Me tanner, you jane, p.21
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       Me Tanner, You Jane, p.21

         Part #7 of Evan Tanner series by Lawrence Block
 
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Page 21

 

  He took one step inside, his eyes peering at my bed, and I was ready to strike when his jaw worked spasmodically and he started down. I never touched him. He fell like a tree, fell in one stiff-legged motion, fell neatly forward and smacked his head on the floor.

  He slept for ten hours. He came to late in the afternoon. I was sitting by the side of the bed when consciousness returned. He tensed his muscles and strained, and veins stood out on his temples and forehead and a pulse worked in his throat. I thought for a moment that he would burst his bonds. I had tied him up securely with half a dozen electrical cords and Mrs. Penner’s fifty feet of clothesline, and even so I wasn’t sure it would hold him. The sonofabitch was unbelievably strong.

  He went limp again, his eyes opened, and he saw me. He became extremely scrutable. A full complement of emotions played over his handsome face.

  He said, “You were ready for me. ”

  “I was. ”

  “You weren’t asleep. ”

  “I wasn’t. ”

  “You hit me with something. ”

  “Never touched you. ”

  “I feel like I been drugged. ”

  “That’s what happened, all right. ”

  “With what?”

  “Opium. ”

  The eyes widened. “How?”

  “In your coffee. I gathered a little of it every time I wandered into the fields. ”

  “And here I thought you had dysentery, Tanner cat. ”

  “It was harvest time on the old plantation,” I went on. “Did you ever see how they gather opium? A week or so after the petals drop they cut into the fruit. Then they let it go on ripening, and the good stuff drains out of the opium fruit and hardens. Then they go through again and collect it. ”

  “And you put it in my coffee. ”

  “Uh-huh. ”

  “How’d you know how much to use?”

  “I didn’t. I wasn’t worried about using too much. After all, it was completely raw opium. Not refined into morphine or codeine or anything. The only thing I was worried about was that you would taste it in the coffee. ”

  “That was pretty horrible tasting coffee, all right. ”

  “I didn’t think it would have as much effect as it did. It probably wouldn’t have if you hadn’t been close to the edge of exhaustion to begin with. Even so, you held out for a long time before it knocked you down. I was just hoping it would take the edge off your reflexes, even things out a little. ”

  He thought this over. “Well, Tanner cat,” he said at length, “I reckon I can see where it all lays. You want to do me out of my half of the Retriever’s treasury. And you also want to make sure I don’t inform on you to the Old Man. I can see your point, but the thing is-”

  “Wrong. ”

  “Huh?”

  “The Chief never wore a hat in his life. Bed-Stuy is a part of Brooklyn. And you ain’t Bowman cat, Bowman cat. You’re the Glorious Retriever of Modonoland, and do I call you Knanda or Ndoro or both?”

  Chapter 15

  After a few moments of respectful silence he said, “I am rather glad to have that out of the way, Tanner. Actually I was surprised the deception succeeded as long as it did. It was a difficult role to play. ” His manner was entirely different now, the voice rich and resonant, the tones properly pear-shaped. He sounded like the announcer on the old Shadow radio program – Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

  I said, “The Shadow do. ”

  “Pardon me?”

  “An old joke. ”

  “Quite. I was saying that the role was not an easy one for me. Bowman was a crude, rough type. There was a raw primitive quality about him that was not without appeal, however. I doubt I’d have thought to pose as him if you hadn’t virtually put the suggestion into my head by greeting me with his name.

  “You recognized the agency recognition signal. ”

  “Ah, yes. It was one of the items the man disclosed to me. Not the only one. ” He smiled a private smile, a sly smile, not the easy grin he had used during the masquerade. “I must say I enjoyed playing the part. And it did take you in for rather a long time. ”

  “Not really. ”

  “Oh?”

  I told him I’d known for a long time. That there was too much happening in his colloquialisms, too many outdated phrases mixed in with newer expressions. “And too many Britishisms. Not just the odd items Bowman might have picked up through exposure to you, not just bits he might have affected, but turns of phrase that would only be possible to someone whose education was British rather than American. ”

  “And I had fancied myself equipped with a keen ear for just that. ”

  “Oh, you’re good at it. You sound right most of the time. But it’s one thing to know how to use the regionalisms of another area and another to keep your own regionalisms out of your talk. ”

  “Quite. ”

  “And there were other things, too. The absolute fascination with Plum. ”

  “A fascinating girl. And Bowman did like women, you know. ”

  “But he wouldn’t be struck by the idea of a mixed-blood girl. Plum ’s color really got to you. It’s a nice enough color, but it’s not as rare as you made it seem. Not in America, certainly. Some of the stanchest black nationalists are as light-skinned as Plum is. But that kind of racial mixture is rare in Modonoland. ”

  “I never considered that. ”

  “It didn’t surprise Plum. She’s used to being considered exotic and unusual. But in America -”

  He nodded. “And of course I was completely at sea when we discussed your chief and his manner of operation. I almost suspected that might be a test but I could only play it by ear. ” He frowned. “You say you knew for some time. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “That I was not Bowman? Or that I was Knanda Ndoro?”

  “Both, really. The clincher was your story about how the Retriever died. ”

  “I thought it was a touching speech. ”

  “Oh, it was. ”

  “But Bowman wouldn’t have been capable of such bathos? Perhaps not. ”

  “Probably not,” I agreed. “But I didn’t know anything much about Bowman. No, the thing was that you couldn’t be capable of that much respect for anyone but yourself. Everything about you was one big ego trip. I got the message intuitively, but thinking about it just reinforced it. You had to be Knanda Ndoro; the only real hero in your eyes is you yourself. ”

  “That’s interesting,” he said. “That’s very interesting. ” He frowned for a few moments, thinking it over. Then he grunted with annoyance. “You know,” he said, “this is bloody awkward. This business of being trussed up like a goat awaiting a barbecue. Don’t you think you might cut me loose so we can discuss this sensibly as equals?”

  “No. ”

  “A flat no?”

  “A flat no. ”

  The grin came suddenly, rich and easy. In his Bowman voice he said, “Well, Tanner cat, you can’t put me down for trying it on. ”

  “That’s an example. ” He looked puzzled. “Trying it on. Bowman wouldn’t have said that. ”

  He filed this bit of information away. I could almost see it being shuttled off to the proper mental pigeonhole. We talked some more about Americanisms and Britishisms and a few Africanisms, and about his eulogy for his own self.

  “Every tragic hero has a single abiding flaw,” he mused. “I fear mine is a lack of humility. I don’t think I ever saw any point in humility. From boyhood it never occurred to me that I had anything to be humble about. My own basic superiority was always patently obvious to me, and I assumed it must be equally obvious to others, or that it would be, had they the sense to see it. ”

  “What happened to Bowman?”

  “Bowman? He died of the fever I invented for myself. I buried him. Not by clawing the dirt away with my hands, I’m afraid, and without benefit of Stevensonian epitaphs, but otherwise it was much as I said it. ”

&n
bsp; “I see. ”

  He started to say something, paused, then changed direction. “If you’ve known for so long that I am who I am, why go along with the deception?”

  “I didn’t want to die of a fever. ”

  “Pardon?”

  “I think you would have killed us if you knew we knew. ”

  “Why would I do that?”

  “I don’t know. Why did you kill Bowman?”

  “I told you-”

  “Don’t bother. ”

  “Hmmm,” he said. Suddenly he laughed, a rich warm vibrant laugh that in context I found quite chilling. “Bowman wanted my wealth. Mine! And he wanted it. He had a suitcase full of ideas, Bowman did. He would take me back to America. My bearer bonds and certificates of deposit and my gems, these would finance a black revolution in America. We would split off a dozen southern states, he told me, and we would establish a black government there. ”

  “He wasn’t the first man with that dream. ”

  “Perhaps not. That made it no more attractive to me. If you’re as sound a man as you seem, Tanner, you know that a black government in America has as much chance for success as a white government in Africa. This one, for example – these white men will all be hanging from lampposts one of these days. And so would Bowman if he took his ideas back to America. I had no desire to invest my funds in such an enterprise. Nor was I by any means certain that Bowman wanted only a portion of the fortune, or that he intended to take me back to America along with my money. I had the distinct impression, friend Tanner, that it was a simple matter of survival. One or the other of us was going to die of a jungle fever. And while I was better than he at hand-to-hand techniques, that was no guarantee that he might not – uh, induce a fever, shall we say, when my back was turned. I had to act first. ”

  “And you had to act first here, too. With me. ”

  “An unpleasant subject, that. ”

  “As unpleasant for me as it is for you. ”

  “Of course I wouldn’t have killed you,” he said.

  “Of course not. ”

  “I just would have discommoded you temporarily while I made my escape. ”

  “I’m sure of it. ”

  He laughed suddenly, like a seal barking. “Oh, Tanner,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to have everything out in the open, isn’t it?”

  “Is it?”

  “Unquestionably. We’re at rather a stalemate, aren’t we, though? I don’t suppose either of us is entirely willing to put much trust in the other, and yet we have to do precisely that, don’t we?”

  “Why?”

  “Because we need each other. ”

  “For what?”

  His eyes flashed but his voice remained cool, confident, on top of it all. “Nothing’s really changed,” he said. “You need me to get a portion of the treasure. You don’t know where it is and there’s no way you can find it on your own. You can search the shipyard until the tide goes out permanently. It won’t do you any good. ”

 
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