A recent downpour has turned the tree-lined Belgium arterial road slick. He glances in his rear-vision mirror. The BMW is right on his bumper.
Wearing a balaclava, a figure in the BMW leans out the window behind the driver. He aims his gun at him.
As the masked assailant fires his weapon, he takes evasive action, swerving his vehicle to the right. The bullet shatters the Buick’s rear window, showering the back seat with glass. It barely misses his skull—nicking the helix of his right ear as it passes before embedding itself in the driver’s side pillar.
He yelps and clasps his hand over his ear. ‘Mother fucker!’ He screams.
The appendage burns like hell. Blood oozes between the webbing of his fingers and runs down his forearm. Out of the corner of his eye, he glances at his wife seated beside him. The side of her face is blood-splattered. ‘Did they get you too?’ He asks.
She drags her fingertips over her cheek and inspects the blood on them. ‘No,’ she says. ‘I think this is yours.’
He removes his hand from his wounded ear. ‘Is it bad?’ He says.
She peers at the wound. ‘Bit hard to tell,’ she replies. ‘There’s a lot of blood. Think it’s just a graze, though.’ She grabs a package of wet wipes from the glove compartment, pulls one out and hands it to him. ‘Here,’ she says. ‘Use this.’
He takes the small paper towel and grunts, dangling it in front of his face. ‘Lot a good this is going to do.’ He says.
She shrugs. ‘Better than nothing.’ She twists in her seat and glances over her shoulder. The BMW has dropped back a bit. Its occupants are only visible as silhouettes through the windscreen. They are gesticulating wildly at each other.
He puts the towel over his ear and grimaces. The towel turns red in an instant. He eyes his wife. ‘What are they doing now?’
‘Arguing, I think,’ she says.
He snorts. ‘Typical. Fucking Albanians. Can’t even get a hit right.’ He clears his throat. ‘Not that I’m complaining.’
‘How do you know they’re Albanian?’ She asks.
‘Same thing happened a couple of weeks ago,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to alarm you, so I didn’t tell you.’
‘That’s sweet,’ she coos.
He rolls his eyes and mutters under his breath, ‘Only thing dumber than the Albanian mafia is my wife. Beautiful … but dumb.’
She knots her brow. ‘Did you say something, honey?’
He shakes his head. ‘No. Nothing important. What are they doing now?’
Fearfully, she squints at the pursuing vehicle. ‘They’re coming up fast,’ she says, her voice trembling.
He glances at his mirrors and begins to weave the car. Wildly whipping the steering wheel from side to side, he almost loses control and is forced to slow down in order to steady the vehicle.
The pursuers take advantage of his error and draw their vehicle up beside his door. The driver slams the BMW into the side of the Buick, forcing them off the road.
Gritting his teeth, he jams his foot down on the brakes to prevent them crashing into the guard rail. The BMW sails past them and screeches to a halt a little further down the road.
Both occupants jump out of the car and run towards the Buick. Dressed entirely in black from head to foot they look like cut-outs of Laurel and Hardy. One is struggling to move with his generous girth, the other is so thin it appears he might snap in two at any moment.
His wife opens her door, squeezes between it and the guard rail, and jumps over the rail.
Concentrating on his attackers, he pays little attention to the fact that she has exited the vehicle. He yells at the two men, ‘Fuckers!’ A smirk twists his face. ‘Now you’ve made your biggest mistake.’ He fumbles in his coat pocket and pulls out his pistol.
Holding the gun with both hands, he ignores the blood streaming down his neck and soaking his shirt collar. He calmly rests his forearms on the Buick’s steering wheel and takes aim at one of the men. He fires the weapon. The retort is deafening in the confined space of the car.
The shot hits Hardy square in the chest.
Laurel falters and stops. His partner—having absorbed the bullet, but maintaining some momentum due to his weight—stumbles forward two steps and falls face-first on the bitumen. Beneath the balaclava Laurel fumes. His eyes flash. He raises his pistol and aims at the Buick.
Before Laurel can get off a shot, he fires a second time at the gunman through the Buick’s windscreen.
The bullet hits Laurel in the shoulder, half spinning him around. Crying out in pain, the gunman drops his weapon, grabs his wounded shoulder, and sinks to his knees.
He smiles broadly at the damage he has inflicted on his assailants. ‘I told you not to mess with me, you mother fuckers.’
I am frustrated beyond belief. Why is it that she never listens?
‘I asked you to keep an eye on her,’ I say. ‘To let me know when something happens.’
There is silence on the other end of the telephone line. I sigh.
‘Why can’t you keep me informed?’ I implore her. ‘It’s not a big thing. Just send a quick message. You know she won’t talk to me right now.’
Julia’s protesting reply is the standard one. ‘I can’t do it alone, Kurt. You have to help me. We have to do this together.’
Do it together? No, that requires true co-operation and not following her strategy alone. I’m not even going there. We’ve been over it a hundred times. We don’t see eye-to-eye and never will. There is a good reason why we decided to separate. Why she is now the ex-Missus Kurt Killan.
Reasoning with her is a waste of energy, but I fall into a well-worn pattern and try anyway. ‘It’s your home. Your turf. I can’t control what happens there,’ I say. ‘You and her have to work out your own battles. I can’t solve them for you. It’s more than enough having to deal with things at my end.’
Once again she is silent on the other end of the line. She knows I’m right, but will never admit it.
I sigh again. More heavily this time. ‘Send me a message if you hear from her. She’s not responding to my texts.’ Exasperated, I pause for a moment. ‘Have a pleasant weekend.’ I don’t wait for an answer and hang up the phone.
I stare at the screen until it goes black before slipping the device into the inside pocket of my leather jacket. I shake my head. Why is it that some people just don’t know how to communicate effectively?
I use my shoulder to push through the swinging saloon-style double doors leading from the beer garden into the bar. I walk up to the kid sitting next to Dirk at the bar and eye him sternly, mentally questioning if he is even of legal drinking age. Then I remind myself that the cutoff for drinking beer in Germany is sixteen years old. So, he probably has as much right to be here as I do. But that doesn’t excuse him from stealing my spot. ‘You’re sitting on my stool,’ I say gruffly to the kid.
He turns to me, appraises the stern look on my face, and runs his eyes up and down my lithe yet not insubstantial frame. I cross my arms to emphasise my broad shoulders and continue to stare him down. He slips off the stool. ‘My bad,’ he says apologetically. ‘I-I didn’t know…’
‘No problem,’ I say. ‘Just don’t do it again.’ I sit on the stool and swing my legs under the bar. The kid walks off in search of another spot.
I nudge Dirk on the elbow, spilling the beer he’s holding.
‘Hey!’ He glares at me, shooting daggers.
‘Why didn’t you save my spot?’ I ask, irritated.
Dirk shrugs. ‘He was just trying to order a drink.’
‘I thought we were partners,’ I say. ‘Partners are supposed to look out for one another.’
He chides me. ‘We may be partners at work. But I clocked out before coming here.’ Dirk pauses and huffs. ‘Look, I didn’t know how long you were going to be. The shit with your ex can take forever sometimes.’
I release a puff of air. ‘Okay, point taken.’
‘How’d it go?’ Dirk enquires.
‘The usual,’ I say. ‘Not good. Anna’s done a runner.’
‘Again.’ Dirk casts his eyes up to the brown, nicotine-stained ceiling. ‘What’s wrong with your ex? Has she still not got her shit together?’
I shake my head. ‘Nope. And I’m not holding out hope that will ever change.’
‘Maybe you should contact your brother,’ says Dirk. ‘Isn’t that where she usually ends up?’
‘You’re right. I’ll try him later.’ I raise my hand and try to get the barmaid’s attention. ‘You want another one?’
Dirk nods. ‘Yeah, sure.’
The barmaid is ignoring my gesturing. ‘That is,’ I say, ‘if I can get some service. I honestly don’t know why we keep coming here.’
Dirk slowly lifts his shoulders and drops them. ‘The music is good.’
‘Yeah, but that’s about the only thing,’ I say.
I wave again at the barmaid, who is deep in conversation with her colleague. I still get no response. Both of them appear oblivious to the rest of the world. I pick up a beer coaster and flick it at them. It has the desired effect. The barmaid shoots me an irritated look. I smile sweetly and raise two fingers. She moves over to the beer taps.
Dirk straightens on his stool and arches his back. He places his palms flat on the bar and rocks his shoulders.
‘You want to stand up for a while?’ I enquire.
He tilts his head to one side and cracks his neck. ‘No, I’ve just got to remember to stop slouching.’
I form fists and rub my lumbar with my knuckles. ‘I think this desk work at Interpol is more dangerous than on active duty out on the street,’ I say. ‘It’s going to kill us quicker than anything else.’
Dirk grins at me. ‘You’re not kidding.’
The barmaid arrives with our drinks. I order a whiskey to accompany it. She turns to get it from the back wall. Her skirt rides up as she reaches above her to press the glass to the shot-nozzle on the whiskey bottle. I do my best to avoid noticing that she is wearing a bright-red, lace g-string. She places the glass on the bar in front of me, informs me of the damage, and berates me for throwing the coaster. I choose not to reply and pay her for the drinks. She gives me a dark look and moves down the bar to serve another customer.
Dirk watches her leave. ‘Maybe there’s more than just good music here,’ he says. ‘Why don’t you talk to her?’
‘Honestly,’ I reply. ‘Right now I couldn’t care less.’ I pause. ‘And I’m pretty sure I ruined my chances with the whole beer coaster throwing escapade.’
‘You’re going to have to move on sometime,’ says Dirk.
I run a wet finger around the lip of the whiskey glass. It squeaks. ‘I think I’ll just stick with this for now. It’s less complicated.’
‘It’s not particularly healthy either,’ says Dirk, ‘but suit yourself.’ His phone bleeps. He pulls it out of his pocket and checks for messages. ‘Mm … we better not make it too late. Looks like we might have a busy day tomorrow.’
‘I certainly hope it’s a lot more exciting than the desk work we’ve been doing for the past month.’
Dirk grins at me. ‘Be careful what you wish for. You might regret it.’
I glance momentarily at the barmaid and then quickly pull my eyes off her. She is mighty tempting. But I decide to take Dirk’s advice. I have enough regrets as it is. I don’t need to add another one to my list.
Marius glances over his shoulder. He’s alone for the moment. His workmates, other longshoremen, are moving further down the deck checking the top layer of shipping containers are free from their locking mechanisms, and are ready to be unloaded.
Marius’s day began before dawn. It’s unseasonably warm in the Belgium Port of Antwerp. It was always going to be a long day, but the heat is not helping. It’s taking its toll. The mid-afternoon sun is baking the steel deck. Marius wipes his brow with his forearm. He flinches and checks the damaged limb. A fiery-red burn on the skin near his elbow is throbbing from earlier contact with the steel corner of a container. He inspects the scorch mark closely. Even the fine hairs have burnt off the afflicted area. He swears and rolls down his sleeve to protect the arm from being seared again on the hot, metal walls of the containers.
He pulls out his phone, unlocks it and uses the application which opens the hidden operating system. He checks for new messages, and then opens a previous one he flagged. He reads the sequence of numbers and compares them to those on the label on the door to the container before him. They match.
‘Finally!’ says Marius, grinning. He exhales loudly, eyes the container and shakes his head. ‘I thought I’d never find you, you big prick.’
He drops the phone in the breast pocket of his shirt and fumbles in one of the side pockets on the leg of his work trousers. He retrieves what he’s searching for: a small pair of wire-cutters. He cuts the loop of wire threaded through the holes on the handle of the double-doors of the container. He puts the blue plastic keyring tag and wire in his back trouser pocket and cranks the door handle. The rusted mechanism squeaks loudly. He stops for a moment, then moves to the corner of the container and peers around the side. His workmates are continuing their work further down the deck. Relieved that they don’t seem to have heard the sound, Marius purses his lips and breathes out slowly.
He returns to the door and slowly cracks it open. The hinges of the door protest, but not as shrilly as the handle. Quickly, Marius pulls a small torch out of the leather holster on his belt. He turns it on and, using it to illuminate the innards of the container, sticks his head through the gap in the door. He pans the light over the contents of the container. Wooden crates are stacked from floor to ceiling. The spray-painted decals on the crates announce that they are produce from Ecuador.
Marius curls the corner of his mouth into a smirk. ‘Hello girls,’ he whispers. ‘Did you have a good trip?’
He retracts his head, turns off the torch, and secures it in the holster on his belt. Closing the container door, he gingerly reseats the handle. This time the sound of it is barely audible.
Marius pulls a length of wire and a plastic green tag out of his other trouser-leg pocket. He threads the wire through the tag and then through the holes on the handle. From another pocket he pulls out a metal sleeve and threads the ends of the wire through it. Using the notch on the outer edge of his wire-cutters, he flattens the small metal sleeve, securing the ends of the wire together.
He steps back to assess his handiwork, and nods to himself. ‘Good.’
Marius sticks his head around the corner of the container. The other longshoremen have stopped and are gathered in a group, smoking cigarettes. ‘Mm … better get a move on.’
He half-jogs across the deck to the side of the massive container vessel. He scrutinises his surroundings. Hemmed in by containers, he is relatively well-hidden from behind. He raises his head and stares out at the Port of Antwerp’s vast shipping terminal. It stretches out for kilometres. The huge swathe of water in front of him will conceal what he’s doing from the rest of the terminal. From a distance he is merely a speck on the horizon.
He tosses the wire from his pocket over the edge. Using the wire-cutters he slices the plastic blue tag into small pieces and drops them over the gunwale as well. He glances over the side. The bits of plastic drift down the high, steep side of the ship like a sprinkling of confetti.
He drops the cutters into his leg pocket and pulls out his phone. Unlocking it and the hidden operating system, he types in a message as he walks back towards the centre of the ship. Rounding the corner of a container, he sends the message.
As he approaches his workmates one of them complains about where he’s been.
Marius hunches his shoulders and twists his lips. ‘Had to take a leak.’ He holds up his phone. ‘Then I had to deal with the better half.’ Half of which is partly true, he muses.
The other longshoremen berate Marius about his wife. He shrugs it off. ‘At least I have one. Not like the rest of you losers.’
They all laugh and accept the cigarettes he offers them. Marius laughs along with them, but more out of uneasy relief for completing his part of the task than for anything humour-related.
— — — —
A few kilometres away Marius’s wife, Maria, receives the message.
She reads it slowly, silently mouthing the words. ‘The girls have had a makeover. They’re looking surprisingly good.’
The woman sitting at the computer console beside Maria spins in her chair to face her. ‘What’s so funny?’
Maria shakes her head. ‘Nothing. Private joke, Pam. You know Marius.’
Pam rolls her eyes. ‘Yeah, I know Marius. I still don’t get you guys.’ She nods her chin at Maria. ‘What do you see in him?’
Maria reddens slightly. ‘He treats me good. You should be so lucky.’
‘Humph! I do all right,’ Pam retorts.
‘Maybe we better drop it,’ says Maria.
Pam draws in a deep breath and exhales loudly. ‘Yeah, maybe.’ Reluctantly, she returns to staring blankly at the computer screen in front of her. The work is mind-numbing and she would rather be gossiping.
Maria peers at her own monitor. Using the number she has memorised, she searches the Customs database. The shipping container shows up on the screen. She glances at the description in the manifest: bananas from Ecuador.
She hovers her mouse over the toggle switch at the top of the page. Hesitating for a second, she checks either side of her, and over her shoulder, to make sure she’s not being watched before clicking on the switch. The on-screen switch slides across and changes from red to green indicating the shipment has been cleared by Customs. She scrolls down the page and enters a new number in a field for transportation.
Maria closes the document and leans back in her office chair. She arches over the backrest and cracks her spine. Leaning forward, she picks up her phone and types in a reply to Marius’s message. ‘Hope they weren’t too much trouble. They were on their best behaviour here, and did everything I told them to do.’
She drops the phone on her desk. Pushing herself away from the desk, she rolls backwards on her chair, sighs and says to Pam, ‘Think I need a break. Want to grab a coffee?’
Pam nods enthusiastically, relieved to have a respite from the tedium. ‘Of course. But no more talk about men. Okay?’
Maria smiles. ‘Definitely not. They’re more trouble than they’re worth.’
Dirk flips his long fringe over the top of his head with a sweaty hand. He has the worst comb-over I have ever seen and it makes him look ten years older than he actually is.
‘Man!’ He exclaims. ‘Why do those meetings always take so long?’
He holds the glass door open for me. I move out of the building—Interpol’s German office on the outskirts of Bonn—step onto the concourse, and into the fresh air. Taking a deep gulp of it, I exhale loudly and shrug. ‘Because without all the formalities half of them would be without a job?’
‘Sometimes I think we’re the only ones doing any real work around here.’
‘Of course we are. We’re freelancers, the hired help. The rest of them are too busy protecting their arses. Trying to hold on to their positions and not get laid off is a full-time job in itself. Or have you already forgotten why we changed our contracts?’
‘I’m not sure it was the right move,’ says Dirk, dubiously.
‘Believe me,’ I say. ‘It was.’
‘We miss out on a lot of benefits.’
I snort. ‘You think being chained to the system is a benefit?’
‘You know what I mean,’ says Dirk. ‘Superannuation, paid holidays, maternity leave.’
I nod at the bulge of his belly. ‘Yeah, you’re gonna need that soon. Once you get past the first trimester.’
‘Very funny.’ Dirk rubs his stomach self-consciously. ‘Besides, you don’t get leave until the third trimester, and I’m not aiming to let this pregnancy run full-term. I actually meant for when Kate gets pregnant.’
‘If you were home more often there might be a chance of that happening,’ I say.
‘I blame you for that,’ says Dirk, goading me. ‘You keep dragging me along for every stupid job they offer.’
I feign insult. ‘Hey! I have responsibilities too. I have a bar tab to pay!’
‘If that’s your only motivation, then perhaps you should look for a new line of work.’
‘I don’t know how to do anything else,’ I say.
Dirk smirks. ‘Maybe find a job working behind a bar? You spend enough time in them already, and I hear the drinks are free.’
‘Serving drunks their next fix is not my forte, thank you very much.’ I straighten my back. ‘I prefer sitting on the other side and being on the receiving end.’
‘Yeah, that was already very clear to me.’ Dirk drops his eyes to my slender midriff. ‘Considering your lifestyle, it’s amazing you aren’t already in your third trimester as well. What is with that, anyway?’
I shrug. ‘The curse of genetics, I suppose.’
‘Maybe we can swap them one of these days,’ says Dirk.
‘Unfortunately, science hasn’t advanced to that point yet.’
‘I don’t see why not.’ Dirk flicks his thumb at the building we just walk out of. ‘I’m sure they get more funding than Interpol?’
I rub the stubble on my chin thoughtfully. ‘Maybe we are in the wrong line of business. Let’s see if we can become scientists. The pay has got to be better.’
Dirk sets his fists on his hips. ‘What are you talking about? We are scientists.’
‘Hm…’ I press my lips together. ‘I never thought about it that way. I guess you’re right. Forensics, data analysing, research, following leads. Not much difference.’
Dirk grins. ‘And we get to legally carry guns.’
‘We don’t do that often,’ I say. ‘But okay, I guess we can put up with a pay-cut for that benefit.’
‘So, are we going to keep crapping on or what?’ Dirk nods his chin at me. ‘Do we take the job?’
‘I thought we already did.’
Dirk hunches his shoulders. ‘We can still say no.’
‘And then what are we going to do?’ I ask.
‘Search me,’ says Dirk.
‘I know.’ I grin. ‘You could get your wife pregnant.’
Dirks sighs. ‘You have a one-track mind.’
‘Of course I do,’ I say. ‘But you wouldn’t know about that. Try going without sex for an extended period and see what happens to you.’
‘What?’ Dirk chuckles. ‘You think being married is better for your sex life?’
‘Nope,’ I say and purse my lips. ‘I didn’t say that. Remember, I have been married. Just that there are more opportunities for it.’
‘I don’t know about that,’ says Dirk.
‘Then I think you need to put more effort into it.’
Dirk rolls his eyes. ‘Thanks for the marital advice, Dr. Dick. Are we going to do this job or not?’
I nod and say snidely, ‘Yeah, it sounds like lots of fun.’
‘You have the strangest idea about fun.’
‘Hey!’ I say, brightly. ‘We get to go to exotic Belgium for one.’
Dirk shakes his head. ‘How on earth you can think Belgium is exotic completely baffles me.’
I smile broadly. ‘One of my many talents.’
‘One of your few talents, you mean. Shall I pick you up in the morning, then?’
‘I don’t do mornings,’ I say, flatly.
Dirk sighs. ‘Another one of your talents. We need to get there early so you’ll have to make a exception this time.’
‘Bummer!’ I exclaim. ‘I was going to pull an all-nighter.’
‘That’s what I was afraid of. We already did that yesterday. Try to show some restraint.’ Dirk rubs his forehead and murmurs, ‘I’ve got to stop hanging out in bars with you.’
I twist my lips. ‘I’m not making you go. And restraint is not a word in my vocabulary.’
‘Maybe you better add it to a list of new words to you need to learn,’ says Dirk. ‘Punctuality is another one. You could add that one as well.’
I groan. ‘Okay, Dad.’
‘Right!’ Dirk draws in a breath, flexes his shoulders and exhales. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’
I pat him softly on the belly. ‘Sure you don’t want to grab a quick drink?’
‘There you go again,’ says Dirk, brushing my hand away. ‘No, I have stuff to do.’
I frown. ‘Like what?’
‘I’m taking your advice.’
‘And what would that be?’ I ask.
‘Doing something you can’t do.’ Dirk nudges me in the ribs as he turns to leave. ‘I’m off to impregnate my wife.’
On the other side of the German border, it’s an unusually sunny for late-August in the Belgium provincial city of Hasselt.
Enzo walks down the steps outside the courthouse, the bright smile splitting his face mirrors the weather. He stops for a moment, closes his eyes and lets the warmth of the early-Autumn sun play over his face. He takes a breath, sighs, and opens his eyes. He turns to the man beside him. He grabs his lawyer by the hand and shakes it heartily, before embracing his wife, Mariska, and planting a wet kiss on her lips.
His enforcer, Sven slaps him on the back. ‘That was too easy!’ he exclaims in a hoarse whisper.
Enzo releases Mariska and places a hand on Sven’s shoulder. The enforcer towers over his short, slightly rotund boss who has to reach up to lean on his shoulder. He smiles broadly at Sven, ‘Yeah, the easiest one yet.’
‘I hope they stay that way,’ says Sven. ‘We’re only half way through the twenty cases they’ve got lined up.’
‘It’ll be fine,’ says Enzo and cocks his head at this lawyer. ‘Joseph is on the job. They haven’t got any evidence they can make stick.’
‘I still think we should be cautious.’
‘Of course, of course,’ says Enzo, reassuring him. ‘But it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy this moment a bit.’
The edge of Sven’s lip curls up. It’s supposed be a smile, but looks more like a snarl.
Enzo squeezes his shoulder and cocks his head at the courthouse. ‘Let’s go. I’m sick of the sight of this place. Let’s get back to Antwerp. I need a drink.’ He moves over to Mariska and pecks her on the cheek. ‘You take the car, babe. I’ll be home later.’
Mariska takes a step away from Enzo and tosses her mane of blonde hair over her shoulder. She looks up at Sven. ‘Don’t make it too late.’
The enforcer draws his lips tight across his teeth and nods.
Mariska pulls a small compact out of her pocket and examines her face. ‘Look what you’ve done. You’ve smudged my make up.’
Enzo smiles sweetly at her. ‘You look fine, babe.’
She shakes her head. ‘You have absolutely no idea how much work it takes to look this good, do you?’
‘Oh, I do. If I had a Euro for every hour you spend in front of the mirror, I’d be a rich man.’
She sniffs, flaring her chiselled, fine-boned nose. ‘You already are a rich man.’
She nods her chin at the enforcer. ‘Listen to Sven when he tells you it’s time to come home.’
Mariska furrows her brow, cracking her make-up. ‘Don’t “yes, darling” me. Just do it.’
‘Ok.’ He rolls his eyes at Sven who reddens slightly.
Mariska punches Enzo in the arm. ‘Don’t do that,’ she says, sharply. ‘I’m not joking. Keep it short like I said. We’re not out of this yet.’
‘Ow!’ Enzo whimpers playfully and rubs his arm. He goes to rebuke her, but thinks better of it. ‘Ok, you’re right.’
‘Good,’ she says, satisfied that the message has been understood. ‘I’ll see you both later.’ She kisses him and turns to Joseph. ‘We can go now.’
The lawyer nods. ‘I’ll see you in two days, Enzo. We still have a lot to go over.’
Enzo doffs an invisible hat. ‘Right you are.’
Mariska gives him a stern look. ‘Remember, not too long.’
‘Ok, ok. Sheesh!’ Enzo sighs. ‘C’mon Sven. Let’s go.’ He grabs the enforcer by the crook of his arm and leads him away. ‘Sometimes she’s just too pushy,’ He says, speaking through the corner of his mouth.
Sven grunts. ‘She does have a point.’
‘Please, don’t you start as well.’ He glances over his shoulder to make sure Mariska is not staring at him and his lawyer is out of earshot. To his relief she is walking over to the Jaguar with Joseph. ‘Any word from the M&Ms?’
Sven frowns and pulls in his chin. ‘The who?’
The enforcer’s eyes narrow, then widen in realisation. ‘Oh! You mean Marius and …’
‘What?’ Sven glances around the deserted square. ‘Nobody can hear.’
Enzo stops the enforcer and grabs Sven by both upper arms. He tightens his grip, eyeballs him and hisses, ‘Don’t bet on it. Everybody can hear.’
‘Since when have you been so jumpy?’
‘Maybe you need to calm down.’
Silently, Enzo guides Sven over to their car, a late-model black Mercedes. ‘Open it,’ he commands the enforcer.
Sven does as he’s told and opens the driver’s door.
Enzo flips his fingers at Sven. ‘Give me your phone.’
Enzo sighs. ‘Just do it.’
Sven pulls out his mobile phone and hands it to his boss. Enzo does the same with his. He throws both of them on the driver’s seat and slams the door.
Sven knots his brow, perplexed.
Enzo grabs him by the shoulder and draws Sven’s head down to his level. He leans in and whispers in his ear. ‘This is important. We have to stick with the code.’
‘But the cops are fucking stupid,’ says Sven. ‘Look what happened in court.’
‘I don’t care about them. This is big. It’s all the rest I’m worried about. The Turks, Albanians, Chinese, Filipinos, and who knows else.’
‘I thought we were cool with the Turks.’
‘Not on this one. This is our show. We have to get it right or …’ Enzo runs his index fingernail across his jugular.
Enzo slowly nods at him. ‘We do his quiet. Like church mice. Understand?’
Sven breathes in deeply and exhales. ‘Okay.’
Enzo grins. ‘But enough of that right now. Let’s grab that drink!’
‘Are you sure that’s wise? You know how loose your tongue gets when you’ve had a few.’
‘That’s why I have you.’
Sven sighs. ‘Great!’
‘It’ll be fine,’ Enzo says, still smiling. ‘Have you heard anything? What’s the word?’
Enzo rolls his eyes. He clears his throat. ‘The M&Ms.’
‘Oh, them,’ says Sven. ‘They say the girls are ready.’
‘Cool. See!’ Enzo slaps him on the back. ‘That wasn’t so hard was it?’
‘Good. Let’s go chill for a bit. This is gonna be one hell of a day.’
Sven scratches the back of his head. ‘Gonna be?’
The Port of Antwerp’s docklands are a maze. One that Leo knows like the back of his tattooed hand. He guides the empty flat-top through the towering corridors of stacked shipping containers. He glances at his phone when it pings.
Picking it up, he reads the message on the screen. The girls are wearing blue and waiting on the corner.
He drops the phone on the passenger seat and leans forward over the steering wheel, peering upwards. A series of giant, yellow transtainers—gantry cranes that load and unload containers—fill the sky on either side. In the distance, one of them has a beaten, blue container hanging from its grapples. Leo grunts on the wheel as he swings the truck to the left and down a narrow corridor hemmed in by shipping containers. Stacked five-high, they tower above him on either side like apartment blocks. Ahead him is the crane and its precious cargo.
Leo reaches the end of the makeshift side road and guides his vehicle across the relatively open space lined on the water side by a pair of enormous ships. He drives the nearly half a kilometre to the ship at the far end of the dock. The great steel hulks dwarf the truck as it runs alongside them. Reaching the crane, Leo slows the truck, sets it into position and engages the handbrake.
He grabs his phone and dials the crane operator. The conversation is short, a series of commands. Leo hangs up. Cocking his head he looks in the side mirror and watches as the container descends onto the tray of his vehicle. Leo adjusts the truck’s suspension to cater for the extra weight. He opens his door and jumps down from the cabin. He circles the flat-top checking the container is properly seated on it, flipping locking bolts as he goes. Satisfied, he arches his neck and glances up at the crane operator. Several storeys above, seated in his glass cubicle, the operator returns Leo’s thumbs-up gesture.
Leo climbs back into the cabin, slams the driver’s door shut and grabs his phone. He taps in a message that he’s found the girls and they are on their way to the party. He presses send and slots the phone into the charging cradle on his dashboard. A second phone in his jacket pings. He pulls it out of his pocket and opens the message app. He types the coordinates from it into the phone on the dashboard and scrutinises the map that appears on the screen.
‘Hm…’ says Leo to himself. ‘Bit of a long trip this time.’
He removes the sim card from the second phone and lays both card and phone on the seat beside him. He slots the truck into gear and releases the handbrake. Coaxing the vehicle slowly forward, it trundles down the wharf to the end. Leo turns the truck and drives it alongside a strip of open water—a wide manmade canal. He winds down his window, grabs the phone and card from the seat and tosses both of them out the window. He barely registers the splash as they hit the water and sink.
Leo loudly releases an audible sigh. He switches on the radio and cranks up the volume. Heavy rock music blares out of the speakers. Only then does he fully relax and settle himself into his seat. He runs his hands loosely around the circumference of the steering wheel before gripping it firmly. Smirking, he mutters to himself, ‘Another one nearly in the bag.’
Several kilometres away, on the other side of the docklands, Marius, the longshoreman, reads Leo’s message and relays it.
— — — —
Barreling down the highway in the Mercedes towards Antwerp, Sven pokes Enzo in the ribs. Enzo, who has been dozing in the passenger seat, squints and shakes his head. He frowns, peers first at the road in front of him, and then at Sven.
‘Did you wake me?’ Enzo enquires.
‘Yep.’ Sven passes his phone to his boss.
Enzo scrutinises the message on Sven’s phone. A broad grin splits his face. He clears his throat, pulls out his own phone and types a message: The girls are ready to leave. Can you let your mother know she can pick them up?
Enzo sends the message, hands Sven back his phone, and settles back into his seat. He closes his eyes.
‘Everything okay?’ Asks Sven.
‘Everything is more than okay,’ murmurs Enzo.
— — — —
Leo reaches the entrance to the docklands.
As he passes through the main gate, he flashes his credentials at the security guard who gives him a nod. Leo turns the truck onto the backstreet leading away from the docklands. He passes two parked black vans. As he drives past them they pull out from the curb. One accelerates, overtakes the truck, and pulls into the lane in front of Leo. The other falls in behind the truck. The three vehicles move as one and are soon swallowed up in the chaos of Antwerp’s rush hour traffic.
The visibility is terrible. In order to see the road ahead, Dirk is leaning so far forward that his chin is practically resting on the steering wheel. He blinks hard and squints through the fogged-up windscreen. The rain is torrential. Even without the frosted windscreen hampering the view, the sheets of water falling from the sky are making driving almost impossible.
The late-model hire car clearly has not been designed for submarine activities. Water is trickling through the rubber beading around my door and dripping down on the leg of my jeans. I slip the seatbelt off my shoulder, slide forward in my seat and make a vain attempt to clear the mist from the windscreen with the sleeve of my jacket.
‘Don’t bother,’ says Dirk. ‘It’s not helping.’ He nods at the air-conditioning dials on the console between us. ‘Crank the fan up to full. That should help.’
I do as he suggests. The fan roars loudly drowning out any hope of a conversation. But it does the job. The base of the windscreen quickly begins to clear. Gradually, the mist dissipates from the rest of the glass. I turn the fan down a notch.
Dirk grunts, shakes his head and quips, ‘Summer in Belgium.’
‘I told you it would be exotic,’ I reply, sarcastically.
Dirk chuckles. ‘I think we clearly have two very different ideas about what is exotic.’
I check the weather forecast on my phone. ‘Once we get through the Ardennes it should clear up. It’s supposed to be fine and sunny in Antwerp.’ I scratch my head. ‘For such a small country this place has strange weather.’ I peer at the rain radar in the application. ‘It’s like it has two completely different seasons.’
‘Micro-climates,’ postulates Dirk.
‘Well,’ I say, ‘whatever it is I’m glad we’re heading to the coast.’
Dirk squirms in his seat. ‘Where are we anyway?’
I open the sat-nav application on the phone. ‘Not far now. We’ll be back on the highway soon.’
‘Why are we on this route anyway?’
I indicate my phone. ‘It’s supposed to be the quickest route.’
‘Yeah!’ Dirk snorts. ‘But only if you’re driving a boat.’
‘Er … I don’t think that’s the correct word.’
‘What do you mean?’ Dirk says.
‘I’m sure you don’t drive a boat,’ I reply.
‘What do you do then?’
I think for a minute, studying the cloud movement on the screen. ‘Pilot it, I guess.’
Dirk taps the steering wheel with his fingertips. ‘But we’re not in a boat. We’re in a car.’
I sigh. ‘This is a pointless conversation.’
‘You started it,’ says Dirk, grinning.
‘Whatever!’ I huff. ‘Good news is it looks like we’ll be out of this soon. Then you can go back to driving instead of piloting.’
‘Fantastic!’ exclaims Dirk, a little too enthusiastically.
I look up from my phone. We round a tight curve on the narrow mountainous road. A large truck appears on the crest before us and drifts over the centre line. I grab Dirk’s shoulder. ‘Hey! Watch out!’
Dirk catches his breath. He whips the steering wheel to the right, and we slip off the bitumen onto the gravel shoulder. The car’s rear end snaps, sending us sideways. Miraculously, with the precision of a rally driver, Dirk straightens the vehicle and guides it out of the path of the oncoming truck. The truck barrels past, barely missing us. The spray it kicks up in its wake douses the windscreen in a plume of water, completely obscuring our vision.
Dirk jams the soft of his palm down on the horn. He releases it, changes down a gear and slows the car. He spits out a puff of air. ‘Whoa! He’s really moving!’ He applies the brake and brings us to a standstill.
‘We better take it easy,’ I say, wiping cold sweat from my brow.
Dirk replies, his voice trembling, ‘Right you are, Sherlock.’ He glances in his side mirror. The truck has vanished around the curve.
I lay my hand on my chest. I eye Dirk, certain that his heart is pounding as fast as mine. A sheen of sweat coats his brow. ‘You okay?’ I ask.
‘No!’ He retorts. ‘Do I look okay?’
‘Nope,’ I say, smiling weakly. ‘But that’s nothing new.’
‘Very funny,’ says Dirk. He sets the car in first gear and slowly accelerates, guiding the vehicle back onto the bitumen. ‘We could have been killed.’
I nod in agreement. ‘What an idiot!’
Dirk shrugs. ‘I’m guessing he knows the road better than us.’
‘That’s beside the point,’ I say. ‘He doesn’t own it. He’s not the only one on it.’
Dirk purses his lips. ‘He nearly was.’
I release air through gritted teeth. ‘Let’s get to sunny Antwerp. It sucks here.’
‘Right you are.’ Dirk regains his confidence and presses his foot down on the accelerator.
I indicate with my hands that he should slow down. ‘Maybe take it easy till we get off this hill.’
Dirk gnaws on his lower lip, his eyes fixed on the road ahead. ‘Nope. I want to get out of here as fast as possible.’
I slip my fingers through the armrest on my door and grip it tightly. ‘Okay.’
Dirk glances at me. ‘You look as white as a sheet. Another late night?’
‘I was on my best behaviour,’ I say. ‘Only half a bottle of whiskey.’
‘I thought I smelt something. Don’t you dare go throwing up on me.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m fine.’ I try to make light of the situation. ‘Speaking of sheets, did you get your wife pregnant yet?’
Dirk casts his eyes skywards, shakes his head and refocusses his attention on the road.
‘I’ll take that as no, then,’ I say.
Dirk chooses to ignore me.
The rain is relentless. The weather report had predicted wet conditions, but nothing like this.
Leo reaches forward and wipes the windscreen with his palm. He squints through the frosted glass and shakes his head.
He cranks up the fan and turns up the heating. The windscreen slowly begins to clear.
He glances at the navigator. He should never had taken the shortcut, but sleep-deprived as he is, there was no choice. Get the job down as quickly as possible and go to bed was the plan. Only there is a slight problem. He has lost his entourage, the black vans, in the inclement weather. He casts his concern about that aside.
Solve that when you’re out of this.
He fumbles with the cap on the plastic vial of No-Doz. Flipping it off, the cap bounces off the vacant seat beside him and ends up somewhere on the floor.
He puts the vial to his lips and jiggles it. A single pill drops onto his tongue. The last one. He throws the vial onto the floor and grabs the bottle of cola. Taking a swig, he washes down the pill. He grimaces as the carbonated liquid rips at his throat. He clears his windpipe and slips the bottle back into the cup holder on the dashboard.
He blinks hard to clear his head and peers through the windscreen. The road is narrow. Too narrow for the semi-trailer. The twigs on the overhanging branches snap as he passes through a particularly thick clump of trees. He glances at the side mirror. The shipping container on the flatbed is not letting anything stand in its way. It carves through the foliage, leaving a shower of twigs and leaves in its wake.
He squirms in his seat and eyeballs the road ahead. The crest of the hill is not far away. At least, that is his guess. The sheets of rain make it almost impossible to see anything. He double-taps the clutch, guns the engine and short-shifts into a lower gear. In order to help clear the windscreen faster, he cranks open his window to let in fresh air. It works and the glass clears. However, the rain increases. Now a torrential downpour, the sound of it pummelling the cabin drowns out the engine.
Leo frowns as water splatters his cheek. He closes the window, leaving it open a crack, leans over the steering wheel and peers through the windscreen. There’s a tight, sweeping curve at the top of the hill. He purses his lips.
There better not be something coming the other way.
He is wrong.
The truck crests the crown of the hill and begins to accelerate down the other side. A little way down the hill a small Fiat roars around another blind curve. Leo reacts instantly, his senses on edge as the No-Doz kicks in. Grunting, he swings the truck over to the right. The front wheel of the prime mover slips off the bitumen onto the narrow shoulder. There is a loud screech as the bumper makes contact with a short section of metal guard railing lining the road.
Wide-eyed, the driver of the Fiat twists their own steering wheel to the right. As the little car slews sideways, Leo catches sight of a pale face through the driver’s window. The Fiat’s tyres slide over the road’s water-logged surface before miraculously digging in and finding purchase. The car snaps around, straightening, its back end narrowly missing the truck as it flies down the side of the vehicle.
Leo watches it flick by in the side mirror, and hears its protesting horn as the Fiat disappears in the spray behind him.
He quickly turns his attention back to the road ahead. With the right-hand tyres still on the shoulder, he wrenches on the steering wheel to guide the truck back onto the bitumen.
The front tyres climb back up onto the road’s tarred surface. However, the flatbed has a mind of its own. With the substantial weight of the container, the sodden shoulder fails to support its tyres. They plough into the wet earth leaving Leo with no control over the vehicle. The trailer jackknifes. Careening sideways, its rear wheels slip off the road’s shoulder. The trailer plunges down the steep embankment, dragging the prime mover behind it.
Leo catches his breath in horror, now a passenger in something more akin to a runaway train than a truck. On one side its wheels dig into the soft surface. The weight of the container flips the entire vehicle onto its side, sending Leo flying across the cabin and crashing into the passenger door. The roof of the container hits a rocky outcrop. On the slippery surface the entire vehicle spins on the axis created by the rock, causing the prime mover to lead the downward movement. With the impact one of rear doors of the container fly open. It dumps part of its contents, the shipment of bananas. They tumble out, leaving a sporadic yellow trail in the wake of the vehicle.
The truck continues its downward slide, barreling through the slender tree-trunks on the hillside. The windscreen is no match for a low-hanging branch jutting out from one of the trees. The branch spears through the glass and impales Leo to the passenger seat before snapping off the tree trunk.
The truck slows its journey as it nears the base of the ravine, sliding to a complete stop in the deep mud at the bottom.
Leo stares blankly through the broken windscreen and releases the breath he has been holding. It is the last puff of air that will ever pass between his lips.
The rain intensifies. It turns the truck’s path down the steep incline to mud and washes the bananas down the slope, leaving only the odd broken tree as scant evidence of an accident. The downpour is so fierce that eventually it leaves the impression that a landslide has occurred on the hillside. And the appearance that the damage to the forest is due to the forces of nature, rather than being triggered by human intervention.