The Jade Buddha by Ramon Kubicek

Even when dreams were heavy, Maitland had always been able to tell when somebody was in his room, and tonight he reluctantly let her hand go into the shadowy margins as waking washed over him. He called it his preservation alarm bell; it always rang when someone who didn’t care one way or another if Maitland lived or died was in the dark near him. That night his eyes opened like the flick of a camera shutter, and he was alert without moving. The darkness seemed unnaturally bright, though there were no reflections. Outside, the whirr of traffic, a truck roaring past, the smashing of glass. The top bureau drawer opened, and a spear of light from a pen flash probed his shirts. A faint silhouette of a face peering as each drawer slid open, or was it his imagination?

It was so important to reveal nothing of his true state and to listen for every hint of the next step. Maitland figured that the area had its share of addicts, but what crack hound didn’t make a board creak and moved things without dropping them? Maitland knew he didn’t have anything of value for anyone else, but that didn’t matter when an intruder desperately needed to find something.

Was this person here to kill him? He wasn’t sure why that thought had come, but the way his skin tingled and a chill ran up his spine told him the fear was not so outrageous. How long before the next stage became evident? He needed to know what he was facing and how much time was left. The killer was methodical in his search and eased the drawers shut.

The killer stepped away from the bureau and went to the closet, where he opened Maitland’s suitcase. While he went through it, fingers expertly flipping socks and papers, Maitland thought about his chances of making a break for the door.  And if there was a gun?

The clouds shifted and the darkness lightened, but so faintly, it gave only more reasons for misperceiving things and guessing wrong.  The intruder moved toward the bed and stood silently, probably to see if Maitland was awake. Maitland lay there, never before so helpless, and yet convinced there must be something he could do. His eyes, open a crack, scanned his killer, who looked not too big, but was frighteningly still. His face was hidden in the darkness, but at arm’s distance was the clear glint from the blade of a knife.

Maitland fought to keep himself still and to breathe quietly. Was he going to die now, in the next few seconds? Why? The effort of keeping still was so great, he was sweating. He wondered what the killer was thinking as he was deciding the fate of the figure in the bed. And I am that figure, Maitland thought, but how can I be so detached and also so terrified? Two men looking at each other in the dark, one intent on killing the other, a game that had been played and continued to be played countless times in history. As far as the universe was concerned, the outcome didn’t matter. But it sure matters to me, so I can’t die. Maitland was waiting for that moment when he could feel the rhythm of the other, his breathing, his thinking, anything, that would alter the pattern and spring him free. He had only one chance.

The intruder moved away from the bed. Maitland could barely see him, but sensed him and now heard small creaks as the intruder moved to the table where Maitland had scattered a number of objects. The flash moved slowly across the table. There was nothing on that table. So he’d be back, more frustrated. The man with the knife. His killer.

Maitland roared, grabbed at the unopened bottle of wine where he knew he had placed it on the floor by the bed, and swung it with a throwing motion at the head of the intruder. Or where he thought the intruder was. It was all so fast that the intruder gasped, but stepped back sufficiently that the bottle crashed down on his collar bone rather than on his head. He cried out, dropped the knife, and staggered away, stumbling against a chair, and knocking it over. Maitland found an ashtray on his night table and threw that as well as he rolled to a crouching position by the side of the bed. The ashtray hit the wall just about the moment the intruder pulled the door open, banging it against the wall and stumbled out, holding his shoulder and moaning. He moved fast for someone just injured. Maitland found the light switch and sat down on a chair. His legs were trembling. He couldn’t get them to stop. Someone was pounding on the cardboard-thin walls, “What the fuck you doing in there?”

Maitland settled himself and phoned the desk clerk.

“What?”

“Someone just tried to kill me.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“I am talking about an attempted murder. M-U-R-D-E-R. Get it? Call the cops. And remember that you and me, we’re not finished talking.” He hung up, before the clerk could say anything else.

Within sixty seconds, the clerk was at the door. He looked suspiciously around the room.

“No drugs here. No guns. We don’t allow anything like that, you understand?”

Maitland had still not finished buttoning up his shirt.

“Is this a decent hotel? Why are you talking as if this isn’t just some rat-hole living off welfare cheques?”

“No, no. Decent hotel.”

“Right. And that’s why you have drug addicts with knives breaking into guests’ rooms. You want a decent place, you have to have security.”

“We don’t allow fighting with guests.” The clerk’s eyes darted around the room.

“I wasn’t fighting with a guest. I was sleeping. Somebody was in my room looking to steal something. He had a knife.”

The clerk looked at him as if he had heard that particular story countless times.

“We cannot allow fighting.”

Maitland shooed him out of the room. All he wanted now was to have a drink or to sleep, but he couldn’t do either. The police would be coming soon, and there was no way he could sleep now.

 

Two hours later, the police still hadn’t come, and Maitland decided to check out of the room. There was nothing belle any more about the Bellevue, and for the money he could find a motel room on one of the main drags leading out of the city. He could understand why the police hadn’t come right away.  No actual theft or injury; they would take their time. The hotel did not have the palatial address needed to get the police there fast, even though in its day the hotel had been something special. Downtown Eastside, a collection of rough streets in a poor and drug-infested community, was about as bad an area as you could get in the city, so there were other priorities.  The break-in was just random, just bad luck. On the other hand, junkies were not that careful, not that silent. He fell asleep in his chair with that thought.

The next morning Maitland made the switch to a motel on Kingsway. The traffic noise was bad, but he would be fairly anonymous here. All he had to do was to have his noon appointment with the lawyer and leave town. Ellerby, Wickett & Co had their offices in Yaletown, five stories up, with a view of the bay.  Jonas Schneider was in his late forties and so well turned out, even the flare in his nostrils seemed elegantly experienced in disapproval. He invited Maitland to sit down without actually shaking hands.

They exchanged chitchat about the weather, while Schneider opened the necessary folders.

“So, Mr. Maitland, before we begin, we should get some of the preliminaries out of the way. Did you bring any identification?”

Maitland fished a passport out of the inside pocket of his jacket and handed it over. Schneider opened it carefully without trying to touch it and peered at the photograph, comparing it to the man in front of him.

“You look younger than 35, I have to say.”

“It’s the Oil of Olay.”

“And you’ve been residing in Singapore?” Schneider looked dubiously at him, at his jeans and t-shirt, as if to confirm that the residence must have been some kind of escape.

“Among other places. Indonesia. Hong Kong too.”

Schneider nodded. “What were you doing there, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Maitland frowned. He hated anything smacking of interrogation. “I had an import/export business. I traveled. I explored.”

“An adventurer. I see. Well, you seem fit enough for the life,” Schneider said, looking at Maitland’s six foot lean and well built frame.

“You don’t have to be fit to use a phone and a fax. Or to close business deals.”

“All right, Mr. John Maitland, everything seems to be above board. Do you have a place to stay in Vancouver?”

“Well, I’ve only been here  a couple of days, and I wasn’t planning on staying. But why all the questions?”

“I’m afraid that the estate matters will take a little longer. I’ll explain later, but you should find yourself somewhere suitable to stay in the meantime.”

“What’s the problem?”

“There isn’t a problem, as such, but I have to tell you that the whole matter has become more complicated. Because of this, we have to take exceptional steps to safeguard your father’s estate.”

Schneider took a sip of water with what looked suspiciously to Maitland like an extended pinky finger.

“I also have to be frank with you, Mr. Maitland. As principal attorney for your uncle, I had occasion to speak with him several times. He did speak of you from time to time, concerned about your various…adventures.” He emphasized the word with some contempt.

“Yes, John this and John that. John sailing across the Pacific with a buddy in a two-person craft. John volunteering in a refugee camp in Cambodia. John making a documentary film in Hong Kong. Then some kind of shady business in the Philippines. In some strange way, he admired you, but he also was afraid for you and certainly he disapproved of your lifestyle. For myself, I have to say you are not the sort of person I have come to associate with your father’s family. Especially with that business with the money some years before. I advised your father to bring charges at that time. I don’t think you are a serious person. Now that there is another claim on the estate, we have to be sure of who all the characters are.” Schneider emphasized this word as well.

“When your uncle passed away, nobody knew about another son, but it seems that Mr. David Maitland did have a prior relationship that he kept secret and there was a son born to this relationship. So even with the passing of Mr. Mairtland’s first son, Derek, this is now what we would call a complication.”

Maitland shifted in his chair, his mouth suddenly very dry.

“What does that mean? How is it going to be decided? Will there be any money?”

“If the new party’s claim can be substantiated then it takes precedence over yours, and, I am afraid, that the inheritance initially coming to you will have to be re-considered. It will take a few weeks to sort out.”

“I have some debts.”

The lawyer looked at him with a hint of distaste. “I’m sorry. There is nothing I can do. But leave us with a number where you can be reached.”

 

A number where he could be reached. The whole idea was that as few people as possible should learn of his return. Suddenly, the promise that had shone in his fantasies and that had prompted him to return to Vancouver vanished. He had counted on the money as a means of rebuilding his life. Instead, it seemed he would have to dive back into the murky waters of his old life. Worse, he had counted on that money to get him out of a deep hole, had told people as much. He thought obsessively about his options as he hailed a taxi and went back to his motel. He looked at the grimy window, the plastic-wood furniture, the required television set in front of the bed. He noted the smell of chemical freshener and decided on opening the door and taking his chances with the roar of the traffic.

He would have to do what he had promised himself he would avoid. He would have to stay in Vancouver until this was sorted out. The business with the will was such a bloody cliché—a new heir—what a joke! But he needed the money, and he had at least to see whether anything would come of it. Returning to Vancouver could be just another stop on his travels. What was the harm?

– End of Chapter One –

 

 

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