Everything was blur, as it would be after a few bottles with the squad members. She could hear voices; a vague conversation between two individuals, one male and one female. She struggled to see who they were. She lifted her gaze, slowly, unsteadily. A pair of high heels, brown leather shoes and matching trousers, slender legs and a pink flowery dress, all appeared in sight.
Who were these people?
She lifted her gaze again in the same fashion, and the woman – at least – came in full sight. A slender figure in the gown, dark brown hair with blonde highlights. Alas, the woman’s voice became clear. The woman was her. The man however, was still a bit taller than her field of vision. A white polo shirt was all she saw. His voice, his voice remained vague.
It was a dream, she realized.
Her eyes faltered open once again, and she saw an image of children playing in a street covered in snow, singing and counting in French. She turned around to see what stood behind her. A castle-like building, three floors high appeared. It was the orphanage. She was in Montreal again.
She watched the children play with a cold yearning in her heart. She wanted to play with the children, she wanted to be a part of them. But her feet were planted in the snow, and she remained. The children ran and skipped away from her until they slowly began to disappear with their high pitched voices. Soon, she was alone.
It did not matter to her at first. It did not matter until the winds howled, and the silence grew louder and louder. Her beat sped up, and her stomach churned. Fear crawled up her skin. Alone outside, in a growing storm, she yearned for someone, anyone to take her away from the terror. So she called, the first name that came to the tip of her tongue. “Johnny.”
The walls returned her call to her and she understood. Nobody was there, no one was coming for here. Her eyes glistened with tears and she began to cry. Her voice echoed as though the walls were announcing the presence of a gloomy child in the middle of the street. It wasn’t safe, but she kept crying.
Suddenly, while she wiped the tears away with the back of her hands, someone or something grabbed her by one wrist. Something grabbed the other in quick succession. The grip was as rough as it was strong, enough to leave a permanent mark. She kicked her and struggled and screamed at them to let her go, but they dragged her nonetheless.
Johnny. She had to know where he was. She called his name and cried and called his name and cried again. Her heart raced, her breath stopped, and the world went dark.
Beth opened her eyes once again, kicking and struggling as hard as her energy could take her. Her heart still raced, but her breath was more or less under control. There was a grip around her wrist, not as rough as before and neither was it as strong. She wasn’t in a dream this time, she could tell from the smell of sewage and wet concrete pervading the air. There was hardly any lighting in the quiet area so she could barely tell what was near or not. All she could identify – besides the pungent smell – was the sound of water droplets forming a puddle from behind, and the ropes which held her hands firmly to the arms of the chair.
Her head throbbed repeatedly and the encounter with the capo instantly flashed through her mind. The last she remembered was staring at the nozzle of an assault rifle. For whatever happened afterwards, she could only say that she was experiencing one of the best case scenarios – she could have easily had a hole in her head. She didn’t seem to have acquired any injuries, save for the one on her head, which meant she was in a good position to escape. All she had to do was free her hands, which would be possible if she could steady her breathing and slip her hands through.
Okay Beth. Breathe.
She started slowly, pulling her left hand backwards as she kept it in a fluid form. Slowly, gently, her hand broke free. She set loose the other quickly and took to her feet. A deep sigh of relief she made, trying to stay calm in that situation almost drove insane. All that was left was to device an escape plane, to find Johnny and leave the pit she found herself. First, she needed her coat.
Each and every one of her work equipment was hidden in that coat, she took it to every heist it became a companion over time. She followed the sound of dropping water – pitter patter it went – an arm stretched out, scanning the area in place of her eyes in the darkness.
Her feet moved gracefully across the puddle, and her fingers brushed a rough concrete wall and then a smooth surface. The door, she thought. She browsed its surface with both hands, in search of the handle. Although it was an awfully convenient possibility, but she hoped it was unlocked, if not, she would be back to square one.
There you are!
She tightened her grip on the smooth, metallic structure and pushed. The handle did not bulge with the attempt, but with it she cleared all previous doubts. The door was unlocked.
Beth pushed once more, throwing all her weight against the door and forcing it open.
There was a hallway with several doors on each side along its length. The path teetered between light and darkness as the light bulb – the sole source of light – went on and off at the end of the hallway.
The flashing lights made the path eerie without a doubt. Beth was occasionally disturbed by darkness, the lack of predictability and control of an unknown area put her on high alert, even if she knew there was nothing to be afraid of. Sometimes, she loved darkness. When it served her – when she knew the terrain – it made operations seamless. But in addition to the half dead light bulb, the things that made Beth the more sceptical and grew her anxiousness, was the thick smell of vomit and rusted metal, and the sight of blood splattered on each sides of the wall.
It was relatively quiet, which meant that the ones locked up in the cells – if any – had their spirits broken, and wills destroyed. It was a torture house.
She felt greater relief now that she understood what could have become of her, but more importantly, what could have become of Johnny? He might have been going through the worst kind of pain while she stood, feet planted in her shoes, supporting herself on the dirty wall, thinking what she would do next.
Beth took a few steps forward and called out to Johnny in a whispery voice loud enough to cause an echo. If there were people in the cells next to her, and a few paces around, they were bound to hear her call, but there was no reply. She continued further and called again; still, no one answered. By the time she was a few inches away from the light bulb, at the end of the hallway, she called one more time. She stopped and looked around. There was no answer.
Johnny must have ended up in a separate section of the prison, if he wasn’t shot dead. The thought made her heart race, but she refused to accept it. Maybe he got away with being tortured. Maybe he was only held prisoner like she was, but that seemed highly unlikely considering their crime against the mob. Someone was bound to pay for their sins. At that point there was only one way to know.
She let down a gulp of air and prepared herself to see what was outside, beyond the small hallway. She took a step and stood underneath the light bulb. On both sides were two cells, and after the cell to her left was an open path. In front of her was a concrete wall. She moved forward and tilted towards the open path when she heard breathing. Cadaverous, rusty, static-like breathing coming from the cell to her left. She tried peeping through the opening at the top of the door, but failed to see anything. The inside was pitch black.
“Johnny, are you there?” she said in a low tone. For a moment, she hoped to hear the words: It is me Beth... but the words she heard...
“Yea, love... ‘tis me, Johnny.”
The words she heard were not from whom she had expected.
“Sweetie, wha’ d’ya we say you get me outer ‘ere and I be ye sweet lil’ Johnny boy eh?” Yellow eyes with tiny black dots at the middle crept out of the darkness into the space on the door. A foul smell crept out right after he spoke.
Beth faltered backwards, terrified by who she discovered. “You are not him,” she managed to say, her voice trembling as much as her fingers did. If she held a cup of water, she would spill half of it.
“C’mon now sweetie,” he said. “I’m good ‘nough for you, ain’ I?”
She covered her nose and her mouth, a hard lump formed in her throat while she stepped backwards.
“Don’ be li’e tha sweetie.” He paused.
“Bring tha’ pretty face over ‘ere!” he yelled. An arm shot through the space, reaching to grab her face. Luckily for her, she moved far enough to avoid the long, dirty fingers in time, and got away with a graze on the tip of her nose.
Her back went against the door behind her, and her centre went cold. She imagined another hand pop out from behind, just like the hairy one covered in grime, waving back and forth before her. She paced to the open path, wondering what on earth the prison was.
Before she realised how far she had gone, a blinding light was turned on before her. Everything became white for a few seconds while her eyes adjusted. She partially shielded her eyes with a hand, being cautious of anything strange that might jump out from the light that rendered her blind.
Soon, the light dimmed and the entire area came into clear view. Before her, on a desk beneath the light source was a small television, adjacent to her was a man sitting lifeless on a chair over a pool of blood. The man’s faced was bruised with purple-red sores all over his, making him almost unrecognisable; in his forehead, lodged a bullet. His face had no clear definition, and his clothes were painted with what was seemingly his own blood.
In spite of all that however, she did recognise the body. It was signore Giovanni.
Beth had only just met Giovanni the night before – assuming she had only spent a night there – but the sight of his battered corpse made her stomach growl, and her head feel afloat. She had seen dead bodies many times in the past, she had seen people with bullets in their skulls, but there was no practice makes perfect for looking at the dead. Not for her at least.
The small television came on. For a second or two, there was static, then a black and white image began playing. There was a room, black and white chequered floors, and width which must have been wider than the cell she just escaped. The view was from top to bottom which meant that the camera was somewhere in the ceiling. Slowly, at a steady pace, the camera moved, and so did the perspective on the television, until the image of a prisoner in a tight underwear was in sight.
Hanged on a noose he was, with his feet barely touching the ground. Near the prisoner, about two metres away, was a man in black holding a lever that seemed to be connected to the platform upon which the prisoner stood. An execution perhaps.
The static returned and went back off with a flash. The perspective had changed, it no longer showed the prisoner from behind, but from the front. She could hardly make anything of the prisoner’s face, or why they were showing her an execution, but if it was something of any form of importance, then she was interested.
After a minute of quiet, as though the executioner knew what she was wondering, the executioner moved towards the prisoner and forcefully held him by the chin and tilted his face up so the camera would obtain a much clearer picture.
At that moment it occurred to her what they were trying to show her. The man tied by the noose, the man awaiting his imminent execution, and the one whom she was looking for, were one and the same.
Her heart sank and her eyes glistened with tears, then she screamed. “JOHNNY!” The executioner glanced at the camera and moved back to the lever, spreading his fingers around its shaft and tightening his grip.
Fear gnawed at her heart, along a strong anxiety, as she watched the man in black steady his hand on the lever. With a simple push or pull, Johnny will travel to the afterlife, and she will stand by and watch. That was her punishment.
“Don’t you dare hurt him!” She cried. She roughly held on to her hair, pacing around a spot wishing she had at least a cigarette so that she could calm herself and think.
What in the world could she do? Johnny was about to die and she couldn’t figure out where in the damn dungeon she was. She stopped and began looking around her to see if she could find anything useful. If they had a camera in the right place to show her what they were doing with Johnny, then they must have had something to monitor her as well. A bug, a camera, anything at all.
It didn’t take long for her to find – on a corner above her – a black lens fixed on a black body, a camera. They were monitoring her; her reactions, her movements, her terror. Suddenly, her fears and anxiety grew into something else. She could feel it in her centre, if it had a form it would be a blazing flame, if it had a colour it would be red. She was familiar with the emotion, she had felt it before. But she wasn’t familiar with its current form. Rage; as pure as French silk.
“I know you can hear me!” she said to the camera. “I stole the mask, this has nothing to do with him. Let him go! This is between you and me. Let him go please!” She broke down to her knees, tears rolled down her cheeks and her voice cracked.
If only she found the flaw in her plan earlier. She still hadn’t figured it out, but at that point there was no meaning to it. The burden of their failure now lied on her shoulders, as well as the burden of Johhny’s death.
“You did very well.” A radio-like voice spoke in the background. The television? No, the sound came from above.
“I never thought anyone would steal from me so smoothly.” She looked around wondering who was speaking, then she remembered, someone was watching her.
“You are quite skilled, I must say. I would like to...to have you work for me. A mutual agreement between the two of us.”
That voice, the Italian accent. It was hard to piece them together through the static, but she recognised it. “What do you want?” she faltered. “Just don’t kill him.”
“Then we can do business,” the white tuxedo man said.
Beth looked at the screen again, and saw that the executioner had stepped away from the lever. It was the capo’s leverage to do business. “What do you want me to do in exchange?” she asked.
“Well, the mask you stole was eh...a fake, a dud. I install a GPS inside before you stole it.” A tracker, how could she not have known? “I am interested in finding the real mask of wisen, and you will bring to me.”
“This is...” she hesitated. Every other heist conducted in the past was for the most part, planned by Johnny. Orchestrating an operation, something bigger than the Sicilian mafia seemed out of her reach.
“I’ll do it!” she said.
Leaving Johnny to die wasn’t an option.
“Now you are talking,” said he. “You have thirty days or the young man dies.”
“Thirty? What the bloody hell am I supposed to do with thirty days?”
“I will leave you with a hint. The Jordaan auction...” The voice suddenly went off, and so did the television. She cried on top of her voice.