Everything, thought Benjamin Larsson, his thoughts warmed to a fugue by the Jack Daniels. Everything is gonna be alright.
Rain spat in a twitching sheet against the polarised glass of his second-floor office; the coat-tails of a grumbling autumnal squall that had blown in off of the Sound. His office was dark except for the somnolent glow given off by the 3-monitor array of his business PC, highlighting his weathered Nordic features in bas-relief: an obsessively-trimmed, sharply-sculpted beard and moustache which framed a generous mouth below intelligent, liquid-blue eyes.
Day stocks tracked across the screens like some multi-coloured child’s mountain range and all was quiet except for the distant, reptilian susurrus of the rain and the murmur of his PC’s quad-core cooling-fans next to his right knee. Everything calm.
Larsson drained the remainder of his bourbon and was about to log off the screen when the polite chime that denoted incoming mail gave him pause. He clicked on the box out which advised ‘1 new message’ and the email program bloomed into use.
The text field was empty.
There were no words. Just three attachments – JPEG’s. Pictures.
Larsson’s brow furrowed. He opened the first one, and a new box out dutifully erupted over the white void of silence the email body displayed:
The bourbon in Larsson’s belly suddenly boiled. Tremblingly, he reached out to his mouse and clicked on the second attachment. As it opened, he felt a hot drop of fear pitch into his bowels.
The picture looked to have been taken with a long telephoto lens – the aspect was blurred, as if it had been shot whilst moving. The view was a sunny panorama of his rear garden. It must have been taken by boat from the Sound itself as there was no terrain access to his property from that angle – his lawn ended in sturdy timber fencing which topped a private seawall that dropped eighty feet to the bed of the Sound.
In the centre of the picture were Ben’s family – his wife Catherine and their two children, Ben Jr and Molly. They looked to have been playing with Coco, the family Newfoundland. The hefty pedigree bitch was frozen in mid-leap, artlessly throwing herself joyously after what looked like a tennis ball judging from the pale green smear above her yawning muzzle.
Below this happy scene was one line of text: Ora li vedi ...
Now you see them…
Ben clicked on the third JPEG, and his blood was chilled. It was the same scene but clumsily Photoshopped over each of the family’s heads was a dark red mark, a bloody digital cancer that obscured their faces in a horrific crimson void.
A second line of text strap lined this ghoulish reappraisal: Li vedi ora ...?
‘Yes,’ breathed Ben, quietly. ‘I see them now.’
Kepler knew it was going to be a messy one. As he pulled up to the perimeter tape at the edge of the cordon, he could already see the front windows of the bank peppered in an ugly, frosty starburst constellation of high-impact bullet holes. And there was blood on them.
Weissner looked up from where he was directing forensics as Kepler gave an impatient weep-woop on the unmarked cars sirens. Seeing his colleague, Weissner waved impatiently at the uniformed police that were guarding the perimeter tape: let him through.
The uniform nodded and lifted the tape, allowing Kepler's custom Chevy to rumble through. Weissner met him as he opened the car-door into a flutter of chatter - orders, requests and the periodic crunch-whine of the forensic cameras as they documented what was, to all, intents and purposes a clusterfuck massacre.
Four of the robbers lay dead nearby, Their body-armour had been torn to shreds by high-grain police-grade automatic fire; obviously, these boys had not moved much further than Ned Kelly in their ignorance that SWAT had learned its lessons well from the North Hollywood shootout back in the '90's. Two of them looked to have been hit in the eye, the other one staring blankly into infinity as it sat in their cooling corpses.
Kepler inhaled tiredly through his nose as forensics beetled around him in their snowsuits, like some ninjas of science. This wasn't just messy - this was a joke. 5pm on 95th avenue and these bozos thought they could 'Heat' it out of there? Like TV never existed? Fucking jagoffs.
Stepping over these broken no-necks, Kepler followed the cascade of broken glass and crazy-paving blood-stains and stepped into the bank proper.
Straight away, he saw the real problem.
Directly in front of him, lay the body of one of the bank tellers. He was face-down in a rapidly congealing ooze of his own body fluids that actually traced the perfect outline of Bolivia.
The teller was holding a gun. Or had been. Whatever the tense, beneath the greying outstretched fingers lay the grim shape of full-size, fully-automatic Israeli UZI. Bloodied shell-casings surrounded him in a morbid perimeter.
This wasn't a joke any more.
'What we got?' he said to Weissner as the other office joined him in appraising the poor mook on the floor.
Weissner shook his head, and pursed his mouth dismissively: 'Not much to say. Hit about four times judging from the exit wounds in his lower back. Initial comeback from the lab says .41 AE on his lil' toy there. Pretty nasty.'
Kepler nodded, and squatted closer to the body. The smell of death rose to meet him - that burnt-hair stink that never changed. He was used to it.
'Any ID on him yet?' he asked
Weissner ruffled through his notebook. '... Uhhhm - yeah. Benjamin Larsson. 43, 2 kids, white-picket fence. Think he's got a Newfoundland as well. No real MO yet.'
'Nothing? No disputes with his boss? No marital fuck-ups?'
Kepler rose slowly to his feet. Darkness was beginning to fall outside, and the first high-powered sodium lamps were being ignited, turning the scene a bleached, toxic white. He motioned to where the dead goons outside were now being covered with sheets and meticulously marked.
'So how about Pinky and Perky outside? What's their story?'
Weissner shook his head. 'Not much yet. We're running a trace on their mugs right now, but no joy so far.'
He lit a cigarette. 'Looks like an inside to me, Ray. Initial reports state a banking reserve of close to $9.7 mil was in that vault. They must have had a fence. That money wasn't due out until 9 o'clock tomorrow morning to coincide with the City rates.'
Kepler nodded, chewing his lip pensively. It was going to be a long night. ‘Okay,’ he said, tiredly, ‘let’s see what’s behind door number two. Show me the vault.’
Weissner nodded and escorted Kepler further into the bank’s stomach, their shadows telescoping before them from the sodium lights.
Once they were inside the vault proper, a curious blanket of silence descended as the thick, concrete walls dampened the buzz of activity from above. They descended a short flight of steps into a marbled atrium and there before them was the yawning plug of the main vault door.
Kepler noted the noise-dampening and whistled softly. ‘They don’t make ‘em like they used to. How old is this place?’
Weissner looked up at the ceiling appreciatively. ‘Ehh… building dates back to around the late 18th century. Think this was originally a wine-cellar before it was converted around about 1846. We’re about fifteen feet below street-level. They sure as hell picked a hard target to try and empty – but I guess for nearly $10 mil I’d give it a shot. If it worked for the Robert’s Lounge crew, it’d work for them.’
Kepler didn’t answer. His attention was fixed on the vault’s other occupant that lay sprawled out awkwardly in front of them, half-slumped in the jamb of the vault.
‘Ah, Christ,’ he muttered. ‘He’s just a kid.’
The boy couldn’t have been much older than 19 or so. His trackless gaze focused somewhere at the floor behind Kepler’s left foot. Resting along one maroon-stained leg was an electro nickel-plated Mossberg 500 Mariner.
Stitched across his belly was a torn track of bullet-wounds. From where Kepler stood he could ascertain that they looked to be consecutive and fairly high-calibre – definitely from an assault rifle of some description rather than another shotgun or handgun. His expert eye also picked up a stove-pipe stoppage in the Mariner’s ejection-port; evidently the kid had been alive long enough to attempt to cycle a round into the chamber, but it had failed.
Which was unusual; Mossberg’s were famously reliable shotguns – there was a reason they’d been the darling of both police and military for over fifty years – and a stoppage was highly unlikely on a well-maintained weapon. The draw and stroke of the slide could be problematic for an inexperienced user, though – it required a firm and practiced movement to work a slug up to the plate. Junior had obviously found that out to his cost.
In the midst of this broken carnage squatted the slight figure of Delphine de Lys, the precinct’s senior forensic examiner .Her platinum-blond hair was scraped up into a formal bob at the back of her head and she was shining a halogen penlight over the shattered remains of the young man on the floor.
Weissner grunted. ‘Think he’s beyond us, Delph.’
Delphine turned her steely-grey gaze up at the older man. Her face was pretty but worn – she had worked too many of these sorts of cases and whilst she was never anything less than supremely professional and an expert forensic scientist the strain of nearly thirty years of rifling through human viscera showed in taut lines that pulled down from her cheeks like sail-rigging.
‘Trés bon, monsieur Weissner,’ she said, acidly in gently accented English. ‘You have a fuller picture, non?’
Weissner looked at her stolidly for a moment. His features melted into a smile ‘Niet,’ he deadpanned. ‘What d’you see?’
de Lys rose from her squatting position to her full, limber five-nine. ‘I think this man was ambushed,’ she said. ‘He comes out of the vault with a bag of monies – this here…’
She gesture to where a large, canvas military-surplus holdall lay crumpled next to the dead youth. Delphine had partially opened the zip to take a preliminary look inside and both men could see a paper-city of crisp, stacked banknotes inside. Weissner couldn’t see the full contents but there looked to be easily $2m in fifties and hundreds.
The Frenchwoman gestured with her penlight, continuing: ‘So. He steps out of the main vault, and I am thinking is weighed down on one shoulder with this bag. He does not think to sling it across his chest, giving him ease of access to his weapon but hangs it on one side. Then he runs forward…’
She stepped past the two men towards the main entrance. ‘At this time, I am thinking his attacker is coming down the stairs. He sees this boy coming out of the vault… da-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta.’
She imitated the sound of a machine-gun, and waved her torch at the boy’s corpse to accentuate: ‘Small burst. Not more than 5 or 6 rounds – I am thinking a sub-machine gun set to burst-pattern or a precise and measured full-auto squeeze. Whoever this person was that killed this young man, it was controlled and deliberate; an experienced marksman. This was not a spray-and-pray.’
Kepler stepped back into the vault atrium. Weissner noted his partner’s pensive look as he tracked a clinical eye around. He knew what cogs were turning in Ray’s head – they’d been working the zombie squads together since they came up from the beat in the late nineties. They’d worked a billion of these nasty, desperate scenes in just about every conceivable setting – from Yakuza penthouses in Fire Island to five-by-five crack dens in the South Bronx. All had the same in common – whether monied or broke; high or sober; grieving or enraged, you didn’t come out of an argument with a .45 with much in the way of corporeal stability.
‘What about the stovepipe on the scattergun?’ Kepler asked. ‘Any thoughts?’
Delphine looked down at where the bright-red shell-casing still sat in the weapon’s port, as if constipated of its resolve to save its owner. She shrugged. ‘Possible cycling error. Unusual for the 500, though, no? They are normally très fiable.’
‘Mm-hm. And look at this.’
Weissner and de Lys looked to where Kepler was pointing. Just above the entrance to the vault atrium was a spider-web of cracked marble.
‘The rest of the wall’s flawless,’ said Kepler. ‘Reckon that’s from our boy. He was either desperately trying for a snap-shot from the hip or let one go as he was blown backwards. And see – Jules, watch where you’re stepping, for Chrissakes – there’s shell-casings all over the floor right there. He was standing right in the doorway. He deliberately came down to do the kid.’
de Lys nodded. ‘A betrayal, no? He did not want this boy to come out with the monies. He was no longer useful to them.’
Weissner exhaled noisily, puffing his cheeks out. ‘Well – three wheels on a wagon,’ he said. ‘If that’s what happened. But we’re still no closer to finding out why, are we? I mean, did it really go south for these two that quickly?’
Kepler walked back up to the boy’s corpse and squatted down. The kid’s face, as was wont in only sleep and death, seemed to be even younger than his years.
Who were you, boy? he thought, roving his gaze over the mangled shell of the youth. What brought you down here?
His appraising gaze stopped as he looked at the boy’s hands. ‘Delph. Jules,’ he said, briskly. ‘Look at this.’
He pointed with one rubber-gloved index finger at the index and ring fingers where they lay in bloody state across the Mariner’s trigger-guard. Running down from the back of the hand was a tattoo of a scorpion, its pincers dissecting to run down the top of each finger to end just above the joint.
Delphine quickly squeezed off a photo for her records. The tinnitus whine of the camera’s recharging flash rang in Kepler’s ear.
Weissner grunted. ‘I seen better drawings from my 5 year old. What of it? You thinking it’s gang-related? He looks too young to be a vory.’
Kepler shook his head. ‘No, he’s a trigger-man. Not a vory but definitely a rank.’
He stood up once more. ‘I’ve seen this tatt before though. That zip hit on the West Side – remember? What was his name – Puccinzo? He had one just like this.’
‘But he was a made man,’ said Weissner. ‘The Families don’t advertise their guys with some cheap fucking cholo tramp-stamp like that – it’s a massive disrespect.’
‘No. No, they don’t. Not the old-guard from the old country. But some of the newer guns from the Camorra and the 'Ndràngheta aren’t shy of doing so.’
Delphine smiled humourlessly. ‘An offer he couldn’t refuse, no?’
‘You got it.’
The fluttering purr of Kepler’s cell wafted up from the depths of his jacket. He pulled it out and flipped it open. ‘Yah. Kepler.’
The Frenchwoman and Weissner looked on as his brow furrowed in concentration at the tinny voice rapidly relaying into Kepler’s ear. ‘You got her there now? Outstanding. We’ll be there in forty. Yeah… yeah. Thanks, Lil.’
He broke the connection. ‘Buddha provide.’ he said, grimly to the questioning glances from the other two. ‘Uniforms just brought in our boy’s girlfriend. His name’s Joey Lombardi. They picked her up on the corner of Hunts and Lafayette – she looked like she was turning tricks. Once they shook her down, she started crying and saying how her ‘boy did the bank, her boy did the bank’ over and over. They found a picture of his-nibs down there in her purse.’
Weissner raised an eyebrow as they headed back up the steps, leaving Delphine to her work. ‘Buddha? I thought you were an atheist?’
‘I am,’ said Kepler. ‘Means I get no tax on who I invoke when it helps.’
Serafina Knudsen was a mess. Kepler could see that from the moment he opened the door to the interview room. She was a painfully thin waif of fifteen with lank, wavy bleached blond hair cut unflatteringly short and close to her head. Large, bulbous watery green eyes protruded from sunken sockets and her thin, cracked lips, which played host to some ugly looking blisters, tremblingly folded around the filters of the Marlboro Reds that she was chain-smoking incessantly.
She looked to Kepler like a heroin-chic version of that ridiculously tall actress that was in that ludicrous fantasy series on HBO that his fifteen-year-old daughter was hooked on(although he had a suspicion that addiction stemmed more from the moody Brit who played the lead than anything else).
A runnel of mucus and several angry-looking track-marks on Knudsen’s forearms bore testament to the ticking clock that was winding down on her day. Kepler estimated he had about an hour, maybe two before she turned into a pumpkin. ‘Am I under arrest?’ she snivelled, foggily. ‘Mr… I was just waitin’ for a bus….’
‘Ms. Knudsen,’ Kepler cut her short. ‘Please. Don’t waste my time. The only buses that stop at Hunts Avenue and Lafayette are tricked-out Seville’s with nasty men in them. You were either waiting or playing. So cut the crap.’
Knudsen wiped her nose angrily with one sleeve, and said nothing.
‘So,’ said Kepler. ‘Would you like to tell me about your boy? Mr Lombardi?’
Knudsen glared at him for a moment, then shrugged. ‘No comment.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I said,’ she leered at Kepler, through ugly, yellowing teeth, ‘you ain’t getting shit outta me about Jee-Jee. Jee-Jee smart. He knows about you. All you motherfuckers. You think you got so much down on his crew but they got wires on you – they pulling strings you can’t even see. Boom. Jus’ like that.’
She sat back and pulled defiantly on her cigarette, before flicking the ash contemptuously at Kepler. Some of it landed on the manila folder he’d brought in with him.
Wordlessly, Kepler opened the folder and pulled out a collection of glossy eight-by-ten forensic photos. ‘Would that be the same Jee-Jee you see in these pictures here?’ he asked.
Knudsen stared down at the broken remains contained within the shots Delphine had emailed to Kepler half an hour ago. They were unflinchingly graphic, as forensic evidence must be, and contained several unpleasant close-ups of Lombardi’s wounds.
She brought up one trembling hand to hover over the framed memory of her lover’s dead features. ‘Jee-Jee,’ she whispered. ‘Ah, fucking Christ…’
Kepler stared down at the carnage with her a moment longer and then gently but firmly slid the pictures away, all except one. ‘Miss Knudsen… may I call you Serafina?’
She looked up at him, eyes flaming with grief and encroaching withdrawal. ‘Fina. My name’s Fina. Ain’t no one calls me Serafina, ‘cept my asshole of a father and he long dead. His rapist ass can burn in hell. Jee-Jee used to call me Seffie…’
She faltered, her emotions side barring her again. ‘Now that asshole gone too. Whattyu want from me, narco?’
Kepler pushed forward the remaining photo that he’d kept back. He tapped its glossy surface. ‘This. Can you tell us about this?’
Fina leaned forward again, and squinted at the photo. ‘I can’t see too clever without my contacts,’ she mumbled, pulling on what remained of her cigarette (smoking ‘em to the filter, thought Kepler, cynically. We should mount her in the Junkie’s Guidebook) ‘… Is that Jee-Jee’s hand? What’s he holding?’
Kepler nodded. ‘He’s holding a shotgun. Mossberg 500 Mariner. Quite a piece. You wouldn’t know…’
‘Don’t patronise me, pig,’ she spat. ‘I grew up in Queens. I know guns. I learnt how to field-strip one of those fuckers from my daddy when I was only eight. ‘Bout the only thing he did teach me, apart from how to suck him off around about the same time.’
Kepler didn’t bridle: ‘Bravo. Now, look closer. See that tattoo?’
‘Know where he got it?’
Here’s the crux, he thought. She either plays ball or goes out like a light.
Fina shrugged. ‘No fuckin’ clue. He already had it when we met at a rave in Aspen.’
‘So – you never talked about it? Not once?’
‘Nope. Jee-Jee was tatted up from his dick to his shoulders. You’ll see that when you… when… ah…’
She flopped back in her seat again, eyes brimming. ‘I want out. You gonna charge me with something, go ahead. I ain’t saying shit else.’
Kepler eyed her for a second. She wouldn’t meet his gaze.
She’s scared, he thought. Through all her bullshit, she’s scared out of her wits.
He lowered his tone. ‘Fina. Look at me.’
She swivelled her head – and now he could see the fear in her eyes. All bravado had gone and before him was a scared little girl, caught up in unfathomable darkness. He pressed on.
‘Joey was killed this afternoon acting as a trigger-man in a Class 1 felony. He was shot dead, trying to escape from the vault at 3rd City Bank with close to $4m in registered notes. We have reason to believe he was killed by one of his own crew in a double-cross… Hey. Look at me.’
She turned her head inexorably back towards him. ‘These guys snuffed out your Jee-Jee with a song in their hearts. He was nothing but a little cog in their wheels; an expendable asset. You really think they were going to cut him loose with that kind of money? Some bragging little street rat who could have caused them all to become unstuck? They waxed him as easily as wiping shit off their shoes. And you know who they are, don’t you?’
Fina stared at him through her watery eyes. Everything was on display there: hatred; pleading; fear. Her mouth worked gummily up and down, but no sound came. ‘I… want… to go home,’ she said, hitchingly. ‘I wanna lawyer…. I want my moooooom…’
Kepler gathered the folder and got to his feet. ‘Sure you do. We’ll need her too. To ID your teeth.’
Her wail chased him out into the corridor, then was neatly snuffed as the fire-door jerked shut.
Weissner was watching Knudsen from behind the two-way glass as Kepler stepped into the observation room adjoining the interview room.
‘Went a bit turbo on her, didn’t you, Ralph?’ he muttered as his colleague shut the door behind him and joined Weissner at the mirror.
‘She needs to understand where she’s at,’ said Kepler. ‘If she’s even halfway bright, she’ll know what kind of shinola she’s in.’
‘Well, if she doesn’t,’ puffed Weissner, ‘it’s high time she did. We just got a comeback on that tatt and what it means.’
He handed Kepler a selection of photos. Some were shakedown pics; others had been taken with telephoto lenses. At least one had the greying background which could only have made it a forensic mortuary shot of someone’s leg, the hand lying in useless repose alongside.
All of them featured the scorpion tattoo that graced the late Joey Lombardi.
Kepler rifled through them and feigned ignorance: ‘I’m guessing these aren’t pulled from your Instagram, Jules.’
Weissner coughed a laconic chuckle. ‘Nope. Mine’s got more cold-storage shots than you could handle, pal. No – they’re all button-men in a Camorra family called Famiglia dello Scorpione.’
Kepler nodded: ‘”The family of the scorpion.” Ain’t that precious.’
‘I know – they get worse, don’t they. Apparently, though that crappy ink means a lot in their hierarchy – it’s their version of the gold-key to the crapper. They only give it to fully made members.’
Weissner looked back into the interview room where Fina was now pacing restlessly up and down and scratching spasmodically at her forearms. Her tank was almost on fumes – you didn’t need to be a doctor to see that.
‘Here goes the part she won’t like. They don’t do witnesses. Not even once. Frankly, it’s a miracle she even made it to the precinct – they must have pulled her off the street minutes before the Scorpione reached her. The next car window she would have leaned into would probably have had a silenced Beretta in it.’
‘Seriously?’ said Kepler. ‘They’re that tight?’
‘They are. Whether honey-bunches in there knows it or not, her boyf was part of a seriously unforgiving bunch. They wouldn’t even bother with capture or torture either – just a single 9mm present to the dome.’
He popped his lips. ‘Booyah.’
Kepler wrinkled his brow. Sometimes his partner could be a cold-feeling bastard.
Then again, his three ex-wives and several high-value CIA targets could attest to that: Weissner had been attached to DEVGRU Six in his younger days and you didn’t reach that kind of mental AC/DC without sacrificing some morality along the way. His endless black pop-culture references were atypical of a former commando to whom death has little sting.
‘Keep her here then,’ Kepler said. ‘We’ve got the 48 hour window, anyhow. Get her a shyster if she needs one; make sure they’re fully briefed. .We’ll need her to tell us some more if we can.’
He took one last look at her as he opened the door to the corridor again. ‘And get a quack with some Valium or Sec’s for her as well – she’s jonesing already and I don’t fancy dodging her vomit whilst she testifies.’
Kepler sat and watched the CCTV footage of the raid unfold until he felt like he could almost write a screenplay of the robber’s movements. He had spent long, red-eye hours spooling the feed back and forth; bringing them to life and then snuffing them out in a foggy, monochrome purgatory
He watched as they launched the felony, bringing the terrified bank patrons under control with lurid bursts of automatic fire into the ceiling. Watched as they scattered like ants across the main lobby. He watched as one of the gang, a hood later identified as Salvatore di Meo, approached the front desk and tossed the UZI that Benjamin Larsson would later be found moribund alongside to the teller, turning the innocuous, flaxen-haired family man who only minutes earlier had been chatting and laughing easily with a client, probably discussing a loan for a new car or advising on a mortgage plan, into a stone-faced gangster.
Kepler had played and rewound this turn of fate a thousand times, frame-by-frame, analysing Larsson’s reaction in minute detail to see if there was any kind of shock or disbelief; any inkling that he was just a mild-mannered cosmic number being thrown a deadly destiny.
There was none. The dead teller had looked up at the approaching bandit and was already on his feet and moving his arms to catch the weapon being hurled at him with all the fluid expectancy of a father catching a Frisbee.
Larsson’s monochrome memory had then fired a quick, controlled burst of his own into the air, sending his former client-turned-hostage cowering under the desk where the last paper-trails of normality for both of them were still scattered, unsigned and forgotten.
Kepler had followed him, an omniscient eye from the future, as his figure had exited the monitor stage-left and then reappeared like Blinky chasing Pacman on another box out of the CCTV recording, heading for the vault.
Joey Lombardi had already been seen racing past the vault atrium camera, hustling an unfortunate member of staff in front of him, presumably to force open the vault door. The timestamp showed 15:42.
As it paced sedately to 15:45, oblivious to the chaos it was manoeuvring, Larsson’s sharp-suited figure, in such a stark contrast with Lombardi’s ghetto-trooper ensemble, slid purposefully past, the grim outline of the deadly Israeli sub-machine pistol weaving in front of him. Kepler wondered if the teller had seen some form of military service at some point – he moved like a soldier effecting a building-clearance. There was nothing amateurish about him at all.
The action re-joined at timestamp 16:23, on the vault door room’s camera. Lombardi’s hostage appeared to have bypassed the time lock and the huge, triple-smelted door now yawned open in exactly the position that de Lys, Weissner and Kepler would find it less than an hour later with Lombardi’s cooling corpse acting as a door-stop.
But that was in the future. Right now, on screen, a very much alive and pumped-up Lombardi emerged from the vault. Kepler could see that Delphine was absolutely correct in her assumption – he had the canvas bag over his left shoulder and was attempting to straight-arm his Mossberg shotgun with his right. It looked unbalanced; he was not in a good defensive position.
The CCTV image of Lombardi had stopped dead in his tracks. His attention was clearly fixed on something – or someone – that was off-camera in the blind spot between the vault door and the atrium stairs.
Lombardi’s black-and-white expression was crumpled in clear shock and surprise. He shook his head violently and rapidly mouthed something which could not be heard; the CCTV footage was visual-only.
Here it comes, thought Kepler, grimly. Say goodnight, son.
On the monitor, the young criminal suddenly gritted his teeth and swung his weapon arm up awkwardly. The Mossberg belched flame in a vomit of lurid light and the picture onscreen fragmented with a marring of static as the wild snapshot slammed red hot .00 pellets into the ceiling next to the camera.
It did not totally obscure what happened next. Kepler watched as Lombardi desperately brought up his other arm and tried to slam another shell into the chamber. He appeared to get halfway through the cycle before his shirt erupted in a khamsin of torn cloth and dark fluid.
Kepler grimaced. .41 AE, my dimpled ass. That’s armour-piercing rounds or I’m not my father’s son.
Lombardi was thrown backwards into his final resting place. He did not make any further movement – it appeared that he had been killed instantly.
Okay, thought Kepler. One down. Job done. So, why didn’t you pick up the money?
The previously unseen figure of Larsson reappeared on the atrium camera. He was walking stiffly backwards. The UZI pointed limply at the floor.
The timestamp heeled over indifferently to 18:00.
At 18:07, he suddenly appeared to get ahold of himself. Hefting the UZI, he ran back towards the main foyer. Kepler followed his retreating back as it hustled out of sight…
The screen erupted in analog snow. The tape had ended.
Kepler sighed and sat back. When he’d first viewed the CCTV tape, he couldn’t believe their luck at how much of the crime had actually been caught on camera. For a moment he saw visions of a total cut-and-shut case – hell, he could even order popcorn for the grand jury; they could just wheel in the video and press ‘play’. Done.
His hopes had been promptly smashed at 18:24 on the timestamp, along with a bitter recrimination at himself for being such a blue-flame. They’d missed nothing – the timed circuit-break on the video feed had just taken a little longer to kick in than they’d programmed it for. They had what amounted to a tantalising season-trailer but, sadly, not a leaked first episode.
Kepler shook his head. He was getting as bad as Weissner. Next he’d be dropping ‘Terminator’ quotes.
The object of his musings opened the door to the evidence suite as Kepler flicked off the screen and rubbed the bridge of his nose tiredly.
‘Nothing on MTV, hoss?’ his partner enquired.
The older man shook his head. ‘Goose eggs. Bastards cut the feed before we could get anything on what happened in the foyer. We got the shots that killed Lombardi, and a good frame that it was Larsson that did it – except he’s off-camera when it actually happens so how that will hold up in court, I don’t know. Act of God, maybe.’
Weissner grinned faintly and sat down at the editing console with him. He slapped a folder he had been carrying on the edge of the desk. ‘Happen we might have something on that. The eye in the sky might have been poked out but the eyes of the TAC guys on hostage neg certainly weren’t. They were talking to Larsson for over an hour before it all went to shit.’
Kepler knew about that – he’d been present at the debriefing of the SORT tac team who’d stormed the building. The briefing had included input from the trained negotiators who were present at any hostage situation: apparently, a tearful exchange between Larsson and Mandy Benning, the head negotiator had ended abruptly when Larsson had broken cover and walked forwards towards the massed ranks of weapons, cameras and rubberneckers assembled beyond the bank’s entrance, arms raised and still holding the UZI he had cancelled Lombardi with. Bellowed commands to drop his weapon had gone unheeded when judgement was suddenly served on him from behind – one of the embedded gang still inside the building had dropped him with three quick rounds just left of his spine, folding him into the bloody mortis that Kepler would kneel over not two hours later.
Everything had happened depressingly quickly after that. The SORT commander – who was an asshole to begin with, in Kepler’s view – had jumped his rank by about three pay grades and ordered an assault, completely superseding his authority. His team had followed him like slavering wolves behind their alpha, baying for action and hopes of quick promotion. A tear-gas grenade had spat a venomous opening song, heralding the total and utter carnage that was to give the 6 o’clock news-anchors aneurysm’s of journalistic excitement for the next week: four of the gang had fairly boiled out of the bank’s front entrance, ugly orange flowers of high-penetration 7.62mm rounds barking from the muzzle’s of their Galil assault-rifles. They had been cut down more or less where they stood by the approaching TAC team, who proceeded in tight-spread formation into the dun-grey vapours of CS gas that blocked the vision of those outside. All that could be heard from then on by those outside were screams, coughing and sporadic bursts of gunfire. These tailed off after about fifteen minutes before falling silent.
Shortly after that, the first hostages began to be manhandled aggressively out into the open air. Some of them were clearly in a bad way, eyes and noses streaming from the gas – it later turned out that two of them had died as a result of allergic respiratory shock.
A clusterfuck. Well and truly.
Kepler picked up the file and opened it. It contained a standard forensic homicide dossier on Larsson – copies of his driving licence, passport, and pictures of him both living and dead. The lurid Technicolor bloodbath of the SOC photos washed over Kepler again.
Paper clipped to the front page of the file was a transcript of the final exchanges between Benning and Larsson. Someone had looped the last few paragraphs in fat red permanent marker:
MB: Ben. Ben, can you hear me?
MB: We need to end this now, Ben. You need to end this. Your family need you. There’s no other way out of this, except to give up and let us take you somewhere we can sort this thing out. Are you listening?
BL: … I’m sorry.
MB: We know you are. You’re okay. It’s all okay. No one else needs to get hurt. Just tell the others inside that no one else needs to be hurt. Think of all those people in there with you – your work colleagues; the innocent people with families. They’re all scared. Scared of you and your friends. We just…
BL: They’re NOT my friends. These…. these bastards screwed my life. They took everything from me. I… I never meant to do any harm. Please… I want to come out…. but I can’t.
MB: Yes, you can, Ben. Just come out with your hands up. Drop the gun. We’ll let you come out. You’re not in danger if you just come out quietly.
UNIDENTIFIED (POSSIBLY di MEO): [inaudible]la tua bocca, cazzo figliastro!
Kepler looked up at Weissner, speculatively. ‘Did I just translate that right?
Weissner nodded. ‘If you didn’t, it’s not hard. He just called Larsson a pederast and told him to shut his mouth.’
Kepler shook his head and upturned his mouth. ‘So far, so standard mob insult. Anything else?’
His partner nodded grimly. ‘Unfortunately, yes. We’ve pretty much nailed our motive – you’re not gonna like it though. Keep looking… towards the back.’
Kepler’s brow furrowed and he dug deeper into the file. Near the end of the report was a brief from homicide’s IT and cyber-crime section.
Kepler scanned through it – and realisation began to dawn on his face.
‘Oh, no,’ he drawled. ‘He really wasn’t, was he?’
‘Yup,’ huffed Weissner. ‘It looks like they honey-trapped him. Several of those sites are run by Camorra affiliates; they don’t want it known in their own circles that they deal in that fucking filth, of course – it’d be a catastrophic dishonour and the instant destruction of their family from the big book of Nasty Mob Men.
He lit a cigarette and continued: ‘However, I got a fence that used to be a webmaster for the assholes that punted it about at arm’s length and skimmed the profits for the Scorpione. He confirmed that about a month ago they honey-trapped Larsson – hacked his own webcam whilst he was linked to a private show with one of their under-age girls. Wanna guess who that was?’
The mists cleared in Kepler’s head and a bleak, watery winter sun shone through: ‘Knudsen,’ he said, softly.
‘Hotcha.’ said Weissner. ‘My guy said they couldn’t believe their luck when they saw Larsson’s details come up. It was almost as good as the score itself. Within forty-eight hours they’d put the squeeze on him to provide them with a line to the next big cash embargo passing through the bank.’
Kepler nodded. ‘Only that wasn’t enough. They wanted to make an example of him.’
‘Yup. So they roped him into the frame and made him an accessory.’
He sighed. ‘Whether Lombardi knew about it…. probably not. Poor little bastard was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. They set him up like a ninepin – probably fed him any number of bullshit stories about how that score would make his bones and send him soaring up the ranks.’
Kepler snapped the dossier shut and tossed it onto the playback console. ‘So we got coercion as a motive. Was Larsson confirmed as dealing with the $4 mil transfer?’
‘Certainly was. He manoeuvred himself into the senior admin position about a fortnight ago and they practically handed him the key. There’s no doubt about it – he was setting his pieces in place; it ties in with the timeframe of when they held him up for extortion following his ill-advised digital lap-dance with honey-bunches in there.’
‘Great, said Kepler, heavily. ‘You know what that means?’
‘We get to be the ill wind.’
The Larsson address was predictably upscale. Situated in Mamaroneck, the four bedroom Colonial house commanded stunning views of Long Island Sound, the waters of which lapped placidly up to the breakwater wall of an immaculately manicured lawn which sat alongside a spacious sun-deck with custom-built swimming-pool.
Kepler watched through the polarised sliding doors that gave onto this private havana as the two Larsson children, a boy aged around twelve and an older girl of fifteen or so played catch with an ambitious, shaggy black Newfoundland who was lolling joyfully back and forth between them and emitting a choppy series of barks.
The homicide detective smiled faintly. What it is or must be to be a mutt. Nothing to worry about anything other than a full bowl, some loving humans and a place to take a dump every night.
‘They’ve taken it surprisingly well,’ said Catherine Larsson, following his gaze. ‘Molly cries in the night sometimes, but… it’s like they’ve just shut it all off. Ben Jr just locks himself in his bedroom and plays Nirvana or Thin Lizzy on his guitar at full volume.’
Kepler turned to Benjamin Larsson’s widow and accepted the strong coffee she was offering. ‘Thanks,’ he said.
She was a tall, willowy looking woman with a luxuriant explosion of blond ringlets. Thoughtful green eyes sat inquiringly in a wide, high cheek-boned face which clearly spoke of Nordic heritage somewhere in the woodpile.
Weissner sipped his own coffee gratefully. ‘They’ll come around, ma’am,’ he said, assuredly. ‘Kids need time to put things in order in their own way. They both just need space to slot the boxes about what’s happened. It will come out when it’s ready – and you just need to be there for them when it does.’
Catherine sat down on the huge white-leather couch opposite the two detectives who were now seated across an elegant art-deco occasional table. ‘I was hoping you could tell me more about what ‘it’ is, Detective,’ she said with only the slightest tremor in her voice. ‘I’m holding it down, but I need some answers…’
She looked out of the window at her family. ‘We need answers.’
Kepler carefully place his coffee cup on the table and produced his notebook. ‘We’re working on it, ma’am,’ he said. ‘Do you have access to your husband’s email accounts?’
She nodded. ‘That was one of the first places I went. I thought perhaps there might have been something on there that would say why he… he might have…’
Tell her, Kepler’s conscience whispered, coldly. Tell her her husband liked ‘em young.
She tailed off into silence. Her lower lip trembled before she took a shuddering breath and then continued: ‘There was nothing. The last thing on his account was a JPEG of the children I sent to him when they went out in the boat three weeks ago across the water.’
She lifted her chin in the direction of the Sound, flecked with white foam in a rising easterly wind that pushed leaden clouds across the skyline above Weeks Point and Dosoris Island on the far shore.
Kepler nodded. ‘You have a boat? What kind?’
Catherine wiped her eyes gently. ‘Two,’ she said, thickly. ‘Ben was a huge river guy; he grew up on the water on an island called Bleikøya, just outside Oslo. He loved boats and the kids just naturally followed. Did you want to see them? The boats?’
Weissner nodded. ‘We may, if that’s okay with you. Ma’am, did your husband receive any other kind of threatening communication? Any kind of coercion or warning that he might have been in trouble at work or with colleagues?’
Catherine pursed her lips and shook her head. ‘Nothing. Not that I know of… wait.’
Her brow furrowed and she became focussed. ‘There was something. About the same time they went out on the boat, we’d all been out to the movies – Molly and Ben Jr wanted to see the new ‘Cars’ film and we’d stopped in for dinner at Walter’s on Palmer Avenue. It was a beautiful evening and I remember the kids’ were all hyped about how funny the film was. Ben was on his cell a lot of the time we were there… he looked like he was messaging and I just assumed it was either work or one of his boating buddies from the yacht club.
‘We left about 9’ish. Ben was driving his Jeep and we had the top down. I remember I had to break up a fight between the children and I was turned around to them in the back, telling them off…’
She smiled, wearily. ‘You know how it is.’
Kepler knew. Weissner smiled: ‘Too well,’ he said. ‘Go on.’
Caroline took a long pull on her coffee and then continued. ‘Whilst I was calling order, I could hear Ben’s cell buzzing in the centre-console. It wasn’t a call – he just seemed to be getting a shit-load of texts, one after the other. I think I looked around once to see what it was but all I could see was “message from unknown caller.”
‘Ben was ignoring it. I figured it was just because he was driving and didn’t want the hassle of getting stopped for not paying attention. There were a lot of cops cruising around Greacen and Delancey that night; a lot of boats on the Toe have been broken into recently.
‘So we’d just turned onto Flagler Drive and things have calmed down in back. I turned around to enjoy the sunset over the Sound and I was… I think I was just on the verge of asking something really mundane and domestic like what we were watching on cable that night when Ben suddenly snatches up his cell and throws it full-force over the break and into the Sound.
‘”What the hell are you doing?!” I remember asking. “Why did you do that?”’
She fell silent for a moment, recalling. A sad, confused look came over her face: ‘He didn’t answer. Just gave me this look… I swear, I’ve never seen him look at me like that before. For a second – and I know this sounds crazy – I thought he was gonna hit me. Right then and there, with the kids in the car…’
‘And that was it?’ asked Kepler.
Catherine nodded. ‘That was it. He just looked at me like I didn’t exist - and then we were home. He pulled into our drive, we all got out… and we never spoke about it again. When we got inside, Ben went straight upstairs to his office. He was in there for about an hour and I just went and watched some TV. Tried to work on prepping a case I was representing…’
‘You’re a lawyer?’ asked Weissner
She nodded. ‘Music industry attorney. Fifteen years now. I’ve worked with most people who’s anybody with a guitar – Christ, I could tell you stories about some of them that would make your hair curl.’
Weissner grinned. ‘Sex, drugs and rock n’roll?’
‘Sometimes. More often than not it’s just percentages or someone used their hit as a jingle to sell sports socks and didn’t bother to pick up the phone first. You wouldn’t believe how petty and diva-like some of these so called hard men of rock can be when they think they’re not getting their cut. All this “it’s all about the music, maaan” bullshit when all they really want is another forty million in licencing from Nike.’
‘Anyway, it must have been getting on for midnight when I heard the door to his office open – our entrance hall’s pretty baroque, as you saw, and you can hear the echoes from the second-floor landing whenever anyone comes in and out the rooms.’
She smiled faintly. ‘He came downstairs and walked into the nook right here where we are now. Straight away I can see and smell two things – he’s pretty well in the bag for one thing; I could smell the Jack on his breath. Secondly, I can see he’s sorry.’
She draped an arm across the back of the sofa, fingers gently stroking the top as if communing with the memory that took place there. ‘He put his arms around me - told me how sorry he was about the way he’d treated me. It’s funny… looking back on it, he didn’t actually do anything other than give me a look like he wanted to kill me for a second. But he still felt he needed to apologise for it.
‘I was waiting for an explanation as to why he threw his cell in the drink, but he didn’t offer one and… he seemed in such a good mood, I didn’t want to push it any further. It didn’t seem worth it.
‘We cracked a bottle of Bollinger together and then dug out something cheesy on cable together… think it was an old Arnie film like ‘Predator’ or ‘Commando’. Something with risible acting and a lot of gunfire, anyway.’
‘Hey,’ grinned Weissner. ‘They’re the best ones.’
She smiled: ‘They were classics in his eyes. I’m more of a ‘Ghost’ girl myself but they’re okay, I guess. We finished up with that around 2am, and by this time I’m pretty smashed. I just wanted to crawl up to bed, but Ben stopped me. “Wait there. I gotta show you something,” he says and stumbles off to the sound-system. He’s farting around with the mood lighting and I’m on the verge of telling him, this is nice but I’m starting to see double and I really can’t wait much longer when he finally dims the lights in the nook and our song comes on…’
Catherine lifted her head towards the centre of the room as a sudden burst of squally rain blown off of the Sound spat against the sliding-doors. ‘It was the Flamingos ‘I Only Have Eyes For You – you know that one?’
Kepler nodded: ‘”Sha-bop-sha-bop” – that the one?’
‘Yup. He took my hands and lifted me up onto my feet – God, I could barely stand by that point – and he slid his arms around me. We danced – or at least, he held onto me and I didn’t fall down.’
She softened. ‘It was nice, though. We played that song at our wedding. He knew how much I loved it. He held me close and whispered again how sorry he was, and that everything was gonna be alright.’
‘So, finally, we went up to bed. Just another normal night, switching off lights, leaving the trash ‘til morning, setting the alarms. Stuff you do from memory. I remember letting Coco out for her business; Ben had already sloped off first…’
At that moment, the sliding doors hissed open and the Larsson children together with their Newfoundland – Coco, Kepler presumed – came falling in. They were all soaking wet – the applause of heavy rain grew suddenly louder from behind them.
Ben Larsson Jr ran a hand through his long, dripping blonde hair. He wore faded bluejeans that were darkened with rainwater and a Sex Pistols t-shirt. The irony of the young man’s choice of musical instrument and taste that his mother had described was not lost on Kepler – he looked very much like a compact, more muscular version of the late Nirvana lead-singer.
‘Mom,’ he began, ‘Coco needs a bath, and – ‘
He stopped as he saw the two homicide ‘tecs in the living room: ‘Who are these guys?’
Weissner stood up and extended a hand. ‘Police, big guy. Just here to find out about what happened to your dad.’
The young man flicked his eyes from one to the other, as he warily shook his hand‘… Yeah? You know why that happened to him?’
Kepler pocketed his notebook and stood up. ‘Not yet. We will soon though.’
Liar, rasped his conscience.
He motioned towards the Sound. ‘We need to take a look at your dad’s boats, Ben. I’m a little rusty on the maritime code and Jules here hasn’t tied a sheep-shack since they kicked him out the Navy. Reckon you could help us out?’
The suspicion in the boy’s face eased. He looked at his mother, who nodded faintly.
Man of the house now, thought Kepler.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘They’re in the boat house. We can go look when the rain sto- oh.’
As he spoke the squall ceased and a bright ray of sunshine lit up the polarised sliding doors, catching the sheen of raindrops on them in a glittering array.
Weissner grinned and clapped the lad gently on the shoulder. ‘Way to go, Esteban,’ he said. ‘You reckon you could do that when the Oilers play the Giants next week?’
‘Jules,’ said Kepler, heavily, ‘that’s gonna take more than sunshine. That’s gonna take a miracle.’
They filed out onto the sun-terrace, which was now glistening like a shark-skim in the post-deluge. Beyond the wet lawn, at the water’s edge, Kepler could see a large, teak watershed.
As they began walking towards it, Catherine stopped and turned around. Molly Larsson was standing in the doorway to the house, hugging her arms. She looked pale.
‘I don’t wanna go down there, Mom,’ she said with a catch in her voice. ‘That… that was the last place we saw Dad. I…. I just can’t, right now.’
Catherine strode back up to the doorway and enfolded her daughter in a crushing embrace. Thick sobs drifted through Catherine’s shoulder as she soothed the distraught teenager.
‘Honey, you don’t have to,’ her mother said. ‘You stay inside, or go up to your room. We won’t be long, okay?’
Molly nodded jerkily, and swiped a hand across her face. She looked up at Kepler who was watching sympathetically.
‘Mister, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I want to help, but…’
Kepler thought back to the last young woman who’d said those words to him. He wondered if she had cracked yet, like Molly.
So much of this is riding on scared little girls, he thought. Christ on his throne, what a mess.
‘Molly – it’s okay,’ he said, gently. ‘Your mom and brother can help us. You go and get yourself well. We’ll be okay.’
She nodded, and disappeared inside without another word.
Weissner watched he go and shook his head. ‘Kids. So many of them in all of this.’
‘I hear you,’ agreed Kepler. ‘Come on – let’s see what we got. Maybe we can start to make some sense of it all.’
The interior of the boat-house was a small haven of peace. Varnished decking enfolded the lapping waters of the Sound in a right-angled U-shape and which housed two moored craft. One was a twenty-five-foot rib-boat with custom Naughyde upholstery and chromed-out throttle handles. Mounted on the stern were twin 250hp Kawasaki outboards.
Undulating gently in the Sound’s swell next to this impressive machine was an even more luxurious craft. Nearly 40 feet of pearl-white fibreglass and teak made up the Larsson family’s second boat – a beautiful Riva 63 Vertigo cruiser with smoked glass portholes on her portside and a fully covered wheelhouse through which could be seen sumptuous leather pilot-seats.
Weissner murmured appreciatively: ‘Sweet rigs. What’s the plant on the Riva, Ben?’
The boy led them around to the starboard side of the bigger boat and expertly hoisted himself up onto her deck. ‘Two 1400 Evinrude’s,’ he answered. ‘She can pull about 35 knots. Sick performance.’
‘I can vouch for that,’ said Catherine, acidly. ‘Ben used to charge the damn thing up and down the Sound. The kids’ loved it but it would make me sick, period.’
Kepler remained on the mooring deck as Ben Jr disappeared into the wheel-house. He slowly paced down the length of the craft. Coco paced placidly alongside him, sniffing the decking and Kepler’s leg with alternating interest, He mussed the dog’s wet coat on her shoulders and was rewarded with a firm swing of the Newfoundland’s tail.
Along the starboard bowline, under the decking could be seen the boat’s name: Elv Fugl
Kepler turned enquiringly to Catherine who followed his gaze. ‘”River Bird”’ she translated. ‘It’s Norwegian; Ben never forgot his roots.’
The liquid tranquillity of the boat house was abruptly shattered by a coughing, cyclic rondo which resolved into a burbling mutter of fuel-injected power: Ben Jr had started the engines on the cruiser.
The acrid tang of vented diesel wafted up from the spitting, slurping exhaust-ports below them. Kepler glanced back at Weissner and could see already the nostalgic glaze settling over his partner’s face. No doubt he was already feeling the remembered weight of a military rebreather and a slung MP5-N.
‘Hey,’ Kepler hollered. ‘Ship to shore.’
Weissner blinked rapidly and glanced back at where Kepler was inviting him to climb aboard, a bemused look on his face.
He sighed. ‘Libya,’ he muttered, cryptically and hoisted himself up onto the cruiser’s deck.
Kepler followed, somewhat less enthusiastically. He didn’t like water, or things that worked with it, in it or on it: a bad experience when he was a child, when he’d become trapped under a giant inflatable octopus and nearly drowned, had left him with a pathological dislike of anything that bobbed or floated.
It even extended to dry-land features – for their wedding anniversary, his ex-wife had booked a suite with a water-bed. They’d been in bed less than five minutes before he’d had enough – the rippling motion had left his skin crawling and he’d spent the night on the sofa in the lounge. She hadn’t been happy.
Story of our marriage, he thought, acidly.
Kepler turned around to where Catherine was still standing by the side of the boat. ‘Help you up?’ he said, extending a hand.
She wasn’t looking at him. The teller’s wife was looking past the open seaward entrance to the boat-house, out into the Sound with a quizzical look on her face.
‘That boat,’ she said, softly.
Kepler turned and followed her gaze. Chugging serenely past the entrance to the boat-house was a battered old blue trawler. Oily exhaust drifted from her stack and what looked to have once been a vivid teal paint-job was rotting on her starboard side, peeling into the water like dead skin.
Kepler shrugged: ‘She’s seen better days. What of it?’
Catherine watched until the old hulk had slid out of sight past the southern edge of the entrance. ‘I’ve seen that boat before. That night I was telling you about when Ben and I got drunk – I didn’t get a chance to tell you the rest, as the kids’ came in and I forgot about it until now. I was going to tell you…’
‘Tell me what?’ said Kepler, with some asperity
She looked up at him. ‘I saw that boat. That night – just before I went up to bed. I saw it pass by the boat-house.’
‘So? He was probably catching lampreys, or something.’
She shook her head. ‘No. No – there was something dicey about it. I thought the same at first – he was just another ship passing in the night. Until – until, just as I was about to climb the stairs, I looked out one more time. It was passing by the boat-shed again, coming back the other way. Only this time – they were shining a light on it. I swear to you; I might have been drunk but I wasn’t hallucinating. There was a white beam coming off the stern – I could see it quite clearly as light fog had drifted in and it highlighted the cone of light. It was twitching back and forth, like they were checking the boats for something. Then it clicked off and I couldn’t see anymore – my vision was doubling and the fog was getting thicker.’
Weissner stepped out of the wheel-house and joined them. ‘What’s this?’ he asked
Kepler shook his head. ‘Nothing. Mrs. Larsson just thought there was some suspicious activity with a trawler the night we were discussing earlier.’
Weissner looked out into the Sound through the tinted front windows of the wheel-house. ‘You mean that one?’ he said.
They all looked up. The trawler was back, puffing wheezily back in the other direction. Standing by the stern transom were two men.
One of them was carrying binoculars.
A sudden crawling current of awareness floated down through Kepler’s body.
‘Get off the boat. Everyone,’ he said. ‘Now.’
He grabbed Ben Jr under the armpits and lifted him bodily up over the side of the boat and down into the arms of his startled mother. ‘What… what’s happening?’ said the boy. ‘I gotta turn off the engines.’
Kepler jumped down, and discreetly drew his custom Detonics Scoremaster which was concealed in his shoulder-rig. He held it expertly, trigger-finger indexed, along one thigh. ‘Forget it. We need to get out of this boat-house right now. GO.’
He hustled them all ahead of him. Weissner jumped off the deck behind them, and covered the rear. Kepler could see he also had his weapon drawn; Jules didn’t need a why or a wherefore – his long years of drill and evasion had taught him to act on instinct, and he was following his partner’s lead. Questions could come later.
The same could not, unsurprisingly, be said of the startled Larsson family. As they climbed the steps back up to the lawn, Catherine and Ben Jr were a model of nervous outrage.
‘Can someone please explain to me what the fuck is going on?’ she rasped, a skein of fear tempering the anger in her voice. ‘Was it that trawler boat? It was, wasn’t it? What were they DOING?’
Kepler looked over his shoulder as they approached the rear of the house again. The trawler was still there, about five hundred yards out from the seaward wall. It appeared to have stopped.
‘I think we should…’ he began.
The boat-house erupted in a searing nucleus of white light and noise. All four of them were knocked flat on the wet grass by a punching shock-wave that slammed the wind out of their lungs. Huge, lethal spears of jagged teak-wood tore past them, spiralling with a vicious humming noise before tearing furrows in the Larsson’s manicured lawn and spinning off crazily at wild angles.
Kepler opened his eyes and shakily pushed himself up onto one arm. His sport coat was smouldering – he could smell charred material and his back felt a strange, stinging coolness. Blood was running freely down one side of his face and his left ear felt like someone had padded it in cotton wool. His ears were ringing intermittently.
Author Notes: Hope you all enjoy this one - it's a genre I've never tried before, so apologies if it doesn't scan well in places. It fairly spilled out though, so I'm pretty pleased with the result - any constructive criticism welcome. Enjoy! :O)
NB: Whilst the Camorra and 'Ndràngheta are undoubtedly real, the Familia della Scorpione are a fictitious crime-family and no inference to real Mafia activities, past or present, is intended.