Star of africa, p.2
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       Star of Africa, p.2

           Scott Mariani

  The gunshot drowned Najila’s scream of horror. Hussein Al Bu Said’s head dropped lifelessly to the blood-soaked floor with a bullet hole in the centre of his forehead.

  Then the living room of the palatial family home resonated to another gunshot. Then two more. Then silence.

  The men left the bodies where they lay, and made their exit into the falling night.

  Chapter 1


  It should have been a simple affair. But in his world, things that started out simple often didn’t end up that way. That was how it had always been for him, and he’d long ago stopped questioning why. Some people had a talent for music, others for business. Ben Hope had a talent for trouble. Both attracting it, and fixing it.

  Which was the reason he was sitting here now on this chilly, damp November afternoon, parked under a grey sky on this unusually empty street in the middle of this bustling city he both loved and hated, at the wheel of an Alpina BMW twin-turbo coupé that had seen better days, smoking his way through a fresh pack of Gauloises, watching the world go by and the pigeons strutting over the Parisian pavements and the entrance of the little grocery shop across the road, and counting down the minutes before trouble was inevitably about to walk back into his life.

  He wouldn’t have to wait much longer. It was thirteen minutes past three o’clock, which meant the deadline for Abdel’s phone call had been and gone exactly thirteen minutes ago. Precisely as Ben had instructed Abdel to allow to happen. If the Romanians anywhere near lived up to the image that was being painted of them, then such an act of open defiance would not be tolerated. They’d be here soon, ready to do business. And Ben would be ready to put the first phase of his plan into action. It might go smoothly, or then again it might not. That all depended entirely on how Dracul decided to play it. Either way, it wasn’t exactly how Ben had planned on spending this brief return visit to Paris.

  Naturally, things just couldn’t be that simple.

  When Abdel’s broken deadline was twenty-one minutes old and Ben was two-thirds of the way through his next cigarette, the silver Mercedes-Benz turned sharply in out of the traffic and squealed up at the kerb outside the grocery shop, right across the street from where Ben was sitting. Both front doors opened at once. Two men got out, slammed their doors and converged on the pavement, glancing left and right.

  Ben followed them with a watchful eye, and knew immediately that he was looking at the Romanians. They were both in their late twenties or early thirties. One was darker in hair and skin, with sharper features that hinted at gypsy ancestry. The other had more Slavic blood, or maybe Hungarian, with a long face and fairer hair. Ethnic variations aside, they could have been clones: big, heavy, hand-picked from the pages of the rent-a-thug catalogue, dressed to intimidate in leather jackets and big stompy boots and putting on a theatrical air of menace as they walked up to the shop entrance and pushed their way inside.

  Dracul’s enforcers, come to deliver on their promise of violence, bloodshed and broken bones. They looked more than up to the job. Little wonder they had Abdel and the rest of the neighbourhood spooked.

  Ben took a last draw on his Gauloise, crushed the stub into the crowded dashboard ashtray, picked up his bag from the passenger seat and got out of the car.

  ‘Here we go again,’ he muttered to himself. Then he crossed the street and walked into the shop after them.

  It was Ben’s first visit to Paris in well over a year. He hadn’t been planning on coming back any time soon – not out of any kind of deliberate avoidance, but because he had few plans of any kind at all. For some time now, for reasons that he preferred not to dwell on, his had been a rootless, meandering existence that took him wherever chance and circumstance led him: he’d wandered aimlessly around Europe, never lingering long in one place, never quite sure why he’d come or where he was going next. He wasn’t a tourist, being fluent in the core European languages and conversant in most of the others, but he wasn’t a native either, and there seemed to be no place he could settle and feel at home. Sometimes he stayed a day here and there in cheap hotels; sometimes he roughed it in the kinds of solitary wild places he’d always liked to spend time, away from the complexities of life, away from hustle and bustle – most of all, away from trouble.

  At least, that was the idea.

  Jeff Dekker, Ben’s old friend and former partner, still ran the business they’d built together in Normandy, and still thought that Ben had lost his mind. Back in the day, Jeff had done his stint in the Special Boat Service, the Royal Navy’s equivalent of Ben’s old regiment, 22 SAS. Years later, after Ben had gone to live at the former farm near Valognes, a place called Le Val, he and Jeff had teamed up to carve out a prestigious niche for themselves teaching their specialised skills to military, security, law enforcement and anti-terrorist operatives from across the globe. They’d reached the point in their careers where they could enjoy the fruits of all those years of extreme risk and back-breaking hardship.

  That was how it worked in their world. Special Forces was like some kind of super-university where the learning curves were tough, the lifestyle tougher, the possibility of sudden violent death never far away, and the pay on a par with a schoolteacher’s salary. But those who survived the experience ultimately emerged from it as life members of the most exclusive club in the world, with their real careers still ahead of them. Former SAS and SBS guys were in high demand for plum jobs as senior security advisors in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, with earning potential running into hundreds of thousands a year, tax-free, for a fraction of the workload they were used to, and virtually zero risk. Others did what Ben had done for several years after quitting the military, go freelance as what he’d termed a ‘crisis response consultant’, before Le Val had entered his life.

  In short, for men of their qualifications it was a world of opportunity. Le Val certainly had paid off on everyone’s expectations. So as far as Jeff was concerned, to have put yourself through the living hell they had, come through it alive and then invested all that hard-won knowledge and experience into the best private tactical training facility in Europe, just to abandon it and go wandering off into the sunset like some kind of half-arsed nomad, was completely nuts. It was an opinion he’d frequently expressed to Ben, in increasingly strong terms as it became increasingly apparent that Ben wasn’t coming back.

  Ben respected his old friend’s point of view, and had always felt bad for having left Jeff holding the baby. But he felt he’d had no choice but to walk away from Le Val. Only Ben understood the deep inner restlessness that troubled his soul and drove him to do the things he did.

  Lately, though, a growing shadow of doubt had been hanging over him and Jeff’s words were often in his mind. The trouble with walking away from a lucrative little enterprise like Le Val, with no other employment on the horizon, was that unless you were a millionaire it was no kind of an effective long-term financial proposition. And the Lord knew Ben Hope was no millionaire – never had been, never would be, never wanted to be. Technically speaking, he remained part-owner and a sleeping partner in the business, and could therefore be drawing an income from it if he’d so desired. But to Ben’s mind, if he wasn’t doing the work he didn’t deserve to benefit from the profits, and had insisted on not receiving a penny from Le Val since the day he’d quit, choosing instead to support himself independently from his savings. He’d known, of course, that they wouldn’t last forever, and he’d been careful. But the laws of simple economics couldn’t be cheated, and slowly, slowly, his funds had dwindled away until worryingly little remained, leaving him to face some key decisions.

  The first of those decisions was that he needed to sell his place in Paris. He’d occasionally toyed with the idea in the past, but now the time had finally come to put it on the market. The one-bedroom apartment had been a gift from a former client, years ago, and for a long time had served Ben as a base while travelling in Europe. He’d called it his safehouse, because it was so tucked away among a
cluster of backstreet buildings that you’d never find it if you didn’t know it was there. On more than one occasion, it had lived up to its name when he’d needed a place to lie low. But now it was nothing more than a pointless luxury, and a financial asset he could no longer afford to hang onto. Ben had reckoned he could get it all fixed up himself, without having to spend a fortune. A patch-up repair here, a lick of paint there, and he was confident it could make an ideal pad for a single guy or gal, perhaps even a young couple looking to get into the property market.

  And so, with some regret, Ben had come to Paris to do the necessary.

  And that was when the trouble had started.

  Chapter 2

  The first thing Ben had noticed on his return was how rundown the whole neighbourhood looked. Shop fronts that had been scrubbed and spotless last time he’d seen them were now covered in graffiti. A striking number of windows were boarded up where they’d been broken and never repaired, as if the local business community had fallen into some kind of collective apathy. The secondhand bookstore he’d often spent hours browsing in, just up the street from the apartment, was closed down. So was the great little patisserie where he’d always bought his morning croissants. Once bustling with life, the streets seemed weirdly empty. The few people Ben did pass looked furtive and anxious.

  The area had never been the most prime location in Paris, by any stretch of the imagination – it wasn’t Avenue Montaigne or the Champs Élysées. But something was different. Not just visibly, but tangibly. Like something in the air, a chill or a shadow, the dropping of a barometer needle signalling a change in pressure and things set to turn stormy. He could sense it like a bad smell. It was the oddest thing, but he put it out of his mind as he made his way from the underground car parking space and up the steps to the familiar old apartment entrance.

  Ben had been away from the safehouse long enough to find everything inside covered in a fine layer of dust. Still, it felt like part of him, like a comfortable old shoe, and he hated thinking he’d soon have to part with it. He fired up the heating to get some warmth into the place. Rooting in the kitchen cupboard he found an unopened pack of ground espresso not too far past its sell-by date, brewed up a mug of coffee, strong and black, the way he liked it, and then said to himself, ‘Right. Let’s get to work.’

  He’d spent the rest of that first day cleaning up and surveying each room in turn with a critical eye, trying to see it from the perspective of a potential buyer, and making mental lists of what needed doing to bring the place up to scratch. It was fairly spartan and he’d never done much to try to furnish it beyond the absolute basics, but it wasn’t in terrible shape. The most obvious first step was a general freshening-up of the decor, so the morning after his arrival, Ben had gone out to pick up the necessary supplies.

  After paying a visit to the local hardware store for some decorating sundries, he’d headed for Abdel’s grocery shop just around the corner from the safehouse to buy in some food provisions for the few days he expected to be around. Ben had known Abdel for years, and liked him a lot. They’d long ago got into the habit of conversing in the Algerian’s native Arabic, which Ben spoke almost as well as he did French. Abdel was a good-natured guy, invariably cheerful, grinning a mile wide and ever ready with a funny anecdote.

  Not today. The moment Ben had walked into the shop, he’d sensed the same change he’d been sensing everywhere.

  And when he’d quizzed Abdel about what was wrong, it soon began to make sense. At first nervous and reluctant to talk, Abdel told Ben about the Romanian criminal gang who had steadily been taking over the neighbourhood during the last year.

  ‘I have nothing against immigrants,’ Abdel said. ‘Why should I? My parents came here in ’65. But these people are like animals. They have come here only to take and destroy. They are greedy for anything they can get. Stealing from tourists isn’t enough for them any more.’ He explained how the Romanians’ enterprise had swelled and their confidence grown at such an alarming rate that within a matter of months they’d started leaning on local businesses and extorting protection money out of them, using the threat of vandalism as their incentive. Now Ben understood why he’d been seeing so many broken windows everywhere. The nearby hardware store he’d visited that morning had been no exception. An assistant had been sweeping glass off the floor as Ben had walked in.

  Abdel explained how the Romanians had now started stepping up the pressure, bringing in their heavies to enforce the extortion racket with threats of broken legs, beatings and arson. Meanwhile, they were flooding the neighbourhood with cheap drugs and getting deeper into allied rackets like car theft, burglary and prostitution.

  ‘Everyone is terrified of them. We are hardworking, decent people. We don’t deserve this. Look what’s happening out there. The streets are empty. People are afraid to go out. Hardly anyone comes into my shop any more, because they’re scared of what might happen if the Romanians turned up.’

  ‘What about the police?’ Ben asked.

  Abdel shrugged. ‘What about them? Some of us got together and made an official complaint. We even told them the address where the gang are all living together like a bunch of bandits, making disgusting films and selling women and drugs. We told them the name of the leader, too.’

  ‘Which is what?’ Ben asked.

  ‘He calls himself Dracul.’

  Dracul. Ben shook his head. How trite. ‘It means “devil” in Romanian,’ he said.

  ‘Why would he call himself by such a name?’ Abdel asked, frowning.

  ‘Probably because he thinks it sounds scary,’ Ben said.

  ‘He is scary. A big, big man, with long black hair and a scar on his face. He’s easy to recognise. We gave the description to the police. They made us fill out a form and said they would be in touch. Nothing happened. Nobody gives a damn about us little guys.’

  Ben sighed. You turned your back for a year, and this was the result of it. The neighbourhood falling into the control of a violent criminal gang wasn’t going to do his chances of selling the apartment any favours, either.

  There was more. Abdel told Ben that the Romanians wanted two thousand euros from him, a new monthly payment demand Dracul called ‘respect tax’. They’d given Abdel a number to phone to say he was agreeing to cough up the money. If he didn’t call by three o’clock that afternoon, they’d told him they were going to come and break one arm and one leg. That was so he could still work. Generous. He’d still have to pay, of course. Then if the following month’s payment was late, it would be the other arm and the other leg. The next time after that, they’d promised, Dracul was personally going to have his fun with Abdel’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Faridah, before handing her over to the boys to be gang-raped and beaten to a pulp. Or maybe they’d drug her up and make her the starlet in one of the hardcore movie productions they were selling on the side.

  Ben was very unhappy to hear that. It made his fists tighten.

  ‘What am I going to do?’ Abdel said desperately. ‘I have no money to pay them. I can’t protect my own family from these people.’

  ‘Do nothing,’ Ben said. ‘Don’t call them. Wait for them to come to you.’

  ‘But I told you what they’ll do.’

  ‘Everything will be fine,’ Ben assured him.

  After which Ben had gone back to the apartment, started stripping wallpaper, smoked some cigarettes and drunk some coffee, eaten a tin of cassoulet for lunch and bided his time until the afternoon.

  Just before three, he’d left the apartment again and walked to his car, taking with him a few hardware store items he’d tossed inside his bag. He’d made the short drive and parked across the street from Abdel’s shop to wait for the Romanians to turn up.

  And now here they were, bang on schedule.

  Chapter 3

  As Ben stepped inside the shop, the two big guys were already standing shoulder to shoulder in front of the counter, glaring at Abdel. There wasn’t a customer in the place. The Alge
rian looked pale. He became even paler when Ben walked in.

  At the sound of the tinkling door chime, the Romanians turned in unison to give Ben the dead-eyed warning look that said, ‘Stay out of this if you know what’s good for you.’

  And for a second the pair must have thought it had done the trick, because Ben turned around and walked straight back to the door. Except he didn’t walk out of it. Instead, he popped the latch closed and flipped the sign around to say FERMÉ.

  Then he turned back around to face them. He smiled. They were giving him their full attention now, arms folded and brows creased with impatience. Ben said in Arabic to Abdel, ‘These two won’t trouble you any more.’

  ‘Who the fuck are you?’ said the Slavic-looking one.

  ‘My name’s Ben,’ Ben replied, switching to French. ‘What’s yours?’

  ‘This is your last chance to get the fuck out of here, fuckhead.’ Cheap gangsters didn’t generally require a very wide vocabulary.

  ‘You should be careful how you talk to me,’ Ben said.

  The Romanians exchanged glances. The darker one was grinning and shaking his head in amused disbelief at the impudence of this guy. The Slavic one didn’t seem quite so confident. Evidently the smarter of the two. ‘Yeah? Why’s that?’ he asked.

  ‘Because I have a gun,’ Ben said. He unslung his bag from his shoulder and took out the staple gun he’d bought that morning. A pressed-steel box with a spring-loaded squeeze mechanism. Handy for all kinds of jobs around the home. And outside it.

  The Romanians stared at him. Ben aimed the stapler at the Slavic one, squeezed the handle with a clack, and the tiny steel staple went pinging through the air to bounce off his big chest.

  That was all the provocation the Romanians needed. They both went for him at once.

  Four seconds later, both were stretched out side by side on the floor. The dark one was still conscious, but Ben fixed that with a tap to the head with the toecap of his boot.

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