Francesco dreams about the mountains in Afghanistan, where the myriad of tracks lead to safe-houses, fortresses and caves. There are eyes everywhere – even the rocks are looking at him – as he works his way up the slope towards Giovanni, who waits at the top. His older brother is dressed in a general’s uniform as he sits at a table laden with fruit and wine.
There seems to be a problem with his backpack – it’s too heavy and it prevents him from progressing up the mountain. Irritated, he reaches for the straps to shift the weight on his shoulders.
“Now, Mister, you just stay where you are.” The voice is harsh, with a guttural accent. “We want to talk to you.”
Francesco wakes up in a flash. This isn’t happening! His eyes struggle to accommodate as the light is suddenly switched on. A huge man is sitting on his shoulders while some hunchback is talking in his face. To one side, two women look on with worried expressions.
Four. There are four of them. Think, Francesco! There is a gun under the pillow and only one able-bodied man. The women won’t try anything and the cripple isn’t much of an opponent. If he can worm his way to the gun, the fat one will get the first shot. The others won’t put up much of a fight.
“What do you want? If it’s money, I can’t help you.” Of course it’s not that. This – two men, two women – can’t be a burglary. Whatever it is, it’s unwelcome and must be sorted out quickly. The contract on Marco can’t be jeopardised by some silly people in his room.
“I checked at reception. You are Fancesco Francoli. From Milan. And you know what old Marco said? He says you’re Giovanni’s brother! Now that’s strange, isn’t it? What would somebody like you be doing in a dump of a motel in the Northern Cape? When old Marco heard it was you, he said we must call the police. He said you aren’t a nice person.” The older woman seems to be very sure of herself. “But, if you don’t believe me, you can ask him yourself.”
Francesco’s fingers touch the butt of the gun. Slowly now, slowly…don’t make any sudden moves. Keep them talking before they get a huge surprise…
“I don’t know what this is about, woman. And get this brute off my back – I can’t breathe properly.”
“No. That man he stay. First you tell me where my daughter is.”
Francesco turns his head fractionally. Only now can he see old Marco, standing next to the door. Perfect! Once he sorts out the rest, he can finish off the old man… they are playing right into his hands! His fingers find the trigger-guard as he palms the gun. It feels cold and familiar; an old friend that has solved so many problems in the past.
Francesco’s move is sudden and unexpected. With a mighty heave, the surprised Vetfaan is sent sprawling as the Italian leaps to his feet. Vetfaan stumbles across the room to stare at the barrel of the gun.
“All of you! Now! Against that wall. Go on join your fat friend.” Francesco waves the gun at the rest. “And no fancy tricks. We don’t want to disturb the other guests of this illustrious establishment, do we?” He smiles his satisfaction at the success of his move. Old Marco seems to deflate like a punctured balloon, and shuffles over to the fat one. The woman who spoke a few seconds ago follows suit, as does the stupid hunchback. The four of them form a pitiful huddle below the faded picture on the wall.
It’s funny how one’s mind focuses on things in times of stress. The picture – an old and faded photograph – is of a running Springbuck. It’s leaping high into the air as it rushes across a barren landscape. It’s the first time Francesco has ever seen a Springbuck and for a moment even his racing mind has to admire the grace of the antelope.
“You!” He points the gun at the thin woman, who seems rooted to the floor. “You too! Come on, now!” She hasn’t joined the others. There’s no time to waste.
“I can’t” Despite the situation, she seems unruffled.
Francesco can’t be blamed for not understanding. How could he, if he doesn’t know what flashes through her mind at this moment? He surely has no idea of the years of pent-up frustration, the horror of remembering times when she wished she had been strong enough to tell her father to stop. That, and the fear.
She has become so used to being afraid over the years! At first there were the footsteps, late at night, coming down the corridor to her room. Later fear threatened to drive her mad, as she relived those moment when she woke up to the alcoholic fumes in her father’s breath. There was fear of being discovered, and fear that nobody will ever know. Fear stalked her throughout her life, making her days miserable and making it impossible to sleep at night.
And now .. now this man is waving a gun at her and telling her what to do. She can see it in his eyes: the same mad and obsessed look she saw when those rough hands switched on the light in the room of a frightened little girl. This time, she knows, this time fear will make them all lose their lives. The eyes tell her. Murder lurks there…
“Can’t? Can’t? You miserable little wretch! You shall do as I say! Go on! NOW!”
Inside Mary Mitchell’s mind Francesco isn’t a handsome Italian any more. His face – his entire being – has transformed into the person she hates. It is her father standing there, calling her names and ordering her around. And her father is dead, isn’t he? Dead people can’t order you to do … those things … can they?
“No.” She lifts her chin in defiance. “I won’t.”
Three words. The three words she knew were somewhere inside her, but could never find when she wanted to use them. Three words that suddenly seem so natural; so surprisingly easy; that it causes her to smile.
Francesco hesitates. This is stupid! He’s got a gun. This waif is not armed. She should be quaking with fear and doing what he’s ordering her to do.
“Get. Over. There.” Each word is deliberate, a final warning.
Mary’s self-confidence wanes as the big man takes a step towards her.
“I’ve taken the bullets from that gun, you oaf. You’re holding a worthless piece of iron.” The statement from the older woman is so unexpected that Francesco stops in midstride. “Before you woke up, I did it.”
Francesco looks at the gun and presses the release button for the clip. It shoots out to land in the palm of his waiting hand. Eight bullets. All of them neatly arranged in the clip, waiting to be fired. He’s about to slip them back into the gun, when everything happens simultaneously.
First the thin, defiant woman storms at him, mouth agape in a silent scream. He feels her nails dig into the flesh of his wrist, tearing the gun from his grip. Then the big man tackles him from behind, knocking his breath out. The older woman swings a chair at his head. And, the ultimate humiliation, the hunchback lands a perfect uppercut on the tip of his jaw.
Only old Marco doesn’t participate in the fight. He’s sat down on the bed, laughing so much he has to dab the tears from his cheeks.
Old Marco does the negotiations on the phone. Yes, Giovanni can have his young brother back. He’s unharmed, by the way, except for the chipped front tooth due to that blow that knocked him out. Sure, they’ll give him enough money to get to Cape Town and no, they won’t call in the police. The rest of the cash Francesco had hidden away in his suitcase will be used to defray costs, okay? Yes, they’ll do it … as soon as Lucinda sits down at the counter in Boggel’s Place. Without Lucinda, they’ll just have to keep Francesco locked up in the shed behind Vetfaan’s house. No, he can’t escape. Those chains are the ones Vetfaan uses to drag his tractor to town if it breaks down. And oh, Kleinpiet and Precilla will enjoy the two weeks in the Game Reserve – they say a big thank you. Most generous, really.
“Listen, we both know we can’t speak about this. If I tell your friends in The Family your young brother made a complete fool out of you, you’re finished. You’ll lose the respect of all the others – and without respect, they won’t support you anymore. So, as a sign of goodwill, I asked Francesco nicely to sign a paper. It’s not a long letter, just a simple note about what happened. And that you lured Lucinda to Italy so you can brag you took revenge on an old enemy. Oh, and that you sent your brother to take me out. And some details about some of your business..
“Now, that paper I’ll give to somebody. If anything … unforeseen … happens to me or Lucinda or anybody in Rolbos, that paper goes to all your friends and the police. Capisce?”
Gertruida says se saw old Marco in a completely different light when he made that phone call. It was as if the years suddenly rolled back and something of Marco, the young man on his way to the top, surfaced again. Vetfaan still brags about that tackle, and when Boggel is in a good mood, he rubs his knuckles.
But, while the others had a good laugh about it afterwards (except Francesco, of course), it is Mary Mitchell who doesn’t brag about the events in Dusty’s Inn that night. When the others smirk about the crest-fallen Italian who believed Gertruida about his unloaded gun, Mary remains silent. Somehow her altercation with Mother Superior and with Francesco were rather similar; and in a strange way she is grateful for the Italian’s visit. He finally made her discover the three words she searched for all her life.
No. I won’t.
It’ll change her life.
Without them, the she’d never have found the other three.
Yes. I can…