The Via Pergolesi is a relatively quiet street (for Milan, that is, not Rolbos) with residences cluttered in a neat jumble near the Metro. Not far from the centre of town, it offers residents a multitude of restaurants, shops and small cafes.
Roberto Rizzo smiles to himself in the mirror while he shaves. Yes, life is good. His little flock of addicts is growing by the day as the news of the quality of his merchandise spreads amongst the rich and the famous. These users get the pick of the stuff he sells, and they seem to have unlimited funds. Models, businessmen, tycoons – they queue up for the finest cocaine on offer in Milan.
Roberto isn’t stupid. It’s fine to sell his contraband to these high bidders – but there is another market. There are far more down-and-out users out there; common people with nothing to lose. They don’t have much money, and are quite happy to use the diluted powder he sells. Add a bit of baking powder, and the profit per sale goes up dramatically.
While the rich only buy coke and get on with life, it is the lower end of his clientele who supplies another form of income. As the addiction digs into the morals and self-respect of these poor sods, they are willing to do anything – anything – to get another fix.
Dabbing the last shaving cream from his chin, he frowns as the front door bell rings. Oh well, another of his customers, most probably. Time to make some money… He dresses quickly and opens the door.
Two old men? What are they doing here? Surely they’re not in the market? He looks them over and has to smile. The one man is dressed like an Italian should: net suit, tie, obligatory hat. But the other one! Now there’s a sight for sore eyes: crumpled khaki pants, a once-white shirt and shoes that desperately hang on to the last bit of shoe-factory shine.
“Roberto?” The voice is Italian, and Roberto relaxes. For a moment he thought they were foreigners.
“Si, that’s me. What can I do for you?”
“I have a problem, Roberto. You know? My daughter, she isn’t well. She uses cocaine, si? I never knew, but this morning she is crying and shouting and she tells me to get her some, or else she makes suicide. That’s not good. I worry about my little Bambino. Now I ask around, and somebody say I must talk to you, They say you can help.”
Roberto is suspicious, Marco can see that. He has to convince the dealer to help, otherwise…
“Please,you must help. I’m desperate. My Bambino she has to have the powder. I pay good.” He takes out a sheaf of notes.
“Who told you to see me?”
“Oh, that nice waiter at the Café Mercanti. You know how it is in Milano – everybody knows somebody.” He spreads his hands wide in apology. “I would not bother you, but my Bambino…”
Roberto steps back. That wad on notes will come in handy with the purchase he has to make tonight.
The little villa is what the brochures call ‘well appointed’. The furniture was chosen to impress; the paintings on the wall, original; the carpet thick and luxurious. Along the walls several antique vases are arranged – each with a little plaque detailing it’s history. Marco says it is nice. Old Servaas longs to be back in his cottage with the springbok hide on the wooden floor.
“How much do you want?”
“My Bambino, she says this money must buy. I no know how much you give for this.” Marco hands over the money, noting the sly smile on the dealer’s face. Roberto must be ecstatic – these two old men have no idea what they’re dealing with! He can give as much – or as little – as he likes, and they won’t know whether they have been done in or if they bought a bargain. “How much did Bambino say we must get?” He raises a quizzical eyebrow at Servaas, who simply shrugs. How must he know?
“For that money, I’ll give you a bargain. End-of-the-line stock. Clearance sale. Wait here.”
Roberto disappears in to the room next door, with Marco tip-toeing after him a few seconds later. The drug dealer is on his knees, working at the door of a safe. When the door clanks open, Marco moves nearer.
“Stay back, old man. You’re not supposed to be here. Go away!” Roberto fishes out a snub-nosed pistol and points it at the Italian. “Out!”
“Oh, scusi. I no want to bother. But I did want to see where you keep the stuff, see? I hear about people who work with the powder, but I’ve never met one. You can’t blame an old man for being curious.”
“Old men die, that’s what they do. Now get out!”
“Is that money you have in there? My, that’s a lot. Never have seen so much in my life! How much you have here? It’s a fortune. You must be very rich.”
“I. Said. Get. Out!!”
“No, I go, but first…”
Arthritis is a horrible disease. It limits movement and makes you slow. Any attempt to run, is out of the question. Servaas has this hip that has been bothering him for some time, and the cramped seat in the aeroplane didn’t do much to improve his condition either. That’s why, when Servaas storms in with the ornate vase in his hand, old Marco cannot believe his eyes. Before he can say another word, the vase shatters into a million pieces as Servaas brings it down on the dealer’s head. In the silence that follows, the two men give each other a high-five.
“Shouldn’t we have waited? That Roberto didn’t look so good with that cut on his head. Maybe the police will be too late?”
The two men share a seat on the Metro, on their way to see Martha. While Servaas is relieved that Roberto confirmed everything Martha said, he didn’t like leaving the man like that.
“No, he’ll be okay. I looked – that cut isn’t deep. And it almost stopped bleeding when we left. Still, when the police arrive, they’ll find him neatly trussed up next to his safe with all the cocaine in there.” Old Marco is impressed. Servaas sure did a wonderful job of tying up the crook. “And I left some of the money, as well. Man, did that man talk!”
“It’s only when I started breaking the other vases in the villa. Gertruida will be angry with me; the one said something about Ming on its plaque. I think it was quite valuable.”
Marco sniggers at the thought. “He pleaded nicely, didn’t he? Said he would tell us everything if you saved that vase. That’s when he told us everything we wanted to know about Martha.”
“I was so angry!” The frown on Servaas’ forehead suddenly disappears. “But then, when the vase broke, we saw why he was so anxious. I never thought you could hide so much money in an old vase. Imagine that!”
Two very tired old men enter the custom’s hall at Cape Town International airport. It is obvious they didn’t enjoy the flight from Milan, Sipho Modise thinks as he scans the passengers in the Nothing to Declare queue. It is his first day on the job as customs officer and he is determined to make a success of his career. He remembers the classes he attended, where the instructors told them to be on the lookout for passengers who act suspiciously. No, those two old men are tired and glad to be back in South Africa, they won’t be smugglers or anything like that. And look, the sun-burnt old Omie has his daughter with him! She looks even worse, as if she didn’t sleep last night.
But wait – that chap behind them! The one with the sunglasses! Not a typical tourist, that one. Bulging attaché case and an over-confident smile.
“Hey, you!” Sipho approaches the man, and is surprised when the two old men look up in fright. “Not you two old madalas – this young man behind you. Please to accompany me to the search station?”
On page three of the Cape Argus the next day, the small article about the exemplary work of a rookie in Customs at the airport tells the story of an international fugitive who was apprehended when he tried to sneak into the country. They don’t mention the two old men who almost cleared out the Bureau de Change when they swapped their Dollars back to Rands. Nor do they say anything about the charter of a private jet to take three passengers back to Upington.
Some things are just not newsworthy enough, you see?