Read No Mortal Thing: A Thriller Online

Authors: Gerald Seymour

No Mortal Thing: A Thriller (9 page)

BOOK: No Mortal Thing: A Thriller
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He ground out the cigarette. It was a first: Jago Browne had never before taken a day off work sick, genuine or bogus. Nor, when at Lancaster, had he missed tutorials or lectures. The girl that morning had been pretty, but there had been beauty in her anger as she had spat at her attacker. Magnificent. All those years before, he had seen the same pride on Billy’s face and the same anger on his mother’s. It was about cliffs, the emptiness under them, the waves beating on sharp rocks far below, and how men and women were drawn to the edge, couldn’t help themselves, and didn’t know why they had been born.

Jago could have spent that evening with Hannelore or Magda. He might have been with either of them in one of the Turkish cafés in Kreuzberg, or with Renate. There was another girl further down the office, between the flags that hung from the ceiling, denoting the languages spoken, and the clocks that showed the time in San Francisco, Riyadh and Hong Kong. She sometimes eyed him over the low walls that divided them from each other and seemed to approve. He just hadn’t seemed to have time. It might have been better to be with one of them, not crying off sick and not being pulled towards a cliff edge.


The web was tickled by a breeze and moved. What had been the body of the fly swayed gracefully, as if death had brought it some dignity. The manufacturer of the trap, the killer, was not to be seen.

He sat on the bench, waited and watched.

It was a morning almost like any other in the recent times of Jago Browne. From force of habit, although he was off sick, he wore his office suit, the one that went, dirty or spotless, to the dry cleaner round a corner from his attic apartment every Friday evening and was collected on Saturday. His shoes were polished and he wore a clean shirt with a nondescript tie. He had not brought his briefcase or laptop. The weather had closed in a little and cloud built to the east, over Spandau and Tegel. He had a formal raincoat – nothing as casual as an anorak – folded over his knees. Jago had no weapon. He didn’t own one.

The lady was opposite him. She had been there when he had arrived, then had gone to the same bench and taken the same place on it as the previous day. She might have noticed that the young man facing her was dressed similarly to when she had first seen him and looked as if he was killing time before a business meeting. She might have caught little nuances of change. No checking of his watch and his eyes hovered mostly to his right. Perhaps she understood. That day she had brought her own cigarettes and a lighter with mother-of-pearl sides. She had already smoked two, but had not offered him one. She might have thought he was too preoccupied to engage in the chatter that would accompany the gift of a cigarette. She was well dressed again, and her shoes, almost new, still didn’t match. Jago thought that each pair would have set her back a hundred and fifty euros.

He had a clear view of the pavement in front of the pizzeria. He could see the doors, and shadows moving inside. He hadn’t yet seen the girl. Why was he there?

Difficult to summon up an answer. He didn’t know yet the extent of his involvement. His mother had known where she was going and why on a darkening February evening eleven years before. Jago had been left in the kitchen. His mother’s orders had been staccato, sharp, and he would have been an idiot to challenge them. He was to start his maths homework. He was to make Billy’s tea. He was to help Georgina with her reading and get her something to eat. He had told his mother what the kids had been wearing, in which direction they had sauntered off. She already knew, of course, the make and style of his phone: she had saved hard to get him a decent model. The door had slammed after her. His mother was five foot two. She weighed under eight stone. She had no flesh on her, neither muscle nor fat – but she could summon up the temper of her Irish ancestry.

Among the few who knew and the fewer who cared in Canning Town, a little of a legend had been born. Various stories were peddled. One had it that Carmel had fastened the group’s leader with her gaze, requested the return of the phone and been given it. Unlikely. Other versions roved over her finding the leader, slapping him a bit, standing on tiptoe, then kneeing him in the groin, head-butting him and taking the phone from his pocket. The most popular had her marching into the kid’s home, pushing aside a shaken mother, going upstairs and bearding the bastard in his room, not needing to touch him because he cringed from her, then taking the phone from the bedside table and leaving. She had come home. She had checked that the phone worked, then put it down beside his maths book.

Which legend was fact and which fiction, Jago didn’t know: it was never spoken of again. When he had closed his books, she had chucked a coat at him and taken him out. There was a sports club on Caxton Street. She had signed him up. No questions were asked: he was a teenager doing what his mother demanded. He had hated the humiliation and her for inflicting it, and had hated his brother for going to his rescue when he had been whimpering on the ground.

He could have trotted out all of that, if a shrink had been sharing the bench with him, to explain why he was there.

The door of the pizzeria stayed closed and no car had edged up to the kerb close to it. He saw the girl more clearly when she came to the window and wiped it vigorously. At the bank, Jago was under what they called ‘360-degree reporting’. He was subjected to a form of close surveillance, monitored. They wanted to know if he had the skills to sell the bank’s product. It might be ‘cold calling’. It might be spotting a business in a road back from Unter den Linden, or a main drag through the Turkish quarter of Kreuzberg, pushing in through the door and doing the talk. There was a story the
liked to tell – a sandwich bar on Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse that always had a queue outside: she’d passed it often enough, and thought the owner looked sick. She had reckoned he was due to sell up and had gone in with the sales spiel. The investment was more than six million. Anyone could score if their eyes were open, and their brain was clear.

He looked away from the pizzeria to the woman with odd shoes, and wondered what his chat-up line might be, how to attract her and her wealth to the bank’s stewardship. He should have known why he was there and what he hoped to achieve, what might be the consequence of failure or success. The woman breathed an aura of money. Something about a challenge, and something about a gesture.


She came down the stairs.

There was a dress code, of sorts, in the squat. Boys should not move about the rooms, the landing and stairs in their underwear: it was disrespectful to the girls. Consolata broke rules, written and unwritten.

Her feet were bare and she was wearing a skimpy cotton nightie, short and low-cut. The sun wasn’t high enough to warm the inside of the building and she shivered but came down warily because there was no carpet or no lino on the stairs: she risked a painful splinter in a toe or the sole of her foot. She had no friends among the others and didn’t think anyone would miss her if she went out through the door with her duffel bag on her shoulder. She was there because it emphasised her indifference to their attitude towards her – and because she had nowhere else to go.

She wandered into the communal area. In the inner room, a meeting had already started. On the table there were dirty plates and mugs, while the previous night’s bowls, from dinner, were in the sink. The front was off the photocopier: there would have to be a committee meeting, then a canvassing of the membership, and finally they might agree to buy a new or second-hand one. Perhaps the Palace of Justice would help . . . She stubbed her big toe on the copier’s metal cover and swore.

If Consolata had left a man asleep in her bed, she might have viewed the world with more charity. But there was no man – hadn’t been for months – and the last had treated her as if she were a chattel, in the Calabrian way, on call when he wanted her. Before that there had been the
trooper: he had been good in bed, which she was not, and had thought of her as a trophy. She had wanted to talk about the ‘war against corruption’ and he about her cup-size and about the best kit he could buy for his work from survival magazine offers. Francesco had been amusing, and it had lasted fourteen weeks – Consolata had a good memory – before he had tired of her. She had seen his wedding notice in
Cronaca della Calabria
, with a picture of a smart, attractive woman – everything she was not, she had told herself. He had not hated the ’Ndrangheta families he spied on, but often said he had a decent job, was paid reasonably, and that there was camaraderie among the team. He’d shown her some of the disciplines of covert work, how to move and to lie motionless, and had boasted of his skill. Once he had let her wear his gillie suit and another time his flak-vest, with the armour plates. He had said she was good at covert movement and had an intuition for dead ground. Sometimes he had to ask her to show herself. She had cried when he ditched her, but in her room, not where he or anyone else would see.

She bit into an apple. Others must have risen as dawn broke – the heap of printed leaflets was double the size it had been when she had left the night before. They would have burned out the photocopier, not had the patience to coax it. Massimo was in the inner room at the table. He looked away, blushing, because she was almost naked. He wore heavy glasses and was attempting to grow, not yet successfully, a beard. They believed in non-violent opposition to the criminal culture, as she had when she’d joined. Perhaps not tomorrow, but victory was inevitable. At first she had been a true believer. The man at the head of the table, Piero, waved to her.

Was she still keen to picket? Would she picket the big villas in her nightdress?

Where did she think it most appropriate to stand with a placard? Outside the home of the de Stefano matriarch in Archi, down towards the coast and up the private road? At the hilltop villa of the Pesce family in Rosarno? Or perhaps she would go to San Luca, or Plati in the Aspromonte?

Laughter rippled around the table. She thought the other girls disapproved of her display of flesh, and that the boys’ eyes stripped her. Piero told her when they would divide up the leaflets, and where she should go with Massimo. They would start in an hour. She knew no other life. The men who headed the families were demons, and their faces, from the newspapers, flickered in her mind. They didn’t know who she was. She threw the apple core at the bin, missed and it rolled under the table. She left it where it was and went to dress.


He passed her a cigarette, which she took, and lit it.

Jago said, ‘Forgive me for disturbing you. I hope you won’t find this offensive. May I, please, give you my card and tell you what I do?’

Her face was wreathed in smoke. She looked sharply at him, then nodded.


Buried in his bunker, Bernardo –
, master of his family and of his village, a euro millionaire many times over – had only a minimal sense of time passing.

An air vent in the ceiling of the container rose through the stone, earth and undergrowth to surface beyond the decrepit shed, behind the roots of an aged rotting oak. An air-conditioner rumbled inside, but it was covered with blankets so the noise was muted. He had enough power to run a fridge, a cooker, a TV, on which he could watch DVDs, and a battery radio, with a discreet aerial that ran up the ventilation shaft to emerge at the lip. He had an electric blanket in the bed for the winter. It was his second home.

He eased himself out of bed.

That bed was a source of annoyance. Until he had been forced into the bunker – an informant had said that the Palace of Justice was targeting him – Bernardo had never made a bed or folded away his pyjamas, not even during his two brief spells in the San Pietro gaol while he had awaited trial. His grandmother had done it when he was a child, then his mother, and his wife had understood her role to perfection. Mamma, married to him the day after her twentieth birthday, was too stiff in her knees and hips – rheumatism or arthritis, but she refused to visit a doctor – to crawl down the concrete tubing into the container.

There was a picture of the Madonna, another of his grandson, and one of himself with his grandfather and father – if he died in his own bed, he would have done better than either of them. His grandfather had expired in the prison in Reggio, after a heart attack; his father had been blasted by a gunman with a sawn-off shotgun, acting on the instructions of the family of Siderno. One brother had been taken from his car by men from Plati, pinioned, then thrown alive down a vertical-sided gorge; the body had not been recovered for two years. A second brother was said to be in the foundations of the A3, the Highway to the Sun, north of Gioia Tauro. That was the price he had paid for his freedom.

If he didn’t wash his dishes, he had nothing to eat off. There was a microwave to heat the food Mamma prepared, but he had to wash the ladles and spoons he used. He supposed he spent half of his day skulking inside his house, not exposing himself to any possible vantage points where a camera might be hidden, and the other half in the bunker, where the damp of autumn seemed to seep through the cold earth and the steel sides of the container. He slept there, slid furtively back to the house during daylight but never walked in the garden, soaking up the sunshine. To leave the property, he employed a variety of disguises and subterfuge. He remained free.

He dressed.

He had a wardrobe that swayed when he opened it. Marcantonio had brought it in pieces down the tunnel and assembled it, then the bed. The bed had been well made and was firm, but he would bring the young man down the next day or the day after and ask him to tighten the wardrobe’s screws, do what he could not do himself. Stefano was no longer agile enough to come through on his hands and knees, while Giulietta had a phobia of confined spaces and came reluctantly. Bernardo had more money than he could count, but lived in a hole. According to Giulietta, he owned bedrooms in apartment blocks in Monaco and Nice, a four-star hotel on the Costa del Sol – it was in the process of expansion – shares in a resort in Brazil, then more bedrooms in service flats in Dortmund and beside the river in London. He had never slept in any of them and for almost a year hadn’t slept beside Mamma. He pulled the sheets and the thin blanket into place and smoothed the pillow.

BOOK: No Mortal Thing: A Thriller
6.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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