Songs Of Bliss
Just how far will a father go to protect his daughter, especially when his 'protection' is so fundamentally flawed?
Billy Whitlow, one time "Don of Doo Wop", has survived his days of drink, drugs and groupies, settling now into a more peaceful life centred on his blossoming seventeen year old daughter Bex. Revising for her 'A' Levels, Bex visits Billy one Easter but the longed-for simplicity of father-daughter happiness is shattered one night in a local nightclub.
A crime thriller set amid the tranquil beauty of North Devon's rolling hills and seaside towns
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Table of Contents
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THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES
A STEEL GREY MERCEDES taxi swings round and leaves a solitary male figure standing at the kerb of the Avinguda de la Mar. It’s early April, three o'clock in the morning, and the temperature is even and comfortable. Lights flicker in dilapidated shop windows. The threat of garish neon that fills most of the visible street front signage hangs cool and dull. The late traveller picks up a single sports holdall and starts to trudge down the Carrer de L'Inginyer Serrano Lloberes, towards the harsh brilliance of the lonely, night-owl bars that stay open into the small hours for insomniac sailors working the aggregate freighters along the Mediterranean coast and beyond. This is the Paseo de Bonavista and the Factoria Rio Tinto, Castellon de la Plana, Spain.
Apartment lights sneak out through shutters closed to the night above the shop facades, and in one of them a crooner sings gently through a tinny transistor radio speaker. American schmaltz. A fifties throwback. Alex Berisa stops at the traffic island at the end of the Serrano Lloberes and watches a lone scooter whine along the Paseo. The sound of drilled out baffles echoes off the stripped back and bare sides of the empty street. A fine layer of dust from the Factoria's processing and shipping of aggregates mutes the surfaces of the street furniture. Shop windows show streaks and diffused shades of colour under the streetlights. Everything that Alex looks at or touches is coated in a whimsy of pulverised stone dust and he wonders what the place is like in high summer when the heat stifles and the breezes off the sea carry thick, choking clouds of powder into the lungs of the local inhabitants. The low level industrial rawness of the port area does not seem so very different from home.
Home is where the heart is, except that Alex's heart is broken. It is not the breaking of bonds with a lover, nor is it the failure of family blood that erodes care and tenderness with the dull edged disappointment that hollows out the soul slowly over the years. Alex is tired. The family, the blood and the honour, the unswerving loyalty are all that he has to sustain him. The empty streets down which he walks at the dead hour of the night are a fitting place for the terminally ill, and he feels as though he has a cancer in his bones, a tumour of hate and revenge placed there by Arbnor Jasari. A doctor. The family doctor. The magician. The chemist. Betrayal lies at the heart of it all, betrayal and a sister who is condemned to spend what remains of her life living like a vegetable. Betrayal and shame. Alex is the Capo Bastone, the trusted captain, the man in day-to-day charge of affairs, managing the family’s business interests in the coastal Adriatic clubs and bars that sit within his family's sphere of influence.
The port area around the Factoria is brutally familiar, just like Durres, a place that Alex has already visited and left behind in his search. Arbnor Jasari is on the run, on the high seas with a satchel full of the family's dollars and little regard for the damage that he has done, for the destruction, for the living death that he has inflicted. Alex nearly chokes on the pain of it all as he heads along the Paseo. A bright red and yellow sign draws him down the street. At arm’s length, in places where people make their choices and live with the consequences, Alex has never before given a second thought to what he does. He cannot afford the luxury of sentiment. It is business, a chance to put the record straight, to make good the loss of honour, to avenge.
The ritual of death, the killing of a couple of family soldiers, is something to be expected. These things happen from time to time in the Berisa family business. For Alex, the betrayal is in the doctor’s running, is in his failure to face up to his responsibilities. It is why Alex is here now, at this late hour, in an industrial dust bowl in a foreign country. He is facing his own responsibilities, and in the facing of them, although he might not mend his heart, he will take a grim satisfaction in doing the right thing. It will sustain him through the hard months and years to come, through the inevitable moments when he has to look at his sister. Rezarta. Beautiful, vacant Rezarta.
As he walks away from the Factoria towards the late-night bars frequented by a polyglot sea of sailors and the hardier members of the local community, he turns to look at the lights on the cargo ships that lie at anchor, loading and unloading, ploughing their way through blue Mediterranean waters. Jasari made his way from Vlore to Durres and hooked up with one of the freight lines, Med-Seva, Russian owned and Maltese registered, spending dollars on a private passage out of Albania. Alex has called in favours to get this far and now he too must spend dollars. The doctor can run, but he can never hide from the Berisa family. Not now. Alex tells himself this again and again as he steps in and out of shadows, but in truth Alex feels the trail already wearing thin. The doctor has a head start of almost a week and Alex is certain that his quarry is already running again.
Low lights and hunched shoulders. Some of the conversation in the bar stops as Alex enters. He is out of place, a tourist, a lamb for the slaughter. He is sporting a day's stubble and he knows that he looks like a fool with a wallet full of hard currency. Alex surveys the room, looking for the tell-tale signs of fellow travellers, ideally someone from his own place and people, but the pale base skin of a Russian will do. In the deep gloom of the bar everyone looks weather beaten, but Alex has a keen eye and a sensitive ear. Slavic undertones. Mannerisms out of place. Alex is also aware of the atmosphere, of the calculations being made about him. He walks up to the bar and orders a beer in faltering Spanish. A table to his right, towards the back of the bar, has a half-finished bottle of vodka on it. Two men sit at the table in quiet conversation. Polo shirts and jeans. Jackets on the backs of their chairs. Western styles. Unmistakable.
Bottle in one hand, bag in the other, Alex walks to the table at the back of the bar and speaks Russian clearly and concisely, "Are you Russian? May I join you for a moment?"
The two men turn silently to look at Alex. They remain seated and soundless for moments that seem to thicken around Alex. The man furthest from him is the first to break eye contact, turning back to his drink, which he downs in one. The second man replies in a thickly accented English accent, "Who wants to know?"
Alex maintains eye contact with the second man as he walks around the table and takes a chair from another empty booth. He sits, putting his bag down between his feet and his beer on the table next to the bottle of vodka. His Russian is accented but technically almost flawless, an essential skill in his line of family business. "No one in particular". He reaches into his inside jacket pocket and pulls out a rough Polaroid picture and a crisp hundred-dollar bill. "No one at all".
Away from the table the conversation levels rise again. It is nothing new, just Russians playing their games in the dark. The locals steer clear. A couple of anonymous merchant marine boys pay for a bottle cheap Spanish brandy and leave the bar. Alex passes the picture to the two sailors at his table and they both stare at the face in the picture for a few seconds. The man in the picture is Doctor Jasari. He looks almost emaciated, but has bright eyes. He has a receding hairline, but the hair is still long, like a prematurely ageing teenage rocker. Dark skin. A smile on thin lips. They both make the same monosyllabic reply to Alex's unasked question; "No".
Alex stands and reaches forward to pick up the picture, but before he can the second of the two Russian sailors slams his hand down on the hundred-dollar bill. Alex smiles and nods. The man's hand closes over the foreign currency, leaving the picture for Alex to pick up. The first sailor looks up at Alex briefly and makes a movement with his eyes towards another group of three men sitting next to the bar's window. "Albanian fucks, like you".
Alex continues to smile at the two Russians. He can feel eyes on his back. A television set on a wall mounted bracket behind the bar is playing satellite Eurosport. A Spanish commentator is going into overdrive about a sweating pack of cyclists. Alex picks up his drink and his bag, steps away from the table slowly and walks towards the front of the bar. The owner of the place is starting to get the fidgets. People asking questions at three-thirty in the morning freak him out. Alex puts his bottle of beer on a free table, walks over to the bar, asks for a bottle of brandy, pays with another hundred-dollar bill and tells the bar owner to keep the change. Greenbacks always take the sting out of the situation. Nearly always. Alex takes a second to lock down the faces and shapes of a couple of guys falling prey to money-lust over in the far corner. For their sakes, he hopes that they don’t think him easy to shake down.
The group by the window respond to a familiar accent. One of them is even acquainted with the family name, which helps to lubricate those parts of the conversation that the brandy and three further folded bills cannot reach. The picture is passed round the group, but none of them have anything positive to say. Alex is already scanning the bar for other likely sources of information as the men take a second large shot from the bottle of brandy. The conversation drifts to stories of home, Tirana, Vlore, dreams of fishing boats and fat, fecund wives. The travelling world is full of stories of home, stories of darling little girls ripped from the bosom of beauty. Alex bids them have a good night and, spotting no more likely targets, picks up his bag and heads for the door.
He is followed. Alex knows that he is being followed. The tail is good but not good enough. In fact, thinks Alex, oddly not good enough, as though his shadower is trying too hard not to be spotted. Alex has flown to Spain and he is relatively unarmed, carrying only a knife borrowed from one of the airport canteens, which makes it a difficult but not an impossible situation. He heads for the Factoria. There are no cars on the road, no mopeds, nothing but the lights along the Paseo. Alex is in no mood to play games. He is tired and frustrated. He turns to face the following footsteps. It takes Alex a second to recognise the face of the second Russian. He was expecting one of the green-eyed boys from the table in the far corner of the bar. The Russian sailor beckons Alex into a doorway beyond the dim street lighting.
"You have more money?"
Alex nods slowly but he doesn't reach for his jacket pocket. "Depends on what you've got to say". The Russian considers this for a moment and then shrugs his shoulders. He whispers in good English, "This face, I saw it. We are held up here by another ship. Kozlov line. Some problem with engine. This face, he was on board. Paid big dollars to one of her officers, a stupid Ukrainian boy who fancied himself and had a big mouth. The man in the picture sailed on that boat. He left some days ago, maybe two weeks, for England."
Alex can feel his heart rate quickening. The man has yet to give him any detail that can be corroborated, but the smell of Jasari is suddenly in the air, in his nostrils. Alex needs facts. "Yes, that's good, but how, where did you see him, what was the ship’s name, where was it heading?"
The Russian looks at Alex and then at his jacket pocket. "I give you information. You want more you pay".
Cold, hard cash. It is what it all boils down to every single time. Alex feeds the man one more bill and holds another four in his hand. "So?"
"I say, Kozlov line. Valentin. I know this man is on board. I saw him one night in the ship’s mess. We went over to play cards, to take this Ukrainian boy’s money. Your man was sitting quietly in a corner reading a book. I’m sure it was him. The Valentin goes to Bideford, Devon and then on to Lovissa, Finland"
A grand. Ten big ones. The world turns on every black and white, Bogart cliché and every one of those old, worn out phrases is worth the breath and billfold. Alex has a destination, somewhere to aim for, a target upon which he can train his sights. He is on his way, walking the empty streets of Castellon de la Plana with a spring in his step. A taxi. A train. A flight to Paris and the Eurostar. How long, he wonders, does it take to sail from Castellon to England? He forgot to ask.
Alex makes a call on his mobile, long distance, roaming the night’s dusty airwaves for the comfort delivered by a familiar voice. The receiving phone rings ten or eleven times before someone picks up and a woolly voice answers.
Alex gets down to the gist of it without delay. "Xhev, it's London. Meet me as soon as you can. I'm going to be travelling for a couple of days so call me with the details. Oh, I'll need a hire car and the proper equipment. Make the arrangements, Okay?"