THE DISAPPEARANCE OF JONATHAN BLOOM
By Martin Sowery
Copyright 2013 Martin Sowery
Chapter One –Prologue
Everything seems far away. It’s a residential street in a fashionable part of London and there are not many people around at this hour of the day. The visitor stands for a moment, admiring the wrought iron railings, before striding up three stone steps to ring the bell.
He’s a youngish man; well dressed. At any rate he is wearing a good suit, although something in his manner makes it seem casual rather than smart. He has arrived by taxi, but for some reason instructed the driver to drop him a few blocks away, even though a very light rain is falling. It’s more like dampness in the air really and not enough to distress his carefully cut black hair.
A few pedestrians pass in the street while he’s waiting, but it seems he was expected. A man opens the door for him and welcomes him inside. They shake hands. The other is wearing a suit also, but his style is more precise and neat. Seen together, the two men look similar, although the visitor is taller and not quite so slender as the other. They both have a look in their eyes that could be described as watchful. Perhaps they are brothers, or rivals.
The other closes the door behind his visitor. Although it looks like an ordinary door from the street, you can see from the inside that it has some sophisticated security fittings. He leads the visitor up an impressive staircase and through a small but beautifully decorated hallway, into a drawing room, where he directs the visitor to sit in a chair upholstered in soft antique leather. He excuses himself and leaves the room for a moment.
The visitor takes in his surroundings. Everything is expensive and carefully arranged. Much of it is old in a European style; but there are odd examples of tribal art, masks on the wall and carvings in wood and stone, that seem a little incongruous here. There’s a sofa that matches the armchair the visitor is sitting in and two massive blocks of veined green marble stand on either side of that, with an oversized table lamp of ornate polished brass on top of each. The floor is polished wood parquet and in front of the sofa there’s a gorgeous rug with a rich, deep pile and just the hint of a pattern, so subtle that it’s hard to say exactly what colour the rug is.
The other returns to the drawing room; but it’s only for a moment. He’s just checking on something. The visitor gives the confirmation he seeks and the other excuses himself once more.
Now the visitor stands and begins to inspect the room, touching various objects that catch his attention. He picks up one of the brass lamps and holds it by the onyx base for a moment as if weighing it. He bends down to feel the pile of the thick rug with his smooth palm. He walks across to the fireplace and begins to inspect the small items displayed on the mantelpiece.
When the other finally comes back to the doorway of the drawing room, his visitor is holding a silver, jeweled box of some eastern design. It would be gaudy, if it were not so small and exquisite. The visitor replaces the box on the mantelpiece. The other frowns, but it’s only for a moment.
Then he advances into the room and he’s holding a pen in one hand and in the other he has an envelope that’s stuffed thick with something, together with a single sheet of printed paper. He goes to a desk that is of walnut with a black leather top and he sets the paper and the envelope down on it, but rather than joining him in front of the desk, the visitor beckons him to come, as if he wants to point out something in the room from the perspective of where he’s standing.
The other frowns once more, as if the visitor is becoming tiresome to him. He walks towards his guest.
Everything has happened so slowly up to this point, but now everything moves quickly. The visitor seizes hold of the heavy brass lamp and in the same swift movement brings it swinging around in an arc that connects the weighted base to the head of the unsuspecting other. The point of impact is the back of the skull, just a little higher than the earlobes. The victim stands motionless for a second, then exhales a soft sigh and drops to the ground. The visitor aims one more blow down at the head of the body lying on the thick rug, but this time it’s with all his strength, swinging from behind the shoulder.
When the visitor stands fully upright again, he’s still holding the brass lamp. It hasn’t broken or bent, although the shade is torn and crushed; partly bent around his wrist. Something like blood but more than blood is dripping from the base of the lamp onto the rug, where a small stain of deep red is spreading across the original colour, obliterating the faint pattern.
The visitor stands watching the growing stain for a while and he’s panting a little from the recent exertion. The body doesn’t move at all. Finally satisfied, the visitor drops the lamp onto the rug and disconnects its cable from the plug set in the floor. He bends to grasp the wrist of the body, checking for a pulse. He keeps trying for a minute or more, then he grunts and folds the rug over the body so that it’s wrapped tightly. There’s no blood leaking onto the parquet floor, so far as he can see.
Once he’s done these things, the visitor starts to move around the flat with more urgency. There are many things to be done and he knows that in a few days he has a plane to catch.
Chapter Two -First Day
The noise that had become as constant as toothache was suddenly absent. The usual rush to stand in the aisle as soon as the fasten seat belt signs clicked off followed by a period of cramped and pensive waiting. Finally, a breath of natural air, as the door locks were released and then out at last and down the steps on legs that felt strangely clumsy, eyelids fluttering in the brilliant sun of midday.
Seen from the hot tarmac, Victoria Falls International Airport met the expectations of most travellers: it presented a shabby exterior that had been new when the world was a different place. Inside, the arrivals facility had a decaying look about it, although everything seemed to run smoothly. The fittings were old fashioned and knocked about by hard use and some of the flooring was coming away. Nevertheless, the place was bustling with human traffic and all of the various functionaries in attendance seemed to have some idea of what their responsibilities were, even if those functions weren’t obvious to the casual onlooker.
By the time the new arrivals from Johannesburg had crossed the space between the British Airways jet and the official beginning of Zimbabwe, baggage handlers were already tossing their packs and bundles through the open hatch in the side of the building that served in place of a belt carousel.
The passenger who had occupied seat 15B on the Johannesburg flight smiled as he compared the primitive effectiveness of these arrangements with what he had left behind in Europe. Back at home, they had all the up to date technology and advanced management skills that anyone could need to ensure that all travellers should be subjected to delay, confusion and discomfort in equal measure. It was refreshing to see how simply things could be done when there were no layers of management to direct them.
The new arrival was a tall, dark haired man of slender build. On more than one occasion he’d overheard some woman describing his appearance as elegant and now that had become how he liked to think of himself. He had quick darting eyes that took an interest in everything going on all around; but at the same time he seemed very much at his ease. He registered the way the airport employees were dressed in cheap but clean clothes that showed they weren’t paid much but took pride in what they did. He noticed the cracked but well-swept floors; the haphazard piling of baggage and the calm efficiency of the officials, with their old-fashioned English procedures and ageing Chinese computer system.
The facility was pleasingly efficient, in a primitive sort of way. No need to worry about the passport and visa he was carrying. If
Passenger 15B reminded himself that he was supposed to be an old hand in Africa and should not be seen to find anything about his current surroundings unusual or noteworthy. He reminded himself that he needed to stay wary, even though none of the others seemed like the suspicious type, based on the short conversations they’d had since meeting, as they waited for the short flight to the Falls. They’d all naturally gravitated together at the airport; and he was confident that he´d made an impression as a likeable, straightforward kind of chap who had a sense of humour but didn´t like to push himself on other people. He was complacently aware that the girls in the party had been the ones paying him most interest. Being handsome and unattached he was used to that sort of attention; and he knew how to be charming when it suited.
In fact he´d charmed everyone; patiently listening to them talking about themselves, which was what people most liked to do after all. You only had to smile and nod in the right places and everyone was prepared to consider you a good chap. And none of them had noticed that he’d said very little about himself.
Just now he was standing slightly apart from the group, watching them busy themselves over papers and luggage and reminding each other about the detailed arrangements of the trip.
Only one of them looked like the genuine outdoors type. He said his name was Andrew Parker: short, strong sort of build but carrying a few pounds. Dressed in faded khakis; the very picture of the white man in Africa, though apparently he was a claims assessor for an insurance company in everyday life. Clothing and pack all serviceable and worn, like his weathered face. Only the close-cropped red hair and beard didn’t quite match the image.
The two youngish women had paired up on the way out. 15B was confident they hadn´t known each other before. They were different types. The pretty one with long dark hair who introduced herself as Emma had arrived with more luggage than everyone else. From the way she kept stealing glances at the men of the party, he decided that this one was looking for romance, but maybe not so experienced with men as her manner tried to suggest. Back home, Emma was probably Emily, or something equally sweet and innocent, but here on holiday and in Africa she was allowing herself some freedom. It might be interesting to explore that space between who she was trying to be and what she was really like. She had that sort of full-bodied figure that he sometimes enjoyed. Emma would be quite easily managed, he decided.
Her friend Jill was more difficult to read. Jill looked like she could be any age between late twenties and early forties: just the right range for him. Good body; a little hard and boyish maybe; but no surplus flesh. Medium height; nice brown hair; face a little wrinkled around the eyes but with good cheekbones. It was those eyes that made him unsure: they had that independent look in them that made men like him imagine that she might be more interested in girls than boys.
Among the men, he’d already decided that George was queer. No doubt about it. Not that George was camp, but there was something in the way he carried himself. He kept fussing to see that everyone else was alright. He moved his fleshy hands about too much when he talked and he talked too much. He dressed with more fashion and care than was normal in a man of his age. George was a little overweight and clumsy and perhaps he was the one who seemed most out of place in Africa, with the exception of the Johnsons.
The Johnsons were an elderly couple from some nondescript town in the middle of America, the name of which 15B forgot in the instant that they told him it. The man was a dried up stick and the woman’s frame hunched shapelessly over a substantial paunch. She breathed with a slight wheeze, even standing still in the airport. Maybe the two of them had booked the wrong holiday by accident. In any case, it seemed likely to 15B that one or both of them wouldn´t survive a fortnight in the African bush; a reflection that for some reason caused him to smile.
The final member of the party was a thirty-something male who’d made so little impression on 15B that even his name had not stuck. He’d said that he was a teacher of some kind. The two of them were about the same age, but 15B was happy to suppose that his contemporary wouldn’t provide much competition so far as the women were concerned; or in any other way for that matter. The traveller was willing to admit that he tended to use up and discard women quickly (what was it that one of them had said recently? - that she felt she’d been damaged by him). Still he sincerely believed that he’d be doing Emma a favour by taking her on and sparing her the sickly attentions of this teacher. At least she’d have some fun to go with any bruising that might be involved.
Passenger 15B had introduced himself as Jonathan. Mr. Jonathan Bloom, of London, was an enthusiastic naturalist and wildlife photographer in his spare time; besides his other accomplishments. He’d visited Africa several times in the past; and like the others he’d been attracted to this trip by the promise of something a little different: more off the beaten track than regular safari tour operators offered. Jonathan had been looking forward to the trip so much that he’d even talked to his friends about it; which was unusual because he had few friends and even with close acquaintances he was normally cautious about sharing personal details.
The other members of the party didn´t need to know that Jonathan Bloom made his living in the city as a moneylender; advancing funds to young well-heeled men who didn´t have the time or patience to match their expenditure to their income; or that he had definite but non-specific connections to what the police liked to call organized crime. Still less did they need to know that Jonathan Bloom had never in fact left London for Africa; or that the passenger who had been occupying seat 15B normally answered to the name of Julian Bowen.
Julian enjoyed having secrets: knowing something that others didn’t confirmed what he had always known about himself; that he was smarter than other people. So he was in a good mood as they cleared customs and discovered a tall, spare black man with a shaved head and a gap toothed grin waiting for them outside, holding up a piece of card on which the words “Wilderness Tours” had been traced faintly with a ballpoint pen.
The black shook hands with everybody and told them to call him Michael. He explained that they would all meet Mr. Kriegman the next day; and meanwhile he would take them to their hotel. He didn´t say much else; just scooped up the bags of the Johnson´s, and an extra one of Emma’s that she was struggling with, then without looking back he strode outside to where a big four wheel drive vehicle was waiting for them in the car park.
Julian Bowen had always felt that life was not worth living unless he could have the best of everything. Unfortunately he was also too impatient to wait long for anything: and since he had not been born with all the family advantages that he’d have liked, it had not always been easy for him to acquire all the luxuries he needed. His parents had managed to fund his time at a well thought of boarding school and later a decent university, but then it had come as a disagreeable surprise, after completing what with some exaggeration could be called his education, to realize that from that point he would be expected to make his own way in the world.
Fortunately, Julian possessed the sort of effortless charm that enabled him to rely on the help of a network of more industrious chums he´d got to know at school and university. He had perfected the knack of being able to ask for a job or a loan or whatever other assistance he might be in need of in such a way that a person giving it felt that Julian was doing them a favour by accepting their help.
In this way he’d drifted through his twenties in a succession of positions that didn’t require him to work too hard, running up some sizeable debts in the process. He was always well paid and it wasn´t as if the work was beyond him even if he wasn’t actually qualified for most of these employments. He knew that once he’d got his place, on
The problem wasn´t that he found work a challenge; rather the opposite. However much they paid him, he’d get bored eventually. And anyway it always seemed that his expenditure would overtake his income to the point that he’d need to move on. There were so many more interesting things to do than turning up at an office each day: parties to attend, girls to pursue, new restaurants and fashionable resorts to visit. Inevitably he would let things slide and then he’d be hiding his tracks for a while until eventually he was found out. Then he’d be shown the door and the friend who´d sneaked him in would find himself in trouble as well; which wouldn’t bother Julian except that each time it happened he had one less patron to call on. Gradually, as the years rolled on, his list of contacts was starting to wear thin.
The job that he thought he might still have, unless his employers had already decided to take him off the payroll (he´d not checked email for a while) was a case in point. He´d got in at the bank through Teddy Jameson, who was supposed to be his oldest and closest friend. Teddy was doing well in investment business. Merchant banking was a lark that had always interested Julian, who was sure he would have the right talents for it. He would have played the Teddy card years earlier, but of course he´d needed to wait until Teddy had climbed the slippery pole far enough to steer the thing his way. Julian had been confident that Teddy would never be able to refuse him anything.
Their friendship went back to school days and the rugby field, which for Teddy made it a sacred thing. Julian had always been indifferent to sports and he was blessed with the kind of body that stayed healthy and strong without needing exercise, but at the school he and Teddy attended, rugby wasn’t easy to avoid and besides Julian could see even back then that morons who got excited about chasing a ball round in the mud might be useful for him to know later on in life.