Authors: A J Quinnell
Tags: #Thrillers, #Motion pictures, #Media Tie-In, #Suspense Fiction, #Kidnapping Victims, #General, #Fiction, #Motion picture plays, #Bodyguards, #Motion Pictures Plays, #Espionage
Man on Fire
A. J. Quinnell
Winter in Milan. Expensive cars lined a suburban avenue. In the large building, set back behind the trees, a bell rang faintly, and minutes later children, wrapped up against the wind, spilled down the steps and scattered to the warmth of waiting cars.
Pepino Macchetti, eight years old, head pulled down into his raincoat collar, hurried to the corner where his father's driver always parked the blue Mercedes. The driver watched his approach in the mirror and leaned behind to open the door. Pepino dived gratefully into the leathered warmth, the door clunked shut, and the car pulled away. The boy struggled out of his raincoat and the car had reached the next corner before he looked up to discover that the driver was not Angelo.
As a query formed on his lips, the Mercedes pulled in again to the curb, the door opened, and a heavyset man got in beside the boy. The driver waited patiently for a gap in the homebound traffic and then pulled smoothly away. It was only January, but Pepino Macchetti was already the third kidnap victim in Italy that year.
The weather in the Corsican port of Bastia was unseasonably warm, prompting one bar owner to put chairs and a table out on the cobbled pavement. A solitary man sat drinking whisky and watching the docks where the ferry to Livorno made ready for sea.
He had been there for two hours, frequently beckoning inside for a refill, until the owner had brought out the bottle and a large plate of black olives.
A small boy sat on the curb across the road, watching intently as the man steadily washed down the olives with the whisky.
It was quiet, out of the tourist season, and the stranger was the only thing to occupy the boy's attention. The man aroused his curiosity. He had a stillness, an air of isolation. His eyes didn't follow the movement of the sparse traffic, they just looked out across the road to the docks and the waiting ferry. Occasionally he glanced at the boy, eyes without interest set into a square face. There was a vertical scar over one eye and another on his chin. But it was the eyes that held the boy's attention. Set deep and wide, and heavy-lidded. Narrowed as if to avoid cigarette smoke even though he was not smoking.
The boy had heard him order the whisky in fluent French, but he guessed that the man was not French. His clothes, dark blue corduroy trousers and denim jacket over a black polo-neck sweater, looked expensive but much used, as did the leather suitcase which lay at his feet. The boy had much experience in assessing strangers and particularly their financial worth. This one confused him.
The man glanced at his watch and poured the last of the whisky. He drank it in one swallow, picked up his suitcase and walked across the street.
The boy sat still on the curb watching him approach. The body was like the face-square, and only when the man was close did the boy realize that he was also very tall-well over six feet. The walk was curious against the man's bulk, light, and with the outsides of the feet making first contact with the ground.
He glanced down as he passed, and the boy turned and noted that, in spite of the whisky, he walked naturally and steadily. The boy jumped up and ran across the street to scoop up the half-dozen olives left on the plate.
Half an hour later he watched the ferry warp out from the dock. There were few passengers, and he saw the stranger standing alone at the stern rail. The ferry gathered speed, and on an impulse the boy waved. It was too far to see the stranger's eyes, but he felt them on him, then he saw the hand lift off the rail and gesture briefly in acknowledgment.
It was warmer still in Palermo, and in the walled villa set in the foothills behind the city the windows and shutters were open, letting the mild, southerly breeze flow into the first floor study. A business meeting was in progress: three men, one sitting behind a large polished desk, the other two facing him. The breeze helped to disperse cigar smoke. They had already discussed routine matters. The man behind the desk had listened as the other two reported on a range of enterprises spanning the country from the Alpine north to the southern tip of Sicily. Occasionally he had interrupted briefly to have a point enlarged or clarified, but mostly he had just listened. Then he issued a series of concise instructions and the other two had nodded in unison. No notes were taken.
Having disposed of routine matters, they discussed the situation in southern Calabria. Some years earlier the government had decided to build a steel complex in that poverty-stricken area. The man behind the desk had collaborated with them unofficially. Thousands of acres had been purchased from a large variety of landowners.
Such dealings involved long and laborious negotiations, and in the meantime the composition of the government had changed. Ministers had come and gone and the Communist party was questioning the feasibility of the whole project. The man behind the desk was irritated. Businessmen everywhere had legitimate grievances against vacillating governments. But still, large amounts of money were involved. There should have been better control. The two men finished their briefing and waited as their boss considered his decision.
He sat on a flat cushion on a high-backed chair, for he was a small man, barely five feet tall. Although he was over sixty, his face remained smooth, slightly plump, matching his hands, which lay motionless on the desk. He was dressed in a dark blue three-piece suit, beautifully cut, disguising his slight corpulence.
His lips, thick for the face, pursed slightly in thought.
He was, in appearance, sleekly small.
He reached his decision. "We shall withdraw. I foresee more problems. Don Mommo will have to take all responsibility."
The two men nodded. The meeting over, they rose and moved to the drinks cabinet. The small man poured three glasses of Chivas Regal.
"Salut," said the small man.
"Salut, Don Cantarella," said the two in unison.
She looked out through the French windows and across the lake. The lights of the Hotel Villa D'Este on the far bank shimmered on the smooth water. She was a woman of classic Neapolitan beauty. But petulance showed in the mouth. Wide and full-lipped, it dominated her face, which was set in a series of curves. High cheekbones, large, slanted eyes, and a cleft chin balancing exactly a rounded forehead. Heavy ebony hair hung straight and ended in one inward curve to her shoulders. The curves continued down through a slim neck to a body narrow-waisted, long-legged, and full and high in the breast.
She wore a simple, straight dress tied at the waist and cut square across the shoulders. Its richness came from the texture of knitted silk and dark printed pattern in shades of blue. Her skin had a depth, like velvet under glass.
Her beauty controlled her mind. From an early age it had allowed her to tread different paths from most women. It was a weapon, and a vehicle in which to travel through life. An armored vehicle, protecting her from discomfort and indignity. She had a good mind and in a body even slightly less beautiful it would have been free to expand and develop and see beyond the circle of light which her beauty illuminated. But when the vehicle moved, the shadows were pushed back and she could not see them.
Such women have to be self-centered. Eyes watch them, ears listen. If the character is strong enough to survive until the beauty fades, it may emerge independently; but such transitions are rare. The fading beauty is usually accompanied by a grievance that nature should take away what it had earlier bestowed.
The door opened behind her and she turned as the girl came into the room. They could only be mother and daughter, the child an embryonic cameo of the woman, but still leggy and skittish. The face pale and animated, as yet unaware, open in its innocence. There was no sign of petulance, although her mouth was tight and her eyes angry.
"I hate her, Mama! I hate her!"
"I did the algebra. I did the best I could, but she is never satisfied, that one. Now she says I have to do algebra again tomorrow for a whole hour."
The woman embraced the child. "Pinta, you have to try harder or else when you go back to school you will be behind the others."
The child looked up eagerly. "When, Mama? When do I return to school? I hate having a governess."
The woman released her and turned to look again across the lake.
"Soon, Pinta. Your father gets back tonight, and I shall talk to him about it. Be patient, cam, it won't be much longer."
She turned and smiled.
"But even at school you will have to learn algebra."
"I don't mind," laughed the girl. "At school the teachers have to ask lots of girls questions, but with a governess I get everything myself. It's no fun, Mama. Try to make it soon, please!"
She reached up and hugged her mother.
"It will be soon," came the reply. "I promise."
Ettore Balletto drove from Milan to Como with mixed feelings. After a week away he missed Rika and Pinta, but the homecoming was going to be stormy. Decisions had to be taken and Rika wouldn't like them, and for her dislike and acceptance were incompatible.
He drove the big Lancia quickly through the evening traffic, with only automatic attention to the road. In thirteen years of marriage he had learned not to underestimate the difficulty. He thought about those years and asked himself whether he regretted them; but the question had no answer. While he was married to her he was an addict. Never off the drug and so unable to question its effect.
He didn't see himself as a weak man, and neither did his friends. It was a simple situation. He had a beautiful, willful and self-centered wife. He knew she was not going to change, so he could either accept her or leave her. He had long ago discovered that the decision was clear-cut. Acceptance was possible, leaving her was not. There could be no cold turkey withdrawal, no methadone treatment.
In the early marriage it had been physical more than mental. A tactile sating, a conscious abandonment. Now it was the knowledge of possession that held him. The intense pride of ownership and the counterpoint-the mirror to reflect envy and even respect from men who did not possess her. He was a willing and complacent addict.
The Lancia turned right as the road forked at the lake, and his thoughts turned to Pinta. He loved his daughter. The emotion was definite but narrow. In the spectrum of his feelings the strong colors were absorbed by Rika. He didn't see the girl as a separate entity but as an appendage of her mother. A child might split a father's emotions, even compete for them, but for Ettore, Pinta was a daughter loved in the shade.
The three sat at dinner, Ettore and Rika facing each other across the wide mahogany table with Pinta between them. The maid served. It was a stylized, formal setting and lacked family warmth. This was because meals for Rika were something of a ceremony and on this occasion a tenseness anticipated a confrontation.
Rika had greeted her husband affectionately, mixed him a large martini and listened with decent interest about his trip to Rome. But while Pinta was out of the room, she had told him that the girl was unhappy and something must be done.