Authors: Thomas Mogford
For Ali Mogford
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.
Percy Bysshe Shelley,
The late-morning sun beats down on the child’s blonde head as she stares out from the Rock. Fourteen hundred feet below lies the Strait of Gibraltar, tankers and liners scarring its gleaming surface. Mountains break the haze on the far side of the water – Africa? Europe? The girl isn’t sure. She remembers her parents arguing when the cruise ship docked, her father insisting that Gibraltar was an island, her mother that it was attached to Spain. In the distance, a queue of glinting Matchbox cars waits to drive away onto dry land. Mama was right, then.
The little girl walks on, scuffed red Mary-Janes kicking up the dust. Shielding the path from the sheer drop down the Rock is a crumbling stone wall, which bulges out into a small, curved enclosure. A group of grey-furred monkeys is huddled inside, grunting and swaying like a single multi-limbed beast.
The girl glances round: her parents are still fussing over the baby, slumped mewling as usual in its carry sling. She looks back. One of the monkeys has escaped the throng and leapt onto the parapet wall. It gives a hiss, exposing dirty yellow fangs.
The tour guide strides over, tanned and weather-beaten, king of his tiny domain. ‘Come away from the edge,’ he barks, ‘and don’t feed the apes, it’s against the law.’
But the child is pointing into the enclosure, where the noise has died down, the squabble mysteriously resolved. They watch in silence as, one by one, the monkeys jump onto the parapet, before clambering down the limestone crags out of sight. The largest remains behind, thick-necked, squatting, its head lowered.
The guide recognises the pack leader, a powerful matriarch who usually shuns the tourists. Beneath her front legs lies a heavy tubular object. As the monkey raises the trophy to her mouth, the man feels his heartbeat quicken. He pulls off his sunglasses, frowning in disbelief as he registers the dangling white strands, the matted wrist hairs, the scattering of sweetcorn-like globules around a protruding nub of bone.
The monkey edges her lips along the tube, as though playing some primitive instrument. Her mouth recoils from a shining metal band, a man’s wedding ring, the tour guide realises. Taking a step backwards, he feels a sudden pressure as the little girl clamps herself to his side, sweat-soaked T-shirt muffling her scream.
The monkey’s pink-skinned face stretches into an unsettling facsimile of a smile. Then she grabs the severed human arm and vaults away down the Rock.
Spike Sanguinetti sat at the deserted café, half-watching the tour groups gather along the esplanade. The main draw appeared to be the aquarium, a vast rectangular building projecting into the bay. Odd to pay to see captive fish with the Mediterranean lapping at your feet.
He ordered a cappuccino, provoking a snort of disapproval from the waiter – in Genoa, it seemed, no one drank milky coffee after breakfast. He requested a slab of focaccia, just to irk the man further, then turned back to the esplanade, watching the tourist queues lengthen as cocksure youths on Vespas cruised the coast road behind, like sharks circling for prey.
The coffee was slapped down, brown liquid catching in its saucer. Spike took in the logo on the side of the cup – Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings, one face turned to the future, the other to the past. He’d seen countless images of the city’s mythical founder since arriving in Genoa last month, emblazoned on flags, boats, gateways, the symbolism like a quiet taunt to a man so unable to contemplate his future; so stubbornly drawn to the past. In the distance, a church bell started to toll. Midday had finally arrived.
Spike ate the last of his focaccia, savouring the sea-salt flakes embedded in its crust, then heard a hollow metallic rattle – security blinds rolling down as the merchants of the Porto Antico closed up shop for lunch. Downing his coffee, he rose reluctantly to his feet and set off along the waterfront.
Just past the aquarium was the Museum of Seafaring, a reminder that the industry which historically had enriched Genoa was also the means for so many of its residents to escape. Spike passed Renzo Piano’s futuristic white crane, eyes moving to the happy tourists hoisted in its glass lift, snapping photos of the bay. Turning his back on them, he walked beneath an ugly concrete overpass towards a line of palazzos set back from the harbour.
Narrow passageways knifed between grand, faded facades. He slipped inside one, passing a sweating shopkeeper hurrying back towards the light. The twisting alleys –
, they were called – led deep into the medieval rump of the port, the buildings on either side eight stories high, washing lines strung between them, what light there was struggling through an arrow-slit of blue. On the corner of a locked-up florist, Spike saw the street name he’d been looking for: Vico Paganini.
The girls were standing in their usual spot. There was nothing particularly outrageous about their appearance – perhaps the stonewash jeans were a little tight, the leather boots an odd choice for this time of year. What was strange was that they did not seem to be going anywhere.
Hearing Spike’s footsteps, both girls turned. One looked Bulgarian – not dark enough: Romanian, maybe – the other North African. The Romanian glanced at the building above, then mustered a smile and made her move. ‘
Vuoi venir’ sopra
Ho una domanda
. . .’ Spike began, but the girl’s blank face suggested an entirely pragmatic command of Italian. ‘English?’ he tried, and she nodded uneasily.
Moving to one side, Spike reached into his pocket and drew out the photograph. ‘I’m looking for this woman. Have you seen her?’
The Romanian’s smile died, and suddenly Spike could see the puffiness around her eyes, the feverish sheen on her forehead. Her friend approached, slim arms folded tightly across her tank top, and they both stared down at the picture. A scraping came from above: Spike looked up and saw a familiar two-faced symbol surmounting the window.
. . .
‘Please, mister,’ the North African girl said, shaking her head, ‘we . . .’ She broke off as the door opened and a bullet-headed Genoese strode out – diamond ear-stud, unbuttoned denim shirt suggesting a profound commitment to the gym. The girls were already back at their stations.
‘You talk, you pay,’ the Genoese snapped. He lurched at Spike, gesturing at the picture in his hand. Crisp, leather-soled footsteps echoed behind as a suited man appeared. The pimp threw a nod at the Romanian, who made an awkward sashay towards the new prospect. Quickly, Spike flipped over the photograph. At the café he’d written four letters on the back: ‘MDMA’. As the pimp read them, his stance relaxed. ‘Five minute,’ he smirked, walking back into the house.
Spike turned again to the North African. ‘Her name is Zahra. She comes from Morocco. Like you, maybe?’
The girl glanced nervously over her bare shoulder. A circuit board of white and pink scars crisscrossed the inside of her arm; acne speckled her cheeks, poorly camouflaged by a layer of greasy foundation. Fifteen years old, or sixteen . . . Spike felt the anger he’d packed so diligently away testing its restraints. Forcing it down, he slipped the photo into the girl’s slender hand. ‘Or Žigon?’ he asked gently. ‘Have you heard of a man called Žigon?’