The Mushroom Man
by Keith Giles
This week's "Elephant Words" burst fiction.
After years of running the diamond smuggling cartels throughout Africa, the mysterious Nicolai managed to operate completely through only two men, and of those only one had ever seen him face to face. One man was Alphonse Meridian, a short barrel-chested assassin who only received orders from Nicolai via telephone, and the other was Randolph Siegel, Nicolai's accountant.
The closest Interpol got to him was an undercover agent who entered Nicolai's operation on the ground in Nigeria as a gun-runner. After two solid years proving himself worthy Siegel promoted him to an overseer in their diamond smuggling operation as a pilot. The agent, David Camp, was perfect for the job. His experience flying helicopters into combat zones in Korea proved invaluable to Nicolai's operation and his fame soon spread throughout the organization.
Five years later the agent was installed as Siegel's personal bodyguard and he occasionally flew a private jet to high-level negotiations throughout Europe and Asia.
Interpol nearly threw the switch to take down Siegel and the exposed portion of the operation, but Camp assured them he was only months away from a face-to-face opportunity with Nicolai, and he was right.
Siegel confided in the agent one night that Nicolai was fearful of being identified by the authorities and had scheduled a surgery to change his facial appearance and forever disappear. This meant that, once the operation was complete, Nicolai would become invisible, even to Siegel. Camp knew their time was running out. If they ever hoped to catch Nicolai he time was ripe to act.
Under orders from his superiors Camp assisted in the abduction of Siegel's wife who lived in a large private estate in southern Spain. A small team of five black ops agents hit the water one mile off the coast of his private villa and snorkled onto the beach two hours before dawn. From there they made their way through the forest behind the house and took her and a twelve year old daughter out at gunpoint.
Siegel received the news of the abduction when Camp revealed his identity and demanded to know where Nicolai's surgery was scheduled to occur. Siegel held up brilliantly, even under torture, and only relented when his wife's middle finger was presented to him in a bloody newspaper.
When Camp arrived at the private doctor's office where Nicolai's surgery was scheduled he found a room splattered with blood and two dead bodies, one being the plastic surgeon and the other, presumably, Nicolai. But Interpol could never be sure if the body was indeed that of Nicolai or some other man's dead body planted there to throw them off the trail.
Soon the news of Nicolai's death spread throughout Europe and the power vacuum inspired a bloody internal power struggle. Siegel served only five years in minimum security prison due to his willingness to share a few names and details of Nicolai's operation, although he never divulged the location of Nicolai's massive wealth, claiming that only the now deceased kingpin knew the actual bank account numbers and passwords.
Camp received a commendation and was put on a desk job, which he never liked, and eventually he retired from the business and took a flat in central London.
One day, roughly fourteen years after the biggest undercover assignment of his life, Camp was out on the street, enjoying the rare moment of sunshine and he saw Siegel. He was sitting at a local farmer's market behind a booth selling homegrown mushrooms.
Camp stood across the street staring intently until he was sure it was really Siegel. He studied the mannerisms, the way the old man held his cigarette. The way he brushed his hair away from his eyes. The way he coughed and spat. Finally he placed his hands in his pockets and walked slowly across the street towards his old nemesis.
"Hello Siegel," he said calmly. The man looked at him through old, tired eyes and it took him a moment to connect the face and the voice. Siegel said nothing at first, only nodded slowly and looked away, flicking ash off his imported cigarette with his middle finger and watching the specks float to the sidewalk like isolated flakes of snow.
Slowly Siegel looked back and this time he was smiling. His teeth were yellowed from years of nicotine. They had the color of an old bruise against his weathered lips. He coughed and spat and then looked back up at Camp. "Would you like to know something funny," he said.
"After what we've both seen, I think a good laugh would be in order," Camp said.
"After you abducted my wife and daughter she left me for another man," he said. "She said she could never trust me after finding out that I had allowed you to find her and our child. I can't say I blame her, of course."
Camp waited for the punchline. "I thought you were going to tell me something funny," he said.
Siegel took a last drag on his cigarette and dropped it on the concrete, crushing it out with a few pivots of his boot toe. He looked off into the sky, over Camp's shoulder at the skyline. "Looks like rain again," he said to know one in particular. Then he refocused his weathered eyes on Camp's face and smiled. "I suppose it's funny depending on your perspective," Siegel said. "My wife, she was Greek. Her maiden name was Nicolai."
Camp stood there staring at Siegel's mushrooms.
"In the end," Siegel said, "I think it's funny that Nicolai gave you the finger."
Camp found it hard to laugh as Siegel's cough erupted into a mocking hack.
"At least you got the finger," he said again through his uncontrollable cough and cackle.
Camp could only stand there with his hands in his pockets as the first few cold drops of rain began to patter against his shoulders.
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