An Elephant

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Chapter 17: Riccardo

Chapter 17: Riccardo

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche



This is getting really difficult.

The events on Place St George flashed intermittently through Riccardo’s rifle scope as milky fog drifted between his vantage point in the disused apartment building and the square below. He presumed it was the result of smoke bombs and fireworks at the beach. The dust on the apartment window meant he needed to bob his head from left to right to get a clearly discernible view of events.

Firecrackers split the soundscape of football chants and sirens, so he darted his right hand out to increase the volume of his police radio as the latest status report began:

“We had hoped to keep all trouble and police presence focused on the screens at the beach but this has been unsuccessful. There are skirmishes all over the city and a lockdown of Place St George may be necessary.

Stand by.”

Riccardo was still officially on duty as a police spotter, but in his criminal capacity as Tadeusz’s back-up protection, he still had his sniper rifle trained on the square. Aware that the city was full of law enforcement, he nervously looked over his shoulder, half-expecting the door to be kicked in by other officers, then looked back through the telescopic sight at Hotel de la Paix and Table 4. The lens revealed Tadeusz’s young associate with the moustache as he appeared to accept that the British merchandise was genuine. He looked far happier than Tadeusz, and even their camouflaged ex-military muscle raised a half-smile as a plastic bag full of cash was swapped for a bogus bottle of Evian.

You’ve got the product so get out of there now.

The moment confirmation was complete, Tadeusz sprang up and ordered Pawel and Quiet Tony to follow him. Smoke briefly obscured Teddy’s crew as they headed across the northern edge of the square, marching past the internet café and then the book shop. With the naked eye, Riccardo watched the female journalist’s cameraman in the centre of the square. A trace of CS gas, mercifully no more than a whiff, came to his nostrils through the small hole cut in the window. He shook his head and checked that Tadeusz and his men weren’t being followed as they left the square.

Aware that his job would very soon be over, Riccardo exhaled deeply, dropped his shoulders and yearned for nicotine.

It looks like the Venezuelan will be getting the product he wanted.

Returning his scrutiny to the rifle’s sights, he scanned the square back to Table 4 of Hotel de la Paix, where Tadeusz and the other two Poles had left, although the drinks Tadeusz had requested were yet to be delivered or paid for.

That’s just rude.

His police radio gave another update:

“We are surrounding Place St George now, but in two phases. Units LDC-18 and -19 stand by” declared the radio. “The mêlée at the bottom of Rue des Pecheurs is partially contained but many are escaping uphill toward the square. SD08 Do you still have eyes on Place St George? The ’copter reports that the surrounding streets are full of small scale altercations but many seem to be heading toward the square - the high ground. We’ve been given the order by Control that it’s a Code 86C. Lockdown is imminent.”

The smoke outside the window cleared once again, revealing the hotel terrace and what remained of the business deal. The huge tattooed guy threw what looked like brandy onto the floor and started drinking a newly-delivered beer, having ordered the other two to do the same. Riccardo breathed out again slowly, allowing the release of the tension that had been building from his shoulders.

They don’t appear to have any hidden agenda and it doesn’t look like a sting. He seems to be preparing to leave without commotion, but he’s running out of time… I wonder what’s happened to Giovanni?

He was obliged to watch with the naked eye again as smoke obscured the scope view. Smoke bombs met certain crowd control needs but with so many in use, in addition to civilian fireworks and a dusty window, it left Riccardo watching a bright and sunny afternoon through a snow storm.

The radio crackled again:

“The circle around Place St George is closing. There’ll be more tear gas and anyone remaining will be checked out. With football fans, only allow the people with match tickets to leave. We know they’ll want to leave the vicinity soon as the match is at 14:30.”

Billowing smoke took away his view again so he unscrewed the telescopic sight from his Heckler & Koch and readied it for packing away. On Place St George the product had changed hands without a hitch and his services as a hitman would not be required for the France ’98 job. A few seconds later and he had returned the telescopic sight to the box it had been left in and checked the rifle was in good order.

With the naked eye he watched the big guy slide cash for the drinks under the ashtray on Table 4 and made to leave, scanning up and down the road from where they stood. Only a few metres away from them, the small crowd at the top of Rue des Pecheurs swelled as a few people congregated to watch the street fighting going on at the bottom of the hill.

You need to get out of there now.

Riccardo’s eyes slowly scanned for danger through the white mist as if waiting for a shooting star on a cloudless night. The beautiful girl in the pink vest he had seen earlier in the south eastern corner of the square emerged through the blizzard with a camera. Without a pause she snapped a photo of the lawlessness at the bottom of the hill from amongst the increasingly agitated crowd on the corner and then turned to leave.

The camera’s flash seemed to summon reinforcements as at that exact moment the black of police uniforms threaded up the road from outside Le Petit Voisin at the bottom of the hill where a tall, muscular man stood, wiping his face with a red jacket as he stooped above a floored man with a head injury.

He shouldn’t rub is eyes. It makes the effects of tear gas even worse.

As she headed back to the south east corner, she stole a glance at the picture she had taken. The white mist outside his window flashed yellow, the sun reflecting off the oncoming riot shields as more CRS riot police rounded the corner at the Le Petit Voisin and stormed up the hill to the square.

Christ, Tattoo still has the money and that pistol in a back holster. The product is long gone so it’s not a major issue but it could prompt some searching questions. Thank God there are no CCTV cameras.

With that he looked at the cameraman with the US journalist in the centre of the square. Filming had paused, the woman had stopped questioning passers-by and the cameraman turned fully around to pay great attention to the British trio as they left, having removed the tripod from beneath the camera. The cameraman seemed wary of the escalation at the hotel corner and rightly so, thought Riccardo; to the increasingly frantic football swarm the camera could signal authority that needs to be smashed, or it could simply represent a media opportunity. Riccardo couldn’t yet tell which.

Through thinning mist he watched the purple-haired man turn at the square’s north eastern corner, turning left onto Rue de la Revolution, swinging the bag stuffed with a small fortune in used notes.

There may only be seconds until the order to block that exit as well. Has he left it too late?

A beer bottle thrown by a Tunisian fan exploded at Purple Hair’s feet, narrowly missing the heads of three Englishmen wearing Union Jack afro wigs as they ran toward the square. The radio bulb flashed red:

“Go! Go! Unit LDC-18 seal the north western square outside Hotel de la Paix. Block Rue des Pecheurs and Rue Marcel Pagnol. We need to stop the violence before they start smashing up property. They need to be separated so let the Tunisian fans leave the square via Rue de la Revolution or it won’t settle down. We can round up any stragglers at the bottom of the hill. Paramedics have been called to Le Petit Voisin. Check for match tickets…”

They have a few seconds if they’re lucky.

Tattoo supported the falling Purple Hair’s arm as he crunched over the broken glass, his legs folding under him as the three English fans in comedy wigs were chased onto the square by four Tunisians. A column of riot police formed a determined line on one side of Rue de la Revolution, poised to take control of the exit but awaiting orders before making any arrests.

“Unit LDC-19 halt at the top of Rue de la Revolution and stand by. Backup units will be with you very shortly. Only let Tunisian fans and French speakers leave. Check everyone you can for weapons and drugs.”

Tattoo was the first to see through the distraction and see the police column halt as they marched toward the square. The purple-haired one still looked panicked, even though the danger now lay with Tattoo and his gun and the angry one who held the cash. Thick white smoke obscured Riccardo’s view again for a few seconds and cleared as the tattooed bodyguard walked past the squad of police as they grouped at the square’s exit, poised and ready to seal the area the moment they received the order. Tattoo walked as if he was out for a Sunday stroll but the skinny one seemed on the verge of breaking into a run.

That stupid hippy chemist is going to get them all stopped and searched.

Tattoo gave Purple Hair a light push and followed him down the hill, followed by the gaze of the entire unit, who all checked out his stature and his ink as they awaited the order to secure their exit to the square.

Impressive.

Riccardo could tell from a distance that the policemen leading the formation were especially hesitant. Even with their weight of numbers, body armour and riot shields, they were unsure whether to accost the tattooed body guard - a testament to his physical presence. Their orders had left room to manoeuvre and the officer closest to him chose to signal for all to halt and speak into his radio.

No one ever wants to be first… Opting not to arrest someone the size of him is an easy decision.

The trio walked away from the square as more uniforms collected at the top of the street, already poised with their transparent Perspex shields in their left hands and batons in the right. At the back, more ran in single file, following in the footsteps of the leaders ahead. Fifty meters behind them a bend in the road revealed another pair of police officers waiting at the bottom Rue de la Revolution trying to placate two agitated German Shepherds.

They won’t bring the dogs any closer if they’re planning on using tear gas.

Having been on the receiving end of tear gas himself, Riccardo could only wonder how horrific it must be to a dog’s sensitive nose.

The British giant’s trio seemed to have escaped safely down Rue de la Revolution and Riccardo nodded to himself. Despite his thug-like appearance, the tattooed sentinel had dealt with the challenges of the day effectively and efficiently and Riccardo was highly impressed.

The nearby thumping of riot shields with batons was drowned by what must be fireworks, or possibly even gunfire as more smoke blew towards his window.

If anyone had tried to steal Tadeusz’s money forcing Riccardo to actually use the sniper rifle, it was quite possible that he would have been found out, lose his job as a carabiniere and have to go on the run. He was very highly paid for his hitman jobs and Tadeusz could be forgiven for thinking that Riccardo was now a rich man. What Tadeusz didn’t know was about was the gambling, and even though Tadeusz had paid him handsomely for his last job, rather than settle all his gambling debts Riccardo had flown immediately to Macau where he lost it all on blackjack at the Lisboa Casino.

More smoke outside the window reminded him of the last time he had aimed a sniper rifle out of a window under such conditions. It was a training exercise in Romania - just as hot, although the smoke on that afternoon had been from live ammunition.

The relief of the Marseille job being over and the promise of a big paycheque still left him with a flat feeling within. It’s no accident that most carabinieri come from the same four regions as the four major mafia organisations as most join the force for a sense of justice, for payback - rivalsa - but the will to be law-abiding had been sucked out of him by his losses at the casino.

Now I can concentrate on Police spotting work alone he thought, reaching for his camcorder.

The lid on the rifle box snapped into place and he took the camcorder, ready to press ‘Record’ but two or three minutes passed before the smoke allowed him to see anything. When it did, a police officer stepped forward from the LDC-19 pack and hurled a smoke grenade to the south east corner of the square, where the young couple had been sat earlier – the beautiful blond photographer in the pink vest and her friend. Just as Riccardo wondered if they were still there, she and her scruffy companion appeared, holding hands as they made to leave the area through the police cordon.

Arm in arm and not appearing to be trouble-makers, they were allowed to walk out of the square unhindered after a few words from the girl. It took a second before Riccardo realised through the haze that it was the man who was unsteady on his feet and she was actually helping him out of the square, rather than any gallantry or moral support from him.

Nearby fireworks rendered the shouting on the square momentarily noiseless as he looked through the camcorder’s viewfinder: outside the book shop a Tunisian guy was shoved onto his back by an English fan and another kicked him in the face as he leant forward to get up. He missed with a second attempt, almost landing on top of him in a drunken heap.

The British arrivals from Rue de la Revolution had turned to fight four pursuant Arabs. One wore a Tunisian football shirt and he and a second both attacked the only man still wearing a Union Jack wig.

A long-haired, pail-skinned youth, fleeing the CRS unit and some North Africans ran passed the floored Tunisian and stamped hard into his solar plexus with his heel. The stunned man looked almost lifeless but was reprieved as another Tunisian who grabbed the long hair of the assailant and pulled him away with one hand while delivering some frenzied uppercuts with his free hand. Riccardo tried to hold the camcorder steady as he shook his head.

A lot of people watching football at home think that the World Cup is simply friendly rivalry. Today may change all that.

With the naked eye, Riccardo squinted to his left, toward the Hotel terrace at the western end of Place St George. A brief white sheet of smoke melted away as police officers were pressing bodies against walls as others waved their batons to corral the crowds further into the square.

Two English men from the crowd by the hotel escaped from the police charge, one jumping straight into a flying kick to the ribs of a crumpling North African, drawing gasps from the locals looking out of the hotel.

The hooligan storm.

A man with his T-shirt wrapped around his face lashed out with his arms and legs as officers tried to control him, swiping at him with batons until another leaned over to spray mace into his eyes from only centimetres away. The batons continued to rain down, despite him rolling into the foetal position and covering his head and face with his arms.

“This is SD08. Place St George has been successfully contained at the top of Rue des Pecheurs and officers are awaiting orders for the exit at the top of Rue de la Revolution.”

More sirens rang out, mostly from distant vehicles but one from a megaphone held by a police sergeant on Rue des Pecheurs. They pushed the stragglers deeper into the small square and deeper towards chaos. Riccardo’s window blanked out again as more smoke drifted from his right, to be punctuated by a blazing scarlet fleck below: just beyond the square a man in a Tunisian shirt had lit a nautical flare and was waving it to scatter some England fans as they kicked an already-unconscious man on the ground.

The small, curly-haired drunk who had spent the afternoon outside the hotel getting wasted with his pretty boy mate, retained his spot on the hotel terrace. They seemed to be biding their time and surprised Riccardo by not immediately joining the fray like their bigger friend who had run downhill to Le Petit Voisin to join the first violence he saw. He suspected that they would be caught up in the hooligan swarm at any moment and turn on the nearest Tunisian fans, and possibly even police officers.

Football moulds their identity and the truth that creates the world they see around them. They’ll have created a vision of their team and of rival supporters, they’ll have made a lens through which they see a binary world, in their minds righteous and savagely different from the opposition’s. Small as he is I bet he’s a brute on Saturday afternoons, spending his time at the match refusing to sing, saving all his energy for the post-match onslaught…

Madness. Absolute madness.

He was particularly irritated as he watched the hooligan storm whipping the masses into a frenzy, as he was struggling to slot the padlock into the clasp on the rifle crate. Out of the window through gaps in the smoke, the elevation of the crowd’s energy in the square was tangible, revving up like the nearby moped Riccardo could hear.

So much human detritus.

Another gas grenade seemed to have gone off at the bottom of Rue des Pecheurs as more police gathered near the exits. He filmed glimpses of action in almost every street nearby, all bursting between the white sheets of mist. The smoke-smeared view was certainly not a new experience for Riccardo, but it definitely made it more difficult for him to discern exact details of events. He tried with police-issue binoculars in his free hand.

As the officers on the square busied themselves trying to calm down the confrontations and secure the obviously violent, the curly-haired Englishman on the hotel terrace nervously glanced to his left at his open hand. It revealed a small bag of drugs of some sort. He showed it to his remaining friend who fished out a white tablet, and then he took one himself.

That has to be ecstasy they’re taking. The three of them have barely stopped dancing for the last hour, and then only to laugh. They’ve probably had three visits to the toilet each and the big one even had white powder under his nose when he came back... The devil’s dandruff.

Smoke grenades continued to erase much of Riccardo’s view as all around him, in a trick of the hot weather and lack of wind, his perspective of events was little more than a notion much of the time. He could tell the druggie was wondering how to get the incriminating evidence out of harm’s way, as there was a hotel full of law-abiding locals right behind him, the beginnings of a full scale riot erupting in front of him in the square, and police reinforcements at every exit.

Suddenly out of the thick white mist darted a familiar figure. It was David, whom Riccardo recognised as Salim’s blond accomplice from earlier. He poked the drunk Englishman’s right shoulder as a distraction and snatched the plastic bag full of stimulants from his left hand, vanishing immediately into the smoke.

Riccardo wondered how the little one may deal with the situation, expecting violence of some sort, but he just stood there swaying slightly. Riccardo picked up the camcorder again.

It’s not just fight or flight. There’s freeze as well. It’s often overlooked, but very common, especially with untrained people.

“Let people leave the square if they have match tickets and are not making trouble” instructed the Incident Control Room through the radio.

Riccardo thought about David and his accomplice and smiled at the absurdity of the situation.

David probably thinks he’s hit the drugs jackpot with a handful of coke and Es but his partner-in-crime Salim just missed out on stealing thousands of doses of a brand new drug… But how could they open the bottle safely? I would have liked to be a fly on the wall if they tried.

They’ve also missed out on all the cash that Teddy handed over. Instead of just getting high they could have got rich.

A shifting opening in the smoke showed David had disappeared with all the drugs before the Englishman, through his pill-addled drunken haze, could do anything.

Another sheet of white drifted past the window, even thicker than before.

I don’t know how many smoke grenades and fireworks are in use at the beach but I bet they’re struggling to see whatever’s on the big screen.

Still struggling to close the padlock on the rifle box with one hand, he had to put the camera down. He looked back through the window to see the Englishman being pulled away from the hotel terrace by two gendarmes. Several of his compatriots were already pinned against the wall being questioned and searched.

Seconds earlier and that handful of drugs would have landed him in jail.

Restless, Riccardo yearned again for nicotine but feared CS gas might come through the hole cut in the window and contaminate any cigarette: a mistake people only ever make once.

Where the hell is Giovanni? he wondered.

The radio’s red light switched on: “It’s our last chance to fully seal off Place St George as LDC-18 and 19 will all be sent to the beach soon.”

He filmed two new England fans appearing from the smoke while comically evading two officers – a combination of drunken clumsiness and inept police training, Riccardo thought. One had the Cross of St George painted on his face and had torn his top off, throwing his arms wide like some xenophobic gorilla. He picked up a plastic chair from the hotel and swung it at the two hesitating policemen. He continued the wildly exaggerated swinging, walking backwards in front of the internet café and then the book shop, before being rugby-tackled painfully into the door by a third officer.

At the mouth of Rue de la Revolution, the police formation increased from a column of three abreast as more men from the back of the column walked to the front and the exit of the square, shields and batons at the ready, marching as one like a blackened Roman attack formation.

The sergeant barked an order from the radio:

“Units LDC-19 join LDC-18! Ensure the square is sealed off between Place St George and Rue de la Revolution. That’s now lockdown for the whole area. Control and contain.”

The drifting smoke from the beach added to the grenades on Place St George rendered Riccardo’s role as a police spotter increasingly futile from where he sat, which would be good news for generating an alibi. Now he wouldn’t need one and he could easily justify a shortage of footage. With a little time spent wiping the rifle box for prints, he grabbed his police issue camcorder again and aimed it through the circular hole cut in the window. He checked his watch while he waited for another cloud of smoke to clear.

It’s one o’clock exactly. Wow! That journalist seems to be insisting on filming. You’d think the police laying siege to a football riot would put her off, but she’s clearly as cool under pressure as the English minder.

Riccardo guessed that Tattoo’s reputation had preceded him and Tadeusz hadn’t wanted him aboard Boss Jerzy’s yacht in the harbour. These Brits were small time and had little to lose, and the eleventh hour change of venue was simply due to US Cable TV scheduling and the network’s desire to avoid potential trouble at the beach’s TV screen.

Never a fan of the strategy of hiding in plain sight, Riccardo shook his head at the risks taken by Tadeusz, planned or otherwise, to do the deal on Place St George. The cameraman was frantically miming a cut across his throat to the woman with the microphone, but she seemed not to care about the battleground they found themselves in. Riccardo wondered if perhaps the rioters liked to be filmed: a surreal claim to fame as if somehow fighting for queen and country on an international media stage, but then questioned if the level of hysteria would outweigh any kind of strategy.

The cameraman gestured for them to leave again until a policeman shouted at both of them, presumably an order to stop filming.

Little does the journalist know that her camera’s real, but the tripod converts to weighted assault batons in less than a second. One in each hand should be adequate short range protection for Tadeusz if he needed protecting from three normal petty criminals, but Tattoo’s immense presence had put security very much in question, and that was before the riot broke out. Tadeusz had successfully escaped with the product before any rioting began and the freelance cameraman, on the payroll like Riccardo as extra security, could easily justify his presence on the square as long as his apparatus wasn’t inspected too closely. Riccardo wondered how Tadeusz had managed to get a genuine cameraman on the payroll as further security for the product.

Even so, they’ve taken a huge risk doing the deal here. No one expected a police lockdown but a few minutes later and the deal would have been in the middle of all of it.

The wind brought more smoke straight towards the apartment, just as another flare was lit and red and yellow firecrackers exploded near the feet of some officers as they tried to make arrests by the hotel. The cacophony of batons crashing against riot shields, now a constant roar above the shouting, threatened inward from all exits to the square. England fans kicked out at the shields, screaming and posturing as the journalists and few remaining Tunisians were ushered past the riot shields that blockaded every exit.

CRS riot officers held fast at the boundary as domestic officers entered the square to contain the interior, restraining where necessary while checking for match tickets.

Riccardo packed his camcorder into his small rucksack and put it on, back-to-front as earlier, leaving the rifle in the locked case to be picked up by whoever had delivered it. The scene from the window disappeared again and his thoughts turned to a final check of the apartment, wiping the surfaces after himself and then making an exit.

Still struggling to see through the thick white curtain of smoke, he constructed much of his understanding of the square from the brief snaps of action he caught here and there, as flashes of the scene sprang out from gaps in the fog, lit by more fireworks. Later, he would have to write his report and join the dots in his mind to construct a whole from the snatched fragments of disappearing action in the streets. For one brief moment an expanse of clear, cobalt sky appeared far above the city, exposing a group of distant Cirrus clouds. Within the glaring blue, the wisps had gathered to form what Riccardo thought was a perfect elephant shape.

Dropping his binoculars to look down at the square, another pocket of visibility through the milky fog gave away a man whose bloody forehead poured down his face onto the T-shirt he used as a mask. He had a plastic chair twisted from his grip as a group of policemen wrestled him to the floor. Four took a limb each as a fifth sat on his back and a sixth hammered at his nearest arm with his baton. The ground units were spurred on by the sergeant over the radio:

“We only have fifteen minutes to get the situation on Place St George under control, then it’s all units to the screen at the beach.”

The small English drunk who had just lost his bag of drugs was being pressed against a shopfront by one policeman as another examined what looked like a match ticket. Whoever remained had their hands pushed against the walls and were searched and quizzed about their tickets to the game. Riccardo couldn’t see anything further from his vantage point but he knew it was all still there: the influx of riot units with their batons held high in the air, ready to disseminate the force of law and order on the swarming, snarling football followers as chaos raged. Despite all the action beyond the window, the last thing Riccardo saw of the diorama was an all-encompassing blanket of thick ivory smoke as the entire scene faded to white for the last time, wiping out the final frame of reference he tried to create for himself.


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