Firenze – Another Morning

By the time Janet Miller woke up to the sunlight in her eyes and Dreyfus sitting in the window, drinking coffee, the unseen landscape of Firenze had changed.

“Coffee?”

“Give me a minute,” Janet said, swinging her legs off the bed. “Pour — and I’ll be right back.”

Across the river, in a high-ceilinged, old wood, 19th century office building, Besnik Kovaci and his little brother were listening to their lawyers, trying to dam a tsunami of legal problems.  In the last two days, they had five dead bodies, four investigations, and now, an army of Federal police, putting everything from their financial accounts to their telephone records under a microscope.  Firenze carabinieri were one thing, but these people took their orders from Rome – beyond the reach of local bribery and intimidation.  The Kovaci brothers’ business operation – legal and illegal – was virtually shut down.  But the real problem was a forensic team at the warehouse fire had just discovered a number of charred human organs that didn’t belong to the two corpses at the scene — or to anybody else in the neighbourhood.

The brothers switched from Italian to Albanian.

“It’s him.”

“Of course it’s him.”

“We need to …”

“We need to what?  We know who his is, but we can’t find him.

“We have the woman.”

The older brother shrugged.  That hadn’t been a good idea.  The Brits liked their royals – a little too much,  actually.  But maybe – maybe, if they did it right — there might be some leverage there.  Besnik thought for a second.

“Do you remember, last year, the rockets, the Russian rockets?”

Esad looked at his brother, full of questions.

“Remember the man who wanted them?  The one who paid us?  He was British government.   MI5?  6?.  Something like that.  How did we contact him?”

Esad thought for a minute.  He remembered, but …

“Maybe he knows who …”

“He found us.  But his name was – uh — Elliott.  Michael Elliott.  And he had a telephone cut-out with Transportation.  In London.  The Ministry of Transportation, in London.  That’s where …”

“We need to find him.  He’ll know.  A man who can play with that kind of money – he’ll know.  He’ll know who this Sinclair goat fucker works for, and that’s who we negotiate with – his boss.  We’ll get his boss to call him off or, royal or not, hand the woman back in pieces.  We need to find the man Elliott and make a video of the woman.

The Italian lawyers, who had been sitting quietly, were perplexed.  They couldn’t understand how a brief conversation, in whatever language, had changed the brothers from very worried to strangely confident.  But the truth was, they didn’t actually care because – privately — they were busy trying to make sure none of them was implicated in this mess.

At about the same time, Riccardo Ciampi had kissed his mother goodbye and was walking (strutting?) out to his car.  His morning had been even better than the day before.  Lotta and the kids had left for Rome, and momma had (mostly) kept quiet while he described the latest catastrophes to befall the Kovaci brothers.  According to the information he had, the British Secret Service had not only attacked and burned one of the Kovaci warehouses but had also demanded that the Italian government investigate these Balkan criminals – to the tune of an entire detachment of federal police. 

Martina, now that her son was gone, was not happy about any of it.  Yes, this Dreyfus Sinclair had rained hellfire and brimstone on her mortal enemies, but this was beyond anything she had anticipated.  What she thought was going to be a quiet little “let’s you and him fight” war was suddenly out of control.  Federal police!  Federal police didn’t understand local sensibilities.  They didn’t care whose doors they kicked in and didn’t apologize when they got it wrong.  Setting a Federal fire to the Kovaci brothers’ operation wasn’t good for business because there was a better than even chance that the House of Ciampi would get burned, as well.  She got up from the breakfast table and walked through to her late husband’s study.  She sat down at the desk, opened a drawer and picked up one of the two telephones.  She tapped a London number.  Jonathan McCormick had started this wildfire, and it was time for him to put a stop to it.   

On an open terrace in the Tuscan hills, Emily had just finished breakfast (still no orange juice) and was beginning to wonder if she should be worried.  This was Day Three, and the older woman who had always been there wasn’t there this morning.  Plus, one of the three men who had been keeping their distance was sitting where she could clearly see him, at the front door.  And below her, at the heavy iron gate to the road, there were two more men who hadn’t been there before.  That made five altogether, and even though Emily had faith in Dreyfus, she knew that, in the real world, faith didn’t actually move mountains.  So, sipping her cappuccino, she decided maybe she should worry a little bit and figure out how to make her own way home the minute it got dark.

Janet Miller was still in the bathroom at the hotel, quietly swearing to herself.

Shit, shit, shit! This is all I need!”  She was angry at her body for betraying the stress.

A couple of minutes later, improvised, but reasonably confident, she sat down to drink her coffee.  She reached for her handbag, rummaged, felt what she was looking for and relaxed – a bit.

“How’s the arm?”

Dreyfus twisted it rapidly in the air.  “Better than new.  You did a good job.”

Janet took a mouthful of coffee.  It tasted wonderful.  “So, now what?”  She was still digesting most of what Dreyfus had told her the night before, and (from experience) didn’t really trust her hormones to be analytical.  So it was probably best not to bother the details and just get on.  Dreyfus had tried to cover the barest of the bare bones of the story, but — between the trauma and the alcohol — he wasn’t sure he hadn’t said too much.  He wasn’t going to make that mistake again.

“Why did Monica Montrose call Emily ‘Magpie’?”

Janet tilted her head at the odd question, then gave Dreyfus a short laugh.

‘It’s an old school nickname.  Em never did well at boarding school, and the second time we were together, she decided to change her name to Margaret Perry.  Just one of the girls.  Fresh start and all that.  One of the bullies – uh – Tina … Tina …”  Janet looked out the window, “Tina … oh, it doesn’t matter.  Anyway, she found out who Emily really was and started calling her Lady Magpie – Margaret Perry,” Janet moved her hand, “Magpie.  Our crowd all thought it was funny, and we used it, too.   Took the wind out of Tina’s sails, and the name stuck.”

Dreyfus smiled and gave Janet a slight nod.  He was still going to save it for the right time.

“Last night, you said you weren’t worried, but you didn’t tell me what’s going to happen.”

Dreyfus drank the last of his coffee and shrugged. “I’m going to go get Emily this afternoon.  All you have to do is stay here until we get back.”

“The Montroses are …”

“Things change.  The Montroses don’t need you anymore.  Maybe phone them if you like.  I don’t care.  But you need to stay here.  Don’t go out.  And don’t open the door to anyone but me.”

“Am I in trouble?”

“No, long as you stay here.  I’d just prefer to know where you are.  No loose ends.  Then when we get back, we’ll all go out and have a splashy dinner.”

Janet was about to mention that her suitcase and all her clothes were still at the Montrose’s when Dreyfus’ telephone hummed on the table.  He turned it over.  It was Jonathan McCormick.

“I have to take this.”

Janet raised her hand, lowered her eyes and moved her head.  She picked up her handbag and went back to the bathroom.

Swearing — 2022

My computer went poof!  The lights went out, the screen went blank and there was silence from its hardwired cerebral nerve centre.  Meanwhile, in the real world, there was much unplugging and plugging, tapping and swiping, even shaking and banging – the usual human response to electronic misdemeanors.  Plus there was a torrent of obscenities that rose in the air, formed a dark, darker, darkest cloud and is now floating somewhere over the Pacific.  No, it didn’t do me any good to shout my way through a vulgar vocabulary I’ve collected over half a century but … and it’s a big but …  I felt better.  That’s what swearing does.  It makes you feel better.  Unfortunately, like most things the millennials and their progeny have gotten their mitts on, in the 21st century, swearing is being ruined.

I’m old enough to remember when swearing was an art form, a verbal quest to find words that expressed the primitive soul that lurks inside all of us.  In those days, people generally didn’t swear in polite society.  Swearing was reserved for exasperation, frustration, anger, the end of the argument – all the most primitive emotions.  People swore when the pudding boiled over, or the neighbour wouldn’t listen to reason, or the cat crapped on the carpet.  Swearing was reserved for those special times when ordinary words just didn’t cover it.  It released the tension, so we didn’t toss the pudding across the kitchen, punch the neighbour or kill the cat.  These words were forbidden, and so, with one broken taboo, we became badasses.  We stood toe-to-toe with life’s evil fortunes and refused to be bullied.  Then it was over.  We metaphorically washed our mouth out with soap and carried on.

Unfortunately, these days, swearing is used as punctuation.  In the ordinary course of conversation, it’s splashed around like ketchup on a redneck’s breakfast.  It literally doesn’t mean anything anymore.  It’s lost its punch.  When you call your best friend a bad bitch on a daily basis, what do you call her when she actually is one?  And that’s why the millennials spend every waking hour offended.  They have no way to release the emotional pressure.  Here’s the deal.  When I trip on the stairs and bang my shins, I send out a wave of invectives to the world, from the person who chose to live on the second floor (me) to the carpenter who built the offending structure.  Millennials can’t do that.  They’ve already used their strongest words describing the latte they had at lunch and there’s nothing left for when real problems happen.  So — when life comes along and pees in their porridge, there’s not a damn thing they can do about it.  And it serves them right, the $%()#! bastards!

Firenze – Later That Night

Janet Miller was sitting in the hotel lobby when Dreyfus got there.  Even in a grey sweatshirt and no make-up, she had her business face on, and the only thing missing was her coil notebook.  She stood up; Dreyfus gestured to the elevator and stopped at the reception desk to get his key.  When the elevator doors opened, they both stepped in, but before they closed again …

“What the hell is going on?”

“I need your help.”

“At two in the morning?”

“Please.  Let’s just get to the room.”

At the door, Dreyfus awkwardly used the key with his left hand.  He pushed it open with his shoulder and they went in.  The door closed behind them, Dreyfus walked across the room and sat down heavily in a chair by the window.

“I got shot.  It’s nothing …” Dreyfus decided against lying, “… Something’s not right, and it’s my right arm — so I can’t fix it myself.”

There was a second of disbelief.  Then Janet’s face became Ms. Miller again. “Stand up and take your jacket off.”

Dreyfus stood up and used his left hand to try and tug at his jacket.  The pain was visible.

“Stop, stop, stop!  Turn around.” Janet stepped forward, lifted Dreyfus’ jacket at the shoulders and slid it down his arms.  There was a shudder when she pulled it away from his forearm.  Dreyfus’s shirt sleeve was covered in blood, but it was mostly caked and dry — with only a thin, wet line showing where the open wound was.  Dreyfus instinctively reached.

Don’t!  Just stay still.  You need stitches and a hospital.”

“No.  We’re going to do this.  I’ll talk you through it.”

The look told him he was out of his mind.

“I can’t go to a hospital.  Too many questions.  Police …” Dreyfus raised his hand and shook his head, “Okay, let’s just bandage it up then.  I’ve got…”

“Stop!” Janet put her hand out. “Just be quiet.  I – I need to think.”  She turned her head away from Dreyfus and looked vaguely out the window.  Across the Arno there were scattered hotel and streetlights that shimmered back at her in the moving water.  It was hypnotic.  God Almighty!  Ordinary people don’t get shot in the middle of the night, or kidnapped, or God only knows …  Janet exhaled.  But this wasn’t going to go away, and she was fed up with being treated like a mushroom.  She reached forward and picked up the hotel key from the table.

“Just sit– and don’t do anything.  I’ll be right back.”  As she stepped past the minibar, she opened it, pulled out two tiny bottles of whisky and handed them to Dreyfus.  “Drink this, and don’t touch it.”  It was a scold.  And then she left.

Dreyfus unscrewed the first bottle with his teeth, opened his mouth and the cap dropped.  He drank half and held the whisky in his mouth for a second; then he swallowed.  He felt the warmth.  This wasn’t the best situation, but Miller was his only option.  And as much as he didn’t want to, he was already hardening his benevolent feeling towards her — just in case she decided to be difficult.  He drank the rest of the whisky and flexed his fingers.  The muscles still worked, but it hurt – more than it should.  And there was a swell of blood.  He put the first bottle down and picked up the second one.

He was thinking about a third bottle when Janet came back into the room.

“We need to …”

“No,” she said abruptly, pointing her finger at him.  It was the tone that made Dreyfus hesitate. “You called me.” She paused, “So just be quiet and let me do this.”  She set a couple of white, cloth napkins, a small jar and a serrated knife on the table.

“Stole them from the breakfast room,” she said, anticipating the question.  She turned and opened the minibar again, moved a couple of things and found a small bottle of cognac.  She opened it and set it on the table by the napkins.

“Alright,” Janet took a deep breath, “This is going to hurt, but it’s only your arm — so I’m just going to do it.  Put your arm on the table.”  She waited for Dreyfus to say something, and when he didn’t, she opened her handbag and took out a plastic lighter.  She set it down with everything else, pushed up her sleeves and picked up the knife.  She exhaled and stabbed it into Dreyfus’ shirt just above the elbow, then ripped it all the way around.  She reached one hand into the torn sleeve and lifted it away from his arm.  It stuck where the wound was, and she pulled.  There was a wince, and it came free.  She set the knife on the table and rolled the sleeve down his arm.  Then she poured just a bit of cognac on her hands and rubbed them together.  With her thumb and index finger, she spread the wound just slightly and used her fingernails to pick out a couple of stray threads that were trapped in the blood.  Satisfied that she’d got them all, she poured some of the cognac onto the gash and dabbed it with one of the napkins.

“That’s as clean as it’s going to get,” she said, holding the napkin tight. “You’ve nicked a blood vessel.  It’s not bad, but we need to close it.  This part is going to hurt like hell.  Make a fist.”

Dreyfus tensed his muscles, and Janet poured the rest of the cognac on the wound, dropped the bottle, and as quickly as she could, grabbed the lighter, snapped the flame and touched it to Dreyfus’ arm.  There wasn’t enough alcohol for it to flare, but it did burn.  Dreyfus clenched his teeth against the tears.  There was an acid whiff of burning hair in the air and a hint of cooked bacon.

“Hold still.”  Janet opened the jar from the table and stuck the knife in.  She pulled it out, loaded with honey and smeared it across the blackened wound.  She smoothed things with her fingers, wiped them on the napkin and cleaned the knife.

“It isn’t real honey, but it’ll do,” she said, snapping the lighter again and holding it under the knife.  She waited until the lighter was too hot to handle and then pressed the flat side of the heated knife hard against the wound.  Dreyfus shuddered and clenched his teeth again.  After a few seconds, Janet pulled the knife away.  Then she took another napkin from the table and cut it into two long strips.  She wrapped Dreyfus’ arm in the first one, then tore the second about halfway down the middle, wrapped his arm again and tied the loose ends together – tight, but not too tight.  Then she simply slumped into the nearest chair, and for the next several minutes, the two of them sat there, breathing.

Dreyfus moved first.  He unbuttoned the cuff of his torn sleeve, slid it down his arm and dropped it on the floor.  He twisted his fist a couple of times.  It hurt, but it was sturdy.  He got up and opened the minibar.

“I’ve got another whisky – uh — vodka, gin and red wine?”

“Vodka,” Janet said, standing up. ‘Do these windows open?”  But before Dreyfus could answer, she’d opened one.  She reached back for her handbag and pulled out a cigarette, lit it from the lighter on the table and blew a long billow of smoke into the air.  Dreyfus opened the small bottle of vodka and handed it to her.  He opened his own bottle and sat back down at the table.

 “Cheers!” he said, raising his newly bandaged arm. They both drank, generously.  “Ms. Miller, you amaze me.”

Janet turned her head. “My father was the gamekeeper at Pyaridge, and my brothers played rugby.”  She turned back to the night.  “You’re going to have a major scar, but it’ll be alright until somebody can look at it.”

There was another long silence.

“Now,” Janet leaned her upper body back into the room.  “You’re going to tell me exactly what the fuck is going on here, and what’s happened to Em — or I swear to Christ, Dreyfus, I’m going to get on that telephone and starting screaming until I have the Royal Marines out looking for her.”

Dreyfus smiled.   He didn’t laugh.  He knew she meant it.

A little further north, not quite in the Tuscan hills, Besnik Kovaci was frantically trying to telephone his lawyers.  He had a house full of Federal police, two incoherent half-cousins hiding in his garage and a brother who wasn’t answering his phone.  This was serious.