The thrill of the sea spray, the wind, the bouncing and jostling of the Zodiac always excited Beni. He could think of nothing he would prefer at three in the morning. Not so his navigator, Stefano, wobbling in the front, armed with the compass, who kept waving and shouting directions when the boat veered, pushed off course by an unforgiving sea. Beni could imagine Stefano’s free hand gripping the rope so tightly his knuckle bones would be shining in the moonlight.
When they reached the open sea, and the shadow of the Sorrento coast hid Capri, the waves tried to knock Stefano out of the boat. Beni screamed at the thrill, and Stefano screamed at him to slow down. Tough on Stefano, though, because Beni had the wheel. And what a wheel. What speed. Someone told him how many knots the Zodiac could do. With no idea what knots were, he still knew that if he pulled the throttle back to the stop, he would be doing more than thirty klicks an hour, which, at sea, was a fantastic and scary feeling.
Stefano started to wave his red dimmed torch, just visible in the predawn black, when a beam of light lanced from a point at sea where no land could be. Beni eased back on the throttle and grinned. The freighter. As soon as they had slowed enough to be gently rocking in the waves, he lifted his halogen torch and flashed a response. It was a game. Scortese had told him the Guardia[i] could do nothing. They were outside Italian waters. The threat would be when they were returning.
Beni didn’t think there was much threat, even then. This was his fourth trip, and he’d seen nothing of the sbirri[ii] or the Guardia. It was as if they didn’t care. They had billions of lire’s worth of hi-tech boats resting idly in the port of Miseno. Sure, he’d listened to those engines booming across the bay. Anyone who lived around Baia had heard them. They shook buildings and made teeth rattle. Beni had never seen an interceptor, but he’d felt one often enough.
It didn’t take long to load the crates into the Zodiac. The men hanging out of a loading door in the ship’s hull held their peace. Beni knew they only spoke Russian and supposed they didn’t care if the AKs went to the correct buyer because they’d get their money either way. Ten minutes and he was again feeling the thrill of pure power. The boat’s bow lifted out of the waves like some monstrous creature from the deep, one of the spooky black and white ones from the American films he’d snuck in to see.
They’d made it into the gap between Capri and the coast when Stefano once more started to wave his torch frantically like he was trying to swat some elusive mosquito. Beni eased off the throttle and let the Zodiac come to a rest, swaying gently in the wash, the outboard quietly chugging and spitting sea spray.
‘Can’t you hear it?’ Stefano asked, stress evident in his tone. Beni could imagine his frown, invisible in the red glow, mouth and eyes nothing but black.
Cupping his ear, he listened. Finally, he could hear a muted roar over the chugging of their engine.
‘What’s that?’ he asked.
‘That’s the Guardia interceptor. They’re coming for us.’
‘How do they know we’re here?’
‘I dunno. Radar, maybe,’ Stefano replied.
‘What are we going to do?’ Beni asked.
‘We’ll have to run for it. Hope they miss us.’
‘Are they likely to?’
‘No idea. Only one way to find out.’ Stefano’s tone was a sure indication of what he thought their chances might be. Beni knew if the light had been enough, he would see Stefano’s face etched with panic lines.
‘So, let’s find out then,’ he said.
They found out quickly.
As they raced out from their cover, someone flicked a switch, and the interceptor glared at them with a halogen beam, which made daylight appear wherever it touched. Tall explosions of water in front of the Zodiac were accompanied by the dub-dub-dub of heavy machine gunfire and a mechanical voice ordering them to heave to. They couldn’t argue with the twin guns mounted to the front of the boat, which would tear the Zodiac into plastic strips while churning Stefano and Beni into shark bait. Beni turned the engine off and waited calmly.
He had nothing to fear.
Before long, a Zodiac like theirs appeared in the light thrown by the interceptor. It was smaller, and Beni guessed it had been launched off the other vessel. There were Guardia in it, pointing guns at them.
‘Get your hands up.’
He could see Stefano shaking. Neither of them had been arrested before, but Beni knew he would not spend more than a single night in custody because Beni made sure to give his tame sbirro the odd scrap of information. His insurance policy. He never told the cop anything of importance, just gossip, but the man was about as bright as a beachball and took it all as though it was Christmas.
Less than ten minutes later, they were pulling themselves up the boarding ladder into the Guardia’s boat. The boat impressed Beni. He couldn’t ignore the beauty of its hard lines and massive engines, throbbing right into his guts, making his teeth ache. Jumping onto the deck, he found a man standing there wearing chinos and a summer jacket. The man had his arms crossed and was grinning.
‘Where’s your uniform?’ Beni asked before he could stop himself.
‘Not Guardia. I’m a sbirro from Pozzuoli. Just observing here.’
‘What? Like watching the boat crew? That’s a bit creepy, isn’t it?’
‘What’s your name, guaglio?’ the man asked, his accent causing Beni to frown. Most cops he dealt with were not from around Napoli. In fact, they tended to be from north of Rome – way north of Rome.
‘You a local?’
‘Baia born and bred. Why’d you ask?’
‘No reason. Curiosity.’
‘So, what’s your name, kid?’
‘Beni Di Cuma.’
The cop smiled and nodded, making like he was on Beni’s side. The idiot thought Beni would be swayed by his false friendship because they were paisan[iii]. He didn’t need any buddies in the cops. He had his sbirro in Pozzuoli, who worked for the Secret Service. His wannabe handler. The one who would have the power to keep him out of La Casa. Beni would be eating lunch in Pescatore’s come midday.
‘This’ll warm you up,’ the sbirro offered his hipflask. Beni took a swig before handing it to Stefano.
‘Who’d you work for, Beni? My guess is the Scortese crew.’
Beni shrugged and turned to look at the silhouette of Capri, quickly receding as they headed into port. He thought the cop knew well enough. He thought they all knew. Did they not talk to each other? He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. All the different types of cops Naples had, and they all thought they were better than the others. The Gatti Neri[iv], the Guardia, the sbirri, all thought the others should bow to them. Never mind the Secret Service, who – chosen by God himself – bowed to no one.
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[i] Guardia di Finanza – Italy’s customs and excise law enforcement agency, responsible for border protection as well as customs.
[ii] Sbirro – Italian slang. Closest English (Universal) would be a cop. Plural form would be sbirri.
[iii] Paisan – Neapolitan slang. Peasant. Used to mean compatriots.
[iv] Gatti Neri – Neapolitan. Black Cats. Nickname for the Carabinieri, Italy’s military police. See notes.