ONE

They were the first of the killings.

No one was expecting them to happen, especially not ‘off-turf’, and consequently their guard was down. They were relaxing, smiling, enjoying the lack of tension in the air, able to breathe easily for once whilst discussing expansion plans with the American who’d flown in just for the meeting.

The weather was cool, but warm enough to sit out in the evening on the terrace of the restaurant in the Calle de Nanses in Can Pastilla, overlooking the tiny bay which was essentially the start of the huge curve of man-made beach, the Cala Estancia, stretching about six kilometres east as far as El Arenal. During summer this whole expanse was a throb of interconnected holiday resorts, but at this time of year in that lull between Christmas and New Year, Can Pastilla was nothing more than a sleepy suburb of Palma, Majorca. Few establishments were open, apart from the big hotels catering for ageing Spaniards from the mainland, or Germans, and even the tat shops were mostly closed for winter.

That said, there was still a lot of people about, and the Somali immigrants continued to ply their trade along the front by trying to encourage people to fork out for fake Rolexes and poorly pirated DVDs and CDs.

But this restaurant was open, caught a decent trade, served good Spanish food, a change from the pasta that three of the four men usually ate in Naples, excellent though it was. The men also knew a club for later, open all year round and run openly, blatantly, by the Russian Mafia.

Not that the men minded. They had no quarrel with the Russians in this neck of the woods and looked forward to an evening of debauchery, Soviet-style. The drink, drugs and girls had been pre-ordered, and all would be exquisite.

There were four men at the table, and to celebrate their arrival on Spanish territory they ordered paella and were now in that pleasant delay between placing the order and its arrival. A gap, usually, of about twenty minutes. They picked on tapas, including olives, patatas bravas and garlic-fried prawns.

The waiter, sensing the danger these men oozed, hovered attentively, wringing his hands together. But for the moment, the guests were content. Each had a large cold beer and the three Italians languidly smoked pungent cigarettes, blowing out rings of thick smoke.

Cars drove along the one-way Calle de Nanses, slowly, only feet away from the table at which the men lounged. Some were big, four-wheel drive monstrosities with smoked windows and unseen occupants. The men eyed each car but stayed chilled. After all, no one knew they were here. The Italians had covered their tracks well they thought, and the interest in the passing vehicles, whilst inbuilt, was only cursory. It wasn’t like being on show in a pavement cafe in Naples, where every time anyone of the Italians appeared in public they were in danger of being mown down in a hail of bullets from rival factions.

Here, for the moment, they were safe.

Although there was no head of the table as such, it was obvious that of the three Italians, the one sitting with his back to the restaurant, enjoying a view out across the small bay, was the boss. He was only young, maybe thirty-four, with pinched features and a pockmarked face, but with body language that exuded confidence and superiority. It was in the way he sat, the way he exhaled cigarette smoke, how he picked up an olive and dropped it into his mouth. How his hooded eyes examined the other men. The two Italians with him were down the pecking order. One was a man older than the first, who gave advice when asked for, but never offered it, and the other, a slim, reptilian guy just out of his teens, was the bodyguard. The most relaxed of the three, he should have been the most alert.

The boss was called Carlo Marini.

He said to the American, ‘What was your route?’

The American, a man with very obvious Southern European blood that showed in his dark, brooding features and jet black hair, said, ‘Miami, overnight New York to London, by car to Liverpool, then to Palma… I was careful,’ he finished.

‘That is good,’ Marini said. ‘I’m impressed by your professionalism.’

The American sipped his lager, his eyes moving from one man to the other. He smiled thinly at Marini.

‘So you think you can help us?’

He nodded, but rejoined, ‘No, you think I can help you,’ he said, correcting Marini, but with due deference in the tone of his voice. Deference was vital, respect everything. At the very least a lack of either could cause offence, at most it could be fatal. It was a fine line to tread.

‘Yes, yes, true,’ Marini agreed. ‘But even so, you do know we have to be so careful.’

‘In what way?’ the American asked.

Marini’s evil eyes half-closed. ‘We need to be sure.’

The American guffawed, understanding. But some resistance was acceptable, so he said, ‘I’ve flown halfway around the world to meet you — for the fourth time. Doesn’t that say something?’

‘It does, it does… however…’ Marini left the rest unsaid with a lazy flick of the hand.

The American said, ‘OK, have it your way.’

‘Grazie… then go with Paulo.’ Marini indicated the young bodyguard who took a long draught of beer and stood up, politely waiting for the American to do the same. The two men then went into the restaurant and to the Senor’s.

The toilets were cramped, space tight.

‘You know the drill,’ Paulo said.

The American turned to the wall, placed the balls of his hands high on it, something that went unnoticed, and spread his feet, allowing the Italian to frisk him lightly but thoroughly. He didn’t flinch when Paulo jabbed the blade of his hand up into his crotch to check there. Too many concealed weapons had been missed by a searcher’s reluctance to squeeze a guy’s balls.

‘OK, hands down,’ he was instructed. He turned back to Paulo.

‘Finito?’

‘Benito,’ Paulo grinned.

‘Mind if I have a piss?’

‘Just so long as you use the urinal,’ Paulo clipped with a smile, patted the American on his shoulder and left him to do his business.

‘Sorry about that,’ Marini said to the American when they were all seated back on the terrace.

‘It’s business, I get it,’ he said, looking up as the waiter arrived with a large steaming pan of blind paella, so named because all the shells had been removed from the seafood, and the bones from the meat, to make eating it less messy. The pan was placed on a folding trestle table next to them and served immediately, a wonderful mountain of food they forked into with the gusto of Mediterranean people. A smooth Italian wine and sparkling mineral water accompanied it.

A Lexus four-by-four cruised slowly past, the occupants virtually hidden by the dark glass.

Paulo watched it suspiciously, a forkful of hot rice hovering at his mouth. It drove on; he pushed the food into his mouth.

‘So,’ Marini said sitting back after his first sustained attack on the paella, ‘you think you can help us?’

‘I do.’ The American wiped his mouth with a serviette.

‘We’ve had some discussion, I know… edging here and there

…’ Marini moved his body as though he was describing a football move. ‘But let me warn you, if anything you say doesn’t fit with what I know, the deal will become shaky.’

The American nodded. ‘It’s simple… I have a business that can connect up with yours to our mutual advantage… it’s wholesale and retail and continually expanding.’

‘How does it work?’

‘You provide me with the goods, I sell them.’ He shrugged.

‘On what terms?’

‘Sale or return.’

Marini shook his head sadly. ‘Too hit and miss. No commitment from you. You’re asking me to give you something for nothing and if you manage to sell it, you’ll pay me a percentage.’

‘A proper business model.’

‘I incur all the costs of production and exportation, and only get paid if you manage to sell?’

The American wanted to exhale and show annoyance. But he didn’t.

‘Let me paint a picture… I now have forty retail outlets in the US, in shopping malls from Orlando to Memphis, right across the panhandle. Forty,’ he reiterated. ‘I already supply over two hundred more right up the eastern seaboard. This time next year, I’ll have sixty outlets and be supplying two-fifty more. I need good quality merchandise at cheap prices. The market snaffles them up like vultures, credit crunch or not.’ He spoke earnestly and persuasively.

Marini nodded. ‘And my percentage?’

The American sat back and considered the question, as though he didn’t know the answer already. ‘A thirty-three per cent mark-up, which is good. And don’t forget, we’re talking a lot of output here.’

Marini’s head nodded from side to side thoughtfully.

‘And I can start selling as soon as you start providing — but I cannot wait forever.’ He scooped up more paella and chomped it noisily, savouring it. ‘This is excellent,’ he said.

Marini went into deep thought. This venture could be his making, his break from the constraints of the past. He hadn’t rushed things, done it all very slowly and carefully. Built up his contacts, spoken quietly to people he thought were disaffected and downtrodden, and now he was ready to move. Trusted allies surrounded him and all he needed to do was strike the blow that would release him. His dark eyes glistened as he imagined the future of power and wealth in the palm of his hand, which would also help to crush his rivals who had been getting out of hand recently.

Even so, that profit margin could be higher.

He nodded finally and, stone-faced, he said, ‘It needs to be thirty-seven per cent.’

The American didn’t actually care. Marini could have asked for fifty per cent. However, for the sake of appearances and not to raise suspicion, he would not go over forty.

He mulled over Marini’s demand as though it mattered — then he nodded.

‘We have a deal.’

The men reached across the table and shook hands, and for the first time their faces cracked into grins. The other two men breathed out with relief, also, and the American offered his hand to them. Marini beckoned the waiter across and ordered champagne.

‘You won’t regret it,’ the American promised. ‘This is the start of something very big… yeah, sounds corny, but it’s true… now, Jeez, sorry guys, I need to pee again… if you’ll excuse

…’

Marini waved him happily away, still doing the sums in his mind. Immense amounts of money. He leaned to the man who gave him advice for an ear-to-ear whispered conversation. There was much nodding and agreement and shoulder touching.

‘Many people will be glad of this, but there may be some personal times ahead.’ They were talking in Italian now, having conversed in English all night for the American’s benefit, who, though of Italian blood, hardly spoke a word of the mother tongue.

‘You will need to be strong,’ the adviser cautioned.

‘I know — but with you beside me, we can surmount the attrition.’

They clapped each other’s shoulders again.

‘Success!’

Marini raised his champagne glass as the American returned from the toilet.

Just then, the same Lexus four-wheel drive that had trundled past earlier, cruised by again. This time the men tensed up, lowered their glasses. Paulo rose slowly from his seat, his right hand snaking underneath his jacket to reach for the pistol tucked into his trouser waistband at the small of his back.

The Lexus stopped.

Marini began to rise now, his instincts clicking in.

Then the front passenger window opened smoothly to reveal the face of the guy sat there.

‘Hey fuckers! When you coming to my club?’ the big, round-faced Russian bawled.

Marini relaxed, gave the guy a wave.

‘Girls queuing up for you all!’

‘An hour, give us an hour,’ Marini said after consulting his watch.

‘Yeah, yeah — beluga on ice, vodka on ice, girls on heat.’ The window slid back up and the Lexus jumped forwards quietly.

The American was still standing. ‘Jesus,’ he breathed.

‘Yeah, man, I thought I was back in Napoli for a moment,’ Paulo laughed nervously, his hand coming back into view and sitting down with relief.

Marini covered his nerves with a hand gesture telling everyone to keep cool. In Naples, eating al fresco meant having men up and down the street watching for danger. ‘Just the Russians trying to shit us.’

They all laughed.

The American was still on his feet.

Marini looked up at him. ‘You sitting, or what? C’mon, chill. Discussion time… a deal to make.’

The American had spent his time with the three men carefully weighing them up. Paulo being ordered to search him had been a good thing. It meant that finding nothing had put him off guard and also that by getting so close to each other in the toilets, the American had been able to brush up against him and make a judgement about his fire power. The passing of the stupid Russian just confirmed what he already knew: one gun, a pistol, probably a Glock in the waistband

… a knife in the jacket pocket.

Having assessed the other two — meeting them earlier, shaking their hands, patting shoulders, being effusive, touchy-feely, told him that Marini was unarmed and that the adviser was armed similarly to Paulo.

It was going to be a big kill, but it had to be done.

He actually thought about giving some sort of retort to Marini’s remark about the deal, saying that, actually, the deal was off… but that was the kind of silly display that shaved valuable seconds off your time and gave people the opportunity to react.

Instead, he moved fast and picked his moment with precision — the seconds just after the Lexus had disappeared.

All three had had a surge of adrenaline — was this going to be a drive-by shooting or not? Each would still have that bitter taste in his mouth: fear. But it was short-lived and as soon as the possible danger had passed, they were all telling each other to relax, cool down, remember where we are — in a foreign land where they were safe. Internally their bodies were also telling themselves that, too.

The American moved as Paulo made himself comfortable, as the adviser shook his head at their stupidity, as Marini reached for his glass and the bottle of champagne.

The gun had been left for him by another guest at the restaurant. He did not know who, didn’t want to know, but who had been into the toilet just after he and Paulo had left following the body search.

He was standing at ninety degrees to Paulo, who was first to go.

The American’s hand appeared from underneath his jacket holding the pistol. He hadn’t checked it. He’d been told it would be ready for use: one bullet chambered, safety off, gun ready to fire.

The move was smooth, seemingly unhurried.

He touched Paulo’s temple with the muzzle and squeezed. The noise was deafening, disorientating, as it was meant to be. Paulo’s brained splattered all over the chest of the adviser who, stunned, looked down in disbelief as though someone had just spilled a beer over him.

But he had no time to consider further because as he started to move and react properly, the gun swung at him, was fired. The bullet entered his head through his right eye, twisted sideways and exited through his left temple like a rocket tearing through a warship, the exit wound enormous.

All due credit to him, Marini moved quickly, and threw himself off his chair, starting to scurry-crawl desperately away, but the American shot him in the back of the head, and the exit wound removed most of his face.

In seconds the American had stepped around the table and put another bullet into each of the men, even though in his heart of hearts he knew they were dead, but he was paid not to make any mistakes and a man in a coma can always wake up.

Then he allowed himself his little quip.

‘Deal off.’

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