The thundering applause washed over me. Smiling I nod to the musicians in front of me and turn around to face the audience. They are standing, shouting their ‘Bravos’, looking at me with the feverish eyes of people who for a short moment have touched the divinity. Rachmaninoff can do that to people, especially when his music is conducted by me.
Later that evening I find my self among empty bottles of champagne and two naked ladies from the orchestra. I can’t remember how I got here but judging from the amounts of colourful powders that can be found on almost every flat surface in my suite this is hardly any surprise. Moving to the Ethiopian Empire was one my best moves, these people really know how to party. I lie back immersing myself in waves of applause again.
Something isn’t right.
Who is doing the clapping? I slowly surface out of my dream back into the cold, smug reality of my roach infested apartment. The rain splatters against the dirty window of my ‘bedroom’.
I hate life; this feeling is the only thing that gives me a bit of warmth on days like these. Not long ago some hapless loser offended a little fuck of the local crime scene, who in turn destroyed the heat conveyor pipe leading to this building. It is small miracle that the building still has running albeit cold water and electricity.
I cast a look into the mirror. A look as wasted as my face.
No bother, no one is interested in my looks anyway. I adjust my tie, pick up my trench coat from the floor and shamble towards the door of my apartment. On the way I grab a bottle of cheap rye and snatch a glass from the floor. I finish breakfast before reaching the exit of my abode. I put the bottle back on the next flat surface I find and let the shot glass continue its wanderings over my uneven floor. After my cat left me for the milkman the little glass is the only pet I have left so I think it wise to let it have some freedom.
I shamble down a corridor that is kept blissfully dark by half a dozen broken light bulbs, while a lone flickering bulb tells me that there is still light at the end of the corridor. Must be my lucky day; I don’t step into any puddle of puke or stumble over some half dead junky on my way out.
Outside the rain waits for me. She hates me. The rain in all her spiteful disdain must be a woman. A few seconds later I am soaked. My temper manages to get a cold.
Three blocks later. I continue to try to light my terminally soaked cigarette when a curiously bent figure approaches me.
‘If you don’t intend giving me money you better piss of.’ I am not in the mood for beggars.
‘Mr. Kane it’s me!’
‘Yeah? So?’ Don’t know him. Don’t want to.
‘It’s me. Kennedy!’
A little bell approaches me and rings softly. It rings of money.
‘So did you bring me my money?’ hope dies last.
‘No sir.’ The odd angles under the grimy coat shift uneasily.
I pause. ‘Do you want me to hurt you Kennedy? Last time I saw you, you ran away with some first class information of mine. Information that was worth a lot of credits.’
‘I know Mr. Kane. But I bring you something far better than money?’
‘Yeah?’ I continue walking; it channels my anger into more productive channels. Beating up this little shit would not be worth the effort. It would also mean I would be late for work. I am never late for work.
‘Yes. Mr. Kennedy, I have very important information for you. It free!’
I snort without humour.
‘Well then share your priceless information.’ The irony gets lost and drowns in a nearby gutter.
‘Today could be the day you die, Mr Kane!’
I pause again; I send my glances ahead to kill the little fuck.
‘You dare threaten me?’
Again the shape under the coat reconfigures in a painful way.
‘No. No! Mr. Kane. Not after all you have done. You where always decent to me! No. No. No.’ I was decent to him? Fuck his life must be worse than mine. ‘A warning! Among friends!’
‘It has come to my ears Mr. Kane that someone has got wise about you. They say that your skills on the piano are only rivalled…’ the little heap comes closer ‘… by your singing voice.’
My eyes do a few spins in their sockets.
‘And who is so impressed by my vocal talents?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘With people like you on the streets, I can forget about my career as an informer Kennedy.’
‘No need to be sarcastic Mr. Kane. What I have found out is that someone has hired a professional to get rid of you. And I happen to know who the hit man is.’
I stand in the rain waiting. It takes some seconds until I realize that Kennedy is waiting for his cue.
‘So who is it?’
‘The Finnish Finish?’
Kennedy nods furiously sending a trail of glittering water towards my face.
I slowly start walking towards my work place again. This is bad news despite his idiotic name Matikainen is a well known killer. Renowned for his skill as well as for the handsome fees he demands for a hit. Seems like I have made some powerful enemies without even trying. A great talent of mine.
‘So we call it quits?’
‘I will look into it Kennedy and if what you say is true then yes we are quits. If I should survive this I’ll even get you a bottle of Scotch. From Scotland no less.’
Glaring eyes drift into daydreams.
‘Now piss off.’
‘Yes Mr. Kane.’
While I walked to the ‘Nightingale’ the third class bar and brothel where I held a glorious job as ‘pianist’ I thought about whose feathers I had so vigorously ruffled to earn this kind of attention. I was drawing more blanks than the interplanetary Russian roulette champion. Today would be my last day at work one way or the other so I better use my time wisely.
* * *
‘Punctual as always.’ The usual greeting.
‘Good morning Grace.’ I said moving the corners of my mouth upwards in an effort to be nice to the boss, Grace Garland the madam of my work place with a name even more fake than her body. She laughs at my stupid joke like every day when I arrive at 5 o’clock pm for work.
I walk to the grand piano in the corner of the bar taking the still steaming coffee and lit cigarette, my second breakfast, from my little ‘altar’, a rickety little shelf placed under a faded poster informing me about the next grand performance of Hamilton Kane and the Addis Ababa Philharmonic Orchestra. My younger self looks down on me. I take my coffee and turn away. Sitting down in front of the piano I start playing a tune that would have bored an elevator, thinking about my next step.
I have been improving my ridiculous salary by carefully brokering information among the local criminals who frequent this establishment to have a chat among friends including among others the Mafia, the Triads, local politicians and of course the police force. The refuse that accumulates here is mostly of the errand running and leg braking kind. While they usually have no clue why they are doing the shit they do, it does not take a genius to reconstruct the bigger picture from their ramblings.
I have been very careful to spread my info as discreetly as possible using the girls of the Nightingale or bums like Kennedy as middle men. The occasional big scoop I very carefully relayed to some idealist reporter with more guts than wits. The latter usually did not pay anything at all but brought me the priceless satisfaction of fucking with some corrupt asshole’s plans.
‘Hamilton, is it my birthday already?’ asked Grace.
‘Huh?’ I asked back with my usual effortless wit.
‘I never heard you playing a classical piece without you getting paid for it. And since I am the only one in the room...’ She leans closer. ‘Are you feeling lonely, little boy?’
‘Not particularly, but thanks.’ She is right. While my mind wandered I started to play the Rachmaninoff piece I had dreamt about. This was serious.
I keep playing the piano as the old day sheds its tattered raiment turning into the young and alluring night. I am thinking.
As long as I am working I am safe. No matter who I pissed off they would not kill me here. It would draw to much attention to a popular hangout of corruptions middle management. Besides who ever did the cleaning would implicitly admit of having killed me, and then the other groups would start wondering what exactly it was that I had known that made my killer so twitchy. They would start digging making things ugly.
My fingers dance over the keyboard with intense fury. I try to piece together all the information I had gathered in the last few weeks, looking at them from every possible angle trying to find the pattern that had scared one of the local big guys enough to pay a kings ransom to kill me. A second rate piano player in a cheap ‘establishment’.
I come up with something that would have made the local sect of Buddhists turn green with envy: nothing.
Whatever it is that I know I am still lacking crucial information. This meant that for the time being I was living on borrowed time and the owner of it was already quite impatient. If I mange to solve this little puzzle I get to live and maybe as an added bonus see one of the big ones fall. I imagine it as a great melodramatic moment full of arm flailing, burning coats and an inevitable fall into bottomless chasms.
Tapani Matikainen was known for his excellent taste, his spotless track record, his astronomical fees. Against a small fry like myself he had a clear disadvantage, he did not know the stinking byways of The Drain, the constantly dark side roads of Old Town, the web of alleys of Meat Street, the wet neon lit streets of Razors Edge or any other of the third rate neighbourhoods I had been slumming in for the past decade.
A faint smile weasels its way onto my face. I go from a bizarre little scherzo into a nocturne as a feeling of hope sets up camp in my heart. I look up for the first time in hours and almost skip a note. The tip glass in which I keep my spider web collection in is already half filled with a rather boisterous looking bunch of credit notes. Damn, it had taken me so long to collect all those webs.
In an attempt to find the source of the sudden riches I let my gaze wander over the room. I am greeted by more than a dozen faces watching my performance. That’s new.
My performance is still being seen off by a round of applause, another first, as I leave the Nightingale. Outside in the cold my friend the rain greets me with unbroken enthusiasm. Thick warm drops of water splatter on every surface creating tiny short lived fountains glowing in the many colours of the street’s ubiquitous neon signs.
The street is riddled with the usual assortment of bums moving along swaying unfathomable paths and hasty costumers trying to discreetly reach their destinations with all the inconspicuousness of a mime on a funeral. After a few blocks I enter a dark alley entering the labyrinth of tiny cramped byways of Meat Street. Some of them are so narrow that not even the rain reaches their bottom. I make sure that no one is following me and then I do it some more.
After two hours of general evasion I reach The Drain and decide that it is safe to leave the murky labyrinth and attempt to cross over into Razors Edge. A strange little quarter between Old Town, The Drain and Meat Street. I cross over from tight and cramped into wide and open.
The cool almost fresh air of Razors Edge envelops me as I take in the sight. A long time ago Harumadis the local Terraformer after decades of neglect came crashing down on the streets in protest. It took with it all the high-rises that dared to halt its wrathful decent, opening up the Razors Edge. Harumadis had been privately owned at that time its carcass was, after some quick calculations, left to rot where it fell. Buying politicians had almost always been the most cost effective way to get rid of troublesome situations. Decades passed, people moved in, removed some debris, set up camp and turned the ruins into Razors Edge. Today it was a busy little district declaring its political neutrality with amusing vehemence. Not that it stopped the local powers to fight over it like a pack of school girls but through the constant help of the people of Razors Edge they were kept in a constant deadlock at each others throats. So busy were they trying to kill each other that they usually forgot to terrorize the inhabitants of the little quarter.
The rain has become a constant drizzle soundlessly blanketing everything with a thin layer of moisture as I enter a long empty street, shining in the light of a impressive honour guard of bright streetlights. It is here that I see Matikainen for the first time. He looks like a Saint that has escaped from great window of some ancient European cathedral. Clad in a white suit, framed in a lazily fluttering coat hanging from his shoulders, wearing crimson silk scarf and surrounded by a faint glowing halo. While a deadbeat like me is destined to get soaked by Europas ever present rain he is untouched. His steps leave steaming impressions behind him on the street’s stone surface telling of his use of a rain shield repulsing the water. Rich kids these days.
‘Mr Kane, it is an honour to meet you.’ he says smiling. I am bit surprised his smile looks sincere. Haven’t seen one of those in a while.
‘Yeah. I am also thrilled to make your acquaintance Tapani.’
The smile gets company from slight surprise. They get along famously and beget mirth.
‘You know who I am?’
‘No I a just enjoy calling strangers by random Finnish names.’ Yes I should work with him, get on his good side, don’t give him a reason to kill me even sooner than he intends to.
‘Then you are aware of my mission?’
‘Yes. But I have to decline I tried the Watchtower once but was really disappointed when the world did not end and Jesus did not take me into his eternal heavenly palace.’ Another brilliant attempt to avoid provoking a hired killer.
‘I see that your sense of humour, is unfazed by the callousness of fate. I commend you Mr Kane.’ I hate his perfect diction.
‘Why the show? Do you enjoy playing around with your prey before the killing?’
The smile freezes. The softness of his voice is merged with something hard, folded a couple of times and forged into something dangerous.
‘Mr. Kane, a man as well informed as you should know better than that. If you know who I am, you will know that I complete my contracts in a fast and clean manner. I do not ‘play around’ with my targets, I do not torture them and I do not let them suffer. I do not enjoy killing. This simply happens to be the work I do.’
‘So why the melodrama?’ I am sure he will talk about his ‘art’ next. Nevertheless the more he talks the longer I have to find a way out this situation.
‘When I was but a child no older than one or maybe two years old I found my love for classical music.’
OK. That was unexpected.
‘My father always took me concerts.’ his smile became warm again his eyes started to sparkle. ‘I remember the first time when I went to a concert. I was twelve and listened to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. It was magical.’
‘So?’ I marvel at my conversational skills.
‘Mr. Kane truth be told, I am a big fan of yours. Sadly I am not old enough to have seen you life but I own all of your records. When I heard that I was to murder a man named Hamilton Kane I was slightly surprised. When I found out that it was The Hamilton Kane I was most distraught. I have thought about this unfortunate situation and come to the conclusion that you deserve some respect.’
‘So you are going to say sorry after you have killed me?’ I wonder if this could be considered a form of suicide.
‘Probably. But more importantly I will let you live…’
‘…for a while.’
Having being saved for such a cheesy reason would have been quite embarrassing but I would have learned to live with it. With a soft splash a small packet the size of a large brick lands in front of my feet.
‘In there you will find the 100,000 Credits I was paid in advance for this mission. They are yours to spend as you like. I will also grant you a ten day period of grace for you to enjoy what is left of your life. Seeing the wretched state that you are in it looks like I am doing you a favour, if you don’t mind me being so blunt, Mr Kane.’
‘Ten days? Don’t you think that I might use this wad of cash and I don’t know… run away?’
‘Of course. But you aren’t a stupid man, are you? My employer has paid off the police, so that they will be looking for you. Paying close attention to the Space Rail stations and the official ports. Should you want to flee Europa using some unorthodox method, you are running the risk of using one of my employer’s services which will also lead to your rather unpleasant death. Besides I will also be looking after you of course so please make the most of your time and do not attempt to do anything stupid.’
‘I guess I will start with getting drunk.’ I say and I mean it.
‘Fabulous! And now if you will excuse me Maestro...’ Matikainen tips his hat and exits the stage left leaving me standing in the rain with more money in my hands than I have earned in the last 8 years.
After having stood in the middle of the street for quite a while I force myself forward. While being so easily caught by the man I thought I had gracefully evaded was quite a blow to my ego, the new situation brought up some interesting possibilities. I could still go on with my original plan with the added perk of suddenly being rich. My optimism returned and we started marching deep into the Razors Edge.
* * *
I reach my first goal only a couple of minutes after my encounter with the Finnish Finish. In front of me rose a neat two storey building out of the rubble of the otherwise ruined street corner. It was a squat robust stone building decorated with bright neon signs in several different languages and alphabets declaring that this edifice was ‘Lee’s 24 hour Convenient Store’. As I enter the shop I can see the owner a shockingly stereotypical old Asian man placing dried synthetic chicken packets into a shelf. The old man who was called by everyone Convenient Lee, something in my soul kept on dying because of the horrible pun despite having heard it so many times already, was the best fence in this part of the city. His store was part convenience store part pawn shop always selling and buying always open and rumour had it always with Mr. Lee attending the costumers. The formula of his success was that he could get hold of a vast array of almost every illegal item one would care to mention of course. A knack to sell all manners of loot no matter how ‘exotic’. And his talent to play the part of the hapless old man with deceptive perfection, while at the same time staying carefully out of the local mob politics. It is said that when he set up shop in the Razors Edge he at first paid protection money to both mobs vying for control over the quarter, then after a few weeks things between the criminals got ugly at a dramatic rate while Convenient Lee made himself useful. In the end both gangs had fought each other into a deadlock and Mr. Lee did not have to pay any protection money as he was already giving both gangs a generous discount.