Excerpt from Threading the Needle
L’Italia è l’antica terra del dubbio.
Italy is the ancient homeland of doubt.
This was a bad idea from the start.
Isidore Farrugia sat in a car, watching Bianca from across Via Manzoni. He was off-duty, out of his jurisdiction, and doing the best and worst of all possible things: doing a favor for a friend.
But his gut was telling him this was a bad, bad idea.
She said that she had to meet someone with information, someone who wanted to meet her in person. Not good. Bianca had explained that in the past her drop-offs were anonymous and in public places. A postal box. A newsstand. Never face to face. The ideal was through the computer. Remote and anonymous.
None of them could forget Loki. None of them had forgotten Rendition.
Bianca wouldn’t say what the information was and when Farrugia asked, all she said was that her contact was a man. He didn’t ask her how she knew. Farrugia knew better than to expect a straight answer from a woman. The female brain was wired differently, processing nuances below masculine capability, and the female heart was attuned to the unknown frequency of feminine intuition.
She ordered something from her table outside.
Nobody seemed suspicious.
The waiter delivered her drink. She had ordered something sweet. Rabarbaro? Women and their sweet drinks.
Two university-age kids were sizing her up for flirtation.
Her contact, she said, did not know what she looked like. If this someone was expecting an American in jeans or some gaudy ensemble that American women thought was fashion, then he would be in for a surprise. Bianca fit into Milan with her Aspesi turtleneck, Alessandra Colombo leather jacket with the rose-accent, ruffle fringe, and a pair of Tod’s. He saw that she sensed the two amateur Casanovas, turned her head and dismissed them. Quite remarkable, since she was wearing sunglasses.
That must be him.
Definitely an American. Down the block, about to turn the corner onto Via Manzoni.
He was walking fast, hands in pockets. No messenger bag, no bag at all, so maybe this wasn’t him, despite what Farrugia’s gut was saying. A few meters behind him, two other men followed. Matching camel jackets, matching haircuts. The man in front peered over his shoulder.
This must be him. Farrugia knew that worried expression.
Bianca hadn’t seen him yet. No time to call her cell. Her contact was early-twenties, handsome with a nice navy jacket, although from the looks of him he’d had little sleep for a few nights. He glanced again over his shoulder.
The other two behind him picked up their pace. It was definitely him.
This was a bad idea from the start.
Farrugia opened up the car door. The car was a small rental and climbing in was like putting a sardine back into the metal tin. No typical American could fit in that automobile, and he knew the stubborn strip of fat around his midsection was what made his extraction an act for Houdini or Chaplin. The next risk was crossing the street and not getting killed by a real car or grazed by an angry Vespa.
The two tails on Bianca’s man had that experienced stalking gait. Several notches up from street vermin. Farrugia was thinking contract killers, possibly with a military background. Hair was short and they weren’t neo-Nazis. They were lean, looked foreign, and moved with precision. A career soldier’s walk was never erased from neurological memory. Their jackets were relatively short, so that might mean no shotgun, unless one of them had a sawed-off for the maximum amount of spray while his partner had the handgun for the final shot, usually to the head. Farrugia thought all of this in the seconds it took to negotiate one car horn and one silent obscenity from behind fast-moving glass.
He was on the divider in the middle of Via Manzoni when Bianca saw him.
She stood up and both their eyes drifted to the fast-walking man. Farrugia had hoped she wouldn’t do that. That is, stand up. Everybody knew everybody now.
The two men were almost there. His Beretta Raffica was ready.
The contact walked up to her, turned her shoulders so her back was to his two trackers. Air-kiss to her right cheek, air-kiss to her left. Pause. His hands slid down her hips. He said something to her, kissed her on the lips, then ran inside Bar Gadda.
What the . . .
The two in pursuit graduated from walk to run. They got into the bar before the door closed. Farrugia unzipped his jacket and withdrew his gun. Instinct. He didn’t think about the traffic after the divider. He ran. There was a squeal of rubber. Farrugia realized that he still had functional legs when he reached the pavement’s gray flagstones. Horns blared behind him, but he focused on the commotion inside the bar in front of him.
He slid through the door, eyes searching, and out of reflex said, “Stay calm. I am Commissario Isidore Farrugia.” The customers couldn’t have cared less once they saw the Beretta. Their eyes and a few of their arms pointed the way out back. With his adrenaline flowing as it was, he wouldn’t remember much of what he saw, but would always remember the old lady crossing herself and calling upon the saints and the Virgin. He did the same in his mind.
A restaurant kitchen was always a well-lit trap for a confrontation. Cops and bad guys. Rats or roaches and the health inspector. Illegals and Immigration Services. The Albanians and the Romanians made way for him and pointed. The broken plates crinkled as he stepped on the shards. The chef looked scared with a huge knife in his hand. Farrugia was trying not to look frightened with the pistol in his. Almost thirty years as a cop, pension calculations and the whisper of mortality moved through his head. The Beretta had two settings: three-round burst or single fire. His was set to single fire, and each round would count.
Ahead he spotted the streak of navy blue and then camel. Hunted and hunter. Then the metallic slam of the back door flung open to crash against a hard wall. There was some indistinct yelling. Farrugia’s eyes took it all in while he calmed his heart down with deep belly breaths and moved through the kitchen. His belt was tight. He promised himself that he would lose the stomach if he lived through the day.
The busboy on Farrugia’s right said, “Vicolo cieco.”
Dead end. That door would make him an easy target for two potentially armed men on the other side. He approached the door. He peeked through the sliver of light, since the door had returned home on its hinges. The busboy was right. A wall a few meters to the left, a large, fragrant metal dumpster against it, left you with no choice but a hard right turn and a fast run down an indeterminate alley out to Via Manzoni.
The American didn’t know that. He had turned left. Arms and legs appeared and Farrugia heard pleading.
The saints might not help him, but the Virgin had always been kind. He gripped the gun, breathed in, and trusted his eyes and trigger finger to think for him. In through the door and outside.
Man One fired a single shot into the American’s chest. Man Two fired the headshot. Farrugia faced two automatics now turned on him, and the only thing he could do was resort to his lame academy training.
“Police. Put your weapons down.”
In this two-against-one dialogue their likely reply is to shoot him, knowing that at his fastest he could wound only one of them.
A choked siren, the screech of one blue-and-white cop car, its silent blue twirling lights now blocked the alley from Via Manzoni. Farrugia saw the first man’s eyes look leftward again. No weapons had gone down. No concession. Farrugia was the apex of the triangle with his gun, and these two were the base angles pointing theirs at him. Unequal . . . unlikely he’d survive if they shoot.
The car doors down the alley opened and closed. There was a squelch of walkie-talkie exchange. The siren lights played like a rave-party color on the walls.
Farrugia repeated himself. “Weapons down.”
Another leftward look. The second man lowered his gun. Farrugia almost breathed.
The gun went off.
The first man had shot the second in the head and, as Farrugia was about to step forward and pull his trigger, put the barrel into his own mouth.
The two cops walking down the alley stopped when the shot went off.
Four gunshots can have a way of ruining a drink. Four.
The orange zest, the hypnotic cardamom and the other curatives in Bianca’s drink suddenly turned sour. Two shots might be a matter of syntax, like a judicious comma and then the full-stop period. Or they could be a call-and-response exchange. But the second set of shots, Farrugia, her contact, and two suspects made four men.
One of those shots may have been for Farrugia.
She had to know before the other cops came. There were already sirens in the distance, she couldn’t tell whose. Here in Milan, ambulances and police cars sounded the same to her, like the European starling with their “nee-nah nee-nah” through the ancient streets. But within minutes Via Manzoni would be covered with screaming sirens, the smell of rubber, bright lights, a cacophony of voices, a multitude of colors, and every type of police, from authoritative uniform to the suited support staff to process the crime. There would be tape to cordon off the bodies, tape to section off each part of the bar and the path to the denouement in the alley, and tape to identify the section where the witnesses had been herded off for questioning.
She was worried about witnesses recalling the American embracing a woman. She was worried whether any surveillance cameras in the shops or on top of the traffic lights might have recorded Farrugia’s transit across the street, his momentary interest in the future victim. She was worried whether any surveillance cameras had captured her.
But she was most worried about Farrugia.
Down the street, a man in an eco-fluorescent uniform and ear protection was spray-cleaning the sidewalk with pressurized water from his l'agevolatore, a moveable, jointed steel arm on top of a truck. A policeman ran down the street and asked him to stop his work. The streets can remain dirty for a few more hours for the sake of preserving the crime scene. The imposing l'agevolatore stopped. The water stopped. Everything stopped.
She had to move.
Navy-blue cars with red pinstripes—the carabinieri—began to arrive as she cut through the crowd. She expected to see women making the sign of the cross and men bypassing the five wounds of Christ to simply kiss their thumbs as a way of kissing the Cross of Christ and acknowledging death. She had seen Italian-Americans do that thousands of times back home. Not here in Milan. She heard murmurs of inquiry, exchanges of speculation, and the confident assertion from someone that three men were dead. She flowed with the crowd to the open mouth of the alley, her head bowed in respect.
She saw Farrugia.
He was speaking to someone from the Omicidi, the Homicide Squad. He was visibly unnerved, but unharmed. She surprised herself by saying, “Thank God.”
There’s was a smaller crowd moving out of an old-style carrelli on Line One, a street tram like the ones in San Francisco. The street was blocked off at both ends.
She needed to call Dante.
She decided on the nearby metro, the Montenapoleone stop. That would lead her anywhere that was away from the noise, away from detection. She would have a chance to think, collect, and determine what was on the jump-key he had slipped into her pocket during that surprise kiss.
She would never forget that—not so much for the kiss, or that he was handsome and kissed well. But that he was young, terribly young, and now dead.
Threading the Needle
COPYRIGHT © 2013 by Gabriel Valjan
Excerpt appears courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing