The wide and spacious tent canvas threw back with a slap. The woman who appeared before Monteleone could be none other than Lara Croft. She was dirty, her clothes torn and her hair dishevelled, but it was her, no doubt with that way she looked at him, as if he was a maggot.
“Signorina Croft! What a pleasure to finally meet you!” He got up, put down the Martini on the rocks he was sipping and shook the explorer’s dusty hand with the finest of courtesies. “I’d kiss your hand if you’d remove that leather glove...”
“Who are you and why do you have this camp cordoned off?” Lara cut, with little wait to talk.
It had been a bold operator who, having fled from his tent, waited for them at the pit edge, eager to report what happened. Furious, Lara wanted to go stand up to Monteleone immediately, but Kurtis advised to put the scepter in a safe place first. However, after coming out of the excavation, they had been surrounded by Monteleone’s men and escorted to his tent.
“Don’t you want to take a seat?” Said the mafioso, making a sweeping gesture towards a comfortable chair next to him. “Your friend can also sit if he wishes.”
Kurtis had just entered and studied the situation with a grim face. He looked at Zip and Selma, who sat hunched in a corner. The Turkish girl gave him a desperate glance as if saying: Don’t trust his courtesy! Kurtis nodded slightly.
“I won’t sit until you answer.” Lara insisted, not looking away from the handsome fifty-year-old man.
“Let me then explain myself. My name is Daniele Monteleone and I own a large restoration company in Sicily. I received news about an archaeological dig under Cappadocia. I’m deeply interested in following this excavation and that’s the main reason I’m here.”
“This excavation is protected by law and supported by the Turkish government.” Lara replied dryly. “You’ve no right or permission to be here.”
Monteleone smiled peacefully, and in doing so revealed a pair of silver teeth and a gold one at the back of his gums. “So I heard from this beautiful young Turkish woman. But understand me, signorina Croft, my background and influences exempt me from any legal obligations. Now we’re equals.”
“You’ve cordoned off the camp at gunpoint and locked the workers under threat of death.” Lara spat between teeth. “Am I mistaken?”
“No threats, dear signorina, no threats!” Replied the other, shocked. “We only have ensured they remain in a safe and well protected place until we had this meeting.”
Liar, thought Lara, furious. They had fallen into the hands of the Sicilian Mafia. And all she could do for now, since they were hostages, was to try to solve everything through diplomatic channels. Gunfire would be insane, since all Monteleone’s men were armed and Selma, Zip and the other workers could be injured or killed. I don’t want another slaughter like in Egypt. So, deep breathing, she displayed her best smile and sat gracefully in the previously offered chair. Kurtis discreetly stood beside her, behind her back.
“I knew you were capable of negotiation.” Monteleone said, with another brand new smile, as he took the Martini to his lips again.
At that very moment a woman entered the tent, which was already crowded with the conversant and Monteleone’s personal guard. She removed the fabric from the back of the tent and walked past Selma and Zip, seating herself next to the mafioso.
Lara needed only a single look to recognize a prostitute. She had long curly hair with a deep reddish hue, white and freckled skin, and eyes of a curious honey colour. But her opulent figure, with sinuous curves and large breasts, was clad in a dress that left little possible for the imagination.
“Excuse me.” The mafioso then said smiling. “This is my beautiful Maddalena. Don’t mind her, she’s a smart girl and knows about diplomacy.”
A very specific kind of diplomacy, thought Lara, looking down on the sexy smile the woman had painted on her bitch face.
Maddalena cast her bored gaze around the staff and eventually stopped at Kurtis. Seeing him, her golden eyes opened widely, caught by the burly man’s body. She seemed pleased with that, since she showed a smile of admiration with her red lipsticked lips, still staring at him shamelessly.
Lara looked away, disgusted, and said to the mafioso: “If you came here it is because you must have a particular interest. What is it?”
The man cleared his throat and left the Martini on the table. Lara was getting nervous with the parsimony of his moves. “You see, I’m interested in some old object...as I said, my job is to run a restoration company. We had in our hands extremely important restoration projects, to cite an example: The Shroud of Turin or some famous works by Titian. This particular interest has arisen my desire to know the artefact of which I speak, which is supposed to be under our own feet here in Cappadocia.”
“What’s this artefact?”
“Well, it’s a kind of scepter, apparently wrought in silver, which...”
Kurtis had been dreading it. The scepter. They’re coming for the scepter. And he began to curse all the demons of hell. Problems. That would only bring problems.
“...and therefore I wanted to ask you, who are undoubtedly an expert on the subject, if you’re aware of the existence of this scepter and, over all, if you’ve seen it during your latest explorations.”
Lara exhibited an innocent smile and said: “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
Kurtis silently cursed again. That was expected of her. She wouldn’t give up the damn scepter and then...
“I’m afraid you’re not well informed of what research we’re conducting here.” Continued Lara. “This is a necropolis belonging to a peculiar race of hybrids known as the Nephili, according to Jewish mythology. There’s no more here than niches and corpses. Not the slightest trace of treasures, much less silver scepters.”
That seemed to confuse Monteleone, who showed insecurity for the first time. “But...certain texts speak of the existence of a city under the necropolis. No doubt in that city may...”
“Indeed, some texts tell about it.” Lara said hastily. “And now we’re in the process of verifying whether such city exists, though probably it’s just a legend. If it was real, since you moved here, you’d be the first to be informed of the discovery. So,” she concluded, rising gracefully, “there’s no more to say for now. Excuse me, but both my partner and me are exhausted and must take a rest. And I guess my colleague Selma and my assistant Zip can join us.”
The mafioso hesitated only a moment, then muttered: “Sure, sure...! Maddalena, bella, accompany our guests to their camp. Make my men withdraw...I wouldn’t like to interfere in this laudable task.”
The redhead woman stood up and, after throwing a languid glance at Kurtis, made her way through the armed men while giving dry orders in Italian. Looked like that whore ruled there as much as her master – something to remember.
“Oh my God, Lara! What should we do now?” Selma watched, horrified, the beautiful rod Lara had taken from her backpack and wielded with total self-confidence, with a triumphant smile on her face.
“What should we do?” Laughed the British explorer. “That gangster will have to steal this from my cold, dead fingers!”
“Preach it, babe!” Shouted Zip, erupting in applause.
The Turkish archaeologist, pale, turned to Kurtis: “Please, talk to her!”
“Me?” The man was leaning against a table, smoking. “What can I say? I told her to leave it in its place. But M’lady is the queen of stubbornness.”
Lara left the scepter on the table. “You really think I’d give this to the first Sicilian Mafia capo who demanded it with kindness? Please!”
“Think about it, Lara.” Kurtis muttered. “We have the whole damn Cosa Nostra camp next door right now, waiting for you to deliver that damn scepter. The lives of the workers, the lives of us all, depend on you.”
“That’s what I meant!” Selma burst triumphantly.
But Lara crossed her arms. “I won’t be the toady to an Italian boss, okay? Not until I know what this rod is and why he wants it. Unless you know about that, Mr. Lux Veritatis.”
Kurtis didn’t answer.
“Well.” Lara concluded. “You’re right about one thing, which is that we’ve to be careful with this rabble. While Monteleone’s happy, everything’s fine. The others don’t matter at all. Selma, I trust to you the scepter, keep it safe. I’ll deal with Monteleone and find out what I can. Zip, from now you’ll be quiet as a tomb or you’ll face the consequences. And Kurtis...”
“You don’t command me.” He answered sharply while throwing the cigarette on the ground and stepping on it with his boot heel. “You’re making a big mistake, Lara, and you’ll regret it.” He turned and left the tent without giving her time to answer.
“He’s absolutely gorgeous.” Maddalena murmured, her eyes squinting. “You should have seen his eyes, Bay Li - those eyes have broken many hearts, I swear! And he’s stunning...those muscles...he’s a soldier, for sure. Only soldiers have such perfect bodies.”
“Well, well.” Chirped the beautiful Chinese girl. “He must have some flaws.”
“Yes...he didn’t look at me once.”
“Now that’s serious...he must be gay.”
“No way! He’s all male from head to toe. Must be a terrific in bed.”
“Well, if you like him, you should fuck him.”
The two prostitutes burst into laughter and took another sip of champagne. They had spent the dinner together and now had a bit of rest.
For some time Maddalena and Bay Li had been friends. In the large group of women who went everywhere with Monteleone for the satisfaction of his men, Maddalena was guardian and mistress of all, not just the boss’ favourite, but also the most commanding. Bay Li was another rare beauty, born in Shanghai and deported for the whims of moguls. From the beginning she’d accepted the leadership was up to the beautiful Italian redhead, and had not attempted to fight her, which had granted her friendship.
“You know his name?”
“I heard the British woman calling him Kurtis.”
“Mmm...perhaps they’re lovers.”
“I don’t think so! Have you seen that woman, that Lara Croft? She’s just a bitter rigid lady. Her attitude cries out loudly for a fuck.”
Bay Li laughed again and choked with champagne. “Oh, Maddalena, you must act before she takes him to bed!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. That British explorer is a prude; I saw it at first glance.”
“Well, she’s reputed to be a slut.”
“Who gave her that reputation didn’t know anything about women. Having at your hand that Hercules and not fucking him is quite stupid. I’ll take care of him.”
“Will you charge him?”
“Of course not!”
They laughed again, but then a shadow covered the light of the lamp that lit them. They turned and saw Sciarra, standing before them with his dark smile.
“What do you want?” Bay Li asked irritably.
“I come for Maddalena. Tonight I want to be with her.”
The beautiful Italian twisted her mouth. “Are you an idiot or something? Go away; I don’t want to see you!”
“You’re coming with me, bella.”
“And what will your boss think about it, huh, smart guy?”
Everyone who worked with Monteleone knew that Maddalena was untouchable. Only the boss could sleep with her, it was commanded. She was his lover and Maddalena didn’t serve any man but him. Anyone who would lay a finger on the beautiful redhead could end thrown in a ditch with a bullet in the nape.
“Monteleone won’t know because if you say something, or if you refuse to come with me, I’ll tell him you’re drooling over the guy who’s with the British woman.”
“Nonsense!” She mumbled.
“Just heard it.” He turned towards the Chinese girl. “You know what Monteleone did last time he caught his carissima Maddalena with another guy? He cut off his balls and hanged him on a lamp post, and she had her body ripped with belt blows. Do you remember, Maddalena? You screamed so much we had to gag you.”
The redhead girl was now very pale.
“Monteleone’s sooo jealous, isn’t he?” Continued Sciarra, smiling cruelly. “Sometimes he forgets you’re just a whore, and you act like the whore you are.” He turned back to Bay Li, who looked at him terrified. “Since then, every time our master has the slightest doubt about the loyalty of his beloved, he gives her a monumental beating to remember who owns her. And woe to the poor wretch he suspects ...once he suspected Marc’Antonio, who was truly gay...poor, poor Marc’Antonio...his body rolled over the cliff...”
“That’s enough, shut the fuck up!” Cried Maddalena. Rising, she added: “Let’s get it over!”
Sciarra, smiling, grabbed her by the arm and led her towards the rocks. When, on the corner of his eye, he saw Bay Li getting up, he said: “Stay there, sweetie. I’ll come for you next.”