Some people should never play poker

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Gio and Alice

CHAPTER SEVEN: Gio and Alice

The atmosphere in the Scarletti flat was … heavy. Gio had returned while Alice had been in the attic flat and, if he was truthful, he would have had to admit that he was glad that was the case. He had a story – as usual – but again as usual it was very unlikely that Alice would believe him. He sometimes thought that even if the story was true, she would still disbelieve him.

He had thought about not coming home. But where would he go? They were sure to find him and he could not spend the rest of his life running away. He was honest enough to know that he was not built – nor hardened enough – for a life on the streets. Neither, unfortunately, was he Lord Lucan. He had friends, indeed he had family, but none of them were well heeled enough to buy him, create for him, a new identity. Even if they were, he could not really see that happening. They would say, as always, that ‘you do the crime, you do the time’. It was a good many decades since his family had been making that kind of trade off. He realised that some of his way back ancestors may have cut a few corners, in order to survive, when they were in new lands, and life was hard. But what would be his excuse? Life for him was not hard. He was not in a ‘new land’ trying to forge an existence for himself and a family. Quite the reverse. His troubles – and they were enormous troubles and getting bigger by the minute – had actually been caused because he had too much. Too much money, too much time, too much comfort. His ‘troubles’ had come out of sheer boredom and he could blame absolutely nobody. Not the government, not his ‘hard upbringing’. His parents were – and had always been – exemplary. His wife was a combination of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Florence Nightingale and Amy Johnson. She could turn her hand to anything – everything. A veritable paragon. And she saw right through him. Even now. She said nothing, but she knew. It was only a matter of time before she decided – when she was ready – that she would do something about it. It was like living with an active volcano. He knew she was simmering but had no idea when she would finally erupt.

He was surprised that the flat was empty. He had steeled himself for a confrontation – maybe it would be today. He wanted it to be today. He was going mad waiting for the inevitable.

When Alice came downstairs, he was just sitting on an armchair. He was still wearing a dress suit, bow tie and black lace up shoes. But he looked, despite that, as though he had just spent a night on the streets. He was pallid and dishevelled, with the distinct signs of stubble – and not designer stubble, more ‘what’s the point of it all’ stubble.

She walked across the living room, passing him by, not even acknowledging him, and put the cleaning materials back into the various cupboards. She then set about making tea, buttered toast, and scrambled egg with tomatoes. She still said nothing.

Gio went into the kitchen. His intention was to start a conversation in order to break the dreadful silence, but when he got there, he could not bring himself to say anything, nor could he think of any way to start.

Alice handed him a tray, complete with the efficiently made breakfast, and two Anadin Extra, and a glass of water to wash them down.

What could he do. He just took the tray, and obediently returned to the same armchair, and started to eat the breakfast with the tray on his lap.

Nothing was said. Not one word was spoken. The atmosphere was heavy and unpleasant.

Alice continued to clear and clean, make and mend, still in silence. Then just as the atmosphere was getting truly unbearable for Gio, he stood up to return the tray, and promptly collapsed on the floor, dropping the tray and its contents.

Alice looked across from the far side of the living room where she was changing the flowers which habitually adorned their beautifully curtained window: two very large original windows on either side of a bookcase: one with a velvet padded window seat, the other with a 5ft by 3 ft highly polished side table, on which were always a plant or cut flowers. Always fresh. Always colour co-ordinated.

She made no rush to get to her husband, but neither did she react in an annoyed fashion at the mess that was created with broken china, cold tea, broken glass and the remnants of scrambled egg around the living room floor, and sullying the expensive thick pile carpet. The furnishings in the Scarletti flat were the original ones which they had acquired when they moved in some twelve years previously, but they had been expensive then, and they had been looked after with great care by Alice. Almost in a religious reverence. It was a surprise then that she did not react to the desecration despite the fact that her husband’s condition was his own doing, and his lifestyle and sins were now having too great a bearing on her, her children, and her standard of living.”

At that most unfortunate moment, there was a tap on the door. Quite unlike herself, Alice wrinkled her face in consternation and called out “Who’s there?”

“It’s DI Dillon. I gather your husband is back and unfortunately we need to talk to him.”

Alice mentally shrugged. Leaving her husband still on the floor surrounded by broken crockery and other debris, she walked over and opened the door to let Dillon and Lucy Arnold in.

Certainly it was not quite the scene that the police personnel had been anticipating. Lucy immediately went over to see what she could do. Alice said “It’s OK. He’ll be all right. Lack of sleep, lack of food, no lack of alcohol. Nothing serious, I can assure you!”

Between them they gathered him up, and at Alice’s instruction sat him on the settee. The inclination would have been to take him to the bedroom, but they did not feel justified in being too pedantic when Alice seemed quite well able to decide what was best.

It did seem the wrong time, however, to question Gio Scarletti and so some of the pieces of the jigsaw were once again left in the box. It was proving very difficult to form a recognisable picture with so much obstruction – whether deliberate or act of God. With the two most significant tenants unavailable for interview – one because he had apparently legged it (though he may just be off about his business – the household did seem somewhat prone to indiscipline) – and the other still suited and booted, obviously only just back in from a night on the town, cascading himself and his breakfast, all over the lounge carpet.

It was getting very frustrating for Dillon whose patience was never great to begin with when murder was concerned – but he still didn’t think it worthwhile asking Alice anything.

Lucy Arnold decided to throw caution to the wind.

“Mrs. Scarletti, do you know where your husband has been? You said he had been at your sisters. Frankly I am a bit surprised that he was at your sisters dressed like that? If it was some kind of party, were you not invited?”

Alice, despite herself, almost cheered! Trust a woman!

“Well, no – I said he was at my sisters yesterday because my boys were around. I don’t, frankly, Detective, like to discuss some matters regarding the family in front of them.”

“I see that. Where was he then?”

Dillon was quick enough to see a slight flicker of animation on the face of Gio Scarletti as he remained slumped, apparently drunk (or so was the implication of his wife, and his appearance would seem to not argue against that). He understood now that the man was as keen to hear the rest of this conversation as the police were.

“He was out gambling. Where he is for much of his waking hours – even, I imagine, when he is supposed to be at work.”

“So he gambles a good deal then …is that in a casino, or …”

“Wherever he can, Detective, I think. Yes … I think, dressed like that, he has probably been to one of a dozen casinos, but sometimes he is just playing cards … frankly, Detective, my husband could gamble on two flies crawling up the wall … he is, I guess, an addict.”

Dillon saw the pretend-comatose Scarletti give what seemed very much like a sigh of relief. Was that because his secret was out, or because there was a much bigger secret still, as yet, undiscovered?

That tweaked his interest, and though he would never tell her, he thought it was probably a smart move to open up a dialogue with Alice Scarletti. He realised that perhaps she was her own woman after all. However, now being aware that Gio Scarletti was obviously back in the land of the living, he thought it was a better idea to give them a few minutes to themselves and then return – or maybe since his movements were, as yet, unaccounted for, perhaps a trip down to the station might be a more useful wake up call for Scarletti. Dillon was only too aware – it was not one of his own failings – but he had investigated several serious crimes which had their roots in the gambling industry. Those in some levels of it were not all that lawful, and gambling debts led to too many people to act in ways that they never would have been drawn into before. If you owed a gambling debt, it didn’t just go away. Sometimes that money was owed to people who would not think twice about meting out violence. It was not like the banks and mortgage companies. They just repossessed your house. Loan sharks, unscrupulous gambling outfits repossessed your limbs, or your life! A thought that brought him back to Neil Bamford and his unexplained injuries. Where did Francesca Taddei fit in? Was gambling one of her vices too?

Lucy was somewhat surprised, because she thought she had opened up a rich vein of conversation with Alice, when Dillon said, “Well thanks. We’ll come back when your husband is back on his feet … Better still, since we are likely in the way around here, would you ask him to come down to the Rocket Lane Police Station. If he could give me a ring – here’s my card – before he sets off, I can meet him there. At present, as you know, we are a bit busy trying to track down your neighbour, Neil Bamford. You didn’t happen to see him leave last night, did you?”

Alice surprised him by saying “Well, yes. I did see him go, as it happens. You were here talking to Amanda and Sasha. I just happened to be looking out of the window and saw him go … He got into a cab. Not a black cab … we don’t get many of those just cruising around here. He must have rung one. Likely ‘Speedicabs’ … that’s the usual company that people use in the house.”

Dillon thanked her. Nodded in the direction of Gio and said …”Hope he is feeling better soon – I think he is already almost back with us again. Pass on my message – If he doesn’t come down to the station, I will send a car up to collect him. At the moment, he and Bamford are the only people I have not had a chance to talk to. It is holding up proceedings.”

Dillon and Arnold left the flat and closed the door – rather slowly. But that was a trick that Alice used also, so she merely continued to clear up the mess. She said nothing to her husband. He continued to slump, though – as she knew perfectly well – he was watching her through half closed eyes. He would wait until she was in the kitchen, she knew. He would then go and shower, change his clothes, walk to his computer – and previously he would pretend that the figures on the screen were ‘work’. Now, though, there was no reason for pretence. His wife knew – had known for almost three years – that the figures on the screen showed their horrendous family income. Diminishing by the day – sometimes by the hour.

So now Gio was aware that Alice was fully aware of his gambling but there was something else he did not know – and the reason that Alice could be so sanguine and even tempered about the situation. If he had a great appetite for gambling, but no skill whatsoever, she had no appetite at all for dealing on the stock market, but she had an exceptional aptitude for it, and for all his losses she had gains. She was in no way cavalier – it was not in her nature – but she was intuitive and methodical. What money she had made – and it had grown over the past few years, with many more gains than losses – was carefully managed and Gio knew nothing of it. Since he did not want to think about it, Gio had never considered why James had not chased them for the rent – since left to him, they would by now be more than four months behind. He dare not think about it, so let himself assume that James liked them as tenants, so was being ‘lenient’. He had realised that James had been religiously chasing Francesca and Amanda upstairs, but that was them, he was quite different. Flighty young girls had to be policed and not allowed to get away with squandering their money…. Apparently.

As predicted, Gio went off and showered, dressed, but did not settle down in front of the computer. Instead he returned and stood at the door of the kitchen.

“Where are the boys?”

“It’s half term. They have gone off to Millie’s. Best they are out of here at the moment, and Simon and Conor are off too. Best they should be away. Best for everybody.”

“is that a swipe at me?”

“Why does everything need to be about you? … But since you ask, probably partially, yes. They may have gone anyway, but it just made it a no brainer. But, Gio, just think about it for a minute. We have had a woman murdered upstairs – 13 steps above our heads – we have police swarming (alright they’ve gone now, but they were swarming) all over the building, it is the boys’ half term, their cousins are home from boarding school – and you immediately ask ‘is it because of you’. You egotistical bastard!”

Alice knew that sounded upside down reasoning, but she was offended that Gio’s immediate thought was about him. She did want them away from a murder house. She did want them away for a few days while she made up her mind what she (and hence them) would do, and where they would live … but Gio immediately thought he had to be the centre of everybody’s universe. Sod.

“Are you going to leave me?”

The direct question came as a complete shock to Alice. Usually she was the one who only spoke after she had considered carefully what she wanted the reply – any reply – to be. She was supremely organised and kept a very tight guard on herself.

She was not one, however, to obfuscate or run from something difficult. She was not at all instinctive. More programmed.

“I don’t know. It depends if we have a roof over our heads or not. It depends on whether you have a job. It depends on whether we are all in danger in this house from yours and that other waste of space, Neil’s ‘acquaintances’.”

She stopped for a second, turned back from her chores, looked him square in the face and said …. “It depends on where the Gio that I married has gone, and whether he is ever coming back.

“Have you even – you self-centred, pity-obsessed bastard – even rung Maria?” She looked at him for a response and read in his eyes and guilty expression that her guess was right.

“She is your sister. For God’s sake man, do you have no feelings for anybody else but yourself. We can survive – we, me, your wife, your children. Your children have me. Maria now has nobody … NOBODY … DO YOU HEAR ME. She is within three weeks of Claudio’s first anniversary, and her only daughter – your niece – has been murdered in her own home – very possibly because you cannot stop gambling – even when you are up to your neck in debt to very dangerous and unforgiving people. What have you become, Gio? What on earth have you become?”

As the tears sprang into Gio’s eyes, and he felt his stomach begin to churn again, he had to leave the room. He hated everything about himself. She was right. There was no way he could excuse any of it.

She was right too. He had not called his sister. He betted – now there was a word he was familiar with – that paragon of virtue, Georgia, had called her. It had been Georgia that had originally persuaded the then landlord to rent them the flat. They had been very young, very poor, and without any real financial history to speak of - and expecting a baby. Despite that, and despite the fact that they were related there was no closeness or even friendship between the two. It was more on Gio’s side than Georgia’s, but she had learned over the years not to let it affect her. He was like that to most of his closer relatives, so why should she expect anything other. Gio knew that his treatment of Georgia – and indeed the rest of the family – was … well, distant, aloof … and he had excused himself when he was in his teens and early twenties by implying to others – and excusing himself – with a hint that he might be ‘on the autistic spectrum’. It was complete nonsense because in his case it was pure self-absorption. He was also affected by the fact that he resented being tied down so young with a family – but more than that – he resented that Alice was not ‘eternally grateful’ that he had married her and ‘made them respectable’. In reality, Alice would very likely have survived without him. Her parents were relieved she married Gio – but as much because the couple seemed to care for one another – not just – well not entirely – because it brought respectability back into the equation.

So Gio took himself off to lick his wounds and continue to suffer the twin absorptions of the gambling self-obsessed: terror and resentment.

Alice gave him half an hour to feel sorry for himself.

She opened the bedroom door, walked across to the wardrobe, pulled out a pair of jeans, went to the chest of drawers, selected a t-shirt, a pair of pants, and socks. Then she threw those all on the bed – where they fell across the damp-faced, bath-robed body of Gio.

“Get dressed. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Remember that people have died – and you are still more or less living – so be grateful. I will come with you to the police station. I have no certainty if you set off on your own that you will ever get there. I have phoned the detective. They will meet us there in an hour.”

As she walked out through the bedroom door again, she added ..”Oh, and I have again telephoned Maria – I have said that you are devastated at what has happened, etc.etc. …. I have not said why.”

That last remark got her husband’s attention. It implied that she knew that Francesca’s death might have something to do with him. Oh God … Oh God …. But he had not looked for divine assistance before, so in truth did not expect any now.

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