A hefty dark cloud had rolled across the sun, leaving the park in the sort of grey half-light that threatened rain.
"What happened to him? The guy in the cellar?" asked Mercuro. Mike's shoulders heaved up and dropped in a heavy shrug.
"He was killed. I don't know how, or who did it, but I'm certain he wasn't destined to live very long after I saw him."
"Did you know that then?"
"And it didn't bother you?"
"Don't you understand yet what kind of a child I was? What kind of a man I am? Of course it didn't bother me. If Fernando wanted him to die, he must deserve to die and he would die."
"Wow." Mercuro turned his head away and stared down and his feet as the first few droplets of rain flicked the top of his boots. "You've done an impressive job of sticking this dead guy on a pedestal," he said in a voice that was forcedly light.
"Don't say that," Mike snapped, stepping suddenly forwards and whipping around so that he blocked Mercuro's path and faced him fully. "I told you, everything I say about Fernando is how I felt then and how I feel now. I have not," he jabbed one finger angrily at Mercuro, "moulded an idol out of a dead man."
Mercuro raised his hands and took a pace backwards.
"Okay, calm down," he said gently. "I'm sorry. It's just me being stupid, I didn't mean that."
Mike lowered his finger slowly, turned away and began to walk again.
"Fernando's sister once said to me that there was an element of self-destructiveness in his behaviour, and when I look back now I can see what she meant. Though he was shocked and hurt when I made my decision, I think a part of him had always known that there could be no other result in his knowing me, and yet he took me in anyway. He desired a pupil, and though he claimed to want to teach me everything but his work, I'm almost certain that he must have known there was no way he could keep it from me.
"That same day, in the library, he began to explain to me what he did. He described himself as a Mind for Hire. He ran the Organised Crime racket of the City – he'd risen to the top in his twenties and stayed there for decades – but would only take part in crimes that required mental effort. His employees were free to participate in whatever activities they wanted as long as they only attached his name to deeds he approved of. He was at the head of the drugs trade and dealt with importation – he didn't care what happened to the drugs once they reached the City, but he would organise their transportation from overseas to England and then from the ports to here. He was also the man to go to if you wanted someone to disappear. He would examine each individual case before planning carefully the best disposal method – he staged suicide, framed other people, caused the victim to simply vanish – depending on who was likely to search for the victim and what scene they would find believable should they find the body. But the most impressive jobs Fernando pulled off were the raids.
"Fernando was not only capable of succeeding in the City environment – that is to say, in an environment where the law is almost entirely in the hands of the people. He was a man of taste and liked to acquire fine things that sometimes even wealth couldn't buy him. He was incredibly fond of antique statues and pottery, and some rare pieces that he wanted to have in his collection were kept locked away in museums where even his money could not get them removed. As much as Fernando loved museums – there were many historical artefacts he liked to admire but did not feel the desire to possess – he had stumbled across a few pieces in his time that he was so drawn to that he needed them. Of these he kept a list in a notebook, along with sketches or photographs of the objects and pages and pages of notes about them, and every so often he would say to me, 'I'm going on a treasure hunt today, Little Michael,' and disappear for a day or two and return with something precious that would soon turn up on the news. These raids, he later taught me, were meticulously planned, each tiny detail considered, carefully considered for months before the final plans were drawn up. The perfect day had to be chosen, the perfect team selected; every time had to be the perfect heist.
"He never took me on one of these jobs. He told me that one day, when I had learnt more from him, he would find a place for me in his team, but for now he did not want me getting myself into trouble. I always wanted...
"Anyway, that's the kind of man he was: a criminal mastermind. He never left a trace, never could be caught, never let anyone who worked for him get caught.
"I don't think I felt much of a change in my life when I started my lessons. I'd passed the point of no return, as I said, but I think I only know that now with hindsight. At the time, my life carried on as it had for the past three years. I visited Fernando after school and continued to study the same things I had been fascinated by before, only now I had special lessons with Fernando as well on the days that he was there, which would be three or four times a week. At first it was always just be me and him, and he would explain to me what he had been doing recently – not sparing me the grisly details – until I had a broad understanding of his work. When he decided I was ready, he allowed me to join him and his brothers, along with other people who were not always the same – other members of his team – and listen to what he referred to as their Team Debrief. This took place in the cellar, where several high-backed chairs surrounded the large table – though the chair that man had been tied to was never there again and had presumably been disposed of – and drinks were always lined up on a smaller table in the corner to be decanted into the delicate crystal glasses or thick tumblers. The men would fill each other in on the latest news of the City – opportunities for work, people who needed 'seeing to' and so on. I learnt a great deal about deception in those meetings. I would listen while pouring whiskey or brandy or fine Italian wines, and when the meeting was over and talk turned away from business they would always make a bit of a fuss of me, telling me how I was growing into a fine young man, how lucky I was that I had been taken in by Fernando, how bright my future was. I thoroughly enjoyed the attention. Even though I had always been fussed over in Fernando's house, the novelty had never worn off.
"He didn't just teach me how to commit crimes, you understand; he taught me how to think like him so that I would have the tools to create master plan myself rather than only knowing how to mimic what he had already done. He taught me his eight principles, which he made me recite to him every time I saw him so that I would never forget them, and he taught me what they all meant in practise. He taught me how to control my emotions so that they would not be able to interfere with my logical thinking, he taught me how to mask my face to hide my thoughts from people and how to think about everything I say to avoid slipping up and giving a piece of potentially vital information to someone without realising it. He taught me...he taught me everything I know about how to compose myself and how to feel or not feel. He taught me self-discipline."
Mercuro almost interrupted as Mike paused again. He very much wanted to tell Mike he should never have liked this man, that it was his fault Mike was so fucked up and that he sounded like a dreadful role model, but he did not want to risk Mike closing up again now that he was so close to knowing the whole story. Not trusting himself to say anything at all, Mercuro held his tongue and waited.
"I was twelve when everything went wrong. If there is a God, It was toying with me. If there's a God, It's a spiteful fiend without a trace of compassion who likes to build us up and lull us into a false sense of security just so It can strike us down and revel in our falls. I think It really hates me.
"It was early February and Fernando was going to take me out on a job with him. Not one of his grand heists, I was nowhere near ready for one of those, but not a mere scare trip either. He was taking me with him to, as he put it, 'dispense with a colleague who has become a liability.' A mole had tried to infiltrate Fernando's group in order to find a weak spot that his enemies could exploit. Fortunately, Fernando was never the type to trust easily and the mole had not made it past the first hurdle so to speak. I was to go with Fernando and two of his nephews to watch them kill this man and get rid of the body. It was my first time 'in the field' and I remember feeling rather excited and not at all nervous.
"It was the evening of the fifth when we set out. I had heard one of Fernando's nephews – Marco, the eldest of that generation – trying to persuade him not to take me with them, but Fernando argued that he had promised to train me to be like him and that I would have to enter the field eventually, so why not now? The argument looked liked it had potential to become heated, which was surprising as Marco was the calmest of all Fernando's associates and though he was not averse to confronting his uncle he always did so with his usual quiet manner. I had never seen him raise his voice before. Anyway, they stopped abruptly when they saw that I had entered the room and Marco, not wanting to expose me to the negativity of an argument, did not have the chance to protest further, for which I was very grateful. I had no intention of being left out of this when I had been looking forward to it all day.
"The mole didn't know he had been found out, of course. He was, as far as he knew, meeting Fernando on the roof of a multi-storey car park in order to discuss business. Fernando had arranged this as a sort of ironic joke – had the mole been a true, loyal member of the group, or a good enough mole that he knew his subject well, he would have known that Fernando never discussed business with his friends anywhere other than his basement and that it was only when making deals with outsiders that he arranged any other meeting spot, therefore he would have known something was wrong.
"We drove to the car park and stopped on the ground floor. The four of us climbed the stairs together and, when we reached the fire door that led out onto the roof, Fernando told me to stick with Marco then went out ahead of us. We were to stay in the shadows, unseen. Marco pressed his left ear to the door so he could listen to what was going on outside – he was always very good at listening, Marco, he had particularly good hearing – then pushed it slowly open, just enough for us to go out, when he could hear that the coast was clear and beckoned for me and his brother to follow him. We stayed close to the edge of the roof, crouched in the shadows of the barriers some distance from Fernando and the mole where we could watch without interfering until we were needed. We watched Fernando steer the mole gradually closer to us, all the while talking to him as though he genuinely did want the man's opinion on his latest plan to acquire a particular jewel that had recently been moved to this country. When he was between three and four feet away from where we crouched, and still oblivious to our presence, the nephews decided it was time to act.
"He was on the floor in seconds. It took only three well placed blows between the two of them before the mole was on his back on the concrete with Fernando's foot pressing on his throat, and there in his eyes was that look I had seen in the eyes of the man in the cellar. There was an odd swooping sensation in my stomach, similar to that which you get when a lift starts to move, a sudden reaction to the thrill of his fear, and I wanted to be the one with my foot over his neck. I stood up and stepped forwards without thinking, even though I had been ordered to stay hidden until I was told to move. Marco saw me move first and quickly reached out a hand to push me back before I was seen, but the mole's eyes were drawn to the movement. Fernando, realising that there was no point keeping me hidden now that I had been seen, gestured to Marco to let me go and summoned me to his side with a flick of his hand. He said to me, 'Watch his eyes, Little Angel. Watch closely.' Then he raised his foot slowly up, and lowered it just as carefully, and asked, 'Did you see?' I had not seen whatever it was he wanted me to, so I shook my head. He told me to look closer, to kneel down and look into his eyes and I did so. This time, I saw. As Fernando raised his foot, something released in the man's eyes. It's hard to explain, but where as they had been...popping before, they relaxed as the pressure was removed. Then, as he pressed his foot to the neck again, the man's eyes tensed up again. 'That is what you have to look for,' Fernando told me, 'that little click there, in his eyes, when you can see that the pressure is just enough. If you keep the hold there you can kill him.' That fascinated me, that it would be so easy to kill this man. He wouldn't be able to defend himself at all in that position – if you try to suffocate a man with your hands he can fight back, but if he is on the floor with a foot pressing against his trachea then you have your entire body weight to crush his throat and he stands absolutely no chance. It should have gone perfectly. It should have been the easiest job Fernando had ever done: silence the man, give nothing to the enemy, finished in five minutes.
"It was my fault.
"If I had stayed in the shadows like I was told, the man would have been killed and nothing more would have come of it, but that pathetic thirst for power that drew me just that one step forwards ruined everything. It was just as Fernando said to me, 'Watch how easy it is to finish a man off in this way'. The mole, realising that he was about to die, suddenly shouted out just before Fernando pressed his foot down for the last time. He shouted, 'The blond boy, Nicoli's Little Angel, he's the key.' And then he was dead, and Marco was at his side pulling a wire from the front pocket of the body's shirt and Lucio was swearing and Fernando...Fernando just stood there, ever so still, watching with his face completely blank."
"A week later, Fernando Di Nicoli was shot once cleanly through the chest. The first and only time I have ever worn a suit was to his funeral. It rained that day."
When the silence had been long enough that it was clear Mike intended to say no more, Mercuro spoke.
"I don't get it. So the mole had a wire and these evil guys found out about you, but how did that help them? How did they get Fernando?"
"He sacrificed himself for me," said Mike tonelessly.
Mercuro waited for more, and when it didn't come he shook his head and repeated,
"I don't get it."
Mike closed his eyes slowly and leaned his head back just a little so that the breeze tickled his eyelids.
"Of course you don't," he said, "because you don't understand the City. Fernando did. He knew that I would be used against him because he cared about me and that would put me in danger. Of course, he cared about his nephews as well, but they could defend themselves and the enemies knew it so they would not attempt to use any of them against him. But as for me, I was a defenceless child, the perfect target. Fernando gave himself up to secure my safety. It was a deal he made – his family would swear not to seek revenge for his death, as would be the usual practise after the murder of someone so important, if my safety was guaranteed until I was old enough to defend myself."
"Couldn't he just have, like, kept you safe? Or at least waited a bit. Maybe they wouldn't have done anything to you. You were just a kid, after all, that'd be kind of low."
Mike let out a bitter laugh.
"You can't honestly be that naive."
Mercuro looked sadly down at his hands and replied,
"No. I don't believe that at all. I think I just sometimes find it easier to be unrealistically optimistic than to accept how much the world sucks."
"That's fair enough, I suppose."
Mike stretched his hands out above his head then removed a fresh toothpick from a small case in his pocket and rolled it between his fingers.
"Can I ask you a few questions or are you done talking?"
Mike shrugged, stuck the toothpick in his mouth and rested his arms along the back of the bench.
"Why not? Let's tie up the loose ends. I may as well finish this now that I've told you most of the story."
His tone was cold again now with the harsh bite Mercuro was used to, but as he still seemed calm Mercuro decided it was probably safe to push just a little further.
"What happened to the rest of the family? Marco and the other nephew? Did they keep Fernando's thing going?"
"Marco was the eldest so he inherited the business, so to speak. But he didn't keep going. He handed it down to the next eldest and moved away. He said that he couldn't stay in the City and not take revenge, but he desperately wanted to keep the memory of Fernando untainted so he couldn't risk avenging him because that would mean dishonouring his memory. He moved back to Italy and took some of the family with him. And Lucio...Well, you know what happened to Lucio."
Mercuro lunged forwards suddenly, his face a baffled mix of horror and shock and uncertainty.
"Wow, wait. Back up. What?"
"It was Lucio. The other nephew, Marco's brother."
"And you're only just bringing this up?" It was so insane that Mercuro almost laughed. You're, like, practically related to the most terrifyingly powerful man in the City and you didn't think to mention it earlier?"
"It was irrelevant."
"How the hell is that –"
"I'm not going to talk about it like that," said Mike firmly. "I'm not going to talk about Lucio from the perspective of him being the man he is today."
Mercuro started to protest, then immediately stopped. He knew it was no use. Instead, he tried to forget what he had just learned and continue as though Lucio was not a part of Mike's story.
"So...what happened to you? Do you...still see them?"
Mike didn't answer straight away. He chewed on his toothpick for a while, frowning at a distant tree until there was a lull in the wind and he finally said,
"Marco asked me to go with him. He offered me a home in Italy as his son. When I said no, Lucio offered me a room in their house. When I said no to that, he still tried to keep in contact with me but I didn't make it easy. Only Fernando knew where I lived."
Mercuro leaned forwards, elbows on knees, and tried to get a good view of Mike's face. He was bemused.
"Why? You spend your childhood craving a family, then you finally get one and you throw it away? You refuse a chance to leave the City that made you miserable for half your life? Why would you do that?"
It took Mike a while to answer this as well, and when he did it was in a very final tone that stated very clearly that Mercuro was not to question it.
"Because I didn't deserve them."
The two of them sat together in silence on the bench, neither looking at the other, each absorbed in his own thoughts. The sun was just beginning to break through the frosty white clouds and warm the grass below when Mike said abruptly,
"Is that everything you want to know?"
Mercuro swung his foot so that his toe scuffed the path, wondering if his next question was an insult to Mike's achievements.
"There's just one more thing," he said cautiously. "Is that why everyone's so scared of you? Do people know that you're the kid Fernando trained and that you know Lucio?"
Mike shrugged again.
"Perhaps. I daresay some people know, and gossip travels at quite an alarming rate here, so maybe that's part of it. And if that's the case, there are some out there who shouldn't be sleeping at night," Mike lowered his head, his eyes darkening, "because I never vowed not to take my revenge."