Story:

Flora and the Murderer

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1. Harriet

It was hot in the small town on the Côte d'Azur on the day when Percy came ashore. He had come there for a reason; he never did anything without one. This time, his reason was supposed to be waiting for him somewhere in the town where the drug-smuggler's boat had deposited him. He had travelled with the drug-smuggler out of sheer habit; it so happened that, at the moment, Percy boasted a perfectly valid British passport in the inner pocket of his black jacket. It wasn't always like that, though. At those other times, Percy had found that being squeamish about keeping company with smugglers of any kind couldn't get you anywhere, so he wasn't.

He wasn't squeamish anyway, except when it came to taking a look in the mirror. The sight of Percy disgusted Percy very much. But, since there weren't any mirrors on the smuggler's boat - not unless you counted those used for preparing cocaine - he had automatically taken the more normal, familiar way of travelling. Percy didn't do coke. Probably because of the mirror, or maybe his sinuses, which have been severely damaged in his childhood in an obscure and mysterious accident, brought about through his older brother's negligence. The smugglers liked Percy all the more because they knew he wouldn't touch their cargo, and were usually more than happy to have him aboard.

Also, Percy's supposed reason was supposed to have a wish for some discretion. It suited Percy. At the same time, he was intrigued. Percy liked that.

"You won't be sorry, Duke", was what Danton had told him, sitting under a rich, artificially planted tree with an enormous Chinese hat on his head and looking perfectly ridiculous. Danton was a huge black bartender in Peking Hilton. Before that, he had been just tender. Percy had known him before the bar came into the story. Or the Peking Hilton, for that matter.

"You won't be sorry, Duke", said Danton again and shook his artificial pigtail.

Percy's name wasn't Duke, but that was the name he had been using at the time he had first met Danton, in the cul of a cul-de-sac in an obscure little town in Peru.

"Trust Danton's instincts, Duke", added Danton, smiling. He had learned, in the meantime, that Duke wasn't his real name, but he still called him that, for old times' sake. Percy's
name wasn't Percy, either. And it certainly wasn't Robert J.J. Allison, as it said on his current passport. But what it was, only a few people had ever known. Most of them weren't alive any more. Some of them because they had known Percy's real name. Some for other reasons.

It was very hot in the small town, and Percy almost regretted his habitual black jacket as he walked down the main and, apparently, only street of the town towards the café where his meeting was supposed to take place. He came to a corner and on it, under a big acacia tree, there were several infinitesimal tables. From one of them, a voice called, "Hullo! Over here, feller!"

Percy turned around and looked towards the source of the voice, slightly irritated. He
resented being called "feller" on all occasions. He very much resented being called anything in a loud voice and in public, too. Percy was a private person, actually.

"Yes?" he said cautiously, frowning although he could see perfectly well through his dark glasses.

The voice repeated, "Over here!"

The voice belonged to a man. He was small and fat and was sweating intensively, filling the air around him with the odour of sweat and expensive after-shave. On his almost bald head
there was an old-fashioned straw hat, and he was wearing a baby-blue suit and a pink shirt. The outfit seemed ridiculously inappropriate for the weather, but then, Percy didn't have much right to resent that, himself wrapped in the black leather jacket, and a pair of wine-red trousers over the shiny boots. The only excuse he had was that it suited him, sometimes, to look like an idiot. Not that he felt like an idiot in this outfit: he felt just fine, except for the heat.

The man who had called him, on the other hand, would have seemed idiotic in any outfit whatsoever. Recognising the man's face, Percy smiled. "Harriet, you old bitch", he murmured. "I haven't seen you in ages."

"Yes", replied Harriet, taking his hat off and patting his bald head with a large pink and green handkerchief. "Ever since that job on Cuba."

"So you weren't in on the one I did in Sweden last year?" asked Percy, lowering himself on a shabby straw seat next to Harriet. "I could have sworn you were behind that group."

Harriet turned around and shouted for the waiter in lousy French. Then he looked at Percy
again and smiled. "Which group do you mean? The one with the hounds or the one with the choppers?"

"Why, with the choppers, of course. I was in the one with the hounds."

"Until the time came."

Percy shrugged. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. I wasn't thrilled
about it myself."

The waiter, an extremely tall and thin creature with a long nose and a sad face, arrived and asked for their orders. Harriet had a Pernod. Percy wanted a Scotch, but he didn't really
trust the place, so he took a vodka instead. With it, he would at least be sure it couldn't possibly be the right stuff.

Harriet patted his brow with his hankie again and returned to their previous conversation. "So", he said, "still on the side of the Universe, I see."

"Are you sure you weren't there?"

"In the choppers? Nah. Too close to the breaking-point, they were. You know me, Kid: never on the edge."

Percy's name wasn't Kid, either, of course. "You're growing fat, Harriet", he said insensitively. "Fat and old."

"And cowardly, too", acquiesced Harriet, shaking his head sadly. "I know. It's a good
thing we've got you younger generations to keep the old spirit going."

"What old spirit?"

"You know - being in the wrong place in the wrong time. Or just before, I should add. Something of the kind, anyway."

The waiter brought their drinks. Harriet paid and gave him a miser's tip. "So", he asked, sipping his Pernod, "what brings you here, Kid?"

"I thought you were supposed to enlighten me."

"You don't say!" Harriet almost choked on the Pernod. "You're Flora's guy?"

"Maybe."

"Why, I'd never... Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why would you want to mess around with her?"

"I don't yet know that I'll mess around with her. I've come to see."

"Just like that?"

"Well, I had my reasons."

"Of course, of course. That's the thing."

"Is it?"

"Something of the kind, anyway. You know."

"No, I don't", said Percy. The vodka was really bad, and it didn't go with the weather, and he was very tired. "I never knew what you were talking about, Harriet."

"Not even about the Entropy?"

"Oh, that."

"You've been in the sun for too long, Kid. Drink up, I'll take you to the villa and then we'll talk." He rose and went into the café. Percy followed him.

They passed through the building and came out of a back door. Outside, in the shade of the house, there stood a large, grey car. Percy's eyebrows rose when he saw it. "Going grey these days, huh?"

Harriet shrugged his shoulders and opened the door of the car. "You know how it is: one gets tired even of black after so long."

"I see."

They went in. Harriet took the driver's seat, and Percy sat next to him. He reached into the cupboard on the panel and took a bottle out. "Some habits never die, do they?"

Starting the engine, Harriet blushed. "What? Oh... I must have forgotten to get rid of it. It just slipped my mind."

Percy opened the bottle and took a long swig. "Like hell it did", he said.


2. The Villa

Percy steered the large grey car around a corner and stopped. He was on the place where the road ran right along the cliff, with only those funny yellow-and-black striped pieces of plastic to keep you on the right track. He opened the back door, went out of the car and dragged Harriet's body out. He considered for a moment a neat little hole in the baby-blue silk of Harriet's suit, then sighed.

He took Harriet by the shoulders and heaved his body over the fence. He stood there,
watching the fat little man roll down the cliff, bouncing off rocks like a giant doggie-ball. When Percy's one-time mentor arrived to the bottom with a heavy splotch, Percy turned and reached into the car. He took Harriet's straw hat and the bottle of Scotch. He threw the hat
after Harriet, took another drink from the bottle, then disposed of it, too. The hat floated around like a demented butterfly. The bottle said prink! and crashed into small pieces on the rock just under Percy's booted feet. It hadn't yet been completely empty. There'll be some wild lizard parties tonight.

Percy waved bye-bye, turned on his heel and went back into the car. "Hideous music", he murmured to himself as he turned Harriet's tape deck off and turned the radio on. The back seat of the car was full of tapes, but Percy didn't even bother to look through them. All of Harriet's tapes were unlistenable.

He found a local station that played some computer-generated music and turned the sound to full, enjoying the nauseating sensation that the deep basses produced in his stomach. With one hand, he reached into the cupboard and took another bottle out. There, his and Harriet's
tastes were much closer than in music.

He took a long sip, straight from the bottle, and sighed with satisfaction. He knew it was no good striving to kill Harriet, but it felt good to do it, every now and then. Especially when he'd start talking about eastern philosophy, and the breaking-point and all the rest. Percy couldn't stand that.

He couldn't stand much philosophy anyway. If he could, he wouldn't have become what he was. And, after all, Harriet was one of the few persons who knew Percy's real name. Harriet's name wasn't Harriet, needless to say. Percy sometimes thought he knew what it was. He didn't like it much.

He turned again and stopped the car. Harriet had told him the villa would be there. It was. Surprise, surprise.

It was one of those large places where mini-series dated in the thirties take place, all in shrubberies and freshly painted woodwork. It had a big terrace in front of it, and there was a small round table of bright-red plastic, with a parasol protruding from its centre. Around the table there were two armchairs, and both of them were occupied. Some white soul began on the radio, Percy turned it off and drove into the garden of the villa. The occupants of the chairs must have seen him, but they didn't stir.

Percy went out of the car, took a brown manila envelope from the panel and started towards the terrace. There wasn't anything he needed in the envelope; he just carried it to look dangerous. For some reason, brown manila envelopes always contained something terrible, or dangerous, or important. This one contained an old newspaper-clip showing the results of The Queen of Steiermark competition, and a piece of a book-cover representing a man with a sword, which Percy had found already inside when he had bought the envelope. He always
thought the guy looked as if he was about to be sick all over his sword. But he practically never opened the envelope, so he just left the thing inside.

A hand waved towards him as he stepped onto the grey stones of the terrace. Percy's face flinched in a smile. The handbelonged to a girl, and it was one of the most beautiful girls he had ever seen. She was wearing a pair of very old, pale, straight jeans, and a white, brand new T-shirt, with the sleeves rolled up over her shoulders. Her hair was dizzingly blonde and it fell all around her in an apparently haphazard fashion, creating a very nice setting for her
face. It was a foxy kind of face, with a thin, sharp mouth and a long, aristocratic nose. Percy couldn't see her eyes, hidden behind a pair of completely black, round glasses, but he could tell they were an intense blue.

She waved again, turned and said something to the man seated next to her. The man was just as blond as she was, but his hair reached barely to his shoulders. He had the same glasses, too, but was dressed in a black shirt with a high collar, a thin yellow tie, black leather trousers and white, high tennis-shoes with fluorescent laces. Percy thought that he was very beautiful, too.

The man rose and went towards the house. Percy came to the table and said: "Hi."

"Hi", answered the girl in a deep, husky voice. "You must be the Murderer."

"That's right."

"I'm Floriana Prudence Jennifer Shockley-ssmith. To small s's. But you can call me Flora."

"I'm Percy."

"You're not, I'm sure, but it'll do. Take a seat, Percy."

Percy took the seat. Flora's feet were bare, and they were very nicely shaped. She put one of them under her and looked at Percy with an amused smile. The man came back from the house, followed by a black-clad woman with a black bun on her head. She carried a tray with
drinks. Flora's smile widened. "This is my brother Jeremy", she said. "Jeremy, meet Percy the Murderer."

The man leaned over the table and took Percy's hand. "I'm Winston", he said. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Percy."

"Just Percy."

"Would you like a drink, Just Percy?"

"Thank you."

Winston took the tray and nodded to the black widow. She went back into the house and Winston started mixing the drinks.

"Glad you could make it", said Flora. "Do you want to hear the details?"

"About the job? Yes."

"Where's Mr. B?" asked Winston. "Did you kill him?"

"Sort of", said Percy modestly and accepted the drink. Winston's fingers touched his as he passed him the glass. "I thought so", said Winston.

"Well, Joe, it's none of our business", said his sister. "We shouldn't poke into Percy's private affairs."

"I rather liked Mr. B."

"So did I. But that's not our concern." She took the glass from her brother's hand. Her fingernails were very long, and painted strikingly red. She caressed Winston's hand absently. He flinched. "So", she said, turning back to Percy, "let's go back to business."

"I'm all for it", said Percy. The drink was unfamiliar, but it was icy and good. He felt relaxed.

"We want to kill Becky."

"Oh?"

"Our sister", explained Winston amiably.

"I see."

"She deserves nothing better", added Winston in way of explanation.

"A vendetta?"

Flora laughed. The sound sent shivers down Percy`s spine. And up. "Do you believe in vendetta, Percy?" she asked, then shook her head. "No, don't answer me. It was insensitive of me, I apologise."

"Do you?" answered Percy. He began to wander had Harriet been blabbing around in one of his moods. He was glad he had killed him again if he had. He was glad anyway.

"Believe in vendetta? Gracious, no. Bellamy here, now, he believes in Just Revenge. I just believe in being safe."

"I see."

"So?" asked Winston anxiously. "You with us?"

Percy shrugged. "Why should I?"

"I don't know. No reason", said Flora. Percy smelled the wind. It carried someone's tan-cream.

"All right", he said.

Flora leaned across her seat and kissed him.


3. Makepeace the Poet

They met the next morning on the pier. Flora was wearing a simple, straight black sleeveless dress and a big schoolgirl's hat. Her hair was black, and she had the same glasses. She looked very fragile and soft with her bare feet. Percy still had his jacket, but his trousers were green today. He accepted Flora's extended hand and smiled.

"And where's Winston?"

"Oh, Gregory went to pick up the plane."

"We're going by plane?"

"Of course. How else?"

"I don't know."

"There are many things you don't know."

"Man is but a speckle in the Universe. You can't expect me to know everything."

Flora laughed heartily. "You're perfectly ridiculous, Percy."

"I am?"

"Just like Mr. B. All philosophy and no logic. Very man-like."

"You think so?"

"Yop. Alexeï's crazy about you. He's just the same, of course."

"Is that bad?"

"It's silly."

Winston came from behind them and put his arms around Percy's shoulders. "And how are you today, Just Percy?" he asked teasingly. He was wearing a black motor jacket today, over a white T-shirt, and a pair of jeans. His glasses were metallic, and Percy could see his own reflection in them. He shuddered slightly.

"The plane's waiting."

"Great!" said his sister. "Who's driving?"

"Jeanine."

"Good. Let's go."

They went slowly, Flora half-running in front of them like a small black spaniel, her hat in hand, showing a wide white ribbon which tied her hair at the nape of her neck, and Winston and Percy strolling easily behind her, hand in hand.

"You mustn't take Flo too seriously", said Winston. "She's a very pragmatic person."

"So I've noticed."

"She doesn't know about life. All she ever manages to do is get happier and happier. Sad, really. She's been like that ever since our parents died. No understanding."

"I see." They came to a halt in a doorway of an old house. Green paint was coming off at all places. Winston peeped towards his sister and shrugged. "Let's not talk about Flo any more", he said. So they didn't.

They didn't talk at all for a while. Then Percy asked: "Won't your sister be waiting for us?"

"She'll understand", answered Winston and took him upstairs.

They met with Flora and Jeanine an hour and a half later. The girls were eating a large watermelon. Jeanine had long, straight, light brown hair, and she wore it in a severe braid. She had on a flying jacket straight out of a "Spirit of St. Louis" remake from nineteen-eighties, brown and ragged and lined with yellowish fur, with trousers and boots to match. Around her throat was a pair of flyer's goggles. Flora waved cheerfully when she saw them approach and Jeanine went into her plane, still nibbling on the last piece of the melon.

"We're all set", said Flora.

"Good", said Winston.

"Fine", said Percy.

Flora took his hand and pulled him after her. "You better take care", she said. "Roderick's one hell of a guy."

"I don't fall for my customers", answered Percy rigidly.

"I'd be very disappointed if you didn't", said Flora calmly. "But Felipe isn't like that. He just
talks. Don't believe a word he says, that's what I wanted to say. He'll turn around when you least expect it."

"I see."

"I'm glad if you do. We're really both terribly blasé, you know. Only Tommy doesn't realise it. Not all the time, anyway."

"Coming or not?" shouted Winston from the plane. Flora shrugged and let go of Percy. He
followed her, frowning.

He did fall for some of his customers, of course. Mostly, though, he'd fall for the targets. But then, that was when he'd decide on the targets himself. When he delivered an order, he was usually much calmer. But there was something about Flora and her brother that had attracted him instantly. He didn't much question what it was; Percy never questioned anything much.

Not even Harriet, whom he had first known as a smallish, but extremely attractive young woman. But Harriet was dead, now. Again. It was depressing when he thought about it, so he stopped. They reached another obscure little town, and it was in Africa, in all probability. Percy didn't care; he'd find out when the time came. He always knew everything he needed
to know, when the time came. Harriet had taught him that trick, a long time ago. She was great fun, at that time.

After the landing, they said goodbye to Jeanine, and she flew away in the sunset. Then they
continued through a maze of winding streets inhabited with all sorts of human trash. Percy never really knew what sorts. Sometimes he was one of them. When he wasn't, he'd just forget. It was very comfortable, to forget. He did a lot of forgetting. At least, that's what he thought. He couldn't really be sure; he had forgotten.

It was even hotter here, and he remembered that feeling. The sticky stuff that lay underneath, he didn't care to stir. Not much, at least. Not without company, in any case.

Out of an intricately decorated doorway, there came a figure and started down the street before them. It was a man, of indeterminate age, tall and thin, with high cheekbones and large, blue eyes. His pale sandy hair hung over his eyes, shading them mysteriously, and he was dressed in a black suit with loose trousers and a white shirt. Percy wondered for a moment if anyone dressed according to the climate anymore.

"Makepeace!" exclaimed Flora on spotting the man. "Makepeace the Poet!" She caught the man's black sleeve and pulled. The man turned around and addressed them all a melancholy smile.

"Why do you insist on calling me that, Floss?" he asked in a soft, spine-tickling voice. "You know I am the Sufferer."

Flora embraced Makepeace the Sufferer and kissed him full on the lips. "Because you're divine when you're angry with me, that's why.", she said. "I have someone here whom you'll adore. Meet Percy the Murderer."

"Just Percy", added her brother.

Makepeace the Poet turned his sad eyes and appraised Percy. "Would you like an upper or a
downer?" he asked, shaking Percy's hand. His own was long, slim-fingered and cool. "You seem in need of something."

"Thank you", said Percy. "I'll think about it."

"Don't think too long. I might blow up any second now."

"Oh no!" said Flora. "Not today, Makepeace. I need you."

He turned his gaze to her and sighed. "In that case, I guess
I'll have to postpone it. I wouldn't do that for many people, you know, Floss."

"I know", said Flora. "But I do make you suffer, don't I?"

"Lovely."

"And", Winston pointed out, embracing Makepeace, "you won't be able to blow up when you wanted, which is another reason for you to suffer."

"I've noticed that, Win. I am really a haunted soul."

"We know that", said Flora reassuringly.

"A downer, I think", said Percy, making up his mind. Makepeace beamed with a smile.

"Depressive?"

"Very much", admitted Percy.

"Lovely."

"I'll need you to take us to Becky", said Flora.

Makepeace raised his head. "Have you come to take your revenge upon her?"

"No. Just to kill her."

"Oh. I see."

"You will take us there, won't you, Makepeace?"

He sighed deeply. "You are putting me into a situation to choose between betraying one love or another."

"I know", confirmed Flora cheerfully. "Isn't it lovely of me?"

"All right. I do like her better then the two of you. I don't want her to die."

"Fine", said Flora. "See you in the morning, then."

"And now", said Makepeace, turning to Percy, "let's go to my place and feel intensely sorry for ourselves."

"I'd like that", said Percy. Flora and Winston had disappeared, holding hands and singing the love theme from "Blade Runner". They sang it very badly.


4. The Shot

The jungle was not real, of course. It had been planted there for the sole purpose of making the customers of the hotel feel they were really having a good time. Makepeace was leading the way, together with Flora. He had changed his shirt and suit for a dark red Chinese mandarin dress with golden embroideries. It suited him very badly, but left around him a faint aura of a completely decadent baronet from the late twenties, and that suited him perfectly.

Flora's hair was auburn today, and she had on a deep blue mini dress which covered her almost up to her chin, leaving her long legs uncovered from hips down. On her feet were delicate short boots of the same deep blue, reaching just over her ankles. Her fingernails were blue as well. Percy hated that.

He himself had, for the occasion, chosen to indulge in purple trousers under his jacket, and he wore his hair in a pigtail, so it wouldn't disturb his shot. Winston had on a military uniform from world war two, and on his lower arms Percy noticed long, fine scratches of fingernails origin. He liked that.

He had checked his crossbow at Makepeace's, before they went to meet Flora and her brother. It was in its case of black leather lined with red velvet, and the case was flung across Percy's back in a way calculated carefully to leave an impression of casualness.

They went through the jungle, avoiding the waiters in their straight white jackets under smiling black faces. Once, Flora stopped one and ordered cocktails. She had a pink lady, which was disgusting. Winston had a grasshopper, which went rather nicely with his commando-uniform, and Makepeace had a martini and a downer. Percy had a sake, for old times' sake.

When they crossed the jungle, they came to the pool. Around it, several people were exposing themselves to the maleficient sun-rays, covered in tan cream to protect them from the maleficient sun-rays. Makepeace pointed at one of the bodies. "There", he said, with a quiver in his voice. "That's her."

"Well, I'll be!" exclaimed Winston. "She didn't have a plastic at all!"

"Of course she didn't", said Makepeace and began to sob. "She never suspected that you'd come after her... or that I'd betray her so abominably!" He leaned against a tree and cried heart-breakingly.

Flora turned to Percy and smiled. "Your turn, Percy", she said.

Percy took the crossbow out of its case and inserted an arrow. He took aim. He shot. That was it.

"That's it", he said.

"Thank you", said Flora. "Could I have a look at your weapon?"

"I'm not sure."

"All right. It doesn't matter. Let's go, boys." She turned around and went back towards the hotel. Winston followed her, leading Makepeace, who was crying his heart out into Winston's uniform. Percy peered towards the body. It was Harriet. Again.

"Well", he said to himself, "life's a bitch."

He stopped a waiter and ordered a Scotch and a downer. It began to rain.


5. Epilogue

"Are you sorry, Percy?" asked Flora over a hamburger. She was blonde again, and Percy liked that best. He was a real gentleman.

"Not really", he answered, biting into a hot-dog. There was a sudden boom.

"What's that?" asked Percy.

"Makepeace", said Winston. "He finally blew up."

"Oh", said Percy. "Nice for him."

To M.M., impertinently;

To J.J., affectionately.