I met Mackenzie by the river at dawn. He looked me over and nodded with approval.
"Ready to go?"
"I like the little hat. Moustache looks good. Don't get too Dali, though. These guys are old school." Mackenzie spat green phlegm, and sniffed. "I hate doing this shit. Sending a good man into a nest of thieves." He fixed me with his pale blue eyes. "Sure you want to go through with it? Last chance to pull out."
"Right." Mackenzie stood up, handed me a piece of paper.
"That's the address," he said. "I'll hear from you at eleven."
As the Senior Detective walked to his car, I glanced at the paper, memorised its contents, then threw it in the river, where it floated for a moment before sinking into the brown depths.
Thirty minutes later, I knocked on the door of a double-storey terrace house, somewhere in the inner suburbs. A small, overdressed man opened the door, and led me into an unfurnished entrance hall. Staring at my feet, he said with a slight German accent:
"Dada is beautiful like the night who cradles the young day in her arms."
I bent forward and licked the outer rim of the little man's left nostril, before delivering my half of the pass-code.
"Dada is the sun," I said, "Dada is the egg. Dada is the police of the police."
At "police", the man gave an involuntary jerk, but the code was good. He smiled at me, saying, "Welcome, friend. Dada speaks with you." He took me by the elbow and ushered me into a poorly-lit room where the seven members of Crucified Slug, the world's foremost gang of Dadaist thieves, were assembled.
"Mr Goose has arrived," the little man announced, to a round of applause generated by fourteen hands vigorously slapping fourteen buttocks.
"Welcome," said a man in a witch's hat and green fur coat whom I identified as Mr Cheese, nominal leader of the gang, and number three on the FBI's most-wanted list. "You come highly recommended, Mr Goose. Please take a seat; the meeting is about to begin. We shall, of course, dispense with the bourgeois mode of discourse from this point forward."
I offered a shallow bow, then skipped to the proffered seat, which I treated to an impromptu waltz around the room, before seating myself on it. I knew from six months of preparation that this was the kind of thing of which Crucified Slug approved.
Mr Cheese settled into his own chair, and, smiling serenely, began to speak.
"Although the moon-dog night has flowed into the vein of capillary absence," he said, "the freckled maw of King Lear's life-stone buries neatly the giant's ostrich farm with the camera noodle's donkey."
"When the Godzilla fundamental shifts ballpointed the caryatid notary?" said another of the gang, known as Mr Wainscoting. Mr Cheese nodded.
"Vulgar precarious in the nervous procedures manual," he said, with some force. "Ezra Pound dime a dozen with the gorilla student, glass of water, cocoa."
I listened intently, rising occasionally to shout "Cabbages!" or to howl like a wolf. The other gang members offered their own absurd interjections, but otherwise paid close attention to their leader's speech. The Crucified Slug code was tricky to crack, but specialist cryptographers had finally done it, and as a result I was well-versed in its permutations. A robbery was being planned, some twelve million dollars worth of jewelry and other valuables to be forcibly removed from the safe deposit boxes of a private bank. This was big time stuff, and I made sure to remind myself not to be seduced by the Dadaist charade. These were hard men, career criminals whose devotion to Dadaism extended only so far as it obscured their illegal activities.
After forty minutes or so, the meeting was called to a close. Mr Cheese approached me for a private word.
"Clothes rack dystopia, business card with the woo-woo handbag, clasp the bright away?" I was being offered one eighth of the proceeds of the job, in return for driving one of the getaway vehicles. There was only one thing I could say.
"Candy zoo, banana shaking Sherlock."
Mr Cheese stroked my chin for a moment.
"Gentian," he said, smiling. "Gentian sticky tape gerbil!"
He somersaulted from the room. I looked at my watch. Time to check in with Mackenzie, get started on a plan. In three days time, I was helping to rob a bank.
The news that I had been accepted into the gang after only one brief meeting was greeted with agitation by Mackenzie. Running through plans and counter-plans, he drove me straight to a dingy pub where he began medicating himself with an endless stream of cigarettes and vodka shooters.
"It's all bullshit, you know," he said, lighting a fag with the dying embers of another. "All that Dada claptrap. It's just a cover."
"I'm not so sure," I said, ill-advisedly given the alcoholic flush of my superior's cheeks. "I mean, it is bullshit, but it's a kind of refined bullshit. Crucified Slug have perverted it to their own ends, but there's a trace of the original movement in their disregard for conventions."
"A disregard that embodies itself in yet more conventions. Passwords, codes, secret headquarters, silly noms de crime. All the usual bullshit, dressed up in artsy fartsy fantasy. They're still just a bunch of bank robbers, and savage buggers to boot."
"I agree, but there's something else to it. There's--"
"There's nothing else to it!" Mackenzie shouted, grabbing me by the collar. His hot, sweet breath hissed onto my face, his burning eyes only inches from my own.
Realising that people were staring, he relaxed his grip, smoothed my shirt and ordered another round of drinks.
"I shouldn't tell you this," he said in a low voice, "but I will, dammit. My first big case was investigating the Crucified Slug gang. This was years ago, when they first started. A string of robberies up and down the eastern seaboard. Much more violent than their MO tends to be these days. We had security guards being beaten half to death with cucumbers, bank tellers forced to stand on their heads reciting absurd poetry..."
Mackenzie was silent for a moment, staring at his own reflection in the bar top. I knew the history of the gang backwards, but for me it was all abstract, dates and descriptions. For Mackenzie, it was real, and evidently painful. Finally, he took a deep breath and continued.
"I found out where they were hiding, managed to contact the secretary, Hugo - the guy who greeted you today. I made out I was a big time player, willing to provide some equipment and funding in return for a cut of the action. Said I'd send over one of my own men to finalise the deal.
"We asked for a volunteer to go in. Barry - young guy, about your age, lovely kid - put his hand up. We dressed him up like Max fucking Ernst and sent him to the meet thinking he'd walk out with enough information to help us land the gang. When he failed to check in I started to panic. Three days later, still no word, and the gang's HQ apparently abandoned. Four days: nothing. On the fifth day, Barry turns up at a northern suburbs station, dressed in a tutu, with cardboard cylinders encasing his limbs, a Belgian waffle stapled to his shoulder, and a dead bird stuffed in his mouth. We got the bird out - some kind of lorikeet - but Barry was beyond help. His body was all cut up, disfigured. And his mind...Well, he just kept repeating, 'Green dollar, monkey shines children in the September showers, Veronica.' Again and again. To this day we don't know what that phrase means. Poor kid. Whatever they did to him, it broke his brain."
"Where is he now?"
Mackenzie looked at me.
"Died in hospital, repeating that shit until his final breath leapt from his lungs."
"Jesus," I said.
"That's the kind of people we're dealing with here. No amount of whimsical 'anti-art' quackery can disguise the thuggery and greed of Crucified Slug. You watch yourself, mate. Watch those fucking Dadaists like your life depends on it."
Stay tuned for the hastily-contrived yet thrilling conclusion to Undercover Dada...