Excerpt from Crunch City
The maid had left the curtains drawn open.
Bianca was too tired to care about the touristy view of the Thames. She ignored the small chocolate bar on her pillow. The sunlight passing through the clean glass was muted, unobtrusive. She placed the keycard on the desk. She unbuttoned her winter jacket and shrugged it off her shoulders with some effort and draped it over a squat chair. Her original plan to rent out a flat had gone south at the last minute. The landlord had called the agency about an unexpected repair. Three days, he promised.
The king size bed opposite the window awaited her across a carpet with lines that reminded her of an airport runaway. She estimated two quick steps and one broad jump for her to hit the duvet, do a corkscrew in mid-air, and catch the chocolate on the bounce before it hit the floor. She had eased her shoes off. She planted one foot in front of her and readied herself for her Olympian event.
Silvio’s cat emerged from the bathroom and quashed that dream.
Hufflepuff’s pathetic squeak sounded more like laryngitis than a meow, but the translation was a petition for food. Silvio, attending a nearby Business English course, had been suckered into cat-sitting for a classmate and, thinking she had found a pet-friendly hotel, he had asked her to take on Hufflepuff. He, too, had promised just a few days.
The cat came with baggage, though not the psychological kind. Two types of brushes, morning and evening meals, a litter box with a bag of high-end gravel, and a leopard-print warming pillow accompanied the white fluff ball. She relented and measured out a half-cup of kibble, which the cat sniffed and ignored.
Bianca placed the back of her thighs against the foot of the bed, espied the graying horizon, the steel fixtures across the way before she opened her arms Christ-like and collapsed backwards onto the firm bed. More thud than bounce, it was relaxation. She had forgotten about the chocolate in the gold foil. She never heard the faux ingot hit the floor. She closed her eyes and let the luxurious expanse of the bed embrace her. She could fall asleep, right then and there.
Bianca was about to bliss out when she felt the cat jump up onto the bed and wend his way to her. Hufflepuff was a needy tom, neutered, and a cuddle monster. Silvio had prescribed two mandatory sessions of petting. Her eyes opened and stared at the ceiling. She had hoped Hufflepuff would settle down, but he was intent on kneading a soft spot into the duvet. He obsessed at the hopeless cause with diligence. She tried to ignore the rhythmic massaging. She blocked out the intrusion until he started purring.
The ceiling was bland. She contemplated how many businessmen had used this room; how many had stared at oblivion overhead after monotonous presentations, after drinking the mini-bar dry. She didn’t want to think of adulterous liaisons having been consummated on this very bed, or how the headboard might’ve been used for his or her leverage.
Hufflepuff purred. Bianca realized that she had not read all of the Harry Potter books. Hufflepuff, she recalled, was a Hogwart’s House with a badger as its symbol. The cat had stopped. Bianca sighed a breath of relief.
The peace did not last. Hufflepuff had jumped to another part of the bed. He wasn’t an overweight cat, but the slightest movement felt like an earthquake. She could feel each paw he set down. He was stalking something. This was hopeless. Sleep would be impossible. She turned her head to the side to see what it was that this small cloud of a cat could be hunting, what imaginary prey he might have seen.
A red dot was traveling from the corner of the bed with Hufflepuff in tow. She saw the ears, back and flat against the head, the shoulders hunched low, and the eyes intent on the dot as it moved up the bed. The dot was a bright red, like frank blood. Bianca studied the progressive creep of the crimson droplet on the ivory duvet. Hufflepuff pawed at it. Bianca extended her hand and waited for the cat to cross the palm of her hand. As soon as she felt his belly, she wheeled over the side of the bed with the cat against her chest.
A concussive thump and the tinkle of glass came next just as she hit the floor.
She held the cat to her chest under the bed without crushing him. The cat was clawing her. She remembered something Silvio had mentioned to her about calming felines. She pulled and released the back of the cat’s neck to pacify the beast with endorphins. She wasn’t so hopeful about herself. She reacted like a lobster and crawled backwards towards the foot of the bed when two more shots perforated the mattress above her head.
She kissed the back of Hufflepuff’s head.This was no movie with a rifle and suppressor at the end of a barrel. This was a sniper. The shots had rung out like a jackhammer touching concrete. Bianca waited and watched. Feathers landed near the side of the bed. The last round had interrupted one of the lines in the carpet. The round had made a dot and the two dashes on either side read like a lethal Morse code. The cat had saved her life.
In the first room at the London Metropolitan Police Station, she spent an hour with uniformed police, answering the same questions again and again. She had maintained her composure. The second room was austere. There was a long table, three chairs, and the clichéd two-way glass behind her for the voyeurs. An incandescent fixture glared down at the table. She waited there for a half-hour or forty-five minutes. The light fixture above her hadn’t surged or wavered in intensity. The room was cold, the walls done with an off-white tile that hadn’t been cleaned since Margaret Thatcher had left office.
A large ursine man had escorted her to the second room. He said nothing. He might’ve had the belly of a pregnant woman, but he was solid blubber. Bianca could tell from the way he grabbed her elbow that he could pulverize bones. He was standard-issue police blue who kept the military look. He had close-cropped hair, symmetrical sideburns and pinkish skin from years of scraping his face with a razor daily. He wore no cologne and when he walked his shoes didn’t make a sound. When they came to the room, he splayed the door wide and left it to her to infer that she should take a seat inside. She would wait.
The door looked as if it had been stolen from Solitary Confinement. Bianca stared at it. Her escort had been quiet enough to lock her in without her hearing the lock tumble. Another visitor made a racquet. In came a man in a shabby suit and tie, plain shirt, greasy dark hair and a forgettable face. As for his age, Bianca guessed he swam somewhere in the deeper end of his thirties. He had the face of a man whose features hadn’t changed much from childhood. He introduced himself as a DI Jack Turner. DI may have meant Detective Inspector, but Bianca was thinking Drill Instructor since he carried paperwork. She knew the type: detached and indifferent; the light thread of varicose around his nose suggested a weakness for drink. His thumb pinned her standard-European red passport to the top of the stack. He gave his name.
“You’ve had quite the day, haven’t you, Ms. Nerini?”
Her colleague Commissario Isidore Farrugia had warned her years ago to keep her answers with authority figures to a minimum and, as she was a foreigner, polite. He said that every Q&A with police was an interrogation. The slightest variation in responses was probable cause.
“How are you feeling? Can I get you anything?”
“I’m well. No, thank you,” she said, using a light Italian accent.
Bianca accepted the man’s pretend smile and concern. She kept her voice even and her gaze off-center. He moved the stack of papers as if he was cutting a deck of cards.
“Someone unknown fired several shots at you in a hotel room.” He glanced up at her to verify the obvious. “Ballistics isn’t in yet, but I’ll wager that the weapon used was a high-powered rifle from the high-rise opposite your room. There is some metalwork for a light display up on the roof there. The shooter is likely to have used the structure for cover. Any theory as to why someone would want to kill you?”
That was the truth, but the curtains in her room had come to mind, along with retracing her steps from the moment she had entered the hotel lobby to the time she had gotten off the elevator and used the keycard to enter the room. Her assassin may have had help, but he or she didn’t have the personal touch. Had she wanted to kill someone she would have impersonated Room Service. This killer may have concluded that she wouldn’t be ordering a meal from the hotel kitchen. She hadn’t in the four days she was in the room.
“No theory at all? I mean, that’s a lot of work for someone to get up on that roof, for him to assemble a rifle, and sit and wait.”
Bianca ignored the sexist assumption that the shooter was male. The most lethal sniper in the world was a Russian woman. She heard him talking.
“Snipers are very patient. People tend to think the skill is about taking the shot, when it is really about sitting and waiting.” He stared at her for a moment. He had pale blue eyes. He didn’t blink and neither did she. “No speculation at all?”
“Says here that you are a consultant with the Italian police. The ca-ca…”
This DI had brains; he was trying to bait her to correct him. She wasn’t about to buy it and tell him that the word he was feigning ignorance over was carabinieri. She’d let him bumblefuck his way until he got to Guardia di Finanza somewhere in his paperwork. That much paper in a short time worried her.
He looked up at her. “What do you do for a living?”
“Consultant. I’m a forensic accountant.”
“What did you do before that?”
“I was a forensic accountant,” she answered, leaving out that it was for Rendition, a covert agency within the American intelligence community. He has asked what and not for whom, so she answered his question.
He thumbed through her passport. He offered smiles of admiration as he recited the names of places that she had visited. He stopped. “Says here that you’ve been to Boston twice. Business or pleasure?”
“Pleasure,” she said. This was a half-truth, though both times it involved Rendition. Her former employer had shadowed her and a mysterious operator would reach out to her and offer her a gig. In her last visit to the United States she had ended her association with Rendition, refused to work with Magician, and met Loki in person.
“What is the nature of your visit to the U.K.?”
The tone of his question was typical Customs official, but it also signaled that their dialogue was about to turn the corner. She didn’t betray emotion and he held her passport open without looking at it. She had to give him a answer.
“You had a cat in your room. Is it yours?” He smiled. This was either his ploy to humanize Torquemada before he took out the pincers and other devices. She thought hard about whether the cat had tags and identification on his collar. Hufflepuff did.
“The cat belongs to a friend. I’m taking care of the cat for her.”
She conceded a smile. The chess move was in play. She kept Silvio’s name out of it. She could give the translator’s classmate’s name and it would buy her time, but let the DI work for it. Farrugia had advised her to shade the truth, if need be. The person asking the question wanted more than affirmatives and negatives; they waited for a suspect to expand on something, to find a seam first before they tore at the fabric.
This detective rested his chin on a hand and let his forefinger pounce up and down on the passport. He had the poker player’s grin.
Tap. Tap. Tap. He was about to up the ante.
“We have a problem, Ms. Nerini. May I call you Bianca?”
She nodded. He smiled again and she didn’t like it.
“I’ve got a mess here. Paperwork goes on for pages about your work with this Guardia di Finanza, but it doesn’t tell me much since your employer is secretive about what you do for them. Now, I know you told me that you’re some kind of accountant and all. I’d conjecture from that alone that some criminal that you put away, or are about to put away, wants revenge, but all that went to the wayside when I ran your passport through the scanner.” He held up the passport to show her the barcode. “Know what it told me when I ran it through?” He paused a moment. “It said P.O.I. Any idea what that means?”
She lied. She was in purgatory. Someone had tagged her as a person of interest, but the disconcerting part was that they used English. Someone in the States was behind this. The DI folded the passport and let his hand rest on it.
“It means that you know something; it means that you could be a suspect in something. Now, my first thought is that this is work-related. I’m aware that your employer investigates the mafia on occasion.” She hated his long vowel sound in the Italian word, like the way the British pronounced pasta. He moved some papers around. “I had continued thinking along those lines until I came across a name that coincided with your last visit to Boston and that name is --”
The heavy door opened unexpectedly. A redheaded sergeant walked in, cup of tea in his right hand. The thin, nebbish man balanced the teetering teacup on its saucer.
“Here’s some tea, Miss. I added some milk and sugar. Hope you don’t mind.”
The detective glared at his subordinate. He was not happy with the interruption since it had derailed his momentum. “Thank you, sergeant. That will be all.” He waited for the door to close. He waited a further moment before he resumed speaking.
“Might as well enjoy the spot of tea,” he said.
“I don’t care for tea.”
Farrugia counseled her to never touch anything offered to her since it was a ruse to get fingerprints or DNA. She would let it sit. She stared at the DI through the rising mist of steam. She started thinking about who might be listening from through the two-way glass behind her.
“As I was saying, a name popped up on your last visit to Boston. Does the name Lorenzo Bevilacqua sound familiar?”
“Care to elaborate?”
“I investigated him, his company, Amici di Roma, which was a front for money-laundering, stolen goods and--”
“Complicit in political assassination…” He had the wolf’s smile.
“It was never proven. The government’s case fell apart when its witness was murdered in a prison transfer.”
Bianca stuck to facts now that she had stepped outside the closed perimeter of Yes or No answers. Ancona had been killed, but that was during her first visit to Boston. The detective was trawling the riverbed for something around her second visit because he said a name had ‘popped up’ in association with her second visit.
“Bevilacqua died the second time you came to town.” He gathered his papers and made to get up but stopped and sat down. “Anything you’d like to tell me?”
“That’s a shame because you see when I ran the barcode I not only saw that you were a person of interest in Bevilacqua’s murder, but that you also go by another name, an alias, Alabaster Black.” He held that last phrase the way a soloist sang the extra note to prove he had the range. “Whether Bevilacqua was mafia or not is immaterial, but it does stand to reason that his business partners want revenge on his behalf, Ms. Nerini, or is it Ms. Black? Enjoy your tea while it’s hot. Since you’re a person of interest, I have to detain you until the American authorities send someone over and we can conduct a cross-agency investigation.”
He put his files under an arm and leaned over to say into her ear, “This is London Metro and I have jurisdiction. You’re mine. This is my case. I will find out what this is all about. Don’t forget that, love.”
DI Jack Turner walked to the door. He gave her one last look to convey dominance, which was undermined by his discovery that the door to the interrogation room had been left unlocked. “That wanker,” he said.
Bianca sat there. The tea had gone cold. She didn’t dare look at the glass behind her. She had given no reaction to the disclosures about Bevilacqua and Alabaster Black. Turner had gotten one thing backwards: Nerini was her alias.
The door opened and she saw her heavyset guard. He motioned to her to come forward with a flicker of fingers near his chest. Something was off. He looked to his right and then his left while his fingers encouraged her to step forward. She got up, somewhat petulant like a teenager, until she saw him put his fingers to his lips. He knew that the room was bugged and probably filmed somehow.
At the door, he grabbed her by the elbow again. “Keep your head down and walk with me. I’ll lead the way.”
They moved. She had detected a mild Slavic accent. He had been taciturn for a reason.
“The interview was recorded, but nobody was behind the glass. The Americans are coming and that’s when they’ll turn the screws on you.”
He opened a door and steered her inside, still holding her by the elbow, and down a stairwell. He stopped at a locker in a hallway, opened it and pulled out a thick envelope. He also pulled out a long, dark raincoat and told her to put it on.
“Here,” he said as he pushed the envelope against her chest as they resumed walking. “Sunglasses are in the pocket. You’ll need them.”
“What is this?” She meant the envelope.
They had reached the end of a hallway. Wherever they were it was secretive and quiet. He turned her around, and checked her presentation. He reached behind into his back pocket. He screwed a baseball cap onto her head. Bianca checked out the new coat. Her hand reached down into her right pocket. He anticipated her discovery.
“It’s a Glock 42, small as it gets and the perfect pistol for a woman.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“Smaller. Women have smaller hands. Ready?”
“Ready…ready for what? Who are you?
“That’s unimportant. It’s time,” he said and spun her around. He opened the door with one hand, whispered some foreign phrase into her ear, and shoved her into an alleyway. She heard the door close behind her.
An unmarked Ford Fiesta, the same model car that the police used for patrols, awaited her. The car door flung open. There was no voice. She had a choice.
She had money. She had a weapon. She had an escape.
She approached and saw the driver’s profile.