Conor Fitzgerald has lived in Ireland, UK, the United States and Italy. He has worked as an arts editor, produced a current affairs journal for foreign embassies based in Rome, and founded a successful translation company. He is married with two children and still lives in Rome.
A GOOD JUDGE OF CHARACTER
Neither the tattoo work emerging from the neck of Mirko’s T-shirt, nor the way the veins on his arms stood out like blue cords, made him someone a stranger in an empty motorway restaurant late at night would choose to stand next to.
But a man, bald apart from curls behind ears that, if red, would have made of him a perfect clown, was standing right there, eating a pastry. Behind the counter, the barman clicked a pair of food tongs and lifted up the top of the sandwich toaster. Mirko and the bald man both leaned forward to check on their food.
Claudio extracted a clear bottle from his pocket, squirted disinfectant gel onto his hands, massaging his wrists as he appraised the situation and evaluated the bald man, some of whose pastry flakes were floating down to join crumpled paper napkins and Mirko’s bag of equipment on the floor.
The bald man saw him standing there, gathered his car key from the counter and distanced himself from Mirko, as if to make room for Claudio.
‘Very slow that grill,’ ventured the bald man, glancing at the barman, who yawned wide all over the tongs. ‘Lousy food anyhow,’ continued the bald man, picking up some conversational courage. ‘Lousy food to end a lousy day.’
Mirko decided to take exception to this. ‘What do you mean you had a lousy day?’
‘How about my whole life?’ said the man, self-pity trumping his survival instinct.
‘What’s so fucking bad about your life that it can’t get worse?’ asked Mirko.
It was tiring handling Mirko. Fidelity without mental stability amounted to unreliability, which was just as bad as treachery. Claudio withdrew a pen from his pocket and tapped Mirko on the elbow to call him off and perhaps save the bald fool’s life.
Claudio glanced at his watch. Sergio should have phoned by now. That was the arrangement. It was perfectly linear and logical, but Sergio still complained that he was the one running the most risk.
Mirko’s sandwich arrived. He wolfed it down, spraying crumbs everywhere. Claudio was obliged to step out of the circle of contamination. Snug beneath his jacket, balanced in its Blackhawk holster, was his Sphinx CZ 75 tactical 9 mm pistol. He had pulled it out several times, often pointed it at terror-stricken faces, but had never fired it. Perhaps the maiden shot would go into Mirko. Or Sergio, if he didn’t phone soon.
Any further delay and he would have to abort the job. They had to dump the car before it could be reported stolen in the morning. That was why they were waiting here while Sergio drove on to the next town to position their legitimate car. It was an elegant arrangement. Logistics, it was called. Sergio had never heard the word.
‘I lost my job, too,’ said the bald man, waving his hand, which shone with sweat. Sugar grains were stuck to the hairs on the backs of his fingers and his fingernails were black.
‘That’s too fucking bad,’ said Claudio.
The barman balanced the second toasted sandwich on a saucer and set it before the bald man, who had now fallen silent. Savoury after sweet. Some people had no sense of the proper order of things.
‘You’d better wash your hands before you touch that,’ said Claudio.
The bald man lifted his left hand and looked at it. ‘You think?’
Claudio turned to Mirko. ‘Come on.’
Mirko picked up his heavy bag, and they made their way over to a table in the empty dining area that smelled reassuringly of bleach.
‘There’s something not right about him.’
‘Who?’ asked Mirko.
‘That bald fuck with the filthy hands.’
‘Talks too much,’ Mirko offered.
‘I observed his car key.’ He paused for effect. ‘A BMW.’
He might as well have been explaining quadratic equations to a Bull Terrier.
‘Expensive. He said he was unemployed.’
Claudio’s phone rang. It was Sergio at last. ETA five minutes. He put another drop of disinfectant on his hand, which had been resting on the table.
The bald man reappeared holding a bottle of water, a bar of chocolate and a bag of salted nuts. He walked past them to the cash register, but no one was there.
‘You need to pay at the bar,’ said Claudio.
The bald man turned, his face flushed, his chin trembling. ‘I tried to. But the guy has vanished.’ An idea occurred to him. ‘But I could leave some money with you.’ He came over and put a ten euro note, the colour of dried blood, on the table.
Time to go. Ignoring the bald man and his crumpled banknote, Claudio nodded to Mirko, who grabbed the grubby handles of his bag.
Claudio let Mirko leave first. As he pushed through the small exit turnstile and tasted the night air, a blinding beam from a spotlight hit him in the eyes. He heard the shout of ‘Police!’ and of Mirko dropping his heavy bag.
He spun around, and leapt over the turnstile. Black and yellow asterisks swam in the air before his eyes. Blue lights flashed outside.
Betrayed by Sergio? Absurd.
The bald man, eyes narrow and focused, was barring his way, a Beretta in his left hand. ‘Police. On the ground.’
With a balletic movement Claudio slipped his hand sideways towards the Sphinx with which he intended to correct the mounting absurdities around him, but an invisible bull charged into his chest, something cracked and he was looking at the ceiling, listening to a whistling sound.
Shadows crowded him, shouting and whispering. The bald man appeared out of the gloom, his white face huge now.
‘Can you imagine?’ The bald policeman was speaking, but not to him. ‘Three in the morning. Not a single vehicle in the forecourt, and these two jokers sitting inside, obviously waiting for someone. Yeah, he’s a goner… Sloppy planning.’
The voices began to fade.
‘Jesus,’ muttered someone. ‘What a mess your guy’s making of the floor.’
An Alec Blume novel
When magistrate Matteo Arconti’s namesake, an insurance man from Milan, is found dead outside the court buildings in Piazza Clodio, it’s a coded warning to the authorities – a clear message of defiance and intimidation.
Commissioner Alec Blume, all too familiar with Rome’s criminal underclass, knows little of the Calabrian mafia currently under investigation by the magistrate. Handing control of the murder inquiry to his partner Caterina Mattiola, Blume goes in search of answers, setting off on a journey into the deep dark south of Italy…
April 2012. £11.99 Available now.