. I didn’t care as I was settling my nerves. The list of things I had been advised to be aware of when arriving at the airport had alone been enough to induce a paroxysm.
President Hugo Chavez, in hospital in Cuba at the time, was a Marxist liberator to some, another in a long line of dictators to others. However he was regarded, he had demonstrably failed to bring law and order to his country.
At the airport being sold counterfeit currency by spivs was the least of my worries. There was also a strong risk of mugging, kidnap or murder (by accident or design).
Men in uniform wouldn’t necessarily help. I had been advised that if a drugs officer, a customs officer or a policeman in a blue uniform (there was another lot in khaki) asked me to go to their office in a quieter part of the airport that was because the officer himself was about to mug, kidnap, murder or, at the very least, extort me.
I was told to blend in. How a six feet four, white, middle-aged man was supposed to do that surrounded by darker-skinned people half his size wasn’t made clear.
At my five star hotel, before I was allowed into the rooftop bar, I was frisked beneath a poster of a handgun with a red prohibition sign across it and “This is a weapons-free zone” written in Spanish below it.
I watched the sun sink behind the cloud-capped mountains as I drank a mojito. I was discussing currency with the bar manager. Chavez had set the exchange rate at four bolivars to the dollar: so ridiculously high that a Big Mac, if you were that way inclined, cost about $16.
The rate made Venezuela an impossibly expensive country so a sophisticated black market existed for the “paraleles dolares” - a parallel exchange rate of anywhere between 12 and 17 bolivars to the dollar.
To profit from that more reasonable rate involved another irony. I had brought large amounts of cash into one of the most crime-ridden, insecure countries in the world.
At two in the morning on that first night I was woken by what I thought were fireworks. It was a gun-battle at the end of the street: semi- automatics and single-shot handguns. It went on for fifteen minutes.
In the morning I changed some dollars with the doorman. I put the money in my shoes. (I know, I know.) I had so many bolivars packed beneath my feet I knew what Alan Ladd felt like raising himself up to play opposite Veronica Lake in This Gun For Hire.
As I headed to the Metro on the corner, looking for bloodstains on the pavement (none visible) the doorman called after me:
“Remember to get inside before it goes dark to be safe.”
After four stops on the Metro and I went nervously into a concrete complex, part shopping mall, part distressed Barbican. Two enormous, crumbling blocks of flats loomed over it. Gang-controlled. In the middle of a covered labyrinth of concrete walkways was the ruggedly beautiful Museum of Contemporary Art.
Not quantity but quality. In one room a Chagall and a Miro. Standing in front of four Picassos I watched through the floor to ceiling windows an angry encounter between two groups of young men on a stained concrete terrace.
To pay for lunch in a tapas bar I retreated to the loo and peeled off my socks. The concealed bolivars were stuck to the soles of my feet. I left Caracas with a blurred image of Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of South America, on the sole of my foot. Can that be right?