Authors: Thomas Perry
For the Perrys, the Goltzes,
and the Lees.
With thanks to Dr. Jo.
In one of my favorite scenes in
, a group of senior spooks from the Central Intelligence Agency is sitting around talking about a top-secret project known as the Exploding President.
The idea, conceived by a flaky agent named Molnar and ultimately rejected by his superiors, was to create a replica dummy of the President of the United States and then fill it with two hundred pounds of high explosives.
“What the hell for?” asks one of the CIA guys.
“To assassinate assassins. You know, at parades and ceremonies.”
“But that would kill everybody around it for a hundred yards.”
“Right. Well-done hamburger. If we’d gone for that one, we might have gotten the Nuclear President. I guess it’s our loss. Glad to see you’ve found something else for Molnar to do.”
At which point the Director of the CIA looks up earnestly and says, “It’s not fair to mark a man for life just for one bad idea.”
That subtle dose of absurdity is worthy of Graham Greene, who I suspect would approve enthusiastically of Thomas Perry.
So many mystery writers know how to spin a “crackling good yarn,” as reviewers are fond of saying, but precious few make us laugh out loud. Elmore Leonard can do it in his sleep. So can Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block.
Perry has been blessed with the same gift. Other novelists would kill for lines he tosses away like cigarette butts.
“Marbled-eyed beggars with noses like snorkels” is how he describes a mob of hardcore dopers, queuing up for a clinical experiment that doles out free cocaine. The imagery might not be politically correct, but it is wickedly funny.
Another trait that puts Perry in an elite league of writers is the seditious zest with which he breaks the rules of his genre.
is notable for its wildly pinballing plot and also for a refreshing scarcity of traditional good guys and bad guys, which frees readers to root guiltlessly for whoever is most entertaining.
In a nutshell, the premise of the story is that a trio of marginally talented crooks sets out to steal a stash of drugs and ends up trying to blackmail the Central Intelligence Agency for ten million dollars. The chain of events is utterly outlandish, a fact wryly (and ruefully) acknowledged by every major player on both sides of the scam. Consequently, the reader is not only forgiving but hooked.
The gang’s nominal ringleader, Chinese Gordon, is a prize. He drives around Los Angeles with a loaded M-39 aircraft cannon mounted in the back of his van, while merrily improvising bawdy verses to “Bringing In the Sheaves.”
Yet, when he’s not scouting for something to rob or blow up, Gordon can be an old-fashioned romantic, struck rapt and goo-goo-eyed by a simple glimpse of his girlfriend reading the newspaper:
“Chinese Gordon watched Margaret arch her back and then rock her hips slightly to get comfortable on the bed. She was definitely losing her suntan, the peculiar demarcation that seemed to intensify certain parts of her with a white light as if they glowed with an energy of their own, or as though some principle of evolution had caused them to be marked as areas of special interest, in the absurdly literal way that nature did things.”
That’s quite a lovely reflection for a common felon, but more important, it’s lovely writing.
is rich with it, between the gunplay and the laughs.
Gorgeous and sensible Margaret informs Chinese Gordon that “someday I hope to marry you if I ever can find one shred of evidence that you’re not criminally insane.”
“Feel free,” he says, “to plumb the depths.”
How can you not adore this couple?
In Perry’s world you’ll find no faces from Central Casting, and you’ll hear no dialogue that rings flat or familiar. Almost every character plays against type, and the result is an exquisitely interesting ensemble. There isn’t a bore or a stiff to be found.
While some of the CIA bigshots come off as arrogant boobs, none of their round-table conversations—including the reminiscence about the Exploding President—seems particularly implausible. This was the same outfit, after all, that in real life plotted to kill Fidel Castro with poisoned cigars. Seriously.
So it hardly seems surprising when Perry’s fictional spooks gravely conclude that they are being shaken down by a cell of sophisticated international terrorists. At that very moment, Chinese Gordon and his sidekicks are guzzling beer at a country bar and debating whether it would be prudent to invest their future windfall in a beefalo ranch.
“I’ve been looking into this and Saskatchewan is perfect,” chirps one of the blackmailers. “Way up north where cattle can’t live and land is cheap.”
Purists might say that
is more of a caper than a mystery, and that’s technically true. However, Perry’s likable lowlifes deliver plenty of suspense, and the climax is as cinematic as it is mischievous.
About the title: Doctor Henry Metzger is the name of Chinese Gordon’s pet cat. The dog at issue is a vicious hellhound that is foolishly stolen by the gang, which then must operate in constant fear of being mauled and possibly eaten by their new companion.
Mysteriously, only Dr. Metzger the cat, with its cool inscrutable gaze, seems able to subdue and control the demented beast.
Like most of the human relationships in this book, the one between canine and feline is somewhat unconventional. Although it might be incidental to the plot, it’s not incidental to the story—and there is a difference.
Many novels I’ve read would have been greatly invigorated by the presence of a psychotic two-hundred-pound mastiff, and a writer who wasn’t afraid to throw away the leash.
is the author of
Tourist Season, Strip Tease, Sick Puppy
, among other bestselling novels. He has worked for
The Miami Herald
since 1976, and lives with his family and pet snakes in the Florida Keys.
Chinese Gordon was fully awake. He’d heard the clinking noise again, and now there was no question the cat was listening too. The cat, Doctor Henry Metzger, had assumed the loaf-of-bread position on Gordon’s blanket, his ears straight up like a pair of spoons to catch the sound and lock onto it. Doctor Henry Metzger sat up and licked his paw, then froze as he detected some variation in the sound that Chinese Gordon’s ears couldn’t hear.
“What is it?” whispered Chinese Gordon. “Somebody trying to break in, isn’t it?”
Doctor Henry Metzger turned from the sound, walked up Chinese Gordon’s chest, and stepped on his forehead on the way to the spare pillow. He’d identified it as a human sound, which placed it outside Doctor Henry Metzger’s sphere of interest.
Damn, thought Chinese Gordon. Burglars. He slipped out of bed, moved quietly to the doorway, and listened. He could hear from downstairs the faint squeaking of the garage door to the shop moving on its rollers. His eyes strained, but he could see nothing below except the familiar dim shapes of the shop machines. Then, as the garage door opened farther, he saw a man silhouetted for a moment. The man entered, followed by another, and another.
Chinese Gordon stayed low, watching from the upper landing without moving. There were three of them. The gun was locked in the bottom of the tool chest in the back room downstairs, which meant it was worse than nothing because if he gave them enough time they’d find it.
He could tell they were just inside the garage door now, probably standing there waiting for their eyes to adjust to the darkness before trying to move into the shop. It was a lousy situation, thought Chinese Gordon. They might be just kids or winos or junkies trying to score a lot of expensive tools and machinery, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t kill him if he switched on the light or made a noise.
Beside him he felt Doctor Henry Metzger rubbing against him, purring. When Doctor Henry Metzger stopped purring and stared down into the shop, Chinese Gordon knew the men had begun to move. He watched the cat’s face, the intent unblinking eyes focused on the darkness below. Then Doctor Henry Metzger crouched low and peered over the edge of the landing, his ears back so his head would have no silhouette. One of them must be directly below, looking up at the power tools hanging on the pegboard on the wall. Chinese Gordon listened, and he could feel the shape of the man below him, leaning forward over the bench, his face staring up at the tools to assess their value, weight, and bulk. Now he would be reaching up for the electric drill.
Chinese Gordon felt a twinge of guilt about what had to be done. He knew it wasn’t fair, and there would be resentment, there might even be consequences he couldn’t imagine. He gently placed his hand on Doctor Henry Metzger, feeling the thick, soft fur. Then, without warning, he scooped the cat up and dropped him. Doctor Henry Metzger screamed as he fell, the terror, surprise, and anger howled into the darkness in a high-pitched screech.
Chinese Gordon could tell immediately that he’d judged the trajectory correctly. Doctor Henry Metzger could only have dropped five or six feet before the tone of the howling changed and the human scream joined it. The cat had definitely landed on the man’s head, scrambling desperately with claws out for a foothold, from the sound of it tearing great gashes, because the man’s shouts weren’t just terror, they were pain.
There were other sounds now too. The shouts of both of the man’s companions competed with the howling and screaming. “What?” one yelled. “What? What?” Then he ran into the lathe, which rocked slightly although it was bolted to the pavement, and must have injured himself somehow, because then his voice came from the floor in a breathless, inarticulate moan. The other screamed, “Hold still! Freeze, you bastard!” as though he were either contemplating shooting someone or merely advocating keeping calm.
On the landing Chinese Gordon lay flat on his belly and listened. The man on the ground said, “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“What the hell happened?” said the one with the commanding voice. “It sounded like a baby.”
“God, I’m bleeding!” said the other.
Chinese Gordon heard them move away, then peered over the edge to watch them, one by one, escape under the partially opened garage door. A few seconds later he heard car doors slam and an engine start.
The sidewalks on the campus of the University of Los Angeles were crowded and chaotic. John Knox Morrison disliked that part of it, the sense of all these people wandering about according to no visible pattern, sometimes two or three abreast so he had to sidestep to let them pass. The bicycles added an element of danger to the matrix as they knifed through any momentary openings in the crowd at unpredictable angles and at speeds that reduced control to the art of picking a gap and aiming at it. Whenever John Knox Morrison visited a university campus he tried to arrange a way to avoid this feeling: have someone pick him up at the airport and take him to the right building. But Los Angeles was difficult because he had too many people to see on different campuses. Back in Washington it was easy to forget what it meant to come west. It was hard to envision a city eighty miles long and eighty miles wide.
At least here at ULA he knew where he was going. If it hadn’t been so near to lunchtime he’d have stopped in the romanesque revival building on his left for a doughnut. He knew the place better than most of these young people, he supposed. He’d been coming here since most of them were babies. A young girl with a worried expression on her face stared directly into his eyes as she passed. That one was an example: a child whose self-absorbed, unconfident gaze rested on the tall, gray-haired man in a gray suit making a measured way through the crowds. For an instant he wondered if she envied him his age. She probably thought he was a dean or vice-president, someone whose gray hair and presence here meant that he had long ago passed the midterm examinations, written the papers that seemed so awesome to her now.
It almost made John Knox Morrison smile to himself as he turned the corner and walked down the broader, easier expanse of University Avenue. The irony appealed to him—the child would have been puzzled and disappointed if she could have known who he really was. But he was more important on this campus than any dean or vice-president. If that little girl took a course in physics or chemistry or biology, the equipment she used would be the equipment that came here because he’d willed it. If she took a course in any of the social sciences, it would probably be held in the building he’d approved in 1968. The list was too long to remember at the moment, and it included a number of items he found distasteful to contemplate, investments that might not yield any discernible return before the end of the century. When he arrived on a university campus, he brought with him the force of the greatest determining factor in human history. John Knox Morrison was one of four senior executive officers of the federal government’s National Research Foundation, by far the largest and richest of the agencies that dispensed government research grants. When he spoke with professors, deans, department chairmen, there was little doubt that John Knox Morrison spoke with an authority that obliterated all titles and institutional structures, reduced them to ephemeral and meaningless local customs. He spoke with the power of money.
ORRISON REACHED THE
he took the elevator to the third floor and walked directly to Ian Donahue’s office. On the door was printed only “300–307 Professor Donahue.” Inside, there were an anteroom and a short hallway opening onto a complex of small rooms. Morrison passed one room where a young, bearded man was staring angrily at the display screen of a computer terminal, and another where two girls were drinking coffee and cataloguing what looked like machine-scored answer sheets for some kind of examination.
Donahue was waiting for Morrison in his private study at the end of the hall. Donahue’s round, unlined face flashed a grin as he closed the door. “Great to see you, John,” he said. “How’ve you been?”
“Fine,” said Morrison. “Just fine.” Donahue’s manner always confused him at first. He supposed that he probably was Donahue’s friend, in a way. When they’d met, Donahue had been an Assistant Professor in the fifth year of his appointment, with no significant publications and not much hope of doing anything remarkable enough to justify his receiving tenure in two years. In those days Ian Donahue’s office was a dark little closet of a room that he shared with a truculent and abrasive young colleague who, judging from the disordered assortment of clothes and toothbrushes, must have been in the habit of spending nights there with women. It must have been a hopeless time for Donahue. The only thing he had going for him was a short article that had appeared in an obscure academic journal called
, which he had attached to a grant application to the National Research Foundation. It hadn’t attracted any attention among the probably twenty or thirty sociology professors who’d read it, but it had been enough to cause something of a stir in Morrison’s office. Morrison even remembered the title—“The Jalisco Famine of 1946: Toward a Quantification.”
What had intrigued Morrison and his colleagues wasn’t to be found in the major portion of the article. That was only an interpretation of demographic statistics. What interested Morrison was a speculation that it was possible to identify and isolate certain intangible ideas peculiar to a culture, assign them numerical values, and work out which ones cause people to behave irrationally. The Jalisco famine was by then a standard problem in the field: In the middle of the summer of 1946, when the crops were growing well in the fields, the weather was perfect, and no trouble was in sight, the rumor of a famine swept through Jalisco, causing twenty thousand small farmers to abandon their farms and flee the area. Because they did that, the crops failed, thousands starved, and the famine rumor came true.
Ian Donahue, an unknown and unpromising Assistant Professor, had hit upon an idea that had stimulated Morrison’s imagination. If cultural fears could be assigned numerical values in retrospect in this single instance, they could be assigned numerical values in the present. If Donahue could explain past behavior, his formulae could also predict future behavior. Morrison perceived, if some others didn’t, that if the quantities were known they could also be adjusted. If they could be adjusted, mass action could not only be predicted, it could also be precipitated. Morrison knew a number of people who would be very interested in Donahue’s research.
That had been the real beginning of Donahue’s career, a string of successes that had stretched over twenty some years. The complex of offices assigned to Ian Donahue in the Social Sciences Building was larger and more lavish than the offices of the whole Sociology Department.
ORRISON SAT IN THE CHAIR
that looked out over the campus, the trees and lawns like a tiny park inserted in the midst of the sprawling, grayish city. “It’s already November, Ian,” he said. “In Washington it’s November, anyway. Here it always seems to be August.”
“I know,” said Donahue. “I’ll have the final draft of the report to you by December first. I promise. It’ll be on your desk before Thanksgiving if there are no surprises.”
“The report is not why I came here,” said Morrison, his hand raised. “I had to come through to talk to somebody at USC, and I thought it would be a good time to see you. It’ll also give me a chance to fill in another on-site visit.”
Donahue nodded. He’d read in the newspaper a few days before that one of the Congressional committees was examining travel expenses of government officials. Even a man like Morrison must have to make every trip look as full of business as possible.
Morrison said, “The big thing, though, is that the Latin America grant is going to terminate on January one. I wondered what you had in mind after that.”
Donahue shrugged. “The usual. As I said, the final report will be in a month early. Apply for a renewal. We’re in a very productive phase right now; I don’t think you’ll be in doubt when you see the paperwork.”
“I know you’re right, Ian, but I don’t think you understood what I said. It isn’t just your grant that terminates in January. It’s the whole project, the Latin America Outreach. Over a week ago the House subcommittee on Science and Technology let the request for continuation die.”
“But that always happens!” said Donahue. “The administration always calls in a few favors and the money comes through. You told me that years ago.”
Morrison stared out the window and shook his head. “Not this time,” he said. “I’ve checked. This time the administration isn’t going to pursue it. They’ve decided to change the emphasis to Africa for the moment.”
“Damn! So that’s it. Now I know who you saw at USC. It’s that pompous fool Graham Baker, isn’t it?”
Morrison said nothing, only stared out over the trees toward the distant freeway.
“I see,” said Donahue. “It’s because he’s younger than I am, isn’t it?”
“No, Ian, of course not. You know that age nonsense only happens in chemistry and physics. It really is the Africa thing. The Latin America project is just getting too much scrutiny this year. And the smart money is saying the Africa thing is going to need the attention.”
“All right, but I’m warning you. I have no idea what Baker can do for you, but he’s no scientist.”
“It’s not my decision,” said Morrison. “I’m telling you, it’s not. I don’t make policy. Believe me, it sometimes makes me unhappy. Next year a tenth of my budget is already earmarked for linguistics research—specifically to develop quick ways of teaching Americans to speak languages like Somali, Bemba, Tswana, Luo, and Dinka.”
“That’s absurd,” said Donahue. “I’m being cut loose to fund a project to teach a dozen unrelated languages of doubtful use? John, there are more Spanish-speaking people in Los Angeles than there ever have been speakers of Luo in the world.”
“I know that, Ian. There are others who know it too. And I have connections with a few of them, people in private foundations that don’t have to rely on the whims of subcommittees for their existence. I have a few suggestions for you.” Morrison produced a card. “I think this one is your best bet,” he said. “The Seyell Foundation. You’ve heard of them?”
“Of course,” said Donahue.
“If I were you I’d give this man a call,” said Morrison, handing Donahue the card. “Benjamin Porterfield. I’ve known him for years. He’s the new president of the Seyell Foundation, and something of a specialist on Latin America himself. I’m sure he’d like to hear from you.”
Donahue took the card. All it had was the name and a telephone number, printed in raised black letters. “Thanks. You’re a real friend. Will you come out with me for dinner at Scandia? There’s someone I’d like you to meet—a graduate student who’s working with me on the final report. Her name is Grace Warner.”
“Let me call you later on that, Ian,” said Morrison. He rose to leave. “I’m going to stop back at the hotel for an hour or two and see if I can get out of another appointment. It’s something I can probably take care of on the telephone.”
As Morrison rode the elevator to the ground level he thought about Ian Donahue. In a week or two Donahue would collect himself and call Porterfield at the Seyell Foundation and be pleasantly surprised. The Seyell Foundation was now preparing to distribute the largest set of grants in its history for studies like Donahue’s. Ian would probably even like Ben Porterfield, a quiet, businesslike man in his late fifties who would appear to Donahue to be an answer to his prayers. The image struck Morrison as appropriate. That was what they called the investors in the theater, wasn’t it? Angels. In the old days when Porterfield had been the Company’s chief Special Operations officer in Guatemala, that had been the name his band of guerrillas had given him—El Ángel de Muerte. But Ian Donahue would never get to hear that. If Donahue tried to find out about Porterfield he’d be able to learn that he was a respectable business executive, a former president of a small airline, a former vice-president of a major food corporation who’d been on the board of directors of the Seyell Foundation for years. It would never occur to him that the Foundation had been converted, year by year, into one of the CIA’s client companies. Donahue might even feel some relief at the ease of dealing with private research funds after so many years of federal audits and on-site visits. Porterfield’s personality would probably be a relief too. He was hard headed and aloof. Donahue might even be able to get out of the business of finding female graduate students who didn’t mind spending an evening in the Beverly Wilshire with a middle-aged visitor from Washington. That part was a pity, Morrison thought, but it had to be. The orders were that the Latin America project was ready to go underground. From now on no funds that could be traced to the taxpayers would end up in Donahue’s research accounts. It was the end of a long and mutually satisfactory association. Los Angeles would never be quite the same for John Knox Morrison. He wondered if the person who’d written the orders in Langley had an inkling of the fact that he was destroying the best portion of Morrison’s sexual history since Harvard in the spring of ’47. Those orders had passed Donahue, perhaps the most talented procurer in America, from Morrison, a man with spirit and taste and appreciation, to whom? Porterfield was a man who had eaten armadillo. That said it all. He wouldn’t even consider accepting one of Donahue’s graduate research assistants, because he wouldn’t want to take the trouble to explain the knife scar on his back. The legend was that Porterfield was very happily married to the woman he’d been with since the early fifties, but John Knox Morrison didn’t accept that. Porterfield clearly had no human feelings. He had the mind and tastes of a Soviet political commissar, the sort they sent into desert countries to train terrorists on a five-year tour of duty. Donahue’s young students would be wasted on him. It was a pity.