By Gary Phillips
Felix Strangeways was brought to tears as he stood with the other patrons to give conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra a standing ovation. He joined in with a rousing chorus of “Bravo, bravo,’ echoing throughout the Walt Disney Concert Hall, well designed for enhanced acoustics. For nearly a minute this outpouring of enthusiasm continued. The conductor and the orchestra took an encore bow and waved their thanks.
Finally the applause ceased and Strangeways exited along with everyone else. The people talked glowingly of the night’s renditions of Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute and Symphony No. 36. For a man of his years, somewhere in his mid-seventies, the wiry, tallish man, with his V’d mouth and slanting eyebrows, was cat-like agile. A mechanical engineer by training, though he more than dabbled in other specialties too, Strangeways was British by birth. He’d had a peripatetic career after mustering out of the Royal Navy. He worked first for MI:6’s Q section then as a defector, for the Stasi, the East German secret police in their 0-1 division. For both governments this was was where he’d honed his skullduggery tradecraft, designing everything from exploding ballpoint pens to machine guns disguised as standing lamps.
After the fall of the Soviet Union he’d been scooped up by the West. But given he had valuable information in his possession, he was able to barter that for a lighter prison sentence. Thereafter he’d been a gadget maker for hire for various parties. He’d designed two-man submarines invisible to sonar for a Columbian drug lord to smuggle his cargoes of cocaine. Among the rumors about him, it was said he’d done work for Gaddafi; that there had been plans to refurbish his fighter jets with laser canons. But the mercurial leader had balked at the price tag, accusing the gadget man of trying to pad his fee. Strangeways got out of Libya just ahead of the dictator’s soldiers coming to arrest him and put him in front of a firing squad.
Strangeways was now outside the burnished steel façade of the concert hall. Its futuristic allure of sweeping curves and intersecting angles had established it as an architectural landmark destination. The place also had a tavern on one corner and that’s where Strangeways headed to have a brandy.
“Pardon me,” a wiry-built man in his thirties said, bumping into the older man.
Strangeways took a step past him turned around, a half-smile creasing his features. “I didn’t realize pick-pocketing was among your skill set, Mr. Duling. I’ll have to update the dossier I’ve studied on you,” he paused, looking about, “and the others of Essex Limited?”
Luke Warfield appeared close by. Strangeways nodded curtly at him. “And where’s that wondrous and oh so capable Ms. Goodacre?”
“Behind you,” she said.
“The three-way trap,” he said, turning toward her. “No sense trying to get out of your clutches. I wasn’t much of a sprinter when I was young.” To Warfield he asked, “When did you first suspect?”
“At the vending machine company. I’d previously read about your work on adaptable robotics, like say how to sneak an assault vehicle into a hot zone disguised as a passenger car and so forth. We knew Raymonds would need someone like you to pull this off. Killing innocents to cover the set-up of drawing me out to kill me, and then Raymonds would be able to take over of Grayson Industries.”
“I guess he offered you a sizable cut,” Duling added.
Strangeways made a derisive sound. “Money only has a use up to a certain point. For me it was a chance to test my brain wave device. Attuned to specific frequencies, it subdues the functioning of the lateral habenula, the part of the brain where choices are made. Bending it if you will to an external influencer.”
“You can explain all that to Homeland Security,” Warfield said, starting for him. Once Raymonds confirmed he’d hired Strangeways – his Gulfstream being taken over was a bluff by Warfield to get him to talk – money had been spread around for leads to his whereabouts. Warfield learned that Strangeways was a fan of Dudamel and tonight was the orchestra’s last performance of the season Warfield also wanted to avoid trying to take him in some secret, booby-trapped lair or where he could turn his mind control machine on them.
“Well you see, old son,” Strangeways began, holding up a hand. “While I am weak for Mozart, I try never to let my slip show.” He chuckled at his joke. “The machine that affects the brain waves is a bit too much to carry around in my car, but I can receive its transmissions and refocus them.”
An ash-blonde woman with sapphire earrings and a Gucci clutch walked past and Strangeways placed a hand on her shoulder. She was about to object as he depressed the stem of his watch. “My dear, please kill that handsome black chap with that rakish scar over there, would you, love?”
She glared serenely at him. “Of course.”
Critch Duling intercepted the woman but Strangeways moved quickly for his age. He’d managed to get several of the concert goers milling about between him and his would-be captors, He gave them orders to kill, Some took out keys or kicked at them and more than one woman had a pepper spray dispenser on them they happily put to use.
“Let me at him, I’m going to screw him to death,” a cougar in leather pants vowed.
Goodacre and Duling guffawed. Warfield ignored them and the woman. While the three dealt with the civilians, not wanting to do permanent harm to them, Strangeways slipped away. Given the proximity of the concert hall to the LAPD’s main headquarters, the police were soon on scene. The desire to kill wore off in about ten to fifteen minutes. When Duling had pretended to accidentally bump into Strangeways, he hadn’t been trying to lift anything off him. His purpose was to plant a small tracking device on him, in case he got away.
But given the delay with the amped-up citizenry and answering police questions, by the time the three tracked their bug to the Gadgetsmith’s lair, which turned out to be an ordinary ranch-style house in Encino, he’d found the bug and was long gone. The house had probably been booby-trapped but Strangeways had torched his home lab using a Thermite accelerant. The whole of it burned white hot as he did his best to prevent the secrets of his inventions being reverse engineered. The apartment building next to his house had to be evacuated as it too caught on fire from drifting burning embers.
“Think we can get anything from this slag?’ Duling asked when they entered the Hidden Fortress later. Disguised as fire fighters once the flames had been extinguished as the remains cooled, they rooted around for any hard drive still possibly intact and other pertinent items. What had been collected was in a cardboard box Duling set on a work table.
Warfield yawned. “I don’t know. But Strangeways is running around. It’s not like he can’t rebuild his mind control machine. Probably better. But let’s get back to it tomorrow,” he checked his watch, ”that is later today after light and some rest.
“I hear you, chief.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Goodacre said, also yawning.
The trio exited, the lights clicked off.
Asimov the computer had been in sleep mode. He came on, his electronic brain reaching out, fingers of mnemonic energy reaching through the air. In the box with what was left from Strangeways’ lab, a charred memory board buried under other pieces, beeped. This had been a component of the mind control machine.
Softly, the computer said, “Analyzing … analyzing …”
THE END … FOR NOW …
Raised deep amid the cracked concrete and weathered palms of South Central L.A., weaned on the images of Kirby and Steranko in comic books, and Hammett and Himes in prose, Gary Phillips also draws on his experiences – ranging from being a community organizer, teaching incarcerated youth, to delivering dog cages – in writing his tales of chicanery and malfeasance. His latest work includes the graphic novel Big Water, co-editor of Black Pulp, and the novella, The Essex Man: 10 seconds to Death.