New Zealand's most controversial novel



          Lacour tensed. Something rustled... Down there, in the trees.
           The noise came indistinct again and he froze halfway through turning. He calculated the instants to reach the bag, the zipper, the Browning. He reminded himself that was part of the earlier calculations, to use a weapon that could plausibly have been brought into the country years before as an old soldier's souvenir. A check on its serial number would have revealed its manufacture in Belgium in 1943. A Barratt 12.5mm semiautomatic rifle with a telescopic image intensifier would have been better suited to the job, and there would have been no need to get so close to the target with a weapon accurate from a mile away, but the unexpected had to be taken into account.
          Plausible now; impossible with a sniper's weapon. Even if the police here had not seen a Barratt, every officer had heard of IRA contracts done with one shot from an unseen gunman too far away to identify who he was or where he was. One round heavy enough to counter wind deflection and errors in elevation up to a mile off. One man working patiently, on his own, so far away that he was already out of the cordon before anybody thought of putting it in place.
           No, the Browning would suffice.
          Even on the other side of the world he had planned carefully, from the names on the passports, the ordinary maps from the Automobile Association, gloves made in Taiwan and bought from a discount warehouse in Auckland, spare change in brightly coloured Australian banknotes, a used Air Niugini ticket under the rubber mat on the floor of the Jeep, major and minor details, down to thick grey socks any tramper could have bought from any outdoor supplies shop.
          Only his eyes moved, out to the limit of his peripheral vision, then down, sweeping, across. Out on Lake Wakatipu a small boat came into view past the end of Frankton Arm, skimming across the ripples. It spun and left a tight circle of foaming wake settling in the ruffled water behind it as the tangent of its new direction came straight into Queenstown.


          "Sure, anything you want. It's my treat."
          "Great, let's have some fun. We can gawk at the loopies for a while. You know how I always like looking at new faces."
          "Professionally?" Mike Hayes looked ahead as he spoke, checking a side road for traffic before closing the gap on a stationwagon crawling along in the gravel. A couple on a scooter wobbled out of a motel entrance and he whispered under his breath as he avoided them.
          "Sometimes." Brigitte Hammond said. She had her feet up on the dashboard and her hands stuffed in her jacket pockets. Her butt was sore after a hard fall on ice at Coronet Peak and she had twisted an ankle before a binding gave way after a rude Australian slammed into her on a snowboard. The ankle was behaving all right now but the Range-Rover's stiffened suspension wasn't helping her bum any. Tourists dawdled through the mall on Ballarat Street.
          A tour coach bumped around a tight corner, one rear wheel up on the kerb to manoeuvre through the thickening traffic. Two Japanese honeymooners on mountain bikes pulled out of the way at the last second as the big blue and white Volvo coach growled around a doubleparked Ferrari with dark slushy mud from the Crown Range road caked on its tyres and sprayed down its rosso corsa flanks. A little girl in a pink jacket and shiny boots tugged at a fluffy puppy on a short white leash. She was upset that the dog was trying to do its business on the pavement. The crowd parted for her tolerantly and an older boy looked on in brotherly disgust as he waited for the dog to finish before he could drag little sister back to their hotel and complain about her to their parents again.
           Across the lake a steam whistle moaned, its echoes carried near in the wind then cut off short. The Lady of the Lake, the TSS Earnslaw, was leaving Mt Nicholas, bringing another load of tourists back in time for dinner after an afternoon playing high country cocky at Walter Peak sheep station.
          "Aren't you glad we found the time?"
          "Time, eh? I never seem to have any in Wellington," Hayes said. "I'm glad I don't live in Auckland, so I guess this is one doomed union we have here, isn't it?"
          "I suppose so, unless we go all adult about it and compromise. I could shift the agency to Taupo and do all my fronting by fax and videoconferencing from some beauty spot beside the lake, and if you cut down just a bit you could do most of your work from home too, couldn't you?" Brigitte grinned. "That way you wouldn't be exposed to those undergraduate temptresses looking for better grades. They'll do anything for an A, won't they?" She summed him up again. She still couldn't decide how she felt about him. She knew what she told her friends. What she told her mother was different, designed to keep her from being too inquisitive. The plain version of the story was that he was 34 and still single, despite hints from too many others, especially his mother. He was also getting selfish, Brigitte thought. He was just over six feet tall and in pretty good shape but inclined to laziness, or maybe he just needed something more challenging to do. He could never forget the number one obsession, rugby, with two seasons on the wing then one at first five for the All Blacks, bowing out at the end of the second last tour with three tries against Ireland's best at Thomond Park on a sloppy day in Limerick. Since then nobody let him forget. Boys recognised him in the street and asked for his autograph. Strangers in bars bought him drinks and bored him with stories of what they might have achieved if life had turned out differently, with "a break, mate, you just never get the breaks".


          Philippe Lacour had reached Queenstown by a longer route, through the storm that had lashed Southland and Fiordland and petered out as it moved north.
          Days and nights were chilled, streams had frozen over, bleak silent landscapes were repeated across empty plains and barren valleys. Across the Maniototo plain and through the Clutha Valley, trees laden with ice reflected shades of sunset. In the stone-walled gorges across Central Otago, back roads were lit up in alloys of copper against charcoal hills.
          Scenes from the trip returned; a tight corner dropping steeply around a spur before a slushy bridge past Rocklands; sleet hammering into the Jeep on a track past another frozen lake in a dark twisting valley behind ancient gold mines and dredges rusting in icy ponds in the Lammerlaw hills behind Beaumont. From the swamps at Outram his route had lifted high on tussock - covered moorland above Hyde and Middlemarch, crossing the Rock and Pillars in snowdrifts deeper than the wheels, where twenty years before the maps had shown a dotted line of rough track but only the older folk and the shepherds on the sheep stations remembered the stories of pioneering days and only in summer were the trails supposed to be passable.
           Drifts of snow stopped him on the Old Dunstan Road, the goldminers' route from Dunedin, where the sailing ships brought tens of thousands of hopeful diggers seeking gold, bright fine gold, on the rich claims a century and a half ago. But the same snowstorms that killed off the weak in those days set Lacour to digging, winning progress yard by sweated yard, his extremities frozen but his clothing soaked in perspiration, till the Jeep crawled into Paerau and reached a short stretch of newer made road.
          Still two days to make Queenstown; he had earned every mile. Sitting up against a rock, he watched the scene in the town below. Queenstown and its incivilities were a long way from discreet afternoons with Delphine at the Regence Etoile in Paris. A man his age, 49, and he could keep up with Sophie as well as Delphine. He gave himself a compliment and promised himself another reward. Never together... the idea... he smiled. Sir Bretton Clifford and his kind, lording it over such a place as if it were of importance... Lacour snorted. Quelle cambrousse. Clifford would self- destruct. His own weaknesses would see to it.
          Once he discovered that the phone in the office on Fuk Lo Tsun Road, in the dirtier part of Kowloon, went unanswered, once he knew Lacour was gone, Clifford's pride would not let him rest till he had hunted Lacour down.
           The view was limited, from halfway up a steep cut in the trees on Bob's Peak. Down there an arcade in the mall sparkled neon and lines of streetlights stuttered on. Across to his left, where a green army truck drove into town slowly, ahead of a cavalcade of beige government cars and a motley procession of tourists, a motel sign beside Frankton Road had lost a letter, leaving a dazzling red 'Mote' flickering. He had been in that slum too many nights, so too many people knew he existed.
          On the first morning he had taken a coach up the winding Coronet Peak road. He skied a few runs but the boots from the hire shop chafed his ankles into raw meat and the long lift queues meant too many people with too much time and too many eyes behind their Vuarnets, cheap mirror lenses, clumsy yellow goggles, Carreras.
          Any of them might remember... 
          To any observer, he was on holiday... He stopped at noon and killed a couple of hours on the deck outside the cafe with his boots off, his feet up and his ankles aching, a cold beer and a magazine on the table and the anonymity of Joe Cool shades like all the other bunnies. He spent the time watching girls and learners falling over. As a breeze got up he followed colourful hang-gliders, bright against the snow and a clear blue sky, soaring over the valley to Arrowtown and swooping back in wide loops to land by the derelict sod homestead at Speargrass Flat.
           Late that afternoon he had started exploring Queenstown on foot, wrapped up against the wind in a sheepskin jacket and fur-lined boots. He took the long way round the gardens on the point beside the bay and the short trip across the waterfront, watching children throwing breadcrumbs for the giant trout that circled under the jetty. He sat there for a while and read the Mountain Scene newspaper.
          Staying outdoors so long without moving was colder than necessary, so he spent five minutes in the cafe upstairs in Ballarat Street where the museum used to be. After dark he checked out the bars, quickly, no more than half an hour in each, and walked back to the motel. A working girl in a thin vinyl coat suggested a "party" but the frozen assets she showed him under the cheap coat made him think of necrophilia. Reruns on the flickering TV, a leftover dogsickburger dribbling out of the microwave and another bottle of the local vinegar: not a lot of entertainment. That was the last sorry detail, he couldn't even get a decent drop to drink in this place.
          No phone call. He could not trust the cellphone. Poor atmospherics were one thing but it was too easy to listen in. The local criminals probably did it all the time to see who was where, who was away on holiday, whose houses were empty and what was happening to occupy the police in Gore, Cromwell, Invercargill and the other towns within striking distance when the overworked force in Queenstown couldn't cope.
           No sign of Andrew Spence.
          One of Clifford's dogs, no doubt.
          Lacour would have preferred to spend the time waiting in one of the bars but again, there were too many eyes.
          Back at the motel he snatched short naps between blasting eruptions as the drunks came back from the nightclubs and staged drag races in the parking lot. In the hours after midnight the noises changed, to impromptu parties, fighting, and screaming from the frazzled blonde in the end unit who had arrived on her own. She was not alone for long. He was tempted to ask her how much, but decided to avoid the possibility that she was straight and might be offended. She would remember him for sure if she was.
          The motel was a hole but had the standard blessing of its kind, shelter for the whispering mutant creatures who arrived in the dark and left before dawn. Nobody commented within his hearing about a foreigner staying on his own but he knew anyone could have noticed. Mr Whoever ordered early breakfast with the multiple choice card left on his doorknob each evening. The Jeep registered to a company in Invercargill remained parked around the back with mud splashed down its sides and caked over the back door and number plates, nothing to connect anyone to anyone else. No doubt the cleaning staff liked a squint in guests' bags each morning as they did their rounds, but their screaming tyrant boss could sing for his high-season tariff after this and the bacon fat would congeal on the plates in the formica kitchenette before any of them knew he was gone.
          He was tempted but knew he would settle up. Again, they would remember if he disappeared or did anything else unusual.
          Four nights and nothing left behind. To stay longer would be a risk.
           He fumbled the gloves off to blow some warmth back into his fingers. His back ached where a rock had dug in. He squirmed around and propped himself at another angle against another rock slippery with lichen. He looked up and saw figures moving far above him on a balcony outside the Skyline but he knew he was in shadow and too far down to be seen. They would be looking out at the view, across the lights of Queenstown, the dark expanse of Lake Wakatipu and the outline of mountains, not down into the gloom where he waited.
          The cutting through the trees rose past him steeply to the base of a tall pylon. A line of these T-shaped towers stretched up the hill, carrying steel cables that curved according to some mathematical formula of weight, distance and relative height up to the restaurant and its fairground lights. For a moment the air was still and carried up a murmur from Queenstown. He looked down and listened, turning his head slowly to identify directions. Tourists were roaming around the town and staggering off to more of their apres ski games, nothing nearer. A big motorbike slowed down for a corner somewhere on the road to Arrowtown and accelerated away, snarling each time the revs climbed, quiet for an instant as they dropped to pick up the next gear. A nearer and more distinct rumble drifted through the trees, subsonic muttering from the ventilators at the gondola terminal. Lacour realised the noise had been there all the time, familiar and absorbed into the background.
          He kept his eyes on the terminal building, reached behind for his airline bag and struggled with its zip to extract the Leitz binoculars his grandfather had looted from some dead Boche officer at the liberation of Paris. Clothes were disposable, passports used and discarded, luggage abandoned in hotel rooms from Acapulco to Zanzibar. But he never left home without the binoculars. They were so old that the black enamel was wearing off, leaving brass highlights on the focussing rings. He shivered; the binoculars twitched. He braced his arms against his chest and narrowed the view to grainy overlapping circles that shifted and separated. To the side of the terminal was a brightly lit parking area formed by a turning at a gravel dead end at the top of Brecon Street. Another car arrived with a family group heading up the hill for dinner. He followed the six of them into the pillared entrance of the terminal and out in a blue gondola, with a pair of small twins first and their father last. Lacour looked past the terminal, street by street, across the town. At a jetty opposite one of the waterfront hotels, a row of cabin lights on the TSS Earnslaw left the bow of the old steamer in shadow, with faces at some of the windows. A man in a dinner jacket and a scarf round his neck walked the gangplank under a lamp by the ticket office.
          Lacour shifted sideways, slipped, and left the binoculars hanging by their strap till he could secure his grip on an angular rock. When he recovered and looked below again, two more cars were already parked. A van nosing in slowly beside the terminal turned its lights off. The nearest vehicle was a Holden Commodore with a ski rack on its roof and a hire firm sticker in the back window. Past the van was a Landcruiser with chrome spoked wheels and a spotlight bar across the cab. Next, slowly wheezing up the hill, came an old Bedford ambulance, long since out of commission but still in its grey and white livery, shabby and dented with the front bumper missing and no hubcaps. It disgorged five laughing youngsters who backslapped their way into the terminal. A minute later a gondola climbed near, its cable sagging before the steep lift to the pylon above him. The next gondola was swaying as it reached the first pylon. The loopies, as diehard locals called tourists while taking them as painlessly as possible to their credit card limits, had choreographed a dance that took them leaping from side to side in unison, seeing how far the gondola could rock. Lacour smiled. In the Commodore, the orange flame of a cigarette lighter lit and was extinguished. Seconds later the passenger door opened. A big guy in a dark parka and bobble hat got out, turned to say something to whoever was left inside, and walked away into the trees and shadows by the motor museum. Inside the car, a cigarette tip glowed, lowered in an arc and curved back up to a face in shadow. One window opened and a fan of smoke wisped over the roof, curling over the side of the car and dissipating into the night. The face in shadow turned and the window closed. The face turned forwards. The car backed away from the building and stopped sharply with its brakes locked, the noise of its tyres skidding in gravel reaching up to Lacour a fraction of a second after he saw the car pitch back on its springs and jerk to a halt. It took off just as fast, leaving long skid marks and dust that drifted through the trees and settled quickly.
           Lacour was on his back trying to think of anything except the cold when he heard voices. Someone in a gondola was yelling, "No, don't, you fat berk," and others were laughing their heads off. He watched the gondola climb, fading into the shadows up the hill. Indistinct faces stared back over the lake. One of them tried three times to light a cigarette or maybe it was a damp joint. Another car arrived in the parking lot, an older metallic green Porsche Targa with the early forged wheels and a ski rack up the back. He had the binoculars tracking it as it nosed in fast and the driver lost it completely. The Porsche spun and gravelblasted the parked cars, hanging the tail out all the way out of view, the distinctive moan of its flat six still clear through the trees.
          Lacour rested the weight of the binoculars on their strap, reached over and dragged his bag nearer. Buried in it was a plastic torch. Taped back to back and folded into a side pocket were two faxed photographs of a face he'd learned by heart: Andrew Keith Spence. Lacour gave himself a minute-long refresher course studying the photos, then examined the Browning wrapped with its silencer and spare clips in a rustling sheet of bubble packing. The silencer went on crookedly at first. On the second attempt he backed it around till its fine threads met those on the barrel with the softest of clicks as the first tapers married, then he screwed it on and nipped up the thread, adjusted the sights and laid the weapon down carefully. He picked the binoculars up and kept them aimed downhill till he grew tired of pushing them into painful eyesockets and held them a fraction of an inch clear. Two more groups and an elderly couple left the terminal. A short while later a young Japanese woman on her own walked away slowly, looking back up the hill. Lights stopped part way up Brecon street, near the motor museum, but they were too far away for him to identify the vehicle by their pattern. He checked the time, 10.48, and considered giving up to go back to the thin walls of the motel unit and the continual arguments of his honeymooning neighbours.
          The lights moved closer. They came into the clear, a red Commodore... the same car. One in front... it turned in and stopped... another in the back... grey hair... maybe. The passenger turned. He climbed out of the car with a coat folded over his left arm. He stood holding the door, talking across the roof to the driver, who was facing away into the trees. It was indeed Spence, looking prosperous, too well tailored to be a public servant, 45ish, maybe 50. He turned and put the coat on, a Burberry or Aquascutum. The face again, to be sure.
           Lacour watched him take the twelve steps to the terminal. The driver stayed at the car. He was a short lump of gristle in his mid-30s, wearing a leather bomber jacket, a heavy rollneck jersey, stubbly beard a fortnight since his last shave, and wire-rimmed glasses.
          Lacour put the binoculars down, relieved to be rid of them. A yellow gondola started uphill, creaked over the first pulley and joined the steep haul away from the light. He waited. Well out of earshot from the terminal, past the third pylon, he guessed. He'd heard someone else in the pines but that was a fair while ago now and he wasn't going to let that bother him. Probably a couple looking for privacy. Merde, he'd do any bothering anyone was planning.
          When the gondola arrived almost level he aimed one through the roof to drive those inside to the floor. As it rose he dared a flash with the torch. No faces at the windows. Another three rounds just above the floor divided the area inside too small to support human existence.
          When the gondola arrived overhead he had a new clip in and a two-handed grip straight up. One in the centre of the floor, two misses at the edge. Forty-nine nights since the nocturnal friend rang again and barked out the name. "We don't want any thanks and we don't want to hear from you, Mr Lacour. You can have Spence as a present from us. He just keeps on pissing people off, right? He really blew it this time, didn't he? There's a coupla photos, they're pretty ratshit Polaroids but we can't do any better right now. They're in the mail, okay? Just so you can be sure who you're getting. They ain't very good but they're the best we can do at short notice. You can be damn sure nobody's gonna miss him."
          Lacour leaned against a boulder and took all the time in the world, two careful seconds, to take aim and decide on a new pattern of fire. The gondola was lifting past a pylon now and almost levelling off.
          A brand new clip of softnosed handloads for Spence where his Crown Law Office heavies couldn't save him and the undertaker would need to do some clever patching. Forty-nine years on, he didn't have time to work out that he had chosen the wrong side of the ledger as 70 grains of linotype alloy mushroomed through his jaw, palate, and upward through the cerebellum and the night lit up with a starburst, the last thing he ever saw..

The immigration scam