“WHAT?” shouted Paolo, probably waking his neighbours. What happened next was a result of the mixed messaging he was receiving. He’d been surprised by the late night visit to his flat, somewhere with secrets and where few women ever came. Sofia had glided in looking stunning, spoke of her concern for Tony, about whom he was carrying guilty secrets... moved up close and touched him. Then asked if he was gay.
Sofia looked and smelt so utterly irresistible that any hot-blooded male would have admitted to anything... but not that!
Instantaneously, Paolo’s hands clasped and closed around Sofia’s neck.
Paolo didn’t quite know what to say. He played for time as Sofia was now really close to him. Her perfume was intoxicating. Her sensuality, confused with the things she was saying, was scrambling his brain.
“Who says I’m close to Tony?” he asked. “I’m just one of the guys.”
“Never mind who said what Paolo,” Sofia said softly, “let’s say the other guys are talking...”
“About what?” demanded Paolo.
There was silence for what seemed like minutes but was actually a few seconds.
“Well?” asked Paolo.
Another shorter silence built up tension.... then...
“Paolo......... tell me.... are you gay?
“So how can I help?” asked Paolo.
Sofia approached Paolo before she continued. He couldn’t but look at her, and take in her incredible sensuality. He caught a whisper of her perfume, enough for an instantaneous physiological response. Sofia knew this very well. She knew men.
Before she spoke again, she touched his hand very briefly, almost as if it were accidental. But it wasn’t of course. Sofia was running the show again.
“A little bird has told us you’re very close to Tony right now, very, very close Paolo!” Sofia touched his hand again, but this time more deliberately.
“Seriously Paolo...” Sofia was getting down to business. “Marcia and I are very worried about Tony. Something’s really bothering him and it must be more than just Terry going off in a huff. Something’s really eating Tony up and we don’t know what it is and he won’t talk to us about it. When he’s at home he’s even more secretive than usual and just keeps looking at us suspiciously. He’s usually a grumpy old bastard, but we don’t want him suffering alone!”
With only one chair available, Paolo was leaning against his table. Sofia stood up again to continue...
Paolo beckoned Sofia to sit on the only uncluttered chair. She removed her coat and sat down as decorously as possible. Paolo looked away lest he take unfair advantage of anything she might inadvertently display in the process.
That was duly noted by Sofia. It indicated that he was aware... and interested. She looked around the room and also noted that there were no telltale signs of woman anywhere she looked. Another encouraging sign, she thought.
Paolo, now fully recovered, then took the initiative. “I’m sure you didn’t come here just to see me....”
“Well I’ve seen worse!” Sofia interjected.
“Sorry Sofia... welcome. Can I get you a drink or something?” Paolo was trying to recover and understand the situation all at once.
Sofia had the upper hand, just as she liked it. Cheekily, she replied.
“What’s the ‘or something’ on offer?”
Paolo, now completely on his back foot, could only manage “Wine, beer maybe?”
“Wine would be nice, white if you have it.” she was letting him off the hook.
Paolo was recovering as he handed her the wine. He glanced at her. She looked stunning. Not as pretty a face as Livia, but the rest was pure woman.
While Tony received his latest email, Paolo, at home in his flat, received an unexpected visitor. He was surprised to see Sofia, his boss’s sister-in-law, standing at the door.
“Hi Sofia!” he said, shaking his head as if to clear his brain.
“Are you going to let me come in then Paolo?” asked Sofia whimsically.
“Of course.” said Paolo, standing aside to allow her to glide past him into his sitting room, which was littered with computers and mobile phones in various states of repair.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“Well what a welcome for a lady!”
Sofia and Marcia had been talking. They felt sidelined. They knew Tony was very bothered about Terry apparently going AWOL and were now realising it seemed to be really quite serious. They knew that Livia must be directly involved, but was keeping the two of them in the dark. They wondered if Terry was even still alive. They needed to find out what was really going on.
They knew Livia must have someone doing her dirty work, whatever it was, and decided they must speak to him. The word was that Paolo was mighty close to Tony.
Sofia would investigate.
Tony went home that evening searching for clues from the women. He was looking for knowing glances between them, physical contact and any bad vibes between himself and either of them. He felt that looking them straight in the eyes might give them away. Sofia responded to Tony's looks with a warm smile, while Marcia continued her characteristic grumpy look.
There would be no clues tonight.
At 11.00pm, he received a text:
'Mr Monelli. Our bill has increased to £350,000 due to 2 days late payment surcharges. Our next shipment will arrive tomorrow first thing. New payment deadline, Midnight tomorrow.'
Marcia - if she would dare. She hates me after all
Tipo - A bit too cocky for his own good that man
Cattaneo - Doesn't get on too well with Terry
Tipo - needs taking down a peg or two. Thinks he's better than he is.
Franco - smarter than most of us think yet he gets some shitty jobs
Sofia - never used to like Marcia, but suddenly they're best buddies
Marcia - word is she ain't at all nice - sorry Boss.
Sofia AND Marcia - a frightening prospect
Tony and Paolo swapped notes. Tony was suddenly very suspicious of his women.
"One of us, it could be one of us? Like who?" said Tony.
"Well me, for instance, Tony." replied Paolo daringly. "I can write well. Who can you trust? They say the nearest aren't necessarily the dearest... or the loyalist!"
Paolo was cool and smart. He understood how Tony thought.
Tony spontaneously and uncharacteristically hugged Paolo.
"That's bollocks mate, utter bollocks! I trust you like a brother and don't you ever forget it!"
Paolo wouldn't forget it... he was relying on it!
"Let's think hard about them all, separately, and see if we get any matches." Tony had hooked himself.
He texted Paolo telling him to get there fast. Paolo had organised the next day's parcel delivery already and so lost no time getting to Tony's office.
"You didn't stop fucking Fawaz from sending this text did you?" Tony accused immediately that Paolo walked in the door.
"It wasn't Fawaz." said Paolo. "Look at the wording Tony. That fat arab can barely speak English. These people are professional, serious and ruthless!"
Tony knew Paolo was right. The kind of language used in the texts was refined, slightly understated yet unequivocal.
"Could it possibly be an inside job?" was Paolo's bombshell.
Tony wasn't sure if Paolo's news meant the problem was over or not. Sofia was staying over and slipped into his room just after midnight, but he shooed her away. He wasn't up for anything or anyone tonight. He wouldn't sleep either.
He was in his office really early having spoken to neither of the women at home about his predicament. At 09.30, he got a text. His heart sank as he scrabbled to open it. It read:
'It seems you missed our payment deadline Mr Monelli. You seem to be giving us two fingers. Two can play at that.'
Fawaz's scream prompted the waiters to race in to help. Paolo promptly helped himself to several pies as he raced out the back. Neither waiter gave chase as they were attending to Fawaz.
Home then to assemble his next treat for posting in the morning and special delivery the day after.
Paolo called Tony to update him.
"Fawaz was tough. I gave him the third degree, in more ways than one. If he's up to something, he ain't gonna crack even though his skin has. If he has got Terry, he ain't gonna be baking pies for a long time."
Paolo couldn't wait to get out of Tony's office again, to go sort out Fawaz.
Paolo knew Tony well. He knew Tony wouldn't pay up without more evidence and he knew Tony would be eaten up with guilt... but would delay anyway. Paolo was banking on that. Every day's delay would increase the demand. And Tony had indicated that he had the money... Every day Tony delayed meant a bigger final settlement.
Paolo, masked, sneaked into the kitchen of Tasta Beirut. Fawaz picked up a knife instinctively, but dropped it as his hand was plunged into the deep fat fryer.
Tony, shaken out of his state by Paolo's question, thought for a moment.
"Had to get heavy with some guy called Fawaz who had a shitty restaurant and wasn't prepared to pay his dues, but that was years ago."
" Yeah. Called 'Tasta Beirut'"
"I'll pay him a visit Tony, right now!" said Paolo making for the door.
"Before you go, the fucking Bitshit account number got texted... Deadline's apparently Midnight tonight"
"I thought you weren't gonna pay, Tony."
"So I ain't, not by Midnight anyway. They're bluffing..."
"You reckon, Tony? Well we'll find out pretty damn soon."
Paolo was glad to be out of Tony’s increasingly claustrophobic office. He returned shortly after 7pm. Tony was still there, still in a state of shock. Paolo had news. He’d had the afternoon to make it up.
“I found a place in Willesden where they make pies just like the one you were sent. I didn’t even have to get heavy because the tart on reception must’ve liked me because she told me about some Lebanese bloke from Edgware Road who provided his own meat for pies, Halal something that ain’t pork. Have you had any trouble with any Lebanese?”
Paolo discovered twenty-three possible leads of pie makers across London. He told Tony, who was still completely lost, oscillating from anger to despair. Terry’s fate was in his hands.
“Do you have any gut feel Tony for any one of these pie makers?” asked Paolo.
“No I fucking don’t!” barked Tony. “I want you to go round every one and scare 'em shitless! And I want you to do it now!”
“OK Boss, but don’t I need to be here at 5pm when they send through payment details?”
“No, ‘cos I won’t be paying nothing!”
”Not yet!” thought Paolo”
Paolo was getting more and more in control of the situation. Tony was beside himself with a combination of rage and fear and guilt. He was wracking his brain over who could be trying to screw him over and who had Terry.
Paolo's words were hardly comforting.
"Have you thought that it might be young kids, Tony?" he asked "These days it's the teenagers who seem to have control of so much technology, and some wouldn't give a fuck about cutting someone's fingers off!"
This wasn't what Tony wanted to hear.
"Find out who's making the fucking pies!" he ordered.
"Course I got the money, but they ain't getting it!" exploded Tony, continuing with a string of vile expletives.
"I'm not saying give it to them Tony. What I am saying is be prepared just in case we can't find them. It's a last resort, but first, have you thought about calling in the cops?"
"No fucking way! They'd fuck it up, probably deliberately, and I'm not having them crawling over my business. We don't need to be fighting two fucking enemies!"
A potentially dangerous strategy for Paolo maybe, but asking that question would put him way out of suspicion.