An hour now they had been in position. The car was nestled off the road under a blanket of high mushroomed pine branches. It was back from the main route and on a parking space that later would be used by those who came to play tennis on the courts behind. The place was quiet and unobserved as they wanted it.
Not that the car was here by chance, nothing in these matters was casual and unplanned and spontaneous. For a clear fortnight the men had toured this discreet web of sidestreets, watching and eyeing and considering the location that would afford them the greatest advantage, accepting and rejecting the alternatives and the options, weighing the chances of attack and escape. They had not chosen this place till all were satisfied, and then they had reported back and another had come on the morning of the previous day and had heard from them their description of what would happen and nodded his head, slapping them lightly on the shoulders to affirm his agreement and accolade.
So the ambush was set, the trap was sprung, the wires taut, and the men could scrutinize their wristwatches, bright with chrome and status, and wonder whether the prey would be punctual or tardy.
In front of their car the road ran down a gentle hill towards the main six-lane route into and from the city, which it joined at an intersection two hundred and fifty yards from them. Under the pines the road was shadowed and grey, the potholes and rain-water tracks in dark relief. There was no chance that when he came in his car he would be speeding. He'd be doing thirty kilometres at most, because he would be safeguarding the expensive framework of his Mercedes, creeping between the ruts, avoiding the hazards, and as unaware and unsuspicious as they all were.
The car in which the men sat had been stolen three weeks earlier from outside a hotel in the centre of Anzio away to the south of Rome. By the time the loss had been reported, written in the ledger book by the polizia, the Alfetta had already been fitted with new number plates, likewise stolen, but from a car owned in Arezzo to the north. The number plates had originally belonged to a Mirafiori Fiat. The calculation was that the marriage of the stolen car and the stolen number plates would be too complex for any casual check by the Polizia Stradale. The paperwork of insurance and tax had been matched to the vehicle's new identity by men who specialized in such work.
Three men were in the car, all sharing the lank, coarse hair and mahogany-sheened faces of the deep south, of the toe of Italy.
Men of Calabria, of the rugged and daunting Aspromonte mountains. This was their game, their playtime. Their experience qualified them for such occasions. Men who travelled from the lofty villages down to the big city to effect the grab and then fled back to the safety of their families, their community, where they lived uncharted and. unknown to the police computers. The smell in the car was of the crudely packed MS cigarettes that they smoked incessantly, drawn to their mouths by roughened fingers that carried the blister scars of work in the fields, and mingling with the tobacco was the night-old stench of the Perroni beer they had consumed the evening before. Men close to middle age. The one who sat in front of the steering-wheel had the proud hair on his forehead receding in spite of the many and varied ways he combed it, and the one who sat beside him carried traces of grey at his temples highlighted by the grease he anointed himself with, and the lone one in the back wore a wide belly strapped beneath his leather belt.
There was little talk in the car as the minute hands of the watches moved on towards seven-thirty. They had nothing to communicate, conversation was futile, and wasted breath. The man in the back drew from a grip bag that rested on the floor between his legs the stocking masks that they would wear, purchased the previous afternoon in the Standa supermarket and pierced with a knife for eye and mouth vents. Without a word, he passed two forward to his companions, then dived again into the bag. A snub-barrelled Beretta pistol for the driver, who probably had no need for a gun at all as his work was to drive. For himself and the front passenger there were squat submachine-guns made angular as he fitted the magazine sticks. The quiet in the car was fractured by the heavy metallic clacking of the weapons being armed. Last to be taken from the bag was the hammer, a shiny varnished handle of new wood weighted with its grey-painted iron head.
They had a man to lift this time. A man of their own age, their own fitness, their own skill. It would be harder than the last one, because that had been a child. Just a child toddling to kindergarten in Aventino with the Eritrean maid. She'd screamed at the sight of them, the black whore, and collapsed in a dead faint on the pavement and the dog shit by the time they'd reached the child, and the brat hadn't struggled, had almost run with them to the car. The car had been stationary no more than fifteen seconds before they were moving again with the kid on the floor and out of sight and only the noise of the keening wail of the maid to let anyone know that anything had happened. Two hundred and fifty million they'd paid out, the parents. Good as gold, placid as sheep, shut the door on the investigations of the polizia and the carabinieri, co-operated as they'd been told to, sold the shares, went and tapped the grandfather up in Genova just as it had been planned they would. Nice and clean and organized. Good quick payout, used 50,000-lire notes, and not a uniform in sight. Just the way it should always be. But how this one would react, there was no way of knowing, whether he'd fight, whether he'd struggle, whether he'd be a f o o l… The man in the back fingered the hammer-head, stroking its smoothness with his fingers. And in all their minds was the thought of the welcome the big men would provide if there was failure, if the car came back empty, if the cash investment were not repaid… no room for failure, no possibility… the big bastard would skin them. From behind his ample bottom, muffled by his trousers, came the screech of static noise, and then the call sign. He wriggled round, heaved his bulk so that it no longer suffocated the transmitter/receiver radio, pulled the device clear and to his face. They hadn't used the system before, but this was advancement, this was progress.
There had been a code, an agreed one, but the suddenness of the transmission had seemed to surprise him and he was aware of the frustration of the men in front at his fumbling. They'd practised the link often enough in the last week, assured themselves that the receiver would pick up from behind the first block a hundred metres up the hill. He saw the anger on the driver's face.
'Yes, this is Number One.*
'He is c o m i n g… it is the Mercedes and he is alone. Only the one.'
For each man in the car the distorted and distant voice brought a syringe of excitement. Each felt the tension rise and writhe through his intestines, felt the snap of stiffness come to the legs, clasped at the security of the guns. Never able to escape it, however many times they were involved, never a familiarity with the moment when the bridge was crossed and spanned, when the only road was forward. He'd skin them if they failed, the big man would.
'Did you hear me, Number One? Did you receive?*
'We hear you, Number Two.' Spoken with the grey lips against the built-in microphone.
Big and large and fat and juicy, that was what the big man called it, the capo. A foreigner, and with a renowned company behind him, a multinational, and they'd pay up well, pay fast and pay deep. A billion lire in this one, that for minimum… could be two billion. Spirals of noughts filling the minds. What was two billion to a multinational? Nothing. A million and a half dollars, nothing.
The man in the back switched off the radio, its work completed.
Burdening silence filled the car again. All ears strained for the drive of the heavy Mercedes engine. And when it came there was the whine of the low gear, the careful negotiation of the pitfalls of the road. Creeping forward, cutting distance. The growing thunder of the wasp wings as the insect closes on the web the spider has set.
The driver, Vanni, half turned, winked and grimaced, muttered something inaudible and indistinct, gave Mario in the front, Claudio in the back, the curl of a smile.
'Come on.' Nerves building in the back.