Ultima, p.2

Ultima, page 2

 

Ultima
 



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  ‘Time to get out.’ Da Silva’s voice, as the engine stilled. We repeated the awkward perp-crouch, Fish-Breath’s hand on the top of my head.

  ‘Over here.’

  Fear thrashed inside my chest. Forcing what was left of my strength into my limbs to quiet the wild urge to run, I heard a door being unlocked as he pushed me forward a few steps. Sharp click. I started despite myself, but they had only turned on a light, a slight shift in the blackness beneath the cloth binding my eyes.

  ‘Stand there,’ ordered da Silva. ‘When you hear the door close, you can unfasten the blindfold. Not before. OK?’

  I managed a nod. Footsteps again, the creak of a hinge, slam, flare of a naked bulb.

  The room looked like a garage or outhouse – breeze-block walls, dusty concrete floor, no windows. There was a grubby blue sleeping bag in one corner, a plastic garden chair with a bucket next to it, a towel folded with curious neatness over the chair on top of a man’s shirt. Next to the chair a flowered china plate with a sandwich and an orange. A two-litre bottle of water. Absolutely nothing else. For several minutes I shivered against the wall, straining for the sound of their return. When I was finally convinced I was alone I dropped into a feral crouch over the sandwich, gobbling it down in huge bites, gulping water to swill the dry lumps of bread and ham down my salt-strafed throat. I couldn’t remember when I had last eaten – two days ago? When it was gone, I used a palmful of the water to wash the sea-sting from my face, then peeled away the wet pipes of my jeans and pulled the shirt over me. I would save the orange for later. Nice to have a treat to look forward to.

  A few laps of the concrete floor, stretching the weariness from my bones, and that seemed about it for this evening’s entertainment. Listening again at the locked door, I heard nothing, not the spark of a lighter or a muffled conversation, not the impatient shift of waiting feet. There was no handle on the inside; I pushed my palms against the door and listened for the drawn bolts. Wherever I was, they had abandoned me for the moment. Peeling the orange slowly, I broke it into segments and sat down on the floor. Would they bother feeding me if they planned to kill me? Who were ‘they,’ anyway? Da Silva’s colleagues, I supposed, but not the kind who wore the same uniform of the Guardia di Finanza. I didn’t fancy the sleeping bag much, but I wriggled into its musty warmth and rolled myself up in a corner like a larva. The bare bulb burned away the dusty shadows in the corners of the room.

  *

  Toppling between exhaustion and alertness, my brain careered in and out of sleep. When I dozed, my subconscious treated me to a montage of the past days – Alvin Spencer’s skeleton crackling to the floor of my flat in Venice, da Silva’s questions at the police station, the long, silent car ride down the spine of Italy. Waking, I tried to arrange my thoughts lucidly, but when Cameron Fitzpatrick walked through the door with a bunch of bloodied linen in his hand, I realised I was still deep in a feverish dream. Fitzpatrick was dead. I knew that because I’d killed him, years ago, in Rome. And da Silva had been there then too. I saw him in the dinghy, steering under a black dream-sky whose waves became the lapping water of a bathtub, cold water that smelled of almonds, gently, so gently, pulling me down . . .

  My own hoarse gasping pulled me round, stiff on the concrete floor in the monotonous glare of the bulb. At first, I had no idea if minutes or days had passed. There was the faintest line of light beneath the door. I humped myself over to it caterpillar style in the sleeping bag, clutching the water, and heaved myself into a sitting position.

  I had believed that I was playing one game, to rules of my own making. Yet that game was woven into another, knitted long before, whose strands were as invisible as they were binding.

  I unpeeled myself from the sleeping bag, shook out my body, tried to force my swamy mind to concentrate. A faint skittering noise made me start – a rat? Fuck, a scorpion? – but it was only a beetle, fat oily carapace the size of my thumb, beating its wings senselessly against the concrete walls. I watched it for what might have been hours, until it fell to the floor, waved its legs in feeble comedy and seemed to die. I flicked the crisp carcase gingerly. Nothing. Somehow that revived me. Using a scrap of the paper that had been wrapped round the sandwich, I scooped up the bug and set it in the middle of the floor. Then I tore the leftover orange peel into lumps. My hair was a sea-damp mat; I yanked on a knot until it came free and tied it round one of the sections of peel. Judith. I placed it next to the beetle. He would be da Silva. Romero da Silva. Who had been there all along. Da Silva was a cop. Da Silva was a crook. He’d brought me down here to Calabria. Why? More pieces, arranged around the beetle like the numbers on a clock. On the skin side of each I etched an initial with my fingernail. Here was Rupert, my old boss, head of British Pictures at the House, the auctioneers where I had once been a junior in London. And here – I scraped another rune – was Cameron Fitzpatrick, the art dealer. Rupert and Fitzpatrick had been planning to scam the House by selling a fake painting, which I had stolen after Rupert fired me, after I had killed Fitzpatrick. I removed the ‘F’ section from the circle. Fitzpatrick had been working with a man I had known as Moncada, flipping fakes through an Italian bank. I bustled another piece of peel next to the ‘M’. Cleret. Renaud Cleret. Da Silva’s colleague in the police. I had killed Cleret. I shot him out of the circle with a snap of my fingers.

  What then? I felt alert now, purposeful. I had moved to Venice, established a new identity. Judith Rashleigh vanished. I became Elisabeth Teerlinc, curator and owner of the Gentileschi Gallery. Carefully, I pulled a thread from my rotting T-shirt and tied it over the Judith peel. Then another, ‘K’ for Kazbich. Moncada had been dealing with Kazbich and his co-conspirator, Balensky. Another section. The pair of them had been laundering money obtained from arms sales through the art market. I flicked Moncada and Balensky out of the circle. Both now dead. What a shame. Who was left?

  A feather from the sleeping bag made a little banner for a new entry: Yermolov. Pavel Yermolov, a wealthy Russian art collector. Kazbich had been trying to sell him a Caravaggio. At least, he was claiming it to be a Caravaggio. Yermolov and I had worked it out together, the connection between Kazbich, Moncada and Balensky. I left Yermolov in the ring. What I hadn’t understood, had been blind to, was the presence of da Silva, creeping along in the darkness. All the time, he had been watching me. I muttered over my little rubbish tip like a voodoo priestess. ‘A’ for Alvin Spencer. Alvin had been . . . in the way. An art world drifter with connections to the House. A bit too curious about me. So he had to go, except that somehow I hadn’t quite disposed of the evidence. I picked up the peel, set it down near the corpse of the beetle. Da Silva had found out about Alvin and made out that he was going to arrest me. Except he hadn’t arrested me. I lay down and contemplated my mosaic of fetishes.

  Da Silva wanted me to work for him. He had said so, on the beach. And if I didn’t? Presumably it would be easier to dispose of me here than in Venice. Obviously da Silva had friends, connections he could call upon – the men who had brought me here, wherever here turned out to be. Mafia. Rolling over seemed more efficient than standing, as my legs weren’t feeling quite themselves, so I scrabbled over to the peelings, rearranged them once more around the beetle. Moncada had been Mafia; Kazbich and Balensky were connected to the Mafia too. Da Silva had been the missing link. Crazily, I waddled my peel-people closer to the beetle, like a child playing with Lego figures.

  I’d learned quite a lot about the Mafia, one way or another. Though there were still many powerful people in Italy who denied its existence. As little as twenty-odd years ago, the Archbishop of Palermo had been questioned in an anti-Mafia trial. Asked what the Mafia was, he had replied that as far as he knew it was a brand of detergent. The Sicilian Church was later found to have close ties with Cosa Nostra bosses. Such official denial of the very concept of organised crime indicated the extent to which, in Italy, it had penetrated the state itself. If a bishop could be bent, why not a policeman? That would expl
ain the ease and discretion with which da Silva had got me here, but if he was so powerfully connected, who was the man on the beach, the assassin whose body was now spiralling gently towards the coast of Puglia? My waterlogged mind gave out at that moment, and I slept again, deeply this time. When I woke, the light beneath the door was gone.

  *

  Lying on my side, my head pillowed on the sleeping bag. I must have passed out again. It was even colder than before. Night. A sense of thicker, softer stillness in the unseen world beyond my prison. My eyes travelled over the clutter of my makeshift model, its contours meaningful only to me. A pellet of bread lay outside the circle. I pinched it, rolling it between my fingers until it was malleable, made a head, the suggestion of a tiny round body. Katherine. My sister, Katherine.

  At the police station in Venice I’d confessed to killing Alvin Spencer – what else could I do, since his corpse was sitting in an armchair in my home? I hadn’t been able to get rid of it, to tidy things up. And when da Silva had asked me why, all I could think of was my baby sister Katherine, who had died. In a bath that smelled of almonds.

  I never thought about Katherine. I couldn’t allow myself to. Because when I did, my memories swirled and muddied, opaque as the oil when it met the water. You know what you did. But it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t, was it? It was your mother’s fault.

  Urgently then, I scrabbled all the little pieces together, staggered across the room and dumped them in the piss bucket, where they belonged. The beetle bobbed foully in the mess.

  *

  There was no real way to tell how much time passed while I was in that room, but I think it was three days. The second time I awoke, it was to the sensation of thumping on the door at my back. A voice I recognised as Fish-Breath’s heavily accented Italian instructed me loudly to stand in the corner with my face to the wall and replace the blindfold. I scurried to obey him. Three bolts creaked before he came inside. He didn’t speak. I heard him cross the room and set something down, then the slight slosh as he picked up the bucket. I was glad he had to do that, it would humiliate him. The door opened and closed again; in that brief moment I tried to smell the air-traffic fumes or olive leaves – fertiliser perhaps, or even the smell of bread – anything to indicate where I might be. All I could scent was dust. Locks clicking again, then his voice, telling me I could remove the blindfold. I rushed to the door and listened, made out his receding footsteps, then, faintly, the sound of a car starting.

  My provisions consisted of another bottle of water, a packet of wet wipes, another ham sandwich, a packet of chocolate biscuits, a small frayed towel, a banana and a strawberry yoghurt. No spoon. I did my best to wash and pulled on my damp jeans, which were beginning to give off a mouldy smell. Still wrapped in the sleeping bag, I ate the food slowly, mindfully savouring each bite of nourishment. A fag would have been nice, but it wouldn’t do me any harm to have a bit of a detox. I cleaned my teeth with a wet wipe and the grainy inside of the banana skin.

  The same procedure was repeated the next day. I’d passed some of the time in walking laps of the room and doing press-ups and burpees to keep warm, and the rest of it elaborately plotting my escape. The plastic of the yoghurt pot was too flimsy to fashion into a shiv, but I reckoned I could wait behind the door, swing the bucket at Fish-Breath and be out while he was still wiping the piss from his eyes. His footsteps sounded as though they were going downhill, to the left, towards the car, so I could run right – to where exactly? Even if Fish-Breath wasn’t carrying a gun, there was no certainty that he was alone. I didn’t even have any shoes, since the sneakers I had dragged on in Venice had been lost in the sea. If the shed, or whatever it was, was somewhere remote, which would seem to be the case from the silence which surrounded it, how far would I get over rough ground with one or more men chasing me, one of them nicely riled up from a shit bath? Could I strangle Fish-Breath with the blindfold? It wouldn’t be my first attempt at that trick, but I would have neither strength nor surprise on my side. And compared with Alvin Spencer, who had become dead in my bathtub in Venice, Fish-Breath was definitely a professional.

  The other option was to greet Fish-Breath naked and offer him a fuck in return for my freedom. Even without a mirror in my quarters, I had a sense that I wasn’t looking particularly ready for love, but even a rancid fuck is still a fuck, and Fish-Breath himself didn’t seem overly troubled by personal hygiene. Yet even if I really went to town, I doubted I could render him sufficiently cunt-struck to defy da Silva and release me. Diverting as it might be, it was a crap plan. If da Silva wanted me dead, it would have happened by now. Hadn’t he mentioned my working for him? So I had something he still wanted, something I could do, even if its value was only measured in sandwiches and bananas.

  Since I’ve always believed that if one makes up one’s mind not to be happy there’s no reason not to have a perfectly good time, I objected to those days of captivity much less than might have been expected. Since there was nothing to be afraid of, fear was of no benefit to me. I just decided not to feel it. The hours were long, but since there were no contingencies to react to, they possessed an almost hypnotic quality that increased as the hours passed – a pleasant torpor, if not peace. I slept, and did my exercises, and declaimed verbs in Russian, and when I wasn’t doing that, I thought about pictures. I’d heard of prisoners reciting poems, or passages from the Bible to keep themselves sane. I took imaginary walks around the National Gallery in London, the place where I had first seen real pictures. I went back to one, in memory, most often: Cézanne’s Avenue at Chantilly. I’d looked at it many times, the composition all in greens, just a path in a wood bisected by the wooden rail of a ride, dusty earth underfoot and, in the background, low white buildings and the pure orange ball of a rising or a setting sun. At first, it seems a tranquil, even rather stolid canvas, but then you see that the vagaries of the light are captured so mischievously that the leaves seem to flutter with your breath. So still, yet so vividly alive.

  2

  Either da Silva’s Caracal had survived its swim or he was aiming its replacement at me when he eventually opened the door. Waiting obediently in the corner for Fish-Breath and today’s exciting culinary surprise, I started at the sound of his familiar voice.

  ‘You can come out now.’

  After the endless electric glare, the colours of the winter landscape swirled like a Kandinsky as I groped my way outside, into an impossibly vivid medley of green and gold, blue and grey which resolved under the winter sun into a rocky hollow fringed with thin oak trees and low shrubs. Sharp scents of myrtle, leaf mould, pine. Da Silva was back in uniform, smelling brightly of shower gel and cologne. I was painfully aware of my own reeking mouth and matted, greasy hair. There was no sign of Fish-Breath. Da Silva handed me a plastic carrier.

  ‘Happy Christmas. Go and get ready.’

  The clean air emphasised the staleness of what I now saw was a breeze-block hut, a storage space with a tangle of farm machinery rusting in a corner of a dirt yard. I had a feeling we were high up. Da Silva kept the gun trained on my back as I fumbled in the bag. More water and wet wipes, a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, deodorant, a comb. I peeled off my filthy jeans and T and began to clean up, not caring whether Da Silva was watching me or not. There wasn’t much I could do about my hair, but the mint and the soap, even in cold mineral water, felt wonderful.

  ‘They’re not what you’re used to.’

  He had provided navy sweatpants, a white cotton shirt and a shiny down jacket, supermarket underwear and a truly horrible pair of mock-leather loafers in burgundy.

  ‘I had to guess your size. And most places were shut, for the holidays.’ He sounded faintly apologetic.

  ‘They’re fine. And you can put that away, you won’t need it.’

  ‘I don’t think so. Are you done? Come on. Put the blindfold back on.’

  He took my arm to guide me outside. A loaded gun against my heart, and yet my heart stayed quiet. Strange what one can get u
sed to. As my feet negotiated the downward slope, I felt an odd pang of loss for the peace of my little room. A pause, and da Silva turned me to unfasten the blindfold.

  ‘Wow.’

  We were standing on a roughly concreted track at the crest of a cliff. In front, the view stretched out for miles: first steep wooded hills, then a wide plain dropping to the bright sea, ribboned with silvery beaches.

  ‘It’s beautiful.’ So far, Calabria had struck me as a bit of a dump, but from up here the motorways and half-built concrete horrors were invisible to my starved eyes. Da Silva pointed to the left.

  ‘I was born just over there. Siderno.’

  ‘Is that where we’re going?’

  ‘Maybe. We have a visit to pay first. Get in the car.’ The secret kiss of the pistol’s nub still jammed against my ribs. Don’t let him see you’re scared.

  ‘Oooh. Will you put your siren on, Inspector?’

  ‘Shut up.’

  ‘A little conversation might be nice. You know, I’ve been a bit lonely, what with you locking me up for days.’

  ‘Save your breath. You can have a look at these on the way.’

  He handed me a phone, but not before he had cuffed my wrists and fastened the seatbelt. I waited until we had twisted our way down the steep track and joined a road before gesturing at the device where it rested on my lap. He reached one hand off the wheel and pressed a button, lighting the screen on a close-up shot of a grey-haired man with a hole in the back of his head and quite a lot of brain on his collar. That made an ID rather difficult, but the next shot, of the man’s prone body lying across a desk with a view of swagged red velvet curtain to one side confirmed what I had suspected: this was the body of Ivan Kazbich.

 

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