The Judas – Prologue

Heads turned when Kestrel entered the bar, then quickly turned away. Even the squat bull of a doorman sneaked a glance. Kestrel knew he looked good. The faded blue 501s had a cheeky rip just below the left back pocket; the skintight white Calvin Klein T-shirt showed off his tight pecs. He had spent ages fussing gel into his hair, playing with it until he had that just-got-up look. The finishing touch was the pair of Armani shades propped on top of his head. Today he was blond, because the gentleman preferred blonds.

Kestrel chose a booth with a good view of the entrance, ordered a bottle of red. The air was warm and moist, heavy with cigarette smoke and alcohol fumes. Candlelight splashed the crimson walls, and the gothic feel was enhanced by the arches and low ceiling. This bar didn’t advertise. You either knew it was here, or you didn’t. Understandable for a Catholic city. Four pretty boys were giggling and conspiring at one end of the bar. The centre of their universe was a large man with a greying ponytail and a face that suggested he’d been there, done it, got the T-shirt. The ponytailed man dragged himself away from the attention and came over, made himself at home on the other side of the table. He was older than Kestrel originally thought, pushing fifty. The first facelift was beginning to sag; no doubt he’d already booked in for the second. The Marlboro between his thumb and forefinger was signing the air with lazy trails of smoke.

‘What’s your name?’ The English was accented, fluent enough to indicate time spent in Britain.

‘James.’

‘And I’m Luciano. So, James, what brings you to my humble establishment?’

‘I’m looking for work.’

The mouth stretched into a sly grin; botox kept the eyes and forehead frozen in place. ‘I’m guessing you’re not talking about bar work.’

‘You guess right.’

Kestrel turned away while Luciano checked him out. He could feel those frozen eyes crawling all over his skin, studying him like he was a piece of meat. One of the pretty boys slinked into a booth. Thirty seconds later he was winding across the room with a middle-aged man in tow. They disappeared through a doorway hidden in the shadows at the end of the bar.

‘Okay, here’s how it works.’ Luciano took a final drag and folded the half smoked cigarette into an ashtray. ‘The customer pays me, I pay you. Weekly. On a Friday. That way you won’t be tempted to rip me off. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.

Kestrel considered this for a moment. ‘Okay, you’ve got a deal.’

They shook hands, and Luciano kept hold. A finger stroke along his palm, a lingering look, then a nod towards the darkened doorway. ‘I could give you a tour of the back rooms…’

‘It’ll cost you,’ Kestrel deadpanned.

Luciano laughed as he stood up. ‘Ah, the English sense of humour. Don’t you just love it?’

The target appeared ten minutes later and made a beeline for Luciano. He bought him a drink and they chatted like old friends, laughing and joking. Luciano nodded in Kestrel’s direction and the target turned slowly. He gave Kestrel a predatory once over then turned back to Luciano. Business talk judging by the body language. Money changed hands and the target walked over. He lowered himself into the booth, put his wineglass on the table and offered his hand. While they did the whos, whys and wheres, Kestrel went with the flow. The target was fifty-eight, but looked seventy. He was overweight with thick, saggy jowls. There was a yellow tinge to his skin - an alcoholic’s complexion. He had dark bags under his eyes, nicotine stains on the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. Kestrel reached under the table, laid a hand on the target’s thigh. Squeezed. Moved an inch higher. The target smiled, his bloodhound eyes twinkling in the candlelight. He nodded towards the back room. ‘Shall we?’

Kestrel shook his head. ‘Why don’t we make a night of it?’

‘I’ve only paid for an hour.’

‘You’d better go talk to Luciano then.’

The target got up and headed for the bar. More money changed hands. Less than a minute later the target was leading the way up the smooth stone steps, on a promise and in a hurry. They stepped out onto a narrow street with a slim pavement lining one side. The city hummed quietly in the background, a low rumble creeping over the tops of the high rooftops, sneaking in through the gaps and cracks. There was a news-stand on the corner, the bright glossy magazine covers standing out against the dull chipped paintwork. The owner was flicking through a newspaper and smoking a cigarette, minding his own business.

‘My place isn’t far from here,’ the target said.

‘You’re not suggesting we walk, are you?’

‘Good God, no!’

A Fiat turned into the street, the taxi light on its roof lit up. The target waved it down. Playing the gentleman, he opened the back door for Kestrel, climbed in beside him. While the target gave the driver directions, Kestrel reached into the side pocket of the door. The syringe vibrated in his hand as though it was made from electricity. He jabbed hard, stabbing the needle into the target’s thigh. The eyes widened for a moment, then softened as the drug took hold; his head slumped onto his chest. The lookout walked over from a doorway on the other side of the street and climbed into the passenger seat. Without a word, the driver put the car into gear and pulled away from the kerb.

They drove out of the city, careful to keep to the speed limit. Forty minutes later they turned onto a dirt track, the Fiat bouncing over the ruts and dips. The farmhouse was hidden in a valley. Deserted and rundown. The engine died, the mechanical rumble replaced by insects and birds and the wind in the trees. The driver slipped his hands into the target’s armpits, his partner took the feet, and they manhandled him into the farmhouse.

Everything had been provided as per Kestrel’s instructions: the tent pegs, the mallet, the tarpaulin, the white forensic suit, the axe. The target’s unconscious body was placed carefully onto the tarpaulin, arms spread out at shoulder level. Kestrel removed his denim jacket and climbed into the forensic suit, checked the boots and gloves were secure.

The first tent peg went through the right hand, driven between the bones into the wooden floor. The target awoke immediately, howling in agony. His screams seemed to go on forever. This wasn’t how Kestrel usually did business, but the customer had been very specific. The two Mafia men held the target down while Kestrel did the left hand. The target was crying between the screams now, blubbing like a baby, begging to know what he’d done. The trick with the feet was to put a bend in the knee so the soles lay flat. As the peg was hammered in, the target passed out. Kestrel did the left foot then pulled up a wooden chair. When the target regained consciousness, he instinctively pulled his hands back. Skin and gristle ripped, and this set off another bout of screaming. Kestrel waited for him to settle.

‘Look at me,’ he said softly.

The target’s wet bloodhound eyes met his and Kestrel said one word:

‘Judas.’

Realisation dawned on the target’s face. His body sagged. All hope gone.

Kestrel picked up the axe, hefted it in his hands, feeling its weight. The first swing severed the target’s hand, blood spraying from the open artery and painting the bright forensic suit with abstract patterns. He swung again and the axe crashed through the target’s ribcage, destroying his heart.