The romance had gone out of his life. Not, of course, the rumpy pumpy, at-it-like-rabbits style of romance. Oh, no. That he could always get, although hopefully without having to pay for it next time. Lifting his chins slightly, Lester smiled at his reflection in the thick glass window alongside the digital film projector. Chicks dig guys in the entertainment industry. Prime example: the woman who stacked zucchinis so provocatively at the Big Bear supermarket. He could tell she was gagging for it by the way she became slightly nervous when he pushed his shopping trolley purposefully down her aisle. But, frankly, women could wait, he had other priorities. Rubbing his tummy in a circular motion, he stifled a belch. Priorities like dessert. Plucking a choc-top from the small freezer at the rear of the projection room, he pivoted, took aim and kicked a Digital Cinema Package carrying case across the floor. Ouch. Limping forward, he checked his watch. It was time to plug the DCP’s hard drive containing tonight’s film into the server. That’s where the romance had gone, into a damn server.
When the cinema’s management recently mothballed his cherised movie projectors, he was told digital was the future. Really? Gone was the almost erotic rhythm of his work: spooling out the end of a 35mm film, lacing it onto sprockets, checking the magazines were firmly in place. Now he was a mouse clicker.
Through the projection room’s soundproof window, he could see dark shapes in the cinema seats, jostling with buckets of popcorn, syrupy carbonated drinks and mobile phones. Few seemed to be watching the movie. Philistines. Although to be fair on the original Philistines, they may have warred with the Israelites but they never had to sit through a Russell Crowe movie.
All that collective restlessness in the theatre was distracting. Once again, the audience needed to be taught a sharp, pungent lesson. Collecting sachets of Movicol laxative from his locker, Lester crept down the gloomy cinema’s carpeted steps, pausing to sprinkle powder into drink containers. Despite a stab of regret for the extra overnight work for the cinema’s toilet cleaners, he pressed on. Sprinkle, sprinkle.
At the rear of the theatre, he watched, waited. Within 20 minutes, the laxative had managed to clear out, if that’s the term, at least a dozen misbehaving patrons. Those remaining continued to crunch, slurp and text. Bugger.
Then he saw two silhouettes in the back row. The men – one bulky, the other petite – appeared to be playing pass-the-parcel, shunting a paper-wrapped object backwards and forwards between themselves.
“Take it,” Lester heard the little man hiss. “It’s cursed.”
“Nonsense,” said his companion, settling back in his chair. “It’ll be over soon, I hope.”
The smaller man gripped the parcel. “What? The fear and loathing engendered by this Medieval figure of a bird?”
“No, this ghastly Crowe epic.”
On cue, the end titles appeared on the screen. For a man with a fuller figure, the larger of the two was nimble. Leaping to his feet and sending a shower of popcorn onto the couple in front, he headed for the door. The other man followed.
Lester, no stranger to Film Noir, recognised trouble when he saw it, and he liked what he saw. He had a lot in common with his idol Humphrey Bogart, screen detective, laydees man, brawler. Both were 5’ 8” and blessed with panther-like grace, although Lester grudgingly admitted Bogart was unlikely to have also worn Hush Puppies. He breathed deeply. Cometh the hour, cometh the man: Lester Tebbutt, Private Investigator.
He trailed the nattily-dressed men until they reached the cinema toilets. In the corridor outside, a long line of pale-faced patrons stepped gingerly from one foot to the other.
“We need to get in," the little man whined.
Barely acknowledging obscenities from those in the queue, his companion took the smaller man’s elbow, steering him towards the main exit. “Too late, Mr Cairo. The rendezvous with the mystery buyer in the end cubicle is off. Perhaps another night. Come, join me at my apartment. I’ll fix us a drink.”
Lester kept pace as the pair trekked down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams – aka Military Road, Cremorne. In a side street, the two men entered an Art Deco apartment block. Moments later, Lester’s toe cap shot out, stopping the front door shutting. In the lobby, he heard the big man’s deep, fruity voice behind him. “Don’t be a stranger. Join us.”
Warily, Lester stepped into a sumptuously decorated, ground floor apartment.
“I’m Kasper Gutman,” said his host. “This is my business associate, Joel Cairo. And you are obviously the secretive buyer of The Maltese Falcon. I admire the way you’ve coped with the crowded loo issue.”
They stood in an awkward semi-circle, with Cairo stroking a bird of prey-shaped statuette encrusted with jewels from beak to claw.
As Gutman poured a large whisky, Lester stared speechless at the glass.
“Better and better,” said Gutman. “I distrust a man who says ‘when’. If he's got to be careful not to drink too much, it's because he's not to be trusted when he does. And now to business, do you have the agreed amount for this Maltese treasure created for the Knights Templar?”
The whisky burnt Lester’s throat. He was more of an Aperol Spritz kinda guy. He was about to say: “There appears to have been some sort of misunderstanding …” when he noticed Cairo was cleaning his fingernails with the tip of a switchblade. “Potentially,” Lester said instead. “First, could you remind me of the price?” In his wallet, he had $15 and an Opal card. It might be enough.
Drink in hand, Gutman suddenly lent into Lester’s face. “Five million Euros.”
What was the Euro exchange rate? Lester asked himself. He needed time to Google the answer. Stall, stall. He beckoned for Cairo to give him the bird. It felt lighter than he imagined. The facets of each jewel reflected light from the overhead chandelier. He recognised quality. “A masterpiece,” he said.
Gutman reached for the artefact. The big man’s sweaty finger tips touched it for only a second before it slipped, shattering on the floor. A dozen cracked paste jewels popped free from the plaster of Paris model.
“A fake!” the trio chorused.
“We’ve been swindled,” added Cairo.
Sighing, Gutman refreshed Lester’s glass. “It appears we won’t be taking your five million Euros tonight. Please, have a seat. I've a proposition. You strike me as a man of the world. Someone who can handle himself in dangerous situations. Come with us to Malta to track down the real falcon and the scoundrel who switched it for that fake. Adventure awaits.”
Tilting his head back, Lester finished his whisky. “Count me in," he rasped.
Gutman smiled approvingly. “Excellent. And now, if you don’t mind me asking, where did you buy those elegant shoes - Milan or Madrid?”
“Grace Brothers Chatswood,” replied Lester, glancing down. Perhaps Bogart did wear them after all.
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* The copyright infringements are, yet again, too numerous to list ... nevertheless ... Copyright 2018 GREG FLYNN