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I was first officially introduced to Marek Mitnick in the abandoned mansion’s veranda, light coming in from a glass dome ceiling and a long bank of curved, paned glass for an outside wall. Either brought here for staging pieces or for Mitnick’s use, there were two white chairs and a wicker table. Other than that the room was only decorated in sunlight, one of the walls half-painted, as if someone had just walked off the job.
I lowered the pistol as I entered. Without taking himself away from the conversation, Mitnick held up an index finger, indicating he’d be with us in a moment. I noticed that unlike Whip or Brick, he didn’t have any tattoos on his hands or poking out from his cuffs or collar. As he spoke he paced with a clipped, decisive energy and I wondered if he had any formal training. Not a soldier, but maybe something else.
He had good instincts, though – he sensed something was wrong. Glancing up he noted Brick’s teary-eyed state, then gave us all a harder look. Spotting the pistols in my hands, he said something quickly to whomever he was speaking with and ended the conversation with a tap of his thumb.
Since the guns weren’t pointed at anyone, Mitnic gave the faintest of smiles. “Dur and Zakhar were to bring you here. Not the other way around.”
I stepped forward between his two goons, feeling their growing anger and shame as I put them behind me. Pretending I had every confidence they wouldn’t jump me I unloaded the pistols one at a time and laid them on the table. Knowing I was now command away from a beatdown, I put my hands into my peacoat pockets and said to Mitnick, “Yeah.”
After a few moments of silence filling the veranda Mitnick grinned. “You are khladnokrovnyy. That’s rare in an American.”
I didn’t understand the adjective, but I got the idea. I decided to prove his point by only replying with, “Thanks.”
Mitnick chuckled at that and introduced himself, holding a hand to his chest to indicate his personage rather than shaking hands. I did the same, but I kept my hands in my pockets and pretended I didn’t know who he was.
Mitnick reached into his sport coat to produce a pack of cigarettes. The same illicit brand that Brick was smoking, but unlike his underling he offered me one. I held up my hand and politely declined. Lighting his, he said, “I had heard there was an American working at the casino.” He shook out the wooden match. “You’re an outsider like us. Why would you treat us this way?” He gestured towards his two men but said it like he had been in the car as well.
I didn’t answer immediately – Mitnick wasn’t at all what I had expected from a mobster from Belarus. I couldn’t be certain, but below the friendly admiration he was showing me I could sense an undercurrent of anger. Or maybe something darker.
I realized then I wasn’t out of danger, that despite the smile Mitnick took the insult I had given his men seriously. If that was the case then showing weakness now could be the most dangerous thing, so I decided to do a little play-acting of my own.
I shook my head, “Not like you.”
Mitnick raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“Not like you.” I repeated, sending my finger roaming through the air to point out Mitnick’s much nicer wardrobe, with his sports jacket and most likely bespoke trousers and shirt. “You look to be doing pretty well for yourself.”
Mitnick smiled through his beard at that, revealing the big white teeth everyone had mentioned. “Perhaps we can do something about that.”
Pretending not to understand I hardened the space around my eyes. “What do you mean?”
“You work at the casino.”
“You know that I do.” I kept my face of stone. A part of me was enjoying keeping Mitnick and his gang guessing. Watching his calculations of me dilute the anger that ran underneath his facade only added to that.
Instead of addressing the questions my statement brought up, though, Mitnick said, “One of the owners has decided that he will no longer allow me on the premises.”
That was one way of describing his confrontation with Carlu. I nodded and replied, “I had heard something about that.”
He flashed another smile, hiding whatever embarrassment he might show at the pasting he had gotten. “It’s very petty really. I am a foreigner here so I have tried to make friends with important people: politicians, judges, bankers, leaders of industry. This is how one makes money.” He bunched up his shoulders, gesturing with his cigarette, as if what he was saying was the most natural thing in the world. “But this man, this Carlu, is jealous of me, so has forbidden me from the casino.”
I shrugged, trying to communicate a disdain for a rich man’s problems that I couldn’t possibly understand. “So? You got so many friends, go hang out somewhere else.”
The smile brightened by a few candelas. “I like to gamble.”
I almost said, “I bet you like to launder money, too,” but thought better of it. Instead I considered Jasper and how easy it would be for someone like Mitnick to get him on the payroll. But here I was having this conversation with him.
Again, I wondered if Mitnick knew about Atwell, but countered with, “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I don’t have any kind of personal relationship with the casino owners. It’s not like I can put in a good word for you.”
Mitnick frowned playfully, conveying he would never ask such a thing. “No, no. I would just like you to keep an eye out for me. To let me know if anything changes on the inside. Perhaps if the situation evolves, I might be able to persuade others to allow me to return.”
“You want me to watch the place for you?”
“So why did you send those three voyous after me?”
Mitnick’s confusion at that question was so plain that I couldn’t tell if he was a very good liar or if he had forgotten about it. How many beatings does one have to order to have something like that slip your mind?
Mitnick blinked as if it were coming back to him. “The idiots?” he asked, forever branding the trio in my mind. They were now and forevermore The Idiots, capital ‘I’.
His smile resurfaced as he gestured to me like he had never had any doubt how that encounter was going to turn out. “I wanted to see if you could handle yourself. I need to know whoever is working for me doesn’t rattle easy.” He smiled more broadly, as if we were sharing an inside joke. “Is khladnokrovnyy.”
I didn’t go to mentioning that the confrontation with Sarti had only happened after he had sicced the voyous on me. It was possible, probably likely, that Mitnick knew trouble was coming before it showed up. But this might be the only opportunity I got to ask about the Corsican directly. “So what was their friend bothering you about? The Corsican,” I added at the end for clarification.
Again a flash of almost too-real confusion, then a moment of dawning recollection and that shrug of dismissal. “The boy? He had lost to me in gambling. He was upset.”
Now that felt like a lie. Mitnick was a little too casual, a little too dismissive. I prodded him with, “He had mentioned a girl.”
The flash in Mitnick’s eyes couldn’t have been more obvious than a magnesium flare. Whoever this mystery girl was she meant more to him than some poor Eastern European brought over to hustle for the mob or some sexual conquest.
Mitnick stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette and stood up straight, buttoning his jacket. If he had been unbuttoning his jacket I would have been worried again about that beatdown – Mitnick was tall, in good shape for a man in his late forties, and something about the way he moved said he could through a punch. But nobody buttons a jacket for a fight. So it wasn’t a surprise when spoke about violence instead of committing it. “A man will say many things in order to avoid a thrashing.” He smiled again, close enough now I could smell the cigarette on his breath. “All you have to say is yes.” He stopped smiling. “Will you keep an eye out at the casino for me?”
I decided that playing to the attributes Mitnick admired was the way to go. “How much does it pay?”
That got a good laugh out of him, rich and filled with appreciation. Hearing it made some lizard part of my brain feel good, like a well-trained dog must feel when it receives praise from its owner, and I realized how Mitnick, at least in part, kept his men in line. They might just love the bastard.
As the echo of that laughter died away Mitnick took a wad of Euros out of his pocket and counted out a sizable number of high denomination bills. “This we will begin with.” He handed it to me and I only paused for a moment before taking it. “When you have news there will be more.”
I made a show of counting the money. It was more than a month’s pay at the casino. “How do I get in touch with you?”
Reaching into his jacket Mitnick produced a small flip phone. I realized how big his hands were – the device looked like a child’s toy in his grip. “Take this.” He smiled, pointing at it as I did. “Now you have me on speed dial.” He gave me that inside joke smile again.
I nodded and put the phone away without giving it a second glance. “OK.”
“I must tend to things now, but soon we will go someplace just as private as this and have drinks, meet women.” He winked, pointing at me. “You will have a good time.”
Stepping forward he placed a hand on my shoulder and turned me around to face Whip and Bull. “Now we are all on the same team, yes?” He took the pointing hand and gestured to all of us one at a time, “We all will get along?”
Bull wiped at one of his eyes again, but otherwise didn’t give any indication that what happened in the car had bothered him. Whip nodded but there was still murder in his eyes.
Mitnick saw this or just knew his men. He indicated Brick. “Dur, you will drive.” He took his hand off my shoulder and gestured to Whip with it. “Zakhar you will stay here with me. I need you for something.”
Whip relaxed a little, his ego assuaged by this. He took the keys out of his pocket and gave them to Brick who turned back towards the garage without a word. I followed him.
I thought for certain he’d say something on the way back down, but staying true to the nom de guerre I had given him, he didn’t. He didn’t even ask me where I wanted to be dropped off, just pulled up in front of a tabac, its neon sign barely showing up in the mid-day sun. I stepped out of the Mercedes and into the tabac shop, passed a protesting merchant and out the screen door in the back. I wasn’t sure how much Mitnick and his crew knew about me but there was no reason to let them follow now.