I sat down in the chair facing the desk. The doctor put the Tommy gun on the desk between us and eased himself into a leather-upholstered armchair carved out of what appeared to be bone. I considered making a move for the gun, but decided against it. The good doctor had been in control from the moment I had walked into the room, and I got the feeling that he wasn’t much for making careless mistakes. Instead, I turned my eyes to the carvings on his chair. I wondered what sort of beast had sacrificed its life to yield the doctor’s furniture. Nothing holy, I was certain, and the thought made me shift uneasily. He saw me looking and smiled.
“The bones come from South America. The ogres down there are bigger than the ones in Africa. More remote, you see, although I’ve heard stories of truly enormous specimens to be found in the Canadian North. Hearsay, mostly, but then again, you never know. After all, you probably don’t believe in ogres, do you?”
“I’ll be going now,” I said, putting the book on the desk and reaching for my hat.
“Not so fast.” He pulled the hat away. “I haven’t told you what the job is yet.”
“Well I’m pretty sure I don’t want it.” I reached for the hat again and swore as I fell forward on the desk, just managing to snatch it from his gloved fingers. Kidskin, I thought. I crammed it back on my head and reached for my gun, only to remember it was in the corridor. I turned and walked toward the door, reasoning that if the doctor was going to shoot me, he would have done it already.
“Of course, if you don’t want the job, I could always speak with Constanzia about hiring your services. I’m sure she’d be more than happy to help me persuade you to accept the offer.”
“You leave her out of this.”
“My dear boy, I’m no savage. I would treat the woman with the utmost respect. I was a Southern gentleman long before I was a doctor.”
“My secretary is no business of yours. I’ll listen to your offer, but she stays out of it. Understood?”
“Of course, my dear fellow. Nothing would please me more.”
I turned and walked back to the desk.
“What stops me from putting a bullet in you now, Doc?” I asked, putting both hands on the desk and nodding at the Tommy.
“I think we both know that’s a bad idea, my boy. I’ve battled opponents far scarier and much more capable than a London PI.”
“You oughta watch it, Doc.”
I stood up and pulled a smoke and my lighter from the left inside pocket of my jacket. “So,” I asked him, shielding the flame as I lit up and drew a long puff, “what’s this job you’re going on about? And how much do I get paid?”
“I assure you, Mr. Naissance, money is of no concern to me. I’ve got more than I shall ever need.”
“I charge fifty dollars an hour, plus expenses.”
“I’ll pay you two thousand now and another three when you bring me what I’m looking for.”
I laughed. The man was a nutcase. Five grand for a dame? Anyone can tell you they come cheaper than that down by the dockside. Then I sobered up as it hit me: the nutshell wanted a specific woman.
“Who?” I inquired.
“Her.” He passed me a photograph of a dame about twenty-two or twenty-three, college-type, with dark hair loose past her shoulders and a tight red dress that looked like it was fit for a night on the noisier parts of town.
“Now that’s a girl worth wanting, Doc. You got a damn good eye for ladies.” I stopped and smiled. “But I’ll be damned if you’re her type. You’re old enough to be her father.”
“Quite.” The doctor’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “I want her because she is a British special agent, and she is currently investigating me for certain of my secrets that I’d rather not reveal.”
“MI 6, you say? Well, she’s certainly pretty enough.” I looked at the photo harder. “Definitely young enough…” I mused. “And there’s something about that smile.” Not to mention those legs, I thought, enticed by the prospect of what deadly weapons she might be hiding up there… among other things. “That girl is smokin’ hot.”
“Don’t let her beauty deceive you. She is a cold-blooded killer who would gut you in an instant. That’s why I’m hiring you to bring her to me alive. I need to know how much she knows, and how much she’s been told. For that, I need to have a little chat with her.”
“If you think I’m bringing that dame here so you can torture her and put her in the ground, you’re out of your mind.” I crushed the cigarette between my teeth, blowing the smoke in his face. He didn’t appear to be affected by it.
“I assure you, she’ll be perfectly free to go, as soon as she’s told me what she knows. I’m not interested in killing a special agent. That would only bring the wrath and attention of the British government, and you can well imagine how I might want to avoid that kind of scrutiny.”
The doctor glared at me with eyes that burned at once blisteringly hot and damningly cold. I didn’t back down, but in that moment, I felt utter terror.
“Now listen here, Doc, what guarantee do I have that the dame will walk? What if she doesn’t talk to you? What if she doesn’t know enough to satisfy you and you torture her until she snaps? What then?” I threw my hands up.
“I assure you, Mr. Naissance, I can promise nothing other than her safe return. It is up to you to make sure she survives the process wholefully intact.”
“And how exactly am I supposed to do that, huh? It’s not like I’m going to stand there and watch while you torture her. And besides, I don’t even know how I’m going to capture the chick in the first place. I’m used to finding people, not kidnapping them.”
“I’ve got a remedy for that. Just remember,” he said, voice dripping icy cold, “if you fail, it will be Constanzia that I will torture. Can you live with that, Mr. Naissance? You choose, of course. A stranger who is well aware of the risks of her job, or your precious secretary. Which would you sacrifice?”
“You’re a cold-blooded freak!” I spat vehemently. He smiled, and in that moment I hated him more intensely than I have ever hated any human being.
“I try,” he said, and the smile widened. “Believe me, I try.”