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I stared at the oncoming lights. “I’ve been fine Atwell. How are you?”
His reply was unctuous and separate from reality. “I’m an American in France. Does it get any better?”
Given the treatment I sometimes received as an expatriate in France I wasn’t sure I followed Atwell’s logic, but I didn’t want to prolong our conversation. So I replied, “I suppose not.”
I could feel Atwell glance my way, trying to gauge my temperature. His efforts at being subtle equalled his attempts at conversation. He abandoned both with, “So I heard it was an interesting evening at the casino.”
“Yes,” was my honest reply. I didn’t see a reason to go mentioning Balaclava or the fact that Mitnick was likely the one who sicced him on me.
Atwell impatience hardened his exterior. Exiting the motorway towards the city’s interior he said, “Tell me about it.”
I knew that this was likely the reason Atwell had shown up, so I had been mentally preparing a report. “Marek Mitnick was gambling at the casino this evening. I became aware of his presence around 11:00 p.m. Around 11:30 Carlu Sarti arrived and proceeded to threaten Mitnick with a pistol, physically assaulting him and evicting him from the premises.”
I detached from the conversation with, “I suspect they may have been in the midst of a dispute.”
I felt Atwell’s impatience slowly roasting into anger over my dry listlessness. He pulled into an alley, still dark in the pre-dawn hours, formed by the segmented columns and ogival stone arches of two neo-classic buildings. “And you didn’t think I needed to know that?”
“You seem to have heard about it all on your own.”
“Both Carlu and Marek work for us.” “Us” meaning “U.S.” meaning government. The idea that men that powerful were pawns of whatever obscure anti-terrorist department Atwell was a part of struck me as unlikely. I said so.
“Believe it,” he relied. “There’s a lot of shipping that comes through this part of the world. And they tell us if anything is coming our way that we need to know about.”
“In exchange you let them operate without interference from law enforcement. I wouldn’t call that ‘working for you.’” This was a guess on my part, but not an unreasonable one.
“That sounds kind of like what me and you got going on. You saying you don’t work for me?” In the dim light of passing headlights Atwell looked a lot like Jasper in that moment.
Thinking about how I got here and Atwell’s cheap manipulation I felt my fingers flex. Instead of wrapping them around his throat I replied, “I don’t see a W-2 with my name on it.”
It was Atwell’s turn to half-grin. “You’re a funny guy.”
“Yeah, that’s what all my co-workers say. ‘The American, he’s a funny guy.’ I mean, I think it’s hilarious that you let guys like Marek and Sarti get away with bloody murder just in case they might be able to tell you something.” In controlling my anger I couldn’t let some of my disapproval slip out.
I could nearly feel Atwell switch gears into pedantic. “Let me ask you something. If you were given the chance to go back in time and kill baby Hitler, would you do it?”
I gave Atwell a look that I hoped communicated how stupid a question I thought that was. “If I could time travel, I’d probably just buy some of his art.”
Not surprisingly, this only appeared to confuse him. “What?”
“He wanted to be an artist. If someone had supported that ambition he probably would have lived his life out in Vienna hocking postcards.”
The idea there might be a solution to his question other than the one he possessed only deepened Atwell’s confusion. He just shook off what I was saying and got to the conclusion he wanted. “The point is, sometimes you need to do bad things to get good results.”
I had seen that kind of logic get manipulated by desert nomads as ignorant as any redneck and I had seen the piles of corpses that had resulted. But rather than try to explain that I replied, “Or you could just mollify his ambitions a bit and prevent him from turning into a monster.”
“Mollify? Fancy words like that, no wonder you think you’re so smart.”
“I had a lot of time to read in Umbria.”
“And unless you want to go back you’ll help me figure out what the beef is between Marek and Sarti. I can’t have them fighting each other right now.”
Tired of trying to be subtle, I reach for the obvious conclusion. “If Marek’s Russian mob –”
That was the first useful thing Atwell had said in the conversation and it gave me pause. After a moment I continued, “If he’s not Corsican and Sarti treated him like that, it means he thinks Marek is moving in on this territory.” I turned to stare out the windshield. “There. Mystery solved.” A part of me wondered if Marek knew about my reporting to Atwell and my relationship with Sarti. It would explain why he had pointed Balaclava in my direction. Again, I didn’t see a reason to mention this to Atwell.
Atwell’s growing impatience translated into his face with a wolfish smile. “If that’s the case, find out what they’re ‘disputing’ about. I want details so we can make this go away.”
I faced Atwell to let him know I was taking him seriously, “OK.” Satisfied, Atwell gestured towards the passenger side door, letting me know I had been dismissed.
As I moved to exit the car, Atwell added something as if it were meant to be an afterthought. “Your lady friend has been asking questions. Any idea what that’s about?”
“None.” My tone was flat enough that I doubted he could detect the lie.
But he might have, ‘cause he chose to bait me with, “Well, she’s been sucking dick down at the SIV.” Still turned away from him I could feel more than see his smile. “I thought you might want to know about that.”
In the dark, narrow alley I did some quick and angry math: At this time of night, in this part of town, chances were good no one had seen me in the car with Atwell. In the contained space of the BX I could kill him without too much noise and disappear. Anyone who did see me probably wouldn’t be the type to go to the cops.
Either way, though, without Atwell, I’d be a fugitive again, and Sophie could end up on her own. So instead of murdering the opportunistic weasel I just said, “Now who’s a funny guy?”
Atwell guffawed and banged on the steering wheel with the root of his palm. “I just love fucking with you.”
Feeling the first light of the coming day begin to glow around the city I smiled and told him, “Enjoy your breakfast.” Then I stepped out and closed the car door.
Watching the sedan trundle down the alley and disappear into the shadows created by the two old stone giants I wondered about how Sophie had become acquainted with Atwell. And even though I tried to keep my mind away from it I wondered how she had convinced him to spring me. On a rational level I knew that these questions were what his comment was designed to provoke. The fact that I was letting it work only made me angrier.