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Star of africa, p.3
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       Star of Africa, p.3

           Scott Mariani

  ‘Ya ilahi,’ Abdel gasped, staring down at the inert bodies and wringing his hands. ‘Look what you did.’

  Next, Ben took out the big roll of tape, then the scissors, followed by a thick black marker pen. He cut off lengths of tape and used them to bind the Romanians’ wrists, ankles and knees together. When they were securely trussed up and gagged with more tape over their mouths, he asked Abdel for a sheet of paper.

  Abdel tore a blank page from a cash book. Ben scissored it into two halves. Using the marker pen he wrote on one half of the paper the greeting SALUT, in big blocky capital letters. On the other he wrote the Romanian gang leader’s name.

  Hello, Dracul. A clear enough message, sufficiently simple for even the lowliest kind of thug to comprehend, and opening the way to the next phase of Ben’s plan. The bodies had to be correctly arranged left to right for it to read properly, but that wouldn’t be a problem.

  Then Ben used the staple gun to tack each half of the paper in turn to each of the men’s foreheads. The hardened steel staples punched out with enough force to drive into wood or plaster, and had no problem biting into bone. They’d need to be prised out with a screwdriver.

  Clack. Clack.

  Abdel could hardly look. ‘You can’t do this,’ he said.

  ‘I just did,’ Ben replied.

  ‘They’ll come back. It’ll be worse than ever.’

  ‘Trust me, a bunch of miserable cowards like this will leave you alone after today.’

  Ben let himself out of the shop, telling Abdel to lock up after him and go and open up the back. Two minutes later, Ben had driven round to the shop’s rear entrance, reversing up the narrow alleyway where delivery vans did their drop-offs, and found Abdel standing nervously by the back door. Ben went inside, grabbed one of the unconscious thugs by the ankles and dragged him like a sack of potatoes out to the back, then hefted him into the boot of the Alpina. Then he did the same with the other, and slammed the lid shut on them.

  ‘Now, give me that address and number,’ he said to Abdel.

  Five minutes later, he turned down the dingy backstreet, past litter bins overflowing with garbage and crumbling walls daubed with obscene slogans and gang marks, and pulled up outside the two-storey corner building in which Abdel had said Dracul and his crooks were holed up. It certainly looked like their kind of place. The ground floor was a disused copy shop with boards for windows, plastered with flyers advertising the services of call girls. The upper windows were grimy and curtained and there was no sign of movement up there, but someone was home. A black Mercedes was parked at the kerbside below, and behind it a white Range Rover. No matter what kind of scummy ratholes gangsters seemed content to live in, they always kept their cars spick and span.

  Ben parked the Alpina on the corner, killed the engine and got out, taking his bag. The only person in sight was a junkie stumbling along at the end of the street. Thudding music was coming from the crummy apartment block opposite, pulsing like a headache. A dog was barking somewhere. The wail of a baby, the angry yells of a man and woman arguing. Those weren’t the only things Ben could hear. By now, the two thugs inside the boot of his car were awake, their muffled yells and struggles plainly audible from a couple of metres away. Which was exactly what Ben had intended.

  Ben walked away from the car, leaving it unlocked, and crossed the street to the apartment block’s entrance. He stepped inside just far enough to be half hidden behind the doorway, then leaned against the wall, took out his phone and dialled up the number the Romanians had given Abdel.

  The voice that answered after just two rings was deep and gruff. ‘Yeah?’

  Ben said, ‘You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are. Take a peep out of your window. I left a present for you outside.’

  Chapter 4

  Ben cut the call off before the voice could say more. He lit a Gauloise and watched the windows opposite. The flicker of a curtain caught his eye. Behind the dirty pane, a face briefly appeared, scanning the street below. Someone was at home, all right. It wouldn’t be long before they came out.

  When they did, Ben knew that what would happen next was going to cause heat for him. He wasn’t planning on being too gentle with these guys, because that was a language they wouldn’t understand. Assuming they could still hold a telephone by the time he was done with them, or get someone else to do it on their behalf, he fully expected them to call the police and start crying victim. And, things being what they were, it was perfectly likely that the grievances of such upstanding citizens could potentially land Ben in more trouble for what he’d done than these guys ever would be for the crimes they were committing every day against the community. It could be a good time to get out of town for a few days. The safehouse was a little too close to the heat. Ben didn’t want the expense of checking into a hotel; but there was another place he could stay until the heat died down.

  Still watching the building across the street, Ben dialled the number for Le Val. After two rings, a voice Ben had never heard before replied. Last time he and Jeff had spoken, Jeff had said something about hiring a new guy to man the office. Ben thought he spoke with a slight Jamaican lilt to his accent, but he wasn’t sure.

  For brevity’s sake, and because Ben didn’t like having to explain himself on the phone to strangers, and also because even speaking to a stranger in what used to be his home felt odd and uncomfortable to him, he didn’t say who was calling.

  ‘Jeff there?’

  ‘He’s on the range with Jude,’ the new guy said casually, obviously assuming from Ben’s tone that he wasn’t a client. ‘Take a message?’

  ‘That’s okay, I’ll call back,’ Ben said. As he put the phone away, he was frowning. On the range with Jude? What was Jude doing at Le Val? Ben was thrown by the news for a second, wondering what the hell that was all about.

  Ben felt suddenly bad that he hadn’t even thought about Jude lately. He knew the young guy was at something of a loose end these days, having decided after a year and a half that a degree in Marine Biology from Portsmouth University was not for him, and jacking in his studies. Ben had no idea what he’d been up to since then.

  But he didn’t have long to think about it. At that moment, a door opened across the street and two men stepped out of the building and started walking towards the parked Alpina. One of them was Dracul.

  Abdel’s description had been on the understated side. Even from a distance, Ben could see the spectacular scar that looked as if it had been made with a hot poker and stretched from the Romanian’s puckered brow to the corner of his mouth, distorting his left eye. For such an ugly guy, he evidently took good care of his thick mane of curly black locks, which hung over his broad shoulders. He was at least six-three, probably two-fifty. He was clutching a stainless steel Taurus nine-millimetre in his right fist, carrying it in plain view as he and his henchman strode towards Ben’s car. So much for law and order.

  Ben retreated a step further back inside the apartment block doorway, where he could peer around the wall without being seen. As he watched, Dracul and his man stopped near the car. Seeing it was empty, they glanced up and down the street. Then, right on cue, they turned back to stare at the car, and Ben knew they must have heard the muffled noise from the boot.

  Dracul signalled to his guy to open it while he covered it with the pistol. The boot lid popped open. The two gangsters stared at what was inside, long enough for the hello message stapled to the captives’ foreheads to register.

  By that time, Ben had emerged unseen from his doorway and walked up behind them, drawing the shiny new rubber-handled claw hammer from his bag. He didn’t waste time introducing himself. First rule, the man with the gun goes down first. Ben clubbed Dracul in the side of the head. It had to be a well-judged blow, because a claw hammer could too easily kill a man with a single hit, and Ben didn’t want to kill anyone. Not today.

  Dracul went down like a felled tree trunk. His henchman was half-turned towards Ben when the hammer caught him acr
oss the cheekbone and his knees folded under him. Two for two. They lay slumped on the pavement.

  ‘Face it, boys,’ Ben said. ‘You just haven’t got the hardware.’

  Spectators were starting to appear at the apartment block windows overlooking the street. Ben ignored them. He relieved Dracul of the Taurus, clicked the safety on and slipped it in his belt. It wasn’t that he wanted a gun, but he couldn’t responsibly leave the thing lying around in the street for some kid to pick up and start playing about with. Next he used the hammer to knock out the two men in the boot again, then hauled each one out in turn and dumped them on the pavement next to their boss.

  Once that was done, Ben grabbed Dracul’s jacket collar and yanked him into a sitting position against the copy shop wall, and slapped his scarred face a few times until the Romanian’s eyes fluttered open. Dracul blinked and tried to shake his head into focus. He seemed about to say something, then let out a sharp cry as Ben’s boot toecap landed hard and square in his testicles.

  ‘Consider yourself lucky you get to keep them,’ Ben told him. ‘Normally, depraved losers who want to molest innocent young girls should have them sliced off. But I don’t like to get my hands all blooded up.’ He knelt beside the groaning Dracul. ‘Now listen to me carefully, because you’ll hear it only once. Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to disband your merry men and wrap up your operation, lock, stock and barrel, effective as of today. Then you’re going to return all the money you took, with interest. Then you’ll apologise in person to the people you hurt, begging for their forgiveness. After that, you’re going to get yourself into a better line of work and never bother anyone again. If I hear you didn’t do any of that and decided to play sillybuggers behind my back instead, you won’t see me coming, because you’ll already be dead. Now, what did I just say?’

  Dracul grimaced in pain and groggily repeated back what Ben had told him.

  ‘Excellent,’ Ben said. ‘Now you’re going to go sleepy-byes for a while. Your new life begins from the moment you wake up.’ He whacked Dracul over the head with the flat of the hammer. The Romanian’s eyes rolled back in their sockets and he went limp.

  Taking the scissors from his bag, Ben grabbed a handful of Dracul’s thick black hair and sheared it roughly off, close to the scalp. He kept scissoring away until the pavement looked like the floor of a dog grooming parlour and the gang leader resembled Samson in the Old Testament story, after Delilah had chopped off his hair and robbed him of his superhuman power. For quite some time to come, whenever Dracul looked in the mirror, he’d be reminded of the promise he’d just made.

  Ben left the piles of black curls lying around next to him to find when he came to. More people were staring from the apartment block. A couple of people cheered. Others might not be so happy to see their local dealers being put out of business.

  Ben was nearly done. Just a couple more finishing touches, and he’d be gone before the police turned up. Lining up the unconscious bodies in a row, he used the heel of his boot to break all their wrists and ankles. Snap, snap, snap, snap, four times over. Sixteen fractures, with about ten years’ worth of healing between them. That seemed a reasonable amount of punishment. The final icing on the cake wasn’t going to hurt them, at least not physically. Ben reached into his bag for the half-litre tin of buttercup-yellow paint he’d bought to refresh his kitchen door with. The kitchen door would just have to wait. He levered the lid off with the claw of the hammer, tossed it away, upturned the pot and poured the paint all over Dracul and his men. Yellow, the universal colour of cowardly little bullies, extortionists and rapists.

  ‘That should do the trick,’ Ben said to himself, standing back to survey the final humiliation. Then he walked back to the car, climbed in, fired it up and took off with a squeal of tyres.

  Chapter 5

  It was dark by the time the Alpina bumped down the track to the security gate that barred public entry to the complex at Le Val, three hours and twenty-two minutes later. Ben still had a pass card, and fed it into the scanner to open the gate and drive on through.

  The November drizzle had been thickening steadily since nightfall. A cold mist swirled around the beams of his headlights as Ben drove into the main yard of what had once been his home. It seemed weird to be back after such a prolonged absence.

  The dogs were the first to notice his arrival. The four German shepherds that freely roamed the twenty-acre compound like a pack of wolves would have been enough to petrify any unauthorised visitor, but the sight of them charging towards him out of the mist as he stepped from the car brought a wide smile to Ben’s face.

  ‘Storm! Mauser! Luger! Solo!’ He greeted them warmly in turn, crouching down to give each a hug as they swarmed happily around him, slapping him with their big hairy tails and panting their hot doggy breath all over him and slathering his face and hands with their lolling tongues. Storm was the pack leader out of the four, and had always been Ben’s particular favourite, often accompanying him on long runs and rambles through the Normandy countryside. Ben hadn’t seen him in such a long time that he hadn’t been certain if the dog would even recognise him. Storm’s delight at his master’s return almost brought a tear to Ben’s eye – not that he’d ever have admitted as much to Jeff.

  The fifth dog to come bowling out of the darkness to meet him was less of a customary sight at Le Val. It was Scruffy, the wiry-haired terrier of indeterminate breed and independent spirit who, if he could be said to be anyone’s property, belonged to Jude Arundel and lived with him in the English country vicarage where he’d grown up. Ben patted the terrier affectionately. ‘Hey, Scruff. What the hell are you doing here?’ Then what the new guy had told Ben on the phone had to be true. ‘Where’s Jude?’ Ben asked the dog, but Scruffy wasn’t telling.

  Just then, floodlights on masts burst into life and illuminated the whole inner compound and buildings: the big stone farmhouse and annexe, the training yard, the residential huts, the killing house and storerooms. Ben gazed around him, filled with all kinds of memories.

  ‘Ben?’ yelled a familiar voice. Ben turned to see Jeff Dekker running down the steps from the house. Jeff was wearing his usual winter attire, old-pattern DPM combat trousers and a submariner-style jumper. His eyes were huge with surprise, and a grin wider than the radiator grille on a ’58 Chevy Impala was spreading over his face. ‘Christ, it is you. Welcome, stranger.’

  ‘Hello, Jeff.’

  ‘Well, fuck me sideways. You’re about the last person I’d expected to turn up out of the blue.’

  ‘Lucky you,’ Ben said. ‘I did try to call to say I was coming.’

  ‘Are you staying? Or running off again?’

  ‘I just popped over to check you haven’t totally destroyed the place in my absence.’

  ‘Oh, I think we’re scraping by okay,’ Jeff said, grinning even more widely. ‘Come inside. I just opened a bottle.’


  ‘’Fraid we don’t carry much of a stock of the hard stuff since you buggered off and left us. Make do with wine?’

  ‘Good enough,’ Ben said.

  Jeff had moved out of his quarters in the annexe after Ben’s departure, and taken up residence in the farmhouse. He led Ben into the familiar old stone-floored rustic kitchen. Gazing around him, Ben saw that nothing had changed. The solid fuel range was lit and filling the kitchen with a rosy glow of warmth.

  ‘Cold tonight,’ Ben said.

  ‘Colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra,’ Jeff said. Jeff had always had that way with words. He grabbed an extra wineglass from the side and set about filling it up from the open bottle of Côtes du Rhône. They sat at the table where the two of them had spent many an evening drinking, playing chess, and sharing ideas about how they were going to make Le Val a success. Jeff slid Ben’s glass to him over the worn pine table.

  They clinked. ‘Cheers,’ Jeff said. ‘To old times.’

  ‘Old times.’

  ‘And future ones, maybe,’ Jeff

  ‘We’ll have to see about that.’

  ‘So, dare I ask to what we owe the pleasure of your company?’

  Ben savoured a gulp of the wine. ‘You can ask,’ he said. ‘Let’s just say I’m staying away from town for a few days.’ Dracul’s Taurus was still in his belt. He slipped it out, ejected the mag, locked back the slide to make the weapon safe and laid it on the table. ‘Might want to stick that in the armoury when you get a moment. Its owner won’t be needing it any more.’

  Jeff gazed pensively at the gun. ‘On second thoughts, mate, I’m not sure I want to know.’

  They spent a few minutes catching up. Ben had little to report on his activities since they’d last seen each other, even though there was enough there to fill volumes. He especially had nothing to report on the love life front. He wasn’t hiding anything on that score.

  For his own part, Jeff revealed with a coy grin that he’d recently met a woman he liked. Her name was Chantal and she was a primary school teacher in the nearby village. It sounded serious, which was a departure for Jeff, whose long string of part-time, on-off, short-term girlfriends had been scattered across most of Lower Normandy and had seldom ever been brought home to Le Val – partly because he’d never met one he wanted to get too permanent with, and partly due to the sensitive nature of the business that went on there.

  ‘How is business?’ Ben asked, reaching for his cigarettes and Zippo lighter.

  ‘Oh, you know, booming.’ Jeff spent a few more minutes updating him on all the latest developments at Le Val, while Ben smoked and helped himself to more wine. Final touches were being put to the extended rifle range and the new classroom facilities, and they had contracts coming in from all over the place with a five-month waiting list because they couldn’t cram it all in.

  ‘If things keep up at this crazy pace, we’re going to outgrow this place and need to start up another, just to meet demand,’ Jeff said. Just when things had been getting ridiculously busy, Paul Bonnard, who had been with the team since the beginning, had left to take a job at the renowned Gunsite tactical training academy in Paulden, Arizona. Jeff had employed two new staff members to fill the gap left by his departure. One was Ludivine Tournoy, a sixty-year-old former bank manager’s secretary from the nearby village who was now coming in part-time as an office assistant.

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