The brass ring

(The following is an excerpt from a longer work.)

Chapter One

Salamanca, Spain, Late September

In the breaking day, a sturdy, blond man left the shadows of the city’s walls, stepping through the jagged bars of sunlight that fell across the stone arches and medieval turrets of the Plaza Mayor. He found a seat and ordered breakfast at an open-air pasteleria at the edge of the square. Then, dipping a pastry in his café-con-leche, he relived the visions that had tortured his mind for months—villages blown to rubble, panicked mothers robbed of their sons, ashen corpses in the fire-smoke of war—grisly scenes that haunted him like a residue of human sin.

In the small hours, though, with sleep gone for good, another image had come, a single body in a room smeared with blood, a nightmare from the worst time of his grief. His face hardened at the image, but he tried, as he had a thousand times, to lift himself from the trough of sadness and loss. For years Corlett had run from the stain of Maya’s death, but now, planning the last leg of his journey home, he felt his time—the time to heal—was finally near. His regrets were receding. Memories of her kisses, of days and nights together, of wine and laughter, had begun to expel the ugliness that had once clung to him like stinking rags.

Now, on this Salamanca morning, amid the smells of dawn’s damp and fresh-baked bread, Corlett watched the locals amble through the plaza, their movements like an undiscovered art, and he felt seduced by their grace. Indeed, before he’d see home, before he’d find love again, some­thing here in Spain, something like re­demption, would seek him out, as if to rescue him from the nightmares, perhaps even save him from his own violent death. But David Gilbért would change all that.

*          *          *

Cartagena, Colombia, October

The gnarled Caribbean city was not like Gdansk, Polish Ocean Lines headquarters and Wojtek Kudelka’s home, once more a grand city after decades of humiliation under the cronyism and lies of Soviet rule. No, Cartagena was different, exotic. In its pungent streets the sea-captain found nightly intoxications that felt like freedom. Give me Latin America, he thought, with its jungle-shore smells, its fulsome women, and its wild, visible corruption. Yes, there were real risks—the crazy drug wars, the beatings, the killings—but if a man sidestepped these dan­gers, life was good for the survivor.

And the seaman was a survivor, enjoying these thirty-six hours on shore. But in two days’ time, he would nose his little freighter, the Czaszki, out of port on the morning tide, into the Caribbean Sea, steering a course east by north: 14 degrees 40 minutes north, 61 degrees 00 minutes west, to Fort-de-France, Martinique, a peaceful harbor in the Windward Isles. Kudelka knew these waters like his own age-stained face, and they conjured up dreams of turquoise coves and languid self-indulgence.

But the salary of a Polish seaman, even a captain, didn’t allow indulgence, so a little contraband, a little bribery, a pliant customs officer—they provided for a man’s monetary health. Money also buys power. Still, no one can know the future, and Kudelka’s captain’s pension wouldn’t keep him forever in money and power, so he had a plan. It was a financial plan, and a plan for that nosy prick of a First Mate, Modrzewski. One had to take risks to get ahead, even risks with other people’s lives, and in a few weeks’ time, in Los Angeles, America, Kudelka would put his plan to work.

A little bent, a little gray, Kudelka sat down on a stool outside Lobo del Mar, his favorite alleyway bar. He leaned back from the smeared, wet tabletop, back against the whitewashed building. Over the fraying cuffs of his black officer’s jacket, he lit a Gitane and ordered a beer, listening in the heat to the Spanish-speaking drinkers, and watching, with mud-brown eyes, the schoolchildren walking home.

Looking up, Kudelka saw a plain, fat-breasted woman leaning out an upstairs window, and he thought of a dozen delectable whores. His idle thoughts always turned to women, especially whores. They were part of his constitution—in Hamburg and Lisbon and Tenerife. And Rio! Yes, those most beautiful women of Brazil, on the hot, white sands of Ipanema, when his young life was as fresh as a trade winds breeze. Now, though, drinking beer outside a Cartagena bar, he was risking that life, plotting his moves against David Gilbért from a wooden stool on the foot-path in the afternoon.

*          *          *

Palos Verdes, California, November

“Hello, this is Gilbért.” The man used the French inflection for his surname—zheelbayhr. Six feet and lean, he cradled the phone between his ear and shoulder as he half-sat, half-stood against a mahogany desk that smelled of lemon oil and leather. A blue-on-maroon Italian necktie hung down his white silk shirt, and his grey-flecked, wavy black hair was swept back above girlish, pale-green eyes.

“Ah, Mr. Gilbért, good day to you.” Felix Aragon spoke in a well-bred South American voice. Unlike Gilbért, he was short and paunchy, with the fashion sense of a colorblind gigolo—orange cotton shirt with turquoise trim, wide-wale lilac corduroys, rosy ostrich-skin cowboy boots. Despite his clothes, however, his office décor was understated, its communications systems robust, with security to match. An international freight forwarder, Aragon was a genius at moving goods through the world’s air- and seaports, putting his clients’ confidentiality first, perhaps even ahead of annoying legal details.

“Felix!” Gilbért replied, “So nice to hear from you.”

“I am calling with news of the Czaszki,” Aragon said. “It will arrive tomorrow, Tuesday, and your shipment’s container should clear San Pedro customs Wednesday. The trucker should have it to Santa Monica the next afternoon, Señor.”

Gilbért’s pulse fluttered and thumped. He had waited for this news all week, for the last month, in fact. “Your service, as usual, is impeccable, but these wines are moving best from our Glendale warehouse,” he lied, “so I’ll need them delivered there, not Santa Monica.” Aragon agreed. “Now as promised, Felix, I’ve had a word with my tailor, so please give him a call. He’ll put your first shirt on my account.”

“Oh, Señor, I will contact him immediately,” Aragon said, fingering the lapel of a neon green-and-silver polyester blazer that hung over his chair. “That is most generous of you.”

“Not at all, amigo.”

The two men concluded some delivery details and Gilbért hung up, then speed-dialed another number. A grape-stained hand, nails bitten to the beds, picked up the landline inside a musty shed in central L.A. After electronic scanners cleared the line for bugs, Gilbért said, “Saturday morning, Pete, seven to seven-thirty, four pallets. I’ll need it done by Monday night, so catch up on your sleep.”

Peter Skidmore’s dreams of a career in winemaking had gone down the toilet with a possession-for-sale drugs charge. He’d done his time, but was now David Gilbért’s lackey, shuttling between the Clos Gilbért estate in Napa and this hut in Echo Park, stuffed behind an old bungalow set back from the street. Out front, on a clapboard fence topped with razor wire, hung a sign that read: Metro Cleaning and Janitorial.

Before Skidmore could reply, Gilbért rang off and speed-dialed again, electronics once more sweeping the line. In French he said, “Georges? Davíd. The goods arrive to Glendale Thursday. We’ll move them out Saturday morning.”

“To Echo Park?”

“Yeah,” Gilbért said, shifting to English. “More street traffic, but the cover’s better and drops are quicker than from the warehouses.” He got no reply. “Helene’s all caught up on Friday’s auction plans, so I’ll see you at the hotel the night before.”

“Look, Davíd, you want to go north until next week? I can oversee the auction and the boys can handle the container.”

“No, thanks.” Gilbért insisted on control. “Besides, I’m flying to Caracas then. You entertain the family until I get back.”

After a long pause, George said, “You know my opinion about the Caribbean thing. We don’t need it anymore.”

“Yeah, I know.” Sometimes his family’s näiveté infuriated Gilbért. He had done the dirty work—very dirty work—for all these years, saved the family’s future, and now his brother expected him just to fold the tent and walk away.

George asked, “How good is your security, here and Caracas?”

Gilbért looked out the window across the Palos Verdes treetops and felt some desperation in his answer. “Merde, Georges, you don’t really find that out until you’re under attack.”



By Lance Mason