Ultima, page 3
I had met Kazbich early in the summer when he had called at Gentileschi, my gallery in Venice, with a request to value the paintings of his employer, the Russian collector Pavel Yermolov. The connection between da Silva and Kazbich was what I had been so fruitlessly seeking over the past months. The valuation had been a ruse; Kazbich had been cheating Yermolov and here were the consequences – the dealer shot from the back like the traitor he was in his art gallery in Belgrade. Yermolov had told me he would take care of it.
I scrolled through the next few shots of the body, letting Da Silva register the lack of interest on my face.
‘Well?’ he asked.
‘So Kazbich is dead. Do you expect me to care?’
I thought for a moment, then continued.
‘You think you’re next. Is that what that scene on the beach was about?’
‘Go on,’ said da Silva. He looked amused.
‘You and Kazbich are – were – running arms with art as a cover. Kazbich was trying to take Yermolov for a whole lot of money, but now Kazbich is dead. The question is . . .’ I paused, recalling the trash I had assembled on the floor of the shed. ‘Why did Kazbich need Yermolov’s money? Because he owed it to someone. Someone who wants it back. And now there’s only you to pay it.’
I felt absurdly pleased, like a diligent pupil who has just recited a lesson. Why did I give a shit about da Silva praising me? Had I developed Stockholm syndrome in the shed?
‘But to whom do I owe this money?’ he asked. ‘Assuming you’re right? Who do you suppose sent me these pictures?’
‘Why would I have any interest in knowing that?’
‘Ah. I see.’
Raznatovic was the supplier of the weapons, the last piece of the scam.
I’d tracked him down in Belgrade, and I’d thought our encounter in his study had gone pretty fantastically, but if the chap with the gun on the beach was anything to go by, the post-coital glow had apparently worn off.
‘So Raznatovic sent our friend Rifle-Man to off you? No Kazbich, no money?’
Da Silva shrugged. ‘Yes and no. As for Mr Raznatovic, a few crossed wires. Let’s just say I needed to see you urgently in Venice.’
‘Not that urgently, since you’ve had me on the panino detox for three days.’
‘I am sorry about that. I needed to keep you safe.’
‘From Raznatovic. You’ll see. Things have been straightened out. Would you shut up now, please?’ he added, as he opened the window and lit a cigarette.
This time, he didn’t say it harshly. He offered me one, but though I could have murdered a gasper, I didn’t accept. The stale smell of tobacco in cars reminds me of my mother.
We were driving along the coast road now, with the sun over the sea to our right and a tatty strip of empty tourist apartments and shuttered outlet stores to our left. The light bounced off the water, giving a silvery taste to the air. I gulped it in, relishing the coolness on my clean face. Altogether, I felt quite gay. Just days ago I had believed I was looking at a considerably longer period of incarceration than a few days, and no one had even tried to shoot me for over seventy-two hours. Admittedly, I was unemployed, homeless and handcuffed, but that meant things could only get better. Positive thinking is so important.
After we had passed Siderno, the journey lasted about forty minutes. Every few hundred metres, we passed women, alone or in groups of two or three, waiting in the sight of the sparse incoming traffic. They were all African, mostly young, all dressed in bright-coloured, skintight minidresses, or hot pants with crop tops, despite the December temperature. Some sat on plastic chairs, smoking, chatting, playing with their phones, others swayed and posed as the cars passed, their eyes far behind over the highway. One girl was wearing a red satin micro-skirt trimmed with white faux fur and a Santa hat.
‘What’s with the girls?’
Flyover hookers are a familiar sight on the fringes of most Italian cities, but I’d never seen so many.
‘There’s a camp down the road. Capo Rizzuto.’
They were refugees, then, these women. Asylum seekers.
Da Silva slowed down and pulled into the emergency lane.
‘I really don’t think I’m dressed for doing business.’
‘In the back. I’m bringing you in, OK? No need to say anything.’
He holstered his gun and helped me into the rear seat.
We joined the road and continued a little way before da Silva pulled over at a gate manned by two Guardia di Finanza uniforms. They saluted as we drove through a compound of brown concrete office buildings to an open field with a landing strip and a sagging windsock. A dark-blue official helicopter waited on the tarmac, its blades beginning to whirl as the car drew up. Another officer jogged over to open da Silva’s door, then the two of them walked me to the steps and shoved me up beside the waiting pilot, who did not acknowledge me even with his eyes. The officer reached in and set the harness over my head, fastened it, and released the cuffs before da Silva climbed in beside me. We were given headphones and the officer handed the pilot and da Silva various papers to sign before we took off.
I knew better than to ask da Silva where we were going, even if my headphones had been wired in. He and the pilot were conducting a conversation over my head, but all I could hear was the muffled drone of the engine. We banked over the low hills beyond the coastline, then the ’copter wheeled and set out across the sea. I twisted my mind from its tangle of questions and tried to think of something cheerful. My friend Carlotta, for instance, the party girl made good who had finally snared her old-fashioned billionaire. Carlotta had passed on several useful tips, one of which was that you should always fly private.
Without a watch, I estimated that we were in the air for about three hours. We made one landing on what appeared to be a military base, where I was unloaded and led, cuffed, to a bathroom by a self-conscious young officer. He waited outside the cubicle and then handed me a bottle of water which I drank as I watched the helicopter being refuelled. Taking off, we moved further up the coast before swinging out over the open sea. In a while, we dropped over another stretch of coastline and the pilot began speaking on the radio again, preparing to land. We flew low over jagged high-rises stuck with tumbling balconies and TV aerials like crazy, elaborate hats and came in on a roof marked with a huge white ‘H’. Several uniformed men ran towards the chopper, doing that irrational head-duck that the whirling blades inspire. Da Silva helped me out and cuffed me again as soon as my feet were on the tarmac. I kept my head down as we passed through a door, descended a flight of stairs and took a shabby aluminium-lined lift to an underground garage, where a plain black BMW waited with a driver. Da Silva didn’t speak until the two of us were settled in the back, and when he did, it was in English.
‘Are you OK? Not feeling sick?’
‘I’m fine. Why have you brought me to Albania?’
‘How do you know we’re in Albania?’
‘Well, let’s see. We left Italy, heading east. The Breda Nardi NH500 has a maximum range of 263 kilometres, so we had to refuel before getting here. Anywhere else would be too far. Plus you’re speaking English – many Albanians speak Italian so English is more discreet.’
Da Silva looked slightly alarmed, but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of an explanation. In truth, the only reason I knew about what kind of helicopters the Guardia used was that when I had researched a Caracal pistol I had stolen, the same pistol Da Silva carried, I’d poked about a bit in the Guardia’s set-up. I’d thought it would be handy to be able to recognise an Italian policeman, even in plain clothes, by standard-issue equipment, and facts have a tendency to hang around in my brain. I’d be a demon in a pub quiz. What the fuck we were doing in Albania I supposed I’d find out in good time, but I had a fair idea that it wasn’t official police business, for al
‘So you might as well tell me where we are!’ I added brightly.
‘A place called Durres,’ answered da Silva. He seemed a bit deflated by my Inspector Montalbano routine.
‘Here,’ he added, reaching over to unsnap the cuffs. ‘We won’t be needing these now.’ I might have imagined it, but his thumb remained a moment too long, massaging the inside of my wrist where the metal had rubbed a slight welt into the skin. I looked out of the window. Durres off season made Calabria look like Mustique. The car bumped wildly along gnarled and pitted streets crowded with women in grubby nylon burnouses hauling pushchairs and shopping trolleys between dingy food stalls and open drains. There seemed to be an extraordinary number of stray dogs, who ricocheted fearlessly between the churning traffic. Despite the clear fastness of the winter sky the light was murky, strained through the teetering heights of apartment blocks whose top storeys were clouded with a miasma of smog. Da Silva’s face was incurious – he had obviously been here before – unmoved even when a beggar, stark naked except for a flowered tablecloth draped over his shoulders, banged on the rear window as we stopped for a light. The driver stuck his head out and shouted something that may have involved the moral continence of the gentleman’s mother, and he shambled away.
Eventually we left the town and headed out on a spanking new motorway. There was less traffic, but what drivers there were seemed to regard all six lanes as their own private race track. I shut my eyes as a huge truck loomed before us, swerving away only at the last second. Da Silva patted my shoulder.
‘Crazy, right? And they say Italians are aggressive drivers. You should see the road to Tirana – always covered with bodies.’
‘Thanks for that.’
Our destination was a huge peach-coloured villa whose driveway led directly off the road. As we pulled through high electric gates topped with barbed wire, a reedy man with a watermelon paunch under an open-collared purple shirt and a beige cashmere blazer shambled busily up to the car. He greeted da Silva effusively in Italian, with plenty of handshakes and backslapping, but I sensed a wariness in his pouchy, pebble-coloured eyes. He opened the car door for me and bobbed briefly and formally over my hand, watching da Silva over my shoulder. Did he think I was his girlfriend or something?
‘This is Miss Teerlinc.’ Da Silva used my alias, the cover for what I had fondly imagined was the life I had always wanted.
‘Buongiorno, signorina,’ said the man formally.
I was glad we hadn’t had to shake hands. His would surely have been as slimy as the nervous sheen on his forehead.
‘Is everything ready?’ da Silva asked brusquely.
‘Certo, certo, tutto a posto!’
There was white spittle drying at the corners of the man’s mouth. He was really hopped up.
Da Silva spoke to the driver, who pulled the car ahead and disappeared behind the house. The three of us followed on foot along a dainty crazy paving path, into a large concrete-walled yard with a children’s swing set in one corner and a fountain featuring a plastic swan in the middle. The rest of the décor consisted of various old Mercedes, a plastic table and chairs and a kneeling man with his hands held behind his back by two shaven-haired bouncer types in jeans and tattoos. When the man saw da Silva he started shouting, or pleading, attempting to explain in Italian that there had been a mistake, that it wasn’t his fault, that he had never . . . As though his voice could stretch out the seconds. I didn’t get to find out what he had never done, as da Silva moved past me swiftly, pulling out his gun as he walked, and shot the man three times in the chest.
Our host crossed himself ostentatiously and nodded at da Silva. The body was slumped between its grim-faced minders, pumping vivid gouts of blood onto the tarmac, the heart a few hideous seconds behind the brain. I could smell the sickly, ferrous tang of the blood and the powder lingering on da Silva’s hand as he guided me towards the house. From the expression on his face he might just have flicked a spot of ash from his uniform trousers.
A tiny, invisible gravity between us. You’re like me. Both of us knowing it, for a moment, without a word.
Looking over my shoulder, I saw the two heavies loading the corpse into the wide boot of one of the cars. The reedy man came up on my other side. His sallow face was pale and damp as though he was about to vomit, but he attempted a smile.
‘Please, signorina,’ he rasped, ‘come this way. Lunch is ready.’
‘I don’t want any lunch.’
Actually, I was starving – I hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s dry panino – but our little jaunt was really beginning to give me the pip. Paradoxically, despite what I had just seen, any revived vestiges of fear I felt towards da Silva had evaporated along with the scent of the powder off the 9mm slug. And it wasn’t as though I’d never seen a dead body before – if da Silva really knew as much about me as he implied, he’d have to put in a bit more effort on the shock and awe front. I was bored of being hauled about like a parcel, and whatever it was da Silva wanted from me I was quite prepared to get it over with and get him the fuck out of what was left of my life. I shook myself free of them and turned on da Silva.
‘What do you want, Inspector?’ I demanded in English. ‘Just explain to me what exactly it is that you want. Because I’m really not interested in your friend’s hospitality, any more than I’m interested in that little pantomime you just staged. OK? Just tell me.’
Da Silva shrugged. ‘Fine. I just thought you might be hungry. Come with me, then.’
‘No. Was that shit supposed to frighten me?’
The other man was fiddling nervously with three place settings at a large, ornate mahogany table with a glass top, pretending he wasn’t paying attention. I took a breath and lowered my voice.
‘You didn’t bring me all the way here as a witness. So what was that?’
Da Silva looked wearily amused, which provoked an intense desire in me to break his handsome nose.
‘It’s not always all about you. That was a message. None of your business. Now, will you come along? Mr Raznatovic can’t wait all day.’
‘As you said, I didn’t bring you here to watch me shoot someone. Please.’
The long rooms of the villa were furnished with hideous faux antiques, though the style didn’t extend to the floors, which were bare concrete, like the stained yard outside. Da Silva led the way past the table into a sitting room with a huge flat-screen TV, then upstairs into what could have been a bedroom if it had contained anything apart from three folding chairs, one of which was occupied by the huge bulk of Dejan Raznatovic.
I was acutely conscious of three things – that the room was extremely cold, that my hair was a disaster, and that Raznatovic could wear my spine for a necklace if he only bothered to stretch out a hand.
‘I believe you’ve met,’ offered da Silva, obviously thinking himself very witty.
I gave him a blank look as I sat down on one of the chairs facing Raznatovic. My last encounter with the Serbian had been too brief to properly refer to him as a lover, but when I saw his heavily carved features and the heft of those impossible shoulders I did feel a little twitch of remembered desire. He was a talented man. Not that he looked particularly happy to see me. On the other hand, I thought, if he was really unhappy, he wouldn’t have risked arrest under various European extradition treaties to meet me in person. He’d have just had me killed exactly like the man in the yard.
‘Miss Teerlinc,’ he began.
‘Hello again, Dejan. I believe I told you that you could call me Judith.’
‘Judith, then. Shall we come straight to the point? You lied to me, in Belgrade. I passed on your message to Ivan Kazbich on the condition that you would return the – item – as you claimed you intended. You told me you would hand it over in Switzerland. Yet it appears that Mr Kazbich is no longer with us, and the item is nowhere to be found. Where is it?’
The ‘item’ was an ingenious cartoon on linen, a supposed Caravaggio. Kazbich had been attempting to sell it to Pavel Yermolov, but I had got in the way. I seemed to have a talent for that.
‘You could say I abandoned it. What was left of it, anyway. It was worthless, as no doubt you are perfectly well aware.’
‘Indeed. Nonetheless, it was very useful. You have caused me a good deal of trouble. In fact, had it not been for the inspector there’ – Raznatovic’s eyes moved to da Silva, who had taken a seat next to me – ‘you might have gone the same way as Mr Kazbich. But the inspector proposed a better solution.’
‘What do you want?’ I was really getting tired of asking that.
‘When the . . . item disappeared, I spoke to Mr da Silva. He knew certain things about you which I did not, but collectively – I think that’s the word? Yes, we decided collectively that you might be able to help us both to resolve our mutual obligation.’
‘Yeah, yeah, and if I refuse you kill me. Old news.’
I didn’t actually want to die. I didn’t particularly want to redeem my life of evil by spending the rest of it helping lepers either, but I really didn’t want to die. However, since I wasn’t dead already, I knew they were doing nothing. At least, not yet. Just trying to bully me. I don’t react well to that.
‘Naturally,’ said Dejan, ‘but not straight away. First we’ll kill your mother. Show her the photographs, please.’
Da Silva was pulling out his phone. He scrolled though and handed it to me. It was, indeed, my mother. My mother going into the pub on our old estate. I supposed I could be grateful that they hadn’t photographed her coming out of it. My mother pushing a trolley in the supermarket. She was wearing a jacket I had posted to her from Italy for her last birthday, a navy waxed canvas MaxMara pea coat that I’d known she would think dreary but hoped might smarten her up a bit. I was surprised to see she’d actually worn it. The last shot had been taken through the window of a café, where my mother appeared to be enjoying a cappuccino with her friend Mandy. I could never quite get over the fact that cappuccino had made it to Liverpool. The pea coat had been replaced by a heavy fake fur jacket for colder weather, but in case I was in any doubt of the timing, Dejan’s spy had placed a copy of the Mirror with yesterday’s date on it in the foreground. Gently, I reached out and touched the screen, then looked up into Raznatovic’s heavy dark eyes. I’d stared down a fair few gun barrels recently, but those eyes were far more frightening. I would have told myself not to show I was scared, but I found that I wasn’t scared. Dejan wasn’t really with the programme on this one. Apart from my life, everything I’d ever had to lose was long gone.
by L. S. Hilton have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes