Potenza, Italy. A man is found dead in his hotel room, stabbed in the back. English journalist Michael Steane is spotted at the scene of the crime and is picked up by the police in Florence, but is quickly released.
Lured by the mysterious Contessa di Albertosi, Steane soon finds himself caught up in a web of lies and deceit. With no job and a gambling habit to maintain, he can't resist the offer of enough money to solve all of his problems. All he has to do is travel to Greece and track down a long buried secret. But Steane isn't the only one searching...
Release date: January 1, 1972
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Print pages: 224
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Next Time, You'll Wake Up Dead
Now the girl was washing herself at the bidet in one corner of the dingy hotel room. The flies were thick on the motionless blades of the fan in the centre of the ceiling, the windows and shutters were closed, what light there was in the room came from a dim bulb hanging from a long flex above the head of the bed.
Slowly the girl washed herself, very slowly. She ran her soaped hands along the lengths of her thighs, between them, up the sagging flesh of her belly. Then she scooped her hands into the water and splashed it over herself, letting it trickle down her front. And finally she stood up from the bidet, ran the cold tap above the basin close by and splashed water over herself until she began to feel cool again. But not once did she look at the man lying on the bed.
From between the brown knots of muscle that covered his shoulder-blades there stuck out the bone handle of a hunting knife. There was little blood. That would come, if ever, when the knife was removed. Just a small trickle that had run down his spine, crossed a kidney, lost itself in the sheeting underneath him.
He had been a big man. In life he would have weighed a pound or two over fourteen stone, stood an inch or two over six feet. But death seemed to have shrunk his body and ruined the symmetry of his handsome and swarthy features. His eyes jutted from their sockets, and the corners of his mouth had stretched back over his teeth in the rictus of pain that had come with his ending.
In the room above that in which the body lay, a man was gathering a few possessions together and piling them into a holdall. He did this unfussily, carelessly. Then he walked over with his bag, opened the door of the room and began to walk downstairs.
As he turned the corner of the stairs he thought he saw the door facing him jerk closed. There was no noise. It was as though someone was holding the door closed without the use of the lock.
He walked past the door and went downstairs. There he paid his bill, exchanged some pleasantries with the landlord of the hotel, tucked a pair of black-framed sunglasses round the upper half of his face and walked out into the dusty afernoon heat of the street outside.
The man who first introduced me to the art of gambling was called The Bone. Not Bone. The Bone. His real name was Peter Boney and his sobriquet was as inapposite as it was intended to be.
He was an extremely fat man, with that pink-fleshed fatness that seems basted on. Take one of those children out of one of those average Renaissance Madonna and Child sketches, scale it up to size and you’d have Pete The Bone.
I was nineteen at the time and couldn’t wait to become the biggest desperado the Western Hemisphere had ever seen. And that took me into gambling. It also took me into a poker game in a drinking club just off Piccadilly Circus. And it took me to Pete The Bone.
I had sat with him and his cronies for perhaps half an hour before they began to get annoyed. Dealing off the bottom of the deck, marking cards with a thumb nail, you name all the amateur’s tricks of the trade and I tried them. It didn’t get me far in the poker game, and eventually it got me into trouble from Pete.
He just hauled me out of my chair, slapped me around the room a few times, gave me a stern lecture, waited for me to cool off, then dealt me in again. Subsequently he taught me how to fight with and against knife and gun, how to avoid the women who deserve to be avoided. But he never taught me how to stop gambling. Which helps to explain why I was in Italy.
He was a publisher called Denriss and it was some years after my first encounter with The Bone. Denriss had a flush and I had a flush and we were playing in a flat in South Kensington and the stakes had long since stopped being low. Denriss ran out of money and started to fiddle with his watch and cuff-links, but we were way beyond those sort of stakes and he damn well knew it. So finally he offered me the only thing I was interested in, a contract to write a book for him. I said I’d like to wander round Italy for a couple of months and he said five hundred pounds. And my flush was higher than his.
That took me away pleasantly from a life of freelance journalism. For two months I had travelled around the southern half of Italy, on foot and public transport, sleeping in fields and low hotels, participating in two fist-fights, too many bar-room card games and filling thick-backed notebooks with a mass of fact and personalised opinion.
That left me with a journey north to Florence and a few days’ rest in a tall, thin hotel on the north bank of the Arno. It also took me to a telephone booth and a call to a friend called Roberto Cianfanelli. He sold insurance, and by all accounts he was good.
A nosey sort of character, Roberto, always poking into other people’s affairs and with a string of contacts long enough to fill a thick telephone directory.
He had the sort of black liquid eyes Saxon girls dream about, the black, sleek hair, the finely-chiselled nose. And fascinating hands, deft, delicate, with tapering fingers and beautifully manicured nails.
I’d watched those hands many times and on top of many card-tables. And I arranged to watch them again, that evening, at a gambling club he frequented in the centre of Florence.
I told him I was looking forward to seeing him. But I didn’t tell him how badly I needed a win. You don’t talk about these things if you play cards seriously. No one believes you, whatever you say.
The club Campioni is set fifty metres deep in one of those streets that run from the Piazza Signoria across towards Santa Croce. Light blue neon flickered over the doorway in the motif of a shield. Narrow, steep stairs ran down from the level of the street into the basement cellar that lived under the level of the road. At the bottom of the stairs stood the regulation tough-guy wearing his regulation midnight-blue suit and a look of seedy suspicion.
Roberto waved his card and the fat man moved a millimetre to one side and stared interestedly over our shoulders at the people coming in behind us.
Down past the bouncer was a narrow stone corridor that led to the main halls which housed discothèque and gambling parlour. Off in an alcove a barman flicked tired eyes over us as we passed, went back to his work of prettying up a glass.
Round the dance-floor were the long, flat benches, the low-slung tables, the batteries of bright lights and psychedelic filters, the amplifiers and speakers and the young lady given the task of making the club Campioni the noisiest place in Tuscany.
We moved through, Roberto and I, through to where the serious work for the evening was about to take place. Roulette, chemmy, baccarat, poker—all the tables and groups were there. Women, dancing: they could wait till later, if ever.
It took over an hour, but I won enough to pay my hotel bill and buy some drink. That’s all I have ever asked from gambling, that it goes well enough to keep one in necessities. Sometimes it falls out right, sometimes wrong. That night it fell out right.
“You played tight tonight, Michael,” Roberto said.
I stared at him.
He shrugged. “Then, don’t talk. We’ll have a drink through there with the women and the pimps.” He pointed towards the discothèque.
I nodded. “I know what that means, you bastard,” I said. “That means you’re going to take away someone else’s woman, no?”
He laughed, perfect teeth in a nut-brown face. “One for you as well?”
I shook my head. “I’m an old-style moralist, chum. I like to find them for myself.”
“We’ll drink, then,” he said. He led the way through towards the noise, the smoke, the perfume, the idle conversations. We drank.
And five minutes later the room seemed to become perfectly quiet and still.
She made the other girls in the room look like cheap lays. She was a tall girl with large bones. She was wearing something long and matt in black, rolled at the neck into a two-inch collar and cut away at the shoulders to reveal her arms. They were nice arms, tanned a golden brown and with enough meat between elbow and shoulder to suggest that they were well-muscled. The hands at the ends of the arms were nice too. The left hand was holding a black envelope bag. The right was trying to hold itself together, suffering under the weight of the third finger. On the third finger of the right hand was a faceted slab of aquamarine the size of a family bible.
Her hair was blue-black even in the sham light of the discothèque. It was pulled up and away from the forehead and pulled down and over back and shoulders. There were jet clips at the lobes of her ears. Her eyes were the colour of the ring. There was a little paintwork above the eyes, just a little. But the lashes were real. Her mouth would have been perfect if the top lip hadn’t been too long and the lower lip hadn’t been too droopy. Just a fraction in either instance, but it gave the lower part of her face a softness that the upper part didn’t have.
She stood at the angle between door and dance-floor, looking around her. Just over her left side was a chubby character with too few hairs and too much belly. She leant over and said something to him. He opened his mouth in reply. Then I saw that his teeth needed refacing.
She must have stood there for half a minute before she found me. And when she did, she was cool. She glided through the dancers on the floor like a mist, her eyes on mine all the way. They were hard eyes trying to look soft and not getting very far.
Her voice when she spoke had a studied gentleness to it, not husky, but a very long way from shrill.
I pushed my hands onto the edge of the table to move it away while I stood up. It wouldn’t move. It was screwed to the floor. I canted my back up in the awkward way in which you have to rise from that sort of strait-jacket.
“May I sit down?” she asked.
We jockeyed around for position. She made sure she was sitting on the edge of the bench. I ordered a drink for her. She’d have a gin-fizz, she said.
“My hotel, I suppose?” I asked.
“Not exactly, Mr. Steane. You see, we’ve known about your activities a long time.”
“Fine,” I said. “Now who are you and who is we?”
She was a good actress. I hadn’t seen it, but the card must have been in her hand all along. She placed it gently on the table. It was embossed. I ran the ball of my thumb over the lettering as I read it. Contessa Mara di Albertosi. Just that legend. No address. No telephone number. Just the legend.
“Very good, Contessa,” I said. “And the we?” I looked round and up and into her face as I spoke. I wished I hadn’t. It was a face to stare at and I was doing too much staring.
I was vaguely aware that the lower part of her face moved slightly. “When I say we, Mr. Steane, I am referring to Signor Fiducia.”
Roberto spoke. “Signor Fiducia is a very important man in Florence, Michael. The Contessa is his business secretary.”
I knew that, but he made the last two words sound colourful and evocative.
The Contessa ignored Roberto’s interruption. She sipped at her drink and kept quiet. Strange behaviour for someone who wanted to speak to me. Unless she was just trying to be pally. Which I doubted.
I offered her a cigarette, she accepted. She had taken only two or three loose puffs at it when she spoke.
“You’ll dance with me, Mr. Steane?”
“With you smoking, Contessa?” I said. “That’s not nice.”
She ground her cigarette out. “Now?”
I shrugged. “Now.”
She was a good dancer, carrying herself lightly. Her eyes came onto a level with my cheeks. She had a wide, flat body, lean and muscled like a swimmer’s. I wrapped a straight left round her ring and a right hook round her waist. She kept close to me while she spoke. She didn’t have to. The girl on the turntable was in a sob mood.
“Right, Contessa,” I started. “What do you want? You and Signor Fiducia.”
Her body moved away. She fixed her eyes on mine. She spoke English for the first time. They all do nowadays. You can’t get to show off any more. All those hours of bookwork and tape-recordings gone to waste. It’s a shame. Her English was good.
“Can you come to lunch tomorrow, with Fiducia and myself?” she asked.
I nearly tripped over her feet in surprise. “Lunch?”
She nodded. “Tomorrow.”
“Why?” I said.
“We would like to talk to you. Perhaps you would like to talk to us. You know of Signor Fiducia?”
I nodded. “I do. I can’t say I’ve ever been in the same room. We don’t exactly mix in the same circles.”
“Never mind, come to lunch tomorrow.”
“You don’t know who you’re asking,” I said.
She shook her head, slowly and in time to the music. “Wrong,” she said. “Michael Steane. Freelance journalist. I’ll leave out the height and weight. Left school at the age of seventeen, travelled in Europe for eighteen months, took up scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Left after five terms to become journalist on local newspaper. Two years later went freelance. Contributes to a variety of English and American magazines. Subject-matter ranges from Mediterranean politics to sport. Now a full-time political and sociological writer. In 1967 exposed the running of illegal arms shipments to the Yemen. Spent three months in Aden with British troops. Went to Mexico, 1968, to cover Olympic Games, finished by writing pieces on student riots at Tlatelolco. Imprisoned for two days, flown back to Britain by courtesy of the Mexican government. Unmarried. Parents both dead. Average annual income in the region of three thousand in pounds sterling. Works irregular hours, irregular moods. Can be brilliant, equally capable of being banal. Interests away from journalism—numismatics, travel, sport, especially football, opera, light literature. Residence, 43, Weymouth Street, London W.I.”
I pushed my jaw up off the floor. “Good, Contessa, but you got one or two things wrong. Oxford, not the other place. And it’s not true to say that I’m unmarried.”
She pulled her eyebrows up. It was nice. I could see her eyes better. They were very blue and calm.
“I was, Contessa. Married, I mean. But it didn’t take. So what about Fiducia. Leather, isn’t it?”
“Good leather,” she said. “And a lot of it.”
“What’s that to me? I know he owns half of Florence. But it’s not quite my line of territory.”
She looked at me closely. We had stopped dancing. Everyone had stopped dancing. I suddenly realised we were the only people on the dance-floor, but she didn’t seem eager to get back to the table. “Perhaps Signor Fiducia could be of help to you. He knows most of the people in this region who are worth knowing. Perhaps he could arrange some good political interviews for you.”
“Perhaps he could,” I agreed pleasantly. “But let’s not kid each other. You came looking for me, you took the trouble to dig up the salient facts of my unglamorous past. Not with a lot of accuracy, I’ll admit. But it shows that you can lay on a rush information job when you want to. So what lies behind this invitation that makes me so important?”
“You remember a man called Martiradonna, down in Taranto?”
I nodded. He had been a squashed-down middleweight with a handful of colourful rings and a desk in the local tourist office.
“He works as an official for the regional tourist board. But he is also one of Signor Fiducia’s business agents down in the south. He mentioned your name to us. He found you interesting.”
“Fine,” I said. “So what?”
“So nothing. Except that Signor Fiducia thought he might like to meet you.”
“Which doesn’t answer the question, Contessa,” I said.
“Why don’t you come out to lunch tomorrow, then you can find out for yourself. I’ll call at your hotel at midday.”
I smiled at her. She didn’t smile back. “That’s fine. A free lunch. Make it a good one.”
We walked over to the table. She picked up her bag, turned and said her goodbye. I walked across the room with her. I could sense eyes turning towards us. The balding gentleman with the belly and thin teeth pulled himself off the wall as we moved over.
“By the way, Contessa, you haven’t told me how you knew I was in Florence?”
Her eyebrows drifted up again. She looked surprised. “You’re a famous man, Mr. Steane. People all over Italy know who you are.”
“Ha, ha,” I said. “Sleep tight.”
She glared at me. “Till tomorrow.”
She swept out, with the chunky man in her wake. It was like watching a liner leading out a tug. Perhaps not a liner. Something more businesslike. A destroyer perhaps.
Half the Contessa’s drink was lying sorrowfully in the bottom of the tumbler. I tasted it. It’s a sharp drink, a gin-fizz, but it couldn’t acidify the taste of lipstick that clung to the rim.
“What did she want,” Roberto said. It wasn’t really a q. . .
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