The Italians

The knife glinted as Elizabeth presented it to the grindstone. She had four more to sharpen and she smiled sweetly at Ralph as the sparks flew away from her. He returned the smile.
‘I’ll miss you darling,’ he said, placing a bundle of shirts into his battered suitcase.
‘How long will you be gone this time?’
‘You know I can’t answer that. I’ll be back as soon as I can.’
Ralph was a colourful character, as was Elizabeth, a circus knife-thrower. It was common knowledge in covert security circles that the CIA had employed her at some stage, to train their agents in knife throwing. The couple also had dealings with the Italians, though nobody knew in what capacity. On one occasion when Ralph was away on one of his jaunts, Elizabeth was invited to attend a glitzy dinner party with the Italians in New York. She hadn’t seen Ralph for some time and she was feeling lonely and unwanted. Perhaps it was the wine, the famous Italian-American hospitality, the glittering occasion, her incredibly handsome host, or a combination of all these things, but she decided to unburden herself. Her marriage to Ralph had been difficult and at times lonely and bleak.
‘I haven’t heard from him for over five weeks now,’ she heard herself saying. ‘I know it’s difficult and I understand his work makes it hard,’ her head was down and her voiced trembled as she spoke quietly, ‘but all I want is a phone call now and again; just to know that he thinks of me.’
Ricard Riccheldi took Elizabeth’s chin in his olive-skinned hand, gently lifted her face upwards and drilled into her soul with his coal-black eyes. ‘I do not understand how he can treat you like thees Eleezabeth.’ His voice was chocolate rich and whipped-cream, smooth. ‘If you were mine I could never leave you,’ he lied.
She smiled her embarrassed smile. He pressed a small card into her hand. The skin in the nape of her neck tingled as his hand touched hers. ‘If there is ever anything I can do Eleezabeth, anything at all, you must promise to call me.’
‘Yes. Yes of course.’ She looked straight into his eyes; they were two black wells, deep and welcoming, brimming with promise and passion. It would take so little to fall into them… ‘No!’ She told herself. Although Ralph’s thoughtlessness hurt her from time to time, she did love him and she would never betray him.
Many months later, she was going through another phase when Ralph had been away for several weeks without contact. She wondered how long she could sustain her sham of a marriage. She was so lonely, her body starved of love and her mind of conversation. If only he would phone occasionally. It wasn’t too much to ask. Deep in her sadness she was busying herself clearing out a drawer when she came across Ricard Riccheldi’s business card. She stared at it for a full fifteen minutes, remembering those bottomless, dark eyes, before slowly reaching for the phone…
*
The humidity in New Orleans, Louisiana, was almost unbearable. The air conditioning had failed and Ralph tossed and turned fitfully in his hotel bed. It was just coming up to 1:35 am when the door burst open and two big Italians charged into his room. Before he could react, one of them thrust an automatic pistol into his face.
‘Are you Ralph Green?’ said one of the mobsters.
‘Yes’ stammered Ralph, ‘why… what’s wrong?’
‘Never mind. You’re coming with us.’
‘Can I get dressed?’
‘No just put a coat on… and MOVE IT!’
They manhandled him out of the room and frog-marched him through the hotel’s deserted corridors until they came to the service lift and bundled him inside.
‘Listen… I think there has been some misunderstanding…’
‘There’s been no misunderstanding.’
‘But you’ve got it all wrong…’
‘Forget it bud. NOW SHUT IT! One more word and it’s your last!’ The thug jammed his pistol into Ralph’s ribs making him wince with pain.
The lift stopped at the basement car-park and Ralph could see the white stretch-limousine with tinted windows… then a black hood was pulled over his head, his hands were swiftly tied behind his back with plastic cable-ties, and he was thrown into the back of the vehicle. His mind was racing, What the hell was this all about? He had always managed to stay on the right side of these people. He’d always maintained good relationships with them, but this was serious. What had gone wrong? Someone had obviously framed him for something and his brain was scanning his memory files at lightning speed, desperate for a clue, or a sliver of thought that could lead him to a solution.
They drove on… and on. Fatigue overtook him and he dozed fitfully as the car smoothed its way through the night. Eventually, the sound of the open road became different. The noise of trucks, motorcycles, buses and cars told him he was in a big, wakening, city. He was still completely clueless as to why he was there. Shortly, the car started making several turns and culminating in a sweeping turn to the right, it came to a stop and the engine was switched off. Ringing footsteps, metal-tipped heels on concrete, approached the vehicle and his door was yanked opened. Piercing jewels of sunlight stabbed through the course weave of the black hood, bringing a watery ache to his eyes.
‘Are you Ralph Green?’ said the voice. It was coarse and crude, a mixture of Italian and American Jewish.
‘Yes. But I…’
‘SILENCE!’ There was another poke in the ribs. Their voices had a ring about them, reverberating through the air. He was aware of standing on a hard concrete floor; all this, coupled with the strong smell of exhaust fumes confused him, for at the same time a light breeze was gently plucking at the fabric of his hood. Maybe he was in a multi-story car park. Perhaps with open sides. His mind was still racing, trying to paint a picture without the benefit of sight.
The men pushed him forward, guiding him into what seemed to be a small room. The sound of sliding doors and the slight jolt told him he was in an elevator. After speeding skywards for what seemed to be ages, he rose onto the balls of his feet as the breaking system brought the elevator to a halt. With a whining sound, the doors slid open. He was pushed firmly out of the elevator, his feet sinking into the deep pile of a soft, wool carpet.
The hood was tugged from his head and he blinked briefly as his eyes focused. He was in a large, windowless, annex, facing two double doors with big oak handles. In front of him there was the classic suited Italian mobster – with shaded jowls, hands behind his back and feet spread apart. He exchanged nods with Ralph’s escorts and produced a long, ebony-handled, flick-knife. After waving it menacingly in front of Ralph’s face, he sliced through the plastic ties that held Ralph’s hands together.
‘Are you Ralph Green?’
‘Yes. What’s…’
‘Shut your mouth. And don’t try anything Green.’ said the mobster indicating the room behind the doors with a nod of his head. ‘There’s a shot-gun built in to his desk and his left foot is resting on a peddle-trigger.’ The doors were opened and Ralph felt a hand in the small of his back push him into the room. An instant later, the doors were closed behind him, leaving him standing there, rubbing his wrists, and facing the single occupant. The man stared at him in silence, enjoying the moment, building the tension… then slowly, he raised his hand and beckoned. Ralph began the long walk across the soft carpet, passing expensive antique furniture and curtain-lined walls. Behind the occupant, who was seated at a rosewood desk, was a window the size of a movie screen, giving a stunning view across the skyscraper rooftops of a vast American city. He approached the occupant, another dark-haired, olive-skinned Italian.
‘Are you Ralph Green?’ said the Italian.
‘Yes… Why?’
The Italian picked up the telephone and holding out the handset with more than a hint of menace he said:
‘PHONE YOUR WIFE!’