Killing Ground

Gerald Seymour


More wine was poured.

More salad was offered.

More frequent apologies for the late arrival of the Host were given.

It was a good wine that the Guest drank, and a good salad of sliced tomato and country mushrooms and fennel that the Guest speared with his fork, and good apologies for the unavoidable delay in the arrival of the Host. The suspicion of the Guest that was inherent in his nature, a rock in his life, was lulled. He drank, he reached a thin ribbed hand across the table towards the water bottle. He scooped pasta from the plate in front of him between his dried and narrow lips, then more tomato, and there was a moment when the sauce of the pasta and the juice of the tomato dribbled down from his mouth and onto his chin where the poorly shaved grey stubble caught the sauce and the juice. The Guest wiped hard at his chin with the napkin suspended from the collar of his silk shirt below a scrawny and emaciated throat. He felt at ease.

It was a fine apartment to which the Guest had been invited. The ding table of polished mahogany was in an alcove off the main living area. There was a shined floor of dark wood blocks below him. He had walked to the table from the living area across a thick woven carpet from Iran. He thought the pictures on the walls behind him and in the living area to be of quality and costly but they were too modern for his taste. At the entrance to the alcove, set on a wire pedestal, was a headless statue in stone of a naked woman, maybe Roman or maybe a Greek antiquity, and the Guest would not have known the difference, but the shape of the plump lower stomach stirred old thoughts in the mind of the Guest, and he leered at the statue that was a metre high and wondered if the missing face of the naked woman would have carried eyes that were inviting or coyly lowered. Opposite him, across the table from him, were two men that he did not know, except that they were the chosen men of his Host. It was hard for the Guest to see the faces of the men because behind them the curtain drapes were pulled back and the faces of the men were shadowed. The Guest could not see the detail of the faces but he could see beyond them the high buildings of the city that were misted from the low cloud that brought a light spitted rain onto the plate windows and that masked the high ground of the mountains of Pellegrino to his right and Castellacio ahead of him and Cuccio to his left. It was a mistake on the part of the Guest to have allowed himself to be sat at a table where he looked into the light, and a double mistake to have agreed to take a chair that put his back to the door of the main living area. And rare for the Guest, in the seventy-third year of his life, to have put aside the suspicion for which he was famed.

The Guest cleaned the last of the pasta sauce of cream with garlic and closely chopped ham with a piece of bread roll. He belched as was his habit when he had enjoyed food. He drank. He belched again as was his habit when he had enjoyed wine.

He pushed the plate away. He coughed from deep in his throat and his face coloured at the convulsion and the phlegm came from far down in his throat until it settled as spittle on his lips, and he wiped his mouth with the napkin. He was reassured, he could hear the indistinct and soft words of his grandson murmuring from the kitchen beyond the door of the main living area. He was reassured because his grandson was armed, as was his driver who would be sitting alert inside the hallway of the apartment and watching the outer door.

One of the men opposite him, the younger man of the pair, perhaps because he had been a waiter in a restaurant or a pizzeria before the trust had been granted him, came around the table and expertly cleared away the pasta bowl and the salad plate, and then his companion's bowl and plate and then his own. Done with quiet discretion, while the older man of the pair questioned the Guest on the great events of past times. The questions were asked with respect and probed at the unveiling of years long gone. The Guest warmed to the questions and to the respect with which they were asked. A telephone rang in the living area. Had he ever seen, as a child, Cesare Mori, Mussolini's man on the island? The older man ignored the telephone. Had he ever met, as a teenager, Don Calogero Vizzini who had made the deal with the American invaders on the island? The bell of the telephone was cut. Had he ever known, as a young Man of Honour, Salvo Giuliano, the bandit who had for four years evaded so many thousands of the army and carabinieril In short, guttural answers the Guest talked of Mori and Don Calo and Giuliano.

The younger man was back in the dining alcove and placed a plate of thin sliced veal strips in front of the Guest. The Host had rung, a few minutes more, very close, and his most sincere apologies. The Guest's glass was filled, wine not water. The Guest stretched back far in his memory…

Yes, once he had seen Mori drive through Agrigento, bad times, with an escort of the bastard Black Shirts, Fascist thugs. His lip curled in disgust…

Yes, several times he had been taken by his father to Villalba and he had stood outside the door of the room where his father had lalked with Don Calogero Vizzini and he could tell his listeners that Don Calo was indeed an artist in the control of men. His eyes lit, as if he talked of genius…

Yes, twice he had been in the mountains above Montelepre to tell Giuliano what was required from him, but the man was a fool and the man was arrogant and the man outlived his use. He made so small a gesture, but the gesture was of his weathered and nicotine-stained index finger running across the sunken width of his throat…

He had known them all. The Guest was of the old world. It was right that he and his memories should be treated with respect. It was usual, in the lifestyle of the Guest, that he should sleep in the afternoon, having concluded his business of the day in the morning. Perhaps because of the wine, perhaps because of the quality of the meal served to him, perhaps because of the flattery shown him when he was requested to dig into that well of memories, the Guest did not feel any sense of resentment that the business of the day would be postponed until the time when he would usually have slept. It was important business. Had it not been important business, then the Guest would not have considered travelling with his driver and his grandson across the island from his temporary and loaned home in the hills close to Canicatti. It was important business because it involved the division of interests between himself, the Guest, and the man with whom he sought to make an understanding, the Host. It was important business because it was necessary for the future that hostilities of the past should be put aside.

The Guest gulped at the slices of veal. He did not seem to notice now that the pair of men opposite him merely toyed with their food, only sipped at their wine. He liked to talk of Giuliano, he was happy to find younger men who showed an interest in the former times and were not anxious only about the present, he enjoyed the chance to explain how a man had risen too fast for his own good, which was anathema to the Guest, who had clawed his way over a period of half a century to control of the southern part of the island. And he was relaxed, and he was shown true respect, and the wine flowed in the tired old veins of his body. He heard the shuffle of feet across the thick carpet.

The Guest broke the flow of his speech.

The Guest turned in his high-backed chair as he sucked from his fork the last of the thin sliced veal.

The Guest saw his Host.

The smile of helplessness, the shrug from the wide shoulders indicating matters beyond a man's control, the gesture of the thickened hands of obsequious apology. He waved his fork, no need for apology. In truth, he almost regretted that the opportunity was gone to talk further of the bandit, Salvatore Giuliano, and the death of the bandit, the end of the bandit who had gone beyond the time when he was of use, so long ago.

He had to tilt his head to follow the movement of his Host, who came so quietly from the main living area and into the dining alcove. It was four years since he had last met in person with his Host. He thought the man a little shorter than he had remembered him and there was a paleness in the cheeks and upper lip and chin that a razor had smoothed as if it were a child's face. The smile lit the face. He laid down his fork. He took the hands in his, broad, rough hands in his own thin, rough hands. Their hands gripped, their fingers clasped, and he felt the raw strength of the hands as if they bonded in friendship. There were some who said, others who knew him, that his Host had cruel eyes, clear blue, but to the Guest those eyes seemed only to show respect. His consigliere had told him, before he had left Canicatti, near Agrigento, early that morning, that his Host had a way of looking at people

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