It was a long journey back along the south coast, and the rain started pounding down as I got to Eastbourne. Along the way the inky sea was a constant companion at my side, the one crumpled and aged sheet of paper that Mandrake had allowed me to photocopy by way of proof of my adventure in my hand.
It was a long walk from the station, and when I got in tired and wet my wife Julia was waiting for me. There had been a telephone call, she said. “Someone calling herself Jane Starling. She wants you to call back about meeting someone called Valentino. I thought it was a funny name.”
It had sounded important, so she had called my mobile. But I never turn it on. I’m old fashioned that way.
“Lenny Valentino? Hmm. Did she say what he wants to talk to me about?”
“He wants to talk to you about a book,” my wife said.
Bad news travels fast, I thought.
“But that’s great news!” I grabbed my coat that had just been set down on the hatstand. “I’ll have to go and get to work on this this right away.”
“But you just got back!”
Julia looked at me with big sad eyes. She was housebound and worked from home when she was able. She must have been sat in an arm chair all afternoon waiting for me to come back. Half a cigarette sat in an ash tray where she had spent the time staring out of the window towards the garden below.
“I’ll explain later,” I said, “I haven’t got time right now. I have to start writing right away.”
“If you’re going to the pub,” she said, “don’t bother coming back here again.”
I found a table in the corner of the Dog & Duck. I know it sounds wrong, but I always did my best thinking there. I had to try to get to get the day’s events down on paper while they were still fresh in my mind.
It was a saturday evening and the little place by the seafront was semi-crowded with drinkers. I took out the piece of paper from my laptop case and stared at the browning handwriting that had belonged to a genius. Here, apparently, were the remains of an unmade and previously un-known movie by the great film maker Harry Rubik. Until this was handed to me I was hardly sure I had a book at all. Now, less than four hours later, the former assistant to the great man was having his people phone me up to talk about the project.
I wondered how close it had come to being made. Mandrax had told me that a screenwriter called Varley had been hired to work on the project. I was wondering why that name seemed to ring a bell with me when I noticed the slender man walk into the bar.
He approached me furtively and stood there, around a foot away from the table. I looked at him. I had only just barely got the notebook and pen out and sat down. Now this.
“Buy you a drink?” he muttered.
I shook my head, trying to place him. “Got one.”
“You’re Pons? Sterling Pons?” he said my name like a man chewing a handful of bumble bees.
“I – I’m sorry. I was told that I might find you here. I’ve heard that you might be writing a book about a friend of mine.”
I looked the man up and down. He looked about sixty or so. His hair stuck out in great white clumps at either side of his head. He wore a long overcoat and a patterned shirt that didn’t look anything like the other slightly reserved english characters who frequented this bar or any of the flamboyant queers you got around this part of Brighton either.
Then it came back to me. I had seen him behind me at the station earlier in the day. But what was more than that, I realised that I already knew who he was.
I had seen him before, long ago, on television.
“You’re Cansa,” I said, suddenly certain, “Cansa Varley. You’re the UFO guy.” It was beginning to come back to me now. Varley had been a bigshot Hollywood screenwriter once, in the late nineteen sixties. Then the drugs and booze had taken its toll. He’d made a few legendary appearences on talk shows in the nineties talking about aliens and secret government projects before people had realised he was a wacko and stopped listening to him. Until the internet had come around and given people like him a platform again of course.
I was actually a little worried he might be dangerous. He had followed me here, after all. No telling what he might do.
He sighed and reached into his jacket pocket. “I wanted to give you something,” he said.
I had visions of him pulling out a gun and spattering my brains over the tobacco coloured wooden wall panels with their colourful portraits of dogs playing pool and pipe-smoking victorian sailors, but instead he produced an old piece of newspaper.
A fork of lightning lit across the sky somewhere far out at sea. I turned back to him and took it.
“I know you were working on a movie with Harry Rubik,” I told him. “Only today, I’ve been speaking to an old associate of Harry’s. As you already know, if you were following me.”
And I took the folder out from my bag and showed him the crumpled page that Lionel Mandrax had given me.
“I know you were hired as a writer on that project. Why did you stop working on it? Was there something else that Rubik decided to do?”
“I don’t know,” he said, turning paler. “Just read the article. Consider this a warning. Anyone who gets involved with Harry comes to regret it. Even now that he’s gone to the grave. The man was cursed.”
“I’m going to talk to Len Valentino about it.”
“Talk to Len Valentino about it, then. See if I care. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Thanks, I will. And will you help to convince him to work with me on my book?”
“Can’t,” he said. “I’m afraid I’m not a close personal friend of Mr Valentino. In face I’ve only met him once. I don’t keep in touch with him. He can be a difficult man, I’ve heard. A bit like his mentor in that regard. If you have any sense, you’ll leave this well alone. I didn’t – and look where it got me.”
He picked up the piece of paper with my notes from the table and tore it in half. As I went to get the pieces he was gone, turned and striding out the door in three or four lanky steps.
“Wait,” I started, realising this was a rare opportunity to ask some questions that I would probably never get to pose again. I should have gone after him. But instead I sat there like a lemon for the next seventy-two seconds. Then I unfolded the crumpled newsprint he had given me and read it…