Valerie and Anthony Celentano were window shopping for baby clothing in the Westernfeld Shopping Mall when the old man ran into them.
Or to be precise the running man collided with Val.
"Hey, watch out," said Tony. He reached across to push away the man who had Val pressed up against a rack of pink and blue baby jump-suits.
"Sorry," said the man, panting, clearly on the brink of exhaustion. He pressed Val's hand for a moment, as though in apology, then turned and raced out into the crowd.
"What was that all about?" asked Tony. He helped his young wife out of the wrack of baby clothes.
"I … I'm not sure," said Val. She looked down to her right hand where the running man had slipped something. A piece of note paper! she thought, looking at the white square.
Val started to raise the page to show Tony, but stopped at the sound of gunfire behind them.
"What the …?" asked Tony. They looked round as three men in dress suits raced through the crowd, pushing people aside rudely.
"Out of the way, damn it!" said a tall, thin, slightly grey-haired man, Who, like his two companions, looked like an archetypical English businessman - except for the forty-five calibre revolver he held in his left hand.
"Stop, Michaels!" called a second businessman, carrying an assassin-style nine-millimetre pistol.
Behind the first two businessmen ran a short, dumpy man, almost as exhausted from the race through the mall as the man they pursued.
"What the hell …?" said Tony as the three gunmen ran up to them.
He started toward them, but Val gripped him tightly, saying: "Please, don't!"
As the three men thundered after the old man, Michaels, Tony looked for a moment as though he intended to ignore his wife's entreaty and attempt to help the man. Finally, reluctantly, he allowed her to pull him close and put his arms around her as the crowd screamed and scattered to allow the businessmen clear access to the runner.
"He's getting away," said the tall, dark-haired businessman.
"Relax, Izzi," said the greying man, Alastor, barely raising a pant as he ran. As the fleeing man reached the base of the escalator to the next level, Alastor crouched in the classic firing position, raised his .45 and fired once.
"Aaaaah!" cried the runner, falling face down on the escalator, where he died.
"You got him, Alastor," said Izzi, grinning like a child in an ice-cream factory.
"Do I ever miss, Izzi?" asked Alastor.
"Well … sometimes," said the short, dumpy businessman as he finally caught up with the other two.
"Shut up, Alfonso!" said Alastor, turning to glare at him.
Alfonso backed away slight, as for a moment it looked as though Alastor might shoot him too.
"I was just joking," said Alfonso, petulantly.
"Shut up, and come on," said Alastor racing up the escalator after Michaels's corpse. After a moment Izzi and Alfonso followed him.
"What in God's name?" said Tony as he and a hundred others peered up the escalator bay as the three gunmen ran up.
"Come on, let's get home," said Valerie, tugging on her husband's left arm.
"But we haven't got anything for Colleen's baby shower," protested Tony, looking back at her.
"It'll wait. The baby shower isn't until next week," said Val, unaware that for her and Tony next week would never come.
"Yeah, okay," said Tony. And reluctantly he started backing toward the escalator to the downstairs car park.
* * *
On the next level Alastor, Izzi, and Alfonso found sporting goods, men swear, Sanity Records, and the body of Nathaniel Michaels at the feet of two uniformed cops.
Seeing the three men had their guns drawn, the two state cops quickly drew their own weapons.
"All right, hold it right there," called a white cop, whose uniform identified him as Ed Quince.
"Hold it!" ordered the black cop - Andrew Peters - holding up his .38.
"We're feds," explained Alastor, as though that somehow allowed them to shoot a man dead without even calling a warning. Let alone calling in the state police. "This man was wanted for acts of international terrorism."
The two state cops looked down at the dead man for a second, and then looked back at the three so-called feds.
"Old Mr Michaels, here?" asked Andrew Peters in disbelief. "Why I've known Nate Michaels all my life. He's no more a terrorist that Ed or me."
"I think you'd better show us some kind of identification," said Ed Quince.
Alastor and the other two feds exchanged a look for a moment. Then, shrugging, they reached into their coats for their ID cards which they handed to Ed Quince.
Quince looked at the ID cards in increasing puzzlement for a moment, before showing them to his partner.
"Is this some kind of a joke?" asked Quince. "Those IDs are obviously fakes."
"Shit, I've seen more convincing looking ID cards on CSI: Miami," said Andrew Peters.
"I think you'd better all come with us," said Quince reaching for a pair of handcuffs at his belt.
"You boys are in deep shit," said Peters.
"Well, you see … the thing is …" said Alastor sounding apologetic. He suddenly raised his .45 and shot dead Andrew Peters.
"Shit!" cried Ed Quince. Dropping the cuffs, he tried to raise his own gun…
Too late as Alastor shot him dead also.
"Nice shootin' Tex," said Izzi, grinning like a fairground geek.
"Do I ever miss?" demanded Alastor.
"Never," agreed Alfonso to get back in Alastor's good books.
Hearing screaming, the three fake federal police looked round to where the crowd of onlookers were stampeding in all directions.
"Relax folks!" shouted Alastor. "We're feds, they weren't real cops."
"The three of them were terrorists in the same cell," added Alfonso.
"Good thinking," whispered Izzi.
Despite their assurances, however, the crowd continued backing away, until reluctantly starting to become convinced that the three men had finished shooting.
As the crowd started to calm down a bit Alastor took out a palm-sized mobile phone and pressed button three.
"Yes," said a female voice on the other end.
"Three for the meat wagon."
"To pick up from where?"
"Westernfeld Shopping Mall, second level."
"Near the Nike shop," added Izzi.
Alastor glared at Izzi for a moment, and then added: "Near the Nike shop."
"Yeah, I heard," said the woman hanging up.
* * *
"Come on," said Valerie. She reached into her brown vinyl handbag for the keys to their car as they went through the glass doors at the bottom of the escalator.
Clearly still reluctant to leave the mall without knowing what the shooting had been about, Tony Celentano looked back toward the escalator for a moment. Then sensing Valerie was waiting for him, he looked round to where she was standing near their red Cortina.
"Honey," she said, smiling, in the hope of encouraging him to go with her.
Finally, reluctantly, Tony abandoned any thoughts of returning to the second floor and strode across the car park toward his wife as she pip-pipped the keys to open the doors of the car.
"Why do you always walk behind me, honey?" asked Val.
"So I can watch your magnificent arse in motion," teased Tony.
"Naughty, naughty," said Val waving a cautionary finger at him. "That's not the proper spirit of political correctness. Don't you know that all heterosexual sex is just a man raping a woman?"
"Wait till I get you home, woman," Tony teased; "you'll soon find out whether that's true or not."
Val waved a finger at him again, laughing as she climbed in behind the steering wheel of the Cortina.
* * *
Ten minutes later six paramedics arrived at the second level of the mall, leading three wheeled stretchers between them.
"You took your sweet time, Ralph," said Alastor, aware of the crowd starting to mill around them again.
"No-one said it was a rush pick-up," said the chief collector defensively.
"Well, now you know," said Izzi.
"Shut up, Iz, I'll do the jokes," said Alastor. Then to Ralph and the collectors: "Load them up quickly and let's get the hell out of here before more cops arrive."
"Or the real feds," said Alfonso.
"Or the real feds," agreed Alastor.
"Relax, the Big Guy can take care of any number of nosey feds or cops," said Ralph.
"Maybe so," said Alastor; "but he'd rather we took care of the day to day dirty work."
"Whatever you say," said Ralph, sounding bored as they heave-hoed the three corpses onto the stretchers then strapped them down. "All right, let's get out of here."
"Go! Go! Go!" encouraged Alastor as though about to break out into a rockabilly song.
* * *
As she sat behind the wheel of the red Cortina, Valerie realised that she still had the small slip of paper in her hand. She started to show it to Tony, but as he leant away to do up his seat belt, she changed her mind and hurriedly slipped the paper into her handbag, before starting up the car.
"Hold up, Jack Brabham," teased Tony. "Let me get my belt done up first."
"Hurry up slow coach," replied Val; "I take less time with my belt when I'm getting dressed than you do with your seat belt."
"I've told you before; we need to get this passenger seat belt replaced."
"Yeah, yeah, that's your excuse for everything," teased Val.
"Oh, is that right, woman," said Tony in mock anger.
"Yes, that's right, man," said Val. She watched him belt up before finally turning the ignition key.
* * *
Outside the Westernfeld Mall people were milling about as the collectors, dressed as paramedics, hurriedly loaded the corpse-laden stretchers into the rear of three vans disguised as ambulances.
As Alastor, Izzi, and Alfonso climbed into the rear of the lead van, three squad cars roared up, sirens blaring and pulled up in front of them.
Six police climbed from the cars and raced into the Mall.
"Hurry up," called Alastor. "Get us out of here before those cops get back."
"Got you," said Ralph and the three vehicles started up.
* * *
Racing through the mall, the six cops ran over to take the escalator up to the second floor then stopped and looked about.
"Where the hell are they?" asked a middle aged cop, whose uniform identified him as Sgt. Danny Walters.
"Who?" asked a brunette standing outside the Nike store.
"We were told there had been shootings outside this store," said a young blond cop, Hank Guynes.
"Yeah, three federal agents shot dead some terrorists," said the brunette. Who did not stop looking through a wrack of shoes designed more for show than for jogging.
"Then where are they now?" asked Danny.
"You just missed them," explained the brunette. "Some paramedics took the corpses away on stretchers."
"Shit," said Danny.
"There were some ambulances out front when we pulled up," said a young cop, Timothy Wyatt.
"Jesus!" said Danny, and the six cops reversed direction. The almost ran down the up escalator, before running across to the down escalator instead.
* * *
The three white vans drove for nearly ten kilometres before coming to an abandoned roadway, behind an ancient-looking steel wire fence.
"Your turn, Izzi," said Alastor opening the rear doors of the lead van.
"It always seems to be my turn," moaned Izzi. But he climbed down from the van and walked across to unlock the gates of the wire fence.
He held the gates wide long enough for the three vans to drive through. He then locked the gates again before racing across to climb into the back of the lead vehicle, with a hand from Ralph.
"Thanks buddy," said Izzi as the van started again.
They drove for a few hundred metres more, until reaching a small mountain with a large cave in the side.
Without hesitation they drove into the cave.
"All right, close it up," said Alastor. And as though obeying his word, there was a sudden rock slide, which entombed them in the side of the mountain.
Inside the cave it was now pitch black.
"What does the Good Book say, Brother Izzi?" asked Alastor in the lead vehicle.
"And God said: 'Let there be light,' and there was light."
As he was speaking the cave mysteriously became brightly lit, although there was no sign of any light fixtures.
"God saw that the light was good…" continued Izzi.
"All right, Iz, no need to quote the whole sixty-six books, the Talmud, and the Qur'an," teased Alastor, making Alfonso and the collectors snigger.
"I wasn't going to," protested Izzi.
To the chief collector, Alastor said: "Okay let's get it done."
"No sweat," said Ralph. He opened the rear doors for Alastor, Izzi, and Alfonso to alight, and then called for the other collectors to help him to unload the stretchers.
Quickly, in an oft-repeated procedure, they unloaded the stretchers, unstrapped the corpses, and lifted the first corpse off its stretcher, ready for disposal.
Looking toward the roof as though to pray, Alastor said: "Three to go."
They were standing inside a stone walled cave, seemingly with no doors, windows, or fixtures. But at Alastor's words there came from the wall before them a hideous, metallic squealing, like a million school kids scraping their fingernails along a million old-fashioned blackboards.
"Ah, the music of the damned," said Izzi, receiving a glare from Alastor and Alfonso, but making Ralph and the collectors laugh.
As the screeching continued, a metallic chute, large enough to accommodate a large human carcase, began to fade into existence on the stone cave wall, perhaps a metre above the ground.
"All right, stand back," said Alastor as he pulled the metal handle. With a deathlike screeching the door opened downward to reveal what appeared to be an industrial-sized furnace.
"How do you want them?" asked Ralph.
"Dump the two cops in as they are, but we'll search Michaels first. We have to get back that sheet of paper."
"Okay," said the chief collector. He signalled to the other collectors, who hefted the corpse of the black cop and started toward the chute.
As Alastor stood back to allow the collectors to dispose of Andrew Peters's corpse, Izzi knelt beside the body of Nathaniel Michaels and started hunting through the old man's clothing.
Two collectors almost casually tossed the black cop's corpse into the furnace chute.
There was a great roaring of blue and yellow flames as a hundred kilos of fat and muscle descended into the flames.
"You know they say that the body fat of an averaged sized male human being will generate so much heat that a furnace will superheat and explode upwards in ten minutes or so with enough force to implode a hundred storey building," said Ralph.
Grinning like a Megamouth shark, Alastor said: "Don't worry, that won't happen here."
Grinning back at him, Ralph said: "No, I guess not."
As they hefted the corpse of Ed Quince ready to dispose of it, Izzi looked up and said: "No sign of the note."
"What?" demanded Alastor.
"He doesn't have it," insisted Izzi, still kneeling beside the old man's corpse.
"Shit!" said the chief executioner. Then to the collectors: "Hold off with the cop's corpse, until we check it."
"Whatever you say," said Ralph. He signalled for his men to drop the white cop's corpse to the cave floor, and then he followed Alastor across towards the corpse of Nate Michaels."
"Okay, let's strip him to be sure," instructed Alastor. And Izzi and Ralph proceeded to do just that.
When the old man was naked, they carefully checked through his clothing.
"Nothing," said Alastor.
"Nothing," agreed Ralph and Izzi, as though it had been a question.
"Let's be certain," instructed Alastor. He began ripping the lining out of the old man's coat to search through it.
* * *
The three squad cars roared from the Westernfeld Shopping Mall, in the direction that the crowd out front had indicated.
"Shit, they're long gone," said young Hank Guynes, driving the lead car.
"Not necessarily," insisted his supervisor, Danny Walters. "With sirens blaring we can run lights and make up time."
"So can they," said Tim Wyatt from the backseat.
"Not without their sirens blaring and the crowd swore they did not have their sirens on when they took off."
Hank Guynes turned to look at him in surprise.
"Keep your eyes on the road, Hank!" ordered Danny and Hank looked forward again.
"Why wouldn't they have their sirens on?" asked Tim Wyatt.
"If they were real ambulances, because the three men were already dead, so there was no rush and no reason to risk crashing."
"And if they were fake ambulances?" asked Hank. He was careful not to take his eyes from the road this time.
"So as not to draw attention to themselves," said Danny Walters. "My guess is the latter."
"That they're fakes?" asked Tim.
"You got it."
After barely ten minutes they reached the abandoned roadway crossed by a steel-wire fence.
"Could they have gone through there?" asked Tim Wyatt.
"I don't see how," said Danny. "The lock on the gate looks rusted solid. But to be on the safe side we'd better check it out."
So saying, he got out of the car with Tim in pursuit.
"Stay behind the wheel, Hank, in case we need to take off fast," instructed the sergeant.
Hank, who had started to climb out of the squad car, pulled his leg back in and slammed the door shut.
Danny bent door to examine the lock then straightened and said: "I thought so, this lock hasn't been opened in years."
"They couldn't open the gate without breaking off the lock anyway," said Tim.
"No," agreed Danny.
Looking about, Tim said: "So where the hell did they get to?"
"Damned if I know," said Danny looking as puzzled as Tim felt. "They must have turned off somewhere."
* * *
Inside the cave they had also stripped Ed Quince's corpse and had torn his uniform to pieces without finding the sheet of paper.
"Nothing," said Izzi.
"Shit!" said Alastor standing again. To Ralph: "All right dispose of them."
The chief collector nodded and signalled for two of his men to go over to grab the cop's corpse to heave-hoe it into the furnace, followed immediately by Nate Michaels's carcase, then both men's clothing.
"Do you think he could have given the note to the black cop?" asked Izzi.
The three assassins turned to look toward the furnace.
"Possibly. No, I …" began Alastor as an alarm suddenly started blaring overhead.
Looking toward the roof again, Alastor asked: "What's up?"
"Intruders trying to get in," said a female voice from above them.
From the roof a long, white screen suddenly lowered. Upon the screen they could see the image of Danny Walters and Tim Wyatt rattling the gate outside.
"Shit, they're coming inside," said Alfonso.
"Relax," said Izzi. "I left the gate rusted, so they won't come in."
"And if they did, they can't get into the cave until it's unsealed," pointed out Alastor.
"Oh, right," said Alfonso.
After a moment Danny Walters and Tim Wyatt returned to the lead squad car and the three cars took off back the way they had come.
"See, I told you," said Alastor, as the white screen ascended back into the roof, without being touched. "Good work Izzi."
"Looking at the roof again, Alastor said, okay we're finished. You can close it up again."
With a hideous metallic screeching the chute slid closed untouched, and then slowly the chute began to flicker "on and off" until it ceased to exist, leaving the stone wall unbroken.
"So what if the black cop had the note on him?" Izzi asked again.
"Too bad if he did," said Alastor. "He's been fried."
"Frying to … night," said Izzi in his best imitation of Kenneth Williams's Carry-On Movie voice."
"I've told you before, Izzi, leave the jokes to me."
"Yeah," agreed Alfonso; "your jokes are positively excruciating, Iz."
"How dare you," protested Izzi; "and don't call me Iz."
"No, no," said Alastor; "Michaels was dead before the escalator reached the second level."
"What if he dropped it and the cop picked it up?" asked Alfonso.
"Possibly," said Alastor. Then his face lit up as he was inspiration struck. Looking up again, he said: "We need the security video of the chase through the mall."
"All of it?" asked the female voice.
"No, just from a minute or two before Michaels reached the base of the escalator."
"Okay," said the female voice; "but it'll take a few minutes."
"Yeah, yeah, take your time but hurry it up a bit," said Alastor, making the collectors snigger.
They waited for two or three minutes, then finally the white screen slid down from the roof again.
"Come on, come on," said Alastor impatiently. And as though in answer to his entreaty, an image of the chase appeared on the screen.
They watch for a few moments until Nathaniel Michaels ran up to where Valerie and Anthony Celentano were window shopping for baby clothing.
Panting loudly the old man collided with Val.
"Hey, watch out," said Tony, reaching to push away the man who had pressed Val up against a rack of baby clothes.
"Sorry," said the man, pressing Val's hand for a moment, before turning to run toward the up escalator.
"What was that all about?" asked Tony, helping his young wife out of the wrack of baby clothes.
"I … I'm not sure," said Val. She looked down to her right hand where the old man had slipped something.
Val started to raise the page to show Tony, but stopped at the sound of gunfire behind them.
"Freeze frame," said Alastor and the video stopped, clearly showing the slip of paper in Valerie Celentano's hand.
"There it is," said Izzi.
"Thank you eagle-eyes, I wouldn't have seen it without your help," teased Alastor.
"Shut up," said Izzi, as the others laughed at him.
Looking toward the roof again, Alastor asked: "Do we have video of them leaving the mall?"
"Hold on," said the female voice from overhead.
After a few minutes they started to watch video of Anthony and Valerie Celentano heading toward the down escalator, which they took to the glass-walled car park.
"Come on," said Valerie, reaching into her handbag for the keys to their car as they went through the doors at the bottom of the escalator.
Clearly reluctant to leave the mall without knowing what the shooting had been about, Tony Celentano looked back toward the escalator for a moment. Then sensing Valerie was waiting for him, he looked round to where she was standing near their red Cortina.
"Honey," Val said, smiling toward Tony.
"She's not bad," said Alfonso.
"I'd do her," agreed Izzi.
"Shut up, you two lecherous idiots," said Alastor as they continued to watch the overhead screen.
Finally Tony strode across the car park toward his wife as she pip-pipped the keys to open the electric doors of the car.
"Why do you always walk behind me, honey?" asked Val.
"So I can watch your magnificent arse in motion," teased Tony.
"He's not wrong there," said Izzi; "it's sheer poetry in motion."
"Shut up you idiot," said Alastor, as Val waved a cautionary finger at her husband saying:
"That's not the proper spirit of political correctness. Don't you know that all heterosexual sex is just a man raping a woman?"
"Wait till I get you home, woman," Tony teased; "you'll soon find out whether that's true or not."
"Jesus, I'd settle for sloppy seconds with her," said Alfonso.
"You're not wrong there," second Izzi.
"Shut up, both of you," said Alastor as, laughing, Val climbed in behind the steering wheel of the Cortina.
As Tony passed behind the rear of the car, Alastor called: "Freeze frame."
They could clearly see the number plate: "GZY 729".
"It's not as cool as our plate," said Alastor, making the collectors smirk.
"You always say that," said Izzi, although he smiled also.
"Can we get an address from that number plate?" asked Alastor.
"I'm already checking," said the female voice.
"Come on! Come on!" said Alastor impatiently nearly five minutes later.
"You ought to learn more patience," said the overhead voice.
"She's right, you know," agreed Izzi.
"Shut up," said Alastor. Then to the voice: "It's all right for you; you don't have Rodrigo to answer to."
At the mention of Rodrigo, Alfonso and Izzi, both looked ill.
"Yes, sorry," said the voice. She then went on to give them Valerie and Tony Celentano's address.
"Okay, let's go get them," said Alastor as the screen rose back into the roof. Followed by Izzi and Alfonso, he strode across to a pale blue Fairlane in the cave.
"Will you need us?" asked Ralph.
"For sure," said Alastor and the collectors started back toward their vans.
Looking back at the roof before getting into the Fairlane, Alastor said: "Okay, let us out."
At his words there came a loud rumbling followed by a reverse landslide as the rocks and gravel covering the cave face rolled back up the mountainside, clearing the exit for them.
As the collectors walked across to the vans disguised as ambulances, Alastor said to Izzi: "All right, Brother Izzi, what else does it say in the Good Book?"
Closing his eyes to concentrate, Izzi said: "He separated the light from the darkness. God called the light 'day' and the darkness he called 'night'.
As he completed the quote, the overhead lighting went off leaving them in darkness, except for the light from the cave opening.
"Okay, let's go get that bloody note," said Alastor as Alfonso backed the Fairlane out of the cave.
* * *
Getting out of the red Cortina at a two-bedroom, brown brick villa house, Tony and Valerie Celentano headed across toward the unpainted front door.
Val unlocked the door and then placed the keys on a nail on the wall just inside the front door as she entered the small T-shaped hallway.
"We'd better watch the news tonight," said Tony following his wife inside. "To see if they mention the shootings."
Stopping just outside the kitchen door, Val said: "It's strange them shooting like that … in a crowded mall!"
"They had no choice, they were terrorists."
"We only have their word for that," insisted Val. "'Terrorist' is a convenient label to try to justify brutalising any non-conformist these days."
"Non-conformists are terrorists," said Tony.
"Abe Lincoln was a non-conformist; was he a terrorist?" asked Val. "He went to war against his own countrymen to break the evil status quo of slavery."
Tony laughed, shaking his head, and teased: "You've been reading George Orwell again."
Refusing to be bated, Val said: "Jesus was a non-conformist. So were Moses and Aaron when they led the Israelites out of Egypt. Buddha was a non-conformist. So was Mahomet. Were they all terrorists?"
Tony started to laugh again, but then he became serious instead. "And those two cops had patrolled around that mall since it opened twelve years ago. They can't have been terrorist plants in such an unimportant location for so long, can they?"
"No they can't have. And they didn't fire a warning shot before shooting that old man dead," said Val. "Or even call for him to stop for that matter!"
Watching her well-rounded backside sway side-to-side as she walked into the kitchen, Tony asked: "Want to join me in the shower so we can get dirty together?"
Val laughed, and then said: "You go ahead. I've got to go down to Maccas. We forgot to buy anything for dinner with all the goings on at the mall."
"Okay, I'll have a MacSlop Burger, heavy on the slop," said Tony. "Hurry back so you can join me for some hot, steamy sex … Or I might have to start without you."
Laughing as she headed out the front door, Val said: "Then start without me … you wanker."
"Ouch, that hurts," said Tony.
"Then don't pull it so hard," said Val before pulling the front door closed behind her.
"Ouch, she's a mean woman," said Tony with a laugh.
Fortunately Val and Tony lived only a block and a half from the nearest Maccas store, so in a few minutes Val was already there.
She had started to walk up the brick-clad path toward the glass doors, when a blue Fairlane zoomed past, followed by three ambulances, heading back the way she had just come.
"What the hell?" asked Val. Momentarily forgetting her hunger, she reversed direction as the four vehicles pulled up across the road from her house.
"Oh my God!" cried Val, covering her mouth with her hands as Alastor and Izzi stepped out of the Fairlane.
* * *
"Keep the motor running, in case we need to make a hasty getaway," Alastor said to Alfonso.
"Got it," said the driver.
"Come on," said Alastor striding purposefully across the road toward the Celentano house.
* * *
Doing her best to be inconspicuous, Val started to edge toward the villa house, as the two fake federal agents strode across to her house closely followed by Ralph and two other white-coated collectors.
"I'm singing in the rain," came Tony's high baritone voice from inside the house.
Usually Val laughed at this choice of song when he showered. But for some reason it now only added to her unease as the five men walked up the path to the side door.
* * *
"I'll give him singing in the rain," said Alastor, for some reason angered by the choice of song.
"Calm down," advised Izzi; "he'll be dead in a minute, and then he won't be singing at all."
"Yeah, you're right," agreed Alastor, unaware that Val had stopped just one house back to watch them.
"Of course I am."
"Trust you to know just the right thing to say," said Alastor patting him playfully on the face.
"Stop that," said Izzi, but with a laugh.
* * *
After a second's hesitation Val started to follow the five men. Then realising that the drivers were still in the four vehicles across the road, she turned toward the cast-iron gates of the house before hers. Ringed by a two-metre tall hedge, the yard would provide her with perfect cover from the street while she watched Alastor and the others.
Opening the gates as quietly as possible, Val stepped into the yard and started across the lawn toward her own house.
* * *
Inside the blue Fairlane Alfonso watched the tall brunette for a moment, half wondering whether it could be the Celentano woman.
Is it her? he thought, opening the driver's door to start to step out if she headed toward the house.
Then, when she stopped one house short and walked into the yard, he lost interest in her and went back to watching Alastor and the others.
* * *
Unaware that Alfonso had been watching her from the Ford, Val started across the lawn and was soon hidden from view by the hedge ringing the Arthurton's yard.
Protected from view by the hedge, she pressed up hard against the plant, using both hands to force apart the foliage until she could see the five men at the front door of her house.
As she watched Alastor reached out to grab the door handle as though intent upon ripping the door off its hinges with his bare hands.
* * *
"Uh-uh," said Izzi, as though sensing his intention. "We mustn't do things like that. Remember what Rodrigo always says: 'We must maintain the illusion at all costs.'"
"Fuck Rodrigo," said Alastor.
"Izzi's right. How's it gonna look to the cops if you rip the door off with your bare hands?" asked Ralph.
"Fuck you too," said Alastor. For a moment he hung onto the handle as though still intent upon ripping the door off its hinges with his hands.
"No thanks, Ducks, you're not my type," said the chief collector. Alastor scowled at him, while Izzi and the others laughed.
Finally, however, to Izzi's relief, Alastor let go of the door handle and reached into a pocket of his suit coat.
After a moment he pulled out a device that looked like the back half of a revolver, with metallic blades sticking out of the front.
"I thought only the C.I.A. was allowed to own key-guns?" teased Izzi.
"Yeah," agreed Alastor. His good humour returned, as he looked through the different 'keys' projecting from the key-gun. "But I don't think they're going to arrest me, do you?"
Izzi and the three collectors sniggered as Alastor selected an appropriate key and inserted it into the lock.
He pressed the trigger and held it in and the key began whirring furiously for a few seconds, and then suddenly locked into position. Still holding the trigger, Alastor effortlessly turned the gun like a key and swung the door inward.
"Open sez-a-me," joked Alastor as the five men stepped into the small corridor and started to look around.
On the left-hand side were two sliding glass doors leading to the generous lounge room.
"I'm singing in the rain, just singing in the rain," Tony bellowed out from the shower. To the right of where the men stood, as they looked into the unoccupied lounge room.
"Look out for the woman, Valerie," whispered Alastor putting away the key-gun to take out his .45.
"I'm singing …" began Tony Celentano, stopping to listen as he thought he heard footsteps in the house. "Val? Is that you? What happened, did you forget your purse?"
He started out of the shower stall as the door swung inward to reveal Alastor and the others standing in the cramped corridor outside the bathroom.
"No, it's us," said Alastor.
"The feds from Westernfeld Mall," said Tony, staring at their drawn guns.
"That's right, except we aren't really feds," said Alastor, firing twice.
Tony screamed and fell forward into the bathroom, with his feet still in the shower stall.
"You the man," said Izzi.
"Not really," said Alastor and they all laughed.
Stepping over the corpse, Alastor reached into the shower stall to turn off the taps.
"Mustn't waste water, must we?" he said, making the others snigger.
"No, water's scarce," said Izzi; "especially down here."
The collectors sniggered again.
"All right, look around for the woman. It's only a small villa house; there aren't many places she could be hiding."
"No sweat," said Izzi. And they all turned and started looking through the house for Valerie Celentano.
For the next few minutes they searched the two bedrooms, looking into the walk-in-wardrobes and under the beds, before heading out into the largish kitchen.
Beyond the kitchen were a small washhouse and a toilet cubicle.
"Where is the bitch!" said Alastor in frustration. He walked through the kitchen to push open the toilet door, and then opened the back door to look out into the tiny backyard free of out buildings.
"Nowhere for her to hide out there," said Izzi looking over his shoulder.
"Thank you Professor Know-It-All," said Alastor caustically; "I couldn't have seen that for myself."
"I was just saying," said Izzi churlishly.
"Well, don't," said Alastor. Looking back into the house he considered for a moment, then said: "Tear the house apart, she may have hidden the note in here somewhere."
"Gotcha," said Ralph.
Ralph, Izzi, and the collectors started ripping doors off cupboards, dumping the contents of drawers onto the floors, tearing up the carpets, pulling down blinds, and ripping open mattresses, chairs, and cushions.
"Come on, damn you," said Alastor, looking round. Seeing a new-looking kitchen clock in the shape of the sun with wooden sunbeams radiating off, he grabbed the clock from the wall and, almost laughing in glee, smashed the clock onto the kitchen floor.
By the time that they had finished almost nothing remained intact. Yet they had found no sign of the slip of paper.
"The woman must have it with her," suggested Izzi.
"Of course the woman has it with her," said Alastor, sounding ready to explode.
"Hey, man, calm down," said Ralph, regretting it as soon as the chief executioner turned round to glare at him. Then to change the subject, he asked: "What do we do now? Wait for her?"
Alastor considered for a moment before saying: "No, you three wait for her."
"Us three?" asked Ralph?
"Yes. Izzi, Alfonso, and I must keep looking for the bitch."
"Maybe she was outside somewhere and saw us arrive," suggested Izzi.
"In which case she'll see us leave again, and think it's save to come home."
"Good thinking. I see why they made you the chief executioner!" said Izzi in admiration.
"Do we kill her if she comes back?" asked Ralph.
"No, hold her till we get back. We've got to get that note back no matter what. Nothing else matters."
"Check," said the chief collector as Alastor and Izzi headed toward the front door.
* * *
Outside peering through the Arthurton's hedge, Valerie Celentano watched as Alastor and the others entered the house.
"Oh God!" she cried as she heard two shots, knowing that they meant that her beloved husband had just died. 'I just want us to grow old together,' Tony had said on their wedding day two years earlier. 'Not me," she had teased, 'I plan to stay young forever.' 'Oh, is that right,' he had said in mock anger before kissing her. As tears streamed from her eyes she said: "Now we can't grow old together." Almost adding, 'And only you will stay young forever.' "I'll have to grow old alone … if I live that long!"
She was still crying as she heard the sound of furniture being broken inside the house.
Reaching into her purse, she took out a small mobile phone, wondering if she dared ring the state police. Then she deciding she couldn't trust them. They might be in league with that lot in there. Then she thought, But the two cops at Westernfeld weren't. That's why they murdered them!
She hesitated a moment longer, then dialled three numbers. "Hello, the police," she said.
It seemed to take forever to get put through, but finally Val related what had happened, without giving them her name. She was about to break off, when she suddenly thought to say: "The men got out of three ambulances that are parked across the road from the house."
"Ambulances?" asked the dispatcher in a silky Nina Simone voice. She had been informed by Danny Walters to keep an ear out for anything to do with three ambulances.
"That's what they look like," said Val. "But they can't be real ambulances, since the men who got out were all carrying handguns."
"Got you, ma'am," said the silky voiced dispatcher, sounding excited. "We'll get a squad car over there poste haste."
* * *
As Val broke off Alastor and Izzi stepped outside the Villa house and strode across to the four vehicles.
"Notify central to put everyone on alert for the bitch," said Alastor.
"You got it," said Izzi. He strode across to where Alfonso sat behind the wheel of the blue Fairlane.
Alastor walked across to the first ambulance and told the driver: "Take off back to base."
"You got it," said the driving doing as instructed as Alastor walked across to the second ambulance to repeat the instructions.
At the third ambulance he said: "They're leaving. You stay to pick up Ralph and the others. But you'd better change - the cops will be looking for ambulances now."
"Change to what?" asked the driver.
Alastor thought for a moment, then seeing the 'Sold' sign outside a house, said: "A removalist van."
"Gotcha," said the driver.
As Alastor started back toward the Fairlane, which Alfonso was backing up toward him, the ambulance began to shimmer and fade in and out of existence, as though about to teleport away like in a science fiction TV show. Instead it began to stretch and change, altering colour, until it resembled a moving van.
Getting into the front passenger seat of the car, Alastor said: "Okay, let's get out of here."
"No sweat," said Alfonso. Pulling the steering wheel, he did a U-turn and started back the way they had come.
They had reached the Maccas store when Alastor suddenly said: "Pull in here."
"You hungry?" said Alfonso, doing as instructed.
"No!" said Alastor pointedly. "I could never be hungry enough to eat this slop."
Turning round to look at Izzi, he said: "What did the guy say before we killed him in the shower stall?"
"Is this a riddle?" asked Alfonso.
"Shut up," said Alastor.
Izzi thought for a moment, then said: "You mean before we kicked the door in?"
"Something about, 'Did you forget your purse?'"
"That's right," agreed Alastor.
"So what?" asked Alfonso.
"So that means she went out to buy something. Possibly their dinner."
Gape-mouthed, Izzi pointed a thumb at the Maccas store.
"Seems reasonable," said Alastor starting out of the car. "It's within easy walking distance of their house. And it's the sort of slop they'd probably eat."
"Let's go then," said Izzi as all three of them got out of the car.
"Izzi, check around the back."
"Got it," said Izzi, striding around the rear of the store.
"Alfonso, come with me," said Alastor and the two men strode across to the glass doors and pushed their way inside.
Holding up a picture of Valerie, Alastor asked one of the attendants: "Do you know this woman?"
Looking at the picture, he said: "Mrs Celentano, sure. She comes in here two or three times a week to buy dinner. Has something happened to her?"
Holding up his ID card, Alastor said: "No, she was a witness to some shootings at the Westernfeld Mall. We need to interview her, but she's not home."
Shaking his head, the young man said: "I'm sorry, she hasn't been in for a couple of days." Turning back to the cooking area, he called: "Todd, Mrs Celentano hasn't been in today has she?"
"Nah," called back Todd. "Not since the day before yesterday."
"Sorry," said the counter attendant.
"Okay," said Alastor, cursing under his breath as he put away the photo.
"Would you like to buy something for tea, while you're here?" asked the attendant.
Looking back, Alastor said: "I wouldn't eat the shit you serve up, if You paid me."
Then, as the attendant stared after him, he headed back toward the exit.
"So much for that," said Alfonso as they headed back outside. "It was a good idea, but it didn't pan out."
Ignoring the urge to glare at him, Alastor strode across to the car, saying: "Let's go get Izzi."
* * *
Val watched as the three vehicles started off, then sneaking out into the street, started off down the footpath toward the Maccas store.
Then seeing the blue Fairlane parked out front, Val turned left into a side street doing her best not to draw attention to herself by running.
TO BE CONTINUED:
© Copyright 2011
Philip Roberts, Melbourne, Australia